Lost in the Heat of it All

The following is a distillation of all the drunk and sober notes I wrote while I was traveling in Japan. It was the first time I’d ever been to Japan, as well as the first time I ever travelled by myself.

Most of these notes are going to be philosophical, emotional, and sentimental in nature. Some of these notes will be useless observations that felt like they needed to be documented. None of this is going to make a lot of sense.

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Thing I hate about Japan #1: It’s fucking humid in October. Un-fucking-acceptable. I was taking showers twice a week day like I was back in Vietnam in April. Shit was not tight.

I should’ve taken the time to go to the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, just so I could spend 20 dollars on a highball cocktail, scan the room to see if I can find my personal equivalent to Scarlett Johansson, and enjoy Tokyo the way that only two alienated people can. We could drop our guards with one another, be open to each other in a way that two strangers would know. The temporal nature of the relationship makes it easier to share the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves, because we know we won’t see each other again, and we know that we’re all we have in a place that tolerates us, welcomes us even, but doesn’t claim us.

But I didn’t, because I didn’t bring that much money with me. So I did the next best thing. I went to Golden Gai in Shinjuku and made friends by singing Usher songs at Champions. If you’re having trouble making friends in Tokyo, just go to Champions and sing some songs that you know your fellow ex-pats would enjoy. And who doesn’t enjoy Usher? Who doesn’t know the words to U Remind Me? Fucking animals, that’s who.

People have asked me what the most memorable part of Tokyo was. I wish it was something as exciting as a monkey park, or as juicy as being waist deep in the crevices of Tokyo strange. I don’t want to tell them that it was the 15 minutes I spent wandering around Shinjuku on my first night in Tokyo.

I think I was still under the shadows of a cold that I got on my arrival to Seoul a couple days before. I’d just finished eating one of the spiciest curry katsu’s I’ve ever had in my life, which was throwing fire at the walls of my stomach. Still, I made it a point to myself to get a drink and try to meet people. This was the entire fucking point, right? Get out of my head and start talking, good things tend to happen when I don’t think too much.

The only problem is that I didn’t know how to read Japanese and I already distrust Yelp to tell me where to go, so my only way of figuring out which bars to visit would be wholly determined by how much I liked their signage.

So I plugged my earbuds into my phone, played some Nujabes, and set out from Coco Ichibanya at Shinjuku Station to the city that moved around me.

My mind began to wander away from what I wanted to accomplish to what I was listening to, and how it slowly began to synchronize with everything I was experiencing as I took random lefts and rights through Shinjuku.

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I could see the things that inspired him to make what he made. I could see it in the dreamlike landscape of Tokyo, the neon signage, the colorful and geometric couture of the denizens, the fast moving chaos of people walking everywhere, and the inscrutable, unseen, unheard cadence that was orchestrating that traffic.

It was a beautiful moment of realization, even if it doesn’t offer any lasting life lessons or anything I can monetize into more wealth. And it sticks out as the one thing I remember the most about Tokyo. It wasn’t Asakusa Shrine, though I loved walking through there. It wasn’t Golden Gai, though I loved making friends there. It wasn’t Shinjuku itself, it wasn’t Roppongi, Nakano, Shibuya, Akihabara, Harajuku, Ginza, Akasaka, or any of the neighborhoods I found myself wandering through in the four days I spent in Tokyo.

It was that 15 minutes of getting lost in my own head as I listened to a song I’ve listened to for 25,000 times in my life. It was listening to a song that got its birth from the air, the lights, the sounds, and the landscape around me. For the first time, the song made the most sense it ever could.

And for the first time in a long time, everything that mattered in that moment made sense, which is all I needed.

Thing #2 I Hate About Japan: Why even bother selling me a Tokyo Metro-only pass when there’s a card that works for every fucking Tokyo subway line and why would you not sell that fucking shit at Haneda Airport you fucking fucks.

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Kyoto, the city I knew I could love, but couldn’t because ya boy got sick on the first night of a two-night stay though. There’s something about my immune system that completely capitulates whenever I’m in Asia. I want to blame the air quality, but it’s most likely my alcoholism.

Anyways, I’ll try to paint a good enough picture here.

Most people recommended Kyoto over Tokyo when I was trying to shape a rough plan for my Japan trip. Kyoto itself was much more beautiful and idyllic of a city, and much more traditionally Japanese than Tokyo. There are so many gardens, shrines, temples, museums, and monuments to see and experience. It’s so easy to rent a bike so that you can cruise leisurely through Japan’s cultural capital.

For me, my favorite moment was walking along this stream on my way to Nishiki Market. I remember it was starting to get dark, the sky starting to bruise, the air finally beginning to unstick from my mellow Californian skin. 

I walked through these small alleyways, taking in the landscape of old Japan. I could hear the movements and laughter from the scattered populace with frightening clarity. You live in a city, you surround yourself by noise and lights and people, you get used to the crowd becoming a mash instead of a collective. It’s like that scene in My Cousin Vinny where Joe Pesci can only get a good night’s sleep in the middle of a prison riot. You can only sleep in a city when you aggregate all those noises into “the city.” It’s much more different when you can hear and see all these individual things by themselves. You can pick them out. You can sense them. You can’t mix them all up into a comforting and familiar flavor.

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After that short journey though those Kyoto alleyways and a small run-through of Nishiki Market, I ran into a bar where they let you shoot airsoft guns at targets, while you drink beer and eat edamame. It’s decorated with a ton of NRA-influenced propaganda, the kind of redneck license plate decor that talks about knowin’ yer raaghts and never takin’ mah gurns away. It’s the kind of bar that my white friends would love and my Asian friends would make fun of. But beyond all the window dressing, the core concept is pretty genius – who doesn’t want to shoot holes in things after getting a little buzz?

I almost asked myself why we didn’t have a bar like this in America. Then I remembered all the stupid things Americans do when they drink.

I wish I could’ve done more. The city was beginning to reawaken from its midday nap. But the sickness and the fatigue had set in, and I could only manage a few whiskeys with a bartender from Guam before I had to trudge back to my closet-sized AirBnB and pack for my return to Tokyo.

I understand why people need to travel alone. I can empathize with this desire to Eat-Drink-Drink your problems away and find your true center as you wade through strange waters.

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It was amazing to come back with a sort of mental clarity and peace that I haven’t really experienced in a long, long time. Each passing year tends to add more anxiety to my life, especially when I think about the checkboxes that are left unticked in this arbitrary list of adulthood. It was necessary for me to get away from this hubbub, to get lost and get uncomfortable, to refamiliarize myself with what’s important and what isn’t in the long haul.

Two things I kept on thinking and mentioning in my notebook.

  1. Life’s a lot easier and happier when you’re not in your fucking head all the time.
  2. Life’s fun alone, but it’s a lot more fun with people you love.

I have all these moments, experiences, places that I’m so glad to have experienced. And the one overriding thought in my head after every smile that Japan gave me was:

“Fuck, I wish my friends were here to share this with me.”

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