Archive: 2006

Nippon Sayonara

I'm writing this in Atlanta, where we're taking a breather after 22 hours of travel from our Kyoto hotel. Tomorrow we'll continue on to San Miguel via Houston. Arriving at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport Country Inn and Suites (South), we bid farewell to overstaffed lobbies, smiling bowers, young men in suits leaping to open doors and hand us umbrellas. We'll miss the heated toilet seats, the key cards you just wave at the door.

Our room in Atlanta smells like disinfectant. The lone employee at the front desk was kind enough to switch us from the first non-smoking room he gave us, which had been previously occupied by a prolific smoker. We are ruefully aware that in the morning, instead of a breakfast buffet featuring smoked salmon, baby salad greens, custom-made omelets and croissants, we'll be getting cello-pak danish and bad coffee in styrofoam cups. 

This was our first international arrival at Atlanta, and if it is the will of Allah, his name be praised, it will be our last. Something in the airport design makes it impossible to simply clear passport control, collect luggage and go through customs. I mean, you can do all
that easily enough, but then you have to get from the international arrival terminal to the main terminal, and because of the airport topology, the shuttle and the other five terminals are all in a secure zone. This means you have to go through security twice. First, you have to give up your already-cleared checked baggage (but NOT your hand baggage) where it is x-rayed yet another time.

"Sir! SIR! Bring your bags over here. SIR! You'll have to claim your bags AGAIN when you get to Terminal 'T.' SIR!! NO!!! Take your carry-ons WITH you!!!!"

So you have to stand at a baggage carousel
twice at the end of your international flight. Then you get in a line full of guys just off the KLM 747 wearing Tyrollean hats so you can take your hand baggage and your personal self through yet another security checkpoint.

Going through security is bad enough for most people, but for me, it's one step short of a cavity search because of my defibrillator. I'll set off the walk-through sensor every time, and when I tell them it's because of my defibrillator, they freak out and lecture me because the scanner's magnetic field briefly shuts down the implant. I mean, come on! Every time I see the doc, he waves a little magnet over it to shut it down while he checks this and that. It
always starts back up. It's some liability thing, I guess.

Because of the magnet sensitivity, they can't wand me, either. Instead, they have to frisk me. To call what they do to me "frisking" fails to capture the intensity of the experience. It's more like shiatsu. They squeeze
everything. They make me sit down and take off my shoes and they squeeze the bottoms of my feet. I asked the last guy if he'd do it for a while longer.

[In the God-fearing US of A, they always go looking for a male security officer/massage therapist to do the hand job. Frankly, this always feels a little gay to me. In Japan, it's often done by women. On our return flight, after I partially disrobed in front of about 2,000 travelers, a sloe-eyed Suzie Wong type came up to me and asked, semi-breathlessly, "May I touch you?"

"Oh Yes," I murmured.

Then she gave me a most thorough going-over, including a palm-up squeeze in the crotch that left me dazed with wild fantasies.]

In Atlanta, they do it
other. In Atlanta, harpies screamed at me to get into the right line. When I reached the screener, I told a security officer that I needed hand screening. He glowered at me. "You're in the wrong line, Bud. Go around to this other line over here."

I walked around the end of the table where everyone was putting their pocket stuff in gray plastic boxes for the x-ray machine. A uniformed woman asked, "Where do you think YOU are going?"

I said, "I'm going over to the other line, where
that man (indicating the glowering officer) told me to go."

She said, "Well, then you have to go
out the door of the security area and go through the line again. This (indicating the passage I'd tried to take) doesn't look like an entrance, does it? Go around the outside!"

Hmm. Taxpayer as errant schoolchild. Nice.

I told her I would go around as she requested—
if she would treat me like one of the good citizens who paid her salary and ask me politely. So she did and I did. Sometimes you just have to be assertive.

Skirting the harpies and pushing through the Tyrolleans, I made it over to an area fenced off for hand checks. Ahead of me was a severely developmentally disabled person in a wheelchair. (The caregivers' term of art for such people is "feebs.") (Oops.) Anyway, this semi-sentient being who, unlike me was devoid of bionics, could be wanded; or so I thought, except that he or she (we'll never know) could not get out of the wheelchair, being so completely disabled. The wheelchair, which was made of steel, caused a continuous alarm to sound in the wand whenever it came near.

Doesn't this happen, like,
all the time? The agent with the wand scratched her head for awhile, before giving up. This one's too much for me, boss.

So the feeb got a hand job instead, while I waited, amused at the concept of terrorists smuggling weapons into the airport food court using a vegetative-state person as a mule. I particularly liked it where the guard removed the person's baseball cap and carefully felt the full circumference of the band, looking for small sharp objects.

Kind of makes you ask, which one was the smart one, don't it?

After the wheelchair and inspector left, I waited patiently for awhile, wondering if Jean was aware that I had taken my laptop out of my carry-on, and if she had recovered it after x-raying. Nobody seemed to realize I was there, so finally I called over to another uniformed woman to let her know I was waiting to be touched. She firmly told me to sit down and wait, and someone would get to me when they became available. So I obediently sat and waited and waited and finally, 300 pounds of black man came over, put on rubber gloves, and asked me to spread my arms and legs.

This was one of those defining moments in life, when everything seems to freeze. Something bad was about to happen, and I was powerless to stop it. I knew at that moment that I was Bubba's. To do with as he would.

Ok. It wasn't all that bad. Bubba was professional and sort of friendly but not
too friendly if you know what I mean, and I got through it all and rejoined Jean and my laptop. We left the airport, me grumbling all the way to the hotel.

Jean tipped the shuttle driver three bucks for horsing our overweight bags onto and off the van. Good thing, 'cause she left her coat behind. A few hours later, she reported her loss to the lone employee at the front desk, fully aware that her coat was gone forever. The desk clerk called the shuttle driver, who reported that he
had her coat, and hustled right on over with it. Another five bucks. And proof, once again, that there are good, honest, helpful people, even in the U. S.

However, I note with regret that in Japan, the shuttle driver would have been
offended had we offered a tip. Sigh. 

Being in the vicinity of the airport without a car, our dining options were limited. Jean found a take-out menu for what city dwellers call "Chinese." "How about Chinese tonight? You want some Chinese? Or Domino's?" She ordered egg rolls, Kung Pao Chicken and Hunan Smoked Pork.

I've had some fairly execrable Chinese before, and the stuff delivered tonight ranked right up there with the worst. The egg rolls were thick tubes of soggy, greasy dough with a few lonely vegetables inside. The two entrees began life as the same dish: Stir-fried onions, a couple of dried hot red peppers, green peppers, mushrooms, canned water chestnuts and canned bamboo shoots, all submerged in a pint of gummy, salty brown sauce. For kung pao chicken, they added chicken chunks and peanuts. For Hunan smoked pork, they added Amurcan
unsmoked pork and black beans. We also got two cartons of steamed rice on which they had thoughtfully dumped soy sauce so we wouldn't have to. They included two plastic forks as well. Oh—and the mustard for the egg rolls consisted of little plastic packets of Heinz's. There you have it. 30 hours ago, we ate an exquisite shabu-shabu dinner. Tonight we ate swill.

It would be nice to take the best from each culture, leaving all the crap behind, thus making one really great country. There's an expression in Japan: A man wants an American house, a French mistress and a Japanese wife. Just so. 

New rules:

1) Don't ever go through ATL
2) Don't stay in airport hotels
3) Don't eat ethnic food in Georgia (except maybe chitterlings)

|

A Strolling Garden

The first type of traditional Japanese garden we visited was a Viewing Garden (posted on 5/14/06). A few days later, we visited the other type—a Strolling Garden, at a Buddhist Temple. The entrance to this temple featured the usual Torii Gate.

SG02

The temple contained a shrine, which we briefly viewed.

SG32

But the shrine was not the attraction. We spent nearly a half day looking at the garden, and could have spent even more time there.

As you might expect, a Strolling Garden also can function as a Viewing Garden.

SG31

This window and the garden beyond were created as part of a single design, so that the esthetic pleasure of the view would be optimized. But strolling gardens include paths, so people can get out into them and explore.

SG12

Gravel paths and stone stairs lead through maples and azaleas. Occasional benches facilitate stopping along the way, to rest or to spend time in viewing and contemplation.

SG15

Covered walkways permit visiting even on rainy days. The construction of this one is a masterful expression of the Japanese temple builders' art.

SG19

Nothing seems more natural than a Japanese garden. Yet nothing could be more contrived. Here a gardener is sweeping up those pesky azalea blossoms.

SG09

She wears an old-fashioned but practical bonnet with traditional top and not-so-traditional jeans. She holds her handmade whisk broom with her Yokohama Rubber Company, Ltd. gloves. Drat! Those flowers sure are messy!

This fence design is hundreds of years old. In modern Japan, with its high wages, to make them must be very expensive.

SG27

But it's oh so worth it.

Paths permit a close-up inspection of objects that can only be seen from a distance in a Viewing Garden.

SG28

This incredible place has so much more to show. For additional pictures and notes, check out this flickr photoset.
|

Children

Children receive lots of love, care and guidance—maybe even a little reverence. We arrived in Japan on May 6, one day after Children's Day (Kodomo-no-i). Originally referred to as "Boy's Day," for political correctness it was renamed Children’s Day. It is a national holiday.

Well, it may have been renamed, but it's still all about boys. Families fly carp-shaped streamers (
koinobori) on tall bamboo poles outside the house: one for each son. (The carp is a symbol of strength in Japan.) Boys decorate a warrior doll with armor. Rice cakes (kashiwamochi) filled with sweet red beans and wrapped in oak leaves are served. Somewhere along the way, I'm sure we were served these. They'll never replace Dove Dark Chocolate Squares.

Some days later, in Kyoto, we happened upon another festival for children. I never found out the purpose of the celebrations, but it seemed to be tied somehow to Shintoism, as groups of children and their parents carried portable shrines to a temple where everyone gathered, beating drums and having a good time.

SK08

The portable shrines appeared to be heavy, so only the adults carried them. But drum-beating was open to all.

SK13

The boy with the drumstick's head band has fallen down. He's ignoring it. Flaunting tradition.

Everyone was wearing Happi Coats (pronounced "hoppy"), even very small participants. His coat works well with the bunnies on his shirt and the Pooh figures on his pants.

SK11

Some kids dressed up in dragon suits. This one roared at me and bit me on the hand, but I wasn't really scared. Pretty much not scared, anyway. Big teeth, though.

SK06

This dragon had a wardrobe malfunction. The shoes don't help much, either.

SK07

Here, Jean posed with a bunch of girls. Cute, aren't they? Jean has no idea why she's holding her fingers like that.

SK15

For more kid pictures, check out this flickr photoset.

|

Aoi Festival

Spring weather in Kyoto is frequently rainy, and when it rains, one of Kyoto's famous events, the Aoi Festival, is frequently not held. For this reason, the festival was not listed on our itinerary, even though we were going to be in Kyoto on May 15, when it normally is held. We would not have been disappointed if we had not been able to see it, because we would not even have known about it. Clever guys, our tour leaders.

FF20

It came as a total surprise, and I must say, it was over the top. We saw hundreds of old costumes and antique objects.

FF18

The festival began during the reign of the Kinmei Emperor some 1400 years ago, during a ceremony to improve the grain harvest. Having been successful, the ceremony since has been continued to this day, becoming ever more elaborate over the centuries.

FF21

For most people, the most visible part of the festival is a parade through Kyoto, composed of people dressed in ancient costumes. Andy and Steve had arranged for a block of front-row seats along the parade route—ideal for photography.

FF11

For more images of the parade and of people in ancient clothing, check out this flickr photoset.
|

A Master Calligrapher

Calligraphy has as much to do with the appearance of words on a page as on their meaning. In Japan, this is even more so. At the home of Shotei Ibata, a Living National Treasure, we saw how a master creates calligraphic works of art.

We began our visit by hearing a short explanation of how Chinese characters developed. Here we see how the character for "mountain" (shan), evolved from an individual pictogram that resembled actual mountains. (To see the evolutionary sequence, read the chart right to left).

CA01

(The character at the far left is a cursive form that is used primarily in calligraphy. The commonly-used modern character is second from left.)

(The old guy standing below the chart, drinking his stimulating cup of tea and therefore in a rare conscious state, apparently is amused by the illustration.)

I have always thought of calligraphy as a minor art involving careful and painstaking pen- or brushwork. For Shotei-sensei, the act of drawing a character involves concentration of his mind and spirit, and a convulsive movement of his whole body. Pausing before a blank sheet of paper, holding an ink-saturated brush in his hand, he would at first seem to go inside of himself, gathering his life force. I could almost sense an electric charge building between his eyes and the paper.

Suddenly, he would issue a grunt—HUNH!—like that made by a karate master before splitting a board with his fingertips. He would bring the brush down smartly, and with his whole body swaying, he would paint a character in a matter of seconds.

CA05

That's it. Done. No retracing. No correcting errant lines. One swift, convulsive movement, and the blank paper now contains a character, a work of art, complete and perfect.

In contrast with the seconds it took to create the character, he spent several minutes signing the work and carefully applying his chop.

Shotei-sensei uses large brushes, an innovation that he introduced. Here he is using a very large brush to execute the character for "cloud."

CA02

Japanese calligraphy brushes differ from western ones in that the hair is very long. Even the making of brushes is an art form practiced by masters. Among Shotei-sensei's brushes is the world's largest calligraphy brush, made from the tails of many horses.

CA04

Most of us know how difficult it is to draw a perfect circle freehand. Shotei-sensei is very good at it.

CA03

Also of interest to me was his musician daughter—a professional chembalist. The living room contained an electronic keyboard, a grand piano, a harpsichord and a zither. In front of the latter was a music stand bearing a copy of "Espaces de Priere No. 3 pour Cithare" by Jaques Berthier. I would have loved to have listened to her play that than watch her, the dutiful daughter, hold a bowl of ink for her old man.

(In the first photo you can see the zither on the left and the harpsichord behind it.)
|

Lunch with a Shakuhachi Player

Our itinerary said we'd be having lunch at Heihachijaya, a 300-year-old inn overlooking the Takano River, and that while there, we would be treated to a "private musical performance."

You don't find wooded places with large gardens like this in Tokyo. Although much of Kyoto is just as urbanized as the rest of Japan, with the usual ugly jumble of clashing architectural styles and blighted utilitarian postwar concrete structures, it nonetheless contains many hidden corners like this—delightful little islands of beauty and tranquility.

Here, a portly member of the tour group poses at the inn's entry gate. It probably is the only remaining original wooden structure in the inn complex, given that in Japan, wood eventually yields to fire and water. If the damp climate doesn't rot it, frequent fires consume it.

SH01

We were greeted by two bowing women, who, it turns out, were to be our waitresses. They were nearly identical: Both of an age, same height, similar hairstyles, identical black kimono with red shoulder decorations, white under-kimono, beige obi (wide fabric sashes), white tabi (socks with toes) and wooden geta (clogs). Before you unwittingly accuse the Japanese of all being the same, note that these ladies have expressed their individuality in their choices of aprons.

It's so very nice to be bowed into a place.

SH02

The interior of the restaurant was simple, sleek and modern-looking—at least to my untutored eye. We were seated at long, low, red lacquer tables. The photograph reveals that none of us Westerners were capable of sitting on our heels, as would be proper at a traditional Japanese meal. Anticipating this, the management provided cushions with back supports, which we gratefully used. Note that the large plates on the table have a flat edge, which allows more of its contents to be nearer one's mouth—desirable when one eats with chopsticks. Keeps the sea cucumber out of your lap.

Shoji screens had been opened giving onto a view of—that's right; A viewing garden. No traditional inn would be complete without one.

SH03

Our waitresses knelt on the floor to serve us, without grunting and groaning, and without using their hands which were always carrying trays, anyway. I was impressed whenever one of them would rise, gracefully, smoothly and apparently effortlessly.

SH04

Even in restaurants with western-style furniture, I noticed that waiters and waitresses kneeled to take our orders.

Before lunch was served, a musician introduced us to the shakuhachi, a type of flute. A bamboo instrument configured for the Japaese five-note scale, it is capable of producing an amazing range of tones. Our musician played traditional and modern music that was evocative and haunting. He also played a Christmas song—Walking in the Winter Wonderland or some such—which I found to be offensive and condescending. However, it was interesting to see how could produce the non-natural pitches; in fact he was able to play an entire chromatic scale, even though the flute was bored with finger holes for the five-note scale. At one point, he demonstrated a continuous glissando through two octaves!

I can't find enough words to express how captivated I was by his performance.

SH05

We were told that at one time, Samurai were forced to give up their weapons. Some of them took up the shakuhachi and made their livings wandering from village to village, playing for handouts, which, I imagine, were readily forthcoming, given who was doing the asking. We were also told that they could use their flutes as weapons, not having any conventional ones. Having personally handled a large shakuhachi, I can attest to the weight and lethality of these... er... flutes.
|

An Indigo Dyer

For at least a millennium, the Japanese have been dying fibers with indigo. I see lovely deep blue fabrics everywhere in Japan, indicating that at one time, indigo was Japan's most important dye. Today, virtually all cloth is colored with synthetic dyes, but a few indigo farmers and dyers receive recognition from the Japanese Government for preserving the old craft and for their skills in so doing. At least one dyer has been certified as having the proper skills to restore antique fabrics. He dyes fabrics for the Katsura Imperial Villa. We visited his dye works near Kyoto.

IN03

Indigo is made from the leaves of plants. A large quantity of leaves—a barn full—is gathered in the summer. The leaves are composted (!) which permits the blue dye to develop and concentrate. None of the blue color is evident in the finished compost, which, to my untutored eye, looks just like the stuff I used to dig into my vegetable beds.

Here, the master dyer hold a sample of dried leaves. On the ground next to him we see some of the indigo compost.

IN01

To create the dye, the indigo compost is placed in vats sunk into the dirt floor. Water is added and the mixture is allowed to ferment. During the winter, the temperature falls too low to allow fermentation. In that season, slow wood fires are burned in the space just visible between the four vats in the photo.

IN12

Indigo dye becomes activated under highly alkaline conditions. So fibers to be dyed are first soaked in a solution of wood ashes. Part of the wood ash comes from the fires used to keep the vats warm.

Here, alkaline liquid has been drawn off from the wooden vat in the background into the blue plastic tub. (You can just make out the wood ashes floating on top of the wooden vat.) The dyer has just soaked a skein of silk thread in the lye solution and is wringing the liquid out.

IN05

The alkaline skeins are allowed to dry, after which, they are ready to be dyed.

IN11

Several skeins Are looped over a wooden pole, and lowed into a vat of fermented indigo solution.

IN07

Here are the same skeins after resting in the indigo vat for a few minutes and then being removed and wrung out.

IN09

Different shades of blue are obtained by repeated immersions in the dye vats.

IN08

Paper (washi) and woven fabrics are also dyed in this manner.

The workers usually wear gloves to protect their hands from the corrosive solutions.

IN10
|

A Bamboo Basket Maker

We took a train to Sakai, near Osaka, to visit the home of one of the more famous families of Japanese craftsmen, the Tanabe Chikuunsai family. They make baskets of bamboo; one-of-a-kind museum pieces. They've been making them for four generations. The few baskets shown here were all made by members of this family and give some idea of the evolution of this art.

Hanabako01

We learned about how this art came to Japan from China centuries ago, how the early basket makers copied the Chinese style, and how Japanese basket-making evolved into a uniquely Japanese art form over time.

Hanabako03


Hanabako04

Hanabako05

The last basket pictured, beside the old guy dozing on the floor, was made by a member of the fourth generation of the family. In the picture below, we see third and fourth generation artists. The first and second are no longer living.

Hanabako06

Their baskets are exquisite, and exquisitely expensive. Two of our traveling companions are avid collectors, and bought baskets at the gallery. You need to have a deep appreciation of these objects to pay the kind prices they paid.

Tanabe Chikuunsai baskets will be on display at The Ruth and Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art in Hanford, CA from June through December, 2006. We plan to drive over there during our five week visit to Santa Barbara in September.
|

A Viewing Garden

Ten days into our journey, and finally we get to visit a Japanese garden.

Gardens are where I most like to be. When we lived on our 40-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, I created more than an acre of landscaping. I built stone walls and dug terraces. I cleared a half-acre of forest to plant a vegetable garden. For more than ten years, I composted and enriched the yellow clay soil until it became crumbly black loam. I planted an orchard and two hundred feet of assorted berry plants. Scores of cactus in pots littered one of our decks. Every week I went into the mixed oak and fir forest that surrounded our house and cleared underbrush and thinned trees. I built roads and forded streams. I mowed our meadows and killed poison oak.

In contrast, our city home in San Miguel de Allende contains maybe twelve square feet of open soil. Nearly the entire surface of our 2,500 square foot lot is covered with rooms or stone courtyards. In compensation, I have filled hundreds of pots with tropical plants, flowers and cactus. My flat roof is a forest. A bedroom patio is overrun with Plumeria and Jasmine. Bougainvillea climbs our walls and palms rattle their fronds in the breeze. A spiky-trunked Ceiba tree tries to grow out of its pot. A massive Pachypodium looks like something from Mars, although it only came from Madagascar.

I love gardens.

This, the first garden we will visit in Kyoto, is private. We were very fortunate to be invited; it is not otherwise open to the public. It is named The Moon Garden.

It is of the type called a Viewing Garden; one that is intended to be appreciated while sitting quietly. (The other major type of Japanese Garden is the Strolling Garden, about which more later.) Viewing Gardens are designed so that the doorways and windows of the house frame the garden, with view lines and focal points positioned so as to compose a pleasing and restful scene.

MG04

We began our viewing of the Moon Garden by sitting silently on tatami mats and looking through windows. This garden presents a highly sculpted foreground against that rarest of assets in urban Japan, a woodland vista. The designer made use here, of borrowed scenery to serve as a setting for this space. The blooming trees in the background do not belong to the garden, yet are part of it.

Moving onto an outside deck sheltered from the rain underneath curved eaves, we came into more intimate contact with the garden.

MG05

Water, rocks and plants come together to create a balanced, harmonious environment, drawing the eye from one place to the next, always with something new to contemplate. A large rock blocks the view; an arm of the water snakes around and behind it, giving the impression of a much larger space than actually exists. You want to know: What's back there? What's hidden? This garden has secrets, and since you can't walk in it, they'll remain secrets, always intriguing.

MG06

There is nothing natural about this garden. The stones have been brought here and sited just so. The pond is artificial. The plants have been placed and pruned and forced into shapes that do not exist in nature. Yet, no place could look more natural. It depicts an idealization of nature; nature as we would like to have it. It's a benign space, free of burrs and spines and stinging insects. It's the woodland of fairy tales.

MG07

As in a fairy tale, the Moon Garden is inhabited by an old crone. This rock, we were told, is one of the most famous in Japan.

MG08

Rising from the deck and walking its length, other features appear. Nearly all gardens have a fountain with water running through a bamboo pipe into basin, but always looking like an accident of nature. No spouting dolphins or pudgy cherubs inhabit Japanese fountains. This one has a dipper, set there as if for use by a thirsty traveler. Do strangers sometimes pass this way? Who? From where do they come and where do they go?
|

Kyoto Arrival

Kyoto is jammed with tourists. Most are Japanese, visiting a city which encapsulates old Japan. We got off the Bullet Train too early to check into our hotel, so we rode by taxi to a Buddhist temple perched on a hillside. The street leading to it was crowded with throngs of tourists, schoolchildren in uniforms, and pilgrims striding along in hiking shoes, pounding their walking sticks on the pavement. Souvenir shops lined the road. One offered a gummy charcoal-black confection. I didn't sample it. Looked like wheat gluten to me.

The temple was the real thing, but it looked like something out of a Japanese Disneyland. I didn't learn anything about it; I just enjoyed the view.

MG01

Somewhere along the way, we encountered a large group of small stone effigies wearing little aprons.

MG02

What were they? Andy or Steve may have given us an explanation, but exhausted from our travels, I couldn't recall anything they might have told us.

MG03

We also visited Sanjusagendo Temple, a repository of 12th-Century Buddhist statuary. The temple contains 1001 statues of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. We were asked not to photograph it, but the link will take you to images of this spectacular display.
|

To Kyoto

On Saturday, May 13, we ate our last breakfast at the sumptuous buffet of the Royal Park Shiodome Hotel. We trooped after Steve and Andy like a row of ducklings following their mother as they led us through the subway system for the ride to Tokyo Station. There, in a huge subterranean shopping mall, we bought Bento Box lunches, and boarded the Bullet Train (specifically, the Tokaido Shinkansen) for Kyoto.

Bullet-Train01

We waited alongside the train while bustling attendants cleaned the cars. We carried only overnight bags, having sent our main luggage ahead the previous day because there isn't enough room on the Bullet Train to bring it all.

It seems like everything in Japan is undersized, and especially so for travelers. There wasn't enough drawer space in our hotel room, and it's incomprehensible to me that a train can't handle luggage.

On the train we settled into comfortable seats in our first-class car. Jean and I picked seats on the right in the hopes that we would catch a view of Mt. Fuji, but it was a rainy day, so no visibility.

Here, our group sits naïvely in their seats, while Steve plays a mournful harmonica as we hurtle to our dooms.

Bullet-Train02

We rode a long way past unbroken urban scenery through Tokyo and its suburbs. The ride was smoother and much more quiet than flying. We never had the feeling we were traveling at speeds up to 300 kilometers per hour.

As we began to encounter rural Japan, I was struck by how green everything was, and how small the farms were. Many farmers appeared to be working little more than an acre of rice paddy. These were the most carefully tended plots I had ever seen. No waste piles, no abandoned farm machinery blighted the landscape. Sensitive crops snuggled under impeccably neat row covers. No weeds intruded in the plots. Nor did I ever see farm animals. I know they have them, but proportionately, there are far fewer of them than in the States or Mexico. The farms were gorgeous, and no doubt the produce grown on them was perfect and healthy, but this kind of farming has to be very expensive.

Getting underway, Andy stood in the aisle and taught us how to read Chinese characters. Well, maybe one or two of them. We ate our box lunches and a couple of hours later, we arrived in Kyoto.
|

Tokyo National Museum

Our last outing in Tokyo was to the Tokyo National Museum. This is a place we could easily have visited without guides, and, as we were to discover shortly, their real payoff was going to be in Kyoto. But the museum exhibits were spectacular, and Steve was able to provide us with a great deal of information about the exhibits.

Arriving at the museum, we found ourselves a minority. Most of the visitors were uniformed schoolchildren. The girls were dressed similarly to Mexican schoolgirls: Ironed white blouses, pleated skirts, jackets, knee socks.

TNM02

The boys, on the other hand, wore outfits reminiscent of Prussian military uniforms, a holdover from pre-war days when all things German were much admired in Japan.

TNM01

They almost manage to bring off the stern, authoritarian look until you saw their white running shoes.

The garden at the entry to the museum grounds set the proper mindset with—a clock. Of course. No wasting time, kiddies. The university entrance exams aren't far off, and if your scores are low, they'll doom you to life as a salaryman.

TNM03

For pictures of a few of the museum exhibits, check out this flickr photoset. It was impossible to take enough photographs, although even one was too many, because we couldn't keep track of the significance of each object. Looking at the photos now, I'm amazed at how little I know about the exhibits. For me, museums always provide far too little explanation, and the situation at the Tokyo National Museum was compounded because all of the information cards were, of course, in Japanese.

Afterwards, we walked through a park across the street from the museum entrance where we came across an evangelist speaking to a large group of people sitting on the ground. It was the first Christian artifact I'd seen since arriving.

TNM15

The photo below is of the museum entrance, seen from the park. Of interest to me is the group of four gardeners sitting on the ground. They are hand-weeding this huge lawn. No broad-leaf herbicides used here! These men meticulously removed each weed, working across the grass in a totally organized way. The unworked lawn area forms a perfect rectangle.

TNM17

Jean has an expression she uses to describes things that confuse or frustrate her. She says, "It drives me waka waka." So I was delighted to find a panel truck emblazoned with:

TNM18
|

Random Observations.

Advertisements for apartment rentals give floor space in tsubo, a measurement of area equal to the floor space covered by two tatami mats—about 35 square feet. A typical apartment in central Tokyo proper might contain 12 tsubo (430 square feet or so) and rent for $3,000 per month, plus key money equal to six months rent. Average Japanese salarymen avoid paying these kinds of rents by commuting by train for maybe 2-3 hours per day. You see them on trains, sleeping away, somehow waking up when they reach their stations.

Speaking of trains, they're a central fact of life; the way to get around in Japan. Cars are expensive. Before you can buy a car in Tokyo
you have to prove you have a parking space for it, and they don't mean on the street. Given the cost of enough tsubo to park your car, we're talking about a major expense here, and you don't even own the car yet. Then, gas is expensive—maybe triple the cost in the U. S. or Mexico.

And you have to get your car inspected every three years. Big deal you say? Well, the inspection involves disassembling the car. Costs about $3,000. That's enough to affect the price of a used car as it approaches its inspection date. Sort of like the ex-dividend date for a common stock.

So most people take trains. You've all seen pictures of the uniformed guys straining to push people into trains so the doors will close. Trains are so crowded that most people don't get seats. Tough for a two-hour trip. But look at it this way. If you're tired, just relax your knees. The press of bodies will keep you upright. Need to sleep? Just lean on your neighbor. Nobody minds. It's expected.

What's not welcomed is groping. Apparently some Japanese men take advantage of the crush to fondle nearby women, who often cannot even identify who is doing it, mush less escape their unwanted attentions. The solution has been to reserve some cars for women during the peak of the rush hour. Hibaya Line. Three cars. Women only, 7:30-9:00 AM. Honestly!

Then there's the advertising in railway cars. For example, the Japanese are into the functioning and health of their alimentary canals, and aren't ashamed to share their intestinal fixations with with anyone. Their blasé attitudes result in ads like the following:

Laxative

Here we have what appear to be smiling gophers assisting the movement of pink turds in their passage through the transverse and descending colon. One is applying water from a watering can to inflate them and get rid of a bunch of nasty little spikes. (Did you know that there was such a condition?) The other gopher seems to be giving the pink blobs a little extra push, like a colonic JATO, to get them launched. I don't know what the serious-looking third one is saying: probably a product warning. Stand clear after taking!

Honestly, this is an image you really don't want to stumble across in the early morning.

Why gophers? Why do they have little bags hanging from their shoulders? What's in the bags? If you grew up in Japan, this probably would be entirely clear.

In a drugstore, I saw a product called "Melty Cure." What do you think it might be? The packaging gave no clues. Maybe "Melty Cure" is the product that the gophers are pushing.

____________________________________

All this alimentary canal discussion reminds me of a few more food observations:

• I've now passed several restaurants offering "Salted fish guts" for two. Nope. Not for me. The other night, however, I did eat a mucus salad. Not a repeater.

• I saw a place called "Jazzy Coffee and Curry." Just the combo I was hankering for.

• And finally, the Japanese call Christmas fruitcake "25-year-old vrigin," because—you know—nobody ever eats one. (Sorry).
|

Visiting a Fabric Designer

We visited the Roppongi studio of Reiko Sudo, a founder and head of the hypermodern fabric design company, NUNO. Here we saw a junction of technology and art of the highest order.

NUNO

In violation of international copyright laws, I copied this blurb from a press release for a show she was doing in England.

"Reiko Sudo is world-renowned as one of the leading figures in contemporary innovative textile production. Her work is represented in major international museums. [Boston MFA, MOMA, for two.-Ed.]
Sudo’s quintessentially 21st century textiles unite traditional techniques, complex technologies and new finishing processes. She has created extraordinary visual effects that have revolutionised textiles within interiors, fashion and art. NUNO has been at the heart of the resurgence of Japanese textiles, producing fabrics of unparalleled sophistication and creativity."

Three of the fabrics she showed us caught my fancy.

1) A diaphanous fabric consisting entirely of 2" square pockets, into each of which was sealed a single feather.

2) A fabric woven from stainless steel microfibers treated with acid to create washes of blue and brown patterns. The bolt was so heavy, I almost couldn't lift it.

3) An extremely thin (and colorful) fabric that had been folded many times into a 3" square about ¼" thick, which, when picked up by a corner, falls open into a large shawl, and when dropped onto the table, re-folds itself into the 3" square again.

Jean bought a breathtakingly expensive blouse at the studio, made of a fabric that had been selectively shrunk, so that its surface undulated in soft billows.
|

A Vegetarian Menu; A Sushi Dinner

I don't remember where I picked this up this menu, but it looked fascinating to me. Unfortunately, we didn't get to try it.

Vegetarian

This menu doesn't look particularly appetizing, but we ate many vegetarian dishes during our visit and all were delicious. All except the inescapable wheat gluten that is.

Not everyone will know what "lees" is, as in "Okara age: Fried bean curd lees." Lees is the sediment from fermentation. Waste not, want not.

Note also that the majority of the dishes involve soy in some way. You'd think eating all that soy would become tedious, but I found each preparation to be unique. You wouldn't know that all these dishes derived from the same homely vegetable from the tastes, textures or colors.

________________________________

For dinner, our tour leaders took us to Hirakawa Sushi, for a sushi demonstration, which we found fairly pedestrian, since we have been sushi aficionados for many years, and this outing was designed as an introduction for the inexperienced. Before departing for dinner, our group divided in two; those who wanted to eat (or try) sushi, and those who didn't.

The chefs at Hirakawa Sushi made us a sampling of non-threatening sushi: Maguro, Hamachi, Sake and the like. Most of our fellow travelers were not able to bring themselves to try everything, but many did well for their first try.

The dinner was marred by a presentation by John Gauntner, a sake expert. John did present a lot of interesting and new information about sake, but his rapid-fire, shouted delivery intruded on and distracted me from my enjoyment of the meal. In the interest of disclosure of editorial bias, I don't drink alcoholic beverages, and so my interest in sake is undoubtedly less than that of my traveling companions, but several of them confided that they would have preferred to enjoy their dinners in peace, and heard John's presentation separately.

I learned two things about sushi that I didn't know.

1) At least in the better restaurants, the grated daikon (giant radish) commonly served as a garnish or an ingredient in some dishes is not in fact grated, but is instead cut in long, extremely thin shreds by hand with a thin, sharp knife. Our chef cut the long side of an 8" long cylinder of radish into a strip several feet long, carefully rotating the radish under the blade of the knife. From that strip, he would later cut hundreds of thin shreds.

2) The reconstituted dried wasabi ubiquitous in U. S. sushi bars isn't served in better restaurants in Japan. The fresh grated roots that we were served at Hirakawa Sushi were much more pungent with a complex, deep flavor. Our tour leaders, along with food expert Elizabeth Andoh, told us that fresh wasabi was unavailable in the U. S. because the roots won't keep during shipping and they cannot be grown in any American climate. I found this hard to believe, and since found that fresh wasabi is available, although probably scarce because of low demand. I see that one place that the roots are grown is in Oregon, which has a climate similar to Japan's.
|

Food-O-Rama

After our walkthrough of the Tsujiki Fish Market, we were joined by Elizabeth Andoh, a gourmet food writer. An extremely knowledgeable cook and author, she led us through many shops that offered a huge variety of foodstuffs, identifying exotic ingredients and explaining how to use them. The area around the Tsujiki Fish Market is similar to Berkeley's Gourmet Gulch, except that Tokyo's is much bigger.

Food01

Here, Elizabeth is holding forth on the role of finely-ground beef in Japanese cuisine.

In a butcher shop I saw some of the best-looking beef steaks I think I have ever seen in my life. Some even may have been the world-famous Kobe Beef.

Food10

But probably not. Doesn't cost enough. The New York Strip Steak on the lower left is priced at ¥1575 per 100 grams, which works out to about $62 per pound at the current Yen/Dollar exchange rate. The marbling in this meat looks gorgeous, but the Japanese don't age their beef, so it tastes sort of bland. Just as well. Forty years ago i could have eaten that stuff with impunity. Today, just looking at it makes my coronary arteries tense up.

This woman sells dried fruits, candies, rice crackers, nuts and other dry foods in cellophane bags. She really knows how to sell. Get the product into the customer's hands. Get it into his mouth. He'll buy.

Food11

She gave me a handful of dried blueberries. Boy were they good! I wound up buying a bag. When there were no customers, she would hide behind a stack of cardboard cartons in the back. Whenever anyone leaned in to look at her wares, she scuttled out with a bowl of samples in her hand. She closed most of her prospects.

For more pictures of exotic food, check out this flickr photoset.
|

Tsujiki Fish Market

Our tour group got to the Tsujiki Fish Market around 9 AM, which is about as early as you can get a tour group to gather anywhere, and while the fish auction and main wholesaling action was over, there was still plenty to see. As we approached the market, the first thing we noticed was these cute little three-wheeled trucks that zip all over the place. The second thing we saw was our fellow tourists' butts as we scrambled out of the way of the zippy little trucks. They don't stop for anybody.

Tsukiji03

The truck design is clever, but of course all Japanese design is clever—by law, I think. The engine and transmission are housed in the ventilated metal cylinder in the front, the single drive wheel is attached to the bottom of the cylinder and the steering wheel is attached to the top. To steer, you pull on the wheel and the whole cylinder rotates.

Most trucks carried styrofoam boxes, but some carried sections of tuna that had been held in liquid nitrogen, frost-covered and smoking.

Inside a cavernous building, we found all kinds of fish being sold both wholesale and retail. Here's a lovely fish head with a price sticker on it: About $18 per pound. That must be the price for the fish that once was attached to the head. While I had been warned that Japanese breakfasts consisted of fish heads and rice (they don't, really), I'm certain that not even Okanawans would eat them at that price.

Tsukiji04

This is a Shinto shrine that serves the Tsujiki Market. How do we know it's a Shinto shrine? It doesn't say "Shinto" on it. At least not in English. So we have to look deeper.

Look at the tapered rice straw ropes. Look at the white paper folded into lightning shapes. That's how we know it's a Shinto shrine.

Tsujiki13

For more pictures of the market, and of fish, check out this flickr photoset.
|

Transporting a Tour Group

How do you move a 25-person tour group around in one of the more densely populated places on earth, when the locales you want to go are on narrow streets with no parking?

1) You walk. We did lots of that.

2) You take the subway. We'd leave the hotel in a group, Andy leading, talking us through the maze of streets on his headset, Steve bringing up the rear, making sure no one got left behind. We each had been assigned a number, and occasionally the group would coalesce and count off. Once we got into a subway station, Steve would run over to a ticket vending machine and start feeding it coins, handing us our tickets as the machine spat them out.

As on BART, you use your ticket at least twice, feeding it into a turnstile to record your point of entry into the system, and into another to mark your exit point. A computer somewhere makes sure you paid enough for the length of the trip you just took. If you haven't paid enough, they're very accommodating. You just go over to a uniformed man in a small glassed-in booth and hold out a handful of change. He takes what he needs and off you go. Apparently even Tokyo-ites have difficulty figuring out the fare system, so they just buy a minimum price ticket and settle up at the end of the trip.

Losing your ticket is another matter. I got the impression that you never wanted to lose your ticket. I visualize bamboo slivers under fingernails. Andy advised us to choose a "happy place" somewhere on our bodies and to always carry our tickets there. I'm relieved to report that neither Jean nor I lost ours. Thanks to our happy places.

3) You take taxis. A taxi will carry four people so that means that for each trip we needed... that's four into twenty-five, carry the one... uh... six or seven taxis whenever we did this.

Taxi

One of our leaders would go out and line up the necessary number of cabs. We'd pile into them and Andy or Steve would tell the driver where to take us. One traveler in each cab would be handed a manila envelope with two or three thousand yen in it, and given instructions to put the change in the envelope and GET A RECEIPT!

Each cab driver would take off, and we'd all hold our breaths until we arrived at someplace where we could see other members of our tour group. Many of our drivers would greet us in English, but "Hello" and "Thank You" pretty much was the extent of it. To try and explain we were supposed to go to Hanabaku, not Fufufufu, was beyond our abilities. If we even knew the name of the place we were going. Much less where it was located.

Tokyo taxi drivers have to pass a test proving they know how to navigate through the city without getting lost. This is both essential and difficult, because addresses are not assigned logically--at least as I see it. A numbered street address won't cut it. You have to know what prefecture the place you're going is in. You have to know what neighborhood. Then the street it's on. Finally, you have to know what landmark your destination is near, because addresses are not always assigned in numerical order as you go down the street. Sometimes buildings are assigned numbers in the order in which they were built.

So cab drivers are highly skilled. And these days, many are supported by substantial technology. Some cabs bristle with antennas. There's the usual two-way radio. There's antennas feeding the GPS system, so you can see your location and progress on a screen with a map that rotates so that your direction is always indicated as up. Another set of antennas receives real-time traffic data, and plots congested areas on the same display. So if your intended route is displayed in blinking red, you know to pick an alternate.

Cab drivers wear uniforms, police-style hats and white gloves. Their vehicles are immaculate, with white antimacassars on the seats, washed, starched and ironed every day. Every surface inside and out has been cleaned and polished within the last couple of hours, and there is not a dent, scratch nor a single particle of rust on any of them.

In fact, there are no dents or scratches on any cars in Tokyo. I think it's a law. Sure looks different from San Miguel where one notorious truck has a piece of plexiglas siliconed over a hole in the windshield, and another has its gas tank bailing-wired to the roof.

Speaking of cars, Japanese ones have English model names in chrome letters on their trunks. You'd expect Chinese characters, but for some reason, model names are in an alphabet most Japanese people can't read. Moreover, the names are different than the ones we buy in the US and Mexico. In part, this is because the models themselves are different: both larger and smaller. The names are wonderful examples of the most charming form of Engrish—proper words used in vaguely inappropriate ways:

Nissan March
Honda Scrum
Suzuki Every
Crown Comport
Suzuki We've
Toyota Majesta
Honda That's
Daihatsu More
Toyota Sovereign

Some names are made-up words:

Toyota Windom
Subaru Sambar
Honda Acty

And the unfortunately named Toyota Emina.

Wealthier Japanese buy German imports: Mercedes, BMW. Always big ones. The vehicle with the most cachet, though, is a chopped Harley.
|

Knocking Around Tokyo

We spent a couple of days visiting modern architectural landmarks—not a particularly strong interest of mine, which explains the dearth of photos. That and the difficult challenge of photographing large buildings in crowded settings. Steve pointed out a number of interesting buildings and explained the concepts behind their designs, but I couldn't figure out how to capture these ideas with my camera. Besides, Tokyo's most spectacular edifices are jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with nondescript buildings and occasionally share a wall with some real eyesore. Zoning and city planning are weakness in Tokyo.

Below we see a jumble of styles, a visual cacophony.

Cityscape

(In this image, a crowd watches a mime posing as a "thinker.") Winking

I was fascinated by this interior, with its complex girderwork, but I'm ashamed to say that I don't remember its name or location.

Girders

Note the information kiosk sign in English, the new international language of commerce. I think it means, "If you can't read English, you can't afford to shop here."

Jean snapped this shot of a Hummer stretch limousine, an example illustrating that the Japanese are as capable of gross excess as anyone.

Hummer

The driver, no doubt partially Irish, copes with the boredom of waiting for his clients by practicing his jig.

If you look just behind the limo, you can see the roof line of what looks like an Airstream trailer, albeit a short one more in line with a Japanese sense of compactness. Unlike the Hummer.

The sketch of the pine tree is graffiti! Our gangbangers could learn a lot from their Japanese compatriots.

Graffiti
|

Meiji Shrine

Our first outing with our 23 fellow tour members and our two excellent tour leaders was to the Meiji Shrine, a Shinto temple.

Meiji02

All of us were carrying tiny FM radios with earphones. Andy was carrying a transmitter and wearing a headset, which enabled him to talk to us in a normal tone of voice, while allowing us the freedom to wander off to see whatever interested us. Using this system while we walked into the Meiji Shrine, he gave us an overview of Shinto, once the state religion of Japan. An Animist religion, I found its precepts oddly comforting.

Meiji01

We entered the temple grounds through a Torii Gate, made from the trunks of two massive Cypress trunks supporting huge beams. The gentle twist of the grain in the trunks, and the exquisite curve of the topmost beam somehow managed to convey a sense of quiet and gentleness on the scene. Note that the lower beam is held in place with four large wedges. I've always been fascinated by Japanese woodworking, particularly the clever, hardware-free joinery.

meiji03

On the path to the shrine stood a wall of saki casks which had been given to the priests. (They also gave the saki brewers good publicity.) The old guy on the left is calculating how long that much saki would last a person, and contemplating the tragic notion that nobody is actually going to drink it.

Meiji10

This here is not a musical instrument. It is a sort of hand washing station—a purification thing. I tried it and the head priest glared at me until I went away.

Meiji04

Here Andy is demonstrating how you purify yourself by pouring water on first one hand, then the other, then sipping some and spitting it out. As a little boy, I would have loved this ritual.


Meiji08

For ¥500, you can buy a little wooden board on which you can write a prayer or wish, and then leave on this rack. At the end of the year, the priests burn them. Most prayers were written in Chinese characters, but I saw many that were in European languages, too.

Meiji05

One artifact of Shinto is the shimenawa, or rice straw rope, which signifies a separation of the sacred and profane realms. This rope looks foreshortened in the photograph, but has actually been woven in a taper. It's about an inch in diameter where it is knotted around the tree. The near end is six inches thick! The white zig-zags hanging from the rope are paper folded to represent lightning. Wherever I saw them, I knew I was near some Shinto shrine or function.


Meiji06

Japanese temple architecture sometimes features intricate overlapping roofs, each with its gentle upward-sweeping curves. These are sheathed in copper and have wonderfully shaped ridgepoles. The design of the hanging lamps clearly have influenced designs used in the Arts and Crafts Movement.


Meiji09

The ends of the beams in this gate were painted to prevent decay or checking of the wood. White paint was used which gives the structure a checkered, festive look.


Meiji07

A young priest answered many questions for us, with Andy translating. Here he is describing how priests hold their skirts up. Not having asked that particular question, Andy is staring at him while a tour group member looks down in embarassment.

The priest's family have been priests for ten generations. I don't even know who my ancestors were ten generations back. As for professions, my father was an engineer, the first in our family. I'm the second, and it looks like I'm going to be the last, at least for the next two generations. Time, continuity and ancestry take on whole new meanings in Japan.

-------------------------------------------------------

We were treated to a special performance of the Sacred Kagura Dance, a cleansing ritual, but were not permitted to photograph it. Nor can I find a link showing pictures of the dance as performed in Shinto shrines. [A similarly-named performing art, Kagura Dance (different from the Sacred Kagura Dance) has been extensively photographed, but not the religious ceremony.]

This is a ceremony which the average Japanese gets to see somewhere maybe six times in her life, and which the average Japanese never gets to do at the Meiji Shrine. We got:

• kneeling on tatami mats
• pounding of huge drum by guy wearing lacquer football on head
• nasal chanting by old guy in medieval hat with rooster tail and elegant kimono and wire rimmed glasses
• flute music and nasal singing consisting entirely of dissonances
• two temple maidens in fire-engine red pants doing really slow dance
• ritual cleansing of selves with large white feather duster
• welcoming of assorted spirits with bells
• bowing and clapping

Seriously, the ceremony actually was quite moving. The sense of being cleansed was strong, and I for one felt honored to have participated.
|

Food and Lodging

I neglected to mention the name of our hotel in Tokyo: It's the Royal Park Shiodome Hotel. That's pronounced "she-oh-dough-may." It's a very nice modern hotel in a high-rise building, in the newly redeveloping... uh... Shiodome district. It's steps away from the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market, and the Ginza with its elegant shops and department stores. The rate currently starts at about $240 double occupancy, and this includes breakfast. You can choose from a traditional Japanese breakfast or an international buffet. I thought the latter was by far the better of the two. The walk-in price for the buffet is $20 per person, and it's worth it, so actually, the net cost of your room is closer to $200.

The bathrooms, in addition to heated toilet seats, have the best bathing facilities in the world. Stepping through a glass shower door, you find yourself in a small room that contains a small, very deep tub. The tub is too short to lie down in, but when you sit in it after it's full, the water comes up over your shoulders. The tub fills with hot water in about one minute! The shower, on a flexible hose, is outside the tub. A low plastic stool is on the floor under the shower head, along with a plastic bucket and a large, soft brush with a long wooden handle. What you do is fill the tub with water as hot as you can stand it and then some. Next, you throw a bar of soap in the bucket and fill it with hot water from the shower. You sit on the stool and scrub yourself all over with the soapy water using the brush. Then you rinse the soapy water off in the shower, and when you are sparkling clean, then you get into the tub. You soak until the heat makes you dizzy, and then dry off with a nice, big towel. At that moment, you realize you've never felt so relaxed (and clean) in your life. Plus the bath water is clean enough for the next person to use it.

Of course, meals are notoriously expensive in most hotels. Some friends ordered drinks in the bar downstairs. The waiter asked them if they wanted some rice crackers. They said, "Sure," figuring it was all part of the service, like a bowl of peanuts at a sports bar. The waiter brought them a small plate with maybe eight or ten crackers on it. When they got their bill, they were charged for the crackers: $18.

Jean and I, when we weren't eating lunch or dinner as guests of Smithsonian Journeys, beat the high costs of meals by going out into the city and finding restaurants where ordinary people ate. We found we could get utility-grade sushi for less than in California: about $20 per person compared with $30 in the States. Udon (noodles) were very inexpensive, filling and tasty and less than $10. Tempura was another matter. My special menu cost $70. For that, a waiter brought a basket filled with wiggling, live seafood for my approval before it was battered and deep fried. They served it piecemeal, so it wouldn't get cold on my plate. The centerpiece was Conger Eel, a rare and expensive delicacy, which I have to admit was very tasty. In making his presentation, the chef had removed the spine and tied it into a loose, looping knot after which he deep-fried it. I knew that it was not just a garnish. I was expected to eat it. You are expected to eat everything they put in front of you in Japan. So I did. Very flavorful. Crunchy.

Coffee was always expensive. Minimum $5. We managed to find a place that sold me a regular cup of coffee for $8 and a cappuccino for Jean for $9. Is this higher than Starbucks? Well, at least they don't serve it to you in a goddamn paper cup.

In never have eaten so much seafood in my life. And I've never eaten better. Well, except for Maine lobster and Dungeness crab and Pacific abalone. OK. And fresh grilled swordfish steak. Poached line-caught wild salmon. But aside from those, I've never eaten better seafood. Or more exotic seafood. Raw shrimp with the heads still on. Little tiny silver fish, bones and heads and all. Amorphous gelatinous globs (sea cucumber?) Baby squid-like things.

Of course, you get rice with every meal except udon. The Japanese truly have the best rice in the world. Delicately perfumed flavor, slightly sticky texture for eating with chopsticks. It's often served at the end of the meal. The idea is you eat the fussy, expensive goodies first: sashimi, gyoza, deep-fried fiddlehead ferns. Then they give you a bowl of rice and a bowl of miso soup to fill up on, so no matter how hungry you are, you leave the table satisfied.

Virtually every restaurant we visited either had plastic food models in a display window outside, or a menu with pictures. Otherwise, we would have been sunk. Most of the time we ordered by pointing at a picture.

Menu01

Here we have a flyer for a fairly expensive menu: about $55. It looks good, but I defy any of my friends, except maybe Michele C., to name everything pictured. There's the black tray with sushi, and there's the lacquer bowl at the upper right with a clear soup, probably miso. But the rest of it is a mystery. Looks good, though, so if I was in the mood for a $55 dinner, I'd go ahead and order it. It's gotta be better than the English-language menu that featured "Seared cow's cheek in coffee with vegetable."

One last note: Pictured above are several cube-shaped food items. For certain, at least one of them is wheat gluten. It's served at every meal. It's often, but not always, sweet. And it's nasty. It's gooey and sticky and coats your teeth. Unfortunately, you don't know which one is the little cube of jellied fish or the block of flavored tofu or the cube of lemon custard or, like the unseen dog turd lurking in the back yard grass, the wheat gluten. The only way to find out is to bite into it, and that one bite commits you to a coating of the inside of your mouth that lasts until vigorously scrubbed away with a toothbrush. Personally, I'd rather try the Cow's cheek.
|

Tour Leaders

Our Japan tour was through Smithsonian Journeys, which arranged for an excellent Tour Leader, Andy Bender, and an equally excellent Study Leader, Steve Beimel. Both of these men have extensive experience leading tours, are fluent in Japanese and are knowledgeable about Japan and Japanese culture.

Steve-and-Andy

Steve Beimel (L) and Andy Bender (R).

Andy reminds me of the Belgian cartoonist Hergé's character, Tintin.

He's mild-mannered, polite and unobtrusive, but like Tintin, underneath his unruffled calm lies knowledge, competence and pluck. He managed to keep 25 disparate tourists organized, fed and transported, without any of us feeling the control he was exercising. He handled all of our logistics and dealt with innumerable individual problems:

• Well, Andy, you see... I'm allergic to fish, so do you think for dinner we could...
• We've changed our minds. We want to return to Tokyo by air, not by train, so could you...
• Can you fix my radio? I can't hear anything.
• Eewww! Raw fish!

He never once said, "For God's sake!, you're in JaPAN! What the hell do you think they eat here? Pizza? French fries? Don't you people read up on these places before you sign up?"

He dealt placidly with the problem tourists: Those who had trouble getting around, those who wanted to SHOP, the woman who needed a doctor, the self-appointed expert who constantly tried to upstage everyone with his unasked-for explanations of some obscure point. And while juggling all this, he gave us our first lessons in the Japanese language and told us a great deal about Japanese culture. Example: You see almost no trash bins on the streets of Tokyo. Why? Because no Japanese would "inconvenience" others by leaving trash for them to haul away. You won't read stuff like this in any guidebook.

Steve has been in Japan for many years and recently moved to Kyoto permanently. He is what we from Silicon Valley would call "wired" into the Japanese art and culture world. He knows a vast number of artists, craftsmen, priests and others, and introduced us to many of them. We were allowed to enter homes and studios of talented and accomplished people—an intimate look that would have been impossible any other way.

Steve taught us about architecture, theater, music, Shinto and Buddhism and an array of arts, historical and contemporary. His knowledge is encyclopedic: He taught us more than we ever thought we could absorb in so short a time. His affection and respect for the people to whom he introduced us is genuine and made us feel that they were our friends, too.

His enthusiasm is infectious. He speaks almost entirely in superlatives, and had us all doing it, too. And he, along with Andy, seems to genuinely care about the tour group members. When Jean and I decided to fly rather than take the bullet train back to Tokyo, Steve made a special trip with us to the train station to get a refund for our tickets—beyond the call of duty.

If I knew about the next group these two men would lead, I would make every effort to be in it. Sadly, this doesn't seem likely to happen. Andy talks about helping American companies deal with the cultural differences with their Japanese counterparts. Steve says he's retiring. We'll see. Maybe they'll do one more "farewell" tour. I hope so.

Update: Jean received an email from Andy indicating that he and Steve are supposed to do the same trip for Smithsonian again next year [2007] and that he [Andy] will be leading some tours for museum groups like the Boston MFA.

|

Shopping for Yakutas

This morning, we set out to find a shop that specializes in kimonos. We found our way to the spot on the map where it supposedly was located. No sign of it. Was it in the Imperial Hotel building? Nope. Was it in the Imperial Tower? Not there either. I approached a uniformed guard standing in front of a high rise, and asked if he knew where Hayashi Kimono was.

He took my map and frowned at it. He turned it this way and that way. It became immediately apparent he was gonna be no help at all. But he wanted to help. So he studied the map intently. He said things like "Yes. Kimono."

He pointed back the way we'd come. I told him it wasn't there. He pointed around the corner. I told him we'd checked that out also. When he pointed a third direction, I smiled, bowed and thanked him, and set off in that direction even though I knew it was wrong, just to end the agony. 

This is one of the problems of getting around in Tokyo. You can find the general location of your destination, but once there, you can't see it. It must be here somewhere... But exactly where? Or maybe it's way the hell and gone across town. You have no way of knowing.

We stepped into an authentic French bistro for two coffees—$10. I pored over our maps. I looked at the city guide where we'd learned about Hayashi Kimono. It said it was located at 2-1-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku. In the International Arcade.

Wait a minute. I had seen a sign that said "International Arcade." But where?

We retraced our steps. Sure enough, under a railway bridge was a sign: "International Arcade." Right next to a drink vending machine and a soft ice cream place.

International-Arcade

The International Arcade.

Now here's this place that's supposed to be a major tourist destination. I had looked along all the narrow streets lined with fancy retail stores. I'd looked in the high rises that lined the boulevards. But I'd walked right by the shabby storefront lurking in the gloom under the bridge.

The International Arcade contains two stores. One sells breathtakingly expensive pearls. The other is Hayashi Kimono. The pearl store staff took one look at us and ignored us. A helpful English-speaking woman scuttled out from behind a pile of happi coats and asked Jean if she could help her. Then it was off to the races. Piles of yakutas came out and were unfolded. Happi coats were tried on. Kimonos and obis were oohed and ahed over. Jean finally turned to me and said that she was "going to be a little while."

I needed to find a bathroom, so I told her I'd be back later and headed off for Mitsukoshi Department Store, the "Harrod's of Tokyo," where I knew there were public facilities. A half-hour later, I returned to discover that I was $480 poorer and Jean was $480 happi-er.

Buying-Kimonos

Jean at Hayashi Kimono.

Here, Jean is watching the helpful English-speaking proprietess totting up the damages.

|

Hama-Rikyu Gardens

Near our hoteru are the Hama-Rikyu Gardens, an authentic Edo period space built by an early Tokugawa shogun. It's surrounded by authentic glass and steel high rises. The Conrad logo peeking through artfully pruned pines gives one an ineffable sense of... bad city planning. The gardens are full of signs that inform us that the patch of grass we're looking at is the former site of this temple or that house or some other duck hunting blind. On an island in the middle of a pond, we drank a $5 cup of green tea and ate a "sweet." The tea House burned down a whole bunch of times over the last 500 years, most recently in the 1923 earthquake and the 1944 firebombing. A sign informed us it was last rebuilt in 1998 because of "decrepitude."

The sweet was a sticky glob of soybeans stuck together with thick teryaki sauce. Kinda mealy. Jean didn't want hers, so I ate it.

300-Year-Pine

Here, Jean stands in front of a 300-year-old pine propped up by a dozen large posts. She's thinking, "Why aren't I in a nice warm theater watching Brokeback Mountain?" I'm thinking, "It would be a really, really bad thing to ask her to take another step back."

Here's an annoying restaurant thing: As you survey the plates of plastic food, trying to find lunch for under $30, your eye falls of a nice plate of eel heads for only $12.50. So you go in and order. The waitress tells you the eel heads are a special, and they're selling only 20 orders of them today, and they just sold the last one. "So sorry. Only 20 order. You want fry chicken foot? Only $25."


|

Toilet Tech

Here's an update on Japanese toilets. I just had to do this. After all, the Tokyo part of our tour is about modernity, and the new toilets are nothing if they aren't modern.

I've only seen one squatter; they're on their way out. You know the kind I mean, consisting of a shallow sink in the floor with two raised islands for your feet and a hole. A ceramic version of the latrine you dug when you went camping in the Sierras. The one I saw was in a high-end department store. For some reason, department stores seem to be among the last to switch over to sitters.

Most places not only have sitters exclusively, they have toilets with heated seats. One of the little rubber bumpers under the seat is a control for a valve that allows hot water to circulate through the seat, providing instant warmth. Sit. Rubber bumper compresses. Valve opens. Butt warms. Why this is desirable is beyond me.

The heated seats have a couple of rubber hoses that lead off to the house plumbing. These hoses can cause the seat, when a man lifts it to pee, to snap down unexpectedly. Sounds to me like an opportunity for kaizen (the Japanese continuous improvement process). 

Here we see our hotel room toilet seat with one of its hoses.

Hi-Tech-Toilet

A high-tech toilet.

The complicated object to the left is the control panel.

Let's repeat that. The toilet seat has a control panel. Not only does it have a control panel, the toilet is sufficiently complicated that it needs to have operating instructions printed on it.

I bet that in a drawer somewhere in the hotel, there's even an instruction manual. Which, of course, nobody reads.

Toilet-Controls

Control panel.

The switch to the far right is easy enough to understand. You don't wanna warm your ass? Turn it off. Curiously, turning it off is a temporary function. As you sit, you can turn the heat off for the ... um ... current session. Next time you use it, the darn thing's on again, so if you don't want a cozy butt, you have to turn it off every time. Too much trouble. I just leave it on, but I might consider changing my policy in hot weather.

The remaining four controls are for the buttwasher. Let's say you have excreted some ... solids, and are about to reach for the toilet paper. Well, just hold on now! Toilet paper, as we all know, doesn't really do a good job. I mean, would you besa mi culo right after I walk out of the bathroom? I thought not. Recognizing this, the ever inventive Japanese have come up with a solution: A bathroom-sized pressure washer.

Getting back to the moment of our dilemma, we reach not for the tissue. Instead we press the appropriately color coded brown button. A little tube snakes out from under the seat and somehow positions itself itself exactly where it's needed. Don't wanna think about that too much. A valve clicks, and suddenly a gentle stream of warm water hits you spang where it's needed. Woo hoo! If you're looking for really deep cleaning (sorry), you can hit the "hi" pressure toggle, but you'd better clench up before you do, 'cause on that setting, the jet is really effective.

In case you don't understand the color coding, the brown button has a little cartoon that represents a butt hanging down and a jet gently squirting up. Fair enough. Now look at the pink button. Says "front." But what does the cartoon mean? After lengthy study, I surmise that it is a representation of a woman in a skirt superimposed on a spray of water. So it's saying, "Hey guys. This one's for the girls." Pink and all. At one point, I thought the ideograms above the pink lozenge represented the tube snaking out from under the seat, but now I think they are kanji for "douche." I could have come up with better graphics than that. So could you. Think about it. Different images. Different color. See?

The stop button is so you can turn off the jets before rising, a desirable strategy. It keeps the bathroom drier.

Now. All this convenience and comfort comes at a price. The more complicated something is, the more likely something will go wrong. There could even be the possibility of injury. And so, this toilet seat is the first ever to bear a WARNING LABEL!

Toilet-Warning

Warning label.

Looking at the second group of warnings first, we are cautioned not to sit (or stand) on the main unit, control panel or lid, to reduce the risk of electrocution.

Gee—I gotta worry about being ELECTROCUTED by a TOILET SEAT? 

Don't sit on the lid? EVERYBODY sits on the lid. It's where you sit when you're putting on your socks or trimming your toenails. What are these guys thinking? People who fail to read the fine print—that's most of us—are gonna sit on the lid. But with this gadget, sitting means we're flirting with death!

Seems like an avoidable risk to me. You could accomplish the same thing, when needed, with a warm soapy washcloth and a little elbow grease.

Continuing to read upward, we're advised to turn the heated seat off if we're gonna sit there for a long time. To avoid burns. Come on! Half of Japan sits on toilets working today's Asahi Shimbun soduko puzzle. They're hard. Take a lot of time. There's gonna be a lot of singed butts. Or half-solved puzzles.

As a public service, the Asahi Shimbun is going to have to run easier problems.

Finally, there's the warning not to splash water (or urine) on the main unit, control panel or power box. 

Picture this: It's 2 AM. You stumble groggily through the dark to the bathroom. If you're like me, you don't want to turn on the light because you'll just wake up more, and you're really trying to get this out of the way without actually waking up. You've been doing this for years. You can hit a dime in the dark. You start to let go, dead center in the bowl.

And the lid snaps down. Remember the hoses?

In the good old days, this just meant you would annoy the woman in your life when she unsuspectingly went to use the toilet in the morning. But now: You miss, and sheet lightning arcs back up the stream.

Let's face it. This is a bad idea. Like those little dog robots. Like canned whiskey in vending machines. Like tri-level driving ranges. It ought to be killed. But I understand these toilet seats have been around for at least seven years, so someone is heavily invested in the concept and it ain't gonna go away—at least not in Japan. All we can hope is that they'll eventually kaizen their way out of electrocuting their customers.

Update: I read in the English-language newspaper that the latest models will blow hot air on your butt, to dry it. They also have nozzles that move back and forth in a "massage" action. (Their word, not mine.) Just think about that for a while.

|

Electronic Town

I took the subway to Electronic Town, where about a thousand tiny stores sell every imaginable kind of technological device. Huge crowds of shoppers picked through computers, audio gear, cameras, components--you name it. The din and confusion of people milling about was incredible. It was like a Moroccan bazaar.

The crowds in Electronic Town are 90% male, 90% geeks. They made me feel right at home. I'd found my people.

Geeks

Electronics hobbyists.

Hawkers stood outside the larger establishments, calling out in amplified sing-song voices. This girl, in boots and miniskirt, is pitching video games. You see hawkers everywhere in Tokyo, even in toney districts like the Ginza. They pitch passers-by on PA systems or they hand out flyers. Everyone ignores them. So it's hard to imagine why shopkeepers continue to use them.

Hawker

Product girl.

I found a wonderful, dingy building housing four floors of little shops, each one smaller than my hotel room, each one selling some subcategory of components. The men who operated them were buried among stacks of motherboards, switches, transformers, ceramic insulators, tubes, transistors, heat sinks, resistors, capacitors, used instruments and a hundred other things. Unstylishly-dressed men shuffled up to them with grubby lists in their hands, looking for components for their latest projects. They reminded me of people out of Blade Runner.

Forty years ago, a similar district was strung out along Canal Street in Manhattan. I used to take the train to the Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, NJ and hop the ferry across the Hudson River, where I'd spend hours drooling over gear I couldn't afford. I especially lusted after war surplus transmitters and receivers. After hours of walking and looking, I'd make a few well-considered purchases and hurry home to put them to use. All this is gone now; a sad loss.

|

Arriving in Tokyo

I'm experiencing one of the most jarring cultural shocks ever.

In our home country, Mexico, we're lucky if the airport van has seat belts and brakes. In Japan, the bus driver bows us onto the neat and clean bus, where we read a sign that says,  " It is not permitted to play the radio on the bus because it annoys the neighbors."

In Mexico, the highway from the airport is littered with plastic bottles and bloated animal carcasses. In Japan, the highway sound walls are festooned with blooming wisteria and lined with azaleas. Jean and I made a bet as to who would see the first piece of litter. We were unable to resolve it.


In Mexico, a watermelon costs $1. In a better grocery store in Japan, you can pay $80. Admittedly, the latter is a perfect, sublime watermelon intended to be given as a gift.


In Mexico, $5 will get us four tacos de cabeza, dripping with with grease, the meat for which was pried out of a roasted cow's head with a screwdriver. In Japan, $10 will get us ten pieces of sushi to go. In Japan, my arteries say "Thankyouthankyouthankyou."


In Mexico, I can buy a two-liter bottle of water for fifty cents. Jean bought a
half-liter bottle in the hotel here for four bucks. 16:1. But... I went to a local supermarket in the Ginza last night where I found a two-liter bottle for a buck. Yes, Japan can be expensive, but regular citizens pay far less than tourists at neighborhood restaurants and stores.

I am writing from Tokyo, where it is 4:30 PM on a bright, sunny day, but it is 2:30 AM John Wood Internal Time. We're here for a Smithsonian art tour of Tokyo and Kyoto. We flew here from Atlanta 'cause the fare was good. Took 13 hours. Narita Airport is pretty ugly, architectually, but we whisked through immigration and customs in no time at all, and within minutes we were on the bus to our hotel.

The only delay was a ten-minute wait for our luggage. A plasma sign over the carousel alternated messages in Japanese and English. The English version read, "Wait a little while." I like that: "Calm down. Your luggage will be here soon enough. Just wait a little while." In the US, when the baggage carousel starts up, you are warned by a klaxon that cleans your teeth. In Japan, the carousel tinkles at you. Ding-ding. Ding-ding.


Nobody jammed me for redcap service or a cab ride. No customs official angled for a bribe. Nobody pawed through my bags. 


The ride into Tokyo takes an hour and a half if there's no traffic. I walked toward a ground transportation counter with my bus chits in my hand. A young woman who spoke some English intercepted me, looked at my chits and sent me to the proper desk. A man gave me tickets in exchange for my chits and I walked out to station #17 where my bus was due to arrive in five minutes. I gave our luggage to a nice man at the curb, He gave me claim checks and instructed me to stand between two yellow lines painted on the pavement. The bus came, as promised, in
exactly five minutes. (The last time I took the van home from Querétaro, the driver had us wait in the van for an hour while he tried to sort out the latest extortionate fees newly imposed by the airport authorities.)

The dispatcher bowed to the bus driver who bowed back. Then we were on our way into the city. I had forgotten how much bowing there is in Japan. The helpful lady at the transportation desk bowed me coming and going. The dispatcher bowed me. The bus driver bowed me. So did a young woman in the lobby of the high rise where our hotel is located. She escorted us to hotel lobby on the 24th floor and, bowing, handed us off to another young lady who made sure we knew how to stand in line at the check-in counter. When she was sure we were OK, she bowed and excused herself to help someone else.  It's infectious. Already, I'm bowing all over the place, which only triggers even more bows in return. Plus, everyone
smiles at us, as if our very presence in their lives brings them great joy. They do it so convincingly that we buy it, unlike the insincere, "have a nice day" that we get from the checker at Target.

Our hotel room is tiny--the smallest we've stayed in during the last ten years of traveling. It contains two twin beds, a desk and desk chair, a mini-bar, a stupid lounging chair, and a couple of night stands. No dresser. No dining table. No couch. No easy chair for reading. No table lamps. All this, and the rack rate is $240.


But... It has a combo flat-screen TV-game player-computer with broadband internet. It has the best-ever temperature-controlled shower. It has a short, neck-deep tub that fills in about two minutes. It has a heated toilet seat with little nozzles that, at the push of a button, snake out underneath and squirt our bottoms right where it's needed (there's a front and a back button). It has a sumptuous breakfast buffet that retails for $20 per person, included in the room rate. It has a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out onto the Sumida River. 

Sumida-River

View from our hotel room.

We open our door with one of those radio-operated key cards that we just sort of wave at our lock. Then, as we go in, we put the card in a holder mounted on the door jamb. This activates the lights in our room. When you leave, we take your card with us, and after a few seconds, the lights turn off, automatically saving energy, Doesn't turn off the toilet seat heater, though.

There's always room for improvement.


Speaking of saving energy, there's imprinted plastic cards that we leave on our bed if we
don't want our sheets changed. When we get back to our room, the beds have been made and the original cards have been replaced with ones that read, "You are so stylish. Thanks for helping save the earth." Stylish? This is an example of Engrish: Japanese English characterized by spelling and grammar errors, but which also contains weirdly worded "Hello Kitty"-type sentiments. I saw a woman with a shopping bag from a store called Flower with the legend: "May warm and sweet feelings linger / ower you densely on these / poety-like and pictures days."

Did I mention that the hotel has scores of bowers. They don't do anything for you. They just stand there and bow and say arigatou gozaimasu (thank you). OK. They do one thing. If they see you headed for the elevator, they run ahead of you and press the call button. When the door opens, they put their hand on it to hold it open, so the door won't accidentally close on you. Then, after you're inside, they bow, and maintain the bow until the doors close. Kind of unnerving, actually.

When I spent a week here 20 years ago, it was hard to find someone who spoke English. I learned that if I needed to ask directions, I was usually successful if I found a kid in a school uniform; they were all studying English. Today they're all grown up. Many are employed as waiters or hotel clerks or sales clerks or bowers. So it's much easier to get along here. Many road signs and other directional aids are written both in Chinese characters and in romanji, where Japanese syllables are spelled out in Roman letters. This is a huge help, to be able to pronounce the name of the street I am on.

English is the language of commerce, and just as in Mexico, people who want to get ahead learn it. There's some kind of test they can take which on passing, yields a certificate that gets them a better job. In a bookstore, I saw ten feet of shelves full of books with sample test questions. They take this English business seriously.

|