Mostly ignored: traveling in Tokyo, Japan

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Tokyo, Day 1 Leaving Atlanta 2/27/11

This trip, started on the Sunday morning of my birthday. First no cab companies would pick me up at 5am. Then my MARTA card is marked expired, though it is supposed to be a permanent card and had money still on it. Then my passport didn’t scan at the airport and suddenly there were security guards wanting to go through my things. Fortunately they noticed that the self check in station was malfunctioning, so I didn’t have to let them go through everything I had.

But the flights, Atlanta to Dallas then Dallas to Tokyo, were uneventful, no crying babies. I slept some, and watched 3 movies that I can now remove from my Netflix list. Bonus!

But it was long, totaling 24 hours between leaving my house and hitting the hotel futon. 13 hours just from Dallas to Tokyo. It was the train from Nakita Airport to Ueno station that surprised me–another 2 hours.

Impressions: it is a huge tightly packed city. Everyone is on cell phones–largish, rectangular flip phones. The young girls giggle and cover their mouth when talking to each other, just like the stereotype. They all have tiny stuffed animals and colorful charms tied to their phones, sometimes 2 or 3. More on their bags. A surprising number of people wear face masks, but often only over their mouth, not nose. I’d guess one in 10 people wear them. I only see 2 others of European heritage on the train the entire 2 hours.

There is a Chinese woman sitting across from me, who seems very crass–sitting with legs wide open talking loudly and carrying many bags. She looks like she has been on a major shopping trip. I only know that she is Chinese because she tells this to the man next to her, in English, the lingua franca of the world. The older women don’t speak to her and give significant glances to each other. The old men talk to her, though only in polite short conversations. No one talks to me.  No one even looks at me. I might as well not exist.

By sheer luck I walked almost directly to the hotel–only asked directions 2x and it was clear that they were just pointing me in the general direction that I needed to go. It is a miracle since I’m almost too tired to think. Later I realize I could have gotten much closer to my hotel by subway, but since I can’t figure out the address system, I didn’t know this. I just had a general area. Dumb luck. And I’d rather be lucky than good.

The hotel is nice–but somehow I got the day wrong so paid for yesterday, which they cannot reimburse. Ouch. This is one of the reasons travel is expensive–you make mistakes. Fortunately, I have not made too many really expensive ones in my travels, at least nothing I couldn’t afford. I consider it payment for my travel education. My BlackBerry phone doesn’t work here, but there is a free computer in lobby that I can use to let people know I’ve arrived safely.

My room is tiny with a very hard futon that is against one corner and takes up most of the space. There are no drawers, just a narrow closet and a shelf above. Good thing I didn’t bring much. But the toilet seat is heated (2 settings!) and they provide plastic slippers, a cotton robe that buttons up the front, and a rechargeable flashlight. The toilet is the most technologically advanced commode I’ve ever seen. In addition to the heated seat, it has both bidet and “shower” functions (Which seem to work exactly the same way) and a button that plays the sound of water falling to hide the sound of your water falling. You can even adjust the volume. In a place where people are packed so tightly, this is a consideration.

Tokyo, Day 2

Breakfast in hotel is quite different from any I’ve seen before: tomato soup, green salad, boiled eggs, bread and rolls, cold noodle salad with a mayonnaise dressing and shredded carrot. Tea, OJ, milk and coffee to drink. I am the only non-Asian. It is mostly businessmen. Men eat with their mouths open. The women eat deliberately, slowly. No one makes eye contact with me. If I’m in their way, they stand aside and look away. It’s like I’m not here. Otherwise it is quiet, just very low piano music, no TV. Only one young high school aged girl talks loudly to her male friend.

At 7am the streets are empty of cars, but begin to fill by 7:30a.  By 7:45a the dining area is full and the businessmen shovel the food into their mouths and rush out. Everyone wears a black suit, white shirt, black shoes, with a dark tie. All carry a black briefcase. It might as well be a uniform.  School girls in actual uniforms walk by the window on the way to school (black skirts with matching jackets and white knee socks). All have one or more stuffed animals attached to their book bags and several charms too. It’s a little too cute for me.

At 8:15a I am out the door. The city is getting busy and I have never been so lost. The Japanese characters mean nothing to me and even the street signs that use letters have names I cannot seem to stick into my head. The cars drive on the right and on the sidewalk people pass on the right. It takes me several minutes and a few close calls before I figure this out. No one makes eye contact with me. If they see me at all they look at my camera, not my face. Shops on the street have sliding doors, some are automatic, some you push a button to open. Even the garages have sliding doors. No one crosses the street until the light indicates “walk” even if there is no traffic. No jay walking at all. There are bicycles everywhere and many use the sidewalk. It is best to hug one side of the walkway since they come up behind you silently. There are substantial bike stands lining the streets. Few have bike locks. You could not do that in Amsterdam! There are bike parks, like car parks.

I found my closest subway stop: Shin-okachimachi station and am grateful to find it is on my guidebook map. I am given several maps at the hotel desk, but it is worse than Greek since there are almost no English words on them. Intersections seem to be marked oddly: each will have the same street name regardless of direction. Most have no name at all. I am so lost, but think I can now find the park–Oeno, which I was very close to when I came in last night. If I had not been in a major district I have no idea how I would have gotten to my hotel.

It is rainy to misty, cool perhaps 45F. I find an ATM but can’t read it to use it. I only got 5000Y at the airport which seemed like a lot at the time, but is only about $60US. Should have gotten more. I don’t know yet how to solve this problem.

I walk to Oeno Park and only hope I can find my way back. There are the largest black “crows” I have ever seen–loud too, and I now realize this is what I heard calling before dawn. I see shrines to the fallen at the Oeno battle, the Hair pagoda, Western art museum, and science museum (closed for renovations) with a life sized statue of a whale outside. See my second woman in traditional robe, white ankle socks split at the toe, and wooden sandals. She is wearing a coat. Do they have a backpack under there? I stop at the Tokyo Museum of art (600Y). The first building is mostly China Buddhist art–tracking the movement of Buddhism through art from India to Japan. Upstairs is Japanese art, mostly kimonos (actually kosoda, which predate the kimono and have smaller sleeves. They were used during the Edo period 1603-1868), paper art, ceramics.  At the museum a Japanese gentleman spent much time guiding me through the second floor. His English was fair and he said he has been to USA several times for business, working with computers. He particularly liked Boston and Chicago. He once indicated he was retired, but then said he hoped to travel again to the states for business. He told me he was a Christian, which was perhaps to make me feel more comfortable? He offered to take me shopping to find a gift for my mother, but I declined. I think I hurt his feelings and he left. It is nice when someone offers help, but it also feels creepy.

I walk all around Ueno Park the site of a battle that ended the Edo era. See the five story, 17th century pagoda (in zoo), and Kanei-ji temple complex, but the Tosho-gu shrine is closed for renovations. I love how the “proper etiquette” guide in front of the closed shrine still tells you how to give money along with a series of bows. I am suffering from jet lag and decide to go to bed early.

Tokyo, Day 3

Breakfast. The soup is a thin dashi broth (miso with shaved bonito fish, this is the most popular soup broth in Japan) with seaweed. The soup is drunk directly from the bowl and the seaweed picked out with chopsticks. In place of the mayonnaises noodles from yesterday, there is potato salad made with chunky mashed potatoes and shredded carrots. Japanese chopsticks are pointed, unlike Chinese which are blunt and I find them easier to use. I must get a pair while I’m here. Once again I’m the only non-Asian.

I ask at the desk about English tours and while there is one, the gentleman must “prepare the information” for me. I assume there is not enough call for this that they have a brochure. He asked for a room number, so I hope it will be left there. I keep missing the metro stops which are marked with a stylized M that looks like a crown. These are the Tokyo line metro stations and will work with my 2 day card, which I start using today. I take one to a corner to get to the post office, the only place where the ATMs are likely to have an English option. They are marked JP (Japan Post) and I only have to ask 2 people to find it. Success! There is an English button and I get the maximum amount they will let me, except I get a single 10,000Y note (120US). Eeek!

Another metro stop and I find the Senso-ji Temple. Only one of the buildings is original–17th century, and it is tiny. Since the buildings are wooden, one fire can wipe them all out. There are a number of swastika, an ancient good luck symbol, though I had thought it was Chinese. I must research why some of the idols are “clothed” in red–sometimes a vest, but usually a bib or apron or occasionally a crocheted hat. I allow the sandalwood incense in the center to cover me for good luck. I can always use that. I like the idea of religion more than the practice of it. Of course I don’t understand what is happening, but it looks like a lot of bowing and throwing of coins in a box. Sometimes candles are lit, for a price. The priests wear fancy robes and hats and bow to an altar a lot. How is this different than being a Catholic?

If I were a shopper Tokyo is the place to be–so much to buy. But what would I do with it all? But most of the items in my price range are cheap. The nice things are so very expensive.

I buy some fritters with red bean paste, one shaped like a bird, the other like a pagoda. I watch them being made. It is a carnival atmosphere, though I have no reason to think this day is anything special, just a normal Monday and the shopping is good near the temple.

Back on the subway to the Palace. The hard part is the unfamiliar words. Takebashi. Iidabashi. Kudanshita. Ochanomizu. Chuo. Kitaikebukuro. And those are mostly metro stops. We didn’t use words like this in Greene County, Indiana.

At the Palace gardens. They give you a plastic chit when you go in and you must return it as you leave. Every entrance is a Great guard Gate. In the center of the public section you can see the fortified hill that the original castle stood on–impressive, but vacant since the 17th century. The outer walls form a moat, with huge stones that must have taken years to cut and build. The gardens are large, but simple. It is early but the pink and white plums are in bloom! Also oranges and lemons are ripe. It is so cool that I can’t imagine they would grow here but this is a sub tropical area. I’ve seen oranges in three places now so it is not a fluke. Also camellias everywhere, often in shaped hedge rows. A few azaleas too.

I walk miles through the garden. There is a museum that displays some of the gifts from heads of countries on official visits. There are many Grand Gates, all fairly recent since most of this was completely destroyed in WWII. I walk around to photograph the Nijubashi stone bridge and the Imperial Palace beyond (I later find that this isn’t part of the palace, just an inner guard gate, but it is still beautiful). This inner garden is only open 2x a year–New Years Day and the Emperor’s birthday. In the “rest house” (actually a gift shop) they have a film of the Emperor playing tennis, driving a car–I assume to show how healthy and vigorous he is. Several people watch the film and seem fascinated by it. Well, he is the Emperor. The gardens are lovely, but all too controlled for me. Every tree, particularly the cedars, are heavily pruned, pinned and staked–more sculpture than plant. Even the bamboo garden is quite controlled. I wonder how many gardeners are on staff. (I later find that the garden is closed on Mondays and Fridays just for deep maintenance, though the tree pruning obviously goes on constantly since I see them everywhere.)

It is impossible to express how lost I am here. I often go the wrong direction coming out of a metro stop, walk past places I should know. Once in Prague I said that I had reached my first truly foreign country–many of the letters were unfamiliar. Well at least some of the letters were familiar and all the streets had names. Not so here. Everything is so foreign looking and so it all looks so new to my eyes. It would take awhile to get used to anything here. It causes me to add extra miles to my walking and I get quite tired. I am always making the wrong turn or walking past my stop.

Things are very clean–no graffiti at all and seldom any trash on the streets. In the mornings shop keepers sweep the sidewalk and wash the front of the building with a long handled brush. Outside doors are pots of flowers, bicycles that are unlocked. I have seen women leave their purse on a bench and walk several feet away to take a photo in a crowd of people. Umbrellas are left outside (in fact there are umbrella “parks”). People count their money on the street and make no attempt to hide how much they have gotten from an ATM. Theft is clearly low here.

When I check at the desk back at the hotel they have indeed “prepared something for me.” I have a list of half and full day tours. I’ve already done almost everything on the half day tours, but select a full day tour (naturally the most expensive!)For Saturday. It takes quite some time to book, but I finally get it done. A run to the market for some sushi for dinner and nori rice crackers for tomorrow and I’m done for the evening!

Tokyo, Day 4

I think I’m finally over the jet lag–I woke before 6am, hungry. Breakfast isn’t until 7am and it’s clear that this city does not get started early. Nothing is moving on the streets. I see no cars from my window. Looks to be a sunny day, finally–maybe a good one to climb the Tokyo Tower (patterned after the Eiffel tower in Paris) and see Mt Fugi.

As I close the window I notice a sign I hadn’t seen before: “Please do not throw away garbage from the window.” Is this a common enough problem that it requires a sign in 4 languages? I use the inefficient hot pot to heat water for powdered tea and read my guidebook until 7am.

Today’s breakfast soup is French onion. The mayonnaise salad is pasta and as always there are shredded carrots. Somewhere there is a huge vat of mayonnaise and shredded carrots and they are just adding it to something different every morning. I particularly like the rolls with rum soaked raisins. There are more people eating today. All except one are in black business suits. The lone color in the room comes from purple velvet sweat pants and hoodie. It covers a very large young girl who proceeds to take all three remaining cinnamon rolls plus three rum rain rolls and 3 slices of thickly sliced bread, jelly and coffee. She is the only person here fatter than I am. Why does this give me pleasure, or at least relief? I think this means I am a terrible person.

There are things you learn while traveling. Allow more time than you need; you will get lost. You simply do not understand the traffic patterns, even if you think you do. If people don’t pay attention to street signs (they do here) don’t cross until the little old lady does. She’s stayed alive this long so she must know something. And this one I should know by now: don’t buy a multi-day ticket to the subway. They never work after the first day and there is never any way to prove that you only got one day of use from it.

My 2 day pass is on its second day and it is labeled expired at the gate. Naturally. There is no recourse. I pay for the ride and an “overage” charge. It is clear by the expression on the guard’s face that I am in disgrace. I act penitent and pay–it’s only 10Y. Less than a penny. Raising a ruckus in a foreign country is not a smart bet. Outside I find my way to the fish market. It’s on the river and the river is always downhill. (I learned this on a Danube river trip since I always lost my way in the warren of narrow streets) When I get closer I follow my nose. But there is nothing much to see. The fish are frozen and packaged by 7:30a. If I want to see anything I must come at 5am.

These are slightly seedy looking men and I suddenly feel uncomfortable. Though no one questions me walking through, not even the uniformed guard, I get some side-long glances. I’ve learned to walk briskly, act as though you belong and duck out as soon as possible.  It’s a good thing I’m used to fork lift traffic. Fast, furious, and oblivious to pedestrians.

Not sure what to do next I stop in a shop, similar to a CVS pharmacy. I try to run out of something simple on a trip and this time it is toothpaste. It’s a chance to see what shopping is like. A sample size tube is 100Y ($1.20). Apparently there is no tax as this is the exact amount needed.

I figure out how to buy a Pasmo card–with almost no help from the station attendant who could not be bothered to do more than point at the correct machine and grunt. Would have started with this if I could have figured out how to buy one at the airport. There is a sort of English option, and after several attempts I manage to buy the card (500Y) and add money to it too (1000Y).

This is the land of the “free pee”! I have not had to pay for a toilet and all are clean and readily available. I have never been anywhere where there were so many clean toilets. At large metro stations they have a row of sit down toilets on one side and squattie potties on the other. At small stations only the latter. Thank goodness my knees are good. But there is a decided lack of soap or ways to dry you hands at many. The young girls dig small bottles of Purell hand sanitizer from their purse and stand in front of the mirror to fix their already perfect make up. Odd that.  When you do have soap it is always automatically dispensed and there are air dryers. At one marked “clean and dry” I smell chlorine! This is just the kind of place where they’d use chlorine gas to clean hands. I walk out with dripping fingers.

On my way to the Tokyo Tower, I pass through another Buddhist temple area. This one is mostly deserted so I can look around better. Behind it is a cemetery but I can’t find a way in. There is a line four deep of tiny child sized statues, each with a crocheted red hat and short red silk bib. There are flowers and pinwheels and little stands to hold a vase of flowers. Each is individually decorated, they are not the same. Though I can’t be sure they seem to represent children. Dead children. The rows of them extend 3/4 of a mile along between the cemetery wall and the road. I pass them reverently on my way to Tokyo Tower. There are no signs, but I can fortunately see the tower. “Do not fear the sound of popping! It is devise for your safe rising”. Right. I hadn’t been worried until the overly happy voice said that in the elevator as we went up. The entire tower is “manned” with young girls who don’t look to be out of high school. They are dressed in suits like little Jackie Kennedys. I go to both the regular level and the “special” higher level and the day is so clear I can see all the way to Mt Fugi. Even without the brochure I would have known it for all the people pointing, “Fugi-san! Fugi-san!” It is amazing how huge this city is. I can see the rainbow bridge, some electric wind generators, Tokyo Bay.  I can see the Buddhist temple at the foot of the tower below that I walked through. The line of red babies just barely visible. And I can see a back way into the cemetery whose gate was locked when I tried to get in! I plan to walk back through when I leave.

But it isn’t easy to leave. The elevator drops you off at the 4th floor and you have to walk down through the maze of brightly lit, neon shops with cheap trinkets. So much pink and neon my head hurts. Very American. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

I walk back to the cemetery. At the entrance is a rack with wooden buckets and dippers alongside faucets. Water for the flowers. A man even places flowers on one grave. He folds his hands in prayer and bows his head. It is quick and reverent. There is a place for both incense and flowers at most of the stones, plus an altar. Behind each stone is a place for wooden “slats” with writing carved into them. No idea what these are.

There are few trash cans on the street or the metro and when you find them they are well segregated: glass, metal, burnable, and some other designation I have not figured out. I carry my trash back to the room to avoid a mistake.

I am on my way to a Shinto Shrine, through the remains of the Olympic Park. It is not well marked and I am lucky to find it at all. The shrine is the “veneration place” of the 122nd Emperor and wife (they are buried in Kyoto). It is a dense wood with huge mature trees.  Over 100,000 trees were donated to make this park, around 1910. There is a wide gravel walking path. More walking. Oh joy. My feet are beginning to hurt.

I like the idea of Shinto. No bible. No founder. No one knocking on doors to convert you. Just love of nature and the idea that the divine is everywhere. Sure there are gods, but most are with a small “g” and are the personification of ideals.

It’s easily 2 miles inside the park to the shrine and it looks like a simple version of the Buddhist shrine I saw yesterday. And entrance “gate”, followed by a more formal gate, then a temple. Perhaps 4 miles is the proper penance for a pilgrim? They do have toilet facilities at the half way mark and though it is cold in the shade and the building is tile with an open roof, the toilet seats are heated! I am really getting to like heated toilet seats. Japan should forget sushi and export these.

Using the instructions from the English pamphlet I got at the entrance, I purify myself before entering the second gate and the courtyard. First rinse the left then right hand. Rinse the left again and use the water to rinse the mouth (everyone else swallowed the water, so I did too). But I am in special luck–a wedding party! Priests, guests in black kimonos (women) or black western suits (men). The bride in a white silk kimono with a stiff, stand up hood around her head rather than a veil. (Why are two of the guests carrying paper shopping bags?) The couple is shaded by a red parasol as they walk into the sunlight of the stone courtyard.  It is very solemn, very quiet, and they walk first around then down the center of the courtyard. They make the rounds of the courtyard in perfect silence. Most of us are taking photos, but I notice four people not paying attention to the bridal party.  An old man carrying a front pouch and wrapped with a wide, light blue apron that extends around the pouch. He looks Native American to me, not Japanese and his straight hair is in a partial top knot. A young woman dressed in a kimono and two others conventionally dressed are with him. He stands in front of the altar building and exposes the interior of the pouch. A baby! He poses for pictures. But it’s odd that no one smiles. It’s only after he walks toward me, down the steps, that I realize the child is quite dead. I must have registered horror on my face. He looks straight at me in defiance and, I can only call it righteous indignation. It is doubling shocking because this is almost the first eye contact I’ve had in 4 days.  He covers the child, never taking his eyes off mine. The party walks past me, solemnly. I stand on the steps and watch them walk exit, crossing behind the last of the wedding party in the courtyard. It’s as if no one else noticed them. Suddenly I realize I’m crying. And I’m exhausted. I can only guess at what I’ve witnessed.

I go to the “rest” area–again a gift shop and restaurant–and try to look at souvenirs, but I can’t focus. I go to the restaurant and order cold green tea (“Japanese tea” the cashier corrects me) and “Chinese soup”.  Soup cures. Besides, I need to sit quietly for awhile and calm my nerves.

The soup does the trick. Seaweed, bean sprouts, noodles and a bit of pork in broth–I’ve had better pho on Buford Highway. The tea seriously needs sugar and there never is any. Note to all Southerners: carry sugar. Sweet tea is entirely unknown and green tea is particularly bitter. Black tea is called “roasted” tea here, but you can’t always find it. You can get it in vending machines, but it is usually cold milk tea.

I have to charge my Pasmo card. Again. It seems I owe from my last trip. I can’t see how that is since it let me leave. This isn’t making sense to me.

I am finally beginning to hear the names of the stops as they are announced on the metro–progress of a sort. My ear doesn’t take to languages well, but I keep at it. I realize that part of the problem is that I expect the emphasis to be on the second syllable of a long word and it is often on the last, with minor emphasis on the first. I adjust.  I stand so an old woman can sit and she says something to the women across the aisle and they smile and nod, knowingly. I’m fairly certain that it was something like,

“Very polite for a Foreign Devil, don’t you think?” Of course I’m just guessing.

And another success: when I finally reach my metro stop and walk out to the street, I actually recognize where I am! I bought sushi there and crackers over there. I passed that shop this morning. I know which way to turn to walk to my hotel. It has taken 4 days but this is starting to look less foreign. Finally.

For dinner, I do a lot of pointing. I eat mostly on the street. I choose an odd salad with shrimp, fake crab, some veggie, fish eggs, and sliced lotus root on top of rice. And shredded cheese. Cheese? It’s better than it sounds, but the cheese was a surprise. To drink I get a bottle of Japan’s favorite soda, Pocari Sweat. I kid you not. It is described as an “Ion supply drink” and “a healthy beverage that smoothly supplies the lost water and electrolytes during perspiration. With the appropriate density and electrolytes, close to that of human body fluid, it can be easily absorbed into the body.” You cannot make this stuff up! It’s actually OK. A mildly sweet, uncarbonated drink. It reminds me of heavily diluted, flat Fresca. The second most popular soft drink is something called Calpis–which gives me visions of a gentleman named Cal heavily paid for relieving himself into soda bottles. I’ll try one tomorrow.  These and almost any other drink you can imagine is available on any corner vending machine. Japan has raised vending machines to high art. In my hotel you can even get beer from them. Most of the drinks are coffee based (Morning Shot) or energy drinks. Men often down one quickly in one gulp after buying, possibly so they can throw the can away immediately into the correct trash bin and not carry it around.

At 5pm each evening there are chimes followed by a gentle female voice. Then chimes again. No idea what she says but it is very soothing. I suspect it’s a mother saying to the Japanese businessmen “salary men”, “Seriously. Stop working. Go home and have dinner with your family. Whatever it is at the office can wait until tomorrow.” Good advice. Of course I’m having dinner alone.

(Later I ask at the desk what the voice is and they have no idea what I’m talking about.)

Tokyo, Day 5

I took a hot bath last night and it is clear that these tubs were made for shorter people. I am not tall– only five foot four, but it was a tight fit.

I am at odds today. I tried to book an all day tour to Mt Fugi, but last night the desk informs me “is impossible. All full. Very sorry.” And yet I think the man may be lying. The way the young woman at the counter looks away seems to confirm it. His English is terrible; hers is fair. But he is of higher rank and so it seems unlikely that anything can be done. They put off telling me this information until late so by the time I learn of this the office of the tour company is closed and I can’t go there myself. I had found the brochure on the street and at first only wanted information as to where the office was, but they wanted to book it for me. I should not have left it to them.

The breakfast soup is a thin tomato again. It’s quite easy to get used to soup in the morning, though all the soups have been thin. I love the sign over the bank of toaster ovens: “To our valuable guests. Do not put the dishes into the toaster. It will be the one of the cause to be broken.” And at the trash cans: “Do not throw away spoons, forks, and butterknives here, please.” So…where should I throw them away?

Usually I’m just ignored in the hotel, but this morning I am treated rudely at breakfast. A family chooses my table and it is clear that no one wants to sit near the foreigner. The mother points at me and says things to the family that cannot be complimentary.  They were finally so horrible I moved to another table. There are fewer businessmen and more tourists this morning. As always I’m the only non-Asian. The other women give me rude looks too. This day is starting off badly.

I decide to make a dry run to the bus terminal that my tour leaves from tomorrow. The desk clerk has directed me to a take a train route rather than a subway. It is quite a walk and it is not at all clear to me what to do once I get to the train station. I think I should practice since timing will be critical. Also there are English tour buses there and I may find a tour to Mt Fugi, if I am very lucky. I leave the hotel at 7:30a and I find the train station with some difficulty. It is now almost 8am and the commuter

traffic is terrible. I thought I had seen full trains in Rome, but that was nothing. I’ve seen sausages that were less stuffed! The last couple passengers actually turn around and back into the train, leaning backward to make room. The door almost closes on their nose.  I stand the entire way and am jostled badly. It is hot and humid when the train is running and the winds blasts cold air when the doors open. I’m packed in too tightly to adjust my clothing for either extreme so I alternately sweat and shiver.

Finally I get off the train at the Hamamatuscho stop. I find the bus terminal though I am led first up two flights then down three. I check and there are no English tours today that I’m interested in. The last seats went to the couple in front of me in line! I decide to go outside to check my bearings and see a familiar subway stop! Daimon–I was just there yesterday. I didn’t have to take the train after all. The subway will be faster, less expensive, and less of a walk. I decide to make it an easy day of shopping near the Ueno train station and park. So I enter the subway, but it will not accept my Pasmo card. Again. I just put 3000Y on the card, so I can’t be out of money, but I put it in a ticket machine anyway. It spits it out and says “see attendant”. The attendant checks my card and once again I am in disgrace. I have done something wrong. He speaks to me sternly and pantomimes but I have no idea what he means. So far this has been a terrible morning. I’m considering how to get back to my hotel and go back to bed, and it’s only 9am! A young woman comes to my rescue. “He’s just saying that you didn’t touch the card reader properly when you left the last station. It happens all the time. Don’t worry about him.” She smiles and hands me back my card that now works perfectly. She shows me the tiny arrow and says that you have to orient the card in that direction, face up, or it doesn’t register.  OK so it’s not just me.

I get off near Ueno Park and decide to wander. I have no destination and purposely make my steps slow. I know from experience that this is the day that the traveling tiredness and frustration hits me hard. I need to take it easy. I stumble onto a Buddhist temple and decide that 100Y for some incense–“Clearing your body; clearing your spirit.”–may be well worth the price. I light the stick, let the smoke touch my body (very like Native American ceremonies) and breathe deeply. You know, I think it helped. I feel better.

Maybe there is something to this “clearing” thing. I wander into the Shitamachi Museum and have my best experience yet! For 300Y I get a personal tour of this museum which shows how people lived in this neighborhood before the 1923 earthquake–amazing. Tiny houses of wood. No fireplaces for heating just ceramic pots to make small fires in to heat tea and warm your hand and feet. They must have been cold all winter. And the risk of fire was constant. The earthquake hit 2 minutes after noon so all the houses had small fires going for lunchtime and that ignited the fallen buildings. The earthquake was severe enough, but the fires went on for 3 more days destroying everything. 100,000 people died (some estimates are as high as 140,000) and almost every building destroyed for miles and miles. The items in this museum are all original and actually used in this very neighborhood, so they are some of the few things to be saved.

Upon leaving I am given a paper box which the attendant constructed just for me as a gift! I will be lighting more incense….

I go to the Ameyoko Market–a constant street fair atmosphere of buying, more street bazaar than anything else. Ame means candy and yoko means alley. (Yoko Ono’s name means alley?) In Edo times (ancient Tokyo) this was the place to buy candy. After WWII it was for black market goods, so Ame doubled as short for American since that’s where most of the items came from (nylons, cigarettes, liquor). I replace my red umbrella (520Y) get a pair of reading glasses (1050Y does this mean I’m officially old? No, but when it’s not raining the air is bone dry here.). It’s a great place for street food too. I get a fish shaped fritter with yellow bean paste inside. Then some kind of fried balls sprinkled with green tea powder and something that might be fried onions and teriyaki sauce? The fish is sweet. The balls are just OK and I never figure out what’s in them, though I taste fish. Dry, icky fish. I eat a couple and throw the rest away. They are served with a packet of butter. Butter? Odd. I watched both being made and they were piping hot when I got them–the best practice when buying street food, though the risk is less in such a clean country as Japan.

The bazaar is mostly purses, umbrellas, shoes, and clothing. How many umbrellas does a person need? I see thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. The translations on some of the T-shirts is hilarious. “The sugar is sheet“. Food stalls have just a few tables or none at all. The larger ones have representative plates of plastic food out front–famously available in this area and costing more than the real thing. And more seafood than I’ve ever seen on the open street. It’s not an aroma for the faint of heart. Dried. Frozen. Still alive. Thousands of tiny dried minnows with wide surprised eyes staring up from inside plastic bags. Jelly fish, flattened and stiff. Little curly octopus limbs, which may be pickled. Frosty hunks of tuna still with the outer skin. Crabs bound by netting, their pinchers still opening and closing, the occasional eye-stock sticking through the mesh like a periscope.

I go into a sort of discount cracker/cookie/sweets place to buy some food items to take home. The cash registers are in the middle of the large store, not at one of the many exits. People must be very honest here.

I stop for coffee (200Y) and pay entirely in 10Y pieces, I have collected too many. I feel lighter after! The coffee is very strong and there is actually sugar! Both sugar syrup and tiny sachet “tubes” of granulated sugar. I try both. I really just want to get off my feet for a bit. I’m a terrible shopper. I’d like to buy gifts for people but nothing seems interesting or unique. Most of this can be gotten anywhere, but particularly along Buford Highway in Atlanta.  The world is not so big.

I check my guidebook and find that there is a religious goods shopping area not far away. I’m doing a better job of navigating now and can walk straight to it. I’ve figured out that only major streets have names, so perhaps 1 in 20 streets have a name. The word for street is “dori” so the street I’m looking for is Asakusa-dori. Larger intersections also have names, but they usually have a number after them. The intersection I want is Inaricho 1. Perhaps one in 6 intersections have a name and it is confusing since the name is marked in each corner of the street (confusing if you think you are looking at street signs. It looks like you are at the corner of Tawaramachi and Tawaramachi.). These corners are “chomes” or squares, and each is made up of four smaller chomes inside the larger block. Most subway stops take their name from the nearest intersection or chome. I’ve never seen anything like it. As far as I can tell, house numbers are almost useless. At least to me.

I make my way to the religious shopping area. Carved statues of Buddha, shrines for household gods, brass flowers (jouka), and prayer beads. I had seen several of these at the first shrine and didn’t know how to judge the price. Clearly I should have bought there. These are better quality, but far and away outside my price range.

For dinner I find a small stand selling mostly fried things and get an assortment. Not sure what I’m eating but it all tastes better than the fishy teriyaki balls I had for lunch. One is a breaded and fried cake of mashed potato (or a slightly sweet potato?), another looks like a burrito and has a mild red sauce inside the consistency of cheese, but not the taste. I wash it down with a Calpis soda–a mildly carbonated drink that looks like watered down milk. It tastes sweet but not as sweet at an American soda.

Tokyo Day 6

Today I have an all day city tour: Dynamic Tokyo. I find the bus terminal where the tour company is headquartered but it’s a good thing I made a dry run the day before. Once again to find the terminal I have to go down two floors to get to the right exit, which goes up 4 floors and dumps me on the street. Then I find the right building, go up 2 floors then down 3 to get to the terminal and then the tour company booth, where all the windows are closed, though someone sits behind 3 of the five. I was told to come “No Later” than 8:40a but they don’t open until 8:30a. Naturally. Dealing with time says so much about a culture. For instance, breakfast at the hotel is at 7a. But more than a dozen people are lined up and filling their trays at 6:55a. When I’ve checked train schedules, they are always a minute or two ahead of schedule.

The desk finally opens and I realize this is the first time in days I’ve been surrounded by English speakers, though not all of them are native speakers. My seat mate is Belgium and I befriend a couple from Turkey. (She works for the tourist industry and encourages me to come teach in Turkey, but not Istanbul because it is too crowded, just to visit, she says.)

It suddenly feels odd to hear so much English and have people understand what you say. The staff speaks English, but just barely. But this is a transaction so we all know our parts. He confirms my numbers, shows me an amount, and I hand over my credit card. At boarding they ask if we “have a meat problem?” It takes awhile to realize they are trying to identify the vegetarians. We have a “Japanese BBQ” for lunch. There are 3 Moslems on board (my Turkish friends and one Saudi) who do not eat pork, but this seems completely beyond the staff. They ask for seafood and that nothing be prepared with alcohol. (Even the salad has rice wine in it! The Saudi gentleman is surprised that I’m from the US. “But you must be mistaken. You are from the UK? You understand about the pork and the wine, no?” I explain that I have traveled to Turkey and Egypt, but his expression is of disbelief as though I might not know what country I was from.)

At 9am we are still short 12 people. Why do I even bother to be early? We wait, but this is a country of punctuality. Every other bus is gone by 9:05a.

I get more and more comfortable with travel. I judge this by how little I bring along, both on the entire trip (only one bag and a large purse) and the bag I carry each day. I actually bought a smaller suitcase a few months ago and it still has plenty of room in it, though if I bought souvenirs I might have an issue. I also brought a smaller “day purse” to carry. If it weren’t for my guidebook I could just use my coat pockets.

At 9:15a we are the only bus that has not left. None of the 12 have showed so we go without them. Myata is our tour guide. He explains that his name means shrine and that he has a Shinto shrine in his house which he “addresses” each morning. First he bows very low twice. “You must show the gods the top of your head!” Then you clap loudly, twice, to wake them up. Facts: 13 million people live in Tokyo depending on how you count it, 30 million live in Tokyo Metro), and the average commute to the city is 1hr 40 minutes.

Our first stop is Tokyo Tower, which I was at earlier. It’s taller than the one in Paris, build in 1958. He says they are building another and we can see it under construction from the tower. It will open next April.

It is another spectacularly beautiful day and the view of Mt. “Fugi-yama” is even better than when I was here before. He says it is 12365 ft tall, the highest mountain in Japan, an inactive volcano. it is only this visible 5-6 days a year, and I have managed to hit 2 of them! It last erupted 1768. There are over 100 active volcanoes in Japan and about 10 earthquakes a day, though I have not felt any. I ask about the Buddhist shrine at the foot of the tower and point out the line of statues dressed in red caps and bibs. Our guide confirms that they are for unborn babies and those who die at birth. He also tells me that the wooden “sticks” at each memorial stone are put there at auspicious years: 1, 3, 5, 7 years and so on. He promises to tell is more, but never does. It is clear that he doesn’t like to answer individual questions, he prefers to address the group. “I’ll tell you about this at the appropriate time,” he keeps saying. I guess the time is never appropriate.

We are served green tea by a tea master in a lovely tea house, though we are not forced to sit on the mats. There are 30 of us on the bus and he divides us into 2 groups. The tea house is located in a Japanese garden that is 350 yrs old, though it is now in the middle of the city. Some of the bonsai are over 500yrs old. They are lovely, but the pots barely contain the roots.  Even the full grown trees are heavily trimmed and the guide tells us that they are pruned every 5 days.

The tea ceremony is interesting–performed by a “certified tea master.” The tea, machi, is the powdered type that I have in my room. It is served with 2 sweets, one to eat before and one after. The tea is drunk in 3 drinks–and you should slurp loudly on the 2nd drink. The tea master’s actions are very mechanical, precise.  Even the area of the bowl to drink from is directed. You are served the bowl with the “picture” toward you. You must grasp it with your right hand, support the bowl with your left, admire the picture, turn the bowl clockwise until the picture is opposite you, then drink. After the tea is gone, turn the bowl counter clockwise, admire the picture, thank your hostess and put the bowl down. I would find it exhausting to be so controlled all the time!

There are 2 weddings going on in the hotels that surround the garden. Our guide says that 3.8 million Yen (more than $380,000US) is the cost of an average wedding and the groom’s family pays. Men marry on average at 35 and women 31. Over 70 percent are western style weddings, though they are not usually Christian.  Our guide says that he has 3 unmarried sons and he wants them to find western women to marry, so the bride’s family will pay!

Our guide is 63 yrs old and he says he works 7 days a week–as a tour guide through the day and he teaches English at night.  (I pity his students…) He also runs a 5K five days a week! His youngest child, a daughter, his “princess”, is in university and lives at home. He has a condo outside the city and must commute 45 minutes. The condo is 700 square meters and 4 people live there.

Chinzan-So is the name of our restaurant for lunch. Green and “Roasted” (black) tea are included. There is a lot of food, cooked on a heated stone, which we are told is from Mt. Fugi. We are served pork, beef, and a variety of vegetables including onion, carrot, sweet potato, asparagus, and red pepper. Each item is dipped into a soy-chicken broth before being placed on our plates.

He says that a person must know about 2,000 kanji characters in order to read a newspaper, but average person knows 4,500 which are in common use. Some are quite complicated with 65 strokes.

Japan is an expensive place to live. They import all their oil and 60 percent of their food. A Big Mac costs 690Y (about $8.40).

Lunch takes a huge conversation to arrange, which seems odd for something that happens every single day of the week. This makes no sense to me, but I’m told this is the Japanese way. Every detail is discussed as though it is new.

After lunch, we drive to the Palace garden. I have been here before. Three times the guide mentions how much money is spent to keep up the palace and grounds, all at taxpayers’ expense, but you can only see the immediate palace grounds 2 days a year–New Years Day (Jan 2) and the Emperor’s birthday (Dec 23). Though my guide book says you can see the palace past a certain bridge, the guide says that is only a guard tower. You can never tour or see the palace. Even the skyscrapers that face the park have no windows on the upper level so that no one can look down on the palace.

We have a 40 minute boat ride along the river which is interesting but it would have been better is some of the constant explanation had been in English. I don’t really know what I saw.

We are let off at the boat docks and walk to the Senso-ji Temple and are let loose for the first time to wander alone. I had hoped he would explain about the Buddhist Temple or the religion, but he didn’t. This is disappointing. I had hoped for more information and the tour was not worth the money I spent. I bought some prayers beads and took a few more photos since the weather is better than when I was here before. I can now see the blending of Shinto and Buddhist religions, though. We are told that 80+% of Japanese are Shinto and 80%+ are Buddhist. New math?

I am closer to my hotel than I will be at any of the drop off points. Our guide has really *really* pushed us to agree to be put off at Ginza or any other area and not use the hotel drop off service. I suppose he does not want to be responsible for us any longer than he has to be. I decide to leave the tour now.

I walk around the area for over an hour, buy something to eat. I notice the street bars–you can buy alcohol at windows and drink from an open bottle here. Though our guide said you could not smoke on the street, I think that is not what he meant. I think there is a fine for leaving your cigarette butts on the street. I have seen some designated smoking areas, but smoking seems quite high here, higher than in the US. My hotel is “non-smoking” but men stand inside the entrance and smoke. I am particularly amused by the ones who smoke AND wear a face mask!

Leaving Tokyo

I have a leisurely morning in the hotel. My fight is not until 7pm and so there is no hurry, though I’m not entirely sure how to get to the Narita airport. I hope to stop in the town of Narita to do some sightseeing as well.

The woman on the train next to me wears a jacket for her local baseball team: Kashima Antlers Freaks since 1993.she is an older woman but completely decked out in fan wear: red and blue hat (complete with several pins), red streaked hair, wraparound sun glasses, black leather pants, and red leather shoes. He bag carries 3 stuffed deer with antlers.

I notice at the train stations we pass that you can not only buy beer from the vending machines, you can use your Pasmo card to pay. This is Sunday and the train was fairly empty, but now fills with young members of sports teams–all dressed alike except for their bags. They are Junior High and High school aged. The boys in one clump at the door, the girls at another. I don’t see how anyone will get past them. Like all the other school girls here they have numerous stuffed animals and charms hanging off their bags–some have more than a dozen. Most have sparkles and ribbons, often in bright pink.

Adia would love them all. Children are very well behaved here. Even babies seldom cry. At Katsutadai they all get off. I assume they are playing soccer.

I’ve been on the train for an hour and we are finally into an area that has some farm fields, though they are very small. This is bottom land near water so a few are flooded. I even see a windmill, like the kind I’ve seen outside of Amsterdam. Japan has little flat land, so it is not surprising that they take some land from the sea and lakes. We still travel only 1-2 minutes before we stop at the next station. There must be hundreds of stations. It may take 2 hours to get to the airport.

I get off at Narita city because there is an important Buddhist temple there, Shinshoji. The walk, with my luggage, is about a mile and the streets are lines with shops selling trinkets and foods I can’t identify. The temple area is lovely and though many of the larger buildings are recent, some are older than anything I’ve seen so far. The area enshrined an image of Fudomyoo (the main deity) in 940 taken from Kyoto as part of a 21 day rite praying for peace to quiet a revolt. A 3 story pagoda, the Great Pagoda of Peace, was built in 1712. The original Great Hall was built in 1701 and the Great Gate in 1831. All are wooden structures and considering the daily Goma rites (Fire) and constant votive offerings, it is a wonder anything stands. I considered buying a charm for 500Y, but the one they offered me turned out to be a charm for “Bringing Marriage” so I let it go. I do bow to the deity and let the smoke from the incense cover me. That should bring enough luck my way.

I am at the airport hours early. I have a book to read, but it isn’t very good.  The old women are still rude to me when they can be. Usually they give me a nasty look or simply block my way when I try to walk. I’ve taken to looking them right in the eyes and smiling brightly. This seems to unnerve them.  They look surprised, then disgusted; sometimes mumble something under their breath. It’s great fun. These are the only ones who are mean to me. The men mostly ignore me or smile quietly at best.  It is usually only the women dressed in nice, western style clothes who act this way, as though I’ve threatened them. It makes no sense to me.

Finally they call my flight to Chicago. I wonder if the American Airlines plane will have heated toilet seats?

I got back from Japan just four days before the major earthquake they experienced in early 2011. Looking at the photos later was surreal. These people were hurting now, their lives would never be the same. Though I had not been in an area where people died, they were affected and who knows what the long term consequences will be. 

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Beth

I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

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