by Gabriel Palmer
I really wish it wasn’t 4:53 am. 7:21 wouldn’t be so bad. 6:53 would be okay. Even 6:17 would be acceptable. But no, it’s 4:53 and I have been lying here staring at the clock watching each minute tick by – well not really tick by, since it’s impossible to find a non-digital alarm clock or a non digital anything for that matter. I would consider taking a sleeping pill, but my experience with them has been less than positive. On one of my trips to Paris I decided to take an off brand (a polite way of saying bootlegged from my last trip to India) sleeping pill and woke up in my hotel room bathtub wearing nothing but a shower cap, with a copy of Swann’s Way and a half eaten box of macarons at my side. This was a definite low point in my years of travel. So instead of risking the possibility of ending up moonwalking on a bar while lip syncing Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, and finally falling asleep on a park bench, I think I will just make the most out of my jet lag and get up and explore the city.
There is something beautiful about the quiet of the early morning in cities. If you are off somewhere in the middle of Iowa you can reasonably expect the calm of morning, and midday, and night, and, well, always except for the occasional cow bell or rooster. But when you are in a city of 13.22 million you expect noise. To walk out to empty streets as the city slumbers helps you get to know it in a whole different way. It feels like it belongs to you. Which you should not take too literally, of course, since the police do not take kindly to people just taking parts of the city home with them – something I quickly discovered when I decided to try to purloin a New York City street sign and ended up being chased by a police officer who was, lucky for me, a portly man and too overweight to catch me – You have to love America.
Now it’s 5:08 am and I am standing in front of my hotel as the front desk clerk who has the bad luck of working the overnight shift stares at me curiously through the window as if to say “Really, you get to sleep and instead you are up at this hour. Dumb ass.” Since I don’t feel like explaining my aversion to sleeping pills to a person I don’t know and whose English is limited to “hello sir” and “goodbye sir” (to be fair my Japanese skills consist singularly of the phrase “Domo arigato Mr. Roboto”) I think it is best to just walk away. I suppose I can pretend I am a Buddhist and find a temple for morning meditation.
There was a time when I didn’t like taking out my tour book in public. Everyone always tells you how you are suppose to try to not stand out when you travel, that you should blend in, and seem like a local, and that taking out a tour book is the worst way to do that. Well, guess what? When you are a white guy from Chicago in Japan, the tour book isn’t the give away that you’re not from around these parts. Actually I could wear a t-shirt that says “I am Japanese” and I could say with 97% certainty that no one would believe me (the 3% is for people who are particularly ironic and/or suffered a recent head injury). This isn’t only a Japanese thing. I never once had anyone mistake me for Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Nepalese, German, Swiss, Austrian, or pretty much any other country I have ever traveled through. I was mistaken for Prince at a security checkpoint by a morbidly obese guard at the Chicago airport who was wearing more gold jewelry than my 87 year old grandmother, but there is a solid chance that she was drunk on the job. Anyway, this is all to say that I am going to take out my tour book.
You know the funny things about maps they are only useful if you can read them, and you know the funny thing about Japanese it’s nothing like English. I will have to remember to write an angry letter to the tour book publisher when I get home. Okay, my Japanese map reading skills are lacking so I will just stop the first person I see and ask for directions. Oh right, it’s 5:23 am and I don’t speak Japanese. I have many great qualities, but foresight and planning are clearly not two of them – something that I should have realized by now, particularly after the incident in India with the cheap bus with the broken door, the steep mountain, and the driver who must have raced in Nascar during one of his lives. You know what, I think I may go back to bed. That sleeping pill is starting to sound better and better.
Nah, why surrender now. Okay, I can do this.
“Pardon me sir, could you help me find senso-ji temple?”
The blank stare I am receiving seems to be a combination of equal parts confusion and fear.
No real shock there.
I’ll try again, but this time I will randomly point in various directions. “Sen-soo-jeeee”
Success! Or at least a marginal amount of understanding. The delivery man seems to want to help, but after looking around and struggling to figure out how to point me in the right direction, he sighs heavily and then waves for me to follow him. So I do.
It’s been 10 minutes of power walking now and he’s still going, and going, and going. Apparently I aksed for directions from the Japanese version of the energizer bunny. I am beginning to realize that I may have made a bit of a mistake in asking for directions. I seem to have forgotten that Japanese culture is overly obsequious and people will go (exceptionally) out of their way to help someone. I also seem to have forgotten that it’s 5:34 in the morning and that I still haven’t had coffee, and while sleep is not an option, sitting perfectly still and staring at the wall is starting to seem like a better choice than half running through a city I don’t know while following a stranger who may be leading me to my desitnation or to someplace to steal my wallet, all the while taking me further from my hotel and dramatically decreasing the possibility of me finding my way back. But again, foresight is not my strong point.
Okay, I have now realized two things. One, I am out of shape. Two, apparently all of the Bob’s Big Boy restaurants have relocated from the US to Japan. The statue is curious enough when you see it in America, but its outright bizarre when you see it next to a Buddhist temple in Japan. Ah! A Buddhist temple! I am fairly well sure that this is not the temple I was looking for but I am certain that neither me or my reluctant guide have any desire to continue this journey, so I am just goin to stop here.
“This is good thank you.”
He offers me a blank stare and then begins to point in front of him. But I point at the this temple, shrine or whatever it might be, begin to bow deeply, and slowly back away. He is about to protest, but quickly realizes that this is a convenient way out of the situation.
I’m exhausted and disoriented, which are to be fair two common conditions of my being, but at least I am here. I will do a bit of meditation, chant a few rounds of some Buddhist mantra and everything will be better.
The gate is locked. Okay no problem. Really, its fine. I will just go back to my hotel and come back later. Hmmm… right, well that would probably be easier if I had any idea where I was or possessed a map that wasn’t only in Japanese.
There are times when you travel that the comforts of home call out to you like the Sirens to Odysseus. When you are lost, jet lagged, and it 5:37 am, it’s definitely one of those time. But then in just the blink of an eye, or in this case, the turn of a head everything can seem better. As I turn around I notice the strange, yet familiar, glow of Bob’s Big Boy against the dark morning sky, and realize what I really need: Pancakes!