4 September, 2005

This was the mystery device underneath my TV set in Osaka. Seems to be a card reader of some sort.

One of the places where the trains live as taken from a speeding bullet train.

This is one of the line maps for a particular subway. Note the numbering of each stop so that you won't get confused.

Unless you mix it up with this map where the numbers mean something else entirely, such as the amount of time it will take you to get to that station from the one you're currently at. Nice idea but couldn't they have at least used a different color or style?

Apparently my toilet was installed by Yoda.

They really could use a whole lot more of these signs in Tokyo. I swear I didn't see a single one in the main Tokyo station where the bullet trains arrive.

Back in New York at last. Well, I could almost fool myself.

Would you believe out of all these little emblems, not one of them applied to any of my bank cards? And note the embarrassing absence of Mastercard.

And then the heavens opened up. Even with an umbrella, I was soaked in seconds.

4 September, 2005

Day 50. Wow, can you believe it? Fifty days on the road. That's longer than I've ever been away from home. In some ways it doesn't feel like I've been gone that long but in other ways it seems like forever. Very hard to explain. I just know when I finally do get back, a lot of things will seem strange and unfamiliar. I think it's rather healthy to see things from that perspective occasionally and doing it via travel is less harmful than doing it via drugs. But seeing life from as many different angles as possible is the ultimate goal, at least for me.

I think I could definitely get used to living in Japan. I really dig the sincere politeness that you see literally everywhere. (I wonder if crimes are even committed courteously. I wouldn't be at all surprised.) But there are so many things to remember. I haven't been to a place where you have to take off your shoes yet but it's very important to get that right when the time comes. It's polite to refuse help and then accept it on the third offer. You should never count your change in front of the person who gave it to you. And if you order food and get something you didn't ask for, the proper thing to do is simply accept it. I think I could count the number of people I know back home who would do that on one hand!

In the end, it's all about tolerating things that are different and may not be exactly what you like, are used to, or even believe in. That's just the world and if you want to explore it to any real degree, you're going to have to occasionally move out of your little bubble and experience something completely alien and maybe even not to your liking. And if I can manage to slug down all that fermented mare's milk in some ger in the middle of Mongolia, I think I've earned the right to say that.

So I got checked out from my hotel and made it to Shin-Osaka where the JR bullet trains leave from. I was a bit worried upon arriving when I saw the ticket windows and ticket machines, all with no indication whatsoever that they took credit cards. And also no indication of an ATM anywhere. So I was quite pleasantly surprised when the guy behind the counter was more than happy to take plastic. I got a non-reserved ticket to Tokyo on the bullet train which was leaving in about ten minutes.

So I ran my ticket through the machine and made it up to the track just as the space age looking train was pulling in. I was (as usual) unsure what to do since all of the cars seemed to say "Reserved" on them. But I just followed the tide of people and sat down in the first available window seat. We started moving very smoothly and before I knew it we were hurtling at great speed out of Osaka.

I'm not going to sit here like an idiot and tell you the bullet train is fast. You know that already. It's not quite as fast as the maglev train of Shanghai but it's pretty damn fast and, unlike the maglev, the speed goes on for a much longer period of time so you're really aware that you're going tremendously fast. It looks like I'm already violating my promise but the thing is just *so* impressive. And you do get used to it rather quickly. I can only imagine how much more enjoyable traveling in the States would be if there was a network of high speed trains that could zip you from city to city. Think about it: how quickly could you go from place to place at 200 miles an hour? Imagine getting across the entire country in less than a day on a train!

What I'd really like to do is find a place where I can see a bullet train fly by at full speed. I don't know if I can do that anywhere near Tokyo but I'd like to try. These trains are absolutely amazing and have a really enviable safety record. And they're extremely popular.

Of course that didn't mean I would actually get to ride one without incident. At the first station we stopped at I got kicked out of my seat by a girl who had a reservation for the window. She only stayed on for one stop but was replaced by an entire family who took *all* of the seats and left me with nowhere to go. There weren't any signs in English telling people without reservations where they were supposed to be. (I was actually surprised at how many people in Osaka spoke no English at all.) This was the price I paid for just following the crowd. An English speaking passenger helped me out and told me I'd have to track down the conductor who would find me a seat of my own. So I managed to do that a few cars down where I learned that the last three cars were unreserved. Of course, the one that had seats was also for advanced smokers. So I may well lose some time off my life for enduring this. Odds are it will come at the end though and I hear that's usually not the best part anyway.

Tokyo arrived so much faster than I was expecting. It only took a little over two hours from Osaka. I'm going to be so spoiled when I get home, at least on that front. What Japan has in fast trains, it loses in straightforward instructions. And I'm convinced that's not just a language thing.

When I got off at the station that the bullet train arrived at, all I wanted to do was hop on the subway and get to where my hotel was. I had already mapped it out on the Internet so I considered myself prepared. Well, I didn't know what I was about to get into. Oh, the signs were there. Lots of them. In English and two different Japanese scripts. They indicated where each train line could be found by name. Well great. I had the damn color and I knew the station I wanted to wind up at, now I had to know the name of the line as well? Fine. I found a map in the station. All Japanese. OK, next map. Japanese and English. Except for half the stops which were only in Japanese. But in neither language were the lines named! OK, let's just do this by color then. I knew the first train I wanted to get on was the red line. So I followed the signs to the red line. Not so bad. All this time, by the way, I was carrying my bags which are either getting heavier with time or I'm getting weaker. Whichever it was, this was really not pleasant. Especially when the red line I was pursuing seemed to be heading way in a different direction than all of the others. When I saw a timetable and track numbers, I realized this was no subway but some kind of a regional line that I wanted no part of. So I had to turn all the way back and return to the station.

I would have asked for help right away but there was nobody around who spoke English. Plus, without knowing the name of the line, I wasn't sure what I would be asking for. But I knew this really couldn't have been this difficult to grasp. If only one of the signs said subway or something. So much of it was in English. Why couldn't that part be? I found another red line and followed the signs for that one upstairs. Nope, another commuter line. Could it be that the subway doesn't actually go to the main Tokyo station?

Finally I saw the word information and bounded over, asking if the person there spoke English. She did and I told her where I was going. Of course she had never heard of that station and it wasn't on the map for some reason. (I had noticed this before with a sinking feeling.) So I told her the transfer station where I was hoping to switch from one line to the next. This one she knew and she told me to follow the signs for the train I had just visited except to go downstairs, not upstairs. Odd since the signs for that train said to go upstairs. As it turned out, that wasn't the train I wanted at all. I just wanted to follow the signs for a different train at which point there would be a sign for my train. Uh huh.

Well, it sort of worked out that way. I followed the signs like she said and saw another sign, also red. At this point I began to figure out the code. This latest sign had a red circle. The one before that had a red rectangle. The one before that had a red train engine. And those were only the red ones. Every other color was represented to some degree. So the big secret I had just learned was that subways are designated by circles. Well, forgive me if that little fact wasn't burned into my genetic code! Jesus Christ. That's an hour of my life I'll never get back.

Ah, but the fun wasn't over yet. For a little while there were signs for both the red rectangle line and the red circle line. And at just the point where the rectangle one went upstairs, there was all of a sudden no mention at all of the red circle line. No sign to go upstairs, left, right, anywhere. And I didn't see any indication of a downstairs. This was amazing. After searching around a little for the missing train, I finally saw a big red circle sign way off in the distance. If I had to crawl there I would have; it was like the oasis at the end of a desert. But I made it on two feet. The stairs were right beyond the gate.

OK, now to buy a ticket. I felt like a pro at this since I had mastered it quickly in Osaka. I saw a couple of "fare adjustment" machines but I needed to get a ticket in the first place. I must have looked in every square inch of the place. There was a big ticket window with a human behind it but that was for one of the trains back in the station, not the subway. I finally just went up to the guy manning the gates. There was actually a sign in his window that said "We're sorry, we have no English speakers here." This day was clearly designed just to torture me.

I asked anyway, figuring I'd make it real simple. "Ticket?" I said, motioning to the machine. As it turned out, he did speak a few words of English and fortunately that was one of them. "Ah, ticket," he responded. "Yes! Where do I buy it?" "Your ticket?" "Yes, I want to buy one." "Where is your ticket?" Was this guy for real? "I haven't met it yet! I want to get one!" OK, I didn't really say that but this was becoming exasperating.

He seemed genuinely confused. I didn't understand what I was asking that was so unusual. Didn't everyone who walked through this gate have a ticket? I just wanted to be one of them. "Where are you from?" he asked. Well, what could I say? "United States," I said realizing that's almost certainly not what he wanted to know. At least I got him laughing though. As it turned out he wanted to know where I had just come from. And that's when it all started to dawn on me. I was supposed to still have the ticket from the bullet train! The way it works on just about all transit systems here is that you insert your ticket into the gate when you enter the platform and then again when you leave. But I had already done this! But as I thought back on when I inserted it after arriving in Tokyo, I noticed that it popped out of the machine after I passed through. I was struggling to get through the narrow gate with my bags and when I turned around to snatch the ticket back, it had been sucked back into the machine. But I didn't expect I would need it again. I still don't understand what this third swipe would have been for anyway.

Well, after it sort of became clear that I didn't have the ticket anymore, he just waved me through. I thanked him but wondered what state that left me in now. Was I in the subway? And if so how would I get out again without a ticket? And that's when I saw a whole fleet of ticket machines and an escalator going down. I had found the real subway entrance.

After all that, buying a ticket proved frustrating. My station still wasn't listed so I picked a station near where it would be and calculated the fare, then dropped the money into the machine. This was a touch screen system but it wouldn't respond to my fingers no matter how many times or how hard I pressed. Oddly enough, when I switched it to English mode they worked fine. It's as if it was refusing to let me proceed in a language I didn't understand. So I got my ticket and finally entered the system. At last on one of the maps there was an acknowledgment of the other line I would be transferring to. My theory on this is that a different company runs that line and it therefore doesn't show up on the maps run by the first company (JR, otherwise known as Japan Rail). Brilliant. And, to make matters even more fun, to get on the second train I had to exit and enter the gates again and, you guessed it, my ticket didn't work on the transfer. I had to buy two separate tickets for a single subway ride at the tune of about $4! I'm wondering if something must have gotten fouled up along the way because I really can't imagine things could be that unfair. I'll find out tomorrow when I experiment some more.

After finding my hotel and resting, I wandered around Shinjuku a bit, a neighborhood much like New York's Times Square. It was pretty spectacular and made me see right away what a huge city Tokyo is. There were these very basic things I wanted to do and they were all sort of dependent on each other. I wanted to get food but I didn't have a whole lot of cash. I just wasn't comfortable going into a place where the wrong gesture could suddenly add $20 to my bill so I wanted to make damn sure I could cover it. So I looked for a place that took credit cards. That went nowhere fast so I looked for a place where I could change money. My hotel wouldn't do it and I couldn't find anyplace around here that would either. So that left getting money out of an ATM. You would think Tokyo of all cities would have ATMs on every corner. The few I was finding were actually closed! How could an ATM close? Then I saw a couple that were open until midnight but they didn't believe my card was for real. I started to see a real potential problem here, one that I really didn't expect to have in this place. These were supposed to be the easy things!

After about an hour of wandering I saw a Citibank of all things. Now, if *they* didn't recognize my card, I was going to raise holy hell right there on the street. Thankfully, they happily gave me money and I was now secure in looking for food I could actually pay for. Not ten seconds after this little triumph the heavens opened up. It seems we're going to be seeing the remnants of a typhoon here over the next couple of days. So I waited for it to abate for a few minutes and then started looking for food in earnest. I saw a sign for Indian which seemed like a really good idea. I asked the guy standing outside if they were still open and he motioned me downstairs. Imagine my surprise when I arrived to a completely empty place except for the three staff people. Well, they were so happy to see me that I couldn't just run away. Besides, it probably didn't necessarily mean their food was bad if nobody was here. Maybe Japanese people just don't mix with Indian food that much. Anyway, I asked for something spicy and they were very happy to oblige. A couple of other customers even came in after a few minutes. Throughout it all Indian movies were playing on a big screen and I found myself utterly captivated by them. They all seemed to follow the same basic plot. Some woman dances with another guy or talks to him on the phone and the guy she's supposed to be with sees or hears this and sings an angry song while wearing a suit and tie while she looks regretful. And of course all of the audio sounds like it was recorded in a completely different place. But the guys in this restaurant were so into it, singing along at every opportunity. It definitely added to the experience. The food was pretty damn good and cheap as hell. So far I'm not letting Tokyo drain a whole lot out of me, staying in a $75 a night hotel in a good location with a pretty nice room and eating cheap.

I heard what sounded like explosions upstairs as I was getting ready to leave. A thunderstorm! How great was this? I haven't heard a good storm all summer. I went upstairs and it was coming down in sheets with the lightning right above us. It was terrific. I honestly hadn't felt this content in a long time. I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was one of the other people who had come into the restaurant who had now also come back upstairs to leave. He was gesturing for me to take his umbrella. Naturally I refused but he kept insisting so I relented after giving profuse thanks and shaking his hand. How amazing is that? A complete stranger comes up to you and gives you his umbrella to take with you. I don't even know if he had another one for himself. I was utterly floored by this. It was like he didn't even think twice about it.

That's what people tend to be like throughout Japan. They go out of their way to make sure others are OK. If nothing else good happens to me while I'm here, that's one of the moments I'll always remember this place by.