My first impression of Japan as I approached Narita airport was its similarity to my native state of Northern California (that’s the part of California which is more like Portlandia and less like every show you have ever seen on TV about California) It has the same hilly terrain, the same precise, rectangular rice fields interrupted by orchards; however, as we touched down on the runway I was reminded that I was indeed in a foreign country as we blew past a long line of Japanese characters punctuated with a large Japanese flag which had been presumably been cut into the grass beside the runway to welcome us to Japan.
Once I arrived in the airport I was struck by how quiet it was. Here I was in one of the busiest airports in the largest city in the world and it was almost silent. This was good because I decided to deal with jet lag by not sleeping on the flight to Japan so I had been awake for 27 straight hours by the time I arrived and my entire nervous system was feeling a bit shaky. (As unpleasant as this sounds I have to admit that it is an effective strategy for dealing with a nine hour time difference. )There were people everywhere but they managed to get things done without the yelling and screaming that is so popular in American airports. It was like watching an airport in the US with the sound on mute. In twenty minutes I was fingerprinted, photographed and entered into the Japanese immigration system, I picked up my luggage and declared that I had nothing to declare but then came my first real test. I had to exchange my dollars for Yen. Dealing with people in a language that you can barely speak or understand after going an entire day without sleep is a surreal experience. It reminded me of how much of human interaction is playacting. I pretended to understand what people were saying, they pretended that I understood what they were saying and a few “domo arigatoes” later I walked away with an envelope fill of Yen.
The drive home from Narita was another eye opener. Narita, like many airports, is actually pretty far from the city that it serves. So my initial views of Tokyo looked like any other large city anywhere in the US. If it were not for the Japanese writing and the fact that many buildings looked like they had been assembled out of a huge set or grey and black legos, I could have been in downtown Milwaukee or Minneapolis. However as we moved into the city I began seeing some familiar landmarks like Tokyo Disneyland, the Tokyo Tower, the Rainbow Bridge and the Diamond and Flower Ferris Wheel which are the things which most foreigners associate with Japan. It was the beginning or rush hour so I could see groups of people walking out of their offices onto the trains for the trip home.
I hate to repeat clichés but my first impressions of Japan are full of them. During my first hours in the country I was impressed by the vastness and cleanliness of Tokyo and the friendliness of the people here. In the next few blog entries I will be getting a bit more specific about some of the unique aspects of life in Japan which you probably will not experience as a tourist