I just returned from an eleven day trip to Japan. I want to describe my trip here, but I want to begin by both apologizing to and thanking all of the Japanese. I'm sorry for arriving to your country knowing only 25 phrases in Japanese, only a few of which I manage to utter because I was so mortified by the snickers at my horrible pronounciation. I am so grateful to all of the waiters, hotel management, subway passengers, and other makeshift guides who helped me with their far superior English.
With only a limited understanding of Japan, I would fragment my description of it into three categories; Japan, Japanouveau, and Japamerika.
The Japan portion is just like one would expect from Japan. I didn't spend a day in Japan without seeing a shrine, going to a castle, or passing by a serene garden. I saw men and women in Kimonos everywhere, from the Tokyo Metro to the sleepy oceanside city of Kamakura. I ate a lot of sushi. I ate a lot of rice. I ate a lot of chewy noodles served in fishy, salty broths garnished with algae, raw eggs, fatty pork, and fish cakes. After a while, I just called them "weird noodles." I learned how to bow. I walked the cobblestone streets of cities that had been cities for over a thousand years, rather than just the modest hundred or so of my native town.
Japanouveau consists of Pachinko arcades, huge outdoor video screens, Karaoke bars, 9 story shopping malls, little cars, and teenagers dressed as french maids with bad eye makeup or as aged surfers with orange skin and grey hair. Everywhere in Japanouveau it was loud, but not with loud voices but with loud music, loud pachinko sirens, loud annoucers, and loud traffic. Japanouveau wore me out the most of the three categories, and I always had a shell-shocked feeling after visiting it.
The part that I found the most entertaining was Japamerika where there are facets of American culture that have been swallowed, digested, and vomited into the Japanese landscape. This was most easily seen in chain stores. Japan is home not only to McDonald's and Starbucks, but also a suprising large number of other America-based companies. I spotted Circle-K, AM PM Mini Marts, TGIF's, Denny's, Baskin Robbins, Wendy's, Haagan Dazs, and Tully's Coffee. While they were annoying at first, I came to find they had their own endearing qualities. In an effort to avoid weird noodles for at least one meal, I went to the Denny's only to find the American "Grand Slam Breakfast Menu" had simply become the "Grand Menu" in Japan. They served weird noodles, sushi, spaghetti, bubble tea, french toast, pancakes, and ice cream. The Baskin Robbins had flavors such as Melon Musk, Temptation Island, and Popping Shower, in addition to the Jamoka Almond Fudge and Vanilla I'd expected. Haagan Dazs offered both Green Tea and Red Bean ice creams.
My three categories aside, what I loved most about Japan was the toast. The bread was thick-sliced, lightly toasted, and wonderfully chewy with a crust much thinner than I'd had with American breads. Sometimes it was buttered, sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes it was served with jams, sometimes it wasn't. But it was always good.
I'm trying to recover from my trip by doing very American things. Right now, I'm drinking a glass of milk while roasting a chicken. I'm sweating in my 1000 square foot house that sits among acres and acres of 4 foot tall corn stalks that had barely germinated when I left. I'm also talking to people. Being unable to speak Japanese in Japan took away one of my favorite pastimes, talking to random strangers. Random strangers have the potential to become friends, to pass along or inspire stories, and just make the day more interesting.