Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Japan at First Sight

Invoking the Muse

Sing to me of a man, Muse, the man, who having wandered the lengths of the land, driven away by time and fate, saw and learned the minds of the people around him, and told his story for others to follow. Can there be such ability in gaijin minds?

...might not make sense if you haven't read the Odyssey or the Aeneid. Just the first paragraphs will suffice. I did have somewhat of an adventure in my small little mountain town. As is the case with all of Japan, there are mountains ready, willing, and able to be climbed at any given moment. This was my opportunity. Whether you're in Hiroshima, Aomori, or Matsue, everyone should climb at least one of the mountains surrounding the area; it gives you a good opportunity to meet local adventurers, take aerial photos, and get some exercise.

If you are in the Higashi-Hiroshima area, there's a campground with trails to two decent peaks not far from the train station. Everyone at Hiroshima University (広島大学) knows one peak as the broadcast mountain, as all the TV broadcasting equipment is stuffed onto one mountaintop.


When I first arrived in the land of the rising sun, I was a little taken aback. Of course, I hadn't bought into the Hollywood stereotype of Samurai and Karate on every corner, but I didn't know exactly what to expect. This is long overdue - here were some of my first visual impressions of Japan:

1. The women here are inherently smaller. This makes it incredibly difficult to discern someone's age, especially if you can't see her face.

2. You really don't notice a huge difference in height between foreigners and Japanese people. For the most part, the Japanese are shorter, but there are plenty towering over me (181 cm).

3. Groups of wandering school children are quite common, with or without a teacher. They move in herds, are known to shout and laugh, and will always reach out to your typical foreigner. Crickey, look at them move.

4. School uniforms are everywhere. On or off the clock, chances are anyone under 18 is supporting a uniform. They often commute by train, so you'll see the same white shirt, blue jacket, and knee-high socks.

5. MacDonald's is common, but 7-11 even more so. Seattle's Best and Starbucks are around. So is Subway, in certain cities. Coca-Cola is in every vending machine, but I wouldn't expect too many food brand names.

6. Train stations can be especially daunting your first time traveling. Determining the differences between the Shinkansen and local trains, local and limited express - each varies slightly with their timetables. What can I tell you? It takes time. If you happen to be living in a small town with nothing but a platform for a train station (e.g. Kinmeiji 欽明路), you'll still have to deal with JR to get around.

7. Bowing. Two businessman meeting in front of a train station. JR staff traveling between cars (they bow before they leave the car). Even in Fuji Grand, a cashier bowing before she heads back to restock the shelves. I'm sure there are other common situations, but I've noticed - leaving an area with other people, and a professional meeting. Sometimes when you make a purchase at a store you can expect to receive a bow. I have had this happen maybe 40% of the time; perhaps they just don't think foreigners will respond to it.

8. Everyday food. I love Japanese food of course, but I'm still a foreigner - rice and fish just aren't in my blood... that would be rather disgusting. Sandwiches, at least the kind I'm used to, aren't very common in Japan. Lawson, 7-11, and other convenience stores sell prepackaged ones, of course, but they're usually made of cheap white bread, terrible meat, and covered in mayonnaise. I still can't stomach them, so I make my own "American-style" sandwiches for lunch if I'm not settling on a bento.

9. You'll occasionally see the elderly hunchback. A woman who stands upright at about 5'1", but is literally bent like an L-pipe to stand at about 4'0". Don't stare. I imagine they'd feel insulted if you offered to help them climb the stairs. They may be "disabled", but they're perfectly independent. What this is a result of, I'm not entirely sure.

Of course there are many more... for a later time. Wish me luck booking a flight for Sapporo. Otsu kare.

No comments: