Yesterday we returned from Tokyo at 9 AM, after departing on the same day at 4 PM Tokyo time. When I was in college I thought it was strange to arrive in Chicago at the same time I'd left Columbus. Now I know that was no big deal.
While in Tokyo we stayed at the Kimi Ryokan, which the Lonely Planet Tokyo describes as "perhaps the best budget accommodation" in the city. I can't verify that claim, but will say that it was a very pleasant stay. The rooms were tiny, and we slept on simple mattresses on top of tatami mats. Shared showers and sinks, as well as a traditional Japanese bath on the second floor, were the main amenities. Guests could store food in the lounge, and even buy a beer from the lounge vending machine if you so desired.
Vending machines are everywhere in Tokyo; one estimate I read is that there is one vending machine for every 20 people in Japan. In Tokyo the ratio felt much higher. A person could walk two blocks and have several opportunities to buy a plethora of refreshing beverages. Early in the trip Helen developed a taste for milk coffee (available for 110 yen, approximately $1.10). Once I got a hot coffee drink that I thought would be iced. And at the airport heading home I bought a Coke simply because the container was cool. This was decadence.
Sometimes we had to use vending machines to order food at a restaurant; we did this twice. There aren't always pictures of each dish, so without Helen my strategy would have been to pick something at random and hope it was good. But Helen diligently noted the characters on the display models out front before we went into the restaurant and placed our order.
Once we ordered beer from a vending machine--at the Sapporo Beer Museum. All that came out was a token, which we traded in for a sample of four small glasses of beer at the bar. At the museum I reconfirmed my great preference for light to dark beers. Helen doesn't drink beer, but she loved the beer jelly and beer crackers.
My favorite museum was the John Lennon Museum in Saitama Shintoshin (about 30 minutes from Tokyo.) Yoko Ono opened the museum in 2000, on the 60th anniversary of Lennon's birth. It tells the story of John's early years; the incredible rush of early fame; when he met Yoko (who used to let strangers cut her clothes off as a performance artist in the 1960's); the breakup of the Beatles and their peace campaign; Lennon's harassment by the US government for said peace campaign; Lennon's downward spiral into drugging and boozing in the early 70's; Lennon's redemption as a happy house-husband in New York City in the mid-70's; Lennon's untimely murder at the hands of Mark David Chapman just after the release of the album Double Fantasy with Yoko. (Chapman isn't named at the museum. He's still in prison at Attica, and apparently he spends a lot of time in the library.)
Lennon was an amazing musician and devoted father, but it's still odd to go to an entire museum dedicated to just one person. But no more odd than going to a museum that's all about parasites. We did that too, and were rewarded with a view of an 8.8 meter tapeworm that once lived inside a man in Yokohama. Loyal blog readers, I suggest that you cook with care.
Tokyoites have a fabulously reliable train system, and my favorite was the Yamanote line that whisked commuters around the city on an aboveground track. This train featured silent commercials, frequently for Contac. Just as two warriors are about to cross swords, one warrior sneezes and the other man wins. This commercial never got old. Loyal blog readers, I suggest that you buy Contac to prevent sneezing.
You probably won't need to buy tissues (although we did once, at a Seven Eleven.) Outside many train stations young people give away tissue packets with advertising on them. Once we scored an honest-to-goodness tissue box, which fit perfectly inside our bag and provided for easy-access tissues for the rest of the day. I needed those tissues, because whenever I wasn't having fun I was blowing my nose.
We mostly stayed in Tokyo, where we saw a fun kabuki show as well as the extensive gardens of the Imperial Palace. We also went to the Tokyo Dome and took in the scene surrounding the Boston Red Sox-Oakland A's game; this was right after a futile attempt to spot the sumo wrestlers who live in the Ryoguku neighborhood. And we went to the world famous Tokyo Fish Market to watch men poke dead tuna with hooks. And we strolled among the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park, with what felt like the rest of Tokyo. Once I head a man tell his friends (in a language I actually understood!), "I can't stay out of everyone's pictures."
Our longest excursion was to the Hokane region, which offers views of Mt. Fuji and delicious eggs cooked in the hot water generated from volcanic ash. These eggs have pitch black shells, and are one of the reasons people come to Hokane. From Tokyo you take one train; a second train; a cable car; and finally a "ropeway," which is basically a flying pod in the sky. Actually getting to Hokane felt like a great accomplishment. On the way back we stopped in at an onsen, a public bath. Helen donned her birthday suit, but in the end I got cold feet and sat by the (what else?) vending machines.
Long trips make for good reading. On the flight there I read Amanda Davis's novel Wonder When You'll Miss Me, which is the book club selection in two week's time. While in Tokyo--and especially on that epic voyage to Hokane--I dove deep into Zadie Smith's amazing novel On Beauty. On the flight home I finished On Beauty. As soon as we landed (basically) I started recommending it to friends.
Thanks for the memories, Tokyo. And thanks for the good reads, Amanda and Zadie.
Below are a few pictures, taken by fabulous photographer Helen. The full album is here.