Thursday 30 April 2015

10 Days and 5 Canadians in Japan, Eh - Day 2 (Tokyo)

 (In case you missed it, my post about Day 1 can be found here.)

Day 2: Wed, April 15, 2015: 

While my wife and I plan the day, our two children (Rihana: 8, and Noah: 10) spend their first hour of the day in the bathroom, spraying their butts and laughing hysterically.

Want more details? See my previous article, "Navigating the Japanese Bathroom: Ultimate Elimination Challenge."

The Japanese toilet is a technological marvel and national treasure that is rarely seen outside of the country. It is heated, has a bidet, bum-wash and, often, a blow dryer built in, almost eliminating the need for toilet paper. Of the many spectacular sights a tourist comes across, the toilet is probably the most frequently photographed and discussed. You may enter Japan thinking of kimonos, but you leave thinking about toilets. Slogans like this are probably why I can't find work in tourism.

Just before we leave, I lift the kids onto my lap and give them a briefing about today's plans, reminding them how we expect them to behave. Noah, seems to be fully recovered from yesterday's barf-fest, however I point out that he is wearing his last clean pair of pants. When they hop off my lap they leave a damp splotch.

Last night we paid $5 for a leaf of lettuce. Consequently, this morning we dine, in the lobby, on factory-baked goods and a coffee-coloured liquid from the hotel's convenience store.

Our hotel is located in Chiba, a district just north of Tokyo-proper. We plan to visit Disney Sea as well as Tokyo and this is relatively convenient for both. A bus- and train-ride later, we arrive at Tokyo Station, in downtown Tokyo. It's about 9am and we're off to a good start.

Tokyo Station is about 4 city blocks square and several layers deep. It is the central hub for every train, subway and bullet train but also, haphazardly dispersed between platforms, are about a hundred shops that form a rabbit warren-like mall.

Even for a native, navigating Tokyo's transit system can be a trial. And if that's the trial, then navigating Tokyo Station is the part where you are arrested in a back alley and beaten by cops on the take, before being roughly escorted downtown to the station—er—even though downtown at a station is exactly where you already are. Perhaps not the best metaphor.

Though we are surrounded by a highly sophisticated and efficient transit system, we walk about four miles, getting oriented. It takes Junko an hour to find the proper ticket booth to book our seats on the Bullet Train to Kyoto where we plan to be, in a couple of days. While she does this, the rest of us circle up the wagons into a small cluster, and stand safely huddled out of the way of Tokyo business people hurrying by, apparently all late for the same appointment. The sheer number of people is so staggering that individuals become meaningless, like bubbles in foam.

In Japan, public spaces like train stations and malls offer limited seating. In Tokyo, this probably has to do with the high cost of real estate. If you want to sit, you're going to have to buy something. Mom is not used to being on her feet so long and asks if we can find a coffee shop where she can sit for a few minutes. Truthfully, we all feel the same way. We wander for another hour in search of a place serving something resembling coffee and a doughnut, and come up empty. Meanwhile, Dad, who is attacking Japan as if he considers himself on an episode of Survivorman, spots McDonald's and veers off to enjoy an early lunch. Thus my parents get their first taste of McJapanese cuisine.

Exerpt from Survivorman Japan: "Hans has gone mad and Fritz is chewing his fingers to stubs. I, alone, have managed to survive, though it has not been without compromise. I can no longer remember the face of my waitress at the Monkey Tree Pub or the last time I smiled. How much longer I can hold on, is uncertain. This may be my final entry."
It is well known that for a long time, Japan was an insular nation. Recently, the Japanese have been making an effort to embrace the outside world by doing things like encouraging tourism and hosting the 2020 Olympics. But one obstacle is their long cultural tradition of cash-only transactions. Fifteen years ago, on my first trip to Japan, credit cards were not accepted anywhere. Modern Japan now accepts credit cards at about two thirds of the places you might go, but the exceptions can be unexpected. One place that is still not equipped to accept them is the McDonald's, in Tokyo Station.

Also unexpected was that McDonald's did not have individually portioned salt packets. When my Father casually asked for salt, he caused a small panic at the cash register followed by what I can't resist referring to to as a mcflurry of activity in the kitchen. What he ended up getting was a small fries bag, half filled—enough salt to melt ten thousand slugs.

In the bathroom, my Mother notices a baby seat fastened to the wall so that mothers can safely stow their fussy bundles of joy, while relieving themselves. This is a clever Japanese convenience that has not been installed in the men's room, thus reflecting typical Japanese family culture.

While attempting to find the correct exit, our expedition comes across a Pokemon shop which is, appropriately, about the size of a Pokeball. For Noah, this is equivalent to discovering the Ark of the Covenant. As we enter, he loudly declares that he is so filled with joy that he feels like crying. When he sees Pokemon socks, he begins jumping up and down and babbling in tongues. I know that such demonstrative joy is because Noah is home schooled and unspoiled, but to the outside world, he probably appears simple.

Noah's tenth birthday is a couple of days away and his grandparents seize the opportunity to shower him with gifts instilling in him the idea that although Mom and Dad might love him more, Grammy and Grampy love him better. As well, I believe, they hope to raise his already excessive expectations so that living with him becomes as impossible for Junko and I as living with me was for them, thus completing the karmic cycle.

They buy him a small plush Dedenne, a mug and the socks all of which he deems so valuable that he makes us wait ten minutes while he stows them securely in his backpack so that he can properly preserve the shopping bag they came in which sports a large picture of Pikachu. He folds that neatly and makes me promise to keep it safe and, somehow, unwrinkled in my backpack. Why he has no room for a folded plastic bag the thickness of three human hairs, I have no idea. My son might just be a bit obsessive but we dare not mention it because we're not sure that he could handle the fact that the letters OCD are not in alphabetical order.

Noah spends the rest of the day grinning ear to ear, hugging the stuffy and thanking Grammy and Grampy as profusely as if accepting an Academy Award.

It's almost noon by the time we find our way to the surface world.

The spectacular Asakusa gate and temple is probably the most visited shrine in all of Japan by virtue of being pretty much next door to Tokyo Station. On this day, every tourist in Japan has decided to visit there. The sky is cloud-scudded and the weather oscillates from gusty and cold to sunny and blazing hot. Consequently, my backpack is swollen with coats and sweaters that are rarely used, and as I navigate the thick sea of tourists, I feel like a pregnant bull (note to self: change this metaphor before anyone sees it) while at the same time come to understand why mules are so ornery.

Tourists throng the thousand shops that line the lane leading to the Buddhist temple at Asakusa.

Dad offers to take my video camera and get some footage of me. This will be the first time I have appeared in our family videos and the fact that Junko is not a single mother of two may provide as big a surprise to viewers as the big twist in the movie The Crying Game.

No one can enjoy Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, a crossword or Suduko with my mother in the room. She reads a lot and knows things that she has no right in knowing. As we walk through the huge gate and human bumper-car our way down the narrow lane, toward the main temple, I call upon my years of experience in things Japanese and try to play tour guide. It's a short play that ends abruptly, at intermission.

ME: ...and these are tourists, and those are flowers. Over there is some sort of temple, probably Japanese. The stuff in this shop is just cheap Chinese crap.

MOM: Actually, I think those might be reproductions of Netsuke...

ME: Netsu-what now?

MOM: Netsuke. Intricately carved buttons attached to the sashes of robes and used to secure pouches and purses, because traditional-style Japanese robes have no pockets.

I am nonplussed, but cover with my best plussed look.

ME: Well, of course. I meant cheap Chinese imitations.

MOM: Are you sure, Honey? To me, those look to be faithful, hand made reproductions; Edo period, judging by the design. And I'm pretty sure that they're real ivory. You can't always tell Ivory from bone without weighing it or using a magnifying glass, but these have the appropriate luster and smoothness as well as the distinctive tawny patina from absorbing oils of people who have handled them.

ME: How do you know all of that?

MOM: Oh. I'm not sure. Probably read it in a novel, or something.

ME: Hmpf! Novels.

I want to appear unflappable, so to disguise the fact that I am flapped, I quickly turn away and pretend to scan the milling throng. My backpack takes down a Chinese tour group and a small child licking an ice cream cone.

ME: Every tourist shop in Tokyo must be crowded onto this one street.

MOM: If I'm not mistaken, in the old days, going to temple was an important religious and social event. Streets leading to temples were very busy so that is where shop keepers preferred to set up shop. I think this must be a modern reflection of that.

ME: Oh look. Ice cream!

In front of the temple is a large urn of sand from which sticks of incense glow and smoke. Before entering the temple, people waft the sacred smoke over ailing parts of their body, with prayers of healing. My mother, who is still recovering from her Bronchitis does a cursory wave which almost imperceptibly disturbs a single wispy tendril. Later, she points out a Chinese tourist wafting and inhaling smoke, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips.

I have a short list in my head of things I want to do with my parents, beyond sightseeing: 1) Have a beer with my father in a traditional Japanese bar (izakaya), 2) take them to a traditional Japanese bath (onsen),  3) Get them to try Japanese food, preferably sushi, and 4) get a picture of them with a girl in a kimono. When I spot a couple of Asian girls in decorative kimonos surrounded by selfie-snapping tourists I quickly send Junko to ask them if they would pose with my parents for a picture. They agree and I am pleased to get the money shot. As we walk away, Junko tells me that they were not Japanese, but tourists who rented the costume for the day and got caught in the ultimate tourist trap, unable to extricate themselves from a never ending photo-op. In Tokyo, I guess, real Japanese women wearing real kimonos must be perpetually late for appointments.

We take advantage of non-Japanese Asian tourists caught in the ultimate tourist trap
after making the mistake of renting kimonos.

Inside the temple, we do the typical tourist-thing and follow the crowd, posing and snapping pictures. Everything is intensely detailed and our senses are quickly overwhelmed. We come away understanding little more than that it is all very Japanese-y.

Dad is convinced that of all the food in Japan, he will only be able to handle tempura. Luck is with us and we quickly find a "Tempura Hut"—or, at least, the Japanese equivalent. Dad surprises me by ordering green tea. I have never seen him drink tea of any colour. Somehow, we have managed to find the only Japanese restaurant in the world that does not have soy sauce on the table. Strangely, Dad notices and makes a scene ordering some. The restauranteurs are proud of their home made tempura sauce and I sense that ordering soy is akin to asking a Michelin-starred chef for ketchup. When it arrives, he practically empties the container into his cup of green tea. Caucasian and Asians alike are surprised and, probably, grossed out.

The before shot: Mom and Dad are happy.

As they clear the dishes, the waitress asks my Father how he liked the meal, though the fact that they have only eaten about four small bites seems an obvious indicator. As I strike #3 off my wish list, Dad replies that it was not crispy and makes odd gestures with his fingertips, as if massaging a cob of corn, to which she nods, smiles and quickly disappears. I can only hope there is a dictionary in the kitchen. This particular style of tempura is not crispy because the final stage of preparation is to douse it in the restaurant's original tempura sauce, for which it is famous. Dad declares that there is now nothing in the country he can eat, except, of course McDonald's or Dominoe's Pizza.

Dad surprises us all by being able to use chopsticks. Also, by putting soy sauce in his green tea. This is the after picture. My parents are now amused and hungry.

Japanese restaurants do not normally provide napkins because most Japanese carry a handkerchief, so my Father leaves the restaurant a celebrity, with a soy sauce mustache.

We take a guided tour on a ferry filled to capacity with European and Chinese tourists. The tour guide welcomes everyone in English and then, as we float around Tokyo Bay she gives an hour-long narration on everything to the left and right, entirely in Japanese. From this I learn the Japanese words for left and right.

During the ferry ride, I notice that Noah is looking a bit peaked. Thinking ahead, Dad and I search our possessions for an impromptu sick bag and can find only one, Noah's prized Pokemon bag. Dad and I exchange glances and I ready the video camera. I am both glad and disappointed that The Moment never comes.

The ferry takes us to Odaiba, an artificial island with a fantastic view of Tokyo's Rainbow Bridge and which is home to the distinctive Fuji TV building and the Diver City Tokyo Plaza, a broad walkway linking several malls and decorated by impressive statues (including a 36-foot (11m)  tall reproduction of the Statue of Liberty) and other works of art. Among them is a full-scale (60ft/18m tall) model of Gundam, a famous anime robot. We've heard that the statue moves, at regularly scheduled intervals; the next show 30 minutes away. The winds have picked up to almost gale-force, sweeping the heat of the day, and my body, inland. We decide to wait for the big show, huddled behind one of Gundam's gigantic legs which acts as a satisfactory wind break. Just so that you know, this is one of those rare instances in which hiding behind a 60 foot giant that is breaking wind, is a good idea. Finally, lights begin to flash over Gundam's body and his head moves from side to side. Heart pounding music builds to a dramatic crescendo and a deep and commanding voice yells, "Gundam, iki masu!" (Gundam, go!) at which point, Gundam dramatically looks skyward. "Who, me?" he seems to be asking. It's so spectacular that it's difficult to ascertain exactly when the show ends; people simply drift away. Junko says that it would be a great joke if, at the very end, Gundam waved goodbye. But he doesn't.

Fuji TV building at Odaiba.

Ironically, Mom and Dad have never been more not in New York.
Still-pictures adequately capture the excitement of the Gundam action extravaganza.

On our way home, an interesting interaction occurs between my wife and another Japanese woman. We all follow a small maze of roped off alleyways to get in line behind a couple of other families. Five minutes later, another family, led by the mother, files through from the opposite side and ends up shoulder to shoulder with us, though there is now a lineup behind us. We then realize that there are two lanes marked with the same signage; two paths to the same bus. On the surface, Junko appears unfazed, but my spider senses are tingling. She's definitely angry at the woman who she feels has butted in.  I can tell that the other woman is equally disgruntled when Junko makes the first move, and we board before her. Both feel that the other one has violated proper Japanese protocol. Both are right and no one is wrong, but both are mad. To give you some context: The bus can hold about 70 people. In all, there are 14 in the line. It all has the familiar feel of marriage.

By the end of the day, we’ve thoroughly tested Tokyo asphalt by walking several miles as well as the transit system having taken a bus, subway, monorail, several trains and two ferries. Mom and Dad and the kids have also been tested, I think.

After a reasonably priced and Western-style dinner at the hotel, we say goodnight to Mom and Dad as they return to their room to apply A535.

We head to the Hotel's rooftop Onsen (traditional japanese bath) to relax. These are, basically, large hot tubs where people bathe naked, communally. Because everyone is naked, men and women bathe in separate facilities. Noah and I spend a relaxing half hour being gawked at by Japanese children.

Mitsui Garden (Chiba, Tokyo) rooftop onsen.

I noticed two strange things, this time, that I had never noticed before. The first thing was that, in the change room, the other men tended to cover their naughty bits with a small towel, even though we are all male, and all soon to be exposed.

Onsen, like all Japanese baths, are exclusively for relaxation, not for cleaning. So, before entering any Japanese bath you are expected to wash and rinse your body. At an Onsen, this is part of the relaxation process and performed both thoroughly and leisurely.

The second thing I noticed was that after sweating in hot water, no one washes, on the way out, which I thought odd, considering how obsessed the Japanese are about cleanliness.

Sorry, but I have no insights into either behaviour other than the obvious: that we're still in Japan.

Tomorrow: Day 3 - Disney Sea

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