When I think of how different my daily life is in Japan as compared to how it was in America, I realize that the thing that prepared me for this culture the most was playing Animal Crossing on my Nintendo 3DS. In case you are not familiar, the premise is this: You play as a person who has moved to a small town populated by adorable, anthropomorphic animals. The game is not designed to be “won” or even played in any specific way. Animal Crossing doesn’t reward extended play sessions, and its content can’t be experienced by sitting down and playing for hours on end. Instead, you usually play for 15-30 minutes every day, talking to neighbors, walking around, fishing, catching bugs, shopping, digging up fossils, running errands, etc. The reason you play every day, though, is because the game works according to real time, and little things are different every day, or at certain times of day, or even season. There are festivals, visitors, bugs, fish, weather, whatever… and if you aren’t there, you’ll miss it.
The first day I was here in Japan, we went for a walk and saw a bunch of snails. We saw a tree just covered in snails! Wow, I thought, there are a ton of snails in this town. Since that day, I haven’t seen a single snail. I guess that was just snail day. The other day, I was out walking and there were these gorgeous golden dragonflies absolutely everywhere. The sun was getting low in the sky, and the way these dragonflies shined as they swirled around in the air… it was magic. But it was just that one day! I was just lucky enough to catch it! Sometimes we get word that, oh, there’s a little festival going on by town hall! Or there are sea turtles hatching at the beach, and people are going to help protect them on their way to the ocean. It will happen whether you are there or not, so don’t miss it.
In Animal Crossing, you get to compose a short melody for your town, which is spread and echoed by every townsperson and shop. At 5:00 PM every day in Shimanto-cho, they play a happy little song over the whole town to let everyone know the work day is over. It’s the same song every day. I have no idea where the song they play at 5:00 comes from, but I like to imagine the mayor composed it. It’s an interesting thing, though, this consistency underneath all the variation. No matter what you are doing, whether you are staring up the steps to a shrine hidden in the woods at the top of a hill, or eating grilled chicken on a stick from a street vendor, or running home in a warm summer rain, or just listening to the cicadas… when that song plays, you know exactly when and where you are. The place is the same, but the details are new.