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Today was quite a busy day. I met up with a fellow student to do some shopping, went out to dinner with my host father, and managed to get some laundry done before passing out for the night.
At about 10:00 in the morning, I met up with Justin, a student from Tennessee who I met at registration more than a week earlier. We took the train to Akihabara, Japan's "Electric Town," which I had visited for the first time a week earlier. Justin was as ecstatic as I was upon entering the Akidepa (Akihabara Department Store) before even leaving the station, particularly because he understands what all those rows and rows of comic books actually are.
One thing that I didn't notice last time: Akihabara has a booming trade in used games. By "used games" I don't just mean old PlayStation discs; there were stores that had heaps of old Famicom games, actual Famicom and Super Famicom systems for sale, and even more obscure systems like the PC Engine, 3DO, Virtual Boy, and 32X. We were both floored by the masses of games available, and some have apparently been elevated to the status of "collectibles." One store had a few games from Nintendo's first portable system, the Game & Watch. These games feature simple LCD screens with characters in various positions, accompanied by simple beeps to indicate game actions. Primitive to say the least, but these games started Nintendo's dominance of the handheld market from as early as 1980. Here, these unsophisticated gizmos were on sale for over ¥24,000 ($200) and climbing. I'll have to see if any of my friends still have their old games.
Lunch was at a small and surprisingly quiet noodle shop right on the outside of the shopping mayhem. Over udon and tempura, Justin and I discussed what plans we have for the future. I don't care where I end up, as long as I get a job; Justin has developed a fixation on Japan to the point where he wants to end up in this country. I have a couple of cousins who developed the same infatuation with Europe: after college, they both spent a lot of time traveling around the continent, staying in hostels and teaching English to make money. It's not an experience for everyone, obviously, but it sounds fascinating to say the least.
One side effect of becoming obsessed with a country is that the initial euphoria can lead to some problems. Every place has its upsides and downsides. Japan has an enormous consumer goods market, but a crippling economic depression and a rigorous structure of gift-giving rules. While foreign investment since World War II has enabled a miraculous economic boost over the last 40 years as a whole, many residents are still not accustomed to foreigners' presence in the country. America is far from perfect as well, but one should be cautious to just throw away all of their ideals to start life anew overseas.
As for the toys, Justin found a Beatmania II DX controller and a game to go with it; and I was able to get him the same deal that I got on an electronic dictionary. I picked up a SwanCrystal, the newest version of Bandai's WonderSwan system; Final Fantasy IV in Japanese for the SwanCrystal; and the puzzle/action game Kuru Kuru Kururin for my Game Boy Advance. I think I've spent enough cash on myself on this trip so far, having bought virtually no souvenirs or gifts for others.
Japan, like a few other countries, drives on the left side of the road. In residential and small commercial areas, roads are so small that cars can barely pass each other safely. For pedestrians and bicyclists, the roads of Japan are a truly dangerous place. The police box nearest to my home lists the number of deaths and injuries caused by traffic accidents within its jurisdiction in the last day. On Friday, there were one death and 315 injuries. Many of those injuries were likely caused by a car striking a bicycle or pedestrian.
Knowing where to walk is very complicated, because of the left-side driving and the large amount of pedestrian and bike traffic. Generally speaking, the rule is to walk with traffic, so I try to stay to the left. Sometimes, particularly in train stations, the trend is to stay to the right; I don't understand why that is. The point is to stay vigilant, as a wayward bicycle could cause an injury in an instant. Already, I've seen a few near-misses. A collision would ruin anyone's day.
Because of that whole atomic bomb thing, some Japanese people harbor bad feelings towards Americans. This is mostly demonstrated in smaller towns with older, exclusively Japanese populations. Japan has had a history of being isolationist, with no Western visitors allowed in until the 19th century. Foreigners, literally gaigokujin, are often referred to as the contracted "gaijin." This term is not typically used as an insult, but it is used to single out foreigners. Some students have heard it at the supermarket directed towards them. I haven't heard the word to my face, but I have seen the ramifications of being a foreigner.
At the pre-departure orientation, students going abroad were urged to blend in to their cultures, without looking or acting overly American. I think that those instructions were directed chiefly towards white students visiting Europe or Chinese students visiting China, for example, because I can't look any more or less American without expensive plastic surgery here. Everywhere I go, I am an American. In Japan, kids look curiously in my direction, having possibly never seen an American in the flesh before. Most people on the street walk by without incident; I was pleased to see one elderly gentleman smile and nod at me near my home. At the restaurant where I went for lunch yesterday, my American friend and I were given a simplified pictoral menu with names written as to be readable by Westerners. Then I went out to dinner with my father at a yakitori and unagi shop near Ogikubo train station.
First off, I was absolutely impressed with the quantity and quality of the food at this restaurant, which serves all sorts of meat and vegetables cooked on large grills and skewered for easy purchase and consumption. The drink of choice is beer by the pint. Both of us were surprised to be directed to the second floor, as neither of us were even aware that such a small place had a second floor to begin with. A charming waitress greeted us and directed us to a table on a tatami mat, where we take our shoes off and sit on cushions at a low table. The waitress first looked at me and asked, "Tatami wa daijoubu desu ka?" (Are you OK with tatami mats?) I replied that I was, but knew that I had just seen my first Bad Sign.
Throughout the meal, from when a bowl of edamame (salty soybeans) was brought as an appetizer to when I was eating from my sticks, the waitress was looking at me. Every time I looked back, she turned away, trying to appear nonchalant. This wasn't even the first time that someone was staring at me that day; back at Akihabara station, one gentleman stared at Justin and myself and even threw his crumpled cigarette box at our feet. (Maybe he was trying to hit the garbage can near us, but nobody throws that poorly by accident.) The mood at the restaurant was not hostile, but I could tell that I was unwillingly the center of attention. In a hushed tone of voice, I told my host father what was going on, and he just laughed. Maybe it was just the beer laughing. In any event, the night ended without incident, and we headed for home.
I find it hard to believe that the waitress had never served an American before; hell, there was an American sitting at the bar downstairs when we left! Maybe she was impressed that I was able to eat the food there, as some of my Asian friends back in the U.S. are surprised that I know how to use chopsticks. Still, I don't want to be the center of attention. I want to blend in, impossible as that may be.