Monday, 17 September 2012

Political Realities in Smalltown Kyouto

Today was a day of small personal triumphs as I achieved mastery in such tasks as eating at a restaurant, riding public transit and not murdering myself.

Around lunch my roommate, Cologne, announced that he wanted to check out a restaurant in the shopping district and asked if I wanted to come with, and I jumped at the opportunity to get out of the dorm. I really need to make clear how tiny this place is, and how little there is to do; the old guard, the students, and even the teachers have been moved to comment on it. Yesterday I took a walk to see if I could find anything interesting and went for two hours before I found anything resembling a city centre. Imagine if you lived in Medicine Hat, but Medicine Hat was right next to Manhattan, but it was still too far to walk, and the train there cost 550 yen.

So we went down to Nakau, which I've never heard of until now but is apparently quite a famous chain. Cologne described it as “kind of a Japanese McDonald's,” which is apt, except that this place is nicer, tastier, and cheaper. It was also my first-ever encounter with making a vending machine-style purchase from a storefront. Even if you've never visited Japan you've almost certainly heard this described so I won't belabour the point, but basically you put money in, locate the button for the item you want to eat (it may or may not be accompanied by a picture; if not you'll just have to compare kanji with the nearby menu), and take the ticket it dispenses, which you then present to the waitress. This can be quite handy if you don't speak Japanese, or are feeling shy, or recently bet that your tongue wouldn't stick to a frozen metal pole.

I was a little hesitant in my actions, but did manage to procure the prize. We sat at the bar, because when given the opportunity I always sit at the bar, and were startled by how quickly the food arrived. It was accompanied by bottomless, cold, delicious green tea. I was favourably impressed with the quality of my donburi, as well, until I realised that I had basically just eaten a bowl of bacon.

Satisfied and vowing to come back often, we left the shopping district (a grocery store and a 100-yen shop) and headed back in the direction of the school, where we ran into some German girls going to the “Open,” which I guess the students' union puts on to welcome shinnyuusei and dispense information. Since I'm used to being the sole translator, it was a bit of an effort to be as inobtrusive as possible and only help the lower-level ryuugakusei when they were truly stuck, though I couldn't help but showboat a little. Cologne correctly pointed out that if I wanted attention from the girls we were chatting up, I was revealing too much of my hand: It would be better if I spoke only a little Japanese, rather than trying to have actual conversations. As unbelievably sad as that is, he is of course absolutely right.

I eventually left them there because I had an appointment to keep. The fact is, living where I am has started to wear on me. Obviously I wanted to go to Japan, but at the same I very much wanted to leave my shitty little town, so it was with great disappointment that I discovered I'd be living in another shitty little town. With nowhere to go but the international dormitories, I've become trapped in a Gaijin Bubble, spending time with only other foreigners and speaking only English, a situation I specifically wanted to avoid. I literally spent more time with Japanese people in Canada than I have been since I arrived here.

So I called up a friend I have in Kyouto and stopped just short of begging him to hang out with me. He was all too enthusiastic to meet up, having not even realised that I was in Japan, and with us not having seen each other in over a year. I met my first challenge as I boarded the local train station platform and found no clear place to buy a ticket. I'm going to write this out for the benefit of anyone who ever visits smalltown Japan and ends up as baffled by this as I was.

I asked a couple of young guys what was up and they told me that you “buy the ticket on the train” – actually, you just collect it, as you would on the bus. My confusion was not alleviated by the fact that the first machine I located transpired to be broken. Upon arriving at my destination, I physically handed the ticket and accompanying money to a station employee, briefly wondering if the train had passed through a time portal to 1934. Going back you give it to the train operator when you get off, and he can take money and even make change if you've underpaid. Since I last lived here I'd forgotten some of the finer points of riding the train (such as how to read the board and figure out whether it's going to be faster to disembark and wait for a faster train or just stay with the one you're on), but after asking what amounted to a small army of employees where the hell to go I reached my destination, feeling inordinately pleased by my success.

Brains and I agreed to meet in Sanjou, a place that incidentally holds a lot of sentimentality for me from when I studied here in high school. I emerged from Keihan Sanjou and it looked just as it did in my memories. We passed the convenience store where I bought alcohol for the first time in my life, and the riverbank where I drank it; we traversed the intersection where I once saw another high school ryuugakusei, a girl, with her Japanese friends; we ambled by what had once been an umbrella shop, where Soccer bought a defective umbrella. And we also passed masses and masses of cute girls, which was a relief, because although everybody has been telling me that my new school is loaded with them, cruising for bitches has so far proven unsuccessful.

“You know,” I told him, voicing the thought aloud for the first time, “this is the first time since I've arrived that I felt like I was actually in Japan.”

We didn't do anything particularly special – browsed some shops, searched unsuccessfully for a Murakami novel with furigana, ate some food – but I was overjoyed to finally have something happening. After five days, I've finally rediscovered the reason I wanted to come in the first place. I've found the excitement. And although I think it was partially luck I'm now confident I can navigate my way downtown again should I ever suddenly feel the need to escape smalltown suffocation for a few hours. If I have to die, at least me experience stuff like Sanjou a little bit more first. On the way back, I grinned like a moron.


  1. So happy that you got to get out and see stuff!! I'm sure as you make friends you'll get more and more chances to get out of the 'small town' and see more stuff!

  2. Thanks! I'm sure I will too, and hopefully I'll eventually figure out more stuff to do within walking distance as well.