Long time no see. Happy new year! How many people do you think make new year’s resolutions? Guaranteed, far less actually follow through with them. I’ve never seriously had any. But being in Japan has made me think that I ought to correct course, at least for this year, seeing as how things have been so different out here, and I couldn’t have possibly expected everything that’s happened thus far. So I took a moment to think about what’s missing. Lately, I’ve felt like something is off. There’s been a sort of frustration, and depression looming within me, probably amplified by the language barrier. What I’ve been lacking is a means of expressing myself. So this year my resolution is to find more outlets for creativity. I guess we can start right here. Writing is a therapeutic process, and it’s perhaps the only way I get to express myself anymore. But I haven’t written anything since my cat passed away. And the other problem is that the type of blog I wanted to create was one that’s polished, and not all that personal, so I feel like I can’t just sit down and write nonstop about what’s going on with me, and then actually post it without major overhauls. Maybe this one will be a little bit different. Sometimes detours are fun.
On Christmas eve, I sat on a bus headed for Kyoto, racing through tunnels and over highways. I peered through the window at the passing mountains splashed with lovely autumn colours: Deep greens, vibrant oranges, spots of yellow, reds here and there. It was hard to believe it was nearly Christmas. Not a speck of snow. In fact, it was quite warm. During the day (and even now), it sometimes gets up to around 15°C. This is not at all the winter I’m accustomed to. I was told that Kyoto would be colder, but I still couldn’t tell the difference. In Canada, the past few New Year’s in recent memory have been extremely cold. The one night with the most pressure to go out, party and have fun, and I’d rather just stay inside where it’s warm. Here in Japan, it’s customary to go to a shrine rather than go out drinking (though nowadays, many people do both). In fact, since the Japanese work so much, many of them take this time to continue working instead of doing anything celebratory. Needless to say my New Year this year was much different from any I could have possibly had back home. From Christmas to New Year, I visited more shrines and temples than I could even keep track of. And for New Year itself, I tried the traditional Japanese food for the occasion, Nabe.
Whenever I visit the big cities in Japan, one thing that always unexpectedly stands out to me is when I hear something other than Japanese. Especially when it’s spoken to me. When I went to Tokyo, staff tried to speak to me in English, which really threw me off because I had prepared Japanese in my head. Surprised and unsure how to respond, I stood there staring at them, like a deer in the headlights. I suppose after hearing only Japanese for so long, I’ve just grown used to it. Lately, I’ve started thinking of what I have and haven’t gotten used to here in Japan, and so I made a short list:
Things I’m used to:
- Hearing Japanese. Not only from people, but all of the audio that’s played everywhere here. Wherever you go, there are automated voices speaking to you in Japanese, from the subway to the ATM to the supermarket. When you walk around virtually any store here, there are advertisement videos playing loudly on a loop all over the place (which are very, very annoying). At first I was awestruck at how different it was that there were so many sounds playing everywhere. Now, I wear headphones when I shop.
- Paying my bills at the convenience store. This is actually very – dare I say – convenient.
- Crowded and chaotic subway stations. I realized in Kyoto that this doesn’t faze me anymore. When I first arrived in Osaka, I was floored by how many people there were going every conceivable direction. It was madness. At the time, trying to figure out how to navigate myself through all of that was a daunting task. Now, it all feels pretty normal to make my way through the crowds. (Though, the massive crowds during peak hours in the food court at the mall still scare me.)
- Super toilets. Nothing bad can be said about these. Every country should have them. Bidet? You got it, fam. But that’s not all. What angle do you want it at? What water pressure? Hot or cold? Do you want the seat warmer on? Turn that sucker up. How about the music? Louder?
Things I’m still not used to:
- Speaking Japanese. I’m still very much a beginner at Japanese. I can get by just fine as a tourist, but having any sort of meaningful conversation is still beyond me.
- The temperature outside. In the day it gets real warm (~15°C), and then at night it gets pretty chilly (~4°C). This is not even close to the usual winter weather I’m used to. It feels like I’m trapped in perpetual autumn. I didn’t even have a coat until about December, and when I take it with me during the day I feel like I don’t need it, until I’m leaving work at night and thankful that I brought it. I’m not complaining, though. It’s much better than the cold back home.
- The temperature of water in my kitchen. My kitchen sink has two possible temperatures: cold and liquid magma. Attempting to get anything in between is a fruitless endeavour.
- Squatters. The opposite of the super toilet. Man’s worst enemy. It still amazes me how, wherever you go in Japan, you either find a super toilet or a hole in the ground. Nothing in between.
And one final honourable mention: I’ve seen a lot of weird shit in Japan, but nothing was weirder than when I was at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, and there was this tourist, nicely dressed, as though he was on a date, but with a stroller. Okay, fair enough; maybe he was there with his wife and kid. Nope. To my surprise, inside the stroller was a little brown dog, that looked like it gets better treatment than the queen. It had just been groomed; it’s fur was perfect, it had a nice little bow, and an expensive looking collar – like it was on a date. And as I watched him struggle to get the stroller around the temple, I just couldn’t get this image out of my head that this man was on a date with his dog at Kiyomizu.
And thus I’ve concluded this last decade by doing something completely different far from home. It’s been a long strange trip, but I’m so glad I made that first step. One day I decided to go to Japan, and then before I knew it, I was here. It doesn’t even feel like it’s been that long; but then, someone will ask me, “how long have you been in Japan?” and then I start counting the months, and I can hardly believe it. My initial plan was to come out here and travel all over Asia. Suddenly, I’ve made a life for myself here in Japan. It’s a shock for me to think about, but isn’t that what I wanted? I think it’s going to be harder to leave than I first expected.