The room did have air conditioning, but it was no match for the heat from the Tokyo streets fighting at the windows. I could feel the sweat beading on my forehead. In the middle of a presentation that took me months to craft, I was receiving complete neutrality from my audience. Before me sat seventy Japanese high school students, all but one nervously staring at me. My eyes landed on the one student not looking at me, sitting in the back corner. She was quietly crying.
Smiling through the stress and severe jet-lag, I was reminded that being armed with a plan does not always mean success. Pivoting, I paused my presentation, pulling out a huge bag of candy I had brought with me from the States.
The faces lit up with smiles, and I made it a point that we would be working together as a team to make it through. Then I let them have a sugar rush, and we moved on from the morning.
On the last day of that first week, I was the one with tears in my eyes as I watched the student who had started the program crying make a speech in front of the class.
With a month ahead, I knew that each weekly program would require adapting my strategy, becoming an expert on each unique group of students from schools across Japan. Each week I led daily meetings with my new group of undergraduate student assistants to orient our tasks. During this meeting I listened to any feedback, making changes to ensure that they were as successful as the high school students. Working with many different backgrounds and personalities with people you have just met is a unique challenge, I will say that. But seeing the pride of the students’ as they reached their goals made all the sweat worth it.
Ultimately I made the decision to facilitate in Japan because of the curriculum. The program focused on inspiring Japanese high school students to embrace leadership, communication, and self-empowerment as tools in a rapidly changing world. My job was to bring the curriculum to life, encouraging over 200 students to have confidence in their abilities and passion for their goals. I was required to speak in front of large groups while leading the class toward a goal each week, overcoming language and cultural barriers that often required real-time strategy adjustments.
I accepted this challenge because I love pushing myself out of my comfort zone. For months before my departing flight I was nearly crushed by anxiety. The preparation was brutal, spending countless hours going in circles not really sure how to approach my objective. It is laughable to me now, that after one day of the program I realized the futility of those efforts. Teaching is hard. I have to give it to all the teachers out there, this one is for you. Bravo. Not only was trying to translate material into something interesting enough to grab teenager's attentions very difficult, I was working with a kids who did not speak English as their first language.
Also, I hate public speaking. Did you know that it is actually the #1 most shared fear in the world? Yes, even more than death. So I thought, what a better way to conquer that fear than traveling around one of the coolest countries in the world (IMO).
My biggest takeaway? Adaptability. The ability to change your plan on the spot, in front of 70 students, is a gem of a talent.
After landing at Narita Airport, I fumbled my way to Tokyo where I would be staying for the weekend for a few orientations.
When I say fumbled, I mean it. I will never forget stepping off the plane from the 9 hour flight and seeing allllll the symbols, colors, and people. Absolutely overwhelming. I had converted money to yin before I left Seattle, a decision of which I would 100% recommend if it is your first time. Sure, you can probably get a better deal converting in the destination country, but not having to deal with the fear of no "real" money along with the shock of trying to navigate is priceless. Using a lot of hand gestures and facial expressions, I managed to purchase a Suica and Pasco train cards (these babies can get you within walking distance of nearly anywhere you want to go, in and between, all major cities of Japan. absolutely insane), load them with some $, and be on my way.
Clutching my phone with Google Maps open as my beacon of hope I finally arrived at my first hotel in Tokyo, picking up my Sushi WiFi at the front desk. How cute is that? And also a total hack. Over the month, I spent 120 measly USD for nearly 80 gigabytes of data between my iPhone (helloooo Google Maps), iPad, and computer. Most of the schools I facilitated at did not have WiFi, so this became a life saver during classes (teacher hack, funny YouTube videos - laughing is a universal language!). But the point of this is, if I had used my regular cell carrier for data that value would have been much, much larger than $120. So, pocket WiFi is a must. A tiny little device that comes with its own battery back, could connect all of my devices at once, and most importantly of all, ensure that I didn't get lost while galavanting around Japan.
My first program was in Osaka. - the second largest city in Japan. I casually (not, I was scared) jumped on a Shinkansen aka bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. Perspective: that's a 310 mile distance covered in 2.5 hours. The jet lag had definitely caught up to me as I stumbled into my second hotel room. Now that I had some data to compare, I could confirm that each of my rooms would be as tiny as the next. There was a tiny bathroom with enough standing room for one person with their arms plastered to their sides, and a bedroom with space for a suitcase and a full sized bed. It made exploring the cities even more encouraging.
While in Osaka, I took a day trip to Kyoto by train to meet another facilitator that I had been introduced to my first weekend in Japan. Kyoto has many historical sites (as does all of Japan), in particular seeing that it used to be the capital. Between 500 year old rock gardens and the Fushimi Inari Shrine, we had plenty to do in a short 8 hours.
My next couple of programs placed me in or near Tokyo, and this was very exciting.
Tokyo is not what I expected in the sense that there were not robots everywhere, but that was about it. Less modern than I thought, but much more character. Each person I saw seemed to be on a mission, bustling through the busiest train stations in the world (I'm looking at you, Shinjuku... i.e. 3.6 million passing through each day) and were all dressed like they came right out of a magazine. The fashion in Tokyo was next level, and modest. Tank tops are a no unless clad with a white tee underneath. Flowing pants and bold makeup - which REALLY impressed me because Japan is humid. I'm talking South Texas humid. While I'm having a meltdown with a drenched shirt, the Japanese women have a glow. It's impressive.
Exploring Tokyo took my breath away, between digital art museums, alleys with hidden bars and restaurants that hold 5-6 people maximum, and sky rises as far as the eye can see. I was thankful for my train cards so that I could see all the sites and not once step into a car. An amazing feat.
My friend and I rode trains all over Tokyo, trying to explore all the neighborhoods we could (a near impossible feat, even with a month to work with). Among my favorites were Asakusa for the older Tokyo vibe and Shinjuku/Shibuya/Harajuku for the mod uptown vibe. These could easily be accessed by the infamous Yamanote line. The Yamanote line is one of the loops that travels around Tokyo, so you could ride it like a merry-go-round hitting all the spots your heart desires. Anything this convenient is going to have drawbacks, and the drawback of this line is that it is immensely crowded from sun up to sun down. I'm talking the type of crowded you see on TV when the train attendants are pushing people so that the doors will close. But, if you remember your next stop is only a few seconds away, it isn't so bad.
One of the most thrilling parts about Japan is how safe and clean it is. I'm talking a surprisingly low ratio of trash on the ground to people kind of clean. And this is considering the millions, MILLIONS of people commuting around every day in urban areas more dense than any I've ever seen. The Japanese have no problem stuffing their plastic bottles in their bags until the next vending machine presented itself with an attached receptacle. Random fact, but the Suica/Pasmo train cards I mentioned above? Those can be used on vending machines and 7-Elevens that are pretty much on every corner. So convenient. Japan has it figured out.
While in Tokyo, my friend Ben saw my Instagram stories and let me know that he, too, was in Japan. Ben is the drummer for Two Door Cinema Club, and they happened to be in Tokyo playing at Summer Sonic, a Japanese music festival.
YES. One of the coolest coincidences.
He got me a couple of passes for their show before the festival headline, and then for Summer Sonic. THANKS BEN! What an amazing experience to see one of my favorite bands while in Japan. Incredible.
One of my other coolest experiences: Teamlab. Digital art was something that I could not really picture, maybe a TV on the wall with cool graphics? Big deal.
Wrong. If you go to Tokyo for nothing else, go to the Teamlab exhibits. Any of them. I was floored at this interactive, immersive experience. It wraps you in and makes you forget that life even exists on the outside of your view. It is the definition of interactive.
You know when you're a kid and you have your imagination blown by something like Disneyworld or the idea of Santa Claus? This is what Teamlab will do for you as an adult. I don't even know how to talk about it other than saying that if you ever have the opportunity, DO IT. And make sure you take a camera.
I spent four weeks in Japan, and towards the end I definitely was homesick. However, it's like anything else awesome, I look back wishing I had done more. Even though I did a ton, I miss it so much and want to go back. I spent a lot of time alone, reflecting. So much of my life is a suspense right now, and I'm realizing that will always really be the case. Our plans are futile.
So as always, my advice is to embrace everything head on. We never know when we're in the best days of our lives.
Google Maps rules. That is all.
The Japanese are thoughtful, kind, and brilliant. They are some of the most hardworking people I have ever met, and that is a collective attribute. As a country they knock it out of the park. They are humble. They are polite. Teaching a bunch of teenagers was WAY. Way. easier than it would have been in the US. If this program was held in the US, I would not agree to it. But I would 100% do it again for the Japanese high school kids. They are incredible and I look up to them.
When I traveled to China, I regretted not packing snacks from home. I was not a huge fan of Chinese food, except for north China near Mongolia - those guys have got it going on. And thus, when packing for Japan, I thought I had learned my lesson and packed a bunch of Rx Bars just in case. It was in vain. Japanese food is TO DIE FOR. The sushi, gyoza, tempura, other stuff I don't know the name of...I had no issue. Except for one dish with octopus tentacles, I was one happy camper.
If you don't pack a certain pair of shoes because you think you'll buy shoes in Japan, think again if your foot is larger than a US womens 7.
Typhoons are real, especially in the summer, and they will catch you when you least want them. I bought an umbrella my second day, but it was no match for the storms ahead. My advice is to not try to fight the rain. Duck into an entry and wait it out, it won't last long. EARTHQUAKES. I felt three or four while I was in Japan, and they caught me totally off guard. I've lived on the West Coast for five years now and have only felt one tiny earthquake (knock on some serious wood), so this was new for me. But apparently they are so common there that no one worries about it. Humph.
When in doubt, take the picture. And if you have the means, by all means, visit Japan.