A Daily Narrative of Our Trip
Our Trip to Japan - Daily Log
Sat., Dec.22nd - Sun., Dec.23rd, 2001:
When they called our flight to Chicago, we knew something was askew when they boarded the back rows of the plane first by calling rows 7-13. Air Canada told us this was their "baby" plane. As we boarded, they took Pam's carry-on, as it was too large and told us we could pick it up after the flight from a trolley at the bottom of the plane's stairs in Chicago.
They served us a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt and pound cake with orange and cranberries. We did not need the bagels that we brought for emergencies. We arrived in Chicago, walked down the outside stairs from the baby plane, picked up our carry-on, and proceeded into the airport through a back door and up some basement cement stairs - way to go, Air Canada!
We caught a special train to the International Departure Area. Security has been strict, but not a problem. Pam's carry-on was picked at random for metal detection.
We boarded the Japan Airlines 747 - row 45. It was a huge plane, but the seating in economy was cramped. Fortunately, the fight was only to be about 12 hours instead of the 14 we had been told.
As soon as the flight had left the airport, we were given warm towels for our hands - very Japanese. There was absolutely no shortage of food or snacks on the flight. They immediately gave us Japanese rice crackers and peanut treats and juice. No pop on board; instead, there was green tea, regular tea, coffee, and juice. Lunch was a choice of teriyaki chicken or shrimp. We also got the first of a Japanese treat - long pretzels covered with chocolate (Pocky).
The plane was amazing! Each person had his or her own remote control and head set. There was a small TV. screen inset the seat ahead, and with the remote, you could choose to watch any of 12 movies in either Japanese or English. You could also play video games, and there were 18 channels of music.
We could not believe how quiet all the people were. No one, except the babies, made any noise on the flight. People did not move except to go to the washroom, and everyone was extremely polite.
We watched the plane land on the big monitor -- we were really in Japan! The plane taxied, and we were asked to wait until we were parked before getting up. For 15 minutes, we were parked and no one moved. Then, we pulled up to the terminal and the captain told us we could leave - and only then did people move.
Jackie was waiting for us, as promised. She looked fabulous standing at the back of a large crowd of Japanese. We managed to get our entire luggage down escalators to the train. Jackie bought our tickets and we travelled about 30 minutes to Katsutadai Station. It was a 15 minute walk from there to her home, but because of the luggage, Jackie called a cab and directed the driver to her place with excellent Japanese (to our ears). There were no street names - she gave directions using "right", "left" and landmarks. At the Church, turn right…. at the car sticking out of the garage, turn left (that car was always there, apparently), etc.
Her apartment was gorgeous - it was fixed up beautifully and filled with pictures and meaningful treasures. We unpacked a few gifts and were off for our first Japanese meal, meeting Ryan (another teacher) at a ramen (noodle) restaurant. Ryan had graciously volunteered to lend us his futon. This bedroll lay right on the tatami mats (tightly woven floor matting on which shoes are never worn), so we could have a "bed" while there.
It took about 10 minutes to walk to the restaurant. Jackie ordered Meso Ramen and Gyoza. This is noodles in a meat broth - very garlicky and oy shi (delicious). Gyoza are dumplings filled with vegetables and pork and then fried.
We went back to Jackie's place.
Ryan brought over his futon, Jackie put the space heater on, and we were ready for our first night - Japanese style. We wore our socks to bed.
Monday, Dec.24th, 2001:
We woke up before the 8 AM alarm; it was about ten degrees C outside our blankets, but the heater warmed the immediate area in a few minutes after it was turned on. I shaved in the kitchen sink - it was the only sink. Pam was lucky to have the fleece blanket she brought.
We eat around Jackie's Katatsu - a heated table under the katatsu futon. You sit on a cushion on the katatsu mat.
We went on a walking tour of Jackie's Katsutadai neighbourhood.
Firstly, we went to the grocery store - very interesting.
We then went to a "dollar store" (100 Yen store), but not to Jackie's favourite 100 yen store. We also saw a typical convenience store - Lawsons - similar to a 7-11. We bought Toppo to take home - fish snacks.
Lastly, we dropped in on Katsue and Yoshiro's (Jackie's Japanese "parents'") restaurant. Everyone was very nervous. We all shook hands, bowed, and survived saying our respective lines. We also met Tomu, their son. The restaurant, a soba restaurant (thin brown buckwheat noodle restaurant), was very busy as it is traditional to eat soba noodles at this time of the year. Soba noodles (Toshikoshi Soba) are traditionally eaten because the long noodles symbolize longevity. Pam also used her first squat toilet successfully.
Jackie was amazingly fluent and she translated for all of us. She served us ocha - green tea. As we sat, drinking tea, Jackie helped in the back and served tea and meals to the customer in the restaurant (much of the business is delivery). Yoshiro was busy going back and forth on his motorcycle delivering meals, then returning to pick up the dishes (glass) later. We came home and had peanut butter sandwiches and raw carrots for lunch.
After lunch, we went for another walk, this time to Nishi Shizu. We went to Bon Maison and bought a pottery plate and a "welcome cat" which is a Japanese tradition. After stopping at home for a while, we went out again and bought Japanese oranges that look and taste just like Mandarins - they're called mekans.
That evening, Jackie had a Christmas party - Japanese people have parties around Christmas, despite the fact that almost no one here is Christian. Pam and I ate sushi with a group of Jackie's friends - raw salmon, raw octopus, etc. We had a chance to really get to know Katsue and Yoshiro. Yoshira and I both love to eat peanuts and dance; Katsue and Pam were happy to watch the proceedings.
As 11PM approached, everyone got ready to leave to catch the last trains.
We decided to shower that evening; it would be easier than in the morning when everything is much colder. The shower was a challenge. The water is heated with gas that you turn on, you sit on a plastic stool and use a hand-held showerhead to clean yourself and the water drains into the floor drain. Then, it was two AM and time for bed.
Tuesday, Dec.25th, 2001:
We ran to catch the 8:15 AM train to go to Tokyo with Anna, Jackie's fellow teacher and friend from Vancouver, so she could go to Tokyo Union Church. The church was in Omotesando. We then walked around that neighbourhood where we bought gifts in the Oriental Bazaar. We gave Jackie a beautiful set of dishes. We ate at Jonathan's - rice and shared calamari, chicken, fries and garlic bread.
Then, we went to a shrine called Meiji-Jingo. The Tori (signifying an entrance to a place of meditation) there is one of the biggest wooden Toris in all Japan. We washed our hands before entering, and following tradition, made a wish followed by bowing and clapping.
We then walked in the Harajuku area - a funky youth-oriented neighbourhood. Afterwards, we returned to the train station and went back home, arriving in time for a 30 minute rest before heading out again to Katsue & Yoshiro's home, which is above their restaurant.
Yoshiro was waiting for us outside so he could walk us into their home (a huge honour) rather than feeding us in their restaurant downstairs. Japanese slippers were waiting for us. The table was gorgeous - set in true Japanese style. There was a platter of sushi in the middle and also individually filled plates of spinach, tempura, shrimp and tempura vegetables, meso soup with tofu, sashimi (raw fish), tamago (egg & sweet), fish paste with cheese, fish paste with cucumber, and chicken pieces (tori).
Before eating, we gave them our gifts. They opened them after dinner.
We managed to eat just about everything - including the sushumi - which was in fat slices and hard to get down.
With Jackie and Anna translating, we had a wonderful time. We also sang together using their karaoke machine. Yoshiro showed us some old money that he had collected. I was able to pull out similar money, which proved to be a big laugh. We joked about squat and western toilets and compared being in Japan and Canada.
Finally, we were too tired to work at communicating any more. Yoshiro insisted on driving us home. Katsue directed with her shoehorn.
Wednesday, Dec.26th, 2001:
We went to spend the day in Tokyo. On the way to the station, we finally stopped at Jackie's bank and got some travellers' cheques converted.
We caught the 10:04 train - first stop: Ueno Park (pronounced "weno"). We saw a shrine in the park. You pull the incense towards you to clean yourself before entering. We rang the bell, threw in our money and said a prayer.
We tried to get into the National Museum of Tokyo in Ueno Park, but it was closed for the holidays. We ended up going to a smaller museum (The Cultural Museum of Tokyo) showing life in Tokyo in the early part of the 20th century. Pam used the squat toilet there. We stopped for a snack of cheese slices, crackers, meikans (oranges)and poky.
Then, we decided to try to find the Imperial palace. We finally got there after what seemed to be miles of walking and flight after flight of stairs. The palace is surrounded by a moat. All we were allowed to do was view it from afar - it is not open to the public except for two days a year.
We took the subway to Asakusa, another part of Tokyo. There was a whole street of trinket-type stores leading up to a Buddhist temple. We walked under a big lantern - for luck
We tried to find a restaurant which served okanomiyaki in Asakusa, but we couldn't figure out the menu or the prices (it was in Kanji), so we returned to Katsutadai where Jackie knew of another okanomiyaki restaurant to which she hadnever been. In these kinds of restaurants, you make your own food on a grill at your table. The menu was all in Japanese, but Jackie managed to order two different dishes - one shrimp only, the other a mixture of shrimp, crab, octopus, and I don't know what else. It's made with egg, and then topped with sauce and mayonnaise and fish flakes that look like "dancing" fish when placed on the hot meal. The waiter was very kind and actually made the food for us. The "dancing fish" made the plate look like it was moving. We were quite "full" after our small portions, but Jackie was still hungry.
We went back home for an hour for a break, then we were off to an isakaya - a bar. We ate some good food - no raw fish - and drank something blue (for Pam) and "beeru" for me.
We went home and tried unca - bean paste pastry for the first time. It was extremely sweet.
Thursday, Dec.27th, 2001:
Today was the day trip to Kamakura (the old Samauri capital of Japan) with Marai and her sister and Marai's friend who lives in Kamakura. Marai was one of Jackie's students and a receptionist at her school.
We were supposed to go for a Western lunch but ended up in a very Japanese restaurant. They asked if we ate fish and Jackie said, "of course". They ordered sashimi - raw fish and cooked Yellow Tail fish, meso soup with tofu, rice, eggplant, daikon, cooked chicken, and tempura (batter-covered vegetables). They were very nice and we did our best to eat and say "oy shee".
We learned that when they are supplied, one puts on the bathroom slippers to use the bathroom.
Then we were off to see the sights. First, it was an uphill walk to see a temple - Engaku-ji - one of the five main Rinzai Zen temples in Kamakura, founded in 1282 and re-constructed in 1780. We entered through a beautiful wooden gate and found ourselves in a serene Zen world. We washed our money - the tradition is if you don't use the money - it will be returned to you ten fold. Then, we threw in a five-yen coin for luck, because the word for "five" sounds like "luck" in Japanese.
It was another long walk to reach Hase-dera Temple, near Daibutsu (Great Buddha), which is the second largest Buddha in Japan - completed in 1252. It is out in the open, as a tsunami washed away its surrounding home in 1495.
We also saw the Garden of Jizo, the patron saint of the souls of departed children. The small statues are dressed by women who have lost children to miscarriage or abortion. The Kannon statue (Goddess of Mercy) here dates from the eighth century, and its 11 faces are variations of one face, representing the 10 stages of enlightenment.
We stopped for mucha and a sweet. Mucha is the green tea used in the tea ceremony, and the sweet is made of unca - very traditional. Everyone also had a special sweet drink made of rice.
Then, we were off to another shrine - Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu - the main shrine of Kamakura. There is a tree beneath it at which it is said a famous political assassination took place in 1219, making that tree pretty old.
It was almost completely dark now, so it was time to return home. Jackie took us to Saizeria Restaurant (Japanese style Italian), which featured an all-you-can-drink drink bar for about $2 that included cappuccino, coffee, and soft drinks (Coke!). I had spaghetti and meat sauce - it almost tasted right - Pam had pizza and Jackie had dori - rice, cheese and meat sauce.
Friday, Dec.28th, 2001:
Today was supposed to be a restful day. I got to see the toyu man (supplier of the gas for the space heater - a hero of ours) after which Jackie took us for a very long walk to Yukari, which lasted about five hours round trip. We saw her special 100-yen store - everything was a dollar. We saw a typical Japanese pet store - with monkeys and roosters. We stopped in an electronics store.
We finally got back to Bon Maison and picked up an incense burner for Josh (our son).
In the evening, we were off to a karaoke bar with Katsui and Yoshiro. We sang and danced in our own private room - in both Japanese and English (there are two lists). Jackie sang Japanese songs with Yoshiro who has a fantastic voice and he taught Anna and Jackie the traditional Japanese movements for the dances.
Saturday, Dec.29th, 2001:
Today, we went into Tokyo to try to see Kabuki-za Theatre in the Ginza area, but it was closed for the New Year's holiday.
We then went to the Tsukiji Fish Market. We were sandwiched in a crowd with fish on all sides - people just press on each other to keep moving.
Then, we were off to the Shinjuku and Shibuya neighbourhoods of Tokyo. Shinjuku is a sprawling commercial, business and entertainment area - two million people a day pass through the train station.
Shibuya is the young happening area - girls in mini skirts, fishnet stockings and high souled boots were the norm, and no one seemed to have black hair.
Finally, we came home to eat at the ramen noodle place to which we went on our first night in Japan.
Sunday, Dec.30th, 2001:
Around 11 AM, we decided to go to Disney Sea. We were in the theme park by 1 PM.
The first attraction we went to was the gondola ride in "Venice". We saw it all - 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Little Mermaid Show, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth - a roller coaster ride that Jackie & I took. We also went on StormRider, a very neat airplane simulation of a ride into a hurricane - we even got wet! We rode Raiders of the Lost Ark, on a carousel (Jackie was upset she couldn't ride the genie), and watched a magic 3-D show in Aladdin's Theatre. There were fireworks and a light show to end the day.
Then, we took the train home. We stopped at Gen for Yukisoba - this would be the last chance to try to see the bar to which all the teachers went. Maybe we were finally getting more used to the food, but it was actually tasty except for the seaweed on top.
Monday, Dec.31st, 2001:
We took it easy in the morning, trying to save our energy for New Year's Eve in Narita that evening.
We met a group of teachers at the station at 6PM for our trip to Narita and the celebrations at Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple (founded 1000 years ago, but the present building is a 1968 reconstruction), which attracts up to ten million visitors a year.
The temple was absolutely beautiful, especially the pagoda.
The area leading up to the temple was filled with souvenir shops and food stalls and restaurants. We were there far too early, and there was little excitement. After seeing the temple, and eating in a restaurant, everyone decided they were too tired to stay and hear the bells (108 bells are rung traditionally to welcome the new year). Jackie and Anna were getting a very early start to go to Sapporo tomorrow. So, we came home, beating the crowds. We all met at Jackie's, drank wine, ate mochi (which is very chewy and rather tasteless, even when dipped in soya sauce) and brought in the New Year with Anna, Jessica & Robert Masaki. New Year's is the only time in Japan that some of the trains run after midnight.
Tuesday, Jan.1st, 2002:
We said goodbye to Jackie and Anna at 6:45 AM as they left for the airport.
Now, it was time to explore on our own. We decided to treat ourselves to KFC and a Mr. Donut treat. This was the first time food actually tasted like we expected it to - what a treat!
Then, Jackie's neighbours, Jessica and Robert, knocked on our door and asked us to join them in a western-style dinner. We suggested KFC and they agreed.
Jessica invited us over to see her Ikebana - Japanese flower arranging. The arrangements and vases are unique and create their own mood.
We walked to KFC expecting to eat in, but they were closing shortly, so it was take-out only. We also picked up a grab bag of donuts at Mr. Donut - a Japanese tradition - you throw junk gifts into the bag, and the customer does not know what they get until they eat.
Wednesday, Jan.2nd, 2002:
Departure day. Yoshiro and Katsue showed up promptly. Somehow, we got all of the luggage into their tiny car. They insisted on buying our train tickets and then they bought tickets to accompany us right onto the train platform and make sure we got onto the train OK. We hugged goodbye - very NOT Japanese - and hopped onto the train with their help, and they threw the luggage in after us.
Security was tight all the way home. They opened our bags; I was patted down and asked to remove my shoes. In Chicago, we retrieved our luggage, and then checked it through again onto Air Canada. In Winnipeg, a dog was sniffing the bags. However, we arrived in Winnipeg, with our luggage intact, exhausted, but safe and sound, glad to be back in Canada.
©A. Appel, 2002