Vending machines here are amazing. Lit up and beautiful, they beckon from afar and draw you to them with their colorful moving light displays: blue, red, then purple. But best of all, they serve hot and cold beverages in bottles. The Royal Milk Tea is hot and creamy and we ooh and aah every time we buy one for 130 yen (1.56US). Move over Starbucks.
…often am a bit embarrassed about my natural response and reactions to things. For instance, the Japanese word for ‘yes’ is ‘hi.’ So when the guy at the train station waved me through the queue with an enthusiastic ‘hi’ (merely affirming that I was good to go) and I responded happily with an equally enthusiastic, ‘hi’ (meaning hello to you, too!) I was suddenly embarrassed. He wasn’t saying hi to me at all…
People love their dogs in Japan, from what I can see. Little dogs. They tuck them under their arms and carry them like little accessories. There are a few larger breeds but by and large, the small dog wins their fancy here. Yesterday in Nikko I glanced in the direction of a guy pushing a baby carriage. He gave me a look that made me glance down at the carriage (it’s as though he was proud and wanted me to look at what he was doing, I think. Can’t pinpoint why I looked at them further) and I saw three little dogs dressed as babies in the carriage. (Laurel, take note. They weren’t primates but I am pretty sure you would’ve been tickled to see this!) !? Oh my lady gaga. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Yesterday in Nikko I became briefly separated from my fellow travelers. Walking outside I looked for them forlornly: looking up there, down there, across the street, all to no avail. A kindly man stood up, got my attention from about 50′ away and pointed vigorously in a certain direction. Knowing instantly he was talking to me for some reason, I nodded, bowed slightly and smiled. Satisfied, he sat down and watched me walk toward them exactly where he said they were! I love these connections with strangers in a strange country!
On Sunday morning, my first morn in Japan, I meandered downstairs to breakfast of bread and jam and for a few minutes of internetting. We then made our way to the Uyeno station where we met up with Susan’s friend Colin and his girlfriend Amy. Colin is traveling in Asia on business and was able to meet up with Susan a week or so ago in Beijing. It was then that they realized we would all be in Tokyo at the same time. After a short cell phone call to pinpoint our locale at the train station we were able to meet up quickly. It helps that there are very few Westerners around so we rather stick out, but it is in general very easy to get around in this place. So far everything is well-laid out and understandable if you take the time to read the signs. We decided to take the slow train to Nikko partly for money’s sake. Susan and I already have unlimited rail passes through the whole of Japan so it didn’t matter at all to us but Colin and Amy had not purchased ahead. And since one cannot purchase a tourist pass in this country, they were relegated to purchasing as they go. The shinkansen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen) is the fast train, the bullet train. The mack daddy of trains. So although that train is already a part of our unlimited JR rail package, it was considered too expensive for Colin and Amy, thus our decision to take the slow train.
The trip to Nikko is about 3 hours by slow train. And it’s not the worst thing to do when you’re wanting time with friends and want to see the scenery of the beautiful autumn leaves along the way! And such beauty! Reds and oranges of the most deep and brilliant color amongst the green of the conifers. It rivals anything I’ve seen in the states, including out East. The train ride was most excellent as we had time to laugh, talk, and get to know one another. And it was great people-watching as well. Best of all, we are the only tourist-y types I have seen that are non-Japanese. One gets the feeling so far that we are experiencing real life, not a life set up for the sake of tourism.
As it became more mountainous my ongoing comment/question was: is that Mt. Fuji? It has become a sort of trademark for me to ask ridiculous questions and make crazy comments during my relationship w Susan, starting on our Antarctic voyage last year. So I am carrying on the tradition. “Unless there is a sign telling me this isn’t Mt. Fuji, I’m assuming it is,” I say! Now if we don’t make it to the actual mountain, I’ll be fine because of the many Mt. Fujis I saw on the way to Nikko. (Not to mention on the flight in when I saw the sun set right beside the mount! Spectacular to see the volcanic mountain looming above the clouds!)
Nikko is a small town known for its beautiful forest, World Heritage UNESCO sites, and ansen or hot springs, among other things. It reminds me of Ushuaia, Argentina, the jumping-off point for Antarctica. It also reminds me of a Swiss mountain town or Liechtenstein. It is quaint and adorable. Since it took us so long to arrive, we didn’t have much time as it was and unfortunately we were hungry so stopped at a great spot for noodles. “One hour is pl-en-ty to visit, Nikko!” Colin joked). As good as those noodles were, lunch slowed us up a bit for the rest of our time making it impossible to truly discover the shrines and sites. But it was still beautiful and a great getaway spot for our first 24 hours in Japan. We missed the hot springs, unfortunately, but hopefully will get the chance to visit some as unique as the ones in Nikko along the rest of our trip.
Since everything closed at 5 and it begins getting dark at 4:30, we made our way down through the town to find ourselves a pub so we could grab some beers before the journey home. We found a great spot (pictures to follow) and enjoyed our own company and beer (and stale nuts and some strange appetizers involving crunchiness wrapped around some kind of a bean curd) there for a few hours before heading down to the train station for Colin/Amy to buy tickets home. Much to Colin’s delight, the pair of them decided to splurge on tickets for the shinkansen on the way home. Whilst waiting in the train station for our own train, one of the other shinkansen barrelled by like a bullet and we were left in its wind wake shaking in our boots and squealing with excitement! What a rush! I can’t wait to get video of it next time and I can’t hardly stop thinking about it! Riding the thing you have no idea you’re going at the speed of light (really only about 200 mph), especially at night. Our train was nearly full with a seating arrangement and look of a jet airliner inside. I am excited to experience it in daylight and to see the scenery whir past!
There are signs all over the train ‘Nikko is Nippon’, meaning Nikko is old-Japan, I think, since Nippon is the term (generally an older term) meaning Japan. We had fun repeating this phrase over and over… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japan
Courtesy ranks high among Japanese people in general, from my experience. It’s often not enough to just smile and wave, a deep bow often goes along with it. The same goes for the conductor on the train – – or anyone whose job requires them to pass through a train car. As if thinking it rude to walk through the car with their backs to us, the person who works for Japan Rail reaches the front of the car then turns to face us and bows and nods with a smile. It’s the most delightful thing I have encountered since arriving 36 hours ago. And I am likely not to tire of it because it makes me feel so good when they do it! I just love it! I hope to catch a video of it next time it happens so you can see what I mean. And it isn’t always convenient or easy for them to do. For instance, the person who walks through with the cart of stuff you can buy has to position the cart so it doesn’t roll away before turning to us and bowing. They actually go through a great deal of effort to exhibit this little act of kindness. And since tourists are not the prime passengers on these trains, they do it for their fellow-Japanese patriots, so it’s for real and not just a contrived tourist thing.
…in the small lobby of my hotel in Tokyo with crazy hair and in sweats, I am writing in this blog surrounded by the people I have seen for two days in a row. There is an esprit de corps among travelers that I love and gravitate toward. Being recognized by fellow travelers from around the world is fun, especially for me this morning when the roughly 18 month-old little Japanese girl I met yesterday recognized me and squealed excitedly when she saw me!
There are two computers here for visitors to use freely. A woman about my age sat down beside me and had troubles with the Japanese keyboard like I did yesterday. She had questions about the whole logging-in and language issue and was happy when my suggestions actually worked. In spite of our difficulty in communicating we were able to work it out She was appreciative, we smiled, said good bye and that was that. Until a few minutes later when she reappeared and presented me with a little elephant key chain from her country, Thailand! We spoke for a few minutes. She invited me to stay with her and her husband in Bangkok and had me take a photo of the two of us with her camera. We exchanged email addresses, hugged, and she left. This is why I travel, I smiled to myself.
Toilets in Japan can be a fancy thing with its talent often not just its flush. (Or they are just a hole in the floor, but this blog entry is about the fancier versions). The one in our room is heated. So much so that I often yell ‘ouch’ for effect when I sit upon it. Yesterday I proclaimed that you could melt butter on it and I am pretty sure that’s true. But after pushing a variety of buttons on the control panel I turned the heater off. There are a variety of other buttons on the control panel that I won’t go in to, none of which are the flush mechanism. That’s just a regular handled thing but, and as Susan announced last night, it has the most unenthusiastic flush ability. It gets the job done effectively but isn’t anything to write home about as it’s just very quiet and calm about the whole business. For such a fancy toilet one has higher expectations for the thing all the way around and the lack of flushing fanfare leaves a person unsatisfied.
The WC at the airport needed instructions in order to know how to use it. Even just opening and closing the door was a major challenge let alone once inside deciding on which porcelain reseptacle to use of the four that were available. There were directions on the automatic door opener/closer, which was a big deal because the overhead lighting for the roughly 8′ x 8′ stall (the size of my sister’s bedroom growing up!) was dependent upon closing that door properly. So getting that first part down was important. After trying for about 5 minutes to figure the thing out, I laughed out loud at myself and ended up waiting for a kind Japanese person to come along to help me. A woman I recognized from my flight came with her little girl to use the loo and even she, although native Japanese, had trouble figuring the whole thing out. We finally figured it out together and watching her get control of the whole operation gave me the confidence to try opening the door and walking in on my own. Seriously, I travel alone half way around the world and yet I don’t have the confidence to use the loo on my own. But I was within eyeshot of a full waiting area and being the only Westerner in the place, felt like I was being watched like an eagle (and I don’t think I am wrong about that assumption!)
Once in the bath room I had to read the many signs in “English” and Japanese in order to understand which step came next in the whole process. After making a calculated decision on which reseptacle to use (correctly, I’d like to point out), I was faced with the dilemma of flushing the thing. Right now you might be thinking that I am exaggerating. I wish I was! It took me no fewer than 5 full minutes (on the low-end of my estimate) to figure out where the flusher was! Having been yelled at once in Vietnam for incorrectly flushing a toilet (yes, there is an incorrect way, apparently) I was determined NOT to leave without completing my task. Plus, it was my first big challenge in Japan and I was not going to begin this trip as a failure. Desperate after flushing several of the other reseptacles (yet still not my own) and after reading the signs on the two walls nearest me and my reseptacle, I decided to venture over to the other side of the room to read the many signs over there. I looked closer at a small sign that was highlighted by very large blue arrows all over the wall pointing to it. FLUSH HERE, it said. Call me crazy but I expected the flusher to be next to or near my toilet. I pushed the button and cringed waiting to see which thing it operated in the room. Success! I used the automatic dispenser for the soap. Then the faucet automatically sensed my hands and turned the water on. I then pushed the button to automatically open the door and walked out of the room with wet hands because there was no hand dryer nor were there paper towels! True story.