Wednesday, December 21, 2005


There’s a strange face staring back at me when I look in the mirror. In fact, just having a mirror to look in on a regular basis is something of a novelty in itself. Looking back at me is a face that I should know well, but after so many weeks with a beard, that clean chin and those bare cheeks look strangely unfamiliar. Tomorrow I’m getting a haircut, and when the dark hairs are piled up on the floor and swept away, the last vestige of my travel worn visage will be gone.


It was nearly an hour after the Yanjing got on the berth in Kobe before we were allowed off and into the immigration office. I sat with Barry and our bags on the steps of the middle staircase, the rest of the passengers waiting on the deck below us.

“It’s usually about half an hour,” he told me, “but with so many Chinese and all their baggage, could be much longer. They bring all their own rice from China – is much cheaper for them – and all those bags must be inspected.”

“Does Japan still grow most of its own rice?” I asked.

“Yes! All over the country.”

“I thought since Japan is so developed, they might import…”

“No need! The farmers here grow more than enough to feed the entire country. They have a 2-3 years’ supply in storage right now. It’s enough to export, but is too expensive on the global market. Other countries get their rice from China or countries in southeast Asia, where labor is much cheaper.”

He continued, “The younger generation in Japan doesn’t want to farm. They look down on it. Is problem! And a young man who becomes a farmer here has no chance of getting a wife. Young Japanese women won’t even consider marrying farmers. Of course, the younger generation isn’t so interested in eating rice, either. They want to eat bread, or corn, or pasta, like the western culture. The young generation doesn’t know how to grow rice. They know computer, and email. Is problem!”

“It seems to me,” I replied, “that educated people every where tend to look down on farmers. I find that very unfortunate. Everyone needs to eat, and that food has to come from somewhere. I think farmers should be respected.”

“Yes, yes!” he agreed. “Another problem here is that Japanese farmers cannot use big combines and tractors like you have in the U.S. They are very big, yes?”

“Yes, quite large.”

“Farms here are so small. Maybe only one or two acres. Farms in the U.S. are a hundred? A thousand acres?”

“That would be a small farm in the U.S.! Our farms are thousands, or tens of thousands, of acres!”

“Yes, Texas-sized! Japanese farms cannot use such big combines and tractors. Farmers here must work with hands. The younger generation could not handle such hard work. Maybe they do it for a week, but then, AH AH AH!”

“Perhaps Japan could develop small tractors that they could drive by remote control, like toy cars, while they sit in their living rooms,” I offered.

Ahead of us, a Japanese customs officer has removed the barrier on the gangway and the Chinese immigrants are filing off the ship. Barry and I fall in behind them. We step off the gangway and onto the solid concrete of the Kobe ferry terminal.

“Your first steps in Japan!”

After just a few rounds of questions with a kind lady who speaks very good English at immigration, I am given a 90-day tourist stamp in my passport. Getting through customs takes a bit longer, as I have to completely unpack and repack both my camera bag and backpack, no small task given the efficiency of my packing. But the customs agent is very polite and I try to match his courtesies. It’s my first taste of Japanese manners, and I feel like we’re the two chipmunks from the cartoons: “After you!” “No, no, no! After YOU!”

Inspection complete, I am waived up the escalator and into the ferry terminal. Barry had offered me a ride downtown with the friend who was meeting him, and all through my customs check I was worried that he would be waiting for me. I notice he’s still engaged with his own inspection, though, having received a couple of large bags out of the ship’s hold. He’s taking a bus back to his hometown, and after his reports of rough waters on the Sea of Japan, I’m thinking of doing the same.

I call Mo from one of the card phones. “They let me in!” I tell her.

“Good! So I’ll see you tomorrow night?”

“Well, I’m not sure. I got a little queasy on this trip and I’ve been told the Sea of Japan is pretty rough right now. I might look into a bus.”

“A bus? All the way up here? That would be so uncomfortable!”

“But better than throwing up! I’ll let you know as soon as I find out.”

Yu walks by and asks if he can help me.

“No, thanks. I’m getting a ride with Barry.”

“Okay, I go home now,” he says with a big smile. “It was nice meeting you. Good luck in Japan!”

45 minutes later, I’m still waiting for Barry and wishing I had gone with Yu. It’s 4:30, and if the banks should happen to close at 5:00, I have little time remaining to change money. I’m getting bored of waiting in the ferry terminal, despite my amusement at watching Japanese passengers arriving from Tokyo, bowing and back and forth to the people meeting them. But the ferry terminal is comfortable and familiar. Outside waits an entire country that is completely foreign to me. It is exciting and overwhelming. I take one more look back towards the immigration office, and, still not seeing Barry, shoulder my pack and walk out the door.

I pass taxi drivers with my front defense shields at full power, but unlike China, they simple watch me go. None come clamoring for my business. I am nearly stopped dead by the automatic ticket machine for the monorail to downtown, but after three rounds of heavy fighting, I gain the victory of a Y240 (about 115 Japanese yen to the U.S. dollar) ticket to the city center.

I’m able to relax for the next few minutes, but stepping off that station downtown, I finally realize just how overwhelmed and unprepared I am. People rush by from every side in every direction. Businessmen in suits with briefcases. Women with overflowing shopping bags. Teenagers with ears buried in cellphones and iPods. All of them singular and intent on getting to their next destination. None seemingly even phased by the site of a bearded, 6-2 gaijin carrying a backpack. I don’t even know the word in Japanese to get their attention. I find a busy street corner and stand there looking lost, hoping an English speaker will find me and take pity. In China, that act would have at least produced several “Hah-Lows” in but a few minutes. Here, nothing.

I start walking. It’s almost 5:00 and I need a bank. I have but a couple thousand yen, and that get me far. I cross the street and find nothing promising. I’m on my way back to the train station, why, I do not know, when I pass a police station. I’ve never been so glad to see one in all my life. The sign on the front includes an English welcome: “Please come and let us assist you.”

Inside, I find four uniformed officers. I smile. They smile back.

“English?” I ask, hopefully.

One smiles again. “A little,” he replies.

“I need to change money. Can you tell me where?” I annunciate slowly and carefully.

“Change money?” I nod vigorously. “Across the street to that tall building there,” he says pointing to a corner department store with lots of people walking in and out. “There is a bank on the second floor.”

“Thank you very much!” I smile again and give a nod of my head. He returns both. It’s more help than I received from the police in all my 82 days in China.

The bank is opened until 7:00. It’s a small, triangular room with two tellers and their manager sitting close together at desks behind the glass. There is also a man in a suit on this side of the glass whose only job it seems is to help me make the transaction. With much bowing, nodding of heads and a mix of English and lyrical Japanese, I convert my remaining traveler’s cheques into yen. Now I’m ready to face this country.

I find the bus station and manage to buy a ticket to Tokyo, from where I can buy an onward ticket to Aomori, and then a short ferry ride to Muroran. I’m feeling pretty good about myself until I start to consider the reality of the situation. The bus for Tokyo doesn’t leave until 11:00. That’s nearly six hours away. It doesn’t arrive in Tokyo until 6:00 the next morning. The bus ride to Aomori will be at least that long, if not longer, and then I still have a few hours on the ferry to Muroran, plus time spent waiting for connections. It seems very unlikely that I will see Mo on the following evening. And the bus ticket just to Tokyo cost Y8,600.

I’m looking for a phone to call Mo when a familiar voice hails me.

“Hello, Scott! I am sooo sorry!”

It’s Barry.

“That’s okay!” I assure him. “I am sorry for leaving before you. I was anxious about changing money.”

“Well, I am glad I found you. This way I can say a proper goodbye.”

“Yes, I am glad you found me, too.”

He asks about my transportation and seems pleased that I am taking the bus. He’s encouraging me to spend a day site-seeing in Tokyo and I try to explain that all I really want to do right now is get to Muroran. His bus is called and he leaves with his card and an open invitation to visit. Once again, I’m on my own.

The train and bus stations are all part of a sprawling shopping complex in the middle of town, and there are people moving everywhere. I fight my way through the crowds looking for a phone. Finding none, I eventually wind up back at the bus station, where I do find a phone and call Mo.

I explain the situation with the bus. She isn’t pleased.

“I wish you’d stuck to the original plan!”

“Do you want me puking the whole way there?”

“No! Of course I don’t. I just want you here.”

“That’s all I want, too. Maybe I could still get a flight from Tokyo tomorrow morning.”

She hangs up to save my phone card minutes while she checks online. I call back in ten minutes, after gobbling some dumplings from a street vendor and finding a phone in the center of the shopping plaza.

“The best I could find is $261US. I don’t want you to spend all your money just getting here!”

“I know, I know. But I’m so overwhelmed and don’t know what to do and JUST WANT TO BE WITH YOU!”

“And I want you here! Can’t you still try the ferry?”

“But I already paid for this bus ticket! Besides, it’s getting late. I wonder if I can still catch a train to Tsugura (the ferry terminal across the island).”

“Why don’t you find out and call me back?’


One thing I had managed to already find was the ticket window for Japan Rail (JR) trains. Inside there’s an agent who speaks a little English. I ask if I can still buy a ticket to Tsugura.





“I’m sorry, there is no Tsugura,” he says, holding up his hands in the shape of an “X,” the Japanese sign for “have not.”

I return to the phone.

“Oh, I just found out,” Mo tells me, “it’s Tsu-RU-GA.”

“I’ll be right back.”

“Tsu-RU-GA?” I implore back at the ticket counter.

“Oh, Tsuruga!” the agent exclaims.

“And there is a ferry to Tomokomai there, yes?”


“Ferry. A ship, boat?”

“Oh, fah-REE. We only sell train tickets here.”

“Yes, I know, I just want to make sure there is a ferry,” I reply, trying not to get excited.

He takes out his map. “Yes, there is a ferry to Tomokomai from Tsuruga.”

“Good! Can I get a train ticket there?”



He sells me a connection through Osaka that leaves in 30 minutes and arrives at 10:40. The ferry is at 1:30, so I’ll have plenty of time. I run back to the bus station.

“I am very sorry,” I say, very slowly and clearly, “but I just purchased this ticket and cannot use it. Is it possible to get a refund?”

The two girls behind the counter exchange excited glances and fetch their manager, the older gentleman who sold me the ticket. I repeat my spiel. He smiles, takes my ticket and returns me the full face value. I thank him profusely and run back to the phone.

“Hi,” I say breathlessly when Mo answers. “We’re back on Plan A. I’m sorry for causing all that consternation.”

“It’s okay! I hope you don’t get sick. I’ll see you TOMORROW! YAY!”

“I can’t wait.”

The station is a level above on the elevated tracks through town. They spread six wide through the platforms and trains rush through every few minutes, precisely coinciding with their advertised times on the big LCD displays hanging from the platform roof every few dozen meters. Short locals, longer through trains, expresses that blow by without stopping, freight trains with heavy electric locomotives and long strings of containers on flatcars. My train for Osaka arrives and I step on board. It’s a short ride of less than half an hour, and it seems as though we never pass from city to another, but simply continue on through one continuous metropolis.

Stepping off the platform, I am amused to see two Japanese businessman walk down to the train’s power car and snap photos of it with their cellphone cameras. I take out my Canon and join them. The conductor gives me a friendly wave and explains that my train for Tsuruga will leave from this same track in half an hour. It passes through Kyoto, another half hour away, and still it seems we have yet to leave the city in which I arrived. Only just before Tsuruga do we pass through anything resembling fields or woodlands.

Outside the station I find a taxi waiting, but it appears to already be carrying a passenger and have no driver. Then I realize the person I thought was the passenger is in fact the driver. Laughing to myself, I walk up. From his seat, the driver presses a button that automatically opens the rear door on my side.

“English?” I ask. Nothing. “Eigo?” He shakes his head. I had prepared for this. I take my notebook out of my pack and show him my rough sketch of Japan with a boat sailing along an arrow pointing from Tsuruga to Tomokomai. He gives a nod, beckons me inside and switches on the meter. I gulp. The flag drop is Y640.

It costs Y2160, nearly $20, or more than the price of an overnight sleeper ticket from Beijing to Chifeng, for the ride across town. The driver even switched off the meter while we waited for a front-end loader to put a couple scoops of snow into a dump truck. He drops me at the ferry terminal where a gleaming white ship waits on the dock.

Inside, I am relieved to book passage in a second class dorm room (mats on the floor) for Y8,800, only slightly more than the price of the bus ticket to Tokyo I returned. Boarding starts at 11:30. The ship is immaculate, gleaming brass banisters on the stairs between decks and floors so clean you really could eat off them. There are just a handful of passengers and I’m easily able to make a bed out of two mats. I’m asleep before we shove off.

I wake a couple times through the night to considerable rocking, but am always able to go back to sleep. I finally wake for good to somewhat calmer seas around 9:30, and after an hour of lounging, decide to see what this boat has to offer. Down the hall I find the bathroom, but not in the American sense of the word. The ship has a full Japanese-style bathhouse with communal showers and big, hot pool. And I have it all to myself. I strip, wash in the shower, then settle into the pool for a long soak, watching the deep blue Sea of Japan roll by through the big windows, wondering why I ever even considered taking the bus.

After lunch, I settle down for my afternoon nap, not waking until 4:30. I pass the afternoon and early evening by reading, peering out the windows, and journaling until a chubby, cross-eyed Japanese toddler took an interest in my notebook. Her parents watched in amusement as I helped her scribble on several blank pages.

By 8:00, the anticipation was too much. I gathered my bags, put on my shoes (one always removes them when entering the sleeping room in Japan, even aboard ship), and went to the door to wait. As we pulled up to the terminal, I found three silhouetted figures waiting in the windows. I lifted a hand to wave. One of them waved back. We finally came to a stop, and after a few minutes that seemed an eternity, the gangway extended onto the deck and the gates opened. I was the first one off, bowing and nodding to the crew and running down the escalator and into the open arms that waited for me at the bottom.

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