Today’s 8-Minute Memoir writing prompt, via Ann Dee Ellis, is adventure, which immediately brought to mind my exchange trips to Japan. I went three different times, but the biggest adventure was the first trip in 2003, when we seemed to used every form of transportation known to humanity to get to and around Japan. Walking, running, trains, trams, subways, buses, bullet trains, airplanes– including one that took over an hour to load and unload because it was so big—taxis, bicycles, and even rickshaws.
Day 4: Umeda
The purpose of the trip was a short term exchange between my university and one in Osaka Japan. A coworker and I took a group of twenty or so students on a cultural excursion that also included visiting area schools. Americans have all sorts of ideas about Japanese education: we believe that every Japanese child wears a uniform to school’ that schools run 12 hours a day six days a week; that the Japanese are rigid and rigorous, with no tolerance for mistakes; and that Japanese children are taught math and science had a very young age by focusing on an oppressive curriculum that makes them better at numbers but weak in other curricula.
Most of those ideas turned out to be myths. We would soon learn that Japanese public schools are in session five days a week. They start at 8:30 AM and go until 3:30 PM. Children take an hour of math each day, but they also have an hour of music and an hour of swimming (until high school). They wear uniforms, yes, but everyone in Japan wears a uniform to designate their profession. You can tell at a glance what someone does for a living. Even the Yakuza (mafia), dress in a very specific way. Uniforms are part of the country’s culture, not something that makes the Japanese schools special. In fact, the Japanese schools look very much like American schools did post World War II. The structure Japanese public schools was influence by the American government that occupied Japan after the war. Children are not pushed harder in mathematics and science than other areas. They are simply taught well and more efficiently, using methods that engage them. In Japanese elementary schools, there is no more stress on mathematics then there is on swimming or music or even lunch, which they’re allowed to enjoy at a leisurely pace. At the high school level, when the school day is over, there are two hours of afterschool clubs–schools don’t have extracurricular sports or competition against other schools. And here’s the strangest things to our Americans teachers–there are no janitors. The children are responsible for cleaning up their own classrooms, as well as school grounds.
But back to the trip itself: My first impression of Japan when we landed in the Osaka airport was, man, that is a lot of concrete! The Kobe/Osaka area is a major shipping port, and the terrain is decorated with shipping containers, huge cranes that number in the thousands, and mile after mile of busy traffic. I’m not sure I saw a tree in the hour it took us to reach our hotel in Osaka. Not that Japan doesn’t have trees–the cities of Nora and are very beautiful, and the rural areas have forests. Osaka, though, is the most urban places I have ever visited, even more than New York.
Our hotel was a tiny place, the Hotel Green Plaza, near the Umeda district of Osaka. Little did we realize hotel that we had landed ourselves in the funkiest part of the city, near one of the biggest busiest train stations and several huge department stores, which put American department stores to shame. The area around Umeda is a warren of skyscapers, train tracks, and buildings built under the train tracks. Roads are labyrinths, more like paved trails, and the people are as unique as any groups in japan.
As we walked to our hotel, I was fascinated to see a Starbucks, two McDonald’s, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. After we had checked in, we decided to get dinner. Some of the students chose the familiar golden arches, and the rest of us went to a little place at the end of an alley On the way, I stopped at a vending machine and bought myself a can of beer. It was not a great beer, but it was cold, and it was my introduction to the vending machine culture of Japan.
Dinner was a pork cutlet with rice and brown curry sauce, ordered from a vending machine that spit out a ticket that we gave to the guy behind the counter. A waiter came around and poured green from a plastic pitcher, free like water in the US. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Family Mart, a convenience store like a 7-Eleven, where we bought corn bread (a piece of bread with corn kernels on the top), Diet Coke, and what I thought were gummy bears. Turned out, the gummies were made from squid, and the corn bread tasted like, yep, white bread with cold corn. The Diet Coke, though, tasted like home. There were a lot more adventures over the next two weeks, but I will remember that first night during the muggy monsoon season in Osaka Japan, walking at night, the noises of traffic and trains, eating brown curry with squid gummies, and drinking Diet Coke half a world away.