14 hours is a long
stretch by most means, and it seems more so in a cramped bucket seat in the
middle of aisle 24 of a jumbo jet flying over the Pacific, through LAX and
heading for NRT. The impending vacation in Japan is attractive, but of course
you never looked forward to the flight – you want to be there, but the getting
isn’t much part of the fun. You’ve never been one for submitting
yourself to extended periods of discomfort, and while not torture by definition
there are many more places you’d like to be than the aeronautical limbo that is
unavoidable flying halfway around the world, with the leg cramps and snoring
and babies keeping you awake just enough to be continuously conscious of how unconscious you wish you were… but even
so, the requisite transit time between East and West is both necessary and, in
the scheme of things, a small price rendered over a relatively short period in
comparison to the experience in whole. To have the chance to experience Japan’s
distinct culture, you decided that the short and passing discomforts of the
trip to your destination are just a part of the bigger adventure that awaits

So your plane lands
at Narita and the aisle lights come on. You and hundreds of others get up and
stretch, shaking off blankets and crumbs and whatever else has accumulated over
the hours, taking your bags and shuffling down the length of the plane to your
first breath of non-cabin air. But the herd doesn’t break, and in your
plane-drained state being caught in that flow is enough to convince you that it
is headed in the right direction toward baggage claim just because you don’t
feel like thinking otherwise, but as an extra reassurance you hear and see a
smattering of languages not least of which is your mother tongue, urging you on
to get your stuff.

Narita is a
strangely vibrant airport. It is clean and streamlined, guiding those stopping
by with its stylized but efficient architecture, not so much taking you where
you need to go but rather holding your hand and leading you along. Of course,
like most friends, it will lead you astray from time to time, suggesting in a
veiled tone that you should stop in one or another place against your better,
financially-minded judgment, and the friendly “Welcome!” signs staring you down
along the way surely help the airport’s friendly nudge to, “just  drop in for a look.” It is a potentially
dangerous path, your wallet’s contents not exactly secure, but there are worse
thing than being enticed to spend more than you planned on designer clothes and
tax-free alcohol at the start of vacation.

Through the
gauntlet you go, dragging your things somewhat clumsily through the halls (but
definitely not in any sort of disorientation like that other guy over there)
headed for immigration, where trouble undoubtedly looms, but through which you
pass very quickly, surprisingly so, hardly worth mentioning in fact. Whew. Past
the gates, marking your entrance back into somewhere, you end up at the
turnstile of travel, where you find your luggage, intact, swirling around with
the others. You sigh upon heaving your belongings out of the pool, familiar
stickers and scrapes relieving you of some of the worry of traveling so far
(though you didn’t really expect trouble – it is your lucky suitcase after

Even with the
crowds as large as they are, things here rarely feel truly congested: Narita is
an international hub that successfully directs individuals on to their intended
destinations. You fly in, show your papers, spot your things, move through the
motions, bam-bam-bam one thing after another on the traveler’s checklist is
handily dispatched. Things move maybe a little bit faster than what you are
accustomed to, and things are maybe more crowded than you prefer, but there is
a smoothness underlying it all that makes the pace alright, maybe even a little
exhilarating. Travel is inherently stressful, but here where nothing seems to
stand exactly still and is always
moving at least a little bit forward, there is a giddiness in that stress
suggesting that there are fun, maybe even awesome things awaiting you and that
there is not a moment to spare. Within 90 minutes of landing, with all
possessions, all visas, and now, after spending only so long deciphering the
electronic and not-too-confusing ticket dispenser, all necessary train tickets
in hand, you move on towards the station, to make your way towards Tokyo.

Your reserved seat
ticket, what you bought in case the crowds you came in with got the best of
you, indeed served to alleviate some worry when the mass sure enough swelled to
greater proportions as it lunged for the doors of the train on opening. The
seconds-long window you had to navigate the people around you while the doors
remained open certainly added some unwanted excitement to boarding the train.
An adage about Rome or Romans briefly flickers into your mind as you don’t so
much as actively get on but rather passively submit to the push into the train,
still comfortable in the fact that though the rush is mildly alarming, your
ticket will get you out of it soon enough and to your seat – no worries.

Once on board, a
minor sense of accomplishment for besting the human obstacle coarse keeps a
smile lightly painted across your face as you consider how well things have
gone so far. The specter of stress is on you, but only as the result of worry
that is intrinsic to traveling. Despite having convinced yourself that you’ll
lose something, you haven’t yet, and
the lines keep on moving and so you do too, ever closer to your resting point,
for tonight anyway. That certainty of movement, unlike what you’ve experienced
elsewhere in your travels, is what keeps you positive; tired, sure, but
nevertheless in high spirits despite the thousands of miles you’ve come. A cool
drink, a reclining chair anywhere but on a plane, and an easy train ride to
your hotel should begin the process of depressurization, and that is precisely
what you face as you approach your seat.

Bags up; sit down;
beckon to the stewardess; wallet out; tea in hand, jingle of change and you
recline. You begin to relax and the lights outside of your window fly past,
creating an ambient landscape to accompany the lull of the train running
smoothly over the tracks. Further off in the distance you see the physical
shape of the city begin to take form, and you wonder what, in that giant mass
of blinking color and sky-scraping obelisks, there might be waiting for you.
Surely, a late dinner to rid yourself of the stomach-rumblings of one fed on
pretzels and microwave meals for the past 24 hours is soon to come, but even
that, in this country so Westernized but not at all western, has you wondering
exactly what the results will be. Sure, you’ve just sat on a plane longer than
you care to recall (and are again sitting even now!), and have traveled halfway
around the world to a foreign country with a very foreign language, but as you
are riding a train headed into the heart of Tokyo, and then to who knows where,
all you can think of are the possibilities that await you.

By Matthew Ketchum


My Japan

My Japan is a photography exhibition operating out of Tokyo. We were started soon after the
2011 tsunami, when our director sought out photographs addressing the question,
“What does Japan mean to you?” We have since received over a thousand of
photographs from amateur and professional photographers alike, and we have
selected a number of those to put on display at our exhibition at Nirvana in
Tokyo Midtown and in our new photography book. The money we raise from the
prints and books we sell is, after cost, given to the Japan Emergency Network
(JEN) NGO still working in the Tohoku reconstruction effort.

Our goal is of
course to raise money in order to help those who need it most after the tragic
events of March 2011, but we also wish to see this country make gains on its
own. Our pictures are necessarily of a subjective nature, with each person
having a different experience with this country as the next person. Through the
photography we receive and exhibit, we wish to create a more comprehensive, but
by no means definitive, image of this country that inspires so many, both
within and without its borders. By doing this, we hope to call attention to the
many wonderful aspects of Japan in order to attract interest, be it cultural,
educational, business, or anything in between. By showing the myriad personal
perspectives of what Japan means to many different people, we hope to highlight
all of the things that Japan can be, and through that help this country
overcome the difficulties that still face it and to become stronger than it was