I spent the first couple of days in Japan bewildered and confused. I was lost amongst Tokyo's 50 million inhabitants, with their complex Japanese etiquette, the indecipherable Japanese writing, and the underground railway to navigate which, with 450 stations, must surely be the world's biggest underground railway. These all conspired against me, making me always look perplexed and not really sure where I was going or what I was doing. Luckily Japanese people tend to be extremely polite and helpful. Unluckily Japanese people tend to speak bad English or no English whatsoever so their polite helpfulness was often less than useful.
Things started badly. Here are detailed instructions for how not to begin a Japanese holiday - as I learnt from bitter experience:
- Arrive at Tokyo's airport on a Saturday evening, without Japanese money, a guidebook or any accommodation booked.
- Wander around the airport looking for an ATM only to discover that Japanese ATM's typically don't except foreign cards.
- After finally finding a special ATM for foreigners, wander around the airport again, this time looking for a bookstore that sells Japan guidebooks
- Buy an overpriced guidebook, open to the Tokyo accommodation section and read: "Flying into Tokyo, particularly at night, without accommodation lined up can be nightmarish.
- Proceed to call every bugdet hotel listed in the guidebook to discover that the guidebook's comment was an understatement.
- While contemplating sleeping overnight in the airport, stumble upon the Tourist Information desk just as the clerk is locking up for the night.
- Plead to the Tourist Information clerk to give some information about finding a hotel before she leaves.
- Gratefully accept list of hotels from clerk, return to telephone, make seven more calls to finally find a hotel that has a spare room.
- Begin stage 2 of the nightmare: the 2 hour late night journey on a total of 3 trains to the hotel.
Ah, but it was all good fun, this is what independent travel is all about - being unprepared and winging it as you go. It almost always works out, and when it doesn't you are left with a good story to tell.
When I got to my hotel and checked in, I was dying to have a quick bite to eat then sleep like I had never slept before. I opened the door to my room and thought I had gone to the wrong room. It looked like a small storeroom without a bed and with a pile of blankets on the floor. Then I realised, that the room WAS the bed. The floor was covered with a couple of Japanese mats, and I just had to roll out the blankets and sleep directly on them.
Next stop was the local convenience store. These stores, such as 7-11's and Circle K's, are on every corner in Japan. There is one convenience store for every 400 inhabitants and in my opinion that's the rate they should be found at everywhere around the world. They are so prevalent that a friend of mine living in Japan gave me directions to her apartment according to convenience stores. "Go past the Family Mart, walk one block further to the 7-11, then turn right at the Circle K". Amongst all the junk food are Japanese novelties such as heated cans of ultra-sweet coffee and tasty pre-prepared meals that you simply take home, throw in the microwave for a couple of minutes, and eat. The problem was, the meals were all labelled only in Japanese so I had little idea what contents were in most of them. For the adventurous that wouldn't be a problem, but as a vegetarian, I spent 15 minutes staring at the various foodstuffs, almost weeping with frustrated hunger, before concluding that for the duration of my Japanese visit I was going to have to shelve the vegetarian thing and act like a normal human being instead.
After a couple of days, I used the bullet train to escape from Tokyo to a slightly less hectic part of Japan - the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. I have a friend living in each of these cities and with their guiding and translating I snapped out of my Japanese daze. Aidan from Australia lives in Osaka where - with the help of hand puppets - he teaches Japanese people how to speak English. Fortunately he left the hand puppet at home when we went out in Osaka. Osaka is a good example of one common image of Japan - the city at night ablaze with neon signs in every street, from ground level to the seventh floor. Toei from Thailand is studying in Kyoto, which offers a very different but equally common image of Japan - golden pagodas, elegant gardens, and shrines and temples. It is also home to Monkey Mountain where, in contrast to normal zoos, the humans are put in cages while the monkeys on the outside look through the bars.
I experienced a couple of personal firsts in Japan: high-tech toilet seats and singing karaoke. When in Rome... Japan is the land of the high-tech, and amongst all their fancy gadgets, the toilet seats impressed me the most. The high-tech toilet seat came to my sudden attention when I sat down and discovered that the seat was heated. Next to the seat was a complicated console with 6 buttons and 3 dials, all labelled only in Japanese except one button that read "Powerful Deodorizer". I was curious to find out just how much power the deodorizer had so I start pressing buttons and turning dials, but nothing seemed to happen. The wisest move of mine in all of Japan was to stop playing with the console until I was standing up, next to, but not in front of the toilet. I was determined to work out how to make this contraption do something and so I kept pushing buttons in various combinations when suddenly I got it. A thin pipe rose out of the toilet and started sending a stream of water 2 metres in the air, saturating the door, but luckily not me. As the floor started flooding I found the magic button to stop the impromptu water fountain and retract the pipe. I left the toilet as quickly and quietly as I could, acting as if the lake on the bathroom had nothing to do with me.
The less said about my karaoke experience the better. But I guess I have to say at least something now... Karaoke in Japan, as far as I can tell, usually takes place in private booths designed only for a small group of people, which you pay for by the half-hour. A friend and I holed up in one of these booths, with our own karaoke machine and about 20 billion songs to choose from. The booths have clear glass windows in the door, which I am told is to stop people using the private booths for other private non-karaoke activities. Before coming to Japan I did have a life-long resolution never to take part in karaoke. I have changed it now, to never do karaoke outside of Japan. Believe me, it is for the sake of my personal dignity and the sake of the people within earshot.
I'm keen to get back to Japan sometime soon. Almost everything I did and saw in Japan was somehow strange or exotic. I could have written pages and pages for each day I was there. Unfortunately reality has hit me again, the travelling is over for now, and as of Monday I join the world of wage-slaves again.