I leave Japan bound for China on the Xinjianzhen, a passenger ferry that has operated on the route between Osaka and Shanghai, mostly empty, for decades. The two day crossing holds little appeal for the Japanese, who would rather fly, and until recently was irrelevant to the Chinese, who could not afford to vacation in Japan. Things are finally looking up for the Xinjianzhen, though, thanks to the newest development in tourism: the Chinese retail tourist.
The four treasures of Japan
The recent Chinese New Year holiday saw record numbers of Chinese shoppers visit Japan in search of its “four treasures” of consumer goods—rice cookers, vacuum flasks, ceramic knives, and high-tech toilet seats. Given that many of these products are actually manufactured in China before being slapped with a Japanese brand, this seems odd to me, but no matter. The high streets of Osaka were wallpapered with advertisements for duty-free shopping for foreign visitors, and the Chinese tourists responded with gusto, crowding the sidewalks with their overflowing plastic bags and partially-collapsed rice cooker boxes. Did you buy in excess of the airplane luggage limit? Not a problem—the ferry allows unlimited baggage.
Steamrolled by the Chinese tour group
Move aside Japanese Tour Group, you are about to lose the award for Most Mocked Tourist Phenomenon. The Chinese Tour Group, populated with freshly-minted members of the middle class, has been unleashed on the world. The members of one such group make up about 75% of the Xinjianzhen’s passenger manifest, so the ship becomes their fiefdom: they board first, eat first, and disembark first. During meals, the cafeteria is filled with a din of open-mouthed chewing, slurping, and yelling.
I befriend Ma, a young Chinese university student studying in Japan, who admits that he finds the behaviour of his elders boorish and embarrassing. Indeed, I spot a table of well-mannered young Chinese (not on the tour) who seem to abide by typical Western table etiquette. I see them collectively cringe as a man with a combover at the next table loudly hocks up a ball of phlegm into his empty rice bowl.
The lineup for on-board duty-free shopping begins to form well before the shop opens, which happens twice a day. Once the doors swing open, anarchy ensues as the guests flood into the store and buy every last tax-free bottle of brandy and discounted tube of Pringles. Within 10 minutes it looks like a Soviet grocery store, the few remaining items, dented and bruised, scattered here and there, and empty hooks poking out from the wall.
Life in second class
Almost all of the guests onboard are staying in Western-style cabins, with 4 bunks to a room. The 2nd class Japanese-style accommodation, where I am staying, is nothing more than an open room where up to 16 guests sleep cheek-by-jowl on foam pads set out on the carpet. As luck would have it, only three passengers are traveling 2nd class—among them, ironically, the only two Westerners on board, myself and a 21-year-old German drifter named Henry. With so much empty space, we can spread out, and things are pretty comfortable. The third man in our room divides his time between watching the television from a distance of 8 inches, mixing (and then drinking) herbal potions using ingredients procured from inside a tattered fanny pack, and snoring loudly while covered in sheets of newspaper and discarded food bits.
Henry and I keep each other company throughout the voyage. Our favourite item of conversation is the terrible food available for sale in the cafeteria. The cuisine is 100% Chinese, and while the meals served to the tour group look decent, the dishes available to the rest of the passengers are dismal. Fortunately I brought a bag of grocery store food with me, so I don’t starve. I supplement with calories from rice, which costs only 50 yen a bowl, and beer, which I buy from the vending machine.
The real international language
On both nights of the cruise the party room opens up for karaoke. The genres of choice for the middle-aged passengers are revolutionary hymns and Chinese opera, and many of them are remarkably talented. Duets are popular. Ma cradles his head in embarrassment, knowing full well that his own mother would be up there with the rest of them. Personally, I love it.
I’m cajoled into singing a song, and I choose Frank Sinatra’s Lady is a Tramp. They love me. The men clap along and bob their heads to the rhythm. The ladies rush onto the dance floor. Cheers erupt when I hit a high note. At the end, one woman rushes up and gives me a bouquet of plastic roses—where she procured it from I’ll never know. Forget English—Karaoke is clearly the international language.
Arrival in Shanghai
As the ship nears Shanghai, the ocean turns from blue-black to brown, and the air thickens. The river is thick with fishing boats, small craft, barges, tankers, cargo ships, and anything else imaginable. The shores are crowded with cranes, warehouses, ships in dry dock, apartment buildings, more cranes, garbage, and containers. Two days after departing Osaka, the Xinjianzhen rounds a corner and I see the striking skyline of downtown Shanghai slowly materialize out of the haze.