Tag Archives: Tokyo

Enjoying the TOKYO

I had been traveling and walking in the rain all day.  If only I could sit down and have a cappuccino or a beer, and people watch ….

But there were no coffee shops or bars in the covered mall.  I didn’t want to duck under the restaurant curtains into a restaurant without knowing what awaited inside.  Were they empty at this time of day, or packed?  I didn’t know if it was okay to sit and nurse a cappuccino for an hour, taking up a table that could seat people spending a lot more than me.

I walked back to the hotel, hoping the abrasive landlady would let me into the room early, and she did.  This hotel, the New Tohoku, ranked 5th cheapest out of the eight places I lodged.  It ranked #1 as the most run down.

The carpet looked like it had been installed in 1972 and never shampooed.  This was the bathroom; I shared the photo already in my post about Japanese bathrooms.  Yes, you could swivel the sink faucet over the sink to wash your hands, then over to the tub to fill that up.  The tub was stained yellow, and the shower curtain was composed of the flimsy plastic used to make Walmart shopping bags—and spotted with blackish mildew.  Couldn’t they have spent 100 yen to buy a clean shower curtain?  I am halfway tempted to buy one at the Dollar Store and mail it to them.

The good thing about a grotty hotel is that you aren’t tempted to spend a lot of time there.  I changed into dry clothes, drank a couple mugs of green tea to fortify myself and perused the guest book.

Most of it made absolutely no sense, especially the opening line, “Enjoy the TOKYO empty-handed.”

I headed back out into the rain.

On the other side of the station lay Ueno Park, a vast urban oasis with museums, shrines, restaurants, and gardens.  There was a sparsely-attended festival in progress but it looked like the few attendees were all teenagers so I kept walking.  The hydrangeas were unendingly gorgeous, and the rainy weather made the colors—cobalt blue, violet, lime green—appear all the more saturated.

I crossed the park and walked down a hillside toward an enormous water-lily-filled lake.  I wondered if I had missed the water lilies blooming, or if they might be in bloom when I returned to Tokyo in ten days’ time.

There was a land bridge with food stalls which to my disappointment were all closed, and it led to a shrine.  This bull was at the entrance.

If you look closely you may be able to see the crow on a post and ginger cat sitting below it.  I watched them for some time, wondering if they might start talking—they looked so much like an illustration from a fable.

These were the prayer plaques being sold at the shrine; they looked like sitars.

I bought a couple, putting my money in the offering box.  So there, Mr. Judgmental Buddhist in Nikko! I am not a thief!

I found an open restaurant back in the park and made the mistake of ordering the Chinese special.  I’ve been wondering—I’ve had great Chinese food in London and Minneapolis and elsewhere.  Why not in Japan?  Again, it was a pile of gristly meat on top of white rice and doused with a shiny, gelatinous sauce.

Back at the New Tohoku, I pulled back the 1981-vintage polyester bedspread with trepidation and was relieved to find crisp white sheets.  My RLS was a living hell that night. I gave up any hope of sleep at 4am and fiddled around online and drank instant coffee until the breakfast service began, at 7am.  Brekky was served in a storage room.  Paint cans, pieces of scaffolding, and tarps had been pushed aside and three tables for two squeezed in.  But the food wasn’t bad.

At 8am I was out the door to meet Keiko, her parents, and my nephews at a seaside amusement park.  I usually arrive before anyone else, but today I was a whole hour early.  Keiko had proposed meeting at the west entrance of the train station, but none existed.


The hotel website’s directions were so detailed and clear.  On the east side of Ueno Station, there was a massive roadway criss-crossed with pedestrian overpasses.  Seen from the air, it probably resembles this lattice-top pie, only a lot messier.

I just had to spot the Joyo Bank building and everything would flow from there.   It was pouring again, so I donned my poncho, furled my umbrella, and with my other hand dragged my suitcase up the 30 steps to the pedestrian level and scanned the horizon for Joyo Bank.

No Joy. No Joyo.

And no one around to ask except the smokers huddled in the smokers’ corral back at the station entrance.  I chose to walk on, hoping I just hadn’t spotted the word “Joyo” yet.

Just when I was about to give up and go back to the station to catch a taxi to my hotel, which really was only five minutes from the station, I ducked under an overpass to shelter for a moment and found a couple students also huddling from the deluge.  They were supposed to be handing out flyers for a hair salon but there were no takers around because in the downpour.

One of them handed me a flyer, looking very doubtful that I was the trendy salon’s intended demographic.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.  One of them did, although it was patchy. I asked if she knew where Joyo Bank was, and showed her the word in English when she didn’t understand.  She nodded vigorously; she and her coworker googled it and pressed the screen toward me to show me this image.

I immediately spotted it at the top of a building.  I thanked them profusely and walked on.  Obviously this incident makes the case for having a mobile hot spot.  On the other hand, I got to interact with some delightful young people who were happy to be helpful.

The hotel had provided detailed, excellent directions in English, but it had failed to realize that not everyone knows the Joyo Bank logo.  Or maybe it’s just me.

I rolled into the New Tohoku Hotel and was greeted by another chatty—but brusque—hostess.  “You pay now!” she barked at me as I fumbled with my dripping wet suitcase, umbrella, backpack, and poncho.

I paid. “You leave bag, room ready at 3:00!” she ordered.  There were a half dozen other bedraggled would-be guests hunched together on a couch in the tiny lobby.  I left my bag and walked out for a look around the neighborhood.

I carefully counted the blocks and memorized landmarks so I would be able to find my way back.  There were several blocks of stores that sold nothing but household shrine supplies.

I came upon the tiny dog shrine I wrote about in a previous post.  My sister-in-law wondered if it was actually a shrine to foxes, but there’s no way of telling.

It was now 1:30 and it was still raining, hard.

I walked back, passed the hotel, and kept walking.  There was this cool street art; did it indicate what went on inside?

I passed an apartment building bike storage area.  Note it isn’t locked.  There isn’t even a door.

After six or eight blocks I was relieved to find an open-air but covered mall. It was full of veg stalls, restaurants, and posters for mysterious products, like these water bug toys.  Water bug toys!?  I kind of felt like a water bug myself right now.  My sister-in-law would shrug the next day and say, “Yeah, it’s a thing.”

There is crime in Japan, and here’s the “Most Wanted” poster to prove it.

From my limited understanding, most crime is gang against gang as they vie for lucrative prostitution and gambling franchises.

While I’m posting photos of unpleasant things, I will share this one of ugly wires and an ugly building.  Tangles of wire and ugly buildings are everywhere.  It was hard to take a photo of something beautiful without wires getting in the way.  You will never see these wires or unsightly high rises in tourist guides.

Love, Harry

The Meiji Shrine is just a hop-skip from Takeshita Street, with its cat cafes, kids in costumes, and stores dedicated to specialty socks.

But arriving at the shrine was like sinking into distant time and place.  The shrine—and I don’t know what makes it different from a temple—enshrines the deified spirits (but not the bodies) of the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken.

You may have heard of the “Meiji Restoration.”  It (to vastly simplify) was the reassignment of power to the Emperor Meiji from the Shoguns who had run things in Japan for hundreds of years.

During the shogunate there had been Emperors, but they were only figureheads, like today.  When the American Admiral, Matthew Perry, arrived in 1853 to press for a treaty after over 200 years of Japan being closed to foreigners, the Japanese recognized how far behind they were technologically.  The Emperor Meiji led the industrialization of Japan, along with other reforms.

Meiji was the 122nd Emperor.  That sure beats any European throne for continuity.  Naruhito, the 126th Emperor, just ascended to the throne after his father retired—a first in Japanese history.

I stopped at a café near the entrance to have a cappuccino and a red bean croissant and lace on my new walking shoes.  The café wasn’t anything special but I am still thinking about the croissant today, it was so delicious.  For the next month I would look for another one, to no avail.

The shrine is surrounded by 170 acres of woodland and gardens. The trees were so enormous it was difficult to capture them “on film.”  If you can make out the people in the photo below, it will give you a sense of the scale.

I had seen small wooden plaques at the shrine I’d visited the day before, but since my visit coincided with a torrential downpour I hadn’t lingered to inspect them.  Today it was dry.  This is just one of five or six walls of plaques. After observing for a while, I figured out that you buy a plaque at a little kiosk, write a prayer on it, then leave it behind—presumably in hopes that the Emperor’s or Empress’s deity will grant your wish.

Here’s Harry’s wish:

This reminded me of the western wall in Jerusalem, where people write prayers on scraps of paper and leave them tucked inside the cracks.  I did this.  In 1998 I left a prayer for my son to recover from addiction.  He is now in recovery.  So it worked!

Some of the plaques had illustrations of students taking exams or of boars—it being the Year of the Boar.  I bought a couple and tucked them in my bag.  I wasn’t going to leave them behind; they would make great little souvenirs.

I strolled through the gardens.  There was a bonsai exhibit.

And Iris gardens, which were cultivated in fields of standing water.

I caught a glimpse of a monk.

There was a gift shop; I bought a boar banner for 200 yen (less than $2) which I now have hanging in my entryway along with a plaque from a subsequent shrine.

I would travel to Nikko the next day.  I retired early to my hotel room and tried to deal with the mistaken charges on my credit card.  I got caught in a loop where I couldn’t login to my credit card company’s website because it wanted to send me a verification text due to me being in an unfamiliar location.  I couldn’t get texts, right?  And I couldn’t call them.  I tried Skype but my credit for regular calls had expired and when I tried to top it up it was somehow linked to Apple, which said my account was invalid.

Suddenly a slew of texts arrived.  I guess I could receive but not send.  My mother was in the ER, unfortunately a regular occurrence. I am on all her forms as the contact.  I had delegated to my brother while I was away but my niece stepped in and took charge.

My mom was released the next day.  I suppose I should have felt guilty about not being there, but I felt only relief.

Bouncing Around

“How’re the kids?” I asked Keiko.

“They were up til 4am bouncing on the bed,” she replied, her face drooping with exhaustion.  “They’ve got jet lag, but they seem to get wound up, while I’m the opposite.  Charlie was nervous about starting school, too.”

Charlie, my nine-year-old nephew, had started a three-week stint at a local school that day.  His five-year-old brother was going to attend a week of kindergarten.

I expressed sympathy and felt grateful I was staying in a hotel.

“Have a pastry,” I implored her.  “Maybe the sugar will help.”

After much pointing, smiling, and bowing, the pastry-shop ladies had picked out four beautiful items and wrapped them as though I were visiting the Emperor.

“Most popular,” one lady kept repeating as she pointed to a rubbery-looking green blob.

“Okay!” I enthused.

“I have no idea what any of them are,” I told Keiko and Fred.  They read the enclosed descriptions and suggested I try the green blob.  It was rubbery, and filled with red bean paste.  “I love it,” I pronounced, truthfully.  “It’s not too sweet.”

After an hour or so of socializing at the art show, I was off to see the famous Takeshita Street and adjacent Meiji Shrine.

But first, I spotted a pair of 2020 Tokyo Olympics-branded trainers in a shop window and screeched to a halt.  I did need some closed-toed shoes, right, so I wouldn’t spend my entire month in Japan slipping around in the rain?  I sidled into the store, checked the price, did the currency conversion in my head, and dropped the tag like it was coated in acid.  A hundred bucks!

I know, I know.  Most people spend much more than that on shoes.  But I don’t.

I left the store and kept walking.  At the corner, instead of going straight toward the station, I turned right and walked around the block, thinking.  The shoes were Asics, a good brand.  I would wear them for at least three years, probably. So they really would only cost $33 a year, or $2.75 a month!

But I’m not working full-time anymoreI could find a pair of similar trainers at TJ Maxx for $28…but not with the Tokyo Olympics logo on them….not that I care about brands or logos, but I do love the Olympics.

Back in the store, I pointed the shoes out to a saleswoman, and she brought me a pair of socks and slippers.  This was going to be interesting.  Through a series of hand gestures, she guided me to remove my flip flops and put on the socks—without touching the floor—then slide my feet into the slippers.  Then, after she laced up the largest pair of shoes they had in stock, I carefully retracted one foot at a time and—without touching the floor!—slid them into the shoes.

I wondered, what her reaction would be if I accidentally skimmed the floor with my foot?  Would it shock her?  Make her gag? Would she make me go in back and wash my feet with soap and water?  It seemed crucial enough that I was very careful and didn’t blow it.

I bought the shoes, and I’ve worn them almost every day since.

Takeshita Street.  It took me some time to get there because, unbeknownst to me, the station has two names: Harujuku (the popular name) and Meiji Jinju (the official name).

When you think of quirky young Japanese people, Takeshita Street is the place.  There, they cosplay, which—I think—means they dress in character from anime/manga stories. Here’s the impassioned answer I found when I Googled, “What is the difference between anime and manga?”

Anime is animation of a cartoonish show and manga is book of pictures or comics (also graphic novels). They are not the same!     

Since I couldn’t care less about either, Takeshita Street was a meh for me.

I did buy $50 worth of weird socks to give away as souvenirs.

There was a cat café.  The idea of eating in a room full of cats and possibly litter boxes did not appeal.

I am not Takeshita Street’s demographic, but I gave it a go, walking up and down and then out.

Word of the Day: Death

I got up this morning to find that one of three kittens I am fostering for the Humane Society was dead.  It’s not uncommon for foster kittens to die.  The mother cats are stray, barely adults themselves, emaciated and hungry, and/or diseased. It’s a cruel world.

Later today I will attend a funeral where Vince will give the eulogy for his best friend from prison.  I don’t know how he died.  He was only 34.

For those of you who are new to the blog, I began writing it with my son when he was in prison.  As he transitioned from prison and addiction to a healthy, sober life, I was freed to write about fun things like travel.

I still try to contribute to efforts at reforming our US system of mass incarceration.  This week I attended a meeting with the new Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

We were there to demand a moratorium on a practice called crimeless revocations.  In Minnesota, out of the 10,000 men and women in prison, 24% are not there for committing a crime.  That’s right; they are in prison because, after serving their sentence and being released, they missed a meeting with their parole agent or—most commonly—they relapsed and used drugs or alcohol.

So we lock them up, where they sit in prison for four to eight months.  They do not receive drug or alcohol treatment or any other services because they are short-termers.  They lose their jobs, their housing, and whatever fragile relationships they have started to rebuild on the outside.

The commissioner agreed that this practice is a waste of time, money, and lives.  But he said he couldn’t stop doing it until he gets buy-in from all his people.  We’ll meet with him again in a month.

Vince wasn’t sent back to prison, but he had all his privileges revoked because he didn’t answer when his parole agent called.  He was doing community service work in a noisy warehouse at the time and didn’t hear his phone ring.  For a month, he was not allowed to leave the house for anything but work.  No AA, no socializing with family or his sober friends.  No gym, no runs. None of the things that were going to keep him on an upward trajectory.  It was his darkest month.

The prison system is designed to punish, not rehabilitate. One of the worst forms of punishment is to mess with people by setting unclear expectations, catching them on some minor infraction, and coming down on them like a sledgehammer.

In Japan, as I’ve described already, I stood to one side and observed as worshipers approached the inner sanctum of a temple or shrine.  In Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Nara, and Koyasan, they bowed, clapped, threw coins into a donation box, and lighted incense or candles.

I’m not a believer, but I felt something, at times.  Perhaps it was because I was mystified by what was taking place.  Maybe I was moved by the sincerity of the worshipers, or the atmosphere.

Especially since my aunt died, and now that Vince’s friend has died, I would like to think there is the possibility of some lingering connection between the living and the dead.

Maybe I should turn the French curio cabinet I inherited from my aunt into a household shrine, complete with photos of ancestors and incense burners.

Day Two in Tokyo.  My sister-in-law’s father, Fred, is retired from a big Japanese company. He has been painting with a group of fellow retirees for years.  If I understood correctly, companies support their retirees to participate in hobbies together.  Fred is also in an essay-writing group.  Today I managed to find the building in which his painting group was holding an exhibition; these are his works.  He’s very talented.

I stopped first to get some pastries because that’s what people do in Japanese novels.

I’ve had eight hairstyles since I last saw Fred and Hiromi five years ago.  But of course I’m white.  He picked me out in the crowded building lobby, hugged me, and said, “Welcome, Anne-san!”

Rain. That is all.

Drenched, I retreated to my hotel to re-charge my phone and myself.

After snarfing down two containers of Cup-O-Noodles, I thought a hot bath would be nice.  The tub was very deep and very short which required me to assume a sort of crouching position which was not very relaxing.  I lay down on the hard-as-slate bed “for a few minutes,” while my phone powered up.  The rain had only increased in intensity and it was hot and humid.  I got up and tried to figure out the free-standing device I assumed was an air conditioner.

After pressing half a dozen buttons, it did generate a low—not palsied—wind.

Maybe I should just take a nap.  No!  I was not going to nap on my first day in Japan.  In a minute I would get up and … and ….

An hour and a half later I woke to the sound of a hard downpour. It was only 2pm.  I donned the flower-print rain poncho I had bought in England two years before and headed out, this time plucking up one of the clear complementary hotel umbrellas, which wouldn’t clash with my poncho.

I walked to Hamarikyu Gardens, only taking one wrong turn in the one-mile route.  The wind kept gusting and pulling my umbrella inside out.  When I pulled it back, water shed down on me as if I had no umbrella.  The poncho did its job, but again, I was slipping around in my flip flops.

As I paid my 300 yen admission fee, the young woman cashier looked at me blankly, which told me she thought I was a fool.  I appeared to be the only customer of the day as I sploshed across a muddy expanse and plunged into a wood.  I passed two other tourists who were clutching at their clothes and hurrying in the opposite direction, to exit the gardens.

I didn’t take any photos because I didn’t want my phone to get wet, but the gardens had a kind of dismal beauty in the rain.

I arrived at the point where one could board a boat for a “cruise” up the Sumida River to Asakusa, a bustling neighborhood with several sites I wanted to visit.

The boat ride was meh, not only because of the rain and decrepit state of the boat, but because the riverfront was all hideous tower blocks and utilitarian bridges.  A woman in front of me stood up and banged her head on the ceiling.  I loved that someone had taped up too-short pieces of foam to try to prevent this.

Off the boat, I splashed a half mile through standing water to the Amuse Museum, which isn’t about amusements but which contains a collection of handcrafts, like clothing made from rice sacks that people creatively made when times were hard.  It was closed for the day.

Onward.  It wasn’t cold but after hours of rain I felt shivery.  A street vendor was selling steaming gooey-soy balls on a stick slathered with a maple-y tasting sauce. I don’t normally care for maple, but these were divine.

All the wet plodding became worthwhile as I entered the precincts of Sensoji Temple.

I huddled under a nearby overhang, ate my soy balls, and watched other people who knew what to do bought fortunes.

What you do is: shake the metal box, let a numbered wooden stick fall out of a hole in the bottom, then open the corresponding drawer to retrieve your fortune.

Here’s my fortune:

Luckily there were Chinese and English translations on the reverse.

Unluckily, the English didn’t help much.  It seemed to boil down to, “You’ll have some good and bad things happen.”

If you really got a bad fortune, you could tie it to this rack.  I’m not sure what happened next.

As it began to get dark, I found the train station to return to my hotel.  Unlickily, it turned out there are two stations with the same name operated by different train companies, and I was at the wrong one.  Luckily, a passerby told me how to get to the right station, “Walk one block, turn down the alley, then go down stairs.”

Getting to Ginza

After carefully studying how to get to the Apple Store and even writing down some notes, I strode out into the rain.  I eschewed the clear plastic umbrellas made available by the hotel and brought my sturdy but garish folding umbrella I’d bought at Wimbledon two years ago.

“Harmony of the group” turned out to encompass many things, including umbrellas.  Ninety-nine percent of the thousands of umbrellas I saw in Japan were clear plastic.  So in case I didn’t already stick out enough, my umbrella helped.  It held up beautifully under sometimes driving rain that killed the clear plastic ones.  Viva Umbrelica Britannia!

However, I had made a big mistake with footwear.  As a Minnesotan plagued by cold weather for so many months of the year, I always jump at the opportunity to wear sandals.  I had checked the weather in Japan—it would be warm enough.  But the rain … it formed puddles everywhere.  My flip flops were soon filled with water and it was like I was wearing a pair of the proverbial banana peels.  I would have to pick my way carefully to avoid standing water and slip-sliding right out of my shoes.

Getting to the Apple Store seemed pretty straightforward.  I just had to take a train to the Ginza and walk northwest from the station about 20 minutes.  Unfortunately, I had a strong sense of which way was northwest, but I was absolutely wrong.  I walked the streets of a rather dodgy-looking area (for Japan) for two hours, in unrelenting rain.  I walked up and down the same blocks; I walked in circles; I consulted street maps, I walked in circles again.

I asked strangers for directions.  Two couldn’t seem to understand what I meant by “Apple Store.”  I showed them the logo on my phone.  They nodded and smiled, then shook their heads.  Another person knew what I meant but insisted there was no Apple Store in Ginza.  The third person knew where it was—but I was unable to execute his directions because he kept mixing up left and right.  “Take a right at the next big intersection … no, I mean left!  My English is so poor,” he apologized.  He must have said left when he meant right, or vice versa.

Whimpering, and back at the station for the 8th time, it occurred to me that I may have made a slight misjudgment in direction. I walked in the opposite direction from the one my gut told me to follow and with the help of only one additional stranger, found the store.

As most Apple Stores are, this one was sleek and modern.  I stood in front of it trying to figure out where the door was.  I almost broke my nose trying to walk in what appeared to be a door.  I walked around the side of the building, no dice.  I walked back to the front and waved my hands around, hoping they would activate some hidden sliding door.

“The store is closed,” said a man’s voice behind me.  “It opens at 10.”

Ah, that was the secret to getting inside.  The store must be open.

He explained that he was a security guard, that there would be a long line of people waiting to get in by 10, and indicated where I should stand to be first.  We chatted a bit and when he pulled out his phone I said, “Ah, not Apple!”  He grinned and held up his phone, “I am loyal Japanese—Sony!”

Ten o’clock.  The doors slid open and employees placed umbrella management equipment just outside.  This consists of umbrella stands and plastic bag holders you can slide your umbrella into before entering.  The bags are terribly wasteful; you generate an un-reusable plastic bag for each store, museum, or restaurant you visit.  But god forbid you should drip water on a floor.

Finally, the moment came.  I entered the store.  Twenty employees stood arrayed throughout, and they broke into vigorous applause.  What the hell?  Was this normal?  I laughed and bowed—a reflex—and they all burst out laughing.

Twenty minutes later I had a new power cord for $18.  Whew!  I was back in business.