I could write a whole series entitled “I Thought I Knew How to (insert daily task here)”, but I will spare you. The stories of how I have broken all the Japanese “rules” are nearly endless. But yesterday I broke several of them, within one hour, doing something I thought I knew very well. I think anyone can relate to this, even if you haven’t moved to another country. When you start a new job, move a new region, or even enter a new stage of life, you can often land in a position where something you thought you were good at (finding the toilet, etc.) suddenly becomes foreign.
So here’s my story from this week.
I grew up as a competitive swimmer. I didn’t swim in college or anything but I worked pretty hard at it in high school, going to practice 3-5 mornings each week before school, 5 afternoons after school, and on Saturdays for most of my high school years. I was also a lifeguard for 1/2 of high school and all of college. So swimming laps is something I thought I knew a thing or two about. Well apparently not. As evidenced by my experience at the local pool this week.
To begin the story, we were enjoying lunch at our place with some sweet neighbors we had met at the park. Topics of conversation were slightly limited since they were speaking to us in English which was their 3rd language, and our Japanese (right now) is awful at best. So we migrated towards local activities. It was in this conversation I caught wind of a local pool, 5 minutes walk from my house, for ¥220 (~$2) per hour. A steal, in my book, since many of the work out centers with pools were upwards of $100/month (not much unlike the States). Needless to say, I was overjoyed about this news.
So 3 days later, I decided to try it out. I was a little nervous, but was so excited to be in the water again that I didn’t care. I walk into building that I think is the right one (we all know where this is going) and wander about for a minute or so before walking up to a window and saying ” すみません” (“sumimasen”, excuse me) to what I discovered was an empty room. A sweet lady passing by and seeing my distress said something to me in Japanese which I hope was “can I help you” because I proceeded to ask her in incredibly broken Japanese where the pool was. Lucky for me, I had learned the word “となり” (“Tonari”, next – as in the next building over) in class that very morning and picked it out of a very long sentence of words I did not understand. So I trek on over to the next building.
I enter into a building with the shiniest floors I have ever seen and a diagram of a pool on a poster. Good sign. I see another poster that says (helpfully in English) “no street shoes”. I take a moment to decide if my shoes are “street shoes” or not, and wanting to err on the side of caution and place them in the helpfully provided plastic bag stacked by the door and make my way downstairs.
Now to get dressed and get in the pool. I am already thinking the whole “shower before you enter” thing that all the American pools suggest but never enforce is pretty important here, so I proudly choose to rinse off before walking on deck. Well, I realized there was no need for that because there were motion-Sensored rinsers poised to greet you on the way out to the pool. A-la decontamination rooms you see in the movies. I guess that answers my rinsing question.
Whew. All that is over and I can finally do something I know how to do – swim laps. I swim my first 100 meters ( 4 laps) and it feels amazing. I am circle swimming (the opposite direction, ’cause I am so culturally aware), and as I approach the wall at 100 meters I see a small yellow flag waving in my lane. International lifeguard speak for “you are doing something wrong and I need to tell you about it.” I pop up nervously and the lifeguard asks, “Nihongo”? (Japanese?). I ashamedly say “eego Kudasai” (English please). He says oh and in bits and pieces of English, Japanese, and exaggerated hand motions, he lets me know that I am circle swimming incorrectly. Apparently I am supposed to be swimming down one lane, crossing under the lane line and swimming back the other way. What we used to call “snake-swimming” in my swim team days (if I remembering that right). Even though this makes absolutely no sense to me – in Japan, a rule is a rule so I follow along….Only to get stopped about 300 meters later by a lifeguard with a tiny megaphone at the end of my lane. I am still not entirely sure what he said but I am assuming based on his rotating arm motions that I am not supposed to be doing flip turns. I am not entirely sure why or if that is even what he said but I continued on with open turns after that.
All the way until (about 15 minutes later) I heard the whistle blow from the lifeguard stand and having been in the profession for 6 years (and being around a pool for most of my childhood) I know this means get yo’self out of the pool. The crowd exits for the guards to – scan the bottom? Take a break? Eat some snacks? – I have no idea, it’s just the rules. I will embarrassingly tell you that this is when I left. And not because I was embarrassed about the mistakes I had made, but because I am simply THAT out of swimming shape. If any of my fellow former swimmers are reading this, please don’t judge :/.
I am greeted by a few incredibly kind senior citizens on my way out, asking in surprisingly good English where I am from. And I start my quest to find where I should pay for my hour session. Oh yeah, I haven’t paid yet. In hindsight I should have known that you pay beforehand (that seems to be pretty universal), but I hadn’t seen anywhere to do so on my way in. Thankfully there was a kind man with great English who struck up a conversation with me so I asked him. He chuckled and said, “Oh yeah, I heard my friend (I am assuming one of the lifeguards who waved me down) telling you that you needed to pay.” Well now I am more than embarrassed. He directs me to a…wait for it…vending machine where I pay my fee and get my ticket to turn in to the pool manager. I will take a brief sidebar here to say that if you don’t know already, Japan’s vending machine game is strong. You can buy everything from cold drinks to hot coffee (with your chosen amount of sugar and milk), place your ramen order, purchase a beer, and do a variety of other things, apparently including paying for your access to the local pool.
I pay my fee (after a few failed attempts) and utter “ごめんなさい” (” gommenasai”, I’m so sorry) about 1000x as I leave. But hey, I found a pool, swam some laps (if I swam 1000m I would be surprised :/), and got to meet some very friendly neighbors. All in all, a great afternoon.