Saturday, November 29, 2008

Day 7: Friday, November 28

(Written on Friday, posted on Saturday)

It poured again in Nikko today. We woke early and began the morning with a yoga class with a Zen Buddhist monk; the monk chanted at the end of the class during a brief meditation, while the rain kept pouring down outside. (Andrew had been resistant to the class, until it became clear that I was the only one in the lodge who had signed up; being the nice husband that he is, he agreed to go with me.) After breakfast, we took a brief walk in the rain to "Nikko beer," which Andrew had hoped would involve a brewery tour; but there were just a few things for sale in the shop. The walk was very moody; fog was settling over the mountaintops, and wet leaves were matted along the roads and sidewalks. It was perfectly silent except for the raindrops in the trees.

We headed to the train station around eleven; the mountains we spotted in the distance were snow-capped. We saw a white loon lightly stepping its way across a small river. Along the way we had two snacks on the way, a curry bun and a bean-paste bun, both delicious. By the train tracks was a perfectly shaped tree, its leaves shockingly red. When our train arrived, a big crowd of Japanese travellers ran off and instantly began photographing the tree--we weren’t the only ones charmed.

We spent the first part of the ride back to Tokyo half-convinced we’d gotten on the wrong train; fortunately, we were fine. Once we got back to Tokyo, we took two subways to Tokyo station, where our shinkansen (bullet train) would depart for Kyoto. We picked up one more snack there--a meat bun. I could eat steamed buns exclusively for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy.

The shinkansen was amazing--hurtling through the countryside at 200mph, women pushing carts of snacks through each car and bowing each time they reached the doorway to the next car, their outfits of jaunty hat and prettily tied neck scarf. We bought a bag of rice snacks to eat while we planned what to do when we arrived in Kyoto.

Getting from Kyoto station to Pension Kotomu--a small guesthouse--was the part of this trip I’d thought would be most complex, mostly because it involved taking a city bus. It did take us a while to find the right bus--very little was marked in English, and what was marked was a bit ambiguous--but eventually we sorted it out. We even found our stop with little problem. As we started walking up the road that would lead to our guesthouse, we could see the Koyomizu-dera temple at the top of the street, brightly lit with a spotlight.

After settling the bill for our room and listening to the owner’s instructions on wearing slippers in the hallway, taking them off before stepping onto the tatami, and controlling the heater in the room, we instantly set off for the temple. We’re in Kyoto at a lucky time--for the next week or so, a handful of temples stays open late and allows visitors to roam their magically lit-up grounds. The Koyomizu-dera also had spotlights illuminating the beautiful fall foliage; lanterns lined every walkway. Crowds of Japanese visitors were flocking into the temple, snapping pictures at every turn; the temple had the air of a holiday festival. Our pictures can’t do this justice--the temple is breathtaking to begin with, and with the lights and the leaves it was just spectacular. In the distance was the Kyoto skyline, with the Kyoto Tower brightly lit. Of course I had our temple book with me, procuring perhaps our most prized stamp yet. It was the perfect start to our Kyoto adventure.

We stopped for a quick dinner at another cook-it-yourself pancake restaurant (Andrew had an omelette with green onions; I had fried udon noodles with vegetables), then headed back to our guesthouse. Our room at Pension Kotomu--where I’m sitting right now, typing this--is at the very top of the building, like a little attic room. Tatami mats cover the floor, and we have quite a large balcony from which we can look out over Kyoto and even see part of the Koyomizu-dera. The room is entirely empty except for a low table, two flat cushions, a small lamp on the floor, a coatrack, and a small TV on a stand. The materials that will become our beds tonight are folded neatly in a closet. In the morning, the owner of the guesthouse will knock on our door and show us where the shower is. Our time in Kyoto has begun.

No pics again--I'll add some later on.

Day 6: Thursday, November 27 (Thanksgiving in Japan)

(Written on Thursday; posted on Saturday)

It was another early day. We left the Oakwood Apartments around 6am and headed to the train station to catch our train to Nikko. We didn’t need to leave that early--our train wasn’t leaving until 8:10--but our friend Atsh told us that it was not a good idea to get on the subway with our suitcases during rush hour. He told us that it’s not uncommon for people to actually be separated from their suitcases in the crush of people--and it’s also not uncommon to see "floaters," people whose feet actually don’t touch the ground because they’re crammed in so tightly. It seemed prudent to leave a bit early.

As we waited for the train to arrive, we bought cans of coffee from a vending machine on the platform; our favorite, the Georgia brand cafÈ crËme, which has a can that reads "Little gift for you," was not available; so we chose Wonda brand cafÈ au lait, which promised a perfect "coexistence of roasted coffee and roasted milk" for "a radiant peace."

The two-hour train ride took us through some beautiful countryside--a marked contrast from the metropolis of nearby Tokyo. There were bare-branched trees still laden with bright orange fruit, either persimmons or Asian pears; gardens full of huge cabbages; and houses pressed close together along narrow streets.

When we arrived in Nikko, we found it was significantly colder than Tokyo; plus, it began to rain. We trudged with our suitcases 1.5km to the Nikko Park Lodge--uphill the entire way. By the time we got there we were soaked and feeling rushed; the temples we’d come to see closed at 3:30pm, and it was already after eleven. We dropped our bags in the lodge’s lobby, hastily reorganized ourselves, and took a taxi to the shrines.

Nikko’s focal point is a collection of World Heritage Sites, consisting of four main temples: Rinno-ji, Tosho-gu, Fukarasan-ji, and Taiyuin-byo. The grounds surrounding and connecting the temples are beautiful--a true forest of tall trees with lots of steep stone stairways, stone paths, and gigantic temple gates. Unfortunately, the rain kept on and got worse as the afternoon progressed, which made our temple-hopping a rather soggy affair. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to see the ornate carvings and paintings and gold Buddhas; at times we could hear gongs being chimed from afar. At each temple, we had a calligrapher inscribe our temple book--filling the pages is growing into a mild obsession.

We warmed up from the rain in a small snack bar, where we ordered rice cakes (actual cakes of rice, not the crunchy health-food kind) and drank hot green tea. A funny thing about that tea: When we ordered our rice cakes, Andrew also ordered "green tea." "No tea," the woman said apologetically. Behind her clearly stood a cup of tea. Unwilling to press the issue, we acquiesced. When she brought over our rice cakes, however, she also brought over two cups of hot green tea without comment. We realized then that by ordering "tea," she assumed we wanted iced tea. At our lunch restaurant yesterday, we’d also ordered "tea," and had received--somewhat confusingly--two glasses of iced green tea. We think now that no one actually orders tea because it’s automatically provided--and when two Americans order tea everyone assumes they want iced tea. Even when it’s freezing and rainy outside. We’re learning new things every day…

When we’d seen all we wanted to, and when our hands were frozen into damp claws, we headed out of the temple area to find lunch. We headed to a place called Hippari Dako and ordered two dishes of noodles--pan-fried udon and yubasoba with soy sauce. The restaurant held only three tables, and the walls were covered with notes, business cards, letters, and photographs from all the travellers who’ve enjoyed meals there in the past--we even saw a paper pinned to the ceiling from two University of Dayton graduates.

Next we went on a wild goose chase to find a group of statues I’d read about in a book, only to realize--too late--that what we were looking for was actually much farther away than we’d thought. But our detour took us through a quiet residential neighborhood, with only the sound of trickling water and gongs. Incredibly peaceful.

Finally exhausted, we mustered up the energy to once again trek uphill to our lodge, where we fell into an instant nap. We ate dinner tonight at the lodge--a Zen vegan feast consisting of brown rice, miso soup, tofu steak, salad, and a variety of mushrooms and cabbage simmering in a small pot over a votive candle. Dessert was a slice of apple carved into what appeared to be a rabbit, and half a kumquat. It was delicious (but I could see Andrew eyeing the Doritos for sale at the front desk, imaging his hunger pangs later from the meatless meal).

Now we’re sitting in the lodge’s common room, warm from a woodburning stove, planning the next part of our trip and being forced to listen to some of the worst Christmas music known to man--such as "White Christmas" played on a sitar. We’ll leave Nikko tomorrow around noon, take the train back to Tokyo, then catch a bullet train to Kyoto, where the next part of our adventure will begin.

No pictures today--I'm in an internet cafe catching up on posting. I’ll edit the post later and add in some pictures.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Day 5: Wednesday, November 26

Our day began at a normal time for once--10am--with coffee at a Starbucks-like chain called Tully's in Shinjuku, not far from our hotel. We then headed to East Shinjuku, an area that beckoned with its copious neon; we've eyed it from the subway station each time we return home. Though it was too early in the day for the neon to show its true splendor, the area was a distinct shift from the other areas of Shinjuku we'd seen: seedier, dirtier, much more Times Square circa 1989. The highlight was walking along the narrow alleys of Golden Gai, a collection of tiny bars (five or six counter stools) with doors so narrow that the majority of Americans would be unable to fit through. These bars are notorious for the after-work debauchery of Tokyo's "salarymen," and I'd read that a) not many of the bars welcome foreigners, and b) if you do go in, know what you're getting into, because it's entirely possible you'd be charged $100 for a beer. True or not, we'll never know.

Heading for less sketchy territory, we headed to the Isetan department store. We wanted to see the depachika (food shops) in the basement, famous for both their quality and their amazingly beautiful wrapping. Each counter in the depachika was like a tiny museum showcase, with the goods--macaroons in every color of the rainbow, pastries as intricately decorated as jewelry, individually wrapped pears and apples for upwards of $5 each. If we'd purchased anything, it would have been painstakingly wrapped in beautiful paper and ribbon. I really want to move to Tokyo and have a big dinner party now so that everyone will bring us wrapped food.

Next we headed to Asakusa for lunch and sight-seeing. We chose a restaurant called Sometaro, an okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki are basically filled pancakes that you cook yourself on a griddle on your table. Finding the restaurant was difficult--there were no Roman letters on any of the restaurants on the street, only kanji characters--but we eventually did. Inside, we removed our shoes, placed them in plastic bags, and were led to a low table. It was a struggle for Andrew to fold his legs into a comfortable seated position, and it was a good thing no one was sitting next to us--they would have had his feet in their laps. I ordered a pancake with pork, green onion, kimchi, and cheese. Andrew ordered one with ground meat, cheese, and "pizza sauce." The ingredients came to our table in bowls, and after we indicated that we needed help with the process, the waitress expertly mixed everything up, fired up our griddle with fat, and fried up the cakes while Andrew shamelessly snapped pictures. They were delicious.

Next stop: the Senso temple, an ornate, crowded temple surrounded by interesting shopping streets. At the temple I finally got my temple book--a blank book of fanned pages on which a calligrapher at each temple in Japan will write for a small fee. I'd tried to get one on Monday, but they were sold out at the Meiji shrine. The calligrapher even inscribed "Littell" on the front in kanji. The temple was beautiful, and the atmosphere was more bustling meeting-place than place of worship.

The last stop of the night was Roppongi, the nightlife center of Tokyo. Tons of ex-pats live in Roppongi, and it's both extremely crazy and extremely expensive. We walked for a bit around Roppongi Hills, a landmark building that contains offices, apartments, a Grand Hyatt, a shopping mall, and lots of fancy restaurants. It's an entire city in once place.

We eventually met our friend Atsh and his girlfriend for dinner. This time he took us to a Korean barbeque restaurant, where we grilled pieces of beef at our table--delicious.

It's 12:30am now, and I'm off to bed; tomorrow we leave Tokyo for a night in Nikko, then it's on to Kyoto. Oh, and I've developed a mild addiction to the 100-yen stores--more about these in a future post.

I'm too tired to include pictures in the post tonight, but here are just a few to illustrate our day:

The Senso temple

Watching my lunch being prepared. My thought at this moment: "I hope that pork cooks enough on this griddle."

Macaroons at the Isetan department store

Bars within the Golden Gai

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Day 4: Tuesday, November 25 (A Day of Difficult Eating)

Another day, another alarm set for 4:30am. This time, however, our trip to the Tsukiji fish market was a success. And what an experience it was. The Tsukiji fish market is the largest fish market in the world, and it's renowned especially for its tuna auction--some of the tuna can fetch as much as $10,000 each. The tuna are caught and frozen, then brought to the market, where they're auctioned off and then carted away.

Walking around the fish market is an exercise in chaos and treachery. Though tourists are tolerated, no concessions are made to them, and if I had to give a tourist just one piece of advice, it would be this: First, get out of the way--THEN worry about taking pictures. Besides people in rubber aprons rushing everywhere, there are many different types of vehicles--motorbikes, carts, one-person trucks--veering and speeding in every direction down the narrow aisles. They stop for no one. We managed to escape without injury, but I can't imagine this is the case for everyone.

The market is full of freshly caught fish both alive and dead. The dead are sometimes piled in buckets or pans of bloody water. The live ones are sometimes piled on tables, their mouths still gaping, or crowded into other buckets or pans. We saw one worker heave live fish onto a countertop--still flopping--and whack their tails with a huge knife. Watching this is not for the faint of heart, nor are the pans of what had to have been brains and hearts of some creature, who knows what.

After dodging and winding our way through the market, we did what everyone else was doing and chose a sushi restaurant for breakfast. There are restaurants throughout the "outer markets," where other food and cooking items are sold, and most had lines crowded around the door. We searched for and found one that had been recommended in an article we'd read, and fortunately had no wait. This breakfast proved to be our first Difficult Eating experience of the day. Though we both like sushi, we are not adventurous sushi eaters. And though we enjoyed most of the fish on our platter, we were ultimately left with three difficult items: salmon roe on rice wrapped in seaweed; sea urchin roe on rice wrapped in seaweed; and a slice of bright-yellow herring row with a strip of seaweed around its middle. All three gave us pause, but none more than the herring roe. It looked like a piece of wax textured with tiny pebbles--much like chicken flesh (and I use the comparison deliberately; keep reading). You'd think roe would be soft, as the salmon and sea urchin roe are; this was not. It was...crunchy. Alarmingly crunchy. Crunchy in a strange dried-mango-slice way, while being, quite clearly, not mango. We could not finish even our three-inch-long slice.

Next stop: Ginza, Tokyo's most upscale shopping district. This area felt very much like Fifth Avenue in NYC, but honestly it did Fifth Avenue to shame. There were just more stores, one after the other, in a neverending stream of luxury. Around us were men and women in suits, rushing to their jobs. It was a very pretty area, with tree-lined streets, and was a nice reprieve after the fish market. We ended up at the Imperial Palace, where Tokyo's imperial family resides. You can't get very close, but we squinted at it from afar. Closer to where we stood were gardens, which were, surprisingly, filled with sleeping homeless people. We'd seen a map earlier where an English translation had marked the spot as "Place for people who cannot go home," but whether being unable to go home seemed less likely than having no home to go to at all.

We finished off our time in Ginza by taking an extremely long walk in the wrong direction, then another extremely long walk in the right direction, to a Muji flagship store. We've been to Muji in NYC and Barcelona, but this Muji was totally different--several floors of food, furniture, clothing, and appliances, a Target of Tokyo versus the international stores' small collection of pleasingly designed office supplies, dishware, and travel accessories.

After a much-needed rest at the hotel, we had lunch at a tempura restaurant in Shinjuku then headed to Shibuya, one of the craziest and busiest areas of Tokyo. Shibuya can only be described as a Times Square gone wild--it has all the neon, all the traffic, and all the people, plus about a million more. What makes it crazier is that everything makes noise. Every neon display plays music; every building-size television screen plays a different advertisement at top volume; every store emits a dizzying cacophony of music or arcade sounds. Calling this sensory overload is a ridiculous understatement. Shibuya Crossing is the heart of it all, with thousands of people streaming in four directions at once. And looking calmly over the crossing from one side is a small bronze statue of a dog called Hachiko, who continued to wait at Shibuya Station for his master for ten years after the master died.

We walked around Shibuya, going into some sensory-overload shops, trying to win another adorable mole-creature (this one wearing a jaunty hat) in an arcade, trying to find Unazukin in a store called Tokyo Hands (unsuccessful), walking down a street lined with "love hotels" (hotels for brief trysts), finding two hotels near each other called "Hotel Will" and "Hotel If," and finally stopping for a rest in a cafe looking over the crossing.

Soon it was time to meet our friend Atsh for dinner. He'd offered to take us to a restaurant that would otherwise be pretty much off our radar as American tourists, someplace we'd never go on our own. So we met him in a neighborhood called Ebisu, and he led us to Ebisu Imaiya, which specializes in yakitori. (Yakitori is pieces of chicken put onto skewers and grilled. Kind of like shishkabobs, but at the same time not like shishkabobs at all.) A server led us up a narrow flight of stairs to a low-lit room with a narrow aisle down the center. The aisle was really a pebble-filled path with large stepping stones down the middle. On both sides of the aisle were small alcoves with low tables inside, with bench seats and a space under the table for sock-clad feet. Being clueless, I climbed into my seat without taking my shoes off, which then entailed an awkward moment of passing my boots under the table to Andrew. Sigh.

The restaurant had made a gesture towards an English menu, but it consisted of explanations like "Rever bucket" and was completely useless. Atsh suggested a multi-course menu, and of course we went with his suggestion. And so the meal began.

The meal, as I'm sure you can predict, was Tuesday's second incidence of Difficult Eating. It started off splendidly, with some nice Japanese beer and a skewer of grilled pieces of regular white-meat chicken. Next came a skewer of asparagus pieces. All good. But as the courses progressed--and there was a lot of progression, with around fifteen courses--things became more challenging. The first challenge was a skewer of chicken livers. I ate two of the three pieces and immediately regretted it. Andrew forced down one. The second main challenge was a skewer of grilled pieces of chicken skin. We managed to get this down because the skin was more or less disguised. Then came a small bowl filled with thin strips of chicken skin--perhaps raw, I don't know. Andrew managed this one; I could not. The next course: a skewer of pieces of something purply-black, which Atsh suggested we try before finding out what they were. They were...crunchy. They were not easy to chew into pieces easy to swallow. We never did find out what they were, only that they were yet another part of our exploration of the chicken. The course that finally did us in: a skewer of minced chicken grilled into a kind of meatball...served with a tiny bowl cradling one perfect raw egg yolk in which to dip it. I ate a few bites of the meat, but both Andrew and I bowed our heads and let the waiter take our yolks back to the kitchen untouched.

By the time we reached the end of the meal, I'd forgone my beer in favor of a soothing Perrier and had made a trip to the bathroom to run cold water over my wrists. Andrew had taken off his sweater; my sleeves were rolled up as far as they could go. It was such an amazing Japanese experience--and we were so lucky Atsh took us--but at the same time it was a meal I was happy to see the end of.

Experiences like this--when we're pushed aggressively past our comfort zone--are good for the soul in the long run, I think, even if in the short term they leave us feeling like the most unsophisticated, most unworldly people alive.

Some pictures from today:

They did Christmas, and they won

A sea of humanity at Shibuya Crossing

The fish market

Monday, November 24, 2008

Day 3: Monday, November 24

A mixture of excitement and jet lag kept me from sleeping much Sunday night, so I was up well before our 4:30am alarm on Monday morning. That's right--4:30am. We planned to go to one of the top attractions of Tokyo--the Tsukiji fish market, which gets going in the wee hours--when jet lag would make getting up early a little less painful.

It was our first stint on the Tokyo subway, and though it took a bit of map-scrutinizing and map-turning-upside-downing, we eventually found our way. But at the subway exit at our destination, a sign awaited us: Tsukji fish market was closed. We were floored. "You've got to be kidding," another thwarted tourist said. We learned later that it was a national holiday; too bad we didn't know that before starting out!

Unsure what to do now that we literally had the entire day ahead of us, we headed to Harajuku to see the Meiji shrine, which we knew would be open at that hour. On our way, we stopped and got cans of coffee from a vending maching. Vending machines are everywhere in Tokyo, mostly selling drinks, and small cans of "Georgia" brand coffee are a popular item. It took us a bit of experimentation to figure out what we were actually getting, and I wound up with a nice can of ice-cold coffee before figuring out how to get the hot, but now we know.

It was actually a good bit of luck that we got there so early: the park surrounding the shrine was so peaceful in the morning, with hardly anyone around, and the city was so quiet. We approached the entrance gate and watched as people purified their hands with scoops of water from a pretty trough before bowing and walking inside. Inside the main part of the shrine were piles and piles of vegetables--apparently offerings in honor of the season. The vegetables were displayed in boat-shaped arrangements; some of the vegetables had faces painted or carved onto them.As we meandered around and snapped pictures, a guard approached us. "American?" he asked. We nodded yes. "Bush, no," he said, shaking his head emphatically. "Bush, no." Then his face brightened. "Obama! Obama-san." He patted his heart. "Like. Obama-san."

On my coat is currently an Obama button--I'd specifically worn it to Japan to see if it got any reaction--and I showed it to the guard. "Ah! Obama-san!" He was so excited that he actually spit a little as he spoke. "Obama-san!" It was a moment of true cross-cultural understanding. Bush, no. Obama-san, yes.

With hours to go until anything opened up, we stopped at a cafe called Chococro for coffee and hot dogs wrapped in croissants (apparently a specialty). Smaltzy Christmas music played as we people-watched and charted a course for the rest of the day.

Our first destination: Kiddyland, a six-story toy store. Saying that Kiddyland was my sole reason for visiting Japan is only a slight exaggeration; for months I'd been anticipating an onslaught of ridiculous cuteness. I anticipated buying piles of adorable plastic toys and more Hello Kitty merchandise than I could carry. Kiddyland did not disappoint. Floor after floor of animals with wide-set eyes and tiny ears; shelves upon shelves of Hello Kitty; tiny mole-like creatures with big noses and tiny feet. But it was truly a Tantalus situation, with prices prohibitively expensive. Sadly, I could reasonably buy only a tiny Hello Kitty charm and a tiny stuffed mole-like creature. But just being surrounded by so much cuteness was an experience in and of itself.

For lunch, we headed to Maisen, a restaurant known for its tonkatsu--breaded, fried pork filets served with a kind of barbeque sauce. As we looked over the menu outside, a waiter standing in the doorway spotted my Obama button. "Ah, Obama!" he said, smiling widely and nodding. Andrew and I felt like the button was the equivalent of entering a place with hands raised--"Don't be alarmed!"--in clear innocence and peace. The pork was amazing. The breading was light and crispy, not greasy at all, and the sauce was addictive. It was served with a delicous miso soup, a few Japanese pickles, and some shredded cabbage. By the time we left, there was a line to get in.

We finished off our day in Harajuku by visiting the Togo shrine, where we saw a bridal couple having their pictures taken; walking down Omote-sando, a high-end shopping street; and wandering down Takeshita-dori, a street full of shops selling trendy clothes to teenagers. It being a holiday, the street was packed with some of the most stylish people Andrew and I have ever seen. In our jeans and sneakers--and in our thirties--we felt more than a little underdressed and overaged. We finished the afternoon at the Chicago Thrift Store, where I bought a secondhand yukata (a kind of cotton kimono) .

It was then time to head back to the hotel and get ready for dinner. Andrew has a few Japanese friends from business school living in Tokyo, and we were invited to Satoshi's home for a sampling of traditional Japanese foods. Atsh, another friend, met us at the hotel, then we took a taxi to the residential area where Satoshi and his wife live. It was a wonderful dinner, and though I don't know the names for anything I'll try to describe them: a kind of spinach-like green with sesame; cooked melon; cooked daikon and lotus-root; pickles; sushi; and shabu-shabu. Shabu-shabu involves a platter of paper-thin raw meat, raw vegetables, and a small cauldron of boiling broth in which you cook the raw items, swishing them around with chopsticks. Dessert consisted of mochi (sticky rice) pastries with ice cream in the center. Delicious.

I slept for a couple of hours last night, bringing my total number of hours of sleep since Saturday to around six. Progress.

A few more pictures from Monday:

Sake barrels at the Meiji shrine

Even we understood not to go beyond this chain

Prayers at the Meiji shrine

Andrew on the subway at 5am

Day 2: Sunday, November 23

We arrived in Tokyo around 8pm. Our first challenge: get yen from an ATM then get tickets for the train from the airport into the city. The airport was easy to navigate, and whenever we stopped for a moment, looking confused, someone instantly approached us to help, pointing us in the right direction.

Our second challenge: get from Shinjuku station in Tokyo to our hotel, the Oakwood Apartments Shinjuku. This would be easy in a city that actually had names for the streets; on the copious maps we've accumulated, however, the best have--at most--a few major thoroughfares marked and that's it. Tokyo, for all its cutting-edge modernity, lags a bit behind in the street-naming area. We'd gotten directions from the hotel's website--a four-page document that included photos of what we'd see when we exited the station, made certain turns, etc. The directions included things like "you'll see a BEEF BOWL restaurant" and "on your left will be th JUMBO pachinko parlor." We made it without one wrong turn.

Our room at the Oakwood is cozy and compact; and by "compact" I mean "so small Andrew and I have to suck in our stomachs to let the other person walk past." But it's clean, with great public areas, English-speaking 24-hour front desk staff, and a great bathtub.

By the time we got to the hotel, it was after nine, and we had competing biological desires--eat and sleep. Eating won out, and we embarked on a quest for a bowl of ramen. We past many restaurants; but it wasn't easy to choose on--some looked too crowded, others too uncrowded; some of the menus had no English whatsoever. Finally we were beckoned into one small noodle place and handed a menu with a few English translations. We sat at the counter and ordered ramen with pork and green onions. A delicious choice. We enjoyed the meal fully despite the fact that we stood out ridiculously in the small restaurant, probably doing the wrong things at every turn. When we left, we said "Arigato"--and the counter man laughed. In fact, everyone kind of did. This is the kind of trip where you have to just dive in, seat yourself at a counter, and realize that there's absolutely nothing you can do to make yourself look as though you belong there, or know what you're doing. It's all part of the game.

No pictures to post yet--time for bed. I haven't slept more than 4 hours the entire time we've been here, and I'd like to change that tonight if possible. More soon...

Day 1: Saturday, November 22

There's nothing like starting off an 11-hour flight with a Death Sprint through an airport.

On Saturday, our flight from Sacramento to Seattle was delayed for about 40 minutes because of excessive fog. Our f light from Seattle to Tokyo left at 12:35. At 12:15, we were still in the air. The flight attendant arranged for us to get off the plane first--along with four other international travelers with tight connections--and advised us, helpfully, to run as fast as we could.

The minute we got off the plane, Andrew and I took off at a full sprint; we left the other four people in the dust. Who had time to debate which direction to head? Running up and down escalators; dodging other travelers; screaming at the people on the shuttle train to HOLD THAT TRAIN--by the time we found the right terminal, we were nearly passing out. Finally, we found the gate--sweating, folded over at the waist, our diaphrams wheezing, convulsing wreaks--only to find out that the flight had been delayed by over 45 minutes. This fact had not been reflected on the info boards anywhere in the airport. The important thing--we made it.

Eleven hours went surprisingly quickly, thanks to the seat-back entertainment systems. We watched three movies: Mama Mia!, Frozen River, and Lucky You. Two were awful and one was hideously depressing, but they did the trick and passed the time. Soon enough, we were in Tokyo.

Friday, November 21, 2008

We’re Off!

We leave tomorrow! After so many months and weeks of waiting, our departure day is finally here.

This is a momentous trip for many reasons, not least because it’s the first time we’ve left the country since leaving Spain. We’ve traveled a lot since then, but only in California and environs, with several trips back East; the new passport I got after changing my name has yet to be graced with a stamp. Japan: not a bad first entry.

Perhaps more interestingly, this is the first trip we’ll have taken with Obama as our new president. No longer will we face skeptical raised eyebrows and questions like “So what do you think of Bush?” (Not that we’d necessarily face those eyebrows and questions in Japan; but we certainly did in Europe.) No longer will we feel compelled to shield our passport covers in busy security lines or to lie about being Canadian. It’ll be a while before we fully deserve to holds our head high in other countries, but I feel like the very fact that we elected Obama is reason enough to say “I’m American” in a normal voice, with a smile rather than a wince from anticipated judgment, spoken or un-. (During the election, I sometimes wondered how it would feel to leave for Japan if Obama did not win—it might have felt more like a desperate flight than a vacation.)

We’re bringing Andrew’s computer with us, and I intend to keep blogging throughout the trip. Stay tuned for answers to these and other pressing questions:

--Will we have time to do any sight-seeing, or will I feel compelled to spend our entire trip shopping for ridiculously cute plastic toys?

--Will we at any time inadvertently order something that is still visibly alive when it arrives at our table? Will we inadvertently order horse sashimi?

--Will we spend our entire time in Tokyo hopelessly lost in a labyrinth of unnamed streets?

--Will we enjoy eating sushi for breakfast?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Soon To Be Lost

Last night, Andrew and I watched Lost in Translation to further get in the mood for our trip. What a great movie—I’d forgotten how exhausted and defeated Bill Murray looks, and how perfectly Sophia Coppola captures the disorientation that comes from being chronically jet-lagged in a city where nothing at all is familiar. We’ve both seen the movie before (several times for me), but this time we watched it with the eyes of people who would soon be following in Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s footsteps. (Not their footsteps to the Park Hyatt, but ah well.) Navigating the crowds at Shibuya crossing? Staring perplexedly at a subway map? Taking the bullet train to Kyoto? In just two days, that will be us.

Strangely enough, it turns out that the lodging we chose in Tokyo—the Oakwood Apartments Shinjuku—is part of the same “temporary residence” chain (furnished apartments rather than hotel rooms) in which the film crew stayed during the shooting. Seeing Lost in Translation when it came out years ago was the first time I ever thought I might want to visit Tokyo, and I suppose now that it was meant to be.

Last night we did some preliminary packing, and we’ll definitely succeed in having no checked bags. I even managed to stuff an empty backpack and tote bag in the bottom of my suitcase to accommodate our future purchases. Onward…Two days!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Japan Countdown: 3 Days

We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, figuring out what to pack, calling around to Citibank in an effort (failed) to get some yen in advance. I’ve stopped our mail and newspapers, alerted our credit card to our whereabouts, and will soon have a consolidated list of all of our lodgings’ addresses and phone numbers and, hopefully, maps for getting there.

We realized last night that two weeks is a very long trip—even in Spain the longest we took was around twelve days. We will get a solid immersion in the country and, hopefully, a good sense of both the touristy attractions and the day-to-day.

Tonight’s agenda: some preliminary packing, a trip to the gym, a trip to Target for camera cards. Three days…

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Japan Countdown: 4 Days

In just four days, Andrew and I will be on our way to Japan. This trip managed to sneak up on us, despite the fact that just a few weeks ago it seemed like it would never get here. Now we’re finishing up our last-minute planning and purchasing and getting ready to leave.

This weekend, we attempted to watch two Japanese movies to get into the Japan mood. Saturday it was Tokyo Story. Sunday it was Maborosi. During both, I fell almost instantly to sleep, relegating them to the land of movies that have an immediate soporific effect on me: Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander, Star Wars. Not a successful effort. Two more should arrive from Netflix before we leave, so we’ll see how we fare with those.

I’m doing some last-minute Japan reading as well, Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki; last week we bought a few more books to take with us, so our immersion in Japanese literature (much more successful than our immersion in Japanese film) can continue while we’re away.

Tonight’s laundry night, and tomorrow we’ll make a final trip to Target…and then there’s nothing to do but pack, a challenge all its own. Four days!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Paella Day

On Saturday, Andrew and I headed to Napa for a day of paella-making with Beth and Nate and the babies. We had gotten a paella pan and ingredients for a wedding gift, but hadn’t yet put them to use; paella is definitely something you have to make for more than two people. It was unseasonably warm on Saturday, in the high-70s (by “unseasonably” I mean “unseasonably for the Northeast”), but nonetheless Napa was beautiful, with the vines changing to gold and red, set against a bright-blue sky.

After some debate, Andrew and I decided to adapt a recipe from Penelope Casas’s The Foods & Wines of Spain for our paella. Friday night, we’d watched a video of the NYT’s Mark Bittman cooking a simple tomato paella, and it looked easy enough—it seemed like the kind of dish that, like a soup, you could pretty much just toss anything into. After a trip to the Napa Whole Foods for provisions, we were ready to begin.

In theory and in practice, cooking paella is not that difficult—cook some things in the pan, cook some other things in the pan, combine everything in the pan, pour in some boiling broth, put into oven. Easier than a risotto, with its constant stirring and broth-adding. However, we ran into one big problem: the pan was full to the point of overflowing with rice and broth, and we hadn’t even added the cooked chicken or shrimp—and we’d drastically cut down on what the recipe called for. We opted for shrimp, chicken, and sausage, while the recipe called for a lot more chicken, chorizo, pork, lobster, shrimp, mussels, and clams. I have no idea how all of that could possibly fit into our 15-inch pan, which is what the recipe called for. In any case, after some determined boiling-down, we managed to fit everything in.

The end result was pleasingly paella-y. Next time, we’d add more salt and pimiento and maybe some on-the-bone chicken, to intensify the flavor. But we enjoyed the lunch nonetheless. Beth and Nate made some sangria, and we ate outside in their backyard. We walked to a little chocolate/ice-cream shop for dessert. A late lunch… eating outside…walking someplace…interacting successfully with other human beings…It was a nice day.

Monday Rant: McDonald’s

Apparently, McDonald’s missed the memo: McCain/Palin lost; anti-intellectualism and nonidiomatic grammar as “real America” are dead. You’d think a company that massive would understand that the world has changed.

I’m talking about the newest line of McDonald’s commercials, promoting their coffee drinks. For anyone who hasn’t seen them, they go like this: Two friends are having coffee in a coffee house. The scene is set with all the indicators of what McDonald’s apparently perceives as “elite”: jazz music, turtleneck sweaters, wire-framed eyeglasses, “sophisticated” reading material. One friend dismissively asks the other, “Have you heard McDonald’s is now offering coffee drinks?” His tone is snooty, but he glances at his friend, testing the waters. Suddenly, the floodgates open. Both friends joyfully admit they love McDonald’s, hate sitting in snobby coffee houses, hate turtlenecks, hate their wire-framed glasses, and absolutely love football. In a sister commercial with two women, the women announce how much they love reading gossip magazines and hate listening to jazz. Thanks to McDonald’s, they’re now free to enjoy their coffee with “none of the attitude” that had been forced on them by, presumably, Starbucks and other such stores.

These commercials are ridiculous on so many levels. First, it seems so very early-1990s to view a Starbucks as a snobby, elite, “attitude-ful” place; the image of the coffee shop as the haunt of skinny undergraduate philosophers and poet-types dressed in black turtlenecks was out of date by the time I graduated from college. Furthermore, Starbucks is now so definitely not elite that the company is suffering; its brand has been woefully diluted, and shops are closing right and left in an effort to return some stature to the “Starbucks experience.” A coffee drink is no longer a signifier of stature and class. These commercials are about 10-15 years out of date.

That’s my first beef. My second beef is the commercials’ reliance on the Palin-esque tactics that proved so unpopular during this election—i.e., “elitism” (whatever that means—apparently jazz, turtlenecks, and books) is something to be dismissed, while low-brow populism (apparently gossip magazines, football, and t-shirts) are to be embraced as somehow morally superior, more “real.” Turtlenecks and jazz are in one realm of America; mass-market trappings are in the other. The fact that McDonald’s seeks to align itself with what it categorizes as low-brow (and the fact that it categorizes these particular things as low-brow at all) suggests that it has not been keeping very careful track of the mood of this country. Playing to the lowest common denominator didn’t work in this election, and, in fact, the attempt was a total sham—it’s hard to make a case for “real” America when you’re wearing designer eyeglasses and a suit from Saks.

Why on earth is McDonald’s trying to sustain the culture war? And why is it doing it so ineffectively? My head spins when I try to make sense of their central conceit—basically, that liking football and enjoying a latte are incompatible, unless that latte comes from McDonald’s. It makes no sense. No sense whatsoever.

If I want a latte, it’s because I want a latte. My coffee drinks, wherever they come from, are neither a way for me to gain status nor a way for me to repudiate “elitism.” They’re just…caffeine; they taste good; and sometimes I need a place to read or rest. The real differentiator here—and one that seems like a much mightier advertising message in these troubled economic times—is that a coffee drink from McDonald’s is cheaper than one from someplace else. On this point, and only this, do these commercials come anywhere close to being effective: cheap is in, pricey is out. To say even one iota more about what a McDonald’s coffee drink represents is just ridiculous.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Leaving the House, Day 4

Oh, hello.

It’s been a busy week here in “Sacto”—a busy week of leaving the house. Sunday, I drove Andrew to the airport (business trip to NYC), went to the farmer’s market, went to yoga, and went grocery shopping. Monday, I went to the post office in the morning, and the gym in the early evening. Tuesday, I went to Target and found some workout clothes on sale. Today, I went to the gym and will soon be leaving for the airport once again to welcome Andrew home.

In my forays into the world, I’m pretty certain that I did nothing to offend anyone. I did see more than one person in Target who seemed to be muttering aggressively, but I’m 99.9% sure it wasn’t me. I was friendly to the post office clerk. I exchanged a few friendly words with a worker at the gym. Tonight I exchanged a few friendly words with our downstairs neighbor, who had taken a package for me while I wasn’t home (I’m even missing mail deliveries now!).

Why stop there? In ten days—ten days!—I’ll be leaving the house more dramatically than ever before, as we depart for Japan. This leaving the house thing isn’t so bad at all.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Dubious Record

So, let’s talk about last week. I set a dubious new record. With the exception of Wednesday, when I went to the gym for an hour, I did not leave the house once from Monday through Friday. Not once. I descended the stairs and opened the front door to retrieve the newspaper (8am) and the mail (5:30pm), but otherwise I was in our apartment. This is not good.

I didn’t intend to sequester myself this way. Monday and Tuesday were blurs of TV-watching, understandably, but I still could have made time to at least go for a walk around the block, just to get some fresh air. I have tons of work right now (never something a freelancer can complain about, much as she might want to), but still, there was time for a quick walk or a drive to the grocery store. By the time Friday rolled around and it occurred to me that I hadn’t left the house, it was too late to do anything about it other than feel a bit alarmed.

This must change. I need to make a concerted effort to leave the house. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but consider my life: a steady stream of work received and delivered by email; a job that ties me to not only my computer but also to my printer and internet connection; the fact that we have just one car and Andrew takes it to work most days. For anyone out there with a job outside the house, consider your own workdays—from home to work, and back again. Some days you’ll go out to dinner or something like that. Some days you won’t, particularly if you’re trying to save money for a two-week trip to Japan. My life is the same. It’s just that my commute consists of moving from my bed, to my desk, and then maybe to the couch later on.

This post is not a complaint—in general I love working from home and consider myself quite lucky that I continue to sustain it—but rather a reckoning. If I don’t get out of the house more often, Andrew and I will have to stop joking about my becoming agoraphobic because I’ll actually have become so. I’ll have to stop paining vivid, funny scenarios about forgetting how to interact with other human beings, because I will have actually forgotten.

I felt a little shell-shocked this Saturday, when Andrew and I left the house to go to his office for a few hours. We stopped at Wal-Mart afterward (it was a big day out!) and we forgot our cloth bags in the car. The cashier proceeded to put approximately one item in each plastic Wal-Mart bag. “Please,” I said, indicating the box of spaghetti she was about to put into its own bag. “Just put it here, with these other things.” She glared at me and—I do not exaggerate—threw up her hands before complying. I have no idea what I did wrong; maybe I would have known better had I not just spent five straight days without leaving the house.

Or maybe she’s given me a reason to forget my leave-the-house-at-least-once-a-day mission altogether.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes We Can!

Waking up yesterday morning, I felt like we were on the verge of something--something great, something transformative; but the doubts and fears and anxieties all but swallowed up the hope.

And then it really happened.

Waking up today, the world felt new, hopeful, different. Reason has triumphed. A corner has been turned. This is a moment to remember.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Unazukin the Pundit Weighs In...

...with a single nod to an Obama win, and a double nod to an Obama landslide. She seems to have some mavericky thoughts about the electoral map, predicting Obama losses in both Virginia and Florida. But I think she was simply enjoying our outsized reactions; she also persisted in claiming Californians would vote "yes" on the hideous prop 8 (to amend the CA constitution to prohibit gay marriage), but demurred once I rephrased the question a few times. Little jokester.

Monday, November 03, 2008

One Year

One year ago today, just around this time, Andrew and I were getting married at The Summit. I’ve always heard that the first year of marriage is the hardest, but for us it wasn’t hard for us at all—easy, in fact. Blissful, even. And now we’re one year in.

We celebrated this weekend by going to Glen Ellen—and by enjoying a rare few days of rain. Not just drizzles—constant, hard downpours, the kind that has California drivers skittishly pumping their brakes and driving slowly on the highway. It was wonderful. The rain was still coming down when we reached the Sonoma plaza on Saturday afternoon, and we splashed our way to Murphy’s Irish Pub for lunch. Chilled and wet, I ordered a cup of hot tea; it felt like fall.

After tasting some wines at the Valley of the Moon winery, we checked into the Jack London Lodge and turned on CNN. (It’d been a few hours.) We had dinner at The Fig Café, one of my very favorite restaurants in California. I had a delicious carrot fennel soup, followed by pot roast (again, it felt like true fall); Andrew had a fig and goat cheese salad, followed by steak frites. We shared a bottle of Benziger syrah and a brownie with ice cream for dessert. It was immensely pleasant to enjoy the Fig Café’s amazing food with the rain clattering against the windows. Outside was the smell of wet, fresh leaves.

Sunday, we had breakfast at The Garden Court Café—just across the street from Fig—and then took advantage of a break in the rain to take a two-mile hike through the Jack London State Park. Andrew spotted a mountain lion, which was both exciting and more than a little terrifying. We’ve seen many signs warning of their presence in our various trips throughout Northern California, but this was our first actual sighting. He said it was nearly as big as a Golden Retriever. We hiked a bit more cautiously after that, looking over our shoulders.

Soon it was time to head home. It had finally stopped raining, and the day was bright and clean and very November (though warmer than Novembers back East). Unlike last year, when we were so exhausted the Sunday after the wedding that we drove the wrong way down the PA turnpike for thirty minutes on our way to the airport, we arrived home without incident. And though we wished we were on our way to Nevis instead of back to Sacramento, it was hard to feel too sad; I’ll speak for Andrew as well when I say we were feeling just very happy and lucky to have each other. One year!