Japan is proving to be hard work in more ways that I had originally predicted. While talk of Tokyo’s notorious intensity and extremely crowded nature both rest on fairly well-trodden ground, they are actually fairly inconsequential features of a city that literally could not be more indecipherable as a Western tourist. I don’t understand any of it. While it certainly does possess a looming intensity unmatched by any other city on Earth, that’s not what makes Tokyo a challenge – it’s the much smaller things.
The Japanese, as many of you will know, are fiercely nationalistic and isolationist. That is obviously not to say their patriotism spills over into aggression; they have remained one of the world’s most outspoken pacifists since 1945. However, there is an obvious, almost tangible sense that the Japanese are aware of their remarkable technological and infrastructural advancement, and thus, like I’m sure many Americans would, believe everything they do is how everyone should do it. As a result, there is extremely little room for negotiation and even less room for compromise, and thus people visiting Japan may either struggle to get to grips with various facets of Japanese life, or may find themselves getting frustrated at how illogical some of it seems to an outsider.
Some things frustrate me massively. The most notable example for me personally is that the Tokyo subway system, though extensive and metronomic, is an absolute shambles. The layout makes no sense, the trains are ridiculously slow and uncomfortable, the platforms are all about a mile apart from each other if you’re changing lines, and most annoyingly, there are lines in on the platform that denote a queuing space for each door. If you don’t stand in it, people act like you’re a bellend and give you dirty looks. Then lo, the train arrives and the queue falls apart, only to be replaced by a crazy shoving free-for-all, the likes of which I’m sure would also be the end result of not having this stupid queuing system in the first place.
Another example would be the country’s attitude toward smoking. I sat down at a restaurant on my first day here, only for the guy next to me to suddenly get out a cigarette and start smoking away. OK that’s a pain, it must not be regulated here, I thought, but no; I stepped outside to head home after eating, only to see signs painted on the floor saying ‘Do not smoke in public!’ and ‘No smoking on the street!’. What in the hell? You can smoke into my face in a dingy little hut while I’m trying to enjoy a bit of ramen but you can’t smoke near me when I won’t actually be inhaling it? As Frank Costanza once said, ‘well that’s perverse’.
But beyond moments where I find myself getting simply worked up about stuff that confuses me, there are moments where I find myself in hysterics as a result of that wonderful occurrence we all know and love when in countries with a massive language barrier; the misunderstanding. Two have stood out for me since being here. The first was two days ago, as I was attempting to buy some food. There’s a weird little self-serve shop around the corner from my hostel, where you can fill up a container with all sorts of strange food, and they price it based on weight. I stocked up on my fair share of something chicken-y, something tofu-y, something with potatoes and garlic, and then a cheeky scoop of prawns. I handed it over to the cashier. 599 yen appeared on the till. That’s about…. £3.50 I think? Either way, Japanese yen coins come in varieties of 500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1. One yen is absolutely useless and I hate having them on me, so I handed over a 500 and a 100 and bowed, extending my hand, gesturing ‘keep the change’. He nodded like he’d understood. I left the shop and realised I had a train to catch and was running later than anticipated. I started running, at which point I heard someone shout something behind me, but it was muffled by my headphones, so I kept going. I got maybe 150m from the shop, but I was being slowed down by my luggage, and behind me the shouting was getting louder. Confused, I turned round to see the cashier, who, having thought I’d forgotten my futile one yen change, had run down the street after me shouting ‘One yen! One yen!’, though obviously he was not aware of the ‘y’ sound at the front of the word ‘one’, so to any English-speaking onlookers it would have looked quite a lot like I was being chased down the street by a lunatic in a chef’s uniform shouting ‘ONION!’ at me. He gave me my change, gave me an extremely apologetic extended bow. I said ‘Oh, arigato gozai mas’ (‘thanks very much’), to which he softly repeated ‘… onion’, and headed back to his shop. I threw the coin in the bin and continued running.
The next night came another misunderstanding. Me and a group of people from my hostel decided we needed to head out to grab some food, so we walked up towards Asakusa to find somewhere. Asakusa is fairly touristy due to its proximity to the Tokyo SkyTree and the local shrine, so we passed a number of restaurants that looked to be closer to the higher end of our respective budget, until we stumbled across a strange building, the likes of which you see fairly often in Tokyo. Rather than having a restaurant district or area filled with different places to eat, you’ll often find one building with nine or ten floors, with a different restaurant on each. The one we found had nine restaurants and after much deliberation we decided on the third floor. After Finn, my hostelmate, smacked his head on the ceiling attempting to navigate a flight of stairs, we entered, taking our shoes off and putting them in the usual shoe-locker arrangement, and sat down. After a few beers and a couple of octopus balls, we noticed a small sign on the wall advertising a ‘sushi roulette’ plate, where you get a plate of sushi, one piece per person, and one of them will contain a large amount of wasabi and, presumably, blow your head off if you get it. However, it didn’t quite work out like that. We pointed at the sign as the waiter came around, and he attempted to ask how many we needed. So we said five, one for each person. He looked shocked, as if it was way too much. We assumed he thought we meant five plates, so we said ‘Oh OK just one plate’. Cut forward half an hour (seriously how did it take this long?), and the waiter reappeared, holding a plate high above his head. With great anticipation, we watched as he lowered it to reveal… one piece of sushi. This wasn’t sushi Russian roulette, it was sushi suicide. Or so we thought, until Finn took the hit to reveal it was a non-spicy piece. In one fell swoop we had gone from sushi suicide back to Russian roulette, but this time with a toy gun.
Apart from generally soaking up Tokyo’s omnipotent saturated nonsense, the only other thing I’ve done of note was visit the Golden Gai with two people from the hostel. One of the strangest places I’ve ever had a drink, the Golden Gai is a row of six tiny alleyways in the Shinjuku district, all crammed with pubs and bars barely bigger than a toilet cubicle. We found ourselves in a sort of treehouse/lookout above a tiny bar, drinking pint after pint of Kirin (with the occasional sake which I don’t remember being quite so disgusting). One missed last subway home and one strange decision to walk across the entirety of Tokyo until 6am while still drinking later and I ended up still very drunk when I was woken up at 11am by a little hostel worker telling me it was my time to check out. After almost falling over in the shower I decided I would sit downstairs and eat sushi until I stopped feeling like I may pass out.
Today I’m heading to Kyoto. In fact, using my Japan Rail Pass, I’m currently on the bullet train as I write this, in the shadow of a snow-coated Mount Fuji. I’ll be honest, this is pretty awesome; in fact, when I set foot on the train and the electronic ticker at the far end said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Shinkansen’, I’ll admit I got goosebumps. In all honesty the train is rather simple; sure it’s fast but really it’s just like any other commuter train. Although, it is also complete with an absolutely insane seat reservation system that makes no sense. I’m not even going to explain how little sense it made. That’s how little sense it made. Long story short; three hour train journey having to change seats five times.
Also on the way to the station a wheel fell off my suitcase while I was eating sushi. A low moment. I now carve a line through every neighbourhood I drag my suitcase through.
Will report more from Kyoto once I’ve had my next helping of ramen. And maybe a nikuman. Look it up.