Tokyo!

What a week it has been!

My last post mainly concerned the Tokasan Yukata Festival which was going on all last weekend in Hiroshima. However, a second, much lesser known festival – the Firefly Festival – was occurring simultaneously, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city in a little park outside of the Hiroshima Airport. A wonderful lady who does office work for our lab group invited me to go to the festival with her and her daughter on Sunday evening, and I gladly accepted. The festival ended up consisting of a live, sunset performance of traditional Japanese music followed by a meandering through the park to look at the many species of fireflies found there.

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Although the festival was enchanting, to say the least, I most enjoyed getting to know my host and her family. Upon setting foot in her car, I was greeted by an onslaught of Beatle’s music coming from the stereo, and when I inquired further I was intrigued to hear that it was the family’s favorite band and that their daughter had taken up the drums in the hopes of one day being able to play some classic rock. Good musical taste – and good taste in general – seems to be a common theme here in Japan. My friend from lab who drove me to the train station was jamming out to Queen in his car, and in Shibuya shops were blasting Daft Punk down the main streets and playing classic rock music in the ramen restaurants in the back alleys.
Going back to the family I went to the festival with, as we were getting to know one other, the mother asked me a rather general question that ended up really making me think.

The question, simply put, was “Why did you want to come to Japan?”

If you happened to read the very first entry of this blog, I mentioned there that my interest in Japan was spurred on by a thirst to learn about cultural differences and a desire to visit the place that anime was born. This answer, occurring to me after several minutes of thought when I was trying to think of a good introductory statement for my blog, was similar yet, at the same time, quite different from the answer that I came up with on the spot. I merely stated this second time that, when I was fourteen, I saw an anime called Death Note and liked it because it subtly showed a very interesting relationship between two very powerful people, best friends because of their similarities and worst enemies because of their ideals. As I continued watching anime I realized that this was a common theme and I wanted to experience the culture that obviously spent a lot of time thinking about this interesting subject. She smiled and replied that, yes, such a storyline was very Japanese.

After further thought on the subject, however, I noted some rather funny ironies in my answer and began to truly delve into the rather deep question of why I had wanted to travel to Japan in the first place. As an aside, I am going to briefly share my thoughts on the matter because I believe they have become this blog’s newly realized theme!

Our entire lives are driven by the desire to form relationships. Think about it. The second that you were a born and the umbilical cord connecting you and your mother was severed, you witnessed the detachment of yourself from the only other being you will ever truly be a part of. From that moment you began the quest around which the rest of life is centered: to perfectly connect with something to make you feel whole. For most of us, I think, that something ends up taking on multiple forms simultaneously. We try to perfectly connect with people, forming romances and building families. We try to perfectly connect with the forces of nature, either mentally trying to understand them through academics or physically embodying them by becoming exceedingly good at a hobby or activity. We try to perfectly connect with God. In the end, this desire to connect leads us to form cultures with the people around us that are trying to connect in the same way that we are. We then define our new culture by whatever chosen way that is. Ironically, though, by strictly defining ourselves and our cultures, we end up creating an almost insurmountable gorge between ourselves and those who have aligned themselves too strictly with other things, those who are a part of different cultures. So although life itself calls us to arrange our lives in a certain way so that we may more perfectly connect with one another, nature, and God, and although most of our sense of purpose in life is felt through this act of arranging, by flying the banner of what we have chosen to live by without showing even the most fleeting desire to change, we end up separating ourselves from those of other cultures. “I am already aware of the pros and cons of my own culture,” we say, “and it’s simply too exhausting looking at the pros and cons of another culture and trading out my own cons for their pros”. In the end, this little facet of human nature keeps us from truly connecting to anything.

How counterproductive!

I now realize that, by coming to Japan, I didn’t just want to come to the place where my favorite show was created: I wanted to be one of the two protagonists in my favorite show. I wanted to go to Japan with the purpose of connecting, yet all the while flying the flag of my probably-not-very-Japanese ideals in order that they might be bent and battered and rid of imperfections as through fire. Will the culture shock lead me to close myself off within an Americanized bubble, or will the desire to open myself up to truth and change prevail? That is what we shall see! And Hiroshima, a city set upon world peace, seems to be the perfect backdrop for my experiment!

And now, back to the week’s adventures.

Although I had many interesting conversations with Japanese and international students alike over the course of my week and (inevitably) experienced some rather crazy twists and turns in my research, my four-day trip to Tokyo still surpassed them all in terms of excitement. To give some background, my internship was originally set for Kitasato University in Sagamihara outside of Tokyo working with Dr. Yosuke Uchiyama. However when some complications arose and my internship was switched to Hiroshima University to work with Dr. Yohsuke Yamamoto, Dr. Uchiyama told me that he and his wife would be more than happy to have me visit Kitasato University and Tokyo during my stay in Japan. I, of course, gladly accepted his offer, and, with such an accommodating guide native to the city, I ended up having what I consider to be one of the best Tokyo experiences possible.

My trip started by traveling from Saijo to Hiroshima on a normal train and then from Hiroshima to Tokyo on the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train.

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Although it was breathtaking seeing half of the country fly by outside of the Shinkansen window – mountains, rice fields, traditional Japanese houses, colorful cities, the ocean – I was most affected by my first solo ride on the normal-speed train from Saijo to Hiroshima. Although I had ridden on this very same train many times before with friends to and from Hiroshima City, it had always been on the weekends in the late morning or early evening. This, however, was my first experience riding the train in the early morning, the time when boys and girls in uniform make their way to school, giggling over the events of the weekend, and business men with suits and ties read paperback books as they ride to work. Gazing around me, I remember the wondrous realization of the fact that I, the only foreigner on the train, by some miraculous chain of events had been given forty minutes to soak in this almost picturesque scene of everyday Japanese life. It almost felt like a fairy tale, the moment was so perfect.

Tokyo, however, was perfect in a different way altogether. After arriving in Tokyo Station

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and having a wonderful soba lunch in the Marunouchi Building,

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we stopped in Akihabara, a section of Tokyo filled with electronic stores, anime stores,

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and cosplayers.

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Although at this point I had barely met Dr. Uchiyama and his wife, we quickly began geeking out together over all the city had to offer and had a little too much fun finding knick-knacks in the different stores.

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Even though I was, predictably, drawn to the flashy anime stores, Dr. Uchiyama assured me that this was not the “real” Tokyo and took me to the back alleys to see some of the small shops that sold itsy-bitsy parts for building personalized electronics.

Because it was raining, we decided to go to Omotesando Hills in Harajuku, a beautiful piece of architecture that contained an upscale clothing mall.

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Though the scenes in Akihabara and Harajuku were quite different, they were both incredibly stylized and I thoroughly enjoyed them both.

Luckily on Friday the sun made an appearance once again and Dr. Uchiyama, accompanied by his graduate students, gave me a tour of Kitasato University!

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The tour itself was absolutely amazing. Dr. Uchiyama had somehow managed to convince about eight different lab groups to give presentations on their research and let me tour their labs, and by the end of the day I had seen everything from stem cell research involving the insertion of glow-in-the-dark genes from jellyfish into mice to cutting-edge Alzheimer’s, lung cancer, nitrene, and the-effects-of-radiation-on-humans research. At the end of the day, Dr. Uchiyama, his wife, his two graduate students and I went to a Meiji style restaurant that served pizza and pasta. The night concluded in the first goodbye of my trip as I bid farewell to two of my new friends. So sad…

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The sadness of the night before, however, was quickly overridden by the excitement of the next day! With Dr. Uchiyama and his wife expertly maneuvering the confusing Tokyo train/subway system, we navigated our way from Sagamihara to Shibuya, which is basically where all the hip Japanese young people hang out. Four of the most famous places there are the 109 building, which is basically a glorified shopping mall,

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Main Street,

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Shibuya crossing in which all of the traffic lights turn red at the same time and the intersection becomes flooded with people,

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and the Hachiko statue.

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The story of Hachiko is insanely sweet. For years, Hachiko had always run to the train station at a specific time to walk his owner home. One day, however, his owner suddenly died of brain hemorrhage while away. Though Hachiko ran to the train station that day, only to find his owner missing, he continued to run to the station everyday for nine years until his death, hoping to walk his master home once again.

Tokyo is famous for its ramen restaurants, so after eating a delicious, cold ramen dish in one of the side streets of Shibuya, we decided to take a tour of the NHK broadcasting station.

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Although I am decidedly familiar with Japanese anime, I really have no experience with Japanese television, so the museum was rather enlightening. Apparently, a lot of the most popular shows are dramatic retellings of ancient Japanese history, which is right up my alley! Yet again, traveling with Dr. Uchiyama and his wife was fantastic because as we watched the behind the scenes filming of these TV shows, the two of the them explained the true historical events that inspired them.

Itching to learn some more history at this point, I was thrilled when the three of us began to head towards Asakusa, famous for the Sensoji Temple. In addition to vendors selling traditional goods,

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the streets were lined with paintings depicting Japan’s ancient history.

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The temple grounds themselves were incredibly rich with culture, filled with not only Japanese sculptures

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but Indian ones as well.

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The most prominent sites to see were the two gates,

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tower,

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and temple.

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What truly made the Tokyo trip, though, was being able to look down on the city from the Skytree, the tallest tower in the world. The keyword in that last sentence is “tower”. I believe that Dubai holds claim to the world’s tallest building, but towers are defined differently…I think.

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All confusion about the Skytree’s height ranking aside, the view was breathtaking,

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especially as the streets began to light up.

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The Skytree was also nice because we were able to view from above all of the tourist attractions we hadn’t been able to make it to on foot.

On Sunday, we finally concluded our tour of Tokyo by visiting Ginza, famous for its kabuki theaters, traditional Japanese productions whose plots also focus on on ancient Japanese history.

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Dr. Uchiyama also said that, as opposed to Shibuya, Ginza is where “the old people” hang out.

On my way back to the Shinkansen, Dr. Uchiyama said something that took my mind back to the theme expressed earlier in this post. He told me that, even though the Japanese language is difficult for me and chopsticks are hard to use, and even though there is no way that I am going to master either of those things before I go home, it is definitely worth the effort to practice both everyday. For some reason, this brought my mind to the words of the first century A.D. apostle Paul:

“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.”

Although it is perfectly lawful for me to close myself off in an Americanized bubble, only speak in English because my Japanese embarrasses me, and only befriend Westerners because, due to the similarities of our first languages, we have more in common, it in no way helps me. In fact, it limits me. By forcing myself outside of my comfort zone and working to embrace the parts of Japanese culture that I have not grown up with yet can see the good and logic in, I am actually transforming into a truer version of myself. And, in all truth, it’s really turning out to be a fun lesson to learn.

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