Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday afternoon ramble

It's good to be home. I'd be happy staying put for a while (that sense usually lasts about three weeks, but still). It was good just disembarking at National; I could walk a whole two airport blocks without seeing an ad for something biblical. In fact, I almost got Jay a book of the 198 Most Inspirational Bible Quotes for Men, but decided against it. Jay, meanwhile--again, in true husband form--continues to give me fabulous items of clothing not appropriate to wear outside the house.

At one point in our now well-documented banter, I asked Jay if his other wives let him getting away with drinking sake in bed (incidentally, he spilled it--on my side of the bed, no less--and the duvet stunk of sake; we had to spray it with the green tea febreeze like thing in the room). He told me he had no other wives; I challenged him on that--I knew of a few. To which he replied that those were hags. I was nonplussed. He explained that you go out with hags--they're wingmen, they seek validation from gay men, etc. You don't travel, shop, carpool with hags; you travel with wives.

On the way back from Tokyo, I finished John Irving's "The Fourth Hand," which was a perfect airplane book (but pretty bad book, especially for the author of "The Cider House Rules.") It was all the more appropriate because it made me smile to read, within the book's pages, about a trip to Japan. Once I finished it, I started Michael Cunningham's "A Home at the End of the World," which is excellent, and also not without resonance to the Japan trip. Two of the key characters are not quite Jay and I--actually, not Jay and I at all, apart from the peculiarities that inevitably characterize the relationships between gay men and their wives: the coupleness that dwarfs that of actual couples, in particular.

I was on an 0730 flight out of Colorado Springs. What were the odds that I'd be sitting directly ahead of a screaming, kicking toddler?

Here's the thing: it wasn't that bad, because the parents were trying. They were not relegating their responsibility as parents just because they'd boarded a plane (or left the house).

In Dallas, there was a girl with a princessy rollerboard suitcase in the washroom across from the gate. I (internally) recoiled in horror, but she wasn't on my flight. That's the thing, though: they can inspire dread without actually doing anything.

As I exited the washroom, a vending machine caught my eye, and I approached it out of habit. I patronized more vending machines in a day or two in Japan than I have in the States in my entire life. They had KitKats, but not in green tea or sakura.

I talked to my mom before I left (well, between outbound flights). I'd told her I would be going, but she didn't remember and asked me what all the background noise was. Then she asked me why I hadn't sent the itinerary (because when I do, she says 'yeah but I can't be bothered to look at it') and asked me to send it when I got in. Then she said something like "another conference?!" I told her I hadn't traveled for a conference since I changed jobs over two years ago. She didn't understand--what was all the travel about? Really? Does my mother really think I conference hop (i.e. as opposed to doing work)? There is no way that either my colleague or I would have gone, much less been sent, on this trip unless it had been absolutely necessary. In any case, we're set for now. I know I'll be eager to travel again soon, but for now, it's all about home.

Friday morning roundup

When plundered artifacts are replundered, particularly for the sake of preservation, who owns them? Or, if you're the US government, do you appreciate the complexity of returning Jewish artifacts once seized from fleeing Jews and obtained post-invasion, to the Jewish families that once owned them--particularly if they're in Israel?

The world's endangered languages are well represented in New York.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thursday roundup

Jay e-mailed me with the following new term: "Teletubby: your mom's ability to tell you you're fat from a distance..."

Hat tip to Chad for WTF, CNN?, an unfortunately spot-on website.

Last week's New Yorker has a piece on Animal, a meat restaurant in LA (entrees run about 3,000 calories, and they put bacon in the dessert). The article mentions, in passing, that the restaurant owners sometimes have women review the menu to ensure it's not too off-putting to them. Because, apparently, women are intimidated by lots of meat (seriously). This is especially interesting because two Grist posts talk about meat as manly, both centering on KFC's double-down sandwich. It gets interesting here, because a commenter accuses Tyler Falk of being too hard on meat-eaters and says that carnivorism isn't manly; it's human. To which TF replies that it's KFC that's playing on the meat-masculinity link.

On a quasi-related note, Hilton Als parses Tyler Perry's idea of what makes a real (black) man, or woman. And it's not, in the case of the latter, professional success or financial independence. Quite the contrary.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On the road again

The night I got back from Japan, I woke up in the middle of the night and tried to remember where I was. Which hotel was this? Where was the light? The night table with my watch on it? For some reason, that phenomenon always hits me when I get home from a trip; it doesn't happen when I'm actually traveling.

I tell you this now because I've checked in to yet another hotel. It was only when I walked in and (a) didn't smell any cigarette smoke, not even in the hallway; (b) didn't feel the need to turn off or photograph the toilet; and (c) reflected on how spacious the room was, that I remembered that I'd traveled recently, that there had been a lot of hotels in my life in the last month.

I'd looked up some local restaurants before I left. A surprising proportion of the ones with decent ratings were... wait for it... Japanese. I figured it was just as well, since I was always hankering for Japanese food in Japan.

I had sashimi (it was a set, but I asked for them to hold the steamed rice), and green tea ice cream for dessert, too. The sashimi felt eerily normal. The green tea was disappointing. When I ordered it, the waiter was almost surprised--said it took him a while to get used to it, but now he liked it. That surprised me, because this ice cream seemed tame, westernized. Most actual green tea is ruined for me, too. Japan has joined my list of countries to which I'd travel just to get tea.

On the way back to the hotel, we drove by a Circle K and two 7-Elevens.

On the flight over, a small child was being loud and obnoxious. Her mother only encouraged it. Incidentally, this is the second disruptive-girl-on-a-plane whose antics I've endured, whose name is Sienna. Child namers beware.

Quick Wednesday morning roundup

Did anyone else think the leaked Pope visit memo was hilarious? I mean, the memo in and of itself was just tacky, but the international incident was quite amusing.

Over a century after its establishment, Rawalpindi's brewery is still brewing.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gracie inspires

You'll recall "Impressions of Gracie" from previous posts:

-She's shaped like a rugby ball!
-Is she carrying twins?
-There goes Jabba the Hut.
-She's the size of both my cats put together.
-Mon dieu, ce chat est gros!

Well, Richard--Marcela's Richard (see: Galapagos travel notes), not Japan Richard, just met Gracie.

Richard: That cat looks quite hefty--could he help us move this furniture?
A.: She's not really good for stuff like that.
Richard: Does she have a name?
A.: Gracie.
Marcela: She's beautiful!


Richard: It's a very nice house. It must be great to have so much space.
A.: Why thank you. I didn't quite mean to get one this big... but the world was ostensibly going to hell when I was house-shopping, so I ended up with more space than I'd imagined.

Later still

Richard: It's clear now why you need so much space: you've got to house such a big cat. It's like what they say--you can't put a whale in a swimming pool.
A.: Quite right.
Marcela: She needs to go on that thing... the MC...
Richard: The Master Cleanse.
Marcela: Right.
A.: I try.
Marcela: I know.

Tuesday evening roundup

I'd really like for Monsanto to stay the f* away from my eggplant.

Foreign Policy's photographic ode to farming.

A day at straight camp.

Funny story. My mother once urged me--urged!--to live in Fredericksburg. I mean, she didn't name the city; she urged me to live closer to where I used to work. I would have none of it.

Now, most of F'burg's residents are perfectly reasonable people (including some of my readers). And it's not like there's no BS right here in Northern Virginia. I'm just saying, it wouldn't have been a good fit.

It's also good for hypnotizing chickens

According to this article--and I don't disagree--Powerpoint stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Saints. Preserve. Us.

I am an ungrateful child.

I really, really want my mother to stop talking to me about Verizon, even when she's right and they're wrong.

It actually started when I talked to my parents during my layover in Dallas, on the way to Tokyo. Dad told me that the home phone wasn't working because Verizon wouldn't give them their phone number back. He told me that they'd relented and were in the process of fixing it at that moment. Then, mom called me.

Mom: Where are you?
A.: I'm boarding as we speak.
Mom: You wouldn't believe what they did!
A.: They wouldn't let you keep your phone number.
Mom: No! Listen! I mean, yes. But listen. [Launches into the story].
A.: Mom, I know. Dad told me. I don't have time to listen to this right now.
Mom: Fine!

We ended up having a civilized discussion for a few minutes, on something other than Verizon. I never want to hear about Verizon, but at that moment, I really couldn't care less about Verizon.

Mom called just now.

Mom: Dad and I are both having issues.
A.: What's up?
Mom: TurboTax is demanding payment.
A.: That's right. TurboTax costs money.
Mom: But we bought the software!
A.: [Shrug]. I don't know what to tell you, mom. I've never bought the software--I've always used the online version.
Mom: I guess that's what we should have done.
A.: Probably. Next?
Mom: Verizon "checked my credit" and determined that I owe them $110 from last time, and they're going to bill me for it every month together with the current service. Can you believe that?
A.: Yes and no.
Mom: Unbelievable!
A.: That's pretty wrong.
Mom: I just tossed out a bunch of paperwork, too. I should still have some on file. I guess the process starts again.
A.: Sorry you have to deal with it.

I feel really guilty about how relieved I was when she didn't ask me to do anything. No complaint letter, no further questioning about whether it would be better to contact the Better Business Bureau or the Attorney General. Not because I don't want to be helpful, but because I don't know: she's much more of an expert on these matters. Also, even though she's not technically in the wrong, part of me is frustrated because she should know better: every time you enter into or change an agreement with Verizon or another utility, there's potential for BS. Verizon gave me drama, in various ways, when I moved. It's almost a type of loyalty program: don't change anything, and we'll have no opportunity to up the hassle factor.

I'd feel guiltier, but I'm letting it go because I have a feeling I'll make it up to her shortly by absorbing a weekend's worth of emotional abuse.

Monday evening roundup

I was talking to a colleague who'd just returned from Tokyo. She talked about... wait for it... getting lost in the subway.

Another colleague talked about... wait for it... enduring a red-eye while seated not far from a screaming infant. The flight attendants kept suggesting stuff-bringing stuff, too--to help the mother, but she just shrugged and said, "you know, babies cry." The rest of us really appreciate that attitude. It's not like we benefit from sleep, or anything.

Way to go, Arizona racists: this is abhorrent and tacky.

Don't underestimate the power of SpongeBob.

Social networking for a good cause. You've got to appreciate those creative young minds!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday afternoon ramble

I was just in Target, saw a row of candy bars. Before I thought to stop myself, I headed over to see if they had anything in 'green tea.'

I sometimes love and sometimes hate Mint. I loved it when they e-mailed me to let me know that there was a large payment to Suntrust--I couldn't log into my account from the Blackberry, and I didn't remember whether I'd scheduled my mortgage payment before I left. Of course I did, but for some reason, I started stressing about it, so I was relieved to learn that it actually went through.

When I checked my messages in Chicago, I had a recorded message from Suntrust, providing me with a number to call by April 9th to learn of a change to my account. The message had expired by the time I got to it, so I still don't know what that change was. I checked my account online and everything looked the same.

Then, today, I got an e-mail from Mint telling me that I exceeded my budget for rent and mortgage for this month. What now? Did I get fined by Suntrust for some reason? I checked Mint, which showed a transaction for "Washington National" under the mortgage and rent category. Except that it was actually for Washington National Opera--I'd bought myself a ticket to "Marriage of Figaro" for my birthday. (And told my parents that had they bothered to let me know they'd be visiting, I'd have waited for them and bought them tickets, as well). Anyway, Mint had scared the crap out of me. I'd already reclassified a previous "Washington National" transaction as "entertainment"--can't they get with the program?

Sunday morning roundup

China's hand in Niger.

Shacking up is raising fewer and fewer eyebrows in India.

Russian orphanages are a bad scene, but not for obvious reasons.

The rest of Russia has its issues, too:
A fellow repat recently read Alexander Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin" with her Russian-language teacher. When they got to the part expressing hopes that in 500 years the nation would have decent roads, they burst out laughing. "Onegin" was first published in 1825.
My experience was different from that of the writer; my parents may have sentimentalized the language and culture they left, but not much else. And when we go back, we interact not with "other repats," but with people who are subject to the lesser "charms" of the place.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Trees and vending machines and labyrinthine subway systems, oh my!

If you were the Oxford English Dictionary, and you were considering admitting the word 'clusterf*' into the collection--which you should do, not just because, as Jay loves to point out, I love that word--you might be on the lookout for an illustrative example. You would be remiss if the Tokyo subway system weren't in your top three examples, perhaps a close second after 'geopolitics of the Middle East.' And perhaps just before geopolitics of Northeast Asia.

That thing is a monster. We wandered around its stations for miles when we first arrived, and we wandered around, hardly better oriented, just before we left.

Clusterf*s aside, Jay is in no position to critique my choice of words: if you didn't know better, you'd think you were conversing with a fourteen-year old girl. She, he, would direct you to "the hotness, over there," and describe Nikko's spring festival floats as "tragic." I did my best to avoid taking on his speech habits, with limited success. I also failed to avoid letting Jay's eating habits influence mine. I'm not sure when I ever ate so much crap. But more about food later; there's more to say on the matter of our discourse during the trip, which was influenced by the in-flight entertainment on the way over. It was a long-@$$ flight; I watched four films and two episodes each of "30 Rock" and "The Office." Coincidentally, all four of us watched "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," in which the characters imply expletives by replacing them with the word "cuss." As in, "what a clustercuss!" and "what the cuss?" This became our MO throughout the trip. Was it Akihabara that Jay described as a total mindcuss, or elaborate plastic food, or both? I used the 'mindcuss' to refer to the Japanese language (what's the deal with those particles??) Just a few moments ago, I thought to myself, "what the cuss possessed me to take so many pictures of trees??"

As for the two episodes of "The Office," they had the unfortunate effect of sticking "that's what she said" in the back of my mind, to be easily--no, inevitably--retrieved the next morning, on our way to the fish market, when Jay purchased a can of coffee from a vending machine (our first of the trip!) and said, "it's hot! do you want to hold it?" Vending machine appeals to our gutter minds (see coffee descriptions)

What was a girl who'd just watched two episodes of "The Office" to say in response, I ask you?? Little did I know that I'd established a precedent. More of a competition, actually; there were some prize-winners, though they're not suitable for a family blog. I reproached Jay for that, told him I hated it when he said cuss too vulgar for the blog but so funny that I resented not being able to share it with you. If it makes you feel any better, there were some duds, too--at one point, we were practically throwing out TWSSs as shots in the dark, hoping one might stick. We were also reproaching him for TWSSing himself.

The vending machine that started it all was also the start of another habit, i.e. addiction. Jay would brake for them, even develop an entire ranking system (I had my own ranking system-- for convenience stores). Often, he'd get a green tea that he found lacking, so he would hand it off to me and try for another one; or I'd get coffee with milk and or/sugar in it, and hand it off to him, and try for another one; so there one or both of us would be, walking down the street, double-fisted.

I'll tell you all about the trip soon. For now, I'd best go back to cleaning up the gazillion pictures I took (mostly--I cuss you not--of trees).

Jay and I got into Tokyo on a Friday evening, about half an hour apart, and had decided earlier it would be best not to wait for Richard and Susan, who would get in hours later. We crossed the bustling airport--what a contrast from the very subdued National I arrived home to the other night--in search of the train that would take us into the city. As we headed toward the counter, a policeman, clipboard in tow, approached and asked to see our passports and take down our personal information. Really? Because Immigration hadn't already noted it? Who am I to critique an employment program... but find some that don't snare wary travelers.

We'd stopped to get cash, but the ATMs downstairs didn't take my card, so we headed upstairs to find a Citibank ATM (and Citi still charged me a 3% fee, even though it was a Citi card and machine). When we came back down, another clipboard-wielding officer asked for our passports. We said we'd already done this, and I think he understood, because he tried to speed up the process. Jay provided his info and then went over to get our tickets. This time around, the officer asked for phone numbers (after Jay had left), but appeared nonplussed (Jay's favorite word!) when I provided mine. So I got to use a handful of the few useful Japanese words I knew. The officer was very excited. Unfortunately, I'd get to use numbers again in Takayama, where we'd report Jay's Blackberry lost or stolen. That police officer was more excited about Jay's being from Boston; he kept asking him about the Red Sox and Jim Rice.

Anyway, tickets in hand, we headed into town. We'd missed the worst of rush hour, but it's never really not rush hour in Tokyo. We caught up on the way.

Jay: Do you want this copy of Details?
A.: Who's that? Why does he look familiar?
Jay: Sam Worthington!
A.: Have I seen him on the Daily Show?
Jay: Probably. He was in "Avatar."
A.: I just watched that on the way... who was he?
Jay: The main character.
A.: Oh. That movie was BAD.
Jay. Yeah.
Jay: So, I was checking out your butt (as I do), and I don't know what your mom is talking about--you're so not fat!
A.: Why thank you. You're looking slim, yourself.
Jay: So, fish market tomorrow?
A.: Sure.

We got to planning, until neurosis got the better of me.

A.: What we're doing tomorrow is all well and good, but getting back to the topic of my butt--you know, I still don't fit into old clothes, but I think it's a shape thing--I've more muscle. I maintain that it's more important that one's butt hold its own against an SUV than fit into smaller sizes.
Jay: [Yawn] Fair enough.

The train pulled into Ueno, played its "wake up! we're there" music. Ueno was madness. We thought about stopping--we were starving--but didn't want to lug our stuff around. After some walking around in circles inside the station's passageways, we found the way to the Yamanote line, which got us to Shimbashi. We thought we were there! Except that we had a good half-mile of underground passageways to sort through before we found Shiodome. It was "exit 10." On the way, Jay said multiple times something he would throughout our séjour in Tokyo:

Jay: This is so "Bladerunner"!
A.: What's Bladerunner?
Jay: [Sigh.]

On our way through the underpass to the hotel, we passed some appealing food options, which gave me (false) hope. They were all closed by the time we reemerged, so we wandered around aimlessly, eventually settling for 7-Eleven. Except we never found it--Jay's then-Blackberry, of which it pains me to speak ill, had us running around in circles looking for that 7-Eleven--so we settled for its tragic cousin, AM/PM.

But first we arrived at our hotel, which was beautiful. I'm not sure how or why we got it for such a reasonable price. We checked in, headed upstairs. As I started unpacking, I heard hysterical laughter from the bathroom.

Jay: You have to see this.
A.: Okay...

I stepped into the bathroom and soon joined in the hysterical laughter, for a good five minutes.
The picture is actually from the train station in Gero, but you get the point.

The toilet had *instructions.* And safeguards, complete with diagrams. And all sorts of buttons.

A.: WTF??
Jay: I don't know.

Eventually, we figured out how to use it. The most important button for me over the next few days was the one that would turn off the heated seat, which drove me up the wall. I don't think you could turn that one off--at least not in that first hotel--so I had to settle for keeping it at "low."

The beautiful hotel was out of twin rooms when we booked, so Jay and I had to share a bed. I sensed, as I tried to fall asleep, an incursion or two onto my territory, so we agreed to establish a demilitarized zone using the abundant pillows in the room. It only helped a little, and a pillowfight ensued. Eventually, the sheer exhaustion overcame the less-than-ideal sleeping conditions (including our lack of mastery of the room's climate control), and we got some sleep ahead of our trip to the fish market.

The sakura forecast

I invited myself to Japan when I saw Jay over the holidays: he mentioned he was going in April; I calculated that it would be a good time for me to take time off, asked if I could come along, checked ticket prices, found that I had almost enough frequent flier miles to get me there (only had to buy 10,000 more), asked my supervisor's permission once I got back to work, and booked the flight. The rest of the team had already set the itinerary, so I jumped in while we were making hotel reservations (quite a painful process, if you recall from pre-trip posts). Once we tamed the hotel beast, I jumped into learning Japanese by way of Rosetta Stone and some books that a number of friends had lent me. The act of learning Japanese--and I use "learning" generously; "f*ing around with..." more accurately describes what I was doing--offered the illusion of planning for the trip. I/we engaged in little other planning, apart from buying guide books and getting a rail pass. You'll recall that, not long before the trip, I told you that the last e-mail I'd sent to Jay concerned a video that required his attention, rather than anything to do with the upcoming trip.

Jay was the most proactive; he outlined our itinerary in a spreadsheet, with some ideas of what to do in each place. The lack of more detailed planning wasn't a problem--it allowed us flexibility in the face of weather and other circumstances. And since we had the cities/towns down, it was easy enough to improvise when we arrived.

The one thing that Jay stayed on top of was the sakura forecast; the week before the trip, he regularly e-mailed with the latest predictions: we'd hit some of the peak in Tokyo, miss sakura altogether in Kyoto, etc. I shrugged. I live in DC and bike to work around half of the tidal basin, so I see sakura every year. Sure, it's aesthetically pleasing, but hardly enough so to justify the hordes that crowd my city and my commute on account of it. So Jay kept me posted on the sakura forecast, and I shrugged.

As it turned out, we hit peak sakura everywhere, and it was f*ing amazing. It is one reason that I took so many pictures of trees: they were just beautiful. Not to knock the also-beautiful DC cherry blossoms, but the cherry blossoms in Japan were all over the place (so you could mostly enjoy them without tripping over (or biking over) people), and they enhanced the look of everything else around. Just when we thought we'd seen enough sakura, we found it adorning yet another scene, in a completely different way. One of my best pictures captured cherry blossoms floating in, and reflected in, the canal along the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto.

There was one point where we couldn't care less, and that was when Jay and I went for a hike on Miyojima. I'll tell you right now that my biggest disappointment of the trip (now that Jay has been "reblackburied") is that my camera batteries all ran out on Miyojima, and I missed some amazing photos. But not as many as would have been there had we come on a sunny day. Actually, it was pouring down rain most of the day, but I pressed for a hike up the sacred mountain, and Jay opted to come along. Because we both have a short memory about how our hikes often end in tears, because he queens out on me (his words, not mine) and starts whining ten minutes in about how he's going to collapse (and then whines about how fat he is, at which point I remind him that while I disagree with his assessment, if he's concerned, he'd do well to stop whining and keep hiking, and lay off the donuts once we return).

Jay: Wah. I'm going to collapse [or something]
A.: I never know whether to take you seriously, because you always say you're going to collapse. Ten minutes into our hike at Harper's Ferry this summer, you started whining.
Jay: And you always threaten to never hike with me again--why don't you ever follow up on that?
A.: Because I forget every time.
Jay: It's like Taco Bell.
A.: ??
Jay: I always forget what it does to my stomach.

So we hiked, and Mount Misen was beautiful even in the fog and rain. But we were both tired, wary, soaked. And in vending machine withdrawal.

A.: Look at that sakura!
Jay: I've never cared less.

Shortly afterward, there'd be more beautiful sakura, and I'd never cared less.

But we certainly did still care during our first days in Tokyo, and we were very much up for hanami. On our first full day in Town, we walked through Ueno park and gawked at other people engaged in hanami. It was, in Jay's words, bananas. And in Susan's words, bananas, on steroids. Two days later, we got to do proper hanami in Shinjuku Gyoen, and I think I already told you that it was absolutely perfect.

It was still kind of "ghetto hanami," because we used garbage bags in lieu or a tarp or blanket, but it worked. Some of the locals thought it was the funniest thing--they laughed at/with us and waved hello. Some took pictures of the crazy gaijin and their ghetto hanami.

Jay and I would also do night hanami in Kyoto, along the river. I'm not sure whether it counts as hanami since we sat on benches rather than the ground.

As good as seeing sakura was tasting sakura--we tried sakura ice cream, sakura mochi, mochi sakura (not to be confused with the sakuramochi), and sakura in mystery forms. And let's not forget sakura KitKats.

Mad skills

As Jay would come to remind us with increasing frequency and (mostly) feigned sanctimony, he was the only one who learned to read Hirakana and Katakana (none of us took on Kanji). While Jay's literacy skills would eventually prove useful--certainly more so than my Rosetta Stone vocabulary, which disproportionately favored animals--he often ended up sounding out things that were either obvious or also written in English. That, too, began with that first vending machine that met us on our way to the fish market.

Jay: Ra... te...

Jay: What do you think that means?
A.: Latte.
Jay: I know that's what the coffee is! What do you think "ra-te" means?


Jay: Oh.

A.: Where are we going?
Jay: That way. Haven't you people learned to read yet?

[Over some sign or ad on the subway or street]

Jay: Look--you can learn to read.

In Gero, where we stayed in a Ryokan. Meaning the four of us shared a room, with a tatami-covered floor, and a bathroom.

Jay was in the bathroom, studying the most advanced toilet of the trip. It took each of us a few minutes to figure out how to flush it. On the plus side, it had buttons for opening and closing both the seat and the lid.

Jay, faintly: "tooo..."
Richard: He's sounding things out: "ka... ga... ra..." It's like "Hooked on Phonics," except it's "Hooked on Katakana."
A., Susan: [Burst out laughing]

A table for four

In the last roundup, I posted a piece about Jamie Oliver's Huntington, WV campaign for healthier schools, where he also talks about parents' role in nutrition--a fascinating and personally relevant topic to me, and one that came up during our trip. Jay was saying that he was raised on all sorts of health food--carob root as a substitute for chocolate, etc. My parents, in contrast, never restricted junk food: they sent me to school (to the horror of my teachers) with sugar cubes for snacks and to summer camp with potato chips and juice boxes for lunch. Ramen was a household staple (who knew my parents were so avant-garde? Tokyoites stand in line for hours for ramen). While my parents were, and are to this day, confused about nutrition, it's not a macro-level confusion (i.e., they think mushrooms are a good source of protein, but they know potato chips aren't a health food). Meals at home were homemade and incorporated a wide variety of fresh ingredients. When I stopped eating meat at 13--and didn't start eating cheese or seafood until I lived in Europe, years later--I had to branch out and learn more about other foods. When I lived in Geneva, I got to really explore the rich world of vegetables, grains and pulses. The more vegetables in my life, the better.

As for carob-raised Jay, he has bagels for breakfast and pizza and cookies for lunch. And grabs impulsively at every piece of crap that comes into view, which, in the world of Japanese convenience stores, is a lot of crap.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you about the four of us and our eating habits, which, if depicted in a (quite complicated) Venn diagram, would show hardly any overlap (least of all between Susan's circle and mine). I could introduce Susan as my polar opposite in almost every way, with utmost respect in every regard--except for that of food: there's a world out there, girlfriend; put down the chicken nuggets and live a little.

Richard would eat just about anything, except things Jay would offer him upon discovering that they were gross. As Richard pointed out, this is hardly a Jasonism; it's not uncommon to hear people say, "this is disgusting--do you want to try it?" Which Jay did quite often during the course of the trip, largely because he was always trying things. And half the time, I'd go ahead and try them (Jay and I like the same foods but not the same desserts, so you never know). The one time I wouldn't even think about it was when he'd bought banana KitKats. Nor would I partake in most of the sake he'd get (especially as, more often then not, the offer was preceded by an assessment of its ickiness).

Susan's range of acceptable foods was considerably more restricted. For one thing, she wouldn't touch seafood; she was squeamish just sitting next to it in some forms. Nor would she eat anything like seaweed, or most green tea dessert products (which Jay and I sought out with utmost enthusiasm). In a nutshell, she wouldn't eat anything "weird," (nor, for example, chocolate).

There's something else about Susan that tended to prolong our hunt for food: she favored indirect communication past the point that is productive for traveling in a group. I can't hold this against her--to her, it was probably polite, and she likely found my directness rude. But this is my blog, so you're getting my perspective: her way didn't work for me. I'm often wandering around a place, looking for a restaurant that would work for people with varying tastes. My work team and I do it all the time when we travel. You have to be able to say "no." Susan would just stand there and pout. It took me a few days to understand that this was southern for "no." But I digress.

Jay's habits and mine overlapped the most. Jay doesn't eat mammals; I don't eat mammals, poultry or, ideally, crap. And even though I can eat crap as a snack or dessert (which I certainly did), I don't want to have to eat crap for a meal. When I do, there are, in Jay's words, (in his case, in reference to what there would be if he didn't get a beer to take on the train back from Nara) gangsta consequences. I do my best to stick to sustainable seafood, and my consumption of seafood in Japan was not without qualms (see Tokyo post). And for the first few days of the trip, I would do my best to observe the dietary restrictions associated with Passover.

As you can imagine, deciding amongst the four of us on where to have dinner or lunch was no small feat. Once you factor in the frequent lack of English-translation menus and the long lines outside many places, you see how finding a place to eat might entail a hunt.

Even on our first night, when it was just Jay and I, we had to hunt; we had limited options because of our location. I was starving, which is not a good state for me. I'm not a whiner: I can tolerate a substantial level of discomfort--cold, tiredness, hunger, boredom... even pain. By the time I say something, I'm not f*ing around, whereas Jay, in his own words, is a whiny bitch. It may sound unflattering, but it's merely a statement of fact--he wouldn't disagree. You'll hear from him the second he leaves his comfort zone in any way (for example, within ten minutes of starting on a hike). Early in the trip, his legs were sore.

Jay: Can you get that thing you get from sitting on a plane for too long, several days later?
A.: Deep Vein Thrombosis? You don't have that.

We had that same conversation again, a day or two later.

Also, his back hurt.

Jay: I may have back cancer.
A.: I don't think you do.

And he was cranky.

Jay: I think I'm clinically depressed.
A.: [Sigh] You don't have depression; you have an attitude problem.
Jay: Just one?

You get the point: Jay didn't hesitate to assert as fact a worst-case scenario. In that context, my proclamations of hunger fell on deaf ears. Before long, I would resort to quantifying my hunger and pain: for example, "I'm okay now, but I anticipate that in thirty minutes, I will be so hungry that I will want to kill someone," or "I can walk for ten more minutes before my feet may fall off."

Our first night in Tokyo, we had decided to stay close to the hotel, where a lot of places were closed. It was still Passover. We went up to one place that looked promising, but ran because a horde of drunk Japanese businessmen scared us away. So when we ended up with convenience store bento, I thought that was a one-time, last-resort kind of meal; when was I ever so wrong? Actually, it may have been technically true, but over time, we came to resort to convenience stores much faster.

There was also the mindcuss of what Jay would dub elaborate plastic food (EPF): many restaurants had a display of, well, elaborate plastic food just outside their door. We would see it and think, "that looks good! we can just point to that!" But when it came down to it, the offerings didn't always match the EPF displays.

Perhaps I was thrown by the anomalous success of lunch on our second day, when we found an amazing soba place, recommended by my LP Tokyo Encounters guidebook, in Asakusa: great, affordable food, listed in an English menu. But that night, back in Shiodome, we would set out on a hunt for food that all of us would eat. I knew we were in trouble when Susan said, "there's always Subway." After walking around for an hour or so, ended up at Ducky Duck (the Japanese Applebee's perhaps; the next day at lunch, we'd end up at the Japanese Chili's). I was okay with it for one night, but troubled by the more enthusiastic appraisal of one of my travel companions: Susan loved it, suggested that we keep it in mind for future dinners. Jay rationalized it as Japanified Italian (true enough), and really, it wasn't bad. And the Chili's-like entity really was Japanese. For me, it was the double-edged sword of eating mediocre food: there was so much amazing food in Tokyo, and we were going to Applebee's instead.

That night (after Chili's for lunch), Susan stayed in, and the three of us went out for sushi. It was very exciting. On his way back to the hotel, Richard got Susan some takeout from McDonald's.

But the next day--I was already on the verge of losing my mind from the sensory overload of Akihabara--"we" opted for crappy mall curry over Japanese food. I was in a mood, I'll spare you the details (at least for now). That evening, after Kabuki, we would wander around Ginza in search of English menus. We were flat-out turned away from one place, and ignored in another (there was just no one there). We were saved by a department store, which, like a convenience store, allowed us to go our separate ways, but still eat together. We each got things that would work for us, and took them back to the hotel lobby. Jay stumbled upon some fried lotus that would prove inimitable.

From then on, department and convenience stores were the rule rather than the exception. Even when we did have proper lunches and dinners, we'd stop at convenience stores for snacks (and in my case, breakfast for the following morning, and in Jay's case, beer and sake). Part of the fun was experimenting--trying different foods and finding out what they were. I learned that, when in doubt, when something is enveloped in something else, that first something is usually rice. And that when something is made of something else, that second something is usually rice. Also, things you don't expect to be sweetened (seaweed), often are. Most green things we tried were green tea, but some were melon. Lots of adzuki paste, which I love--but I didn't find adzuki ice cream, which I also love. Sakura (cherry blossom) was even better.

Some of the chopsticks that accompanied convenience store bento would come with a toothpick, and a warning that the toothpick could hurt your finger, accompanied by a graphic of a toothpick stabbing one in the palm. We thought that was the funniest thing EVER. We were rolling. The only thing funnier was when Jason, in Susan's words, became a statistic, and inadvertently stabbed his thumb with a toothpick, drawing blood. Our fourth day in Tokyo, we hit the convenience store goldmine: a Mini-Stop with a hot bar, not far from Shinjuku Gyoen, where we got all the makings of our proper hanami, (not to be confused with our drive-by hanami in Ueno two days prior):
including the makeshift tarp (i.e., trash bags). Our proper hanami lunch was perfect, and Mini-Stop would be the best we'd find (although there would be other good ones). It wouldn't take long for us to get sick of convenience stores and their barely-varying bentos, but would fall back on them because they were there. We'd tire of walking around, and/or we wouldn't want to devote any more time to the hunt. Sometimes we'd split off into "couples." Richard and Susan have been married for 16 years, but which pair of us do you think acted more like an old married couple? Bickered more, shared more food (Jay and I would often split an ice cream cone, a muffin, just about anything), fought over who was hogging the covers? That last one actually turned out to be the fault of the DMZ--the duvet was caught underneath the pillows we'd set up as borders--but not before we fought about it the morning after. Jay said, "you had the covers, you greedy wh*re!"

I called him on it the next day, whereupon he thought about it and said, "Wow. I haven't called anyone a greedy wh*re in... a week."

He also did take to paying attention to, and accommodating my preferences. Upon coming back to our hotel room, I heard him say, "I've turned off the toilet seat for you." It occurred to me that some astute people who saw us out and about may have thought, "I wonder whether she knows that her boyfriend/husband is gay."

The food highlight was in Gero, in the Ryokan we stayed in. Both dinner and breakfast was amazing.

The keitan-sushi place where Jay and I had lunch just before taking off for the airport--he'd threatened to slit someone else's wrists if he didn't get conveyor-belt sushi--was great as well. Okanamiyaki in Hiroshima was an interesting experience,
but none of us were up for a repeat. There was also the crazy meal our first night in Kyoto, about which Jay may still be bitter (and he may still be getting Facebook communications from the chef), but it was a worthwhile experience.

The (exorbitant) price of fruit and vegetables surprised me, especially because most other foodstuffs were so affordable--especially seafood. It made sense upon thinking about it--and even more so upon reading this excellent piece from Grist on community-supported agriculture in Japan. On a semi-related note, I found heaven when I stumbled upon a macrobiotic grocery store in Tokyo (in Shinjuku). There was something so amazing about walking in and knowing that everything in there fit my dietary restrictions. If there's any "diet" that corresponds to my eating preferences, it's macrobiotic. Not having to worry about hidden animal products was a wonderful thing. I got a very good lentil curry with brown rice (for breakfast the following day), and the guy at the counter gave me sample macrobiotic cookies and miso soup cubes. It was heaven.

You won't be surprised food as a recurring theme throughout my travel notes. Stay tuned.


Our first couple of nights in Tokyo were fitful ones; we wouldn’t sleep past 3:30 AM. We got up, cleaned up and had some coffee and green tea before meeting Richard in the lobby to head over to the Tsukiji fish market. Susan opted to sit, or sleep, that one out. Once we navigated our first challenge--navigating the labyrinthine overpasses of Shiodome to end up on the right side of a series of intersections—we were spit out on ground level, within sight of a vending machine (yes, the vending machine).

Our next challenge was to make it past the tourist-hunting scooters to the tuna auction action. We followed the other sleepwalking gaijin, who led us to tunapalooza. We got in line and inched toward the auction, watching fish-carrying conveyances whiz by in all directions.
Through the windows, we saw some furious tuna bidding, and once we got to walk through the auction areas to the next street over, where tourist traffic police waved people off the street and signs warned tourists not to dilly dally in the street. We were impressed to have gotten through that place with our toes intact.

The hypocrisy of going to the fish market--not to mention consuming seafood in Japan, particularly beyond the call of duty, as I did--was not lost on me. You guys know how strongly I feel about humane, sustainable food, and, unless you have your head up your @$$, you know the Japanese seafood industry is vile. I did it partly out of necessity (it was either fish or meat) and partly because it's an essential aspect of the culture (is that a cop-out? it's not like I'd eat beef in Argentina).

Anyway, after a Japanese breakfast back at the hotel, we set out for a walk through Ginza and to the grounds of the Imperial Palace. From there, we subwayed to Asakusa and walked around the neighborhood. There were lines outside some restaurants and the smell of burnt tofu was in the air (I know it well). We had a tasty soba lunch (not quite Pareve, but close enough at that point) before proceeding to Senso-ji, making sure to get some of the healing smoke on our wary selves. Unless I’m confused (which is not unlikely), the Buddha in Senso-ji is the oldest in Tokyo.

We then headed to Ueno park, which, you’ll recall, was bananas on steroids. Everyone and her grandmother had come to Ueno for hanami. The place was covered with blue tarps, which, in turn, were covered with all kinds of people, foodstuffs, drinks, and distractions. We saw one electric keyboard, and many a boardgame. We explored Ueno park, gawking at the hanami-ers, and got our first green-tea ice creams of the trip. This constituted our “drive-by hanami,” to be followed by proper hanami at a later time. We emerged by the zoo and pond, from where we passed a graphic sex shop on our way to Muji (a department store). At Muji, Jay got a whole bunch of crap, including strawberry cookies that ended up tasting like Cap'n Crunch, and I got the perfect blogger tool: a pocket-sized, key-ringed notepad. We also stopped into a Uniqlo and an anime-type shop, which was full of cuss nobody needed, like cell phone charms. And sparkly stickers with which to, in Richard’s words, bedazzle one’s phone. [Any of you who take issue with my split infinitive can suck it].

We gave ourselves some time to decompress at the hotel before meeting up for dinner, i.e. setting out on a hunt in one of the malls near our hotel. You know how sometimes in malls in the U.S., you'll see a car on display for some promotion or other? Can you guess what was on display in this mall? Wait for it... a toilet. A talking one, no less. Because it's not like Japan makes cars, or anything. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera on me, but Richard videotaped the uber-high-tech toilet, so hopefully he'll share the video.

Anyway, we circled, and circled, and circled, until I couldn’t take it anymore. It’s not that there weren’t many restaurants; it’s that their menus were all in Kanji, and/or they had long lines, and/or they specialized in soba, which we’d had for lunch. And there was the issue of our practically mutually exclusive food preferences. Which was how we ended up at Ducky Duck, or what I call Japanese Applebee’s.

We popped by AM/PM for snacks/dessert/sake/beer before heading to the hotel. Jay tried kushidango—rice balls on a toothpick, covered in sweetened soy sauce—for the first and last time, as well as a Crunky bar. I had yet to jump on the snack-bandwagon, but it didn’t take long. The next morning, on the way to Kamakura to see the Giant Buddha, I found heaven in an ice cream vending machine. Shortly thereafter, we’d stumble upon our first 100 Yen store—which largely carries the same exact cuss as dollar stores here—where I got some wasabi peas. None of this ruined my appetite for where we ended up having lunch, after circling for too long in search of something acceptable to all of us. Someone dubbed it the Japanese Chili’s, which isn’t far off, but I think it’s actually called Rufuron, based on my credit card bill.

You may be wondering what brought us to Kawasaki, as it’s not a very touristy place--at least not the 364 days of the year when it is not the site of Kanamara Matsuri (the name is all the information you’ll get from me, because this is a family blog). Actually, Kawasaki’s non-tourist-attraction status made it all the more fascinating. On our way to and from Chili’s, we passed bingo in the outdoor foyer of the mall. Between the mall and the metro, we got our first exposure to Japanese tissue-pack marketing (and collected a year’s supply of tissue packs). Later, on the train to the Matsuri, we noticed what some of them were advertising, and understood why some of the tissue pack distributors were more interested in Richard and Jason and others in Susan and me. Richard was glad to finally get some “man tissues” (and later, Jay, subconsciously or not, asked me for some “man tissue”). I know I said this was a family blog, but who am I kidding? Even so, I can't get into what we saw at Kanamara Matsuri; suffice to say, we saw plenty.

Before heading back to Tokyo, we stopped into, and stayed too long, in my humble opinion, an electronics store, and then stood in line for Krispy Kreme (or, as Jay more accurately describes it, Krusty Krack). Richard tried a soy donut; I tried nothing (even if it weren't Passover, I'd take a pass on Krusty Krack), apart from a bite of the free sample donut I got just for being in line. I had to find out if they were the same as the ones here. So Jay got my sample, and his sample, and two more donuts.

We returned to Tokyo, exhausted, and sat in the lobby figuring out where to eat. That’s when I lost Wendy’s phrasebook, which was quite useful, not just for dealing with Jay (“You’ve had one too many!” “You’re cut off!”). It must have slipped under the sofa cushion, or something, and I didn’t notice it gone until the next day, when it was too late. Anyway, that was the night Susan recused herself from dinner, which freed us to have sushi. We ventured out to Shimbashi for an amazing meal and a glimpse of aboveground Tokyo at night (it was the first we’d emerged from the underground passageways between Shimbashi and Shiodome, and the malls that popped up in between). It was exciting. I almost wanted to walk around, except my feet were about to fall off.

We would have to move hotels the following day, and we weren’t sure how or when--although we were sure we wanted to avoid rush hour. We’d agreed beforehand, upon consultation with various people who knew Tokyo well, that Shiodome was ideal for our first few days, but we’d want to move on to other places, like Shinkjuku. We checked out, left our luggage with the hotel, and chatted in the lobby.

A.: How’d you sleep?
Richard: Not bad. We’ve been so tired, we were knocked out. You?
A.: Not too bad, except this bi&ch kept hogging the covers.
Jay, sweetly: This kitty [indicating a Maneki Neko, or Japanese fortune cat, with one hand], not this kitty [indicating a catty claw with the other].

It was raining, would rain all day. We wanted to hit up Kabuki-za at some point, as the historic building would be torn down the next month. I wanted to hang out in the area until the first show, but the other three wanted to check out Akihabara, and Richard could get a camera battery charger there, so off we went. And stayed, past the point where I would lose my mind.

My instinct is to refer to Akihabara as “Electric Avenue,” which would give away my age. I believe the correct moniker is Electric Town. In any case, in case you haven’t figured it out, it’s all about the electronics (although there’s some anime, and plenty of Hello Kitty paraphernalia). And those electronics do blare. By the end of the trip, we’d all get sick of things that talk to you—elevators, vending machines, what have you. But three days in, I was already overwhelmed by electronics blaring at me. The others were, however, apparently enjoying themselves.

Now, in all seriousness, I prefer not to give my readers Too Much Information, but in this case I have no choice. I need you to understand why that Monday had all the ingredients for the perfect storm of a meltdown (or two): rain, compounded exhaustion due to jetlag and poor sleep, crappy food for lunch, hours of blaring electronics, and PMS. I was ecstatic when I understood that the latter was involved, because I’d been wondering up until then, other factors notwithstanding, whether my mother was right and I really wasn’t fit to interact with people (note: my mother’s antics in and of themselves equal several ingredients of the perfect storm of a meltdown).

Anyway, in Akihabara, electronics blared all around us. Richard found his charger, but we kept shopping. And the TVs and stereos kept blaring. I found myself in front of a wall of Hello Kitty cuss, and e-mailed Allen to ask whether he wanted anything (his response: "Only if there's something really inappropriate, like a Hello Kitty meat cleaver or Hello Kitty condom dispenser." I turned around, and my friends had disappeared. It took twenty minutes to find them, on another floor. They said they’d looked for me everywhere (except, apparently, at the Hello Kitty wall where they’d left me). Then, we decided to finally leave that place and find lunch. But again, I turned around and everyone was gone (this precipitated my meltdowns, so it wasn’t me). I waited at the door for a very long time, while TVs blared. Finally, Jay came by—he didn’t know where the others were. Eventually, they emerged.

We headed to the mall with the anime center. Susan loves anime and manga. I tolerate it, because it's cultural, like the fish market. The Japanese excel in Cute Power, and even have an anime ambassador. Bhutan has its Gross National Happiness, Japan has its Gross National Cool, of which Cute is an integral part. "Cute" was the first Japanese word Susan learned, and the one I heard her use most often. Her interest in Japan was born out of her love for Hello Kitty. She sported a Hello Kitty suitcase, and had Hello Kitty Wellies at home. It's not that I don't appreciate 'cute;' in fact, I often tell Gracie, 'good thing you're cute, or who knows why anyone would keep you around.' But I digress.

Before heading to the anime center, we decided it was time for lunch.

A.: Look, it’s a Japanese place that has cooked food, including chicken.
Richard, Susan: This curry place looks interesting.

The curry place was disgusting. Not only that, but their only pescetarian option didn't provide enough food (it was basically rice and curry sauce). I was hungry again almost as soon as we left.

The anime center was pretty cool, but I was nonetheless ecstatic when we left Akihabara. The subway spit us out directly in front of Kabuki-za. Where we found out that the next show was sold out, and that the following one would end just in time for us to move hotels during Tokyo’s rush hour. And we were just in time to stand in line for an hour and a half for it. Thus, meltdown #1:

A.: I knew this was going to happen. I just knew it. We could have thought of this when we decided to dilly-dally in Akihabara for hours.
Jay: A little passive-aggression?
A.: Give me some credit: that was open aggression.
Richard: What’s the point?
A.: Well, what are we going to do? If we’re going to go, we need to get in line.

So we did. I was still hungry. I think I accepted some junk food from Jay to tide me over, although maybe at that point I was still resisting. It’s all a blur.

We waited, as the crowds grew, and as the audience of the previous show emerged and practically stampeded us, including several groups of elderly Japanese women. It was wild. The wait was just as “cultural” as the show.

Did I mention that by the time we got in line, it was for standing room only? So after standing in line, we stood at Kabuki (we lasted about half an hour, which is about as much Kabuki as one needs). It was pretty cool (and I’m sure it would have been cooler had I brought my glasses), and I have to hand it to Susan: we’d joked about how we’d make up our own plot to explain what we saw, but she effectively figured out the actual plot (which Jason read off a cheat sheet, over the shoulder of another audience member the next row over). It was impressive.

After Kabuki, we had dessert (well, it was still Passover, so they had dessert) and walked around Ginza some more, in a fruitless search for food. We popped into a pub recommended by my guidebook, but were told they only had Japanese menus. So we walked, and we walked, and we walked. Finally, we found a department store, where we each got our own thing and took it back to the hotel lobby. The department store was fascinating. I'd seen similar food counters on the basement floor of stores in China, but those were mostly Walmart and Carrefour. I'm not suggesting China lacks for high-end department stores; I'm merely telling you that I didn't see them. Anyway, we went from counter to counter, checking out the offerings, as vendors greeted us with cries of "irashaimase!" (which was often shortened to "shimase!" In the morning, it would be a mix of "shimase!" and "ohayo gozaimas!" (good morning), which would sound like just "gozaimas!"

Anyway, it was dark by the time we got our stuff and hauled it to Shinjuku. The hotel was supposed to be right by the station, but the station has a gazillion exits (though less than the bajillion of Tokyo station). I was confused about which exit we’d taken. And tired. And PMSy. According to the map, we needed to walk north. Jay was recalcitrant. I showed him the map and insisted. Then, I turned around, and saw that he was walking the other way. Meltdown #2.

A.: Unless I’m a f*ing idiot, the hotel is that way, so put down the f*ing blackberry.
Jay: The hotel is right there, and that’s uncalled for.
A.: No it isn’t, and what’s uncalled for?
Jay: You’re calling me a f*ing idiot.
A.: I’m calling myself a f*ing idiot because you’re implying that I can’t read a map.
Jay: That’s the hotel.
A.: How do you know?
Jay: Because I can read. And I am so done.

He had a point. I conceded it. R&S looked at me like I was nuts, which I was. But Jay and I were an old married couple, after all. We'd been waking up early and chatting in bed (although, mercifully, we'd get our own beds in this new hotel, and they were worth every penny), and we'd talk it over. You know the rule: don't go to bed mad.

The hotel lobby was on the 20th floor. This was a very nice hotel, and it wasn’t expensive. We checked in, headed to our room on the 24th floor, with windows spanning most of one wall and a guide sheet to identify landmarks.

The toilet was even more high-tech, and had an additional warning: take care not to burn your butt if you sit too long:

The next day, in Shibuya--we decided to brave rush hour and take the subway there--we’d walk past the following sign:
We understood why you’d need one. When we’d get in that afternoon, we’d hear a noise.

Jay: The toilet’s rebooting.
A.: That thing is more high-tech than my phone. It has a brain of its own.
Jay: It probably has five microprocessors.

We walked from Shibuya to Harajuku, to the Meiji Shrine and the gardens in the park, and then to Shinjuku Gyoen (by way of Mini Stop, of course). I already told you about our picture-perfect (and food-perfect) proper hanami. We had a lovely walk through the park afterward.

We headed back to the hotel, stopping at the train station to make reservations for the rest of our trip. The reservation people were very patient with us. Then we split off until dinner--R&S to the Hello Kitty store in Ginza, Jay and I to the top of the Metropolitan Building for a sunset view of the city. We found a bank, first, and came out the other side of the subway, where I smelled crepes. Passover had come and gone, and I love a crepe. Jay smelled it, too. But we lost the scent... and settled for a convenience store. We both got ice cream (Jay got adzuki; I think I got chocolate). As soon as we left the store, I saw that we were outside a Macrobiotic Store, which, as I've told you, was heaven. The previous evening, we'd hunted for snacks/breakfast (not included at this hotel), and I got what I thought was an omelet (in a convenience store bento box). I mean, it was an omelet, with something wrapped inside, which I hoped was not meat. We ran into R&S in the lobby on our way back, discussed our respective finds. The following morning, Susan asked what was inside my omelet--she really hoped it wasn't meat, too (I'm sure she would have been, anyway, because she's such a nice person, but I believe she had come to appreciate at that point that we all had an interest in ensuring that I did not starve). I told her that I was so caught up in hoping that that something wasn't meat that I neglected to hope that it wasn't rice, which, of course, it was. But at least I could/would eat rice, even if I didn't want to.

By that time, I realized I'd have to snack more for the sake of group harmony. I had very little control over mealtimes--even though we would all get hungry around the same time, it took us forever to agree on something, and my meals were often less filling than the others', so I'd need food more urgently. This epiphany helped convince me to get over myself and let more junk food into my life, at least for the duration of the trip. My food politics were on vacation with regard to humane seafood, so I may as well have given them a rest in terms of whole foods as well.

Anyway, our last night in Tokyo, Jay managed to resist the Krusty Krack between the hotel and the station/mall where we were meeting R&S for dinner and would have a passable, but forgettable meal. We had to--well, opted to--go through a department store to get back to the hotel. The shopping was still full swing.

Jay: It's amazing, but the Japanese consume more than we do.
A.: I'm amazed they've not consumed themselves out of their lost decade.
Jay: I studied this at some point... it's complicated.
A.: It's impressive.

We'd visit many more department stores in the course of the trip, and we'd continue to be awed at the level of consumption.


Having experienced lesser rush hour to get to Shibuya, we no longer feared the white-gloved subway pushers and were willing to brave slightly crazier rush hour to get to Tokyo Station, from where we’d leave for Kyoto. But not before we checked out the vending machines and shopped for bento. The train ride was all the more exciting for the various snacks and desserts we’d brought along. Jay shared green tea macarons, and sakura ones as well. He’d gotten Susan hooked on macarons but I remained aloof. Unless they were really amazing, they were just okay, and much too sweet.

I don’t remember whether it was that morning or the one before when Richard coined the term(s) Gaijin Power/Power of Gaijin (POG). Okay, someone tell me why the cuss MS Word isn’t underlining “gaijin.” Really? But I digress. According to the POG concept, our gaijin factor granted us a certain amount of leeway in matters of culture and etiquette. For example: Who do those people think they are, taking their luggage on the subway during rush hour? Well, they’re gaijin; they don’t know any better.

Jay often doubted the Power of Gaijin.
Jay: We can’t eat while walking down the street! We’re going to get exported!
A.: Exported?
Jay: That’s right. They’re going to put a stamp on my butt and send me home.

He came around, though, and started suggesting that we use our POG to get away with things we weren’t sure about.

My guidebook’s introduction to Kyoto was not unlike the one it offered for other places: it’s quite beautiful, but that won’t be immediately obvious. You have to find the beautiful parts. Indeed, Kyoto was fugly, except where it wasn’t.

I was—surprise!—really excited about food in Kyoto. The guidebook just made it sound better and better: menus in English! Credit cards accepted! All kinds of food, everywhere! And a food market that we absolutely must check out! How was no one else excited by that? Jay grudgingly agreed that he would accompany me there, as a huge favor.

We would get into Kyoto early afternoon, and as we were staying in a temple complex rather than a hotel, we weren’t comfortable showing up early and asking them to watch our stuff, so we thought we’d amuse ourselves around Kyoto Station. Except it was quite cold and windy when we arrived, and the (historic) station building was open-air. The first thing that caught our eye were these bizarre, antlered creatures on display all over the station. Were they demons? Some sort of anime character? We would find out later that this was Sento-kun, the mascot for the anniversary of Nara. Sento-Kun represents—I cuss you not—a Buddhist child monk with a rack of deer antlers sprouting from his head, in honor of Nara’s Buddhist history and its wild deer (see Jay’s sake-inspired haiku).

Even within the confines of Kyoto Station, we managed to find ourselves in a protracted hunt for food. We ended up at Isetan, the local…wait for it… department store. I loved it. So much to choose from, so much variety in sashimi, seaweed, etc. I was spoiled for choice for the first time on the trip. We each got our own thing and ghetto-picnicked in a corner of the station. Later, we walked around and popped into every other convenience store and vending corner. Eventually, we took the train out to NW Kyoto and walked to the temple complex, which were so peaceful and beautiful. We checked in, settled in. Jay and I went for a walk and attempted to recon dinner, with particular attention to a restaurant that the Vice Abbot recommended. Instead, we got weirded out by the neighborhood, and chased out of a convenience store. We weren’t sure why. Hypotheses include: they don’t serve hairy barbarians; or we were holding a (vending machine) bottle of tea. But that seems odd. In any case, we returned to the guesthouse to retrieve R&S, and the four of us set out for Raku Raku. When we walked in, we thought we’d come to the wrong place, or at least gone in the back door, because there was a kitchen, and a guy at his computer, eating rice. It was between 6:30 and 7pm, at which time, in our experience, people were already lining up outside restaurants. In any case, we were in the right place. The guy invited us in, made us dinner as we sat just outside his galley kitchen. There was no English menu from which to order, so he improvised. We were a bit concerned, but it was fascinating to watch. He made a massive hot pot, the contents of which we consumed incorrectly in spite of his instructions (POG, I tell you). We were supposed to dip into the vinegar-like mixture, not turn it into a soup. In any case, it was really good. Afterward, there was dessert, which included our first introduction to sakuramochi, which I just loved. I know it’s rice, but it tastes like cherry blossom. Afterward, he took our pictures for his facebook page. Jay was somewhat weirded out but along for the ride. Until dude charged us 100k yen, or just over $25 each. Which did seem like a lot—we’d been paying a lot less for dinner up until then (to my surprise). Of course, we’d been eating at convenience stores and Ducky Duck. Thinking more about it—I mean, I initially just didn’t care that much even though it did seem like a lot for what it was, because these things happen when you travel, and it’s not like any of us couldn’t get over a $25 dinner—but we were biased toward what things cost here, i.e. vegetables don’t cost a lot in the States, but they’re quite expensive in the States. Richard phrased it well: think about how much you pay for a bento box, and then think about the ingredients that went into this meal compared to what goes into one of those. I, personally, was thrilled to not have had any rice apart from that in the sakuramochi. Besides, it was a great experience (you know what says about us—we’re all about authenticity). I was thrilled to have had something warming, as it was quite chilly out. When we left the restaurant, we went in search of… wait for it… a convenience store. Susan hadn’t eaten the hot pot, had found it too fishy. And I wanted to get breakfast for the next morning. And Jason never didn’t want to shop for snacks. We found one just down the road, where the friendly people didn’t chase out the gaijin. Susan found dinner, I found a bento breakfast, and Jay and Richard found sake and beer. Jay and I also got a green tea ice cream to share. It was tasty.

The next day—our first full day in Kyoto, which happened to fall on the anniversary of Buddha's birthday—we set out for some of the World Heritage Site temples in the area, starting with Ryoanji. Jay and I took bikes—they were free with the temple stay—and Richard and Susan walked. This was a perfect arrangement, because it gave the two of us time for vending machines. We stopped at one for hot coffee/tea, took some pictures, looked for trash/recycling, and arrived at Ryoanji ready to go.

I now realize I’ve neglected to let you in on two important undercurrents of the trip: Jay’s persistent search for rubbish bins/recycling, and his predilection for haikus. Since Jay’s a vending machine wh*re (and snack wh*ore), he was always looking for a place to throw out wrappers and recycle cans, and trash cans, in particular, were hard to come by. We don’t know why—they were just few and far between. At one point—in Nara—I walked around for over a mile with our lunch trash in my hand. It was so bad that we switched off carrying it.

But that’s not as interesting as Jay and his haikus. From the first day, starting with the Imperial Palace, Jay was composing haikus, one after another, and posting them to his Facebook page. They were quite good, actually. Later, in Kyoto, he expressed (quasi-feigned) concern that his prolificacy in haikus was giving him away. Which brings up another, more important issue: Jay had never come out to Richard and Susan.

I hadn’t known that when I signed on to the trip. I just kind of figured that Jay was out. This complicated things: I certainly didn’t want to out him, and he didn’t want R&S to think we were an item. He thought they’d take issue with our unmarried cohabitation. I imagine the latter concern was alleviated almost immediately: you didn’t have to spend much time with us to see that we would sooner strangle one another than sleep together. The former issue was more fraught, even though Jay tried to mitigate it from the day we got to Tokyo.

Jay: I don’t care if you out me.
A.: I don’t want to out you. It’s not up to me to out you, especially not to your friends.
Jay: I’m just saying, don’t worry about letting anything slip, because I don’t care.

Except when I did let something slip—i.e. our mutual affection for Gael Garcia Bernal—Jay harped on it.

Jay: Our mutual crush?
A.: I didn’t mean it that way. I meant it like, I might have a girl crush on Madonna, or something. I mean, before she got gross.
Jay: Still.
A.: You said you didn’t care.
Jay: I don’t care.
A.: Besides, you’ve done a lot more to give yourself away.
Jay: Like what?
A.: Like being yourself… like talking like a fourteen year old girl, and saying that things are hot. And saying “whatev,” which is annoying as well as gay. It’s like you can’t be bothered to say the whole word.
Jay: Whatev.
A.: Besides, they don’t care. Did you not hear them going on affectionately about Neil Patrick Harris.

Which, in turn, brings up another WTF issue that came up earlier, in Tokyo:

Jay: NPH sings?
A.: What? Are you F*ING SERIOUS?? Of course NPH sings!

But I digress.

Jay: I wish they’d just know.
A.: But they’re not going to say anything until you do. You’d just be doing them a favor by saying it, even if they do know.

Jay, with some chagrin: Of course they know I’m gay! Who else writes haikus all the time?
A.: Nothing gay about haikus. And I repeat, in any case, that’s hardly the gayest thing you’ve said or done.
Jay: Really? Like what?
A.: Like being late all the time because you’re forever putting stuff in your hair. Have you noticed that you’re the only one who’s asked how your hair looks? And, I repeat, you could do everyone a favor and stop deeming things “hot.”

Jay: I think they know. Susan's taken to asking me for fashion advice.
A.: Who can blame her?

One variation on this conversation or another would come up from time to time. But let’s get back to the temples of Kyoto.

Martha warned me that it would be very easy to get shrined out in Kyoto. I was already a little shrined out from Tokyo—i.e., of the “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” mindset. This went for temples, too. What made the various sites worthwhile, though, were the grounds, rather than the temples themselves (although the temple across from which we stayed was amazing). We didn’t plan to hit a bunch of temples in one day, but once we took in the uber-scenic Ryoanji, we headed over to Ninna-ji. And found an ice cream vending machine in the parking lot. By the time we’d discussed and decided on a flavor, R&S had arrived.

After Ninna-ji, we returned the bikes to the temple and took the train to Nijo. Between the station and the castle, there was a Mos Burger, and we’d all been wanting to try it (I know), but we were all too full—so much so that didn’t buy anything from vending machines or convenience stores (note that I didn’t say we didn’t stop at or into any).

We all had our favorite vending machine wares: Susan went for the grape juice, Jay the lattes, I the black coffee or green tea, and Richard whatever most resembled a coke (which would sometimes be Coke). Jay would sometimes get an (unfortunately named) energy drink, such as Pocari Sweat. I don’t think he ever did try Bikkle.

A.: Really?
Jay: It’s like Gatorade.
A.: It’s got electrolytes. It’s what plants crave.


A.: Really?
Jay: What?
A.: Do you not know that high fructose corn syrup is of the devil?
Jay: Whatev.

Anyway, inside Nijo castle, we walked on the Nightingale floors, which squeak by design to give away intruders. The castle's grounds and gardens were amazing.

You'll spot geishas from time to time all over Kyoto.

From Nijo, we managed to resist the allure of Mos Burger, and walked straight to the bus stop and boarded a bus to Ginkakuji. On the way up the hill to the temple grounds, we did brake for ice cream—green tea ice cream sandwiches, in actual freshly baked bread. It was tasty. Ginkakuji was beautiful, particularly the view from the “mountain.” I mean, it’s a real mountain, but the mountain path is paved, so it felt more like an amusement park mountain, with a great view. The woman walking/hiking ahead of us was hiking in a skirt and heels.
Which brings us to another critical topic: Japanese women are stylish. I think I voiced that observation every day, if not several times a day. Once in a while, I’d follow it up with “…but you also need a certain body type to pull off that look--you can’t do it with curves.” I know I said it in the bamboo forest outside Tenryu-ji.

Jay: They spend a lot of money on clothes. Chad says that Japanese women live with their families until they marry, so they have a lot of disposable income for clothes.
A.: I couldn’t pull off the look, even if I bought the clothes.
Jay: Well, if I may be frank, it’s also your carriage and demeanor.
A.: My carriage and demeanor?
Jay: I shouldn’t have said anything.
A.: That’s not what I meant—I just want to know more. Besides, I told you you had bad posture.

I did, and he did. I had plenty of opportunity to notice it, because he kept jutting ahead of everyone in the subway in Tokyo, so I was constantly looking for him, or at him so as not to get lost. He wasn’t standing up straight, and it didn’t look good, so I knew he’d want to know. He took it well, and also improved his posture.

I pressed for what he meant by “carriage and demeanor,” forgetting that it was part of a line from “Steel Magnolias.” It wasn’t out of defensiveness; I really was curious.

Jay: It’s the whole look, not just the clothes. You don’t wear makeup…
A.: No, and I’m not about to start.
Jay: I’m not saying you should. But that’s what I mean—that’s not who you are. That look isn’t who you are.
A.: No, but I can aspire to a somewhat higher level of elegance, no?

We went around in circles, perhaps because Jay had regretted being so straightforward. But I really was curious, not upset. I'm one of those rare women who only asks if she looks fat when she genuinely wants to know. You may wonder, then, what the problem is with my mother. Nuanced,v perhaps, but the issue is, when I don't ask, I don't want to hear it, much less on repeat.

A.: I'm not that bad. I only have you hold the nicest handbags.

It’s true. Like a good husband, Jay dutifully held my handbag when I ran into the washroom, and it suited him.

But I digress. Jay does have a point—my aesthetic is rolled-out-of-bed-chic, which is substantially lower maintenance than that of the Japanese women whose look caught my eye. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t dye my hair, not even to cover the gray. I feel no need to look like anyone else, even though, over the years, well meaning friends and acquaintances have suggested that I’d look better with lighter hair and younger without a gray streak. Recently—maybe with Pauline Porizkova’s rant--I’ve come to think it’s a cultural thing. But Jay's point doesn't invalidate my point: 'whole look' aside, Japanese women tend to be very thin, and this gives them much more leeway. The less curvy you are, the easier it is to pull off edgy fashions, or even most layered looks.

Anyway, we came down from the mountain and neared the temple and the pond at its feet, on which a crane had positioned itself on a rock. It was standing so still, and looked so appropriate to its surroundings, that we thought it was a statue, until it moved. Later, it would fly atop the temple and approach its not-real counterpart.

We left Ginkaku-ji by way of Tetsugaku no michi, or Philosopher’s Path. At this point, we were, as far as we were concerned, done with sakura. Until we saw the sakura on Tetsugaku no michi. We were speechless. It was perfect.

We walked the path, taking pictures at every step. At the other end, there was a handy map to direct us to the nearest bus stop, where we could hop on a bus to the city. The bus took us through downtown, which was bustling. We stepped out at the train station. And hunted for food, settling for an Italian place on the top floor of Isetan. I was in no position to prolong the hunt--after all that walking and standing, our feet were feeling it.

My feet still hurt the next morning.

A.: My feet are killing me. I could use a foot massage; where's RM when I need him?
Jay: Hah. I'm surprised you thought of that.
A.: Sadly, it's going to take a while to purge the memories.

We had an hour or so before the zen meditation class later that morning. The class, at Shunkoin Temple, where we were staying, and temple tour that followed it, were one of the highlights of the trip. The inside of the temple was amazing—click on the sidebar links to see the sliding door panels. The Vice Abbot explained that the core concept of zen was focusing on the present, rather than the past or the future. Every day was a new day.

Following the tea (and cookie) ceremony that followed the meditation session and tour, we split up—R&S went downtown, as Susan needed a less painful pair of shoes, and Jay and I headed to Tenryu-ji, which—no surprise—was amazing. We wanted to take advantage of our two-ness to have a proper Japanese lunch, but we were tired and hungry, and didn’t want to dally, so convenience store bento it was. It was pretty good, although Jay discovered that he didn’t like pickled sakura and I learned that those tofu-like things were really tofu-covered rice squares.

We took the train to Nijo, from where we took the subway downtown, and found vending machine ice cream before we emerged. We ambled through the covered shopping arcades, popped into a dollar store
—where Jay discovered (nasty) packaged, adjuki-filled mini donuts; walked through the famed food market—which was bananas; and walked toward the river to get to Kiyumizu. Which was okay. I don’t know whether I would have liked it more had it not been bananas on steroids, and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t amazing. We were definitely getting templed out. Afterward, we stumbled around in search of Gion, and finally found it.
My guidebook had suggested that one street there was perhaps the most scenic in Asia. Eh. I mean, it was scenic. We touched base with R&S about dinner—they’d found an all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ place; Jay suggested we each do our own thing. So he and I walked around the most expensive part of Kyoto before we realized that our best bet was depatoo fare. I don’t remember which department store it was, but we took our stuff to the river for night hanami. It was beautiful.

The next day, we were switching “hotels.” We would be taking off early the following day for Hiroshima, so we’d picked a hotel near the station for our last night in Kyoto. Besides, the temple was an amazing experience—and I slept quite well there, perhaps largely because Jay and I each had our own futon—but it would be good to have a bathroom and shower next to the room without having to go outside. In case you were wondering, the bathrooms at the temple were outdoor/campground-like bathrooms. But the toilets had control panels.

Anyway, before checking out of the temple, Jay and I checked out Kinkaku-ji while R&S went to Tenryu-ji. There wasn’t much to do but walk around Kinkaku-ji. It was pretty, and worth a visit, and I can’t say it was underwhelming—I mean, it was amazing—but you saw it and got the point. The bike ride over was interesting, for sure. Afterward, we were—surprise!—hungry, so Jason google-mapped on his crackberry to see whether there was a Mos Burger nearby, and off we went. Except it wouldn’t open for another fifteen minutes. We parked our bikes and walked around the neighborhood.

Jay: There’s a McDonald’s.
A.: I’ll let you know when I’m that hungry, which would be never.

It’s true. Even that first night in Tokyo, when I was starving, McDonald’s was not an option.

Jay: Do you want me to get something vegetarian there, and tell you it was from somewhere else?
A.: No, thank you.
Jay: Ooh! Vending machine!

We got coffee. Mos Burger opened at 11.

It was… interesting. The burgers were small, i.e. just enough. We both got shrimp burgers, which were okay (would have been better not drenched in tartar sauce, but that request, had we known to make it, would have exceeded our meager Japanese abilities). Jay got onion rings, and I got a tea/dessert set. The dessert didn’t really have any flavor, which was disappointing, especially because it was green. Anyway, having checked that box, we biked back to the temple.

Have I told you how there’s no rhyme or reason to the paths the Japanese take? In the subway, there are arrows that indicate on which side to walk up and on which side to walk down, but people just walk in all directions, everywhere. In Kyoto, whose subway is pathetic and bikes are a great way to get around, there are designated bike paths on many sidewalks… but people walk on the bike side and ride on the pedestrian side.

In any case, we returned to the temple safely, checked out, and hauled our crap to the new hotel, where it was still too early to check in. We left our stuff and split off again. I’ll tell you about Jay’s and my afternoon in Nara in another post.

On the way back, Jay got an e-mail from Japanican, which he’d used to book the hotel, indicating drama: it turned out that he’d inadvertently booked smoking rooms (that’s the default), and that R&S, having found theirs intolerable, checked out and were rebooked in the one available non-smoking room in the area, which was luckily a few doors down from our hotel. We were worried. Our room wasn’t too bad, though—unless we turned on the AC, which blew smoky air into the room. So we slept with the window open. It was fine.

That night, before crashing, we made a point of having dinner together. We found a place, called Donguri, that had English (or, as it turned out, Engrish) menus and foods that were acceptable to all of us. There was a wait, but it was fine (I’d found affordable apples in Nara, and had one before we set out on the hunt for dinner). And while those guys waited and looked over the menu, I popped into the convenience store for my bento breakfast, and stuck it in the fridge in our room. The food was great—although I was dismayed that they’d brought me a green tea cocktail, in response to my drink order of ‘green tea,’ rather than green tea. It was sweet and disgusting. Like, sweeter than green tea ice cream. I managed to unload most of it on Jay. The menu was amazing! How I wish they had it in Engrish on their website, because the pictures we took were lost with Jay’s blackberry. It was also the full-out Japanese dinner experience: take off your shoes, get your food served on the hot grill thing in front of you, overhear the uproarious laughter or the partiers in the adjacent booths. We had a call button to call our waitress. It was cool.

Stay tuned for Nara.