Looking back, I would have to say that I’m incredibly lucky. Lucky in a lot of instances, which considering my pessimistic personality, is something that I’m not quite used to. I don’t know why, but there’s still this part of me that likes to chip away at any smile I may have and repeat the phrase over and over: You don’t deserve this.
My initial near-breakdown and nervousness surrounding my winter holiday in Japan was, like most things with me, something that I built up too much in my head until it warped into a feeling that hinted towards regret more than anything else. This is nothing new for me, I like to make up stories about experiences before they actually happen.
It’s a bit strange how the most seemingly unimportant acts detail things that will happen later in our lives. My first night in Tokyo as I sat across from the boy in a small Izakaya restaurant, with my legs tucked underneath me and a ceramic cup that held warm sake clasped gently in my right hand, I felt as if I had fallen into a dream, or into the pages of someone else’s story. It was as if I had slipped into that hazy interim between both this world and another, as if I was on the verge of falling down a hole that I had no interest in crawling back up from. The succession of events that led my to that seat, listening to the intonations of the conversation happening along the short bar table to our right, the sudden bouts of laughter and questions directed towards us, made me wonder how closely fates are linked to one another, even for the briefest of moments. But, despite not knowing what anyone was saying, despite the number of times I turned towards him with an instance of panic as I was unsure how to answer, there was this underlying warmth in that evening that filled me with a comfort for those next two weeks – a kindness there that I hadn’t yet experienced in the same way in Korea. Perhaps it was just the company, or perhaps it was a collection of both.
This dream was the product of a number of actions, minute gestures, and quiet confessions that had taken place some eight months ago as I neared the end of my senior year in college. It was a night of spontaneity, a near foreign concept for my roommates and I at the time, and while I originally was in no mood to trudge to campus for a mug of beer which I would take no part in drinking, I tagged along anyway. The only thing that still remains especially vivid from that night was a smile. A smile that I noticed immediately and to my embarrassment, pulled me in with a curiosity I couldn’t get rid of. Choice actions. I think people come in and out of our lives for a reason; there are no coincidences, no random encounters. Our lives ebb and flow with the promise of chance connections and however they are made they are worth paying attention to.
So one early Monday morning I found myself on a flight headed to Narita Airport in Tokyo.
Being in Japan was a reminder of what it was like to be in a foreign country again for the first time. I had forgotten what arriving in Korea felt like; surrounded by signs I couldn’t read, listening to a language I couldn’t understand, trying to become accustomed to a culture that differed from my own. I have been in Korea now for almost eight months, and while that may seem like such a small amount of time, I’ve grown more or less comfortable living here. I can get by, at the least. But Japan was different. It probably didn’t help that I know absolutely no Japanese – like zero, zilch, none. My sole excuse for going to a country without knowing any introductory phrases (something I really don’t ever want to do again), is work had me at this strange level of stress that weighed too heavy on my back, leaving me both exhausted and lazy to the point where I couldn’t be bothered to pick up a book to brush up on my reading, pronunciation, and vocabulary. So, I walked through customs and into Tokyo with nothing. I stepped off a cliff, waiting for the rush of the water beneath me to touch my toes, then swallow me whole.
I studied Japanese briefly about a year ago, back when I thought I would be moving to Japan (in preparation for my JET interview) instead of Korea, so I learned Katakana and Hiragana (the writing systems), along with a handful of Kanji. However, the second I took my job in Korea, I disregarded nearly everything I had learned and spent my time studying Hangul instead. Even writing my own name in Katakana, a seemingly easy task, became a struggle, and it’s three symbols. Three. Do I know them? Nope. I forget every time.
Edit: I got a pair of chopsticks in Kyoto, which has my name engraved on them, so I checked and it’s モニカ (mo-ni-ka)。
Japanese was strange to my ears after being in Korea for so long. I had traded my binge watching sessions of anime for Korean dramas some six months ago, and hadn’t seen so much as a few Haikyuu poster in residence to remind me that it even existed. I have been trained to hear Korean at this point, so the intonations, speech patterns, and phrases are what’s comfortable to my ear. I’ve been around it more of course, so it makes sense, but when the boy would tell me certain things to say (even going as far as making me a cheat sheet with a handful of simple phrases), it sounded like white noise. I kept thinking, why is this so much harder than Korean? I would ask him to repeat things multiple times, but for the life of me, I was unable to remember anything all of five minutes later. Japanese takes a different tone than Korean if that makes sense; sounds are made manipulating the tongue in a specific manner that consists of definite endings and separations between words. Korean flows differently; the closest comparison I can make between the two languages is perhaps how Spanish sounds compared to French. Regardless, I was a little frustrated. I’ve become so used to saying certain things without thinking that every moment of hesitation and initial panic when confronted with communication had me fumbling for what to say. My brain immediately goes to Korean, but then, no, that’s not correct, so I jump back to English, but no, what’s the Japanese word for this? Then, a blank stare and I would look over towards the boy.
Another reason I was lucky. The boy is Japanese, so I didn’t have to worry too much about anything. I still feel partially guilty because of this (if there’s anything I hate, it’s feeling absolutely useless), as my sole contributions to the trip included occasionally being asked what I wanted to eat for dinner, or if I wanted to do option A, B, or C, first. Granted this is about the maximum responsibility I can handle as I am someone who lies closer to the spontaneous outings sort of person rather than intricate planner. The boy admitted he enjoyed planning though, so I’m hoping that this statement is actually true and he didn’t just say that to make my complete ineptitude of where we were something to not be too embarrassed about. But, I digress. Like a child, I held his hand as he dragged me along; in part because of the whole dating thing, but also because I’m pretty distracted when I walk around and never really pay attention to where I’m going which makes dips in the sidewalk, stop lights, people on bikes, and other children doing the same thing a hazard. So, we wandered, or, I wandered and he knew where we were going: a Japanese boy and a foreigner in a mask trailing beside him looking like she’s never seen skyscrapers or neon signs before. Granted, I live in the countryside now, so it’s partially true.
We spent some time in Tokyo, a city that, like its own beast, lives and breathes as a separate entity from its people. It stretches out beyond the horizon until the lights that mark the city’s edge blend into the sky. From the top floor of a skyscraper, there’s a sense of quiet, removed from this energy, and you feel as if you’re elsewhere, watching something below that feels vaguely fantastical, an illusory scene. Everything is louder, faster, and a little bit brighter in Tokyo. It made me miss being in a big city, a longing that I take comfort in being surrounded by flashing lights and packed into crowds as I breathe down the neck of some businessman in a suit. There’s life here, life that exists at its most active when the sun falls beneath the horizon. I spent a lot of that week in Tokyo looking up, taking in as much as I could, gripping his hand as tightly as I could as we manuevered through hordes of people, as I stole smiles from under my mask because I was happy in a way I haven’t been in so long. There’s a vibrancy that runs throughout Tokyo, flowing through back alleys, cultivated between shops and packed districts in a way that doesn’t exist elsewhere. I’ve spent much of my life in America listening and taking in stereotypes of what it’s like in Asia, the homogeneity aspect being the most prominent of them, yet, I never felt that way in Tokyo. It was diverse, not merely in terms of the amount of foreigners I saw while I was there (which, is actually a lot in comparison to the numbers I’ve witnessed in cities in Korea), but in the way the old interacted with the new. Tokyo is layered in its conception; with shrines tucked away just off busy avenues, and Starbucks lining street corners that open up into market districts packed with vendors selling dried squid and fermented goods. There is diversity within fashion among both men and women that gave Tokyo a sort of changing, breathable identity that was so distinct and entirely its own.
I grew fond of the simplistic aspect of the food, more often adhering to its own unique flavours brought out by ponzu, soy, or vinegar instead of covered in spices and thickened red sauces like in Korea. Due to its geographical location, Japan is of course known for its seafood, which there was definitely no shortage of during our time there. The seasonality of ingredients bears importance as well, for instance, puffer fish is only really available during the colder months when its poison is less potent. There is also an abundance of crab, monkfish, and yellowtail during the winter season, with noodles like soba more often served in a hot broth rather than a cold one. We had dishes with eel, plain tofu and green onion, liver, sashimi cut thinly and placed on small beds of white rice. We drank warm sake almost every night to fight the cold. I tried sea worm, umeboshi (pickled plum) on rice, zenzai, and dried fish – gaining new appreciation for foods I have often found on my plate in Korea, but were dressed in a different way in Japan. I’m still of the mindset that one of the best ways to explore a country is through their food, and as we traveled from one city to another, we found ourselves packed into a variety of eateries as the boy watched me try everything and anything he placed in front of me. I never cared, as I’ve yet to find something abroad that doesn’t quite fit my palate. We sat in a small sushi bar just a few blocks down from the Tsukiji fish market, listening to a regular drone on with the owner who carefully cut thin slices of fish, then rolled rice in his palms to lay on a small wooden board prepared for us. I wet my lips with soju while tucked into a small restaurant just off the main river in Osaka, frying kimchi on the grill next to okonomiyaki. I ate taiyaki at midnight, full of red wine, cocktails, and too many stories. We ducked into a small shop after a long day at Universal, inserted coins into a vending machine to order, then sat at a bar sucking down noodles because there’s nothing like cheap ramen after a day of walking (because heads up America, ramen is neither healthy nor a luxury meal in Japan, it’s eaten at midnight or later after drinking and you shouldn’t be paying more than $8 for it because its basically grease, fatty pork, and carbs). We ate a combination of street food, fried and dipped in ponzu, while also dining in restaurants that consisted of dishes that were probably too sophisticated for my twenty-two year old palate.
During our last night in Tokyo, we wandered over to a small cluster of shops in a drinking district in Shinjuku tucked away off one of the main roads, consisting of tiny alleyways fit for up to maybe a couple people to wander down with signs and menus pinned outside on the windows. We ducked into the first place, after walking around for a little bit unable to decide, and ordered grilled chicken skewers consisting of all different parts of the chicken – I liked the liver best. I sipped on warm sake and tossed back assorted nuts, with the smell of cigarette smoke wafting over towards us from the couple who shared the table, and laughter escalating at the booth behind ours where a group of foreigners sat. We talked, letting the sake warm our cheeks, then left to find somewhere else – seafood. The server grilled giant oysters on a small hot plate in front of us as we sat comfortably on crates in the corner on the second floor. We ordered edamame, some other pickled vegetables, and sashimi with another round of drinks, stronger than the last. As the world around me began to look as if it were moving with the intake and exhale of my own breath, I paused and thought, what a life it would be if I could continue to live in this dream; without consequence, without limits.
Then there was Kyoto. Before I left, one of my coworkers confessed that this was her favourite city she had ever visited. There was something about it that stayed with her, and she spoke so well of it that as we boarded the train in Kobe to say that I had high expectations would be to put it mildly. And they were met. Kyoto over Christmas was something brought to me out of a daydream, packaged in a box alongside white sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries. It was opening presents in the evening, walking the grounds of a shrine in the morning, market streets with samples, five-star dinners and drinks. It was walking the streets of old districts in a kimono, my nose red and cheeks flushed, eating zenzai while taking in my surroundings which were met with feelings as if they were too quickly passing me by. I was growing fond of a city I didn’t know, and was already missing it before we had even boarded the train home. I passed those few days as if walking through one hallucinatory moment to the next, eyes never brighter, the hint of a smile never more present. In most areas, it’s as if no time has lapsed at all. It’s as if you are standing in an earlier era, walking the same paths, the same cobbled roads, passing through sliding doors in back alleys in the cover of the nighttime air, taking in the scenery, the same shrines and temples – a city stuck, and I wanted to stay stuck with it, stand beside it and exist in tandem. I was creating something of a fairytale for myself, and each step I took in that city I don’t think I could forget because it’s ingrained in my mind and across my skin in a way that feels as if it is a rare breed of permanency – and for the first time in so long, I’ve never wanted memories to remain so vivid and concrete.
Kyoto was a bookmark, it was the romantic gesture, a subtle microcosm that held a softer side of myself. As we rode down the river in a small wooden boat in the wake of the evening, the only sound being the hint of the motor, and with the city in its painted lights lining the edge of the water in spectacular reds and warm yellows, waves lapping up against the window as I held his hand between both of mine I thought a single phrase over and over like a mantra, a prayer, simply, please just let me keep this memory.
From Kyoto, there was Kobe, a reminder of what my choices had led me to, a reminder of home, family, things I had not been a part of for a while. Kobe, seated by the sea and tucked gently along the side of a mountain felt less like a destination and more like a home; where people lived, went to school, grew up. It was sitting around a table eating a home cooked meal while I concentrated on not making a fool of myself holding chopsticks. It was quietly reading in a cafe while occasionally brushing legs with the boy, who, while brow furrowed, wore an intent expression as he read, a concentration I admired from behind the pages of my own book. It was racing up the hill back to the house at the end of the day, my lungs aching against my chest, legs exhausted, my entire body protesting as with each step we rose in elevation. It was playing LIFE on New Years Eve while everyone translated for me, and I sat, almost clueless but happy as I ate zenzai and chewed on homemade mochi. It was wandering through Chinatown one afternoon, eating buns filled with meat, then sesame balls warmed on skewers they were much too heavy for. It was the intermittent moments where we would pause and look out towards the city to see the skyscrapers and the boats along the port and realise how small we were in comparison. It was playing DJ in the car, driving through the mountains past clusters of small towns on the way to Himeji Castle which stood white and proud on a hill. It was all these things, but most of all it was being welcomed into a home that wasn’t my own, by people whose language I did not speak.
Who was I to deserve such kindness?
New Years Day was something in itself, something separate from what I was used to from family gatherings held on Thanksgiving and Christmas – it was eating, maybe too much eating as I indulged in everything I could fit in me, holding back not at all when offered crab hotpot, rice, caramelised sardines, warm chestnuts, sweetened black beans, boiled fish cakes, herring roe dressed in light soy sauce, sweet rolled omelets, and thinly sliced sea worm. Much of what I’m used to in Korea is sitting and listening, trying my best to pick up on the small bits of conversation that make sense. I sat and listened to the way everyone responded to one another, picked out words that I remembered studying, and for the most part, said nothing until a question was directed my way. I was a wallflower, sitting in the corner of the room observing. Despite my inability to communicate, and the strain it took on others to speak to me, I tried my best to interact no matter how embarrassed I was at times for not understanding. I wished more than anything that I could speak Japanese; never in my life have I been so envious of everyone around me. But nevertheless, I was overwhelmed with the compassion I was met with, with the attempts of others to speak English with me, all of it, I felt too fortunate, too spoiled, too much like I didn’t deserve such treatment.
From that afternoon I remember the way his grandmother held my hands, cold as always, due to my poor circulation, or how she showed me pictures from her most recent piano recital. There were gifts, then conversations the boy translated on my behalf. Then there were their questions, and my shortened and maybe too concise answers. I loved his family though. Even his drunk uncle, who fell asleep just after dessert and had to be moved because he was right up against the heater. His cousins, the eldest, inherently smart in the way she held herself spoke softly with promising curiosity; also beautiful (when Hayla saw the picture of all of us together, she said Who is this model? Oh my god she’s gorgeous). The younger of the two drew me throughout the evening in a small sketchbook – a slightly uncomfortable thing for me but nevertheless as he flipped through his book at the end of the evening, showing me graphite drawings of European statues, figures, and architecture, I was impressed by his natural talent, even more so by the enthusiasm and passion he held in his eyes. Then his aunt and uncle, red from drinking, who would point to one another and say: My husband, then, My wife – the only English I heard from either of them, but made me laugh so much all the same. The way I was watched during that day while I ate is something that I always will find funny living as a foreigner abroad. It happened at Hayla’s house, happened later when restaurant owners would watch me with curiosity from the kitchen, then his family (two different houses, two sets of family members, two different meals I had to brave through with wooden chopsticks). There’s something sweet about people checking, then being impressed if you can use chopsticks, or if you have no reservations when it comes to the food that’s put in front of you. I ate pretending no one noticed me, and then ate more because I was determined to try everything within arms reach. We played card games, then I sat in a daze, my stomach aching from the amount of food I had stuffed into it. Yet somehow when more food was presented I felt obligated to reach forward and eat more.
Then, there were moments of quiet, where I would drift away from the conversation happening in the room and look over to watch him – relaxed, comfortable, politely speaking then turning to translate everything he could to me though he didn’t have to. The way he stood and helped move empty plates, smiled something genuine and warm while talking, occasionally reached to rub his thumb on my leg from under the table, out of sight – I watched him with sake pumping through my veins, heating my cheeks, and painting my world in something clouded yet bright. I was happy, for lack of a better yet so perfect word to articulate such a feeling.
There was also Osaka, only a thirty or so minute train ride from Kobe. Osaka, maybe best described as how I feel when I’m in Busan (which unfortunately, I can’t exactly describe unless you’ve seen the comparison between there and Seoul. Perhaps it’s like comparing New York City to Los Angeles?) Things felt less superficial in Osaka, but maybe that was in part due to what we chose to do while we were there. Like Kobe, when you walk around, you see less businessmen dressed in newly pressed suits or college students in long tanned overcoats and turtlenecks, rather, there are packs of high school students pushing one another into arcades, and mothers holding hands with their toddlers who traipse beside them on unpracticed feet. One of the days we rode into Osaka was dedicated to Universal Studios, a spur of the moment decision which I maybe pushed because I knew they had a Harry Potter World. I leapt back to a high school version of myself, remembering when we used to take trips with sports teams and marching band. I laughed my way through a variety of rides, which told a vague backstory in Japanese that I never really needed to know, but always found funny due to my inability to understand. I screamed on rollercoasters, ate over-priced food, wandered through Hogsmeade, then ended the day with a warm mug of butter beer (perhaps one of the sweetest drinks I’ve had since Coca Cola). The Harry Potter nerd in me resurfaced briefly, though I like to keep her under wraps because I’m not quite ready to reveal how ridiculous of an obsession I truly had with that world. I also learned that in Japan, they have rides where you can pick the song you want to listen to as you go around, which is A) perfectly timed and B) a truly incredible idea that all rollercoasters need to have immediately. I chose Live While We’re Young by One Direction, which pretty much distracted me the whole way through as I spent the ride dancing and singing instead of paying attention.
Our second visit consisted of sight seeing and eating. We walked the grounds of Osaka Castle, talked, played a game of “Can You Spot the Korean tourists?” (because fun fact: every single Korean person owns a puffy coat either in black or white – all of them, all of them), and enjoyed the weather which finally felt a little less like winter. From there we took the subway to one of the districts known for takoyaki so we could slowly begin our drinking and street food crawl for that evening. It began with Kushikatsu, or kushiage, which is deep fried meat and vegetables (to my mother’s horror, yes I ate this!) which you dip (only once) into a pot of sauce that’s also brought to the table. It smelled like the drive-through at Sonic inside, a nice little reminder of post soccer practice meals and morning hangover runs of mozzarella sticks in college. From there we found a stand that made takoyaki where the boy left me for dead and backed away while we were about to order, so in a panic, I did what I do best, pointed and then looked around because I forgot everything he had taught me about ordering things in Japanese. Later, we decided on okonomiyaki, where I demonstrated how kimchi is best when hot (and actually goes perfectly with the dish), then tipped back shots of soju and pretended that it was the grill in front of us that turned my cheeks pink. We hopped in and out of bars, drinking and talking tucked away off alley streets. I ordered Cutty Sark at the last bar in a moment of pretentiousness, a writerly moment that you would understand if you read as much Murakami as I do.
When I think back to Japan, I remember collections of shrines, the bamboo forest, the lights, the numerous Christmas illuminations – but what remains most vivid are the nights we spent drinking and talking, the days wandering with our hands cradling a hot pack while still clasped together, morning coffee and late night viewings of Mindhunter while sprawled out on tatami mats, throwing discs off a balcony alongside our worries from the last year, and toasting at midnight on New Year’s while watching the city lights dance below us. It was these memories, each held delicately in the back of my mind that followed and awoke me while I sat cramped against the window on my flight back to Jeju just before I touched the ground. I longed for more time. I wanted to collect it, hold is steady in between my hands to keep the light in and flickering so we could create something more for ourselves. As I stepped off the plane that afternoon, back to the wind and cool island weather, I thought of what we had said on top of the observation deck looking out into the fog that covered the mountain and hid the city from view. The night where I looked out past the tree-line and said “It’s like our own world up here, it’s like we’ve crossed over and found ourselves somewhere else, in a different universe,” and he turned to me and said, “Then let’s never go back.”