Japan has left me speechless, and I mean that quite literally.
On the outside, Tokyo looks pretty similar to any major American city. There are tons of people, busy streets, skyscrapers, and the like. When I stepped off the train to this city that seemed so familiar, I was immersed into a city on mute. No one cursed at me to get out of the way or aggressively pushed past me to make it to work on time. No homeless person asked me for spare change, nor did I cringe at the odor from mountains of garbage lining any street corner.
Yep, I was definitely in a foreign country.
In the six days I was in Japan, the silence followed me. On the streets, on the subways, in the restaurants, from Tokyo to Kyoto, Osaka to Hiroshima, Japan was quiet.
At first the absence of sound startled me, awkwardly realizing why foreigners often stereotype Americans as loud and obnoxious. I noticed every conversation my friends had, every crinkle of snack packaging, every scuff of our boots on the pavement.
But when I stopped talking and started listening, I noticed everything. I figured out the train system and noticed the flow of traffic. I started to stay left, and was quiet on the metro, in respect of the businessman’s tired eyes after a long day at work.
On the train traveling to Hiroshima, I was seated next to an older gentleman who didn’t speak any English. When the beverage cart rolled past, he asked me if I wanted a coffee (I’m assuming) in Japanese. I tried to tell him I was all set, but he bought me a cup anyway. There was a complete language barrier, clearly, but as we sipped our coffees in silence, I had an idea. I took out my camera and began to show him the moments I had captured since arriving in Japan.
We communicated seamlessly without speaking, giggling at the pictures of my friends sleeping on the train and “oooohing” at my photos of the temples in Kyoto.
When the train came to my stop, I smiled at the man and extended my hand. Looking into his eyes as I shook his hand, I felt connected to this man that I exchanged a maximum of 10 words with over our hour-long train ride next to each other.
Silence often has a negative connotation in American culture. For example, the harsh shush of a librarian or a mother’s use of the quiet game to get her children to settle down. Silence in Japan felt peaceful and respectful. I never felt constricted or suffocated by the quiet; I felt free.
I wandered through a bamboo forest. I watched the sunrise at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto. I sat on a bench in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. I savored the freshest seafood and hot udon soup at local restaurants. The best moments of my time in Japan were muted.
There is only so much of a country you can see in a week, but I really feel like I experienced Japan once I shut up and started paying attention. That is certainly something I will carry with me as I head to Shanghai. Until next time!
Jamie Servidio is a junior majoring in journalism. In the next 112 days, she will be circumnavigating the globe with Semester at Sea, stopping in 12 countries along the way.