What an anxious joy it is to arrive in a foreign country for the first time. My first solo trip. With next to no knowledge of the local language or customs, I had flashbacks to my first evening in Korea.
My first memories on Japanese soil were not pleasant. After my plane landed 15 minutes late, I fought back the flood brewing in my bladder as I shuffled through the immigration line. I stared down an infrared camera wondering if bladder squeezing suspiciously raises body temperature. Unlikely. But in a foreign land one cannot be too sure.
After dancing my way to the pre-checkpoint bathroom and exhaling with relief through immigration, I exited customs and smiled. A beaming 7-Eleven sign flickered with alien symbols of advertisement.
“Wow. I am in Japan.”
I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t thirsty. But I was cash poor. Fortunately, 7-Eleven had an ATM. If only I was smart enough to use it. In spite of English instructions, my first attempt at a withdrawal ended with a disconcerting message – a message I wish on no foreign traveler short of local currency.
Withdrawal limit exceeded. Please contact the card-issuing company.
“Shit. I don’t understand. I only asked for like 100 bucks. 100,000 yen. That’s like-“
The paper jam in my head cleared itself up. Gears roared back to life.
“You’re not in Korea anymore, man. Do you even math, bro.”
I was long accustomed to the rough exchange of 1000 Korean won per U.S. dollar. In Japan, then yen exchanges at roughly 100 to 1.
“You just asked to withdraw $1,000 U.S. Good thing it rejected you.”
After the ATM surprised me with a single 10,000 yen bill, I leveled up to the next stage – securing a local bus ticket.
Fortunately, a kindly Japanese man in a police outfit from a bygone era showed me how to print the bus ticket (in impeccable English).
I don’t know what I’m doing. I clumsily traipse through a new land where I cannot read the language. and my speaking ability is near-zero. My only phrases are as follows:
“I can’t speak Japanese.”
“I’m an American person.”
“Are you going hiking?”
I left the airport on a bus in the direction of my hostel. For my first solo trip, I felt damn proud of myself. The challenge was not over. But if I could find my hostel and self-check-in, then I could celebrate in my dreams after my head hit the pillow.
That was easier said than done. As I exited the bus, cross-signal flashed green. I suddenly rushed to keep walking pace with a crossing crowd of partiers. Noise and chaos throttled me like the top ripped off of a serenely pressurized airplane. Horns honked as drunken denizens laughed and merry-made in foreign tongues.
I felt resistance hold my bag in place, briefly jerking me back toward the street divider. Really? Someone’s trying to jack my bag? In Japan?
No. The strap caught on a pedestrian barrier.
A creeping paranoia infected my previously relaxed mind as I fruitlessly wandered side alleys in search of the Little Asia Kokura Guest House. My Western mindset rang alarms.
“There’s a lot of people here.”
“You’ve passed this point before.”
“You look lost.”
“You know what happens to lost tourists? Nothing good.”
Fortunately, my paranoia was unjustified. I found my hostel after about 20 minutes of excess walking. At least my Health app crested 10,000 steps.
My final struggle was finding my room key. Midnight approached. The reception office was locked and long-abandoned.
Fortunately, a pair of Seoulites on holiday steered me the right way. I settled into my surprisingly spacious cubicle, intentionally unfolding my bedding like an American flag and organizing my suitcase. When I extinguished the clip-on lamp and laid my head on the pillow, I finally exhaled.
Tomorrow would bring new challenges and new stress. I hoped it would. Without stress, how would I grow? We cannot extend our capabilities without leaping into the unfamiliar. I could have saved my money and mucked around Mokpo.
Instead, I went to Japan. And I knew that upcoming lessons and experiences would make it worth every yen.