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California Soul Departs for Tokyo

Somehow, the months leading up to my semester in Japan have been both hectic and boring. A stream of tasks, from visa applications at the consulate downtown, to seemingly eternal kanji character practice, has kept me busy. But as I chipped away at my long list of preparations, my excitement built up to agonizing levels. Departure always seemed so distant. While my friends returned to college in January, I “enjoyed” an extended winter break that outlasted winter itself. But finally, what was once distant is arriving swiftly. In just a few more days, I will be boarding a plane bound for Tokyo.

Studying in Japan has always been a dream of mine. Considering that I grew up in Torrance, a satellite city of Los Angeles with a large population of Japanese people, this is no surprise. I began my Japanese language studies in high school. Japanese restaurants and supermarkets are omnipresent, with at least twenty within walking distance of my home. Language exchanges took place at a Japanese preschool: I helped teachers from Japan learn English, and they helped me learn Japanese. I even began practicing Nichiren Buddhism, becoming one member of a diverse community brought together by a Japanese faith. To say that Japanese culture had an influence on my life would be quite an understatement.

The fact that this isn’t my first stay in Japan is also comforting. I was able to visit Tokyo and Nagano Prefecture in the winter of 2015 through the Kakehashi Friendship Ties Program. Through this week-long cultural exchange program sponsored by the Japanese government, I learned more about the country, but also learned a few valuable lessons that will serve me well as I study there. For example, never again will I get separated from my friends at one of Japan’s crowded train stations. I heard from my friends that the scramble to find me began like this, when they realized I had been spirited away somewhere at Akihabara station:

“Hey, uh, we lost Timothy!”

“Oh, that’s not good. What was he wearing? We can find him!”

“Are you sure? He’s an Asian guy wearing a black suit!”

“Oh my god.”

Thankfully, they found me despite my salaryman-like outfit. After a visit to Shibuya, we took the train to Kaihin-Makuhari station in Chiba. Our hotel was just south of the station. Unknown to me at the time, a short walk in the opposite direction would have taken me to Kanda University of International Studies, the place I will be studying for next few months.

I can’t shake the feeling that despite all this, I am not entirely ready for what lies ahead. Last time I was in Chiba, I was a tourist. But now that I will be a staying for several months, I will have to fully integrate into the community. It is one thing to read about and discuss Japanese customs with friends in my hometown, but it will be another to put that knowledge into practice every day. Every time I have to browse a dictionary as I send text messages to my epal Natsumi, I am reminded that I still have much to learn. I expect many challenges ahead, but I am happy to meet them head on. With a lifetime of preparation behind me, it’s time for me to (courteously) lean back in my economy-class seat and eagerly await my arrival.

And this time, I’m packing some distinctive ties to go with my black suit.