Hirakata, Osaka | Summer, 2005 | 20 years old

The first thing you’re surprised by when you arrive in Japan is how little surprises you. Yes, perhaps it’s made simpler by the fact that most of us who wind up studying here have done our share of reading up before coming, but it seems more likely that you have giant signs everywhere that have English writing on them.

Of course, that sensation fades pretty quickly once you get to where you’re going, though. In fact, it’s quite impressive to note the rapidity of the change from “nothing’s particularly odd” to “wow, I’m definitely not home anymore.” It comes somewhere around when you notice that the English writing is only there for effect and that you have to literally guess at the contents of certain stores.

And so, like any good traveler, I’ve been doing my share of exploring the town on foot, and like any good traveler, the main sensation I’ve experienced since I arrived has been “lost.” Not “lost” in the sense of “awash in a sea of kanji you’ve been meaning to study for a while.” No, this is the type of lost where you could swear the roads have been shifting around behind you as you walk around town, snickering quietly to themselves and rerouting the time/space continuum such that you eventually accidentally wind up getting back from being lost by arriving home from the exact opposite direction that you left toward. More savvy travelers may want to consider purchasing a bicycle, which will allow them to become lost much more quickly and efficiently.

The other major shock, of course, is the first time you encounter the Lurking Horrors of the Japanese Toilet. Maybe it’s just a guy thing, but no matter how much preparation you try to provide yourself, no matter how many pictures you see, no matter how much you read, your first reaction to the Lurking Horrors will invariably be along the lines of “hey, some bonehead installed the urinal in the floor. Punishments are in order!” The trick to using them is not to utilize a specific technique, but rather to get in and out as quickly as humanly possible. A diet rich in fiber is highly beneficial when it comes to speed.

What comes as a pleasant surprise, on the other hand, is how, though everyone is always talking about how face-gougingly high prices are in Japan, things aren’t entirely unreasonable. Now, perhaps it’s simply a matter of my not having truly internalized the concept of “Yen=money,” but prices aren’t quite as outrageous as I’d been led to believe: no fifteen-dollar tubes of toothpaste, but to be fair fruit is often quite pricey, as is entertainment in general. The recent trend of hundred- and 99-yen shops is extremely welcome, particularly for a college student on a shoestring budget: you can get pretty much anything you need there, from chopsticks to neckties to whole fresh pineapples. You can also get your choice of sports drink, available in “Pocari Sweat,” “Aquarius,” “Gatorade,” and no-name brand, all of which look and taste nearly identical, almost like grapefruit-ade.

It’s been a surreal week, to be certain. As a friend of mine and I noted earlier today, where else but Japan would you hear, on a grocery store’s canned music rotation, what sounded like the B-52’s performing a cover of the theme song from The Flintstones?

Leave a Reply