Japan 5 “One Day for Tokyo”

Japan 5  “One Day for Tokyo”

It’s a bit ambitious to think of seeing Tokyo in one day, after all, the metropolitan area encompasses 35 million folks. However, if one thinks of this level of city as merely a collection of interesting sites, with the myriad of buildings and houses as merely filler between them, then you have a different perspective. Actually, I’ve been trying to “define” what makes a city interesting, and there’re probably more things in that “filler” than at the sites. For example, as I looked out of our tour bus, I saw a traffic cop halt traffic coming from one direction, then bow to the traffic he was allowing to proceed, from a different direction. I tried to imagine that happening in the US and, while I could picture them making some kind of gesture, it certainly didn’t include a respectful bow.

All cities have their museums, most of them have some sort of “tower” or extra-tall skyscraper from which you can view the whole area (there’s the Tokyo tower, about 1100 feet high with two observation levels halfway up), usually a few parks scattered about to offer some relief from the concrete and steel, and, if they’re lucky, maybe a river or lake. But none of those things really inspire thinking, one moves through them as an observer and merely makes a note that “now I’ve seen the Louvre”, or “I’ve been up in the tower”. It’s what one sees between these venues that provides the real flavor—why are those people doing what they appear to be doing and in fact, what is it that they’re doing?

Usually, when I go to a new city having the promise of lots of “things to see”, I take one of those double-decker bus tours so that I can see where everything is located, then go back on my own, on successive days, enjoying the walk and observing what’s occurring in “that filler”. But that wasn’t possible this time; the Army base is an hour train ride from Tokyo; then, when you finally get there, everything is so far apart that at times it takes most of an hour between stops. So, my two colleagues and I booked an all day tour ($162) and headed out, walking, at 5:30 a.m. to make sure we could find the train station and not miss our train (more on that later). It turned out to only be about a 20 minute walk from our quarters, out through the entrance and security gate for the base, and straight ahead for about 6 blocks (more on this later, also).

One of the things that is a bit uncomfortable, with which I became somewhat acquainted in Cairo, and even more so now in Tokyo, is the language barrier. Europe and its nearby neighbors are not so bad, as I have a bit of German and French to get me through if they don’t do English; but in these two new locations it’s difficult to find someone when we’re in need of help, including directions. Both Egypt and Japan, bless their hearts, post signage in their languages (you know, those squiggly lines and little rectangles) and in English, which is at least a starting point for getting somewhere. But Tokyo enjoys a plethora of mass transit trains, some of them privately owned, and displayed on large charts and screens in beautiful bold colors. However, if you don’t know how to spell the destination, it can be difficult. Our first issue was in purchasing tickets from machines; the charts indicated that it would be 400 yen for Tokyo. (That’s about $5, $1=76 yen). Not knowing what to do, once we had the tickets clutched in our hands sweaty from anxiety ( I did not want to waste that $162!), we finally had a conversation with one of the station agents, replete with hand gestures, pointing, and limited speech. The bottom line was to go to platform 3, and change trains at Mishiga.

Ultimately, we changed trains (with guidance) and made it to the Tokyo rail station. The interior resembled lots of other places in the area—as if someone had poked a stick into an ant hill. People scurrying in every direction, certainly having a destination in mind rather than what appeared as aimless sauntering by my group. We noted a number of young women attached to very large items being carried, covered, like a back pack, and we speculated on what was inside. Possibly a bassoon or other long musical instrument? Skis? Rocket propelled grenade launchers? Whatever it was, it didn’t appear to be very heavy; the girls didn’t look as though they were dressed to go on a sporting activity; more like students going to a conservatory. After a number of blind alleys, we were finally directed to the exit door near the hotel where the tours would start, and headed in that direction. Noting that we had about 45 minutes before assembling, we decided to have breakfast.

Hah! This was our first introduction to the Tokyo cost of living. In the hotel coffee shop, my two scrambled eggs were $14, a cup of tea or coffee was $12. Our colleague’s breakfast was $36! Remind me to starve when I’m in Tokyo. Anyway, we finished our snack, and went to the tour assembly area, and were on our way. The buses were plush, but the seats were a bit narrow for non-Asians—either that, or I had still not lost those extra pounds. Probably a combination of both. The tour guide spoke an interesting version of English, drawing out the sound of whatever word was last in a sentence. He gave the usual facts particular to his genre, and was constantly checking to make sure all of us were on the bus after each stop. Our first venture was the Tokyo Tower, and the only disappointment in the view from the top was that there were some clouds hiding Mt. Fujiyama off in the far distance. There were buildings as far as the horizon in three directions, the fourth being Tokyo Bay and the Pacific beyond. Tokyo must have the world’s greatest number of skyscrapers, there were hundreds gathered in clusters here and there throughout the landscape. I wondered what people do in all of those, is there a real need? All those tall structures, regardless of their architecture, seem composed of stacks of small cubicles, just like all the apartment buildings; the only difference is that you don’t see laundry drying on balconies on the sides. I kept thinking, “this is the City of Cubicles” as I failed to see anything else, regardless of where I looked. There were a few exceptions, usually something out of an architect’s fantasy in  their startling appearance, but not many. On the other hand, the only real traditional Japanese structures were in and around the Imperial Palace, and a few other venues having a pagoda or two, waterfalls, tea houses, and pleasant gardens. At one of these adjoining an ultramodern new hotel, there were 22 weddings being held at various locations throughout the gardens, simultaneously; some brides in traditional dress and others in wedding white gowns. One bride, emerging from the subway in her traditional garb, flashed a smile and the victory “V” at us as she headed for the altar.

We were taken to a tea house, to view a traditional tea ceremony; the highlight of that experience was a small tremor that shook the walls of the building. The “tea lady”, through our guide’s translation, said “Don’t worry, this building has been here for over a hundred years, through lots of quakes”, and we were reassured. There were only three weddings going on in this garden. We were told that one reason for all of them being held on that day is that the date is one of two national holidays, and celebrates the founding of the Japanese nation. At the same time, we were also told that a lot of Japanese don’t know that.

The tour included lunch, referred to in the brochure as “a barbeque”, and which turned out to be a series of vegetables, small slices of pork and beef, soup, and a salad, some of it cooked on a hibachi. It was very good, but hardly filling for those of us used to a bit more bulk. Later, at our next stop at the Imperial Palace grounds, the highlight was an ice cream sundae which I consumed to make sure it was safe for others to eat.

Our last official stop was at a “bazaar-type” of shopping area having 100 booths arranged in two rows, and leading to an elaborate Shinto shrine. There were only five or six types of booths, but 10 or 20 having the same stuff at the same prices, so it could be difficult to decide what to buy. I bought nothing and, tired and with aching legs, headed for the bus.

Arriving back at the tour departure hotel, we confidently zoomed through the lobby, down the escalator, and hiked the long corridor into the train station. Our excitement at knowing where we were going quickly waned, and we had to fall back on asking directions of the station personnel, who sent us to the appropriate platform. From there, we successfully negotiated the train portion of the trip, changing trains at the right place with no problems. I jokingly made the comment, “After finally and successfully getting on all the trains, wouldn’t it be funny if we got lost on the 8 blocks back to the base?” Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce are probably squirming somewhere; little did we know what awaited us.

When we left the train and exited the station, the scene before us was not familiar. “We must be on the wrong side of the station, let’s go up the stairs and down the other side. Whoops! This isn’t it either. Let’s try to ask someone. Zama is that way? Okay, let’s go. Say, we’ve been walking about two miles and we just came down a long curving hill that wasn’t here before. Let’s ask someone in that convenient store. That way? Let’s go. Hey, we’ve been walking another couple of miles, what happened to that 8 blocks? Let’s go back to the railroad station and start over. Look, there’s a police station! Let’s ask directions. Sir, we’re lost, where is Camp Zama? You’re kidding! We got off at the wrong station? But it said Zama. Oh, there’s another one with that name included. What—you had written it down but didn’t bother to look at it when we were seeking our station? Let’s get a taxi”. —And we finally got home, after walking about 5 or 6 miles over hill and dale. Thus ended the day.

Some random observations:

Black is the preferred color of every kind of clothing, whether it be a topcoat, miniskirt with leggings, slacks, or anything worn in public. If there is a color, it is muted. Women seemed to be as fashion conscious here as they are in  most large urban centers; well-groomed and nicely garbed. Saudi Arabia shared only the use of black, in women’s outfits; otherwise they were decidedly non-Western.

Whenever you ask, “How long will it take to get there?”, you always hear the phrase, “Depends on traffic” and it really does! We can say the same thing in Thermopolis, when asked how long it takes to get to the State Park—“Depending on traffic, it could take 50% longer—3 minutes instead of 2—and if you miss the traffic light”.

The Japanese love to play golf, but it’s very expensive here. Green fees for their courses are around $200; they are however permitted to play on the Zama garrison’s course for half that, helping the course be designated as the highest grossing course in the Army system. It cost us $27, including cart and rental clubs.

I had a haircut today on the base, from a highly-skilled Japanese barber. Although he began with the #3 clippers, most of the action was with deftly-manipulated scissors, with constant brushing in between snips. After finishing the cutting, he then gave a neck and shoulder massage, a mixture of those “karate chops” and deep kneading of the shoulder muscles. They sure don’t do that in Thermop!  And for only $12.50!

This afternoon, I went to an antique shop and bought a beautiful brocaded obi, the wide sash that  is wrapped twice around a young woman and anchored in place with another, narrower sash. I was told that people collect them and either use them for table runners, or hang them as tapestries. I like tapestries.


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