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!

Day One

Well, I’m here. It’s my first morning in Namibia, and after two days of pretty intense travelling, I have landed and am in my first guest house, which I have until Wednesday. I’ve got a few important things to get on with in these first few days, the most pressing of which is to secure myself some transportation, which means buying a four-wheel drive that will serve my purposes as a main repository for my stuff as well as my transport for the next year. It’s quite daunting, and I’ll feel better once I have it.

My journey began with six hours on the high-speed train from Cologne to Munich Airport. All went without incident, and Munich airport is imposing and terrifying in equal measure, but feels very much like something from the future.DSCF0034

That is from just outside the check-in desk. The train turns up underground just underneath it, and in comparison to the airports I normally frequent (Edinburgh, Düsseldorf Weeze and, increasingly, Hosea Kutako International in Windhoek) it is staggeringly massive and modern. I had a long wait, nervous as I was I turned up far too many hours in advance, and had to wait for some time for the bag drop to open at all, even though it did so three hours before the plane departed. Fortunately, just opposite the desk was an airport pub, and I thought I would get myself a little last taste of Germany before I left, which made me realise I would indeed miss it when I was gone.

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I proceeded along my (increasingly) merry way, and slept through most of the ten-hour night flight to Johannesburg, which was nice. Security at German airports seems thoroughly relaxed in comparison to my homeland, and they were a bit surprised when I automatically took off my shoes, as I have yet to pass through Heathrow Terminal 5 without being asked to do so. I’m becoming somewhat good at not setting off the metal detectors, now.

Arriving blearily at Johannesburg, dehydrated, achey and dog-tired, I was greeted with the world’s longest queue, and was relieved that South African Airways had made my layover six hours. Apparently, O R Tambo Johannesburg thinks it is perfectly fine to have a flight from Frankfurt, and one from Munich, each containing about four hundred people, most of whom are tired and irritable Germans, arrive ten minutes apart. I really don’t think their international transfers section is designed to handle that. Having been briefed on Standard African time previously, I was patient, and two hours later I found somewhere to buy two litres of water and a quiet place to sit and drink all of it while reading National Geographic from cover to cover (there was something about the diets of hunter-gatherers in it, and a nice little bit about Nero). Thankfully, I did not fall asleep. I still had a few hours, and decided to browse some of the terminal shops, which are great if you want the skin of pretty much anything:

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Made into pretty much anything:

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Or you are just hungry:

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I wasn’t really hungry. The coffee was alright though, and at quarter past one I was on my final plane for what I hope to be a reasonably long time, and on the final leg of my journey to Namibia. They’ve got a brand new plane for the leg, too, and fortunately my checking in early got me a seat by the window just behind business class, where I slept for most of that flight as well.

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The view was nice, if hazy as it is the dry season and dust covers most of the land. I think that is Botswana below us at that point.

Normally, when you enter Namibia as a foreigner, you have to complete a landing card, which is pretty much the same as the visa form I filled in a few months ago, but with the added bonus that it is completed in hasty biro scribble while the cabin crew are telling you to put up your tray table as the plane is landing. However, this time, they had run out of them, and all we got to fill in was this:

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I cast a quick glance over the others in my row, and none of them seemed to have Ebola either, so I think we’re alright. We had to hand those to a lady who stood outside the terminal building, next to another lady who took the temperature of our necks with what looked like a police radar gun. Nobody was stopped, and I was reassured about this. All I can say is that I’m glad I slept with my head back rather than on my chest, with regard to the temperature of my neck. I’m pretty sure that there have been no cases of Ebola here in Namibia to date, but it’s nice to know they’re being careful. I note as well that South Africa didn’t ask for a form like that. I think the Namibian authorities just like forms a lot. It’s either their slightly socialist bent (no complaints from me) or maybe their German influence.

Then came the moment of truth. I’d applied for my work visa, I had the form all ready, I just needed to see if I was accepted into the country (at least until November, when I need it extended). I had butterflies, and all the documents that I needed to acquire the visa in the folder with the certificate, just in case. I stood at the counter for what seemed like forever, then the worst possible thing for my mental state happened. I was ushered, stampless, into a tiny office where I interrupted a very in-depth conversation in English between a well-dressed man and the customs official. They were talking about how it was illegal to bring “that much” Tanzanian currency into the country. You will forgive me, I’m sure, for not thinking I was in the best of company.

The official stopped the exchange with one wave of an authoritative hand, and motioned for me to hand him my form and passport. I duly did, quaking in my boots and not looking forward to the next flight back to Europe. It turns out that the regular passport checking desk didn’t have the work visa stamp, so it was done in a flash and he took my form, even taking the time to check I had nothing else important in the plastic wallet that I wanted to keep. I was in, and he presumably  resumed his conversation with the well-dressed man.

My next task after picking up my luggage was to find a taxi to take me the 50km to Windhoek. As I expected, I was inundated with taxi offers from the moment I exited arrivals, and took up the offer of a guy who waited for me to withdraw some local currency, and I left to enter Namibia proper.

We loaded up his car, and he mentioned that he was leaving to pay the parking fee. He left me standing beside the open car, and the first thing I noticed was that there was nothing on the car at all to indicate that it was in fact a taxi. I was pretty suspicious, and all the stories of kidnapped foreigners ran through my head at once, and the fact that he had left me beside the open car in full view of large numbers of Namibian police totally left my mind. I had visions of all sorts of awful things, and in the ten minutes he was gone I photographed his license plate and tax disk as well as checking the glove compartment for a weapon. Obviously, there was nothing there, and when we passed the police checkpoint on the way in he shook hands with the policeman, as he was a friend of his. It turns out my tiredness and leftover anxiety from getting stamped in the wee office was getting the better of me, and not only did he take the time on the drive in to teach me a phrase or two in Oshiwambo, but when I got to the guest house and had paid the extremely little he charged me for a 50km drive, he waited to make sure I got in alright before driving on, to ensure I wasn’t left on the street with nowhere to go. Needless to say, I took his card, and will call him again when I next need a ride. He just bought his car last week, and hasn’t got around to getting the taxi stickers yet. I tipped him extremely well, although he doesn’t know why, and was reminded why I felt so safe in Namibia so quickly the last time I was here.

Maybe I’m a bit cynical. Just maybe.

So today I’ve got some meetings to arrange, a guest house to call, and some dealerships to research. I feel more relaxed already.

Tschuß!

Here we go

So it turned out I could shave a good couple of hundred Euros off my flights if I booked ones for tomorrow (Saturday 13th) rather than today, so that is what I did. Thanks to the excellent German public transport network, I can fly from Munich. As the Germans are big on reducing folks’ carbon footprint, many airlines, South African Airways included, have signed up to the Rail-and-Fly program. This means the six-hour, normally €140 journey on the high-speed ICE train costs me nothing, and I get to sit in a special Lufthansa carriage all the way there, getting a nice view of the Bavarian scenery. One ticket, costing €750, will get me all the way from Köln Ehrenfeld station, about two hundred metres from my room where I now sit, to Hosea Kutako airport Windhoek. Incredible. My travel schedule, however, is a long one. Six hours on the train to Munich, a wait in the airport, a ten-hour flight to Johannesburg, another wait in the airport, then two hours flying to Windhoek. This is over about two days, and I will catch the train at about eleven tomorrow morning, arriving in Windhoek at twenty past three on Sunday afternoon. I’ve booked a guest house to check into at four.

It’s all sorted, everything is booked, and all I need to do now is check in to my flights this evening online, scrambling with everyone else on the flight to get myself a bulkhead seat for my unfeasibly long legs. I then need to find a printing shop on the way to the station to print off the boarding pass, which shouldn’t be too difficult.

Packing has been a bit of a chore, although thanks to the guy replacing me in my room being 1) a car owner and 2) absolutely brilliant, getting the stuff I’m not taking to Namibia to the office to live under my desk for a year was not too much trouble. Gretel is now safely stowed in another friend’s basement, and after what I think qualifies as an actual physical fight with my stuff, I’ve also packed my bags.

Here is the stuff I’m putting in the hold, which all fit into a 65L hiking rucksack (reluctantly) and weighs about nineteen kilos.

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Yes, that is an Irish tin whistle and accompanying book. As I’ve had to leave my guitar and mandolin in Cologne for the next year (although I plan to buy a cheap guitar there) I thought I might take the opportunity to learn some tunes on the whistle. I’ve always liked the idea of an instrument I can fit in my pocket, but the draw of the mandolin for fiddle tunes has, until now, proved too much. No choice now, so time to learn. The funny black thing in the bottom right corner is also an amazingly-compact giant solar panel, which I found in the office. Apparently there are perks to being on an anthropological project with a hefty budget. I’ve also had to pack a little strategically: Johannesburg airport has a bit of a theft problem, and I lost a mobile phone last time. I am preparing by topping off the side and lid pockets with my dirty socks from the days before. Heh heh heh.

Here is what I am taking with me on the plane:

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The Indy hat, I will admit, seems overkill, but it was invaluable last time against the terrifyingly powerful Namibian sun. The map of Namibia that has been on the wall for the last couple of months is also coming with me.

And here is the lot of it together:

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This is everything I will own in Namibia until I buy a car. I will then fill that car with camping equipment and live out of it for the next year. It should be good.

I’ve got a good couple of hours before I can check in online for my flight, and similar to my earlier blog post about Karneval, just before I left last time, I think that this one was probably a little frenetic. I certainly feel frenetic. Maybe I’ll wax my boots again. I sure as hell am not repacking the bloody rucksack.

See you in Africa, Tschuß!