Friday, July 2, 2010

A Naked Gaijin in Tokyo

We made it to Tokyo after a series of mishaps with the computer check-in and indifference from United Airlines staff about whether or not we made our plane (curiously, swearing at them didn't seem to help much.) Anyway, they put us on a direct flight to Tokyo instead of routing us through Calgary or Oslo or Anarctica or wherever our cheap tickets had us scheduled. So we actually made it to Tokyo ahead of our originally scheduled time. Tokyo looked as gray and depressing as always. It's the rainy season, so at least it's cooler, although everyone kept remarking on how hot it was.
We stayed in an onsen hotel the first night, which means it had a series of baths fed by hot springs. (There's really no better introduction to Japan than getting naked and taking a bath with a lot of strange men. As a "gaijin," or foreigner always looked on with suspicion, I never quite get comfortable with this very Japanese ritual.) No touristy hotels for us, this was the real Japan. Actually it was a virtual onsen town, like you might find in the mountains, with a wall of paper lanterns, a string of shops and restaurants, and an arcade. It was in Tokyo Bay, which literally was in the bay before they "reclaimed" 249 square kilometers of it.The hotel next door was a pink Spanish colonial thing lined with palm trees that looked like it was shipped in from California.
It was kind of relaxing, hanging out with the guys, taking pink and green baths, walking around in our bathrobes, playing whack-a-mole and inhaling second-hand smoke. I always forget how prevalent smoking is in Japan. The restaurant we went to didn't even have a non-smoking section.
Japanese Happy Meal.

The Chinese restaurant had some interesting offerings, like the one above. I'm guessing that it's an anachronism, and that it's not made with real Jew's ears any more, but it is a reminder of Japan's role in World War II and persistent cultural differences. I guess I shouldn't talk since I am German and Italian. It's like our little family is an axis of love.
One of the curiosities in the arcade was a tank full of these little "Doctor fish" that appeared to eat the dead skin off of your toes. For $15 you could get exfolitated by a mass of slimy, writhing critters. The way the women were screaming in the demonstration video, it didn't look like as much fun as it sounded. One guy in the video put on a snorkel and stuck his face in the tank while the fish ate around his eyes. He lasted about two seconds, and didn't really sell me on the idea. The guy who was operating the tank was drinking out of a paper bag and didn't inspire much confidence in me either.
I love Japanese signs. I don't read hieroglyphics, so it's always fun to guess what they mean. This one was in the bathroom. I guess it means "NO OPIUM SMOKING IN THE BATHROOM." Anyway, that's the kind of classy places we stay in Japan.

We had to leave the room during the day from 9-7, so we just checked out. I guess they need them  for opium dens or something. Anyway, I didn't want to know, so we left and decided to get some culture and visit some museums in Ueno Park. The Nazi theme continued with this buddhist temple sporting a swastika. Swastikas have supposedly been used as religious symbols in the east for millennia, but the Nazis were the ones who really popularized it for most people in the west.
Ueno is the home of the homeless, and all these people are lined up to get day jobs. I've seen a tent city here before, very orderly, very Japanese, all the tents made of the same kind of blue tarp. I didn't see them this time. I wonder where they went.
We got our dose of culture at the Tokyo National Museum, a sprawling complex of asian art.
Tough guy and important cultural artifact of some sort
The highlight of the museum was really the comfy chairs. We were pretty jet-lagged.

As an antidote to museum overload, we went down the street to Ameyayokocho, a noisy street market that is the opposite of the usual polite, restrained Japan. The vendors shout out to you. It's always fun to see all these exotic things layed out, like these giant octopus tentacles. Kinda makes your mouth water.
Masami bough a bag full of "squid faces," which apparently go well with beer. I'm guessing a whole LOT of beer. Didn't see any Jew's ears, although this would be the place you'd expect to find them.
The city is exciting, but I was glad to leave the next day for the south islands, where I'll start the next post.

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