Reflections on Japan

Finally, just over a month after I got back, I’m ready to write my last post on the trip.  I’d meant to do this last week, but after forcing myself to write the last four posts all in one sitting, I was all blogged out.

Contrary to my normal style, my Japan posts consisted of many more photos than words.  That wasn’t out of laziness or boredom, it was a reflection on the trip itself. This post will likely contain more English words than I spoke during my nearly 2 weeks there.  Aside from some storekeepers in touristy areas and some of the younger generation, the number of Japanese who spoke English was fairly small.  Add in the fact that I’m naturally reserved around strangers (and the Japanese are naturally reserved in general), and it’s no surprise that there wasn’t a lot of small talk going on.

But the lack of spoken words didn’t diminish my experiences and observations. Here are just a few of the things I want to be sure to remember when I’m elderly and senile and looking back on the good ol’ days:

1. Japan is CLEAN.  Amazingly clean.  I’m used to NYC – often dirty, even in the richest areas, and full of rude, ignorant people.  Tokyo is larger and more crowded, yet I never saw the slightest bit of trash on the ground, not even a cigarette butt, despite the fact that a great many people smoke.  Even the subway platforms were spotless.

2. The Japanese are also almost-flawlessly polite.  I never heard a raised voice the entire time I was there, no matter how crowded or miserable the surroundings were.

3. It’s weird to be the only white person.  I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of us, but I also thought there would be a sizable enough ex-pat population so I wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb.  No such luck. I can’t tell you how many times I discreetly glanced around the subway car/city block/museum/store and confirmed that, yes, I was indeed the only non-Asian person in the visible area. I was stared at nearly everywhere I went, especially when I was purchasing food in the local convenience store.  But, true to the polite nature of the Japanese, they weren’t malicious stares, and no one ever said anything….that I could understand, anyway 😉 The only slightly unpleasant experience was when a group of seven-or-eight year old boys decided it would be a great idea to come over and swarm around me to satisfy their curiosity   But, having a ten year old brother myself, I know boys will be boys and there was no harm done.

4.  Traveling is about going outside of your comfort zone.  When I travel in the US, my meals usually consist of Subway and/or McDonalds, because they’re cheap and not extraordinarily unhealthy.  But in Japan I made a concerted effort to try new things….within reason, of course, because I’m allergic to seafood and didn’t want to spend my vacation miserably sick.  I think I did fairly well.

5.  History is beautiful. There’s just something about walking through a temple that was built 1000 years ago.  It’s especially striking when you can walk 1/2 a mile in any direction and be in the center of a bustling metropolis.

6.  Adjusting back to the US was almost as hard as adjusting to Japan.  I had a layover in LA on the way back.  I can’t tell you how many times I had to remind myself to walk on the right side of the hallway (not the left) and to say “excuse me” and bite back the “sumimasen” that automatically bubbled up if I bumped into someone. It was weird.

7. If I ever moved to Japan, I would become more fashionable by default. If you picked out ten random girls, one might be wearing jeans and one might be wearing flats.  And they wouldn’t be the same girl.  Next to all of these impeccably dressed ladies, I felt like a slob in my dark jeans and black sneakers.

8. It’s ALWAYS best to blend in as much as possible, but sometimes you have to bend the rules a little.  I’d been wondering whether to post this story or let it fade away in my memory, but just because I’m not proud of it doesn’t mean I should ignore it. You see, I bought a ticket from Tokyo to Narita airport for 1200 yen on the day of my departure.  I misunderstood the fare signs and thought I had purchased a ticket for the super-express train (since I had paid only 1000 yen to get from Narita to Tokyo on the 1st day, I assumed the extra 200 yen charge was for the 10 minute faster trip).  When the ticket collector came by, I learned that the ticket for the express train was really 2400 yen, and the 1200 yen ticket was just an increase in price for the same train I’d taken on the way there.  Here’s the problem- I didn’t have 1200 extra yen, I was down to my last 800. The conductor told me to talk to the people at the airport station to settle up.  I fully intended to get some yen out of an ATM and pay the difference (1200 yen is about $14), but when I got there, there were no ATMs or anything similar in sight.  And the gates to go through to the airport didn’t have any barriers.  So after about 10 minutes of deliberation, I just walked through.  My flight was going to leave in a couple of hours and I had no idea how long check-in and security would take.  Missing the flight was not an option.  So I skipped out on half the fare.  Am I proud of it? No way. I felt sick to my stomach.  But I did what I thought I had to do to get home and, in the grand scheme of things, it was an honest mistake and not such a heinous crime.  Next time I’ll triple check the fare charts to make sure I completely understand what I’m getting into. And keep more extra cash. Live and learn.

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