Japanese Travelers —
“Back off! I have black belt!” spoke a Japanese traveler in broken English in a youth hostel dorm room in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was being taught new English phrases by a playful Australian. The Australian was, in fact, giving him a lesson on what to do in an American bus station if he finds himself in trouble with the locals.
“Back off! I have black belt!” the Japanese traveler repeated again, seemingly proud of his new English phrase — or perhaps he just enjoyed the entertainment that the Aussie and I took from listening to him.
For some odd reason I think his new stratagem could work. I could only imagine this Japanese kid, who could speak very little English, saying “Back off, I have black belt” in a heavy Japanese accent to some crack head trying to spang up a dollar in a Greyhound station. As far as I see it, this is probably the best think for him to say.
I only wish I could pull this move off.
This travelogue entry is an ode of sorts to a particular type of traveler that I have had the privilege of meeting up with every now and then in my wanderings. This is an ode to the Japanese traveler.
I do not mean to shine a light of honor upon those typically elderly Japanese visitors who wander around in large tour groups wearing matching yellow caps and following a woman with a blow horn and a triangular yellow flag. No, these people are tourists on vacation, and, from what I can tell, are little different than any other sort of over-moneyied folk on vacation. What I am talking about is the Japanese tramp — the Japanese traveler, backpacker.
All over this earth I have met kids from Japan on the long road to everywhere. It has happened on more than one occasion that I thought that I was “way out there” just to meet a solo Japanese backpacker going further, going farther, with less baggage and less worry. I love meeting these solo traveling Japanese kids on their wanderings about the world — wanderings that are very often multi-year journeys, alone, with little baggage, and on the least amount of money possible.
“How long are you traveling for?” I once asked a young Japanese traveler in Western China.
“Forever,” more or less, was his response, “I can’t go back to Japan.”
Japan can perhaps be called a culture of extremes — once you step off your social track, you are often times outside for good. The long term travelers from this land often sacrifice more than the time and money they spend traveling, they sacrifice — to a large extent — their position in the narrow track progression of their society.
A Japanese traveler is often a traveler for life.
I met up with a Japanese girl in the streets of Mendoza, Argentina in the autumn of 2002. She had been traveling for many years around the world, she broke out her passport and proved it to me. We paired up for a stretch of travel across Argentina and into Uruguay.
She told me that she could not really go back to Japan, she told me that because she had been away traveling for so long that it would be difficult for her to find good work or go to a good college. She told me that Japan was not a very good place for her anymore.
I thought she was full of shit.
Two years later I met up with her in her country.
She was not full of shit, she was seriously struggling. She did not fit in anywhere, anymore.
She now lives in Hungary.
Japanese travelers are not afraid of the Silver Dog.
Japanese travelers do not seem to harbor much fear for traveling across the USA with the people: on the bus.
I was talking to a Japanese girl at the international hostel in Flagstaff, and I asked her more than a few questions about the logistics of her bus journey across the USA. I am curious how foreigners travel my country — a land which, I am afraid, is not too well set up for the backpacker.
“What do you do when it is night and you are let off in the middle of a city?” I asked, knowing a little too well the types of urban areas that Greyhound often releases their passengers into.
“I walk to a hostel,” the Japanese girl answered simply, as though I was some sort of fool.
“Do you ever take a taxi?”
“Not very often, they are a little expensive.”
“Have you had any problems walking to hostels?”
“Sometimes it is a little scary walking in the cities at night. Nobody is around and the street is empty and dark.”
“Has anything bad happened to you when riding the bus?” I then asked.
“Mmmm,” she made that funny little high pitch noise that Japanese women often make while trying to think of a tactful answer to a tricky question. But her answer did not go in the direction that I expected:
She ended up saying that the worst part of traveling long distances on the Greyhound was that she sometimes had difficulty getting tickets for the buses she wanted to take (passengers who purchase month long passes ride standby).
There was no talk of crack heads in stations or bums trying to get money, rude ticket vendors, grumpy bus drivers, nor did she even complain of the oftentimes dingy conditions of the interiors of Greyhound buses. She only spoke of the friends that she met on her journey.
I am sure that she probably had both sides of the usual experiences of riding the Greyhound long distances — you meet interesting people as well as those you hope to never meet again in rapid succession — but she did not squirm. This girl stood 5 foot 2 and probably weight in at under 100 pounds, she was traveling alone across a vast continent that is in no way set up for public transport, she seemed to have little fear.
Where the Europeans in the USA tend to rent cars or take flights between the east and the west, I have met an inproportional amount of Japanese travelers who go in for the long haul: they take the bus, they meet the people, they see America pass in front of a large dirty window highway to highway.
I continued talking to this Japanese traveler, and soon found myself unwittenly agreeing to travel with her.
She wanted to get off of the Greyhound line and go to Monument Valley. I misspoke and said that I had a car and off offhandedly mentioned that I was thinking about going up to Moab, Utah. She looked at a map. She discovered that Monument Valley was pretty much on the way to Moab. In a whirlwind of a moment, I found myself agreeing to ride off into the western back country to go camping(??) with this Japanese girl.
“Ok, we are going the same way, we can go together!?!” she exclaimed, and then, as sort of any after thought, added a quick, “Is this OK?”
Yeah, sure, it is OK. We can go together. Why not?
My plan to go to Moab was merely conjecture — hostel talk — but the words I spoke were taken as cold fact (and if we were going the same way, why not ride together?)
In a flash, the Japanese girl and I became traveling companions. I retreated to my dorm bed in the hostel with plans in my head for how I was going to ditch her the following morning. I am a married man, and I don’t think married wives like the thought of their husbands riding off into the Western sunset with single Japanese girls.
What was wrong with this girl anyway? I am tattooed from my neck down over my arms to the tips of my fingers, my head is shaved bald, I have a long beard. I look like a convict. Why the hell was this Japanese girl wanting to ride off with me into the middle of nowhere? Doesn’t she know that I am suppose to be scary looking?
She obviously did not get the message.
I ditched her.
Japanese travelers tend to not let suspicion and a fear of strangers prevent them from getting to where they want to go — nor does it prevent them from being friendly.
Japan has a long tradition of itinerancy. Traveling is written into the collective folklore of the culture, it is a stamp of progress in many of its religions. During my travels in Japan in 2003 and 2004 I remember meeting a liberal splattering of tramps who would walk the country from end to end — one for as long as 20 years. They have no money, they are homeless, they sleep in train stations (“station hotels”), and they tend to be overwhelming friendly when they see a fellow traveler from over the seas bedding down on a bench in a station and airing out his wet socks along with them after a long day of tramping in the rain.
I must say that I am missing the taste of the Open Roads of Japan.
Read more at European Travelers and Greyhound Buses