Travels: Facing Fears with Japan’s “In The Heights”
By Skywing Knights // July 8, 2020
Today I wanted to jump back several years. This time, to one of the first really impactful experiences I had while living in Japan. One that taught me a HUGE lesson. That lesson? ALWAYS GO FOR IT when in the land of the rising sun. Not to mention, I love recalling this experience. (In fact, this is my second time doing so; the first time was in my older blog – Beautiful Nihon!) This experience was my first time doing something a bit less ‘normal’ while in Japan. I was going to a Broadway musical known as “In The Heights”. Hardly the typical sightseeing for foreigners or even grocery shopping!
So yes, a long time ago, I was a gaijin (外人), or foreigner there. I was fresh off the boat in Japan with a tiny studio apartment. (Legit, it was a shoe box.) And to top it off, I was fresh out of college. It was a lot like someone throwing you into the deep end of a pool. All the while, only knowing how to hold your breath. I had my first real “big girl” job, a new ID card, 3 suitcases of clothes, and… that was about it. I didn’t even have a phone at the time.
None the less, I was determined to experience EVERYTHING I could in this country. And I’d do it despite the fact that it was still a relatively new place to me. But it had captured my imagination since my first visit there a year ago. So I was going to do just that. In that regard, to do so I started by getting a line to the internet by traveling down to the only English speaking SoftBank (link here for those interested) in the area mind you – all the way down in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan (渋谷, 東京, 日本).
And yes, I had to do it with a good old fashioned printed out map and directions! Once that was taken care of, I then began to research my favorite pastimes and how I could experience them. But this time in Japan.
One of those pastimes was (and still is) music – music that included my favorite singer in the world – Yuya Matsushita (松下優也). Yuya had previously come to the states… once. And I wasn’t able to go. I had been to Japan once before, but…it had been a surprise for me, so even researching what to do while there for me was limited for that trip. (And frankly I was mostly just trying to find my way around then.)
But now all of that had changed. The possibility of seeing my favorite singer of all time had captured my mind and I was going to do it. Googling through the interwebs, I found information on something I oddly… wasn’t expecting. A Broadway musical called “In The Heights” (インザハイツ) being played at the Bunkamura theatre back in Shibuya. It was right where I had just been to order my wifi a month before. And the musical featured my boy in one of the leading roles. Tickets were available on two Japanese platforms, Ticket Pia or E+ (ePlus).
I later learned these sites hosted a large majority of ticket sales for events in Japan. (Definitely will talk more about how to navigate those websites another day!).
I remember sitting at my computer debating. I knew “In The Heights” would be a musical all in Japanese. (Though the original was in English with some Spanish.) Since coming to Japan, despite having aced Japanese tests throughout college (no easy feat, I might add – I studied for many a long nights for those), the short amount of time I had spent while there had taught me one thing: I felt that I was still very much so a greenhorn when it came to Japanese.
It was one thing testing for it and listening to it for two hours twice a week. It was quite another when people spoke it to you rapidly, constantly, with intonations and slang, and of course, words I had never heard of. So… would it really be worth going to “In The Heights” if I couldn’t understand everything being said?
Despite my worries, I hit the “Purchase” button for my tickets to “In The Heights” anyway.
Though I didn’t have a Japanese Credit Card or PayPal account with yen on it, I found that I was able to walk down to the local Lawsons convenience store (or Konbini / コンビニ) and paid for my ticket in cash after showing the cashier the payment number printed on my email confirmation. After inputting my confirmation number, my ticket printed out right there like magic. The cashier handed me my tickets and just like that, I was going to a musical completely in Japanese for the first time. (But more importantly, I was seeing my favorite singer for the first time!!)
When the day arrived, I dressed nicely in a blouse and skirt, like I would for any Broadway musical (by the way a good rule of thumb I find for events in Japan is to dress the same as you would in the states with a slight step up – makes it far more fun too!), and made my way to Shibuya station (渋谷駅), from which I walked out of the Hachiko-guchi or Hachiko exit (ハチ公口) and from there, the Bunkamura theatre was essentially a straight shot up the road from the station.
I arrived as planned a little early, having given myself a bit of extra time should I have become lost. (I recommend this especially when you’re going to a new area in Japan. Sometimes finding places can be a bit tricky due to the way Japan’s address system works.) However, it was easy enough to find thankfully! (I found it quickly as there was a big sign up above the building reading “Bunkamura” in a stylish font with theatrical flair.)
The theatre entrance at the “Theatre Cocoon”, clearly was marked with the title of the show listed out in both English and Kana which was very helpful! (Since continuing going to shows, I’ve also noticed this to be a pattern, particularly if shows originate from overseas.)
Upon arriving and having my ticket scanned, I was given a bunch of promotional fliers. (This is typical at most live Japanese events.) After receiving them, I found myself inside a bustling room where I could buy goods before going up to my seat. The whole time I was there, though rather nervous and feeling a bit out of place, all of the staff members were very helpful and considerate of me, realizing my Japanese was limited, even as I was doing my best.
Something a little different about this performance was that I couldn’t choose my seat, only my seat type. It might have changed since then. In movie theaters over there, I found that I could choose my seat. But this location’s seat selections worked like a lottery system. (This in my experience occurs at other live venues as well pretty often. Wait until I one day write about the time I saw the Black Butler musical and my luck in this way of seating rose to a golden level).
In any case, rather than picking a seat, attendees found out where their seat is when it’s printed out on the ticket. I looked to the staff to help me find my seat and they were super kind and guided me right there. (Another sign of Japan’s hospitality-centered culture I might add. Was very gracious of them and I was very thankful!)
I remember being in the ‘nose bleed’ section. Super high up and far away from the show, so… not the best luck. But while I sat there, I turned to my phone and re-read the plot summary of the show (I had read it the night before) on wikipedia. The story followed a character named Usnavi living in Washington Heights (New York City). Usnavi was a character dreaming of leaving the neighborhood for “bigger and grander” things. This show was to feature Micro, Ayaka Umeda (Former AKB48 Member), Chihiro Otsuka, Motomu Azaki, Takuya Uehara, and of course, Yuya Matsushita.
Soon enough, an announcer requested all guests silence and turn off their cell phones and enjoy the show. Even if I hadn’t understood the announcer (thankfully I did for that one), it would have been obvious what had been said.all at once everyone was shutting their phones off and stuffing them in their purses. And then, the time had come. It was time to see how I did while watching this musical!
And to my surprise – it wasn’t actually that difficult to understand. But not because I was SUPER fluent all of sudden in Japanese. Rather, I realized on my train ride home that day that my understanding of the show must have been in large part because of the actor’s capabilities in relaying emotion, feelings, situations, and scenarios all through how they were ‘behaving’ on stage.
I realized how much a story and meanings could be relayed through body language, song, and set/costume design, as when your understanding of the primary language being used is limited, you suddenly subconsciously start looking for those other clues that relay messages, feelings, and purposes to you.
I also found myself enjoying the experience because despite not going in with a full understanding of the language, I was able to improve my understanding of the language just by watching and engaging. To my surprise, I was actually able to infer what specific words meant. And all because of their acting and behavior on stage! I was literally learning new words (which I of course checked after the show)!
Not only that, but because I was watching a story in which they were speaking at a normal rhythm, I was very much so practicing listening to and working on understanding Japanese at a natural speed.
I wasn’t perfect and I still missed things. But I left the theatre feeling very surprised. This was in large part because I was elated that I could understand more than I thought I would. I literally felt like I was saying to myself in my head, much like the little engine that could, “I could do this; this wasn’t a mistake!”
And the cherry on top of it all of course, was the highlight for me of finally seeing my favorite singer performing live. (And I will forever stand by my belief that he is actually far better live than he is in the recording studio. Nothing beats his raw performances.) So I enjoyed the show and went home to my little studio that night. There I flopped on my futon, and smiled as I fell asleep.
So what’s the moral of this story?
DON’T LET FEAR STOP YOU!!
Don’t let a language barrier and fear of embarrassment stop you from experiencing things, especially in Japan. There were certainly times when I went to things and felt lost. Like an idiot, or that dumb foreigner always needing help. I remember being in situations where I had to fight back tears. Why? Because I knew I was the odd one out who couldn’t understand anything, despite all of my studying. I could have let all of those excuses stop me from buying that ticket…
But if I hadn’t pressed the ‘Purchase Now’ button on that “In The Heights” ticket, I likely would never have had the experience of seeing my favorite singer live. “In The Heights” is something I would’t have seen in Japanese otherwise. A show where I learned how body language, music, and cultures can transcend languages. I likely wouldn’t have had the chance to really sit down, recognize and give credit to the abilities that I actually did have.
In short – if I had just decided while living in Japan to just live in my little neighborhood, go to work, and do nothing more, despite how beautiful the place was in the spring, what a mundane time that would have been for me. And you know what? I DID get better at Japanese over time. And a lot of it was by doing things like this. Exposing myself to situations where I wasn’t 100% there yet, and you know what? I got there!
Because of that, I’m so glad I had that courage and went. As a result, I was able to enjoy such a marvelous musical that not only translated language, but feelings too.
So even if you’re scared of looking dumb, push yourself. Push yourself a little outside of your comfort zone. Try new things. Make your best judgements. Do your best in everything you do. And yes, even if it means trying to do something where you don’t have a handle on everything yet. Because you’ll learn! And your life will be so much richer because of it.
Till next time my loves,
PS. For those wanting to read more about the particular rendition of “In The Heights” that I saw, be sure to read “In The Heights” Sizzles Across Distant Cultures, written in the Japan Times. Best, loves!
PSS. By the way, remember those fliers they gave out before “In The Heights” that I mentioned above? I received this one too. Needless to say, when I was sitting in the theatre, waiting for the lights to dim, I. ABOUT. DIED. In my seat. But that adventure, as I said before, is for another day. 😉