STUMBLING INTO EXCELLENCE – JAPAN BY JAKE TERREY
PHOTOGRAPHY & WORDS: Jake Terrey
To me, or anyone who looks to be swimming out of their depth when travelling, whether in seas of the “other” or just in the deeper end of the chlorinated pool of my stupidity, Japan offers that particular purchase of confusion.
I had always liked to absorb travel through what my friend called ‘stumbling into excellence’. Just keep moving until the inexplicable reveals itself through its own inertia. In Japan, it’s a lot more like fumbling into excellence.
It is some picture puzzle you do in the dark. The process only begins to make sense once you’ve found the answer – “Oh, of course, it was a 6000-piece puzzle of clear blue sky; how did I miss that?” You feel stupid and lost in a series of small embarrassments usually met by two types of local eyes – wide and blank at your appearance and inaction or smothered in warm helpfulness like a parent picking up a child crying face down on the pavement.
Outside of the major cities in winter, you’ll find that all doors are closed, and all shops are shut (or aren’t shops at all), but only to those who don’t try to open them. Everything must be ventured if you’re going to get inside. That’s a wise lesson to learn. With enough perseverance, all the magic excellence is there to find, but you have to change your line of logic to get there – or spend a lot of time on the floor (which I did).
A LARGE ROOM. CARPET. NO CHAIRS.
The Sado Island ferry left from the port of Nigaata on January 1st. Nigaata is the kind of place you go where people ask you why you’d go there. I imagine some tourists telling me proudly they are coming to Australia to see Gosford or Grafton, and I understand the reactions we get.
We stayed in a business hotel by a bridge that insisted it was famous. There was a fish market. There was a vegetable market. There was an alcohol market. There was a famous rock (Japan has lots of famous rocks).
A giant sculpture said, “WHAT’S NIGAATA?”.
I thought that was a pretty reasonable question as I was new in town, but if, after all this time, the best they could do was admit they didn’t know, I felt maybe I wouldn’t be given a better answer.
Large transport ferries like this have all the available charm of a floating RSL coupled with the practicality of its own travelling car park. You may gamble, drink some flat beers and have something to eat. You may pass out on the floor. You may smoke in a tiny room with 5 others, all obeying festival urinal rules: eyes down, don’t acknowledge the others pressed against your shoulders. You may also appreciate and or question the inexplicably patterned carpet. Who decided this always has to be the theme when gambling is present? Movie theatres are also in on the poor interior design conspiracy.
In purchasing tickets, we had the option of 4 distinct rooms to spend the 3hr journey.
Small with 2 chairs, no carpet.
Small with 4 chairs, carpet.
Slightly larger with 2 armchairs, carpet (executive).
Large, carpet, no chairs.
We feel lucky to have been able to even navigate the system and arrive on the boat with an undisclosed room allocation.
The passengers shuffle in by the grace of 15 men waving impotent lightsabers like airport ground staff bringing in a plane that landed hours ago. Everyone in Japan must have a use.
A neat line forms by a window at the centre of the ship where thick green blankets are handed out. Everyone but us forwards off to their carpeted or non-carpeted spaces. The executive armchair room remains empty. So executive.
This all feels ridiculous, Bruna and I agree; the boat is wonderfully bleak; why does everyone not sit on the viewing deck to watch the storm lick at the windows or chat in the glaringly uneventful event plaza?
It appears that talking is prohibited or frowned upon. Frowning covers a lot of the police work in Japan. Besides the engine and the pachinko machines whispering in the casino booth, the loudest part of the boat is the birds following our wake.
A pair of crows perch on the railing by the smoking room, barking at each other until the ship’s horn rattles them back into the blizzard. Seagulls from the mainland shore where the sign still begged, “WHAT’S NIGAATA?” float along in the slipstream of our ferry as it lunges towards a heavy sea from the walled harbour; they seemed to better grasp the nature of the location than the townsfolk did.
We hide our booze under a seat in the empty observation lounge to photograph a passing lighthouse and stroll through the ferry. No one in Japan will comment on your foolishness until it’s reached terminal velocity, but I can feel that this was potentially not as we were expected to do. A man lying on the floor in the carpeted room with no chairs gives me a strange look, and I give him back the same as if both our actions were deemed ridiculous by the other. It would have been intelligent to consider that, as a foreigner, it’s almost always you in the wrong when exchanging strange looks.
Every assumption you make about Japan turns on you as the vulnerably uninitiated.
Leaving the harbour, the boat collapses into a large and violent sea. Standing alternatingly vertically, then horizontally as we fold into the space between the waves, I realise perhaps too late the value of a soft floor to die on. Very quickly, I’m running a sick gauntlet down the halls towards the carpeted room with no chairs, like a rotating fight scene in Inception.
I find the ship’s passengers have entered into some non-verbally agreed upon 3-hour stasis, laying in a group coffin pose until the ferry is done slamming against the waves. I pass out by the door and fall asleep on my shoes just before the carpeted room with no chairs becomes the carpeted room with no chairs and an embarrassed Australian throwing up in the corner.
No chairs. Carpet. Green blankets. No talking. No throwing up.
As a family politely steps over my body, I wake up, now mostly sprawled out in a hallway. Their thick green blanket drapes over my face as they cross, and I’m thrust into the world again. WHERE AM I? WHAT WAS THAT FEELING? Why do I ever listen to myself?
The executive room remains executively empty.
Sado appears off the ship’s port side through the salt spray, like Jurassic Park from the helicopter but with fewer dinosaurs and more yakitori. Some dinosaurs. Bruna, who wore it all better than I, tells me she’s found boat merch and beers to commemorate the journey. I’ve never worn the shirt I bought and probably won’t.
Sado Island, I found loosely scrolling google maps like some nostalgic gesture at spinning a globe to choose your destination. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.
One of three separate American men id met in Tokyo who worked for the military in a capacity they couldn’t legally describe told me it was “way cool”. You could ride in barrels used for collecting kelp in the summer! And North Korea kidnapped some children from its beaches in the 70s.
The island is described as a vague butterfly, two wings of mountains enshrining a valley township in the centre. Broken glass coast shatters along the edges of the snow-capped wings where suspiciously empty little towns stake a ridiculous claim against the heft of the northern seas.
Sado was a gold mining resource for the last shogun of Japan, then it was a summer holiday destination, and then it was deserted and closed during Covid. Then we came in the middle of winter to constantly note to each other how great it was that it was cold and that there was nothing.
Sydney is too hot, and there is too much everything. It was cold, and there was nothing. Some of it was great.
Most of it was hosted by the persistent ideation of doom I’d fed to us both by poisoning our Airbnb with carbon monoxide on the first night. The poison wakes you (if you’re lucky) from a grotesque concoction your mind has made to exercise your worst fears. All my ex-girlfriends come together to discuss my faults over a hushed huddle and the occasional glare. Someone swats at me with a fashion magazine like the dumb moth I am to its light.
My father tells me I’m dying from cancer. Bruna runs from a nightmare monkey who won’t stop swapping faces with everyone she’s ever known. Over 100,000 people are hospitalised for this every year, just in the States.
We wake very early in a choke and silently roll the tatami. Dim dawn light sits on the snow as it falls in gently rounded puffs on the Japanese garden outside. In the morning, I feed the family of cats who live in a steep set of drawers in the hutch outside, next to the snow-drowned, land-locked yacht, beside the 150-year-old family home that I’d just narrowly avoided killing us in.
Snow continues to fall heavily but not as heavily as the previous week, which Elina, our host, tells us trapped her in the house for days. I was thankful Elina wasn’t trapped with us after she walked in on me drunkenly performing a sword fight pantomime with the house’s decorative Katana. Even worse would have been telling her that, after she told me not to, I had turned on all the oil heaters at 1 in the morning for the incredible cold, misunderstanding her warning for a power saving concern. Then I turned them on again and again. An oil heater in Japan is very different from an oil heater in Australia.
Smoke from the cigarette I reluctantly puff on rises briefly above the ice falling down on it, and I battle the very real feeling of those poisonous dreams telling me this is your last few days on the planet to puff away. The last few days, you puffed away.
A few weeks later, a few more deaths, a few more illnesses, a whole lot more real than that which I presume for myself, fall on my return, and I get a tattoo of someone shooting themselves in the head on stage to a piece of sheet music. Friends say it’s dark. I quickly reply with some vaguely pointed diatribe about how the score of your life is played with the instrument of its own destruction! Truthfully, I got it to mark this moment of wilted perspectives where 2023 started with many losses.
I press another cigarette to my head.
We named the car “Nishitan” after a perfectly baseless Japanese infomercial that played absolutely everywhere.
A man in a red sequin suit dances the Funky Street Performer with 2 women and a mannequin attached to sticks. “Nishi Tan! Tan! Tan!” It was to promote a health clinic, obviously. The car resembles the loosest claim to a car I’ve ever had the displeasure of driving. It whispers to us in what I can only assume are curses, and we drive on carefully through the snow to see Sado Island.
Lit only by the fingers of gods peeling back the clouds, the island is in this perpetual chiaroscuro. Dim, grey, punctuated by bold rays of light. We stop in a tiny town Bruna feels was evacuated for an unknown catastrophe. I climb a steep rock face by the ocean to find at its peak a small shrine and a lone grave watching out over whatever did or didn’t happen here.
All the world’s possibilities whir around or strike you like the impact-speckled face of the moon. Go on long enough, and they start to overlap until you have a very different idea of chance.
Some new celestial life originally unmarked by the possibility of the universe eventually becomes marked in its face by compounding impacts stretching out and touching in all directions. Doesn’t the shape of chance change as time goes on and things start to overlap?
How often do you think people win the lottery if you’ve won twice already? How often do you think people pass suddenly if many people in your life have passed suddenly?
Time goes slowly as a child. Its quickening is often misunderstood and comes more truthfully as a percentage of your life. Newness slows time. Things start to quicken when there is less new, and every day of your life is a smaller percentage of its totality. New things started to happen again once I passed 30. Not many of them are as exciting as your first time hearing The Strokes or your first time in Japan. A good many of them are new because they are so terrible. Did I get here at the right time for all this to start? Am I late? Early? How long does it take for the paint to dry? How many moments are in a car crash?
It was cold, and there was nothing.
SIDE-NOTE acknowledges the Eora people as the traditional custodians of the land on which this project was produced. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples reading this.