William Matheson (nova_one) wrote,
William Matheson

100. (4.) Roppongi to Okazaki

Written while waiting for Masae on the morning of August 4th.

G-yah! That was a disappointing cybercafé. It was expensive, cramped, and they didn’t even have soup or ice cream! Yes, they did have nice showers and bathrooms, but I did myself a disservice by not thinking things through before going to sleep: When I woke up in the morning, just ten minutes before the end of my time (!!), I realized that I couldn’t actually shower because there’d be no time to dry my towel.

Small mercies, though – it’s cloudy today, and knowing that I’m not spending another night here has put me in decent spirits. I know I’m going to wipe out most of this pay period’s savings [I ultimately didn’t touch any! Horray!], but I may never be back here, so I’d better make the most of it.

I got to Lloyds Bank and got the address thing sorted out. They’ll be sending me my pack. They didn’t get it in the mail before because of the address confusion – I thought that since the school was “38 Nakahara” and we were “29 [something]” (I can’t read kanji), that we were “29 Nakahara.” But Nakahara wasn’t the name of the street – it’s the name of the block. Surprise, surprise: Most streets in Japan don’t have names. The dorms, even though they’re just across the street, are on the Yoshinari Maesu block.

I’m waiting for Masae near an exit from Tameike-Sanno, on the Ginza Line. I’m sitting on concrete inside an alcove, and I’m hidden between two columns. I hope the security guards can’t see me. There’s no congenial place to sit as far as the eye can see. Nothing is free in this town.

* * *

Written from notes taken on the trains west of Tokyo late that same day.

I had quite a bit of fun with Masae. Seconds after we met, a middle-aged USAmerican woman (whose husband was in town on business) heard us speaking English and basically invited herself to follow us for a while. =) After she left, I told Masae that that would have been a little bit weird in any country, but based on the extraordinary circumstances (the poor woman was even demonstrating her (mixed-up) knowledge of Japanese vowel sounds off her book meant to teach Japanese to children), I felt some kind, patient assistance was warranted. After helping her get on her way, we went to the Imperial Palace – tours inside the walls require advance reservation and are only offered on certain dates, but just seeing the outer ramparts was worthwhile.

We had a great lunch at a ramen place – spicy ramen, yummy! We explored Akihabara, which made me wish I’d shopped around for that memory card, but at least it was working well – why take chances on a cut-rate no-name card when one’s photos are at stake? “Because you need to save money, Will.” Shut up.

Akihabara was cool; worth seeing, certainly. I don’t know if it merits its legendary status – there were a lot of stores selling lots of old and new stuff, but there were places that sold stuff like obsolete computers with inflated price tags, and this is in the age of the OLPC XO and Eee PC – why pay top dollar for paperweights when you can get a really practical small computer for just a few hundred dollars? Heck, Royal Bank is giving them away! I want one; imagine, having a practical computer with you everywhere you go without having to lug around 15 pounds of laptop and accessories! Gosh, they’d be perfect for travel blogging, too. They’d also be great for taking notes in class. You don’t need a 15.5” or 17” behemoth just to take psychology notes.

There were lots of interesting stores, but for the most part I think anything you could get there you could also get in Osaka’s Den-Den Town. Of note to fellow foreigners: Akihabara had special stores that had the export models supplied directly from their Japanese manufacturers, meaning that you could buy things with English manuals and menus – you could even get computers with English-language operating systems and good ol’ US English keyboards.

There was anime and manga galore, too, but I think they’re only of casual interest to most travelers unless they can read Japanese. Honestly, you might as well just wait until you get home and can get everything in English. Even anime DVDs here don’t usually have English subtitles, except perhaps for major major major releases.

While we’re on the subject, in other places I have purchased some Japanese Super Famicom games – they are electronically compatible with the North American SNES – you just have to knock out some little plastic “security tabs” inside the latter to play the former. To go the other way around you’d need an adaptor, but I haven’t heard of too many Japanese gamers interested in North American localizations. I also have the capability of playing imported PlayStation games on my PlayStation back home – but this is almost completely pointless, because all I like on PlayStation is RPGs, and RPGs require reading. I did, however, buy a PocketStation to go with my North American version of Final Fantasy VIII. Now I’ll finally be able to play the game the way it was meant to be played and maybe I’ll be kinder to it. Still, the story and mechanics of Final Fantasy VII – and IX, to a lesser extent – are a lot more fun.

Really, I think Anglo-Japanophiles (and I’m not one) are sometimes better off staying in their home countries, making good wages, having fun with their friends, and just dreaming about what Japan is like. OK, OK, being here has been a tremendous experience, but the country isn’t really the electric paradise that some people might think it is – if that’s what you’d come for, you might want to reconsider. Come for the people, the culture, the language, the food, the sights… actually, there’s a heck of a lot of awesome stuff here. I don’t regret coming here at all, and Japan’s a fine country. I’m just saying, though, it’s not as if you step off the airplane and there you are in Utopia Futureville 2525, despite common conceptions.

Where was I?

After Akihabara, we went back to Tameike-Sanno and had some tall tea drinks, and we talked, and talked, and talked. In large part, I was telling a horseshoe-shaped tale: when Masae visited us, my parents were still together, we had a thriving farm, and things were on the up and up. In the intervening twenty years my parents split, the farm was all but liquidated, I went to Bedford and had about as difficult a junior high and high school life as could possibly be conceived, and financially speaking things were in the deep doldrums.

I try to assert my connection to that past life on PEI as much as possible, but my father had a point when I made a visit the summer after, I think, Grade 7. He said I was now a tourist. Perhaps he resented the fact that I chose to live with my mother. The decision had more to do with geography than loyalty, but the die was cast – PEI and I were growing apart. Sure, I have virtually all of my childhood friends on Facebook, but there’s no interaction because there have been no shared experiences. With high school, it’s different – you can be like, “Ha-ha, remember Math class with Mr. Lyne?” but with elementary school it’s hard to keep in touch on the basis of “Hey, remember those times we used to play pretend in the schoolyard… [goes into awkward, why-do-you-still-remember-that detail]?”

The current situation is that I self-identify as either Islander or Nova Scotian depending on context. The Island has a lot in common with Japan in its two-part conception of the Universe: there is the Island, and then there is Outside. Japan does not recognize dual citizenship. Neither does, I think, PEI.

So I was telling a horseshoe-shaped tale, punctuated with some really low points, but lately things have been on the up and up. Masae had a lot of interesting things to say about her experiences on PEI in retrospect – among other things, she mentioned that my mother’s voice coach, Mr. MacPhee, once asked her what kinds of musical instruments they use for music classes in the Japanese school system. She answered (this was twenty years ago) that they learned to play Western instruments. Mr. MacPhee thought this was a travesty and expressed his opinion that the children ought to be learning traditional Japanese instruments instead. Well, now, they are, apparently.

She also remembered that a certain farmer by the name of Matheson had a habit of waving to all of the cars and trucks he met on the road. Heh-heh. It’s quaint by urban standards, but it’s nothing extraordinary – in Central and Eastern Kings it is possible to know, or know of, virtually everybody within a 20km+ radius (outside the towns, anyway), and since you’re waving to all of them, you might as well just wave to everybody!

After a long, long chat – one the likes of the one Gandalf and Tom Bombadil had – we set off for Tokyo Station so that Masae could help me get a reservation on the Moonlight Nagara. I’d given up on Mt. Fuji – I had mitts and a toque and even a rain poncho, but I didn’t feel really prepared – and I was ready to go back to Kansai. Unfortunately, at the time I’d forgotten the name of this train, and Masae couldn’t conceive of there being an overnight rapid, so we went through the line the first time without even asking about it. I had to graciously insist that we go back in line again, and all the while the clock was ticking for the conventional train that I was advised to get on. Ah, OK, there was such a train. It would have been just an extra seven or eight hundred yen (as I had the Seishun Juhachi Kippu). Unfortunately, it was booked solid. Oh well, at least it could have worked in theory. I hear these trains get booked a month or more in advance, but who plans that far ahead? (The Japanese, apparently.)

So I walk to the platform and wait for the prescribed commuter train – Masae fretted about me missing it even though we still had seven minutes to spare, and on top of that the train was late anyway. Just as well, as she had time to run up and find me waiting before going to catch her own train.

The train arrived, and we boarded. It was, of course, Monday afternoon rush hour in Tokyo, so my train car alone had about the population of California. I was standing for well over an hour before a bunch of people finally got off at Chigasaki. Oddly enough, I found it easier to fit in (as a worn-out, sweaty, bedraggled, disheveled traveler) among working folk than with partying, fashion-aware folk. I think the salarymen take one look at me and thank their gods that they’re not traveling far away from home.

It felt good to be seated, as standing, especially when the train was packed, was really starting to cut into my adventurous spirit. I didn’t even want to know how far outside Tokyo we’d gotten – both for my sake, and also for that of the sea of salarymen (and a few women) who must go every day.

As it got dark, the stations started to get tiny. I changed trains twice, the second time onto a Home Liner, which I was lucky to catch as I took the preceding local train further west before switching than my itinerary recommended, leaving a grace period of two minutes instead of nine. That Home Liner was cooking with gas – whisking right through small, pipsqueak stations in the dark of night is a unique feeling.

“Well,” I wrote, “this train is comfy and ‘reserved’ – let’s hope I don’t run into trouble. Worst case, they kick me off and I get back on the–”

And just then the conductor came by. Ah, there would be a ¥310 surcharge. Heh-heh. So you CAN go on these non-local, non-rapid trains – there’s just a little surcharge. That makes the Seishun Juhachi Kippu a lot more useful.

“It’ll be great to get out in the country and see the farms, the cows in the fields…” I’d remarked to Masae.
“Go to Hokkaido,” she laughed.

The scenery was still suburban, and it was quite dark anyway, so I tried to pass some of the time trying to read the overhead display at the front of the car, including the Japanese. I finally had a good dictionary – Masae gave me a copy of the Tuttle Concise Japanese Dictionary, which is great for foreigners, as you can look up Japanese words as if they were English, yet it still has the usage examples and kana / kanji equivalents. It’s much better than trying to use a conventional Japanese-English dictionary – they’re really meant for Japanese users, and English-speakers are treated as an afterthought at best.

I had to change trains again at Hamamatsu. On this next train, I met a 60-year-old man who spoke some English. He asked where I was going. I knew full well that I wasn’t going to make it to Osaka that night, but I wasn’t sure where I’d be staying along the way, and for that he thought I was crazy. It became kind of awkward, because he said so again and again:

“Do you have a reservation?”
“Nope!” I say, affecting cheer.
He shakes his head, “Crazy!”

He asked me what the most famous Japanese university outside of Japan was. I told him meekly that I hadn’t really heard of any before coming here – I should have explicitly said that this reflected more on my knowledge of world universities than the reputation of Japanese universities (low as they may be – at some places here, you can get a degree just for attending classes). He said that he’d graduated from Waseda University, and seemed a bit tiffed that I only kind of recognized the name.

He told me about his daughter, who was a grown career woman. I asked if he had any grandchildren. He exclaimed that he didn’t. I said, “Darn, you’ve got nowhere to spend your money!”

“I had two! They died!”

OH! “I’m… so sorry.”

We both got off at Toyohashi, as he was switching trains to go to Nagoya and he recommended I find a place to stay in Toyohashi instead of Okazaki, where the train was ultimately bound. I got out and feigned walking to another exit, and then when he was out of sight I hopped back on the train. Not only did I not like the vibes in that area; I also didn’t want to run into that fellow again as things were really getting awkward. He did give me his e-mail address and I’ve since contacted him to let him know I got back to Tokushima safely. Even that felt kind of maladroit.

So, Okazaki, eh? Well, I once ended up in Warsaw at 3:30am – I figured I could handle a small Japanese city at midnight. But things seemed to get sketchier and sketchier. Okazaki, though, was reassuring. There were not one, but two hotels within sight of the station, and the station itself felt quite safe. I considered sleeping there, as there’d be another train in five hours or so, but as sticky and tired as I was I felt that a hotel room would be a prudent investment and I was almost glad there was no cybercafé.

I walked to the closer, cheaper-looking hotel first: an AB. No good, they were full! O RLY? I suspected as I walked away – for a “full” hotel, it didn’t look that busy. I set off for the other hotel, the MyHotel Okazaki. En route, I had to wait at a sketchy at-grade railway crossing while two rowdy teenagers were waiting to cross on their bicycles. If anyone wanted to mug me, I was a sitting duck.

At the MyHotel, I started off on the diplomatic foot – using my phrasebook, I asked if they had a room instead of just asking how much a room cost. Ah, yes, they did! It would be ¥6300 for the night. Hmm… not bad given my sudden circumstances. They even offered me the chance to sleep in and stay until 1 for just another 30% or ¥1800. Heh – that would be time better spent on the train, but good to know!

It felt so good to get into the room – my own room! – and get settled in. It’s so nice not to have to worry about towels and toiletries and how you’re going to sleep! Ah, it was everything I’d ever wanted. M2 had advised staying at a hotel at least once during my excursion, and he had a point.

(Still more to come!)
Tags: electronics, family, friends, japan, pei, tokyo, trains, travel, video games

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