When I was 20 I traveled to Japan with my best friend, Matt. At the time there were no such things as smartphones, but there were MP3 players. The web was still surprisingly limited. This was my first independent trip and would be the only one I would take without the safety of the internet in my pocket.
When I was 28 I would travel to Japan again, this time accompanied by my girlfriend, to see Matt be married. By now I had grown accustomed to having an iPhone with access to vast amounts of knowledge and advice. Unlike the first time, this trip was planned, structured.
Thankfully Matt had previously spent time in Japan. We had a few friends living in the country and we would make others — probably far fewer without Matt’s ability to conversationally speak Japanese. On the return trip I would be the one carrying experience, but lacking the language skills.
Each trip changed me. It wouldn’t be until my sophomore journey that I fully realized how much. When you are put into a situation that requires you to exist in the present it becomes nearly impossible to relate to other parts of life. For 8 years Japan was a bubble in my life experience.
So much changed and just as much was exactly how I remembered it. Each time in Tokyo we rushed to make the last train of the night, falling asleep on our feet. Breakfast was always bought at a convenience store (they are the same thing as the US, but full of appetizing pastries and iced coffee instead of unlimited liquid cheese for sweaty hot dogs). We never touched a cab door without the driver snapping at us to let go. The Peace Museum in Hiroshima wreaked havoc on my emotions, twice. The public transit made me dread getting on the L ever again. A typhoon screwed up our plans. Asahi tasted better, we didn’t eat sushi and Okonomiyaki kept the title of the greatest food ever — even better than pizza. We got lost, often.
And then, Matt was living in Japan and getting married. Our friends Jon and Shiho had kids. Everyone had smartphones. I was with a woman I love. There was an island full of rabbits. Robot Restaurant was a real thing. We fed wild monkeys. There wasn’t a nuclear reactor leak. I didn’t terrify my mom by not being at the hotel I said I would be at. We didn’t spend our nights partying in bars. I wasn’t too caught up in the moment to be able to sit back and enjoy it.
Japan is a place of magic and wonder. I didn’t quite understand that my first time there. I knew it was incredible, it’s impossible not to know that. But I didn’t appreciate that we were walking through cities thousands of years older than the one I lived in, but looked like they were decades into the future. I didn’t realize how much would change. And how that change would be good. And how much would feel familiar.