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Photo Journal Week 3
 
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Friday
February 8th
Went to dinner with Chris's co-workers. With Ian, one of Chris's co-workers who is very enthusiastic about life in Tokyo, we went on a tear, hitting lots of bars. Ian seemed to know people at every bar. At one place Ian and Chris convinced me to practice my Russian with a group of Russian women. They asked me, "Are you in the navy?" (Just try to imagine that with a heavy Russian accent.) I said no. "Are you in the marines?" I said no. "Special forces?" I managed not to laugh, and said "No, I'm a student and my friends are investment bankers." She looked interested now. "Which firm?" she asked. I didn't answer, so she advised me, "Keep studying." That was in English, but it can be translated as, "If you're not going to pay me, please leave me the @#$% alone." They were prostitutes. So much for practicing my Russian!

We stayed up all night in order to go to the famed Tsukiji fish market, the biggest in the world. Completely exhausted (especially Chris, who actually had to work all work), we tumbled out of the cab at 6am. We scrambled through warehouse after warehouse full of enormous tuna, some frozen and giving off clouds of vapor, some fresh, all being examined and picked over by tons of the Japanese staff who would chip at them with little picks and examine the texture of the flesh. We found a room full of 6-foot-long swordfish (with their sword noses all cut off an discarded). We practiced using all of the fish words we learned from sushi restaurants. We grabbed a guy walking buy and said "Ebi! Ebi!" ("Shrimp! Shrimp!"), and he would then very politely point us in the right direction, or in some cases actually walk us over to the right place. We lifted a live octopus out of a holding tank; witnessed the method of slaughter used on many fish- they cut the tails off and then insert a wire up the spinal column and into the brain, which they ream out until the fish stops wiggling; saw tanks full of fugu (pufferfish, the poisonous ones), some all puffed up; saw flounder, snapper, you name it.

It was amazing. That market must stretch on for about a quarter of a mile along the water front. Boxes of fish are piled head-high. We splashed through puddles of water tainted with blood and guts. Little diesel-powered carts raced through the alleyways, almost running us over many times. It was especially fun to see the actual fish auctions, when all of the buyers lined up, sort of like a chorus, on tiered stands, in front of the auctioneers who looked a bit like the conductors. Then with lots of shouting from the auctioneers and minimalist handing signs from the participants, rooms full of fish were brokered in the space of about fifteen minutes. And this was going on in probably twenty places at once, all over the market.

Finally, dead tired, with me keeping a careful eye on my zombified brother (whose eyelids were drooping down around his knees), we stumbled out to find some breakfast sushi. The sushi places in the fish market serve the fish practically right off the boat. It's like walking up to the big tuna on the ground and just eating them. I believe it was quite tasty, but when Chris repeatedly fell asleep on his stool (head plunging for his soup or the floor in turn) we decided to head for home. At 8:30am we were asleep.

Saturday
February 9th
Chris and I woke up very late. Walked to Shinjuku. Saw the movie From Hell (which lived up to its name). Discovered why movie theaters in Japan suck ($18 and awful food). My cousin Bob has for a long time claimed that popcorn in actually styrofoam. The Japanese have taken his dare. At the theater they serve the popcorn out of a vending machine into a pathetically small little cup. I honestly believe the extrude the popcorn on demand using an air compressor and a tank of liquified chlorofluorocarbon. It was vile!

Starving, we desperately searched for a restaurant, ending up at a "Thai Shabu Shabu" place. The menu was so scary looking that we suffered embarrassment and possible black outs by staggering back out into the street. Fortunately we quickly found an italian place, where we were sated with appetizers plus three entrees between the two of us.

Don't eat the pizza in Japan. Actually, that reminds me of a story my friend Adam Block told me. A gaijin living in Japan couldn't eat any of the food and desperately wanted pizza. So he called his hotel reception and asked for the number of a pizza place. The concierge seemed a bit confused but the gaijin wrote down what he thought was the number of a pizza place. He calls the number. The Japanese man on the other end clearly speaks no English, but does seem to understand the word pizza, the gaijin's name, and the name of the hotel. He doesn't quite seem to understand "pepperoni with extra cheese." Still, a pizza shows up. Unfortunately it's something wierd, like broccoli and shrimp, but the gaijin picks them off and very happily eats the pizza. Of course now he continues using this new service. Every time he gets his pizza, but every time he gets some random topping, never the pepperoni with extra cheese. Then one day a Japanese friend is dropping by his hotel room, when the gaijin suggests he call that number so they can have pizza. The Japanese friend has a nice chat in Japanese, hangs up the phone and explains to the gaijin that the man on the other end is a very polite neighborhood home owner who has no idea why the gaijin calls him, but has always tried to help out by passing on his order to the local pizza joint. Speaking no English, he hasn't been able to explain the dilemma or figure out what toppings he wants, but his Japanese upbringing compels him to help out, and he just tries to choose interesting toppings as best he can.

True story? OK, probably not, but a) it reflects the amusing fact that my friend Adam travels to Japan but can't eat any of the food, and b) it accurately reflects how helpful and dutiful the Japanese are in dealing with foreigners; everywhere we went people went out of their way to help us, looking very very concerned to make sure they got us through our problems. I really appreciate this feature of Japanese culture. (Just imagine the contrast with New York; it makes my head spin.)

Sunday
February 10th
Wanted to go to Nikko but the train was sold out-apparently it's just crazy trying to get out of Tokyo on weekends, especially on the holidays. Instead we went instead to the National Museum, where we saw beautiful examples of screen paintings, scroll paintings, sculpture, ceramics, golden buddha idols, and woodblock prints. We met a business school friend, Eric Feigenbaum, for dinner and then stayed out on the town until late.

Monday
February 11th
Woke up late again. Had brunch, which included an H & H bagel flown in from New York (Tokyo is crazy, but this was a nice touch). Then we tried to visit the Ikebana school of avant-garde flower arrangement, which was closed. After that we walked for quite a while, visiting some very snooty antique stores where they scoffed at us. We did see some very beautiful crystal ware (by Daum and Monceau, I think), but it was from France. From the shopping stratosphere we retreated to a merely expensive district and bought chopsticks for all of our cousins, selecting exactly the right pair for each one from a high-end chopstick boutique.

Then we did some more walking toward home and discovered Gaby: Excellent Bar, which seemed like a cozy establishment right in the neighborhood of Chris's apartment. We decided to go back and check it out some time soon and made mental note of how to get there.

Tuesday
February 12th
I went to Nikko, an important religious center in the mountains near Tokyo. The first temple was built here in 766. The Shoguns favored the buddhist religion over shinto, which was closely linked to the imperial family. (When the Shogunate was overthrown in the second half of the nineteenth century the emperor outlawed buddhism, making shinto the official state religion. Only during the American occupation government was freedom of religion restored.) In Nikko the first Shogun, Toyotomi Hideyasu, and two of his descendants are enshrined in beautiful, colorful buildings decorated with incredibly intricate carvings and set amid a beautiful forest of tall and ancient cedar trees. Shodo-shonin founded the first temples in Nikko in the 8th century. He was then frozen in carbonite and planted on this rock for eternity... or something like that.


Sanbutsu-do temple:


The temple garden:


No evil here! This famous carving is just one of the many of the amazing carving work at Nikko.


Just one more carving photo. There's no way to do it justice on film or on screen, but let's try!


Even the Shoguns could find room for a shinto shrine:


Yes, these temple grounds commemorate Japan's greatest warriors. Oh, you say you want to see some war gods? Well, bring it on!








On my walk back to the train station I was almost decapitated by this crane. Since I was in the middle of reading a book about how the "construction state" was destroying the beautiful Japanese landscape, I thought it made for an appropriate little metaphor:




Wednesday
February 13th
Chris and I ate dinner together, then decided to track down that little bar we had discovered on Monday's outing. The street system is so crazy, it took us an hour to find it. This might be a good point at which to relate the nature of the Tokyo street system. It is totally insane. Most streets have no name. Buildings have numbers, but they are in order of when the building was built. The districts are a tangle of tiny curving streets all dead-ending into each other. If you want to take a taxi somewhere off of the few main thoroughfares, you have two options: a) you know precisely how to get there, which you explain using major landmarks and finish off by guiding the driver turn by turn, b) you have an address and one major landmark, which the driver uses to find a nearby police box (called a Koban-these are everywhere), and then asks the local cop for turn-by-turn directions. How does the mail get delivered? Please believe me; I am not exaggerating this.

Thursday
February 14th
Had lunch with three business school classmates, Daisuke (for the second time), Akira Aoki, and Hideki Obata. Had sushi. Akira showed me cutting edge 3g cell phones with video conferencing! For dinner met up with Akira and his fiancee, Fumi. Ate at a traditional izakaya (as compared to the very high-end, yuppie place we ate at with Junko earlier). Had oden, a traditional Japanese stew, which had very subtle flavors.

It turns out my friend Akira had already seen the Web site for Princess Leia, Pez Dispenser, and he was a big fan! So we arranged this one-on-one photo shoot:


And then we got the group photo:


Then Chris finished work, and he and I turned the tables on Akira and Fumi by taking them out. We went to Gaby, which we found more easily this time (though not without a little effort).

Friday
February 15th
Got sick!! Spent the day in bed. On the bright side I got to finish up some reading. Oh, and mull over a few more notes for my photo journal. Let's see... I forgo to mention something that's really difficult about speaking Japanese. They pronounce their words without accenting any of the syllables. The only exception is that they almost complete skip over "i" and "u". As an American the natural inclination is always to find the strong syllable in a word, but it doesn't sound even close to correct in Japanese. And it turns out that it takes quite a lot getting used to before you can get the knack on the pronunciation.

The book Dogs and Demons was a real downer. It recounted endless tales about how the bureaucracy of the Japanese government has spun completely out of control, chewing up more and more the the nations income to fund projects that pay off its key constituencies: rural Japanese and retired members of the bureaucracy who have "descended from heaven" to work in companies that contract business from the government. Examples include the Forest Agency that has cut down 40% of the forest in Japan and replaced it with identical, even rows of cedar trees in an ultimately futile attempt to achieve self-sufficiency in wood, at great national expense both in terms of yen expended and forest land devastated. The Construction Agency is burying the nation in debt to build unnecessary projects, again for the purpose of feeding those two constituencies. They're building artificial islands that cost billions of dollars and yet remain far from fully occupied on completion. They're building museums that house as few as three pieces of art. And conference centers in so many towns that they can't find anyone to use them.

This visit brought many signs of Japan's deep economic crisis. One was the plentiful supply of taxis. During the economic bubble of the 1980s cabs were in such high demand you could hardly find one. Now they line up around the block. Another symptom was the depressing conversations with investment bankers. They're just sick at how broken down the financial system has become. Banks and companies have trillions of yen of failed loans and investments on their books, but because of accounting rules and corporate cultures, they go on pretending that these investments aren't bankrupt. This then ties up tons of capital that could be used to start new businesses to kickstart the economy. Instead it festers. Another thing Chris and I commented on frequently was "the myth of Japanese employment." Everywhere we went we saw incredibly overemployment in useless positions. Chris's office building had a ludicrous number of security guards on duty, with nothing to protect. We spotted a parking ramp at a department store which had five guys to manage a single lane of outgoing traffic. And construction sites with men on duty to direct pedestrian traffic onto a thoroughly unconfusing walkway!

OK, enough of that, then... I was sick and grumpy.

Saturday
February 16th
Still sick. (Argh.) I did some more reading. OK, maybe I mostly slept and watched the olympics on TV. I guess it's a good thing I was planning to leave on Monday. All signs were the I was completely touristed out.

Sunday
February 17th
Still sick. But Chris and I went out for dinner anyway, this time at a Robatayaki place called Inakaya. That was super cool. Two chefs sat on their knees on raised platforms inside a wide rectangle surrounded by a narrow counter and stools. In between the counter and the chefs were a selection of delicious looking foods (five kinds of mushrooms, peppers, garlic, onions, okra, eggplant, shallots, leeks, mysterious but tasty Japanese spring vegetables, potatoes, taro root, prawns, flounder, red snapper, beef, chicken), all waiting to be grilled and served on command by the chefs. Each order was called out and repeated in chorus by every other staff member; then the chef used a four- foot-long paddle to reach out and pick up the food items, and also to deliver the finish product to customers; the chefs even used the paddles to deliver the (very large) bottles of sapporo beer. They showed off by having us try to lift beer bottles with the paddles. It was basically impossible with so much leverage working against you. And, of course, they delivered not just one but two bottles at a time! Far and away the coolest food item were whole tiny beach crabs, fried and salted, which the chefs posed in scurrying position (claws in the air, little googly eyes staring back at you) before being delivered. And they were actually quite tasty.

Monday
February 18th
Packed up and left.


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