Well well! I didn’t think it was this kind of emotional rollercoaster ride!
“What’d you expect, that’s culture shock for ya! What, no one told you?”
Yeah… I expected to feel a little strange from time to time—happy when I should be sad, sad when I… yadayada, that kind of thing. But this random, these daily upheavals?
Let’s roll the video evidence:
The Camera Opens On:
The Shan Shan festival, Tottori’s big night. At first, a couple groups of dancers twirling their umbrellas to the same four songs again and again didn’t seem particularly exciting, until I saw those dancers spanning the entire main boulevard of the city—tens of thousands of them, in all the colors and crackling of the fireworks, their jeweled umbrellas rolling back to the periphery like the churn and crash of the sea. Unlike a North American parade, there were no massive floats and no colossal mascots, but there was spirit there was excitement there was hundreds of years of history behind them. Each team that rolled up gave their own swing to the dance, so that each repeat of the song was less like a repetition and more like an improvisation, an interpretation of a song Tottorians have been humming for at least a century. Tottori of 200K put on a festival that topped anything I’d seen up to then.
It capped off a pretty excellent two day prefectural orientation, where I got to meet a number of like-minded JET’s who’d joined for similar reasons—these constructive workshopping days rolling into drunken karaoke nights rolling into hungover mornings on stunning sanddunes where you could almost squint to and feel you’re in the Sahara (they’ve even got a chained camel, for all you with a penchant for animal cruelty). My phone even began working at the festival—turned off two minutes later but,
“Haha, I don’t care! It’s working and I’m here and it’ll all work itself out in the morning!”
7 days of fighting Japan’s telephone bureaucracy. It’s hard to be optimistic about a phone after “IT’S WORKING” for about one minute every 7 hours… again and again and again. It makes it harder when your phone company refuses to believe it’s in any way shape or form their fault, when no it’s definitely your (previously perfectly working) phone that’s the problem. It’s even harder when you find out, after two days of fighting, that their English line only deals with visitor SIM, and that if I want to find a solution I have to dive into the terrifying world of “Moshi Moshi” (Japanese-only service). That’d be hard enough if I didn’t always have to borrow a friend’s phone to call them in the first place.
(I’m sure these companies intentionally keep the delicate ends of their business, like customer service, completely in Japanese as a tactic to keep boorish “Satisfaction Guarantee” Americans like me at bay. Hey, it’s a good business plan: now they always have the upper hand).
Realizing you’ll probably need two phone plans and a new phone as a result of some fuck-up you can’t even put your finger on; yeah, it’s the kind of thing that’ll grind me down if I let it, but then—
Tottori’s main mountain, the site of its former castle (before it, like all good things Japanese, was leveled by an earthquake a century ago). Climbing up short steps with the forests abuzz with all kinds of life never heard before; every couple of plateaus there’s a new shrine and unveiling onto my city. With sweat washing down in sheets off of me and giant bees buzzing past me, I’m finally beginning to recognize I’m in a new world, one I’d read about distantly in some National Geographic, and yet now I’m the guy taking those glossy pictures—the explorer, the adventurer.
And I reach the peak: the entire prefecture opens out before me, the green hills, those red-tiled roofs, these snaking rivers all eating out towards the sea. Judging from the hole in the ground, there used to be a guard’s battlement up here, and you can almost feel the presence of the watchman, staring out across the sea at China and Korea, back when there was nothing about the world out west, nothing about the train or the IPhone. Just like Europe, these are lands saturated with stories, generations upon generations. And just then a women, half my height and four times my age, her handless arm slinging her water bottle, begins talking to me. In basic Japanese she manages to tell me the history of her family and why Tottori is the greatest place in the world; holding my hands she tells me how I’m going to be a wonderful teacher in Japan.
Wandering down it’s a floating drift: who needs technology anyway? As long as I’ve got my bike I can explore everything, and nothing’s ever so—
A flat tire on the far outskirts of the city. There’s no train there’s no repair shops there’s no people. So what else can I do? Heaving the bike up, I carry it along for eight kilometres. Eight broken kilometres along ugly stretches of freeway only met by the occasional big box mart. Now the sweat washing down isn’t so much fun anymore, and every (mandatory) break I take just makes me feel sicker. By the end the joints along both my hands are bruised from the strain of carrying. It’s three and a half hours till I finally say “fuck it all,” and leave it near someone’s driveway to deal with it another day.
And just before that, I’m staring out across the endless fields of rice patties: the sinking sun broken by stormclouds, and suddenly this place doesn’t seem so beautiful anymore. And thinking of my phone, “well fuck, why bother?”
Because it’s amazing how well things are going once you actually move past those key setbacks. Call it Tottori integration why doch’ya. At school, the more I smile and the more I say some key phrases in Japanese, the more doors open before me: already I’ve been invited out for sushi, drinks, calligraphy class, and to a teacher’s Kedo game. He even said he’d help me learn. Tonight my teachers are taking me out for eel; I give an opening speech and they devote the whole school newspaper to me.
At the local bar, there’s a Japanese blue grass band starting up. I hung out at one of their practices and sang along to “Wagon Wheel.” They liked my singing so much they’ve asked me to come back and play with them in future practices. So I might be in a Japanese blue grass band now? And it’s so fitting when “Wagon Wheel” was one of my Vancouver friends’ favorite songs, always a staple of those campfire nights: that symbolic torch passing, perhaps.
This week I’ve come to see that there’s so much to love about Tottori: it’s got that quirkiness only a proper mid-size, middle of nowhere, city can really have, and there’s so many ways to get involved with things you can’t back home. I mean, you can swing a sword and twirl a sparkling umbrella on the same day. Hey, it’s even got a solid train system which I use every day to get to work …
…including the time I hopped on the train at the platform my train usually stops at without bothering to ask what train it was. Well, the train kicks off and starts heading the opposite direction—at twice the speed my train goes. The first stop is on the far outskirts of my city.
“Hey, that’s okay, I gave myself an hour didn’t I? I’ll just catch the next train heading the opposite way.”
So I sit at the station house for thirty minutes and no other customers come. Finally the stationmaster comes by and shows me that the next train isn’t coming for another hour and a half.
“Oh my God… then, how can I get back to Tottori Station?”
His old eyes and his half smile seem like they’re directed at the far wall: “…aruite?”
On foot. Okay great: let’s try that, sprinting in forty degree heat. So it’s another day of personal sweat buckets, only this time there’s a counter running over my head like an iron weight: the time for giving shits about anything has long since passed. Asking randoms for their phone just to call my supervisor and getting only scattered nervous responses: it all seems so farcical I can’t even feel dread or anger anymore.
But as the heat drilled through my ears, my lungs filling with sauna air and that clock only getting smaller, I kept on asking myself, “what am I doing here? Was this all a big mistake? Is it too late to go back?”
But again and again, another voice reminding me: “What exactly are you trying to get back to? What’s left ‘there’ anyway?”
And I kept running, kept chasing air and time, making it back to Tottori station. My hand dribbled water down the telephone of the Ramen restaurant, finally getting through to my boss,
I step off the train and my boss sits there in his car, waiting to take me to school; during the ride back, my stream of profuse apologies are only broken by his ‘it’s okay’ and ‘don’t worry about it’’s. And even though the staff all collectively stare—whispering from the edges—when I walk in the door, the moment he announces to them in Japanese about my train experience all of them burst into laughter and then give a small round ofapplause (applause for showing their support, small to ensure the laughter’s lighthearted). And they move back to work…
And I, still breathing through a hose, start to realize that this is life now. And this begins to all seem ridiculously funny (and hilariously ridiculous)—the day after I get my bike fixed I lose my keys to said bike (after never losing bike keys once in Vancouver), and as I am lifting my bike home in broad daylight and being like the most visible thief on the planet, I get the feeling I’m going to have to break into my own bike to use it again. I didn’t, but my mind went there and that alone speaks bounds.
Speaking of bikes (Jesus, it’s always bike related), there was also that time I biked through what turned out to be a Typhoon and the teachers essentially hijacked my bike at the school to ensure I wasn’t mad enough to bike home. And that day at lunch I tried nato—AKA the abomination of bean sprouts everywhere—and had to finish the whole cup by the threats of my Kyoto Sensei (Vice Principle), who said I’d never be “Nihonjin” if I didn’t finish every gooey drop of it.
And in all of this, what else can you do but laugh? laugh hysterically as you watch ‘dem typhoon rains nock your bike half to hell outside your school. First signs of madness? probably, but also a pretty good indicator of this culture shock phenomenon riding its peak couple of waves.
These days, I’m either too tired to read a book (or finish this blog post—damnit!), or I’m so giddy I can’t sleep on the bus to Kobe: the day is long since gone, but you’re still staring out the window, trying to peer into all those unexplored corners of your new home. Every day it’s something new, often coming in the smallest of ways. For all the lows there’s always the next swing of dizzying highs to balance it out (like this past weekend in Osaka/Kobe—more on that when it’s appropriate).
In the first two weeks, as the annoyances piled up, I kept coming back to “what’s the point of this,” with some teeth-clenching, “where’s any of this leading?” But the point of running back a couple miles to the train station you started from is also the point of no return: you stop thinking about it and you ride with the wave.
And then you begin to realize that this whole thing with upheavals—this movement—was the purpose of it all in the first place, why you’re here and not in Vancouver where the days are sunnier and you had dependable friends and an even dependabler phone. It’s like the night I struck out on my bike and, going a random direction, became giddy because I found a completely new area of the city only one block east of everything I’d know up till then: that dislocation was all that mattered. And the sparse city lights in these warm sticky nights did the rest.
Easy will come with familiarity; until then it only makes sense to embrace all of this, hold onto each moment I bomb a lesson plan (yesterday) or a bird poops on my head (likely tomorrow). Because if I don’t, why did I come here?