About 10 years ago I was living in Tokyo Japan, a complete rube as far as all things Japanese. I fell in love with the city and with the Japanese people I met there. My letters home and the way I viewed my experiences would have scandalized my Japanese friends, so deep was my ignorance about their culture and country, but I have been reading over them lately and remembering the good times, so thought I would share a few entries over the next few weeks. Please remember these experiences are 10 years old and so in some cases what I am describing will now be hopelessly out of date. Here is the first entry:
Upon our late night arrival at Narita airport we were greeted by my cousin and his wife who drove us immediately to a small restaurant for our first taste of truly Japanese food: yam gelatin with black sesame seeds. It was delicious! But I was more fascinated by the technology in the womens' washroom: beside the toilet in each stall, attached to the cubicle wall, was a small box with a large button. When I pushed the button to see what would happen, the sound of a toilet flushing filled the room. It was the perfect solution to providing personal privacy while "doing the deed" but without wasting extra water, a most precious resource in Tokyo. What a country!!
After our meal we were taken via a circuitous country route to our Tokyo apt. After the bright neon lights of Tokyo the road seemed encompassed by pitch blackness and the lights on my cousin's car had a difficult time piercing through. My cousin had lived in Japan for over 30 years at that point and knew every back alley, every side street, every short cut in the entire country from what I could gather, so we made it safely to our new home: an apartment in our missions building that had 2 bedrooms, laundry area, entranceway and, we discovered later, it was huge according to Japanese apt. standards.
From my letter: The "apato" is filthy as it has been uninhabited for some months, so our first task is a "stem to stern cleaning" to remove the black soot that sifts in through every crack--every day! The air pollution is so bad here that everything inside and out is covered by a layer of blackness. Our white wall paper is a deep grey at the moment.
The windows are single pane so it is tempting to run our 2 gas heaters in the evenings and early mornings to take the autumn chill off, but knowing the cost of running them we have only twice succumbed to temptation.
We are learning to use cold water for nearly everything except dishwashing, adjusting to using only 25 watt bulbs for light in order to conserve power.
We can watch 5am sunrises over the ancient tile rooves on the surrounding buildings as we stand on the roof of our building. Other peoples' rooves and balconies are decorated with racks of drying long johns (Big Bird yellow is a favourite colour). There are futon mattresses set out to air, stacks of wicker chairs, plant pots and a few kids' toys as well.
Glad we at least learned the letters in 2 of the 3 Japanese alphabets in common use. It isn't only helpful in differentiating between salt and sugar at the grocery store, but also provides us with a ton of amusement reading food labels that have been translated into Japlish. Kellogg's Country Morning whole grain cereal has been translated to "Fresh Grainery". Blueberry jam is "jammo barubo-barry". Teas are "glorious and refreshing brand" or "beautiful and relaxation style". Pringles chips are green and shaped like ripe pea pods; taste like salty peas coated with sawdust!
There are a number of tall narrow department stores in our area. Each "department" is about 15 square feet in size and you pay for purchases in their separate departments as there is no central cashier. The aisles are incredibly narrow, so they are a manoeuvering nightmare for large Canadians.
The 2 lane streets in the residential areas and older business sections fan out in all directions like a gigantic spiderweb. As a result I have lost all ability to find my direction. North, south, east and west have jumbled up in my head and I never know what direction I am actually heading. The 2 lane streets here are as narrow as Canadian back alleys. Cars jerkily deak around each other, as well as around pedestrians and cyclists milling about in the 2 foot wide pedestrian lane on each side of the street. Despite the number of people and vehicles the city is quiet. Cars and buses do not roar about, people rarely talk as they quick step down the street. Other than a few giggles from the children in the park next door we rarely hear any voices from the street three storeys below us. Children here do not yell and scream from one end of the playground to the other for hours on end like their Canadian counerparts do. It is lovely here!
At 5pm each day a loudspeaker in the playground comes on with a little song telling the children it is time to go home for supper. As it begins to play the kids start picking the common area toys and put them away in their respective bins (ALL the kids do this from youngest to oldest with no adult supervision....paradise in my opinion).
I will soon be learning to ride my ancient bicycle, in my dress, pantyhose and all, so that I can fit in better with the other women around here. The only other way to get anywhere, like the train stations, is on foot. The mission work truck is too large and unwieldy, not to mention too expensive to run, for personal trips. Most people average several miles per day on foot plus 1 to 5 hours on the trains to get to and from work. To get to our church we walk nearly a mile on foot to the train station here in Mitaka, then a 20 minute train trip to Shimokitazawa, then about a mile on foot to the church building. Reverse order to return home. It is easy to get up and get going at 5am to avoid early morning traffic because we go to bed at 8:30pm. There isn't sufficient electric light power to do anything after dark other than grocery shopping....the dark streets are so safe here compared to at home.
Yesterday when it rained we learned the art of manoeuvering about the streets with our umbrellas. Each store has a bin of tapered plastic bags inside the entrance doors to put over wet umbrellas so water doesn't drip on the vendor's floors. Trying to wedge myself plus the umbrella behind a lamp post to allow a truck to pass must have been quite a sight to the svelte Japanes women behind the next post. Dell and I are both quite big compared to the local population. He is tall and I am wide! This trip, Tokyo seems to have reverted to mid sized cars rather than small ones, so we will be doing more "wedging" behind posts and light standards when we walk through the city than we have ever done before.
--an ice cream vendor style truck cruising the residential streets each evening, but selling baked yams instead of sweet treats. At home we have the Good Humour Iced Cream man. In Tokyo we have the Yakimo man. The yams are baked in sooty ovens on the back of the truck and then wrapped in foil. They are reasonably priced and simply scrumptious, oven ashes and all. In the evenings I live for the sound of the yam truck caller: "Yaaaaakimooooooo, yaaaaaakimoooooo!"
--wizened very elderly folk riding serently past on the usual 1930's style bicycles (right out of Indiana Jones movies) with the handlebar basket filled with purple, slimy, fresh octopus, and chattering away on the newest cell phones.
--slate tiled rooves in the ancient style, jammed together every which way, with new modern apt. and office buildings custom designed to squash themselves into the odd shaped gaps between the old buildings. There are narrow stairs, a distinct lack of hand railings, and low "ceilings". Dell has renamed a couple of the buildings he has to pass each day. He calls them (after our well known Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump south of Calgary), Head Smashed in Apato Bump" after a few run ins between low lying cement or wooden beams and his forehead!!
The older Japanese people we have met at our sponsoring Japanese church seem thrilled with our attempts to bow to one and all and use proper polite speech, although it is obviously bad manners here to be anything less than glowing in their praise of any sort of attempt to master anything remotely Japanese. Probably they are more appalled with our boorishness than thrilled with our attempts to learn their language and culture. The younger Japanese are in a huge state of transition between cultures and unfortunately seem to have picked up the worst that western culture has to offer them.......horrendous clothes, nightclubbing, and a worsening of their attitudes toward each other and toward their elders. What have we done to the Japanese????
We are now church planters for an English outreach programme at our sponsoring church. Their previous attempts fell apart after the last English speaking pastor left and no replacement was immediately found. Our first service was the day after our arrival while experiencing the worst jet lag of our lives. We had an attendance of 1. So, it can only get better, right????