December 6th, 2009 11:37 EST
Lost in Translation reloaded - A trip to Japan
Okaerinasai "Welcome to Japan" was written on the sign at the airport Narita. Although I had plenty of time on the plane to make myself accustomed to the idea that I would be spending three weeks in Japan, I still could not realize that I finally made it to Tokyo.
I was filled of excitement to return to the country, which holds my most amazing childhood memories and followed the others to the passport control. The others, are a group of roughly seventy other students from Germany, who take part in a cultural trip and international summits, organized by the German Japanese Society. And the childhood memories, refer to the four years I spent in Tokyo during the nineties.
I never managed to return ever since, although I wished to come back already after we settled to Europe. Thus the trip was something I looked forward to ever since I found out I would be participating and I could not wait to (re-) discover Tokyo! But, keeping in mind that all of this happened during the peak of the Swine Flu madness (not to mention the Korean "New Flu`), we were handed masks and were politely invited to go through a detector, which measured our body temperature.
Luckily, none of us was feverish and we could all leave the airport and hop on the busses, which would bring us to our hostel. However, just when I was about to leave the airport, I get a text message from my parents, telling me that my old teacher from kindergarten is waiting for me at the airport! This was rather unexpected, since I was planning to see her later on and I knew she lived on the other side of the city. When I looked for her, it wasn`t hard at all to spot her; she didn`t change at all.
However, I obviously did change a lot, which is why she didn`t recognize me when I came up to her. But when she finally did, she hugged me and welcomed me very dearly. I couldn`t really say much, except of the few sentences I memorized on the plane, but we managed to have a conversation and we agreed to meet up again in a week or so, when the program was over and I`d be free to travel around by myself.
When we got to the hostel I was exhausted but still so excited of having arrived in Tokyo that sleep was nowhere in sight for me. Not that I would have had the choice to sleep anyway. After so many hours of traveling, we had to check into the rooms (and had 5 whole minutes for it!) and rush back to the main hall for some administrative info and welcome events. Everyone who`s been on a plane for half a day usually wants a shower and a bed and we were no different. But showering was strictly forbidden and so we went back to the welcome events as sweaty and stinky as we arrived before. Always gives you a confidence boost to sit next to groomed up Japanese girls and shiny white chemise wearing guys, while you smell like hell.
We had to listen to some administrative things for an hour, but I have no clue what was said, because I was way too tired and hungry to focus. After that we had some real good meal of fish, rice, veggies and some other things I couldn`t identify. It was really nice to meet everyone from the German Japanese society. Since everyone is interested in Japan, we all have a common basis so it`s really fun.
The organizers did their best to make the introduction meeting a welcoming one and I really appreciate how they organized everything (except the no-shower before the meeting rule, that`s plain stupid) We received our team T-Shirts (black polo shirts with German-Japanese Society 2009 "-Logo and some other cute little souvenirs.
Once I got back into my room, I unpacked and got ready to shower when I realized my shampoo exploded on everything " My towels, my tops, a skirt and all of my cosmetics were drowned in it. So showering was out of the question for that night. Instead, I spent it by cleansing every piece of cloth, until I realized I wouldn`t have space in my room to store the clothes order for them to dry. So I just washed a few more items and distributed the wet clothes throughout my shoe-box sized room. The next day started quite early, since I couldn`t sleep more than 3 hours last night. I was finally getting a bit tired when my alarm went on. After a welcome meeting, we received the plan of the day, which consisted in a welcome barbeque at the German Embassy! I was pretty excited to meet ambassadors and mingle.
Since we had about two hours of free time, me and another participants went to the Meiji Shrine. It`s so beautiful, it just left me speechless. I would have stayed longer and taken more pictures if the heat and humidity wouldn`t have bothered me that much, but with sweat dropping on your entire body it`s not exactly nice. After the brief visit of the shrine, we went to Harajuku, the famous fashion hot-spot.
We found it by chance, while we were looking for a place with air conditioning, to get some fresh air. All of a sudden my energy was up again and it was quite challenging not to buy anything, especially considering the cheap prices there. We just had to take pictures of people wearing stuff you`d never even imagine in your wildest dreams, not to mention those people dressed as comic figures. The more we were surprised, when such a manga personality came up to us asking us to pose for a picture for a Japanese magazine. Maybe it`s because they rarely see "normal` dressed (foreigner) girls. Or maybe it was my friend`s blond hair. Probably the second!
After trotting back to the hostel and changing into business casual clothes, we were off to the German Embassy. There, we were welcomed by the ambassador and the German-Japanese Society organizers, followed by meet-and-greet with some of the diplomats and other participants. The embassy was impressive: It was a three story high U shaped building, which faced a big garden, with a temple, waterfalls and bonsais. We met many international people working there and it was quite interesting to chat to foreigners about their experiences of living in Japan.
Around eight, we left the embassy to go home, but then we figured we could go to Shibuya since it was on the way. Shibuya was packed with people! Plus there were so many ads and TV screens and this mixed with the music coming from several stores, plus yelling waiters trying to lure you into their restaurants created a feeling of pure mayhem. Nevertheless (or maybe for that reason), I loved that place and I regretted having left the filming camera at the hostel. I mean, its one thing to see the famous Shibuya crossing on TV or pictures, and a totally different thing to actually experience it live.
As we walked around Shibuya, we spotted a place where one can take those funny pictures, the famous Japanese Purikura photo booths. First we made fun of adults doing that, but then we had to try it out as well. You could choose from infinite layouts, colors, texts and they even guided you and told you how to pose.
The next day, after the program, we decided to explore nightlife in Shibuya. We joined some Japanese friends and went to a night club called Camelot.
They played R&B on one floor and House on another. I even found a hair salon while looking for the toilet. Having a place to get your hair done in a club is not a bad idea at all. But I do wonder why anyone would want to go to a smoky and smelly club with nice smelling and perfectly done hair. It was too bad we had to leave around three, but the next morning would start at eight, so we said our good-byes to the rest of the group and took a cab back to Yoyogi.
I found it really funny how the taxi driver said otsukaresamadesh(i)ta "(which means something like: you must be really tired now, poor you) As if we were forced to go out all night and we needed some comfort. This expression is usually used to show respect for those returning late from work, but anyway, it was much appreciated. Generally speaking, it was quite difficult to adjust to the Japanese politeness. It`s just that you feel like you don`t deserve such a kindness and you don`t know how to return the favor back. All in all, it made me feel uncomfortable and I hoped my status as a foreigner would save me from being considered ignorant!
The next days, we visited several places and one of my personal highlights was to experience the omatsuri, a summer festival with drums and traditional cloths and very good food! We also went to the Meiji Shrine again, but this time on a guide tour. The best thing was how the Shinto priest, who was wearing traditional clothes and talked like he lived thousand lives, fished an I-phone out nowhere (well actually out of his pants) I guess tradition is good but technology is somewhat better. We listened how a group of priests greeted a temple and sang a song (or two? The sound was very monotonous).
I bought two lucky charms (one for myself and another one as a present). I really would have liked more, but with 800 Yen each, I just didn`t feel like it. After all it`s a piece of cloth on a tiny piece of wood. And I find that spirituality shouldn`t be that pricy. The next night, we were up for more partying. First we went to the very same club that we went to on Saturday, only to find out it was closed. It was supposed to be open, but frankly it wasn`t. We decided to go back to the main station of Shibuya and look for other places there. But then we spotted two really well dressed girls, who were headed for the same club we went to.
We followed them quietly until they got in front of the shut doors of the club. We understood that the club was really closed, and it wasn`t us who couldn`t find the right door or something alike. While we passed by several karaoke bars, pubs, restaurants and purikura places, we saw two girls who looked like they were headed to a cool club so we asked if we could join in and they agreed. We all chatted along while walking to the club. I was surprised how easily the words came out in Japanese, after so many years of not speaking. We went away from the main Shibuya station and walked along narrow streets for a while, until we got to a tiny street packed with clubs and pubs. Several Japanese in not exactly their sober self were singing carelessly or just hanging on the pavements. We joined a line to a rather unspectacular looking club.
It had six stories and was painted in a dark color (hard to say which color, when it`s dark outside). As we walked past the door guards, I realized a bit too late that my previously acquired coke zero and obento (food box with rice and fish) from the 7/11 convenience store wouldn`t be very welcome in a night club. Before I could complain, the items landed in the trash can and that was it. We got into an elevator and went to the fifth floor, where they were playing techno. I`m not exactly a techno fan, but I did enjoy watching the Japanese throwing their hands into the air and performing a rather funny dance.
We joined in for some techno fun, but as we came, they all sort of ran away from us, leaving us with generous space, while they themselves squeezed themselves in crowds, but still staring at us with big eyes. I spotted a few male foreigners (German, Spanish and US as it turned out) but we seemed to be the only female foreigners. Maybe they thought it was weird that we came by ourselves. Or maybe the male Japanese clients were anxious we`d harass them, while the girls were afraid we`d take away their men".
After finishing our drinks, we explored a bit and found another floor, where they played R&B. We had a good night though and after we said our good-bye`s to the girls who showed us the place, we grabbed a cab and went back to Yoyogi shortly past four A.M. I didn`t know I had to fasten my seat belt while sitting in the back, but the driver made sure I would find out, by playing a tape, warning me to do so in Japanese and English. How communicative cab drivers are in Japan.
After we got out of the cab, I slammed the door shut, which I regretted in a second. In Japan, cabs open and close doors automatically. I actually knew that, but I can`t help the reflex!
The next day, I was positive that I would be able to find the place where I used to live- without a map and relying only on my memory. Turned out that this was a rather bad idea. To cut a long story short, after getting lost at Sinjuku, the biggest train station in Japan, and possibly in the world, I managed to get lost in the suburb, where I used to live and then again in the neighborhood where my old apartment was.
So basically it took me four hours or so to find the apartment, but to my defense, the place changed a lot and around my old home were brand new houses, stores and supermarkets. I snapped an obligatory picture and walked around a bit to admire the neighborhood. However, it got dark soon afterward and I started to rush back to the train station, panicking that after dark, I would get lost for good. Despite the "lost` day, it was really good to come back.
After the program of the German-Japanese Society ended with a huge farewell party, I stayed with family friends, who brought me to Kamakura, Enoshima and Yokohama. Enoshima was just lovely. People were a lot more relaxed than in Tokyo, thanks to the beach lifestyle I guess. And all the restaurants had a thing for Hawaiian themes, having their employees dressed in flowered blouses and with Hula dancer motives decorating the interior. Yokohama is a beautiful city as well, but I didn`t get a chance to discover much of it.
Kamakura hosts the famous Daibutsu (the Great Buddha "), which got cast in the 13th century. Then in the 15th century, it had been washed away by a tsunami and ever since, it stands outside. The last day, I visited Nikko, hosting the famous three monkeys, as well as a beautiful water fall. The monkeys, representing the principle to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" were so tiny that I walked past them the first time.
My last week in Japan was spent at my kindergarten teacher`s home in a suburb of Tokyo. It was very laid-back and I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, which stood in total contrast to my previous weeks, that were characterized by too much insomnia, exploring and experiencing the new culture. After a while, one receives so much input, that it becomes too much to handle. It`s like sending an art lover to Louvre: The first hour, he`d be full of joy, but hundreds of paintings and sculptures later, he would be a wreck, dispirited by the overflow of art. Or at least, that`s how I felt.
Although I would probably not want to live in a suburb in the near future, I truly enjoyed living in a Japanese family and experiencing the day-to-day life, such as the sukiyaki-dinner, the grocery chopping in the nearby supermarket, a walk in the park and even a night out in the local bar. Due to my non-Japanese appearance, I attracted a lot of attention, but to my relief, the bar owner was very welcoming and invited me to try his food and sake.
I must say, the laid back attitude of most of the people I encountered in the suburb was very comforting. It also helped me regain some of my speaking skills, since I could practice with my host family a lot. On my penultimate day, we went to Ginza and to Shimokitazaua. Ginza has many stores that we have as well (H&M, Zara and since this fall, Abercrombie). Shimokitazaua was therefore far more interesting, as it had Japanese stores only. I couldn`t help and bought a dress, a shirt and some souvenirs.
After a long and lazy day, we had our last green tea together in a cafÃ© and my kindergarten teacher reminded me to return again the following year. I thought I was so lucky to have been able to spend time with the most adorable Japanese person ever and to experience "real` Japanese lifestyle, apart from the experience regular tourists receive. The next day, after a minor panic attack about not being able to close my suitcase (had to leave clothes and make up back), I was off to Narita Airport, accompanied by my old teacher and her adorable grandson.
Later on during my flight back to Europe, while gulping down a can of Pocari Sweat " (a sports drink), that I bought at the vending machine next to the gate, it finally occurred to me that then I left Japan. Although I didn`t manage to visit as many places as I had wanted, I had the best experience that you can imagine, being lost in translation.