Japan

April 22, 2009

 
 

 

 

The Land of the Rising Sun

The Land of the Rising Sun

 

 

 

 

Japan started off painfully with a three hour wait through customs that included fingerprinting, pictures, and an interrogation. We even had to walk through an infared scanner that checked our body temperature. Once through, I had some time to waste until my friends finished, so I went to an internet café where I planned on posting some pictures and my last blog. This was easier said than done. I couldn’t find anyone who one spoke English to direct me there and I had no idea where to look.

 

While wandering the streets looking I couldn’t help but notice how pleasant Japan was. The streets were clean, a band played music on a street corner and everyone was dressed stylishly. Women were in heels and expensive clothes while most men wore suits and ties. Trees and parks mixed in with high rise buildings and train tracks. Having been in third world countries for the last month I was awed.

 

 

 

 

An enjoyable place to wander around

An enjoyable place to wander around

 

 

 

 

After gawking around the streets for a while, a man directed me towards an internet café. Inside there were older men in booths playing computer games. Based on the food wrappers strewn around them and the intense looks on their faces I assumed they had been there for days. I gave the staff a confused look and they guided me to a computer. The screen was cluttered with undecipherable Japanese characters. I barely could tell I was looking at the desktop of a computer. Japanese characters, which look more like artwork to me, were trying to instruct me how to get on the internet (I think?). I called the staff over and they laughed while setting me up. After they left I had a great struggle to switch the keyboard to English. Frustratingly it would switch back to Japanese every few minutes. I tried to use my thumb drive to load my blog but nothing was working. After a wasted 40 minutes, I threw my hands in the air and headed back to the ship.

 

My buddy Dylan has been to Japan five other times and took us to a favorite local restaurant. To get food we ordered it outside in a machine. I had no idea what anything was on the menu so I just pushed a random button with fun looking characters and hoped for the best. The machine gave us a stub to take inside for them to make our food. It was pretty high tech and completely eliminated the need for waiters. Many places throughout Japan used similar methods. The food came quickly and was delicious beef tenderloin over noodles glazed with a sweet sauce. I was told everything in Japan would be expensive but this only cost me four dollars.

 

restaurant-machine

 

I then had the heavenly experience of using my first Japanese toilet. As I sat down, I felt like I was in the commanding seat of an aircraft.  There was a complicated control panel on the wall and a robotic looking light coming from the toilet. The seat was  heated and the room was spotlessly clean. A flowery smell and soothing classical music completed the atmosphere. I did my business and cautiously started pushing some buttons. A cleaning spray of warm water shot up and then a dryer turned on before the toilet flushed. What a change from the holes in the ground of India!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Japanese Toilet

The Japanese Toilet

 

 

 

Feeling refreshed my friends and I headed to Osaka to experience some Japanese culture. The area is famous for its octopus biscuits. The octopus vendors were all over the street, like hotdog stands in the US. They tasted good but I went overboard getting 20 of these octopus balls. I met some local kids and interacted with them for a while. Everyone seemed so friendly and polite. The trains going back to the ship didn’t start running until five am so we had the easy task of entertaining ourselves throughout the night. We ended up getting VIP passes to a place and having a great time. In the early morning I lost my friends, but a Japanese man saved me from the intricate train system.

 

On almost no sleep I managed to set off the next day. I went to breakfast at a unique restaurant. Each table had a personal grill and chef. The chef prepared beef, eggs, cabbage, and potatoes into a big pancake. It sounds strange but was one of the best things I ate all trip.

 

 

 

Beef and cabbage pancakes

Beef and cabbage pancakes

 

 

 

My six friends and I then delved into the subway system to head to Kyoto. As six big white men with oversized backpacks, we were not discreet. I felt the stares and whispers of the people around us. Similar to the other Asian countries, we stood a head taller and 50 lbs heavier than anyone else.  The contrast was especially noticeable here because the Japanese population is so homogenous. I saw less Caucasians than I had in any other country.

 

We arrived in Kyoto at an optimal time. There is a cherry blossom tree that flowers for two weeks a year and we just happened to be there in this period. People from all over Japan travel to Kyoto for the beauty of these trees as they bloom. Their white and pink flowers lined the streets of Kyoto. The wind swirled the falling pedals around like confetti. Inside the town a stream was diverted through the central square. Japanese tourists lazed around while a few fishermen cast their lines into the slow currents. We mulled around the area taking pictures and enjoying the scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Admiring the cherry blossom trees as we walked through

Admiring the cherry blossom trees as we walked through

 

 

 

            In an alleyway restaurant we had another unique dining experience. The tables inside were only two feet off the ground and we were given pillows to sit on. The table clearly wasn’t made for people our size and the Japanese customers were giving us curious looks as we tried to contort ourselves under the table. It was a painful experience. The food was mediocre and not worth the effort, but it was a good experience nonetheless.

  

 

Not comfortable seating

Not comfortable seating

 

 

 

            We stretched ourselves out and went to a special cherry tree festival. Japanese families sat crosslegged on mats around ponds and cherry blossom trees. Food vendors were everywhere with a diverse selection of exotic foods. There were octopus biscuits, jumbalaya looking dishes, meat kabobs being cooked over fires, and a moat filled with floating cucumbers. We enjoyed the scene for a few minutes but had to rush off to catch the bullet train to Tokyo.

 

cherry-blossom-festival

 

            I was excited to get a chance to ride the bullet train. All of the trains in Japan come exactly on time and this was no exception. The sleek, grey train came to screeching halt and we scurried on. Only a moment later this plane on wheels took off. It was the fastest I have ever gone on land. Outside my window was a blur of lights. I was fascinated momentarily but quickly fell asleep in the ample room provided.

 

            When I woke up three hours later, we were in Tokyo. The city, one of the three largest in the world, illuminated the night. I was surprised at how busy the train station was; people were shoulder to shoulder and it was 10:30 pm. We found our hotel and explored the town a bit before finally going to bed as the sun rose.

  

 

Tokyo Skyline

Tokyo Skyline

  

 

            We awoke at two pm, which is the latest I have gotten up in any port. I wasn’t too worried though, we had three days in Tokyo. For our breakfast we went to a sushi bar. Like every restaurant I had been to in Japan, it had an interesting twist to it. There was a conveyer belt wrapping around one main table and back into the kitchen. A wide variety of sushi dishes circled around the table and you grabbed what looked appealing. You could also shout back to the kitchen for something specific. Each plate cost only 100 yen ($1) so I ate 13 plates of sushi as my breakfast.

 

sushi-bar

 

 

 

 For the rest of the afternoon, we wandered the Tokyo streets watching the masses of people and going into random shops. I found a 400 yen (4$) shop that had University of Iowa hats and Iowa license plates. Strangely Iowa and Washington were the only two American universities represented. We all bought outrageous gear at the store. There was no worry about ever seeing any of the Japanese people again so we had no shame at all.  We all strapped on “the sickness masks” that many of the Japanese were wearing. People in Japan wear these surgeon like masks whenever they’re ill to avoid infecting others.

 

In the evening, we decided to go to a baseball game. The tickets were relatively cheap and we heard they were a lot of fun. I don’t normally like baseball, but this was Japan so I wanted to give it a shot. As we walked into the stadium, we saw the Japanese intensely involved in the game. They reminded me of a student section at a football game with their coordinated chants and rowdiness. We pushed our way into the group and tried to chant along with them. We barely knew the team names and I still don’t know who won but I’m glad I went.

 

baseball-game

 

For the rest of the night, we went to a karaoke bar. We were given our own private room and went wild. Dylan had friends living in Japan who came with us and they said they had never seen anything like it before. I actually left and went to a neighboring room where I befriended a bunch of Japanese students.

 

Later on in the night, I realized I had left my camera at the baseball game. I called the stadium the next morning, and miraculously they said someone had turned it in. Only in Japan could this happen. My buddy Eric and I split off from the group to recover it. On our way back to the stadium, we found a rollercoaster twisting through the middle of the city. It weaved through the middle of a ferris wheel and around buildings. The ride seemed out of place in downtown Tokyo but we had to try it. I have high rollercoaster standards since I have ridden many, and this surprisingly was one of the best.

 

 

 

 

 

It went right through a building

It went right through a building

 

 

 

 

 

We recovered my camera afterwards and then went to a virtual reality arcade we heard about. There were lots of hi tech video games and simulations there. Disappointingly it was similar to a US arcade, except a little bigger and more expensive. There were almost no lines, but the staff moved excruciatingly slow. We ended up spending most of our time waiting at the front of lines. It was irritating. I was more impressed by the lit up Tokyo skyline outside than by the arcade.

 

We decided to do more karaoke after we met up with the rest of our group. The karaoke was wild again and then we went to a club in downtown Tokyo. As the trains began to run at five am, we decided to go to the fish market instead of back to the hotel. The fish market was a frenzied scene with carts filled with fish going in all directions. Thousand pound fish were being sliced with saws and Japanese men were yelling at each other. We watched for a while and then ate some fresh sushi. The best part of the fish market was hopping on the back of fish carts and darting around the area.

 

Tsukiji fish market

Tsukiji fish market

 

By this time it was ten am and we had not yet slept. Thankfully our ship had moved from where we landed, Kobe, to the other side of Japan in Yokohama. We only had a quick train ride to catch before we began our several day recovery from the adventures we had in Japan.

 

Japan had features that we could learn a lot from in the States. Their culture is so polite it’s shocking. As I mentioned, people went far out off their paths to help us and felt ashamed to not help more. Even people with good English would continually apologize for not being able to speak perfectly. They wear masks whenever they became ill as to protect their fellow citizens and didn’t steal my camera when I left it at the baseball game. Most people didn’t even lock their bicycles up in downtown Tokyo!

 

Japanese society is also incredibly automized and compacted; probably because there are so many people on such a small island. Everything from food to train tickets is through machines. Japan also had capsule hotels; you pay a cheap price and sleep in a small tube. I wanted to sleep in one but we didn’t have enough time. I feel like a month would not have been enough to experience Japan and we only had six days. 

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One Response to “Japan”

  1. Uncle Mark said

    Wow, Alec, the blog on Japan was well written, so much better than most of the essays I get at EMU! I just logged in finally, now that the semester is over for me. I also was reminded by your grandparents, esp. your Grandma Fran, that I should check out your site.

    When are you returning? Grandma Fran says soon.

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