After a endless crossing of the Pacific by cargo ship, I spend only 18 hours in Korea before getting on the next boat—this time, a high-speed catamaran that travels between Busan and Fukuoka, Japan in less than three hours. I need to reach Tokyo the same day to meet my partner Mike, who is joining me for vacation.
Jet ferries and bullet trains
On the Busan-Fukuoka “jet ferry” I am befriended against my will by a squinty-eyed vacationing Canadian from Calgary, who restlessly paces up and down the aisle, subjecting me to a one-way diatribe about how expensive this trip has been, no thanks to his wife, who does not understand financial matters. The other passengers inch away uncomfortably as he snaps blurry photos of the sea from each window in sequence. Starved as I am of English conversation, I can barely contain the urge to toss him overboard.
Once in Fukuoka, I fill out the always-hilarious customs form (do you have any opium or swords?) and am issued a visa without any hassle. The Japanese agent bows repeatedly—a thousand apologies sir, but might I investigate the contents of your bag? He unzips my backpack with a white-gloved hand and gingerly looks for opium and swords, replacing everything neatly. He seems embarrassed by the intrusion and declines to investigate the other compartments of my bag, and so I’m soon on my way (more bows).
I climb on a well-signed city bus for the 20-minute ride from the ferry terminal to the train station. The bus looks like a cartoon, small and rounded, like something Hello Kitty might ride. Every railing and seat is sparkling clean, colourful information pamphlets hang at a precise 30-degree angle, and the passengers sit politely in rows. I am shocked to learn that the fare is paid at the end of the trip—anyone could avoid paying by exiting the rear door. Nobody does, though, and passengers dutifully pay the driver as they alight. Something is wrong—where is the homeless guy with a dripping bag of recyclables? Why has nobody keyed graffiti into the window glass? I check to make sure I have not boarded a limousine shuttle, but no—this is just normal public behaviour in Japan.
Once at the train station, I trade my pre-purchased voucher for a 7-day unlimited Japan Rail pass. A roving agent helps me fill out the paperwork while I’m in the lineup, so when I reach the window it takes less than a minute to get my pass and book a one-way ticket to Tokyo. A few moments after leaving the ticketing office, a breathless agent catches up to me to hand me my receipt.
The Shinkansen bullet train leaves precisely on time thirty minutes later. A buoyant jingle chimes away cheerfully as the doors open, like something from a children’s cartoon. Despite traveling at 300 km/h, the train barely makes a sound or vibration, so I stretch out and enjoy the scenery out of the window.
Sitting next to me on the train is Yoshi, a Japanese man in his early 60’s who was transferred to Chicago thirty years ago and is heading to Kyoto to visit family. He is cheerful and talkative, and despite his halting and thickly-accented English, he talks to me non-stop for four hours.
Yoshi shares many anecdotes and helpful pieces of advice. He talks at length about the revered Japanese toilet (so interesting that I record it—listen to the audio clip below). He also shares some secrets of how to charm a young Japanese lady—apparently tall, pale English-speaking foreigners are popular, so I should have good success (“I’m not looking—I have a wife”, he assures me). He also talks with distain about the mobs of Chinese tourists who crowd the high streets of Osaka carrying enormous shopping bags. “They only come to shop,” he sighs. Yoshi then proceeds to show me all of the various things he has bought in Japan so far, including a $400 electric razor that cannot be rivaled by anything available in America.
At the end of the train journey, Yoshi shares half of his name of cake cake with me, and makes me promise to install a Japanese toilet in my home.
Click here to read a transcript of the audio clip
Alex: Can you describe for me the Japanese toilet?
Yoshi: Some hotels [in Chicago] OK. But winter time…sit, very cold. Oooooh! But Japanese toilet, sit, is a little hot. Hot, and push button, hot shower is coming to [laughs].
Alex: Wash you?
Yoshi: [laughs] Yeah, it’s very nice, you know? I like.
Alex: You bought this toilet and brought it home to Chicago?
Yoshi: Ya, I have two. I have two set. I buy from Japan. Because it’s very very nice, swish water, no need for paper.
Most people are familiar with the strange oddities that define the Japanese urban phenomenon. Drunken salarymen stumbling home in identical black suits, vomiting politely into garbage cans—karaoke bars where otherwise-reserved men and women slur their favourite tunes to a clapping audience—tiny capsule hotels where you sleep enclosed in a full-amenities coffin—10-story TV screens flashing advertisements featuring doe-eyed teens dressed “lolita style”—garish arcades and pachinko (gambling) parlours operating at all hours. After wandering into a couple of Tokyo or Osaka’s niche cafes, however, I learn that the oddities do not end there.
Occupying several levels of a 6-story building in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, an area known for discount electronics stores and cosplay costume shops, is the @Home café, a so-called “maid café”. Here, the waitresses dress up in frilly French maid costumes and call their (mostly male) customers “master”. Mike and I order the lunch special and watch, entranced, as the maids flounce around, giggling demurely, while serving drinks and making conversation with the blushing male clients. Our waitress makes a sensual show of squeezing decorative chocolate sauce into the shape of a rabbit on my drink. Our meals are arranged to look like cartoon animals, and are festooned with carrots and cheese adorably stamped into hearts, stars, and snouts. As we finish the meal, the maids, squealing in delight, lead the customers in a mass game of rock-paper-scissors.
Things get even stranger in Osaka, where I venture into the Café Niko. It is the first of Japan’s so-called cat cafes, where animal-loving customers are invited to cuddle with the felines-in-residence while enjoying a coffee or juice. Most of the customers are pairs of giddy Japanese girls, sometimes with a reluctant boyfriend in tow. A lone Swiss woman dashes frantically from cat to cat, petting each in sequence while cooing to them in accented English. “I just love cats!” she gushes, pressing two reluctant felines up against her face. After releasing them, she looks wistfully in my direction. “I like rabbits more, though. I looked everywhere for the rabbit café, but I couldn’t find it.”