The WWT Travels to Tokyo and Finds it Closed

December, 1997


During the Christmas holidays of 1997, I developed the urge to set off on another WWT adventure. What could I do that could equal the Christmas in India two years ago?  Unfortunately, in typical WWT fashion, I waited too late to avail myself to many of the low priced options; most of the cheap plane tickets had long been sold. A brief search ruled out a lot of elegant places like Hawaii.  Then a number of events led me to the conclusion that Japan, specifically Tokyo, could have all of the necessary ingredients of a real adventure in December. Other important ingredients included the fact that I had made some good friends in Japan who were encouraging me to make such a trip, as well as the fact that a good American friend of mine was now living in a small town, Ota, just north of Tokyo.  This would allow me to apply the LoResHan principle in which I turn over the responsibility to a local.

My local entourage included Masaki Kawahashi, a professional associate with whom I was co-chairing a meeting in Yokahama a year later, Masashi Yasuki, a friend I had known for over 10 years, and Ichiroo Yamaguchi, another friend I had met in Bremen in September, all agreed to help.  This was a trip that would have been impossible to arrange before the advent of Internet and email.  Within 24 hours of the decision to attempt such a trip I was in constant communication with these and other Japanese people.  As much as these gentlemen could help I still left with a surprising knowledge gap.  Consequently, even with the computer age, it takes a little craziness to plan such a trip.

At Christmas time it seems that all Japanese go somewhere, not because it's Christmas, but because of New Years.  Less than one per cent of Japanese are Christians, so Christmas day is just another day. However, New Years Day is a supreme holiday in Japan.  My trick would be to head for Tokyo when all the Japanese were leaving and then leave Tokyo when they were all returning.  Apparently, this is why Japan was the only place where a cheap ticket was available.  Fortunately, enough of my friends remained in Tokyo to make this all work. My barrage of emails had resulted in a full schedule for the week, actually even more than I could manage.

United Airlines Flight 970 to Tokyo was practically empty; I have never had a more pleasant tourist class flight with plenty of flight attendants to go around.  Since we crossed the International Date Line, I arrived at Narita Airport a day later at 3 PM after flying for 10 hours. Once again I experienced the greatest of WWT pleasures of being greeted at the airport by a friend.  I cleared customs in about 10 minutes and we were on our way to Tokyo in the Narita Express in a train car with only four people. So far my plan looked like a winner. At the advice of Masashi, we took a taxi at Tokyo station to the hotel.  Later, we would do all of this on subways, but for now it was time to get somewhere to begin the jet lag period for a while.

Masashi had reserved hotel room for me in the "best hotel in Tokyo", the New Otani, and at a rate that was about one half the regular rate of four hundred dollars per night.  I was at first somewhat skeptical about such a rate, but later realized that he had performed some kind of magic in getting this room at this rate during the holiday season.  This particular  3000 room hotel was booked solid for the holidays. I wasn’t sure why, since presumably everyone had left Tokyo.  I was glad I took his advice, since the location in the center of Tokyo in the Akasaka district was almost perfect.

We took a brief walk around the area mainly just to keep me awake until a reasonable bed time. Finally, I have completely conquered jet lag.  The formula is now simple. Drink no alcohol, eat lightly and upon arrival, take it easy but stay awake until at least 10 PM.  Then take a few grams of Melatonin and go to bed. You will sleep at least 8 hours. After that you are on local time. I have now used this approach successfully at least ten times with every possible time change and it works.

The first day Professors Otoyama and Kawahashi came from nearby cities to discuss the meeting we would hold in Yokohama a year later.  After talking for a while I realized that they were so fascinated with the hotel that they were not particularly enamoured with the idea of going anywhere else. So I invited them for a coffee in the hotel coffee shop.  I wasn’t sure why they both looked at each other and giggled.  After seeing the 40 dollar bill for three coffees I realized what was funny.  For some reason, the prices in the high classed hotels are in the stratosphere.  Being a hotel guest, I had special coupons that would allow me to get meals in some of the hotel restaurants at about 75 dollars a head.  I solved this problem pretty quickly just by never going back to any of the hotel restaurants for anything. 

Otoyama and Kawahashi laid out a detailed recommendation as to what things would be good to see and as we sat together, I marked up a local map and ask as many questions as I could think of to keep me out of trouble.  I found out early on that tipping is not done in Japan. Any service charge is automatic.  The hotel staff seemed completely trained to serve my every whim. They all spoke when we met in hallways, they always offered complete advice, and I could not have asked for better, more courteous service.

A rather strange phenomenon appeared almost immediately.  Many signs in Tokyo are in English.  This gave me a sense of comfort.  I found that most Japanese can read English reasonably well since they take English classes from early childhood.  Strangely enough, even though they are comfortable reading it, few of them speak any English at all and cannot understand a word of it.  They get around the problem by using pictures and sign language.  For a tourist like me the big problem came when I attempted to do things associated with outside the city where on the Japanese hieroglyphics were used.  I found myself almost helpless and tended to steer away from this adventure during this stay.

Having taken the Japanese recommendations and combining our own desires, my American friend and I devised a plan.  The weather was cold, but mostly clear, so a visit to Shrines and Temples were our first objectives. The first was Yasakuni Shrine, tribute to war dead.  The shrine actually is called the "Peaceful Country Shrine", and is somewhat controversial since enshrined in this place one finds a few class A war criminals.  On the outside of the shrine, old timers, who were apparently war veterans handed out brochures and flyers and hawked calendars. I experienced my first of what was to be a good news/bad news event that would occur over and over during the week.  The good news was that the place was virtually empty so I could enjoy it in all its beauty almost all to myself.  The bad news was that the museum was closed from 26 December to 4 January.  I found this to be true of practically every museum, gallery, and government building in Tokyo.  So what I would see included beautiful and abandoned gardens, outdoor sculptures, and almost nothing indoors. We spent the next five days taking the fantastic Tokyo subway to all parts of town including such places as  Imperial Gardens, Supreme Court, Ueno Park, Genza, Tokyo tower, the fish market, and about a dozen shrines and Buddhist temples.

Fortunately, the subway system is a snap, is extremely efficient, and during this period was rarely crowded.  Between the two of us we were never lost in the subway in Tokyo.

On Monday, we headed for the fish market at the crack of dawn.  Actually, getting up early was easy for me since I was still on USA time to some extent and since time of day was still rather meaningless to my circadian rhythm at this point in time.  The fish market is an amazing place to be.  Here, all the restaurants send representatives to purchase their daily supply of sashimi (raw fish) and other fish to serve.  About a million people pack into one square block and it is truly amazing that in such complete chaos, business actually gets done.  I found at every turn a piece of fish attached to a toothpick being thrust at me.  What an interesting breakfast! Half of the time I had no idea what I was eating, but it was mostly good and, Hey!, I'm still alive.

Next to the fish market lies the Zukihiji, Buddhist Temple, which to my surprise was totally empty. We wandered inside and hung out for a while to get warm before heading back to the subway.  A Buddhist temple is truly a peaceful place to hang out. I never quite figured the meaning of all of the objects in the temple.  There are gongs, cushions, various statues and figures, and usually incense burning.

Next stop was Akasaka district where the Sensoji Shrine is located.  Leading up to the shrine is Nakamisa Avenue which is loaded with vendors of every type, selling everything from food to toys. The Kaminarmone (Thunder )Gate leading to the shrine houses  Fuji, god of wind and Rahijine, god of thunder. At the shrine, I learned how to bath in the incense, wash ones hands in holy water and toss a 5 Yen coin into a box while praying.  At the end of the prayer, one claps, apparently to summon the god. Smelling the food made us hungry so we bought plates of sushi and rice from the local vendors and hot tea from a machine, then proceeded to the nearby Sumidagawa river where we sat in a park that seemed mostly inhabited by homeless people and pigeons. Across the river I marveled at the unusual modern Japanese architecture, specifically the  Asahi Beer Building which was topped by a sculpture that looks like a huge sperm. I never quite figured out the sculpture.  But the sculpture was one of many things I never figured out.

I did learn to pay attention, though, where I sat after first plopping down in pigeon shit. For the most part I found Tokyo quite clean and free of trash, quite a pleasant surprise in such a highly populated city.

The next day we visited the Akaharbara District where Electronics of every variety is sold amongst lights and hubbub that reminded me of Las Vegas.  In the afternoon, a trip to the Genza District presented provide a view of high fashion stores and the Sony Building which offers its showrooms to display its latest products. We wandered from floor to floor amazed at the variety of electronics products that were available here that had not become available in the US already.  One notable example was the Mini Compact Disk, MCD, which was not only half the size of a regular CD but allowed recording.  Now I could see why stores were renting CD’s.  The Japanese simply buy the blank discs and record their own at one fourth the price.  The sound was outstanding.  The variety of video recorders was incredible.  Tiny hand held recorders that would literally fit in ones pocket could produce a high quality video recording in full color.

Wednesday was the only day I was faced with rain the entire day.  On that day we discovered on our visit to the Ueno district that all museums were closed.  We were especially surprised to find the National Museum closed.  The only thing we could view was whatever was outside.  One of the most relaxing and, indeed, rewarding parts of the day came when we sat for about two hours in the Rinoji Buddhist temple and watched the rain.  I cannot describe the peace and warmth I felt. I am sure that I was feeling some special spiritual energy.  After finally deciding to leave the wooden bench where we had sat for so long, we realized how cold it was after only leaving the grounds of the temple. 

One part of Ueno contains museums parks and a huge performing arts center.  Another part is also famous for its US products, and next to the fish market, this was the most crowded place I had seen.  By now I had learned how to look at the food in the window, get the waitress to walk with me, and point to the plate I wanted.  They seemed totally comfortable with this.  However, in Ueno, I discovered another standard procedure for Tokyo dining.  One first looks at the food, selects a number and buys a ticket from a machine.  When an empty spot appears at a table or counter, one takes a seat and hands the ticket to the waitress, who then brings the food. I had been observing plates of curried rice over and over until I found myself with a tremendous craving for curried rice.  So in Ueno, we used this vending machine procedure.  An added feature is the large bowls of fresh ginger sitting on the tables. Fresh ginger and curried rice makes a wonderful combination.  The plate cost about five dollars, a true bargain.

That evening we visited the famous Tokyo Tower, Japans answer to the Eiffel Tower.  This tower built with modern technology is taller by a few hundred feet and yet uses only about two thirds the amount of steel.  The view of Tokyo from the tower is spectacular.  We decided to stay in the tower and view the sunset.  It was an eye-filling experience watching Tokyo in its transition from day to night.

Isao Makino and his wife Mari, two Japanese friends, had invited us to celebrate New Years Day with them in their home resulting in what was perhaps the most interesting experience of the entire trip.  Neither could speak fluent English, but I found it amazing that we could communicate some rather abstract ideas. They picked me up at the Otani at 2 PM in a very nice Japanese car, equipped with steering wheel on the right, of course.  Isao drove around the main parts of the central city pointing out the various government buildings and most spectacular high rises. The architecture is impressive, with modern structures everywhere topped of with ample sculptures, which also were mostly of modern abstract style.  In the main government district one of the highest structures is twin towers, which offers two free observation decks from which a tourist can see the entire city and on a clear day Mount Fuji to the North. Unfortunately, the tower was closed for the week. The good news was that no one was there and the place was surrounding by sculpture gardens on all sides.

In the South Plaza I found a semicircular garden that contained a fascinating blend of sculpture.  The first sculptures encountered are magnificent likeness of a Japanese family. As we move around the semicircle, one can see scepters of women, first in magnificent likeness and gradually becoming stylized until the last statue is a few globs of metal stuck together in a nearly complete abstraction that can only be recognized as a women because of the location of the blobs and the suggestion provided by the other statues. 

We then headed onto a tollway towards Isao’s house.  The freeway system in Tokyo is an artwork in itself.  It would appear that it came last after everything else was in place and after they suddenly realized there was no place to put it. It winds through the skyscrapers almost touching them in places, sometimes going underground and sometimes become multi-decked.  As we left the main city, the many mom and pop shops that Japan is famous for became more evident. I did see a sign of America moving in though with Macdonald’s, Colonel Sanders, Red Lobster, Dunkin Donuts, burger Chef, being a few restaurants that had made their way into the local economy. I even saw a “Jonathan’s” restaurant, which gave me a small feeling of guilt that I hadn’t brought my son along.  Isao explained that Red Lobster was considered an extremely good but very expensive restaurant.

Our first stop was the Higahis Shrine a, Shinto Shrine, where we would begin our adventure of the typical New Years custom of visiting a shrine to learn of ones future and to pray to the appropriate gods.  On New Years Day, all Japanese perform this routine, and I think that most of them were at the Higahis Shrine.  We parked a quarter mile away along the street and walked the rest of the way.  By the time we arrived at the shrine the pathway was shoulder to shoulder people. Along the path the industrious merchants had set up stands serving and selling everything from souvenirs to a variety of foods, most of which I had never seen.  This is the year of the tiger, so all kinds of tiger likenesses were for sale in the stands.

When we approached the shrine the crowd funneled down to a more or less orderly line that was about 20 across, roughly the width of a special kind of offering box sitting before the shrine.  I resorted to the DoWhaLDo principles, which states “When in doubt do whatever the locals do, no matter how stupid it appears, because you will probably look stupid no matter what you do.  By the time I had approached the shrine, I knew the routine. I stepped up to the box, put my hands together, closed my eyes and made a wish.  At that point I clapped my hands together loudly to raise the attention of a god, then tossed five yen into the box.  I wished that this year I would make a wise decision in choosing a soul mate.  In India two years ago, when successfully stretching my arms about the ancient monolith at Paleck Secur I had made a similar wish.  Surely now with the force of Hinduism in India combined with that of a Shinto god, my wish would come true this year. 

Behind the shrine was a garden of shrines, a peaceful place where one could stroll and find at least 20 different gods to pay respects to and to make more wishes. There was a god for relationships, a god for educational achievements, a god for travel, even a god that represented all of the other gods.  Each shrine was decorated with odds and ends, flowers, dolls, jewelry, and statues.  People made there way through the garden stopping here and there to contribute a few yen to have their future brightened. Isao bought an arrow and a scroll, some kind of ritual I could not understand.  The scroll was self evident. It told of the coming year. After Isao and Mari read it they tied it to one of the trees in the courtyard. We walked back to car and headed for their home.

After a half hour drive Isao pulled up to a large gateway leading into a beautiful park and tree lined drive. “The entrance to my home,” he said proudly with a smile, and he instructed us to exit the car while he parked.  In some sense this was the entrance to his home- the rear entrance- since their home sat at the edge of the park. We walked through the park to their home and arrived there at about the time he drove in with the car from the front. Their home is the epitome of the Japanese saying that “Less is More”.  We removed our shoes at the door and entered.  The first floor appeared to be about 800 square feet which contained a kitchen, dining area, and tea room. Every square inch had something in it.  We sat on the floor around a cypress table.

Isao poured he and I a glass of sake, and as we sipped, Mari began bringing food to the table. This was one of the most unusual and exotic collections of dishes I had ever observed in a private home.  She brought about 10 boxes of assorted food, including about two that I recognized, sashimi, and a raw vegetable dish.  Among the others were whale, various mushrooms, dried fishes, fish eggs, tofu, and some whose English equivalent we never could find in the dictionary that Isao had on the table.  I tried everything on the table. Some was really tasty. Some I would just classify as interesting. The experience was elegant. The final dish was a rice cake that Mari cooked on a small fire beside the table.  The conversation was even more interesting and I felt myself understanding their English better, or else our body language just improved with the sake.

Isao explained to me that he works from 9 AM to 9 PM after a 75-minute trip from home to work.  Then he spends another 10 hours or more at home working on what he cannot finish at his office.  Now it became easy to see how Japanese industry has been kicking America’s industrial butt.

After I had reached the point of saturation and overload, Isao suggested we move to the tearoom, where Mari performed a tea ceremony for us. I had heard of this but was not sure what to expect.  She boiled water over a charcoal fire in the center of the room.  She dipped the boiling water from the pot and blended green tea with a bamboo broomlike accessory. We had tasty cookies with the tea.  This was a beautiful custom, and the service was truly touching.

Shortly after, Isao offered a ride to the hotel and would not take no for an answer, inspite of a nearby subway.  This was my last night in Japan, and it was a good thing. Everything after this night would be anticlimactical.

The next morning I walked to the subway. By now I had become a Tokyo subway expert and would take trains all the way back to the airport.