Japan! Travelling, Arrival and Adventures in Guesswork.

Ohayoo gozaimasu! Good morning world from my first 24 hours in Japan after a very long trip and about 12 hours of sleep to get rid of the jetlag.

Much like when I first arrived in Germany, I feel like absolutely everything is worth writing about because it is all so different and strange to me.

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My bird in a freezing cold and snowy München flughafen.

I boarded in the mid afternoon in Munich for a direct, 11 and a half hour flight to Tokyo Haneda. Having a look around at the other passengers they were a mixed lot, from families going home, holidaymakers and businessmen. Trying not to be too self-conscious about being an excited 20-something white man on his first trip to Japan, I took my seat next to a German aquarium-owner who was on his way to the North Island to select the next batch of Koi carp for resale in Hamburg. I was full of aspiration to sleep the whole way only to wake up refreshed in Tokyo, however the timing of the flight meant that I felt sleepy just as they were waking everyone up, and proceeded to instead watch trashy movies the whole way instead. I would come to regret this later, however at the time my waking state meant that I got a rather stunning view of Moscow from 30 thousand feet or so.

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Moscow is flipping HUGE and rather beautiful a day or two after Orthodox Christmas

Ulaanbaatar is another pretty one, although sadly the pictures didn’t come out so well. What I learned by staring out the window in the slow bits of Jason Bourne movies and the 1960 version of the Magnificent Seven is that on the flight path between Moscow and Tokyo there is what is technically termed MMBA (miles and miles of not a lot) which gives me a sort of horizontal vertigo. We would fly for over an hour in clear skies and I’d see barely a light on the surface. Forget the old west: I think the Russians might have a monopoly on what you might cal “frontier territory”.  We took a bit of a wiggly line after exiting Russian and then Chinese airspace to avoid the somewhat problematic (and heavily armed) hole in time that the DPRK sits in to pass over the metropolis of Seoul just after dawn. I was greeted to my first sight of Japan not long after.

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On reflection, the active snowsports scene in Japan makes so much sense now.

My excitement began to manifest about then, along with the lack of sleep catching up to me as my body clock said “Hey it’s 2am go to bed you nutcase” while the environment outside the window said “Wake up and go to work”. The nice Lufthansa staff seemed to be content to compromise on the whole situation by simply handing out bad food and worse coffee and smiling a lot. Joking aside, I’d definitely fly Lufthansa again. Being asked if I want a top-up in three languages is lots of fun, and them settling on German as the best one for me as I reply in it automatically is even better.

Tokyo Haneda beckoned, and I start to experience the strange and disorienting feeling of losing the ability to readIt is truly humbling. At the airport, fortunately, English is the go-to subsitute, but when speaking to literally anyone who isn’t speaking English I have this urge to speak German at them as my brain goes “use the FOREIGN one, the one that isn’t English, ja genau, können Sie mich Helfen, bitte, das ist Japanesisch, oder?” 

I wisely decided to remove the Yubisashi point-and-say phrasebook from my bag and have remained glued to it ever since. I feel armed and ready for Japan with it in my hand. It is a godsend (or more correctly, an Amazon-send).

The helpfully-translated signs in the toilet upon landing, the toilet which SPOKE TO ME IN A ROBOT VOICE, reassured me that I was in safe hands.

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Alright, calm down Japan, I’m trying to flush the loo not decommission a nuclear submarine.

 

I had, upon my presence in Japan for no more than 2o minutes, managed to fill in or receive four discrete forms and certificates. One was my landing card, then my customs declaration, then my additional bag check-in customs certificate (for the domestic flight, to be kept with but not confused for my boarding card, which was seperate), and my security certificate. These were all paper and were required to be kept on me at all times and NOT LOST OR GOD HELP YOU, and the latter two had no English on at all.  I did not photograph them. They may have personal identity information on them, whether or not I understand it. I wouldn’t know which bits to blur.

Japan, as a nation, please allow me to present you with an award: You have managed to out-form Germany. Not an easy task when the judge has worked for the German government for the last three years.

Nonetheless, everything ran smoothly. The way to get to domestic departures from customs in Tokyo Haneda is to get a bus, and while everything is signposted fairly well, in sometimes confusing but utterly forgivable English, I was a little perplexed until I was automatically helped by a member of the pubic, a friendly Russian businessman (yes, definitely Russian, definitely friendly) and the airline staff. The Japanese people I met at the airport were very kind and understanding, as the situation must happen a lot.

I felt like a giant on the bus, a giant in a tiny world. Not, you must understand, for the reason I expected. People in Japan are much the same size as people anywhere else in the world, but all the spaces people are are smaller. I struggled to squeeze into my bus seat without taking up two, and while I’ve had what I would call a Very Good Christmas (Dear God I’ve eaten so much lately) I wouldn’t have thought I was a two-bus-seat sort of man. I noticed with even more confusion that a Japanese fellow considerably stouter than I apparently used quantum tunelling to sit in the seat opposite with no trouble. On the upside, tiny buses are adorable.

Domestic departures has much less English signage, and I had a gate change, but I didn’t even need to ask before an ANA representative came over and told me where to go to get my plane. I’d say I narrowly got the flight but to be honest all it meant was that I was waiting by the gate for about five minutes before boarding a massive (and very empty) 777 to take a hour-long flight to Osaka Itami, a flight which I spent in a drunk-feeling sleep-deprived haze.

I was picked up by the worlds nicest driver and boarded a Toyota taxi along with another couple to drive to Kyoto and the African Studies Center. I wish I could remember the drive. I remember hovering between sleep and waking, head nodding about like I was at an Opeth concert, and seeing beautiful Kyoto temples for the hour the drive took. Takada-san (my professor and contact at the University of Kyoto) was waiting for me outside the centre, and seeing a familiar face was a real joy. I bowed my thanks to the driver (arigatou gozaimasu) and the final journey, to the letting agent and the flat, was thankfully only a minute, although the taxi driver did alarm me slightly by having his dashboard television showing a gameshow for the entire distance.

It was very amusing. The contestant did not win.

It turns out that I have paid what is a thoroughly reasonable city centre rate in Europe for a one-room studio in the absolute dead-centre of Kyoto, next to the university, in an area I thought would be totally out of consideration in somewhere as purportedly-overpopulated as Japan. The first thing I did upon entry was to remove my shoes so as not to get any of the torrential rain on the lovely traditional tatami mat floor, and turn on the kotatsu under-table heater so that when I sat on the floor at the low table my feet would be cosy and warm.

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I apologise (mainly to my mother) for the unmade bed. Sorry Mum.

While there is an air-conditioner above the window, there is single-glazing and no central heating, which is not ideal for January. I am, in truth, cold at night although a cheap space heater (especially considering my bills are paid in advance by the University) should cover that. I will consult them before I buy it, as they eat power.

There is a gas ring and sink in the hall-cum kitchen, and the world’s tiniest (but still perfectly functional) bathroom which they have somehow managed to get a bath into, and I have both a back and front porch, as my kitchen door leads right to the first-floor outside landing, and I have a small balcony outside the above curtains. I am surrounded by buildings in a tetris-like way, as I expected, although my balcony faces a primary school, much like my first flat in Germany, actually, so I needn’t worry about being late for work.

What you see on the bed there is the results of my very first adventure: My supply mission.

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Mystery Snacks! I know what most of these things are.

Armed with my phrasebook and both an empty rucksack and an empty stomach, I followed the recently-left Takada-san’s advice and headed East towards one of Japan’s famous 7/11 convenience stores, which was like a supermarket in miniature. I spent at least five minutes marvelling, and enjoying the upbeat Japanese pop music, before attempting to shop.

Not being able to ask for help is one thing, but not being able to read is quite another. I mainly went by sight and picked up things that either I recognised or that I knew by sight. Hence for dinner was Ramen noodle soup (definitely) with soy (almost definitely) and pepper (definitely, English on the label)-fried beef (probably, actually definitely after opening) and eggs (hopefully chicken). I even got what I think are those delicious crackers always labelled as Japanese rice crackers in Europe, and those chocolate stick things because of course I did this is Japan come on jeez. The coffee, biscuits and satsumas (probably) are breakfast, being as I could not find any bread. I’m set there for at least two days provided I get lunch out, which I will when exploring. That lot cost me the equivalent of about €20, although the olive oil, nice-looking ground coffee (never instant, eugh) and the soy sauce was a big part of that, I think.

Ramen requires chopsticks (of which there are loads, and I mean loads of disposable ones under the sink) and a spoon, upon which I saw this face for the millionth time in less than 24 hours.

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There is no escape. Look at it’s kawaii little face. Look at it. Bow down before the Lord of All. BOW BEFORE YOUR MASTER.

Continuing in the theme of local Gods, there is a shrine just over the road, one of hundreds across Kyoto. I have a Lonely Planet guide, a paper map, and my phrasebook. Today is a national holiday in Japan, which means that everything is open as usual apparently, and so today is for exploring.

I’ve been instructed by Dave, my friend and a previous visitor to Japan, to find takoyaki (octopus balls) for lunch, because, and I quote, “they are nicer than they sound”.

I have a mission! Even better, it is food-related. So Japan, thanks for the warm welcome, let’s see what you’ve got. And to you readers, I will provide another update soon to The Anthropologist (Not In) Cologne.

Kyoto beckons. Sayounara!

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