My first time was many things. It was festive. Explosive. It was petrifying and uncomfortable, yet playful and delicious. There was unavoidable nudity. There were exhilarating moments and traumatizing ones.
If you’re on your way to being slightly to moderately horrified, tantalizingly curious, and/or overcome with awkwardness at what I’m about to say, you’re on the right track to understanding how I was feeling in many of my Japan firsts thus far. My first time was many things, because there were many firsts:
First time driving on the wrong side of the road
In Japan they drive on the left side of the road. In Canada, we drive on the right side of the road. It’s no coincidence that the word “right” in terms of road position, and “right” in terms of correctness, are one and the same. It took a little getting used to, okay I’ll be honest the first time I drove the car home I was bordering on petrified. Yet worries about lane position, right hand turns and narrow Japanese streets paled in comparison to the frustration of the freaking windshield wipers coming on every time I tried to use the turn signal. To use Jordan’s words, “Every dry scrape of the wipers screams, ‘Look out, gaijin coming!'”
It was festive all right. There was dancing, dancing, and more dancing – in the lovely 39 degree 90 per cent humidity weather no less. I watched fellow foreign women get cinched up in yukatas (summer kimonos), which involves something like the Japanese equivalent of a corset. I decided not to subject myself to that anytime soon, and instead sought cultural immersion through other means. Namely, partaking of the delicious festival foods without reservation – choco banana and yakisoba and pineapple, oh my!
First Japanese public… shower
Enter the nudity. I was warned well in advance about the protocol of onsens (public baths)… no bathing suits allowed. In case I was still naive of this, a helpful informative video demonstrated this for us: large flashing red Xs communicated the unwelcomeness of bathing suits, towels, and cannonballs in the onsen. Regardless of being forewarned, I still didn’t fancy the idea of public nudity anymore than the time I inadvertently discovered Wreck Beach. Luckily, I also couldn’t wear my glasses, and being near-blind without them, I was able to operate on the toddler’s golden rule: if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. After all the mental preparation, and going the physical distance of baring it all, the bath itself wasn’t even open. All that just to shower uncomfortably with a bunch of strangers.
First Japanese morning exercise
As a writer I try not to say this often, but words can’t do this justice. Look up “Japanese morning exercise” or “radio taiso” on YouTube and you’ll get the idea. Basically everyone goes into a large open area, such as a sports field or tennis court, and exercises to a soundtrack of a guy energetically grunting instructions. Yes, it’s possible to grunt energetically. Our exhilarating experience was made even better by the yellow-shirted Kyoto man who volunteered to lead our exercise – he was so animated and over the top that we wondered how he didn’t already have his own TV show. I’d watch it every day.
First cat café
It was kind of like a kitty brothel. You pay by the half hour to sit inside a small, carpeted room and hang out with kittens. They were insanely cute, playful, and so full of energy I swear they were on kitty crack. It’s possible they were forced into catnip addiction, now that I think of it. Cute as they are, though, their love for you is very utilitarian. You are a customer to be entertained, and to entertain, nothing more. They didn’t take well to my attempts to cuddle them; if I wasn’t flinging a fake fluffy mouse around wildly, they weren’t interested.
The best part about the fireworks was watching the little Japanese kids watch the fireworks. Unabashed exclamations of glee at every explosive display. The second best part was that we managed to procure tickets to the VIP section reserved for event organizers and performers. The Yokkaichi Fireworks Festival was by far the longest-running fireworks I’ve seen. It’s no “Festival of Lights,” mind you – nobody spilling beer on me or blowing illegal substances in my face or making out in front of me or threatening to beat me up for existing. In fact, But there was an Avril Lavigne song played at one point in the background, a little taste of Canada.
For every first described here, there are many more I haven’t bothered or couldn’t bear to mention, and likely countless more yet to come. For some, I hope the innocent exhilaration will carry forward into times two and three, but for the others (mostly left undisclosed here on the interwebs – ask me yourself if you want to know), I’d prefer not to repeat the trauma more than necessary.