Travels: Japan page:
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
actually all started as a joke.
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
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.
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,
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 sq.km 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
Holly and Armando in the Onsen
SSJ bunch meet Blair Witch
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.
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.
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.
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.
selection of Octopus legs
eating a whole fish-on-a-stick
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!
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.
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 eye.contact,
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.
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
in a bamboo forest
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
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
luxury suite in Osaka
the dwarf meets Joseph
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.
see over 130 photographs of my friends and I in Japan, click