A word of warning before we begin our tale. This story starts out in a pretty dark place; I actually considered omitting the beginning. Ultimately, I decided that the story lacked both honesty and a bit of context without it, so I’m forging ahead. I did my best to kinda time-lapse it so you just get a quick recap.
I’m in a place mentally where it’s really easy to talk matter-of-factly about this stuff, but if you don’t want a downer, either skip this one or skip to the part where I get on a plane.
I was 26, I’d been together with my wife for eight years, and married for two of those eight years. I owned a nice home. I was more physically fit than I’d ever been in my life. I had a promising career in software and had just taken a new job at a startup.
“Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is you have an incurable illness. The good news is we have lots of meds to treat it; if you were going to get a gut illness, this is definitely the one you’d want!”
“Well, none of the five drugs we tried worked. I’m out of stuff to give you. You can either get surgery, or go to the local university to be a lab rat”
“Hi, here are the rules of our double-blind study. We’ll need you to stop taking the Prednisone that kinda helps you if you want a fifty-fifty shot at receiving these meds. You’ll need to be off of it for several months before we’ll even consider you”
“Babe I think they gave me real meds this visit! I feel great!”
“Babe I think it’s placebo this time, I feel terrible”
“Yeah man, she’s leaving. Apparently she’s dating one of her guildmates from Final Fantasy XIV, some guy in Australia or New Zealand or something. She wants half of everything; I don’t want a messy divorce and I’m also scared the lawyer fees will just cost me more anyway. I can’t afford to buy her out of the house so I guess I’m gonna have to go back and live with my mom until I can find a smaller place.”
That’s where I found myself at 26. Within a few days of my ex telling me the aforementioned, I received a call from the university. They told me I’d suffered enough, and they were going to move me into an open-label treatment phase. With no more placebo rollercoaster, I immediately improved. I was living alone, so it was a lot easier to keep the house clean while I got ready for the sale. I sold my home the second day I listed it on the market and moved back in with my mom and younger sister. I had a place to live, a promising job, money in my pocket to buy a smaller place, and the possibility of my health coming back.
It occurred to me that it might make sense to take vacation while I had no bills and no mortgage. I hit my boss up about it and he replied “Sure, things might slow down in the next week or two, so you should take a week off now while you can get it.”
“Oh… uh… okay. I was kinda thinking Japan. But I’ll see what I can do!”
The next day I went to a coffee shop and spammed people on Couchsurfing while I was supposed to be working. I told them I was going to be in Japan in four days, and that I realized that was crazy short notice. I euphemistically explained this was because I’d always been a weeaboo growing up and had recently gone through some traumatic life events. I expected I wouldn’t hear back from many of them, so I messaged as many people as I could. To my surprise, nearly all of them responded. Most couldn’t host me on such short notice, but were happy to at least meet up if I had time. I booked a ticket for three days later, sent confirmation messages out to two hosts, and let them know when I’d be arriving.
Day 1 – June 1st, 2014
When I arrived in Tokyo I could barely contain my excitement. I felt nervous, happy, jittery, and a little bit terrified. Would I fail to find my hosts and end up sleeping in a tiny box somewhere? Would I even be able to navigate how to rent a tiny box to sleep in? Had I made a really stupid decision, or was this about to be super awesome?
I was traveling with only a small backpack, so the only thing I really needed to do was make it through immigration. There was an intimidating form to fill out and a very strict woman managing a long line. By the time I made it up to the window, I was pretty thoroughly scared. The immigration officer seemed friendly enough, and thankfully he spoke great English.
“Okay uh, it looks like you’ve omitted the contact information for your host.”
“Umm… I’ve been talking to him on an instant messenger. I uh… I think I have his email on my phone, maybe? Let me look it up.”
Laughing and shaking his head, he muttered “Oh you’re so fucked,” stamped my card, and let me through.
I wandered around the airport for probably the better part of an hour trying to figure out sim cards, railway cards, and WiFi. I’d heard free WiFi was abundant in Japan, but it was a serious challenge just to IM my host and get directions. I hopped a bus to Tokyo central station and was immediately horrified at the scope of the place. This was nothing like public transport in SF or even England; this place was sprawling.
“…maybe I am ‘so fucked’”
A businessman got out of a taxi nearby and must have seen the look on my face. He took pity on me, asked me which station I was going to, and said he’d take me there. He spoke perfect English. I got out at the station where I was supposed to meet my host and wandered around until I found WiFi again. Kazuki was waiting with a friend (probably to make sure I wasn’t a murderer). I gave him the deluxe Deadpool action figure he’d asked me to bring from home and had to refuse payment for it a couple of times.
We wandered all around Tokyo for the next hour or two, I can’t say exactly where because I didn’t really have my bearings at that point. Eventually we parted ways with Kazuki’s friend and headed off to see Tokyo Tower and get some dinner. We hit up a hole in the wall ramen shop near his place; I’d never have found it in a million years alone. This place was down a little alley, had an unlabeled storefront, a tiny, narrow little entrance, and the menu most certainly did not have pictures. The food was absolutely unbelievable; traveling with a local definitely has some perks! My host was a super chill guy, maybe a little bit shy, and incredibly smart. We’re both software developers, so we talked shop a lot during dinner.
When we went back to Kazuki’s home I committed several cultural faux-pas with an alacrity surpassed perhaps only by the strength of my desire to not look like a culturally ignorant, rude white guy. After apologizing profusely I set my boots by the door and washed my hands. Kazuki had a lot of travel tips for me, which I jotted down in my phone. (I was in for a real lesson in battery discipline over the next few days…)
After I had my day planned out, I answered lots of English language questions. We discussed various examples of word usage, which phrases sounded awkward and which sounded more natural. This was kind of a fun challenge for me as I’d never really had to teach anything like that before. I was more than happy to help out, both because I owed Kazuki a huge debt already and because he was so eager to learn. Eventually, my long day of travel caught up to me and I passed out.
I woke up early the next day. Kazuki had to be at work, and needed me out of his place and on my way before he left. My mission for the day was to go visit Kamakura, about an hour away by rail. While still in the warm embrace of Kazuki’s home WiFi, I dropped a pin on google maps so I could Harry Potter my way back home later that evening. I looked up directions to the nearest station and dropped another pin there just to be safe.
I snagged some convenience store breakfast on my way to the station; as many different weird packaged pastry items as I could manage eating. I messed up my coins and the cashier had to help me. I wandered around looking for the station. I began to doubt myself a bit again; could I really figure this place out, or was I totally screwed?
When I finally found the station I was shocked to find that all of the signage was written in Kanji. The big central station I’d visited the day before had Romaji-Japanese words in English letters-on all of the signs. I guess I didn’t know how good I had it the day before…
To steel my resolve, I conjured up a piece of advice I once gave myself while lost on another trip: “it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Bolstered by my own advice, I scrounged up some WiFi and downloaded a Japanese IME on my phone. I remembered a bit of Hiragana from my one foreign language semester in college, so I was able to translate that on my phone into the more complex Kanji characters and play symbol match-up with the signage in the station until I figured out where I was going.
Public transport-especially rail systems-is one of my favorite parts of traveling. I love getting to rush past vast swathes of a place; you get to see so much more than you ever could just walking around. The hour long trip passed by in what felt like minutes; before I knew it I was in Kamakura and wondering what to do next.
I was supposed to go see the Big Buddha there, one of several in Japan. As an aside, generally I tend to avoid tourist destinations and seek out ‘real’ places when I travel, but I figured I could indulge a bit. I’m incredibly glad that I did, because Kamakura is beautiful.
I had no idea where I was going; Kamakura is a sleepy place, but it’s also still a very big place. I wandered around a bit until I happened to see a group of kids in uniforms following a teacher. “Field trip,” I thought, and gave chase.
The closer I got, the more classes like that I passed. The kids were all so excited to see the weird, tall, pale American dude. The more adventurous among their number would wave or say “hello!” in English when I walked past. When I’d say hello or wave back the whole group would get excited and laugh together. It was pretty cute, but a little bit weird too. Did I really deserve this much attention and special treatment? I was a guest here, staying for free, I’d imposed on a lot of people already, and I knew I’d already broken at least a few rules of etiquette. God only knows how many more I broke without realizing it, despite the fact that I actually know a decent bit about Japanese culture!
Eventually, I made it to the Big Buddha. I took in the sights and really enjoyed it, but before long I decided I wanted to explore. After wandering for a while, I found an empty looking hiking trail. I was a bit concerned about getting lost, but I reasoned that I’d already come this far, and that I did want adventure, after all. I didn’t see more than a couple of people on the trail, and it felt great to get away from the long lines of people, up into the fresh air, and enjoy some peace in the hills. Everything was so incredibly green compared to San Diego. The views were gorgeous! The crows really do say “ahou” and not “caw” in Japan!
After a time, I was pretty exhausted and started looking for a place to take a break. Once I reached the crest of the hills, things opened up a bit and there were more paved pathways. I followed one to a grove full of trees with the brightest red leaves I’d ever seen. I met a stray cat and we had tea together at a picnic table. Kamakura, I decided, was absolutely idyllic.