Tuesday, March 24, 2015

11 Early Observations

I have been in Japan almost 2 months! Although really, I feel like I've only actually been living in Japan for one of those two, since the first month was spent living in a hotel on base. I mean, it's located directly next to a Chili's, so it hardly seems fair to count that time as part of the Japanese experience. 

Portrait of a girl who is really effing over living in a hotel room. 

Life in Japan still seems really new and despite having a house, I'm not feeling settled. Our household goods aren't due to arrive until almost June which is definitely a contributing factor. And certainly language and cultural barriers abound. Sometimes I feel like I just arrived. Other times, I feel like I should have gotten more done in two months, seen more, traveled farther. But then I remember that in the span of a month we contracted cell phones, got driver's licenses, bought a car, and rented a house. Throw in the stress of having the pups in quarantine during that time and frankly, it all left me a bit stressed and exhausted.

So no, I haven't been to Tokyo yet. Or planned any big trips. I didn't see the Great Buddha in Kamakura (which is shamefully just one train stop away) until last weekend. I kept telling myself if it had survived since 1252, it would still be there, and it was. Right now, almost every day brings some sort of unique experience even if it's not an exciting adventure. 

Japan is brand new to me. I had never been in the country until the day we stepped off the plane in late January, and had spent very little time in Asia (less than a week in Dubai). So, I might not have any dazzling trip photographs at this point, but I do have the collected experiences and observations of the completely inexperienced. 

I became illiterate. Yes, all it took was a trans-Pacific flight and I lost my ability to read. On top of that, I was also practically deaf and mute. There is really nothing more challenging than not being able to understand or interact with the environment around you. It was immediately obvious that we were going to need to make a concerted effort to learn some Japanese.

Learning Japanese. Or trying. We are so lucky (and surprised) that Graham was offered free Japanese lessons through his job. Even better (and more surprising), I received permission to take the classes, too. Twice a week we meet with a private tutor...and proceed to butcher this language. Our sensei is a saint. We're at that beginner stage where some words are just fun to say, despite their meaning. I still love saying the word "salchicha" (sausage), a favorite from my freshman year Spanish class. Right now, the phrase "denwa bangou" is for some reason endlessly amusing. Picture me randomly saying "phone number" as I'm walking around.

The toilets. Yes, they have a ton of buttons that correspond to myriad functions (noise, air freshener, water jets!?) most of which I am too intimidated to try. But the best feature is the warm seats. They are pure genius. Now a cold toilet seat just seems backwards and uncivilized. America, how have you not gotten on board with this? 

Russian roulette of toilets.

Cleanliness, sort of. We asked plenty of Americans who had lived here previously about their experiences in Japan before we made the final decision to move. Many said they loved it and when asked why, the most common answers were cleanliness and the efficiency of the trains. Not things that are crazy exciting to me, but they were just so adamant about how clean and efficient Japan was that I was intrigued to see for myself - everyone made it sound mind-blowing. It turns out that yes, Japan seems pretty clean. I've seen some dirty cities and nothing here falls remotely into that category. When compared to somewhere like Marrakech, it's pristine. But yes, litter still exists here and there's the occasional piece of gum stuck to the sidewalk. There are rundown buildings that have seen far better days and I've gotten used to spotting plastic trash floating in the waterways. I think this is mostly a case of expectations versus reality - it's a clean place where people seem to be generally respectful of public and shared property, but it's not sparkling.

Clean? Yes. Would I eat off the ground? No.

The weather. Winter has been rainy, cool, overcast, windy, and generally pretty dismal, which has been a tough transition after sunny Spain. We joke that we moved to the Pacific Very Northwest. Luckily for my sanity (and Graham's, because I can be a bit dramatic about not seeing the sun for days) it seems to be improving.

Crazy wind, equally crazy hair, even crazier little dog. 

The positive side of all that rain is really gorgeous spring flowers. 

A genkan is a mini-mudroom. Our house (and every house we've been in) has an entrance area just inside the main doorway called a genkan. It's specifically for removing your shoes before entering the house. They are typically tiled and have a closet or cupboard for storing shoes, which is also great for keeping umbrellas, dog leashes, scarves, etc. We have slippers that we wear in the house and even when our housing agent or repair people have come over, they go around in socks. The genkan is a good way to keep dirt out of the house (especially considering the mud from all of the rain) and I'm all for slippers, but with the dogs the jig is up. Also, I now have to remember to wear good socks when socializing. 

Trash stress. Every piece of trash has to be sorted - glass, cans, burnable waste, different types of plastic, different types of paper, cardboard, large items, electronics. The list goes on and on. Every time I throw something away, I have to think about which category it falls under. Items that are multiple categories give me anxiety. As part of our move in, we were given a 6 page explanation of how to handle our trash. (And one day, I'll have to sort that 6 pages and the staple into their appropriate piles.) Trash goes out every day of the week, but only a certain category of trash each day. We have an assigned trash collection point that is monitored by someone in the neighborhood. If you get it wrong, your trash won't be picked up and will be waiting for you at the end of the day with a note attached to it. It hasn't happened to us yet, but the fear of public trash shaming is real. And good luck finding a trash can in public - that trash has to come home with you to be sorted. 

Stores are open all weekend. This is obviously a reflection of having moved from southern Spain, but it's weird/awesome to be able to run errands on a Sunday. It's also common for almost everyone to work regular hours on Saturday. 

Country mouse, city mouse. I was underwhelmed, or maybe just whelmed, by the legendary cleanliness of Japan, but my expectations were met when it came to public transportation. I love the ease of using the trains. And since we are essentially in the suburbs of Tokyo, there is so much to see and do, and people are constantly on the go. That definitely means that the pace here is more frenetic than sleepy southern Spain, which is exciting. But I realized the other day that I haven't seen a horse, a cow, a goat, a chicken, a sheep, let alone a flock of sheep and their shepherd, or any other barnyard animals in months.

Culture lag. Yes, the jet lag was rough. A 14 hour time difference (from the East Coast, or 17 hours from our departure point in Seattle) is no joke. It took a while to shake the getting up in the middle of the night, being hungry for dinner in the afternoon, and falling asleep when the sun went down. On top of that, we also moved from a late-night culture to an early rising one. It's been difficult to settle into a new routine that doesn't involve eating dinner at 9 or 10 and staying up well past midnight. The sun rises and sets early here and so do the people. We're learning to adjust after 3 years of late AndalucĂ­an nights, but it would be a lot easier with a siesta. 

Bows instead of besitos. Although greetings like handshakes or simple introductions are common, bowing still occurs often as a way of saying hello, goodbye, or showing gratitude. Kisses on the cheek are definitely off limits in a society where touching strangers is considered uncomfortable. I do miss the warmth and enthusiasm of giving besos to friends, new or old.

So, there you go - 11 random thoughts about my time so far in Japan. I realize that they are not all glowing and positive. I would be lying my face off if I didn't say that living here is challenging. I knew culture shock would be tough as an American, but I think it's hitting twice as hard for an American who lived in Spain for over 3 years and loved the culture. If there was a spectrum of culture and the US was the center, Spain would be a little to one side and Japan would be far over to the opposite side. 

The Great Buddha in Kamakura. Some parts of Japan definitely live up to the hype. 

Luckily, despite the cultural differences, there are some truly beautiful and interesting parts of Japan. I look forward to exploring them more. And hopefully that will mean more posts filled with pretty pictures, travel, food, etc. but I'll also try to keep the honest observations coming, too. 

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