Tag Archives: Tokyo

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.

Never Again

In real time, there’s news that the Trump administration will try to tank the number of refugees admitted to the US to zero in 2020.  Zero.  The average number admitted annually since 1980 has been 98,000.

I am disgusted to say that the person leading this drive is a Jewish guy named Stephen Miller, whose own forebears fled pogroms in Belarus and were allowed to enter the US.  Here is a great article about him entitled, “Stephen Miller Is an Immigration Hypocrite. I Know Because I’m His Uncle.”

This reminded me of an event I left out of my Summer Summary a few posts back. Jewish Community Action, along with other advocacy groups, held a rally themed “Never Again” at the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facility near the airport in Minneapolis.  I wasn’t involved in the planning; I didn’t do much except show up and hold up one end of a banner.  But I showed up.  It felt good to get out there and yell and pump my fist.

There were a couple hundred of us.  We blocked traffic and some among us tried to get arrested but were only ticketed, which made it less of a news event.  The event was covered by a smattering of local news outlets.

After a couple hours I had to use a bathroom and there were none to be found.  I walked back to my car and heard a government employee on his cell phone, probably talking to his wife.  “Yeah, I agree with what they’re protesting, but I don’t work for ICE.  Why should I be stuck here?”

I despaired.  I see these policies as having everything to do with all of us. We’re all citizens.  We can vote, protest, write letters, and at the very least, be informed.  If you think it has nothing to do with you, you must be a Native American—the only Americans who aren’t immigrants (volunteers or slave-shipped) or descendants of immigrants.

In Japan.  I didn’t have the National Museum of Western Art on my “must see” list.  I have seen tons of western art in western countries. But Lynn had heard raves about it.

We passed The Gates of Hell by Rodin as we entered.  I hoped it wasn’t a sign of art to come.

“There are some of Monet’s water lilies, and one of your favorites—Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles!”

“No!  Not the Bedroom in Arles!” I exclaimed in mock horror.  We had paid extra to see a special exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute three years ago on our road trip from St. Paul to New Orleans.  There had been a very long build up to two versions of the painting, which looked identical to me.

Normally I am all for art, but I could only shrug.

Now I was going to see another version.  It looked just like the other two.  I’m sure it’s all very significant but I’m too much of a philistine to understand.

The museum in Tokyo houses the collection of shipping industrialist Kojiro Matsukata.  His story—of buying sprees in Paris and World War II efforts to protect his collection from the Nazis, was interesting.  At the very end of the exhibit, here were the water lilies.  What’s left of them.

At first I thought it was an abstract version of Monet’s famous theme. But it was just terribly damaged, which was sad.

Outside, I had a green tea ice cream cone from one of the many vendors in Ueno Park.  Lynn and I sat on a bench for hours; I don’t know what we talked about but it’s always good conversation with us.

The next morning we boarded a shinkansen to Kyoto.  A very loud American extended family sat near us; one of the kids lowered his seat into Lynn’s lap.  She politely asked his parents to corral him—not in so many words—and they did so but the mother then nagged all the children loudly for the two-hour trip, maybe to show the proper English lady what a responsible parent she was.

Contemplations

In Japan.  At the Edo Museum, I perused an exhibit about women’s lives throughout history.  One plaque explained how women were encouraged to pursue hobbies like calligraphy, flower arranging, and incense contemplation.

I joined Lynn, who was sitting on a bench contemplating an abstract rendition of an earthquake or some such natural disaster that had occasionally befallen Tokyo.

“Did you know there’s a hobby called incense contemplation?” I asked.

“How exciting!  I must buy some incense to bring home and contemplate.”

We bought some tchotchkes in the gift shop—my pile included gum in the form of a geisha, geisha-shaped chocolates, and a box of grey candy the consistency of pencil erasers.  This was for Vince, who had requested “something disgusting” he could share with his coworkers in the kitchen at the country club.  It was going to be hard to beat the Crispy Big-Bottomed Ants I had brought from Colombia.

All the guides recommended visiting the Yanaka neighborhood of old wooden houses.  “It’s just one more stop on the train, and it looked like we walk in either direction from the station and we hit Yanaka,” I said to Lynn.

Right,” she replied drily.

We walked east from the station, following a sign pointing to “The FAMOUS Fabric Area.” It was indeed an area of fabric shops.

“I can’t see why it’s famous,” I remarked.  “It’s not like they’re selling silks and satins or kimono fabrics.”

“No,” Lynn agreed.  “I could find these in Aberdeen.”

We walked back toward the station.  It was past lunch time and after dithering in front of a couple restaurants with curtains that obscured what was inside, we plunged into a Korean place.  There was no English on the menu and the server didn’t speak any English but thankfully there were photos.  We ordered what we assumed were pizzas, and the server looked puzzled and tried to explain something to us, pointing to the menus and flipping through rapidly through the pages.

Were the items we’d requested not served at lunchtime?  Was he trying to upsell us?  To dissuade us from ordering something that wasn’t good?

He flipped back to the page with the pizzas and pointed.  We nodded our heads and he smiled and disappeared.  There was a barbecue grill set in each table and the people around us were all grilling delicious-smelling meats.

“What do you suppose we’ll get?” Lynn asked.

“Whatever it is, we’ll eat it and smile!”

“Or I’ll slip it into my handbag, and we’ll bung it in the first bin,” Lynn offered. Lynn carries a legendary, enormous handbag into/from which many things disappear and appear.

The server returned with something like a cross between pizzas and omelets; Lynn wasn’t keen so I ate mine and half of hers.

“We will never know why that was such a difficult order for him to contemplate,” Lynn remarked.

We walked west of the station and wound up in a massive cemetery.  This is what a Japanese cemetery looks like:

Everyone is cremated, and their ashes are interred at a gravesite.  There is an altar where family and friends can leave coins, pray, and … contemplate incense.  Like western cemeteries, Japanese ones have family members buried in a shared plot.

“I wonder what the wooden sticks are?” Lynn said.

“I know, I’ve seen those before.  Are they supplications?”

“Or the names of individual family members?”

“This one looks very Darth Vaderish,” I said.

“Scary!” pronounced Lynn.

We walked forever; the cemetery was like a corn maze only with dead people.

There was a guy sitting on a wall; sunburned and disheveled and possibly inebriated  He was a retired Kiwi who had been traveling around Japan for several months with no definite return date.

“You’re missing a shoe,” I pointed out.

“Aww, I know,” he replied, unconcerned.  “It’s here somewhere.”

He gave us very dubious directions to the neighborhood of wooden houses but we never found it.  We did find a narrow lane with tiny shops where I bought chopsticks for Vince and his family.  Then we got some iced green tea and sat in the sun, people watching and catching up for another hour, then caught the train back to Ueno.

Selective Whiskey, Selective Memory

Back at the hotel, Lynn revealed the reason for her bag being so heavy.  In addition to half a dozen guidebooks and books for reading pleasure, she had schlepped this all the way from Scotland.

Here are the notes Richard provided to explain its provenance.

We would have to figure out how I could reimburse them for it; Richard had paid for it in pounds sterling, I operate in dollars, and here we were in Japan.

We walked over to Ueno Park, and I—the old hand—showed Lynn the hydrangeas and the shrine.  We had a long, late pizza lunch at an Italian restaurant, which was the only place we could find that was open.  As usual we had months of updates to download.

Heading back to the hotel at dusk, we accidentally walked down an alley lined with Pachinko parlors.  It was dazzling, blinding—thousands (millions?) of blinking lights and beeping noises—with people streaming in and out to try their luck.

“What is pachinko?” Lynn wondered.

“I think you hit a lever … and balls fall down … there are pegs or some such, and … somehow you gamble with it?” was my authoritative reply.

Neither of us is a gambler, but we enjoyed the garish street display.

“This isn’t the Tokyo I’ve experienced so far,” I observed.  “I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far by how sedate the place is.”

“This seems like ‘typical Tokyo’ according to everything you see in guidebooks,” Lynn replied.

We were in bed, reading, by nine.

“If you see a ghostly figure pacing the room at 3am, that’s just me with my RLS,” I warned her.

“Oh, nothing stops me from sleeping,” Lynn assured me.

That was good, since I was up almost all night.  The more I tried to be quiet, the more noise I made, so I spent most of the night in the can, doing the RLS cancan.

The next day was packed.  We would have one day in Tokyo, then leave for Kyoto the following morning.

Fred and Hiromi had strongly recommended we prioritize the Edo Museum over the two art museums in nearby Ueno Park.

I was glad for their advice.  The Edo was just a quick one-stop on the train, and easy to find thanks to much signage involving large red arrows even I couldn’t miss.

As we walked, a flock of little kids in cute school uniforms passed us and called out, “Hah-loh, hah-loh!” practicing their English on us.  It was delightful.

“Edo” is the old name for Tokyo; the museum was all about the history of Tokyo.  The building itself is worth a look.  It is modeled after an old storehouse, but to us it appeared like a samurai helmet.

It is basically built on stilts, and you take a very long escalator to the sixth floor of museum, then work your way down.  Lynn and I had never seen an escalator that turned into a people mover (a moving walkway), back into an escalator, and so on.  It was marvelous.

I could write an encyclopedic post on this museum, since it covered everything from prehistoric cave dwellers to the post World War II period.  There were a lot of model recreations of typical homes and shops and schools from different periods.  This was a post war kitchen.

This was a typical school lunch in 1960, when Japan was still rebuilding.  Pretty grim.

This was 1970:

The 1980s:

90s:

And the 2000s, looking pale and starchy, like American lunches, in my opinion.

I stood in front of this for a long time, wondering.

I know it’s too small for you to read.  It’s about the US bombing of Tokyo during WWII. There’s no context as to why America might be doing such a thing.

No mention of 1941 and Pearl Harbor, when Japan attacked America—a neutral country at the time—without provocation and killed 2,400 Americans.

I may sound like a five-year-old, pointing a finger and shouting, “He started it!”  There were plenty of atrocities and needless destructive actions committed by all parties.  But here, only America is mentioned as the aggressor.

To lighten things up, here is a gratuitous photo of a goat from the taxidermy exhibit!

You say Shimoda and I say Shimota

Back at the New Tohoku after the day at the seaside, my Restless Legs woke me every 45 minutes.  I finally gave up at 1am and cracked open my book.  Then my brain did a side eye to my phone, sitting on the bedside table.

I try not to look at my phone after 9pm.  “They” say the blue light stimulates your brain and keeps you awake.  But I had posted some photos on Facebook … had anyone Liked them?  I tried to resist, then grabbed the thing and saw who had Liked and commented on my photos, tried to read my book again, went back to Facebook after 10 minutes like an alcoholic who says, “Just one more,” repeat.

Social media is like those pellet dispensers in B.F. Skinner’s psychological experiments.  You know, the one’s where the rat gets a food pellet every time it performs whatever task the researcher is trying to teach it.

I wasn’t being taught a new trick (that I am aware of).  I was succumbing to intermittent reinforcement.  This is where a reward is dispensed intermittently, and it’s the most addictive kind.  On social media, you never know when you’re going to get rewards, or in what form.  When there’s a flood of them, you get a rush, so you try and try to get a repeat.  Ugh.

I gave up on sleep at 4:30am and did some rejiggering of my itinerary.  As I’ve mentioned, I was going to have my nine-year-old nephew, Charlie, for five nights at the end of the trip, and after much research with Keiko we had settled on Hakone as the ideal destination.  Hakone is a resort area about an hour from Tokyo.  It’s got cable cars, a lake with boat tours, and lots of kid stuff to keep an active child busy.

But Keiko had received an alert from the Japan Meteorological Agency about volcanic activity near Hakone.  According to NHK, Japan’s equivalent of the BBC, Hakone’s cable cars were closed, there was danger of landslides, and some local restaurants couldn’t get black eggs—a local delicacy—because certain roads were shut.

We would have to cancel Hakone and find another destination.  We lobbed ideas back and forth on Skype, then she and her dad suggested the Izu Peninsula.  When I saw there was a city at the very southern point called Shimoda, I figured it was a sign, since as I wrote in a previous post I have an ancestor from Shimota in the former Czechoslovakia.  I have built travel plans around flimsier hooks.

I started getting What’s App messages from Lynn, who had landed at Narita.  It took her an hour and 45 minutes to get from her gate to the Skyliner, the airport train which took another hour and 15 minutes to arrive at Ueno.  I could see why Keiko had insisted on flying into Haneda, which is so much closer in to central Tokyo.

I would not make Lynn try to find the hotel on her own.  I walked to the station, then serendipitously decided to wander a bit and discovered there was a separate station with the same name across the street, just for the Skyliner.

To kill time I took photos of panda buns and a posse of school kids.

There were many groups of cute little kids, but I would never take photos of small children.  I figure high schoolers are fair game because they’re posting selfies all the time anyway.

I spotted Lynn and we were off.  I insisted on carrying her suitcase up the 30 stairs.  She fought me but I won, this time.  Lynn always travels with a very small bag—just one step up from a carry on.  But it’s like a black hole—tiny but extremely heavy.

“What the hell have you got in here?” I asked as I huffed up the stairs.

“A very large bottle of whiskey for Vince,” she replied.

Vince, my son who is in recovery.  This is not what it seems.  Lynn’s husband Richard had sourced a very good bottle of whiskey with which Vince would pay the officiant at his wedding in two months’ time.

Speaking of which, here’s another photo:

To Sun or Not to Sun

I had worried about how long it would take to get to Kasairinkai Park on the train, but arrived an hour early.  As the train became crowded with day trippers, I could no longer see the station names outside the windows.  Good thing I had counted how many stops I needed to go and got off at the right one.

I scored some krill-flavored nuts at the station convenience store, caught their wireless signal, and sat munching on a bench outside while I Skyped with Keiko, who was en route with the family.

People walked, biked, and scooted by.  It was a hot, sunny day but no one was wearing shorts, sweat pants, tank tops, or flip flops as one would normally see at any western beach.  I saw no cleavage in the month I was in Japan—except on one young western tourist who made up for the whole month.  There were no tattoos.  Tattoos are something only gang members sport.  Anyone with a tattoo must cover it up in order to use a public hot springs bath.

Most people wore sun hats and long-sleeved cotton shirts.  Many women wore black fingerless gloves and carried umbrellas.  Later, Keiko explained that Japanese women are very, very concerned with getting age spots and other sun-damage. This seems sensible, and I’ve even read that Japanese skin does not age as well as other skin types, but I don’t know if that’s true.  You sure see a lot of products, like snail gel, marketed as the “Japanese secret to younger-looking skin.”

Anyway, I was wearing a tank top with a crocheted top over it.  My head and shoulders were bare. Most of my arms and hands were exposed to the sun.  I had on flip flops. I wondered if passers-by were giving me the side eye and thinking I was scantily dressed, but it was too late now.  I’m a sun lover, but of course I was slathered with sun screen to protect my visage and décolletage.

I had brought the gifts I bought in St. Paul, Minnesota-made soap for Keiko’s mom, Hiromi, good chocolate for Fred, and a Minnesota Twins vs. Tyrannosaurus Rex t-shirt for the boys’ cousin, Ichiro.

I couldn’t wait to unload them.  They only added about three pounds of weight to my bag but the longer you travel, the more three feels like ten.

I handed Ichiro’s gift to him while we were at the top of the giant ferris wheel.  He looked flustered, nodded a vague acknowledgement, and held it on his lap.  Had I committed a giant faux pas?

“Go ahead and unwrap it,” I encouraged.  My nephew, Charlie, made a grab for it.  “I’ll do it!” he exclaimed. Charlie would rip the thing open in two seconds.

“No, no, it’s for Ichiro, not you,” I interceded.

The boutique had wrapped it creatively, included tying pipe cleaners in intricate knots to close it all up.

Ichiro couldn’t make headway with the knots, so I nodded to Charlie.  He tore it open and held up the t-shirt to Ichiro, who said quietly, “Thank you.”  Did he hate it?  Had I embarrassed him?  I think he was just shy, especially around a western lady with holes in her shirt.

Next we had a snack.  Here I am eating octopus balls.  No, not their testicles—deep fried bits of octopus.  If I look a deranged, it’s because my nephews were next to me and we were hamming it up, but I’ve edited them out.

We strolled to the beach and the boys threw rocks in the water while we adults talked.  Needless to say there were no women in bikinis, and hardly anyone wearing a swim suit.  I had mine on under my clothes but wouldn’t have dreamed of stripping down.

“Let’s have an early dinner at the hotel here,” Fred suggested.  “They have very good Chinese food.”  The dumplings were very good; I also had tempura and cold soba.

I gave Fred and Hiromi their gifts and they seemed to like them.  It had been a nice day, capped off by an auspicious siting of Fuji in the sunset, to the bottom left of the ferris wheel.