The time has finally come, the cyclone that is Vietnam has swept by leaving us blinking wide eyed at the hard white light pouring down upon us at the departure gate. So often travel is preceded by anticipation leaving the moment of departure to finally fit like a keystone upon many weeks or months of predication, but not now. In the revolving door of passport stamps and single serve packaged food this year of transits and gates ticks one frontier to another with, at times, little more fanfare than going from home to work. The hard light drags us into a realisation we get excited about a little too late, like the shock of a door smacking you in the bum after you’ve already made it through. Tung, team Vietnam, has seen us off to the airport and as he waves from the tiled floor he’s allowed on, to us on the tiled floor he isn’t, I wonder if he thinks of the impact he’s made on us, not just the impact we believe we’ve made on him.
In the cultural vacuum of air travel we’re afforded the bare minimum reminiscence of a nation that has taken us by storm. The adventure, the chaos, the food and the minimised ego view of the world are so close to us but in those moments of air conditioned plastic functionality they seem so far from grasp, Has the cyclone passed by us or are we just in the still eye of the storm? We mentally race to catch up, just moments ago we were in the thrum of an intense cultural immersion and with little mind to leaving it behind we’re too quickly into this inhuman vacuum: we’re crash victims in a silent coma that didn’t see the bus coming.
From the hard light illuminating Tung, a young Vietnamese guy dreaming of getting his first passport to do exactly what we take for granted doing, there’s a light in this dark slumber, the lights of Sapporo Japan and we have precious moments of descent to ready ourselves for awakening. We search for those weeks or months of daydreaming only to find a bare cupboard long since left vacant of dreams from the land of the rising sun. And so we are here, in Japan, the one country I personally dreamed of coming to above all others in this trip as well as all others on this big blue planet of ours and all we can do is play mental catch up barely believing we’re here already. It’s a new language but going from not understanding anything to not understanding anything isn’t noteworthy; we’re here, we’re somewhere but where exactly is that?Chaos is replaced by order, energy with passivity, fervent noise with pensive silence, exuberance with restraint. The first tentative steps on Japanese soil has us spinning back into the world punch-drunk and disoriented, the barbaric crush to a baggage carousel that seems to define our species doesn’t even exist. Are we still in that coma or have we indeed emerged from the cultural slumber of travel? After a few patchy hours of sleep on planes and airport seats we’re in a new world that refuses to be tangible enough to signal a sharp wakeup, a passing of the cyclone that seems not to have even started. After nearly a year of countries on the ‘developing’ list it’s so odd to not see litter; in fact we can’t find any if we look for it. A year spent chasing managed chaos, rough edges and the gritty side of our wild world hasn’t prepared us for the refined perfection of Japan, it doesn’t feel entirely real.
The vending machine spits out our train ticket a little too easily, the signage is clean and doesn’t end in a wrong turn or mistranslation, a gentle hush surrounds our world of absent smells and an odd lack of things that need to be fixed as marks so much of our recent life. The train doesn’t rattle, it departs on time, to the second, and slips by retro style housing in a sombre setting that looks like the 70’s or 80’s but too clean and maintained to be from that time. Where is this place, are we that travel tired, have we woken up yet? There’s no sign of the high tech cliche, just a strange disorienting twilight zone midpoint between the vacuum of travel drone and the wild pulsing life to which we’ve become accustomed.
Traffic police use elegant tweezers to pluck a stray cigarette butt off the ground reinforcing my belief that globally smokers are inherently selfish, but in this act there escapes the first hint that we might be back in the real world, not an experiment into perfection. A hint only, the traffic policeman formally waves his baton, the traffic promptly responds to call an elegant bow more akin to a stage musical; reality as we know it threatened but only momentarily. Still we struggle, for us the ‘real world’ has been definable by invaded senses, vibrant noise, chaotic motion, unmistakable smells but here we are in a world where our senses are left as a gift for us alone, a world that keeps a distance possibly too polite.Bit by bit the world does come into focus before the blinding wake up makes the etherial sleepy drift of the past few hours all too real, Ken and Aki are walking to us arms outstretched for an all too human hug. Friends from home in their native Japan, familiar people in this oh so unfamiliar setting soon becomes familiar enough over beer and a table barbecue with more lamb than we ate in our entire six weeks in Vietnam. Sapporo beer is world famous and after the largely cheap swill of the rest of Asia, Laos excepted, the first piece of sensory invasion comes all too welcomely, Sapporo beer is all it’s cracked up to be.
It might not be the real world as we know it recently but it’s plenty real enough. A clapping and cheering table of people in kimono activates our ears, the sizzling lamb our noses, the beer our tongues, familiar faces our eyes and the warm Hokkaido night our skin; the real world is here and in this moment we have finally arrived in Japan. Japan might well be the land of a lifetime of dreams for me yet despite that welcome sensory invasion it still feels a little too perfect to be true. Somewhere within the storm we’re not sure if we’re Dorothy and Toto in the land of Oz or at the start of the yellow brick road, but we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.