Best Before: Japan – When Friendships Expire
I leaned against a shiny tiled pole, anchoring myself in the bustle while I scanned the LED signs in red, green and gold. From the flickering glimpses of legible writing interspersed with Japanese characters, I understood that there were three shinkansen trains leaving Tokyo for Kyoto within 20 minutes of each other. In the heaving flow of people that after six days I still could not assimilate with, it was either barge through or be carried away by the crowd in a station that could literally land you in another suburb.
Inevitably, in this subterranean organised chaos, my best friend Frankie* and I ended up on different trains.
Kyoto station was a much more stagnant affair. There were more travellers milling around and sitting on overstuffed bags while waiting for their trains. The Japanese, always calm and controlled, confidently navigated the throngs while I paced snaking circles on the clean white floor. It wasn’t until 30 minutes after getting off the train that I finally made it all the way to the other end of the station, where I saw an imposing woman in black activewear with a mess of curly hair atop an expression that was none too pleased.
“Why did you wait for me at the other end of the station?” I laughed, confused as to why she hadn’t met me at the main gate where I easily could have seen her once I arrived.
“I have four bags, Phoebe. Four!” she replied, as if that explained her nonsensical decision. “Let’s just get a taxi.”
I struggled to catch up to her angry pace whilst getting the directions to our hostel out of my bag. The word “PHOEBE” assaulted my ears as I saw Frankie climb into a taxi 100 metres away. I rolled my eyes and ground my teeth, making a face as I awkwardly waddled as fast as I could to catch up to her, my bag smacking the back of my head with each jiggly step.
In the cab, Frankie broke our safe, cowardly silence with some throwaway comment about how busy it was. I continued trying to muster enough force for superman lasers to shoot from my eyes and break the glass.
“You can’t just keep ignoring me,” she snapped.
“I’m not,” I retorted defensively.
“You didn’t say anything to me just before.”
“You know what your problem is…” she began to shout with reddened cheeks and a spray of spit that made me choke on my own tears.
Before Frankie and I left Australia, we heeded no warnings of the difficulties of travelling with a good friend, stubbornly thinking that we were the exception, that we were emotionally mature enough to work through any differences. But as we sat in silence in the taxi, furiously staring out of opposite windows, at no other time had our differences contrasted so starkly.
Later on, in Osaka, Frankie insulted and discredited me in conversation by bringing up the tears I had shed in Kyoto. I stayed silent. When she mentioned it again, I tried to broach the issue casually saying that I didn’t like her mentioning it. Of course, she just laughed. When she brought it up again to embarrass me in front of a group of guys we had just met, I cut the last tie holding us together in my head.
Friends should poke fun at and embarrass each other; it keeps us humble. But being around friends should also boost your self-esteem and make you feel strong and empowered, respected and listen to you. For six years, Frankie and I did share this healthy kind of relationship. By the time we got to Japan for our first holiday together though, we were closing in on the seven-year expiration date for close friendships. I no longer felt like we could take on the world together, or that I wanted to know about her life or tell her about mine. I could feel my confidence slipping when I was with her, as I wasn’t prepared to be crushed by this particular friendship. But I just don’t think she liked me anymore.
Even so, there was no one else I would have rather tackled the Tokyo metro with, or screamed out karaoke with at 3am on a Monday with, or drifted in sulphur baths with. I wouldn’t have seen the floating shrine at Miyajima or snow dusting the Great Buddha at Kamakura if I wasn’t with Frankie. As much as travelling alone is thrilling, and you get to do everything you want to do, sharing all of those things with a close friend only amplifies each experience. Spending significantly more time with someone than you usually would can either better your relationship or prove that you’re better off without them. Either way, the only thing you miss on the plane ride home is the place you’ve come from.
On my last night in Japan, I was solo. Frankie didn’t cross my mind once. I didn’t message her to ask if she’d made it to Hokkaido okay, and she didn’t message me to ask me if I got back home safely. I didn’t ask how her roommate was, or what the snow was like, or if she had cooked any steamed pork buns yet. And she didn’t get in touch to tell me.
When I first met Frankie, I wanted to be her friend so badly I bought her a jar and filled it with lollies and tied it with an orange bow that she could wear to school carnivals. There were a few rocky years (thank you, hormones) where she just didn’t have time for my swift sullen mood swings. But I needed a friend to put me in my place from time to time, and she needed a friend to bitch about the injustices of the world with. We ended up near inseparable, talking philosophy and physics and planning our stripper empire until the cows came home. Our often-brutal honesty with each other and individual sense of self made our friendship feel unique and strong enough to survive travelling together for two weeks around Japan before she started a ski season in Hokkaido.
The end of our friendship was not a break-up. It was not angry or spiteful or loaded with jealousy. It was simply an expiration. We had a good run – one of my best. Our mutual cynicism and desire for knowledge guided us to relative success together. But our different paces and levels of emotional intelligence rendered us useless for not much more than nostalgic gossip. A relationship that in the crowds and commotion of Japan, we found we no longer had space for.
*name has been changed
Cover by David