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!”

“I’m sorry.”

“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.

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DAVID WILLS is the managing editor of Beatdom Magazine, and the author of The Dog Farm and Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult'. You can learn more about him on his website.

41 responses to “A Tale of Two Japanese Cities”

  1. Brin Friesen says:

    This is such a great piece, David. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Matt says:

    Nice one, David.

    While Japan isn’t top of the list of foreign countries I want to visit, it’s certainly up there. I certainly want to see those whale sharks (which is a little strange, since I’ve seen them in the wild, but whatever).

    One question: the doctor who fingered you while his son watched. Was this for a medical procedure, or were you just getting shit needled?

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Oh David!
    I’m so glad there were no giant pedophile’s in this story.
    I was laughing so much at your description of the race through the airport – the funniest things happen to you. I can’t decide if you are just a very lucky person or if you have a strange internal ‘weird situation’ magnet that draws crazy things to you!! Either way – you are so entertaining and funny. And I love the way you write. So fluid and engaging.
    (and that Simon Smithson?? – insufferable!!)

  4. This. Was. Awesome.

    I wish I had more coin/means to travel; if I did, Japan would be way up near the top of my list. I hope, one day, to make it there, and I hope I end up with stories as good as yours. I think I’ll stick to Fukuoka, though. Sounds like more fun.

    Oh, and your method of travel? “the adventure of rolling into a strange city and putting my faith in luck and chance that things will turn out alright.” Hells to the yes, man.

    • Thank you, Will.

      Fukuoka is amazing. I think Osaka would be great for nightlife, but that wasn’t my objective on this journey. I hear the clubs are sweet. Fukuoka was prettier – so if you like walking for hours around a city, that’s the place to go.

      Glad you like my travel style. I did that going around the American West – no money, no plans. I ended up getting invited to Hunter Thompson’s house, waking up hundreds of miles from where I’d blacked out, and always, always having fun. I’ll probably employ that trick on my next trip.

  5. HA ha ha… thanks for the shout-out.

    A buddy of mine went over to Japan a couple of years back to visit another friend of ours who was teaching over there. Friend #1 memorised one phrase for use in bars: “I’m a stupid gaijin”. Apparently doors flew open as soon as he used it.

    I didn’t realise that Japan was such a friendly country. It’s now jumped ahead on my list of places to go.

    Also: the radio the other day had a story about how taxi drivers in Korea are now allowed to watch TV as they drive.

    • ‘Gajin’ is one of those words that became so racist only the people to whom it formerly applied could use it in good conscience. Japanese people would probably laugh, but they’re not allowed to say it themselves. It means something like ‘white devil’ or ‘foreign devil’.

      Japan is crazy friendly! Especially after a place like Korea. I kept hearing stories of the extraordinary lengths random people go to help tourists on the street (with no scams or angles) and I saw it myself when I was there.

      And yes, you’re right, but it’s no big deal. People here have had TVs in their cars for years. It’s always been legal but they have such horrific crash rates that they tried to ban them… and failed. In Korea, you can’t do anything to legally inconvenience old men. Old men are like gods in the eyes of the law. Rape, murder, theft… they can do anything. It’s Confucianism!

  6. The end reminds me of something in The Great Shark Hunt.

    Japan scares me because it always looks so futuristic on TV. I always feel it’d be like visiting Blade Runner.

  7. Jeremy Resnick says:

    Great story, David.

    I love how you sort of trust the universe to get you where you need to go. Wish I could be more like that. I’m totally stressed out by the idea of not knowing where I’m going to be sleeping.

    I wonder what that woman at the ticket counter said into her radio to get everyone acting on your behalf. Could it just have been what you told her? This guy’s gonna lose his job?

    • It’s not that I trust the universe so much as I trust myself. I’m not really a confident guy, but when I travel on my own (and I almost always travel on my own) I tend to do very well, which to me seems strange. But I just try and put faith in my abilities (and in luck) and see what happens. It’s all an adventure. Rest assured, if something bad happened you’d read about it here just as soon as if something amazing or funny happened!

      Not sure what the woman said, but she was obviously trying to stall the departure and get the police escort. I’ve honestly been baffled by how helpful people are in Japan. I was told before I went that I could walk up to anyone and ask them for assistance and I never believed it… Well, I’m converted.

  8. D.R. Haney says:

    I’ve had great luck with friendly strangers while traveling almost everywhere, except in Italy and Warsaw. Even in Paris, which has a world-wide reputation for rudeness, people went out of their way to help me.

    I also like traveling alone and the feeling of self-reliance that comes with it. Then, too, even close friends can grate in unfamiliar surroundings. Travel is a great acid test of character.

    • Yeah, I’ve had mostly the same experience. Strangers have helped me so much on my travels that I can barely overstate their impact.

      It’s weird you mention Paris because I was talking to a French guy (the only French guy in the Southern half of Seoul – an area of over 7 million people!) and he was telling me that Paris is the asshole of Europe. Which surprised me, of course, because it sounds so beautiful… I’ve been to France 13 times but never, ever been to Paris.

      I was most surprised by Los Angeles. I was told by so many people that it was the Shame of California and such, but when I went there I kept meeting nice people. One time I stopped on the street and pulled out a map and someone came over to help me. I was made so cynical by bad stories that I kept my hand on my wallet at all times, expecting the guy to steal it…

      And I totally agree about travelling alone. I always fall out with people I travel with, but we make up afterwards. I’m not an easy guy to get along with all day, every day for a few weeks. But I do love self-reliance (thank you, Emerson).

      • D.R. Haney says:

        The reputation that Paris has may in fact owe largely to the French themselves. Even Parisians like to run it down.

        And L.A. is friendly, sort of, unless you try to engage people beyond their impersonal, pleasant, lightweight norm. Just talk about TV shows, and avoid any hint of controversy, and all will be fine.

        • Indeed, like I said, the French guy was really harsh in describing Paris. And now that I think about it, whenever I’ve met a French person they’ve tended to reminisce about the South or the West of France, or about the beautiful little villages you find everywhere – never about Paris.

          And I’ll keep that in mind when I go back to LA.

          Although, last time I was there I was in Union Station and met a nice guy. We talked about life and philosophy for an incredible five hours. (However, we did start with stupid pleasantries and TV show banter.)

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Actually, by now, you don’t really have to be in L.A. to be in L.A., we’ve been so successful in exporting our values. And so I expect it to continue.

        • That’s true. Even on Korean TV I find myself confronted by Two and a Half Men and a dozen other LA-made or LA-based shows. They’re the reason why people here all walk about in t-shirts and caps with things on them that the wearer will never understand.

          Try asking a Korean kid with a Lakers shirt who the Lakers are… He has no idea. (Obviously this applies to Korean kids in Korea and not Korean kids in America, who will of course be aware of what they are wearing.)

  9. J.M. Blaine says:

    I love the Japanese culture and people and have been pondering a visit for sometime now.
    This sold me, a respectful and polite people, much like the ones I have met here in the States.

    Thank you sir.

    • You’re welcome. I love Japan and I can honestly say that I wasn’t paid by the tourist board to write this… I’d recommend a visit for anyone.

      The only slight problem – and I mentioned this briefly in the story – is the cost. It’s an expensive place. To get there from Korea is cheap so it’s not so bad, but coming from the US would make it a hell of a cost. Nothing costs less than ten dollars.

  10. Ducky says:

    Ah, I have stories like this, too. Bulgaria was my worst. Thanks for sharing. It helps knowing others get fucked with by immigration, too.

    • US immigration still ranks up there as one of the worst in my opinion, but I have the advantage of being white over there. Being white here is a bit of a kick in the teeth. The insides of our possessions and bodies are a thing of great fascination.

      I have a much sadder story regarding the plight of dark skinned people in Korea immigration, which I guess is probably the same in many countries around the world. In Korea they like to structure the waiting lines by race and skin tone…

  11. Greg Olear says:

    Really enjoyed this, David…and I’m so glad you made that flight! The logistics of getting to the airport always stress me out more than anything.

    The woman with the tickets was weird, but if there was a naked guy who wanted to drink with you and give you a haircut…THAT would be the Smithson Effect.


    • Thanks, Greg.

      I forgot to mention this in the orginal post, but I actually had another close call prior to this. I went to Taiwan in September (oh, how I travel…) and I had to fly out of Seoul.

      I managed to wake myself up at 5am, which was my main concern. But then proceded to get on the wrong bus and ended up in the wrong fucking city, and only just made my plane.

      Less than a month later I was in Osaka doing the same damn thing.

      This is all taking into consideration the fact that my dad flies to AFRICA for work every few weeks and has drilled flight preparation into my head since I was a baby. I used always arrived four hours early, just to be sure.

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