Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Crazy Japan

Wow, Japan! What a busy, teeming mix of old and new. The airport is so far away from Tokyo it's surrounded by rice paddies. When I flew in I splurged for a taxi to take me to the hostel; I wanted to take on the challenge of the infamous Tokyo subway, but not on first arrival with luggage, at night, when I had never set foot in the place. Even the cab driver, armed with my hostel's address and a little map, still had trouble finding it in the maze of twisted, unnamed streets and warrens.
Yes, suprisingly enough, most Japanese streets have no name, and a compicated numbering system. Example: here's the hostel's address: Homeikan hostel, 10-5 Hongo, 5-Chome, Bunkyo-Ku, Tokyo. Anyway, he finally found it and it turned out to be a traditional, old-fashioned Japanese guesthouse where you take your shoes off at the door (they give you little slippers) and the rooms have sliding doors and futons and little tables that you kneel up to. Very traditional. I took a quick walk around the neighborhood then called it a night.

The next day was my one full day for sightseeing, and the choices for a huge city like Tokyo were almost overwhelming. I first attacked the dreaded metro, which was not quite as bad as I thought. Some signs had English names for stations, which is the most critical. The rest I figured out by asking questions and reading signs and maps. I found the Japanese to be friendly and helpful. Even the crustiest old attendant or station guard seemed to know enough English to point me in the right direction. "Go revel three, turn light, track two". I had to quickly learn to translate that funny mixup they have with their L's and R's.

I should have taken some better photos of the subway stations, but I took one of a bunch of schoolkids waiting for their train-- their teachers must have told them all to sit down! And one of a woman in a kimono, and wearing one of those surgical masks that lots of people here wear, for the pollution. Later I spotted a policeman wearing one and snapped this shot. I also took a photo of a Japanese fire truck for Jim to see.

I wanted to see that area of Tokyo that you always see in pictures, that looks like New York's Times Square with the huge neon billboards and the punk teens dressed in outrageous styles. I wasn't quite sure where it was, but started by going to the core of the city, Tokyo Station, which was also next to the Imperial Palace. The station was crazy! It just went on and on, with shops, branching passages,bustling commuters,even a homeless old Japanese guy or two. But once out of there it was a normal downtown, with a pretty square complete with cherry blossoms. The palace, it turns out, is not open to the public, but there was lots to see anyway. I spent some time tracking down the Tourist Office by going through an interesting crescent-shaped building (pictured). The friendly ladies in the office gave me maps and good directions. I spent the rest of the day taking the subway to several different areas and exploring.
I didn't go to Tokyo tower; just about every large city has its obligatory tower with viewing area for tourists, but I've found that most cities look pretty much the same from these high-dollar eyries. I usually prefer to mingle with the crowds on the street, wander through back alleys or along the waterfront. I also missed out on the famous Tokyo fish market, an early morning feast for the senses. But after over two months of continuous traveling, I've stopped trying to see everything, and just enjoy myself. Hey, if it's that good, I'll just have to come back, right?
The next day I made my way back to Tokyo Station with my luggage to catch the Shinkansen, or bullet train, to Kyoto. It is supposed to be the least-changed large city in Japan, largely unaffected by allied bombing. The parts I saw were still disappointingly modern, but I must admit I didn't see a whole lot as it was cold and rainy almost the whole time I was there, I was tired, and I had a great, cozy little hotel room that just made me want to stay in and catch up on some email, blogging and reading. It even had a short, deep bathtub that was more like the Japanese hot tub-like baths than a western one. In fact Wayne would be interested to see the bathroom, as it was molded almost all out of one piece of plastic--very efficient. TV was out of the question as there were no English-speaking channels, not even CNN or BBC, usually available everywhere. They played "Ocean's Thirteen" over and over, but dubbed. It was strange hearing George Cloony and Brad Pitt speaking Japanese, but the music was good so I had it on for about six showings-- I think I have it memorized, even in Japanese!
I know, someone's going to probably say, "Dave, you missed out on some great sights!" But sometimes you just have to rest! I did go out a few times and look in some food stores, but felt like a real foreigner when I realized I didn't know what anything was that I was looking at! I mean, look at the photo: how would you know what's good?? I took several other shots as well, all of them as mysterious as this. I'm afraid I fell back to having junk food like cookies and crackers and such, alhough at least I did try the Japanese versions.
So I left Kyoto the way I came, on the incredibly fast train that fairly flies on rails, back to Tokyo for one more night. I saw more of that metropolis, including finally getting to the Rippong district (the Times Square of Tokyo) but I didn't see many crazy teen fashions, but it was a bit rainy so maybe they stayed in. I did however wind up getting some fantastic shashimi and sushi. It's expensive even there, (as is everything else) but I had to try it. I had some trouble with the chopsticks, but was too proud to ask for silverware, so sometimes the sushi fell apart and sometimes I just used my hands. I got a few odd looks, but the fish fairly melted in my mouth, so I didn't care much!.
Then, craving something western, I stumbled upon an Irish pub, and decided to see how the Guinness was in Japan (a bit bland, to tell the truth). But I met a foin Oirish lad named Sean who was enjoying a night out without his Japanese wife, and we shared many travel tales along with a few pints. The prices were steep (about ten dollars a beer!), so I didn't get too many.
Then it was time to go, and I slugged my way one last time through the metro back to the airport, and can now officially say I have conquered the Tokyo subway-- and compared to that, ANY underground will be easy! Paris? No problem! Istanbul? Piece of cake! Speaking of that, I'll be there soon, but first I have to write about Singapore. See ya there!
PS One curiosity: the public men's rooms in Japan all have "western" style toilets and "Japanese style" ones, a little trough in the floor that looks like a miniature bathtub. Why in God's name anyone would want to squat when they can sit is beyond me, but what'reyagonna do? (I don't know about the women's rooms. Anyone? C.A.?)

Next: See ya in Singapore!


Anonymous said...

Dave, I have never been to Japan except the airport! By the looks of your photos it looks like it would be fun/crazy! Maybe some day I will get there.
HI C.A.!!!

MozzarElla said...

Hah, David! You seem to think that I would naturally be able to contribute something to toilet talk! Uh, well, you’re right!
I’d think that Japanese toilets in women's rooms, as you'd wondered, would be more modern and clean than the scarier types that were common in China. Once when we were returning to Shanghai, we had a layover at the Narita Airport where I had my first encounter with the ultimate toilet! It was by the company Toto (nice that they didn’t use any repeat syllable toilet-y name). This engineering marvel not only opens/closes the lid automatically and silently, but you witness the seat being automatically and thoroughly cleaned before you take your seat. Furthermore, the seat itself is heated so as not to chill your lower portion! After your "deposit" it cleans your bum with warm water, followed by a gentle blow drying! A truly luxurious loo! Amazingly, one does seem to exit the private stall with an extra skip in one’s step and with the feeling as if having just swum in a fountain of pure water. The Romans would have loved it.
There are even Toto conversion kits here in the States, but I don't think it'll ever take off. An article in USA Today said "Americans have so far failed to buy into the idea of having their private parts go through the equivalent of a mini car wash." Hey. but it's a brushless/touchless wash!