When I told my friend Rock I was leaving for Japan, he told me to cut all ties with everything I knew. Rock had, some time ago, left to wander around the Middle East for a while. This career-interrupting retreat of self discovery I’d flung myself into is not uncommon in my circle of friends. Forgo a phone and internet, he advised, and get deep down inside yourself. I had no intention of following this advice but, it turned out that getting deep down inside myself was something I couldn’t avoid.

I woke up in a place where mysterious glyphs covered the cityscape. But every now and then my eyes found words written in letters I knew. This piecemeal comprehension became my new reality. I walked excitedly in the shadow of asymmetrical skyscrapers and wandered into red-gated shrines. Each new discovery made my soul reach out to those around me, to share the overflow in the way I was used to. But I didn’t speak the language of these people.

Here, no one looked at me. They barely looked at each other as they moved between work and home. I floated along in a sea of people bigger and more orderly than any crowd I’d ever seen, completely isolated. Once, I crumbled at Tokyo Station. I was hopelessly lost and everyone who passed by ignored my attempt to make eye contact and ask for help. After an hour I sank to the floor in frustration and exhaustion and sobbed. The never-ending march simply stepped over me and continued about its business.

Am I pretty, or smart, or a teller of corny jokes, if there’s no one around to prompt or validate those notions?

There were moments of intense disconnectedness. I’d be sitting at a bus station surrounded by salarymen in suits, all absorbed in books with brown paper covers, so no one could know what they were reading. And I’d feel like I had faded. I swear, for an instant I was no longer there. It was developed-country anonymity piled on top of an unforgiving language barrier. And don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t exactly painful. It just was. I tried to enjoy the swirly, dreamy, rootless state of cultural and existential in-betweenity that I was lucky enough to be getting in on.

And really, it was quite nice sometimes, like a scene in a movie. You’re staring out of a bullet train window into a rainy night at city lights whizzing by. Some hipster anthem of alienation is streaming into your ears. And you know there’s no way you’re going to run into anyone you know. Because you don’t know anyone here and you probably won’t either. Not in the way you’re used to knowing people. Not when you’ve been spoiled by the openness of a people with souls close to their skins, as a friend of mine puts it.

Island people like me tumble all of themselves onto others upon first meeting. On buses back home, women will show you their x-rays or tell you all about their pregnancy. Taking any form of public transportation means signing up for vigorous discussions about politics and relationships and life. And, hell, it can be obnoxious. But I’ll pay money for it now that people are mere passing forms to me, with little betrayal of humanity lurking beneath their robotic orderliness. That is, until you catch them drunk and stumbling after karaoke on a Friday night. All of the barriers come down then.

I like to think I’m glimpsing for the first time how little one really is by oneself. I mean, you know in theory how important human interaction is to your identity, but you really begin to understand all of this when human interaction dries up. Who is this “me” I’m supposed to be finding anyway? Such an exercise seems so mundane now. Am I pretty, or smart, or a teller of corny jokes, if there’s no one around to prompt or validate those notions? Are those things somehow written into the core of who I am or are they merely created through innumerable encounters with others? I mean, do I even exist if everyone looks straight past me?

So maybe this is an opportunity for evolution, this sudden crumbling of constructs I hadn’t even known I was resting upon. Oh Japan, some of your Buddhist philosophy seems to have seeped into my skin. How clever you are to kill my ego a little at a time, so that I get a chance to see what remains — what matters.