Finding adventure in unlikely places

Diners at Ebisu Yokocho, Tokyo

Diners at Ebisu Yokocho, Tokyo

Hungry llamas, lost passports and drunken confessions in Japanese pubs – sometimes adventure comes looking for you, writes novelist Natasha Pulley.

I'm terrible at adventures. I like verb tables; I've never tried ayahuasca and, despite the hints of my Peruvian landlady, I never did spontaneously marry someone from Cusco. I sort of bring ordinariness with me wherever I go. That seems inimical to having much fun when travelling, but I've learnt adventures grow from more basic circumstances than I'm prone to imagine. 

Much more necessary than a fearless spirit or zip wires is an apple. Last year I was halfway up Machu Picchu trying to research Inca attitudes towards stone. My guide was telling me about the ruins and I was really trying to listen because I was there to work, not on holiday, but I was wheezing in the altitude (pathetic: it's only 2400 metres; everyone else was fine) and my concentration was shot. Then a herd of llamas danced past. I wheezed along in pursuit but lost them - they're pretty nippy, and springy, and not oxygen-deprived. 

Then there was a yell behind me and when I turned I got a faceful of happy llama looking for my apple. 

Apples: important. 

It's important as well not to leave your passport in the loos at Beijing airport, but even if that happens, things might still turn out well. I realised what I'd done only after getting on the train that takes you across the airport. I didn't speak any Mandarin and the staff didn't understand my accent (I'm British) and I ended up stranded in the arrival hall wondering how the hell to contact the embassy. But then along came the man I'd sat beside on the plane - he was a Beijing local who'd been teaching in Yorkshire the previous year - and he collared me cheerfully and did what no English person in their right mind would ever do: he took me to lost property. In London that would earn you nothing more than a scornful look. I did get a scornful look from the lady behind the Beijing desk, but she also had my passport. The cleaners had handed it in about five minutes after I'd lost it. It had beaten me across the airport. 

While I'm on the joy of ordinary things, I need to say that one of the best aspects of living in Japan has nothing to do with temples or samurai history; it's pubs. 

Bureikou means putting aside rank. It's an old idea, and these days it involves a bunch of people who work together going to the pub and getting drunk, with one rule: whatever is said in the pub, stays there. It's especially important in Tokyo, where working life is dominated by big corporations and their punishing standards of behaviour. A session at the pub is a chance to loosen up, and it works. People of usually flinty austerity confess to affairs, mad things done abroad, secret PhDs, but even when nothing spectacular gets aired it's still very funny. 

My favourite pub story was from a man who worked for the army. The English word "attack" has been absorbed into Japanese as attack o suru, but rather than meaning an assault, it's slang for trying to pull a girl. This means it's rather a false friend; Japanese men often assume "attack" in standard English means to pull or to score. Which causes confusion and alarm if you're a Japanese soldier speaking English to foreigners, and you mention you're about to attack a woman. 

I get nervous travelling, but I have a mantra now: check lost property, go to the pub, and always bring an apple.

Natasha Pulley's second novel, The Bedlam Stacks, follows the trials of a 19th-century expedition to find quinine in the Peruvian Amazon (Bloomsbury, $29.99).


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