First Impressions of Japan (Dec. 28, 2013)

The first thing I did in Japan was get really lost. Turns out the transportation system is really confusing because there are multiple different companies that run different train systems. When I was really lost, I got off the train at a random station to ask someone for help. I saw a black guy, so I asked him thinking maybe he was American, or at least could speak English. He was actually from Uganda, but he tried to help me communicate with the guy who worked in the station.  The worker didn’t speak any English but he circled a station on a map and told me which flatform to go to (here I learned that the Japanese word for ‘”three” is the same as the Korean word- sam). This exchange left me more confused than ever since the map that he gave me did not show the station I was ultimately trying to get to at all. More confusingly, I did not understand how it would help me to go to that station since, as the map indicated, it was all the same lines as the one where I asked for help, i.e. I didn’t see how going there would allow me to transfer to different line.

Actually, the station that he had circled connected the train system I was on to a different one. I needed to change from Japan Rails to Tobu (??). Because it was a different rail system, it didn’t show the transfer on the Japan Rail map. Confusing as heck! And I literally asked 5 or 6 different employees at various stations how to get where I needed to go and none of them could speak English or help me at all. The signs with maps of the rail systems on the walls of the stations were all in Japanese. Seriously, you can’t even look at it and figure out how to get where you want if you can’t read Japanese. To make matters worse, in order to even buy a ticket, you need to know how far you are going so you can pay the appropriate amount. Whaaaaat?

So I’m standing there trying to make sense of the maps so I can figure out where I’m going and how much my ticket is going to cost. Flummoxed as all heck… and normally, when I get lost, I really like to try to figure it out on my own as much as I can, and if I’m considering asking a stranger for help, I really weigh my options; look around and try to pick the person who seems the nicest or the most helpful… but in this case, I was looking at the map and I literally just turned to my left and asked the first guy I saw without any premeditation whatsoever. Turned out to be the best stranger I’ve ever asked for help ever. Not only did he show me the station I wanted on the map and help me buy my ticket, he also scanned his card to take me to the platform. He told me not to get on the train that was currently on that platform, but to wait for the next one. He made sure that I knew when the train I wanted was coming and how many stops I needed to ride it. He was so concerned about it that he made a Japanese woman who was also waiting on the platform chuckle. He left only after I was sure I knew what to do….then he came back to make sure I was sure. He was so nice and went so far out of his way to help me, that my frustration with getting lost completely evaporated and was replaced with a warm feeling and a nice first impression of the Japanese people.

I felt truly victorious when I finally (an hour and a half late) arrived at the designated spot to meet my friend, Matt (who is being really nice and letting me crash at his place). We went to Ueno, which is a really busy area with a lot of shopping and restaurants. We went to a place called an izakaya that was kind of similar to a Korean hof in that it’s a place where you eat and drink. The the food comes in small portions so you order a lot of different things and snack on them while you’re drinking. Another difference between Korea and Japan: in Japan, some of the tables are set up so people can sit by themselves, whereas in Korea, drinking is always a group activity. Also, another bar we went to last night was full-on like an American dive bar. Low music so you can have a conversation and bar seating so people can come in by themselves if they want. This kind of establishment does not exist in Korea…or at least, there definitely isn’t one in Donghae.

In the izakaya there was a couple sitting at the table next to us (Yoshiyaki and Kaori) who we became good friends with over the course of a few drinks. Our acquaintance began when the waiter spilled one of Yoshiyaki’s drinks on me. Even though he didn’t even touch the glass, Yoshiyaki apologized profusely for the spilled drink, and kept doing so over and over throughout the night. I thought it was so sweet that he was that bothered by it. Yoshiyaki loves America, cars, motorcycles, and old cartoons. He asked me like 5 times what kind of car I like, but it wasn’t annoying. It was actually really endearing because of how happy-go-lucky and sincere he was about his love of America and cars. So funny.