Lost in Shinjuku
The shuttle took about an hour to get to Shinjuku because there was not much traffic at that time of night. I was in awe the entire ride over, but I won’t detail it here since it’s the only thing I blogged about while in Japan. On the shuttle, there was a display screen that showed messages in English, but the driver’s announcements and explanations were all in very formal and very fast Japanese. I couldn’t really make out what he was saying, but when we arrived in Shinjuku station, I exited the shuttle, confident that I would be able to locate my best friend Noriko, who was waiting for me somewhere in the station.
Noriko lives in Tokyo (Kunitachi to be exact) and insisted on meeting me at the station to help me find my way to my rental apartment. What I didn’t realise that Tokyo’s main train stations are huge; major Tokyo train stations are like shopping-mall-train-station-hybrids. I initially was trying to avoid using my Japanese rental phone because the cost was 99 cent for each text sent or each voice minute used. But eventually I had to call her, because we could not find each other. In hindsight, I should have found out exactly where the shuttle drops off and told her that spot, but I thought the station was a reasonable size and that she would know all the exits. Typing that now sounds ridiculous, now that I know what a maze the stations are. Even Tokyo residents might not use all of the entrances and exits, so it’s hard to learn the entire station layout. I was carrying my huge suitcase (which I brought so I could fill it with souvenirs and goodies), a huge carry-on bag, and my backpack. I tend to overpack because until this year I was a travel noob, so everything was super heavy. It also started to drizzle, so I was carrying an umbrella. Somehow we managed to locate each other (after me walking up and down the same street with my luggage for 30 minutes).
This all may sound like a horrible experience, but I was so ecstatic to just be in Japan (and maybe slightly delirious) that I didn’t really feel annoyed at all.
Once Noriko and I met up, we ate an izakaya whose name I cannot remember (because I didn’t have my wi-fi hotspot, I couldn’t check in to Foursquare! Foursquare is essential to remember places while abroad!) and then took a cab drove to Nakano. Japanese taxis are amazing. The drivers are almost all courteous, the seats are covered with white doilies, the drivers don’t take tip, and the back doors open automatically. If American taxis were as cool as Japanese taxis, I wouldn’t need Lyft! But one not cool thing about Japanese taxis is they cost more at night. But it was still only 1590 yen (less than $15 at the time) for the entire ride, which wasn’t bad.
A Japanese Barbecue!
The next day was a Sunday and Noriko’s elementary school friends were having a barbecue. Yes, that’s right—her elementary school friends. I am still shocked that Noriko is such good friends with so many people from her elementary school. They didn’t even end up going to the same high schools, but somehow they’ve remained friends for over 20+ years. Because I was an army brat when I was in elementary school and many of my childhood friends were also from military families that moved frequently, I can’t imagine being friends with people for so long. I do, however, think it’s a very Japanese trait. Having a strong sense of community is quite important in Japanese culture, so it’s natural that friendship and relationships are also highly valued.
The person hosting the barbecue was Ono, Noriko’s friend. Ono’s house happened to also be in Nakano, but in a much nicer part of Nakano. And his house—absolutely gorgeous. His house is in the traditional Japanese style. These houses are pretty rare in Tokyo because land is expensive, so I’m so happy I got to visit it and take it all in. He lives there with his family and told me the house had been in his family’s possession for about 4-5 generations. The home was beautifully constructed, but we spent the day in the garden. The garden was a traditional Japanese garden. There was even a koi pond! His family also grows bonsai trees, so there were dozens of decades old bonsai to see. Ono actually told me he wanted to give me one as a present, but since customs would confiscate it, it probably wasn’t the best idea. Curse you, customs!
Besides having a beautiful home and garden, Ono also had an adorable shiba inu named Marron. Marron is one of the most popular names for a dog in Japan, taken from the French word for chestnut. Ono’s Marron was a husky dog who lazily stayed under the porch when I first arrived at the house. I thought he was in an enclosure meaning he couldn’t come out, but later in the evening he felt a bit more active so I had the chance to play with him for a bit. I love dogs, but I’ve never actually played with a shiba inu. They’re so cute—Marron moved shiba inu’s up to number two on my favourite dog breeds (corgis have the number one spot locked down). I won’t squeal over him much more, but I will show you this photo of him (I took like 20 photos of this one dog. I am on my way to becoming a crazy dog lady.)
Just like every barbecue I’ve been to in the United States, my first Japanese barbecue featured tons of food and drinks. We actually ran out of drinks and had to walk to a konbini (a Japanese convenience store) nearby to restock. For the konbini run, we took Marron along with us and I got to see a Tokyo neighborhood. In Japan, whenever a dog pees while on a walk, the owner washes it away with water from a bottle. Behaviour like this why Tokyo is so pristine, considering the city’s size and population.
My Japanese barbecue fare consisted of grilled corn, hot dogs, steak, yakisoba, fruits, chips, and lots of alcohol—beer, canned sangria that was surprisingly delicious, and a variety of Chu-Hi drinks (Chu-hi is awesome. If you have a chance to drink Chu-Hi, do it—doesn’t matter the flavour because they all taste good!). For dessert, we had strawberry cake. That was the first time I’ve eaten cake with chopsticks. As a random side note, I love how amazed a lot of Japanese people were that I could use chopsticks. I can’t count how many times I heard something along the lines of 「箸を上手に使えるね！」”wow, you use chopsticks really well!” At first I would think “well, yeah, I’ve been eating with chopsticks for nearly ten years now…” but I couldn’t get upset—I think people were genuinely impressed; maybe they thought that everyone in the US only uses a fork and knife.
All of Noriko’s friends were extremely friendly, so it was a perfect environment to get back in the habit of speaking Japanese. I was extremely rusty at that point, since I hadn’t attend Japanese classes in at least 6 months, but luckily everyone understood about 90% of what I said (and I understood about 75% of what was being said at that point). There was also a little boy there, the nephew of one of Noriko’s friends, and he was super friendly. He was the first of many Japanese kids who I could easily speak to because their Japanese isn’t as complicated as grownups (basically, I made friends with a lot of kids in Japan, haha). After a day of eating and drinking, we finished the evening with fireworks.
Sorry, I’m writing so much! I get really nostalgic and wordy. I’ll stop here and continue in another entry.