Japan: the hyperfunctional society: part 1

This is intended to be a complete account of my events in an eight-day trip to Japan, which had been planned for about two years by my native-speaking Japanese teacher, was organized by an educational travel agency, and included 26 other Japanese students with varying levels of knowledge.

Names have been truncated or removed for the sake of privacy.

After many intermittent lapses in editing, I decided to just split it into two as it was getting increasingly difficult to get myself to finish the narrative, but at the same time did not want to hold back the finished parts. I am not intending to publish this for money or anything like that; please excuse my limited vocabulary and prose during some dull parts.


Prologue

My father, anxious as he is to prevent me from forgetting anything, had become adamant about not allowing me to bring my laptop. I resisted for a little while, but gave up and let him do whatever he wanted. He decided to activate an overpriced AT&T international roaming plan, which not only required advanced payment but also an additional payment for each day of use, instead of simply letting me unlock the phone and buy a prepaid SIM card.

Very busy with CodeU, I found myself constantly switching between tasks in a scramble to get everything ready the day before the trip, as I would not have a laptop. My “roommate” De. intended to bring his laptop, so I planned to use his whenever it was necessary, despite acknowledging the fact that it may perhaps be difficult to wrest control of it.

Day 0

Recalling my teacher’s emphasis on bringing a watch, I quietly enter my brother’s room at 4 am looking for the watch I had reassured myself of its presence. Irritated at me, my father tells me to hurry up and get in the car, that I should have bought one days ago. Once again, my father believes me to be an irrational person who requires constant explanation of decisions like my brother.

When I arrive, not everyone is present, but we receive boarding passes anyway and ready ourselves to enter the checkpoint. We take a few group pictures and say goodbye to our parents (my father had left immediately, and my mother was left home sleeping).

At the security checkpoint, my roommate and I get TSA Precheck because we are teh 1337 hackers (obviously). But at the X-ray section, I’m a little perplexed so as to whether or not I should take off my passport pouch, which is under my clothes. Anyway, the officer waves me across the metal detector and obviously it picks me up, so I’m indecisive so as to try again or… wait, he’s telling me to stay put? It appears to be some kind of random security check, in which my carry-on bag is looked through further for any violating items. No violating items are found, so I am allowed to continue.

We are given a head count again. I spot that Best Buy vending machine again right at the checkpoint exit, which presumably has been right on that corner for over five years now. We make our way to our gate; my roommate wants coffee, so I follow him to get whatever. I spot a veteran with an amputated arm and hardly a face and pity him, while my roommate gives up on the search for coffee.

The connecting flight to DFW was unremarkably boring; as such, I can recall no part of it. The group does the head count one more time; people don’t seem to listen for the previous number to call their own number, so the head count process is obviously delayed by these people, a weakness of the head count system as it is unclear whether the person is present or is simply not paying attention.

We make our way over to the international departures terminal through the Skylink train. Undoubtedly, this is where the expensive stores are placed, including jewelry shops and things that you’d probably never buy from an airport terminal waiting for your flight. We spend the layover time eating breakfast from some restaurant with a Texan menu, attempting to spend as little money as possible. (Our attempts of frugality are very evident to our waiter, who generously allows the other two people on our table to order something from the kids’ menu.) Once we finish the rather large breakfast, I rush to download C++ Primer to my iPad, but run out of time, so no C++ Primer for me during the flight.

Upon entering the cattle-class seats, I discover that my seat is right in the middle. What? No! Fortunately, I am able to swap twice to reach the seat next to my roommate, who is occupying the right window seat, and explore the second item of novelty: some glorified Android tablet with a TV control (including a QWERTY keyboard and game controller on the back!), which has been placed on the back of every seat in the plane. During the long flight, however, my interests are to calculate the sleeping hours required to synchronize with Japan Standard Time, so I go to sleep. I sleepily look at people consuming the mind-rotting articles of entertainment offered by these tablets and simply wish to load in the Japanese that I had not even seen since the end of school. Yet again, I refuse to read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, which I have been intending to read since the end of 2015. Afraid of jet lag, I do my best to sleep the whole way through.

Recalling my previous trips, I try the GPS trick again, but I fail to get a fix. It must be the thick insulation of the cabin, so I try a little closer to the window. No dice; my roommate tells me (rather incorrectly) that GPS doesn’t work at 30,000 feet. I tell him that I’ve been able to get it to work at that altitude before, but he is satisfied at his self-affirmation by my own failure to get a fix. The phone sees the satellites, according to GPS Essentials, but fails to use any of the satellites to establish a fix. I muse that it’s probably best to wait 12 minutes to retrieve the full catalog for a cold start, but to no avail. My roommate tells me, completely aware that I know of its existence, that the entertainment system already comes with a map. But like everything on the entertainment system, the controls are incredibly crappy, and detailed information is shown only in a marquee that fades automatically.

My friend had brought GameCube controllers and his laptop, so we set it up to play Melee. Ju. decides to play as well, but it doesn’t matter because I consistently beat all of them. My friend gives up and tries to find another game he is good at, but in vain (I also beat him at Mario Kart: Double Dash), so he just looks through the anime on his laptop and shows me Dragon Maid, which I find to be exceptionally boring. Is this really the immoral Japan that I’m going to visit?

Day 1

We are unable to see our entry into Narita until the last moment. The plane enters through various layers of clouds with intense turbulence, and it is obvious the pilot is hesitant to commit to an instrument crosswind landing. We break through the final layer at the last moment, and we see our first of Japan from a mere thousand feet. The touchdown is so hard that a set of emergency respirators come down on the triplet of seats behind me, but it is all fine.

As the plane taxis to the gate, my friend wakes up, excitedly pointing to the variety of planes on the other gates, including a 737 and perhaps something about a 747, and how the other, smaller jets were laughable in the face of the big boys, including the 777’s GE90, apparently the most powerful engine in the world.

Somewhat dazed from the trip, we make our way to the international arrivals. Many police officers are seen standing around, ensuring that everyone goes where they are supposed to. The customs officers appear somewhat impressed that many of us know Japanese, but they ask no questions and let us through after handing in our declaration forms and passport.

During the travel, my friend makes two recurring jokes: one of them is, “You wanna buy a car? Let’s buy a car,” and the other one is, “Why do they call it an airplane?” (the latter asked over and over to many people).

We wait a while in the domestic terminal of Narita, but then proceed to getting boarding passes for our flight to Osaka. The clerks seem noticeably better dressed than in most airlines; in the back of my mind, I think about how similar their faces all look. After receiving our tickets, we pass through a simple security checkpoint that allows us to keep our liquids. Unknown liquids are analyzed using what is presumably spectroscopy, according to my roommate (Raman spectroscopy?). My roommate (which I will henceforth refer to as my “friend”) attempts to go into the tiny play area after the checkpoint, but decides against it. We wait about an hour for our JAL flight to Itami Airport (Osaka’s domestic airport) and buy our first items from a small shop on the second floor. I am finally able to relax and charge my phone, as the flight is delayed for a while due to the poor weather.

We are bused to the airplane by a “Friendly Airport Limousine,” where a staircase is waiting for us to board the plane. The flight was substantially boring, but I believe I was indeed able to get a GPS fix. Seeing the antiquated VHS system still used on the overhead displays advertising the free Wi-Fi being offered on the flight (yes, unrestricted fast Internet offered completely free on the plane!), I develop a theory of Japan’s low-tech high-tech culture: Japanese tend to develop technologies for purpose, not for aesthetic: once the technology is (quickly) developed and efficiency is reached, the technology is simply kept as it is, without a need to upgrade unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. Yet, it appears that based on the free Wi-Fi offer, that JAL is losing money to ground transportation. Is this true…?

We arrive to Osaka Airport, greeted by a big roof sign written in MS PGothic that reminds me of some derelict, Cold War-era Russian building. We arrive without incident and encounter our first Japanese vending machines and smoking rooms as we proceed to leave the airport to meet our tour guide, Ito-san, who is ready with our bus. A tour from another city was apparently supposed to come with us, but they had not been seen anywhere.

It is 7:30 pm and the sky is already darkening: we had been traveling for over 24 hours. We take the bus from Osaka to Kyoto through the highway for around an hour or so, until we arrive (after various changes of plans) to “dinner place,” where we enjoy some fried chicken and white rice in some underground restaurant. Based on the small serving sizes, I assume that future meals will be this small as well. We hear some people in the other room yell “Kanpai!”

Upon arriving to the hotel (only a few blocks from the restaurant), we receive our room assignments. Groggy and desperate to go to bed, we have to put up for a little longer Sensei talking about the money exchange machine that is literally right next to us. According to our teacher, there has been a miscommunication with the tour agency and instead of being placed in rooms with two people each, there are now three people to a room. I think we are only staying here for one night, but I am quickly corrected that we are actually staying here for three. A little frustrated, I go up to my room, but realize that the arrangement isn’t so bad after all. When I open my luggage, it appears that everything has been shoved to one side, and there are bits of plastic strewn all over. I check the new shoes inside the luggage, but there are no pieces of plastic that have come off, so I resolve that it must be some old, brittle plastic somewhere in the luggage, but I am unable to find the source. I argue a little bit with my friend about him wanting to turn off the lights right away and setting the air conditioner to 18°C, its lowest setting. Sleeping is difficult from my friend’s incessant snoring and probably severe apnea.

Day 2

I wake up to see the sun already shining brightly. Am I late? No… it’s only 4:45 am! That’s right, the sun rises in Kyoto at around 4:30 am and sets at 7:30 pm. Incredible! I go back to sleep until we receive the expected wake-up call, which is at 6:30 am. We get ready for breakfast, and I find that I can put my camera holder on my belt.

The breakfast is a continental breakfast, which fortunately smooths the transition to Japan. As I walk toward the breakfast tables, I see Sensei coming down the stairs. She greets me and introduces me to her father (or was it her grandfather?). Taken completely off-guard by the introduction, I try to cobble together a Japanese self-introduction, but it fails, and her father simply introduces himself in very polite and correct English. Very briefly (while I forget the exact words), he assures me that I will enjoy my time in Kyoto and welcomes me to Japan. I thank him, and the two then walk off again to breakfast talking to each other.

I hand my breakfast ticket to the man standing on the wall and am promptly shown by a lady where the trays are. My situational awareness is poor, after many days of sitting on the computer. I tell my friend about situational awareness, and he states something similar.

As planned, we return to our room, brush our teeth (my friend does not, naturally), and go down to the lobby at 8:30 (as planned) to prepare for our first destination. After doing the head count thing again, we head out across the alley back to the bus stop, trying our best to dodge the bicycles occupied by commuting salarymen.

Our first destination is Kinkakuji, which is a shrine that is allegedly made of gold, but not really. On the way, I take numerous pictures of the streets of Kyoto, which I am now seeing for the first time ever. Around 30 minutes later, we arrive at Kinkakuji, and our bus lines up with a crapton of other buses. We disembark and begin the first tour.

I try my best not to feel like a tourist, but the realization soon comes to be that I really am a tourist. (Yes, there was a slight identity problem there.) The problem of people blocking my pictures, and my body blocking other people’s pictures, introduces itself yet again to me, even if the other visitors are mostly Japanese students. Anyway, I try my best to listen to Ito-san and stick to the group, attempting to memorize the information about what I am taking photos of, even if the subjects of some photos are entirely meaningless.

There are many souvenir shops along the way, but frugal with my money and knowing there will be many other places to buy things, I look around but decide not to buy anything. Instead, I pay to try out 抹茶 (ceremonial tea), which is pretty bitter, although the sweet chocolatey snack served with it offsets the taste. (I still remember the taste of both 抹茶 and the chocolate at the time of writing.) There is a certain method of drinking matcha, which involves turning the cup twice, but I am not good at it.

I am about to buy something at the last souvenir shop, but I am out of time and don’t have the right coins to pay for it, so I go with the rest of the group to return to the bus. My friend buys a Japanese fortune, before he realized that there was an English fortune also being sold. We wait a few minutes for Ya.-san to run around, looking for everyone who isn’t on the bus yet.

Our next destination is Nijo-jo, which takes around 30 minutes to get to. Still fiddling with the pocket camera and phone, I take a video with the pocket camera with predictably poor quality. I just don’t want to use my phone in fear that the battery will run out very quickly.

The entrance of Nijo-jo is slightly under construction, but that’s only on the side of the entrance, and the place is still very well accessible. We’re given some arbitrary deadline to be back on the bus, and so we get off and Ito-san introduces us to the castle. I spot my first bad piece of Engrish – “No scribbling here” (no graffiti on the wall) – and tell my friend that it’s only going to get worse from here onward. Obviously, there is a wall smack in the main entrance of the castle to confuse enemies and split them apart.

The main building of the castle is very elaborately made and very well preserved (or replicated). We are not allowed to take photos inside, so we just look around the countless number of guest and audience rooms present in this aged capitol building of Japan. We are told about the nightingale system, in which nails are deliberately placed beneath the wooden floor such that the wood makes a sound when it is stepped on. Ingenious.

In the souvenir shop (I bought some minor thing), we spot some token machine that looks like it still runs on a PC-9800 or something. Wow.

Sometime during this day when we are outside, one of the group members comments about the extreme humidity. It’s certainly much more humid than Puerto Rico and not as hot. (After a while, it’s not that bad, though. There wasn’t a single case of sunburn during the whole trip.)

For lunch, we return to the bus and head onward to Kyoto Station, which takes us another half hour to get to. It is extremely tall and was allegedly designed by a professor from the University of Tokyo, hence the very modern design. There are around 2 underground levels and 6 stories to this monstrosity of a shopping center. We perused through the underground levels and ascended to the place where lunch was being served. However, Sensei kept talking about “exercise” so some of us decided to sprint all the way to the top instead of taking the escalator. I was one of the few who actually made it all the way to the top, although I was severely short of breath and felt about to faint. We had to descend a floor or so to finally arrive to the specific point we needed to be, and then walked through the closed, unventilated catwalk of the building to get a good glimpse of Kyoto Tower and that side of Kyoto.

We then walked toward the lunch place, which was actually a group of ramen shops we were given the choice to go to. I chose to go with my friend, and after five minutes of indecision, we just went to one and stuck with it. We used the meal ticket machine, although the clerk at the ramen shop was insistent in helping us gaijin as if we didn’t know how to use a meal ticket machine. I just wanted to see the options, but the clerk hurried me up so I just chose whatever. Also, I only saw an option for “cola” (コーラ) and not Diet Coke or anything. Hmm.

My friend ordered something spicy, which he ate around 75% of. He even tried this “special sauce” which was simply extra spice on his spicy ramen, a rather regrettable moment for him. In contrast, I eat as much as I can, but the ramen just doesn’t leave my plate, and my stomach feels pretty bad. Maybe I drank the cola too quickly, I don’t know.

What I find interesting at this point is that all of the napkins feel like plastic instead of like napkins. I presume this has to do something with biodegradability in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, but rubbing the napkin on my mouth just ends up smearing the food across my face, so I learn to use the napkin in short strokes.

Half an hour later, I give up on my food and return to the meeting point, where we proceed to the Nishijin Textile Center. Apparently I neglected to take a picture of the building, but it was a very contemporary building nonetheless. What was interesting is that this building also had a bus parking space; I suppose we only go to places that are bus-friendly, or maybe all of the places we are going are popular enough to merit a bus parking.

The first thing that comes to mind is the overwork and underpay of textile workers. Women died working long hours in textile plants, even though this point was never made anywhere in the museum. On the second floor is a quite sizable souvenir shop, where there are a few very cheap coin purses which I regrettably decide not to buy. There are also umbrellas for 11,000 yen, which is ridiculous and deserved my friend’s attention. There was a Japanese lady who tried to point us to a specific item in the shop, but I didn’t understand what she was saying or what she was pointing to. It looked to be some part of a kimono.

I proceed to the third floor and looked around the small exhibition. One of the artifacts was a document from France recognizing (or perhaps legitimizing) Japan’s newly acquired textile industry and technologies, after some people from Kyoto were selected to go to Europe and shamelessly steal acquire plans and design ideas for a textile plant.

The main point of the visit is to watch a brief kimono promotion, in which a set of ladies come and show off kimono outfits. For some reason, everyone was crazy snapping photos (including some Chinese people in the row in front of mine), but I keep my camera put away and appreciated the show. The performance was rather slow, and each lady made a few passes, rhythmically moving between left, right, and center stage before walking away for the next lady to come.

For some reason, in the same room where the performance was taking place, there was another (much smaller) souvenir shop. Why is that even there? Would they possibly make money selling things during a performance? Oh, I don’t know, maybe they were out of space or something.

We come down to the second floor again to find a lady operating the hand loom, which works on a long roll of punched paper (obviously compiled from Fortran or assembly, as I joke to my friend). Again, I take the video using the pocket camera, but tell myself not to make the same mistake again.

We then return to the bus to go to our next destination (which I didn’t know the name of until I was sorting my photos), Fushimi Inari Taisha. It takes a whole hour to get to this temple; during the ride, Sensei notes a few places where certain movies were shot in. I also jokingly take a few pictures of electricity poles, which are the one thing that Japan doesn’t organize very well (it’s a mess of wires), and I want to make a subtle Serial Experiments Lain reference.

When we arrive, we are told to do a sort of purification ritual that involves washing one’s hands and mouth from spring water using a certain tool whose name I do not know. When we enter, I notice in a corner a red bucket full of water that says “fire extinguisher” (in Japanese). It wasn’t the first time I noticed these buckets, but I certainly do take attention to them now: why do Japanese people use water buckets to fulfill the fire extinguisher requirement? Another pressing question that I do not know the answer to.

We cross a certain path of a thousand torii (I had to look up the name of these gates at the time of writing) and plan to curve around and come back to the bus, but the way is blocked, so we just turn around. Apparently, as we passed the main shrine, one of the group members was approached by a bunch of schoolgirls to take a picture with them. I knew it was going to happen when we came to Japan, but not in this way.

We go to one more place, but I don’t remember what it is because I didn’t take photos. Ma.-chan got stepped over by her dad and got a pretty bad bruise on her leg from the impact on the asphalt. Perhaps it was on the way back to the bus from Fushimi Inari Taisha. I vividly remember having to cross train tracks and a small bridge, and there was a group of vending machines very close to the bus’s parking lot.

We return to the bus to go to “dinner place,” which serves fried chicken, a self-cooking soup, an assortment of sushi with various raw fishes, and water. We’re also given a packaged wet paper towel, which doesn’t have the same plastic feeling as the dry napkins, yet appears to be customary to be served in every Japanese restaurant.

After dinner, we are dropped off a block away from the hotel and are given some free time before curfew to look around and go to a convenience store to buy whatever. There are three main competing convenience stores in Japan: 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, and Lawson. I go to the Lawson to look for an SD card for my phone, so that I can finally take pictures with my phone, as plugging in my flash drive using USB OTG seems to destabilize my phone and crash it, despite it having worked before the trip. Despite my friend’s disbelief that I would find a microSD card in a convenience store (“that’s a pretty specific item you’re looking for”), I prove him wrong and find one anyway. It was 1500 yen for a 16 GB Class 4 microSD, which is rather expensive for an SD card, but beggars can’t be choosers, so I buy it anyway. There is a slight concern that the SD reader is not working well, in reference to my last trip where the SD card got corrupted from repeated mounts/dismounts, but when I connect this new one, it works flawlessly. Hooray.

When we return to the hotel, my friend puts up with the same stuff about turning off the lights early. Okay, fine. I also review the pictures I took up to that moment in time, and gaze at my friend’s monstrous creation: a power strip with the ground prong forcibly removed from the cable to fit Japanese two-prong outlets.

Day 3

I wake up to the same routine, but this time I am invited to go to the traditional Japanese breakfast on the second floor, which is included in our breakfast ticket. I decline politely and say I’ll do it tomorrow. (I believe I exchange some money, but don’t remember why; it must be from something my friend owes me, perhaps water.) Sensei is waiting and asks for our maps, which she then marks up to highlight important streets for the afternoon’s excursion.

We depart to Tenryu-ji, or Arashiyama Park, which is yet another World Heritage temple Ito-san fails to clearly name. It takes us a predictable 50 minutes to arrive here. The bridge near the site is also a World Heritage site. In fact, there are 19 World Heritage sites in Kyoto alone.

We walk around and come across a Shiba Inu, and walk around some more. Our group is not very good at dodging incoming bicycles, so Ya.-san now yells regularly, 「自転車!」 in which case people do seem to react somewhat better. For some reason, we also get stuck for five minutes waiting on everyone to buy from this one vending machine. Someone comments that when Sensei buys something from somewhere, everyone else does the same. The tour guide seems to lose his patience somewhat, but we proceed.

We encounter a small shrine in the middle of the forest. There is also a purification area, but there is also a place to pay and write a wish on a small wooden plank that is placed on a roofed table.

We walk some more, and Ya.-san laughs a little about a sign about watching out for monkeys (猿). We finally arrive at the Katsura River and walk to the intersection where the Togetsukyo Bridge meets, then we return to the east entrance of the temple where the bus was originally parked.

We then travel to Kiyomizu-dera, where I realize that there are an insane number of Chinese tourists everywhere. How do I know they’re Chinese? First, they’re rude, and second, they talk in what sounds pretty close to Mandarin. However, our tour guide says we only have 40 minutes, so we rush through the streets to reach Kiyomizu-dera. It is extremely difficult to follow the group, but we do it anyway. When we finally reach the place, which just so happens to be under construction, we take a few group pictures, take in a little of the view of Kyoto, and then descend back to the streets and to the bus. Ka. decides to run and trips, despite his dad’s explicit instruction for him not to do so. My friend had decided to stay in the bus; it probably hurts him to walk so much, given he is overweight. My friend asks if he missed anything; I tell him no, given we spent such little time there and the temple was under construction anyway. What’s memorable, though, is that Ito-san mentioned that the renovation of the temple must be done using specific traditional customs, including a 100% wooden framework, meaning no nails.

We are then dropped off at a busy street in Kyoto close to our hotel that is filled to the brim with stores. More specifically, we’re dropped at a Daimaru department store and Sensei reminds us where we are and our suggested path during our allotted five hours of free time. I form a group with my friend and Ke., and we depart. Sensei entrusts me with a copy of the annotated map.

Our first course of action is to find somewhere to eat. Sensei recommended us to look in the Daimaru as there were many eateries, specifically in the lower levels. However, we go to the lower level, and there is only a grocery store there. I feel rather out of place as we search for the promised eatery among the many Japanese people who also appear confused with our presence; however, we only find a small bakery.

We look at the directory and it is in fact at the highest level that all the restaurants can be found, so we ascend there. We find a place that sells tonkatsu and katsudon and take seats. It is a rather compact restaurant with a cashier at the entrance (for some reason, paying at the front instead of from the table appears to be customary among Japanese restaurants). The kitchen is also open. The waiter places our backpacks in small baskets for some reason, and seems to alternate between English and Japanese in confusion as to which one she should use. She hands us English menus, which are convenient but not strictly necessary. I’m a little indecisive as to what to choose, but choose the most generic tonkatsu that I can find that doesn’t cost anything above 1000 yen (a number of menu items, it seems, do indeed). I believe this the day where my friend points out that it’s probably more expensive because it includes a free second bowl of rice and miso soup. Anyway, we eat it rather uneventfully; the tonkatsu tastes great. Once we are finished, we pay at the cashier’s table and fumble with our coins. We try to make it so that we all pay for our own food, but we just pay somewhere around 1000 yen each and call it even.

We go up to the roof and have a look around. Ke. needs to go to the bathroom, so we wait for him. Then we come back down and go to our next destination, which is the market Sensei was recommending us to go to. At this point, my friend is rather skeptical of my sense of direction, takes my map, figures out where we are going (hint: it’s exactly where we need to go), and keeps the map for himself. We proceed into the market, a little frustrated with my friend that he is placing superiority above trust. To bug me further, he repeatedly asks why I’m going so fast. I tell him this is my natural pace, so he tells me to slow down. He ends up telling me to slow down a couple of times, but thankfully he does not go beyond that in terms of harassing me.

Inside the market, we find a chopstick store that offers free engravings with a qualifying pair of chopsticks. I buy one, and yet again, this cashier fumbles between Japanese and English, handing me a form to fill out what I want on the engraving. I write ラミレス and give it back to her. She takes it and corrects my レ, which there is nothing wrong with about as far as I can tell, and sternly tells me that it will take about eight minutes for the engraving. I tell my friend that the lady corrected my レ; he had quite a laugh from that and placed it along his other stories of clerks being visibly surprised by my friend’s ability to speak half-decent Japanese.

After more slow walking and Ke.’s attempt to buy Adidas shoes in hopes that they will magically be at a lower price than their American counterparts, we then leave the market and head toward the Takashimaya department store, where there is a Pokemon Center promised to be on the fifth floor. Before this, however, my friend momentarily loses trust in my sense of direction again and looks at the map to make sure we are heading in the right direction on the right side of the street. (Yes, we are…)

Finally, we arrive at the Pokemon Center (actually, before this, we find some sort of Boy Scout shop close to the elevator on the fifth floor, which Ke. takes a picture of), where my friend momentarily begins to weeb out. This involves him turning on his 3DS to receive a gift (as is expected, since all Pokemon Centers broadcast in-game gifts as a reward for being in Japan) and telling me that he needs to buy everything. I tell you, my friend does not have very good self-moderation skills. I take a while to find something worth buying, but wind up buying a Dragonite plush (in reminder of Pokemon Type Wild) and Pikachu coin purse (as I forgot to buy an oh-so-important coin purse back at the textile museum). My friend desperately asks us if any of our birthdays land on this month, but they don’t, so my friend lets out a satisfactory expletive and pays for his items. The cashier gives him a little hat for his rather large purchase.

We have 40 minutes left, which is a lot of time, but not enough to go anywhere else, so we just slowly make our way back to the meeting area. We then enter the Daimaru store and wait near that elevator until everyone arrives. Nothing special happens during this time; when everyone arrives, we go back to the main meeting area outside and prepare to enter the subway, which is our way to get to “dinner place” and return to the hotel. The dinner place is this rather international-looking bar that generously serves us Japanese food, again with the self-cooking soup. I don’t eat as much, unfortunately. I hear a bit of Ito-san talking about how he makes websites, etc. as if he was a software developer. What is even stranger is that the waiter changes the television to play the first Harry Potter in Japanese. Anyway, I don’t eat a lot and end up giving my food to other people.

As we take the walk back to the subway, my friend starts laughing about a store they had found called “Titty & Co.” So funny, in fact, that Ka. deleted it. The store didn’t sell anything obscene, it was just regular women’s fashion. But the name… oh, how could nobody from Japan know what it meant?

This time, when I arrive to the hotel, I use my friend’s laptop to have a look at the photos I took so far from my camera and upload them to Google Drive. By this time, I’m developing my photo-taking system. I want the geotagging on all of my locations, so what I do is that I wait for GPS fix, take a picture or two with my phone, and then switch to the pocket camera if I need any more pictures. I also fill out the traveler information card (宿泊者カード) apparently required by the hotel, which they will pass on to customs in case of emergency.

Day 4

It’s really difficult for me to sleep and to wake up, because I feel like I’m about to vomit. The taste of miso soup makes my stomach turn, and eventually I can’t take it anymore and decide to go to the bathroom, where I get a massive bout of diarrhea. All of my food goes down the toilet and I moan to my friend to call Sensei that I’m sick. I lie down for a while, but I have no time to rest: today, we’re taking the Shinkansen to Hakone, and under no circumstances can we arrive late. Nevertheless, my strength recovers quickly. I haven’t even packed my luggage and it’s already 6:30, and I’m supposed to have that at the lobby by 7:00! I pack the luggage at lightning speed and bring it down there as fast as possible. My friend asks me if I could pack his laptop and charger in my suitcase as a favor, so I do.

Unfortunately, no traditional Japanese breakfast for me today… I just decide to eat a very light breakfast to try to reset my digestive system, which will take a few days. My mother on the phone tells me that it’s probably a one-off thing, that I’ll probably be fine if I eat something light. Sensei administers me an anti-diarrheal, but I decide to hold off on it and take Pepto instead, as it might just be from a conflict in bacteria ecosystems from travel. Instead, I run with Ya.-san to the nearest vending machine, where there is a Lemon Squash, which I tell him is pretty close to the Sprite my mother recommends that I drink as a remedy.

I proceed to eat quickly, pack up my things, leave my luggage at the lobby to be sent ahead of time to Tokyo, and regroup to get ready to get on the Shinkansen. We travel by subway to Kyoto Station, where we arrive half an hour earlier than expected and encounter the other EF group entering before us as we wait along the wall. I tell Bl. not to sit on the floor, as it is impolite; perhaps I might have said it too harshly. We wait a little longer for our Shinkansen to arrive and see the Nozomi pass. Finally, our Hikari train arrives and we enter Car #13 of train no. 512, the N700A.

At this point, I let my phone do all of the recording and picture taking, and enable full location mode. My phone is able to take all of that recording in the two-hour span that we travel from Kyoto to Hakone, and I’m left with still 60% of battery to go. I take another Pepto to make sure the diarrhea doesn’t come down like a torrent again.

The cool thing about Shinkansen trains is that the seat rows can be turned to face the other way, which is an incredibly cool feature. My friend makes the first of his comments comparing this to Amtrak, which in retrospect are incredibly dumb, since you can’t compare one of the fastest trains in the world (and JR makes it look like some kind of airline) to some clunky, slow train line that is consistently 6+ hours late and relies on an inherently outdated rail system that is more than a hundred years old. At least Amtrak is dirt cheap, but the value of the Shinkansen is far greater, even if it is considerably more expensive (neither can really be relied on for commuting).

We cross Fuji, which Ito-san is able to exactly tell the time of when it will be made visible. It’s beautiful, and once again I regret not having been able to bring the DSLR. The dynamic range of the picture is just enough to capture Mount Fuji, but neither camera’s image sensor is good enough to faithfully capture the landscape.

Finally, we arrive at Odawara Station. We wait an unexpected amount of time, because for some reason everyone wants to go to the bathroom (ugh!). We see that the bus has been waiting for us as we leave the station and continue onward to Odawara Castle, where we have an annoyingly little amount of time to observe the site. My friend decides to stay in the bus, again. It costs money to go up to the castle (allegedly, the first floor is free, but the first floor is actually the ticket booth) and we only have 50 minutes, so I decide not to pay the admission fee (500 yen) to the museum inside the castle. Instead, I hang around the grounds, looking through the souvenir shop. Sensei tells me about some tea in the refrigerator that is supposedly very famous, so I take a picture of the refrigerator, but I forget which item she was pointing to. There are quite a number of ninja items, which merits the question from someone else, “Why is there so much ninja stuff here?” in which case the answer in my mind is, “To make money from oblivious tourists, obviously,” but I keep my mouth shut. I find a spinning top that turns faces when you spin it, which I found highly intriguing and thus bought immediately. I also bought vanilla ice cream, which I had to eat rather quickly as I made my way back to the bus, as it was melting rather quickly (even though there’s a lot of smog in the sky!).

As I look around for a trash can (there are a surprisingly lesser amount of trash cans in Japan as opposed to the United States. Again, I assume that it must be something related to the Kyoto Protocol) and go to the bathroom to wash the melted ice cream from my hands, I frustratingly glance down at my pants, which I just happened to change this morning, already smeared a bit with ice cream. Oh well.

My friend asks once again, “Did I miss anything?” I tell him he didn’t miss anything except the ice cream, which he responds quickly that he actually ate ice cream from the vending machine close by. The bus begins to move as we depart for Hakone.

It is a lengthy trip along the mountain range, and we take many hairpin turns that attempt to dizzy me but fail to do so. My friend finds many Porsches and luxurious cars along the way; I remain baffled as to why there are so many luxurious cars on Japanese roads. I see a car dealership with cars of only a price tag of around 36万円 and wonder to myself if that’s some sort of down payment, because there is no way a car could be so cheap. Regardless, I go with the running joke about buying a car and ask him if he wants to buy a car, because I saw a dealership around.

Upon reaching Hakone, there is a small shopping center which we are allotted one hour for, including lunch. My friend is more interested in buying items from the store than eating lunch, so I abandon him. I don’t want to eat Japanese food for the life of me, so I eventually find a bakery that sells some tasty items, like tiny pizzas made from leavened bread, and a hybrid pizza/frankfurter. I take just one little pizza (as I’m still not feeling well) and get in line, until I realize that I don’t have enough money on me and need to open my passport pouch to get a 2000-yen bill, so I step out of the line and fumble for it. However, by the time I’m back in line, like 5 people are already ahead of me (a few of them appear to belong to a Chinese family and the other appear to be school kids), and I’m too polite to tell them that I had a spot in line (actually, I have no idea how I would tell them that). I wait 10 more minutes for the Chinese family to please finish paying already… as always, when everyone else is obscenely slow I’m the fast one who goes in and out in less than a minute. After eating the one pizza pastry, I realize it won’t really fill my stomach, but I’m not going to bother waiting to buy and eat another one. I’m running out of time.

We group up (I have to go into the store and recall everyone) and take a group picture. Sensei uses the toy car as part of the picture, which looks nice.

We are then taken to the cable car station (Komagatake Chojo Station, and it’s actually called a gondola lift!), and as I am waiting in line, I find a fairly detailed technical description of the lift, which naturally is only in Japanese. However, I notice that the lift was actually designed by Swiss engineers, making me feel significantly more safe. I take a picture and forget to take a ticket, so I have to go back in line and ask Ito-san for a ticket, along with my friend.

When we get on, there is a slight concern that not all of us will fit (our EF group, the other EF group, plus other visitors), but we cram in and are able to successfully ascend. I meet a guy from the other EF group who happened to bring his DSLR and offers me his spot to take pictures. I humbly accept, commenting that “my camera is definitely not a professional one.” But he insists that it’s fine, that he has plenty of photos already, so all is fine, I guess.

We finish our ascent; the building at the top of the mountain appears rather unrenovated and looks like it was designed for more people and some kind of automatic ticket gate or turnstile. The biggest bummer is that Ito-san tells us that we only have 25 minutes up here, because we need to catch the lift back down in time for the ferry. There is a dramatic pathway to a distant temple, but Sensei says that we will not have time to get there and back, so I stay close to the station to take pictures and take in the view from above. During this time, I remain a little miffed as to why they didn’t give us more time up here, but I suppose I should go by Sensei’s words that Ito-san just wants to put a lot of sightseeing destinations in one day, so I come back down rather disappointingly. My friend and I come up with the same question at roughly the same time (when we are showing the ticket to come back down): What if you lose your ticket? What if you don’t have money to buy another one? Do you just become a wanderer of the mountains? Haha…

We come down on the lift car, but this time I have ample window space for myself because I entered the car very early. Still, I try to yield to other people so they can take pictures as well. It descends significantly faster than its ascent, and once the car reaches the entry point of the station, I see a clerk run to the front end of the station closest to the car and turn some switch that reels the car fully into the station. Then, she opens the door slowly and we leave, creating some lateral swinging motion from the shifting center of mass as there is only one exit in the car.

We come back down to the docks, close to the small shopping center, waiting for a ferry. We are all a little tired, but someone makes a joke (I don’t remember what it was) and everyone laughs. My friend also tries to lift up Ka. and succeeds to an extent. Likewise, everyone has a good laugh.

(Sometime during one of the bus rides, Ka. talks loudly about some obscenity where someone’s “neck gets cut off and his brains come out,” with absolutely no context, in which Sensei responds, “Those are not my kids,” and everyone laughs.)

The ferry finally arrives around ten minutes later, and we get on. For some reason, the ferry is a rather large boat with many seats lined up on the interior and exterior. I have no idea why you’d want interior seats, since everyone will want to look outside. My legs are tired, but I find the effort to stand in the balcony with everyone else. The ferry leaves promptly once we are all on, with not even a horn to signal our departure. In the ferry, we take an impromptu group photo (it wasn’t supposed to be a group photo, but it got turned into one anyway) and wave to the pirate ship nearby whose passengers wave back at us. (After looking through the pictures, that other ship is named “Victory.”)

We land after around fifteen minutes on another set of docks north of where we began, where the bus is waiting. Some people go to the bathroom, and we all wait on them, but it is not as long as other bathroom breaks, for we depart shortly to our next destination: a volcanic site.

This site takes many hairpin turns to get to, and occasionally the bus driver must stop and look at the mirrors placed on each turn to ensure that he doesn’t collide with another car with a sharp turn that may cross the oncoming lane. However, we eventually slow down to a standstill due to a line of cars in front of us, where Ito-san says, “This will take twenty minutes, if there is no traffic jam. If there is traffic jam, it will take one hour.” And yes, there was “traffic jam,” and we indeed had to wait one hour.

Later on the way, Ito-san begins talking about how high volcanic activity and gases are very likely to trigger allergies and respiratory problems, and begins listing conditions in which one should wait in the bus instead of going to the site. However, his English is so poor that shortly after reading them out, Sensei asks To.-san (adult chaperone) to read the list of conditions out loud again, this time significantly better, but even she has some trouble with certain medical terms. I realize that there are not many people who know both English and Japanese and also can understand both English and Japanese medical terms and translate between them. In English, it’s rather easy because most medical terminology is derived from Greek and Latin, and is simply a bunch of root words, prefixes, and suffixes that build upon each other, whereas in Japanese, it seems that every medical term has a unique reading and combination of kanji that makes it more difficult to deduce the meaning of.

We pass a sign that talks exactly about the medical conditions Ito-san had on paper, as well as a sign that said that the closing time was 4:20 and then parking closes at 4:40 (or was it 5:00?). I wonder how much time we’re going to get up there. Regardless, we arrive, and I’m a little worried by my own respiratory system since I’ve always suspected that I have asthma, but I decide to put that to the test and go outside. As usual, my friend stays, along with some other concerned people.

Immediately after leaving the bus, the smell is putrid, obviously attributable to sulfur, and it sounds like a jet engine in the distance. I’ve smelled far worse at a SAWS water treatment plant, though. (That smell was unforgettable. Seriously.) Since I’ve obviously smelled worse than this, my lungs were able to take it without any problems. I decided to go with Ke. and Ka. although it was hard to keep Ka. in place without him wandering off.

Like the other sites, there were many Chinese people – you can tell they’re Chinese because they speak Mandarin and fail to define which side they want to walk on, for some reason. This site also has a gondola lift, but this one was far busier – the line overflowed to outside! We discovered this as we were trying to find the museum or brochure to explain this site, but instead found the gondola lift station with nothing interesting inside, not even a brochure of any kind, just a long line. The real geomuseum, which is next to the souvenir shop, already closed at four.

There was only one pad for observing the volcanic fumes, which appear to be uncontrollably escaping from random holes in a patch of dirt. In some holes, you could see them outlined with the stain of yellow sulfur. Some holes had scaffolding on them, but the scaffolding was extremely rudimentary and some holes with scaffolding had stopped emitting gas altogether at the moment. The emission site was also lined with pipes and tubes, perhaps to extract or analyze the content of the emitted gases. The pad had some kind of step filled with dirt along the perimeter, which other tourists stepped on to get a dangerously closer and unobstructed view of the site. I did not do such thing.

There is also a souvenir store, but it is mostly concerned with selling you black eggs (くろたまご) which are superstitiously claimed to extend your life by five more years. Well, obviously you can’t prove that. Also, the line was likewise very long, so it was not really possible for me to get one of such egg. (It’s claimed to be a real egg, so I didn’t want to eat it. According to Ke., it tastes like a hardboiled egg. No, thank you.)

We’re one of the last to leave the site, and as I get on the bus, I notice that there are about ten fire hydrants available in case of fire. I have never seen any place have any number of fire hydrants greater than two before.

We depart much quicker this time, and we head directly to our hotel, which is New Hakkeien. The journey is quite long, and after many hairpin turns, we finally reach a toll road (highway) where the trip becomes far faster, as the highway is elevated above the entire city we are crossing. Sensei, during the journey, tells us about our room assignments. I’m assigned to a room with my friend, To., and one other person whose name I do not know. Four people to a room, yes, but the good news is, according to Sensei, is that it is a fairly large room that actually has a max capacity of 8. So, EF is not skimping out on the hotels, it seems.

We reach New Hakkeien with little incident. One interesting thing, however, is that the entrance to the hotel is incredibly steep and compact; somehow, our driver manages to execute the climb well, and we arrive.

The hotel clerks here obviously know significantly less English, and appear more stern. One lady speaks a particularly stern Japanese to Sensei, but it seems they are in agreement with each other, and we are shortly after issued a yukata to wear during our visit. We have less time than expected until dinner, so Sensei scratches the plan to wear our yukatas to dinner.

Ito-san gives us a short tour of the hotel and tells us, again the bearer of bad news, that next to the elevator is where we will eat a Western (continental) breakfast. It will not be a traditional breakfast. We are also shown the large private room where the dinner will be held, which appears to be almost ready. There is a sign that says EF, indicating who is reserving the room. There are likewise other private rooms reserved by other occupants currently eating. Another stern-looking clerk comes again, this time talking something about who we are and if we are waiting for dinner. She suddenly realizes that the room had been open and closes it quickly, as if to hide the food because she knew we were looking at it.

To the left of the lobby is a sign for the elevator that is translated to “Eleveater.” I tell you, it gets worse and worse. As we wait for the elevator to go up to our rooms, I try to find the stairs and even ask Ya.-san about it, since there are 20 of us still waiting for an elevator. He says there are no stairs, but perplexed me wonders how could there not be stairs.

As we ascend to our room, I notice to the left of the elevator a ladder placed outside, with the window configured to be an emergency exit. “Oh, shoot” is the expression that immediately comes to mind: in case of an emergency, we have to use a… ladder? Well, let’s just hope there is no emergency.

The room is unlocked only with a regular key, rather than a key card. (Supposedly you can also leave the room unlocked, but I never had that problem during the stay.) When we enter, there are slippers (uwabaki) for all four of us already placed on the cubby; we must take off our shoes and place them in the cubby, and use the uwabaki for everywhere we go in the hotel. And of course, we are not to wear anything on the fragile tatami floor. The room appears to be very traditional, but after a while, I realize that the materials used for the room are probably not authentic at all. There is a Western bathroom and multiples panels of light switches, labeled in Japanese. In the main room, there is a tokonoma, two closets where the futon and other things are stored, and a Western couch and table hidden away by shoji. We put away our things and go back down for dinner.

The dinner is too big for me to eat. I’m trying to reset my digestive system and they serve me a desk-sized table full of food. That self-cooking soup again, rice with some unknown pink element on it, miso soup (which makes my stomach turn now for some reason), and a ton of other things that I am unable to identify. I can vouch that none of the seafood has been cooked, and I’m not going to eat all of this. I also accidentally agree to more rice, and the lady asks if I want mushrooms in my soup. I hesitantly agree. Throughout this entire dinner, I feel very bad, but not bad enough to leave, so I tough it out and try to eat nibbles of food at a time. Ito-san and Sensei are both very close to me, so I try not to do anything that would embarrass them or myself. My friend asks if he can just use his fingers for one of the shrimp, and Sensei says yes, so after a few minutes I begin doing the same, yet Sensei scolds me and not him. My friend, in defense of me, cites Sensei’s previous advice, but she corrects herself, stating that she assumed that my friend was only using the fingers to take the initial bite, rather than eating the whole thing with his fingers.

Many people are sitting criss-cross, as Sensei had suggested if kneeling (seiza) was too uncomfortable. I am able to maintain seiza for practically the whole time until near the end of the dinner, at which point I get impatient with eating my food. The only one who has a big problem is my friend, whose “gaijin body” is too fat to do either position, but somehow he manages. He also has problems with his yukata during dinner (he was one of the few who managed to put it on before dinner time), in which he complains about his chest hair showing, so Sensei stands up and fixes it for him by tugging rather violently on the upper part of the yukata. I make this remark, but my friend says “it was fine, it was actually really helpful.” Huh, I didn’t realize it took that much physical effort to fix a yukata.

I’m glad dinner is finally over, and I stand up. Sensei asks me where I’m going, so I sit back down; she realizes that some people left early when they were not supposed to. Ito-san offers to show us how to use the onsen, so we follow him to the second elevator in the corner of the lobby and go up to the seventh floor. He points out on the floor directory that they use the traditional word for male when referring to the men’s onsen.

When we arrive at that floor, because we are not allowed to take pictures (obviously), I will instead explain to you here the layout of the onsen. From inside the elevator, to the right is a seat and some foot massage devices, and to the left is the bath room, which is closed by a sliding door and further concealed by some hanging paper (whatever that’s called). On the front, there’s just a wall, but at the very top there is a window that makes the exit to the onsen visible (as well as all of the naked people). Inside the bath room, there are a bunch of lockers, and to the right some sinks and hair dryers (apparently if you don’t like using a towel). We are supposed to bring our towel(s?), but there are some blue ones available to cover your privates if it is needed, but “it will not be needed in most cases,” according to Ito-san.

When I return to the hotel room, the futon beds have already been set up for all four of us in the room. There is no hurry to go to bed; my friend says he will go later, but I responded that I will go now. I put on my yukata, take a few deep breaths, and take the elevator to the onsen. I’m not ready to see naked people.

And indeed, I was not. At the first sight of seeing many naked people, significantly older than I am, with darker skin, and certainly Japanese, I suddenly don’t feel welcome in the onsen and leave back to my room. As I return to my room, I see the other girls entering the elevator. They ask me, “Weren’t you going to go into the onsen? How was it?” I pause for a moment, calculating the best way to explain to them the events that just transpired with minimal impact on reputation, then the following words decide they needed to leave my mouth desperately: “I, uh, wasn’t ready for it.” They stop talking, look at each other with their mouths shut with their hands, and start giggling with unease. “Oh gosh, even he couldn’t do it…”

Feeling cowardly, I return to the room in defeat. I sleep on my futon bed for a while, until my friend asks if I’m going to the onsen. I tell him yeah, I’ll go later when there aren’t as many people. To. was already off to the onsen, and my friend is watching Japanese television half-interestedly.

At around 10:30 PM, I jolt up, fix my yukata, and contemplate going to the onsen for a little while more by pacing around when To. finally enters the room to share his “experience.” I’m not sure which towels I’m supposed to bring, but he assures me that I need only bring the large towel and the small towel for covering up one’s privates. I decide to return to the onsen, with greater confidence this time.

There is only one pair of slippers in the cubby. Relieved, I take off my clothes, go up the ramp to the onsen (where directly in front of me is a basket of blue towels similarly functioned to cover one’s privates), turn left, and open the door to the indoor sauna. I use the small shower and body soap provided to clean myself; the water feels just the right temperature and pressure for my skin, and the body soap has a slight gentlemanly smell to it, like perfume. The moisture of the sauna is enough to not require any additional drying after the shower. Once I finish, I go outside to the outdoor onsen, where everyone can see your privates (yay, naked people standing on the roof of a hotel).

Here it is. This is what I paid for. I touch the onsen water, and in a few seconds I realize that it’s just too hot for me. I try each and every onsen. They’re all at the same temperature, except for one cold onsen which I was told about by To. back at the room, but it’s used for cooling down (it’s also very cold). What a bummer.

There’s no need to dry myself, so I just don my yukata once more and wrap the belt around myself again. I forget to put on my passport pouch, so I take the yukata off again and repeat the process. As I leave, I find that there is information about the source of the onsen water, including its composition and properties, all in Japanese. From a quick glance, the nomenclature appears to be rather technical, and I am unable to take a picture of it because I’m in an onsen. I also find that contrary to To.’s claims, there is actually a toilet inside one of the rooms of the dressing room.

I leave the dressing/bath room and try out the foot massage machines next to the elevator. They are terrible machines that simply shake my foot and leave it in a state that is worse than before. Resignedly, I call the elevator and return to my room. In the lobby, however, I see a little girl accompanied by her mother, both with yukatas on, except the little girl’s yukata briefly falls off and she giggles. I turn away and continue to my room, smiling a little.

I find the absence of outlets disturbing, but the power strip is in the luggage bound for Tokyo, so I try my best to charge my equipment. The air conditioner is a tiny one with a design BTU clearly lacking of the one needed by this expansive space, and it appears to be on some standby mode, but we don’t know how to turn it on because all of the buttons are in Japanese. This takes considerable work by my friend to translate all of the buttons. Eventually, however, we are able to get the thing started and set to 16 degrees Celsius. The one thing is that for some reason, it thinks that it’s in its target temperature, so it doesn’t seem to blast any air until a while after we have configured it.

During the night, my friend snores surprisingly little, but my stomach and intestines remain upset from the Japanese food. I take another dump at 3 in the morning, but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. Hopefully, those problems will be over soon.

 


More to come in part two, which I have not bothered to finish yet. This part was finished around the beginning of July.

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