Staring contest

You know, I get stared at… a lot. Mackenzie does too, and so do all of the other foreign people in this country. In a country with a population of 127,368,088, 98.5% are Japanese, .5% Korean, .4% Chinese, and .6% other. As you can imagine, there is not too much ethnic diversity in this country. This is especially so in Nagoya, because it is quite far from being a tourist destination.

Boy do I stand out. I’m white, my hair is curly, I weigh more than 90 lbs, and I don’t dress like an anime character, a hipster or a runway model. So in a country where staring is not considered rude, I get stared at. A lot.

You can mostly ignore it. Except maybe when a truck almost gets into an accident because the driver is so concerned with looking at you, which is what happened this morning. Or when a scary old lady spends a 13 minute train ride giving you the evil eye from across the aisle.

People are legitimately shocked to see a foreign person. I have encountered this before – working in a rural village in Haiti, where people were obviously unaware that people with light skin existed. But in Japan, a fully industrialized nation that has had relations with non-Asian people for centuries, it is difficult not to get annoyed when people stare at you like an animal at the zoo.


Nagoya Castle

So we had planned on going to Kyoto yesterday but ended up staying in Nagoya. We went to a restaurant up the street for breakfast to have a typical Japanese breakfast – rice, beef, and green tea. It is rather unusual for people to eat sweet cereals or pastries for breakfast. You’re more likely to find an egg with dinner, and soup is common in the morning. I had the “breakfast set,” which included thin strips of beef that tasted a lot like bacon, cole slaw, miso soup and rice. Let’s just say I stayed full for hours.

After breakfast we went to Nagoya Castle, one of the few tourist attractions in the city. It was built in the 16th century, but changed hands and names various time over the following centuries.  Nagoya Castle became one of the most important locations in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868), when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa family. Nagoya was practically leveled during WWII, and most of the castle was destroyed. It has been restored over the last 60 years to represent its former glory.

This is a very famous image of the castle burning when struck by American bombs. Inside the museum, they display pieces of the bombs dropped that day.

This is the main house (I did not take this picture, my camera decided not to work yesterday). There are three guard posts in the other corners, enclosed by a large stone wall, surrounded by gardens and then a giant moat. Older photos from before WWII show the area around the castle as only small houses and various structures. Now, it has been completely built up with large buildings and sky scrapers. This is an aerial view of a part of the complex (again, I didn’t take this picture). You see the large patch of sand in the lower left corner? I was standing on the castle side of the moat, looking at that sand while listening to traditional Japanese drumming coming from that direction. It was gorgeous!

On the top of the building, there are two golden dolphins (yes, they look more like dragon fish), one a female, the other a male. In Japanese, they are called kinshachi, (金鯱). The image goes back to the Muromachi era (1334-1400) as a symbol of the lord’s authority and as a talisman to prevent fires (which is ironic when they were destroyed in the fire that resulted from the WWII bombing). The dolphin has become a symbol of the city of Nagoya.

No, Mac and I didn’t climb onto the roof of the castle – but we are on a replica in the museum!

Woah, check out my fro! That’s what Japanese humidity does to my hair. Oh and look at part of the moat behind me!

I suppose the rest of the day was relatively uneventful. We had lunch, went to Nagoya Station and wandered around there for a while. We went back to Mackenzie’s apartment and rested for a while before setting out to the grocery store to get supper. We had rice, raw tuna filets, and stir fried leeks and asparagus. Delicious! It’s amazing how fresh the fish is here – fresh enough to eat raw… and enjoy it, a lot!

Dinner last night was SO COOL. Mackenzie, his friend, Nam, and I went downtown to a sushi restaurant… but it is definitely not your typical restaurant. There were carousels moving through the room with small plates of sushi. As they went by, you could just grab a plate. There were also screens at each table and you could order specific pieces. They would make it and send it to you on a train:



Each plate was only about 100 yen, or 1 dollar, so I stuffed myself with raw tuna, shrimp, oyster and all kinds of different pieces, for about 9 dollars. It was crazy good!

Then this morning, I had breakfast with Mackenzie at Manhattan Cafe – quite the little hipster hole in the wall. The iced coffee was fabulous. Apparently the Japanese have discovered the secret to making amazing iced coffee – you brew it over ice. They were serving the breakfast special – toast with butter, a hard boiled egg and a piece of banana. It reminded me of breakfast in Austria – a continental breakfast. European style things are quite in vogue. Image

After breakfast, Mac and I hopped on the oh-so-quiet subway, made a transfer and went to the Toganji Buddhist temple and shrine, also known as Nagoya Daibutu, in the heart of the city. It is known for its 10 meter tall blue Buddha. Mac tells me this isn’t even the biggest Buddha I will see…


There were obvious Chinese influences on some of the other structures, rather than strictly Japanese. The gardens stretched up the hills, dotted with graves and fountains. We went into the main building and sat on the floor and meditated for a few minutes. It was extremely peaceful – the warm air and the sound of the breeze moving through the trees. It was lovely.


Right now I am waiting for Mackenzie to get back from class and we are going to have dinner. Tomorrow morning we are taking the train to Kyoto to see all of the really really beautiful, huge, old Buddhist temples and shrines!

Mackenzie left a little while ago for class and I slept in a little. I just took a walk down the street to get some breakfast at 7/11. I spent quite a lot of time staring at all of the prepared foods, not knowing what in heck to get. What I got is quite good. Some kind of meat (pork, maybe?) and potatoes and veggies. Not really breakfast food, but it works.

I had some thoughts last night that I wanted to get down, but I was just too exhausted. Today’s reflection might be helpful anyway.

Last night I hated Japan. Everyone looks the same, there is no diversity at all. 99% of the population of Japan are Japanese. You can’t ever get citizenship unless you’re Japanese and can show ancestry. The city is so overdone and materialistic. Last night I was exhausted (24 hours of travel will do that!) and pissy. I was feeling very ethnocentric, and I didn’t know if I could handle ten whole days in this country. Today, well I’m still exhausted but in a better mood, and I am more confident. I have never been so uncomfortable in another cultural realm before, felt so completely out of place. But this is a learning experience, and the more uncomfortable I feel, the more I learn.

When I  was on the train, I had some weiiiird nostalgia of Austria. It might have been the train ride itself, the train moving extremely fast and silently. It could have been the houses dotting the hills – not that the houses look the same, but that I just don’t ride trains in rural areas in the US. But it was probably just the feeling of being abroad, somewhere different, that was nostalgic.

Last note: Mackenzie tells me that people joke (but seriously) that shopping is the national sport in Japan, because of how “high fashion” everyone is. But apartments here are soooo tiny! Where do they put all of their clothes???

I am about five hours into my flight, and so far it has been pretty nice. We were delayed a bit, but took off not long after our scheduled departure. I read for a while, took a benedryl and slept up until this point. I did wake up briefly when they served dinner. They served this interesting Japanese beef with rice with a chunk of tofu. When I was flying to/from Germany, they served sausage. Airplane food is surprisingly appetizing.

I did have a very strange encounter in the Toronto airport when attempting to recieve my seat assignment (which, by the way, is the best seat on the place – one row behind first class with about three feet of leg room). There was a line of people at the counter, and each person was given their seat and the next would step up and get their seat. Until it got to me. I waited until the Japanese woman said something, rather than just come bustin’ on up demanding her immediate attention. Well this was a mistake. She didn’t acknowledge me, but she did start calling out names of people, who all came up and crowded around her. As they left, others started coming up from the back of the line. I guess because I didn’t go up and shove my boarding pass in her face, she wasn’t going to help me until the people shoving boarding passes at her were all helped. I don’t know if it was a Japanese thing, a Canadian thing, or just a her-thing, but my American sense of fairness and justice was offended. Culture shock 101, don’t stay mad for long. She did after all, give me a pretty darn good seat.

and I still have to pack. In 24 hours, I will be landing in Toronto, the first leg of a pretty ridiculous trip. I’ll then be boarding a plane to fly almost 7,000 miles to the other side of the world. In about 33 hours I will be landing in Tokyo, though it’ll be Wednesday afternoon.

It still doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen, especially as I am sitting at my desk at work desperately trying to occupy myself.  I don’t even know the time difference between here and Japan. I can say all of three words in Japanese, though I was given a basic lesson on how to bow from Mackenzie. (Quite weird that we had bagels together this morning in Chicago, and shortly we’ll be eating sushi in Japan).


I have a list of really important things to do before I leave:

1. Figure out where I am living when I get back – find an apartment.

2. Pack up my apartment and find somewhere to store my things.

3. Buy supplies – everything from some sandals to a trowel and a hat. Maybe some travel guides?

4. Get some yen, euros and shekels

5. Buy a ticket home?

6. And… finish classes.

I am working through all of these things nicely, but there are still so many other things to consider. For example, I need to book a hotel for my night in Tokyo. I should probably get Mackenzie to write out useful Japanese phrases so I can get around for the twenty fours I’ll be without him in Tokyo. Do some research on possible places to stay in Greece, get info on the ferry system, and make some kind of tentative plan. Also, I need to figure out what I am going to do for my two days in Tel Aviv. I will be arriving on a Saturday afternoon and I am not sure if this will be problematic being it the Sabbath and all. It will probably be more expensive to get from the airport to downtown and my hotel. So many things to consider. I am quite nervous, doing all of this on my own. But it is also very exhilarating. Six weeks and two days!