Before I came to Tokyo I asked my friends a question: What is Japan like? Even though their explanations were different, they all used the same phrase: Japan is different. People do not shake hands but they bow. The culture is collectivist and not individualistic like San Francisco. There is an overload of cuteness in the cafes and the culture. Oh, and machines direct the traffic, not humans. And the bathrooms were a whole different subject.
Excited to immerse myself in a culture so different to ones I had been familiar with — in Pakistan, my country of birth, and in America, my new home — I landed at Tokyo airport. Surely enough, everything felt different after I landed. Not just different in appearance or language, but different in so many ways. My journey to my accommodation was in a cab that appeared so futuristic: a button pressed by the cab driver opened the doors and trunk wide open. And there were so many people! Everywhere! Even the first cafe I went to was an “Owl cafe”. Yes, you can share a meal with animals in Japan!
Japan was indeed different. Very different. “So different and unique that it was almost like going to an alternate planet, possibly in an alternate universe.”
But this was just the beginning. Apart from daily greetings and the one swear word taught by a friend, I did not know Japanese. And most people in Japan did not speak English. And I was going to be working in Tokyo for the next 10 weeks and had to travel from my accommodation to work every day. The transit system in Tokyo is nothing short of a Labyrinth. Not just any Labyrinth but The Greek Minotaur’s Labyrinth! And using a map to navigate the streets of Tokyo left me even more confused. Most streets did not have names! Yes! You have to navigate using blocks.
This was just the first few days. Overwhelmed, I thought to myself: I am going to have the most difficult time of my life. Maybe this trip was going to be a lesson on avoiding new places until I was intimately familiar with the culture or language.
It was only a few days later when I realised how wrong I was. An epiphany of sorts happened. And yes, it was at a spiritual place: the Sheno-ji temple.
As I saw the Chozuya fountain at the temple it struck a familiar chord. The monk performed a simple yet elegant act of purification of body and soul before entering the holy place. Before entering the temple you hold the ladle at the stone-made fountain and pour water on either hand, rinse your mouth and then rinse the ladle. This was a practice very similar to what I had been accustomed to my entire life. I have been doing something similar every day (Wudu), for as long as I can remember.
“Home is what is familiar but home is also what is unknown when we can empathize and understand it.”
And from that moment onwards I changed how I looked at Japan. I realized that deep down we are all humans, with our own ways of surviving and coping with the human conditions.
I wondered how my Japanese colleagues would feel if they ever came to my two homes, how confused and jittery they would be if they started the day with coffee instead of tea. Home is what is familiar but home is also what is unknown when we can empathize and understand it.
And so, on my journey from Gaiemmae to Mizonokuchi, I relied on basic humanity and the ability of humans to help me through signs and broken communication. The train signs were confused fingers pointing around and my announcements were words in broken Japlish.
“ My fears turned into faith in people .”
And that is all what is often needed. My fears turned into faith in people . I navigated the physical and cultural space with the kindness and niceness which can only be understood by interacting with the Japanese people.
Evolutionary scientists have been right: we do share 99.9% of our DNA. Religious and spirituals leaders have been right too: empathy and helping others can change the world, for it did certainly change my Japan experience!