Some number of months ago, I agreed to go to Japan for the summer with my friend Amanda to help her collect data for her research. In exchange for my help, she paid for my trip—a deal I couldn’t pass up. And so, two days ago, I found myself saying goodbye to Pennsylvania for a while and boarding a plane bound for the other side of the world.
A quick puddle-jump from State College to Detroit and soon we were on a 12-hour long haul of a ride, during which I discovered that 12 hours seated in the same position is indeed even longer than it sounds—especially when your TV screen remains disappointingly blank despite all attempts to repeatedly press buttons and bring it to life, and there are children screaming and kicking your seat.
But finally, after what seemed like forever, we were landing in Tokyo. As the plane descended below the clouds, I caught my first glimpses of the country where I’d be spending the next two months. There were lots of rice paddies, broken up by little islands of trees and villages with houses scattered every which way. Rivers cut through the landscape, diverted and channeled by human hands to feed their crops. The scene almost looked like a model, a fake version of some far-off land. But it was real, and I was here.
It was already late afternoon on Thursday, 13 hours ahead of the time back home. By the time we collected our bags and got through customs (a more painless process than I expected), it was almost 7pm. Time to get to a hotel, attempt to sleep, and wake up early to get on multiple different busses that would eventually take us to our destination.
Japan is slightly farther south than Pennsylvania, but not by that much, so I was shocked when it was pitch black by 7:30pm (it has to do with where it is located in the time zone). This also meant that by 4am, it was light outside. This phenomenon, combined with the woman’s voice that was playing on a loudspeaker on repeat outside our hotel, the tram that noisily rolled by every few minutes, and the fact that my body thought it was the middle of the afternoon, caused me to be wide awake and unable to get any more sleep. Neither could Amanda, so we took showers, then sat in the room in yukatas and sipped green tea and munched on gouda cheese on pita bread and dried mango and listened to the world outside become more and more alive.
It was time to begin the day of the busses. First, back to the airport, where we bought coffee in a can from one of the giant vending machines that seemed to be everywhere. We sipped the surprisingly-decent drink, soaking in the caffeine while standing next to a sign that misleadingly told us that we were waiting for the “limousine”—which was really just like any other bus.
Our “limousine” took us through Tokyo, giving me what is probably the best view of city I’ll be getting. The skyline was nearly obscured by fog/smog, but I could still make out the skyscrapers, the fake mountain of Tokyo Disney, and a giant ferris wheel that looked like it would be a lot of fun and offer an amazing view of the city on a clear day. Highways converged and crossed over one another in an intricate maze of streets that were jam-packed with cars that all seemed like miniature versions of those typically seen in America.
We were dropped off in the middle of a bustling transit station, with people rushing from place to place as we stood there, confused for a few minutes while we tried to figure out where to go to catch our next bus. One of the drivers who spoke a small amount of English must have noticed our plight and rushed over, eager to help. We were successfully directed to the correct bus stop, tickets were successfully bought, and before I knew it, we were on the road again, this time heading west, out of the city towards Matsumoto, our destination and where we will be based out of for the summer.
Sooner than I expected, we left much of the concrete behind, trading cityscapes for views of mountains and rice fields and giant gardens. This region of Japan was delightfully rural and forested, far from the stereotypical image of people stacked on top of each other in megacities and endless urbanization.
Curiosities along the highway to Matsumoto included the Japanese erosion-prevention system of just covering entire hillsides in concrete, a giant swan-shaped ferry cruising along on Lake Suwa, and a rest stop where I discovered the “squat toilet.” No, it’s not an outhouse that’s so dirty you feel the need prevent any contact with the seat. It’s actually a fancy hole in the floor that flushes.
Instead of going up and over mountains, it seems that roads in Japan just go right through. We went through countless numbers of tunnels en route to Matsumoto, one of them going through the area of mountains that essentially acts as the “continental divide” of Japan, separating the water that flows into the Pacific from that which flows into the Sea of Japan. Matsumoto lies just across the divide, on the Sea of Japan side, in the Northern Japanese Alps.
The last bus of the day took us from downtown to our accommodations—dorms in the International House of Shinshu University. When we arrived, the woman in the office seemed rather confused about who we were, and she spouted off a long string of sentences very quickly in Japanese, while we stood there basically helplessly. Amanda attempted to explain who we were in her limited-but-much-better-than-mine Japanese, but for several minutes the woman seemed to think she was someone else, a different Amanda who apparently was also arriving today. But finally, the lightbulb must have gone on, and she excitedly exclaimed more things in Japanese, gave us our room keys, and rattled off a list of instructions—also in Japanese of course. We also got some written instructions for something to do with trash collection and recycling—but can’t read those either.
We’re finally here—“home” for the next 9 weeks. And the journey of 40 hours ended with some delicious sushi, noodles, and peach tea, on a bench in front of the grocery store, halfway around the world.