Finding my way through the narrow streets of Otsu.
In Japanese, there is a word — “semai” (狭い) – that means narrow, small, or confined, as in “a confined space,” “a narrow road,” etc. When I studied Japanese, I remember our teacher at one point sharing an aphorism that went, “Nihon wa, semai kuni desu,” which roughly translates to “Japan is a narrow country.”
When I arrived in Japan, it didn’t feel narrow; it felt enormous. Kansai International Airport seemed immense. The vast network of trains seemed overwhelming. The endless and uninterrupted landscape of two-story houses, imposing multi-story apartment buildings, and industrial yards made me feel like I was always a few miles from a major city center. Where was this “narrowness” that I had heard about?
I had arrived late Wednesday night, local time, and since that was midday on my old time, I took a mild sleeping aid to help my body stay asleep for more than a few minutes and went to bed. Exactly five hours later, I woke up. Even though it was still dark outside, I knew immediately I wouldn’t fall back asleep, so I got up, got dressed, read and responded to email, and started the day.
My primary objective, besides adjusting to the time change, was to find transportation to Otsu, and then locate the AirBnB rental that Tyler and I would be sharing for a few days. This would require taking a shuttle back to the airport, and then taking an express train to Kyoto, and local trains to Otsu.
At this point, I was not feeling at all confident in my ability to speak or understand Japanese, so I was anxious about the trip and getting lost. With these thoughts dragging me down, I boarded the shuttle bus and sat down in a seat near the front. After several other passengers boarded, a middle-aged Japanese woman got on the bus with a younger woman and her child. As there were few empty seats, the older woman sat down next to me.
Suddenly I had a very clear thought that if I didn’t try to strike up a conversation in her native language, this whole trip would turn out to have been a waste. It was now or never. “C’mon,” I said to myself, “be brave.” I didn’t feel at all brave, but turned to the woman and said in my very best Japanese, “Pardon me, I don’t speak Japanese well, but where are you planning to travel today?” To my surprise, she responded, and we were off on a slightly weird conversation, in which I understood about 1/3 of what she said, and probably managed to communicate only a fraction of what I intended, as I tried to tell her about Tyler running the marathon, and about how hard it was to make the team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It was terrifying, but also wonderful, and for the moment, I was very proud of myself.
At the airport, I managed to buy the train ticket, and after trying to go through the wrong turnstiles, finally found my way to the right place, and was soon on the Haruka Express to Kyoto. As the train flew through the stations, I stared out the window at this strange new landscape, trying to decipher every sign, but understanding few of them. About an hour and a half later we were pulling into Kyoto Station. Things were going smoothly so far, and before I knew it, I was on the next train, and then the next, and about 2.5 hours after leaving the hotel, I was getting off an older railway car at Hamaotsu station, within 10 minutes walking distance of the AirBnB. Being a goal-oriented person, I ignored my desire for something to eat, and brought out my phone. I put the address of the apartment in Google Maps, and started walking through strange, narrow streets past tiny little shops.
Twenty minutes later, I was mildly lost.
At least, I wasn’t at the apartment, and the address I had used seemed to be wrong. I had no way to call Tyler at the moment, and I was standing on a street in a town in the middle of Western Japan. All of a sudden, fatigue and anxiety, and hunger, and jet lag (it was almost midnight, on my old time), and still being sick, and all the rest… hit me like a sudden cold wind. For a moment, I had absolutely no idea what to do. Then I pulled myself together, and looked in my backpack for the instructions on how to get to the apartment that I had taken the time to print out back in Boston. I looked more closely and realized I had made a mistake entering the address, and I plugged in the right address and set off once again.
This time I was successful, and in about ten minutes was standing in a tiny, narrow apartment, shaking hands with Tyler, who had arrived two days earlier.
I was very relieved to be there, but I didn’t feel very good. Whether it was because I was still feeling all the fatigue, etc., or whether I had been traumatized by briefly being panicked and lost, my mood became worse and worse. The apartment was very small. There were no chairs and no desk, so I couldn’t set up a place to work. The bathroom was tiny, the kitchen was tiny, the mattresses on the bed were only a few centimeters thick. It all seemed strange and forbidding, and I began to feel really miserable, but of course, I didn’t want to admit that. I mean, here I was in Japan for God’s Sake, and I’m supposed to feel excited and elated. I’m supposed to send cheerful updates with amazing scenes from this exotic land. But what I really wanted to do was sit down in a comfortable place, with a cup of tea and good Internet, but there was no place to sit down, no tea in the apartment, and the Internet didn’t want to hear me whine.
Our narrow entryway leads to a narrow room with no desk and no chairs.
And not only that, I had to try to stay up until 9 p.m., but I was exhausted at three in the afternoon.
That night, after falling asleep early, I woke up in the middle of the night – my shoulder hurting from the hard bed – and i felt thoroughly sorry for myself in this narrow apartment on a narrow street in this new country.
I tried desperately to focus on something I could look forward to, a run in the morning along the lake, perhaps. I hoped that would cure me of my traveling blues.