Monday, November 30, 2009

Taking on Tokyo

In October, we found ourselves with an unexpected open week on our hands. Where should we go? we asked each other. Being so close to so many places we've never been, it was a little overwhelming to choose. But in the end, we decided to go to the most populated city in the world:

Upon arrival, after checking into the hotel, we needed to get some dinner...

That's in Yen, right?

Now before you slap us with a "Pathetic American" card, let's review that acquiring a hamburger in Jining is virtually impossible. Wendy's has not made it past the Great Wall yet, but even McDonald's, found in most large cities in China, is absent in our little corner of Shandong Province. So it was a case of, see Wendy's sign, look at each other for subtle cues, look at Wendy's sign while salivating, simultaneously agree to cave into the crave. And let me tell you, that was the best damn Wendy's meal I can recall.

After eating, we decided to take in some
Japanese culture, and just wandered the streets. We found several of these pachinko parlors, which I knew nothing about before and now know a little more about thanks to a certain Mr. Wik A. Pedia. But from personal experience, I can say that the place is a frenzy of noise, lights, smoke and zombie people continuously firing buckets of small, metal balls into the machine that very much resembles a slot machine crossed with a pinball machine. We stayed just long enough for me to snap a picture and then I had to GET OUT. Sensory overload.

We mostly just took in the scene on the streets, little alleys chock of full of small bars and restaurants. And we found out the hard way that some of these bars are "members only, men only" kinda places. Well, we didn't want to go to your silly bar anyway!

We retired to the hotel soon after and I had a lovely passion fruit caprihinia at the hotel bar. Again, not doing so well with the whole Japanese experience, I know, but that was just day one. We had more chances...

We stuffed ourselves with hotel breakfast the next morning and then set out on the subway to another area of town. On our way to see a temple, there was plenty to feast the eyes upon.

Fake food...
A festive, fall street market...
And a monkey! In a tunic!

The rest of the day consisted of a boat tour under a great number of modern bridges and then we made our way back to our neighborhood on foot, stopping by the Tokyo Tower for a view of the city.

In case you were wondering, it does look much like the Eiffel Tower, except it's slightly taller. Always gotta be some sort of one-upmanship going on, eh?

For the rest of our five day stint in Tokyo, we mostly chose a district to explore each day and took it easy. We did eventually manage to eat some Japanese food, although I'd be lying if I said we didn't have Indian food for lunch one day...and maybe Italian another day... We justified it all because Japan seems to have a well-established grasp of what foreign food is supposed to taste like. Many times when you are aching for that simple deli sandwich or pizza or some such fare, a Chinese establishment will miss the mark more often than not. I mean, I'm all for creativity, but corn on pizza is just weird and a far cry from pepperoni, you know? And sorry, ketchup is NOT pasta sauce.

We were both fascinated by just how different Japan was from China in several ways. Japan is clean. I mean, we're talking immaculate. In a city with 20 or so million people, the lack of mess is just astounding. And it's quiet. Okay, let me clarify this, because I am sure other people who have been to Tokyo might raise their eyebrows a stitch on this one. By quiet, I mean no one is yelling into their cell phone, no one is honking their car horns, and no one, absolutely no one is clearing their throat in that most shudder-inducing way. Also, after coming from a country where we surprise the people by saying 'thank you' so often, Japan overwhelmed us with all the pleasantries. Thank you's and please's and welcome's and apologies and different kinds of thank you's. Wow. I've never had anyone say so many things to me during the 60 seconds it takes to buy a book.

I will just share a few more things about our trip, in no particular order. We stopped by a temple on one of our walks in the evening, and there were monks inside chanting. While I have been to a great number of different sorts of temples in China, this felt like the real deal and I was not quite sure why at first. But then it hit me: people were actively worshiping here. You could hear it and you could feel it. Some temples in China feel like a relic, an ancient site that once held believers, but this place was alive. We both stood there for a long time, just listening and watching.

On our last day we visited the Meiji Shrine in the Harajuku district. This was probably my favorite thing we did. This was not just a shrine. The shrine is in the middle of a forest. 175 acres of forest, actually. And the trees are large and lovely. I just felt myself let out sigh after sigh. I loved the shrine as well, the simple decorations so refreshing to me after seeing one too many multi-colored and gold encrusted temples. The gates were wooden, unpainted and plain. I loved it.

We walked for quite a while here and found a field with only a few people around. The grass seemed as clean as the city, so we joyfully sprawled out on the ground as the sun went down. Hundreds of crows flew about, calling out and flying in huge groups from big tree to big tree.

Nature in the middle of a huge, congested metropolis and I could not have been more relaxed. Of course, what's the sublime without a little absurd...

A cart of babies!
Childcares of America take note: convenient, safe, and oh so cute with those little colored hats!

To end I will tell you about our cab ride. Living in China, we take cabs all the time. They are cheap and we have no car. In Japan, however, they are far from cheap. There is a reason everyone uses the subway. But on our last night we decided to take a cab home for the experience. The cabs themselves are swanky in the way that you expect the driver inside to be named Jeeves (or maybe I just hope this). The car doors open and close automatically: a germaphobe's dream car. Although, they would not have to worry about germs in this car at all, as the inside is immaculate. There are white doilies on the headrests and they are actually white, the head room could accomodate Yao Ming himself and the ride is smooth and swift.

We were close to our hotel when our driver ran over one of the reflectors on the yellow line on the street. We sort of felt it and would not have thought twice about it except that the driver apologized up and down for it, looking down right embarrassed. I almost started laughing. I've seen cab drivers in China run over whole curbs and not even flinch. To get an apology from them, I am pretty sure we would have to run down a dog or small child first. I wish I had known how to say, "Life is short. Run over all the reflectors you please!," in Japanese, but I doubt it would have changed things. In the end, I guess a pricey cab ride should be impressive, just like everything else in that city. I quite enjoyed myself.

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