Ask the Editor, 12/01/2004 – Welcome to Japan

What’s it like to travel to a country where you can’t even read the letters in the words? How many times did Knut get lost on the way from the airplane to the train? Are Japanese stools made for American butts? Your adventurous editor goes about discovering the answers to all these questions and more in the latest edition of his travel diary.

When last I left this story, I was quoting REM lyrics. And leaving for Japan in the morning. You’ll be happy to know that I made my flight with no problems and was stuck next to two very large kiwis for the nine-hour duration of the flight. Thankfully I slept for five of those hours, but the other four… bleagh.

Speaking of Kiwis, I forgot to thank Ray “blisterbeep” Walkinshaw for all his help at the Grand Prix in Brisbane. He’s a funny man, that blisterbeep, and he’s invited to come back and help do coverage in his own inimitable style any time. In other news, not a single freaking person commented on any of the pictures from the Thanksgiving article. Nope, none. Not even about the picture of a radioactive John Carter (you know, that guy who now writes Saturday School?) glowing in the Australian sun. Was it the tryptophan? Perhaps it was something I said? *taps on the monitor* Is anybody out there?

Now where was I? Oh yes, Japan (specifically the flight to Japan), land of a language I don’t speak and can’t read. Sure I bought the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Conversational Japanese (they make books specifically for my demographic… who knew?) before I left and spent a few hours perusing it, but from the moment I stepped on that JAL flight, I knew that things were going to be interesting. There’s definitely a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” feeling when the flight attendants start off all announcements in a non-English language, but there’s more of a “Are you sure this flight isn’t headed for the moon?” feeling when the language isn’t even a European one. I can pick up good chunks of French and Spanish, and my German is better than that, plus the characters that they use are… you know… the same as English. Japanese is decidedly non-European.

Before I looked at my itinerary for this leg of the trip, I figured the flight to Japan would be five hours or so, so I was a little dismayed to find out the world is actually considerably bigger than the state of Texas (I was brainwashed somewhere along the way, goddammit), and my flight would actually take the better part of the day. Oh well, The Illearth War greeted me with open arms, more than content to help me pass the time with the likes of anti-hero Tim Aten the Unbeliever and cohorts.

The plane arrives safely at Tokyo Narita airport at around 6pm and I make my way through customs to be greeted by a giant screen filled with sumo wrestlers just outside the exit. Welcome to Japan.

I find the JR train line ticket booth and buy a 3000 yen ticket for the express into Shinjuku and then set about trying to call Ron Foster to tell him I’ll be getting in early. I wind up confused and bewildered when the phone card I purchase doesn’t work on the phones it is standing near, but eventually find one that will accept the card and make the call. Then I wait another thirty minutes for my train to arrive and an hour and fifteen minutes later I arrive at Shinjuku station. I reiterate – this was the express line. Now I don’t know about you, but usually when I think of an airport for a city, I expect that airport to be, I dunno, at least near the city. Such is not the case for Narita, which has been exiled to the boonies. Of course, it could be worse. Ron later informed me that the trains used to stop miles before the airport and you then had to ride a bus into the airport. Ugh. Public transport by train = cool. In fact I love cities with good subway systems. Boston would lose much of its charm if it didn’t have the T. Now just make the trains run past midnight pls, tks. Public transport by bus = kill me now.

Anyway, I exit the train station at the South Exit, having no clue where I’m actually supposed to meet Ron (whoops – notice the pattern here), and wind up completely overwhelmed by the crush of people. Holy hell, there were a lot of Japanese folks running around. The fact that they were Japanese wasn’t particularly surprising, but you know, I didn’t expect quite so many of them. Apparently Shinjuku station serves something like 3.5 meellion commuters a day, and rush hour lasts until like 8:30 at night there, so I stepped right into the thick of the traffic.

When I read the directions and saw “Shinjuku” was past “Tokyo” on the train lines, I just figured Ron lived in the suburbs somewhere, and things would be nice and peaceful when I got off the train. Ha ha ha, such is the folly of ignorant Americans like me. I try not to panic and search for a pay phone, eventually finding one in the mall area above the station. I dial up Ron’s cell phone, and he eventually tracks me down. We grab another train to head out to his place (which actually is in a quiet area in the burbs, but these burbs do not resemble anything you would picture if you’ve only lived in the States. I’ve seen downtowns of cities with a lesser population density) to drop my bags off. We then hop two train stops down, where I am treated to a seat barely big enough for my ass, fried asparagus wrapped in bacon, fried pork wrapped around Japanese mint, spicy shrimp, Japanese chicken wings, and a hearty helping of beer and cigarette smoke. I’m not sure whether the Japanese have a healthy sense of irony or if 6’2″ Vikings aren’t frequent visitors, but I appreciate the humor of the situation nonetheless.

Once dinner is over, we head back to Ron’s place, he tells me all of the secrets in the entire Japanese Magic world including giving me spoilers for the next five sets. Unfortunately they are all in Japanese, so I’m f***ed. Are there Ninjas in Kamigawa? You tell me… Oh well. I drink another beer or two with him, chatting about whatever comes to mind, and then do a header into my bed, where I would lie peacefully until the next morning, still dreaming of Aussie women on the beach.

Tomorrow: Sightseeing around Tokyo with a guide and then solo. Lots of pictures included.

Ted Knutson

Teddy Card Game

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