Trying to find a definition for the word exotic is a highly subjective matter. And this is due to the very important role that personal background plays in this process; we are defined by the set of daily experiences that we associate our life with, by the continent that we spend more than 300 days per year on, by the shape of the roofs that we keep seeing from our window when we are home. It is somehow difficult to realise that, for a person living on the other side of the planet, my ordinary is their extraordinary, and vice-versa.
Since I started my undergraduate studies, I learned that taking things step by step, as they come, not worrying about their implications too far into the future, can lead to astonishing results. And I have also learned that sometimes, dreams exist to prove us that reality can be at least partially fueled by them. Last summer, at the end of my first year of undergrad, I started looking for internships or research programs which I could apply to in future years. I saved a web link, about a science internship at the University of Tokyo. This January, a few days before the application deadline, I opened a Word document on my laptop and found the link. I also decided to apply. I dreamed of being selected, but I knew that the program was very competitive. When I got the selection email, at the end of March, I was ecstatic for more than a week, and couldn’t imagine that I would actually be going to Japan. They selected 21 future participants from 664 applications.
Now I am back, after six weeks spent in Japan, and countless memories of that country. The expectations that I had when landing on the island were based on my definition of exotic, on my perception of Japan and its culture from books that I read – The Tale of Genji, Yasunari Kawabata, Haruki Muarakami – or illustrations that I’ve seen. My experience in Japan fulfilled some of these expectations, but for their vast majority, it slipped past them and changed them radically. I perceived it as a puzzle-country, with things which amazed, contradicted, exasperated me, where I did not have enough time to assimilate all aspects of a lifestyle in Tokyo, but where I noticed my surroundings from the perspective of a tourist, a research student, a future geoscientist, all blended together. And I will write a puzzle-article, with a minimal wish to put order into my approach of Japan, for there were six very intense weeks, and impressions jammed in my mind in a very unorderly manner.
I have never travelled so far from home before, all alone. I have never flown for more than about four hours in a row. I arrived in Tokyo quite exhausted, after sixteen hours of flight and about eight spent waiting between flights, in Bucharest and Dubai. When I found myself in my room, opened the door and stepped on the balcony, I couldn’t believe my eyes that I was staring at Japanese blocks of flats, at Japanese streets and Japanese trespassers, all vaguely guessed, for it was 8 o’clock in the evening and already very dark (Japan does not switch to summer time). I kept having this surrealistic feeling for the first three weeks of my stay; everything seemed normal at the university, or in the metro, or in the parks – until I suddenly realised that I was in Japan, for the first time outside Europe, all by myself some 9000 kilometers away from Romania.
The first days spent in Tokyo offered me the unique sight of the neighbourhoods drenched in neon lights in the evening, with tens of lit up advertisements hanging on the tall buildings and crowds finishing their work days and hurrying back home. It is the scene that I associate with what Tokyo looks like on post cards, a collection of dazzling effects keeping the bustling metropolis alive. I admired it in the Ueno neighbourhood, the one close to the University of Tokyo campus and also one of my favourite places in the city. During the next weeks I discovered the beautiful Ueno-koen (Ueno Park), with Tokyo Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan (The National Museum Tokyo), the largest museum in Japan, with collections depicting Japanese and also other Asian cultures; Kokuritsu Seiyo Bijutsukan (The National Museum of Western Art), with paintings by Monet and Cezanne amongst many others, whose building was projected by Le Corbusier; Shinobazu-no-ike (the Shinobazu pond), with a small Buddhist temple, Benten-do, creating a picturesque, calming landscape – and the entire park offering a chance to escape, for a little while, the throbbing pace of the city life.
For when the fascination gradually begins to dissipate, after a couple of days spent in Tokyo, it is replaced by the will to slow down the intoxicating rhythm of this city. With a population of half that of Romania, Tokyo is the most crowded place I have ever stepped into. It is huge, and full of people. You have to walk quite far from the main neighbourhoods, to leave behind their noise and constant agitation and to finally find a quiet spot. I think this is what made me feel that Tokyo tired me to an extent I have not experienced before. The climax of what the crowded Tokyo looks like is the Shibuya shopping district and the central crossroads. There is no way you can take a good look at the shops you’d like to enter, as a wave of people comes from behind you, surrounding you, cramming into you, and there is no possibility of resisting their push, having to move with them, while trying to escape their dragging force, desperately searching for a way of exiting the flow, ending up in whatever store you happen to enter, for of course there was no time to see the sparkling sign indicating its name, on top of the eighth or tenth floor. And everything repeats once more when you exit that store, and in no time you are squeezed again between hundreds of strangers, crossing the famous Shibuya junction, then you find yourself in the iconic Shibuya 109 shopping mall, one of the fashion landmarks of the district, and at the entrance of each boutique there is a seller crying out extremely loud the discounts of the season, holding big placards in her hands, shouting non-stop the offers for every person entering the store; then when you move on to the next one, part of the same ubiquitous flow of people, another equally energetic seller greets you with the same series of shouts, and your head starts throbbing because of the noise and the heat and the crowd. It was absolutely the most horrific shopping experience I have ever had. The famous Takeshita Dori, the street considered the hotspot of the extreme Japanese teenager fashion and situated in the vicinity of Shibuya district, has exactly the same atmosphere, highlighted by loads of exaggerated, nonconformist clothes.
But as with almost everything in the Japanese culture, fashion comes in extremes. On one hand, there is Shibuya, with its crazily colourful teenager fashion, cheap and strange-looking. On the other hand, there are the expensive Ginza and Marunouchi neighbourhoods, the Omotesando boulevard (the latter very close-by Takeshita Dori), aligned with international brands such as Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton. The contrast between the most elegant shop windows and the ones mainly filled with kitsch items is startling. The majority of the population is very elegantly dressed. During the week, men and women head for their work places dressed in suits, no matter how hot it is (and summer is usually extremely hot in Japan, due to the vast amount of water vapour in the atmosphere). It gives the impression of a formal society, but at the same time it suggests uniformity among all workers; women dressed in black, knee-long skirts, with white, simple shirts; men dressed in dark suits; all wearing their serviettes and hurrying for the administrative buildings they work in. Every day of the week starts in the same way, with people cramming into the metro stations, half sleeping on the benches during the long underground rides – they gave me the impression of an exhausted society, but a very orderly one at the same time.
Given the extreme agglomeration, discipline is a golden rule; everyone queues to get on the metro and waits for the others to get out; everyone circulates on the right side of the staircase when getting up, to let the others get down on the left side. The only exception is the lack of bicycle lanes, which to me seemed a stringent necessity. Japanese people are very polite with strangers, but at the same time they are very shy. I assume this is due to their lack of confidence when communicating in English, although very few of them actually speak a foreign language. The greatest barrier a stranger has to overcome in Japan is the language; very few people, among the ones that I have met, speak English, and I often communicated with them with signs or by trying to guess the meaning of words. The university offered us a one-week introductory Japanese language course, aiming to teach us some basic phrases, necessary for our daily lives in the city; I was afraid of using them when interacting with locals, just to avoid getting an answer in an advanced Japanese, which I could not have possibly understood. Some words are directly taken from English and are quite easy to catch the meaning of (biiru = beer, koohii = coffee, ruumu-kii = room key). In classes I often asked myself if those were the actual words, or if the teachers were trying to pronounce them in English. Those classes were usually very funny, because Japanese is a language full of exclamations, interjections and intonation that I sometimes found a bit exaggerated and unnatural. But it is also completely different from any language I have attempted to learn so far, and I have not explored it enough to move beyond these first impressions.
While in Japan, I had the chance of having some truly Japanese experiences, which offered me an insight into the multi-faceted cultural space of the country. The visit to the Shunkaen Bonsai Museum was organised as part of the internship programme; I chose to take part in the ikebana and kimono workshops, and all participants attended a traditional tea ceremony. Being dressed up in a kimono was one of the most fascinating and memorable experiences I have had in Japan. The materials are wonderfully depicted, the process of getting dressed up is long, the simple task of walking while wearing it becomes incredibly challenging, but the result made me feel like an oriental princess and helped me realise how difficult it is, for a Japanese woman, to wear the traditional kimono during summer. Nevertheless, wearing a kimono enriches the feminine appearance with elegance, and in my case, it perfectly matched my definition of exotic. During another week, I attended a Rakugo show, which is a traditional form of Japanese storytelling. The master was Katsura Sunshine, a Canadian who is the second non-Japanese teller in the entire 11-century tradition of this form of art. Its specific lies in the amusing character of the monologue conducted by the teller, who has to maintain his sitting position (seiza) throughout the performance, and is not allowed to use anything else as props, except for a paper fan (sensu) and a handkerchief (tenugui). Given that the performance was meant for foreigners, it included explanations of the history of Rakugo and all sorts of small details about Japan and its people. For example, I learned that there are over 50 ways of thanking in Japanese, and the longer the formulation is, the more polite it becomes.
I experienced karaoke on another evening, with a small group of interns. It is a very popular activity in Japan. We rented a small sound-proof room and sang with no inhibitions, for the experience is quite different from the karaoke sessions done in public. I spent one evening in a very narrow bar in Golden Gai, close to the Shinjuku neighbourhood, side by side with people I have not met before and I will probably not ever see again, talking about distant countries which were suddenly so close to me – Hong Kong, Thailand –, about holidays and ascents of mount Fuji, while sipping sake and enjoying the evening after a day of work at university. It is a very popular form of tourism especially among young people, a way of making acquaintances (I cannot say of making friends), one that I do not fully associate with my way of making tourism, but an experience I certainly do not regret.
I had lunch in the Ameyoko market, one of those very crowded and loud spots in Tokyo, which to me seem similar to the Romanian food markets and bazaars; you can find almost everything there, from food to hair clips and camouflage jackets, but this is exactly what transforms the place into a deafening chaos. Squeezed between strangers, trying to get used to chopsticks in my first week-end in Japan, aware of them staring at my fingers – this was only the beginning of the food experience in this country. I soon learned that supermarkets are incredibly expensive, while eating out is twice cheaper than in the UK. I noticed that all portions, except for those of rice and noodles, are half the size of what I am used to, both in food stores and restaurants. I did not have a cultural shock when I landed in Japan, but I did have one when I entered a supermarket for the first time and couldn’t understand anything written on packages, for nothing is translated into English. I had to stick to aliments that I was sure I knew how to cook, and I stuffed myself with salads and boiled eggs. Anything imported (cheese, cheddar, sausages) is unbelievably expensive; it was then when I realised the difference between a mostly agricultural country, where I spent my childhood and was used to very cheap food, and this new place, where mountains cover 70% of the land surface and so much food is brought from overseas. The most luxurious item in food stores, judging by their price, are fruits; except for bananas, everything from apples to watermelons and grapes comes at hundreds of yen per piece, which was completely off my European budgeting scale.
But I wanted to taste the traditional Japan, so I ate out quite often, and had the very widely-popular sushi in conveyor-belt restaurants – where they make it in front of your eyes –, I had sashimi – which is only the raw fish, without the rice –, tempura – deep fried shrimp and vegetables, my favourite Japanese dish –, miso soup – made of fermented soy beans –, soba and udon noodles, yuba – the film that forms at the surface of hot soymilk, and which did not really impress me –, ramen, yakitori – skewered chicken –, mochi – the traditional Japanese sweets made of rice, with red beans paste –, onigiri – rice triangles with various fillings, wrapped in seaweed –, unagi – fried eel with rice –, everything washed down with substantial amounts of matcha, the very popular green tea. For the welcome party organised by the laboratory I worked in, I had five different courses of tuna, and sake ice cream as dessert.
Food occupies a major role in the Japanese lifestyle; there are restaurants or small bars and food stores every five meters on the streets. The festivals that I have attended are a collection of food stalls gathered in a park or by a lake side. The vendors defy the specific Japanese shyness and shout out their offers. Smells, aromas, colours, things like cheesecakes wrapped in crepes and light bulbs used as drinking glasses are as identifiable with Tokyo as the electronics and manga neighbourhood, Akihabara, a district I am sure can be seen only in Japan. It was also in supermarkets where I identified some of the issues which surprised the environmental geoscientist in me: the air conditioning is savagely turned on in their buildings; the amount of packaging wrapping food is vexing; and there is no plastic bag tax in the majority of their shops; plastic bags come with everything, and they are not biodegradable. Coming from a university which places such much emphasis on the necessity of reducing the plastic consumption and being aware of these environmental aspects from my courses, I was quite shocked to see that the Japanese society does not make any effort in trying to reduce its carbon footprint. I have clearly grown into believing that a self-aware and responsible society should address these energy matters accordingly.
Tokyo is a city where functionality prevails over esthetics. I have seen it in the way their bridges look and in the lack of any architectural ornamentation on office or administrative buildings. Two neighbourhoods of skyscrapers made a powerful impression on me. The first one, Marunouchi, is an elegant area around the Imperial Palace, in the actual center of the city; the Palace, just what can be seen of it from afar, as visitors are not allowed to enter the domains where the Emperor and his family live, and the famous Niju-bashi bridge in front of it are an iconic spot, very pleasant to walk by. The second neighbourhood is Odaiba, far in the southern part of Tokyo, on the brim of the coast; the Pacific waters come into the bay, and the horizon line, cut by the skyscrapers’ rectangular shapes, frames in a distinguished way the replica of the Statue of Liberty, which I caught blushed in the sunset. But I think the beauty of Japan lies outside Tokyo, this highly functional city where the remnants of tradition, mostly temple buildings, are all what is left of old Edo, the village which became one of the most populous places on the planet.
During week-ends I explored places which I could easily reach from Tokyo. I went to Kawagoe to see what the old Edo looked like, admired the wooden roofs with their heavily carved tips turned towards the sky, so characteristic of Japanese traditional architecture, and I rejoiced in spending a few hours far from the maddening rhythm of the capital. I went to Kamakura to see the great Buddha Daibutsu, a 13-metre tall statue, built in the 13th century, and a series of beautiful temples and Shinto shrines. I went to Yokohama on the last week-end spent in Japan and strolled through the biggest Asian Chinatown, took in the breeze of the Pacific and yearned for going to the seaside. I visited Lake Kawaguchiko to take a glimpse of Mount Fuji, but the clouds have been so thick the entire day, that I only saw it on my way back, while randomly looking though the bus window. I visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Nikko, the lavishly, impressively decorated Shinto shrine complex dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the last shogunate of Japan. I had a wonderful time travelling, admiring monuments so different from the European ones, but I also think that I missed part of the charm of this experience because I have only regarded the places from the tourist’s perspective, with no trace of religiosity.
I am extremely grateful for having had the chance of pursuing my first research project while being in contact with a fascinating culture. The organisers did anything they could to make us always feel welcome and safe during every activity we had, whether it was the fancy reception when we met the sponsors, or the trip to Nikko and the yuba factory. I lived a fulfilling summer and tried to remember and interpret for myself all details, places or customs meaningful to me. I left Japan with the strong determination of coming back during the cherry blossom season and photograph the trees from Kyoto. And maybe, who knows, climb up Mount Fuji and see the sunrise from the top, in the Land of the Rising Sun.
*Iulia Ştreangă is a 3rd year student in Environmental Geoscience at the University of Edinburgh. This summer, she took part in a research internship programme within the Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Group at the University of Tokyo.