The Last Train

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I was not expecting to love Tokyo as much as I did.

In Japanese class back in the States, my teachers always emphasized through topical news videos and fun facts sprinkled throughout lessons that Tokyo was a busy and crowded place. This knowledge was actually a factor in my decision to study abroad in the Osaka/Kyoto area instead.

So, when my friends and I planned to visit another friend in Tokyo over Golden Week, I felt anxious. I imagined being on the last train in Ginza, squeezed and squashed until my insides exploded. The theoretical confined space made my stomach churn.

Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted to visit Tokyo, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was also nervous. The funny little secret they don’t tell you about anxiety is that the broadcaster of conceptual disasters in your mind is incredibly underqualified and misinformed. But, you’re on air and the camera is rolling and this is the script you have ready so even if rationally you know it’s true, do you have what it takes to go off script?

Something I’ve found that is helpful to re-center your mind while experiencing a bout of travel anxiety is finding a large window. At the Itami Airport, I sat next to a mother and a little boy who excitedly watched as the workers in yellow jackets loaded our luggage into the plane. He jumped up and down and pointed at the tiny figures shuffling about. His running around broke my chain of anxious thought and I realized, this kid and I are having such different reactions to the same flight…why?

Combatting anxiety requires one constantly reminding themselves that whoever gave that internal monologue to the mental newscaster never fact checked a single statistic. You will not inexplicably become lost if you follow the signs, you will not get kicked off the plane from a freak accidental overbooking, and you will be okay no matter what because there is nothing wrong with asking questions. Lastly, you will not explode on the last train in Ginza station.

For me, realizing I was even anxious at all was a struggle because the internal monologue I was telling myself was based on things I’d heard and internalized about Tokyo being hectic. But if I’ve learned anything throughout this trip is that you have to let the world and people show you their truth. You cannot control everything and who are we to mandate that anyways? It’s scary being in a place where you can only communicate so much. My friends and I often joke how it feels like being a little kid all over again. The barriers, the way what you want to say builds up in your throat and your brain goes into overdrive trying to find the words in your very limited vocabulary, the way you want to show people who you are and connect but it’s difficult to do so when your main tool for communication is out of reach.

All these factors can make for a scary experience, but the truth is what you fear is a fiction because the reality of the situation has yet to even be.

As I looked out the window and did some breathing exercises, listened to the kid excitedly explaining the scene of the plane and staff to his mother, I realized even if my vocabulary is limited, at least I can understand this kid’s feeling. At least I can read signs and ask for help. It is okay if you don’t know everything ahead of time while abroad, in fact, its guaranteed to happen.

I’ve learned a lot about the world and my place in it while in Japan and I’m very thankful for this opportunity. I don’t think I would have learned the source of this anxiety if it weren’t for my trip to Tokyo. What I’ve observed is that I was anxious because of a lack of control. But the reality was that Ginza station was easy to navigate when I did finally get there. The last train we took to our AirBnB was spacious and calm. Everyone kept to themselves. In my mind, I’d always catastrophized that train, but the thing about Japan is that although it is more densely populated, people have a private psychological space to retreat into and so even a crowded space can be calm. You will be alright.

What I’ve learned from both the little boy and my close friend is that approaching a situation with excitement can transform our anxieties into adventure. If we focus less on “what can I control” and more on “what can I learn”, your anxieties will start to feel a lot smaller. If we approach life with curiosity, then we set ourselves up for success.

Adventure and curiosity are my new tools for navigating anxiety, and I have my experience in Japan to thank for that!