So last October [I know I’ve been so lazy!], I was boarding the super speedy Shinkansen, a.k.a the Bullet Train from Kyoto to Hiroshima where I was met by Sarah. Having not seen her for almost two years and the fact that our long-awaited reunion was happening in Japan, I could not contain my excitement. She drove us the long journey back to her cosy little home in a small village surrounded by mountains, woods, a river and a couple of neighbours; a stark contrast to the cramped style of living in Shenzhen.
On the way home we stopped for some sushi which was obviously the best I have ever had. Ever. I also witnessed further examples of the kindness of the Japanese. An old man and his wife were having dinner and sent a waiter over to ask if we could eat fish. An odd question to ask someone sat in a sushi restaurant. A few minutes later, some beautifully fresh Salmon sushi arrived in front of us, sent over by the old couple! As they departed there was a lot of bowing, arigatos and general joy in the couple’s face from sharing their culture with foreigners. However, since he asked the Japanese boy and his friend sat next to us who were conversing in Japanese, where they were from and if they could speak Japanese, I suspect the glow was more from the Sake than anything else. Soon after, Sarah’s supervisor joined us. She was incredibly sweet and pulled the smallest dish off the conveyor belt to feign joining us for dinner and then rushed to pay our bill before we left.
The next day was my birthday and after opening my handmade card from Alex that he had sent from England to Japan I went for a trip to the sacred island of Miyajima off the coast of Hiroshima. It was a beautiful and calming experience to wander around the island and the various temples and shrines that populate it. I then decided to make the climb up to the summit of Mount Misen. Although I had been told to continue the ‘tradition’ set by my two university friends Kieran and Tom who, both thoroughly ill prepared and in the dark, climbed the most challenging route I decided now was not the time to ‘chop suffer’. The sign at the bottom of the medium route said it was 1.5 hours to the top. Thinking that the sign was intended for the older tourists I scoffed and set off aiming to get there in about 45 minutes. However I was terribly wrong and after the second set of 100 or so steps, I was searching desperately for a bench and downing my bottle of water – evidently my diet in China that consisted solely of beer and dumplings was doing me no good! The views from the top were spectacular and put into perspective the geographical truth which is easy to forget about Japan – it is comprised of lots and lots and lots of islands!
That evening I met Sarah after work in Hiroshima for a barbecue dinner, lychee and gin cocktails and donuts on the banks of the river as we contemplated the remains of the A-Dome.
Despite my father’s email warnings – beware of the radiation! I found myself strolling the streets of Hiroshima trying to imagine its harrowing past. The museum was very informative. The displays of personal artefacts from those who perished and the volunteers on hand to help you understand the human side of what happened added to the solemnity of the exhibits in a way the audio guide could not. This was complemented by a lot of information on nuclear-energy and the current international debate. The way in which past, present, and future are sewn together under one roof leaves a pertinent impression on the visitor.
That evening, I retreated back to Sarah’s small village for a pancake dinner with her neighbour and to join in the weekly dance class she organises for some of the local kids. I jumped and twirled and laughed and boogied as they put the final touches onto their dance routine in preparation for the annual village performance. It was so great to see how Sarah had become a part of the community and how well she had taken to life in Japan. An inspiration to me at the start of my time in China.
On my final day in Sarah’s neighbourhood I had a day that diminished my feelings of homesickness – I went for a long walk in Sandankyo. However, this turned out to be rather less relaxing than a stroll in the English countryside. Over dinner one evening, Sarah casually mentioned that the area was supposedly inhabited by bears and despite one of her colleagues’ husband being employed by the local council to scare away the bears, she regarded the idea as more here-say than fact. When her colleagues found out that I was planning to go walking there alone, each of them in turn exclaimed ‘but the bears!’ which progressively made me more and more nervous. The night before my walk, Sarah returned home with a small golden bell similar to one you would decorate a Christmas tree with. A colleague had told her to give it to me with instructions to attach it to my bag as a defense mechanism! The big day arrived and shaking like a leaf I set out for Sandankyo. The place was breathtakingly beautiful:
It had the tallest trees I had ever seen and a large river running through the gorge with several waterfalls scattered about. It was also deserted! Just me and the bears I thought. I found myself walking at a rather accelerated pace which quickened still when I spotted a long green snake slithering next to my foot when I paused on a bench to quench my thirst, subsequently spilling the entire contents of the bottle down my front. Although I did not see any bears, the torn barbed wire and scratched wooden sign that separated the woods from a café told me to side with Sarah’s colleagues as I did an about-turn and hastily made my way back out of the woods! Before heading home, I decided to try out a typically Japanese experience: a trip to the public baths. I hesitantly approached a dark hotel built from wooden panels. Leaving my shoes at the door, I approached the old unimpressed looking woman at the reception and somehow remembered the necessary Japanese word Sarah had taught me that morning. With a slight nod of the head she motioned me towards a steep staircase that descended into a dark corridor. Feeling pleased with myself I bounded down and was faced with two doors with barely legible characters differentiating the male from the female changing room. I was stumped and felt like Neo; red or blue, red or blue? After about a minute I decided to follow what I assumed were international stereotypes and entered the red door. Once again it was deserted. I stripped down to my birthday suit, took a deep breath and slid the next door that led to the bath. Again it was deserted, much to my relief. I took a brief mandatory squat-shower under the faucets that were placed in the catwalk-like stage between the baths and the door and then slid into the tingling hot water. My content contemplation of the forest and the novelty of bathing in the nude in public were abruptly disturbed when I heard male voices the other side of the door. Struck with panic at having chosen the wrong door and without a towel I was frozen to the spot as I waited for the most awkward moment of my life to arrive. The voices drew louder and closer. I closed my eyes as I heard a door slide open expecting a ghastly scream. Eyes still closed I heard someone enter the water but felt no movement. Peaking one eye open, I found I was still alone and the walls of the building were just extremely thin. The gamble had paid off. Phew!
Osaka by night!!! And what a sight it was to behold! I stood doe-eyed, blinking in the bright headlights. There were more lights than you could imagine and they illuminated the Dotonbori stage upon which male hosts rocking creatively crafted hair-dos held together with wax that had built up over the years in their once flowing locks contrasted with groups of Gothic life-hating teenagers who slumped on the concrete tiles of the bridge. We set off in search of a club/bar called ‘Sam and Dave’. Since dancing in clubs is banned in Japan, several establishments go under the guise of bars with really loud music and strategically placed tables which, I imagine, one could casually pose at should there be a raid. Readopting our first year of university tradition, Sarah and I soon cleared a space on the floor with people looking at our shapes in awe.
We made a host of international friends who felt compelled to join in the crazy dancing that evening. First was an Australian policeman who skulked off when he realised the dancing would not be paused for a convo. We were then joined by a chubby bespectacled western man who added a dose of dad-dancing to the mix. After that a group of three prepubescent-looking Japanese teenagers joined in. It soon became apparent that one of the three liked Sarah and had convinced his pals to come with him to divert me. However one look at their matching Prada man bags and manicured nails assured that they were soon dispensed with. The snubbed teen spent the rest of the night stalking past us a little too often, shielding his eyes with his hand and feigning a disgust so great that he could not bear to look at us. We were then joined by a group of friendly travelling Canadians one bought us Kamikazi cocktails and another, a bottle of Moet in celebration of my birthday. However the night was stolen by a man named Taku. He appeared out of nowhere and integrated his fancy footwork perfectly into our sphere of dancing with a massive smile, pierced eyebrow and perfectly gelled hair. His signature move of shaking his blazer off one shoulder and making his snake tattoo dance epitomized the good-times vibes he exuded. It also, somehow, had a great effect on the ladies and he disappeared at various occasions to be found with 4 different women! We were lastly joined by a 54 year old yoga teacher who lives in a temple up a mountain outside Osaka and had just come out for a ‘lovely evening’ as he put it.
The big contrast I found between my clubbing experiences in Japan and China was namely that the former lacked the sleazy mid-late 40 year old men, racial segregation and general sullen expression of the revelers Here, everyone was out to share a good time, smiling, dancing and they were mostly in their mid-20s to mid-30s. However when Taku put forward the proposition of Sarah and I simultaneously joining him for the Japanese experience of a Love Hotel, we knew it was time to call it. Laughing and joking about Taku’s gusto and audacity we wandered back to our hostel at 7:30 in the morning.
The next day we inadvertently stumbled upon what must have been the usual Saturday brunch spot of the trendy locals after a heavy Friday night. Men and women with pasty green-ish complexions hidden by flat caps and oversize sunglasses propped themselves up against the bar seeking solace in the steaming hot bowls of ramen that sat before them. That afternoon, we sat in the October sun people-watching in Amerikamura were we saw the most extravagant fashion demonstrations of Japanese pop culture. There were matching mother/daughter combos, Bo-peeps, Goth guys and doll-like girls with enlarged eyes and umbrellas that matched their outfits. All were out to see and be seen on a casual Saturday afternoon.
After a brief and sad goodbye I set out for the airport to catch my flight back to China. I had loved every minute of my time in Japan so it was with a great sense of melancholy and a heavy heart that I headed back west. It was 1am and I was feeling morose when the plane landed in Hong Kong where, however, I received this incredible welcome to ease the blow: