Next day

An explanation may be in order.

For the past two months and a few days, I lived with a Japanese host family in a small harbor city called Hakodate on the coast of the northernmost Japanese island, Hokkaido. During that time, I studied the Japanese language through a program by an organization called the Hokkaido International Foundation.

While studying, I also took to writing about my experiences in Japan on a semi-daily basis. After a long day of zig-zagging around various obstacles of culture and language (occasionally crashing headlong into them), I found it extremely relaxing to sit down and type out everything on my mind in a language I could actually speak for an hour or so. And by 'extremely relaxing,' I mean 'absolutely essential to maintaining my sanity.'

I posted these ruminations to my Livejournal, like the emo kid I am, and friends followed along enthusiastically with comments and e-mails of encouragement. Among these friends, a noder suggested that this material might do well on E2 as daylogs.

I agreed, but at the time I only had enough access to the internet to post my livejournal and catch up on a few blogs and news sites. Reformating for E2 would've stretched my limited time on the internet too thin.

A couple days ago, however, I arrived home safe and sound to a hearty ethernet connection and my own computer, so I've decided to repost my misadventures in Japan to E2. I'll be posting them as daylogs, though the dates obviously mismatch. Hopefully they'll be of some entertainment. And now, on to the first post!

I'm Not Dead Yet!

...I just haven't had an internet connection until now.

To start, the twelve hour flight was not as excruciatingly dull as I expected, but it still dragged on a bit. I tidied off every article in the Economist save the ones in the complex economics section and dug into a couple stories from James Joyce's Dubliners before I resorted to the in-flight showing of CSI: New York and what I'd brought on my iPod to entertain me. I didn't get much sleep, in contrast to what I’d planned, but I managed not to mangle my back sitting in weird positions in the oh-so-comfy coach class seats, so it was a fair trade-off.

When we finally reached Japan, my first impression was of how enormous Tokyo is. Chicago, my adopted hometown, is impressive from the air, but with only twenty-five million in the metropolitan area, you can see it trailing off into suburbs from sufficient height. Tokyo is a different matter entirely. It just sprawls completely out of view, houses and factories packed so tight they look like they're sucking their breath in just to fit, suburbs nowhere to be seen.

As we came closer to Narita, other signs immediately suggested We're Not In Kansas Anymore, or anywhere in the continental US, for that matter. There were farms around the Narita airport, but they weren't growing corn or wheat or other American staples. Instead, they shimmered from the air, reflecting the sunlight. Rice. And the houses tending these plots looked straight-out different from American farmhouses. Obviously, I was expecting Japan to look different, but I'd been girding myself for the possible disappointment that Japan wouldn't be all that different from the US at all. No need. From surface appearances alone, you could immediately tell that nothing of this scene would fit in anywhere at home.

As we landed, the first sign I saw in Japanese also had a helpful English translation. Some farmer right next to the runway had erected a huge billboard in allcaps announcing, "DOWN WITH THE NARITA AIRPORT!!!" Welcome to Japan. Disembarking was uneventful, if slow. The plane was packed with travelers, mostly Chinese-Americans transferring from Tokyo to Taiwan or the mainland, so it took awhile to get everyone off. The pilots, the flight attendants, and even the mechanics all bowed to us as we passed and rattled off rapid fire strings of "arigatou gozaimashita" at us in that peculiar sing-song intonation that signals deference in this language. I bowed back, bobbing like a duck until I made it to the lobby.

Customs involved filling out a card explaining what I was doing, noting that I wouldn't be there long enough to need a visa, and adding some clarification in broken, awkward Japanese to the customs agent. Fairly relaxed. My baggage came quickly and looked undamaged, so I was more or less satisfied.

Streaming into the terminal, I couldn't see the travel agent HIF students were supposed to meet with, so I wandered toward the exchange counter. An old Japanese man with white gloves directed me to fill out a little card. The card asked me for my address in Japan, something I'd forgotten and neglected to write down somewhere I could get to quickly, so I nixed the exchange plan and opted for a CitiBank ATM right next to the exchange counter instead. Eventually, I wandered into the travel agent, registered myself, and met up with my friend Lauren so we could talk in perhaps-more-rapid-than-usual English about the very little of Japan we'd experienced so far.

The travel agent spoke no English, but she made a valiant effort to entertain us along the half hour bus ride anyway, launching into various unexpected narratives over the bus speaker system about landmarks we were passing. She spoke too quickly and with too many unfamiliar words for me to understand what she was saying, but I know there was something about Tokyo Disneyland in there somewhere. We arrived at the hotel in the evening, moderately jetlagged but more hungry than tired, so Lauren, myself, and another HIF student we'd made friends with named Robert decided to set out into the Tokyo neighborhood to find food.

Our little section of Tokyo, I think it was called Ohmori, was a village. It was a jampacked, busy, beautiful little village in the middle of the biggest city on Earth with legobrick apartment buildings and shops and restaurants and konbinis everywhere. Everything here is so compact. It's extraordinary. Lauren smoked a long-delayed cigarette while we looked around for somewhere to eat and we passed a little store where a single middle aged woman was standing on a platform, wearing a full-out kimono. I stopped and stared in typically shell shocked gaijin fashion for a moment, she noticed me, smiled and waved. A huge grin spread over my face and I waved back.

We briefly considered stopping in to what looked like the Japanese equivalent of Denny's, where the young waitstaff in elementary school color uniforms probably spoke a little English, but instead we opted for a teensy little restaurant with a sliding paper door and those blue curtains that hang half-way down. As we walked in, the woman who took orders and a young man who looked like her son doing the cooking yelled out, "Irasshaimase!" The three of us took a seat at the counter, which was only about six seats long, and looked around for a menu. All the selections were written on yellow streamers that hung from the ceiling, scrawled in fluid kanji that none of us could make out. So that evening's meal was going to turn out an adventure.

The woman spoke no English, and our Japanese cuisine vocabulary wasn't exactly up to snuff, but between the three of us we managed to politely order something or other. While we waited, the woman poured us barley tea and offered us a free appetizer. It was soy marinated vegetables and pork with some kind of spicing. We insisted it was delicious in our limited Japanese. While we ate, a stream of blue-collar Japanese workers crowded into the restaurant until there were no more seats left, yelling out their orders as they did and conversing with each other roughly, interspersed with laughter. No one stared or paid us any much mind at all. It was absolutely wonderful.

After dinner, we bought some cheap wine at a konbini, drank for a while back in our hotel rooms, and finally crashed. Unfortunately, jetlag intervened and I woke up at 3:00am, unable to drift off again. With nothing to do until breakfast at 4:30 (we had an early flight out of Tokyo to Hakodate), I dressed and left the hotel to wander the neighborhood a bit.

Everything was so still. Taxis were parked all along the curb with their drivers napping in leaned-back seats. I passed a bar where I could hear a drunken Japanese man singing karaoke even at this hour. I sat down on a bench in a park next to one of the high-speed trainlines and just reviewed memories for a while. Eventually, it was time to eat "western-style." (french fries for breakfast? uh, if you say so.) Lauren and I swapped plans with Robert until our bus arrived to take us to Haneda Airport. From there on, the whole deal really kicked off.

Next up, my crazy awesome host family and how crazy awesome they are.