Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lost in Japan (literally)

I have to preface this post by stating that I'm still sleep deprived and suffering from a dose of culture shock.  Hopefully, I can express some coherent thoughts, but don't count on it.

I have been to Tokyo before this trip, but never with kids.  That difference alone changes my perspective.  Japan is a beautiful country with friendly people.  Few people speak English, or at least, they don't want to admit that they do.  To date, the people we have met have been unfailingly gracious and helpful.  They seem to forgive us for our ignorance of Japanese customs and smile at our rudimentary attempts to speak the phrases and words we have managed to teach ourselves but mangle when we open our mouths.  In spite of the tolerance shown, I have to admit I feel like a royal schmuck a good portion of the day.

The subway system is like nothing I have ever encountered.  Now I have traveled my fair share of the world and have navigated the Metro and the Tube with ease.  Not so the Tokyo train system.  To start, it is ENORMOUS and intimidating.  I knew I was in trouble when I saw locals consulting the map with furrowed brows and asking the train officials for help.  The system is so vast that it doesn't fit on two subway maps, let alone one.  Thankfully, we were able to purchase Suica cards which allows us to put money on it from which the ticket machines automatically deduct the correct fare.  These cards took out one element of confusion because trying to calculate our fares was mind boggling. We would both be hovering over a fare calculator, scratching our heads, with a vacant stare, looking around desperately for someone to help us.  So our Suica cards have been our best friends in Japan.  

It becomes really entertaining when you see me trying to handle changing subway lines with a stroller and two toddlers in tow.  Many of the subways have only stairs and some lines are deep, deep, down underground.  Thankfully Sophia has been very good about sticking close to my side and holding my hand and the endless stairs (while carrying Keenan and stroller) ensure I don't have to worry too much about whether I got my run in that morning.

Yesterday, I was walking back from the grocery store, and as I was looking around at the local shops, it hit me.   I was a stranger in a strange land.  I had the feeling of excitement that comes with conquering the very little things like figuring out how to properly give the clerk cash (believe me, there is an art form to it), or using the washing machine with instructions strictly in Japanese, or figuring out what all those buttons on the toilet do (if you can believe, there are about ten of them).The excitement was tempered with a feeling of isolation and not being connected to the world that was going on around me.  Which brings me to my next point. Being a minority.

By our appearance alone, we stick out like sore thumbs, no surprise there.  But we are also cradling two Asian children and the looks of curiosity and disbelief can be a little unsettling at times.  I can't blame anyone for being bewildered and most people are too polite to give us gaping stares.  For the most part, it is much more subtle than that, but you can feel it all the same.  The most disconcerting experience happened in a nearby playground.  A Japanese woman started to follow us around and eventually went up to a groundskeeper (not so subtly pointing us out). We got the feeling she thought we might have stolen some kids and it made me grateful I had all of our passports tucked into my money pouch, lest we get questioned by the local police.  Whatever the groundskeeper said to her, seemed to ease her mind, but she continued to watch us intently as we took our leave.   

The kids have had no problems meeting the local children. There is some confusion when Keenan asks (as he does nearly every time), "what's your name?"  But nothing was funnier than the time he posed that question to the Mother of a little girl (whom he was playing in the sandbox with).  Her response was "You" (not sure how it would be written in Japanese).  Keenan looked befuddled and said, "no, what's HER name?"  The mother obviously spoke some English because she laughed and told him a longer version of the girl's name (which did not sound so much like 'You').  It was an Abbot and Costello moment to be sure.  At any rate, playing and having fun seem to be universal and aside from Keenan tending to run other kids over (he just doesn't look where he is going), they have been getting on just fine.  

We took the kids to Disneyland. It was their first time there. Colin had to work, so it was just me, Colin's Mom, and the kids. We had a great time.  The kids were on their best behavior and the Teacups, the Carousel and the It's a Small World ride were huge hits.  Pirates of the Caribbean was well liked by Keenan but was met with lots of tears and screams from Sophia. Suffice to say, we won't be taking her back on that ride anytime soon. 

Yesterday, we took the kids to a working farm that is also an enormous playground for kids. They got to feed the cows and the sheep and eat ice cream made from the milk the farm cows produced.  They climbed, slid and ran.  I have never seen slides as big.  They were called roller slides.  Indeed, you sat on rollers and rolled your way down the very long slide.  Most didn't go very fast, but the kids seemed to love them anyway.

Unfortunately, the kids have both hit a rough patch and their mercurial moods have made for some challenging days.  Sophia will be sweet as apple pie one moment, and defiant and mouthy the next.  Keenan swings between easy going and super sized temper tantrums when something doesn't go his way.  Oh, and he doesn't listen.... I mean, ever!  I recognize that the kids have been through a lot of upheaval in the past six weeks and they are dealing with their own anxiety about being in an unfamiliar place.  They have been thrilled to see Colin and say they do not want to go back home.  So I imagine that with a little time, things will work themselves out and everyone will settle down.  Of course, just when that happens, it will probably be time to go home. One of life's little ironies.

In the meantime, I'm taking it all in, figuring out how to get from point A to point B.  We'll surely get there, wherever there is. After all, isn't the name of this blog "From Here to There?",  At the moment, I'm approaching my life a little like I do the subway.  Figure out where I want to go, come up with a plan, revise that plan when I miss my stop, go the wrong direction or get on the wrong line all together and eventually, arriving where I need to be.

This is an exciting adventure that I didn't have in my play book, of course, few things in life are what we intend.  But it has been my experience that the detours I have taken often prove to be more interesting than the course I had intended. Such is life. 


At 11:08 PM, Blogger Donna said...

What a fun read!

We just decided that next year's vacation is likely to be Japan so I'm going to be following your blog closely!

Did you notice that there's a subway just for women? Andrew told me that they set that up because the women were getting groped! Yikes!



At 8:32 AM, Blogger Kimber and Chris said...

you are such a warrior- I love the last paragraph! so true! I am sure the last thing you want to do upon returning home is travel again- but sure do hope to see you by June 15th!

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Michelle said...

Sounds like an adventure! Could it be possible that you get a lot of stares because they think you're Cameron Diaz? It's happened before :)

Hope all is well, miss you!


At 4:28 PM, Blogger Tamara said...

I have to agree- It sounds like a great adventure- and what a wonderful experience.
Enjoy the rest of your stay!


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