It was time to go home. We had a rental agreement that was expiring, travel insurance that was running out, and a plane that wouldn’t wait up for us. Our two weeks away felt like the true meaning of a trip of a lifetime. We had traveled to the other side of the world, saw towering mega-cities, steaming jungles, ancient temples and forsaken battlegrounds. We had met people from completely different backgrounds than our own, tried to speak their language, and engaged in the occasional misunderstanding. There are so many more stories to tell from our trip, but mostly they are quick vignettes without any real point to them. This series on my trip is starting to give Friday the 13th a run for its money, so this is as good a place to stop as any. If I learned anything from this trip, it’s this:
Tokyo is not expensive, they just use a lot of sales to bleed you dry.
Marketing is not a dirty word, and there is a way not to sound desperate.
Never give anyone directions in Japan that end in “It’s near the shrine”.
Gindako makes the best Takoyaki in the world.
Filipino hotels are places where everybody knows your name.
If you have kids, let them have fun. You will too.
As a major landmark, the Tokyo Tower has seen a lot of action on TV and film. Destroying a 1000 foot tall tower is a sure way to get a rise out of any audience. The tower has run afoul of Godzilla, Mothra, Ultraman, Sailor Moon, and the many sullen psychic teenagers of the Clamp Manga series “X”. However, as Sara and I found, there is another reason that the Tokyo Tower gets the shaft so often.
We started off the day attempting to wander the gardens outside the Imperial Palace near Tokyo station, but inclement weather put a stop to that.
After a warm bowl of ramen, we decided to make our way to the Tokyo Tower. Tokyo is such a huge city that you can’t really get a sense of how the whole thing looks from any one point like you can with Vancouver or Seattle. Narita airport an hour outside of Tokyo, so we couldn’t see the city from our airplane. The Tokyo Tower’s observation deck seemed to be the best vantage point by which to get a holistic view of Tokyo.
The Tower was impressive even from the ground. Seeing it loom over the gate of the Zozo-ji really captured how Japan has one foot in the past while reaching out into the future.
When we got to the foot of the tower, we finally got to see a monkey. He did some tricks while his trainer tried to play the “straight man” part of a comedy double act with him. I felt a little guilty enjoying the act because the monkey did not look like he wanted to be there, but I set out on this trip to find a monkey, and a monkey I did find.
After getting a my picture taken with Noppon, the Tokyo Tower mascot, we got in line to get our tickets. Since it was the 50th anniversary of the Tower, it was really crowded. It looked like people from all over Japan were paying a visit. We were sandwiched into an Elevator with about 8 other people. At the observation deck, smooshed up against the windows, we finally saw how big Tokyo was.
There was nothing but buildings for as far as the eye could see. There were patches of green here and there from the city parks, but there was no way to see where the city ended and the country began. It was magnificent but a little terrifying. The green hills of Abbotsford were never so far away.
There were also a few musems located in the base of the Tower. There was a trick art gallery, a wax museum, and even a 3D Yatterman anime. Even after coming thousands of miles, the setup of these museums seemed a little familiar, like I was on some sort of field trip. Now, I visited the Tokyo Tower as a tourist, and of my own free will. If I had to come here 3 or 4 times over the course of my grade school career to yet again experience the wonders of the Statistics Museum (they had one there, I’m not making this up) ,I might have grown to bear a little disdain for that orange and white behemoth. Considering that I’d be stuck up there with a class of other bored teenagers, and the wonderful memories that experience would bring, I probably wouldn’t mind sitting in a theatre watching Godzilla and his friends rip that thing to rivets.
While the Tokyo Tower was really impressive, I could understand it if people have a love-hate relationship with it. For some, it would be a birds-eye view of their city that couldn’t be achieved on any other building. For others, it would conjure memories of crowded elevators and dull field trip lectures. Personally, from now on I prefer to look at the Tokyo Tower from the exterior, and I sincerely hope it continues its prime function of transmitting all those wacky Japanese game shows.
One thing I simply had to do while in Japan was ride the bullet train. One of the places Sara simply had to visit was Kyoto. Fortunately, we were able to combine the two when we took a 2 and a half hour train ride to Kyoto.
We rode the Hikari train, which runs at a top speed of 285 km/h. Sara didn’t think it went too fast, but in her defense, the ride was so smooth you couldn’t really tell. I took some video out the window of us going top speed.
Kyoto wasn’t bombed in the second world war, so many of the ancient temples and older buildings were still standing. Kyoto was still a huge city, so we could only see a couple of key places. Sara and I decided to see the Kyoto Craft Center and take the Philosopher’s way to the Ginkaku-ji, or Silver Pavilion.
The Craft center was over 6 floors of traditional Japanese Crafts. There was jewelry, lacquered dishware, and even Samurai swords for sale. It was really geared toward tourists, but the salesmanship was so classy that you didn’t feel put upon to buy anything. Sara and I got a lot of souvenir shopping done nonetheless.
We made our way through the back streets to the Philosopher’s way, which is a cobble-stone path running along a small canal where there were shrines that were hundreds, if not thousands of years old. Kyoto as a whole was a lot more laid back than the slick neon head-rush of Tokyo. The path wasn’t exactly straight, nor was it exactly winding. One could really get a good think in without any turns to interrupt you or too many straight lines to bore you.
At the end of the path was the Ginkaku-ji. The Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built the temple in the 15th century as a place of rest and relaxation. I’d say he succeeded. This is what world-class serenity looks like.
Once we finished at the Ginkaku-ji, we headed back to the Heian Shrine. It was built in 1895 on the 1,100th anniversary of the city. It wasn’t as old as the other temples, but it was certainly the largest that we had seen yet.
We spent the whole day trying to cover the city, but by the time we were finished at the Heian Shrine, it was already time to go home. With so much more of Kyoto to see, we’ll definitely spend more time here when we come back to Japan.
Now that I was in Japan, I would regret it if I didn’t take in some form of anime-themed entertainment that would take months to be released in Canada. Theo and Tarra invited Sara and I to the “Yatterman” movie, which had just come out the week before. It fit the bill perfectly. “Yatterman” was based off of the 1970s anime of the same name. It’s about two mechanics, Gan-chan and his girlfriend, Ai-chan. They travel the world on a robot dog called the Yatterwan to recover the fantastic Dokuro stone from the clutches of the evil Doronbo gang. The gang consists of Tonzura, a pig-headed muscle-man, Boyakky, the lecherous evil genius, and the bossy Doronjo, who under all the bondage gear just wants to find a good man and settle down. Despite being in all Japanese, the movie was fun, campy and colorful. It made fun of the fact that it was based on a cartoon by showing how ridiculous all of the formulaic transformations would be if they were in real life. I won’t give away any spoilers, but it also teaches everyone about the evils of tea-bagging.
In addition to the lovely film, we were also treated to the little differences in Japanese theater-going. Every ticket was assigned a specific seat. There were detailed maps on the screen showing the way to the exits, which made the theater feel a bit like an airline flight. We saw previews for two American films, “Bolt” and “Marley”. I had only seen both films from their trailers, and the differences were striking. While the American previews played up the snarky humor of both films, the Japanese trailers focused more on the emotional parts of the films and, to my surprise, made me want to see them more. Are Western entertainment companies trying to hide the sad parts from the audience, or do Japanese audiences need to see more of a film before they make the decision to see it?
While we’re on the subject of Japanese entertainment, Sara and I had quite a bit of time to check out Japanese television. There is anime, although it’s not running constantly. If there is an anime cable channel, we weren’t getting it in the apartment. There was a documentary on NASA to commemorate Japan’s contribution to the International Space Station. It was interesting because they would show the stock footage, the narration, and the re-enactments (with Western actors, so this was a well-budgeted production) and then they would cut back to the studio with a couple of stalwart experts demonstrating the distance from the Earth to the Moon to a panel of celebrities. Occasionally, there would be an insert to the reactions of the celebrities to what they were seeing. For example, the actresses teared up on witnessing the funeral of the Apollo 1 astronauts. It turns out that Japanese television shows do this on a regular basis. They would show something, and have a panel of celebrities comment on it. In addition to the space program documentary, there was also a show where people would eat their dinner in a room full of puppies or pot-bellied pigs and the panel would watch what would happen. It seems almost crass to inject the opinions of celebrities into things like the space program, but do we sell ourselves short by keeping the idea of information separate from the guilty pleasures of VH1? We decry that Ashton Kutcher is getting more twitter followers than CNN, but instead of setting these two forces against each other, perhaps we should be getting them to work together.
Concerning Japanese game shows, there are many, and they are wackier than ever. My favorite of these was a show where these two guys dressed like Prince Valiant went to peoples houses offering them money if they could win a game of hide and seek. The Prince Valiant guys would get clues on the contestants’ whereabouts via traps set near the hiding places. We watched a family win 1 million Yen (around $10,000) by hiding themselves in various places in their own house. The small daughter won by hiding in the bottom drawer of a china cabinet. The 100 million yen (million dollar) contest was much tougher. About 20 contestants hid in an electronics store, and when they were caught they would get mud, paint, and other substances thrown on them. One guy had tarantulas thrown on him, so subsequent prisoners would enter the losers circle saying stuff like, “Why is everyone stuck in the corner-OH GOD NO GET AWAY!” Suffice to say, nobody won the grand prize.
Seeing those people humiliated on national television reminded my why US shows often miss the point of Japanese game shows. They spend so much time trying to bare the souls of the contestants or checking the instant replay to realize that such shows are not about rewarding skill or knowledge, they are about hilariously punishing ignorance!
We met up with our friends Theo and Tarra, who were staying at the same apartment complex we were. We decided to go on a little whirlwind tour of the city via the Yamanote line, an elevated train that circles all of Tokyo. Since this was Theo’s third trip and Tarra’s second, they gave us some important pointers about getting by in Japan.
– When you go to pay for something, you place your money in a small cash dish which gives the salesperson time to wrap up your purchase or calculate your change.
-Don’t tip the wait staff at restaurants. The tip is worked into the meal price and the wait staff will go to great lengths to give you back your change. Restaurants do this to ensure you are a repeat customer rather than just a one-time big spender.
-When using the washroom, bring your own wash-cloth to dry your hands. Most public restrooms will have no toilet paper, a hold-over policy from when people would steal toilet paper in the early days after the war. It’s customary to use kleenex, which is commonly handed out at street corners to advertise pachinko parlors and other such things.
-If you are having trouble communicating with a Japanese person, write down what you want to say. Most Japanese took English in middle school and high school, and are more likely to understand English in written form rather than spoken.
We took a walk through Ueno park to look at some Cherry Blossoms, then took the subway to Asakusa to see the Senso-ji, the oldest temple site in Tokyo. After lunch, we headed to Akihabara and had tea at one of the first maid cafes in Tokyo. We ended off the trip with a hearty dinner of Shabu-Shabu in Shinjuku.
Japan, like any other far off place, is surrounded by so much myth and hearsay in Canada. Some people will tell you that it’s full of nothing but buttoned-down salary-men and office ladies, and others would have you believe that it’s a saucer-eyed mecca of anime-themed insanity. I was glad to finally go there myself and get my own impressions of the country.
The first thing that I noticed about Japan was the signage. Everything and every place seemed to come with its own set of instructions. Trains, bathrooms and snack packaging are all designed to be fairly easy to use without any questions. This might strike people as kind of stuffy, but I look at it as the product of a people that just likes to know where to go in life. I think this attention paid to organization and instruction has created a very high penetration rate for advanced technology like cell phones and televisions. The Japanese can trade up cell phones every three months because NTT DocoMo is willing to hold a customer’s hand and facilitate the change over, rather than throwing a data cable and an Indian call center agent at them and say “get to it”.
On that note, salesmanship is considered real work in Japan. Over here, we have this image of salespeople as Willy Loman from “Death of A Salesman”, pathetic souls with no vocation besides hocking the work of other people. In Tokyo, there are people on megaphones and flashy signs everywhere. Once you’re in the store, you never get the feeling that you should buy something or get out. The salespeople are having fun selling to you and you in turn have fun shopping there.
Japan has a lot of things that we in the West would consider very libertarian in nature. Cigarette and beer vending machines are restricted by legislation here in Canada, but in Japan these things exist because of a strong sense of organization and community. It’s kind of a busy-body philosophy. Many businesses will not serve students during school hours and if a child decided he wanted to buy a pack of cigarettes, passersby would think nothing of interrupting him. It makes you think about the kinds of freedoms we could enjoy if people simply took an active interest in the lives of people around them.