Sunday, 19 July 2009

3 weeks in Japan on NZ$500

Right now I am sitting in a house in Tokyo just a day and 2 nights away from my birthday flight back to the UK and THE BIG SURPRISE when I show up un-announced at various places around England. I can hardly contain the excitement but then life for me is one big endless exciting thing so as you can probably imagine I am walking around nearly exploding the whole time!

If you're reading this now then you're either a) one of the recently surprised-upon people, b) one of the people who knew about my plans or c) someone else with no idea what I am going on about. Whichever way here's a brief explanation... back in April Mum proposed an idea. Stating that she knew not when she would ever see me again she offered to pay for me to fly to England for a short while during the summer. So I thought about it and before long the following plan came to mind - do it (obviously!) but not tell anybody there about it! Hahaaaa! But wait, that's not = get a ticket for my favourite UK festival; Secret Garden Party, where I know a heap of my dearest friends will be. Next = figure out places to stop and explore en-route to and from England. The 'from' is the easy part - go via the States and get myself a ticket to Burning Man, the massive arts festival in Nevada in Aug/Sept. The 'to' was a toss-up between Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo (the options with Air New Zealand's cheapest flight offer). Hong Kong I have visited already, and for whatever reason I opted for Japan, and three weeks. Knowing very little about the place. Just a random 'what the heck' idea....


Next equals cue for endless quotes of 'oh my god do you know how expensive it is to travel in Japan?!' So here comes the fun part - I set myself a budget of NZ$500 (about £200) for my three weeks in this 'notoriously expensive to travel in' country.

NZ$500 worked out to ¥29000 (yen). As I sit here now with one day and two nights remaining in Japan, I have about ¥6000 left. In the last three weeks I have eaten more food than ever before in a three week period, with more first-time-ever-trying food experiences than I can count on all fingers and toes, I have bathed in natural hot springs, stayed with Japanese families, bathed under a remote mountain waterfall, learnt origami, visited the oldest castle in Japan, used the biggest and busiest railway station in the world, navigated various railway and road systems, climbed to witness snow and ice in the Japan Alps at the beginning of summer, learnt some of a new language, visited beautiful temples and shrines and been blessed with the company of some of the most intensely kind-giving people I've ever met. There have been so many first-time-ever experiences, such richness of new culture, that I swear I must be guided by angels.

I want to explain how this has all been possible on such a small budget. I guess it's a bit of a boast about how I have accomplished something seemingly impossible to many with such a long list of wonderful experiences to show for it but I make no apologies because I am bloody delighted and want to share my joy about my adventure and the wonderful people and places I have encountered, and show people it's possible to have massively fulfilling adventures on a very small budget!

Can I just say that the weekend before I left New Zealand I was actually pretty apprehensive about the whole thing and still knew very little about the country and how I was going to spend three weeks there without spending a fortune, letalone where I was going to go and what I was going to do and how I was going to deal with the language barrier. So a few days of intensive internet research and some last-minute decisions were what occurred!

I will move into present-tense now as I think it makes for a better read and conveying of story...

So on this frantic last-minute internet-search sitting in a freezing-cold room in Christchurch New Zealand I sign up to WWOOF Japan, the organisation I have been utilising in New Zealand; they have branches across the world linking travelling organic-loving people like me with host families/farms who need extra pairs of hands in exchange for food and accommodation (and a whole lot more besides!) and frantically send messages to people up and down the country. I research language essentials and the transport system, freak the hell out about the amount of and price of trains, the number of people in Tokyo (36million in the Greater Tokyo area, the centre of which has twenty three special wards which each currently have the legal status of cities), marvel at all the amazing things that this country has, that I knew almost nothing about when I booked the flight, and consequently have serious nervous decision-making-incapability. At the same time I'm aware that I set myself this challenge and the nerves are all part of the experience, that I need these 'jump in at the deep end' experiences, that it's an adventure, that it will be a huge learning curve and much progress will be made from it.

I leave NZ with my now-weighing-21kilos backpack (it was 16kg when I left UK) plus six A6 pages of notes, a handful of New Zealand stones, some apprehension, an open mind, and a VERY open book in front of me! On the aeroplane I indulge in quite a bit of brandy (making the most of the free stuff!) whilst I make my little gift parcels; pieces of paper on which I draw the kanji symbols for peace, love and happiness, and the symbols for explaining 'this stone comes from New Zealand', which I asked a Japanese air steward to write for me to copy. I then wrap each stone with each piece of paper and secure with red rafia (kinda like straw). These are my gifts (I was told the Japanese adore gift-giving) for host families and hitch-hiking lift-givers (more about that to come!) and whoever else I want to indulge in the joy of giving them to! Reeeally coool thing about Air New Zealand is that their in-flight entertainment system is super loaded up with New Zealand music - having still no personal mp3 player it's an absolute delight to get to listen to some of my new favourite music - Tiki Taane, Kora, Shapeshifter....

I step outside Tokyo Narita airport a little dazed through brandy, sleep-deprivation, plane air-conditioning and Japan's heat and humidity. Having thought I'd spend my first night sleeping at the airport I decide against it, get handed a phonecard by a Japanese policeman (I have no idea how it happened either) and make the call to the one hostel whose number, address and directions from the airport I have written down (which also happens to be the cheapest in the whole of Tokyo by far - and proceed to make my way there. This requires a fair bit of faith and intuition, a few changes of train and walking and, well when I actually find the place there's a sign on the door for me to say they'll be late back. No worries, I rest and wait. I am actually by this time pretty delighted that a) I have a room for the night, b) I found the place and c) how beautiful my little walk from the station to the place was and how colourful and surpassing of worrying expectations my first sights of Tokyo are! It's 10pm by now. The hostel people return, are LOVELY, and I get guided to a different building which is where I will be staying, down a host of lovely little quiet streets with more greenery and quaintness than I would have ever imagined encountering in a huge city.

Hmmm, at this point in writing my story I am beginning to realise that I have a LOT to share about this country and yet again am going to make statements about trying to keep it short and concise and etc etc etc....

So how to experience Japan on a shoestring point 1 = stay at the cheapest accommodation you can find! This place was soooo lovely too!

Next = eat cheaply, and this is actually quite possible since convenience stores here are full of chilled meals that are good. Well now, the food in Japan. This has got to be one of the best things about this place. So much stuff I have never seen or heard of or tasted before. I am so glad that dear friends of mine back in England (you know who you are) have prepared my pallette for this! The best food experiences though, come from the families I stay with whilst WWOOFing...

So I only spend one whole day in Tokyo and literally wander the streets with no real agenda and just soak up the newness of it all, and the joy in the fact that local to my guesthouse are heaps of tiny traffic-less hickledy-pickledy streets full of beautiful old buildings and tiny ornate gardens. I then visit the free observation 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and gawp at the sprawling expanse of the city, which goes on as far as the eye can see in all directions until no more can be seen due to the cloudy-mistiness that it merges into. More wandering the streets follows, plus the investment in a language book and map of Japan.

Next day I call and arrange to head to Numata, the location of the first WWOOF host I'll stay with. My decision-making process had gone something like: must get out of city soon, must get train but not far because far equals expensive, and must go to WWOOF host that I actually have the contact details of (it's kind of a lengthly process to get the phone number for WWOOF Japan hosts), and... know not to worry about it because whatever I choose will be new and therefore interesting and good!

So I negotiate the trains (had looked up route, time and cheapest fare on internet, then spent quite a while at the station trying to explain my ticket needs in Japanese, we got there in the end due to the fact that people here are lovely, I'm trying real hard to speak the language and it's not as important to speak well as it is to try and make yourself understood and make the effort and be creative with how you do it), then I negotiate a bus (with no English words written or spoken to guide me besides the limited directions of the WWOOF host), and somehow get myself to the right place to be picked up and driven to arrival at the beautiful big traditional wood-built thatch-roofed tatami-mat-floored rural house of Sayoko and Kotaro Fujii. Short chats (they speak enough English to make understanding between us), a shower, the revelation that they have a tap with fresh mountain water coming out of it that is ALWAYS on because that's how much fresh water there is running through their property, and an early night. I'm in a state of continuous amazement at the beauty of everything and feeling a real presence, meaning that I feel so very much in the present tense, everything is new and interesting and beautiful and I'm feeling really aware and awake and alive because of it and the challenge is enthralling and does this girl ever stop going on about how great life is?!!!!!

If I were to list every new experience with no description or story behind it whatsoever it would take another 2 or 3 times as many words as I have already written probably. How am I going to work this?! Can you follow this flitting between me, the narrator sitting here at the laptop and me, the person having the experience that you're reading about? Having an experience is one thing and takes a certain amount of time (not that time really exists but let me not get into that one), but writing about it in the present tense is basically reliving it mentally but with only words as a way of sharing it meaning in theory not just the same amount of time as the experience took to have but much more is needed in order to convey it. Umm...I don't have another 3 weeks to sit here and I am sure you don't either. What on earth am I going on about, sorry, interval, as Kat ponders the dynamics of journalising her travels. Cigarette break methinks.... ah okay okay I am not trying to promote smoking but they have a brand of cigarette here called Peace. How cool is that?! I don't even really like cigarettes but how could I not try these? They've got Hope ones as well! There are endless, endless quirky little things about the Japanese that I simply ADORE!


As I thought may happen...weeks have now passed and I am in England and have many more adventures under my belt since Japan! Life is one big big adventure I say, everything is there to be relished and enjoyed, even the down times can be learnt to be enjoyed through knowledge of what learning they will bring and the need for contrast to make the highs appreciable... I know it seems like I am in a constant state of high but there have to be times of frustration, daunting-ness and self-doubt to be overcome for the highs to be felt.


NOW - it is September and I am back in Christchurch New Zealand. Oh my oh my so much has hapened since I started this blog about Japan, it has been totally full on non-stop adventure, beautiful places and people and experiences, wow I feel so privileged and lucky to be alive!!!

Hopefully soon I will have a bit of time to sit down and write all about England, LA, Burning Man, Vegas, The Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon, San Francisco and all the incredible journeys between, through and in these places. Right now I just want to get something posted for anyone who's interested, to have a look at.