Tuesday, May 1, 2007

konichiwa back to cracker

Wow. Almost 3 months and 3 weeks ago I was getting on a plane and was destined for Cincinnati and then Detroit and Paris and then finally Tokyo. The fact that I was actually in Tokyo, some 7500 miles away from my home, my college, my family and friends took almost 3 weeks to fully sink in. Once it did, I began living here rather than just visiting. Small things like my commuter pass, business cards in Japanese and modest language made easier the transition from tourist to resident. Every moment brought with it new experiences and a better understanding of what makes this dense metropolis tick.

The relaxing atmosphere of the Temple Law program allowed me the flexibility to tour Japan. It’s hard to pick one thing that I liked the most. In part the society’s homogeneity defeats any one striking aspect. With a few notable exceptions, Japan is defined by its standardization, order, and harmony. People dress similarly, earn a similar amount, pray similarly, and act similarly. Although this is a generality, for the Japanese it is a point of pride.

Tokyo is a city of communities. Inside Tokyo there are districts, and inside the district are neighborhoods. Many US cities were designed in grids. Streets go in one direction and avenues in another. Japan is quite different. Japan is organized into blocks. Addresses wrap around these blocks. This design forms – or more likely, was formed by – smaller communities within their neighborhoods. Learning to get around Tokyo was sometimes a challenge, but getting lost was always a pleasure.

Some random thoughts on my experience…

Japan is efficient. The trains run every 4 minutes. At every station, lines indicate where the train doors will open and shut. The Japanese wait on both sides of the doors, forming a corridor through which passengers exit. The interoperability of two competing subway/train companies is incredible. One declining balance credit card will work for all subway and trains in the city.

The food is delicious and fast and hotter (in temperature) than my American mouth could handle. When you order ramen, the restaurant heats the soup, the bowl and the noodles and delivers it to your spot at the counter within seconds of being cooked. The restaurants here are very small, but there are so many on a city block that there is almost never a wait. I tried and enjoyed domestic delicacies, regional recipes, and some foreign fare. Initially forced to try new things, in time I began experimenting on my own (not likely to continue when I return).

The Japanese are polite. More than any other place I’ve ever been, the people in Japan are always on their best behavior. The Japanese are quick to apologize, whether they have made a mistake or not. The apologies effectively stifle the common skirmishes so often found elsewhere. The notable exception is that on the sidewalk; the Tokyoites leave it to the other person to move out of the way. Still, they always walk on the same side, preventing the sidewalk tango. The only time I see the Japanese argue is when they are trying to give up a subway seat to someone else. Each will look toward the other and point at the seat. Sometimes this will go on for multiple stops. I’ve even seen someone get off the subway to induce the other person to take the seat. Students from temple have been stranded throughout the city, and it is not uncommon for a stranger to offer the student money for a cab back to their apartment. Even at night, when the drinking begins – the drinking of salary men at night is ubiquitous – the intoxicated are jovial rather than belligerent. In Japan you are thanked at least 50 times a day. My grandma Frances used to end every conversation with a thank you. I don’t think she ever came to Japan, but she would have fit in perfectly. It’s quite an experience to walk into a restaurant or a store or a supermarket and feel like your business and at a more basic level, your presence, are actually welcomed.

Amidst all the differences between the US and Japan, many norms of society, for better or worse are the same in both countries. Japan is a male dominated society. Adolescents try to rebel and adults talk about the good old days when traditional values were respected (meaning family, not imperialism). Everyone runs the last block to work, because they don’t want to be late, and young couples hold hands (usually).

I am happy to be coming home. Some of my classmates in the Japan program came here to find work or to start a new life. This was not the case for me. I wanted to experience something new. I wanted to begin to understand the thinking of the people in a nation with a history almost entirely independent from and over ten times as old as my own. As I’ve said to a number of people, I loved my time here and (not but) can’t wait to come home. I am eternally grateful that Angela and Joe came to visit me. The company was greatly appreciated, as were their opinions and perspectives on Japan. Plus it was nice to always have someone nearby to take your picture when you stumbled across a 50 foot Buddha or a 7 foot tuna. Thank you for reading the blog and sending me your comments, it made me feel much closer to home. See you soon! Pretty much all of pictures are available in the Japan new and Japan albums at www.kaskelweb.com/pics and my videos are all uploaded at www.kaskelweb.com/vids.

And finally…
A story from today. In two days I begin my trek home. My last final is Japanese law and is tomorrow. The weather today was the nicest it’s been since I arrived in Tokyo. There was not a cloud in the sky and it was in the upper 60’s. I decided that I would study at Yoyogi park rather than sitting at my apartment in front of my computer. The park was packed. In addition to the weather, today was a minor holiday in Japan, so a huge percentage of people took the day off. Yoyogi park was as incredible as I had hoped. There were thousands of people having picnics layout out in the sun, playing Frisbee and tossing around baseballs. I was even lucky enough to see a guy walking a gaggle of dachshund puppies (wiener dogs). I was at the park for a few hours and decided I had my fill. I walked about ten minutes back to the train station and then took the 15 minute train back to Gotanda. In Gotanda I sat at starbucks for a couple hours while I finished reviewing for my exam. As I was walking to my apartment, I reached into my pocket for my key and to my horror and surprise didn’t know where it was. Immediately I realized that when I lay down at the park the key fell out. Tons of things ran through my head. Could I call a locksmith, could I make a duplicate so I didn’t’ get charged for new locks, how would I communicate with a locksmith, were they still open????? I decided my first action would be to search the park for my key. By the time I got back to the park, it was dark and almost deserted. Equipped with the light on my cell phone and the fear of sleeping at the park, I began searching the 30 foot by 30 foot area I thought I was at earlier in the day. On the edge of where I thought I could have been, there were a group of people. For the first hour and a half of my searching they would occasionally look up and try to figure out what I was doing. Eventually, the only area I hadn’t searched was where these people were lounging. There were about 15 people, all from Australia. One offered to help me and then the others joined in. These were the only people I saw in the entire massively enormous park. After another 20 minutes of searching one of the Aussies found the key. I think I screamed in joy and jumped around for about two minutes before I more calmly thanked her and the others. Whew.