By Karen Tang
Karen Tang is a student of Abraham Lincoln High School. She visited Japan in March 2018 as part of the Kakehashi Project, a Japanese Government educational exchange program.
My 2017 Kakehashi cohort and I are a rowdy group of San Franciscan teenagers enrolled in our high school’s Japanese program, so we thought that we had Japan figured out. As a high school senior, I had already heard plenty about Japan from my Japanese class. I knew about the amiable citizens, the almost too convenient convenience stores, and the derriere-spraying toilets. I live in San Francisco, a city in love with every facet of Japanese culture from its fashion to its history to its pop culture; our lively Japantown and scenic Japanese Tea Garden are a testament to that. For me, Japan was something familiar yet distant. I could do as much research as I wanted, but only until I experienced walking through the streets of Japan on my own two feet could I truly understand the unique culture of Japan.
Day one was surreal. After years of studying Japanese and looking at the country from afar through television, video games, and news pieces, I finally stepped on Japanese ground at the Haneda Airport. Oh wow, there’s kanji everywhere! I know what that one means! I don’t know what the rest of those mean! I probably should have studied more! The exhilaration of exploring a foreign country I’ve heard so much about lingered long after my initial introduction to Japan. What I heard was true -- the floors were spotless, the toilets were spectacular, the people were polite. To be honest, I was quite nervous to be an American visiting Japan. I knew that Japanese locals were generally polite, but I was wary that Americans have a bad reputation overseas about being the loud tourist-y types and are sometimes frowned upon. However, my worries were dissipated when I received bright smiles and warm welcomes from the Kakehashi Program’s lovely tour guides. They seemed genuinely glad to welcome us, and I was more than happy to be there.
Just the bus ride from the airport to our hotel revealed the busy, bustling life of Tokyo. Eye-catching neon billboards flew by, convenience stores and quaint restaurants lined the streets, and adorably tiny trucks drove past us. Men and women in stylish suits or overcoats hustled along the streets. Even a mere glimpse of the metropolis made the lively, hectic life of Japan clearly evident.
The need for all things convenient and efficient to allow this busy lifestyle can be seen everywhere, such as the dozens of convenience stores scattered around every block that sell everything from packaged lunches, notebooks, and white collared shirts. Our visit to the Honda Welcome Plaza demonstrated just how far Japanese engineers will go to make people’s lives easier and more productive. In the showroom, we took goofy photos posing on Honda’s sleek, shiny motorcycles and in their new, nifty cars, but those weren’t even the most impressive technological innovations.