|Zenko-ji at Nagano|
Leaving the hotel with my souvenirs packed safely away, I headed to Shinjuku station and waited patiently in line for the Narita Express. The ticket would take me directly from Shinjuku via the Sōbu line that cuts across the middle of the Yamanote loop, directly to Narita Airport.
The wait in line to get through the Air France check-in was the longest I've ever stood in one place, a large and increasing queue of people snaking around the circular check-in area. To add to the confusion, I ended up talking a little with a French woman just ahead of me which was odd. Not Japanese, not English, not even my fancy 75% English 5% Japanese and 20% mime that had got me to the point I was at. It was French-ish in Japan. GCSE French dredged from the depths of my memory with some added hand movements. After getting through the basics and she knew my name and age and that I was currently feeling so-so, the conversation dried up a bit.
After much shuffling, I made it to the front, which was a relief because the flight time which was comfortably a few hours away when I joined the queue, was now due in less than an hour. I put the large backpack and the suitcase on the weigher and crossed my fingers. To my relief they went through without any buzzers or alarms or flashing lights alerting people to excessive souvenir-ing.
The flight was long and not uneventful - largely due to my neighbouring passengers, who happened to be several members of the Brazilian female ice hockey team, who were on a bit of a high after clearly winning some sort of championship, stopping me from catching some kip and giving my already cramped legs a battering by rattling their seat around. I would have complained if I wasn't stuck in a window seat with several burly, merry and slightly intimidating women sitting in front, behind and to the side of me.
The plane was a little late landing in Paris, meaning that my switch to the local flight was going to be a quick change. I had been in such situations before, my flight back from Phoenix several years ago was late into Heathrow and I only just caught the connection, though my luggage did not. Now I had to do some similar rushing through a very large airport, although at least this time they had sent a member of staff to meet us, who escorted a dozen or so of us there.
The final flight was delayed anyway so I needn't have rushed. There was talk about a wing falling off or something. When it was eventually ductaped back into place, the final aerial leg took an hour or so to complete and then I was back in Manchester. Did my luggage make the transfer? Did it hell. The frustration on learning this helped me shrug off the weariness as I filled in the relevant forms at the carousel and then headed across the long, long, and very blue aerial walkway to the train station. Fortunately I had prebooked a ticket, and was at least in time to get the train before the last into Leeds.
By this point, Britain and its familiar hallmarks had really hit home. The smooth, peaceful train journeys I had experienced were replaced by clattery, dirty rides that were several minutes late. The evening rain lashed the grubby windows through the dark grey skies and the train was sprinkled with a cross section of the recognisable Great British populous - drunk, loud and sweary teens littered the carriage. I knew I was home and as I fought to remain awake against the waves of sleep that threatened to engulf me, I considered how bad it would really have been to not get on that plane in the first place.
A final leg from Leeds station to the one near my parent's house completed my journey. My mum and dad had agreed to take me in for that evening and I would drive back to my house the following day. I heaved myself into the back seat and left my dad to do the rest. When I got home I had a large, strong cup of tea. With milk.
It dawned on me partway around that I had taken many forms of transport on my journey, and there aren't many left. I'll have to see about ticking off those final ones next time I go:
- Walking - just about everywhere
- Cycling - hired a bike and went around two of the Fuji Five Lakes
- Ropeway - Out of Matsuyama castle
- Bus - To the Nagano olympic building, and Ise-shi amongst others
- Tram - Matsuyama wierd trams and the ones from the time of the bombing in Hiroshima.
- Train - Just about everywhere - locals and rapids all over the place.
- Monorail - the computerised monorail around Tokyo Bay.
- Subway - Kyoto and Nagoya
- Shinkansen - all over the place - if it wasn't for these, my trip would have been much shorter.
- Ferry - To and from Miyajima island.
- Catamaran - From Hiroshima port to Matsuyama.
- Plane - There and back.
I hope you've enjoyed this recount of the greatest trip of my life as much as I enjoyed doing it. A mere 24 parts and 8 months since I actually did the thing. There were definitely times when I really believed I'd bitten off more than I could chew (such as trusting my luck at getting into a hotel on the first day), and some things that were not so nice to put up with (much more packing than I needed, a general squeamishness to the food and a range of stomach problems) but overall I loved, loved, LOVED it. I loved the scenery, the culture, and the friendliness of the people wherever I went. I loved the respect and importance they put into their past and their present, their attitudes to the infrastructure of the country (everything just worked) and their ability to embrace strangers and go far out of their way to help them.
But more than anything, I loved the opportunity to reinvent myself completely. For a short period I was no longer a normal guy with a steady job and a mortgage and all sorts of responsibilities, but a drifter passing through on a journey of discovery, having to re-learn pretty much everything I knew right down to the words coming out of my mouth. Only in such situations can a person come close to understanding who they really are and what they are capable of doing.
As soon as I had recovered and the normal grind of my life had returned I began to think about how and when to go back, at what time of year, and which bits to return to. This was the most surprising of all. In many cases when a person hypes up a place or experience, when it finally comes around it cannot possibly live up to those expectations. I was fully expecting to get there and find myself disappointed with what I saw, but I wasn't. I feel like a part of me is still over there, and shivers flow up and down the spine when I think about it.
The Best bits:
- Being completely away from anything that I knew, where every day was a new sight and sound.
- Finally realising an ambition that's been queued up behind less important ones for decades.
- The fantastically kind and helpful strangers I encountered along the way.
- The beautiful sights. Yamadera, Hokkaido (what I saw of it), Kyoto, Hiroshima, Mt. Misen, Ise-shi, central Osaka, Tokyo Bay, Mt. Fuji, the Ghibli Museum and Mitaka.. many, many places I will never forget.
- Panicking when my credit card wouldn't work when I got over there. (make doubly sure your provider has activated it for international use before going.)
- Really, really bad stomach trouble, and losing a day to some bug I picked up. I think this was because I drank some tapwater at one point. Not a good idea.
- My squeamish attitude towards the food. I should have tried more and from an earlier point. However my stomach problems really put a no-no on this.
- The whistle-stop tour was great for seeing as much as possible, but it made everything a rush. Next time it will be fewer places and staying longer at each.
- Definitely less packing. I could have done without all the extra stuff. 3 pairs of underwear, 2 shirts, 2 trousers and a decent woolly jumper is all I should have bothered with (add in some thermals if the holiday is primarily in the north in wintertime).
- Though the standard of English in the cities such as Tokyo was better than in some corners of the UK, I should have studied more about the language before going to set me up better for those more rural sections. I'll have to get a better phrasebook too.
- Book a hotel for at least the first day, preferably through the ITCJ website, which proved invaluable.
- Try to spend at least a few days in each area. Hokkaido was an act of gross naivety.