Naomi drove us to the airport at 6:30 on Friday, June 23. We arrived at Tom Bradley Terminal and immediately hit a snag. Japan Airlines was nowhere to be found. Even the information guy in the kiosk wasn’t sure where we should go. He suggested the counter for American, since it’s owned by them. We waited in a line of other people looking for JAL, and after a few minutes, we were instructed to go to the next terminal where American Airlines was. Whew.
Then we got on the plane. The kids were really excited to finally be going. We had been watching travel and food videos on youtube for a couple of months, and now we were actually on the plane. We taxied to the runway, the engines revved…and then we made a few too many turns for a normal takeoff situation. After driving around for another 15 minutes, we looked out and saw Sepulveda. I joked that we were driving to Japan. The captain came on and said right before takeoff, a warning light had come on saying there was something wrong with a wheel lock or something. We had to go back to the gate and get it fixed. This was another 15-20 minute “drive.” We got back and had to stay in our seats with the seatbelts fastened because the way to fix this problem was to roll the plane backwards and forwards, stopping it abruptly. Fortunately this flight on a 777 luxury jet had screens at each seat. Geri and the kids watched a couple of movies during our 3-hour delay.
And then we finally took off, headed up towards Alaska, passed Russia, and descended into Tokyo. 11 hours plus the 3-hour delay.
It was late afternoon of the next day, Saturday, June 24 when we landed. We weren’t sure how we were going to get to Toshiko’s place in the upscale Roppongi Hills neighborhood across town. Since we were already 3 hours late and we had tickets to a Giants baseball game, we took the monorail from the airport into the city and then grabbed two taxis (5 of us wouldn’t fit into one) to Roppongi Hills.
It was immediately disconcerting to sit in a car driving on the left side of the road. Every turn made me nervously scan the oncoming traffic. Right turns are the equivalent to our left turns. But Tokyo was exactly how I thought it would be. We arrived safe and sound at the luxury high-rise apartment of our old friend Toshiko and her partner Chris.
They gave us a quick tour of their beautiful place. The ballgame was on the television. It was the fourth inning already, but they said we could still get there in 30 min.
We walked through the mall attached to their building and into Hibari Station. They gave us instructions on which station to get out and transfer to the Manouichi station to the ball park. It was pretty easy, and we made it to the game in the 6th inning. We watched for about two innings when I saw Owen had fallen asleep. We hadn’t eaten much since we arrived, so we left the game early in search of food. I did get to see one of the Dragons hit a three-run home run to break the game open against the hometown Giants. We got a snack and some ice cream and headed back to our fancy digs.
Geri and I slept in the guest room on a bed and a futon, and the kids were set up with futon mattresses in the living room. We slept surprising well.
We got up at around 8, and Toshiko cooked us a lovely breakfast. Eggs, sausage, toast, juice and coffee. A great way to start the first full day. We took the train to near the Imperial Palace where the royal family lives, and walked for a while through the gardens and streets in the area.
At this point, I was in awe of everything. Hardly anyone speaks English, and even then there’s no guarantee that they speak more than a word or two. Which is fine. No one in America speaks Japanese. It is interesting to see the western influence in Japan. There are lots of signs in English, though it seems never when you really need them, and some stores have only English signage. I noticed I often felt the urge to speak in Spanish. Weird.
Seeing the palace grounds with its centuries old history was great. Such a contrast to the state of the art city around it.
We then hopped on a train to Shibuya. We were starving. Shibuya Crossing is where the famous statue of the sad dog story, Hatchi. My kids watched the newer version of that movie years ago. I came in to see them bawling their eyes out. Owen literally cried himself to sleep that night. I never watched it. The city of Shibuya is pretty funky. The big streets with stores and big
restaurants are inter-filled with allies and side streets of all kinds of shops and restaurants. We had some ramen at the first place we saw. It was our first meal. There was an English menu, and the waitress explained to us what a few things were. Then we got some Crema ice cream which is made from cows in Hokkaido. Very creamy.
Hopped on the train again to Harajuku. Apparently it is a shell of its former self. No more cosplay kids roaming the streets. Now it’s just a really crowded street with shops and stuff. It was fun to duck down the alleys to look for interesting things to buy.
After the long day, we returned to Roppongi Hills. Our feet were killing us, but we felt like we had accomplished a lot on our first day.
On this day, I saw my first glimpse of western ugliness. Nothing major like the 5-gallon hat wearing Texans we saw in Paris who called out in the airport if anyone spoke any Anglish. Here in Tokyo I saw western tourists behaving the way I might have in my younger days. It’s hard to explain, but there is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) air of superiority. There is some amazement at the sights and sounds, but there is something more.
To be fair, there seem to be plenty of western tourists who show quiet deference to their surroundings. They seem to recognize the obvious differences in culture without the haughty or dismissive attitude. And the larger the group, the louder the tourists. Direct correlation. Large families of large people (compared to the Japanese folks) can be seen clad in bright shorts and t-shirts and tank tops, shouting to each other. They seem oblivious to how much they stand out. An astute observer would also see the furtive glances and glimpses of disdain from the Japanese people. Behind the smiles and bows is a hesitation that seems to say it all.
Chris and Toshiko took us to a really fancy Tonkatsu restaurant. That’s all they do at this place. And they do it with locally sourced pigs and produce. By the time you finish ordering, you know where your pig came from, where the vegetables and side dishes came from, in addition to which cut of prime meat you got. It was heavenly. The kids loved it. They all got the tenderloin cut which was lean and soft. Melted in their mouths. I got the sirloin with a thick layer of fat on one side. Somehow this fat was cooked to just melt in your mouth, coating the meat and your tongue with a silky umami that I will certain revisit in my dreams.
The next day we said goodbye to Chris and Toshiko. I told the kids they had just stayed in the nicest place they will ever see in Japan. I was absolutely right. We boarded the Shinkansen bullet train and headed up to Koriyama, just south of Fukushima to hook up with Miyuki and the cousins.