Darn it. Darn it all to heck. “Take the later flight,” they told me. “It’s a whole lot cheaper!” “But will I get back in time to catch the trains?” I asked. “Oh, sure!” they told me. “Your flight gets in at 10:30, and the last train doesn’t leave until 11:45! You’ll have lots of time!” So I jumped at the lower rates. I decided to come home from Sapporo on the late flight. Yup, things would go great as long as I got back to Tokyo at 10:30 pm. But, my flight leaving Sapporo was delayed, and I didn’t leave until 10:30. The 747 touched down at Haneda Airport shortly after midnight. The commuter monorail was shutdown for the night, so I caught the last bus to Tokyo station. I arrived at the station just in time to see the doors close and the attendant lock it up for the night. There was no getting around it. I was homeless on the streets of Tokyo for a night. Darn it. Darn it all to heck.
I glanced at my watch. It was 1am. The first thing I had to do was call up my friend who was waiting for me further up the line and tell him of my situation. I pulled out my rapidly dying cellphone and gave him a call. I also took advantage of the situation to see if he had any advice on my situation. Sadly, he didn’t know the Tokyo station area that well, so all he could do was wish me luck. I pondered what to do next. I had another friend, who knew the Tokyo area a little better, so I decided to call him. Of course, now it was 1:15, so I got him out of bed. Once he was conscious enough to remember who I was, he said he’d look in his guidebooks and get back to me. 10 minutes later, he called me with good news. There were several hotels in the area that I could check out and, failing that, his advice was to find a 24h Internet café, and flop down in front of a computer. He wished me well, and I was on my own. I turned off my cellphone to begin conserving power.
Before turning off my cellphone, I did consider one last option. I happened to have with me the phone number of a fellow teacher I’d met in training. She worked in Tokyo, and just might know the Tokyo station area better than anyone else. She might even offer to let me crash at her place for the night. Ultimately, though, I decided not to call her. If I were a woman, and some man I met briefly a few months ago called me up at 1 in the morning looking for a place to stay, I’d be suspicious. Let’s make this a strange and awkward night for just one.
I began roaming for one of the hotels that my friend told me about. I walked along the front of Tokyo station, and saw many a homeless person settling in for the night. They were huddling into every little alcove that offered the slightest bit of protection from the wind. Many began burying themselves under a pile of blankets, and trying to get a good night’s sleep. The looked surprisingly comfortable. Well, as comfortable as you can get on concrete on a January night. Two policemen also strolled among them, making sure things stayed orderly, but I don’t think anyone was looking for trouble. I counted myself as lucky and set out to try and find a hotel.
I walked up and down the street, peering in the window of most every hotel I was finding. The ones with loud, buzzing neon signs seemed to be closed, as the lobbies were dark and the doors were locked. The ones that were open had names like “Regency” and “Hyatt,” so I wasn’t going to spend crazy money just to have a warm place for a few hours. It was nearing 2 am, and from what little I saw of the train schedule before the doors closed up, the first train was at 6 am. I just needed a warm place for four more hours. The Internet café seemed to be my next best option. But first, I ducked into a convenience store to warm up.
I did as much browsing as you can in a convenience store. I looked at the selection of various convenience foods, which is always pretty slim at 2 am. I leafed through magazines featuring women in various states of undress, because at least those magazines have a lot of pictures, and I can’t read Japanese yet. I figured about 10 minutes of that was enough. As I left the store, I saw another guy, pacing around out front, talking to someone on his cellphone. I recognized him from the bus from the airport. He must have been in the same situation as me. I began looking for an Internet café. Why can’t they develop a universal symbol that means “Internet access?” It would have saved me from roaming down a lot of dark alleys following the glow of neon signs, wondering if that place had computers for rent.
It was down one of those alleys that I got propositioned by the prostitute. At least, I think she was a prostitute. I mean, it was 2:30 in the morning, and she was standing on a street corner. When she realized that I couldn’t speak Japanese, she began making various hand gestures that I first learned in junior high, and I assume those junior high meanings are pretty universal. I just smiled politely and walked away. Although, for the briefest of moments, I did consider it. At the very least, it would have been a warm place to stay for an hour or so. I slapped myself across the face for thinking such thoughts and continued on my journey.
At this point I started thinking maybe I should call my family back in Canada. Something about my situation made me want to hear my parents’ voices one more time. I’m thinking that the dire circumstances triggered that primal, “I want my mommy!” feeling. Again, I decided against it, mainly because they were on the other side of the world and in no real position to help me. Plus, my cellphone was running low on juice. I knew in my heart that I was going to get through this and have another opportunity to call the folks. No logic in needlessly worrying them.
It was getting near 3 am, and my search for an Internet café was turning up nothing. I did, however, pass a police station for the hundredth time. I deduced that if anyone would know of an Internet café, it would be the members of Tokyo’s finest that patrol the area. I summoned up my courage, prayed to the Fates that the kindly officer spoke English, and ventured inside. Good news: the officer spoke English. Bad news: he informed me that none of the Internet cafes in the area were 24h. They were all closed. I thanked him for his help and went back out onto the streets. In retrospect, I guess I should have followed up with the question, “Well, then, do you know of any cheap lodging where a guy could hole up until the train station opens?” but it was 3 am and I wasn’t thinking rationally.
I had walked just half a block from the police station when I noticed an orange glow of salvation. It was the sign of Yoshihara. Yoshihara is a chain of Japanese diners, specializing in that Japanese fast food delicacy of the beef bowl. What’s a beef bowl, you may ask? A bowl of rice, topped with slices of beef, silly. And Yoshihara is open 24 hours. It was warm. I was hungry. I had nothing to lose. I wandered inside. Naturally, it was deserted at 3 am. I sat down at the counter and the waiter approached me. After noticing my gaijin good looks, he went into the back and came out with a dusty old English menu. I ordered myself a large beef bowl, and got as comfortable as I could. It didn’t take long for my food to come, and I began to eat V…E…R…Y S…L…O…W…L…Y. The guy I recognized from the bus soon came in too, and also ordered something to eat. A duo of poor schmucks working the graveyard shift soon came in, and I just continued to eat. I think I did grab the occasional catnap between bites.
As I ate, I pulled my JR rail map of the Tokyo area out of my pocket and began looking at my options for getting home. From my glimpse at the timetable before the doors closed, the first train left at 6 am. I had to be at work at noon. The quickest way home would truly be the shinkansen, Japan’s world-famous bullet trains. It’s bloody expensive to ride, but in this situation, I figured the expense would be justified. And I’m lucky that Kumagaya is on the shinkansen main line to Nagano. Yup, I’d take the bullet train home. A plan was in place. I lifted my head from my empty bowl to see that I was once again alone in the restaurant.
The clock on the wall said 4:30. I figured I’d taken advantage of the kind Yoshihara folks for long enough. I needed to settle up my bill, though. I saw the lone graveyard shift employee, doing dishes back in the kitchen. I wracked my brain, trying to remember what the Japanese word you use to get a waiter’s attention is. It translates to “Excuse me.” After pondering it for a few minutes, I remembered that it sounds kind of like “Asaymusay,” so I figured I’d try that one. I took a deep breath, and said it out loud, just loud enough for the employee to hear. He looked over at me and said, “Hai!” Correct word or not, I got his attention. Sadly, the five Japanese words I know don’t include the phrase, “I’d like to pay for this meal,” so I simply held my money up in the air, hoping the meaning would be universal enough. It was, and he came over to take my money. I was soon back on the twilight streets of Tokyo. A slight orange glow was visible to the east. The sun was starting to rise. [And now that I have my phrasebook handy, I can tell you that the correct word is, “Sumimasen.”]
I glanced towards the train station, and I saw movement from the inside! This needed to be checked out. I walked over to the station and, yes indeed, it was open. I went inside and finally got a closer look at the schedule. The first train to Omiya left at 4:45. It was currently 4:40. Omiya is halfway to Kumagaya, and I knew for certain that I could transfer to a Kumagaya-bound train in Omiya. I could either hang around for another hour and a half waiting for the first shinkansen, or I could relax on a heated train car bound for Omiya. My choice was clear. At 4:45 am, I was finally homeward bound.
I slept most of the way to Omiya. When I arrived, I only had to wait 5 minutes for the first train to Kumagaya. I got on that one, and finally got back to Kumagaya at 6:15 am. The sky was now a complete pre-dawn orange. I walked home as quickly as my tired little legs could carry me. When I got through my front door, the first thing I did was turn on the heater to start taking off the chill. Then, I stripped down and crawled straight into bed. I was up at 10:30 am, where I had a quick shower and shave, ate a small breakfast, and made it to work in time.
If I learned anything from that experience, it’s that the next time, I’ll pay the extra to take an earlier flight. I also learned to never trust a travel agent that tells you, “Oh, the plane will land in time.” It was a life experience, I’ll give it that, but it’s something I never want to repeat. If you ever want an adventure, try living homeless on the streets of a city for a night. My hearts go out to those who do it every day.