TOKYO, JAPAN — There are some destinations where you arrive; you step off the plane, you hail a cab, you readjust your watch. In Japan, this is simply not possible.
You have to dive in.
Underwater. That’s exactly how I felt as we barreled through the outer suburbs on the Keisei Skyliner–a direct channel for the 66km between Narita Airport and Ueno Station in Tokyo. I stared into the dark outside as the rain slashed the windows and tried to bring my mind back from the 22+ hours of travel that we had just endured. A waking sleep where you don’t know if it’s today or tomorrow or still yesterday.
At Ueno, it was a mad tide of people moving though the tunnels under the station and we had to fight our way against the current. Friday night, 7pm. Rush hour on the Tokyo scale. And there were Molly and I, trying to navigate the chaos on little rest and even less Japanese.
Somehow we made our connections to Mitsukoshimae–a tiny enclave in the heart of downtown Tokyo that is known as the zero mile marker for all distances across the country. Wherever you see a highway sign that marks distance to Tokyo, it is to this sleepy little neighborhood. We spent about 40 very wet minutes, packing through the rain up one street and down another, desperately trying to find our hotel and rest. Broken English and convoluted directions finally came together as we arrived at the ironically named “Smile Hotel”.
Standing, quite literally, in the very center of Japan, we dumped our backpacks in our tiny cruise ship cabin of a hotel room and took a breath.
To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what to expect of Japan. Neon lights, glistening sushi, hallowed temples, I guess. Scenes from Hollywood movies and methodically scripted travel shows.
Over the next two weeks of our slow, steady, deliciously exhausting descent we found all of that–and so much more. The thing that registered the most? How different each location was. Not only the cities, but neighborhoods within them, even blocks within those, could change and shift and offer up something completely new.
It was the equivalent of a coral reef dive on a cultural scale. We suited up as best we could and went deep. Deep into Japan.