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The Unknown Path Well Worn

Tuesday, December 27, 2011
This is the second in a series of articles about my recent adventures in Japan.

The concourse echoes with emptiness. All but two security guards appear to occupy the cavernous space. A rush of empathy hits me as I recall the lone crewman exploring his barren hometown of Edmonds, Washington in the novel On the Beach.

I fish the large receipt out of my backpack that I purchased at JTB International (Canada) in Toronto two days earlier. This receipt will be a golden ticket to easily accessible travel on Japan's legendary rail system. But first, I need to exchange the receipt for a miniature booklet which will become my metaphorical source of ultimate power while slingshotting to and from Nagasaki.

The ticketing office (revealed by the bright green sign with large JR lettering I was instructed to look for by the JTB agents) is soon closing, so their small staff politely gesture me to sit down and quickly complete the process.

Setting up the Japan Rail Pass requires my hotel’s name, which I do not have committed to memory. I begin the process of retreiving it from my iPhone’s email cache. This proves to be a time consuming effort, so a clerk transfers me to a neighbouring ticket office. Eventually, a Japan Rail Pass and Reserved Seat Ticket are in my possession. All of this was accomplished with incredible politeness from the agents and minimal spoken English.

I proceed to the underground station in anticipation of my first ride on the legendary Japanese rail system.

An iPhone 4 photo of my newly acquired Japan Rail Pass and ticket to Tokyo Station.

The Japan Rail Pass is recommended as the easiest and cheapest method of rail travel for foreigners in Japan. With a flash of the pass at ticketing gate booths, foreign travellers gain quick access to train platforms while all other travellers flow through often crowded turnstiles. As I wave my pass at the booth's clerk, I temporarily fool myself into believing I’ve acquired Jedi powers.

While standing patiently on the platform waiting for the train to arrive at the station, I become bemused by the odd mixture of English and Japanese in the rail system. There are numbers where I expect Japanese symbols and vice versa. I feel somewhat prepared for this, thanks to the ever popular All Your Base meme. It still requires a few extra seconds to ensure I haven't taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

A typical train departure sign with a mix of Japanese and English characters.

The train arrives and I enter a virtually empty Car 9. The empathetic rush continues. As I seat myself, I notice only a few other passengers. There are three seats in my row, so I set my backpack on the seat beside me and get settled in for the ride to Tokyo Station in the heart of Tokyo.

Within a few minutes, a stereotypically looking Japanese businessman is standing in the aisle beside me and, while showing me his ticket, gestures that I move aside. I briefly pan my eyes around the nearly empty train car, then innocently shrug and slide my backpack and myself over one seat each. I humourously wonder to myself if seating us side by side in a nearly empty train car is a method of indoctrinating foreigners into Japan's infamous style of minimal personal space? Then, using surprisingly clear and tense English, he says, “You should read your ticket.” He proceeds to light up a cigarette (I was assigned to the smoking car) and begins to quietly read.

The ride to Tokyo Station is rather low key, so I return to reading the Steve Jobs biography. Occasionally, I lift my eyes away from the page to see the vistas of Japan zoom past under a nearly full moon sky. The first bright sign that flows past is, of course, the golden arches of McDonalds. I grin to myself with an additional eye roll and dive into the next tale of Steve Jobs’ early temperament.

As the train pulls into Tokyo Station, I prepare for the first adventure on the road to Hashima Island - actually finding Tong and our hotel!

Tong’s friend Kuni, who lives in Tokyo, has graciously made hotel arrangements on our behalf for the night and will be joining us for a few hours. Originally, we planned to meet in Tokyo Station, but they understandably decided to wait for me in the hotel versus standing around for hours in Tokyo Station. It’s up to me to find my way to the hotel on my own.

My feet lead me off of the train and into the busy station. The empathetic rush fades. My goal is to get to a central location in the complex and search for a directory map with some kind of “You Are Here” indicator. I spot a large map display at the top of the concourse ramp.

While at the Vancouver airport, I captured a Google Maps screenshot of Tokyo Station and its surrounding area. Out comes my iPhone and I swipe through numerous photos to get to the image of that map. I pause for a second and decide to flip back a few photos to one I passed of my sister Arlene. This brings to mind a conversation we had just before I left for Japan, when she assured me I’d be alright on the trip and my instincts would carry me through any potentially difficult moments. Always appreciating a little inspiration, I decided to make that photo my wallpaper to have it serve as a constant reminder to stick to my instincts and, as Arlene would say, “Just do it!”. On a deeper level, Arlene simply inspired me to remember how my Dad approached all intense situations - with a calm, yet quick ability to assess a situation and determine a sound course of action.

After a few minutes of comparing my iPhone map image to the station’s map, I realize the Pearl Hotel Yaesu’s location is not indicated. There are several hotel icons, but none of them are marked with my hotel’s name. Now what?

To be continued...