there’s no place like…

Anita and I were planning on staying up all Monday night and going to the Tokyo Fish Market at 5 am on Tuesday, but around 3am we crashed. Anita got up at 4:30 and fully intended to get me up, but she saw that a sub-tropical-storm was headed at Tokyo and that it was already raining pretty hard… There’s something about being dog tired and lost in a city that is much worse sounding if you add in the attribute – rain soaked. So we slept in till 8 am (I didn’t mind too much).

april at subway station We got up, found food, repacked, and head out for the subway entrance. We said our goodbyes to April at the subway station (taking different trains) and we took off for the Tokyo station. We then hopped on the Narita express train for the airport. We had a brief scare when we realized (once on the train) that it was all reserved seating, but it was ok, we were allowed to stand… After an hour on the train, we went to the airport, went through check-in, got mediocre airport food, had to go through customs, and made it right on time for our plane to board.

The flight back was much better than the flight there. 11 hours goes by a lot faster when you watch a decent movie, read for a couple of hours, and sleep the rest of the time (praise sleep). We then had to go through immigration in the US and customs (getting our check-on bags, walking around, waiting in line, getting a stamp or something, and then turning in our check-in bags again), and going to the plane. We would have missed the flight from Chicago to Louisville for sure, except that it was delayed. Unfortunately, it was delayed a few hours. Finally, we made it to Louisville and were picked up at the airport by a relieved Bryan (he was missing Karen pretty fiercely, I think). We hung out for an hour or so, but took off back to Columbus as it was already 7 pm by the time we took off. That put us in Columbus at like 10:30 or 11 pm and we slept like it was our jobs.

the train is slowing down

After the late night before, we all slept in… Anita and I slept in so much we missed our hotel’s breakfast. We found a snack and took the subway to the Tokyo Aquarium. It was totally disappointing. The animals had very small enclosures, particularly bothersome were the mammals. There were many dead or dirty exhibits and not too much to read in English… We left after (something like) an hour and a half and roamed the “Sunshine 60” shopping complex (basically a big mall like the galleria in Houston without the ice skating rink). I’m not a mall person, but because there was so much Engrish everywhere, it was a lot of fun. Lots of people watching too. After we left the mall, we walked a little while around the surrounding area, checking out the street life in the afternoon… there’s a lot of it, even on a Monday afternoon.

We then went back to the hotel and played card, waiting on Keiichi to let us know if he could get off work to go to dinner with us. It turns out he couldn’t. Just to clarify, Keiichi is one of the higher ups at some company that manufactures MP3 playing devices or something (no free stuff guys, I checked)… his normal workday is from 8am to 10-11pm… 6 days a week. Seriously. He also can spend up to 25 days a month traveling… basically working all the time (always representing the company. It’s craziness. Makes working at McDonalds sound ok doesn’t it? (maybe) James Brown may be the hardest working man in show business, but it’s probably nothing to Keiichi.

We walked around the hotel area looking for food and decided on a crab specialty place for our last nice meal in Japan. It was a 6 course mean and every dish was either jus crab, focused, or crab inclusive (made me think of the iron chef). Some of the courses were kinda weird and some were really good. By the end, though, we were all done with crab… perhaps the first time I’ve ever said those words: “too much crab”.

After that much crab, we were all really slap happy (or we all got really funny). So, we went back to the hotel and played more Canasta. Anita and I lost when paired for the first game and Anita and April lost when paired on this second game. I guess that means April and I half-won and Karen really won (Anita really lost).

Party in Tokyo (Day 1)

Another morning of repacking, a walk to the station, and a train ride to Tokyo (~3 hours)… most people napped (I read).

We got out at Tokyo and took a subway to the hotel, dropped off our packs, and walked around to find food. Ironically, our hotel was right next to Akihabara, the Electronic Market in Tokyo, and it was Sunday, a day so busy the street is shut down to vehicles and the area is swarmed with geeks of all varieties and the people that feed on/off them. So, we walked around there for a while. Apparently the prices are supposed to be incredible, but I suppose you had to know where to shop because most of the prices I saw were simply good. Admittedly, they were good prices, but comparable to what you can get online and not an easy place for me to make a return. It was still really fun to see blocks and blocks (often for a few stories) of nothing but electronics, computers, anime, software, and quasi-related things like fake ninja gear and small stages where small musical acts preformed small music. (think Britney Spears before popular, perhaps even more fake)

After that, we took naps at the hotel, and took a series of subways to meet Keiichi at the dock to the ferry (we were late because of April, typical). We got ferry tickets and took the boat to a different dock somewhere else in the Tokyo bay / shipping channel (Sorry, I had no idea where we were). We couldn’t get on the top observation deck because the water was so high we would be in danger of hitting some of the bridges, but even from inside it was a cool trip and a good “getting to know you time” with Keiichi.

Once we were off the boat, we took cabs to a _____ restaurant. The food there was fantastic. Basically, it was just different types of meat and veggies that we grilled ourselves over a pot of coals they brought out to built-in grills in our table. Keiichi was really into rare meat, but it’s apparently a lot safer to eat rare meat in Japan than in the US – I think they don’t import meat from the USA due to safety concerns.

Somehow, I don’t remember the discussion about it, but somehow we decided to go to the Hard Rock café in Tokyo for drinks and dessert. It was Keiichi’s birthday and April got the waitress to do the birthday song thing… they really make a big deal there, with lights and sparklers, and everyone in the restaurant singing… I think it successfully embarrassed Keiichi, but only in a fun way. He took it well. He even got a button with his picture in it saying “happy birthday”. I think he was 20 something :) .

We were all having a great evening and didn’t want to quit (though poor Keiichi had to go to work the following morning), so we decided to go to a local Karaoke place. “That boy can sing” (as said Eddie Murphy in the movie Coming to America). Actually Keiichi was the best singer, with April coming in second, and the Karen and finally me. Yes Anita was there and she probably makes the list somewhere above me, but she would never use the microphone so she doesn’t get a score. Luckily karaoke is done in a private room there and we could still hear Anita… and lord knows we could hear loud April without the mic…We sang mostly English song, but Keiichi did sing a few Japanese songs, which were quite cool. We all left at like 1 am or something and we went back to the hotel… obviously not worth too much more after that. Keiichi had to be at work at 8 am (he works way too damn hard).

Kyoto day 2

Ginkakuji-michi (the Silver Temple) On our second full day in Kyoto we ate the last of the Fruit and some of the granola bars for breakfast; then we hopped on the #100 bus for the east side of Kyoto to see Ginkakuji-michi (the Silver Temple). The Silver Temple was much better than the Golden Temple because it was less overrun with tourists and also because the surrounding gardens were amazing. The cultivation of moss is, itself, remarkable, but to see the whole garden come together is quite impressive.

Alan - figuring out the bus routes Karen and Arpil went to the Philosopher’s Walk at this point while Anita and I broke off to go to the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Kyoto Imperial Park (Central-North Kyoto). After some busses we made it to the Imperial Park. The park is huge and beautiful but probably 40% gravel pathways… there must be some big parades through there. There were many Japanese people walking their toy dogs there as well as one group of picnickers. As we walked through the park to the Palace, we soon found out that we were not getting in the Palace. It’s still the working Imperial Palace and understandably, they don’t want dumb tourists taking photos. (So I took a few photos of the outside)

We walked out of the Imperial Park and looking for food, ended up trying out “Mos Burger”. It was an experiment, measuring the yardstick of a “modern” culture by the quality of their fast food and Mos Burger wins (hands down) against any jast food chain in the USA.

Monkeys - hanging out After lunch, we got on the subway to a major bus route intersection, and finally caught the #28 bus out of town, West. We finally made it to Iwatayama Park (the monkey park). Karen had called it “Monkey Mountain” and as soon as we started walking uphill, we understood why. The path was about 20 minutes up one of the steepest “paths” I’ve seen. It was defiantly worth the effort, because about 80% of the way up, we encountered our first couple of monkeys, and were soon surrounded by monkeys. The tallest monkey would have been about 3 feet and according to park information, there were ~150 monkeys and each of them had names and the families were known. Like every primate documentary you’ve ever seen, the monkeys played and jumped and swam and fought and lazily groomed each other. The monkeys noticed humans but were not afraid of us at all – they never invited me to play, but were almost indifferent as we walked around. Also at this park there was a fantastic slide (meant for skinny people only) that I got a couple of great movies of Anita sliding down. She must have gone down the slide 4 times by the time we left the park… we were on a time-table to get back to the East side of town.

Gion tour We made it to the Gion district before our appointed time for a tour at 4:00 pm, so we waited for a while in a swanky coffee shop. Everything was swanky around there; it seemed like there was nothing for sale (besides coffee) we could afford. We found Karen and April, and found the starting point for our Gion district tour. (The Gion district is known as the center of the Geisha world)

The tour of the Gion district was fantastic. Peter McIntosh led us through streets and alleys, pointing out buildings, people, architecture, and history … all the time he was fielding our questions and giving us a brief but authentic seeming window into that culture. Peter actually had lived in Kyoto 12 years by that point and infiltrated Geisha culture to the point that he actually married a Geisha. His job is to act as a liaison to Kyoto culture for westerners – from prospecting for filming a Hollywood movie to taking around the occasional tour group like ours, it sounds like he’s one of those invaluable bridges between gulfs in language and custom… It was at least as interesting to talk to Peter as to see “under the hood” of Gion.

After the tour we invited him to come to dinner with us. Though he decided not to stay for the full meal (perhaps out of kindness so we didn’t have to pay for him), he went for a beer with us to a little, basement, super-nice shabu-shabu restaurant. He knew the manager of the place and with a simple request got us a discounted price of 40,000 Yen a person (all you can eat) and a little backroom all to ourselves. We talked for a while and he had his beer, and then Peter took off… we carried on eating the fantastic shabu-shabu until stuffed. After lumbering to the bus and to the hotel, we all passed out, almost instantly.

Kyoto day 1

We got an early start, showered, dressed, and set out for the train station to buy bus passes before 8:00 am. 2,000 Yen for a 2 day all bus all subway pass is a good deal… also because it means you don’t have to pay attention to which company bus or subway you want to use, because in the city of Kyoto there are at least 3-4 different companies for public transit and most other passes don’t cover them all. At least we got a great (not to scale, of course) map of sights and bus routes (very useful).

Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple We caught the 101 bus and arrived (after ~40 minutes) at Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple, right as it opened at 9:00 am. Even then it was swarmed with tourists – being one of the most touristy temples in Kyoto. It was impressive but still kind of too touristy to feel like a temple… perhaps it was the crowd.

Zen Gardens (Ryoanji Temple) After that, we walked 15 minutes to the Zen Gardens (Ryoanji Temple) and relaxed there for a while. The place was quite beautiful, but I wouldn’t pretend to know about the meaning behind things and little was in English (besides our tourist map).

Ninnaji Temple At the Zen gardens we decided to split into pairs and Anita and I walked another 20 minutes to Ninnaji Temple. This set of temples ended up being the old Imperial Palace. There were many Temple and Pagoda, nice easy to walk avenues of gravel, and it was blissfully not crowded.

After that, Anita and I must have changed our minds about 6 times, as to what to do next. There was no question about what to do first – find food. We walked back the way we came and ended up eating at a random place right around where we decided we could go no further without food. The food was ok (Anita had Iced Ramen, literally) and the waiter was a water ninja, uncommon in Japan but quite nice because it was so HOT.

Kyoto Museum for World Peace We wanted to go to the monkey park (in a future posting) but thought it too far to get to and be able to do anything else. We wanted to go to the Art Museum which we passed, but there was an air of non-English speaking around the museum and for some reason we didn’t go; probably because I was so eager to see the Kyoto Museum for World Peace (KMWP), a part of Ritsumeikan University. It wasn’t on the tour map, and though I knew it was in this area, we were faith navigating and eventually gave up. We decided to head out for the monkey park anyway, and started faith navigating to get to a bus stop on the right route and ran into the Peace Museum. Kyoto Museum for World Peace KMWP was fantastic. It was very unbiased and covered a time period from the 15 year war (before WWII) until present day (in addition to the other war crimes and 3rd world genocides you might expect, they made mention of the fact that the USA as the only super power left in the world seems to bully it’s way into the world, often quite violently and aggressively). More information on this museum can be found here.

Afterwards, we bussed down to the hotel and showered, met up with Karen and April who had gone to the monkey park and said it was awesome. We decided on Soba for dinner and walked to a nice place we’d noticed the night before. The food was very good, especially the cold (room temp) soba Anita and April ordered. We then walked around for a half an hour and crashed.

Fukushima to Kyoto (relaxing day)

We finished packing for a couple of hours and then took way too much stuff down to the Koori-Machi train station. We caught the 15 minute train to Fukushima and stuffed our packs into lockers at the train station there. (Except my pack, which wouldn’t fit in any of the lockers)

We then went to the 100 Yen store – the Japanese equivalent of the $1.00 store, but much, much cooler. We basically were just on an Engrish hunt the entire time, and we found a decent amount, from “Mom’s Milk” filing boxes to wrist bands that were “as cool as the all fashion”. Afterward, we dropped in on April’s favorite Italian restaurant… which was actually pretty good, though Anita and I felt guilty at some place that wasn’t Japanese. After some communication complications we successfully ordered the cheese fondue – which is really kind of ironic in Japan, I thought.

Shinkansen After repacking in the schwag from the 100 Yen store, we hopped on the Shinkansen from Fukushima to Tokyo, where we switched to a Shinkansen to Kyoto. The 2 train rides totaled about 5+ hours of travel time, but it was travel time where we didn’t have to drive and the train, though going 60-100 miles an hour, was a very smooth ride – so we all read a good amount of our books and/or napped.

Tired at the Tour Club In Kyoto we only had to walk (with all of our stuff) about 15 minutes to our hotel, the Tour Club. The hotel required us to pre-pay for our room, and it was only 1 room with literally just enough floor-space for 4 futons and a bathroom. It was awesome! We paid under $400 for 4 people for 4 days… and we even had a wall mounted air conditioner! (a mild novelty in Japan) We walked around the station area, looking for food, and ended up at a nice looking restaurant with fantastic French/Japanese fusion food, but the portions were miniscule. This was unusual for Japan as pretty much every meal seemed perfectly sized for a person, usually with a portion of salad and fruit (at least more balanced than in the US). So, after eating our good food, we went to Lawson’s, a Japanese corner store (think a really nice Stop-and-Go), and we got drinks and chosen snacks: really good onogiri, ice cream, and frozen peach chunks in a bottle (so good!). By the time we got back to the hotel room, we crashed.

Koori-Machi, layers of folded beauty

Wednesday, we went to the elementary school April visits a few times a week. We did a brief tour of the classes and had an audience with the principal and vice-principal. The school seemed wonderful, but we didn’t have as much time to spend there as we did in Jo-Chu. We had to rush through the school, stop for a quick Ramen lunch, and be back at April’s apartment in time for Karen to receive a several wonderful gifts from some of April’s students who were in Elizabethtown last year. Around the same time, our chauffer, Ishihata-san, arrived to pick us up in the city van. He was very nice, and helped develop the itinerary which kept growing as we went.

Mout Honda, national forest. We started out going to the national forest / park on mount Honda. We walked around the lake and discussed foliage and wildlife, festivals, and the multiple sports fields which are tucked into the trees as only the Japanese could make work so well. We then drove to the local temple and got shown the areas of worship and hear about some of the customs… and told what we were and were not allowed to take pictures of. Magnificent! We also stopped by the 800 year old nutmeg tree, which happens to be the oldest nut-tree in Japan. It’s HUGE, and producing an obvious abundance of fruit (nuts).

Then we stopped off at the local onsen for iced coffee, peach mousse, and tea. While there, we discussed the kokopechi dolls and found out they were made in Koori-Machi, and so we were detoured to the house / shop where they are made. We went through a stunning garden and were invited into the house, where we got to look at a large variety of the commercially available lines as well as many unique pieces of art. It was not encouraged to take pictures, but I wish I’d snuck a few in – these pieces were amazing. We all bought a few and subsequently found out that we received a mighty discount… and then a deeper discount. We were fed mineral water and expounded upon as to the virtues of this mineral water…. Through complicated and broken translations (April has only been learning Japanese for a year, and the lady talking to us had to be in her 70s or 80s) we figured out that the lady bottles her own mineral water on the property in addition to painting the dolls. We find out (again and again) about the superb qualities of this water, that it cured one man’s cancer, can thin people (fat Americans) down, and cured this woman’s diabetes. While this discussion is taking place, we are all presented with large glasses of water we are expected to drink… which are then refilled. We also find out she had a vision of the 9-11 attack and tried to warn the US, but the US didn’t listen. She has a drawing dated from May of that year and hands us photocopies of said drawing as well as a video of her on some TV show about it. When we finally leave, we are stopped and handed several large bottles of her mineral water and again, extolled to about it’s virtue.

Ishihata-san showing us where the emporer got peaches 9 years ago. We then visit the main peach orchard and see the place where 9 years ago the emperor’s son and wife came and got some of Koori’s famous peaches. Famous for a good reason – these peaches redefine what fruit can be! We then are driven to Ishihata-san’s house and encouraged to pick fresh peaches from the vine and then invited inside where we meet his parents (80 years old) and daughter, and are presented with even more tea and a variety of foods from rice cakes to lightly pickled eggplant and cucumbers. We pass around photos and passports and memorabilia while all of us suffering through a language barrier, all with smiles and good humor. Afterwards we were given a brief tour of the impressive vegetable garden, and then driven to the place where Ishihata-san works. We get to see his office and are given hand-made woodblock prints of an image of the old town hall. After a brief time there, we are chauffeured back to April’s (about 6 hours after we initially left) and left with no means of really communicating how grateful we were that this obviously busy and important person took a big chunk of his day to drive us around town and then invite us into his home.

A great picture of a butterfly on flowers outside of the temples we visited. His wife manages the onsen and while we were there for coffee earlier in the afternoon, she invited us back to the onsen after is officially closed, so we could have the whole place to ourselves. Anita and April went to take advantage of this opportunity while Karen and I stayed behind to pack. Part of the reason I chose not to go was because I have an open wound on my toe and don’t want to risk infection; partially just because I was pooped. Anita said the onsen was very relaxing but otherwise uneventful… which is the whole point I suspect.

We are now all packed and ready to go on the second part of our trip… first to Kyoto for 4 days and then to Tokyo for 2 days and then back to the US. During this time I will probably not be able to post updates, but I will keep taking pictures and make notes for the posts to come… I hope you are enjoying this recount of information… it’s important for me to record these events as I know, as it’s happening, that this is one of those trips I will remember the rest of my life… perhaps these blog entries will help me remember more accurately.

Kill them with kindness

Tuesday 19 July 2005, we dressed in our nice clothes, carried our own house slippers so we didn’t have to use visitor slippers, and walked to Jo-Ho Chugakko Junior High School, known as Jo-Chu. Arriving at school a few minutes early (which was really on time) we met with the principal (Coach O’Sensei). Immediately we were amazed with how generous he was… treating us like honored guests would be putting it mildly. The school day started with a ceremony in our honor, held in the main auditorium where the class sang the school song, welcomed us in English, presented us each with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, and generally made a big deal of our visit. Anita, Karen, and I all had to give the briefest of speeches (hello, my name is…) and try not to sweat through our clothes. It may have been the only 500+ person standing ovation I’ve ever received.

Once classes started, we presented ourselves with gripping details like: “I like Frisbee, I work with computers, and I live in Columbus Ohio.” For the older classes (ninth grade equivalent) we also presented some “cultural items”. April quizzed the classes on our spoken English, helping them sift out details… then they presented themselves similarly, the cultural items they discussed were sometimes about their food, or music, or clothing, one on chopsticks, and one on the family kitana (sword). Some classes were overly excited, and some were overly shy… but absolutely every student we met was polite, bright, interested, pleasant, and for the most part, very good at English (at least for their age group). We were literally swarmed in the hallway, speaking and listening to the simplest of English phrases and dolling out “April-sensei dollars” as reward for their efforts. Many of the girls flirted with me, and many of the boys wished they were flirting with Anita but all three of us were star attractions… “gaijin on parade” as Karen observed, but at all times we were honored and appreciated and thanked… the whole time we felt embarrassed that we couldn’t earn the respect and appreciation that was given to us. We will probably never be able to reciprocate the kindesses of Coach O’Sensei, Naoko-san (an interning English teacher who facilitated much of our events Tuesday), and everyone at Jo-Chu, we are humbly grateful. (notice the Japanese influence?)

Coach O’Sensei was very interested in our impression of the school and words failed me, as they currently are… The school was incredible, the students both brilliant and adorable. Lunch was amazingly good, well balanced and healthy, facilitated in each classroom by the students and cleaned up by the students. The whole school was polished and clean, and we found out why – at the end of the day, the students clean up… every day. It’s a middle school, and the normal coming-of-age complications are evident in a few of the students, but at the same time, it’s so much more controlled and polite than any school in the US could hope to be. They had a gym, a pool, computer lab, shop class, home economics, and even a Japanese room for tea ceremony and ikebana. We were able to join the students in after school activities for a while as well. Anita and I played ping-pong while Karen watched April practice Judo.

I think the worst 15% of the students of this school would be the best 15% at most junior high schools in America. This over-achievement comes at a price though – these kids go to school and/or club activities from ~8 in the morning until ~7 or 8 at night, 6 days a week… Tuesday was their last of class for the term, but almost all of them will be back for most of the day, 6 days a week for club activities… it’s just how things work here… your job is most of your life… at least that is how is seems to us.

All in all, the best part of the trip to Jo-Chu for me was the intimate insight it gave me as to the personalities and lives of these children and their teachers. Being a small part of something so obviously great allowed us to see and interact with some of future Japan. The real-ness and precious-ness of this window on Japanese culture is better than any possible tourist attraction could be. Thank you Jo-Chu!

After the school trip, we went to April’s apartment, showered and changed, and went to an enki, partially in our honor and partially to say goodbye to another JET teacher who is going back to the states soon. Six Japanese members of the board of education (BOE) the four of us, and the other Jet went into a medium sized conference room at the local Onsen and were offered a ridiculous amount of fantastic food and our choice of Japanese beer, Sake, and French wine. It is the first time I drank alcohol since I was 17, and only because there were no other options. By the end of the night I had all 3 types of alcohol in mostly full glasses in front of me, and I probably drank the equivalent of 1 glass of beer… needless to say I was thirsty. What the enki lacked in non-alcoholic beverages, it more than made up for in amazing food. We ate sashimi, sushi, sausages, steak, and 3-4 other dishes I didn’t know the name of, including a very good Chinese chili-sauce shrimp dish. We were all given gifts in addition to the food and beverages, and made to feel like welcome royalty. As occasionally comes up in conversation, the fear of April’s driving was put on the table and we teased her about jerky driving and past marrs on her driving record… normal teasing, right? Wrong. The head of the BOE disappears for a while and we find out that he has called someone else who has agreed to drive us around all day Wednesday, for our tour of Koori-Machi’s sights. There was no backing out, we were given a guide / driver simply for joking about April’s driving abilities. The motivation was both to protect us and April from possible accident, and also granting us someone who would be able to show us around the town with an insider’s perspective. Loose lips get driven around by a local. As if that wasn’t enough, as we were leaving, one of the BOE members had to buy us a flat of 16 of the most beautiful tomatoes I’d ever seen, a few more peaches, some locally grown and produced apple juice and onsen boiled eggs.