Cold Island, Warm Heart - Japan and Newfoundland, Long Lost Cousins
I'm behind on my blog posting for the first time. There are too many topics to cover. But let me start with what has blown me out of the water.
How'd I Choose Japan?
At the risk of sounding like a giant cliché, Japan chose me. I was finishing up work in Qingdao, China, and had a few days to kill before meeting a friend in Bali, Indonesia. Japan happened to be on the route set out by the airline points system I use, so I decided to touch down for a few days.
I was always intrigued, especially since it is so close to China (where I spend a lot of time) and allegedly so culturally different. But, I'm sad to admit, it would never have otherwise made "the list".
I knew Japan had a reputation for being one of the safest countries in the world. Beyond that, the majority of my Japan knowledge came from the last Olympics they hosted. And that wasn't much.
I landed. And before I even made it to the hotel, I was in love.
On the train, people let me board first with my big luggage. No one pushed. I braced myself and prepared to give someone the elbow or the death glare as they jeered at me. None of that was necessary. And I felt like an awful foreigner for having those thoughts.
Armed with a printout of the hotel directions, I cautiously followed it to the letter. However, it'd not be far from the truth to say that all the hours my dad spent helping me study maps and longitude and latitude for junior high Social Studies were a waste.
I was too cheap to buy a phone plan for Japan, so I had to go the old fashioned route of asking someone. I knew I was close to the hotel, but I couldn't find it exactly, and my directions said the sign was hard to find. So nervously (as I had heard that people in Japan don't speak much English), I walked up to a police officer and said "Swissotel?" pointed to my map and shrugged with a smile.
"Ahhhh" he said with a smile. "Follow, please". And then he proceeded to walk me to my hotel, just a couple of hundred metres away.
I thought I was lucky and had hit the travel jackpot. But my travels have continued like this. It seems here that everyone is kind and completely unsatisfied until they are sure you are okay and have gotten the help you need.
Let me give you a few more tidbits, in case you don't believe me:
- Most people I've met speak at least a little English. At the very least, they can give you directions and have other useful vocabulary. At the subway stations, the ticket machines have an English options. But when you switch to the train station, they do not. I tried to buy a ticket, the machine spit one out, but since I don't speak Japanese, I was pretty certain it wasn't correct. Armed with my map, I spoke to a station agent. He had no English. I kindly thanked him for trying and then began to walk away. "Wait, stop!" he said. He marched me over to the ticket machine, knocked on the metal panal, and to my shock, there is a man beind there! It opened like a secret door in a Nancy Drew book! The ticket machine opened from the back, the man popped his head out and helped me in English, and refunded my wrong ticket. I swear to god! Is there also a person inside atms?!?
- Unsure if I was heading the right way on the subway, I asked an early 20s guy and girl, pointing at my map, if I was going the right way. The guy informs me that he studied abroad in Vancouver, Canada and he would be happy to help me! They then proceeded to ride with me to my destination, to make sure I arrived. Along the way, in their limited English we chatted about Canada, the weather and cool activities to do in Japan.
- And finally, today I was headed to the Ramen Noodle Museum. It's far from the heart of the city and not in tourist-land. I popped into the Starbucks without buying anything (since you're not supposed to eat or drink and walk down the street at the same time in Japan... for real). I asked the barista for directions to the museum. "One minute!!", he says and starts rummaging behind the counter. He pulls out a hand-drawn map and directions, in English that he made for confused tourists.
- Once I arrived at the museum, a woman and her teenaged daughter noticed I was traveling alone and insisted on using my phone and taking pics of me posing at various exhibits.
Oddly, Japan reminds me of growing up in Newfoundland, Canada, where the kindness of strangers and the warmth of friends can be counted on, you take off your shoes before you enter anyone's home and seafood and its quality are taken seriously.
Ever thought that those Newfoundland Tourism ads are all baloney? They aren't! I remember quite an adjustment period when I moved to mainland Canada, where I felt like my warmth was mistaken for weirdness and my expectations of social relationships weren't quite met.
Maybe the warmth and kindness are the effect of living on an island stationed in the middle of a cold ocean. I've never felt closer to Newfoundland than I do here, in Japan.