Saturday, September 13, 2008

Merlotmom Does Japan - Part 2: The Sights, The Sounds, and The Sacrilege

Ohayou gozaimasu (Good Morning), travel companions.

We awoke very early our first full day in Tokyo - our body clocks stuck in a confused purgatory between time zones.  We were hungry and ready for adventure, having no idea our first would be finding a place to eat. 

The hotel restaurant could have sufficed had we been cool with spending upwards of $100 on breakfast.  Instead we decided to try an authentic (i.e. cheaper) Japanese breakfast on the streets of Tokyo.  The concierge's English was limited, our Japanese worse.  Fifteen minutes of pre-school repetition, miming, and nervous laughter later,  I could no longer bear the look of anguish on his polite but unhelpful face.  I pretended to think his suggestion a good one, let him draw us a map to... somewhere... and led my family out into a foreign city, famished and clueless.

While trekking through the exclusive Ginza district (think NY's Fifth Avenue or LA's Rodeo Drive), my kids' blood sugar dropping in direct correlation to the intervals between whines, we discovered that most of Tokyo's restaurants and retail shops don't open until 10 or 11am.  We came across a few places with telling plastic food replications in the window but noodle bowls with "dropped egg" (think poached) and prawns with the heads and eyes still attached, just didn't appeal at this early hour.

 (photos courtesy of google images)

While standing on the corner waiting to cross the street, we heard a strange hum.  A cacophonous ambient buzz loud enough to overtake the traffic din.  I looked around for a giant, electrical transformer but saw none.  The noise continued as we walked.  It was everywhere. Pointing the sound out later to our tour guide, she informed us it was cicadas.  Cicadas!  Thousands of them.  All over Tokyo.  I thought it the oddest background noise for an overcrowded, bustling city.  Yet another strange Japanese contradiction.

It began to rain harder as the kids complained about parched throats and pleading stomachs.  Just then, we looked across the street and there it was - our salvation - our oasis.  A green pasture of palatable pastries where we sat down to our first Japanese breakfast...

photo courtesy of Google Images

Yes, Starbucks.  (Judge not, my friends.)

Tokyo, like most U.S. cities, has a Starbucks on every corner.  We gleefully ordered tall mocha lattes, iced teas and cinnamon rolls by pointing our non-lingual, American fingers.

Starbuck's ad in Japanese (sort of)

And here's what they play and sell at a Starbucks in Japan  - compilation CDs - Motown - in English. 

This was just the first of many examples of Japan's infatuation with American culture.  The faces of Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, and others, smiled at us from giant billboards everywhere as they hocked designer watches and Japanese beverages.  Advertisements for American television shows like Fox's Prison Break called out to us from the back of taxi seats.  And yet another curious Japanese contradiction (who's keeping score?) was that EVERY hip retail store we visited played American soundtracks.  L.L. Cool J, John Mayer, and Michael Jackson boomed from state-of-the-art sound systems while Japanese teens swayed to the beat (yet no one speaks or understands English?)

My ex-pat friend, Deb, who's lived in Japan for almost 20 years, told me that the Christmas season is the time she feels most homesick.  Walking into stores covered in familiar holiday decorations and hearing comforting Christmas music emanate from hidden speakers, Deb gets caught up in the joy and generosity of the Christmas spirit she grew up with.   She forgets for a moment how far she is from home until wishing Merry Christmas to some Japanese store employees and getting only confused, blank stares in return.  It's like finding a beautifully wrapped holiday package under a tree only to discover it's empty inside.

Powered by caffeine and sugar, we made our way from Starbucks to the Tsukiji Fish Market.  Had we arrived between the hours of 5 and 7am, we could have witnessed the lively and frenzied tuna auction  (Skip to the second minute of the video link to see the craziness.)

But merlotmom doesn't get up that early for anyone, not even a big ass tuna.   So instead we arrived around 9am (late) and perused hundreds of stands at a more gentile hour, getting an intimate look at fresh Japanese ingredients.  So intimate, in fact, that as I dared to peek too close into a bucket of live clams, one of them squirted me in the face.

We sampled meat-stuffed bao, shrimp dumplings, teriyaki chicken skewers and marinated seaweed.  Sellers squawked at us to try their mysterious beans and buy their live eel.   It was a true Japanese smorgasbord in all it's fascinating and grotesque glory.

The Japanese are known for being amazing gardeners and now I know why.   Look at this produce!  It's hard to tell from the photos, but the grapes, peaches, everything was, as my son described it, "ginormous!"

Stuffed to the gills (pun intended), we returned to our hotel to meet, Tomoko, our tour guide.  Luckily for us, she lived in the States for three years so her English was AWESOME.  Yay.

Our first stop was Akasusa where we visited the famous Sensoji Temple. In Japan, there are two main religions: Buddhism and Shintoism.  The two co-exist peacefully, many Japanese practicing both.  In some cases, as with Sensoji, the Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine reside on the same property within a few hundred feet of each other.

Sensoji Temple

We passed through "Thunder Gate", the temple's grand entrance with it's  massive paper lantern painted in dramatic red and black symbolizing thunderclouds and lightning.  The lantern is flanked by two ominous statues - the guardians of wind and thunder.


The temple as well as the five story pagoda on the grounds are post-war reconstructions.  We continued to hear this about other sites we visited.   I felt a pang of guilt as I imagined the destruction of such beautiful architecture, not to mention the civilians.

We walked through a bustling alley of booths selling goods and souvenirs.  I thought it odd that a sacred ground would dedicate so much property to commercialism.  Tomoko told us that Buddhists who worked to maintain the temple received no compensation.  So, to thank them, the Emperor granted them this space to earn a living.  And the tradition continues.

Behind the shops is the temple and the shrine where it is said the bodies of Emperors are buried.  Before entering the temple, Tomoko showed us the purification ritual.  First, we waved smoke from a large incense burner toward our faces (this no doubt is what led me to the ER -more on that later, hint, hint), then, with a special ladle, we cleansed our hands, our mouths and the stems of the ladles (where our unpurified hands had touched), before returning it to it's place for other sullied mortals. Word of advice: DO NOT put mouth to ladle.  Bad, very bad.

Once "purified" we entered the temple where we threw coins and prayed.  In Buddhist temples you bow before praying.  In Shinto shrines you bow twice, clap hands twice, pray, and bow once more.  Clapping summons the dead emperors, letting them know you are there (but don't quote me on that, I was  busy coordinating my claps and bows so I may not have heard correctly) .

We crossed the city by Tokyo Metro and headed toward the Meiji Shrine, one of the most famous and beautiful shrines in Japan.

 Meiji Shrine

It was built in honor of Emperor Meiji (and his wife Shoken).  He was considered a great emperor for transforming Japan from a medieval to a modern society at the end of the 19th century. It is said that the Emperor and Empress' spirits reside at Meiji (their bodies are buried near Kyoto).

The property we see today is also a reconstruction as the real shrine which was destroyed by Tokyo air raids in 1945.   The new structure and grounds were made possible by citizen's donations. 

The shrine is incredible, not merely for it's architecture but for it's landscape.  The grounds are 175 acres of beautiful parks, gardens, and woods.  Walking the miles of gravel path toward the shrine it was hard to believe we were still in Tokyo city.  A canopy of huge evergreens hovered above our heads, shielding us from the rain and the hustle and bustle outside.

The day we visited Meiji there was a festival taking place just outside the grounds.  All over the area, in the subways, in the streets, and on the grounds we saw troupes of costumed dancers en route to perform.

We arrived at the gates to the shrine, Tomoko, my husband and I in front, as the kids trailed behind.

"Do we have to see ANOTHER shrine?" whined my daughter.  "I've seen enough  already."

"I'm thirsty," chanted my son.   "Can we go to Starbucks now and get an iced tea?"

I ignore them as Tomoko tells us how it is proper only to walk on the sides of the path while inside the gate - not the middle.

"The middle is kept clear for the deities," she explained. "This ground is believed to be very sacred."

"Did you hear that, guys?" I turn to tell my kids.  "Move to the side, this ground is ..."

...and with impeccable, I-couldn't-make-this-up-if-I-tried-comic-timing, the minute the word sacred dropped from my lips, so did a huge glob of spit from my son's mouth. 

Yes, my son, my adorable, tactless, stereotypical, American son, violated Tokyo's most inviolable ground by hocking a gigantic, bacteria-laden loogey onto G-d's walkway.

I just hope he didn't hit any deities in the eye - now THAT would be embarrassing.

I said a few Kenna Hora's (Jewish warding off of the evil eye) and we went on our way. 

 photo courtesy of Google images

At the  shrine there was a circular structure with thousands of wooden plaques hanging from racks.  Each plaque was a wish left by a visitor.  There were wishes written in many different languages asking for love, health and world peace.  We decided to express our dreams as well. We wanted to balance the scales a bit in case the G-ds were angry about getting spit at.  So my husband purchased a wooden plaque on which to express his most divine thoughts.

"I wish for my children to have great memories of Tokyo '08!  I wish my wife peace on this trip!  Dream and believe...and a Wii for Josh."

I think that made everything okay.  Don't you?

We covered more ground in Tokyo that day: Harajuku, the Edo Museum (fascinating) and slowly became familiar with Tokyo's winding web of a transit system.

I will share more tales and pictures of these and bullet trains, Kyoto, and of course, the ER, but I'm more exhausted from writing this post than I was from covering these places on foot.   So, for now, I will leave you with this one, astute revelation from my travels...

... I always thought, having seen them in the States, that the Japanese were shy, reserved people who talked little, smiled a lot, and nodded their heads.  Here, on their turf, I realize, while they are indeed polite people, it is I who am the one doing little talking, a lot of confused smiling and continuous nodding of my head  (not to mention taking lots of pictures with my expensive camera). 

Oh the things we learn when we venture out into the world.

Until next time, folks.

Arigato gozaimasu (I'm bowing).


ShannanB aka Mommy Bits said...

Wow. What an amazing trip. Sounds like you had a vacation of a life time.

I knew that a lot of celebs did commercials overseas but I didn't realize how much of our culture was present in Japan.

Thanks so much for sharing all of this. I studied Japanese Studies in College but have never been there. This was wonderful!

Insane Mama said...

I love the Temples, they are very similar to the ones in China. Even if your kids complained a bit, there is nothing like travel to really learn. You know? What you learn and see sticks. Not like reading a history or geography book.

Nanny Goats In Panties said...

What does that say about me that I've been pining to hear about your son spitting? I mean, THAT was my priority of your post!

What do Japanese people eat for breakfast anyway?

merlotmom said...

NGIP - thanks for wanting, waiting and reading. I hope the spitting story satisfied your puerile needs. As far as breakfast, and I comment here in case others are curious, they really don't eat breakfast out much (that's what I'm told anyway) and if they do have a formal, let's say, business breakfast it consists of miso soup, rice, fish, and possibly, rolled egg, seaweed,etc. Yummy, yum.

Nanny Goats In Panties said...

But that's LUNCH food! or DINNER food. That would be like us having PIZZA for breakfast!


phd in yogurtry said...

After looking at the pictures of the squid and other crustaceous looking creatures, I think a Starbucks would be consoling, indeed.

I found the tuna auction hilarious. No matter if its tuna in Japan or cattle in Texas, you will find men gathered in boots, wiggling fingers in subdued fashion.

I'm very much enjoying your guided tour from the comfort of my living room. Japan seems like quite an adventurous trip!

AMomTwoBoys said...

That's one LARGE fish. I don't think I could survive a day in Japan. Unless they have teriyaki beef bowls there like they do at Japanese restaurants here.

And did Tomoko see the spitting incident? Did ANYONE see the spitting incident?

You didn't drop your IPhone in a toilet there, did you?

dkuroiwa said...

Did you happen to notice that they/we also have salad for breakfast? and that most salads are made of cabbage with very little lettuce?! ~sheesh~ When I go to the States, I make plans to eat breakfast out at least once a's just not done here!

The pictures you took are hub was looking at them and asking me questions and I'm like, but I haven't been to THAT temple!!
And yes...Starbucks...that mango frappe thing is actually is the pomegranit one!! yummmmmmm!!!

yeah...that whole spitting're lucky you made it back alive and in one piece..or was it kind of iffey? what with the ER incident.....?!?! :-D
Waiting for the next episode.....
Have a great weekend!
Debbie...already disgusted with the Halloween decorations...can you freakin' believe it?!?! They have no clue!!
Must buy more ume shu (plum wine) tmoorrow!!!

Vodka Mom said...

That was a fantastic field trip! I love the different varieties of food. Next time, I AM COMING!!!

Ellyn said...

Sounds like you guys have memories to last a life time. Thanks for sharing it with us.

I love that you went to Starbucks for your first breakfast. You don't want to dive into foreign culture too fast. It could be shock to your system. BTW how was the food? Did you try anything crazy?

InTheFastLane said...

I will remember starbucks, if I ever make it to Japan, cuz that other stuff just would not do for breakfast.

Robin said...

Israelis (I live in Israel) also tend to eat savory breakfasts, so a Japanese breakfast sounds fun to me - as long as there's a big coffee right next to it!

csquaredplus3 said...

Wow. I have such a sensitive sniffer, I had to wince at some of the food photos and descriptions.

What a rich experience though. Your kids are very fortunate!

Donna said...

What an awesome trip! Thank you for posting your impressions and beautiful photos.

Connie said...

I read this the other day but someone decided to hurt themselves and I didn't get to comment!

I am LOVING the tour! And I love that you had to eat at Starbucks.

Looking forward to the next installment!

ByJane said...

I can tell you worked really hard on this post and I learned lots of stuff. I didn't comment before because I was back there with your kids whining, "enough shrines...bring on the Starbucks...."

thedailysnark said...

Sounds like an amazing trip.

The Starbucks thing cracks me up because I would have killed for a Starbucks in China. In fact, there was almost anarchy on our tour bus when the guide wouldn't stop at the one we found. After 10 days of green tea, I was jonesing for some coffee.

I would love to go to Japan. It's on my ever-growing list of places to see.

JCK said...

It is so great that you are recording all of this.

And about that trip to the ER???

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