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Finding Home in Under 11 Hours

The last time I went to Tokyo—en route to India—I had 30 hours. My aim was to visit old haunts from when I studied abroad 16 years ago and eat good ramen. The first day was tough. I just couldn’t find the familiar streets, shops, and bridges. And it rained the whole day. I didn’t know if Tokyo had changed or I had changed, but it didn’t feel familiar. My “soul city” in my “heart country,” as I liked to say, was different. The only way for me to “get found” was to stand at the subway station I got out at every day. And while the next morning was sunny and exuberant with a return to Shinjuku Park and Harajuku, those 30 hours made me wonder if Tokyo would ever feel the same—if I could ever really go home again.

This time I had only 11 hours between flights from Hanoi back to Seattle. Once I figured in the one to two hours each way of getting through the airport and trains into the city, I would really only have seven hours, tops. I played it safe. I would not get overly optimistic about eating the perfect meal in the perfect weather. I knew I would be exhausted. So, I hoped to just be there. And, to give myself the utmost in direction, I bought a guide of every walk and place visited in every one of Haruki Murakami’s novels. I honed in on Watanabe and Naoko’s walk from Norwegian Wood. If I could just follow their footsteps, I would be ok. If the route would really take me along the east side of the Imperial Palace to the old bookstores of Jimbocho, that would enough. I didn’t want perfection, I just wanted guidance. Even if I couldn’t find my own Tokyo, I would have Murakami’s.

When I arrived at the Tokyo airport, I was exhausted, but I would not be defeated. I focused only on the leg of the journey at hand: deplane, immigration, customs, buy train tickets, first train, second train, and arrival at Iidabashi station—a station I passed through twice a week to teach English at night. The station wasn’t familiar, but that was ok. The sun was shining so I went to Koishikawa Korakuen Garden before starting the official walk. I didn’t think I’d ever been there before, so there was no need to try to relive a memory. I would just soak in the passing fall leaves. I sat a bench and had a delicious green tea latte. I thought, “If this is the best moment of these 11 hours, this is enough. This sunny park and creamy drink are enough.” I left the park content, and with plenty of time. I then headed south to Kudanshita where I started the walk.

That was when Tokyo started to look familiar. Mostly, because just south of Kudnashita is the north garden of the Imperial Palace, Kitanomaru Park. Watanabe and Naoko had been there, but more importantly, I’d been there. As I walked under the giant wooden tori gate—just as I had many times 18 years ago—I thought, “I remember this. I’ve been here.” I wandered in the open park, took a few selfies that didn’t turn out, and waved my arms through the wide openness, so different from the streets of Hanoi.

I walked back out through the same gate and took a right, just as Watanabe and Naoko do, down Yasukuni-dori towards Jimbocho. Breezes of nostalgia wrapped around me. I remembered the downslope, the wide boulevards, and the rush of walking with purpose to the bookstore district. But would the books still be there? Two years ago when I tried to find the bookstore district, I couldn’t. I’d thought they’d gone, replaced by internet and money-making stores. But as I picked up my pace I saw I was wrong. They were still here. One shop after the next. 60s magazines. French books. German books. Kids’ books and, yes, shelves and shelves of Japanese books spilling out onto the sidewalk. They were still here. It seemed like there were even more bookstores than in 2000. Could it be? It was as if, thank God, Tokyo had become more itself, and I, more of myself.

Here’s what I mean: Tokyo, when I was 19, was where I became an ambler, a reader, and a writer. I used to the wander the streets for hours, first aimlessly, then with purpose. At the time, simply being in the bookstore district made me want to read more, so I’d go to the English section of Waseda University’s library and read every Penguin classic I could find. When I think of that time, I think of the orange spines filling the shelves. Reading more made me want to write more. That was the first writers group I ever joined—where other foreigners told me they liked my poetry and convinced me to read at open mics. It was where I came to love reading. It was where I first identified the best version of the person I am now. It was where I found home.

As I continued Watanabe and Naoko’s walk north to Ochanomizu and the Kanda River, I decided to stop at the “I am a Cat” statue honoring author Natsume Soseki. My walk was evolving to include places I wanted to go, not just following Watanabe and Naoko. I walked up the hill past an elementary school and through Kinka Park where children played, salarymen ate their lunches, and the nearby Meiji University students bustled by. Walking through Meiji University was both familiar and new, but I knew I was in my zone because nearby was the Russian Orthodox Church. Completely out of place, this cream colored, copper-domed stunner perched on a hill makes eyes at everyone who passes. I had wound down around it dozens of times in my Tokyo days, and today felt no different.

By now I was off of Naoko and Watanabe’s walk. It was just me and my town. And because it was me and my town and I still had three hours, I decided to keep going—all the way along the east wall of the palace to Ginza. When I’d returned to Ginza a few years ago I’d felt out of place. Sure, I would always feel out of place in the upscale shopping district, but I think last time I was hoping to connect with it in a way I hadn’t before. This time there were no falsehoods. I knew I wasn’t upscale. I also knew there was a fourth floor Café de Crie, one of the cafes I used to frequent back in the day. By this time my legs were beyond weary, and my feet aching in the slightly too small shoes and lightly too thick socks. I ordered a bowl of spaghetti and iced peach tea and settled in a spot in the window between heads-down salarymen and chicly-dressed women on their phones. It was the kind of moment, though not explicitly in Watanabe and Naoko’s walk, that would have happened in a Haruki Murakami novel: A western café, a bowl of spaghetti, and a deep-in-thought character looking out at the world below. It was the most Tokyo-esque thing I could do. The simple act of eating spaghetti and people watching was both Japanese and me. And it reminded me, just as the bookstores of Jimbacho had, that Tokyo was the place that had made me who I am. In a few far away hours, I was coming home.

I had intended to go to Hibiya Park, just adjacent to the palace, but once I’d had the luxury of sitting down over lunch and had to walk again, I decided to stop near the statue of Kusunoki Masahige within the palace grounds, buy a green tea soft serve cone for approximately six dollars, and sit down on the lawn. The familiarity was there again. I’d sat in this very same spot on one of my first days of solo Tokyo explorations. It was fall. And I remember thinking that I had so many more days of my year abroad ahead of me to do these kinds of solitary strolls. I called them “Jibun Days.” In Japanese, “jibun de” (“de” pronounced “day”) means “by myself.” So it was my way of saying this was a day I was taking for myself, by myself. I think, at age 19, my study abroad friends might have thought I was being antisocial in declining (sometimes) their offers to spend time together to wander the city on my own. But I needed those days. I valued those friendships and I’m still in touch with several of them, but those days helped me experience Tokyo, and myself, in a way I couldn’t have in the company of others. The walks, museums, taking photographs, solo meals, and quiet moments of reflection made me who I am.

By the time I got to Tokyo Station, I was ready to sit with the quiet satisfaction of a good day. But being that Tokyo Station sees the most number of trains per day in all of Japan, and I hadn’t planned exactly how I would get back to the airport, I knew I was in for a feat. In short, I spent 15 to 20 minutes running up and down escalators to ticket counters and train platforms with the help of a Japanese woman named Nayumi who had seen my confused face and reached out by simply saying “Can I help you?”

Before I finally boarded the correct train and car, and after I thanked her in Japanese, I did the most Japanese thing I could think of: I offered her my business card—two-handed with a slight bow—and encouraged her to email me to practice her English. I settled in my reserved seat and watched Nayumi wave from the platform. I remembered the Japanese tradition when saying goodbye to continue waving until the other person is out of sight. And so we waved and bowed for what felt like forever, until her kind face was just a spec on the platform.

This help from stranger out of simple Japanese courtesy, at age 39 and my fourth trip to Japan, was something that could have happened to me in college or in high school. But it just goes to show that we can all get a little lost and confused, even when we’re sure we’re found. Just as Nayumi showed me the way, Japan was once again the place that brought me home. It was a place and people, no matter where else I travelled, I could count on. It was my heart country with my soul city. And I hoped it would always be there for me, nudging me to my center.

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