The Japan Diaries: How It Feels

Everything was happening so fast that there was no time to think beyond the present moment, and everything was new.

Japan Diaries
How it feels. Photo: Sylvia Yu

In the immediate aftermath of my semester abroad, I spent the first hour bawling in a Tokyo Airbnb until my eyes were gracelessly swollen. The ugly sort: sloppy tears, frantic heaving, quivering body, endlessly; it was as though I was in mourning. I fell asleep right after with my contacts still in, worn by my crying, so when I woke up in the early evening and peered in the mirror, I was comically disheveled like a cartoon villain. My nose was red, hair in disarray, eyeliner streaked so far it connected with my brow. I laughed at my reflection before remembering why I looked so ridiculous in the first place, and then it all resurfaced violently – I was never going to run to catch the 9:04 bus to Doshisha again, escape to the convenience store with my friends during our 10-minute break, or return home to find my host family’s slippers lined by the entrance, and their dog, Shelly, upon hearing my arrival with her perky Pinscher ears, clambering downstairs to greet me. It was the idea of never, and the uncertainty of when I was going to see the people and places I love in Japan next. What had become routine, habitual was now memory, and my universe in America I had to relearn and remember once more. 

Can two worlds ever be familiar at once? One is always forgotten for the sake of (re)inhabiting the other. Growing older, then, is defamiliarization of the home. I feel this also when I return to New York for a break after months at a time in St. Louis (where I go for university), and I am lying in my childhood bed, staring at the stickers we had pasted on the ceiling as makeshift stars among a finite sky. My father, usually the one to think of quick solutions with his boyish snicker, suggested that though we could not see actual stars in the city, glow-in-the-dark stickers from Home Depot were virtually the same thing. Five-year-old me was ecstatic, moved by his brilliance. Yet they are unsightly now, stripped of their light; the bedroom oppressive in ungodly hour. And if I extend my arm far enough from the top bunk, I can reach and therefore remove, but I keep them in their discolored state, peeling at the edges. 

The other day I was at a Japanese supermarket with my family, and my sister said, pointing, “Doesn’t that dog look like Shelly?” Before I turned to see what she was referring to I was foraging the shelves of my memory – where did I hear that name before? Why was it so familiar yet so removed? It was when I saw the Miniature Pinscher in its pink vest that I recollected: just seven months earlier I was sitting on the heated carpet in my host family’s living room, Shelly drawn to my warmth and asleep on my lap, doing some homework. The image, when I recalled it days after the end of my semester abroad, was sure to bring me to tears. When I recalled it weeks after I would still feel pangs of longing, a desire to go back to my Kyoto home. 

Months after, in the supermarket, however, I gave Shelly’s lookalike a fond glance.

“Oh, yeah. It kinda does,” I said before turning away, and that was that. 

Some days I will wake up from a nostalgic dream and remember that not too long ago, I’d be in my bedroom in Kyoto with the striped pink and yellow wallpaper, and an old wooden desk on which my host sister etched “Risako was here” when she was in elementary school. Sometimes on my commute a song will come up on shuffle that I had listened to a lot while I was abroad (Gita even played one on her tuba – Kenshi Yonezu’s “Lemon” – at the closing ceremony and we all sang along; it was the go-to at karaoke). On my backpack are a few charms from the time I had a predilection for those Gashapon capsule machines—I spent an unspeakable amount of 100-yen coins on them—and an LED keychain in the shape of a cop car. “If you push it,” my host dad, a policeman, said, presenting his little gift for me, its plastic reflecting under the kitchen lamp glow, “it lights up. It’ll keep you safe when you’re walking home at night.” I have Purikura photos stored inside my phone case, and in the back pocket of my journal are some pictures that I printed at the 7-Eleven by my host family’s house for 30 yen each. Occasionally my host mother will text me, and we will have a conversation for a little bit about how we are doing and recent events from our respective sides of the world, and then life will continue. 

For a period of time I was not sure of what to make of a semester abroad. To me, it was a form of escapism (academic, social, and familial responsibilities in America did not weigh me down nearly as much because I was so physically removed); it was life expedited in four months (one month we were meeting, establishing a home and a family, the next few we were growing more intimate, more comfortable, and then just as we’d reach a high point we had to say goodbye) that it did not feel real. Everything was happening so fast that there was no time to think beyond the present moment, and everything was new; it was like being a small child, filled with endless wonder. I wanted to do it all, see it all, and remember it all somehow.  

Two weeks ago, one of my friends from abroad visited me in New York for the weekend. In an attempt to relive Japan, we sung for hours in a karaoke joint like we used to, all the same old songs, though the circumstances were a little different: we were in Midtown, it was not the early hours of the morning nor after classes. For a moment, however, I felt as though we were in Kyoto again. Maybe it was the Calbee potato chips littered on the table and bottled green tea, our repeated attempts to keep up with the Japanese lyrics that quickly appeared on and off the screen. The semester was returning to me in fragments. And I think I am looking for reminders, proof, always, that those four months were indeed real, those feelings of a seemingly ongoing curiosity and excitement, and perhaps a genuine happiness, so I could revisit them again and again. 

When I was younger, there was a recurring dream I had. It involved the fleeting summer, a pink lemonade sunset, and some mason jars. I was running along the Coney Island boardwalk with an open jar in hand, seizing bits of the atmosphere and salt from the sea, then quickly sealing it with a lid so that the summer could not escape. Summer in tangible form, apparently, is a peachy shade with the texture of sand, radiating an everlasting warmth. In the colder months when I was desirous of the summer I had forgotten, I would reach for the jar and open it just slightly so I could feel the humid air against my cheeks, hear the light laughter of children alongside the lull of the ocean. The warm weather was lingering inside, always. 

Sylvia Yu


Sylvia is likely wearing a black beret. She's a fan of ruminating, admiring everyday design, and shopping at the dried fruit aisle in Trader Joe's (in no particular order) - sometimes all three at once.

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