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Day 1 in Japan

During the last week in Taipei, whilst preparing for Japan, we realised how foreign the country is to us, how little we know about it, and how handicapped we will be not knowing the language. Taiwan had been a very encouraging first stop, and one of the main reasons was that we were fluent in mandarin – we could ask for directions, ask for accomodations, hold sharing sessions, even subtitle our videos in Chinese. How are we going to accomplish any of those in Japan – we don’t know. So when we were both finally on the flight to Tokyo, we were overwhelmed with apprehension, uncertainty and fear…

Taking in sunset, it suddenly dawned on me that I am going to Japan! One of the most sought after holiday destinations! One of the countries I’ve always wanted to visit! Ok enough exclaimation marks. But whatever gloom we had was thrown out of the window there and then. We are in Japan now, we got here – and the hardest part was over. We’ve always known that if we carry the same energy and intent of our project wherever we go, things will finally work out. Sometimes, we forget. And the sunset was our beautiful reminder.

With renewed faith and excitement, we stepped into Tokyo Narita airport, and I was greeted by the immigration officer usher. As I present my passport to an officer at Counter 9, my stomach flipped and something said, “She (the immigration officer) is bad news”. Yes my stomach does that to me all the time, when something bad’s about to happen :S But it was too late for me to switch counters.

Japan – Xenophobia or pride?
So here’s the bad news:
Singaporean passport, non-Japanese name – but it didn’t stop her from shooting off to me in strings of Japanese
Uhh…Wakaremasen (I don’t understand)
After a series of hand actions and attempts to speak to her in Mandarin and English, she finally spoke to me in English and
asked me where i’m staying – told her with a friend
asked me for address – told her don’t have because she’s picking me up
asked me for friend’s phone number – don’t have it yet
asked me what my occupation was – TV Producer
asked me how long am I staying in Japan – 3 months
asked me what am I doing for 3 months in Japan – cycle
asked me why am I cycling – …
Uhh…I don’t know how to gesture or explain to you (I later learned that Cycling around the world is Jidensha Seigai Ryogo = Bicycle World Trip)
Unsatisfied with my answers, she went through every single page in my passport
Still unsatisfied, she proceeded to
asked me for my phone number in Japan – I don’t have
asked me for my departure air ticket – I don’t have
asked me for my phone number in Japan – I don’t have
why? Because i’m departing only 3 months later
asked me for my Japanese phone number yet again – hello, i JUST arrived in Japan, this is my first time here, I DO NOT have a Japanese phone number

Fingerprints taken, photo taken, passport went through once more
Stamped, chopped, good to go.

I know that the Val from long long time ago would have asked for an English speaking officer by the 3rd question, shot off in a string of English about how upset I am, how ridiculous the questions are and demand an apology before stomping through the gates indignantly. But this time round, having finally passed through the gates, though upset, I was relieved and thankful that she let me pass through. If anything, I was slightly impressed that someone can take her job so seriously, and with so much pride. She did not let my “harmless innocent appearance” through, but instead, went through my entire passport, and struggled through an English conversation with me, just to make sure that she did not let a potential terrorist into her country.

Val ah Val – 你竟然也有今天!(To think that there’ll be such a day!)

Japan – The Efficient Country
I haven’t had time to digest what just happened at the immigration counter, and was bombarded by JAPAN the moment we stepped through those gates. Directions, signs, annoucements – all in Japanese. I kept a lookout for the white-gloved man who would pick up every piece of luggage and stood it upright on the carousel. Sean, one of the Couchsurfing hosts we surfed with in Taipei, who’d lived in Japan for a year told us that that was his first impression of Japan. True enough, there was a white-gloved man at the carousel, and he was lifting our packed bicycle off the carousel and placing it next on the floor, next to the other packed bicycle. We had “labels” on those bags, and I think he put 2 and 2 together:

Within the next minute, our bicycles and luggage are packed neatly onto the trolleys. Talk about Japanese efficiency!

I wished we’d taken a photo to show you – the trolleys are built for escalators! The reason there is a exclaimation mark is because, when we were in Taiwan, Taipei Songshan Train station, one of the officers told us to take the escalators with our bicycles; we did, thinking that the escalators were built for bicycles as well. But the moment we place the bicycles on the escalators, the bicycles flipped upwards, and we ended up jamming the escalator, and I nearly fell down a flight of escalators. Thankfully, a group of kindly Taiwanese uncles rushed up and helped us carry the bicycles down. Whew~ But I digress.

Our dear friend Yuki came to the airport to pick us up, and helped us buy train tickets to her friend, Yuri’s house. We were going to stay at Yuri’s place because Yuki’s leaving Japan for India for 3 months. According to Yuki, you can take the train from the airport to almost any part of Japan, and definitely every part of Tokyo – that is how convenient and connected Japan is. And from exiting the airport arrival gates, to buying train tickets, to getting to the train station and then finally getting to the train platform – a total of 5minutes. I know because I thought we were catching the 19:26 train, and we were buying tickets at the counter at 19:20, we arrived at the platform at 19:25. Turned out that we were taking the 19:33 train, which is 1000Yen cheaper than then 19:26 one, because it is not as fast. No matter to us – so long as it is cheaper 🙂 And I digress…

That was how the first hour in Japan was like for me. I’d be taking in one thing, and before I’d time to digest/absorb it, another new thing comes along. After all, it is my first time in this country.

And because we are in Japan, a country known for efficiency, we were at Yuri’s place in no time.

Japan – Of family ties and house rules
Once we were settled down, we were invited to take a shower and make ourselves comfortable. It was a welcomed break for me – who had been busy taking in sights, sounds and phenomenons.

When Yuri’s husband, Maki-san (Maki is the family name) returned home, we were invited to have tea with them upstairs, in the kitchen/dining area. Yuki told us that Maki-san would like to have a discussion with us about living together; i.e. houserules.

During the discussion, Yuki had to ding-dong between English and Japanese. And sitting there, quietly listening, I realised how lucky we are to have Yuki with us from the very beginning at the airport, all the way to us safe and sound at Yuri’s house. The stern-sounding “houserules” turned out to be simply the family’s schedules for meals and leaving the house and coming home. It was basic respect for each other’s privacy and schedules – a way of living and a way to keep the family together.

It was when we asked Yuki to convey our gratitude towards the Maki family for their generous hospitality that we realised that they did not know anything about our project (Yuki had forgotten to tell them the last time round). They took us in, simply because we are Yuki’s friends, and Yuki is Yuri’s best friend. At that point in time, Tay and I said in unison, “Arigatogozaimasu!” That was the best we could do to express the gratitude that filled our hearts. Just because Yuki told them that we are good people, we now have a place to sleep in, a bathroom to shower in, and breakfasts and dinners taken care of!

After we explained what we are here to do in Japan, Maki-san asked us, “What are you going to do to attract attention on your bicycles?” and then rattled off in a string of Japanese to Yuki. Which turned out to be suggestions on what to do – ride the big bicycles we see on the streets instead of our foldies, wear a sign that says in Japanese, “We are cycling around the wolrd!”, wear a costume and cycle etc. ; he even told us a story about a friend who rode through China with a rickshaw.

Tay turned to me and whispered, “I thought Japanese live in boxes. Where do they get their creativity from?”

Before I could answer her, Maki-san told us, “You need to get Japanese people attention. They will come and talk to you.” And through Yuki’s translation, we understood that he meant that it isn’t easy for us to go and approach strangers and get them to share their dreams with us because Japanese can be rather private and shy. But if we were to do some “public stunt”, the private and shy Japanese will let their guards down out of curiosity, and approach us to ask us what we are doing. So instead of us approaching them and get ignored, create an opportunity for them to approach us!

Although completely obvious to us now, it had never occured to Tay nor myself previously. We were just thinking if we were going to find any Japanese to share their dreams and stories with us at all, and Maki-san provided us with an answer.

Just then, Yuki, Yuri and Maki-san started throwing out ideas on what we could do. Tay and I went on to explain what we’d wanted to do – work with children in Japan. And everybody started discussing excitedly in half-Japanese half-English about possibilities.

All these while, I was thinking to myself – I’ve been in Japan for less than half a day, been in Maki-san’s house for less than a couple of hours, and whilst everyone else had told me that Japanese keep to themselves etc.; here I am, in a Japanese home, full of Japanese nuances, yet so very willing to support us in any way they could. For all of these and I’m sure, more to come – I am very very grateful.

– Val