Japan - Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, Japan

Our time in Japan was short. Only two weeks, but we had the great opportunity to see some dear and old friends. Hide was our first friend and neighbor when we moved across the country and into our new home at Pacific Shores Apartments in Huntington Beach California. He was an immigration attorney from Japan. He moved back to Japan after 4 years of friendship and at that point we knew we wanted to travel one day so when we said our goodbyes in California we told him we would come and visit him in Tokyo when we set out on are worldwide travels. Dan and Brock met in UF Law School and the three of us have been good friends since then. Dan now lives in NYC and when we told him we hoped he could meet us somewhere around the world he said he would and decided on Japan.

We arrived at the Narita Airport in Tokyo at 9pm, but didn't leave the airport until quarter after 10pm due to a long line at immigration. Our friend Hide was waiting for us at baggage claim to greet us into his country. We took a train to the area of Tokyo that Hida lives, Shibuya, and then went out for some noodle soup while we waited for Dan to meet us. We were very hungry and the soup was great. Thick white noodles with thin slices of pork, seaweed, bean sprouts, and egg on top. We picked Dan up from the train station in Shibuya and then Hide drove us over to our hotel room. It was a small room that was meant for two people, but we sneaked and squeezed Dan into the room. Luckily there was a big comforter that we didn't need and Dan slept with that and my yoga mat on the floor. We probably went to sleep around 3am that night and woke up around 8:30am the next morning. Hide picked us up and we went out for lunch with his wife Kiome and their two children Reina (6 yrs old) and Ren (4 years old). They were adorable and really open to us, even though they couldn't speak English and we couldn't speak Japanese. I had rehearsed a few lines like hi, how are you?, and how old are you?, but that only lasted a few seconds. Hide helped us communicate so that made things pretty easy. After lunch Kiome and the kids went home and Hide accompanied us around town. We walked through different crowded popular areas of town looking at the people, the shops, and the restaurants. It was sunny and almost 100F outside but that didn't seem to stop anyone from getting fully dressed up in elegant clothes that didn't always represent the temperature outside. We stopped at a 7-11 (these are on almost every other block in Tokyo) and got the best slushy I've ever had. We walked through Yoyogi-Koen Park and to Tokyo's most visited shrine, Meiji-Jingu. Then we went up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building for a free and great 360 degree view of the city. Afterwards we meet Hide's mother and she treated us to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. This was the first day I didn't feel nauseous at all. I was so happy, and it was perfect timing because it would have been difficult to be in Japan and feeling nauseous. The food here is very different I wouldn't have been able to continue surviving on cereal, PP&J sandwiches, and fruit. I have not felt nauseous since that day either. After dinner we went to a Krispy Kreme for coffee. I couldn't believe how crowded and trendy it was in there. The place was packed with young adults dressed up for a nice night out, but instead they were just hanging out in a doughnut shop. The other familiar chain restaurants we see all over the place in Tokyo are Starbucks and McDonald's and a few Subways and KFCs. We continued walking around the streets of Shibuya, mostly just people watching for a few more hours, before we called it a day. We also went into some of the many mulit-leveled arcades in Shibuya. We mostly observed the people intensely and professionally playing the games, some of which were gambling games. There was one game that had lots of bright lights and loud noises and a series of anime episodes on the screen while a bunch of small metal balls moved over the screen. Occasionally, the person playing would slightly move a knob connected to the game. What this knob did I never figured out, but I did learn that it does something to help them win large amounts of the metal balls. Some arcades were just for this game and they had buckets filled with the balls and it looked very similar to a slot machine room, but noisier and with more flashing lights. We also walked past plenty of "love hotels" (where you can rent the room by the hour), sex shops, and live entertainment for men.

The next day we went to the Asakusa area of Tokyo to see some more Shrines and Temples. Then we went to the Sony Building to look at all the new and often unreleased electronics they have on display. After that we went to the Imperial Palace, which is home to Japan's emperor and imperial family as well as appears to have some administrative buildings. The moat and wall around the Palace date back to the 1860s but the actual buildings had to be reconstructed after WWII bombings. The Palace is closed to the public except for two days out of the year when reservations can be made in advance to visit it, so we could only see it from the outer wall. This afternoon was so hot. I was dying of exhaustion. We stopped at a shaded park and I sat under some trees while Brock and Dan threw the Frisbee for a bit until a police officer told them that that was not allowed in the park, which I was surprised but happy to hear because I was ready to go home and rest.

This brings me to something that I wanted to write about. The people in Japan seem to have standards that everyone follows for the most part. For one, the women all dress up very nice and most wear very high heels everywhere they go. I don't think I've seen a single woman wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes except for myself. They also do not show any cleavage; granted they are all very thin and small chested, but still, they wear shirts and mostly dresses that lye high on the chest, yet many women do wear very short dresses and skirts. The other thing I noticed is that nobody stares. I have yet to find anyone looking at any of us at any time unless we address them. Also, nobody “J-walks.” It doesn't matter if it is very obvious no cars are coming and the walk sign is about to start, people wait for the signal to go. We try to catch ourselves, but sometimes we walk because we are just use to going if we can. In the trains and buses almost nobody talks, well except us and other foreigners. Even on the streets you hardly hear a voice. A lot of people are looking and I'm assuming texting at their phones, but not talking on them. While seated on the trains everyone keeps their legs as close to the seat as possible; men don't stretch them out and women don't cross them. Those are the main things I've observed and just wanted to note them down.

The next day we changed places to stay. Hide was very kind and got an apartment for us near his home for the remainder of our stay in Japan. We then went to the JR station to figure out how to activate our JR passes and plan our travels to some other towns for a few days. After we settled all that business Brock and I went to Akihabar, the discount electronic area of the city. This was pretty impressive. There were hundreds of electronic shops; most small privately owned but some huge huge huge stores selling everything that is electronic. There were alleys of crammed in street stalls too. The main items of interest appeared to be phones, computers, sound systems, TVs, and video games. There were different areas for different types of electronics, used, new, and parts. The craziest part was that almost every store had a girl dressed in anime out front handing fliers out or just waving to people walking by. Brock and I came here because we wanted to see the area, but also because once again we had cracked the screen of our laptop and needed to replace it. We thought for sure we would find a screen here, but nope. Nobody sells laptop screens. Hide told us we wouldn't be able to find it because he says people here don't fix electronics they just replace them. We ended up buying a used English keypad laptop instead.

We left Tokyo Wednesday morning on the bullet train. We bought a JR pass and it does not include the fastest bullet train but there are a few levels of bullet and we took one level down from the fastest. A bus from Tokyo to Kyoto takes 8 hours, and our train took 2 ½, so it was still pretty fast. We were not only impressed with the actual speed of the train but also with the promptness. Our train arrived at 8:40 on the dot and was gone by 8:42. We made about 5 stops before we arrived at our destination and at all of the stops the train stopped for only about 2 minutes. This is such a change from Central and South America. The scenery between Kyoto and Tokyo was not very impressive. Towns are basically just a lot of buildings and homes with very simple and consistent architecture and very few trees. There area between towns was mostly industrial. We booked a hostel in the central area of many temples and also the area where the few remaining Geishas live and work. Kyoto is a pretty big and crowded city but amongst all the hustle of the city are 2000 temples and shrines, many of which are world heritage sites. We set our bags down and then went out to see some sites. We started at the Kinkaku/Rokuon-ji Temple. This is a golden Zen Buddist temple. We were among the many tourists walking around the temple grounds in 95 degree heat. After the temple we got a fast food Japanese meal of pork and rice with salad and miso soup. We bought it for $4.30 through a vending machine (we put in the money and hit the picture of the meal we wanted) and picked it up at the counter in less than a minute. It was super fast and tasty and pretty healthy. I was impressed. After lunch we walked to Ryoanji Temple which is most famous for its rock garden. The rock garden was created by a highly respected Zen monk around 1500. You will see the pictures. I do not know what to think about it. I tried to see what it is about this garden that would make it so famous, but I just could not figure it out. I guess I am just a fan of plants and found the rocks pretty dull. The two temples were definitely zen like. They had a simplicity that was engaging and relaxing at the same time. We took a bus back towards our hostel to see the Geishas on their way to work between 5 and 6. We saw three of them. I read that there are only 100 Geishas left in all of Japan and that most of them are in Kyoto and a few are in Tokyo. They looked like dolls to me and all three of them had really round-circular faces. Afterwards we got some dinner and then walked to the Yasaka Shrine for the opening ceremony of a yearly summer festival that has been celebrated at the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto since 970. The festival is held for two weeks and its purpose is to expel revengeful spirits. We were lucky to have been there on the right dates for this. It was quite a treat.

We woke up early the next morning so that we could fit in a full day of more sight-seeing. We started our day by walking through streets of traditional Japanese style buildings towards the Kiyomizudera Temple. The temple was set in a beautiful forested area up on a hill overlooking the city. It was the most aesthetic temple or shrine we had seen at this point in our travels. On our walk backed we passed by a few more temples and shrines and a huge Buddha statue. We then took a bus to the Nijo Castle. The castle was very different from the European castles. It was a large square with one room lined up after another. The inner walls and ceilings were all painted with traditional Japanese style scenery (cherry blossom trees, birds, and a few tigers). It was very open and peaceful with plenty of natural light. The castle was surrounded by two motes and a pleasant landscape of trees and rocks. From here we walked 10-15 miserable minutes in the intense sun to the train station. We took the train to a bamboo forest and the Arashiyama Monkey Park. To revive us we treated ourselves to green tea soft serve ice cream. The bamboo forest had the largest bamboo I have ever seen and the monkey park had over 100 somewhat wild monkeys that all gather around the visitor center to be hand fed. Although the monkeys are wild they are very tame. You can buy pieces of apple and nuts to feed them through fenced in area. We get fenced in so that they do not harm us in their intent to grab the food and they climb up the fence to come to us. Outside of the fenced in area they walk right up to and past people as if they are not even there. There was a pond in the park and the monkeys liked to swim in it. They were very playful. There was this one baby monkey that clung to its mothers chest sucking on and off on her nipple and every once in awhile it would try and walk around but the mother would not let it get far before scooping it up. After this we went to a food market and looked at all the different styles of preparing food they had. They like to pickle vegetables. They pickle pretty much every vegetable there is. They had octopus on a stick, jerky style fish and other forms of seafood, and deserts made with beans.

The next morning we woke up and took a train to Hiroshima. It took about 2 hours on a super express train to get to there. We dropped our bags at the hostel, stopped for some lunch, and then walked to Peace Memorial Park and the Hiroshima Memorial Museum. We started in the museum. There were displays written in Japanese and English explaining the history of Japan and Hiroshima leading up to the day of the A-bomb, August 6th 1945, details on the construction of the bomb and the planning for the drop, and details and personal stories of how the city and people were affected by the nuclear bomb. They had letters and documentation of correspondence between the many parties involved in the planning of the A-bomb. They had many pictures of the mushroom cloud and the devastation to the city and people. There were many memorabilia such as half burned clothes and other personal items as well as pieces of the destroyed city such as melted bottles, boiled roof tiles, and glass penetrated wood. They even had parts of the actual bomb and the parachute. They had explanations on what are nuclear and hydrogen bombs, what countries have them, and what the world is trying to do to control the use and further construction of them, and then of course pleas for our support in publicizing to our governments our desire to not have nuclear bombs in the world. I thought it was a great museum. At the point of explaining the actual final decision to drop the A-bomb over Hiroshima on August 6th 1945, I could see that some Americans might say that the explanation of the history of why the decision was made to drop the bomb was biased. At the time of the bombing Germany had already surrendered, Japan was getting weaker, no warning of the bomb was given, and the USS had just joined the war as well against Japan, so it does appear that it was possible WWII may have ended without the use of two nuclear bombs. I personally don't think their account was biased, I think it just told the facts, but it was hard to read this part of the displays and not want to feel that way. The museum did not in any way try to make Japan out as a victim either. They explained the horrible way Japan was conquering over other countries and harming its own people at the same time. They also showed the rebuilding process and the many things the US and Japan have done to learn about the effects nuclear bombs have on people and our environment. After visiting the museum we walked around the park amd its many memorials. Afterwards we took a long combination of street-car, train, and ferry to Miyajima Island. On this island there is a famous shrine and gate, the Itzukushima Shrine. It is one of Japan's top three views. At high tide the gate appears to be floating on the water and the Shrine sits on stilts over the water. We didn't know this and were a bit disappointed when we got there at low tide and the whole area was on wet sand. The cool part was that we could therefore walk out to the Gate and see it up close. We spent the night in a 16 bed dorm which we had practically to ourselves.

The next morning we were back at the train station. We took a train to a town called Nara that is actually very close to Kyoto. Nara has a park that has some temples that are world heritage sites and over 1000 dear that live in the park. The deer are wild but very accustomed to sharing the park with humans especially because vendors sell “deer cookies” and people enjoy feeding the deer all day long. There is one particular Temple, the Todai-Ji Temple that has an enormous bronze Buddha statue that was constructed in the 6th century and consists of 437 tones of bronze and 130kg of gold. It is said to be one of the largest bronze structures in the world. It was pretty impressive. The gate to the temple and the two wooden “Nio-guardian” statues were impressive as well. The thing that bewilders me is the combination I often see of these fierce angry guards and the completely peaceful image of Buddha. I just don't feel that they belong together. If Buddha is to represent complete contentment with the here and now no matter how difficult the now may be, and has the power to overcome suffering by meditation and releasing oneself from worldly cares, than it seems like the use of fierce angry guards as protection from the world contradicts Buddha's significance. I think every religion does things like this though.

We spent 3 hours walking around Nara and then we were back on a train and headed back to Tokyo. It was Saturday and Dan wanted to spend his last night in Japan at a club in Tokyo. We figured the night life in Tokyo would be pretty good and we were staying at an apartment walking distance to many clubs. We chose the club that had the most drunk people hanging around outside and the longest line. There appeared to be an equal ratio of guys and girls in the line, but the club set up lady's only areas so that the ladies can take a seat at a table or just dance while avoiding the crowds. It was pretty much like reserved table seating around the dance floor but free and only for women. We found this to be a bit lame because when you are out dancing it’s about 4:1 (men:women). But the men didn't seem to mind. They were all dancing with big smiles while singing along to all the American pop music with just as much enthusiasm as girls do at clubs in the states. I was hoping to hear Japanese pop music, but I'm learning as I travel that bars and clubs everywhere we travel prefer to play American music for dancing. We danced in the crowd and had a good time. I would get up on the raised platforms at times to dance above the crowd when I felt like I was getting bumped into too much. It was fun to dance and look down at the crowd. This was part of the ladies only area and I enjoyed it. After we had enough of dancing and being pushed around to the music we left and sat outside of the club on the street and just people watched for a bit while Brock and Dan had a drunken discussion about who has the best game. They drank a can of beer and I ate puffed cheese sticks. It was a funny scene.

Sunday we took it pretty easy and just hung out with Dan, as he flew out that night. Monday Brock and I planned to go to another town, Takayama, but we couldn’t get ourselves out of bed in time, so we planned to go the next day. Hide met us in the evening and we went to the Tokyo Tower for a nice view of the city at night. The Tokyo Tower looks a lot like the Eiffel Tower except it doesn’t have the park and all the people hanging out under it. The next day we woke up fairly early and went to the train station to go to Takayama. Lonely planet said it was a 2 hour 15 minute train ride, but when we went to buy our ticket we learned it would take about 5 hours. We were only planning on going for the day and this was our last day to use our JR pass, so it just didn’t sound worth it anymore. Takayama is known for its green mountainous scenery and traditional style architecture, sake breweries, and wood craftsmanship. I think it would have been nice, but oh well. Instead we took a driverless sky liner out to Odaiba Island. It’s a manmade island originally built in the 1850s but was used only for defensive purposes until the late 1990s when it went through a dramatic expansion with futuristic style architecture and commercial malls. This is where Japan will host the 2020 Olympics if they are chosen. We walked around the shopping district along the harbor and then followed the cool looking buildings until we came across the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. We wanted to go in, but it is closed on Tuesdays, so we decided to we would come back later in the week. We walked from here to the Panasonic building. Brock wanted to check it out since Panasonic was a big client of his when he worked with MWE. I thought we were just going to walk by and see the building, but we ended up spending a few hours there. They have a really cool display room where you can look and read about a lot of their emerging products, a lot of which are designed to conserve energy. Our favorite was definitely their massage chairs. You can sit in them and enjoy a 15 minute massage. We did that twice. It was wonderful! They also have an interactive educational display room that teaches a variety of concepts about science, physics, mathematics, and shapes. It was pretty cool. The next day Hide met us in the afternoon and we went to Korea town and had some good Korean BBQ and then walked around an area called Shinjuku, including a tiny hidden alley called Omoide Yokocho which has a bunch of Japanese BBQ hole in the wall restaurants and bars that kept the post world-war Japanese feel and then we walked through Kabukicho, the red light district. The next day we didn’t do much. Brock read cases and I did research on the next leg of our journey. Friday we went back to the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Odaiba. We both agree it was the best museum we have been to. There was tons of information and displays on emerging technology in all sorts of fields such as the human genome, health care, radiation, quantum physics, robots, computers, space aircraft, the sea floor and thermal vents, geography, media, energy conservation, and even more. Things were explained well and precise but not over simplified. They also had great 3-D planetarium shows and demonstrations of the human robot, “Asimo.” As soon as we returned to Shibuya after visiting the museum Hide met up with us and we took a train to a suburb town called Yokohama. It’s a really nice town with a big China town and a neat mix of modern architecture and old brick architecture. We got dinner at a Chinese restaurant in China town and Brock and Hide shared a bottle of Chinese sake, which I tasted, and thought tasted quite different than Japanese sake. One taste of one bottle of Chinese sake doesn’t give me much room for a true opinion, but based on that taste I think Japanese sake is better. After dinner we walked to the pier. The boardwalk was really big and had a cool design which made me think of a boardwalk in a Nintendo game. Then we just walked around the town for a bit before catching the train home. Saturday was our last day we went to lunch and dinner with Hide’s family. Reina and Ren are so sweet and cute. We really enjoyed getting to spend some more time with them. Ren absolutely adored Brock; it was so cute. In between I worked on this blog entry, did laundry, did some more planning for SE Asia and South Africa and bought the rest of our flights, and packed up our backpacks.

Oh, one other neat thing I wanted to mention is all the tiny earthquakes or tremors that we felt while here. We probably felt a total 5. We are on the 9th floor of our building so we got to feel quite a bit of swaying. It was neat, but I think it would get me nervous if I lived here.

Next stop Beijing China.

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