An account of my trip to Japan, October, 2006
An account of my trip to Japan, October, 2006
I’ve slept in 4 different beds in the last 4 nights and I have 2 more to go. Tuesday evening I watched Lost in Translation at Christine’s - pretty much the only preparation I did for this trip.
Yesterday I was involved in a rehearsal of my quintet for flute choir, ‘Andorran Landscape’ at UCSC. The teacher/conductor, Greer was absent and Sarah made a wonderful conductor – great poise – all captured on camera by Jeremy. I didn’t manage to see Anna before I left. By the time she talked to me at 6 pm last night I had too many things to do rather than going up to campus. Tom called me to wish me Bon Voyage before he started his night shift.
I slept surprisingly well and my alarm woke me at 7.45a.m.. Jeremy drove me to SFO and kept me involved in conversation so that by the time I checked in (not a single person in line) all my nervousness had dissipated. Over coffee and pastry I began to read the Life of Pi. I changed $500 into Japanese Yen. At the security line I already began to feel as if I were in a foreign country – no women, just Asian men in business attire. There were few women on the plane and no-one engaged in conversation as far as I could see. The screen had a pilot’s view of the runway as we took off –a little disconcerting. During the meal what I took to be avocado in my salad turned out to be wasabe – ouch!
Mistakenly thought that Japan was south of San Francisco (whoops!). My error became evident as I watched our plane’s progress on the in-flight monitor. Rachel had purchased a thick jacket in the mission district over the summer so I knew the weather might be chilly, so I had packed accordingly. Questions: how big is Japan? How far is it from the end of the northern-most island to the tip of the southern-most. I remember learning the names of the 4 main islands in O level geography-Honshu, Kiusho, Hokkaido and Shik . . something. How far away from Tokyo/Kawagoe is Mt Fuji? I had tried to purchase a used Lonely Planet guide to Japan without success before I set out. Thought: perhaps I’ll come back in December and spend Christmas here and travel around with Rachel.
No sleep on the plane! Dry, dry eyes. I watched a documentary in Japanese about Mozart’s life with pretty pictures of Salzburg and Vienna in the snow, reminding me of Sarah’s visit there last Christmas. Another 2 hours to go . . .Why is some writing top to bottom and some side to side? I don’t think I appreciate seeing the pilot’s view of the runway. We seem to get awfully close to the ground before I can see the runway ahead. Anyway, a smooth landing – and on time, too. Surprised by the greenness of the fields – a remark West coast Americans usually make about flying into England. Somewhere in the mid-Pacific I crossed the international date-line and so I’m no longer traveling on Friday the thirteenth. One of the benefits of traveling to a country that’s not your own is that there is no line at immigration. Customs was a breeze, and it wasn’t difficult to find the bus to the Narita Airport Rest House. Within and hour of landing I had checked in. The humidity felt high. The airport environs were no different from anywhere else in the world – except that traffic drives on the left – something that I had not realized until watching ‘Lost in Translation’ for the second time. No-one smiles, even when we bump carts at the airport, or when being greeted at the check-in desk at the hotel.
My room was adequate ($95) but with a very hard mattress and lumpy pillow filled with (?) polystyrene chips. A card sitting on the dresser was advertising ‘Massage – 45Yen for 45 minutes’ – ‘Lost in Translation’ again! Fresh out of nice warm bath, cuddled in my very own kimono and slippers. Thoughtfully provided for all guests, I was elated to find BBC World Service on the TV which kept me occupied on and off during the night. I slept from 6.30p.m. – 11.30p.m. local time at which time Rachel called. She has laryngitis! I watched a program about Cecilia Bartoli - twice. From the news program if looks as if Japan will be involved in sanctions again North Korea following their nuclear test. 22 North Korean ships are currently docked in 4 Japanese harbors and must leave soon.
And now it’s Sunday the 15th Hmm – skipped at day! For a while I am the only woman at breakfast, and the only non-Japanese. Ah, ha – I speak too soon - a couple of Indian men just arrived. Breakfast was buffet style, a mixture of Western and Japanese foods. Some dishes were thoughtfully labeled in English. Just what is eggs-in-cocotte? Questions: does green tea have caffeine in it? Has anyone heard of decaf? Is there any alternative to real butter? Yet I haven’t seen an overweight person so far.
I caught the 7.40 a.m. shuttle bus back to terminal 2 and found myself to be quite (uncannily) calm as I searched for the bus counter and purchased my ticket for Kawagoe. Writing this at 8.40p.m. it has been a LONG day – but oh, so interesting. It’s hard for me to think that breakfast this morning was just today; it feels like a week ago. I haven’t been able to sleep – see ‘Lost in Translation’ again – despite lying down for half an hour after lunch. There were only half a dozen people on the bus (on time) and they all promptly fell asleep immediately.
I was too excited getting my first view, though distant, of Tokyo. We drove along close to the waterfront, past Japan-Disney-World with its replica of Snow White’s castle. We followed a river for a while with bike paths and lots of baseball diamonds adjacent to one another – all in use on this Sunday morning. Also lots of little fishing shacks and lots of fishermen. Tall nets between apartment blocks appeared to signify the whereabouts of golf ranges. The route was all freeway until we reached Kawagoe with its narrow streets and thronging people.
Getting off t he bus I miraculously found a phone close-by and called Rachel. My bus was about an hour early reaching Kawagoe and she was still in bed! She and her host dad, Takeo, arrived about 20 minutes later – which I spent people-watching as they swarmed around the station – and then it was a short 5 minute walk to her apartment. Their apartment block is called a ‘mansion’ meaning that the rooms are much larger than normal and are better sound-proofed. It felt tiny, tiny, but was probably about 800 sq feet with an amazing view on all sides of flat city-scape. Rachel shares the great view from her room. I met Tomoko, the mom, the 4 year old twins and the grandma and granddad whose apartment Rachel actually lives in. Tomoko, Takeo and the twins have their own apartment on the 7th floor. Rachel lives on the 11th, which she found very disconcerting in a recent minor earthquake. Single family home are squeezed and dwarfed by tall apartment blocks.
Lunch was pizza and donuts in deference to my presence and then I offered
them the gifts that I’d brought with me. The Grandad is a high official in the
police, and he and his wife have no English at all and this forces
Rachel to work hard to communicate. I was surprised to see how integrated Rachel is in the family and the little girls even hold her hand when we’re out on the street.
After a failed nap Rachel and I went out to explore Crea Mall, Kawagoe’s main shopping street. There were so many people here for the festival, however, that we literally couldn’t move one way or the other. So we abandoned that idea and found a large department store and got a drink. Youth culture is predominant. The fashions are different: no exposed flesh, midriffs or cleavages, just very short skirts with over the knee socks and boots.
Just before dark we set out again to watch the festival floats. Rachel had described the scene the previous evening as scary, as she was lifted from her feet by the surging crowd as they pushed forward first to see the ‘fighting floats’ and then quickly retreated as the floats moved towards them, police wielding saber lights to make a path. As we hit the crowds, surrounded by hundreds of street food vendors I wondered how many of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants had turned out of this form of street theater. Every hotel room was full, which had necessitated my stay in Tokyo the first night. By 8 pm I was flagging. Though hungry I was too tired to eat and needed alone time. My room is probably the smallest I’ve every stayed in ( 8 nights here!) and with a total 3 hangers it hardly seemed worth unpacking. The bathtub was well short of 4 feet long. Sadly there was no English-speaking TV and no radio either.
I managed to sleep on and off until 7 a.m. It was a clear sunny day, but I couldn’t get my window open to check the temperature – instructions in Japanese, of course. My ‘Western’ breakfast consisted of cold spaghetti, lettuce, chicken broth and hot dogs.
I took a taxi from Kawagoe station. Tomoko had written in Japanese –‘Please take me to the Kawagoe shrine’ so I passed the paper to the taxi driver and off we went. It was only a 10 minute drive but since there are no street name signs it was impossible for me to walk there. Again I was the only non-Japanese person to be seen despite this site being the prime tourist spot of the city. Kitain is a large temple area with several shrines, burial places, gardens and bridges.
Rachel came over to my room straight after class at 5.30 and I went to her apartment for dinner. Six different dishes served in small individual bowls – including eel – were served with chopsticks – so it was learn or starve. It was fun to watch 4 year olds with better table etiquette than me. It was here that I met the Grandma for the first time. She had apparently been so worried about me getting to and from the temple alone that she had cycled there to find me – unsuccessfully. She had visited England last summer and complained bitterly about the food! She’d been to Haworth Parsonage, home of the Brontees, and Hill Top, home of Beatrix Potter. I had heard on BBC World that the Japanese have built a replica of Hill Top – so popular is Potter and Peter Rabbit – with appropriate earthquake safety measures.
Grandad arrived home from work (an hour earlier than usual) at 9 p.m. as we were leaving to go an explore the night-life of Crea Mall.
Overcast but judging from what I can decipher of the weather forecast it won’t rain today here. Rachel’s sick today and isn’t going to class this morning. Hope she’s better for our planned tour of Tokyo tomorrow.
Later. . .it’s 5.15 and I’ve been watching flocks of birds perform their nightly bombardment of Kawagoe station, before roosting very noisily in the few trees in the square. Perhaps I caught Rachel’s cold since I’ve not felt well this afternoon. After visiting Rachel this morning (and taking this opportunity to email friends and potential students) I set off in a taxi for old town Kawagoe.
My taxi dropped me off at the old bell tower – the town’s main feature. There were lots of tourists here (all Japanese), mainly groups of elderly ladies in cloche hats. Little remains of the historical buildings of Tokyo due to the fire bombing in World War 11, so people come to old town Kawagoe to see how Tokyo used to be. Tourist shops abound, filled mainly with cutsie Hello Kitty type of figurines – not my style I must admit. The lack of sidewalks and fast-moving bicycles made strolling difficult along the uneven pavement, and I found the women’s groups not in the least bit obliging when it came to moving aside to let someone pass – it was more a case of them shoulder-charging everyone out of their way! I visited the Kawagoe festival museum – well planned and interesting, though nothing in English. I watched two short movies about the festival and I felt very fortunate to have witnessed it on Sunday evening. One of the guides engaged me in conversation, asking where I was from and why I was here. That’s the first time that anyone’s spoken to me since I arrived. I managed to find a post office ( my first attempt led me into a bank!) and I purchased stamps for my postcards.
Finding a taxi back wasn’t easy, but as soon as I’d found a bus stop I saw a taxi, which I hailed in New York fashion, and was soon back at the hotel. I spent the rest of the afternoon listening to Mendelssohn’s Octet ( a traveling gift from Jeremy) while reading a book, appropriately enough about a string quartet.
When Rachel got back from class (she’d just gone to the afternoon session to take her mid-term test) we went out for some much needed Western food: pasta at Ducky Duck. Again the only people who were eating were young people. The Japanese beer tasted like pop. The sweet potato cake, a local delicacy, was yummy in spite of its bright purple color. As I settled down for the night Rachel was just on her way out again, hanging out with Linus, her current love interest. An American movie was playing – an old Richard Geer and Julia Roberts film but I soon switched it off – how ridiculous!
Awake bright and early this morning – raring to go before 5 a.m. I was able to watch the lights being switched on in the surrounding apartments. Breakfast amidst cigarette smoke can never do much for my appetite. Perhaps I’ll try a “traditional” breakfast tomorrow.
The train to Tokyo: packed like sardines would be an understatement. No-one speaks, most sleep (standing or sitting makes no difference. The Meji temple complex was the first place I had seen non-Japanese tour groups. As we explored the garden we were given peanuts to hold in our palms and little wild birds perched on my finger to eat. I realized that the temple areas with their ever-important gardens are the only green spaces for bird-life. After the ritual cleansing of hands and mouth we explored the extensive site. The tea house, though restored, is no longer in use. Unfortunately we came at the wrong time of year to see the famous iris gardens, and the lake was bereft of blooming water lilies. But the were enormous koi with open mouths. Lots of large spiders, too, with enormous webs but my camera didn’t want to capture them.
Before risking life and limb and boarding the next train we stopped off at the museum gift store – the first place with gifts that I remotely interested in buying. We ate out picnic lunch that Okasan had thoughtfully packed for us – sticky rice wrapped in seaweed, and yogurt. After an all-too-brief wander down Tokyo’s Carnaby Street we boarded another train for the Hamamatsucho bus terminal located in the basement of the World Trade Center. Here we met out guide for the afternoon, an elderly lady, well under 5 ft tall holding aloft a pink fish on a stick that we were to follow – not a real one I hasten to add: well anything seemed possible here! For the next 3 and two thirds hours (according to our precise guide book) we played at being tourists. First stop was the 40th floor of the WTC – the ‘Seaside Top’ observatory.
After wafting my nose with the holy smoke in an attempt (futile) to stem my dripping nose we went up to the inner temple with its beautiful ceiling paintings and fresh flower and golden adornment.
A drive through the Ginza shopping district past the most famous Kabuki theater we arrived at the Imperial Palace just as the sun was setting. Had we been a few minutes earlier we would have had some great photo opportunities. The Emperor still lives here.
We both fell asleep on the second train going home where we actually managed to procure seats. It was 8.30 p.m. and there was no apparent let-up in the number of people using the trains. Note: no car parks at stations, or at any of the sites we visited – though I did see several VERY large bicycle parks. An early Tom Hanks movie – Joe Banks? – provided the entertainment (not) for the rest of the evening.
Slept uninterrupted until 5.25 a.m. Hooray - I’m going to spend today at Tokyo International University with Rachel. I braved the Japanese breakfast this morning. It was served with chop sticks, of course, so it was a case of either learn quickly or starve. It consisted of soup with several small whole fish, and other fish-flavored objects in small bowls, along with sticky rice. I managed to procure coffee rather than the ubiquitous green tea.
I met Rachel at 8.15 on a warm sunny morning and we walked to the station – so convenient. All the students (from many different countries) on Rachel’s program meet each morning half an hour before classes begin in the English lounge – a sort of coffee (green tea?) bar – where only English is spoken. Many of the 7000 Japanese students on campus use this as a place to meet up and practice their English. I sat in on Rachel’s Japanese language class. There are only 5 students in the class for this 3 hour daily intensive study, and today they are preparing to spend a day in a local elementary school next week. Rachel’s very comfortable with the idea since she’s used to being around the twins, but several of the students are very worried about the prospect of interacting with young children. After one and a half hours of hearing nothing but Japanese I headed out to the English lounge at the break. Within minutes I was ‘accosted’ by Kevin, a 25 year old Taiwanese student, eager to practice his English. We were soon joined by a very dapper-looking Japanese student who had spent a year as an exchange student at Willamette and knew Rachel. He was wearing full suit and tie for college classes. I had already been surprised by the fact that most of the Japanese girls wore skirts and high heels to class. I spent a fun hour and a half with them. Little did I know at the time that Kevin had expressed interest in dating Rachel a few days earlier! Kevin’s English (his fourth language) was good. He said he was self taught and had learned by watching English DVDs. The Japanese student’s English was amazing. I sat back and listened to how he explained the difference between fallacy and stereotype to Kevin! They were both interested in the American dating scene, asking questions about internet dating and customs. I had fun introducing them to two new words – jock and metrosexual.
At lunchtime the lounge filled rapidly with students. There’s only one cafeteria for the 7000 students, and all students get their lunch-break at the same time. I met up again with Rachel’s former room-mate in Willamette, Miname who (along with 4 other students) had stayed with us at Spring break two years ago. We walked across campus to the Convenie for sandwiches. In this area of Kawagoe there was no high rise and small apartment blocks alternated with single family homes, many of which had manicured trees.
For the afternoon session we joined the Anime class as guests. This is not one of Rachel’s regular classes (she takes Japanese gender issues) but we were made welcome. It was here that I had the most surreal experience of this trip – sitting in a classroom in Japan, listening to the professor from Yorkshire (complete with appropriate accent) discussing a Japans monster’s testicles. Ah, well. The topic slated for discussion was Anime porn, but the class was a little behind schedule so we were entertained by Japanese monsters instead.
Rachel and I spent the remaining afternoon in Crea Mall – people watching. I had bemoaned that fact that there are no outdoor cafes, and then we found some outdoor tables at . . . Starbucks. Here we were able to sit and drink what passed for coffee, and people watch – camera in hand. We found a fabric store, too.
After an hour’s R&R Rachel and I had dinner in an Italian restaurant and were joined by Thomas, another USC recent graduate and friend of Linus, who had recently started an IT job in Tokyo.
Rachel and Sarah will celebrate turning 21 24 hours apart because of the
International Date Line! Breakfast was even more Japanese style this morning
because all the ‘Western’ tables were occupied, and so I had to take off my
shoes and sit at a low table on a cushion close to the floor.
I spent the early morning reading and listening to music. I had the uncanny occurrence of finding myself reading about the piece of music that I was actually listening to at the time. At 10.30, once the shops were open I set off for Crea Mall to do my souvenir shopping. I found that despite the somewhat tacky gifts in the street, on farther venture into the shop there were some interesting items for sale. I even found at 100 Yen store ($1 tree to all my American readers).
At 12.45 I met Rachel at the station and we traveled to Tokyo by trains to see the art gallery of the famous woodcut prints. Talking to the lady at the paper gallery earlier in the day she said that she wouldn’t recommend the place, and on being pressed why she had replied that the gallery was ‘too sexual.’ But lunch was first and we found a small back street French bakery where we had our first ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette, and real lemonade served with sugar water to sweeten it (the French have such great ideas!) The gallery has a rotating display of the famous prints. They are very delicate and can only be exposed in their hermetically sealed cases for a short period. The works were beautiful – and it’s the first time I’ve ever had to take off my shoes in a museum. I guess all the ‘too sexual’ prints were sealed away today.
We wandered through the shopping districts, still continuing to be amazed by the number of people, and enjoying the outlandish fashions of the area: cleavage out and short, short skirts in, and something called Lolita-style which was all frills and baby doll stuff.
A quick shower and change of clothing back at the hotel and we were back out, meeting Rachel’s friends for her birthday dinner and karaoke. 12 people showed up and we walked to a ‘family-style’ restaurant. I chose Udon noodles which came served with its own gas stove, to cook the egg, and keep the food hot. We all sang happy Birthday to Rachel. She was very pleased that so many people had showed up. She’d spent the day fretting that no-one would come because she organized it so late. After dinner we all took the train to a karaoke close to campus. The building consisted of small private rooms, all equipped with a karaoke machine, 2 microphones and a telephone to order drinks. I’d been hoping to try some sake, but it wasn’t offered so it was back to the Japanese beer. The background scenery to the TV screen was famous tourist destinations in Europe so we had fun identifying them. Suddenly Linus noticed that the time was 11.25 and our train – the last of the night – left at 11.26! We all made a mad dash for the station, leaving the one student who didn’t have to catch the train home to pay the bill. We just made it. Home by midnight - after a birthday to remember.
I’d been told to be at Rachel’s apartment by 7.30 a.m. for an 8 a.m. departure to Nikko with the host family. This trip was the host family’s birthday present to Rachel. By 9 a.m. we were loading the large minivan with an enormous amount of provisions for a full day out. There was Tomoko, her brother, her mother, the twins, Rachel and myself. Any thoughts I had about sitting quietly and snoozing for a little while were soon cast aside when it became apparent that the little girls were not required to wear seat belts and they spent the entire trip climbing over the seats, into the back, crawling on the floor – and eventually by the end of the day, even being out-going enough to sit on my lap.
It took us over half an hour of slow street driving to get to the freeway – all navigated by an elaborate GPS system, essential since street names are in short supply: I hadn’t found a single one in Kawagoe. Although overcast in Kawagoe by the time we reached the mountains we had a lovely fall day and blue sky – something that I hadn’t seen since my arrival. We stopped at a rest stop crammed with tour buses and had a picnic lunch amidst the fall colors. Once we left the freeway we found ourselves traveling on breath-taking winding hairpins going up and down the steep mountains to lakes – presumably volcanoes and their associated craters. I passed some of the prettiest scenery in its fall outfit that I have ever seen, but unfortunately every man and his dog (all small lapdogs) seemed to have chosen this beautiful day to be leaf lookers and we found ourselves in a mighty traffic jam. What should have been a 3 hours ride took 7 hours, and we weren’t able to stop and take photos – boo, hoo!
We stopped at a ‘Dennys’ on the way back which, thankfully, was not another 7 hours. Rachel and I chose Japanese food and all the rest of our party had American. Although it was Saturday the 21st of October for us, it was October 20th for Sarah and I was disappointed that I could only leave her a message on her phone when I returned to the hotel.
Last night I had a vivid dream that Anna was failing all her classes! A quiet morning was the first order of the day, reading and listening to music before meeting Rachel for a final shopping spree, mainly for Rachel’s gifts for Sarah for me to take back. The suitcase I brought full of gifts for Rachel and her host family is now full again. I tried to find a teapot for Sarah and a pearl pendant thinking both would be easy to find since they are synonymous with Japan, but once again I was thwarted. We were joined by Tomoko and the twins for a little while as she helped to book my bus ticket for tomorrow’s ride to the airport. In spite of it being a Sunday lots of children were dressed in full school uniform, and though there were by no means as many, the town was still spattered with men wearing business suits and carrying brief cases.
We visited a couple of shops that Rachel hadn’t been to before including one called ‘Afternoon Tea’ with lovely kitchen and bathroom items. We also browsed an up-market department store where coats started about 800Yen. We took a side trip off the main street and found ourselves in a small cemetery bounded on all sides by apartments and high-rise shops. The statue of Buddha overseeing the spirits was framed by a parking structure. Rachel explained the large ‘lolly-pop’ sticks with writing on them (the deceased’s new name) that rattle in the wind.
Fortunately for me Rachel has this day off from school – founder’s day – so she’ll be able to help me get my luggage to the bus stop. Heavy rain fell at intervals during the night, but it wasn’t raining at 6 a.m. when I got up to observe the scenery. Around 7 there were lots of noise form fire trucks heading for the main square. Loudspeakers blared instructions to drivers and pedestrians in addition to the sirens and bells.
I took a last walk with my camera along Crea Mall, hoping to catch the wet streets and umbrellas on camera. It was amazing to think that I’d only been here a week and yet I felt totally comfortable walking down the street watching all the shops open their doors, securing their awnings and putting out their plastic bags for wet umbrellas. Many bicycle riders steered with one hand and held up their umbrella with the other.
Rachel, Grandma and Grandad were there to wave me off as the bus left for Tokyo. Lots more traffic than the day I came, and with the inclement weather the journey took much longer. I arrived at the airport with four and a half hours to spare before boarding. I managed to spin out the time looking at the gift store, and also knitted two scarves with yarn that I’d bought earlier in the day.
Although my flight left on time we were warned to use the bathrooms at the gate before boarding because we were going to be taking off in the typhoon – not a lot of comfort for me. The flight was uneventful and Jeremy arrived at SFO to take me back to Santa Cruz just as I was picking up my luggage from the carousel. I arrived back there an hour after I’d left Kawagoe. Such are the mysteries of international travel!
On Halloween I went to see David Sedaris read from some of his stories. His account of a recent trip to Tokyo was most amusing.
© Heather Morris 2006