That is the thought that popped into my head the very first day in Japan and consumed me during the five weeks of my travels through Asia.
The eight months I’d spent planning and getting ready for this adventure went by as fast as a whisper. Nothing sunk in until I landed in Tokyo, at Haneda International Airport precisely at 10:30pm. I was travelling all alone for the first time in my adult life, with a ten-year old, used-only-once backpack strapped to my back, headed to 3 countries that until a few years ago, I had thought would never make to the top of my list of places to visit…
But. never mind all that information. I will explain more about that later.
Eight months may have gone by in a flash, but the success of this trip was highly dependent on the first night. The most important goal for me was to get to my hotel, safely and without getting lost. I had absolutely no time for big, life-changing, existential wanderings.
The first obstacle.
Have you ever had those moments when a simple task becomes insurmountable? Well, I have.
After a brief stop at the tourist center and the mobile wi-fi counter, I approached the train ticket machine and tried to make sense of the huge, very colorful and I am sure, very helpful map above it. I could not however, for the life of me, understand it.
At that moment, I started panicking a little. Something was off. I took a deep breath as I approached the machine in the hopes that IT would actually be more helpful than the chart above it.
Troubleshooting like a pro. Did someone call for a Knight in shining armor?
“Ok. No problem.There should be an English button here somewhere…Right?”
I stared at the screen for what felt like an eternity and could not find the button with the obvious ENGLISH sign on it. A helpful transportation agent approached me, literally took the money from my hand, inserted into the machine and loaded up my pre-paid card. I must have had neon signs above my head that screamed “HELP!” by the way he took care of me. I thanked him profusely with the only word I could remember in Japanese and headed off to the train platform.
(I found this helpful sign after the trip that may help you. http://www.haneda-tokyo-access.com/en/transport/trainlinemap.html)
The very white elephant at the train station.
As I waited for the train to take me into the city, with a backpack that now weighted much more than 23lbs should weigh, I took in my surroundings. The whole scene this late at night could fit into a Quentin Tarantino movie.
There were a few people nearby, mostly locals. I wondered “Where is everyone?”
A couple of people were sitting quietly by two white, brightly illuminated, perfectly aligned vending machines. A couple of people stood in line in their designated pre-marked boarding space, either to the right or left of where the train doors would normally open, eyes glued on their phones. I stared at the stark whiteness of it all- the walls, the vending machines, the boarding barriers/gates. Even the floor was bright.
“Why would anyone put these floors in a train station?” The floor was so shiny and unblemished that after 24hrs of airports and planes. I felt dirty compared to its glossy, immaculate surface. It was as if I was in a high-tech facility where a single loose hair could trigger an alarm. I was not in a train station in a busy airport in one of the most visited cities in the world. It was quiet, it was white and it was eerily spotless.
I looked at the sign above my head that announced the next train and tried to make sense of the map and different trains planned to arrive. Of course the display changed every few seconds, not enough time for my brain to process the information in any meaningful way. I took a deep breath as my internal alarm started going off, a clear sign I was about to freak out.
It all came rushing in at once. I was in Japan, thousands of miles away from my husband, my family, my friends, my house, my comfort zone…chasing God knows what. My vision blurred a little, partly from exhaustion, mostly by panic.
“What AM I doing here?” I mumbled to myself.
The voices in my head.
I tried to remain calm and give myself a pep talk, hoping that no one would notice the internal meltdown about to happen to the woman who looked like a novice sherpa standing on the shiniest, cleanest floors of any train station in the world.
Kickass Alter Ego: “Why are you panicking? You wanted this. It is not like you were abducted by aliens and dropped off in Tokyo. You knew this was coming.”
Wimpy Me: “Yes…but…I feel…completely unprepared. What if I get lost? It’s pretty late at night. Why the hell did I pick a flight that arrived so late? Maybe I should just stay at the airport until morning. Maybe I should call a cab. Maybe I should call home?”
(For some reason getting lost in a strange country where I could not speak the language was my biggest fear during this trip.)
Kickass Alter Ego: “Really? Unprepared. That is what you are going with? Well, let’s see. You have directions printed out in English and Japanese. You have Wi-fi, Maps and Google Translate. You have a fully charged phone you can use to call the hotel. I am sure someone in here knows English or at the very least can point at your map. Unprepared my ass! Stop being a freaking wuss! Do I need to remind you of all the times you were in much worse situations than this and you did just fine?”
Wimpy Me: “Ok. Ok. Maybe you are right…” (pause) “But…what if the hotel doesn’t exist. What if I end up in a bad neighborhood? What if…”
Kickass Alter Ego: “Ughhh! What if, what if? What IF green monsters exist and they want to EAT you? Life is FULL of what ifs. Stop whining and get your ass into the train!”
Back on track.
Like a giant, silver paper bag, the train arrived to treat my hyperventilating mind. My survival instincts kicked in. I took a seat and watched the people around me for safety as one would normally do in my situation, a woman, traveling solo for the first time.
Arriving at my destination late at night was as frightful as trying to understand the Google directions on how to get to my hotel.
(I would later learn that is not entirely Google’s fault it could not give me proper directions to my hotel. The naming convention of streets in Japan is archaic and confusing, based on when the streets were built and not a specific name. In addition, most small streets don’t even have street signs. GPS is the way to go, just be aware that is not completely accurate. A couple times it took me to the back of the building I was looking for.)
After a trilling ride through what seemed like more than a dozen stops, constantly checking my printed directions and the GPS map on my phone, I finally made it to my stop and into the subway line. When I stepped out onto the street and saw the sign of my hotel only a block away from the subway, I exhaled all the tension I was holding in during the train ride.
At 11:30pm, Tokyo was far from dark and far from sleepy even during a weekday. There were no shady characters lurking on the street corner and the bright lights of traffic, restaurants and residences provided ample light to walk to my destination.
I smiled at the neatly folded pajamas on top of my capsule bed, the disposable slippers and all the free toiletries provided by my hotel. I unpacked and went to take a shower.
Leaving the slippers at the door, I eagerly ventured into the shower area and was greeted by a naked woman getting out of what I soon found out would be my first experience in a traditional communal style bathing facility- an Onsen.
“Oh! What the hell!” I was too exhausted to feel the culture shock and dwell in the fact that I would probably bathe with strangers for the next 14 days of my trip without the smallest amount of modesty, so I did the only thing in my control: I chucked my clothes aside.
That is when I realized, I was no longer traveling. I was on a journey!
[tweetthis remove_url=”true” remove_hidden_urls=”true”]We go to beautiful places in our travels, but there is travel that takes us into beautiful journeys goodlifexplorers.com[/tweetthis]
Next: the second day of the trip in Japan- a visit to the world-famous Tuna Auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market and eating sushi for the first time.