Story from October 1 - Arriving in Japan

October 1

I was excited to be catching my flight to Japan to see Sayoko again & to see Japan. As had happened before several times I was going somewhere on this trip that I had not originally planned. Japan's impressive history, culture & unique people all add to the lure it has for travelers.

Sayoko & I had hit it off when we met in Brisbane, even though we only really spent one day together while being the same dorm room for 3 days. We traveled together in Australia in the West & North for about 6 weeks. Towards the end of the trip she had extended the offer for me to come to Japan while she was home. She was going back for 2 weddings her friends were having between October 1 until October 23, then she was off to New Zealand. That worked out in my "schedule" because I had already became a divemaster, plus logged 100 dives. When I got back from Japan to Thailand I was going to be able to do my IDC (Instructor Development Program). It also worked out as a nice break between all the learning. Sometimes you need a vacation from your vacation :)

I knew that it would be a different experience from anything I had seen to this point. I also knew that things were going to be expensive, as Japan has the 2 most expensive cities in the world & I would be staying near one of them. It cost me about $150 for staying the 2 nights in Kyoto hotel that Sayoko had reserved, which she said that was even a good deal. The thing that was to my distinct advantage was that I would be staying with Sayoko's parents for the rest of the time I was there which saved me tons of money. As it turned out Japan would be very cheap for me compared to what I had thought.

The trip to Japan itself did not start out on a high note as my flight was not going to be directly to Osaka as I had been originally told. I had to go to Manilla in the Philippines before getting the connecting flight to Osaka. This made me late as I was originally going to be there just a little before Sayoko, but this meant I would be there about 3 hours later. I was able to send her a quick e-mail but I could not let her know otherwise. So her & her family, who had met her earlier, had to wait for me. Not the best way to start. The flights were pretty non-eventful, the one thing I noticed was that I was one of very few western people on the flight, it was mostly Japanese people. You would say this makes sense since the flight is going to Japan, but most of the other countries I went to had a good mix of nationalities. The flights were on Thai International so they were really nice & we had movies, plus food. The only thing that made me a little mad was that they waited so far into the flight to start the movie, that it cut off the last 15 minutes of Batman Begins. I don't understand why they do that, but I did get to see the rest of it on another flight. With time allowed during the flights I read about Japan in the Lonely Planet I had gotten a few days before & spent time studying materials I had brought for my idc.

Once you touch down in Japan you start to realize things will be different here. It is hard to explain but it has this sterile movie like feel. It is as if it is all too clean & people look so similar (meaning hair color, eye color & height). As is customary I had filled out the customs card which means entering the country I had came from. I am not sure if it was because I had came from Thailand or because I was the only Caucasian coming through customs, but I was selected for a FULL search. They pulled me aside to a separate room got an extra agent (which took a little bit) & went through everything. I mean they opened all the containers & smelled everything I had. They were fairly friendly & in a way it seemed like they just want to see what I had in my bag. I had all my prescription medicines with me which they gave a second look at, but I was able to explain that easily. I have to think I was in this room for at least 30 minutes because after taking everything out of the bags I had to put it all back in. I was lucky because my bag was not that full. Nick had been nice enough to allow me to leave a large amount of my belongings at his apartment before departing.

After that I met Sayoko & her parents outside the airport. They had been a little worried about me at first because I was to be there before Sayoko. But after about an hour Sayoko checked her e-mail to see that I was still a few hours away. So her & her family were able to get some supper & talk a little about her trip. It was interesting meeting her family in the respect of how formal it was, all handshakes. If nothing else I have learned that when in a new country the best way to understand what is expected is to watch people from that country. A good example of this is when I first saw Sayoko at the airport. We were both very excited to see each other, but we just shook hands as it was the only acceptable greeting in front of her family. So that was how I greeted the rest of her family as well. After saying our hellos we quickly went to the train station information desk, but I was not able to get the Japan Rail Pass as I had hoped. It was required that you bought it before getting to Japan, but I was not able to find a place to get it in Bangkok. So that would have made it very expensive to go to see Bassy (my diving friend from Koh Phi Phi) in Yokohama, so I decided to just stay in Nara for the time I was in Japan.

While leaving the airport Sayoko's family started with what would be their unwavering hospitality. The bought me a drink from a vending machine, even though I had changed a little money with a friend before going to Japan & was going to buy it myself. We rode in the family car (they have one car for the 6 people living at their house) back to their house, which took about 2 hours. The interesting thing was that this took about 4 tolls stops costing around $20. I guess there is no need to wonder why they say it is expensive to drive in Japan. The drive back was a chance for us all to talk. When I say that I should clarify to say that it meant I would say something then Sayoko would say it in Japanese & they would ask questions in Japanese which she would again translate. One interesting thing I found out during these talks was the for some reason Sayoko's parents thought I was going to be black when Sayoko has first talked about traveling with me in Australia. She had cleared this up when telling them more about me later. This is not the first time or country where this happened & it happened again later in Japan. When we met Sayoko's best friend Hiromi, she thought I was going to be black. I think this arises due to my name being very unique & sounding so much like the word "black", especially with the way Japanese people pronounce L & R's. There were lots of other interesting things we talked about, it gave me chance to get a feel for her family & the country in general.

The incredible hospitality also continued as even though I was very late, they were tired & it was expensive we stopped at a convenient store so they could buy something for me to eat. They were insistent on me getting some food I could have in case I did not like the Japanese food they had. I got a few small things but thought to myself that I would eat whatever I was given in less it was just something that made me physically sick. Of course everything I ended up having was really good 90% of the time & tolerable the other 10% of the time. After arriving at their house there first worry was getting me food fixed so I could eat.

They also worried about me thinking their house was too small, even though I thought it was great & bigger than I had expected. It was setup very space consciously, but other than being a little tight in some hallways seemed to fit their needs well. Of course, I am sure 6 people from the states spanning 3 generations could not have lived together in that space. After the food & mini-tour, plus some talking, her dad (Yoshitsugu) went up to my room (my personal room over the garage) to show me how to use the TV & to get a laptop with hi-speed Internet connection setup. Yeah I was being absolutely spoiled, I might keep saying it but Japanese people are so gracious & kind. They put a lot into treating people well & perception, it a very culturally driven society. I asked Sayoko later about if this was because I was a person from another country & she said they would do the same things for anyone who stayed with them. If they thought I was unhappy at any point I know they would have been so upset & would have done anything they could to make it better. From my point I felt like I was being treated way better than I deserved, but in another sense I knew refusing things is offensive so I just decided to help them out as I could & enjoy the special treatment.

At some point in the night I started to understand just how much Japanese people liked technology items. This realization came when I first used the toilet & shower. The toilet was fully computerized (except the normal push flush). It had I think 6 or 7 buttons, the most important one being the one which lifted/lowered the toilet seat. Once I got that figured out I was set. The shower was interesting as the first time I used it I was able to get only cold water. The computerized system is something you have to set each time to get the water temperature you want, but I had no idea how to run that the first time. Also in the room above the garage Sayoko's dad had so many cell phones, computer & electronic equipment, it was staggering.

To contrast the new technology I will tell you about the old culture things. For instance you do not wear shoes in the house, but you must wear slippers everywhere. Even though you can only make 2 steps in the bathroom you change slippers when you go in & come out. When I went the ten steps from house to the garage I put on my shoes (I had sandals I used which saved so much time) then took them off at the stairs to use the slippers to go up the carpeted steps & into my room. There are about 2 times as many slippers as there are people for each exit. Also, the entrances are interesting because they are simple sliding doors. There is no security with these, usually closed with string over a hook at night. The reason there is no security is because it is not needed, I don't think anyone of Sayoko's family was worried about anyone coming into there house. Even being from a very small town in the US I felt safer in Japan than anywhere else I have EVER been.

As I had mentioned they only had one car, which was mainly because they only had room to store one vehicle. I found out later that Sayoko's dad had wanted to get a bigger SUV, but it would not fit in the garage so he got a bigger car (we had plenty of room with 5 people). Also, the car barely fit in the driveway, so that limits you on what you can do. They did also have a moped which is what Sayoko would use when she worked in Kyoto, but when they had to go somewhere it was buses & the subway to get there, unless her dad was driving them. We would take the bus & trains to everything we would go to with the exception of one night that her dad picked us up coming back from Kyoto during a big rain storm.

After what had ended up being a rather long day I went to sleep in my quiet comfortable room. They had setup a fan for me if I got too hot (which I did use) & had a nice set of covers on the rollaway bed, which slept nice. It was one of the nicest rooms I had on the trip in "warmth" or personality respect, plus the only one that had in room Internet. I was tired from the trip of the day & everything else, plus it was late at that point so I went to sleep quickly.