It was my birthday, I was turning sixteen, and I was excited. I was in the car, on my way to somewhere very special. It was not, however, the DMV, it was the airport, and I was about to fly to Japan.
A trip to Japan happens in steps. The first is in the international terminal of Chicago O’Hare. New languages are heard, and the advertising caters less to the flashy chic style that Americans have come to be known for. As I boarded the plane I knew the flight would be a long one, but I underestimated, and wanting to have the taste of Americanized Asian cuisine fresh on my palate to compare with the authentic, I stopped by the Panda Express on my way to the terminal. I was to be disappointed as twenty minutes into the flight, I was given the menu and asked (or assume I was asked) to choose what my breakfast would be the next morning.
As far as being able to feel your way around a city without a map, Tokyo is not the place to try. The cities layout feels like it was made to do nothing more than disorient foreigners. Upon debarking the plane I assumed I had arrived, but in fact, I was on a completely separate body of land, connected to Japan by nothing more than tunnels. I was in Narita Airport, and only ever made it to Tokyo because of a single sign with the metropolis’ name written in English.
My father and I stayed in the beautiful Nikko Hotel, across the bay from the city center, but offering the best view available of the magnificent metro. The only downside to the hotel’s placement? A ride on the famously efficient Japanese public transportation, and having to cross the stunning Rainbow Bridge.
On leaving my hotel for the first time in daylight (we arrived in the wee hours of the morning), it took almost ten minutes for me to realize that the entire surface which I had thought was the ground was actually three stories in the air. The area of Tokyo surrounding my hotel had tiers like a parking garage, albeit each with its own designated purpose, the ground floor offered access to small stores and train tunnels. The middle level offering access to the bottom floors of the malls and the entrances to hotels and businesses. The open air, skywalk-like, third floor was the only real way to navigate, and offered access to all stores, the monorail, and the wondrous views all around.
Japan is a nation of different principles than we are used to here in the U.S. It has the world’s largest Toyota dealership at five stories tall, but if you asked to buy a car there you would get a funny stare. It has spent billions retrofitting its sidewalks with Braille-like dots for its miniscule blind population. The city is rife with landmark skyscrapers that peer over the walls of the Imperial Palace, and nothing is thought of a quiet man parking the Bentley he purchased with his Christmas bonus outside of a temple and not leaving for hours.
Japan is a nation of contradictions, but those contradictions mesh sealessly and make the city better. And that is how my trip to Japan turned my world upside down.
Andrew Hugener Solano
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