Love at First Japan – A Forever Foreign Essay

David Taylor

David Taylor is the creator of the Forever Foreign Podcast. He's been a full-time liver and Part-time lover of Japan for... possibly too long at this point.
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THERE’S NOTHING more exhilarating than clean pavement. Nothing quite as stimulating as painted lines that allow traffic to flow with maximum efficiency. And don’t get me started on jet-black asphalt. I think we can all agree that it’s enough to ignite a flame in anyone. Or maybe that’s just me.

My obsession probably has something to do with growing up in Edmonton, where a fresh road is cause for celebration. I’ve never checked the stats but I’d bet that when the trucks roll in and start dumping concrete unintended pregnancies spike locally.

I’ve been told that the northern climate is to blame for the state of our streets. And I’ve also heard that the potholes in our roads – which we might as well stop pretending and refer to as sinkholes – are the result of a conspiracy. This came from a burly, yet scholarly man named Julian who was completing his student teaching practicum with the same mentor teacher as me.

“I’ll let you come to your own conclusion,” he said one day as we carpooled to work. “But I’ve heard this rumor that road construction companies mix something into the concrete to make it more fragile. That way they can cash in on repairs.”

In short, the roads are so bad that the only way to explain their condition is with hackneyed theories. Being an Edmonton native, I found the idea perfectly sensible and kicked myself for not realizing it sooner.

It was in that mid-Albertan setting where the seed of my pavement fetish was planted and my low standards set. As far as I was concerned, stories involving well-maintained roads might as well have been in the fantasy genre along with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Wondrous. Fantastical, even. But sadly I was just as likely to see a tidy road system as I was to experience flying on a broomstick.

So, when I travelled to Asia for 3-months during a gap-year in university, parts of it brought me right back home. In the back of a bus going north to Angkor Wat I could easily imagine being just off Whyte Ave. If I closed my eyes, I could hear my ma’ telling me to buckle my seatbelt as the red gravel roads launched me straight into the roof. The streets of Thailand and Vietnam weren’t quite as nostalgic. Nor did they excite me.

No. It wasn’t until my friend Garrett and I made it to Tokyo for the final leg of our trip that I dropped on my knees and prayed to the god of bitumen.

After a long train ride from the airport, we walked up the stairs toward Asakusa subway station’s back street exit, and with my obnoxious 80-liter evergreen pack piled high above my shoulders, I marveled at the ground I stood on. There didn’t seem to be any dust, let alone trash on the street, and the lines in the road looked like they belonged in an art museum.

Where were the junk food wrappers? The sticky stains on the sidewalk? The used condoms?

Stepping onto the main street, famed buildings such as Sensoji Temple and the beginnings of Tokyo Skytree towered over us. Stylish shops and restaurants lined the broad street that fed into an over-water bridge. Rickshaw drivers, tightly bound by their traditional uniforms and two-toed tabi shoes, rolled along next to the sidewalks with tourists in their carriages on a relatively quiet Tuesday morning.

Among that iconic scene there I was, hands on my knees, looking like a large turtle with its eyes glued to the ground as I called to Garrett, “I can’t find a crack in this pavement! Not a single one!”

PRIOR TO arrival, I hadn’t done much research on Japan. My expectations were linked purely to pre-existing notions of what the country was like.

For example, I hoped that I would see little monsters wandering among patches of tall grass, repeating their names aloud over and over in adorable voices. Failing that, I wanted to at least confirm my theory that the majority of Tokyo’s citizens openly carried katanas.

Other than admiring the city’s infrastructure, which was now at the top of the to-do list, there weren’t many things planned for the week. Japan was a last-minute addition at the end of our south-east Asia themed trip, after all. The only thing I knew I wanted to do for certain was spend the rest of the money in my bank account on as many toys and souvenirs as I could fit in my pack.

At the very start of the journey I had around $5,000 to my name, but after two and a half months of shamelessly stuffing my face any time I saw a food stall or candy that I hadn’t tried I was down to about $800. There was nothing to show for it either, other than a scuba license and several new holes in my teeth. So, the first stop was a Lawson convenience store ATM.

I opened the door, hearing for the first time a melody that would eventually tattoo itself on my gray matter. At the machine in the corner I inserted my card and requested the equivalent of $800 in yen, but was given an error: “Insufficient funds.”

It wasn’t my first trouble with ATMs overseas, so I tried again. And again. Relentless, I lowered the amount by a hundred dollars each time, but it wasn’t until I dropped down to 300 that I got anything at all. (Later, I would discover that my credit card had training wheels on it, requiring a balance of $500 in my bank account to guarantee the payment of any debt.)

In other words, I had to make $300 last one week in Tokyo, a place that Garrett and I had been avoiding until then because of how expensive it was fabled to be. Dejected, I turned from the ATM, noticing the brightly colored packages on the shelves for the first time. They called to me.

By reflex, my feet moved forward as I reached for a bag of taco Doritos that I’d never seen before. A little further down there were exotic Hi-chew flavors, from Okinawa orange to tangy lemon. And that was only the beginning. Play-candy allowing you to craft strawberry pandas and cola doughnuts out of chewy sweets littered the shelves alongside red bean and ice cream flavored kit-kats. That reminded me to check the frozen section, where I found a heavenly bar that was half ice cream sandwich, half ice cream dipped in almond chocolate.

My vision faded as I fell into a sugar withdrawal-induced black out. I must’ve been close to filling the basket before I realized that I even had one in my hands, and it was only then that I remembered the three pitiful 10,000 yen bills that would need to last me all week.

Wiping away tears for the candy I’d never eat, I put it all aside and walked out of the store, empty-handed. All I could think about was how I’d finally made it to Japan and now I would have to head to the nearest Zen monastery for my oath of poverty. But as I stepped outside, something magical happened.

Goose-bumps rose on my skin as I gazed upon that immaculate pavement outside. A smile spread across my lips.

Of course, that was after I’d thrown the word “fuck” at my bank in several creative ways, but it was still impressive how quickly the anger vanished.

Photo by Kentaro Toma

My sudden optimism could’ve come from the roads, but it also could’ve been the fact that after months of bumming around sweltering cities and beaches in shorts and tank tops I was happy to be wearing sleeves once more. After a month in Ho Chi Minh City I’d almost forgotten that Christmas (the most wonderful time of the year) was a little more than a week away.

Most uplifting of all was the realization that I was in the land of Nintendo and samurai. With all of this swirling around my head, the strange thought that I might need to offer hand jobs if I ever wanted to try toilet-themed candy was pushed to the side.

JUST DOWN the street I eased open the front door to the hostel Garrett and I were staying at – a sparse concrete building sandwiched between two just like it. The lobby looked more like the dimly-lit reception of a 3rd-rate law firm, but a friendly middle-aged woman soon put us at ease. She waved us over to the counter where I swiped my card hoping the credit part would work, if not the cash withdrawal part.

Invisible ones and zeroes communicated back and forth between the machine and my bank back home. While I awaited my fate I fingered the three lonely bills in my pocket, considering whether going homeless or hungry would be the better choice should my card fail.

On the one hand, it was cold outside and I didn’t have much in the form of blankets. But on the other hand, sleeping on the streets of Tokyo would make a great story. Plus, I could probably slap together a decent blanket with all of the candy and potato chip wrappers I’d have left over from my feasts.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to make that choice. The machine told me that my card – and my status as something barely above a brown smear in a toddler’s diaper – was approved. It was 10 AM and I was on top of the world.

Despite the early hour, we were shown to our beds which were already prepared. On the 3rd floor there were a total of eight bright yellow boxes with oval openings stacked two-high and two-across on either side of the room.

I got into my floor-level pod nearest the door, closed the folding curtain over the opening, and excitedly called to Garrett like a kid at a sleepover. I almost wanted to tell my traveling mate to go on without me; I felt like I could lie there all day playing with the broken TV and radio, pretending I was in a spaceship or a submarine. In the end, my rumbling stomach was what pulled me away.

After stowing our bags, we went downstairs to the free computers on the first floor to figure out a plan for the day. I would’ve been happy walking aimlessly while staring at the road with a thin line of drool seeping from my mouth, but Garrett had grander ambitions.

The two computers were set up in a corner of the room furthest from the entrance, and just behind them was a short hallway leading to a door that looked like a closet. I sat closest to that door, searching online for a solution to my credit situation. I ignored the sound of the closet door opening, thinking it was just the owner getting a broom. Then, from right behind me a new voice said, “Douzo.”

I jumped in my seat and turned around to see an old woman bent over slightly and reaching less than 5 feet in height. She carried a tray with two small bowls on it.

“I’m ‘Mama-san’,” she said, laughing either at the surprised look on my face or at her self-styled nickname. Stealing a suspicious glance at the closet door, I accepted a bowl of miso soup.

Garrett and I introduced ourselves in rapid-fire English and Mama-san returned a puzzled look. I then found myself in the role of obnoxious foreigner as I spoke slower, louder, and with bigger gestures. To this day, I’m still not sure if she understood what we were saying, but she had the decency to pretend before walking away.

As Mama-san’s feet shuffled tediously on the return trip down the hall, my eyes widened as I saw that she was making for the closet door. Holding my breath, I wondered what might come next. Was this a Mary Poppins meets Narnia moment? Would the mysterious Mama-san open the seemingly ordinary door and step into a land filled with old Japanese women, backs bent to 90 degrees as they tended their rice fields? Was there a giant cauldron of miso soup with magical properties that they all kept watch over and bestowed upon worthy young travelers?

I looked down at the cloudy mixture in my bowl, eyes wide and mouth gaping in anticipation as I watched the gently floating seaweed.

With her hand reaching for the closet I moved to the edge of my seat. Slowly, she turned the knob, and from the other side of the door a warm glow spilled into the hall. I could see tatami flooring, a low coffee table with a blanket sprawled around it on the floor, and a TV set, all of it looking thoroughly lived-in.

The back of the hostel is their home, I thought, sagging with disappointment.

“Enjoy the miso soup,” the daughter at the counter said with a smile. “This is Japanese hospitality.”

As I sipped from my bowl, I wondered what that could’ve meant. Up until that point I’d never considered that Japan had their own special type of hospitality. I certainly didn’t know that their hospitality came with tofu. Could I expect free hot meals around every corner? If so, maybe I didn’t need to worry about my money troubles anymore.

Photo by Dima Pechurin

ALMOST EVERY day started the same over the course of that week. First, we would jump on the computer at the hostel to double check the itinerary for the day, silently hoping that Mama-san would rebel against her deteriorating bone structure to deliver more Japanese hospitality. Whether or not she brought hors d’oeuvres, our next stop was always the same little eatery around the corner. The first time we went I was dumbfounded.

Inside, a counter with chairs lined two opposing walls with three or four tables in the center of the confined space. Opposite the front entrance was a half-wall with stainless steel shelves on either side meant for receiving dirty dishes and trays from the customers. The owner leaned casually between those shelves, reading a newspaper as Garrett and I searched for a cash register in vain. We’d been standing there for some time, trying to solve the puzzle, when a man in a suit approached from behind. Stepping aside, we let him show us the way.

The anxiety on our faces must’ve been plain because he smiled and gestured to a white machine left of the entrance. After sticking a bill in one of the slots, he pressed a button and the machine spat out a small white piece of paper. Both ticket and change fell into a tray below where the man collected them. Without exchanging a single word, he handed the order to the cook, plopping down at one of the counters running alongside the wall before grabbing an empty cup and pouring himself some tea.

The process was so simple that I began to wonder if this ‘Japanese hospitality’ that the owner of our capsule hotel was talking about meant helping tourists with unbelievably easy tasks without making them feel as stupid as they were. The menu had pictures, so for Garrett and me it was a matter of finding something that looked appetizing, identifying the Japanese characters next to the pictures, then pressing the buttons that matched them. A mute dining experience.

I was fully on board with this system and ended up eating there every day. The few times when my traveling mate wasn’t hungry I would go alone, like a zealot in the church of soba noodles and tempura, head bowed low in worship. I learned to order quickly and hand my ticket to the cook as if it were a message set to self-destruct. After that, I would dart for the cold tea and sip it at the emptiest portion of the counter that I could find, staring at the wall while my food was prepared. All the while, my funds dwindled.

Photo by Baiq Daling

AT SOME point during that week Garrett and I went to an area of Tokyo called Akihabara, sometimes called ‘Electric Town’ because it’s famous for niche electronics and arcades. But when we got there I was too distracted by the novelty shops to care about any of that.

Along the shelves of one store action figures from the cartoons I’d watched as a kid gripped me. At another, all of the old video games I wished I could’ve owned when I was younger were there for the taking. In between were stores selling old and new gadgets, comics, and… more porn than I knew existed.

My budget was tight that week, so unfortunately I wouldn’t be buying many adult videos for myself. Actually, I wouldn’t be buying any for myself, but that didn’t bother me. What did irk me was that I had a choice to make: put a little cash aside for more Japanese junk food or buy souvenirs for my friends and family back home. Buying toys for myself wasn’t even an option.

Truthfully, there wasn’t even a choice to make. If I was returning for Christmas there was no way I would show up empty-handed. Actually, my dream was to arrive on the morning of the 25th, pack stuffed to the brim with as many useless bits of trash as possible. Like a Santa Claus that doesn’t get you anything you want or need and still faintly smells like an unwashed vagrant from the flight over.

So I floated from one shop to another, wishing my wallet were weighing me down a little more as I spotted different items that I needed to have. Sleeping masks with the eyes of Dragonball Z characters, a mousepad with raised cartoon breasts as the wrist pad, a toy sushi with a plump cat stretched over the rice instead of fish. Standing in the crowded shop, I fondled the mousepad’s foam teats in a vain search for a nipple as people squeezed past. Despite the lack of attention to detail, I bought the pad for a friend.

Another shop was dedicated to Japanese comics, or manga, featuring all of the characters I’d come to know growing up. Bookshelves crowded multiple floors, and after getting our fill of the more familiar book covers, we made our way to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs an opaque curtain that read “18+” told us we were in for something pervy.

Pushing past, Garrett and I wandered into a whole new world of animated depravity. Cardboard cutouts of youthful, yet suggestive characters beckoned – youthful enough that reporting them to the staff for not meeting the age restriction crossed my mind. But that was only the tip of the cartoon penis, as it were.

There were at least as many comics as in the floors above, and the content was only limited by the artist’s knack for inventing new uses for human anatomy. At first, the stories were just like anything you’d find back home. You had your step-sibling romances and your high school fantasies. A pirate galley here, a space ship there. Things didn’t get truly exciting until about halfway through when I found characters that looked a lot like the superheroes of my youth, only in these versions they were shooting something other than laser beams. And not from their hands or eyes.

It took some searching, but Garrett and I found the perfect gift for another friend back home. A romantic volume depicting in exquisite detail the various penetrations of an elf by a tentacle monster.

Skipping a future meal or two to buy an action figure or a Super Famicom game for myself crossed my mind that night, but in retrospect poverty was a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to stay present as I soaked in childhood nostalgia, rather than be fixated on what I would buy. Still, as we left the bright lights of Akihabara behind, I swore that I would return some day with a nicer credit card.

IT WAS the day before our return flight when my funds finally did run out. Other than the essentials, I’d spent my money on gifts for friends and family back home, and while I didn’t exactly regret it I was starting to kick myself a little bit. Thankfully, Garrett stepped in as my sponsor.

I only asked for basic nutrition money, not wanting to push the boundaries of friendship by demanding funds for the mound of sweets I dreamt of or a stuffed Donkey Kong toy. It wasn’t easy, but I resisted the urge. So, on a cloudless afternoon I borrowed a crisp 1,000 yen bill and walked by myself to the restaurant around the corner for one last meal.

As I entered, a man in a suit was finishing paying for his meal at the machine. He never took his eyes off the screen of his flip-phone (this was in 2009) as he grabbed the dispensed meal ticket, absently walking to the counter where he handed it to the cook.

I slipped my bill into the machine and was about to hit the soba noodle soup with tempura option when I noticed something strange. The yen total on the screen said 1,800 rather than 1,000. I tapped it and narrowed my eyes, but the number stayed the same. Then it hit me. Slowly, I craned my neck toward the businessman who was thumbing a message with one hand and sipping tea with the other. It was clear that he’d forgotten to take his change.

A thought occurred to me then: This is my chance to repay Japan for all of the hospitality it’s shown me.

As my hand moved to the change lever, I pictured the smile that would be on the man’s face when I handed over his 800 yen. Maybe he would stand and give a little bow. Or perhaps he would adopt the western custom and shake my hand. He might even ask for my email address. It could be the start of a beautiful international friendship built on honesty and trust.

Or is this an opportunity for me that I’d be a fool not to take advantage of?

I paused with my hand on the lever, looking at the man at the counter once again. He wore a well-tailored navy blue suit and brown wingtips that matched the color of his belt. At his feet was a polished black leather briefcase.

Surely anyone who can afford to dress that well wouldn’t miss 800 yen. He’d probably be happy to know that he paid for a struggling young Canadian’s meal. This must be that Japanese hospitality the hostel owner was talking about!

I’m not proud to admit it, but pulling my hand away from the change lever was easy. All I had to do was think about the high fructose corn syrup coma that money would buy. Smashing the button for tempura and soba noodle soup, I gave a silent thank you to my ignorant supporter and promised to pay it forward the next time I was in Japan. After scarfing my meal, I ran off in search of chocolate and sugary treats.

That evening, I went for one last walk around the neighborhood, something I’d been doing every night that week. Cupping a can of hot milk tea with both hands for warmth, I sipped happily while meandering through nondescript side streets and alleyways. The direction didn’t matter. Neither did the scenes. Every mundane storefront or passing car enchanted me, and the foundation for it all was that perfect pavement beneath my feet.

Maybe I’m overstating things a bit, but I’ve never felt so happy to simply breathe as I was that week in Tokyo. And back then, pinpointing why was impossible.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect I think the reason I enjoyed myself so much was that ‘Japanese hospitality’ mama-san’s daughter was talking about. The entire city felt so accessible, so welcoming. I was at ease every second of every day, and while I doubt the man at the restaurant meant for it to happen it was almost as if the goddess of hospitality herself was intervening to make sure I left the country fulfilled.

Or maybe it was a test that could’ve ended with me being introduced to some awesome secret society. Who knows.

Whatever the case, I knew then that it would only be my first taste. I’d walked along a little of Japan’s dazzling pavement and wanted to know what I’d find if I went farther.

Eventually, I did return, and I discovered that most roads are the same in the end. Stick to one long enough and you can’t help but see the cracks.

Planning a trip to Japan but worried about getting into the country? Have a look at at our post on the entry restrictions. Looking to live there? Take a peek at our article weighing the pros and cons of living in Japan, first.

Just wanna read more AWESOME essays? Check out the latest on Japan’s rules of conformity here.

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