Japanese Lesson 1: Take Everything with a Dab of Wasabi

There are some moments when you just have to look like a complete idiot.

Today, I moved into my apartment (I am writing this the day I moved in, even though it wasn’t posted until later). It’s a nice place… a regular little rabbit hole. The bedroom is spacious, but the kitchen is pretty small. Nonetheless, it’s the place I’m going to call home, so I’m making the best of it. Two minor panic attacks and three hours later, I have finally finished unpacking, so I sit down to plan my lessons and wait for someone to deliver my futon.

Three more hours later, I am still waiting. It’s 8:30 pm. The branch school closes at 9:00. What am I supposed to do?

I settle on venturing out. I need a good rest tonight so I can be at the top of my game tomorrow. I slip on a pair of shoes and begin trying to track down the nearest payphone, carrying nothing but my inert iPad, my wallet, a map of to the school with the school’s phone number, and a sheet of paper I got for the train ride with a very useful phrase on it:

公衆電話はどこですか。

Koushuu denwa wa doko desu ka?

(Where is a payphone?)

On my way out, I see my mailbox is glutted with coupons. I reach in to dig them out, then draw back. Wonderful. I have cut my finger deeply on a mailbox. I have no band-aids, and no antiseptic (I am not man enough to  try the cherry-blossom hand sanitizer on my table/desk). So, now I have to find a payphone and a band-aid. I walk around sucking the blood off of my finger, and I eventually find a Lawson by the train station. They have no payphone, but I still buy band-aids partly to show my gratitude, and partly because the girl helping me kept saying daijobu (are you okay). I bandage myself up and keep going. I’ve only got twenty minutes before the branch school closes.

A 7-Eleven by the train station proves equally useless. The clerk seemed a little rude when I asked her if she spoke English, but perhaps it was simply my frame of mind. Another failed attempt later, I am on to the Nara Information Center. The woman there was kind, and she pointed me to a payphone just outside.

By now, I am of course flustered beyond all reason and praying for someone who speaks English to answer the phone. A few seconds later, I am explaining my situation to one of the teachers there, who says, “Okay. Can you call back in five minutes?” I begrudge the loss of yen, but I really don’t have a choice. I need a futon to sleep on.

I try to call home. No luck. I can’t figure out how to exactly. I take a walk around the plaza in front of the office, contemplating dinner and lesson plans. Five minutes later, I call back and receive a rather bizarre request: “The company did not answer, but can you come to the branch school?”

This is a joke, right? Some sick, twisted little delusion I’ll wake up from in five minutes. It’s Nara at 9:00 pm, and I have the navigational skills of a blind, deaf, and dizzy cockroach. It’s dark. I can barely read the map. Am I lost? I’m lost. I’m so lost. It’s hopeless.

And then, there comes a little ray of light. No. I’m not lost. I’m walking the right way; I just don’t recognize anything. I can’t read names, but I can count traffic lights.

And thus, by an ingenious stroke, I wind up discovering that I am not entirely inept at navigating Japan, and I am now one futon closer to a good rest.

These are the kind of things you have to laugh about. One of my fellow trainees said her goal in Japan was to enjoy every moment. I confess I didn’t enjoy feeling lost. I enjoyed realizing that I wasn’t lost at all.

Just another day in Japan and another dab of wasabi.

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Week 1 in Retrospect: First Impressions

Time flies when you’re training for nine hours a day and lesson-planning after work.

My first impressions of Japan are this:

  • It’s pretty amazing, but it’s not home yet.
  • It’s bloody hot and bloody humid in the summer (it has been over 90 for the past 10 days)
  • Everything in Japan is bigger (buildings) and smaller (hotel rooms), sometimes at the same time (food)

When I haven’t been training for my new job, I’ve been learning about things like Japanese coin-operated washing machines and relearning things I learned in America. I’ll start with the gadgets.

There are bidets EVERYWHERE.

Bidet

Smart Phone? B*tch, please… this toilet has more buttons than a wedding dress.

It has been really fun trying to figure out what button does what. I’m seriously hoping for a normal toilet when I get to my apartment. If I walk in and see one of these, I am liable to flip my shit. What ever happened to just a simple flusher? I mean, yeah, it’s nice that the seat is heated and it can make flushing sounds if you lose your nerve and can’t go, but I really for serous am looking forward to a regular toilet to sit on… and not a squat one, either (yep… they have those in Japan, and when it’s not a bidet, it’s a squat toilet).

Another interesting thing I have noticed is that the toilet paper here is not perforated. Instead, there’s a little plastic thing you push down on and then just tear across. It’s a little strange, but I actually like it better than the perforations. You can take exactly how much you need. It saves paper, and saving is good.

Bathrooms aside…

Japan is a very fast-paced society, and very punctual. Being on time is being late, and being late is super bad. Public transportation is like clockwork, even if it does get crowded sometimes. You can take a train just about anywhere, and if you can’t, there are always bikes or your own two feet. Travel is also pretty cheep… 460 yen round-trip to training every day.

Now, let’s talk about something truly interesting: food.

There are vending machines EVERYWHERE. And they sell EVERYTHING. I mean it. I haven’t seen any of the really weird ones, but here is one of my fellow trainees’ favorites, and my dad’s from the sounds of things:

Beer Vending Machine

If they had these on college campuses, America would have a whole new epidemic of alcoholism on their hands.

Yes, that is what you think it is. Beer. Lots of beer. In a vending machine. This was in one of the little shopping roads in Osaka. Personally, my favorite is this one:

Boss Coffee

Drink some coffee… LIKE A BOSS!

My old boss Kelly will probably get a kick out of this. I’m really fond of the cafe au lait (sweetened coffee with milk). Coffee is the same price as beer, about 120 yen (unless you get a giant one), and the amount is just enough to give me a little kick in the morning. I’ve been a budget, so I haven’t bought much coffee, but I found a carton of it at the 100-yen convenience store right next to Daikokucho Station in giant cartons.

Japan, watch out. I’m about to be caffeinated.

There are so many delicious things to eat here. I have to share my first meal in Japan, and a valuable lesson I learned from it. Many convenience and grocery stores in Japan sell bento (boxed lunches). I bought one with chicken, egg, some pickled vegetables, and some ume-rice (rice with pickled plum). I confess that the pickled plum flavor was super-strong, and I was able to struggle my way through the egg by eating it with rice. The pickled vegetables were divine, and the chicken was good. Everything tastes richer and fresher, including Subway and McDonald’s (yes, I have eaten a bit of American food while I’m over here).

So, there I am, eating my way through some kind of seaweed, and I do a double-take because I suddenly realized my food was LOOKING AT ME. Fish. Tiny dead baby fish. Fortunately, the jet lag kept me from being totally grossed out, and I made my way through them. They’re in practically everything, so I figure I may as well get used to them. The bento I bought was big enough to be split into two meals, and I was super-excited thinking, “YES! I’ll only be spending about 700 yen a day on food. Winning~” I was at that point eating Asian pears and toast for breakfast, so that evening, I came back after curry and had the rest of my bento.

Three hours later, I feel like my intestines are being ripped out. I’m totally baffled. It had only been twenty-four hours. What the hell?

Y U No Like Bento

My initial reaction in Meme Form.

The next morning, I looked at the rest of my bento (just a bit of rice), and one of my fellow trainees pointed me to the expiration date. It had expired at 10 am on the morning of the 19th, and I had eaten it that evening. Just one of many lessons I have already learned about Japan.

The second food-related lesson comes from eating involves the convenience store again. I found what I thought was yakiniku (beef on a stick) and bought it. Only after eating a piece did I find out that it was chicken liver. The flavor was fine, but the texture was unbearable, so I conceded not to eat it.

Chelsea Tea House

Earl Gray with milk and sugar… a nostalgic flavor~

Last Sunday, when everyone was off training, we took a little adventure, starting at Tea House Chelsea. I wasn’t hungry at that point, so I wound up just drinking tea. The tea house itself is British, so I wound up getting a cup of Earl Gray. Everything there was beautiful, and it was really good. 🙂

I have also been fortunate enough to try toro (fatty tuna), a wealth of baked goods (including tiramisu), and maguro (for real). I don’t have many pictures of the food since I’m usually too tired and hungry to make the effort by the time I’m ready to eat it, but I will say that the food over here is amazing. It puts American Japanese fare to shame. We keep trying to go to a kaiten sushi place, but so far, we have failed in our endeavors, and with our final day fast approaching, it’s starting to look like we won’t get there.

Aside from that, the only thing we had time to do on our first Sunday in Japan was go to Tennoji Park. I have never seen anything so gorgeous in my entire life. Imagine it: the cicadas humming contentedly in the trees, their shade providing a touch of comforting coolness from the intense summer sun, the water of a giant lake glistening. There were some really thin foot bridges to cross, and a closed-in area with a vending machine.

But that wasn’t even close to the best part. Caroline, one of my fellow trainees, looked down and said, “Oh, look, a turtle!” I rushed to grab the camera, hoping that I would get a shot, but it soon disappeared under the bridge. Moments later, there was another one, and another. The next thing I know, we’re all up to our neck in turtles and carp. There are literally hundreds of them swimming in the lake just below us. I once saw a Loggerhead Sea Turtle crawl back into the ocean after laying its eggs, and it was breathtaking. This almost rivals the magnitude of that memory. Although these turtles are common, the tranquility of Tennoji Park lulled me into this relaxed state of mind. I was happy to see something that made me feel close to home.

Turtles

My aquatic cousins greet me… I love turtles so much, and it was truly amazing to see so many together at once. 🙂

That same day, one of my fellow trainees and I went to Junkudou, a bookstore of epic proportions. I could get lost in there for hours, but my objective was the phrase book I should have bought and brought with me before leaving. It took us about an hour to find it, and we got lost a couple of times, but the person I went with is from New York. I’m lucky someone is able to navigate this maze of skyscrapers more effectively than I can. I have been getting by on broken Japanese (like this morning, when we got locked out of the room).

Onsen Shrine

The shrine outside of the onsen… gorgeous!

By the time I knew it, a week had passed. Tomorrow is our last day of initial training. From there, we each go to our branch schools, but we plan to stay connected through Facebook and follow-up training. So, to celebrate our achievements of the week, we went to an onsen last night. As an American, it was a little strange stripping down to nothing around so many people, but like everything else in Japan, my mindset is, “Well, everyone else is doing it, and it doesn’t endanger my health or go against my ethics, so why not?” It was a relatively big onsen not far from the hotel, and it cost 800 yen to get in. After that, it was nothing but scrubbing and wandering from one hot bath (39.3 to 43.9 degrees celsius) to another. There was a regular bath, a massage chair bath, a standing jet bath, a silk bath, and a couple of tubs outside. My favorite was the cherry-scented perfume bath. The smell reminded me of tea, and I got completely washed away by it.

Thus ends my first weeks’ adventures in Japan. I look forward to having many more as the year goes on. Until then, I will continue on with my training and hope that my lesson plan tomorrow is a high enough quality to get me to the branch school.

Until next time, from the far side of the world!

The Departure and Arrival in Retrospect

4 am Breakfast

4 am Breakfast with Flat Kristin at the airport. By this point, I was completely exhausted. Best part: I haven’t even gone anywhere yet.

Tiny planes are frightening. I managed not to cry until I took off from Detroit. I felt entitled to it. After all, I was on about an hour and a half of sleep and on a plane the size of a school bus, leaving my home state behind for at least a year and praying to God that we didn’t crash. The familiar slipped away, and off I flew. An hour later, I was in Chicago, already nauseous beyond all reason.

Cue plane number 2: slightly bigger, but still, I cried during take-off. It’s that nostalgic feeling of leaving something familiar behind. Chicago was, for me, the final frontier. It marked the farthest west I remember being. I nodded off on the plane and woke up to find we were flying over some dessert mountains. The first thing I did when I landed was call my dad to tell him we made it safely. The second thing I did was hunt down some food. I spent $10 on hummus and $3.50 on a vitamin water, and I felt no remorse. After all, this was my last meal in America, but I had to fly another 6,000 miles, so I didn’t want to eat something heavy.

And, at last, the plane to Japan. I got teary-eyed in San Fransisco during take-off, but I didn’t cry. I sat near the back of the plane between two Japanese men who kept bumping me. I slept seven hours of the flight and spent the other three eating, drinking, or using the restroom. Then, we landed.

As I stepped off of the plane, a wave of heat hit me, not like a ton of bricks but like a wet down-feather blanket. It was the sort of thing that shouldn’t be crushing but winds up being crushing just for the shock of it. I wandered through the airport, retrieved my luggage (tip: buy weird-colored luggage and luggage tags. It makes your bags easier to find… thanks for the hideous red luggage tags, mom, and thanks for the magenta bags and blue jelly tags, grandma), and proceeded through customs without a hitch.

Ofuro

An ofuro. If I ever come home, I’m going to need one of these…

One of the secretaries was there to meet me at the airport. By then, I began to feel the thing I chugged almost a gallon of water to avoid: jet lag. Dizzy, displaced, and a little distracted, the secretary helped me ship my luggage to the branch school (it was about 2,500 yen for 2 bags) and took me to meet two of my fellow trainees. The third was arriving on a later plane and would arrive later.

Once we were together, we boarded a train that took us from the airport to another train station. (I’m still really bad with place names, so bear with me). This first train was incredibly nice; the seats swiveled so we could all talk with each other. I was just content looking out the window at the ocean, the mountains, and everything around me.

We then took another train to Daikokucho Station and walked the short distance to our hotel. The size strangely didn’t bother me and still doesn’t. It’s small, but it’s comfortable, complete with three futons, an oshiire (Japanese-style closet), a couch and TV, a small balcony, and, of course, the absolutely necessary bidet and ofuro.

There is a 24-hour discount grocery store around the corner. We all bought dinner and settled in, me with the knowledge that the next day, still jet-lagged, I would spend nine hours in my first day of training.

So it all begins…

Wait… it’s WHAT DAY?! (The End of Pre-Departure)

Wait… what?! Holy crap! Where did my time go? I want my time back! I stopped ripping pages out of my word-a-day calendar to stop time, but apparently, my tactics have failed entirely. The day for heading off to Japan has finally arrived, and I find myself… well, for lack of a better term… scared shitless.

And excited. Very excited. But scared nonetheless. Because change simply does that to me. I know I’m not just entering a new culture. I’m getting ready to change as a person. I don’t feel ready. I don’t believe you should ever feel ready. Nonetheless, my time has come, and I prepare to fly westward with an open mind.

Because of my sudden panic, I overlooked eating anything more than an apple for dinner. I have started my mass water intake and am actually feeling drowsy despite my lingering nervousness/excitement.

I spent most of the day wrapping up last-minute packing things. I had my friend Melissa along to help and bought her lunch. Cue tips for packing:

  1. Make sure you have everything you need BEFORE you start packing. It really sucks to find out that you forgot toothpaste at the last minute. Making lists is a good way to avoid this.
  2. Find a packing buddy. If someone else is going with you, it’s nice to have moral support and a helping hand so when you set things down and have a lapse of short-term memory, you have one less thing to have a heart attack about. This is also handy for tip number 3.
  3. Make an itemized list of everything in each bag. I put these lists in each of the bags, but you could also make one master list and keep it in your carry-on. It doesn’t have to be anything super-specific, but I feel this will help reduce the stress once I land in Japan. I won’t have to rummage through bags to find things because I’ll already know what’s in them.
  4. Put everything in one suitcase first, then divide the full weight between two bags. I did this because I plan on buying some souvenirs, and I wanted some extra luggage space in case I can’t ship them home. Of course, you can pack your carry on and personal item first, but I wanted to make sure I had enough room to pack some things I buy there. When I did this, I learned I had a heck of a lot more room than I thought I did and was actually able to pack some extra things.
  5. Finally, remember to keep calm. Moving to Japan (or really, going on any long trip) can be stressful, but keeping a positive mindset and trying not to go totally postal will make the experience even more enjoyable than it’s already going to be. You can avoid this by keeping in mind the things that keep you calm. For me, that happens to be writing fiction, reading books, and listening to music, so I plan to spend most of my plane ride doing those things… oh, and sleeping of course. ^_^

It is really hard to say good-bye to everyone in the States. Still, I take comfort in knowing that the internet will connect us… sometimes… and that my friends have awesome things going on in their lives, too… new boyfriends, pregnancies, marriages, moving out, new jobs, new degrees… I take solace in knowing that everyone has a door they need to walk through, and that even though mine is on the far side of the world, we’re still walking together, pursuing our own dreams.

I want to close this entry with a line of poetry that brings me great hope. Although I profess I dislike much American Literature, I do enjoy a Finnish symphonic metal band called Nightwish, and they actually quoted this line in their song “Song of Myself.” I later found out it originated from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and find myself delighted at the direct allusion. May it bring you the joy and reassurance that it has brought me:

I want to travel where life travels,
Following it’s permanent lead.
Where the air tastes like snow music,
Where grass smells like fresh-born Eden,
I would pass no man, no stranger, no tragedy or rapture,
I would bathe in a world of sensation,
Love, goodness and simplicity.

T-Minus Seven Days

Somehow, time wound up in the passing lane and whirred by. Now, I have a week until my departure. I know what I need to pack, but I haven’t started. I’m still working my way through things I need to finish reading. I am still frantically trying to fill the final pages of a journal I started writing in two years ago so I don’t have to take it with me. I need to print some things. I need to study my Japanese. I need to. I need to. I need to.

But more than anything else, I need to relax. My past few days have been stressful for more reasons than my impending departure. I’ve been trying frantically to keep a disagreement between friends peaceful, and I finally lost it last night. Now, I face the possibility of losing a friend, and the pain is eating me up, a consequence I was well aware of when I engaged in total rage mode, but it doesn’t change the fact that my head has hurt a bit all day, that my vision has been blurry due to the stress and fatigue, and that when my parents started arguing in the car on the way to dinner, I almost broke down completely.

Time doesn’t stop for things like that, and neither can I.

Today was wonderful in many ways despite the complications I face in light of the quarrel and the plane ride. I got to eat Panera bread with a friend I haven’t seen since June, and we wandered the mall for a while. I finally found a travel alarm clock and bought batteries for it as well. Then, I went to Teavanna, and the gentleman running the store offered me a cup of gyokuro imperial, one of the highest-quality green teas in the world. His kindness and generosity touched me, and I graciously accepted (in Japan, though, I would have been sure to politely refuse at least twice before accepting). The complexity of the flavor is incredible beyond words. The first sip tastes strongly of tea, but as it fades, a bunch of different flavors pop up on every area of your tongue. It was an incredible experience that served to remind me just how close my departure is.

More exciting still, I came home to find that I had received a piece of paper that has absolutely nothing to do with going to Japan, and one that I didn’t think I’d get to see until after I came back. Today, my Master of Arts degree came in the mail, and that just made the day all that much more thrilling. I’m so happy to have gotten this far in life, and I’m happy that my road is changing directions for a bit. The degree makes me feel both accomplished and nostalgic. I’m probably going to miss taking classes, but I’m of the firm belief that you just start learning new things after leaving the classroom.

It’s surreal that in only seven days, I will be in Japan. I’m scared and anxious, but I’m also excited! I’ve been talking to a friend of a friend and getting her advice about settling, and when I discussed the landing and training protocol with the recruiters on Monday, I was informed that one of the people I’m training with is from Britain. Better still, she’ll be going to the other school in Nara. I’m excited to meet her, and excited to experience Japan with her. I hope we’ll become friends quickly and keep each other sane!

Tomorrow, I get to say farewell to one of my old bosses from my undergraduate days. I’m not sure if she knows about me leaving the country yet, but she’s about to find out! 🙂

Also tomorrow, I begin my packing. Tips to follow!

T-Minus 2 Weeks

Where does time go after it passes? It seems like only this  morning that I learned I even had a job in Japan. Now, with two weeks left before my departure, I find myself facing the pressure of last-minute preparation, including investment in luggage, a last-minute Japanese language and English Grammar cram, purchasing some omiyage, and making sure I have plenty of decent socks. Of course, I plan to take care of most of that Monday since I am scheduled to have my final phone conversation with the recruiters at 11 am.

As for what I have been doing in the mean time, I have spent the last week or so traveling around the states of Kentucky and Michigan, saying good-bye to a lot of awesome people. Last weekend, I visited my great grandmother for a few days, and my great aunt decided to throw a cook-out in my honor. I was more than thrilled, and it was nice to see so many of my relatives (although my family is so big that I can’t keep my uncles straight from my cousin… ^_^’). They call me their “career girl” down there and wished me all the best, and I also got some lovely pictures of them to show my Japanese students.

After a single night at home, I went north of Detroit to see one of my old professors one more time. She was a significant impact on my choice to become a Christian, so I really wanted to see her again before I left for Japan. We went antiquing, had some really nice tea, and played some cards. Next morning, I was on the road to Mount Pleasant and Central Michigan University for one last farewell to my undergraduate friends from the Writing Center. They put me up for a couple of nights, and I got to finish the “bucket list” I couldn’t because of post-thesis exhaustion, allergies, etc. I also got to see a couple of graduate students I hung out with, one from the math department and a couple from the Writing Center. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people that I hadn’t planned on seeing!

I finally came back home today to find that the watch I ordered on Amazon had arrived. Other than being about a half an inch too big for my wrist, it is in perfect working order. I’m hoping that my dad can shorten the band. Otherwise, I’m more than willing to take it to a jeweler. I just don’t want to have to order another one with my departure date so close.

But the travel isn’t over. A weekend in Ohio with my dad using my laptop means that I probably won’t be able to post again.

I recently changed the URL of this blog, and I feel that before I close this entry, I should explain why. I felt like it reflected my situation better. In Japan, I will be a gaijin (foreigner), and this is a solo mission (this second part was inspired by my family, who asked me on multiple occasions whether or not I was going alone). Despite the added pressure of being alone, I know my friends and family will be thinking of me and supporting me in their own way, so I’m trying to stay calm for their sakes as well as mine. Suffice to say that at this moment, I am feeling perfectly fine, but during my first morning in Mount Pleasant, I was panicked beyond all reason. The morning before, I had a horrible anxiety dream about my new job–well, actually about my old job at Pizza Hut, but I think the dream symbolizes my anxiety for the approaching change. It’s normal to be afraid and worried at this point in time. After all, Japan is the far side of the world for someone like me, someone who has lived about an hour from the Canadian border for practically her whole life and has never even bothered to go.

So goes preparing for the adventure. Next week features cramming suitcases, cramming Japanese, and cramming English grammar. I feel like there should be a meme here. Oh, look… a meme!