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May 4th, 2010

Hot ginger and dynamite

Given the subtle impressions I had of Tokyo, I probably should have written them up at the time, rather than now, two weeks hence.

With my boss in Germany for a month, and an invitation to a wedding in hand, it seemed at good chance was at hand to visit my folks in Melbourne. Which in turn seemed a good chance to take up an offer to visit a school friend, Carly, in Japan. And also to find flight routes that don't stop on the Pacific coast of the United States; for your files, it turns out Houston is a far superior enforced customs ordeal than LA of SF. You can even check your luggage to your final destination at your point of embarkation.

Japan was a land of contrasts in one important category: toilets. As early as at the airport at Narita, one finds toilets with heated seats, variable pressure for the warm water that cleanses your buttocks, and more buttons that Shatner ever got on his seat. But, skipping ahead, in public parks one finds squat toilets that suggest the Japanese have decided that westerners require a greater challenge in hitting their target from above.

Leaving Narita on the express train to Tokyo Station, one has a half hour voyage from rural vistas through increasingly dense suburbs into the central business district. The rice patties, interspersed with homesteads and forest that make up the first section are enchanting. The vegetation is a mix of bamboo and trees with delicate looking foliage that seem to be in horizontal planes, and mighty oak-like behemoths. The greens are vibrant and the overall impression is just as one sees in traditional Japanese paintings; in fact, powerfully so. As houses appear, one notices that they range from traditional to modern, but strikingly most of the modern have the Japanese style of tiled roof, with slightly turned up corners and a round ridge on the vertices. Coming through this on a drizzled day added to the mystic nature of the whole trip.

After vaguely wandering around the outskirts of the Imperial Palace in a jet-lagged, frozen stupor, I met up with Carly in the evening and we and a clutch of expatriates from Ireland, Australia and Canada did as gaijin do and went to a bar to get hammered. Here I learnt the term 'gaijin smash', whereby foreigners do dumb and often dangerous things and get away with it by virtue of being foreign. I do wonder about the low-level racist terms for whites; they all begin with a 'g' sound: gaijin, güero, gringo, guǐlǎo, gentile.


Even when I'm sleeping

Carly was good enough to put aside her weekend to show a whippersnapper such as myself some of the key attractions of Tokyo and surrounds, though sadly her husband Tom, whom I have not met aside from their wedding day, was elsewhere in the country with work; he is a professional golf caddy, which, as well as its inherent awesomeness, is a position of much importance in Japan. Thus, his mystery grows.

Meeting up with Meg, a Japanese girl who went on Rotary exchange to Australia when Carly went to Japan in high school, and her host parents, we caught the train to Kawagoe. This town is known as Little Edo, as it preserves the castle town architecture of the Edo period. As my exploratorial bent has increasingly become one of history, this suited me fine. There, we found sweet potatoes. Those big purple ones. In everything. Baked, in fish-shaped baked goods, fried, in Kit-Kats, in many things. I also found an op-shop that sold me a samurai robe thing for $20. Score. There was also a traditional sweets factory we got a tour of by virtue or a rotary secret hand shake, where lollies are made in hand-carved wooden moulds.

I also here encountered my first Shinto shrine. Pro tip (I always found that obnoxious): these have the arch business at the front, where as Buddhist temples do not. The Shinto shrines also have the hand washing ritual, where you wash the left hand by scooping water from a fountain onto it, then the right hand, then taste the water, then wash the handle of the scoop, wipe it, then put it back. From then on, as must clearly be so, Shinto shrines became the new pyramids of my life.

There was also the added appeal that I saw the cherry blossoms, though I am told I was a day or two late to see them in full bloom, and erratic changes in temperature had meant they had a short peak season, resulting that my experience was on the poxier side. If it was poxy, then good must be really good.

After checking out a Buddhist cemetery, Carly and I parted ways from the others and headed back to town, and to Sinjyku (I think) for the modern Tokyo neon spectacle, though it district of 200-odd scungy hole-in-the-wall bars was yet to open, a blight on my soul that only a neon sign of a dog humping a banner could alleviate. See the pictures to gauge the veracity of my words.

The metro station en route back to Carly’s digs offered up two gems: firstly, the knowledge that metro station bakeries can give a cheap meal of pastries containing bits of fried chicken, hot dogs, blocks of camembert, and many other greasy adventures for a low cost; and secondly, ranking ranQueen, the store that sells only the most popular item in any given category. These categories, however, might be quite abstract, such as “top item to give you beautiful legs while you sleep” (stockings that somehow tone your legs), “top surprise foot beauty item” (effectively an acid bath to slough off the skin), or “top item for girls who like to construct things” and “top item for constructing cute things” – both block sets from the same company.

Well, considering my discovery that most of the ideas we have about weird Japanese culture seem to be exaggerated, or at least their prevalence exaggerated - Carly has never seen the used ladies’ underwear vending machines, though she has suspicions about where they would be, and I didn’t see any odd anime porn until the airport on the way out (and shame on you if you automatically mentally corrected ‘odd anime porn’ to the correct Japanese term) – if I didn’t at least have foot acid beauty mutilation, you, the reader, would surely to be disappointed.


This lunar cycle

April 2015
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