Ten Years On: Looking Back on My First Days in Japan
Recently I had a visit from an old friend. I shouldn’t say old, she is after all only 28 years old, yet she and I share a very vivid memory. As part of the same kendo delegation, we both came to Japan for the first time on the same day. Meeting up with my friend again after such a long time brought back many memories of that momentous day. It also gave me some pause for thought and reflection.
Come August it will be exactly 10 years since we made that first fateful foray into Tokyo and then later onto Akita. The junior high school students we trained with during those grueling but immensely enjoyable sessions in the Akita dojo will all have graduated university by now. They have changed, as indeed has Japan changed a great deal over the past decade.
So just how exactly has Japan evolved since 2005, and how have my perceptions changed?
Well for one thing I can understand what’s going on around me far better. With ten years’ experience comes not just a certain level of language comprehension and communicative capability, but also a strong sense of awareness and of how the rudimentary day to day things work.
For example, I recall on my first day being utterly mystified at how the buses here work. The idea of paying your fair as you left the bus seemed totally bizarre to me. Now however, it’s the opposite and now whenever I visit Europe it feels weird having to pay my bus fare in advance.
Indeed cheap, clean, convenient public transport, always delivered on time and with a smile and a bow is one of those things that I have come to take for granted these days and yet had me completely awestruck when I initially arrived on that first day.
Scotrail could certainly learn a thing or two about courtesy, punctuality and customer satisfaction from JR (Japan Railways).
Food is another area where one becomes accustomed to local tastes. Although dishes like Takoyaki, Katsu Curry and Yakisoba are rich in flavour and seasonings, a great deal of Japanese food is somewhat plain, though undeniably delicious. Over a number of years, this can sometimes dull one’s palate a little. On a recent visit back to Scotland, I found myself struggling to cope with the spiciness of the local Chicken Vindaloo (extremely hot indian curry) which is a dish I would have lapped up in double quick time prior to coming to Japan.
But such differences are superficial in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps most pertinent of all is the way in which I perceive my daily life in Japan has changed. For example, I recall being amazed by all the glistening neon lights and elaborate signage up and down the main streets of Tokyo during my first wander around the Ueno district, close to where we were staying.
In those days, I had no Japanese ability, and I could but wonder what wonders awaited me, were I brave enough to venture into these fascinating, brightly-lit structures. These days, having gained a certain level of basic literacy in Japanese, I have come to awkward realization that, 9 times out of 10, when you see a gaudily-lit building in a city centre location it is either going to be a smoke-filled pachinko parlour or the couples’ romantic retreat that is the “love hotel”!
On the plus side though, it is great being able to read menus in restaurants now, something I could never do in the past. I recall my first visit to a restaurant in Tokyo.
Bizarrely enough, it was Korean food rather than Japanese that was on the menu. At that time, as a 21 year old, I had never actually tried Korean food before, since Scotland didn’t have any Korean restaurants at that time. When my friend suggested going there, I was all for it. That is, until I saw the menu.
“It’s all in Japanese!” I said. “I can’t read any of it.”
“Don’t worry!” my companion for the evening, my friend who was a student of Japanese studies at the time exclaimed, “I can read katakana!”
“OK,” I responded. “Then, what is number 21?” I enquired.
Reading the phonetics from the page aloud my friend reliably informed me “That’s a chijimi.”
“Ok,” I continued. “How about number 11?”
“That’s Bibinba.” My friend answered.
Confused, frustrated, and by this point very hungry, I pleaded more in desperation than in anger: “Ok then, so what the hell is a chijimi and what on earth is a bibinba?”
My friend laughed, threw his arms in the air with incredulity and bellowed: “How the heck should I know? I don’t speak Korean!”
In case anyone is wondering a chijimi is a think pancake type dish containing vegetables and a spicy dipping sauce. Bibinba is a rice, meat and Korean vegetables all cooked together. Both dishes, thankfully, turned out to be delicious.
I recall, later on during those first few days in Tokyo, when I had my first experience of being “chatted up” (or so I thought), in Japan.
I was visiting the legendary Asakusa Sensoji, one of Tokyo’s largest and most beautiful temple complexes. As I waited to cross the road, a beautiful young lady approached me. I still recall her warm, dark eyes and her gorgeous smile. “Hello, how are you?” she asked, in almost flawless English.
“I’m fine thanks, how about you?” I responded, somewhat taken aback at the way she had approached me, in stark contrast to all the literature I had read about Japanese women being shy to the point of silence.
“I’m good,” she replied. We then proceeded to engage in “small talk” for the next 5 to 10 minutes, getting to know each other.
As a young single man, naturally, I was delighted to be receiving this attention. I was just about to ask this beautiful young woman to join me for dinner when I realized what it was all about.
“Maybe I should tell you about my job,” she said. “I’m a rickshaw driver. I give tours of this area to visitors, would you like a tour?”
And then I realized. So mesmerized was I by this woman’s beautiful eyes and charming smile. I hadn’t actually looked at the rest of her. Her thighs were bigger than mine, and she had forearm muscles that would’ve put Hulk Hogan to shame!
Unfortunately time constraints meant I wasn’t able to take her up on that ride, and needless to say, I never did ask for that dinner date!
So my first few days in Tokyo were an eye-opening and indeed life-changing experience. As it sit here at my desk in Osaka, I recall many other brilliant and bizarre adventures I have had down the years. No doubt there are many more to come in the years ahead!