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Japan 2000
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My Travels: Japan page: (one) (two)

In October 2000, Joseph Tame decided to take a break from life in the Swiss Alps. He headed over 9000km East to a country of which he knew nothing, where he found a land which offered him a little of everything.

It actually all started as a joke.

I'd been working all summer high in the Swiss Alps, as a waiter in a mountain hotel. The job was fairly easy really, if at times a little rushed. You see, every day thousands of Japanese tourists would flood through Kleine Scheidegg and stop for lunch in our restaurant. They were all on their way up to the Jungfraujoch, known as "The Top of Europe" - a scientific research centre and tourist trap. Well, anyway, into the restaurant they'd pour, hundreds at a time, "Konnichi wa!" here and "Konnichi wa!" there, all very polite and friendly. But, well you know what it's like with tourists. No matter where they're from, in one way or another tourists are always looked down upon by the locals. Perhaps it's just their lack of knowledge of the region that does it, or is it the way they always take the last seats on your train, leaving you to stand all the way home?

Despite all of this, as I served them with plate after plate of sausages and Rösti,  I marvelled at their friendliness, and the manner in which they accepted being treated as tourists en-mass. The way that they always enthusiastically thanked us for the meal, and graciously said goodbye. By far, the Japanese were the most pleasant tourists that I ever had the opportunity to serve. It was this kind of attitude and the sound of their ear-pleasing language that established my interest in the people and culture of this distant land. However, when I first mentioned to my friends that I may go to these Asian islands for my only holiday of the year, having been surrounded by thousands of Japanese for the previous six months, they found it to be quite a laughable idea. I must admit, I did too, and in my spare time I was enquiring at the local travel agent about flights to India and Nepal. Just out of interest though, I asked about a flight to Japan too, and I was surprised to learn that it really didn't cost any more than an "average" international flight (about £400).  As the weeks wore on I became more and more enthusiastic about the idea, especially as everyone I was working with thought that I was just totally crazy to even entertain the thought.

On October 28th I flew from Zurich, Switzerland, to Sapporo, Japan. The flight, via Amsterdam was ten-and-a-half hours too long, and by the time we'd landed my backside was completely numb. Having regained the use of my legs, I staggered down to the railway station, only to find that I was unable to buy a ticket as I couldn't make head nor tail of the characters used to list the place names. Japanese, although easy for an English-speaker to pronounce, is extremely difficult to read and understand. They use four alphabets: Kanji, Katakana, Hiragana and occasionally a little Romaji is thrown in for good measure. Romaji is the only one that I can understand, as it is simply Japanese words, using our standard alphabet, written phonetically.

It was at this point that I was introduced to what was to become a major part of my time in Japan; Japanese helpfulness. Unlike the type that is shown in Europe, this style goes way beyond the normal boundaries. For example, if one was to ask directions, instead of just telling you which way to go, the Good Samaritan will most likely take you there. If they don't know the way themselves they'll get on their mobile phones (which the majority of the population seem to spend most of their lives on) and ask a friend for directions. On one occasion a chap I'd approached for help on the street simply handed me his mobile and told me to phone whoever I needed to for directions, whilst he wandered off to search for the house using the address I'd been given. (we need to re-learn the meaning of the word "Trust" here in the west). Anyhow, the man working at the station ensured that not only was I able to buy my ticket, but he also lead me down to the train itself. So began my journey around Japan.

Back in Switzerland I'd arranged to work voluntarily on the northerly island of Japan, Hokkaido. There I would be an English teacher in a small international community. The "Farm" was a member of the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network, so I had no worries over accommodation or money. Also - and more importantly . I was looking forward to becoming a part of a new community with a totally different attitude towards life, surrounded by an entirely alien culture. I was therefore a little disappointed to find an almost entirely westernised atmosphere enclosed within the walls of an ugly large tin house with a blue roof. I was now in the company of two Australians, one English girl, an American lad and a great chap from Italy, out in the wilds. Despite my first impressions, I soon became very glad to be there. It was fascinating to observe the attitudes of the people around me as they all dealt with being in somewhat different surroundings in their own way. There was not much English teaching available at the time (and what there was simply involved us "teachers" talking about ourselves . who could ask for more?!), and so in order to earn my keep I turned my attention to the autumnal vegetable patch outside. It becomes very cold on Hokkaido in the winter and so it is not possible to grow much through these few months, but none the less I transplanted the thriving strawberry plants into the polytunnel/greenhouse. I wonder now whether they are still alive, as a few days after I had left Japan the temperature dropped to minus 25˚C! There was much cutting and sorting of wood to be done, as there seems to be on every Wwoof farm that I visit! This, along with the cooking of meals composed of all sorts of new ingredients took up many hours during those ten days that I spent there. We were fortunate in that we had an old car at our disposal, and so we could often be found venturing out into Akan National Park. This 905 area contains some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Japan. With several volcanic peaks, beautiful lakes, hot springs and vast forests we were never bored there. Our favourite destination was our local Onsen (natural hot spring). Following an evening feast in a beautifully situated country restaurant owned by friends of the community, we would disappear into the cold, dark night. Perhaps it would be 10pm, the temperature rapidly falling towards freezing. We'd park up just off the deserted main road, strip off and sink into the welcome warmth of the volcanic water. The Onsen was perfectly situated, right beside a huge, freezing cold lake. The temperature was unbelievably high, and we would frequently have to sit out of the water amongst the boulders surrounding the pool to cool off. This would be interspersed with games such as trying to stay underwater for as long as possible with your head in an upside-down bucket of air, or attempting to climb into the submerged hole beneath a huge rock from where the steaming water was emerging. At other times the complete silence and beauty of the world around us completely engulfed our senses. There was a time one night when it was just so good to sit back in the water and gaze at the stars that time abandoned us. When we finally tore ourselves away from that, we discovered that we'd been in there for four hours - and the air temperature had dropped to minus 10˚C!

Mike, Holly and Armando in the Onsen
The SSJ bunch meet Blair Witch

I was very fortunate one evening to experience some "real" Japanese culture, you, know, one of those things like Sumo wrestling (which unfortunately I had no opportunity to witness this time): Taiko Drumming. It was magnificent. Myself and my friend Holly had driven a couple of hours north to a little town where we were to take an English class in a community hall. However, not far into the lesson the class being held in the adjacent gymnasium disturbed us. The drumming boomed through the walls, and soon lured us from our students. I was very surprised when I saw just who was creating this powerful sound; a class of children aged between four and fifteen!  As we sat at the front of the hall my hair stood on end, my spine tingling. The chanting. The perfectly rhythmical sound of the army of huge drums. It was breathtaking.

One of my favourite days on Hokkaido was spent in Akan National Park. We set off in the early morning, Holly Mike Mathew Armando Sandy and myself, banana sandwiches and seaweed packed for lunch. By midday we'd descended into a volcanic valley, and on the horizon we could see clouds of steam rising from the ground. Intrigued, we headed straight for them, and soon came across Io-zan. Io-zan is very well known for it's sulphuric vents, clouds of steam shooting out of the ground at a great temperature. A greeny sulphuric deposit is left behind, staining the ground with crystals. A couple of old enterprising locals (who seemed more like nomads camping out there for months on end) were selling hard-boiled eggs; the eggs were cooked in caskets placed over the vents that emitted the boiling air. I think that they were supposed to taste extra good or something - all I know is that they satisfied my hunger. Following that we headed for the largest lake in the park, and promptly fed most of our lunches to the thousands of Siberian Swans that migrate there every year.

I spent ten days living in that community, gently settling into the Japanese environment. However, despite the many good times, I couldn't help but feel my feet getting pretty itchy . I knew it was time to move on. One cold morning a couple of days after having made the decision to leave Tsurui, I found myself standing with my thumb outstretched, beside the main road heading west towards Sapporo. I completed the eight-hour hitch with just two rides. The drivers were very kind to me, giving me maps, food, drinks and even a hat as parting gifts (it was on this trip that I first discovered Octopus Pot Noodles). As is the Japanese way, the second chap to pick me up in his lorry made quite a large detour in order that he could drop me off at my destination in the city centre. From there I caught a train to the ferry port, where, after a few hours wait, I boarded the ship that was to take me 21 hours south across the Sea of Japan. My destination was the port of Tsuruga on the west coast of the main island of Honshu. The ferry was luxurious compared to those cross-channel services I am more used to that ply between England and France. Being Japanese, there were no beds, just soft carpets, blankets and pillows. I have never slept so well on a ferry before as I did that night! Several times during the voyage I visited the traditional public bath on board . travelling usually leaves one feeling hot, sweaty and sticky, but when disembarking I felt thoroughly relaxed and refreshed. Sitting in a lovely hot metre-deep pool, with the setting sun streaming through the windows from across an endless calm sea. well, it was like a dream come true.

Several hours later and nearing midnight, I found myself in Osaka central station.  Osaka is Japan's second largest city, and with a population of almost 2.5 million I found that the party never stopped. I quickly discovered that it was true what they said about Osakan people . they were down-to-earth, relaxed and very friendly. The city, despite it's 24/7 nature, had a laid back atmosphere. It was the kind of place where "anything goes". Like many Japanese cities, Osaka was bombed heavily during WWII, and so the old Japanese architecture, temples and shrines are few and far between. Osaka-jo (Osaka Castle) situated to the south of the city is an exception to this rule, although unfortunately even this is merely a 1931 concrete reconstruction of the original. Modern architecture is far more prominent, especially in the Kita (northern) district. One of the most distinguished buildings is the Umeda Sky Building, a space age twin-tower complex linked at the top by a steel and glass bridge. Another close by is the Hankyu department store, which sports a huge bright red ferris wheel that emerges from the centre of the top floor.

A selection of Octopus legs
Joseph eating a whole fish-on-a-stick

Anyway, that leads me back to my first Japanese bed. Having spent the entire night in the Canopy Bar, I desperately needed sleep, at least for a few hours until the shops opened up and I had a little more stimulation to prevent me from passing out. The best bet seemed to be the railway station, and so it was there that I headed. I figured that if I got a large enough left luggage locker, I would be able to happily squeeze into one. I mean, that would be quite a bargain, a room larger than most Japanese hotels for a mere 800Yen (£4.50). As it happened, I couldn't fit in one as well as my rucksack, so I settled for the marble floor in front of the locker. Unfortunately I hadn't learnt to appreciate that Japanese railway stations are amongst the busiest in the world, although I certainly did three hours later having been trodden on several times. As I lay there, slowly waking up at about 9am, I noticed that my presence was attracting a lot of attention. This surprised me later, as I got to know just how big the homeless problem is in Japan. When the Japanese bubble-economy burst in the 1990s, unemployment levels rocketed (although by UK standards they remain incredibly low). In the Japanese culture, losing one's job is a big issue. It casts shame on the entire family, and many find it very difficult to deal with that. So much so, that in some cases men will deliberately make themselves homeless, never seeing their families again, due to the shame that they feel. Even more unfortunate than this is the fact that Japan does not really have a welfare state. It is as if officially unemployment does not exist. A blind eye is turned to the homeless. One example of this that I felt really brought the situation to light was outside the Science Museum in Nagoya. Nagoya is another of Japan's largest cities, with a population of over 2 million. The Science museum is situated in the city centre, and yet just outside the front entrance stands a park of trees, under which are row upon row of ingeniously designed "houses" constructed from plastic sheeting stretched over wooden frames. I think of the Science Museum in London . those who are homeless would never be allowed to essentially create their own village on the front steps. Yet, in Japan the problem seems to be accepted as a norm as there appears to be no other alternative. The old recession is visible everywhere. I hope that the government wake up to the reality that homelessness needs to be tackled in a major way. Another side of Japan we never see on television . far from the floor of the Tokyo stock exchange, yet oh so real for those who experience it everyday.

My first two days in Osaka were spent with Kazumi, my tour guide friend. Her family were incredibly hospitable, offering me a feast of Japanese cuisine twice a day and a beautifully comfortable futon . I slept much better there than on the marbled floor of the railway station! By this time I was beginning to master the use of chopsticks with which to eat an array of different foods. A traditional evening meal would be made up from perhaps seven small dishes. These might  include a main dish of fish, misoshiru (miso soup), a bowl of rice (complete with soy sauce of course), a couple of bowls of tsukemono (Japanese pickles), a little tofu and a dish of cubed daikon, the large Japanese white radish. The meal would be accompanied with water and green tea, something that I must admit I never did take a liking to . I prefer my Earl Grey! This style of cuisine was a welcome change from the large greasy helpings of food that I'm used to in Switzerland. I also prefer using chopsticks to western cutlery . the satisfaction involved in being to pick up all manners of foods with a couple of little sticks is immense!

On my second day with Kazumi we decided to take the train to Kobe, which lies on the south coast of Honshu, approximately 30km west of Osaka. Other than Tokyo, Kobe was the only city in Japan that I had heard of prior to my booking my flight to Sapporo in September 2000. On the 17th January 1995, a tragic earthquake hit the city. It was the most deadly Japan had experienced since 1923, levelling entire neighbourhoods, and killing over 5000 people. The quake ignited firestorms and caused massive destruction. In addition to the casualties, more than 21,000 people were injured, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. More than 30,000 buildings were damaged during the prolonged quake, yet to look at the city today you would never guess that it had lived through such a nightmare. I can still recall the images that flashed across our TV screens 6 years ago, of a city that looked completely bombed out. Yet, it has risen magnificently, phoenix-like, from the ashes. I love the city; it's small enough to navigate on foot, but is packed full of exciting alleyways, restaurants and clubs - it also boasts an attractive harbour.  Kazumi and I headed for the little china-town, which was essentially one long street crammed with little eateries selling all kinds of foods. Taking a closer look at a basket of crabs tied up with string, I was horrified to suddenly see one wiggle it's legs . the entire lot was alive! Over the following few weeks I learned that this was in fact standard practice, no matter how cruel it seemed.

As we made our way to the harbour we discussed my accommodation problem. Kazumi had a job on in Europe after the weekend, and the notoriously high prices in Japan ensured that I could not afford to stay in even the cheapest hostels for any length of time. She had been very good to me in that she had gone through her entire address book to try to find friends who would be willing to put me up for a day or two. Unfortunately, most were rather cautious about inviting a complete non-Japanese male stranger into their homes (totally understandable). We were lucky on one count in that a friend in Nagoya (Japan's fourth largest city, on my route to Tokyo) very generously offered her spare futon for as long as I needed it, and that was to come in handy later in my trip. In Kobe, our thoughts turned towards Love Hotels! Much cheaper than a standard hotel, a love hotel seemed like the perfect answer, as I'd just be paying for a room for a few hours. We had a lot of fun trying to find one, daring one another to ask someone where the appropriate district was! Eventually we discovered the tell-tail signs . a bright pink fluorescent sign hanging from the roof spelling out some cheesy name. The next challenge was to place our embarrassment to one side and go in to find out the prices. Up the stairs, past the closed-circuit TV cameras to the reception which was simply a wooden wall with a little hole cut out. Through this we could only see the mouth of the male receptionist, so avoiding, recognition, and embarrassment! Alas, even here in one of the cheapest places to stay in the city, the prices were far out of my reach. so we left and began thinking again.

Back at the harbour we found ourselves tailing three students. At that point we assumed that they were tourists as they looked so lost, and Kazumi decided that they could be my best hope of finding friends to travel with once she had left. Despite my objections, she approached them directly and introduced us. It turned out that that was one of the best things that happened to me in Japan, as one of the three was Gerilynn, a 21 year-old American student who has become a great friend. She was studying Japanese for a couple of months in Osaka, and had a similar problem to me in that at that time she had very few friends in Japan to "hang out" with. Over the next few weeks I was to spend a lot of time with her, going on day trips and laughing virtually non-stop at her broad New Jersey accent. Fortunately she had the wonderful gift of being able to make fun of herself, as the stereotypical dumb, young American blonde, and I appreciated her company beyond measure.

Geri struts her stuff in Kobe
Kobe Tower
Joseph in a bamboo forest

The following day I decided to plug-in to the local gaijin (foreigner) network to try to find cheap accommodation. One of the best bets for information seemed to be an internet caf" that advertised in a local English-language magazine, and, sure enough, just half-an-hour after having paid them a visit I had an inexpensive place to stay fixed up for as long as I wanted. I was warned that the rooms were small, but I'd lived in tiny bedsits before (about 4 metres square) and I knew that it couldn't be any smaller than those. However, I was forgetting one thing: this was Japan. A family friend of mine who used to live in Tokyo was recently quoted as saying that whenever she wants to remember what it was like living there, she climbs inside the airing cupboard. How true that can be! Imagine a small cupboard lying on its back, well, that was to become my home for the next ten days. On my arrival at Gamba House I was led by the English owner through a large leather-clad lounge, a well-equipped kitchen and into a small bathroom area that also doubled as a locker room. I was totally mystified now, as there appeared to be no way out. Yet, in the corner, a tiny gap opened up between two lockers. We squeezed through, and emerged on the other side into a room that resembled a wooden mortuary. On either side of the 6 metre long corridor were two walls consisting of little wooden doors, six below, six above. Behind each door lay a little "cabin", although I feel that the word "coffin" would be more accurate. One metre wide, one metre high and 2 metres long, they were just big enough to lie down in and bang your head on the ceiling when you woke up feeling claustrophobic. I tried to conceal my amazement that this was my "room", and thought back to how, as a child, I'd seen these on TV and had always wanted to stay in one since. Following ten days cramped in my second storey suite (reached by means of a very tall chair), I felt cured of that desire forever. Still, the price was fantastic considering my city-centre location, so I decided to put it down to experience and smile.

I think that the hardest aspect about being in Gamba House was living around the other residents. I found myself starting to resent my fellow geijin, who were mostly American and Australian; I wanted to be in a purely Japanese environment. I was soon sick of the western attitude of being "well-hard", especially that adopted by those who had been in Japan for some time and made every effort to make you feel that as a tourist (I flinch at being labelled as such!) you were somehow inferior to them. For this reason, and the 24-hour presidential election coverage on CNN, I spent much of my time out in the city, only returning to my coffin to sleep for a few hours a day. This was one of the hardest times for me in Japan, and yet also one of the most fun. I plunged headlong into the crazy nightlife, often not returning home until daybreak. An evening would start perhaps in one of the many Irish pubs with some live music and some genuinely friendly folks. Later on, as things wound down there, I'd move on to one of the clubs, which could be easily categorised as either appalling meat-markets full of westerners, or fantastic underground dens with brilliant music and great atmospheres. The dark shroud of night would be slowly lifting as, eventually, my thoughts turned to a nice, claustrophobic bed. Having snatched a few hours sleep I would take a train to another part of the city, perhaps meet up with Gerilynn to see some sights, or just sit in Starbucks Coffee observing the thousands going about their daily business. In that vast city I met so many friendly people, heard so many stories, and yet felt completely alone for much of the time. I was struggling to maintain my identity, and not completely lose myself amongst the thousands of distractions around me. It was also difficult to not completely lose myself amongst the thousands of square metres of underground shopping malls!

My luxury suite in Osaka
Grumpy the dwarf meets Joseph
Click here for part two of my story, in which you find me moving to Tokyo, one of the busiest cities in the world. Take a trip with me to Disneyland, meet John-John in his huge mansion (!), and join me as I consider hitch-hiking over 1000km north in order to catch my flight home.
To see over 130 photographs of my friends and I in Japan, click here.

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© Joseph Tame 2000~2009 | Contact Joseph