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Lasting Memories

Before I could even begin to compress and react to returning to the United States of America, please indulge me. May I mention what already appear to be my lasting memories of Japan and its baby, Tokyo?

Japanese kids love their school uniforms, and you see packs of them walking through the streets. This, I suppose, is a fine image for a people that still reject individualism in preference of obedience and communal living. There are more pet grooming shops and pachinko parlors than Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Tokyo. In the United States, I expect to get beeped at if I cross a red light into traffic on my bicycle. In Tokyo, they will simply drive at me. I felt four earthquakes, lived through one typhoon season, and had one tsunami warning on my four months on that weather-pestered island.

It is a sanitary place that is kept by a sanitary people. They sweep up their leaves. There is no ‘god bless you’ after you sneeze in Japanese and why would there be? That habit was formed by the Roman Catholic Church in an attempt to wish well someone who sneezed in the late sixth century, a time when widespread disease was threatening large swaths of continental Europe.*

I was with a few Japanese friends and I mentioned in passing that my mother drives a 2000 Toyota Camry. They were, surprisingly, ecstatic, wearing pride and smiles at the realization that an American would choose a Japanese car. It was a moment of nationalistic stubbornness; I couldn’t get myself to admit that some Americans believe American vehicles are substandard in comparison to many Japanese automobiles. … I thought I had offered compliment enough. I will remember that.

I will always see Tokyo through the glare of the enormously crowded intersection outside of Shibuya Station. Lit up by mammoth television screens pumping advertisements and music videos, I will see countless billboards selling wares and thousands of Japanese going any direction but the one that would allow me to get through the crowd on my bicycle.

I will see Japan in the eyes of the old men with their suits and matching hats, bowing and smiling and laughing. I will remember the ancient maintenance man who let me sleep in his cabin in Nikko National Park, and I will remember those guys with whom I played basketball in the shiny elementary school gymnasium

I will remember eating rice, splurging on sushi and devouring tonkatsu and soba. I will remember the beautiful women pushing baby carriages and the hair sprayed twenty-somethings. I won’t forget the students at the English camp at which I taught or the woman who bought me a beer after I met her at a festival in Kichijoji. In my mind, I will always be able to touch the giant Buddha and the tame deer I saw in Narra, and the twenty temples and three geisha I saw in Kyoto.

Thank you for that, it feels good to remember, even if I could never forget. Now, I can work on rediscovering this very strange, very open place, the United States. I will let you know how that goes.

Jaa ne,

*According to Cecil Adams, author of the Straight Dope column

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