Travelogue - Home - Next!

Date: 19 June, 2003
Time: 17:48
Subject: ...Just like I pictured it?

What have I gotten myself into now?  One bowl of ramen, one beer into Japan.  I'm waiting in Morishumi for my next guide who will take me to my apartment.  I passed through passport control and customs with no drama, no scrutiny.  On the other side was an Aussie waiting for me with a laminated sign saying "Nova".  He handed me a dossier ("pass the dossier/courvosier" ran thru my head) and put me on a bus.  I have keys to my apartment which is just up the train line from this bus stop.  But now I wait.  My next guide isn't scheduled to meet me until 6:45.  Japanese schoolgirls are everywhere in pleated skirts on cruiser bicycles.

Everything is so normal, except I'm floating in a sea of ambiguity.  The bus driver wore a shirt and tie and drove a manual transmission bus.  Osaka looks like L.A. with the density of Manhattan.  It takes an hour to get from the outskirts of Osaka to the middle of town from Kansai Intl. Airport on the outskirts.  I'm getting a lot of curious looks from people.  I wandered down a back street, and all the houses have, go figure, traditional Japanese styling, tile roofs, tiny yards with tasteful gardens in the indiginous aesthetic.  Lots of cars and traffic on the main roads, no SUVs.  From the freeway, golf driving ranges rise out of the urban sprawl everywhere.  But the prevalence of traditional architecture surprises me.  Modern highrise cement apartment blocks rise out of two and three story tiled, pitched roofs.  Streets are narrow, one lane, and winding.  Tiny yards are a feast to the eye with carefully manicured ornamental gardens.  A few flowers, but mostly carefully groomed shrubbery. 

I feel weird.  My initial travel ennui showed up right on cue, as soon as I was off the plane and through customs.  A sensation of "was that it?"  Immediately I feel trapped by the decision to be here.  I don't think I actually gave this move any deep thought.  It was sort of 'the thing to do' at the time, and so I did it, and here I am, sitting at a bar alone, wondering when I will ever see my friends and family again.  Homesick.  Such a bizarre sensation for the homeless.  A mother and her two kids ride by all together on one bicycle.  Bikes don't get locked to anything here it seems; usually just the wheel gets locked.  Its an overcast and grey day that's threatening intermittant showers.  Everything feels totally normal to me.  My wallet is a potpouri of currency, with canadian, american, and japanese coinage veying for space.  My head is a muddle in part because I didn't sleep the night before I left, and uncomfortably on the plane.  The bathroom here has squat toilets and toilet paper... haven't seen that since Europe.  Oh the bathrooms of the world...

This move was a roll of the dice in my head, a whim, a long simmering contingency which bubbled up to the surface in the current recession.  (You will note the economic forecast has suddenly brightened now that I've left the country).  Now, with no real consideration I find I'm back in Asia again.  Again.  Its like Bangkok mixed with L.A.  Here is like a lot of  places but doesn't yet feel foreign.  Everyone is wearing the same sorta "just a normal day" look on their face.

Just another day in Japan. 

Date: 20th
Time: 22:27

Slowly experiencing the foreignness.  I called "home" this morning from the cemetary outside my apartment.  Nova has located me deep in the suburbs of Osaka, in a place where nobody speaks English, none of the menus are in English, none of the signs.  Its one of those out-of-the-way places where tourists have no reason to go.  It's the perfect, softest landing I could have hoped for.  That doesn't mean I'm not smoking and drinking heavily...

I'm starting to loosen up the knot I tied when I decided to come overseas again.  Experience has taught me that the safest way to travel is when one is calm.  In order to maintain that calmness, a certain false composure and self-deception is necessary.  However, having arrived in Japan, having been completely calm for the weeks and days leading up to this, having arrived without any panic, passed through customs (my least favorite part) effortlessly, and now, having unpacked all my bags, made my bed, cleaned and rearranged my apartment, learned the layout of the neighborhood, etc, etc, etc, I'm starting to finally loosen up a bit.

Eating has become my greatest stress.  While its charming that none of the restaurants have an English menu, its also unnerving.  I was forced to break out the phrasebook tonight.  The problem is that a cute, giggling, Japanese waitresses tie my tongue faster than most anything; my unpracticed Japanese falters horribly.  Part of successfully speaking in a language you don't know is confidence.  If you can say something with confidence, you have more latitude on pronunciation; there is a sense to speech that conveys meaning without words which is lost when everything comes out appended with the questioning tone 'is that okay?'   I ended up opening my phrasebook to the phrase for "Do you have any vegetarian food" and pointing at the kanji.  She in turn pointed at something on the menu.  I ended up with 'omuraisu' or something, which was an omelet over rice mixed with tofu.  Topped with katsup.  It was horrible.  But one must simply eat what is given in these situations.  I've been doing this for two days now, and its starting to wear on my digestion.  Fortunately I have my own kitchen; dining out is too much stress.  You know its been a soft landing when your biggest stress is eating...

My apartment.  Its wonderful.  I have a two bedroom place to myself.  The traditional bedroom is where I'm sleeping, with tatami mats and a closet.  The other room has a sofa and carpetted floor.  I moved the kitchen table in here to form a slick little office, and to add spaciousness to the kitchen/foyer.   The kitchen has a linoleum, wood-print floor.  I mentioned the cemetary:  Beside the apartment building is a cemetary; but probably not what you're imagining.  Its tiny, urban, and lacks separation from the narrow road.  There isn't a fence, and some of the tombstones protrude out into the street a bit.  In the middle of the cemetary is a shrine to some Buddha with iconography I don't really understand; but the swastika indicates its Buddhist and not Shinto.  Also there is a payphone in the middle of the 100 ft wide cemetary, that is an ISDN line, meaning I could take my laptop down and plug it in to the phone jack to send and recieve email.  ISDN is a technology that... oh never mind, either you already know or you couldn't possibly care; its oldschool.   And the payphones here use it, and that's interesting to me.   After trying all morning to get through to North Carolina, I managed to finally succeed after 11am (10pm their time).  Indicating the circuits are going to be busy in the mornings on average.  I would have thought that they'd have better long distance carriers.  I imagine I could pay more to guarentee service, but I think it should be better on the weekends.

These details are the stuff that facinate me.  How does one eat? Who speaks english? What products do the dollar stores (100yen) stores carry?  A normal sized snickers bar costs a 120 yen (just over a dollar).    The vending machines rarely sell pepsi or coke and usually cost more than 120 yen.  As a matter of fact I haven't seen a coke or pepsi add or machine yet; The local equivilent is a company called Kirin.  They make beer and sodas.  I'm in suburban Japan, and there are almost no trappings of America, except the "New York" teeshirt on the waitress tonight who couldn't speak any English.  Also, its interesting to see that nobody is particularly fashionable in this neighborhood.  Its just a normal, average, middle-class neighborhood, much like any other in the developed world, except for the mini rice paddies one finds occasionally mid-block.   Also, most people with slightly larger yards have planted food crops.  Those with the normal thin strip of yard behind a fence have planted ornamental gardens with imaculately groomed shrubs and evergreens, in the Japanese garden style (duh).

So here I have a three room apartment to myself in a quiet nowhere corner of Osaka, I'm completely on my own with no tourists, no English speakers at all.  I couldn't ask for a more calm and peaceful landing.   So now I get to untie the knots, start attempting comunication with the locals beyond mere pointing.  The simplest things are such a rush; like buying toilet paper or liquor.   Everyone bows, slurps their noodles, eats sushi plucked from a conveyor belt,  and plays pachinco at the two parlors at this train stop.  The whole city seems to be organized around train/subway stops.  The public transportation is fabulous.   Its just like a normal place.  Just like I would have pictured it if I'd made any real attempt at expectation.  But another travel-bias I harbor is that its best just to go and not form predispositions about a place.  All my study of japan was demographic, geographic, historic, etc.  I studied the lay of the land, but by and large skipped everything of relevance to actually living in a place.   I rested in confidence that people are fundimentally the same everywhere, and that no place could be any more foreign than what I've already seen in my short, worldwide travels. 


Date: 22nd June
Time: 21:21

I've now been in Japan long enough to get pissed at Linux.  Today, as on friday, I have spent the day at home.  The novelty of  'a room of one's own' has proven intoxicating.  I have spent this day geeking on my computers, battling with my slow-as-hell Pentium II, and battling gnu chess to turn off the time feature, and Samba to let my Window's computer browse its hard drive... but these are not the battles you've come here to read about...

Yesterday I did venture out into the great city of Osaka.  My knack for finding the asshole of a city first has proven itself yet again.  I decided to start my walking tour a stop early from the train.  I saw a rose garden on the map, an open space away from where tourists would likely go.  [HA, I WIN.  The chess clock is GONE!!! Am I L33T H4X0R or what? Shumimasen {sorry}, multitasking] Where was I...  Oh yah, starting an untimed game of chess...  no... Osaka.  Walking tour.  I woke up on Saturday and decided to map out Osaka in my mind.  As it turns out, there is, as usual, one center for the pedestrian culture to Osaka.  This is called Shinsaibashi.  Naturally, my mapwork led me to this zone.  However, (P-D4) As I said, I jumped off the train early, and wandered was drawn to this park that was out of the way.  There I found what appeared to be a REFUGEE CAMP of sorts.  What appears to be Japan's solution to homelessness.  Along the Okawa River,  at the foot of city hall,  there is a squatter's community... Although, it seems they operate with official sanction.  The shelters all incorperate a uniform Blue tarpauline, the structures are temporary, but well constructed, and there's even piss buckets set up all along the site.  Picture a loooong tent, perhaps for 200 people to sleep, with a slightly raised sleeping platform inside.  Everyone's personal belongs tucked away.  Its military in its efficiency.  Then there was a loooong line of MEN (where are the women?) waiting in a soup line.  At the head of the extremely orderly procession was an official-looking brigade feeding this rag-tag assortment of japanese.  One man looked like myself, young, fit, out of place; the rest were typical homeless, talking to themselves, etc.  But I could see evidence of maybe five hundred or more people at this encampment. I was too stunned to make a careful estimate, but five hundred is conservative.  The Osaka provincial library had a shower facility in its basement, with attendant passing out keys; honestly I have no idea what was going on.  It could be anything.  Maybe they were refugees from some unpublicized disaster.  But on the outskirts of the official settlement were others, clearly squatting.   In the midst of this, tennis courts with middle class tennis players, a group of photographers and devestatingly beautiful models, too beautiful to look at.  Tourists, bicyclists, civilians.  The juxtaposition was a wonderful welcome to Japan.  I had immediately found my place...

Then, I started my walk to the main town.  This day was dedicated to recon and careful note taking.  I wandered along, somewhat blind, in the direction fo the Osaka City Air Terminal (OCAT) where tomorrow I will meet for orientation with the rest of the new NOVA recruits.  (N-f3).  I was offered Yahoo Broad Band internet on the walk.  Also, along the street, which is apparently a rather well-to-do area of town (just beyond the refugee/homeless camp), the street was lined with bronze figure sculptures, trees; a wide boulevard.  I meandered.  Found myself at a temple.  Stunned, as I looked up and saw emulation of Japanese traditional post-and-beam construction, but in concrete; which structurally makes little sense, but is funny to look at.  I wandered in, and, my amazement turned to shock as I saw people with shoes in the temple.  I took offence, but slight offence.  Sat down and contemplated the trappings of the alter.  The only buddha was barely visible, the interior had a really really sweet color scheme; a world apart from its ostentation/ludicrous chinese and thai cousins.  In fact, the colors were beyond reproach.  There was little to indicate it as a buddhist temple except some minor detail work around the upper roof-level based on a swastika motif.  But I couldn't get over the fact that I was in a Buddhist temple with my shoes on.  I was sure it was a christian church...  [B-d3].   But it wasn't its contemporary Japanese Buddhism on a very expensive piece of real estate.  There was a tea dispenser in the lobby/foyer/(uh, nave?)  Next to the ASH TRAYS.  Something's wrong in the world when you can smoke in church...

But moving on...  My wandering eventually brought me to the main shopping district in Osaka; hence, southern Japan.   The fashionability of people exponentially increased as I approached Shinsaibashi; the makeup on the girls increased, as did the prices in the stores.  I found a dozen pairs of shoes I wanted, not a pair were under 18,000 yen (for rough estimates, drop two zeros; for exact, factor an exchange of 118 yen to the dollar).  I knew I had found the stereotypical japan at last, though, when I rounded a corner and found what I have to assume were a row of brothels.  The lobby area was a wall of pictures that looked like the back side of most local weekly newspapers like The Stranger or Creative Loafing or The Villiage Voice PublicationsBut the only feature the lobbies presented was a stairway leading to the upper floors.  And for fear of temptation, I did not investigate further.  I've been walking the line for too long...

Anyway, I continued to explore, crossed another river which is being redeveloped with an artificial, floating park, found myself at the epicenter of Osaka, and then, into the underground.   The OCAT connects to the Namba Walk, which is a HUGE underground shopping arcade, with connections at all ends to the subway and train systems [q-c2].  I think this whole time I'd seen less than a dozen westerners, and most of them walked with the confidence of the duly employed.  In the Namba walk I confronted for the first time Japan's legendary crowds. 

In the end, I wandered back to the Yadobashi like, stopping for an Ceylonese Stout (Lion Stout) at the first dive-ish looking bar I could find.  Most bars don't open till after six here; really putting a cramp in my dereliction.  Oh, and I found a chinese medium format camera for 14,000 yen!  Almost impulse-bought it... But settled on a role of 35mm Provia 100.   It was totally old-school and beautiful.  Sadly, I still know exactly where it is...  [QxQ!]   The bar wasn't nearly so much of a dive, but they were playing a top-forty countdown, and sadly I was subjected to Justin Timberlake.  That makes it a dive, but of the wrong sort.  At least they had stout beer, which is a rarity (and a costly luxury; 700 yen) here in Japan.  The proprietors of the establishment were sweet as could be; the woman could speak a little broken English, enough to ask what part of America I was from; they then produced two different varieties of Redhook Beer, and one Anchor Liberty Ale as tokens of familiarity.  It was strange to see Redhook as an Import Beer...  I pointed and indicated that I had lived in both places... I didn't even try to explain the circumstances of my living in San Francisco, though (Anchor brewery is in S.F., Redhook,in Seattle).   But after I finished my Lion Stout, I headed back home, to Toyoshima, where I haven't left since. 

Its a funny thing, being here.  Today I installed Red Hat Linux 9 on my old Pentium II.  When I started working with computers, Red Hat was on Version 6x and Windows was on 2000.  Still I have these little bits and pieces of my past which I've brought forward with me.  In front of me right now is two laptops, a stack of books on Buddhism and Hinduism, software for Graphics design and 3D Modeling and CAD, Scanners, photographic negatives in three formats, and yet, I am preparing for my first day of work in, what, 8 months or so? teaching English as a Second Language [b-a5].  The challenge as I see it is to integrate all of these things.  To achieve Zen-like one-pointedness.  At least I can hold my own against my computer at chess still.  Its funny.  Three days in Japan, and I feel like there's nothing special about it.  My bigest concern is that I have to learn Japanese to pick up on all the pretty girls walking by, or to order food to my increasingly exacting standards.  I'm slightly frustrated that I haven't picked Japanese up yet.  Its actually not that difficult a language as everyone makes it out to be.  Thanks to my sister, I have software that already has taught me to count and phrase books that teach me to say please and 'Could I have that with no meat?'  All I have to do is simultaneously learn Buddhism, Hinduism, Linux, 3D Modelling, Japanese, and TESL; to say nothing of Japanese ettiquette and pickup lines... yes its true,  I can't even spell etiquette, but whatever. 

Somehow, I'm sure it will all work out.  I don't feel like I'm in a foreign country.  I have a french press and coffee grinder with me.  How could this be foreign?  After living in Seattle where 25 percent of the people are Asian, and then Berkeley where half of everyone was Asian, now I'm in Japan, where nearly everyone is asian.... its been a gradual progression.  Japanese culture even is just a more refined version of Southern Aristocratic manners.  One should never speak of oneself, and one should never do anything to impinge upon one's family name... Simple.   I failed miserably in this in the south, so why should I expect anything more here?   In short, people make such a fuss about differences between things; I see only commonalities.  We are all human, we are all ignorant and, therefore, we are all suffering.  Life is simple when you break it down along these lines.  The important thing is tomorrow I start my new job.  Now THAT has me freaked out as much as if I were in Cleveland or Manhattan.   Tonight I went to eat at the same two restaurants I ate at yesterday.  ...Already this place is familiar. 

Date: two days before my 29th birthday (...lest we forget)
Time: fortyfive minutes before orientation

All gussied up, and ready to once again join the ranks of the corporate whores.  I thought I'd take this oportunity to... jesus my spelling sucks... opertunity?  opportunity?  whatever... I thought I'd take this opperrtunity to... yes, that's right, I'm fortyfive minutes away from being an English teacher... I thought I'd take a moment to touch on some errata...

Yes, they do have funny sing-song walk/don't walk signs in this country... They make me giggle.  Yes, they do where shoes in many temples, and the monks often wear black.  Yes the bathrooms are strange.  I took my first "Japanese Style" bath the other day.  The tub is maybe one meter cube; when you bathe japanese style you fill the tub, then ladle out scalding-hot water over your body and soap up.  Then rinse, then gently lower yourself into the tub.  One sits in foetal position until one's skin is pink.  Then one steps out of the tub and dries off and goes to sit somewhere in relaxation and contemplation of how hot the water was.  I realized after the fact that the privacy glass on my balcony wasn't nearly as private as I thought, though....  oh well.

I've noticed that, with a tan, I'm darker than the average Japanese.  Also, I'm above average in height, but its an unfair stereotype to say that they ALL are short.  Racially, there is a fair bit of pacific islander blood in their veins, and this includes Samoan; to say nothing of occidental blood that's trickled in over the years.  On the train this morning there were at least half a dozen others my height, including one person who was actually obese.   But yes, there are a fair number of micro-sized Japanese grammas who are super cute.  Nobody has busted out with the kung-fu yet...

In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, one washes one's mouth out before going to the temple.  This is largely ignored by what I can tell.  

Here's one for a tee shirt that said:

"Minimum/Cream of Perfume." 

Dollar stores are actually as functional here as the five&dimes my kin began with Kress Mart / Kmart.  Everything costs 100 yen, and they are actually functional household items; people regularly shop at these stores.

A great deal of fuss has been made about bowing;  mostly it is overstated.  In America, we too "bow."  When someone walks by you on the street and makes eye contact, is it not 'familiar' of one to nod?  Well, this is the infamous 'bow' westerners get "confused over... err... over whch westerners get confused...  Damn English.   Anyway, yes, in more formal situations, a 'proper' bow is in order, but by and large, most people in informal situations simply nod.  Often, store owners lower their sholders as well, with a long overstated string of thank you very much please come again's... There seems to be some politeness battle for getting the last thank-you in before the door closes...

[The westerners are rolling in, queuing up for orientation at the cafe' at which I, too, am sitting.]

Yes, sushi bars do have conveyor belts, but in Japan, that's a sign of "fast food" sushi, and is quite cheap.  a dollar a plate for two pieces of sashimi or sushi.  People self-serve all but the beer; hot water spouts are on the counter, and tea cups and tea bags on an overhead shelf (sitting down) shelf.  You eat sushi at whatever pace, and stack up the plates as you go.  Then you count the plates and tell the cashier how many you had on the way out.  There is a lot more trust in Japan than other places in the world... I've seen five year old girls walking down the streets alone at night in my neighborhood...

A final note on bathrooms and restaurants.  They are very reticent to offer napkins or paper towels.  I haven't been in a public bathroom yet that had paper towels.  Toilet paper is everywhere; and when napkins are offered at a restaurant, also offered is a wet-napkin for washing your hands before you eat.  Also, chopsticks are almost always the break-apart kind we get here... err... there... in the States.

Let's see.  I saw a boat on the river near Dotomburi with a guy on the bow with a pool skimmer, collecting trash from out of the river.   Yes, japan is a clean and efficient country. 

I haven't found a single wireless access point yet.  Kinko's doesn't have a plug-in counter for internet access to one's personal laptop.  And Access Points at Office Depot are still over 200 bucks (22500 yen).  Internet Cafe's are sparse about town, but include such amenities as free sodas and (automated machine-made) coffee; they tend to be in upper levels of bookstores and also offer "relaxation chairs" which are big la-z-boys for catching a nap, or watching a DVD. 

Boys frequently style their hair; girls at a ratio of almost 50% lighten their hair.  And many teens walk around carrying guitars, almost as fashion accessories, as in Brooklyn. 

Time: 5:54pm
Subject:  The adventure begins...

I now have my Japanese name.  At orientation they issued us a stamp, a hanko, of our name.  My Japanese name aparently is ha-du-son.  The hanko is what is used to officiate bank transactions, and is required to open an account.  So now I am Haduson.  There is no japanese symbol or sound for "Hu."  The closest approximation is "fu" which is made with a barely audible "f,"  just barely brushing the teeth against the lower lip instead of biting it like we do in Enrish, err, English.

Today I also found out, FINALLY, where I will be working.  Its at the bottom of the big lake, just outside of Kyoto.  I am moving from the suburbs of Osaka to the suburbs of Kyoto in a little under two weeks.  My schedule is with Wednesday and thursday off.  The other three weekdays I work from 1:20 to 9:00pm, and on Saturday and Sunday I start at 10:00am.  These people conduct their business like a Reality TV show.  I had to actually show up for training before they'd tell me where I was working and how much I'd be earning.  I had to actually show up in Japan to find out where I'd be housed...  I had to actually apply for my visa before I found out what city I'd be in...  Crazy.

So In a room full of westerners, I think I was the only american.  Most people in this program apparently come from Australia.  (Expect a generation of Japanese with an Aussie accent).  So now, I finally have all the details of my employment, my very own hanko, and the location of the next three days of training (Kyobashi).  I won't bother going into the minute details of the teaching method yet, but it looks very progressive, very entertainment-based, and actually, very USEFUL to my further life-goals.  The teaching method is demonstrative rather than didactic, personal instead of scholastic.  I think it will all work out fine.  I just have to learn how to act.  I will be an actor on stage for four or less people. By Saturday I will be conducting my own classes.

I am starting to get excited about "this"...  The bathrooms in the office building where the head offices are based had the most high-powered, efficient hand driers I'd ever seen.  A verticle slot in which you insert your hands and a gale force wind which blows them dry in five seconds or less.  Still no paper towels to be seen.  The Shinbaisashi shopping street has a high-ticket end and a lower-ticket end.  The youth prowling this covered street which runs for nearly 15 blocks are mostly fashionably dressed, great hair, piercings, and such.  Osaka.  "Just like I pictured it.  Skyscrapers and everythang."

I'm loosing my battery, my mind, my predilictions, and I'm kinda annoyed I haven't learned Japanese yet.   All I know is numbers 1-99.  But for a day's work, not too bad.  I'm off now to the internet cafe to upload this "first impression."  Sorry if I haven't put this all in a more literary fashion as I intended.  But this is, after all, merely my "first impressions" of Japan.   Hope you've enjoyed it.  Please, email me a response to this, with requests for more details to  Arigato Gozaimasu!

NEXT! Sushi-Go-Round

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