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It’s not as weird as I thought it would be. I remember once saying that Japan was as alien a culture as one will find while still remaining on Earth. I’m not sure about that anymore. (Perhaps an Islamic theocracy?) I had no “Lost In Translation” moments. I didn’t feel alienated or freaked out threatened, even when travelling alone. Nor did I ever feel unsafe, even on the Osaka subway at 5:00 am. (I did get very homesick while I was sick, but that’s to be expected.)
Everybody is very committed to their job, even at McDonalds. They rush and shout and perform their duties to the best of their ability. They are exceedingly polite. Contrast this with the slack-jawed pimple-faced service you receive in Karrinyup or Innaloo. (Note, however, that I prefer our method, because I too have a job. It suits me just fine to receive that kind of zealous service, unless I have to give it in return.)
It’s very clean – but there are virtually no rubbish bins. If you buy some food or a drink on the go, be prepared to carry the wrapper or can around with you for a very long time.
Smoking is a lot more accepted – there are cigarette vending machines, and established smoking rooms in airports and train stations.
A lot of things surprised me. In Tokyo, most of the shops shut around 10 pm and the trains don’t run past midnight. This is in the largest city in the world, with a population higher than my entire country.
Everything is efficient and fast. The train system is amazing – a new one along every five minutes – and the airports are excellent. Returning to Perth, and standing in line for our baggage for about half an hour, was like having our faces plunged into a trough of freezing water by a burly debt collector.
And I loved it all. I loved travelling, checking into hostels, living on the cheap. It’s a hassle when you’re dragging your bags through train stations, but there are few feelings in the world sweeter than dropping all your crap off in a hostel room and finally being free to explore the city. In short, I cannot wait to go around the world for a year.
Unfortunately, Japan was exceedingly expensive – about eight grand all up. As Chris put it while we were sliding down the slopes of Niseko, “We’re doing something rich people do… but we’re not rich.” It exhausted our funds – he is now two grand in the hole, while I spent nearly every dollar I earned throughout my university years. We could have travelled for approximately four or five months in the third world on that much money.
I don’t regret it at all – it was an amazing trip and one of the best things I’ve done in my life – but it does present a problem. If we want to set off at any point in the near future (tentative date, early 2010) we need about $20, 000. Last year that wouldn’t have been a problem. Now, thanks to the cigar-smoking Wall Street fatcats… well. There was an article in the West Australian today about a supermarket deli in Belmont that advertised a position for sales assistant and received 150 applications.
I work as a sales assistant in a supermarket deli.
My plan was to ditch that and try to find a bookstore job this year, but now the concept of “job security” has politely cleared its throat. I need full-time work. I do not want to do that in the deli. I’m sick of cleaning ovens and racks and trays every day, of slicing meat and serving old women. Unfortunately, I now appear to be locked in. I applied to Angus & Robertson and Boffins today. I doubt I will be successful.
I would be open to the idea of combining travel and work, provided it could get me twenty grand by next February. My friend Mike is returning to Camp America this year – but that ends up costing you more than you earn. You can teach English in East Asia with a university degree in any field – but that’s a one-year contract minimum, and applications don’t open until later in the year. You can crew on a yacht with zero experience, but you don’t get paid either.
I’m trapped in this wretched city for a year. Oh well. Maybe I can finish End Times.
Matthew Reilly published his first novel when he was 22.
Terry Pratchett published his first novel when he was 23.
Michael Crichton published his first novel when he was 24.
Michael Chabon published his first novel when he was 25.
Neal Stephenson published his first novel when he was 25.
Philip Pullman published his first novel when he was 26.
Stephen King published his first novel when he was 26.
Philip K. Dick published his first novel when he was 27.
Ernest Hemingway published his first novel when he was 27.
Kazuo Ishiguro published his first novel when he was 28.
Joel Rosenberg published his first novel when he was 29.
Arthur C. Clarke published his first novel when he was 30.
Margaret Atwood published her first novel when she was 30.
David Mitchell published his first novel when he was 30.
Cormac McCarthy published his first novel when he was 32.
Philip Reeve published his first novel when he was 35.
William Gibson published his first novel when he was 36.
Ursula le Guin published her first novel when she was 37.
Robert Heinlein published his first novel when he was 40.
Susanna Clarke published her first novel when she was 45.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2003) 529 p.
Another excellent book, the kind you wish you could read more often, rocketing straight into my top ten favourites of all time. Cloud Atlas consists of six separate narratives, ranging across time and space from the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century, to a dystopic sci-fi Korea, to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Each story cuts off halfway through until the “final” one, which is whole, and then the arc swoops back down again and finishes every narrative off, like a mirror image; a more complete and satisfying version of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, if you will.
The stories, in order, are:
The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing
The diary of an American notary circa 1850, returning home from a business trip to Australia, who makes a brief stop at the Chatham Isles and then sets off again bound for Hawaii; the diary cuts off in mid-sentence as we are sent to…
Letters From Zedeghelm
… a series of letters written by a Robert Frobisher, a young, bankrupt English composer in 1931, fleeing debt collectors by hopping a ferry to Belgium and offering his services as an amanuensis to a reclusive, eldery composer. Frobisher ends up stealing books from the library to pay off his debts and sleeping with the composer’s wife, but before things are wrapped up we find ourselves in…
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Written in the style of an airport novel, featuring a determined young reporter taking on a corrupt nuclear power company in 1970s California. This was my least favourite of the stories, but that’s okay, because it’s not long before we’re reading…
The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish
Set in early 21st century Britain, in which a man in his 60s, perfectly sound of mind and capable of living, is accidentally sent to a nursing home from which he finds himself unable to leave. Unjust imprisonment is a favourite theme of mine, so I was somewhat disappointed when I was yanked away and sent to…
An Orison of Sonmi~451
Dystopic, futuristic Korea, where an archivist is interviewing a “fabricant” on death row, tracing her life voyage from worker in a fast food outlet to champion of clone’s rights and freedom for a secret rebellion group. One of the best science fiction stories I’ve read in a long time, fully realised in technological, social and political dimensions, but the creeping sensation of humanity’s march towards destruction culminates with…
Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After
Set in a rural post-apocalyptic society in Hawaii, where young Zachary relates the story of his visitor Meronym, a woman from an advanced culture across the ocean (tones of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids). Written in the spoken style, as a campfire story told by someone with a rough accent, which means a lot of apostrophes and phoenetic words, annoying at first but I soon grew used to it. This is the middle of the story, the mirror, and following this we retrace our steps through Korea, through Timothy’s nursing home, through 1970s California, through 1930s Belgium, all the way back to the lonely trade ship on the South Pacific in the 19th century.
These stories can easily be read on their own, but they share three common threads. The first is that each one is, ostensibly, read by a character in the next; Frobisher finds Ewing’s journal in the library at Zedeghelm, one of the characters in Half-Lives is the man Frobisher was writing to, Timothy Cavendish is a publisher who receives a manuscript for Half-Lives, etc. The second thread is that a character in each story has a comet-shaped birthmark; suggesting reincarnation, I suppose, although that doesn’t quite work out, as Timothy Cavendish was most certainly alive at the same time as Luisa Rey.
The final common thread is the theme of the book itself – one of dominion, of slavery, of power and predation and the vicious heart of human nature. Each individual story contains dozens of miseries, of humans forcing their will upon others, from the invasion of the Chatham Isles by Maori, through to the more civilised but no less malevolent imprisonment of Timothy Cavendish, right back to savage brutality in Hawaii centuries from now, as Zachary’s home valley is pillaged and his friends and family slaughtered by the brutal tribes on the other side of the island. Almost every major interaction between human beings in this book reveals, upon closer examination, the will to exert one’s influence over the other – whether with intimidating words over drinks at a formal luncheon, or with sword and spear on the battlefields of the barbaric future.
The writing itself is perfect; Mitchell paints pictures with words and constructs sentences with elaborate care, resulting in one of those few books you can pick up and read again at any point, any page or sentence, and enjoy. The simple aesthetic pleasure in seeing words strung together so well, even outside of any greater narrative scope – that’s a real accomplishment, and I could count the number of books that achieve it on one hand. I absolutely love this novel, and now I really have to read The Line of Beauty - because to have beaten Cloud Atlas for the Booker Prize, it must be staggeringly brilliant.
Perth is a fucking hole.
Peace Memorial Park at sunset was cool. Saw a number of statues, including one of Sadako the crane-crafter, and a large mound comprised of the ashes of thousands of victims. The Hiroshima flame – salvaged from burning wreckage, thus ignited by the atom bomb itself – burns eternally and will only be extinguished when every last nuclear weapon on Earth has been destroyed. It will be burning for some time, I imagine. Below it a plaque reads: LET ALL THE SOULS HERE REST IN PEACE, FOR WE SHALL NOT REPEAT THE EVIL.
Lot of young Japanese doing MySpace poses and photographing themselves in front of that monument. I don’t get offended by much, but seriously? Come on.
Museum was closed for the day, so we agreed to return tomorrow and in the meantime went out to investigate Hiroshima’s nightlife. Went to the Lotus Bar, a very cool venue on a fifth storey. Drank some red wine, watched a dude emerge onto the balcony on a building across the street and piss into a flowerpot, drank some more wine and then headed off to track down the Kobe Bar, a hidden venue up a flight of concrete stairs behind a Stussy store. The owner was one of those really exuberant Japanese people who will launch into an air guitar solo at a moment’s notice, and when he found out we were Australian immediately put an AC/DC DVD onto his projection flatscreen. This was one of the factors that led us to leave after only a few drinks.
I ended up splitting off from the main group on the way home – I wanted to get to bed, and they’re a bunch of dawdlers. Drunkenly bought some greasy hot chicken from a Lawson’s in the backstreets, saw a racoon dog as I was crossing a bridge over the river, and made it home by 1.00 AM.
This morning Rob, Roy etc. were lazy and mildly hungover, so Chris, Jamie and I left early to get to the war museum. A lot of stuff I’ve read warns you to leave it as the last thing you do in the day, as it’s shocking and such, but I figure I’m pretty desensitised to that kind of thing – plus we didn’t have a choice anyway.
Well, desensitised I may be, but that museum is very… confronting. Incomprehensible, actually, would be the one word I would use to describe it. We think about nuclear weapons a lot in terms of the Cold War and MAD and what might have been, but we often forget that two cities – hundreds of thousands of people – did actually suffer a nuclear blast. Photographs of charred corpses, horrific drawings by survivors, and models of people with ragged skin hanging from their limbs combines to make a rather harrowing experience. Steve told us beforehand that the pilot of the Enola Gay commited suicide not long after the war. I looked it up, and he was wrong – Colonel Paul W. Tibbets actually had a long and happy life and said he never once regretted what he did. He should take a walk through that museum.
Although I’m not suggesting he should actually feel guilty, either – the decision to bomb Hiroshima was made far away in the government offices of Washington, and if it hadn’t been him it would have been another pilot. Nor is Hiroshima the lone atrocity in that war – the Holocaust (obviously), and the Japanese treatment of POWs, the rape of Nanking, et cetera ad infinitum. But add to that list the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden, the Allied mutilation of Japanese war dead… no country walked away from WWII a good guy, thousands of war crimes were perpetrated, and war in itself is a crime. And, fuck, they started that shit. Hiroshima was an undeserved, brutal act of evil, but if it came to a choice between the Americans dropping a nuke on Japan or the Japanese dropping a nuke on America, it’s no choice at all.
Nonetheless: that decision. A single bomb and hundreds of thousands of lives ruined in an instant. And then dropping another just three days later, before they have a chance to understand – let alone surrender? It’s clear that the U.S. government simply wanted to test the bomb on human subjects, after pouring so much time and money into it.
But then, with the Cold War about to begin, if we didn’t have images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a constant reminder of what nuclear weapons can do… might we not have been so reluctant to use them throughout the latter half of the 20th century? Might more widespread devastation have been wrought? Might we have wiped ourselves out?
Pointless conjecture. Children were incinerated.
But children were incinerated in Tokyo, in Dresden, in Berlin, in London. War is war, death is death. We are monstrous people – no matter how civilised, how refined, how courteous we become, part of us will always want to hunt down our competitors and rip their throats out. War is this genetic urge writ large.
Like I said, the word is: incomprehensible.
I left the museum to find Jamie and Chris sitting on a bench in Peace Memorial Park, surrounded by pigeons. We took the tram to the train station to go to Miyajima.
After all that I just wrote, it feels like the museum was weighing heavily on my mind for the rest of the day, but it wasn’t really. In modern Hiroshima there are the usual pachinko parlours, McDonalds, Subways, Starbucks, skycrapers, hotels, crossroads, billboards… away from the park and the museum and the A-Bomb Dome you don’t really think about it. The past is the past.
Miyajima is a large island in the Inland Sea, not far from Hiroshima and considered a pleasant daytrip. It probably is, on most days, but today was drizzly – that kind of weak rain that doesn’t seem heavy but wil leave you thoroughly damp within seconds. Nonetheless, it was our last proper day in Japan and we can’t dictate the weather. After catching the ferry across to the “airand,” as a helpful stationmaster wrote the word on a piece of paper for us while giving directions, we did some cross-language haggling at the JR office and rented three bicycles for two hours. Astride our mighty hogs, we cruised down the shopping streets of the island’s main town, admired the deer that roam as freely and placidly as quokkas on Rottnest Island, and arrived at the famous torii, one of Japan’s most famous sights (Google Image search “miyajima torii” – you’ve seen it, everyone has). I’m sure it’s quite striking when the tide is high, but we saw it at low tide, when it was rising from the mud – the aquatic version of scaffolding, if you will.
Abandoning the torii, we followed a coastal road that eventually led us to a rubbish-strewn but pleasant beach. We scrambled across some wet rocks to find a more secluded cove, hung around there for a while, then returned to our hogs. It was drizzling constantly the whole time, but I was wearing so many layers that it didn’t penetrate all the way through and I was happy as a clam. We rolled back into town, had some tempura at a tourist trap restaurant that charged us 790 yen for it, and then returned our bicycles to spend the rest of our afternoon on foot. The rain was coming down a little heavier now, so Chris and I purchased umbrellas from a souveneir stand. Jamie obstinately declared that they would be useful for only one day, and were therefore not worth it; Chris and I laughed and laughed as he soon become wretchedly wet.
With no specific destination in mind we followed the roads out of the town, heading inland and uphill – Miyajima is mountainous, Hawaii-like, and it soon became a hard slog. Before long we were following rabbit-trails through thick, verdant rainforest. Very cool, and one of my favourite memories of the trip. We arrived at a a lookout that gave a spectacular view of the town before us, with rain coming down over the ocean and the green mountains above us shrouded in fog.
That was the point at which I should have known to call it a day, quit while I was ahead and go back into town. But Chris and Jamie were still keen, and my legs weren’t hurting too badly, so I followed them ever further uphill like the fool I was.
It became unpleasant so gradually I didn’t even realise. Walking through verdant rainforest with great views in a mild drizzle is wonderful; slogging up a thin, steep trail that heavy rain has turned into a creek, lined on both sides with wet heather, wearing soggy Converse high-tops that aren’t designed for hiking, with fog eliminating the view entirely, on a chilly February day, with a several hours of rain having finally seeped all the way through to your thermal underwear… well, that isn’t much fun at all.
Eventually, with burning thighs and rasping lungs, I caught up to Chris and Jamie and declared that I was calling it quits and heading back downhill. Chris tossed me the hotel key (which, my catching skill being my catching skill, I then had to dig out of the undergrowth) and I made my shameful retreat back down the mountain. Every step was soggy, and I slipped over several times. I was yearning for the hot shower waiting for me back at our hotel room, and keenly aware that I had a long walk, a ferry ride, a train ride, two tram rides and another walk in between me and it.
I got lost once or twice, but eventually emerged back into the town and made my way back to the JR ferry terminal. It was only then that I realised my bag was soaked through – the bag which contained my iPod, passport, plane tickets… well, nothing that a hair-dyer couldn’t fix.
I arrived back at the hotel well after sunset, freezing my ass off and soaked to the bone. Interlude: I forgot to mention that we’re staying at a hotel for some reason. Fucked if I know why. Roy said he “thought he’d treat us” and assures us that it’s not costing us much more than a hostel. He is surely lying; as Chris said when we entered, it feels like a hotel James Bond would stay at.
In any case, I had no beef with it when I arrived this evening and could jump straight into a private shower. Chris and Jamie weren’t far behind me; apparently they’d turned back not long after I did, and were on the ferry right on my heels. Our hotel room is now strewn with wet clothes and we’re blow-drying our shoes (and, in my case, my passport, travel insurance papers, plane tickets etc). I wouldn’t call Miyajima a failure at all. It was quite enjoyable, and even the wet trudge home was something I would dub “memorable.” Here’s something to always bear in mind: unpleasant experiences make good stories in the long run.
Anyway, we need to go capitalise on our last night in Japan. I’ve drunk several glasses of red wine while writing this and need to go track down the Kurosawa bar with Jamie. Sayonara!
Our Japan Rail passes have expired, so I’m writing this on a staggeringly expensive bullet train bound for Hiroshima, having spent the last three days in Kyoto. It’s a beautiful city, with hundreds of little pockets of oldness – teahouses, shrines, temples, alleyways, canals… we walked along the Philosopher’s Walk on the first day, which is probably more impressive when the cherry trees are in bloom, but was still really cool. We also visited the Imperial (Summer) Palace Gardens, and the Silver Pavilion, which was covered in scaffolding for renovation – unfortunately a common theme in Kyoto. Yesterday we went to the Higashiyama area, spotted a monk at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier who was talking on his mobile phone, and spotted some geisha who were taking photos of each other with digital cameras. It was overcast and somewhat rainy, but our hostel lent us free umbrellas, and we rented bikes for only 500 yen a day; Kyoto is a pretty small city, and easy to cycle around. At least I think it’s small. There are no skyscrapers there (presumably they have some kind of DC-style legislation against it), which makes it SEEM quite small, but when you climb up some mossy old stairways into the temple-speckled hills around the city and get a good view of it, it does indeed seem large enough to host the most important international treaty of our time.
Tokyo and Kyoto are equally impressive, in different ways; Tokyo is a colourful neon hive of commercialism and thriving, pulsing humanity, whereas Kyoto is a quiet, ancient city with something pretty around every corner. And while parts of it are as touristy as Nikko, a lot of it is just a normal city, where people live in places that just happen to have the kind of beauty that only age can bestow.
I liked Tokyo, but I couldn’t live there. Kyoto, on the other hand, would be a wonderful place to live if I wanted to settle down in Japan.
Last night we checked into a ryukan (traditional accomadation) on the other side of town for the night, and the similarities between it and the Black Diamond Lodge were striking – right down to identical key tags. We paid through the nose for something we’s sort of already experienced. On the plus side, they did provide us with kimono-style dressing gowns.
While Chris went off to get a tattoo of a fox, Jamie and I bought some red wine from the local Lawson’s, downed a bottle each, gathered the others and set off to hunt down the Zappa Bar, a fabled backalley watering hole that’s reputed to be an old haunt of David Bowie. Jamie had hunted high and low for it the previous night, fruitlessly, but with the aid of Google Maps (God bless the 21st century) we were able to track it down – stand at the intersection outside Kawaramachi Station, face north, and it’s the fourth alleyway on the right, after passing a FamilyMart at the third alleyway. We headed down that alley and stood outside a place called “Bottle Bar” arguing about where it could be when a man emerged from inside and said “Zappa Bar crosed!”
“Forever?” I asked.
“But… was this it? Used to be?”
So we headed in and had a beer. Jamie was crestfallen. I’m satisified that we found it, or at least the place it used to be, but it probably wasn’t worth it. We scribbled down a note on the back of a receipt to leave in the guestbook, then jogged back through the streets to make it back to the ryukan before midnight curfew. I’d left our bedroom window open so that if push came to shove we could go into the alley behind the building, throw Jamie’s trench coat over the barbed wire and scramble in through the window, but as it turns out the curfew was based on an honour system and we strolled right in the front door, to find Chris with a successful fox tattoo watching episodes of Lost on my laptop. I managed to grab the first episode of 24, incidentally, and it was terrible. So far my predictions about a superficial facelift where nothing about the show is changed except the location and the terrorism-fighting agency seems correct; there was fifty-five minutes of sitting around and talking followed by five minutes of Jack threatening to torture someone, HAVEN’T SEEN THAT BEFORE. Granted, the premiere was a two hour block and I’ve only seen 8:00 – 9:00, so maybe it gets better in the second one.
Woke up this morning, had a traditional Japanese breakfast (frankly not great food to be eating first thing in the morning – tofu, rice, some kind of gooey yellow block) and then headed to check out the Golden Pavilion. This was a group decision. Personally I would have preferred to go to Hiroshima ASAP, so we could check into our hostel and go to the war museum before it closes at 5. Plus I’m sort of templed-out after Kyoto, and the Silver Pavilion, encrusted with renovation scaffolding, didn’t really whet my appetite for more.
I was more or less right. After a ten dollar, fifty minute bus ride we arrived at the pavilion, with it’s hefty entrance fee and swarming hordes of tourists. It was picturesque, certainly, but I would have preferred more time in Hiroshima. As it stands now we’re probably going to have to visit the museum tomorrow morning and cut down on the time we spend at Migashiyama, an off-shore island host to the famous floating torii. So little time!
Woke up yesterday at 8.45 and after splashing some water on my face and pulling my jacket on, I was jogging down to the post office to wait around with a bunch of old people. Hallelujah! My Mastercard does indeed have some kind of racist aversion to 7-11 ATMs, and the post office ATM worked fine. I will not, after all, be stranded in a foreign land with not a penny to my name, dependent on the kindness of strangers. I strolled back to the hostel with 29,000 yen in my wallet and a warmth in my heart.
Then I got fucking mugged.
Not really. Arrived back at the hostel and boiled up some instant noodles in the lounge. Then Steve, bless his cotton socks, came down the stairs to cook everyone French toast. I slopped my noodles into the bin and enjoyed a damn fine meal, then went back to the room to brush my teeth and check my email (reassuring my anxious father that all was well re: money), before wandering down to the lobby to wait around for the others. Read the International Herald Tribune and bought a water bottle; ended up waiting a very long time because Steve thought he had time for a shower, or something. We ended up leaving around eleven.
At the train station Ellen had forgotten her rail pass (STRIKE TWO), so she went back to the hostel to retrieve it, accompanied by a stalwart Jamie. The rest of us abandoned them to their fate and took the subway to Shinjuku, a moderately impressive shopping district. Bought some chocolate to last us through the day (I’ve become addicted to a brand called Ghana, though Meiji is pretty good too), pushed our way through some kind of political rally, tried and failed to get to the top of the Cocoon Tower, and eventually set our sights on some kind of government tower – which actually rose much taller and commanded an impressive view of the metropolis. It wasn’t quite as jaw-dropping as Osaka, because it was day rather than night, but it was still cool. Is Tokyo the largest city in the world? Or is that Mexico City? Or New York? What I find really amazing is that so much of it is new, not just rebuilt after the air raids of ’45, but built from scratch throughout the post-war economic boom. All that steel and glass and concrete – the sheer weight of it – stretching out to every horizon.
We took the elevator back down and caught another train to a place called Harajaku, where a torii led into a leafy park criss-crossed with streams and ponds. Winter probably wasn’t the nicest time to visit it – especially when we reached an area where all the water had been drained and workers in plastic overalls were walking through the mud planting seeds, or reinforcing the walls, or something – but it was still cool. Leaving the park we headed through an extensive shopping district. Most of the stores were brands from Paris or London or the US, with names in English stencilled across the glass storefronts. I saw a shrine tucked away with a Roxy store on one side and a Tommy Girl on the other, both splashed with garish billboards, which would have mide a nice ironic photo if I could get the angle right.
Chris and I got separated from the others somewhere around that area, and we headed on foot to the next shopping district, called Shibuya – home of the famous scramble crossing. I’d gotten it into my head to buy a watch, and after looking at some of the insane prices everywhere (a vintage Omega that belonged to a 1950s sailor would be very cool, but unfortunately I don’t have 150,000 yen at my disposal) I eventually found a vintage/second hand store at the top of some stairs at the edge of a plaza, which was having a sale. At least, it claimed to be vintage/second hand, but everything looked pretty new to me. I looked around and eventually settled on a three-star Orient, which the salesman adjusted for me, and I walked out 6,000 yen ($120 AUD) poorer but with the ability to tell the time with the simplest of glances at my wrist – truly, an ability worth any amount of money!
Night was falling at this point, which suited us just fine, because Shibuya Crossing lay directly ahead and oh my dear God was it amazing. I’ve never been to Times Square, but I’m willing to bet that if any crossroad in the world rivals it, it would be Shibuya. Billboards and advertising are splayed across the side of every building at every level; there were at least three or four huge video screens, each playing a different ad and bellowing audio commercialism; on one building, the entire glass side was lit up through some huge projection device, urging us to buy Pocky and fly JAL and join the Japanese Navy, and if there was ever a convincing way to sell a product that has to be it. At ground level, the rushing traffic was brought to a regular halt by the scramble crossing, which felt like a medieval battlefield as thousands of pedestrians rushed across the blank asphalt to meet each other. Simply walking across that intersection, being part of that crazy ant’s nest of humanity, was awesome fun. I felt like I was living in some futuristic city of science fiction, walking through Blade Runner or Cowboy Bebop or the Fifth Element.
After taking as many photos as we could – unfortunately my camera sucks at night, goes all blurry – we hunted around for a place to eat dinner. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but after walking around more in a single day than I usually do in an entire month, I was just keen to sit for a while. We saw a menu outside one place which seemed fairly reasonable, and when we opened the door and saw that it consisted of japanese-style mats and low tables in private rooms along a descending staircase, our minds were made up. We eagerly removed our shoes, crawled into a booth and ordered some food, and our enthusiasm was only dampened when it arrived in miniscule portions. a main course should not be in a bowl the size of a teacup (and I’m not exaggerating). It’s just not cricket. These miniscule portions of beef, rice and pork ended up costing us a total of 3,000 yen ($60 AUD). We considered doing a runner, but it just wasn’t feasible – they’d catch us while we were still tying our laces up.
With our wallets considerably lighter, we explored a little more around the streets and alleys of Shibuya, played Time Crisis in a video arcade for old time’s sake, then caught a train for home. We were heading along one of Tokyo’s hundreds of railway lines when we caught a glimpse of the Tokyo Tower lit up in the not-so-distance, and immediately jumped off at the next station to make our way there on foot. It was a lot harder to spot at ground level, as opposed to an L-train, but we ran into an American who pointed us in the right direction, and after a walk down a freezing, windy street we found it towering above us.
The Tokyo Tower is a “self-supporting steel tower,” which is to say, an Eiffel rip-off. Aside from the red colour and a few aesthetic tweaks, they’re almost identical. It was built in 1958 for no apparent reason other than one-upping the French, since it’s a mere thirteen metres higher. We shelled out 3,000 yen to take the elevator up to the highest observation deck. The Umeda Sky Building was more impressive, mostly becauuse it was fresh and new. You can get accustomed to being in a foreign environment (in this case, a city large enough that the shops are open past 5 and the city council doesn’t shriek like an autistic child whenever anyone mentions the word “development”) fairly quickly.
After the Tokyo Tower it was just one long, windy, frigid walk back to the metro station that took us home, with a brief stop at a deserted shrine that we’d stumbled across. We’d considered going to the Akihabra electronics district, but it was pushing eleven and I’d already spent about two hundred dollars, so we headed back to the hostel instead. Before I nodded off to sleep, Jamie entertained us with tales of how his attire had been treated with contempt by a bunch of flaaaaamingly homosexual Australians, which is amusing, because Jamie is the most stylish person I know. In Sapporo he successfully wore a neck-warmer as a bandana, for Christ’s sake.
Morning gave us a decision – take the two hour train to the historical temple district of Nikko, outside the city, or spend the day in Tokyo? We debated it for a while before deciding that Tokyo is much more impressive at night, and that we’d be back by seven-thirty or so. Ellen and Jamie were more keen on trying to see all the stuff they missed out on yesterday (good luck!), but the rest of us boarded a JR bullet train that was soon rushing through the countryside, or what passes for countryside on Tokyo’s rural-urban fringe.
Nikko was one of those places that gave a distinct impression of having a lot to see and not a lot of time to see it all, or even any clear indication of where all the sights were. we caught some random buses and walked up some roads, following the floods of Chinese tourists who were in turn following flag-bearing tour guides, and managed to find a decent amount of temples. I’m not sure how many of the shrines and temples were authentic and how many were reconstructions – Japan being regularly subjected to both earthquakes and giant monster attacks, making it difficult for buildings to stay around for long – but some of them were World Heritage listed, so I guess they were real.
Around 1.00 pm the sun retreated behind a cloud and the mercury plummeted, making the exercise somewhat unenjoyable and leaving me colder than I’d ever been in Niseko, since I wasn’t dressed for it. We found an ancient-looking temple and knelt with some Japanese tourists, listening to a priest(?) give some kind of sermon or tell a story or something, which was pretty cool, but then we scampered back down the slopes into a restaurant before we froze to death. I had a great meeal there, incidentally, tempura with udon noodles, very large and reasonably priced. The opposite of last night, in fact.
Overall Nikko was a cool trip and I’m glad we made the visit. It was pretty touristy (unavoidable, I guess) and it kind of ruins the effect to have traffic cones, plastic poles and information signs set against a backdrop of archaic shrines, but when you look past all that it’s an amazing place – and very beautiful, set amongst moss-covered stones, enormous pines and fir trees, distant snowy mountains and natural creeks. While we were sitting listening to the Japanese priest talk, in this ancient temple, surrounded by old things, I kept picturing the neon wonderscape of Shibuya Crossing at night. I can’t imagine any nation with such a contrast. I’ve never been to England, but I always thought there was something sad about all that venerable history, Roman ruins and old battlefields and crumbling castles, being covered up by motorways and Tescos and housing subdivisions. Even in that temple, as the priest was talking, there was a stand of knick-knacks on sale just to our right. Every second store in the town was a gift shop. Is it even possible to cling onto your heritage in a dignified way? Letting go of it entirely, embracing the Neuromancer-future of Shibuya Crossing, would seem to be one way. Relegating the past to the past. That’s depressing. Maybe the young nations, the Australias and Americas, are more fortunate than I thought.
We’re on the bullet train back to Tokyo now. Akihabara tonight, maybe?
Writing this on the bullet train bound for Tokyo. The Japanese public transport system is fast, clean, efficient and amazingly easy to use – although this is only because all the signs, maps and station names are printed in both Japanese and English. We’d be stuffed otherwise. Rather courteous of them.
First thing yesterday we left our hostel (in addition to not being allowed to enter or exit between 2300 and 0600, you’re not allowed to be present between 1000 and 1600 either!) and travelled down a variety of different railway lines to the Osaka Aquarium, which boasts two captive whale sharks and claims to have the world’s biggest tank (Okinawa and Atlanta also claim the same, however). It was two thousand admission but damn well worth the price. Seeing whale sharks in captivity was amazing – and these were just juveniles, only a few metres in length. I’m more keen than ever to go to Ningaloo Reef this autumn and snorkel with fully-grown whale sharks. In addition to that, there was also a crazily enormous japanese spider crab – like, a metre tall – a bunch of seals and dolphins, some freshwater fish from the Amazon that were more than a metre long and a sloth. The sloth was just hanging in the trees above the water in the Amazon exhibit; windowdressing. I thought it was fake, but then it moved. They actually went to the Amazon and captured a fucking sloth for their AQUARIUM.
After the aquarium we headed into Osaka’s main shopping district, arranged along a canal of some kind, which was a super-awesome exhibiton of everything you imagine about Japan. Enormous crowds, flashing lights, billboards everywhere, pachinko parlours blaring noise – it was awesome cool, and we all split up to explore it and agreed to meet back at a crossroads at 2.30. At 2.30 sharp myself, Chris, Jamie, Steve, Rob and Roy all returned to the crossroads. Who was missing? The damn woman, of course. We waited for Ellen for what seemed like an eternity before she strolled back at 3.30 with the excuse that she’d “gotten lost.” No doubt she was shopping for shoes or some such and decided it was more pressing than our appointment. I spit on her lies! (The entire frustrating incident, though, belies how heavily the modern man relies on mobile phones. What on earth did people do in the 80s?)
We’d been planning to visit Osaka Castle, but it closes at 5 pm and Ellen’s tardiness threw a spanner in the works. We figured we’d hit it up the next day instead, and return to the hostel to refresh ourselves and nap before heading out before curfew and returning at 6.00 am, to experience Osaka’s famed nightlife, reccomended by everyone from Lonely Planet to our Canadian lodge owner’s wife. As we were returning alon the train lines Chris spotted a nearby Osaka landmark, the Umeda Sky Building, and he and I decided to jump ship, visit it and catch up with the others later.
The sun was setting as we left the train and ventured through streets and tunnels to reach the building; by the time we arrived, night had fallen properly and the city was lighting up around us. It was only as we entered the lobby and took stock of the number of couples there that we realised the Umeda Building’s observation deck is the romantic hotspot of the city on any night of the year… let alone on Valentine’s Day. I took amusement in reassuring the non-English speaking couples sharing our elevator that we weren’t gay.
The view from the top was something Perth-born eyes found difficult to grasp. Osaka is massive, a vision of a science fiction future. I’m sure that to Westeners of New York or London or Sydney it would merely seem like another big grey metropolis with a slightly exotic twist, but to Chris and myself it was like a vision of the next century. There was a distant line where the lights simply stopped, and I couldn’t tell if it was smog, the city limits or – and I’m serious here – the curvature of the globe. It was worth every penny of the fourteen dollar admission and the others well and truly missed out.
Getting back to the hostel was simple enough, minus an issue where we realised very late that we were at our stop, and Chris bounded off the train while my reflexes were a fraction too slow, and left us staring at each other on opposite sides of the door. “Stay here, I’ll catch the next one back!” I shouted – little knowing that I was on an express train, which skipped six stops, and that the train I caught back stopped at every single one of them. Half an hour later I was back at the correct station with an understandably disgruntled Chris, and we headed back to the hostel.
In the three hours we had until eleven, I showered, cooked a frugal meal and then set about solving a problem I’m facing. Japanese ATMS don’t accept foreign-issued cards – for that, you need to visit an international ATM, found in any post office or 7-11. I withdrew 29,000 yen from the Kutchen post office on the 4th of February, but since then, every ATM I’ve tried has rejected my card. However, every ATM I’ve tried has been a 7-11 ATM. Two possibilities:
a) My card suffers some quirk or defect which renders it acceptable only to post office ATMS
b) My bank has seen the the first transaction and, continuing a fine tradition of fucking awful customer service, has hysterically assumed it has been hijacked and cancelled it.
I wanted to go to a post office to test that theory, and using an inaccurate map provided by the hostel which marked several major landmarks wrong, I eventually found the post office after giving up entirely and stumbling upon it accidentally while cutting through alleys on my way back home. Unfortunately it was, of course, closed, since it was 8.30 pm, and it would remain closed the next day, as it was a Sunday. Frustration reignited, I went back to the hostel and set about trying to figure out how to place a collect charges call to Australia. Eventually I connected to an operator, who spoke fluent English and was exceedingly helpful. Bankwest, of course, was not helpful at all, rejecting my collect call and having the gall to have the operator relay some message about cancelling my card if it had been lost or stolen. (Fluent, but heavily accented). I want the opposite, you eternally inept fuckheads. I thanked the operator for her help and sent an email to my sister asking her to ring the bank on my behalf, or at least get Dad to do it.
With that over, I spent about half an hour scoping out the hostel grounds to see if there was anywhere we could break in to get around the curfew. Life, alas, is not a video game, and no neat solution presented itself. With the hour of exile upon us we shuffled out of the hostel and into the awaiting streets of Osaka.
Well, it is a big city, and I’m sure there’s a crazy nightlife somewhere, but we sure as hell couldn’t find it. We returned to the central shopping district, which transformed by night into a near-deserted cityscape populated by municipal workers removing rubbish and, for some reason, businessmen on their way home. Yes, at 11.30 on a Saturday night. We had a traditional Japanese meal for dinner (McDonalds) and then wandered around in search of a bar. An African security guard who spoke English said he knew a good place, and led us there through the backalleys. Here’s something I’ve learned which was probably self-evident to begin with: when somebody says they “know a good place” and take you there, they have a personal stake in the matter. This particular bar was smaller than a bedroom, perched on the third floor of a building, run by an American and a Canadian with an inexplicable Caribbean accent. It wasn’t a bad place or anything, they were real friendly and the drinks were reasonably priced; but as with Hiro of Hokkaido, you feel a little bummed when you realise there was no altruism there to begin with.
I had a single beer there; I’m still abstaining after my experience in the early days of the trip, and it was my last of the night. At the other end of the spectrum was Roy, who had started drinking at the hostel and was getting hilariously hammered. We found another place serendipitously called the “Champ Bar,” (Chaaaaamp being Roy and Rob’s favoured nickname for basically any male), but were immediately evicted because it was “Japanese only.” “Racist cunts!” Roy shouted, and luckily for him they didn’t speak English. “That sign,” he declared back on the ground level, in front of the building directory, “that sign is broken. It’s not ‘Champ Bar,’ it’s ‘Racist Cunt Bar.’ Anyone got a screwdriver?”
The night wore on. We went to another bar with painfully loud music. It was very little fun; I’m beginning to realise why Chris, my perenially sober comrade, doesn’t enjoy going out at all. Well, I knew that was the reason to begin with, but to see it from his viewpoint… Jesus. Boring. Tedious. Tiring.
We eventually found one final bar which consisted of one narrow hall, a single long counter, and a little couch booth at the end. Top shelf spirits lined the wall, and the single bow-tie wearing bartender was – get this – actually standing there polishing a glass. I shit you not. It really exists.
Roy contented himself with sitting at the bar chatting up whoever came in while the rest of us drifted in and out of sweet, sweet sleep in the couch area. I woke up at about 5:00 am, and decided it would take me about an hour to get back to the hostel. Efforts to rouse the others failed, so I struck out alone, squeezing past Roy at the bar, who was enthusiastically trying to convince a Finnish gentleman that he would be a good husband for his daughter.
I emerged from the bar expecting to enter the grey world of dawn, but winter in Japan had other ideas; it may as well have been midnight. I walked exhausted through the streets of Osaka at 5:00 am, stared at train maps through bleary eyes, and eventually took the elevator up to our hostel at the stroke of six, with only a hint of grey in the eastern sky. Five minutes later I was asleep.
Two and a half hours later I was crawling out of bed to take a leak, and then go hunting for breakfast on the streets. Everyone else had returned while I was asleep and was still snoring away; I felt suspiciously refreshed and briefly thought that perhaps we’d slept for twenty-six hours. I bought an awful cheese-flavoured CalorieMate from a 7-11, tossed it in the bin and returned to the hostel to check my email, having sent one off the previous night asking my father to ring Bankwest for me. He had replied “mitch do you have a number where i can reach you,” despite the fact that he clearly could have included whatever he needed to ask or tell me in that same email, I mean come on, this is 2009. I pointed that out and then returned to the room, where the lads were already rousing.
We were checking out, you see – that was our one and only night in Osaka – so sleeping in wasn’t an option. We stripped our beds, gathered our things, tossed the key in at the desk and headed off for Osaka Castle, hoping to squeeze it in before our afternoon train ride to Tokyo.
Frankly we needn’t have bothered; it wasn’t all that great. The original castle was raised in the late 1600s, and razed in the early 1700s. What you see today is a reconstruction built in the 1930s, and not a particularly convincing one – I’m sure the original didn’t have air-conditioning grills, bars over the windows and an observation deck with an anti-suicide screen. Inside it’s even worse, just a vaguely interesting museum packed with tourists – and no photos allowed, please, or you won’t buy the books and postcards in the gift shop. It also wasn’t particularly fun hiking up and down eight flights of stairs on two and a half hours of sleep. On the whole it’s a nice thing to look at from a distance, but don’t bother going any closer.
Battery died on the train, so I’m finishing this in the youth hostel in Tokyo. The Osaka-Shin Hostel, in all its modesty, had newspaper clippings up everywhere bragging about the fact that it was voted the best youth hostel in the world. I don’t fucking see how, with that curfew. Anyway, this one is already a thousand times better. The plumbing is terrible and the toilet is ridiculously tiny (I had to take a crap sitting sideways) but other than that it’s awesome. Me and Chris and Jamie have a room to ourselves on the third floor with a little balcony and our own private bathroom, and the atmosphere is cool, with an accessible rooftop and crap all over the walls and a pool table out the front open to the street. Also there’s no ridiculously unreasonable curfew; having paid for our rooms, we are free to come and go as we please.
Dead tired. Might go for a walk and get dinner – first thing tomorrow I need to check if the postal ATMS work and if not then buy a phone card and ring Bankwest, because Dad emailed and said they won’t give him any info about my card. Hopefully they can turn it on and off like a light switch, if it is indeed off.
Alright. Gonna go get fed. Then I will sleep the sleep of kings.
Today was another day of travel from beginning to end. Rise at 7 am, take advantage of one last all-you-can-eat Western breakfast at the Black Diamond Lodge, pack, get driven down to the Hilton to be picked up by a Greyhound hauling us all the way to Chitose Airport, watch two excellent episodes of Lost on the bus, be delayed on a snowy country road by a three-vehicle pileup ahead of us, have Chris call me a jerk because I am reluctant to take photographs of the crash site (call me crazy but I think its in bad taste to gawk and take photos of a bunch of people, including children, who’ve just been through an accident and are probably pretty shaken up), fly down to Tokyo, have the 7-Eleven ATM at the airport reject my card, eat lunch at McDonalds, take the train to Tokyo’s central station which is the size of a fucking airport, wander through it like slack-jawed yokels fresh from the countryside (which is more or less true), cash our Rail Passes, have the girls at the JR office call Rob “Mr. Robot,” board a bullet train bound for Osaka, feel vaguely disappointed that nightfall means you can’t appreciate the countryside rushing by at incredible speeds, decide that maybe these trains aren’t so fast after all, try to go for a leak with the train rattling all over the place and realise that these trains are in fact quite fast indeed, spend ten minutes trying to figure out how to turn the faucet on to wash your hands, read a lot of Cloud Atlas, watch Roy take a McDonalds burger that he bought fucking TWO HOURS AGO out of his bag and eat it cold, arrive at Osaka-shin station, stare at maps for about half an hour, haul our luggage six blocks through the rain to our youth hostel, stare in bewilderment at rules which include an eleven pm curfew (again, this is a YOUTH hostel), dump our shit and rush out to get dinner before the place goes into fucking lockdown at the stroke of eleven, find a cosy little restaurant at a crossroads, order one of those meals that cooks itself on your table, have Steve order fucking INTESTINES for all of us, eat around the intestines to have the tofu and vegetables, settle the bill and discover that it was actually a Korean restaurant all along, go to a 7-Eleven and have the ATM reject my card again, wander the rainswept streets of Osaka searching for a post office ATM, give up and leg it back to the hostel to roll Indiana Jones-style under the medieval descending gate just before curfew, return to the room to find Roy and Rob smoking cigarettes “because it’s so cheap here.”
Pretty standard really!
Guess what we did yesterday – MORE SNOWBOARDING! I’m learning to heel-toe a bit better, rather than falling-leaf, not that there’s any point when we’re about to leave. There are hut restaurants all over the mountain, but the only places we’ve eaten so far are Boyo-Osen and the 1000 Metre Hut. Everywhere else is way too expensive. The 1000 Metre Hut is really cool, a cosy one-room cabin with a small fire, free water and good cheap food. Plus they sell Kit-Kats.
Roy’s board broke, so he and Rob took it into the shop to get it fixed, where they saw motherfucking Sam Neill. I was ever so jealous. They completely squandered the opportunity, though, not even saying hi to him. I don’t care if he’s on holiday, it takes three seconds to ask him if he’ll take a photo with you. Plus I could have asked him to do everything in his power to stop Jurassic Park IV, which will apparently feature velociraptors trained as mercenaries, I’m not joking, look it up.
Last night we went into town to go to a karaoke bar, where Roy got real drunk and treated us to a stellar rendition of Aerosmith’s “Don’t Miss A Thing” that he’d been practising for days. It was good fun, for the first four hours or so, but by 1:00 AM I was pretty tired and over it when nobody else seemed to be. I had no choice but to stay there anyway though, since a taxi home alone would be too expensive, so I ended up curling up on one of the couches and falling asleep while the others kept singing. On the plus side I ended up leaving without paying for the chips I bought.
We had a late start this morning, since everyone was buggered from being awake so late, and didn’t leave the lodge till about eleven. We hung out in a patch of snow near the bottom of one of the chairlifts making snowmen, despite shouts from one of the operators. Eventually he dispatched a passing Japanese tourist fluent in English to inform us that we were “playing in the toilet area,” where the chairlift workers go to have a leak behiind the trees.
We headed up the gondola and arrived halfway up the mountain in bad conditions, with a storm blowing in that was fucking up the visibility. After holing up in the 1000 Metre Hut for about an hour, hoping it would blow over, we emerged to find the storm just as bad. On the second last day we didn’t really have a choice but to snowboard regardless of the conditions. We wanted to head to Annapuri, which neccessitated going even higher and then snowboarding across, so we boarded another chairlift and ventured further up into the cloud.
Fucking whiteout. I could barely even see the chair in front of me. Nothing but white above, below and all around, with support pylons regularly looming out of the misty blur spraying Japanese pop music from the speakers. We reached the peak – a silent, gloomy world – and started snowboarding down.
Snowboarding in a whiteout is fucking awful. You can see people and trees (not that there were any, since we were above the alpine) for about twenty metres, but everything else is just a white blank fog. You can make out the ground before you for about one or two metres. This means you have to scrape horizontally downwards at a snail’s pace, or run the risk of flying right off a ledge into a ravine, where your broken corpse will be violated by bears, buried in snowfall and discovered by German hikers come spring. Roy actually did snowboard right off a ledge, into a ditch about two metres deep, which was hilarious because he did it right in front of me.
Once we emerged from the cloud about halfway down the peak it was’t a bad run. Amusing incident: I was snowboarding through a forest when I clipped a tiny little root poking out of the snow and flipped, cartwheeled and faceplanted it. But to do another run we had to take the gondola back up into the shrouded upper slopes, where it’s windy and freezing and the visibility is obliterated by that terrible foggy glaucoma, which completely robs you of your desire to snowboard. So instead we went back to the lodge and hung around listening to iPods, playing cards, reading and playing pool for the rest of the day.
I felt like a really good meal for dinner, so me and Chris and Steve went into town tonight to a pizza place that’s meant to be pretty good. It was good – absolutely delicious, especially after living off instant noodles – but tiny portions and insanely expensive. Again, I will gnash my teeth and rend my garments over the state of Australia’s economy. We ended up missing the last regular bus and had to walk around for an hour while waiting for the next one. Poked around in a photo gallery and watched the Australia vs. Japan soccer match in the welcome centre. Nil nil when we left, but I doubt Australia will win. I got really into soccer during the last world cup, when it seemed for a moment we might actually have a chance before Italy cheated its way to victory. Not sure why. Dull game.
And so tomorrow is our last day – and I’m hoping for fresh snowfall tonight and clear skies in the morning. I’m taking advantage of the lodge’s free wifi to download episodes of Lost and 24 which I’ll watch during our insanely long day of travel on Friday – we’re flying from Sapporo back to Tokyo and then training it to Osaka (or is it Kyoto?) Not sure how much free wifi will be available – dispatches may become more sporadic – STAY TUNED FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS, SEND LOVE TO WIFE + CHILDREN, END MESSAGE