Category Archives: Culture shock

Misunderstandings

The day dawned rainy and gloomy.  Charlie and I walked to the sea front to do the top tourist activity in Shimoda, a ride on the Susquehanna, a reproduction of the black ship with which Admiral Matthew Perry “opened” Japan in 1854.

As I’ve written before, Japan closed itself to foreigners for over 200 years.  Perry wouldn’t take no for an answer.  I paid our fares (1200 yen for me; 600 for Charlie).  It was only us and a couple with one kid, so we were spared the selfie-stick crowd.

Charlie couldn’t wait to spend the 2000 yen pocket money his mom had given him.  He bought a bag of seagull food for 100 yen and within 20 seconds it was gone.  I found a seat below, out of the rain, and he joined me.  It was fun to watch the dawn of understanding as I explained what a breakwater was.

“It’ll get a lot choppier once we pass it,” I pointed out.  “Look at those waves.”

Charlie moved to the other side of the cabin and kept yelling over, “Look, Auntie Anne, there’s a mountain/huge wave/another ship!”  The scenery was beautiful.

“Look at the seagulls following us!”

There was commentary, in Japanese.  I knew the ride was supposed to last 20 minutes but hoped they would drag it out longer since it was deadsville for tourists in Shimoda. But no, 20 minutes later we disembarked.

It was 9:30.

I had counted on buying a book that would explain everything about Perry’s expedition but there were none in English in the tiny ticket/gift shop.

“What did they say in the commentary?” I asked Charlie.

“I dunno, I didn’t pay any attention,” he replied.

“Well next time, do,” I ordered.  “How else am I supposed to know what’s going on?”

We walked back toward the train station, to the tourist information desk, to inquire about the second-most-popular tourist attraction in Shimoda, the cable car ride to a mountaintop park.  As we walked, the sun came out and it went from warm to oppressively hot.

“Look there’s steam rising from the sidewalks.  Thank god we’re gonna be up on the mountain for the rest of the day.  It should be cooler up there,” I said.  This was going to be a great way to kill most of the day.  We would have a picnic and go for a hike.  I remembered seeing colored pencils in Charlie’s bag.  We could bring those and try our hand at sketching the views.  I laid out these plans to Charlie and he nodded in satisfaction.

At the information desk, the friendly staff explained to Charlie, who turned and explained to me with great disappointment, that the mountain was closed.

“The mountain?  Don’t they mean the cable car?”

Charlie consulted with the staff in Japanese, then turned to me so they couldn’t see the dubious look on his face.  “They say the mountain is closed for repairs.”  Then we both laughed out loud.  We knew there was no point in trying to get them to explain what it meant.

“Isn’t there another way to get up there?” I asked him to ask.  Maybe we could take a cab to the top, like Lynn and I had done with Mount Wakakusa.

The poor tourist staff shook their heads, looking guilty and helpless.  They were truly sorry that we wouldn’t be able to ascend the broken mountain.  I hoped they wouldn’t commit suicide later.

“Ask them what else they would recommend we do,” I instructed Charlie.  We were encouraged to visit the aquarium.

“Okay,” I said as we walked away, “but first I have to get some cash.”

Charlie rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically.  “Don’t make me walk outside!  It’s so hot and I’m so tired!”

“Ha.  You would have been a barrel of fun on the mountaintop.  Sit right here and don’t move until I get back.  I’ll be gone five minutes.”

It took me 10 minutes, and as I rounded on the station I saw Charlie walking off after a strange man.

CHAR-Leee!  Get Back Here!” I screamed.  Everyone turned to stare at me, shocked.

No one screams in Japan, apparently, even when their kid is being abducted.

Number One Nephew

I felt human again after a hot shower, after two full-on days of traveling.  Then Charlie took a long bath; I didn’t ask him if he scrubbed and rinsed himself beforehand.

While he was soaking, I heaved his impossibly heavy suitcase onto the luggage stand and opened it.  It sprung open and a large stuffed Siroton sprang out.

There must have been a dozen t-shirts, 10 pairs of pants, underpants, socks, jackets, and hats.  Every item was impeccably folded.  You could slide this t-shirt into a #10 envelope and mail it, I thought.  There were a dozen books, mostly manga.  Then there were the allergy medications, anti-itch cream, cough syrup, sunscreen, eye drops, nasal spray, and back-up epi pens.  I kept pulling out more stuff, wondering if there was a secret portal to another world at the bottom of this tiny suitcase.  I would never, never get it all back in.

We walked to the seafront.   Everything was closed, but all a nine-year-old boy needs to stay entertained is rocks and sticks and a body of water.

We rambled the 10 minute walk into the city center.  The rain was whipping fiercely and my umbrella kept flipping inside out.  Charlie had declined an umbrella and insisted he didn’t mind getting soaked.

It being the off season, most places were closed but we had some really fresh and super cheap sushi in a restaurant in the train station.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a 7/11 to buy something for breakfast. I bought smoked salmon, blueberries, and plain yogurt.  Charlie picked out five candy items.

“I let you have a gooey desert at the restaurant,” I said, “so you have to eat a nutritious breakfast.”  He looked crestfallen, slowly put the candy back, and chose a kids’ yogurt that probably contained just as much sugar.

At the checkout, we were instructed to stick our hands into a box and pull out some sort of prize ticket.  The box had photos of a Japanese heavy metal band on it.  I’m not sure if this is the one but it was similar.

Neither of us won.  “What would we have won?” I asked Charlie.

“I think you win candy,” he said mischievously.

This was a struggle during our time together.  I was under strict instructions to limit his sugar and caffeine intake.  I was fine with this in principal but this was his vacation—he’d worked hard in school for the past three weeks and all the touristy places we visited promoted candy, doughnuts, ice cream and all things sweet.  Charlie was compliant when I said no, with only a few minutes of dejection.  For some reason this made me feel guiltier than if he had wheedled, whined, and tried to negotiate.

Keiko had Skyped me, “Charlie says he hates Japan and never wants to come back!  There’s been so much pressure on him here, academically and socially.  I hope he can unwind and have a good time with you so his negative view of Japan isn’t permanent.”

And it wasn’t. We walked into our room just in time to see the sunset through the clearing clouds, and he exclaimed, “I don’t want to leave Japan!  I want to stay here forever!”

Mission accomplished, and it was only Day 1.

Charlie had observed me writing a post on my laptop.

“I really want to write a book,” he told me.  “Can I do it on your computer?”  Of course I said yes, but I hadn’t realized that he doesn’t know how to type and his grammar and punctuation skills aren’t great yet.  I showed him the most important thing, how to save his document.

“Of course my head is full of ideas after a big day like today,” he said.  I turned my head so he couldn’t see me laugh.

I watched Kei Nishikori at Wimbledon on TV.  He’s ranked number four in the world.  I have such fond memories of Wimbledon.

“I want to be the number one writer, baseball player, runner, and a regular dad,” said Charlie.

I read what he’d written so far.

“Wonse upon a time …”

Everybody has to start somewhere.

Water Everywhere

Back in Japan, I met my sister-in-law’s folks at Omiya Station where they handed off my nine-year-old nephew.

Hiromi handed me an envelope “for emergencies.”  Did it contain cash?  One-way tickets back to Tokyo?   An inspirational saying?

At the last moment, Fred pulled out a route map and suggested we take a different route to Shimoda than the one Google recommended; the one that had made me cry in exasperation the night before.  I could almost hear my blood pressure spiking.  Getting lost on my own was stressful enough.  The prospect of getting lost with my nephew was unbearable.

Fred handed me a pack of postcard prints of his paintings, which I tucked into a backpack pocket along with the emergency envelope.

“Bye!” we all waved farewell. “Listen to Anne san!” Fred called after Charlie as we dove through the turnstiles and on toward the platforms.

“Are we gonna take grandpa’s way, or the way we talked about last night?” Charlie asked as he trudged along behind me with his roller bag and gigantic backpack.

“We’re gonna stick with the plan,” I replied.

And we did.  I had a moment of indecision in Yokohama but after a quick consultation with Charlie found the platform for the Super Okidoro train.  It’s not a shinkansen but it’s very nice, with windows that arched over our heads so we got panoramic views.

I was thrilled that Charlie appreciated the scenery.  “Look, Auntie Anne!  The ocean!” he exclaimed.  I had expected him to be jaded, now that he was almost 10.

In a couple hours we reached Shimoda, on the tip of the Izu peninsula.  This had not been mentioned in any tourist books or websites; I was only here because the in-laws recommended it.  From the station, we caught a local bus to our hotel.  It was a bit frantic because we had to have exact change and Charlie was slow getting his together.  Not for the first time, I checked myself from grabbing his money and saying, “Here, let me do it!”

As I wrote previously, our hotel room was a lovely traditional Japanese room.

And fantastic views.

As I’ve also whined about previously, it only had internet in the lobby and near the elevators.

This turned out to be okay because we might have otherwise spent a lot more time in the room, especially since it rained almost the whole time.

We wandered around the hotel to check out the features.  It appeared we were the only guests.

There were male and female onsens and a family one, also with beautiful views.

I would have loved to have partaken but I wasn’t going to leave my nephew alone in a male onsen, and I wasn’t going to bathe naked with my nephew in the family onsen.  It turned out that the hotel charged 2000 yen per person (about $18) to use them, so that wasn’t going to happen anyway.

There was an entire floor of weird Korean saunas.  These were large rooms with wall-to-wall layers of gravel on the floors and wooden benches lining the walls.  The lights were off so I couldn’t take a picture, and I can’t find any photos online so I wonder if I imagined them.

Back in the room, I felt the need for a hot shower.  I ran the water.  And ran it, and ran it … then went down to the lobby to say our room had no hot water.  They explained that it took at least 15 minutes for hot water to reach us on the second floor.

While I waited I puzzled over the crotch-level mirror.  My sister-in-law later enlightened me, “This is for when you are seated on the stool to wash yourself before you get into the tub.”

And the retractable cover over the tub?  That’s so you can keep the water warm for the next person.  It reminds me of the pioneer days in America when the whole family used the same bath water.  Ick.  But in Japan, no one gets into a tub until they’ve scrubbed and rinsed from head to toe.  The tub is not for cleaning, only relaxing.

I still want to go first.

Flights and the Next Leg

I sat perched at the mezzanine-level bar in Starbucks which overlooked Omiya Station’s main concourse, nursing a coffee.   Last night Fred had asked, “Do you want to try some sake?” and when I had nodded he was clearly delighted to have a drinking companion.  My sister-in-law and her mother cannot drink alcohol—it causes an allergic reaction.

I had already ordered a beer.  I know I probably sound like an alcoholic.  I have come home from some trips undecided where I should check myself in first—to Hazelden or a fat farm.  But really, drinks are just props to my writing, like in the movies where people are constantly walking to the drinks cart, pouring drinks, and using the drinks in their hands as part of their stage gestures.

I have so many addicts in my family that I’ve always closely monitored myself for signs I am crossing over from social to compulsive drinker.

Fred and I split four glasses of a sake flight.  Each selection was from a different region.  The first one was amazing—fruity but, because sake, not sweet.  The others were okay and it was fun to taste the differences.

Charlie had been playing Pokémon Go on Fred’s phone from the moment we met at the station.  His parents impose an almost-total ban on screens, including TV, movies, video games, and internet.  This has caused a boomerang effect where he has become obsessed with all things electronic.  I was kind of grateful that I could tell him, in honesty, that my phone was on the wane so he couldn’t use it to watch YouTube videos or play games.

Occasionally Fred or Hiromi would ask Charlie a question and I loved that he responded unselfconsciously in Japanese. He had been working hard in Japanese school, in Minnesota, and here, in immersion.  He deserved some mindless Pokémon Go off leash time.

Fred and Hiromi and I talked about language learning.  Charlie would start French classes once school resumed, on top of Japanese school on Saturdays, and he would be switching from piano lessons to cello.  Part of me wished I had had these opportunities and part was relieved that my mother’s approach to parenting had been totally laissez faire.  We ran wild, with no geographic boundaries or curfews.  I wonder if this is why three out of the four of us are creative types.

I gave Hiromi the tofu souvenir from Koyasan and she seemed to like it.  I asked Fred if he liked tofu.  He nodded and gave me a short talk on all things tofu, which varies by region.  Maybe this is why Japanese people don’t get sick of tofu—it comes in so many different textures and is used in so many different ways.

That night I sat on the side of my bed trying to make sense of the next day’s itinerary.  I was so utterly exhausted from the days’ travels.  I started to cry because I couldn’t understand something about getting from Point B to Point C.  I set the itinerary aside and fell back on the bed.  Hopefully it would all be clear tomorrow, as it unfolded.

I finished the horrifying novel about WWII and fell asleep for about an hour, until my Restless Legs jerked me awake.  I got out of bed, ran in place for 10 minutes, then fell back to sleep.  That repeated six or seven times until my alarm went off.  In other words, a normal night.

So here I was at Starbucks watching bursts of humans emerge, converge, and then stream off to their respective exits as trains came and went.

Fully 90% of them wore black pants and white tops.  You could say this was Japanese conformity, but in London two years ago I had observed a similar “uniform” of blue suits with white shirts.  I spotted two American flag shirts.  Out of the thousands of travelers, there were about five black people, two Indians, a half dozen middle easterners, and two women wearing headscarves.  Zero anyone who appeared Latino.  There were three disabled people in wheelchairs.

And two elders.  I jumped up and ran down to meet Fred, Hiromi, and Charlie.

Uniqlo No

Somewhere, waiting for one of the seven trains that took me from Koyasan to Tokyo, I took these photos.  The “trauma” of potentially losing my phone receded the farther I got from the scene, and I started snapping away again.

Why would there be a zone designated “Boarding for women only,” you ask?  Because women are so often groped on trains in Japan that it’s necessary.  Yuk.  I was never groped, probably because I was an obvious tourist.

For some perverse reason I enjoyed taking photos of ugly scenery.  This was the winner.

It was a long, hot day.  I was sweaty and felt grimy and tired.  Something that kept me going was the prospect of shopping at the Uniqlo store in Omiya station, my final destination.  Google showed that there was one; I was thoroughly sick of the four outfits I’d worn over and over for three weeks and looked forward to buying some fresh threads.

Omiya is a part of Tokyo a half hour from the center.  Its population is about 114,000—bigger than many US cities.  Omiya station, like Tokyo and Ueno and other stations, is enormous and filled with hundreds of convenience stores, florists, bakeries, noodle shops, pachinko parlors, clothing boutiques, you name it.

As usual the diagram I had studied on Google bore no relation to reality.  A one-dimensional map cannot show you that there are three stories, skyways, and underground passages.  It didn’t show me that there was an entire mall within the station, and once I stepped inside I was disconnected from the station.  A map also cannot prepare you for the thousands upon thousands of commuters streaming in and out of the station at 5pm.  I felt like a salmon swimming upstream or like that old game Frogger, when I had to dash in a zig zag pattern to get through mobs of people to cross from one side to another.

I searched for a half hour, then concluded that Google had been wrong; there was no Uniqlo.  If there was one, it was not listed on the directory nor did it have an obvious storefront.

Next, I boldly stepped out into the main thoroughfare and headed in what I hoped was the correct direction to find my Air BnB.  I passed a number of “soapland” entities, which is a euphemism for whore houses.  No wonder the Air BnB was so cheap.

The directions had said the place was “5 minutes from Omiya Station,” and by golly, it was.  I spotted the building and at the same time saw a stout lady on the external stairs shouting, “Hello!  No lift!”  I was so glad I’d shipped my suitcase on to Shimoda as I climbed three flights of stairs to meet my hostess, who turned out to be Chinese.  She gave me a huge hug like I was her long-lost daughter and gave me a brisk tour using a combo of Chinglish and Google translate. I followed her as she demonstrated the lights, “Go Out, Off!” she emphasized three times before hugging me again.  I knew I stank so she must have really liked the looks of me.

As in other low-rent Air BnBs in which I have stayed, everything was the cheapest quality possible, including the pilled, polyester bedclothes.  But hey, it only cost $73 a night.

My new mom showed me the Air BnB app and told me, “I need 5 stars review, keep boss happy!” She guffawed and hugged me again, then disappeared.

Now, a shower!  I couldn’t figure out the hot water system and I wasn’t taking a cold shower in a communal bathroom.  I teared up in frustration.  A hot shower would have to wait until after my next Herculean day of travel—tomorrow.

My Japanese family lives in Omiya, which is why I was there.  My etiquette guide explained that foreigners are never invited into Japanese homes because people are ashamed of how small their digs are.  So I didn’t take it personally when Fred suggested, through Skype, that we meet at the station and eat at a nearby restaurant.

I freshened up as well as I could with cold water, then headed out into the night.

Losing My Serenity

Day 22 in Japan.  Today I would leave Koyasan for Tokyo, from whence my nine-year-old nephew Charlie and I would travel to Shimoda.  Charlie is the nom de plume he has chosen.  His real name is Japanese.

As I finished my last fabulous breakfast at the monastery, Mick and Mary, the Aussies, stopped by my dining room and asked, “How ya goin’?”

I began to blab out all the thoughts I’d had about the Japanese approach to war remembrance, in particular the memorial to some action in Malaysia which possibly involved a forced march of Australian troops but which was spun in the cemetery as a neutral action.

Mick and Mary weren’t interested.  “We’re just here for the food,” Mick said, somewhat jokingly.  They invited me to come and see their accommodations, and I accepted.  They had a separate little house, basically.  It was similar in style to my humble room but it had an en suite bathroom with its own soaking tub.  So you can live large in a monastery if you’ve got the dosh.

The first bus out of Koyasan left at 8:11.  I stuffed my suitcase into the dumbwaiter, then nearly slid down the steep stairs to meet it on the ground floor.  “Thank god I’ll never have to hike these treacherous stairs again,” I thought.  Then I realized I’d forgotten my coins in the room so I had to go up and down one more time for the road.

It was raining, a hard steady downpour.  I was the first person at the bus stop but soon was surrounded by tourists from Spain, France, the UK, North America, and Australia.  They bunched together to avoid the rain, with me at the center so that when the bus arrived I was the last to get on.

An American or Canadian woman asked me to not sit in the last empty seat because, she explained, “My husband has long legs and needs an extra seat.”

“That’s not my problem,” I said as I took the seat.  So much for mountaintop serenity.

As I mentioned in my last post, I had slept all night without any Restless Legs symptoms, something that only occurs about twice a year.  As the day progressed I noted the difference between energy from a good night’s sleep and nervous energy from adrenaline.  The first type ebbs away slowly, while the second drains like a sieve and makes you more tired than ever.  Today I would be so very grateful for the good energy that comes from sleep.

From the Koyasan bus station I took the cable car down the mountain, then the train onward.  In Osaka, I got off at the wrong station.  Five people gave me five different answers about what to do next.  I was confused, panicked, and tearful.

Then I stopped and thought—if I can get to Kyoto, I can get to Tokyo.  Just do the next indicated thing.

I got to Kyoto, where I finally used the fabulous bag shipping service that every guide book promotes.  It cost $17 to have my bag shipped to Shimoda, so I wouldn’t have to lug it to Tokyo and then to Shimoda, all while herding my nephew.  Fantastic.

I felt elation when I was finally on a Shinkansen for Tokyo.  An aged British man dressed in all black like a heavy metal rocker snored loudly in the seat across from me, while his much younger Asian wife entertained their children.  I wondered what she saw in him, with his pot belly and long, thin, grey hair framing a bald spot.  Maybe it was true love.

As we passed through Yokohama I thought about my dad, who had spent time here on shore leave while serving in the US Navy.  Did I have a half sibling here?  Probably I would find out eventually, if Ancestry.com becomes the rage in Japan that it is in the US.

In Tokyo I became confused again. I had traveled on a bus, a cable car, and six trains. I finally found my seventh and final train.  Google had mapped this trip at four hours but I arrived at Omiya station at 5pm—nine hours after leaving Koyasan.

Tofu Nirvana

Today was the day.  I had not touched my cell phone for 48 hours and now I could check to see if it was dead or alive.  It was alive!  The screen looked weird, like water had dripped down inside and smeared it, but it worked.  It would die eventually, once I was back home, but for the rest of my trip it worked.  Hurrah!

I felt grateful that it worked, and also grateful that I had been forced to not use it for 48 hours.  If your phone has to die, a mountaintop Buddhist monastery is the perfect place for that.

There were some new guests next door to me; from the guttural exclamations I could hear through the wall, they must have been German or Dutch.  They sounded aggressive, which I realized was just their language, but I took my laptop with me just in case they turned out to be thieves.  This is the type of irrational thinking I do when I am sleep deprived, which is just about every day.

I wanted to buy a gift for my Keiko’s parents.  Koyasan is considered sacred to the Japanese.  I didn’t know Fred and Hiromi were believers and if so, in what, but they had never been here and I thought it would be nice to bring them a little something.  But what?

At the information center, I asked the friendly staff of three for advice, but none of them spoke much English.  From the back office, a tall, stout man appeared and thrust out his hand.

“I’m Patrick O’Leary.  How can I help?”  An Irish American! He was the fourth employee.  After my initial surprise, I explained I wanted gift advice for my Japanese family.  He translated for the other employees and they conferred.

“I’ve lived here 30 years and I still don’t understand it completely—the gift giving thing,” he said.  The advice was to buy a special kind of dehydrated or freeze dried (is there a difference?) tofu made only in Koyasan.

Really?  Tofu?  Now, I like tofu, but I had never considered giving it as a gift.  I asked them to write down the exact name in Japanese since I assumed it would be difficult to find.  They giggled a little up their sleeves, and I realized why as I entered the first gift shop I came across to find thousands of boxes of gift-wrapped dehydrated tofu.

Here’s the good thing—dehydrated tofu is light, unlike the broth-packed yuba tofu I had bought in Nikko.  Once I saw it I realized this was something I’d been enjoying at every meal in Koyasan. Once it’s reconstituted, it has an even spongier texture than regular tofu.  Call me a weirdo, but I like that, so I bought a package for myself too.

I returned to the monastery and did some work, wrote a blog post, ate an instant ramen lunch, and packed for my departure the next morning.  Then I sauntered out for a last visit to the cemetery.

This time I followed some of the tantalizing trails that led off from the main paths.  They wound up, up, up from one terrace to another; on every level there were loads of old tombstones as well as signs that people still visited, like gardening tools and stools and obviously-recent offerings of coins or flowers or incense.

One path turned out to be a cross-country hiking trail. A very serious woman through hiker hoofed it my way, barely nodding at me.  The path opened out into a meadow, and I could see where it reentered a woods on the other side.  So tempting!  But I turned back.

I got lost and ended up in an area where Japanese tour buses arrived.  This was the location of newer graves, including “corporate graves” for people who dedicated their lives to their companies.  Probably they literally worked themselves to death.  I will never understand why this is considered admirable.

That afternoon I attended the fire ceremony, which as I wrote turned out to be a two-hour meditation.  That night I slept eight hours straight!  I guess all I have to do from now on is meditate two hours a day.  Right.