Thursday, December 3, 2009

Japan! Kyoto: Getting Lost and Ginkgo Trees

       The next morning Meena and I headed to Kyoto. We spent the entire day wandering the city. We wandered into temples, removed our shoes, and meditated alongside the locals. We wandered into an art museum and down narrow alleys. We saw hundreds of vending machines that dispensed everything from coffee to sake. We even saw a sort of vending machine for cars, a space efficient parking garage.

      We got lost on our way back to the train station. But, getting lost always unveils new and unexpected things to see and do. We went to Pachinko’s (no, not like the Miami bar). Pachinko’s is a small gambling venue. They are tucked in every nook and cranny of Kyoto. There are large two story Pachinko’s and small ones in the stairwells of subway stations.
       My favorite was the Imperial Palace gardens. Although we could not go inside the palace itself, the grounds were breathtaking. The trees were changing colors, all different colors. The air was so fresh and exhilarating- with every breath came a clear mind and soul. An elderly couple strolled past us holding hands. A young father smiled and watched over his bouncy toddler daughter.
       The ginkgo trees were the most impressive. Every first day of school at the old house, we would take photos in front of our tiny ginkgo tree. Dad would always say that it was the slowest growing tree. It would take hundreds of years to grow tall. Dad said that when I went to Japan (because he’s dad, he just knew) I would see the biggest ginkgo trees ever. It is such an old country and rulers from ancient times planted the trees and watched them grow strong just like their country.

Japan! Hot Springs, Bullet Train, Kobe

         Six am comes quickly. Molly steals away down the stairs and comes back with a horrified look on her face, “she’s locked us in!’ Who is this lady?
         I sigh and we line up by the window. It is scarier going the other way. But we all make it across to the ledge and to the road. We walk towards town. As we cross a hanging bridge I breathe the air in, it is so fresh and crisp- it makes me smile. We eat our 7/11 Japanese traditional breakfast near Lake Akashi, one of Mt. Fuji's Five Lakes. We take a small bus up to the Yessuen Hot Springs. We look like bums sleeping in the lobby as we wait for the other half of our group. There are complaints that we are loitering. Our group shows and we spend the morning bathing in baths of red wine, sake, coffee, and green tea. Outside, Barry and I are reminded of Wisconsin Dells- in the cold mountain air we race down water slides. We try to get the Japanese kids to play with us, but they are frightened. My favorite bath was the Dead Sea bath, there was so much salt in it that you floated just by sitting in it.
        We took the Shinkansen (The Bullet Train!) to Kobe. Taking a bus would be a journey of 16 hours, and it took us only 3 hours!
       In Kobe, we went out for sushi to celebrate Megan’s birthday. We found this very small sushi bar. I ordered every type of eel that was on the menu and then sea urchin just to be adventurous. The eel (unagi) was delicious! The sea urchin (uni sushi) tasted like poison. I tried to wash it down with sake and almost died. Sake is officially my least favorite drink and sea urchin shouldn’t even be considered a food.

Japan! The things we do for a place to sleep

       We arrived in misty Hakone with nothing but the name of the place we were meeting Molly and the gang. We took a taxi up the mountainside, our ears popped on the way up. Nearly thirty minutes into the ride, I looked out the window and caught the familiar and SAS popular panda hat. Barry! I pressed my face against the window and he motioned for us to stop.
       In a whisper, “uh hey! You guys made it! Follow me.”
       We followed. We followed him into the woods. Jonny and Austin were ahead of him.
       Jonny turned around, “whoa! Who is that? Who’s here?’
     Austin nudged him, ‘hey let’s just keep going’
     Meena and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders: c’est la vie.
     We were now creeping, still on a steep incline, past windows and through the yards of small homes. We stopped. We were looking at a window. Molly came to the window!
      Barry turned to me. He quickly and quietly explained, “Listen, so the lady that runs this place is a Nazi. She won’t allow more than four people to stay here.”
      I stared at him blankly. Then looked at Molly and her worried expression. The boys were talking frantically, pointing to different things and moving their bodies to make their separate points.
      Jonny came to my side, “Kate. Okay. We are going to jump through that window.”
      “But, Jonny that’s a second story window.”
     Meena laughs. Austin is standing on the edge of the ledge that drops the two stories down to a night-black bottom.
      “I have a big bag though!”
      Jonny takes it off my back, hands it to Barry. Barry throws it towards the building. Austin has somehow already made it inside and has caught our bags. Barry goes next; he jumps from the ledge and gracefully lands in the window frame like a cat ready to pounce.
     “This is crazy, this is absolutely crazy.” Meena just laughs again.
      My knees are weak as my toes try to grip the ledge. Jonny gives me a tap. I look over my shoulder; he grins wide and gives the thumbs up.
       I jump. I am now clinging to the window frame. My exhausted body hanging down the side of this lovely bed and breakfast. I roll my eyes; this is such a stupid, stupid reason to go to jail. I try to pull myself up. I squeal, this is such a stupid, stupid way to die. Brian and Jonny pull me in. Meena makes it in much easier.
       Now all nine of us are sitting in the room plotting the morning escape. I look around; the room reminds me of the bedrooms in the movie, My Neighbor Totoro. There is one long and wide mattress on the ground with several blankets. We agree that the five of us will try to sneak out at six am. Another early morning!

Japan: Harajuku & getting to Mt. Fuji

      Our plan was to leave early for the base of Mt. Fuji. But, we had not yet seen Harajuku- so in the afternoon the three of us ventured there. The street was teeming with women dressed just like Gwen Stefani’s famous ‘Harajuku Girls.’ Their costumes were decadent- a cross between a punk rock and Victorian tea party, skull & crossbones and lace & bows.

       We left in the evening to try to make the seven o’clock train. We were told this was the last train so we sprinted through the long station- not bothering with the moving sidewalks. Hesitantly we boarded the train that left at half past; once again we were told that it would take us where we needed to go: Hakone. On the train we met an official from the Kuwait Embassy who was very interested in Semester at Sea and helpful in reassuring us we were heading in the right direction. Mr. Takao Mineoka and I exchanged email addresses and we have been in correspondence about our adventures in Japan. We also met a kind lady who was an English tutor in Tokyo a few days a week. She took the time to write down several points of interest for us to consider in Tokyo.

Japan! Tokyo: Ebisu Beer Museum

       Although we only had a total of 4 hours of sleep (give or take a few shut-eye train rides) for the 42 hours we had been in Japan- Meena and I wake at seven am and begin our day.

       The street is like a graveyard- the liveliness that was here hours before had vanished leaving only traces. We silently drag ourselves to the metro station. By now we have mastered the Tokyo subway: we don’t even look to each other to be affirmed in our ticket purchases, we make the correct switches, we end up at our destination, and we know our way to the street. We are zombie-like as we ride the escalator up to ground-level. A man passing us the opposite way says something in Japanese, when he receives no response he asks ‘are you okay?’ It takes a moment to realize he is talking to us. We look at each other, we look at ourselves, we look back at him, and we start laughing! Uncontrollably. I am in a tissue-thin black dress with uggs. I have my arms wrapped around myself to keep warm on the brisk November morning. If Meena’s hair and makeup are any reflection of my own, I am a mess. We look ridiculous. The kind gentlemen smiles and says ‘ohhh you are drunk!’ We cannot even reply. Once again, Meena and I have come out of an unpredictable night alive and unscathed.
       At the Westin Hotel in the Ebisu district, we meet Taylor and her parents for a delicious brunch. We all went as a family to the Beer Museum. The exuberant Mr. Taylor insisted we try the sampler platter of all five Sapporo brews. Mrs. Taylor looked after us with her mothering eyes. It felt so nice to be with family.

Japan! Tokyo: Roppongi District

       Karaoke is like Sunday Night football to the Japanese- the best way to spend free time and let it all go. While American businessmen relieve stress by drinking brews and yelling at the television, the Japanese businessmen unwind by drinking sake and singing their hearts out. Thirty-five of us packed into a small room that reminded me of the back of a limo. Mirrors on every wall, sparkly vinyl booths, and an intercom used to request a new song. Someone would go to the front to sing, but their voice was drowned out by the booming chorus of the rest of us singing the best of the 90s.

      As the night progressed we became slightly worried about our situation. We polled the different locals we met. At the Tokyo Ice Bar (overrated) we met two couples that were stationed on the US Navy base. On the street we met four women who had moved to Japan just because, they approved of all options but told us to stay away from the Roppongi district because it was dangerous for travelers. Guess where we ended up? Roppongi.
       You know those movies where they speed up the film and show a bunch of people running back and forth, running into each other, going up an escalator then back down, then remembering someone they left behind, etc? That is what we looked like as our large party navigated the metro to get to Roppongi.
       A group of SAS students had rented apartments. The five of us were relieved to have found a place to stay. Stephen and I went out to explore the district life. It was explosive with the energy of people celebrating life in the crisp open air. My night ended on the apartment balcony, smoking a cigar with Nick looking at the city lights in the distance, the busy street below us, and the still metro bridge in front of us. I closed my eyes tight trying to save the image and memory.

Japan! Tokyo: Home vs. Homelessness

      After making our way back to the hostel, I used one of the lobby computers to skype home. I could see and hear my family but could only interact through the keyboard. Molly walked by and squealed and pointed to the computer screen, she thought I was looking at a picture of myself- in fact, it was Madeline. Others that took turns looking at my real-live family in America compared my features and mannerisms to Mom and Dad.        I laughed; rather I typed ‘haha.’ It felt like I had been sprinting around the world and home life had been stretching, gearing up to join me when I returned home. I stunk of fish, had not slept, was typing on a Japanese keyboard, in an alley hostel in Tokyo. Back at the starting line, Mads, Hayl, Mom and Dad gathered in our familiar kitchen; sun streamed in from our patio door lighting up their bright faces. Watching them, I could feel the warmth of a meal at that kitchen table with that winter Wisconsin sun toasting the family with illuminating memories. The conversation ended as we rushed out the door to go begin another Tokyo adventure.
        I had begun our backpacking adventure with my backpack, the clothes I was wearing, a dress, a swimsuit, a toothbrush, and my trusty travel bag. On the second day in Tokyo, I was therefore on a quest for underwear. Cat, Meena, and I had checked out of the hostel with only a plan. We had been on the North East side the night before so we were heading to the South West side of Tokyo: Shibuya. On the way in Yoyogi, I spotted a GAP from the metro window. So we got off, I ran in, and began my search. All underwear was an XXS, XS, or S- I guess this is telling of the American physique. I picked up two pairs of underwear and two pairs of socks. I checked out for $66: My most expensive pair of underwear. Reality Check: we were no longer in one of the developing countries that I had been used to since September. This was even more expensive than the US, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
       While I scoured the store, pulling on my underwear, trying to ask where I could find it, Cat and Meena had run into a few SAS students. They were also looking for a place to stay. Word on the street was there wasn’t a single hostel, hotel, or motel with vacancy that night. Our night of homelessness began then: in between a four-story GAP store and a busy metro station in Yoyogi, Tokyo, Japan.
       We made our way to Akasaka, where Stephen, Casey, and Stephanie had a hotel. It was a pristine district. We were reprimanded for jay-walking a street that was no wider than a sidewalk. We peaked through some tall shrubs to see a bride descend a spiral staircase into a garden. When she reached her groom loud and festive music started playing. When we reached the hotel, white Christmas lights had been lit up and down the streets adding the elegance of the area.
       They let us shower and keep our things in their hotel room. Missy and Andrew were also desperately looking for a place to stay. Options: 1) A love hotel that we could rent by the hour. We would only need a few hours if we stayed out late. We could even pick themed rooms. 2) Go to a business bar that has tubes to sleep in. These are popular in Japan because in order to be successful drinking after hours with clients is expected. The tubes provide a place to sleep after the subways close at midnight. 3) A karaoke bar. You can rent the boothed rooms by the hour. There is no law that you have to sing while you are in there. This is another popular alternative for travelers.

Japan! Tokyo: the city that never sleeps

       Ninja Tokyo Hostel? With a name like that, good times are guaranteed. As we walked the five flights up the steep stairwell, we were intrigued by the anime story that visually explained the perils of playing with samurai swords. The moral of the story: if you are a ninja octopus, you may cut off several of your tentacles.

       Our hostel was very Japanese meaning very space efficient. I would like to compare our sleeping area to the back of a band’s tour bus: a narrow path between stacked, box-like, wooden, private sleeping cubby holes. We were each given a key. So we threw our backpacks onto our beds, slid the wood panel shut, and locked our things into our personal caves.
       I actually never slept that night. After dinner we headed to Club Camelot in the Shibuya district. We made several friends in the metro station that used iPhone applications to direct us through the metro routes. We arrived back at the hostel after three in the morning and we all made use of the free internet: chatting with friends who were in class on mid-Thursday afternoon.
      At four in the morning we woke the rest of the group up and we headed to the Tokyo fish market for a cultural experience. Before the sun could even provide a sliver of light, we dodged forklifts while hundreds maybe thousands of people scurried like ants around the covered market. I chatted with a local fisherman after he caught me poking one of the large translucent squids he had on display. He took a liking to me and my foreign curiosity so he offered me a fresh cut of tuna sashimi. I excitedly accepted it and ate it, only thinking about the possible repercussions of fresh raw fish while I gaped at a large tuna being publicly dissected a few stalls over. With the rising sun came more and more spectators, buyers, and fishermen. Buyers were bidding for the finest seafood for their five star restaurants. Local mothers, trailing their small children behind them, bargained for smaller morsels to provide for their family. Fisherman argued pointing fingers, brandishing fish, shouting Japanese. Other fisherman proudly arranged and rearranged their my-sized catches or passed their hand over tanks as if to frame their seafood in a braggadocios manner.

Japan! Yokohama

The ship docked in Yokohama on November 20 and left from Kobe on November 24. Everything that happened in between was an adventure. This adventure was five days, four nights, thirteen hours of sleep, hundreds of miles, five major cities,
and the experience of a lifetime.

       We were only in Yokohama for the amount of time it took to walk from the ship’s terminal to the metro station. (Granted, the time inside of the terminal was extensive due to Japanese Immigration Standards that required face-to-face interview, fingerprints, infrared temperatures, and personal photo upon arrival.) But the short two block walk was enough to make a striking first impression of Japan. This was the first port that the streets were not comprised of a loud ensemble of (depending on the country) angry taxi drivers, squealing motobikes, deafening horns, rickshaws, ox, donkey, cow, intense pedestrian traffic or any other general chaos. Once we noticed the difference it was deafening, cutting off one sense to fully take in another. Japan looked and smelled much cleaner than any of the past several countries we had been to.
       Even inside of the metro stations I would feel safe to eat something that had failed the ten-second rule. Looking back on it, I must laugh when I describe the utter confusion of our group and discombobulating manner that we tried to decipher maps, signs, hand signals, and Japanese phrase books. After no less than forty five minutes, half of us boarded a train heading for central Tokyo. The other half set out to find their Japanese Rail Passes that they had pre-ordered. We wondered if they would make it to Tokyo. Brian, Meghan, Meena, Dave, and I watched Japan transform from countryside, to suburbs, to tight housing districts, then go underground. In only forty five minutes we arrived at the central Tokyo station. We stepped outside and I strained my neck to look up and all the way down the grid of tall buildings. Once again the buildings seemed to personify the typical Japanese businessman- standing in regiment single file in their finest, sleekest, black or blue suit awaiting an order to dutifully fulfill.
       We pulled out maps trying to find our way. A nice local man heard us speaking English, formally introduced himself with business card and all, explained he attended high school in San Francisco, and then asked if he could be of assistance. We showed him the address we were trying to get to and the options of circles that had been drawn on the map by conflicting local opinions. He shook his head and led us all the way to another metro station, walked us downstairs, showed us what buttons to push, which train to take, and where to get off. Well we got the right ticket. Got on the wrong train, skipped the right stop, and then backtracked to do it all over again.
       Finally we were in Nishi-Nippori, the district of our hostel. We began to walk in the general direction- I even got out a compass to make sure that if we were going to walk aimlessly, we were going to go the right way. Luckily, we ran into some other SAS students. They pointed us in a direction and we found it!