Top page About this site
Scotland Formative Years Japan Adolescence Aerial balloon
About my projects Balloon pictures Tropical horticulture Animal husbandry Research papers Software
Super Monkey Ball 2 Nerd tips
Admit MSCS Buchanan gay? Square watermelon Strom retrospective My many talents
Japan Pictures

Tomo-chan in the Yokohama Doll Museum and Shiki on the bus in Kyouto

The following travel journal is of my second trip to visit Tomoko (January 2004). My first trip was August 2002. There aren’t so many fun pictures from the first trip because my friends are very shy! The second trip I took more pictures of inanimate things because inanimate things are less shy.
I asked the taxi to come at 8:00, and it fact it was five minutes early. I was outside waiting for it, though, because I got up at the crack of my alarm clock. I could barely sleep all night because I was so excited about the trip. The week before I was filled with a sense of dread—what was I doing with Tomoko? I never thought of the trip as being a romantic holiday, but everyone I talked to certainly looked at it in that sense. But as it got closer I became more and more excited at the thought of s eeing one of my favorite people in the world, the person who used to make my life complete.
Around 1:00 in the morning my friend James Welle from Seattle called. I wasn’t able to make out his voice on the phone so perhaps he jostled it while he was at a bar. In any case, being on edge as I was I bolted to the phone. It was hard to go back to sle ep again afterwards. My first alarm went off at 6:30. I had set three alarms just to make sure I got up. Indeed I got up at the first one, took a typically frigid Schwab shower, and was dressed and ready to go in no time. I had lain out my clothes the night before and my bag was fully packed, save for my toothbrush, so I was ready to go well before the taxi came. I wasn’t hungry for breakfast.
At the airport check-in was pretty typical. The lady at the united counter expressed amazement at the fact that I only had one bag and asked how long I was going to be in Japan. I wasn’t sure if she was flirting, curious, or filling out some terrorist-watch screen on her computer. The plane ride was nice. I was in the left bank of seats on a 747-400 (pretty much the only airframe that goes into Narita), window seat, and there was nobody in the middle. The man in the aisle was a nice Japanese man with wisps of grey in his hair.
I had asked for the Asian vegetarian option for my meal. Originally I started asking for the Asian vegetarian option as a joke with Irene, who insists that I have an Asian fetish (I almost wish I did—then it would make finding people to care about so much easier) but I soon discovered that “Asian vegetarian” is code for Hindu, which means you get nice Indian food—sometimes. This time the first meal (of two, plus a few rounds of drinks since the flight is long) was this inedible goulash, but the second one was a vaguely Japanese fried green onion with something else in it. Unfortunately, the soy sauce container I was given was almost completely empty (must have been a leak in there somewhere) and when I did manage to wrench the lid off, it exploded all over the seat, the food (but not the food it was supposed to go on) and even on the passenger in front of me. Fortunately none landed on my clothes, since I was going to have to wear the pants three days and the shirt two.
I arrived in Narita the following day due to the time change. The “gate” was a “remote gate” which meant that the airplane parked way the heck far away from any buildings and a bus came and got the passengers one load at a time. On a 747-400 that takes quite a few buses. Unfortunately this meant that my usual tactic of power-walking through the airport to be first in line at immigration wouldn’t work.
The line at immigration wasn’t too long in any event. When I got to the immigration line, I found that the embarkation/disembarkation card I had so carefully filled out with my fountain pen on the airplane had to be filled out in blue or black ink. I borrowed a pen from the person in line in front of me and requested another card from one of the roving immigration officers. I still have the first card in my backpack, filled out in a rusty red ink I got from the university art store. I was frequently asked during my stay to sign guest books or other things in Japan, and I decided that I wouldn’t be the obstreperous gaikokujin who fucks things up, so my pen usually stayed in my pocket, except when making notes to myself, and I signed things with the black pens I was given.
There’s an unwritten rule in Japan that foreigners are pretty stupid. Another instance at the immigration line was the red line on the floor about five feet back from the immigration counters. The red line had the word “stop” written in English, and only in English, because I suppose foreigners would otherwise ignore tact and the red line and amble right up behind person being interrogated, while Japanese people would be smart enough to figure it out without the textual guide. However, the line and the word “stop” were evidently not sufficient because there were handwritten signs taped to every immigration counter pleading with people to stand behind the red line. The immigration officer didn’t ask me any questions, merely stamping my passport and letting me go with a arigatou gozaimasu, but the customs person was a little funnier.
The first time I’d come to Japan the customs person didn’t examine the contents of my bag, but this officer made a cursory attempt. He asked what my sleeping bag was (probably because I was an idiot for bringing it—it turned out that I never needed it, or the pillow for that matter) and what the gift-wrapped package was. When I wrapped the gift I had been afraid that I would have to unwrap it, but it turns out the customs person was easy to convince. I said “fountain pen,” which he didn’t understand so I lied and said “empitu.” His eyes lit up as he said “pencil,” and then he riffled through a notebook to show me an n-th generation xerox of a pen-and-ink page showing banned goods. He asked if I had any of the things on that page. I remember that there were about six pictures, in two columns. The pictures included one for drugs, pornography (with PLAYBOY written on the depicted magazine and a drawn model on the front), and swords, and I don’t remember the rest. The “swords” category amused me because on my previous trip to visit Tomoko we had made frequent use of the train station luggage lockers, and one of the prohibited items on the long list above the locker door was “swords.” I wish I knew what the deal was with swords—are they banned in J apan?
The whole time I was going through the airport process I had very vivid memories of the last time I’d gone through, the reason being of course that the previous time I had been completely terrified at every stage: Pure, abject terror that seared every image of the airport into my mind. After I cleared customs I had to book my ryokan room for the following night. I’d already booked the Tokyo youth hostel for the first night, but I wanted to see real Japanese culture, so I went with a ryokan the second night. The youth hostel has the advantage of being easy for me to find at night (or so I thought) since I had already stayed there once and I was able to make a reservation at Stanford by e-mail. The ryokan on the other hand I had to book at the airport. I wanted to ensure that I would have a room the first night!
It took me some time to locate the Welcome Inn reservation desk. There was a cellular phone rental place that had a rack of the brochures on the counter, but the cute salesgirls there had no idea where the actual desk was. They seemed to think it was very strange that I was even asking them where the reservation desk was. I found the desk eventually and got the room. Originally I was going to ask to be put in two different ryokan for Tuesday and then Thursday and Friday nights but it was so much work for the girl behind the counter that I didn’t have the heart to ask. I figured I would just go back to the Suzuki Ryokan on Thursday if it was a nice place to be. The Suzuki Ryokan was very cheap, only 4000 yen. When Tomoko saw the sheet on Tuesday when we were deciphering the map on the back, she was amazed that I had found a ryokan so cheap.
I noticed three other things when I was getting the ryokan. First, the girl behind the counter said arigatou gozaimasu when the boy next to her passed a paper to her, which really emphasized to me how pervasively polite Japanese culture is. He must pass her dozens or hundreds of papers every day. Second, the girl passed gas when she turned around. In fact three people audibly passed gas in public around me the first day, which led to my theory (hotly disputed by Tomoko) that passing gas in public isn’t as rude in Japan as it is in the U.S. The third thing was that I realized how hard it was to communicate in Japanese because I was constricted both by my knowledge of Japanese and what I perceived to be social protocol. As I had just arrived, I was itching to practice my language skills, but I couldn’t think of any small talk I could say in Japanese that seemed appropriate. I was pretty sure the people behind the counter liked talking to foreigners because they had chosen to work at a government-funded organization whose job is to interface foreigners to hotels.
Anyway, I got on the Narita Express (after dealing with a remarkably surly ticket girl with a perfect British accent) and went to Tokyo station. There I found the Chou line to go the youth hostel. Only problem is that I’d forgotten which stop the youth hostel was, and I ended up going back and forth three times. I didn’t remember what the station looked like. Was it Ichigaya, or Iidabashi, or some other station close by? The map I had of Tokyo wasn’t very exact about where the youth hostel was. I found it eventually by getting off at each candidate station, going outside, and looking around. The difficulty was that my first impression of Tokyo was flavored by my impression of Tomoko—perfect in every way. This second time around I was slightly more realistic about both, and when the train platforms seemed darker and dirtier than I remembered it made it hard to figure out where I was supposed to be.
I made it to the youth hostel in time for dinner. After dinner, it was about five minutes past seven o’clock and Tiffany had asked me to call her. I tried calling and I got a really confusing Japanese message that on forever. I couldn’t tell if the number was wrong or what. It beeped, so I left a rambling message about how confused I was, but I didn’t know if the message had been saved. I called a few more times and the same thing happened. I didn’t try leaving more messages. I took a short nap and at ten o’clock I called Tomoko like we had arranged. I was so happy to hear her voice. All the doubts about why I had come melted when I listened to her. It wasn’t the same as the first time I’d come and we’d used up a phone card in blissful talking about nothing, but it was still wonderful to talk to someone where there was such strong mutual affection (of some kind or another). After we arranged to meet at the south gate of Shinjuku Station for a brief meeting at 3:30 the next day we hung up. I tried Tiffany one more time. This time I got the person at the front desk to interpret the message for me, and he said it was just saying “leave a message.” I tentatively asked Tiffany to meet me at the Harajuku train station at 10:00 so we could see the Meiji Shrine, but I said I would check my e-mail the next day. I also sent her an e-mail message describing the situation of how I hadn’t been able to get in contact with her. Then I went to bed, completely exhausted but happy for the next day. I slept much better than I did the first time I visited Tomoko, not having to contend with the anxiety of fresh love.
I woke up early on Tuesday. I took a shower, ate breakfast, and checked my e-mail to see if Tiffany had responded. She had indeed, and she told me that her phone had been off the night before. I wrote back to her. Although I had suggested meeting at 10:00 to see Meiji Garden, she said that she was having banking trouble and suggested 1:00 instead, at the Wendy’s near Harajuku Station. I said 1:00 was fine, but I knew it would not be enough time to see the entire shrine because I was meeting Tomo-chan at 3:30. I studied my kanji for half an hour, then packed up my bags and headed for Harajuku.
First I scouted out the Wendy’s. Then I looked for a store to buy a hat. The night before I had sorely regretted my decision not to retrieve my hat from my office. Unfortunately, all of the stores were closed until 11:00. I headed back to the shrine. Across the street from Harajuku Station was an enormous store dedicated to Snoopy, from the comic strip Peanuts. (I made a mental note to stop there after the shrine.) On my way into the shrine, I passed workers who were busy scraping bubble gum off the sidewalk. Nowhere in Tokyo had I noticed bubble gum on any of the sidewalks, and after seeing the workers I looked for gum everywhere. I only rarely found it.
I entered the shrine, going down a path that was impossibly wide and long. I passed a sign for a garden, and then I walked through an enormous gate, a “tori.” According to a helpful sign posted nearby (one of the few written in English), the tori was the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. The tori sides had been cut from 1,500-year-old Japanese cypress—from Taiwan. This tori was a size, shape, and material replacement for the original, and the substantial cost had been paid by a “pious benefactor” rather than the government. Moving along I saw ice sculptures along the left side of the path. They had held up fairly well overnight in the cold air. Earlier along the path I had seen remnants of ice. They confused me because I was sure it had been too warm for snow to pile up. When I saw workers loading the sculptures into a truck it made sense. Tiffany later told me that I had come on the festival of coming-of-age when young adults turn twenty. If I had been in the right place the night before I would have seen crowds of people walking around in kimonos. Many, many people come to the shrine on that day. As it happened I was right in the midst of a crowd headed into the shrine, although they went to the shrine itself and I did not, at least not until later in the day.
I found a souvenir shop, which was next to a family counseling center, of all things. I guess it makes sense when you think that couples turn to religious leaders for arbitrating relationship difficulties. I bought some “traditional Japanese candy”: rock candy spheres dusted with sugar, delicately colored and flavored. I was hoping they were something more exotic than rock candy, but chalk that up to experience I suppose.
I went back to the garden, which I had passed earlier. It was 800 yen to enter, but I figured it wasn’t that much and there was a good chance Tiffany wouldn’t be interested in seeing it. It was so beautiful. The path criss-crossed through a wood that looked natural, but neatened. After a meandering walk I came to the “fishing spot,” so named because the empress Meiji used to fish there. Now the fish are a mixture of brown carp and koi—I hope the koi weren’t there when the empress fished! Some of the trees bent over the lake. They were protected by grass rope and a ring encircling the tree about waist high. Tomoko later told me that it was to protect against snow. I followed the path to the river of irises, which to my great sadness was not in bloom. The irises stretched away in a curvy, looping river. The river bent past trees and tapered so it would seem the flowers went on forever. Each clump of flowers had a tag in kanji identifying the variety. Ditches ran along the sides of the river, as a rice paddy, and the bridge I crossed across the end of the pond had a gate to flood the ditches.
Beyond the river was a famous well, known (according to another rare English sign) for the purity of its water and the method of sinking. The running well, the sign also said, kept the pond full. I’m not sure about either of the former claims because I un fortunately ate one of the rock candy balls as I walked past the nature photographers who had set up past the river. The path led down to the well so visitors could taste the water, but it just tasted like fruity sugar to me. As for the method of sinking, the well was a large pipe that only peeked about the ground an inch or two. It was filled with fist-sized rocks. Water streamed over the edges of the pipe, and a trickle flowed from the rocks across the stream. I didn’t see any other artesian wells during the trip, so maybe that’s what the sign was talking about. I headed out of the garden and the shrine.
I noted something about the path on the way out of the shrine. The main path was a fine gravel, much like the gravel along the path of the garden (where the trail was divided into thirds: dirt, neatly swept gravel, and dirt) and along the edge was a border of concrete. Rather than a curb to keep the gravel on the path, it was a foot or so wide and level with the ground. Larger smooth stones were embedded in the top. I’m not sure whether the stones trapped the fine gravel or just discouraged people from walking on the edge, but it seemed to work.
It was after 11:00 when I emerged, so I went to buy a hat. The J. Crew store had scarves on the window mannequins and I was in a hurry, so I bought my hat there. In fact, I doubted that other stores would have hats at all. I was impressed by how many people in Tokyo wore enormously expensive woolen trenchcoats (I saw them in a department sotre for $300-$1,000, while my leather coat cost barely more than a hundred in Iowa), but how few people wore hats except as part of a uniform. Much cheaper garments would suffice in the balmy Honshu winter if Japanese people would wear proper headgear.
After my hat I found lunch at a Nathan’s hotdog stand. I got to practice my katakana English when I got my “supa chizu” burger. It was fabulous and tasted nothing like any cheeseburger I’d ever had. Supposedly, the chain is based out of Coney Island, but I have trouble believing that any white person could dream up food that good.
I went to Snoopy Town. Before I went in, I was transfixed by what I saw on the giant TV mounted on the store front: Wild West chihuahuas, in tutus, who then started shooting each other. I got to see a slow-motion movie of a bullet hitting a computer-animated chihuahua’s face, but thankfully it cut away before any gore occurred. “” Tomoko later told me that chihuahuas had become very popular in Japan as of late because many celebrities had them, and that her aunt’s chihuahua had become much larger than the last time I’d seen it, although it still barks constantly. Next to the giant TV was a mysterious ad for “Calorie-Mate.” Tiffany said it was a meal-replacer, and I later bought a box of each flavor at Lawson’s. (We tried one stick from each box. I thought it was quite good and the ingredients were wholesome, at least compared to the plastic sludge they make into Powerbars, but she said it was the worst-tasting thing she’d ever put in her mouth. I can personally think of two things she’s probably had her mouth on that would taste worse than a chocolate-flavored cracker, but I guess personal tastes are personal.)
Most of the Snoopy Store merchandise appeared to have been made for the Japanese market. I found that Snoopy was very popular in Japan. For instance, I can’t ever recall seeing Disney characters anywhere, except for Winnie-the-Pooh, but I saw Snoopy fairly often. Tomo-chan’s aunt had Snoopy clothespins, for instance. I ended up with a set of Snoopy refrigerator magnets. The characters (two Snoopies and a Lucy) had three different copyright dates from the ’50s and ’60s. It greatly impressed me that someone had dug up the best images rather than hiring a freelance artist to make new drawings. (The other possibility is that copyright and trademark have different scop under Japanese law—I never saw trademark notices on Japanese brand names.) I wish I could have justified buying other things, but I know that artifacts have a way of holding and intensifying emotions for me, and I wouldn’t want my pain from the trip to burn deeper than it had to. (Although I was tempted to buy one of the neon-colored plastic, hardshell suitcases with Snoopy characters molded in bas-relief into the front side.)
At five minutes to one I left the store and went to Wendy’s. By then I had to go to the bathroom, and although the Wendy’s had a relatively large seating area both on the first floor and the basement, and the women’s restroom was clearly marked, I couldn’t find the men’s bathroom. Or Tiffany, for that matter. She turned up a few minutes late and we went to her apartment to drop off my bag. The apartment was the first floor of a free-standing house. It had a “garden,” but the soil was gray and rocky and no thing was growing in it. A white construction fence penned in the garden and some graffiti was on the fence—a rare instance of graffiti I saw in Japan. I expressed to Tiffany how impressed I was about the garden (nearly as big as Tiffany’s house), but she said I shouldn’t call it that, implicitly because the soil was gray and rocky and nothing was growing in it. In retrospect there was a better reason for not calling it a garden: it being the remnants of a recently demolished house.
The inside of her house was much nicer than the outside, although it was rather small. She was very pleased with the apartment because it was (barely) affordable while being in one of the hippest parts of Tokyo. There wasn’t much in her apartment—as she explained, her apartment was only for sleeping—but there was a toilet. The bathroom had a one-piece washing/drying machine, but no sink. I think one replaced the other when the house was converted into a duplex apartment building. We got directions to the shrine from her roommate who lived upstairs (I thought it was best to keep my recent visit a secret), and we went up the street. We passed the “Condomania” store prominently stationed at the corner of the biggest intersection, and Tiffany went wild over it. Actually, throughout my visit she expressed her enthusiasm for sex and casual relationships, which unnerved me. She took a picture of the store on my camera to send to her mom, and we went on to the shrine.
Tiffany had been saying that she visited the shrine when she was little but that she would appreciate it more as an adult, but in fact we were in and out very quickly because they apparently weren’t doing behind-the-scenes tours. She walked past the garden and the informative signs along the way. All of the ice sculptures had been carted away. Additionally, there was a huge flood of people going against us as we entered the shrine (probably the same crowd I went in with). So it was a very good thing I had gone earlier.
We went to the alleyway of stores across the street from the J.R. station. The only shop of note was a “100 yen” store, which is nothing like the chintzy dollar stores of the U.S. It was like a bubblegum pink and medical green department store, with floors for clothing, housewares, toys, and so on. They actually sold things like pots and pans for 100 yen. Tiffany said that this 100 yen store was one of the best in Japan because the transportation costs reduced the selection in more rural areas. Tomoko, however, later told me that the hottest stores were 90 yen and then 80 yen. She insisted that the selection hadn’t gone gone; it was just a Wal-Mart-like deflation at work.
We looked for a coffeeshop afterwards but couldn’t find one. We did stop at a convenience store to get the Calorie-Mate, as I mentioned earlier. Once my time was up we went back to her apartment. Along the way we saw a model being photographed in the street. Tiffany said that a lot of second-rate Russian and American models came to live in Harajuku because it’s relatively cheap (not according to Tomoko, but whatever) and near the modeling agencies. She said that she was once approached on the street to be a hair model. She declined because her visa only allowed her to do legal work. Maybe she could be a hair model once she marries her boyfriend. He’s a rockstar in Osaka, not a nationally known one, but one successful enough to earn a living, buy lots of music equipment, and buy her presents. She says they’re serious, but apparently they have a rather open relationship. Tiffany had just come to Tokyo a few days before; they were in Nagano before that, snowboarding. We went back to the train station to put me on my way to meet Tomoko. Tiffany had never ridden the J.R. before, and she was surprised that it was cheaper than the subway. Maybe she’ll start taking it now. I’ve never been a fan of the subway, even though it’s the best in the world, just because I don’t like trooping through long underground tunnels.
Back at Shinjuku Station, I found the exit where Tomoko was supposed to be. I was just a few minutes early, and she was just on time. I was a bit surprised to find that I wasn’t particularly attracted to her when I saw her, given how long it had been my life goal to talk her into marrying me. To be honest, I saw a lot of people with similar features while I was waiting for her. (In hindsight, that was probably just because Japanese people have good genes; I certainly wouldn’t have seen so many good-looking people elsewhere in the world. And that opinion of her definitely changed over the next few days.) In any case, she was wearing a woolen coat that was slightly too big for her, with big bone-and-loop closures going all the way down the front, and a scarf.
First we went to get her shinkansen ticket for the next day. It took an amazingly long time, and yet it turned out that the ticket man told Tomoko to take a Hikari train that wouldn’t stop at Shin-Yokohama Station. Then we went to a coffee shop to talk. She had coffee, and I had mango juice. She needed coffee because she had been up until 3:00 a.m. the night before working on one of her Japanese medical school applications. I admire her sense of purpose in knowing what she wants to do with her life, as well as the brilliance in knowing what the important questions are as well as how to answer them. She wouldn’t let me pay for her coffee. When it was time to go she showed me the recently built, massively rectangular “Times Square” building across and down the street. Between us and the Times Square building was another yawning lot under construction. I found it hard to believe that Japan’s economy could be in trouble if they could keep building “crap” (I regretted saying that) like that, and she retorted that the reason the economy was in trouble that they kept building “crap” like that. I said I would go back to Times Square later after finding my Ryokan; daylight was fading and I thought I might need the light to find my way. As it turned out, the ryokan was very easy to find; there was a big, neon sign saying “Suzuki Ryokan.” Interestingly, it was right next to a big Buddhist graveyard. (Tomoko later explained that it was probably the reason that the ryokan was so cheap.) I had never seen one before and I was impressed how efficiently the monuments were spaced together. I also saw some long wooden sticks with writing on them lying against the monuments, which Tomoko later explained were the names given to the dead by the Buddhist priests. She said the sticks would reamin there forever, but I didn’t see so many that I could believe that. Maybe they got stolen over time or they became badly rotten and had to be thrown away. The lady who showed me around the ryokan spoke in bruque, clipped English; as always, I wished she would have tried to talk to me in Japanese. I was in room number nine; each of the rooms had names associated with them but I could not figure out what the names meant. My room was four and one-half tatami big and had an electric heater, a television, and a large thick futon with wonderfully warm blankets. I fell asleep without dinner or even brushing my teeth.
I woke up before 6:00 the next morning. I’d actually set my alarm for 8:00, but I obviously didn’t need it. I was famished. No restaurants would be open at that hour and it was unclear whether I’d even be able to get back into the ryokan if I went outside, so I finished off the remaining stick of the three flavors of Calorie-Mate.
Eventually I gave up on the idea of getting more sleep, so I turned on the television. After 6:00 only financial news was on, and all the financial news was about the U.S. and particularly about New York. After a while the news got softer, and children’s programming started at 8:00. One of the children’s animations was really cute—it was about this clay guy with an afro who was able to change the afro into different objects in his attempt to woo a particularly mermaid. While I was watching the kid’s show (which was pretty good for me and my limited language skills, too), I worked on my kanji. I packed up my bag and headed out to catch the shinkansen at Tokyo Station. On the way out I passed a white guy, maybe Australian, who was looking for the bath room. I showed him where it was, thinking how nice it was for him to have light to tinkle by. When I had gone during the night, there was no light save for a window onto the moonless night, and I wasn’t sure where I should stand to keep the floor clean since it was a urinal rather than a toilet. On the way out I took a closer look at the graveyard but I still didn’t take any pictures.
I took the train to Tokyo Station. Tomoko was always exceptionally accurate with her estimates of how long the train would take. Combined with her directions from last time I visited her—when she told me a series of connections to take, but when to skip the next train that arrived because it was a limited stop train—I think she has the entire Greater Tokyo train schedule memorized, a fact that still impresses me.
At Tokyo Station I was confused and hungry. I first went to find my shinkansen platform. Although all the trains are in the same area, it can be a little confusing to figure out which platform a train will be on if you don’t know where to look. After guidance from several employees I found my way. I went down to look for food, but all I could find was a stand that sold individually packaged, peanut butter cookies, bubble-wrapped and boxed. At the platform I found a place that sold packaged meals but I couldn’t read the menu. I got a sandwich and a can-bottle of hot, green tea.
I noticed on the sign listing the trains that Tomoko’s stop wasn’t listed. I became pretty nervous, but I didn’t want to call and bother her because I thought there could be any number of reasons for not listing all of the stops. Well, there I went, thinking like an American, assuming that laziness and cheapness justified everything. When my train pulled in, it was only scheduled to be at the platform for a few minutes. My urgency intensified. To my great (and momentary) relief I saw that there was a phone aboard the train; I hurried aboard to call her. It didn’t work! After I punched in her phone number I got a long message in Japanese, but not the one I’d gotten from Tiffany’s cell phone. My phone card wasn’t deducted any units, either. I concluded that the phone was unable to call her cell phone, perhaps because the train was at the platform.
I had my phonecard and her number out, but the train was leaving in two or three minutes. There was a pay phone on the platform about fifteen feet away. I ran over to it, first grabbing my belongings, because I felt there was a significant chance that I would miss the train by calling her. When I called, there was another incomprehensible message. No time to try again. Back to the train. We had agreed to meet on car number ten, but car number ten was a “green car,” for which my railpass didn’t cover. I was very nervous now: I was in a car for which I didn’t have a ticket, Tomoko was going to miss her train, I was headed across the country to a place I didn’t know, and I had no way of contacting her. I tried calling on a different on-board phone over and over. Finally I realized that the sign above the phone said that it could only call regular phones and DoCoMo cell phones: One of the rare instances in Japan where market forces produced very stupid, inconvenient results.
What to do, what to do? I called Tomoko’s home using the number she had given to me a long time ago, when I called her the summer of my graduation. Her eldest sister, the one who got her L.L.M. at Michigan, answered the phone. I tried to ask in Japanese if Tomoko-san was there but she responded in English. It’s very hard to practice Japanese because people in Japan either speak English well and insist on speaking it, or they only speak Japanese. I explained the situation and she said that Tomoko had not called her or come back home. I sat back down and waited for the train to go to Nagoya.

Fuji-san as seen from the Shinkansen to Nagoya

Along the way I saw Fuji-san outside the window. I took a few pictures. I got through the food I brought but several cookies were left over, the ones I’d planned on sharing. I went to use the restroom, an interesting experience. The urinal room had a urinal away from the door and small sink near the door. There was no lock on the door but there was a window in the door so you could see if anyone was in there. It didn’t work that well for me because a distinguished-looking gentleman opened the door on me while I was washing my hands. We were both rather embarrassed.
When the train arrived at Nagoya, I dashed towards the pay phone. Tomoko saw me and called out my name—she had been waiting at the platform near car number ten. After Tomoko had seen my train go by she had to figure out how to get to Nagoya. A Nazomi train, faster than the one I was on, left twenty minutes after mine passed the platform and it arrived before mine by twenty minutes, taking about one and a half hours instead of two. When I told her how terrified I’d been, she insisted that it was she who had been more terrified.
We took the J.R. train to Gifu Station to meet her aunt and uncle. Her aunt, her mother’s elder sister by another father, looked just like Tomoko. I wasn’t sure what the say to the aunt and the uncle. We got in their car and we drove to a traditional rest aurant. The uncle drove very fast—one and a half to two times the posted speed limit—and frequently outside the lane markings. I won’t say it was reckless, but it was efficient. Tomoko on the other hand thinks that my driving is reckless—she said so when I pointed out her uncle’s driving—which is maybe why she stopped asking me to take her places.

The water koto of Tomoko’s uncle

We got to the restaurant and there was some confusion over tables. The third table we were seated at overlooked a beautiful tea garden. Tomoko said that these days tea ceremonies are generally only done by girls. During one of Tomoko’s bathroom breaks, the aunt told me that her name, too was Tomoko, and the uncle told me his name was Tetsuo. When Tomoko came back, she insisted that she was not named for her aunt, but how she could be so sure probably says there is a story hidden in there. The aunt and uncle told me about their many fruit trees at the home; they later explained that they started planting the trees themselves when they moved in twenty-five years ago.
The food was great and plentiful; I thought I could barely finish it. I learned that the rice bowl is to be held in the hand, but not the palm of the hand, when eating out of it. I actually wish I’d been taught more about being well-mannered because I have so much more to learn. Other things I did wrong later in the trip involved wearing a hat indoors, not having my chair straight with the table, and not alternating the pickles and the rice. This last rudeness I committed finally explained to me the purpose of pickles at a Japanese meal, since I’ve always thought they tasted a little odd on their own.
After lunch we went to see the Kinkazan castle. I asked if any tanuki were around. Her uncle said no, they were higher in the mountains. It was a bit of a walk to get to the mountain. Along the way we passed a house with a gravestone in front. Tomoko said it belonged to a shogun and explained a little about Buddhist burial rites, as well as how some Japanese people are opting for Christian funerals because they’re cheaper.
Up the mountain we went in a gondola. I had no idea what the cars on the ropeway were called, or even that the ropeway was called a ropeway, but of course Tomoko did. At the top of the gondola ride we walked up a staircase to the top of the mountain. The stairs and railing had been rebuilt with concrete molded to look like wood; a much more efficient strategy than paying people to haul up lumber piece by piece. On the way we passed a small memorial to the peasants who had died in the shoguns’ wars. I resolved never to ask about strange stones again because they always turned out to be funerary in nature.
At the castle I was unsure if we could go in, but in fact it had been rebuilt about 50 years ago. Rather than making it historically accurate from the inside, it had been made into a museum for artifacts. Much of them I couldn’t understand. I got Tomoko to explain when she seemed willing to do so. There was armor, swords, pikes, standards, and helmets, and there was a display of ninja gear on one of the upper floors. Tomoko explained that a traditional helmet is brought out for Boy’s Day in May. At the top we could look out across the city. I expressed amazement that the hills hadn’t been developed; it looked like the city had been poured out of a bucket. Tomoko thought it was rather obvious that people would choose to live in lowlands, which I suppose is true even if white people tend to build right over the hills. I took a few pictures of the impressive view. Coming to the first floor we were given postcards to stamp, and the proprieter asked me to sign the guest book. I obliged but I had so little to say.
We went down from the castle. We passed a well along the way and Tomoko told me that because water was so important to the Japanese, rivers and other sources of water were seen as spiritual. Wells were especially spiritual and were seen as links between the spiritual world and our world, which is why Sadako came out of a well in The Ring. We stopped at some smaller buildings which had musical instruments on display. There was a very long (several feet) koto and a small taiko for holding on the shoulder.
Outside we walked down. Tomoko’s uncle veered off to the left. I turned around and saw him peeing into an outdoor urinal. I suppose outdoor urinals are more practical. We went back to the gondola. There was some kind of enclosure filled with squirrels. I thought it very strange, but Tomoko didn’t understand my bemusement. She wasn’t clear on the details, but it seems that the squirrels come and go (I’m not sure what the fence was for, then), and they are in the cage because food is supplied there. That’s what she says, anyway. I think she said you’re not supposed to pet the squirrels, but then I don’t know what the enclosure is there for. Maybe it’s a superstitious thing.
We took the gondola down. From the base we walked back to the car. Several trees had straw wrapped around the middle, which I learned from my Saturday tour guide (also named Tomoko) are used to control pests. The bugs crawl into the mats and lay eggs, and in the spring the mats are burned, killing both egg and bug without chemicals. A few other trees were totally wrapped in straw, which is there to protect them from the cold, apparently.
At her aunt and uncle’s house, we got ready for dinner. First, the house is enormous, big even for most parts of America, let alone Japan. Not only that but the house is perched atop a mountain, from where you can see the city below. We had beef and tofu hot-pot for dinner. The hot-pot was heated by gas from a plastic hose that hooked up to the wall. I found that very interesting. Tomoko’s aunt mixed a raw egg into my bowl, a gorgeous one with orange yolk. Tomoko didn’t want any in hers. Tomo-chan’s aunt stuffed me mercilessly with good food. Her uncle showed us his new television, which was a “Hi-Vision” (digital satellite HDTV) plasma screen with a DVD player and a combo Hi-8 / VHS tape player underneath. It cost 700,000 yen, he said. When I heard Tomoko give her gifts to her aunt and uncle (fruit baskets from a favorite store of theirs in Yokohama), I gave them my gift to them, which was a $100 Pelikan fountain pen. I worried in retrospect that I should have gotten them a nicer gift, especially after seeing the beautiful pens on sale at the department store.
I enjoyed watching telvision with Tomoko because I could talk to her without the pressure of always needing something to say. Later that night she asked if I wanted to stay until Friday morning. I said that was fine. She said later that she wanted to stay an extra day so I could see what real Japan is like—a sensible strategy if there ever was one.
I went to bed in the tatami room, which had rice paper doors (leading to a narrow sunroom used for storing bedding) with glass over the far side of the lower doors to protect the paper. On the right was an alcove with an ornamental fan in a glass box which is used for New Year’s celebrations, according to Tomoko. The futon had a total of four blankets on it, including one very thick down blanket. Even though the temperature in the room dropped so much that I could see my breath the next morning, I stayed toasty warm under the blanket. I slept quite well until 10:00 the next morning because my conversations with Tomoko had been so pleasant that day. I forgot the nighttime stress of earlier in the trip when she had revealed that Georgetown had rejected her in the first round.
Tomoko was sleeping in the next door room, which had green low-pile carpeting and a piece of washi formed like a yin-yang in a glass box frame. The uncle said it had been made by an Australian master. Tomoko slept alone on a large bed, which is funny beca use she normally prefers firmer surfaces. At Morning Dew she had put plywood on top of her double-width bed.
One thing she had mentioned at dinner was that in high school most of her time was occupied by dance, so she didn’t study as hard as her sister. One day they were studying for a test and her sister asked her something, to which Tomoko expressed ignorance of the general subject matter. Her sister told Tomoko that if she were her, she would commit suicide! Tomoko and her sister share a room, their beds bunked. Tomoko said the only interesting thing she has in her room is a jack-o-lantern on her bookcase. Her other two sisters have separate rooms. Tomoko doesn’t have any dolls, which I think is sad because she told me on the previous trip that she likes dolls. (That’s why we went to the Doll Museum in Yokohama.)
I woke up at 10:00 and I took a shower. I forgot the towel in my room so I had to go fetch it with my shirt halfway off, which embarrassed Tomoko’s aunt. The bath was beautiful, with white tile everywhere and a white, Japanese tub on one side of the room in a tile platform. The rest of the platform had a statue with artificial greenery and another artificial plant away from the large picture window, which looked out into the garden and then over the city. Coming out of the bath I was asked by Tomoko’s aunt if I had anything to wash, so I gave her my long underwear (worn the night at the hostel, the most recent night, and the day before), the towel, and accidentally, my clean socks, She washed my long underwear by hand (because they’re silk, or “siruku”) and then hung them up to dry. The whole process embarrassed me, although I was pleased to finally understand why Tomoko is embarrassed when I’m in her room when undies are lying about.
Breakfast was thick slices of French bread (I learned that you use the flat counter “-mai” for toast), with canola margarine and plum-infused honey. Fruit bowls with homemade yogurt and lemon rind, and the main dish was scrambled eggs mixed with coarsely chopped vegetables. At first I thought Tomoko’s aunt and uncle were blanketing their bread with freshly ground pepper but it turned out to be ground sesame seeds. (They laughed at me when I told them that I thought they were covering their toast with pepper.) The yogurt had been made by adding yogurt to milk; I asked why they did that and Tomoko said something about some cultures being better for you than others, but that doesn’t really explain why they didn’t buy the yogurt pre-made. She also thought it was silly to wonder whether adding yogurt to milk would make more yogurt. Of course it would, since the yogurt cultures are live. (I tried this when I got home and it didn’t work. I think you have to incubate the yogurt for a few hours.)
Then it was off for washi day. We stopped by some artists’ studios to see projects other people had made with washi. The first stop was filled with washi flowers and landscapes made by layering torn or cut washi. The paper flowers were very beautiful, and I’m not sure why Harvard didn’t use paper flowers instead of glass flowers to teach from.
The buildings were in the old part of Gifu and so they were all poorly insulated. Tomoko said this was to keep the buildings cool in the summer, which I suppose makes sense. So practically every building was heated with electricity. I can only imagine how expensive that must be. I didn’t ask why they didn’t use a gas heater. I thought it was interesting that Tomoko’s aunt and uncle used gas to power their hot-pot but electricity to heat their home! Actually, they had a gas potbelly stove in the living room but everywhere else in the house were electric heaters. The other thing I found interesting about Japanese appliances was that many were Japanese brand names I had never heard of. I don’t know whether the goods were made domestically or abroad, but it’s interesting that the same goods would not be sold in the U.S. and that American brand names would not be sold in Japan. I think there must be some kind of tariff structure at work here. The appliances sure seemed to last a long time—Tomoko’s aunt had appliances with cloth-covered cords.
Back to the washi trip. We also went to a studio that was showing off first-grade sculptures of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were all different and some looked surprisingly good, which goes to show that creativity is alive and well in a culture uninfected by Disney.
We spent quite a bit of time at the Yamada House, which belonged to some lord a long time ago. Tomoko’s grandmother apparently lived in a house like that when she was young, with tatami on all the floors and sliding rice paper doors. Tomoko said such buildings were “impractical” because they had no space, which I had trouble understanding. It was hard to get to the second floor (very tight spiral staircase, or trap door), but I’m not sure why the house would be a different size like that. I suppose sound would travel further, which could be inconvenient. She said the difficulty was not in the tatami durability, as evidenced by the massive furniture in the accountant’s room. The mansion was very long but had a short frontage, which Tomoko told me is because property used to be taxed based on the frontage. The building had its own well. The room towards the front of the house was for the accountants, and behind that was where the lord took his meals. Near the kitchen the servants ate.
Behind the main building were a stronghold and some smaller buildings. The stronghold had very thick walls (maybe close to a foot) and an equally thick door. Although made of wood like the rest of the building, it would last longer in a fire. Tomoko mentioned a friend who took a year after graduating from a prestigious college to work as an apprentice to a tatami maker, but he had to quit because he was severely allergic to the chemicals used in the process. I think she said he had to go to the hospital to recover. Tatami mats are still woven by hand, she says. In the middle between the back buildings and the front building is a rock garden. It had a rock koto like Tomoko’s uncle. As drops of water fell into a pool in a rock hollow it sounded just like a stringed koto.
On top of the building were Chinese tiles, which apparently came in several ornamental styles. The wealthier buildings had firewalls installed, which jutted above the roof slightly. Tomoko said that they were expensive and therefore were a sign of wealth. She said there was an expression to the connection between the firewalls and wealth. The Yamada building had two floors, the second being accessible only by two small holes in the floor, each half a tatami large. I could definitely see this aspect of old-style buildings being impractical.
We saw a few shops, as well. One we were drawn to by the set of rabbit hinaningyo dolls sitting behind the front window. Another sold paper. I particularly liked one picture of old Japan made out of pieces of washi. If I have the good fortune to marry someone wonderful enough that buying one of those pictures wouldn’t cut my heart in two, I’d like to come back some day and buy one.
Lunch was at a restaurant with tatami mats and low tables, with holes under the table so in fact it was just like sitting at a regular table. This was when I learned that rice and pickles were supposed to be eaten in alteration. I had soba noodles. Previously I’d thought that Tomoko didn’t eat much but on the trip she ate as much as everyone else, and only slightly slower. It probably explains her energy. The food was good, of course.
The last thing we did in the afternoon (I can’t remember which activities were before and after lunch) was a trip to the washi museum. Right inside the entrance was a kitty-cat clock, where the body was cut from washi, as well as the tail, which was segmented. The segments were held together on the back by little pieces of metal and plastic. The tail swished back and forth faster than one might expect, maybe it would be two swishes a second. I thought it would be the kind of thing that would sell well if commercialized. There was both a white one and a black one on either side of a long bridge overlooking the gift shop and an atrium. A very long “bird kite” was suspended over the gift shop and its tail reached the top of one of the shelving units. The kits was rectangular in shape and made with square panels of washi mounted in frames. I wish I knew whether it would fly (not that you actually would fly it). Some lamps were on a floor level display right near the front door. They were interestingly asymmetric; my favorite was the “Wa! Sheep.”
The first exhibit was washi figurines, mostly in traditional Japanese dress, as well as other clever things made from washi like an array of handbags and shoes, as well as many themes of paper cranes, like a large grid of tiny cranes connected on the diagonal. All of the exhibits were out so you could touch them. Tomoko picked up several of them to get a closer look (like an edge of the crane array, one of the figurines, and later one of the toys). On the tables were the wooden print blocks used in making printed washi. I have no idea how such fine lines were cut so perfectly, and I didn’t realize how many steps went into printing those washi sheets. So many ink colors, some of which only appeared in a small part of the scene, and yet the colors didn’t bleed through.
There was an exhibit on the use of washi in lighting and again I didn’t realize that there were so many textures available. Another room showed paper products from around the world and had samples from every paper-making part of Japan on a map that illuminated when you pushed the button for the prefecture. Tomo-chan showed me where her twin was in medical school at the southern end of Honshu. Hokkaido only had one sample—there must not be much paper production up in the frozen north! Gifu, apparently, because a paper-making center due to its central location and political stability. It used to be a very large industry. One other thing I learned is that watermarks are made by wire on the metal screen during paper-making. The last exhibit room had toys made out of paper, as well as paper fans.
We got to try paper-making in the artists’ studio in the basement. A rack of thin wooden rods is dipped vertically and a bit of slurry (actually quite thin in texture, like milk) is splashed from front to back. Then a heavy from side to side and back to front, and another thin one. At first I would slosh the whole thing back and forth but Tomoko pointed out that it worked a lot better to tip one end up, then the other. Afterwards the boy (early 20s, maybe) running the shop unlocked the frame and pulled out the sheet of rods, called a “su.” Then he unrolled it onto a metal screen and peeled off the su. We added three Japanese maple leaves to the paper. The boy running the shop quickly made another sheet of pulp and laid it on top of mine so the leaves would be embedded in the paper. Then we took the screen over and sprayed the pulp with a garden hose to give it a mottled texture. Then we dried the paper. First the screen was slowly dragged across a vacuum cleaner with a very wide and thin nozzle mounted under a table, which sucked off most of the water. Then the paper (still damp) was peeled off and placed on this enormous machine, which had two large copper sides (maybe five feet by eight feet) bowed outwards and rounded on the edges (radius of curvature of maybe four inches) for some reason. The bottom of the tent was apparently heated by gas.
We went outside to see the raw materials for the paper. The first step was to cut down these mulberry trees. Then they are cut into faggots, and the bark is stripped off and naturally bleached with water and sunlight. The bark is pulped and cleaned, and the fiber is suspended into water to make the paper. For binding the fibers a root is used which looked exactly like the mangroves in Harry Potter 2. An older woman (’50s, maybe) was using the larger basin (there were many small basins and one large one) to make paper—lots of it. She had a thick stack of pulp sheets on the table behind her. I thought it was interesting that the sheets didn’t stick together. To help the lady with the weight of the su and frame, the frame was suspended from three or four bamboo poles above; the ends of the bamboo poles flexed. It was a little funny to have a state-of-the-art washi studio where the floor was tile and the equipment was clean stainless steel with rounded corners, with several bamboo poles mounted above the ceiling beams. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess.
The gift shop had some really cute things but again I was wary of collecting artifacts with emotional value. On the way out I saw there was a pink rotary dial payphone that only indicated that it took ten-yen coins, and certainly there was no phone card slot. The innards may have been adjusted to take 100-yen coins as well, but there was no indication of this on the outside. I assumed it was an artsy phone for the museum, but when we were leaving the cafe Tomoko said that it was a real pay phone, just a little older than the ones I was used to seeing. I need to get used to pink being a legitimate color. We had juice and coffee at the coffee shop next to the pink payphone, which was on the first floor. I had orange juice while everybody else medicated with caffeine. I did miss the coffee, though; it smelled good!
We left and drove for a while, then drove in circles. The washi museum was actually a fair distance out in the countryside. Tomoko dropped like a rock, first sleeping with her head hanging down in front and then laying it back against the seat. It was very cute, but I didn’t take a picture because I didn’t want to wake her. Her aunt in the seat in front of me briefly nodded off, too. We arrived at a hotel; the original plan was to walk around the river but by then it was very dark, so we just went to get sushi. It was a revolving sushi place with hot-water taps at each place and a slower second conveyer belt at table level with stone cups for tea and a few stacks of saucers. Tomoko got me to try a bunch of new things, including sweet shrimp (still called ebi), some kind of sushi made out of fish testes (wrinkled, white, and twisty - it looked like it!) and a very white fish I had never seen before. I also had a few more ordinary dishes and miso. The miso was red miso, which apparently I’d never had before. It tasted meaty.
Again we went back to her aunt and uncle’s place, watched a little television, and soon the aunt and uncle went to bed. I asked Tomoko if she’d ever date me again (or marry me, why not be optimistic?), and she said no for several reasons. First, she wasn’t attracted to me at all anymore, and second she would not be able to care for someone as much as did for her. On the train ride back the next day she said that when I look at her my eyes are like a doll’s, unwavering and full of affection. She said she doesn’t miss being loved, but she does miss feeling love for someone else. She also said that since she moved to Stanford she’d begun to think of family structure a lot. The average Japanese household now has 1.3 children (according to my Saturday tour guide), and Tomoko’s has three times that number, all girls, and her family life was hard. She said she needs someone to help her talk about these issues, but it would have to be someone with whom she could start from the beginning. It wouldn’t work to start a long-distance relationship and then try to graft that kind of emotional exploration on top of that. Also, she didn’t understand why I liked her so much, and she tries hard to project an image to me that she thinks I want to see, and that means that she can never be as open with me as she would need to be in a relationship. Finally, any relationship going forward would have some kind of expectations, e.g. kids or no. Because she doesn’t know what kind of family she wants she’s in a bit of a catch-22. She says she works all the jobs she does to fill her life and keep herself busy. It was around then that I confessed that I had moved into Schwab. I was very hesitant because I was sure she’d think less of me. But she said she already knew something was up because I’d blushed earlier when she asked who I was rooming with... One other thing she said is that she’s going on this multi-month U.N. cruise to work as a translator. She will be docking in Portland or Seattle in June. That night I found it very hard to sleep. I stayed up late sitting in a chair thinking, and I woke up early, wondering whether my life was worth living.
I woke up very early, feeling very alone. I waited until Tomoko’s aunt came downstairs at 7:00 or so, then went to take a shower. The aunt and uncle had me watch television while they made breakfast. Tomoko eventually was woken up by her aunt, and after an eternity she came out. Breakfast was much the same as the day before, and quite good. Her aunt asked me how I’d slept the night before; I told Tomoko that I’d only slept a few hours and to my amazement and horror she repeated that to her aunt.

Tomoko and aunt Tomoko and uncle Tetsuo

Tomoko’s uncle found a tube to transport the washi I’d made. I gave him the leftover peanut cookies. Tomoko kicked me out of her room while she packed her suitcase. There was some difficulty with making it to the train station on time, so we took a slightly later train. We didn’t go to the Gifu J.R. station but took a local line. It was 960 yen to get to Shin-Nagoya. Tomoko paid for mine and then I gave her change. When I gave her nine 100-yen coins she asked if I understood how to use Japanese money. I thought that was a very smart thing to say because most Americans don’t know there is a small upper bound on the number of coins you need to carry. But the reason I had so many was out of laziness, as well as a desire for souvenirs. We then followed this Japanese boy (who had instantly become quite enamored with Tomoko’s beauty and English skills) to Nagoya station.
The first order of business was to buy a noren for Cara Bertron. She had specified one that was blue, and Tomoko was determined that I would in fact buy her one even though it would entail spending more on a gift for someone I didn’t know well than any of my close friends. On the other hand, Tomoko knows a lot about how to cultivate relationships and it was probably the right thing to do. Tomoko asked the concierge at the Nagoya train station which floors would have the noren. The concierge girl pointed out on the map where on the 6th and 9th floors we might find them. To my surprise (again, I’m used to lousy American service), they in fact were exactly where she said they would be, and there were in fact noren on both the 6th and 9th floors. I ended up buying one with silhouette leaves on a background with white pinstripes. It was 2000 yen, or 2100 with tax.
There was some more wandering around the department store. I noticed that there were many brands of ceramic knives for sale (the white-bladed kind, not the grey-bladed ones) and I remarked how I was the only person I knew who had one of those. Tomoko told me that she knew many people with ceramic knives. The knives were about half as expensive as they would be in the United States, too. Tomoko stocked up on bath sponges down in the basement while I looked at kids’ bath toys, then tried to get me to buy Japanese candy. She was looking for something in particular for Luke but wouldn’t tell me what it was. (As it turns out, Luke wouldn’t want to see me for two days until after I returned back to California, so his food was all stale.)
We got lunch at an Italian restaurant. I had a “Bavarian pizza” which has green sauce dabbed on and an egg in the middle. It was good. Tomoko had a pasta sampler and a salad. She let me pay for her after some complaining. We didn’t have to buy tickets for the return Shinkansen because Tomoko already had hers and I had my railpass. We went to the Shinkansen platform and boarded the train. There’s not much difference between green cars and regular cars. Green cars have seats that are 50% wider and somewhat softer. Both have massive legroom and concave headrests that are conducive to sleeping. There wasn’t any sleeping, just sadness at the thought of not seeing Tomoko again.
The train arrived at Tokyo station. Before we left for Shinjuku we bought a Hato Bus ticket for me go on the “Tokyo Morning” tour on Saturday. The ticket man wanted to know where I was going to be staying that night and we told him the Tokyo Youth Hostel. We didn’t have the number, though, which was problematic in getting Tomoko to call and make a reservation for me. The man said he would look it up himself later. We took the JR to Shinjuku station and went to the train office to find out the Narita Express schedule for the next day, as well as to see if they had the Youth Hostel number. We figured out the N’Ex schedule, but the girl didn’t have the number. She suggested we call directory assistance. Tomoko did that and was able to make a reservation for me.
We went to a convenience store to get Luke’s “choco-pan,” and then we went to a music store upstairs at the Shinjuku station (HMV). At this time we only had half an hour or so before Tomoko had to leave. I wanted to go to a coffee shop to talk a little bit longer, but she’d had enough of my talking for a while and wanted to walk around. She took the escalator instead of the elevator because it was more fun. At the HMV I explained what the letters HMV meant. I was amazed to hear that CDs normally cost 3000 yen in Japan. There were some cheaper CDs at the front of the store. Tomoko had not heard of any of the groups, but I recognized them as being terrible American groups whose music I wouldn’t know. Towards the back in the 10% off section was a random lot of older music. I bought a CD by Utada Hikaru, which Tomoko had been given a year earlier as a graduation present. Utada grew up in America like Tomoko and is therefore fluent in both Japanese and English. She went to Columbia.
Soon we were pretty much out of time. We said goodbye in front of the ticket machine in Shinjuku station because we were headed in separate directions. At the youth hostel I began typing up this trip recollection. I had dinner then fell asleep with my clothes on, having hardly slept the night before.
Saturday I woke up at the hostel. I attempted to write some more about my trip but the computer was misconfigured and the web browser lost my message. I had breakfast, for the first time properly mixing pickles and rice.
I went to Tokyo train station for the Hato Bus. I had to ask a policeman how to get to the bus office, it involved going out of one Marunouchi exit and coming in another. I looked more closely as the bus office. The floor had an impressive star design in the floor made of several kinds of stone, and the far walls were made of stone, too. The cabinet near me holding brochures was made of solid pieces of wood, and the edges had been tacked with thin pieces of trim to hide the grain. The cabinet was old and the doors on the bottom were in bad shape, but it was clear that whoever had designed the office had put a lot of work into making it look nice a long time ago. The Hato Bus company sold souvenirs to remember the experience, like little bus toys. I was curious to know how many they sold. On the bus they had a sheet showing pictures of all the toys, too. I was told to sit down because they were expecting two more people before they put us on the bus. This excited me, because I knew that one person on the tour would win a pearl and I thought one in three was pretty good odds. It turns out the three people were just going to the main Hato Bus terminal, where we met up with a whole lot of other people from major hotels who were going on the tour.
At the main Hato Bus terminal I was pretty much the only person who had bought his ticket in advance. Everyone else got into line to buy their tickets. We were split into two groups—mine was the “blue” group and we got a tour guide named Tomoko. She carried around a carp banner (from boys’ day) on the end of a telescoping baton. The seats on the bus were assigned—I had the second row, aisle set on the left. I sat next to a man from Singapore who had come to Japan on business.
The first visit was to Tokyo Tower. After the tour guide explained what everything was off in the distance. I thought it was interesting that the sewage treatment plant had been built underground, so that a soccer field was the heaviest thing that could be built on top of it. We saw the golden Asahi beer building and the tobacco company whose building top was shaped like an ashtray. I was the only one to pay 600 yen to take an elevator up to the higher observation deck. You can see exactly the same thing, everything is just slightly smaller and there’s more fog in between, but I didn’t want to waste the only opportunity I’d ever have to see from the top deck of Tokyo Tower. I didn’t really want to look in the direction of Yokohama.
The next stop was the imperial palace. The tour guide said that the emperor once stopped his car and got out and waved at her while she was leading a tour on the palace grounds. The inner palace grounds are only accessible on two days a year, New Year’s and the emperor’s birthday. The emperor doesn’t live in the same building as the crown prince for security reasons. The crown prince married his wife almost 20 years after first meeting her (and falling in love with her). I suppose it is encouraging to know that even the crown prince had to wait for his true love. I’m still amazed by the moat. Next the tour drove through Akihabara, which Japanese people like to think is the cheapest place to buy electronics on Earth but it really isn’t (in most cases), and a drive through Ueno. I’d seen the park and zoo last time but the tour guide pointed out the Ameyoko grocery shopping area.
Then we stopped at Asakusa Kannon Temple. There was the spiel about how to find your fortune and all the shops for good luck charms, but I knew that luck didn’t really matter for me at that point. A high school girl asked to interview me at the end of the row of shops, and her English accent was pretty good. Her friend, who wore socks with little Playboy bunny logos on them, set up the digital camcorder while the first girl plugged in a really nice microphone, a long skinny one. She went through the questions (why did you come to Japan? what were you most surprised about when you came to Japan? etc.) and I was a little surprised to hear myself say that I had come to see my ex-girlfriend one last time. The whole day I’d been telling myself that things would still work out with Tomoko, but of course although the thoughts never passed through my conscious mind I was completely sure that Tomoko was right: things would never work out. Moreover Tomoko had also been completely right when she said that emotionally I wasn’t able to accept that but I knew it to be true. I said the thing that surprised me most about coming to Japan was learning how other people felt after spending time apart, and my answers to her other questions were similarly abstract. As I continued the girl with the microphone seemed progressively less happy with my answers, and I realize in retrospect that she probably couldn’t understand a word I said (since she had written out the interview questions in both Japanese and English, that was probably the extent of her vocabulary). Well, it was good psychotherapy for me in any case. The clarity I felt afterwards made me want to cry.
I thought it was funny that inside the temple (between the main temple and the inner gate, among the many shops) was a shop selling nudie calendars. I also thought it was interesting how Japanese people saw the “Playboy” brand. In America we think “nasty Hugh Hefner” but in Japan, where Playboy is used as an exemplar of what is banned from import, regular people wear clothes with the Playboy bunny on them. Tomoko’s uncle wore a coat with the Playboy logo on it.
The bus drove through Ginza on the way to a pearl store. Nothing eventful happened there. I didn’t buy anything, and I didn’t win the pearl. It was interesting to learn that they make pearls by taking one oyster, cutting it up into dozens of pieces, and then wrapping the seed in the piece of oyster, then putting that in the sex organ of another oyster where it will be safe. It’s the way to make pearls most predictably. Oysters are three years old when they’re seeded, and three years later they are harvested. The pearl given out was only aged one year, so it was small and not very lustrous. The pearl necklaces weren’t as expensive as I would have thought, topping out at $10,000. The pearl shop apparently had some deal with the tour buses (not just Hato, some other one as well) because they arranged to send us back (on the same buses, minus the tour guide).
Once back at Tokyo station, I then went shopping. I got a Narita Express ticket for 4:03, and I was very pleased with myself to do the transaction in Japanese. Then was lunch at this noodle bar in the Yaesu underground mall of Tokyo station.

I went back to Japan for five months spring 2005.
This is a goat in Kobe. Watch me feed it!

I went to the Maru Biru and was amazed at the beautiful architecture on the inside. I used to think that Japanese skyscrapers were rather stodgy but in fact they are just heavily built for protection in earthquakes. The scarcity of glass grew on me towards the end the trip. I began to see the stone as beautiful and not old-fashioned. The inside of the Maru Biru had a beautiful glass atrium. The funniest sign I saw was a glass elevator with the works visible, the top floor of which had a sign saying that it didn’t go to the other floors. Well, duh, look about the door! I got a plant for Irene (bryophyllum pinnatum) and also did that transaction in Japanese, asking what time it was. I looked at the learning-English books in the bookstore and got a pretty good sense of what middle-of-the-road Japanese political thought is from the example sentences.
I looked around the Daimaru department store in Tokyo station as well as Yaesu mall. There’s apparently a new Miyazaki movie out but not on DVD yet.
When the time came I took the Narita Express to the airport. I bought a postcard and stamp to send to Sarah Roggero, like I’d promised her, and I worked on my trip recollections until the plane came, then I got on the airplane. I slept the entire way back, except when they made me raise my seat during the two meals. In San Francisco I took the train-bus (RRX) back to Stanford, writing until the bus came, then walked down Palm Drive to get to Schwab. I had a ton of e-mail in my in-box.