Trip to Japan 2013 – Day 2

The following is a post-hoc account of the event, but it made more sense to me to post it according it to the date of the event rather than the date of the writing.

Unfortunately, the plan of “traveling together” didn’t really pan out. Neither of our neighbors wanted to trade seats. The guy next to me didn’t want a window seat, and the guy next to George “paid extra money” for his. So much for planning. In fact, in a strange and humorous twist, it turned out none of the groomsmen coordinated very well:

  • Du just couldn’t make it. Jason and George are no doubt going to give him a hard time for that, hehehehe.

  • I ended up with Mark’s missionary friends in Chiba the night of my arrival, while Jason and George found a hostel in Tokyo. And then the night before I left, I stayed with them again while Jason and George found a place using AirBNB. Their loss! The Bindewalds’ place was lovely, and Mrs. Bindewald’s breakfast was fantastic.

  • Jason booked his stay until the Wednesday after the wedding, thinking there would at least be some people to hang out with. Unfortunately, Michelle (one of our wonderful translators we got to befriend) had work on Monday, so she jetted Sunday night. George and I had the same flight on Monday afternoon. So he had to fend for himself for the next two nights. Thankfully, the kind Bindewalds were able to host him after I left.

  • Bobby’s situation was probably the funniest (and saddest) of all. He came a few days early and booked a place in Narita the entire week, even though we all agreed to stay in Chiba the nights of the wedding rehearsal and the wedding. He also happened to forget to get a visa, and since he had a Chinese passport, ended up being interrogated by the Japanese authorities for over two hours. Then they had him write an essay in Chinese about why he was in Japan. Except his native language was actually English, so he asked for an English form. They then questioned him about why he needed an English form. They finally let him into the country. But as if that wasn’t enough, his departure date was Sunday, the earliest of all of us, so he was not able to go sightseeing with us after the wedding.

After arriving at Narita with a finished draft of the speech and a few hours of sleep, and a couple of screenshots for directions (in case I didn’t have Internet access), I met George at the terminal. We went over to Jason’s terminal to wait for him. I was pretty anxious to find an ATM so I could get some cash, as I needed it for the metro, but I didn’t spot one until after I had exchanged my US dollars at a pretty disadvantageous rate. I wasn’t happy, but I had cash. And free airport Wi-Fi.

After waiting a while, I went downstairs to look at the metro lines while George waited for Jason. He took forever to come out of customs, but I took even longer to figure out where I needed to go. It was the first time I was somewhere where I didn’t know the language. I was unfamiliar with the metro system and how they worked in general, never actually having lived in a big city.

It became a giant puzzle: I had clues, tools, and a destination. There were help stations with question mark icons and signs were in English; I knew basic Kanji from being Chinese; I had a small screenshot of Google directions with possibly the wrong fare and whose displayed time had already passed; and I had a phone to access old e-mails and pictures to which I could point, but I couldn’t call from it since I didn’t want to pay international roaming charges.

The help kiosk just pointed me to a general direction. There seemed to be counters and machines where people could buy tickets, but the prices listed all seemed much higher than what Google had told me, so I figured that was probably not where I should buy the tickets. I went over there and walked back and forth, looking dumb, trying to figure out how the heck to buy a single ticket for the metro line. I finally gathered up the courage to amble through a certain set of doors (I thought I needed a ticket), and spotted the ticket machines (with more reasonable prices) right outside the turnstiles.

A bit more relieved now, I realized I had only ten minutes before the next train to Chiba came, and so I quickly texted George that I was about to leave (Jason and he were upstairs doing something). Google didn’t happen to have this time listed in its schedule, so for a bit, I was confused about whether I should take this train. I could wait another 30 minutes, but Mark had not anticipated I would be that late, so I decided to take the earlier one. If necessary, I could just wait at the Chiba station. Provided that this train stopped there.

The ride to Chiba was quite interesting. The picture I had of Japan had always been one of tall towers and high-tech gadgets, of crowded subways and neon lights. But the whole trip, I saw mostly farms (with very small fields) and little towns, like what I’d see in the developing parts of China. And the train to Chiba wasn’t crowded at all. I sat right across from the electronic marquee above the door to ensure I got off at the right stop. Fortunately, there was a map above it too, so I was able to follow the progress.

Transferring lines, however, was a different story. This is where my unfamiliarity with metro systems almost got me into trouble. I got off the train at the right spot. Fortunately, my Google screenshot listed the platforms I needed to go to. So I followed the arrows. When the stairs led up directly to the platform, I realized I hadn’t paid the entire fare yet. I backtracked, wondering if I needed to exit and buy another ticket. I saw some fare adjustment machines on my way out of the old platform, so I tried sticking my ticket in there to add some money to it. I didn’t realize they didn’t work like that. The machine spit my ticket back out, saying no adjustment was necessary. So I went back to the appropriate platform, thinking that maybe the fare was less than what Google said. I thought perhaps Google was wrong (gasp), or at least nobody would know I didn’t pay the extra… The other thing is, I could not find a route map in the station. I didn’t know whether to take the train on Platform 5 or the one on Platform 6. The trains were already there, and seemed like they were about to leave. I gathered up some courage, went to the station master, and pointed at my phone, managing to get out the word, “Kamatori” without my voice failing. He pointed me to the right train, and I got on.

It was very crowded, but I was relieved that I was safely on my way to the right place. Or so I hoped. I didn’t have the benefit of a map this time, so I didn’t know how many stations there were until Kamatori. I stood clutching my luggage and staring into the ceiling, trying to make sense of the rails map pointed there.

To my relief, Kamatori Station came up pretty quick. I squeezed out awkwardly, too self-conscious to say すみません. The thought of not having paid full fare started gnawing at me again as I left the train. It wasn’t until I passed by the fare adjustment machine on my way out when it hit me. Duh! The most logical answer was that one pays after one gets off. And so another piece of the puzzle was solved.

I got out, finally able to enjoy the fresh air and the fresh scenery. It was getting dark by now, but the lights of Kamatori seemed to be welcoming me. There was a nice little bridge from the station into the city. But I had to find a way to call Mark. I hadn’t really thought this far, and laughed to myself as I thought about the irony of having come all this way only not to be able to let them know I was here, and of being stranded at the station only a few minutes away from my stay.

To my left, steps led down to the ground level, where taxis and private cars picked people up. There was also a police station. It was this tiny little two-story octogonal building (if I recall correctly). I briefly considered asking them for help, or perhaps using their wi-fi. But I walked around a bit more, and lo! There was a payphone a couple of meters from the police station.

Figuring out how to use the thing was the next step in my adventure game, and took a bit of trial and error. I had some coins in my pocket from the ticket machine, so I put in ¥30 (roughly 30 cents). I dialed the number, but it didn’t go through. I was puzzled. I released the change, and dialed first this time, expecting the machine to ask me for an amount if it needed it, like the fare adjustment machines at the station. It still didn’t work. Fortunately, I was locked inside the small glass booth, and as Japanese people seemed to be very private, I wasn’t too worried that someone might be waiting impatiently for me outside the booth. I took a deep breath, and thought about it. If the phone does not return change for calls costing less than ¥100 (~$1), then perhaps ¥100 is the smallest denomination they accept? It was worth a shot. I stuck in a ¥100 coin, and dialed Mark’s number.

I was relieved to hear ringing on the other end. Mark picked up and informed me he would be there in about 5-10 minutes. I left the booth, happy that I have completed this part of the mission. For the first time in a few days, I relaxed, and decided to forget my dissertation and enjoy my freedom while it lasted.

I waited at the station. The first thing I noticed was that cars drove on the left side of the road. Having lived in the U.S. for most of my life, it felt very foreign to me—not the concept, but I could no longer trust my instincts about when it’s safe to turn. The second thing I noticed was that the cars are smaller (and probably more fuel-efficient) than in the U.S. It made sense, as land was very expensive in Japan, so everything had to be small.

I watched the cars enter the loop and leave as the sky darkened. I wondered which one Mark would be in. I had no idea, but as time went on, I noticed that where the car stopped was precise. The driver would see the passenger, and would stop the car right in the middle of the pickup loop, even when there were cars behind her. The passengers would walk to the car immediately, and the cars behind them would wait patiently. In the U.S., many people would be distracted by their phones and would expect a call from the driver upon his arrival. As a driver, I much preferred that the passenger got ready and waited. It seemed much more courteous and efficient, so I was glad that the self-centered culture in that regard did not carry over. Or perhaps I just didn’t notice the phones here in Japan. Anyway, pretty soon, I could tell that a car was not Mark’s by where it stopped in the loop.

I got up from my little bench and stood by a lamp post, trying to be more conspicuous (I was wearing a black jacket, my bags were black, and the sky was dark). A few moments later, out of nowhere a girl appeared next to me. I looked over, and she looked at me. She asked if I was Xuan. “Yeah,” I replied, a little surprised. She proceeded to introduce herself as Megumi, Mark’s fiancée, and she for some reason also needed a ride back. Well, now there was no way Mark would not see me!

Megumi’s mom was actually the one driving when they came to pick us up. Mark had his bike in the trunk. He was going to bike to where I was staying that night, while Megumi’s mom drove me and my luggage there. The drive was short, as was the conversation. Pretty soon, we were in a small drive in a quiet neighborhood. Mark and his bike were already at the entrance.

We went to the Bindewalds’ door with my belongings. The Bindewalds had been Mark’s housemates for a few months, and were very gracious in allowing his friend to stay at their place. After dropped off my luggage at the foyer amid a round of greetings, mostly in Japanese, Megumi’s mom drove us back to Kamatori station so that Mark and I could go to Tokyo to meet the guys.

Their faces were blank, their eyes were empty. They stared into space, everyone in a different direction, everyone lost in his own world. The typical Japanese salary-man in a shirt, a black suit, carrying a black briefcase. The typical Japanese woman in a beige trench coat, in heels, carrying a hand bag. Sameness. Here, a man might be reading a small book. There, a girl was watching anime on her phone. Conversation was sparse. Nobody made eye contact. This was the typical scene on the subway and at the stations we passed by.

Conformity was the norm, Mark told me. We chatted in English at a volume that most Japanese subway-takers would probably find atypical. Yet we hardly received any glances. People were very private, retreated in their own bubble, tolerant of anything that goes on around them. Nobody seemed to be connected. Except when people got on and off the train, people seemed to be oblivious to everyone around them, and only then would people move away, perhaps less out of courtesy than out of necessity. It didn’t bother me too much. I’m not one to make conversation with strangers. In fact, it was almost liberating to know that I could swivel my head and look around in curiosity without attracting attention.

The subway ride was about 40 minutes. When we left, the other guys said they were 30 minutes late. It turned out we ended up being the late ones, as we had to find them after we got off the subway. I wasn’t as alert as I was earlier, as I didn’t have to think about where to get on or to get off; I just counted on Mark to know what he was doing. He commutes to Tokyo everyday, he said. I shared about stateside news, about church, about my life, my dissertation, our mutual friends, my plans for the future, the struggles of living alone, and so on. He shared about his role at his job as an account manager and liaison with English-speaking customers and about the missionaries he knew.

A transfer, a bit of walking, and a short taxi ride later, we found the guys sitting outside a pastry-shop, joking around. It was good to see everyone together again.

Our first meal in Japan was an interesting experience. Mark had a Yakitori place in mind to take us to. It was in the Ginza district, but Mark didn’t actually know where specifically it was. We meandered along small streets for a little while. Not finding it, he left us waiting at a corner as he ran around looking for the place. He called them and came back, saying that it was near Cartier. We walked to a street corner near Cartier. Still not seeing it, he ran off again, calling the place. It turned out there were two Cartiers in that area, and we were at the wrong one. So by the time we found the place, we had spent about twenty minutes wandering the avenues, and the place was almost closing.

We sat down in a corner in the back. Naturally, Mark ordered the food for us. Now one thing the Japanese are known for is being 讲究 about their food (it would not be an understatement to say they have a proper way of doing pretty much everything). And this Yakitori shop proved to be no exception. Our dinner consisted of chicken and more chicken, with a bowl of mixed rice toward the end. The meat was seared on the outside, but stayed juicy on the inside without being undercooked. The seasoning was just right. It was some of the best chicken I’ve ever had. I ate until I was comfortably full, and then we left the restaurant for dessert.

As we walked along the sidewalks, I noticed that everything was a lot more orderly than I would expect for a city of the size of Tokyo. The streets and sidewalks were clean. There wasn’t a sea of cars. There was not a single homeless person in sight. (In retrospect, I did not see a single homeless person my entire trip as I traveled from the urban areas to the “countryside.”) Ginza, I was told, was an upscale fashion district, which probably explains everything.

We found a dessert shop whose logo was a little girl with her tongue sticking out, as if licking her lips. Mark told us this was a good brand known for their ice cream. We climbed this narrow stairway to get to the second floor (everything was desgined to be space-efficient). We walked in and were seated. At first, we just wanted to share three desserts. However, we learned that it was expected for everyone to order something, so we ended up ordering five.

I got back to the Bindewalds’ pretty late. Dave picked us up from the station. Mrs. Bindewald showed me the room I was staying in. It was a neat little room with a mattress on some tatami mats. I unpacked, washed up, and went to bed.