This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader.
When my flight finally landed in Japan, I almost cried with relief and a sense of completion that I’ve felt very few times in life. Eleven months and some change of traveling without being able to see an end in sight, and finally, there I was. I had reached the end of my journey.
I’d given myself Japan as a reward because I knew I would love it the most. Ever since I played Katamari Damacy on PS2 when I was 19, I was fascinated by Japanese culture. The robots, the food, the cute, the darkness, and most of all, the weirdness—I wanted to be surrounded by it, rolling it all up with my virtual katamari.
I flew through China on a 10 hour flight from Vietnam. I honestly don’t even remember where in China I connected, as it wasn’t a place I’d ever heard of people going. I was the only person not of Asian descent on the flight, but somehow the PA system still addressed me in English and the flight attendants all spoke it. I walked around the small airport and contemplated buying a Kinder Bueno, but it was the equivalent of $7 when the cashier rang it up. I told her it was highway robbery just because I knew she couldn’t understand me, put it back, and left to board the second half of my flight. All the seats were mini, and my knees pressed against the seat in front of me more than usual.
When I arrived, I was so glad to be off the plane and so excited to be in Japan that I said “konichiwa” to everyone I saw. A Japanese attendant helped me fill out my immigration card the way a tutor would attend to a pupil. I thanked him in Japanese and headed to customs. I was the only person on the entire flight that they searched. I didn’t care. The attendant picked up a bag I’d tied off at the top and asked me what was in it.
“Presents,” I said.
“Presents from who?” he said.
“Presents FOR my friends,” I said.
He held out an immigration card listing prohibited items for me to review, and his finger just happened to be positioned next to the clause banning illegal drugs, specifically MDMA, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, an heroin. I looked at him kind of puzzled about what he was suggesting but not totally shocked, and shook my head no. He shrugged. “Welcome to Japan!”
It was only 10pm, but everything in the airport was closing. I was beyond doing research before I got to a place the way that people do when they go on vacation. I was very much in get-there-and-figure-it-out mode, but my incorrect assumption that a technological country like Japan would have had 24-hour rail access made me curse my carelessness.
I couldn’t find an ATM anywhere. Apparently they were all “closed.” I didn’t understand how an ATM could be closed, or if they unplugged them or why they would ever do that, but I figured I could use my card to get where I needed to go. When I went to board the train, they said they didn’t take credit cards. One attendant told me the last train for the night was about to leave. He couldn’t offer me anymore help than that. The train left, and my eyes welled up with tears. The attendant looked away, embarrassed by my display of emotion, and busied himself elsewhere. Then I realized there were multiple train lines with different attendants, so I explained my situation to someone from a different one.
“Come on!” he said, ushering me through the turnstiles. “You have to go now to take train, buy your ticket with credit card at the end of line.” I thanked him profusely and found my way there. At the end of the line, the conductor didn’t know anything about a credit card promise, and he told me the ATM there was closed too.
“Well. What would you like me to do?”
“Go ahead then,” he said in a gesture of kindness and situational discretion that one would almost never encounter via the authoritarian control freaks who work in the public transportation industry in the US. If this had happened in New York, I thought, I would have had to sleep in the subway or beg. The fact that this night train clerk was able to recognize my problem as a flaw in the system and permit me to pass spoke volumes about the culture I was about to enter.
I wheeled my suitcases to my capsule hotel, and set out to find a beer. What I found instead that night was the most insane welcome to Japan I could have ever hoped or dreamed for.
To be continued…