Monday, September 8, 2008

Merlotmom Does Japan: Part 1 - First Impressions

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.

(Please tell me at least a few of you get this movie reference.)

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 Jon Hamm Mad Men marathon.

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.

This is an international airport at 4pm on a Friday afternoon.  Just look at the floors, not one gum wrapper.

This is a Japanese trash can (my Iphone lens wasn't wide enough to capture all of it.)

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)
6) Sushi
7) Chopsticks

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.

 The subway on the 11am on a weekday.  Hospital emergency room on the right.
(Mayor Bloomberg - are you seeing this?)

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.


Ellyn said...

Oh my. The waste.

$350 for laundry. Oh my again. You must have died when you saw that bill.

I loved the do/do not about your flight. That was a hoot.

Connie said...

AGH! That is alot of plastic!

Great post...can't wait to hear more!

Oh and I love Airplane!

Insane Mama said...

The cleanliness is interesting, I spent a month backpacking through China and it was SO dirty.

What a waste of plastic.

Airplane is the rockinist movie ever

Nanny Goats In Panties said...

I am totally scarfing this up and what does it say about me that I was so engrossed in your garbage and laundry details that I didn't realize you hadn't pointed out any Japanese cultural sights either until you mentioned it. Plus you had me all excited when you show a picture of a Japanese ER and I thought OMG, what happened or did something even happen and now I'm waiting with baited breath to find out what DID happen.

MORE already!

er, I mean, I look forward to your next installment.

Lynn - the piggy bank painter said...

I know, I know!!! It's Otto Pilot! I LOVED that movie!

Can't wait to hear more!

Immoral Matriarch said...

I am LOVING this - tell me more!

chris @ csquaredplus3 said...

Sounds a little like the Joan Crawford "Mommy Dearest" of countries - although very polite...

I might actually do quite well there. (I have issues.)

the mama bird diaries said...

Yes, yes... i got the airplane reference!

I am a lover of all things clean, but wow... that is crazy.

Can't wait to hear more.

Twenty Four At Heart said...

Great post! I've always wanted to make it to Japan. It's high on my list ... but now I know not to get my laundry done there!

Andrea's Sweet Life said...

I do wonder how they get past the whole plastics thing, when they seem to be pretty globally conscious otherwise.

And holy cow, how CLEAN is that subway?

Can't wait to hear more!

merlotmom said...

glad you guys liked it. next installment will come soon - maybe tomorrow?? Oh, and Andrea, yes, you could eat off the subway floor it was so clean but since no one eats while on the run...

dkuroiwa said...

Oh yeah....the open-mouth sneezes and coughs...UGH!!
Such a land of clean (I hate frickin' trash day...takes 5 different colored bags!) and can pee absolutely anywhere and at anytime they want...and the loogie hawking..ack!
Looking forward to "the rest of the story"!

Has everyone gotten back to a normal type schedule?!
Hope all is well!!!

Manic Mommy said...

Methinks their fastidiousness has gotten in the way of their global consciousness.

I'm surprised you didn't post the picture of her re-inflating the autopilot.

Over. Huh?

Captain Steve said...

That amount of plastic would drive me nuts. It doesn't fit in the trash can and you can't recycle - and the laundry! I can't wait to hear more!

ByJane said...

My nephew is Japanese. He and my niece live in a 2 bedroom apt in NYC on the 9th floor. They have a large dog that must be walked several times a day. Each time they come back, the dog waits by the door while my nephew brings a dishpan of water and washes each of the dog's feet.

InTheFastLane said...

YOWZA on the laundry! But the cleanliness thing...I could get into that.

Maggie, Dammit said...

I can't believe that jerk on the plane. Why do people refuse to move like that? What's the difference? Sounds like you had the last laugh, though.

And I'd eat off that floor, too. Damn.

the sits girls said...

WE're impressed with the cleanliness of Japan! Love the AIRPLANE movie photo. haha

We're very interested in hearing the ER story and how your son dishonored hundreds of years of tradition. Yikes!

Thanks for sharing your travels!

phd in yogurtry said...

I love you Do's and Don't on the airplane. Flight attendants and nurses get the same training - hone in on flier/patient exactly two minutes after they have finally fallen asleep. Argh.

I suppose it isn't surprising that a country so old and so crowded would bone up on anti-virus-contagion practices. Our schools could use a tutorial.

Small plug - Re MadMen. My good friends' daughter is one of the "regular extra's" She's an office girl, has her hair very blonde, poofy like Marilyn Monroe, sometimes Kitty Cat glasses, usually smoking (they get paid extra). She hasn't had many speaking parts. But hey..she's on the big screen!

Anna Lefler said...

I loved this post! And OF COURSE I got the movie reference! An all-time favorite. It's been a long time since I've blown the autopilot. * sigh * Can't wait to read more about your adventures in Japan. It's all fascinating to me...

JCK said...

My favorite part was the Japanese sword.

OY...the hurts to envision.

And, yes, I was very concerned regarding that little blip about the clean ER!!!

Sisters&Style said...

this was great...

I'm ready for part 2.

I stumbled you.

P.S. Original said...

Japan sounds wonderful, although maybe a tad... anal retentive. Hope your ER experience left no scars....I passed a gallstone on a spanish beach once...haven't touched liver pate since.... Looking forward to more travel stories!

AMomTwoBoys said...

So, I thought I'd pop over and catch up on what I've missed. But I can see that this is going to take a while.

$350 for laundry? HOLY CRAP. That's a whole new Old Navy wardrobe!? Or a bunch of great pieces from Ann Taylor Loft?!

I'm not so patiently awaiting the ER story.

And I'm off to get another glass of wine before I read further.

Robin said...

Hi, I just stopped in from AM. I love travelogues.

I got the Airplane reference :), and $350 for laundry! I think my husband would have fainted dead away, and then he'd have made us wash everything in the sink for the rest of the trip!

I'm off to go read part 2 now.

©2010 All rights reserved. Reproductions of any portion of this website only at the express permission of