The beginning the month of May 2008 saw the realization of a very old dream of mine. As far as I can remember, I have always been interested in Asian countries, in particular Japan, and always had the wish to travel there. The way things turned up, it ended up happening much later than I had hoped, at the age of 27 and after 12 years practicing Aikido. In fact, things happened quite quickly and without me giving it much thought. A group of students from the Dublin Aikikai Aikido led by Cyril Lagrasta had been planning a trip to the Aikikai for some time and quite spontaneously, I ended up buying myself a ticket along with them, never mind my PhD thesis that I was supposed to be working hard at completing.
During the weeks that separated the purchase of the ticket from the actual trip, I have wondered frequently if my interest for the country had not worn off with the years of non-fulfillment of this childhood's dream. In fact, when the long awaited date of the departure finally arrived, I was quite disappointed to realize that I did not feel as much excitation as I had expected. It is in the company of Cyril Lagrasta and his students that I board the plane that is to bring us to the Nippon archipelago after an 11 hours journey east. Quite obviously, we spend a great deal of the flight time talking about Aikido practice and making plans about which teacher and which class we will attend to as well as what locations we will visit.
After a pleasant flight, we finally reach Narita airport at 6 p.m. While exiting the aircraft, all my senses are awaken in order to catch the first signs that will confirm to me that I am really in the land of the rising sun. As I climb the stairs towards immigration, I see the huge banner saying "Welcome to Japan", then I spot the first notice boards written in kanji. At last, I realize that I am in Japan! We make our way towards the immigration desks where we have to face the J-VIS system. Travelers have to put both index fingers on the machine and look at the camera. The data is then checked against the databases of the Japanese Immigration Bureau and any match means... trouble. The procedure is quick and efficient and we are soon waiting by the belt to get our luggage. No time to waste though so we quickly buy our tickets and board the Narita Express train that is to bring us to the Shinjuku district, at the heart of Tokyo in just about an hour and a quarter.
It is at this point that the first clear signs of enthusiasm start to appear and everyone takes out their cameras in order to document our journey as well as possible. Excitation time has come... The train is very spacious and comfortable which comes as a surprise to me since I expected everything in Japan to be small and cramped. We are about the only people in the carriage, probably due to the fact that we are traveling off the peak touristic season. A very wise choice as we will realize later during the trip...
We reach the Shinjuku station about one and a half hour later after traveling through endless miles of suburban landscape. The station is one of the main rail hubs of the capital and it links central Tokyo and the more recent western suburbs. It is the world's busiest station and over 3.5 million people travel through it every day. Once we finally head out from the station, the welcoming that Tokyo has to offer is quite mesmerizing and totally faithful to all the clichés about the city that popular culture has brought us over the years.
Almost like a reception comity especially waiting for us, countless skyscrapers are lined up before our eyes, all covered with luminous neon lights and screens. I can't help it but get many flashbacks from the first minutes of the movie "Lost In Translation" with Bill Murray. The tiredness and the hypnotic landscape of lights and people really make me feel like in a dream. Never I have I felt that a movie illustrated so well a situation in real life. Heads up and cameras at hand, we follow Cyril through Shinjuku in quest for the hotel that is going to be our headquarters for the whole length of our stay in Tokyo. So many things to see, so much information, I try to take in as much details as possible, although I know that I will have plenty of time to discover the area in the next days. Tokyo does not disappoint, it is exactly like I had imagined it, what a chance for us to be staying in Shinjuku, which, in many respects, is probably the heart of Tokyo.
The hotel staffs speak surprisingly good English (something quite rare in Japan as we were going to witness later on during the stay...) and are well used to have foreigners in their premises. Of course, nothing could have prepared them to such a hectic group led by an excitable Frenchman but our rooms are allocated to us pretty quickly despite the chaos we are creating. In the lobby, we are greeted by Philippe Gouttard who has been in Japan for already 20 days. After almost three weeks of training five hours per day, he looks in really good shape but does not stick around for too long as the next morning's class taught by the Doshu is taking place at 6.30am. As for us, dinner is next and we just take 5 minutes to freshen up and figure out how to work out the washlet, the high-tech Japanese loo before setting off again to Shinjuku in search for something to eat. The group is back in the streets but wait... something is missing... as we count ourselves, we realize that Gerry is not with us, he stayed behind at the hotel and Cyril has to run back to pick him up.
This is actually the moment when the famous phrase "Where is Gerry?" will start entering into use. In fact, we will even end up losing the count of how many times members of the group pronounced it while looking for Gerry-san, the group's own comic relief. It is now past 10pm and for the locals, it is clearly rather more drinking time than dinner time. Because of the late time and our number (very few restaurant can actually accommodate more than 6 people at the same table), we end up in Matsuya (松屋), one of these 500¥ Gyudon restaurants where you pre-order your food via a ticket machine, trying to make out what the stamp sized pictures might represent and sit loosely around the main counter waiting no more than 10 seconds to get your meal.
Noodles, rice, miso soup, everything is available for a very reasonable price (between 3 and 5 euros). While we are eating, a drunken Salaryman arrives in the restaurant and sits down without ordering anything. He is going to spend the next 10 minutes sleeping on his seat before simply falling on the floor of the restaurant without even waking up. We finish our meal, laughing quite loudly and decide to go back to the hotel for a well deserved rest. As we set off, we can see one of the restaurant's employee gently picking up the drunk man and sit him back on his stool.
That was to me the first of many signs of the kindness of heart of the Japanese people, and also the first of many encounters with overworked and underpaid office employees letting out the steam and getting pissed out of their mind. Once in our rooms, we try on the traditional, light weight Yukata (浴衣) usually put to guests disposal in every hotel. This is obviously the occasion of a few more funny camera shots.The working out of the complicated toilets takes a bit of practice, in particular when making sure that unlike the first time, we don't get our ass sprayed with cold or hot water. Finally in bed, sleep does not take long to come. Suddenly, a strange sensation takes over, something mid way between the feeling of sleeping on a water bed and the rocking motions of an alcohol intoxicated sleep. As I open my eyes, I discover that it is the whole room that is shaking. The worried look of my roommate Denis while he hangs firmly onto his bed frame tells me that we are probably experiencing our first Japanese earthquake. Sleep afterwards is a bit uneasy but nothing that a 24 hours journey can't sort out up to 5am the next day. The following morning, we find out that the epicenter was located about 20 km east from the Ibaraki coasts and scored an honorable 5.7 on the Richter magnitude scale. Aikido must take over now and after a cup of tea, we make our way to the Hombu Dojo through the smaller streets of Shinjuku...
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