I told several people I was going to Japan and a common response was, “Yah. That’s on my bucket list.”
The next question was usually: Why?
I was invited to a wedding. Question: Who is getting married?
In my best Abbot and Costello, I said, “You. Yu is getting married.”
“Yes, but who is getting married?” Bernadine persisted.
“Her name is Yu and she’s our cousin Patrick’s wife’s sister.”
Patrick’s mother Nancy is my first cousin, which makes him my first cousin once removed. In addition to a grand parent in common, my grand father was his great-grand father, we share an Irish Catholic upbringing. But Patrick studied Japanese, learned Kendo and became a Buddhist. Patrick met Miyuki in Springfield, Illinois, when they were both in college. She came into the video store where he worked and it must have seemed quite charming when he said hello in her native tongue. They live in Chicago now, but Miyuki’s sister was getting married in Tokyo and the bride’s parents specifically asked if I wanted to attend.
I was honored and immediately said, “Yes. Absolutely. Of course.”
I met Miyuki’s family when she and Patrick reaffirmed their vows in Hawai’i just before Hallowe’en, 2010. I was the only member of Pat’s family who attended, but the purpose of holding it in the islands was so Miyuki’s family could be there. They had not been able to attend the wedding in Illinois.
In Hawai’i I met Miyuki’s father, Matsushige (mat sue she gay), her mother Kazumi, two sisters, Mayu the older, and Yu, the younger. Mayu’s son, Pat’s nephew Yamato, was four at the time. Now seven, Yamato would be the ring bearer in Tokyo at Yu’s wedding.
When I got to Japan I was introduced not as Patrick’s once removed cousin, but as his uncle. It seemed simpler this way. Our familial relationship would be confusing to an American.
* * *
I’ve visited many European countries and used to tell people Greece, specifically Athens and two islands, Santorini and Mykonos, was my best vacation. Now that I have seen parts of Japan my opinion is changed. Both countries are at the top of my list. But Japan has a number of customs I particularly admire.
For example, no one talks on a cell phone in public whether on the train or walking the streets. I do not believe there is an actual ordinance against this ubiquitous and annoying behavior, but in Japan public opprobrium appears to be enough to silence everyone.
Our driver for one day in Kyoto said there is, indeed, a law against driving and talking or texting on a cell phone and it is enforced. That should be made law — and enforced — nationwide in America.
All the people I met wherever I went were thoughtful and considerate of others. So much so, when I asked Patrick why there are no public trash cans except recycling bins in train stations, he said “People are paid to pick up litter. But there is no litter because everyone is aware that someone will have to pick it up.”
There are no cigarette butts or gum on sidewalks and the single word I heard most in Japan was “arigato,” which means thank you.
There is no sales tax. What you see is what you pay. None of this foolishness of nine ninety-five plus tax, a number that is incalculable in your head. The American pricing system should take its cue from Japan and include the sales tax in the sales price.
There is no tipping in restaurants, which Europeans find a peculiarly American tradition. Again, what you see is what you pay.
Nor is Japan as pricey as I had been led to believe. Hotels were extremely reasonable as was food and drink. Getting there, however, can be expensive.
Many airlines offer round trip airfare to Japan, although the latest and purportedly greatest, Japan Air Lines Boeing 787, was grounded when I began booking my flight. Nippon Air, JAL and United all cost in the $1,200 to $1,600 range for a round trip.
I had miles built up at United so I called and asked if I could apply them.
“You can no longer use miles for dollars,” I was told on the phone. “Not since the merger.”
What merger? Then she suggested I fly out for free, pay cash for the return ticket. That sounded sensible.
I provided dates and flight times. She did a calculation and said, “Yes. Good news. You can fly to Japan using your accumulated miles.”
I asked how much for the return.
“Three thousand dollars for a one-way ticket.”
Why was I even talking to this person?
I settled on American Airlines which put me on a Boeing 777 nonstop round trip from Los Angeles to Narita and back for under $1,000. The price included the one hour flight each leg of the journey between San Francisco and LAX and all hidden taxes.
Two airports serve Tokyo. Narita (NRT) is in Chiba Prefecture, a little over 32 miles (60 km) from town. Haneda airport (HND) is within Tokyo itself.
The flight was supposed to take ten hours, but we had good tail winds and arrived nearly an hour early. Pat and Miyuki found me seated at the place specified, a waiting area past customs which took no time at all to go through. We went directly to the Japan Rail Group offices where I was issued an “ordinary” JR pass which had to be purchased, like a Eurail pass, in the States before I departed. We flashed these passes at the terminal entrance and rode a Japan Rail train to Tokyo. The pass allowed me to ride any JR line including the Bullet Train at a whim if there was a seat available.
* * *
The public transportation system in Japan rivals that of any country. Trains are packed standing room only during commute hours. Cell phones must be in silent mode although you may text, surf the net, play games and get news from them, but I never saw a single person speak on one. Patrick said surveys indicate the most annoying thing in society today is being forced to listen to a loud one-sided conversation.
Funny, I thought the most annoying thing was a goofy ring tone going off during a movie.
Patrick, who understands the language, said the only time he has ever heard anyone talk on a cell phone in Japan was as they boarded a train and said, “I gotta go. I’m getting on a train.”
Actually, no one talks at all while riding public transportation in Japan which, on the whole, is another nice custom. The only ones who break this taboo are Westerners.
I was excited getting on that first train from Narita and said as much to Patrick who sat next to Miyuki. He said, “Shhhh. Not so loud.” I was the only person on the train talking, but I didn’t get it. I explained how great it was to be there, how the flight took us over a good stretch of Honshu and I saw lots of rivers and cultivated fields before we touched down.
Patrick mimed with his hands to lower my voice and said, “Shhhh,” as politely as he could. He was actually quite good-natured about telling me to be quiet, and he was right. It was so unlike a noisy San Francisco train or bus where people yell at one another across the aisles in order to be heard above the din of multiple radios playing hip-hop and people shouting into their cell phones.
In Japan, trains are silent except for the audio announcements for approaching stops and the noise of the tracks.
People in Japan do anything to avoid eye contact. Riders on trains stand holding a strap reading a paperback book, rarely a magazine, or stare at their smart phone texting, communicating silently or reading their email. Beautiful women — and they abound — stand holding a strap in one hand, a strand of hair in the other pinched between thumb and forefinger, staring intently at it while rubbing it slowly, pointlessly.
The men all wear the same black suit and black tie with a white shirt. There is variety in women’s apparel and the women are all strikingly pretty. The art of makeup has been perfected to the point where female faces achieve an idealized beauty. Back home I later heard someone say, “The girls of Japan are like dolls,” which is a good description.
Train benches are wide enough to hold five or six people and, at any given time during the commute hours, half the men on them are asleep. Women did not seem to nod off; men did. It was amusing to watch these guys with heads lowered on their chest, eyes closed, bobbing and weaving in their seat as the train followed its tracks at easily forty miles per hour.
My question is: How can you be dead to the world, standing but asleep on your feet on a moving train? Patrick, the Kendo American, pointed one guy out whom I had already noticed, standing in place facing the glass door that would not open until his stop which would probably awaken him. Eyes closed, his nose an inch from the window in the door, if he was not asleep he was doing a very good impression.
The sexes seemed equally distributed during the train ride to work, but no one talked. Thus, no man and woman will ever meet each other even if they ride the same train together in the same car at the same time to work and back every day.
I have a friend named Jesper who married a girl named Roya. They met because they rode the same bus downtown to work daily. After a couple of months, Jesper finally worked up the nerve to say hello. Later, Roya’s comment was, “What took you so long?”
Their two beautiful daughters, Nicole and Elizabeth Grace, would never have been born if their parents lived in Japan.
Patrick said the dating system in Japan requires introductions be made by friends to friends. On their own, a Japanese male would never approach a Japanese female without a recommendation and then a long chaperoned period of going out with others in a group before holding hands or the first kiss.
Those first impressions of silent travel on the train to Tokyo were sustained and recapitulated throughout my visit which was seven days: four in Tokyo, three in Nagoya with one of those a day trip to Kyoto. This was just long enough to get the sense, the feel of the country, but hardly enough to explore how much there is to see and do. My visit was all too short, but packed with adventure.
* * *
Japanese has three written forms: hiragana, katakana, kanji. Product packages, train destinations, any public information is also written in Korean and English. I never did get the first four, but I could read every street sign. Restaurants, shopping malls and stores all had the English word for what they sold. “Books” the sign above the store at the Kyoto station read in English. Yet there was not a single magazine, paperback or newspaper for sale in that language.
If you ask a Japanese person, “Do you speak English?” the general response is an index finger and thumb held close together and the word “skoshi.” This is supposed to mean “a little,” however it really means, “No. I think I do, but not really.” When you proceed to ask in English where a pay telephone is or if that is the correct way to the hotel, you get a blank stare.
Patrick taught me to ask: “Eigo wah hana shi mass ka?” This is undoubtedly not an accurately transliterated spelling of the phrase, but it worked incredibly well when I really needed it. It may sound counter intuitive to ask in a foreign language, “Do you understand English?” But because the person to whom you posed it understands the question, but not English, they will shake their head and point to someone else over there who does.
We stayed our first night at an APA Hotel in Yachiyo, a city in the Chiba Prefecture bordering Tokyo. The price for one night was $65 in this modern, 167 room accommodation that was within walking distance of an Aeon shopping mall and rail lines. It was an excellent lodging as were the other APA hotels we rented during our stay. My room was not large, I could not do arm extension exercises, but they were well appointed. The tub/shower was the kind you squatted in for a bath, but a good shower could be had by adjusting the shower head on a riser. Hotels in Japan typically have a communal spa on one floor; a robe and slippers are supplied in every room.
Turns out few Japanese use the bathroom for bathing, preferring the spa instead.
Toilet seats are soft and heated and never come crashing down. They drift slowly down even if you try forcing them. There are universal signs on the side of the toilet indicting various functions. The universal sign for your ass is two yous stuck together, UU, with a single vertical middle leg instead of two. My word processor won’t let me press them together; you’ll just have to imagine this figure with dashes coming from below to show the wash capability. When I remarked on this, Patrick said you have to be careful with that feature which might be set on high.
And the shower tap puts out very hot hot water. You never get in and turn on the shower. You must turn the shower on and test the temp before extending any part of your body other than a test finger under the stream.
For many Japanese the evening meal is fresh fast food. Large supermarkets and small 24 hour chain stores all carry individually packaged dinners at extremely reasonable prices. The main course might be thinly sliced cooked beef, chicken or pork — never a cutlet or a drumstick — sometimes sliced ham or a tray of sushi. The meat courses come with a small salad, vegetables, perhaps mashed, baked or fried potato, your choice of various types of noodle or rice and a pickled garnish.
The largest selections for these fast food trays are in grocery stores, so for dinner we went to the grocery inside the Aeon shopping mall in Yachiyo. Aeon Corporation is the largest mall and supermarket developer in Japan.
It was packed with aisles full of ordinary living products, a supermarket larger than many in America. But the emphasis on fresh ready to eat takeout is not like anything I have ever seen in the U. S. Tiny free packets of soy sauce, wasabi and ginger are next to free paper napkins and wood chop sticks.
I have heard it said the Japanese do not understand America’s penchant to freeze food. Frozen food is just not part of household cooking in Japan. This was made abundantly clear by the wide selection of fresh ready to eat items.
Walking past refrigerated aisles filled with trays of incredible variety can overwhelm the decision of what to have for dinner in the hotel room that night. There was a wide selection of canned and bottled drinks, many tea based, as well as soda and beer. The price for a tall can of beer was 299 yen. That’s three dollars. No tax, no recycling redemption fee although I am sure both are built into the price.
I saw one dumpster diver in Japan and he was hunting recyclables. If there are homeless people, I could not identify any although the dumpster diver might have been one. He was scruffy and unkempt with a stout body and wild uncombed hair and was retrieving empty containers presumably for resale. I never investigated who pays or how much you can get for recyclables in Japan. Like his counterparts in America, this guy was suspicious of strangers and constantly glanced around to see who was watching.
The self-service checkout line at Aeon was a bit confusing at first, but there are helpful store assistants who even pick out the correct coins from an outstretched foreign person’s palm.
Counting yen is simple. The exchange rate was on a par with the U. S. dollar, a yen almost equal to a penny. The face value of a coin is in Arabic numerals printed on all but the five yen coin and it has a hole in the center. Once you realize a yen is a penny, 100 yen is a dollar and 500 yen is five dollars, the only problem becomes moving the decimal point. Seeing 6,500 yen as $65 sometimes takes a second. The smallest bill is 1,000 yen or ten dollars. Then comes the 5,000 yen ($50) and the hundred dollar bill (10,000 yen).
In researching the currency for this essay I learned that as Japanese coins increase in yen, they also increase in both size and weight. That goes a long way toward explaining why the one yen coin is made out of aluminum and the 500 yen is made of a heavy nickel brass alloy. It never occurred to me to notice the weight increase while they were in my pocket, but looking back it is obvious.
The hotel accommodation included a breakfast coupon. I have stayed in European hotels that offer “continental breakfast” which was little more than coffee or tea and a roll with butter. Not so Japan. All the hotels we stayed in offered an extravagant spread with hundreds of items to choose from. It was all you can eat in one sitting and the variety of Japanese foods made it possible to sample things you might never otherwise try.
Miyuki taught me about many new foods found at breakfast. For example, I learned to stir nattō which is fermented soy beans. This is a traditional breakfast dish which has a strong cheesy odor and slimy texture. It was at first perplexing as I noticed people furiously stirring the contents of the small containers the nattō comes in before pouring it over rice and adding various seasonings and condiments.
Fish, bacon, sausage, ham, eggs hard boiled or soft, soup, pancakes, croissants, jams and jellies, juices, coffee and milk all come with the coupon. There must be a rule against people from the outside buying tickets for this outstanding presentation.
In Tokyo the next day, Friday, we checked into the Gracery Hotel in Ginza which was four blocks from the wedding on Sunday. The family met us in the early afternoon and we walked to a restaurant several blocks away
As we passed the Kabuki-za theatre I made a comment about wanting to take in a show. In the middle of our meal, which lasted two hours, Miyuki’s mother Kazumi, put on her shoes and left. On our return to the hotel we again came upon the Kabuki-za with its ornate 17th Century façade and there was Kazumi waiting in line in order to buy me a ticket for the next performance.
The Kabuki-za looks old, but this jewel of a structure was rebuilt after being destroyed in WW II. Its latest renovation reopened in 2013 with a modern three tier 1,808 seat auditorium attached to a 29 story high rise.
Kabuki is a form of opera which, if you are already predisposed to dislike, will only intensify your feelings. A performance lasts all day, beginning at 11:00 a.m. and ending around 10:00 p.m. with 30 minute intermissions throughout. All performances are sold out in advance and the only seats available are for one hour of a six act show in the nose bleed section. You have to wait two hours in line before they begin selling these tickets and only the first hundred of two hundred are for seats. The last hundred stand.
Fortunately for me, Kazumi’s selfless act of waiting in line resulted in me having a seat.
In addition to being in a foreign language, Kabuki singing is highly stylized and follows unfamiliar rules of intonation which are sung by characters who perform extravagant, exaggerated postures wearing astonishing hairdos and dressed in outrageous costumes. There must have been six sets of chop sticks in the lead actress’s mound of hair.
Costumes are changed on stage in mid-show with the aid of ninja-like assistants dressed fully and completely in black. They crawl from beneath the set or slither on stage from the side to get up behind the performer and, voila, the apparel is swapped without the singer missing a line.
Ordinarily, from down in front, these black shadows are unseen by the audience. But from where I sat high up in the next to last row they were obvious.
A dozen musicians are stage left and perform on traditional flute, drum and bowed three-string instruments a system of music that was atonal to my ears and more percussive than bowed. I rented an English audio description of the plot which had to do with a ghost woman appearing before a bandit and they fall in love, fall out of love and do battle on stage surrounded by a dozen acrobatic dancers with spears.
The entire performance was really quite fascinating.
There is no parking on the street out front, but some guy got a ticket while sitting in his car and it took an hour to issue the citation. First he was interrogated by one police officer as another two pulled up in front in a squad car to block his escape. With his child beside him, the man retrieved from the glove box a clear plastic envelope that was packed with documents he showed the officers one by one. Finally, after answering numerous questions, a piece of paper was handed to him and the street was made empty of cars once again.
Compared to parking citations spat out of small machines in seconds by traffic control officers in San Francisco, we are dollars ahead.
* * *
On Sunday we walked to the wedding carrying gift envelopes containing cash, an acceptable and customary wedding present.
The ceremony itself had no religious connotations I could discern. It was much like any nondenominational marriage in America with minor but significant differences.
The bride wore a white kimono trailing a white train. The groom had a white top coat with wide sleeves, a white shirt and vertical brown and white stripe culottes, traditional Japanese garb. Around his neck he wore a white bead chain from which dangled a puffy white ball.
First, everyone in the two families about to be joined with this marriage lined up facing each other in descending order, the parents of the bride and groom at the head. Each introduced themselves including Yamato. After that, the doors at the end of the procession opened and the bride and groom entered. They walked slowly past hand in hand, Yu holding a bouquet of lilies in her left hand.
The couple stood smiling at the head of the procession. Their parents read short prepared speeches and several young women, dressed all in black, arranged Yu’s train.
Next, we entered a room with a platform and curtain backdrop where we endured a photo session. The other half of that room was filled with chairs on either side of a wide aisle and we were directed to take our seats left and right according to our relationship to bride or groom, immediate family in front.
This is where the actual ceremony took place. The staging was simple and unpretentious. The rites were performed by a hostess standing at a microphone in front on the left. Hirokazu entered first with Yamato at his side. Then the bride entered accompanied by Matsushige while Hiro waited with a big smile on his face as they walked down the aisle toward him. The couple faced each other and exchanged vows, put rings on fingers.
The two fathers held open magnum bottles of wine, presumably sake, which were simultaneously poured into a bowl from which the couple drank. The audience responded with a final round of applause.
Then we went to dinner.
Tables and chairs were set for hundreds with the bride and groom occupying a raised dais in the center of one wall. They looked out upon the audience in an arrangement similar to wedding feasts I have attended in mid-west America. To their left was the wedding cake, a large rectangular single layer pasty with dolphins leaping and two small statues representing the happy couple.
The tables were set with plates of corrugated gold surrounded by silver flatware including a pair of solid silver chop sticks. As wait people brought a seemingly endless series of food courses, people in the audience stood and spoke, toasts were offered and stories told.
There was a projection screen near our table which was also nearest the twin door entrance to the room. Between courses the screen came alive with photographs and a voice-over told the story of the couple’s lives. We watched the bride growing up among family and friends and learned how she met her betrothed.
Then Hirokazu’s tale was told. Turns out he is an avid amateur baseball player. Many in the audience were introduced as members of Hiro’s team. I’d asked earlier who Yu was marrying and no one would tell me. That’s because, Patrick informed me, it is considered bad luck to say the groom’s name before the wedding.
My favorite on-screen account was a man dressed in a business suit seated in front of a white background. He held up a series of photographs. As he told a story illustrated by these pictures he carelessly dropped each of them as soon as the account they illustrated was complete.
At some point during the program the couple left the room amid much applause. When they returned they were in formal modern dress. Miyuki, Yu’s sister and my cousin’s wife, told me she did not own a kimono and the one she wore was specially made for the occasion. She said it was hot and uncomfortable.
As the lights came up and the screen went dark for the last time, the twin doors next to our table burst open and three guys rushed in hooping and hollering. Two wore rubber horse head masks and black tights, black shirt and a black tight-fitting head cover. The third wore a table cloth and when he took that off, nothing but a sumo wrestler’s diaper. They made a loud ruckus, shouted and said things I did not understand as they ran across the room to where the couple was seated.
There they began catcalling and razzing the bride and groom as they danced inanely. This bizarre show went on for several minutes to the immense joy and laughter of the audience and the bride and groom. It was amateurish and clumsy as these guys bounced into one another and performed silly movements and made a good deal of noise. They did not seem to have practiced their slightly risqué routine, but no one seemed to notice. The horsemen took off their masks and their faces were painted white with red whiskers and blackened eye sockets. The leader wore a tutu with a three foot phallus protruding from his groin that looked like it was made from a broom stick. A string around his neck held it erect.
Later, with the assistance of an English interpreter, I spoke with them. Turns out they were members of Hiro’s baseball team and what they did, disrupting the otherwise solemn ceremony, was a traditional part of any Japanese wedding.
* * *
Yamato is an exceedingly happy and somewhat precocious kid. He smiles a lot and dresses up well. In a white shirt and tie, his small frame wrapped in a cream colored two piece suit for the wedding, his was the only black fedora in the house that day.
I have it on good authority (The New Yorker) that since the early nineties, the door-close button in American elevators does not function. It is a placebo meant to fool riders into believing they have some control. Apparently the door-close button operates quite well in Japanese elevators. Yamato was exiting behind Patrick who turned to me and said, “Hold the door open button for him.”
My dyslectic response was to punch the door close button which caused Yamato’s small body to be caught in a pincer, one arm and one leg out, his other arm and leg inside the elevator which Patrick immediately pried apart.
Yamato, of whom it can be said he dresses up well.
Yamato was unhurt. Nonetheless, at some point during dinner he lay across Patrick’s lap muttering and moaning until Patrick translated: “He says he’s dying. You crushed him in the elevator.”
I could see the headlines: Yamato Claims Internal Injuries.
As he feigned death in Patrick’s arms and shook off attempts to put spoons full of food in his mouth, Yamato blamed the American.
* * *
Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest in the world. It is, in fact, a wholesale market place which sells much more than fish. I saw boxes of citrus products from California, fresh vegetables, fruits, seasonings, work apparel, work boots and kitchen utensils for sale.
And there are free samples of food everywhere. At one stand we sampled nuts, at another tiny dried whole anchovies. A brochure asks “What is Katsuobushi?” and then explains how to prepare and cook smoked bonito or skipjack tuna. We ate a tiny amount of dry shaved Katsuobushi and it was awful.
Visitors were once allowed unlimited access to watch the daily tuna auction, but no longer. Entry to the 3:00 a.m. proceedings is now limited in number and on a first come basis. I thought it might be closed because members of the public denounced the practice, which is not what news accounts claim. We are told, instead, the public has been restricted because they got in the way. Photo flashes disturbed the bidding process, at times tourists made so much noise the bids went unheard and, worst of all, the public was touching the fish.
The Tsukiji Fish Market was the least hygienic place I visited in Japan. It resembled a 1930’s longshoreman warehouse district that had seen better times. You were as likely to get hit by a forklift as slip on the unswept floor. Rows of open air stalls lined narrow walkways as all manner of fresh fish products were hawked.
I stopped to take photographs as Miyuki became impatient to find a lunch stand.
“What are you taking pictures of? It’s just a fish market.”
Packages of whale meat. I was taking pictures of whale meat.
Japan is one of a handful of countries that continue to take minke whales for human consumption under objection to or with the “scientific” exclusion from the international commercial whaling moratorium which has been in effect since 1986.
What I saw in refrigerated cabinets and on ice trays were not science experiments, they were dinner suggestions.
Long lines outside many restaurants implied you simply could not find fresher sushi. The restaurant Miyuki chose was like any sushi place I have been to in the States, except it was reasonably priced. I have had sushi for two in San Francisco and the bill came to $100 without drinks. We paid no more than $20 each for our meal.
The street outside the fish market is lined with food vendors and cafés. One particularly enticing odor drew me to a man stirring a large wide-mouth metal pot, a sombrero turned upside down kettle contained a bubbling brown liquid above which was the word in English “Stew.” He ladled this brown sauce with lots of lumps of meat over bowls of rice and patrons were lined up waiting. He stirred and ladled and served as customers retreated to the sidewalk where he had placed a high portable table. There the hungry stood and greedily ate.
Fortunately, we had just eaten or I might have ordered a bowl. Patrick said, “It may say stew on the sign, but it isn’t the stew you are familiar with. It’s beef intestines, tripe. Unlike America, there is no definition of what that is. In Japan it can be any part of the intestinal tract from beginning to end and whatever else gets tossed in.”
Semiologist Patrick points out humorous warning sign at entrance to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market which reads: A Drunk.
* * *
The tour guide on our bus was full of anecdotes meant to lighten the mood. She told us 78% of Japanese people consider themselves Buddhist and 82% say they are Shinto. Do the math: That’s 160% of the people. She answered the question of how this is possible by saying many consider themselves both.
And everyone, she said, is Christian at Christmas.
She told us 130 million people live in Japan and ten percent are in Tokyo.
She said, “Tokyo Tower and the San Francisco Bay Bridge have something in common.” This perked me up. “They are both painted International Orange.” Sure enough, we rounded a corner at the base of the tower and I thought I was home again.
She told us a red triangle on second floor and higher windows indicates the fireman’s entrance. Windows with that designation open outward. Later during our Kyoto cab ride, Patrick imparted to Miyuki this arcane knowledge by pointing out triangles.
Patrick and I got an early morning start on the aptly named Sunrise Tours. We were to catch the tour in front of a different hotel than ours. I asked a clerk how much post cards cost to mail, and he told me. I bought six stamps and stuck them to the cards I’d written, addressed and brought with me, all various images of the Sky Tree broadcasting tower we visited our first day in Tokyo.
Miyuki had earlier pointed out free standing post boxes on Tokyo streets and said they were functioning historical artifacts. I asked if the guy behind the counter would see to mailing my cards and he accepted the little pile. Two of my recipients have yet to receive theirs which, in the scheme of things, might be considered good at 67%.
The tour bus took us to the Asakusa district and the Sensoji Buddhist Temple which is dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. This was the first and only time our guide warned us to keep our valuables close, for it was well known to be infested with thieves and pickpockets.
Patrick earlier told me Japan was safe and, “The only time I keep my hand on my wallet is when I see another Westerner.”
As we walked the great temple grounds, Patrick explained that Bodhisattva are enlightened beings, former humans who return in order to save others. The most compassionate Bodhisattva is Kannon, which was the favorite of the founder of the electronics company who shortened and re-spelled it as Canon when it became a world-wide corporation.
The bus also took us to Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Empress Shoken and Emperor Meiji (1852 – 1912) the 122nd emperor and great grandfather of the current Japanese emperor. We wandered the grounds and walked forested paths and were told to return to a meeting place identified by a huge array of sake wine barrels. Shinto invokes the concept of “Magokoro” or the sincerity of human kind, also translated as “Sincere Heart.”
Sake wine barrels were our rendezvous point at Meiji Jingu Temple in Tokyo.
We visited the Imperial Palace where Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko currently live and I realized I had been here before: I had walked it with PBS. Anyone who has seen “Japan: Memoires of a Secret Empire” will know the outer moat, the stone walls of the Palace and the buildings constructed inside these walls.
The tour took us to lunch overlooking Tokyo Bay and then put us on the cruise ship Symphony Moderna for an hour boat ride. The bus dropped us off mere blocks from the Gracery and we wandered the Ginza district crowded with pedestrians visiting department stores, fashionable shops and restaurants.
Almost every department store in Japan has a food floor which is not quite the same as a grocery, where you find separate sections for meat, chocolate, cookies and a number of franchise eateries not unlike a food court. We ate Italian.
That evening Miyuki took us to Akihabara where the station exit is in a section of Tokyo called Electric City. There the main business is walking and shopping. The closest American equivalent would be New York’s Broadway at night. Like The Great White Way, both places are lit up so brightly they can be seen from the space station.
The sidewalks were dense with pedestrians lured into restaurants and stores, Pachinko parlors and Anime toy shops selling miniature cartoon characters, monsters and heroes, in clear plastic boxes suitable for mantelpiece display by the discerning collector. Since there were no children to speak of in the crowds, adults must be buying these.
Robots on a flat bed. No explanation necessary.
As for Pachinko, in Japan it is a game that pays. However, Patrick informed me, gambling is illegal in Japan. Therefore, winners may only cash in their collection of Pachinko balls outside the parlor at special stores. Which, of course, makes no sense if the object is to prevent gambling.
I carry a yo-yo with me wherever I go, but I lost it before I left for Japan. It fell out of my pocket and I did not find it again until I cleaned my car after I got back. But in Tokyo I needed a yo-yo, so I went in search of one.
Turns out the gesture of rolling your palm as if dropping an object and saying, “Yo-yo,” translates exceptionally well in Japanese. My guess is it works in all languages anywhere on the planet. But this device, which I have been told was originally a Philippine weapon of war, was not a product of much interest and was in short supply. The first I found, after many attempts demonstrating the palm of my hand resulted in inspired laughter, was a fifty dollar, read 5,000 yen, metal object similar to one I already own that cost nowhere near that in the U. S.
One sales guy in an Anime store said he knew where there were yo-yos for sale and explained to Miyuki how to find the place. On the third floor of a toy shop that compares favorably to New York’s FAO Schwartz, one corner was devoted to yo-yos. A teenager was demonstrating some rather intricate tricks when we arrived and eventually I purchased a Z Pro which sleeps for a long time and has your choice of two ball bearing axle sets. It cost $16.50 (1650 yen) which is a bit more than in the States but, hey, it was imported. It was a Duncan made in Middlefield, Ohio.
Yes, every new piece of electronic equipment is on display in Electric City, but so are women. Every street corner was occupied by girls who looked younger than sixteen and were dressed in maid uniforms from various centuries in European history. The 19th Century French maid was no cuter than the German girl from the 17th who stood opposite a real beauty dressed as a 1930’s American in short black skirt and white bib. They were all cute as kittens and handing out brochures promoting I knew not what. I asked and Patrick explained these were invitations to come inside the bar and spend time talking with the girls at outrageous drink prices.
When I understood what was being promoted, I asked astonished, “Why?”
Patrick replied, “What can I say? Japanese men are lonely.”
* * *
What we call the Bullet Train is really called the Shinkansen. The first Shinkansen we rode was from Tokyo to Nagoya. Travel time by Shinkansen is so reduced it appears to a visitor that everything on Honshu is nearby. It is not. The island is nearly 810 miles long, only thirty miles shorter than the California coastline. We never drove ourselves in a private vehicle, therefore I never experienced long distance travel by car in Japan.
The distance from Tokyo to Nagoya is 218.1 km. or 135.5 miles. Driving time by car is four hours 14 minutes. By Shinkansen it was a little over two hours and that included a couple stops along the way.
There are four separate Shinkansen lines operated for profit by Japan Rail Group. Many local trains are under the aegis of JR and, as long as there is space available, all may be boarded simply by waiving the pass at the station entrance.
Train terminals have stairway entrances from street level or a small elevator. Once inside the station you may also take an escalator. Every escalator I saw was fully operational down or up. In fact, I never saw an escalator under repair or out of service until I got back to San Francisco where the very first one I encountered was a failed escalator at a BART station.
Your ears pop on the Shinkansen. You cannot know exactly what speed you are traveling, especially in the dark of night, but when you get up around 200 mph your Eustachian tubes open and your ears pop. This happens in an airplane because the air pressure above the earth is less than at sea level. Rise and the pressure drops. Pat and I discussed this and our theory, not backed by fact, is the air pressure change at high speed is similar to what happens when you rise off the surface of the earth. But, honestly, when I got home I could find no answer using a web search.
On the Shinkansen there is no seat belt to tighten and no steward tells you to place your tray against the seat in front or put your seat in its original upright position, although both tray and seat operate much the same as in an airplane. While at speed, a cart comes through pushed by a hostess who sells beer, snacks, sandwiches and soft drinks all at completely reasonable prices.
Reserved seat tickets on the Shinkansen are in English and specify the origin of travel, destination, date, time, car and seat number. Once you locate the track inside a terminal, you stand at or near the number of the car and the darn thing stops and the doors open precisely where you are standing.
Our day trip to Kyoto from Nagoya was 146 km and driving time would have been at least two hours. On the Shinkansen: 40 minutes nonstop.
* * *
We were to meet in Kanayaka station at the entrance to Japan Rail at seven-thirty in the morning. I was at the JR booth early, but Patrick and Miyuki were nowhere to be seen.
One person’s entrance is not necessarily another person’s entrance. I thought “entrance” meant where you show your pass and enter. I did that and took up a position 25 feet inside the JR toll booth watching for them. Meanwhile, Pat and Miyuki stood 25 feet on the other side of the JR pay booth in the tiled vestibule which is the “entrance” that leads to the booth. We did not see one another and I finally boarded the eight o’clock train with two stops before it got me to Kyoto.
Had Miyuki given me a ticket, it would have made things considerably easier. In all other instances riding the Shinkansen, Miyuki handed us printed tickets with reserved seats. All I would have had to do would be show this to anyone who could read and, with literacy at probably 100% in Japan, follow their directions to the correct platform.
But nooooo. I was certain I had to get on the next train which left at 8:00 a.m. and perhaps Pat and Miyuki were already aboard. I assumed this was the Kyoto bound train Miyuki had selected, but I was wrong.
It was a 15 car train and it was practically empty. I boarded roughly in the middle and wandered first toward the rear, then forward searching for Miyuki and Patrick.
I worked my way back and at car twelve I caught the whiff of cigarette smoke which I assumed was coming from a smoking kiosk near the tracks. Cigarettes are huge in Japan, but smoking is allowed only in a designated room on the platform or, as I discovered, in the last car.
At car thirteen it became obvious the smoke was coming from within the train itself, and at the end of car fourteen it was clear what the last wagon was reserved for. I have no idea how anyone can breathe in car fifteen.
I walked toward the front, passed the conductor in his office, smiled and waved; he did the same. After determining I was alone on this trip, I settled into a seat and the train made two stops before arriving in Kyoto.
In the shopping area inside the station I went up to a counter and asked two young women behind it, “Eigo wah hana shi mass ka?” They shook their heads no and pointed to another young employee whom I asked the same question. He said, “Yes.”
I told him I needed a telephone, could I rent his? Instead, he led me to the station waiting room and pointed out two coin phones. I put a 100 yen coin in his hand and asked him to dial a number I had written on a piece of paper. Then I told him to tell anyone who answered, “Harry,” I pointed at myself, “is in Kyoto.”
Forty-five minutes later, Patrick and Miyuki came to fetch me in the waiting room.
Miyuki was incensed and Patrick no happier. He blamed my desire to strike out on my own which had nothing to do with it. However, it was true I learned more when not being led around.
Miyuki insisted I point out the person who made the phone call. She wanted to thank him personally for having gone so far out of his way. She also chastised me for being so brazen and said no Japanese person would have done that: asked a stranger to make a phone call on their behalf.
Children would not be born, people would continue to be lost in a perfect Japan.
Miyuki’s father, Matsushige, hired a Kyoto cab to drive us around for the entire day. The driver took us where we wanted and suggested places of interest. During the time I waited for Patrick and Miyuki, I found the visitor center inside Kyoto station where I picked up a copy of the Visitor’s Guide and circled the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum. But our driver nixed the idea saying it was too far away.
He was a well dressed young man named Satoru Tanaka who spoke English with a thick accent. I sat in the passenger seat which is on the left side in a car with the steering wheel on the right. Between stops I asked questions and he told us he was unmarried and had been driving tourists in Kyoto for twenty years. I asked how old he was and when he said he was 40, I told him he looked much younger.
Satoru said something in response in English that tickled Patrick, but the accent was such that it required I turn to Patrick and ask what Satoru had said.
“Apple polisher. He called you an apple polisher.”
There are 1,700 temples in Kyoto according to Satoru. We went to three. The first was Jishu Shrine known as a temple to love. You throw coins in various boxes asking to find love, to keep love, to remain in good health so you can make love or wish for a giant rabbit to accompany you through life.
Rabbit Companion at Kyoto Jishu Shrine. The banner is in Kanji and translates as “Kyoto’s Earth Deity Shrine,” according to C. K. Lim.
The second we visited was a temple of gold, Kinkaku (The Golden Pavilion), where they charge 300 yen entrance fee, equal to three American dollars, and they give you a piece of paper with a prayer on it to take home. You can only see the temple from a distance behind a fence rail. It is beside a lake, but the temple is, indeed, covered in gold — foil or paint. We were not allowed to get close enough to ascertain which, but my bet is it’s real gold.
Gold is big in Japan. We arrived on Golden Week, one of three large national holidays. At one point in a family meal at a famous unagi restaurant in Nagoya, we were served half a papaya bent backward in it’s skin. The interior flesh was carved neatly into spoon size squares on top of which was a thin layer of real gold foil that you ate.
And the third temple we visited was the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum where, for the same entry fee of 300 yen, they hand you a bag containing a small bottle of sake.
The background sound as you wander out back and inside the sake museum is that of workers singing a Volga boatman-like dirge. It is a continuous loop sound track and I can only imagine how annoying it would become if I worked there.
The carefully manicured grounds are clean, green and probably irrigated by the well water which flows constantly into a cement basin on the lawn periphery. The area of Kyoto where sake is produced, according to our driver, is known for the purity of its water. We drank from long handle cups lying across a tub filled with crystal clear liquid.
Inside, the museum walls are covered with enlarged photographs and drawings showing the production process. Sake is technically a wine although it is not made from grapes, but from rice as is Budweiser beer. Another anomaly: the recipe is similar, but not the same, as that for making beer.
I am a home brewer and know that alcohol is a by-product of brewer’s yeast growing in an even temperature environment with a supply of food. All yeast is classified in the kingdom Fungi, although we don’t ordinarily call our bread and beer yeasts mold.
But there on the wall in the museum the docent notes described the sake production process as two staged with mold added before the yeast.
Mold? Before yeast? That was something that struck me. Was it a translation error or did they actually inject mold into the sake making process?
The color and flavor of home brew, and all beer and ale for that matter, is the result of a process called mashing. Wheat or barley or rye are first allowed to start growing, to germinate. Germination is stopped by cooking the grains in a roaster like coffee beans, and the degree of cooking changes the color and flavor of these grains. The type of brew is the result of first steeping cracked cooked grains in varying proportions in hot water, adding hops and malt, then bringing this to a boil which results in a liquid called the wort. This liquid is cooled and yeast is added, known as pitching the yeast into the wort.
The reason grains are germinated before baking is to release enzymes which help break down carbohydrates into sugars the yeast can eat.
Sake is made from white rice which has no hull and, thus, cannot germinate. Instead, a mold called koji that comes in a black powder is sprinkled over the prepared rice and allowed to propagate. Some say this is the primary ingredient and the secret of sake production. It is also the method by which carbohydrates in the rice are made available to the yeast.
There was no one at the museum who spoke English well enough for me to learn any more about the sake making process. I learned this about koji after I got back and asked Andre at S. F. Brewcraft where I buy beer making supplies.
In most automobiles I am the driver. However, on our day trip to Kyoto I was in the front passenger seat, which is the driver’s seat in San Francisco. In Japan they drive on the wrong side of the road as they do in England and Ireland. It was a daunting experience to watch traffic coming directly at me; there is nothing more consternating for an America riding in the front passenger seat — where a steering wheel ought to be — facing oncoming traffic.
We look left toward oncoming traffic in America, Canada and Mexico. Most but not 100% of the countries in the Americas have left-side steering wheels. Not so in all of Britain, India, South Africa and Japan. In those countries, many of them former British colonies, drivers sit on the right and drive on the left side of the road.
Years ago in London I read a caution painted on the roadway: Look Right. I was standing on a sidewalk facing an empty thoroughfare, a four lane wide street, staring at big white letters on the roadway reading “Look Right” and asked myself, “Why would I do that?”
Wham! Half a dozen cars roared past me from behind as I stared at their departing tail lights. A collection of vehicles was stopped at a light until I got to the curb and looked down and was told to look right. Instinctively, I had looked left.
In addition, drivers in Japan do not follow generally accepted rules with regard to pedestrians. Satoru frequently nudged our car into an intersection while people surged to cross the street until they parted like a biblical sea allowing him through.
I was quite pleased with myself for not renting a car in Japan.
We returned to Nagoya on the Shinkansen later that night. I heard Miyuki say in a satisfied way, “We sure got our money’s worth on our JR passes.”
* * *
Miyuki’s parents live in Nagoya and Matsushige is a well respected business man who owns an electronics repair shop. He was quite generous and took the entire family, myself included, to several meals in unique up-scale restaurants. One famous Nagoya restaurant is called Houraikan and it specializes in unagi which is eel.
Over dinner I learned Matsuchiga is a Star Trek fan. I was pleased to give him this bit of trivia during our meal. Gene Roddenberry, Start Trek’s creator, named the USS Enterprise and gave it the designation NCC-1701. The 1701, I told Matsushige, is supposedly the address of the house across the street where Roddenberry grew up.
The first bite I took was from a small bowl on the left side of the first plate I was served and it tasted great. I asked what it was and Patrick said it was barbeque unagi. Then he added, “the intestines.”
Unagi chefs must go through years of training and there were many ways of serving eel. One version was as sushi with the eel wrapped over rice. Another was two smoked pieces in a bowl with another bowl of condiments that are selected individually to eat with the first piece. Arched across the eel bowl was a white, six inch stick about the width of a pen barrel. I held it up, examined it and Patrick said it could be dipped in soy sauce or eaten straight. It was crunchy with no particular flavor.
This was the backbone of the eel and upon closer inspection I could see the rib endings where they had been sliced off.
At one point during the meal we were shown six live spiny rock lobsters to observe they were alive and kicking. This species has no claw but long legs which have no meat and the spines poke holes in your hands. A couple more eel servings later, and a large round low rimmed bowl filled with ice arrived at each of our places. The ice had a wide condiment tray in the center lying lengthwise in the ice. In one corner, a small bouquet of fresh cut flowers and at the top of the bowl propped up in the ice facing outward with its legs still moving was the top half of one of the lobsters.
The lobster was dead but he didn’t know it.
The center plate was arrayed with several condiments including thinly sliced ginger, wasabi, an egg yolk cooked and meticulously fashioned into the shape of a samurai helmet and several different types of pickled vegetable. Lying directly in front was the tail of the lobster sliced lengthwise. Beneath two tree leaves resting daintily on that half shell was a light green nearly translucent chopped mound of raw lobster meat.
Fresh seafood has no odor and the lobster meat could be mixed with condiments or eaten alone.
* * *
Coin laundries are rare, but they do exist in Japan. The hotel in Nagoya offered a laundry service, but it takes a day and has a relatively high fee. Following directions, I found one coin laundry which had three washing machines and three dryers.
It was a rainy day.
The price was in the $4 per load range, but there was no soap sold in any vending machine. The girl behind the counter was unable to understand my mimicked acts of ablution, rubbing an imaginary bar of soap under a raised arm. Finally, what the heck, clothes washed in plain water were better than not washed at all and, perhaps, soap is part of the wash cycle. Sure enough, suds appeared.
One fellow walked in with a wet load and dumped it into a dryer. He was probably unable to hang his wash outside that day.
* * *
Before leaving the country, one must pass through immigration.
There were many control booths, but only two were open. The lines were not long, but the woman in front of me had a green Republic of China passport which stopped our line cold.
I was next, but was waved to a third control booth by a middle aged man with short hair going gray at the temples. At the window he waved a hand indicating I should hand him my passport.
He was not of Asian extraction.
I placed my passport in front of him and he immediately turned to a page from which he ripped a square piece of paper that had been stapled there upon my arrival at Narita. It was half of the declaration form I filled out on the plane.
Unfortunately, I had specified the wrong flight number outgoing. Instead of writing 170, I had written 169 which was my incoming flight.
In a heavily accented voice that sounded Czech or Russian or some other Slavic place of origin, he said, “Not good. Write flight number.”
I stared at the piece of thick paper baffled. The box for flight number was already filled.
He aggressively and impatiently tapped the paper with the end of his pen. “You write flight number.”
“That is the flight number,” I said not yet comprehending his meaning.
“You write flight number now.”
I hesitated. He withdrew the card and the pen.
“You no write? Is all the same to me. Go.” He made shooing motions with his hands in a clear expression of dismissal. “Is all the same to me if you no write flight number.”
He had no intention of letting me through unless somehow I pleased him by acquiescing to his demand. Which I was perfectly willing to do if only I could figure out precisely what that was. Then it occurred to me maybe he means my next flight’s number. Fine with me. But where to write it?
His accent brought to mind the image of a former Red Guard, a demoted KGB agent who lost his job when the Soviet Union crumbled. Now he was reduced to an immigration desk at the Narita airport, still full of himself and convinced of his powers of eloquent persuasion in a language not that of his birth. He was the petty bureaucrat determined to display his power over those who needed his consent to depart.
I pulled my own pen out of my pocket and tentatively poised the point above the counter where the scrap of paper, now in his hands, might be written on if it were again placed there. I indicated writing without actually touching the counter or speaking. I feared pushing him further into his corner where I would be unable to reach a satisfactory conclusion: boarding my flight home.
He was placated enough to place the stiff square of paper back on the counter. I hovered the pen point over the number 169 and made crossing out motions.
“Zat is goot.”
After I lined out that number, I asked, “Where do I write the correct flight number?”
He pointed with his pen to the box in which I had written American Airlines. I wrote 170 to the right of that.
He was pleased. He stamped and handed back my passport which now, under closer examination, I see in blue ink reads “Departed Narita” with the date and the word “Immigration.”
I suspect the number below that, 1469, is his ID number.
* * *
My trip to Japan was over. Yu was married to Hirokazu and I had seen whale meat on display for sale at the Tsukiji Fish Market. The Shinkansen made the island accessible from one end to the other and there are a lot of temples in Kyoto.
Japan has absorbed English words in unusual ways. The means of going somewhere is by following a “root.” The supermarket chain is spelled Aeon and every letter is pronounced. Although the vendor was serving “stew,” that was not really what was being sold and the pronunciation, again, is every letter in the word.
The Japanese people need to look up and out. Their self-induced isolation is absurd in a connected world. Not only would they see their immediate surroundings, but they would observe as I did an architectural wonderland merged with a rural landscape, a juxtaposition of the feudal with the 21st Century.
The inability to socialize in public is a lost opportunity. There is a cost to this choice, an opportunity cost in macroeconomic terms. In this case Japan’s birth rate is woefully low, ranked 219 out of 230 countries worldwide. While I personally think this is a good thing because there are too many people on the planet already, that could be corrected in Japan by ordering everyone who sees someone they know on the train shake hands and say hello.
Reminds me of the married couple in Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” who act as if they just met and spend a lot of time figuring out they live together and have children.
The Good: There is no trash blowing in the wind in Japan. There is no sales tax. You do not have to listen to one-sided annoying cell phone conversations.
The Bad: No law forbids fraternizing among strangers, yet no one does it.
There is no Ugly, they are all Beautiful People. But Anime? I don’t get it. Just forget it!
I went to Greece and found antiquity. I visited Japan and discovered civility. Japan was not scratched off my bucket list: I intend to return.