As long as you’re uncomfortable, it means you’re growing.
I first visited Tokyo in 2015, and since the day I left, Japan occupied a place in my brain and my heart. It sparked curiosity, and I felt a strong desire to learn more. I had envisioned not only revisiting the touristic neighborhoods of Harajuku and Akihabara, but digging even deeper into the culture. When I was planning on returning in April 2019, I searched Airbnb rentals and found a place in Tokyo for $550/month, or about $18/night, which is lightyears cheaper than most accommodation in Japan. With little to no thought, I clicked “book.” Cool! I thought. I’m going to live in Tokyo for a month! With also visiting Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and the Fuji region, my time in Japan would total six weeks.
While six weeks hardly suffices as living somewhere, it would be a new form of travel for me. I usually knock places out in under a week and don’t sleep in order to cram in as much as possible. Japan would give me the opportunity to truly get to know a place and “travel slow,” as they say. I got to my apartment, jumped on the bed, unpacked my things in an organized fashion (instead of living out of a bag like I am used to), and slept like a baby that first night. Finally. My own space.
The first week or so was exhilarating. I was exploring new neighborhoods everyday and coming back by 6pm to cook funky Japanese produce and chill out. I was loving my new little green painted apartment and the privacy of my own room. After sharing hostels for months, this felt like a well-deserved gift.
However, after two weeks, I started to feel uneasy. I started to get panicky and anxious. I was calling this place home, but it was a lie. In fact, it was the furthest thing from it. Everything in Japan is unfamiliar to me, and to most of the world, really. It is one of the few countries who don’t cater to English-speakers so it felt like I was going weeks without having a conversation. My only use of my voice was repeating “arigato” when locals spewed quick Japanese at me. I obsessively listened to DuoLingo and while I was able to pick up a few words and phrases, carrying full-on conversations was out of the question. I didn’t recognize half of the food (granted I loved all of it), but some days I just wanted pizza. I started to feel lonely in this little boxed up apartment of mine, and even lonelier when I left it.
Japanese culture is frigid. Everyone is nice, but they don’t let you peak into their souls even one bit. I have spent more time here than anywhere else and I feel as if the only thing I’ve learned is that I can’t really learn anything. While it is still one of the most fascinating places in my eyes, it rings true that visiting somewhere is a lot different from living there. So, I’m here for a month, how can I make the most of it? What can I do to get out of my head?
I searched for comfort in any way I could find it. I was there during cherry blossom season and there was a beautiful tree right next to the Shin-Shibamata train station that I lived near. I named the tree “Roy” after Roy’s Peak in New Zealand. I watched her bloom as the days went by and eventually danced around her petals on the street when she died. I passed by the same blue door everyday and saw a different pair of worn-out work shoes out front. I envisioned a man who probably worked way too much, and when those shoes were out front, it meant he was finally home. Home sounded nice. I imagined dinner with his kids and wife and him watching his favorite Japanese sitcom, cracking open a tall boy of Asahi with his feet on the table.
I went to the grocery store often and experimented with Japanese yams and enoki mushrooms. Japan could make a mushroom-lover out of anyone, by the way. I learned soba noodles cook rapidly, tofu is an amazing protein, and adding sesame seeds to anything will make it better. I attempted to cook traditional Japanese meals, but some days when I was low, I cooked hearty pasta dishes and beef stews. I made myself a wagyu beef dish on Easter, my first holiday away from home. Next year, if I’m with my parents, I plan to make them that same dish.
One day I was walking around a fish market, paying too much for fresh tuna (worth every penny), and I was feeling particularly uncomfortable. I was singing quietly to myself to keep my brain occupied as I strolled around observing everything around me. I was in a band in NYC and realized I hadn’t sang in quite some time. I googled “karaoke” at 3pm on a Monday, and to my surprise, I found a place open in Ginza. I jumped on the subway, rented a room for myself, and thanks to unlimited beer and sake, I managed to spend four hours there. I found so much happiness in these karaoke rooms throughout the month. Sometimes I even snuck my laptop and used them as a work space to record new music.
I moved to Japan because I thought I’d get thrown into this bizarre culture, be accepted and loved, and find a new place to call home. It was a pipe dream, and I realized I had to make it home in order for it to feel that way. I created a comfort bubble in my quiet neighborhood of Katsushika by befriending the Sri Lankan man who worked at the 711, being the eco-friendly white girl at the grocery store who constantly reminded them I don’t need a bag (luckily Japanese people are overall very polite, but I think they wondered what the hell I was doing there), and forcing myself to live in the discomfort that was within. I started to think maybe it wasn’t Japan that was making me so uncomfortable, maybe it was me.
While my month in Japan was nothing like what I had envisioned, it was one of the best things I did for myself mentally. Personal growth doesn’t come from being comfortable. I felt emotional shifts that I don’t think I could have gained any other way. Some days I didn’t even want to get out of bed because I legitimately felt scared, and hiding under my blanket watching The Simpsons and drinking two-dollar 711 wine was easier. I had seldom felt scared traveling alone in the past, and out of all places I would least expect it, Japan would take the top rank.
Japan is a challenging place whether you’re here for five days or one month. While things like finding WiFi, places being open late, and viable options for public transportation are always on deck, making friends and conversing with the locals is a whole other ordeal. Japan is bubble-wrapped to be this quirky country with a perfect mesh of East and West, but what’s underneath all of that? Japan makes you face yourself and it dumbs you down a little bit. It will make the most confident person in this world feel vulnerable and small. We can glamorize the idea of living somewhere, but dive in head first anywhere and it will be uncomfortable as hell. But as long as you’re uncomfortable, it means you’re growing.
“I’m sure I could spend the rest of my life there, learn the language, and still die happily ignorant.” –Anthony Bourdain
Kaitlyn spent one month living in Tokyo, Japan.
Originally from New York, Kaitlyn was a musician/bartender before she left it all behind to embark on a solo round-the-world backpacking trip. She is passionate about preserving the environment, learning about gender equality throughout the world, eating anything that’s placed in front of her, saying hi to every animal she meets, and jumping off of cliffs into pretty blue waters.