When I’d first arrived in Japan and my internal clock was still a bit skewed, I awoke in Ikebukuro at 5:00 a.m. one morning and decided to go out to get breakfast. It was my first meal in Japan, something that I’d avoided (to my stomach’s dissatisfaction) due to the simple fact that I had no clue where to eat. After a bit of wandering, I somehow ended up at a hit and run breakfast place. It was designed specifically for the on-the-go business type who wants to skip a “To go” meal at his/her local McDonalds and opt for something a bit more healthy. At this type of restaurant, one selects and pays for their meal at a vending machine in the front of the shop, sits down at a table with their receipt ticket, and is served a homemade meal. I’d never heard of this style restaurant in my endless attempt to prepare myself before crossing the Pacific. Little did I know, but this experience would repeat itself many times over as I became acquainted with a country no amount of research had been able to prepare me for.
Unfortunately, but maybe fortunately, the hardest thing I’ve encountered living in a new country is quite simple not knowing what anything or where anything is. Specifically, what places sell what, where I can find that, etc. The intangible database of acquired phone book knowledge one accumulates throughout their entire life is utterly useless in a foreign country. While I had an idea of this before coming, I shrugged it off as something that would work itself out. But, beginning my extended stay in Japan, I realized just how much I relied on the existence of various corporations for everyday living.
Even before my first early morning breakfast, I was faced with a bit of a problem. My DSLR malfunctioned at the airport, and I was completely wrecked. Even with the directions I eventually scored form the internet, it took a week and three trips to Shinjuku to finally find the Canon repair center situated in the lower-level first floor of an intimidating office building. Not knowing where to go or who/how to ask is the most difficult thing I’ve encountered here. Especially if one is virtually illiterate due to a language change, getting around and getting things done can be a bit daunting.
If I’ve learned anything thus far, living in foreign countries takes a willingness to discover and, simply enough, try new things. The big difficulties are, ironically, the small things, the everyday things, the things that no one cares to document for your nervous internet-combing needs. Though there are many maps of it, there’s no guide on how to use the subway, no one to tell you about Suica or Passmo cards, that Seiyu is Japan’s Walmart, that you can’t stand on the right side of escalators, or that there are two lines for every train door, one that stands to the left of the doors when they open, the other to the right.
No matter how many opinions on the country and its citizens I found, there was simply nothing that prepared me for actually living in Japan. Rather than sucking in the opinions and judgements of Japanese people and culture from other foreigners or long-stayers, my advice to anyone looking to or in preparation for staying in Japan would be to simply work on your Japanese. Speaking the native language is the only tool that can possibly help you navigate the hectic metropolis that is Tokyo, and is… really the only way, when combined with an adventurous initiative, to survive in Japan.