Saturday, January 9, 2010

Scenes from 27 Hours on a Moving Train: 北海道 (Pt. I)

There is a certain romance associated with solo long-distance train travel. A veritable “journey of the self,” with no shortage of introspective revelations about the human psyche along the way. Throttling though space along a ceaseless span of metal track, there is that longing for a faraway place and the physical sensation of traveling hundreds of miles over a variety of terrains to get there. There is the ever-changing panorama of scenery, the hours left entirely to your own devices, and the gentle sway of the heated train to lull you in and out of sleep. Not to mention the thought of striking up conversation with an interesting foreign mate to keep you company on the journey. The quintessential romantic love story. Just ask the folks in Before Sunrise.


I was spared no exception to this spell of train travel. 12-hour Greyhound night bus rides from New York City to Cleveland didn’t quite fill me with the same sort of longing for travel as a cross-country rail freight on par with the Transcontinental Railroads of early 20th-century America. Short distance subway and bus trips have become such an innate part of my life that I hardly flinch at the thought of a two or three-hour commute anymore. But I have never embarked on a voyage where the journey has filled me with as much exhilaration as the destination. A voyage, indeed, where both the journey and the destination are new experiences.


This desire for long-distance train travel came about as early as last January when I suggested to the other Shansi Fellows how awesome I thought it would be to have a reunion in Asia along the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow. I needed only to look at their expressions to gauge their relative level of excitement. Two weeks locked on a train with only ourselves and a couple bottles of vodka to keep from going insane. And this was my idea of a good time? I tried to reason it again in my mind: just think of the friendships you’d make, how much you’d learn about yourself, the greater appreciation you would have for even the most mundane things in life…


Given the skepticism, I figured I should start small. The destination itself was easy. I had always wanted to go to Hokkaido but had never gotten around to it when I was studying abroad. The fact that it's winter also made it the perfect time to visit. Sapporo (the capital of Hokkaido) is famous for the Ice Festival it holds every February, and even though I would be missing that, I would surely still be in town for more snow than I would need to get a “true” Hokkaido experience. The why was pretty easy too. As a way to justify traveling to Japan over, say, Vietnam this break, I knew that I had to convince myself of at least seeing some new things. Basing myself in Tokyo was the first step in that argument. But especially given my tenuous relationship with the city as of late, a new change of scenery was the best thing I could ask for.


Having done my research before-hand, I knew what I was getting myself into. The distance from Tokyo to Sapporo is a little over 500 miles and takes just over 24 hours by train, with at least another two factored in to get from Sapporo to Kutchan, the small town where my friend Tom would be hosting me. No less than twelve separate train transfers, with a wait time ranging from a couple of minutes to over an hour at each stop along the train’s route. The longest section would be the final leg—a seven-hour stretch on the Hamanasu express train via the Seikan Tunnel that connects the two islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. For fans of random trivia, the Seikan Tunnel happens to be the longest railway tunnel in the world, as well as the world’s longest undersea tunnel.

Ueno
05:47










Utsunomiya
07:28
07:37









Kuroiso

08:28
08:37








Koriyama


09:56
10:08







Fukushima



10:54
11:00






Sendai




12:16
12:45





Kogota





13:30
13:46




Ichinoseki






14:32
14:37



Morioka







16:09
17:04


Hachinohe








18:58
19:38

Aomori









21:10
22:42
Sapporo










06:07
Here's my one-way route from Tokyo to Sapporo as shown on a timetable...

...and here it is illustrated on a map (original map and timetable courtesy of japan-guide.com. Editing done by yours truly).

Now it's high time that I make a confession. You might be asking yourself: shouldn’t there be faster, more convenient ways to get from Tokyo to Sapporo than this 27-hour behemoth? And the answer is absolutely. There are at least three other ways—flying, taking a combination of limited express trains and the shinkansen, or taking an overnight sleeper—that would have significantly cut down on travel time and been far simpler to navigate. So why the dire need for adventure? More than simply the experience itself, this trip (like most of my schemes) was an effort in frugality, thus making an alternate title for this post: The Thrill Seeker’s Guide to the Absolute Cheapest Way from Tokyo to Sapporo.


The way this whole thing works is through a little known rail pass called the Hokkaido & Higashinihon Pass (Hokkaido & Eastern Japan Pass). More commonly known especially among Westerners is the Japan Rail Pass, which offers unlimited travel on JR trains for a period of one to three weeks. However, at nearly $300 for the one-week pass, I knew that I had to find a cheaper way if I was going to make it to Hokkaido. Sleeper options didn’t look much better either, fluctuating between $200 and $300 for a one-way trip. That’s where this handy pass comes in. For about $100, you get unlimited travel for five days in all of Eastern and Northern Japan, including all requisite travel within Hokkaido. So what’s the catch? The pass must be used on five consecutive days and (here's the real kicker) is only valid on local trains. This is the principle difference between this pass and the Japan Rail Pass. The only exceptions to this rule are the sections shown in blue on the timetable above—non-JR trains from Morioka to Hachinohe and the aforementioned Hamanasu express train from Aomori to Sapporo. As hard as it is to believe, these exceptions cut down significantly on travel time, but I was still looking at over two full days of travel, leaving less than three days to actually experience Hokkaido. Still, I knew it was something I needed to do.


A trip of this scale and to this exacting degree of accuracy would only be possible in a country like Japan, where trains run so punctually that I hardly had to check where I was going so much as when the various trains were leaving the station. But also because it was Japan, there was no motion picture-worthy conversation and no new friends to be made. Fortunately, I had plenty to keep myself amused—in between listening to the Garden State soundtrack on my iPod and reading back issues of The New Yorker, I dedicated at least half of my travel time to sleep. In fact, there was no shortage of "Garden State moments"—peering out over an endless prairie in the rural Japanese countryside, I mused over whether or not I could truly be “The Only Living Boy in New York." I also managed to make decent headway on the longer novel I had brought with me—Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections—but the subject matter (a dysfunctional family on the brink of collapse) didn’t quite make for the most uplifting respite from 24 hours with nary a word spoken aloud.


The most magical part of the whole trip had to be watching the change in landscape go through at least four distinct cycles—from wheat-planted flatlands to small rural townships, and snow-covered evergreens to the Pacific Ocean. I felt privileged for the chance to get a glimpse of Japan that is rarely seen by Japanese people, let alone by foreigners. The gradual rise in snow along the way was like a barometer of relative nearness to my final destination. At times I would wake up to a slightly higher level on the ground and a small decrease in temperature. By the time I eventually got to Sapporo, it was a great deal chillier than where I started. At that point, station signs in English had also become all but nonexistent—an indication that this train route was not in any way a tourist favorite. Less exciting on the whole, though, were the pins and needles in my legs and feet, the inconvenience of my massive suitcase, and the cheap udon and soba noodles I had to scarf down for lunch and dinner in between slightly longer train transfers. But fortunately for me, sitting in a train for two full days didn’t exactly invoke a sizable appetite.

Though I don't regret the experience at all, 48 hours later, I can’t say I would ever really want to do a round-trip like that again—at least not another one alone. Or if I did, I would hope to spend a much longer time in the final destination than the time it took to get there. But I must admit, it did make Sapporo that much more special when I reached it, as it did Tokyo on the return. And in case you were wondering, I still haven’t given up on the Trans-Siberian Railway idea either.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

High Flying Family Fun in Costa Rica

When I talk to other parents about our escapades in Central America, the primary question I get is, "Is it safe?" and when answering on behalf of our Costa Rica travels I always answer with a resounding "Yes!". Not only is Costa Rica safer than bad parts of most American cities, it is a great place for families to experience true adventure! We found out when we were there filming Travel With Kids: Costa Rica

Costa Rica's motto is "Pura Vida", or Pure Life, and the main tourism draw is their natural surrounds. The country's enormous effort in conservation has paid off with tourists coming from all over the world. And in an effort to accommodate the tourists Costa Rica has created all sorts of exciting ways to immerse in nature. So, families are sure to have fun. We've listed out Top 6 Family Nature Activities to help you get started in planning your own Costa Rica adventure.

1. Zip-Line Who can resist the huge adreneline kick experienced as you zip speedily over the top of the rainforest canopy. And, although you are not likely to see many animals as you plummet past the tree tops, the platforms in between each gravity defying line make excellent animal spotting posts. We actually did two zip lines because the kids loved it so much. The first was just outside the famous Monte Verde Cloud Forest Reserve with Selvatura and the second was on the Pacific Coast with Montezuma Canopy Tour

2. River Rafting Another heart-pumping activity that gives guests to Costa Rica a real sense of adventure, but with this one your chances of actually spotting wildlife are drastically increased (the whining sound of the zip line tends to scare off any nearby creatures). We chose a Safari Float down the Rio Penas Blancas with Desafio Adventure Company. The lower class rapids gave us plenty of time to spot animals...and we did...sloths, monkeys, basilik lizards (better known as Jesus lizards for their ability to walk on water), rare birds, bats, poison dart frogs and much more!

3. Arenal Volcano If you really want to get a feel for the power of nature, you have to check out this very active volcano! In our filming for Travel With Kids, we have seen many a volcano, but most are either stagnant or we get the "sorry no lava today", but that is not the case with this bubbling gem! We stayed at Arenal Observatory Lodge and all night we could here the boom of the giant explosions reverberating off our hotel walls and flickering glow of molten hot rocks and lava as they tumbled down the side of the mountain...very cool! And don't worry, the lodge is on a ridge above the lava flow, so you're completely safe...or so they say. I do have to admit that I spent the night with one eye open.

4. Proyecto Asis Very near to Arenal Observaotry is Proyecto Asis. in addition to its Spanish immersion school, the center operates an animal rescue center with animals ranging from a very friendly Kinkajou to monkeys that like to pick bugs out of their human visitor's hair. The kids had a great time hiking around the center and helping to take care of the animals. The center also offer volunteer programs ranging from animal care to re-forestation.

5. Horseback Riding We hopped on horses and followed our guide, also from Desafio Adventure Company, through town and out into the fields surrounding Monte Verde for an amazing view over the valleys below this tiny hill town. On route we saw lots of animals, butterflies fluttering around us and sloths picking their way slowly through the trees. One great option, if you have older kids, is making the journey between Arenal and Monte Verde on horseback! It's a 7-8 hour journey, but the fews are incredible!

6. Night Walk through the Jungle At night animals you would normally not see come out by the dozens. Whether or not this is a good thing to see, I'm still trying to decide. I now know that on that pathway from my hotel to town there are tons of tarantulas and scorpions just lurking in the shadows. But it is a neat adventure, donning flashlights and hiking through the dark jungle, spotting nature in action all around you!

Those are our top six, although I know that Costa Rica has lots more to offer families looking for a little adventure.

Our Trip:
We flew into San Jose on TACA, a Cental American based airline that offers great service and an excellent safety record at value prices.

From San Juan we headed north by private charter with Green Adventures to Arenal. We stayed at Arenal Observatory Lodge instead of the town of La Fortuna, as that is the only hotel in the area that currently has views of the lava. In Arenal we went white water rafting, visited Proyecto Asis and participated in Children's Day at a local school.

From Arenal we took the Jeep-Boat-Jeep transport to Monte Verde where we stayed at El Sapo Dorado in cozy cabanas in the cloud forest. (We booked ours through Desafio Adventure Company). In Monte Verde we hiked, went horseback riding, rode the zip lines and visited the snake, bat and frog museums.

From Monte Verde, we booked a shared shuttle-ferry-shuttle ride to the old surf hang out of Montezuma on the Peninsula Nicoya on the Pacific Coast. In Montezuma, we spotted tons of animals right from our hotel balcony at Ylang Ylang Beach Resort and we went on another zip line.

To find out more about Costa Rica or to plan your own trip, check out our DVD: Travel With Kids: Costa Rica

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Honeymoon Is おわり: 東京 (Pt. III)

The honeymoon ended for me about halfway through day three. Up until then, things were really quite good—everything around me seemed at once mystifying and nostalgic, and I was still reeling from culture shock at having just come from a rural town in the sticks to arguably the biggest city in the world. It seemed that in many ways I was living a charmed life. Despite something of a language barrier (when I first arrived I had all but forgotten my Japanese and could hardly speak a word of it) and the fact that money was tight, problems were all but nonexistent—if I wanted to go somewhere, there was nothing stopping me, and if I wanted to buy most anything, chances were that a nearby store sold it. I was a veritable Charlie in the sprawling, ever-evolving chocolate factory that is Tokyo. I bought foods that I hadn’t eaten in years, went back to see familiar sights I had only remembered from pictures, and all the while, soaked in the unmistakable city feeling that I had been bereft of for four months. But somewhere down Memory Lane, things turned sour. So much about this place has gotten under my skin, and though I know that many of my close friends live here or are strongly connected to Japan in one way or another, I felt strongly compelled to write this.

Tokyo is an extremely lonely place. Ironic, largely because it is the densest city in the world population-wise, but aside from the sheer number of people, I have never felt more completely and intoxicatingly alone. Everyone seems less concerned about the multitudes of other people living among them than they are about themselves and their own lives. The best way to describe the phenomenon for me has been a “me-centric” or “me-obsessed” culture, fixated on beauty and fashion. For many people, especially the young and the female, these two qualities supersede most other earthly needs, and include braving physical discomfort, cold, and hunger simply to fit into a society that can be so callously judgmental. I get the pervasive sense that I’m not good enough—going anywhere, I am surrounded by people whose superficial façade to the world represents the sum total of their existence. Their clothes and bags are stylish, their hair is permed, and their painted faces wear a mask of cool distance—the impenetrable, impersonal gaze that isolates people from one another. It is this weighty, invisible silence that perpetually lingers in the air, broken only by the raucous carelessness of insobriety.

But it also goes deeper than that. Difficulties in communication far exceed congenial social awkwardness and at times feel like a full-blown crisis. The trains are eerily silent, eating alone at meals is incrediblx common, and it is rare for someone to go so far as to make any physical contact at all—even if that means setting money aside in a small basin instead of handing it directly to a shopkeeper. Hand-touching means spreading germs, and is scarce for the same reason that hugging is, and why wearing N95 masks is so common. Everyone seems absolutely terrified of getting sick. Most everything in the city is immaculately clean. But in reality, a little dirt is a good thing. Studies have proven that Japanese and Singaporeans are more at risk for some diseases than most of the rest of the world because their immune systems are not used to dealing with germs. People are almost criminally polite, in a way that makes it nearly impossible to know what people are actually feeling or thinking. In my experience, it has only been talking with people out of context that has given me a window into their true attitudes.

There are things about China that I don’t like. In fact, there are many things, as some of this blog can attest to. But somehow, even those dislikes are starting to become less agitating than endearing. The pushing and shoving on the train, the fact that customers yell to get the wait staff’s attention at a restaurant, the pervasive dirt and grime—it’s all real. Nothing here is sterilized or dumbed down—people, interactions, filth, poverty, environmental hazards, you name it—are up close and in your face. Despite all the beautifying of Beijing for the Olympics, China can’t help but bear it’s true self—even if at its core it may not be the most clean or polite culture in the world. China seems to acknowledge that and embrace it. People spit on the trains, there is trash in the streets, and the perpetual gray sky over Beijing has turned into a national joke.

If China is a land of lawlessness, then Japan is most certainly its opposite. There are rules for absolutely everything, so much so that even conversations feel almost eerily scripted. Shopkeepers berate you with honorific superlatives every time you enter a store, there are marked pedestrian and bike pathways that people follow meticulously, and customers line up neatly at almost every social occasion that dictates queuing. A country that makes robots so well that its people almost seem to resemble those artificial creations. There are eating customs, drinking customs, rules for dealing with co-workers and family, and at least three different levels of formality. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if sexual relations themselves were all but deprived of spontaneity, playfulness, and sensuality. It would seem that sexual frustration is so intense here that Japan has become a society full of off-color sexual practices, including everything from hentai (pornographic manga and anime) to vending machines specializing in used female undergarments. There is even a word designated for men who grope women in the subway. Japan’s suicide rate is the highest of any developed country in the world, as is its yearly rate of new patients infected with HIV . The medical condition known as hikikomori is wholly unique to Japan.

Worst of all, instead of facing these problems at their core by examining the mentality and emotional motives behind them, Japan paints a polished veneer over them. They have created women-only cars in the train, pushed social outcasts like burakumin and the homeless to the absolute fringes of society to avoid “tarnishing” their culture, fail to educate their children about safe sex practices and HIV prevention, and sweep away everything illicit and seedy into a thriving underground subculture. There are people who consciously go against the majority culture, but they do so at a cost—often with a great deal of social stigma. Others do so by changing their physical appearance, with piercings or died hair or funky outfits, partly as a cry for attention. The most extreme cases do so by committing suicide.

*

The Harajuku subway line was held up today for about a half hour, a virtual anomaly in Japan because as a matter of principle, the trains in Japan are punctual to the second. Any disturbance to this otherwise perfect cicadic cycle would seem almost unbearable, as evidenced by the line of anxious ticket-holders stretching halfway around the block. When the trains finally resumed , we discovered the cause of the hold-up—a suicide in front of the train forced it to stop suddenly, release all of its passengers, and send in a clean-up crew to take care of the body. When I heard this from my friend Jazmin who is studying abroad here and who I went to visit this afternoon, I was horrified. She explained that this was nothing new—suicides on this particular subway line were common—almost daily—such that there is even an announcement to alert passengers that they may experience a sharp brake and be asked to exit the train. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to institutionalized suicide since euthanasia, but in this instance, there seems almost no opposition or concern. Passengers are all but desensitized to the entire procedure, lamenting the wait time more than the loss of a human life.

Japan is everything China is not, but by the same token, China is everything that Japan is not (but perhaps wishes it could be)—a country with a very large middle class, no problematic alliances with Western powers, and a society in which no one questions the government. In China, I feel guilty for having money and coming from a comparatively privileged background, but in Japan, it’s almost reversed. Especially now that I’m getting paid a Chinese salary, many of the people around me have a vastly more disposable income than me—but even so, it’s hard to resist getting caught up in material things. I often wonder how the older generation must feel about all of this—if this obsession with self and material wealth is the Japan they envisioned during their war-ravaged childhoods of the 1950s.

Inherent in all of this nay-saying is a paradox. Why would I resent a country that stands for everything that is commonly though to be good—clean facilities, impeccable service, and useful innovations in organization? Perhaps it’s because I have so deeply ingrained the ideals of tidiness and efficiency that encountering an entire country where those are standard practices has scared me off and made me rethink my own values. Rarely does a day pass where you encounter real difficulty or have the sense that one thing or another is not exactly in its place. I feel safer walking around here than I do in my own neighborhood in New York. In fact, almost every precaution has been taken to ensure a smooth, carefree existence. But doesn’t too much comfort make you stagnate? Perhaps that can account for the scores of older Americans who have chosen to live their whole lives in Japan, the one country in the world more comfortable than their homeland. Living in China has made me grow stronger, whereas Japan in many ways has left me feeling pampered and helpless. Then again, maybe it is just Tokyo. So much of my study abroad experience in Osaka was about growing and learning in a new place and not met with nearly the same vehemence as I have discovered so far on this return trip.

*

I haven’t been eating a lot lately, mostly as an attempt to save money on this trip. My diet has consisted largely of conbini (convenience store) packaged baked goods, snacks, and fish products wrapped in seaweed and mayo. It is possible then that some of my frustrations with Japan stem from that hunger. It feels as though I’m half-awake, drifting only partly in reality. The other part of me feels like Chihiro in the movie Spirited Away—like I’m the last sensible person in the country, powerlessly standing by as Japan turns itself into a pig feeding at the trough.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Home Is Where the Tatami Futon Is: 東京 (Pt. II)

I am writing this from the bottom bunk of my guesthouse room, while an older Japanese man of perhaps 45 or 50 occupies the bunk above me, drinking a Sapporo beer and eating ramen from a disposable bowl. He is lying down, completely submerged in blankets, his head and hands the sole arbiters, peeking out over the top to connect noodle-spooled chopsticks to lips. In his ears is a pair of headphones, his eyes fixed to a point approximately three feet in front of him—to a cell phone in a tiny display holster—on which a news program in Japanese is flickering in short-wave flashes. I have been here for two days and this is the first time I have seen him. Last night, presumably for New Year’s Eve, he was out with friends or co-workers, celebrating at a bonenkai party, held for the purpose of forgetting the past year’s troubles (literally) and welcoming the new. And so far, in the utter quiet and solitude of the room, we haven’t exchanged a word.

It’s not to say that I didn’t try. Upon first seeing him, I let out an enthusiastic konnichiwa, but it fell on deaf ears, like those of a 10-year old playing Wii. After meeting my other two bunkmates—one from Mexico and the other from Croatia—I did my best to be cordial, asking all of the requisite questions of two strangers meeting for the first time. I learned that they were both traveling on vacation, that they both had an interest in Japanese (though neither of them could speak it), and that they intended to come back better prepared in the future. By now, however, they have both left the guesthouse—the Croatian fellow back home, and the Mexican to stay with a friend living on the other side of Tokyo—and I am left in the shabby hull of a bedroom with a man who couldn’t care less about my existence.

But in some ways, this makes sense. According to some of the others I’ve talked to, he has lived here for almost two years, an absolutely astounding figure considering the general function of the guesthouse. Travelers who come and stay at the guesthouse usually do so for a maximum of a few days or weeks, earning him the unique distinction of a “lifer.” It means he’s probably met hundreds of different people—if you take into account all three of the surrounding bunks in the room—making me just one more in a line of nameless faces that he has no reason to remember. To his credit, establishing connections sometimes makes it all the more difficult to say goodbye. He is also significantly older than the rest of the crowd the guesthouse attracts—predominantly single mid-20’s backpackers who travel on a budget and don’t mind staying in cramped quarters. His story seems almost etched into Boo Radley-like lore—an older man living alone (at least emotionally), and of whom very little know about his personal life. Though, admittedly, his mystery is a little more transparent. He doesn’t live in some decidedly condemned house on the fringes of a small Alabama town. He lives, prostrate, three feet above my head. But yet, I still feel as though I’ve never seen his face.

The extent of my 4-person guesthouse room in the heart of Tokyo. That's my bunk on the bottom-left.

It was clear that he staked out the best corner of the room. Years (and I can actually say that) of residence have given him free reign to pick his spot and settle as other residents came and went. In reality, it’s hard to even call what we’re staying in a “bunk.” I’m sitting on a tatami mat, a hard slab of approximately three inches, over which lies a thin futon comforter that separates me from the floor. It was seemingly done in the style of a Japanese ryokan, but without the romantic kitsch of having a “traditional experience”—not to mention the bath, yukata, cushions, sliding doors, and fancy breakfasts that come part and parcel. This is the bare bones, a ryokan fashioned for the Tokyo dweller, which has meant grafting an ancient Japanese way of living onto a distinctly modern high-rise tenement in the city’s core. For the purposes of my first four days in Japan, it has been my proverbial bunker—my escape from an imaginary nuclear fallout.

Aside from the lack of food rations, all around me are the crucial components of survival—tiny stove, hot water heater, microwave, mini-fridge, shower, toilet, and sink. Like a bear in hibernation, the man above me has packed an entire life’s-worth of necessary vestiges into the 6’x2’ rectangle that he inhabits. Held on the rafters above his bunk are coat hangers bearing dress shirts and suit jackets. There is a space heater directed toward him from the opposing bedpost. Alarm clock, toiletries, spare batteries, miscellaneous supplies (rubber bands, pens), and night clothes have been neatly prepared on a mock nightstand. Slid between two shelves of a plastic cupboard is a see-thru storage container full of clothing and other living accoutrements. He’s even wrapped aluminum foil around the part of the fluorescent light directly facing him, to avoid having to look at it before lights out at 11pm every night.

The guesthouse itself is a pretty understaffed operation, with three employees taking on all of the various duties from management and check-ins all the way to room cleanings. That’s because the establishment itself is quite small—only four rooms, each fit to hold either 4 or 12 people, on the third and fourth floors of an otherwise nondescript building. Most rooms are predominantly if not all male, save for one 4-person room reserved only for women. For security reasons, there is close to no indication whatsoever that the building holds a guesthouse, if you don’t count the microscopic hand-written sticker on the vestibule’s mailbox. The first floor is home to an innocuous-looking bar & restaurant, and walking up the back staircase to the secret elevator at the end of a long hallway feels like passing into a poor man’s Batcave. It took me nearly an hour to initially find the place—their reasoning for the air of secrecy is so that non-guests can’t sneak into the place because there is no reception desk and certainly no concierge service. Like most of Japan as a whole, the guesthouse seems to put its trust in the integrity of its residents.

The 12-person room adjacent to my own. Unlike mine, this room has a “common area” off to the side, which boasts a kotatsu, mini-TV, and wireless internet. It does tend to act as a central meeting place for the house’s residents (for lack of any other locale), usually in the company of one or another huge bottles of sake.

I find myself wondering how the man above me, especially at his age, can stand to live in a place like this for so long. There is absolutely no privacy, hardly a clear space to move around, and an endless stream of obnoxious tourists to have to put up with. But perhaps, then, it isn’t a choice. Maybe he has financial obligations—aging parents he had to put in a Home, paying child support for a divorced wife and their three kids in a suburban mansion, the ridiculous sum of money he lost in his younger days to pachinko. I daresay that anyone would choose to live like this if they could help it. But financially, it’s a great move. According to The Guardian, Tokyo is now ranked as the most expensive city in the world to live in. And despite a price tag that is still high given how little you’re actually getting, as mentioned in my last post, the guesthouse is by far the cheapest housing option in all of Tokyo, and is even cheaper if you rent out a bunk for weeks or months at a time. This is largely due to its location in an exceptionally convenient neighborhood. What the man above me makes up for in travel time and metro fare, he pays for with having to perpetually live with three other strangers in a room that’s not his own. But in the end, I have to concede that in a city like Tokyo—where pedestrians don’t jaywalk, shopkeepers never frown, and salary men routinely put in 60-hour workweeks—you can convince yourself of living through most anything.

(More on fitting in, social awkwardness, off-color sexual practices, lawlessness, Harajuku girls, nay-saying, and Spirited Away in Pt. III of this post).

 

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