We are now sitting in our hostel in Kyoto. Time seems to be flying by so quickly – I can’t believe we have only about a week left! There aren’t many opportunities for me to write now since this last part is kind of crammed into ten days or so, but I’ll try to quickly recall as much as I can about Tokyo.
I just walked past someone in our hostel with a British accent saying “I think this is the most civilized place I’ve ever seen!” I guess it’s hard to define “civilized” after a point, but I think by most definitions it is the most “civilized” place in the world. Everything is very clean, efficient, and orderly around here. From what I’ve seen – a very telling sign about a country’s civilization level is usually the state of the public bathrooms. Well good luck trying to beat Japan in that category. Most of the bathrooms here are outfitted with high tech toilets that have seat warmers, butt sprayers, fake flushing noises, and “Strong Deodorizers.” There is a sink that runs over the tank, so that the water that you wash your hands with can be reused to flush the tank the next time the toilet is used. What more could you ever want from a toilet? Also, as you walk down the street, every five steps or so there is a vending machine with a selection of drinks, instant noodles, coffee, and cigarettes. Even in the quietest of side streets, you can pretty much instantly satisfy any sort of craving as long as you have a few 100 yen coins. Despite their reputation for being overly polite, uptight, workaholics, the Japanese people are freakishly nice. When we first emerged from the (wrong) subway exit trying to find our hostel, we only had to stand on the sidewalk looking hopelessly lost for a few minutes before someone stopped and cheerfully pointed us in the right direction (pass the POOOlice! Bam Bam! You know? POOlice!). At one point, I accidentally dropped a 100 yen coin (about 1 US dollar) and it rolled under a parked car. I didn’t even have time to bend down before a man dove under the car to retrieve it for me. The one main disorienting thing is that not many of the people seem to speak English here. I thought that would be a problem in Cambodia, or Indonesia, and it never was – but here in the most “civilized” place in the world, it is hard to come by a menu with English writing. (Gasp! You mean a place can be civilized without English?) I guess it makes sense since they’re beyond having to impress anyone. Anyway, I have a little phrasebook which has been extremely handy, and the people sit through my broken Japanese phrase attempts very patiently and manage not to laugh in my face. My main complaint (which is completely unreasonable, of course) is that the prices for things here are pretty much the same as in America. China will spoil you that way.
On our first night in Tokyo, we stumbled into a Ramen restaurant and had our first communication difficulty encounter. Let’s just say it ended well, but took a lot of sign language and me fishing through the phrasebook to write “I do not eat pork or shellfish” in Japanese on a napkin for Carly to show to the waiter. She has since used it at literally every restaurant we’ve eaten at. After dinner, we decided to explore the Japan Rail (JR) system with our handy dandy JR Pass. We took it to the “Tokyo” stop from our Bakurocho station. That was all easy enough, but then once we were in the Tokyo station, we literally could not find our way out. We followed exit signs through corridor after corridor, ended up in an underground mall, and finally emerged onto a street that didn’t seem to have anything except a minimart. The minimart did have delicious tiny round cookies on sale though, and ever since then I’ve gotten a roll every time we find them. We also found a Golden Spoon – Carly’s favorite Frozen Yogurt store from home – in the subway which was very exciting even though the portions are much smaller in Japan. When we got back to our hostel, which was a very cute, clean little place called Khaosan Tokyo Ninja, we wandered downstairs and met a bunch of other people who were working or staying there. Apparently, they’ll let you stay there for free if you clean for 3 hours a day, so some of the people were just living there for two months or so, cleaning from 11-2, and then hanging out the rest of the day in Tokyo. It’s a rough life.
We made a friend who said he wanted to go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market the next day at 4 am, so we decided to have an early night and wake up early to go with him. A really nice local guy working at the hostel said he’d go with us to show us around. Three hours later we rolled out of bed and went downstairs to meet up with the group. We were joined by a girl from Germany who had just arrived to work at the hostel for a few weeks, and together we set off to see the famed fish. The Tsukiji market is a place where super large, frozen tuna are brought in from all over the world and auctioned off every morning for thousands of dollars. We took one of Tokyo’s expensive, but pleasant and doily covered cabs and got there around 5 am to watch them set up. Market workers dragged the massive frozen tuna across the floor and lined them up on wooden planks. Each fish had a section of its tail sliced off and buyers and sellers walked down the rows, carefully inspecting the meat and hacking at the fish with large hooks. Then each fish was labeled with red paint. At about 6 the auction started. A man would stand up on a bench in front of a section of fish, ring a large bell for a while, and then proceed to yell and make noises while the buyers silently signaled their bids. If this description doesn’t really do it for you, then check out the video (hopefully) posted below. After a while, Carly was feeling faint, and our German friend felt nauseous, so we headed home and proceeded to sleep away most of the day.
When we woke up, we relaxed a bit and did some laundry, and then headed downstairs and spent the night hanging out with the people at the hostel. Our new friend, Leo, stayed up till all hours of the night with us as we chatted with people who came in and out. We met people from Japan, Australia, Canada, Korea, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and America, all staying there for different reasons and with different experiences with Japan and with Asia. Our Korean friend, (who says he’ll meet up with us in Seoul!) told us how talking with people from all different countries in English had been a dream of his. We joked with our Japanese phrasebooks, showed each other photos and you tube videos, snacked and talked for hours. It is pretty amazing to be able to meet so many random, interesting people in one place.
The next day we had to make up for lost time sightseeing so we decided to start strong by waking up early. That plan failed, and we woke up around 11. We started out the day by checking out Yoyogi park, which is a large park with a Shinto temple dedicated to the Meiji emperor and his empress. It’s also known as a hotspot for teenage girls who do “cosplay” (costume play – they dress up in weird random costumes and go hang out), boys who like to dress up as Elvis, dancers, musicians, and any other sort of (softcore) social deviant imaginable. When we got to the park and past a group of little bow peeps, we were approached by a Japanese lady who told us she was a free tour guide and wanted to take us around the park. The smart immediate reaction to this situation is to look down and walk away. In Japan, however, the government hires people to go around and be free tour guides. We had read about this in our guidebook, so we accepted her offer, and she took us around the park, telling us about how they had planted all the trees in the forest there in the early 1900s, and teaching us how to pray to the soul of the emperor in the traditional Shinto style. We found out that she used to be the editor for the official Hello Kitty magazine, and had gotten to travel to America several times for work. She was very sweet and just asked us to fill out a quick survey at the end that was it. See? Freakishly nice.
After Yoyogi, we tried to check out the gardens at the Imperial Palace, but they had just closed so we headed to the Ginza. The Ginza is the main shopping street in Tokyo with designer shopping and famous Japanese style busy crosswalks and neon signs. Our first stop was the Sony Showroom/Store which is a multilevel center for selling the latest and greatest Sony products and also for displaying unreleased future merchandise. The big things they are showing these days are large, flat-screen 3D TVs and tiny super high definition video cameras. It’s pretty crazy. It also successfully made me want everything in the store. Luckily my backpack is too small for that. After the Sony shop we ate dinner and walked around some more, picking up amazing red bean mochi balls, each with a full strawberry in the center. Tokyo is very fast paced but has an exciting vibe. It’s a lot more fun and energetic than other cities I’ve seen and is exceptionally good for people watching. You’re as likely to see women in kimonos or girls dressed up like gothic anime characters as people in business suits. Most of the people are very stylish and made us feel a bit like sloppy Americans.
After the Ginza we went to Shibuya to see the famous crossing that Tokyo is so well known for. Of course, there’s a Starbucks there, so we got a cookie and crossed the street a few times as part of the lively mob. Later we headed to the Mori building in Roppongi, which is the main bar district. We went up to the 54th floor and admired the view of the Tokyo Tower and beautiful lit up city from above. It was about then that my eyeball started aching, so we went back to the hostel. That night we pretty much had to give in to the fact that we are walking disasters. My eye turned bright red and puffy and Carly still doesn’t have her voice back from the China cold. Together we make for what amounts to the worst asian horror scene possible. I bet they’re happy they wear those SARS masks now. They’re probably telling their kids.. “See Sally? That’s what happens to the bad children who don't wear their masks.” Once those kids see my eye, they’ll probably go back and ask for the full body suit. But that’s neither here nor there. We’ll deal with the result of this situation in the Kyoto blog.
The only thing I’ve not mentioned yet that I think is notable is that there are many people who live in boxes in the subway stops. They make long, cardboard box cells and sleep in them with their shoes propped neatly on top and a little rolley suitcase next to the end of the box. In Singapore a news report said that the unemployment rates are soaring here and that many Japanese men get kicked out by their wives if they fail to bring home a good salary. I wonder if they’re now living in boxes. It’s pretty sad. I guess not everything in Japan is perfect.
So far Kyoto is very nice. More to come. Hope everything is well state side! Email me or comment!