Early this morning, a ghost woke me up in Tokyo. I was dreaming about my grandparents’ house in Los Altos, where I was explaining to some hippie backpacker kids why they couldn’t stay there. But I kept getting startled by a noise, a sudden movement, a shadowy figure popping up in the corner of my vision.
I woke in a panic, wondering where I was — and where the ghost was. It took me a minute to realize that I was in an apartment in Tokyo, in a room I’d rented on Air BnB from a nice French-Cambodian girl named Pascale. The apartment is in a quiet neighborhood, just behind an ancient Buddhist temple and cemetery, so I opened all the windows before I went to bed. Now, a gusty breeze was waking the dead and making the door thump loudly in its frame.
I shut the windows and the ghosts receded, but I didn’t sleep much longer anyway – I had a plane to catch. After a week in Kyoto (more on that another time), I’d returned to Tokyo for one night, in order to to make my morning flight to Shanghai.
At dawn I was up, shuffling through a quiet breakfast to avoid waking Pascale. I got on my bike in a damp drizzle and headed for Shinagawa train station. I had ridden the reverse route the previous afternoon, but everything looks different in reverse, doesn’t it? An elderly man, strolling with his dog, asked me if I needed help. I did, and he pointed me in the right direction.
A few minutes later, I was pulling into the train station parking lot when a policeman ran in front of me, yelling in Japanese. I started to yammer that I wasn’t going to ride my bike *into* the station (that’s a big no-no) but he interrupted me by waving one of his gloves and pointing at it.
Gloves? Just yesterday I had lost one of my biking gloves, possibly near this station. Last night I had torn through my luggage looking for it, to no avail. Could it possibly be?
The policeman waved at me to follow him to his booth, where he emerged with my missing bicycle glove. Unbelievable. This is one of the busiest train stations in Tokyo. I had dropped my glove during rush hour on a Friday afternoon when the station was positively swarming. Now here it was, a Saturday morning at 7 am, and this policeman actually *ran me down* to return the glove.
After much bowing and cheering and arigato gozaymas-ing from me – all of which prompted one tiny nod from the policeman – I was on my way. Soon, I was on the airport express train with my happily-reunited bike gloves, eating a breakfast of rice balls and hard-boiled eggs, reading the New York Times on my iPad. Ahh Japan.
I landed in Shanghai around 1:30 pm. When I emerged from customs into the main lobby, my first thought was – why is everyone yelling?
Actually nobody was yelling, they were just being Chinese. While this is my first trip to China, I’ve spent enough time around Chinese people to know that they can – and do – project their voices in a way that sounds like yelling to me, but is just good conversation. After two weeks of the Japanese hush, though, I found it alarming.
Even more startling was riding the maglev train (as in magnetic-levitation, as in, you’re actually flying) with the real-time sign that tells you how fast you’re going. Two minutes after we left the airport, the train was traveling 420 km per hour! Seriously?! How can this be safe?! Terrifying is what it is. A train passed us going the other direction, equally fast, and when the two trains met there was a sudden boom of compressed air and everyone jumped, and then laughed.
I was the last person off the train, thanks to my heavy load (when the bike and trailer kit are packed in their suitcase for flying, the whole thing weighs about 50 pounds). As I made my way slowly down the staircase, I saw two men at the bottom, each standing behind a different fare gate, each gesturing wildly with their arms and yelling at me to come through their fare gate.
“Ma’am! Ma’am! This way, come this way!”
I stopped in my tracks and stared at them. What the hell were they talking about? Which fare gate was I supposed to go through? Were these station agents? Plain-clothes police? Did I do something wrong?
As I slowly approached, they leaned toward me, reaching over the gates, trying to take my luggage from my hands. I decided to avoid both of them and went through a third gate that was un-manned. Once I was through, they ran over and started walking next to me, one on either side, and the cajoling resumed.
“Taxi, ma’am!? Taxi!?!”
I turned and tried to make a stern face and said no. They left me alone after that.
I should have said yes. Instead I boarded the subway and proceeded to West Nanjing Road station, which I thought was the station nearest my hostel.
Turns out I went to the completely wrong station, and a completely INSANE station at that. I emerged into a sea of hawkers, beggars, tourists and teenagers. I wasn’t sure exactly where my hostel was — I had planned to pop into a cafe, pull out my iPad, and get my bearings. But there was clearly not a cafe to be had, and no way I was pulling out my iPad in the middle of this scene.
I hauled my load away from the epicenter, through smelly and wet side-streets, until I spotted a shabby hotel. There I pretended to be interested in a room, so that I could decamp in the lobby and get myself straight.
That’s when I realized I was several miles away from where I needed to be. I spent the next 45 minutes walking and hailing taxis. The sidewalk was narrow and bumpy, and full of not just pedestrians and bikers but also motorcycles who honked their way through. Most of the shops were selling hardware, motorcycle parts and other dusty mechanical things. My arms were killing me from pulling the 50-pound bike suitcase around, but there was no place to stop and assemble the bike, and all the taxis were full.
I finally got a taxi by jumping in front of one that stopped to let out a passenger. Relieved, I lifted the bike suitcase into the trunk and climbed into the backseat.
More yelling. I’m trying to show the taxi driver the address of the hostel, and he’s trying to tell me he can’t read it, and we’re both pointing at my iPad and yelling. Somehow, we find a piece of information we both agree on: I’m trying to get to someplace near the intersection of Jiaozhou and Wuding roads.
In the end, he dropped me one block from my hostel, and it only cost me 18 yuen, about two bucks. The hostel is great, in a much better neighborhood, and aside from a group of very excited French college kids on holiday, there’s no yelling.