I lived in Japan for seven weeks during a study abroad program in college. It was the summer of 2002 and I was 20 years old. During my time there I took intensive Japanese language courses all day every day for my first two weeks, after which, in an immersive learning experience, I was able to communicate and get around in Japanese fairly well. I also learned a lot about the history and culture of Japan, which I was captivated by, and so very excited about returning.
Despite having lived in the country before, and having been able to communicate in the language at that time, I was still anxious about moving on to Japan. You see, both New Zealand and Australia were easy. The culture is essentially the same as the US, everyone speaks English, most of the people I met were doing the same things I was doing, and, for the most part, living and traveling was easy. I knew things were going to be different in Japan.
And, by the way, when you learn and use a language for two months 10 years ago, you don’t suddenly remember it again when you get back there.
Very lucky for me, my cousin Brian Ulyatt is serving in the US Navy at the Yokosuka base, just outside of Tokyo. This was a major relief, as he invited me to come and stay at his place for as long as I wanted before going elsewhere in Japan.
I landed at the Tokyo Narita airport at about 06:00, where my first task was to travel to the Kinugasa station in the Kanagawa Prefecture, about a three-hour journey if you take all the trains going in the right direction, which I didn’t. Kinugasa is really not far outside of Tokyo, but Tokyo is so big and Narita is on the far side, which is why it takes so long.
“Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the Kinugasa station?” Haha. It’s not that easy bro. I was reacquainted to broken Japanese English.
Before going any further I should comment that most Japanese peoples’ English is far superior to my Japanese, and I am in their country, and they have gone out of their way to learn another language to accommodate me in my ignorance of speaking only one language, so despite the challenges I’m both humbled and appreciative of ANY English-speaking Japanese people.
That being said does not make it any easier to ask for directions, order food or connect with the locals – although just about everyone understands the international sign for being stoked.
Back to Narita: first train, wrong direction. Damnit. Off the train, more communication barriers, exchange for a new ticket, back on the train. Two transfers, fifty bucks and three semi-conscious hours later, Kinugasa station. Fare adjustment. Not enough cash. Hmmm… “do you take credit card?” Silly question, even if he did understand me.
“ATM?” Blank stare, and no. “Ok, thank you.” An old man passes around the turn style ahead of me. Do I go on the international most wanted list in just my third country? Yes.
Out of the station, vowing to have enough cash for future train rides, I search immediately for an ATM. After two that don’t accept cards outside of Japan and one with no English button, I’m wondering how I’ll survive in Japan with no money. I buy a coffee at McDonald’s with my last 200 yen and regroup. Surely there is an ATM in this country that will work.
Brian is supposed to pick me up in another half hour. I wait outside in the cold rain wearing 100% of my cold-weather gear, which consists of a base layer and a synthetic down compressible jacket. Hmmm…if Brian doesn’t show then I’m really not sure what I’m gonna do.
A large white man pulls up in a small Japanese-make vehicle. Touchdown, good guys.
After picking me up, Brian takes me to his place, a small four-bedroom two-story house where I have to duck through the doorways, which makes me feel good about my fitness routine. We spend the next couple of days getting reacquainted (I had seen him only once in about 10 years, when he was pushing 140 lbs soaking wet), meeting his Navy buddies and roommates, exploring Tokyo, and, for me, just having a great time. Not to mention a place to sleep, internet access, and a chance to get adjusted before going out on my own.
After almost a week at Brian’s place, I finally headed up to Ishinomaki.
Having missed almost the entire ski season in the USA (and the northern hemisphere, for that matter), I was determined to get a couple of days of skiing in Japan. Many people don’t realize this, but there are over 500 ski resorts in Japan and quite a bit of legit skiing. This includes Nagano, site of the 1998 winter olympics.
Leaving Ishinomaki on the overnight bus, I arrived back in Tokyo at about 07:00. From there I transferred onto the shinkansen, or bullet train. Smashing at almost 300 KPM, it took less than an hour and a half to get to Nagano.
Watching the landscape slip by, like life, too fast to really see it all.
From Nagano I still had to take another hour bus up to Hakuba, arriving at K’s hostel at about 11:00. Check-in, run-down, lift ticket, rentals, and blowing through yen like fresh powder, I was on the gondola by 11:40, making turns by noon (keep in mind I went to sleep on a bus last night in Ishinomaki).
I skied at a resort called Hakuba Goryu, connected to Hakuba 47. Although it’s pretty small, even with both resorts connected (especially with a lot of good terrain being closed), the terrain was still very good.
Halfway through my first day I met Joel from Australia. It was great to have someone to talk with, and he showed me around a good bit of the mountain. At the end of the day we planned to meet up the following day.
I woke up at K’s (which was a legit hostel, and thanks Toshi) with snow on the ground and still coming down. Fresh pow baby!
While my equipment situation was not stellar I still got some excellent powder runs in before meeting Joel in the afternoon. We rode out the day under heavy wind conditions that closed most of the mountain, unfortunately, but still had a good time. I said goodbye to Joel and we hoped to meet again someday.
Overall had a great experience in Hakuba and got a lot of variety: powder, carvers, bumps and even got to throw down some freestyle (had a 540 stuck but inexplicably double-ejected, presumably due to the DIN settings that I insisted should be higher, unheeded at the rental shop). Did I land it bro? No, you didn’t. But it felt still felt good to fly, and to win a battle against the Flinch.
Traveling overnight again, I had a to take a bus from Hakuba to Nagano, then wait for two hours for my bus from Nagano to Osaka. Despite assurances from several people, I could not find where my bus was supposed to leave from the Nagano station. If I miss this bus, I am not making it to Osaka and I am probably sleeping in the train station. Mild panic. Long story short, I end up flagging down my bus in the middle of the street, having already departed from the station en route to Osaka. Bus door opens: “Chrissu??” “Hai!” Whew.
In survival mode, there is a very thin line between safety and relative personal disaster.
During my last few days in Australia, I met a friend named Sho from Japan. Sho is seriously bad-ass. He rode over 3,000 kilometers on his road bike through Australia, from Darwin to Melbourne, averaging 100 kilometers a day for a month. During one stretch he went over 250 uninhabited kilometers, having to pack something like 30 liters of water, plus food.
I arrived in Osaka from the overnight bus early in the morning, with about three hours to spare before I was supposed to meet up with Sho. After successfully navigating my way from the Osaka station to the Namba station (which I was slightly proud of), I still had a couple of hours, during which I failed to connect to the internet and was strongly reprimanded by an elderly Japanese security guard at the Namba station. Big X.
Having been unable to connect to the internet, I wasn’t able to send Sho a message, and we didn’t have an exact meeting location. Should be no problem, right? Wrong.
After waiting at the exit for an hour I started walking around the station, managed to eventually find an internet connection (with only six minutes of battery life remaining). No messages from Sho. Sent him a quick message, but losing hope.
By 11:30 I had pretty much lost hope and decided I was spending the day in Osaka by myself. As I was just about to leave the station, and, miraculously, almost ran into Sho. “Sho!” “Chris!” “Holy shit!” As Sho later pointed out, we were meant to connect.
Traveling through Japan with a Japanese person is an entirely different experience. Where I wouldn’t be able to eat at most places, know where to go or what to do, at least in many instances, being with a local makes all the difference. Sho took me all around Osaka; we went to the the Osaka castle, ate all kinds of different Japanese snacks and food, visited one of the famous shopping areas, and had a blast cruising the city all day.
We capped off the evening with dinner and drinks at a popular restaurant where Sho dialed us up all kinds of great stuff. We really connected and had a great time together, and I have no doubt we’ll meet again somewhere. Another goodbye.
Once again, off on yet another overnight bus, this time back to Tokyo.
Back to Tokyo
Back at Brian’s house, I was in the safe zone for a few more days before leaving Japan.
I’d be remiss to leave Takashi out of this post. Takashi could be the best bar tender alive, at the Shower Bar, steps from Brian’s house, which could be my favorite bar. The best word I can use to describe Takashi is professional. Every drink is made with precision, minute attention to detail, and a little extra care just in case. Think you might get a lemon burst in the eye? Not with the full shield bro. Bruised ice? No chance. Doesn’t taste quite right? A dishonor; new drink, no questions asked. Always dressed to impress, Miles Davis spinning on vinyl, fine cigars on-hand, American drama on film with Japanese subtitles, and guaranteed to hug it out upon departure. Takashi leaves no doubt, and he can also tell you the starting roster of the 1984 Denver Nuggets. It’s a pleasure to see someone who takes pride in their work.
There is so much more I could say about my time in Japan, but I’m going to call this one a wrap. Another great experience here, ten years later..