I’ve been to Japan a few times and have always enjoyed my time there. The people are friendly, the streets are clean, and everything is so different to what I’ve seen in Scotland or Korea.
On my first trip to Japan I went on my own, speaking not a word of Japanese and knowing nothing about Fukuoka – the city in which I would spend the following few days. That’s the way I like to travel. I like the adventure of rolling into a strange city and putting my faith in luck and chance that things will turn out alright.
I soared from Busan to Fukuoka on a high speed ferry, landing in the strange little city in the evening. When I stepped into the immigration hall I was met with a giant line of arriving passengers – all of them were Asian.
I thought nothing of that little racial quirk, given that I’d spent the previous seven months in Korea, surrounded by Korean people, rarely seeing anyone who wasn’t Korean. But there were hundreds of us in a room, lining up to go through immigration, and every single person except me was waved through.
I was pulled aside and had my bag opened and emptied as the hundreds of passengers gathered around; the immigration officials delighting in empting my underwear and toiletries (fortunately I don’t carry anything more embarrassing than boxer shorts and toothpaste) onto a table for examination.
Once everyone had taken a good look at my mundane accessories, I was waved into Japan, the friendliest and most pleasant place I’ve ever been. I soon forgot all about the immigration embarrassment.
When I stumbled out of the ferry port I waited for a bus. I didn’t know anything other than a word a friend had told me – the name of the downtown district in Fukuoka. I said this to an old man and he put me on the right bus… and paid for my fare!
When we were where I was meant to be the bus driver told me to get off. No one I’d met so far spoke English, but were always ludicrously friendly and polite. I decided then that I was never going back to Korea.
I walked around for a while, drinking in the exotic surroundings. Everything was so foreign to me! I had no idea what anything was or what any signs said. Restaurants seemed to operate through the use of vending machines instead of waiting staff; everything was so damn futuristic that I felt like a Neanderthal in some dumb made-for-TV movie.
After an hour of walking it became apparent that I wasn’t going to find a hotel. I assumed that I’d see a sign in English: “HOTEL” but there was nothing of the sort. Perhaps there were hotels with only Japanese signs, but I didn’t know.
So I gave up and fell back on my instincts. I got drunk.
I found the nearest bar and ordered a few rums, and then told the bartender – who spoke no English – that I needed a hotel. He spent an hour finding a hotel that suited my budget and location, and when I staggered out the door I could hardly fathom the maps and notes he’d made for me.
The rest of my stay in Japan continued in much the same fashion. I walked about the city, exploring everything by foot. I was constantly overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers and left in no doubt that Japan is the most beautiful and hospitable country in the world.
When I returned to Japan a year later I decided upon a few days in Osaka. I had friend from there and he claimed it was the best city in the country, and I didn’t doubt him. My first experience in Japan had, if nothing else, taught me to trust the Japanese.
I took a plane this time because Osaka is further from Korea than Fukuoka, and the plane sat better with me than the choppy sea journey.
Sitting next to me on the plane was a Korean girl. She said she was a doctor from Busan and we talked for the duration of the hour-long flight. It was mostly a mundane conversation, but she told me that she was taking the same flight back from Japan. “What a coincidence,” I replied, not really caring.
I asked her if she’d been to Japan before, and she said she had. I asked her where and when. “Fukuoka,” she said. “A year ago. I went by ferry.” I asked her what date and she took out her passport and looked, and I did the same. We’d both taken the same ferry at the same time, to and from Fukuoka, and now we were booked on the same flights as well. I looked back up the aisle and could imagine the grinning face of Simon Smithson: “It’s SSE, buddy!”
When I landed in Japan I was pleased to find myself receiving no more attention than any of the Asian passengers, and slipped through immigration after a mere hour of standing in a line, having my fingerprints and photo taken. It reminded me of the time a small Korean doctor stuck his finger up my ass while his son watched… Awkward. Unnatural.
I decided to proceed with my usual routine, and attempted to travel into the heart of Osaka and find a hotel and entertainment without any prior research or planning. I failed.
Whereas in Fukuoka there are a few signs in English and maps everywhere, detailing the streets of a very small and simple city, Osaka proved to be somewhat more confusing. There were no maps, no handy pamphlets, no English, no help desks. I was baffled.
I found a big subway map with all the stops in Japanese, and I pointed to the apparent middle of it and asked someone what it was called. She said a word and I ran back to the ticket vendor (a rarity in a land of vending machines) and repeated the word. He gave me my ticket for a mere ten-fucking-dollars.
After wandering around for a long time I managed to get on the train and got to the middle of the city (according to the subway map). There I set about looking for a hotel and within two minutes it began raining.
I walked about looking for a hotel for perhaps two hours before I found a giant ornate building which appeared to be what I was looking for. “How much?” I asked inside. The place was elegant. It looked like hotels in Korea that cost fifty bucks a night, but the man replied, “One hundred fifty dollars.” Great.
My stay in Osaka was brief and unmemorable. It is a nice enough city, but thanks to the American air force nothing there is nothing in Osaka that’s older than 1945. Everything that looks old was simply rebuilt after the war, and mostly the skyline is comprised of blocky grey towers – just like Korea.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself. I managed to get drunk, eat plenty of raw fish, raw beef and other weird crap, trekked around the fashion capital of Japan, and saw a couple of whale sharks in their world famous aquarium.
But what made my stay in Osaka memorable was the manner in which I exited the country – a new experience even for a seasoned traveller like myself.
As mentioned, Osaka isn’t particularly tourist friendly, in spite of hosting a massive international airport. The subway is expensive and nothing is written in English. But I thought I was smart enough to get around and so I bought a ticket for the line that had a picture of an airplane.
I sat down and began to read. It had taken forty-five minutes to get from the airport to the central station and I assumed it would take the same to get back, leaving me with plenty of time to get checked in and on the plane. No worries.
After an hour had passed I looked up from my book and realised I was in the mountains, surrounded by tiny farms and ramshackle houses. There was no one on the train but me.
When the train finally stopped I didn’t know what to do. It just sat there in an empty station and I was alone, scared. Me: the seasoned traveller, the man who never plans anything and always lands on his feet; who travels the world on his wits… Lost.
I sat for a long time and eventually the train started moving back the way it came and I realised that I couldn’t go all the way back to the central station – where people might feasibly speak English and there might possibly be a map hidden somewhere – because I didn’t have the time. My plane was meant to leave in an hour, which meant I had to check in within half an hour.
When we got to the next stop I jumped off and asked someone about the airport. He didn’t speak English but he recognised a white guy with a backpack would probably be going that way and pointed me towards another track.
I ran and waited and jumped on another train, which moved achingly slowly in the same direction as the first one. I just thought about my predicament. The problem wasn’t missing a plane and having to buy another ticket. There was only one flight a day and in Korea you don’t get days off work. You miss work, you lose your job. If you don’t have a job, you’re kicked out of the country. It’s that simple.
When I arrived at the train station – after two more transfers – it was ten minutes until my plane was meant to leave. I’d missed the check-in time and the boarding time. The gates were closed and I was screwed. But nonetheless I ran across to the check-in desk in my bare feet, slipping all the way on the damned polished floor.
“You’ve missed your flight, sir,” the Japanese woman said.
“No!” I wailed. “Fuck!”
“Please,” I pleaded. “I’ll lose my job.”
The woman looked at me to determine my sincerity. I’d already given up hope and I was too tired to argue any more than the few words I’d previously said.
Then something amazing happened. A miracle, if these things are said to be true.
The woman took a walkie-talkie from her belt and screamed into it in Japanese. At the same time she grabbed my arm and jumped over the baggage carrier, dragging me along behind the check-in desks. We went through a small door and into the back room, along behind the belt of moving luggage.
All the time the woman was screaming into the walk-talkie, dragged me as fast as she could go. After running through the airport I needed that drag to keep me moving at anything more than a slight job.
We tore down a flight of stairs, out through the vacant diplomat line at the passport check, and then she said goodbye and I was met by a young man, who took my bags and told me to “RUN! RUN! RUN!”
We ran through the abandoned bowels of the airport to a glass door, which the man opened in time for us to meet a police car which had just screeched to a halt.
“GET IN!” the guy shouted as he through my bag into the back of the car.
I’d barely closed the door when the vehicle tore off across the tarmac, the two police officers looking as determined as if they were chasing terrorists holding their families hostage. One of them was screaming into a radio in Japanese.
We drove as fast as I’ve ever been driven across roads and runways, until we came to the parked plane. Several stewards were hanging from the door, waving me on board.
By the time I took my seat we were rolling down the runway, and within two minutes we were in the air. I just kept staring at my passport. I was missing an exit stamp and hadn’t gone through any security procedures. I’d been subject to the weirdest exit from a country I’d ever experienced, thanks to the overwhelming kindness of the Japanese people.