In the US, this would be considered cultural appropriation, but in Japan, it was a friendly gesture to don a traditional yukata. I was excessively hot before we even left the house wearing the multiple layers of fabric. Not only is Tokyo always humid, it often rains which is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Of course, on this summer day, it was hot, humid, and raining.
We left as it started to rain for our reservation at the cat cafe. Ten steps out the door and I was already uncomfortable with the small steps required of the yukata. As I walked in a way that offered me some thigh-air, I exposed the under layer of the dress: a big no-no. It was a complicated, hot mess under there. We got to the cat cafe in Asakusa easily because the rain had not reached its maximum potential yet.
The cafe was small and there were 11 cats. None of them were interested in the many toys left out for them, and most seemed too shy or scared to want any kind of attention. It was nice to get to pet the few that I could, but I expected more face time with them. By the time we left, the rain had gotten more serious. Remember: it’s both ridiculously hot and humid in addition to this rain. It was a recipe for discomfort.
We walked through whichever shrine was under refurbishment to get to the Asakusa shrine. Before last week, I had no idea what a shrine was. I still don’t. They appear to be of the architecture style I think of when I think of Japan, and they have something to do with spirituality because it involves praying. Otherwise, I’m not really certain of the reason of significance of a shrine. (I’m about to Wikipedia it.) Okay, yes, it is very similar to what I thought except it usually involves some sort of dedication to a person or deity.
Even in the rain, this area was congested. I managed to get a few photos, but the circumstances were not ideal. After some waiting and waddling in the rain, we were off to an apartment building from which we would watch the Sumida Fireworks Festival. Not having any idea what I was getting myself into, we arrived at the location with great confusion.
Upon arrival, I was still very much so struggling with my yukata, and my introduction to the hosts of the event was to be guided silently into the kitchen to have the mother fix my outfit. On the way to the kitchen, she first tried to nearly undress me in front of a room full of strangers until they yelled for her to close the kitchen door. She spoke very little English, so her daughters were brought in to translate. One thing she could mention is English was how sweaty I was. I had never introduced myself because everyone spoke in Japanese about me to explain my presence, so I didn’t know how much or little this family knew about my situation. This seems to happen a lot.
There was a barbecue-type dinner party which took place in an open-air hallway of an apartment building. Our view of the fireworks was from their reflection in a window. When the festival officially began, we were able to fully watch from the roof. Much of the food was meat-related so when the hosts found out I was vegetarian, they sent every non-meat item my way until my table was filled with more food than I could eat.
Eventually, all the adults were at least buzzed, and all the men were very drunk. Because the only question I had been asked thus far in English was where I was from, the attendees called out “Pennsylvania” when they wanted to talk to me. I have found that this is a trend: more people are interested in where I’m from than what my name is. Some of the drunk men struck up a conversation about where I go to school and what I study. When the male host found out I go to Smith, he repeated (between a flurry of Japanese words) “Smith College!” every five minutes or so. He had attended university in the US, and his son had gone to Georgetown, so he prided himself in his familiarity with American Universities. He was very impressed that I attend Smith and also kept repeating, “Bill Clinton’s wife attended Wellesley.” In one particularly funny instance, he told me he was drunk, but someone thought he said, “Tr*mp.” To correct them, he shouted, “I’m drunk!” (I get a lot of Tr*mp questions unfortunately.)
We left soon after this with the giant crowd that had gathered to watch the fireworks. Although they can be very beautiful, I have never really enjoyed fireworks. Perhaps it’s because I come from an area in which people set off fireworks from their backyard every night for a week before and after the Fourth of July. It gets old very quickly. Though fireworks are more of a nuisance for me, I prefer to watch how others react to them. My host sister got so much out of watching the bright colors and lights. If they are bringing someone joy and creating wonder, then I mind the chaos a little less.
I feel like I’ve learned so much in the two weeks I’ve been in Tokyo. Having to work with and mentor 14 year-old girls who can’t understand me at my normal speaking pace has taught me so much about the nature of learning, communication, and myself. I have fallen in love with so much of this city; I already miss it, and I haven’t even left yet. I need to stop falling in love with places so easily; it makes leaving that much harder.