Freedom's Journey sounds like a title of one of Anne McCaffrey's books in the Freedom series. Anyway, this post is long overdue, and I have quite a bit to catch up on. Fortunately I didn't lag too far behind since Facebook's Snowdays allowed me to enter short entries for my stay in Hakuba, Nagano.

Hot Flight
My flight to Japan was rather dull, fortunately. I needed all the rest I could get. With about three hours of sleep, the only thing that got me to the airport and checked in was the emotional high I was still going through from the previous day's events. The flight could have been a little more comfortable though, the person I sat next to wasn't the skinniest in the world and he insisted on taking both armrests. In retrospect, for sitting in the middle seat I guess the least I could have done was give him the armrest without complaint.

More bothersome was the heat, since I sat in the window seat on the Southern side of the plane, I got a full dose of the Sun's rays. And this wasn't just for a portion of the flight, it was during the entire flight given that the plane was basically following the Sun's journey West. Even with the shades drawn, I was baking. Mental note, next time I'll schedule my flights during the evening hours or at the very least pick a seat on the North side of the plane. My problems with heat was also a reoccuring issue in Japan's buses and subways. They just love their heat, while I was baking in a t-shirt, I saw locals rocking full business suits with jackets, or guys with hoodies and bubble jackets. Amazingly enough, none of them were sweating.

High-Five the TSA
In another episode of America's lackluster service industry; it never ceases to amaze me, every time I fly, either an American carrier fails me in some way (see my Bariloche trip), or an American airport rubs me the wrong way. For those of you who travel frequently, I'm sure you have a TSA lock. Otherwise, you wouldn't be able to lock up your belongings as they travel through the airport and onto your plane. The purpose of the TSA lock is to enable you to secure your belongings while giving the authorities a way to access your bags for inspection without cutting your lock. Saves you a bundle of money in the long run since you won't have to purchase a new lock every time the TSA cuts it.

After arriving in Narita and pulling my bag off the conveyor belt, I noticed that both of my straps were unbuckled. Upon closer inspection, I also saw that my lock was missing. Opening up my bag to see whether or not anything was missing, I saw a "Notice of Baggage Inspection" note. Usually when the screener breaks your lock, they place the broken lock in your bag along with the note. I searched through my bag without any luck, the lock was gone. So here's a big thank you for the screeners at JFK. I know you all were so busy keeping our country safe from nasty terrorists (e.g. an American-born citizen) EXPORTING dangerous materials that you didn't have the time to put my lock in or on the bag, and you couldn't be bothered with properly buckling my bag back up.

Automate Automate Automate
Walking out of the luggage claim, I followed Kevin's excellent instructions and eventually made my way to Tokyo where I transferred to a train bound for Nagano. Waiting for my bus to Hakuba, I had my first meal in Japan at the Nagano Train Station. Not knowing the proper way to order at that particular udon shop, I sat down stupidly staring straight ahead until I saw some other diners place their orders at a machine near the entrance. As luck would have it, the entire thing was in Japanese so I had to disturb a fellow diner's meal to ask her to help me out. I pointed to a bowl another diner was having and she quickly pushed the correct button for me.

Another thing about automation, most stores, especially convenience stores have automatic sliding doors. Not too big of a deal, I was exposed to this years ago in Taiwan. But I've gotten so used to it here in Japan that more than once, I bumped right into a door expecting it to automatically open for me when I got close enough to trip the IR or the floor signal. You guys see the Ford Sync commercials? There's one bit where a business woman runs into a door with some coffee spilling it all over herself. Fortunately I haven't done that yet, but if I don't smarten up soon, I might be spilling some of that bottled milk tea I'm addicted to.

An hour and a half later, I arrived in Hakuba where Matt (co-owner of Morino Lodge, where we were staying at; more on them later) and Kevin picked me up. That night, we went out for a meal even though I was stuffed. Honestly, I miss feeling hungry. I've been absolutely stuffed since I landed, I wonder how much weight I've gained so far...

Cultural Differences
Well that's an understatement. Things are very different in Japan compared to the states (duh). For one, everything is insanely orderly. No one jaywalks or walks against traffic. Everyone is perfectly courteous and bowing seems hardwired.

Since movement is reversed from what I grew up with (people stand on the left side and pass on the right, drivers sit on the right side and the streets go in the opposite direction from the states) there were a few times where I looked the wrong way and almost got myself killed. I hope I don't have to go through a similar phase when I re-adapt to the system in the states.

Even with no cars around, people will remain on the street corners until the walk signal comes on. I did notice that a few times I went ahead and crossed small streets before the walk signal was activated, several pedestrians looked at me with envy. I know every part of their body wanted to go ahead and cross the street. An epic battle between street etiquette and their need to make efficient use of time. Luckily, 外国人's like me can get away with breaking the rules (for now).

Though trashcans are tough to find, the streets are spotless. In my first three or four days in Japan, I counted two pieces of garbage on the floor. I'm going to assume the damn foreigners (e.g. me) 'placed' them there. It's pretty shocking if and when I see a local toss something on the street. I almost want to scold them for diminishing my view of this near-Utopian society.

Exceptional service with a smile, and no tip needed! I feel bad for the Japanese folks who come to America. They are in for a rude surprise. Most establishments have mediocre to poor service, and you STILL have to tip! In Japan, excellent service is a given and tipping doesn't exist.

It's weird that up until now, I've never given Japan much thought. Sure I appreciated some of the anime I watched growing up. But I was never as enthralled with Japan as my friends. Now I know better, definitely a fan.

The one thing I don't understand though is why bus stops in Kyoto are in the middle of the street rather than on a corner. Even the names of the bus stops reflect the intersection, so why not stop at the front or end of the street near the intersection, just like NYC? Isn't it harder to navigate the bus into an opening in the middle of the street? If anyone can shed some light on why stopping in the middle of the block works out better, please share.

Snowboarding in Japan (see Snowbook)
[ See next entry, decided to expand on it and make it a full entry. ]