Here is my second podcast talking about my time with Citynet and my experiences in Japan.
Throughout my experience so far I have had a love-hate relationship with my wifi connection. Even before the internet, as someone who grew up in libraries, I have always thrived on information. When I have a question, I dig until I find the answer. But the ability to access information is changed in a place where you can’t communicate well, and in Japan turning to the internet may not always be possible. Sometimes your questions do not make sense to locals long immersed in your new context. Sometimes you feel burdensome constantly asking. But I have found that when your ability to independently solve problems is compromised, the greatest opportunities for community emerge. It is in these moments that I have found the greatest sense of connection with those around me and discovered local gems that the internet may never have led me to.
Language is probably one of the most frustrating barriers CAPI interns will face during their times abroad. While you are here, your desire for connection is great as is the opportunity for adventure at hand. During my first month I picked up the necessary, popular Japanese greetings, but found myself unable to go more in-depth. People would often come up to me and make a comment or ask a question, and I would hear phrases commonly repeated, but I am unable to engage meaningfully in many parts of daily life. Because the Japanese alphabet is entirely different than English, looking up words is not an option. However, this has led to many interesting conversations with my co-workers whereby I try to imitate sounds or explain the context where I heard the phrase. It turns out that there are just some sounds I am apparently not physically capable of making. When I was partnered with a tutor in June I finally had the information I so desperately desired and our sessions are one of the highlights of my week. Now I can read Hiragana, one of the 3 sets of Japanese characters (there are over 40!). The first day I sounded out a word on the train and I got so excited that the guy beside me said something. I will always wonder what conversations could have been. Last night I was stopped on the street by a group of excited Japanese ladies. We had a conversation for a few minutes while they used single English words they knew and I used the little Japanese I had. I still have no idea what they wanted or why they were so excited, but I’m pretty sure it had to do with religion? Nonetheless they were excited I had stopped, gave me a newspaper article and a cellphone number to call and wished me a good evening. Despite the fact I did not get much from the content of our conversation, their efforts to embrace me into their community (whatever that may be) gave a positive energy to entire interaction. In moments like that you realize that it not the content that matters, it is the connection.
Adventuresare something I usually prepare for. Meticulous about details I look up train times, possible sights where I’m going, closing hours, etc. As a result I usually know where I am going to go and what I am going to see before I get there. The lack of accessible information in Japan has forced me to shift from my usual comfort zone into what I am calling “planned spontaneity.” One of the first questions I usually ask people I meet is what their favorite place is in Japan or the Greater Tokyo Area. Many people give me similar answers and I always note the most popular ones. When I first realized that my privilege of ready access to information was going to be taken away, I started stockpiling a list of names and mapping out where they were whenever the wifi gods shined on me. Then on my weekend mornings I pick a place and just go.
This has made my travel way more fun and way more meaningful because I am present. Even if I get places when they are closed or spend more time getting lost overall I lose the fear of missing out on what could come and focus on the experience at hand. I don’t have to rush to see this or eat that or go here. I climbed Mt. Takao last weekend and I got to the train station at the base with no idea where to go. I followed the crowd and the signs and next thing you know I’m onwards and upwards. The cool thing about Japan is that you’re never alone. Even in a forest there are almost always people around. And in circumstances like this despite the language there is a solidarity among people that we are all here with the same goal and that in itself forms the community. We say konichiwa as we pass each other on the trail (though I’m pretty sure one section was actually just walking through a river) and we feel connected in our journey to the top. Again what matters is not the content, but the context.
I realise now what a privilege it is to have access to information. For people around the world who are illiterate, deaf, blind, monolingual, unconnected to the internet and without access to education, life must be so much more challenging when barriers are put in front of them. It is easy to understand how people can be misled, how religions can be misinterpreted and how development can take a stand still. In this way the internet can be an incredible tool to break down barriers. But at the same time the internet can be incredibly isolating, making it possible to by-pass physical communities in to maintain virtual ones. No longer is there a need to ask for directions or take a class to learn something new. It’s all online and we can thrive as independent units with access to all the answers. But this way of thinking may not bode well for us long term and the consequences of thinking that it is possible to solve every problem technologically may be high. Because sometimes the best solution is the simplest one, and the value created from a community in solidarity should never be overlooked.
While I like to know things and planning is definitely important for mitigating risk, I realize now that it’s actually more fun not knowing sometimes and seeing what surprises await you. The experiences can be more powerful than you imagine and the connections made just as strong as the ones from a wifi signal.
After weeks of discarded efforts trying to summarize my experience thus far, I have decided to share my thoughts through a culinary lens and help you explore one of my favorite parts of life in Japan…the food!
It has now been six weeks since I first landed in Tokyo and embarked on my adventure in the land of the rising sun. Driving into Yokohama my first night, I have to say I was a bit surprised at how familiar the setting felt. Highways, buildings and industrial infrastructure mimicked that which you would find in most North American cities. Beyond the minor language barriers I had met along the journey thus far, I found that what I was observing was just regular people doing the same things we all do. Where was this exotic land that I had pictured all my life? Not only have my preconceived notions about Japan been wrong, but the reality is greater than the expectations I had. It is amazing how a place that feels so familiar can be so different.
I think the best way to describe living in Japan is a sensory overload. When milling around the city there is constant input of neon lights and the sound of music and the click of heels and the smell of food and the grip of humidity that hits once outside the comfort of an air conditioned environment. Crowded trains and busy streets complete the experience. As for taste, well we will get to the food in a minute.
Because I don’t usually understand the verbal cues around me, I spend a lot of time observing my surroundings and in this I have noticed that it is the nuances that make Japan so different from anywhere else I have been. I have learned that in such a context-based society, the ability to pick up on these subtleties is very important and the Japanese have an impeccable attention to detail that I really admire. Within almost every sector I have seen such a strong work ethic and even those working janitorial and service jobs go out of their way ensure that every detail is perfect. I have found the Japanese people to be extremely hospitable and despite our language barrier, they have gone out of their way to help me when needed. This especially shines through in the restaurant industry.
Most people who know me know that I am in no way a foodie. My life is not centered around how amazing my next meal is going to be and I have on occasion just forgotten to eat at all. But in Japan, that is not an option because the food is mind blowing-ly, life altering-ly good. And I finally understand. As a result of epiphany, I have ventured into the Japanese food culture whole heartedly and have had many outstanding experiences. In fact, I don’t think I’ve eaten anything that wasn’t meticulously prepared and presented. Coming at a very affordable price, I have eaten out more in the past 6 weeks than the past few years of my life.
My food epiphany began on my very first day of work. In the morning, I had an orientation with the new interns and then we were free for the afternoon. One of my fellow interns had already fully embraced the love of food that Japan offers and was excited to show me, so we went to a ramen restaurant in Shibuya that had been recommended to us. I really did not understand why a bowl of noodles in broth was worth noting, but I was keen to try the Japanese cuisine I had heard so much about. When we got there we were given a sheet of paper asking us about noodle thickness, firmness, level of spice, type of broth, etc. Who knew there was so much involved in ordering noodles? I went down the middle with a medium selection for all and then proceeded to my individual booth. Once the bowl arrived it appeared rather unassuming, but smelled like it was probably going to be the best thing I have ever eaten. And it was quite frankly the perfect mix of every flavor ever put into a dish. To this day I still think about that bowl of ramen. Last week I was able to go back, and despite the many fabulous meals I have had, it remains my favorite.
The main barrier to my food excursions is the language. While in my everyday life I can manage with the basic Japanese phrases I’ve picked up, when it comes to restaurants it has proven difficult to know exactly what I am ordering. Luckily, Japan has a thriving imitation food industry whereby visual samples of every meal are around and most menus have a picture associated with every option. They have clearly thought about this and I think it would be an exceptional idea to implement in Canada. In fact, the fake food industry is a multi-billion dollar sector of the Japanese economy. The industry emerged in 1917 when a Tokyo restaurant used wax models of its meals as an advertising scheme to attract more customers and as a result saw a huge increase in revenue. In 1932, Ryuzo Iwasaki, took the first steps towards building an artifical food empire. The models and photography took the guess work out of ordering and today fake food is used in most restaurants as well as commercials and magasines. Its alot easier to film when the ice cream in the bowl never melts. The imitations are preapred just as meticulously as the meals themselves with attention to ensure the details are an exact match for plate presentation and colour. Today, Iwasaki’s company holds an 80% market share of the imitation food in Japan and is expanding into other foreign markets in Asia.
There are many great and efficient ideas that could be great when applied in the Canadian context and it really makes me aware of just how important open and accessible sharing of knowledge and practices should be. This is something that CITYNET excels at and I am excited to continue to learn through their networking model.
Overall, I have been surprised at how quickly I have adjusted to my new routine. The noise and chatter and crowds that at first intimidated me are now just background noise to my everyday life. I continue to be fascinated by the little things I notice, like how the crowd always seems to experience their excitement collectively and react in unison during a street performance or fireworks show. The more I discover about Japan, the more it intrigues me and I am excited to discover more.
And now a quiz for you! Can you spot the fake ramen meal?