About two years before arriving in Japan with the intention of staying, I came with the thought of staying for only a short time, but lingered from July through December of 1980. The visit was intended to determine whether or not I would be comfortable here for an extended stay. It all worked out very well, and I came close to staying on even beyond six months.
I had been studying Japanese for two years, and in the course of that had become good friends with a Japanese woman in Los Angeles, there for a year studying business. She was returning to Tokyo soon and encouraged me to go for a visit, even offering a place to stay. So, I coordinated some time away from work and study and set off for my first look at the place I had been dreaming of seeing beyond the pages of books.
I got to Tokyo in late afternoon and I can still remember the vibrant, geometrical green of rice paddies I viewed from the bus driving in from Narita, at that time only in operation two years. Most of those rice paddies are gone now, with construction and outward expansion erasing the incomparable green of rice fields in summer.
The green passed and I caught my first sight of Tokyo, a collage of concrete, neon, power lines and cars and trucks beyond counting. The people seen from above seemed as numerous and as busy as a stirred ant nest. Hot and humid, the climate was visible in the rolled up trousers and wilted tank top undershirts of bicycle delivery men, and the sagging ties of businessmen. My enthusiasm at these first-time heat steamed sights of Tokyo made me feel like L’il Abner on his first trip out of Dogpatch.
My friend met me at the bus terminal, knowing I would never find my way alone to her apartment one hour away. Not a big place, it was still comfortable for three people, and though not in the center of town, getting about was easy. At that time the stations did not have signs in English, but the simple kana characters were easy enough by then for me to read. In spite of my language study, speaking was hard and understanding even more so. My first thought was that no one spoke like the conversations in my Japanese textbook.
Those first few days in Tokyo I walked about the city awed by a neon dazzle that colored the faces of crowds, a concrete vastness of tall buildings and throbbing sound, little that matched the romantic descriptions in books and imagination. Instead, Tokyo was a sweeping deluge, a three-car crash on the senses. The city in motion was almost a disturbing sensation. New York quiet by comparison, Tokyo ground its teeth, shrieked and groaned, hissed and whispered in breaths sweet and foul. Overhead electric-colored signs flickered and buzzed; underfoot, a constant grumble and churning under the streets. The city whispered with a tactile rumble of life, and I reveled in the intoxication of it, standing on street corners basking in the merciless glow of fantastic urban blight.
In the weeks to come I learned to like sushi and pickled plums, but to hate nattô, the gooey but popular fermented soy beans. I lost myself in shops, stores and museums, walked for mile after mile, watched sumô and baseball, and attended festivals, performances and ceremonies. I bought the just-released Walkman and became a fan of singer, Sada Masashi.
My friend and her entire family treated me like one of the family, and introduced me to the Japanese countryside. Surely my introduction to the living Japan would have been far paler without each of them, and especially Kumiko. To this day she is one of my dearest friends and I thank her for the years of support.
In early January, 1981, just after the New Year holidays I left Japan and returned to Los Angeles, to work and to more Japanese study. It would be nineteen months until my return to Japan.