Going to Town

It was a hell of a way to go for a bag of peanuts. Let it be stated clearly though, for the record, that this was no ordinary bag of peanuts. Actually it wasn’t one bag of peanuts but two. Each bag weighed one kilogram.

But why would a story start with such a statement? Maybe because the peanuts were the only concrete evidence of a weekend in Tokyo that had promised to deliver so much.

They decided on Tuesday that they’d go to Tokyo the following weekend. One of them had discovered that her brother-in-law would have a two hour stopover at Narita airport on his way to Singapore. What a gloriously perfect excuse to head off to “town”. Don’t get me wrong, they both wanted to see Phillip. One for the first time, and the other for the first time in a long time. The proposed trip was colored with excitement from the start.

“Shit, it’s not even a long weekend.”

“I know, but the bullet train only takes two hours from Sendai...”

“Mm. I suppose even if we left work at the usual time...d’you think we could get off early?...we’d still be there in time for dinner....where do you think we’d stay?....and what about taking all the luggage to school?...”

“What do you mean all the luggage? It’s only a weekend.”

“I know – only a weekend. How long’s his stopover? Two hours? Sure. Pretty sensible reason to travel five hundred kilometres.”

“Since when have you started being sensible?”

“What’s a bullet train ticket worth? Twenty thousand yen?”

“There’s a special deal on this weekend – fifteen thousand...return...unlimited travel on all JR lines...”

“OK OK. No need to do a travel agent on me. Who am I kidding? I’m dying to go. Let’s do it!”

It was one of those times when “the things that are sent to try us” don’t arrive.

As it turned out, one of them (the one who could at least claim that Phillip was a relative) managed to get all of Friday off. Consequently, she left for Tokyo on Friday morning claiming pressing business at her embassy. They arranged to meet at Ueno station that evening. That’s as far as the arrangements went. Never mind that Ueno station was probably the busiest train station in the world. Never mind that bullet trains from Sendai arrived at a number of different platforms at alarmingly close intervals. Never mind that neither of them had set foot inside Ueno station before. Never mind any of that because they certainly didn’t.

The other one waded through the day with only half of the usual half a mind on the lessons she taught. The only incident of note was the tortured telephone conversation in Japanese that she had with the operator to locate the work phone number of a friend in Tokyo she was hoping would be hospitable enough to offer bed and breakfast to a couple of travellers from the north. It’s probably becoming clear by now that anything as organised as arranging a place to stay, in a strange city, more than six hours before arrival would be considered overly anxious by these two. I mean, one was already in Tokyo not knowing where she would sleep that night, and the other one hadn’t left yet but assumed that there would be a place to stay. Anyway the number was finally located.

“Hello, Tracey?”

“Yeah. Hello.”

“It’s me. How are you? Been busy? How’s work?”

“Oh...g’day. Yeah pretty busy lately...work’s work, you know.”

“Tell me about it!”

“What’re you up to?”

“Actually I’m spending the weekend in Tokyo with a friend. We’re arriving tonight.”

“Mmmm. This friend...anyone I’d be interested in?”

“Ha! A girlfriend more’s the pity.”

“Commiserations. Well, got anywhere to stay?”

“Have you got any plans for the weekend?”

“I thought so. Got a pencil? I’ll give you the directions to my apartment.”

“Thanks mate. OK Ready.”

“Make your way to my train station, that’s Asakadai. You need to leave from Ikebukuro. The last train out is about 11.30. OK. Once you’re here, turn right at the ticket booth-”

“Hang on a sec...you mean you’re not actually in Tokyo? How about a taxi?”

“You’re kidding. If you’ve got more money than I know you’re worth, sure, take a taxi. But it takes about half an hour by car...at least a hundred bucks.”

“Tracey, my phone card’s just run out and I don’t have any change...”

“Relax. I’ll fax a map and directions to you at work. If you run into any strife, give me a call at home after about 8.30. You’ve got my home number?”

“Yeah. Thanks mate. Gotta dash. See you sometime tonight.”

There’s nothing quite like the first ride on a bullet train. Especially if it is on a Friday afternoon, after yet another shitty day at work, and the weekend ahead looms large and inviting – the weekend can be officially said to have started.

She sat in an almost empty carriage sipping on a cold beer brought to her on a silver tray by an efficient (if somewhat toadying) waiter. Of course the almost obligatory travelling companion, the Walkman, was cranked up and the earphones were plugged into the appropriate orifices. At the same time, the sensation of hurtling through space at more than two hundred kilometres an hour, while still definitely in contact with the ground, was enough to threaten huge laughter to escape from her. Bearing in mind that the carriage wasn’t totally empty, she contented herself with smiling in a knowing way at her own reflection in the mirror-like, black tunnel glass of her window. She allowed herself a chuckle during the not infrequent beer induced visits to the toilet. Just wondering whether bullet trains had storage tanks in the toilets or whether all waste was ejected – at a mind boggling and no doubt spectacular pace – directly from the train, was enough to get her going.

The two-hour trip was over too soon and she stepped out into the fluorescent brightness of Ueno station, wondering if her chosen travelling companion would be waiting. A quick, but not yet nervous, glance along the platform soon indicated that she was not. It seemed obvious that the next thing to do would be to head up into the station proper. As she climbed the stairs, she recognised first a pair of shoes, then a pair of trousers from the knees down, coming down towards her on the staircase opposite. Casual observers of the meeting might have guessed that they were seeing a long separated pair of doting sisters or a reunited pair of childhood friends. Hysterical laughter. Dropped luggage. Hugs. In fact they had seen each other as recently as Thursday, but such was the mission-like quality of this trip, such was the haste with which the plans had been made, such was the very haphazardness of the plans themselves, that emotions were at a bit of a premium.

After they had calmed down, well outwardly anyway, they made quick work of storing their luggage in a station locker and plunged fearlessly into the subway. According to the subway map, it would be easy to get to Ginza from Ueno. There was a neat orange line right to it. They’d heard there was a good Chinese reataurant in Ginza. A good Chinese restaurant! Incredulity should not be induced by the assumption of a good restaurant in Ginza but by the assumption that this particular restaurant would be easy to find. Did they know the exact address of the place? They did not! Could they read Japanese? They could not! If they could have read Japanese , did they even know the name of the restaurant? Don’t be ridiculous. As luck would have it, and so far luck seemed pretty much in control of the situation, they came out of the subway at Ginza, walked about a hundred metres when they came to a Chinese restaurant. Whether anyone will ever know if this restaurant was the restaurant is an academic point and of little value.

They were welcomed into the restaurant as you are welcomed nowhere else in the world but Japan. This was despite the fact that the place was full to overflowing with affluent looking, immaculately dressed people and they were in jeans and T shirts. On the climb up the stairs to the restaurant they had failed to notice the plush, deep red carpet, the highly polished brass of the stair rail, the elegant and subdued recessed lighting. To be fair they probably had noticed the doorman who let them in off the street, but this had not registered and they were quite surprised when they were seated at a table large enough for six, set with a white linen tablecloth and silver cutlery which reflected the light from the chandelier above.

Slightly fazed, but undaunted, they set to ordering from the menu with careless abandon. Their food arrived halfway through the first beer and it was immediatley clear that there was very little of appeal in the whole banquet. It seemed to be made up almost entirely of unidentified, yet brightly colored, sea creatures.

“So do you reckon I made a bit of a blunder with the ordering?”

“Maybe a bit of practice on the Japanese terms required for Chinese delicacies wouldn't go astray. Anyway, cheers!”

At about this point they noticed that a majority of the guests were sipping on the same sort of wine. Upon asking the waiter, the full extent of the information they could understand was that it was Chinese wine. Always in for something new, they ordered a bottle; after all 6500 yen didn’t seem exorbitant when pay day had only been yesterday. To their dismay, the waiter brought them each only one glass of the nameless wine (it must have had a name, but they certainly didn’t know it.). Yet again something had been lost in the translation in the ordering process. However, after the first taste, dismay turned to relief. It tasted like some particularly noxious patented remedy, of the kind sold at travelling shows.

“Sweet.”

“Very sweet.”

“Ha! It tastes like Ant Rid smells.”

“It’s probably an acquired taste eh?”

Yeah, well I don’t think I’m prepared to put in the effort. Pour me another beer will you?”

“Certainly madam. And may I say that madam obviously has very refined tastes.”

They cracked up. That’s probably the right term for this particular situation. No polite tittering, or Japanese-style giggling behind the hands. As far as laughter goes, this was a full scale, high budget production. Following this there was little conversation balanced by big beer drinking and serious eating. At the end of the two hour meal the wine glasses were, conspicuously, the only containers in which any substance remained.

Ever polite, the waiter asked if the glasses could be removed. Belatedly beginning to realise the extent of this spending spree, it was decided that it was not OK to take them away and the Chinese wine was drunk in a style that might have won many a drinking contest.

Now there remained only to tackle the subway again, collect their luggage from Ueno station and make their way to Tracey’s apartment. Only! Stranded in the middle of all the uncertainties this operation entailed, was one hard fact. The last train out of Ikebukuro was at 11.30 pm. As they were about to enter the subway, a coffee shop almost jumped out at them and dragged them inside. The hundred metre walk from the restaurant had whetted their appetites for cake and coffee.

Once they’d ordered their coffees (first things come first) one of them decided to call Tracey.

“G’day, Tracey.”

“Uh?”

“Were you asleep mate?”

“Yeah. Had an early night....conference tomorrow.” she yawned loudly. “Where are you?”

“Ginza somewhere...”

“What’s the time. Christ it’s 11 o’clock. You’ve got half an hour to get to Ikebukuro if you want to catch the last train.”

“Yeah, she’ll be right. Just wanted to let you know we’re on the way.”

“Thanks heaps. And I was so worried. See you in a couple of hours then.”

Thirty minutes isn’t much time to drink coffee, get from one side of Tokyo to another, collect baggage on the way, buy tickets and find the right departure platform. However, at 11.29 they were racing up the steps to platform 8. Upon reaching the top, they came to a sudden halt. They were rooted to the spot in sheer amazement. The train was there, waiting to take off, but it was absolutely jam packed and there were at least twenty people milling around each door. It was easy to see that each and every one of them was determined to get on the train – the last one of the night. The most common method of getting on board seemed to be to face away from the train and wriggle backwards towards the door, burrowing past other bodies, until at least one small part of the anatomy could be said to be inside the train. It might just be an elbow or a heel, but it was good enough. In addition, from time to time, a conductor with a long stick would stop at one of the seething doorways and poke about with this stick amongst the frantic insect-like potential passengers. This had the effect of pushing yet more people onto the train.

Once they had stopped laughing enough to be able to move, they headed for the nearest door and joined in the melée. The bigger of the two got on first and reached out for the rucksack of the other one. Then (it seemed like a miracle) they were both inside the carriage. It was so tightly packed in the train that even if you had wanted to hold onto the handrail it would have been impossible to get your hand up from your side to do so. The passengers were simply held in an upright position by each other’s bodies. Even if you were to faint, you would remain standing.

Although the two of them started the hour long journey standing together near the door, within about twenty minutes they were at opposite ends of the carriage from each other. It was a living science lesson: a perfect demonstration of Brownian motion. One of them was engaged in a jolly conversation with a drunken businessman and the other was being stared at, at close range, by a couple of giggling schoolgirls.

After an hour of being in the mobile sardine can, one of them noticed the name of the station they had just stopped at. Of course it was the station they had been heading for. And of course, there ensued a mad rush to get off the train with all the luggage before it started up again. Who knew how much further along the track the next station would be?

“Tracey said if we turn right and look straight ahead we should be able to see the only large apartment block for miles. That’s where she lives.”

They did just that. They could see no large apartment block. They looked in every direction – just in case. No luck. They decided to walk away from the station for a way to see if the apartment block became visible from the open plain. Because this place was very much like an open plain. The few shops that huddled around the station seemed deserted. Even the pachinko parlor was shut.

Having had a bit of a reccy, and still being unable to see the elusive apartment block, they came back to the station in the hope of finding a phone to call Tracey.

Instead of a phone, they found a couple of likely young lads out for a bit of a cruise in - of all things – a Pontiac. The boys offered them a ride to wherever they were going. It seemed like an offer too good to be true. By their rule book (admittedly a thin volume) you simply didn’t turn down such invitations. It’s not every day that you get to ride in a Pontiac – especially not in Japan. It was a suitably surreal situation to appeal to their finely honed sense of the unusual and different.

They climbed into the capacious back seat ready for an adventure.

It was just as well that they were ready for an adventure, because that is exactly what ensued. Having managed to convey the gist of the sort of building for which they were searching to the drivers (who were near hysterical with excitement at having two female gaijin in the car) the boys cranked up the stereo and sped off in a confident manner. Twenty five minutes later they pulled up outside a building which was definitely not over ten storeys and therefore was not Tracey’s place. The view from the car was of an even more deserted plain than the one they had spied from the station. There were fewer lights also. It looked like they were in remote country.

The drivers seemed pleased that they had reached the desired destination with such ease. Their faces were totally crestfallen when the two travellers refused to get out of the car and managed to explain that this was not the right place. They cheered up marginally after some rummaging in rucksacks produced a hankie with a picture of a koala and a Canadian flag lapel pin. After the ceremonial presenting of gifts, it was decided that the best thing would be to get a lift to a police box.

There was an overly emotional parting from the Pontiac drivers and then the second stage of the adventure began. Once inside the police box it was a quick matter to show the police a written version of Tracey’s address and request that they be shown on a map where they were and where they were heading. It’s possible that this course of action in relation to life itself would not have been a bad idea for these two.

It wasn’t long before the sad truth became apparent. The written address was in fact Tracey’s work address. When asked, the police didn’t know of any buildings over ten storeys anywhere near the railway station. They did not seem to know much about the region surrounding the station at all. However, let us not forget that the station was by now, 25 Pontiac minutes away.

There was nothing for it but to go for a taxi. Three in the morning, by the side of a regional road is not the best of times or places for two gaijin in Japan to try to catch a taxi. It soon became clear that the task was impossible. No less than five taxis sped by the frantically waving pair but not one would stop. None of them had passengers but all waved their hands in front of their faces as if shooing away a particularly annoying fly, thus indicating by Japanese taxi driver sign language that the taxi was not available.

Sure enough, luck stepped in to save the day before too long. Another cruising car pulled up alongside the pair and this time a lift was offered by a young couple. The lift was accepted and after more driving, listening to music, exchanging of addresses and gift giving, the car stopped outside an apartment block that seemed to fit the bill. In the morning there was much time spent on analysing why they hadn’t been able to see the building from the station the night before when it was obviously very close and very large. No adequate solution was ever hit upon. By now it was 4am and the final task remained to find Tracey’s apartment. Getting to the tenth floor was easy enough but deciding whether to turn right or left once outside the lift was a major decision. They turned left and proceeded to circumnavigate the tenth floor (about a kilometre round trip it seemed) only to find that Tracey’s apartment was the last one they came to and naturally just to the right of the lift.

Tracey seemed remarkably pleased to see them despite being woken from peaceful slumber for the second time that night. She proved to be a fine host, providing a soothing scotch and soda as a pre-bed drink. Thus fortified , they took to their futons with happy thoughts of the day to come.

The day to come soon came and they were on their way to a shopping spree . They spent four hours going from fashion boutique to shoe store to accessory shop to department store endlessly undressing and trying on clothes that were too small. It should have been apparent after the first store when even the men’s shirts were tight across the shoulders that their search for fashionplate clothes was futile. However, they forged ahead, convinced that there must be some place that catered to their large clothing needs and their impeccable taste in what was trendy.

They were defeated . At lunch, they pulled out a list that they had written on the train together last week. The list contained all the things they had wanted to achieve while in “the big smoke”:

  1. Meet Phillip.
  2. Find Chinese restaurant in Ginza.
  3. Book tickets for summer holiday.
  4. Find good hotels to stay when relloes visit.
  5. Spend money.
  6. Find out about extending visa.
  7. Buy new clothes.
  8. Eat in at least two good restaurants daily.

So far they had achieved only two things off the list and only no. 5 with any real success. Despite finding no clothes to fit them, they were now laden with bags filled with exquisitely wrapped junk. Most stores loved to gift wrap the purchases they made and in fact were put out by the request not to do so. Their shopping bags were filled with novelties such as 250g pieces of chewing gum, lurex socks, plastic fruit with “real” fruit scent, musical earrings – all wrapped.

One of them was also carrying two kilograms of peanuts. She had been delighted with her haggling skills when (in Japanese) she had convinced a street vendor to sell her two kilos of peanuts in the shell for 1700 yen when a single kilo bag cost 1000 yen. It didn't matter that she didn't really like peanuts.

No. 8 was not going to be difficult to fulfil. They had found a great place for lunch and were having a marvellous time. In the end they had such a great time that before they knew it, it was 5pm.

“It must be time to scout around for a good restaurant for dinner, y’reckon?”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“I think we’re in the wrong district though. A change of scenery’d do us good.”

“Tally ho. To the subway. How about Shinjuku?”

“Sounds good to me.”

An hour and a half later (we’ll skip the subway story this time), found them outside a huge building with a sign that displayed the names of all the restaurants inside. There were about forty to choose from but one leapt right out at them.

“The Tiki Room. Sounds like our scene.”

“Yeah...I’ve always wanted to try New Zealand food. You hear so much about it y’know? Truly distinctive they say. Ha ha.”

Alas, when they tried to enter the restaurant, which looked more than able to satisfy their expectations of a restaurant with a difference – after all the Japanese waitresses were all wearing grass skirts and coconut shell bikini tops, and there was a poster promising a floor show – they found that the place was fully booked.

Dejected, they headed out in to the street and wandered aimlessly for some time. They had really set their hearts on the Tiki Room. Nothing else seemed to be even a moderately good substitute. Their wanderings brought them to a rather seedy looking alley in which there were only two establishments, and both were underground bars. It was a hard choice. One had an exuberant pirate theme as an attraction. The entrance was through the side of a ship (well a replica of a ship), there was a jolly roger flying and suitably seafaring music was being fed into the street via loudspeaker. However, just across the way was the rather more unassuming “Chapter Two”. They liked the name, but even more they liked the Andy Warhol print out the front.

They tumbled down the stairs into “Chapter Two”. Within minutes they had found seats at the bar, ordered a bottle of whisky and launched into a conversation with the barman. He turned out to be the owner and a bit later they discovered that he was Korean. A discussion about various culinary delights made it clear that they had never eaten Korean food before. No worries. A date with the “Chapter Two” owner was soon arranged for the next day.

Is it absolutely necessary to go into the details of how they missed that Korean luncheon? Use your imagination and include these vital ingredients, extended period of fascination with trendy sunglasses during morning shopping attempt and belated total disaster with reading subway maps.

Having called the hospitable Korean Chapter Two owner – did they ever know his name?- to apologise that they would not be making it to lunch, the travellers emerged from the subway into the ritziest area of Ginza. The street was closed to allow for street trading. Whist all normal mortals focussed on the wares at ground level, this pair managed to spy a restaurant on the fourth floor of a nearby building. Having survived the morning only by conjuring up mental images of the sumptuous Korean feast they were soon to enjoy, it seemed necessary that they indulge in a serious lunch since their culinary designs had been thwarted.

So on up to the French restaurant they went. And on to the Nouveau Beaujolais, and the four course meal, and the Grand Marnier. And then to the street to buy the absolutely necessary tiny rubber imitation crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, prawns) that swelled to three times their size when put in water. Two of these brightly colored creatures eventually made it to Australia with their owner and survived for a number of years in a bathroom. They lived in the shower recess and in this heavily utilised environment, sometimes had call to expand and contract six or seven times a day.

And all of a sudden it was time to get to the airport. Phillip's plane was arriving in three hours and they had to get back to Ueno and catch the special train to Narita airport.

The train ride to the airport was relatively uneventful; most of the time was spent on planning how best to utilise the short time they would have with Phillip. As soon as they arrived at Narita they beelined for the airport sushi bar. Luckily they were ahead of the dinner rush and managed to get a table almost straight away. Once seated they ordered large quantites of the best sushi and large bottles of beer so that one of them could whisk Phillip up directly from his plane so that not a moment would be wasted. Phillip's sister-in-law headed off to achieve this plan.

The other one sat at the table and waited for their return. And waited. And waited. And waited. After 45 minutes even she was beginning to realise that no-one was going to turn up to share this marine feast. Well, any number of the 60 or so people queued outside would happily have joined her no doubt if they had not been so angry about a gaijin sitting at a fish-laden table big enough for six people by herself when there were obviously hungry people about. Eventually she signalled for the bill, ate three or four pieces of sushi, sculled a couple of beers for form's sake if nothing else, and left in search of her partner in crime.

Downstairs she immediately found her, in full flight and in floods of tears. It transpired that because Phillip's stopover was for such a short time, the passengers on his flight would not be coming out into the airport proper. Distraught is a good word to describe the predominant emotion at this time.

Apart from the fact that they would not be able to see Phillip, what of the jar of home made pesto sauce and the green suede miniskirt he had brought all the way from Canada??

The ride back to Ueno was a markedly different affair from the ride to the airport. On the way they had displayed an embarrasing amount of girlish enthusiasm – thrilled at their adventure so far and looking forward to the rest of it. On the way back, they were subdued and anxious. They ate chocolate and chips, smoked cigarettes and drank beer all the way. They did most of these things simultaneously and non stop – not a pretty sight.

Once in Tokyo it was straight to the platform for the bullet train to Sendai. The trip back was mainly a blur. They arrived back in Sendai late enough to go home, straight to bed and get up early to go to their respective schools the next day.

A week later, a parcel arrived from the Narita. It contained pesto sauce and a mini skirt that seemed none the worse for wear despite having spent some days sitting in the first class arrivals lounge.

It was a hell of a way to go for a bag of peanuts.

No polite tittering, or Japanese-style giggling behind the hands. As far as laughter goes, this was a full scale, high budget production.