The cool air wafting across my face, combined with the train’s extended lack of motion, coaxed me out of my slumber.
“Shit,” I thought, “where the hell am I?”
To which the answer was: I was drunk and jet-lagged on an empty train in the Japanese countryside, which was standing stopped with the doors open at some station. It looked very much like this station was the last stop, but exactly where this station actually was I had no idea. Looking confusedly at the time I realised I must’ve overshot Kyoto by at least an hour, and it was now after one in the morning… fuck!
I’d arrived in Japan the week before to take up a job teaching English in Kyoto, and after an absurd boot camp at my company’s regional head office in Osaka (a ‘training course’ which was more about breaking our spirits than it was about training us how to teach English) I’d started my job in Kyoto.
This had all come about because I’d had to leave Canada (unwillingly!) when my Canadian visa expired, where I’d been teaching English as a side-gig to teaching snowboarding (Vancouver is both a ski town and a popular study English abroad destination for ESL students). I’d heard this Japanese company was conducting interviews in Vancouver, and the start dates were just after I had to leave Canada so I went for the job and thus found myself back in Japan a short time later.
While teaching in Vancouver I’d made an awesome bunch of Japanese friends – students and staff from the school – who mostly lived in Osaka and Tokyo, so when I’d got the job in Kyoto we’d started making plans to hang out in Osaka (Kyoto and Osaka being located right next to each other in the Kansai region).
My manager from the school, a died-in-the-wool Osakan (people from Osaka are crazy about their food) had always insisted that the Japanese food in Vancouver was rubbish and she’d show me the real deal if I ever went back to Japan. Well, now I was, and she came good on that promise.
She invited me to a dinner party at her friend’s place in Osaka on that first weekend, and we ate an absolute feast of amazing home-cooked Japanese (and Italian) food washed down with copious volumes of quality French reds and a bottle of anejo tequila. This dinner party started at lunchtime, and I ended up boarding a midnight train back to Kyoto thoroughly pissed up, still a bit jet-lagged, and full to bursting with food. Unsurprisingly, I dozed off in pretty short order.
It’s something you see in Japan quite a lot: people totally passed out on the train, either due to alcohol or work-related exhaustion, sleeping like babies, and always going completely undisturbed. Any Japanese or long-term resident of Japan can probably tell you a story or two about waking up at the end of a line. It’s not so bad when it’s a subway line and you can just get back on the other way, or even better the Yamanote line which just goes round and round central Tokyo – one of my Japanese mates once slept for a full 8 hours on the Yamanote line after a heavy session!
But if it’s the last train of the day, you’re gonna have to fork out for a taxi or somewhere to sleep… and if it isn’t a subway line, but a long-distance JR train, and you find yourself in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night in the wrong prefecture, then you have a problem!
So there I was, in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, in what appeared to be the wrong prefecture. It’s only 26 minutes from Osaka station to Kyoto station, but I woke up some 90 minutes after boarding, at the end of the line, at 1:30 am, in some place called Maibara.
I dragged myself to my feet, the situation dawning on me slowly at first, and then sprang into action as I realised I might be stranded… I drunkenly lurched off the train and stagger-ran along the platform towards one of the JR station staff, yelling, “Kyoto! Kyoto?” at him, gesticulating at the empty platforms around us.
He saw this wild-eyed drunken gaijin mess coming at him, mastered his panic, and raised his crossed forearms in a big X, the universal Japanese symbol of ‘sorry / you’re screwed / can’t help you’.
My Japanese was still very basic at the time, but I was able to ask him a question or two and understand enough to know that that was indeed the last train, and that the next train back to Kyoto was indeed in the morning, at 5 o’clock.
What I wasn’t able to understand was where exactly Maibara was. Maybe not too far, I hoped, and went out to the taxi rank.
…where I learned a cab would cost hundreds of dollars! “Okay, you’ve gone pretty bloody far,” I realised, “so what now?”
And I saw the shining lights of a 7-Eleven, that 24-hour beacon of hope in even the most obscure of Japanese towns. There I could ask for directions to a karaoke place or internet cafe to crash in for a few hours; he pulled out the map and showed me I’d gone flying past Kyoto and was round the other side of Japan’s biggest lake, Lake Biwa, in Shiga prefecture.
He also explained that the nearest karaoke places and so on were in the next town back towards Kyoto, a place called Hikone.
So that became my mission; get to Hikone, get an overnight deal in a karaoke room for a few hours’ kip, and get the first train to Kyoto.
Unfortunately in the store I’d also realised I hardly had any money – just about enough for a karaoke room and the train, but not for a taxi to Hikone (and I didn’t have my ATM card or any money yet in my Japanese account).
There was a policeman out front of the store, so I checked with him the correct road for Hikone and how long it would take to walk. He laughed at the question, but reckoned it’d be about 45 minutes.
So I marched off through this chilly spring night past fields of rice paddies under a bright moon, listening to the croakings of an army of frogs, cursing my idiocy, and copping regular facefulls of spider’s webs. That policeman was full of shit! He’d clearly never walked it, and even though I shook off my drunken legs and got my march on it still took about two hours; on and on I walked, laughing at myself, cursing myself, and occasionally appreciating the moonlit countryside and the orchestra of frogs, and finally arrived in Hikone.
By that point there were only a couple of hours left to kill before the train, so the money I’d earmarked for a karaoke room was instead spent on some food and a hot drink from another 7-Eleven, and I slept on a bench for an hour outside the station until it opened up for the first train.
And so, finally, tired and hungover, I was on the train heading back to Kyoto… it gradually filled up, picking up more and more passengers at each town along the line, a horde of grey-faced grey-suited salarymen on their way to a new week of grind, early morning commuters heading from their homes in Shiga to the office in Kyoto or Osaka – a daily routine I was glad wasn’t mine (it was Monday morning and I had Sundays & Mondays off), and I wouldn’t have swapped places with them even in my shattered, post-drunken, thoroughly disheveled state. They were starting another long week of commuting and working, while I was on my way to crawl into the blessed sanctuary of my futon, utterly knackered, but one lesson the wiser – that lesson being, avoid drunk sleeping on the train in Japan!
And I never did so again – whenever I was drunk on the train after that, I always stood by the doors! Though it proved not to be the last of my misadventures on Japan’s railways…
Have you ever fallen asleep on the train in Japan? Where did you end up?
For more posts on Japan, click here
For my Japan snowboarding guide, click here
For my Japan overland travel guide, click here