Saturday, September 28, 2013

Day 1: Sensory Overload

(BGM: Secret Base by Zone) 

Funny how a single song can help you to properly remember a moment the way it actually happened.

Sept. 22, 2001
After the crows woke me up a final time, my brain focused to realize that this song was blasting a few rooms down from me.

Looking around the tiny empty dorm room, I was in a bit of shock. I stretched out my body to see if what my classmates back in Alaska said was true: Yes, I could actually touch both opposing walls with my toes and fingers! Glad nobody else was living in here with me! The uncovered futon lay on its wooden frame without any sheets. There were no curtains to preserve my privacy. I'd have to buy all that myself. All that stuff about Japanese hospitality towards new guests, about showing them the best possible side of their grace and their country, I learned, quite often DOES NOT APPLY to foreign guests at public institutions like universities. Of course, friends will go all out for each other. But institutions are exempt. So there I was, tucked away in the farthest corner on the highest floor of that old building with no elevator, with a broken door lock, a torn window screen, puke and coffee-stained carpet floor and three bags of trash nearly blocking my doorway. Nobody was sent to greet me or say hello. I was left completely to my own devices, with absolutely no idea where to find food or even find my way around the building. Welcome to our college life, Robynn. This is the best we can do for you.

Lesson 1: Never expect graciousness from anyone, especially if they say you are a "guest." 

Here's the part where I try to communicate in vain: Standing at my door, an overly serious girl with the face of a summer peach came up to my room and reluctantly said something to me that I didn't understand at all. Her lips were moving but the sounds just didn't make any sense. She noticed I wasn't really comprehending her, gave up and with a huff of frustration, simply walked back down the hall and disappeared. I didn't know how to react. I was utterly lost.

I, like, seriously have to study harder. The textbooks did NOT prepare me for THIS! I thought to myself in a moment of humbling facepalm. I had no choice, now. The return ticket to the States wouldn't be in my hands until next July. I had to get through this! I just had to!

Then one of my neighbors, a very lovely girl with long, silky black hair and a funky reddish crocheted beanie came up to me, properly introduced herself as Noriko in beautiful English, and then proceeded to tell me that my luggage was waiting for me in the office on the first floor! She graciously showed me where the bathroom, shower room and kitchen were, after helping me carry my big black suitcase to my room. She also offered her help if I needed anything. I couldn't have been more grateful. Though she was busy that day, she would be available later on after work to show me around the town and help me adjust!

Lesson 2: The Universe always sends angels to help just when you need it the most.

First things first: I was utterly starving, so I opened up the meticulously-wrapped present from my dear longtime friend who met me at the airport: fruit-filled jelly snacks! Perfect for a hot late summer morning! I ate four of them without a spoon, just ripping off the foil tops and sucking them up, topping off my meal with the small packet of Alaskan Air peanuts. That would do. I quickly unpacked my towels, grabbed a change of clothes, some portable toiletries and made a beeline downstairs to the huge dorm sento bath. That was the first time in my life I had to shower on my knees! But it felt incredible to finally get that two days' worth of crud off of me. 

Just moments after getting back up to my room, my name was blaring over the dorm intercom. My friends Shiori and Masaru (not their real names), two awesome friends I made back in Alaska, had come to pick me up!

Rounds of crazy laughter and bone-crushing hugs ensued. Then with much ado, Masaru opened a big white scroll and I was so surprised to see a very cute hand-drawn welcome poster of the three of us. What a nice thing to wake up to in a faraway land! I beamed uncontrollably from ear to ear at the sight of the hillarious caricature of my friends with squinted eyes, booted feet and funny hats, with chubby me in the middle, glowing with a halo and naruto cheeks (naruto is a type of fish cake with a pink decorative swirl pattern).

Lesson 3: Sometimes the best gifts in the world are the simplest.

The universe felt right again as we walked the city streets a little, stopping by to shove into my mouth anything that looked remotely interesting (steamed buns, ramen, etc). I couldn't believe the noise, the smells, the sheer numbers of people, cars and buildings -it was just blowing my mind! There were more people in one of these towering steel buildings than in my entire village back home!

But it was all good. Masaru helped me to cash some travelers checks and apply for my Alien Registration card at the city office. Then we all hopped onto a train bound for the Shin-Kotoni area, where we had a very filling and cooling sushi dinner with Masaru's aunt.

Needless to say, it was the freshest, plumpest and tastiest sushi I'd had in my entire life up to that point. I mean, Alaska has pretty tasty seafood. But nowhere in the world is sushi done better than in Japan.

Surveying the land from the balcony of her beautiful high-rise condo, staring out at the Sapporo skyline glinting in the sun with all its square, flat-roofed buildings, Sapporo started to feel like home in that moment. Everything would be fine. I just needed to be patient in this land where even the crows speak Japanese. Masaru's aunt gave me a beautiful dark blue silk floral folding fan to keep myself cool. I was so happy that I embraced her, which she timidly tried to squirm out of, much to my chagrin. Masaru told me that the Japanese aren't open huggers like we Alaskans are. I apologized at least twenty times and prayed that her trauma would be short-lived. Woops!

Lesson 4: Never hug a Japanese person unless they instigate it first.

It was indeed sensory overload but I loved every minute of it! As Shiori and Masaru showed me around Sapporo over the next several days, I wanted to take pictures of every single image before my eyes but they kept pulling me along saying "that's nothing! There's better waiting!" The most boring white building facades were decorated with all sorts of cute characters and brightly colored signs, luring little ole' foreign me, fresh off the boat from a country where 'cute' was reserved only for babies.

I kept getting stares and giggles from all sorts of passersby. I asked Shiori what the big deal was. She said that it was already late September and I was still in short sleeves. The Sapporoans were laughing because they thought it was a bit cold that day. But I was sweating like a fountain from the 26-degree sun and they told me not to mind. My friends were also world travelers who knew all about having to acclimate to different temperatures. I answered each sneer from that moment on with an exaggerated smile. They weren't going to kill my joy. I was here to have fun, dangit!

 Over the next few days, we toured the immediate area around my dorm, tasting wonderful little pleasures along the way. We went to a shopping mall in Shin Sapporo where I marveled at my first-ever real kimono, gawked at legendary lifelike resin food models in restaurant windows, and lost my heart to the cuteness of a baby green turtle. Masaru and Shiori took me to a small chain store called Nitori, where I stocked up on very bright and relatively cheap bedding, curtains, lights and towels. Shiori also told me to get a wash bowl and plastic seat for use in the bathroom, so I could be comfortable while still doing things 'the Japanese way.' I was grateful for every shred of advice. They also took me to a second-hand shop, where I bought a rice cooker, a nice used TV with funny rabbit ear antenna, and a CD player/radio so I would no longer feel lonely in my dorm room. I was all set. Now if only I could smuggle in that cute baby turtle!

Stay tuned for more adventures from Japan!. Have a good day wherever you are. -Robynn

Copyright 2013 Robynn. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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