Japan taught me about privilege, western influence, taking risks, being confident, sad parts of our history, investing in people and in a place, taking in a moment, and— as always— vulnerability.
I’d like to touch on all these lessons I learned, through stories.
Privilege: one night my friends and I ate at a very fancy Japanese restaurant. It was a nine-course experience to try authentic Japanese foods. Every single food I ate was something I had never eaten before, plus it was also raw. For one course, we were served small, immature fish with their heads on. The mouth of the fish was open—screaming—showing the pain it endured as it was being killed, and you could see the eyes. I was terrified and I told my friends there was no way I could eat it. We were so scared that we started laughing. Our waiter came in and we asked him what it exactly the fish was, and he explained that it’s THE highest delicacy in Japan: immature fish killed right when they are the tastiest, from a very famous lake in Kyoto. He went on to explain how they are also difficult to catch and prepare. We asked him if he had eaten them before, and his response brought me to tears:
“No, no. I wish.”
Tears welled up in my eyes and I tried to hold them back but a few seconds later I was crying. My friend started rubbing my back asking me what was wrong.
“That’s the definition of privilege right there. We are living it, breathing it, exemplifying it. We’re laughing at our food, scoffing at it, uninterested, almost abusing it. While others serve us and wish they could have the luxuries we fail to appreciate.”
I was overcome with emotion. My friends and I decided to give the fish to our waiter as a gift. We knew he’d appreciate them far more than we would, and we truly couldn’t bring ourselves to eat them. He excitedly thanked us and walked back to the kitchen where I saw, out of the corner of my eye, him and another waiter jump up and down smiling. I ate all of my other courses, recognizing what a privilege it was to be trying such incredible Japanese delicacies.
Western influence: it was everywhere. Japanese appreciated it in some cases, and despised it in others. We took a cooking class with a very famous chef who explained to us that all the salmon sushi we saw, the dumplings prepared differently in some areas, the spin-offs of miso soup, the English menus and signs, many of the breakfast places and even the train system has adapted to western influence. These changes are not appreciated by Japanese. They don’t engage with these spin-offs that appeal to tourists. At the same time, Japanese are some of the most hospitable and gracious people I have ever met. They are patient, forgiving, understanding and helpful. They appreciate that we visit their country. They speak English to us as we struggle to say simply thank you or yes. They thank us over and over again when we should be thanking them for letting us traipse through their country. I was struck by this delicate balance — Japanese restaurants, hotels and shrines knowing they can tap into Americans’ preferences for western food and culture, but also desperately wanting to preserve their own culture and attract other Japanese. I could talk about this for hours, and if it fascinates you, text me about it. I loved my thesis topic, but in another life I would have written my thesis on western influence in Asian tourism. Anyway nerd moment over.
Taking risks: well, let’s see. I swam in hot springs completely naked. I ate 18 new foods…. most of which were raw. I went on a date. [which, by the way, was lovely. He is a gem and also happened to be from my hometown, and is honest, passionate, smart and kind. I quite enjoyed getting to know him.] I stayed in a ryokan. I changed our plans all the time for the sake of spontaneity. I took some risks and they were fun and exciting and happy. And I would do them all over again.
Being confident: what a lifelong struggle. However, this trip taught me how to be more confident. Yeah I ammm just going to sit in hot tubs naked and it’s going to be fine. Everything’s fine. I’m fine. Yeah I am going to sing my heart out at karaoke, eat three desserts on the rooftop of a bar with my friend because I can. I ammmm going to tell a boy about my life and listen to his, and let said boy pay for me. Yeah I ammm going to pose for funny pictures and say what I really feel and buy the stupid souvenir because I think it’s adorable.
Sad parts of our history: we had the opportunity to visit the Hiroshima Museum. It was intense. Everything I thought I knew about the A-Bomb was challenged and confirmed in a sad, disgusting, infuriating and horrific way. I am saddened that so much brain power and dedication could go towards something so destructive.
Investing in people and a place: aaaah. Living the dream. If my whole life could be just loving on people and letting them love me back as we all fall in love with the city we’re in, life would be perfect. Is that how Heaven is? I’m so grateful for such real, loving, selfless, brilliant, hardworking, passionate and loving friends who invest in me and let me invest in them. The trip was eight full days of asking each other deep and real questions and being open enough to answer them and push each other to answer better, too. And we invested in the country, too. We walked at least 11 miles a day, trying to take in every block and every opportunity.
Taking in a moment: this one is so important. There were so many times when my friends and I could have let a moment pass without really letting ourselves feel it, without letting ourselves enjoy it. One day my friend Ashley told us about a fun game she plays with her friends where you get points if you run into people you know. My friend Anne Marie asked if you still get points if you pretend to know the person. Ashley said, “hmm… I guess, yeah.” Within half a second, Anne Marie stopped a person on the staircase we were currently walking up and said, “oh my goodness!! It’s so good to see you!!! How are you? It’s so good to see you!!” The man, appalled, took out his headphones and gestured that he had no idea who she was or what was going on. She shrugged and said, “oh, sorry, must have you mixed up with someone else! Have a good day!” Ashley and I laughed so hard we almost peed ourselves. Needless to say, she won the game. We also sat on our floor and ate an entire box of macaroons, passing around a bite to each person. And ordered room service toast after going out. And tried on weird clothes at department stores and sat by the river. And did NYT crossword puzzles in coffee shops. Beautiful little moments. And we took them all in. We laughed until we cried and we sat pleasantly in silence.
And last but not least: vulnerability. I always learn about vulnerability. That’s why I’ve been writing this blog for four years. But this trip taught me the concentrated power of it. Focusing on vulnerability for eight straight days allowed me to realize how easily I can stop prioritizing vulnerability and instead live this fake, calculated life. Being so authentic for every moment of every day, allowing myself to be physically vulnerable (hello naked in hot springs) and emotionally vulnerable (hello deep talks 24/7) allowed me to see how freeing and beautiful this vulnerability journey really is.
Arigato gozaimas for reading this novel. You all rock.