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Swamp Thoughts

Monday, June 02, 2008

Chop-Chop Tokyo

Tokyo, Japan: a place where I did not want to go. In fact, the culture of Japan remained so far from what I valued, I admit that I felt somewhat repulsed and loathed to even meet people who manufacture respect for someone who didn’t earn it. And to make my heels dig further into the solid concrete ground, I would be visiting a city. Born and raised in suburbia and country sides, I couldn’t even imagine myself enjoying cramped skyscrapers or the hum of people lurching in waves. And embarrassingly enough, after trying numerous times and methods, I could not use chopsticks. However, my eyes were to open as my love for adventure and discovery were tapped by the wonders of Tokyo.

Breaking down my misgivings of going to an anniversary celebration and training for my martial art in Tokyo, I was enticed and then lured to the prospect of getting a tour of a 400-year-old dojo at the Emperor’s Imperial Palace. This opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime event, led me to spend my money and brave the streets of Tokyo, and its people.

The plane over to Narita airport embodies my first impression of Tokyo: crowded. However, I had no time to focus on expectations and previous notions of Japan. As our little group exited the gates, so did our own version of the Kentucky Derby begin, the finish line being our beds. We were off, focused on getting to our hotel as soon as possible, and maybe getting an actual meal after traveling for 18 hours.

But it wasn’t so. As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we were met by an emissary of the larger group who told us to drop our stuff in our room, and return to the lobby: it was time to meet up with the rest of our group – who had already been in Japan a couple of days, who hadn’t just been up for several hours in several versions of an iron tube, who had showered and eaten balanced meals during the day. These were the people we were meeting, and we were not in the best of moods.

Humoring everyone, we dropped our bags and made another frantic rush to the restaurant. We were late, and almost everyone had finished eating. People drank and our food had already been ordered for us: salad…oh, and water. I had to eat salad with chopsticks. I wanted to cry.

Adding insult to injury, they split the tab up amongst everyone in our party. Each of us had to pay 3200 yen. Yes, that does equal $32 US dollars. I tell you, my stomach was not the only thing growling that night.

Returning to the hotel unsatisfied, I and a couple others, hit a 24-hour bento box place just around the corner from our hotel. I took the first thing that looked good: rice with bits of chicken. And you know what they did? Do you? Of course you don’t. They did the one thing that made me want to dance across the Emperor’s gardens: they gave me a SPOON!

I took my meal back to the hotel (it breaks custom to eat while you are walking around) I scooped up each of those mouthfuls with tears of joy in my eyes. I still have that spoon….

Anyway, despite the first couple of hours of Tokyo, and a shock that would rock all of us, the rest of the trip turned out to be a lot of fun for several of us and a personal enlightenment for me.

The next day, we woke up early to enjoy a Japanese-style breakfast at Royal Host, a place that reminded me of Denny’s. A Japanese-style breakfast always comes with some kind of protein on the plate. In one “set”, you get a piece of salmon and vegetable soup. In another set, you get a salad, an egg, and toast. Japan has an order, a way of doing things that you don’t mess with, otherwise, you can confuse the natives, or, even get them in trouble. For meals, if you want something substituted, it’s best just to order two different meals. And no, you cannot take the left-over food with you.

Again, we jump on the train, this time to the gym where we practice. At this time, I’m stunned at the efficiency of the trains. The trains arrive and leave at exactly the times published. Another realization strikes me, even though I was warned: there are a ton of vending machines. Not only for drinks, but you can find vending machines for food, toiletries, and cigarettes. The funny thing though, was even though I was warned about the heavy smoking in Japan, I had only noticed the cigarette smell in my nonsmoking hotel room, until that evening when I encountered a smoker who was in the waiting area of a restaurant. I guess, along with consuming food and drink in public, you don’t commonly smoke while walking around, either.

After a training session of throwing people around, we took the train back to our hotel, showered, and dodged the sluggish decision-making process of the larger group. Unlike the train system, making decisions lies on the other end of the Japanese cultural spectrum. We knew we didn’t have time to accommodate the larger group, so we informed our trip liaison of our plans, and raced off to see Shinjuku before we had to return for the Saturday night banquet.

One person of our excursion group had lived in Japan before, so he knew the train routes, and fortunately, the language as well. We got to Shinjuku and ogled the glowing neon lights, the shouting salespeople who stood outside their stores with shiny cell phone displays, and the books in the 7-story bookstore. Later, after the banquet, I was to return with my Japanese-speaking buddy to visit a Mister Donuts and check out the seedier side streets of Shinjuku (Soapland). Japan doesn’t condone prostitution or gambling, but you can visit “massage parlors” or play Pachinko for “prizes”.

Sunday came upon us quickly, we were already done training, showered, and searching for the Emperor’s Imperial Palace before we realized that we were moments away from the reason why we all paid for this trip: the Emperor’s onsite dojo.

We are introduced to our guide, a personal assistant to the Empress, and a translator, who had a harem of 3 girls following him around. Next to our guide, was the coordinator of the trip, Tadashi. He smiled big in anticipation of seeing the dojo.

Our guide told us about the main gates and the palace guard stations, and our translator, poor guy, did his best, but I soon started to ignore him and read the signs. Our large group moved passed the first guard station and Tadashi almost ran over to a gate, where behind it, he indicated the dojo with a big smile on his face. Our guide gave him the arm cross and said something in Japanese. I knew something was up by Tadashi’s crestfallen expression and the fact that our guide gave him the denied gesture. The Japanese crowd grew silent while the non-speakers looked about in confusion as we all continued our tour away from the dojo.

The news, I found out later, as we were lead to the souvenir shop, was that for security reasons, we were not allowed into the dojo. I had such an enjoyable time so far in Tokyo, that it took a while to soak in. I gave over my passport information, paid for the trip, and invested all this time, for no dojo and only 6 hours of training? What the hell? Believe me, I wasn’t the only one disappointed. Several of the Americans said their family had to make sacrifices for the amount of money they paid. One family had to cancel their family trip to Japan so only one of them could go. Another family had just experienced a lay-off, and had very little cash to spend. But all of these families knew that viewing this dojo, with all its history and art, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So they said, GO. And now, we were denied access. And since this was Japan, what authority says, goes.

But despite the smothering of the catalyst that brought me to Japan, the adventures outside the dojo, and the people I traveled with, made the whole trip worthwhile, especially dodging the Yakuza that evening.

After the events at the Emperor’s Imperial Palace, we went to Shibuya. We just flowed into the sea of people at the main plaza as if we’d done it several times before. At one end was the train station where we came from, and at the other end stood a building with one side used exclusively as a TV screen to project advertisements. I gawked at the building while ducking and dodging the crowd, keeping up with my wily companions.

We went up a side street to see a capsule hotel, which contains morgue-like beds for businessmen, where, once again, we were denied access. Along the way, we found a restaurant serving puffer fish (fugu), the kind that will kill you if you don’t prepare them right. We didn’t enter, but we took pictures of the giant puffer fish coming out of the building and the tank of them pleading for us to save them. Our stomachs grumbled, so we went to buy one of those scrumptious wafer encased ice cream sandwiches at the nearby 7-11 store (the ones we ate at the palace were way too soggy to be satisfying).

Now, our stomachs full, we hit a Pachinko casino. As one of our troupe described it, the decibel level in that place was equivalent to a rock concert in a jet engine. That same person bought 2000 yen ($20 US) of silver balls, which he preceded to put in this Pachinko machine called “Sea Story”. He mocked fear as the machine started blinking and making sounds. We had no idea what was happening, and then a lady came over to show us what we needed to do. Our Japanese-speaking friend, who had never entered a Pachinko casino in his 9 years in Japan, got nervous, unsure whether we might be charged “extra” fees (like sitting or gaijin fees) by the Yakuza, who have a big hand in Pachinko.

Under duress, our Pachinko-playing companion had to trade his winnings in for orange juice, Choco Pies, some mystery object, and a plastic item with a gold flake, the size of a thumbnail, in it. The barker, who happened to be impossibly louder than the Pachinko casino sounds, told us to go outside to exchange the gold flake. But she couldn’t tell us where, just “outside and up”. So we went upstairs, and then downstairs, not finding anywhere where we could exchange this object. At this point, we wondered if we even wanted to, since everyone we asked whispered “outside” as their eyes darted this way and that. Finally, someone discretely pointed to the company name on the plastic object, “T.U.C.”

Outside the Pachinko joint, along the street, we found a dark corner, next to a garage, and a tinted window with a drop box. Written on the window, masking the person’s face behind it, were the letters, “T.U.C.” We dropped the plastic gold flake item into the drop box, hands pulled the box in and grabbed at it. 3500 yen was placed in the box, and pushed back at us. We said thank you, no response, and we just booked it out of there.

Perhaps it was the relief of tension, or the fact that we were tired, but we laughed and laughed about how silly the whole situation was. We headed back to our hotel after that, sharing our thoughts about our time in Shibuya and the rest of our adventures in Tokyo. Tomorrow, we’d be heading home, but not before we visited a temple.

The next morning, we had 3 hours to enjoy Tokyo’s ancient offerings before we had to leave for the airport. After breakfast, we headed over to Asakusa Temple. Asakusa Temple is a Buddhist temple, where you can place prayers on a piece of paper, cleanse yourself with incense and water, and offer some money and a moment of respectful silence. The Japanese-manicured gardens around the temple contained koi and several statues. The approach to the temple was the major attraction, however. A huge red lantern greeted visitors (it had a dragon at the bottom of it), along with some giant gods. Along the way, shops and food vendors sold trinkets and food of all kind. It smelled good, and soon after we got there, a mob of people filled the streets between the vendors. Side streets afforded some breathing room and other shops. We found a McDonalds there, where I got a welcome fountain drink.

We had 30 minutes to shop, and then we had to go. I got a couple items for friends and family, but overall, I was not able to do any souvenir shopping for people, though there is plenty to look at and buy.

We were in the airport before I realized that the only shopping time I had was at the Asakusa Temple. All of it was sightseeing, and experiencing the culture and the people. Then I was struck with another realization as I mentally reviewed the trip: After all these years, I could use chopsticks! We had to squeeze food in between all the activities, to which we had grown into savage beasts at meal times. I had very little time to think of using chopsticks: all I wanted was that food in my mouth and into my mewling stomach. By the end of the trip, I used chopsticks like a pro. I guess everything comes down to a level of necessity!

As I was doing my journal during my 9-hour flight, I also understood a truth about myself: many aspects of my personality aligned with that of Japanese culture, and perhaps the reason I was so loathe to go was that I knew subconsciously how closely I’d get to seeing myself in the mirror. I’ve heard a saying that people don’t like certain characters in movies because they’re too similar to the people who don’t like them. For me, it was true. I saw myself clearer than I had after this trip.

For instance, I let people be who they are, and if I don’t like them, I usually avoid them, saying nothing about my dislike for them. I figure that if they want to change, then they have to make that change. My views won’t help them unless they ask, which I’d gladly give. In short, I determined that people will eventually figure “it” out, as I just go on my way. I saw that mirrored with how Japan views people in authority: Someone has earned a level of authority or achievement, and you honor that, but it doesn’t mean you have to respect that person, and it isn’t your place to tell that person what he or she “should” do. They will figure it out eventually, with or without your help.

So, what I viewed as manufactured respect for people at the beginning of the trip, is actually honoring the achievement rather than the person. If the person earns the respect, so much the better, otherwise, we reserve our respect for someone who deserves it.

In conclusion, Tokyo is a city….in Japan. And I would go back for more adventure. I would recommend two things for people who want to visit Japan: bring an English version of the train and subway stops, and have someone there to speak Japanese for you. Also, remember that though Japanese people mind their own business, try to observe and follow their cultural nuances. Other than that, enjoy the availability of sake from a vending machine!


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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:43 AM, June 03, 2008  

  • Yeah, I doubt I'd ever visit my "homeland". They'd probably frown at my ignorance of their language and courtisies.

    By Blogger saoki, at 5:12 PM, June 08, 2008  

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