Friday, December 05, 2008

Day 14: Friday, December 5 (The Day We Did Karaoke)

(Written Friday, posted Friday)

It was our last day in Japan. We woke early and had breakfast in the hotel, then headed to Ueno Park. We visited three temples and got our last stamps for our temple book--Kiyomizu Kannon-do, where women who wish to conceive a child leave dolls for a Goddess of Mercy; Benten-do, a memorial to a patron goddess of the arts; and Tosho-gu, which features an eternally burning flame from Nagasaki in a shrine to world peace and nuclear disarmament. Near the flame hung many chains of origami cranes.

We headed next to the Tokyo National Museum, where we saw artifacts dating back as far as 10,000 BC--pottery, kabuki costumes, calligraphy, painted screens. Neither of us is very interested in this kind of art--we would have preferred to see a special exhibition of Vermeer at a nearby museum--but we thought we needed to round out our Japan exploration.

Satisfied with our taste of cultural history, we headed next to Ameya Yokocho, a shopping arcade--the same streets we walked around last night. This was the black market area after World War II. We browsed for a bit then stopped for lunch at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant--we sat on stools at a circular bar, while in front of us traveled small plates of sushi on, yes, a conveyor belt. Each plate cost 136 yen ($1.36); at the end a waiter added up the dishes and shouted the number to the cashier.

Our afternoon destination: a six-floor 100-yen store in Harajuku, the mother of all 100-yens. It was time to buy what we wanted to buy--no more putting it off. It was more than a little overwhelming, the store filled with things I would love to take home if only the packing would allow. I bought a few final items, feeling a kind of 100-yen frenzy taking over. We actually decided to go to yet another 100-yen store after that, in Asakusa, for a few final-final items. Then we were really done. A highlight from today--a sheet of Hello Kitty magnets (cute!!!).

It began pouring while we meandered briefly around Asakusa, so we headed back to the hotel to drop off our bags and get ready for dinner. We had a bit of an adventure for dinner--we needed something quick before meeting our friends Atsh and Satoshi, so we went to a restaurant on the top floor of the Ueno train station. It did not have an English menu, but we realized this once we’d already committed ourselves to going in. There were some pictures, but it was very unclear what the pictures were, or which prices went to which pictures. When the waiter came over, there was some confusion because apparently part of our meals required us to make a choice between three items--the identities of which were mysteries. He tried to explain them in Japanese and slight mime, but it did not help. Blindly, we pointed to one of the Japanese characters he kept indicating and nodded. We had no idea what meals we’d ultimately get, or whether we’d be paying $5 or $50. Happily, we both received quite normal bowls of ramen with ordinary things mixed in. The “choice” we made was for the filling of a seaweed-wrapped rice ball (we’d both “chosen” salmon). And the bill was what we’d expected it to be. No surprise eggs, no surprise charges. I consider that a success.

Then our night out in Tokyo began. We met Satoshi at the Park Hyatt Tokyo--of Lost in Translation fame--and had a (very expensive) drink at the Peak Lounge, with a spectacular view of the sparkling nighttime city. Atsh soon joined us, and we headed by taxi to Shinjuku to see what some of Tokyo nightlife entails. Shinjuku at night is insane--neon everywhere, men soliciting customers for “hostess bars,” pachinko parlors. Atsh told us a bit about the origins of pachinko--it was a way to use up ball bearings left over from WWII.

We walked around a bit, and then…we went to a karaoke place, where, in a small private room, we sang some songs. This was actually really, really fun--just a small room where you can drink beer and select songs from a telephone-book-sized song list; the words play across a large television screen and are illustrated by horribly outdated scenes of people from the 80s, their hair blowing in the wind and so forth. Atsh sang a few Japanese songs; Andrew tried his hand at Rod Stewart, Elvis Presley, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I belted out Like a Prayer, a Dixie Chicks song, and Sweet Child O’ Mine. We ended with some Michael Jackson. It felt very Japan.

Our night ended with Atsh and Satoshi leading us up a staircase to a ramen place specializing in “dense” ramen--a ramen with a thicker broth. It was interesting to hear them talking about their jobs--they work ungodly hours, until 10pm or so on a pretty much nightly basis.

It was nearly midnight when we headed for the train, which was packed with people trying to make it before the train service ended for the night. “Packed” is an understatement--the trains were crammed with people, and people were determined about pushing their way on, with shoulders and knees if necessary. There were several people with most of their body inside the train, save for one foot still on the platform, pushing with all their might into the back of the person in front of them trying to get on the train. It was a long ride home.

And now here we are, trying to pack up our (my) millions of ridiculously small souvenirs. It has been an amazing trip. I can’t believe it’s over. More pictures, stories, thoughts, etc. to come in the days ahead.

Some pictures from today:

Standing among falling gingko leaves


Conveyor-belt sushi for lunch--that's my hand with the green tea


Peace cranes at Tosho-gu


Thank you Atsh and Satoshi for such a fun night out!

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