After six months teaching English in Japan's busy Osaka prefecture, life in this country that once seemed so exotic has come to seem ordinary for me.
When I forget how extraordinary my life here actually is, I refresh my sense of wonder by imagining that I'm wearing a video camera on my head as I ride my bicycle to school. I imagine that I'm filming this daily ride to send to a friend. After all, the commute is very different from anything I would experience in Seattle.
Every morning, instead of climbing into my car as I would have done in America, I hop on my little silver bike and set off on an adventure that seems like something from a fast-moving video game. I feel sleepy at first, but the ever-changing action around me wakes me up as I pedal through it.
The streets in my suburb are so narrow that when two cars meet, one has to back up into a side street to allow the other to pass. Besides cars, I dodge motorcycles, other bicycles, striding business people dressed to the teeth, mothers wheeling baby carriages, teenagers in school uniforms, sunbathing cats, and small schoolchildren wearing bright yellow caps.
The children often weave back and forth across the road, making the "video game" a little more complicated. There are no sidewalks and no lane dividers, so the road is a juggling act, with different modes of transportation giving way to each other, depending on who's biggest or fastest. I ride more slowly and cautiously than most Japanese, who hurl themselves around blind corners, ringing the little bells on their handlebars as a warning.
After a few of these sharp turns, I reach the outdoor market, which is even more crowded. I ride past stores where shopkeepers grill fish, display imported fruits, repair bicycles, or diligently sweep the street. Tiny grandmothers, already out to do the daily shopping, wander in front of my bicycle and stop to stare in surprise at my foreign face.
Occasionally, a large produce truck fills the street. As a safety measure, these trucks blare loud recordings, so you can hear them coming from around several blind corners. The recordings sometimes shout and sometimes sing a cute song about snow in a high, cartoonlike tone that seems incongruous coming from such a big truck. It makes the streets noisy, but at least you know the truck is coming - from miles away.
Halfway to school, I have to stop and wait for two or three trains to roar by. The trains, unlike American trains, are always on time. They move fast, and at this early hour they are so packed with commuters that I see people crushed against foggy windows, trying to squeeze out space in which to read their newspapers. Usually a fleet of motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians has assembled on both sides of the tracks by the time the trains have gone, and a vigorous but polite scramble ensues to cross the tracks. Should there be any conflict about right of way, both parties bow to each other and apologize.
Every day the commute is a little different. Today in the market, three small dogs - fluffy and exaggeratedly cute like most dogs I've seen in Japan - are lined up in a row, their faces tilted silently upward like three toys. They look identical, except the first one has a black bow on its head, the second has a pink bow, and the third has a gold bow. They wait for their owner to come out of a shop. At the train tracks, a man stands in front of a Buddha statue with his head bowed, seemingly unperturbed by the rattle of trains and the jostling of the crowd.
Near the gates of the junior high school, I pass many of my students. They walk as slowly as possible, talking with their friends, reluctant to reach school.
"Good morning," I call as I ride by. The teenagers blink. It's too early to speak English. Some answer in Japanese. Others call belatedly, "Eh - good morning," after I'm a few yards away. As I ride through the gates, some students are already practicing rugby in the muddy schoolyard. As I approach the staff room, I have to stop and put my "outside" shoes into a locker and change into my "inside" shoes. This signals the start of my workday.
I walk into the staff room, where the principal and teachers are energetically shouting, "Ohayo gozaimasu!" (Good morning!) to one another. Even those who are sleepy muster the energy for an enthusiastic greeting. I strive to do the same as I come in for a landing at my messy desk.
In between classes, students stop by my desk, a little more awake now and eager to practice their English. They don't always know the words for what they want to say, so they call out any questions they can ask, and I answer and encourage them.
"Juniper-sensei [teacher]," calls a boy with glasses and a big grin, "when is your birthday? Do you like mathematics?"
Three girls cluster around, full of questions and joking requests. "Do you like Mickey Mouse? Have you been to Hawaii? Chocolate for me, please!"
After a long school day, it's time to go home, and I throw my backpack into my bike basket. Girls skip by me, calling, "Bye-bye!" This phrase is often used in Japan, and though it's one of the "foreign loan words" that the Japanese language has borrowed from English, students think it's Japanese.
"Not 'bye-bye,' silly!" one will reprimand another. "Use English! 'Goodbye!' "
"Bye-bye," I say, laughing, as I ride my bike home - past the Buddha, over the tracks, through the market - having finished another ordinary, extraordinary day.