Friday, March 12, 2010

A Great Place to Visit #2

"Joe, what was it like to come to Japan for the first time?" Excellent question, Internet. There's hope for you yet. Let's take a trip back in time to the spring of my youth, 2003. My sister had flown west to work in the east. Well, 'work' is a strong word. She was also a part of the same shady Japanese government sponsored English teaching program that I am now. Coincidently so is the mysterious Paul, the man who hosts my blog ramblings. While I was in high school I took a little 11 hour flight to visit my sister over Christmas and spend two weeks in the mythical land of Japan. It's difficult to explain what it's like to go to a different country for the first time. I mean, an actual foreign country. I've been to Canada before, which was just a car ride away and everyone there speaks English. Also I've been to French-Canada, which was just a car ride away and everyone speaks French (and English). Now in Japan, no one speaks English. Well, some people do, but they are completely random. Head concierge at swanky international business hotel? No English. Drunk salaryman peeing in traffic? English whiz (ha!). Also this was the first time in my life I couldn't read any signs. The first time in my white, middle-class existence that I was not the target of every ad. Toothpaste or hemorrhoid cream? A mystery with a terrible ending.

I arrived in Tokyo and since it was only going to be for 2 nights my parents splurged and we stayed in the nicest hotel's cheapest rooms. The rooms themselves were great except it was like looking at a western hotel room through the wrong end of binoculars. The most interesting part to me was that the (tiny) beds didn't have the usual space between the side of the bed and the wall. Next to the bed was just wall. So a cross section would reveal bed, wall, then bathroom, which held the most confusing toilet I had seen so far in my 17 years. Every toilet in Japan is designed to government regulated standards which require everyone pass an IQ test before operating. No two flush the same way. Levers, buttons, switches, pulleys, infra-red motion sensors, voice activated command code required (one of those is a lie and it isn't the one you think). The flush is always in a different place as well, which tends to play out like Where's Waldo. Could it be attached to the toilet? Next to the toilet seat? Above the sink? Beside the red and white striped umbrella on the crowded beach?

After enjoying Tokyo and my first trip to a Japanese Denny's, which involved a lot of ordering by pointing to pictures in the menu and eating onion rings that were made of squid and not onion, we headed to my sister's town in inaka-land. Inaka is any place that you haven't heard of. So Tokyo, Kobe, Kyoto: not inaka. Saijou, Takatsuki, Sasayama: inaka. Only mountains, rice fields, and vending machines as far as the eye can see, which is to the closest mountain. As flashy as Tokyo is (imagine New York's Times Square if it spread like electric cancer), the best part of the trip was my sister's little town on the island of Shikoku. Did you read my parenthesis about Times Square? This was the inverse of that. At night it was as black and as terrifying as a giant Japanese crow. Actually I found the lack of street lights charming in a way that could easily lead to you carelessly breaking your ankle. The ambient light level wasn't what put this town on the map, though. That would be its water. Apparently people come from miles and/or kilometers around just to fill up big plastic jugs with fresh inaka water from the fountains throughout the town. They say it works like the Fountain of Youth, whereby drinking it you will look and feel younger. I think it's more likely that it's popular because it works like a Fountain of Free Water, whereby drinking it your are out zero yen. So this town's thing was water, but every town in Japan has its on unique thing going for it. Compared to the others, the water thing is actually neat, in my humble and correct opinion. After all, if we took away your water (and your Coke Zero and your near-beer) you would most likely die an arid death. Though possibly less necessary to life, other towns' source of fame ranges from the substantially more impressive: lighting a mountain on fire; to the inarguably less so: one of the town's train conductors is a cat and he wears a hat. I'll give you 100(!) yen if you can guess which gets more media coverage.

To wrap up the last highlight of the trip, I hung out with some of my sister's students who were about my age. This led to a fun day of me embarrassing my countrymen by getting destroyed in a western sport (bowling), getting confused while they tried to poorly explain the concept of puri-kura to me by calling it "tiny pictures" when in reality they are "tiny photographs" (ha! silly Japanese students!), and me throughly enjoying them piecing together things I said in English to use as insults against each other. Such as the harsh, "your HEART is DIRTY." Lastly they introduced me to my now favorite store on earth, Daiso. There you can buy anything for less than the price of a candy bar (even candy bars!). I got a cool beanie I wore 6 years later when I went snowboarding in Nagano. See, it came full-circle, or something.

So that was my first trip to Japan in its entirety. Actually I'm leaving out the trip to Kyoto, the center of Japan's cultural and spiritual heritage, but whatever. Here is where I get to the point of this article: Japan is a Great Place to Visit. I guess it's the same point as my last article, but this one differs in that I'm not saying it cynically. Japan is a Great Place to Visit. It's so different, so inaccessible, so intriguing. When you look down from a tiny hotel room in Tokyo and see a place that does such a good job of dazzling your eyes, you have to wonder what's going on back where you can't see. The glitz and the rice fields, the crows and the drunken salarymen. All that's on top. Many Japanese people believe, especially the lingering elderly generation, that a foreigner could never understand the true Japan. But, hell, maybe they're right. I mean, is your home town famous for a train driving cat? Yes? How about free water?

That's all for this entry. So savor it! And continue enjoying Paul's near daily updates.


  1. Good observations, Joe. Actually, whenever I hang out with people who are in Japan for the first time, I mainly go through two conflicting states: first, I get a little impatient and overcompensate for it by trying to be very patient and indulgent (trying is the keyword there). Second, I get a little bit of a kick out of their reactions to everything and I also get a little bit jealous. I think they both stem from the fact that I know I used to once be at awe that I was in Japan, but now I can't even really remember when that was.

  2. Another excellent post. Your humor is very nicely developed.

    I have the same issues as your benevolent host in regards to being patient with wide-eyed newbies. I find it difficult to read blogs by people who are still in the honeymoon stage because it's taxing to not jump in and burst bubbles.

    I'm not actually envious of them though. I had my round of wide-eyed appreciation, and I wouldn't want to go back to it for anything in the world. Having your bubble burst about Japan is a valuable lesson in learning that every place has good points and bad ones and no place is paradise. Many people have trouble accepting that ignorance is the source of their Japan-based bliss, and you just have to wait for them to sort it all out for themselves.

  3. Loved your essay on Japan. I disagree with your memory of the hotel in Tokyo. We didn't have the cheapest rooms. Where did you get that? Hotel rooms in large cities are smaller usually- like NYC. The rooms are small at the Marriot Marquis. I'm glad you enjoyed your trip so much you wanted to stay for awhile in Japan, longer than I expected.

  4. @Orchid - Yeah, I think you're right that many people live in a bubble when they first come to Japan. But that sense that Japan can do no wrong isn't what I miss - it's the feeling of everything being new and fresh. I guess that's why I like traveling.

    @Katherine - Thanks for stopping by! Joe's a talented writer - I'm glad he's agreed to make some posts here.

  5. @Paul. Thanks for having Joe as your guest writer. I've enjoyed your blog and your Jukin' Japan vlogs.
    Good stuff!

  6. Would've loved to have come here when I was a high school kid.

    What's funny about bubble bursting is when it happens with respect to your home country. I got sick of Japan one time after doing a three and a half year stretch without going home. Just before I left to visit my family back home, I kept telling myself how great it was going to be and how lots of things about Japan sucked. But then, I got home and thought, Meh, I can't wait to get back to Tokyo.

  7. @Billy - Yeah, right? I guess it happens whenever we idealize someplace. Similar to how they say you should never meet your heroes.