I don’t believe there was a wake-up call. I take in the view from the massive windows (supposedly, you can see Mt. Fuji, as remarked by my teacher in one of the earlier travel meetings as an opportunity that she has never been able to have from a hotel room, but it’s cloudy, so it is unfortunately not possible). I will not forget this view. Again, I curse at myself for not bringing my DSLR; the view is too magnificent to be taken by my two cameras, although it is raining and hazy.
I go down to eat breakfast. I put yogurt on my six-hole tray without realizing there was a separate cup available for my yogurt. Ultimately, however, the yogurt is meaningless because it tastes like nothing. This place, too, seems to serve French fries (fried potatoes) for some bizarre reason. The options, however, are very similar compared to those found in Hearton Hotel. I also neglect to see the French bread made by the chef and already served in a plate. Oh, well.
I sit with my friend (or rather, he sits with me) and look around, realizing that no one except me is wearing a yukata. Yes, not even the Japanese people are wearing their yukatas when eating breakfast. I must look like a total idiot. Regardless, my friend makes some jokes that are too funny to remember.
I collect my things and realize that by the time I’m ready, everyone from my room has already left, so I pick up the pace and go to the lobby. I decide to drink some complimentary water, but there is none left. We take the head count, wait for the other EF group to leave, and then leave ourselves off to Tokyo or whereabouts. This will be another long day, I suppose.
However, we’re not going straight to Tokyo. We take the many hairpin turns again and retrace our steps for a while. There are many rice fields around, accompanied by some steel-framed greenhouses. About forty minutes following the coast, we arrive at a rest stop and take a break for “fifteen minutes.” The diarrhea is not over, unfortunately, and I consider taking that anti-diarrheal, but still decide against it. (Sensei has told me numerous times about her Japanese medication, which although she doesn’t exactly know the ingredients of in English, she asserts that it is significantly stronger than the American one and offers it to me, as she wants to get rid of it because it smells rather strong in her backpack. However, I continue to refuse it.) I don’t think I decide to buy anything from the vending machine; I simply return to the bus once I am done, but hastily as it is rather drizzly.
About an hour of staying along the coast, we take a turn and get dropped off the site of one Big Buddha. This time, however, Ito-san pays for the admission. Because I am Catholic, I do not find the statue of Big Buddha influential in any way, and debate whether or not it would be right to pay to enter the interior of the Buddha statue (100 yen entry). On one hand, it seems rather intriguing that the statue is hollow, but on the other hand, I’m funding the continuation of Buddhist shrines with money that could go to the church I belong to. I eventually decide not to do it, and Ito-san asks me instead where I think Buddhism originated. I answer that Buddhism comes from India. I suppose he was rather surprised that I answered it correctly, because he tries to explain it anyway, but figures that I already know the key part of the answer, so he talks a little about the branches of Buddhism.
I follow Is., whom I envy for bringing her DSLR. (Today, however, she has decided to bring her smaller camera.) She takes her time, and I try not to get in her way, but she’s going a little too slow for my pace, so I effectively abandon her and browse other parts of the temple. Time passes swiftly, and soon it is time to return to the entrance once more. We wait a while on several people, including Is., and subsequently return to the bus.
We proceed to one more temple before proceeding onward to Tokyo, which is Hachiman-gu. The traffic is terrible, and finally we arrive to a bus parking lot where the driver slowly backs into the parking lot and turns on the microphone in the back camera to listen to the workers repeat a phrase, which I assume to mean “proceed” or “back up,” until they yell to stop. One of the group members was somewhat surprised that the back camera even had a microphone, which I, too, believed to be interesting, as I have never been on a charter bus where there has ever been use of a camera microphone.
The rain has not subsided, but rather picking up significantly. We proceed toward the temple, and apparently we are very bad at crossing the street, as some people decide it is better to run across in panic of cars.
Once we arrive, we trudge through the muddy roads leading to the temple, which are presumably preserved remnants of the old Japanese dirt/gravel roads. Ito-san talks little of the temple while we follow him to key points of interest. We stumble upon a marriage ceremony taking place and are considered very lucky to do so, as there are many marriages taking place that day. We circle around and see the front, and I’m reminded of the research I did for the traditional Japanese marriage ceremony (結婚式). There are numerous people recording, and it feels incorrect to record as well (in concern for the privacy of the couple), but I record for a while anyway. The couple comes down and is followed through to the very front entrance of the temple; we attempt to take good pictures while politely allowing them to pass through the middle. After a while, however, we simply leave and continue as planned.
Ito-san states his wishes that during our allotted 1.5-hour free time, that we take an opportunity to go all the way up to the actual temple. I group up with Ke. and Bl., mark a waypoint on our meeting spot, and go find lunch. Again, I don’t want to eat Japanese food, as I’m still trying to reset my stomach.
After half an hour of searching through good places that aren’t already full of tourists (and finally putting our umbrellas to use and stumbling upon Ito-san as we both turn on a corner), we come across a small Korean sandwich shop. I order a ham and cheese, and the clerk asks me something which I don’t quite understand, so I just say yes. Naturally, I make the mistakes right after I am unable to correct them; I regret the “はい” almost immediately after saying it.
I thought it would be just ham and cheese, but somehow they found a way to put in the second and third staple foods of Japan: the goshdarned cabbage and carrots, which has been on literally every meal I’ve eaten since I’ve arrived. They have also put some kind of sauce on top of everything, and there is not much ham or cheese in the sandwich. I take a bite, and it feels as my esophagus is now rerouting my food to the gates of hell. This is somehow worse than the smell of miso soup, and I’m reminded of the stomach-turning taste of miso soup in conjunction with the unfamiliar taste of the “ham and cheese” sandwich I’m eating right now. The end result: nausea, and giving up my food. My stomach is now blocked and will not take any more food for hours from how flared it is; I might not even be able to eat dinner.
We cross to the main pathway, which is located in the middle of the main street, and somehow stumble upon Ito-san again. We merge with the other groups and decide to follow him. He shows us a shop of replicas of items faithful to the Edo period, including plates and chopsticks. The prices are predictably exorbitant and absolutely unreachable, as if it were a shop in a video game you found at one of the first stages of the game and knew it would be impossible to buy anything from it until the very end of the game. We also browse through smaller stores with more reasonable prices, but decide not to buy anything.
Tight on time, we return promptly to the meeting spot, which is a mere few meters in distance from the shops we had just explored. No questions asked, we make the long stride to the bus and depart for Tokyo.
It takes a long while to even leave Kamakura, due to the ridiculous traffic. I wonder if Chinese people are even allowed to rent cars here and if the tourism is the direct cause of such poor traffic, but I dismiss the thoughts and simply wait. Soon, we arrive at the toll highway, and the speed dramatically picks up.
The toll highway, unlike highways here in the US, are not open and require payment to enter and exit. Every part of the highway is enclosed with some kind of high protective barrier, and some parts include emergency phones placed at definite intervals. We never encounter a traffic problem in the highway, although the driver is never able to step up the gear beyond the third or fourth, which slightly disappoints me as he constantly switches between this high gear and a lower gear.
We eventually cross Yokohama, where there is a massive complex of factories and manufacturing buildings to our left and right. The view is too dramatic for me to take a picture of. Before we fully cross it, however, we take a small break in some rest stop. Ito-san briefly explains something about regular breaks being a requirement of Japanese law. I stay on the bus.
We travel up a rather steep ramp, narrower than what would normally be found in a US interchange. It certainly does not appear to be a conventional cloverleaf interchange, but the bus is moving too quickly to analyze this highly complicated topology. On our left are thousands of cars ready to be exported, along with one of the “largest ships in Japan” anchored on the dock (it has a military gray color), which Ito-san ambiguously explains to be some kind of military ship refitted for either incineration or shipping.
The view of factories engulfs everything. We enter through many bridges, tunnels, and extremely complicated segments of highway to reach Tokyo, and even pass through the old Tokyo airport (Haneda Airport, which used to be the main international airport until Narita Airport was constructed). We take another long tunnel and finally reach Aomi Station, located in what appears to be a highly urbanized industrial section of Tokyo. We get off and are told we have about an hour and a half of free time here. As we get off, we have to jump over the railing to get to the sidewalk for some reason. I take a good view of the shore before we cross to the station.
The station’s main attraction is a Toyota car exposition, which Ito-san insistently refers to as a “museum.” Adjacent to the “museum” is a shopping center of immeasurable size that resembles a Las Vegas shopping center with an artificial sky, which I definitely do not want to get lost in. Regardless, Sensei helps my friend find the “Tower Record” store, which is supposedly a music store. However, there do not seem to be any headphones to listen to the music before you buy it, and the store is rather small, so instead of staying around, I follow Sensei to the next place of interest: a 100-yen store, which requires finding an obscure elevator, crossing through the furniture section of a department store, turning right, and finally reaching the store in question.
The 100-yen store is probably the best decision I could have made. They sell pens, paper for various business purposes, some furnishings, home decor, notebooks, cables, adapters, and such. I could go crazy buying things, but I remain frugal with my money and can’t find any engineering paper for college, so I go with buying a few high-precision pens and ink cartridges for them. I try to stay with someone, fearing that I’ll be abandoned not knowing how to find my way back, but I pay (having to pull out my envelope of money from my passport pouch again – ugh!) and there is one other person who is done and would follow me back.
I explore the Toyota expo center. This is obviously the type of place (and only place) where Toyota’s skunkworks get to shine by showcasing alternative-energy engines and prototype technologies using mock-ups and models, which I personally think will never see the light of day, but reserve my opinions to myself. On the lower level is an assortment of cars, placed in a rather haphazard arrangement, but which can be entered and played with at will. Unfortunately, it appears that many of the fun games at the second floor, including a segway trial, require Japanese language proficiency and a driver’s license, the former of which I cannot affirm and the latter of which I definitely don’t have, at least one that works in Japan.
I follow Ito-san for a while and he appears rather perplexed, saying that he thought there were classic cars at the lower level. He talks to a person located at the lower level, relaying to me that it must be that they have been moved elsewhere, but that we won’t have enough time to go there. I don’t really care, to be honest, so I simply return to the meeting spot for the last few minutes waiting for the others. My friend returns, recounting his attempt to try to get Ito-san to do the test drive for them as he seems to have a driver’s license, but they ultimately are unable to perform the test drive. My friend also appears to have found some kind of anime store, which I was oblivious about. However, I am indifferent about the anime store after he informs me that no, he didn’t see anything Persona-related in the store.
We get back on the bus and turn on a street, thinking we are already in Tokyo and approaching the hotel, but instead we take another turn, and before I realize it, we’re on the Rainbow Bridge where we get an incredible sight of Tokyo. Sensei exclaims, pointing at the Tokyo Skytree, but I have no idea what the Skytree looks like and I blindly take a video covering the left and right parts of the bus. (Later during the bus trip, I finally identify Skytree and impress myself at its sheer height.)
Taking numerous tunnels and overpasses while gazing in awe at the superstructures of Tokyo, I take another video, but give up as the field of view is simply not enough to capture the entirety of the cityscape.
As the sun sets, we eventually descend from an overpass onto Ryogoku and arrive to our hotel, which is adjacent to a train track, which is adjacent to a McDonald’s. There is a great deal of smog and it is difficult to even see the sky, but I take my bags anyway and proceed onward to the Pearl Hotel.
At the entrance, our luggage is waiting for us with a rather large shipping tag attached to them. I have seen them before in the textbook (they look very similar), but never in person.
Our room assignments are read out to us. This time, however, I’m really only assigned with my friend, and nobody else. He gets the key, which is also a physical key and not a key card, although it has a thick, translucent blue block on the keychain that reads the name of the hotel. There do not appear to be any near-field communication devices embedded on the blue block.
We take one of the two elevators (we realize a little later that there’s a third one hidden in the corner) to our floor. Wandering about for our room, he decides to look at the floor map and identifies the location of the room, so we walk there. The rooms appear very well renovated – well, at least not our rooms. In fact, the entire wing all of our rooms are located in is entirely unrenovated! This irritates me slightly, and once more gives me the impression that EF has been skimping out on lodging costs to provide us the absolute minimum while increasing their profit margin. The thought, however, only lingers in my mind for a few seconds; after all, the trip hasn’t ended yet, and there hasn’t been anything absolutely intolerable, either.
We enter the room, which, predictably enough, is also unrenovated. Our two beds have been placed extremely close to each other, thus explaining why there couldn’t possibly be three people in the same room. It’s not that EF was nice and decided to give us two to a room, it’s that they didn’t have a choice when they booked because space is so tight.
I explore the room a little bit, determining the best place to unpack one’s luggage. There is a chair randomly placed in the room, because it is intended to go with the desk but is blocked by the second bed (my bed). Also blocked by the second bed is the refrigerator, which I suppose I don’t really need. There is also a great view of Ryogoku from the window, but I hold off on the pictures until after dinner. The bathroom is elevated from the rest of the room for some reason, and its two switches control the bathroom from the outside (one for the light, and one for what I presume to be the in-line heater). I don’t understand why bathroom lights are located in the outside rather than the inside: perhaps this has to do with some Japanese superstition about entering a dark bathroom? (postscript: after searching this, it appears to be an international custom for switches to be placed outside the bathroom). Moreover, there is no thermostat, but rather a control panel installed directly on the bed. Above the control panel is a Seiko clock that we later found out to be out of batteries (the batteries are… you guessed it, Panasonic) and two three-way lamps with a pull chain switch (the second lamp being on the wall desk on the opposite end of my bed). The panel also includes one outlet, a dimmer (but the dimmer is difficult to handle), an “aircon” knob that controls the speed of the fan, and a light switch. To turn on all of this, however, one must place the blue block on a receptacle in the entrance of the room, very similar to the Hearton Hotel room (except that one actually used a key card. We later find out that this receptacle is large enough to take literally any object).
Enough snooping around now. I put my luggage down and descend to the lobby for dinner. I take a seat right next to Sensei, albeit unintentionally.
The dinner is some pieces of fried chicken, cabbage, rice, and miso soup. Pretty standard for a Japanese dinner. However, I still feel terrible from that sandwich from the afternoon, so I have to excuse myself for not eating finishing my food. If I was well, heck, I’d eat all of it, but my stomach is quite volatile at this moment. Sensei asks for sauce, and I almost pass her the ketchup, until I realize there is a sauce marked as such in katakana. Otherwise, the dinner is quite uneventful.
When I open the luggage, things appear to have been shoved to one side slightly, similar to what I found on the first night but not as severely. There are more bits of plastic, but I am still unable to find where in the world it is coming from. Regardless, I must unpack. I intend to use my friend’s laptop, but I am too tired by the end to bother, so I go directly to sleep.
After not editing the account for five days during college orientation among other obligations, I have frustratingly and predictably forgotten many details of the remainder of the trip before I was able to write them. As such, I am no longer able to provide the detailed account I could accomplish at the original time of writing. My deepest apologies for future readers and generations.
Still trying to accustom myself to the early daylight, I wake up too early and go back to bed. When it is time to wake up, I do so without much trouble.
When we descend for breakfast, it is a continental breakfast as well, very similar to the one we had in the previous hotels. This hotel, too, serves French fries for some reason.
I return to my room to brush my teeth and prepare to head out. Before I head out, however, I look out the window once more and find a stream of students pouring out of the train station. It is around 8:00, so it seems completely normal for them to be commuting to school, but I take a picture anyway to illustrate the individualism and responsibility that Japanese students must take up daily.
We finally depart to Senso-ji. Ito-san says that one of the towers in the temple site was used as inspiration for the architectural design of Tokyo Skytree (which was in sight from Senso-ji): by distributing mass across the whole structure using outward platforms at specific intervals, the tower could in theory hold together better. Like most other Buddhist temples we went to, this one included the water purification ritual and bells, except that the shrine area was much larger and did not allow cameras, and another ritual involving incense was on a roofed post resembling a water well. We were then allotted forty minutes to roam the area; I followed Ito-san.
Crossing “Thunder Gate,” Ito-san finally pointed out to us the large sandals to the side of the gate, apparently prevalent in many gates of shrines. Beyond the gate, we crossed a plethora of markets, where I considered buying something but ended up not doing so (yet again). There were actually two gates, one from the temple to the markets and one from the markets to the busy street, but I do not know which one is the one called “Thunder Gate.” It must be the latter.
I wait until a few pictures are taken in front of the gate, trying not to block other tourists. We then cross the street to an information center, where I realize that the purpose of going here was for others to get more yen. While I wait, I stumble upon a large, wooden, heavily-detailed cityscape model of what appears to be our current area of Tokyo. Ito-san asks me where Ma.-chan is, but I do not know: she did not cross the street with us.
We slowly return to the meeting place again, and continue walking around. I suppose there was nothing of interest as we walked around, because the only thing I remember next was crossing a small wooden bridge and getting on the bus on the way to Akihabara, the “electric town.” We pass the famous Ueno Station, pass some massive posters of what appears to be either a game or some anime, and we arrive at a Don Quixote store, where we are dropped off. We are told that this is our meeting spot, and as a group, walk to the Akihabara JR station to get several maps of the area, one for each group. After this, we depart. I decide to go with Jus. and Mrs. To. Jus. is, quite frankly, a little clueless and indecisive, so I almost immediately regret this choice.
I decide to go around the streets and see what there is to buy. I’m looking for electronics that are expensive anywhere in the US but very cheap here, but not anything in particular. My first find is some kind of wholesale store where electronics such as thermometers are sold, but the price is a whopping 3,000 yen per each one. I thought Akihabara was reputed for cheap electronics…?
We keep finding tax-free shops everywhere, so I decide to go to one where there are six stories. It appears promising, but the prices are also very steep. One pen for 300 yen? I knew these tax-free shops were tourist traps, and they’re all over the place, too. I decide to buy a few pens and some ink.
I enter a very small store, where video game memorabilia is sold. I tell Mrs. To. to not look at everything, as there are some things you may not unsee later, such as hentai stuff. In one corner, I discover an assortment of Famicom games. Almost sold on the idea of buying a few to resell, I sample one of the games and compare its price on eBay. It’s actually quite similar, so I place the game back and continue browsing for stores. Some stores, while not appearing to sell figurines as their primary items, sell the figurines anyway right outside of the store. Peculiar, it seems.
It’s time to find a place to eat. I still don’t want Japanese food, in absolute fear of destroying my stomach again, so I tell them I saw an Italian restaurant nearby. We decide to enter the place, which is underground like many restaurants. When we enter, the waiter immediately turns the sign from Closed to Open.
I dare to say here that I took another lapse in writing the account – this time, however, it was a lapse of three entire weeks. I fear that many details have been forgotten, and may only be recovered by sudden flashbacks rather than recalling events chronologically. The reason for the lapse was that my normal life was resuming rather quickly, and my help was being demanded in numerous places, including work imposed by my father, and two major code projects with deadlines.
There is, predictably, no one in the restaurant except us. To our right, as we enter, is a counter for paying, somewhat reminiscent of the tonkatsu restaurant in the Daimaru department store. My suspicions are confirmed: this is standard in the industry. We take a seat, and the waiter gives us English menus.
There are several points in Engrish, which I must make a note of to To.-san and Jus., as their Japanese proficiency is extremely limited. There were some poor transliterations from katakana, so I felt obliged to tell them what the original menu item was by re-transliterating the katakana phrases. I ordered spaghetti, and without incident, the food was prepared and served promptly. The serving of spaghetti was rather large (like something you’d find in Texas!), and I felt guilty for leaving a significant portion of the food uneaten, but I knew there was no recourse or possibility of eating this later, as all dinners would be done together with freshly made food. I then wondered what happened to food waste in Tokyo, and if the food was then transported somewhere to give to the needy. However, I dismissed the thought as an overly political matter that would be difficult to comprehend without substantial knowledge of cultural stigmas and perspectives on the homeless. It doesn’t seem Japanese people are as charitable as Americans are, but then again, Japan appears to be far more functional and socially developed than America is.
While we are eating, a group of youngsters enters the restaurant and orders. I don’t hear anything like “kanpai” from them, rather disappointingly. We finish our food, with regret over having ordered such a large amount of spaghetti, and pay for the food. Once again, I fumble for bills inside my passport pouch, and it feels rather embarrassing to reach into my body to grab items.
I check the time: it took 30 minutes to eat, so now we have around 50 minutes left. Dang. Jus. is still clueless on what to do, so I suggest we just circle around and find interesting shops.
We find a Sega UFO Catcher, and Ju. tries it out. He doesn’t win anything, but I realize that these must be some kind of scam, so I do not spend any money on trying this myself. Heck, this UFO Catcher building is numerous stories high, all for the express purpose of taking your money very efficiently. Yes, sir, efficiency. (I read much later that the UFO Catcher bags have Morse code on them that says “UFO Catcher is not a vending machine.” Hah!)
I forget the order of the shops that we visited, but we cross the street and come across Bic Camera, which is an electronics shop. I realize that they don’t just sell electronics, however: they sell figurines, too. Very worth it if I decide to buy one and bring it to America. I tell the other two that I am entering the store to browse, and after a while of browsing, I impatiently leave the store and decide to call my brother. Time is ticking, and I calculate that it must be around 9 PM there. He must have just finished eating dinner. He is certainly available and responds to me, but his suggestions on what to buy are vague and unhelpful. I’m on my own for souvenirs.
Did I find anything? No, let’s go back. As we walk around for a little while, we realize that the vast majority of these stores are merely tax-free shops, like the first one I had entered and bought something from: they have been placed intentionally as tourist traps. I thought Akihabara would have been better than this, to be honest.
We return to a place we had found earlier, which is a multi-story building chock-full of anime figurines. Ju. is slightly interested and decides to enter for a while. I am not able to find a Persona item, but Jus. decides he wants to order something. In the meantime, I go up to other floors and get somewhat flustered from the unending amount of worthless Dragon Ball figures, as well as models from the other popular animes. Perhaps I can find something from The World Ends with You, but I wouldn’t recognize anything, probably. Ascending and descending the stairs, I wonder if I should keep to the left or to the right. (Spoiler alert: this question is answered in the many stops we arrive to in the Tokyo Metro later.)
After a few minutes, I descend and meet Jus. He says something about giving up on getting the model, or something like that. However, we are essentially out of time, and we have no choice but to return to the meeting spot and await further instructions.
A few minutes later, my friend arrives with a long box in his hands, and other people arrive as well with rather large bags and items. I, however, only come carrying nothing except the small bag of the few pens, which I had already stowed inside my backpack. Sensei is no exception: she arrives with bags from what appear to be rather luxurious brands, supposedly buying “gifts”. I do not deny it, but the thought of “gift” resonates introspectively and depressingly. My mother and father want me to buy something for them, but I have found nothing worthy or truly authentic worth gifting that cannot already be found online to order at one’s whim. What’s more, my friend’s other group members had apparently bought… Nintendo 64s?! Yes, that’s right, for only 5,000 yen, they got their hands on used N64s from some store. My friend, on the other hand, got something far more valuable: a mechanical (Cherry Brown) keyboard, with Japanese layout. The mere notion that he had some sort of premeditation on what to buy, in comparison to my poor use of the allotted time, completely stunned me momentarily. It is not easy to become frustrated at this level when one is in Japan, where one paid good money to simply stand on this ground and immerse oneself in a completely new world, but frustration did produce itself to an extent at that moment. My friend explained that there was a computer store in a building right after the block where we turned around and began our return to the meeting point. There goes my chance to buy anything for my family. Ugh!
The bus is parked and waiting for us, but we are still awaiting other group members. However, they promptly arrive without any need to send a party to locate them; we then board the bus as a complete group. The bus takes off and leaves Akihabara, en route to Meiji-jingu (Meiji Shrine). As we are explained, the shrine is enclosed by a million-tree artificial forest planted as a tribute to the deceased Emperor Meiji approximately a hundred years ago. The forest has been under constant scientific research to understand its ecosystem and sustainability-related implications (implications of the forest’s success, and implications of the changing environment of Tokyo on the future condition of the forest).
We cross the National Diet of Japan and other governmental buildings, including the Imperial Palace, if my memory is correct.
After arriving at Meiji-jingu, after crossing an intersection that reminds me too well of the traffic circle right beside Hermann Park and Rice University in Houston, we disembark and take a “short” bathroom break, which for some reason takes five minutes longer than usual. There’s also a vending machine, so people perform both actions, why not. (Because there’s not enough time, that’s why.)
The visit through Meiji-jingu is simply a stroll through the park and crossing the shrine, but it, too, is under renovation. A few pictures later (and an interesting assortment of wine barrels placed on display, apparently brought to the emperor at the time), we meet at the gift shop rotunda and wait for the rest of the group to arrive. The rotunda is unnecessarily large, and there appears to be a gift shop, but which I do not find interest in. Far off to a corner, there is what appears to be a homeless man beside a vending machine, sitting against the wall of the bathroom building. I want to go to the vending machine, but I do not wish to approach the homeless man. If I recall correctly, I looked at him in a strange and pitiful manner, hesitant to proceed to the vending machine, and returned to the group. I was especially hesitant in fear of anti-tourist/anti-American sentiment by such kinds of Japanese people, and I sought not to provoke him.
So much for a tour guide; I do not remember much of what Ito-san said during this part of the trip. However, I do remember this important dialogue between Ito-san and Sensei: Ito-san asks me if I am interested in returning to Akihabara, as some people have asked to return as well. I say that I am glad to return if this decides to be the new plan. A slight discussion happens between Ito-san and Sensei in Japanese, and Sensei explains to me something about the overhead of rescheduling the bus to Akihabara, due to the need to contact the EF headquarters, which will then contact the regional branch, and then finally reach the bus driver who receives the new plans. I ask why we can’t just take the train, as we have consistently found it to be significantly cheaper than the tour bus. Sensei, at this very moment, rolls her eyes at me. “That’s the reason?” She rolls her eyes again, this time more explicitly. “That’s… a very American expression,” I say. “Well, I am half-Japanese and half-American,” she responds, smiling a bit. Indeed, if there is anything she has learned from American culture, it is that she understands the ability to express oneself honestly about other people. There is indeed friction with Ito-san, and it’s not clear why he wishes to do things this way.
We return to the bus, and Sensei announces the new plans. However, there is a new condition to the plans that I did not hear before: we must choose to follow Sensei to Akihabara, or we simply continue with the regularly scheduled item on the itinerary, which is two hours in Harajuku, a major fashion district. To mitigate any future problems and to give myself a change of scenery, I decide to simply go with the default: Harajuku. I ask my friend, who is returning to Akihabara, what he thinks I’ll find there; he responds, “Just clothes and stuff, nothing you would find interesting.” In the end, he was right.
As Harajuku is a very short distance from the park, the trip is “short”: of course, however, due to traffic, it takes around 20 minutes to arrive there. We finally arrive beside some sort of commercial building and get off. Sensei informs us, in a rather unclear manner, that we need to meet in the opposite sidewalk due to how the bus will arrive, and that we need to return in two hours.
We proceed west for a block or so, take a turn south, and arrive in front of some low-resolution billboard with a camera, such that it acts as a mirror. Like the plenitude of places we have visited, this one is very crowded, and it is difficult to see what is up ahead, other than the fact that there is a descent to the main market avenue.
This is our dispersion point. I choose to go with Bl. and Ke., and we set off. There are an immeasurable amount of stores left and right of us, and it would be impossible to view each and every one of them, so we proceed following Ito-san to the main street, where we see fashion brands familiar and unfamiliar.
The first store that we visit is what appears to be a secondhand store, with a lady repetitively advertising the discounts of the store and inviting people to enter. Ke. decides he wishes to enter the store, see what we can find. He is a little confused, as many stores are located above- and underground, but eventually we locate the store and enter it. There is nothing of vast significance of this store, except the peculiarity that the clothes don’t seem to be organized very consistently. For instance, women’s short shorts are mixed with men’s apparel, even though the store has clearly distinguished clothes by gender and separated them by floor. We do not end up buying anything here, because there does not appear to be anything distinguishably Japanese.
We look around for other stores that we could find interesting apparel in. Ke. looks on his phone and apparently finds a store he is interested in, but does not seem to find it on Google Maps. We search for it anyway, but to no avail; the store may have simply closed down. We continue to wander around, but are mostly fixed on the main street. We are undecided on whether to make the turn to the smaller street to search for other stores; however, I vote to simply cross the major intersection one more time. We finally find a store of some interest: another secondhand clothes shop, but slightly more organized. Great.
As I descend the stairs to the lower level, I wonder to myself why I even opted to come to Harajuku in the first place. I should have just gone to Akihabara like my friend. But hey, this is the price one sometimes pays for visiting new places: occasional boredom.
There is nothing really interesting down here, at least for me. The store is neatly arranged in well-spaced rows, with the clothes subtly segregated between male and female. There are a staggering number of sports clothes and jerseys. Ke. finds one that he thinks might be rather valuable, but decides against buying it, and instead takes a look at an assortment of patches. One of them, he claims, is from a Boy Scout troop in Texas which he is familiar with. I tell him that if he really finds it memorable, he should buy it. I don’t remember if he ends up buying it or not; I do not believe so. At some point, I tell him about the interesting story of how these secondhand clothes arrive here: often times, they come from thrift shops that decide to sell their items to some buyer, which eventually puts these items in the international market, including Asia.
After wandering around for a while, we leave and set off to find something else. Ke. finally fixes himself on a Nike store, telling me that he wants to go to a store that is selling something that actually looks distinguishably Japanese, and he knows that Nike sells apparel specific to countries. We enter the Nike store, and after a while of viewing shoes in this sparsely laid out store (there is a great amount of free space between shelves), he decides once more to not buy anything.
As it appears our time is almost up and we are not actually sure when we left the bus, we decide to begin our way back to the meeting point, through the winding way bordered with shops and filled to the brim with people.
We try to find an interesting store. We first find some other clothes store; most of the clothes are unremarkably American, but I saw this one specific piece of clothing (was it a shirt?) with the wording “F– this world” etched in. Do Japanese people even understand the English phrases of the things they are buying?! Oh, gosh. And yet again, Ke. and Bl. come out empty-handed from the lower level of the shop. This is fruitless, I thought to myself once more.
It dawned on me that Harajuku was a place for Japanese people to buy American clothes, not the other way around. It has been a mostly regrettable experience coming here to Harajuku; I probably should have returned to Akihabara. This will be a moment I will regret for many months after the conclusion of the trip.
Regardless, we proceed onward through Takeshita Street. Our second find is a cat cafe. I become quite interested in it and decide to go up to the third floor (or is it second?) where the cat cafe resides. We are outside, about to finally decide whether or not we should enter, when this Japanese lady inside looks at us, hands us a menu from a table, says something in Japanese, and re-enters the cafe. I look at the prices: appears to be somewhere around 200 yen per 10 minutes, added with a marker a minimum pay of 600 yen (or was it 1200 yen?). I peer through the cat cafe’s windows and a gloomy image appears before me: I see one woman (American, slightly overweight?) on one corner, trying to pet a cat that is obviously tired. There are no other cats in sight, and there is one other person drinking coffee, but the glance is so fast that I failed to take in all of the details. (The memories at this point in time are extremely fragmented. I can’t construct an image, but I can construct small details of the image that I noticed.) I peer away and tell Ke. and Bl. that it’s probably not a good idea right now to go, as the cats are tired and I don’t know if we have enough time to be here for that long. (Besides, I did not have six 100-yen coins and did not want to pull out another 1,000 yen bill from my concealed pouch.) We put back the menu (how? I don’t remember. Probably Bl. gave it to the lady again.) and descend back to ground level.
We finally make it to the beginning of Takeshita Street and turn right to start walking toward the next street, close to our meeting place. There is one more thing, however, that intrigues me. Given it is around 4:10 pm, I take a double look at a shop called Cookie Time, as suggested by Ke. and (or?) Bl., and eventually decide to enter and order something.
This part of the tour is possibly one of the most intriguing or scary realizations I discover, out of the events of the entire tour of Japan. Cookie Time caters to Japanese people, but the lady who took my order appears to speak and converse in fluent American English. When I begin my order, the attempt to form correct Japanese is simply demolished by the lady’s insistence in speaking fluent English. And at that moment, I felt no more as someone who was here to learn Japanese, but rather as simply another tourist. While waiting for my chocolate shake to be made, I stick around, overhearing the other employees’ conversations, and indeed, they speak English to each other. I genuinely begin to wonder if Americans were lured here to work as mere service workers halfway across the world. Perhaps these are people who found themselves jobless after an unfortunate turn of events? The uncertainty of how they even arrived here simply chills me to a greater extent than the chocolate-chip shake I hold in my hands.
People from our group are beginning to return to the meeting point, so I leave the place and begin to walk toward the meeting point myself, furiously drinking the shake without accidentally choking on the chocolate chips (ground Oreos?). This is a process that takes me around ten minutes; while doing so, I come across a sign with a drawing of a man with a note at the bottom saying, “WARNING: a chinese,” as if it were a denunciation of someone who seriously cheated a woman and robbed her of money.
Anyway, I find the nearest trash, dispose of my consumed shake (just in time), and proceed to the meeting point, which is close to some shrine near a school. I wait for a few minutes; I am the first to be in the meeting point, although the rest of the tour group arrives after a while.
The bus arrives. For some reason, I had the perception that it was going to come from behind me, but it actually came from the front: I had momentarily forgotten that cars drive on the left here. We get on, and we return to the hotel for dinner. Or so that is what I was thinking at the moment, because Ito-san then announces that after a short visit to the hotel, we are going to the ever-so-cryptic “dinner place.” (At some point, he also states that we are going to have dinner with Japanese students, but whether it is today or tomorrow is also unclear. He may have mentioned this the day before.) The traffic is abysmal, due to the sheer number of traffic lights we must endure, rather than the number of cars on the road.
We arrive at the hotel again and are given around 15 minutes to put our purchased items away in our rooms and then come back for dinner. There is nothing significant about that, of course. We return to the main floor, and once everyone is assembled, we leave the hotel, crossing the street and walking to a few other streets and alleyways to arrive at what seems to be a little-known restaurant. The sky is darkening; it is almost dusk. We arrive at “dinner place,” which is a restaurant of 4 or 5 stories (?). Naturally, the elevator is not a fast mode of transportation for so many people, but I get an opportunity to use the elevator before I am able to locate a staircase.
We are seated in another traditional Japanese room, and the dinner is similar to what I have tasted before. If I recall correctly, Ito-san is to my right, while my friend is to my left. It is that self-cooking soup again, along with a bowl of rice that soon comes our way. The distaste for miso soup remains slightly in my throat after that incident in day 3. Quite frankly, I am getting a little tired at this point of the same traditional Japanese food, as the formalities seem to be almost all the same. Knowing that I will be unable to finish my meal, I try to think of an excuse that I can use later to justify my inability to eat all of my food. Oh, I know: “I’m not very hungry.” Yes, that would be compatible with the fact that I drank a chocolate shake on the way to the hotel. I believe that after I am full, I am able to offer my rice to someone else (probably my friend), who willfully and contently gorges on it.
Sometime during the dinner, we see the Las Vegas EF group pass by. My friend calls someone on their tour out with a weird comment. The entire room bursts in laughter, which continues for a good while. I don’t remember what the joke was, but it was exceptionally funny.
There are various photos, and then it is time to leave, so I find the cubby where I placed my shoes in and descend – of course, waiting on the elevator again – but alas, we arrive to ground floor, walking back toward the hotel.
When we left the restaurant, it was already nighttime. In the street we are walking across, numerous signs are lit, advertising nightlife: pachinko, karaoke, and so on.
Upon arrival, there is probably a meeting of some sort or a very brief dismissal if we need anything from a convenience store, but of course, I am very tired. So tired, in fact, that I cannot recall anything else that happened after arriving to the hotel.
I wake up, knowing that this is my last full day in Japan – but this is also our day, with the assistance of Sensei’s planning. Today’s itinerary has been drastically modified from what EF originally set up for us: just moping around in Ueno Park, which would have been tantalizingly boring and would most likely have exacerbated my regrets for not returning to Akihabara as my friend did. (Although at this point I realize that it would have been a poor decision either way.) The new plan is to first go to Tokyo Skytree, then take the train to Honganji near the Tsukiji fish market, return to Ryogoku to go to the Edo-Tokyo Museum (if people have the energy; otherwise, a two-hour break at the hotel), take a train to Shibuya (to see the Shibuya crossing, obviously), and finally eat dinner.
My friend answers what I think is the wake-up call. I look at him disgusted for saying “moshi moshi” to an automated call, but it actually seems to be someone on the other side, since he responds with “hai” a couple of times before he finally hangs up. However, I do not bother asking him who it was or what he was being asked.
This is a fairly packed day. We begin at the JR station at peak time, but we must transfer to the Tokyo Metro. We wait at numerous platforms – some of them devoid of any people – with transfers and stops that I cannot possibly remember due to the convoluted nature of it all. In short, the trip is a blur. We are all given 24-hour rail passes for this tumultuous day.
My next memory is traveling up an escalator to the surface level at the station where Tokyo Skytree is allegedly located, as I pass an exceptionally loud high-pitched noise. It does not seem that anyone complains about the sound; my ears must be virgin, or perhaps no one has the energy to complain.
The escalator simply takes us to some high ground, with some stairs and an escalator leading up to a higher level, and then another level, and then another level, until we finally reach a courtyard, with a full view of the tower. It does not actually seem so tall, but I take a vertical panorama for the sake of posterity. Perhaps my perception is skewed and might be fixed if I examine the picture at a later time.
As we look for the entrance of Skytree, we notice posters on the windows announcing “Attack on Skytree,” an obvious promotion/crossover with Attack on Titan. Clearly, it was designed to entice us gaijin, and Skytree will sustain those efforts to attract tourists for the coming future.
We enter the main building; it looks something more like an airport terminal, designed to fit thousands of people; yet, we find ourselves to be practically the only ones in the vicinity, save a few other wandering people. We prepare our money and make the (empty) line to the ticket booths. Sensei talks a bit with one of the clerks, and she announces to the group that it would not be advisable to pay extra money to go a few hundred meters more as it is clouded, per the clerk’s suggestion. It is finally my turn to pay, and I fumble around for a thousand or so yen. At that point, I realize what a disappointment it is that when I paid for my tour, I did not pay for this – so what exactly did the tour fees pay for? (As an aside, I think tour companies should be more transparent in terms of how they report cost breakdowns.)
After we all have our tickets, we proceed to the entry zone, where the clerk says some things in Japanese (?) and Sensei translates a small amount, such as the four elevators named after seasons. Initially, we think we will not fit all in one elevator, but they find a way to cram us in as we are ushered into “Summer.”
The elevator has no windows, but rather a somewhat large screen above the door explaining what is happening and visualizing the ascent of the elevator. I am a little disappointed that there is no window, but it is understandable, since it’s probable that some people will become dizzy or faint if they realize how fast they are moving up or down. I ready my ears as I feel the smooth acceleration of the elevator. There is no indication that the elevator is moving, except for the force exerted on my feet and head. Gentle deceleration occurs, and the elevator opens to a bright area. We have arrived at the observation deck and around forty minutes to spare.
There is a great deal to do in only forty minutes. Among the exhibitions, there is one painting that aims to draw an uncanny resemblance between an Edo-period (or Tokugawa?) painter who drew a landscape view of early Tokyo and the immediately viewable landscape of Tokyo. The proportions are mostly correct.
The observation deck also has three floors, as I discovered (trying not to get lost): there is no concern of the windows getting overcrowded with people. There is also a section of the floor with glass instead of opaque flooring, for the intrepid: it took some serious courage for even myself to cross. Adjacent to it is a photo station, but I had no interest.
The view is fascinating, but simultaneously somewhat depressing, like London. The sky is smoggy, with no trace of a blue sky or the Sun. I take a moment to refocus my eyes to maximize my vision: yes, I can see the street signs down below, the never-ending metropolis, the haphazardly placed bland cars…
I ask Ito-san when Skytree was built. He does not know, so he asks and gets back to me with an answer. Just hit its 5th anniversary. Impressed, I suddenly realize that there are probably no panoramas taken from Skytree yet. If only I had my DSLR… But enough complaining; I start meticulously snapping pictures from each window. However, there are only ten minutes remaining when I begin, and I only have a chance to cover a 90-degree region before I stress myself out to start looking for the rest of the group. This is probably my second greatest regret of the trip: my failure to take a full panorama of Tokyo when I was completely capable of doing so.
Disappointed that there never seems to be enough time, I wait a while for the other group members, and we descend back to ground level. On our way to the exit, we get a short 10-minute break while everyone regroups and we browse the gift shop. Desperate for something to bring back, I look for something of some lasting value… but I cannot find anything of such criteria. I wander around for a little while, wondering how exactly they won’t let me wander off with an item, contemplating what my parents would say if they found that I had nothing to give to them.
We set off down some stairs and back down to the squealing escalators, back to the station where we came from. Our next destination is Tsukiji Fish Market and the neighboring Hongan-ji (also written as Hongwanji). This is by far the most complicated route of transfers that we undertake through the Tokyo Metro, with around an hour of travel with no clear indication of how deep under the ground we really are in each station.
Finally, we arrive to where we need to be: Hongan-ji, which is under construction. We can still enter, but through a somewhat narrow path. I notice that almost all construction sites have a large sign posted somewhere that says 安全＋第一 (safety first), with a green cross. I wonder if it is required by law to have such a sign posted in a construction site in large print.
We enter Hongan-ji. I understand this is probably an extremely culturally important site, but the actual environment seems rather outdated: the chairs are fixed, but they seem like something taken from an old college lecture hall; the ceiling is tiled like an office; and the altar or area of procession (?) seem rather devoid. The atmosphere simply does not feel sacred. There are also some strict rules, but they are not explained carefully, so I simply stay put until we wait for everyone to come out of the bathroom and we decide to leave.
We cross the street and walk to Tsukiji Fish Market, which is teeming with people and activity within the narrow winding avenues. We follow Sensei to the information building, where she takes as many maps as she can, disseminates them to us, and disperses us for an hour and a half. Someone says something about not feeling well or being tired of walking, and I don’t want to leave them behind, but I also want to be with a group. I join with Ke. and two others. (I don’t remember how I resolved the issue with the person I didn’t want to leave behind, though.)
It’s exceptionally hard to find a good choice among so many great choices. We snake around the avenues until we find something that piques our interest. Indeed, we pick a good choice – a choice so good, I don’t even remember what the dish is called, but I do recall that it has specific instructions on how to eat. (It is raw, for the most part.) After enjoying our meal and all of us getting full, we eventually manage to get the attention of the waitress so that we may pay. I feel bad for a short while, thinking that my intestines want to produce another bout of diarrhea, but then I quickly recover. I also feel bad for leaving some food to waste, as we did not finish the plate.
Next, we eat toro with my friend, who we just saw. According to him, this is very expensive in America – but here, we can get 250 grams for 1500 yen. We buy a tray and take two pieces each. At first, it doesn’t taste like much except its own wetness, until it naturally dissolves in the mouth, where the texture can be most appreciated in lieu of any particular taste. I try to take a video of one of the workers cutting the toro, but one of them turns his back, points to a sign, and says, “No picture, please.” Sorry. I keep the other pictures I had already taken, though – their work should be appreciated more.
We continue to wander a little bit more: it is almost time to regroup. We find ice cream almost adjacent to the toro stand (if I recall correctly). There are a large variety of flavors, but I think I opt for plain old chocolate (but there is a contradiction in my mind: someone’s ice cream was green – was that one mine?). We queue, trying to avoid blocking the traffic in this extremely tight corridor, get our ice cream, get our ice cream, and decide to make our way back to Hongan-ji.
As my memory of the events that occurred during this part of the trip have faded dramatically (I am writing this section nearly five months after the events occurred!), I can recall only two major events: one, I am somewhat disoriented in the return to Hongwan-ji as I get my bearings on which intersections to cross. It is bright, although a fair amount of smog still pollutes the sky. Second, we are the first group to arrive at Hongan-ji; a little concerned that I might not finish my ice cream in time, I sit on one of the steps and eat it patiently.
By the time I finish my ice cream, the rest of the group has arrived, and we are ready to set out again, for it is 1:30 in the afternoon. Time goes fast. I think we might have taken another picture here, but I am not certain.
We pass through the complicated system of transfers and stops before returning to our hotel for a somewhat protracted break. I must admit that the trip has been going at breakneck speed up to now, and while it may seem wasteful in money to even offer an hour of rest during the day when there is so much to explore, some members of the group really deserve it. The plan is somewhat more elaborate, though: we are given a choice to either take a break at the hotel, or visit the neighboring sites: the sumo museum and the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which is the unfathomable superstructure that I beheld on arriving to the hotel room for the first time.
There is some unfinished business, however: we need to buy more train tickets in advance for our next destination. Ito-san helps us do so.
Sensei and those who did not decide to stay behind (including myself) proceed onward to visit the sites, starting with the sumo museum. It is not immediately clear what the place actually was: it is gated, with a spacious entrance and the museum itself closed but the gift shop open. Again, I am presented with another depressing conundrum of having an opportunity to buy things, but nothing of interest to spend money on. I must get rid of these yen before coming back to the US, but it seems impossible. I should have gone back to Akihabara and bought myself a mechanical keyboard just like my friend. This will continue biting at my conscience even after the trip is over.
After our slow parade through the accessible parts of the sumo museum building, we continue to the Edo-Tokyo museum. I notice the near perfection of the flat tiled path to the lavish museum entrance.
We enter the empty line and pay for our museum admission. I think I am charged either a child fee or a junior high student fee. I remember there being something strange about the price, but I did not want to even attempt communicating to insist for a correction, in fear of confusing the cashier.
Once we have our admission tickets (which is only general admission), we enter the elevator with Ito-san to the third (or was it fourth?) floor, where the exhibit begins. We hand in our tickets, and immediately to our right there are about four or five English-speaking guides who appear idle and offer their assistance. Out of pity, I want to get one of them, but I decide against it, simply because I cannot predict what will happen and how proficient they actually are.
The museum has some interesting artifacts, models, and complete mock buildings from the Edo period up to the present. However, a sizable number of item descriptions have not been translated from Japanese to English, so I can only guess as to their meaning. Probably the most memorable artifact I saw was a sealed box of Windows 95, near the end of the tour.
We are in somewhat of a rush, since we have a rather limited amount of time, so not great analysis and thought can be placed into each artifact. I have a similar line of thought during the museum visit: I am going to forget all of this; I am braindead right now. I think of what I learned in high school, the world history class, the museum visits sponsored by the teacher, the endless readings of the textbook – all this that I learned, and all this I can learn, I seem to spurn for the interests of only consuming and acting like a tourist. I need to snap out of this, but my mind is unable to do so.
The rather short museum visit ends with a rather long escalator ride back down, directly exiting the whole museum.
I try to remember what I even saw before I left the museum, but it is futile: I already forgot half of what I saw in the museum, just seconds after leaving.
We trek back to the hotel to wait for the others and have a tiny break for ourselves as well. I thought I would have more time, but alas, it is time to go again: we are going to Shibuya. There is one small problem for my friend, however: he forgot his rail pass, and now he must work up the courage to tell Ito-san that he must buy another ticket. Great shame is placed on him, but he promptly obtains a ticket (with my money) and we set off.
One of the lines that we almost take is Yamanote-sen. Sensei even hesitates multiple times in deciding the route to take. It is one of the busiest rail lines in the world, and we are nearing peak traffic.
We arrive at Shibuya before the rail system becomes too crowded. Near the exit, we spot a window, and the group stops. Sensei asks us to look outside: we are seeing Shibuya Crossing, which is definitively the busiest pedestrian crossing in the entire world (and notably also the starting point of The World Ends with You).
I take a video of a full cycle: the pedestrian semaphore turns green, and the mass of people start walking and crossing each other through the middle of the road. The semaphore becomes red again, and the crossing clears up. The scene is unreal; the pedestrians wade through the crossing like a large herd of cattle. And, surprisingly, one can actually see cars coming through and making turns; who in their right mind would attempt navigating through all that? Sensei makes a slight remark: “We are not going to go in there.” However, we are to visit the neighboring Hachiko statue, which is a small area enclosed by a thin layer of trees, just a few meters from the crossing.
As such, we exit the station, which is apparently partly under construction, and arrive at Hachiko. The statue appears, for the most part, unappreciated; some people are seen (and smelled) smoking close to the statue, and those who appear to have any interest in the statue are too concerned taking pictures of it from all kinds of angles, instead of attempting to exhibit some respect for its rather interesting history.
We are dispersed for around forty minutes, but the rules for subgroups are not very clear this time, nor the amount of time that we have left; one thing is certain, however, and that is that my friend needs to go to the bathroom. Sensei makes an exception for us, but only for us to go to the bathroom – but I feel it within me that we have a greater degree of control due to our seniority.
It actually takes the entire exploration period to find a bathroom, mostly because there are no public ones. We wander about Shibuya Station, but to no avail, in search for just one bathroom. I suppose that due to the immense volume of people passing through Shibuya, it would be economically unsustainable to have a public bathroom. The concern is not native Japanese people, but rather the use of the bathrooms by foreigners such as us, as we tend not to clean up after ourselves very well.
20 minutes left. As the sky begins to darken, we somewhat desperately decide to enter the Bic Camera and browse the directory to locate a bathroom. After embarrassingly asking where the bathroom is in Japanese, despite the bathroom being clearly posted with a sign, we successfully find a bathroom with some sigh of relief.
10 minutes left. I sincerely wish to explore this Bic Camera for anything interesting or of value that I might not find elsewhere, but but riddled with anxiety and indecision, I depressingly conclude that almost all electronics can be found online, at the comfort of my own house, for even cheaper prices. I tell my friend that I have no time left; just move on back to Hachiko. He questions my decision, reasoning that I was the one who decided to come here in the first place, but I tell him to just leave. We step into the elevator and descend back to the ground floor (confusingly enough, there is a McDonald’s at the first lower level, which is visible at ground level) and return to the meeting spot to go to “dinner place.”
We walk down through some narrow street, take a right, go up a few floors, and arrive at some sort of barbecue place where the promised native speakers are supposed to arrive. When they do, it is subtly revealed that the turnout was somewhat lower than expected, but it is all fine: there is one native speaker per boxed table.
The waiters finally bring the steak and rice, and they light the tiny grills. The meal works as follows: you take a piece of meat with a skewer, you cook it to your liking by placing it above the grill for a few seconds, and then serve it on your plate and eat it. This innovation, of course, could never be found in America, for people would be too irresponsible to use them correctly.
Yet, for everyone in our table of four, this comes to be a source of amusement, as the meat needs to be watched closely, or else it catches a small flame and burns up. It lightens the stress of having to communicate coherent Japanese to a native speaker, who has trouble understanding me/us (I am the most experienced speaker of the table, all of whom are level 1 or 2 except myself, and as such I find myself talking on behalf of everyone else). The endeavor is very difficult, but I maintain a stable conversation, despite my fears of a language barrier becoming so obvious so as for both sides to give up altogether. During these conversations, Sensei sneaks up and takes a picture of each of the tables, asking us to just keep talking.
I do not remember the other details of this dinner, or even how we returned to the hotel. One striking detail, however, was that water was served with a large container/dispenser placed on a cart; I attempted to use it, but mistaking it to be empty, it simply was blocked by excess ice. It is peculiar why a cheap dispenser was used in lieu of having someone regularly refill our glasses; perhaps the place predominantly served alcoholic drinks and we were peculiar customers, or they simply did not want to go through the trouble of going through the tables regularly.
Presumably, we make the reverse trip back to Shibuya Station and return to the hotel the same way we came. The hotel clerks do not seem to be expecting us, however, and we must ask for our keys. I come up to them and start off with 「すみません、キーを」– oh, crap. What do I say? I stand like an idiot for three seconds thinking about how to finish my sentence. But my friend comes to the rescue, finishing the sentence with the room number and a short, sweet 「ください。」Thank you, thank you thank you.
Sensei stops us to discuss tomorrow morning. We must be ready early (as always), and we ought to wear comfortable clothing. Moreover, bags that are ready to go should be placed in the lobby so that they can be loaded in the bus by the time we leave. Nodding somewhat groggingly, we are finally dismissed to our rooms for the last time.
In our room, I take a look outside once more. I am somewhat disappointed that there was not one more thing done today; the day simply does not feel like it is over, but it truly is almost time to sleep. My circadian rhythm never really accustomed itself to Japan, and as such I tend to fall asleep at 10:30 pm here instead of 12:30 am at home. I think of going back of perhaps defecting back to Akihabara, but the point is moot: what would I buy there?
I come to terms with reality: the tour has ended. Tomorrow, we go to the airport and return home. I fall asleep frustrated with myself about what I failed to do – Akihabara, not buying anything in almost all of the souvenir shops we passed, not bringing my DSLR to fully take in the splendid landscapes and views of Japan – fearing that I wasted my money on this trip, but with a tiny ray of hope stemming from the fact that I will still be able to appreciate Tokyo tomorrow morning.
Today is my last day in Japan. I spend my last breakfast with the company of Sensei, who appears somewhat perplexed at my choice of food (and how little I put on the plate). She also makes an offhanded remark about the rudeness of Chinese people, only able to do so here because she assumes that the people around here (beside our group) cannot understand English well enough to understand her.
It is time to leave. I organize my luggage and make my final checks, to ensure that there is absolutely nothing left. I find one item that I forgot to pack – probably my toothbrush. We say our 「さようなら」s and 「ありがとうございます」s to Ito-san.
It is raining outside; I walk on the sidewalk toward the bus a little left of the hotel, knowing well that these would be my last steps in Tokyo for a very, very long time. I hand the clerk my luggage, which is placed in the trunk of the bus (whose decal is some long Chinese promotional banner), and I deliberately slowly take one foot off after the other and stride up to the bus. Those were my last steps in Tokyo; now we must proceed to Narita.
The driver takes us through a toll road that spans the length of Tokyo. Moving at a sedate 60 km/h, we get a full view of the houses below and skyscrapers barely discernible by the dense fog. The buildings blur past us unceasingly; we pass through a long bridge over a river very reminiscent of one we passed through in Kyoto; and after half an hour we pass through the woods until we reach Narita.
Disembarking to the international terminal, I take note that this terminal seems particularly derelict. There is no one around us, except our own group. I am, for a short period of time, taken aback by the fact that the baggage carts are simply left out for free (in comparison to our airport terminal in San Antonio, where they cost an extortionate amount of money; not that I need them, of course).
We begin the check-in process. We scan our passports to authenticate with the system, and we enter an itinerary code for the American Airlines kiosk to print the tickets. (And before I put in my own passport, I realize that there is already one already on the kiosk and call the group member who almost forgot his passport.) However, it seems that poorly designed technology hates me, because upon trying to check in, the kiosk simply times out attempting to establish a database connection. (I realize that their offices are probably closed all the way back in the US, but this is simply intolerable. How many times do they have to turn the darn thing off and on again in a normal business day?) Eventually, I am simply told to check in at the desk, which is a smooth and alleviating process.
While waiting for the others to check in, I decide to exchange my unused yen back into dollars. This is no transmutation; this is a conversion where the customer is always fixed to lose a substantial amount of money both ways. A middle-aged gentleman takes my yen, and I tell him to convert it to US dollars. A while later, he says something about not being able to convert all of the money; indeed, the transaction was rounded off in such a way that I only received US bills with yen coins as change. He seemed to be surprised that I knew Japanese better than most foreigners. As I gathered my money, I told him 「日本語を四年間勉強していました。」He smiles, and I leave, somewhat embarrassed at my poor construction of sentences.
We take a picture in front of the main banner of the terminal, knowing that this is our last picture in Japan. We pose, and the picture is taken with many different cameras (that is, we must hold the pose for a long while).
Our next task is to pass through the security checkpoint. I thought that this would go more smoothly than American security checkpoints, but it is almost all the same, except this checkpoint does not allow any liquids at all. I am also somewhat clueless as to what the security officers are asking me to do, but I nervously proceed, taking off the passport pouch strapped to my chest. After we pass the checkpoint, my friend also nervously jokes to me his attempts to explain a security officer that he is not wearing a shirt under his jacket. (A questionable decision, but fine.)
There is not much time left. I wander around, looking for any last opportunity to buy something; yet again, I tell myself that there is not anything of value here. Just beside our gate, my friend asks me to buy some chocolate. I tell him no, but eventually I bend over and hand him some of my last yen to buy something. (He still owes me $22 to this day.)
About 10 minutes before the gate opens, fumbling to get C++ Primer downloaded onto the jailbroken, outdated iPad (but failing horribly in doing so), a slight horror occurs: Sensei asks me to stand up. They are looking for El.’s passport; she lost it.
10 minutes of panic ensue; eventually, she finds it, and all is well. There is no time left; boarding has begun.
This time, I can haggle for a window seat, but not alongside my friend, who has already chosen other people to sit with. I brace myself for the annoyances of flying-sardine-can travel and the brainrot consumption of the entertainment systems.
As the plane queues in the long line to the runway, the flight attendants play the usual promotional/safety video, but with a nice twist: the video freezes. They attempt to restart the entire entertainment subsystem (including seatback AC outlets), but to no avail: the glorified Android tablets fail to connect to the master server. Eventually, the flight attendants resort to an unprofessional announcement of the safety instructions in both rushed English and rushed Japanese, just before the powerful GE90 engines roar to life. They are not even at their full potential, and they already sound powerful. One thing to note is that unlike the pilot from the other flight to Narita, this one is not “edgy” and does not bring the engines up before the plane is even done turning on the runway.
The trip is probably one of the most boring, claustrophobic thirteen hours of my life. The crew attempt to restart the subsystem a couple of times, but to no avail. I figure that the backend is some problematic Java server running on Linux. The pilots greatly apologize (and the flight attendants as well, in markedly apologetic Japanese), but they defensively state that no compensation will be given because “our job is to safely bring you from point A to point B.” (Uh, sir, I pay for a safe travel and amenities as part of my ticket price. It is not a safe travel “plus some free amenities we throw into the deal.” But you can’t complain without sounding ungrateful.)
As expected, the sun comes down a third of the way into the trip. Delusion sets in, and I tell Mrs. To. that I could tell the flight attendants that I could fix the server if I could work up the nerve to tell them. I wander around a whole lot; there is little to do. The monitors near the flight attendants’ station in the back of the plane show the X cursor in the center of the screen.
Trying to pull my synchronization trick again, my attempts continue to be foiled by the flight attendants who provide snacks at inopportune times; why would I want to eat a snack at 4 am local time? But there is no way to get rid of the food other than by eating it, and so I have little choice than to eat it. I almost choke on a piece of cheese in the tiny sandwich served.
The GPS trick works, however, and I am able to log my entire route in air. I spot land: we are entering through California. 3 hours left.
An hour later, the Sun catches back up to us. I can feel my sleep deprivation as we cruise to DFW.
To be honest, I do not want to return to the US, the land of the fat, the lazy, the uneducated and the impolite. I already miss the silent respect that was imparted to me by the Japanese policemen, clerks and cashiers, bracing for the usual beratement by security officers and the stupidity of the average American.
Right as the wheels touch down on the runway, the entertainment system instantly resets itself to the welcome screen as if nothing were wrong at all. Frustrated at this mystery, I remark to a flight attendant as I leave, “I have a technical background, and I have no clue why that happened.”
It is June 28 again; hence Day 8 twice. I inform my parents of my successful arrival to DFW, en route to our next gate.
We snake through the maze of security checkpoints and long lines. The entry process by passport has been almost completely digitalized for US citizens. The important questions are answered with a touch screen, and the kiosk finally takes a picture of your pretty face to send to the government. A little while later, we queue into another line close near the baggage claim, which is our physical interview with an officer. Of course, I look fairly American and sound American, so the officer does not put pressure on me. I simply answer her questions: my purpose of travel is tourism, and I am traveling with 27 other people.
These are insignificant details, however. By the time we have passed all of the security checkpoints, I realize that not only have I broken from most of the group, but also that I only have 10 minutes to arrive to the checkpoint. I take whoever is with me to the Skylink all the way to the right domestic terminal, and I rush to find the gate. My friend keeps tempting me that we should just deliberately miss the flight, but I tell him to be quiet, someone is paying for this.
There it is – San Antonio. I have not heard of that word in such a long time, and I dread the image of the Alamo juxtaposed to it on the gate’s monitor. This is the place I am returning to. But there is no time to think about this further; I catch my breath and proceed to board the plane.
The vents are all spewing vapor from the heat outside as I walk to my seat and look left and right at the older gentlemen occupying business class. (Who are those people?) I take my seat, look outside, and see the familiar summertime cumulus clouds of Texas. The sight is all too familiar, and the nostalgia of the trip already begins to fill me, for my adventure has come to an end.
After a few minutes, the pilots announce that there is some “maintenance” being finished up with one of the engines, since it does not seem to be starting. During each start, the engines produce loud, brief, and repetitive whirring noises, as if some sort of automatic tuning was being performed. The entire process takes about twenty minutes, and during this period, Sensei finally arrives with the last member of the tour. I ask him what happened; he responds that he was taken to a room and asked some questions (he is not an American citizen). I told him that if he was in a room, then he was detained! It is quite a blessing to be detained and still have had time to board the flight.
Maintenance finishes, and the flight is, again, nothing remarkable. I am sleep-deprived, and I can feel the weakness in my bones and teeth.
We arrive to San Antonio, from the same gate we departed in the very beginning. As final remarks, Sensei thanks us all for the amazing trip, and reminds me of the debts my friend owes me. I tell her that I will ensure that he pays it back.
We realize that this really is the very end of the adventure: after crossing the exit, we will disperse to our families. I look at Ju.; she begins to cry, and I hug her. I do not notice the other people, but I sense that everyone shares the general emotion of nostalgia and an unwillingness to return to our boring, ordinary lives. I wonder what kind of lives my classmates will return to: perhaps volunteering or working a small job; watching anime at home; I don’t know. What drives people during the summer?
And I realize, right then and there, that we would not have partaken in this trip, we would not have been together, if we had not originally led those boring, dull lives at school, in a city very far from Japan. It is paradoxical that we should long for a place other than the one we call home. I looked around at everyone, the youthful faces of high school students. I think of my own youthful face and body. I will not see them again; this trip will never happen again. When I return to Japan, I will be much older, and I will be unable to claim that little innocence left in youth where we are chaperoned by our teacher and allowed to “explore” at the expense of our own parents’ money.
After this fleeting moment, Sensei finally leads us to the threshold of no return, and we take the long escalator down to the “meet and greet” area. The people waiting at the bottom cannot be seen until the very end of the escalator flight, and we see a big paper sign reading お帰りなさい with an unexpectedly sizeable crowd of excited parents and their children. I try hard not to cry; some parents greet me, and after a few minutes, most have dispersed. I silently claim my luggage and stand around waiting for my father, who is not present. Sensei asks me where my father is; I respond that he is on his way from work. It is indeed a truthful statement, but not a pleasant one to say.
After a few minutes, he arrives and picks me up, with my brother in the front seat. I don’t really want to talk about the trip; I just want to go home. It is 2 PM, my teeth and bones feel weak, and I am unable to determine whether or not I am hungry. (He buys pizza anyway.)
I arrive home, through the all-too-familiar route from the airport. As always from a long trip, the floor seems strangely placed, and my room seems more spacious than it ought to be.
I eat something and decide to go to sleep. I look at the clouds outside and reminisce about Japan.
Two hours later, I wake up startled, the Sun being angled significantly lower than when I fell asleep. It is 4 PM.
I try to come back to do things on the computer, as I did before the trip. But I cannot recollect my thoughts around anything except the trip, and so I begin to chronicle my events. I struggle to begin somewhere, as the memories are all rushing to me, but I force myself to start from the very beginning.
That night, I cried myself to sleep, thinking about everything I witnessed in that parallel world that I will never see again…
It has proven extremely difficult to stop thinking about Japan, even months after the trip. This account of my travels took all the way up to November to finish drafting, and even then, there are numerous details to add throughout, and the prose remains weak.
It took weeks for me to accustom myself to life following Japan. There is nothing more that needs to be said; I struggle to let go of the memories from the trip. They continue to play and replay in my mind as if I were still there. I can think of the beginning and the end of the trip in one instant, from the first night that I touched chopsticks to eat my dinner, to the last morning where I stepped on the bus to miss Tokyo for a long time.
As of writing, I do not watch anime, but sometimes I enjoy listening to English-speaking radio in Tokyo, and I browse Tokyo on Google Maps for the sole pleasure of reminiscence. And do not be mistaken, for I try not to bias my interests in popular culture over understanding the everyday values of Japanese people. In fact, I have little interest in pop culture. What is the mentality, rather, of the Japanese laborer and the leader? This I seek to understand.
But let it be clear to all: one day, I plan to return to Japan, equipped with a proficiency in Japanese and some good friends. I know not the day nor the year this will occur; perhaps for study abroad or for another summer trip or for some internship. This trip made a deep impact on me, and I realized the true magnitude of my aspirations, the sheer immensity of the world I live in, and the physical boundaries which I had previously constrained myself to, having lived a life of normalcy and the status quo for as long I can remember, with every plane trip being accompanied by my parents to some vaguely familiar location.
I will not forget this trip.