University of Wisconsin–Madison

First Reactions to Japan…and Chinese? Living

For February 7, 2018, United States time zone

February 8, 2018, Japanese time zone

The four-hour ride on the Shinkansen (bullet train) seems like the best time to write today. I was too exhausted last night to write anything down, but I’ve collected photos and memories to record my first reactions.

As the plane was landing I had my eyes glued on the world below me. When I pictured Japan I thought of neon lights and city buildings like those in Chicago. What I saw was many fields with very thick and dense forests. They were colored red and a mossy green, and I didn’t see any pine trees. They reminded me more of red morels. This is not the case, however, for trees everywhere here.

I knew Sahyo and I had a bus to catch after we met, so after getting off the plane I moved fast. I wasn’t sure when our bus would leave. I did know that Sahyo and I would be headed for a five-day excursion to various cities. Upon receiving my checked bag I quickly swapped a few items into my carryon and was all set to go.

I brought my bags over to customs where I claimed “ko-hi-,“ my carefully practiced word for “coffee.” After a couple tries of struggling, the attendant said, “coffee?”. I had foreigner written all over.

Sahyo and I had a great reunion and I met her mom. I tried to communicate with her despite the language barrier. I really wish I knew more Japanese and I feel bad about traveling in a country that I don’t belong to, where I can only communicate by pointing my fingers or forcing people to speak my language. I’ve been trying to master and frequently use basic words like “please” and “thank you” so that I’m not perceived as close-minded to other cultures or rude.

Luckily, I have Sahyo as my guide.

Her first tour brought us to Yokohama, a city on the Pacific. I went to bed by city lights and lit bridges, and woke to a blue landscape. We explored Chinatown that night, which she described as a must-see destination. The small streets and window-filled apartments had bicycles, Chinese flags and amazing architecture.

Food was everywhere, and the smells were so different from what I had ever experienced. There were many pastries that looked like sesame balls. They’re fried with sweet beans in the middle. The food I’ve tasted seems to be either very sweet or very sour, like a pickled root or plum.

The sweet sesame seed ball

For dinner I got four green-colored dumplings. They had a gelatin soup inside and meat-covered shrimp.

Green dumplings!

I’ve noticed a few trends. While American fast food may encourage pizza and sandwiches (burgers included) or salad, Chinatown offered meat-filled dumplings or meat-filled breads. Rice balls are common and are fairly inexpensive, compared to a much higher price for a few dumplings. For example, I could buy a bread dumpling for about 500YEN (roughly $5.00) or a big bag of ebi (shrimp) crackers for 100YEN.

Meat dumplings!
Super airy shrimp crackers

Perhaps the ebi crackers are like the American potato chip. Still, they seemed cool to me.

Even today when we both got bento boxes for breakfast, they were only about 800YEN. But based on the intricacy and carefulness of the food’s placement and design, I expected them to be much more.

My bento box had glazed fish (not sure what the sauce was) on top of pickled burdock root. There was chicken on a stick too. In the upper right corner of the picture was rice and sweet beans with chestnuts and sesame seeds. To the left was a pickled vegetable with pickled carrots and a tofu vegetable pancake. Bottom left was rice with sweet potato, burdock root, and shrimp. And the bottom right of the photo was raw squid, pickled carrot, sweet beans, another pancake that tasted similar to one I ate on the plane, and an egg in the shape of a box, prepared in a way I haven’t seen in the United States.

Also pictured is a sushi roll, curry donut (kare-pan), Royal Milk Tea and bean donut (anpan)

The one thing I might miss, if I were in Japan long term, would be fruit. At the market today one strawberry cost 500YEN and a pink one 800YEN. They looked perfect but I’d miss my yearly overdose of June strawberries.

So many beautiful berries

I’ve learned a few customs around here too. Like don’t steal your host sister’s food with you own chopsticks. Apparently using two sets of chopsticks on one food item is a taboo that leads your host sister to forfeit that food over to you. Maybe I’ll forget that rule a few more times—just joking.

I also am learning the Japanese way of walking: quick and with purpose. In the subway people are everywhere. No one stopped and although people were walking in all directions, there seemed to be some sort of strategy. I of course messed this up when I started walking on the right side of the walkway and stood dead-center on the escalator. You’ll find the hurried business personal do not appreciate this. Move left please.

Similar to the roads, people walk on the left side of a walkway and the escalators, trains, etcetera, move on the left*. Opposite of the U.S. It’s not hard to accept the driving or escalators, but walking on the right is such a habit of mine that I’ve made the mistake multiple times.

Transportation seems to consist primarily of trains like the fast-moving Shinkansen, or tram cars and subways. There are still cars though. Many people ride bikes too, even though it’s the middle of winter, just like in the States. To me, it feels like a fall day.

Another common difference from the U.S. is the toilets. I wash shocked to find that the toilets are usually heated, and offer buttons for different levels of water pressure and sprays. I decided to not flood the bathroom on my first day and stuck with the classic flush.

At one of the train stops Sahyo suggested we get out to throw our trash away and maybe buy a green tea. I was hesitant because I didn’t want to pack up everything like my computer and bags, but she said to just leave it. She was confused as to why I’d think someone would steal it. This definitely was a culture shock. Walking through the subways or sitting on a bus she’ll leave her things unattended while I’m clutching onto mine for dear life, and constantly moving my purse from my side to my lap.

In our hotel last night the fridge even had four cans of beer. The drinking age in Japan is 20 and the hotel attendants could easily see from our ID that we were underage. Of course we did not drink the beers but I can’t imagine very many 19 year old Americans who would let the opportunity slip by, let alone any U.S. hotel that would assume they wouldn’t be drunk.

The trust instilled in others is something I wish I could live with more in the U.S.

We’re on our way to Hiroshima and later Osaka. I have mixed feelings about going to Hiroshima although it was my idea. Trying to face the situation apolitically, I have to remind myself it wasn’t myself or the Americans of today that dropped the bomb.

I’ve visited the remnants of a concentration camp in Germany but I can’t compare visiting this memorial of Hiroshima to another. In Germany my ancestors helped save its prisoners, but at Hiroshima they were not only the enemy but also the cause.

It’ll be a tough experience, but one I find extremely important given the opportunity. We will finish our night however in Osaka, a city my parents lived for about four years. Here at least it’ll be a bit more fun to dig up the past. I can’t wait to eat at the restaurants they dined at and explore the place they called home for so long!

*Standing to the left of the escalator is used everywhere except Tokyo and Osaka, I later learned.

First seeing Shay!
Extremely sour Japanese dried plum
Entrance to Chinatown
Lobster tower in Chinatown
One of many street vending machines

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