Tokyo Adventures 2: Japanese culture past and present

Recently Tokyo was listed as the world’s largest Mega-city. I don’t think it takes a special list to understand that Tokyo is massive. One trip to the Skytree, the Tokyo Metro Government Building, the Daiba waterfront or the Mori Art Musuem sky deck and Tokyo’s size will become startlingly clear. This sprawling metropolis is a playground for the gastro-brave, the weird, the culture buff and the shop-a-holic. Tokyo is so massive that many of our trips there have been between other business so they don’t make for good chronological reading. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have anything worth sharing.

The crowd on a quiet day at Senso-ji

The crowd on a quiet day at Senso-ji

In the first Tokyo Adventures post I talked about finding western food and shopping for crafts and cosplay items. This set of adventures highlights the interesting dichotomy between Japan’s traditional culture and it’s backwards march in to the future.

Senso-ji & Skytree

Asakusa is by far one of the top tourist destinations in Tokyo. I won’t be able to share anything with you that isn’t already covered ad nauseum somewhere else. It’s no surprise that one of the top tourist destinations in the most populated city in the world is a little crowded. I was there on New Year’s Eve during the day which is supposedly off peak. I would hate to see what it’s like when it is peak season.

The main temple in Asakusa is called Sensō-ji and its large pagoda tower and main temple building are impressive and well maintained. Throwing a 5円 coin is considered very auspicious but all I had were 10’s. One throw for my wife and me! The immensely crowded thunder gate, which just got a new lantern, is at the entrance to Sensō-ji. If you were hoping to take that perfect picture of the bright red lantern looking all serene, you can pretty much throw that thought away now or show up at 5AM. On the bright side you will have many random Japanese people in your pictures and you can make up stories about them…

Asakusa is lauded as being one of the better preserved wards from older eras of Tokyo but for my money it just looked like Japan. Not to mention from Asakusa you can see the Asahi building, with its “golden flame” on top (we thought it looked like a golden flaming poo) and the Tokyo Skytree, which are both ultra-modern. The Sky tree costs a whopping 3,000円 to get to the top although it is the tallest tower in the world at 637 meters. We skipped it since the TMGB is free.

Not too far from Asakusa is Ryogoku. Right outside the station there are many Chankonabe restaurants. Chankonabe is basically “sumo food.” It’s a special kind of hot pot recipe that is basically a light stew. You can check out our Cooking in the shower recipe for Nabe here. To the immediate north of the station is Ryogoku Kokugikan and the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The Kokugikan is still a functioning sumo arena as well as a museum of sumo wrestling. We stopped here for the Edo-Tokyo museum and a special exhibition of ukiyo-e artwork.

The Edo-Tokyo museum has a strange a ultra modern appearance but was designed to resemble old kurazukuri store houses from Edo period Tokyo. I thought it resembled a star destroyer. Anyways, the museum in and of itself was interesting as a survey of Japanese history. A majority of the display space is centered around Tokyo after the capital changed from Kyoto to Edo in the early 17th century. Attention is paid in the museum to just about every influence that shaped Edo into Tokyo from kabuki to rice production in the Kanto region.

We attended for a special exhibit of ukiyo-e 浮世絵 (pronounced: ooo-key-yo-eh) which translates to “Pictures of the floating world.” Ukiyo-e is more commonly referred to as “Japanese wood block prints.” The Edo-Tokyo museum had gathered together an entire retrospective of famous ukiyo-e from around the world and put it all in one chronologically ordered display. Hiroshige and Hokusai are easily the most famous of the artists but they were active in the mid 19th century. The floating world has been captured in Japanese art with roots all way back in the Heian period. The time line of ukiyo-e acts as a window to the development of Japanese culture, as the themes and subjects change based on the economic and social influences around them. The British Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Boston Museum of Fine Art and the National Library of France all have massive collections of ukiyo-e. In Japan, the largest collections are at the Ukiyo-e Museum of Nagano and the National Museum of Modern Art – Tokyo. What made the Edo-Tokyo museum’s display so impressive is that they had gathered the signature works from all of these museums and many more and put them all in one exhibit. We were truly blown away by  the comprehensive collection of the “floating world.”

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the most famous examples of ukiyo-e

Spending the day in the past made us forget about modern Tokyo even though the building we were in looks like a spaceship from the outside. That same evening we spent some time Harajuku and the experience, while still amazing, couldn’t have been more opposite. Harajuku is the heartbeat of fashion culture in Tokyo and the bleeding edge of Japanese trends. Ultimately, Harajuku has become ultra popular with westerners, cosplay enthusiasts, fashionistas and artists because of the everything but the kitchen sink mentality of the district. The standard fare in fashion are there with Zara, H&M, Uniqlo and then there are stores that sell hoodies with faces on them, a t-shirt that just says, “Locality” and costume stores where you can get just about any female anime character pre-made, wig and all. Check out the Harajuku Tokyo fashion blog on Tumblr for a glimpse at some of the outfits you’ll see walking around. Also near Harajuku is Meijingu, or the Meiji Shrine which contrasts so heavily with the hustle and wild freedom of Harajuku, but remains just as much a part of Japanese culture.

Modern Japan is also closely associated with electronics, state of the art trains and robots. The Toshima ward which houses Ikebukuro and the flagship stores of Yamada Denki and Bic Camera is no stranger to technology. Toshima is also one of the most international areas of Tokyo with a high concentration of foreign born residents and the first ward to elect an openly gay assembly member. If two massive electronics stores weren’t enough, you can take the train to Shinjuku or Akihabara and see pretty much all the same stuff. In an area about 1/10th the size of Disney World in Orlando there are more than 260,000 people living and at peak hours more that 400,000 in the Toshima area.

Visiting Ikebukuro and the Toshima ward offers a little slice of everything from from modern art at the Tokyo Metro Art Space to Cafe Du Monde’s beignets to stores where normal size women can shop for shoes to the largest selection of laptops I have ever seen. I previously mentioned Sunshine city but Ikebukuro is so much more than that if you need to do some shopping in Tokyo. Although it isn’t as popular as Akihabara, Shibuya or Shinjuku, that you will still  have many intimate moments with store staff as you are forced to touch crotches to let other people by in the aisle.

Tokyo’s modern culture and history clash all over the city, the above is only a small sampling. A place where there are lines around the block on New Year’s Day at the shrine to burn offerings and where two eight story electronics stores next to each other didn’t stop a third store from going up across the street. A place where carrying a flip phone and a smart phone is no big deal. A place where repressed cultural norms lead to covering up the top half of your body, but still wearing the shortest skirts imaginable. The list of examples could go on and on as a very traditional society adapts, fights, struggles and moves forward in the largest megacity in the world.

Modern Tradition.

Modern Tradition.

Reverse Cinderella – Shoe Shopping in Japan

When I left for Japan, I had all my belongings in a backpack and two suitcases. That didn’t leave a lot of room for frivolities, so things like my “action” figure of Jane Austen, Shakespeare shot glasses, and discography of The Monkees had to stay behind. I also decided not to pack a pair of high heels. Why waste room on torture devices? Unfortunately, every once in a blue moon there is an occasion that calls for heels. About eight months into my life here, I decided I ought to buy some just in case.

At least my large shoes can serve as weapons if the need arises

Little did I know, this decision would send me on a proverbial wild goose chase. I actually believe catching a wild goose blindfolded would have been far easier. I was suddenly part of a perverse fairytale in which I was Cinderella, scowering the kingdom for the shoe that fit the foot. “But Shana, how can this be?” you say. “There are literally millions of high heels sold in Japan.” Yes, true, but almost none for any foot above a size 8.5.

In America, I’m average. Average height, average feet. Depending on the shoe brand, I can range from 8 1/2 to 9 1/2, but in Japan a whopping 26 centimeters is enough to get you laughed right out of the shoe store. And I was. At least ten times. I wanted to give up after the second store, but Andrew persisted, since men are the only ones who get to enjoy the sadistic thing we call women’s fashion anyway. At first, I thought that all the large shoes had been purchased by “fashionable” young Japanese girls. The current style in Japan is to hobble atop tall high heels two sizes too large and walk pigeon-toed in an attempt to look like a sexy toddler. Not only is this sadistic, but just plain dangerous. I imagine that the practitioners of whatever medical discipline that repairs broken ankles must be well-off here.

I imagine it’s difficult to find appropriate sized shoes as a professional clown in Japan

While this craze is disturbing, it is not the reason for the large shoe mass extinction. Shoe shops simply don’t stock anything above a 24.5, and even with the “short Asian” stereotypes, I find this hard to swallow. I don’t see many Japanese women that are much shorter that I am, ok that’s a lie. Yes, I do, but I also see plenty of natives who are much taller. For some baffling evolutionary reason that I won’t pretend to understand, they grow smaller feet. Like Barbie, they have adapted a way to walk without falling over due to disproportionate measurements. That was also the first and last time that Asian women have been compared to Barbie, you’re welcome.

This was not seen as campy in Japan, but as an actual horror movie

Walking from store to store, being rejected, in a strange way I felt…special. Well, especially motivated to kick over their display cases with my oversized feet. It’s not enough to have the curse of blonde hair, I now have this to deal with?! I suppose the upside is the next time a passerby isn’t looking where they’re walking because they are too busy staring at my “not black” hair, I can just stick out a gargantuan toe and trip them…Yeah, or I could just learn to say “Staring is rude” in Japanese…

Is there a silver lining here, anywhere? Fortunately yes, this story has a “happy” ending. I am lucky to have a Japanese friend living in Tokyo who speaks perfect English. She can search all the Japanese websites for the “size plus” stores (actual name) that cater to those of us tragically born with the condition known as “not Japanese-sized.” These stores serve lots of actual Japanese clients with this same condition. She found a store in Ikebukuro called Ladies’ Kid. I found the name obvious (who else’s kid could it be?) but the store was fantastic and the proprieter was beyond helpful.

With my gracious friend as translator, I picked out a nice pair of black heels, which the salesman proceeded to custom fit to the millimeter each shoe seperately, since he knew that all feet slightly vary between our left and right. He shaved and trimmed special inserts which he manuevered into just the right spaces for a perfect fit. All became right in the fairytale world as I was truly Cinderella this time. He even made me extra sets of inserts for my other shoes, and told me I was normal. Japanese Prince Charming, he has a very lucky girlfriend who has the same size feet as me.

Do I relish the idea of having to do all my shoe shopping in Tokyo? No, but at least it’s an excuse to see my friend!

Success at last

Success at last

Keio Dentetsu – highway-buses.jp reviewed

In our recent travels around Japan, Shana and I have been going for bus travel to save money. It costs a fair bit to use shinkansen and flying low cost airlines isn’t a savings guarantee. From Sendai there several options for bus travel but Willer Express is the company that we have chosen now for three separate trips to Tokyo because of their English friendly booking system and their relatively low cost fares. Sadly, Willer does not operate everywhere in Japan. Certain destinations require using other bus companies or spending the money on shinkansen and regular train fare. We recently took a trip to Hakuba, which is a small town in the western mountains of the Nagano prefecture. Keio Dentetsu offers direct busses from Shinjuku station to Hakuba for around 4,700円Keio bus terminal

Keio operates a bus system that brings together highway buses from all around central and south central Japan, a bit like a bus cooperative. In Nagano, the buses that Keio uses are from Alpico Kotsu. I think it is important to understand that not all the buses that Keio uses will come from the same company, so your results maybe very different than my experience.

Keio has two websites (Japanese and English). The English page is watered down substantially and focuses solely on four tourist destinations because it is apparently unthinkable that anyone would want to travel anywhere else if they are not Japanese. When going through the reservation process there is an option to book one way tickets but only from Shinjuku or Nagoya. Despite all that, the English site is simple, and well laid out if you need to book a round trip ticket. A seat will be reserved for you and you show up and pay at the terminal the day of your departure. Be aware, the terminal is cash only. You can also purchase tickets without a reservation but during peak season you may not get a seat.Screen shot from Highway-buses.jp/enThe Japanese page (if you can read it) has some benefits. First off, there are special prices and promotions for certain routes offered on the Japanese website. Second, there are far more options for booking buses through the Japanese website, as well as one way options in any direction. Finally you can register an account on the Japanese page, to earn points towards future bus travel, get email reminders, special pricing, manage bookings and save favorite routes. The Japanese site also offers a smart phone version of the main site that would allow you to login and do any reservations adjustments, provided you can read Japanese or have someone who can read Japanese, do it for you. Below are all areas serviced by Keio bus listed on the Japanese version of the main website.

I booked roundtrip tickets through the English version of their page and did not receive and email confirmation. It may have ended up in my junk folder, but I couldn’t find it so be careful. A phone number is required to complete the reservation and they were able to look up my reservation using my Japanese phone number. When I finished my booking I was able to save a PDF of my booking confirmation.

Keio bus terminalThe bus terminal in Shinjuku is very easy to get to from the West or the South exit of the JR lines.  It is right across the street from the station and in front of Yodobashi Camera (ヨドバシカメラ). Despite the place being a little hectic (and what isn’t in downtown Tokyo) it was very well run. I was able to pay for my tickets very quickly and set my stuff down. The buses leaving the station are very punctual. I didn’t see a single bus leave more than a minute behind its scheduled departure time, I would not be late for these buses. Basically the opposite of everything in Greece.

Once on the bus to Hakuba, the Keio website explains that it takes about 4 hours and 40 minutes to get to Hakuba but based on weather and traffic may change. I would count on a 6 hour bus ride. Both ways we hit major delays and something else I was not expecting. The bus made regular stops like a city bus. The Willer buses are as advertised and ONLY stop at rest stops and their terminal destinations. The Keio bus we were on stopped several times along the freeway and in rural mountain towns in Japan to pick up and drop people off. On the English website it makes no mention of this and appears in every way to be a direct bus but it isn’t.

what the bus felt like.

The seats themselves were reasonably comfortable but not as nice as Willer Express. The bus ride was calm and uneventful unlike our bus adventure on Jeju island. We ended up wanting to get off a stop earlier than what our tickets were printed for but the bus driver made no difficulty for us and helped us get our stuff off the bus. I’ll leave the issues of getting around Hakuba for a different post because they don’t have anything to do with the Keio bus lines. Keep your bus ticket handy. The bus driver for Keio will ask for your tickets when you exit the bus and I’m not sure what the repercussions would be if you didn’t have them.

Two major complaints that I have to register regarding Keio and Willer Express here in Japan. I didn’t mention this in my first review of Willer because I thought it was a fluke. Six bus trips later I want to bring up some issues with temperature control and lights.

The driver of the bus doesn’t seem to be aware of the climate of the rest of the bus. The ventilation was not being used on a relatively warm day which made the bus ride very uncomfortable from a temperature perspective. We had to switch seats several times so we could make use the cold window by pressing our faces and shoulders up against it, also this made us look like crazy people.

My second major complaint is that Japanese buses at night leave their boarding lights on. On both Willer and Keio they left main lights on the entire bus ride. After 5 hours of constant florescent lighting my eyes were really sore. It’s like being in an exam waiting room on wheels. Not to mention it is impossible to sleep in that much light. I also had a friend inform me that the bus lights are left on for the overnight buses as well but I have not personally experienced that.

Overall I have to give Keio a passing grade. For half the price of shinkansen I got where I wanted to go. The journey had its annoyances like the frequent stops, the temperature and the running lights but mostly was comfortable. We even got to hang out and look at Mt. Fuji for a few minutes in Futaba. The buses leaving the station were very efficient and the bus terminals were well organized and unlike many things in Japan, didn’t do their very best to confuse the hell out of me. I would still choose Willer Express over Keio however because of Willer’s much better English reservation page and seemingly lower all around prices.

Tokyo Adventures: Shopping and Mexican food

Gundam

Gundam

Recently we have made several trips to Tokyo by bus and while individually they did not amount to much, collectively they are a solid 2 days in Tokyo. We haven’t tried to replicate our “Million Things” style tourism in Tokyo since our first visit but we have done a few things that I think are worth recapping.

A couple friends of ours who live in Tokyo had told us about the Mori Art Museum (MAM) and since they had not been there before either we decided to take a group trip out to Roppongi hills to check it out. The MAM is very focused on contemporary and modern art and doesn’t keep a permanent collection. It is located on the 53rd floor of the building opposite the Grand Hyatt and TV Asahi in Roppongi. Since the collection is constantly changing, a recap of what I saw won’t do you any good, but I can tell you it was laid out well and was quite interesting. Moreover, the top of the MAM also has an observation deck that looks out over Tokyo. We went to the art museum because it was raining really hard. On a clear day, the MAM is one of the better places to get a high up look at Tokyo (not as tall as the Sky Tree and not as free as the TMGB though).

On that same trip we also spent some time in Ikebukuro which much like most of central Tokyo is a densely packed urban center with loads of shopping and restaurants. We went there specifically to visit a mall called, “Sunshine City.” Sunshine City is home to an El Torito, one of three in the Tokyo area. The other two are in Shibuya and Yokohama. It is very difficult to get Mexican food in Japan that actually tastes like Mexican food, so we indulged in a rather expensive night out with real margaritas, Mexican beer, taquitos, tacos, and fajitas. Sadly, just like El Torito back in California, the food is passable but not mind blowing. Somethings, in Japan I have just learned to live without, and Mexican food is one of those things. For the price, El Torito probably isn’t worth it, but on a special occasion it will sate a craving.

Pizza in IkebukuroIkebukuro is also home to a shop known as Tokyu Hands. Tokyu Hands can best be described as the love child of Japanese culture and a Michael’s craft store, which then had a love child with a comic book and anime collector’s shop. Did you need stuff to fix an antique watch? Perhaps you would like to dress up in steam punk attire? Maybe you need some fake eyes for your back pack or a life size figurine of Hatsune Miku? Yeah, they have that stuff, along with countless other items. If you want anything that is a Japanese souvenir, this is the place to get it, or if you like making things yourself, Tokyu has the supplies.

Speaking of shopping, Tokyo is basically a shoppers paradise. Just about every neighborhood in Tokyo is centered around some sort of massive shopping district. It’s like the city planners were having a contest to see how  many covered shopping arcades and multi-story shopping malls they could fit in to the city. Odaiba, which is built on a formal naval base and reclaimed land in the Tokyo harbor, is no different. With no less than 5 gigantic shopping malls, a science museum and the Fuji Media headquarters, Odaiba could keep someone occupied all day. Shana and I spent an afternoon there wandering around ダイバシチー Diver City (I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE) and its surrounding park.

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There is a small replica of the Statue of Liberty as well as a life size replica of Gundam (the precursor to Transformers, which was Takara Toy Company’s answer to the success of the Gundam toys from Bandai). The Statue of Liberty is situated on the water with greater Tokyo as a back drop. It is very hard to appreciate just how big Tokyo really is, but check out this panorama shot, almost a full 270° of non-stop metropolis. I kept thinking, “I can fit Chicago’s skyline here, and here and here…”Tokyo panorama

A friend mentioned it would be funny to see the Statue of Liberty and the Gundam either go on a date or fight. If you are an anime buff then enjoy the long line to sit in the Gundam cafe for over priced food. If you are from California head into Diver City to the roof deck on the south side. On the roof there is a skateboard park as well as a Wahoo’s Fish Tacos. The Wahoo’s is no imitation. It is the real thing, possibly the best non-Japanese food I have had in Japan since I got here. Also in Odaiba, there is a One Piece themed observation deck in the Fuji Media headquarters. The deck costs 500円 and unless you are really into One Piece, I would skip it. There are better or equal views from the waterfront promenade by the Statue of Liberty and those are free.

Costco - real pizzaAlso on the subject of shopping, Shana and I gave up on buying things in bulk almost immediately after coming to Japan. We just don’t have the room and Japanese stores typically don’t sell things in bulk anyway. HOWEVAH, while in the Tokyo area we made a special trip to Costco in Saitama. “Why Costco?” You ask. First and foremost, DON’T JUDGE ME. Second, pizza. So far in Japan, Costco is the only place that sells anything remotely similar to pizza in America. Third, underwear and goat cheese. Kirkland signature products do not vary around the globe. They have an Aristotelian quality of always being what they are. So if I buy boxer briefs, I know they will fit. Goat cheese is a costly commodity here in Japan. About 4oz. will costs 550円 at the local import store in Sendai. At Costco 1480円 gets you 2, 16oz “logs” of goat cheese. Shana uses goat cheese for just about everything in the kitchen, so we bought 2 packs of 2 to last us through the winter.

ShinjukuTokyo is really hard to appreciate from a tourism perspective, but I can see why so many people really like living there, especially as foreigners. As a tourist, Tokyo is a large, confusing, crowded and expensive. The multiple train systems even more complicated address system make getting around a hassle sometimes. As a resident it maybe one of the only places in Japan (the other being Osaka) where you can find things that remind you of home. Where you can find things that aren’t always utterly Japanese 100% of the time. Where, if you know your way around, you start to appreciate just how amazing Tokyo can be. Hopefully as we make a few more trips to the most populated place in the world, we can start to appreciate it even more.

Love and Travel – Express Yourself

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There is nothing quite akin to the sensation you get when, while traveling in a foreign country and you realize that you just got on the wrong train.

We weren’t on the wrong train. Just on the wrong version of the right train.

1385710_10153328273420593_107071201_nThere are a lot of transportation mistakes you will make when you go traveling, and all of them include risk and at least a little nervousness, but the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you speed forward into the unknown is a special feeling for me. It’s funny to think of our hearts and stomachs “sinking,” since we know they don’t really move, but in that moment the expression makes perfect sense. I once had an acting partner who couldn’t comprehend that emotions could be felt in one’s stomach. Trying to explain it to her was like trying to make a blind person experience déjà vu.

Tokyo’s subway system is vast, complex and not the most English friendly place on Earth. It is also very efficient. If you need to get from one side of Tokyo to the other, very fast, there is  a train for that. It’s called a “Rapid.” A rapid line runs along the same line as the “local” but doesn’t make all the stops.

The up-side of working with this actress is how keenly aware I became of all the emotions I can feel in my stomach. If something’s wrong with your body or your mind, your stomach is almost guaranteed to let you know about it. If you are a disbeliever like my acting buddy, just spend a little time in a Thai tuk-tuk and you will understand.

I thought the tuk-tuks were a blast. Tuk-tuks are the only way to make traffic congestion interesting.

Tokyo's train system looks like this if you replaced all the people with trains...

Tokyo’s train system looks like this if you replaced all the people with trains…

Transportation is stressful, and often times the initial response is to over-react, expecting the worst. Don’t do this. You will really, really want to, it takes a lot of effort to remain stoic in the face of possible disaster, but if you want your partner to respect and continue to travel with you, this is the tao you must cultivate.

Which brings me to our first day in Tokyo and using the excellent subway system there. Andrew and I have used metros and subways all around Europe and the States. From Athens, to Vienna, to the Tube, and even the Venetian water-taxis, we thought we had mastered it all.

The Tokyo subway and train system has to be looked at in a non-linear way to really make sense of it. Getting from point A to point B might involve actually back tracking a few stops rather than going forward to the next connection because the transfer is closer to the final destination from there. Maybe the transfer subway station is exceptionally large making a transfer there unpalatable. When you are a tourist, most of this knowledge is unavailable to you.

9e5be4e8871a13affdad28bf9cbc5351

The equation required to navigate from Ikebukuro to Ebisu

As long as you find the right line going the right direction, all you have to do is listen for your stop, or count if you can’t understand the language. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Or so we thought…dun dun dun. That ominous sound is to set the mood for the day we met our nemesis, the Tokyo express.

There are very few subway and train systems that are so easy as just knowing the direction and listening for your stop.

We’d been using the Tokyo subway all afternoon to visit different neighborhoods, no problems. So we hopped on the pink line to head north for a couple of stations where we could transfer to the green.IMG_0603

The Tokyo system map looks like someone drew it while looking at the paper through a prism.

I should probably mention that it was our first week in Japan and we had absolutely no language skills whatsoever. Even if you learn to speak Japanese, reading it is a whole other matter. Some Japanese trains have English read-outs and some don’t, it just depends on how new that particular train car is. We hopped on the next pink line train, intending to count two stops.

a metaphor: how we saw kanji characters for the first time....

a metaphor: how we saw kanji characters for the first time….

It requires constant vigilance when using a new subway or train system to not get thoroughly lost. You might call it OCD but I check the train maps in every car and platform against my map and my planned travel route. Still there are somethings that one cannot account for.

After a couple minutes of high-speed travel with no indication of slowing, my stomach began to alert me to the growing panic bubbling there. My acting lessons had also taught me the art of maintaining a straight face, but as I made eye contact with Andrew I knew he could see the fear in my eyes as they slowly widened in confusion.

Our eyes momentarily locked in an “Oh shit!” moment as we realized that we still weren’t stopping. We watched out the windows of the train as we passed at least five stations with no hint of slowing.

My reaction was more of a, “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. The letters are red… red is different. Why didn’t I notice that at first?”

I was suddenly living out the boat scene from “Willy Wonka,” waiting for the walls to become a light show of crawling insects. It was the uncertainty that was truly terrifying. It became clear we were on an express train of some sort, but how long was it going to last? Had we unknowingly stepped on a train bound for the suburbs, an hour outside of Tokyo city? How much would it cost to get back?

We could have ended up some where out there...

We could have ended up some where out there…

While neither of us is prone to over reaction, a Charles Marlow vis a vis Heart of Darkness comparison isn’t far off if you end up in the wrong manga shop… We obviously had to get off at the next station and then take the next train the other direction.

The human brain is wonderful, a million negative thoughts can occur in a matter of seconds. The important thing to do when this happens is first to ask, what can I do about it? If the answer is nothing, short of pulling the train’s emergency levers (which I wouldn’t recommend) then all those thoughts can wait. They are irrelevant. As the adage goes, you have to cross the bridge when you get there, or get off the train when you get there…

I hate metaphorical bridges. Jeff Bridges though… He’s awesome. Same with suspension bridges. I like those.

Luckily, the train stopped after another couple stations, forcing us to backtrack only about five stops. Also lucky, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, so finger pointing wasn’t even an option. Just another lesson learned the harder way, but you can bet we haven’t ended up on an express train since then!

It was definitely Shana’s fault.

How to do a million things in one day – Tokyo Edition

Konichiwa! So we knew given our short timeline in just getting to Japan that our opportunities to explore would be limited. We had one full day in Tokyo to explore and we made the most of it.

First we took the train in from the Narita Airport to central Tokyo to see the Edo Period Imperial Palace. As it turns out, most of it was closed although neither of us could figure out why because all the signs were in Japanese. We did walk through the palace’s East Garden though and then caught a train to the Shinjuku district. We literally (cue reggae music) walked down to electric avenue.

Tokyo subway map

Tokyo subway map

Shinjuku is known for its electronics stores and arcades and has earned the name electric walk or avenue. From there we went to the TMGB or Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Sounds about as exciting as a tax audit but it was actually really cool. The TMGB has two observatory lounges on the 45th floor, one in the North tower and one in the South tower, and its free. My favorite price. We got a good view of Tokyo and then caught a train a couple stops away to the Meiji Shrine.

The Meiji shrine is a massive park that is frequented by travelers, shinto followers, wedding guests and tourists. For an in depth write up of Meiji shrine, checkout introvertjapan. Following the JR train tracks for about a 15 min walk from Meiji directly south put us right smack in the center of Shibuya. Shibuya crossing is that famous intersection that is always seen in time-lapse videos. We found a nice seat at Starbucks and watched the crowd for a while before checking out a department store since Shibuya is the center of cutting edge fashion culture in Tokyo.

This man is playing a table.

This man is playing a table.

Another venture in to the Tokyo subway system put us in Roppongi which is the home of Tokyo’s best nightlife, the red light district, and one of the wealthiest areas of Tokyo. Roppongi is also a huge artistic center in Tokyo and there were several exhibitions going on in the Tokyo Midtown. One exhibit was a giant bounce house for children shaped like a Hefty trash bag. Another “art” installation involved people wandering aimlessly on a small lawn playing brass instruments (poorly) and they were being followed around by other people carrying around Japanese lanterns on the end of long poles. There was also a guy playing a table as a musical instrument. Not like drumming on it… like blowing into as if it were a tuba. Tokyo Midtown is also a very large mall that is connected to Konami and Fujifilm headquarters and has a lot of very high end boutiques, restaurants and even a 24hr grocery store called Pecce. Pecce had samples like Costco. Pecce’s samples were better.

Our final stop of the day put us in Ebisu which isn’t really a tourist destination but it is where local 9-5’ers go after work to get dinner. There are no signs in English. Most of the restaurants specialize in one type of dish and this all they serve. One restaurant might serve only udon noodle soup but it wont even be all kinds of udon. Instead it will be beef udon with two flavor options and that is it. We went to a local’s yakitori restaurant which I cannot name because everything on the outside of the building was in Japanese. (I have since found out that the name of the restaurant was Tagosaku). Thankfully they actually had a menu with some rough translations on it. We had skewers of pork heart, liver, and temple (which I’m pretty sure was pork cheek) as well as chicken gizzard, thigh and “meatball.” It was absolutely fantastic. I also tried a special drink called “hirosu” which has some dubious ingredients, “Soju, Soda Water, Ice, and Chinese Medicine.”

From there we had a ended up having a 2 hour train/subway ride back to Narita because it is no where even close to actually being in Tokyo. All in all though a pretty good day.

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Where have all the Kehoes gone?

Well. That was very sudden. My wife and I are on our way to Iwanuma and Sendai to teach English to young Japanese students. We accepted an offer from a Japanese company called “JoyTalk” and our adventure begins. In the span of about 36 hours we prepped and packed for our lives in Japan. Thankfully we were mostly ready to begin with.  It’s now 1:31AM and I am sitting in the International terminal of SFO waiting for a flight to Japan.

Japan? What happened to South Korea?

Well I’ll get into the details of why we are not going to South Korea in a different post.

Instead of getting into why the Koreans refused to let me work in their county I’d like to write about why Japan is awesome.

1) Culture – Japan was actually our first choice and where Shana and I got our first job offer but we turned it down for a couple of reasons. One of them was that they wanted us to get a car to commute to our job. The job we accepted now doesn’t require that. Anime, Monster Movies, Tokyo Gore Police, Karate, Shinto, Samurai, Buddhism, Noh Theatre, Tatami, Kimonos, Tea Ceremony, and much more!!!

2) Food – Sushi. In Japan.

3) Pay – The pay in Japan is actually better than South Korea on an average salary basis but there are not as many perks and the cost of living is higher. For instance we will have to pay for rent in Japan but in Korea rent was paid for by the school. However with our combined salaries we will still be able to save a lot of money.

4) Mt. Fuji – Duh.

5) Learning Japanese – What a cool language. We thought we were going to be learning Korean which would have been cool too but Japanese is equal if not better. Shikata ga nai!

6) The value of what we do – We are actually heading a city that was ravaged by the most recent Tsunami. Hopefully teaching English there will help build a new and better community.

7) Bullet. Trains. – Nuff said.

8) JoyTalk – The company we are contracted with has a very good reputation of taking care of their employees, including paid vacation and sick days and helping us get settled in our new lives in Japan.

9) Japanese Immigration – To get approved for a work visa my wife and I had to answer like 10 questions and be college graduates. No apostilles. No notary public. Just scanned diplomas, passports and some recent photos.

10) Godzilla – Obviously.

So there you have it. 10 Really good reasons why Japan is awesome. I’m sure I could list hundreds more but there is no need.

Sayonara United States of America. Konichiwa Japan!