“This is where I learned I could travel internationally.”
A Harajuku sidewalk, Tokyo, Japan
I don’t mean to claim I’ve never traveled abroad. I’ve been to Canada and Mexico, but also to more exotic locales like Taiwan and Costa Rica. But it’s been years since the further reaching trips, and I’ve developed a certain anxiety about being in a foreign land. Hell, when I went to Vancouver (perhaps one of the least culturally shocking foreign cities for an American to be in) for the 2010 Olympic Games, I bought a beanie, or should I say tuque, with the Canadian flag on it, so as to blend in with the throngs of Canada supporters and not feel like the lonely American that I was.
So my upcoming trip to Japan with my brother had me both excited and terrified. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to get to go and see a place so different from where I live and have grown up. But so much had me feeling worried about the trip. Language barriers, currency conversions, unfamiliar cultural norms, and navigating Tokyo’s clusterfuck of a public transportation system were but a few of the concerns I had. And while a maple leaf hat had me blending in with the Canadians, no amount of Japanese paraphernalia would help my caucasian skin and six-foot (1.83 meter) frame look like a local.
And if culture shock was a swimming pool, we dove in the deep end our first morning there. After arriving to our hotel around 1AM, and then trying to sleep through the jetlag, we arose around 8:00, to board a train, transfer three times, and finally arrive at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Tsukiji is somehow simultaneously one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions and one of its least friendly spots for tourists to find themselves in. It’s a fast-paced, real-life fish market, that puts Seattle’s Pike Place to shame. There are fast moving, motorized carts, whizzing by you through tight spaces, and they will clip an ankle or an elbow if you are not careful. We unknowingly found ourselves in a section of the market not open to tourists, and were yelled at in Japanese as the angry man pointed for us to leave. Unscathed, we wandered over to a more welcoming sushi restaurant for breakfast.
“3,000 yen. I think that’s like $20 USD”, I said, as we pondered the menu. “That’s kind of steep, but we ARE in the world’s most expensive city.” My brother offered to split the dish made up of several rolls, nigiri, and a long piece of conger eel. We ate, paid, left, and recalculated the exchange rate. As it turned out, that 3,000 yen was closer to $40 USD.
“Well, we just ate sushi. In Japan. At a fish market. Where the fish was literally JUST pulled out of the sea. Maybe it was worth it. Let’s just be sure to get the exchange rate right going forward,” I offered.
The rest of the trip was filled with little lessons like this. There was realizing the etiquette on escalators was to stand on the left, walk on the right. And there was the time we visited a shrine in Kyoto, where it was clear you were supposed to remove your shoes, but the delineation of where shoes were acceptable and where they were not, was not as clear. Little faux pas like these would cause momentary embarrassment, that would pass in a few minutes.
But what really had me feeling like international travel was something I could feel comfortable doing, was my brother’s reaction to Tokyo’s train system. My brother is only 25, but is extremely well-traveled, having been all over Europe, and North and South America. And the Tokyo train system is…well…difficult. It’s a pervasive system that serves the entire city, and you’re never far from a station. But the trains never seem to be going the way you (well at least we) wanted to go. The result was transferring at least two times, every trip, even if it was a very short one. More than once, my brother proclaimed in frustration, “I’ve never been to a country that is as hard to get around as Japan”. And I feel bad for taking victory in his frustration, but there was this feeling that if this is as bad as it gets, according to a man who has seen a great deal of the world, including many impoverished areas, then I can do this again.
Our final frustration with the Tokyo train system came when asking an employee at our hostel for directions to the Haneda Airport to fly home. She pointed out a line that left from a nearby station that would take us directly to the airport, no transfers. We were stoked. We rode the line for a while. After some time had passed and we hadn’t arrived at the airport, we started to get worried. My brother asked a man on the train, “Haneda? Haneda?”, pointing to the floor, miming, “Will this train take me to the Haneda Airport?”. The man shook his head “no”. We got off at the next stop and got in a taxi. We had a flight to catch and there was not enough time to try to navigate the train system back.
It was clear from the amount of time we spent in the taxi, that we had overshot the airport by a long ways. We dropped 12,000 yen (~$150 USD) on the taxi ride. We checked later, and as it turned out, there was in fact a transfer that we needed to make to get to the airport.
But again, the lesson that I took from all of this was that I can do this. I didn’t let not knowing where we were going, or a $150 taxi ride, or even the possibility that we might miss our flight home, get to me. Hell, I did it all in excruciating pain, and without full vision (see previous ‘This is Where’ post). Shit went wrong, but I had confidence we’d find a way out of it. And we did. And I hope to do it again.