6:55 AM, Our Apartment, Port Island, Kobe, Japan
It’s been one week, and in that time, despite accomplishing a relatively great deal, we have accomplished markedly little to aid us in our daily life. Part of the peculiar reason for that is that most common household tools, freely available and affordable in the U.S., are ridiculously, prohibitively expensive here, with bizarre exceptions.
Want a clothes washer? A baseline model, low-end, will run you roughly 29,000 yen here (just move the comma to the right to approximate a dollar value (in this case, about $290)). Pretty affordable! (Not that we’d know how to use it or get it to our house to begin with yet.) If you want a clothes dryer, however, an object which virtually nobody in Japan owns and which the local Wal-Mart-like store (Izumiya) carries only one model of, be prepared to pay upwards of 62,000 yen. So we’ll dry our clothes on the deck! Sounds fun and totally Japanese! I don’t need no clothes-shrinking dryer! At the “accessory shop” in Sannomiya (Tokyu Hands), you can pay 2,000-4,000 for a ready-to-blow-away plastic clothes-drying rack, or (I kid you not) 18,000 for a metal one that feels like a twelve-dollar K-mart special. On the other hand, my brand-new cell phone, the Toshiba Biblio, with e-mail capabilities, a 5 megapixel camera, an e-book reader, a TV antenna that picks up broadcast TV for free, and a host of other idiotic goodies, costs a grand total (including the price of the phone over a two-year contract, I paid nothing up front) of roughly $40 a month.
An air-conditioner (commonly called air-con)? No houses in Japan have central air or heating, so they all need to use wall-mounted AC units that sit up near the ceiling and attach onto metal bolts. The cost for the most basic air-con at Izumiya, now, in the middle of summer so hot that we were out in Kobe yesterday for three hours and felt like dying? 79,000 yen (that is seven hundred and ninety dollars). If you want one that also heats in the winter, add another 30,000-40,000 yen. Feel like going the cheap route and stocking your place with tiny electric fans? The one our apartment came with, weighing somewhere around three pounds and having a diameter of roughly 14″, retails for 3,990 yen. A miniature desk fan the size of a CD case literally costs 1,490 yen.
We paid 1,000 each for a tiny non-stick pot and pan, and had to pass on an iron and rice cooker (cheapest models 4,000 yen each). Even the new and enormous IKEA store here on Port Island has adopted the Japanese Way: identical stand-up torchierre-style floor lamp, which I purchased one of in Pittsburgh for $9.90, retails for a confusing 2,490 yen.
I can’t fully determine if these prices are just because we live in a relatively large city, or if things would be cheaper in a semi-urban setting, but all that this means is that until Friday (glorious payday) we’ve decided to reserve the meager amounts of money we have so that we can take the trains to work, and also so we can eat. In the mean time, Jessy is literally washing our essential clothing items in the rather spacious sink with dish soap, so that we can hang them up on our kitchen storage rack to dry (we’d hang them outside, but our deck is covered with months of uninhabited-apartment pigeon shit. (I got a deck brush, but owning no bucket with which to transport water to said deck, might prove limitedly useful.)
Did I mention the trash system? First of all there are basically no trash cans anywhere so prepare to hang on to your junk if you’re just out and about. At one of my schools, in order to throw away a plastic soda bottle, you must tear off the plastic label (they are perforated for this purpose) and put it in one can, remove the lid and put it in another can, then crush the bottle and put it in a third can. On our island, we are restricted less (only three separations, for recyclable containers, burnables, and non-burnables), but we own no trash cans (tiny, bathroom sized cans were 1,490), and everything must be placed in specially labelled trash bags (available in packs of five at your local Toho supermarket).
At our orientation, they called this level of cultural fatigue (often confusingly referred to as “culture shock” despite it being not at all a sudden process) “Stage 2,” wherein the new arrivals stop noticing the quaint similarities and exciting differences in culture and begin to focus only on the negative elements. I am willing to bet that a couple months down the line, when I have a TV again, when I can Wash My Clothes, when I can know that I will be able to sleep tonight without waking up sore-throated in a puddle of my own sweat, when we have more in our kitchen than two bowls, a pot and pan, and silverware (and a tiny bag of 400 yen cereal), when I have Internet access at home and can learn a damned thing about anything (I’m typing this in Notepad on a Sunday morning at home)–maybe then I’ll move on to “Stage 3” and finally begin to feel comfortable in my day-to-day life. Until then, god dammit.