Written by Laurel Brinker-Cole, (Franklin & Marshall College) Student Correspondent CET Japan Spring 2019
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought much about sidewalks before. They’re just one of those things that are always there, except for those times when they’re inconveniently not. Since I came to Osaka, though, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to them – or, more specifically, to a much more consistent lack thereof. My morning walk is along far narrower streets than I’m used to, and it’s not unusual for me to hear someone call a warning of “kuruma! (car!)” whenever a group of us are headed from place to place.
There’s also far more bike traffic here, and sometimes the traffic at a crossroads – automotive, on foot, or otherwise – seems like an all-out free-for-all in comparison to home. But despite the differences, my adopted neighborhood’s streets are lovely and all the quieter for their smaller size.
Another big difference living here has been in my travel methods: I am entirely convinced that I have ridden a train more in the past three weeks than the rest of my life combined. It was confusing at first. Different train lines, unfamiliar stations, not to even get started on the number of kanji I couldn’t read. But the ekiinsan (station attendants) are wonderfully helpful people, whether you’ve gotten on the wrong train, dropped your student train pass, or jammed the ticket machine – for the second time. With enough gentle help and good old-fashioned practice, Japanese train lines have become a convenient and comfortable way to get around for a day in Kyoto or a trip downtown. Of course, I can’t drive in the U.S. either, so maybe it’s not that different after all!
Besides street size and train rides, there’s also the biggest – and hardest – difference, which I’m sure all of you can guess: the Language Pledge. While we do have the ability to speak English to family and American friends in private, it’s still tough to spend the majority of my day speaking in a language that I am far from fluent in. Really, really far. But as much as it can be frustrating or embarrassing, I can already see some of the impacts it’s having. Talking my way in circles around the difference between a Creative Writing major and an English Literature major, while difficult, is certainly good practice. So is trying to explain 1% milk and rice milk along with everything in between. Or the fact that I’m a picky eater with ridiculously weird dietary habits.
These sorts of conversations are usually halting, half-mimed, and include liberal breaks for Google, but they’ve led to a running list on my phone of new vocabulary; it ranges from irezumi (tattoo) and yukigassen (snowball fight) to buta (pig) and aji (taste). And there’s always some pretty major satisfaction in realizing: “Hey, wow, I actually understood the joke my roommate just made!” So while the announcements at a Setsubun festival (which involves throwing roasted beans at the audience, which was certainly another new experience) are still a bit fast for my ears, I’m getting better every day. It just takes some hard work and elbow grease (and maybe a Japanese dictionary or two).
Besides tackling that mountain (although not quite as tall as Fujisama!) perhaps the most noticeable difference I’ve faced has to do with temperature. As a lover of misty breath and snowy mornings, I like the cold – but I like it in moderation.
And I like coming home to a nice, warm, centrally heated house after a chilly walk. Which…doesn’t really happen here. Japanese houses have thinner walls and more individualized heating of rooms; so a lot of the time my return to the dorm is less blissful warmth and more: “Oh god, turn on the heater.” That’s not to say it’s some miserable arctic wasteland. The heaters are perfectly functional and my futon (think thick comforter, not pull-out bed) is literally the warmest thing I have ever slept under, full stop. (Am I the sort of sucker who’s tempted to buy one when I go back home? Yes. Yes I am.) But it does mean a good pair of slippers, a warm sweater, and careful use of the heaters is a must if you’re not a fan of the cold – or, if like me, you prefer your subjection to it be by choice.
Roads, trains, Japanese, and heating. Only one of those was the sort of difference I expected walking into this; after all, who thinks about sidewalks on a daily basis? Or their thermostat? Not me, that’s for sure. But while I’m studying here in Osaka, I’m on foreign land – literally. So while these specific differences were unexpected, difference itself was not. I’m about halfway around the world from my home, family, and previously established safety net. Of course things are different. And of course those differences are sometimes cool and sometimes nerve-wracking. But I’ve got plenty of support here; from CET, housemates, friends, and sometimes just the man offering to help me figure out the train ticket machine. All I have to do is take that help and run with it – or at least take some baby steps.