I hope you tip your guides. I know I will from now on. Last week I got a welcome visit from Mom, Justin, and Stormy. Dad, I hope you can make it sometime. If not Japan, somewhere else some other time.
Well anyway, first came the airport. I remember that day; stumbling off the plain and corralled through security, customs, etc. until you plop out at the arrival area and hope someone there knows where in the world you are. Narita is a small airport with quite a bit of English but that certainly doesn’t mean that getting from there to your hotel is particularly easy. After a while, the train systems begin to make a bit of sense but, at first, trying to figure out the trains felt about as hopeless as reading those paragraphs of kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese). You see, its not like there is just one set of trains. There are tons. Private lines run from the airport towards Tokyo and then, once in Tokyo, there are the two main lines, JR and Metro. Just to get to my area, which is on the side closest to Narita, we had to make two train transfers, one of which involved changing from a private station to the JR station next door. If it sounds confusing now, you can imagine trying to figure it out after a 14 hour, overnight flight. Lucky for them, good ol’ me was there to shepherd ‘em back to the barn. This little metaphor seems all the more appropriate since we were watching “Shaun the Sheep” all week. By barn I mean hotel on the outskirts of town next to the train tracks. By outskirts I mean in the “suburban” area. It’s another 30 minutes by train until you start getting out of what we would consider town. I think this is a good place to discuss the sheer immensity of Tokyo. It’s huge. Huge beyond anything you can imagine. We are talking the population of Texas all concentrated into an area the size of the Dallas/ Ft. Worth metroplex. 3 hours by local train from side to side with high rises apartments for 2 hours of that. Mom asked once “Where’s downtown?” There isn’t just one. Nihombashi is the business district with old, expensive department stores. Shinjuku is the tamer, adult shopping area. Shibuya is where all the clubs are and Harajuku, the young persons’ fashion district, is a part of that. Akihabara is the electronics and anime area. That’s not even all of them; those are just the main areas. Well these pictures from the 62 (62 floors) building on the north side of town should give an idea.
And now we get to food; the second most important thing besides walking after getting off a 14 hour flight. Mom gets first prize for chopstick ability and adventurism. Justin and Stormy were rather distant runners up. Food wasn’t something I would have thought would be a difficult part of guiding people, but I assure you that it is. Since moving here I’ve become significantly less picky when it comes to food. Beggars can’t be choosers. Food is expensive so, if I order something I don’t particularly like, I just have to deal with it. If the dorm is serving something that doesn’t look appetizing, I can eat more rice and miso soup, which I already have a bowl of with every meal, or I can buy a small meal for about $5. $5 doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly, especially compared to the already-paid-for dorm food. Another thing about food; the names are often in kanji, so I have no idea what I’m ordering. I order by looks or by raffle. It’s a surprise every time and I just hope it turns out well. As I told them, the worst thing that’s ever happened to me is raw squid sushi. I barely ate one bite, and that took 30 minutes to chew. Back onto the subject of my unwitting guests. Mom ate fairly well here because she could use chopsticks and she was willing to eat almost anything. Heck, she even ate Takoyaki, a doughy ball with a sauce on top and a piece of octopus inside. I’m sure this sounds quite disgusting to most of you, Dad would be gagging, but it’s actually pretty good and the octopus is just chewy. I got Stormy to try one but that ended in a frantic search for a napkin. Justin didn’t even want to poke at the stuff. There is one thing Justin did take a liking to; curry rice. Curry rice is my favorite too. Really it tastes very little like curry. It’s more like a beef stew over rice. Stormy ended up being the pickiest of us all. Cold noodles were no good. Takoyaki was a definite no. Curry was out. The bakeries, which we all loved, were her staple. I think I’ve wrote about the bakeries before but I’ll make a note of them here. You just pick up a little tray, go through and pick up what you want, and check out at the end. There is not a lot safer than bread, so this was a hit. We ate at a bakery at least once a day. One called “Celeb” near the hotel was the favorite I think. They have a great variety of little treats at decent prices and, tables outside, and, Mom’s joy, free coffee. So about 9-10 AM this group of foreigners would walk in, stare confused at the bread for a bit before choosing, and fumble with our change at the counter. Then we’d huddle around the little table outside in the cold, me and mom clutching tiny paper cups of coffee for warmth, and devour all the wonderful sweets and breakfast foods. All the while Japanese staring at us in wonder. It’s not Celeb is in a tourist area; we are in the heart of suburbia. Imagine a group of Japanese tourists with cameras and backpacks walked into The Smokehouse and ordered lunch. It’s about that level of oddity.
Here is a pic of mom from one of the first days that turned out really well:
Think this was also that day.
I’m skipping around quite a bit, but we’re moving on to New Years now. Mom wasn’t up for a night on the town after a long day, but Justin, Stormy, and I decided that Shibuya was the place to be at midnight. It was certainly interesting. Thanks to my terrible estimation of time, we were over an hour early. Shibuya is basically the equivalent of Times Square for Tokyo, so we figured there would be a big party. We were partly right. After wandering around and wasting time in the only slightly bitter cold, 11-11:30 PM rolled around and so did the police. Lots of them. Big armored vehicles and buses with (by my estimate) about 60 officers. At first they just stationed themselves at the corners and blew their whistles to get people to hurry across when the lights were about to turn but, before long, we saw their true purpose. They got out the rings held together by long strips of yellow tape. Each officer would hold a ring in their hand and form barriers around the crosswalks forcing people to stay within them and, when the light turned, enabling them to force people back to one side or the other. As you can imagine with 10,000 drunken people, this soon became a game. The first winner was a skinny black guy who got a running start, darted across the intersection, through the cars, and dove back into the crowd and 15 minutes of fame. 15 minutes later, he managed to accomplish this little feat again, and he brought a friend. The applause for these acts of defiance was incredible and, to many, inspiring. One Japanese guy wasn’t quite so quick. We all looked over and there is this tiny Japanese guy kicking and screaming with an officer to each limb, dragging him off into custody. I think the police are kinder to foreigners. In general, foreigners got much gentler treatment and never seemed to get arrested. Not so with the Japanese. Justin, Stormy, and I were right in front near a barrier, so we got to see everything; well, Stormy may have spent the last few minutes attached to my back for fear of being swept away with the crowd. They never had a countdown or anything. The closest thing to a “Happy New Year!” we got was the drunk guy next to us who yelled “It’s the New Year!” charged into the middle of the intersection with his beer, and was joined by hundreds of others. That was it. I guess there was nothing the police could really do at that point, they were spectators too. We made a quick exit and headed off to Yasakuni shrine, by my school. I thought the trains were going to be packed but, I think partially due to how fast we made it out of there, they were rather quiet. The tradition is to go to a shrine and, at midnight, go to the altar and make your prayer. Nowadays, people don’t really believe in the gods, but the tradition lives on. I had no idea how vibrantly alive it was. About half way to Yasakuni shrine we saw a gigantic line. Not like a hundred people or something single file, the entire street for 3 or four blocks filled with people in line to pray at a tiny little shrine that’s on the way. I had no idea the tradition was that big of a deal; if I had, I still wouldn’t have waited in that line. Luckily, the line at Yasakuni was, comparatively, smaller. If it had been proportional to the sizes of the shrines, Yasakuni’s would be stretching half way to my dorm. New Years at a shrine is basically a fair. All the tents are set up and serving food. There are little games with stuffed animals for prizes. There are even performances. The food might be a bit different than you’re used to though; Stormy and Justin certainly weren’t pleased by most of it. Takoyaki, the thing with octopus, is one of the common ones. Another is Okonomiyaki, which me and mom tried the next day. A friend of mine from Baylor visiting from Southern Japan described it quite aptly; the Japanese version of the burrito. You can put anything in Okonomiyaki. The base ingredients are this pancake like stuff, cabbage, egg, and ham (I think) but you can put almost anything in it, and they do. I’ve seen more egg, octopus, beef once I think, and I’m sure there are other. The one me and mom shared was just the basic egg, cabbage and ham one. It was pretty good. Not my favorite, but good. Like always, Justin and Stormy just stared at it. The one that none of us tried was fish on a stick. Fish sticks, but literally. They take a whole fish (Yes, whole, head and all), put him on a stick, and cook ‘em over a fire by putting the stick in the ashes. Stormy went the safe way and had a candied apple. Justin was only very slightly more adventurous with a Kebab (meat in pita bread with a spicy-ish sauce). I’ll take this opportunity to say that NOTHING in Japan is spicy. I am in desperate need of salsa when I come home.
Guy getting arrested:
I think I’ll leave off there for now and tell you about Nikko and maybe a few other things another day. I’ve done a lot of writing in the last few days. 6-7 page paper (double spaced) for a history/culture class, page and a half for econ, and this. Other than that I’ve been bored since you guys left really. Should come back. All I’ve been doing is watching TV on my computer, eating ramen, and packing and repacking my bag for Nepal to see how best to fit everything.
Oh, one more thing, I forgot to tell about the cat café. Only Japan could bring you something this ridiculous. It is a cat playground basically where you pay to go and play with tons of cats. Of course mom and Stormy had to go. Justin even got to be a scratching post.