Weill in Japan Jason Weill Web Productions
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this is for real

weill in japan: day 01

Here we go.

I write this from the desk of my room in Tokyo. My host family has graciously let me stay for an extra night before my study abroad program officially begins on July 4. This is my first time ever in Japan, and also the first time that I have done a homestay for anywhere near this long (45 days).

For me, day 1 started on Tuesday, July 2, at 6:03 AM Eastern Daylight Time, and will end sometime around 11:00 PM Japan Standard Time on Wednesday, July 3. My flight today was easily the longest that I've ever taken, but I survived. Now the real challenges begin.

em japonês

My flight on Tuesday morning was actually the continuation of a flight from São Paolo, Brazil. This meant that our 747-400 would be packed with passengers, even though the terminal at JFK International Airport in New York was nearly empty. After I got on board the plane, I noticed that someone was sitting in my designated seat. Seeing the opportunity to apply my years of Japanese study, I started "Sumimasen...," or "Sorry..." I got back a reply that I believe was mostly Portuguese, conveying the fact that this passenger had switched seats with me. She guided me to my seat, and I humbly sat down. There's no sense in having an argument in many languages at once.

Japan has an increasing number of Portuguese speakers, due to the return of emigrants who left Japan for Brazil and other points in South America. On a more practical note, this made the flight a surreal trilingual experience, as announcements were repeated in English, Japanese, and Portuguese. I've never seen anything like it.

JAL is a pretty good airline, from my extremely limited experience with them. The food isn't much to speak of, but the in-flight entertainment is incredible. Every seat has a personal video monitor in it, and even in coach there were 10 movies and several other programs being run on loops. It wasn't until about an hour into the flight when I figured out how to switch the spoken language to English, which is good because "Crossroads" doesn't get any better with Japanese dialogue. The remote doubles as a game controller, so I also passed time by playing little games like Freecell and Solitaire that were built in to the unit. In the information about this system, I read that Executive Class members can play Sega Genesis games on request. Genesis games! I wonder how much it will cost to upgrade my return flight.

For much of the flight, my favorite channel was probably the "map and trip information channel," which featured various map displays of our route and progress along with information about altitude, outside temperature, speed, and most importantly remaining time. I did watch "Ali" in pieces three separate times, and now I've seen the whole movie somehow.

Fortunately for me, most of the passengers on our flight had to go to Quarantine Control since Brazil is on the list of countries that are suspect for transmitting infectious diseases. That made passport control go very smoothly, as I correctly answered the agent's only question ("Nyuuyooku kara kita?" Did you come from New York?) with a succinct answer ("Hai." Yes.) to get me on my way. Getting baggage was no sweat, and then it was off to the next part of my first-day adventure.

Did I mention that I pretty much didn't sleep at all on the plane? First mistake.

riding the rails

Let me just say that Japan's railway system is insanely comprehensive, blanketing the entire country. The rail rules here, as evidenced by a one-lane street which was intersected by an eight-track rail crossing. More than 30 lines cover the Tokyo metropolitan area, and that's not counting the shinkansen "bullet trains" that provide connections to neighboring cities. The Narita Express goes from the airport terminal directly to the central Tokyo station in roughly an hour.

The N'EX, as the Narita Express is abbreviated, is a fantastic service, and I was very surprised at the assistance I received. After buying my ticket, I went down to the platform where a woman asked to see my ticket. She then pointed out, in English, that I was in Car 3, Row 5, Seat D, and that I should walk down the platform to the Car 3 entrance. This is pleasantly surprising because:

  1. Japanese people, particularly while on trains, have a reputation for not talking to anyone they don't already know.
  2. The train has assigned seating.
  3. The tickets are distributed across cars evenly to prevent overcrowding.

The N'EX has spaces at each end of the car for luggage, and overhead racks hold extra carry-on items. The seats are in a 2-2 configuration, with huge open spaces in the aisles and between rows of seats. I don't think first class cabins have this much room. Each seat also has a button and lever to recline, although I couldn't possibly go to sleep. The suburban cityscape, with its 7-Eleven and Sports Authority stores, slowly faded into an urban setting before we went underground. Two LED signs at the front of the car displayed weather and news headlines in Japanese and English. Another LED sign showed the train's progress. At the beginning of the ride, the announcer read off the current time, the list of stops, and the time at which we would reach every stop. The fact that they don't even consider delays gave me a lot of confidence.

The LED signs provided a nice touch, although they were not used most of the time. One time, several stations before Tokyo, the following message appeared on the top screen in all capital letters, in English:


I gathered my things expecting that the train was experiencing problems and needed to be serviced at the next station. However, the other passengers did nothing. The train stopped at Tokyo without incident. I guess that the message is meant to discourage people from staying on the trains past the end of the line.

On board, the conductor doffed his cap and bowed upon entering our car, where he proceeded to stamp passengers' tickets. A woman walked by with a beverage cart, so I bought a little bottle of water to cool myself down. Trains are air-conditioned, but most of the stations are outside in the hot and humid summer air. Then, at Tokyo, the fun began.

The Japan Railways system has a unique way of handling transfers. You hold onto your ticket and adjust your fare before exiting. Fare adjustment is done by inserting one's ticket into a vending machine and paying the amount indicated. If your fare has not been adjusted, you will not be allowed to leave your destination station. I did not know this, and so spent about ten minutes pacing the Tokyo station in search of a ticket vending machine. Eventually, I stopped at a booth marked "Tickets" where two gentlemen were sitting, and had this conversation (in Japanese).

Me: Hi. How do I get a ticket to Asagaya?
Agent: Do you have a ticket?
Me: No, I need a ticket.
Agent: How did you arrive at Tokyo?
Me: I took the Narita Express.
Agent: Do you have that ticket?
Me: I don't have a ticket.
Agent: Do you have one of these? (holds up a ticket which looks nothing like a Narita Express ticket)
Me: No. I need to buy one. Can I buy one from you?
At this point, the other agent at the table desides to try his luck.
Agent #2: Do you have your Narita Express ticket?
Me: Yes. (fishes it out, gives it to agent)
Agent: Okay, use this ticket.
Me: Use this ticket to go on the Chuo line?
Agent: Yes.
Me: Okay, thank you.

This is stuff that is not taught in Japanese classes, but should be. I got on the train, expecting to be thrown out by a conductor for not having a valid ticket.

My host family is closest to Asagaya station, a small station in Tokyo. To get there, I had to take the Chuo Line. Little did I realize that there are four Chuo Lines: Chuo Special Rapid, Chuo Rapid, Chuo Commuter Rapid, and Chuo/Sobu Local. I got on a Chuo Rapid car, and quickly noticed that it was skipping two out of every three stops. Fearing that little Asagaya station would also be skipped, I got out at Nakano station, two stops before the local train would hit Asagaya, in the hopes of catching a local train. On the opposite platform was a local train, but I couldn't tell where it would be going. As I stood looking at it, a passenger from the train came up to me and asked, in English, "You OK?" I asked him whether that train went to Asagaya station, and he said "No. That one did," pointing to the train we had both just left. We shared a laugh, and waited a few minutes for the next Chuo Rapid train. This was surprising because:

  1. Japanese people, particularly while on trains, have a reputation for not talking to anyone they don't already know.
  2. This person got off the train exclusively to help me.

Karma collection formula: help confused foreigners with subway lines, get karma. I had a similar experience in Paris five years ago, when an elderly French woman guided my friends and I to the right platform in broken English.

The only downside to the JR system: like many things in Tokyo, it's very expensive. My ticket from Narita to Tokyo was ¥2940 ($24.50) and the adjustment to Asagaya was another ¥340 ($2.83). That's a far cry from the $2.00 that the Pittsburgh Airport Flyer bus charges.

home life

My host mother picked me up at the station, and I loaded everything into her huge van. Not even in the U.S., home of gas-guzzling SUVs, do I often see such enormous vans. Appropriately named "ELGRAND," it held my luggage. I sat in the front left seat, which is the passenger seat in Japan. The thrill of being in the "driver's seat" and not driving wore off very quickly.

My homestay is at an unassuming house in the Suginami ward of Tokyo. I got out on the street and unpacked my luggage, then watched my host mother park this impossibly large van into an impossibly tiny garage. I should get out there and measure it: there is easily less than six inches of clearance around the van except on the right side. On the right side, there is just enough clearance for the driver to open the door and climb into the house or squeeze through the opening to exit the garage.

Like many Japanese homes, my homestay contains a mix of Japanese and Western styles. There is one large tatami room, with a floor that contains only cushions on top of straw mats, with sliding rice-paper doors. Most of the other rooms look contemporary and Western, with chairs, full-size tables and modern conveniences. Digital remote controls are everywhere, including on the air conditioner in my bedroom, the downstairs toilet, and the ofuro (Japanese bath). Frankly, I'm kind of scared to use the downstairs toilet for fear of pushing the wrong button. The toilet upstairs is also Western-style, although its only distinctive feature is a sink on top of the basin. Understanding how to use the Japanese bath will take a few days at least, but I'll get used to it. It is apparent that at least my host family's bath has been influenced by the Western showers that I know and love.

high anxiety

I didn't eat much today, although I never do when I'm flying. Once I got off the train, the only big question mark would be how I would get along with my host family. Food is my biggest worry, since I tend to be a very picky eater at home. I expect to lose about five to ten pounds during my six-week stay, but that's not a goal. That's a side effect.

I took a three-hour nap after arriving, since I was completely exhausted from lugging my suitcase from station to station. I dreamed about trains, and about connecting from one to the next to the next without missing one. It was not a good rest. Afterwards, I went downstairs to meet my host father and have some dinner. I didn't eat much, and I hope that I didn't offend my host mother in doing so.

At the pre-departure orientation on campus for study abroad students, advisor Eva Mergner warned that conditions like depression and anxiety "will be exacerbated" by the initial culture shock. Although I have not been clinically diagnosed with depression nor anxiety, I have been known to get very anxious. This, for me, is a period of high anxiety. The anxiety is not related to academics, but rather to daily life. I only hope that the shock wears off.

It's been a tough first day. Thursday, I head to ICU for registration.