November 20, 2003
It’s been more than a week since I got back from Japan. I was hoping that by this time, some magical process would have occurred and my notes about the trip would have been transformed into a polished essay. But no, while I was unpacking and doing laundry and trying to remember how to do my job, the notes remained in their raw state, all unrelated bullet points and rambling paragraphs. I suppose that means I’m not going to get home tonight to find the clean clothes have put themselves away, either. Ah, well. So here I am, notes and screen (and lunch) in front of me, intending to write up the story of my trip to Tokyo before the images fade further into memory.
(Editor’s note: This got rather long; if you just want to see the pictures, go here. In fact, if you want to see all the pictures, you’ll have to go there anyway, because about Day 4 or 5, I realized I’d never get this entry up if I tried to link to individual photos or even tried to upload more than one in twenty of the shots I took. And we haven’t even gotten the film pictures developed yet. Oh my.)
Day 0 – Travel Day, October 31
This day doesn’t get its own number because it wasn’t a proper day, with a sunrise and three meals and then a sunset. It started off normally enough; we got up and did last minute things around the house. Mr. Karen had figured out a way to have the lights on timers start their routine after the danger of trick or treaters thinking we were home but just not giving them candy had passed; he’s clever that way. We left for the airport just a few minutes behind schedule, but I was still stressed about getting there in time and therefore could not appreciate our chatty parking shuttle driver’s tales of Halloweens past (the highlight: he dressed up as a girl one time). As it turned out, we got checked in with enough time to not only visit my favorite part of the terminal, the tunnel of pretty lights, but to take pictures of our plane and have lunch. Then it was onto the aircraft for the next too many hours. It was tolerable, even though we had a window and middle seat when I’m much more an aisle seat kind of woman. Next time, I must remember that they make you put down the window shades for almost the entire flight so people can see the four movies and assorted other video entertainment, which means Mr. Karen won’t be able to enjoy the window view he likes so much (and besides, a view of the ocean hour after hour from that high up isn’t that compelling anyway). I also must remember that Northwest’s 747-400’s have a few rows in coach that have two seats across on the sides instead of three, so I could have had my aisle at the same time as Mr. Karen had his window; I envied those people every time I walked by them to go to the bathroom in the back. I did not try to sneak up to the business class bathrooms; I’m sure I would have envied those people even more.
Day 1 – More Travel and Arrival
I’m not sure when it turned into November 1st. About three hours after we got on the plane, we had dinner, which was not appropriate in either the time zone we’d left or the one we were headed toward. It never got dark outside, but a few hours before landing in the late afternoon we had breakfast. This was my first trip across the International Date Line, and I found it just a little confusing. Still, once I was on the ground in Japan, there was too much to look at to spend any more time wondering where those missing hours had gone. On the walk from the gate (and by “gate”, I mean “place where the bus we boarded and rode on for several minutes after deplaning dropped us off”) to immigration we saw several fascinating and incomprehensible posters, one which featured what I called the “new terminal fairy” because it had a grown woman dressed in a costume with wings and a wand and seemed, based on the few English words sprinkled into the text, to have something to do with the airport construction that was going on and one which had a group of cute prairie dogs for no reason we could discern because it was all in Japanese. Since I had no small animals in my luggage, I didn’t worry too much about that one. The line for immigration was rather long, so by the time we got through it and collected our luggage and cleared customs, I was really tired. Fortunately, getting tickets for the bus to the hotel was simple and the short wait we had before the next one came was filled with watching the enthusiastic crowd of people who were there to greet Bobby Valentine; they had banners and bells and sang and chanted and the television cameras caught all the action as Mr. Valentine emerged from the terminal and gave a brief interview before being whisked off in a minivan.
I tried to stay awake on the bus in order to absorb all the new sights but didn’t quite manage. Despite the interior being lit approximately as bright as the sun, I dozed off more than once, though I was awake to catch a glimpse of Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea as well as a really, really big Ferris wheel and approximately four thousand vending machines glowing reassuringly in the night. There were a few traffic jams and our hotel was the last stop for the bus, so it took about two hours to get there from Narita. We checked in without any trouble, other than my sleep-deprived brain having trouble coming up with the right answer to put in the spot for my age (I still don’t know why they asked that). After we got settled in the room, we headed back downstairs to explore the hotel until it was a more reasonable time to go to bed. Since we’d been sitting and eating all day, we decided to just get some snacks from a little store off the lobby instead of doing a full sit-down dinner. My favorite thing we bought was the lemon water which claimed on the label to be “The Best Suitable For Us”.
Day 2 – Personal Tour
We stayed around the hotel in the morning, lest we get lost and miss our first scheduled event of the trip, a meetup with the woman I know as Schmennifer. Now, we don’t normally get lost, but from what I’d read it’s easier to do in Tokyo than many places and I wasn’t taking any chances. Mostly, we strolled in the garden, which was just like I’d expect a Japanese garden to be, complete with an arched bridge and what I always thought were koi but the hotel brochure said were carp. Unexpectedly, it also had a cat, the first of several freelance felines we’d see during the course of the week (I call them “freelance” because they didn’t seem to belong to anyone in particular).
Despite the hotel having multiple front desks (something I hadn’t anticipated when I picked that as a meeting place), Schmennifer found us and we headed out into the city. It was great having someone to show us around and help us get acclimated. First, we took the train to Harajuku. I gawked at the crowds and the shops and even the manhole covers. (I really liked all the different ones we came across during the week.) We went to the Meiji shrine, where they had a special display of chrysanthemums big and small and unusual. We strolled through Yoyogi Park and a nearby street festival. There, I spotted a grandmotherly type with bright lilac hair and we looked at photos of animals up for adoption, including a tiny dog not much bigger than the stuffed animals he was posed with. There was also a small display of flower arrangements which were very cool. We wandered through Shibuya (not to be cofused with Shinjuku). I got mesmerized by the gel pen section in the Loft store– so many brands, so many colors; I had a hard time choosing. Schmennifer also knew where there was a fabric store, and she could read the directory of what was on which floor, so we headed right for the cottons I could use for quilting. I got some small pieces of prints that match my sense of what Japanese florals are as well as two half meters of prints that were a Japanese interpretation of 1950’s America, with happy housewives in high heels and captions that read thing like “Beake a Cake”. It was an excellent first full day in Tokyo.
Day 3 – Culture Day
It was a national holiday, which meant that things that would normally be closed on Mondays, like most museums, were open (and would then be closed on Tuesday). We headed off to Ueno Park and got cultured by touring some of the Tokyo National Museum, where they had some very cool stuff. We lasted one and half buildings worth before culture fatigue set in and we walked to the other end of the park and toured the zoo, stopping to get what turned out to be a yellow sweet potato from a vendor on the way. I’d heard that the zoo was not state of the art, and that’s true, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared it might be, and they were making a new exhibit area for the elephants, so they are trying to make improvements. The snow monkeys didn’t have a hot tub like they do in Detroit, but they did have a lot of playground equipment and even a scale to weigh themselves. They even had cavies, both wild and domesticated. And because it was Japan, they had a pagoda, which I did not get a good picture of because it was very misty and grey out.
It rained on and off the whole day, and I was very impressed by the umbrella management provisions put in place. The museum had a large umbrella check fixture on the porch; you put your wet umbrella in one of the slots, locked it in, and took the key with you. A store we stopped in on the way back to the train station had a dispenser of narrow plastic bags just the right size for a rolled up umbrella, with an integrated trash bin so one could dispose of the bag on the way out. We kept the bag and reused it several times so we didn’t have to deal with a dripping umbrella on the trains and in smaller places that didn’t have a dispenser, like the sushi go round near the hotel where we had dinner. Eating food grabbed off a conveyer belt was on our list of things we wanted to do in Japan, and it was an excellent experience.
Day 4 – An Objective Achieved
One of my other goals for this trip was to find a specific quilt shop that I’d read about. I had two maps to it and anecdotal evidence that other gaijin quilters had navigated their way there, so we set out for Kichijoji. Even with my maps and the atlas, it took us a while to arrive at Quilt House Yama; the tricky part (well, once we found the correct street) was that it turned out to be on the third floor of a small enclosed mall set back from the main storefronts. As had been the case with the shop I visited in Paris, most of the fabric was from the U.S., but there was enough Japanese stuff that Mr. Karen had time to explore the whole rest of the mall while I deliberated about which pieces to take home with me. Buoyed by that success, we set off for the fabric store that was supposed to be a few blocks away, but it had moved or gone out of business or was hiding from us, because we never found it. Ah well, we were cheered up by lunch, which was a buffet featuring all sorts of unusual pizzas, like corn, shrimp, lettuce with ranch dressing, fried potato, cuttlefish, and eggplant/honey/mustard. Fortunately the pieces were small so we could try them all! In the afternoon, we sought out Tokyu Hands, another store with a fantastic gel pen selection. We toured all the floors, from sporting goods to hardware to pet supplies (evidently Japanese guinea pigs get to eat dried fish for treats) and more. Like IKEA, I’m glad I don’t live near one of these or my budget would be in a shambles.
We then made our way to the Tokyo Tower, which, unlike the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, was open on the Tuesday after a Monday national holiday and would satisfy our “look at the city from up high” jones. When we got there, we were greeted by a special display for Christmas which included a charming scene of Godzilla menacing the tower, all in twinkling lights. The whole place was a little bit tacky, but the views were great. After coming down to earth, we had dinner at an Indian restaurant with terrific food but confusing service, with things we hadn’t ordered being delivered to the table and my entrÃ©e either never showing up or being completely unrelated to the description on the English menu. I’m still not sure if we ate what we paid for or vice versa, but it sure was tasty. We finished our day in Roppongi, in search of a Hard Rock CafÃ© souvenir for one of Mr. Karen’s coworkers. This was my least favorite area we went in Tokyo. It seemed too flashy and glitzy; admittedly, we didn’t go in anywhere but the gift shop, but just walking down the street I got the feeling I wanted to be elsewhere.
Day 5 – Tokyo DisneySea
In the morning, we checked out of the New Otani and made our way to the Hotel MiraCosta in Chiba. Our way was a taxi, which, while ridiculously expensive, was direct and saved us from having to wrangle our big American suitcases through the train stations, which are often quite stair-riffic. We got there hours before check-in (which was at “fifteen o’clock” per the bellman who took our bags from the trunk), but were able to store our luggage and get our park passes charged to our room right away. Then it was just a few steps through the lobby to the Tokyo DisneySea theme park. Since there’s nothing comparable to this park in the rest of the Disney universe, we wanted to see it first thing. It was excellent. It’s a fairly new park, and there was obviously room to add attractions, yet it felt complete. Everything was very well themed and the rides were fun. The only less than great thing was spending entirely too long staking out a spot to see the nighttime show on the lagoon, which was our fault for not doing enough research to know that while it’s a good show, it’s no Illuminations – Reflections of Earth.
It was nice to be staying right there; we could just walk up to our room rather than having to take a monorail to the train station and train back to Tokyo. The hotel was the fanciest and, probably not coincidently, the most expensive one I’ve ever stayed at; it was here we had the heated seat oscillating spray supertoilet. We also had a motion sensitive light in the foyer of the room, which I’ve never encountered in a hotel before. It was nice to have the light come on as soon as we entered the room– none of that fumbling around for the light switch in a strange place– and it also gave me the chance to play secret agent when I got up at night, flattening myself against the wall as I slid along it toward the doorway to the bathroom to avoid triggering the sensor and filling the space with light while Mr. Karen was sleeping. If it had been a longer stay, I would have been looking into how to disable the thing.
Day 6 – Tokyo Disneyland
The last time Mr. Karen was in Japan, he got to spend only a couple hours at Tokyo Disneyland, so having the whole day was luxury. A lot of the attractions are very similar to the ones in the Florida, California, and Paris versions, but there’s enough that’s different to make it worth spending the time. The absolute best ride there was the Pooh ride in Fantasyland, which we almost didn’t do. The wait to get Fastpasses for it, much less ride it, was ridiculously long, and we’d been on the U.S. Pooh ride, so it didn’t seem like a good use of time. We were on our way out of the park in the last hour and decided to just check one more time to see if the line had gone down, which it had, so we got in and rode. It was a delight, so much that we got back in line just before closing and rode it again. We thought it would be similar to the other dark rides at Disney, with vehicles on tracks, but this was an entirely different technology. I laughed out loud from surprise more than once, and cranky as I can get at the end of the day when I’m tired, that’s high praise.
Day 7 – More Disney
Our passes allowed us to visit both parks this day, so we started with the sea and finished with the land, picking up attractions we’d missed the first time around and revisiting places we particularly liked. It was noticeably more crowded than the previous two days, especially in the evening. The parks seemed able to absorb all the people pretty well, though. Also, this crowd was very well behaved. We were especially amazed at the nighttime parade, when we were 10 yards back from the rope line and still able to sit on the ground and see the parade because everyone in front of us was also sitting down. No one had parked any huge strollers in the way or decided to stand up at the last minute so they could get a better view. We’ve never ever seen anything like it in the dozens of times we’ve seen Disney parades.
The only bad thing about Tokyo Disney Resort was the dearth of the types of souvenirs we like. We’ve come to expect to be tempted by more magnets, tee shirts, and sweatshirts than we can possibly buy, but here the selection was very heavily skewed toward gift food– lots and lots of cookie assortments and cracker variety packs– and stationery. Also, Eeyore, who gets most of my Disney souvenir dollar, was almost nonexistent. Pooh was incredibly popular, but his sad grey donkey sidekick did not seem to be riding his coattails. They did have a good selection of CD’s, though, so we didn’t go home empty-handed. We did get just a little tired of Christmas by the time we left; both parks were already fully decorated for the holiday and Christmas music was everywhere. It was all beautifully done, just a little early for my taste.
The cab ride back into Tokyo was slightly less ridiculously expensive (I almost opted for the train, except there was still the giant luggage issue, and the being really tired issue, and the not knowing exactly where we were going issue) because our third hotel was in a different part of Tokyo. There was little confusion before we got into the cab because what I thought was Renaissance Ginza Hotel is more popularly called the Ginza Tobu (ah, that would explain why we couldn’t find it in the excellent Tokyo City Atlas), but it was all sorted out once I pulled out the map I’d printed off the Internet before we left.
Day 8 – Back in the City
I wanted to see at least one more Japanese garden before we left, so I picked one that was between the train station and the boat terminal where I thought we could get a harbor tour. It was a small garden, but very nice (if you could block out the noise of the trains and the traffic). We even got to see some traditional drummers give a performance. After a detour to the cruise ship terminal, we found the right place for harbor tours, but decided instead to take a cruise up the Sumida River to Asakusa (not to be confused with Akasaka, though I kept doing just that and had to look it up to be sure). By the time we got to the Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum, which I really wanted to see because I like small museums, it was just before closing time, but they let us in anyway and stayed open late so we could see all two floors (or it could be they were just about to call the police and tell them we’d ignored their polite requests to leave when we finished up; it’s hard to know exactly). We didn’t really have time to do the Edo Tokyo Museum after that, but we did it anyway, covering the exhibits at record pace. This museum was much less flexible than the earthquake people about closing time; between the multiple loudspeaker announcements that they were closing and the uniformed guides every ten feet pointing the way to the exit, it was clear they wanted everyone out. They even pulled the shades down in the gift shop right on time. No staying late to make an additional sale here.
Day 9 – Kamakura
We felt a need to get out of the city air for a bit, so we took the train to Kamakura and saw the big Buddha, where once again I felt a little silly taking pictures with a camera when the really popular thing to do was take pictures with a phone, and then on Enoshima to see the water. It was not the best day to be at the beach, what with the wind and the drizzle and the chill, but that did mean no crowds. Besides, it was an excellent excuse to get hot lemon drink at the convenience store. Mr. Karen got something that we speculated was a brain tonic based on the picture on the bottle can; it tasted like liquid Sweet Tarts. I loved trying so many different beverages while we were there. Not only was it fun, it distracted me from the fact that diet Coke was not nearly as popular there as here. All those vending machines, and very few of them had diet Coke. Though if the Japanese all walk as much as we were walking just getting around, they don’t need it.
Day 10 – Mt. Takao
Once again, we did something inappropriate for the weather conditions and went to Mt. Takao. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji from the top. On a day like we went, you are lucky to see the signs along the side of the trail (but they’re all in Japanese, so you don’t really need to see them anyway). Still, crowds were nonexistent, so that’s a plus. We finished our day back in Harajuku and Shibuya doing some last minute shopping. I thought for sure that Kiddyland, a four (or was it five?) story toy store would have some Domo-kun stuff, but no such luck. At the Oriental Bazaar, I did find the same yukata (cotton robe) I’d been coveted at one of the department stores for a better price, so that was worth the trip.
Day 11 – Travel and Home
Finishing out our time in Tokyo in style, we went to McDonald’s for breakfast. I had the hot dog. It came with mustard and relish, just like at home. Of course at home, I do not eat hot dogs at 8 a.m., but that’s just because I’m too conventional. I took a few more pictures of cute cartoons and manhole covers and we were off on the airport bus. Next time, I must remember to arrive even earlier, because we did not have time to explore the whole shopping mall in Terminal 1. We would have had more time, except we had to stand and watch while people searched both our carryon and checked luggage. The TSA had searched our checked bags before the flight over– or at least they’d put cards in our suitcases saying they had– but here we had to supervise. I was glad I had contained my dirty underwear in one bag instead of stuffing into all the odd spaces between other things the way I used to in the good old days. There’d been signs warning us that the line for immigration might be an hour long, but it wasn’t, so we had time for lunch near the gate before we boarded. Mr. Karen did not like the cheese-filled fish balls side dish as much as I did. Then we got on the plane and sat and ate and watched some of the movies (one was the recent remake of The Inlaws; we saw the version with Peter Falk on our first date way back in 1979) and sat and ate and got home at few hours before we left.
It was a great trip. I think I’m just about rested up from it by now and pondering what should replace Japan on my list of the top five places I want to visit. I’m leaning toward Alaska or New York City. It seems wrong to have been to Tokyo and Paris and L.A. and Chicago and Toronto and not NYC. Of course, I want to go back to Japan, too, but that will have to wait.