It's taken me days to find the time or energy to follow up with the final part of the Japan trip and to wrap up my thoughts. I'm still exhausted, but here goes on somewhat of a conclusion to our journey...
After leaving the serenity of Koyasan, we climbed back aboard the local bus, took the cable car, took the local train, grabbed an express train, sped along on the shinkansen (bullet train) and navigated the subway system that took us, 8 hours later, to our final destination, Tokyo. Unlike the rest of Japan that I had experienced, Tokyo was very Western feeling. Skyscrapers abounded in every direction, neon signs clamored for my attention and the subway system was like navigating along the noodles in a pile of spaghetti. I became wary and agitated, worried about pickpockets and speeding taxis. Basically, it felt like I was back in the US. But with a language barrier.
After navigating the subway to our approximate area of the city, we walked around cluelessly for about half an hour before giving up and getting a cab. Navigating Tokyo is next to impossible - most streets don't have names. Addresses go like this... 2-3-1 Yoyogi (our hotel's address). This means that it's in Yoyogi area, is in chome (or grid) 2, block 3, building 1. This may seem to make some sense, until you throw into the mix that blocks, buildings and chomes do not go in any order that a foreigner would understand. They were numbered as they were built. So 2 may be next to 32. Cab drivers don't have a clue - they rely on GPS. Locals don't know anything except their very small, local area of blocks. It's frustrating as heck to get around there.
Tokyo is a metropolis just like every other I've ever been to. Nothing really stood out to me. Perhaps it was the weariness of our long trip. Maybe it was my extreme homesickness for my girls and furry children. Or it could be that I was just sick of the language barriers, foreign food and lack of wi-fi. I felt disconnected and alone, drowning in a vast sea of strangers.
We did manage to get out and discover shabu-shabu and sukiyaki. We ate from a big bowl of boiling broth, into which we added vegetables from a salad bar, beef and pork, stirring and boiling it as we ate. I broke my meat ban big time, and payed for it dearly, but it felt great to have a meal I enjoyed eating after days of tempura'd leaves, boiled tofu and beans.
We also traveled across the city to the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, which was built in 645 (and rebuilt after the Tokyo bombing of 1945). The story goes that in 628, two fisherman brothers netted a golden statue of Kannon, goddess of mercy. Sensoji was built to house the statue, and thousands flock there to seek her favor by burning incense.
The entrance to the temple boasted an impressive gate with a gigantic paper lantern hanging from its ballast. After walking through the gate and admiring its impressively fearful gaurdians, I was transported into a lane filled with colorful flags, legions of souvenir peddlers and a carnival-like atmosphere. The lane ended at the main gate to the temple, alongside which stood an impressive five-story pagoda.
We stopped inside the main gate to get our fortunes, which is accomplished by dropping 100¥ into a slot, shaking a container with sticks in it until one alls out, matching the Japanese-scripted number on the stick to a numbered drawer and removing your fortune. I pulled my drawer, and was instantly surrounded by onlookers oohing and ahhing - apparently I had pulled the best fortune one can obtain. Jason's luck was very different - he got the worst one possible. It was funny that ours were so different, with over 30-some in the mix that we could have gotten!
On our way out of Asakusa, we stumbled across a ferry dock, and on a whim decided to take a ride and see where it went. It took us to the Southern business district near Roppingi, where we were met by salarymen just getting off of work. We followed the masses into a subway station, stopping for a bottle of "Happy Hoppy" (couldn't resist that one!) in one of the plethora of eating and dining establishments in the underground malls that are scattered throughout Tokyo.
The final day we managed to drag ourselves out of bed at 5:00 a.m. to head down to Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest in the world. I'd be lying to say we were thrilled about going. But, it was our last day there, and it was one of those things I thought I'd be disappointed about not seeing when I returned, so on we trudged. Well, actually we just called a cab. Though we knew it would cost about $30 each way, we were both too tired to try navigating it.
The market was impressive, with fishermen who had clearly been at sea quite some time scurrying around in their big, black boots. Deliverymen drove little carts like bats out of hell throughout the narrow corridors, and it was hard to stay out of their way. We finally found the auction and watched the strange hand signals, auctioneer calls and fish-tagging take place. Then we stopped at a little dive for some very-fresh sushi. It was good, but to be honest, sushi at 6 a.m. after more than a week of raw fish almost daily about did us in. Neither of us could finish our orders. I accidentally ate some fermented fish eggs which I think I can still taste from time to time in the back of my mouth.
We rushed back to the hotel, caught a shuttle (2-hours!) to the airport, rode a delayed flight out to Chicago, missed our connecting, landed another flight to DC, arrived, found our luggage had not, and waited around for an hour or so for Jason's dad to pick us up. Our luggage arrived the next evening on our doorstep. Thank you, United, for that special bonus at the end of a long trip.
All in all, Japan was a wonderful experience. I definitely recommend going. I do have some suggestions if you do decide to go, though:
- Don't waste time learning too much Japanese. All they say to you is thank you, please, hello, goodbye anyway (remember, you are American, and therefore a Barbarian). Add in a request to find the bathroom "toire wa domo desu ka" in the mix, and you're good to go. Yes, you'll have a tough time. But really, you'll have a tough time even if you learn multiple phrases. It's just that different.
- Ignore the advice about bringing lots of tissues to use as toilet paper. Everywhere I went, even public bathrooms in remote places, had toilet paper. Chalk that one up to myth.
- Buy Frommer's at least a month or two before traveling. It was our constant companion on this trip.
- Don't blow your nose in public. Or put your hands in your pockets. Or cross your arms. Or stare. Or wear shoes into a temple. A voice of experience, people.
- About 10% of Japanese women wear kimonos. I’m not sure why. Is it religious? For certain jobs? Or just a preference?
- Men can push women around on the subways, as well as children. And that's ok. By them, at least. Not by me.
- It's not fun to go to a foreign country where everyone is tiny when you are bordering ginormous and have huge breasts. You get openly stared at. Or at least your breasts do, because they're at everyone else's eye level.
- It’s a more extreme culture shock than anything I have ever experienced before. Because there are few roman characters on maps and signs, it’s very hard to find what you’re looking for. Thankfully, I was addicted to mahjong on my computer for years, so I eventually matched the symbols to our guide maps/books, at least enough to navigate and find food.
- English-worded shirts (with Roman letters) are extremely popular, but many of the sayings make no sense at all to us. Visit Engrish.com for some great examples. They're not exaggerating in the least.
- Stop to read the English translations of signs when they are present. Hilarious. See photo at right for an example.
- If you don't know how to say it in Japanese, try saying it in English, replacing the l's with r's. E.g. Coka-Cora. Seriously. Sank-you is also quite common. Many said "sank you" to us repeatedly.