Month: September 2017

An American in Japan Part II | Transport

While a tourist in Japan can take many different forms of transportation, some are more entertaining than others.

Arriving at Tokyo Haneda Airport, I board the first train toward the upscale Ginza shopping district via the Keikyu-Kuko Rapid-Limited Express.

The first thing that can be noted of Japanese trains is how clean and efficient they are, especially compared to the train systems of major American cities like Chicago or New York. There is no yelling, or busking, or sounds of any kind. In fact, as far as I can tell, no one speaks.

Our particular group is made up of my extended family, including in-laws, children, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Some of us talk for a living. Some of us have ADHD. Needless to say we have extreme difficulty blending in with the silence around us. We are almost always the loudest people on the train.

Navigating trains can be tricky. It can be made trickier when you do not plan your route in advance and it’s raining. We wander the streets of the tony Ginza district without umbrellas for what feels like hours trying to find our hotel. My hair is soaked. My glasses are fogged. One man laughs at us and takes pictures. I imagine us as unwitting stars of Japan’s Funniest Home Videos, or at least a series of internet memes.

One of the best ways to see Tokyo and the surrounding area is by bus. After drying off and resting, we take the Hato Bus Tour to Mount Fuji. The expedition promises ten hours of delightful bus riding. This is after twelve hours of delightful plane riding, followed by three hours of delightful train riding for the previous two days.

Fortunately the jet lag is not severe and the host of our bus tour, Fumi, is full of interesting facts about Japan. Since there is nothing else to do but look out the window and listen, I learn a lot.

Transportation

En route to Mt. Fuji, Fumi provides us with key statistics on the current labor shortage, describing Japan as a “super-aging society.” Twenty-five percent of the population is elderly. Also, the birthrate before WWII was 4.3, whereas now, it is 1.4.

I also learn that Mt. Fuji has been worshipped since ancient times as a Kami for those who practice Shintoism, one of the two major religions in Japan.

Fumi also discusses early Japanese ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai, known for immortalizing Mt. Fuji in famed woodblock prints. One of Hokusai’s most popular works is the Great Wave Off Kanagawa. We learn this while driving through the prefecture of Kanagawa. I glance nervously eastward searching for any evidence of an incoming tsunami. I see mostly mist, rice paddies, and green rolling hills.

Reaching Mt. Fuji, we are told that we will not be able to see the mountain today because of the fog. I close my eyes and imagine Hokusai’s Mt. Fuji, its peak just visible beyond the great wave. A horse neighs. My green tea ice cream melts. I feel full of emotion, standing on an invisible mountain, in a faraway land.

On the way back to Tokyo on the super-fast Shinkansen bullet train, I catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, just a blur out my window.

Sometimes the destination is the journey.

Note: The picture associated with the blog is some type of cart that was parked at the 5th station of Mt. Fuji. There were horses nearby which, I assume, are used to pull the cart. 

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An American in Japan Part I | Cover Me

A foreigner visits a hotel pool in Japan and learns a lesson in modesty and skin care.

 

The sun beats down on my head as I scan the pool area of the Nagahama Royal Hotel seeking shade. It costs 1,000 yen to enter the premises even though I am a hotel guest. Perhaps this is an even trade for the customary no-tipping practice in Japan.

I choose a white plastic chair under a tree and sit down before surreptitiously ducking under my towel. I remove the package that I purchased at the Can Do store by the train station from my beach bag and open it, pulling out an article of clothing that looks like a pair of nylon stockings. I slide these nylons that are actually UV-protective arm bands all the way up past my bicep, one arm, then the other.

Remaining under the towel like a writhing terry cloth ghost, I shimmy out of my jeans, revealing my black-striped bikini and slide identical bands over my legs, up to my knees.

Now that I am decent, I remove the towel and glance around, sure that everyone is staring at my weirdness. They are not. In fact, many of my fellow swimmers have also donned hoodies, shorts, or arm bands rather than Western-style bathing suits to enjoy the pool, free of the damaging rays of the sun.

I am the only one with them on my legs, however. The resulting look is that of a dolphin trainer getting ready to do a Jazzercise workout.

Why am I wrapped in black nylon? Because I have tattoos on my arms and legs and apparently tattoos are so hideous in Japan that you cannot be seen with them. From what I understand, tattoos are viewed as a sign of a person’s anti-social intent. Tattooed folks are not seen as contributing members of society. They are possible gang members. They are definite pariahs.

SwimminginJapan

I currently feel the full extent of my pariahhood. Not only because I speak exactly five words of Japanese, but because I am the only one here with arm bands on my legs. I could definitely have skipped the pool entirely, but it is almost 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity and I need to cool off.

Also on the hotel’s premises is an onsen. This is a type of public bath fed by geothermal hot springs that I would really like to check out. But I can’t because…tattoos. And because everyone goes in there naked, there is no way to hide my shame.

I paddle around the pool in my black UV-resistant sleevery. It feels kind of nice. The water is cool. The people politely ignore me. My temperature needs are met.

And if I still require cooling off, just inside the hotel from the pool area are two vending machines. One sells beer, the other sells ice cream. I love Japan.