Scenes from 27 Hours on a Moving Train: 北海道 (Pt. I)

There is a certain romance associated with solo long-distance train travel. A veritable “journey of the self,” with no shortage of introspective revelations about the human psyche along the way. Throttling though space along a ceaseless span of metal track, there is that longing for a faraway place and the physical sensation of traveling hundreds of miles over a variety of terrains to get there. There is the ever-changing panorama of scenery, the hours left entirely to your own devices, and the gentle sway of the heated train to lull you in and out of sleep. Not to mention the thought of striking up conversation with an interesting foreign mate to keep you company on the journey. The quintessential romantic love story. Just ask the folks in Before Sunrise.

I was spared no exception to this spell of train travel. 12-hour Greyhound night bus rides from New York City to Cleveland didn’t quite fill me with the same sort of longing for travel as a cross-country rail freight on par with the Transcontinental Railroads of early 20th-century America. Short distance subway and bus trips have become such an innate part of my life that I hardly flinch at the thought of a two or three-hour commute anymore. But I have never embarked on a voyage where the journey has filled me with as much exhilaration as the destination. A voyage, indeed, where both the journey and the destination are new experiences.

This desire for long-distance train travel came about as early as last January when I suggested to the other Shansi Fellows how awesome I thought it would be to have a reunion in Asia along the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow. I needed only to look at their expressions to gauge their relative level of excitement. Two weeks locked on a train with only ourselves and a couple bottles of vodka to keep from going insane. And this was my idea of a good time? I tried to reason it again in my mind: just think of the friendships you’d make, how much you’d learn about yourself, the greater appreciation you would have for even the most mundane things in life…

Given the skepticism, I figured I should start small. The destination itself was easy. I had always wanted to go to Hokkaido but had never gotten around to it when I was studying abroad. The fact that it's winter also made it the perfect time to visit. Sapporo (the capital of Hokkaido) is famous for the Ice Festival it holds every February, and even though I would be missing that, I would surely still be in town for more snow than I would need to get a “true” Hokkaido experience. The why was pretty easy too. As a way to justify traveling to Japan over, say, Vietnam this break, I knew that I had to convince myself of at least seeing some new things. Basing myself in Tokyo was the first step in that argument. But especially given my tenuous relationship with the city as of late, a new change of scenery was the best thing I could ask for.

Having done my research before-hand, I knew what I was getting myself into. The distance from Tokyo to Sapporo is a little over 500 miles and takes just over 24 hours by train, with at least another two factored in to get from Sapporo to Kutchan, the small town where my friend Tom would be hosting me. No less than twelve separate train transfers, with a wait time ranging from a couple of minutes to over an hour at each stop along the train’s route. The longest section would be the final leg—a seven-hour stretch on the Hamanasu express train via the Seikan Tunnel that connects the two islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. For fans of random trivia, the Seikan Tunnel happens to be the longest railway tunnel in the world, as well as the world’s longest undersea tunnel.





















Here's my one-way route from Tokyo to Sapporo as shown on a timetable...

...and here it is illustrated on a map (original map and timetable courtesy of Editing done by yours truly).

Now it's high time that I make a confession. You might be asking yourself: shouldn’t there be faster, more convenient ways to get from Tokyo to Sapporo than this 27-hour behemoth? And the answer is absolutely. There are at least three other ways—flying, taking a combination of limited express trains and the shinkansen, or taking an overnight sleeper—that would have significantly cut down on travel time and been far simpler to navigate. So why the dire need for adventure? More than simply the experience itself, this trip (like most of my schemes) was an effort in frugality, thus making an alternate title for this post: The Thrill Seeker’s Guide to the Absolute Cheapest Way from Tokyo to Sapporo.

The way this whole thing works is through a little known rail pass called the Hokkaido & Higashinihon Pass (Hokkaido & Eastern Japan Pass). More commonly known especially among Westerners is the Japan Rail Pass, which offers unlimited travel on JR trains for a period of one to three weeks. However, at nearly $300 for the one-week pass, I knew that I had to find a cheaper way if I was going to make it to Hokkaido. Sleeper options didn’t look much better either, fluctuating between $200 and $300 for a one-way trip. That’s where this handy pass comes in. For about $100, you get unlimited travel for five days in all of Eastern and Northern Japan, including all requisite travel within Hokkaido. So what’s the catch? The pass must be used on five consecutive days and (here's the real kicker) is only valid on local trains. This is the principle difference between this pass and the Japan Rail Pass. The only exceptions to this rule are the sections shown in blue on the timetable above—non-JR trains from Morioka to Hachinohe and the aforementioned Hamanasu express train from Aomori to Sapporo. As hard as it is to believe, these exceptions cut down significantly on travel time, but I was still looking at over two full days of travel, leaving less than three days to actually experience Hokkaido. Still, I knew it was something I needed to do.

A trip of this scale and to this exacting degree of accuracy would only be possible in a country like Japan, where trains run so punctually that I hardly had to check where I was going so much as when the various trains were leaving the station. But also because it was Japan, there was no motion picture-worthy conversation and no new friends to be made. Fortunately, I had plenty to keep myself amused—in between listening to the Garden State soundtrack on my iPod and reading back issues of The New Yorker, I dedicated at least half of my travel time to sleep. In fact, there was no shortage of "Garden State moments"—peering out over an endless prairie in the rural Japanese countryside, I mused over whether or not I could truly be “The Only Living Boy in New York." I also managed to make decent headway on the longer novel I had brought with me—Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections—but the subject matter (a dysfunctional family on the brink of collapse) didn’t quite make for the most uplifting respite from 24 hours with nary a word spoken aloud.

The most magical part of the whole trip had to be watching the change in landscape go through at least four distinct cycles—from wheat-planted flatlands to small rural townships, and snow-covered evergreens to the Pacific Ocean. I felt privileged for the chance to get a glimpse of Japan that is rarely seen by Japanese people, let alone by foreigners. The gradual rise in snow along the way was like a barometer of relative nearness to my final destination. At times I would wake up to a slightly higher level on the ground and a small decrease in temperature. By the time I eventually got to Sapporo, it was a great deal chillier than where I started. At that point, station signs in English had also become all but nonexistent—an indication that this train route was not in any way a tourist favorite. Less exciting on the whole, though, were the pins and needles in my legs and feet, the inconvenience of my massive suitcase, and the cheap udon and soba noodles I had to scarf down for lunch and dinner in between slightly longer train transfers. But fortunately for me, sitting in a train for two full days didn’t exactly invoke a sizable appetite.

Though I don't regret the experience at all, 48 hours later, I can’t say I would ever really want to do a round-trip like that again—at least not another one alone. Or if I did, I would hope to spend a much longer time in the final destination than the time it took to get there. But I must admit, it did make Sapporo that much more special when I reached it, as it did Tokyo on the return. And in case you were wondering, I still haven’t given up on the Trans-Siberian Railway idea either.

The Honeymoon Is おわり: 東京 (Pt. III)

The honeymoon ended for me about halfway through day three. Up until then, things were really quite good—everything around me seemed at once mystifying and nostalgic, and I was still reeling from culture shock at having just come from a rural town in the sticks to arguably the biggest city in the world. It seemed that in many ways I was living a charmed life. Despite something of a language barrier (when I first arrived I had all but forgotten my Japanese and could hardly speak a word of it) and the fact that money was tight, problems were all but nonexistent—if I wanted to go somewhere, there was nothing stopping me, and if I wanted to buy most anything, chances were that a nearby store sold it. I was a veritable Charlie in the sprawling, ever-evolving chocolate factory that is Tokyo. I bought foods that I hadn’t eaten in years, went back to see familiar sights I had only remembered from pictures, and all the while, soaked in the unmistakable city feeling that I had been bereft of for four months. But somewhere down Memory Lane, things turned sour. So much about this place has gotten under my skin, and though I know that many of my close friends live here or are strongly connected to Japan in one way or another, I felt strongly compelled to write this.

Tokyo is an extremely lonely place. Ironic, largely because it is the densest city in the world population-wise, but aside from the sheer number of people, I have never felt more completely and intoxicatingly alone. Everyone seems less concerned about the multitudes of other people living among them than they are about themselves and their own lives. The best way to describe the phenomenon for me has been a “me-centric” or “me-obsessed” culture, fixated on beauty and fashion. For many people, especially the young and the female, these two qualities supersede most other earthly needs, and include braving physical discomfort, cold, and hunger simply to fit into a society that can be so callously judgmental. I get the pervasive sense that I’m not good enough—going anywhere, I am surrounded by people whose superficial façade to the world represents the sum total of their existence. Their clothes and bags are stylish, their hair is permed, and their painted faces wear a mask of cool distance—the impenetrable, impersonal gaze that isolates people from one another. It is this weighty, invisible silence that perpetually lingers in the air, broken only by the raucous carelessness of insobriety.

But it also goes deeper than that. Difficulties in communication far exceed congenial social awkwardness and at times feel like a full-blown crisis. The trains are eerily silent, eating alone at meals is incredibly common, and it is rare for someone to go so far as to make any physical contact at all—even if that means setting money aside in a small basin instead of handing it directly to a shopkeeper. Hand-touching means spreading germs, and is scarce for the same reason that hugging is, and why wearing N95 masks is so common. Everyone seems absolutely terrified of getting sick. Most everything in the city is immaculately clean. But in reality, a little dirt is a good thing. Studies have proven that Japanese and Singaporeans are more at risk for some diseases than most of the rest of the world because their immune systems are not used to dealing with germs. People are almost criminally polite, in a way that makes it nearly impossible to know what people are actually feeling or thinking. In my experience, it has only been talking with people out of context that has given me a window into their true attitudes.

There are things about China that I don’t like. In fact, there are many things, as some of this blog can attest to. But somehow, even those dislikes are starting to become less agitating than endearing. The pushing and shoving on the train, the fact that customers yell to get the wait staff’s attention at a restaurant, the pervasive dirt and grime—it’s all real. Nothing here is sterilized or dumbed down—people, interactions, filth, poverty, environmental hazards, you name it—are up close and in your face. Despite all the beautifying of Beijing for the Olympics, China can’t help but bear it’s true self—even if at its core it may not be the most clean or polite culture in the world. China seems to acknowledge that and embrace it. People spit on the trains, there is trash in the streets, and the perpetual gray sky over Beijing has turned into a national joke.

If China is a land of lawlessness, then Japan is most certainly its opposite. There are rules for absolutely everything, so much so that even conversations feel almost eerily scripted. Shopkeepers berate you with honorific superlatives every time you enter a store, there are marked pedestrian and bike pathways that people follow meticulously, and customers line up neatly at almost every social occasion that dictates queuing. A country that makes robots so well that its people almost seem to resemble those artificial creations. There are eating customs, drinking customs, rules for dealing with co-workers and family, and at least three different levels of formality. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if sexual relations themselves were all but deprived of spontaneity, playfulness, and sensuality. It would seem that sexual frustration is so intense here that Japan has become a society full of off-color sexual practices, including everything from hentai (pornographic manga and anime) to vending machines specializing in used female undergarments. There is even a word designated for men who grope women in the subway. Japan’s suicide rate is the highest of any developed country in the world, as is its yearly rate of new patients infected with HIV . The medical condition known as hikikomori is wholly unique to Japan.

Worst of all, instead of facing these problems at their core by examining the mentality and emotional motives behind them, Japan paints a polished veneer over them. They have created women-only cars in the train, pushed social outcasts like burakumin and the homeless to the absolute fringes of society to avoid “tarnishing” their culture, fail to educate their children about safe sex practices and HIV prevention, and sweep away everything illicit and seedy into a thriving underground subculture. There are people who consciously go against the majority culture, but they do so at a cost—often with a great deal of social stigma. Others do so by changing their physical appearance, with piercings or died hair or funky outfits, partly as a cry for attention. The most extreme cases do so by committing suicide.


The Harajuku subway line was held up today for about a half hour, a virtual anomaly in Japan because as a matter of principle, the trains in Japan are punctual to the second. Any disturbance to this otherwise perfect cicadic cycle would seem almost unbearable, as evidenced by the line of anxious ticket-holders stretching halfway around the block. When the trains finally resumed , we discovered the cause of the hold-up—a suicide in front of the train forced it to stop suddenly, release all of its passengers, and send in a clean-up crew to take care of the body. When I heard this from my friend Jazmin who is studying abroad here and who I went to visit this afternoon, I was horrified. She explained that this was nothing new—suicides on this particular subway line were common—almost daily—such that there is even an announcement to alert passengers that they may experience a sharp brake and be asked to exit the train. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to institutionalized suicide since euthanasia, but in this instance, there seems almost no opposition or concern. Passengers are all but desensitized to the entire procedure, lamenting the wait time more than the loss of a human life.

Japan is everything China is not, but by the same token, China is everything that Japan is not (but perhaps wishes it could be)—a country with a very large middle class, no problematic alliances with Western powers, and a society in which no one questions the government. In China, I feel guilty for having money and coming from a comparatively privileged background, but in Japan, it’s almost reversed. Especially now that I’m getting paid a Chinese salary, many of the people around me have a vastly more disposable income than me—but even so, it’s hard to resist getting caught up in material things. I often wonder how the older generation must feel about all of this—if this obsession with self and material wealth is the Japan they envisioned during their war-ravaged childhoods of the 1950s.

Inherent in all of this nay-saying is a paradox. Why would I resent a country that stands for everything that is commonly though to be good—clean facilities, impeccable service, and useful innovations in organization? Perhaps it’s because I have so deeply ingrained the ideals of tidiness and efficiency that encountering an entire country where those are standard practices has scared me off and made me rethink my own values. Rarely does a day pass where you encounter real difficulty or have the sense that one thing or another is not exactly in its place. I feel safer walking around here than I do in my own neighborhood in New York. In fact, almost every precaution has been taken to ensure a smooth, carefree existence. But doesn’t too much comfort make you stagnate? Perhaps that can account for the scores of older Americans who have chosen to live their whole lives in Japan, the one country in the world more comfortable than their homeland. Living in China has made me grow stronger, whereas Japan in many ways has left me feeling pampered and helpless. Then again, maybe it is just Tokyo. So much of my study abroad experience in Osaka was about growing and learning in a new place and not met with nearly the same vehemence as I have discovered so far on this return trip.


I haven’t been eating a lot lately, mostly as an attempt to save money on this trip. My diet has consisted largely of conbini (convenience store) packaged baked goods, snacks, and fish products wrapped in seaweed and mayo. It is possible then that some of my frustrations with Japan stem from that hunger. It feels as though I’m half-awake, drifting only partly in reality. The other part of me feels like Chihiro in the movie Spirited Away—like I’m the last sensible person in the country, powerlessly standing by as Japan turns itself into a pig feeding at the trough.

Home Is Where the Tatami Futon Is: 東京 (Pt. II)

I am writing this from the bottom bunk of my guesthouse room, while an older Japanese man of perhaps 45 or 50 occupies the bunk above me, drinking a Sapporo beer and eating ramen from a disposable bowl. He is lying down, completely submerged in blankets, his head and hands the sole arbiters, peeking out over the top to connect noodle-spooled chopsticks to lips. In his ears is a pair of headphones, his eyes fixed to a point approximately three feet in front of him—to a cell phone in a tiny display holster—on which a news program in Japanese is flickering in short-wave flashes. I have been here for two days and this is the first time I have seen him. Last night, presumably for New Year’s Eve, he was out with friends or co-workers, celebrating at a bonenkai party, held for the purpose of forgetting the past year’s troubles (literally) and welcoming the new. And so far, in the utter quiet and solitude of the room, we haven’t exchanged a word.

It’s not to say that I didn’t try. Upon first seeing him, I let out an enthusiastic konnichiwa, but it fell on deaf ears, like those of a 10-year old playing Wii. After meeting my other two bunkmates—one from Mexico and the other from Croatia—I did my best to be cordial, asking all of the requisite questions of two strangers meeting for the first time. I learned that they were both traveling on vacation, that they both had an interest in Japanese (though neither of them could speak it), and that they intended to come back better prepared in the future. By now, however, they have both left the guesthouse—the Croatian fellow back home, and the Mexican to stay with a friend living on the other side of Tokyo—and I am left in the shabby hull of a bedroom with a man who couldn’t care less about my existence.

But in some ways, this makes sense. According to some of the others I’ve talked to, he has lived here for almost two years, an absolutely astounding figure considering the general function of the guesthouse. Travelers who come and stay at the guesthouse usually do so for a maximum of a few days or weeks, earning him the unique distinction of a “lifer.” It means he’s probably met hundreds of different people—if you take into account all three of the surrounding bunks in the room—making me just one more in a line of nameless faces that he has no reason to remember. To his credit, establishing connections sometimes makes it all the more difficult to say goodbye. He is also significantly older than the rest of the crowd the guesthouse attracts—predominantly single mid-20’s backpackers who travel on a budget and don’t mind staying in cramped quarters. His story seems almost etched into Boo Radley-like lore—an older man living alone (at least emotionally), and of whom very little know about his personal life. Though, admittedly, his mystery is a little more transparent. He doesn’t live in some decidedly condemned house on the fringes of a small Alabama town. He lives, prostrate, three feet above my head. But yet, I still feel as though I’ve never seen his face.

The extent of my 4-person guesthouse room in the heart of Tokyo. That's my bunk on the bottom-left.

It was clear that he staked out the best corner of the room. Years (and I can actually say that) of residence have given him free reign to pick his spot and settle as other residents came and went. In reality, it’s hard to even call what we’re staying in a “bunk.” I’m sitting on a tatami mat, a hard slab of approximately three inches, over which lies a thin futon comforter that separates me from the floor. It was seemingly done in the style of a Japanese ryokan, but without the romantic kitsch of having a “traditional experience”—not to mention the bath, yukata, cushions, sliding doors, and fancy breakfasts that come part and parcel. This is the bare bones, a ryokan fashioned for the Tokyo dweller, which has meant grafting an ancient Japanese way of living onto a distinctly modern high-rise tenement in the city’s core. For the purposes of my first four days in Japan, it has been my proverbial bunker—my escape from an imaginary nuclear fallout.

Aside from the lack of food rations, all around me are the crucial components of survival—tiny stove, hot water heater, microwave, mini-fridge, shower, toilet, and sink. Like a bear in hibernation, the man above me has packed an entire life’s-worth of necessary vestiges into the 6’x2’ rectangle that he inhabits. Held on the rafters above his bunk are coat hangers bearing dress shirts and suit jackets. There is a space heater directed toward him from the opposing bedpost. Alarm clock, toiletries, spare batteries, miscellaneous supplies (rubber bands, pens), and night clothes have been neatly prepared on a mock nightstand. Slid between two shelves of a plastic cupboard is a see-thru storage container full of clothing and other living accoutrements. He’s even wrapped aluminum foil around the part of the fluorescent light directly facing him, to avoid having to look at it before lights out at 11pm every night.

The guesthouse itself is a pretty understaffed operation, with three employees taking on all of the various duties from management and check-ins all the way to room cleanings. That’s because the establishment itself is quite small—only four rooms, each fit to hold either 4 or 12 people, on the third and fourth floors of an otherwise nondescript building. Most rooms are predominantly if not all male, save for one 4-person room reserved only for women. For security reasons, there is close to no indication whatsoever that the building holds a guesthouse, if you don’t count the microscopic hand-written sticker on the vestibule’s mailbox. The first floor is home to an innocuous-looking bar & restaurant, and walking up the back staircase to the secret elevator at the end of a long hallway feels like passing into a poor man’s Batcave. It took me nearly an hour to initially find the place—their reasoning for the air of secrecy is so that non-guests can’t sneak into the place because there is no reception desk and certainly no concierge service. Like most of Japan as a whole, the guesthouse seems to put its trust in the integrity of its residents.

The 12-person room adjacent to my own. Unlike mine, this room has a “common area” off to the side, which boasts a kotatsu, mini-TV, and wireless internet. It does tend to act as a central meeting place for the house’s residents (for lack of any other locale), usually in the company of one or another huge bottles of sake.

I find myself wondering how the man above me, especially at his age, can stand to live in a place like this for so long. There is absolutely no privacy, hardly a clear space to move around, and an endless stream of obnoxious tourists to have to put up with. But perhaps, then, it isn’t a choice. Maybe he has financial obligations—aging parents he had to put in a Home, paying child support for a divorced wife and their three kids in a suburban mansion, the ridiculous sum of money he lost in his younger days to pachinko. I daresay that anyone would choose to live like this if they could help it. But financially, it’s a great move. According to The Guardian, Tokyo is now ranked as the most expensive city in the world to live in. And despite a price tag that is still high given how little you’re actually getting, as mentioned in my last post, the guesthouse is by far the cheapest housing option in all of Tokyo, and is even cheaper if you rent out a bunk for weeks or months at a time. This is largely due to its location in an exceptionally convenient neighborhood. What the man above me makes up for in travel time and metro fare, he pays for with having to perpetually live with three other strangers in a room that’s not his own. But in the end, I have to concede that in a city like Tokyo—where pedestrians don’t jaywalk, shopkeepers never frown, and salary men routinely put in 60-hour workweeks—you can convince yourself of living through most anything.

(More on fitting in, social awkwardness, off-color sexual practices, lawlessness, Harajuku girls, nay-saying, and Spirited Away in Pt. III of this post).

Tokyo Does New Year’s: 東京 (Pt. I)

Since four of the six Americans in Taigu decided to go back home this winter for at least part of their vacation, it was up to me (and James) to decide how we would spend our two months outside of the states. Though a part of me also yearned to go home, I knew that it would ultimately be best to stay in Asia for a couple of reasons. The first was the lack of adequate funds. I am determined to finance any and all travel during these two years with my own money—money that I’ve either earned from teaching or that I am getting in the form of In-Asia travel grants from Shansi. The money that I’ve saved so far could have taken me back to New York, but I knew that I would get more mileage financing two months of exciting (and comparatively inexpensive) travel in Asia rather than simply the cost of that roundtrip ticket. The second reason was that I already knew that I wanted to go home this summer, thus making a winter visit something of a moot point. The half-way mark was the time that I promised friends and family I would return home, and it is the time that makes the most sense logically. “Summer in the city,” as it were, has become both the highlight and saving grace of my pre-college friendships, as I’ve reliably been home for every summer for as long as I can remember.

But deciding to travel to Japan in January was nothing if not a small concession to make. Being in a first-world country, where I can drink water out of the faucet, sit on a toilet seat, and occasionally eat food off of the floor is a country as good as any to whet my appetite for all of the comforts of home. I wanted to return to Japan this winter for a few reasons. The first was to see some of my friends who currently live here for one reason or another—Shansi, JET, otherwise employed, or studying abroad. It would follow that a disproportionate number of my friends have since moved to Japan from their various residences in America. But I guess this is a somewhat logical revelation, considering that I took Japanese at Oberlin with a number of now-graduates, and studied abroad in Osaka with even more. The second reason was to get a glimpse at a parallel universe of sorts—a life path that I gave up in my move to China. After studying abroad in Japan in the fall of 2007, moving to Japan, potentially teaching English, and continuing to study Japanese was the track I had set myself on. But though I didn’t end up returning to Japan, it was that experience, and that desire to teach and learn in a new place, that I would later relate to a panel of board members in the living room of Shansi House just less than a year later.

And so it eventually fell to me to make that pursuit a reality. I booked my ticket to Japan for New Year’s Eve, the hands-down low point in a succession of costly flights for days on either side, slated to get into Tokyo at 3:30pm from Beijing. This was surprisingly fortunate, though, because unlike China, Japan celebrates its New Year according to the Western Calendar, thus giving me a good reason to be in Japan for its biggest event of the year, and one that I had missed during my last time in the country. When I arrived, I was met with the kind of culture shock best exemplified by first-time visitors to New York being air-lifted into the center of Times Square. Tokyo, a city I had visited twice previous but only for a few days each time, was a remarkably different Japan than the one I remembered from two years ago. But then again, Tokyo is a remarkably different place from most other cities on earth, not to mention much of the rest of the country. Spending New Year’s here would certainly prove to be worth its metro fare in experience.

As one might expect for its most important holiday, New Year’s carries with it a lot of customs in Japan. Businesses all over the country are shut down, as the New Year is traditionally a time to spend with family. There is no shortage of traditional foods—the two most famous probably being soba, noodles that symbolize longevity, and mochi, sweet, sticky rice cakes. Sending New Year’s Day postcards is also an extremely customary practice, similar to the American practice of sending Christmas cards. Homes and clothing are supposed to be cleaned by New Year’s Eve, providing the New Year with a fresh start. To that end, all responsibilities must also be completed before the New Year, leaving worries and troubles behind, so that January 1st is free of work and stress. January 1st is an extremely auspicious day, traditionally believed to be representative of the whole year that has just commenced.

Hatsumode, the first temple visit of the yearanother Japanese tradition on New Year's Day.

2009 hasn’t been the best year for me in many respects, but it has been invaluable as a time for growth—seeing me through two distinct benchmarks in my life: graduating from Oberlin and moving to China. If I were one for sentimental monikers, this past year would almost certainly be entitled “My Shansi Year” in the hardcover bound, sepia-toned photo album of my life, as the fellowship has carried me through most all aspects of it—from the Winter Term TESOL class to the summer of intensive language study, all the way up to providing me with the funds necessary to take me to Japan this winter. But what it didn’t prepare me for, with five hours left in 2009, was what was about to happen next.

Upon arriving at Narita airport, I took a series of trains totaling close to two hours to my hole-in-a-wall guesthouse, centrally located on the Yamanote metro line that runs in circles around the heart of the city. After depositing my bags and with no phone to avail me, I fired up my computer, eager to uncover what could possibly be done alone on New Year’s Eve in Japan. I knew that some of my friends already had plans—Sam was doing it big with visiting Oberlin friends, Jazmin was most likely spending time with her host family, Liz would be bustling around the Tokyo area—but in my limited frame of reference, I had no means to contact them (I later learned that the pay phones in Tokyo are surprisingly effective). I relegated myself to the thought that perhaps I should visit the Tokyo Tower to see its New Year’s Eve countdown—Japan’s rendition of the ball drop in Times Square. It hardly mattered that it was a tradition that I turned my nose up at every time I saw the festivities on TV at home, smugly remarking that I would never be one of those disillusioned foreigners, freezing to death in the crowded cold, waiting simply to see a ball drop. This time I was that foreigner, and with that, I was content.

What I missed out on on New Year's Eve in Tokyo (photo courtesy of Reuters).

But upon further consideration, standing alone in a dense crowd on New Year’s Eve among flickering flash bulbs and balloons didn’t seem like the most uplifting predicament to find myself on what is said to be the most auspicious of days for the coming year. I sauntered into the adjacent room of my guesthouse, and, after paling it up with a couple of other loners—Andy, a white Japan native with missionary parents, and Nimrod (yes, that’s his real name—he showed me his passport to prove it), an Israeli on a two-month journey around the world—we decided to go to Shibuya and check out the club scene there.

Let me preface this next segment by saying that I am nary a man who enjoys going to da club in the states, let alone in Japan. In fact, clubs for me in many ways are the antitheses of a good time. I spent too much of my study abroad experience at the abysmally sketchy, foreigner-saturated Club Pure as the all-night weekend entertainment option of choice. To be fair, I have fond memories of it now simply in the retrospective sense, and there have been some other gems in my time, but for the most part, house parties and bars have always been my preference. To that end, I was a little unenthused about the choice of locale, but I decided it best, in a foreign land with foreign people, not to make waves on my very first night.


It is a bit ironic, in recounting the night’s events, the mere chronology of the previous two days. On the day before I flew to Japan, I watched the movie The Hangover with Jordan at his apartment in Beijing. And when I woke up on New Year’s Day in the room of my guesthouse in Tokyo, I had a déjà vu moment from an experience that wasn’t even my own—perhaps due to being blind-sided by the very same affliction. The night’s turning point can be traced to ungodly-long lines to get into the club (there were three separate ones), and the proximity of a convenience store selling alcohol three and four times cheaper than that sold inside the club’s doors. Once there, we met up with a few of Andy’s other insta-friends who had also stayed at the guesthouse, and after that, it was club, KFC, karaoke (in roughly that order), before I was tucked neatly into bed at about 5:30am the next morning. I did know unequivocally, though, that by the end of the night I had already spent close to $100 of my allotted $1000 for three weeks in Japan—$60 for four nights at my guesthouse (the absolute cheapest boarding establishment in the city, I might add, in my eternal bargain-hunting), $4 on transportation, and $30 for the club’s entrance fee (decidedly not a bargain in any way).

Incredibly long lines and throngs of people at Meiji Shrine on New Year's Day, so much so that police barricades had to be enforced.

If the Eve celebrations then were in some ways off-color (though to be sure, the club was absolutely brimming with other young Japanese and foreigners), I was determined to do New Year’s Day the right way. New Year’s Day in Japan is traditionally a time of firsts. Hatsuhinode is the first sunrise of the year, and Hatsumode, the first trip to a shrine or temple. My first sunrise was at about noon, if you don’t count the dim haze that dotted the sky by the time the trains started running again and I was walking back to my guesthouse in the morning. But my first temple visit was right on the money. I chose to go to Meiji Shrine in Harajuku, largely because it was one I did not have time to fully experience when I was last in Tokyo, and it is also touted as the most popular, attracting several million people during the first three days of the New Year. The atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed and lively, as people bustled around the large park and delicious food vendor stalls were set-up all over the place. As expected, though, it was insanely crowded, and I spent about two hours in line—long enough to eventually see the sunset—waiting for my chance to pass through the temple’s gates and give my wishes for the year.

Meiji Shrine was lined with lottery booths where for a 100 yen you could get your fortune told on a slip of paper. Those with unfavorable ones were instructed to tie them to a mesh of fence wiring, effectively nullifying them.

Surprisingly, and in something of an aberration, I decided not to make resolutions this year. In years past, there have been the usual staples of “write more,” “get stronger,” and “work harder,” not to mention the overarching “no McDonald’s or Burger King” ever since I first saw the movie Super Size Me over five years ago. And it’s not that I want to give those up (in fact, I’d probably add “cook more” to that list too). But I’m learning more and more that I’m my own harshest critic. I hold myself to standards that are needlessly unrealistic sometimes, and I feel that this year, I had better allow myself time to feel good about what I am doing rather than constantly fret about what I’m not doing well enough. If anything, my resolution this year will be to do more things that surprise me, that scare me, or that flat-out throw me for a loop. And I feel that this vacation—getting lost, not knowing what’s coming next, and subjecting myself to the follies of adventure—will be a great first application of that.

(More on Japanese ryokans, Boo Radley, provisions to survive a nuclear fall-out, lifestyles of the young and the thrifty, the Batcave, and pachinko debts in Pt. II of this post).