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

Tokyo: Onion!

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My boy Isaac modelling with the limited edition cherry blossom Asahi can.

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.

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The extent of Tokyo’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Three days after St Patrick’s Day. I have no idea either.

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.

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A failed attempt at a timed selfie

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.

Gabe

Tokyo: Assorted Sausage

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Well hello there

I am in Tokyo. At pretty much every point in my life up until the moment I clicked confirm on a booking form that accompanied an itinerary that contained the words ‘Tokyo Narita International Airport’ in December 2015, that is not something I thought I’d be saying until much later in my life. I had always been under the impression that Japan would be an exotic pipe dream until I’d actually bothered to not be unemployed any more, but no; I currently find myself sat in K’s House Backpackers Hostel Tokyo, mug of instant coffee in hand at 1am, writing a blog post about the most insane 24 hours I’ve ever experienced in a new country.

 

I know it’s incredibly trite to describe Tokyo – or Japan as a whole – as ‘crazy’ or ‘intense’, but once you set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun, you quickly realise that those labels come with concrete backup. Evidence of Japan’s unrivaled insanity flows through every sidestreet, hangs from every luminous facade and permeates the walls of every 7/11 that sells spaghetti carbonara in a vacuum pack with soy sauce.

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A classic British dish from the British pub – assorted sausage.

Flying in to either Hanida airport or the far-less-conveniently-located Narita airport, you are treated to an endless stream of magnificent vistas, ranging from tropical islands forming stretches of dots to the horizon, to the indisputably obvious grandeur of Mount Fuji, to the neverending skyline of Tokyo itself. From the sky, it’s clear that Tokyo is practically a country all of its own; rather than the classic centre/suburb structure of pretty much any major city on Earth, Tokyo is a blurry jigsaw of cities smashed together to form a whole that, in all honesty, doesn’t really stand together as a whole. For instance, I’m currently staying in the Asakusa neighbourhood in the northwest of the city, but I don’t have to travel for anything – Asakusa has its own chain shops, its own tourist sights and its own centre, as do all the major neighbourhoods of Tokyo. In fact, so far I’m not entirely convinced Tokyo has a ‘centre’. I’ll attempt to find out tomorrow, even though I could quite easily just look it up now.

 

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‘The Scramble’, Shibuya

After landing at Narita (thanks Jetstar), I had to navigate my way through the Tokyo subway using only a Japanese-language map, which, to put it lightly, was nearly impossible. I somehow ended up catching an express subway to Aoto station, at which point I jumped on the next train in a total gamble which luckily paid off, and I ended up at Kuramae station, a 200m walk from my hostel. I trudged in and to my room with my oversized suitcase, and immediately turned round and headed back out the front door to track down some food. On Edo Street, right outside the hostel, there’s a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Burger King and… a random little hut with a name and menu entirely in Japanese. I know which of those I’m gonna choose. I headed in, sat cross-legged on the floor at a shin-high table, and was handed a menu. And so began one of the oddest meals I’ve ever eaten. We can all agree that sashimi is a highly popular dish all over the globe for good reason, right? Well I guarantee you, whatever kind of sashimi you’ve been served at any point in your life, it may have been delicious but it’s some inauthentic bullshit, because there is no justification or place in the modern world for what I got given when I ordered an assorted sashimi plate in what I subsequently discovered was an actual sashimi restaurant in Tokyo.

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Not the best choice of name

My beer, which was for some reason poured by a beer-pouring robot that sits in the corner, arrived first, so I chugged it down to get myself mentally and physically prepared for what was on its way to me. About two minutes later, a remarkable sight; a wooden board laid out in front of me with an assortment of different shimmering, raw seafood items. I recognised my good friend octopus on the right, and the big chunks of salmon next to it, but the rest was a total mystery. There was a pile of grey-brown fish slices, then a few rolls of strangely transparent flesh next to that, then some prawns, and finally an awkwardly-placed fish head/tail combo at the far end. First, the octopus, which I mistakenly smothered with wasabi before taste-testing, and I had to sit there wincing, tears dripping into my beer for the next two minutes. It was the most intense wasabi I’d ever been in the vicinity of, let alone having put in my mouth. I pushed it to one side and continued with my marine quest. Raw octopus is kind of bland and tough, so I moved onto the salmon which was extraordinary – easily the best salmon I’ve ever eaten. However that was in short supply, so I picked up the strange transparent thing and gave it a go. It was chewy, flavourless and rubbery, with a strip of thick fat running through the middle. I called the waiter over to ask what I was eating, and he flipped the menu over and pointed at ‘whale bacon sashimi’. Right. I’d been in Japan about two hours and had already accidentally eaten whale. Onwards and upwards. Next was the brown-ish fish, which was also excellent, though very pungent. And then the prawns. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten prawns totally uncooked, but there’s two things you’ll have noticed about them if you have done. One is the fact that when you take the head and tail off, there’s blood. Like proper red blood. I don’t know why but I found that really odd. Second was how utterly revolting they are. They can be categorised as slimy, squishy and leaving a nasty film over the inside of your mouth.

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AVE SOME OF THAT

I called the waiter over again and pointed at the only two remaining things on the plate; the fish head and tail. I made a hand gesture as if to ask ‘do I eat these?’, hoping to God he would turn around and laugh me out of town, which is kind of what he did. He said ‘no no no no no!’ and took the plate away, much to my relief. However, about three minutes later the head and tail was returned to me, having been shallow-fried. I froze for a second and looked up at him. I slowly raised my hand to my mouth, apprehensively making the ‘do I eat these?’ sign again, to which he nodded, said something in Japanese and pointed at the kitchen. I turned all the way around and saw that the two chefs I had walked past by the entrance had come all the way over to my table to serve me this plate of fried Japanese fish head and tail and wanted to watch me eat it. Talk about pressure, man.

I went for it with my chopsticks but the guy told me to eat it with my hands. I broke off some of the gill and ate it. It actually wasn’t that bad, and seemed to satisfy the two chefs, who bowed and went back to their sweatbox kitchen. However, the waiter hung around like a cloud of intestinal gas made a ‘eat it!’ gesture with his hand. I hope you’re all proud of me cos I just f*ckin’ went for it. The whole head down. Boom. Sure it was bony, but really I felt like I got off kind of easy; it was just like… fish. It actually was kind of nice. Anyway, I rewarded myself with another robot beer, paid up and left, at which point I discovered that the waiters at this restaurant follow you outside as you leave, and bow as you walk away. That was kind of cool.

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Meiji Shrine

Next day I woke up and set out into the world of Tokyo, just to see what was up. No plan, no nothing. I ended up navigating the painfully weird subway system across town to Tochomae and went up the government building which famously has great views, and the observation deck is free. Suck on that, Tokyo SkyTree. I saw the Meiji Shrine in the distance so walked over there, did the whole handwashing ritual and went inside. The shrine is a really awesome place, and is a tiny little beacon of quiet in an intensely noisy city, but it’s also jammed full of tourists, which is odd. There are guards telling everyone to be quiet, so you’re surrounded by hundreds of other people, none of whom are making any noise. It was surreal to say the least.

I walked across to Shibuya to see ‘The Scramble’; the famous intersection featured in every band’s music video if they persuade their label to allow them to film it in Tokyo. It’s not much to shout about, it’s just a very busy junction. I assumed it would be surrounded by a wall of restaurants and bars that look down onto it, but no – the only thing that sits up high and looks down on Shibuya is a goddamn Starbucks. Thanks but no thanks.

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The world’s saddest selfie

To me, the most notable tourist attraction in Tokyo is Tokyo itself. Rather than walking from one amazing sight to another, the surprising and culturally baffling sights present themselves to you as you make your way between destinations. There are obviously the clichés we all know; every street coated in neon lights, every man wearing a black suit, every girl wearing the most over-the-top plaid school uniform. Then there are other things that pop up unexpectedly. For instance, one example is that nobody in this city locks their bikes up. Obviously bike theft is just literally not a thing in Tokyo. Rows of hundreds of bikes, bunched together, and all totally open to just… taking away. Another is that the subway has ‘women-only’ carriages on their trains on weekdays; a fact I learned when I accidentally ended up in one while travelling to Asakusa. However, the Japanese are much too polite to make a fuss, so I just sat there with a lot of uncomfortable gas-mask-clad women giving me glances out of the corner of their eyes until I slunk off.

 

It’s just random little differences like that, that seem so inconsequential in the long run, that are the most troubling as a foreigner. I’ve been here for about 48 hours, but trust me, culture shock is no joke. The hostel I’m staying at is populated mostly by Japanese people, so there’s limited scope for meeting people who I can hang out/go out with due to the lack of English speaking natives. As a result, I’ve spent the last few days totally alone, 6,000 miles away from my home, with a time difference that means I can’t really communicate with people in London very easily, in a country where nobody speaks English and has an alphabet I can’t read. While intense and visceral and insane, Tokyo is simultaneously wearying, alienating and, surprisingly, lacks warmth. That’s what has hit me the hardest since I’ve been here. Everything is so clinical and, really, rather cold. It may sound like a good thing that the streets are freakishly spotless, the people are efficient and determined and everything you could ever want is available in every shop at all hours of the night, but somewhere in the middle of it, Tokyo is just so crazy that, to an outsider, it’s more of a performance piece, Synecdoche New York-style, than a real functioning metropolis. It’s the kind of place it’s absolutely mindblowing to visit, but I could never in a million years envisage myself living here.

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The concept of the 24-hour clock takes on a new twist in Japan

And on that note, I’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation about 50,000 times in my life. It’s been one of my all time favourite movies since I first saw it in 2003. I’ve read a number of theories about both its popularity and how accurate its portrayal of Tokyo is, and the more outspoken views tend to come from one group of people; self-righteous westerners who have never set foot in Japan. Seriously, the amount of shit this film has gotten for being ‘offensive’ towards the Japanese is not only total bollocks, but also totally misses the point of the film. Take, for example, these two quotes about the film from North American publications;

 

“[The film] says, as racists often do, that foreigners, in this case Japanese, are inherently comic and stupid. Of all the Japanese in the film, not one comes across as much better than a cretin.” – Robert Fulford, The National Post

 “[The film] is an ethnocentric compendium of unpleasant stereotypes, indicative of the way foreign workers often view Japan.” – Steve Burgess, Maclean’s

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View from the Government Building

The first is plain wrong. It is not a film of mockery, it’s a film of observation, and – whether you like it or not – accuracy. At no point does it say or do anything that may be even misconstrued as overtly offensive toward the Japanese, it merely shows Japan as a country that developed at the same rate (or perhaps faster than) a country like America, and so stands as a monument to cultural differences and their impact on the growth of a nation. Americans have supermarkets that sell cheese in an aerosol can, while the Japanese have supermarkets that sell – as I discovered yesterday – sandwiches that contain strawberries. They’re both weird to me. It’s not a detriment to Japan, nor its people, nor its culture. Also, the insular perspective of the film is down to its two main characters being deeply flawed people who are noticeably introverted and unwilling to blend in. That in itself is more of a slight on American tourists than it is Japanese natives. The whole point is that there are no Japanese characters in the film, so how, as you say, can they be portrayed as ‘cretinous’? Sounds to me like you’re the one that extrapolated that conclusion.

The second quote is just bizarre. Isn’t that the whole point of the film? In fact, by saying that Lost In Translation is ‘indicative of the way foreign workers often view Japan’, doesn’t that technically mean that the film succeeds in exactly what it’s trying to do – portray the confusion, exhaustion and constant state of comparison to home that accompanies spending time in Tokyo?

I could write so much more but I know nobody wants to hear it. I’ll move on.

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Where am I supposed to keep my commuting skis then? God dammit.

So I was in this bar last night after heading out into town on my own, and after knocking back a few Suntory whiskeys (yes that is the brand that Bill Murray’s character is advertising in the film – this was coincidental), I called the bartender over and pointed at the menu. ‘Shochu’. What on Earth is that? I know Japanese whiskey is big these days, and sake is obviously very famous, but shohcu is not something I was familiar with. He spoke no English, so he brought a giant bottle over (I mean literally the size of his torso) and put it in front of me. It was all in Japanese. I couldn’t read it. The guy next to me then went ‘potato’, but in an accent that was quite strong, so I asked him to repeat it. I also wasn’t expecting him to speak English so I was a little taken aback. ‘Potato! Potato potato potato potato potato’. I was sat at a bar with a man saying potato at my face. At this point I realised he may not have been able to say that much in English. I, foolishly, said ‘potato?’, to which the bartenders and the guy again piped up with a grin-laden chorus of ‘potatopotatopotatopotato’. I said ‘potato!’, and pointed at the option to mix it with oolong tea.

 

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Sean Connery’s napkin range

Just as it arrived, the guy next to me attempted to ask where I was from. I said England, to which he went ‘Ah England! You know Dad Bakaim!’. Dad Bakaim? I asked him to repeat himself. ‘Dad Bakaim. Football. Football football football’, each repetition partnered with an upward flick of the head. ‘Ohhhh David Beckam!’, ‘Yes Dad Bakaim yes yes’. He pointed at my drink. ‘Potato?’. ‘Yes it’s very good!’. It wasn’t. It tasted like unsweetened oolong tea mixed with potatoes, probably because that’s exactly what it was. ‘Barry!’ he then exclaimed. I didn’t know what to think. Was he going down the football path again? Was it Gareth Barry this time? Of all the players. ‘Barry?’. ‘How say? Barry?’. I said ‘Yes, Gareth Barry’. He got his phone out, did a quick Google search and opened a web page in Japanese. He point at the title and said ‘Gareto Barry’. I couldn’t read it so I said ‘English?’. He hit translate and so opened a translated English page about barley. Oh shit. I said ‘Ohhh you meant barley? In my drink?’. ‘Yes, barley’, he said, pointing at the glass. ‘No potato?’ I asked. ‘Yes, potato potato and Gareto Barry’. What have I done to this poor man. I left, stepped outside into the pouring rain and looked across the road to see a big advert for H&M featuring Dad Bakaim.

 

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Yo.

This is kind of a ‘Part I’. I have so much to say, so more to follow once I finish my pile of egg mayonnaise with prawns and onions. Genuinely delicious.

 

ALSO I’m meeting up with an old friend tonight so THAT should be fun. Though I don’t know why you’d really care.

Gabe

Melbourne: Smoked Roo

Yes I apologise profusely for the cover photo of this post but I took literally one photo in my entire time in Melbourne so I have to save that one for later and use a photo of Syndey. I’m deeply sorry.

Since swooping into Avalon Airport about nine days ago, I’ve discovered that there’s really only one way to describe Melbourne; undefined. Where Sydney is a sprawling mess of suburbs and wide avenues punctuated by the inconic vistas afforded by the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, Melbourne is just a mess, full stop. This is in no way me saying that I don’t like it here, but more that it’s difficult to get to grips with exactly what it is that I like about it. When in Sydney (or really anywhere as long as you’re speaking to someone who’s visited both cities), you’ll often meet people who rave about Melbourne over the former, saying you absolutely must to go south and visit it. However, I should have seen my own personal existential inquisition coming, as whenever you ask even people from Melbourne what is so great about it, or what there is to do that’s so enticing, they’ll often just say ‘… I don’t really know’. Well, either that or ‘… you can get good coffee’.

In fact, on that note, let’s get something out of the way right now; the coffee here is good, but inferior to any I had in Sydney, and that in turn was inferior to any I had in New Zealand. Yeah, blasphemy – what of it? The Kiwis have got you beat, ‘bro’.

So what have I actually done this week? The truth is not much. Staying with my friend Tony, I’ve just been taking it easy, which includes a few days of sleeping in to midday or 1pm. Sweeeet. My liver has been fairly unhappy, however, having taken the harshest beating of my trip so far on the first night after landing. After going to three or four pubs and then getting a literal mountain of meat at a Chinese restaurant, we discovered a whiskey bar that happened to have a bit of a twist in its menu. In this place, a beer is about $10, and a whiskey is about $10 too. However, they have a ‘boilermaker’ menu, whereby you can choose a combination of one whiskey and one beer, which costs… $10. And I’m not talking shit blended whiskey, I’m talking high-quality single malt scotch. (If you’re English and you’re not familiar with the conversion rate, $10 is about £5). So I took what I would call too much advantage of that deal, then headed back to Tony’s and passed out, having gotten up at 3am that morning for my flight from Sydney.

Now then, the flight. It is not so much the flight itself that I want to talk about, but more where this flight happened to end up. Melbourne, for a city of just over 4m people, has a remarkable four airports. Tullamarine, the main international hub, Essendon, a small airport pretty much in the city centre, Moorabbin, an even smaller airport in the suburbs, and then… Avalon.

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There it is. The one photo I took in my entire week in Melbourne. My man Tony.

Avalon Airport is not in Melbourne. It’s not really in the ‘Greater Melbourne Area’ either; way too much countryside separates the city and the airport. In fact, it is much, much closer to the town of Geelong. Overall Avalon is about 35 miles southwest of Melbourne, which is around the same as Luton Airport’s distance to Central London, the difference being that the London Metropolitan Area (the area around London that is continuous urban area), has 14 million people and has comprises a total area of 3,236 square miles. As I’ve already mentioned, Melbourne has a mere 4 million people, over an area of oh shit, upon further research I’ve just discovered that Melbourne’s total area is actually larger than London. That’s despite having 10m fewer people. There goes my point.

Forget that. Basically my point is that Avalon is little more than a cardboard bus stop in the middle of shrub-covered nothing. It’s not exactly the stereotypical ‘outback’ that you think of when the word Australia drifts through your consciousness, but it’s not far off. We arrived in truly atrocious weather, our plane getting battered all over the place by the thick clouds, and we slowly taxied up to what looked to be one of about two gates in the entire airport. In fact, to get a sense of the size of Avalon airport, I can tell you that I could see the roof of it while we were taxiing. The entire building is shorter than the window of a Boeing 737. I crossed the runway, reaching into my pocket to get my phone out, until a little woman wearing a tangerine-coloured hi-vis jacket ran up to me and told me not to ever get my phone out on the tarmac. Woman this isn’t Charles De Gaulle. Who’s radar am I fatally messing up by attempting to connect to the free wifi this airport incidentally doesn’t even have? I get that your job description is literally just ‘make people’s lives a little less enjoyable’ but Jesus.

After navigating my way through Avalon’s 70’s-esque interior, complete with faux-shag carpeting in the arrivals section, I stumbled my way to a city transfer bus and accidentally sat one row in front of some sort of obese man-child who would not shut his mouth for the entire hour-long trip. Keep in mind this is still about 9am. I had to turn around a number of times to double/triple/quadruple-check if he was disabled just in case my anger was unjustified and unintentionally intolerant, but he was no spastic – he was just a regular fat dickhead who cackled, coughed and violently sneezed his way into the eardrums of his fellow coach-goers.

Melbourne, as people who live in it will tell you (and as I’ve already said), is all about atmosphere. It is (as I’ve already said), an enormous city area-wise, but the ‘CBD’ – or centre – is a small grid of about 5 x 8 streets that are absolutely crammed to capacity with people, shops and restaurants. So, most days I would wake up, head into the centre and attempt to navigate the strangely tiny layout of the CBD, picking up a coffee on the way and scouting for restaurants I would later eat at. However, I gotta give it to my bro (and host) Tony; he took me to three places that were three of the best meals I’ve had on my travels so far. One was the excellent burger at ‘Beer and Burger’ in Richmond (yeah great name right), one was the chicken parmigiana at the Napier Hotel in… somewhere (which had a layer of kangaroo, or ‘smoked roo’ on top), and the third (and best) was SUT & Wine, an extraordinary Korean BBQ place in Box Hill.

Honestly, I apologise that this has been a bit of a nothing post, so I’m going to end it here. I enjoyed my time in Melbourne but most of it was just chilling out and not really doing anything. About 24 hours ago I left and landed in Tokyo, and I’m dying to write a post about all the random and hilarious shit I’ve already seen, so I’ma do that now.

Gabe