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Tokyo To Osaka

“Dashing swiftly through the wind blowin’ from Rokko

Like the big sun soaring in the clear blue sky
Mighty spirit of the youth shows the victor’s grace
The name that shines in glory- “Hanshin Tigers”

Those were the words that filled my head- well, the Japanese equivalent at least- as I touched down in Narita, Tokyo, just a couple of weeks ago. I was back in Japan! Excitement and joy filled me as I skipped through customs and immigration, down to the JR platform to catch my train to Tokyo. In those first few hours I was like a child in a candy shop- everything was magnificent, and oh so “naksukashii”. It was the little things- the tidy apartment blacks  scattering the rice fields along the Chiba plains, the local bike parks viewable through low fences at local stations, the big blue sky, the adverts on the train- in Japanese! At Narita station I’d reached for the Pocari Sweat button on a vending machine, only to notice they had drinks I hadn’t seen in months- Wonda Morning Shot coffee and…CC Lemon! This ridiculously uplifting feeling continued after I’d checked in to my hostel, the conveniently located (if slightly lacking in atmosphere) Ace Inn. I went to a local Family Mart, and bought Famichikin, Ripobitan D and Japanese onigiri! For those first few hours I didn’t even want to do anything- I was content simply to be, back in Japan, a place I knew I’d missed and was happy to be back to.

Uncontainable excitement, as always happens, eventually gave way to more rational appraisal. I was back in Tokyo- and it was time to find some food. That first evening I headed over to Shinjuku, and found a basement sushi-ya. I slided back into Japanese mode- “hitori desu”, “nama biiru kudasai”- as I took my seat at the kaiten sushi counter, reaching for the free tea, the shoyu dish, the sweet ginger. The heads of the 5 sushi chefs were obscured by the overhead counter, but there was a great image of their hands delicately and skillfully moulding the wet rice to the wasabi and fish, sculpting the sushi with ease and simplicity. It would have made a great photo, but I stupidly didn’t take it out of pride- pride that I’d seamlessly moved into the scene, was the only gaijin in the room, and didn’t want to destroy the spell of looking like a “knowing foreigner” rather than a nervous tourist. Vanity, and a mistake.  By the end of the evening I’d completed a relaxing night in Tokyo, a night I could have had if I lived there- sushi, then over to The Footnik in Ebisu for a few beers while I watched the football and chatted to others in the bar, in particular a friendly pair of Japanese who were amused when I wheeled out my Hanshin opinions and ancedotes.

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The next day- sunday- was spent in Harajuku. After rediscovering the joys of H&M, I was refuelling with a chicken taco when an affable Canadian named Andrew asked if he could sit next to me. We struck up a conversation, and ended up moving around Harajuku and Shibuya together for the next few hours- catching the Yamanote sen, chilling in Yoyogi Park, and getting countless “Free Hugs” from random teenages in Shibuya and Harajuku. That evening I was meant to be staying with a Couchsurfing dude,  Yusuke, so I headed over to his local staiton in the east of Tokyo. On the train ride there, with the sun setting, I saw Fuji-san in the distance, remarkably clear on the horizon. Yusuke turned out to be an incredibly friendly, easy going guy, and I immediately felt able to relax around him. I remain hugely grateful to him for what happened that evening. After a supermarket dinner (cue more nostalgia- Koiwai fruit drinks, karaage, edamame!), I started to get stomach pains. For the rest of that night I was throwing-up, shivering with a fever, and was totally unable to sleep until about 4 in the morning. Yet incredibly the next morning the worst was over, although I remained unable to eat much at all for the next 4 days or so. Yusuke was so kind and generous- we wandered Shinjuku together the next day, took a quick look at Tokyo Dome (it’s not Koshien I’ll say that much) and went to Akiba for gadget shopping.

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Due to my mystery sickness, and the fact I still couldnt digest food, I decided, unhappily, to postpone my first hitching adventure, and instead got the 5 hour highway bus from Tokyo to Nagoya. This allowed me a later start, and a few hours to chill. Saturday had suddenly turned into Tuesday, and I felt strangely readjusted to being in Japan- no excitment, no urge to see sights, just moving around and doing things in a place I already knew well. That night I stayed with couch surfing host number two, Ryoko. Ryoko was a great host too- she has a very unique personality, and a great way of expressing herself in a slightly manic eastern European/Scandinavian accent, as well as a healthily unhealthy interest in ex-Valencia player Amedeo Carboni.  As I couldn’t eat we staying at her place and chatted.

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The next morning- Wednesday- I was off! My bag was packed, my signs were ready and my spirits were high as I stepped off the train on the outskirts of Nagoya ready to hitch a lift to Osaka. Unfortunately the highway entrance system is ludicrously complicated, and I kept being told by random passers by to cross over the road. Then, when I was on the other side, someone else would tell me it’d be better for me to cross back! After two hours my patience was wearing thin when a hippie-van stopped in front of me. Yoshi and his girlfriend were on their way to an onsen in the Nagano region, the opposite direciton to me, but being experienced hitchers themselves they knew I just needed to get onto the highway. What lifesavers! Once at the PA I got a ride from a salaryman (he needed some convincing) a few dozen kilometres up the road to Yuro, a major service area just under halfway to Osaka. There I was eventually offered a ride by 5 young Osaka students. They had little room in their rental car, but were still willing to make space for me and my backpack. The next hour and half was a blur of cigarette smoke, loud J-pop tunes and football conversations. They ended up coming off the highway earlier than they needed to to drop me right outside Yodobashi Camera at Umeda station- I’d made it!

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That evening I met up with Tom, a university friend who’s been living in Japan for a few months. It was great seeing him, catching up and remembering old friends and acquaintences we’d failed to stay in contact with. He turned out to be good friends with the J-Hoppers Hostel owners, so I got to know them too, and slept solidly in my bed for 10 hours until the next day. Thursday saw my triumphant return to Hanshin Tigers Koshien Stadium, where I bought a notebook some stickers and a poster in the Tigers Shop. I toyed with buying yet another festival coat, or “Happi”, but common sense ruled the day. I wandering through Shinsainashi’s America Mura for the next few hours, before heading back to the hostel. Then I was off once more- on a JR Special Rapid train from Osaka to Kobe. That journey was particularly “natsukashii”- I’d rode the line many times before- and the nostalgia continued in Kobe where I lit a cigarette in Sannomiya’s stone park/sqaure, watching people go by as the sun set. My evening in Kobe was spent- well- typing this- in a cheap capsule hotel/onsen, a relaxing place to stay.

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