Japan 1 : What a place!

I got back from Japan about a week ago now and its still swirling about in my head. What a time I had!

For a homely lad who had only been outside jolly old England just the once, it was quite the culture shock; different language, different people, all sorts of little mannerisms and etiquette to remember, not to mention that I was head and shoulders over most people.

Since I was small, Japan has fascinated me; initially with its console games, but more recently for its culture, art and rural beauty, and I have for many years thought about going. This year seemed right; I was about to switch between jobs, I had a bit of money behind me for once, and I had just passed the ripe old age of 32 - my youth was quickly leaving and would soon be replaced by the typical shackles that thirtysomethings tend to get.

At 4am on a chilly March morning, I was now embarking on a hopefully not-once-in-a-lifetime trip to the far east; a 23 day trip with nothing but a backpack and a camera and a roughly traced route that would take me from Tokyo to the northern tip of Hokkaido, the southern tip of Honshu and a fleeting stopover on Shikoku Island. I had never done anything remotely like this before.

This blog was created to chronicle my time in that wonderful country, and I hope that I can return sometime soon. I also hope you enjoy reading it.

My first day in Tokyo went.. well it could have been better. Typical me, I had underplanned the day, relying on the idea that I would be able to find a place once I'd got there (forgetting temporarily that I have a thick Yorkshire accent and could speak precisely 14 words of Japanese). I landed about midday Tokyo time (GMT+9) after an 18h flight and, after wearily ringing my parents to let them know I hadn't fallen out of the plane on the way, drinking some Kirin red water that I assumed was strawberry juice but was actually some sort of tea, and sorting out my rail pass with a patient travel agent who had probably seen this sort of thing many times before I found myself waiting patiently at Narita Airport train station. I vaguely remember asking a guard there (in English) about when the train was about to arrive, and then having him guide me to a sticker on the floor. The sticker told me not only the train on that track but the exact place to stand to be in front of the door of my carriage. Then the train came; sparkly clean and whooshing in silently along the perfectly laid tracks, stopping exactly in the right place. I looked in wearied awe at the station guard who replied with a wry grin. He probably sees that look many times over..

Perfectly on time, the train slowly glided away out of the station. After the perfect unblemished upholstery (no vomit stains, no graffiti, no tears in the seats, and no dickheads to cause any of it) I noticed the legroom. Oh the legroom. Being quite a tall person (6'3"), I am used to cramping my knees uncomfortably either *into* the seat in front or wrapping them around my neck, doing a convincing impersonation of the last turkey in the shop. Here there was enough room for another set of legs on the end of mine!

As the intermediate stations came and went, my first views of Japan played out in front of me. Large and imposing buildings were replaced by small, cramped neighbourhoods, replaced again by villages and fields, then back again to the sardine tins and high-rise blocks and skyscrapers as the metropolis of Tokyo began to make its presence known. Then, in calm procession, everyone got off, and the small conveyor belt I found myself on turned into a massive intertwining roller-coaster as stairways and stations and corridors and ticket gates and shops and pillars holding the roof up and what felt like millions of people all headed exactly where they wanted to go, all mentally performing Dijkstras algorithm on the fly to ensure they got there in the shortest possible time.

Frankly I was lost. Even though I had just about gathered the wherewithal to look upwards to the dual Japanese-English train signs, I hadn't really gathered where I was going to go. Getting into Tokyo and finding a place to stay suddenly didn't sound half as easy as it did a few days ago looking at the maps comfortably in my front room. The noise was deafening and my backpacks (yes, I took 2, and yes, they contained things I never used) were getting very heavy. And I hadn't slept properly for about 40 hours.

Fortunately, this was Tokyo, and because of this, I eventually found an information kiosk where some people spoke English. They pointed me at the Yamanote Line, a central circular line that loops around the central cities of Tokyo. One stop south of Tokyo lies Yūrakuchō, and there, across the street from the station lies this building, and it was on a wet, rainy evening I found myself being led by a helpful studenty-type bloke to find the damn entrance and get to the 12th floor, where an office - more an oasis - exists where someone can translate my by now incoherent babblings into a request for a place for the night at short notice. The lady behind the counter looked around and managed to get me a place at a Ryokan - a Japanese style Bed and Breakfast - right next to Nippori Station (a couple of stops further along). Thanking her with more bows than what may have been deemed appropriate, I made my way there.

The Suzuki Ryokan was a culture shock in itself. Perched on the hill next to the station, the inside was traditional to a fault. An area to take shoes off led up some stairs - away from the area where the people who lived there made a home - to a network of corridors and low doorways. The elderly lady patiently (but running low) showed me my little room - with its own western toilet. A 2-room affair adorned with tatami mats and a little telly, plus some cushions for kneeling on and a little table to play being Japanese on. Two beds - futons on the floor with dried peas in the pillows - one mine, and as far as I could tell, she was going to have the other one filled as soon as the next soul walked through her door, but for tonight, this place was mine.

As a side note: In central London, a bed for the night in a bog-standard and suspicious-smelling Travelodge or similar would cost around £100. Here; a central Tokyo traditional guest house was going to cost me just £30 all in.

After popping out for a bit of fresh air and any food that I could find that I could recognise (and wasn't still moving) I made my way back to my little room, opened the room-height sliding window and looked out to the still bustling station. The repeated dingly-dongly music that played out every minute or so, the neon lights, the occasional shriek of a crow, the people rushing about their hectic lives and the slightly metallic taste in the air became my first and lingering impression of Japan, and my first half day there. As I settled in for the night, I counted the number of days remaining of my holiday (22) and my heart sank a little.


If that little lot put you off, please don't be. That lot in itself was an experience I wanted to find out about, and you don't learn much without plunging into the deep end. As I hope to convey in further posts, I had lots of fun and lots of unforgettable experience in weeks that came. Those beds were super comfy and the blankets on top were the softest, most beautiful furry material ever. The place itself was a fantastic maze of walkways and rooms, traditional bathrooms, beautiful woodwork and attention to detail, such as the fantastic cobbled floors, and the next day I met a room-mate - a guy from Australia who gave me some tips on basic survival and pointed out a few walks not a minute away to help get a more positive picture of the place. I began my trip in earnest on a fresh spring day and began to enjoy myself. It was the beginning of something fantastic.

Would I go back again? You bet. I am already planning it.


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