One of the things I feared most about this trip was the transition from away to returned. One world to another. I'm talking culture shock, my friends. That nasty bugger has gotten me once in a nasty way, and I really didn't want it to happen again. This feeling of anger towards one's home and all things luxurious, familiar, or technical was sure to be compounded by the doubled amount of time away from home on this journey. And the part I feared above all was this moment between Southeast Asia and the most civilized, organized, developed country in the world. The Uni- - -I'm kidding. It's Japan.
I had been to Japan before, only briefly on Semester at Sea, and already had an idea of social etiquette, my favorite candies, and some buzz words to throw out as though I were local. I even had a friend I was meeting on the evening of my arrival. But going from one extreme to the other, essentially Phnom Penh to Tokyo, has potential for causing an emotional stir in the mind of a weary traveler.
Short Digression for Background's Sake: During college, I had the pleasure of meeting a fellow art history lover/Northern Hoosier/giggle-fest by the name of Bryan Lufkin. Our first meeting was actually when we were photographer and model, I being the camera clicker working on a charity calendar and he being the studly student leader for the month of September. Our friendship solidified with a mutual interest in Italian, Amy Sedaris, Japan, and all things travel…or funny. And after I returned from Semester at Sea feeling at a loss for honest connections with some of my friends, he seemed to pull into a clear spot as someone who understood the mind of Lindsay Clark, post-circumnavigation.
Bryan continues to teach himself Japanese and educate himself on their mystic culture, except instead of quizzing himself with flash cards at the IU Auditorium, he works as an English teacher at the base of Mt. Fuji. The JET program was smart to take this kid in. And so I had a friend in Japan to meet and revel with on my three day lay-over in Tokyo.
I managed to find our hostel with his directions in good time before our meeting at the bus terminal. Still feeling the wrath of a stuffy nose and sickness, I took to the showers and had what some may call a "religious experience."
The door to the shower created a seal to not allow a vapor of steam out while the shower was in use. I put my 100 yen in the machine to send 10 minutes of scorching falls thunder on the mat. Hot water. An illuminated shower. No cockroaches. Provided soaps and a ledge for a razor. Unfathomable. And with this utter state of contentment, I began the act of purging my body of every morsel of foreign substance.
I scrubbed my pores raw. I brushed my teeth and tongue until I gagged. I turned the heat to scalding and steamed my body like a dumpling. And I began hawking up everything in my system that didn’t belong there.
Had I had a lick of food in me, I surely would have sent it back up and out. After two or three different shampoo and rinse cycles, I was literally squeaking and my body weak from the uneventful wretches. I felt like I had been in a personal, physical war.
It was grotesque. It was wonderful.
I emerged from the shower a new woman, a healthy woman. I no longer had the sniffles. You may be wondering why I chose to write in such vivid explicit detail above, but the end result has since convinced me I've found the cure for the common cold. Do this, and you shall be free of the nasal drip. Do this, and feel oddly refreshed. Do this, and find strength in your own ability to cure yourself.
I recognized Bryan's shag and shirt instantly in the midst of hundreds of commuters and within seconds of reuniting told him all about my awesome shower discovery. All the talking and walking led us in circles around the metro stations, since it takes an aware one to navigate Tokyo's tied-up underground tubes. Eventually we landed at our hostel with bags of 7/11 dinner sustenance and caught up with months of discussion on the top floor couches until much past the midnight hour.
We awoke from our pods the next morning to a city calling our names. To the nerd quarter! To a maid café! The park! Tokyo Tower! Shibuya! Shipoopie! Bryan was an awesome guide and translator. We had a lunch at a joint that catered to the creepy miniature dog lovers (the creepy is directed at the owners, if that wasn't clear), which would have fit perfectly in Indy's Broad Ripple.
And a dinner of heavy appetizers at the Hip Hop Café led to passionate rants about Northern Indiana and shared shots with the partiers at the next table. With our cheap-o budgets and dwindling energies, we ended up at our hostel top floor once again, buying beers out of the vending machine and slowly sinking into the plush couches across from each other. I saw and did more that day than I had in two weeks in Cambodia.
Understandably, we moved slowly the next day. Finally breathing at the crack of noon, we traversed wet and soggy streets for the art museums that enliven our souls. Since both of us thrive on taking in brush strokes and compositions, it was a fitting place to mosey as the rain beat the city.
In the park surrounding the museums, I suddenly became aware of the nature wrapping around me, genuine Japanese-style gardens and flora that became dramatic with their moist and darkened bark. There's something about taking in intentional or natural art that makes me feel like I've eaten; a fulfillment I wish would be more convincing. Man, what a diet that would be!
On one of our rides back to the hostel, we sat side-by-side, looking in opposite directions, in a momentary conversation lull, waiting for the doors to close from the current station. I felt a nudge in my side from Bryan and looked to see a man I had just earlier admired and wondered about. "He's got awesome eyebrows. I wonder if he has to maintain them because they grow like weeds. I wish he would grow them out and brush them aside like a Kung Fu master would his dangling mustache." The adorable man was face down in the woman's lap beside him, drooling and unconscious.
Once again, at this moment of split-second decisions and action vs. inaction, I froze like I always seem to and watched with eyes like saucers. The woman whose lap was invaded began giggling and looking at her friend. I thought it an odd reaction, but Bryan later informed me that's how many Japanese deal with very uncomfortable situations.
One man lunged to hit the big red button no one normally dares to touch in the subway. Another man, a bilingual American, came over with a quick but uneven gait from his crutch. He tried to bring the man back upright and into consciousness. His eyes flickered as though he was taking in his surroundings, but when the American pulled his hand away from the man's forehead, his head wobbled like a lifeless marionette's. I wished at that moment I had a dictionary to look up "Stroke".
The conductors came running from the previous cars and the platforms to find the ones or situation responsible for the Emergency Alarm. The man began speaking to the sharp uniforms as though he had come to, but once the conductors left to discuss the matter minutes later, his head dropped just as dramatically as the first time into the woman's lap.
He was carried out on a stretcher, staring at the illuminated ceiling while rubbing his bristly eyebrows. I imagined his thoughts being something like, "When did I get to be this old?" I imagined a little lady as cute as he getting a phone call from a medic downtown or some grandchildren with invisible weights on their chests from worry. I know it's very "Lifetime Network" of me to think of such sap, but that's all that passed through my mind, my unhelpful, frozen mind when an old man across from me on a subway passed out.
Bryan, being the employed person that he was, had to catch a bus back to his small town on that Sunday afternoon, and I continued to wander the streets of Shinjuku, feeling the timer tick away my minutes of adventure and seeing no point in spending wads of Yen on a few moments that wouldn't outweigh seven months of fantastical reality. I would soon see my parents, my home soil, and the American dollar.
I accepted my imminent fate and gathered food from a 7/11, bargain shopped for my favorite Japanese candies, and put in the first season of Arrested Development in the hostel's top floor entertainment center. Every following minute involved me putting my pen to paper and purging my mind of all the thoughts and moments still left hanging in my memory closet. Hours spent in my sleeping pod alit by headlamp, half a day in a coffee shop before my flight, I wrote down my history.
It felt in a sense like cheating on valued international time, but I have a way of justifying pretty much anything that makes me happy, anytime and anywhere. Besides, I saw an old man wearing a propeller hat outside the café as I took a sip of my coffee. I snapped a picture, giggled silently and thought, "This will be my lasting memory from my major journey abroad."
An old man getting a pebble out of his shoe on the street in Japan…in a propeller hat.
Goodbye, World. Exit Stage Right.