Japan on a Shoestring
Nine Million Years on a Train
It is common for the university student to undertake adventure while abroad. Vacation draws nigh, and the student sets off to explore the world. Oftentimes those of us with less spare cash either curl up in our dormitories and pretend not to be envious, or we get inventive.
I am happy to say that during Winter Break in Japan, my roommate and I got inventive.
Japan has four main islands that stretch latitudally 1,800 miles, and span from temperate to tropical climates. Those departing (main island) Honshu’s northern Akita Prefecture in below-freezing temperatures ride south to find the five-foot snow drifts disappear and the air warms upon reaching the more southerly Kyoto. Shaping a trip to suit your needs is easy.
Tip: Check your resources and calculate how many days you can travel before winding up stranded in a ditch. Then get online and make love to Google and Google Maps.
I journeyed in the only way college students such as myself, penniless but full of wide-eyed enthusiasm, could. That is, slowly and without much glamour. But nothing matches the freedom of long hours spent dozing fitfully, rocked to sleep while rice paddies and persimmon trees pass by the windows, the sound of train tracks clattering below.
Public transportation in Japan is expensive. The famous ‘bullet train,’ or Shinkansen, can cost significantly more than a cheap hotel, or over $100 per ride.
What to Do?
What to Expect:
Tip: Go to www.Hyperdia.com for train schedules. Then double check at the nearest major train station how to get from point A to point B and C. Print out train lines, departure times, and transfer stations.
Finding cheap food and accommodation is easier than you might think. We avoided hotels and restaurants, focusing on what was easy to find, quick to grab, and cheap. Remember, you may be arriving late, leaving early, and fueling up on the go.
In Japan, English fluency is hard to come by outside of big cities. Smile through wonky grammar and horrid misunderstandings, and be prepared to draw childish diagrams, do interpretive dance, and possibly cry. Carry a dictionary, familiarize yourself with the kanji of your destinations, and know basic phrases. When is the train? Where is food store? Can I stay here tonight? Why am I being eaten by domesticated deer? Etc.
Tip: Look up 24-hour cafés and hostels online, in English and Japanese. Print out street maps and directions.
A Further Account of Our Heroic Journey
Accompanied by a List of Helpful Japanese Words and Phrases
(Which May Not Be Entirely Accurate)
Wherein Our Heroes Kind of Embark
My traveling companion – Daphne – and I had planned things to the minutest detail. The departure time listed on our train schedule (which we had printed out at the station the day before) was earlier than the first bus leaving our campus, so we stayed in the city center for the night, within easy walking distance of Akita Train Station.
We found one of several nearby manga cafes, and checked in.
Apparently, checking in is one of the many times when one’s scant language skills can become painfully obvious. After fifteen minutes of trying to communicate in English, Japanese, hiragana, and kanji – all of which failed – we progressed to doodled diagrams of stick figures, interpretive dance, and a silent moment spent weeping and crawling about the rug on hands and knees.
It turned out the poor mortified clerk was just trying to ask for our IDs.
Don’t be like us.
Carry a goddamn dictionary.
We eventually settled in for the night, warm in the silence of the café, refreshed by the free drinks (I was partial to the hot matcha tea – Daphne developed rather a disturbing obsession for melon pop) and feeling oddly dazed by the electronic light reflected on the ceiling by computers and televisions all around.
We set our phone alarms, crawled into our cubbies, and fell asleep under our coats.
Lots of Time Asleep
We dragged ourselves from the depths of sleep and trudged through the snow to depart on the 5 AM train. We rode south from Akita, traveling along the eastern rail line.
The train schedule was our most precious possession – a list of train lines, stops, transfers, and exact times all written down in order. We were on the train for more than 10 hours, and transferred nearly as many times.
In retrospect, one of our most memorable stops was Sendai, which was a big, bustling, warm indoor station. Months later the same city would be slammed with the tsunami of 3/11, leaving houses destroyed and thousands displaced or dead.
We spent our time in Sendai like we did every other station – using our 30 minute break on solid land to run to the restroom, snatch onigiri and sandwiches from the in-station convenience stores, and find the track for our next train.
Back on board, we passed the time by dozing on one another, head on shoulder or head on head. Sometimes we drifted off curled in the seats and one another’s laps. Schoolgirls, grandmothers and grandfathers chatted quietly amongst themselves all around us. Daphne scrap booked, her giant knitted rabbit gloves lying on the seat beside her. I spent hours staring at the window at passing persimmon trees and rice fields, burrowed deep into my coat.
The going was slow, but it allowed us to experience the culture-seeped life and scenery of the countryside, and watch as the climate and landscape changed out the windows.
We arrived in Tsukuba after nightfall, having achieved proximity to our first destination and the assurance of another manga café.
I recommend Tsukuba’s green curry, especially eaten late at night after a weary day of travel.
What’s so Aristocratic About this Forest, Anyway?
We arrived at our first destination – Shimotsuma in Ibaraki Prefecture of Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) movie fame - in the early morning. Having watched the film a great many times, we knew exactly what to expect: A great deal of rice fields, rather too many cow patties, and a single department store.
We set off from the station on foot and found ourselves in a sleepy residential town.
Quoth Daphne, “I sort of thought there’d be more rice paddies just... right here. And a Jusco.”
We soon found ourselves trekking along the highway, tired and cranky, with nothing recognizable in sight.
“Daphne,” said I. “Let us hitchhike.”
“Nay,” said she. “Nay.”
We eventually found the Jusco. It was not unlike a holy experience.
The next stop had been a surprise – another 20 minutes’ track to the ‘Forest of the Aristocrats’ restaurant featured in the film, where we sat eating ice cream Sundays and happily missing our train to see the Ushiku daibutsu nearby.
At last, with aching feet, sweaty clothes, and windswept hair, we wrote Shimotsuma Eki in poor Japanese on the back of my sketchbook and walked along the road, thumbs stuck out in the hopes of finding a helpful stranger. Within ten minutes we were picked up by a lovely woman and deposited back by the station, hitchhiking successful.
That night we missed our very last connecting train to Kyoto, and were stuck in not-quite-Kyoto-but-almost for the night. There were no more trains, and our pre-booked hostel was waiting for us, warm and unreachable. With sleeping huddled in the cold, empty station looming in our minds as a likely option for the night, we sat down to conserve body heat and tried not to cry, scream, or poo ourselves in front of Japanese late-night commuters.
We were, of course, eventually saved.
There was a manga café nearby.
Phrases for Journeying:
On a Downbound Train
Our journey inevitably clashed with that of the everyday Japanese commuter. Tight ponytails and schoolgirl skirts, business suits and ties, worn canes and bags of shopping – whatever the outfit of our fellow companions in the train compartment that day, we clashed.
We ate in public, slept in public, one with a headscarf and the other with a head of increasingly tangled, greasy hair. We tucked ourselves and our packages tight into corners so that we could doze off without bothering those around us, and inevitable curiosity followed us wherever we went.
Daphne helped matters considerably. More than once I woke to find the old ladies across the train giggling silently as my companion snapped a photo of my uncomfortably close, sleeping face.
This is fine. Daphne knows I know that she zonked out and began drooling on those very same seats more than once.
In this manner, we entered Kyoto – the Old Capitol, a city of legendary historical and cultural wealth, and ours to explore for barely the span of a single day.
We found our hostel, available to us for just another few hours as the morning faded into noon. Daphne chose sleep. I chose a shower and shave.
We saw what nearby temples we could and then hopped on the local train to Nara, half an hour away. The helpful folk at the station provided us with a convenient local guidebook and street map, and we found Nara Park with little difficulty after a 15 minute walk.
There are two things to enjoy in Nara Park. One is the many temples and statues, including the massive daibutsu (Big Buddha) in Todai-ji Temple. Massive and bronze, it has been rebuilt more than once after fires many centuries before. At its oldest base, it is over a thousand years old. Having studied the sculpture in university some years before, seeing its beauty right in front of my eyes was difficult to comprehend.
The second thing to see, of course, is the deer.
They roam the semi-enclosed park much like pigeons do city squares, nearly domesticated, close enough to pet, and very happy to receive food. They have a tendency to swarm when you have it, and because deer crackers are sold on every corner, you always have it.
If you do not give them food, they will take it anyway. Do not enter the park holding any paper shopping bags.
The deer were adorable and highly pettable. They became our friends, and I am happy to say that I dealt with them with the utmost composure. This cannot be said for everyone.
(“Help,” shrieks Daphne.
I remain unmoved.
“Help, it’s coming after me."
Serenely, I pet the deer nearest to me.
"Quick,” and now her eyes are a bit wild, “let’s make a run for it.”)
Phrases for Finding Your Destination:
Onward and Upward
The highlight of the day, however, remained Kyoto’s Inari Shrine (Inari Taisha).
This is a Shinto shrine – Japan’s indigenous religion. Dedicated to Inari-sama, the Japanese fox god of rice and the protector of travelers, it is massive and breathtaking. The thousand red gates – made famous in the west by Memoirs of a Geisha – wind up the hillside from the looming entryway below.
We did not make it all the way to the top. We paused briefly to gorge upon delicious udon noodles at one of the many food stops on the way up, and after venturing for a bit further, decided we could be quite proud of ourselves and decided to turn around.
At this precise moment, down from the opposite direction – having clearly climbed all the way to the top and now on her return journey – came an aging Japanese grandmother, leaning on her cane as she came trotting unsteadily back home.
We crept away in shame.
As the day crept to a close, we made our way back to Kyoto station and took one of the many busses leaving from right outside the building. Most of these will take you directly to various famous and historical sites. We chose the bus to Gion, and alighted on a fairly regular shopping street before and browsing while ignoring the yakuza unpiling form the cab next to us.
We turned down a street on a whim, and found ourselves on a cobbled path. Or feet pattered down the narrow lane, the walls of wooden teahouses stretching past us on either side. Tony and traditional, their menus displayed priced far beyond our budget range.
Moving past this, we came quite by accident upon a busfull of tourists unpiling in front of what looked to be a cultural center. After inquiring within, we were informed that there would be a performance of traditional cultural arts that night. The price was just around $25.
We were treated to a show obviously modified from the traditional and placed in a setting meant to accommodate to foreign tourists, rather than local enthusiasts. There was a high stage and rows of folding chairs; there was a narration given at least partly in English.
Despite this, it was fabulous. We were treated to court music and tea ceremony, koto and possibly biwa. We saw a dance from two maiko, who were available outside afterward for photo-taking.
Tired and fulfilled, we staggered on aching feet back to the station and alighted the night train to Tokyo, falling asleep in our seats on the darkened train and waking in Shinjuku early the next morning.
Tokyo, Your Stars Shine Bright
We woke up in Tokyo.
This was our last stop on our journey together; that afternoon Daphne would be flying to England, and I would not see her again for more than two years.
We went to Harajuku.
A hop away from Tokyo on the local train, one exits the station and crosses to the opposite market street. It is bustling with shoppers, food vendors, music, and clothing stores bursting with frilly, punky clothes.
We found the store Baby the Stars Shine Bright. We bought frilly petticoats and fake tails, strawberry crepes and local noodles. We passed girls in Lolita dresses and boys with long hair and makeup. People passed in a swirl of thick soled boots and colorful wigs, hunched in the crisp wintery air.
And then Daphne was gone.
The end of the adventure was my own.
Phrases for Shopping:
Blue, Blue Christmas
I spent Christmas in Tokyo with friends, staying at a friend’s apartment and wandering the Christmas marketplace at Asakusa. Rickshaws (jinrikusha) passed, the drivers dressed in santa outfits.
That evening, there was Turkish food and belly dancing.
I missed Daphne.
There’s No Telling Where You Might Be Swept Off To
I ended my journey somewhat abruptly, deadlines fast approaching and the holidays drawing to a close.
I had exactly one full day to reach Akita from Tokyo. It was snowing heavily in the north, trains were delayed, and station attendants assured me that it was entirely impossible to achieve my goal.
And yet the will of a student with limited time and even more limited funds is quite strong; I searched train schedules for myself, and saw a clear series of connecting trains that would lead me up north.
“It is impossible,” the station repeated gravely.
I asked them to tell me how to get to the station nearest to my destination, even if I could not reach it, and after a few missed trains and false starts, they bid me adieu as I went into the night and what I’m sure they thought was my certain death.
I was twenty years old, alone on trains for ten hours in the dark and the snow, and attempting to reach Point D after being assured that the closest I could make it was Point C.
It should have been terrifying. What I felt instead was the joy of self-reliance and unsupervised exploration.
I had been correct. There was a connecting train, none of the lines were delayed, and I was home before midnight.
Moral of the Story: