> Travel > Japan Part 1

Japan, December 18, 2003 - December 30, 2003
Part 1, Days 1-5, Tokyo, Nikko

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It had always been Teri's dream to visit Japan.

Teri travels frequently to Singapore for business. She frequently changes planes in the Narita (Japan) airport but has never stopped before. Our company shuts down over Christmas week, and Teri knew she would be in Singapore immediately prior to the shutdown and we seized an opportunity. She would fly back from Singapore and stop in Japan. Allyn flew out from Los Angeles to meet Teri a day later. Together we spent 12 days sightseeing in Japan.

Teri's first day email written in Japan:

18 December 2003

have arrived in tokyo from singapore.

getting on the train at narita was very easy (Except for the part where the turnstile did not let me thru--the station agent sighed in disgust and just opened the gates for me.).

sure enough the cart lady came walking thru the train and I decided to buy something, just to say that I did. I pointed to a small bottle of what was either tea or beer. I had a ¥1000 ready ($10) which I thought was more than enough. She took it and gave me back only change!!! wow, i thought, that was expensive. it was only 350 ml (coke can size). Then I noticed she had handed me a ¥500 coin ($5). So it was under ¥500. I really hoped it was tea cause I didn't want beer. it was a nice strong oolong tea.

got to tokyo station in 1 hour. oh my god so huge. the signs were good but everything just seemed so far away AND there were tons of stairs that were virtually impossible to navigate with my huge heavy luggage. and I failed to exit the train turnstile properly. it took my ticket but the doors did not open, why??? the station man could not understand my problem. he seemed to ask where my ticket was and I pointed at the turnstile. and finally in disgust he just waved me thru. it occurred to me that a suitably confused-looking gaijin could ride for free for quite some time in tokyo. but after exiting the train turnstile I wasn't sure where to go--there were banks of ticket machines that I finally decided were for the train not the subway, and i needed to catch the subway to akasaka-mitsuke station. a ticket office which I finally figured out was for shinkansen (bullet train) only. for a minute I was afraid I couldn't find my way, that I would be stuck endlessly in some obscure corner of tokyo station for hours trying to find my way out. at this point there were no signs in english at all except for the subway line names. i knew i was looking for maronouchi, and there WAS one lone dark dirty LONG stairway for maronouchi that I just really didn't want to drag my luggage down but I had to. I just took it slow as I bumped the huge bag step by step down, what, 50 steps? then up another 10 steps. I could tell I was in people's way the whole time dragging both pieces of luggage. lots of people and all walking fast.

then at the turnstile for maronouchi there were lots of ticket machines but they seemed to be labelled Nari or something like that, so it seemed like they might be for the Nari subway line. I saw a head of brown hair and aha! lets ask the other foreigner. he turned out to be very nice and explained it all to me. he has lived/worked in japan for the last 18 years. I think If I had stuck around longer, he would have suggested some kind of friendly get together which might not have been a bad thing except I really really wanted to get to the hotel and put the transit ordeal behind me. in retrospect I regret not talking to him longer, he would have been full of good advice and perhaps he and I and allyn could have been travel companions for a bit. but my foot was bruised and hurting from when I had to shove the bag around, and the luggage was really a pain in the ass to deal with in the turnstiles, the subway is NOT designed for people with luggage. i think the turnstiles were timing out before i could push my luggage thru. in fact I am going to try to find a different way back to the airport besides the train, or at least a simpler way to get to tokyo station, because I am not taking my luggage into the subway again!!!

by the time I got to the hotel I was fairly beaten down and dispirited. I was confused by the bad locale map at akasaka-mitsuke subway but a parking garage attendant confirmed that I was going the right way towards the new otani. "new otani?" (pointing down the street). "yes". so there I was, dragging my bags thru the tiny streets of akasaka, making all kinds of racket on the cobblestones, surrounded by chic tokyoites dressed in black wool and manolo blahniks. ($600 4" heels.)

no one here streaks their hair. they seem to just lighten it to brown and that even is not so common. did I mention there is a new haircut store at singapore's bugis junction where they cut your hair in 10 minutes for $10 sing? supposed to be a japan import. i should think that next to a shinjuku fashion victim, i would look fairly normal with my streaked hair, snowboarder jacket, jeans, and far-out nike sneakers, but there's just something about foreigners in japan, they stand out like sore thumbs, even those that are part japanese.

my assignment for the evening was going to the hard rock cafe and to get back by 11pm to call allyn when he woke up. i wanted some protein and i know when allyn gets here, he is not going to want to eat hamburgers, but local food only. plus it was more practice using the subway. I had to get on the ginza line at akasaka-mitsuke (instead of the marunouchi line), then transfer to oedo. finding the hard rock was pretty easy too with the map I picked up from narita airport.

the hard rock cafe is blessedly the same in all the cities I go to. you can always rely on their cheeseburgers and fries to be made the american way. the caesar salad was pretty good too.

coming back however there was no exit turnstile for oedo so I was out of money on my ticket by the time I entered ginza. the turnstile, yet again, would not let me pass. i was getting used to this by now. i told the station man "akasaka-mitsuke?" and he decided i owed them ¥90. it's confusing because another station is called "asakusa" which is on the complete other side of town.

so far tokyo looks like seoul and taipei (or I should say seoul and taiwan must be trying to imitate tokyo) except the people here are stunningly good looking to my eyes, much more so than in any other asian country i've been in. the girls are tall, beautiful faces, and long shapely legs (racehorse ankles I think they call it in britain) and gorgeous jet black hair. sophisticated looking, and expensive clothes and bags. they all look like international models.

i have almost memorized "thank you" which is "arigato gozaimasu" where gozaimasu is pronounced g'ZAImasu which for some reason makes it hard to remember. tonight i told the bellboy "arigato goshamase" which either means nothing, or something totally wrong. but he was a nervous bellboy trainee so he didn't know yet to sneer at my bad japanese. :)

ready for my festival tomorrow at Senso-ji temple! and waiting for allyn to arrive around 8 or 9 pm tomorrow night.

Teri's second day email:

19 December 2003. "The person you wait for will come."

today was a much better day. did some email, vmail in the morning. torn between going out and resting-I know allyn is going to want to hit it hard when he gets here-

the last day of the hagoita festival at senso-ji is today so I'd better make a move. long subway journey, ~35 minutes, from akasaka-mitsuke to asakusa on the ginza line.

salespeople treat foreigners very nice but the local women don't treat me very respectfully. the woman on the train made a point to move her seat away from me once she got a chance. even tho I had given up my first chance to sit, to an elderly woman, I thought maybe I had scored some points with the locals but no dice. in the airport, a japanese woman waved her hand at the western woman walking in front of her, an oddly dismissive move, as if she were brushing away a fly. this was true also in korea, I've been treated less-than-respectfully by korean women in the shopping areas.

first I had lunch in the department store matsuya in the basement. endless aisles of beautiful finger food. is asia the land of little food? I got round-flat-thing-on-a-stick, two sticks of gyoza, 2 what-i-hoped-was-chicken-nugget-on-a-stick, and a thai eggroll. the salespeople were very nice to me and I got to practice "arigato goZAImas" many times.

where do people eat stall food in japan??? no one seems to be eating on the street. I bought a drink at mcdonald's and ate at one of their tables.

senso-ji temple was beautiful and peaceful. I paid ¥100 to choose my fortune. I shook a stick from a metal cylinder and looked up my bin from the number on the stick. my fortune said: "the person you wait for will come" which brought tears to my eyes when I thought about our new baby.

I enjoyed the ambiance of the temple and made an offerings out front and also inside the temple. I prayed for peace of mind (it's a habit now) and then for positive energy for our new baby, her situation, and her future life with us.

I was really taken by the hagoita festival. the dolls were so beautiful! of course I had to have one. I spent a lot of time browsing the stalls. the salespeople were nice and wrote out the prices for me. the first one I priced was ¥20,000 (US$200) -- nice taste, teri.

I actually kept myself from making a snap purchase, and checked out all the stalls. I'm glad I did, I found a stall that had the hagoita that I really liked. it cost ¥15,000 and when I asked him for a stand, he gave me a map to what appeared to be his store. of course it being in japanese was completely inscrutable to me. he tried to make some hand motions to indicate the direction, but I figured I'd just ask someone else, cause I wasn't going home without a stand.

information about hagoita from the internet: "Hanetsuki is a kind of Japanese badminton game played with shuttlecocks called hane and decorative paddles called hagoita. During the Edo period, artisans created elaborate designs on the backs of the paddles with quilted silk, featuring Ukiyoe caricatures of popular Kabuki actors, and many merchants set up hagoita shops outside Sensoji Temple. Since hagoita were especially popular among women collectors, it has since become a custom to give a hagoita as a gift to celebrate the birth of a girl. (how about that??) The game of hanetsuki is also a traditional celebration of spring."

I'm still kinda worried that I'm going to run across something every day that costs like $200 that I'm going to feel I have to have. in fact I bought this thing not really knowing how I am going to get it home. I'm either going to have to ship it, or have allyn handcarry it.

around then I realized that I didn't have a lot of cash. I had about ¥30,000 on me ($300) but I'd just spent ¥15,000 and it was friday. I remembered that banks were only open 9a - 3p, M-F (from the rough guide) and japan was cash only - so for shopping and eating I figured I needed to have 300-400 on me to feel sure I wouldn't run out over the weekend. (for example, the buffet in hotel is $100/person for dinner.) and by this time it was 2:20pm on a friday. so I tried not to panic because 40 min is a lot of time- so I asked the counter help at mcdonalds and starbucks where a "bank" or "atm" or "cash machine" was and of course no one knew what I was saying, except the sweeper at starbucks who did point me to a local japanese bank down the street. of course those atms did not recognize my card. so then I figured I could get an advance from amex from the hotel and so could allyn, so we could probably get 500-600 cash between the 2 of us. so I stopped worrying about money and got back to the business of finding a stand for my hagoita.

as I was walking towards the hagoita store, I ran across a map on the street of the local area. Just about the time I had mapped the hagoita map to this map, by matching characters, this reminded me of the tourist map I already had with me. on it, it showed a Tourist Information Center right across the street from me!!! they could figure out the hagoita store map AND tell me where a bank was AND yay!! they had a bathroom. I am starting to realize just how important the TICs are, because NOONE here speaks any english. it is finally starting to sink in. but i think there are TICs at most major subway stops.

the foreigner atm was actually directly across the street from the starbucks. geez. after getting money and going to the bathroom I felt more at peace than I'd been all day.

I did find the hagoita store, it was off orange street in a very picturesque area of town. the stand itself cost ¥5500 so total I spent about US$191 for this doll.

it was about 4:30 when I started feeling hungry. I was going to lose weight if all I ate were snacks and pupus. on my map I had marked 2 restaurants that were supposed to have cheap simple food. one of them had NO english outside and NO plastic food so that was a little too scary. plus it had the closed wooden door which seems so forbidding. I went to the other location and thought the map must have been wrong, it was a beautiful little restaurant. I approached a woman sitting on the bench outside. she started to get this panicky look in her eyes as I approached but I just said, "daikokuya?" and pointed at the building. she nodded yes. I slid the wooden door open and they welcomed me right in. the lady said "what you like?" (softly in the japanese way when they're not sure of their english) and when I opened the menu it was entirely in japanese with no pictures. I racked my brain trying to remember if this was the tendon place or the yakitori place. in desperation I looked at what the guy next to me was eating and it was rice with tempura shrimp on top. aha! I think that's tendon. "Tendon." the woman pointed at the menu and asked me something. I said, "ebi?" cause I wanted shrimp. she said "ebi ichi, [something] ichi, [something] ichi." that's right, "ichi" means one. ah, one of everything. sounds good to me. it was prawn, shrimp, and fish tempura on rice with sauce. and it was delicious!!

this was such a cute little restaurant. it was like being in someone's home, mom was cooking in the next room, and the little eating room was warm and cheerful and spotlessly clean. the women and one man bustled in and out bringing tea and food. they looked kind, like they were weren't going to let anything bad happen to you. the chairs were miniscule and the table brace bumped my knees but I felt completely safe and taken care of. I didn't want to leave.

today I realized how critical even the smallest bits of my preparation were. if I hadn't spend literally only 3 minutes looking up asakusa restaurants in the rough guide -- if I hadn't picked up all those damn brochures with maps with the TIC on them -- if I hadn't have read about "tendon" or remembered "ebi" or "ichi" - things would have been harder or different for me. you really have to use all your resources on a trip. use every part of your brain.

I've also been surprised by just how panicky I've felt on this trip so far. on business trips we are hosted by the local team, and I'm with lots of folks with lots of local knowledge anyways. so my environment is pretty controlled, much more controlled than I think. but by myself, in a strange land, where I don't speak the language, that is a totally different thing. I guess I forgot how different. was I this panicked in barcelona? paris? I think I've never been somewhere so challenging. but now I know what the real meaning of travel is: happiness is an empty bladder and a full stomach.

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Copyright © 2003 Teri & Allyn Fratkin, All Rights Reserved.