At the path along the river, despite the gloomy day, everything opened up. It was our first full day in Japan. It may have had something to do with the sake tasting we had just left, but already the world was different.
It would be a few days before we would do the truly touristy things like going up in the Tokyo Skytree or seeing the pandas at the Ueno Zoo. In this spot along the river, as it had been at the Sawanoi Saké Brewery we had just visited, there were no other tourists. Just us. Everyone else grew up here, lived here, belonged here. That sudden realization was the moment when tourism ended. We were all part of the same picture.
And then again, maybe it was the saké.
Bear in mind that I don’t want to be one of those people who, having been touched by international travel, thinks of himself as Rick Steves or Anthony Bourdain. I know nothing. It became more evident as our time in Japan wore on that I know less that nothing. In part, at least as far as Japan was concerned, this was by design. I wanted to be genuinely surprised by what I was seeing.
The first days of our stay were going to be at Yokota AFB, and the last three days were set for an Airbnb in Arakawa-ku. Hannah and Dan were driving us around in a rental van while we were on base, because Hannah’s Diahatsu is built for a maximum capacity of one and one-half humans.
The first few days weren’t ideal as far as the weather was concerned. We caught a glimpse of Mount Fuji on our way back from the airport, but the clouds and haze hid it from our sight for the next couple of days. It rained on our way to see the Great Buddha in Kamakura, it rained while we were there, and it rained on the way back, but not enough to keep us from going.
On the first clear morning, Hannah was driving when she spotted Fuji out of the corner of her eye. Without telling us what she was seeing, she twisted the rental van off to a side street, tossing us to and fro in the back of the vehicle. “What…?”
“Fuji,” she explained.
And so, Fuji it was. This would be the clearest it would be during our time there. But as nice as these moments were, the defining moment had already taken place.
I may have taken close to 400 pictures that first day at the Sawanoi Sake Brewery. It was impossible not to. We sat through the presentation and the tour, which was entirely in Japanese, quiet and bright-eyed, nodding our heads as if we understood. Some things needed no words.
There was a helpful flyer in decent English to let us know a good bit of what was going on. We went to the room where the rice was processed and to the cave where they gathered the water. Everyone was Japanese, apart from the six goofy Americans. It was hard not to feel so different, so out of place.
After the tour was over, we retired to the solace of our own company. I took 200 more pictures to mask the fact that I felt so self-conscious that I wasn’t Japanese. There was a shrine across the river from the brewery, and a walking bridge to get to it, so we made our way over there. I took 400 more pictures.
Hannah, chef that she is, had a tour of Kappabashi Street planned for us on our first official day in Tokyo. Kappabashi is a street entirely dedicated to the restaurant trade. We took the train in. Tokyo has a terrific public transportation system, and we saw pretty much every last bit of it. It had been years since I had been on a train, and I had forgotten how hard it is to keep your balance. I held on to the ring for dear life. More experienced Tokyo natives stood around, lightly holding their rings with one hand while perusing their smartphones with the other, barely swaying in the tumult. It took four days for me to master this art.
At the end of the line was Tokyo Station, a grand relic of another era. More reproduction than relic, as the original version had been destroyed in the war. It was raining. Raining again.
Hannah was relying on Google Maps to get us around. Normally, Google Maps are very reliable, but in Tokyo, walking directions can change at a moment’s notice. We stumbled out into the rain after Hannah, who went one way, and then another, and then yet another, and then stopped. She would look at her phone, then look up, and then back at her phone again, and then she went back the first way, and we followed her. We must have looked like we were terrible at collecting Pokemon.
All this in the rain. We ended up breaking for lunch until Google Maps gathered itself.
After lunch, we followed Hannah down a small street, as directed by Google Maps. At the end, we found ourselves right in the middle of Kappabashi. The rain continued.
Fortunately, the sidewalks were (mostly) covered, so we could somewhat dry out. The stores varied, from the superior-serious big-ticket items to uniforms to the items that were probably geared more for the tourists. There were more western faces here. Some Americans. Australians. French.
Even though we were popping into shops in relative dryness, we were discovering just how water-logged we had been. Our backpacks weighed about twice what they normally would have.
We landed in a coffee shop along the way. Most often, wherever we went, we saw signs in Japanese, followed by an English translation. In the coffee shop, everything was in English. After four days in Japan, the lack of Kanji was jarring.
The cherry blossoms were in full bloom in Ome as we climbed the steps to the shrine across from the Sawanoi Brewery. The rain was holding off that day, but there was a layer of fog at the edge of the tall hills on either side of the river. All six of us could stay in our comfort zone as long as we kept moving. I took another 300 pictures.
After that, we walked along the river. On this trail, the river was at our left and the back of peoples’ houses were to the right. At one point, we came across a small restaurant. There was outdoor seating, and although it wasn’t the best day for dining al fresco, it was time to eat. Hannah and Dan asked us if we wanted to stay here.
We kind of avoided the question. Up until then, we had never been to a restaurant in Japan, and the prospect of pointing at a menu didn’t seem particularly appealing. But there were a few people underneath the canopy near us, and one Japanese man called out to us in English, and told us to come inside.
I wish we had. But we drifted away from the restaurant and continued down the trail.
We were depending on Google Maps to find our Airbnb. Generally, this worked, in the fact that we ended up generally in the location. We followed Hannah to one apartment building, which turned out to not be it. Then Google Maps told us to cross the street, which we did. It wasn’t there, either. So we crossed again, and this time we found it. It rained the entire time, and we found no Pokemon.
We got inside, our bags arrived shortly thereafter, and we got changed out of our wet clothes. The forecast for that night said that the rain would stop. As we left the apartment in search of food, we discovered this was a lie. The rain mostly stopped. The wind picked up.
Hannah was in the mood for yakiniku. In yakiniku restaurants, they bring meat to your table and you grill it yourself on a grill built into the table. We followed Hannah into the darkness and wind. Google Maps sent us past a McDonald’s and into a parking garage. Whereas it was drier and less windy in there, there was a complete lack of grilled meat, and therefore, less than satisfactory. Once we emerged, we passed the McDonald’s again, found the place we were looking for, and discovered they were booked solid.
We shuffled off into the night. All of us spotted that McDonald’s once again. It was calling to us. You’ll do no better.
This was a lie, and we all knew it. We pressed on, through the drizzle and wind, and around the corner and up a flight of stairs, there was a restaurant. They had a place to take off our wet shoes and put them in a locker. The restaurant itself loomed in the back, and just from the look of it, it looked expensive.
They seated us in a dark, private room. As it turns out, they were all private rooms. We sat on the floor on cushions in front of a low table. Saké arrived. I opened the menu with impending dread, but the prices were quite reasonable.
They brought us sashimi, yakitori, and many other things that were so, so good. In the other private rooms, people chatted in Japanese and laughed. I grabbed a piece of salmon, looked at this room full of my family and thought, I could get used to this.
That was the second moment. The moment where I felt like I could get along anywhere, as long as I kept pressing on.
The first moment came as we walked along the river, feeling like a bit of a coward for not speaking up and saying, “Hey, you know what? Maybe we should eat at that restaurant along the trail. After all, when are we going to get back?”
I took 600 more pictures. Cherry blossoms, mostly, and a few people having picnic lunches in the dry spots of the river.
There was a trail down to water’s edge, and I followed it. Laura followed me. A family was having a picnic down there, and I could see that the mother of the clan was having difficulty taking a selfie with the whole family in it. She saw me, she saw the camera, put two and two together, and called me over. I seem to be the one stranger in the crowd that people choose for this particular service, so I know the drill. I smiled and took her phone, and got a good shot of them all.
But we’re not done. She wanted a picture of me with the family. Then me and Laura with the family. Then I took one with Laura and them.
And just like that, we belonged. We were part of this wonderful country and it was a part of us. Everyone was part of the same picture.
Then again, maybe it was the saké.