The morning I left, I headed out for the airport, nervous and excited. I had flown alone many times, but I had never been to Japan (I also couldn't speak Japanese, but I was overlooking that slight problem). I had a quick one hour flight to San Francisco, and then a two and a half hour layover until the 12 hour slog to Osaka. Ready to begin my tearful farewells to my family, I stepped up to the ticket counter.
"We're sorry, but due to fog in San Francisco, your flight has been delayed."
"How long has it been delayed?"
"We're not sure yet. When the fog lifts, San Francisco will let us know."
Well great. This was a good way to start. In the end, the flight was delayed for two hours, giving me only thirty minutes to get to the international terminal in SFO. Which, if you've been there, you'll know is quite the undertaking. I don't usually check baggage on international flights, which in this instance was good and bad. Good because it would never have made it onto the flight to Osaka, leaving me to start my new life with whatever would fit in my computer case. The bad? Picture me, hauling down the international terminal, suitcase in hand as the intercom calls my name, warning me that if I don't get my booty on the plane, it will leave without me. If you've never been the subject of a PA call telling you you're late for your flight before, trust me. Not a good feeling.
I barely made it, and it couldn't be more clear that they had been waiting for me. As soon as I was on board the flight staff made their final checks, and I walked the length of the plane with the glares of delayed passengers following me to my seat. While I really didn't want to piss off the hundreds of others that I would spend the next 12 hours with, I was extremely happy to make the flight. I was on my way to Japan.
That could probably be said to be the longest flight of my life. It's a long flight under any circumstances, and such a major life change as this gave me plenty of time to rethink my decision to move across the ocean to a country I had never been to that spoke a language I had never studied. Long before I was born my parents had lived in Japan, and my childhood had been full of Japanese things, photos, music. It was because of that I had wanted to go to Japan in the first place, but now, the closer the plane got to our destination, the more nervous I became. Finally, we landed at Kansai Internation Airport, outside of Osaka. That, I knew was the easy part. From here, I had two train rides ahead of me, plus navigating two train stations.
The train from Kansai Airport was easier than I expected. It took about an hour, and I found myself in Shin-Osaka station. This was the hard one. It's a huge (and I mean HUGE) station, including subways, local trains and bullet trains, and I had five minutes to get from where my train arrived to where my bullet train would depart. Luckily for me, a very kind family, also from America, who lived in Osaka took pity on me and gave me great instructions on how to get to the platform I needed to go to. Still, once again I found myself racing to catch my train with suitcase in tow... and again, I just made it. From here, the only hard part was staying awake so as to not miss my stop. I managed somehow, and before I knew it, I was off the train and standing in Fukuyama, my new home. As I left the train, three ladies in kimono pushed their way past me. So much for never seeing a kimono. Realizing that everything I had ever heard about Japan was probably wrong, I followed the ladies down the escalator to meet my manager, Lisa, who was supposed to be waiting for me outside the ticket gates. As I headed down, I realized that I didn't know what she looked like. How, I wondered, would I know who she was? But, there was no need to worry. I may not have known what she looked like, but she knew my face from my resume (not to mention that I was the only non-Japanese person coming off the trains). As I walked for the ticket gate, I could see her, waving at me.
"You must be hungry!" she said as we walked towards the doors out of the station. "Let's drop your stuff off at your apartment and then get something to eat. We live close to each other, and it's not so far, so it won't take long to walk there." We stepped out of the station, and directly in front of us was a giant (or so I thought) castle, lit up beautifully in the night. It was amazing.
Just as Lisa had said, our apartments were fairly close, about a fifteen minute walk. It was towards the end of October, which is a great season in Japan, and the weather was nice, making the walk rather pleasant. My new apartment was larger than I had imagined, though completely empty of furniture except for a futon set borrowed from my company, an old TV set, and a low table called a kotatsu.
We had dinner at the neighborhood izakaya, which is a Japanese pub-ish kind of place, lots of emphasis on alcohol and food that matches it. I asked Lisa to order for us, since I didn't know anything on the menu.
The first thing she ordered was "shishamon", little fish that are fried and served five to a plate. Whole. With their heads on and everything. Pushing the plate towards me, Lisa smiled. "Eat them while they're hot!" she said as she grabbed one for herself. Gingerly I took one myself. I figured if I just snarfed it headfirst, at least it would stop staring at me. And the truth is, it was pretty delicious. Lisa smiled again.
"Welcome to Japan!"