Ten years ago, on Sunday, March 22, 2009, I arrived in Japan. It was for a longish visit, a first ever, but having been involved with the Japanese House back in college, in fact having lived in one of its rooms over four semesters, I felt like my journey was a revisit, or at least a verification of long-held, warranted impressions of Japan. Just how these expectations might have been crushed or affirmed at the time, I can only guess one decade later, but I am pretty sure I had not been warned of the ever-present fusion of infantilism and conformity that would manifest in muzak, pachinko halls, and an aesthetic often less wabi-sabi and more Hello Kitty. Still, nearly every meal elicited rapture, and engulfing me was a sense of undisturbed quiet I hadn’t experienced anywhere else. Maybe silence is what you hear when you finally don’t understand what anyone is saying. Or it occurs when people walk sofly, busy devising ways to not draw attention to themselves.
My stay was a Murakami-worthy sequence of glitchy misunderstandings that managed to always resolve by day’s end. A debit card eaten by the wrong kind of ATM. Travel companions with whom I found myself incompatible, amiably so but enough to part ways. A string of home stay reservations rendered void by a server error back home, one I never managed to fix from abroad, just like I never managed to get a signal on my cell phone. Discovering that a person with a tattoo cannot take a bath. Bottom-of-the-pyramid needs (where will I sleep? what do I eat? where to from here?) my exclusive purview. Continual puzzlement. And—here’s my favorite—the provincial station sign Hagoromo appearing like some practical joke just as I figured I’d made it to central Osaka (turned out I was back where I started, having studied my guidebook so fastidiously on the shuttle ride that I failed to change trains).
It wasn’t until I got to Sapporo, the winter to Kyushu’s heat days before, that I found my stride. Now puzzlement gradually gave way to relief, not just at knowing where I would sleep six nights in a row, but also at the way my own lifelong concern with detail was being reflected back at me not as a compulsion to be “worked on” but a simple case of civility and attentiveness. Here everybody knew exactly how and where to step out of shoes and into slippers in such a way as to never mix street with home. (And the streets—so uncluttered!) Here, I was a person in a crowd.
All photos by the author, taken between March 22 and April 11, 2009, with a Ricoh GR Digital 2.