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John's Trip to Tokyo
May 8-15 , 2009
Written May 21 and June 3
Friends and Families,
This diary was written as I went on my Great Japanese Adventure. It started out as a collection of letters back to Marianne, but it serves as a more general diary as well, if others are interested in such detail and, as always, for our own record and memories.
Background: Last August, it seemed like a good idea to prepare a paper for presentation in a conference in Tokyo. I had not “published” in ages and, hopefully, Marianne could go with me and we could have an adventure. As it turned out, little Ava intervened and we used up our private travel time with visits to grand kids, “old” and new. So, here I was, headed to Tokyo, alone, with a combination of anticipation and … dread.
I have not been in Tokyo in a couple of decades and, even when I was young, I found Japan to be intimidating. The capital is immense, the language impossible, and the customs specific. Three-and-a-half decades ago, I had my first foreign assignment at a power plant in southern Japan and I remember developing a new sense of the word “alien”. Back then I spent most of my time in a village of 50,000 people, all but two of them Japanese. The other American was rumored to be a Catholic priest, a veteran of a decade or more on the island of Kyushu, but I never so much as set eyes on him. Tokyo, then as now, was a different, alien, city and I have to admit, it intimidated me in 1974 and I wondered about 2009. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Organization: I have left this as one, very long, diary, but below are links to each day and to three slide shows.
The first step on the journey was breakfast back home in Germany. My driver, Marianne, and I chose to sample the Marche buffet at the Nuremberg Airport. It’s actually one of the best breakfast stops one can make and it allows us to change an hour or more of waiting time into an "event". (007_0380) A nice start.
My first flight was a little hop over to Paris. The commuter airplane was a small start on a big trip, but it was pleasant enough and the bright yellow rape seed fields of Germany and France are always striking. However, the trick on this route is the connection in Charles De Gaul Airport (“CDG”). The schedule gave me 75 minutes to make it from the commuter gates in Terminal 2G to my international gate in Terminal 2F, easy in most airports but tricky at CDG.
The first delay was due to a late departure of the plane in our CDG parking spot. That took an extra 5 minutes. Then there is a run through Terminal 2G to the buses that migrate passengers to the real terminals. Fifteen minutes. Then, a quick run to the immigration line. One look and my hopes dropped; it was at least a half-hour long. Fortunately, there was a young man pleading to be let into the head of the line because his plane was leaving – Air France 276 to Tokyo. As he went from one ground staff to another, I tagged along and said “Me too”. It worked. We jumped the line and were able to get to the gate with plenty of time. (Elapsed time for the transfer: 55 minutes, even cheating.)
We boarded immediately and my Business Class seat was waiting for me. I’d not flown in the front of an airplane in a long time and I have to admit I was looking forward to it, even if it was a 10+ hour flight. I definitely could get used to these bigger seats.
We left precisely on time and drink service started as soon as we were level on our way east. First, decent red wine and crackers, one package western crackers and one Japanese. A nice touch. Dinner started with a scallop hors d'oeuvre and champagne, real champagne. The duck main course was flavorful, but the bird may have already made a cross-continent flight because he was pretty tough. I passed on the cheese course and on coffee, but not on a sorbet and cookies dessert. Now to settle in for a long nap.
The seat reclined fully flat, not quite horizontal, but all the space I could ask for. It was as comfortable as hoped for but, no sleep. I don’t think I’ve ever been as relaxed for so long, without sleeping. Hours of relax, minutes of sleep. Darn. Meanwhile, Russia passed under us. In the old days, flights were across the pole, to avoid over flying the Soviet Union, but nowadays, the shorter and safer route is used. With a good tail wind, and after a pleasant breakfast, we arrived an hour early at Narita Airport.
Entry formalities centered on Swine Flu. Really. We had to fill out a special form asking whether we’d been in infected areas, for example in California, in the last ten days. I hadn’t, but my American passport made every official question my answer. Nevertheless, everyone was polite, as always, and I was allowed to pass and go find the bus into town, after the obligatory stop at a Citibank ATM. Conveniently, there was a machine just outside the Customs gate and pretty soon I was armed with 50,000 yen. The current exchange rate is about 100 yen per dollar, so conversion should be easy, but the extra zeros need thinking at every purchase.
At 8:10, with an outside temperature of 21C (70F), I took the Friendly Bus from Narita to the Shinjuku Washington Hotel, a ride of a bit more than an hour on this Saturday morning. I could imagine it is a much longer trip during the normal work week. All the way in, we kept hitting areas of high rises and dense buildings and I would think “this must be it”, only to leave that neighborhood for another. When we finally reached Shinjuku, it was clear this was the second downtown for Tokyo, dominated by the 45-story twin towers of the Tokyo Municipal Government buildings (called “TMG1” and “TMG2”). My 25-story hotel was just across the street.
Arriving at the hotel at 9:30am, I was told check-in was not until 2pm, so I dropped off my bag and set out on a walking tour of my new neighborhood. Shinjuku is unbelievably big, crowded, and complicated. Saturday morning seemed quiet, but still, the place has a zillion buildings, half of them towering skyscrapers. I chose my first goal carefully: Yodobashi Cameras.
Yodobashi is famous for selling all cameras, and, as it turned out, almost all electronics, at the best prices in Tokyo. I had a couple of accessories for my big camera that I had wanted for some time, so I figured this was my chance. Wrong. The prices for Japanese camera equipment are much higher in Tokyo than they are in America, even at Yodobashi’s. The selection was great, but with no incentive to buy, the fun just wasn’t there. Nonetheless, the store blocks around Yodobashi were colorful and noisy, as Japanese merchants have mastered the art of in-your-face marketing. Istanbul rug merchants were more reserved than electronics or clothes shops here. Fun, but tiring, especially since all the yelling is in a language that I absolutely have no understanding for. Time to walk in a park.
I headed back toward the hotel, just to make sure I wouldn’t get hopelessly lost. Across from us, behind the TMG towers, is “Central Park”. This urban greenery probably is not in the tourist brochures. It is well-worn by neighborhood kids and by homeless men. The latter group was very neat and lived in camps that seemed organized, but still, it seemed more fitting for New York than Tokyo. In the end, not too different I suppose. Central Park had a small shrine, but there were neither tourists nor faithful. Prayer cards tied by the shrine indicated some traffic but not mid-day on this Saturday.
Mid-day meant I was getting hungry and thirsty. Across from Central Park, on the second floor of the Green Shopping Center, I spotted the scripted sign of a famous international landmark: Denny’s. Would I go to a Denny’s just to find something familiar? Almost, but on my way I was distracted by the first-floor shop of that other international favorite: Starbucks. For the 750 yen price of a coffee and a cheesecake, I had a nice spot to kill time waiting for the hotel to allow me in. As I read my “book”, actually a Kindle electronic gadget (more on that later), I felt I was indeed in another country, not quite as alien as I felt in Kyushu decades ago, but different.
I left Starbucks, but it wasn’t check-in time yet and I felt the orderliness of Japan would make asking for early check-in futile. Strolling back, I passed the JMG buildings and decided to join a few tourists who were wandering around inside. This turned out to be a great idea. Immediately inside the entrance, I detoured into a line for “The South Tower”, whatever that meant. Inside the small, silent elevator, we rose to floor 45 and were let out in an observation floor with spectacular views of the whole city. (see slide show) After a look through all the windows, I stopped at the coffee shop bar for a beer and peanuts. The 1300 yen price was steep, but the view was worth it. After another hour of book reading, I was ready for check-in.
The Shinjuku Washington Hotel (Main) was not my first choice, but the conference hotel itself had already filled and, besides, the Washington was relatively cheap (11,000 yen per night) and was also conference-recommended. The reception staff were friendly and, as becomes expected here in Tokyo, very organized. I completed the formalities, including police registration*, and was directed to Room 641.
(* Foreigners need to register and hotels provide this service. At the Washington hotel, this allows us Gaijin to avoid the long registration line for locals, a good trade off.)
Room 641, like virtually all the rooms in the Shinjuku Washington Hotel, and like most rooms in Tokyo, is small, very small. The single bed takes up half the room and a fold-down desk, much of the rest. There is hanging space for about four shirts, but no other storage space for clothes and no place to leave a suitcase open. Nice enough view however.
In the evening, I made another spin through the neighborhood. By now, the sidewalks were full, making the place both more, and less, intimidating. Crowds impose, but they also provide anonymity. My goal was to find a restaurant and there were plenty around, but the crowds and the Japanese-only menus put me off. I’ll admit, I am not the most adventuresome traveler in the world and I was feeling particularly “alien”. After about an hour, I had made it back to the hotel, still hungry. It turns out that the hotel basement has a few small restaurants and I chose one. The only English in the place was a large sign saying “cash only” but that was not a problem. The window display had plastic models of the food and I selected a tempura shrimp special. The food was adequate, not special, but I felt accomplished that I had ordered anything at all and, despite the language barrier, the people were friendly, as soon as I was friendly. That’s the real secret to travel (or life, for that matter.)
After that, it was a bit more reading and off to well-deserved sleep. As usual, the first night’s sleep was pretty good, despite the seven-hour time change. My day of walking did the trick. We’ll see what Sunday brings.
I planned a leisurely day, not hard to do when you don’t understand anything happening around you. I started with some emails and web surfing, just like back home. I got cleaned up in the small, all-plastic bathroom. I’m not sure how this two-piece, pre-fabricated, room-within-a-room was squeezed into the hotel room, unless the bathroom came first.
Up on the 25th floor, I joined the queue for the breakfast buffet. I had remembered breakfast being particularly expensive and was pleasantly surprised. The Washington Hotel buffet was reasonably priced and certainly varied and generous. From up here, the views are interesting too. I spent a couple ofvery pleasant hours, eating and writing this note. These notes-at-breakfast are a favorite part of the travel Marianne and I have done and it was reassuring to be able to maintain routine. “Maintain routine” may be something we have picked up from our current home culture in Germany.
Now, on to the day.
I spent most of my time walking. I did look at the train/subway, since it was Sunday morning and presumably less crowded, but it was a nightmare-in-waiting. I didn’t understand the fare system, the fare machines, the stop listings, or even the metro/train line designation. I imagined getting on and not getting off before I was hopelessly lost. Tokyo urban rail definitely needs a guided tour first. So, I walked.
I started out underground, in the tunnel system that runs from the hotel to the main train station. It was empty on this morning and clean and quiet, quite a difference from the street scene I’d seen yesterday evening up above me. Even down here, there are maps showing “you are here”, often the only western words on the whole map, but these are quite useful. As I walked, I saw a few of the subterranean shops opening. I particularly like the canvas hand bag and jacket store called “Canbas Atelier”. Maybe an idea for Marianne, so don’t tell her.
On the far side of Shinjuku Station, I surfaced and turned. I think I turned right, or maybe it was left. I was headed for a place on my map that indicated a large park, but I’m afraid I never found it, even after hours of wandering. What I did find, was a neighborhood, a regular little-houses, little-apartment-blocks neighborhood with a rabbit warren of little streets. It was such a change from the skyscrapers of the hotel area of Shinjuku.
In the course of wandering in the warren, I did indeed get lost for awhile. But, there was always train sounds from some direction so I could track my way to train tracks and, inevitably, back to Shinjuku Station. Once there, I was glad to have my bearings but sad to leave the quiet neighborhoods behind. However, my burning feet gave me no choice and the day was already warming up. Time for a break back at the little room.
After a quick rest, including a blame-it-on-jet-lag nap, I put on my business suit and went to the conference reception. The reception, filled with engineers I don’t know, was not remarkable. The prime topics of conversation were swine flu formalities and the difficulties of crossing time zones. I felt like a real wimp when Toney said his flight, in economy, was 14 hours and Werner’s pair of flights from South Africa lasted even longer. I will keep an eye on these guys to see when they fall asleep in the meetings.
So, that was it. Now I need to shift to work mode. Mostly, I need to practice my presentation sometime! I have re-written it a dozen times over the last year, but I’ve never said it aloud before.
Jdt 10:45 10 May.
This was my workweek, three days of attending the “2009 International Congress on Advances in Nuclear Power Plants”. This group has been meeting annually for the last seven or eight years. While I’ve never attended before, my understanding is that an interesting location is one of the primary requirements. Tokyo qualifies.
The attendees were a mix of industry old hands and young students and engineers. It is an interesting mix with some seasoned speakers talking before a technical audience for the zillionth time and others giving presentations in English for the first time. With the nuclear industry going through a boom, or at least starting a promised boom, the mix of a few old and many young is our normal environment nowadays. It does remind me of my start in the industry almost forty years ago, except I don’t remember many “old hands” at that time.
The introductory speech was one of the highlights. (PICT) Former Prime Minister of Japan Yasuhiro Nakasone outlined the history of nuclear power in Japan, from its earliest concept in 1953 through basic laws in 1960 and the first power stations at the end of that decade. Hearing someone speak of his own role in such a long history was fascinating.
After that, we were subjected to a parade of reactor plant sellers touting how good their new offerings were and how ready they (we) are for the pending renaissance. I have lived and worked through the original boom and bust and was both encouraged and skeptical about all this happy talk. But, I certainly felt a bit jealous of all the new engineers as they start a career when their chosen field is experiencing such a blossoming.
Monday evening's reception dinner was pleasant with a buffet spread that offered food from around the world. The the Japanese "koto" teacher and her two students, gave a properly exotic flavor to the room.
I even gave my own presentation. This proved 15 minutes of very limited fame, as my audience was less than two-dozen and my time slot was just before lunch. Given the time spent preparing, and getting company approval for my paper, and the time spent getting here, that was a very expensive 15 minutes.
The next ICAPP is in San Diego. Personally, I’d love to go, but I can’t imagine trying to justify another costly quarter-hour.
OK. Now I need to catch up a bit on my normal email-based work and then get on to visiting Japan. Plans to join the Congress’ Technical Tour to the world’s largest nuclear power station fell through when approval for my trip came through after the tour registration deadline. Then, I tried to arrange a trip to Mount Fuji but that, too, fell through. Now I’m sitting at breakfast making “plans”. Normally, I prefer this spontaneous style of touring, but I’m not sure this is very efficient. Oh well, it’s the journey, not the destination.
I will certainly take pictures. When I woke up, the air was clear and I figured a few more skyscraper shots would be worthwhile but, as I sit here, the air is returning to the hazy gray it’s been much of the week. I sit here and watch as the horizon creeps closer and the other parts of the city disappear into the gray soup.
The plan is:
-- Finish my buffet breakfast. With this generous start, I only need one more meal for the day – plus a snack perhaps.
-- Do some work until about 10am
-- Put on good shoes and pack up the cameras
-- Head toward a large park I can see from my window. I tried this the other day, but got completely lost. Today, I’ll be more careful.
-- After the park, I need to try some souvenir shopping.
-- Sometime I’ll need one more meal or a good snack.
-- Then I'll write it all up and call Marianne to tell her about it.
Let’s see how well the plan works.
Jdt 14 May, 8:50am.
This day, the plan worked out. I did my work and headed out to the Shinjuku Gypen National Gardens. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the area had served as an agricultural development park where novel farming techniques were tried. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the park was turned into an imperial garden and was rebuilt with specific English, French, and Japanese traditional gardens. After World War II, the park became a public area and serves as a quiet, open oasis near the center of Tokyo.
The edge of the park was a 15 minute walk from my hotel. I was confronted with a tall, iron fence with little indication of which way to turn, when a local asked me, in perfectly good English, if I was looking for the entrance. I said I was and he said to turn right and follow the fence for 300 meters. He earned friendliness points for all of Tokyo.
The entrance was also marked by streams of little school kids coming in for a day at the park. These young city dwellers probably have little opportunity for running around in the small homes and apartments of Tokyo, but, nonetheless, they were most organized and disciplined. They entered in lines, they walked in lines, and they sat and ate lunch in orderly circles. But, when given freedom, they ran around like any other 6-year olds laughing and screaming. They filled the huge park with a most pleasant sound, a sound of Spring perhaps.
The Gypen National Garden was filled with scenes right out of Japanese postcards and paintings. There were two tea houses: Kyu-Goryo-Tei, with the curving roof beams traditional of China and of southern islands of Japan, which had been built in 1928 for the wedding of Emperor Hirohito. Rakuu-Tei was in the simpler style we associate with Japanese architecture and, inside, I enjoyed a very elegant green tea service. Both tea houses were in the traditional Japanese section, of course, and this section had an assortment of rolling hills and wonderful trees. Many of the trees were as twisted and gnarled as manicured Bonsai plants, but here, they were full size, not miniatures.
The English Landscape Garden was mostly a large grass field, bordered by transplanted European trees. Today, the hundreds of school kids were enjoying eating and playing in the trees’ shade. The French Formal Garden was lined with plane trees, something not often found anymore in Europe or the U.S., where disease has decimated the traditional street trees. But, between the plane tree borders, rose gardens provided the most colorful part of the whole park. Of course, I burned up plenty of digital “film”.(See slide show)
After a few hours of wandering around Gyoen National Garden, I paused to decide “what next?” It was getting warm and I had been lugging quite a bit of gear for what seemed like miles. I debated heading right back but, in the interest of being a better tourist, decided that I need one more “goal”. On my walking-tour map, I noticed a “Fire Museum”, a few blocks away, and that became my new goal.
Going back onto the streets, I was struck again at how quickly the quiet of the Gardens gave way to the hustle and bustle of the city. A hundred feet outside the Garden’s Okido Gate there was no more sign of the place, nothing but hard-faced buildings, sidewalks, traffic, and hurrying crowds. No wonder residents value the open parkland. Anyway, after five or ten minutes of street walking, I found the Fire Museum, all ten stories of it.
Inside, I signed in and was given instructions to visit the basement and floors 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10. Floor 2 is still an active fire station. I followed instructions and, for the most part, saw old fire equipment not unlike one would find anywhere in Europe or the U.S., trucks, pumps, uniforms, etc. The fire motorcycle, which had served in a period with particularly bad traffic and poor roads, was unique.
But my favorite was Floor 5, with displays of the fire fighting tradition from the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, fires were fought by volunteer fire companies whose major tactic was to create fire breaks by tearing down buildings in the path of the fire. Once fires started in the traditional wood and paper homes, there was little hope for saving a building so the only goal was to limit the number of buildings that burned. As in early America, fire companies fought for the honor, and rewards, of a successful fight.
A pleasant hour but now it was time for the hike home. By now I was five or six kilometers from the hotel and, since I was still not brave enough to try the subway, I had to walk. This gave me a chance to see more of the hustle and bustle, but, I’ll admit, I may have had enough already. Oh well, it’s all part of the deal.
Back at the hotel, I called home. Germany is still cold and gray. I said I’d try to bring back some of the warm Japanese sun. After that, I went across to the 45th Floor observatory of Municipal Office Building #1 and enjoyed one more beer and many more pictures. I watched the sunset and the twinkling big-city lights appear and decided my day had, indeed, gone according to plan.
I’m back at my breakfast writing table, wondering again: “What should I do?” I MUST get better at planning these things. But, for now, I have no idea.
Jdt 9:40, May 15
One idea had been to take a “Day Tour” and I saw in one of the guide books that very interesting walk/train tours are conducted by volunteers via the Tokyo Municipal Government (TMG), from their headquarters, not 200 yards away. Great. Of course I also saw that a three-day reservation was required, but I thought I could just tag along with whatever trip was going that day. However, because no travelers had thought ahead, no tours were on the agenda so I was, once again, on my own.
I took the opportunity to go up in the South Tower of the TMG tower and was treated to yet another amazing view of this massive capital. From this tower, I could see from Tokyo Bay to the western mountains. Everywhere I looked, there were buildings, short ones, tall ones, and very, very tall ones. From up on high, it seems almost manageable but, at street level, it’s a warren.
Back in TMG#2 lobby, there was a display of some of the most amazing Bonsai I had ever seen. There were flowering trees, two or three feet high, covered in red, white, yellow, and purple blossoms. Apparently the last week of May is the time for such displays and it was all I could do to not reach out and check if the blooms were artificial.
Leaving the lobby, I was as stuck as ever. I did have one last “requirement”, a gift for Marianne. So far, I had not seen much appropriate. The local shopping centers, while quite large, mostly contained goods for local office dwellers: clothes, electronics, food, and drink. None of that was appropriate. I was looking for something Japanese, interesting, in her taste range, and in my budget.
The lobby shops of expensive hotels had gifts meeting some of these constraints. Some of the $1,000 purses were made in Japan. The $250 wallet was nice, but largely made in China. The euro-style goods were often made in … Europe (if not, also, China). After more than an hour, I gave up. An airport key-chain it will be, after all.
After a rest back in my cocoon-room, I wandered again, this time a different direction. Despite the change in direction, I found myself in yet another crowded neighborhood, mixed with three- and four-story apartment buildings, a skyscraper or two, tiny cheek-and-jowl houses, and small businesses. I knew the map showed a large, green area nearby, but it was hidden behind the building barrier.
After a bit more looking, I caught sight of trees and horses. My “green area” included a riding club and, a few hundred paces beyond, I found the entrance into the grounds of the Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine. This time, there were no school groups to follow and, a few steps inside the grounds, I was in a deep, dark green forest. Again, Tokyo surprised me with how quickly one moves from urban crowds into a forest that could have been on a most remote island.
According to a map at the entrance, the Shinto shrine was in the center of this forest, so set about the most pleasant walk. Unlike the Gyoen Gardens yesterday, these fields and forests were mostly marked with “off limits” signs and the forests particularly looked impenetrable. The paths however, did lead to the Shinto building complex, as classic a picture as I could imagine. Inside the wall gate, tourists, worshippers, and wedding parties mixed. I must have taken 60 or 80 pictures as each corner formed yet another classic scene. At the shrine itself, I watched others throw coins into bar-covered, wooden boxes and followed suit. A few yen per picture seemed a reasonable price. (See slide show.)
On the way out, I had hoped to see the Queen’s Treasury, but it had closed minutes before I got there. That was my punishment for taking a mid-day nap. Passing by the Treasury, I stepped through the park gate and was promptly lost in the city sprawl. High-rise landmarks were hidden by nondescript street-level shops. Hieroglyphic road signs were no help. What did help, were railroad tracks. I figured that, in this neighborhood, all tracks lead to Shinjuku Station so I found some elevated tracks and headed uphill, the direction I assumed for our skyscraper district. Pretty soon I was back in the chaos I recognized and back in the ship-cabin sized room I have learned to call home.
There was one last excursion Friday, a successful shopping trip as it turned out. I increased my gift budget by the amount of a good dinner, something I was not in a mood for anyway.
Heading home. I must admit I was eager to head for the airport and the flights home. I’m not a good solo traveler and I find Japan particularly hard to get comfortable with. Maybe it’s the crowds, maybe the language – both spoken and, especially, written – but I’ll admit I long for Franconia, Heim sweet Heim.
The bus was scheduled for 7am and I was waiting at 6:30. The trip was pleasant, as I could see the city I missed in the night ride in. It was yet another exposure to the massive nature of this city as the 90-minute trip transitioned from skyscrapers to factories to towering high-rise suburban apartment blocks to, near the airport, rice fields. There was also a Disneyworld that blended in with the Mitsubishi and other name brand factories.
Actual formalities at the airport start with passport checks, in the bus, five kilometers from the airport itself. Thirty-plus years after its construction, Narita Airport is still opposed by locals and security is tight around the whole complex.
After that, check-in was a breeze, once I had waited a bit for Air France to open up our noon flight. I made one pass through an overpriced souvenir shop and succeed in ridding myself of all the paper yen I had left. The coins will serve as their own souvenirs.
Now, I’m writing this in the Air France Business Class lounge, a pleasant, if somewhat sterile, waiting area. I’m reflecting on the trip generally. From a business standpoint, it was probably too expensive. From a personal standpoint, I became reacquainted with a part of Japan, but I relearned my own basic preference to travel with a friend, preferably my best friend.
Jdt 10:55 May 16, 2009
What's a traveller to do on a long flight? I'm not a movie person, so I passed on the wide selection of films. The "TV" shows were similarly not interesting. In the end, I stuck with reading my "book" (a Kindle electronic book actually, great traveller solution). But, I still had to have something on the screen in front of me so I turned on the map and glanced up every half hour or so. Here's what I saw:
If this doesn't convice you it was a long, boring flight, nothing will.
So, that was a collection of my diaries sent back home.
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