Friday, June 22, 2012

Japan - Day 2

     So, here I am, 3:48 am typing at the table in the dark tiny cluttered kitchen of our host, Katsuo. As I type, Katsuo is sleeping in his room with the light on and his head not 6 feet behind me, so I hope I don't wake him up. The truth is that my near 50-year old bones couldn't stand one more minute on the 3 inch think futon and demanded that I get up for a while. I have to laugh at the contrast with last night. For our first night, I figured we'd be exhausted, so coughed up the $220 a night for the smallest closet at the Narito Airport Hotel- which, serendipitously, they then upgraded to a huge (by Japanese standards) suite with our lake-sized tub and a genuine Sealy Posturepedic mattress. Now we're seeing the REAL Japan. I found this little Bed and Breakfast fortuitously on the internet last year when it was mentioned in someone's blog. In Tokyo, where hotels start at $200 and rise rapidly, they rent out a room in their home for $75 a night. The name of their B&B is "We Speak English and Have Fast Wi-Fi." Well, I couldn't pass that up! All the previous guests couldn't say enough about Katsuo and his wife Keiko's helpfulness, either, which I thought would be a good way of breaking us in as we tried to navigate around the city.
     This morning we got up- well, I got up early and typed a journal entry, then spent a couple of hours watching the sunrise and waiting for Mr. Sleepyhead to arise. We were finally up and packed and checked out by 9:00. We caught a shuttle to the airport (sooo weird not to tip all these people who are handling my bag- not that I'd mind getting used to that part!) and were back where we started at Narita Airport. James is getting a bit more confident in his Japanese now and is more willing to lead, whereas I am started to feel like "Aaaaaaa, the signs, the people,the millions of transportation options all whizzing different directions- this does not look like anything the guidebook mentioned, what have I gotten myself into, we're going to be lost for 14 days, heeeellllllp." So, long story short, I decided to let him. We changed the rest of our money into yen at a slightly better exchange rate than we got at LAX. (I'm now over the sticker shock.) James has decided to keep every 5 yen coin which, in Japan, are supposed to bring you karma or your one true love. We'll see how many we accumulate and whether dark eyed beauties begin to dog our steps. James figured out which bus ticket to buy to get to Shin Kashagaya, where our B&B is located, but stalled at figuring out how to work the phone with the international phone card we purchased from a vending machine. ( Speaking of vending machines, you can buy ANYTHING from a machine here. So far I've seen electronics, cosmetics, cigarettes, soda, flavored milk, birth control items, cosmetics, and even a small smart car.) The phone number listed was not working though. James tried over and over and then snarled loudly, "I can't get the thing to work." Sensing a disturbance in their harmonious force, a uniformed woman beamed instantly out of nowhere to explain and calm the loud tall barbarian before he made Alderan explode. It seems all Japanese phone numbers must begin by dialling zero. Only when James was not only successful in his attempt but also clearly zen, did she return mysteriously whence she came.
     My accented phrases learned from listening to "Survival Japanese" tapes over and over in my car for the past year seem to be understood. James, with a gift for mimickry and voices anyway, speaks very good Japanese- not that he knows very many words after just 2 years- but his Osaka-born teacher always praised his pronunciation. (I certainly can't do that r-l-d sound that he keeps trying to teach me. My tongue is not that versatile.) I can see it in their eyes as he speaks that sometimes he surprises them- like meeting a talking dog. "Look, the barbarian is trying to speak- isn't it cute?" Everyone is polite, and helpful and very very efficient. We are lined up with our luggage in rows marked 1,2,3 for each bus which arrives precisely on time. The bus attendants take our tickets and line us up for the right bus. They also bow deeply as each bus arrives and departs. James, who has spent a fair bit of time on American buses, loves it. "Let's move here!" He enthuses, as we board the punctual immaculate bus. I calculate, however, that the 1 hour 45 minute hassle-free ride cost us each $80.00, so all that efficiency comes at a price. Still, I've got to say that I wish we had a lot more efficent public transportation back home. A ride like this on American buses might take you all day and be a lot less clean and comfortable, but it would also cost quite a bit less. A happy medium, perhaps?
We arrive at the bus station and Katsuo is there to greet us. Amazing! He also insists on buying us lunch at a local ramen shop frequented by many locals. We choose our selection from plastic display models in a glass case out front and he pays at- what else- a vending machine- for our selections. He insists that he must pay as he has not made us breakfast. I pick something that looks like it doesn't have fish in it- my main criteria for trying to get through the next 2 weeks. It is a breaded pork cutlet with fried egg served on rice- pretty good- and a side of cold noodles with what turns out to be seaweed on top and a cold salty soup to dip them in. James handles his chopsticks with ease. I ask for a fork and am given a Thomas the Tank Engine small fork like I had at home for the kids when they were toddlers. That seems to fit my ability perfectly. 
     I eat my rice dish and leave the noodles to James after a few polite bites. I cannot bring myself to slurp wads of noodles into my mouth with the sound of a wet Hoover as James and all the natives sitting around us are doing with gusto. My grandmother would be appalled at such table manners. I decide for 2 weeks he can eat like a Klingon, but James better not try it at home!
     Our B&B is about a 20 minute walk from the station. It is completely cloudy with no trace of sun but very hot and humid. Our faces are sweaty but I notice our host's face is quite dry. It appears that, the farther from the station we walk, the poorer and less well-kept the homes appear. I am trying to watch how we are walking but quickly become confused. Katsuo kindly points out landmarks. James nods sagely. I am still feeling lost, however, I am good at lost and remind myself that I have no need to come halfway around the world to experience it, being quite competent at getting lost within a few miles of home. Here there's no GPS though- alas. We arrive at our home for the next 3 days and are shown to our futon on the floor. Katsuo turns on the fan and invites us to rest. (It feels pretty soft- at first...) I was prepared from travelers' reviews for the place to be small and cramped, however, there is now a distinct feel of a bachelor pad. Sure enough, we have yet to see Keiko, who, we are told, has taken an apartment in Tokyo to avoid her 2 hour commute to work. Katsou promises we will meet her soon. The apartment is full of frilly pink girly things and we have pink furry Elmo pillows on our futon. In the mean time, Katsuo is off today and shows every sign of being willing to be our tour guide. We feel guilty for taking his time, but are so grateful for his help. After a rest, he takes us to the train station where he buys us Suico passes (from- you guessed it- a vending machine) which we slap on the automatic turnstiles as we go on and off the train. We had planned to go out adventuring but it was 2:30 and he advised that we needed to get on the trains before 5:00, when rush hour begins. "You don't want to see the train at 8:00!" he warns, so we heed him and he takes us to Tokyo's largest mall- which is only 1 train stop away. We chat about our lives. He studied in Maine for 10 months and that is where he learned such good English. Some words confuse him but we usually get the point across quickly. He is now giving directions to James, having figured out that I am hopeless. He mentions that all he knows about Seattle is Ichiro and is delighted when I dredge up baseball out of my usually sports-deficient brain. "Good, he is famous then, good, good," he says in satisfaction for his countryman. He doesn't know how right he is. If I've heard of the guy, he must be really famous!
     We laugh at all the American chains we see at the mall: Burger King, Krispy Kreme, even Coldstone are here. Japanese portions are small, Katsuo warns us earnestly. "Little scoop ice cream-like this"- he makes a 1 inch motion with his fingers, " is 500 yen. When I was in America, the girl she scoop my ice cream like this," - he motions like a backhoe digging a hole and sighs blissfully in memory. "That's why we're all fat!" I comment back but, indeed, no one is fat here. I saw one heavy woman but, when she turned around, I recognized a fellow American. The girls are all fresh-faced and pretty in their school uniforms with pleated skirts and white blouses and ties. The boys are all slim and good looking with their high cheek bones and slightly pointed ears. Spock must have been inspired by one of these handsome people. There is a band playing Simon and Garfunkel in the mall and everyone claps along with an enthusiasm rarely seen in crowds paying less than $90 a ticket but, when the leader tries to get the audience to sing along on a familiar verse, there is only embarrassed silence. Maybe karaoke requires a little sake to start the party? Mindful of our long trip ahead carrying all our luggage, I restrain myself and buy only a few small Hello Kitty items for my friend Andrea who requested them. James is still hunting for some unique chopsticks and hoarding his little stash of yen close. A woman approaches us and asks for a donation for victims of the earthquake. James gives her a donation (he's now the moneybags of the outfit) and answers her questions in Japanese. "Ah," She exclaims, "Such good Japanese!" "Mada, mada," he responds, "And modest too," she approves. "You are mother?" she says to me. "You look much alike."
Back on the train near the bewitching hour of 5:00, I see what Katsuo means, we are part of a sea of humanity, walking up stairs and escalators, through gates, and onto the packed standing room only train. There is a distinct order the things, you go up the stairs on the left, down on the right. If you're standing on the escalator, you stand on the left, so people can hurry past you on the right. James gets it right away and keeps having to tow me over to the correct side of wherever we are. Katsuo warns, "But in Osaka, you stand on the right." "Why?" I query. "No one knows," he shrugs, "they are very different there." He listens to James' tales of his beloved Osaka-born teacher, who said, "In Osaka, time is money, so we talk very fast." "Yes," he agrees, "She sounds like an Osakan. In Tokyo, we are calm, not so busy."
Seats seem to be owned by who got there first. At least, I see a tiny bent over little lady standing next to some very healthy looking specimens who are sitting down texting on their cell phones. We are standing too so we cannot give up our seats. The train whizzes by very fast indeed, and this is one of the slow, local ones, they tell me.
I want to get a picture of the endless sea of bicycles- all of them retro girls bike varieties with wide handlebars and a basket or two in front and back. They are everywhere with grannies, schoolkids and businessmen in suits alike riding them in swarms down the narrow streets right next to all the cars and busses. It looks very tight to me but everyone obeys signals- not a jaywalker in sight- and everything seems to work smoothly. I walk on the right side of the sidewalk next to Katsuo to hear what he's saying and suddenly realize I'm holding up a whole line of polite bicyclists- there's that right left thing again, evidently, we walk single file on the left to leave room for the bicyclists to pass on the right. The system works, evidently, except for clueless foreigners. I see children and young pregnant mothers everywhere, but, in all our travels today, I have seen but 3 dogs (a pomeranian, a corgi, and a long haired dachsund) and not one cat except the kitties in cages outside the mall, which were up for adoption. Katsuo says he would love a dog but pets are not allowed in his complex. I asked about a dog club and he shook his head, perplexed. I thought dogs were more popular in Tokyo than the evidence leads me to believe. We did pass one veterinary clinic on the bus- not close to here. I'd love to go inside if we see another when we can stop.
     Katsuo is politely frustrated with our planlessness. He wants very much to help and keeps querying us as to our desires. We mentioned the anime museum and he jumped on that and found a museum on the internet and wanted to order tickets but the museum was not James' style of anime- though he knew all about it- James likes Naruto and Fairy Tale, while this museum involves the people who made Spirited Away. Katsuo looks at James with the "Cartoons are cartoons" look that I always give him, as he goes into a long involved spiel on the difference between the two. Anyway, we decided that today we would go to Akihabara, the center of geekdom in Tokyo. "But tomorrow", he warned us, "it will rain." And raining it is- coming down in buckets. Guess we'll get some use out of those umbrellas we lugged along. Poor Katsuo, he's probably used to tourists with long lists of itineraries, not random idiots like James and me who have few plans other than getting to our futon in time to sleep and eating whatever looks interesting along the way. I told him we would buy tickets at the Disneyland hotel and he just about went into calm Tokyo style orbit- "But", he explained in frustration, "maybe Disneyland is full and you cannot buy tickets, I help you, we buy on internet." So he spent a frustrating hour on the internet trying to buy tickets, which would not let him do it for that date. Finally, he called the hotel, which explained to him that, if we were guests at the hotel, they would sell us tickets even if the park was full." Katsuo collapsed in relief. It's hard work being worried for guests who are too clueless to worry for themselves. Last night we came back after our mall adventure and planned to venture back out for dinner, but James was- ahem- badly chafed after our long walk in the humid heat- and did not feel up to more than lying down moaning a bit. (Today I shall introduce him to a feminine invention known as "baby powder.") 
I was exhausted after doing the 3 am thing the night before, so we just went to bed. "What about dinner?" exclaimed Katsuo in horror. Poor man. I hope he manages all 3 days with trying to care for our random souls. He lent James a cell phone for today and I can see him mentally resigning himself to having to come rescue us when we are lost beyond redemption in Tokyo today. I just hope his fears are not realized and we make it back. He's already pointed out that there are Manga Keisa (Manga and Internet shops where you pay by the hour) that are open 24 hours where we can stay if we miss the last train back home.
James tries to figure out the public phone

Waiting for the bus
James and Katsuo on the train
Futons on the floor in Keiko and Katsuo's spare room.  We really feel like we're seeing the real Japan now!

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