(From the series Chasing Sakura)
For someone who won’t even break a novel’s spine, I’ve always fostered a love of the out-of-place. As a child I was riveted by that hurricane uprooting Dorothy’s house and dropping it in the Land of Oz; transporting it from a world of black and white to one of so much colour it toppled over into gaudy. In my teen years, feeling like a total misfit among other teens who also felt like misfits, I became fascinated by Colonialism. How thrilling to think of Edwardians, buttoned to their chins, finding themselves arrogantly confused by the natives of the white-hot countries upon which they’d thrust themselves.
In 2017, when my then-fiancé (Chris) and I settled on Japan for our honeymoon, it dawned on me that we’d end up like those transplanted misfits — minus the racist exceptionalism. Of course I was excited by the prospect of Japan, but at the same time I feared that by choosing to travel across three of the four main islands on an irreplaceable rail pass, without managing to have held onto any Duolingo Japanese, in a country more likely than most to be hit by a natural disaster, we may have bitten off more than we could chew. On top of that, I’m a vegetarian.
Up until then, my knowledge of our destination was shamefully limited. I knew it had once been closed off to the outside world for two hundred years. Immigration figures are still pretty low. It’s the setting for Amelie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling, a novel about a Western executive who takes a job in Tokyo but fails so spectacularly at understanding the nuances of local etiquette that she is humiliated with gradual demotions. My sole comfort was the ominous comment of a friend: ‘Don’t worry, the Japanese hate other Asians more than they hate Westerners.’ Sweet.
At first, my fears looked entirely justified. We were travelling to Narita airport from a friend’s wedding in the American Deep South. All we had to do was hop planes from Charleston to Florida to Zurich to Tokyo. That’s roughly seventeen hours of airplane, with a ‘loss’ of nine hours over time zones. A two-hour delay in take-off meant we spent the journey from Charleston to Florida in a cold sweat. I downed those complimentary peanuts as if they were sedatives. When at long last the plane descended on Miami, we sprinted to the baggage claim and tapped our toes as we waited for the carousel to start up. Only fifteen minutes remaining until the check-in for our next flight closed. We waited, walked around, groaned. Why did we book separate flights? To save a few sterling? Why? Why? When our backpacks finally came, we lugged them, dragged them like Hector through Troy, as fast as we could to the polar opposite end of the airport, only to be met with the dreaded news: check-in for our flight had closed. A mere ten minutes earlier. There was nothing else for it: we would have to buy two more tickets to Zurich, board another plane.
That was the moment I knew we were doomed. Japan was going to be tougher than America. It was even in another language, no subtitles. We weren’t cut out for this. Thankfully, our connecting flight from Zurich to Tokyo was long enough away that we made it with room to spare. Nine hours, three movies and thousands of words of my novel-in-progress later, we landed in Japan.
I couldn’t help but feel Western. Occidental. Akin to those gap-year students speaking proudly of Bali and Lombok. Like proper tourists we marvelled at a vending machine outside Narita airport. I took a photo of my husband taking a selfie in front of it. Because it’s so Japanese! Because we’re on Instagram! Any second the President would spot us and decide to shut the country off again.
Sipping my bottle of machine-vended iced coffee, I told myself to absorb Japan as it was, to take no heed of the kooky Japanese stereotypes. That’s when a camera crew turned up to film us for a local TV show. They asked how we were, where we were from, what we were most looking forward to about our visit. Exhausted, surprised, jet-lagged and only now getting my first coffee of the day, whatever day it was, it dawned on me that I’d let my now-husband plan almost everything. Did I even know what towns we’d be covering? My assigned role in this operation was to learn basic Japanese phrases, almost none of which had stuck.
‘Uh… everything!’ I blurted to the patient presenter. I went for enthusiasm, despite the weight of grey at my eyes.
‘Disneyland!’ chirped Chris. Blonde and fresh, he looks good at any time. The TV crew smiled, utterly charmed by my husband.
After they left, I all but threw him at a plane. ‘Why did you say Disneyland? Now we look like Westerners.’
It didn’t matter. We were finally in Tokyo. We could put our mishaps behind us and stride out on our honeymoon adventure. We were to take a coach from the airport to Kichijoji station, to be met by my old friend and former housemate, Rob. He’d moved to Japan mere weeks after the tsunami of 2011 and was now married to a designer named Akiko. If he could survive seven years of illegible signs and adverts, surely we could manage four weeks?
We sought the Bureau de Change. As we’d been in America for the past week, and our ‘Japanimoon’ was to last four, we were loath to carrying vast amounts of money on us. We assumed we could simply buy some Yen when we arrived in Tokyo. We could, but only with cash — of which we had roughly three English pounds and seventy American cents. Bless those sharp-minded friends and relatives who’d given us their wedding gifts in JPY rather than GBP. That handful of notes was just about enough to cover our coach tickets to Tokyo central.
While my husband napped on the coach, I stared out at the passing fields and rice paddies. How wrong we’d got this simple matter of money. We’d informed our banks we would be going abroad, so that our cards would work where we were going. All had been fine in the States. We thought we’d done enough. What we hadn’t known is that Japan is a mostly cash-paying society. Even locals with locally-issued cards might struggle to draw money out of a particular machine if it doesn’t approve of their bank. It’s an unexpectedly old-fashioned quirk in a country so technologically advanced that even a shopping-mall toilet could babysit your child.
We approached Tokyo. Disneyland’s castle beckoned in the distance, but that would have to wait for the end of the trip. Four weeks away — I couldn’t get that timescale in my head. The motorway tore into strips, and wove through tunnels, around bridges, over other roads. Fields and paddies were now rising concrete giants and glass towers. Illegible road signs. A full, teeming city. What else would Japan bring? Were we ready to handle it?
When we finally arrived in Kichijoji, I thought perhaps not. Thanks to modern conveniences such as mobile phones, social media and WiFi, the easiest part of the whole journey so far was meeting my former housemate in a totally foreign location next to things I couldn’t read, let alone pronounce. He took us to a cash machine, which immediately rejected both our cards. ‘It’s fine,’ Rob said, ‘they do that to my English cards too.’ He then found us a 7-Eleven, that American fable we hadn’t even seen in America. The cashpoint there accepted us — we had money again! From that moment on we knew the national chain of convenience stores would always be there, our Western ally, to bail us out. Except, of course, for the time we really needed it. But that was yet to come.
On the metro to our friend’s apartment, which would also serve as our base camp, I began to feel the effects of our long flights, and my total lack of sleep. Commuters were suited stampedes. Adverts were baffling — was that costumed man supposed to be the coughing lady’s tongue? My friend gave an explanation of an illustrated woman, attired in what appeared to be early-twentieth-century British Navy uniform, with the words: ‘I think she’s a submarine.’
The train carriage was quiet. I’d seen YouTube videos of Tokyo at rush hour, so my fear of being shoehorned between a handbag and a briefcase by a station attendant was alleviated. I sat down. Big mistake. My head dropped, overcome with the need to sleep. It was 11 a.m. I’d simply have to hang on for another twelve hours or so.
‘This is for you,’ someone said. I dragged my head up from my lap to see an old man, small, white-haired, in a beige overcoat with a woven grey hat. From his brightly-coloured fabric bag he produced an origami crane, and offered it to me.
‘Thank you,’ I said, with more joy than I had mustered for the TV crew.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked.
Figuring my life story would be too much in this moment, I said: ‘England.’
He brightened even more. ‘Ah! I used to live there. London. People said “pie-pah” there. Instead of “paper,” they said “pie-pah”.’
We laughed, which made him happy.
‘Welcome to Japan.’
We alighted at the next stop, and walked away from the friendly old man. In a few hours, I would be able to sleep again, and then I could wake up with a fresh brain and take this all in. I told myself I would learn the station, the route to it, the ways out of it, and before the month was out I’d be just like a local.
This post originally appeared on Litro Online under my regular column, Chasing Sakura. This is a new edit.