To get myself into the spirit of dedicated blogging I decided to start with a post aimed at the intention of this blog. Talking about Japan. The perspective that I hope to bring will be both informative and relevant to both gaijin (foreigner) and 日本人 (nihonjin or Japanese national) alike. I’ll keep the introduction short and get right into the nitty gritty.
Quick backstory. I was stationed in Bethesda working for Navy Medicine Manpower Personnel Training and Education Command (NAVMED MPT&E) when they were still known as National Naval Medical Center. I worked in support of officer accessions in the Navy through a program called the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). As a Yeoman in the Navy, administration is my primary capacity so when I found out that I’d be managing student’s service records, paying out tuition to universities, and submitting reimbursements for books and supplies, I realized that I might have a hard time adjusting in my role considering the work was unrelated to my job in most ways. It was a short two-year assignment, and towards the end of it I was in my negotiating window for orders out to sea. I can’t remember all of places I listed but I remember my fifth choice. Atsugi Japan with an F-18 squadron. I didn’t imagine in a million years that my fifth choice would be what I ended up getting selected for but in my case, this is what happened.
I was terrified at the prospect. Here I am, this 23 year old post-college dropout who had never been out of the country, finding out that not only am I going out of the country, I am going to a place where they don’t speak my language and I will have no family close by. The anticipation mounted in the ensuing months but I eventually found myself at ease with the inevitable situation and towards the beginning of October 2011 when I boarded a plane heading towards Seattle that would take me to an island-nation that I was unaccustomed to.
Several months prior to the big move I purchased Rosetta Stone’s Japanese language learning software and went through several units before putting it to bed indefinitely. The limited Japanese that I did pick up from the program was more than sufficient to prepare me for basic interactions abroad and I’ll get to all that later. So lets move on to day one in Japan shall we?
I landed in Yokota at the Air Force base and waited for a shuttle to pick myself and several other sailors heading towards Atsugi up. I looked down at the concrete as I made my way from the plane to the terminal. It looked the same as the concrete in America. The terminal was American enough, filled an American snack bar and arcade. I grabbed my bags (which were 6 in number) and made off to the bus to be shuttled through a foreign land. Equipped with a camera, a few wrinkled dollar bills, and an appetite for adventure I was off.
We made our way down narrow winding two-way roads with tiny cars and myriad mopeds (motor bikes as they say in Japan) and the scenery was more intriguing than revealing in the fact that I was actually a world away from what I was used to. One of the first things that I did notice was how congested the residential areas were. I can do little to speak to the developmental insight exhibited in Japan, but my assumptions are that there are just a whole lot of people and not enough space to house everyone.
Eventually, I was on the main stretch towards the front gate of Naval Air Facility Atsugi and upon entering the gates and heading to the bachelors enlisted quarters front office to receive my room key, I was finally alone. My squadron was underway on deployment so when I say I was alone, I mean I was really alone. Unpacking my things was an unwelcome chore because it made my being there truly real and for a day or two I slipped into a minor depression. I hated being in Japan. Not because of where it was located or the language that was spoken there or the people. But because nothing there was familiar to me and I had no one to spend my days with. Alone with your thoughts in a new place is difficult I suppose.
On the third day I made a deal with myself. I decided that I wouldn’t get down on myself about the hand I had been dealt and I would make a conscious decision to enjoy my time in Japan. In my mind, I determined that there was fun to be had and I couldn’t do any kind of job at having that fun if I decided to stay in my room depressed. So with that, I went out exploring for the first time. Not able to read the language, not able to write, not able to speak. What was the worst that could happen right?
I hopped on a train to Yokohama in my first adventure and the process was surprisingly simple. They have these nifty machines that spit out fare cards when you put money into them and I purchased my first PASMO. I went to the ATM after arriving at Yokohama station and withdrew 200,000 yen which was roughly $200 at that time and I was off. Feeling extremely hungry I walked around searching for some place good to eat that served gyoza. I had been obsessed with them since my “authentic” Japanese dinning experiences in the States. I finally found a spot that served Ramen. Now for those of you who haven’t had Japanese ramen, you may think that it’s something reminiscent of those hard noodles, you know, the ones that come in the plastic bag…WRONG! This place created a heavenly elixir of steamy goodness that could only appropriately be enjoyed by slurping to one’s maximum potential (a way of showing the preparer your appreciation for the deliciousness of the soup). I had my first ever real ramen and I think that it changed my life forever.
I ate many more random foods I had never tried before as the day progressed and by nightfall, Yokohama was a completely different spectacle. With vibrant neon lights visually conveying the pulse of the city I quickly realized that I would be hooked to this place. The people watching in Japan is out of this world. At least when you hit a major hub. On the trains, don’t be surprised if you are the only gaijin present and everyone else either averts their gaze or openly stares at you. After being pulled in varying directions by the inconspicuous “working ladies” in their olive green hooded coats with fur lining (and the same large black handbag), I had decided that I had enough fun for one day. Getting back on the train and making it back to base as easily as when I came, I went to my room with a completely altered perspective on what my time in Japan would be like.
Now while I know that I left many details out, I just wanted to convey my original baseline for my arrival in Japan. I feel that it will be relevant in later posts that I make. For now I’m going to call it an evening. In future posts I hope to incorporate some Japanese words/phrases because why not right?