Saturday, April 28, 2012

Have Strong Thighs, will Travel

Anna' the bottom row, third from the right, with short hair.

My seventeen-year-old daughter is going to Japan in about a month. The trip has been planned for a while. She’s going with a group of other students and one highly fluent adult, who has made the trip many times. Our city has a sister city relationship with Shiojiri that has lasted for years. In fact, Anna will be part of the fortieth anniversary celebration. They will stay with host families for four days, tour the city, visit schools, and then the group will sightsee other parts of the country, including Hiroshima, Tokyo, and Kyoto. You can see the blog here. It will be updated with pictures as the trip progresses.
Hello, where's the train?
Though she and most of the other kids have studied the language for three years, I don’t believe anyone would count themselves confident with the idea of speaking only Japanese for sixteen days. I’d be brushing up on stock phrases like ‘where’s the bathroom, please’ and ‘which way to the train station’ and I’d still end up at a laundromat.
Then there is the culture shock. Japan has quite different customs from western countries. She’s been warned not to leave shoes visible in her luggage as it is offensive to let dirty shoes touch clothes or even be inside a house. Wait staff in restaurants do not accept tips. Their job is to serve and giving them extra implies they aren’t doing their jobs. Bathhouses are segregated by the sexes but they’re still not places for the modest. You soap down with a bucket and then move to different pools, included one that gives you mild electric shocks. Since the word for 4th means death, there are no fourth floors on buildings. Apparently they skip that number. On the plus side, there is almost no crime. Homeless people are an embarrassment and quickly whisked away out of sight. Tax is included in the price of an item.
Since they live on small islands space is valuable. There isn’t room for herds of cattle. It’s hard to find a genuine beef hamburger, and they don’t drink dairy. Cheese has one variety, a hard orange block. Chocolate is not sweet and don’t ask for a fork. Bowls of soup are meant to be slurped. No free refills on pop. In other words, you’d better really enjoy seafood.  
Perhaps the biggest shock is the … um … bathrooms. Toilets, sinks, and showers all have separate rooms. The toilets themselves are different. I never knew there was a distinction, but we use Western toilets. To put it gently, you need a good sense of balance and strong leg muscles which explains why their elderly are so spry. Where they do have Western style, such as hotels, they are tricked out with all kinds of buttons and gizmos such as music and bidets. Watch what you push or you might get an unexpected shower.
All of this leads to how brave my daughter is. To go overseas with a group of people she barely knows to stay with people she doesn’t know at all and who might not speak any English. Well, that takes courage and a sense of adventure. I’m so proud of her.
Where's the instruction manual?
In writing, as in life, you need that ability to conquer fear. You must have the guts to fling your babies out there for the world to criticize. The confidence to send dozens of query letters and opening pages to complete strangers in the hopes of snagging an agent. The perseverance to keep trying when all you hear is ‘no’. It’s certainly not unique to say success comes not from the absence of fear, but from the desire to overcome that fear.


  1. Wow! Never knew that about the bathrooms. Yikes!

  2. Fascinating. I hope your daughter has a great time, despite the weird plumbing. =)

    Bravery to put our stories out there. Um, yes. Still working on that one. I'm glad I have brave role-models such as you.

  3. Wow. LOL. I knew Japan was a lot different than the US or Canada, whee I am, but apparently it's even more different than I imagined. Your daughter comes from the bravest of stock. Hope she has a great time.

  4. Right now it's easy to think about her going and be excited for her. I'm sure the nerves will really pick up when June gets closer. She's never been away from home before. I'll be a worrywart mess.