Konnichiwa my friends,
Here it is. Finally. The day has come where I begin to share with you my travel stories. Please join me and my family as we embark on our wild and wacky mystery tour of Japan.
No passports or luggage necessary; just curiosity, a sense of humor, and a high tolerance for shame.
We begin our journey on American Airlines as we chart our course across the Pacific and the International Date Line.
The minute I saw our pilot and lead flight attendant, I knew we were in safe hands.
Now that you are settled into your seats, for your in-flight entertainment I'd like to offer you an amuse bouche of helpful travel hints, Do's and Don'ts if you will, for your trip to the land of the rising sun.
DO give credit to your husband (despite the grief you give him for NEVER being home) for earning enough miles so everyone can fly for free.
DO NOT expect the conservative businessman behind you to switch seats so you can be closer to your children.
DO smile covertly into your fashion magazine when said businessman quickly regrets making that decision.
DO NOT expect flight attendants to attend to you in any way during the flight unless you're having a heart attack or you've fallen asleep without your seat belts securely fastened.
DO expect to wonder how you're going to prevent deep-vein thrombosis while sitting for eleven hours in the vice-like contraption AA calls coach seating.
DO NOT lock eyes with the adorable Japanese toddler hanging over the top of the seat in front of you.
DO expect to want to strangle said toddler when she consistently, and for much of the flight, interrupts your
DO NOT underestimate your son's penchant for Mario Kart or your daughter's for Wizards of Waverly Place.
DO bring enough Nintendo games and Disney Channel downloads for a month.
DO NOT expect anyone to sleep despite the claims of the homeopathic manufacturer of Calms Forte.
We arrive at Tokyo's Narita airport, 11 hours, one day, and four horrifying pairs of bloodshot eyes later. By the time we exit customs and purchase a bus ticket to the city, it's clear we need to learn some more Japanese words besides, "sayonara".
It's also clear that the rumors of the Japanese being incredibly clean are true.
There's a dedicated receptacle for every fathomable kind of garbage. One for liquids where you pour the remainder of your unfinished beverage into one bin (why don't we have that?), another where you discard your paper cup, another in which to throw your lid, yet another for plastic containers, and another for any non-recyclables like a straw or food-soiled materials. And Robin Williams was confused by our cereal aisles in Moscow On The Hudson? Pre-calculus took less brain power than this. (Yes, another stale movie reference. What can I say, I'm a product of the '80s.)
As my family will attest, I'm all for recycling ("yes you're going to stick your hands in the garbage so you can rinse out that pudding cup") but something's wrong when a culture goes to such lengths with their garbage disposal but is the number one contributor of ocean-clogging, fish-choking, landfill polluting plastic. (Okay, that's not an actual statistic but as you read on you'll see it MUST be true.)
If you buy a few items from a clothing store in Japan, the clerk tidily wraps up each item in it's own tailored plastic sleeve with multiple pieces of plastic tape precisely, strategically, and artfully placed. Then they put the items in a paper shopping bag with a handle and if it's raining (which it always was while we were there) they proceed to wrap the paper bag in yet another sealed plastic sleeve, complete with tape so the bag is snug as a bug in a little Japanese rug.
Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the care and attention to my purchases and I appreciate their consideration (NY's Mayor Bloomberg could learn a few things from Tokyo on how to run a big, over-populated, yet, civilized city.) In fact, their attention to detail amused me at first, but after purchasing takeout meals where each item (including individual condiments, utensils, and bags of ice) was swaddled in it's own non-recyclable, petroleum-based blanket and then watching as the transparent detritus quickly overflowed from my hotel room garbage can, I began to worry. Then I got mad.
How can the Japanese, who are such polite, considerate, and tidy people, daily create millions of mounds of permanent trash?
Here's another example...
Later in the trip, we had laundry done at the hotel. This is how it was returned to us...
Each shirt, each short, each single pair of underwear was wrapped in it's own seemingly seamless package. It took three of us to locate the impeccably glued seam that would allow us to open the parcels without resorting to use of a Japanese sword. Thirty minutes and a Mt. Fuji of guilt later, we sat in a pile of plastic that would exist on Earth far longer than any of us or the clothes it was meant to protect.
Shhh... let's not mention the fact that the cost of doing this one bag of laundry was 37,700 yen ($350). It sent my husband into a volcanic tizzy. So much for packing light. We dined out on cheap noodles that night.
(But I digress, which I can see is going to happen a lot as I try to lead you through our 10 day journey. What I intended to do was take you on a day by day itinerary of the sites, the culture, the humorous observations. But somehow I seem to have gotten caught up in garbage and laundry. Oh well, stick with me through a few more random thoughts and first impressions and I promise you you'll see and learn about some traditional Japanese sights.)
A month ago, I knew just a few things about the Japanese:
1) They are superior to us at producing cars and electronics.
2) They must be rich because when tourists they buy from high-end designer stores and carry expensive cameras.
3) They speak Japanese.
4) Pearl Harbor (sorry)
5) Hiroshima (sorry again)
But by our first morning in Japan, I was an expert (at least by my and my family's standards). I'd studied my Lonely Planet Guide and read Dave Barry Does Japan, and was now fluent in Japanese sightseeing, topography, food and culture. (Language would take a bit more time.)
"Do not eat on the streets," I warned my family.
"Do not rub your chopsticks together in a restaurant."
"Do not shake hands when greeting people"
and above all,
"Do NOT blow your nose in public"
I learned that Japan is a country filled with germaphobes. When greeting people, they bow rather than shake hands, they conduct money transactions via a plastic tray to avoid skin-to-skin contact, they wear masks when they are sick, and they always carry handkerchiefs (even the kiosks sell them). I never did see anyone spew out boogies in public, but I did catch quite a few Japanese contradict the generalization by coughing without covering their mouths and sneezing without bringing out the portable linens. (There are a few in every crowd I guess.)
I would discover the cleanliness cliche to be true upon comparing their subways and hospitals.
And speaking of cleanliness, this is my son picking up chocolate muffin crumbs off the spotless hotel lobby floor (mortified mom is not too embarrassed to miss a photo op). I told him not to eat in public!
Later in the series, we'll talk about how I ended up in a Japanese ER. Tomorrow, we'll see some of Tokyo's most famous and significant sites with our English-speaking, Japanese tour guide, Tomoko. We'll also delve into Japan's culture of propriety and how my son managed to dishonor hundreds of years of tradition in one brief but scandalous moment.
See you then.