There doesn’t need to be a reason, but I’d like to create a myth concerning why the Japanese are so kind: mountains.
I arrived at Narita airport on January 10th after a mercifully uneventful 13-hour flight from O’Hara into a blur of Japanese workers and travelers flitting from terminal to terminal. I boarded trains I only hoped led to my destination, at which I hoped my contacts at the English school would truly be to drive me to my apartment and then to dinner as they had promised in a series of e-mails a few days before.
My stress levels at an ultimate high combined with having not eaten since the previous day, I bought a wrong ticket, boarded the wrong train, and even landed in customs purgatory immediately after stepping off the plane. The latter I knew would be a possibility; I arrived in Japan with no residence visa nor the otherwise required return or thru-way ticket for American citizens. My school had assured me the 90-day tourist visa could be changed at the consulate once I arrived in Koriyama. Given my experience with immigration, I prepared for an unsympathetic agent who would inevitably put me on the next plane back to the US or force me to buy a useless ticket to Korea as a promise I wouldn’t slip into Japan forever.
I was left in a bright halogen-lit rectangular office which seemed to serve as a detaining room and nursery. A family of seven excitedly pointed and laughed at me as I sat waiting for my sentence to be handed to me. Ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes ticked by, and a cheerful man bobbed in and sat down next to me, speaking rapid Japanese: Where did you come from? Ohh, hai, hai. You are a tourist? Ohh, hai! You have residence visa? Ahh, Koriyama. Hai. Okay, one moment, I must speak with…
I don’t know who he went to speak with, but he left as quickly as he had come, leaving me once again alone, a spectacle for the too-interested family now curiously looking at me as if though I had carried an explosive onto the plane. More waiting. Bustling in and plopping down next to me again, So, you will change your 90-day visa to 1 year, hai? In Koriyama, hai?
Ahh, okay. Soudesu!
He handed me my passport, smiled, and half stood waiting for me to also stand.
Hai. Welcome to Japan.
I was dazed. I didn’t know what this guy’s game was, but I found myself within seconds passing through the customs gates, every officer smiling and bowing to me as I passed, like I was Jesus Christ arriving in Jerusalem sans the palms.
The next obstacle I faced was buying a ticket for the bullet train, which, of course, I botched. No problem there; at least six people conspired independently to rectify the situation, and I found myself, again dazed, on a platform with trains pulling in and out so quickly it sent up my heart rate to dangerous levels. A train chimed insistently at me. Get on or miss your boarding time!
So I boarded. I didn’t even look at the number or city destination let alone the boarding time itself. I panicked and felt my face bloat with the threat of a sobby outburst. Yet, the train barreled on, ignorant of my need to freeze time and figure out my next move. A young vendor girl awkwardly pushed her cart past as the train jostled back and forth, and using stunted Japanese, I showed her my ticket and gave her the doleful eyes of a lost tourist, embarrassed and ashamed at my ignorance and carelessness. She scrutinized my ticket and said she’d be right back. Minutes later, she returned, explaining multiple times to change at the next station, even writing the train number, next departing time, and end-station city name; later, I realized she must have radioed to the controller to learn all of this information and recall it after serving an entire car full of peckish commuters.
At the next station, a train traffic controller in reflective yellow and green vest situated me at the exact dock I would board the train, smiling and waving as he boarded his train, as though we had been good friends. After arriving in Koriyama, my superiors did, in fact, pick me up and graciously nourished me with all kinds of raw fish and red wine with some of the other teachers, who all seemed just as friendly and accommodating.
It was when the school’s founder and manager was driving me to the Festa location in Koriyama that I first saw the mountains. I interrupted him abruptly mid-sentence with a loud gasp.
What…what about them?
They’re so big. They’re beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like them in my life.
I’m not one for sentiment. Especially in the presence of other people. It just doesn’t suit me. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel some kind of tremendous humbleness brought on by these bestial snow-capped beauties. And that, I postulated at one point during the night, is why you find such a humble – near humility – nature in the Japanese people. It wasn’t fear, but respect for these lurking goliaths just barely visible through the low, misty clouds that reminded me of my tenuous position among the elements and how dwarfed we are by not only the entirety of the universe but even such marvels here on earth. The mountains surround this city, like one vast being gathering up the ground below it in a loving parental embrace. I hope to embrace the mountains and all of Koriyama as I begin my new career here throughout this year and maybe beyond.