On 28 October, 2018, together with my parents, I embarked on what was my first ever trip to Japan. Although it was meant to be a family vacation, it was also an opportunity for me to ascertain for myself if Japan really is how I had made it out to be. You see, for the past year, I have been nursing a growing desire to start a new life in Japan — a strange endeavour, no doubt, given how I have never been there prior to this trip. I was as certain as vicariously experiencing life in Japan through books, television programmes, and conversations with Japanese friends would let me, but others were not.
“How do you even know if Japan truly is the place for you when you haven’t even been there? What would you do if expectations fall short during your trip?”
I could not disagree.
During the trip, we practically went everywhere together as a family. This recount, however, centres around the half-day I had to myself wandering the streets of Tokyo.
November 5th, 2018, 11:45am, Kawasaki Station
Ten days in Japan, and it all came down to this, the last 24 hours we had left before we would turn our backs on Fuji-san, autumn leaves, and Lawson. Eye-opening and eventful as the previous days had been, having a few hours to wander about on my own felt like the start of a whole new adventure. Having never travelled on my own before, the concept of not adhering to someone else’s itinerary seemed alien, but inevitably, extremely enticing. Tokyo was my oyster, and I was hungry for pearls.
There I was, standing on the platform of Kawasaki Station, waiting obediently in line for the train like everyone else. Without any form of familiarity, I could really start to feel — and see — myself as just another cog in the big red machine that is Japan; another head bobbing up and down in a sea of heads; another pair of legs in a stampede of rush-hour legs clamouring for the stairs, spilling out into the open. With insignificance came anonymity, and I was an eager fly on the proverbial wall. So began my journey of independent travelling, baby steps teetering over moments of absentmindedness and awe.
Shinjuku. Eight stops and a line change — that seemed simple enough. At least in Tokyo’s vicinity, it was almost impossible to lose one’s way; all it took to maintain my bearings was to follow multilingual (Japanese, English, Mandarin, and Korean) signs that were large and ubiquitous enough, as well as colourful, multi-storey shopping buildings. And people; always ride the human wave. The only variable to this formula was the self, and of course, it proved to be so barely 15 minutes into my journey.
“Next station, Shinagawa.”
I confidently got off, and although I was the only person alighting from that carriage, Japanese etiquette dictated I parted the waiting crowd like Moses did the Red Sea. On the escalator up, I kept to the left; right was for people in a hurry. It was interesting how Japanese people always seemed to be rushing for time, but most could still afford to patiently let escalators take them up and down. As if hypnotised by the collective Pied Piper, I was led by the massive crowd right past the gantries, completely forgetting that I was supposed to remain in the station. People here; people there; soon enough, everywhere appeared the same. A skyscraper in Shinagawa; a skyscraper in Shinjuku, what difference did it make? A mall by the station helped filter the crowd into the several cafes upstairs, while I and noticeably fewer others headed down another escalator out into the open.
“Calamari set — 750 yen”, and bunch of other options, written on a red-and-white, Coca-Cola-themed board greeted me. The restaurant was located on the first floor of a narrow, conical multi-storey building. I paid no heed; restaurants and eateries are found literally everywhere along the busy streets of Tokyo. There are also as many Lawson stores. Just below Hamamatsucho Station, which was near where we stayed, there were at least 25 eateries huddled into a basement floor that was specifically earmarked for food.
“So I’m back in Shinjuku,” I thought. I headed towards another building that had a fancy, two-storey Pachinko parlour. Contrary to my own assumption, they were no longer dinky, run-down establishments. As Japan’s entertainment evolved, so clearly too, did its gambling outfits, now decked in eye-catching colours and thematic designs, resembling arcades, which they technically are — arcades for adults, who, like kids, put money in machines and probably never see it again.
It took some time, but it finally clicked that I had arrived at what I thought was my destination way too quickly. I hightailed back to the station, adamant that I would not make another mistake.
“Next station, Shi…”
That was apparently all the information I needed, and I quickly got off, patting myself on the back for being alert. Having been to Shinjuku the previous day, I was aware how crowded the station was; it is known as the world’s busiest station for a reason — more than three million people pass through its gates each day, a piece of trivia that everyone seems to know. It might possibly be the most used narration in Tokyo vlogs on Youtube, too. I scanned for an exit, and found one that caught my eye: Hachiko Exit. Admittedly, Hachiko’s story was incredibly moving, and I had to take a photo of its statue; it was like visiting a local celebrity’s grave. I then began to wander the streets as I had intended. It was an overwhelming freedom that I did not really know how to use. I just walked. Further and further I went, until the army of pedestrians began to break away, most left behind at the iconic Shibuya Crossing. So this was what not having a plan felt — no schedules to follow; no unnecessary shopping; no direction. I took a right when I felt like it.
Budget hotels that charged by the hour subtly sprang up all around me, tucked away in discreet neighbourhoods that showed no signs of its sleazy association. They were what kept me believing that I was in the right place; part of my desire to revisit Shinjuku was to explore Kabukicho while it was still asleep, the aftermath of what many would have described as another wild night. After passing by the occasional AV rental-cum-viewing store, I was back on the main street, evidenced by a giant Don Quijote store. As I became more adjusted to my newfound independence, I grew in confidence, to the point where I conveniently left my bag of Don Quijote loot at a standing sushi bar I had lunch in (I managed to retrieve it). However, despite a productive afternoon, there was something niggling away at me. Kabukicho was extremely underwhelming if what I saw earlier was anything to go by. I could not figure it out; it seemed like everything I had walked past that screamed Shibuya, flew by my head, immortalised dog and all. It was only after consulting my phone did I realise in internal embarrassment that I was at the wrong Shi. Well shit, and I was already tired.
The chase finally ended, one afternoon later, at Shinjuku, legs sagging under the burden of endless walking. I was standing on the divider of a pedestrian crossing, apparently the only person in the throng of pedestrians with the luxury of time to do something other than cross the road. Curious glances attempting to discern what I was up to came my way. If only they knew — I had no idea either. There was nothing worth awkwardly positioning myself there for, nothing but the autumn gust and the rear lights of a few cars. I had spent way more effort than I should getting there, and I did not want to leave empty handed; an early dinner appointment meant that I would miss the tail end of the sunset. Nevertheless, lights from advertisement boards had already begun to illuminate the dull, grey sky that seemed to pour itself onto the very streets below. It was an apt representation of my mood — blank, sterile, and indifferent. Man, was I spent.
5:00pm, a train, Yamanote Line
I should probably have felt a little more aggrieved than I was, as I reflected on a day rife with lapses and wrong turns. The truth is, I never felt freer. Lapses opened new alleyways, and wrong turns brought me to curious places. Travel pieces often wax lyrical about the joys of being lost — but I wasn’t lost, I was just… unconfined. There is probably no joy in being hopelessly lost in Aokigahara, but I bet those articles don’t tell you that.
At the end of my stay, I revisited the same question. “What would you do if expectations fall short during your trip?” Only this time, I had the answer, and a damn fine one at that. Yeah, I know what I’d tell ’em, I thought, as I stood amidst rows of salarymen upon rows of lit buildings upon rows of autumn-clad trees, with Tokyo Tower looming ahead, bathed in an orange glow.