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Archive for May, 2005

Osaka–Rapidity is modern travel’s greatest perk. On the plane yesterday, Jason and I were able to chart our course across the Pacific by way of video screens affixed to the backs of the seats in front of us; when we grew tired of reading through guidebooks or watching National Treasure in Japanese, we could press a button on our armrests labeled “Map” to switch over to a view of our progress. Over the span of ten-and-a-half hours, we watched as an animated icon of our plane traced a red line from San Francisco up the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, around the curve of Alaska, across the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, and down the eastern side of Japan to Ôsaka.

Ten-and-a-half hours sounds like a long time, and it is: we were relieved when the plane finally touched down at Kansai International Airport and our legs were given the chance to take us farther than the nearest bathroom. Yet half a day is the blink of an eye compared to how long a similar trip would have taken, say, 100 years ago. When Japan was sending Buddhist monks to China in the Nara and Heian periods to bring back the latest in religious ritual and mainland culture, the trip would take months–a trip that probably require only three hours by plane today. Apart from the lost time, disease, seasickness, and terrible food would all work to endanger the health of the traveler. (Of course, the meals I ate yesterday proved that some things haven’t changed.)

Yet, for all its ordeals, travel in the old days had one major advantage. Although culture shock and homesickness were, of course, as much present then as now (probably moreso), the traveler probably gained a much better sense from the long, grueling journey of how far he or she had come. Sitting in the middle aisle of a jumbo set without even a window for a frame of reference, it’s hard to fathom the span of a journey such as the one we undertook yesterday. A moving icon on a digital map doesn’t really say much about just how long a distance 6,000 miles really is.

A consequence of this is that there’s always this strange twilight zone feeling to the first few days of a trip abroad. When Jason and I stepped off the plane yesterday, for all we knew, we had been locked in a room in SFO for the past dozen or so hours, takeoff and landing and the occasional turbulence aside. It really takes awhile for the reality of the new environment to sink in.

Whether the realization comes in a rush or in slow steps probably depends on the circumstances and the individual. At Kansai we took a shuttle from our departure point to customs. All along we were surrounded by both Japanese citizens and foreigners like ourselves; painted in broad strokes, the airport we were at could have been that of a major American city. Even when we were out of customs and making our way around the main part of the airport, English-speaking airport employees allowed us to at least partially keep up the illusion that, no, we weren’t in Japan, we were still in the United States.

Still, from the start there were little details pointing us in the direction of understanding, the faint glow on the horizon foreshadowing the coming dawn. When we went to the foreign currency exchange office to cash some traveler’s checks, we were helped by one of the employees, who was walking back and forth through the line, making sure that everyone was familiar with the trade slips we were supposed to fill out as part of the process. As he was talking to a customer, he backed up into and subsequently tripped over a bag belonging to an American girl also waiting in line. Before the girl could let out anything more than a brief, “Are you all right?” the clerk, looking deeply embarrassed, began to apologize profusely to her. The same thing could have happened in the states, I suppose, but the upshot of its outcome would have been different: the girl, not the employee, would have been understood to be in the wrong.

There were other things, too, I suppose. The writing was all in Japanese, and the bills we used to buy minutes for my cell phone were different. Moreover, excepting signs in both English and Japanese, Jason and I were almost totally illiterate: we both know hiragana and katakana, but neither of us know enough kanji to do more than find the entrance to a train station and maybe the bathroom. (At one time I supposedly knew about 500 characters; that’s certainly in the past, at least right now.)

Even now, it’s hard to say whether we really understand the import of those ten-plus hours. We’re staying with a missionary couple in Sanda-shi, a small suburb about 20 minutes outside of Ôsaka proper. Both are American-born, and neither grew up speaking any Japanese; we are thus still enveloped in something of a protective American bubble. That said, the ride on the limosine bus from Kansai to the Itami Airport (where the missionaries requested we allow them to pick us up, being much closer to their house), I felt as though I had gained an awareness of our new surroundings. Maybe it was the way that everyone on the bus stared at us when we got on; maybe it was the cleanliness of the urban areas we passed through, their buildings weatherbeaten but untouched by graffiti or broken windows. I don’t know. In any case, whatever hints of foreignness had impinged on my thoughts, consciously or otherwise, finally prompted me to turn to Jason midway through the drive and say, “Dude, we’re really in Japan.” It was an inane thought–of course we were “in Japan”–but it’s something that I think we’ll come to be struck by more and more in the coming weeks.

That’s all for now. And we haven’t even set foot outside the suburbs. Look out for at least one more update before we leave Osaka.

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Osaka, Japan–I’m here, and I’m very tired; that’s all you need to know for right now. I will write more when my brain feels up to it. O-yasumi.

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This is my live journal. In a few days, I will post the first in what will be a series of entries relating my ongoing adventures in Japan. Stay tuned.

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