Our goal is to cross the street to access the metro station and get back to our hotel where we need to pack for our adventure tomorrow by train to Nikko from Tokyo. The problem is that there is a huge lineup of humanity waiting just to cross the street and more people eager to get into line are pushing us forward into those in front of us. At the very front of the line, the police have erected a human barricade with yellow tape and interlinked arms, preventing anyone from crossing until they allow it. Finally the light turns green and it is as if a dam has burst. A sea of people charge forward for about 30 seconds until the police attempt to re-erect their barrier, shouting at the masses who are becoming increasingly panicky and aggressive as they begin to realize that, after waiting more than five minutes, they may not be getting across on this cycle. We figure this must be the worst-ever entry-level assignment for any new recruit to the police department.
Welcome to over-crowded Tokyo! While it is obviously unfair to start making judgments about a country based upon it’s largest city, this is where we landed and where we spent the first five days of our trip before joining our tour group. We will spend the final 2 weeks of our trip on our own, too, traveling around the country. Our first day of wandering led us on a long walk through quiet neighborhoods of unremarkable three- and four-story residences, the result of dreadful misdirections from the front desk of our hotel (Yes, there is a language barrier no matter what anyone else may tell you!). The front desk at our hotel is sort of like a stage with a long curtain drawn, from behind which any number of surprise employees can appear when you ring the bell. Generally, they are young, enthusiastic, intent on being helpful, and otherwise completely useless. There is, however, one gruff old man, tall and portly, who speaks some English (“some” meaning “minimal” in this case) who will attempt to answer all of your questions, right or wrong, no matter how long it may take him to reach for the words. We were following his directions to Kappabashi Street, a wonderful area of Tokyo where professional chefs and inspired home cooks can find anything they want for their kitchen, no matter how esoteric, and we do mean anything. The journey there reinforced that Tokyo is, in size as well as population, huge, with not just skyscrapers and crowds, but also miles of human-scale neighborhoods.
The hassles come when you get to popular areas. For example, we went to see the cherry blossoms along the Meguro River. Throughout the city, cherry trees are in full bloom, ranging in colors from paper white to fuchsia red. Locals as well as tourists line up with their cameras in front of particularly magnificent trees as if they were capturing a celebrity sighting. We went to the river based on an internet article that indicated that we hadn’t truly seen cherry blossoms unless we had viewed them there. Apparently everyone else in Tokyo had also read the same article, leading to our crushing in the lantern-lined lanes along the riverside and on the return metro ride.
Back safely in our budget hotel (so described in Google Maps), we find that even though everything seems to be a dollhouse scaled-down version of an American hotel room, every amenity seems available. Washing machine: check. Flashlight: check. Hotplate and cooking utensils: check. Heated toilet seat with bidet function: check check. Heated bathroom mirror so that you can see yourself when the room gets steamy: of course! The only real oddity are the pillows, which seem to be filled with uncooked rice. Down pillows should not fear this inferior competitor. Actually, back in the U.S., we learn that they are filled with hulls of buckwheat seeds. It was probably better that we didn’t know that at the time, as guessing what they might have been filled with provided for lots of fun speculation.
Fortunately, there is apparently no limit to the hot water, which is particularly nice since we had not realized that, although Tokyo is on a similar latitude to Paso Robles, April is very much still winter-like with snow even falling on us during our visit to Nikko. This makes visiting the many onsens (Japanese mineral baths) particularly rewarding as we thaw out in the hot waters until we are like soba noodles in a cafeteria steam pot late in the afternoon. Onsens are a very popular tradition in Japan and one which we whole-heartedly embrace. The group bathing experience requires all bathers to be naked, though with separate facilities for men and women. An optional tiny washcloth is the only accoutrement that you can take in to the baths which makes no logical sense since you are not allowed to have said washcloth touch the water at all. Those who grab one balance it on top of their heads which looks particularly silly.
After two weeks, we are far from understanding the culture. For example, what’s with the flimsy surgical face masks that half the population insist on wearing? They don’t protect against incoming germs at all (google it if you don’t believe us), but the collective mentality here seems to be geared toward germaphobes. Tokyo is spotless, so clean that they don’t even have garbage cans, apparently assuming that no one would be filthy enough to ever produce garbage. People are encouraged through advertisements and custom to carry all their garbage with them until they return home. This even goes for food wrappers, empty water bottles, take-out coffee cups, etc. Even in our hotel room, the trash basket is the size of a soup can. Though this means that you have to walk around with your trash, the plus side is that they actually have functional public restrooms in the metro stations and they are spotless. Imagine the horror show if they tried that in New York! We embrace these squeaky clean and free public restrooms available at every metro and train station throughout the country. Heated toilet seats with bidet and “rear” washing functions are de rigueur here, even in the subway! What starts out as an oddity to us quickly becomes a love affair with these smart toilets. It’s the first time we have had a relationship with our toilet seats.
On our tour, we learn about hikikomori, an “illness” (depression?) where individuals isolate themselves from society, seldom leaving the confines of their homes. This disturbing trend is not surprising to us in this ultra-conformist society which embraces a “group think” mentality. Very few want to stand out from the crowd of businesspeople all dressed in their drab suits carrying their identical briefcases and wearing their ineffectual face masks. Even the small segment of Japanese who do dress up differently than the blue/black-suiters - typically as anime cartoon characters - look just like the others in this fringe group who don these infantile looking costumes. It’s no wonder that a growing number of citizens shun this society which discourages individualism.
When we deal with service people, we notice that they are usually frantically nervous, their hands shaking as they move with exaggerated speed to try to meet our simple requests. On our first day at breakfast, the woman at the table next to ours appears to have chosen this particular coffee shop to give up her life, passed out face down in her scrambled eggs. Because the Japanese avoid any confrontation, even of the most mild engagement, our waitress simply pretends that this unconscious customer is not there. We observe that most of the Japanese seem extremely stressed out all the time.
Meanwhile, in Akihabara, a big center for anime and gaming, we see billboard illustrations and store advertisements of child-like girls in sexual poses dressed in garter belts, fishnet stockings, and short skirts while young ladies on the street dressed in French maids costumes entice pedestrians up to “maid bars.” So much of the anime we see displayed links sex with childhood. It’s rather creepy to us. Ellen observes that the background music we hear frequently in restaurants, shopping arcades and hotel lobbies consists of tunes played on what sounds like the upper register of a celeste resembling what an infant might hear lying in its crib with the musical mobile turning around overhead. In the train and subway stations and toilet stalls, not only do you get the baby’s mobile tune but some have the sound of chirping birds and waterfalls, too. We wonder, is this such a stressed out society that they crave whatever childish comforting they can get in public? It does not seem surprising in this place where couples go to sex motels to share intimacy instead of doing it at home, but then maybe that has more to do with the paper thin walls, which are sometimes actually constructed from rice paper.
Although all wares are displayed with artistry and detailed wrappings, the resulting paper and plastic waste is profound. We wonder why the Japanese seem unconscious to this wasteful conspicuous consumption when we are in a climate crisis. There are stores throughout Japan selling lots of food which is placed in wrappers, the wrapped food placed in molded plastic containers, the containers placed in boxes, and the boxes wrapped in shrink-wrap. When you purchase one of these boxes, the box then gets wrapped again by the clerk. Then, when you are walking around with arms full of empty wrappers, there are no trash cans. The tour company we use for half of our trip advocates absorbing the culture of the place we are visiting, but we are beginning to think we might want to avoid that if we are going to have a less disturbing experience.
Probably our favorite meal in Japan consisted of steaming bowls of noodles eaten whiled seated on rickety stools in a tiny shop with only two walls. The gourmet meals that we had read about being served at our pricey Ryokan (Japanese style hotel with tatami mats on the floor to sleep on rather than Western style beds and with communal onsens in the hotel for their guests) were probably gourmet if you had been raised in Japan, but the strong fishy flavors of the raw seafood plus the sight of their beady little eyes staring at us as they wiggled from the ends of our chopsticks was more than we fish lovers could handle.
Japan is extra challenging if you are hoping to stay vegan as much as possible. In the cities, it seems as if every other storefront is a restaurant and every restaurant has graphic images of protein porn: big slabs of raw well-marbled beef, slices of pork, deep-fried chicken, breaded fish, live shrimp. Any time we see a picture of something that looks benign and inquire about it, we inevitably find out that they have covertly slipped some sort of animal product into it. In a society that formerly subsisted on a diet of rice and vegetables with a little fish, they now give peculiar looks to those of us who ask for something with vegetables in it, usually resulting in a spoonful or two of some sort of pickled plant. Even the “vegan” restaurants don’t seem to get that egg, cheese, fish, and chicken are not part of a vegan diet. Since adopting a more Western diet, heart disease and cancer rates have soared here giving new meaning to the phrase, “be careful what you wish for”.
We are happy to explore beyond Tokyo. Everything lines up perfectly in Hakone on the day of our visit to the open air art museum (Hakone Chōkoku No Mori Bijutsukan). We get a beautiful day of sunshine and welcome temperatures in the 60s. In addition to some wonderful sculptures, they have some very good quality Picassos: a lot of his plates, but also many of his sketches and some of his paintings. Kanazawa also has some of the most incredible gardens, and of course no public space would be complete without plenty of street food.
While it is possible to escape the cities, we observe on our train ride from Kyoto to Himeji that much of Japan looks like one continuous city. Somewhere lost in all of the hundreds of photos we took of Japan (a country where we found it hard to put down our cameras/cell phones), is a lost photo of the urban sprawl going high up into the mountains: an example of the density of the population, yet still somehow picturesque due to the dynamics of the terrain. It’s hard to find a strictly rural experience in Japan. The tourist needs to make a concerted effort to step away from the top sites and to head for the mountains or the islands or the few forests. The smaller cities give us a more human scale and show some balance of civilization with nature which is missing from a major metropolitan area like Tokyo; nonetheless Japan is first and foremost an urban experience.
In Nara, a big surprise was Naramachi, the former merchant district. Now a very laid-back shopping and gallery district. After a full day of going around to all of the “must-see” shrines and temples of Nara, it was wonderful to have a day of just goofing off and discovering things that may not be in any guide book. For example, in a vintage Japanese home that has been preserved and is open to the public to wander through, we see a temporary display of Bonseki (sand paintings). Other quirky galleries had displays of 19th-century signage for shops in the neighborhood. In Kyoto, walking up the steep hill to Kiyomizu-dera temple, we get lost in the tiny shopping streets where many of the historical buildings have been well preserved. All these experiences are so very different than what we saw in Tokyo.
Eventually we take a ferry out to Naoshima, an island in the Sea of Japan known for, along with the surrounding islands, its art exhibitions and museums. Here we have time to slow down our schedule and simply poke around to see what there is to see.
Writing this post now that we have been home for a couple of months, our perceptions are probably a little bit different than what we might have written immediately after the trip. When traveling to another country, the question is always, “what is it that we are seeing?” i.e. trying to avoid looking through the lens of our own culture and upbringing. That is an easier question to answer in a country where there are huge contrasts to the US, but in a very first-world country like Japan, those differences can be subtle and yet profound at the same time. Even though we did not whole-heartedly embrace the Japanese experience as much as we had hoped to, upon our return to the US, we find ourselves watching movies like Memoirs of a Geisha and Shoplifters, and, to our surprise, we are feeling quite nostalgic about our recent Japanese holiday. We contemplate whether we should return someday and give it another chance, wondering if we had judged the culture a bit too harshly on this first trip. Eating a selection of omusubi the other day (triangular shaped snacks wrapped in rice and seaweed) as we pour over our gorgeous photos, we think that just maybe it requires another trip to The Land of the Rising Sun before we will finally “get it.”