January 25, 2008.
Nominally staring out the window, I notice with a slight internal mutter that the sweat blooming from my skin has begun to pool visibly in the unintentional soil of my cotton t-shirt. On the upside, today's destination has almost caught up with me, and I am a forty minute bus ride away from the Keio Plaza hotel in downtown Tokyo.
It hardly seems relevant, but I've been here before. Not the explicit here, here, but I've been in Japan once before. I've even been in Tokyo once, but never on this road, never at this airport, never on this bus, never surrounded by this selection of timid faces. But I can't shake the overwhelming sense of awakening to a dream that everyone else has told me is a beautiful dream, and that I have diligently agreed is a marvelous dream... but that I am still dreading in a quiet way that lacks the personified certainty of an inner voice, but is instead a visceral trickle of stress meandering in and out of my conciousness.
I have been here before. So many times. Embarking on something while intentionally staring the ground because I doubt my courage to keep walking forward if I knew what awaited. Actually, and this is a secret of sorts, but that is what keeps bringing me to Japan. Its not a love of the culture, nor a history of wonderful and moving experiences across the Pacific, instead it is something more fundamental: I feel like I grow when I am here. The hot and heavy growth of uncertainty and doubt being slowly forged in a kiln of awkward situations and repeated failures. I am not in Japan to succeed, I am here chasing failure. Although I haven't admitted that to anyone yet, certainly not myself. Perhaps the distinction between being somewhere to learn and being somewhere to fail is a false dichotomy. The line separating the two sides evades me.
That was unnecessarily abstract and pretencious. Lets fill this concept in with a few pieces of my life.
The first of these learnings-by-failures was my maiden voyage to Japan. I was nineteen and it was the beginning of my sophmore year at college. At the time I was young, and old, but extraordinarily young. At this point my two great formative challenges had been going away for high school and college, but--as an entire generation is working hard to prove--those two experiences are not enough to refine adults from the raw substance of children.
It was a simple study abroad. Four months spent living with a host family, the Harano family, and attending what we euphemistically call an institute of higher learning. A second rate college in a country known for its low quality of undergraduate education. I admit its not a setup that evokes sighs of empathetic pity. It seems like it ought to be an easy path to follow: write the "learning about a new culture" application essay, pass an oral examination by revealing some prerequisite knowledge of ettiquete, jump on an airplane, live with a doting host family, take some classes, date some locals, and wander on home when the four months have finally elapsed.
And, looking back, it ought to have been that easy. It really shouldn't be hard for someone with nineteen successful years of living to rise to a challenge doled out in such easy to swallow portions. Instead, it was a rough patch. Things with the host family went a bit off the deep end for a while, there were periods of intense self-pity, and eventually there was the plot mandated resolution. The details will undoubtedly intrude into my current voyage, but lets let them rest in their shallow graves for a bit longer: even three years later I find myself excavating them quite frequently. Instead lets just summarize: I was challenged, I felt bad for myself, I got over it and have chosen to believe that I learned something. Sprinkle on a hearty dose of failure and you get the point.
So, studying abroad was my first failure-learning experience connected to Japan. The two other big ones both revolve around one fateful place: Beloit College. After returning from studying abroad in Japan, I wanted to keep working on my Japanese, so I spent the next two summers taking intensive language immersion courses at Beloit. Both times were perfect storms for the kind of angst ridden failure that can either teach you something vital about yourself, or can make you angry for a few months before something else moves up to the front of the queue.
I like to imagine it was the former, but its taken the subtle passage of time to perform the alchemists transmutation of meaningless frustration into life lessons. How to explain an enigma in a few sentences? At Beloit I spent a lot of time worrying about the wrong stuff, and I got burned out.
And then, as the punchline goes, I went back the next summer and once again worried about the wrong stuff and got burned out. Transmution requires both time and wisdom. One or the other is just never enough.
So thats my secret reason for coming to Japan: I am chasing the richest vein of failure in the darkest mines I know. When you want to get better at something, then you go do it over and over until you start to see broader patterns. But, when you don't know which road to travel, then the ruttiest one in sight usually provides the most memorable ride.
It seems that the bus has slipped deep into the bowels of Shinjuku while I stared out the windows to my memories. This long rectangle of America has only a few more impossible corners to navigate before we disembark into Japan. I don't want to keep ending my thoughts with unnecessary hanging questions, it seems quite a slight bit manipulative, so I won't indulge with one as I see the enormous Keio Plaza building magically gain contrast and suddenly emerge from the sea of soulless sky-scrapers surrounding it.