June 25, 2003

The platform for the line to Fushiki was tucked away on the end of the station, in a place where nobody would be disturbed by its presence. I had the feeling I was going somewhere entirely other: a place somehow not of Japan, or at least beyond the scope of the lives I’d seen there. Nobody had heard of the place when I said where my boat was going from.

For the average Japanese, travel is a very different thing from the average backpacker. Time is the thing that has to be saved, rather than money. They choose a destination, recommended to them by someone who knows, and go directly there by the fastest route possible. They go, they see the sights, they eat, they buy presents for the people who require them, and they go home again, with as little distraction as possible.

Japanese travel guides are a world apart from the Lonely Planet. The most popular series, Chikyu no Arukikata (How to Walk the World) contains maps and photos to guide their readers through airports and railway stations. Perhaps this isn’t as ludicrous as I first thought. After all, a large proportion of most Japanese holidays is spent there.

In Norway, I met a Japanese tour group who were having an eight day holiday in Scandinavia. The ladies I talked to couldn’t quite remember which countries they’d already visited, but in the space of those eight days, they were visiting Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, with air transfers in between.

To me, that kind of travel doesn’t make sense. What’s the point of seeing the sights? You want to be able to say that you’ve seen them. You want to be included in the group of people who’ve seen them. You take pictures to prove it, you and your friends pulling poses in front of the prescribed site, but the smiles are forced. Most of the pictures you’ll take are inferior to postcards; most famous sights are a disappointment. The Great Buddha isn’t as great as you’d imagined. The weather isn’t as good as when they took the photos for the postcards. There’s scaffolding covering up the carvings, and a thousand other tourists getting in your way, straying into shot as you try to compose a photo.

As I leave the station, I start to wonder if I’m in the right place. Fushiki seems so run-down that it surely can’t be the site of an international ferry terminal. A look at the map confirms that the place listed on my ticket is in the vicinity, so I head in that direction. The sight of Russians on bikes has to be a good sign. It’s the only sign, though, and I take a wrong turn, eventually getting back on track by being advised to take a short cut through the no-entry area behind a row of large oil tanks. Reaching a gate, things seem more promising. Various Russian-looking people loiter in and around cars, smoking hard. A group of young men who look like off-duty sailors play football with their shirts off.

I’m glad that Fushiki isn’t my first glimpse of Japan. How would my life have been different if my first impressions of the country had been based on this place, rather than Narita and Shinjuku? I can imagine arriving here, and wanting to turn round and go back again. To say that the place is a dump is to imply that there’s something there. All the shops are boarded up, and there isn’t even a convenience store between the station and the port. I’ve come rather unprepared, having assumed that an international ferry terminal would have some kind of civilisation in the vicinity.

Of course, the port isn’t as I’d imagined. It can barely be described as a port, apart from the presence of a large ship. It’s little more than a car park with a place to moor a ship. Land Cruisers and people carriers stand in rows, as if gathering in formation, waiting for the signal to attack. But attack what? Groups of large Russian men stand around the backs of trucks loaded with car tyres and motorbikes, all looking like the kind of men of whom it wouldn’t be wise to ask too many questions.

I reach the ship, and there’s no sign of any ticket control, so I go up the steps, dodging the families carting big boxes back and forth. At the top of the stairs, I find the information desk, where a tiny woman in casual clothes seems to be in charge. She takes my ticket and passport, gives me a piece of card with mealtimes written on it, and tells me to change my watch to ‘ship time’, 2 hours behind Japanese time.