Monday, 21 April 2014

Tokyo, take two: near disaster travel story

If you prefer to skip my philosophical musings, scroll down to "**The Story" below.....

I don't think there is anything nicer than the sound of rain on a roof. Happily for me it's raining here and I'm sitting with my head very close to a roof. A slanted roof made of wooden slats that don't quite fit together so you can see through to the insulation.

But I love it. It's friendly and warm and cozy and homely.

I'm on a top bunk bed so it feels like I'm sort of camping (a love of mine), and all the bunks have canvass curtains for privacy - adding to the cozy camping-ness feeling. This nook will be my home for another 4 nights and it's so lovely I will be a bit sad to leave.

I'm in Tokyo again.

I came here last year for a month, to visit my then boyfriend and to see if I liked it enough to live here for a year or two. I did like it that much, but at precisely the same time some other things happened and I ended up doing quite a lot of grieving. For various and irrelevant reasons.

Despite the grieving, I loved Tokyo so much I didn't want to leave. But there was a sort of resigned sadness that stained many of those memories.

I couldn't have that. I dreamed of coming to Japan my whole life. I dreamed of living in Tokyo all through my 20s. I couldn't have my big Japan dream-of-a-lifetime visit stained by that kind of sadness.

So this is Tokyo, take two. And it's every bit as amazing but this time with a little less grieving and quite a lot more fun.

So far, anyway.


And, as I love hearing travel stories, especially the ones involving near-disaster, here's my first Tokyo take two near-disaster travel story.

**The Story

When I landed in Tokyo (well, Narita) it was 8pm and I had only 2 hours to get to my backpacker's. I packed super light so I could carry-on and run everywhere (lappie, a few clothes, a book). I flew through immigration and bolted for my train.


Just under 90 minutes to make it to Asakusa by the cut-off time for check in. They said "please don't be late as we can't check you in after 10pm". I had emailed them from Australia, worried I'd not make it in 2 hours (the airport is in whoop whoop), but they had reassured me I would. They told me to ring if I got lost or was late.

I have a Japanese SIM card (long story, doesn't matter). So, thinking I'd have my Google machine, I intended to follow GPS. In Tokyo, Google gives you PT directions.


Except I'd forgotten to unlock my new iPhone handset. I'd forgotten I even had a new handset since the last time I was overseas. SIM card is inserted but no joy, "please plug into iTunes to set up" it said. 

*slaps forehead

Right. No Google machine. Thank goodness for back up plan HostelWorld's written directions! 

Catch a train to Aoto station. Swtich to the train bound for Asakusa. Switch to Ginza line and get off at Tawaramachi. 


Squinting up at the map on the train roof I roughly calculated I'd not make it in time, or be cutting it very fine.

And, no Google machine = no phone to ring Backpacker's. 

I looked around. I hate asking strangers for favours, even though I'm often glad to help strangers when asked for one. It took me a while, but finally I asked a lady sitting near me. "Pardon me, can I borrow your phone?" in as much Japanese as I could muster (which isn't a lot, okay so I only knew how to say "pardon me", the rest was English and gesturing) and offered her some yen. 

I'm not certain she understood. I'm not certain the next 3 people I asked understood either. But they all hesitated then shook their heads. 

[pauses to laugh, wondering what they thought I was offering to pay them for]

I did the train switch thing. 

Foreigners! I went over to them. "Excuse me, do you speak English?" 

"A little."

"Do you have a telephone?" 

"No, sorry." 

"No worries, enjoy Japan, okay this is my stop". 


Got off at my final train stop. Maybe they'll wait a few minutes and I could still make it. It's only a 7 minute walk from the station. I kept going.

Back to the written directions. 

And I quote: "Leave the station via exit number 3. Go straight for a while, and turn left at a 2nd traffic light ('Kokusaidori-Asakusa 1'). Go straight for 3 mins passing by 5 junctions. Then you will find us on your right, just before you meet a big street.

I swear I followed them. To the letter. I went straight, counted 2 sets of lights, turned left, then counted 5 streets - all very carefully. Nothing on the right that even resembled accommodation. 

Wait. What does 5 junctions mean? I counted side streets! Did they have to be cross junctions

Confused, I retraced my steps, then returned counting 5 cross junctions. 

Still nothing. 


It has to be around here somewhere. So I walked around a few blocks.  

10.30pm (ish)

Well past check in cut off time. I popped into a few hotels/guest houses to see if they had vacancies. Plan B.

Alas, nothing. 

It was quite cold and raining softly, but as I trotted along I spotted a "24-hour Starbucks".  Right. Plan C. Even with the uncertainty of the whole thing I was starting to feel excited again about being in Tokyo.  

10.45pm (ish)

I found a very kind English speaking tourist out front of a guest house. I asked her if it was still open. "I don't think there's any vacancies", she said. Tired from all the trotting (a sort of walk/jog), I sat down and chatted with the lady for a while. She asked what I was doing looking for accomm so late and I explained my predicament. She went and got the manager for the guest house. Lovely dude. He used his Google machine to find out where I needed to go, got me a paper map and drew a line from where I was to where I needed to be. 

Did I mention he was lovely

I should also mention that from the station I'd gone in the opposite direction (away my backpacker's). I still don't know how that happened. 

Anyway with time pressure now off, I hung out there for a few minutes out of the rain. We talked about Melbourne and I told them my plan C for the night. "It's not actually a 24 hour Starbucks", said the lovely English speaking lady, now with a worried look on her face. 

Oh. Right. Thanks-well-you've-both-been-great-I'd-better-get-going-then. 

They wished me well and I set off again in the rain, thankful I'd packed so light. 

Okay, quick, brain, think of a new plan C! Wishing furtively someone could let me in/sneak me in at the Backpacker's?  

Even though I was a little apprehensive (okay scared) about being homeless for the night I had a brief Frances Ha moment running/skipping along the sidewalk. Tokyyyooooo!

The paper map was brillo. I found the place. Easily. Thank you lovely dude (san).


Lights were on. I could hear friendly chatter. 

Then I saw this note taped to the outside of the door. 

I looked through the locked door at the other travellers inside, held up the note and said "I'm Mary". They let me in, and told me how to do wifi if I needed to tell peeps back home I'd arrived safe. I was flooded with relief they'd let me in. I opened the note and it had instructions on how to get in with a "pay us in the morning". 

Quite overwhelmed by the gesture of that note and all the friendliness in general, I sat down on a little chair and kind of babbled for a while, almost in tears, then frantically texted the peeps who'd left me "are you there yet" notes (at which point reading those I actually did cry). 

So nice to have people in my corner. 

Anyway all the other travellers were very kind and no one told me to shut up. And then we laughed at my inability to follow directions.

Tell you what. I was pretty happy to discover my comfy bed in this little nook after I'd settled down somewhat.

Oh Tokyo, it's good to be back. 

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