All this happened, more or less...

My name is G and these are the true stories of my adventures.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

First Impressions

Last week I got a call from my college roommate Liz. She was always very close to her family, her mom especially, so after we graduated, she moved back to Minnesota where she's been (un)happily teaching elementary school. She called me to tell me that she had done something very scary: she had made a major life decision without her mom's approval, without her mom's input even. She decided to quit her job and move down south with her boyfriend. Dad was supportive, but Mom was (naturally) upset and hurt. Liz was determined to follow through on her plan... and also terrified. Everything was so overwhelming, the packing and planning, the whole idea of being in a new place, having a new life.

So I told her the story of my first night in Japan...

My arrival in Japan went fairly smoothly at first. I was met at Kansai International Airport by a collared and neck-tied NOVA company man who took me and a few other greenhorns to Umeda Station in Osaka. There we were split up and put on different trains headed toward our respective destinations. I was aimed in the direction of Kyoto, along with another American. We were told to stay on the train until it arrived in Omihachiman. There, another company rep would meet us on the platform and take us to our new apartments. I was relieved to have a travel buddy, and we eagerly took note of every station name along the way, checking and double-checking our map to make sure we didn't miss our stop. (Once you get used to trains, missing a stop is nothing more than a slight inconvenience, easily rectified, but on that first trip, the stop after Omihachiman might just as well have been the edge of the world, a great black hole, eternal oblivion.)

Finally the train puffed into our station. We were standing at the door, backpacks over our shoulders, long before it came to a jerky halt. The door swished open and we hopped out, craning our necks up and down the platform to find our next guide.

There was no one on the platform. After some waiting and debating, we decided to go up into the station. It took several minutes to decide which staircase to take. (When we finally chose, we quickly discovered they led to different ends of the exact same, very small room. Japan: 1; Us: 0)

Still no one.

After quite a bit of nervous pacing and discussing our very limited options of action, we spotted a NOVA sign just across the street -- one little spark of familiarity. We jumped at it and started heading that way. As we were crossing the walkway over the busy traffic, we were met halfway by a young, smartly dressed Japanese woman. She asked if we were the new teachers. Ah, yes! We were! She led us through the labyrinth of a shopping mall to a tiny company office tucked in a corner and explained that our guide was running late and would arrive shortly. Until then, we could wait in the teachers' break room. We sat in the cramped room (more a hallway with a coffee pot than a staff lounge) and waited anxiously, reading every scrap of paper pinned to the wall. Finally our guide, a red-headed Kiwi with a brisk, down-to-business attitude, came bustling in and whisked us on our way.

This is where it got good.

He whipped out a little hand-drawn map and decided that the other girl's apartment was closer. We headed east on the main road. After a few minutes, we got out of the business district and wound our way through some quieter, residential streets. We were enraptured by the rows of beautiful Japanese homes with weathered wooden walls and tiled roofs, persimmon trees loaded with fruit and peeping over garden gates, hibiscus and a thousand other flowers with names we didn't know but that must have been glorious and exotic.


After about twenty minutes of walking, we arrived at the apartment. Her roommates -- two Canadians -- weren't at home, but they'd left her a welcome note. We stayed only a minute to settle her in before Kiwi was off again in the direction of my new apartment.

First, we back-tracked the twenty minutes we had just come, back down the main road, back past the office and train station, and continuing west. And continuing west. And continuing west. Shops gave way to houses, which grew sparser and sparser, charmingly interspersed with small rice fields and winding streams. About thirty minutes after we'd passed the office, Kiwi consulted his map. He was certain we were on the right road, but we hadn't come far enough yet -- we still had to cross a river and a set of train tracks. He muttered something about the map perhaps not being to scale... Are you sure, Kiwi?? We continued walking. He was a bit embarrassed and tried to make light of the situation. He pointed ahead. "See that white building there?"

"Yes..." I replied with a glimmer of hope.

"Well, that's not it either."

Very funny, Kiwi.

Finally, we crossed the river, then the train tracks. A few minutes later, we found it. This put me at over a forty-five minute walk from the train station and the city center.

Kiwi stayed just long enough to toss me the key, chide me for forgetting to take off my shoes, and turn the water heater on. Then I was alone.

Unlike the other new recruit, I had no roommates. (The girl who was supposed to be my roommate ended up not coming to Japan at all, which is another long story.) The grocery store was right next to the train station, a forty-five minute hike away. Even if I'd had food, I wouldn't have been able to eat it -- my stomach was turned completely up-side-down by the fourteen hour time change and I hadn't been able to keep anything down since the airline food. My luggage, which the company had shipped separately, was not scheduled to arrive until the next afternoon (and though I didn't know it at the time, would actually arrive a day later). This meant I couldn't take a shower at the end of my day of hiking -- I had no towels or clean clothes. Obviously, since the place had been vacant, there was no phone or internet hook-up, so though I had an international calling card, I couldn't use it. The soonest I'd be able to acquire a cell phone would be at our training session, two days later. The only pay phone I knew of was in the train station.

So there I was on the wrong side of the world, hungry, tired, sweaty, and completely alone. That's how my experience in Japan began.

(If your first night in Georgia sucks that much, I told Liz, you can call me in tears and I'll understand.)

I survived though, and things got better. Much better. Especially after I started work about a week later and met crazy Aussies at my office and a kaleidoscope of other characters.

That's how it always is when you start over new. I'm very proud of Liz. She'll be scared, but she'll be happy too.

san-jo bridge

San-jo Bridge... filled with so many memories

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