Japan – Day 1

[Monday 12 September 2005] The nice thing about being a twenty-something traveling to Japan (at least, from the west coast) is that 7:00 am Japan time is something like 3:00 pm your time. Acclimating to Japan time, in short, was a non-issue for all of us.

Actually, I think this day was the first day that I ever woke up before 7:00 am feeling extremely well-rested and ready to take on the day.

We began our venture into the Tokyo wilderness by wandering around to find something edible. Fortune smiled upon us, and we ran into a Pronto café (essentially a coffee shop) in short order. Fortune did not, however, give us an instruction manual: we were left wondering about all sorts of little protocol that we would take for granted here. Pastries were arranged just inside the front window, along with trays, plates, and tongs; after grabbing the food, we were left holding the tongs (so to speak)—put them back, or take them to the counter where we pay? (We opted for the latter.) The people behind the counter (as would be the case with most of the people we interacted with) were hip to our combination of meager Japanese, English, and body language.

If you haven’t been to Japan, you might not know that you pretty much pay cash for everything there. (We only used our credit cards when paying for hotels—and only some hotels accepted them.) Cash takes the form of coin in denominations up to 500 yen (really roughly speaking, $5), with bills for larger values. It’s a bit weird, coming from a society where the largest commonly-used coin is worth 25 cents, to have coins worth $1 or $5 in your pocket; it’s more than a bit irritating when you drop one of those coins and lose it (or, in my case, have a vending machine eat a 500 yen coin). Courtesy of the low crime rate, you actually do end up walking around with hundreds of dollars in your wallet—this was also weird, to me.

After Brian paid for us (with funds he had exchanged at the airport the night before) and gathering our first (of a whole lot of) change, we made our way to some open tables at the back of the restaurant. Here we discovered another fact about Japan: smoking is big. (Smoking inside is also legal, unlike in my hometown—I’ve gotten used to smoke-free environs.)

A third fact: those little cornucopia-shaped pastries filled with chocolate are damned tasty.

Our next mission for the day was to acquire funding for our continued operations. I had a credit card in desperate need of an ATM; Marin had done some research for me beforehand, so I knew that CitiBank supposedly had an ATM in floor B1 of the Metropolitan Building nearby our hotel. The catch wound up being that floor B1 is actually the train station level, which was a vast maze to our n00b selves. It was also the morning rush hour, so we were searching for an ATM in a veritable ocean of bodies. We failed horribly.

Luckily, the staff of our hotel came through for us (me), and informed us that the CitiBank—on the ninth floor of the Metropolitan Building—would open at nine.

With a good chunk of time to kill, we decided to wander around for a while. Small signs pointing towards a garden caught our eye, so we followed them into the Tokyo back roads.

I don’t know if this was the exception to the rule or not, but the area we found ourselves in felt more like lazy countryside than bustling Tokyo. We followed narrow, one-lane streets lined with small houses—all invariably with some sort of garden—and were passed by more people on foot and bike than by cars. The biggest hint that we were in a major city was when we had to cross railroad tracks, and had to wait for trains—trains chock full of people—to pass by.

Waiting for trains to pass is something I’ve seen in a good deal of the anime I’ve watched (well, the anime taking place in the pseudo-real world), and it pretty much is as they depict it.

The intersection we waited at was T-shaped, with the train tracks running parallel to the stem of the T. Due to the one-laned nature of the streets, and the ninety-plus degree turn you would make if you were turning, a large mirror had been positioned so that you could see what was beyond the bend.

(Something akin to the above, though this shot was taken in Matsue.)

We should have taken a cue from the handful of others who were similarly stopped, and sidestepped the train gate after the first train passed. We decided to wait until the gate rose, though, and so had to wait for a second train.

After a decent bit of walking, we finally arrived at the garden—only to learn that it is closed on Mondays.

Thwarted—though having passed the time we needed to—we returned to the Metropolitan Building and hit up the CitiBank. A uniformed man greeted us as we entered (as in he was standing, by himself, front and center when you walked through the sliding glass doors); I made my way to the ATMs, and Andy took the chance to cash his traveler’s checks.

We had never bothered to set our schedule in stone, beyond listing the things that each of us didn’t want to miss, so we found ourselves back in our hotel room trying to decide what to do with our day. The TV featured footage of political candidate after political candidate on various stages shouting banzai! while bowing, hands raised and interlocked with others (ostensibly their staff). We had flown into Japan on the day that the Japanese were holding elections, and the morning after was filled with jubilant LDP candidates celebrating the landslide victory voters had given them.

The hotel staff had somehow divined that we spoke english, and so provided us with an english newspaper; in it I discovered an article on “budget Japan,” and in that article the (apparently new) Ghibli Museum was mentioned. As we all respect a good Miyazaki film, we elected to head there.

The Ghibli museum is in Mitaka, a suburb of Tokyo, so this proved our first real test (we had taken the Yamanote to our hotel the previous night) of the Tokyo train system. Brian’s ability to read basic Japanese, coupled with other signs that provided names in English, made navigation all but painless.

More painful than getting to Mitaka, however, was getting to the Ghibli Museum. We finally made our way to a stop where a special Ghibli Bus would pick us up—and then realized that we couldn’t buy tickets to the museum at the museum. Brian asked about tickets, and got directions to a travel agent that would sell them—and then took a classic play out of my book, and forgot the directions. (Glad I’m not the only one who does that.) Consequently we wandered around Mitaka for a while, and then decided to grab lunch when we realized we were collapsing more than walking. In the process of collapsing we passed a pseudo-underground restaurant, and made our way inside.

The place was set up in (as far as I can tell) a more traditional manner, with low tables on raised areas of the floor. Your “chair” is a mat on the floor; if you were hardcore, you would sit on your legs (knees bent, feet sticking out behind you).

We tried being hardcore. We all failed in a matter of minutes.

Of course, you remove your shoes before stepping up to the table areas. Once at the table, you’ll generally be presented with a moist washcloth to wash your hands with. Then you get to order.

Ordering, if you are lucky, consists of pointing at things and nodding your head. Many Japanese restaurants will actually have models of meals encased in glass outside of the building, so you can see if you’d like what they serve; others use menus with plenty of pictures; the rest (the hardcore) use text-only menus. The restaurant we were in used picture-menus, so ordering was easy.

We then proceeded to drink lots of ice water. Our waitress figured out that we needed a pitcher of water when we were draining our glasses in all but a single drink (glasses in Japan—and Europe, in my experience—are awfully small). Our meals arrived, and Brian and I discovered that we got something else than what we ordered; rather than try to sort it out, we dug in—and discovered that it was spicy. Good, but spicy. As in, “dang, this is spicy” spicy.

Refreshed, we returned to the streets in search of this travel agency. Shortly thereafter, we discovered that it was in a place we had already looked—but had been overshadowed by the neighboring Mister Donut.

Tickets in hand, we made our way back to the Ghibli Bus.

(photo by Andy) After a short ride on the short bus, we arrived.

The museum itself was cute—part history, part attempt to make the Ghibli fantasy tangible for little kids—the most impressive room was a recreation of where Miyazaki works, with the walls plastered with various drawings, from sketches to full-blown cels. It appeared that the cels were actually painted on both sides (something I didn’t expect): the basic color was painted on the back of the cel, while shading and whatnot were painted on the front.

Also impressive was an animation room, where strobe lights were used to convert rotating models into 3-D animations—the most memorable being an animation of (what I assume are—I haven’t actually seen the movie yet) Totoro characters, people jumping rope on the ground while cat-busses and birds fly around above. Another memorable one was one of a robot standing in the middle of a flock of birds that spiral upwards in flight.

I confess that I actually haven’t seen the movie that the robot is from, either—but a giant statue of the robot was featured on the roof of the museum.

Upstairs featured a Totoro cat-bus; one of the kids who was on the neko bus wasn’t on the niko bus. Also upstairs was the gift shop, where I wound up buying plush Kiki and Totoro dolls. I’m such a sucker.

The final attraction of the museum was a 20-minute short about the journey of a dog who escapes his yard (I’m assuming gender for convenience) in search of his owner, only to get completely lost. It was quite cute, and introduced to Andy the first bit of Japanese that he would abuse for the rest of his trip: chibi-chibi. [The scene in the movie: the dog is walking by a fenced-in school, and kids are on the other side of the fence trying to get him to come near, so they can pet him—calling chibi-chibi.]

Before hopping back onto the Ghibli bus to head home, we walk through the neighboring Inokashira Park. Most notable there was a little girl who dropped her sandwich—and so rinsed it off with a water fountain faucet before eating it and heading back.

You will also note the little sun-hat this girl is wearing. The sun-hat is a tool used by the Japanese young to channel and magnify the power of their cuteness by orders of magnitude.

We finished our day by returning home, watching crazy Japanese commercials on the TV (my favorite: a cell phone so easy even Grandpa can use it; the phone is made easy by the presence of a giant green button), and then grabbing dinner in what was apparently a Japanese fast-food joint. We sat at the counter, where pre-wrapped moist napkins were available for use; I ordered fried rice and potstickers. Andy ordered a Sapporo beer; I had a sip, and it was actually pretty tasty. (This detail, FYI, is setup for a payoff that won’t arrive until I get to Hiroshima, in about six trip-days.)

 

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