Saturday, April 5, 2008

Pink dandruff is cute

My mom, Susan, arrived on Tuesday, April 1, after 2 or 3 hours of delays. I guess her plane had extra fuel and had to circle the airport a couple times before they could land, testing the limits of her motion sickness. So not much happened that day as it took me almost an hour to find the hotel and however long to travel to Narita airport, which is a good trip out of Tokyo. On the way back, after her first train trip in all of Japan she did something I haven’t done in the 8 months I have been here yet; she picked up a young, attractive and available Japanese girl.

I was walking over to see which train we needed to transfer to when I realized mom wasn’t with me. I looked back and saw what was going on: “you are so pretty!” and “come visit me in Canada!” was expressed among other show stealers. I was rather beside myself at what was going on so I was tongue-tied for most of the spectacle, although mom left a couple windows open for me to jump in and work my magic, which consisted of awkward pauses and her checking her watch. Eventually she had to go and I had to explain to mom how at least 80% of the girls here are pretty so don’t worry about that. “I’m jealous of your people skills” was all I could say.

It was nice to see Japan from a fresh perspective again as being here has made me desensitized to some of the crazier things. “Wow so many people are wearing masks!” and “he’s wearing all pink!” were pointed out early on, at what otherwise would have been business as usual for me. We found a good sushi train place, had our first tasty meal, and then called it an early night.

We both didn’t have much for plans, but I had something of a travel brochure I picked up and now a new Lonely Planet book good for traveling. We started out the day by taking a trip to Asakusa temple, which was further than we thought and were almost immediately derailed by a nearby flea market. This was a first for both of us and we both perused to buy gifts; I half hope to have birthday gifts for the siblings by the time she leaves as she can take them with her. Alas we couldn’t spend all day there even though it would have been easy and we made our way to the large temple.

I was put into the teacher position and explained how these places work from my limited knowledge base. A fountain outside is used to dip water out, wash the hands, and then sip from to wash your insides. Then there was an incense drum where we watched the locals cup the scented smoke and pull it to their chest and heads, then breathe some in for perhaps another form of cleansing. Before all that we went and got our fortunes at some of the many stands set up. We put in our 100 yen, shook out a stick from a big container, and then searched for the numbered box we had drawn. Mom got mediocre luck, while I got the worst/lowest kind of luck.

My fortune had wonderful things like “marriage and employment are bad”, “that lost article will not be found” and “your trip will get harm on the way” among other things. Luckily the Japanese way to rid yourself of this new found curse is to tie it to a nearby tree (in this case rack) and hope the bad luck will stay with it and not follow you. Tying this piece of paper proved difficult but I was determined to leave it behind. It tore 3 times trying not to be tied and eventually I left it dangling from the bar, as I wanted none of that. The temple was large and beautiful and there were so many people. Sakura (cherry blossoms) are large, pink, beautiful and seemingly everywhere.

While we were there, mom befriended another local and got some help looking at jewelry. We browsed for a bit and later it was suggested to us we could also find more jewelry at Akihabara. A sly grin took residence on my face. Ah yes, akihabara; or akiba for short. “Electronics town” they try to call it, but we all know that is were the otaku (geeks/nerds) go to hang out to buy anime, pornography and play video games. I know a handful of people who would punch me for taking my mom there, but this is fate right? At the very least let’s call it a cultural experience.

So we went out to akiba and were graced by the young ladies walking around in maid outfits (and unfortunately coats due to the breezy weather) and the large, sexually suggestive, cartoon women hung from banners well over 5 stories big down the sides of buildings. Mom could tell I was having fun, but I could tell she was wary. I think the first shop we went in was easy enough to point out some of the perverse stuff to be found here at the hands of an animator, then explained how the general rule of thumb was the higher or lower the floor, the more twisted and warped it became. *cough* tentacles *cough!* *cough!*

Nah I didn’t tell her about the tentacles, you don’t have to either. Needless to say she wasn’t really up for a second store, but still wanted to find some jewelry. So I took her to maybe the biggest department looking store I could find in the area and said we should just explore this. This building was extremely tame compared to the others, half of the floor being akiba fun and the other half being like wally mart. I was surprised that we did in fact find some jewelry, but you can probably guess it was somewhat low grade. We continued up and mom got to see what a Japanese arcade looks like, what a maid cafĂ© looks like, what kinds of cosplay costumes they sell (“Patty would love this for Halloween!”), and the numerous you-need-to-be-over-18 areas; of which we never entered.

After I bought a Super Mario toy or two and mom got a vague idea of what the area was about, we next went to Ueno and the nearby park. There are many museums here and even a zoo, but neither of us were in the mood for that kind of brain simulation and sat by watching a nearby vendor making takoyaki (squid balls) for an hour or so, grateful to find a place to sit for a while in a country where benches are really rare. When feeling returned to our legs, we went through the park and experienced the beautiful sakura, softly raining pink petals among the many visitors on this sunny day. There were families and friends sitting out and having picnics in the shade of pink. Food was eaten, stories were told, and lots of sake was drunk.

It was so beautiful and we walked around for a long time; mom even got a picture with some ladies dressed in full kimonos. There was a street performer using a wooden puppet on strings to play out songs on a violin. After this adventure we went back to the hotel to relax for tomorrow’s early day. We got bowls of ramen at a nearby shop and were impressed by the normal locals and their “only high school” level of English.

We got up really early Thursday, like 5:15 am early. We rushed out to the fish market but of course missed out on the wholesale auctions that took place. This fish market in Tsukiji is quite the tourist draw now, it feeds millions of people a day. We bumped into a German tour group and were lucky enough to follow them to the action as this place was rather large and somewhat dangerous with the sharp knives and speeding carts zipping all over the place.

We saw all kinds of seafood, from tuna larger than me, to people opening and cutting out clams from a huge drum of shells. One thing that disturbed me was the processing of some live fish. (warning: possibly gruesome) What they did was cut into the neck on one side, possibly dislocating the spine from the brain, then cut into the tail. Once that incision was made they would grab a steel wire and jab it down the vertebrae. The fish would jerk violently during this process but be completely motionless after. I can only speculate it’s to destroy all the nerves so the fish doesn’t flop during later processing with a sharp and dangerous knife, and the veteran at death’s dinner table was very fast and precise; most likely from years of experience. It was that wire the bugged me.

Other things weren’t so gruesome as I’ve experienced more than one beef butchering back on the farm. I was confused as to why they would freeze the tuna before cutting it on the biggest band saws I have ever seen. I suppose maybe it’s to help with the removal of the vertebrae later as a person held the fish while another took a large 2-handed axe and chopped it out.

But for those of you with weak stomachs perhaps that’s enough, but we were hungry after this gruesome spectacle :) We had skipped breakfast and it was maybe 9 in the morning at this point. There was something similar to a flea market next to fish market and we got some fish-paste like greasy food. It wasn’t too enjoyable, but luckily there is always a nearby convenience store in Japan where we could throw it out and buy something acceptable for consumption.

The shopping district of Ginza (means silver in Japanese; really high end place) was in walking distance so we took a stroll in the general direction, stopping when we saw a bench and taking a nap. We resumed activities around 9:30 but couldn’t do too much as everything in Tokyo/Japan likes to be closed until sometime after 10. We found more coffee for me so I wouldn’t be so grumpy and partially to kill some time until the stores opened. We went into the apple store and browsed some of the newer goods and I got a piece for my laptop that will help me give video lessons for English classes now.

In Ginza, a rather large station, we decided to activate my mom’s JR pass. For those not familiar, tourists (not residents like me) can buy this pass outside of Japan, then get unlimited access to JR railroads (not private lines like in Tokyo); a pass that pays for itself after one or two trips on the fast shinkansen (bullet train). In short, get one! :) So anyways we couldn’t activate it here, we had to go to Tokyo station.

Luckily it was one stop away. We followed the map and walked for around ½ hour trying to find somewhere to activate it. We were turned away from at least 4 or 5 tickets booths in different areas before we finally found the place; a tiny corner office with the JR pass exchange advertised in little letters.

Annoyances aside, we got the pass then bought a ticket for myself at a little over $180 to Hiroshima for Friday. I was shocked to find out we couldn’t get reserved seats and were put in the first-come-first-served area. I had never taken this train before and I sure didn’t want to stand for 5 hours straight on a train (Chris and I have done it before in China... it just ain’t right) so there was a feeling of anxiety for the rest of the day.

We pushed that aside and went out to walk to the Yasukuni shrine, the super controversial one where class-A war criminals are immortalized and praised. I was warned by a fellow JET to be on the lookout for the fascists driving around in a black van, and be wary of the museum’s propaganda saying how WWII started because Britain wanted to control the world or something; so early on I told my mom: “if something bad happens, we don’t know a scratch of Japanese, alright?” Naturally, she was safe, but I could get in trouble.

Luckily, that account wasn’t fully accurate about the propaganda, and possibly unlucky because the shrine and museum were a full 2 train stations away from where he said, making the walk that much more arduous when I opened up my Lonely Planet book and found a map. I couldn’t find it in there earlier as well because the spelling was slightly different… so perhaps we went to the wrong place? I heart indexes.

Anyways it was a long journey. We stopped for ice cream where mom got boring vanilla and I got risky “sakura” flavour and mom got immediately jealous because it was so tasty. Then we got some sweet potato from another nearby vendor and munched on that. Later on the walk we took what looked like a graveyard detour, but were immediately treated to a spectacular stroll through cherry blossoms.

If Thursday’s sakura was just “good” then this was magnificent. The trees were out in full bloom and instead of light rain from the pedals it was almost pouring. Pink petals were in people’s hair and the nearby lake where couples were out rowing boats down the stream covered on both sides by large blooming pink trees. It’s hard to describe something so beautiful, this picture can say more than I ever could.

It was a good long walk and there were many people out enjoying the view; even people with high tech cameras just filming the pedals floating in the water or taking close ups of the pedals. At the end of the path we were near the museum. I was still a little panicked by John’s words of warning but wanted to see the museum anyways. Mom was tired so she sat it out but regretted it later when I emerged over an hour later and shared stories.

Some parts of the history presented was cleverly worded, sure, and other more inglorious things were left out, but the scope of knowledge and things on display were just amazing. They had the emperor’s sword that he gave to his Marshal samurai for over 2 years, armor and paintings of epic battles and lots of history, including scrolls written during those times. This shrine is apparently really, really old, as it not only memorializes those Class-A war criminals, but of the many samurai and other war heroes hundreds of years old as they were presented somewhere among the sea of faces of what had to be over a thousand pictures displayed in later rooms.

Overall it was really interesting and had large world war 2 items on display, including a one-man submarine/torpedoes for suicide runs that could sink a destroyer, bullets for battle ships that were larger than me, artillery cannons from the battle of Io Jima with DEEP gouges in its thick steeled body from attacks and full sized airplanes that were used. Absolutely amazing; I partly rushed through it because my mom was waiting outside but I think I may go again someday.

We spent our last night in Tokyo in Shinjuku at a fast food restaurant where I showed my mom you could buy your meal coupon from a vending machine, give it to the waitress and receive your meal really fast and leave whenever you like as it has been paid for. We walked around and mom “gooked” at more people (gawked? I think mom made ‘gooked’ up) as fashion really is something else here and I don’t mind as the girls are so pretty.

If getting up at 5:15 was early, we got up at 4:45 this morning to make sure we could get seats on the train. I caught up a bit on sleep this morning, but thought we could save time by hopping on a train that left ½ hour earlier when we had to transfer in Osaka. I believe we are on a slower train, as we should have arrived in Hiroshima an hour ago. No worries, it gave me time to write this up.

"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it" -William Arthur Ward


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