I had been in Tokyo for just over three hours, which was more than enough time to become hopelessly, irretrievably lost. When I exited the metro station, the sun was already low in the winter sky, but my trusty guide-book suggested that I’d be sipping green tea at the Kimi Ryokan in a quarter of an hour. An hour later, I had wondered far beyond the neon lights and pachinko parlors of Ikebukuro, and the darkness of the narrow alleys indicated that I had probably passed my intended destination somewhere along the way. As I backtracked, I began to think about how far away I was from home, how I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese, and how I didn’t even have a reservation at the ryokan – if I were lucky enough to find the confounded place. My stomach began to tighten and tingle with anxiety.
I thought of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who, after nearly thirty years of peaceful contemplation at a monastery in Kentucky, decided he wanted to see the world a bit. He hopped on a plane to Bangkok, Thailand, checked into his hotel, showered off, and – still wet from the shower – decided to turn off the ceiling fan. It was the last decision he ever made. Only a few hours into what was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime, he was electrocuted to death by the faulty wiring of a hotel fan. If I were killed by a yakuza in one of these creepy little Tokyo alleyways three hours into my round-the-world trip, my head snicked off like Andy Garcia’s in Black Rain, I had only my stupid self to blame.
Robert Pelton once said you should never smile for your passport photo; if something goes horribly wrong, your goofy gob will appear on CNN three or four times an hour, and a facial expression that says, “I’m going to Japan, dude!” will convince everyone that you must be the kind of idiot who sort of had it coming.
I think I had managed to walk faster and further than I intended because of the adrenaline buzz I was still feeling from surviving the landing at Narita. As we descended from 30,000 feet or so on our approach, we plunged into a thick layer of heavy, dark clouds. Lightning flashed all around us, and the lights in the cabin suddenly failed. The little plane on the computer map in front of me spun around wildly, as if the navigation system wasn’t exactly sure which direction we were headed. Twice, we were buffeted by such severe turbulence it felt we were in an elevator that had slipped its cable for a couple of floors, then caught it again. Some of the passengers screamed, others cried; the older Japanese couple in front of me prayed in English. I could only think of how I had laughed everyone off back at home when they tried to tell me how dangerous foreign travel could be. Dammit, they were right.
The obituary I was mentally composing for myself was nearly complete when we finally touched down on the snow-covered tarmac. We were not dead. Everyone applauded – hugs and tearful smiles ensued. The couple in front of me kept repeating, “Plaise the Rord, sank you Jesus. Plaise the Rord, sank you Jesus.”
As the alleys widened once again into lanes, and street lights began to appear with greater frequency, the snow started up with renewed intensity. Heavy white flakes settled upon red paper lanterns and blue gabled roofs. My footsteps, muffled by the snow, no longer echoed down the long corridors. Finally, I spied a 7-11 in the distance. Civilization, once again.
I ducked inside to warm up and get my bearings. A ruddy-faced, blue-eyed gaijin was paying for a dozen tall cans of Asahi beer at the register. “Hey mate,” he said when he saw me. “You stayin’ at the Kimi?”
I had never heard a New Zealand accent before, and it sounded nearly as exotic to my ears as Japanese. “Yeah, I hope so,” I said. “I’ve been looking for it for over an hour.”
“Yeah, it’s a bitch of a place to find,” he laughed. “Grab yourself something to drink and follow me. There’s a group of us getting together in the common room. I’m Tim, by the way.” He had that peculiar Kiwi accent that makes ‘Tim’ sound like ‘Tum’ and ‘bitch’ sound almost like ‘butch’. When he spoke quickly, I felt I needed subtitles to follow along.
I spied a bottle of Grand Marnier behind the counter – 7-11 sells French liqueur? – and decided cognac would chase the chill from my bones better than beer. I paid for it and followed Tim outside into the falling snow. He had already finished one of his tallboys, and was opening another.
Little wonder that I had walked right past the ryokan. The entrance could easily be mistaken for that of a small sushi bar; it was half a dozen steps down from the footpath, a single wooden door frame covered in dark-blue canvas, bearing the words ‘Kimi Ryokan’ in bold white characters – Japanese characters, that is. The only English sign was an engraved grey-on-grey marble slab above the door – not exactly easy to see on a dreary November evening. While Tim thought I could save a bit of money by just sleeping in the common room after the staff fell asleep around midnight, I was relieved to find that there was an available room.
For the first-time Japan traveler, a traditional guesthouse is a great introduction to some of the intricacies of Japanese culture. You must take off your shoes before entering to avoid marring the polished hardwood floors. Walls and doors are made of paper stretched across wooden frames – which means great care must be taken to avoid disturbing other guests. There are no latches or locks on your door, as everyone is on the honor system. Baths are communal – men with men, women and children in a separate room. However, you actually need to take a shower before getting in the tub. Breakfast is free – you are given a very hot bowl of rice and an uncooked egg. You break the egg over the rice, and the heat from the rice cooks it to around sunny-side-up consistency. It tastes better if you flavor it with soy sauce and dried fish flakes. Yes, dried fish for breakfast.
My room was closet-sized, a tatami mat floor with a feather-stuffed futon rolled out along the long side of the room. There was no furniture except for a small wooden tea table that doubled as a night stand. A tiny closet accommodated the contents of my backpack. An oversized robe hung from a hook on the wall, white cotton slippers stuffed into its pockets. Everything I needed – and not one thing more, an idea intrinsic to Japanese living.
I followed the sounds of laughter and conversation to the common room where a few fellow backpackers sat on tatami mats around a long, two-foot tall table. The party consisted of two Swedish guys, as tall and blonde as one might expect, Tim on his third or fourth Asahi, a Canadian couple in their early thirties who complained about constantly being mistaken for Americans, one or two others. One of the Swedes nodded approvingly as I placed the Grand Marnier on the table and stiffly lowered myself to the floor. I grabbed a few thimble-sized cups from a tiny tea set and poured everyone a shot, the spiced orange aroma a perfect complement to the roasted rice green tea already on the table.
One day before, I had never even been on an airplane; one day later I was on the other side of the world, learning my first Japanese words – kanpai! – watching the snow fall outside the window with a quirky new group of friends. I was not dead, I was very, very much alive, my optimism and enthusiasm returning.
As the tea and liquor began to untie the knot in my stomach, I made a mental note for the next day: make sure to turn the fan off before getting into the shower.
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