I had accomplished a great deal on the plane to Tokyo — I am finally all caught up with blog posts! Woohoo! Once off the plane, we entered a land where Hayden was often the only white person in the room. Customs was a no-brainer. We basically wandered around like lemmings as the nice Japanese customs officers nudged us in the right direction.
Japan has such a different aesthetic (both modern and traditional) than Western countries. Even though there are English signs all around and the conveniences are pretty similar, things like type fonts, interior design of public spaces, and materials are all tuned to an aesthetic that seems to match the calm, polite culture of the people. I’m also starting to get used to the culture again — in New Zealand and especially Australia, I had accustomed myself to the Western culture of loud, friendly gestures as the norm for positive interactions with others. In Japan, we’ve done a 180 degree flip, where friendliness means being quiet and timid and not taking up too much space. I try to blend in as much as possible by not being that loud and impolite American, but I still don’t speak Japanese so sometimes I have to just be like “Gomenasai — Watashi wa Amerika-jin desu” (I’m sorry — I am American) and be that silly foreigner.
In any case, people are all very nice and helpful here. With only a little searching and the assistance of Google Maps, Hayden and I located the airport terminal station that would take us to the closest station to our hotel in Tokyo. Keisei Line took us from Narita Terminal 1 to Daimon Station in Minato, Tokyo. I was feeling very succesful so far — I had been worried about navigating Japanese public transporation, but we hadn’t gotten lost so far! From Daimon Station, we walked a few hundred meters to Shiba Park Hotel, where we would be staying for the next two nights. I had stayed here 12 years ago with my grandma on a tour of Japan. We were happy to have arrived after a whole day of transportation. Hayden had tea for his congestion (tea is always available in Japanese hotel rooms, of course) and we went to bed early.
Shiba Park Hotel is highly rated and in a good location. From Shiba and what I remember of previous trips, Japanese hotels are aesthetically different from Western hotels. The exterior of Shiba Park Hotel is a dull brick face, but the Japanese seem to actually understand that the cover of the book isn’t the important part. The bedrooms don’t bother with fancy furniture or sheets, and the bathrooms are smaller and undecorative. It seems that the Japanese value functionality and orderliness over lavishness and frills. In that vein of thought, while the bathrooms may not look like much, all the toilets (including many at restaurants and public restrooms) have a spray/bidet function that washes your behind. Hayden was rather amused by this.
I was very happy to be in Japan again. It felt familiar, like an old friend that always brings out the best in you. I was also very excited to show Hayden all the things I love about Japan. This is a very different place than Australia or New Zealand. There would be no backpacking or vast, uninhabited landscapes. The peacefulness here comes from the civilization created by the people.
The next morning, we woke up very early and had the traditional Japanese breakfast at the hotel. I was wary of deviating from the Western buffet breakfasts that I remembered so well from my previous trips to Japan, but Hayden really wanted to try a Japanese breakfast. In the end, Japanese breakfast is similar to Japanese dinner, and I was glad we had done it.
We wandered outside into the fog and cold and set off to the Daimon Station, where we took the Asakusa Line to Asakusa. In Asakusa, we wandered up Nakamise Street, a walking street full of traditional structures and shops selling food and knick knacks. Hayden and I bought an umbrella halfway down Nakamise Street, because it had started to rain. Nakamise led to Asakusa Shrine and a bunch of other temples and shrines. People lit incense and gave coins to the temples for good luck. Hayden and I wandered around the area, took lots of photos, and bought a weird snack. There was a type of Japanese cookie that I had always loved but couldn’t remember the name of, and I kept searching and searching for it at every food stand with no luck.
Then we walked 30 minutes to reach Ueno Park. On our way, we passed through Ueno Station, which contained a big mall area where Hayden bought a less weird snack. We wandered around Ueno Park until it was too cold and too rainy and we wanted to go back to the warmth of the station.
At the station, we bought a small bento lunch to-go and decided to take the train back to the hotel instead of seeing the Imperial Palace in the rain. We took the train to Hamamatsucho Station, the closest JR station to our hotel, and walked back to Shiba to get warm and dry. During our break from the outdoors, I caught up on posting blog posts and Hayden and I watched Friends. We got right up to a really good episode (The One With The Prom Video) but had to stop watching if we wanted to see Zozoji Temple and Tokyo Tower before dinner.
Zozoji Temple and Tokyo Tower were only a few minutes’ walk from our hotel, so we strolled on by as the sun finished setting and got some cool photos of the lit-up tower. Tokyo Tower is really beautiful at night. Behind Zozoji Temple, there is a graveyard with ornate Japanese headstones.
We had been planning on having dinner with my Japanese relatives for months, and tonight was finally the night. Akko, Reina, and Reina’s three little kids arrived to pick us up and take us to their family’s restaurant, Toyo. The whole family was there (Eri, Eri’s two little kids, Mitchan, Mitchan’s brother, Reina’s husband, and Nana), including many family members who I hadn’t met before and some who I had. Dinner was really fun! Most of the relatives spoke pretty decent broken English, so conversation was good.
There were five little kids total. I have decided that Japanese kids are cuter and more well-behaved than all other types of kids. The youngest child, who is 4 years old, only knew words like “butterfly,” “lady bug,” and “roly-poly,” and occasionally wandered by and demonstrated her English. She also kept her eyes glued to an iPad the entire time (see: group photo), and Hayden remarked that “I have never seen a 4 year-old taking pictures on an iPad.” Indeed, the 4 year-old took many pictures on her iPad. We watched her carefully aim her iPad at the ground and take a picture of the hardwood floor. Hayden decided that she was his favorite after that.
It was neat to catch up with relatives from the other side of the world. It was also super cool to eat in the restaurant that they run! They fed us well (plus cake at the end) and we exchanged presents with them. They were very generous. Additionally, Akko had brought the cookies that I had been looking for! What a turn of luck. I was so happy.
We said our goodbyes and hope to see them again in two years when we come back to this part of the world for the 2017 World Solar Challenge. Hayden and I wound down for the night with more Friends (Hayden finally got to watch the episode where Ross and Rachel finally get together!) and those special cookies.
The next morning, we tried the Western breakfast at the hotel. Apparently, Western breakfast includes chicken nuggets, French fries, fried rice, and hot dogs, along with the usual eggs, bacon, cereal, fruit, etc. Those silly Americans with their silly breakfasts! I did try some chicken nuggets.
After breakfast, we packed up and Akko drove us to the Shinagawa Station, where we could board the bullet train that would take us directly to Hiroshima. Akko dropped us off and then Eri, who works for JR, helped us through the station to get where we needed to go. They even bought our tickets for us! It was extremely nice of them and it felt good to have relatives who wanted to take care of us. While waiting for the train, we drank Calpis, a sugary Japanese beverage that had been a favorite of mine as a kid. I had to make sure Hayden got the experience, too!
Thanks to Eri, we boarded the train with no trouble at all. Akko and Eri had gotten us reserved seats, so we didn’t have to worry about finding a place to sit together. The bullet train is a Japanese experience in itself. Not only is it a very cool method of transportation, it is like an airplane ride, with snacks and meals for purchase and three times the legroom!
Hayden and I are on the bullet train now. It’s only a 4 hour ride to Hiroshima Station, then we will walk about 30 minutes to our hotel. So far, everything has been going wonderfully to plan!