Saturday, May 07, 2016

Calculating the Variance between Expectation & Reality regarding a Trip to Japan

For several days after returning from Japan, after getting what little sleep my jet-lag would allow me to get, I would have the same dream.  
I would be in a shoutengai.  A shopping district.  Think of a shopping mall, but one that extends for blocks and blocks in all directions, including up two or three floors and down to a lower level.  This one was like the one I encountered in Himeji, near the station there.  
I'm trying to get to the airport, but I'm lost.  Not an uncommon experience in Japan when even figure out the cardinal directions seemed beyond me at times.  I'm trying to read the signs to get my bearings but I'm having little luck.  I'm either struggling to figure out what the sign is telling me, or it's telling me something that is of no assistance to me whatsoever.  That shop is a ramen restaurant.  That izakaya has offers nomihoudai, all you can drink, after 6 PM.  I remember seeing one sign in my dream several times that said, "Yokohama."  No arrows.  No directions.  Just, "Yokohama," even though I know in that way you know in dreams I'm nowhere near Yokohama.  
Then, I would wake up.  Bleary.  Exhausted.  I would remember I'm already back at home and that I needed to go to work.  
I don't think it was just the jet-lag doing this to me, nor the cold I was suffering through that took hold the day after my return.  I was also trying to process what this recent trip meant for me.  What I "accomplished," I guess I could say.  
It had to do with me trying to process what I had set up for myself as far as expectations for what I would experience, and what the reality turned out to be.  
This may seem like I'm being overly analytical about a vacation.  I was told by someone in recent weeks that thinking is my hobby, that I like to think and as a result I sometimes do it too much.  I won't debate that assessment here, but I do know that this trip was an important one for me.  More than just a chance to get away from work and out of my normal life.  
My first trip to Japan, back in 2007, was important to me in similar ways.  It was my first trip to a "Real" foreign country (as opposing to crossing the border between Mexico and Arizona to help my aunt fill her prescriptions, for instance).  This was something I never saw myself doing when I was growing up, traveling about the world.  Now my friends describe me as "well traveled," and my landlord asked, when I advised him of my trip, "Where are you going this time?"  Going to other places is part of my make-up now.  I expect to do it and I like doing so.  
Another thing about the trip in 2007 was that I was so looking forward to it that I began to worry that I'd be disappointed.  My expectations about the experience, while vague and ill formed, were nonetheless quite high.  So high that I was certain I would return home with a sense of, "was it worth it?"  
The exact opposite happened.  I loved the experience more than even I had anticipated.  As my departure date for my return approached, I wondered if I could repeat that experience, and also thought that I might be setting myself up for a more sophomoric disappointment, thinking I knew what to expect and discovering that I had a lot to learn.  
Having spent about a week back in the States now, I think I can fill out the scorecard on this trip.  Here's how it adds up, based on area of expectation.
Expectation: That, after nine years of practice and study, my Japanese would be so good that I would be able to cruise about the country, communicating with near effortless ability with all the natives I encountered.  
Reality: I still have a lot to learn.  
In 2007, after less than a year of study, I went to Japan worried that I might not be able to speak well enough to get to see or do anything.  Instead, the little Japanese I had was good enough that I felt emboldened to head out in whatever direction I chose to see what might be there.  I got lost every time I left the hotel, but I was always able to find my way back, order in all the restaurants I went to, settle my hotel bill and find the nearest restroom when I needed to.  And see a lot of stuff that other people in my tour group didn't get to see because they wouldn't leave the hotel without our guide leading them there.  
While my Japanese has improved, I found out how far from fluent I am at the very first panel I attended at the convention I went to.  It was about translation science fiction stories written in English in Japanese.  The moderator tried to translate for me, but stopped  trying after a while, leaving me hopeless lost, with only snippets about this sentence in the story he worked on or that paragraph.  The only thing I got clearly was his explanation about Thanksgiving, which he described as, "a holiday where Americans eat special food, like turkey, drink lots of alcohol and watch football."  I wanted to raise my hand and said, "It's not just that," but didn't because I wasn't sure I could get my point across.  
There was another panel that went better, one called "Building the World," where everyone participates in the long-standing science fiction process of creating a planet where stories can take place.  I was able to hang in there and participate, but still hang to wing a lot of it.  At one point I lifted my notebook up and let it fall to the desk to get across the concept of "gravity."
I hope to be fluent one day, by which I mean speak Japanese as well as I speak English.  IF that every happens, it'll be years from now.  
Expectation: I would meet lots of other foreigners, people that I would immediately recognize as being "not Japanese," that I would stop and chat with for however long we had together.  
Reality: I was left wondering if the world has become a colder place.  
This was another expectation that was born out of my 2007 experience.  Japan is filled Japanese.  It's the most ethnically homogenous country in the free world, with Koreans being the second largest ethnic group at something like half a percent.  Whenever I'd spot a non-Japanese person, we'd gravitate toward each other, say "Hi," ask each other where we were from and talk about what got us there.  I figured this time would be the same. 
It definitely wasn't.  In fact, it was more like what I'd expect to experience back home in the Los Angeles area, where you'd see a stranger on the street, eyes meet, you nod or grunt and then walk by.  
There were some exceptions.  At Mishima station, I ran into an Australian family in Japan for a wedding and month-long holiday.  I found out about a micro-brewery in Numazu where I was staying run by two Americans that the father really liked.  
I also ran into a San Francisco Giants fan in front of the Tokyo Dome when I went to see a game there.  He spotted me in my Dodgers gear, met my gaze and gave me a nasty glare.  Three thousand miles away and the rivalry is still strong.  
And, there was another American at the Fushimi Inari shrine.  He was coming down as I was trudging to the top.  "Just five more minutes, dude, and you're there!"  He shouted this as he scampered down the trail past me.  
But that was about it.  It felt like times had changed, but I didn't know in what way.  
Speaking of the Inari shrine...
Expectation: That I would finally reach the top of the Fushimi Inari shrine and be completely underwhelmed by the experience.  It would end up being no big deal.  
Reality: It was really cool.  I was really happy. 
In 2007, when our group went to the Inari shrine in Kyoto, I started to climb to the top of the small mountain it is built on, passing through the hundreds of tori gates built on the trails cutting back and forth across the slope.  I had to stop because the tour bus was leaving before I could make it.  I made a promise to myself as I hurried to catch my bus that I would return to Japan and finish that climb.  
I almost didn't make it.  I lost my passport before I arrived in Osaka, and spent the next two days trying to find it and make arrangements to replace it.  Just as I was turning in my paperwork at the American Embassy there, they told me they'd received a report that it had been turned in to the police in Numazu, where I'd left from.  
What followed was a "Round the World in 80 Days" sort of rush.  I rushed to the hotel, got my luggage, boarded the next train to Shin-Osaka station in time to board the shinkansen to Mishima, just in time to catch the limited express to Numazu (even though I was on the wrong platform when it was coming in) caught a taxi to get to the police headquarters before they closed, got my passport, then repeated the feat of hitting every single transfer in time to arrive at Kyoto station and get to my hotel in time to check in that night, and make my dinner appointment with my friend that lives there. 
And the next day I climbed to the top of Fushimi Inari shrine.  It was packed with students on field trip, but they quickly thinned out as I marched to the top.  I felt the same sense of otherworldly-ness as I climbed, of being someplace in a different time or dimension.  
I found out what the little temple looking buildings are by asking someone in one of the restaurants along the way.  They are "osanae," or offerings.  "Each one is a god," the man explained.  "Each one different, but the same."  Where people burnt incense or offered prayers to the god.
I also found out that they add more than a hundred tori gates every year, from two workmen that were digging holes for a new one.  
And I made it to the top.  And, I felt...  Really, really good about it.  
It wasn't a climb that started by the main gate near the train station.  It was a climb that started back in 2007, when I was retreating to the bus to join my fellow travelers.  It was a climb that started back in August of 2015, when the convention-goers in Spokane at the WorldCon that year rejected Japan's bid to host the convention in 2017, and I decided I wasn't going to wait for the "someday" for a chance to return and keep my promise to just show up, that I had to make it happen for myself.  
And I had done it.  And I was happy for having done it.  As accomplished as when I sold my first science fiction story.  That much.  
I stopped having the dream of being lost in a shoutengai this week.  Sometime around the middle of the week, when I started getting more sleep and my cold was showing signs of waning, I had another dream.  I was heading toward Haneda Airport.  To fly home.  And I had the same feeling that I'd had as I came down from the pinnacle of Fushimi Inari Shrine.
That it was time to pick something else to accomplish now.


Post a Comment

<< Home