Coming from Portland, where the merest suggestion of a potential snowfall sends the emergency storm crews out snowflake-spotting and shuts down every school in the Portland-Metro area, I’m no stranger to weather-related school closures; however, to hear that class was entirely canceled today because of a bit of rain and wind caught me entirely by surprise. Apparently, there was a typhoon blowing through Japan, bringing with it a bunch of rain and some gusty wind. As a safety precaution, at least one of the local railways was shut down for the day, which is probably why class was canceled.
Although I didn’t think it was that nasty of a storm, I wasn’t going to pass up a free day off, so I spent the day lounging around and getting a head start on homework so that I have more time to play this weekend. Due to the holidays on Monday and Friday this week, I was already going to have a short week–today just pushed that into absurd levels.
Ah well. At least this storm seems to have ushered in some cooler, more autumnal weather, which I’m A-OK with.
We’ve had a couple days of rain before, but mostly of the drizzle and sprinkle varieties. Today, it was rain all day; big, heavy drops dripping down from a uniformly gray sky. It was still quite humid, but the weather dropped to about 22 or 24ºC (71-75ºF), a welcome relief from the oppressive 33ºC (~91ºF) weather we had last week. I was thrilled to be able to throw on long sleeves and jeans for the first time in about a week. Apparently, a small typhoon is blowing toward Japan, hence the weather. My host family and I agreed–we–d be very happy if this storm signaled the end of the heat and the beginning of fall. We’ll see how that pans out.
After a stressful week of review and tests last week, my Japanese class was finally finalized on Friday, and classes began today. I was worried because I wasn’t in a class with people I expected to be with, but I think I can let those worries dissipate a little. My class will be challenging, since it’s conducted entirely in Japanese and we’re working at a pretty fast pace, but I’m hoping it will work out well. The goal is to improve all of our proficiencies in a number of key areas, including 漢字 (kanji) recognition and speaking, which are my two highest priorities. Now that all my courses have begun in earnest, however, the workload has begun. My host mom was teasing me tonight at dinner, saying, “You’re a student who came here to study–who would have thought you’d have homework?” So it goes.
In another of my classes, Lenses of Culture, we’ve started the semester by investigating culture shock. Scholars like Pederson and Adler have suggested that culture shock is a multi-stage phenomenon. In this model, cultural transitional experiences begin with a period of honeymoon-like glee, as the traveler is wowed by all of the novelties of the new culture. Following that, however, is often a period of rejection of the host culture. It ultimately progresses to a harmonious acceptance, making the culture shock experience a learning opportunity, but there are about two steps of rejection involved in these models.
I mention it because, although I thought I would have little trouble transitioning, I’ve started to feel elements of the rejection phase. Other AKP students I’ve talked to have felt the same. We’re not bitter or angry, by any means–we’re in freaking Japan, after all, and it’s still an amazing place filled with opportunity–but the glossy veneer of novelty is wearing away, and our perspectives are broadening, for both good and bad. One thing my friends and I talked about in particular today at lunch was the outsider phenomenon. When riding the train, we’ve all had the experience of looking up and catching people staring at us because we, as obvious American 外人 (gaijin — “foreigners”), stick out. After two weeks here, we’re at least starting to feel like residents instead of tourists, but in the eyes of commuters on the train or people walking down the street, we will always look like we don’t belong. Coming from America, where the broad range of ethnic diversity makes it easier for visitors to blend in (at least in large cosmopolitan areas), this is quite a different feeling, and may prove a challenge as the year progresses.
We both know you weren’t my first Jotter. That was in middle school, when I shared the joys of writing in a journal with another. By the time we had met, you and I had nothing new to show each other. We were both seasoned pros.
And yet, my memories with you are unparalleled. For years, you fit in my shirt pockets and pants pockets, ready to leap out and, with a satisfying click of your spring-loaded plunger, smoothly glide across my paper, leaving a crisp black trail of ink. You were my totem, my personal prop–I knew you better than anything else I owned, and as the years went on, a part of my soul nestled itself in your barrel, wrapped snugly around your stainless steel cartridge. You were a part of me, and I was a part of you.
At this point, I’ve settled into my host family’s home–at least a little bit. Orientation week is over, and tomorrow, classes start. I’m going to have to accept that there will come a time, most likely sooner rather than alter, when I won’t be able to share everything I experience, but at the moment, I’ll stubbornly refuse to accept that fact.
Tonight, after eating dinner in my hotel room, Sam and I went out to explore the area around our hotel.
During this first week’s orientation period, we’re staying in the Kyoto Tower Hotel, a large and impressive hotel beneath the Kyoto Tower. On Friday night, after getting our bearings in Kyoto, all 31 of us AKP students will meet our host families and travel with them to their homes, beginning the next big step of this adventure. In the meantime, though, we have off-and-on moments of downtime, so Sam and I sought to use ours to get slightly lost and see a bit of the city.
First, we crossed the street and went to Kyoto Station. Kyoto Station is truly an example of the sort of building I would not expect to find anywhere in America. To begin with, it’s huge. The building is about 11 stories tall, and spans probably the equivalent of at least three American city blocks. What’s more, it demonstrates the same indoor/outdoor blurring that I’ve seen in Tokyo (and certain parts of Los Angeles). There’s definitely an entryway, but it’s not a set of doors. There are stairs and escalators that lead all the way up and down the 11 stories, but it’s at least partially open-air; if it rained, there are definitely areas where you would get wet. There are areas that are fully enclosed–every floor has a shopping/restaurant deck, for instance, that is enclosed with four walls, a ceiling, and a floor, but the station’s main plaza, as it were, is partially exposed to the elements.
As my hotel roommate and I found out a couple days ago when we went looking for breakfast, Kyoto Station’s outdoor escalators go up quite a way. Sam and I counted six separate escalators, punctuated by at least nominal flat sections, that stretched up to the 11th story of the complex. At the top of the complex was a garden called the “Happy Terrace” and a great view of Kyoto, which I intended to show Sam, but when our final escalator deposited us at the Happy Terrace, we were more than a little surprised to discover that Kyoto Station was a very popular place to take a date. There were couples holding hands and kissing everywhere we looked.
Now, I had my own preconceptions of public displays of affection in Japanese culture–namely, that Japanese, as a rule, tended not to make them–so I was more than a little shocked to see such outward displays. As we explored the station more, we ran into more couples all over. By the end of the night, I was really questioning what I thought I knew about that part of Japanese culture.
As I told Sam, though, although I could probably have made it through life without witnessing so many people macking in public, it was really a profound cultural experience to witness so many couples at the 駅 (eki — “station”). Not because snogging’s a profound act, and not even because it challenged my preconceptions as described above, but simply because, after seeing so many couples, I recognized that I had seen where some–apparently many–young people in Kyoto liked to take their dates. At home, I know a handful of places that are nice enough or unique enough that people might go there on a date. Tonight, I found a similar place in Japan.
I might not be explaining it well. It was a strange feeling of recognition that dawned on me and instantly made the experience more meaningful. As weird as it seems, I think that seeing so many couples enjoying their time at the ? was really one of the most culturally important experiences I’ve had yet.
After exploring Kyoto Station some more, Sam and I then took the long way back to our hotel. We passed rows and rows of covered bike parking–almost all of which were full–and a pedestrian tunnel with a ceiling so low that I almost scraped my head on the unusual stalactite-like formations that appeared to be forming from the concrete. We were meandering through a little residential neighborhood with a tight, winding street, passing the houses and businesses, when out of nowhere, I looked to my left and saw a Shinto shrine, its paper lanterns glowing an assuring crimson.
I had read about how Kyoto is a peculiar blend of old and new, but it didn’t hit me until I saw that shrine, a tiny monument to tranquility beset on either side by urban buildings. I didn’t take many pictures because I wasn’t sure if it was allowed (it is), but I’m sure I’ll return there or to another such shrine in the future.
After landing and settling into our hotel, Sam, my friends Eric and Jack and I went looking for dinner. Beneath this part of Kyoto, there’s an extensive underground mall that connects with the subway station, and also has exits leading to the lower floors of nearby hotels and pachinko parlors. Within this mall there are numerous clothing stores, but we finally found the restaurants.
Of course, all of the menu items were in Japanese.
There are, as you probably know, three character sets in Japanese. There’s hiragana, which could be considered the “basic” alphabet; there’s katakana, which is primarily used for spelling loanwords; and there’s kanji, the adapted Chinese characters that are used almost everywhere. If you can write hiragana and katakana, you can be understood by anyone who can read Japanese, but knowledge of kanji is really the mark of the sophistication of your Japanese knowledge. Kanji are used everywhere.
So when it came time to look in the display cases of the restaurants and try to figure out what we wanted to eat, we were faced with a dilemma. Most of the restaurants only had their items listed in kanji, which we could not read fluently. And while we could have spoken to the waitstaff, asked what was what, and decided based on that, it was our first night in an entirely different country at the end of a very long day, and we wanted to avoid as much hassle as was possible. Our dining decision was as much determined by what looked good as it was by the presence of a sign saying “English menu available” in the display case.
I knew before leaving home that we’d have to order food in Japanese when we arrived, so I copied some relevant notes out of my textbook so I could study on the plane ride. Naturally, despite the ten hours spent over the Pacific, I didn’t study them once, so when it came time to order and interact with the restaurant staff, I was as much a bumbling 外人 (gaijin — “foreign person”) as any tourist could be. As the meal went on, we noticed that the restaurant staff was seating incoming guests in the corner opposite us–probably because, without realizing it, we had been fulfilling the “loud Americans” stereotype. Oops.
When it was all said and done, though, we got ourselves fed on ramen–the real stuff, not the ten-cent kind you get at Safeway–and explored the Kyoto Station underground a little. We made embarrassing Japanese mistakes, were awkwardly loud, and had “The Star-Spangled Banner” hummed at us (possibly sarcastically) as we made our way back to the surface.
As first adventures go, it could have been far worse.
I’m writing this post in the air. According to the LCD screen above my tray table, we’ve passed the Bering Sea and are somewhere above the Pacific. The screen also says that it’s 5:29pm–or, at least, that it is in Seattle, a relativism that my computer and I are more than happy to accept as true for a few hours longer.
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