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The Things I’ve Missed August 11, 2013

Posted by soratobuzou in Travel Log.
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Well, it’s the end. It’s bittersweet – I will probably never see most of these people and places again, which is sad in a stronger way than just goodbye, but the comforts of home and family beckon.

I could write on and on about what I’m going to miss – the conbinis and vending machines that put cheap food at my fingertips everywhere; the trains that get me to the next city in less than an hour, and for less than five bucks; the cleanliness of public spaces; the timeliness of public transport; the temples and shrines and traditional houses; the crowds and colors and sounds; and, of course, all the people that were in my life, for however brief a period.

But I’ll have the rest of my life to miss those things, and I don’t think I’ll forget them any time soon. What I might forget are the things I’ve missed while I’ve been in Japan. Once they’re a part of my daily life again, will I revert to taking them for granted? I hope not, but just in case, a list of four things I’ve missed in Japan:

Family, Friends, Home, etc.

Pretty obvious, pretty straightforward.

Diversity

Figured I’d get the big one out of the way early. There’s a reason Japan is known for its homogeneity. Not that the people I met were not individuals – there was definitely a wide array of personalities and interests – but there is the fact of ethnic homogeneity and the sometimes surprising lack of awareness of other cultures. I won’t say it’s bad, but I’ve always lived in relatively diverse places, even by American standards, and I miss it. There are all the ivory tower reasons for the desirability of diversity, but honestly, it’ll just be nice not to be stared at everywhere I go.

Wi-Fi

Oh, Wi-Fi, how I have missed thee and thy lovely coverage. Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be – I had wifi in my room and at the big conbinis, which ended up being enough to get what I needed done – but I have developed a renewed appreciation for having phone access wherever I want it.

Mexican Food

It was a big joke among us in Japan that the one thing we wouldn’t be able to get in Japan was Mexican food. And at first it was just that – a joke. But I realized just how much I’d been craving Mexican food when my heart leaped at the sight of taco-looking things being prepared at one of the food stalls of Gion Matsuri. Alas, as I was rushing to get in line, I realized they were just okonomiyaki, but I vowed then and there that I would get myself some Mexican food as soon as I could back home.

So that’s it. Four things I missed in Japan. And now, home!

The Great Wakayama Adventure August 2, 2013

Posted by soratobuzou in Travel Log.
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The last two weeks of Japan have been crazy, but the peak was probably our adventure into Wakayama, a neighboring state known for its gorgeous beaches and historical sites. We only had two days to explore, but we made the most of it!

The trip was a particularly beautiful experience for me, as I had suggested it on a whim and then put very little planning into it, so seeing it all materialize – and so perfectly! – was surreal. Basically, I spent the whole trip waiting for something we had not accounted for to go drastically wrong. Instead, everything went smoothly, and it was magical.

To be fair, we didn’t start off on the best of notes. As one of the conditions of the wonderfully cheap rail passes we’d purchased for the weekend, we could only sit in unreserved seats on the trains we rode. When the unreserved car of our first train ended up being full, we had no choice but to squeeze into whatever space we could find. Luckily, it ended up being more fun than we’d expected, and seats opened up before we got too uncomfortable.

There was another short moment of panic when we finally got to Shirahama, the beautiful beach town we were staying in for the night. As we were waiting for the bus (which was running unusually late) we received panicked messages from my roomie, who had helped us book the room. Apparently we were supposed to check in by nine, and we were already late. The messages and the tardy bus put the group on edge. We had already given up hope on the complementary dinner that was supposed to come with our stay, but if we lost the rooms, too, we had nowhere to go. When we got to the hotel, we braced ourselves for the worst.

To our surprise, the staff greeted us enthusiastically and rushed us to the dining room so we could get dinner before we even paid. Dinner was absolutely delicious, a viking extravaganza of sushi and every other Japanese food we could want. The hotel itself was a lovely resort with Japanese-style rooms, onsens, massage beds, arcade games, a mountain path, and free yukata you could borrow for your stay. Relaxing there that night and the next morning was probably one of the highlights of the trip.

The next day, the weather was perfect for our beach outing, and the beach itself was as beautiful as advertised. The waves were a bit strong, which resulted in a few cuts and bruises, multiple lost sun glasses, and… a hole in someone’s ear drum, but somehow the mood stayed buoyant and lovely.

From then on, it was smooth sailing. We had lovely food, made it to the Nachi fire festival just in time to watch the giant torches being carried up the mountain, had plenty of room on the train back… Perhaps this part is better summed up with a picspam:

In retrospect, I suppose there were a few hitches along the way, but everything was resolved so easily that the trip retains its rosy glow in my memory. And, of course, the people I got to go with were a huge part of why it was so much fun. Shout out to the Wakayama crew~! So that’s that – the great Wakayama adventure.

Why I Wore the American Flag on the Fourth July 5, 2013

Posted by soratobuzou in Travel Log.
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My childhood as a second generation immigrant was littered with episodes of identity confusion and cultural clashes. Living at the junction of two very different – and often very contradictory – cultures sowed the seeds of my fascination with national identity. Some people, I’m sure, feel more comfortable without a sense of national identity at all, and maybe that is ideal, but for me a sense of national identity is something I feel whether or not I want to. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say I fully understand my relationships to India and the US – I don’t think they are concrete things that can be fully understood – but I did eventually experience a sense of reconciliation with these two equally integral parts of my identity.

But my childhood struggles were just the beginning of a series of crises that have slowly shaped my national identity. For example, as silly as it sounds, I had a mini-crisis when deciding to minor in Japanese. I didn’t really intend to live in Japan long term, so the decision to spend so much time learning its language was a source of cognitive dissonance. What did it mean that I wanted to dedicate so much time to learning a language I had little occasion to encounter in real life? Did I actually want to live in another country long term once I had the chance? Why? Was I dissatisfied with American culture? And if not, why was I bothering? How ought I feel? Did I owe America and India some allegiance that should preclude serious interest in any other culture? Eventually I contented myself with the answer that learning another language is fun mental exercise in itself that doesn’t need further justification.

Then I actually decided to live in Japan for two months. This decision wasn’t nearly as distressing – it made sense that I wanted to take a break from several consecutive semesters of school in a foreign country where I could befriend people I’d have no occasion to meet otherwise, and it made sense that I’d pick a country whose language I could speak relatively fluidly. But as I was packing I did wonder again if I’d ever want to stay in Japan long term.

And the answer was no.

The problem is mainly that Japan’s population is incredibly homogeneous. Although the Japanese people aren’t on the whole belligerent to foreigners, they are unlikely to accept foreigners as their own – even if said ‘foreigner’ was born and raised in Japan. I know Korean students here whose families have been in Japan for several generations and who still don’t have a Japanese passport. (On a side note, Korean victims of the bombings on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were not recognized as such until recently and denied associated health benefits.) Then there is the pervasive assumption that people are foreigners if they don’t look Japanese, even if they may have lived in Japan their whole lives. I understand that it is an inevitable consequence of the incredibly small numbers of foreigners here, but that’s just not an environment I want for my children.

There are things, too – the tendency to suppress individuality, the rigid gender roles, the company culture. None of these are inherently bad, they are just not things that I want to live with long term, and the reason for that is the values that I developed as I was raised in America. Ultimately, it comes down to the simple fact that I feel most at home in American culture.

Somehow, thinking through this inspired in me a moment of incredible fondness for America. It’s hardly perfect – in spite of the diversity of its population, it’s still fighting racism and sexism and all sorts of other unfair discrimination, for one – but no country is perfect. And for now, American is my imperfect country. Will it always be that way? I don’t know, but I packed a shirt with the American flag on it to wear on the fourth.

Iyo’s Bike, I Turned Nineteen!, and Other Short Stories July 4, 2013

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CALL ME MAYBE

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There’s a plaza outside the cafeteria where bands perform during lunch time. Unfortunately, their timing conflicts with our class schedules, so we don’t get to watch them anymore, but we did see one performance before classes officially started. The group was the I-Pop band, a part of the English speaking I-Chat club, that performs a wide variety of English songs. Some of the Japanese roommates are in the band, so we went out to cheer them on.

They sang a few songs we didn’t know, and then, suddenly Call Me Maybe.

You can never really escape Call Me Maybe.

AQUARIUM STORY, SCENE ONE

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We were walking past a tank full of fish when suddenly a man behind us said, “おいしそう!” That is, “They look delicious!”

FERRIS WHEEL TWO

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The second Ferris wheel I rode in Osaka was the Ferris wheel outside the aquarium. Its cars were rainbow colored.

I TURNED NINETEEN!

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Shortly after our Hep 5 adventure there was a small party for the early-June birthday kids. It was nice. There was cake.

AQUARIUM STORY, SCENE TWO

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I was sitting in front of a tank of spider crabs when a girl started asking her mum, “焼いて食べない? 焼いて食べない?” That is, “Can’t we fry them and eat them? Can’t we?”

IYO’S BIKE

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Iyo’s bike is bright orange and usually parked in front of our apartment. It’s a lovely bike, and I really only have one complaint about it – I have to ride it sometimes, futari-nori style. That is, Iyo does the driving and I balance awkwardly on the rack in the back.

Three points, as context for my discomfort:

1) Remaining perched on the rack of a bike with nothing to hold takes a significant amount of balance. Unless I anticipate Iyo’s movements and shift accordingly, we’ll both end up on the ground. Luckily, reflexes generally cover this, but I do spend most of our rides awkwardly nervous that I’m going send us sprawling.

2) Osaka bike traffic (and traffic in general, to a lesser degree) is crazy. I usually just tell myself that Iyo is used to it, so I should trust her judgment, but that’s a little less comforting when we’re literally driving into an oncoming car. Then I remember that one time I read Japan has twice as many bike accidents per capita as the US does.*

3) I haven’t ridden a bike in years.

To be fair, we have yet to actually meet with an accident (although there was that one time we almost crashed into another bike turning a tight corner…), and I’ve accordingly gotten over most of my discomfort. And, honestly, I think it may be more my lack of control over the bike that bothers me than any actual risk.

Still. I get a little sad every time Iyo asks if I don’t want to take the bike.

FERRIS WHEEL ONE

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On our first weekend in Japan we went into Umeda for some exploring. There was lots of shopping to be done (I won’t even comment on the eleven-story-tall malls, but I will say that the thrift stores in Japan are like miraculous presents from the shopping god; unlike their American counterparts, they abound with cute clothes in the right size at a beautiful price), but by the end of the day a few of us were getting a bit tired of it so we decided to ride the giant Ferris wheel in the middle of Osaka at the Hep 5 shopping mall.

It was lovely. The feeling of floating above the huge city was beautiful, especially since we were all still on that tourist high. The car even had a sound jack so we could listen to mood music.

Later we learned about an urban myth that couples who rode this Ferris wheel together were doomed to break up, but we’re all still friends, so I guess that doesn’t apply outside romantic relationships.

That’s it, really. It was a lovely moment.

First Steps in the Land of the Rising Sun June 2, 2013

Posted by soratobuzou in Travel Log.
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View of the sign from the observatory.

View of the airport sign from the observatory.

So. I’m in Japan.

Getting here was surprisingly easy. The check-in and security processes that baffled and intimidated me as a kid turned out to be fairly straightforward, and the flights were rather short compared to the eighteen hour extravaganzas I remember from childhood visits to Mother India. It seems too easy, actually. Still haven’t processed that I’m actually in another country.

But I am. And so far it’s been lovely.* I even have my first Japanese moniesss.

First Japanese monies. The exchange clerk was really friendly!

Aforementioned first Japanese monies. The exchange clerk was really friendly!

Within half an hour of my landing I met, by happy chance, another girl in my program. Sara and I joined forces to explore the giant airport, and it was totally worth lugging our bags everywhere, because it is beautiful. The bright, sweeping, modern architecture filled with quaint-looking shops and eateries definitely reflects the fusion of traditional and modern that Japan is known for. On the top floor they even have an observatory, perfect for watching the sunrise.

Three views of the airport.

Three views of the airport.

We, unfortunately, missed our first sunrise in the land of the rising sun, but for a good cause! That is, making our first purchases in Japan – food, obviously. We went to the only 24/7 food sources in the place, a cute little restaurant called Pista and the famed Japanese vending machines. These vending machines served pretty normal fare – just drinks – but I’m looking forward to the more eccentric ones! We got salmon onigiri from Pista, and it was delicious, especially since I was rather hungry. I may or may not have gone back for seconds. While eating we also made the acquaintance of two older men who were off to the famed fish market of Tsukiji. They were very friendly and advised us to stay in Japan as long as we could. Alas, Tech starts so early that I won’t be able to stay much beyond the program’s end date, but Sara won’t be leaving until after I start school. I’m so jealous!

Sara with her first purchase - milk tea from the vending machine.

The lovely Sara with her first purchase – milk tea from a vending machine.

Sara’s on her flight now, but I’ve a few more hours to kill before mine. As more and more people come in, it’s beginning to sink in that I am in Japan. I suppose it is different – the ramen shops, the Japanese chatter, the talking walls, the futuristic toilets, the hand dryers I probably wouldn’t have figured out if another girl hadn’t used them right before me. I even saw a group of kids in those stereotypical Japanese uniforms, on a school trip, I’m assuming (to be fair, private school students in the US dress that way, too). It’s different, but I’ve yet to get that sudden culture shock that I crave. Maybe it’ll come in Osaka. Maybe I’m just destined for subconscious shocking.

Anyway, I’ve just been doing more exploring and consuming since Sara left, so picspam!

A vending machine and a shop in the Edo-themed area.

A vending machine and a shop in the Edo-themed area.

More shops in the Edo area and the mascot at the "Cool Zone".

More shops in the Edo area and the mascot at the “Cool Zone”.

Looks like Seven Eleven is branching out. Plus, payphone.

Looks like Seven Eleven is branching out. Plus, payphone.

A pretty eatery and my brunch (chicken something or another ramen).

A pretty eatery and my brunch (chicken something or another ramen).

Table setting and the sign for the Starry Cafe with some Cool Zone merchandise.

Table setting and the sign for the Starry Cafe with some Cool Zone merchandise.

I feel so tourist-y. Well, that’s it for today, will write more once I’ve had some more material experiences. Until then~

*I’ve literally been here for less than half a day, and all of that’s been in an airport, so this should be taken with lots of salt.