Another great deal. I turn in a bump voucher for a round-trip ticket to Japan. I liked it so much on my abbreviated four day visit I am back for more. In addition to a free ticket, I am getting triple mileage credit, 51,000 miles, which is itself enough for another ticket to Asia. One bump = two trips to Asia -- that's my kind of calculus.
A traveler's tip: when flying to Japan on Delta out of JFK, ignore the signs that say "Delta International Check-in."; head directly to the domestic departure. (The flights to Europe don't leave until the evening so they don't bother opening the international terminal until afternoon.) It's easy to find the correct departure gate: just home in on the photoflashes of the Japanese taking pictures of each other.
We boarded the emptiest flight I have ever been on. I don't think there are three dozen people on that plane. It is a wide-body with whole rows empty. Anyone who wants to lie down can have five across. To their credit, the flight attendants did not hide but instead concentrate on SERVING us. Every few minutes one comes by to see if I want anything. Except for the uncomfortable seats, it's almost like business class. Well, the entertainment is lousy too: they show Miss Congeniality. During dinner I decide to practice my chopstick technique, but am stymied when I get to the chocolate cake.
It's hirteen hours to Tokyo. W leave at 10:45 AM, and arrive at 1:45 PM. It's afternoon outside the whole way. No sleep.
Upon arrival in Narita, the entire plane plus crew fits into one monorail car. I am stamped right through at immigration. (In contrast to last time, when I was interrogated at length about every stamp in my passport.) At customs they display a greater degree of interest: the inspector flips through a book of photographs of pistols, cocaine, marijuana, pills, etc. and asks if I have any ("well no, officer, not that EXACT model . . ..")
Since I have not yet activated my rail pass, I take the cheapskate train to Tokyo ($8, 75 minutes) instead of the tourist train ($24, 53 minutes). I am the only gaijin on board. Salary men in suits are reading their manga (pornographic comic books). As typical on Japanese trains and subways, 60% of the passengers are asleep.
At the tourist desk at the airport, I book a ryokan, a Japanese style hotel. The price is right: 3 nights for $100 (that's not $100/night, that's $100 total). It's kind of like a bed and breakfast, except there is no bed and no breakfast. You leave your shoes outside and sleep on futons on the floor. As an honored foreign guest, I am given a large (for Japan) room with double sleep chamber and sitting room. That's sitting-on-the-floor room, since chairs are a western invention.
June 21st, the solstice, is the longest day in the northern hemisphere. And for me, it has been. By the time I get to the ryokan it is 4 pm, which is 3 am EDT. I fall right asleep. I wake up at 7:30 and it's dark outside. Per my GPS the sun rises at 4:25 am and sets at 7 pm, (There is no daylight savings time.) I have no difficulty convincing myself that since the tourist sights have closed, looking at the Tokyo neon can wait a night. I'm up again at 4 am. The ryokan owner, whose quarters are directly below mine, comes up to complain about my clomping around. In the time-honored tradition of jet-lagged visitors to Tokyo, I head to the fish market.
At 5 am the trains run every 10 minutes. By 8 am that interval will drop to 2 minutes. The trains are crowded, but I don't see any of the famed "platform pushers" to cram people onto the cars.
The fish market, comprising 1600 retail stalls, is in full swing. At its core is the tuna auction which starts at 5 am. The per fish price starts at around $5,000 and goes up from there for a large or prize fish. They come into the market frozen, and the retailers cut them up before thawing. Hundreds are lined up in rows like ice torpedoes. There are plenty of fish and sushi restaurants in the vicinity of the market, but that's not my cup of breakfast chowder.
I stop at a convenience store for my breakfast donut. A Japan phenomenon: people shopping at 7-Eleven like it's Costco. They take baskets and fill them up. One guy is buying 20 packs of cigarettes, another a whole load of ice cream. The stores even sell cell phones. They feature a large variety of prepared foods which, I will come to discover, are of high quality; people who work 16 hours a day don't have time to cook and buy prepared meals at convenience stores.
Next stop is Senso-ji, a big Buddhist temple. Like much of the "old" stuff in Tokyo, it is actually a reconstruction, the earlier version a victim of the Tokyo fire bombing. I then hit Kitchenware Town, where the plastic food that restaurants use for menu display is sold. Interesting to look at, but too pricey for souvenirs. A plate of fake spaghetti is about $50 and a piece of fake sushi is $20. (At these prices, I could buy a real one and shellac it.) The cheapest thing I see is a plastic peanut made into a key chain for $6.
Japan is crowded, but everything is perfect and orderly and very clean. People are fall all over themselves to be helpful: if you stand on a corner and open a map, someone will immediately rush over to offer assistance. The money is all crisp new bills and shiny coins. There are vending machines for everything everywhere. (Trouble in paradise: the new 500 yen coin ($4) is the same size and weight as a cheapo Korean coin; many machines have been programmed not to accept any 500 yen coins.)
I have an unlimited one-day subway pass ($6), so I am zipping all over the place. I go to Shibuya station to visit the statue of Hachiko, the faithful dog. Every afternoon Hachiko went to the train station to greet his master returning from work. After his master died in 1924, Hachiko continued to come to the station the same time every day for the remaining 9 years of his life. His loyalty and patience are qualifies held in high esteem by the Japanese. Hachiko, the world's most patient and loyal dog. Either that, or the stupidest.
I read that canned "Godzilla meat" was being introduced in Japan as a novelty (it is said to taste suspiciously like corned beef). I pass a supermarket and check the shelves, but don't find any.
I pop into a department store and check out the gift food department. Let me correct a popular misconception. Melons are not $100. Maybe in the old boom times, but these days in recessionary, price-conscience Japan they are only $64. (Of course, they are perfect.) For the budget shopper, there are some loose, unboxed melons for $32 each. Other gift foods are similarly priced. A large variety of gourmet and specialty products are also for sale, but no Godzilla meat.
I find a bargain: at Starbuck's it's only $2 for a small coffee. I predict that they will do well in Japan, because, at those prices, they are kicking the tar out of the competition.
It begins to rain, a perfect time to duck into the Tobacco and Salt Museum. (Japan never was much on political correctness.) It is beautiful 4-story building in a fashionable neighborhood housing pipes, and cigarette packs from around the world, all archivally preserved. There are educational displays on famous smokers in Japanese history and informational videos; The Tobacco Institute in Washington can only dream of this venue. There is also a special exhibition of stuff made by people with too much time on their hands: doll furniture and ultra-miniature everything. Including books 1/2" x 1/2" and whole painted landscapes 1/2" x 1". Is the message that nicotine addiction gives one an exceptional ability to concentrate? The gift shop offers rolling papers, rolling machines, hash pipes, and other paraphanalia; it's a regular head shop!
At 1 pm I am passing by a sculpture when it suddenly turns into the world's coolest carillon. A stainless steel toric faceted donut becomes an entire brass and steel percussion band. It looks great and sounds even better. I would need a video to do it justice. It's a thousand times better than that stupid clock in Prague. Moreover, unlike Prague, there aren't zillions of tourists crowded around watching it, only me.
Next stop, the Meiji shrine. Ho-hum. I skip the attached treasure museum, having been warned by the guidebook that the "treasures" therein consists of objects touched by the former emperor. (Although that would be a good concept for an Elvis museum!)
On to Harijuku, the center of youth culture. A lot of stores (what else is new!) and streets crowded by wierd-looking kids. The girls are wearing platform shoes orplatform sneakers. The street is a good illustration that after schoolgirl age, there are no girls left with black hair. It is also where the Negroes in Japan hang out: there must be half a dozen, all standing around doing nothing. At least their culture hasn't been corrupted by Japanese influence.
Finally, I drop by to see the bright lights and neon of Shinjuku. It is Times Square to the millionth power. It long ago eclipsed the Ginza. Unlike Times Square, which has only one Jumbotron, Shinjuku features a multitude of giant screens. It is also a mass of humanity. Two million people a day use Shinjuku station, and its surrounding streets are where "crowded Tokyo" shots are filmed. (It was the inspiration for the L.A. of the future in "Blade Runner," including the rain.)
I am back at my ryokan by 9 pm. After 16 hours of walking, I am beat.
Day 2: I don't get started until 9 AM. My plan is to pick up a few loose ends.
First stop is the national museum, which big on Asian art and antiquities. (Including Egyptian antiquities, from "western Asia.") A predictably large Japan collection, with some cool armor and 700 year old samurai swords which look like they were made yesterday and could be used to shave with today. There are very few other visitors. In this respect, Tokyo is completely unlike New York City, London, or the tourist capitals in Europe. A couple of westerners are to be seen in the main tourists spots, but otherwise it's just me and the locals.
Next is to the Torogawa shrine to the first Shogun. (The book is based on the true story of Will Adams, an English pilot on a Dutch ship who washed ashore in 1600 and became naval advisor to Iesayu, who went on to become the first Shogun.) There a film crew from Kurosawa Studios is filming "Fidelite Samurais," a French production. From the 15-second scene being shot today I can tell what the entire movie is about. (You guess: semi-scruffy, dressed-hip French lad strolls down lane hand-in-hand with pretty Jap maiden holding parasol, followed by two beefy bodyguards with shaved heads and matching gray suits. Hint: it's not a rock star and his groupie.)
Then to Akibahara, also known as Electric City. Everything electric and electronic and parts. Next year's toys today.
Next is Yakasuni, a Shinto shrine to the 2.5 million war dead. A controversial place, because the enrolled include Tojo and other other "Class A war criminals". Kamikazes would salute each other "see you again in Yakasuni" before taking off. The shrine itself is fairly simple: no tourists, just a few old men visiting their comrades. The attached museum is somewhat disappointing. The main building is under renovation so there is only stuff like letters from kamikaze pilots rather than actual planes. Some good stuff on display in the yard, including a manned torpedo, artillery pieces salvaged from battle sites, and the engine which pulled the first train over the Burma railway and the Kwai Bridge (remember, the one they blew up in the movie?)
Off to the westside to visit the Meguro Parasitological Museum, a/k/a the tapeworm museum. Many gross-out displays. Pride of place goes to a 28 ft. tapeworm removed from some guy's gut. There is a cool tapeworm T-shirt on sale, but I'm too cheap to pay $25 for one.
I go back to Shinjuku to ride to the 45th floor of the new City Hall for a view of the city. The Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area has 20 million people crammed into low-rise housing on the coastal plain. From the top, this sprawl spreads far off into the haze.
Finally, I head across town to the Ginza. The Sony building has six floors of new products on display. The first two floors are full of kids playing with Play Station II, then comes the cool stuff. Bet you've never seen the robot dog (perfect for Japan), a walkman the size of a pen, another the size of a cigarette lighter, or a note book computer the size of a paperback. There are also flat screen TV's, home theater LCD projectors, and palm theaters. They have ultra-tiny camcorders, but I do not see the night vision model that allows one to see through clothing during the day (it was pulled from sale in the US).
Day 3. Saturday. I've done Tokyo. I activate my 7-day rail pass. The commuter train to Tokyo Station looks just like it did on Friday: full, and everyone is dressed for work. Tokyo Station is the terminus for the bullet train lines. I mistakenly go to the wrong line and miss my intended train. I go to the correct area, where the next one arrives a mere seven minutes after the first.
The bullet trains are comfortable, smooth, and quiet. The area between cars is designated for cell phone usage. Japanese politely get up and leave the main car to receive and make calls. I pull out my GPS and see that we quickly accelerate past 100, 130, and 150 mph. This is not the latest model, so we top out at 169. Definition of a blur: passing another train two feet away and going in the other direction.
Although the train network is superb, public transportation in Japan is no bargain. Regular prices are like walk-up fares for airlines. The rail pass is a super deal: unlimited travel for 7 days for $231, which is almost the same price as a single roundtrip ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto. The pass is good on local trains too. I am getting my money's worth: in one week I get three times its cost in value.
I was intending to go as far as Osaka but decide to get off at Kyoto, remembering that the tourist office was very helpful last time. They come through again, finding me an international class hotel for $40 (about 80% off the rack rate).
The Kyoto city guidebook says that June is the rainy season, and it is proving very accurate. Its list of "things to do in the rain" does not include visiting Nara, which I didn't get to last time. About an hour out of Kyoto, it is the seat of Buddhism in Japan. There are numerous temples, but it is most noted for the big Buddha housed in the world's largest wooden building. The original building was built in 700 and burned down. The current model dates from 1700 and is only two-thirds the size. It's pretty good, even in the rain. And though it is Saturday, there are zillions of kids on school group visits.
This third day has been shorter than the second, which was shorter than the first. By the time I get back to the hotel, my feet feel like they have been worn down to nubs. On the way, I pass a sign board for some conference: "Living together in diversity." That is the most un-Japanese of concepts. This political correctness stuff is spreading like ebola.
I examine my hotel room more thoroughly. In the desk drawer, in addition to a Gideon Bible, is a volume entitled "Teachings of Buddha." On the bathroom wall is a series of diagrams on how to use a western toilet: lifting the lid, seating down, etc. And it's not even a robo-toilet. (More on that later. In Nara I saw a urinal with a speaker activated by a proximity sensor to play sounds of running water to mask any noises emanating from the user.) On TV is an infomercial for interior decorating videos. They are, inrality, "space porn": under the guise of helping one decorate, they show room after gigantic room with cavernous interiors and unlimited privacy. A Jap living in his rabbit-hutch of a house or apartment can sit in front of the tube and fantasize, though in reality he has about as much chance of getting that much space as he does of landing a date with Claudia Schiffer.
After three nights on the floor on a futon, the bed is a welcome change. When I wake up, it's pouring outside. About 8:30 it clears, so I prepare to resume my journey. I am almost embarrassed to check out of the hotel with such a tiny tab, but from their profuse thanks you'd think that I was a high roller (or, at least drank the whole mini-bar).
Day 4: Because it's Sunday, trains run at a reduced schedule. I have to wait a whole 12 minutes for a southbound bullet train. On board, I read the Japan Times provided by the hotel. It's the anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, described as a "series of skirmishes in the closing days of WWII," and "the only battle fought in Japan." It's not always referred to as WWII; sometimes it's "The Greater East Asian War" (like the "Great Patriotic War" in Russia or "The American War" in Vietnam.)
I get off at Himeji to see the best surviving original castle in Japan. It's pretty impressive, although overcast skies make for lousy photographs. Very nice gardens too. It's not too hot, but the humidity is very high. On leaving the castle I am accosted by a guy who wants to practice his English. He is 25, university graduate in architecture, driving a forklift for a living. (No jobs.) He warns me that Hiroshima will be even muggier. He is right.
After a hard day of castle walking and garden viewing, nothing hits the spot like a can of Pocari Sweat "refreshment water". As I start back to the station I spot the first patch of blue sky that I've seen yet. I resist the urge to retrace the route to take another batch of pictures. Just as well, since the clouds quickly close up. (That was the only blue sky I see the whole trip.) There is some sort of street fair in progress. One stall is selling fish on a stick -- the whole fish, head, skin, and all. Quite a few girls in dressed up in kimonos -- one girl even has straight black hair. Gosh, it looks, so, so . . . Japanese! (Wonder if she had to re-dye and iron it?) Most of the other kimono-clad lasses look pretty odd with their weird hair, darkened skin, and frosted makeup (with hooker highlights).
I continue on to Hiroshima, where the tourist bureau doesn't do me quite as well. For $32 I get only a lackluster business hotel. The room stinks of cigarette smoke, but it does have an electric pants press. And a robo-toilet. It's supposed to warm the seat, spray you with warm water, and dry you, but I can't figure out the controls (in Japanese only) and just end up with a wet butt.
I ride the streetcar out to the A-bomb dome. The recorded stop announcements are only in Japanese until suddenly I hear in English "The next stop is the A-bomb dome. Please press one of the white buttons to signal the driver that you want to leave. Please exit from the front. Please pay the driver upon exiting. The fare is 120 yen. Thank you for riding the streetcar." I am the only one who gets off.
The bomb exploded over the densely populated center of the city. Much of the area is now Peace Park. In addition to the Peace Museum, there is a big Peace Conference Center. The entire city ethos is a stew of peaceniks and victimhood. Everything is "peace this" and "peace that" -- it sounds like a Intourist guide during the Brezhnev years.
The park is chock full of special-interest memorials. There is the Monument To The Old Aioi Bridge; the Monument To Those Who Died From the Chugoku-Shikoku Public Works Office; the Monument Of The Hiroshima District Lumber Control Corporation; the Monument In Memory Of The Korean Victims Of The A-bomb; the Memorial Monument Of the Hiroshima Municipal Commercial And Shipbuilding Industry School; the Monument To The A-bomb Teachers And Students Of National Elementary Schools; the Clock Commemorating The Repatriation Of Those Who Chose To Return To The Democratic Peoples Republic Of Korea; the Monument To The Employees Of The Hiroshima Post Office; and the Monument To The Employees Of The Coal Control-related Company. I suspect that they are probably out scouting for a site for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Victims of the A-bomb Memorial.
In the Peace Museum I learn something interesting: the boxy concrete and steel building across the street from the A-bomb dome came through in much better shape, but it was not nearly as photogenic so they tore it down. On the famous dome, the copper sheathing melted, exposing the steel framing. Masonry buildings crumbled, but reinforced ones came through fine. Although the post-bomb pictures show a wasteland, that is mostly because the city was largely built of wood which burned to ashes in the firestorm; Tokyo looked pretty much the same without a A-bomb.
On the 50th anniversary they built a second museum building. With all that new spece, they had to fill it up, so the exhibits are pretty repetitive. I like the life-size diorama of survivors emerging from the ruins looking like a still from the Thriller video or Night of the Living Dead: walking like zombies, arms extended, flesh dripping off. I knew if I looked hard enough I could find kitsch in the most unlikely of places.
I also learn that the successive mayors of Hiroshima are considered experts on geopolitical matters. Each one of their disarmament demands is prominently displayed. At the end, there are visitor comment books full of the usual pablum. When the books are full, instead of being put right into the recycling bin they are collected and preserved as historical documents containing important distillations of wisdom.
There is not much else to see in Hiroshima. It's pretty new-looking, having had the last word in urban renewal. There is Hiroshima Castle, but it's a replica. You can guess what happened to the original.
It is humid! I leave the hotel at 8 am, and by 8:05 I am dripping. I am heading to Miya-jima, an island in the inland sea considered one of the most beautiful places in Japan. To get there, first a local train, then a ferry, where I see the first fat person so far. She looks Japanese, but when she opens her mouth she reveals herself to be an American. Big surprise.
The island is infested with tame deer. They crowd the dock to be the first to get handouts as people come off the ramp. I set down my pack and a deer sticks his nose inside looking for food. It's like politicians at a fund raiser.
It's pretty quiet. It's Monday morning, and they are sweeping up after the hordes of Sunday day-trippers. I check out the sights: Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines. There is a cable-car to the mountaintop, but visibility is lousy so I don't. After about two hours I am debating whether I have had enough. My indecision evaporates when it starts pouring rain. I decide to make like a B-29 and head to Nagasaki.
Heading south from Hiroshima, I get one of the ultra-new wedgy trains. 180 mph. At Fukuoka, the gateway to Kyushu, the southernmost island, I switch to a regular rapid train. It is a brand new train, streamlined, with very nice interior design: black leather seats, white interior, parquet floor. But the tracks are crummy so it only travels at about 70 mph.
The Nagasaki tourist desk does me right. I get a very nice hotel room for half price. (Q: when deciding whether $36 is a bargain, should I include the 80? tram fare?) This hotel doesn't have a coin box on the TV to watch porn (you buy an access card from the vending machine in the lobby), but at least it doesn't stink of cigarette smoke. As usual, half the channels on TV are golf. I am having a hard time finding my favorite Japanese TV fare: torture and humiliation game shows.
After a couple of Buddhist sites in the morning I am templed out. I head for Peace Park, where I am subjected to another dollop of peacenik ideology. The Peace Statue looks like a giant constipated traffic cop. There are plenty of other statutes from the USSR, the Czechoslovakian Socialist Republic, the DDR, and other "peace-loving" nations, all in hideous socialist realist style. At a table old men are collecting signatures on a disarmament petition. I decline to add mine. Only my lack of Japanese prevents me from telling them that "it was the A-bomb that saved the world from YOU!"
According to a map of Peace Park, there is an Aspiration Zone ("now, breathe in"), a Meditation Zone, and a Study Zone. The museum is a bit more interesting than the last since it focuses on the power and effects of the bomb, saving the political message for the end (and for me to skip).
If it hadn't been for the bomb, no one would have heard of Hiroshima. No so for Nagasaki. During the 250 years of isolation, Nagasaki was Japan's sole window to the world. The city is built along a serpentine waterfront surrounded by wooded hills. The bomb hit in the northern suburbs, and intervening hills protected the area of European settlement to the south. Much has been preserved, restored, and reconstructed. There is a full day's work of stuff to see. Although it is hot, humid, and intermittently rainy (the latitude is just a hair north of Jacksonville), the overall atmosphere is pleasant.
Nearby is Huis Ten Bosch, a combination resort, theme park, and residential development modeled after, as the guidebook says, a Dutch town caught between the 17th and 21st centuries. It's high tech with windmills. Japanese tourists to Nagasaki all go there. I don't. The Japs are really into the Epcot concept of seeing the world without having to put up with germs, dirt, funny food, and foreigners. Disneyland Tokyo does roaring business, and on Hokkaido there is Canada Land.
Speaking of Tokyo, it's time to start heading back. Checking my train schedule, I see that leaving that evening I can't get north of Osaka before the system shuts down at midnight. My guide book says that Fukuoka has plenty of good, cheap hotels near the station. I go there and find the tourist bureau. They only offer me rooms at the rack rate plus commission. I finally get across to them the concept of a discount. The girl huddles with her colleague who makes a call and tells me that I can stay at the hotel across the street for half price "but it's a secret." No booking forms, no commission. I walk over, am greeted by the manager, pay in cash and get a room key.
It's a slightly upscale business hotel. It has a second-generation energy saver switch; you can't use any credit card or stick to activate the room lights, you need the actual room key inserted into a lock cylinder. Also another a robo-toilet.
On Wednesday I take a bullet train to Nagoya where I switch to a local train and then a bus to get to Magone. I will be hiking part of the Nakasendo highway, the ancient post road between Tokyo and Kyoto, through the Japan Alps along the Kiso river. Magone is where riders had to dismount because the path becomes too steep for horses. There is plenty of flowing water, with springs and fountains along the way for passersby to refresh themselves. One enterprising soul has put a beer and soda vending machine in front of his house. The road is like the Appalachian trail with bamboo forests and rice paddies. The route is popular, but today I am the only one taking it.
It's supposed to take 3 hours to reach Tsumago, my intended stop for the night, but that must be for cripples. At Tsumago, there is a tourist office, but it would be more accurate to label it the "accommodations cartel enforcement office." At $65 (including meals) this is the priciest place yet. I stay in a family-run guesthouse. It has the most high tech bathroom I've ever seen with enough control panels to operate the space shuttle -- but, again, only labeled in Japanese.
Tsumago was bypassed by the railway and then the highway and was in danger of becoming a ghost town until the '60's, when it was revived as a tourist draw. Sort of like a Japanese Colonial Williamsburg, it is an Edo Period post town where the power lines, antennas and other signs of modernity have been concealed. It is a popular spot for day-trippers, as evidenced by gigantic parking lots on the outskirts. There is a town museum, but not a lot to do besides soaking up the atmosphere. At night, it's REAL quiet. Dinner is my only "authentic" Japanese meal of the trip. There must be 30 different items on the tray, very few of which I can identify. More weird-tasting than delicious, but I am a good sport and eat most everything.
On Thursday morning I complete the walk to Nagiso, from which I can catch a train back to Nagoya and on to Tokyo and beyond.
I am spending my last night in Nikko, a pilgrim town about 2 hours north of Tokyo. It is the site of the tomb of the first Shogun and appropriately elaborate shrine and Buddhist temples. Very nice, but, once again, I can't fathom how people manage to spend several days here.
Another Jap inn for the night. I am flying out in the next afternoon. I decide there is nothing more to see in Nikko so I head back to Tokyo first thing. I have a few hours left and some unspent yen so I go back to the tapeworm museum. After 10 days in Japan that T-shirt doesn't seem so expensive anymore.
My rail pass has not yet expired, so I ride the premium Narita Express back to the airport. The flight home is uneventful. This time, the plane is full. And once again, it's afternoon the whole flight.
Trip date: June 2001