For two weeks in June, this was my hotel room view….
A strange and fantastic place.
I flew there for a two week business trip. My flight to Japan went well, assisted by a simple itinerary: San Diego to Tokyo via San Jose. The first leg revealed a beautiful view of Catalina Island.
I experienced an odd phenomenon when traveling. I never worried about arriving at my destination. At that point instinct, adrenalin, and excitement took over. Instead, I worried about everything leading up to landing. Would I make it to the airport in time? Would I have enough room in the overhead for my bag?
My anxiety was amplified this trip because I had only a half hour layover in San Jose. It turned into a non-event. I walked off one plane and directly onto the next. Gotta love small San Jose airport. It doesn’t get much simpler.
A blonde, American woman named Beth sat next to me. She was a Navy helicopter pilot currently stationed outside of Tokyo. She had lived there for three years.
“How do you like living in Japan?” I asked.
“I hate it,” she said.
Despite her current disdain for living in Japan, Beth was very pleasant and informative. She gave me great suggestions on things to visit, look out for, and experience. Technically and financially I loved being an engineer. Socially, I loathed it. I was often tempted to pull a George Costanza and say that I was an architect or marine biologist. I was fascinated by her job. I asked her about landing a helicopter on a moving battleship tossing about at sea. I asked her about her adventures and places she visited on assignment. She was kind and reciprocated the questions, asking me about my work. But it was boring. It was all low-concept. I sat in a cube and typed.
On the flight I completed J. Maarten Troost’s non-fiction book, The Sex Lives of Cannibals. He told his unique experience living with his girlfriend on a small atoll in the Equatorial Pacific. It was an entertaining and engaging read. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction travel books lately.
Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world, packed with over thirty-million people. Despite its massive size, it was the easiest introduction to a city I’ve experienced in my travels. I quickly passed through immigration and bought a shuttle ticket in the main hall. I took four steps out of the airport and onto the awaiting shuttle. The bus drove an hour and a half through Tokyo and dropped me off four steps from the hotel entrance.
Narita airport sits a considerable distance from Tokyo’s center, but I enjoyed the beautiful drive. It was like an unguided tour. The hillsides and trees were lush and full, infused with seven different hues of green. Vineyards are one of my favorite sights. I’m infatuated with their symmetry and setting. Japan possessed its own equivalent with its rice paddy fields.
The city was different than I had anticipated. I expected an enormous collection of skyscrapers to be heavily concentrated in a central area, but I found the tall buildings distributed in random patches. Due to its population, I knew the city must be dense, but I wasn’t prepared for the visual actuality of this fact. Being in Tokyo you quickly realized how valuable space was.
Rain poured when I arrived at my hotel. Tokyo looked beautiful. The rain gave it a great film-noir vibe.
I don't want to give Paris any more publicity, but the Tokyo Hilton was a fantastic hotel. I stepped from the bus to find attendants taking my luggage off the bus and into the hotel. I entered the automated sliding glass doors, triggered by a doorman standing by the entrance and greeting me as I walked through. I stood in line and was quickly received by the front desk man who politely took my information and described all of the services that I received for free due to my long stay. I walked over to grab my luggage and was politely interrupted by an attendant who said he would take it up to my room for me. While I appreciated the sentiment, I felt awkward receiving such personalized attention. The elevator ascended briskly to the twenty-fourth floor. The attendant knocked on the door a few minutes later and set my luggage up properly on a dresser. All the people at the hotel were incredibly helpful, polite, and kind.
I stayed in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, a vibrant and energetic locale. I had a beautiful view from my window. I faced east towards the skyscrapers and Shinjuku Station. My room was small but cozy. The window had two sliding paper walls to cover it.
My only hotel issue was that my room didn’t have a dedicated iron and ironing board, so every morning I called the front desk and got one delivered. Twenty minutes later I received a knock on the door. The housekeeping person politely walked in, set up the board and plugged in the iron. I hoped that once they delivered it, they would let me keep it until I departed. But every evening I returned to find it gone. I attempted trickery on the second day by hiding it in the closet, but it evaporated before I returned home that evening. I realized that my only chance to keep it would be if I acted like a man going to prison and keistered it before I left for work.
Cash ruled Tokyo. Very few places accepted credit cards. Since the Japanese used an ATM card with a different format, it could be difficult to locate one that accepted the American type. I worried about acquiring money but a few internet searches turned up a 24-hour Citibank ATM located five minutes away.
The Japanese currency was the yen. The exchange rate was roughly 100 yen to a dollar. This made conversion easy as you simply added or removed a decimal point.
Before I left the States I bought 5000 yen from a colleague. This provided good seed money to hit the ground running. The shuttle to the hotel cost 3000 yen and I arrived late in the evening. Concerned about running out of money and absolutely starving I sought refuge in a Japanese fast food restaurant. I walked to the front counter and simply pointed to a picture that looked reasonably safe. In Japan, you quickly learned the power of pointing. My first Tokyo meal was a fish sandwich for 320 yen. It staved off hunger for the evening.
I went to bed with the romantic vision of falling asleep to skyscraper lights. Little did I know that in Japan the sun rose at 4:30 a.m. As morning light exploded into my room at 4:30 a.m., I rose from the bed.
For future nights I closed the sliding opaque walls that encased the window to create a cave.
That morning I walked to work.
When the elevator doors opened, you were confronted with a wall of packed people pressed to the precipice. In America, you would let this elevator pass and simply catch the next one. In Japan, you push in. If you were to wait for an empty elevator, you could stand there forever.
Due to population density and lack of space, I found that our meaning of personal space and privacy were lost. People stood infinitely close and getting bumped was just a part of the game. It wasn’t personal. In the Japan office, I had my own workspace. But it wasn’t a cube in the conventional sense. The work space consisted of long desks with multiple people seated along its length. There were belly high dividers where if you stood up you could see everyone on the floor.
In most American elevators, the open and close buttons aren’t connected to the wiring. They’re purely cosmetic. In Japan, not only were the buttons connected, but they’re operated with the dexterity of a 14 year old playing X-Box.
The person closest to the door assumed control. He or she patiently held the door open until everyone was safely inside, but as soon as that last molecule of cloth crossed the plane of the elevator door, the close button was pressed. The buttons were then jostled at every stop to minimize the amount of time spent on any one floor.
Since Tokyo is so expensive to live in, most workers commute long distances to work. They’ll spend 1 ½ to 2 hours on the train each direction. And it’s not a productive commute where you can sit casually and read a book. Those two hours are spent standing and squashed. Between the long work hours and commute, many works rarely see their family except on weekends. They leave before their awake and arrive at home when everyone is asleep.
When I lived in Silicon Valley, people changed companies like they were running from the law. Three years was considered a long stay. In Japan, the highest achievement was to spend a lifetime at one company. My two Japanese counterparts had been with the company for twenty years and fifteen years, respectively.
Bowing wasn’t as predominant as I had anticipated. If the act was done at all, it was very subtle. More of a respectful head nod than a bend at the waist type of thing. The great thing about bowing was this: It covered up a multitude of mistakes. If you committed a cultural faux pas, all it took to be forgiven was a simple bow.
I’m sorry for not understanding what you’re trying to tell me.
I’m sorry for taking so long to figure out the value of my coins.
I’m sorry I slept with your girlfriend and ran over your dog.
It’s all forgiven. It’s all good.
I haven’t verified this fact, but on the airplane Beth told me the population of Japan was 99.5% Japanese. In Japan I was known as a gaijin.
Living in diverse California, I’ve been a minority at work and have lived in neighborhoods with no ethnic majority. I have never worked for an American-born boss. Yet, I have never felt like a minority. Not even close. Being a white boy in Japan, it’s obvious that you’re a minority. I always wondered how it would feel being a true minority. In truth, it made me feel special.
One nice thing was that there wasn’t any pretense that I would know the language. In Europe you went through those initial awkward greetings before the person knew that you didn't know his or her native language. In Japan they immediately knew that you didn't know the language, so communication began under that condition.
On some level, it was odd being a minority in Japan. While the people were always incredibly kind and helpful, you were completely invisible. If you walked down a crowded street with a thousand people heading towards you, no one would ever make eye contact. Again you were, and always would be, a foreigner.
If there was a place to stay in Tokyo, it was the Shinjuku district. The place had verve. I explored the area my second night. Walking in Shinjuku, I felt like a moth. I simply followed the lights and found myself randomly walking down one street, only to turn down another that appeared brighter and more electrifying.
Shinjuku contained Tokyo’s Red Light District. Signs involving all senses let you know you had entered this area. Visually, you saw a change in the buildings color. Instead of the light gray or sand color of surrounding buildings, the base was dark.
Occasionally you walked down the street and got randomly blasted with a pocket of air that smelled like ass. I knew not from where it came.
And the last reason I knew I was in the Red Light District? A well dressed and very polite man approached me and asked in staccato fashion….
Him: “Do you want a talent show?”
Well… hey… who doesn’t like a talent show?
Him: “Erotic dance?”
Him: “Do you like sex?”
In general or right now?
And it’s then that I realized I was being questioned by a well-dressed, and very polite, pimp.
Faithful readers of my travel journals know that I’m fascinated by toilets. My intrigue could be boiled down to a single point. As long as there’s been man, there’s been man pooping. To me, the toilet was like the wheel – you would think that at some point it would converge into a single efficient design. But throughout the world, toilets were as varied as flavors of ice cream.
Five years ago, my German friend explained the reason for the formation of the European Union. He said that its goal was to try and align countries on common areas to create efficiency and reduce overhead and redundancy. They were getting in each others way when they could help each other out. An example he gave me was currency. Each country had its own. After having traveled in Europe, my personal hope for the new European Union was that they would reach a common consensus on toilet design. Vienna had its stair step toilet. France had that damn bird-bath apparatus next to the toilet. And many places had a simple hole in the ground. But now that France rejected the new EU constitution, my hopes for a unified common European toilet have quickly disappeared.
In Australia, you sat on a seat so high that your feet didn’t touch the ground. A tiny pool of water sat lifelessly in the very bottom of the bowl. An enormous reservoir waited eagerly in the large tank at your back. When you pulled the lever, a torrential blitzkrieg of water avalanched into the bowl, taking with it everything. A black hole can’t compete with the sucking power of an Australian toilet.
When I flushed a toilet in Sydney, I had the vision of an entire lake disappearing to leave only a layer of mud and flopping fish.
In Japan, the toilet appeared simple enough, until you sat down and realized that an entire panel of buttons hovered next to your hip. From a Japanese toilet you could control satellites, remotely guide a stealth bomber through a canyon, or split atoms at a particle accelerator. Of course, I was just guessing since the labels were written in Japanese. However, if I understood the illustrative diagrams correctly, it seemed that you could give yourself a powerful enema.
In every city, there were simple pleasures that I relished and embraced, and missed upon leaving. In Paris, I liked the formality of saying bonjour and au revoir when entering and leaving a shop. I liked ordering a beer for 80 cents in Prague and savoring it amid good conversation. I liked ordering gelato on a beautiful evening in Florence.
In Tokyo, I loved eating with chopsticks.
I’m damn good with chopsticks. I didn’t have a mirror to prove it, but I thought I looked dead sexy wielding a pair of those wooden instruments of surgical eating precision. It’s funny, because when I ate, I noticed local people focusing on my hands to see if I struggled. I just wanted to say to them, “Sorry to disappoint you folks, but I put on a good show.” I could remove a dust particle from a gnat’s back.
Language made eating tricky. In France, I could make out at least 25% of the menu, even with my minimal knowledge of the language. In Japan, if there weren’t English translations or pictures you could point to, you stood no chance.
When I traveled, I tried to vary restaurants, but when I found a place that was good and cozy, there was nothing like making it my own local spot. I found such a restaurant in Shinjuku, located in the basement of a tall building, at the end of the hall. The food was good. The ambience was simple and nice. The environment was laid back and allowed me to take my time and write in my journal. The wait staff was very kind and hard working. Plus, I got to use chopsticks.
On a Friday night, you learned two Japanese words in quick succession. The first was biru. The second was kampai. Translated respectively: beer and cheers. I went out to dinner with a couple of my Japanese work peers and we had a great time. The menu was completely in Japanese. They ordered lots of great and interesting food for us. I ate everything that passed before me. I wish I had a camera there to take pictures of the dishes that arrived on that table.
As I worked late every night, I didn’t get much time to play around Tokyo so I eagerly awaited the weekend.
I began Saturday battling the subway ticket machines. For some reason I became obsessed with how to tell the machine where I was going. I felt that I had to tell it my exact destination – enter the exact station name – and then it would display a price that I would pay. The problem was that both the subway map and machine buttons were in Japanese. I scanned the map again and noticed that a price was listed next to each stop. I then discovered that the machine didn’t care about my specific destination, it only needed to know the price associated with my desired stop. And even that could be approximate.
The Tokyo subway machines were very forgiving. If you didn't pay enough for your ride, you got stopped at the destination turnstile and were able to go to a nearby ticket machine and paid the difference. If you didn't pay the right price at a London Tube station they beat you with wooden batons, stripped you down, and made you sing Abba songs while standing on a plastic milk crate.
On my U.K. visit three years ago, I went with Dancing Queen.
After obtaining my subway ticket, I traveled to the one must-see destination I had on my list. As soon as the subway doors opened at my destination I knew that I had arrived. I could smell it. The overwhelming scent of fish.
I walked up the stairs, rounded the corner and entered a whole new world.
The Tsukiji Fish Market. You ain’t seen nothin’ like it. It was chaos on an enormous scale.
Below is a picture looking down half of one aisle. The other half is behind me, and there are two dozen aisles. And this is just one of the buildings.
They held tuna auctions in another building. One tuna could sell for as much as a new car.
Besides the scale and the number of people involved, one thing that made the fish market so chaotic (where I constantly felt like I was sheer inches away from losing a limb) was the highly maneuverable fish carts. They behaved like a hummingbird, instantly able to travel in any direction, in a seemingly random fashion.
From the Tsukiji Fish Market, I walked to Ginza, the most expensive real estate in the world. It’s Tokyo’s version of Rodeo Drive. I wasn’t in the shopping mood, so I continued onto the Emperor’s Palace.
The grounds of the palace were beautiful, amplified because of their context: the middle of Tokyo. The palace and its immediate grounds are closed to the public except for two times a year, but there were still a sizeable amount of surrounding area open.
The beautiful Emperor's Garden in the southeast section of the park....
I continued north to the Jinbocho Booksellers’ District. I walked along a street filled with many narrow bookstores where every space was filled, every nook optimized. I turned onto another street with guitar shop after guitar shop, and streets filled with college students. The place had a great vibe.
At this point, I decided to head to the Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park (similar in nature to San Diego’s Balboa Park). I encountered a problem in that I was somewhat lost. Lost probably wasn’t the correct word. I knew approximately where I was but couldn’t verify this on the map. Since Tokyo was so large and dense, the map only listed the street names for the main roads. Being lost in Tokyo was disconcerting, but I decided to walk until I found a known road. At this point, the Museum of Western Art became my Wally World, and I was Clark Griswald.
The cool thing about walking your way out of being lost was that you encountered interesting stuff along the way. Like this beautiful shrine and very tall statue that weren’t listed in the guidebook….
I finally walked my way to the Akihabara Electronics District. This was equivalent to being lost in the mountains, rounding a corner, and spotting Los Angeles between the trees. The popular Akihabara Electronics District was an enormous array of staggering buildings and waves of people. If you wanted anything that used electricity, this was where you came. And it seemed like the whole population of Tokyo craved these goods. The place was packed.
Tall building stood next to tall building, each flashing large neon signs and filled with electronics goods. On the sidewalk, salespeople held microphones plugged into amps, trying to get you into their store. Other people passed out fliers. Being an outsider, it was hard to discriminate one building’s wares from another. They each blended into a monotonous mass.
Fortunately, the main Akihabara artery ran straight to Ueno Park, and so I simply followed the road north.
Ueno Park was an interesting place. It held museums, shrines (some hidden and others obvious), a lake, marshes, and a zoo. There were also homeless embankments throughout the park, each established like its own community. An individual shelter could consist of a tarp, a nice tent, or a large box. I could tell that some shelters had existed for some time. A few had connected boxes, arranged like different rooms of a house.
Once in the park, I easily located the National Museum of Western Art, and it was my lucky day because the museum happened to be free. Saw some great European and American art.
After the museum I perused the park and saw some great shrines and monuments.
I became infatuated with this staggered building that sat adjacent to the park’s pond. I took a million pictures of it.
A few random observations I discovered about Tokyo. I never saw any graffiti. It was remarkably clean and I rarely saw any litter. What makes this point even more amazing was that it was very difficult to find a trashcan. I often found myself lugging wrappers and bags with me for extended periods until I encountered the rare trash receptacle. Again, it cannot be overstated how polite and kind the Japanese people were. I never heard a cell phone ring during my entire time, and no one talked on one while riding the train.
What I haven’t mentioned explicitly at this point is that I walked this entire way… starting at the Tsukiji Fish Market, through Ginza, around the Emperor’s Palace, to Akihabara, and ending at Ueno Park. Check on a map. This was a very, very, very long distance. I was exhausted. I found the closest subway station and took the train back to the hotel where I sawed off my feet to relieve the pain.
As much fun as I had on Saturday, I eagerly anticipated my planned Sunday adventure. I would take the train an hour south of Tokyo to see the Great Buddha in Kamakura.
My adventure began where many Tokyo adventures began: Shinjuku Station. It is the busiest train station in the world. Over 2 million people passed through this station every day. That’s the entire population of metropolitan Denver all condensing into a single point. I stayed next to this station and could attest to the fact that it was always busy. Always.
To avoid the process of battling the machine, I wrote my itinerary on a sheet of paper and handed it to a person in the ticket office. 800 yen later I had my ticket. Now, in this overwhelming maze of turnstiles and tracks, I had to find my train. I prided myself on my travel instincts – on my ability to collect information, be resourceful, and make a decision. But I must admit that I struggled to understand the way the trains ran in Tokyo. I still don’t understand it. There were different types of trains (subway and regular train) and different companies running each. However, the main problem was simply that the vast majority of all signs were written in Japanese. Let’s say that you found your train line (not always easy). Trains usually ran in both directions from that track so you had to determine in which direction to take the train. Now this was a universal problem. In London they used cardinal directions (i.e. did you want to take this train line east or west?). Easy. In Paris they used endpoints to denote direction. This wasn’t intuitive because you had to understand the location of the endpoints. If I threw out two names in a strange city, you don’t know which was which. This was easily overcome with some research. You looked on a map and determined where the endpoints were, where along the line your destination was, and where you were relevant to all points. Tokyo used this latter approach. In the subways, signs listed the station stops with English subtitles. But with above-ground trains, this was not the case. They scrolled the station stops along a digital display but they were written in kanji. So I had to ask someone if my stop was one of those on the display. Here’s the problem. It cannot be overstated how incredibly kind and polite the Japanese are. But language differences were a significant obstacle. In addition, the Japanese’s highest life tenet was to maintain order. They strived to maintain peace and comfort. As a result, if you asked a Japanese person a question, they could say yes – not because that was the answer – but simply to maintain peace. They didn’t want to upset any balance. You had to be weary of accepting the “yes.” One key to accepting the “yes” as fact was if the person expanded on the question or his or her answer using English. I found a person who did just that and I was on my way to Kamakura.
The trip took slightly over an hour, with one transfer in Ofuna. Once arriving in Kamakura, I walked a couple miles through narrow village streets until I reached the gate of Daibutsu, the Great Buddha.
I went through the gate and followed a tree lined path until I reached it.
I felt completely humbled. I hadn’t anticipated its grandness or its serenity. I’d seen London’s Houses of Parliament, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Golden Gate Bridge, and other grand icons. But I can’t remember ever having this reaction to a monument. A sense of peacefulness enveloped me. I sat there for a long time.
The statue was cast in 1252 and had survived typhoons, earthquakes, tidal waves, and fires. I departed the Great Buddha reluctantly.
I proceeded through the small town of Kamakura…
… and continued on the path….
… that led to the Hachiman-gu Shrine.
I climbed the steps and entered the shrine. Every shrine had a wish wall. People wrote wishes and needs on cards, and hung them up, in hopes that they would get answered. Since Kim would be taking the bar exam soon, I wrote one for her and placed it on the wall.
Located adjacent to the shrine grounds, I visited the beautiful Museum of Modern Art – Kamakura. They had some interesting artwork in their collection.
I continued up the steep hill to the town of Kita-Kamakura. I was greeted by the magnificent Kencho-ji gate.
The Kencho-Ji temple grounds and buildings were stunning.
The shrine sat on an extensive tract of land that continued up the steep hillside. In order to reach the top shrine, I had to hike an amazing amount of stairs to reach it. This was just one small section…
As sunset approached, I returned to the main road, and continued upward until I reached the next train station. I took the train back to Yokohama but remained stranded there until I could determine which train would take me to Shinjuku Station. I caught one an hour later. I arrived at the train station in time to see a band playing on the sidewalk outside.
In the middle of my second week, I decided to grab some dinner near the train station. Whenever I’m traveling, I tried to eat where locals ate. As a result I found myself wandering through a lantern lit alley.
Nestled on both sides of this alley were tiny hole-in-the-wall bars, housed in narrow alcoves. A bartender, trapped behind the bar, operated with enough room to slide along the bar’s length. Patrons squeezed by each other to enter or leave, pinned between the wall and occupied barstools. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder. Smoke rolled out from each awning as the bartenders turned skewers of meat on old ash-colored grills. Meat that wasn’t being cooked sat raw and orphaned in stacks next to the grill.
I paced back and forth through the alley, feeling anxious about joining a seemingly local crowd in a place that seemed haphazard. As I passed by one, a female proprietor called out in English and asked me to join them. There was one empty seat deep inside their place at the very end. It was the worst looking alcove. I hovered at the base of the alley, varying thoughts passing through my head. I was tentative, but why? Did I simply want to avoid feeling awkward? Avoid receiving horrific food poisoning? Avoid getting killed? Avoid getting ripped off? The answer to all of these were ‘yes’ to varying degrees.
Violent crime in Japan is almost nonexistent. However, one thing that you had to be careful of was eating and drinking at certain places without inquiring about its prices. At the end of the night you could get handed an enormous bill.
I asked myself, what was the worst that could happen? Travel was an adventure, and I needed to embrace it. I decided to give this slummy alcove a try.
There were three people working in very cramped quarters behind the bar – two women and one man. The space was so narrow that they couldn’t pass by one another. The man asked a customer to slide over a chair so that I could occupy the last bar stool in the back. The bartenders were all very nice and I started talking to the man. They were Filipino. One of the women working was his younger sister. His older sister had lived in Tokyo for fourteen years and owned the place. Him and his younger sister were in the country for four months and would return back to the Philippines in another month. He spoke seven different languages including his native Tagalog, English, Japanese, Spanish, and Russian.
I entered the establishment feeling very guarded so unfortunately I wasn’t able to relax and enjoy the ambience and experience as much as I would have liked. It was a very friendly atmosphere. Everyone was drinking and eating.
I asked how much the beer was and upon hearing a pleasant number, I ordered a beer. The bartender turned to a splintered cabinet behind his head and pulled down a glass. He went over to a closet in the corner and pulled out a hose connected to a cooler and filled my glass with beer. The cabinet behind his head looked like a fractured wooden curio cabinet that had been used to store knick knacks in your grandparent’s basement. And their unkempt glassware resembled that of a poor college student – nothing matched – they had seemingly been acquired from random sources.
The man handed me a small ceramic bowl and chopsticks. I glanced at the dish and saw that it contained lots of tiny unidentifiable parts. It looked like the stomach and esophagus of rats (I’m being literal here – it may have actually been that). In the spirit of adventure I managed to eat a few but it was horrible. The texture was squishy yet rubbery. Occasionally I would bit into something hard. I’ve eaten all sorts of things indiscriminately, but I could not imagine anyone actually enjoying this dish, until I looked to my right and saw my neighbor’s empty dish. I felt bad that I couldn’t finish mine. I tried covering my dish with the thin chopsticks as much as I could. I pushed it close to the rise of the bar to keep it out of view from the bartender. What the hell did I get myself into? What awaited me? Sadly, this made me feel even more guarded.
I talked to the bartender and he told me how to order. There were four different types of meat served on skewers. I asked about the prices. Each skewer was 100 yen. I ordered two chicken and two pork.
There was a kind man sitting next to me who struck up a conversation in broken English. He asked where I was from. I asked him about Tokyo. If either of us had problems communicating to the other, we would default to the bartender and he would translate. My neighbor said that this alley I was on was very old and very important to Japanese citizens. He said that it translated into “Wish Street.”
A row of liquor bottles stood in front of my neighbor and I like a great wall, separating us from the bartender.
My neighbor asked if I liked sake. I told him that I did. He asked if I liked shochu. I replied that I did not know what it was. The bartender said that it was Japanese liquor made from potatoes, similar to vodka.
My neighbor then bought us each a large shot glass of shochu poured over ice. I know that it was a large glass because my new Japanese friend enthusiastically commended the bartender for his generosity as the level of shochu in the glasses continued to rise with the healthy pour. We said bamkai and drank. In response to his generosity, I bought my new friend a beer. My skewers arrived and they were edible. I should have embraced the situation but my guardedness did not dissolve, and I left shortly after eating, saying goodbye to my Japanese and Filipino friends.
With my flight leaving Japan being on Sunday, I still had all day Saturday to play in Tokyo. I religiously monitored the weather in hopes that I would have a clear day to explore. It showed rain leading up to Saturday. On Saturday the weather symbol they showed looked like the coming of the apocalypse. Rain clouds on Friday. But the symbol on Saturday had pictures of the ground cracking open and locusts pouring out. It didn’t look good.
But when Saturday arrived, the weather was wonderful.
I began my excursion at the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Museum of Art, located on the 42nd floor of the nearby Sompo Headquarters Building – one of my fave.
The museum had a special exhibit featuring paintings from the Musee Fabre – Montpellier, in France. When researching the museum online, I loved the artwork painted by their namesake artist, Seiji Togo, and was therefore disappointed when they only had a few of his paintings on display. However, it was more than made up for by the visiting exhibit, their normal collection, and the view from the 42nd floor.
It was unintentional, but I seemed to repeat much of my itinerary from the previous Saturday. I took the train from Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Station, located half-way between Ginza and the Emperor’s Palace.
Being a huge architecture fan, I wanted to check out the incredible Tokyo International Forum.
One of my Japanese peers told me about how mean Japanese crows were and how people avoided them. I walked down a sidestreet when I saw two crows perched on opposite ends. They took turns attacking people as they passed by.
I walked around the Palace Garden hoping to visit the Museum of Modern Art located on the other side. The entire museum was closed due to them installing the exhibit. Typically a museum of this size would shut down a single wing or floor, and not the entire museum.
I went to the street full of bookstores to buy my nephew a Manga comic. I had to be careful when selecting one because some were violent and/or sexually explicit. Japan was a modest society, with sexuality often expressed in subversive ways. As a result, you often saw sexuality represented paradoxically. One of the funny things was looking through these comic books and seeing hardcore sex scenes between men and women, where everything was shown. Everything, except for the woman’s coochie. It would be black boxed (no pun intended) -- and this was a hand drawn comic book. They could show the most bizarre sex acts, as long as they didn’t show penciled vagina. Crazy. I found a safe one that still seemed interesting. I took it up to the front counter and the cashier took the book and laid it onto a large piece of paper. He very carefully and deliberately folded the paper, and made a beautiful book cover for it. That’s one thing about Japan, the service in all the stores was amazing. People took a great deal of pride in their work.
I took the train back to Shinjuku Station and ventured over to the Keio Department Store. Department stores in Japan were amazing. There were enormous and carried everything, from the most exotic foods to the simplest of nick knacks to furniture. I bought a bottle of sake and asked the salesperson on how to serve it. He was very kind and helpful, and showed me how to read the label so that I could determine whether a particular bottle of sake should be served hot or cold.
I finished me evening with a visit to the amazing Tokyo Metropolitan Government building.
I took an elevator to the observation deck on the 45th floor.
From there I had a beautiful view of the Park Hyatt Hotel (featured in the movie, Lost in Translation).
Soon, the thunderstorms arrived.
The next day, I flew back to California. We had a flight attendant that got on the intercom and used a voice that made her sound like a phone sex operator.