The alarm went off at an ungodly hour and without opening my eyes I conducted my morning rounds. Pulled myself out of bed, threw on my cloths which had been prepared the previous evening for speed and accuracy. I waddled into the bathroom and dealt with my dentine, splashed myself with refreshing Korean chlorinated water from the public reservoir and slung my backpack over my head.
For a backpacker, the pack is sort of like a removable appendage. I’ve lived out of this bag for months on end and I know it better than I do the back of my hand. I was strapped in, opened the door, stared at my room, sighed and hustled to the subway station.
I spent the next hour on the subway jetting to the west end of the city where Seoul’s domestic (and Japanese flights) leave out of Gimpo Airport. I stood in the JAL check in line and was soon whisking myself through the security line. I hit a major snag when I stood in front of my customs officer. My flight was boarding in 30 minutes and it was at a horribly anxious and nail biting moment that I was asked, “are you leaving Korea for good?” I respond, “oh no I’m going to Japan for vacation and I’ll be back in ten days.” The fugly old woman told me that unless I am getting a new Visa in Japan I can not return and work in Korea as I was given a single entry visa to Korea at the Consulate in Toronto. I almost fainted. This is a great way to start any vacation.
After hyperventilating and debating a permanent move to Japan (I thought I could easily have my things mailed to my new job in Jap-land) the security guy motioned me to a little office where five Korean Immigration Officers spent the next ten minutes hovering over a computer. I stood there laughing as I realized I was living in some sort of odd SNL skit. I’m standing at the front desk as these five Korean’s eyes bulge, scream at each other, point to the computer screen, stare at me, and repeat this cycle about three times. There were a lot of long Korean guttural moans and conceded lengthy sighs of agreement. I was soon handed my passport with a fresh stamp planted on the 13th page. I paid thirty dollars to return to the country, bid my new Immigration Officer friends goodbye and ran to my plane just before they started boarding.
A sat staring out the window at the massive JAL double decker plane I would soon be boarding. A massive Executive Class line boarded the plane and I stared at these middle aged immaculately dressed Korean and Japanese businessmen as they walked in an orderly single filed fashion with their leather suitcases.
The flight was short, clocking in at just under two hours from Seoul Gimpo to Tokyo Haneda Airport. It was 10am and we were being offered free mini bottles of wine. Throughout the flight I collected six bottles of wine for later enjoyment. I caught my first glimpse of Japan out of the window. Through thick grey fog I spotted a hole in the clouds which featured a beautiful rocky shoreline on the coast of southern Honshu.
After disembarking we arrived at the Japan immigration and security line up. I was so excited because the foreign line was far shorter and as I looked over at the hundreds of Japanese waiting in their own separate line I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. How wrong I was! I soon realized that the Japanese line was going through security first and foreigners had to wait their turn.
Japan has the worlds most security intensive immigration process now. It causes a serious bottleneck in the security check process as everyone who enters the country must have their thumb prints and retina’s scanned. This was my first taste of what would become a regular feeling here, “this should be in a futuristic movie but here, in Japan, it’s modern and possibly even an archaic way of doing things.” I had a chill of excitement run down my spine knowing that my finger prints and beautiful eye balls are on record somewhere in Tokyo.
I walked to the luggage turnstile and couldn’t help but notice its uncanny similarity to a revolving sushi restaurant conveyor belt. I found my bag, slung it around my back and headed to the bottom floor of the terminal to grab the train to Yokohama. I was on a city train which makes a lot of rural stops so the views through suburban Tokyo south towards Yokohama were adorable. I stood at the front of the train which featured a massive see through glass window. I could see the train conductor and the windshield wipers sloshing from side to side as we stopped for pedestrians crossing the road. I was surprised to see that each train door had an official metro security person guarding the train. You could not feel any safer in a train car when there are four white gloved police officers mulling about.
On the thirty minute train to Yokohama Station I came to realize a few things about Japan. Without a doubt, the people here are far less conservative. You can almost smell the liberal attitudes in the air. As I sit in my seat here zooming across these train tracks I can see a few teenagers with bleached hair and neon highlights. A twenty something year old girl has about ten piercings on her two ears and one business man has a tattoo on his neck. This is my first impression of Japan and I let out a sudden overwhelming sigh of release from my gut as the stifling conservatism in Korea lifts off my shoulders.
As the train whipped southward I noticed that dwellings in Japan are also far different from that in Korea. Instead of boring domino like grey apartment towers Japan has various sorts of apartment architectural styles as well as two story homes with roof top gardens and elevator garages stacked with Honda compact cars. I was shocked to see all of these homes in suburban Tokyo. One would expect that everyone lived in apartment buildings here because of the cost of land but I was happily surprised by the variety of housing options. I transferred onto another train which seemed to shoot across the city like a bullet. The wind whistled out the window and I could see four different trains sweeping across a massive expanse of tracks. Over bridges, into tunnels and through the city.
I arrive at Yokohama Station and my eyes fall upon a massively obese Sumo Wrester waiting in line for McDonald’s. My lips peeled across my face and I could not help but shudder with excitement. I climbed the stairs and found myself in Queens Park Department Store Complex, a massive indoor shopping building with millions of escalators, elevators and hanging art pieces. I walked towards the main doors and passed through amazing skyscrapers, massive twisting sculptures and sat under a maple tree to give my feet a break. I opened up a bottle of JAL complementary mini bottle wine and stared out across the harbor.
Yokohama is located on the western coast of Tokyo Bay directly south of Tokyo and is the second largest city in Japan. Yokohama was the first port opened up to the foreign trade after the opening of Japan in 1854. The city was devastated by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and again by the fire bombings of World War II, and never really regained its prominence. It remains a maritime city to this day with a rich international flavor.
I set off on a whirlwind walking tour of the city. I walked to Cosmo World, a theme park located on both sides of the bridge. The park boasts the Cosmo Clock 21, a 112.5 meter Ferris Wheel which doubles as The Worlds Largest Clock (the 60 arms double as second hands). I walked across the bridge towards the massive clock and stared out at the cities famous city view which features the famed Landmark Tower which is the tallest building in Japan.
I walked past Cosmo World as the rainy day drizzles swept across the sky. I was wide eyed staring at all of the youthful Japanese kids wearing designer rubber boots and multicolored umbrellas. The style here is so saturated, anything goes and it’s so refreshing. The city smelled fresh, wet and deciduous. A far cry from the odd smells one encounters on the streets of Seoul.
I soon arrived at the Minato Mirai 21, a futuristic city district built entirely on reclaimed land. If you like high end shopping, then this is the place to check out. Its funny to stand on land that you know never used to exist here. I would learn throughout this trip in Japan that the locals here love man made islands. With a population over 300 million it’s no wonder they look to the sea for more space. This district features a beautiful red brick building called Aka Renga Soko, which reminded me a lot of the Distillery District in Toronto. The massive building features boutique shopping, high end café’s and a la carte restaurants. I felt like I was walking through an art gallery and had to stop myself from taking pictures as I walked by leather shoe shops and ceilings featuring endless rows of purses. .
I noticed a large crowd of University students dancing in front of the harbor and could hear music coming from behind the building. I soon found out that Japan’s most famous Reggae band was playing a concert in a large white circus tent. I stood in the spitting rain staring at my map trying to figure out how to get farther north up the harbor and a lovely Japanese American English teacher helped me orient myself. I had a lovely chat with him and decided right then and there that the most helpful people in the world are gorgeous. He waved me farewell and I felt compelled to whimper, “please don’t leave me.”
I walked along the harbor on a jogger friendly boardwalk and soon arrived at Yamashita Park. The park was a beautiful tranquil space full of towering old trees and various themed flower gardens. I stopped at the rose garden and took a picture of the famous statue “Girl with the Red Shoes.” At the end of the park is the Hikawa Maru, a passenger liner which made 238 voyages across the Pacific to Seattle and Vancouver between 1930 and 1960, and served as a hospital ship during World War II. The massive ship sat at the end of the park held in place by massive chains which reached up from the sea like the many arms of a perturbed monster octopus. I walked past several contemporary art instillations, one of which consisted of five ship crates which had been welded together in the air to form a heart in the sky.
I left the park and stood under the neon glow of the Marine Tower which is the largest on land lighthouse in the world. Weaving through the streets I soon found myself at the cities famous entrance to China Town. This China Town is the largest in Japan and dates back to the opening of Japan in 1859. These days it’s unabashedly touristy. The main gate which stands over the main street glowed yellow through the spitting rain and was beyond impressive.
The streets in China Town were covered with Panda paraphernalia, expensive restaurants and street side dim sum and sweet bun vendors. I stood under one butcher shop and looked up at seven brightly glowing roasted ducks. I arrived at the Chinese Buddhist Temple just before it closed. The main gates featured bronze dragons which appeared to be hovering over in the sky. I walked past several stone lions and up several stair cases to the top of the temple where I turned around and looked across the complex. The moment was perfect. My back was killing me from carrying around my massive back pack all day so I set it down and leaned against the banister. Bright green, pink and yellow lanterns hung over the main entrance and the smell of sweet incense wafted through the air.
I walked through an incredibly busy restaurant filled street where I was hollered at several times, “you eat you eat.” Responding, “yes I have the capacity to do so,” ending with a nod. China Town was a neighborhood full of energy, colour, delicious smells and excessive pimping of the panda image.
I walked into the main subway station off China Town’s west exit and talked to a female metro worker who had a ridiculously high pitched voice. She smiled and squinted at me like Sailor Moon whenever I asked a question. She helped me figure out the metro machines (which are covered in a plethora of buttons). I spent the next hour on a cheap and slow commuter train to Tokyo’s Shibuya Station. I ran into the train and plopped down on the seat with a prolonged groan and sigh. I unzipped my bag and opened up yet another JAL complementary mini bottle of wine (which was a requirement at this stage of the day) and cracked open my chopsticks and started gobbling down a bento box of eel, sticky rice and shrimp tempura. I was inhaling my food and noticed giggled across the train card. I looked up and saw a young Japanese couple laughing at me. I realized I must look crazy. Soaking wet, disheveled, starving and sipping from a mini wine bottle. They looked up at me and said “you look so tiredly.” I nodded my head, laughed and continued to tell them that I was a starving runaway in hopes that they were excessively wealthy and wanted to fund the rest of my vacation. The Japanese are notorious for being excessively wealthy. So it was worth a shot.
I fell asleep on the train and was thwacked on the head by a metro employee. I had arrived in Tokyo and I had to wake up quickly in order to find my way through one of the worlds busiest train stations.