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 arrival

kugatsu 28 (sept)
Five years ago
, when I had decided to work and travel internationally, I had had Asia in my sights from the beginning but got sidetracked by interesting opportunities in Guatemala and Prague that were a good fit for me at the time. Never having visited the Far East, it was now time to see that part of the world. I accepted a contract with a recruiting company that hires foreign teachers to teach English in Japan. As before, I chose a group that helped with the arrangements, so upon arrival, I had a visa, a job, a place to live, and someone to meet me at the airport. Here we go again!

Only 25 minutes by train from Shinjuku, the major hub in downtown Tokyo, I am living in a small suburb with an urban neighborhood feel. In my first morning walk, I took in the little world of Fuchu. Small office and apartment buildings are interspersed with shops, bars, restaurants - some modern and sleek looking; some with character, bamboo and wood; others aging but well cared for, like a wrinkled, old relative. A steady stream of bicycles negotiate their way down the sidewalks; it's best to keep left (as driving is also on the left side of the road). Although some riders have ching-ching bells, most will just wait patiently until you notice them and move over. Some streets are too narrow for sidewalks. Many older ladies carry an umbrella like a parasol to shield the sun from their fair skin, a few people wear SARS style paper facemasks in the open air. At one end of the main tree lined street, I visited my first shrine, a peaceful place in greens and browns, picking up a souvenir thick-toed ginko leaf to take home.

I had studied some phrases and listened to tapes before coming, so I have some basic communication building blocks. But I'm finding that there's a definite disadvantage in not being able to read written Japanese. English is sometimes found on bilingual signs in Tokyo, but there aren't many signs in English in Fuchu. Colorful vertical store signs and banners with calligraphy look like flags waving, perhaps even more beautiful without meaning. Fluttering and lettered signs on little rectangles of paper or cloth hang lined up on windows or from awnings, advertising specials or sales. The cuisine is light and subtly delicious. Soupy noodle bowls, rice, vegetables, tempura, seafood, often exquisitely served. And warm sake (rice wine)… Finally I've settled somewhere where I truly love the food!

My apartment is the smallest I've lived in since college; in fact, it resembles a dorm room for one with my own little bath with flexible shower hose. It's the size of 8 tatami mats, as things are measured here. A narrow balcony beams in mostly cloudy light from the outside world. The hallway kitchen holds a mini refrigerator, microwave, teapot, washing machine, and a one burner stove with no oven. The rice cooker makes perfect white rice, even with just half a cup. There's a wok type pan and a deeper saucepan. But there's no kitchen counter and no table to sit at, just a desk attached to a low dresser (dorm style), single bed with duvet, and one each chair, fork, spoon, cooking knife and rice paddle. I picked up a cheap clay rice bowl, an iron and an intensity lamp for reading in bed. Simple, efficient, cozy.

Our genial group of teachers, mostly young, hail from a variety of English speaking countries: British isles, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and the States. Our contact, a sweet young woman, walked us through getting our papers in order at various offices around town and escorted us to two days of orientation and training in Tokyo. I have already made a good friend, another Australian teacher and sometime actress my age. My classes start tomorrow at a women's university in a nearby town.

Last night, as I emerged from the train station to the "tree street" (street name signs in English cannot be found, and few even in Japanese), tangy strains of flute and drum drifted by in the cool night air. In the road towards the shrine were red wooden carts decorated with mounted lanterns, performers inside - one with musicians, the other with masked children dancing. At several times later in the evening, the same peculiar melody floated up through my balcony window. The carts were being pulled round and around the town streets accompanied by revelers.

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