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Jumping Into Japan

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Window washers clean skylights at Tokyo Narita Airport. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Yesterday, I flew to Japan . . . with a three-year-old.

My neighbor never mentioned his name (neither did his mother), but he was angel-haired and angel-behaved, strapped into his car seat with only intermittent breaks for some 14 hours. He wore red flannel Elmo pajamas and had a preference for fruit juice and Thomas the Tank Engine.

I remember the pajamas well because after the first eight hours, I was envious. Maybe flannel PJs would have helped me sleep better as I shipped my body halfway around the world by way of Alaska on the longest afternoon I have ever lived. I left Washington, D.C., at noon and arrived in Japan at three o’clock, but my body felt slightly older.

As we flew west, the sun never moved for 14 hours. Japan may be the land of the rising sun, but for me, it is the land where the sun never sets. All the while, I was lost in the artificial night of window shades pulled down and the blue glow of digital entertainment.

Though my real entertainment was the soundtrack offered by my three-year-old neighbor, whose in-flight commentary was far more informative than the scratchy intercom mumble of the pilots. He added distinct wooo-woooo sound effects with every airplane turn and turbulent bump and cooed nonstop as we began our descent. (Don’t you wish the pilots did that, too?)

Only he was brave enough to shatter the darkness by slamming open his window shade and announcing, “I’m flying! Mom, we’re FLYING!” Then he pointed down to this new land of Japan, and shouted, “Japan! Japan!” I gazed across at the shore below.

There was no horizon, only the blank blue-gray of glassy ocean blending into the blue-gray of a gauzy sky. White veils of waves met a brief coastline and then suddenly, a grid of green square fields. Each was geometrically precise, like the squares of a watercolor tray filled with varied mixed tints of green and yellow. As the plane dropped lower and lower, the muted colors turned brighter.

My 36-year-old mind told me that I was staring at Japan for the first time. My three-year-old neighbor vocalized the cartoon bubble over my head in two words, “WOAH. JA-PAN!”

I have traveled to many places in the world but never to this country. Instantly, I got that marvelous travel feeling of total newness and impending excitement. Here was Japan—all the rumors and movies and dictionaries and encyclopedias were true. I stared at the fast-approaching island of Honshu through the window like one politely stares at a recently arrived relative. “Nice to meet you, Japan” I thought.

Narita looks like Dulles, really. Outside was the same August air—warm, a tad humid—but there was something slightly different. For ten minutes I wondered what it was and then it hit me—this airport was so quiet: practically noiseless.

After customs, I was met by a man with a sign and my name on it. He bowed and I bowed back, silent but smiling.

“How was your typhoon?” he asked, smiling back. I thought a second before realizing he was asking about the very minor wisp of a hurricane that passed by us on the east coast this past weekend.

“My typhoon was fine,” I answered, unable to explain the details of America’s meteorological media hype and how what happened last week wasn’t really a typhoon at all. Not like that typhoon in the second Karate Kid movie where that whole Okinawan village gets blown apart, I thought. And then I cringed—a few minutes in Japan and I was already mentally referencing Hollywood. Truly, I have a child’s understanding of this country. Indeed, a flight halfway around the world has reduced me from confident adult traveler to a big helpless baby.

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Tokyo skyline at sunset. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Hours later, now tucked away and secure in a hotel in central Tokyo, I still feel this way. I have arrived in Japan, and now I am also a three-year-old child. Suddenly I cannot read. Suddenly I need an adult to meet me and help me get on the bus. Suddenly I am awkward with food (I could really use someone cutting my dinner into smaller pieces to make sure I get it in my mouth). Suddenly I am cumbersome in stores—accidentally knocking things from the shelves and then totally unable to say that I am sorry.

Like my fellow passenger, I am a three-year-old saying, “WOW” and “WOAH” at every step. I walk about the heady streets of Tokyo in total awe, stopping mid-sidewalk, like a stone in a river with schools of trout swarming on either side. I look up only to realize that there is another higher layer of buildings behind the ones I thought I was looking at. Shining signs shout words at me, in red, blue, yellow, and black. That one is just a square, but this one looks like a collapsing tent and the other one is a dancing check mark.

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Traffic guard holds out his red baton. (AE/NG)

Like a curious child, I stare at everyone I see. Like that policeman or crossing guard or whoever he was, costumed like a Lego person living in a Lego village, complete with baby blue plastic helmet, holding a glowing red light saber and directing traffic. I can’t help but rush over to look closer.

“Can I touch it?” I ask, using an earnest facial expression and my index finger.  And I touch it just to make sure that I am not really in a science fiction movie or a Lego town. My mind has no word for this new object. I can only call it the red-light-pointy-thing-that-looks-like-a-light-saber.

I am a three-year-old, overwhelmed and excited and then exhausted. Like a three-year-old I tuck myself into bed telling myself that’s enough excitement for one day. Eyes closed, my brain still races with visions of the colored streets outside.

Good travel reduces us all to three-year-olds, I think. It awakens our purest sense of wonder and the childlike curiosity that first sent us out into the world. I have been in this country only a handful of hours, but already, I find Japan to be the traveler’s antidote for sameness. Everything is awesome and amazing in the original sense—I am truly awed and amazed.

The more you depend on your destination, the more it means to you. That’s my verdict after six hours in Tokyo. I am totally at the mercy of the local culture here and thankful that the Japanese have a very high tolerance for three-year-olds like me.

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Young Japanese girl in the bus line at Tokyo's Narita Airport (Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

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