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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Do You Remember?

Staring down Nakamise at Kaminarimon
     About a month ago I went to Tokyo with Mitsuko. I wasn't bursting with excitement before we went - apart from an amazing concert - because I had been before and it's always seemed like a place you really only need to see once to understand it. The itinerary this time around included many things I hadn't done before though, so I was of course looking forward to it still.
     I realize that it would've been best to do a proper recap of my Tokyo experience in a timely and chronological fashion, but it would mostly be all things you would have expected from it. Instead, I want to offer a story. As I walked down Nakamise I started to remember my first time there. It had never escaped me, but neither did it come up frequently. As many of us living abroad will soon discover, not many people are interested in life changing events that don't involve them.
     This was Mitsuko though, and her patience is probably one of the reasons we're still together. She is always game for a tale I have on hand, and hopefully you will be too.

- 2007 -

     June is perhaps the worst time of the year to be in Japan. It was either hot, muggy, raining, and occasionally all three for maximum discomfort. Being from Southern California (and not too far from the ocean) acclimated me to a summer that most people in Japan only dream of. Together, with other students on the same study abroad program, we found ourselves getting off a bus in Asakusa on a particularly miserable day.
     We walked as a group moving towards Kaminarimon, Nakamise, and Sensouji. Skyscrapers grew out of every sidewalk while suited men and women flooded the intersections at regular intervals. If one were not aware that an ancient shrine were around the bend, you would think it just another big city.
     A light drizzle added to the already abundant moisture built up on every place that could generate sweat. As we walked I scanned the streets for ATMs because I didn't have cash on hand, figuring I might do well to have at least a bit of spending money. Eventually one turned up, and a couple of people broke off from the group to make a withdrawal. I followed suit.
     Though were in Tokyo the ATM didn't have an English option. After I slid my card in, an array of glyphs that would be illegible for many years to come flew across the screen. I must admit that it was charmingly optimistic of my 18 year old self to assume that I would just be able to pull money out like I always did back home. Frozen at that screen I peered to my right and saw that another student had swiftly made short work of his transaction. He was about to leave as effortlessly as well before I called out to him.
     I asked for help. He wore his impatience as though it were a festival mask at having been bothered to help the helpless. With a sigh, he trudged over and immediately went to work. His fingers flashed across the display so quickly I stumbled when he asked how much I wanted. He declared that 200 would be fine, and without confirming proceeded to complete the process.
     The machine beeped and hummed its digital thoughts before finally spitting out a single sheet of paper. The other guy had a look and told me it didn't go through. He handed it back, then left. A bit disappointed I put away my things and made for the exit as well.
     I hadn't noticed but while I was fiddling with the ATM the drizzle had been replaced with a decent shower. My head was down as left while I stuffed my wallet away. At the sensation of rain pelting me I backed up and finally caught sight of how much was falling. The other guy had just finished crossing the street. I looked to the right and saw the signal flashing green, then freeze on red. He ran off down the next street outside my vision.
     I stood back under the overhang of the building and waited for it to turn again. I didn't have an umbrella so I wasn't going to wait on the corner. I took off after it changed. I swung my bag over my stomach and hunched a bit to protect the things I carried from the rain. I had only a general idea of the direction he went so I took my best guess and started running.
     As I ran, I passed by a series of vendors offering various traditional goods. I didn't know it at the time, but this was Nakamise. Many of the shops had started to pull their wares closer inside. The buildings were slightly squat, with flat roofing running down the length of them. They all seemed connected only separated by thin walls or drapes of various design and themes. My vision was mostly obscured as I ran still learning over, occasionally picking my head up to see where I was.
     We were on a tight schedule that day and I wasn't sure how long we were going to stay at Sensouji. I thought perhaps they were waiting, or had already left. Once I passed up Nakamise I found myself in the grounds leading up to the fabled shrine. It was there that I spotted the rest of the group.
     The gate I passed (Hozoumon) was unbelievably meticulous. Cylindrical beams erected it from the earth, draping roofs opened as though they were wings. The scroll work, carvings, color, and shape were all at odds ends when juxtaposed with the cold steel and concrete constructions that surrounded these grounds. It exuded the spirit of ancient Japan - a venerable portal to another time.
     I walked over towards the Omikuji* building, which had a slightly overhanging roof that I could hide under to catch my breath. I noticed, in the corner of my eye, someone pointing in my direction. I looked their way and saw a young lady, surrounded by young children. She was pushing them along a bit and clearly encouraging them to talk to me. I smiled as they worked up the courage to walk my way.
     Without realizing it I had taken a knee so as to be their height. The leader of the pack spoke up first.
     "Hello! My name is. . . " He started. "I like soccer!" Then in turn, each one introduced themselves to me first with their name and then something they liked. After they had spoken I cleared my throat and attempted to match them. I had only been studying Japanese for about a year at that time, and my Japanese was quite simple. I managed a simple introduction, and played with them a bit asking what few questions I could. I think at one point I pretended I was an old guy because of my advanced age compared to them. They liked that.
     I remember that moment so well. I remember it not merely because it was an endearing experience but because after we said goodbye to one another I realized that those kids were the first Japanese people I spoke Japanese to. They broke my ice, and after that moment I tried talking to as many people as I could. I'm sure I sounded like a fool more often that not, but they gave me the confidence to believe that if I talked to people they might be able to understand me. My Japanese ability soared during my time abroad because of that. I changed my major from biology after I got back. I don't think I'll ever know who those kids were, but I owe them so much.
     In that same spot I told Mitsuko this story. For me, Asakusa is a very personal place now. It will always be the place I look to when I need encouragement. I realized then why I studied Japanese so hard, and why I'm still trying. How about you, do you remember why?


*Omikuji are a kind of fortune typical of most shinto shrines. Usually a small donation is made in exchange for receiving one. If you've ever traveled to a shrine in Japan and seen tiny bits of paper tied around trees or poles, those were bad fortunes that people leave behind in hopes that the bad luck stays as well.

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