I don’t mean to scare people, but I do.
When I stand on a street corner, waiting for the light to change, they look up at me with shock. They gasp audibly in that Japanese way, inhaling and singing, “Oh!” before laughing awkwardly at my awkward size.
I don’t need them reminding me. I already feel too big for everything, everyday. Either I squeeze my shoulders inwards and fill the 4-person elevator all by myself, or I am kneeling in the bathtub, bowing under the shower head, or else I am turning around in miniature aisles and knocking bottles to the floor, collapsing shelves and stepping on the bare heels of middle-aged shoppers.
I bow out of respect but more importantly, I bow to avoid the pain. I have a permanent bump on my forehead, the result of constant run-ins with exit signs, doorways, and light fixtures. Once, I almost knocked myself out when I kissed a cedar beam at a temple in Kyoto. It was painful and for two seconds, I hated this place for making everything so small. Meditation helped the throbbing headache pass, and in a Zen-like way, I accepted. Accepted the fact that I am basically too large.
I have come to accept that I am a giant in Japan. In a country of precise proportions, my 6 feet 4 inches (193 cm) height makes me an outlier. The average male height in Japan is 5 feet 7 inches (171 cm) and although you see a wide variance of Japanese people (like anywhere else in the world), Japan’s material culture is standardized for the average.
I realized this one night as I lay on the floor, trying to fall asleep, my arms pulled in to my sides and my head shifting on my beanbag pillow. I could feel the cloth ridges where the edges of two tatami mats meet.
Woven from rice straw and used to cushion the floor of any traditional Japanese room, tatami mats are Japan’s standard unit: 3 feet by 6 feet. Japanese rooms, houses and apartments are all measured by the number of tatami mats it takes to cover the floors. For example, a traditional Japanese tea house is only 2 tatami mats big. In the old country houses had rooms that were 6 tatami and 10 tatami mats big and some of the palaces in Kyoto had floor plans that exceeded 100 tatami mats.
Already, I have noticed how compartmentalized everything is in Japan. Every object (and person) has a place. There is always a container to put something in; always a separate dish for one specific item. Just look at a bento box where lunch comes pre-dissected and perfect for any picky toddler–no single food item touches any other food item.
Japan’s obsession with compartmentalization fascinates me: how theirs is an entire universe that has been measured, allocated, situated and stowed away so neatly. After weeks considering chopstick envelopes, fusuma doors and the perfect packaged gift boxes sold in every shop in every train station from here to Hokkaido, I think it’s safe to say that whereas my country likes to think outside the box, Japan wants desperately to fit in the box.
But I do not fit in the box. I am larger than Japan’s standard unit; I am larger than a tatami mat. Also, my feet are also obnoxiously too big–my size 13 shoes have provided plenty of laughs for anyone who has seen them here.
I am the guy in the borrowed slippers, feet jammed in like Cinderella’s stepsisters, tip-toeing across the floor, pretending nobody notices how much I don’t fit.
It is natural when we travel — to try and fit in; to try and belong. Even if it means trying to make ourselves smaller. But not belonging is one of the benefits of travel. By not belonging, we see ourselves differently–like staring in a funhouse mirror and realizing actually that our nose is huge, or that our ears stick out.
I came to Japan and Japan told me that I am a freakish giant. And together, we laughed.