My Trip to Japan

So I decided to spend a few weeks in Japan. I learned a lot about the people and the culture. So I figured I'd put my trip journal online.

Let me make it clear that I am in no way an expert on Japan, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I tried to only write down stuff that I heard from either a) a resident, b) a textbook or c) a reliable internet source... but who knows.

Day 1

Flying from Newark to Tokyo takes about 14 hours nonstop, so I was fairly tired on the first day. My first impression of Tokyo is that it's really big. Unlike New York, where the urban center is relatively compact, Tokyo just fills the land in all directions. It's very dense and very large. I was told that Tokyo has about 25 million people. Tokyo has sprawled to the extent that it now borders on the city of Yokohama, and apparently many people think of them as one city.

Dining out is big in Japan. Tokyo has more restaurants per capita than any other city. As you'd expect from the world's most populous city, there's a tremendous variety of food available, from traditional Japanese food to ethnic cuisines like Indian or Thai. Prices vary A LOT, if you're on a budget it's important to look at the menu before you eat -- some meals can cost more than $150. My brother and I had Indian food. Little did I realize that this was the last time I would get a regular sized meal.

Note: the word Gaijin is an offensive Japanese word for foreigner. The polite word is apparently Gaikokojin , meaning "person from a foreign country" instead of, roughly, "barbarian" .

I stayed with my brother that night. As a foreigner, his living options are fairly limited -- he lives in a Gaijin House. He has a bunch of British and Australian housemates.

Then we went to a Japanese bar. Beer is expensive here, and in some places, there's only one kind -- beer. All Japan's major beer companies make a fairly similar product, and the Japanese don't seem to discriminate too much. We ended up at a British bar, because they have a better selection. I didn't see any microbrews at all.

I expected to sleep well because I was so tired, but I didn't count on Rice Husk Pillows! Advice: if you go to Japan, bring your own pillow.

Day 2

Started the day in a district called Shibuya. Shibuya is the home to one of Tokyo's major department stores, Takashimaya. Department stores play a much more prominent role in urban shopping in Japan than they do here -- they not only provide typical department store products, but also features large supermarket-type food sections. It's fascinating to go down and see (and sample) some of the foods.

Among the highlights, on display at Takashimaya are various grades of beef from regular varieties up to Kobe beef -- in order to make perfect beef, the cows are fed special foods and given beer to drink, and receive regular massages to help distribute their fat. A steak of Kobe Beef can cost $100 or more. There are also grades of beef of higher quality than even Kobe beef.

Takashimaya also has amazingly expensive fruit. This melon costs Y15,000 , about equal to $122 . Fruit is expensive in Japan in part because it must be imported, but that doesn't explain things like this -- I'm told that the melon isn't worth that much in itself, but when you give someone a Takashimaya melon, they know that you paid A LOT.

Next stop was the electronics district, I forget the name. They have some fairly advanced stuff, the coolest being an mp3 player in the shape of a cassette tape so that you can put it into your car stereo.

Lunch was sushi. Sushi is gooood.

After lunch, I saw my first of many, many, many shrines and temples. Japan has a tremendous number of these -- Shinto shrines, which honor a local spirit, and Buddhist temples, which fulfill many purposes. Shinto is the national religion of Japan, and over 90% of Japanese people practice some Shinto rites. But that figure is misleading in a way, because religion in Japan doesn't quite work the way it does here. In Japan, people pick and choose parts of religions that they like, taking the good parts and leaving the rest. It is said that the Japanese are "born Shinto, married Christian, and die Buddhist."

Anyway, there are an astounding number of these temples and shrines. Any good tour book will tell you to see one or two in detail and then not go to anymore -- to the Gaijin eye, they are all relatively similar, and seeing large numbers of them can get amazingly tedious. There are literally thousands of them in Japan.

After the shrine, we went to this island filled with futuristic-style buildings. Apparently the government thought that it would be a good idea to build a giant series of buildings on an island about 45 minutes away from Tokyo, and then build a monorail out to them. Well, very few people wanted offices that far away from the city, and no one wanted to transfer to a monorail every day to get to work, so the government ended up wasting tens of billions of dollars. But hey, it makes for great tourism.

For a long time in Japan, French culture was very popular. French restaurants were opened, French products were sold, etc. That's largely moved out of fashion -- now the popular thing seems to be Italian. Tokyo is filled with "Italian" restaurants (they actually serve a fusion of Italian and Japanese food), Italian billboards, etc. The island had a "Little Italy" designed to look sort of like Rome, with fake stone pillars, cafes, etc. Dinner was faux Italian, and I got to have a suspicious but good "dessert pizza" with banana and chocolate.

Day 3

Sunday morning. Went to the Imperial Palace -- or at least, the part that you can go to. Which is almost nothing. You can sorta stand in a spot where you can glimpse parts of some of the buildings. Then I went for a walk through the Imperial Gardens.

It says a lot about the importance of the Emperor that he has a gigantic palace in the center of Tokyo, with an absolutely massive garden. The Japanese could resolve their entire bad loan problem by selling part of the gardens, but that would be unthinkable.

Lunch was Sukiyaki, where you dip thin pieces of raw beef into a boiling sweet sauce. It's good. Mercifully, Dan Dorman, a friend of mine who actually speaks Japanese, was there, so we didn't get raw shark eyeball or anything. I think.

After lunch, we went to a region called Harajuku. Besides being where my brother lives, Harajuku is notable because every Sunday afternoon, the young Japanese gothic scene coalesces in its central park.

Unfortunately, the average Harajuku angst-ridden adolescent's idea of what makes a good goth outfit is sort of at odds with the American conception. At Harajuku, girls dress in French Maid costumes. I'm not up on the latest goth trends, but I don't think that's it.

After another shrine or two, we went for tempura.

 
 

Japanese food tends to be excellent, even the cheapest restaurants put tremendous energy into their cooking. Not only that, Japanese food tends to be very healthy (more on this later).

Unfortunately, Japanese portions are EXTREMELY small. For unknown reasons, it is extremely difficult to get enough food in most Japanese restaurants. I routinely had to order an appetizer, a main course, a dessert, a bowl of rice, and a few a la carte items.

If you're not accustomed to it, it can be very hard to sit at a Japanese-style table (on the floor) for hours.

This is true for almost every Japanese person that I encountered, but it's most visible in the wait staff at restaurants: everyone takes their job very seriously, and does their absolute best at all times. Japanese waiters will do everything they possibly can do make sure that your dining experience is perfect.

There's no tipping anywhere in Japan -- not for waiters, taxis, etc.

 

Tempura is, I guess, the exception to the rule that traditional Japanese food is healthy. It's deep-fried, and though it seems reasonably light, it's really not. But deep-fried ice cream makes an awesome dessert.

Day 4

First thing in the morning, I went to the Yasukuni War Shrine. This shrine is dedicated to the souls of everyone who's died to make Japan the nation that it is -- in short, all the soldiers. In this shrine, these soldiers are venerated and worshipped as gods.

This is problematic because some of Japan's soldiers are convicted war criminals. General Tojo, for example, is a convicted Class A War Criminal (I gather from context that Class A is bad). This means that at this shrine, the people worship the men who ordered, for example, the Rape of Nanjing. The priests say that they will not consider removing these people.

Controversy arrises each year when the Prime Minister makes his traditional annual visit to the shrine to worship these spirits. This year, the Prime Minister is being sued on the grounds that by making an official trip to the shrine, he is violating a rule in Japan's Constitution covering the separation of church and state.

Japan as a whole seems to have a very difficult time dealing with parts of its history. Even a precursory glance of a high school history text book will reveal an amazingly biased approach to WWII (or, as many books call it, the "War of Asian Liberation"). Japanese historians have sued the government to force them to teach more about these massacres, but they have met with very limited success. In 1994, Justice Minister Shigeto Nagano had to resign after declaring the the Nanjing massacre was a Chinese fabrication.

After seeing the shrine, I moved on to the War Museum. Most of it was under repair, there was only one exhibit open and it was only in Japanese. So... I don't really know what it said. There were interesting things to look at, maps of battle plans and the like.

I've been told that if I could read those plaques, I would be angry -- things like "This map shows the plan attempted by Japan to liberate Korea from the clutches of the Imperialists." But who knows?

Lunch was sashimi -- sashimi is raw fish, but prepared in a more formal way than sushi, and made into a full meal. Sushi is usually just a quick snack, appetizer, or an informal meal. For dinner, I went to a sushi bar where they used a blowtorch for the things that needed cooking. It was cool. Dessert was a melon, but it did not cost $150.

At the place we chose for lunch, they did not have an English menu. We were ready to walk out when a lady who overheard our predicament offered to translate for us. People in Japan seem very friendly to strangers, not at all like New York. All I had to do was stare at a map for a few seconds and someone would tap me on the shoulder and ask if they could help me out.

Day 5

So today, I went to the city of Kamakura. Kamakura is a city filled with shrines and temples. From this remove, I see that it was foolish of me to go -- there are plenty of shrines and temples in my future, I had no need to seek them out specifically. But at the time, it seemed like a good idea.

Kamakura is also known for a giant statue of the Buddha. It's called a Daibatsu, which means Giant Statue of the Buddha. I think. Here's a photo. The Buddha used to be covered, but one of Japan's many disasters destroyed the building.

 

Buildings in Japan almost without exception have had difficult histories. Virtually every temple or shrine I visited was destroyed and rebuilt at least once. Fire is a frequent problem -- like medieval European cities, Japanese cities were built densely and out of wood. The US also destroyed a large number of buildings in the bombing during WWII.

Earthquakes have also destroyed large numbers of Japanese buildings. Japanese faults are very active -- earthquakes continue to damage cities. On January 17, 1995, at 5:46am, the city of Kobe was struck by an earthquake that ranked 7.2 on the Richter scale. Kobe is the sixth largest city in the country, with a population of 1.5 million people. The earthquake moved the ground 7 inches laterally and 4 inches vertically. In addition to earthquake damage, over 150 fires broke out that day -- firefighting efforts were crippled due to roads blocked by wreckage. More than 5000 people were killed. More info on the Kobe earthquake.

In some ways, the scariest part of the earthquake was that it showed that many buildings believed "earthquake-proof" were in fact nothing of the sort. Tokyo, which is also vulnerable to earthquakes, is filled with skyscrapers that were previously believed "earthquake-proof" . Something fun to think about when you're on the 53th story of a downtown complex.

 
 

I spent the rest of the day walking around Kamakura. Had lunch at a restaurant located in the side of a mountain -- a wonderful view of the town and the surrounding forests. Japan has a lot of trees -- I've heard that it's over 70% forest.

The train to Kamakura was my first experience with the Japanese rail system. Impressive. First of all, the trains have high quality food -- I had salmon sushi that was astounding considering it was sold out of a cart on a train. I'm told that some train stations are so well known for their food that people go to the stations just to eat.

The trains were clean, the workers polite, the signs informative, the schedules really really confusing. It goes without saying that I couldn't figure them out -- they were in Japanese. But apparently no one else could either -- the staff at my hotel would spend 10 minutes pouring over the train schedules and finally write down a time and platform for me, and they would unfailingly be wrong. Usually the train station people could point me in the right direction.

The other thing about Japanese trains is that they're on time. ALWAYS. It's kind of scary. If you find out that the train stops in Kamakura at, say, 10:57am, don't bother trying to read the signs to figure out which stop you're at. Just wait till 10:57 and then get off the train. You know the phrase "you can set your watch by it?" Well, I was on a train that was supposed to get in at 1:43pm. When the doors opened, my watch said 1:44pm -- so I turned my watch back a minute.

Even the Tokyo subway system runs on a schedule. When you get to the station, you can check a schedule to tell you when the next train will get there. Incidentally, the Tokyo subway is clean, fast and on time. It has some serious problems though -- the most serious is that it stops running at midnight. In addition, it's organization is fairly absurd -- there are three independent subway systems in Tokyo, and although they all connect in the same stations, you need to buy different tickets for each one. My RailPass, which got me all over the country for free, only got me on to one of the three systems. On the other hand, all the warning signs have cute cartoon characters -- like a cat with its tail caught in the doors.

I think that part of the reason why the Tokyo subway is so pleasant is because, as this sign indicates, it's against the rules to inconvenience other passengers. Man, we should just pass a law saying that you can't do bad things to people.

For dinner I had Haiwaiian-Japanese fusion food. It was good. Fusion food is popular in Japan -- chefs are combining Japanese culinary ideas with cuisines from everywhere else. It's fun to try.

Day 6

I figured that today would be a good day for me to go shop for t-shirts with badly translated English phrases. My brother told me that Harajuku was an excellent neighborhood for this sort of thing, so I set out nice and early to go shopping. Unfortunately, the clothing stores don't open till noon, so I had lots of time to walk around.

I soon discovered two things. A) Harajuku must be Japanese for "Haircut District" because every block had at least two barbershops. B) Haircuts are really expensive in Japan. Y5000 -- about $42 -- was about the cheapest I saw. Some of them ranged to $100 or more.

I also found the stores that sold the french maid outfits. Weird. As noon approached, I began to see people wearing the sort of thing I was looking for -- for example, a girl walked by with a yellow sweatshirt, and in big red letters it said "YELLOW BOOTS" . She was not wearing yellow boots.

The stores opened, and I immediately noticed that the only people in them besides me were schoolgirls. No one I have spoken to has offered a coherent explanation for why they weren't in school. Incidentally, I knew they were schoolgirls because all high school kids and below who go to public school in Japan must wear the official uniform of their school. Each school has a different uniform, but they're all distinctive.

Some of the things I saw written on shirts:
"Expose Yourself in the Danger"
an entire line of "Ape Bathing" clothing
"Grocer's Assn."
"Let's Sports All Round Super Sportive Sports Club"
"He's got his eve on the job of presudent of the company"
"Can't touch this xerox"
"The Role Playing Lifestyle"
"I'll go whence you ride"
"Full Metal Jackin'"
"Oh! Super Milk!"
"Chili Beer"
"Boa Sings for World Love"

It was at this point that I saw the greatest shirt that has ever been made. It said:
SCREAMING ROBOTS TERROR
screamiong minutes
Starring by to-fu
And then it had a picture of two guys with tofu block heads. The smaller one had his hand out and was saying to the bigger one, "Give me money."
On the back it said:
EVIL PLOTS OF DEVIL ROBOTS!
More evil! Still ill!
Devilrobots! Do you have a DVR?

Clearly the people who ran the store understood that it was the greatest shirt ever because it cost Y4900 (about $41). At the time, not buying it seemed like the wise decision. That might have been a mistake.

It was then that I found a store called "Store My Ducks" . Jackpot. It was here that I found a sweater brazing the title "Make Volume to the Full" , "She What You Want: Ironical Girl" which I would have bought were it not sleeveless and pink, and the shirt that I finally did buy: (shirt image)

Japan has wonderful product names. One of the more popular beverages is titled "Pocari Sweat" . I tried the type called "Body Request" . It's not bad.

I was taking the subway a lot today. Man, Japanese people walk a lot. Lots and lots of steps, very few escalators or elevators. I did take one elevator though, and noticed that like every other elevator in Japan, the door close button actually works. In fact, the "push here to cross street" buttons work too. I guess that in Japan, they just wouldn't consider lying on a button label. In the US, of course, door close buttons are rarely connected to anything.

I spent most of the rest of the day touring various neighborhoods in Tokyo. One thing that I found striking was that the city was filled with I Love NY signs and shirts. I dunno if it was just because of the attacks or if they were there before, but it was nice to see.

For lunch I had Kitenzushi.

 
 

Kitenzushi was easily my favorite part of Japan. It's where you sit at a large usually round table, and in front of you is a shelf with a conveyor belt which goes all around. In the center is a space with a few sushi chefs. The chefs stand there and just continuously make sushi, and they put a pair of each item they make on a little plate. The plates go around on the conveyor belt. You sit there with a little plate of soy sauce and one of pickled ginger, and every time a piece you want goes by, you take it. When you're done, you go to the cashier and they charge you a flat fee for the number of plates.

Some kitenzushi places are better than others. In many of them, the plates are color-coded, better sushi costs more.

Kitenzushi is awesome because if you're anything like me, you don't like all types of sushi. I really like all the fish and roe. I also like shellfish, shrimp, etc. But there are a lot of sushi types that I shy away from -- raw beef, egg, corn, arc shell, anything with mayonnaise -- and the nice thing about Kitenzushi is that you only take what you want.

 

The people there were very understanding -- they showed me what to do (the tea system is very mysterious) and smiled a lot. And apologized for not knowing English.

I'd like to take a minute to discuss Japanese toilet technology, because it's way ahead of ours. First of all, toilets in Japan tend to have all sorts of neat features. The seats are heated (all the time) so there's no midnight seat freeze, and most of the toilets I used had neat extras like "bidet" and "shower" that do exactly what you'd think -- and include "intensity controls" . Japan has many public toilets, and they are all pristine. Also, hotel maids fold the corners of toilet paper into little triangles.

On the confusing side, most Japanese toilets have two types of flush: "big flush" and "little flush" . If you are unprepared for this, it can be daunting. Here's a good rule: never ever use little flush. It's a trick. Little flush looks like a bunch of vertical lines, and big flush looks like a stick figure.

My brother's toilet had a sign proclaiming, "Japanese drain pipe is so tiny, please don't flush too much toilet papers" .

I played a little Pachinko. Pachinko is like pinball, only a) you have way less control over the ball, b) the games are over much faster, and c) you have no idea what's going on because you can't understand Japanese. I suspect that if you could understand Japanese, (b) might not be true. Over the course of my vacation, I lost about $20 playing pachinko. The Japanese are so fastidiously clean that there are sinks in the parlor for washing your hands before you leave.

Gambling is technically illegal in Japan. So if somehow you do well playing pachinko, you don't win money -- you win worthless "tickets" . It just so happens that there's a store across the street that is willing to trade "tickets" for TVs, radios, computers, etc.

Pachinko parlors don't get hassled for this because for the most part they're controlled by the Yakuza, the organized crime guys. They're apparently very highly connected and veyr powerful, and this has good and bad consequences. From what I can gather there's a lot of white collar crime -- corruption, fraud, etc. -- but the Yakuza is in part responsible for the utter lack of violent crime in Japan. There's virtually no rape, murder, assault, etc. I don't know much about this -- for obvious reasons it's not easy to investigate -- but I'm told that the Yakuza has also decided (perhaps at the request of the government) to keep hard drugs out of Japan.

These guys were shouting into megaphones and giving away fruit to anyone who would fill out their form. I wanted fruit, but I suspected that they might be Japanese nationalists who were asking people to sign a petition to remove all foreigners, in which case they might not have wanted my signature. Also the forms were in Japanese.

The word for water is "mizu" . For some reason, restaurants don't like to give you it unless you ask. Dinner was Korean Barbeque on the 53rd floor of a building.

Day 7

The Japanese don't really use credit cards that much, possibly in part because it's safe to carry large amounts of cash. This is a pain in the ass for Americans who are used to charging everything including breath mints and gumballs. It would be less annoying if ATMs took my cards.

Today I went to the Ueno Zoo. Ueno is a neighborhood in inner Tokyo, so I assume this was the major Tokyo zoo. One guidebook I have cautions that foreigners might not like the zoo because of the conditions. They were right. Ueno Zoo is one of the old-fashioned types of zoos, where all the animals are in little tiny cages. Here's a photo of a monkey that should show what I mean. Conditions in the tiger cage were worse, but there were too many schoolkids for me to get close.

The Japanese seem on the whole to have a decidedly different approach to concepts such as "animal welfare" and "environmental protection" than we do. For example, the Japanese still kill whales. A lot. There are whale restaurants. I walked by this place. A friend tells me that his (Japanese) girlfriend tried to order whale in a restaurant, and when confronted she defended herself by saying that they only serve them when they die "accidentally" .

Ueno park has a large children's playground. It's filled with homeless people. They all have these large blue tarps. The tarps are so uniform that I can only imagine they're government issued. I'm told that the homeless issue is another example of incompetency in the Japanese government -- they have largely failed to address the issue at all. Except for tarps. But then I've heard that they've built a new shelter in Tokyo with limited residency. So I dunno.

I'm told that some people in Tokyo are homeless in Japan even though they have jobs and regular lives because they have somehow shamed their families and now feel that they cannot return home. I don't know if that's true.

I went to the Tokyo National Museum. Their exhibits served to dispel an illusion I had: the idea that samurai were running around Japan fighting its wars with really ornate armor and swords. The high quality samurai swords and armor that samurai are famous for wearing (in movies, at least) were not produced until after the end of the Warring Period -- in other words, once the battles were largely over. Similarly, Bushido ("Way of the Warrior") , the code of behavior that defines what it is to be a samurai, only evolved after the battles were in the past.

In Ueno Park I saw some kids skateboarding and rollerblading. Good news: the US is WAY ahead of Japan when it comes to skate skills.

 

Go to Week 2

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