Well, there is no doubt in my mind that I am officially in Japan. At first it didn’t seem real, like it was just another layover and my final destination was still to come. I’m not too sure what the exact moment was when I realized this IS my new life, but it might have been the first time I sat on a heated toilet seat. A lot of life’s big realizations happen in the bathroom, but let me tell you, there nothing like coming to the realization that Japan has heated toilet seats and CANADA doesn’t. Come on.
I’ve been writing this blog entry in my head for the last month, but never wrote any of it down. So, this is my attempt to remember everything in one go. I want to first say that the chaos you imagine when you think of a tiny island country containing over 125 million people is surely overwhelming, but in reality, it is the most organized place I have ever seen. When I was getting ready to leave Croatia on the 22 hour journey through 8 time zones (we call this Hell), I had major anxiety. Not necessarily about the thought of committing half a year to a country I know nothing about other than what I’ve learned from stereotypes and Sailor Moon, but rather from looking at how to get from the airport to my hotel in Tokyo. A tram, a bus, two planes and an expensive layover in Qatar, a train, and a subway, And then walk. Simple as that… After getting to my hotel that night I simply lay in my bed thinking, how was that so easy? I’m not joking. It may sound crazy, but it wasn’t. And it has been like this ever since; from major trips, such as Tokyo to Kyoto, to everyday transport, such as the subways, trains, and buses, to constant occurrences like crossing the street. It’s like they had a general meeting that everyone in Japan attended, and they just decided as a country how to do everything, and then nobody strayed from that. It’s amazing.
Anyways, my first stop was Tokyo. I spent a total of ten days in Tokyo, many of which were focused on figuring out what day it was. I did do some sightseeing and walked around famous areas such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Asakusa with my mouth hanging open and my eyes as wide as they could open, trying to take it all in. Shibuya is known for having the busiest crosswalk in the world. I giggled to myself as I walked across it with the thousand other people, video taping it while at the same time trying not to get trampled. More people crossing the street in a mere half hour than live in my hometown. Organized chaos. This was also my first “you don’t belong here” encounter. A guy walked right up to me on the sidewalk and this was the conversation. “Don’t be afraid. I’m not a crazy person” (interesting opening line). He followed up by telling me I was beautiful, that I, and I quote, “look like an alien from another planet”, asked if he could kiss me, and told me he was going to call me Jeriko. I really didn’t understand much of it, but kindly declined the kiss. He eventually walked away after I also politely declined his invitation to go sing karaoke with him. Too soon. After that encounter, they just kept coming: young boy fell UP the stairs while he was intensely staring at me, elderly man asked what I was doing here and when I told him I taught English he started just saying “thank you, thank you, thank you” over and over again as he slowly walked away, I had an entire conversation made up of only sounds with two elderly Japanese women about the wonderful taste of the new Starbucks coffee we were both enjoying, an elderly man STOPPED his bicycle as I was jogging and started trying to have a conversation with me (but… I’m jogging, sir), a grown man asked his girlfriend to take a picture with me (alien status officially reached), a Starbucks barista asked where I’m from and then said “you are so cute, you must be a kindergarten teacher”, and the list will continue.
In Asakusa, my favourite part of Tokyo, I joined a traditional Japanese dance class and had a blast! Even got to keep my two-toed socks called “tabi”, made specifically for wearing with flip-flops. Japan just hogs all the best inventions. Admit it, you want some.
Finally, it was time to journey to Kyoto, where I was hoping to settle down (hopefully not under a tree or a bench). Before I left, I had my first job interview for an English teacher position while I was in Tokyo. They informed me they had no positions in Kyoto, but had openings in Osaka. At this point I was basically given three options: choose to live in Osaka instead of Kyoto, look for a new job, or commute from Kyoto to Osaka every day. After much thinking, I decided on the commute option. I really had my heart set on Kyoto for some reason, and I wasn’t in any financial position to give up a potential job at this point. So, without any job guarantee, no house, and just my giant blue backpack, I hopped on an 8 hour night bus headed for Kyoto. This was literally the worst idea. Tip: Pay the extra $10 and take a “comfort” bus instead of the cheapest option available. Plot: 8 hours, packed tightly on a bus, trying to fight off a cold while trying to get any amount of sleep on a bus as cold as a deep freeze. I think I slept two hours. We arrived to Kyoto at 6am and with nowhere to go, I found the nearest McDonalds wifi hotspot and booked a hostel for the next two nights (hoping to find something more permanent ASAP). After realizing I accidentally booked a hostel in the next city (Osaka), I threw my hands in the air as I silently cried into my egg McMuffin. It sounds dramatic, but if you know “over-tired-Jody” you’d know this is right on par. It’s amazing how many times I’ve whispered to myself “you can do this” in the last few months, but it seems to work. Just as I repeated this to myself for probably the millionth time, I opened my email to see that I had been accepted by a housing company in Kyoto and would be able to move into a room in 3 days! Oh the joy! (Que over-tired-Jody crying into her McMuffin again).
One week later and I was settled in my own room in a beautiful neighbourhood in Kyoto. If you’ve ever moved to a new country, you know how difficult the procedure can be. If you’ve lived in one country your whole life, you can not possibly understand this. Here’s what I did in one week: opened a bank account, registered my address with immigration, applied and received a SIN number, ordered a cell phone, signed a housing contract, accepted a teaching position in Osaka, set up two more interviews for other part time positions, applied to volunteer assist with the Osaka University cheerleading team, got furniture and groceries, and figured out the train pass system. Keep in mind, this was all in Japanese and all had to be done in a specific order. And no, I did not suddenly realize I was fluent in Japanese. Every form I had to fill out took an incredible amount of time and brain power spent translating, asking questions, using a ridiculous amount of sign language, and thanking the many people who voluntarily assisted me, the alien.
That’s probably the most amazing thing here. People are so willing to help. If you’re standing on the street staring at your phone, looking at a map, or inevitably just looking confused, someone will stop and ask if they can help you. If you accept help, usually they won’t just point you in the right direction, they will actually physically take you there themselves.
I feel I could go on forever here, but I want to play a little game here: Fact or Myth
- For the most part, only tea is available, not coffee. MYTH. Coffee is a huge part of the culture, which makes sense when you think about the work ethic here.
- Comic, anime, animation is a big part of everyday life. FACT. Even the Armani posters have animated models and some government documents have animated characters on them, such as bunnies.
- Japanese people are small. FACT and MYTH. Fact in the sense that buying shoes is almost impossible and it looks like I’ll be making flood pants come back in style. Myth in the sense that although I stand at the same height as everyone, I don’t exactly TOWER over the general population. That being said, I have seen some of the tiniest people here that I’ve ever seen in my life.
- You can’t see the stars at night. MYTH. and I’m really excited about this one. You can indeed see the stars at night
- The buildings are all really tall. I’m going to go with MYTH. This surprised me because I knew how limited space was here, and in the centre, yes, the buildings are really tall skyscrapers. However, in the more liveable areas, the houses are about average of 4 stories I would say… It’s not that bad.
- People sleep on the train/subway. FACT FACT FACT. Heck, I’ve already done it. On my morning commute the other day, a guy fell asleep on top of my head. On top! Some other interesting facts for your enjoyment:
- I have now counted 6 flavours of kit-kats (regular, dark, white, strawberry, sake, and matcha)
- Heated toilet seats are everywhere, even my house, but not the subway station… That’s literally just a hole in the floor. Advance in toilets, yet it is not super common to find soap.
- Fish is in everything, even when you think it’s not, it is.
- Vegetarian here means you still eat seafood
- Television is as ridiculous as you can imagine.
- Don’t walk and smoke. There are signs reminding you of this everywhere. In fact, don’t walk and text or eat either. Just walk. (Done it)
- Don’t eat or drink on the bus, subway, or train. It’s rude (done it)
- Don’t cross your legs if you are in a professional position, such as a teacher, and absolutely never cross them to show the bottom of your foot. That’s incredibly rude. (Done it)
- Don’t shake your knee. It’s called the poor-mans shake and it’s very rude. Just sit with your knees together. Properly. Everywhere. Although, as I’m sitting here, the woman to my left has her legs crossed and the man to my right is showing me the bottom of his foot…. So maybe these are just for when you’re in the office and not relaxing at a coffee shop. Or maybe these two people just happen to have a hate out for me.
I am officially working at my first job. I also was hired for two other part time jobs, which I am training for now and will start in April. This is going to be an exhausting next few weeks to get into a schedule I can handle. Thank goodness I am no longer sleeping on the floor, thanks to my awesome landlord who gave me a free “bed” (aka fold up single futon) Really, If you knew me in school, you know I love having a lot on my plate, but this is a whole new level. I’m also trying to fit in Japanese language lessons, helping out a family in my neighbourhood once a week with their English in exchange for cultural activities, and my own daily activities (I still have to eat at some point). I’m struggling to find time to sleep, or even socialize. That being said, I have met a few awesome people here so far who have reached out to me and offered their friendship and their assistance.
Sometimes, anytime you’re travelling really, you just have those days where you just need something familiar. No matter how badly you want to fit in with your new surroundings there is something so comforting about hearing a good Canadian joke, hearing Arcade Fire play on the radio, or finding that one familiar food that you actually never thought you’d missed until now. For real, I’ve heard some decent Canadian music represented here. I’ve also managed to find good coffee, Canadian syrup, Chicago mix popcorn, Canada Dry ginger ale, and Ol Del Passo Taco shells! It feels so good. Usually when I hit a grocery store I have to pep talk my way through it. “Okay, what’s that? Ok that looks like some good rice and… No, no that’s a fish head hidden in the corner there. Nope. Ok move on, shrimp, shrimp, I don’t even know what that is. Ok that’s a fish isle, move on. Ok yogurt, yes that’s yogurt! Ok that looks like a strawberry. Buy it, in fact, buy 10. Yogurt for every meal.” I say this out loud. Sometimes you need the “you can do it” confidence boost in the most random of situations. Although, I am getting much better at shopping. In fact, I even know what veggie sushi looks like, AND how to ask for it in Japanese. Bam. I also ate chicken this week for the first time in a month. One month without meat and running constantly every day, I could feel myself getting exhausted. So, ok, I’m not vegetarian. That’s been decided then. But going through the meat section in the store is the worst thing for a normal person… Can you imagine how I feel? (Side note for people who don’t know: I have an extreme disgust and fear of raw meat… If you didn’t know this, you don’t know me very well) I didn’t even know that an animal could have that many edible parts. You don’t want details trust me.
I finally had two days off, and to recover I went hiking. Oh, did I mention that my backyard is literally the Japanese wilderness. Amazing. Within walking distance of my house there are about twenty shrines, a National World Heritage Site, a monkey park, the wildly known Bamboo Forest, and some amazing hiking. And sometimes, sometimes, when you go past the signs that say “the park ends here” you see some of the best things. I hiked for an hour into the forested mountains, didn’t see another human, but came to this viewpoint and I just sat there. It was truely peaceful. No cell service, not too hot, not too cold, just peaceful.
I have so much more I wish I could share, but it’s impossible. Someday I hope they invent some sort of memory stick (hah, memory stick) that you can load all of your thoughts and memories on to and then directly share it with other people. Mind you, someone would probably find a way to use it for interrogation and warfare of sort, so I guess on second thought I’ll keep my thoughts to myself. Wow, that saying just took on a whole new meaning for me now.
And, if you’ve stuck it out and actually read to the end, I can now share the biggest, most exciting news yet. Jenna is coming to visit! I am so excited. After being away from home for 5 months now, i couldn’t be more excited to have some girl time with one of my best friends. Sleepover!
Stay tuned, as I’m highly positive I will have some hilarious stories to come. I laugh every single day. Sometimes to myself, sometimes out loud. I’m allowed to be that crazy person for now.
Your Armstrong Abroad