Japan for the first time.

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Growing up, Japan held a special, weird place in my heart. The land that brought us some of the coolest things – samurai, giant robots, anime, sushi, the list goes on – and also some of the weirdest gameshows and commercials I’ve ever seen, was actually entirely mysterious from a ‘what is it like there’ perspective. I’d heard and read it was very safe and extremely clean, that people were very polite and the trains ran perfectly on time – or else. There was supposed to be sushi and ramen shops around every corner, ramune was the drink of the land, and toys and tools of every imaginable color and purpose lay on every store shelf.

It turns out that many, really most, of the fantastical things I’d imagined were true. The country is actually full of very polite, very clean people.

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There are actually ramen and sushi shops all over, along with curry and udon and gyuudon and pastry shops and tempura and fluffy eggs and all sorts of other wonderful food. Tokyo is incredibly clean for a large city, but it is not utterly spotless. Outside of large cities though, everything is very, very clean. The trains do run incredibly on time, with apologies issued at the slightest mistake.

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There are indeed stores full of toys and hobby materials – everyone has a hobby. Everyone. And Japan is the place to find a full building dedicated to it.

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And there are things I never expected, like perfectly soft boiled and lightly salted eggs available in every 7-11.

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And the fact that tickets for the metro and for your food are ordered through these retro, 1980’s machines that work perfectly despite being built 30 years ago and having none of today’s modern technology. Interestingly the machines at restaurants seem to be a side effect of the Japanese cultural requirement for formality in many interactions coupled with the desire to make everything fast and efficient. You can’t change the culture but you can reduce the need for interaction.

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That there are stamps. Stamps! In every train station. And collecting them all is somewhere between a curiosity and an obsession. There were not many like me, but I was not the only person hunting for the stamp machine at various stations.

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Japan seems entirely capable of enabling any given passion, and despite the formal and sometimes rigid culture, oddity thrives.

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And giant robots are definitely a thing for everybody.

Adjusting to a new continent

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Stoytcho and I eat breakfast at home, part of our adjustment to the costs of Oceania (the beer isn’t ours, but leftover from our Airbnb host last night).

Travelling around the world in a year means that you’re moving between cultures and countries fast, but with few exceptions most neighboring countries don’t differ that much from each other and the gap isn’t that huge. Jumping the continental divide between South America and Oceania takes you between two vastly different cultures and economic realities, though, so we’ve had to do some work adjusting. Here are the three places where we’ve had the biggest culture shock and how we dealt with them:

A totally new economic scale

We’re poor here. After three months of living mostly under USD $20 a day per person, the prices in New Zealand come with sticker shock. A single cheap meal here costs more than a full day of meals in most of South America, and a bed in a hostel costs more than a private room for two. To reign in our costs, we eat out for only one or two meals a day and cook the rest. An Airbnb has kept our accommodations budget from getting wildly out of hand, but it’s still over our daily budget of USD $30. Thankfully, we’ve brought a camping kit, so we’ll be camping wherever possible in the rest of New Zealand to bring accommodation costs down. We still afford ourselves the little luxuries of buying and trying some things on a whim, but that budget now covers only one whimsy purchase per day instead of three or four. The upside/downside is that whoaaa there are tons of options in stores.

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Drinks at a local warehouse supermarket. Hundreds of options, but so little spending power.

Speaking English again

Being fluent in the local language is simultaneously a huge relief and a huge bore. It takes less time and pantomiming to get chores done, from buying medications at a pharmacy to getting directions, but some of the sense of adventure also disappears. It also takes some time to adjust our brains to English and the New Zealand accent. We find ourselves missing Spanish so we speak it to each other while we’re out, much to the confusion of locals (Spanish speakers are nearly nonexistent here). And hey, at least that keeps it fresh in our heads. (Update from the future: we totally didn’t keep this up and our Spanish fluency has cratered. We’ll have to think of new strategies to stay fluent in the future).

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Whoaaa, this newspaper is in English! And I get the witticisms!

Less public transit

I feel bad saying this, because New Zealand’s public transit is still leagues better than those you would encounter in several other cities around the world, but it still just doesn’t compare to the coverage and affordability of metro systems in South America. The primary cause is simply scale of use: in South America a high percentage of a city’s population uses the metro system. Here in Auckland, where more people own, a smaller percentage of the city uses the metro system. The result is it’s more expensive, the stops are further apart, and the metro takes longer. And outside of Auckland, there are even fewer options. Seeing many of the country’s sights requires renting a car, which is a huge chunk of our budget here in New Zealand.

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A car drives through an intersection in Auckland’s downtown. The metro system here is less extensive and convenient than in South America simply because a smaller percentage of the city uses it.

A totally different culture

After living for three months in South America, New Zealand is a bit of a culture shock as well. People are more polite, although they also seem colder and more reserved. In some places, there are undertones of ethnic and social tension that we haven’t experienced in a while: on the way to the Chinese Lantern Festival, we watched some older white people who sat on their porches glaring furiously at the stream of people walking by (who were mostly Asian). While there are definitely socioeconomic tensions in South America, it took the form of protests instead of diffusing into daily life. When the haves and have nots look racially distinct, this is what happens instead. Despite this, much of the city seems happy, optimistic, and less worried about their economic future than many places we’ve been to. We feel like we have to watch our backs less here for theft, and that’s a relief.

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A farmer’s market in the morning, with zero security, people leaving their phones unattended, and general lack of concern about theft. That’s nice, at least.