Saturday, 6 November 2010

Days 1 & 2: Eleven Hours of Outer Turbulence

I was the last to arrive at Heathrow, dragging my heavy suitcase through the terminal doors of Heathrow at our appointed time of 11:00 to find my friends already waiting for me. Henry Lin, Mark Pester and Yingke Shan were the three people with whom I would be spending the next two weeks in Japan. Yingke is both a Cambridge computer scientist and CUAMS (Cambrige University Anime & Manga Society) member, and is a fan of slice of life and comedy series. Mark is a Cambridge historian and also a CUAMS member, and enjoys watching action. Henry is a friend of Yingke's from school whom Mark and I had met during May Week, and is a fan of moƩ and also of Fate/Stay Night. For my part, I'm a Cambridge computer scientist, and my preferred anime genres are drama and slice of life.

From left to right, Yingke, Mark, James (me), Henry

The airport procedures went fairly smoothly, and are dull enough that they don't bear writing about. After the two hours of passing through the various security and passport checks and killing time at the ridiculously overpriced 'duty-free' shops, we boarded the plane and set off on the eleven-and-a-half hour flight bound for Narita Airport in Tokyo.

It was the longest flight I had ever been on, surpassing the eight-hour flight to Texas. The methods for making the time pass didn't change very much: talking, reading, listening to music and sifting through the American rom-coms to find the mindless action films on the in-flight entertainment system (I went for Kick-Ass and Iron Man 2). The only really new experience was the feeling of despair that hit around five hours in, when it struck me that we weren't even half way there yet.

It was important that we slept if we possibly could, as we wanted to be awake for our first sights of Japan. All of us spent several hours making valiant attempts, but a combination of being too excited and too uncomfortable made it impossible. I eventually gave up in favour of watching Top Gear, and Mark (seated on my left) quickly followed my example.

The plane finally descended onto the runway, and I watched the scenery as best I could from my aisle seat. After a fair amount of taxiing around the airport, and several hundred passenger announcements, we were finally allowed to collect our carry-on luggage and leave. In a stunning display of my usual co-ordination, I missed the stair coming out of the plane, and my first steps into Japan were therefore exaggerated staggers that just about managed to prevent me from falling. I wondered briefly whether this was deeply symbolic before hurrying after the others.

Procedures on the Narita side were just as straightforward as those on the Heathrow side, but several times more exciting, given that we were now actually in Japan. We showed our passports, collected our luggage, and were questioned on what we were doing in Japan before being allowed out. Our first mission was to find our way to the hostel, and this was to be the first time 'the plan' would be put to the test.

Narita Airport

 The plan was a 70-page 14,000-word document that I wrote in the evenings during my summer research project at Cambridge, and contained a comprehensive schedule, details of how to get to everywhere we were going, maps, restaurant recommendations, contingency plans, and any other general information we needed. I wanted to make sure that we spent all of our time doing things rather than getting lost or planning to do things and potentially disagreeing on where to go on a given day. In return for doing the huge amount of work required to create this document, I ended up having a fair amount of control over where we went and what we did, although I did make sure as far as I possibly could that I was planning the trip for all of us, and not just for me, and that all plans took proper account of the desires of other people.

According to the plan, we were to go down to the bottom floor of the airport (where the station was), buy four tickets for the Limited Express and ride it to Ueno. The ticket purchase went fine, but our first encounter with the Japanese ticket barriers ended less well. Whilst English ticket barriers are closed all of the time, and open only when you present them with a valid ticket, Japanese ticket barriers are open all of the time, closing only when you present them with an invalid ticket. In our sleep-deprived state, this concept was really too much for us, and upon seeing the ticket barriers with their gates wide open, we didn't bother presenting them with any tickets at all, and simply walked through. This was to cause us problems when we reached a second set of ticket barriers, which refused to let us through on the basis that our tickets hadn't been activated at the first set. Or something. In the end, with the help of a polite Japanese assistant, we were able to get through both sets of ticket barriers and onto our train before it departed.

The train from Narita airport (which is just outside Tokyo) into central Tokyo takes just over an hour, and we glad to find, when we boarded, that there was a row of free seats in the corner of one carriage. We probably all noticed that they were a different colour from any of the other seats, but nobody commented on it. We waited for ten minutes while the rest of the train filled up, and then departed. After a brief stop at the other airport terminal (also underground), we emerged into the Japanese countryside. It was around 11:00. The blinds were down all over the train, but our curiosity to get a proper look at the Japanese countryside quickly overcame our fear of breaking some incredibly important rule of Japanese etiquette that says you should never let sunlight into trains. Unfortunately, the picture of an old lady with a walking stick that was stuck to the window behind the blind was a fairly clear sign that we had, in fact, already broken one of the more universal rules of etiquette: four twenty-year-olds probably shouldn't take up all of the priority seats.

Go figure, it even says 'Priority Seat' in English...
Fortunately, there was nobody who was actually being forced to stand as a result of our mistake. Even so, feeling slightly guilty and wondering how many Japanese people had been laughing behind their hands when they saw us board the train and point excitedly at the free priority seats, we stood up and watched the countryside from the glass panels on the doors instead. Differences were easy to notice, even in the rural areas where there wasn't as much to see. The fields are separated by ditches rather than hedges for a start, so you can see much further across agricultural land. In the villages, roofs were flatter and presumably made out of different material, as they seemed to glisten. It was also noticeable how few people had gardens: space is at enough of a premium that having a patch of grass outside your house that isn't really being used for anything is rather a luxury. As we moved further into Tokyo, the land became increasingly build-up, accommodation more concentrated, and billboards flashing advertising more frequent.

The views of the countryside from the train
included a Japanese windmill
Ueno station, which was our destination, is split into two parts. The Keisei line, which runs between Ueno and Narita, has a station to itself. Then, a couple of minutes down the road from that, is Ueno station, where trains from the overground JR Yamanote line, the Hibiya subway line and the Ginza subway line stop. To get to our hostel, we needed the Hibiya line so, disembarking from our train, we headed out of the Keisei line station into the September sun.

Looking at weather forecasts before we set out, it had seemed to me that the Japanese Septembers were about as hot as the hottest point of British summers. Either I had read the forecast wrong, or the Japanese weather had just gone ahead and decided to do its own thing, defying all predictions in the process. When we stepped out of the air-conditioned station, we were hit by a wall of heat reminiscent of Texas and Turkey, where temperatures regularly rise above 35 degrees centigrade.

Ueno, Tokyo
Although I had anticipated that we would be hungry when we arrived at Ueno station, I hadn't quite anticipated our states of mind. Not only had we not eaten since the rather thin airport breakfast, we hadn't slept for around twenty four hours and had been standing up for the best part of an hour. Dragging our heavy suitcases to Ueno station from the Keisei line station in the sweltering heat, and then up and down staircases until we found the restaurants I had picked out seemed, at the time, like an insurmountable task compared to the idea of following the sign bearing a large yellow 'M' and pointing across the road.

And whilst I do regret to some extent that my first meal in Japan was at a McDonalds, it actually turned out not to be such a poor idea. The general feeling in England is that everyone in Japan speaks English to the level where they could quite happily have a conversation with you. Whilst this may well be true of many well-educated Japanese people working in skilled jobs, it is not by any means necessarily true of waiters, station attendants, shop assistants, or any of the people who it is really necessary to communicate with as a tourist. The American chain therefore gave us some idea of the combination of sign language, pointing and saying individual words very clearly that would be required, in a situation where we already knew what everything was and what we wanted. Once we had each struggled through the order process and ended up with something that resembled a meal, we dragged our cases up the stairs to the seating area.

As it turned out, there was no way to arrange four large suitcases and four carry-on bags in such a way that it didn't feel like we were blocking up the entire seating area, but we did our best. When we had finished eating, we made our way towards Ueno station proper. We found it fairly easily, and once inside, accepted our PASMO cards from Yingke. PASMO cards are used to pay for Tokyo's rail network - you load money onto them and then it is reduced automatically whenever you take a train. We passed successfully through the ticket barriers, and rode a Hibiya line train two stops northbound to Minowa, where our hostel was located.

The Tokyo metro, complete with mandatory
girl-in-sailor-uniform advertising
We weren't all that fortunate in finding our hostel either. Although we had directions, they were rather dependent on one taking the correct exit from the station (an exit which, as it turned out later, was only available to people arriving on trains coming from the other direction). We wandered for ten minutes in a direction we thought was probably the right one, occasionally narrowly avoiding being hit by bicycles. Everyone cycles on the pavements in Japan, which took some getting used to, and there were a number of very narrow misses. Once it became evident that we weren't heading in anything like the right direction, but we couldn't quite bear the idea of walking all the way back to the station again, we stood around for a bit looking at the map and feeling tired and thirsty until we were approached by a Japanese man.

It quickly became evident that neither party spoke enough of the other's language for a proper conversation, but he beckoned us into his restaurant anyway, and gave us water with ice whilst he and his wife poured over a map and tried to match it up with our map of the hostel and the surrounding area. Eventually, they realised our mistake: we had, in fact, set of in the opposite direction of the hostel that was our eventual destination. Once this had been successfully communicated to Henry (who spoke and read the most Japanese of the four of us), we set off back in the direction of the station, this time taking the correct road. We made another wrong turning, and were once again set right by a Japanese lady who was passing, before finally arriving at our hostel.

It struck me repeatedly over the course of our trip how much more polite and eager to help the Japanese are in comparison to the English. I will try quite hard while writing this report not to turn it into a huge list of the ways in which, as far as I'm concerned, Japan is superior to England, but in situations such as this, it really is difficult not to make comparisons. I remember the first time I was trying to get to The Underworld in Camden for a gig I got lost, and was ignored outright by the first couple of people I asked before I was grudgingly given directions. In Japan, you just have to look lost, and people go out of their way to make sure you are okay, as they did for us twice in the space of fifteen minutes, despite the language barrier.

We knew that we wouldn't be able to check-in until 15:00 once we reached our hostel (it was about 14:00), but we were grateful for the fact that we could at least sit down in the shade. I had bought my mahjong set, and we played an East round to pass the time. Yingke was understandably feeling a bit off-colour at this point, but sportingly joined in anyway. 

Our room -- we were all feeling really awake
by this point
Once we could finally check-in, we all had showers and then lay around under the air conditioning for a while. Then, at around 18:00, feeling as refreshed as it is possible to feel for people who haven't slept for such a long period of time, we headed out to the supermarket.

From the bridge over the road near the
The supermarket was next to the station, and despite its small size, it was host to a large number of interesting and unusual foods. We were to find out over the course of our trip that its stock was actually fairly standard for a Japanese supermarket, but we had fun looking around. We eventually settled on instant noodles for supper and melon bread for breakfast (something that we had all seen numerous characters enjoying in anime series). Back at the hostel, after deciphering the instructions on the packet (which were not any different from those for cooking instant noodles in the UK) we ate quickly, and then collapsed into bed around 20:00, falling asleep immediately.

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