After I graduated back in 1997, I boarded a JAL flight from London to Tokyo as I set out to experience a country which would later become my home. I was 21 years old and had no idea of what to expect, in fact I wasn’t even sure that the family I hoped to stay with for the summer even knew I was coming! These were the days before the internet and email were all that common so I had set things up by snail mail, but hadn’t heard anything back in the couple of months before I boarded that plane.
Despite a 12 hour flight, the plane landed at Narita airport exactly on time, not a minute early or a minute late, and I found myself in the hustle and bustle of Japan’s busiest airport. Not understanding a word of Japanese, I somehow managed to board the Narita Express for Tokyo and already was impressed. What a train! The NEX, with it’s sliding doors, air conditioning, news bulletins, comfortable seats and the ability to tilt as it turned corners was a far cry from the trains I was used to in England, you know, the ones where you had to lean out the window and open the door from outside!
It was about 6pm when I got to Tokyo station, but before heading off to Nagoya (a large city in central Japan, about two hours west of Tokyo by bullet train), I took the chance to walk a few blocks in ‘skyscraper’ city. To be honest, there wasn’t much to see around the station other than posters of the Spice Girls and the Kinki Kids. Hang on. The Kinki Kids? Yes, but not kinky like I imagined. Kinki is another name for Kansai, the region of Japan in which Osaka and Kyoto are, and the Kinki Kids were a couple of Japanese pop singers, from that area.
It was getting dark and my bag was getting heavy, so I made my way to the information desk at the station to get some English info on the train times, but it wasn’t going to be that easy! The information desk was closed, as it was getting late, and no-one at the ticket counter could speak English. Gulp! With the aid of a map, I managed to get convey my intentions of going to Nagoya on the Shinkansen (bullet train), which was a relief until he pointed to the cost on a calculator. I was sure he was charging me for a return ticket (buying a return ticket is pretty standard in England though it turned out that in Japan no-one ever buys ‘return tickets’). Seeing the cost gave me the confidence to turn to the long line of people that had gathered behind me and ask “Can anyone here speak English?” Fortunately for me, a woman offered to help and I realized that I would have to cough up all that money for just a one-way trip.
The shinkansen was much like the NEX but faster. This was one trip I had really been looking forward to, to finally ride the bullet train. It wasn’t all I imagined it to be though because it was so dark outside that you couldn’t see anything through the windows, and the train moved so smoothly that I may as well have been back on the plane. Actually, I’m not giving the shinkansen enough credit here. It’s an amazing train, and either seeing one or riding on one is an experience I enjoy everytime.
At about 9pm, my train pulled into Nagoya station. Although it wasn’t that late, because it was dark and I was obviously tired, I decided not to phone my Japanese friend until the next morning. In summer in England there would still have been some daylight at that time, but not here. It had been dark for a few hours already. I think I went without food and started looking for a cheap hotel. I wasn’t looking for long before an overly-friendly Japanese man found me walking the back streets of Nagoya station with a huge backpack over my shoulders. “You, stay!” he chanted as he pointed to the dodgiest of dodgy hotels. I pulled out my phrase book and asked how much, to which he responded 800 yen, which was unbelievably cheap, and I was soon to realize why.
I paid up front, and since I had my phrase book out I asked the stupidest question that anyone could ask under the circumstances. If you can guess what question I asked, please leave a comment with your answer and I’ll get some kind of internet shopping voucher to give the winner!
The hotel had no bathroom, just a Japanese-style hole-in-the-floor toilet, shared with everybody of course, and a small sink to wash in. The room had no window to speak of either, just a fan, a futon and a pay-to-use TV. Although I was exhausted, I was too excited about being in Japan to sleep, and even though I tried, it was just way too hot and humid, so I spent the night reading about the things I wanted to do in Japan, and left the hotel at about 3:30am!
I waited at the station until it opened and was able to buy a ticket to Obu city, just south of Nagoya. Getting a ticket was much easier this time and I was shown to the platform where I boarded the first train. Obviously not understanding Japanese, I had no idea when I should get off the train, so I stood right at the back and tapped on the conductor’s window at every station. After doing this about ten times, he finally signalled for me to get off.
Now Obu city was pretty small, and I thought it was too early to phonel my homestay family, so I decided to head for the ‘high street’. In the U.K, every town has its center, usually called the high street, you know, where the shops and pubs are. Of course, not knowing where it was (and later I found out that shops in many places in Japan are spread out over the city, not confined to one main shopping area), I took my best guess and started walking, and walking… and walking…. no shops, no pubs, I was completely lost. I had come too far to turn back, and was absolutely starving so I went into the first convenience store I could find.
It’s really strange thinking back to that first day, and how I didn’t know or couldn’t understand anything, kind of like a fly that just buzzes around in circles, bumping into windows. The only thing in the convenience store I recognized were some crisps that looked a bit like Pringles but called Chipstar. Anyway, I scoffed them down and kept walking. Eventually I stopped at a gas station and showed my address book to the attendant. Not only did he recognize the address, he threw my bag in the back of his truck and drove me round the corner to my friend’s house! Maybe just 50 meters round the corner from the gas station. How’s that for lucky? I could have walked in the direction from the train station, but I almost found the place out of sheer luck! Not to mention how nice it was of him to help me out like that.
Now bear in mind that I hadn’t heard from this family for over two months. I wasn’t sure if the offer to stay with them was still open, and I really didn’t know if they had received my last letter about my date of arrival. Well, here I was, this tall, skinny, big-nosed foreigner, standing at the front door, about to intrude on this poor family for three months! Ding dong…
No answer. I tried again, but still no answer. So I sat on my bag and waited. To bring this long post to an end, Rieko, the Japanese mum, came home soon after. She had finished working the night shift at the hospital, but was thrilled to see me and was so welcoming. My friend, who in England we nicknamed ‘Okyo’, was asleep with a hangover. The previous day was his birthday and he had only been asleep for a couple of hours before I arrived. Still, he got himself up and we all sat down to breakfast – a traditional English breakfast, courtesy of his mum!