Mar 27, 2009

Notes from Japan, Part 2

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More random observations as we traverse the Land of the Rising Sun:

I’ve always looked down my nose at minivans despite being very aware of their usefulness (when you’re traveling long distances with children, they’re certainly a godsend). However, being in Japan has changed all of that. Nearly everyone here (or at least, in Shizuoka) drives a minivan, but these aren’t your typical soccer mom rides. They’re sleeker and more compact, and come loaded with features — including rear-mounted video cameras. And speaking of cameras, everyone here parks backwards, so being able to see what’s going on behind you can be a real plus.

I alluded to this earlier, but if you’re going to travel anywhere with a young child, you can’t go wrong with Japan. Everything here seems so much more child-friendly, from the play areas in major department stores to the detachable high chairs in restaurants. And of course, there’s the fact that you’ll have complete strangers come up and say “Hi” and play with your child — little grandmotherly types, teenage girls — and yet, it doesn’t feel at all threatening or unsafe.

Dealing with credit card fraud always sucks donkey balls, but it sucks really big donkey balls when you have to deal with it while overseas. And all of those security procedures that banks put in place to protect your account? They’re great so long as you’re in the States. If you’re overseas, however, they make it nearly impossible to truly fix things. On the other hand, getting your tax refund deposited while you’re overseas is a delight — it means that much more money for good food, souvenirs, etc.

I’m not really much of a beer drinker, but I don’t want to drink anything else when I’m eating yakitori.

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And since we’re on the subject of food, everything’s been wonderful so far. From the fresh strawberries — there are strawberry booths all over the place here — to the fresh citrus that you can pick right off the tree, from the sashimi to the tonkatsu, it’s all incredibly tasty and quite inexpensive. And talk about presentation: even the bento boxes you buy from a cheap, hole-in-the-wall roadside stand look gorgeous.

I don’t want to keep going on and on about traveling with kids and whatnot, but it is a very different tourist experience. In fact, you don’t really feel like tourists at all. I had always envisioned traveling through Japan on my own, or at most, with my wife, but never with children in tow. Having Simon along has really changed the experience: you travel at different times, you check out different places (like shopping malls and childrens clothing stores), and your dining experiences are quite different as well (kids fuss at the table in any country, it seems).

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We’ve also spent a lot of time with other families — our hosts, their neighbors (another American missionary family), their Japanese friends — and that also dramatically changes the tourist experience. Again, you feel less like a tourist, and more like you’ve just skipped down the block to have coffee and lunch with some neighbors. Only these neighbors live halfway around the world and speak a different language. Not really all that different, though, when you get down to it.

For another strange experiences, simply attend church in a foreign country. Your own culture shapes how you view your religion in so many subtle ways, and when another culture is inserted in its place — even if all that that entails is singing familiar praise and worship choruses in another language — it’s a slightly jarring experience. Not uncomfortable or bad, by any means — it’s always a good thing to be reminded that the Church and your nationality are not one in the same, but that the Church transcends and trumps your nationality — but jarring, still. It also adds several layers of oddness when you’re listening to a sermon via translation but you can still hear the sermon, in Japanese, over your headphones… and the one giving the sermon is American. (OK, maybe not so odd on paper, but in person, it is.)

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There is always a sense of alienation when you travel in a foreign land and speak very little of the native tongue (as I believe I’ve mentioned before, most of my Japanese comes from anime and samurai films). Not a bad or depressing sort of alienation, but you do find yourself questioning the “we’re all connected” mantras that you hear so often these days. When you walk into a fast food restaurant or up to a yakitori stand, and your only interaction with the person in front of you is to hand them several thousand yen, and you know that there is a 0.0000000001% chance of ever seeing or interacting with that person again, and an even smaller chance of ever having a significant interaction with that person… well, it does some weird things to your head. Of course, this is also true even in your hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, but the sense of this is heightened while overseas.

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On the flipside, you are reminded that the notion that people really are much the same, regardless of where you are, is not some trite cliche, but actually a great Truth.

Renae and I are really struggling with romanticizing Japan. It’s easy to forget that our trip is happening under very ideal circumstances, what with our good friends helping us out and all. Even so, we’re continually impressed by the Japanese. At the risk of sounding ignorant and naive, they do seem to do so many things consistently well. Even the parking attendants, which are pretty much a necessity in the busy and crowded parking lots here, go about their job with a focus that is quite remarkable, regardless of weather or time of day.

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On a related note, it’s all about the details here. For example, the woman who asked if the souvenir I bought was a present, and then proceeded to take a brown paper bag and a little bow and turn them into the most exquisite gift-wrapping. Or the coffeehouse barista who, upon learning that we’d be driving for about 20-30 minutes, put a cold pack in the bag to ensure that Renae’s latte coffee pudding would be nice and cold when we arrived home (at no extra charge, of course).

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Seeing Mt. Fuji is an impressive experience, even when 90% of it is obscured by clouds.

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Everyone under the age of 50 is dressed to the nines, regardless of the time or place. Case in point: we ascended Kunouzan-Toshogu (aka, the Thousand Steps), a stone stairway that ascends through the mountains to a temple that overlooks the ocean and surrounding countryside. It’s not an impossible trek, but definitely no walk in the park, and yet the woman in front of us did the entire thing in 3” heels.

If you’re a hypochondriac or are obsessive compulsive about coming into contact with a toilet seat that has touched someone else’s buttocks, than Japanese toilets are for you. They’re basically holes in the ground, albeit covered in porcelain, that you just squat down over and let gravity do the rest (just remember to face the hood). I won’t go into any more graphic detail — I’m sure you get the idea — but I will say this: make sure you do some stretching and exercise before using one. It’s murder on your knees and thighs to stand back up after finishing your business (if you’re over 60 and/or have even a touch of arthritis, forget about it). All of which leads me to believe that the Japanese must have the strongest upper legs in the entire world.

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More to come after we get back from Kyoto…

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