18 May The Wonder of Everyday Life In Japan Means So Much To Me
“Wow,” Duke said nonchalantly when he opened the FaceTime. “Screenshots are being taken.” I laughed, as I had purposely called my brother to FaceTime during an iconic moment which portrays my life in Japan.
I rode my bike through my Osaka neighborhood, Abeno, showing him the myriad of quintessential Japanese homes.
Modern, slim and polished houses nestle beside others of rustic brown wood with dark blue, ornate, slanting tiled roofs.
My neighborhood reflects that charming coalescence of the present and the past which distinguishes this country.
“You are literally Ash from Pokémon,” Duke said. “People don’t see this kind of stuff!”
“That’s the idea,” I replied with a smile.
The Japanese franchise Pokémon was integral to both of our childhoods. Being in Japan makes me so very nostalgic. I’ll never forget when my childhood best friend and I went to the video game store, EB Games, with his mom to scour the used game rack for one of the original Pokémon Gameboy games.
I got the original red version. My buddy scored a rare yellow edition. We built a pillow fort and fought our way through the 2D pixelated world until the wee hours of the morning. At a certain point in the game, Ash, the main character, secures a bike.
For him, as it has me, everything changes.
He navigates the world at twice his normal speed. The Pokéverse becomes his playground.
That’s how I feel when I’m on my bike. Osaka’s my grand, metallic, endlessly flowing, flashing, breathing playground.
I knew Duke would appreciate a unique slice of everyday life such as this, especially on such a cheerful spring morning.
Regardless of the country, there is profound beauty in everyday life that’s not always apparent when traveling through.
Think about what makes your home, home. Is it the experiences a tourist would read about online when visiting? Probably not.
It’s the moments you can’t quite pin down, for they’re fleeting and eternal all at once, flowing like the finest, imperceptible threads through the fabric of a culture. You, of course, can experience them; and if you remain aware and open while traveling, you will.
Yet living in a foreign country provides more time to notice what it means to be there. And that is why I’m here. To notice, unpack, and dig, dig, dig away at the details through the words I pen, for these details bring me immense joy.
Here are a few such moments and thoughts which have recently impressed upon my heart.
I often see my elderly, sprightly neighbor out on her front entryway early in the morning. She looks up at the sky. She studies her array of gorgeous flowers. She smiles when I say, ohayo gozaimasu! Good morning.
We pass phrases back and forth until my shallow well of Japanese runs dry. Itterashai, (see you later, be safe)! She says as I bike away, to which I respond, ittekimasu!
At the gym, every time I walk through the door to leave, the staff pop their heads out of the small staff room to say arigato gozaimasu! Their smiling faces stack one on top of the other like a cartoon.
At an izakaya, a jolly, albeit inebriated local in the bathroom line will ask about my home or why I came to Japan. I don’t know if there’s a country of friendlier drinkers.
All bets are off after a few drinks, and instead of wanting to fight, they often want to learn about you, take a picture, or buy you a frosty biru.
When on a walk, a woman in the distance smiles and waves a hand from her walker. She keeps strolling as I wave back and say, ii tenki desu ne? Nice weather, isn’t it? She chuckles, smiles through a few missing teeth, and nods.
The book shelf in my tiny apartment is growing. The assemblage speaks to my imagination. Plants are both fading in color and sprouting new leaves. My walls portray recent memories; my dojo has gathered fresh tokens of travel, friendship and creativity.
It brings me joy to walk through the door after a long day.
I’m on the train with the Kansai University basketball team, heading back into Osaka at around 10pm. They’re respectfully rowdy and fill the train; their purple striped ties hang loosely from white button downs; many are flipped backwards. A couple of them hold cutout heads of the players I imagine they made for the games.
Camaraderie. I love to see that. It makes me happy seeing kids being kids.
The pink cherry blossom trees have all gone green. The petals no longer cover the roads. I sit in the park at twilight, alone beneath the trees. Sometimes we have others and sometimes we’re alone, and that doesn’t need to make sense, it just is.
This is life — I have my passions; I have my interests. But I think there’s nothing without love. We’ll sometimes feel it more strongly with others, and that’ll make this game we play worth it.
But that’s nothing to rush into, nothing to force, because when you’re in that space, life isn’t instantly easy, nor does it make sense. Yet it becomes worth it because of love. Although I feel love now. Strongly. For life, for the world, for myself, for this journey.
I’m okay, and always will be. The cherry blossoms are gone, and there’s so much yet to come.
I observe the students in the class I’m teaching holding pens in their hands, fidgeting and twirling and erasing with their big, gummy erasers. I recollect the simple charm of pencils, erasers and notebooks from school. They didn’t help with the grades, but I always loved my tools.
A woman, Yukiko, talks with great care about the little bird who came to her house over golden week, describing its shape and color and how she hopes it isn’t injured. She describes planting peas and beans in the spring.
That is life. A beautiful one, at that. She’s happy as anyone you’ll meet. How wonderfully strange it is being human; it doesn’t matter what you do with your life, as long as it interests you. Maybe we’re here to do nothing more than make something of our heartbeat.
I ride my bike down south to one of my favorite ramen spots. I pass by minor scenes: a woman leaves her home to walk a dog. The shopkeeper sits at the desk of the dimly lit store. A woman buys meat from the butcher.
It’s like opening the book of life to a random page, for there’s a story there, and I peer into it and read a sentence or two at random.
While walking to work at around eight in the morning, I pass parents sending their high school kids off to school. Another young girl, probably around three or four, holds her mother’s hand in the middle of the street and yells in a high-pitched tone, itterashai!!!
Quite possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
I moved to Japan to experience everyday life, because life, no matter where we are, is every day. If we only open ourselves to magic when we hope it’ll be there, we’ll go our whole lives waiting for what might never come, when it’s been in front of us all along.
Japan has a biking culture, and that’s immediately obvious when arriving here. When I moved to Japan, a bike was one of the first things I had to get. Like Ash, getting a bike changed everything.
I bought my bike, the Osaka Moonrider, from a local bike store in my neighborhood when I still had no idea what this experience would contain.
The store presents its new and used bikes out on the sidewalk and when I laid eyes on the Moonrider, I knew it was the one. It’s a rather simple used road bike: dark and shining, although not glimmering green. I like the color green these days.
The tires are thin and eggshell white. The tires are what drew me to the bike. The silver rims are unusual, like circular plates with holes in them like cheese; the combination of white tires with silver rims gives off a moon lander vibe.
The bike proudly wears a few scuffs and scratches which give it character. In the first couple of months here, I would try to cover the bike with a large plastic tarp whenever it rained; I stopped after a while.
I took it in once to a bike repair shop to have the tires inflated, and the shop owner, an old man, showed me how to fill the tires with air. There was no way I remembered, and the next time I returned, I took a video.
I believe his daughter was there with him, watching with a smile as the man explained again to me how to pump the tires.
I stopped worrying about the rain and the tires; I hope it lasts. The bike is a part of my experience here, for there’s my apartment and me and my bike, and with that I have a home in Japan and can take a train to a plane and go.
But now my tire’s actually flat, and I need to take it in.
Osaka has very little hills which make it enjoyable to explore.
I sometimes take the bike out on the weekends to delve into different neighborhoods. With music in my ears I coast down the road, appreciating the more decrepit neighborhoods of old school Osaka such as Shinsekai and Nippombashi, as well as the bright and bustling modern hubs such as Umeda and Shinsaibashi.
The Moonrider is a companion, akin to my pen and notebook. These are my essentials, not expensive, and not without character, and that’s why they matter to me. I don’t have to take care of my bike like a car. I lean it against a 711 with a lock around the back wheel. I prop it on its stand on the grass in the park.
It sits parked in front of my apartment and whenever I return home I feel a sense of familiarity when I see the strange white tires jutting from the other bikes.
That’s my guy, a little strange, like me. What I love about riding is that there’s no engine, only the legs as your motor.
That’s what makes it gratifying: it’s you, your spirit, your heart, propelling you forth through the world. It’s that intoxicating combination of endorphins and sensory intake which provide insights in motion.
There are no obstructions from you and the world, hardly any distance from you and the earth, you and the sky, the air, the trees, the wind; perhaps what I love most about riding is your proximity to others.
I can see the faces of the people whom I pass; they look at me and I at them, and maybe we smile or they just stare, and that makes me smile, too.
I grin when I see kids literally skipping down the road or goofing around on their parents’ shoulders, and I wonder, why are kids so joyful? At what point does that fade away?
We go through shit. We feel the increasing weight of the world. But we can learn from kids to care a little less and live a bit more.
Our modern story imparts that maturing means acquiring. Cars, for instance, serve as an obvious symbol of somebody’s monetary worth. I enjoy driving, yet there’s something about riding a bike that’s wonderfully childlike, which, perhaps makes it all the more human, all the more essential.
The other night after a ride, I passed the 711 in Abeno. It hit me, entering my little neighborhood, that passing this 711 will forever hold a place in my heart.
Emotion overwhelmed me as I looked down the highway into the Osaka skyline and then into the night sky. I wanted to yell, to scream; I couldn’t place it, but the love in my heart just wanted to roar.
It doesn’t always hit me when it would make sense to, say traveling or with my friends, but when alone at an arbitrary moment, for those arbitrary, everyday moments contain everything.
This 711 provides a sense of home, the threshold when returning from a trip or from dinner or from work each day of the week; it’s where I get ice cream on weekends and perhaps an onigiri during the week; it’s the taxi drop off after a night out with friends; it’s familiar faces at the checkout stand; it’s rainy nights and sunny mornings.
It’s Japan. It’s love.
And when this chapter concludes, I’m sure it’ll be one of those places I’ll remember most. That slice of life which means so much is what I hoped to show Duke when riding through my Osaka neighborhood, and I think, just maybe, he grasped the wonder of everyday life in Japan.