Halfway through our stay in Kyoto, Adam and I sat at a long table inside a wood-paneled teaching kitchen, across from our classmates—a family of four from Dallas. At the head of the table, our sushi-making instructor poured a Japanese omelette mixture into a little rectangular pan. Holding a pair of long cooking chopsticks from the very top, she folded the now-firm layer of egg over itself until it formed a neat, oblong specimen that would later fit inside a sushi roll. Tomago, it's called. She smiled at us. "Your turn."
With as little coordination as I've ever done anything, I tried to roll my omelette over itself. Gripping the chopsticks at the very bottom for better control (a big no-no, I'm told), I prodded that thing into submission until it looked a bit like what the teacher had produced and a lot like a raggedy dish dowel. All these years of relying on forks, I realized, have conditioned me to approach my food with brute force instead of the dexterity and finesse required for graceful chopstick use.
If our instructor questioned the functionality of my motor skills at all, she didn't so much as raise an eyebrow. Instead, she smiled and nodded her head encouragingly, like a pre-school teacher congratulating a student for coloring with the crayons as opposed to sticking them up his nose. With the cooking chopsticks in her practiced hands, she picked up my hot mess of an omelette and placed it on a sushi mat. Then she rolled and pressed the mat around the scrambled clump, transforming it into a small architectural masterpiece fit for a professional-grade sushi roll.
If someone were to ask my advice about visiting Japan (not that anyone has, but theoretically), I'd tell them about our sushi-making class. Because it describes something we confronted everywhere we went there, that feeling of being like small children again—awkward and constantly distracted by new sensory input. Japan is a place of nuanced customs, subtle etiquette, and artful attention to detail. We quickly learned to give up our search for the familiar, a natural tendency in the midst of travel, and keep our minds malleable, our eyes open.
It took us about two days to figure out the subtle choreography of the Tokyo metro system. We learned, for instance, to keep our voices low. A stunning contradiction about Japanese trains (and most other public spaces, for that matter)—they're crowded, but practically silent. People don't use their cell phones and they speak in short whispers, if at all. I wonder how a Japanese person might feel riding the subway in Manhattan... From the top of the platform stairs, the metro terminals look like a ballet with a million dancers on stage—especially Shinjuku Station, which accommodates about four million people per day. People weave and chassé past one another with carefully executed movements, never bumping or shoving. Before we too learned the steps, Adam and I bumbled through each station, committing that touristy faux pas of stopping often and suddenly to change directions.
The Buddhist shrines too have their own intricacies, though they're private and easy to miss. They're shrouded by the multitude of tourists who pass through in search of history and spirituality, or maybe just a general sense of profundity. Amongst hoards of people, young women dressed up as geishas for the day, and the plumes of smoke from street-food vendors grilling meat and rice balls, the monks who pray and mediate in these places go about their lives. At Chion-in Temple, when the sun got low and the crowd started to thin for lack of photo opportunities in the dim light, Adam and I saw about three-dozen monks holding small, short rakes shuffle outside one of the shrine rooms. Bent over their tasks with great austerity, they raked the ground covering of tiny rocks at the temple entrance until it looked like the perfect picture of a zen garden. And we realized how much detailed work must go into maintaining this place.
We had that realization many times while we were in Japan—that so much thought goes into the smallest of details there. From the toilets that tell you, "Hello!" and "Goodbye!" and remind you to wash your hands to the grocery sections of the department stores, which display their edible products in glass cases like the ones Tiffany & Co. uses for diamond engagement rings—each floury bundle of soba noodles and cluster of vegetable tempura resting preciously on lace-like doilies, underneath flattering up-lights. The day we wandered into that department store, I purchased seared ahi salad and fried tofu with more exhilaration than I get from buying a silk scarf at the Nordstrom accessories counter. It was one of the many moments throughout our trip when I found delight in the unfamiliarity, the absence of parallels to my own home. Feeling completely out of place, after all, can be a very good thing.