The Joys of Japan

December 1, 2005 by  
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For my family, this past Thanksgiving was less about the pilgrims than it was about a pilgrimage. We traveled to Tokyo, Japan, in search of the house where my mother’s family lived in 1948 when she was only 2 years old.

My maternal grandfather was in the Counter-Intelligence Division and was stationed with MacArthur as part of the occupation forces. They lived in the part of town that had been rebuilt by the U.S. military; when my grandmother passed away this past year, we found the map of Tokyo that she used to navigate her stay. She had marked places of interest such as their house, the bowling alley, the grocery store and even “where Tojo hanged.” Unfortunately, my grandfather became terminally ill while in Japan and passed away in 1949; so, in attempt to get in touch with our heritage and their parents, my mother, her sister, my father and I took off for Tokyo armed with a 55-year-old map and a GPS system.

Having heard for years how expensive and unfriendly Japan was, not mentioning unpalatable in terms of the cuisine (other than what I anticipated was going to be exceptional sushi), I must admit our experience ranked among the top I have had in my extensive travels. Not only were the Japanese some of the friendliest people we had encountered, the food was fantastic and most things were less expensive than I’ve found in Houston. Once you broke through the stiff veneer of politeness and manners that ferociously grips these extraordinarily gracious people, they are effusive and bubbly with a wonderful sense of humor.

I must admit, however, that I had brought along a secret weapon that most tourists to Japan are lacking – I had Santa Claus. My father was working as the Santa Claus at the mall; and he brought along his Santa hat, white fluffy beard, and a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly. When we landed at Narita airport, he was literally chased down by a couple of teenage girls, yelling “Santa-san” and trying to catch a picture of him with their camera phones.

Narita is almost 45 minutes outside of Tokyo, and the airport shuttle bus is the cheapest and easiest way into town and to almost all local hotels and major train stations. The bus also offers a first glimpse at the rules governing public behavior that make living with 127 million other people on a tiny little island bearable. As the bus departed the airport, there was a recording giving the requisite warnings about standing up while the bus was moving, but it ended with an admonishment not to use your cell phone “because it annoys your neighbor.”

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have a rule like that abided by while dining in some of Houston’s tonier restaurants. The astonishing thing was that everyone not only followed the cell phone rule on the bus, but almost everywhere else in Japan, including the subways and the trains. In fact, the quietness was almost eerie at times when you were standing on a crowded train platform or inside a packed subway. No one ever made eye contact or small talk on any of the public transportation, and our casual conversations on the train made us stick out more than towering 6 to 8 inches over the average citizen.

We took an organized half-day city tour our first morning in town, which hit all of the Tokyo high points. (Grayline, $45) Our first stop was the Tokyo Tower, which was designed as a replica of the Eiffel Tower with an unfortunate orange and white paint job. It does, however, offer exceptional views of Tokyo from its observation deck 250 meters in the air. You can even see Mt. Fuji from the top, if you are lucky enough to have it break through the cloud cover. We had no such luck, and in fact, spent our trip trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive mountain.

The next stop on the tour was the Meiji shrine, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, who wrested power back from the shoguns, moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo and began moving the country toward industrialization in the early 1900s. It is a beautiful shrine set in the midst of a small forested area right in the middle of Tokyo. The guide walked us through purifying ourselves at the ablutions station before heading in to make an offering to the gods. This involved clapping to get their attention and then tossing your money at a collection box in front of the shrine. In fact, the exterior of the shrine was covered in thousands and thousands of pockmarks where the faithful have gotten impatient on New Year’s Day and hurled their offerings at the shrine before the monks quite had the door open. Our group was held up at the parking lot while an impressive motorcade made its way past. After its departure, our guide was told by one of the security guards that we had just seen the Emperor and Empress leaving the shrine after paying homage to his ancestors. Our final stop on the tour was at the Imperial Palaces East Garden. The garden is inside the 15-foot-thick inner moat surrounding the 250-acre fortress that is currently the home of the Emperor and Empress. The gardens were breathtaking, and we learned they contained the five requisite elements for a traditional Japanese garden: a pond, a waterfall, a lantern, a rock and a bridge. This garden has always been open to the public, and both my mother and her sister thought they remembered coming there for walks as children.

On our quest to see the elusive Mt. Fuji, we decided to head to its base via the world-famous Shinkansen, or bullet train. Using his trusty and ever present GPS, my dad was able to determine that our fastest speed was 150 miles per hour, and yet it was the smoothest ride you could imagine. It didn?t even ripple the liquid in the drinks we had purchased at the station. We arrived in Hakone, which is the jumping off point for a masterfully engineered tourist jaunt around the base of Mt. Fuji. You can purchase an ironically named Hakone Free Pass for $50, which gives unlimited access to the route around the area. The first leg is aboard a miniature gauge railroad that winds its way up the side of a mountain. It makes multiple stops, and you can hop off and on for attractions like the Open Air Sculpture Museum.

At the end of the rail, we stopped in a tiny village called Gora and hopped a cable car that went straight up the side of the next mountain. This afforded excellent views of the fall foliage that could easily be mistaken for the East coast of the United States. The cable car landed at Souzan station, where you transfer to large ropeways that follow a suspended pass over the valleys – and closer to Mt. Fuji.

At the peak of this ropeway, we transferred to a much smaller car that took us down the face of the mountain facing Mt. Fuji and toward Lake Ashi. It is at this point in the trip you are supposed to have fabulous views of Fuji-san. We had fabulous views of cloud cover and the rancid sulphur mine the cable car crosses. We continued to be optimistic that eventually Mt. Fuji would poke its head out of the top of clouds because we still had a boat trip across the lake on a replica pirate ship, during which we could still have a sighting. Alas, the gods were against us, and we made this entire day-long circuit without so much as a peek at the famous mountain.

We hoped for more success the next day as we took the bullet train in the opposite direction in search of the town of Nikko and the Toshogu Shrine, completed in 1636 for the Shogun TokugawaIeyasu, who is said to be the greatest shogun and warlord who dedicated his life to conquering Japan. It is, in fact, his legacy on which the book and movie “Shogun” was based.

The temple complex covers several acres and is covered in thousands of cryptomeria trees, which are the giant redwoods of Japan. There are numerous shrines and temples within the complex, but my favorite was the stable that was covered in carvings of monkeys, most famously with a carving of the three famous ‘wise’ monkeys: “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil.” There is a common saying in Japan, “Do not say kekko (‘splendid’) until you have seen Nikko;” and for once, I would have to say the adage lives up to the hype.

Our final day in Japan was spent examining more of Tokyo. We woke at 5:00 a.m. to make our way to the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market. Fish from around the world are flash frozen and flown to Tokyo for the largest fish auction in the world each day. It is highly likely that the tuna you have at your favorite sushi restaurant is flown in from this market. If you arrive before 6:00 a.m., you can watch the auction and then stick around while they tag, clean and deliver the enormous tuna which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Porters deliver the giant fish to the buyer, and the buyer then spends the rest of the morning carving the fish with an assortment of knives that are nothing less than swords that must be large enough to maneuver around fish the size of a high school cheerleader.

After a breakfast of the freshest sushi on earth, we headed for a cruise up the Sumida River to the Asakusa Kannon Temple, and – shopping. Leading up to the Asakusa Temple is a street called the Nakamise shopping street. It is lined on both sides with more than 90 stores dating back hundreds of years. Today, they are small stalls that sell every possible Japanese tourist item one could hope for, from sake sets and tea sets to Japanese porcelain dolls and paper umbrellas and fans, all at surprisingly reasonable prices. The street runs right into the Asakusa Shrine and the Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo, built in 628. The entrance to both is through an enormous gate with a red Japanese lantern more than 30 feet tall.

Although we only had a few days to spend in this glorious country, with the ease of the bullet train and subway system, we were able to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. We enjoyed a lot of the Japanese past, as well as just a bit of my family’s recent history, and managed to spread a little Christmas cheer along the way.

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