Tag Archives: Omiya

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.

Losing My Serenity

Day 22 in Japan.  Today I would leave Koyasan for Tokyo, from whence my nine-year-old nephew Charlie and I would travel to Shimoda.  Charlie is the nom de plume he has chosen.  His real name is Japanese.

As I finished my last fabulous breakfast at the monastery, Mick and Mary, the Aussies, stopped by my dining room and asked, “How ya goin’?”

I began to blab out all the thoughts I’d had about the Japanese approach to war remembrance, in particular the memorial to some action in Malaysia which possibly involved a forced march of Australian troops but which was spun in the cemetery as a neutral action.

Mick and Mary weren’t interested.  “We’re just here for the food,” Mick said, somewhat jokingly.  They invited me to come and see their accommodations, and I accepted.  They had a separate little house, basically.  It was similar in style to my humble room but it had an en suite bathroom with its own soaking tub.  So you can live large in a monastery if you’ve got the dosh.

The first bus out of Koyasan left at 8:11.  I stuffed my suitcase into the dumbwaiter, then nearly slid down the steep stairs to meet it on the ground floor.  “Thank god I’ll never have to hike these treacherous stairs again,” I thought.  Then I realized I’d forgotten my coins in the room so I had to go up and down one more time for the road.

It was raining, a hard steady downpour.  I was the first person at the bus stop but soon was surrounded by tourists from Spain, France, the UK, North America, and Australia.  They bunched together to avoid the rain, with me at the center so that when the bus arrived I was the last to get on.

An American or Canadian woman asked me to not sit in the last empty seat because, she explained, “My husband has long legs and needs an extra seat.”

“That’s not my problem,” I said as I took the seat.  So much for mountaintop serenity.

As I mentioned in my last post, I had slept all night without any Restless Legs symptoms, something that only occurs about twice a year.  As the day progressed I noted the difference between energy from a good night’s sleep and nervous energy from adrenaline.  The first type ebbs away slowly, while the second drains like a sieve and makes you more tired than ever.  Today I would be so very grateful for the good energy that comes from sleep.

From the Koyasan bus station I took the cable car down the mountain, then the train onward.  In Osaka, I got off at the wrong station.  Five people gave me five different answers about what to do next.  I was confused, panicked, and tearful.

Then I stopped and thought—if I can get to Kyoto, I can get to Tokyo.  Just do the next indicated thing.

I got to Kyoto, where I finally used the fabulous bag shipping service that every guide book promotes.  It cost $17 to have my bag shipped to Shimoda, so I wouldn’t have to lug it to Tokyo and then to Shimoda, all while herding my nephew.  Fantastic.

I felt elation when I was finally on a Shinkansen for Tokyo.  An aged British man dressed in all black like a heavy metal rocker snored loudly in the seat across from me, while his much younger Asian wife entertained their children.  I wondered what she saw in him, with his pot belly and long, thin, grey hair framing a bald spot.  Maybe it was true love.

As we passed through Yokohama I thought about my dad, who had spent time here on shore leave while serving in the US Navy.  Did I have a half sibling here?  Probably I would find out eventually, if Ancestry.com becomes the rage in Japan that it is in the US.

In Tokyo I became confused again. I had traveled on a bus, a cable car, and six trains. I finally found my seventh and final train.  Google had mapped this trip at four hours but I arrived at Omiya station at 5pm—nine hours after leaving Koyasan.