Category: Japan


I embarked on this journey some four and a half years ago. After an extremely long transatlantic flight I found myself in Japan. It was like being ripped from the comfort of a mother’s womb and being flung into an abyss of the unfamiliar. Squat toilets, toilets that hum, flush themselves made it known that I was no longer in Jamaica. The incessant buzzing in my ear was not bees but the cacophony of Japanese language being flung back and forth in what we term the communication process. Those first few months, a year maybe, I couldn’t listen and didn’t hear anything.

When one has to immediately start working in such a foreign environment, one needs to have their wits firmly about them. Making a concerted effort to watch and learn about those about you is essential for acculturation. I still do this after so many years, because Japan is a highly non-verbal society. People are often amazed at how much I realize. Now I am happy I did those sociolinguistic courses. Anyway, one of the important lessons I have learned from ‘living abroad’ is to be open to new experiences – be flexible. Though balance is important too, don’t allow yourself to be trampled in this process.

Getting ‘use’ to life here was only possible for me by investing time to learn the language – I m not fluent but can hold my own. I also take the time to travel in Japan, visit museums, festivals etc and try to understand the culture. Now I like eating sushi and all manner of raw fish that I didn’t eat for months when I was fresh off the boat – remember the whole flexibility thing I talked about, this is it.

It’s been a great few years filled with the proverbial ups and downs – what’ life without pitfalls that allow you to rise from the ashes … ok that’s too much now.
Anyway, gone are the days when I got upset at someone that treated me ‘badly’ because of the negative stereotypes associated with blacks. If they can’t know me for me and choose to hold on to these stereotypes too bad for them, I am moving along. The highs have been Mt. Everest like and the lows well lows, but as cliche as it sounds the good days have not outnumbered the bad.

Do I regret coming to Japan? Nope. Would I recommend it ? YES!! but be mentally, physically and every ally prepared Japan aint for wimps.

V.  Lloyd- Japan, 2006-Present

For more information on V’s Japan experiences please visit: http://msdumfries.blogspot.com/

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Before leaving Lagos, I was asked by airport officials what my final destination was. When I told them Tokyo most of the responses were; ‘What are you going to do there?’ I explained that I was heading to Tokyo as a tourist and also to visit friends. The truth is that at that time the only thing I was sure of was that I was going to meet with my friends, I was not sure of the ‘tourist’ part at all. Most advice columns say that before travelling it helps to have a schedule of sorts in which you list the places you want to visit along with the dates when you want to visit them. When I left for Tokyo I actually had NO IDEA what I was headed for or what I was going to see or where the tourist attractions were. I was riding on the friends who promised to take me shopping at Shibuya and Harajuku but I knew nothing of famous Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines or landmarks. Luckily for an unprepared traveller like me the hotel I stayed in at Tokyo had these little print-outs detailing how to get to famous places from the hotel. They had print-outs for places like Odaiba, Hakone, the Imperial Palace, Asakusa, Shibuya, Yokohama etc. The print-outs turned to be little saviours for me because they helped me around. I have heard that foreigners have such difficulty navigating the Japanese train and subway system. Luckily I did not face this problem and I guess it was because of the print-outs and also because most of the train stops are written in English as well as in Japanese. Most times the only problem I had was knowing which platform to take a particular line from and with my limited Japanese it was relatively easy to communicate with station masters.

Asakusa in Tokyo

 

 

Again despite not knowing any touristy places when I got there I was lucky enough to have friends who pointed me to the right direction (problems arose when they had differing points of view on what was worthy to be seen). I was told there were certain things I had to do. I had to stay at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) while in Kyoto, I had to eat lots of Japanese food and drink Japanese alcohol, I had to go to the izakaya (Japanese pub), I had to experience public baths, I had to visit so-and-so’s hometown whether it was in the Kyushu or Kansai regions etc.

The day after I landed in Tokyo I met up with Rie. We met at Harajuku station and at first I could not recognise her because she had lost weight. She had also started wearing make-up so it was like we had switched places (n.n) My suitcase was lost somewhere so we basically had to go shopping for everything! I had to buy underwear so now I know what my Japanese bra size is, I realised I had forgotten my digital camera in Nigeria so she took me to buy disposable ones etc. While walking around Harajuku I discovered that it is actually possible to enjoy shopping. I am not a fan of shopping at all but in Japan the hidden part of me that liked shopping was awakened. I personally believe it is because I saw a lot of things that I liked. I bought loads of skirts, tops and dresses that I thought were absolutely divine and feminine. This was a surprise for me because I was under the impression that I wouldn’t find anything that would fit me in Japan. Prior to arriving in Japan, I had joked that I was probably only going to buy nail polish and hair ornaments there.

And now that I think about it, I think I may know why Rie started talking about a Japanese boyfriend for me and I must admit that I have no one to blame but myself. While in Harajuku, Rie and I went to the Maasai Market. Rie explained to me that the shop is owned by this famous guy who went to Africa (Kenya) and brought back fashionable items like jewellery, ornaments, dresses etc to sell in Japan. I decided to buy a skirt from the Maasai Market and while my skirt was being packaged (Japanese shops tend to wrap whatever you buy from them) the guy behind the counter struck up conversation.

Kyoto

I quickly realised that quite a number of Japanese people were willing to strike up conversation with me no matter how much I tried to explain that my Japanese was not good. This has not happened to me in any other country that I have visited! Whenever I was with my friends, the tendency for people to talk with me increased. I got asked all sorts of questions from; ‘Which country are you from?’; to ‘Do you like Japanese men?’; With my experience it should be understandable when I say that I am not buying the ‘Japanese people are shy people’ statement.

The guy at the counter was the person who asked me whether I found Japanese men attractive. Of course before asking this, he had asked where I was from, if Rie was my friend, where we met, why I came to Japan. He even asked my age then told me his in English explaining that it was the only thing he could say in English. So he asked me if I liked Japanese guys then he asked me what I liked about them like their hair, face, style or body. He then said that he had no idea foreign women found Japanese men attractive or something like that. After we left the shop, I asked Rie why he was asking me so many questions and she said that was how some Japanese people are. Rie was the person who helped me with translating words that I did not understand so yeah that may be why she introduced Paul to me.

My ‘adventure’ with Rie at the Maasai Market happened the day after I arrived in Tokyo but I soon discovered that most of my days would follow a similar pattern. Basically I would head to some place new, meet up with friends, chat with strangers, laugh then head back to the hotel. I quickly got used to being drilled with questions by relative strangers. This was no problem for me as I enjoy talking about myself.

* * *

I went to Kamakura, the day after I met with Rie which was a Sunday. I got lost while there probably because I cannot read maps and I do not usually ask for directions especially when I am in a new place. Due to this I ended up walking almost non-stop for at least 6 hours. I got to Kamakura sometime between 10 and 11 am and I only sat down during my rickshaw ride which was around 6 or 7pm. While walking I got to visit at least 5 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, I also got to see traditional Kamakura streets and I ate chiffon cake and drank hibiscus tea soda at this cafe/art shop. The last temple I visited was the one that held Daibutsu (Great Buddha) and by then my feet were dead so I sought relief by deciding to ride a rickshaw. The rickshaw driver could speak English so I could easily answer all his questions even though he laughed at some my answers. I mean what is so funny about the fact that my first Japanese teacher was actually a German woman? After 30 minutes of being pulled on the rickshaw I got a fan, a pack of postcards and a 10-20% discount for another rickshaw ride. I used this discount in Kyoto, a beautiful city that I knew would make a fun rickshaw ride.

I went to Kyoto 2 days after going to Kamakura. The original plan was to stay in Kyoto for just a day but I got there in the afternoon so I changed my mind. I called Chika to ask if I could stay at her place. I met Chika while in Paris last year and the only reason I met her in Japan this year is due to a series of really random events. Because I had met her only once before I did not tell her I was coming to Japan. Yes we had been Facebook friends since our Paris meeting but I was not sure if she was willing to meet me again.

I was on Facebook while in Tokyo and I saw it was her birthday so I wished her a happy birthday. The next day she replied saying something very similar to this; ‘How are you? I want to see you again’; I replied saying believe it or not, I was in Tokyo right then and that I wanted to see her too! A few days later she said she was actually in Kyoto. I saw her reply on the day I was leaving Tokyo for Kyoto so I told her I was heading to Kyoto that same day. Call it destiny (Chika did!) or whatever we ended up exchanging numbers and spending half the day together in Kyoto. And thanks to Chika, I didn’t have to spend money for a hotel while in Kyoto. She works at night (at a ryokan of all places!) so I stayed with her friend, Tomoyo.

The day I arrived in Kyoto, I saw Olov my Swedish friend from Japanese class in Durham. He’s being living in Kyoto for almost a year now so his Japanese has obviously improved and is far better than mine. We walked around central Kyoto and talked a lot before Tomoyo came to meet us at the front of this temple called Nishi Hongwangji (I remember the name because we thought it didn’t sound Japanese at all). We parted ways with Olov heading back to his apartment while Tomoyo and I headed to her dorm, the place where I spent the night. On my second day in Kyoto, Tomoyo took me to the station and helped me find the bus that would begin my walking journey across Higashiyama a part of Kyoto.

I found Kyoto to be very tourist-friendly and I noticed that there seemed to be more tourists there than in Tokyo. It was easy for me to find the tourist information centre at Kyoto station and from there get maps that showed recommended walking routes. I chose to walk through the route that led to the Heian shrine starting from Kiyomizu temple. Before I got there, I had to take a bus basically Tomoyo lead me to the stop where I could take this bus. As we waited in the queue Tomoyo asked the lady behind me where she was going. The lady said she was going to Kiyomiza temple and the Heian shrine…this was how I met Liz a fellow lone woman traveller from Australia. After basically saying that Liz and I could travel together since we were heading to the same places, Tomoyo hugged me and left.

Liz was great at reading maps so we did not get lost. Plus she did not forget her camera at home like me so with her kind help we took a lot of pictures. She also witnessed my spendthrift tendencies when it comes to Japanese sweets. There were so many souvenir shops on the way to Kiyomizu temple so I bought a lot of sweets (of course only to discover that most of the sweets only last a week before expiring which meant I had to throw the lot away). At the beginning of our journey we saw a maiko, trainee geisha being made to walk up and down the street by a woman who must have been her teacher. We both looked at the maiko and wondered how she must have felt wearing all that makeup and layers of clothes in the sweltering heat of Japanese summer.

We also came across a street before which there was a big sign alerting us to find and touch the several gods that lined said street in order to increase our good fortune and bring happiness and peace into our lives. In total we must have touched five gods, there was a set of three gods and right next to them a sign that said something like; ‘Touch these much loved gods in order to bring peace to your life so you may learn to listen to others and not be arrogant.’ Right next to the gods were also instructions on how to touch or stroke ‘these beloved gods’ either with your right hand or both hands in order to recieve their blessings. I had fun touching the pot-bellied Buddha!

By the time we were close to the Heian shrine, I got a call from Chika and we decided to meet there. At the shrine, I got the chance to marvel with a like-minded foreigner in Japan about the abundance of charms and amulets usually available for sale at shrines or temples. There are amulets for good luck/fortune, health, driving safety, passing exams, safe delivery (of a child), good match, happiness in marriage etc. Amulets are good souvenirs but I could only think of one friend who would really appreciate them so most of the amulets I got were for myself (^.^) and at the Heian shrine, I bought a matchmaking amulet. Liz and I were in the gardens when I got a call from Chika, she had arrived at the Heian shrine. Oh I must also mention that at the Heian shrine Liz and I got bombarded with questions once more. The man questioning us (in English) was surprised that she was Australian and I was Nigerian so how on earth did we meet?

With Chika, we went to Gion. Liz commented on how we finally knew where we were headed to as when it was just me and her we had to open up our maps every other second but with Chika we just followed the person who knew Kyoto. Gion is the famous street where maiko and geisha live except Yu described it as a place where men went/go to buy sex from women. I was embarrassed when he went into a vivid description (I wrote only half of it!), he could have just called it a red light district. At the famous red light district, Gion Liz left Chika and I for Osaka so we went to get something to eat.While eating I told Chika that we had to ride a rickshaw through Gion as I had a this 10% discount. After eating our bibimbap (a Korean dish with rice, vegetables, egg and beef) we walked through Gion in search of a rickshaw. While walking through the streets of Gion, Chika said; ‘Look maiko!’ and I got confused because I though she said Michael. Indeed there was a maiko making her way to a house and completely ignoring the crowd of tourists around her taking pictures. It was difficult finding the rickshaws but soon we were pointed in direction of the rickshaw waiting point. It was simple negotiating time and money with the driver but it soon became apparent that our driver, Munanaka could not speak English unlike the dude in Kamakura.

Kyoto

 

It seems all rickshaw drivers make conversation with their clients, I guess it’s part of their job. He asked me where I am from and when I said Nigeria, he said ‘Tooi!’ which means far. He asked how I knew Chika and if the weather in Nigeria was hot. I told him that in my opinion currently Japan was hotter than Nigeria and he’s like ‘Uso ne?’ which means ‘you’re lying aren’t you?’ Misunderstanding I kept on saying ‘Hai‘ which means yes until I understood what he was saying and started explaining that I was not lying. Munanaka took us around Higashiyama, apparently it is rare to see maiko but we saw about 6 that day. I was told that the place where maiko work is called ochaya. Ocha means tea and ya indicates a shop so I asked what kind of work the maiko did. They apparently dance, sing and serve sake so I asked again why their place of work is called ochaya instead of something more appropriate to their work like osakeya? Munanaka laughed and said he’ll have to study that as he had never thought of it before. We came to a stop at a very beautiful street that Munanaka explained was traditionally Gion and popular among kappuru, couples. The street was lined with trees and there was a river rushing past across which we could see through the windows of restaurants. When he asked ‘Sasshin o torimasho ka?‘ (Shall we take a picture here?) we both replied, ‘Hai!‘ (Yes!) and he commented on how we said yes in unison. The place was truly beautiful.

While walking to Kyoto station after the rickshaw ride, Chika commented on my Japanese. According to her, she knew I was studying Japanese but she did not know I could speak it so well. To be honest despite passing an elementary Japanese exam, while in Japan I spoke mostly English. At the station, I got my ticket for the next Shinkasen to Tokyo. As there was some time before the train came, Chika and I went in search of a place that sold matcha latte. Matcha is a kind of Japanese green tea that I came to love while in Japan. In the name of satisfying my urge for matcha latte I missed my train to Tokyo and had to wait for the next train!

To be continued!

ُEccentric Yoruba— August, 2010

Originally posted at:  http://eccentricyoruba.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/my-eccentric-japan-memoirs-take-2/

*For information on Eccentric and her perspectives go to:  http://eccentricyoruba.wordpress.com/

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