Japan: Old Friend, New Friend { Words by Dylan, Photos by Kat }

“Are you having a good time?” she asks.

I feel like this is always a more complicated question to answer than intended. But she’s not really asking me if I’m having a good time.

I’m in Japan with my wife who's almost seven months pregnant, trying to assure her that, yes, I am having a great time. I’m not complaining about the question. I consider myself blessed to be here, that I know the woman asking loves me, and that she’s the kind of person that would lug our unborn child halfway around the world and still be concerned with whether or not I am having a good time.

She bought the tickets a few days before we found out she was pregnant. When she called me at work and asked if we could take a quick walk, I knew what the news was going to be. We had been trying to get pregnant, but we were both convinced for some reason it would be more difficult than it turned out to be. We thought we had more time, and she had bought the tickets knowing that if we didn’t go before we had a baby, there was a good chance we never would.

Kat has been telling me she wanted me to go to Japan with her since we first met. The country has been instrumental in shaping who she is today, one of the strings that have resonated through her whole life. She first visited when she was in high school as part of the sister city program between Springfield, Illinois and Ashikaga City in the Tochigi Prefecture of central Japan. That was when she met her Japanese family, the Kurokawas.

It was years later while she was living in Colorado after graduating from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago that her mother sent her a clipping from the local Springfield newspaper advertising the need for English teachers in Ashikaga—a part of the sister city program she was involved with in high school. She had been looking for a new adventure and had always wanted to return to Japan, so decided to give it a shot. She ended up living there for two years teaching the students of Ashikaga school her native language as best she could while she learned about them, immersed herself in the culture, and took advantage of breaks in the school schedule to travel all over Japan and it’s neighborhood of the world—China, Cambodia, Thailand, New Zealand.

It was one of the first things we talked about when we met. My oldest brother, Aaron, had told me that she had lived in Japan, and told her that I had traveled in India when I was younger, so there was a natural conversation to be had. That was when she began telling me we should go to Japan together, and it always seemed just a little unrealistic to me. Little did I know that, although we would break up and she would move to LA and back and we’d have to start all over again from the beginning from different vantage points and positions, we’d eventually make it there.

We had a big decision to make on that brief walk around Milwaukee's Third Ward—Milwaukee Street to Buffalo, Buffalo Street to Broadway, Broadway Street to Chicago Street and back to the front door at 219 North Milwaukee seemed like an entire lifetime. The tickets were non-refundable, so we would be out a few thousand dollars if we didn’t go. But we were having a fucking baby! And we were going to go. We said good bye with a large, warm and world-embracing nervous hug, an excited little kiss, and kept our plans.

And so, after a long and not-so-linear courtship, getting married, a few big life decisions, a layover in Denver and LA, a flight across the world, and a short train ride, we arrived at a destination we had decided on when we first met. We walked out of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo at 5:30 in the morning and the first thing we encountered was a blind drunk businessman with his fly open stumbling past us. After taking a minute figuring out which way to go with the help of our iPad and a nearby map of the neighborhood, we walked south and encountered him again about 100 feet down the sidewalk. He was now on his knees, doing a face-plant on the sidewalk—completely still. He had obviously missed the train home the night before.

We found our hotel, the Sunroute Plaza, nearby and decided that with Kat’s ankles sore and swollen from the flight, we’d hang out in their comfortable lobby for a few hours instead of walking any more. We would have plenty of time for that later.

And then it was later...

“Are you having a good time?” she asked. I am an often-nervous man, a worried man. At that moment I was nervous that she was too worried about whether or not I was having a good time to have a good time herself. But that’s not really what she was worried about, not really what she was asking. Japan was a dear old friend of hers she was introducing me to for the first time. She wanted so much for me to love this place. If I didn’t, what would that mean? It would be devastating. She would have misjudged me from the beginning. Here was this beautiful being, this gorgeous and complex country we were traversing. If I couldn’t fall in love with it, maybe I was somehow missing something, maybe I was missing something in myself, not understanding a piece of her.

But I loved it—every single moment of it. The dizzying lights and largess of Tokyo, and the friendly faces that took us to an izakaya our first night. Seeing Mount Fuji pass by from the Shinkanzen, the small train heading up the mountain on the way to see it more closely, the cable cars once we got to the top, the smell of sulfur from the smoldering mountains underneath us and the black eggs I ate that had been cooked in that sulfurous heat. The bustling Tsujiki Fish Market, like a living, breathing organism and more organically complex and coordinated than any market I’ve ever been in. The excitement and comfort of seeing it with Yayoe and her husband, Kazuki,  for the first time (they have eaten sushi in the surrounding shops often, but had never ventured in). The way the more modern trains of the Tokyo train lines give way to the older trains out in the countryside, like traveling back into another dimension in a Hayao Miyazaki film. The famous Ramen shop Yosuke and his wife took us to in Sano (a city near Ashikaga). The way Ashikaga felt a little bit like home right away. The beautiful evenings spent with the Kurokawa family. The long and tortuous cab ride from the train station to our hotel in Kyoto during the second biggest festival of the year, and wondering if my wife or our cab driver was the more ornery person in the vehicle. The way the door of the cab opened on it’s own and the fact that every cab driver wore white gloves. The fact that everyone in Japan seems to have a uniform, wear it with dignity, and take great pride in their work. The temples and shrines of Kyoto! The mad crush of people thronging in to see them. The way all the Japanese children on field trips to the temples practice their English by saying hello to you, and then cheer when you reply in kind.

But, of all those things, the evenings with the Kurokawas stood out. Kat has always had a family I never knew, and I never really knew what that meant until I met them. We left for Japan on our first anniversary, and I came back feeling as though I'd been married all over again. I returned feeling as though I had family there, knowing that by marrying Kat I have married into a larger family than I had known the year before. It is taken seriously. The Kurokawas took Kat in and Kat took them in, and decided to take her husband to meet them when she married. We will most likely send our daughter there to visit them when she’s old enough, and hope to have Yosuke’s daughter here with us for a time (you’ve been seeing a lot of her in these pictures). Yosuke spent time here in America with Kat's mother, Amy, when he was younger.

Was I having a good time? Much more importantly, Japan filled my life with a bit more meaning. I now have a connection to the place and some of its people. We are a short time on this Earth, and the more meaningful connections we can make with people and ideas, the better we are as a human family for it. Two generations ago we each sent our young men across the seas to fight each other. When we make that trip today, it's to visit loved ones. The world often seems to be on the brink—the human family nearly unable to get along. But this can work. This will work.

The thing that strikes me most when I look at Kat’s pictures from this trip is that they don’t feel foreign. They were taken in another country, but they feel like home. We are often uneasy or uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, maybe even scared of “the other.” But there is nothing to be afraid of here. The other tendency is to romanticize others, to be overly in awe of the unknown, to fetishize the foreign. Kat does neither. Japan is a country as far away from ours as any, but the life you’ll see in Kat's pictures is the life of the everyday. She documents, as she always does, what the day felt like, the mood of the place and time. You'll see temples and shrines in the pictures below (it is the Kyoto portion of the trip, after all), but what's truly sacred in the photos is the way she captures eternity in the everyday, the profundity of the present.