Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Two Disconnected Stories Tied Together Because They Both Happened Tonight

I haven't gone out much at night here. I'm generally pooped at the end of the day sad there no real motivation to go more than a few blocks from the hotel. I enjoy eating at the more local places and don't find the need to do anything fancy. 

Tonight, however, I though it would be interesting to go to the Gion district, famous for the restaurants with geishas and where westerners aren't welcome. According to what I read, of course there are plenty of places that aren't geisha places and this area has some of Kyoto's best food. Plus, I want to see more kimonos. In fact, there are more than a few women walking around Kyoto in kimonos, and men in monk robes, both wearing the wooden flip flops with socks. But really, who can get enough of that?

When I got off the bus I saw the street I wanted to go down, a narrow back street with the lanterns and clear signs of nightlife. But first I backtracked about half a block to the corner to take this photo of an orange temple. 


Just as I took this shot, someone hit me hard in the back with an elbow.  I turned around and there was a man with a child's backpack looking a bit mentally retarded, not quite all there. There was nobody else around, and the corner was very wide, clearly not an accident. He said "Bye!" I quickly walked in the opposite direction and saw him continue around the corner. He was headed the same way I wanted to go, to that street with the restaurants. So I waited a few minutes, figuring he would keep going. When I rounded the corner, there were more people (two geishas!) and he was there. He saw me and said "Hello! Bye!"  I turned down the narrow street quickly, he didn't follow. I turned again and out in my raincoat and hood so I'd look different, and raised my umbrella. I never saw him again.

Next was to find a place to eat. It was getting late and drizzling. But, true to its reputation almost every place was definitely closed to strangers. If there was a menu, it was in Japanese and had no numbers to indicate price. Some of these places (according to the internet) are extremely pricey and charge cover fees for the geishas. I did to expect to go to a geisha place, but it was hard to tell what was what. And if it did have pictures and/or prices it was really cheap and/or featured pizza.

I finally came across a lively sushi bar, but the only open seat was facing a wall. After waking in circles for half an hour I finally chose a yakitori place. In retrospect, I think this place is pretty famous, I had read about it, where it's a one man show and he gets his chickens from a family farm. There were snapshots of chickens and farms on the walls, and that's all he had, a big piece of chicken or wings either grilled or a la sashimi. There was also a big salad, which I had as well. The other couple that I'm about to tell you about had the raw chicken, which is a really weird concept since we aren't supposed to even touch raw chicken, no less eat it.


Sitting at the bar (the only place to sit) was an American couple, looked like around 30 years old. The woman had a slight Russian accent and her face was disfigured. The man looked Latino and he had patchy red skin. They didn't look like a match and I hesitated to make eye contact because they just looked so weird.

But they did talk to me about the chicken, and we laughed about the raw thing, and so there was no avoiding this bizarre looking pair.

It turned out that they had climbed Mt Fuji a couple days ago and got so badly burned from the reflections from the snow that the man had snow blindness for 24 hours and she had a really bad sunburn on her face. This evening was the first time they were out for an extended period since the disaster. Her lips and nose were swollen and raw red, really ugly, starting to peel. They kept saying "we don't look like this." They both grew up in Brooklyn and now live in Sunnyside. She's a doctor and he's a computer guy. They were planning to get married at a club in Brooklyn and had given the deposit check just before they came to Japan. Just a few days ago the club was in the news because the owner ran off with all the peoples deposits -- it's booked solid for a year. Luckily they had post dated the check and so it wasn't yet cashed. So, they decided to exchange vows on Mt Fuji, only to be blinded and burned just hours later. 

They showed me some photos. The doctor was, pre-burn, very very pretty.

They were so nice. Tango enthusiasts, very, very smart and interesting, completely present and engaged with the world, people you would be thrilled to have as friends. I wish them a speedy recovery and hope they can find a way to get married without disaster striking.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

That thing that happens

On every trip, usually just once, that thing happens where you get exactly what you need at the moment you need it. Expectations are exceeded and you are charmed to the core. Maybe you are hot, or cold, or it's raining, or your feet are tired, you've made a turn into unfamiliar territory, and you need a respite. Then, you walk through a door, or over a threshold, and you find that place you didn't know you were looking for. It might be a garden, or a gallery, or a bar, or a restaurant, or a bench, or a lookout, it varies each time, and each time you find that feeling of joy.

Today I was lost in thought as I marveled at the nearly 100 girls lined up and waiting their turn to get into a shop called Johnny's. Yesterday I saw the same line, but today I followed it to the end to see what it was they were in queue for. Up until one minute ago I thought Johnny's was a restaurant but some googling tells me it is a store that sells fan merchandise for pop artists that are managed by someone called Johnny. http://www.johnnys-net.jp/page?id=index&lang=en_us



As I followed the line, I turned off the alley into another world, just one block from the herding masses. On this street there were houses, some in the old wooden style, with small gardens and garages, not a soul in sight. (Not realizing that this block was the scene of a future happy memory I didn't photograph it with my phone)

It was lunchtime but I was more thirsty than hungry, pretty tired, and my phone was at 18%. The blackboard had the word "lunch" but the rest was in Japanese. I walked through the back door and into an open air restaurant on a hill, where the front overlooked some buildings, a construction site, and the busy Takeshita Street just far enough away to not hear the hawkers and their singsong pitches. There was a big balcony with comfy chairs, several tables with fashionable women and their tiny dogs, and a man with a long, gray beard like from a samurai movie.


The lunch price wasn't just reasonable, it was a downright bargain. For $11,  I chose the sashimi avocado rice bowl, and it came with a salad buffet with fresh veggies, miso soup, good bread, iced tea--green and black, and hot tea and coffee. The breeze was cool on this hot day, the music was on the rock and roll end of the pop spectrum, and the atmosphere was elegant, adult, and low key.


Completely refreshed, thrilled to have found this hidden spot, so close to the nuttiness of Harajuku, but worlds away in tone, I continued my day with a new spirit.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Tokyo Day 3

Sleep is not happening. Not a wink all night before I had to get up to meet the tour guide. Somehow I stumbled through the day without collapsing. The sun rises at 4am, and along with it comes the screaming ravens. The ambulances go all night, the sirens sound like an air raid signal. Also, the cars don't move out of the way so the driver is constantly on the loudspeaker politely asking them to move. (This is the explanation provided by Min, my airbnb host.)

I spent the day with Mr Watanabe, the volunteer tour guide. He was very sweet but maybe should consider volunteering his time for something different. His written English is excellent but he understood about one in ten words. Being ever polite, he pretended to understand my jokes and laughed in most of the right places.

The plan was to see the places where Japanese youth culture congregates and buy some manga. We did some of that, but I found out later that we missed a huge swath, including a building with 8 floors of manga and anime related crap.

We started at a shopping mall where it was too early so most of the stores were closed. It is possible that there were manga stores there, but who would know. So I hustled him out of there and we went to Hajakuru which has a street that is 100% teen fashion. That was pretty cool.


In his defense, I got distracted when I spotted the Meiji Shrine and we went in. This display celebrates Japan's saki industry. Across from it was another display of wine kegs celebrating Japan's importing of French wine, a symbol of their westernization and modernization under some former emperor in the 1980s.


Luckily we stumbled across a traditional wedding. Their procession led them to a garden spot where the wedding party sat for a group photo.

Back to youth culture we visited the Pokeman center, filled with toddlers screaming.

And a book store that had manga in English, among other interesting things. In Tokyo, book stores have not gone the way of the dinosaur, and they are filled with an incredible assortment, and packed with people browsing.



Look, she signed the poster!


On my way home I passed the tourist trap Robot Restaurant, with giant animatronics dancing to music. The smaller, pink figure is the human controlling the machine. Very odd. Advertised price is $60 per person not including meals. I heard later that discount tickets are available for half price, and the meal is a bad bento box you eat in your lap.








Tokyo Day Next

I can't figure out breakfast. I think it's the same as lunch and dinner. Fish or soup or fried things made out of fish and soup.

Fish market in the morning was very cool but I couldn't find the wholesale part. This corn fish on a stick was half my breakfast,. The other half was an octopus curry rice ball, which was a rice ball with a piece of octopus stuck on top, like a decoration.

The most unusual thing there were these sea sponges in the shape of toilet bowl cleaners, hanging on a Christmas tree.

Then I walked to a 300 year old garden where all of the original buildings have been destroyed either by earthquake or war. There were commemorative plaques everywhere describing the buildings that once were. General Grant was a visitor, also commemorated by plaques and copies of paintings. I paid a stupid amount of money to sit on the floor and have powdered matcha tea and a little bland cake in a replica of the original tea house that was destroyed by war and replaced in 1980 (maybe, I can't really remember).


I saw this cute box turtle and listened to screaming crows. There was also an elaborate pair of duck blinds for hunting.


There was a couple in traditional wedding gear getting photographed but they might have been models, as they were a little too beautiful to think they were real. Notice the gigantic buildings behind the garden. The encroachment is right up to the edge of this sanctuary.


Then I decided enough tourism, time for shopping so I went to Ginza. But first stop was for contact lenses since I left them at home. One man in the shop spoke a tad of English, but my ever awesome husband had sent me photos of the box so it was easy to get what I needed, though I still had to have an eye exam.  It took about 1 minute and cost $30. The important thing is I don't have to wear those awful glasses any more.


Now for lunch. By this time it was after 2:00 and everything was closing up. I went into a tiny restaurant with no English or photos. A man was eating a whole fish. I pointed and I think I ordered it. Hard to say. Another group of black suits came in and shortly thereafter they were told something and left without eating. The waitress tried to tell me something but the only word she knew was "kitchen" so I figure there was something wrong with the kitchen and I left. In any case I got to partly charge my phone and stay out of the rain.
 

Now everything really was closed so I went into a counter style place and ordered dumplings. There was a pictograph about how to eat them but I didn't understand and when I punctured it with my  chop stick the dumpling squirted everywhere. I tried to eat it and it squirted more boiling water into my mouth. Ouch. Then I realized they were soup dumplings and the pictorial made sense--puncture, slurp and then eat.

It was still raining so I visited the two big department stores. The clothes were pretty fantastic and all in my size, but the cuts are very square and not for me. Also, it was pretty pricey. One was a la Bloomingdales, the other Saks.

The 100 year old legacy store was reminiscent of Harrods. It had a Wurlitzer organ and this outrageous sculpture called Goddes of Sincerity, finished in 1960, took 10 years to make.

After napping for 3 hours I ventured outside, a Friday night, to find a different Tokyo. The shops and daytime stores were closed, and seemingly out of nowhere every place was a nightclub, bar, girly club, slot machine place, and so on. The streets were bustling with thousands of men in black suits, women in frilly short skirts and impossibly high heels, and stylish boys with lots of hair gel and funky tight clothes. African men were on every corner, all spoke English, and they asked me if I wanted a bar, or karaoke. While it was intimidating, I never once felt threatened or uncomfortable. Either I'm naive or this is truly the safest city in the world.



I finally ate around 11 pm at a sushi conveyer belt place (but really you order from the sushi chefs in the middle), and was rushed out as they closed at 11:30, sadly leaving half a bottle of sake that I couldn't drink fast enough.











Thursday, May 08, 2014

Tokyo Evening

I can't tell if I woke up at 6 am due to jet lag, or because the seagulls are too loud, or simply because my sleep pattern of the last 2 days has been way weird.

Sleeping on the floor, even on a futon, even on a futon on top of a one inch piece of foam, is still sleeping on the floor, not that different from camping inside. The main distraction was when the neighboring roommates came home at around 11pm, and spent the next 3 hours doing loud things. There was a lot of shuffling and scraping the floor and clomping (even though shoes are left at the door) which can be heard and felt through the shared floor that my head was resting on. At 2 am I went out to the shared downstairs bathroom (this apartment is a duplex) and they had 2 mattresses in the hall (how come I can't get one if those?) and all the house lights were on. By morning all the lights were off and the mattresses were gone.

I chose my first restaurant meal very carefully. The choices were endless arrays of small places offering sushi, yakitori, ramen, and some with no photos of the food so who knows what they were. I chose based on two criteria: photos of the food so I could point, and more than 2 people eating, preferably all Asian looking so it might be a popular local eatery. None of the menus had English.



I sat down at one of two chairs remaining, facing a wall with a diagram of Korean games that included archery and ring tossing. I also knew it was Korean because they had metal chopsticks, which I've only  encountered in NY at Dok Suni, a Korean restaurant on First Avenue that I just heard is shutting down. I looked it up on Yelp to confirm but there were no reviews.

I immediately knew I had made a mistake because those metal chopsticks are a slippery nightmare. I'm a spaz. But I was there, and the waiter spoke English, and everyone was bowing and polite so leaving wasn't an option. I asked what the neighboring table was eating and he described it as a seafood soup. $10. I'll take it. When the big bowl arrived, the foursome at the table next to me made sympathetic sounds about how steamy hot it was as I swished it around with a long spoon. So they were watching certain failure at eating soup with metal chopsticks. And sure enough my first attempt slipped right back in the bowl. The waiter immediately brought a fork. I felt like such a goon. But I got better at it and resisted the fork the whole way. I also didn't eat those weird side dishes that were set in front of me, they looked spicy hot.


After dinner I strolled up and down the main street where I'm staying (no street names that I can figure out, but there are numbers that might be street indicators), resisting turning lest I get lost. However I was attracted down a side street to stores that looked open at 9:30, displaying high stacks of bikes, tissues and other dry goods, while most everything else was closed. I would say "locked down tight" but not really. Nothing here is locked up. The closed stalls in the side streets are covered with plastic tarp, shut with a string, the merchandise clearly still right there, one knot away from being hauled off by looters. 



I went into what I think is called Don Quixote, a store that went on and on and on, with an aisle for every thing imaginable, unimaginable, recognizable and unrecognizable. Very little was in English. There was makeup, lotions, snack food, camping equipment, computers, TVs, color contact lenses, condoms, Hermes bags ($700), cat toys, workout clothes, dumbbells, toilet paper, towels, futons and so on. Also, every few aisles had a small video blaring cartoon voices, selling something loud.

The rooms kept appearing anew at every corner. I need to buy makeup because I forgot to bring some, and I'm meeting people for dinner and don't want to look like the unsightly mess I am but I couldn't figure out the colors of the pencils or mascara so I didn't buy anything, and was scared to open the package to find some ungodly green or blue eye pencil.




And lastly, I passed a nightclub featuring boy bands. It couldn't tell if it was meant for teen girls or gay men so I didn't venture inside. Later, the door was open and I saw inside. It was a small theater filled with young girls milling about after the show. The last show was at 8:00 so I had missed it anyways. Here are the cuties who were playing:









Tokyo a Solo Adventure



I've never taken a vacation by myself, only business trips. The thought of going to a place that not only doesn't speak English, but doesn't use Latin letters or street names, is pretty unnerving. So I'm posting here because it's like having someone to talk to. 

My room is extremely quiet, no furniture, no tv, no radio. I forgot to bring a speaker so to hear music I need to use headphones. There is a shared balcony and one whole side of the room is windows. There are no locks on the doors and I'm assured Japan is extremely safe, even though the other guests aren't Japanese, MIn, the owner of this "share house" believes its safe because you have to have money to come to Japan (his words, not mine).  It's on the 9th floor, pretty windy, and not where I want to be during an earthquake.


Arrived after no sleep and a dramatic night figuring out that my son was indeed not going to be coming with me in the morning. My tears were, I think, the reason I got the exit row. I've finally stopped crying. 

The customs guy asked to see my guide book just in case my real reason to be here was visiting friends? Business? Curious. 

Had planned on taking the train from the airport, but the sales lady talked me out of it saying the bus is faster. Doesn't sound realistic but who am I to question such politeness?  

The ticket takers outside the bus bow deeply as the bus departs. Is it a prayer so we don't crash?

Announcement on bus: "portable telephones should not be used in the bus as they annoy the neighbors." Still I hear talking. 

The list of things I forgot is exceeding those I remember: makeup, contact lenses, tennis balls, journal, speaker, soap, I can't remember anymore what I forgot.

Google maps tells me it will take 10 minutes to walk from where the bus extrudes me. I ask about the train but can't understand what the woman says so I walk. I drag my suitcase in a circle around at least one giant block of government buildings, up and down the steep stairs of a pedestrian overpass, through broad and narrow streets, a beer piss tunnel, past endless ramen shops and girls on unbearably high heels walking too slow, and 40 minutes later I find the place. Now I nap.





Saturday, January 25, 2014

Some Husband Photos

The husband takes millions of photos and can spend hours showing them to people from his camera. He doesn't post them or print them, but if you've ever met him, he has definitely whipped out the camera and made you look at photos on the tiny screen.

Every year or so I back up his photos, and sort through the thousands of photos of the Empire State Building, rooftops and graffiti and see the world through his eyes.

Herewith some excellent examples of what is going on inside that handsome head.