Our trip to Japan started on Saturday morning, leaving DC to Tokyo, with a stop at JFK. JFK was oh-so-much fun to stop at - because we were on an international flight, we had to exit our arrival terminal entirely, go to another terminal, get our international tickets, go through security all over again and then get on the plane for Japan. We had an hour to do that. We rushed to the plane withonly moments to spare, only to hear the announcement that our flight was delayed. And so our adventures began...
Our plane was a big ol' 747, which is much larger than anything else I'd ever been on. Despite its size (we were on the upper deck), six hours into the trip my butt was aching and my feet had swollen twice their normal size. After a little more than 13 hours of seated pleasure, we arrived in Tokyo and navigated the airport. Thankfully, many of the signs had English letters. In fact, to be honest, it was MUCH easier to navigate than JFK was!
You can guess where my first stop was once exiting the plane. Although the rest of the airport was very "Westernized," the bathroom is where culture shock began. This was what was awaiting me in the stall. It’s a hole in the ground with a splash guard. I wore a skirt to travel in, so it was a fun way to initiate myself into the squatting technique needed to use these things. And I’ve leared a few things along the way – “toire wa doko desu ka” means "where is the toilet?". Toire (pronounced "toy-ray"... see? you can learn Japanese, too!) are quite an adventure here.
In order to get to our first hotel, we first took a local express into Tokyo. Then we had to find the bullet train (shinkansen) to Kyoto. On the shinkansen they also had the hole-in-the-ground version of toire, which I'm sure is quite difficult to use when going over 180 miles per hour. Thankfully, they also had a Western toilet, which I decided was my best bet after that long day.
From Kyoto we took a local train to Otsu, which is where we are now. We arrived there at midnight, clocking in at just over 24 hours of continous travel. I wish we had photos of the trains, the down here and such, but it gets dark at 6 p.m. here, and we were too tired to think about cameras anyway. Once checking into our hotel in Otsu, though, we were met with our next discovery in the world of toire - the automatic, seat warming, bidet style. The handle features about six buttons, all of which are marked in Japanese. We're still figuring that one out a button at a time. You can adjust the heat, jet stream, angle, water temperature and a fan turns on the minute you sit down. These, I could get used to.
After taking a shower and hitting the deep, Japanese style tub, I crashed for about 10 hours. I can see why bathing is so popular here - after a long day in 90+ degree heat and humidity unlike anything I've ever experienced before, all I can think about is that bath tub. I need one of those at home, too.
Today was our first full day here. I got up late, then Jason and I went and walked around Biwaka (Lake Biwa) a bit, though there's not much to see. It's interesting that 7-11s are huge here - you find them more frequently here than in the US. The tea is great, and served with every meal. Oh, and the sushi... to DIE for. Unlike anything I've had in the US. And that's just the hotel sushi. I can't wait to get more rural.
The people here are super nice and courteous. Strangers stopped to help us find our way and many tried their best to understand our miserable Japanese attempts. We visited a local grocery store, just to try it out. It was fun to see what brands are here (Fanta, Pringles, Lipton, Koka Kora...). Everything, though, is in Japanese, and it's difficult to guess what some things are. There are vending machines on every corner, but very little soda. I think most of the stuff is juice, tea and caffe au lait... but it's all in Japanese, so hard to decipher what is what. We've tried a few snack foods, but I have no clue what they are. I had some tea that tasted like hay. And I had some sort of curry for dinner that looked awful but tasted great.
During our wanderings today, we also found a Japanese arcade. We were definitely the only caucasians in the joint. I tried my hand at pachinko, which I think is something along the lines of a marriage between a ping pong machine and slot machine. I have no clue how it works or what I was doing, but it was loud, noisy and a truly Japanese thing to do, so I did it. Jason found a bongo drum virtual machine which he played with for a while. One hundred yen goes a long way in one of those places (about $1).
It is fun to be in such a different culture. Though it looks very Westernized here in terms of architecture, and even fashion, it is definitely very different from the US.
We're here on Lake Biwa for 3 days for my conference, before heading on to Kyoto, which is a very old city that was Japan's capital for over 1,000 years. Hopefully I can sneak out of conferences a bit to see more, though there really isn't much to see where we are now. I'll update as I can... it's amazing that there's no Internet easily accessible in such a technologically advanced country. Heated toilets - no WiFi - go figure!