Tag Archives: Japan

Sayonara, Japan

It was pouring so I splurged and asked the front desk to call a taxi.  The cab hit a traffic jam; I was impressed there could be one in Shimoda.  The driver started down a maze of tiny back alleys that didn’t appear to be legit driving routes but as long as the car didn’t get stuck in the narrow passages what did I care?

We ran up to the ticket taker at the station, who pronounced, “Tickets, no good!”  He shook his head, made an “X” with his fingers, and indicated I should get into the ticket purchase line.  I could feel Charlie’s anxiety rising.

“Wait, wait!  Are we gonna miss our train?  Are we gonna miss our flight back home?!” he asked.

“No, Mr. Worry Wart.  We’re not going to miss either,” I said calmly, although I was feeling anything but calm inside.

And so began a very stressful day I wrote about that night.  I can feel my anxiety rising as I write this, so I won’t go over it again.

We did get to Tokyo and we ended the day with me watching Crazy Rich Asians and Charlie watching Charlie and Chocolate Factory.

He had requested Titanic but his mother nixed that.  Probably not the best choice the night before a 13-hour trans Pacific flight anyway.

We arrived early at the airport, well before Fred and Hiromi, who were coming to see us off.  We had our last meal in Japan; I gave Charlie my raw egg so he got to slurp down two, which made me gag.

We walked around and checked out the shops.  “Tokyo banana” was some kind of gift thing but not a thing I was curious enough to purchase.

I bought books—a collection of Japanese short stories; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Artist of the Floating World, and A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute (which has a WWII South Pacific theme).

Following a comment in the introduction to the short stories written by Murakami Haruki (as his name is used in Japan), I hit upon my favorite Japanese-themed book so far, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.  All these somehow led me to another great book with a WWII South Pacific sub-theme, A Gesture Life, by Korean-American author Chang-rae Lee.

Each of these has brought me many hours of absorbed contentment, some laughs, and some pain due to difficult content.

We turned a corner and there were Fred and Hiromi with Charlie’s cousin Ichiro.  They had planned to take us out for breakfast but since we’d beat them to it,  Plan B was coffee and ice cream.  Charlie grabbed Fred’s phone and dove into Pokémon Go while Ichiro played on Hiromi’s phone.

Next, grandma treated the boys to many games in the top-floor arcade while I grabbed my last chance to by “authentic” plastic souvenirs.

At last we walked across this bridge, where I took photos of grandparents and grandsons, who put on faces like they were being tortured.

Charlie and I walked through security, waved good-bye once more, and boarded our plane.

And that was Japan!

People have asked me how much it all cost.  I did do a reckoning and estimated my tab was around $4,000 all in for the month, including airfare and minus the $1,000 I got for subletting my duplex.

A person could do better by skipping the Nara Hotel, which was the outlier for accommodations.  But then they would miss out on the all-you-can-drink rooftop deal.

Tokyo:

Meilparque Hotel: $107/night for a tiny, sterile room with glaring lights but a good breakfast and close to three stations and a major shrine

New Tohoku Hotel: $101 for a filthy/worn but quiet room with good beds and breakfast and great location

Air BnB in Omiya: $73—you get what you pay for

Hotel Monday Toyosu: $99 for a microscopic room near the fish market

Nikko: Annex Turtle Inn, $87, horrid beds but homey with a lovely onsen

Kyoto: Koiyama Hotel, $67, spotless, kitchenette and washer, hard beds

Nara Hotel: $149, charming, enormous room, free shuttle

Koyasan: Shojoshin-in Monastery, $120, including two fantastic vegan meals per day, futons

Shimoda: $94, lovely views and room but futons, no internet

Win!

I handed Charlie 500 yen.

“Look at me,” I demanded as I held him by the shoulders.  “I am going to go buy some pants, and I do not want you wandering off from the arcade.  D’ya hear me!?”

“Yeahhhh….” he replied insouciantly.

“Don’t roll your eyes at me!  I’m mean it, Charlie.  If you get abducted by a weirdo I’m gonna be in big trouble with your parents.  And it won’t be any picnic for you either!”

“But what if I get abducted by a normal person?” I think this statement represents Piaget’s Concrete Operational stage of child development, in which they are literal on their way to learning how to be logical.  But I suspected Charlie was just being a smart alec.

“Ha ha, smarty pants.  Normal people don’t abduct kids.”

The mall was essentially a department store, with the arcade in the center surrounded by sections of kitchen wares, linens, men’s clothing, sporting goods, etc.

And lots of women’s clothing!  I was in my glory.  I’m not a big shopper but I love to shop when I’m traveling.  It can provide great insights into a culture.  For instance, there was a whole section of the forearm-covering gloves I described in a previous post.  These are commonly worn by Japanese women to keep their arms snowy white.

After five minutes Charlie was at my side, and looking near tears. “It took all my money!” he seethed.  He explained he had chosen to play for a Play Station.

Dumb me.  I should have known he had never played a game of chance before.  I gave him a tutorial on gambling and probability.

“They don’t want you to win,” I explained.  “And the more valuable the prize, the more you’re going to lose and the less your chances of winning.”

I handed him another 500 yen.  “Think of it as just a game, for fun,” I suggested.  He was still smarting—from embarrassment, I think.  “Don’t expect to win, and then if you do, that’ll be great.  But play the cheapo games where you can win a lucky rabbit’s foot, not the ones with the big ticket prizes.”

He dragged himself back to the arcade and I doubled down on my shopping. I bought a pair of strange cat slippers for Lynn, and a housedress.  I bought one for myself, too.  I’ve actually worn it quite a bit; here it is in its wrinkled glory on my couch.  The saying on top is, “My House: Please Make Yourself”

That’s it—not “Make Yourself at Home,” just “Make Yourself.”

I found a nice cotton t-shirt with a nonsensical saying: Just be fun life is about us got the time come on. 

I felt a presence at my side.  “This time I didn’t lose my money so fast, but I still need more,” Charlie said, looking a bit more upbeat.  I kept putting more money into him so he could put more into the machines and I could keep shopping.

I bought a pair of pants that had suspenders, an elastic waistband that hit right at the bra line, and huge blousy legs.  Picture clown pants and you’ll be close.

Charlie didn’t win anything, but he seemed to have had fun.  Our next stop was the enormous grocery on the first level, which we would never have known was there from the street.  I loaded up on red bean paste, extra oishi soy sauce, miso paste, and food for our breakfast.  Then we sloshed back to the hotel in the rain holding our bags and sharing one umbrella.

For the umpteenth time, Charlie sighed and said, “I don’t want to leave Japan!”

But we would leave, the next day, for Tokyo.  We would spend a night there, then fly out the following day—my 27th day in Japan.

“I have loved Japan, but I want to sleep in my own bed and take a bath in my own bathtub,” I said to Charlie.  He didn’t hear me because he was now immersed in a baseball game between the Bay Stars and Honshin Tigers.  I made him a cup of green tea which he immediately spilled, adding to the mess that was his futon.

Jackpot!

Walking back from the station, Charlies and I stopped at a burger joint.  But not just any burger joint. This place served red snapper burgers as big as my head—oishi!

Back at the hotel, I tried to nap but Charlie kept waking me by turning up the TV.

“Turn it down, I’m trying to sleep!” I griped.  He would, then he’d turn it back up.  I gave up and rolled up from my futon into a crouching position.  It was raining again, hard.  I tried making sense of the tourist brochures to see if there was something else we could do to kill time here.  They were either in Japanese or had bad English translations.  There was something called the Museum of the Black Ship.  I went out into the hall and sat on a bench near the elevator to get wifi.  The museum had been panned by reviewers; I think the highest rating was a two star.

What I really wanted was to go clothes shopping.  I know there are lots of people in the world who own only a few changes of clothes, and now I knew how they felt, after wearing the same four shirts for a month.  And my leggings had ripped from hip to knee so I was down to one pair of pants.

But there didn’t appear to be much shopping in Shimoda, and I couldn’t leave Charlie alone.

I had no book.  I flipped through some of Charlie’s manga but couldn’t make sense of it.

I went and bought a beer from the hallway vending machine and plopped down on the futon to watch TV with Charlie.  It was the news hour, and every broadcast involved a distinguished-looking 50-something male anchor reading the headlines while a meek young woman sat next to him, nodding and occasionally saying, “Hai, hai,” in a little girl voice.

“That little girl shit makes me sick!” I exclaimed.  Charlie looked at me in shock, then laughed.  I hadn’t sworn in front of him until now.  I suppose I should feel guilty but on the other hand it made him literally sit up and take notice of his aunt’s opinion.

Morning broke with the sound of more rain.  I rolled over to see Charlie watching origami folding on TV.  In English, the words “Courtesy of Gift Wrapping Association” scrolled across the bottom of the screen.  I wondered why that was in English, then wrestled my body up off the futon and crab walked to the bathroom.

Futons.  How can millions of Japanese find them comfy?  I guess it’s what you’re used to but I couldn’t imagine ever getting used to them.

I had sunk into a mind-numbing ennui caused by unrelenting rain, surreal TV programming, and lack of books and internet.

But time passes, whether you’re doing anything or not.  We faffed about until noon, then sprinted to a restaurant next to the hotel.  I had saved this for desperate times because it was called Jonathan’s, and it looked like a Denny’s.  The menu and décor were fashioned after a 1950s American diner, offering fried chicken, hamburgers, and malts.  That would have been okay if the food was good, but it was absolutely execrable.  I let Charlie order a mango malt and that kept him busy and happy.

It was time for me to break the news to Charlie.  “I need to buy some pants, and I can’t leave you alone in the hotel room, so you’ll have to come shopping with me.”

“Awww,” he wailed as his head lolled down onto his chest in dismay.

“But …”  His head popped up.  “Let’s check out the pachinko parlors.  If you don’t whine while I shop, I’ll give you some money to play later on.”  Charlie was all smiles.

At the bus station, the friendly information people told us pachinko was only for adults.  Charlie’s head hung as he shuffled out after me.

The only stores were sad souvenir shops offering pukka-shell plant hangers and dresses with hibiscus left over from the 80s.

Then I spied a small sign at the top of a long set of stairs that said Mall.

Inside were scores of shops and an arcade.

A Day at the Aquarium

Charlie was not abducted.  He had just gotten bored and decided to wander off while I was looking for an ATM.  It was a coincidence that he’d been walking behind a stranger.  I had wondered if I was being too strict with him—not.

As we waited for the bus to the aquarium, we checked out cars.  Here are some gratuitous photos of adorable compact vehicles I took throughout Japan.

“Why can’t we have cool small cars like this?”  I asked Charlie rhetorically.

This was my favorite name, The Hustler.  This was not in Shimoda, and I was glad because I didn’t want to explain what a hustler was.

This is as good a place as any to insert a photo from the Edo Museum.  This car—I didn’t record its name—was the Volkswagen Beetle of Japan—the one cranked out by the millions that everyone owned in the post-war decades.

The moment we got off the bus, that smell hit us in the face.  If you’ve ever shopped in an Asian market that sells live fish, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  I love eating fish, but the smell, not so much.

I had researched the aquarium ahead of time and was amused that they had a “Dwarf” admission level.

“No offense to you, or to dwarves, but you’re a dwarf today,” I informed Charlie as I paid our combined $29 admission fee.

It was hot and humid and we were tired.  Our first glimpses of the aquarium were not inspiring.  Much of its infrastructure was dilapidated and rusty.  But we would make the best of it.

As in most such places, there were shows that took place around the grounds on a regular schedule.

“C’mon, run!” I yelled at Charlie when I saw the dolphin show would start in five minutes.

He hung his head and dragged his feet.  “I’m hot and tired!” he whined.

“Run anyway!” I shouted over my shoulder, feeling like a bad aunt for the umpteenth time for yelling at him.

I don’t know what the dolphins would say if they could speak, but the show was amazing.

The trainers bribed the dolphins to dive or leap to get fish; the highlight was when one of the trainers stood on a dolphin’s back and rode it like a surf board.

Afterwards, we checked out the non-air conditioned but shaded snack bar.  I had fried mackerel and Charlie ordered syrup-smothered soy balls and a sugary drink.  “That should perk you up,” I said hopefully.

As we ate, a manic penguin trainer blabbered away outside. “What is she saying>?” I asked Charlie.

“I don’t know,” he giggled.  “She’s talking so fast I can’t understand.”

“Probably wants to get it over with so she can get out of the heat,” I reckoned.

If he had had his way, Charlie would have sat in the snack bar all day.  Instead, I led him on a forced march around the rest of the aquarium.

He got to pet a seal and a giant tortoise.  Again, if these poor animals could speak I’m sure it would be to say, “Help, get me out of here!”

There was a magical display of jellyfish and oddities.  That’s Charlie’s head in the way.

As I watched rays swimming in a tank I thought, this isn’t as bad as having their fins cut off and served as delicacies in a restaurant, I guess.

The plaintive bark of a seal had been sounding nonstop since our arrival.  “We have to go see it,” I said, “even though I know it’s gonna make me really sad.”

And there it was, swimming back and forth in a pool no more than three times its body length.

“Oh I can’t stand to look at it!” Charlie said mournfully.  “Why do people do that?  I want to set it free!”

“People like us pay to come here,” I said ruefully.  Charlie was learning some lessons, although not the ones intended by the aquarium.

I forked out $10 to rent a paddle boat.  Charlie was thrilled to be in control, and when dolphins frolicked alongside us we felt a bit better because they seemed to want to be with humans.

Local Color

I’m nearing the end of my Japan narrative.  I returned from Japan in July.  Obviously there’s so much to write about.  Japan’s got it all—natural beauty, great food, art, cultural sites, and Tokyo Disney—in case you’d prefer to feel like you’re in Florida.

I’ve been reflecting on my relationship with my nephew, Charlie, and his little brother.  I love kids.  For many years I believed I would never be a grandmother.  Vince was homeless, missing, incarcerated, or just not a great mating prospect.  Even if he had had a child with someone, I figured he would recreate his own origin story, where he had zero contact with his paternal grandparents after age one.  I’d be painfully cut off.

So when my younger brother had two kids, I was all in.  And when you bond with kids from day one, it’s impossible to un-bond.

Then, to my relief and joy, Vince sobered up, got hitched and is dadding two young girls.  I’m a grandma after all!  They live over an hour away so that’s not easy, but I am a grandma.  And a favorite aunt.  And I work part-time at the YMCA childcare center.  I have an abundance of kids in my life.

I have learned that love is not limited, it is exponential.

A few nights ago I attended a meeting with some other Jewish Community Action volunteers and folks from other organizations with the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.  We were led into a large meeting room which contained two mock prison cells.  This must be where they carry out training for correctional officers.  I knew they weren’t real.  I have never been locked in a prison cell.  But I still felt a pang of panic and repulsion.

I sat with my back to the cells.  For better or worse, there were two women at the meeting who have children in prison, and they kind of commandeered the agenda to make their cases to the commissioner for their children being released.  I totally understood their frustration.  Their calls and letters are never answered.  This was their big chance to talk directly to the guy at the top.  But I am very glad I am no longer in their shoes and am able to do my small part to better the lives of all prisoners, not just my kid.

I think my ability to feel freedom, gratitude, and joy is strong because I have lived so many sad experiences.

After the meeting, I huddled with the two moms and said, “Just be very careful and don’t get yourselves banned.  It’s easy to lose your temper with these people.  I was banned for six months from visiting my son because a correctional officer baited me and I rose to it.” They looked shocked and I could see them trying to calm themselves down.

I also like to encourage everyone to explore their local sites of interest. You don’t have to go to Japan or the UK or Australia to find interesting stuff!

I came across this on one of my late-fall walks.

I had driven past the sign for the Ramsey County Poor Farm hundreds of times.  It closed in 1923.  Nearly 3,000 nameless souls who lived and worked here are buried in mass graves in this potters’ field.

Another exciting field trip was to St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, where I joined my cousin for Thanksgiving.  We drove past my aunt’s house, which was now sold and vacant.  This was the scene at the house next door.

Yes, those are dead deer hanging up outside.  I uttered a loud noise indicating disgust.  My niece asked, “What’s the big deal?  Haven’t you ever seen deer hanging before?”  As a matter of fact I have, at Lynn’s place in Scotland.  For some reason it seems to fit there, in the wilds of the highlands, but looks savage and out of place in suburban St. Croix Falls.

Our next stop was the fish hatchery, where I elicited groans of embarrassment from the nieces by saying too loudly, “The young guy feeding the fish is nice looking.”

Speaking of fish, my next post will follow Charlie and me as we visit Shimoda Aquarium.

Misunderstandings

The day dawned rainy and gloomy.  Charlie and I walked to the sea front to do the top tourist activity in Shimoda, a ride on the Susquehanna, a reproduction of the black ship with which Admiral Matthew Perry “opened” Japan in 1854.

As I’ve written before, Japan closed itself to foreigners for over 200 years.  Perry wouldn’t take no for an answer.  I paid our fares (1200 yen for me; 600 for Charlie).  It was only us and a couple with one kid, so we were spared the selfie-stick crowd.

Charlie couldn’t wait to spend the 2000 yen pocket money his mom had given him.  He bought a bag of seagull food for 100 yen and within 20 seconds it was gone.  I found a seat below, out of the rain, and he joined me.  It was fun to watch the dawn of understanding as I explained what a breakwater was.

“It’ll get a lot choppier once we pass it,” I pointed out.  “Look at those waves.”

Charlie moved to the other side of the cabin and kept yelling over, “Look, Auntie Anne, there’s a mountain/huge wave/another ship!”  The scenery was beautiful.

“Look at the seagulls following us!”

There was commentary, in Japanese.  I knew the ride was supposed to last 20 minutes but hoped they would drag it out longer since it was deadsville for tourists in Shimoda. But no, 20 minutes later we disembarked.

It was 9:30.

I had counted on buying a book that would explain everything about Perry’s expedition but there were none in English in the tiny ticket/gift shop.

“What did they say in the commentary?” I asked Charlie.

“I dunno, I didn’t pay any attention,” he replied.

“Well next time, do,” I ordered.  “How else am I supposed to know what’s going on?”

We walked back toward the train station, to the tourist information desk, to inquire about the second-most-popular tourist attraction in Shimoda, the cable car ride to a mountaintop park.  As we walked, the sun came out and it went from warm to oppressively hot.

“Look there’s steam rising from the sidewalks.  Thank god we’re gonna be up on the mountain for the rest of the day.  It should be cooler up there,” I said.  This was going to be a great way to kill most of the day.  We would have a picnic and go for a hike.  I remembered seeing colored pencils in Charlie’s bag.  We could bring those and try our hand at sketching the views.  I laid out these plans to Charlie and he nodded in satisfaction.

At the information desk, the friendly staff explained to Charlie, who turned and explained to me with great disappointment, that the mountain was closed.

“The mountain?  Don’t they mean the cable car?”

Charlie consulted with the staff in Japanese, then turned to me so they couldn’t see the dubious look on his face.  “They say the mountain is closed for repairs.”  Then we both laughed out loud.  We knew there was no point in trying to get them to explain what it meant.

“Isn’t there another way to get up there?” I asked him to ask.  Maybe we could take a cab to the top, like Lynn and I had done with Mount Wakakusa.

The poor tourist staff shook their heads, looking guilty and helpless.  They were truly sorry that we wouldn’t be able to ascend the broken mountain.  I hoped they wouldn’t commit suicide later.

“Ask them what else they would recommend we do,” I instructed Charlie.  We were encouraged to visit the aquarium.

“Okay,” I said as we walked away, “but first I have to get some cash.”

Charlie rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically.  “Don’t make me walk outside!  It’s so hot and I’m so tired!”

“Ha.  You would have been a barrel of fun on the mountaintop.  Sit right here and don’t move until I get back.  I’ll be gone five minutes.”

It took me 10 minutes, and as I rounded on the station I saw Charlie walking off after a strange man.

CHAR-Leee!  Get Back Here!” I screamed.  Everyone turned to stare at me, shocked.

No one screams in Japan, apparently, even when their kid is being abducted.

Number One Nephew

I felt human again after a hot shower, after two full-on days of traveling.  Then Charlie took a long bath; I didn’t ask him if he scrubbed and rinsed himself beforehand.

While he was soaking, I heaved his impossibly heavy suitcase onto the luggage stand and opened it.  It sprung open and a large stuffed Siroton sprang out.

There must have been a dozen t-shirts, 10 pairs of pants, underpants, socks, jackets, and hats.  Every item was impeccably folded.  You could slide this t-shirt into a #10 envelope and mail it, I thought.  There were a dozen books, mostly manga.  Then there were the allergy medications, anti-itch cream, cough syrup, sunscreen, eye drops, nasal spray, and back-up epi pens.  I kept pulling out more stuff, wondering if there was a secret portal to another world at the bottom of this tiny suitcase.  I would never, never get it all back in.

We walked to the seafront.   Everything was closed, but all a nine-year-old boy needs to stay entertained is rocks and sticks and a body of water.

We rambled the 10 minute walk into the city center.  The rain was whipping fiercely and my umbrella kept flipping inside out.  Charlie had declined an umbrella and insisted he didn’t mind getting soaked.

It being the off season, most places were closed but we had some really fresh and super cheap sushi in a restaurant in the train station.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a 7/11 to buy something for breakfast. I bought smoked salmon, blueberries, and plain yogurt.  Charlie picked out five candy items.

“I let you have a gooey desert at the restaurant,” I said, “so you have to eat a nutritious breakfast.”  He looked crestfallen, slowly put the candy back, and chose a kids’ yogurt that probably contained just as much sugar.

At the checkout, we were instructed to stick our hands into a box and pull out some sort of prize ticket.  The box had photos of a Japanese heavy metal band on it.  I’m not sure if this is the one but it was similar.

Neither of us won.  “What would we have won?” I asked Charlie.

“I think you win candy,” he said mischievously.

This was a struggle during our time together.  I was under strict instructions to limit his sugar and caffeine intake.  I was fine with this in principal but this was his vacation—he’d worked hard in school for the past three weeks and all the touristy places we visited promoted candy, doughnuts, ice cream and all things sweet.  Charlie was compliant when I said no, with only a few minutes of dejection.  For some reason this made me feel guiltier than if he had wheedled, whined, and tried to negotiate.

Keiko had Skyped me, “Charlie says he hates Japan and never wants to come back!  There’s been so much pressure on him here, academically and socially.  I hope he can unwind and have a good time with you so his negative view of Japan isn’t permanent.”

And it wasn’t. We walked into our room just in time to see the sunset through the clearing clouds, and he exclaimed, “I don’t want to leave Japan!  I want to stay here forever!”

Mission accomplished, and it was only Day 1.

Charlie had observed me writing a post on my laptop.

“I really want to write a book,” he told me.  “Can I do it on your computer?”  Of course I said yes, but I hadn’t realized that he doesn’t know how to type and his grammar and punctuation skills aren’t great yet.  I showed him the most important thing, how to save his document.

“Of course my head is full of ideas after a big day like today,” he said.  I turned my head so he couldn’t see me laugh.

I watched Kei Nishikori at Wimbledon on TV.  He’s ranked number four in the world.  I have such fond memories of Wimbledon.

“I want to be the number one writer, baseball player, runner, and a regular dad,” said Charlie.

I read what he’d written so far.

“Wonse upon a time …”

Everybody has to start somewhere.