After 13 hours in an airplane seat, followed by an hour and a half taxi ride, my wife and I arrived in Kyoto, Japan where we will be living and researching cat cognition for the next three months. At this point, a lifelong dream was at once achieved, but also just beginning. Despite many years of preparing for this event, the first week has been one of continual learning and adapting.
Over the last decade of my life, I have traveled all over the U.S. and Ontario as an environmental consultant and technician. I have slept deep in the rainforests of Costa Rica, climbed unexcavated pyramids in the Yucatan Peninsula, and used Spanish to learn basic Mayan while rebuilding livestock enclosures.
Now in a land that has three distinct writing systems – grammatical structures vastly different than any Germanic or Romance language – and social customs that one is often hard-pressed to infer, I lean heavily on these experiences.
Already I have made a taxi driver uncomfortable by using a much too formal “thank you,” even after he missed our stop, created an awkward moment at dinner by shaking a student’s hand rather than bowing or nodding to her, and been painfully aware of being the only person on a packed train car with facial hair.
However, for every blunder I make, I find that both people we work with and people on the streets are incredibly accommodating. Two high school students I looked to for help while riding a train literally stopped what they were doing, took me to another station, rode with me to the next stop, and made sure I was on the right train before bowing to me – they accepted only a modest “arigato” before disappearing back into the mix.
Beyond the social interactions, what really blows me away is the food. Everything is healthy. Even the fast food shop across the street offers bento boxes balanced with fish, vegetables, and rice. My favorite restaurant so far is a chain called, YaYoi that offers teishoku – a flavorfully and nutritionally balanced style of meal consisting of rice, miso soup, tofu, and a main dish like fish or eggplant, and chicken in small portions.
If you are on the go, there are vending machines on every corner, in alleys, in front of stores, in the subway, and even in neighborhoods. They sell hot and cold drinks, with some carrying premium beverages and some offering only discount juice, but one does not simply get a drink to-go. Almost never do you see someone walking down the sidewalk eating or drinking; they consume their snack right then and there, or they save it for later.
As I reflect on my first week here, the morning sun falls on verdant, ancient mountains so close they appear almost within arm’s reach. Donald Trump, the Kardashians, and hormone-infused-tumor burgers are the farthest things from my mind.
In the coming months, I will be training jiu jitsu with people from all over the world at Miburo-Kyoto, we will be studying cats in special cat cafes and in people’s homes, and exploring as much of Japan’s rich cultural heritage as possible. From centuries old Buddhist temples to the ubiquitous heated toilet seats, I will share with you my experiences and observations as both a geographer and a tourist.
Check out my Instagram, Ogopogofosho, for interesting tidbits and cool pics.
By Anthony Vitale