Finally seeing the Rising Sun

Trip Start Feb 22, 2005
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Saturday, March 5, 2005

Welcome.

After many months of waiting, I finally arrived in Japan on Wednesday, February 23rd, 2005. Despite Tokyo Air Traffic Control's best efforts at keeping my JAL flight circling in high cross winds until it ran out of fuel or the wings fell off, I set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun ready to conquer. Er, and teach.

First things first. I live in Yokohama, Japan's second largest city and a main port for Tokyo. Although Yokohama is a distinct entity, it has also been incorporated into the voracious human sprawl that is greater Tokyo. Living space here is cramped - I share a flat with two other teachers and an urban playground with 34 million people. Still, my apartment is nice enough and my room is actually quite spacious by Japanese standards. I even have a balcony that, if I breathe in really tightly, I can sometimes squeeze onto.

The area of Yokohama I live in is called Tarumachi, which is next to Tsunashima - something of a local centre. It is actually a fairly mixed residential/industrial area and is not what we Europeans would call "attractive" as the view from my balcony demonstrates:


Still, it is home for the next 12 months and its location could be a lot worse. The picture shows a speeding Shinkansen bullet train which silently glides near our apartment. It is pretty cool having such an icon of Japan so close by, although if Mt Fuji is up for moving to Yokohama, I might trade in. Perhaps more importantly, I live about 15 minutes by train from the centre of Yokohama, and about 25 from Shibuya in downtown Tokyo. For the unititiated, Shibuya is the Times Square or Piccadilly Circus of Tokyo - all bright lights and video screens. It really is an awe-inspiring sight, that this picture does not do justice to:


My employers, the gargantuan English language school Nova, allow their newly-arrived teachers a few days to get over jet lag, get bearings and get acclimatised before they begin their rapid and intensive training programme. So I was able to form some first impressions of Japan at something approaching a leisurely pace, or at least as leisurely as this insanely fast country will allow. From everything I have read and been told, appearances in Japan can be deceptive, so this will probably stand as an electronic testament to just how wrong I have been over the past few days.

Nonetheless, my first impressions are generally very positive. Japanese people are welcoming, helpful, friendly and impeccably polite. My faltering attempts to ask questions in Japanese usually provoke delight, although I suspect this is more a sign that it is amusingly bad than of linguistic approval. Still, that did not stop a middle-aged Japanese couple going out of their way to walk me to the local supermarket when I asked them where it was. They could have just pointed and carried on, but it seems that that would not be the right approach here.

If this is how hospitable and obliging the middle-aged folk are, then Japanese schoolgirls are rather more sinister. They seem to like hunting in packs and, when they find their Western male prey, giggle at them relentlessly. My Canadian flatmate, who arrived on the same day as I did, was foolish enough to smile back one time, thus ensuring the whole hunt descended into a ferocious predatory onslaught of embarrassed laughter. If he recovers from such savagery, he will know not to make the same mistake again.

Japan also seems to pose the rhetorical question made famous in a TV ad for a car - "Isn't it great when things just... work?" To any British traveller battered into hopeless submission by the ineptitudes of our sceptered isle's public transportation network, Japan comes as something of a pleasant surprise. The Japanses love of efficient machinery also extends to just about every street corner in the whole city - vending machines sell everything from hot coffee in a can to snacks, meals and beer, although I have yet to find a beer machine.

Having now completed basic training with Nova, I have realised that the only thing more likely to be on a street corner than a vending machine is a Nova school. Even in the neon and electronic mayhem of Shibuya (see sign at right):


It seems I won't be able to escape their clutches, so I just hope they don't make me teach those dangerous schoolgirls.
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