Somewhere in Japan: An Introduction

Somewhere in Japan: An Introduction

Students with fireworks at Shakujii Koen in Nerima-ku, western Tokyo, Japan. Summer, 2015

Students with fireworks at Shakujii Koen in Nerima-ku, western Tokyo, Japan. Summer, 2015

To live an unexamined life is to automatically miss out on much of life itself. I take this as a fundamental truth, as well as a compass that points me in the way of a particular lifestyle. I could say that this is at the core of how I choose to live in my life abroad, but I’m going to be a bit pedantic on that point for a moment. Life abroad implies life in a country other than your home country, and it is true I am a Caucasian American living in Japan. I am not Japanese in any capacity and will never be. I will always be of European ancestry, American origin, and fundamentally influenced by my cultural derivation from my particular demographic within the United States. When people talk of life abroad, however, there is typically an unspoken assumption that one who goes abroad will someday return home, or at least that the nation of one's birth will always remain home to them in some deeper sense than anywhere else could ever be.

The thing is, the concept of home can be a slippery thing. Most everyone defines it differently. For most, home seems to be where one was born or grew up, which is also where one's family or kin tend to be. But what if you've moved a million times and your family is scattered about here and there? In that case, home needs a different philosophical definition, beyond a hometown or a default place of residence. Sometimes, home is simply the place one defines for himself as home. I have come to view home as something that is ascribed to some, but attained by others. For some, where they are originally from is permanently and inescapably home, for better or for worse. For me, it is something I feel I have achieved. I never really felt it at any time in my adult life before coming to Japan, but here I am, and here I am at home.

The United States will always be where I'm from and I am proud to have it as the place where I was born and grew up. Japan, however, has become my adopted home and where I intend to stay. I love it here and feel a deep connection to this place. As such, from my perspective I am not so much abroad as I am home, even if I am still in the process of learning how to live here. Just why this is the place for me and other such topics will be explored in detail in the future, but for now it is enough to keep this in mind: everything that I’m working on on now comes out of a deep sense of having found exactly where I belong in the world. I am where I want to be, and the next step is working towards doing what I want to do, and that includes throwing myself fully into the process of getting to know Japan in an uncommonly-thorough way.

My interest in Japan goes all the way back to around 1996-1997, when chance encounters with books by Japanese photographers and about Buddhism initially sparked my curiosity. Soon thereafter I had a few pen pals in Japan and the interest steadily grew. I first visited Japan in the fall of 2009, when I came here to attend and photograph bike messenger races in Kyoto and Tokyo. At the time, I was living and working in Changwon, South Korea. Actually living in Japan, and specifically Tokyo, had been my dream since 2002, but I had been sidetracked again and again and had wound up in Korea after my work in Dallas had dried up in the recession. My first actual visit to Japan was sub-optimal, in that I lost a bunch of money after I accidentally clipped the side mirror of a parked car and then got sick after eating something bad (I spent about half of my trip in my friend’s bathroom). One key takeaway from the trip, however, was the confirmation in my mind that Japan was where I wanted to be. I’d had the gut feeling for a long time, but after just a few days in the country, it was essentially truth: I knew where I needed to be. I didn’t actually move here until 2015, as I had intervening periods in Taiwan, the USA, and China, but eventually I did move to Tokyo.

A rider clears a course feature at Bikelore 6 at Akigase Forest Park in Saitama Prefecture

A rider clears a course feature at Bikelore 6 at Akigase Forest Park in Saitama Prefecture

My views of life in Japan have been positive and pretty realistic from the beginning. I’ve always liked it, and there are plenty of places and things here about which I am very enthusiastic. I have realized, however, that the things I find interesting and exciting, while they do overlap to some extent, are often not the same things that the people who come to visit are excited about. They wander around with eyes like dinner plates, bewildered and awestruck by everything. This isn't something I've done much. Some of this difference can simply be attributed to the fact that I am now quite used to living in Asia in general, and in Japan in particular, so the raw newness of it isn’t typically there for me in everyday life. But there’s another major factor in the difference of perception: frame of reference. For most people coming to Japan on vacation or even on a business trip, they arrive with a sense of Japan as an exotic and mysterious place with little in common with Western nations. This exotic fantasy is promoted and exploited by the tourism industry, and who can blame them? Is it unjustified? Hardly. This really is a fascinating place with amazing things to discover. The only problem I really have with it is that sometimes the whole situation gets just a little too much fairy dust sprinkled on it. I’ll explain.

Just about every guidebook on Japan will tell you about the popular places in Kyoto and Tokyo, Osaka, Nikko, and Okinawa. They will show pictures of the Shibuya scramble and a kimono-clad geisha set against a backdrop of Japanese maples or gingko trees blazing in their peak autumn color, presumably somewhere in Kyoto. There is nothing wrong with these things, necessarily. These places and scenes are iconic for good reason, just as tourist hotspots the world over are often popular because they're genuinely good places to go. These are the places where one, on a whirlwind visit, can most readily gain a sense of having seen something that seems representative of Japan. But which Japan is it? There are many versions, each one a different telling, each one more or less complete than another, and colored by the various subjective realities of tellers and listeners alike.

The guidebook Japan is a Japan that exists, for the most part, but in many cases is little more than a well-intentioned caricature of the place, a true but rather narrow sample that the uninitiated might erroneously conflate with the whole, at the expense of great swaths of culture, history, etc. Likewise for the personal versions of Japan entertained by fans of samurai films, street-racing culture, animation, or whatever else might draw them to this country. It is easy and common to extrapolate from a narrow knowledge set and make broader assumptions that may (not) pan out accurately in real life. Many people take the guidebooks and ecstatic tourism promotions as the essential truth, or assume certain things based on what they've observed in media. It’s not usually much of a problem in any practical sense, though it might become a problem under certain circumstances. For most visitors to Japan, it is a complimentary (if simplistic) telling of a place to which a single visit might be a life-long dream.

Let me state clearly that it is not my intention to attack anyone's dreams of Japan, even if I may at times attempt to address certain misconceptions. I have no desire to rain on the collective parade of the happy hordes rumbling through the grounds of Sensō-ji in Asakusa, nor to belittle the genuine awe of mesmerized families wandering through long tunnels of vermilion gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha. I was brought to Japan by dreams of my own, after all, and seek here to furnish ideas and information to support a fuller understanding of Japan by way of its culture, people, history, language, and whatever else comes into play in the course of my explorations. The guidebook gives you one telling of Japan, and I am here to give you another. This telling should be seen as something supplemental to one's existing knowledge, understanding, and experience, but not a substitute.

My exploration of Japan should also be understood as one that will largely pass over those places and phenomena already so thoroughly covered in the existing mainstream commentary. So much of it has been rehashed so many times that there is little point in my devoting still more time to it, at least so long as it's being approached from the same conventional perspective, shaped by the same assumptions upon which travel writing is so often based. I would not associate my efforts too closely with prevailing models of travel writing, either, as I am not especially concerned with destinations, as such. Places, yes, but not destinations in the sense of checkmarks on an itinerary or places about which one might summarily claim I've been there, after having spent twenty rushed minutes frantically snapping pictures to prove it before hopping back on the subway to hit up the next would-be checkmark. In this sense of things, I am against destinations, especially when the journey itself becomes mere accessory to the supposed accomplishment of having arrived.

A world which increasingly consists of destinations without journeys between them, a world which values only “getting somewhere” as fast as possible, becomes a world without substance. One can get anywhere and everywhere, and yet the more this is possible, the less is anywhere and everywhere worth getting to.

― Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen

A place is not a trophy to be won but somewhere to be present. It exists on the vaporous edge of being, at the convergence of space, time, and present-state awareness. This is true of where one begins and winds up, but also of everywhere in between. Those in-between places are of particular interest to me, as they are as pregnant with significance, potentially, as anywhere else, but not typically given the opportunity to reveal what they might have in store. Nowhere places have a funny way of becoming somewhere places when given the proper attention. Interstitial does not equal unimportant, and the unexamined cannot be blamed for what it has not yet shared. If, as Watts observed, the ever-growing rush to arrive undermines the real substance of the place at which one arrives, it stands to reason that the converse is also true. It's not that we cannot or should not arrive, or that destination is somehow antithetical to journey, but that we should be aware and appreciative of wherever and whenever we are, as the world becomes one of abundant substance when given the chance to burst from bud to flower in the light of attention. If we slow down and pay attention, even just a little more than usual, the journey often swells with reward and the destination finds itself in better company, couched in a general context of goodness instead of bookended by the blank pages of dismissed experience.

One thing I have learned with great certainty in my first twenty years of exploring the world around me with camera an notebook in hand is that to find the most interesting, funniest, most profound, and meaningful things, what is required most often is patience. The world will reveal its wonders readily, but it often requires taking the time to sit with it and let what is there show itself naturally. It cannot be rushed. If we only zoom from place to place at top speed, demanding that significance thrust itself into view on demand, we end up missing out on so much. Worse than that, though, is that by only bothering to note the most obvious and attention-grabbing parts of Japan (or anywhere), we run the risk of trivializing that which we are trying to appreciate. Though I've been focusing on place for the sake of making my point, know that the principle I'm trying to establish applies equally to people, language, history, art, culture, and so-on. A patient, attentive approach to life, travel, and relationships pays dividends. As Dr Brigitte Steger noted in an article regarding inemuri in Japan, "it is the everyday and seemingly natural events upon which people generally do not reflect that reveal essential structures and values of a society." I would extend that to pretty much all conceivable aspects of life. It's often where we aren't looking that the most interesting and informative details lie.

Fundamentally, this is why I'm here in my little apartment in Tokyo on New Year's Eve, furiously typing away when I could be out enjoying the beautiful weather. There is so much more to know, to explore, and to enjoy about Japan than we often see in the media, and in my own way I'm setting out to uncover these things and share them with anyone who cares to listen.

Looking west from the platform at Shakujii Koen station in Tokyo's Nerima ward.

Looking west from the platform at Shakujii Koen station in Tokyo's Nerima ward.

This blog will start off on the slow side. Initially, I'm aiming for a new post about every two weeks. This is in the interest of quality, as I'm not going to the trouble of setting all of this up for the sake of making clickbait headlines and cheapo recycled content. As I pick up momentum, posts will increase in frequency and will become more diverse in type. In due time, there will be interviews, surveys, photo essays, videos, and a podcast. I will be building a FAQ, though for that I'll need questions, so please do get active in the comments section at the bottom. There is now a Facebook page up and a Youtube channel, though nothing much on either at the time of this post. There will be publications and other products put out through my as-yet-still-dormant publishing project Aleatorist. Some time in 2017 I will hire a web designer to make everything look snazzy, because experience tells me that I'm not so good at that and I'd rather get rolling now than wait around.

 Finally, I'd like to acknowledge that this post has something of an awkward end to it. Not an awkward end that's coming, but the one that's right here right now, because it's coming down to the wire, relatively-speaking, and it's time to go out with the camera. My mission for the night (this being New Year's eve) is to make a photograph with a long exposure starting in 2016 and ending in 2017. And it is in pursuit of that image that I'm going to release this post the world, rough as it is. Every effort has to start somewhere, and this one starts here. I offer my sincere thanks for you having read this far and hope you'll continue to check back at intervals. This is only the beginning and there is much to come.


Post notes:

A Typical Thursday in Tokyo

A Typical Thursday in Tokyo