Japan Tour – Tokyo, Japan

Monday, October 25th:

Kaminari Mon - gate to Sensouji Temple
Kaminari Mon – gate to Sensouji Temple
The train ride from Hiroshima to Tokyo was about what I expected. However, some in our party were apparently expecting more private accommodations and amenities. This was the only portion of our journey where we were by ourselves without the presence of one of our Japanese hosts. Miki had made the reservations for us and – in all fairness to Miki – I doubt that she ever rode on the night train, herself. As I said, it was pretty much what I expected and reminded me a lot of the sleeping car scene in the movie, “Some Like it Hot,” where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon pose as girls while trying to score with Marilyn Monroe. We had exactly the same type of sleeping car where there are four people to a cubicle – two upper and two lower – and you simply slide a curtain around your bunk when you want some privacy. It also reminded me a lot of our sleeping arrangements in the Navy when I was aboard the aircraft carriers.

There were toilet facilities in the adjacent cars and one even featured a Western-style toilet. However, there was no potable water in the bathroom so you had to take bottled water with you to brush your teeth. Also, while there was a dinning car of sorts, since this was a night run, no provisions had been made for any kind of hot food or drink to be made available. This was not a Shinkansen and it made several stops during the night. I did manage to sleep (I took one of the upper bunks) some although I also seemed to be aware of all the jostles we made as we slogged our way to Tokyo. We pulled into the Tokyo station at about 7:30 a.m. on Monday morning where we were greeted by Ichiro who was waiting for us right at the platform.

We found our way to the Asia Center Hotel, had a quick breakfast, and were told to come back in the afternoon to check in. At that point, we were joined by Miki’s sister, Yukiko, who along with Ichiro, accompanied us on several of our outings in and around Tokyo. The first place we go is called Kaminari Mon – the gate to Sensouji temple in Asakusa. This seems to be a big attraction and lots of people gather to have their picture taken by a big lantern near the entrance. We also spend some time browsing the many shops (Nakamise) that are in this area. (I later learned that this was a notorious red-light district in the distant past. Now I understand the attraction and predilection for the group picture taking!)

We then go on a river boat tour that took us under no less than thirteen (count ’em!) bridges that span this major river in the heart of Tokyo. I know of some U.S. cities that could learn something from this – there are often lots of traffic bottlenecks due to not enough bridges spanning rivers. We see lots of high rise buildings with real neat architectural touches. At one point, Ichiro points out an apartment building and says that Hideki Matsui (who plays left field for the New York Yankees and is a national hero in Japan) used to live there and that it is one of the most expensive pads in all of Tokyo! A lady in the seat ahead of us snacks on sushi and chips the entire trip, which probably lasted about an hour. Such a small lady – I wonder where she puts it all?!

We get off the river boat and start walking through a nice little park-like area. The dirt trail meanders around and there are several little ponds well stocked with Koi with neat little arched bridges in between. One of the bridges we cross has a “zig-zag” built in and I comment to one of our party that I had read that this is sometimes done on purpose in Japanese gardens so that evil spirits cannot follow. She looks at me with skepticism and I can tell she doesn’t think I know what I’m talking about. Always present in the background are the city skyscrapers of Tokyo – it reminds me some of Central Park in New York City. At one point we come to a 300-year-old black pine tree that seems to be quite an attraction.

Scenic Park
Scenic Park
We then walk on several blocks to the fish market area. However, it is now midday and the activity on the docks has by now ended and all that can be seen now is people cleaning up and washing things off with water hoses.

We return to the hotel to spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing and eating a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant. This hotel features coin operated computers in the lobby that have dedicated Internet connections. So for only about 100 or 200 Yen, it is fairly easy to check a Hotmail account for messages and to send a quick message home. The one thing I didn’t like was that these computers used some type of browser that I was not familiar with, which was always there by default. I couldn’t get to a command prompt and, therefore, I couldn’t do a Telnet connection to my Purdue account. But this was only a minor inconvenience.

Tuesday, October 26th:
It rains all day today – the remnants of yet another typhoon, the 2nd one to hit Japan within a few days. Tamae, a friend of Miki, and Seishi Nakamura, who belonged to S-W some time ago and left when the volume of daily email became unmanageable (we understand, Seishi!), join us today as we meet in the hotel lobby and prepare to tour some more temples. I guess my note taking was starting to slip at this point as I failed to note the name of the temple and grounds we visit. But, as with all the others we have seen in Japan, this place is immaculate with well manicured gardens and all kinds of interesting sculptures.

We have lunch this day at a quaint little restaurant a short ways from the temple we have just visited. Lil and I have our usual fare of rice and shrimp pilaf with some tempura on the side. The hot tea that we are provided with really hits the spot on such a rainy day.

Then Tamae takes us to the Kamakurabori Art Center – and this turns out to be a real special treat. The art center is a place where several ladies come off and on and do intricate wood carving. Some of the projects they are working on are breathtaking and their skills are truly remarkable. Tamae introduces us and then we split up and freely mix with the ladies as they do their woodcarving. Several of us are taking pictures and then, some of the woodcarvers get their cameras out – and it becomes a big mutual picture taking affair. We must have spent the better part of hour and I only wish it were possible in words to convey the beauty of some of the wood sculptures these ladies were turning out. After we leave the art center, we then go down an avenue which contains some outlet stores that actually sell some of the wood carvings that we have just seen. At one shop, Lil buys a small bowl which she will give to our son, Charlie, who really appreciates this sort of thing.

Kamakurabori Art Center
Kamakurabori Art Center
Allow me to say a word or two about the Japan Rail Pass at this point. As a visitor to Japan, one is entitled to purchase one of these passes which allow you to ride anywhere in Japan on a JR train. Getting the pass is a bit awkward as one must first obtain an Exchange Order which is purchased in one’s home country within 90 days of one’s visit. The EO is then exchanged for a rail pass when you actually get to Japan. The passes can be purchased for seven, fourteen, or twenty one days. And by having the pass, all you have to do is flash it to an attendant at a train station and you can literally ride any train for any length of time. Of course, the amount of traveling would dictate whether or not a JRP would be a prudent purchase. To someone who wasn’t going to travel much, this would obviously not be worthwhile. For us, however, especially during our 2nd week in Japan, the Japan Rail Pass really made traveling a breeze and a painless endeavor.

Another thing I wish to comment on is the Braille sidewalks that seem to abound in all the major cities. This may be a feature that is not unique to Japan – but I have never noticed them before, anywhere. For a blind person, Japan would be a nice place to get around.

We visit another temple this afternoon and the highlight of this visit is an amusing little anecdote I will pass along, whereby it is my assessment that the Buddha does not necessarily answer all individual prayer requests that are made. Outside this temple, there is an offering area with instructions (in English and Japanese) that go on to tell that for 500 Yen, one can pick up a wooden card (about the size of a post card) which has a string attached at the corners and write a prayer request for the Buddha to consider. You are then instructed to hang the card on one of several pegs (each peg is long enough to contain several of these requests) where it will then get the Buddha’s consideration in the coming months. An observer is, of course, free to look at the many wooden cards that have been submitted previously. Most are in Japanese but a few are in English – and one of them catches my eye right away. It is a request which reads, “We wish for George W. Bush to NOT be re-elected!” and it is signed, “Phil & Shoko.” So, since I later learn that Dubya was re-elected, I have concluded that the Buddha does not always grant every request.

We get back to the hotel and start packing our bags as Lil and I will be returning tomorrow by ourselves to Osaka to get ready for the trip back to the States and home. We have a nice dinner that evening in the hotel restaurant with Verbeck and Ichiro.