By Gary Wise, care of jgarywise.com
I’ve always been terrible at sleeping on airplanes. Really, I’ve been terrible sleeping everywhere; I’m just not one of those people who can shut their
brains down, which was always an issue for me when it came to the long flights that walked hand-in-hand with professional Magic. That’s why I wasn’t
exactly thrilled when I first found out that my first trip to Japan would include a sixteen-hour jaunt in the air. Not going wasn’t an option though.
I’d spent the previous two years investing myself in my Magic game like few other players, spending a lot of time online. I was doing a plethora of
drafts each day on IRC, using a crude program called NetDraft. It was better than nothing, and my head needed to get around the unsolvable problem
drafting presented at a time when very few people were doing it with any regularity. I’d put together three straight Limited Top 32 finishes and was
part of an incredible brain trust as far as Constructed went. All the pins had been set up, and with the 1999 Magic: The Gathering World Championships
in Yokohama, I wasn’t going to risk falling off the gravy train.
After an hour traveling to Pearson airport in Toronto in the mid-afternoon (a questionable choice, but a friend was able to get me upgraded to a
first-class, one-flight-to-Japan-per-day carrier) and another two waiting at the gate, the flight finally boarded. The next sixteen hours saw me read,
play video games, watch movies, play cards, write articles, stare out windows, eye the cute Japanese stewardesses for a little too long to be sociable,
walk aisles, and try furiously without avail to sleep. With each hour that passed, every vibration and sound was amplified by my intention to ignore
it. By the time we landed at Narita Airport, I was a zombie. I’d been up for some 26 hours, and while still possessed of a mid-twenties constitution,
wasn’t in much shape for anything requiring thought or consciousness or good judgment. Oh, and I still had a good three hours until reaching my hotel.
I de-boarded the plane and went to fetch my bags: two large blue suitcases, one filled with clothes, toiletries, and so on and the other with Magic
cards. Worlds was a combination of three formats, two of them Constructed. On top of that, Japan’s singles market fluctuated wildly from ours, so I
wanted to have as much trade fodder available for the twelve days I’d be there. With every trade binder, every playable, and enough Limited product to
last me my trip, that suitcase was probably the equivalent of about four monster (4-5 row) boxes in weight and convenience. With that load in tow, I
started about the business of finding the bullet train.
That part wasn’t so easy. With all of the places I’ve travelled to for Magic, Japan stands out to me as the least Anglicized. No one spoke more than
the ten basic words*, and none of the signs were in English, at least not that I saw. I’d brought the last translation dictionary I’d ever purchase**,
but it wasn’t doing me much good with the security guard types, who I’d eventually find out were far less patient than the average pedestrian. It took
me some 45 minutes before finally getting on the train. I tried to sleep over the course of the two-hour ride, but without English signs, I apparently
had no idea where to sit, being forced three times to move down a car or two because I’d purchased a low-class ticket and gotten on the wrong end. I’ve
got to say, even in my best moments, back then I was a surly, emotional guy. The conductors weren’t making points with me.
* Always know these: Hello, goodbye, thank you, bathroom, and the numbers 1-5. Taking the time to learn them pays off in spades when people realize
you made the effort.
So anyway, I finally de-boarded the bullet train from hell, and after a few more of those awkward security guard directions and a half hour of
straining against the weight of my Magic suitcase, I finally found my way on to their completely surreal subway. Half of the passengers were wearing
medical facemasks; the advertisements were splashed with fluorescents and Hello Kitty smiling faces; and the music can only be described as syrupy
sweet to the point of agitation. It was constant, it was loud, and with each note, it caved my head in just a little more. The car was packed, I was
sweaty, my clothes were too heavy for the occasion, my suitcases were too heavy for Brock Lesnar, and the sleep deprivation was all-encompassing. At
this point, the brutality of the experience had reached critical mass and due to anger issues only intensified by the sleep deprivation, I was ready to
Have I mentioned I love Japan?
The above may not indicate it, but I seriously do. I actually wasn’t going to do this article for SCG until the Earthquake/Tsunami dynamic duo checked
in this week and got me all reflective on my love for the country, which hasn’t dissipated so much as faded with lack of exposure*. Watching the rivers
of automobiles and the burning buildings and tumbled bridges and more crying than I’m ever interested in seeing all week has reminded me of just how
great the people there were in dealing with me and how perfect my experiences there have been. What you’ve read until now was my first snapshot, but
when asked, I’ll happily tell folks that Japan is easily my favorite place to visit in the world, an opinion garnished by my five trips there from 1999
to 2003. I mention this now because you’re about to hear about the event that completely transformed my opinion of the place and permanently affixed it
at the top of the travel destination mountain. It’s a small thing, but it’ll tell you all you need to know about Japan while you’re seeing it crumble
* You listening, WotC? You’ve called me to gunsling ONCE since I got into the Hall of Fame, and even then I was the backup plan. Once the country
is back on its feet, get my wife and me to Japan, and I’ll be the most enthusiastic slinger you’ve ever had and even throw in some feature columns
for your coverage. It’s the one place that I’d drop everything to go back to. MAKE IT HAPPEN!!!**
** I mean, might as well use the platform to angle for a free trip, right?
I miraculously managed to get off the train at the right stop, gathered myself, and stood mesmerized by the motion surrounding me. Standing in the
middle of a Yokohama subway station at rush hour is a powerful experience. That syrupy sweet, Sailor Moon music was overwhelmingly loud; the signs were
only written in Japanese; and they barely hovered over a veritable sea of black hair. I stood a good four inches above everyone as they rushed in
front, behind, and more or less through me like a river. The motion was relentless and profound, and I stood there frozen for a good five minutes, half
mesmerized and half zombified, not knowing what my next step was. All I knew was that I needed to find a taxi and to do that I needed to get out of the
subway station; easier said than done with no exits in sight, solid blocks of humanity in all directions, and 900 pounds of Magic cards in tow.
Finally, I decided to try out the translation book one last time. I studied the mob carefully and finally picked out a thin, clean-cut, 5’2″ man I’d
put at around 60 years old. His grey hair contrasted with that of the horde, and that was as good a reason as I could find to choose any one of them.
When I stopped him, he eyed me for a moment, but quickly gathered that I was a hopeless man who was hopelessly lost and renewed his patience. He had
to, since it took me two or three minutes to find each word in the dictionary as I finally spelled out…
**drop the book**
**smile meekly and pick it up**
Yeah, I actually dropped the book. I was trying to carry my heavy overcoat under my arm this whole time. Did I mention I dressed like a complete idiot
for the trip? Japan in August, and I had an overcoat and a sweater. Let’s just say it took a lot of hard work to chisel the cool, calm customer you’re
reading now from all that rock, most of which lay in the cranial area.
So anyway, I finally completed my three-word sentence, and the man’s eyes widened as a smile adorned his face. In his place, I’d have already gotten to
whatever destination he was bound for, with the idiotic white guy carrying an overcoat in humid, 150-degree Japan left in my all-too-satisfied wake. He
took a different approach.
The old man made a grab for my two suitcases and started walking towards a staircase. Now, in North America, when someone takes your bag, you strike
him or her with whatever’s available and call for help. Striking him with the overcoat wouldn’t have done a whole lot of good, so I instead started
hitting him with words, sluggish, barely audible words that he couldn’t have understood if I were three hours and two coffees removed from sleep. I
told him to put the bags down, then asked forcefully, then asked nicely, then pleadingly, and he ignored every attempt. Slowly, he made his way towards
the stairs, ducking away with my bag whenever I reached for it and finally starting the climb.
Seriously, how stupid do I feel at this point? I was 26 years old, 5’10.5″ and give or take 240 lbs. He was 60, 5’2″, and 98 lbs., and he was carrying
my bags, which weigh more than both of us, up the stairs. Not just one flight, mind you; FOUR FLIGHTS OF STAIRS. The whole time, I slowly followed, my
help being refused, my face radiating some combination of shame and exhaustion. It would’ve only been shame if I weren’t too tired to care with all my
We got to the top of the stairs, and there, finally, was a large, gaping opening into the outside world. He took the bags out to the first of many
immaculate taxis sitting in line (the drivers wear white gloves to keep oil off the cars. We’re talking seriously clean here), heaved them with the
driver’s help into the trunk, turned to me with his arms by his side, bowed, and scurried away before I could even say thank you. I stood there
absolutely stunned by a blatant act of generosity with no potential for reward that had just fallen into my lap.
You’d think this was an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. Over those five trips, I learned to only ask for directions when desperate because more often
than not, it would lead to a sizable disruption in the recipient’s day. Time and again, my hosts would show me the generosity of their culture and the
special way they’d embrace even the most alien amongst us.
The rest of the trip lived up to that example. I spent the next five days hanging out with a couple of friends, spending time at the DCI center in
Tokyo, and being treated like a rock star*. Okay, a pudgy, goofy, musically disinclined rock star. I dined in the traditional Japanese way, visited
monasteries, checked out the tech market, and really did some good living. Then, my master plan played out to perfection; while the rest of the North
Americans were still jet lagged** and with the Asian players still having not caught up yet***, I managed to notch my first Top 8 performance. I lost
the quarterfinals to Mark LePine, but really, when you’re a poor MTGer, you don’t complain about the eight grand you just made on one of the greatest
trips of your life.
* I was writing articles by then, and my work was being translated. As the Japanese had no real understanding of a given hobby’s stigma and place
in its North American context, being a pro Magic player was like being a pro baseball star, at least in terms of the respect you were afforded by
** Seriously, PT types, give yourself a couple of days when doing the time zone thing. Crucial lesson learned in my seven years on PT.
*** Hard to believe now, but there was a time when sitting across from a Japanese opponent was an auto-win. I think my record against them was
something like 19-3 at some point. They were also incredibly honest and honorable in the way they played. I figured out in my final tournament
(Worlds 2006) that the tide has turned on that one. I got the little bugger though.
As beautiful as the money and the validation and the success of that tournament were, the memories from it have mostly faded. I couldn’t name five guys
I played in those eighteen rounds or tell you what I spent the money on. I still remember that little man, though. I remember the salt-and-pepper hair
and the purple-burgundy casual collared shirt with horizontal stripes, and I remember every one of those stairs. Mostly, I remember his patience and
that bow at the end and the fact that doing a stranger a solid was enough reward. It was an amazing moment that taught me a lot about the kind of
person I should want to be. It took a while for the lessons to take root, but they eventually did. I’m a better man for what he showed me that day.
So yeah, that’s Japan. I’m sure not everyone there is like that, but in my experience, a lot of the people are (I wrote about another one of them here). That’s why this week has been a crushing one. I can only hope that little
man is okay. Give him your good thoughts.
Gary Wise is a member of the M:TG Hall of Fame. He now writes about poker for espn.com and whatever he deems to be worth writing about at jgarywise.com. If you liked this article, you should check it out. Hell, even if you didn’t, you should check
it out. Click on the damn link. You can follow him on Twitter @GaryWise1 and become a Facebook fan here.Â