Perspective Top Travel

A little lost, but finding myself in Tokyo

One perspective of Tokyo's metropolis, as seen from the first observation deck of the Tokyo Skytree. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

TOKYO – A city that once seemed like a distant fantasy, Tokyo unfurled before me with its bustling streets, towering skyscrapers, and vibrant neon lights. I can imagine it all as if I stood there yesterday.

Because I knew from the moment my plane landed that I wanted to remember. 

The turbulence, the subtle feeling of my stomach dropping as we slowly descended, and the deep inhale I timed with the plane’s wheels touching the ground are moments I captured as precisely as I could. 

When I got to Japan, everything felt special. Every experience felt exhilaratingly new and precious. 

Thinking of everything that had to happen to get me to this city, I felt a rush of gratitude to Tokyo for being there.

“This is it. Remember it all,” I told myself on the plane.

At a shrine in Tokyo, fortunes written on strips of paper are tied to a rope fence. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

After an entire school year of planning and anticipating my trip to Japan, it seemed almost inconceivable that I was suddenly standing in the middle of it.

So as I stepped out of the terminal of the bustling Haneda Airport in Tokyo, a whirlwind of emotions swirled within me.

Deferred by the covid-19 pandemic, this summer was my first time in Japan ever. 

It was also the first time I have ever traveled alone: a summer of firsts.

I had always thought of traveling alone as a major life milestone. Even a year ago, though, I could not have imagined that this summer I would spend a month on my own, especially navigating a place wholly unfamiliar with my family seven time zones away. 

Yukata, lightweight traditional clothing, worn by some in Asakusa. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

In some ways, my expectations for what Japan would be for me were inexorably high. When I struggled to fit in in the United States, sometimes I took comfort in thinking that  perhaps my home isn’t “here,” it’s somewhere else.

I would instead think of Hawaii, or Japan, or somewhere people might better understand me and my background.

But ultimately one lesson I took away from my time in Japan  is that idealized versions of reality rarely live up to what you imagined. 

Tokyo was magical, but for other reasons. Predictably, it did not solve all of my problems.

My first steps in Japan were fumbling my way through the Haneda airport passport area. I did not have cell service, I did not know where to find the SIM card I had arranged, I did not know which line to go to, and a sudden blur of words in Japanese was disorienting. 

I realized how much of my confidence is built from the foundation of being able to communicate and understand in a language familiar to me. In Japan, I lost a lot of that ability, especially adjusting during the first week.

Under the bright fluorescent lights, I felt like I was about to collapse in on myself.

I struggled to explain what I needed at the “Help” desk, and eventually ended up in the wrong line. The person in front of me turned around and gave me a quizzical look. 

Twice, I was afraid I would never be able to get out of the airport.

In my panic, I lost a folder filled with printed copies of my directions at the passport counters. The gates locked behind me before I realized. I panicked even more.

But eventually, I got out of the airport. It was messy, but I did it.

And outside was a world I am so grateful to have experienced.

In Nishishinjuku, Tokyo’s “skyscraper district,” trees shade the outside of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

It was these moments that made traveling alone one of the most impactful experiences of my life. I took with me some assuredness in my ability to be resilient.

Now I panic less in situations where I find myself completely lost.

And looking back, I cherish how most of my memories of Japan are solely mine. Even in the moments I shared with the new friends I met, I felt like I was building a story that would be filled with the winding series of events leading me here – completely unique to me.

Colorful sake barrels along a gravel road entrance to the Meiji Jingu shrine in Yoyogi Koen, a five minute walk from Harajuku station. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

At every moment I was conscious of my thoughts, I compelled myself to memorize everything I could: the kanji on street signs, the feeling of finding my footing while walking down uneven stone paths entirely new to me, the growing humidity and the screeching of cicadas. 

Traveling, I was at first most eager to compare and contrast, to find everything new and the same as in the place I’d left.

Crossing at an intersection in a popular shopping district, hundreds of people pass an assortment of advertisements. One building has a rooftop garden. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

There were many things that were different. Some more obvious than others.

This was the first time in my life I had to navigate public transportation. In Tokyo’s sprawling stations, I learned to find a place to stand on crowded trains, listen carefully to the cheery voice announcing each stop, and calculate how long it would take to speed-walk from place to place. 

The weather, the layout of cities and the size of suburban family homes were all different from what I would have experienced in a summer at home. 

But when I arrived back in the United States and was excitedly asked, “How was it?” at first, my jet-lagged brain struggled to come up with an answer. 

Because it’s hard to articulate the observations that – when added up – slowly shifted how I see the world.

Being in Tokyo was an experience marked by geographic distances previously unfathomable to me, but also one that renewed the questions I had about my own identity.

Buildings in Nihonbashi, a commercial and historical center of Tokyo: all distances within Tokyo are calculated in relation to Nihonbashi Bridge. Today, the city serves as a bridge between Tokyo’s history and its modern developments. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

With the backdrop of this metropolis, I thought about the threads connecting my multicultural identity, my grandmother’s conversations in a language I still struggle to piece together and my newfound independence.

An overpass at night. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Tokyo, for me, was a tangible reminder of these questions.

My last week in Japan felt so much faster than my first. Maybe I stopped remembering to grasp some of the moments as they flew by me. 

But, as my time in Tokyo neared its end, I found myself standing in the middle of a gravel path in Yoyogi Koen, a park I passed by almost every day I was in the city. 

The gravel road was something I had never given much thought to until my last few days, but it’s a place where countless paths intersect.

The people surrounding me seemed to float through the trees. A web of branches overhead intricately framed the sapphire sky.

Each path crosses for just a few seconds. 

I thought about letting the echoes of my own footsteps be swallowed by the thousands of feet that would soon displace the gravel under my own.

Meiji Jingu. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Upon returning to the United States, I spent a week with my grandparents in Honolulu, my first hometown. The very first questions my grandmother asked were about Japan. I noticed her excitement, how she wanted to know each place I visited, see the albums of pictures I took that had been too big to send, and hear my impression of the country she had emigrated from 60 years before.

Her enthusiasm wasn’t just for Tokyo. It was for the mosaic of experiences that had shaped her and, by extension, me.

I realized that a sense of belonging isn’t solely about perfectly fitting in. Rather, it can be found in the continuation of the stories that I’ve been given to carry.

Handwritten messages in a mixture of Japanese and English on painted wood. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

That experience helped me process the snapshots of my summer in Tokyo: in her enthusiasm, I understood that her memories do not need to be neatly-packaged or perfect to be treasured, and neither do mine. 

My life is the fragments, the incomplete sentences, and the emotions that create experiences with dimension. I doubt that at 16, my grandmother could have imagined that she would be sitting on that chair, on that humid afternoon, listening to someone two generations away from her tell her about the country where she spent her childhood. 

In Tokyo, there was no one big revelation, no “magical” turning-point. Instead, it was filled with thousands of moments. The fragments of experiences I hope to always remember are complex, varied, and – a lot of the time – really random.

It’s seeing rooftop gardens in the middle of a forest of skyscrapers. It’s running through sudden rain that barely registers because of the humidity. 

In Tokyo, the one thing I know I have is dimension. 

I feel real. I will remember.

Annamika Konkola is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

See more from Annamika Konkola’s Discovering Japan:

Finding differences and similarities in American and Japanese high schools

Discovering the beauty of Japan

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1 Comment

  • Very nicely written. I understand how you felt; my first – and second – trip to Japan made me want to absorb every idiosyncrasy: each precious somehow. Having also lived in West Linn, the Tokyo of Clackamas county, I know the experience of trying understand the enormity of Tokyo provides an enormous challenge.
    Having your grandmother as a bridge between cultures, and eras of those cultures, is a special advantage; these contrasts are edifying. I hope you get back for a second trip some day!