Friday, April 27, 2007

Bye Bye Birdie

Tuesday morning Jeff and I woke leisurely and had breakfast on the top floor restaurant with great views of the city of Kyoto. It is surrounded by mountains. We took the shuttle to the train station which is the largest in Japan. Many floors with department stores, restaurants and a Café du Monde, direct from New Orleans. Now we are on our own and have to deal with our luggage. We had bought Japan Rail Passes at home and now we exchange them for the week long pass. We board a Shinkasen (bullet train) where we have reserved seats in the rear. The only place to store large suitcases is behind the rear seat and we are lucky that there is space. Between cars of the train is an attendant who sells food and helps you board. She took my heavy suitcase and stored it for me. And remember that there is no tipping in Japan so they are nice to you anyway and even bow and smile while providing a service.

A 15 minute ride takes us to Osaka and we change to a subway to take us near the hotel which is atop another train station. A man helped me with my suitcase on steps and directs us to hotel.
Swissotel is very chic and we are on the 30th floor with sweeping views of the city. There are pajamas and a chaise lounge in the room and I plan to stay there all night. First we settle in and talk to the concierge to make a plan. We take the subway to Osaka Castle which is situated high atop Osaka Park. The whole complex is huge and we walk through a flower market area to a large fountain. Then we trudge down a road to a very high set of stairs which we climb and then we walk and walk until we can see the castle grounds. We pass groves of cherry and plum trees and azaleas starting to bloom in reds, purples and white.
I ate fried dumplings with octopus and vegetables in a brown sauce. Jeff had donburi with pork and soup. We entered the castle and went to observatory on 8th floor. Great views. Walk down through exhibits.
We took asmall train down to the park entrance and walked to subway. Back at hotel to collapse and later went downstairs to Takashimaya deprtment store to buy prepared food which we ate in the room. Fell asleep on lounge in hotel pajamas. Great night's sleep.

Wednesday we woke in Osaka and had a rain day to see the city. We decided to go to the aquarium and took the subway. First we took a ride on one of the world's largest ferris wheels with great views of the city and harbor. Next we had lunch which consisted of vegetable pancakes cooked on a grill in our table. It was mostly shredded cabbage - I liked it and Jeff did not. The aquarium was very good and beautiful displays. Afterwards we had beignets and hot chocolate at a Cafe du Monde (there are several in Japan).

Back at the hotel we waited for Brian to arrive and decided to take an early train to Hiroshima in the morning.

Hiroshima is a small city in the south of Japan and it has been completely rebuilt since the bombing which ended WWII. I was surprised that people actually want to live there, but found it to be a thriving area which we enjoyed visiting.

After checking in to the hotel we took a local train and then a ferry to Miyamjima Island. This turned out to be a beautiful, restful trip. The island is lush and tranquil. First stop along the coast we walked to a Shinto shrine with a famous Torii gate which stands in the water. Unfortunately they were doing repair work so there was scaffolding and we were there at low tide so there was just mud, but you get the idea. The temple was large and we meandered the grounds. Then we walked in a park working our way up the hillside to a cable car. Up to the top and then to a gondola which took us to a lookout high atop the island. We looked out to the Sea of Japan and many small islands. Definitely worth the trip and walking.

Later we shopped along the main street and then returned to Hiroshima. That night we enjoyed the noght life in town and had dinner at a chic restaurant. Next day was devoted to visiting the Peace Park in downston Hiroshima. This is under the spot where the bomb actually detonated and there are several memorials as well as one building which survived the blast and has been left as a grim reminder. At the children's memorial we were lucky to see a group of school children making a presentation and hear then singing. We spent more time in the museum which has wxcellent displays about the war, the bombing and the aftermath. The whole experience was very moving and the three of us said kaddish at the main "centograph" memorial where all the names of the dead are buried.

That night we took the train back to Tokyo and stayed with Brian at his place in Shibuya-ku. He has a gorgous three bedroom, 2 1/2 bath apartment in a swanky area.

Now it is Saturday and we walked around Brian's neighborhood and visited the Meiji Shrine which is walking distance from his apartment. Everything is so clean and organized here. Hundreds of people cross the street at major intersections, but it is done so effortlessly and courteously. We had lunch at an American style place and enjoyed some down time. For dinner Brian took us to a lovely hibachi restaurnat near Roppongi. This is nothing like a Beni Hana where the chef puts on a show. This is truly elegant with scrumptious food. The shrimp we had for appetizers was alive and wiggling when put on the grill. A little macabre, but delicious. Later we walked around this part of town and then went home for some TV and relaxing.

Sunday is our last day and we are pooped. Jeff chose to stay on the couch while Brian and I opted to visit Ueno Park and the Tokyo Zoo. Again I am amazed by the sheer numbers of people and their politeness. Even the zoo is immaculate and there was a maintenance worker actually scraping gum off the sidewalks.

Our last dinner was tankatsu which is fried pork of many varieties. They also have shrimp and veggies so we all enjoyed. Monday morning was a work day so we all woke early and left together. Brian headed for the subway and Jeff and I got a cab to the train station. There we transferred to a train to Narita Airport and our flight home. We arrived at JFK on Monday morning, an hour before we left and had jet lag for the next week.

This was such an amazing trip. Best of all was seeing Brian, but experiencing another culture is so fascinating. We have so many wonderful memories and I can't wait to go back again and see more of Japan and other countries in Asia.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Monday Morning

Monday in Kyoto
We returned to the Royal Rhiga Hotel and left our bags. This was a free day and we had many things planned. First we headed to the Imperial Palace to take the English tour at 10am. You have to present yourself at their office with your passport to gain entrance and there was a large crowd. Unfortunately the tour wasn't great. You are not allowed to go inside any of the buildings even though the palace is empty and never used. So we trekked around and saw the buildings and beautiful gardens, but I wouldn't recommend this site.

Next we took the train to Nara to spend a peaceful afternoon in this ancient capital city. This was one of the best places we saw. A beautiful little city with large open spaces, parks and tame deer everywhere. The deer are considered to be messengers from G-d and a protected species. We did buy deer food and found them to be adorable, but a little pushy. One guy gave me a nip on the rear when I didn't get the food to him fast enough. All in all Jeff and I really enjoyed being with them as they followed us like puppies.

First stop was a huge Buddhist Temple complex with the world's largest cast bronze Buddha. He was huge! It was so impressive as you walked down this long path with beautiful gardens on each side. The building is very old and the largest wooden structure in the world. Inside was the Buddha with a bronze warrior on each side. Other interesting displays completed the scene. Next we walked up a hill to a Shinto Shrine complex which was peaceful and had great views. Our third site was a temple with thousands of stone lanterns. I know this is starting to sound mundane, but each place is more gorgeous than the next and the size of the buildings and gardens is awesome.

I have to write about the school kids. There were groups everywhere and are they cute. They all wear uniforms and look very neat compared to the US kids. They seem playful, but are disciplined and courteous. We got a big kick seeing them and they would often wave to us or practice a few words in English.

We ate some lunch by showing the waitress what we wanted by pointing to the plastic displays in the window. Wearily we walked back to the train station and rode home. Back in Kyoto our group of 7 went out for a farewell dinner at an Italian restaurant. We just had to have pizza and pasta.

In the morning everyone but us left for the airport and Jeff and I were on our own.

A Small Hotel...

Sunday at Gion Yoshiima Ryokan
This was one of our best days and we laughed through most of it. After settling in our room and getting comfortable in our robes we relaxed and read for a while. Now each hotel has its own robe made from a special fabric design and leather slippers. Inside we wore only our socks and special bathroom slippers kept inside that room. A small booklet explained all the customs for the Ryokan even how to tie the sash on our robe. I opted to wear the little jacket over the robe for warmth. Before dinner we were given a time to go to the bath. Even though we had a small wooden tub in our room, the downstairs bath was larger and could accomodate both of us. So we were led downstairs and again soaped up and showered before entering the tub. Let's say it was cozy, but the warm water felt good and the wooden tub had a lovely scent. After bathing we put on our robes and went back upstairs where our room had been set up for dinner. Susan & Barry joined us and we all sat uncomfortably on our legless chairs.

Our nine course dinner was brought in on trays and placed before us. There is no family style here and you end up with a zillion little plates in front of you. We had raw fish, steamed fish, relishes, and each comes with it's own dipping sauces. There were little straw baskets with tempura (fried prawns and veggies), rice, soup and noodles. Fresh fruit was the dessert with more to come at the tea ceremony. Each course was delicately put in front of us and we really had no idea of much of what we tried to eat. The funniest part was that Jeff & Barry didn't quite fit in their robes and spent a great deal of time getting comfortable and adjusting themselves for coverage. You don't wear anything under the robe, but Jeff did wear underwear or this site would be X rated.

After dinner we were summoned to the tea house. We were led to the garden and the inn's owner gave us a summary of what was to come. The funny part was that he had lived in New York for many years and not only knew Trenton, but said that he remembered our Trenton Makes, the World Takes bridge. His son then took over and we entered the garden and walked to the small tea house. But, to our horror, instead of using the door he slipped open a small panel in the side wall and asked us to crawl inside. You can see the panel behind Jeff in the photos above and it is quite small. You step on a rock outside and then crawl in and around to your place where you are supposed to sit on your knees. I was first so I had a bird's eye view of the others and it was a riot. Sure you can laugh at us, but imagine being naked under a robe and crawling on your knees. It's hard to keep the thing closed and getting into a comfortable position and acting serious about the ceremony is more than we could handle. But, after lots of shifting we found ourselves drinking green tea and eating a finger size piece of bean paste fudge which we cut and served ourselves with a toothpick. I'm still chuckling just thinking about it.

Afterwards he allowed us to leave through the shogi screen door because even he couldn't imagine sheparding us back out the side panel. We then visited their small museum and finally made our way back upstairs. We were allowed to go outside (in the robes) and take a walk, but we declined. Our room had been transformed into a bedroom with large mattresses and quilts on the floor. Once we got down there we slept well and got ready to eat again in the morning.

Our attendant came in and stowed away the bed stuff and brought back the table and chairs. We have opted for a Western style breakfast and had juice, eggs and bacon, toast and coffee/tea. Then we dressed and headed downstairs to retrieve our shoes and go back to the hotel. They gave us parting gifts and called a cab. Two of the front desk women stood at attention as we got into the cab and bowed as we drove away. They were probably laughing at us as much as we did.

What a wonderful experience!


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sitting On Top Of The World

I wake at 4am and check my e-mail and write a little. Now it is 5:15am and I wonder if I’ll ever get back to a normal sleep routine. It’s starting to get light outside and I can see miles and miles of buildings. There are tall skyscrapers in the cosmopolitan centers and smaller buildings and apartment houses spread out. Brian says the Japanese are obsessed with new things and there is construction going on everywhere. I am impressed by how neat and clean it is here. The people are all dressed well and the young women are so chic. One style here is over the knee dark stockings with a short skirt. They wear high heels with this ensemble and some substitute dressy long shorts for the skirt. We’ve seen many young school children alone on the subways and they wear uniforms. I’ve seen a few women in kimonos. Men on the subways are mostly young and wearing dark suits with good shoes and messenger type bags. Everyone reads while they are riding or listen to an ipod or push buttons on their phone (probably playing a game). Very few people speak on their phones in public which would be welcome in the US. Also no one eats on the subways or while walking on the street.

After breakfast we board a bus to Mt. Fuji and the resort area of Hakone.
Our first sight of the mountain is beautiful with the perfectly shaped cone top covered in snow. We had lunch at a hotel and then rode to Mt. Fuji's 5th station where summer hikers start their climb to the top. It is the dream of all Japanese to ascend to the summit of Mt. Fuji once in their life. Today it is very windy and we visit a Shinto shrine and take refuge from the wind in a gift shop. Back down the winding road to a lake near Hakone. We took a short ride on a catamaran ferry and then on to the hotel. Our room was comfortable and we put on robes and slippers and went to the public baths. The baths are fed by onsen or natural springs. Men and women are separate and there were lockers for all your clothes and belongings. After you are naked with only a small hand towel to cover yourself you proceed to the washing area. Here you sit on small stools and use the provided soaps and shampoos to clean yourself. Once you are clean you can enter the inside or outdoor baths to soak and relax. Later we dressed and our group met for a buffet dinner at one of the hotel restaurants.

In the morning I walked in the beautiful gardens and then we left for Kyoto. We took a van to the train station and a bullet train (Shinkansen)to Kyoto. The Kyoto train and bus station is the largest in Japan and it is immense. Besides being a transportation hub it has six floors of shopping including a department store and a floor of restaurants. The hotel shuttle bus drove us to the Royal Rhiga Hotel around the corner. We had a tiny room with nice amenities and another electronic toilet. This one had a fan built in and a button which activated a flushing sound in case you made embarrassing noises. We immediately ventured off in a cab with Susan & Barry to the Philosopher’s Walk. We got off in a busy area and walked up a narrow street with open shops and food stalls on both sides. At the top of hill was the Silver Pavilion. The grounds are beautiful with large sand sculptures. Some cherry trees and azaleas were in bloom. Water trickling and great views from high walkways made this like paradise even though the temple building was never painted silver and remained brown wood. Later we walked along the canal and visited two Shinto shrines. There were little craft shops along the way and many people out for a stroll. I took a photo of a woman dressed in a kimono and we saw some beautiful houses. Afterwards we took a cab to the Gion area. Our driver showed us the museum area and Chion Temple where they filmed The Last Samurai. We passed under a very large orange Torii (Tor–e–e) Gate which means a Shinto Shrine and not a Buddhist Temple which usually has red paint and a purple drape.

Walking around Gion we saw Geisha’s coming in cabs to work. Many women were wearing kimonos and wooden clogs. We made our way to “restaurant street” and found a traditional tempura place. Sat at tables – they did have floor seating areas – and had a tempura set. This is a full course meal with sashimi, sweets, salad, tempura, rice, soup and fruit dessert. The guys had Shabu Shabu which was thin slices of meat cooked in a pot of boiling water in the center of the table. There was a huge plate of veggies added to the water and rice cakes. We are getting very good at eating with chopsticks. Most places have no napkins, but do give you a washcloth to clean your hands before the meal. Most Japanese carry their own hanky to wipe their mouth. Afterward we walked down a main shopping street with fan shops, candy and prepared foods.

Breakfast included at the hotel was a buffet. Our group went on a half day tour of Kyoto. First stop was Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo), home of the Shogun. Very impressive grounds and gardens. Inside we took off our shoes and visited reception rooms with gorgeous wood carvings and silk painted wall hangings. Saw rooms where generals visited and wives met and they had mannequins in period dress.

Next was a Buddhist Temple with lots of lanterns which are dedicated by individuals. Inside there were many areas to pray. You make a donation – 5 yen – ring a bell to attract attention, clap two times, bow and pray. Students come here to pray for success on exams and new parents bring their baby to pray for good life. They are all brought here by the new father’s parents. There are also places to buy fortunes and good luck charms. The Japanese seem to be very superstitious. If you don't like your fortune you can tie it to a metal rack so there is no down side.

Third stop was the Golden Pavilion. Wow! A gorgeous setting with lakes and gardens and tea houses. The Golden Pavilion has gold gilt paint and just gleams. It sits in the middle of a pond with exquisite landscaping, rocks, waterfalls and trees of every shape, color and texture. We walked around the grounds and then to the Kyoto Handicrafts Center. I bought two small jewelry cases and 8 chopstick holders. They are male & female mallard ducks.

Now the adventure begins as we (Susan & Barry) take a cab to our Ryokan (traditional inn) in the Gion District. The cab driver was not familiar with our address and I had to say it in Japanese. Finally he found the street and actually got out of the cab to direct us. The cabs are so clean and have doily headrests and seat covers. The left rear door opens and closes automatically. You cannot get out on the right side in traffic. The drivers wear suits and some wear white gloves.

So we walk down the street and Barry finds the sign. We are able to leave our overnight bags and take off to have lunch. We ate at a coffee shop where we were the only ones not Japanese. I had a shrimp au gratin which I enjoyed. Looking out the window many women were strolling in kimonos. Traditionally each girl comes of age at 20 and her parents buy her a kimono which costs at least $3000. So I can understand why they want to wear it occasionally. After eating we walked around the small streets while Jeff took a nap lying on the riverbank.

We arrived back at the Gion Hishoyima Ryokan and were shown to our rooms. Of course you take your shoes off and leave them at the door and change into slippers. We were on the second floor and entered into a small hallway where you leave your slippers and walk around in special socks that separate your big toe from the rest of your toes. The sink and shower room are on the right and a western style toilet on the left. The toilet room has another pair of slippers inside and a small sink for washing your hands. The large room had tatami mats covering the floor and a cabinet for our things on one wall. There was a black lacquer low table with two legless chairs. Beyond that was a small veranda with shogi screens and a table with two chairs. Also a small dressing area and this looked out to a garden.
My next section will describe the bath, dinner and tea ceremony.


Our "Social Contract" or lack thereof

OK. I'm back up on my soapbox.

Judy and I both had the same reactions when we got off the plane at JFK: the people were loud and rude and the place was filthy! We are still asking ourselves why this has to be.

Now I am really going to oversimplify here, and I am basing my thoughts on a two-week trip and not a lot of research, but here goes. It seem that the Japanese strive for excellence in all things, no matter how small. We saw bus drivers take great pride in sweeping out their bus at the end of a ride. The people working at McDonald's (Yes, there are a ton of them there.) were well-groomed and provided excellent service while taking pride in their job. The Japanese seems to take as a matter of course that they and all those around them will do the best they can.

It seems to me that Americans mostly take the opposite point of view. "Why should I work hard if I can get away with not working?" "Instead of forcing me to do my best let's bring everyone else down to my level so I don't have a poor self-image." Although I have no first-hand knowledge I would be willing to bet that Japanese students don't get pushed from grade to grade without having learned anything.

We have all heard stories about how xenophobic the Japanese are: how they feel that they are a pure race and that all others are barbarians. This may be true. But you could not tell it from any interactions we had with the Japanese. Without exception the people were polite and helpful even when neither spoke the other's language. (OK - there was one guy on a train who stood up when I sat down next to him. I would like to think that he did this so Judy and I could sit together.) One lovely older woman offered to take our picture. We chatted briefly with her. Then she said, "Thank you for visiting our country. I hope you enjoy your stay." Just what a New Yorker might do. (NOT!)

Admittedly Japanese society is a little rigid, but I wonder if the trade-offs aren't worth it. We saw 7, 8, 9-year-old kids traveling by themselves on the subway. Try that in New York.

According to Brian there is virtually no street crime in Tokyo. He says that, if you were walking down a dark street in Tokyo and dropped a wad of 1000 yen notes, whoever was there would stop and help you pick them up. (Try that in New York as well!)

He also says that, if you are waiting in a train station with your luggage and want to go into a shop, you can safely leave your luggage out in the station area and no one will steal it or think it is a bomb. (Fuggedaboutit!)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Japan is a better country than the US. I most certainly am not. I just think that as a society we have come to the point where we too readily accept mediocrity, and we have much that we could learn from the Japanese.

I don't think that as a society we are ready to change, but I intend to do my part. I will try to be polite and respectful to strangers - especially to foreigners. And if I know even a few words in their language, so much the better.

I will try to avoid mediocrity in myself and discourage it in others. Perhaps if I refuse to accept mediocre service then maybe the trend will catch on.

I will try to remember that it is my (and your!) responsibility to be a high standard toward which others may rise rather than a "lowest common denominator" toward which others may sag.

It is often said that travel broadens one's horizons. In this case I seem to have found my horizons at home to be much nearer than I would have thought.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Lessons from Japan

I just realized yesterday that Judy has not been blogging during our Japan trip. She has been typing like crazy but she never posted the info. I started to post to the blog yesterday (2 days ago? Today? Crossing the International Date Line really messes with your head!) but I was using Brian's laptop and it crashed. I am sure that Judy will be full of day-to-day info so, as is my wont, I will add some color commentary.

I would bet that this will not be the only post that I make on this subject because the scope is so wide, but I wanted to get my thoughts down while they are fresh.

We learned a lot while we were in Japan. Certainly we learned a great deal about Japan, but we learned more about the United States. There is a great deal to be admired in Japanes society, and two weeks there made us realize some major shortcomings here at home.

First of all is the level of politeness. You have to experience it to believe it. Whether is is someone holding an elevator for you, giving you directions in English that is as bad as your Japanese, or smiling when serving you the politeness is ingrained in their society. As is the excellent service they provide. Taxi drivers wear suits and white gloves and are genuinely pleased to help you with your luggage. Hotel staff sincerely welcomes you when you come into the lobby. The entire staff of a restaurant - wait staff, cashier, cooks, busboys - gives sincere thanks when you leave. Trains and buses are swept and cleaned after every trip. Train stations are clean - no litter, no homeless, no urine smells. There is virtually no petty crime. People are proud of their job whether it be sophisticated or menial. Oh, yes. There is no tipping.

I had long talks with Brian about this. I told him that we could do well to implement some of these practices at home. He told me - in some detail - why it wouldn't work. He feels that the Japanese have a "social contract" that we in the US don't - and can't - have.

The basic contract is that there is a common good and it is the duty of everyone to contribute to that common good. We will keep the subway cars clean if you don't slash the seats and paint graffiti on them. We will be polite in virtually every instance because we know you will be polite as well. We will cheerfully perform our job to the best of our ability because when everyone does that we have a neat, efficient, and pleasant society.

There is more - much more, but I will continue it at another time. We just got off a 13 hour plane ride plus another 2 hours from JFK home. We picked up Ziggy at the spa and are ready to pass out. It's good to be home again even if we are moving in 6 days!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Come Fly With Me

Sunday, April 8, 2007
Jeff and I are off to Japan and to see Brian! Today is Easter and we drive up to JFK airport and stay overnight at the Ramada Plaza where we park the car for our trip. Next morning we took the shuttle to ANA, All Nippon Airways. The flight left at 12:30pm and took about 12 hours landing us at Narita Airport at 3:30pm on Tuesday afternoon. It was a great flight considering the length. The flight attendants were lovely Japanese gals who smiled and were very attentive. Food service was excellent with two meals and a snack service. They had many items on the food trays including an adorable toothpick. Soft drinks and liquors were brought around several times and you could stop in the galley and pour yourself juice or help yourself to a snack or fruit. We had our own movie screens and could choose from a variety of movies, TV or audio programs. I watched Pursuit of Happyness and Happy Feet. Good news is we arrived safely on Tuesday afternoon and found the airport bus to Shinjuku and our hotel, the Keio Plaza.

Our hotel is a large, tourist facility and very nice with large, comfortable rooms. The toilet looked a little scary with an electronic panel on the side with controls for the bidet and spray. The flush was on the wall below the sink, but once it was all figured out very pleasant. I’ve always been afraid to use a bidet, but now I am a fan of the warm water spray. Yes, there is a temperature control. Our bellman was a trainee and spoke hardly any English and is the custom refused to take a tip. He did show us our slippers and we have a beautiful view from the 19th floor. We look out at the Government buildings, a huge complex with an observation area in one tower. We met a couple at the airport who are on our Club ABC Tour. They are Toby and Stan Cohen from Old Bridge, NJ.

After settling in the room we called Brian and he came over after work. It is definitely worth flying half way around the world to see him. He looks wonderful and is comfortable living here. We walked out the back door of the hotel into a commercial area of Shinjuku. Narrow streets are loaded with small restaurants, pachinko parlors, bars and lots of neon lights. Brian chose Yaki…., a Korean grill. We sat in a raised wood booth with a round coal pit in the middle. The staff spoke no English, but Brian ordered for us in Japanese. We had salad, tongue (traditional with a lemony sauce), marbled beef strips, vegetable plate and a dish of sliced tomatoes that were delicious. We grilled the meats and vegetables and ate the tomatoes and small pickles. Everything was fresh and very good and it was fun to sit and cook and talk. With the bill they brought individual sticks of “dessert” gum. Afterwards we walked around a little soaking up the sights and realizing that we were very tired. On the way back to the hotel we passed a group of “salarymen” out after work. These are middle management types wearing dark suits and getting very drunk. One guy actually passed out and fell to the ground where he stayed. We were aghast, but Brian said that kind of drinking is normal and everyone is safe and happy and there is virtually no crime in Japan.

After a great night’s sleep we rose and made our way to the second basement level where there are three restaurants serving breakfast. As we were being shown to our table I noticed a guy who looked like my next door neighbor. Well – surprise – it was Barry Bloom and Susan Cohen. They are not only staying here – they are on our tour! What are the chances? We are all so amazed. Actually there are only seven people in our ABC group and after breakfast we headed out on a morning tour of Tokyo. A bus takes us to the central bus station where we board another bus and drive to the Tokyo tower. This looks like an orange Eiffel Tower and is a few meters taller than the Paris one. The young female employees are wearing blue suits and large stylish hats. They look so cosmopolitan. Up at the top you have a terrific view of Tokyo and all the adjoining areas. Our guide points out some interesting sights and Jeff and I fooled around taking a photo in a booth with Japanese instructions. Back on the ground we got on the bus and saw several limousines, photographers and police. Apparently the Iraqi prime minister was visiting too with lots of security.

Next stop was the Imperial Palace. The Emperor and family live there so you can only visit outside the gates and one garden area. We got off the bus and walked around a little seeing the moat, macro bonsai trees and a large stone wall. This is in downtown Tokyo and we saw the main train station and also the building where Brian works. We drove to an older part of town and visited the Akasuka Temple. This beautiful complex includes a large pagoda. The main wooden temple was crowded mostly with Japanese. People come here to pray for good health and luck. We bought fortunes by making a donation, shaking a stick (with a number) from a metal container and then finding the drawer with that number on it which contained a paper with your fortune. Of course the numbers were written in Japanese characters, but a lovely young lady helped us and there was an English translation on the fortune. We liked our fortune, if not there is a rack with metal bars and you can tie your paper on that rack. We also tossed 5 yen into a large pit and prayed for good fortune. Brian told us later that 5 is a good number and never to use 4 yen as that is very bad luck. The Japanese word for four is the same as the word for death. Outside was a round kiosk with incense burning. You waft the smoke onto yourself and ask for good health. We walked around a little and there was also a street with little stands selling things. There were cherry blossom branches and beautiful paintings along the way. A good place to spend more time.

Back on the bus we headed to Ginza and decided to get off there and not continue on the tour to a pearl factory. Ginza is exciting. Wide avenues and all neon like Times Square. Large department stores and specialty shops are plentiful and the intersections allow pedestrians to cross across or diagonally and there were crowds everywhere. Jeff, Susan, Barry and I visited the Sony showroom and saw all the latest technology. They have Walkmen the size of a cigarette lighter. Then we headed for one of the department stores where the 8th floor had several restaurants. We chose a tempura place and were seated in a private room in the back. Luckily the place had plastic food displays and pictures on the menu. Jeff had soup with two large tempura prawns. The remaining three of us had a ginza special meal. First a small salad with seaweed and something white. Then a relish tray with tiny sweet pickles and daikon radish slices. A rice bowl with tempura shrimp and zucchini on top was next with a soy sauce. I opted for cold noodles which came in a bamboo box with a little jug of sauce which you poured into a bowl and then using the chopsticks dunked the noodles before slurping them up. For dessert there were dried fruits with a bean paste on top and green tea. Very sweet and refreshing. The tableware and service is so interesting and beautiful. Noodles and/or rice are usually eaten after the meat or fish.

After lunch we were beat and returned to the hotel to nap and get ready for dinner. I should mention that the subways are delightful. Good signage showing maps, fares and station exits are very helpful. On the train there are electronic signs that show where you are and announcements are made in Japanese and English. The staff are extremely nice and go out of their way to assist you often leaving their station and walking you where you need to go. Everything is done with yen, foreign currency is not allowed, and tipping in restaurants or cabs is just not part of this culture.

Dinner was quite an experience. While our hotel is very nice, the Park Hyatt is just exquisite. Situated around the corner from our hotel we cabbed over and were greeted by a female bellperson in a dark suit. All the employees wear this uniform and all spoke better English than we had encountered elsewhere. We took an elevator to the 42nd floor and then walked through a library area and other public rooms before taking another elevator to the top floor, home of the New York Grill. Jeff and I were seated in the bar where we ordered drinks and waited for Brian. One side of the room is all windows and the view is amazing. Despite the cloudy night there were lots of buildings and bright lights. This is the room that the movie Lost in Translation was located. It looks identical to the movie scenes and that was pretty cool. The prices are not cool, $20. for a mixed drink. Luckily for us we were Brian's guests. When Brian arrived we moved around the corner to the dining room with more windows and a different view. The meal was delicious and very New York. Huge painted murals on the walls depicted the Yankees and Radio City. Western cutlery was used and I even had mashed potatoes while Jeff and Brian had steaks and fries. After green tea ice cream for dessert we fell into bed.

We met Susan and Barry for breakfast in the buffet restaurant and Jeff had an unpleasant experience where he drank apple vinegar thinking it was water. He did this twice - don't ask!!! A gorgeous day beckoned and we set out for the subway to visit the famous Tsukiji fish market. This is the largest fish market in the world and it opens with an auction (closed to the public) at 5am. We arrived about 8:30 and wandered through the butchering and distribution areas. We saw some amazing fish. There were frozen and fresh tuna. Some so huge they were being cut up with electric saws and one guy had a six foot knife. Remembering John Belushi as the Samurai came to mind. One fish was so big it took the strength of two men to hold the knife to cut through the jaw. We saw all knds of fish and shellfish. Trays of snails, eels, scallops, squid and large octopuses (octopi?). Some things I have never seen before. Most of the fish were alive until they were cut up and buyers were selecting seafood for their restaurants and individuals were shopping there also. It was so hectic with things moving very quickly. Fish was being moved by cart, bicycle, scooter, truck and special forklifts where the driver stands and steers with a large rotary column. There were also areas for packing and shipping and we only saw a small part of the entire operation. A truly amazing morning.

Our next stop was the Ahibara Electronics District. This was one for the guys who thought they had died and gone to heaven. Imagine streets and streets of electronic stores. We did shop at one duty free place where Jeff bought a microphone for Skype and Barry got a new digital camera. This place was seven floors with phones, ipods, PDA's, computers,cameras, accessories and more. Back to the subway we headed for Ueno to visit an Asian outdoor market. This place was a hoot resembling the shuk in Jerusalem. Small crowded streets housed vendors of every type. You want to buy - they have it from food to clothes, luggage to golf clubs and anything else you can imagine. We stopped at a tiny tempura restaurant and tried more noodles and soup. The waiter was very accomodating following us outside where we pointed to the plastic food displays in the window. We all got what we wanted and had fun slurping our noodles. The place wasn't so clean, but had an interesting bathroom. It was immaculate and the toilet had a sink kinda built into the top of the tank. When you flushed the toilet it automatically ran cold water from a spigot at the top to wash your hands. Pretty clever. The addition of a paper towel would make it really remarkable. Jeff and I returned to the hotel while Susan and Barry visited a temple area in Shibuya.

I was so tired I fell sound asleep and only woke up when our phone rang just before 6pm. We were supposed to meet in the lobby and go to Ginza and the kabuki theatre. Jeff decided not to go, so I threw on some clothes and met Susan and Barry. Now Barry has become expert in navigating the Tokyo subways and he led us to a staircase right in front of the theatre. They have a line for last minute seating and were were able to get seats for a one act performance starting at 7pm. We trudged up four flights of stairs to sit in the last two rows which are reserved for the last minute people. Our area was mostly foreign tourists and I sat next to a lovely French women and practiced my high school French with her. The performance was ghastly and that is kind. It was hot and no one understood what was going on. They did sell headphones with a translation, but very few people had them. Most people were snoozing after a few minutes and there was lots of folks looking at their watches. The set and costumes were beautiful, but the language is sing-songy and annoying. The music was drumming and a mandolin. All the parts are played by men and they wear white makeup and traditional wigs. The show was about a small guy who wants to become a sumo wrestler. There was a love interest in the beginning, but she never came back and no one in the entire audience laughed much or seemed to care. But, it was another experience and I'm glad we went.

When we went outside Brian was waiting for us and we strolled down the Ginza to see the bright lights. It reminds me of the theatre district and was bustling. We stopped in for cheesecake and coffee and a little conversation. Later we subwayed home and I cannot believe how crowded the cars get. I have never seen anything like these mobs, even on the trains at home at the holidays. I did not see any employees pushing people on, but folks do back into the cars so they are facing out and there is no personal space. Back at the hotel I showered and packed an overnight bag. We are meeting in the lobby at 8am for the ride to Mt. Fuji and the next leg of our adventure.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Ohiyo quizimas. That's good morning the way I pronounce it in Japanese. Jeff and I leave for Japan in two days and we're in a frenzy of packing and last minute details. I've been listening to a Japanese language series and can say a few phrases. I'm sure I'll freeze if someone speaks to me in Japanese, but I'll enjoy trying to use the language. Meanwhile we're still in the throes of selling our Yardley house and keeping it clean and uncluttered is quite a chore. I'll be quite content to make our move to South Carolina and settle in, however briefly.

This is an exciting year for us and keeping track of our commitments is a full time job right now. So I am off to get a few more things done in the house before I head out to accomplish my to do list for today. We'll have a laptop in Japan and will try to find time to send a photo of the cherry blossoms if we're lucky enough to see them. We will be seeing Brian and that is the purpose of this trip. I can't wait to give him a big hug.

Ja mata - see 'ya.