[Note: I have decided to devote weeks 13, 26, 39, and 52 to short subjects. I will post a very short piece each day for seven days. This week we are going to Japan.]
I landed at Narita Airport late on a Saturday afternoon in mid-winter. I had my guide book, my work-holiday visa, a list of youth hostels, and a lot of traveller’s cheques. I did not have my friend who had been to Japan before. He had decided not to come. I was nineteen. The currency exchange in the airport was closed because it was after 5 p.m. on a Saturday. I managed to find the train station inside the airport and caught a train to Tokyo. This task was fairly easy as Narita was the end of the line. The only direction you could go was towards Tokyo. I found one of the youth hostels listed in my guide. It was halfway up an office tower. They accepted traveller’s cheques in payment and I had one bunk in a room with twelve bunks in four stacks of three. I was told when I checked in that I could only stay one night. Monday was the day every high school senior in Japan wrote their university entrance exams at their university of choice. There was no space available Sunday night.
I spent all day Sunday wandering around Tokyo trying to find a place to sleep that night. No dice. Every single bed in every single hostel was booked. I asked the desk clerks to direct me to alternatives. Every capsule hotel was booked solid. Every single reasonably priced hotel had multiple students in every room. As night fell I was wandering the streets of Tokyo with a map in a guide book and my knapsack on my back. I spoke not a word of Japanese.
I walked through the deepening night. It was getting cold. I identified the occasional landmark on the map in my guide book, but in between I had no idea where I was. I didn’t know if I could sleep in a park. I didn’t know if it was safe. I didn’t know what the law was. I didn’t know where a park was. It was getting colder. It started to rain. Hard.
Eventually I was passing through an underpass that sheltered several bums. They were dirty and smelly and they were drinking cheap liquor. They hailed me boisterously. I had no idea what they were saying. A few words sounded like they were trying to speak English, but with the slurring it was hard to tell. They offered me some of their cardboard to sleep under. So I spent my second night in Tokyo sleeping under a bridge with a bunch of winos.