Adventures in Japan
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Travelling to Japan is not for the weak. After three hours to London, five hours waiting for the connection flight and twelve hours to Narita, I and my friend set foot in Japan feeling like death warmed over. We were in no condition to appreciate the paperwork involved in trying to cross the border – who were we, where were we from, how long would we stay and where, how much money did we have? There were no drugs in our bags. We would not stay longer than a few weeks. We had no illnesses. We would not steal jobs from Japanese citizens. Good. We were stamped in and allowed through. Before making our way out of the airport, some policemen handed us packs of tissues. We were informed they were ‘Japanese police friendship gifts’. I felt vaguely alarmed and hoped we would stay as friends. It took us some time to find the right subway station. The step-by-step directions to our hostel had seemed clear back home, but on the spot the paper had all the worth of kindling. Thankfully, the public transport in Japan is nothing short of excellent – trams arrive on time, the signs are written in English, and different routes are colour coded for extra convenience. Despite our near pathological efforts at getting lost, we eventually found our way to the district of Asakusa. As we climbed to the surface, sunlight sliced through my head like a red-hot knife. Electric wires crossed the sky above like a messy spider net, and all signs were written in sprawling kanji. In the street corner, a man handed us a pack of tissues and welcomed us to Tokyo in thickly accented English. Our hostel was a tiny, tidy thing – a testament to both Japanese reliability and the lack of living space in the city. Unfortunately, their dedication to cleanliness also meant we were in too early and our room was not ready. Tired as we were, we made the incredibly bright decision to wander out in the streets of Asakusa, where the sun was free to sauté our pasty, clammy skin. One of the most iconic places in the district of Asakusa is Kaminarimon, literally “Thunder Gate”. It is a massive red gate that houses a great red lantern and two statues: FÅ«jin, the Shinto god of wind, and Raijin, the god of thunder. Behind the gate is a market street, where you can buy anything from slightly-dicey yukata and paper umbrellas to a variety of local snacks. Not five minutes in the market we were ambushed by a group of schoolchildren, presumably on some sort of summer English assignments. As lily-white Europeans we stood out in the crowd, and, being young women, probably came across relatively harmless. It was an exercise in frustration on both sides – they were not very good at speaking English, and we still felt like wilted vegetables getting very slowly roasted by the sun. Their teacher, a man with an impeccable suit and severely combed hair, seemed to take our patience as some sort of a personal favour and bowed to us in gratitude. Confused, we bowed back. This may have broken some unspoken social conduct, because he bowed to us for a second time. We failed to take the hint and bowed back, again. I can’t quite recall where it ended, but eventually we walked away from the exchange with very sobering hand-made cards where little cartoon characters implored us to consider the threat of nuclear weapons. After sleeping for fifteen or so hours, we felt vaguely like human again and decided to venture further into the heart of Tokyo. Our first stop was Akihabara, the sprawling, confusing, deceptive haven of all sorts of electronics and anime-related goods. Shopping there can be a transcendental experience, and if I could only give one piece of advice to whoever intends to visit, it would be: “don’t keep a lot of money with you”. I somehow purchased a weird little fan that came with a water sprinkler, from a shop that gave the general impression that its goods might have fallen off the back of a truck. Spinning toys and disorganised wires were crammed next to boxes of electrical parts and flashing lights and there was not an ounce of spare space. I felt an urge to dig my fingers through everything, just in case I might run across a lost treasure. My friend, in turn, ended up with several anime-related sound eggs that got immediately lost in the depths of her suitcase for the rest of the trip and gifted us with a countless stream of “anpan, anpan, anpan”, whenever someone so much as nudged the bag. Akihabara had staked its claim. We conceded defeat. Altogether, the city of Tokyo is a peculiar mixture of old and new. In the midst of tall, sleek skyscrapers that reflect the blue of the sky are old temples that huddle in the streets as though wondering if they are still welcome there. Curiously, the same sort of dichotomy can be seen in the people. Six days of the week, the Japanese are model citizens. The streets are clean without a single discarded cigarette stump, and the only things that get stolen are, for whatever reason, umbrellas. However, all of this changes when Sunday arrives. Suddenly, people are jaywalking. Tobacco butts make their debut on the pavement. Motorcycle gangs drive past in the roads. People stumble about in public, openly drunk. Once Monday arrives again, the Japanese tuck in their shirts and iron their suits and go about their lives as though nothing happened. This took some time to get used to. What I remember best is, however, the sun that ground down on us in an endless siege and made the summer of Japan a sweaty, exhausting experience. In Asakusa, people ran little stands where they variety of cool refreshments. I often bought shaved ice from an elderly woman wearing a striped shirt and a pink shawl on her shoulders. The shards of ice were shaved off a block right then and there, and made sweet by pouring in some flavour-syrup of your choice. Though the snack was just ice and artificial essence, eating it was like waking up after a truly restful night. I could have done anything. I was unbeatable. Until the ice ran out, at least.
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