Sendai: Be The Reds!

May 01, 2003

Living in Japan, even in Tokyo, you get used to people looking at you slightly oddly. In spite of the last century and a half of internationalisation, the sight of a foreign face can still be a matter for comment. The people on the train were looking at me more strangely than usual. It was hardly surprising. I was a mess. I was drunk and incoherent, and blood was dripping onto the seats from the middle finger of my right hand. I had spent the afternoon and evening at a friend’s barbecue in the park, and a suitable amount of beer had been consumed. The plan was to go home, get my bag and my tent, and get the night bus to Sendai. Unfortunately I wasn’t entirely sure of the way back to the station, and what seemed like the most direct route involved crossing a piece of waste ground, which entailed climbing over a seven foot corrugated iron fence. If I’d been sober, I’d be considering going to hospital to get first aid and a tetanus jab. On the other hand, if I’d been sober, I wouldn’t be holding my hand up to the other passengers on the train, saying “Look, look, there’s blood everywhere!” A middle-aged man plucked up the courage to speak to the crazy gaijin, and told me I ought to get off the train and get first aid. At the station, they patched me up as best they could with bandages and iodine, but their advice was to go to hospital. “Just a scratch!” I kept telling them. “I’ve got to go and catch a night bus!”

So I found myself boarding a bus wearing a blood-stained t-shirt, my head rolling through the drunkard’s circle. I wasn’t in any pain, but that was probably thanks to the alcohol. The station master and his boys had done their best, and my fingers were bandaged up quite well, but the two deep gashes on my right palm glistened emphatically, too big to go under a plaster. I’d done myself quite a nasty injury, and if I’d had any sense at all, I wouldn’t be heading out on a camping and hitch-hiking trip. It was only when I arrived in Sendai, at five a.m., that I realised I’d forgotten my glasses. My contact lens was starting to sting my eye, and I was becoming unpleasantly sober. The city was more hung over than I was. In the station, and around the city centre, the giant tanabata festival decorations were hanging down, evidence that I’d just missed the city’s biggest party of the year. A few stragglers were still out on the streets, unsure of their way home. I made a reconnaissance expedition, checking the locations of local opticians, although they wouldn’t be open until ten. Nothing would be, apart from the convenience stores. There is a curious phenomenon that can be observed in Japan. Certain areas are dominated by one particular convenience store chain. In some places, you’ll pass dozens of branches of am-pm before you see a seven-eleven. In Sendai city centre, it’s Sunkus. There seems to be one every couple of hundred yards, and no other chain. Is it some kind of yakuza thing? Have they got some protection racket going? And why do they have such silly names? Mini-Stop. Lawson. Family Mart. Daily Yamazaki. Three-F. Sunkus. It took me a long time to notice that Sunkus, in the mangled world of Japanese English, is pronounced the same as ‘thanks’. As with most things in Japan, this observation poses more questions than it answers.

Eventually the opticians opened, and I got in for an eye test. While I waited for the glasses to be made, I killed yet more time by wandering around Sendai city centre. I went into a 100 yen shop, to pick up some more things I’d forgotten in my bloodied flight from Tokyo. A watch, a toothbrush, and a million things that I never realised I needed until I entered the 100 yen shop. They’re incredible places, palaces of Chinese plastic that astonish and make addicts of the average foreigner in Japan. At every turn, Korean teenagers in “Be the Reds!” t-shirts blocked my way. The shop was full of them. Where had they come from? Why were they here to torment me like this? All I had wanted to do in Sendai was move on to Matsushima, see one of the Top 3 Views in Japan, as endorsed by the ancient poet Basho with the haiku “Matsushima! Ah Matsushima, ah! Matsushima, ah!”. Instead I was stuck in a new town, all wide characterless boulevards and chain stores. There was a reconstructed castle, but its appeal was limited. My relationship to the city was defined by my desire to get away from it. As soon as I got my glasses, I got a train out to Shiogama and got on a boat.