International Airspace: Commoners

Japan is somewhere I have always, always wanted to go. Its location, its culture and its landscape have all played major roles in making me wish I could visit the Land of the Rising Sun since I was about ten years old. It always seemed so mysterious, intense and, most importantly, it looked like it would be so much fun. I know people who have been to Japan before – all of them unanimously praising this strange, demanding little group of islands in the Far East. And, more so than anywhere else I’ve been on this trip, I had people telling me how incredibly envious they were of my Japan jaunt.

And they’ve a right to be envious. It was quite an experience, and really has been the two most intense weeks probably of my entire life. But – and I’m sure you knew a ‘but’ was coming – I have to admit, I’m very glad to be leaving. I saw some amazing things in Japan. I rode the bullet train the entire length of Honshu, I climbed a mountain on an island in the East China Sea and I visited the sites of the only two nuclear weapons to have been used on civilians. I went to a karaoke booth, a pachinko arcade, a sumo arena and a million Shinto shrines. And, as I’m sure you’re aware, I love travelling, but this is the first in my life where I’ve really hit a limit. And I mean a serious, immovable brick wall of a limit.

In my first blog post from Japan I very briefly touched upon the concept of culture shock. Culture shock is something that I have obviously always believed in, and I thought I had felt it at various points in my life before. But after just two weeks in Japan, I now know how incorrect I was; I now know what culture shock really is. Japan is really hard work. And I don’t mean simply on a physical level, nor do I mean it’s simply a bit of a head-f*ck. I mean it emotionally.

No matter what walk of life you come from, no matter how much patience for other cultures you have or how much luxury you can afford to holiday in, I have a very brief PSA: Do not come to Japan alone unless you are very comfortable with your own company. This is not me attempting to exaggerate for humourous purposes either. That is a genuine warning. I’ve travelled on my own before. I’ve been to Canada, the US, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Finland, Serbia, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Easter Island, French Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia totally alone in the past few years, and every time they’ve been great fun. I’m very happy to spend time on my own, and I find socialising in hostels and bars pretty easy; in all the places I’ve visited, it’s been easy to strike a balance between meeting locals, meeting other travellers, and sightseeing alone if you need a little break. Japan, however, is not like that. First, let’s look at meeting locals. Actually rather than discussing it in depth, I can say two words to sum up your chances of that happening; good luck. Barely anybody speaks English, and those who do speak an incredibly limited amount. Moreover – and I’m sorry but it’s true – the cultural and social differences, for me personally, were just too vast. If I ever did come across a Japanese native my age who spoke a little bit of English, the conversation would stutter and die over and over again as we tried to find things we could both talk about. I think both of us would expect the other to have a frame of reference closer to our own, but in reality the UK and Japan are just worlds apart in so many ways.

Then, there’s meeting other travellers. I met some people in my Tokyo hostel just fine, cos it’s Tokyo and there are foreigners everywhere; you’re bound to meet at least a couple of people to grab a drink with, even if you do have to dodge the hoards of solo middle-aged white men who have decided that a youth hostel in Japan is the place they want to spend their remaining days before inevitably offing themselves. There were some great nights in Tokyo, wandering around until dawn, but in most other places (save one night in Hiroshima), the kind of people you’d actually want to hang around with were few and far between.

There’s a word that the Japanese use, ‘Gaijin’, meaning a westerner who comes to Japan. While it literally translates as ‘outside person’, in reality it’s often used in a pejorative manner; it’s used to describe people who come to Japan that are socially awkward or ‘weird’ in some other way. During my stay in Japan, jumping from city to city and hostel to hostel, I met maybe eight people – max – who were not ‘Gaijin’ in the truly negative sense of the word. The number of lisping, leery, lanky losers I met across the entire country was astounding. They’d turn up alone to Japan, just like I had done, but then either refused to socialise, or attempted to but just been too weird to hang out with. Don’t get me wrong, I can take a bit of weirdness as long as there’s some humour or self-awareness, but these people had no redeeming features. I felt for the ones who were so scared of socialising that they couldn’t get a sentence out without stumbling over every other word and sweating all over their crusty anime shirts. It’s good to chat to them sometimes because they can reveal themselves to be nice people underneath that awkward exterior.

But then there are the ones who you just wish would disappear. In Nagasaki, I checked into a hostel to a totally empty room. Awesome, I can make as much noise in the morning as I want (I had a 7am start the next day), and don’t have to wear my headphones for my music. Then, at 11:30pm, when I was in bed, a guy probably in his mid-30s with two lazy eyes came storming into the room and turned the light on. Nice entrance mate. I said ‘Hi’, to be polite, and he said, with a bizarre lisp, ‘Hi. Where are you from?’. A half asleep dude, in his underwear, in bed, with the light off – is really the guy you’re gonna go to for a chat right now? ‘England’. ‘Me too! Whereabouts?’. I told him I was originally from Brighton, but had lived in London for a few years. ‘Oh I’m from London too (I didn’t say I was from London) but I moved away. Where do you live? How expensive is it?’. Jesus man give me a chance. ‘I live in Dulwich’, ‘I don’t know where that is’. You’re a Londoner and you don’t know where Dulwich is? He continued ‘It’s just too expensive these days. It’s so nasty too, filled with foreigners, that’s why I moved to Slough.’

Ohhhhhhhh how I laughed internally. Though I didn’t crack a smile, it felt like I was about to have ten hernias at once; the veins in my head probably looked like the outside of Pompidou Centre. Sure, you can believe Slough is superior despite John Betjeman’s famous poem about how shit it is, but don’t call where I live ‘nasty’, just in the same way I didn’t laugh in your face when you talked about how great Slough is.

The conversation died and I turned over to sleep, only for him to suddenly continue; ‘Why are you here?’. I mean there are certainly better ways of asking that question, but I told him I was on a round the world trip, and that I’d done South America before here. ‘Oh I did South America too! What did you think of the girls there?’, he asked. ‘I dunno man, they’re just girls’. He replied ’Yeah but they were so easy. Everywhere I went they were so easy. So beautiful and so easy’. From the way this guy spoke, I could tell he was the kid people would give a dead leg for fun on the way to class, or a firm punch on the upper arm – there was no way this guy was drowning in girls in the manner he attested to. I also found it a little odd that he kept talking about how easy they were; that’s not a universal ‘guy-thing’ that’s gonna get me to respond. It just makes you sound insecure and fairly misogynistic. If anything, I’m gonna tell you to shut up because I’m trying to sleep, I’m not going to suddenly become Finchy from The Office and start making up bullshit stories about hundreds of Hispanic girls throwing themselves at me. I don’t travel for that kind of wannabe-macho crap. And anyway, I’m not exactly Ryan Gosling, but if that wasn’t happening to me, it sure as shit wasn’t happening to Captain Crosseyed over here. I told him I wasn’t really looking for that, and he responded with ‘Yeah but they’re Argentinian! All you have to do is talk. They love the English’. I think someone needs to go read a history book. The final nail in the coffin, the straw that broke the socially-inept camel’s back, was this quote from out of nowhere; ‘I love travelling in Japan because people aren’t common’. Huh? Not common? There are people everywhere, you meet them all the time. I had no idea what he meant, so I asked, and he said ‘Like common people. A lot of people can’t afford to come here so you don’t have to meet any common people’. Holy f*cking shit. My jaw on the floor, I sat there in total silence, staring dead at him, waiting for him to find a way to redeem himself after such an abhorrent comment. Yet, despite my reaction of horrified incredulity, he just paused for another 30 seconds before almost silently stuttering out ‘… y’know like chavs’. I got out of bed, switched the light off and went to sleep without another word.

Yesterday I made a gigantic balls up. My train from Nagasaki all the way back to Tokyo was booked for 14:20, arriving at 22:40. I got to the station early and asked if I could change to the 13:20 train instead, and I could, so now I was due in at 22:10. At my first of three interchanges, however, I had a 50 minute wait for my Shinkansen, so I got on an earlier one – I have unlimited rail travel so it doesn’t matter how I get around, right? Turns out the Shinkansen has a number of varieties, two of which are not covered by the JR Pass, including the Nozomi service. I accidentally got on a Nozomi bound for Tokyo, but after the first stop the conductor told me I couldn’t be on this train. I played the stupid foreigner card and he told me to get off at the next station. Ah well, I’ll just wait for my original train. I have no idea which station I was at, but after waiting around for 20 minutes, I stood and stared as my original Shinkanen – the one I was booked on – went zooming past at 200mph. Oh dear. I ran downstairs to check the timetable, and took my jacket off as it was so hot, at which point I realised I had also left my brand new hoodie on the original Nozomi train.

I threw my jacket back on, ran to the ticket office and asked what they could do about it. Turns out they could phone the individual trains. Awesome! But what happened next was such a comedy of errors on both sides that I was left with my head in my hands for most of the conversation. I told them I had left my black hoodie on the train. They thought I wanted to know when the next train was. I told them again what had happened. They thought I meant just a hood (I wouldn’t even know what this means). I corrected them. They thought I meant my jacket, and pointed at the jacket I was currently wearing, saying ‘but you’re wearing your jacket now’. I told them thanks for the astute observation, but that it was a black hoodie I was looking for, using wild hand gestures. They finally understood and asked where I was sitting. I told them I was in carriage #1, which I was. They asked which seat. I hadn’t checked this, but was in the very front row of the carriage, in the window seat to the far right, so said ‘1-D’, which logically makes sense, like on a plane. The little woman behind the counter phoned the train and had a long conversation. I stood and waited, feeling like I was watching my life draining away. She hung up and told me it wasn’t there. I said it literally had to be there. She asked again which carriage I was in. I said #1. She assured me that that’s what she had told the conductor on the train, saying ‘I told him to look in the first carriage’. I told her no, I meant carriage #1; the train had just reversed at Hakata terminal when I got on, so was running backwards, with carriage #1 at the very back of the train. She looked shocked, apologised profusely, and phoned again. I could see now that the next train I could get on was in 12 minutes, and I was quickly running out of time here. Again, she hung up and told me they couldn’t find it. I told them that was literally impossible as I was telling her exactly where it was. She deliberated for a minute before asking if the seat number was definitely right, getting out a little diagram of the seating plan. I pointed at the seat I was sat at, saying ‘1-D, right down at the front on the right’. She told me no, the seat I was pointing at was seat 18-A. I asked her how on Earth that could be right. She said that the train has reversed, so the seats have reversed numbers as well as the carriage, and the letters A to D have been mirrored to reflect travelling backwards. Thinking this was literally the most illogical, needlessly complicated system to ever have been used in a seat-numbering system, I put my hands on my knees in a sort of existential despair, and told her that yes, under that ridiculous system, I guess that must have been my seat. She phoned again, this time with an exceptionally long conversation. I looked around to see that I now had 4 minutes until my train. She hung up and asked me what colour it was. I told them, again, that it was black. She phoned again and hung up after two words, telling me that yes, they had found the hoodie. Did she really need to hang up in order to ask me what colour it was? Two minutes until the train now. I thanked her profusely and asked where I should pick it up. She didn’t understand me. I asked where I should collect it, making a symbol of ‘collecting’ with my hands, though I’m not sure what it must’ve looked like to her. She did understand me though, but then drew a total blank with her English, flapping her hands up and down. She obviously knew what she wanted to say but didn’t know the English for it. She said it in Japanese and I just looked at her with a face of panic and confusion. My train was now pulling into the station. One minute until it left. I shrugged at her, and she scrambled to get her phone out of her pocket. She opened Google Translate and frantically typed away. 30 seconds left. She turned it around to show me; ‘Osaka Station Lost & Found’. I shouted ‘Doumo arigato gozai maaaaaaas’ and went sprinting down the station concourse and up the escalator. I made it across the platform but the door shut on my suitcase as I was pushing it into the train in front of me. I wasn’t taking this bullshit so I just forced the door back open with my foot as a guard down the platform cried out in horror of my conduct. The doors closed behind me and I collapsed to the floor of the carriage, sitting there until I could catch my breath. I made it.

I got to Osaka after a few more train changes, short of breath and a little drunk after taking the edge off with a couple of Asahis. I had a full half-hour to make my connection, this’d be fine. I looked up at a sign reading ‘Lost & Found’, with an arrow pointing up, meaning forward. I walked forward and about 100m further down I saw another one, so continued walking. I walked for around five minutes until I had reached literally the end of the station. I walked outside for some reason in the hope it may be there, and was greeted by a bunch of taxi drivers shouting for my business. I ran back inside and headed back to where I had come from, where I saw another sign for lost property with a ‘down’ arrow next to it, facing the other direction. Turns out an ‘up’ arrow in Japan means behind you. So I frantically scrambled across the concourse with my now wheel-less suitcase until I found a small door with ‘Lost and Find’ written on it. I slid it open to reveal a guy sat behind a tiny desk, who immediately stood to attention.

“Black hoodie?” I said, hopefully. His response, in apologetic Japanese, indicated that this conversation may be rather difficult as he spoke no English. I made the same hoodie gesture as before and he asked where it was. I said it should be here. He gestured that he had no idea, but before I could reply he ran off and grabbed a colleague who could speak limited English. “Where you hoodie?” he said, to which I frustratedly replied “Here! It should be here!”. They both made a simultaneously inquisitive hoodie gesture to check that I was definitely on the same wavelength. They told me no and there was nothing they could do. I told them the other guys said it was here, to which they told me it might be in Tokyo. I said I don’t have time to collect it in Tokyo. They said they’d send it to me. I told them I was leaving Japan the following day. They told me they couldn’t ship internationally. I told them I knew that as there was a giant sign behind them stating that exact clause. They said “Hoodie?” one more time, to which I said “Yes! A hoodie! In Osaka! It will be here!” to which the guy suddenly went “Ah!”, and disappeared for a second into a side door before returning with my hoodie in hand.

I mean seriously guys, what the Christ. You had it all along and I’ve been stood here for 15 minutes with you telling me it’s in Tokyo?! Jesus. I thanked them and again found myself sprinting for the train, making it with around 30 seconds to spare this time. Phew.

I’m in Singapore now, so will report more from here maybe tomorrow, but for now, that’s the Japan portion of my trip done and dusted. I am so exhausted it’s not even true. While it was experience I will never ever forget, it’ll also always be one that I would heed many words of warning to others before attempting. It’s hard work.

Gabe

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