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.)

My hand is cramped

I’ve just finished writing down everything I could remember about my last few days in Japan. I’m afraid that it’s nowhere near as much as I could have written down, had I done so sooner… but what am I going to do about that now? (Answer: ask Brian what happened.)

Anyway, the grand Japan writeup can now continue, after I get some sleep. Dang I’m tired.

Japan – Day 0: day of flight

[10 September (US)/11 September (Japan)] I began my trip by frantically finishing up my database program (with advanced stop-gap features) for work—that’s right, I was furiously finishing my program the morning of the flight.

[Through a major miracle, the damn thing would actually work while I was gone.]

I picked Brian up an hour later than we planned, thanks to my accursed program; my saving grace was that we had enough wiggle room figured in for me to get away with that. At Andy’s we met Myles and Betsy, who gave us a lift the final leg to PDX. Before that, though, Andy packed, Brian copied plans into the notebook he was bringing, and Betsy played Kirby: Canvas Curse on Andy’s DS.

Our flights, incidentally, were booked with Northwest. When we left for Japan, Northwest’s mechanics were on strike—and there had been news about a handful of their airplane tires blowing out. (Another story featured a Northwest flight that somehow clipped its wing on another plane […].)

We grabbed a bite to eat at a PDX pizza parlor while we waited for our flight. Andy chatted some with a UW professor and (?—my memory’s rusty) grad-student sitting at the bar about the football game playing out on a TV. After eating we hit the restroom, and then discovered that our plane was boarding—so we just walked on. It was easily the most pleasant airport experience I’ve had; that’s saying something, because I haven’t really had a bad experience yet.

On the (full) plane we discovered that we shared row 31 with two friendly gals on the left, a Japanese lady (stuck between Brian and Andy) who didn’t seem to care to interact with us… and the professor and grad student we met in the pizzeria.

In 2000, when I went to Europe, the plane was equipped with three LCD monitors at the front of each section of the plane. This allowed them to give you a graphical depiction of where the plane was and which direction it was going—effectively squashing any kid-like questioning of are we there yet? and how much further?. Time has certainly changed plane travel: the plane we took to Japan had an LCD monitor for every seat, in addition to the three at the front; in the armrest was a controller/remote controller. Using the controller, we could choose to listen to music, watch a variety of on-demand movies, or (the killer feature for the three of us) play Reversi or a trivia game against others aboard the plane.

Brian defeated—there’s no nice way to phrase it—me handily in Reversi; the outcome of trivia matches were much more random, depending on the types of questions asked. At its peak, we were playing trivia against “Hans” and “J” (the professor and grad student) and a handful of others in the plane. Trivia is most entertaining when you can interact with the other contestants, I’d say… so it was nice that most of us were in a row.

A bloody eternity passes. Ten hours later, we’re almost to Japan… but “weather” (the remnants of a typhoon) forces us into a holding pattern for an extra forty minutes.

Our first thought of Japan, as we’re stepping off the plane and looking out windows: This looks like Oregon! (Then the 90% humidity hit us.)

One customs official making sure Andy’s bag doesn’t have false walls later, and we’re free to roam in Narita. Our first order of business was to call the hotel and let them know that we’ll be a bit late; Brian exchanges some money and then enters into epic battle against the NTT phone. (Turns out that the Tokyo area code is “03,” not “003” or “3.”) We then pick up our two-week Japan Rail Pass—which gives us free access to all JR lines (handy!)—and hop on the Narita Express for Tokyo-eki. [Japanese lesson: eki ~ station.]

The Narita Non-Express failed to impress us. Andy started questioning why our train was stopped for extended periods of time; the Japanese businessman who had the misfortune of being seated with the three gaijin promptly fell asleep.

Tokyo-eki (as was Narita, and as would be every train station) had bilingual Japanese/English signs, and so was quite easy to navigate. We made our way from the top-secret ultra-underground base where the Narita (non-)Express stopped, up to ground level and the famed Yamanote line. [Incidentally, as far as we’re concerned: “Yamanote green” is a legitimate name for a color.] We hopped the Yamanote for Ikebukuro, where our first hotel—the Crowne Plaza Metropolitan—was located.

The Yamanote was decently packed, and we found ourselves standing in the center of the car with our bags. The experience reminded me quite a bit of London’s Underground, though I recall (perhaps erroneously) a decent number of the seats on the English trains were oriented front-to-back, whereas almost all of the Japanese seats were on the sides of the car oriented left-right. [The reason for the Japanese arrangement, we’d note later, was that the seats get folded up during rush-hour so they can cram that many more people in each car.]

Our hotel has a swank front desk area, and a handful of expensive restaurants located on the lower floors. The bellboy shows us to our room*, which uses magnetic insert-and-remove cards for the door, and we crash fiercely. Our room is on the 24th floor, however, so we end up having a pretty good view of the city (this shot was taken later, during the day; we arrived sometime around 8:00 pm, and so were actually greeted with city lights):

That’s right: city all the way to the horizon.

[* One of the neater things about Japan is that good service is a basic expectation, and not something that is rare and needs to be rewarded. In other words, the service is almost always a cut above—and you never tip for it.]

The Japan blow-out… begins now

Yah, I’ve been a lazy ass w.r.t. my blog. Sorry. [Incidentally, the lazy way to write with respect to is one of the best things to come out of my math education.] I was horribly short sleep and off-schedule last week, and this week my folks are on vacation—leaving me and my sister taking care of Grandma and the animals. Except that Marin’s in school, so it’s pretty much me. [Actually, she’s been quite good about helping; I’m just mouthing off.]

Here’s a pro-tip: if you’re going on vacation and you have a shitty memory, take a pad of paper and a pen, and make notes of what you did. I did that, so I now have the ability to regale you with some tales. I also took pictures—modern science worked image-stabilization miracles, and they actually came out OK—so my tales might have some pretty pictures to bump up their length.

Oh, and I have a terrible habit of switching tense mid-paragraph (sometimes mid-sentence), which most likely will rear its ugly head in the next fourteen (or so) entries. Please overlook that.


I survived Japan—or, perhaps, Japan survived me. The only thing I completely flubbed was getting back to a normal routine quickly; I caved and took a nap (that turned into a five-hour nap) the day I got back, and that set me back something fierce.

Oddly enough, none of us had trouble getting up at 7:00 am in Japan; the fact that it was equivalent to 3:00 pm our-time didn’t hurt.

While I continue to try and get back to a decent routine (which, you might correctly guess, I wasn’t on when I left for Japan), here are some random observations from my trip:

Many Japanese haven’t figured out that smoking is Bad For You. You can buy cigarettes (and beer) from vending machines for not much more than you would pay for a soda.

Pachinko is a horrible, horrible game. Laughing at gaijin who throw away 1000 yen trying pachinko for kicks, however, transcends all language barriers.

Japanese toilet paper “squares” are twice as long as US toilet paper squares. Japanese toilets frequently have both “big flush” and “little flush” options, and most have a weird seat/device made by Toto that senses when you’re sitting down on the seat and adjusts things (water level, the status of a deodorizer) appropriately.

Akihabara is my home away from home, and my wallet’s worst enemy.

Jeff is right: though the stores might say it’s autumn, it is definitely not autumn. We had ninety-degree heat and ninety-percent humidity for most of our trip, which made for lots of fun.

English karaoke songs are predominantly from the ’80s, which means I actually know most of them. Crazy. Karaoke can actually be fun, too. (Crazier!)

And now, a working hypothesis: Americans are the only people in the world who are well-hydrated. My experiences through Europe and Japan (and those of my comrades) have been that glasses for everything—expect possibly alcohol—are bloody small. Haven’t people heard about eight glasses a day? (Actually, that link might explain the answer of my rhetorical question…)

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