steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

A Voyage to Japan - 30-31st March

Although I said in my last that I might be incommunicado this week, in fact all of the hotels I've stayed at have laid on wi-fi. For the first few days however I was unable to use it, being separated from my laptop for reasons I'll relate below. But I've been keeping daily notes of my travels and my reactions to them, so I'm going to start writing them up now, and give a kind of day-to-day record in the next few entries, with extra rambling thoughts thrown in for free. Think of it as me coming back from holiday and boring you with my stories and photos, but with the bonus that you don't have to pretend to be interested, or even listen at all.

I’m going to keep it notey, at any rate, just putting down my impressions as I had them. Things change very quickly inside one’s head, and I want to remember what struck me as strange and new before they acquire the muddy patina of familiarity.

My adventures began a few minutes after my last post from Bristol airport, when my flight (which had been delayed a very manageable half an hour) was suddenly delayed and hour and a half, then two hours…

Apparently the problem was a strong wind in Amsterdam (where I was transferring to a Tokyo plane), which had closed all but one of the runways. In the end, with the aid of a desperate, lung-churning sprint through the transfer lounge which did nothing for my blood pressure but was no doubt very good for my cardio-vascular system, I made the flight; but my luggage, alas, showed less sense of urgency, as I discovered on arrival in Tokyo 10 hours later. To make matters worse, my only hand luggage was my capacious handbag, into which I’d stuffed a reading book, tickets, money and toiletries but not much more.

However, I decided that this might just be Fate’s (or possibly the Buddha’s) rather heavy-handed way of telling me to rid myself of some of my own personal baggage, so I decided to take it in good part, comforted by the promise from KLM that they’d have the suitcase back with me by midday the next day. Besides, they also promised me up to 100E compensation for the inconvenience, so as soon as I hit Shinjuku station I went to the mall there – Lumine - which has mannequins in the window saying things like "Happy Mood!" and "Never had so much fun!". I was determined to join in the spirit of the thing and clog myself with material possessions again as soon as may be – at least to the extent of having clean underwear.

Now, one of my primary reasons for coming to Japan is of course to practise my Japanese. To be honest, I didn’t practise very hard during my first encounter on Japanese soil, sorting out the baggage mix-up at the KLM desk: it would have felt kind of ridiculous to make them repeat everything slowly for the good of my conversational Japanese with a queue of distraught passengers forming behind me. However, in the shops I was determined that it would be Nihongo all the way – and I had a couple of really friendly exchanges in that opening foray that boosted my confidence (thanks, nice lady who sold me a tote bag!). Elsewhere, however, and especially in the hotel later, it was a different story. Clearly many of the people I meet as a tourist are used to dealing with Western monoglots such as I’m trying not to be, and they naturally switch to English in an effort to be helpful the moment they clap eyes on my galumphing gaijin face. (Can a face galumph, you ask? Why certainly it can, though I did not discover this till I arrived here.) At that point I can either give in and switch to English too, or plough on stubbornly in Japanese and hope they’ll take the hint. This has made for some strange conversations, conducted entirely in very bad Japanese (mine) and almost equally bad English (theirs).

I've been told by several people and books that the Japanese are delighted to see a Westerner make the effort to speak their language. This may well be true, but I still feel I’m taking advantage of people if I hobble the conversation with my lumbering words, especially if their English happens to be good. Then again, once or twice I’ve had conversations where I said something simple but (I’m pretty sure) correct in a cafe – such as “Ocha kudasai” – and the waitress has said back to me, “Green tea”, in slow, careful English, as if I had asked for a translation rather than a drink. Yesterday a woman stood on my foot and started to say “Sumimasen”, then noticed my big Western face and turned it into “I’m sorry”. Of course she was only being considerate, but the "Iie" died on my lips.

I wonder whether Japan residents such as parasitegirl ever have this problem? Or is it (as I suspect) just a matter of confidence, bearing and not carrying around a tourist guide book? Anyway, I'm going to have to work on a way to get the practice I need without putting other people out, feeling paranoid, or tripping any of the myriad other booby-traps set by my self-consciousness.

I dare say I will soon stop noticing such things, but meanwhile I can’t help be charmed by an Italian restaurant named Ooze Charm.

Ooze Charm

We prefer this to Pus Panache, the French place over the road

It’s certainly wrong for a restaurant name in English, but close enough to being right that it makes me think about why – which is what makes this kind of error interesting. I suppose "ooze" has associations that don’t go well with food, and even applied to people the phrase ‘ooze charm’ usually connotes a certain superficiality. Lumine’s "Happy mood!" is easier to parse: a matter of literal translation: in Japanese you can say you’re happy simply by exclaiming "Ureshii!" – the "I am" being implied.

On the other hand, a menu that offers "Deep-fried angler" is just funny. It's no doubt the perfect complement to "Flattered fish" – though that's probably just a matter of seeing an "n" as an "r" –something that many an English copyist has been guilty of.

What struck me most about Tokyo on that first day wasn't so much the way it looked – which was amazing in many ways, but I'd seen pictures and knew roughly what to expect – as the way it sounded. It's a very musical place: where in Britain we'd have a bell or a siren or two-note bleating, or nothing, here there's generally a merry little tune – which you hear whenever a train approaches or a truck reverses, or really whenever any municipal micro-event occurs. Lorries pull big advertising displays through the street, too, playing J-pop. And everywhere there are recorded voices giving information, warning of dangers, and so on. One thing I particularly noticed was that almost all (if not all) these recorded voices are female, and mostly young-sounding too. The fact that I found this surprising itself surprised me – as if I'd suddenly discovered hidden in a dusty corner of my own personality a peppery old colonel from forty years ago, complaining that Angela Rippon wouldn't have sufficient gravitas to read the evening news. But there we are.

The first day’s weather was delightful – sunny, and about 70 degrees, perfect for viewing cherry blossom. I happened to be staying near the Meiji shrine, which I wanted to see anyway, so on the afternoon of my first day I asked whether that was good for sakura – hoping to kill two birds with one cherry stone. Oh yes, they told me at the hotel – though in fact, I saw precisely one cherry tree in the entire complex. That was very pretty, to be fair…


The shrine is approached via three great torii gates, over the course of maybe a half-mile walk through some woods. Here is a picture of me standing in front of the first of them:

Torii at the Meiji Shrine

Pictures of me standing in front of things for all the world as if I'd been badly Photoshopped will regrettably be a recurring feature of these posts. Asking people to take photos does offer an opportunity to start conversations with strangers, though, so you'll have to put up with it.

I'd been looking forward to visiting a shrine very much, and wanted to do it properly. For all that, I noticed that not only the tourists but almost all the Japanese were walking through the massive torii unconcernedly, not keeping to the side (the middle of the torii should be kept clear for the kami to walk), and certainly not bowing. Because of this, I was too embarrassed to bow at the first torii, and at the second could manage no more than a neck-nod.


By the third, though, the power of the place had worked on me, and my waist became involved.


I cleansed myself in (I think) the proper way, made my prayer, and I think at that point some part of me that had been left in Customs finally caught up, and I realized where I was. I bought an ema – the little wooden plaque they use for hanging up prayers – from one of the shrine maidens, without knowing what I was going to write. And then the harsh reef of sorrow that is never more than barely awash in me rose clear of its waters, and I found that I had tears running down my face, just as if I were in a revivalist meeting. Blame jet lag, or the residual worry about lost luggage, or even my exquisite sensibility, but I had a bit of a moment there at the Meiji Shrine. What I wrote on the ema is between me and the god of the place (or anyone else who wanted to read it after I hung it up), but I don't suppose anyone who knows me will have much difficulty in guessing what I asked for.

Schoolgirl archers at the Meiji shrine

Afterwards, I saw a group of schoolgirl archers passing through – they need their own anime! – and made my way back through the torii. I watched a couple of bishounen young men busk (very well) to a crowd of entranced teenaged girls, just as they do in Bristol. The weather, and a quality in the air that did not seem to belong to a metropolis, or least to the centre of one – perhaps it was wafting over from the shrine gardens? – made me happy as well as tired, for the scent of grass and flowers in a city is always to be embraced.

I took the train back to the Shinjuku station, and started the five-minute walk to my hotel. Alas, I went via a slightly different entrance – the South Exit rather than the New South Exit – which sounds like a small matter but turned out to be a big mistake. (Japanese railway stations can have literally dozens of different exits, as I now know.) At first I thought I'd just explore the area a bit and wander back to the hotel whenever my feet took me there. That sunny mood did not last, though. Ninety minutes later it was dark, and despite having several prominent landmarks in view the whole time and encountering numerous street maps that proved I wasn't too far from my goal, I still had the railway tracks between me and that feather-bedded haven. Time and again I found myself at the East exit, or cutting through Lumine ("Happy Mood!", "Never had so much fun!") – or through what turned out to be one of several identical Lumines, each happier than the last. I was beginning to despair, when a woman returning home from work saw me struggling with a map, and – much like Mami Tomoe in Episode 1 of Madoka – came to rescue me from the labyrinth. This wonderful Ariadne was Reiko-san, whose English was exactly as good/bad as my Japanese, which meant that we were able to converse pretty well without awkwardness on either side. She insisted on coming with me all the way, despite my protestations – for her GPS showed that we were still a good half mile from the hotel. Even with the aid of an iPhone we still got lost several more times, and probably walked for another 45 minutes before we finally made it, by which time I like to think we were bosom friends. She was so nice! And she certainly made a very good impression on me in terms of the kindness of random Japanese people to even more random strangers.
Tags: nippon notes, voyage to japan

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