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True Stories of Life in Japan, pt 1: Culture Shock

Logistically, it worked out best for me to fly east from Boston Logan to London Heathrow to Tokyo Narita, a trip which involves 26 hours of flight time and another 12 of waiting in airports. The time difference from Eastern Standard Time to Japan Time is 13 hours forward. I arrived at Logan at 3am the 16th of June, and left Narita at 8am on the 18th. I’m afraid I wasn’t really in the best mental shape once I finally landed; my memories of processing through customs are sketchy reconstructions based small flashes of recollection.

What I remember most about that arrival is my Luggage. Terry Pratchett and Neil Stephenson have both written amusingly about unwary travellers carrying too much baggage. I have to say that it’s a lot less amusing when it’s happening to you live. I had imagined that the process on arrival would be like arrival at an American airport: I would pull the luggage off the conveyor and put it on a trolley, trundle it 100 yards, and load it into some sort of car. Accordingly, I didn’t skimp on space or weight: I had two huge duffels, each loaded to the 70lb flight luggage limit. I had a giant cardboard box containing a full desktop computer system and two cubic yards of packing peanuts. I had another big box containing my bicycle. I was moving, after all, and this seemed a fairly minimal set of things to take for a stay of at least a year.

The gentleman who the company sent to greet me at the airport was cheerful about my situation. A lot of people who he met, he told me, had similar situations. There was a shipping office conveniently located within the airport which could freight whichever items weren’t immediately necessary to the apartment which would become mine. It didn’t matter that the larger box had gone squishy and organic, and was slowly leaking peanuts; the shipping companies were extremely talented here. In fact, he was very nice about everything–but he never once offered to help carry anything.

I shipped off my cardboard boxes, but I hadn’t planned for a situation in which it would matter how much luggage I had, so necessary items were scattered between the two duffels. We left for the company guest house where I’d be staying: the cheerful semi-retired company man leading, and me following with 70lb of duffel in each hand. We rode the train toward Chiba, with each of my bags taking up a pair of seats, and the two of us standing between them. We left the train station and started walking to the house. It wasn’t too far, he told me: less than two kilometers. We had the advantage of good weather, too: the temperature wasn’t expected to break 30 degrees, and the humidity was only 70.

The company man had it easy: he wasn’t carrying anything. As for me, I’ll just say that when you go to experience a foreign land, attempting a 2km walk while carrying 140lb of stuff in the first humidity of summer while exhausted is not the recommended starting point.

It’s kind of funny, but I didn’t immediately feel like I was anywhere new. Yes, the roads were narrow, the people were asian, and the writing was funny, but I’d seen each of those elements before. It wasn’t until the first time I went to get something to eat that I had a really visceral understanding that I was in Japan. The company man told me that I could survive eating prepackaged meals from convenience stores, and showed one to me on the way to the guest house. The first food I ate in that country was a Strawberry Cream Sandwich (いちごクリームサンド). That sandwich provided my “not in Kansas anymore” moment; it took on a weird significance as my first step in participating in the pandemic oddness that is Japanese culture.

I slept for 14 hours that night, and woke up at 7am the next morning to a small earthquake. I was now in the Land of the Rising Sun, and those two elements had just cooperated to greet me. It felt good.

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Comment by fireriven
2008-01-02 21:29:33

Heh! My arrival was rather similar to yours, except the Scottish woman sent to show me the way to my apartment helped me with some of my luggage and the first thing I got at the combini was some kind of anko-paste sandwich.

Comment by chuppa
2008-01-03 15:52:33

Oh boy do i loathe Anko :P
In the first couple of months i must have tried 15 different bread-type things from Combini’s, and at least 12 of them had Anko in them! (This is when i was completely unable to read)


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