ENTRY #1: TURNING JAPANESE
Welcome to our journal of two-week’s traveling through Japan. We decided to visit the country my husband has always longed to see because the currency exchange rate is so good now, and Delta’s new non-stop New York to Tokyo flight is being celebrated with introductory $399 fares ($299 for children under 12!)
Our 14-hour flight is uneventful; the plane is loaded with children and our 9-year-old son enjoys watching four feature films in a row. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share highlights of this so-far remarkable journey.
ENTRY #2: TOKYO’S FISH MARKET
Having just begun our two-week Japan adventure, we awake at 3am, high on jet lag, ready to tackle Tsukiji, Tokyo’s wholesale fish and produce market at its 5:30am opening. My family is fascinated because hundreds of large tuna are auctioned each morning for US$10,000 to US$15,000 apiece. As men in knee-high rubber boots paint names and numbers on each frozen and cleaned tuna, others use ice picks to open areas near the tail to judge the fish’s quality and fattiness. Uniformed auctioneers excitedly shout out confirmations of finger signals until the highest bid comes in.
Surrounding the huge auction hall are hundreds of fish sellers packing Styrofoam crates of abalone, lobster, eels, giant clams, snapper, and dozens of other mysterious marinelife, all bound for sushi restaurants. It’s so clean in here there’s no smell of fish. By 7:30 we are breakfasting on sushi nearby, using their photo chart to pick out the fish we want. The chef and elderly owner enjoy watching our son learn to use chopsticks and give him a large Tweety Bird lollipop as we leave.
ENTRY #3: BULLET TRAIN TO NIKKO
Nikko is a historic mountain town about two hours north of Tokyo by train, and after a few days in Japan’s bustling capital with my family, we are ready for its slower pace.
In the general confusion that surrounds us in this very foreign country, we take the moving sidewalk from the hotel to the subway station, where a ticket vending machine with an animated woman (she looks just like a Pokemon human) says the fare out loud in English, in response to the station name we push and the request for adult or child tickets. Finally, we get to the Japan Rail train station and exchange our bargain-priced JR coupons (which must be purchased outside the country) for actual train tickets.
The Shinkansen bullet train departs frequently for Nikko, so we have a few minutes to peruse the selection from refreshment vending machines’ beer, sake, fruit drinks and sweetened ginger tea, protein bars and cigarettes and decide to take our chances on the JR food car. It is Sunday morning and the high-tech cafÃ© is closed, but as soon as the train whizzes out of the station, a uniformed server pushing a cart filled with treats arrives at the car door, enters, bows deeply, then pushes the cart to our velvet-covered seats We pick delicate, crustless tea sandwiches and delicious coffee, and recline to watch the view of tiny homes pressed side by side near the tracks. My son notices the server bowing again to the entire car as he leaves.
ENTRY #4: SUMOS IN TRAINING
Sumo wrestling topped our list of interests when planning our Japan family adventure, until we learned that sumo competitions only took place in uneven numbered months. So, we were delighted when the Magician/Concierge at the Tokyo Westin suggested we go to a beya, a Sumo gymnasium, to watch a morning practice, instead.
At 6:30am, lost in a maze of narrow deserted chome, or lanes, we turned a corner and saw two very big men in yukata robes sitting on the curb, cooling off. Inside a tatami mat room hung with portraits of Sumo masters was a sunken “ring” circled with rope on a sand floor. Inside this space seven nude, large and not so large men in their coiled sumo belts were squatting, doing knee bends, pushups, etc.
Within the small ring, a classically rotund Sumo with a top knot was training a younger, slimmer Sumo by urging him to push him out of the ring. An elder Master in clothes occasionally called out tips, but the younger man grunted and
groaned, defeated in every 30-second bout, rolled onto the coarse sand floor each time, subjected to having his (now messy) topknot tousled every time he got to his feet. But he kept trying, willing to withstand the humiliation of a wooden paddle and hand slaps on his stinging shoulders.
Our son was mesmerized by this form of schooling, and it was very poignant to see the attention given to this young slim man’s training by his elders and “biggers.”
It was with great relief that we left and found a Dennys coffee shop to bulk up on pancakes and rice, Oriental omelettes and the delicious coffee we find served everywhere. And at $27 for three, a bargain for Tokyo, too!
ENTRY #5: TOKYO IS OLD AND NEW
After five days of our Japan family journey, we find Tokyo, city of contrasts, is the epicenter of new and old Nippon.
Two “National Living Treasures” are performing the traditional Japanese art of Kabuki this month at Kabuki-za, so we have seen a 40-minute vignette starring them and a 2-year-old playing the “Spirit of the Buddha” at a full-house matinee.
We have watched smartly uniformed school children do homework at an Emperor’s tomb, the Meiji Shrine, and admired the wireless email available on cell phones.
At the bustling Shibuya, we paid our respects to the bronze statue of Hachiko, the Akita dog who faithfully met his master every day at the train station (even 10 years after the Master’s death at work) and bowed back to pay phones whose LED screens display bowing women after your phone card is charged.
ENTRY #6: NIKKO SAMURAI VILLAGE
The Edo Mura Village outside Nikko was described to us as “Japan’s answer to Colonial Williamsburg,” and perhaps for the Japanese-speaker it is.
But our visit to this rural theme park of Samurai re-enactors was not well spent. With never enough time to fully explore what we’ve seen on our two-week trip, the 10 trains and 2 buses required to see the Japanese style, very gory haunted houses; watch Ninja warriors leap around a “tricky house” full of hidden doors; and have our picture taken with costumed 17th -century noblemen was a waste.
In contrast to this silliness, even our 9-year-old comprehends the power of the Shogun Tokugawa (popularized in James Clavell’s “Shogun”) when we visit Nikko National Park and see his enormous carved wood, gilded mausoleum, the Toshugu Shrine.
On the positive side, we have now been on almost every type of conveyance Japan has to offer and have sampled almost every type of snack as we whizz along.
ENTRY #7: KYOTO CONTRADICTIONS
Unlike the seemingly thousands of Western tourists we encounter in Kyoto, none of my family has read “Memoirs of a Geisha.” The modern bestseller has been a boon to this center of traditional arts, making the splendid, futuristic Kyoto Train Station designed by Hiroshi Hara a fitting commemoration of Kyoto’s 1200-year-old traditions.
Like tourists and the almost extinct businesses that now thrive on them, Kyoto seeks harmony between the old and the new. The Utano Youth Hostel, on the soft edge of town near the famous Ryoanji Temple, embodies that harmony. Its effervescent staff put out dozens of slippers for guests from around the world while tending to the Internet Access kiosk, maintaining the traditional Japanese bath rooms, sweeping cherry blossoms off the tennis courts and stocking the vending machines with ice coffee.
After hours of visiting Zen temple museums, rock gardens and bustling Shinto shrines, we are happy to board the No. 26 bus back to our New Age oasis.
ENTRY #8: KYOTO’S BEST ENGLISH LANGUAGE TOUR GUIDE
The brochures received from the Japan National Tourist Organization which helped us plan our Japan Family itinerary led us to “Johnny Hillwalker” in Kyoto. This Japanese intellectual has been guiding English-speaking tourists around the back lanes of his city for nearly 40 years. His walking tour of lesser-known shrines and shops, narrated with a wry wit and poignant nostalgia, led us to value his insights into Kyoto’s culture more than the sights we visited.
You must spend at least three days in Kyoto to dig below its ugly industrial veneer and see many gems of history and art, including 19 shrines and gardens registered as World Heritage properties by UNESCO.
My family’s favorites are the waterfall at the hilltop Kiyo-mizu temple, the muralled living quarters of the Samurai at Nijo-jo castle, the intriguing rock and pebble garden at Ryoan-Ji, the Sega Joypolis arcade at the Jr. Isetan department store, and the fast food court at the Cube.
ENTRY #9: KYOTO’S MOVIE VILLAGE
My family’s interest in theme parks and movies made a stop at Kyoto’s Eiga-Mura Studio Village a no-brainer on our two-week tour of Japan.
The movie studio, owned by Toei, consists of several sound stages and a back lot of lanes, shophouses, bridges and scenic areas dating primarily from Kyoto’s Golden Age, the A.D. 1200-1500s of the Muromachi era. As cameras roll on Kimono-clad Samurai and beautiful young Geisha starring in soap operas, visitors can watch quietly; visit a museum of Japanese Cinema; tour several bloody, smoke-filled “haunted” stages lined with corpses; or enjoy costumed Ninja stunt shows.
On one stage, a young director (we assume the man in the beret is the director) coaches two Samurai who will meet at a well as we watch the scene being videotaped. On another stage, we don costumes and climb into a boat as a
director coaches us on how to interact with the science fiction special effects thatwill be added later. It’s all free, but of course we buy several copies of the finished “film” in which we successfully fend off invaders from Outer Space.
Our son adores this place.
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