Charles Harries

| Posts

Week 3

Arriving in Japan, Tokyo Orientation, the train up to Yubetsu, and my first days at work.

Before we start, let me issue a disclaimer: everything you have heard is true. It was said by an ex-JET Programme participant when asked the question “So what is Japan like?” before I left, and ask the days go by, I come to interface with the truth of that statement more and more. Everything you have heard is true.


Tokyo. Lights! Sounds! Action! The whole thing was a blur, a multicolored smear flying by on the other side of the car window of my memory (a bit of a stretch?). Though I was only walking, the hundreds of crowded Japanese advertisements, yelling at me in colors and symbols hitherto unrecognizable to me, seemed to speed by. We – the gang of us foreigners, rowdy and Western – ducked into cramped restaurants and fit ourselves awkwardly around ankle-height tables: our little slices of home, crudely Occidentalized, English-speaking, beer-swilling, while the unfamiliar, the Japanese world circulated around us and spilled into our tiny enclave in the form of foods and drink we had never tried before.

Orientation workshops were a boon to our tired eyes and dehydrated joints. We recuperated, we socialized, we learned. Our eyes were slowly opened to ‘the way things are done’ in this corner of the globe. Minute by minute, we were prepped to attack all of the challenges facing Westerners in an Eastern country – the culture shock, the language barrier, the fact that we were all now employees in a field many of us had never experienced before. We moved in thick, runny crowds, non-Newtonian, through a world half-Japanese and half… international? The hotel was filled with tourists and businessmen from both Japan and the rest of the world, giving the whole complex the air of some sort of limbo, a waiting room between the here and the there, not fully here and not fully there.

And before we knew it, we were back out on the streets, accosted by men and women in aprons and strange headwear, advertising all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink, for thousands upon thousands of a currency we didn’t understand. Was that a lot? Was it very little? We established broken, misunderstood exchange rates in our heads that made everything seem much cheaper than it really was, but what did we care? We were in Japan, carrying each what amounted to a small fortune, greater than the yearly salaries of some people that we probably flew over on the way here. Still the lights flew by, still every corner yielded something for us to gather over, something for us to exclaim at, something for us to marvel at. We visited Hachiko at Shibuya Station, we glimpsed what appeared to be a French maid just sort of hanging out, we passed countless stores with English names, no doubt words taken at random from a dictionary (e.g. Listen! Flavor; Pasta Viking; and Store my Ducks, as in “dude don’t ask any questions just Store my Ducks. Come on, man, why are you being like this? Just Store my Ducks!”). We climbed to the top of a tower to look out over the metropolis spread in every direction as far as we could see, and I’m not even being poetic or cliché about that one – the city literally extended further than our range of vision. As far as I was concerned it could have gone on forever.

And just as we began to get our bearings, just as the first trickle of understanding started to fill our jars, we were ferried out of the hotel, onto buses and trains, and out. Not out as in out of Tokyo and into the rest of Japan, not out as in ‘out into the great world’ or ‘towards the unknown’ or anything. Just out.

I boarded a plane at Haneda. The destination said Chitose but it might as well have been anywhere. I was reading from a script at this point, still following the prerecorded actions that thousands had followed before me. I chatted on the plane, I looked out the window, giddy with altitude and jetlag. It’s funny how the world all looks the same from the sky. Towns and cities below looked like the hundreds of towns and cities that I had flown over before. Fields stretched out like patchwork, different shades of green dropped almost randomly on the landscape. I strained to see something foreign, something that I had never seen before, but even the inside of the plane was the same. It was an Airbus A3-something. I had flown these before. Other than the JAL on the side of the plane, I could have been back on United Airlines or American or Air Canada or something.

We landed and were hurried off the plane, down long corridors, and into the baggage claim area where we rested for minutes before our bags came out and we were shuttled through the doors and into the main terminal. More hurrying – down the length of the terminal and towards a waiting room, where we met our supervisors. Back out of the room, onto a train headed for Sapporo, and then another train towards to Northeastern Hokkaido. It was called the Okhotsk, four cars long, top speed of around 60 miles per hour, which by the way is an unheard of speed for cars in this country. The train peeled out of the station and into the countryside.

I chatted with my supervisor for a little while before both of us, lulled by the repetitive ka-chunk of steel wheels on steel rails, drifted off to sleep. Due to restrictive electricity laws (what with the ‘nuclear situation’), the air conditioning was not operative, so the car heated up to 29 or 30 degrees Celsius, where the mercury, like a bad houseguest, hung around without much to do. The consequence was that as we pulled into the various stations (all of which were some permutation of the word ‘kawa’ or ‘betsu,’ both of which, incidentally, mean river), we were jostled awake, sweating, exchanged some complaints about the heat, and fell back asleep as we rolled on.

The sun set as we passed through the mountains. The train charged on, pushing three, three and a half hours, cutting through the increasingly thick air. I couldn’t tell if the clouds were coming down on us or if we were rising up into the clouds, but the punch line here is that a heavy fog came to rest on the mountains, draping the hills in wispy white hats and gauzy robes. Altogether it gave the landscape a very Eastern look, like something you might see in a wuxia movie, when the hero finally has his moment of self-discovery.

The interesting thing was that this was the moment, for me as well, when the reality of my being in Japan began to dawn. The English was getting sparser, the catering to tourists began to thin, and what was left was seemingly endless fields and walls of greenery jutting straight up from the sides of the track. I couldn’t even see any tree trunks – foliage, up and up and up and into the fog.

We pulled into the station as the clock closed on 8:30 in the evening. My internal clock was still set to 7:30 in the morning of the same day, so my body was probably wondering what was going on with all of this melatonin and why is it not working? We moved out of the station and into the blue evening of Engaru, the heavy mist filtering out all of the reds and yellows. Everything seemed chilly, dully piercing, like someone pushing too hard against your skin with, like, a microphone or something. Something dull, is the point here.

My supervisor and I proceeded to a sushi place, which to be honest was spectacular. I’m not even going to beat around the bush with metaphors and imagery – this sushi was awesome. I abused my stomach with hamburger sushi and filet after filet of raw fish, no doubt caught like half an hour before, wasabi on everything, tried out some natto, which is fermented soybean paste, rice ball after riceball topped with various meats the names of which I didn’t even want to ask.

Satisfied, we made our way to Yubetsu, and my new home.

Yubetsu consists of a single long road with some, I don’t know what you’d call them, watershed roads branching off into the fields. My apartment sits near the end of this road, maybe three-quarters of a kilometer from the Sea of Okhotsk and wedged between a Mobil gas station and a Seven-Eleven. Yup. Japan. My neighbor and only other foreigner in the town, a Kiwi named Nicole, was on her way back from camping, and was therefore absent, so I was left to my own devices in my little apartment.

It was sparse, without much character, but very clean and super, I don’t know, neat. When hot water is needed, I have to turn on the hot water machine to heat it up – otherwise I just get cold water. Also, GAS STOVE, which is significantly better than my old stove, a crate from the 1970’s or 80’s with only two burners working named Roy. I’m sorry Roy, I’m moving on. We had a good run, but I’m moving up in the world, and I can’t be seen in public with you.

Mid-marvel, I fell asleep.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in the ensuing two weeks, it’s how much Japan is actually not that different from Canada or the United States. In my head I had this idea of Japan as a very foreign land, that I would come here and find that I couldn’t understand anything, that the customs and manners and ways of doing things were all backwards, and no matter how hard I tried, I would ever be a foreigner. This isn’t to say that this is false – I’m seven inches taller than the national average for men, so I’m not about to blend in particularly well; and I’m still tripping over my good mornings and goodnights, my you look tireds and my no no no really I’m fine I don’t need anythings. They have customs and systems that are vastly more efficient than the Western world – often so efficient I have to ask several times if I’ve understood because it sounds too good to be true. They also have customs and systems that are somewhat dated, and sometimest was as acceptable here to be as direct as one can be in the United States. Sometimes I wish that asking a question and getting a straight answer was an acceptable form of communication.

But the bottom line is that we’re all humans, and in a world as globally connected as the present is, there’s no room for drastic humanistic difference. Yeah, the language is a barrier, but things are able to be translated pretty cleanly, and oftentimes if you just use the English word in a Japanese accent, the person you’re talking to will understand. Yeah, the cars all drive on the other side of the road, but they’re still cars, and it’s not like having to relearn everything from scratch. Yeah, the comedy is different, and my jokes don’t come across, but everyone still laughs together when I mistake the word for vehicle with the word for drink, and say that I really like to ride on Mitsuya Cider (which is like a better version of Sprite). There are so many superficial differences that, on the surface, make it seem like there are worlds of separation between the Japanese and myself, but I speak broken Japanese and they speak broken English and we come to mutually understand one another.

For a long time I thought that on the other side of the world, humans were functionally, fundamentally different. I thought that I knew a good deal about what it means to be human in the West, and that if and/or when I came here, I would have to relearn all of these things. But I didn’t, at all. Apart from the misunderstandings in communication there’s comically little standing between me and them – so it’s not even a question of me and them anymore, but more a question of ‘us,’ and how we are going to understand one another.Haven’t figured that one out yet, though.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme