Arriving in Tokyo and Confronting the Unknown


I spent this past summer making hasty preparations for my big move to Japan. I applied to the JET program (Japan Teaching and Exchange Program) in October of 2013, I interviewed in January, and then I finally heard about my acceptance a week before I graduated from college in mid-May. The race was on – I officially had roughly two and a half months to ready myself for working my first full-time job in a place that was 13 hours ahead of and 7,000 miles away from home. I was plagued by anxieties that ranged from trivial concerns (How will I satisfy my intense cravings for Chipotle burrito bowls in Japan?) to critical questions (How will I communicate effectively with my co-workers when I only have a rudimentary understanding of their primary language?).I steeled myself against these worries for the most part and lived out my last several weeks in America blissfully riding my bicycle around my small Sarasota neighborhood, “breaking the fourth (margarita) wall” at “Marg Mondays” with my closest enablers, battling the absurd summer heat at the pool, and watching the sky’s shifting color palates as the sun went down every evening at dusk.


I said my temporary goodbyes to all of the people who made my collegiate experience so wonderful and I said my permanent farewell to my life as an undergraduate. It was time to forge ahead on my next great adventure… I was mildly terrified but also incredibly excited.

A 24-hour travel day stood between Tokyo and I. The two flights passed swiftly as I oscillated back and forth between being filled with nervous energy and crushing fatigue. My recently acquired knack for napping anywhere paid off as I dozed off between chapters of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. The Jet Program hosts a three-day long orientation at the beautiful Keio Plaza Hotel, located right near Shinjuku Station (one of the busiest train stations in the entire world). The towering sprawl of the city looked otherworldly under my jetlagged gaze.


Jumping ahead multiple time zones was strange, to say the least! The next three days passed in a dizzying blur of educational workshops, formal dinners, and mornings that began at the crack of dawn. Several hundred JET participants and I had every single minute of our days accounted for on a rigorous workshop schedule. Our days were planned to the minute. In Japan, being on time means that you show up 10 minutes early. I discovered this on the first night when thirty other participants and I were locked out of the opening reception’s “welcome” toast when we showed up five minutes prior to its scheduled start-time!

Luckily, we had the nights off to stumble around late-night Tokyo in a vampiric, over-tired daze. My propensity for finding quality beer did not disappoint on the first evening as I came upon an Asahi brewpub. I had the chance to sample my first “black” beer in Japan – I love American craft beers and I have a serious attachment to the rich imperial stouts, with their chocolate and coffee notes, that we make so expertly in the good ole’ US of A. Needless to say, I was elated to find a Japanese beer that was darker and heavier than the norm. The brewpub also served incredible small plates – I ordered kimchi with squid and a tiny grilled octopus covered with fresh lemon juice for seasoning and a creamy white sauce for dipping. Delicious food and beer was the perfect way to unwind.

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Shinjuku at night was a sensory overload for my already overwrought brain. The fluorescently lit convenience stores had tiny televisions strewn about the aisles that chimed a wide variety of product infomercials, competing for the buyers’ attention. I attended “izakaya” dinners replete with cheap liquor where restaurant servers were replaced by a colorful menu with photos and an electronic pen that you use to place your order. At a few izakayas, the menu talks back to you throughout the process, thanking you and confirming your order. There were sprawling electronic shops, modern karaoke joints, basement whiskey bars, crammed ramen shops, and hundred of small alleyways to wander about.


Late one night I went up to the 40th floor of the Keio Plaza Hotel and walked along the darkened hallway filled with empty conference spaces. I had a destination in mind – An area with massive windows that allowed for an excellent twilight view of the neon sprawl of the city. I stood there for quite some time thinking about all of the “unknowns” that were now flashing into my mind as imminent concerns. I decided then and there that I needed to stop casting the “unknown” in a negative light. There is a definite difference between conceptualizing the “unknown” as a problem OR as a challenge. When you are traveling or moving to a foreign country, a problem has the power to snowball into one big pile of paralyzing stress. A challenge, however, is something that you can expect to face everyday with (hopefully) some degree of small success or resolution. Today marks my one-month anniversary with Japan and I can safely say that I confront challenges literally all of the time. My best advice? Be kind to yourself. I am a month in and I still have no idea how to sort my trash – Burnable, non-burnable, plastic bottles, caps for plastic bottles, aluminum, glass, cardboard – all have to be separated into different government sanctioned bags and collected at different places at different times. Every time I throw out my garbage I am nervous that someone is going to put it back in front of my apartment because I screwed up the sorting so terribly! Alas, I am striving to be kind to myself while I slowly figuring out the trash system – and many other things.

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