Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan. Summer of 2009.
I was lucky enough to travel with a group across the globe to a little place called Tokyo, Japan the summer after my sophomore year of college. I was absolutely elated. It was my school's third or fourth year sending a music team to Japan, and my team was incredibly excited to be continuing that legacy. We were just a ragtag bunch of dreamers.
There were eight of us, not counting our two adult leaders. We were a young music group hand-chosen for this particular ISP (International Service Project) trip. We were all singers, and our goal was actually to go and sing to the Japanese people. We would sing on street corners, in schools, at train stations, in parks. We would meet students and practice English with them, building relationships. We would eventually connect our new friends with the longterm missionaries that we were working with over there, and they would continue those relationships after we were gone. We were there for three weeks. It was an incredible experience.
Japan is an amazing place. At times it feels unreal, like a colorful cartoon. The people were as animated as their multi-level arcades, full of games and wonder and fun. Tokyo especially is busy, bright, fluttering with light and motion at all times. It was overwhelming and exciting, impossible to take it all in.
There is also mystery and darkness, though, and tragedy. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Even while we were there, a student hanged himself in a school library the day before we arrived there. It was stunning. We were beside ourselves, but no one else at the school seemed affected by it. It was too normal, too accepted. The cultural attitude toward suicide seemed tolerant, at best. Perhaps originating with that samurai concept of suicidal glory way back in Japan's imperial days, the idea of an honorable death by suicide is still prevalent. It's often still seen as the responsible or noble thing to do. Suicide pacts, "romantic" double suicides. Many deaths in Japan are attributed to "responsibility-driven" suicide, owing to the high pressure on men to be successful financially.
There are so many lonely people. So many desperate, scared, overwhelmed, lost people.
We learned a lot during our time in Japan, and the memories I have from my time there are mostly good. Despite the occasional struggles and glimpses of darkness, it was an inspirational, encouraging, eye-opening journey. I hope to go back someday. I was enamored with the young people there, and the food and especially the beverages -- they had vending machines on every corner stocked full with the strangest drinks, most of which I couldn't even read or understand until I took a sip. One time I bought one and went to take a drink, and it was actually a cold can of grape jello stuff. It plopped into my mouth and I practically choked on it.
Then there was that time time I accidentally ordered a fried bread ball full of squid and mayonnaise. It pretty much scarred me for life. Mayonnaise is on my hit list forever, I think.
But milk tea, oh my word. And some other canned drink that we simply called heaven's nectar, a creamy peach liquid that was life-changing. We had pastries almost every day at Choco Cro, a chain pastry shop that serves the most innovative baked goods and super strong iced coffee served with cream and gum syrup instead of sugar. And obviously, giant bowls of ramen and plates of dumplings were plentiful. You could duck into any little street restaurant and pay hardly anything for a big meal of noodles and warm broth.
We were able to go to the beach one day, and we even went to Disney Sea, one of Tokyo's Disney parks. We also went to a baseball game, where everyone held team-specific umbrellas and lifted them into the air when their team would score. I need to remind myself to look that up. So many mysteries.
The best part was meeting the students. The young Japanese boys and girls, with their crazy collections of phone charms and their love of Britney Spears. They loved speaking with us, practicing their English. When we would go to schools to sing we would often be chased down the hallways by girls who wanted our autographs. It was the craziest experience. They were so precious and curious and wonderful. They also made fun of my poor chopsticks-usage, and I'm sad to say I don't think I've improved at all since then.
Some of my favorite memories include going to the arcades with them, where they would take a ton of photos in their intense photo booths that basically anime-d you. Me and another guy on my team also got to go eat dinner once with a couple of students at this tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant (the door was a curtain) where you sat on the bamboo floor around a tiny stove-topped table. They would bring the food and drop it on the table, and you ate it as it cooked. My legs were asleep the entire time, but it was invigorating.
A lot of really amazing memories. It's part of why I love travel so much, being challenged and tested and my mind stretched. I changed a lot on that trip, and a little piece of me stayed there, loving on the people and the culture and that gosh darn milk tea.
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