I half-expected Tokyo to hit me like a tsunami. I stared sleepily from the coach window and imagined myself engulfed by a wall of sky-high glass buildings as soon as we hit city limits, with armies of besuited salarymen and women cascading over hectic cross-walks, under bright neon lights, with Tokyo Skytree in the background, or even an ancient shrine or giant robot for good measure. These were the images drilled into me by movies and social media. In reality, the city trickled into view, with the small, rural homes streaming past the window increasing in size and frequency, before transforming into boxy factories and apartment blocks on the city outskirts. The sky, a seamless, muted grey, threatened drizzle, but as we left Chiba prefecture and reached the bay, the sun pierced through the clouds and my jet-lagged musings faded as Tokyo swelled before me.
In the seat in front of me, my partner napped. We were two of only five passengers on a coach from Narita airport bound for JR Osaki Station, and, blessed with space, I took the seat behind her so we could both gaze out the window. It seemed like her jet lag had got the better of her, however, and she dozed peacefully until I awoke her as we entered Odaiba.
It was her first time in Japan, but my second. Four years prior, I had taken a three week trip during the spring, flying first into Fukuoka, then visiting Kyoto and Kitakyushu, before returning to Fukuoka to head home. Traveling largely on my own, and in cities (other than Kyoto) that are less frequently visited by tourists, I felt closer to day-to-day Japanese life, away from the fast pace of the country’s capital and hordes of tourists. At the time, I felt I couldn’t afford Tokyo; I knew a few people in Kitakyushu, and with someone to put me up, I opted to spend half of my stay there. Some people questioned my plans, but looking back, I don’t regret it. Unburdened by my lack of local knowledge, and with far fewer known tourist spots, I made discoveries of my own, and at my own slow pace. I enjoyed the views out of the monorail, walked under sakura (cherry blossoms) along the river, found interesting shops, and wasted money playing on gachapon machines and games in the arcades. I had nothing but time.
Prior to that trip I’d learned Japanese for six months. I mainly used it when in shops and restaurants, and at times tried my best, but overall, I shied away from speaking to anyone for fear stumbling over my words and revealing myself a foreigner ignorant to the language, as I did, to giggles, in a Kitakyushu KFC. That’s the thing with language, you need to use it or lose it. In the end, the most Japanese I spoke was on the plane back to England, sitting next to an elderly couple who made small talk, gave me boiled sweets, and were extremely gracious when I had to shuffle out from the window seat to use the bathroom. I regret not trying harder…
This time would be different. Prior to this trip, together with my partner, Jen, I’d learned Japanese again for six months, and the basics I’d learned for my last trip provided the building blocks for real progress. I was confident I could get by without making a fool of myself, and even if I did, it wouldn’t matter because I’d try. It’s more than most visitors do.
As our coach rolled over Rainbow bridge, I opened my jisho (dictionary), and began some last minute revision.
It wasn’t until I spied the red and white of Tokyo Tower that it truly hit home that we were in Tokyo. It materialised like a mirage, from between blocks of silver skyscrapers, before retreating behind the buildings. But I’d seen it. This symbol of the city was like a pin a map confirming our destination. We’re here.
I had my eyes trained out the window; it peeked out again. And as our coach descended from Rainbow Bridge into the city, this waypoint grew in closer and closer until it really towered over us, despite being a few blocks away.
I nudged Jen. Look, there it is. She’d finally woken up.
We both snapped photos out of the window, our first photos of the trip, and as Tokyo Tower disappeared from view for the final time, and our coach turned in the direction of JR OSaki, I made a mental promise to see the tower properly at some point on our trip.
It’s a promise I’d end up breaking, though. There was just too much to do…