I can't even start this blog on Day one because in truth Ronnie and I have already been "in Japan" since the beginning of August. We have been reading tour books, blogs, websites, history books, gathering Data, planning, watching movies, (Lost in Translation, The Last Samurai, Memoirs of A Geisha) and travel video (Anthony Bordaine travel across Japan tasting poisonous fish, nombuku (and Sumo Food in a hot pot) Kaisaki (many course fancy meal) and especially plotting our itinerary on Goggle maps. Let's not forget the late night phone calls to Japan that were answered by a 10 minute quick Japanese response with our confused but hopeful response of "Do you speak English?" which of course was answered with a "wan momen….." and eventually someone with very broken English might respond or another number would be given….. We were having a blast but being very unsure if it would all actually work out….
The Plane Ride- August 21, Friday
Of course there is a back story to this as well as about 3 weeks before the trip Ronnie decided to change the dates of the trip to see the Japanese Festivals in Tokyo on Shabbat. So the question was now: can we take the flight that leaves on Friday where Shabbat is celebrated at some point for only two hour during the flight? After much challenging and exciting research Ronnie determined that it was no problem and our short Shabbat flight was booked to the disapproval of Hannah. On with our story ….the flight was shockingly uneventful although it was something I had been nervous about for months (the 14 hours, lots of nausea, possible turbulence, flying over the globe in a strange direction…) We left Friday late afternoon, watched a few movies and informative Japanese videos about lacquer ware and Japanese noodle dishes and all fell asleep for a while. Ronnie started a mission for a few days in advance to stay awake all night and sleep during the day before we left so that the jet lag wouldn't be too bad. Aida was pretty successful as she had been awake for the last few night of camp anyway and Emma never has a problem staying awake… Olivia made it till 10:00 at night most nights but any way our mission to stay awake on the plane failed miserably! Aida fell fast asleep for the last 8 hours of the flight and the rest of us at other various times…would we be able to go to sleep for the full night when we arrive in Tokyo at 10 PM?
Back to the flight- Ronnie was terrified that we would not get enough meals but the service was great, the flight attendants so welcoming and nice and plenty of snacks and meals were served. We were met at the airport with white glove (actual white gloves) first class service of a jumbo Taxi fancily decorated with lace on the seats and so far the only faux pa we made was trying to put Ronnie in the drivers seat which is actually a passenger seat on the wrong side of the car!
We actually were exhausted when we got to the hotel even though we all slept on the flight and got to bed for at least 4-5 hours! Success!
Day 1- Sunday August 23
Ronnie booked a half day tour guide for the first day to encourage us to get up and out and help us figure out the city and how to get around so that we could manage on our own the rest of the days… We all showered in the fun Japanese style shower/ bath and made our way down to breakfast. We were enthusiastically greeted with welcome (Japanese word) and bows. We contemplated going to the Japanese restaurant for breakfast which served sushi and chicken soup for breakfast but we opted for the safe western style breakfast as we weren't sure what we would encounter the rest of the day! It to was weird (eggs with orange yolks and banana bread) but Olivia managed to find a soft roll and butter after her tantrum and Hannah managed with some fruit and Emma of course was happy to try the strange green Japanese sweet roll (we think that's what it was). When we realized that the concierge wasn't going to arrive till 10 and our tour too wouldn't start till then and it was still 8:00 when we finished breakfast we decided to walk around the neighborhood on our own and do some touring. We visited the Hie shrine right next door to the hotel, which was up a million steps. It was very pretty and strange and when we saw other visitors clapping and ringing the gong I remembered to look up the proper etiquette on visiting shrines. I read to the girls to remind them to bow in front of the dogs guarding the shrine.
We watched people bow at the statues, clap twice and now again. Then they prayed to fulfill whatever destinies or wishes they have then now again. It's actually not extremely religious as the religious commitment it's left to the monks! Then they dropped coins into the box and bowed and rang the gong and left. We rang the gong but no one wanted to bow or clap. It was an interesting first shrine experience! Next we walked up a very steep hill past the prime ministers residence and diet (government building) towards a public park / gardens overlooking the imperial palace. We noticed a protest in the area that looked like some sort of union protest near the government buildings and I thought it was funny that they were playing bob Dylan music of "the times they are a changing" and other American 60s protest songs! It was starting to get late so we rushed to meet our tour guide at the hotel.
We met the tour guide named Yutaka ( not Yukata the thin kimono worn in the summer) and headed out to our first subway experience. He helped us buy " metro cards" at the machine enough to use the subway all week and showed us how to touch it to the blue light on the open "turn style" and walk through. You have to touch it on the way in and out like the New Jersey turnpike so it calculates how far you've gone. Yutaka spoke to the train attendants to tell them where we wanted to get on and off so that they would help us get around. They escorted us to the elevator and put the portable ramp out when the train came. We were amazed at how pretty and clean the trains were with plush seats and how no one speaks on the train! Also how few trash cans there are all around the city to reduce clutter yet not a wrapper on the ground! We seemed to be the only ones schlepping around holding our trash and empty water bottles in our hands for hours until we spotted one! The attendants met us at the exact right spot at the next station! We walked to the kaminarimon gate which is the entrance to the Senso-Ji temple a Buddhist (Ji means Buddhist) temple. The gate was guarded by dogs and a HUGE lantern dedicated by big Japanese companies like hitachi ( because lanterns give light so if they donate it they will receive light in their lives) there are other interesting huge features all symbolizing different fortunes and protections...then we walked through the namikise market which was a very cool traditional market crowded with people wearing kimonos and Yukata for their special occasions visiting the temple. We bought anko- red bean paste donut things a traditional dessert which weren't bad and continued to the temple. Yutaka took us to the fortune area where you shake a box full of sticks with Japanese numbers and one falls out. Then you match the number to the drawer with s paper that tells you your fortune. If it is a good one you take it with you and if it is bad you tie it to a string and leave it there so as not to take the fortune with you! Aida got a good fortune and I got a terrible one! Olivia would try it do that she would get a bad one! Next Yutaka taught us how to wash our hands in the basin outside the temple left hand then right then cupping in our hands, rinsing our mouths and spitting and then washing the ladle. We moved on to the incense burning area and wafted the smoke towards any ailing parts we wanted healed and walked up to the temple. It was a gorgeous red color and beautiful paintings on the ceilings. There was a hidden Buddha inside and tons of people. Many people were taking pictures of us of course. The inside is blocked off by a screen and only the priests are allowed inside. Early in the morning you can hear them chanting their Sutras. On the same land as the temple is a Shinto shrine called anasaka shrine (Japan's other religion - although it is not really a religion) as they are intertwined and can work in unison. (shrines are always of the Shinto religion) and walked through the hozomon gate with two statues of water gods to protect the shrine from fire. We saw a coue bringing their new baby to the shrine.
We took the subway to our next destination akihabara neighborhood which is famous for the Japanese countercultures of manga ( comic books) and anime and cosplay ( Japanese girls dressed like school girls in costumes and the famous electronics store. We walked through a very famous one which was huge and very busy and lots of fun with flashing lights and tons of video games....we saw x-box, Nintendo etc... We laughed how we felt like we were in a video game the whole time because the Japanese women all sound like the high pitched video voices...we walked around and saw a Japanese pop group performing with very active participation from the crowd watching- all copying their moves and chanting their lyrics!
Next we took the train to the central Tokyo train station which is huge and modern and very busy with 3 million people going through each day! It is filled with shops and places to eat. The architecture was very European because like everything else in Japan he was influenced by the West. We walked to the imperial palace where the emperor lives and rarely comes out. It was a very long walk with lots of complaining but we saw the double bridge and the outside walls of the palace and walked on the running track with running stations ( with showers and lockers) around the palace. We learned about the Meiji Restoration period where after WWII the emperor's power was taken away and he was no longer seen as a god and the government with prime minister was put in place. It was an interesting time in Japan where they accepted their fate and moved on to modernize very successfully instead of fighting to keep the old. There is a very interesting dynamic between the old and the new the traditional and modern...
We left our guide and walked back to Tokyo station to find the vegetarian place called T Tans which had delicious Ramen! We were STARVING as it was about 3:00 and we slurped our noodles with ladles and chopsticks happily! Even Olivia enjoyed her vegan chicken after lots of complaining and apprehension! Of course she asked to come back every day!
Next we mustered up the courage to take our first subway ride ourselves to Roppongi Hill and when we asked the attendants for help they didn't seem to any to escort us with a ramp so we just went ourselves hoping for the best. It was totally fine and we quickly realized we never needed them at all! It was a really nice outdoor mall area filled with people and outdoor restaurants - looked like LA! We went to the observatory which was at the top of a beautiful building with a modern art museum and enjoyed the museum and the view. There were tons of anime characters and other fun strange exhibits that everyone else seemed excited about but we didn't recognize or understand! Once I noticed poki- man though. Tired and ready to go home we tried to find the elevator to the train station and literally walked around in circles for about one hour being directed by various Japanese speaking information people and a clueless cop to nowhere. Eventually we found the elevator and made our way home- Success! Day one!