Written by Isabelle Qian, (Yale University), Student Correspondent for CET Japan, Summer 2022
I love nights in Osaka. Sometimes, when I want to take a break from homework, I like to stand on the little balcony of my third-floor apartment and look at all the sloped roofs of the houses and the many streetlamps that brighten the small and empty streets below. I live in the neighborhood Aikawa, which is very quiet and peaceful, full of little shops and houses. From my balcony, I can catch a glimpse of the Ai River to my right, and to my left, I see can see the trains that run through Aikawa station. I hear them as I fall asleep, and again as I wake up. The trains here are never late. They pass so regularly and reliably that I think of them as a kind of metronome-like beat, a new metric for the division of time.
Skyline view of Aikawa neighborhood at night.
The quietude and cleanliness of these nights in Japan remind me of haikus. As a kid, I never appreciated haikus when I learned about them in school, but I have recently begun to realize how beautiful they are. There’s a kind of precision to them, a serenity with which they express such tiny and lovely details — little particulars, as simple and commonplace as a train running through a station.
When I am frustrated with Japanese, I think about haikus. Since I have only taken Japanese for a year, I am still very restricted in my ability to express myself. Sometimes, I feel stifled and demoralized because I have no words to voice my thoughts and ideas, no syntax to add eloquence to my sentences. Today, we officially took the language pledge, which means that we are generally not allowed to speak in any language other than Japanese. Already, this has made communication rather difficult. Nevertheless, I think that this limiting of language has helped me to realize the beauty of basic words and sentences. I feel like a child that is discovering the world for the first time. There’s such an uncomplicate delight in being able to give name to the things that I see around me, to form phrases of such cleanliness and solid power. The joy of learning a new language is similar to the joy of a haiku: it is all about realizing the miracle in things that may sometimes seem small and simplistic.
In some ways, this is also a little bit like entering a new country and culture for the first time. Everything is intriguing and exciting, even things as tiny as the tune that they play over the speakers while we wait for the train, or the clever packaging of convenience store onigiri. (Onigiri cost a little over one dollar, and they are totally delicious; I think about them constantly). These are all such pedestrian details for the millions of people who live in Japan, but for us, they seem like aspects of a new adventure.
CET classmates at a sushi restaurant in Tenma.
On Sunday, I went with two CET classmates to Tenma, an area with a seemingly endless maze of little shops and restaurants to explore. We lost ourselves in the narrow alleyways, smelling the okonomiyaki in the air, and eventually, we found ourselves in front of a sushi bar, so tiny that it could only fit around six tall stools in the narrow space between the sliding screen doors and the bar itself. The sushi chef was excited to help us when he saw us struggling with the menu, and throughout our (delicious!) meal, he chatted with us about Osaka, English, sushi, and our own hometowns.
“It’s good that you came to Osaka,” he said. “The people here are very friendly. They always want to talk with you.”
From the sushi chef, we also received our first lesson in Osaka-ben. Osaka-ben is a regional dialect specific to Osaka. Normally in Japanese, you express thanks by saying arigatou. But, as we learned from the chef, in Osaka-ben, you say ookini. We made sure to say this many times as we finished our meal and went on with our journey through the shopping streets of Tenma.
Exploring the aisles of the Don Quijote store.
Other highlights of the day include the moment when we turned a random corner and found ourselves under a beautiful canopy of paper lanterns, as well as my first trip to Don Quijote, a Japanese discount budget chain store filled with bright colors, mechanically cheerful voices playing over the speakers, and just about any good that you can think of, packed into tight little rows of shelves that reach almost to the ceiling. I constantly feel like I’m getting lost in Japan. I wander around the lotus-eater labyrinth of Don Quijote, distracted by anything that catches my eye — which is to say, all things. In Aikawa, on my way home from a gyoza-making dinner at another CET residence, I come to a five-way intersection, and I have no idea which way to turn. At the station, I run from platform to platform in order to find the correct train. I am trying to embrace this kind of unfamiliarity; soon, I (hopefully) will know exactly where to go and how to get there, and the memory of this current confusion will remind me of how much I have learned.
Walking through a paper lantern canopy above the street.