‘Don’t be late, or you’ll be locked out’ is the last thing you want to hear before boarding an international flight. My younger brother, Julian, is teaching English in Tokyo and served as our host for the final stop on our round-the-world odyssey. I emailed him a few days before our flight to get his address and work out our arrival plans. A very complex plan emerged, which involved precision timing and no room for errors or else, well, we’d be locked out. Naturally, our flight was delayed. And the phone number I had for my brother was off by a digit. And it was raining.
In the arrivals gate, I spent about 20 minutes and a small fortune on a payphone demanding keys and directions from a non-English speaker before I realized that I was calling the wrong number. We didn’t have an address, as Julian’s building is unmarked, and we weren’t sure which neighborhood to go to to wait for him since his teaching assignments changed every day. So we sat in the Tokyo airport, the last stop on our whirlwind 14-month trip, for the first time at a loss for what to do.
Eventually, we chose a neighborhood that had come up in my many emails with Julian and seemed centrally located to a ton of train lines. Through miracles of iPhone technology, we were able to get a hold of him via email at a break in class and communicate- more or less- where we were. We found a crowded, over-priced American style diner and sipped at our $6 coffees- careful not to finish them too quickly and, thus, lose our right to sit wedged in the one free table we found where we were miraculously able to stash our Godzilla-sized backpacks. Julian came to retrieve us not too much later because he had been let out early on account of the typhoon. Did I mention it was raining?
After disembarking the train in his neighborhood, we sloshed through the rain, which was coming at us at a right angle, for a good 15 minutes before coming to his very tiny, very Japanese, ‘apartment’. It was basically a boarding house where each of the eight tenants had their own doll-house sized room and shared laundry, toilets, and showers. There was one shower for eight adults. And we made ten. Julian graciously heated up some pasta on his hot-plate (no kitchen, obvs) and after we finished doing the dishes, we washed up ourselves in the sink- the lone water source (aside from toilet and shower) and single concession to the amenities that most adults take for granted as tools for basic hygiene and sanity.
This story is not meant to highlight my own high-maintenance attitude, but goes to show that it is an arrogant traveler who thinks that having a full passport means that there are no surprises left. We were more stressed out on our arrival in Japan than we had been since being held up at knifepoint in Honduras. The thing that was different about this arrival versus all of the others, of course, was that this time we had a plan: so there was something to go wrong. Every other time, we were just winging it, so we couldn’t have messed it up if we tried. We ended up having a fantastic time in Tokyo despite our uneasy arrival, the very pronounced cultural divide, and the fact that Japan is the most God-awfully expensive country on the face of the planet. But we’ll get to all that later….