Crazy Things: Japan
It was spring 2003. College graduation was approaching. I was getting the itch to do something crazy. Moving back to Texas was definitely on my mind but I wanted to work through the summer and build up my savings. My parents knew I loved to travel and offered to buy me a plane ticket somewhere as a graduation present. My older brother’s friend, B, was finishing up a year of teaching English in Japan. I hardly knew her but Japan was so appealing, so different, so foreign. The morning after graduation, I hopped on a plane. To Japan. By myself. Long before wi-fi or international cell phones. See kids, your mom isn’t totally boring.
In fact, I would say confidently that I was over-confident. I didn’t learn one word of Japanese or worry about specific directions on where to go prior to settling in my emergency exit row seat on Korean Air that day. I had a backpack, a carry-on, and the name of the train station I was supposed to end up at. By the grace of God, my seat buddy on the plane was an expat in Japan and took the liberty of explaining some crucial cultural do’s and dont’s. He also taught me essential phrases like “Where’s the bathroom?” and “I’m sorry, I’m a tourist.” When we deplaned at Tokyo Narita, he could see the shock I was experiencing as most signs were in Japanese or featured confusing pictures. He took the first train ride with me then walked me right to the door of the second train I needed.
The train arrived a few hours later in Niigata City and reality set in. Japan was on the other side of the world, was culturally opposite of America, and I was standing there without a plan. I began walking, then pacing, then panicking when I didn’t see B waiting for me. A few minutes (which seemed like a few hours) passed, and there she was, running up the stairs. Whew. All future travel was taken more seriously after that prideful experience.
It was a week of outrageous fun. We went to an actual dojo, ate exotic foods (although we passed on the squid and mayo pizza), and explored all over Tokyo. Our true moment of American idiocy happened on a quiet but full train ride. We both found it odd that all the seats faced the same direction. American trains are usually half and half. We noticed a giant lever on every aisle seat. Without really thinking logically, we pushed hard on the lever of our row. The entire row slowly, loudly, and automatically creaked 180 degrees. We had woken up the entire car and now had about a hundred native Japanese folks staring directly at us. We tried to discreetly correct our decision, but the seats returned back just as gradually and noisily. Ooops. That’s why the seats all face in the same direction. So nobody has to stare at the meddlesome American girls. Since we were already so far gone at gaining anyone’s respect, we took a picture. This was B, taken mid-turn, as you can see the seats facing us in the background. Excuse the quality, this was long before iPhones. Pretty sure it was a CVS brand disposable camera.
Another highlight from the trip was spending a day at Tokyo Disneyland. We were totally hyped up. There was a group of school boys headed there too and we convinced them it was going to be the best day ever. We were making up chants on the subway, skipping along, clapping, and probably violating every cultural taboo in the process. Picture evidence is below.
Upon arrival at Disneyland, we got the ticket agents just as excited with our infectious enthusiasm – to the point where we noticed they had sold us “Junior” tickets for ages 12-14. Whatever. Maturity is for mature people. The Japanese version of the Magic Kingdom was like the American Disneyland but much more pristine. Old men in impeccable uniforms were hand cutting the grass. Costumes were ornate and parade participants were in exact formations. One of the rides we stood in line for had an option for English instructions. We blindly jumped on that opportunity only to discover it was an actual canoe ride, complete with an instructor that yelled orders to Paddle left! Paddle right! I didn’t pay the Junior rate that day to get a workout but there was no backing down at that point or the instructor would have probably had us thrown overboard. This picture was taken before we knew what we had gotten ourselves into.
Food. Food deserves it own paragraph. I have a whole picture montage in my scrapbook of the food we ate. Americans eat PBJ’s. Japanese eat onigiri, usually some sort of fish, wrapped in rice, then wrapped in seaweed so it’s portable. We eat omlettes. They eat okonomiyaki, a mysterious egg pancake filled with all sorts of edible treasures. Mmmm, mochi – a rice cake filled with just about anything sweet or savory. But I draw the line at one thing the Japanese (and many Europeans) seem to be obsessed with: Mayonnaise. Mayo on fish, mayo on rice, MAYO ON PIZZA. Stop. Just stop. It’s wrong and you know it.
B escorted me back to Narita airport for my journey home so I wouldn’t get almost lost again. We had run out of money and only had one JR Rail Pass between the two of us. We played our best confused tourist bit to the male workers managing the train turnstiles and the handsome, flustered attendants waved us through. Arigatou gozaimasu! And thank you for putting up with me, Japan. I’ll behave better next time.