9:26PM. Train to Shinjuku from Machida. I’m getting close to three days behind, and I’m leaving tomorrow! I’d better hurry this process up….
October 2nd, Kyoto. I forced myself to wake up a little earlier than usual, despite getting in late again. I barely had much time left in Kyoto, as I was planning to catch a train around 1 or so. It was already close to ten again by the time I was dressed, and I attempted to pack my bag as soon as possible. It didn’t need to be great, just something to get me to Tokyo. I really didn’t have much to do that morning, but I did need to post a log file. I was starting to get behind at this point, and that’s not good one bit. I worked on it for a while, and realized I’d have a good deal of time on the train, so finally around 10:30 I kicked myself out of the room and did some work in the Internet area, which once again was devoid of the zillions of shoes that normally blanketed the place from the Australian high school students. I continued to work on the log for a while, and I was interrupted briefly by the otoosan, who had brought me a cup of coffee. How nice was that? I thanked him immensely, and then worked a bit more on the log. I wasn’t remotely close to finishing, however, so I decided to split the log in half and post the first bit. At least that way people would have *something* to read. Around eleven thirty I decided that I needed to go do things, and so I put everything away and asked if I could leave my bag for a little while. The okaasan said this was fine as long as it wasn’t in the room. I’d already departed the room, so this wasn’t an issue. I walked back out towards the station.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do. There wasn’t enough time to run back to JJ’s, so that was out. Shopping was pretty slim as well, so I decided I’d like to try and get lunch at that huge panya in the basement of Isetan. I took the main path through the station and took a quick gander in the coffee shops for Alan. He of course wasn’t there, but it was fine, he had my email in case he wanted to keep in touch. I took the escalator on the other end back downstairs to the Porta area. I remembered I had made it to the panya by walking through the underground, and this seemed to be the correct way. It wasn’t. I found myself wandering the underground shops for a while, not really getting anywhere. I found the farthest exit I could take, which seemed to be where I thought the panya should be. This led me out in front of the post office, not at all where I’d expected, but where it should have let me out I realized, once I got my bearings.
I walked into Isetan through the entrance closest to me and found the first escalator I could take. As I walked to it, a girl passed me that appeared to be dressed like Miyuki-Chan in Wonderland, if she was in black. It looked like a cross between a French maid’s outfit and Alice in Wonderland. I wasn’t able to snap a picture though. I rode the escalator down inside the store, as I remember going up that way the first day I got to Kyoto. Sure enough, I was right. This led me right down to the food section of Isetan, where dozens of counters were selling every type of biscuit, coffee, muffin, dessert, cake, and pickle you can imagine. Some of these are for omiyage, and others are just for people to eat. They have pre-made fried items for easy preparation, for instance. I went straight to the beautiful panya in the corner and picked up a tray. As usual, it was very difficult to try and choose. I picked a tiny pizza, potato and bacon pie, and apple pie. I really wanted one of my cheese breads I seem to be only able to find in Kyoto, but they only had one that was about four times the size of the ones on the other side of the station. I ended up choosing a fish sandwich on a sesame roll over several other types of sandwiches. The cashier, as usual, wrapped each item separately and placed them all in a taped up bag. I paid her, and then decided to wander through the food area to see what looked interesting.
The pickle area was huge, with all sorts of flavors, smells, and vegetables which ranged from eggplant to cucumber to daikon. They had lots of sample trays, but I didn’t actually try any. Japanese tsukemono are okay, but not something I’d buy deliberately. Since I had no intention of buying, sampling just seemed rude. A coffee stand was nearby, and I wondered if they had decaf espresso for Lou. I didn’t bother to look though, as Lou is about to give birth, and I wouldn’t have any way to get it to them anyway. Around the corner was the alcohol section, and several places were giving samples of what looked like very, very expensive cold sake and trying to convince people to buy. It seemed almost similar to a car dealer; they were doing enough talking. Apparently you can say a lot about a sake if it’s going to put your kids through college. I thought about looking for Dita again, but didn’t want to have to carry it from Kyoto to Tokyo. Further around the corner were all the dessert stands, which all looked tasty, but one counter in particular caught my eye – one selling glistening fruit tarts. I walked past and stopped dead in my tracks. I turned back around just to go look. Buying one was useless, but these were so completely beautiful, I had to stop and take a picture.
I left the underground and took the escalators back out to the main area of the station. I decided the outdoor staircase was probably a good place to sit and eat lunch, so I went into the closest thing to a convenience store around, the Kiosk, and dropped 210 yen on 250ml of apple juice. This is about 60 yen more than it usually costs, even from a vending machine, so it was kind of a rip off. I carried all this up two sets of escalators to the base of the stairs, then realized it wasn’t as good an idea as I thought to try and eat there. I had forgotten the stairs are outside *and* they’re uncovered. Oh brilliant. It was raining nicely that morning, so the stairs were pretty much off-limits for sitting. People were still using the outdoor escalators, with dozens of umbrellas sliding up and down them. The area in front of a stage overlooking the big open area of Kyoto Eki seemed to be full, so I chose a seat at the base of a sculpture nearby. This seemed to be fine, and gave me a real final glimpse of Kyoto Station. I really adore the grandeur of the place, and I’m going to miss it. If I ever plan to live in Japan, Kyoto, or somewhere nearby, is where I’d like to live. Across from me, under the big bell, a wedding was taking place, and they’d just finished the ceremony. They rang the bell, and everyone was clapping.
I finished up my lunch; everything was delicious as usual. It was getting close to my departure time, so I huffed it back to Ryokan Seiki. As I passed the shinkansen gates, I saw a train bound for Tokyo leaving in ten minutes, but this was completely impossible. I didn’t have my bag, and there was no way in hell I could make it there and back in such time. The next train after that was in 40 minutes, which was much more reasonable. I took the usual path underground back to the ryokan, got my bag from inside, and thanked the okaasan one last time. Out into the street I went, and fortunately, it wasn’t raining. I walked my bag back to the station, and passed I what I guessed was a promotional thing for a radio station. They had set up a small stage and a female announcer was asking questions for prizes. I took a picture, then stopped into my favorite little panya for the cheese bread I so desperately wanted. “When am I gonna be back,” I said, since I was totally stuffed from lunch. I rolled my bag, which I’d left outside the panya – it’s generally safe to do this in a non-busy area, as long as the bag is this size – into the ticket office and got a ticket on the shinkansen to Tokyo that was leaving in like 25 minutes now. It was later than I wanted to leave, but it wasn’t that important that I get to Tokyo right at four. I’d made a reservation again with Sakura Ryokan (this time the day before) and told him I’d be there at 4. I took the closest entrance gate and rode the escalator back to the main shinkansen waiting area. I didn’t know which track was mine, so I ended up walking to the far end. I found the track, and stopped in to a small store for some omiyage. A short time later I was sitting leisurely on the train along with about fifty Chinese tourists.
The train ride was about two and a half hours, in which I took the entire time writing logs (I told you they take a long time). While I wrote, I snacked on my cheese bread, which was exactly as I wanted it to be, chewy and tangy from the cheddar chunks. Yum. We arrived at Tokyo Station much sooner than I believed it could possibly seem, perhaps because I was busy. My first thought was to switch lines to the northbound shinkansen, since that was closer and less crowded than the Yamanote JR line, to travel to Ueno. I had a rail pass, so it really didn’t matter how much it cost. However, I realized not only was this just as difficult to get my bag into, there was a slight possibility that the train wouldn’t stop at Ueno, and I’d end up in like Sendai or something. I ended up taking the normal Yamanote line four stops to Ueno. I made a deliberate attempt to see if one could do this without ever using stairs, and discovered to my delight that it was in fact possible. When I arrived at Iriya, however, I still had to carry the heavy bag up the excessively long flight of stairs. I had already dealt with a few more stairs in the subway station, so my back was all sweaty again. Bleh.
Sakura Ryokan seemed really far this time, but only because of the baggage. I winced as I carried it up the stairs to the entrance, and then removed my shoes. While I did this an old woman, probably a cleaning woman, opened the door for me and held it. That was nice. The okaasan recognized me, but at first didn’t see my reservation. Oh, come on, I thought. She located it however, and gave me a key to room 307, which is only one floor up this time. I used the elevator to get to the next floor and entered my room. It was Japanese style again, as I’d asked for it. I don’t get to sleep on futon very often, so this was kind of a treat. The room is also bigger like this, and technically could sleep two. Plus, you can fold the futon out of the way and make even more space! I was very tired at this point and very sweaty. I thought I might take a short Japanese bath, since I had it available to me, but it wasn’t quite 6pm yet, and the bath wasn’t available. I took the opportunity to work on more logs. I also tried to call Ken, a Japanese guy whom Molly and I met though Angela last trip. He lived in the US for a long time, so he speaks English perfectly and with very little accent at all. We’d exchanged a few emails when I first got here, and he said to let him know when I was back in Tokyo. I thought at first his phone was out of range, as the phone rang but then was silent, but realized later it might have been my phone as there’s virtually no signal in the room. I tried to send a text message that went out okay.
6PM rolled around and I dashed to use the public bath. I brought my cell phone with me, just in case, and slid the sign on the door to “in use”. I’m sure you’ve read this before, but in a Japanese bath, you wash and rinse first, then get into the tub. The water is shared, but here it’s more like a big spa. I used the spray nozzle as a shower, instead of sitting on a stool and washing that way, then rinsed off really well. Into the tub I stepped. It’s a massive steel box, which is like five feet by seven feet, and two and a half feet deep. It’s easy to slide and spin around in it, and is just the right temperature. Not too hot, but still very warm. I enjoyed this for some time, but before my feet started to wrinkle, I decided I needed to go out and do something and not waste the night in the ryokan. I dried off, put clothes on, and went back to my room.
I wanted to bring the tripod, but was really tired of lugging around my backpack to hold it in. It never was very convenient anyway, and was very awkward when turning; I tended to smack doorways, people, bikes, children… I had looked around for some sort of strap a few times in stores, but couldn’t ever find anything. Suddenly it hit me. My camera bag had a perfectly good strap, and since it also had a belt loop, didn’t need it. I unhooked the strap and figured out a way to latch this to the tripod in such a way I could swing it over my shoulder. Better yet, I could put it across my chest, and it would sit flat against my back, preventing any dangerous swinging or protrusion. Fabulous. I don’t know why I’d not thought of that before. I decided on a button-down shirt, since I never felt very dressed up, and I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was really hoping to find Ken, but since he hadn’t called back (I’d assumed he’d read the text message) I wasn’t sure if that was going to happen.
I stepped out of Sakura Ryokan, and the weather was okay. It wasn’t raining, but I had my umbrella with me anyway. My camera was latched to my side, and I was on my way… somewhere. I had absolutely no idea what to do. I decided to give Ken another try. The phone rang again, and was silent, so I said, “moshi moshi” into it.
“~-shi Mo-~i” said the phone.
“It’s Marc, and I’m back in Tokyo. Did you get my text message earlier?” I asked. He said he hadn’t. “Oh, I just sent it a little while ago.” As far as I can tell, text messages here only go to an email address, if it’s enabled, *or* a phone number, but not both. I wasn’t able to send Alex one to his phone number either. I was right on the main street through Iriya and couldn’t hear a thing, so I moved into a nearby alley. He asked about my plans for the next few days, and dinner tonight seemed to be the best plan. He suggested something, then made a better suggestion.
“Do you like lamb?” he asked.
”Yes,” I told him, as my fear of the meat has diminished due to passage of time in relation to Gene’s and my Sapporo lamb glutton festival. He mentioned he knew of a shabu-shabu place that serves lamb, and asked if that would be okay. I told him it was great; shabu-shabu was one of the meals I’d wanted to eat while I was here, and hadn’t yet had the opportunity. He said he would call the place, make sure they were open and had a table, then would call me back.
Shabu-shabu is a meal in which you are given a boiling pot of water or broth in which you place a set of thinly sliced meat, vegetables, and sometimes tofu. This nearly instantly cooks the meat, which you dip into a sauce and then eat. It’s quite good, and is a lot of fun. This is what Bob and Charlotte were about to do in Lost in Translation during the “worst lunch”. I disagree. Cooking my own food is a lot of fun (see Genghis Khan and yakiniku). Ken called back a moment later and asked if he could meet me at an entrance of Shimbashi Station in an hour. I told him no problem, I’ve got a rail pass. I got off the phone and met a woman with a pug on the way to the subway. It was the biggest, fluffiest pug I’d ever seen, and he had a weird name I don’t remember. I took the stairs down to the subway soon after. It occurred to me I had no idea where Shimbashi was, nor did I know the kanji, but I knew it was on the JR line, so I could find it on the English map in Ueno. No problem, I said.
It was a problem.
When I got to Ueno from the subway, I soon was presented with the information that the Ueno JR station doesn’t have hiragana, much less English on its fare map. It’s *all* in kanji. And since there are about 200 stations in the greater Tokyo area, I was going to have an interesting chore. I searched around for a while, then decided that wasn’t going to make it any faster. I made a slight movement toward the stationmaster, who would probably be able to tell me easily, but then I decided to do some deductive reasoning. One, it had to be close to the center of Tokyo. Ken lives in Chiba, which is about 30 minutes out. Given that he’s got to get ready and the go there, he’s coming in. Second, whenever I’ve heard of Shim (or Shin) in a name, it’s almost always the kanji for ‘new’. And third, it was going to be on a major train line, like the Chuo-sen or Yamanote-sen. I took a moment and traced around. A moment later, I located what had to be it, only a few stops from Ueno on the Yamanote line. It’s kanji were “new” and “hashi” from Takahashi, a name I know the kanji for. Shin-bashi (hashi can also be pronounced bashi, don’t you just love Japanese). I was about 98% certain, so I walked through the manned gate and flashed my rail pass. It only had one more day outside of that one left in its lifetime, and I was going to be sad to see it go. In this case, if I screwed up, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
I exited the train at Shimbashi and located the exit that he’d told me to wait at. I was way early, so I decided to walk around the area as I’d never been to this station before. It wasn’t really different than most stations in central Tokyo; an electronics store, a department store, several ramen shops, a bar, and a pachinko parlor were all in visible range. I took a few pictures, and realized the only thing that set this apart from other areas was the existence of a big steam train on display in a plaza. I had walked in a big circle, and ended up back at the same entrance to the station. I decided to drop into the electronics store to kill the few minutes I had remaining. Cameras were very expensive here, more so that in Hachinohe. I had assumed since this was a big city that they would be cheaper. I looked around at the cell phones as well, and wondered if they sold Vodaphone prepaid cards here, which I thought I might need; I’d gotten an email message from the cell company saying I was down to under 500 yen left on my card out of 3000 and I should refill my minutes soon. It was on my mental agenda, but wasn’t a requirement yet. I also noticed that outside of a select few which try hard to be different, all the eight gazillion different cell phones they had were essentially the same. Button placement varied slightly, colors varied slightly, even among the same model, and the resolution of the built-in camera was better and worse. However, they all were the same flip-phone clamshell design as all the others. Every single phone I’d seen out in the various cities I’d been in have looked the same as well, each person flipping them open with a familiar “click”.
I headed upstairs and looked at other various electronics. I saw my first digital TV that actually looked really good up close. Every time I’ve seen an HDTV in a store, it’s been displaying something that looks all artifact-ey and not clear at all. This one looked great and I could see the pores on the announcer’s face and could count her eyelashes. That’s detail. On the next floor were watches, and I was surprised to see that Tag Heuer watches were cheaper than I’d ever seen them. I didn’t think you could get one for less than $1000. These were not much less than $1000, but still. The remaining time had elapsed, so I raced down the stairs and into the street. I suddenly realized I was regretting something – I hadn’t looked at Ken’s picture on my website before I left the ryokan. It had been more than two years, after all, and I’d not seen him since then. I could generally remember the image from the previous log, but I was afraid in a sea of faces I didn’t know that he wouldn’t stand out. I could only hope he would find me first.
I stood under the entrance and waited. 8:30, our meeting time, rolled past, and he hadn’t showed up. About two minutes later, my phone rang.
“Hey, it’s Ken. Where are you, by the entrance we talked about?”
“Yup, standing right here.”
“Oh I see you,” he said, and I frantically asked into the phone if he was on foot, in a car… I had no idea. Last trip he was driving a BMW around, and I didn’t know if he was doing the same thing tonight. He was already off the phone however. Fortunately, I heard him call my name behind me, and I immediately recognized him. Phew.
He led me down the street and we began to talk about various subjects. He said the place we were going to was just a bit of a walk, and I said it wouldn’t bother me. I’d spent all the previous day walking around Nara, so this was nothing. The restaurant was on an upper floor of the building he’d led me to, so we took the elevator. Inside I thought we were just getting a table, so I help up two fingers to show that we needed two seats. However, Ken stepped forward and offered his name; he’d made a reservation. They took us to a small table with had a big gas burner in the middle and had us sit. Ken told me that this place was already tabehoodai, all you can eat, and for just a little more, we can make it nomihoodai as well. That was fine with me, so he ordered for us.
They brought us a big metal bowl full of water which they put on the burner and ignited the flame underneath. This began to heat very, very quickly as I could see steam on the water start to escape as soon as a minute later. While this was heating, Ken told me that we could choose from anything on the drink menu for refreshment, including beer, sake, white sake, whiskey, and soft drinks. I asked him what white sake was, and he said it was basically unfiltered sake, which is sweeter and more impure than regular sake. I wondered how it related to shochu, a drink that used to be the drink of the lower class, and is now very popular. Might be the same stuff. We decided on draft beer initially, and a moment later two tall pilsner glasses were delivered to us. In addition, a bottle of white sake, a bottle of whiskey, and two glasses for each of those bottles arrived as well. We could just basically crack those open whenever we wanted. “I don’t recommend the whiskey,” he told me, as it was very, very cheap.
A plate of vegetables including bean sprouts, onions, tofu, and some thin noodles arrived next, and the waiter dumped these into the heating water. They bubbled slightly as the temperature increased. Ken poured each of us some brown, thin sauce into two bowls on the table, and as the water was about to come to a boil, they dropped off two plates of extremely thinly sliced lamb. He told me that this was thinner than most shabu-shabu meat, and so it’s probably best to grab a few at once. This turned out to be true. When the water was boiling, I grabbed about three of the slices and dunked them into the water using my chopsticks. They cooked in under ten seconds. When I pulled them out, they had reduced in size to about 20% of original, and were barely one bite. I dipped them into the sauce and then tasted. Wow, it was really really yummy. It didn’t have as much of the lamb flavor as I’d expected. I alternated lamb with different vegetables and tofu, each time coating them in semi-sweet sauce and then washing all this down with the mug of beer.
Since it was tabehoodai, any time we asked, the continued to bring us big plates of meat. I drank the beer rather quickly, only because it was nomihoodai as well, and when I’d finished, Ken asked if I wanted to try the white sake. “Sure, why not,” I told him. He poured me a glass of the milky fluid and I took a sip. He was right, it was definitely very sweet by comparison to normal sake. It also didn’t have the weird aftertaste I don’t usually like about sake, and since it was cold, didn’t warm my throat like, say, Gekkeikan did.
“You have to be careful with this stuff,” Ken explained. “Since it’s really impure, it will give you a heck of a hangover.” We spent the next hour eating, drinking, and talking, slowly catching up on the last two years of our lives. When the meat had been exhausted, we’d ask for another, and the waiter would oblige immediately with another platter of rolled carpaccio. Every so often, Ken would skim off some of the fat that was collecting in the water into a small pitcher using the tools contained therein, and would also add water from a big metal pitcher. At some point the burner underneath our bowl began to sputter and make a lot of noise. Ken pointed this out to the waitress, who told us that it was fine, but noisy, and apologized. We both looked at each other, and asked if we could switch burners to the one just to our right on the adjoining table. Anything that is running unusual that has propane as a major fuel source definitely shouldn’t be used, we both agreed. She got a big towel and moved the bowl to the other burner, which didn’t have the same problem. We continued through about three more plates of meat and half of the bottle of white sake, then decided to call it quits. The restaurant was closing anyway, so Ken suggested we go get a drink at a bar somewhere.
At the front counter, Ken discovered he couldn’t use his credit card here, but didn’t quite have enough cash. I loaned him 1000 yen to cover his half of the 8000 yen meal. It was rather expensive, but tabe/nomihoodai usually is. We rode the elevator down and walked to a nearby convenience store where Ken used the ATM and returned the extra cash. We began a short search for a bar, and decided just to go somewhere close, in this case, The Hub yet again. There was one right near the convenience store; I hadn’t realized it was a chain. As before, it was filled with both Japanese and foreigners, and I heard an American accent for the first time in a while. All of the tables were taken, so we ended up taking the last two seats in the bar, which were at the far end. As usual, I decided on a lychee grapefruit, which was yummy, and I realized it was perhaps the last time I’d get to have one. I had first thought about a girly blueberry drink, but couldn’t bring myself to order it. “You should just order what you want,” Ken told me, “even if it is really, REALLY girly.” He laughed. I stuck with the lychee. We sat around some more and drank and talked. Ken is a pretty cool guy. He said he hadn’t seen Angela since she was here, as she is on the east coast, and he never makes it that far when he goes to the States. I told him that anytime he wants to come to Austin, he was of course welcome, and he told me I could stay at his place next time I come to Tokyo as well. I said that could be as soon as next year, but I wasn’t sure if I’d have the money.
At this point it was basically 11:40PM, and trains stop running before 1AM. It was also on a Saturday schedule, so trains ran less frequently to boot. We ducked out of the bar and quickly returned to the JR station. I had assumed that there I’d probably have to say good bye, but as it turns out, he went with me all the way to Akihabara, where he needed to catch the local Chuo line train to Chiba. This was convenient for me too, as I could ride the subway from there. At the Chuo platform we shook hands and said our farewells. I took the escalator down from the platform and entered the Hibiya line subway.
I had just missed a train, and it pulled out of the station as I walked down the stairs. I leisurely strolled to a bench, where I took a seat. On the sign, a big red set of kanji was alternating with some English – LAST TRAIN. Phew! Man, talk about lucky! Of course, Akihabara, while it’s not terribly close, is not that far from Iriya, and I knew which direction to walk if I had to. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. The subway train arrived a few minutes later, and it was standing room only. I felt bad for a few women, who obviously were having shoe issues; one can only walk around in those super-high heels for so long, I’d imagine. A few stops later I was at Iriya, and I did the late-night walk back home to Sakura. It was dark inside, and the automatic sensors created a pathway of lighting as I headed up to my room to go immediately to bed.
Please note – this will be the last log file I send from Japan, but I promise the rest of the story will be finished on the plane. It’s not like I won’t have *time*. :P