Aug. 21, 2006: Tokyo
A long day with an early start. Accompanied only by Yukari this time, we caught a train to spend a day in Tokyo. We had considered using the famous Shinkansen, known as “The Bullet Train”, but we learned that the fare would be 4500 yen (over 40 dollars) per person EACH WAY – a total of about 350 bucks just to get all of us to town and back! So we settled instead for the conventional train (densha), which was rather slower but far cheaper. We did, however, see the Bullet Train a couple of times, though it was not traveling at its legendary high speed of up to 186 mph.
As we approached Tokyo, we began seeing quite a number of bicycle lots and even multi-level bicycle garages, some of them filled with hundreds or even thousands of bikes. We also passed the John Lennon Museum, adjacent to the enormous Saitama Super Arena, a prime rock concert venue, and marked down the museum as another must-see attraction for some future trip.
After 3 or 4 transfers, we disembarked at The Ginza, the famous and quite ritzy shopping district that reminded us of Times Square in New York City. Except that it was much, much cleaner – all of Japan, from what we have seen, is immaculate, or about as close to it as a country can get. (Certainly, the Japanese are typically hygienic to an extent that would seem obsessive-compulsive to some Americans)
It was also, much to our astonishment, far less crowded. We’d expected that Tokyo, having at least 3 times the population as the 5 boroughs of New York combined, would be even more jam-packed than midtown Manhattan, if that’s possible. But Tokyo seems to be spread out over a much wider area than New York – it doesn’t have one central cluster of skyscrapers in its profile – and consequently, we found elbow room aplenty. Of course, we were able to avoid riding the subway during rush hour, which reportedly is sheer bedlam. We saw some of the white-gloved attendants whose especial duty is to cram people ever-tighter onto the trains, but we missed out on a chance to witness this skill in action.
We of course didn’t go to Ginza with the intent of doing any actual over-priced shopping, but merely to do some gawking. Nonetheless, it was mandatory that we browse through the Yamano Music Store, an 8-floor emporium offering recorded music, sheet music, instruction books, and all manner of instruments – including a display case full of ocarinas, some of which would set you back hundreds of dollars. High prices or no, Zephyr couldn’t leave the premises without buying something; at first, he settled for just a few souvenir guitar picks, but then he decided he had to have a CD by a group called Ten Feet, whom he has decided he really likes. We insisted that he approach the sales clerk and make the transaction himself in Japanese. After a bit of prodding, he did so, and did it quite satisfactorily – Yukari hovered nearby in case he needed an interpreter, but he really didn’t. In fact, he went through the process twice, as the first clerk referred him to the next lower floor.
Hopping on another train, we next headed to Tokyo Tower, the tallest building in the city since 1959, and the tallest self-supporting iron tower in the world. Standing at 333 meters (1093 feet to us Amurrcans), this imposing landmark was modeled after The Eiffel Tower, which it exceeds in height by 9 meters. Nonetheless, the Tokyo Tower is less than HALF as heavy as the Eiffel Tower, thanks to advancements in metal technology.
There are two observation decks in this structure; it costs about 800 yen to ascend to the first one, about halfway up, and then once your appetite is whetted, you have to shell out another 600 yen or so to go up the rest of the way.
But even from the lower deck, you get an impressive panorama of the city.
We also had an impressive view of a young man who, egged on by his companions, walked through the crowd on his hands for a full minute or more.
It was now mid-afternoon and we were all hungry. After searching in vain for a suitable lunch venue in the tower itself (the restaurants there were essentially burger and pizza joints, including a McDonald’s) we found one a few blocks away, where some tasty-looking items appeared on the menu for as little as 300 yen. We had Yukari ask the cooks about one particular dish we were interested in, a bowl of noodles with a cluster of fried battered vegetables on top, to see if it was vegetarian. They said they normally put shrimp in it, but would be glad to leave it out if we didn’t want it.
So we went ahead and ordered our meals – not from a waitperson, but from a machine. It’s fairly common, especially in lunch restaurants and fast-food establishments, to see vending machines with which you place your order, make your payment, and receive a receipt to present to the cooks when your food is ready. But this was our first time to actually use one.
When paying for lunch, Tokyo Tower and the trains, we had to be unusually assertive today, because it was our plan to pay Yukari’s way for everything. We figured it was the least we could do, considering how generous they’ve been. But she put up a fuss every time, and kept trying to sneak in to pay her own way, until we had to practically throw a linebacker’s block on her to hold her back. But we were successful in our intentions.
After hopping on yet another train, we had some time before a 4:00 appointment we’d made, so we went to Hie Shrine, a Shinto place of worship constructed in 1958 to replicate the shrine that was built on the same location in 1607 and destroyed by bombs in 1945.
We avoided the steep flight of stairs, and instead chose the escalator, which we at first thought was out of order. But then Yukari showed us clueless Westerners that it’s activated by sensor when you step on it.
Up to the hilltop plaza we ascended, passing businessmen and businesswomen who were pausing to pray during their appointed rounds.
Outside the temple, there is a chest into which people can toss a coin before offering up a prayer, then pulling a thick rope to ring a bell that apparently sends the prayer on its way into the ether.
Well hey, we’re not believers, but we couldn’t pass up a chance to partake of the ritual, especially since we had wishes of speedy recovery to offer for Kimberly’s Bay Area friend and former high school classmate who is battling cancer. Kimberly also purchased for her a souvenir talisman for good health.
After sitting for a while to rest in the pensive environment of the courtyard, we made our way back downhill. On the way out, we couldn’t help notice a bench, painted in the same shade of deep red as the other structures in the complex. And painted on it in conspicuous white letters was the sacred word “Coca-Cola”.
Across the street, we popped into the offices of Erklaren translation services, where we’d made an appointment. Erklaren produces Japanese Podcast 101, which we’ve been listening to on a daily basis for the past three months to help learn Japanese. The lead commentator on these podcasts is an American, Peter Galante, but he has a rotating cast of Japanese co-stars to act out little scripts in Japanese and discuss the culture of Japan. (We hear, by the way, that the organization recently was written about in Newsweek.)
They all seem to have a great time, and after being immersed in their dialogues and repartee all summer, we feel like they’re all old friends. So we emailed them saying we’d be in town soon and would like to come by and meet them if possible. And they responded saying drop on in, so here we are.
Peter in person is exactly like Peter in the podcasts – unflappably cheerful and bubbly, responding to the smallest details with overwhelming enthusiasm. When we mentioned to him that Zephyr did a good Peter impersonation, he said, “everybody in this office does a Peter impersonation”. He also said that he’d been quite unaware that he said “very, very nice” so frequently until somebody pointed it out to him. When we asked him how he got into this business, he said that he had come over from New York 7 years ago to teach English for one year – and he could speak hardly a word of Japanese at the time – but he loved it here so much that one year quickly turned into seven. We also met all the others whom we’ve been listening to, including Yoshi, Sakura and Natsuko – -all a very amiable group.
We intend to keep listening to the podcasts, though not as intensively, and now we have faces to go with the voices!
Our introductory little excursion into Tokyo now complete, we managed to catch a train back home before the crowds got thick.
At dinner tonight, we were introduced to natto, which we’d heard about on one of the podcasts. It’s a delicacy made by fermenting a type of small bean, and we gather that folks either love it or hate it. Our verdicts are: Quite good (Kimberly), Not bad (Dennis), and I’ll pass (Zephyr). The biggest problem with it is that it produces stringy, gummy filaments like spiderwebs that get stuck to your chopsticks, your fingers and everything else.