A Train to Japan Chapters 4-22 (synopsis part 2)

Monday, July 23 2012 at 16:55 (Trips)

So yes, after sixteen days of travel over land, over sea, under sea, across deserts and forests and under mountains I finally arrived at my destination in the land of the rising sun. I was more astonished than anybody that all this had gone through without any serious problems and not a single missed train. I even arrived in Mimasaka at the exact time I’d planned.
As before, I won’t go into details about my activities, but will attempt to give an overview of some Japanese things that I’ve done or experienced.

Living: The host family I’m staying with is very nice. The house I’m staying in actually belongs to the mother of my host mother and is very traditionally Japanese – the room I’m staying in even has tatami mats. The toilets are pretty scary, with most having a heated seat and some kind of bum-washing mechanism, and some having adjustable strengths of bum washing, different settings for men and women and even a playable flushing noise to cover the sound of your own urination.
Having to wear indoor shoes is a real pain, not because it’s a hassle but because the Japanese all have tiny feet and so the slippers are always too small and rather uncomfortable. The weather is extremely hot (30-35 degrees most of the time) but nearly everywhere has air conditioning so it’s only a problem outside. I’m travelling around mostly by bike, and despite the mountains Mimasaka is next to a river so the roads are relatively flat.

The work camp: I had some doubts about how I would find the work camp, but in fact it’s been really great so far, despite having to sit through a few boring speeches and also the endless need to introduce yourself formally to everyone (Konnichiwa minna-san! Hajimemashite. Watashi no namae wa Benedict Brown desu. Ingurisujin desu. Yoroshikunegaishimasu!)
The people are great – there’s Allan the Belgian, Maria the Russian, An the Vietnamese, Eunbee the Korean, Aleksi the Fin (living in Scotland), Noemi the Spaniard (from Barcelona), Daniel the German self-titled otaku*, Emanuele the Italian, Martin the Czech (and my housemate) and Marie the Japanese camp leader person.
*He claims to have watched a lot of anime but owns a One Piece t-shirt and had never heard of Star Driver, Hanasaku Iroha, Penguindrum, Ano Hana etc. He did know about Rinne no Lagrange but that more served to worry me about the kind of people that show is attracting rather than reassuring me.
The work we’ve been doing is varied and usually interesting. Today we played with preschool kiddies, a few days ago we were cutting flowers and showing local people things from our country.

Language: Unlike Polish, Russian, Mongolian and Chinese, I actually have some desire to learn Japanese, so have been trying to pick up as many new words and phrases as possible. It’s kind of bad that all the other volunteers know good English and mostly more Japanese than me as well as their native tongue, yet I’m just sat on a few scraps of various European languages and negligible Japanese by comparison. I feel very lazy.
Don’t let anyone tell you that cartoons don’t teach you anything though: Chobits taught me basic Japanese customs and I’d have never known the word for ‘cousin’ without Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko (or the words for electric waves, woman and young man for that matter).
Overall I think my Japanese is improving somewhat and I can interact with people on basic level. I’d like to learn some more complex sentence structures, but really I need to learn more vocabulary first.

Culture: The Japanese are crazy. Seriously. Their culture is just insane. Bookshops are usually around half manga and light novels and half other books, with even a supermarket in the countryside having vastly obscure volumes of manga that I wouldn’t even expect people to be aware of the existence of. I haven’t found a good CD shop yet, but when I do I will raid it so hard.
Apparently One Piece is really, REALLY big in Japan. I barely glanced at a Shounen Jump or something that happened to feature One Piece similar yesterday in an okonomiyaki shop and ended up leaving weighed down with related loot from the proprietor at no cost to myself. I haven’t had the heart to tell any Japanese person that I don’t actually like One Piece – I think they might keel over and die from the shock. Oh, if anybody reading this wants some One Piece loot, please tell me.
I went to a local festival a few days ago, which was a brilliant experience; the girls in our group wore yukata and the boys wore happi and we did traditional local dances and stuff. There was beer, takoyaki and fireworks and at one point I even got set upon by a group of Japanese high school girls who seemed to find me fascinating.
The hot springs are another very Japanese thingummy. The nice thing about them is that they’re not chlorinated, but they are also kind of excessively hot for this weather.
Oh, and Japanese television. Need I say more? The adverts are easily the best bits.

Food: Nihon no gohan wa hontou-ni hoishii desu! Well, most of the time. There are some things in Japan that are sweet that would normally be savoury in the west, such as sweet azuki bean paste, and it’s kind of jarring. I’m taking a try-anything approach to food on this trip, so I’m making sure that I eat at least some of everything that’s put in front of me, even if it looks strange (my mother is now scoffing angrily that I never take this attitude at home). So far I’ve had yakisoba, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, udon with tempura, nikuman, sukiyaki, and yakitori, as well as obviously lots of rice and various other meats, fish and vegetables. Oh, and miso soup.
I still want to try taiyaki and Japanese strawberry cake. I’m currently using chopsticks perfectly well with my own somewhat avant-garde technique, but am trying to use the ‘proper’ grip whenever I don’t mind dropping my food everywhere. I tried natto and didn’t really like it, but it was early in the morning and I had an upset stomach, so maybe not the best time to try it. I also can’t get the hang of tofu – it’s extremely hard to pick up with chopsticks and tastes of nothing when plain, and only slightly of something when cooked in a sauce. I think it actually sucks flavour out of a meal.

Today we went to a game centre and visited a karaoke bar. Karaoke in Japan was actually popularised in Okayama prefecture (where I am), so there was even cultural background to it. All the silly gaijins wanted to sing silly western songs, but I proved my manliness by singing Shining*Star, Hana no Iro, Secret Base ~kimi ga kureta mono~ and Cross Over. The 9nine numbers were relatively easy, the nano.RIPE somewhat harder and the ZONE nearly impossible because the lyrics I had for the song were not correctly ordered (I had to read the lyrics off my phone instead of the screen because I can’t read hiragana fast enough). Still, it was a lot of fun and it gives me another item to scratch off my list of things to do in Japan.

Well, that’s life in Japan so far. Further updates will probably contain more of what I’m actually doing and less overview, so look forward to it. (Or don’t.)

More emoticons:
(♯`∧´) (−_−#)
ε=ε=ε=ε=ε=ε=┌(; ̄◇ ̄)┘
*・゜゚・*:.。..。.:*・'(*゚▽゚*)’・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*
(The Japanese iPhone keyboard is worth it just for this)

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5 Comments

  1. mechacatfish said,

    Ben, you are awesome, this is awesome and I wish I had the guts to do something so gloriously insane. Also, I would be quite willing to accept some One Piece swag. Just sayin’.
    ~Luke

  2. camillaherrmann said,

    Not scoffing angrily (well maybe a bit) – very very impressed. When you get home it’ll be mussels and aubergines every day…

  3. Peter Hicks (@UppityTeapot) said,

    “…but I proved my manliness by singing Shining*Star, Hana no Iro, Secret Base ~kimi ga kureta mono~ and Cross Over”

    I am proud of you son.

  4. Max said,

    Sounds like you’re having a hell of a time. You’re certainly a crazy one taking a trip like this under your belt! Just been reading through your previous posts, quite an experience. All the best, have a good time.
    -Max

  5. Chloé said,

    Aaaa this sounds fantastic Benny! And I am so impressed with your Japanese skills (TV and books are the way to go).
    Cherish every moment because it’ll stay with you for the rest of your life 🙂
    xxx

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