I've got to tell the story of how we found Desmond's kindergarten here in Higashimurayama. Basically, we came to Japan not knowing what school he would be attending and kind of just stumbled upon Seishin Kindergarten, which is amazing. I'll write a lengthy post about it, but right now, I have to document what a crazy physical and emotional transformation Desmond has gone through in the last 6 months.
Yes, those are indoor shoes that they have. These get sent home every weekend to be cleaned. More schools should do this.
One of the things I love about Japan is that there is a pervasive sense of harmony in everything: from the bonsai-like way that homeowners cultivate the trees in their yards to the way they interact with strangers. The social contract, dead in many countries I have visited, is alive and well in Japan and that is what has made it such a wonderful place to live.
Don't get me wrong, I appreciate and sometimes relish the chaos and who-gives-a-shit attitude that is found in many developing countries; as an American, I have a strongly rooted sense of independence, of a you-can't-tell-me-what-to-do attitude, which causes a part of me to rejoice when I'm visiting family in Colombia or Dominican Republic. But sometimes, I yearn for order, quiet, peace, and common courtesy. The Japanese are masters of this art form. They greatly value social cohesion and harmony and go out of their way to make sure that they are not inconveniencing their neighbors.
Below are some examples of the way this social contract plays out in every day Japanese life:
Look! Presents for the garbage trucks! This is how nicely packaged trash is in our neighborhood. It is never just strewn about. Twice now, crows or other animals have ripped open our garbage bags and have strewn our garbage all over the street and twice have our neighbors cleaned it up for us before we even noticed what happened.
There is never any litter anywhere. And you know what else is missing? Trash cans. There are hardly any public trash cans. So, what are you to do if you go to the park, have a picnic, and have a ton of trash? You take it home with you. The streets in my neighborhood are so clean that I let my kids eat the food that they accidentally drop on it. Kidding, kidding. Not really.
There is a button on most toilets that makes a flushing or running water sound so that you don't embarrass yourself or others when you're using the bathroom. Sometimes, the sound automatically comes on. Additionally, I have yet to see one really dirty public toilet during my time here. And, most toilets have heated seats! I've gotten so used to them now that when my bum encounters an unheated seat, I feel immense shock at first and then indignation. How dare they install a toilet without a seat warmer!
When we first arrived in Japan, we were in shock at how quiet it was on the trains. It took a few weeks to get used to and to modulate our loud voices to a more Japanese-approved whisper. This picture showcases just how orderly and quiet and NICE riding on a Japanese train can be. They even urge passengers to set their phones to "manners mode," which means ringer off and no talking on your phone. Some seats even prohibit you from using your phone at all. (Desmond saw one of his friends on the other carriage and was waving to him, quietly.)
This is probably my favorite part of the Japanese culture, and although not necessarily considered something that is a social contract, it helps to form, from a very young age, the basis of a social contract: iIt shows such great respect for the person with whom you are interacting. Everyone here bows: older people walking down the street, people on bikes, younger adults with each other, even Des is learning how to bow at his kindergarten. I bow ALL the time. Even when I'm on the phone. Talking to a customer service rep. From America. It's quite absurd, but it rubs off on you and you just find yourself doing it all the time. There are a bunch of rules concerning bowing, but the Japanese are very forgiving of visitors' ignorance. What you DON'T want to do is to put your hands in prayer position and bow (like they do in Thailand and other Asian countries), but other than that, bowing whenever you receive a bow or any other time you want to say thank you or excuse me or I'm sorry is a good idea.
Lots of people here also wear face masks not so that they can avoid getting sick, but to keep from spreading their illness to others. (These are different than the breathing devices worn in cities like Beijing, which are specially equipped with filters to help filter out the pollutants in the air). In Japan, it is socially expected that if you are sick, you will do what you can to prevent the infection of others. When Desmond contracted the flu, he was not allowed back at school until he had gone 3 consecutive days with no fever. They even canceled school (only for his class) to contain the spread of the virus.
Like I said before, there are times when I wish I could just surreptitiously leave my used tissue on the park bench or "forget" to take off my toddler's shoes when they're standing on the train seats. However, I'll take those minor restrictions on my ability to do whatever the hell I want so that I can live in peace and harmony and without the gross catcalling I get in other countries (I'll have to write about THAT topic in another post).
Long story short, Japan is really, truly amazing. Come visit.
It's circa 1988, Saturday morning. I'm flipping through the channels as my 5-year-old little brother practices fake-punching an invisible intruder. My mom is fixing lunch. It's too hot to play outside and the thought of taking us to the beach, again, fills my mom with dread. So, she allows us to stay in our pajamas and watch TV all day (ah...the 80s).
As I flip through the channels, my little brother yells, "Stop! Go back, go back! There!" A scene comes on of Ralph Macchio being beat up by the Cobra Kai dojo kids. "Put him in a body bag!" yells one of the guys beating him up. I sat up, attention grabbed by the events that unfolded before me. We beg my mom to let us rent the sequel and watched that, too. I sat there, wishing that I could be the Japanese girl that Daniel-san falls for, who shares a romantic tea ceremony with him by the ocean. I wanted to be in the audience in the scene where everyone starts rolling the little drums in between their hands when it seems like Daniel is going to be beaten. I was enamored. To this day, I credit The Karate Kid Part 2 as the basis for my affinity for and curiosity of Japan and Japanese culture. That and sushi, of course.
Fast forward almost 30 years and I'm here, living out an almost life-long desire to live in Japan.
In the month that we have been here, Japan has far exceeded my expectations. My expectations were that it would be so expensive to just get by here, that the Japanese people would be cold towards foreigners (especially Americans because of this and other reasons), and that navigating a country where I can't read nor speak the language would meant that we would spend most of our time lost and confused.
New language? No big deal. An alphabet that I don't recognize? I could handle it. New public transportation system to learn? I got this. 11-hour flight with two rambunctious and stubborn little boys? Holy mother of God. Not much scares me these days: raising Desmond has provided me a life with a level of risk-taking that I would never have felt comfortable with before. But the thought of being enclosed in a 5x3 foot space with my two kids had me peeing my pants (more than normal).
I wasn't too worried about Desmond handling that much time in an airplane. He is pretty self-sufficient and can stare at a screen for a long time. What worried me most is that he would have a night terror and we would be unable to calm him down while he screamed for 15 or 20 minutes at the top of his lungs. I figured that it was not that probable that he would get one since he only gets them once ever few months (but they occur for 3-4 consecutive nights), but I knew...just KNEW...that wishing for it not to happen would mean that it would.
Roman, however, concerned me on a different level. He's 1.5 years old. And kind of fat. That means that this chunky toddler wants to be mobile and wants to touch all the buttons and pull the window shade up and down and up and down. He wants to rip the pages out of the airline magazine, he won't wear the baby seat belt, and he throws huge fits when he isn't comfortable while sleeping. I stressed about packing a carry-on bag with enough "essentials" to keep him calm and happy. What kind of snacks should I bring? What apps should I put on his mini-tablet? What about this? And that? And maybe this? AAAAAHHHHH!
So, that meant that instead of enjoying my last few days in the States, I was worried about things that could or could not happen in the future. What a waste of time, right?
Thankfully, both kids did amazingly well on the flight. We were lucky that the flight mirrored their sleep patterns, so it was relatively easy to ease into the time change.
(For those of you interested, here's how we did it: our flight left LAX at 330pm and as soon as the plane took off, Roman fell asleep. He slept for 1.5 hours and was awake for the next 5 hours, meaning that he fell asleep at 10 pm. He and Desmond both slept from 10 pm until the plane landed 3 am LA time (7 pm Japan time). They slept on the 2-hour bus ride from Narita to Higashimurayama. We were all awake until about 1:30 am Japan time and woke up at 6 am).
My point is, I really worried over nothing. I was well prepared with an iPad for Des and a mini-tablet for Roman, stock full of new apps and movies. Singapore Airlines (rated the #1 international airline in the world) is one hell of an airline and does a really great job providing its customers with "extras" we would have had to pay for if we were on any American airline. We were given bulkhead seats since those can accommodate a bassinet, special children's toys and meals, and excellent entertainment options. The food was very good for airplane food, especially more so since I ordered the vegan option. And the flight attendants were all dressed very nicely: the women in a traditional patterned dress and the men in nice slacks and sweaters. I'm not sure why that matters, but it makes flying feel fancier than it has been for me in the States. Needless to say, I was very impressed.
I'm crossing my fingers that this easy, dare I say enjoyable, flight is a harbinger for how easy and enjoyable our stay in Japan will be.
Just a girl living her dream: traveling this amazing world with her husband and her two awesome sons.