I’ve been in Japan a week now. I’ve eaten raw fish from the grocery store, bought coffee from a vending machine, slept on the train and bashed my head into multiple exit signs. My darling wife and I have been living in a one room hotel and are heading out to Takayama, Gifu, in two more days. I’ve learned that I know nothing about this crazy place, but in typical western fashion, feel ready to share what I’ve learned on the internet. I'm feeling confident enough to boast because this morning I did laundry, which was in itself an entirely new experience.
We trudged down the hall and into the elevator (carefully stepping under the exit sign) and down to the first floor. I approached the washing machines with cautious optimism. I know how to wash clothes. It’s easy. You open the machine, add clothes, put in your money, the water starts to flow, finally add the detergent, and… Oh wait. I didn’t think to pack a jug of detergent into my already overstuffed luggage.
During an enlightening trip to the grocery store, my boss explained that in Japan, it’s polite to give people practical gifts. There are entire sections in grocery stores devoted to specially packaged gifts. People give their clients things like soba noodles, cooking oil, beer, and even laundry detergent as a way to say thank you for their patronage. The gift versions of these items come in fancy boxes (in other words, regular boxes) and cost much more than a regular 6-pack.
Unfortunately I have no business contacts. In practice I owed my boss a gift (He said it was unnecessary but thanked us for the jar of jalapeno-peach jelly wrapped in a Texas Flag all the same). Did I think to go and get a regular jug of soap? Of course not. My brain spun in empty circles about the strange yet altogether charming customs of the Japanese people and followed him out of the store.
So here I was. I had dirty laundry, a washer, coins to operate it, and no soap. A cursory inspection of the room showed no soap dispensers. The nearby vending machine didn’t carry any soap either. But something about the machine was… different. Cautiously, my wife and I loaded are clothes and fed the machine its metal biscuit. We waited in silence as the machine filled with water, and then, lo and behold, suds began to form!
That’s right, in Japan, the wash machines have their own soap.
We cheerfully loaded the other machine and again watched in stunned silence as it soaped itself. Who knows what else hides in Japanese technology? Would the dryer fold my clothes? Perhaps the elevator could sense what floor I wanted before I pressed a button. Alas, the adventure was over, and the rest of the clothing ritual proceeded as it would have in the states.
Thus is my existence in Japan. I get overly excited about the little things. Allow me to elaborate with an embarrassing anecdote.
First, I must explain: I had a professor in college who was obsessed with Japan. He had lived there for years, had a kid there, carried a float, the whole nine yards. He told us that people over there were obsessed with foreigners. Like if they see you on the street they’ll take your picture, that kind of thing. I’d read similar things in books. The word “gaijin,” which means foreign barbarian, is supposed to be thrown around quite a bit. So with all these outdated anecdotes swirling around my mind, we set out for Nagoya castle.
Nagoya Castle is unbelievably beautiful (check my instragram or google it if you don’t believe me). It’s not original, which means there’s such lovely conveniences inside like crappy air-conditioning and electric lights but the outside looks like something out of a samurai movie. The grounds themselves are surrounded in moats and 30 foot walls with trees growing on the tops of them that are older than my home town.
So here we are at Nagoya Castle, just generally being blown away by the beauty of it all. There’s tourists everywhere, snapping pictures, listening to tour guides, there’s even a reenactment of an ancient samurai battle taking place (I couldn’t tell you which battle because I only understand the Japanese you’d need in bars). Basically it’s glorious. If you ever visit Japan, something I, with my 5 days of experience, highly recommend, I would go see a castle your first day. They’re awe inspiring.
Anyways we’re there, taking in the sights, marveling at the history of the country, that kind of thing, when a particularly glorious sculpture catches my eye. Its of some Samurai, or Daimyo or something (again I have no idea because I don’t read Japanese). I start snapping pictures when this young Japanese man approaches us with a big grin on his face.
Ha! I laugh to myself, we haven’t even been off the plane 24 hours and already someone needs a picture of my red beard.
Sure enough, the young man asks if he can take our picture. I smile, nod graciously and share a wink with Raquel. Poor kid’s never seen a gaijin in his hometown. Must be nice, to get all excited about someone who looks a little different tromping around where he grew up.
Then my smile starts to fade. He’s holding out his hand, waiting for my camera. He was just being nice and offering to take our picture with the statue. I turned beat red, forced a smile for the camera (Raquel’s was genuine, believe me, she was laughing too hard for it not be) and tried not to be seem like a total fool. Turns out he wasn’t even from Nagoya, he was from Osaka, and was a tourist like us. But of course he was. Why else would a young man be hanging out at a tourist death trap like Nagoya Castle on Saturday afternoon?