Japan -  Making a big impression

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ALTHOUGH some may secretly find my appearance monstrous at times, no one has actually verbalised it, until I arrived in Tokyo that is...

During a brief stopover in this mega city of 35 million people (destination London) I pass a group of chattering Japanese children in a playground. I’m en route to my lodgings in the commuter town/suburb of Tokorozawa, about 30 kilometres west of downtown Tokyo. As I approach the schoolyard, wobbly and jelly-legged from my disturbed circadian rhythms, the hubbub immediately ceases, and the littlest of them points at me through the hurricane wire and whispers in quiet awe, “monster”.

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"The littlest of them points at me through the hurricane wire and whispers in quiet awe, “monster”.

Welcome to the Land of The Rising Sun, I think to myself. I dismiss the remark as the greeting of a well-meaning child, lost in translation. I mean, at a whisker over six foot, and 95 kilos, I’m hardly enormous. Like many men in their 30s, I maintain an uneasy truce with my burgeoning waistline. I promise to eat salad and vegies more than steak and chips; it promises not to expand exponentially and block out the sun.

This accord has served me well over the years, with no overseas travel ever prompting me to resort to a diet of tofu and mung beans, but after two days in Japan, I feel like a fat bastard.

That night we dine at Gonpachi (the Kill Bill restaurant). I’m with my travelling companion Nelle, her friend Alicia and Japanese partner Kazuo. The latter whispers something into Alicia’s ear. She pauses for a moment and then leans across the table, suppressing a giggle and says quietly, “Kazuo thinks you look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

As I stuff more edamame into my mouth, I wonder, am I really a behemoth? I console myself with sake, both the hot and cold variety, much to the amazement of Kazuo who clearly appreciates the potency of this rice wine more than I.

The local restaurants are great. The menus are in Japanese, but in most eateries there’s a display cabinet at the entrance containing plastic examples of all the dishes. Also the menus have pictures of the food, so you can order simply by pointing.

When the waitress arrives to take our order, Kazuo points to a dish that would emaciate a sparrow. I am not quite so restrained as I am STARVING. I point at several starters and two main courses. As I pause to consider a third, my menu is whisked away by my startled waitress. Her amazement is equalled only by observing the speed at which I devour my order when it arrives.

Suddenly, I don’t feel so well. Unsure if it’s the raw jellyfish I’ve just consumed or the alcohol, I excuse myself and go to the bathroom. In my somewhat inebriated state, I approach the nearest waitress and muddle my entire Japanese vocabulary consisting of only two words: sumimasen (excuse me) and sudoku (number puzzle). While gesticulating wildly with my hands I repeat, “number puzzle” over and over again. She smiles sweetly, disappears and returns moments later with a pair of chopsticks and then bows. “Number puzzle,” I say and bow in return. She bows again and so do I. This continues for some time.

Fortunately, the excessive kow-towing has restored my sobriety and I return to the table, lamenting my decision not to learn at least some basic Japanese. In the taxi on the way home, I vow to keep my phrase book close to me at all times.

The following morning, we all head to Tokyo Disneyland in the Chiba Prefecture, top of our must-see list. From Tokyo station, we jump on the train (JR Keiyo Line to Maihama) and during the 15-minute journey, Kazuo draws our attention with cries of “Fuji-san, Fuji-san” (Mount Fuji). Smog allowing, you can see the active volcano from Tokyo.

Even as we whiz past in our pristine carriage, the peak, which stands at almost 4000 metres, presents an impressive vista. It hasn’t belched lava since 1708/09, so you can climb the track to the summit, if you’re adventurous. You don’t need to be a mountaineer to ascend but given it’s five to seven hours each way, I’m content to admire its beauty from afar.

Lost in my thoughts the previous night’s misadventure a distant memory, I begin to feel less conspicuous. And then, just as I let my guard down, the Japanese family opposite smile sweetly and I clearly hear the word ‘sumo’. With thoughts of swapping my shirt and tie for a sumo g-string (mawashi), I close my eyes and slumber the rest of the way.