Day 11: Looking for the unique

My classmates organized a screening of Howl’s Moving Castle before our regular class time. Howl’s Moving castle is a popular animated film of Miyazaki. It was about an 18 year old girl who was cursed and became a 90 year old woman. She ends up in a Castle that keeps moving and belongs to a wizard called Howl. Although it seemed like a typical Disney movie about curses and princes and love in some ways, it was quite different in its twists and turns. To be honest, only the ending was typical and cliched where (spoiler alert!) the bad characters give up or turn over to the good side and random objects are kissed by Sophie (the protagonist) and turn into human beings who had been cursed. The rest of the movie was fairly unexpected in its twists and turns and I had to concentrate more than usual to understand what was going on.

Due to lack of time to eat at a proper restaurant I once again picked up lunch at the convenience store. I picked up what seemed like a salad at first, but then the lady at the counter heated it up and when I got it back it had some kind of broth (I think it was kimchi) and pieces of pasta floating in it. Not only was this my first time encountering instant pasta which can be cooked under a minute, but also I had never imagined eating pasta with kimchi broth. As if that wasn’t enough, I purchased coffee later in the afternoon, again at a convenience store. This was the kind of coffee which is sold in little pre-packaged cups and is usually cold. I bought a cafe latte. The coffee tasted great for something that had been packaged atleast 24 hours ago, but more than that the packaging fascinated me. Instead of having a single lid from which you directly sip the coffee, there were two lids, one made of plastic and another of hard paper. The one made of plastic didn’t seem to be removable. It had a little hole in it for a straw. I think the reason behind the double lid was that if the coffee spills out when you punch a hole with your straw on the second lid, it won’t spill outside the cup but will just get trapped in the space between the two lids. Apart from the two lids, I found it really cute (or kawahi as the Japanese would say) to see a straw neatly folded on the side and stuck to the cup. When I opened it, I found that the single straw was made of two different materials. I think they were both plastic but the lower part of the straw was transparent and the top half was white in color. The top half was slightly thicker than the lower half. I’m not sure behind the science of it, but knowing the Japanese, I’m sure there’s some very practical and logical reason behind it.
The food I eat here surprises me on a daily basis.

While walking from my classroom to the train station, I decided to take a different route and got lost in what seemed like an apartment complex. My non existent sense of direction does not help when I’m in a foreign country. Anyway, while walking through the apartment complex, I realized that it looked very much like any other apartment complex in a metropolitan. It could easily have been an apartment complex in a posh area of New Delhi. Such similarities that I often see between Tokyo, Singapore, New Delhi and other cities make me realize how the world is increasingly sharing culture and lifestyle. When I go to a new country, I often go expecting something completely radical and different. I rarely find a huge difference in the appearance of a place. Even the lifestyle is increasingly similar. But the difference lies in areas such as Akihabara of Tokyo, hawker centers of Singapore and the bazaars of New Delhi, which are representative of a sub culture or a unique trait of the country. They are the places where the locals go for a specific purpose and these places generally don’t exist everywhere in the world. My new plan is to abandon the usual sight seeing, since its anyway impossible to see everything and it usually doesn’t teach me more about the culture. I’m going to start being more picky about the places I go and choose places which I know will surprise (or shock) me.

A day before Japan

I leave for Japan tomorrow. I’m going to be in Tokyo for 5 weeks and some other undecided place for 2 weeks after that.

I have been preparing for my study abroad and Japanese immersion. The readings provided by the Yale professor so far have been immensely useful in orienting me with Japanese culture. They give a lot of historical background about Tokyo. Some novels that I’ve been reading have been helpful in familiarizing me with Japanese names and places. Some tit bits of information I’ve got from friends who’ve visited Japan are that its very orderly, the Japanese are very polite, patient and helpful, Tokyo is huge and can be quite confusing. A lot of my college friends are crazy about Japan. They love the place. Although I’m excited to be going to a place which so many people admire, I’m keeping my expectations as low as possible, so that I won’t be disappointed.

Yesterday, I called the hostel that I’ll be staying at in Tokyo the first night before I’m picked up by my host family. They were really nice. The first woman who answered greeted me with a few lines of Japanese. So my first sentence to her was “Hello! Do you speak English?”. I should probably learn how to say that in Japanese. I’ve learnt some Japanese words, like hello (konnichiwa), thank you (arigato), etc. Anyways my call was transferred to man who spoke fairly fluent english. Off course he had a Japanese accent, and even when I asked him to spell things out for me, the way he pronounced English letters was very different and a bit hard to understand. But thanks to his patience, I finally got the directions to the hostel.

Considering that there might be a language problem in Japan, I initially thought about learning Hiragana. Kranji was out of the question. I still might learn some while I’m in Japan. But I think for now, I’m going to try and get by without the local language through gestures and phrase books. These days I’m of the opinion that it’s not very practical to learn the language of every country you visit. And even if its not purely for that purpose, I feel like its not worth the effort to remember and practice the language after you’ve learnt it. The world is increasingly speaking english and from a practical standpoint, learning a language may not make sense. Plus I think its an interesting to challenge to try and get by with the language you already know.

I’ve been emailing my host family, and they seem like really cool people. I’m quite excited to meet them. They’re a young couple living just outside of Tokyo. I’m glad I got a small household. I fit in better in a setting with fewer people. When I asked my host how I should address her and her husband, she said that I can add a san after her name, which is a casual version of ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’ That is a valuable piece of information. Based on what friends have told me, Japanese people greet each other by bowing. I love that. I’m going to do that so often. I’ve been told that Japanese people are fairly indirect in conversation and won’t say exactly what they want. I’m lucky to be from a culture where people are indirect too. My Tokyo guide mentions the gift giving culture in Japan. Although I don’t personally care too much for gifts (I haven’t quite understood the logic behind it yet), I bought lots of local exotic gifts! It was actually quite fun.

I’ve also been googling travel in Japan. I’ve learnt some amusing things about their bathroom systems. Firstly, they have something called toilet slippers which are a separate set of slippers that you wear only inside the bathroom. Japanese bathrooms have a little remote control type thing next to them which can be used as a massage machine and dryer and what not. Also, Japanese bathing is very interesting. People wash themselves first and then get into a bath tub of which the water is shared by all family members. I shall make it a point to understand the logic behind that.

While I was reading my Tokyo guide book, it mentioned eating options in Tokyo. Apart from restaurants, they have cheap food found in tachigui eateries which are stand in and eat noodle shops. I love noodles. Apparently, the Japanese version of fast food is different too.

Based on my research and hearsay, Japan is pretty expensive. It costs $10 per meal on an average. For the first time, I have a pre-travel budget and it’ll be interesting to see if I can stick to it. I am normally very frugal while travelling, but Japan will be a challenge.

I won’t have a phone until Monday, and I’m quite happy about that. I’m not a huge fan of constant connectivity and I don’t plan on using a phone much other than for emergency purposes. Japan is a very safe country, safer than Singapore I’ve heard. That certainly increases my mobility and independence in Tokyo. I can actually ask myself “whats the worse that can happen?” and give a truthful answer that doesn’t involve kidnapping.

Strangely, I don’t feel nervous. I think its partly because of frequent travelling in the past one year and partly because of a TED talk I saw on stress. The talk said that stress is actually helpful in preparing you to face a situation. And if you think of it that way, then stress won’t affect you in negative ways. I know that if I get nervous or anxious, its only going to help me be more alert and careful while travelling. In any case I’m going to re-adopt my strategy of taking one thing at time and letting myself absorb all that’s going on.
I know I’m going to get a culture shock in Japan, and that’s what really excites me. Whether I like what I see or not, I’m going to learn a lot this summer.