Sunday, 23 January 2011

65 Hours to Japan

The Yan Jing, my home for just over 2 days

I'm now saying konichi wa with a bow instead of ni hao with a handshake, and domo arigato instead of xie xie. From back home I would have put Japan and China firmly in the same box, my knowledge of the 2 contrasting countries having been about the same as the 6 year old me stood in the local fish and chip shop chanting 'Chinese Japanese' whilst pulling the corners of my eyes up and down in front of the stainless steel counter. The 6 year old me I will forgive but the 23 year old has been very much enlightened.

But to begin from the beginning... How hard it was to leave that nice warm bed and that beautiful warm person at 4:50 on Tuesday morning. I don't think it needs to be emphasised how much I've enjoyed this chance stay in Beijing, and that the only reason for my departure is my visa's imminent expiration. The journey began with a taxi, and then a 210mph train ride to the coastal city of Tianjin, followed by a 2 hour taxi ride to the port which included a lot of shouting and confusion and my first realisation of how much I've been sheltered from the inconvenience of unshared language for my time in China. With the childish drawing of a ship on the ocean I finally arrived at the terminal to board the ship that would be taking me across the Yellow Sea to Japan.

I was the 1 and only laowai (old foreigner) or gaijin (outside person) and the only solo traveler aboard a ship of 200 mainly Chinese and a few Japanese, mostly young people making the journey for work. What with my mood at having left Cecily and my temporary home behind and the attention caused by this, the first few hours were spent quite uncomfortably, not to mention dealing with the unappealing thought of being stuck aboard this ship for more than 2 days. A few fellow passengers found the courage to approach what was probably a pretty unwelcoming face hidden in a book, but when they did the typical warmth and friendly curiosity was hard not to warm to. I was given Chinese tea (drunk by almost everyone traveling, usually in a clear bottle 1/2 filled with leaves) and some to this day unidentifiable vacuum packed food-like substance. My new buddies returned later for another 'chat' but we had exhausted all communication last time so they filtered away to the karaoke, not to be seen until they were offering me vodka in bed - bed being a bunk in a small and far too hot room with 15 other guys. The next evening it was the turn of a very drunk Japanese student to interrupt my film watching but again it was nice to talk with someone else for a while.

After 54 hours on board I disembarked in Kobe only to be welcomed into Japan by a customs check that only just stopped short of examining my insides with a rubber-gloved hand. Everything was unpacked and searched to the last possible hiding place, Jelly Babies and Cadbury's Mini Eggs were taken for x-ray and chocolate-filled sponge cakes were broken open and checked inside. When the chemicals dripped on some 'leaves' tweezered from the bottom of my backpack failed to turn either orange or purple I was free to leave the 2 apparently disappointed customs guys behind. In 22 border crossings, being checked at all was a first.

The view from Kobe city up to Kitano and the hillside

With 2 more trains and a great deal on confusion in navigating the Japanese subway I made it to my first stop, a total of 65 hours door-to-door.
Kobe is a great, small and friendly city, but as even the Lonely Planet says it isn't packed with things to see so it's only thanks to a head cold brought from the ship that I'm still here on Sunday. After enjoying the interest in just seeing the simple differences in people and society, behaviour and language, I made my way up to the Kitano Ijinkan area on the Kobe hillside which was home to some of the first foreigners in Japan at the end of the 19th Century and still displays the architecture of the UK, France, Austria, Denmark, etc., at that time. This is the same Kobe hillside that was largely destroyed by the earthquake in 1995 so in between these buildings which were rebuilt piece-by-piece there are those that remain destroyed but uncleared.

The ijinkan houses of Kitano

Evidence of the earthquake of 15 years ago - I don't know how this stained glass window survived in the destroyed house above

Saturday saw a visit to a local sake (rice-based alcohol or nihonshu, as sake just means 'alcoholic drink' in Japan) brewery to enjoy some free samples which temporarily saw off my cold.

Tomorrow I am finally moving on to Osaka, the place name that for some reason it was apparently very cool to print on t-shirts in the UK for the past few years, and then Kyoto, a city of 12 centuries and home of the treaty, before the megatropolis of Tokyo.

Below are some of the photos from Beijing that I couldn't post from China...

Tian'anmen Square looking north towards the Forbidden City (top) and south to the Monument to the People's Heroes, celebrating revolution, uprising and opium destruction, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

Monks and speed skaters - the gate on the right is the old entrance to Beijing


What I thought was a nice old shopping street and hutong but is actually faux-old after knocking the original buildings and alleys down.

Mao's Mausoleum and a happy visitor

So cold!

Inside the Forbidden City

Reluctant in front of my own lens (Photo courtesy of Cecily Huang Photography©)

Power in words and building

Snowboarding at Nanshan


  1. These photos are fantastic! And my how they make me sentimenal for my old home. Glad to see you are doing well. Enjoy Japan!!!! x

  2. Your journey from Beijing to Japan sounds epic! Thank goodness they understood your drawings or who knows where you could have ended up! How's the body holding up what with no bikeriding and the partying over christmas and new year?
    Enjoy Japan. Missing you as much as ever. BS xxxxx

  3. Do you think i deserve get photo credit from the one, "Reluctant in front of my own lens"?

  4. Cecily - Of course you do, my apologies. See amendment.

    Patricia, thanks so much! Coming from one as talented as yourself that is a big compliment. I can see why you loved the place so much : ) I hope you're enjoying Chiang Mai...

    BS - I'm not fat yet, despite chocolate and wine and a lack of exercise. Fingers crossed it lasts!