Right, so I’m in Japan. It wasn’t meant to be a part of my trip; I was supposed to fly from India to Australia and live there for a year. But life is weird, and instead of a flight to Melbourne I whizzed over to Kathmandu, wandered around in the Himalayas for a bit, and now for some reason I find myself here, in the Land of the Rising Sun. And it’s fucking wicked.
After a 5 hour delayed layover in Kuala Lumpur (GORGEOUS airport), I flew into Osaka on the 26th of May, and my god. As soon as you land you know where you are; cartoon characters guide you through the airport. A giant Mario beamed at me as I passed through immigration. I hopped on a train into the city, and the fact that for once I didn’t feel overwhelmed and bewildered told me that I was growing accustomed to this nomadic whatevery that has been my life since the beginning of March.
I took a few different trains, amazed at their efficiency and their cleanliness. I’m definitely not in Berlin anymore. I found my hostel easy enough, Hostel Ebisutei, and arrived there stinky and knackered. It was a world away from the standard ramshackle hostels you experience on your usual South East Asia trips; this place looked more like Alt J’s private recording studio than a place for cheap-arse travellers to crash. The owner is Daich, a flat cap-clad Osaka local who is extremely generous when it comes to plumb sake.
On my first night I made a few friends and we hit up a cool Japanese bar or two, and I found myself trashed before I knew it. I ended my first day in the city sitting in the hostel living room at 4am, drunkenly waxing lyrical about my frustrations with spiritualism and religion to two American girls who were on exchange in the city studying architecture and helping design a new tea house. Honestly, I talk some shit when I’m drunk. I woke up the next day and cringed at my pissed-up philosophising. But hey ho.
The next day reality set in, and I wandered the city alone to find Osaka Castle. If you know me or have suffered through any of these weird diaries over the past three years or so, you’ll know that I am an emotionally volatile weirdo and my heart can soar or crash without warning. And so, as I wandered the streets of the alien city, I felt my spirits sink. It was just so different to anywhere I’d been in the past three months. It was just so clean and quiet and spacious that it felt fake, unreal; there were no cows in the road, and no masonry was crumbling around me, and there were no blasting horns, and the air wasn’t thick with fumes, and I felt uneasy; I suppose you could call it reverse culture shock.
Whenever I feel uncomfortable, my heart takes a nose dive – and always in the same direction. I miss home, I miss family, I miss friends… I miss a girl. I was wandering through a charming temple garden when this feeling of longing gripped my heart so hard that my legs almost buckled. What the hell was I doing on the far side of the world from everything and everyone I love, people I’d not spent proper time with in years? In a moment, all my wanderlust drained out of me, and I felt stupid and lost. I sat on some stone steps and watched people walk their dogs around the park, kids playing on swings, and could think of nothing to do but put my headphones in and listen to a song that summarises the feeling entirely: Despair in the Departure Lounge, by the Arctic Monkeys. Maybe it’s a bit corny, but it sums the feeling up better than I ever could. Here:
He’s pining for her, in a people carrier
There might be buildings and pretty things to see like that, but architecture won’t do
Although it might say a lot about the city or town
I don’t care what they’ve got, keep on turning ’em down
It don’t say the funny things she does
Don’t even try and cheer him up because… it just won’t happen
He’s got the feeling again, this time on the aeroplane
There might be tellies in the back of the seats in front, but Rodney and Del won’t do
Although it might take your mind off the aches and the pains
Laugh when he falls through the bar but you’re feeling the same
‘Cause she isn’t there to hold your hand
And she won’t be waiting for you when you land
And it feels like she’s just nowhere near
You could well be out on your ear
This thought comes closely followed by the fear
And the thought of it makes you feel a bit… ill
Yesterday, I saw a girl who looked like someone you might knock about with
And almost shouted
And then reality kicked in within us, it seems as we become the winners
You lose a bit of summat… and half wonder if you won it at all
As the last few chords rang out I felt my melancholy dissipate. Sometimes all you need is to feel like someone understands. That’s what music is to me, man. It’s being understood. There was nobody around to tell me to keep my chin up and that everything would be okay, so I told myself to keep my chin up, and I told myself that everything would be okay. I stood up, took a deep breath, and carried on to the castle.
The castle was perfectly lovely, and upon following the sounds of screaming violence that filled one corner of the complex I was delighted to find a large ornate hall in which young Japanese men and women were beating each other with very large bamboo swords. It was a competition, as far as I understood, and the sport is Kendo; a samurai-esque combat sport but with less limb-severing than in the good old days. I stood in the hall for some time, grinning from ear to ear watching shrieking young men thwack each other silly with bits of wood.
I drifted back to the hostel after, and didn’t do very much with the rest of my evening. I was invited for beers by a burly, hairy American named Yan, but I politely declined because he seemed ever so slightly mad and also he dropped the beefiest farts incessantly in the dorm, which made me furious in a very English ‘tut-increasingly-loudly’ way. I wandered the streets alone for an hour, ate a guilty McDonalds because I wanted something familiar, and went to sleep in my quaint little Japanese bed cubicle coffin thing.
The next morning, everything began to change. I showered, dressed (I don’t know why I bothered to write that because everybody showers and dresses every day and I’m just wasting words (this is also wasting words (so is this (CHRIST)))) and in the common area met a 22 year old Russian girl named Anastasiia. She has a shaved head and a calligraphic tattoo on her cheek that reads ‘art’ that I first misread as ‘arse’. Alongside Daich, I now had two proper friends in Japan, and I felt happy. At times it feels like somebody is smiling down on me. At my lowest moments, something always comes along.
I checked out of Daich’s place and moved a kilometre away to somewhere I’d booked the previous night, Backstage Osaka, because I’d read that it was a decent place to meet other travellers. That turned out to be a fallacy, because it’s the low season and the hostel was almost dead, however I did befriend two cool dudes who worked there named Ryan (England) and Daniel (Spain). They taught me about the culture, where to eat for cheap, and which booze to drink if I wanted to avoid setting my wallet aflame.
I spent a few evenings in a row with Anastasiia and a Taiwanese guy called Luke down by the river in Dotonbori, which is Osaka’s neon-soaked answer to Times Square – another strange epicentre of ultra-capitalism that has somehow fooled us all into believing that enough flashing adverts all side by side can transcend soulless consumerism and become art. But whatever – I’ll drop my faux-intellectual pretensions and admit that it is very pretty down there, and a lovely place to spend a few hours drinking wine and watching the lights dance off the calm waters.
Anastasiia – hereafter ‘Ana’, because I can’t be arsed typing her full name – busks to fund her travels. She found no luck on the streets and bridges of Osaka, and so in defeat we got drunk by the river’s edge and passed the guitar around. A Korean couple joined us, as well as a few local drunks, and we played and sang until the early hours of the morning, then stumbled away home to sleep.
On another night we climbed up to the rooftop of an apartment building to watch the city lights, then down on street level we browsed the myriad sex shops and laughed at the jaw-dropping range of fetish DVDs on offer. I find that Japan, like pretty much every country I’ve visited ever, is rife with contradictions. The people here are kind, generous and respectful to a fault. It’s considered rude to eat in the street, talking on trains earns you a pack of rueful stares, and crossing the road before the sign allows you is blasphemy – and yet gigantic anime tits bulge out at you from every available surface. Chewing your food in public is uncouth, yet throbbing cartoon breasts is a-ok? I do not yet understand.
I got my last rabies jab in Osaka, too. It was the 28th of May and 7 days since the bite, and in order to not die I needed to find a doctor and get needled and whatnot. Ryan from Backstage hostel gave me directions to one hospital that had patched him up previously, and I made my way there at 3pm. I translated a few phrases in Japanese (badly) on my phone before setting off – stuff like ‘I got chewed by a dog. I was on Nepal. I may have some rabies.’ The only English-speaking member of staff actually laughed at me when I showed her my note and – at this point can I just say that literally everyone has laughed when I told them I got mauled by a dog, even my mum. Why? Why god? Why does nobody take my potential death seriously, in any way, shape or form?
But whatever. I got sent to another hospital across the city which shut at 5pm, which made it a bit of a hectic jaunt over there because for all I knew if I didn’t get the injection that day I’d turn rabid and explode in a couple of weeks’ time. I made it to the place okay though and was left sitting in a waiting room watching sumo wrestling for a little while, then swiftly shanked, pumped full of life-saving juices, charged a hundred bastard quid and sent on my way.
I visited Nara one day too, which is an hour’s train ride from Osaka. There is a fuck ton of deer there, and you can buy biscuits to feed them. They all bow to you when requesting a biscuit, which is odd. I am unsure as to how the many thousands of deer that inhabit Nara park all learned to bow, but bow they do, and people bow back to them. I mooched off on my own to get away from the throng of school trip kids, and had a quiet word with one of the deer that I found lounging in the shade. I sat next to it and it nodded at me, and I shook my head and told it not to worry about pleasantries. I gave it a few biscuits but was forced to flee when fifteen other deer noticed and trotted over all bowing frantically.
I saw a very big Buddha statue in Nara, inside the world’s largest wooden structure, which is very impressive and nice and good and – look, I’ve always been shit at describing architecture. Just google it if you’re that curious. Otherwise, just imagine a wooden Japanese temple except really fucking big. I sat outside the place for ten minutes or so watching the school trips flow around the grounds, and reflected on how no matter where you are in the world, teenagers are really quite hideous and gangly. I am glad puberty is behind me.
Japan has been wonderful so far, and I can’t wait to dash to and fro across its beautiful, mad landscape.