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.

Water Everywhere

Back in Japan, I met my sister-in-law’s folks at Omiya Station where they handed off my nine-year-old nephew.

Hiromi handed me an envelope “for emergencies.”  Did it contain cash?  One-way tickets back to Tokyo?   An inspirational saying?

At the last moment, Fred pulled out a route map and suggested we take a different route to Shimoda than the one Google recommended; the one that had made me cry in exasperation the night before.  I could almost hear my blood pressure spiking.  Getting lost on my own was stressful enough.  The prospect of getting lost with my nephew was unbearable.

Fred handed me a pack of postcard prints of his paintings, which I tucked into a backpack pocket along with the emergency envelope.

“Bye!” we all waved farewell. “Listen to Anne san!” Fred called after Charlie as we dove through the turnstiles and on toward the platforms.

“Are we gonna take grandpa’s way, or the way we talked about last night?” Charlie asked as he trudged along behind me with his roller bag and gigantic backpack.

“We’re gonna stick with the plan,” I replied.

And we did.  I had a moment of indecision in Yokohama but after a quick consultation with Charlie found the platform for the Super Okidoro train.  It’s not a shinkansen but it’s very nice, with windows that arched over our heads so we got panoramic views.

I was thrilled that Charlie appreciated the scenery.  “Look, Auntie Anne!  The ocean!” he exclaimed.  I had expected him to be jaded, now that he was almost 10.

In a couple hours we reached Shimoda, on the tip of the Izu peninsula.  This had not been mentioned in any tourist books or websites; I was only here because the in-laws recommended it.  From the station, we caught a local bus to our hotel.  It was a bit frantic because we had to have exact change and Charlie was slow getting his together.  Not for the first time, I checked myself from grabbing his money and saying, “Here, let me do it!”

As I wrote previously, our hotel room was a lovely traditional Japanese room.

And fantastic views.

As I’ve also whined about previously, it only had internet in the lobby and near the elevators.

This turned out to be okay because we might have otherwise spent a lot more time in the room, especially since it rained almost the whole time.

We wandered around the hotel to check out the features.  It appeared we were the only guests.

There were male and female onsens and a family one, also with beautiful views.

I would have loved to have partaken but I wasn’t going to leave my nephew alone in a male onsen, and I wasn’t going to bathe naked with my nephew in the family onsen.  It turned out that the hotel charged 2000 yen per person (about $18) to use them, so that wasn’t going to happen anyway.

There was an entire floor of weird Korean saunas.  These were large rooms with wall-to-wall layers of gravel on the floors and wooden benches lining the walls.  The lights were off so I couldn’t take a picture, and I can’t find any photos online so I wonder if I imagined them.

Back in the room, I felt the need for a hot shower.  I ran the water.  And ran it, and ran it … then went down to the lobby to say our room had no hot water.  They explained that it took at least 15 minutes for hot water to reach us on the second floor.

While I waited I puzzled over the crotch-level mirror.  My sister-in-law later enlightened me, “This is for when you are seated on the stool to wash yourself before you get into the tub.”

And the retractable cover over the tub?  That’s so you can keep the water warm for the next person.  It reminds me of the pioneer days in America when the whole family used the same bath water.  Ick.  But in Japan, no one gets into a tub until they’ve scrubbed and rinsed from head to toe.  The tub is not for cleaning, only relaxing.

I still want to go first.

Flights and the Next Leg

I sat perched at the mezzanine-level bar in Starbucks which overlooked Omiya Station’s main concourse, nursing a coffee.   Last night Fred had asked, “Do you want to try some sake?” and when I had nodded he was clearly delighted to have a drinking companion.  My sister-in-law and her mother cannot drink alcohol—it causes an allergic reaction.

I had already ordered a beer.  I know I probably sound like an alcoholic.  I have come home from some trips undecided where I should check myself in first—to Hazelden or a fat farm.  But really, drinks are just props to my writing, like in the movies where people are constantly walking to the drinks cart, pouring drinks, and using the drinks in their hands as part of their stage gestures.

I have so many addicts in my family that I’ve always closely monitored myself for signs I am crossing over from social to compulsive drinker.

Fred and I split four glasses of a sake flight.  Each selection was from a different region.  The first one was amazing—fruity but, because sake, not sweet.  The others were okay and it was fun to taste the differences.

Charlie had been playing Pokémon Go on Fred’s phone from the moment we met at the station.  His parents impose an almost-total ban on screens, including TV, movies, video games, and internet.  This has caused a boomerang effect where he has become obsessed with all things electronic.  I was kind of grateful that I could tell him, in honesty, that my phone was on the wane so he couldn’t use it to watch YouTube videos or play games.

Occasionally Fred or Hiromi would ask Charlie a question and I loved that he responded unselfconsciously in Japanese. He had been working hard in Japanese school, in Minnesota, and here, in immersion.  He deserved some mindless Pokémon Go off leash time.

Fred and Hiromi and I talked about language learning.  Charlie would start French classes once school resumed, on top of Japanese school on Saturdays, and he would be switching from piano lessons to cello.  Part of me wished I had had these opportunities and part was relieved that my mother’s approach to parenting had been totally laissez faire.  We ran wild, with no geographic boundaries or curfews.  I wonder if this is why three out of the four of us are creative types.

I gave Hiromi the tofu souvenir from Koyasan and she seemed to like it.  I asked Fred if he liked tofu.  He nodded and gave me a short talk on all things tofu, which varies by region.  Maybe this is why Japanese people don’t get sick of tofu—it comes in so many different textures and is used in so many different ways.

That night I sat on the side of my bed trying to make sense of the next day’s itinerary.  I was so utterly exhausted from the days’ travels.  I started to cry because I couldn’t understand something about getting from Point B to Point C.  I set the itinerary aside and fell back on the bed.  Hopefully it would all be clear tomorrow, as it unfolded.

I finished the horrifying novel about WWII and fell asleep for about an hour, until my Restless Legs jerked me awake.  I got out of bed, ran in place for 10 minutes, then fell back to sleep.  That repeated six or seven times until my alarm went off.  In other words, a normal night.

So here I was at Starbucks watching bursts of humans emerge, converge, and then stream off to their respective exits as trains came and went.

Fully 90% of them wore black pants and white tops.  You could say this was Japanese conformity, but in London two years ago I had observed a similar “uniform” of blue suits with white shirts.  I spotted two American flag shirts.  Out of the thousands of travelers, there were about five black people, two Indians, a half dozen middle easterners, and two women wearing headscarves.  Zero anyone who appeared Latino.  There were three disabled people in wheelchairs.

And two elders.  I jumped up and ran down to meet Fred, Hiromi, and Charlie.

Uniqlo No

Somewhere, waiting for one of the seven trains that took me from Koyasan to Tokyo, I took these photos.  The “trauma” of potentially losing my phone receded the farther I got from the scene, and I started snapping away again.

Why would there be a zone designated “Boarding for women only,” you ask?  Because women are so often groped on trains in Japan that it’s necessary.  Yuk.  I was never groped, probably because I was an obvious tourist.

For some perverse reason I enjoyed taking photos of ugly scenery.  This was the winner.

It was a long, hot day.  I was sweaty and felt grimy and tired.  Something that kept me going was the prospect of shopping at the Uniqlo store in Omiya station, my final destination.  Google showed that there was one; I was thoroughly sick of the four outfits I’d worn over and over for three weeks and looked forward to buying some fresh threads.

Omiya is a part of Tokyo a half hour from the center.  Its population is about 114,000—bigger than many US cities.  Omiya station, like Tokyo and Ueno and other stations, is enormous and filled with hundreds of convenience stores, florists, bakeries, noodle shops, pachinko parlors, clothing boutiques, you name it.

As usual the diagram I had studied on Google bore no relation to reality.  A one-dimensional map cannot show you that there are three stories, skyways, and underground passages.  It didn’t show me that there was an entire mall within the station, and once I stepped inside I was disconnected from the station.  A map also cannot prepare you for the thousands upon thousands of commuters streaming in and out of the station at 5pm.  I felt like a salmon swimming upstream or like that old game Frogger, when I had to dash in a zig zag pattern to get through mobs of people to cross from one side to another.

I searched for a half hour, then concluded that Google had been wrong; there was no Uniqlo.  If there was one, it was not listed on the directory nor did it have an obvious storefront.

Next, I boldly stepped out into the main thoroughfare and headed in what I hoped was the correct direction to find my Air BnB.  I passed a number of “soapland” entities, which is a euphemism for whore houses.  No wonder the Air BnB was so cheap.

The directions had said the place was “5 minutes from Omiya Station,” and by golly, it was.  I spotted the building and at the same time saw a stout lady on the external stairs shouting, “Hello!  No lift!”  I was so glad I’d shipped my suitcase on to Shimoda as I climbed three flights of stairs to meet my hostess, who turned out to be Chinese.  She gave me a huge hug like I was her long-lost daughter and gave me a brisk tour using a combo of Chinglish and Google translate. I followed her as she demonstrated the lights, “Go Out, Off!” she emphasized three times before hugging me again.  I knew I stank so she must have really liked the looks of me.

As in other low-rent Air BnBs in which I have stayed, everything was the cheapest quality possible, including the pilled, polyester bedclothes.  But hey, it only cost $73 a night.

My new mom showed me the Air BnB app and told me, “I need 5 stars review, keep boss happy!” She guffawed and hugged me again, then disappeared.

Now, a shower!  I couldn’t figure out the hot water system and I wasn’t taking a cold shower in a communal bathroom.  I teared up in frustration.  A hot shower would have to wait until after my next Herculean day of travel—tomorrow.

My Japanese family lives in Omiya, which is why I was there.  My etiquette guide explained that foreigners are never invited into Japanese homes because people are ashamed of how small their digs are.  So I didn’t take it personally when Fred suggested, through Skype, that we meet at the station and eat at a nearby restaurant.

I freshened up as well as I could with cold water, then headed out into the night.