Wednesday, October 17, 2001: I’m here. I’m finally here. After so many months of preparation, anxiety, and excitement, not to mention the past 16 hours on a plane, I am now in Japan. Country of geisha and rice, samurai and Sony. It’s warmer here than in Ottawa and the diesel and concrete smell of the city bring with it nostalgic memories of other far-away places I’ve been. It smells like September, like a new year. I have always felt the Jewish people had it right. What does it matter in January that the Earth starts again its journey around Sol? What significance does that have for me? Nothing, other than cold toes and overpriced drinks. For me, the fall has always been the new year, bringing a new classes, new clothes, new resolutions, and new adventures.
I had decided to come to Japan for a bit of adventure but I also had some practical reasons. After graduating from university, not only unsure of what I wanted to do with my life, I also found myself drowning in student debt. I had heard that a person teaching English could make a pretty good living and I am hoping to send a sizable chunk of my pay cheque home every month in order to pay off some of my loan. Up until this experience, my travels were decided by chance (a seat sale), or ex-pat friends (save on accommodation), or simply the prestige of being able to say I was there (I was the only one I knew that had spent six months in Russia, only three short years after communism fell). Coming to Japan was my first experience traveling for entirely practical reasons. I felt no sentimental pull to visit Asia. My goal was to earn money and pay off some debt. Of course, I will meet friendly people and see wonderful sights, but I’m not expecting Japan to change me.
My flight over was rather tortuous. Nothing went wrong but it was very long and boring. Our dinner was served within the first two hours of the 11-hour flight and it was served with chopsticks. There is nothing more frustrating than being hungry but not being able to eat your meager dinner quickly. <As a side note: eating rice with chopsticks would be one of the last skills I learn while living in Japan.> And by the time we got breakfast, six hours later, I inhaled it without tasting it. Thankfully it was a muffin and there was no need for chopsticks.
I didn’t sleep on the plane because I never can when I’m beginning a journey. And I still wasn’t back to my normal self after a bout of nasty stomach flu that broadsided me four days before I left. The flight was five hours to Vancouver and then eleven hours to Osaka. That’s a long time for someone to sit in one place. Especially someone who has conditioned herself to be on the go 24/7 with school, work, studying and extracurricular activities. The idleness of flight was starting to make me bit loopy by the time the plane began to make its descent into the Land of the Rising Sun.
Our exhausted bunch of newbies (there were six of us on the plane and then we met four more for a grand total of 10 from Canada, England and Scotland) was met at the Osaka airport by a company representative. Tall, blond, and funky, she was the type of person I imagine any western company would want as a rep. She figured everything out for us so her gaggle of ex-pats all got to leave their brains in their suitcases and rest their weary bones. Despite the cute little pictures on every sign and the smattering of English words throughout the terminal, trying to figure everything out on our own would’ve been extremely difficult. I was so tired, I probably would have collapsed in a corner, rocking back and forth with my arms wrapped around my knees until some nice old lady picked me up and found me a home.
After what felt like ages of waiting at the airport and then walking to the subway and then walking to the office and then waiting to get our welcome packages and then walking to the hotel, all of us got to our rooms at our business hotel in bustling downtown Osaka for much needed showers and a change of clothes.
There was a knock on my door shortly after settling into my small yet cozy room. An English couple letting me know that a few people were meeting downstairs in the lobby in about an hour to find a place to eat. My initial thought was “Oh my God, I just want to sleep” but I quickly agreed to partake of the merry-making for a few more hours. The walk to the hotel only whet my appetite to see some of the sights of this city known for its good food and laidback attitude towards life. Our company rep said that Tokyo is government and history – the brains of Japan – but Osaka, and its people, is the heart and soul.
I started to get freshened up and was faced with my first bout of culture shock. The bathroom. I blindly walked into the hook on the door as it was a good six inches lower than it is in Canada. The toilet seat is smaller and slightly uncomfortable and as soon as I sat down, I heard water running. I got up to find out where it was coming from and realized that it was a camouflage sound so that nobody outside the bathroom can hear your bodily functions. Interesting. The shower was also lower so I had to remove the shower nozzle and use it as a hand-held shower instead. At 5’6”, I’ve never been considered tall but I’m starting to feel a little like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians.
My room is on the 10th floor, where I’ll be for the next 5 nights. I’ve been told that the person I’m replacing in Gifu doesn’t leave for another few days, which is why I’m the only one staying in Osaka for so long. The room is small but very similar to any other hotel room. Again, there are subtle differences. Instead of a bathrobe, there is a two-piece cotton kimono-style outfit. The bed is slightly shorter and narrower than ours. There is black tea and green tea but no coffee or herbal teas.
The view is nothing spectacular during the day, just concrete buildings really, but at night, it’s a different world altogether. The neon signs are ablaze with kanji (the Chinese characters used in written Japanese), logos and giant crabs and there’s even a sign that says “Happy Condom”. This is what I imagine big city Japan to be like – a surreal mix of tradition and modernity. The English is English and yet strangely Japanese. Like the cute, neon, happy-faced, dancing, cartoon condom beside the English name, flashing brightly into the Osakan sky.
I was finally clean, slightly more awake and definitely ready to eat. I went down to the lobby and met the group. The great thing about travelers is that generally, everyone is friendly because nobody knows anybody. We travelers make our way through life by our good nature. We are very adaptable, pleasant and never take ourselves too seriously. It’s really the only way to survive in a completely new setting. By this definition, it’s quite easy to predict who will last the year and who will not.
We were all at a bit of a loss for a place to eat as none of us had been to Japan before or really knew what to expect. We opted for safety and went for an “Italian” restaurant across the street; some place slightly familiar where we could be comfortable being foreigners and getting to know each other.
I’m here with an English language company called Nova. I had done some research on the web to find what the English schools here had to offer. Nova, along with Geos and Aeon, is one of the three biggest private English language schools in the country. There are some things about this company that would seem unpalatable to some, such as no traditional weekends or holidays off or that there seems to be little room for advancement within the company. But there are other aspects that the company offered that I felt were more important, such as the fact that your apartment is already set up for you and rent deducted from your pay so you don’t need to worry about it. Everyone seems to have some sort of misgivings – and I do as well – but even if Nova isn’t the greatest company to work for, any job is bearable if it’s with the right people. And I would enjoy working with everyone I’ve met so far.
Here in Osaka, there is a great deal of English. In fact, so much that you can easily forget that the general population doesn’t speak English. Not only can we get by in English but the Japanese are still very kind about it, unlike other countries I’ve been to. Perhaps in my smaller city of Gifu, there will be a greater need to learn some Japanese. At least if I know hiragana (the alphabet used for Japanese words) and katakana (the alphabet used for foreign words), I could read place names, station names, and signs for English things that don’t have a true translation like “video”, “television”, or “coffee”.
Most people I met yesterday are going to Nagoya tomorrow and apparently that’s quite a big city. Not as big as Osaka but supposedly very much like here in regards to atmosphere and appearance. I will be staying here a few days longer with another Canadian. Tomorrow, I will wander the city. But now, I can’t write any longer. I must sleep.