Travels in Japan, 2011: Week 1

Our younger son Sid and I took Asiana Airlines via Seoul to Tokyo on Aug. 25. Although we had rescheduled our flight to allow time for changing planes, the first flight was late and the always polite and impeccably attired staff had to hustle us through Korean security to get us to the plane to Tokyo, making them 10 minutes late for takeoff.

View of Narita We had arranged to spend the first night at a Narita airport hotel, the slightly worn but welcoming Mercure. Here's the view from our hotel room, showing the colors of tile roofs and the Coca-Cola bottling plant in the background. In our short walk in the town to get Sid dinner at a kombini (convenience store; he refuses to eat on airplanes), we could tell that this was something of an entertainment district on that Friday night. The breakfast buffet let us try both Japanese (rice, miso soup, pickles, fish, poached egg, nori) and Western (fruit, coffee, and excellent pastries) styles. Since Asiana Airlines had politely but incompetently shipped one of Sid's suitcases to Bangkok, we had to go back to the airport the next day to pick it up and use the takuhaibin service to send it on to Sid's dorm at International Christian University (ICU) for move-in day, Sept. 1. I found it very handy that they did not insist on charging storage fees for the five days. Sid took the opportunity while we were in the airport to make sure Grooveshark, his music-streaming website of choice, does in fact work in Japan.

From the airport we took a local train to Ueno, not the center of Tokyo but the area we were to focus on for the next couple of days: Ueno Park, with its museums, and Asakusa. After walking the sign-laden streets near the station and getting a sense of the crowds andmany people handing out flyers, we had lunch at an Indian restaurant that used short-grained rather than Basmati rice.

Lotus in Shinobazu Pond, Ueno ParkWe went back into the park to go see Benten Hall, a shrine built on an island in a pond that's really a puddle with huge, blooming lotus plants. On the way we came across a gymnastics troupe with an impressive chair act that drew a big crowd (below left).

When we were ready to carry our backbacks to our inn, Ryokan Shigetsu, we found crowds headed for the Asakusa stop at the end of the Metro line, dressed up in bright, new (often rented) kimono (below right), ready for a Saturday evening of fireworks over the Sumida River. This annual festival had been postponed from July due to the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11. (If you're curious, Sid sent in his application materials to ICU three days before that event.)

Tokyo gymnastFestival-goers at Sensoji, Asakusa
Kaminarimon, Asakusa

Staying two nights at Ryokan Shigetsu was a very nice way to get the traditional experience of sleeping on a futon on the floor, eat yummy food, and ease into life in Japan. There was even a concert on the koto at Sunday breakfast. It is located just off the famous shopping street, Nakamise-dori, which leads to the Sensoji temple area with its five-storied pagoda and gates, one of which is Kaminarimon (left).

The temple area is where we went on the Saturday evening to see the fireworks, after trying to get closer to the river and finding that the trees and police with megaphones impeded our view and comfort. We eventually found a spot to stand in a crowd where we got a good view of a fireworks display with an unusual variety of colors. I found it interesting to hear what people exclaim—mostly "Ohhh!" and "Ii!" (which also means good). We also had a bit of street food, what I somehow thought was yakitori but turned out to be a hot dog wrapped in bacon. Later we ate tendon, fish with a somewhat heavier and oilier batter than tempura.

cicada on tree in Ueno ParkThat first Sunday we went back to Ueno Park, an area of many trees, strolling families, and loud cicadas. We started with the Tokyo National Museum and its Highlights of Japanese Art exhibit, which occupies 10 rooms and shows artifacts from early Jomon culture 12,000 years ago to the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 19th century, many of them national treasures. Sid took a lot of photos of Buddhist demons (below left), and I found the swords (below right) and calligraphy rooms the most interesting.

We stepped into the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (Culture Hall), an attractive building where Sid could go sometime to hear chamber music or the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.

Statue of a Buddhist demonKatana sword, Tokyo National Museum

Then we decided to see the National Science Museum, which covers what should really be called natural history (there are several more up-to-date science and technology museums elsewhere in the city). There we investigated the geology, fossils, plants, insects, and sea creatures of Japan.

Monday morning the plan was to carry our medium-size yet obtrusive packs to the Shinjuku Prince Hotel where we would stay four nights, in the process learning how to take the Metro and seeing how big the city is. We got instantly confused by walking out of the wrong exit from Shinjuku-eki and walking straight ahead. The plentiful street-map signs we had grown accustomed to in the Ueno district were nowhere to be seen, and we discovered that the policemen in the koban boxes know only their immediate fiefdom and don't do well in directing people beyond the edge of their local maps. Eventually, after a Thai lunch, we did manage to check in to a nice hotel with a tiny room, booked at a 50% discount. This was our first exposure to washlets, the toilets that start running water or deoderizer as soon as you touch them, and can spray different types of showers. Hot water was abundant, both for the bath and in the hall for making tea in the room, but I had apparently promised Sid a swimming pool, something the building did not offer. We did have a fun view of neon signs (and one evening, an illuminated MetLife blimp) from our 15th-floor window.

Imperial PalaceWhile staying in Shinjuku we wanted to get to know Tokyo's neighborhoods, which we did by taking the above-ground Yamanote line in a circle to see Ikebukuro (a working-class neighborhood we saw from the train), Akihabara (bought Sid a $65 clock radio), Hibiya to see the gardens near the imperial palace (right), and Shibuya. On the micro level we practiced finding a particular address from the chome to the block to the building (numbered in the order they were built).Before we left Shinjuku we experienced the underground mall and huge station at rush hour, noting the business suits and plethora of umbrellas (black for men, pink or white for women, clear is unisex). We also went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in the rain, to look at the view at night. It's a free elevator ride to the 45th floor.

Meiji Shrine archOne day we went to the Meiji Shrine, surrounded by a peaceful forest (left), where we read the English instructions to use the ladle and purify our hands, and sat in the garden built to bring to mind Empress Shoken's beloved Musashino Plains. Apparently it would be particularly beautiful in June, when the river of dirt becomes a river of irises.

Kamakura DaibutsuOther excursions included our trip to a coin laundry north of the Kabuki-cho part of Shinjuku, where we discovered the shops and market of Koreatown, and to Kamakura, beyond Yohohama by train, where we visited the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), an 11-meter high bronze on a 2-meter pedestal (right), and Hasedera. Unfortunately, I sprained my ankle just as we arrived at the station, and had the strange experience of no one stopping to ask if I was all right. My first thought was that I would get to a bench and have Sid go ask for an ice pack somewhere, but though we knew aisu would work, the fact that it's used commonly for iced coffee and ice cream meant we didn't think Sid would get very far without a verb and other words to explain the request. So I sat and thought about bus routes while Sid went off to try to get cash from an ATM (which turned out not to work, since we had forgotten to notify his bank of his heading to Japan). We did meet a woman who had once lived in Chicago,who assured us we were waiting for the right bus. The Hasedera temple is in a beautiful setting overlooking the beach, with kites soaring overhead (a type of bird that signs informed us would snatch food from right in front of us). There are several interesting parts to the temple grounds (below), including a rotating sutra rack (where apparently you can attain the same merit by rotating the shelves as from reading all the sutras), the golden Buddha, and the cave with alcoves devoted to Benzaiten, one of the seven Lucky Gods, and her 16 children.

Pond at entrance to Hasedera, Kamakura

Sid at Kamakura beach After a small snack (the restaurant was being renovated) we walked (or in my case, limped) over to the beach, where in spite of the warnings in our guidebook about litter Sid would have liked to go swimming (right). Suddenly there were announcements over a loudspeaker and personally via a lifeguard that we had to get out of the water as a typhoon was coming. The waves did seem large, but not dangerous. More about that typhoon later.

We decided I would take the cute Enoden electric train back to Kamakura station, while Sid got a walk. This was the second situation where I suddenly worried that if we couldn't find each other we would be in big trouble, what with our lack of cell phones and limited Japanese. When we did reconnect (without a problem) we went to have expensive coffee in a women's clothing boutique—7500 yen (about $10) each!

Sid's dorm roomOn Sept. 1 Sid packed up and we went by Chuo Line to Musashisakai station south exit, where we took bus 93 from stop 2 to the ICU campus. (Of course I'm just telling you this so you can visit Sid yourself!) This area, west of Tokyo proper, is geographically the Musashino plains beloved by the Meiji empress. My first impression of the campus is that resembles a jungle, since it had just rained and the cicadas were buzzing loudly. Sid attended a meeting with the dean and other faculty first, as he had been chosen to read the student pledge in English during the following day's matriculation ceremony. Then we visited his dorm, Oak House, and the student building with its bookstore and meeting rooms. Oak House, just opened in March, is built of concrete with many glass walls that allow one to see into the mens' floor kitchen and TV/gaming lounge (though exclusive key cards keep out outsiders and the women who live on the second and third floors). Sid's room has a window and many storage shelves and drawers. I helped him unpack and settle in, and then we got a quick lunch at the dining hall, making note of the cost (about $5.25 for a bowl of beef and rice) since he does not have a prepaid meal plan. After trying to straighten out his Bank of America woes with a collect call from a public phone, we said good-bye. He was off to his dorm to meet more students, and I headed back to Shinjuku to rest my ankle with a type of ice pack normally provided for people with fevers to put on their heads and plan my next steps.

The photos on this page are by Sid Dellby and Beth Chapple.
Copyright September 20, 2011 by Beth Chapple. All rights reserved.

TopHomeOn to Week 2