Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Random Memories #61 - First Impressions

All those people behind us? I didn't see any of them.

One of the questions that my students loved to ask was what my first impression was of Japan. Any time that this question was asked, I wondered what answer they would have expected. It made me think about what I initially expected when I arrived in Japan. The fact of the matter was that the circumstances under which I entered were so unique, as my readers know, that I wasn't really attending to the idea that I was in Japan. That was incidental and a mere backdrop to the main event.

My guess was that my students were expecting things like my noticing that the people were smaller (both shorter and thinner) or something about the architecture or the public transportation - perhaps praise for the food. The truth is that I don't think they thought much about the circumstances under which a foreign person forms an initial impression of Japan. I think my students were imagining a wide-eyed foreigner looking around Shibuya or Roppongi, likely dazzled by the stores, the lights, the noise, and the vast oceans of smartly dressed people.

The truth is that my first impressions were formed largely by a few relatively mundane places - the airport, the Skyliner which took me from the airport to Kita-senju, and my boyfriend's apartment. I took an American airline from Pittsburgh to Tokyo (with a stop in Detroit) so I didn't have the bi-lingual announcements in English and Japanese nor the polite Japanese air hostesses that one experiences on JAL (Japan Airlines).

My boyfriend at the time, and future husband, had flown in on JAL and wrote me a 16-page letter describing all parts of the flight experience and it included having to wait for every announcement to be translated before he knew what was going on. He also mentioned that the food was rather weird in his estimation and that he went for the "safe-looking" parts like the rice and anything that resembled meat. For me, it was packages of cheese and turkey cold cuts as well as boring American food.

My plane was nearly empty save a neighbor who was reading some sort of engineering information on water reclamation or some such boring thing. He was from Hong Kon and I didn't even lay eyes on a Japanese person until I stumbled off the plane, bleary-eyed and feeling disgusting after a 14-hour flight and a sweaty run to reach my connecting flight in Detroit on time. The first Japanese person that I spoke with was the officious, quiet, and business-like customs man who inspected my passport as I dragged my suitcases behind me on a trolley.

The first thing I noticed though was not Japanese people, but rather my boyfriend - who as those who know the story know I saw in the flesh for the first time in that airport. He was surrounded by Japanese people, of course, and they gawked at us as we had a five-minute hug, but I only know they were there because of the pictures that were taken. If those pictures didn't tell me that we were being looked at and crowds of Japanese folks were around us, I wouldn't have known.

So, there was actually far more that I didn't notice than I did. The truth was that my first impression of Japan, the very first thing that I actually noticed, was the smell in the airport. It was remarkable because it wasn't the sort of thing one usually encountered in the U.S. outside of a specific restaurant. The airport had the aroma of cooking fish. My guess is that it was wafting from some restaurant located not too far from where we were or that some errant ventilation shaft brought in a whiff from some place.

When I relayed this memory to students, they were surprised. I think they were also disappointed. It was hard to explain to them that my first impressions were formed in a type of blindness to my surroundings that most people were unlikely to encounter. In fact, it was nearly impossible to make them understand.

Beyond that very first impression, there was the noises. On the Skyliner, I noticed the rattle of the train on the tracks. I'm pretty sure that it was not unique and that I only noticed because it was the first time I'd ridden on a train. Again, I was far more aware of the way it felt to have my boyfriend's arm around me for the first time and how he accidentally grazed one of my breasts with his hand (truly, it was an accident - he's not that sort of guy).

The final lasting early impression was again, related to a smell. The moment you walk into any Japanese apartment with tatami mats, you will smell the scent of the straw. It's possible that the age of the straw mats has something to do with it, or the number of windows that are open or how long they've been open, but that smell is very distinct. If you're around it every day, you stop smelling that tatami scent, but if you go away for awhile and come back, it's there again.

That scent, which is earthy, but also slightly musty, starts to permeate your possessions if you store them in the same room and don't routinely move them around or wash them (as you do with clothing). We kept our suitcases in the highest section of our bedroom closet, but when we visited home, my husband's father said that he could smell a familiar smell that he'd first experienced when my brother-in-law (who also lives in Japan) came home for a visit. Despite being stored a good 6 feet above the floor, the smell of tatami made its way into our suitcases as they so rarely left the room.

So, my first impressions are not glamorous, exciting, or particularly flattering, but they were very real. They are about smells and clattering noises. I think my friends back home expected me to talk about my impressions of geisha, zen gardens in temples, and Mt. Fuji. I think that's because most people experience a foreign culture at a distance through pictures or, at best, video. The full sensory experience is one they don't tend to imagine and Japanese people, who are inured to the scents and sounds that are so much a part of their daily life, don't expect those elements will form the first impressions a foreigner may have. 


  1. What a wonderful picture! It so perfectly captures that moment for the two of you.

    Smells are a big part of my Japan memories, too; I'll try a new kind of room spray, for example, and the scent will be identical to that of the laundry detergent my host family used twenty years ago. The smell of tatami (or anything close) brings me back in a snap. I relish these little unexpected remembrances.

    1. Thanks for your comment and compliment, Hirayuki! My husband's brother took pictures of us. We were so involved, as I said, that the only way we'd have these memories was if a third party who was more composed was a part of the experience!

      In fact, I am immensely grateful that my future brother-in-law was there because there are a lot of memories I wouldn't have if not for his pictures!

      And smells are so potent, aren't they? I relish those memories as well!

  2. That is such a sweet picture. The joy in the photo practically jumps off the page!

    This entry was fascinating. I can't imagine what an experience that must have been for you--going to a new country AND meeting your (to-be) husband at the same time.

    And I entirely agree with you two about smells. Whenever I was asked about my first impressions of Japan, I always talked about the talking vending machines and the mechanized pig outside the ramen restaurant I went to on my first day of work.

    What funny is that, without really even being aware of it, my memories of the scents of those places also came to mind. It really reinforces how importance that sense is to the memory.

    What I remember most from my first days in Japan was the smell of humidity. As someone who grew up in a place where it rarely outside of winter (the Bay Area), I hadn't realized that rainy days could smell so sweet. I remember trying to buy a coffee from a vending machine near my house on my way to work, the smells of the cold coffee and hot pavement wafting all around me.

    What a fun entry! Thank you.

    1. Thank you, pigonthego. There's actually an enormous story behind our relationship and our first month together (which was in Tokyo). I've asked my husband to reflect back on what he felt in that moment and he thought, "finally!" We were both incredibly happy, but also relieved that the agonizing wait we'd endured for 8 months was finally over.

      The smell of the pavement there was one I hadn't thought about, but I loved the smell of hot pavement hit by summer rain. I don't know if it smells the same here because I've never lived in a city in the U.S. and it rarely rains where I am now.

      I think we rarely talk about the smells of places because it's something that is harder to convey in words than sights or even sounds, but it's one of the most evocative sensory stimuli.

      Thank you for commenting and sharing!

    2. You both just brought me right back to Tokyo, talking about the smell of rain hitting the pavement. I've lived in a lot of places and Japan is the only one where it smells like that. What a sweet memory.

  3. I went back and read your post on how/why you went to Japan in the first place. What an amazing and poignant love story! How blessed you and your husband have been to have trusted your instincts!

    As for olfactory memories: I cannot quote the research but I recall having read somewhere along the way that one's memories of smells are one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, ones that people have. Perhaps it is because these originate in a 'more primitive part' of the brain. Or because humans are generally oriented more towards the visual world than the one of aromas, etc. Ie more of our brains are devoted to seeing things than to smelling them. If/when something 'smelly' catches our attention, it can really form a lasting and powerful impression. Often one that is hard to articulate as readily as something that we have seen.

  4. My first impressions of Japan involve scrambling around Yokohama Station to get a taxi at 11pm in extreme humidity because we thought we'd missed the last train for the night. We hadn't, though we didn't realise until the next day that we'd have to get a different train to the adjacent station where we could have gotten the train we wanted - very annoying waste of money.

    Fun fact: most Yokohama-line trains don't go as far as Yokohama Station.

    I also remember being disappointed by how shabby and utilitarian the customs-and-immigration/arrivals hall at Narita looked, though I guess that's fairly standard the world over. Why are departure halls always so much prettier, considering it's the arrivals hall that's supposed to be all welcoming? The Narita Express was real shiny, though.

    1. Oh, dear, I remember that business about most of the Yokohama lines not going to Yokohama! That was maddening!

  5. My first memories of Japan involved the huge throngs of people one would encounter at train stations or in their surrounding areas of shops, restaurants, clubs/bars, etc. Never having been to NYC or other such large urban areas in the USA I was shocked by seeing so MANY people in one place. Although they were orderly and respectful of others, it was still a bit intimidating at first. After a few times, I got used to it. Except for the pushing onto and inside crowded trains and subways I actually enjoyed all the energy these crowds seemed to generate.

    1. I'm an HSP as well as an extroverted introvert so, I don't shy from the crowds, but will become biologically overwhelmed by them eventually.

    2. I enjoyed being in places like Shinjuku, Shibuya, or the Ginza on an occasional basis.

      After a few months of living in Tokyo, I grew to hate the early AM and early PM commutes on the subways and the trains. Especially in summer when it was hot and humid. Those were the pre-air conditioning days in Japan! Had to endure these, however, in order to get to my 9 to 5 job as a teacher.

  6. I've been a long-time reader of this blog - this is my first post. I just wanted to see that what I just read was brilliant.


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