Oddly enough, I had almost no expectations when I boarded the late-night plane out of New York’s JFK Airport and took the 17-hour journey to Narita, Japan, which included a transfer and three-hour layover in Taipei.
Before boarding, my mom, pressed to my side and nearly in tears, came all the way up to the airline desk with me, leaving my father in the car circling the departures section. I hugged her goodbye and left.
Gary, a fellow judo teammate who had worked at a law office in Osaka for five years and was a veteran at navigating the Japanese lifestyle, had warned me almost weekly between practice rounds: “People go over there expecting it to be like the last animé they watched. Don’t be like that.”
Admittedly, it was hard not to think of Japan outside of the image constructed by the media. Since I had never been there before, all of my knowledge and expectations came from cosplay conventions, the film Lost in Translation, and Facebook videos people shared on their wall of weird Japan.
As I became more and more public with my plans to live in Japan for a year, friends began to constantly share clips and opinions on how they imagined daily life in Tokyo.
“The deer bow to you—that’s how polite Japan is,” one friend claimed, sending video evidence in our group chat. The next friend sent a message describing the infamous toilets and all the settings they have, a nearly indescribable amount. “Even the prime minister is so wild,” they told me. “Did you see the post I tagged you in when he dressed up like Super Mario for the 2020 Olympics?”
In contrast, the first week after arriving in Japan, I had no friends. Or rather I had friends, but who they were changed every day. Everyone was desperate not to feel alone, which meant there was an abundance of surface-level interactions and friendly behavior, but next to no one who I felt comfortable enough inviting on an early morning, jet-lag-prompted run throughout Tokyo.
At 6 AM, on one of those days soon after my arrival, I tied my shoes and set off alone, jogging into the light drizzle towards Akihabara.
The sumo practice I had intended to visit before seeing the Akihabara Electric Town was disappointingly finished before I even arrived, red-faced and out of breath. The rain had all but stopped, so I took my time walking in the general direction of the next neighborhood. Without any data on my phone, it took me awhile, and gave me plenty of time to reflect on the experience of adjusting to a strange, new country.
On first impression, Japan seemed remarkably normal, in a restless and exciting sort of way. I thought it was beautiful, of course, bustling with the energy of a big city and full of historical gems, like Asakusa and the shrines next to Yoyogi Park.
Life was decidedly different than Washington, DC. It was even different from the vibrancy of New York City, but it was nowhere near the wild and weird Japan I had been conditioned to expect.
That first impression continued to hold as I reached Akihabara. It was still early enough for most of the stores to be closed and the lights to be off, no glitter or bustle or neo-technology for me to witness. As I bided my time in a nearby café, I reflected on my opinions of Tokyo so far. Sure, it was amazing, but it was a city just like any other, a place where normal people work and live.
As soon as the stores opened, I set out to explore. Suddenly, the atmosphere felt different. Women dressed up in maid costumes lurked at the intersections, smiling and handing brochures. I watched crowds slip into manga merchandise stores. I tried my own luck, slipping into the bottom level of what appeared to be a regular supermarket. Within a few minutes of entering the store, though, I realized it was not. Mixed in among the regular goods were things I had never seen before in my life—and had never even fathomed could exist.
I tried to remember the advice Gary instilled in me: Japan was more than just what people saw in animé. But it was hard to remember when I was staring face-to-face with a purchasable Hello Kitty toilet seat. It was just as hard later, when I walked up and down the levels of the multi-floor gaming center, and even months later, when a trip to the neighboring region of rural Chichibu revealed it was an animé pilgrimage destination with a startlingly high percentage of travel tourism dedicated to locations depicted in the animé Ano Hana.
The part I love most about Japan is the dichotomies it wields effortlessly—the contrast between old traditions and the newest dizzying technology, the conservative mainstream compared to the countless pockets of counter-culture, the sharp divide between the metropolitan and rural areas.
Japan is a chameleon whose colors change as soon as you exit one neighborhood and enter the next. Viewing Japan as only one or the other doesn’t do justice to the complexity inherent in its everyday life.
It is damaging to assume that Japan is solely the strange depictions circulated throughout the internet and different media. The facets that compose Japan are diverse and full of depth. They cannot be captured in a single clip spread on Facebook.
In the end, Gary was right—Japan is not some animé wonderland crafted by Studio Ghibli. However, it can be, if you search hard enough for what you want to find.
Taylor Bond is a writer and photographer who spent a year living in Tokyo, Japan, as a travel writer and student at Waseda University.