Archives for: 2004: Tokyo, Aomori, & Zushi

Back to Reality

We arrived back in Philadelphia on the evening of the 28th (after leaving Japan on the evening of the 28th and spending 18 hours in transit – it’s a funny thing, that international date line). So we’ve spent the past few days readjusting to reality. It’s been taking me a few beats to remember even the most fundamental things: where’s my house? what’s my phone number? what is this “job” thing, which apparently involves sitting in front of a computer all day?

They say it’s a sign of a good vacation if you’re happy you went, and you’re happy you’re back. What does it mean if you feel like you could have stayed on your vacation, oh, another 6 months or so?

I’ve been back-filling posts about our trip. I’m about halfway through. Look for new blog entries behind this one as I work through finishing the tale. I’ve also created a new topic archive – Japan 2004 – so you can see all the entries there.

For me, the jet lag (on both ends of the trip) wasn’t as bad as it was when I went to Japan 5 years ago. I believe there are 3 explanatory factors, in ascending order of importance:

1. Last time I flew from California, which was a 9 hour time change. This time it was a 13 hour time change. I think the 13 hour change is actually easier on your body, as breakfast and dinner are almost symmetrically reversed (Circadian rhythms involve eating schedules too).

2. A 9 hour flight from California on cushy ANA airlines isn’t nearly as disruptive to your body as flying 16 hours cramped in unsleepable United coach, and having a plane change with a two hour layover in the middle. Even though it’s unpleasant, a massive disruption like that helps to reset your body clock.

3. Three years of parenting a kid who, until recently, had lousy sleep habits has conditioned my body so it’s happy to get sleep whenever it can. Who needs a body clock anyway?

Maria and Kai have had a more difficult time readjusting. Since I had to go back to work right away, Maria’s been kind enough to take care of Kai when he decides that he’s all done sleeping at 3am. Unfortunately, she came down with a flu because of it. But she’s on the mend already, and Kai managed to sleep until 5 this morning, so we’re slowly getting back to normal.

Our Last Four Days in Tokyo

To describe the last four days of our trip, I’ve decided to tell the story right along with the pictures. So instead of a long blog entry accompanied by photos with brief captions, this time you’ll get a short blog entry, and lots of photos with long captions.

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Things You Don’t See in the US

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Today I’ll take a break from writing in travelogue mode and offer some cultural observations.

Maria used to live in Japan, so she knows what to expect when she travels here, and she has a habit of just leaving our bags on the sidewalk when we do something like going into a busy and crowded store. This causes me untold anxiety: as an American, it just feels fundamentally unnatural to me. But for the Japanese, it’s normal. For example, bicycles are routinely left unlocked and unattended on city streets. Of all the things I noticed that were different from the US, this is the one I just couldn’t get over: there is virtually no street crime. The police have a widespread presence, with little police booths scattered throughout Tokyo’s neighborhoods. But they don’t carry guns, and I never saw any policemen on patrol – their primary purpose seems to be giving directions. Why are things so different here? I imagine a lot of it has to with Japan’s ethnic homogeneity, coupled with the consensus-oriented nature of its society. The power of shame, and an aversion to stirring things up are noticeable aspects of the culture. For example, when those Japanese workers who were kidnapped in Iraq were finally released and returned to Japan, the only public comment they had was to apologize for any disruption of Japanese foreign policy that may have resulted from their kidnapping. Another likely factor is the deterrent effect of a lack of legal protections for those accused of crimes, and a court system stacked in favor of the state. The conviction rate here is 99%, and someone accused of a crime can be held for 25 days with no access to counsel. Coerced confessions are not unusual. So, I think the explanation for the low incidences of crime involves a variety of factors, and many of them would be too alien or just unacceptable to most Americans (but, of course, crime isn’t all that acceptable either!). But as you can see in the pictures, not having to worry about vandalism or people who can’t control themselves means you can allow all sorts of cool things in public places, from highly realistic toy guns to beer in vending machines.

The other thing that really struck me was how professional all the workers are. I don’t just mean the stereotypical salarymen – I’m talking about taxi drivers, parking lot attendants, the folks who clean the trains, etc. They all wear snappy uniforms, and seem focused on doing their jobs well. For example, when the conductor on the bullet train was finished checking tickets in our car, he turned adroitly on his heels in an almost military manner, bowed, and slowly backed out of the car. Watching this as an American, it really seemed a bit over the top, but then I figured it’s a lot better than having the woman in the SEPTA booth screaming in your face, as happened to our friend Yuka (she was visiting us from Japan a couple weeks ago, and that’s what happened to her when she got confused handling her tokens and transfers for the first time on the Philly subway). I asked Maria about all this, and her explanation was disarmingly simple: Japanese workers get a living wage, and are treated in such a way by their employers and customers so that they feel they are making a valuable contribution, which results in them taking pride in their work. Shocking. Of course, having a culture with a strong work ethic is a significant factor too.

There are other things I’ve learned from Maria that wouldn’t be obvious to a tourist: Japan has universal health care, a quality public education system, and – at least when it comes to families with children – a strong social safety net. I don’t see cultural homogeneity as a prerequisite for these things, which gives me at least a shred of hope that someday we can solve the US’ problems in these areas.

Putting it all together, if you apply US political labels to Japanese society, it’s a combination of being more liberal in some ways (universal health care, social welfare), more conservative in others (social responsibility and mores, law and order), and since the Japanese are not sue-happy like we are, more libertarian in interesting ways (beer in vending machines, cigarette advertising, boat rentals without life vests).

A Day in Yokohama

As I’ve been saying, I love Japanese food. It’s healthy and it’s tasty. But after more than a week of it, I was craving some American-style grease. So we started the day at the Denny’s around the corner from our hotel: bacon, french toast, maple syrup – yum! After breakfast, we took the subway to Shibuya, where we switched to the Minato Mirai line, which brought us to Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city. Coming out of the Yokohama train station, we stumbled into two political rallies that were underway, each at opposite ends of the entrance plaza. Japanese law limits political campaigns to the month preceding the election, which makes for a short and intense campaign season. The only way to experience this intensity is at a rally, as the law also severely constrains what the candidates can say in their TV advertising (they’re not allowed to criticize their opponents, or even speak of their own accomplishments, as that would imply a lack of similar accomplishments by their opponents). So you have to go to a rally to hear them say what they want to say.

After the rally, we headed across the footbridge to the Minato Mirai 21 area, which translates to “harbor of the future.” The most striking feature is the Landmark Tower, which is Japan’s tallest building, and is home to the world’s fastest elevator (28 mph). Our destination was the shopping mall on the lower levels, where we met up with Maria’s aunt “Big Auntie.” This mall is exactly like a US mall, which was actually a bit disorienting, as my mind was firmly set “in Japan” this far into our trip. For lunch, we went to the underground levels, which house a multitude of restaurants. I had udon soup, which has been one of my favorite foods for years.

We drove across town in Big Auntie’s car to the cemetery where the Toyoda tomb is located. Going back to her great-grandparents, all of Maria’s father’s family are buried there (it’s common in Japan to have a single tomb for a family – when someone dies, he or she is cremated, the ashes are added to the tomb, and his/her name is engraved on the stone). Properly maintaining your family tomb is an important tradition in Japan, and as you can see in the pictures, Kai gave it a thorough washing.

From there we drove to the suburbs, and spent the rest of the day with the Akasaka family: Mika, Shige, and their two sons Yasu and Hiro. Mika is Yuka’s sister (I wrote about Yuka in some earlier posts – she stayed with us for a while in June, and Maria met her originally in Osaka several years ago). The Akasaka’s lived in Palo Alto for a couple years when we were still in California, and we became friends with them then. Yasu and Hiro are older than Kai, but they’re still young enough that they were happy to play with him. The lack of a common language didn’t seem to slow them down. As you can see in the pictures, they also taught Kai some karate moves.

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Spinning Around Tokyo

Today was jam-packed with activity. We hit several spots around Tokyo, and didn’t spend a lot of time in any one place. Here’s the rundown:

  • We got breakfast at Starbucks – Kai had a regular donut and Maria and I both had curry donuts (now I know you wouldn’t normally think of putting these two things together, but they’re actually really yummy – here’s a recipe if you’re curious [linked page no longer available]). Then we found an ATM, got cash, and went back to the hotel to pay our bill.
  • Setting out from the hotel again, we hopped on a train to Asuku-Yama Park, which is a giant playground, located on the former grounds of the Shibusawa estate (the same Shibusawa that sponsored Maria’s conference in Aomori). But before we went in, we stopped to get Kai some Fish McDipper’s (fish sticks) at McDonald’s, as he was still hungry (not only can you get fish sticks at Japanese McDonald’s, you can get them with Wasabi-flavored sauce – yum!). He played at the park for a little while, but the weather turned hot and humid quite quickly, and he lost interest once he started getting really sweaty.
  • Our next stop was Ueno, where we went through the Ameyoko shopping district. Small, flea-market like specialty stores (like those in a US Chinatown) are mixed in around the shiny mega-stores and malls. Our mission was to find Thunderbird toys for Kai, since you can’t get them in the US. We found them on the 5th floor of the gigantic Yamashiroya toy store. They had a plethora of Thunderbird toys to choose from. Kai was excited, and immediately latched on to one toy that he wanted. Maria and I were both trying to pretend we weren’t as excited as he was (something that happens to you in parenthood is that your own happiness becomes entirely defined by your child’s happiness). We were trying to push some of the other Thunderbird toys on him too, but he would have none of it. He just wanted one. Talk about role-reversal! Overwhelmed by the excitement, he fell asleep in his stroller after we left the store, so Maria and I did some clothes shopping at Muji, which is located on the basement floor of the Maruzen mall. Muji is the coolest store in the world. Think of it as a mini-Ikea that also sells hip clothes. Once I figured out the Japanese sizes (it’s not just that they’re in metric – clothes that otherwise fit me were often too short), I found a few things that I liked. Maria was so dazzled by Muji that she set aside her normally massive aversion to clothes shopping and actually bought some things for herself. Then we did lunch in a hole-in-the-wall, and it was excellent (as I said in a previous entry, you can get good food anywhere in Japan). There I discovered mugicha, which is similar to iced tea, but it’s made from barley. It has a very pleasant, light flavor, and it’s become one of my favorite things to drink.
  • Next was Akihabara – “Electric Town” – home to all the latest and greatest in consumer electronics. I found a memory stick reader, which gave me the means to download pictures off the digital camera, as I had forgotten to pack the cable normally used to connect it to a PC. Then we went for a snack at Mos Burger, which is a Japanese fast-food burger chain, although it’s not really fast, which is ok, because it’s also better than McDonald’s. Kai woke up from his nap and wanted to go back to the hotel and play with his new toy. Even though we had only just arrived in Akihabara, Maria and I were wilting from the heat, so we agreed that his suggestion was a good one.
  • After taking a break in the hotel for a couple hours, we caught the train to Shibuya, which is the nightlife spot in Tokyo. But tonight we were just passing through, as we were on our way to Aoyama, to meet up with Maria’s friend Jen – they were going to do a post-conference wrap-up meeting. Before that we had dinner at an Okonomiyaki restaurant, which – as expected – was delicious. I ordered a cream soda to drink, and inadvertently discovered that Japanese cream soda bears no resemblance to American cream soda – it consists of a green melon-flavored soda with a scoop of ice cream. Not exactly what I was planning to drink with dinner, but Kai was happy to share it! We then headed down Omotesando Blvd in Aoyoma. Maria knew this area well – we walked by Aoyoma Gakuin University, where she had worked as a research scholar during the years she lived in Japan. Unfortunately, there was some kind of miscommunication with Jen, as she never showed up at the coffee shop where we were supposed to meet. We drank tea and waited for a while, then we gave up and headed to the Harajuku train station. On the way we ran across Kiddy Land, which was another massive toy store like Yamashiroya. Kai decided he wanted another Thunderbird toy after all, so we got him a big Thunderbird 2 rocket, which even blurted things at you in Japanese when you pushed its buttons. We took the train from Harajuku back to Ikebukero, and slept well after a very full day!

Goodbye Aomori, Hello Nikko, Goodbye Nikko, Hello Ikebukuro

See no evil, speak no evil, and...See no evil, speak no evil, and...
See no evil, speak no evil, and...21-Jun-2004 19:08, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.013 sec

The Shibusawa seminar ended on Sunday, and the next morning we all got on a bus headed to the train station. A typhoon was headed up the coast, but we made the 2½ hour bullet train ride to Nikko before it hit. Nikko is a medium-sized town, northwest of Tokyo, known for its many historical temples and shrines. We wanted to stay somewhere cheap, so Maria had reserved a room for us at the Nikko Shi Koryu Sokushin Center, which is a youth hostel. Our expectations were low, but it turned out to be the world’s nicest youth hostel. It was no Oirase Grand Hotel, but the rooms were clean and pleasant, and it even had big hot spring baths. The only hitch was that they wanted payment in cash up front, and we were low on yen. Nikko was not directly in the typhoon’s path, but it was close enough to bring a deluge of rain and heavy winds to the area. As the only Japanese speaker among us, Maria braved the elements to locate an international ATM, which can be difficult to find. But with her superhuman knowledge of the Japanese postal savings system, she correctly guessed that there would be one at the post office. Unfortunately, she got utterly drenched on her trek. By this time it was already late afternoon, and there was no sign of the storm letting up, so we got bentos (Japanese boxed meals) and settled in our room for the evening.

Tuesday was hot and steamy, and we set out on foot for Nikko Sannai – a small district in Nikko, which is ground zero for historical temples and shrines (essentially, it’s the Disney World of temples). We passed all the elementary school kids who were walking to school, and they greeted us with a cheery “konichiwa” (hello) as they went by. Once we hit the temple zone, I took pictures of the first dozen or so we encountered, but there were so many that we eventually came down with a case of temple overload. Maria was feeling adventurous, so we hopped on a city bus, which took us up a winding mountain road to Lake Chuzenji, which she had noticed on our map. It turned out to be quite spectacular. We rented a paddle boat shaped like a helicopter (Kai’s choice) and had a nice time meandering around the lake (the story continues below the photos…).

Smoking tips from Japan Railway
Smoking tips from Japan Railway21-Jun-2004 00:15, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
Rinnoji Temple in Nikko
Rinnoji Temple in Nikko21-Jun-2004 17:33, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.003 sec
Gojunto, a five storied pagoda, is part of the Tishu-go shrine
Gojunto, a five storied pagoda, is part of the Tishu-go shrine21-Jun-2004 19:01, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.02 sec
The Sannai area of Nikko
The Sannai area of Nikko21-Jun-2004 19:07, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.013 sec
One of many prayer boards, at a shrine in Nikko
One of many prayer boards, at a shrine in Nikko21-Jun-2004 19:13, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.004 sec
Yomei-mon Gate
Yomei-mon Gate21-Jun-2004 19:20, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.004 sec
Yomei-mon Gate close up
Yomei-mon Gate close up21-Jun-2004 19:35, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.006 sec
Another part of Nikko's Sannai area
Another part of Nikko's Sannai area21-Jun-2004 20:16, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
In Nikko's Sannai area
In Nikko's Sannai area21-Jun-2004 20:19, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
Kegon Falls, at Lake Chuzenji in Nikko
Kegon Falls, at Lake Chuzenji in Nikko21-Jun-2004 22:04, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.008 sec
Lake Chuzenji, in Nikko
Lake Chuzenji, in Nikko21-Jun-2004 22:51, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 7.1, 5.40625mm, 0.002 sec

After coming back down the mountain, we caught the train to Tokyo. Our hotel was in a neighborhood called Ikebukuro, which is a busy, mostly working-class area with a decent nightlife (albeit a decidedly second-tier one by Tokyo standards). After more than a decade of economic doldrums and deflation, most things in Japan now cost about the same as in the US, with the exception of hotel rooms. Most charge per person rather than per room, so finding a decent rate for a family is a challenge. But before we left for Japan, Maria tracked down the Kimi Ryokan, which caters to foreigners and has reasonable rates. Our taxi driver couldn’t find it though. So he dropped us off, and Maria called the hotel for walking directions. But despite her best descriptive efforts, they couldn’t figure out where we were (it’s an old part of the city, with inconsistent street names and numbering, so navigation is all about landmarks). It was getting late, and Kai was exhausted and hungry, so we found a bento shop – Kai and I sat on our luggage on the sidewalk and ate while Maria tried to find some landmarks. Luckily, we happened upon a sidewalk sign with a map of the area and tracked down the hotel ourselves.

Arriving at the hotel, we once again ran into the problem of being low on yen, and the Chinese man behind the counter wanted cash up front. He spoke English well enough, but I don’t think he could read it: as he stiffly explained their payment policy, he pointed to the prominent sign on the counter for emphasis, which read “Please ring bell for service.” But he eventually found it in his heart to allow us to pay the next morning. It was clearly not a hotel operated by Japanese, as it was noisy and not very clean – it didn’t even come close to the youth hostel in Nikko. But it was basically fine, it was relatively cheap, and we had reservations for the week, so we settled in.

Aomori and the Shibusawa seminar

Shibusawa ParkShibusawa Park
Shibusawa Park18-Jun-2004 03:16, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
Shibusawa ParkShibusawa Park
Shibusawa Park18-Jun-2004 02:26, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
Nebuta display in AomoriNebuta display in Aomori
Nebuta display in Aomori19-Jun-2004 22:16, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.125 sec
Kai and a friend at the Shibusawa seminarKai and a friend at the Shibusawa seminar
Kai and a friend at the Shibusawa seminar18-Jun-2004 03:31, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
Performance at the opening night dinner for the  Shibusawa Foundation’s 5th annual conferencePerformance at the opening night dinner for the Shibusawa Foundation’s 5th annual conference
Performance at the opening night dinner for the Shibusawa Foundation’s 5th annual conference29-Jun-2004 17:17

Maria and her friend/fellow scholar Jen had the first presentation on Saturday morning at the Shibusawa seminar in Aomori. Their paper concerns the Japanese postal savings system, which is, in effect, the largest bank in the world. It also serves as a giant slush fund for the Japanese government. It provides better banking services than most private banks in Japan. It has a complicated love/hate relationship with the private banks. The postmaster positions are hereditary. This is about as juicy as scholarly research gets. I’ve been telling Maria the “60 Minutes” folks could do a great piece on their research. Since I was taking care of Kai, I wasn’t able to attend the presentation, but Maria said it went well.

Saturday was mainly a day of rest for Kai and I. We made one outing, to a nearby onsen (hot spring bath). While there I was in charge of two other, 9 year old boys, whose parents were also attending the conference (one boy was Canadian, and the other was Japanese). The onsen had signs proclaiming the minerals in their water provided excellent treatment for a variety of ailments, so the baths were mostly filled with derelict old men. One of them was very curious about me and the boys, but we couldn’t get past the language barrier. I think he was perplexed about who we all were, especially since I had a Japanese boy with me who couldn’t help translate, as he spoke no English either.

We were treated to another fabulous dinner on Saturday night, and on Sunday, me and the other hangers-on went on a bus tour of the nearby Hakkoda mountain area. Apparently it’s a popular ski spot, as they’ll often get 8-12 ft of snow in a single snowfall during the winter (there are 20 ft. tall posts along treacherous edges of the roadway, so the snowplows will know where the road is). It was a very foggy day, so it was kind of silly to go on a driving tour when we could barely see 50 ft in front of us most of the time. But we made some interesting stops, and there were some occasional breaks in the fog that allowed us to catch a glimpse of the scenery. The captions in the photos below describe some of the sights (the photos include pictures from Friday night too). If you want to see more about Aomori, here’s a nice online brochure. Overall, I’d say it was the most relaxing weekend I’ve had in a long, long time.

Mr. ShibusawaMr. Shibusawa
Mr. Shibusawa18-Jun-2004 03:04, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
Kai, live on stageKai, live on stage
Kai, live on stage19-Jun-2004 05:01, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
View from the Jogakura Ohashi BridgeView from the Jogakura Ohashi Bridge
View from the Jogakura Ohashi Bridge19-Jun-2004 23:46, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.002 sec
The Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel. This is where the conference took place, and it's where we stayed. The grounds of the hotel, and it's hot spring baths, were greatThe Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel. This is where the conference took place, and it's where we stayed. The grounds of the hotel, and it's hot spring baths, were great
The Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel. This is where the conference took place, and it's where we stayed. The grounds of the hotel, and it's hot spring baths, were great20-Jun-2004 02:03, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.005 sec
Oirase RiverOirase River
Oirase River20-Jun-2004 02:15, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.003 sec
The Oirase river in AomoriThe Oirase river in Aomori
The Oirase river in Aomori20-Jun-2004 02:18, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.005 sec
Not yoru typical Japanese bus stopNot yoru typical Japanese bus stop
Not yoru typical Japanese bus stop20-Jun-2004 02:32, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
Underground utilities are under these blocks on the side of a road in Aomori, instead of under pavement like the USUnderground utilities are under these blocks on the side of a road in Aomori, instead of under pavement like the US
Underground utilities are under these blocks on the side of a road in Aomori, instead of under pavement like the US20-Jun-2004 02:36, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.02 sec
A police box in rural AomoriA police box in rural Aomori
A police box in rural Aomori20-Jun-2004 02:37, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
Installation art in the lobby of the Oirase Keiryu Grand HotelInstallation art in the lobby of the Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel
Installation art in the lobby of the Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel20-Jun-2004 02:43, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.125 sec
Beer in vending machines at the Oirase Keiryu Grand HotelBeer in vending machines at the Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel
Beer in vending machines at the Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel20-Jun-2004 02:45, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.013 sec
Full employment in Japan: 3 greeters for the busFull employment in Japan: 3 greeters for the bus
Full employment in Japan: 3 greeters for the bus20-Jun-2004 02:47, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.04 sec
Our room at the Oirase Keiryu Grand HotelOur room at the Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel
Our room at the Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel20-Jun-2004 16:10, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
Rice paddies in Aomori, JapanRice paddies in Aomori, Japan
Rice paddies in Aomori, Japan20-Jun-2004 18:39, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 7.1, 5.40625mm, 0.003 sec

Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto

We got off to a bright and early start today, at 3:30 AM. That’s about 3 hours earlier than planned, as we didn’t plan on the “Kai alarm clock.” Despite our sleep-disrupting day of travel, it was clear Kai wasn’t as willing as Maria and I to have his body clock reset. There’s no daylight savings in Japan, so it started to get light around 4, and Maria was kind enough to take Kai for a stroll to the beach. I tried in vain to get some more sleep.

We took the train out of Zushi at 6:30, and in Tokyo we switched to the bullet train, which took us up to Hachinohe in rural, northern Japan. We had a quick lunch at a tiny restaurant in the station. One of the great things about Japan is that you can get a good meal just about anywhere, including out of the way train stations. While eating, I confessed to Maria that I’d had the song “Mr. Roboto” stuck in my head all day. She said that happens to everyone of our generation when first visiting Japan. Here I was thinking this was a unique and amusing thing, only to find out it’s a universal bit of 70s brain damage. Anyway, we then switched to a local train line, which brought us to Mizawa. The Japanese public transportation system should be designated as one of the Wonders of the World. All the various airports, train stations, and bus lines are interconnected; it’s fast, clean, efficient, and reliable; and it goes absolutely everywhere.

Our reason for coming to this area was the Shibusawa Foundation’s 5th annual conference, which Maria has attended for the past 3 years (we all went to the one last summer in St. Louis, during our cross-county drive). The conference has a broad focus on “Challenges Facing Japan.” The first full day of the conference (tomorrow) covers economics, and the next day is for security issues and everything else. The sessions are intensive and they go all day, but while the 20 or so scholars who are involved aren’t working, they’re treated like royalty by the Foundation. Hangers-on like Kai and I get the royal treatment all day :-)

The Foundation arranged for a shuttle bus to meet us at the train station, and we met up with everyone else at the Mizawa Air Force Base. This is one of the 3 largest US military bases in Japan. They were offering a briefing about the base, and Maria wasn’t interested, so she went to a playground with Kai and some other kids, and I went in her place (before I gave up on political science as a career, defense politics was one of my two main fields of research, so I was eager to go). Apparently, these briefings are usually run by lower-ranking officers, so we were lucky to have the Brigadier General in charge of the base running this presentation for us. He was a charismatic figure, but the officers who gave most of the presentations went by-the-numbers and were a bit dull. But the Q&A at the end was more lively. For example, someone asked whether language barriers hampered their cooperative efforts with the Japanese military. Each of the US officers gave surprisingly long answers for such a straightforward question, and then the commander of the local Japanese army unit provided a much briefer response: “it’s not a problem for the Army – we press the button, we pull the trigger – there isn’t much to discuss.”

After the briefing we got back on our bus, which took us to Shibusawa Park. One of the officers from Mizawa came with us (in exchange for the briefing, the Base was invited to send someone to attend the conference), and I chatted with him while we drove. It turns out he was from Newport, RI too and was an avid surfer, so we commiserated about the best breaks. It was not a conversation I expected to have with someone while in Japan!

The grounds of the Park were beautiful. Maria and the rest of the conference attendees went to a “welcome” meeting while Kai and I – as well as the other wayward parents and kids – explored the territory. After the meeting, we were then treated to a truly lavish dinner, with freshly prepared sashimi, sushi, yakitori, steak, tempura, etc, etc, as far as the eye could see. Local performers provided traditional music and dancing. In my youth I worked as staff at events like this, and I must say that being a guest is an altogether different (and more pleasant!) experience.

Kai conked out halfway through dinner, and once the evening was over, the bus took us to the Oirase Keiryu Grand Hotel, where we’ll stay for the rest of the conference. It’s actually three separate, Scandinavian style buildings, joined together by underground walkways. It’s known for its hot spring baths and dazzling views of the nearby mountains and river. We had the choice of a western style room or a Japanese style room. We went with the Japanese style room: tatami mats and futons mattress on the floor.

So today was a very full day. It was great, but I’m looking forward to a slower weekend. And hopefully Kai will sleep later tonight!

Zushi and Kamakura

The Toyoda House, in Zushi
The Toyoda House, in Zushi16-Jun-2004 15:26, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.006 sec
Zushi streets
Zushi streets16-Jun-2004 15:26, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec
Zushi beach
Zushi beach16-Jun-2004 18:52, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 7.1, 5.40625mm, 0.002 sec
Looking for Little Critters
Looking for Little Critters16-Jun-2004 18:53, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 7.1, 5.40625mm, 0.006 sec
The Kamakura Buddha
The Kamakura Buddha16-Jun-2004 20:25, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 7.1, 5.40625mm, 0.003 sec
The Buddha's sandals
The Buddha's sandals16-Jun-2004 20:21, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.01 sec

Right after finishing my last blog entry, we took a 10 minute stroll through the narrow neighborhood roadways in Zushi, and arrived at the beach. Kai loved it, but it was one of the most poorly maintained public beaches I’ve ever seen. From what Maria tells me, it’s fairly typical for a Japanese beach. There were empty cans and used fireworks everywhere, no lifeguards, and no amenities of any kind. It made for a stark contrast with the cleanliness of everything else I’ve encountered in Japan, where even the subway toilets are immaculate. It’s interesting that beaches are one of the few types of public spaces that Americans are generally good about keeping clean, while it’s the only type of space I’ve seen so far in Japan that isn’t spotless. In addition to the garbage, there were bits of pottery all along the shore (I’m bringing home a cool little tile I found that contains a portion of a natural scenery painting). Maria says she remembers playing with them when she visited Zushi as a child. My guess is a cargo ship loaded with pottery sank in the bay at some point.

After returning from the beach, Maria’s aunt, “Big Auntie” came to visit, and we drove with her and Makiko to see the giant Buddha statue in Kamakura. From there it was lunch at Denny’s (Japanese Dennys look just like American Dennys, but they have no American food). Makiko drove herself and Big Auntie home, while Maria, Kai, and I strolled to what we thought was Zushi beach, as Kai really wanted to go there again. We had fun among the old bottles and used bottle rockets, and then we started to stroll back to the house. But we couldn’t find the path we were looking for. I took out the digital camera to compare the shoreline to the pictures I took in the morning of the Zushi beach shoreline, and we realized we were not at the same beach. It turned out to be the Kamakura beach, so we hailed a cab, which drove us back to the house in Zushi.

Back at the house, Maria and Big Auntie went through a box of memorabilia that was left to Maria by her grandmother. It mostly contained documents written by her grandfather. He was an officer in the Japanese navy, and quite a Renaissance man: there were brush paintings, and numerous letters, including a gripping one he wrote when he got some very unexpected orders to leave the Japanese embassy in New York, 72 hours before the Pearl Harbor attack (he left all his belongings behind and just made the last boat leaving from San Francisco). There was also a copy of a published paper on a discovery he made in the field of fluid dynamics.

We finished the day with dinner back at the Toyoda Compund (Maria’s aunt made sushi for us), and we were very happy when Kai’s stroller was delivered from the airport.

25 Hours in Transit

We made it! We arrived last night at Narita airport (near Tokyo) and then took a train to Zushi, about 3 hours south. We’re staying at Maria’s aunt’s house.

Total door-to-door travel time: 25 hours

Hours slept while traveling: Mike – 0, Maria – 1, Kai – 4

Kai playing in the Philadelphia airport before our flightKai playing in the Philadelphia airport before our flight
Kai playing in the Philadelphia airport before our flight15-Jun-2004 04:49, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec

Even with the 13 hour time change, we all slept well last night. Kai was really good on the plane. He actually didn’t watch many DVDs – he just played endlessly. He spent about half an hour pretending to stamp our passports, an hour with his toy cars, half an hour pretending he was flying the plane, etc, etc. He was only difficult a couple of times: the little bugger bit me when we were changing planes in Chicago (he’s never done that before – I guess he was really wound up), and he had a mini-meltdown when we arrived in Narita, which was just due to exhaustion. On the plane I read all of Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them. It was an obviously polemic but hilarious book. The only thing that went wrong was that United forgot to send our stroller from Philly to Chicago. So I had to carry Kai around the airport in Chicago and Narita. But they gave us a loaner and will bring his stroller to us later today.

The rule is that you always have to forget at least one thing when you travel, no matter how well you prepare. I remembered the digital camera, and I remembered the CD to install the software on Maria’s new iBook, and I remembered the recharger for it. But I forgot the cable for connecting it to the computer, which means I can’t download the pictures. Maybe I’ll be able to track one down when we get to Akihabra (“electric town”) next week. So my entries in the meantime will be pictureless :-( [Since returning, I’ve gone back and added the pictures]

Our tatami mat room at Maria's aunt's houseOur tatami mat room at Maria’s aunt’s house
Our tatami mat room at Maria's aunt's house17-Jun-2004 06:36, Canon Canon PowerShot S230, 2.8, 5.40625mm, 0.017 sec

Today is a day for visiting with Maria’s relatives: two of her aunt’s three daughters are here in the house with us (Akiko and Makiko), and Makiko has a baby boy. And one of Maria’s other aunts, known as “Big Auntie” (aka “the Flying Nun”, as she’s a nun who gets around) will be coming to town to see us too. We’re taking it easy today, since we’re still adjusting to the time change. We’ll probably go to Kamakura this afternoon, mainly just to see some shops. Then tomorrow we’re off to Aomori in northern Japan, for Maria’s conference.

The house is new, but it’s built on the property that’s been in Maria’s family for generations (the old house was in disrepair, so they had it kncoked down and replaced). The house is loaded with gadgets. The tub has a control panel, but since it’s all in Japanese, I just kept hitting buttons randomly. Then it started talking to me (in Japanese), at which point I gave up and got some help. The toilet seat has an automatic heater, and there’s a armrest on the right hand side with a bank of buttons and blinking lights. While I was brave enough to experiment with the buttons on the tub, I was not quite so brave while sitting on the toilet, so I have no idea why a toilet would have so many buttons. And everything from the lights to the air conditioners have remote controls. At the same time, it’s a fairly traditional Japanese home: many of the rooms have Shoji screens instead of doors, and we slept on tatami mats.

I deserve congratulations for managing to type this entry. I’m using Akiko’s laptop: the keyboard layout is different from a US keyboard, it’s got a Japanese version of Windows, and it took me a while to figure out how to stop it from converting my English characters to Kanji.

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