Not knowing anything about Japan, I thought it’d be a good place to visit both to get away from the PC for two weeks, to learn some stuff about a new culture, and to visit Paul (b2), who has been living in Shirakawa, Japan for almost exactly one year, teaching Japanese high school students English.
My knowledge of Japanese culture stems almost entirely from what I’ve seen parodied in movies and TV shows. Basically, everything I knew before I came here I picked up from the episode of the Simpsons where they get a cheap flight to Japan for their holiday. Coicidentally, I was in the exact same boat, scamming my flight on frequent flier miles, but ultimately having no real idea of what the heck I was going to do over here.
Due to a fairly busy couple of weeks before the departure, I hadn’t had time to make any plans. As the date of departure crept closer, I became increasingly concerned about the process by which we would get to Paul’s place from Narita Airport. My travelling partner Aaron and Paul had hatched some sort of plan, but after some last-minute consultation with the Japanese girlfriend of someone from IRC, we were told that it would basically be impossible for us to get there – we arrived late in the evening, and by the time we got to Tokyo via train, the shinkansen (bullet train) going north in Paul’s direction would be leaving in six minutes – making this connection was a seemingly impossible feat for two gaijin who spoke about 6 words of Japanese between us, 50% of which included “hello”, “goodbye”, and “thank you”.
So, by the time we had to step on the plane, my concern had ballooned until it was becoming quite the traumatic experience. As I am wont to do with issues of such dramatic proportions, I approached it in my classic manner of pretending it wasn’t a problem, deciding it was a WAL (Worry About Later) problem that could be dealt with in-transit.
The plane trip in itself was very normal, although we got shafted with our aircraft – a pov Boeing 767, missing all the luxury trappings of the recently-revamped Qantas 747s with their in-flight entertainment centres buried in the seat back in front of you. As such our movie options were limited to Starsky and Hutch, and some terrible romantic comedy. A more detailed review of these movies would not be worth the various 1s and 0s that would be used to transmit them from Paul’s laptop to your screen, as they were quite terrible.
However, the plane trip served as a useful platform for Aaron and I to discuss our options for when we arrived. We’d narrowed it down to three options:
1) Get the train to Tokyo and try to catch the bullet train. This was rated with a very low chance of success.
2) Get the train to Tokyo and find a hotel. This sounded ok, assuming we could find a hotel with people that spoke English, and one with vacancies, within walking distance of the train station.
3) Rent a car, and drive ourselves to Shirakawa.
The third option, while almost immediately dismissed, started sounding better and better. Not only would it be an adventure in itself, it would have the added advantage of us not having to activate our two-week Japanese rail passes – our ticket to unlimited free travel on the Japanese Rail system – so we’d be able to use them at the end of our holiday to get back to the airport (actually paying for the train like a normal person is pretty expensive). We’d also save a bunch of money that we would otherwise have to spend on a hotel.
By the time we’d gotten off the plane, we’d pretty much decided that this was the best option. We’d looked at some high-level maps of Japan and there were expressways basically going straight to Shirakawa – how hard could it be, right?
Fortunately, we quickly discovered that it probably wasn’t going to be that easy. Not only was it expensive to rent a car ($200/48 hours), there were tolls (indicated on our map in Engrish as “Tool roads”) along the way ranging in price up to 10,000 yen (approx. $100).
So, we bailed on this plan pretty quickly and decided to go to Tokyo and try to get the Shinkansen, knowing that we’d probably fail and have to get a hotel. Resigned to our fate, we trudged to the train station, with me thinking that we were probably never going to find our way out of the JR train system.
We hit our first roadblock about 12 seconds later, discovering that the JR office from which we would exchange our rail pass vouchers into real train passes was closed (when you buy a Japan Rail Pass a tourist, you do this in Australia and are given a voucher, which you exchange for the real pass at a JR station). This was cause for panic, but fortunately Aaron spied a sign at an open terminal showing where we could do this.
This process kicked off at about 9.35, with our train to Tokyo leaving at 9.45. It dragged on for about 8 minutes, during which time we were informed by the very helpful pseudo-English speaking attendant that there were no non-smoking carriages, and that only standing space was available.
We dashed down to the platform and managed to get on the train, and were plunged immediately into Hell – a smoke filled cabin from which there was no escape for an hour. My sinuses pre-emptively started reacting and I had visions of spending the next 48 hours wracked with asthma woes and a running nose.
Trying to ignore this, we started making plans. Perhaps buoyed by all the noxious gases in the room, I became increasingly confident (or delerious) and told Aaron that I thought we could make our connecting Shinkansen and get to Paul’s place. Aaron, while dubious, said it was worth a shot.
As our hour-long nicotine-fuelled carcinoma-growing session drew to an end, we made our way to the back of the train to effect a hasty escape. We jumped off the train and ran up the closest set of stairs, hoping that we’d see some signs. We made it into the main concourse and pretty much stopped dead.
Tokyo Station is one of the biggest and busiest train stations in the world. We knew this in advance, but it was about 10.35pm by this point, and we figured it would have quietened down a bit. So, we were somewhat surprised to see what amounted to approximately the entire population of Brisbane walking around the train station in front of us. Aaron turned to me and said “uh.. maybe we try not to lose each other”, advice which under the circumstances, was probably good.
We spied a sign that said Shinkansen, and, throwing caution to the wind, dashed towards it. The signs (fortunately in English) directed us exactly where we had to go, up several levels of this massive structure (dodging thousands of Japanese per square meter). Our only concern now was buying a ticket and getting to the platform, so we found a likely booth, again manned by someone who spoke enough English, and found out that we apparently didn’t need to get tickets for the Shinkansen, and could just get on the train.
I didn’t really believe this advice, but wanted to test it, because at the very worst I figured we’d just spend the night in a Tokyo jail for fare dodging. We bolted, again following Shinkansen signs, eventually coming to a platform. The helpful digital signs had the name of a place we didn’t recognise, but there was only one train available, so we jumped on it.
To confirm our destination, I asked about three different people if we were going to the right place. My pronunciation of our destination (Nasu-Shioraba) was horrible, and it took me a few goes before I made sense – and then when a Japanse person said it properly it sounded completely different so I still wasn’t sure. Eventually though, we became confident enough to relax a bit, although I was still worried about the whole ticket thing, so I leaned off the train. A helpful white-glove-clad Japanese train guy saw me and walked over to me, I guess to push me back on the train before I was beheaded by closing doors. Again, he spoke enough English that I was able to confirm that we didn’t need a ticket, so we found a quite corner on the train next to an elderly Japanese guy and stood there – hoping we were on the right train and hoping that no JR officials were going to find us.
After a moment, the Japanese guy that we were next to engaged us in conversation. He spoke some English – better than the JR officials – and we had a great chat to him for the hour long trip north. This guy was an absolute champion – the first Japanese person we met – and told us all about himself, his 17 year old daughter who was coming to Australia in the near future and generally kept us occupied as we tried to communicate. The best thing he did for us though was confirm we were on the right train, told us when we’d need to get off (the station after his), and then he let us use his mobile phone to call Paul, who was by this point wondering where the hell we were. We arranged with Paul to get picked up at our destination, and settled back to enjoy the ride.
While talking to our newfound Japanese friend, Oda, we marvelled at the speed of train – something we didn’t even notice until we looked out the window and saw the landscape whizzing by. Oda proudly told us we were going at about 230km/h. At this point I realised the near-futility of our original plan to drive. Even if we knew where we were going and could read the roadsigns, such a trip would have taken hours and hours.
Eventually, our new friend got off the train and we went and sat down. Shortly afterwards, we reached our station, walked off, and found Paul at his girlfriend Yoko, waiting for us at the exit. Needless to say, a huge surge of relief passed through me at this point – against all the odds and despite all of the worry, we’d actually managed to get from Brisbane, Australia to Wherever the Hell Paul Was, Japan.
As a result, Aaron and I now believe we are invincible to anything else this country can throw at us. If we can beat the odds on the rail system, surely we can do anything!
After we met Paul, we drove to 7-11, picked up a snack, and drove to Shirakawa. There were many things to marvel at along the way, despite it being pitch black and foggy. However, the first chapter of this novella is already long enough and we’ll save it for another email. Suffice to say that we made it to Paul’s place, where I showered and promptly collapsed – we’d started at 6am that morning and it was about 2am by the time I hit the sack, so it had been a long day.
NEXT TIME in the email saga of David and Aaron’s trip to the Land of the Rising Sun…
HEAR the story about how David’s plan to avoid eating seafood lasted less than 12 hours!
SEE the pictures of exciting Japanese things such as vending machines, temples, and castles!
READ more lengthy, spammy emails covering our travels!
Everyone (except me) is nursing hangovers today so I think I’ll have more time to write and upload photos, so stay tuned!