Let's talk about research for a second. We all know it's important to do our homework when writing about other locations, times in history, cultures, and people different from us. And Google is a wonderful place, surely that gets me everything I need to know to write an amazingly accurate book right?
Here's the thing, Google is pretty awesome, and will get you a good chunk of the way there, but if you want something accurate you need to go to a source. Here's why.
I expected a modern city, but I also expected cool temples, and shrines. You see those in the movies all the time right? They must be every where. Not so much. In fact the city I stayed in, Kobe, was more industrial than anything. There were shrines but they were few and far between, and often quite small. And that grand city I thought I'd see wasn't really what I expected at all.
|Kyoto Street Corner|
Sure when I went into Kyoto on the weekend, I saw castles, temples, and shrines, but they weren't on every corner there either. We walked about 10 miles toward one temple without seeing any other shrines, castles, or temples. What we did see, a modern city which was more of what I had expected to see in Japan.
|Kyoto street on the way to a temple|
Another surprise, cities in Japan don't appear to have a beginning and end like they do in the US. When riding the train, one city seemed to meld into the next with no apparent city line or less populated area in between. Buildings and houses just seemed to go on forever with no break. In the areas I visited, there didn't seem to be any places where there were large fields and open spaces. In fact space is a premium here. You will frequently see rice patties right next to houses and other buildings. Not an inch of space is wasted.
|Japanese Rice Patty|
And the cosmetic differences were just the beginning of my adventure in Japan. The more I explored, the more alienated I felt. I found myself in a world where I didn't understand street signs, because not only were they in Japanese, but they were in characters I didn't recognize. I didn't understand the words being said to me on a regular basis. Ordering in a restaurant often proved challenging and we frequently resorted to pointing to pictures on a menu. We often passed by numerous restaurants before stopping at one because we had no idea even from the pictures what that place was serving. And with a seafood allergy, I had to be extremely careful to make sure I wasn't getting things I shouldn't be eating. On the flip side, in a lot of places, there was more English than I expected. I was able to get by, but things were still challenging.
Even the little things put me on my toes at times I didn't expect. The Japanese drive on the other side of the road, so that means looking the opposite direction when crossing a street. You don't realize how much of a habit looking right is until you almost get run over by a car. And that means the escalators are backwards to, you go up on the left. I lost count of how many times I tried to go up the down escalator in the hotel. Even just walking the path around the edge of Rokko Island I was constantly playing chicken with people and doing the back and forth dance because I'd move the wrong way to allow them to pass.
|Nijo-jo Castle - notice the people walking in on the left and exiting on the right.|
Even queuing up for the train was an adventure. Yes, there's a line, and if you get in the wrong one, you either aren't getting on the train or you're going to make people mad. I'd like to blame some of my ineptitude on being a stupid American, but after a while I just felt like a complete idiot. I started to wonder if people here would hate me for being such a moron. But even that is hard to believe, with how incredibly gracious, polite, and accommodating the Japanese people are. They always say thank you, they speak quietly and almost never raise their voices, and I can count on one hand the number of times I heard a car honk it's horn while driving and walking around.
|Rokuon-ji - The Golden Temple|
So why do I make a big deal about all these seemingly inane details about every day life? Because those are the details that can make all the difference between writing a book, and writing a believable one that your reader can get an immersive, true experience in. And because I never would have known all these things without visiting Japan in person.
So the next time you write about a place you've never been, a culture you've never experienced, or people that are different from you, stop for a minute and think about the ways you can learn about the things you don't understand. Take a vacation to the place you are writing about, interview people from the cultures you know nothing about, find beta readers who understand the experiences you are trying to portray.
While the internet is a wonderful place, nothing can replace having lived the experience. If you can't live it yourself, I implore you to find someone who has. Writing without having the source at hand, is the equivalent of using Google translate on another language, it generally gets the message across, but some things are lost in translation. And is that really how you want your book to be?
|Translated sign in the restroom. Funny but somewhat lost in translation.|