Yesterday morning I had an early morning lesson cancel (and unlike the situation in my previous post, I had no problems charging for this late cancellation) so I decided to do something I have very rarely done. I went shopping shortly after the local supermarket opened.
The last time I did this, I left the apartment too early and arrived about 15 minutes before the market opened and was left to hang around the front of the shop with some middle-aged and elderly ladies who filled their time by staring at and chattering about me. Yes, it's good to know that despite my efforts not to be a typical gaijin monkey who acts like a fool around the Japanese in order to endear myself to them and amuse them, I still can play the role merely by being present. Eventually, one of them wandered over to the bench I'd parked myself on and asked me (in Japanese) if I was French. I'm not sure what particular set of characteristics made her speculate that I was from France (blue eyes? strawberry blonde hair? disapproving frown at being talked about as if I weren't a real person?), but I decided that I could play the part even if I'm not French.
Some of you may not know this, but French culture generally does not regard talking to strangers as obligatory. I say some of you may not realize this because I didn't know it until recently when I read through the section of "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands" which covered France. They aren't necessarily being unfriendly, they just don't view talking to and helping out random people as their social responsibility as some other cultures do. So, I did as a French person might and just looked away and ignored the question.
After that experience, I've been very careful not to get to the store before it opens anymore. I just don't enjoy being the obvious source of amusement for the locals as much as some people do. This morning, I arrived about 15 minutes after it opened. The experience was surprisingly different in that there were only 2 or 3 older ladies hanging around just as the store opened, but there was an old person explosion shortly after the store opened. Inside, it was like "Night of the Living Dead." I'm not implying they were hungering for human flesh (though they were hungry for food, it seems), but there were an awful lot of slow moving, withered creatures moving around in there in a scary fashion.
I'm not an ageist, don't get me wrong. I teach some elderly people who are more energetic and in better health than I. Individually and person to person, the older folks in Japan are a blessing. The problem with a shop full of random old people is that they've been up since 5:00 am twiddling their thumbs (or in my neighbor's case, finding things to bang on in front of their home which is conveniently located behind my bedroom window). They're waiting for shopping areas to open so they can fill the time with slow meandering punctuated by microscopic inspection of every item they have a passing interest in. They're a hazard to navigation, especially when one is squeezing in early morning shopping before a lesson and just wants to get the damn thing over with.
At the end of the obstacle course which was my shopping, an old lady asked me for my now empty shopping cart and basket. I happily surrendered it to her as it just saved me from having to put them away. It did draw my attention to something which I'd never noticed before. Young people rarely use the tiny plastic shopping carts and tend to just carry a basket. When you get a large market full of elderly people, the limited supply of non-child-holding mini-carts is quickly exhausted (hence the need to get my cart). At this particular market, there are two racks of carts. One has a seat on the back for small kids and is awkward-looking and bigger. There are always a ton of the kid carts around since our neighborhood is perhaps more top-heavy with old folks than most and Japan's birthrate is low (about 1.5 kids per couple).
I'm guessing younger people just carry a basket because it doesn't tax them physically. I always use a cart because of my back, though it's so flimsy that I can't really lean on it much. Well, there's also the fact that I'm usually buying 10 bottles of Diet Coke and my arms aren't strong enough to lug them around for the duration. The fact that old folks are moving with the pacing and navigation skills of an inebriated turtle and wielding carts that are half the width of the aisle (which is a testimonial to how small the aisles are, not how big the carts are) makes the shopping experience all the more challenging.
After a variety of experiences, I've decided that the best time to shop is between 12:00 and 1:00 pm because most of the old folks have tottered on home to make lunch and the shops are relatively zombie-free. Unfortunately, noon is not usually a good time for me to shop because I've either got lessons scheduled or am preparing for early afternoon lessons so I guess I'll continue to make these sort of tongue-in-cheek complaints on this blog. You've been warned. ;-)