Before I get into raving about how awesome it is to finally be back to my second home, first, some of the negative changes I’ve observed since returning to Kyoto:
• Nikki, a good friend and owner of Nikki’s bar (one of our favorite hangouts) has gone back to Nepal. He’s left the bar in the hands of some friends, but without the big man at the helm things have calmed down a lot and the vibe just isn’t quite the same. The A-Bar dude with the bikini-front T-Shirt has also quit his job, although thankfully the shirt has been passed on to his successor 🙂
• When I first visited Kyoto, I felt like a superstar just because I was foreign. Even at Ritsumeikan University, with its foreign exchange programs, I often felt like a rarity. But over the last 3 years the number of foreigners have drastically increased, to a level that I’d almost describe as shocking. Even Peder noticed a change since he was here just one year ago. Not that I dare say foreigners shouldn’t come to Japan – I just hope 10 years from now it will still feel like the Japan I first fell in love with three years ago…
• It’s a hell of a lot harder to get a prepaid cell phone now than it used to be. Docomo and Willcom don’t seem to offer them at all, and AU’s prepaid phones can’t use email (which is the primary form of communication in Japan). Softbank will only sell two specific models as “prepaid”…of which every single store in Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe is sold out. I’ve probably spent 4-5 solid days trying simply to establish a form of communication. D’oh.
• During all the time I’ve spent living here, I’d never, not once, been asked for spare change by the homeless. Since returning less than a month ago, it’s happened twice. They seem to have especially increased in Osaka, a much larger city than Kyoto. What’s going on here…?
• When I first came to Kyoto, the riverbanks of Kamogawa were lined with students shooting off fireworks and having a great time. But in the last year the police have cracked down, and fireworks are nowhere to be seen. BBQ’s have also been outlawed, replaced with rows of “NO FIREWORKS, NO BBQs” signs. And the once all-night raves at Suma Beach have been limited to 9pm. Why??
• I don’t think I even need to mention the theft of my backpack in Osaka a couple weeks ago. What a shame. Theft was once unheard of in Japan. I wonder if it’s any coincidence that the place it got stolen was アメリカ村, the area with the highest foreign population outside of Roppongi…?
But for as many ways as Japan seems to have been slowly sliding downhill, there are the ways in which it’s just as amazing as ever.
The cleanliness, the beautiful temples, the friendly people, and the perfect manners. I’d gotten so used to walking into McDonald’s and having a disgruntled, overweight, smelly employee just barely acknowledge my presence with a slight nod before barking my total and giving me the wrong change. Here, I wander into モスバーガー to a chorus of cute, beaming young Japanese servers bowing and catering to my every need. The amount I pay: exactly what it says on the menu. None of this “The menu says $10, but when your check comes, you actually have to pay $10 + $8.25% tax + $15% obligatory tip (satisfactory service or not).”
Asking for directions from a store clerk results in a new friend scurrying outside to accompany you all the way to your destination – ensuring that you don’t get lost.
Thirsty? Grab a quick drink from one of the billion vending machines on every corner. Hungry? Pop into the next combini, never more than a few paces away.
How about transportation? No more sitting on a freeway in a pollution-producing tin can, pumping billions into the oil industry; instead I hop on my bicycle, which has been waiting patiently for my return. On the way to my destination I enjoy fresh air, get a bit of exercise, and smile back at the locals at each and every stoplight. And for longer distances, there’s always the expansive and efficient rail network – always right on time just like clockwork.
Of course neither Peder nor myself can stop being shocked by the percentage of absolutely stunning women who populate the streets of downtown. Somehow you just never get used to it. Stian, too, whose visit to Japan was his first time outside of Europe, spent much of the time just sitting and peoplewatching…with his eyes bulging about ten inches outside of his head. Programming at Starbuck’s is a constant distraction; if I ever want to get any work done, I have to sit in the corner…and wear headphones.
Our first night out in Kyoto Peder and I hit all of our regular spots: Kamogawa, Nikki’s Bar, A-Bar, Hub, Sam & Dave’s, Hamid-Kebab, and a quick stop outside of Club World to see if there was an event worth visiting. It was the first night back, yet I still ran into eleven friends and acquaintances before the sun started to rise. It felt just great to be walking down those so-familiar streets and hear an excited shout of ジャスティン！！！いつ帰ってきた！？ Or to step into A-Bar and have the 2 Kosuke’s fly out of their seats and pounce on me with an empty beer mug that was soon overflowing onto the floor. Or to walk into Sam & Dave’s and have my first Andy Special in a year – the drink invented just for Peder and I early last Fall (by the head bartender, Andy). Even my hairstylist, who I visited the following week, remembered exactly how I liked it (no more ridiculous fro on Justin!)
Yes, the weather may be crappy, the gyms may be overpriced, and the apartments may be cramped, but I’ll tell ya, it’s really great to see that even after so many months away…I’m still just as much a part of Kyoto as when I left.