Anne G. Ackerman
Can an obaasan (with nine grandchildren) visit Japan on her own? She can and did. I entered a contest sponsored by Jalpak
, the tour company for Japan Airlines
, when I attended a lecture by Setouchi Jyakucho (a famous Japanese nun) at Columbia University in March. I had quite forgotten about it and was surprised to find out in June that I had won a flight to Japan with 4 nights in hotels. I checked carefully to see exactly what I had won which was 2 nights in Tokyo and 2 nights in Kyoto. Having traveled to Japan several times about 20+ years ago, I asked for 5 nights in Tokyo and I would pay for the additional night in the hotel as well as my transportation from the airport to hotel. Jalpak very nicely responded to my request.
I was fraught with anxiety when I departed , leaving a daughter to spend time with my husband, a brother-in-law who had just been admitted to the hospital with chest pains and a sister-in-law who had just started chemotherapy.
The flight was excellent, the service attentive, and the restrooms spotless for the entire trip. I sat next to a very tall man from Shanghai with a young active and vocal son of about 17 months. The attendants nicely gave me eyeshades and earplugs. The son did not sleep at all and after Tokyo they faced an additional flight to Shanghai. I was happy to leave them.
I exited the aircraft, walked on moving sidewalks, rode a shuttle train to the baggage claim area ? and my suitcase was one of the last ones off. The line to exchange money at the bank was quite long so I opted to find the bus to my hotel. The airport bus area was well marked ? and there were many busses. I was directed to the proper bus and boarded for the long ride to the hotel. The day I arrived was a holiday in Japan - the Autumn Equinox so there was quite a bit of traffic. It was dark when I finally arrived at my hotel ? the Shinagawa Prince Hotel, a humongous hotel with pool, aquarium, movies etc etc. The lobby was quite crowded - one line for the Executive Tower, one line for the New Tower. I checked at Guest Relations to see which line to go on. So far so good. I checked in, received my card key and was directed to the blue elevators for my floor which was 35. That was easy. I was so tired I could hardly read the numbers and I could see I had to choose one direction out of 4. Success! Happily the card key worked with no trouble. The room was quite nice with a magnificent view. From the 35th floor I gazed down at the Shinagawa Train Station ? a huge center with many train lines converging. It actually looked like a model train setup. I could see twisty traffic patterns ? a big difference from the NYC grid. There were many pedestrian overhead crossings. I could see many skyscrapers that were higher than 35 floors. Neon lights of all kinds were blinking and it was quite exciting to view. The bathroom toilet was interesting. A nice Toto model with about three spritzers which I tried out after 2 days. The minute I sat down I was startled to hear water sloshing around. On the last day I discovered I could have pushed a button which would have heated the toilet seat. Next time! I called my college friend Toshi who had lived in NYC a number of years ago and we had kept in touch thru the years.
Thursday morning I went to the Internet Cafe for breakfast, filled out an application and was assigned a computer. While I am computer literate, I am not up on everything and saw immediately it was a small computer with no mouse. The woman sitting next to me helped me and I was able to check my e-mail ? three cheers ?my brother-in-law had been discharged from the hospital. The keyboard was slightly different but I managed to send the family an e-mail that I had arrived safely. I had the breakfast set -some kind of juice, minestrone soup, scrambled egg, roll and coffee. It was the first time I had ever had minestrone soup for breakfast. Toshi, my college friend, had arranged to pick me up at 10 am. How exciting it was to see her and to catch up on our children and grandchildren. We boarded the Yamamote Line and Toshi checked the fare and helped me to insert the coins, obtain my ticket and reminded me to hold on to the ticket as you have to insert it again when you leave the train. If you have not paid the proper fare, a bar pops up and you have to go to fare adjustment and pay whatever you owe. The weather forecast was for heavy rain so we went to the Meiji Shrine (Shinto) first. It is set amid beautiful grounds and it is very quiet and contemplative. While there, we saw two wedding parties. Beautiful brides in special kimonos, with special white headdresses, men in traditional kimonos and guests in formal clothes and Western clothes. People walked slowly in a line in the inner grounds of the shrine. It is always exciting for me to see brides and I have been fortunate to have seen brides all over the world. We left the Meiji Shrine for Harajuku ? the area for the young (either junior high or high school age I think) Many young girls just stand there kind of on display. They are called Goth Girls and are dressed in a totally bizarre fashion ? ruffs, mismatched socks, veils, hoop skirts ? and shoes with about 6 inch platforms -you name it. The styles are very individualistic and I have read that designers come to look to get ideas.
We then went to a restaurant (Sembikiya) in the area for lunch ? a place that we had lunched at together with other members of the Tokyo Wellesley Club more than 20 years ago
After lunch we went to the Ota Museum ? a private collection of ukiyo-e (blockprints). We saw a very exciting exhibit - Hokusai 36 views of Mt Fuji. One took off one’s shoes before entering the exhibition area and placed wet umbrellas in an umbrella storage area. It was very exciting to see the entire series of prints.
The next place to go was Tokyu Hands ? a huge “do it yourself store” which carries all sorts of things. I actually purchased 12 mini umbrellas as gifts. Japanese umbrellas are sturdy and compact. Toshi went on the train to Shinagawa Station and then changed trains to go home. I stopped in at a store at the station and bought soba noodles with vegetables and collapsed in front of CNN in my room ? having had a perfectly marvelous day.
Sunday I was to meet Yuji in the hotel lobby at 10:30. The New York Times had had an article on English speaking guides who wanted to practice their English. I contacted the website, made arrangements and received an e-mail from my guide Yuji. From the e-mail I found out he was 37, worked for his father, was self-educated and interested in philosophy. He was quite interested to find out that I had heard Satucho Jyakucho speak. I made a list of places I would like to visit and he arranged an itinerary. I later found out that he had gone on his bicycle and had checked everything out. At 10:15 we both met in the lobby. Yuji is a very well informed young man, had been to New York City and Argentina to visit a sister who had married an Argentinean, and liked classical music. What could be better? He even liked Astor Piazzola ? one of my favorite composers. We first went to Akihabara ? the electronic shopping area. I do not have an I-pod , don’t particularly like things in my ears and was not interested in major purchases. I received lots of packages of tissues from many of the men hawking their shops. I saw a manga store and since I have one granddaughter interested in anime and manga with a tanjoobi (birthday), I asked Yuji to ask one of the young woman in the store for advice on which book (preferably no sex or violence) to buy for a 15 year old who was studying Japanese. The young woman said we must go to another store so we followed her to a store that appeared to be for girls. She pointed out some and I chose one and also purchased a special pen. I will let you know if I made a wise choice.
We then went to Obaasan-dori in Sugamo. This is a pedestrian street catering to older people. The fashions are totally different from Harajuku (catering to the young) and to Ginza(catering to the chic and fashionable). There were food stores, 100 yen shops (similar to a dollar store), kitchenware and rather serviceable and dark colored loose clothing sold in the stores. Yuji took me to the Togenuki Jizo (Kouganji Temple) where older people inhale the incense and wish for good health. There is a statue of a God and people wet cloths and rub the statue in the same place as where they feel pain in hopes of healing their pain. Yuji thought the statue was getting smaller from all of the rubbing. We went to a very small Japanese restaurant for lunch. Everyone sat very close to each other. Oishi des! (Delicious) While there I saw a man (after ?? #) beers slump over the table. His wife tried to rouse him with no success. She left him there and returned later and finally managed to get him up. Everyone was smiling.
We then went to Asakusa Kannon Temple (Buddhist). This is one of the oldest and well known temples in Tokyo. There is a street (Nakamise-dori) lined with souvenir stalls ? Japanese products (maybe some made in China) and food stalls. There were hordes of Japanese people milling around as well as tourists. There is a kind of well with water that people taste, incense smoke where people wave their hands in and then steps up to the main temple. On our walk to the temple we saw a picture of Setouchi Jakucho on a poster.Very different experience from the Meiji Shrine. After that we went to the Ginza where it was a pedestrian street until 6 pm. This is a very fashionable section similar to Madison Avenue in NYC. There is even a branch of Au Printemps ? the French Department store here. We went to a beautiful paper store. At the moment because of the Autumn Equinox holiday, much of the stationery and products featured have colorful leaves etc. It was a pleasure to shop. Purchasers stayed in an orderly line, received a little tray for the charge card/cash, the purchase was wrapped and your receipt handed to you on the little tray. What a difference from Bloomingdale’s where you must seek out the wrapping department and wait on another line. We then went to a Japanese cafe for coffee and muffins. After our snack we walked to the Muji (no label) store. MOMA in NYC carries many of their smaller items. It is a beautiful store ? spacious. The products are subdued ? mostly black, greys and whites. The store has furniture and clothing and some food.
And that was the end of a very long day. All during the day I told Yuji that I could manage and that he shouldn’t give his entire day to me but he insisted he wanted to. We had interesting discussions on music, Iraq, President Bush, Prime Minister Koizumi. In the recent election Yuji had voted for the woman who opposed Koizumi and he said his parents had voted for Koizumi. Oh those generational differences! I gave Yuji a book on philosophy that I had purchased at the Hunter College Bookstore and some American energy bars. I hope he will be able to read parts of the book. It was a pleasure for me to spend time with him.
Monday morning I was meeting several women who had belonged to a Japanese-American Womens’ organization with me. Since I wasn’t to be picked up until 11am, I went to visit a Japanese garden in the back of a nearby hotel. There were many sakura (cherry trees) which must be exquisite when in bloom. There was a small lake stocked with huge (well fed?) fish. I went back to the hotel and met Yumiko who was escorting me to the luncheon which was held in a private club in the Canadian Embassy. It was absolutely wonderful to see these women. We had a very traditional Japanese lunch with sake in a tatami room. We reminisced about what we had done and we talked a great deal about the United States under the Bush administration. All of the women told me that they missed the Metropolitan Opera. Evidently opera tickets are extremely expensive in Tokyo. After lunch I went to the Ginza with one of the women. We strolled into some traditional Japanese stores (Ito-ya etc) Then we went to a famous and old fruit store (Sembikiya) where I gazed at $100 melons and $10 apples. Wow! We went up stairs and I had a fruit punch with fruit. It required a fork, a spoon and a straw and was very oishi.
Tuesday was my last day and I had plans to go to Tsukiji Fish Market. I got up very early, having figured out the subway route. One of the women had given me a subway card so I wouldn’t need to figure out the fare. There are many privately owned subway lines in Tokyo and one needs different cards for the different lines (as opposed to the Metro Card in NYC which is good on all public transportation). The subways are spotless, usually crowded, and easy to figure out. There are signs and announcements in the train in English as well as Japanese indicating the station you have left, the station you are at, and the next station. They also indicate if the doors will open on the left or right side. At 7:15 am, the subway steps were not crowded and I started down to my train. Halfway down, a wave of humanity suddenly appeared to climb up the stairs where I was going down. There was no way for me to get on the right down path so I stood still and clung to the banister. It was just like Hokusai’s wave. On the station platform,where to stand was indicated on the ground and I made sure to stand in the proper place. There was also a clock indicating how many minutes until the next train. Very efficient. I had to change trains to get to the Fish Market (and carefully noticed the proper ups and downs). The Fish market was amazing. Piles of large boxes. Hordes of people. Hundreds of different vehicles (large trucks, small trucks, trucks like golf carts, motorcycles, cars, bicycles) went in all directions. I walked very slowly and tried to walk in back of someone. There were stalls and stalls and stalls of all kinds and sizes of fish. Some fish had been cut and some were being cut with huge knives. I walked around for quite awhile on the wet floors. I had missed the auction which had been held much earlier but that’s OK. Since I hadn’t had any breakfast and there were some small restaurants, I went into one. They had a sushi set for about $30 but that was too much for me ? especially for breakfast. I decided on two pieces of tuna sushi and some green tea. Oishi des. While I was sitting there a group of 6 men entered, ordered the sushi set and beer at about 9am in the morning.
I then took the subway to Roppongi, another chic neighborhood where many Western executives reside. I was meeting my friend Yuko at 11:15. I had wanted to see Roppongi Hills ? this new complex with museums, stores, restaurants and hotels. Interesting to note ? there was much excitement because a Banana Republic had just opened. There were magnificent stores there including a branch of Harrods ? the British department store. Why no Bloomingdales? Zabars? I had thought the stores would open at 10am but they opened at 11am and stay open later in the evening. This is an interesting architectural complex with many levels, towers etc.using a great variety of materials ? stone, glass, metals. I am happy to report that there are many rest rooms and many places where one can sit. The restroom I used had an interesting hand dryer. It was on the floor ? kind of like a magazine rack. You inserted your hands and the warm drying air started blowing. I would never have figured it out myself and I am glad there was another young woman washing her hands. I met my friend Yuko at the meeting place (Maman) which has a sculpture like a big spider. She took me to the garden ? traditional and lovely but also features this huge white kind of pop art figure. I think he is the mascot for the shopping center. We ate lunch in a small very modern Japanese restaurant. Then we went to Starbucks (which are rampant in Tokyo) and purchased 2 coffees to take back to her apartment.Yuko’s husband had been transferred to Tokyo and they were living in a large beautiful apartment. We talked for awhile and then went to pick up her daughter who attended an American nursery school. I then took the subway back to the hotel to meet my friend Toshi for a sayonara dinner. Toshi came up to the room and presented me with several gifts. The most exquisite were sections of two obies that had belonged to her. One is beautifully embroidered with children spinning tops etc. The other is more formal with flowers. I shall treasure these gifts and hope I can figure out a way to display them on the wall. I had brought a large suitcase and filled it with the Sunday NY Times. Toshi took sections of the paper home with her to read.
We again went to Shinagawa Station and went to the food store. I had wanted to buy a bottle of wine for my husband and really needed someone with me to make sure that I wasn’t buying a French or California wine with a Japanese label. Toshi talked with someone in the store and I am happy to say that I purchased an authentic Japanese wine ? the grapes grown in Japan etc. I have noticed many people drinking wine ? a big change from 20 years ago.
Toshi took me to the Foreign Correspondents Club (near Ginza) which was lovely. As we both sipped our Compari and sodas, I learned many things ? Toshi was the daughter of a Mitsubishi executive and had lived and attended public school in Seattle from 1938 to 1941. The family returned to Japan shortly before Pearl Harbor. This presented quite a problem for her as she liked living in Seattle and had many American friends. Her husband was a member of the Japanese press during the Kennedy administration and had access to the White House They both had met and knew many prominent people of that era. Finally we said our goodbyes ? and we will continue to maintain our friendship.
The next morning I boarded the bus to the airport and guess what ? on my way I saw the peaks of the Disneyland castle, an Ikea and a Cosco store.
As you can see I had four days of constant activity, saw many sights, observed many things and had a positively exhilarating experience.
- It is interesting to note that the standard Japanese toilet years ago involved squatting over the toilet area which was on the floor. Now the toilets are extremely versatile with many buttons to push. I would wonder about the number of repairs necessary and what does a plumber cost?
- Very young children travel on the subways themselves ? with huge backpacks and small hats. I cannot imagine that happening in NYC.
- Some children wear uniforms to school. I assume they are private school students which is similar to parochial schools in NYC.
- Many people read (manga and books) in the subway.
- Many people use cell phones in the subway.
- Students seem to have many little trinkets hanging on their backpacks and cell phones.
- There is an area in Shinagawa Station that is called New York ? Nathans, Dean and Deluca, the Oyster Bar. The menus were the same as the NYC menus.
- There are hordes of people in the train stations and on the streets and yet you can find a small green quiet area for contemplation.
- People respect the traffic light. When the walk sign is illuminated, all vehicular traffic stops. Walk lanes are clearly marked ? straight and diagonal.