Friday, 14 September 2012

On a slow boat from China...Shanghai to Osaka

I was up early on a bright yellow morning in Shanghai. I'd barely had a minutes sleep, a combination of excitement and knowing I had to get up early without mistake resulted in an inability to drift off into my dreams. Doubled with the fact I'm carrying a chest infection, which sounded like gravel in a biscuit tin when I drew breath, and felt like I had a colony of bats roosting in my chest cavity, it proved impossible  to slip from consciousness. I paced from the hostel to the metro with red-eye, and got off at the closest station to the ferry terminal, but I was still about a kilometre away with 45 minutes to spare. I thought I could walk as a last resort, despite the lack of a proper map, but tried to get a lift. The first taxi eventually understood my simple request of where to go, but he decided it wasn't in his interests to drive the short distance and make some money. I really don't understand China's taxis. I don't think Chinese taxi drivers understand the concept of taxis - they seem to think they're bus drivers who are reluctant to accept passengers. I found a motorcycle rickshaw who was happy to accept my custom, and I sat on a rickety bench facing backwards as the small vehicle rattled towards the port. 

Checking in proved to be easy. I'd only made a reservation online a few weeks previously and hadn't yet paid anything, but I gave my name at a desk and handed over my money and in return was handed my ticket, and pointed in the direction to head. I sailed through security and passport control and was quickly on a shuttle bus to drive us the 50 metres to the ship. Once onboard, after the briefest of explores, I decided to sod looking out the window as we departed a mid-morning Shanghai in favour of testing out the bed. The bed passed all tests and I slept until after lunch. 

Once up I went for a bit more of an explore of the ship. It wasn't that big. It had three accessible floors; my cabin, which I shared with two Japanese students was on the ground floor, if such a thing exists at sea. Also on this floor was the reception area and a lounge with a tv which showed movies, some in English, and episodes of Mr Bean, which the Chinese lapped up like it was still 1992. The middle floor had the restaurants and a small shop, as well as other cabins, and the top floor seemed to be the first class rooms. On my explore I came across a young French family, the only other foreigners aboard. They were travelling for a year with their two young children; and we chatted for a while and would continue to exchange pleasantries for the remainder of the voyage. 
On the top deck. 
 Table tennis aboard the ship.
I hadn't realised that Japan uses a different electrical socket to China and to the adapter I had, so I was laptopless and was left with catching up with my journal (I'm still only halfway through China) and reading some of Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I took dinner in the restaurant that evening with my literature, eating a beef curry severely lacking in beef, but it filled a hole. That evening I got chatting to Yuma, one of the Japanese students in my room. He was moneyless having had his money and phone stolen by a prostitute somewhere along the way, and had sold his watch on the street in Shanghai to get enough money to buy instant noodles and snacks for the journey. I bought him a beer from the vending machine, and then a couple more as we chatted into the early hours, and he wrote down a fair few tips for Japan and words and phrases in the back of my journal; a personal four page Lonely Planet. 

The view from the restaurant.
The following day I got up late morning and we were already passing some Japanese islands.Yesterday's East China Sea, the colour of a stale latte, had been transformed into a cleaner and deeper navy blue. I'd never really thought about it but I was surprised by how many islands there were, many uninhabited, some with settlements, strewn out across the sea as we sailed towards Japan. They all looked exotic and lush as they burst out of the water, I felt the excitement for travel rush through my veins and I wanted to yell across the waves. I spent a little while out on deck gazing at the islands as they drifted by, and enjoyed watching some flying fish dart away from the wake of our bow. 

Japanese islands.
Flying fish.
That afternoon was lost to my laptop. The other Japanese student in my room had a Mac also so I borrowed his charger until we docked in Osaka. There was somehow intermittent wifi available so I was able to feed my internet addiction and in between I watched episodes of the Sopranos. I would have to find another electricity-less opportunity to catch up with my journal.

That evening I spent time with some of the Japanese on the boat. There were more Chinese but the Japanese were more social and I seem to prefer them. They're my favourite people in Asia so far, very polite and generous, and much easier to get along with, we must be culturally more similar - they just seem to be cooler than their neighbours. The Germans have probably been my favourite Europeans on this trip, again very social, generous and cool. It's odd to think that two generations ago we would have been murdering each other, now we just kill time together. 

Out on deck the sea air was warm and bright lights shone from the shore as we made our way past unknown towns and cities. At one point we passed under a huge bridge, a little reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge, and you could hear the traffic rumble on the road which temporarily spanned above us. At our closest point to land, I was sure I could hear the buzz of crickets which sing every night in these climes. My favourite night time phenomenon was watching the hallucinogenic neon blue of the phosphorescent plankton glow as the bow of our vessel cut through the water. This was quite mesmerising and exciting to see - it suggested I was somewhere far flung - you don't see this on Dover to Calais. 

Japanese coastal cities.
Sailing under a large bridge.
The luminescent plankton.
I settled down in my bunk for the final night, a little disappointed that the journey was coming to an end already; I've been enjoying the physical travelling as much as the cultural travelling so far, certainly for relaxation. When you're on a train or a boat for a few days, it's nice to have no responsibilities, no need to be up or be anywhere, nothing to really do except pursue your own immediate and simple idleness and leisure. It's something I could certainly get used to. 

The following morning we arrived in Osaka and our temperatures were taken with a laser against the forehead, as they had been taken in Shanghai, to check we weren't importing any illnesses into the islands. I was pleased to have made it from the UK to Japan without taking any aeroplanes, and this was the furthest east I had ever been. I was also filled with the usual excitement of arriving somewhere new and alien. I took the subway with three Japanese ferry friends, and we went to central Osaka to eat some food, we had something called 'sukiya' which is apparently very popular and beef based. I had some rice, a chilli-curry type sauce, in which there may have been some beef, but there was plenty of melted grated cheese and I cleared the plate within a minute. One of the Japanese travellers left us, a 35 year old hippy who seemed to idolise Jimmy Hendrix and was clearly a stoner of epic proportions, and the other two escorted me without my asking to a department store where I could buy an adapter for my electronics. Afterwards I was left with just Yuma, who wanted to come and spend the day with me and check out Nishinari, the neighbourhood I was staying in. The stoner had told me I had to visit Nishinari whilst in Osaka, it was the rough part of town which housed the red light district as well as countless homeless people - it sounded like Kings Cross from when I used to live around there. He was delighted and whooped with joy when I told him that by accident or fortune, this was the neighbourhood my hostel was in. 

The port of Osaka.
Downtown Osaka.
Friends from the boat.
I checked into my hostel and off we went to explore the neighbourhood. First we popped into a slot machine casino hall which was a cacaphony of bleeps, jingling coins and the hum of machines. Yuma lost a few quid on a fruit machine type thing and we left. We popped into a pinball hall, and had half an hour on the machines for £2. At one point I'd won enough balls to trade them for a low end prize, such as a stale looking packet of biscuits, but intended to gamble for a big prize, like a stuffed teddy, but it was downhill from here and I lost my balls. Pinballs, that is. It was too much of the other balls which made me lose all my pinballs. 

Shopping streets in Nishinari.
Yuma in the slot machine place.
The fruit machine entertainment places seem to be very popular.
We went up the Tsutenkaku tower, a 100 year old observation tower which offered good views of Osaka. There were so many things on the way up to waste money on, offerings to a some good luck God called Billiken which Wikipedia informs me was an American invention and exported to Japan. His image is everywhere and appears to be some kind of deity, but one heavily commercialised - although which deity isn't, at least there's no denying the blatant exploitation of this one. 

The Tsutenkaku tower.
Views over Osaka.


Yuma and I with the good luck God.
Yuma had wanted to visit the homeless area of Nishinari and asked people for directions. The Japanese seem to have a different attitude towards the social phenomena of homelessness than we do back home. No one batted an eyelid that he was asking where to find it, whereas at home it may have come across a bit odd. They seemed to have a strange curiosity towards homelessness, maybe it's such an usual concept in Japan that it can become an acceptable tourist attraction to observe. It certainly didn't seem to be treated with the same sympathetic disdain that we offer at home. 

We wandered into the down and out area, and it was surprising to see the huge number of homeless people living here. Whole yards of tramp shacks had been erected, and old men sat out with dogs and booze idling away the day. Many others went through the streets, going about whatever business they had, but the majority of people here appeared to be in the lowest economic strata. I must've been in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of one of the richest nations - an unusual first day. 

Homeless men in Nishinari.
Nishinari streets.
A too frequent sight - this mans hair was so matted it looked like the carpet from a footwell of a car.
Nobody seemed bothered by our presence, and we spent a while exploring the piss smelling streets. There are many cheap apartments and hostels which can house people who have access to a little bit of money, all half the price of my cheap hostel, but I was told many of them are mafia run and crime gangs sponge off the homeless people's welfare with the silent approval of the police. We stopped to watch when a rat in a cage was produced and given to a homeless man. I mistakenly thought, although it had been suggested to me, that it was going to be his dinner. A bucket of water appeared and the caged rodent was sunk under the surface until it drowned. I was relieved to see the rat put in a bin rather than on a plate, but thought there must be easier and maybe more humane ways to kill a rat. At least there's no blood with drowning, I guess.

Two men one rat.
A drowning rat takes its last breath.
There are lots of public bathrooms for the homeless. The posters on the left are job advertisements.
We continued walking and the afternoon continued along it's seedy trajectory. Yuma stopped at an adult bookstore and bought two porno magazines which he said were a present for a friend. There was no attempt to hide the publications from any innocent eyes of the public, attitudes seem to be different here. It reminded me of something in China which I forgot to mention. Although it seems to be more conservative in some ways with regard to sex, I noticed at the counter of one convenience store, nestled up to the chewing gum rack a row of boxed dildos - you'd never find that in a Spar at home. Yuma showed me his purchases and they confirmed what I previously thought about Japan, all people have pixelated and blacked out genitals. Either that or tighter censorship laws. I gave him the names of a number of websites that he might enjoy and he seemed delighted with the information. 

We stopped in a dusty and run down looking place to eat some shaved ice flavoured with syrup. We ended up eating dinner there. The owner was a 65 year old woman, really friendly and inquisitive with kind eyes. We ate a nice cooked fish and a bowl of rice, and then ate some sashimi, raw fish, which is nice with a little soy and wasabi, washed down with some Asahi, so long as I don't dwell on the thought. The food was good and it was a nice experience to eat in a place that was very local and something I wouldn't normally consider venturing into if on my own. 

The lady who served us dinner.
Sunset streets.
Beer is available in vending machines on the street - great idea.
When we left evening was falling and we headed towards the red light district, one of the biggest in Japan. It should be called the 'white lantern district', as these signify the knocking shops. Quite a few blocks were designated to the sex industry, and mostly beautiful girls sat like weird dolls in open fronted establishments, and the vast majority were genuinely beautiful and enticingly attractive, not like the crack-whores stumbling the streets at home. The girls were accompanied by an older woman who I guess oversaw the business, and at something like $150 for 15 minutes it must be quite a business. I was only there as a curious onlooker, not as a sex tourist so the price was irrelevant but thankfully a stumbling block to any temptations. Yuma was tempted but if he spent his money he didn't have another watch to sell to pay for his train ride home, so kept his wallet in his pocket.  It was interesting to walk around and for some reason it didn't feel too seedy, it was presented like an acceptable business and the girls were jaw-droppingly hot, but this only disguised what it really was, and the questionable morality of it is certainly debatable but maybe not easily defendable. That said, the girls seemed to be here voluntarily, and I did ask Yuma this which he confirmed. At $600 an hour it must be a tempting occupation for some, and who can moralise over someone else's free will that doesn't hurt anybody else? Anyway, after a good gawping walk, we left the neighbourhood before we got dick-ache and headed back to my hostel, where Yuma had left his bags. I'd had a good and interesting day with him and enjoyed his company. It'd been a seedy afternoon of gambling, homelessness, pornography and prostitution, but this was much more a reflection of the neighbourhood than my company, and my friend was as much a tourist here as I was. Nevertheless it had been a good if unexpected introduction to Japan, and I'm sure things will take a more respectable turn from here.

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