Saturday, September 12, 2009

Nippon rules

So we made it to Japan after a trouble-free, but not altogether comfortable flight and commute. Travelling JAL was certainly a step up from my only other international flight experience - Jetstar - but no so much that it made the budget carrier look bad (and if Jetstar continues to offer their ridiculously cheap fares, I'll no doubt be a frequent flyer of theirs).

Curiously the odour was again the first thing which hit me as the biggest cultural difference. Japan smells old, and musky - like a dampness which set in about 20 years ago and never really had a chance to dry. The entire country seems to smell like a stuffy, cigarette smoke-drenched room (which I know only too well, thanks to my past), and the the interior of the public buildings have that depressed, 1980s hopelessness about them which is at once annoying and endearing.

We skirted through customs and immigration largely undisturbed, and set about the mission of getting from Narita to Shinjuku via the Narita Express train. The disturbance, however, came a little bit late: prior to boarding the train, Satomi needed a quick toilet break, leaving me to mind the mini mountain of luggage. Being the curious gent that I am, I set about walking in loose circles around the concourse area of the station. As 2 armed police officers wandered towards me, they also caught my attention. Unfortunately, this seemed to raise their suspicions, giving them enough reason to halt my progress and demand to see my passport. (Demand is probably too strong, as even in delivering their front-line aggression, Japanese are painfully polite about it). Returning from the toilet, this little scene obviously caused my wife no end of glee, as tried to stifle her humour enough to properly converse with the gun-toting keepers of the peace and explain my hapless self to them. It seemed to work and we were on our way soon enough.

Even with the glorious title of "Express" which suggests swiftness and efficiency - which I have no doubt it had plenty of both - the train still took the better part of 2 hours to reach our destination. Up and down a multitude of escalators and we finally found the south exit of Shinjuku station and were thrust upon the seething mess of Tokyo city streets at night. Satomi's old friend Yoko-chan was kind enough to meet us and guided us through the fascinating throngs (which is everything you could expect from your impressions of a metropolis like this - bright, busy and bustling), and led us to a charming little pub-come-restuarant which entertained us for a few hours with its cheap drinks, good food and great company.

We decided to catch the extremely cheap night bus from Tokyo to Takaoka - where we could get picked up by the Nagai's - and so set about finding the bus station. Bus station is, by the way, only a label, as all it consisted of was a flimsy card table on the side of the road surrounded by apron-clad lasses screaming out directions and information on which bus is coming next. The side of the street and steps leading to the near-by buildings were choked with others just like us - suitcase carrying travellers eager to get away. And eager in more than just the usual travelling zombie way - but eager to escape the putrid, open-sewer smell that would waft through from some underground construction work nearby.

The bus was a bloody disaster, and every bit cheap-assed. As it was a night bus, all passengers slept throughout the journey - meaning that all of the curtains were drawn and leaving the interior a dark, unfamiliar and somewhat dank cavern. The seats pitched back beautifully, but were amazingly uncomfortable - even just sitting upright brought about sharp pains in the lower back. The temperature and climate control within the cavern was infuriatingly inconsistent and the smell of 30-odd sweaty, farting, snoring unwashed bodies inside was almost gag-worthy. My pristine new watch became my enemy, as every time I was jolted back into consciousness by someone moving, the bus lurching, or just the overall feeling of extreme uncomfortability, its gleefully glowing hands told me I'd only been out for about 10 minutes. This meant that the 7-hour trip was spent being hopelessly awake and unable to do anything about it. Which is not so much a bad thing - I've had similar experiences bus travelling before, but as this was a dedicated "night bus", it was almost unwritten law that you could not turn on a light or open the curtains to watch the scenery whiz by. I've discovered then, that while I sometimes crave the moments of vacant staring into space and letting my mind wander, being forced to stare into an unfamiliar, dark and smelly space, being jolted and assaulted by ergonomically tortuous seats, is probably not the most healthy way to do it.

And so we arrived at Takaoka station tired and miserable. This passed pretty quickly, though, when Okasan arrived and whisked us away through the country-side and straight to the hospital to pay our respects to Obasan - the very reason for our trip. The poor old dear looked frail and poorly, but was still full of spirit and curiosity. The three ladies spent the hour or so nattering away naturally and happily, but this was interrupted every so often by Obasan's back pain and ailing ways - the only outward indication she was ill. We parted fairly soon, but will be back visiting daily for the next three weeks. We're heading off this evening to meet with a friend of Satomi-chan's, but have kept any other plans to a basic minimum so we can maximise our time with Obasan.


Kaz said...

I feel sorry for your uncomfortably boot camp trip. Express train in Japan doesn't always mean swiftness but means less stops inbetween, which in turn means shorter time to travel around anyway. Night trains are all alike. They are packed with ridicurously many passengers trying to sleep on the miserably uncomfortable seats but that surely doesn't stop you from staying awake watching outside scenery. People don't care much about what other people do in the bus. But I know that guilty feeling when you lighten up the bus by peeping outside. Night is not dark enough to enjoy the darkness in Japan, especially in metropolitan areas. I hope you enjoy staying with your Obasan and Okasan at Jikka. It would be strange but surely fun if we get together and drink sake at Izakaya in Japan someday. Enjoy the rest of your trip!

Dr Yobbo said...

Mass transport: wherever you are in the world, and wherever you go in it, it f**king sucks.

Jamin (AKA Blue Box) said...

I hear ya Doc. And being carless for this trip, we are at the mercy of busy relos or the stupidly lacking mass transit system in rural japan. Which, like any rural area anywhere, leaves a lot to be desired.

And Kaz - you can count on it. A sake in Izakaya, and perhaps a couple of beers in Inami?

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