Recently, I went on my first vacation outside of the Balkans since starting my service. I met up with my mom and step-dad in Japan! We did several fun things during our trip including: shopping in Harajuku, drinking green tea brownie Starbucks, exploring Shinjuku garden, contemplating life over the night view of the Tokyo skyline, hanging out on Mt. Fuji tour with Sunny-san, venturing around Hakone, checking out shrines in Ueno park, and much more.
Japanese culture is extremely different from Albanian culture. It was a unique experience to visit Japan with the lens of a Peace Corps volunteer in Eastern Europe. So in typical Albanian fashion, I find it is appropriate to compare my perceptions of the two countries.
- In Albania, most of the time lines are non-existent or not followed. I find this to be common while waiting to pay my bills in the post office, get on public transportation, or buy my groceries in the market. Many people will cut in front of others without a second thought.
- Immediately I noticed orderly lines everywhere in Japan. People respect lines and wait for their turn. The tellers also follow line order and make sure that you were, indeed, waiting your turn. While waiting in the line for the bus, an attendant actually ushered me to move forward about a foot because there was empty space between me and the person in front of me. They take their lines seriously!
- In America and Albania, people normally walk on the right-hand side. Actually, in Albania people really just walk wherever they want. There are not many crosswalks or stoplights, and even if those road-safety features are available, many people till cross the street wherever they please (myself included) and take up the entire sidewalk during their evening xhiros.
- People walk on the left-hand side in Japan. Many of the walkways and stairways are marked with arrows to remind people which side to walk on. Another interesting thing I noticed about Japan, is that the walkways also have Braille walkways for visually-impaired citizens. After a few days walking and driving around on the opposite side of the road, I started to become confused about which way was which and continued to accidentally walk wherever I desired.
- When I travel in Albania, I mainly take public furgons (mini-vans) and buses. There aren’t any posted schedules for transport, which can make traveling a little tricky. When I leave my site, I usually walk out to the highway and wait for a furgon or bus on the side of the road. I know which car I want to take based off of a small sign in the front window indicating the final destination. Sometimes I have waited for over an hour to find transportation.
- The public transit system in Japan is really intricate and quite impressive. There are many different forms of transportation and I took most of them during our trip. The underground subway system in Japan is crazy confusing, but very convenient if you: 1 – understand Japanese, 2 – know exactly where you are going. I probably spend at least ¼ of my time in Japan lost and confused about where exactly I was. After a few days, I was beginning to navigate the public transport with ease, and probably would have been a pro with a bit more practice. They have one of the best public transportation systems I have seen and it is definitely easy to get from point-a to point-b.
- Often times, it seems as though sanitation is not one of the highest priorities in Albania. I see lambs slaughtered on the road daily and the splattered blood remains on the sidewalk. Many public bathrooms are not equipped with soap and toilet paper, and sometimes they don’t even have a western-style toilet. I have seen many people around town pick their noses in public without care.
- Many Japanese people are overly-cautious when it comes to sanitation. Face masks to keep away the germs are commonly worn in public places. A lot of the public restrooms had fully equipped toilets with bidets built in. Automatic soap dispensers were everywhere. Why that was noteworthy for me? I am not quite sure.
- I love coffees in Albania. Coffee-time is a great opportunity to sit down with friends and catch up on life for a few hours over a small cup of espresso. Coffee is an integral part of many Albanian’s days.
- There were not many coffee shops in Tokyo, at least in comparison to Albania. During my trip, I mostly drank coffee and milk tea from vending machines. Vending machines are all over the place in Japan. And the special thing about these vending machines is that they can serve your drinks hot. Mind-blown. In Japan they also have cat-cafes, which are cafes where one can go, have a coffee, and play with cats. Sadly, I was unable to go to a cat cafe during my short week there. Next time.
- Albanian fashion is fun and full of color, fake jewels, sparkles, high heels, and shirts with awkwardly misspelled English decals. A lot of my coworkers have clothing specifically hand-tailored to their preferences. The older generations can often be seen in traditional wear. Older men always seem to be wearing dress coats, even in the dead-heat of summer. The younger generations of men like to wear their hair cut short and tight clothing is common between both sexes.
- Business is a major part of city-life in Tokyo. Every busy street corner and subway car was full of a sea of suits. Suits are required and dressing professionally is a must for the workplace. Women also dressed very professional in blazers, skirts, and other work-appropriate clothing. Along with the business side of the city, there are also hip-cultures amongst the youth in Harajuku and Shinjuku. Shopping in Harajuku was to-die-for. Many of the clothing looked like it should be worn to a rave or a costume party. I had to venture out to Harajuku because of Gwen Stefani’s nineties pop-hit Harajuku Girls. Love it.
- I love the prices in Albania. I can get a great lunch for 50 cents to two dollars. It’s made on the spot and it’s usually super delicious. I can travel across the whole country for less than fifteen dollars. The cost of living is significantly lower here in comparison to the states and Japan. I have gotten used to spending ten bucks and having enough food in my apartment for almost two weeks.
- The price difference in Japan instantly hit me. Everything was ridiculously expensive. One meal in Japan was an much as I’d normally spend in the span of several days in Albania. My final cab-ride to the airport ended up costing more than some plane tickets. I was appalled! After emptying my wallet I was ready to head back to my simpler lifestyle.
Overall, I had a great trip and a break away from work was exactly what I needed. The travel helped me to appreciate my independence in Albania and helped me realize how integrated I am in Albanian society now.
Random fun notes from the trip:
- The road up to Mt. Fuji plays music as you drive up the mountain. The rotation of the tires on the street produces friction, which in turn produces the music.
- My mom tried to buy a water from the vending machine with an 100 dollar bill. Obobo…
- Japenese school children actually do wear uniforms to school. Some of the uniforms are a bit more scandalous than others. The whole time I couldn’t help but think of this scene from Kill Bill.
- A lot of Japanese people have a loud gregarious laugh, much like my own.
- It is common to say san after someone’s name as a sign of respect. For example, you can call me Xhilli-san.
- President Obama was also visiting Japan while we were there.
- A lot of Japanese people have large, expensive cameras. I had the opportunity to take a photo of a man who was very specific about how he wanted his picture taken, but he didn’t speak any English and I don’t speak Japanese. It was a funny cultural exchange.
- School starts in April.
- Mom: “Let me just put that in my Emily Dickenson bag.”
- People with tattoos cannot enter traditional Japanese bathhouses because they are seen as being involved with gang activity.
- Tokyo will hold the 2020 Olympics and are looking for an influx of English teachers to help with the transition.