home blog work links

Archive for December, 2008

days six & seven – tokyo – what do you do in an earthquake?

I have never known so quiet a hospital as this one. I usually end up in the bed next to the screaming person (unless I’m the one screaming) but it was so quiet, I wasn’t sure at times whether there was anyone else in the ward. I was also close enough to the nurse’s station to hear the nurse call bell, which, instead of being a beeping or ringing alarm, played a jingly little tune.

In the morning, a doctor came to see me and I finally learnt where I was – Jikei University Hospital (not that that left me much wiser). He started talking about what we were to do when he interrupted himself to ask, “Where are you from?” When I said I was from England, he said, his own Japanese-English being very American, that must be why my accent was so different. He said that I was okay to be released and he’d go sort out the paperwork, then disappeared again, but not before saying in a marvelling way, “I really love your accent.”

At breakfast, although I hadn’t felt hungry when I started eating, I bolted it all down – not very surprising as they hadn’t wanted to risk giving me food the night before – and was in the middle of chewing when the doctor poked his head around the curtain again. While I hastily tried to swallow, he saw that I was eating and said he would come back when I’d finished and had withdrawn again before I could say it was fine. I am used to doctors saying they’ll come back in a bit and then disappearing for two hours.

It ended up being an hour in the end, during which time Ryan had returned safely, as well as having been able to have McDonalds in peace without me to tut about it. It wasn’t until almost midday though that my drip was taken out and I was finally released to go settle the bill. ¥126,000! Which converts to over £900. My credit card was rejected – probably not surprising after trying to put on such a large amount in a foreign country – and a little reluctantly (but very politely) I was given bank details to transfer the payment to, by the end of January. I really hope my travel insurance covers this or my trip may end up being a bit shorter than intended.

Pretty much desperate for coffee by this point, we stopped at the hospital’s Starbucks and I suppressed my usual Starbucks-hatred for the sake of a dark cherry mocha. And also weird looks from the employees after asking whether a cheese pastry had nuts in. We went back to the hostel so that I could shower and change and inspect the scratches and bruises I’d inflicted on myself after trying to rip my skin off the day before.

With Mount Fuji obviously out of the question, we went to try a dry-run of the journey to the airport as Ryan was to fly out in the morning back home, while my flight to Sydney wasn’t until the evening. After having worked out plans A to C, we went back to Harajuku for present-shopping and ramen eating (and more asking if anything that blatently didn’t had nuts in). Then as I was pretty tired from my ordeal and Ryan having to get up early for his flight, we returned to get an early night.

I woke up when it was still dark and wondered what the time was, thinking it still had to be very early as Ryan hadn’t left yet. I lay there, still sleepy, and watched as the room gradually got lighter before hearing sudden swearing from the top bunk. Ryan had forgotten to turn his alarm on. He was ready in record speed, check he had everything, hug, “bye!” and gone. I tried to go back to sleep but was too awake by that point, so got up and went for a walk around Minowa in the chilly morning.

There seems to be a danger of over-romanticising Japan (I’m not sure that over-romanticising is the right word but bear with me) but it’s very easy to see everything here as so much more attractively designed than back home. Tower blocks and apartment buildings seem to be less of a blot on the landscape as our council flats, or those pre-fabricated houses that were never intended to still be standing forty years on, or sixties lumps of institutional concrete* that you stare at and wonder what the thought process was when they were designed. The impression isn’t helped by the fact that so much is made to be cute – such as being told not to venture onto construction sites by chibi-style builders or warnings about not smoking while walking being highlighted by a despondent cigarette, complete with hands in its filter-pockets.

I realise that I’m seeing things through the rose-tinted glasses of someone on holiday and is probably akin to tourists to the UK claiming everything is “quaint” but I do think that as a general rule, things are simply prettier. Except for Tokyo Tower, which I still don’t get.

Back at the hostel I made myself a cup of tea in the common room that was filled with a bunch of loud Aussies not long back from a club and watched BBC News for a while. The only other time we’d checked what was going on back home, Ryan had gone to the BBC website to find that the headline was about Japan’s recession plan. The weather forecast also told me it was going to reach 20°C – despite previous claims, this is not a climate similar to the UK. At the hostel there was a box that yo could leave cast-offs for other people to take, so I left behind one jumper and the coat I’d been telling myself I would replace for the past three years. Although I doubt either would fit many people – that coat is sized age 14 from Zara Kids.

Wearing my one remaining jumper, I headed out to Ueno and to the Tokyo National Museum. Ueno Park was busy with families and tourists and as I went through it to the museum, I saw a woman with a small dog on wheels, as in it had a pair of wheels under its hind quarters. I’ve seen a dog before with something similar, whose back legs were paralysed, but this one’s seemed fine as it was jumping around her. Very odd.

The Tokyo National Museum is set on a large piece of ground and comprises of several buildings set around a pond and fountain. The main one, the Honkan gallery, is two floors of Japanese history. I particularly like seeing practical, every day objects that people hundreds or thousands of years ago would use without thought. There were sets of government ledgers – just of accounts and receipts that some clerical worker probably wrote into without ever thinking that in the future they’d be preserved behind glass to be stared at by people from across the globe.

It really is true that the Japanese will sleep anywhere (something I am definitely in approval of). In one room there was a demonstration video of decorative arts in Japan and in the front row, the only person occupying a seat, a man slept, seemingly very heavily with his head hanging down. Two museum guides looked on, unconcerned.

The only other gallery I went to was Toyokan, which is the Asian Gallery. Some of which is from so long ago, dated thousands of years BC, that I find it hard to comprehend. I had a terrifying moment when the flash on my camera, which had been turned off for every other photo I’d taken in the museum, decided to turn itself back on when I had it pointed at the skull of an ancient Carthagian mummy. It was incredibly bright and I was convinced hundreds of security staff were about to converge on me because of the horrible damage done by unrestrained flash photography on thousands of years old corpses. When no uniformed guard pounced on me, I deleted the evidence and walked nonchalantly on.

When I emerged from the Toyokan, the promised 20°C weather had arrived and I sat by the fountain, enjoying bright sunshine for a while before heading back out to Ueno Park and for lunch bought some squishy squid balls from a street vendor (and earned another weird look after asking about nuts) that Ryan probably would have been less than impressed by. Then I went and tripped on some steps, causing myself a huge and impressive bruise on the top of my leg to add to the collection.

Ryan’s morning panic had left me slightly anxious about missing my flight, so far earlier than I needed to, I headed for Tokyo station to get the Narita Express to the airport. It was absolutely beautiful outside and the sun over the fields looked gorgeous. Unfortunately, having got over-involved in my book while at the station, I only realised how lovely it was outside just before getting to the airport, so pretty much missed it all. After getting off at the station, there was a passport check, which made me wonder what you would do if you were just seeing somebody off or meeting someone.

I arrived before check-in had even started (I know, me – early!) so had a browse and some dinner (table was cleaned by a very thin-looking Santa Claus) before it opened. I pretty much flew through the rest of it, well apart from setting off the metal detectors as usual, then had a solid two hours in the Yahoo internet centre. Free, which was very nice, but unlike in the hostels, Internet Explorer only.

While I was sitting at the computer, an announcement came over the whole airport: “The previous earthquake alarm was a false alarm. Please be assured it is safe.” Now, I was glad to know it was safe; the part that concerned me was that I hadn’t heard any earthquake alarm – and I’d been sitting there for an hour. What if there had been a real alarm? Who would have heard it? Was it a Japanese one only? Would the tourists be left confused and bewildered while all the native speakers stampeded for the… actually, where would they go? Are there earthquake shelters? I have just realised that lifetime in calm ittle Britain has left me fundamentally unprepared for what to do during large natural disasters.

I am finishing off this entry with a question (looking for audience participation, I’m afraid.) When sitting next to a stranger on the plane, do you talk to them? I never know whether to or not. I had the window seat and was seated and reading by the time a guy took the seat next to me. I smiled and said hi but then went back to my book. Also, we’d hardly taken off before I fell asleep and didn’t wake up for the next eight hours, so it hardly seems worth the effort to make introductions if I’m just going to pass out on them.

*Like the Psychology building on Nottingham University campus or Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital – two eyesores of buildings I know very well.

meows (8)

day five – tokyo – bento box of death

The perils of staying in hostels was brought back to me twice that morning. First, as I went past the ten-bed dorm on the way to the shower. The smell coming out of it made me very grateful that we’d booked a private room. Second, after finishing my shower, I realised I’d forgotten my towel. I had to shake myself off and put my pyjamas back on, before hopping quickly back to the room in the hope that I wasn’t leaving a trail of damp footprints behind me.

Last time I was in Tokyo was four and a half years ago. It was a brief stay at the end of a six-week holiday and I have three main memories of the occasion. That it rained, apparently non-stop, for the three days we were there; Tokyo Tower looked more like a glorified pylon than the Eiffel Tower; and the sad sight of rows upon rows of statuettes at a shrine that represented unborn children. Coming back, feeling a lot more alert than my previous visit made me realise that I like Tokyo – it reminds me a bit of home. I think I’m just more comfortable in cities.

Day five was for doing stuff around the city, mostly following Ryan’s list of “weird stuff to see”, so we started off by heading to Shibuya. Apart from everyone getting booted off the train at Kasumigaseki for reasons we didn’t understand, we made it to Yoyogi Park. It was fairly early and very quiet; walking through we saw a group of homeless guys sleeping on the benches. I think overall, I seemed to see a lot more homeless people in parks that I do in London – probably because the weather’s better. Looking at the bare trees and the big black crows, you could tell that it would have been beautiful in spring or summer but in winter, it was a little sad.

We carried on through to the shopping area of Harajaku and were early enough that shops were barely open, or not open at all, although we did end up browsing the vast centre of cuteness that was at Kiddy Fun Land. One thing in particular, Mame-Shiba, got me giggling more than anything else at it’s mixture of being both adorable and entirely weird.

Our next stop was Daikanyama as Ryan was determined to find a place he had discovered called Caffe Michelangelo, just so we could photograph the toy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Michaelangelo outside of it. Having started to get quite cocky about our success using public transport in Japan, getting to Daikanyama proved to be another lesson as, after much studying of maps and yet more character matching, we eventually realised that the station was on neither Metro nor JR lines and instead this whole other rail network that we hadn’t taken account of, Tokyu, had come into play. All very confusing.

Daikanyama turned out to be a fairly upmarket area; pretty buildings, the Malaysian and Danish embassies, fancy shops, expensive restaurants but no Caffe Michelangelo in sight. Halfway up the road, we were stopped by a Texan, asking us if we knew where Starbucks was. After about twenty minutes of walking up and down this street, we finally came across it – we’d managed to walk straight past it as the sign was quite discreet and we had been on the other side of the road. Michaelangelo was posed and photos taken and from the look of the place (no prices!) we didn’t stop for a coffee. We headed to Ginza instead.

More wandering and more shops and a stop at the Sony Building later. I remember there being a lot to play with there last night but not nearly so much cool, new, innovative stuff to see this time. I’m not sure if that’s a commentary on Sony’s current business. I did briefly have a go on LittleBigPlanet though. We were getting very hungry by this time and went on a search for lunch, ending up at a ‘Food Avenue’, that just had lots of eateries. While Ryan went for lasagne, I considered Chinese before instead going for a bento box with rice, chicken, salad, potato wedges, yams – all looking very good. I’d ravenously scoffed a couple of mouthfuls – enough to have tried something of everything – when I felt a worryingly familiar tinglng in my lips, tongue and gums. I paused, please, don’t let there have been nuts in that, did a test swallow – no swollen feeling in my throat, prodded my lip – definitely swelling up. Uh oh.

So, who called day five in the pool for my first near-death experience? You win!

I mentioned my worries to Ryan and we sat there for a while. Maybe it was one of the nuts I was less allergic too, maybe some other random, unidentified allergen had crept in – I’ve been sitting at my desk at work before when out of nowhere, my lip has swollen up but nothing worse.

Usually, if I was going to experience full-on anaphylactic shock, a swelling in my throat is the first thing to happen and, as my nervous test swallowing testified, this wasn’t happening. We sat for fifteen minutes and nothing seemed to be getting worse, so I suggested we carry on and rather disappointedly, threw away the rest of my barely eaten lunch. We got the JR to Hamamatsu-cho so that Ryan could stock up on souvenirs from the Pokémon Centre. While on the train, my stomach was starting to feel uncomfortable and when we got to the Centre we’d taken photos, gone in and I was vaguely looking at little plastic Pikachus, Charizards and other monsters I can’t name, when I decided to go sit outside as my stomach was feeling yet more uncomfortable. While I sat on the low wall outside, the itching started and despite my attempts to think, ‘cold, cool, mountain streams’ (seriously), it got worse and worse to the point I was scratching so hard, I just wanted out of my own skin. The only thing that distracted me was the realisation that my breathing wasn’t going so well, at which point I admitted to myself that there was something seriously wrong.

I went back in to tell Ryan about the situation, just as he was being given a free gift, and then with no time to go find a toilet, back outside for some limited privacy to inject my Epipen – through my jeans, into my thigh, hold for ten seconds. Then back in where Ryan asked for an ambulance and heroically trying to explain the situation. Those poor staff of the Pokémon Centre (although they did steal Ryan’s map). Someone got me a chair and I collapsed onto it before realising I was absolutely desperate for the toilet (apparently a symptom of anaphylaxis, I never knew). A woman helped me through the shopping complex to it (seemed to take an age and I was leaning very heavily on her) and when I came out again, somebody had brought the chair round. I couldn’t stay seated on it for long though, unable to hold myself upright, I slid to the ground and could just hear the woman saying, “no, no, no, no, no,” frantically. Strangely, they moved me onto some flattened cardboard boxes, not sure what that was about, and covered me with a coat. I was very out of it by this point but remember thinking it seemed to be taking a long time for the ambulance to arrive.

When they did, I vaguely remember being hoisted into the ambulance and an oxygen mask being put on. Confusingly, it wasn’t turned on but at one point when it slipped off, they carefully replaced it. There seemed to be a lot of paperwork, Ryan had to show them my passport, and as my breathing became more and more desperate, I was having to think to myself, you are in a Japanese ambulance. They are not going to let you die. Not to be melodramatic or anything. I’m not sure why it took so long as I was later informed that by the time I was in the ambulance, my systolic blood pressure had dropped below 70 and my oxygen saturation below 70%. I am told that this is bad. Still, finally we were off and someone had turned my oxygen mask on. In a barely conscious way, I could hear the siren and Ryan says one of the ambulance crew was using a loudspeaker to tell people to get out of the way.

I don’t even remember getting to the hospital but all of a sudden I seemed to be in the midst of a flurry of activity as someone pulled off my jeans and injected me repeatedly in the femoral vein (which, ow!), hooked me up to monitors, inserted a drip and who knows what else. Then they all stood back and waited for the steroids, adrenaline and antihistamines to kick in. Which they did. Once everything had calmed down, there was more paperwork, I got a lecture from a doctor and they took some blood – again from my femoral vein and this time, why? I can understand in an emergency situation but I have two hands and two elbows. They could have taken it from any of those!

There was a very sweet nurse who kept apologising for her English and both Ryan and I kept assuring her it was so much better than our non-existent Japanese. They kept me in overnight for observation just in case I had a rebound reaction, and Ryan was left to find his way back to the hostel on his own.

meows (22)

day four – kyoto/tokyo – octopi, big fish and thunder dolphin

Our last morning in Kyoto was begun with a Yashi breakfast, complete with homemade bread. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had been glad to be rid of me, if only for my constant questioning whether food contained nuts the previous two nights at dinner. It continued at breakfast as my yoghurt was sprinkled with a seed mix and we had a prolonged discussion over whether granola contained nuts before agreeing it probably didn’t but not to risk it anyway.

Refueled, Ryan and I headed out to Nishiki Market to look at the food stalls. I’d started to crave fresh fruit and bought some satsumas and absolutely tiny bananas (not as expensive as Yashi had suggested fruit was in Japan). I have also never seen so many shoes and bags that I have wanted to buy before – typical that I should see shoes I like and would probably fit when I definitely can’t carry them. I love all the fish stalls, particularly the octopuses* with their tentacles dangling but again wasn’t sure about taking photos.

We couldn’t leave Kyoto without seeing another shrine and there was one in the market – the Nishiki Tenmangu shrine. As well as a tank with some huge fish in (koi, possibly? I’m not much good at fish-identifying), there were boxes with puppets in that you could insert coins to make them move – apparently they are robot oracles. You could also buy Hello Kitty purses, if you felt inclined.

After checking out, Ryan and I went to get the Shinkansen back to Tokyo and we almost got it right. We got the right line and the right platform and the train did go through the right station… it just didn’t stop there. So after whooshing through our stop, we got off at the next station and turned around to get the ‘local’ train, instead of the ‘rapid’ one. It did give me more time to marvel at how clean the Kyoto subway trains are though – I’m used to gum ground into the fabric as one of the few namable stains on the seats.

Once we reached Tokyo again, we spent a very long time staring at what we thought was the subway map, which didn’t have any Roman characters translation on it (some of them do, some of them don’t) and definitely didn’t match up to the English map in Ryan’s guidebook. Eventually we figured out that it was a map for the Japan Rail network and as we had JR Passes**, we could just go through the gates and work it out from there. Which we did – Yamanote line to Ueno station, then changed for the Metro there – Hibiya line towards Kita-Senju, getting off at Minowa for our hostel. My journey specificity is because when we got to bAKpAK Tokyo Hostel and checked in (I had totally forgotten we had booked a private room – woo!), we took a few moments to chill out. I got out the book I’m currently reading, flicked to the last place I’d left it and read the following:

‘Go over to that window, Miyake, look out, and tell me what you see.’

I do as he says. ‘A window cleaner, sir.’

The man is immune to irony. ‘Below the window cleaner.’

Trains pulling in and pulling out in the shadow of the Terminus Hotel. Mid-morning passengers. Luggage haulers. The milling, the lost, the late, the meeters, the met, the platform-cleaning machines. ‘Ueno station, sir.’

number9dream – David Mitchell***

It wasn’t intentional but it’s been fun reading a book set in Tokyo while in Japan.

Ryan and I headed back out into the city, set for Tokyo Dome City – another night of bright lights, although these a bit more garish than the ones in Arashiyama! I, being the vague and lacking-in-purpose person that I can be, had no particular plans for our time in Tokyo (apart from go see Mount Fuji) but Ryan, being the coaster-freak that he is, had decided on riding Thunder Dolphin. On seeing it, the way it drops so steeply and loops through the ferris wheel, I was pretty determined to go on it too. Which is a good thing because at one point, I thought Ryan was going to chicken out (he did refuse point-blank to get on the ferris wheel though) but 1000 yen, almost no queuing, 3500 feet of track and one 218 foot drop later and we were off again, giggling from the adrenaline. It was very fun – the first drop is absolutely fantastic, although I kind of expected it to be faster than it was. The staff running the ride were probably the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever seen working at an amusement park too. (Stealth is still my favourite.)

After getting some food, we had a bit of a wander around and by chance reached the Water Symphony, just as they started. Neither of us had felt at all festive so far – I’d barely even registered that Christmas was so close – but with the fountains all lit-up and dancing about in time to a medley of carols, for the first time I actually felt Christmassy, with one week to go. They followed that up with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and some other Christmas song I can’t remember now. With that, we were ready to call it a day.

bAKpAK Tokyo Hostel was a lot more typical of youth hostels than IchiEnSou but a pretty decent example of one. Like IchiEnSou, we had to take off our shoes for dorms and communal living areas. There was just the one shower on our floor but I only had to wait once for it to be free. Internet on the two computers was free again and as before in Kyoto, had Firefox installed as their main browser – evidently Japan really is a progressive nation. It was cold in our room at night and the beds a bit rickety and not as comfortable; although at least I didn’t have the same problem as Ryan – he was too tall to fit in his. I slept pretty well that night, apart from at one point dreaming I was stuck in a bomb shelter, only to wake up and realise that it was Ryan rolling over in the top bunk.

* Octopi? Ask Oxford doesn’t leave me much wiser.
** If you’re going to Japan as a tourist and are going to do much travelling about the country (so probably not if you’re just going to stay in Tokyo), I really recommend getting a JR Pass. It covers any of your travelling by the Shinkansen (bullet train – except for the Nozomi ones), some of the inner city travel, express trains and some buses as well (although we didn’t use them much). You have to sort it out before getting to Japan though.
*** If I borrowed number9dream off you, can you let me know and I’ll post it back when I’ve finished it? The two people I thought might have been the owners both tell me otherwise and that they’ve never read it! I’m pretty certain it’s not mine…

meows (2)

day three – kyoto – temple palooza and fried food on sticks

First a little house-keeping from my very vague last entry. The lights we went to see were at the Arashiyama Hanatouro – the lantern festival. It really was very pretty and the first indication I got of how seriously a lot of Japanese seem to take their photography. Saw a lot of people with tripods, spending a lot of time on their shots.

I saw a fair few more of these photography enthusiasts while out on Wednesday morning. Ryan and I took a long walk around eastern Kyoto, the Higashiyama area. It’s an area with a lot of temples and shrines, all of them very serene and calm. It was also quieter in general than we expected and we started to learn that the day, at least if you’re not working, doesn’t really start until 11am. A lot of shops don’t seem to open until then, although many of them had some fascinating displays in the window. A lot of them don’t like photography – after taking one photo, I realised on reviewing it that there was a no photography sign in it – and I started to get a little paranoid of offending anyone by taking photos of their wares. In fact, I started to worry more about inadvertently causing offence in these situations, than in any of the temples and shrines.

Our walk also reinforced other things that have already started to become very familiar. Kyoto is very clean – but bins seem to be few and far between! We saw a stern sign informing us of that we were in a “beautification area” and a severe penalty would be levied if we dropped any rubbish but it was a long way from there that I finally found* a bin to put my empty water bottle into.

There is an impressive proliferation of vending machines everywhere – mostly drinks or cigarettes, I’m yet to see any that dispense knickers. I wonder how in stock they are kept because to check them all on a regular basis must be a huge job. I know whenever I’ve bought a bottle of water from any, it’s been in stock. A less welcome constant presence is Starbucks. And they look exactly the same as every other Starbucks around the world.

We’ve almost been run over by cyclists several times over. They mostly ride on the pavement and I’m never entirely sure what direction they’re coming from – I’m probably walking on the wrong pavement. I do keep getting on the wrong side on the escalators. Four years of living in London has led to an ingrained tendency to stand on the right but over here it’s the left and I keep finding myself standing in the way of disgruntled commuters.

Another thing we’ve noticed is all the chiming that goes on. The pedestrian crossings for a start are gentler in tone when beeping to tell you to cross but there seems to be different types and levels of chimes to tell you things everywhere. There was a constant two-tone one in several of the stations we went to, for what I couldn’t work out. When we went past a library, a repeating doorbell-like noise alerted us to what seemed to be a disability-access point, presumably for information for blind users**.

After our morning’s walk, we headed back to the hostel, stopping off at the convenience store to grab some lunch. This included an apple Kit Kat – very strong smell of apple on opening the wrapper, initially okay when biting into it but has a very weird aftertaste. We only intended a short nap but once I’d lain down, I was out for the count for three hours and was a bit bewildered when I did wake up.

Before dinner, we took another walk out to the nearby Yasaka shrine and saw it all lit up by night before going with Yashi and Nell to a restaurant to point at items on the menu which either corresponded to food out of the hot pot or were put onto sticks and deep fried, tempura-style. It involved a pay-as-you-go system; we were each given silver dishes and a playing card and we put money in our own dish. With each item of food or drink you ordered, they would take the money off the dish and make change there and then.

While we were there, an Australian friend of Yashi’s (who he’d already told us many anecdotes about) turned up with people from his hostel in tow. It’s been fun meeting the different kinds of people also travelling; although I’m a lot more vague on these names. Yashi’s friend was called Dean and seemed to take the role of being an outspoken Aussie in a foreign land very seriously. He’d just got a new tattoo (which the French guy seemed to take great pleasure in “accidentally” poking) and at one point in the night sang a long, salacious song called “The 12 Days of Rugby” – he asked first whether we wanted the short of long version. We should have said the short.

As well as two American students and an English one called Carolina who I didn’t get to talk to, there was an Israeli who insisted on studying the menu very carefully before ordering his drink and asked for a receipt so he could claim back the tax when he went back home. The aforementioned French guy had previously been labouring in Australia, picking pumpkins before following a Japanese woman back to the country – she wanted to settle down and have babies though and he definitely seemed less certain about that!

Illka, a Fin who was in Japan researching Artificial Intelligence that can read human emotion, was renamed as LobsterMan as he turned very red as he drank alcohol. He told us that he takes tablets to make him ill so he won’t drink but it’s not really a deterrent, he just drinks through it. And it was noticeable that as time (and more beer) went on, the red faded until he’d “normalised”, as he put it. He also seemed slightly fixated on the idea of going to sing karaoke and stripping naked, which apparently he would do back home before jumping into ice water.

There was another Aussie there too who had arrived at IchiEnSou that day. He was also called Ryan, who had been the physiotherapist travelling with the Cirque du Soleil on a three month contract. When he finished in Spain, he decided to take his time on the journey back, making his way through Europe, Russia and was now on the home stretch through Asia, having been on the road since July.

As the night before our evening companions included a psychologist, international locations planner and a film editor in Hollywood, I have long since given up trying to explain what I used to do for a living (although it’s very strange writing ‘unemployed’ on forms that ask for my occupation!)

People drifted away over the night until it was the five of us from IchiEnSou plus Illka and Dean left. Dean wanted to show Kenji, one of the other guys who helped run IchiEnSou, his tattoo so we all headed back there. Yashi had explained to us in lengthy detail the origin of his hostel’s name – something about it being a circle of connected destiny and that the specific sign used for En was about how everything was meant to be and when people meet at IchiEnSou, it was meant to be at that time. Or something. It all got very metaphysical and when we got back to the hostel, he and Illka got into a lengthy (and drunken) discussion on Buddhism. Illka earlier had also been deriding the Lutheran church in great length, although he does sing in a church choir.

Somehow this all turned into the group being asked at large if anyone was religious, I hate that question – I’m never sure what ‘religious’ is meant to mean – but said I was a Christian all the same and that just developed a whole new level of awkwardness. I noted that you say you’re a Christian and instantly everyone’s views on you shifts – in more liberal circles anyway and they’re the ones I tend to live in. Not my only handicap as Nell pointed out: I’m British and a Christian; I’ve got no chance.

The awkwardness of my faith-based revelation paled into insignificance pretty quickly though as Illka then said that worshipping Buddha was idiotic. As Dean and Illka got into an argument about the use of the word “idiotic”, the rest of us took it as an opportunity to slope up to bed.

P.S. If anyone tells me the result of the Strictly Come Dancing final before I get to see it, I will cry.

*I just accidentally managed to hit the combination of keys that changed the keyboard to Japanese. It has taken me ten minutes to get it back.
**I am typing this up in Narita airport (free Internet! Take that, Terminal 5!) and there is very tinkly Christmas music on in the background. It’s like sitting inside a music box playing “Silent Night” – I half expect to turn around and see a plastic ballerina revolving slowly behind me.

meows (4)

days one & two – ba005/kyoto – sanjo versus shijo

I left my flat at 7.30 on a cold, grey Monday morning and arrived at the IchiEnSou Guesthouse 24 hours later, 16.30 Kyoto time.

In an attempt to combat jet lag, and because I was so wired, I got about two hours sleep the night before and whilst on the Picadilly line to Heathrow, I would have liked to have felt smug about notbeing one of the commuters heading into work but I was far too sleepy. Also, there’s a part of me that isn’t convinced that I’m not just on holiday and I won’t be going back into work next week.

First incident of mild concern was at the check-in. I hadn’t been able to check-in online but assumed that was because I’d left it too late but when it refused me at the automatic booking in at Terminal 5, that was a little worrying. The guy at the desk’s frowning didn’t help much either and as he spoke to somebody on the phone, I was starting to wonder if I was even going to make it out of the country. It turned out that they thought I had a flight change fee to pay, which I was a little indignant about considering they were the ones who changed my flight, not me! It was eventually sorted but the seats Ryan and I were going to take had been snatched away from us, so instead we were deposited in the middle of a row. Didn’t really matter to me – I was asleep before we’d even taken off.

The flight was probably the smoothest I’ve been on in a while, take-off and landing were barely felt, but the food was pretty bad. You can’t expect miracles on BA though. I watched “The Dark Knight” on the plane, which was not the IMAX experience we had originally intended to watch it in but I enjoyed more than I thought I was going to. Judging by some of the cuts though, I think they probably edited out some of the more sadistic violence.

We landed at Narita airport in bright sunshine with mountains in the background and slightly dazed, made our way through passport control and customs, swapped our Japan Rail Pass vouchers for the real thing, made my first purchase with Yen (a bottle of water) and were soon on a train to Shinigawa. There was more leg room and the seats were wider than on the flight. When we changed trains, we wandered up and down the station for a while trying to find our platform before awkwardly asking an official by pointing at our tickets and smiling pleadingly.

It was amazing seeing the Japanese landscape zipping past outside, although we were so tired we kept dropping off to sleep. I kept jerking awake, worried we’d miss our stop but we disembarked at Kyoto and successfully negotiated the subway, apart from almost getting our shins smacked by the ticket barriers.

Then we got lost.

It wasn’t my fault. Ryan had said we needed to go to Sanjo station and we had directions from there to the hostel. We made it to Sanjo fine and then walked back and forth for half an hour trying to follow the directions but never finding the hostel (although we did walk past an English pub called the Pig and Whistle). We returned to the station and studied the tourist map they had there before realising we were a couple of blocks too far north and the station we should have gone to was Shijo, not Sanjo. From there, it was easy.

The IchiEnSou Guesthouse (where I am currently hogging the computer and hitting the colon key, expecting an apostrophe) is the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. It’s clean and comfy, the shower is hot and powerful, the atmosphere relaxed and the host, Yashi, really friendly and helpful. Not long after arriving we went out again with Yashi and other people from the hostel – Walter from Dusseldorf, Nell from Sydney, Ron from LA, Jeremiah from Singapore, Nicole and Minh Sun from Auckland and, damn, forgotten his name, from somewhere outside Osaka. (You didn’t need to know any of that, it was just an exercise to see whether my memory was actually functioning.) I always feel a bit ashamed when I’m around non-native English-speakers at my own monolingual-ness. Walter said how when he was younger it always used to annoy him how Americans would come to Germany, expecting the natives to speak in English and he would refuse. He is resigned to the English language takeover now though and annoyed at his own earlier stubbornness because it’s made it harder in his current work where he needs to be fluent. It does seem unfair though. I was so easy for us to make our way to Kyoto but I can’t imagine how tricky it must be for non-English speakers to do a similar journey from Heathrow to say, Birmingham – getting to King’s Cross would be tricky enough.

Still in a sleep-deprived daze, we followed Yashi to somewere in south Kyoto (I can remember we changed trains on the subway once – there are women only carriage) where they had a festival with lots of lanterns and lights and market stalls everywhere. It was really pretty there although a bit of a haze to me now. Ryan and I lost the others at one point and had visions of trying to find our way back to the hostel on our own but thankfully found them not too long after. Embarrassingly, they had split up and sent out search parties for us. I fell asleep on the bus on the way back to central Kyoto and have now been roundly mocked for my public sleeping by virtual strangers. I realise it was only a matter of time, just didn’t expect it to be quite this soon.

We finished off in a small, cosy bar with items from the menu written on the ceiling and a charicature of Hitler on the wall before passing out very quickly as soon as I got into bed.

I can’t believe I’m in Japan! And in a well-timed manner, Ryan has woken up and we are going to go and see Kyoto in a slightly more alert manner.

meows (10)