Gaijin on a Push Bike – Day 2

Gaijin on a Push Bike – Day 2

Thursday 21st July 2005 – Toridé to Tokyo (取手東京)
Presents received – beer
Presents given – beer

After a fitful night’s sleep, I became definitively convinced at about eight in the morning that I was not alone. While all previous activity had sounded like a rampaging wild animal and almost certainly been nothing of the sort, there was now an unidentified person milling around outside the tent. I struggled awkwardly into my shorts and t-shirt, and braced myself for the Japanese equivalent of a highly-strung park-keeper, ranting at me to vacate the premises and brandishing a pitchfork or garden spade. It should have come as no surprise when I emerged instead to find an amenable old man: after all, someone whose job involves the voluntary maintainence of a Shinto shrine is hardly likely to be the aggressive type, and as a token of appreciation for his tolerance at having a scruffy foreigner set up camp next to the shrine, I handed him a can of beer given to me by the izakaya’s landlady the previous evening.

Leaving Toridé behind, I soon realised how apt a place it had been to spend the night, when over the brow of the next hill I was confronted with the beginnings of metropolitan Tokyo. A wide river valley stretched away into the distance in either direction, and was criss-crossed with road and rail bridges, each with ten or twenty pillared spans. On the far side the suburban greenery almost vanished, to be replaced with a sea of apartment and office blocks, and it was a sight that induced uncomfortable flashbacks.

I had first thought about moving to Japan almost two years earlier, after a holiday that incorporated as much sightseeing as I could squeeze into a ten-day period, and as many friends – and friends of friends – as I could bring myself to impose upon. Both the country and its culture had seemed a perfect blend of the endearing and the intriguing: the people, the places, the food, the transport, the technology, the art, the architecture, everything had been just right – everything, that is, except Tokyo. It may not have helped that the one day I spent there was cold and wet, but something about the place just didn’t agree with me. It was too big, too noisy and quite frankly, too ugly, with nothing like the traditional charm of Kyoto. Back in the UK I began applying for English teaching jobs, and in the section of the application form marked ‘Where would you prefer to be posted?’ I would write, ‘Anywhere except Tokyo’. After a couple of failed interviews, however, both my options and my patience were wearing thin, and I eventually accepted a job with A Certain English Conversation School (which shall henceforth be referred to as ‘ACECS’), almost all of whose branches are in the capital city. It’ll be fine, I thought. Getting a visa is the most important thing, so what does it matter where I end up?

But it soon became apparent that I should have trusted my instincts, as those first nine months in Tokyo were less than happy. Working for ACECS proved unexpectedly tough, and I was punished for my dedication to the job with more six-day weeks than any sane human being can handle. My shoebox-sized apartment stank – initially of stale cigarette smoke, then raw sewage; my upstairs neighbour somehow contrived to hold jumping competitions at all hours of the day and night, not to mention conducting experiments to see how heavy an object it was possible to drop on the floor without actually breaking the object or the floor; and my relationship with a girlfriend in the UK singularly failed to overcome the obstacle of two whole continents. Stubbornly loyal to the people I assumed had done me a favour by giving me a job in the first place, I did not know my way around well enough to find alternative housing or employment, and acted like the proverbial frog: if you put him in hot water, he will jump out; if you put him in cold water and heat it up, he will happily sit there until you boil him alive.

And spending that summer in Tokyo was indeed very much akin to being boiled alive. The hottest on record in a country already well acquainted with the concept of hotness, the temperature often came close to forty degrees, and for what seemed like an eternity rarely went below thirty, even at night. When I wasn’t sweating profusely or fending off mosquitoes, I wondered how it was possible to live in a foreign country, and yet be granted next to no opportunity to learn about its language and culture. Just as much as I blamed my slave-driving employers, or my failed love life, or the high humidity, or the fact that I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying when I switched on the television, somehow I blamed the city itself for my problems.

Much as I imagine new arrivals feel overwhelmed by London, Paris or New York, so Tokyo overwhelmed me, primarily by virtue of its sheer scale. Estimates vary, but there are thought to be as many as thirty-five million people in Greater Tokyo as a whole, and the closer you are to its centre, the more tightly packed they become. I lived in the district of Nakano, into each square kilometre of which approximately twenty thousand residents have been squeezed – a population density comparable to that of Karachi or Kolkata – and in Tokyo, as with any big city, the strange maxim applies that the more people who live around you, the more difficult it is to make friends. Shinjuku Station, for example, through which I would pass almost every day on my commute to various branches of ACECS, is the busiest in the world and constantly thronged with people. But it can also be the loneliest, its crowds of commuters just another aspect of the cityscape: a river of humanity, passing through which becomes little different from crossing a street of moving traffic.

It is ironic that something built by human beings for the purpose of their own habitation should come to be so intimidating and unsuitable for them, but Tokyo is the ultimate expression of our movement from the rural to the urban: a man-made environment on an inhuman scale, a place that has accellerated way beyond the scope of rational assessment, to become something uncontrollable and with a life of its own – rather like Godzilla, the towering monster of Japanese popular entertainment, which is also a product of technology gone bad.

Looking at Tokyo from the outside was like looking up at the stars in the night sky: awe-inspiring, but at the same time, and if I chose to dwell upon it, enough to induce a kind of panic. Still, by around seven o’clock this evening I would be on my way to Kyushu, so I braced myself for the heat and the stress, and set off across the valley from Toridé.

Tokyo loves to compartmentalise its businesses, and today I passed through the work clothes district, the musical instrument district, the second-hand book district and the sporting goods district. In the latter, I made a beeline for the camping section of one large store, and having bought yet more bits and pieces with which to weigh down the Mariposa, found myself in a lift with some fellow gaijin, two tall and smartly dressed Australians. (Taken literally, gaijin / 外人 means ‘outside person’, and is used to describe anyone from abroad, but depending on your point of view – or depending on the context – it can be seen as a term of prejudice, so the Japanese will normally address a foreigner with the more polite gaijin-san (‘Mr Outside Person’) or gaikokujin (外国人 / ‘foreign country person’) instead.)

‘All right mate?’ said one.
I pressed the button for the ground floor, and the readout began counting down from ten, nine…
‘Good thanks. What brings you to Tokyo?’
Eight, seven, six…
‘We’re here on business and we’ve only got a couple of days,’ said the other, ‘so we’re trying to take in as much as we can.’
Five, four, three…
‘It’s great, though. Do you live here?’
‘I used to, but I’m just passing through – I’ve got a boat to catch.’
Before I knew it, the doors had opened and we were spat out onto the ground floor.
‘Have a good one.’
‘You too.’

And then they were gone, swallowed up and carried away by the crowd. It was the closest I came in the city centre to connecting with another human being, and reminded me of many similar instances from my time in Tokyo: of the feeling of alienation the place is liable to induce.

At the mercy of the Crap Map, I was having trouble finding the ferry terminal, which lay on a peninsula of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, and asked for directions at a street-corner koban (交番 / police box). Having lost my way once more, I then stopped to look at a billboard-sized map near the entrance to a construction site, which only succeeded in confusing me further. Consult any map displayed in a public place in Japan and it will rarely be positioned with north at the top and south at the bottom, because apparently, there was a government directive some years ago to rationalise such maps: to make them ‘true’, so to speak, to what they depicted. For example, if you are facing east as you look at a map, then east will be at the top; if you are facing south, then south will be at the top, and so on, thus enabling you to gain a genuine feel for where you are in relation to your surroundings. This is all very well in theory; in practice, however, the result is total confusion. For example, the first time I went to Tokyo Station, I spent an infuriating half hour looking for a bus stand, bouncing from side to side and end to end of the place, purely because whenever I stopped to check my position, the nearest map would be the opposite way up to whichever one I had previously consulted. The same thing appeared to be the case now, and it took at least one more stop at a koban before I was back on course for the ferry terminal.

Ports are particularly good places to hang out if you’re after a bit of industrial bleakness, and soon the shops and apartments disappeared, to be replaced with wire fences, warehouses and grimy sliproads. Despite the presence of a passenger ferry, there were no concessions to tourism here: everything was geared towards trade, import and export, the transportation of goods in bulk, and before reaching the terminal I passed through a kind of container graveyard. Row upon row of them stood abandoned, seemingly at random, and no attempt had been made to keep things in order, nor to position the containers in such a way that other motorists might easily be able to negotiate the road. I weaved a silent slalom between them, dodging the towbars that hung in mid-air, and thinking as I did so that at some point, hundreds of drivers might return to reclaim the rear halves of their trucks.

The terminal itself was almost deserted, and despite this being the first week of the school summer holidays, it was clear that the Ocean Tokyu would be almost empty. After half an hour in an airport-like waiting area, I joined a motley queue of motorcyclists on the quayside, and got talking to Mr Sturdy Level, the only other passenger who had arrived by pedal power. The difference between our bicycles couldn’t have been more pronounced: his was a lightweight racer in silver, with drop handlebars and two modestly sized and colour co-ordinated panniers; mine was a veritable toy shop of reds, yellows and blues, a jarring mis-match of bags and baskets. It was like standing Jimi Hendrix with his Fender Stratocaster next to a one-man band with a banjo, bass drum and harmonica, and I was experiencing my first case of bike envy. Mr Sturdy Level laughed as I recalled a long list of items that were secreted away on the Mariposa, and I surmised that he must be carrying little more than one change of clothes and a razor. We agreed to meet later for a beer, and upon reaching the front of the queue, rode together up a great steel ramp into the bowels of the ship.

Tourist class consisted of large, open-plan dormitories in which passengers slept on a carpeted floor. Pillows and blankets were provided, although the former were leather bound, rectangular and more suitable for use as foot rests, and the latter more suitable for providing extra padding than extra warmth. It may have been basic, and would no doubt be noisy and cramped during peak times, but today we had room to spread out, and for a mere fifteen thousand yen (about seventy-five pounds) would be carried a couple of thousand kilometres, spending two nights and a day on board. Wandering off to look around, I passed a grizzled looking middle-aged man at the opposite end of the dormitory. He was lying on the floor, reading a magazine, swigging from a bottle of shochu (焼酎 / a foul-tasting spirit brewed from – among other things – potatoes, rice or barley, and often used as a mixer), and showing off a good few centimetres of arse crack above the waist of his tracksuit bottoms, while nearby, a father looked concerned for his young son’s welfare as the two of them unpacked their belongings.

Like me, Mr Sturdy Level was in his early to mid-thirties. He was quiet and polite, no taller than average for a Japanese man, and wore glasses with little rectangular frames. His job had something to do with computers or design, and while he would not have looked out of place wearing a suit and tie on a commuter train, two weeks in the saddle had rendered him fit, healthy and impressively well suntanned.

‘I’ve cycled from Osaka,’ he said.
‘How long did it take?’
‘Two weeks, although I didn’t have any days off. I came along the coast, so it was quite a distance.’
Osaka is approximately halfway between Kita-Kyushu and Tokyo, so I could be taking a similar route myself later in the summer, and asked exactly what kind of distance he was talking about.
‘Oh, about a hundred kilometres a day.’
‘A hundred? So that would be about fourteen hundred kilometres altogether.’
‘About that – plus the roads are very hilly.’ He mimed the ups and downs with his hand, as for waves in a high wind.
‘That sounds pretty tough.’
‘Not at all, it was great fun. I stayed in youth hostels so I didn’t need much luggage. There was always someone to talk to, and I met plenty of gaikokujin, too.’

Mr Sturdy Level confessed that this was by no means his first cycle tour, and I wondered how he managed to get so much time off work.
‘What about training? I mean, there can’t be many places to go cycling in Osaka.’
‘I’ve got an exercise bike, so I train indoors.’
‘Isn’t that a bit boring, though?’
‘Not if you watch TV it isn’t.’

There was no television on the ferry, and despite my suggestion of a game of mah jong, one drink apiece had been enough to knock us both out, and having insisted on paying for our beers, Mr Sturdy Level called it a night.

‘It’s funny,’ he said as he stood up to leave. ‘My body doesn’t hurt very much during the day, but I always seem to wake up in the middle of the night with a pain in my knees.’
‘Your knees?’
‘Well, not just my knees, but yes, they seem to hurt the most.’

Back in tourist class, I was pleased to discover that the middle-aged man with the workman’s cleavage had been moved on – that is until I found him lying within arm’s length of my own sleeping bag, head back and already snoring like a drain. It was time to fetch the earplugs from my rucksack for their second run-out in as many nights.

0 thoughts on “Gaijin on a Push Bike – Day 2

  1. Tokyo is a part of Japan. A very different part than the rest of it. I tell people to enjoy/complain/bitch/love it to the fullest only after fully understanding that.

    1. I feel exactly the same way about London – an interesting and exciting (and often infuriating) place, but completely different from the rest of the UK – never judge a country by its capital, as a wise man and / or woman probably once said…

  2. Well, your description of Tokyo fits what i always imagined of it. As interesting as it may be, if I were ever to visit Japan, there were alot of places that i would probably visit before Tokyo…

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