Impressions of a New Arrival

    Arriving in a foreign land.

When I first came to Japan 3 years ago, I fretted over whether or not I`d be able to adapt to an environment that had been rumored to be completely alien in contrast to that of North America. From the moment I exited an airport filled with signs and voices, which were all in Japanese, the unique aura of `Japan` seemed to emanate from all around me. Perhaps a little bit too strongly… I seriously contemplated getting back on the plane and returning home. Such was the overload of foreign stimuli.

That Spring, in comparison to my own country (Canada), was truly sweltering. I boarded the first plane in Toronto wearing a winter jacket with all its accessories and disembarked the second one carrying most of my burdening layers. Not that this was much of an issue for me seeing as how I dislike cold weather. Something about having blood circulation akin to that of a lizard keeps me chilled when not sitting under direct sunlight.

So, from the beginning, I never harbored any complaints against what I considered to be Utopian weather.

Actually, if not for the weather, I may have not adjusted as quickly or as well as I did.

Regardless of the articles that I`d read about Japan and the various animations that I`d watched, I was not prepared for the intense culture shock that followed during the next few months.

What caused me the most awkward embarrassment at first were the automated gadgets that lurked around just about every corner. Train ticket sales were completely handled by machines that I found difficult to use because I had yet to distinguish the 5 yen coin from the 10 yen coin. And I never could figure out why I couldn’t throw in ten 1 yen coins to make up the difference. If I walked too close to various buildings along the street, the doors opened automatically. Of course some supermarkets in Canada also have automatic doors but not to the extent that Japan does. And not only are ATMs more efficient in Japan, but they also talk! The first time I had to use one, I nearly leapt out of my skin when a woman’s voice started rambling off instructions in Japanese. On top of that, video screens with advertisements caught my attention in the most unexpected of places.

All of these electronic wonders did of course amaze me. I wasted absolutely no time in picking up the most expensive cell phone in the latest model. Many gadgets followed soon after but shopping was very difficult when I couldn`t use the language. Despite studying hiragana, katakana and some basic kanji before coming to Japan, it proved to be completely inadequate in preparing me for my overseas trip. Even my Japanese phrasebook was completely useless because I hadn`t been aware that there were several different honorific levels of Japanese that changed according to the rank of the person that I was addressing. And Japanese people tend to be extremely polite to visitors to their country.

Originally, I had come over on a Working Holiday Visa and only intended to stay 6 months. However, after experiencing the kindness of many strangers since arriving in Japan, that 6 months soon turned into the 3+ years that it has become now.

    Generous, Convenient, Safe…Japan.

My very first – and most memorable – encounter with a very helpful and generous Japanese person occurred within a month of being in Japan. I`d just arrived home from a late shift at work and had been feeling pretty much exhausted from a lingering feeling of jetlag. Either that or my very odd work hours and haywire meal schedule were beginning to take its toll. Maybe if I ventured outside for a bit I would be able to clear my head. Normally, I would never have given into such thoughts in my hometown after 10PM. At least not alone. But this was Japan and apparently wandering outside at all hours of the night alone – regardless of whether you happened to be male or female – was both a common thing to do and perfectly safe.

So I picked up my newly purchased bag, stuffed my ID cards into it and set out for the local supermarket.

A few steps later, I was inside the supermarket.

Japan is incredibly convenient in many ways and having more than three supermarkets to choose from within walking distance is proof of that fact.

I spent a good half hour in the supermarket, picking up this and that, trying to figure out which products contained coffee and which ones real chocolate. They all looked the same to me. However, taking into account the hot weather and my current lack of energy at the time, I figured that a chocolate ice cream cone would be a wise purchase. Having settled that, I chose one that looked like it was loaded with both sugar and calories and took it to the cash register. I was feeling particularly pleased with myself since I`d stuffed a handful of 1000 yen bills into my wallet earlier in the day. This made every transaction very quick and simple. Tipping in this country was unheard of. Nobody pocketed change at the cash registers. So all I had to do was fork over the bills and take my change without counting it. This process saved me a lot of time and embarrassment until I forced my lazy self to start counting the coins.

Finally, it was my turn in line. I passed the ice cream cone to the cashier, reached into my brand new bag and … wished that I could pass through solid matter and drop through the floor below me. Aside from a few odds and ends and my ID cards, my bag was empty. I`d forgotten my wallet.

Wonderful! Just great! I had no idea what to do. What was the appropriate thing to do in such a disastrous situation? I surely couldn`t express my misfortune in Japanese. In fact, at that time, the most complicated Japanese phrase I knew involved asking for directions to either the train station or the bathroom.

Having little choice in the matter, I resorted to frantic gestures and hand actions. The cashier eventually understood my attempt at alien communication when I showed him that my bag didn`t contain any money.

And there I thought that it was over because the elderly man nodded to me in understanding and smiled. I felt so relieved that he didn`t look angry because I`d forgotten how to say `I`m sorry` in Japanese. However, much to my dismay, he took my ice cream cone, bagged it, and handed it to me. I thought that maybe my mime act hadn`t been as talented as I`d originally thought. But instead of waiting for me to pay for the item, he merely waved in the direction of the door and said something, which at the time I couldn`t understand and now can`t recall. I tried to hand the bag back to him but he refused to take it, indicating once more that I take it (obviously free of charge).

Now, if this had been my own city, I would have had to put the ice cream cone back or leave it at the counter after apologizing. Sometimes due to multi-tasking with my thought processes, I do have a habit of forgetting important things here and there. It wasn`t the first time that I`d forgotten my wallet nor doubtfully the last. But it was the first time that something so positive had come out of my forgetfulness.

After leaving the supermarket and thanking the man profusely (arigatou is a very easy word to remember), I headed home. But I began to worry. What if the cost of that ice cream cone was going to come out of that man`s hourly wages? It hardly seemed fair because he didn`t even know me. Anyway, the decent thing to do was probably to go get my wallet and pay for the purchase.

Ten minutes later, I was back in the supermarket, trying to hand the amount to the same cashier. Much to my amazement, he refused the money. He actually insisted on letting me have the ice cream cone for free.

In the end, he finally did accept the money with a smile but even still, I can`t help but cherish this memory as an act of kindness towards a stranger in a foreign land.

    Generous, Convenient, Safe…Japan. (again)

My second recollection of a similar event took place about two months later, during Japan`s rainy season. Strangely enough, this also involved sweets.

Just as there are supermarkets left, right, and center, scattered through just about every neighborhood, the same remains true for bakeries. Everywhere I looked there were stores filled with cakes and puddings. The only sensible thing to do was try them all – at the same time.

Having bought an entire box filled with desserts that I could neither identify nor name, I hurried on home because the skies had grown overly clouded during my fifteen minute shopping spree. I`d barely made it across the street when it began to rain and then pour. We don`t carry umbrellas in Canada, not unless we see the rain first. And I hadn`t seen the rain earlier in the day and that meant – no umbrella.

Doing my best to protect my sugar-coated treasures, I trudged on in the direction of my apartment. The rain was miserably cold and blinding and… suddenly, mysteriously, the rain stopped. Or at least it ceased to fall on my head.

I looked up and saw a big white umbrella. And turned to the side and was met by the nervous smile of a young teenaged girl. She automatically asked me where I lived, stepping in line to walk beside me, still holding the umbrella over my head. At that time, I could understand basic Japanese and utter off a few responses so I told her that I lived nearby. So she walked me all the way home, at which point I said thank you to her and apologized for inconveniencing her. She nodded, smiled, and continued on down the street.

The first incident, like the ice cream cone and the forgotten wallet, may have been a fluke. The second, the girl and her umbrella, may have been a coincidence. But my third encounter proved to me that the kindness that Japanese people show to strangers was well worth staying around to enjoy for some years to come.

    Generous, Convenient, Safe…Japan. (and again)

This third encounter occurred just before Christmas. I`d just finished Christmas shopping for my family – all six members – and had bought the largest sized box to pack everything into in order to ship it overseas. I missed my family immensely and this must have shown because I couldn`t fit everything into the box. I repacked it three times and sat on it before I was able to tape it shut. And was it ever heavy!

The post office is unfortunately not as convenient as the supermarket. It was maybe a twenty minute walk away. I couldn`t carry the box and it wouldn`t fit in my bicycle`s front basket. My only option was holding it steady over the rear fender of the bicycle and pushing it along beside me, which I did.

The bicycle moved very slowly, especially when going uphill, and I was kind of unfit after living off of cakes and white bread.

Eventually, I came to a bridge which I needed to walk under. Going down was the easy part, save for the screeching of the bicycle`s brakes. Going up was… difficult. I`d gotten about half way when my grip on the box (containing fragile items) began to slip, and the bicycle started to fall to one side.

At that point, just like the umbrella had appeared out of thin air, so did the elderly lady who hurried over to me. She had to have been up to my shoulder in height – at the most – and I immediately worried that I might drop the bicycle onto her. And yet, she took hold of the back of the bicycle and pushed with such strength that I wondered if I`d perhaps misjudged her age. She continued to help me until the bicycle was clear of the hill and safely on the other side of the bridge.

Once again, I felt indebted to a complete stranger who had gone out of her way to help me out. It may have only been intended as a small gesture of kindness or goodwill in an otherwise ordinary day. However, those small acts soon multiplied, never losing their original significance. Never being forgotten.

    Japan: my kind of place.

What I may have landed on in the beginning was a chunk of land that terrified me with the unknown and misunderstood. And now this technological wonderland has become my home filled with many friends and friendly strangers.

- S.J.

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