Parker, outbound to Japan

Hello Florida!

As I type to the sounds of the Japanese Disney Channel, with a three year old tucked under my right arm, it's starting to sink in that my time here is drawing to a close. I'm in my final home with my final (wonderful) family, spring is on its way out, and so am I with just 50 days or so left until returning to Florida. It's been a busy two months, so apologizing for the delay between posting I'll try to describe them with what brevity I can.

March was filled with travel and a blessed break from the routine of school. My fellow inbounds and I visited Hiroshima via bullet train (a first for me!), as well as the “ground zero” for the atomic bombing. Simply put, it was quite sobering, perhaps magnified by my own heritage. I don't expect to forget those images, nor the ones I saw in Okinawa. That aside, it was also a time of great friend and fellowship with my global family, whose time together is rapidly dwindling. We fed biscuits to deranged deer, crawled through ancient temple tunnels, and stayed up late talking about any and everything. It's an amazing and empowering thing to know I'll always be welcome in 16 different homes around the world.

March's biggest event, however, was the arrival of my entire American family to Japan for 10 days! With never a spare moment, we dashed all over the country and managed to see Tokyo, Kamakura, Odawara, Takaosan, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara... But in case you have no idea where any of those are, I'll just say it's a lot, hah. Aside from the obvious joy of seeing my family, perhaps the most fulfilling part of the trip was the opportunity to share all my discoveries and insights about the country, and through their eyes rediscovering things that had since grown routine. Sparing illustrious descriptions of the itinerary, I want to put down some of my perspectives here.

Well, first off, after greeting everyone upon their late-night arrival, one of my first thoughts walking around downtown was “whoaaa, Tokyo was not meant to seat 8 people to sit together at meals...” We were flatly rejected by a number of places before settling for unlikely Spanish food. Fortunately that wasn't a recurring experience, but it set the stage for the many differences of Japanese restaurants. Despite our size, we were unfailingly given just two menus (occasionally in English, hopefully with pictures). This wasn't troubling, because rather than ordering individual entrees we ordered many things to share in the center of the table, as is the norm here. I generally did the ordering, and asking for an extra pitcher of water, because Americans tend to drink more with their meals. When finished, the main party exited the building while the person paying did so at the front counter. This is consistent with the hands-off Japanese waiting style: they won't take your order without being summoned, nor interrupt your meal and conversation to bringing the check.

Perhaps naturally, some of my most precious memories come from their visit to the town of Ageo, where I've lived the past eight months. Something felt wholly unreal about getting off at “my” station with the Hamilton clan at my heels, waiting to tour the school I spend so much time in each week. They met my (adorable) English teacher, sat in my sturdy wooden seat in the classroom corner, and watched a tiny portion of a typical judo practice. The feeling continued into that night, when my true family and my extended Japanese families met over a lengthy, wonderful dinner. True to form, the event was kicked off by the male heads saying a few words of greeting and appreciation. Acting as translator, I got to see both sides slowly come out of their respective shells to converge by the end into one big, laughing, international family. Just the mental picture of it makes me happy, even as I type these words. It was a special time for me.

One of the most “different” aspects of the trip compared to past experiences was our means of transportation, namely, trains. The Tokyo metro system is a labyrinth of interconnecting subway lines stacked several floors deep and covering every corner of the city. Supplementing these are the numerous above-ground trains, which cover the heavily commuted lines both in the city and out into the “suburbs,” in essence mini-cities of their own that house the millions of Tokyoite workers. The trains themselves have differing degrees of rapidity, some stopping everywhere, some bypassing the “small” stations, and the bullet-trains heading clear across the country at breakneck speed. Scattered across the metropolis are large hubs connecting multiple lines, sometimes with over a dozen platforms and a distinctly airport-like atmosphere. These and every station in between also serve as commercial centers filled with restaurants, bakeries, and other retail stores.

You might expect all of this chaos to amplify the same delays and backups that happen in US public transport systems. You'd be wrong. If a train leaves at 16:42, it leaves at 16:42. Scrolling on its interior will be screens detailing exactly how many minutes until arrival at each subsequent stop. You can confidently look up departure times the day in advance and plan accordingly, figuring in the time it will take to park your bike in the storage garages near stations... Given that all of this has been second-nature to me for months now, when plotting our routes around town I didn't give it much thought other than the rusty multiplication it took to calculate train fare for eight. Only upon the astounded reaction of my family did I take a step back to appreciate how truly impressive it is.

That rediscovered sense of “newness” was a common theme, as I tried (in true Japanese style) to pack as much as possible into each day. We walked around plenty of Buddhist temples, cleansing our hands and mouths, burning incense, tossing coins into the offering box with a bow, and discovering our fortunes written on tiny strips of paper. They marveled at the convenience of vending machines and the drinkabilty of the perfectly heated coffees therein. We all laughed at the cry of “Chee-zu!” (cheese) that accompanies every Japanese photographer, and scratched our heads at the seemingly incongruous lack of both litter AND public trash cans.

Their presence also provided a benchmark by which to observe the changes within myself, as they extend beyond the language acquisition. Besides apparently running like a penguin now, and accidentally bowing to family members out of habit, living abroad has truly impacted my person. Particularly as pertaining food, and my complete comfort with fish roe riceballs for breakfast. I didn't realize how accustomed I've grown to Japanese fare until noticing the slight sense of disappointment upon walking into an English or Italian restaurant. I think I've just REALLY grown to love rice... and fish... and veggies and sweet bean desserts and soy and half-boiled eggs and every types of noodle and... you get it. Luckily we did cover most of the Japanese delicacies, including a delicious fondue-like dish and a savory egg pancake.

I discovered new things which bothered me and new things I appreciated. For instance, during a lengthy period of down time without benches, I felt a little uncomfortable at my family sitting on the ground by the train station entrance. On the trains, I had to restrain myself from shushing my brothers’ humming and tapping to the music in their headphones. I groaned a little at leaving a bakery with crumbs all over the floor... and other such OCD-esk quirks... At the same time, many things were refreshing and welcome.

Departing some days at 10 AM was a glorious contrast to my school trip to Okinawa, which began each morning promptly at 6 AM. Seeing my parents kiss or even just hold hands in public made me smile, as I hadn’t seen anyone do the former in months. Receiving regular hugs was a plus, as well as the sweet, sweet, sarcasm that I crave in daily conversation. So much more comes to mind, but the interesting part was simply witnessing the "new" within me.

Entering a ninth month abroad, it can be easy to slip into routine, jaded to the everyday around you. Somehow, pulling out chopsticks to eat octopus while talking to Japanese juniors about their girl troubles starts to seem like a normal thing to do. Your dreams fluctuate between languages, and bidets are a regular part of life. Watching figure skating in a 200 degree sauna with 20 naked strangers is just another night... Perhaps that's a testament to the effective cultural immersion that RYE offers, but regardless, my goal for the last month and a half in Japan is to shake myself off and appreciate more fully the experiences and people around me.

Already, starting this new school year (April in Japan), I've succeeded in making a core group of friends with whom I'm going to karaoke and Disney soon. Judo is demanding and rewarding in itself, and my language is improving like the slowest, steadiest tortoise of all time. The nights of gritting my teeth on blustery bike rides home lie far behind me.. So what am I waiting for? Time for me to sleep now, to start a brand new day in the morning. Only so many left, after all...

Take care, all! Till next time,