All my life I imagined Tokyo was a streamlined, futuristic, space city, comprised of bunny-human hybrids and robots at every crosswalk. I imagined thundering techno music oozing from every strangely shaped building, I imagined vending machine hotels where you sleep in a telephone booth, I imagined sex robots for sale in department store windows, I imagined Gwen Stefani Harajuku girls twerking in every themed cafe.
With sore feet, sweat stains, and a bad case of what-the-hell-just-happened, I reexamined my frame of reference on Japan and Tokyo from the comfort of a neat little Denny’s booth in the Ginza district. Just eight hours earlier more or less, I was on a train from the Narita Airport, watching with wonder as opulent rice paddies framed by lilacs whizzed by. And after a chaotic taxi drive with a driver that couldn’t speak English, a mind-numbingly complicated sprint through the hotel’s surrounding neighborhood, staring with earnest at menus strictly in kanji, wondering “What in God’s name IS in that on that dude’s plate,” I felt defeated.
I resigned to eat at someplace I thought might be familiar, a conveniently located iconic American chain restaurant known for its Slam Jams and Porkopolises, or whatever the HECK they serve there. To be honest, I’ve eaten at Denny’s in America maybe twice in my 25 years. But in the four days I spent in Tokyo, I ate there THREE TIMES. NO WAIT–It was just twice, the third time I actually ate at McDonalds. Yup, there’s egg all over my face. Ya know why? Because I’m the type of traveler that goes to Italy and refuses to drink cappuccinos after 10am, even though I LOVE cappuccinos JUST because it’s Italian custom, I never relented–because I wanted to feel as least like a tourist as humanly possible.
While staring into my bowl of miso in a Tokyo Denny’s I had to come to terms with a few things.
“I don’t speak Japanese, I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing, I’m completely overwhelmed, I’m the utter definition (in everything from appearance to practice) of ‘a tourist.'”
In all fairness, if traveling was a video game and had difficulty settings, Canada would be like “novice” and Tokyo would be “advanced.” So I had to cut myself some slack. It wasn’t going to be easy. But I had to do it.
It was very liberating, in a way, to give myself over to being completely and overwhelmingly dumbfounded. I had to approach it with a sense of humor. The next four days in Tokyo came with moments of embarrassment handled with a chuckle and a shrug. It took me about 20 years to get over the fact that I’m clumsy, so I had to fast-track this shiz and get over whatever arrogant self-preservation I intended on keeping, because it was long gone the moment I stepped through customs at the airport.
I fumbled through ramen shops and restaurants by pointing, smiling, and bowing my head. I blushed like a neon sign as I attempted to navigate the subway system. I had to laugh at myself when looking at a map became as impossible as trying to decipher meaning in the graining of a piece of wood. A few months ago I was a park ranger navigating trails with a topographic map and somehow I couldn’t figure out where the heck a street market was hiding.
Of the possibly hundreds of neighborhoods in Tokyo, I ambled maybe FOUR and hardly did I delve into them at all. I tried my best, it was… chaotic, overwhelming. But I do enjoy that about travel, we let ourselves go, let ourselves absorb, let ourselves dissipate. We need to accept that we’re nobodies, strangers, aliens, explorers, confused, upside-down, gauche. It’s one thing to know a place deeply, intimately. It’s another to be completely out of your element–so out of your element that you cling to the only thing you can comprehend, a sign glowing like a beacon of hope amid the pictographic slashes dangling nightmarishly on every corner; I never thought I’d see the day I was emboldened by the sight of a Denny’s, like the smiling face of Mickey Mouse, harking, “Come on Westerner, you’re going to be OKAY!”
Denny’s in Tokyo isn’t what you’re imagining. It’s traditional Japanese food in the way that Denny’s attempts to be traditional American food. It’s cheap, quick, open 24 hours, and good enough, I guess. While I munched on scrambled eggs, salad, pickled vegetables, rice, miso, and slurped never-ending coffee, I watched Japanese strangers talk, eat, laugh. There weren’t any other Americans in the restaurant, at least, not that day. They were all too busy trying to recreate a scene from an Anthony Bourdain special, forcing themselves to have a novel experience all the while they’re snooping through Yelp and Travelocity. In a way, I liked experiencing a place that I expected to be familiar but still, really, was totally different.
Sometimes it’s not about doing the unusual. You don’t have to be the traveler that’s willing to eat squid tentacles grilled at a tent near the Ueno Zoo, though, I did do that, too. Sometimes traveling is just about you, alone in a world unknown, and you’re there existing–even if it means accepting that you’re just SO lost and intimidated.
Tokyo may be the biggest city in the world, but it was far from being the strangest. Of course, I didn’t get to explore EVERYTHING–I don’t know how anyone ever could, its size is impressive. But there weren’t robots dancing, sci-fi flying cars, or touch screen maps floating throughout the sidewalks. It was a lot of people, a lot of places, and a lot of things, just like everywhere else. It was beautiful and enchanting for reasons beyond our American stereotypes and assumptions. For me it was strangely quiet for the largest city in the world, and as alienating as it was comforting.