How many of you foreign residents in Japan have itchy feet right now? By definition, the foreigners living in Japan must have some predisposition to travel, or else they wouldn’t have made it to these shores.
I certainly know that I, a Scotsman in Tokyo, have itchy feet. I want to feel warm sand shifting under my toes. I want to smell some exotic, spicy food wafting from a pushcart stall. I want to hear the bustle of foreign accents haggling over prices in a night market. These things stir the soul and refresh the jaded mind.
And yet experiencing these things and scratching the travel itch is more problematic than ever. It was always expensive to fly abroad, both in terms of money and time. Increasingly, there’s also a guilt element attached. Perhaps future generations suffering from catastrophic climate change will think us dastardly for taking air travel so lightly. And now there are the restrictions and fears caused by the pandemic. Some borders are shut, and prefectural leaders are getting nervous about welcoming urbanites to their rural homes. And some of us have been scared to sit in a coffee shop for 10 minutes, let alone a cramped economy-class cabin with no open windows for a few hours. That’s just the wrong kind of cabin fever.
At the moment, a major family adventure is to go for a walk around the neighborhood streets in a suburb of Tokyo. There aren’t any shifting sands or spicy aromas emanating from pushcart stalls. I can smell ramen, though, which was exotic to me at one point. And I can also hear people speaking in a language that used to be totally alien.
So maybe that is the trick for the jaded foreign resident like myself, who pines for far-off adventures but isn’t likely to be flying anywhere anytime soon. Perhaps we walk past a tonkotsu ramen shop now and get annoyed by the pungent smell of stewing pigs’ bones. However, somewhere inside, there remain the vestiges of a former, and less cynical self. That person, an innocent gaijin (foreigner), breathes it in and marvels at the culinary novelty. Perhaps the jaded resident feels stuck behind a gaggle of elderly Japanese women, walking down the street arm in arm and blocking the entire width of the pavement. Your innocent, inner gaijin, however, wants to take a photo to share this lovely image of unembarrassed and companionable old age (tell them not to, it would be rude). In short, a foreign resident can take a refreshing holiday by remembering that they are in fact living in a fascinating foreign land.
So I have been trying to treat the small details of Japan not as everyday and humdrum things, but as the exotic oddities they are to a newcomer. I am trying to re-inhabit the formerly shed skin of my curious gaijin who stopped to ponder the compact functionality of urban “parks” that contained no grass, or to admire the distinctive uniforms of Japanese construction crews, or to marvel at the efficient workings of a standing noodle restaurant.
I recently stood outside a local karate dojo, listening to the thumping noises within, rather than hurrying by. I visited an uncelebrated local shrine and rang the bell. This was highly effective at making me feel like a naive newcomer, since I still have no idea what combination and order of bowing, clapping and ringing is considered appropriate. I even tried to eat udon noodles with the chopsticks in my less-dexterous left hand in order to replicate my enjoyable food fumbles of old. This experiment had to be abandoned before I fainted from hunger.
If you’re feeling hemmed in by pandemic-era travel restrictions, it might be time to take a very modest holiday around the block, and to notice the little things that make Japan unique and fascinating. They are probably the reasons you came here in the first place.