Part 1: getting there

I have a longer post or possible essay brewing about why it was such a big old deal for me to go overseas this winter. The short version is that in October I’d taken on the job of general manager for a restaurant in Los Angeles; a position which–like all restaurant management positions–demanded 98% of my energy and attention 100% of the time, whether I was at the restaurant or not. Transitioning from hourly to salaried in restaurant work is sort of like going from nannying to being a parent of a toddler. Only because the flights had been booked months earlier was I able to justify leaving for 7 days in the middle of January and I’d pulled serious strings to do so. By the time I boarded my flight to Tokyo on January 12, I’d not had a day away from the restaurant since Christmas Day.

I took off from LAX on Sunday morning, flew for 12 or 13 hours, and landed at Haneda on Monday afternoon. Knowing that this was a work trip, I decided my actual “vacation” would be the flight over and was determined to enjoy it. Twelve glorious hours to turn off my wifi, nap, listen to books and practice my Hiragana. I had gone to Daiso to get comfy slipper socks and a neck pillow, and stocked up on bourgie snack foods the night before.

A "Welcome to Tokyo 2020" poster
Simpler times, like when we did things like plan Olympic games

To my surprise and delight, this coach LA-Tokyo flight included 3 very respectable meals and an individual seat-welcoming package of slippers, blanket, pillow, and extra headphones. After eighteen days of straight stress-nightmare-inducing restaurant labor, this was the goddam height of luxury in a 17-inch-wide airplane seat. I felt like a baller in my un-reclined middle seat, if only because I wasn’t standing at the pass in the kitchen yelling for the next order.

My feelings about Japan and Japanese culture have conflicted and changed over the years. My brother and I used to stay up late at our parents’ house cheering along to samurai movies on cable, and of course in recent months I’d become enmeshed in a society of Japanese sake lovers in Los Angeles. It’s a culinary culture I admire for its precision, depth, and commitment to quality. However, there is something creepy about Americans who are, like, really into Japanese pop culture, for what feels like the wrong reasons. Japanophilia exists in an uncomfortable borderland of fandom, admiration, appropriation, and fetishization and I wanted to be on the right side of it.

Aside from all that, as a large, ungraceful westerner with less-than-great attention to detail, the stereotype of a culture defined by precision and perfectionism made me itchy.

Holding my insecurities and my travel anxiety inside like an air bubble in my belly, I disembarked. I’d come with what I thought was a really cool but not particularly practical carry on bag. I’d packed outfits with sensible cold-weather staples that I thought would be casual yet professional, and sleepwear I didn’t mind throwing away to make room for all the sake I was going to bring back.

Photo of a stiff leather carry on bag.
Cool but impractical handmade bucket bag I got at a sample sale. Compliments welcome to offset back pain.

Let’s go: I landed in Tokyo. I had the evening to get my bearings. I’d been practicing phrases on my Japanese! app and the audiobook I’d borrowed from the LAPL and gotten about halfway through. I was medium confident I could order a drink, ask where the restrooms were. I attempted to take out my entire trip budget from the 7-11 airport ATM as I’d read these were more likely to connect with international bank accounts, and also that it was important to have cash on hand.

After three failed withdrawal attempts and a google search, I realized I’d misplaced the decimal point in my exchange rate calculations and was asking the 7-11 for roughly three times my net worth. A quick online conversation with the bank cleared things up and I was soon in the black again.

I pride myself on my public transit skills. Having lived in New York for ten years and ridden every single line on that spaghetti-looking map, I’ve confidently navigated Paris, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Boston with panache. I won’t say I could’ve made it from the airport to my hotel without a smart phone, but that I could do this without having to talk to a human being was a huge relief.

From my travel journal:

I’m grinning with the very excitement I was too young and numb to allow myself to feel in Paris ten years ago, when I was obsessed as appearing like a savvy local instead of a wide-eyed tourist. What a waste. We should all strive to have more wide eyed days.

According to Google I’d arrived on “coming of age day,” a bank holiday. The streets were pretty deserted, as were many of the restaurants. The hotel room was close and tidy and utterly comfortable. I considered just going to sleep, but rallied, put on some lipstick, and set out to walk the neighborhood. This lasted all of 10 minutes. Passing well-dressed couples with small children walking, students, trying to remember what I’d read about escalator etiquette and stay focused in search of food, I caved and turned around.

A quick stop in at the hotel bar met with a few blank stares from some bored looking bartenders. None of us were up for this. The jet lag tugged on me. Not even the promise of affordable superior quality whisky could keep me out. I wanted to eat, but I didn’t want to talk. Malaise, hard. I remembered part of my aversion to travel was how much energy it takes to engage socially in any language. Fatigue brought a need to dive for cover like a prey animal.

Thank the gods for totally adequate in-flight meals. Not all that hungry, I stopped at one of those famous vending machine stations on my hotel floor. With my newly withdrawn Yen I took out two lagers and a can of tomato juice to go with my stash of bison and venison jerky, Cliff bars, Lara bars. I got into my pajamas and ate on the bed. I’m not sure how this is, etiquette wise; pause was given. I was supposed to be making the most of a rare opportunity and all. But whatever, there I was in my “western style” hotel room acting like a western girl and in bed by 8:30. Authenticity could happen tomorrow.

A vending machine full of beer cans
Dinner is served.
Suntory brand tomato juice. Ready to increase some lycopene, snitches.

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