Like many Americans, I awoke to the news of the 8.9 earthquake that struck Japan at 1:00 am EST today. I was stunned. I had spent 3 weeks backpacking/training through Japan. I know maybe 5 words in Japanese am deathly allergic to shellfish and spent the last 5 days curled up in a Tokyo hotel room with the swine flu. Still, I’d go back in a second.
There is a tranquil chaos of Japan that amazes me: across the street from the Louis Vinton store is a 13th century temple. Neither seem out-of-place; neither seem in place. It just is. As I travelled up and down the island on my JR pass (and oh, my motion sickness didn’t like the trains), I noticed I was somewhat of a curiosity. My hunch is that there are not many Americans roaming around Japan. When I wound up on an express train in the Tokyo subway system, an elderly Japanese woman helped me figure out where to get off and led me to my exit before turning around into a packed rush hour station presumably to continue her destination. What is uncommon about this is that it was so common. I’d be walking through a park, or reading in a tea shop and people would come up to me and try to make sure I wasn’t lost, lead me to hidden treasures.
My introduction to Japan started off as a disaster: a typhoon in Tokyo, tornadoes in Atlanta, flight crew being over time alloted all led to arriving 10 hours late: after all transportation ended. There I was stuck in the Tokyo Airport dreading sleeping there after a trans-Pacific flight: and yes, even the taxi stands had shut down! The police came through and my instant thought was great, I’m going to sleep outside. Instead, they distributed sleeping bags, pillows, 2L of water and a roll of ritz-like crackers: for free. Then the police stood guard over us so we could sleep. My instant thought was “somebody needs to pass this idea on. . . . “.
I wandered to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I felt drawn to see those cities as, well, my country blew those towns up. There is an egocentric idea of here to save the world that is easy to undertake as an American. For good or bad, right or wrong, we skip over some of our more painful actions. Yes Japan had vowed to fight to the death, and yes we caused mass destruction. Here I was a 30 something American walking through Hiroshima’s memorial park. The main peace monument is oddly in the shape of a covered wagon. The symbolism from a western perspective wasn’t lost on me: forward, onward, keep exploring. As I wandered through the park and the memorials while working up the courage to enter the museum, I was surrounded by a gaggle of 5th graders on an English class assignment. Word quickly spread that I was an American (well that and my Red Sox hat) and I soon found myself answering questions to about 30 10 year olds on my favorite color, did I like Japan. There teacher was profoundly apologetic: I smiled and said my sister was a teacher.
After touring the museum (somewhat balanced), I met up again with the students as we both picked the same spot for lunch. They giggled at my un-artistic lunch of carrots, yoghurt, water and ginger ale. Compared to their stunning presentation of food, I could see the point.
Every place I went, I was warmly received. It wasn’t for my stunning ability to speak Japanese but my mangled attempts to communicate, to explore, to take risk. Japan has a reputation of being a closed society. I found it to be one of the most welcoming places I’ve ever been. I spent a day in the town where the tsunami took aim: blue waters, friendly people and suggestions on other towns to see in the area.
Today, when I heard the news, my thoughts went back 2 years. It was a trip on a whim based on the fact it was cheaper to fly to Tokyo than to Oklahoma. I discovered a nation that even in the heavily tourist spots of Kyoto and Tokyo found the time to help a lost American.
Today and for the coming days, my thoughts are with the people of Japan. I can’t comprehend the physical destruction, let alone the emotional one facing Japan today. I learned so much from my 3.5 weeks there some historical, some personal. And I would do anything to return, if only to payback the people of Japan for their enduring kindness.