Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Final Reflections on Tokyo

In the beginning, there was too much fluorescent light. Too much noise. And I would have said, that I enjoyed Tokyo with a pleasant smile and then explained how much fun it was to be with Linden for she was the real reason I came.

However, even before I had finished packing I was ready to admit I am not all that interested in leaving (except to see you Geoff :). The city has grown on me that I am quite sorry to leave it. While I never expected to see all of it, I certainly did not expect to want to explore it. Not the least to mention that living with Linden is easy and she's fun, so why leave a good thing, eh?

Linden has shown me a most memorable view of a city and a people. I went to Karaoke one night. Who new we were to sing in our own little rooms and just chill there. It was so much better than the "stand up in front of a crowd." I've had Shania Twain's song "Man I Feel Like a Woman" in my head for days and days. We went to the Hyatt, the uber rich and wonderful New York Bar. I bought the singer's CD. I've always wished I could sing Jazz. So I quite happily drank in the music that night. A very memerable night, thank you Jen.

We played enjoyed being tourists in Yokohama which is a massive Chinatown just outside the city. We had a full 7 course meal of lots of food that was unrecognizable but mostly delicious. Of course, Chinese food is never what you think it will be like, given our Westernized impressions.

And then I shopped. I didn't even know I had the stamina to shop like I did. Yes Heidi, I bought 3 more coats...

Apparently, so long as I'm in a used clothing store, or a ultra-alternative neighbourhood (THANK YOU JEN, for Shimo) I'm ready to shop. Everytime I turned around there was somehting "off the wall" I wanted to buy. I am a consumer. How I hate those words. And no, I didn't buy these sweaters (pictured right)...tempting but no.

The pic to the left is of the uber funky restaurant that we wandered into on our first day in Shimo. Awesome pizza and salad and a very hip vibe. Notice the ball hanging from the ceiling in fishing rope. Really, Shimo is like Queen St. W., on steroids.

I've been back since, there are wool shops, funky bars, no one over 25 years allowed (just joking).

For my last day in Tokyo, Linden and I met up during her lunch break and we travelled on the train to Odaiba (the man-made island just off Tokyo Bay). The train winds it way through buildlings and the architecture makes me think of GATTACA or the moon, or anywhere but on Earth. It is surrealism siting plumbly against reality and I am sure I looked as disoriented as I felt. (Linden has pictures of this island in an earlier blog entry). It seemed a perfect additional impression of Tokyo - the wild and wonky and kitchy and sophisticated.

We had a snack there in the park and looked at the statute of liberty and at the Tokyo skyline. That night I met Linden for Sushi (and whale blubber) in Omotesando. This is the really really glitzy "Hail Ralph Lauren and Coco Chanel" area of Tokyo. We then travelled on to Roppongi ("Hail the foreigners and US Marines".) This area is one of the stomping grounds of our olders sisters (Jen and Tem). It felt really special to be there and think about the two of them making their way in Tokyo years ago. The beer was good too. (Note picture with Tokyo Tower in background, Temmy I have proof I was there!! Yes to the new coat, bag, scarf and hat) I've only lived one month here, and remember all to well that living anywhere from home brings with it amazing highs and (at times) fleeting disasterous lows. As long as you can find what stimulates the highs then anything is possible.

Thank you to Ani and Nina who came out to help Linden entertain me :) And thank you Mhairi for letting me live here and help clog the shower drain with my hair...And Linden - Thank you so much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (she's a good host!).

I'll let Linden have her blog back now. I'm off to the airport, oooohhh I'm not looking forward to the flight!

Friends of the Earth Part II

Sunday January 29 Linden and I managed to organize ourselves to attend a Friends of the Earth hike. This hike was up over a forested ridge to the Mitsukama waterfalls and then down a forest road to the Tama river gorge and Okutama station. Mitsukama water falls would have been beautifully frozen if the weather had been colder at the base.

We experienced a quite difficult hike over loose stones and extremely steep slopes. As the day lengthene
d both Linden and I were realizing that one wrong step and we'd have very sore twisted ankles (or worse, a tumble over the side). Linden had been leading the thirty or so members along with her bounding energy but we both slowed a bit after the first three hours -- our muscles became quite chilled over lunch.

What we did not count on was just how strict the temperature was going t
o drop when we reached the summit. There were small patches of snow in many places and our packed salad immediately looked cold and unappetizing. Even my trusty chocolate covered almonds were of no comfort. Chocolate doesn't taste as good when it is frozen.

At the end of the hike we visited an onsen, a public bath, and reflected on the cold day from the comfort of the hot springs in which we were content to soak. The onsen is a truly unique experience. Men and women are separated into respective common spaces for bathing and relaxing. Typically in Japan, men are far more pampered in onsens than women. Our side was quite relaxing all the same. The water was fragranted with organge peels (contained in a mesh bag) and soft classical music played. Linden and I chose to sit in the outdoor onsen. Surrounded by forested mountains, a mix of Japanese and foreign women all bathing, it seemed oddly natural - yet there is nothing to compare this to in Canada.

Our meal upstairs was delicious and we engaged in energetic conversation with the Japanese women about gender issues in Japan and odd foreigner things (in particular why every foreign male has a Japanese girlfriend). It was quite fun.

The male pictured is Richared, our guide. He has taught environmental studies for 27 years at a University in Tokyo. He is quite a character. The group was mostly foreigners this time. Nonetheless, Lind and I were asked to pose for pictures with the Japanese men on the trip. I've come to realize this week that no matter the setting (see final blog for details) youth always gets attention.

Where are all the fish?

The first time that Linden and I attempted to find the Tsukiji Fish Market (very famous,#1 thing to do in Tokyo according to the Lonely Planet Guide book) we didn't get there due to some sybling *ahem* heated discussion. We instead bonded over a long breakfast and then made our way to Shimo-Kitazawa (more about that later.)

The second time Linden and I actually did travel all the way to the Fish Market. But when we arrived, the fish hid.

(If you were previously unaware, Linden has a fantastic "pout" look that she is modeling in this picture of a deserted wholesale fish market.)

Apparently, the one day not to go is Sunday. Incidentally, this is the only day we tried. Twice. And by tried, let me explain that you must arrive before 7am as most of the action is completed by 8am. Last Sunday, January 29th we also planned a Friends of the Earth hike and so in order to include the Fish viewing, we rose at 5:30am to pack lunches, find hiking clothes and get organized to leave by 6:30am. We were seriously unimpressed with the lack of fishes.

The picture to the right is a view of the Tokyo skyline behind the empty fish market.

I've sworn off seeing fish auctions and am content to just look at them (quite literally in the eye) on the sushi conveyer belts.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Linden: My life since Christmas

Hi, it’s Linden.
Sorry I haven't on this much. It is like back at the dinner table when we were little and my parents rarely ever heard me speak...
Things are fine with me here in Tokyo.
I had the most wonderful time with my girlfriends over the New Years break. We were so very busy. It is to much to go into detail with all the things we did but here are the basics:
Dec 27: Isabell and Jenn arrive in the evening.
Dec. 28: Ueno: Park- Dali exhibit, swan boats, shrines. Shopping Ueno style. I was also treated AMAZING lunch as a bday present. Andrea arrives and we are off to dinner in Shinjuku at Arabian Rock!
Dec. 29: Full day of walking and shopping. We walked from Shinjuku to Shibuya and then back to Harajuku for more shopping. Then back to Ani's for a quick rest before we are off to the New York Bar on top the Hyatt for drinks and live jazz. This is the bar featured in Lost in Translation.
Dec. 30: Shinjuku cafe and shopping in the AM then off to Asakusa to see the temple and more shopping (gift shopping this time). Then it is out for Suresh's birthday in Roppongi to dance the night away. I caught the last train home with Mhairi but the girls stayed out and had a fabulous time.
Dec. 31: Off to Odiba to an amazing Onsen! It was like entering a secret society. This experience could be a blog entry to rival any of Ashley's but I wont go into detail. It was completely fabulous even though Ani and I were not allowed to enter the pools on account of our tattoos. Then it was New Years Eve partying at a beautiful club in Roppongi. This club was the kind would might see featured on "The Fabulous life of P.Diddy". It was not be best experience though because it was overcrowded to the extreme and a few total assholes tried their best to ruin our evening. Bottom line- we were together and in Tokyo. It was a new years to remember.
Jan. 1: TOKYO DOME CITY!!! and the scariest rollercoaster ever! It was a total thrill and a slight heart attack. Jenn talked about the amazing view, my response was "what view?". Its not that my eyes were closed, it is just that they never left the tracks in front of us, I had a good idea of how high we were. Then it was off to Shibuya to catch 007: Casino Royal and do some fabulous Karaoke. All in all a nice way to start off 2007. This year isn’t going to be boring.
Jan. 2: Kamakura! We journeyed to this ancient city (1hr outside of Tokyo) to see the temples, shrines, massive Buddha, that make this place famous and unforgettable. It also hosts the nicest Starbucks I have ever seen. Very Zen. Then it was back to Shinjuku and dinner at a Thai restaurant.
Jan. 3: Imperial Palace but the gardens were closed. Then off to Ginza for some shopping and lunch. We all loved it but especially Isabell as we knew she would. It is amazing there- so much style, so much wealth. Three Gucci stores in a block radius! I really wonder if there is anything like Ginza anywhere else in the world. In the afternoon Andrea and I left the girls for the airport. After seeing Andrea to the security gate to catch her flight home, I went to surprise Ashley and very nearly missed her 'cuz she didn’t come out the same way as the other people! Thank goodness I found her (almost missed her) because that would NOT have been good. We came back to my apartment and crashed.
Jan. 4: Jenn and Isabell left. I did not get to see them to say goodbye which made me sad but I said goodbye on the phone. Then Ashley and I left for Kyoto and she took over my blog...


My goodness what an event! Most foreigners are prepared to find the event baffling and boring. I’m eager to share that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them crash around the ring; the stomping; the pschyological “stare down” and of course, the thrilling throw or tumble of one or both wrestlers into the crowd. Who would dare sit in the front seats? Linden and I saw a photographer get crushed by one wrestler easily over 160 kilos.

We attended one of the three grand tournaments of sumo, which last for 15 days each, and we saw day 12. We got two of the last seats - everything for the final weekend has been sold out for months. This sport dates back 1500 years. It was initially a devotional ritual praying for good harvest, usually down outside a shrine. Now they occur indoors in a pretend shrine.

The decorate ceremonial aprons, kesho-mawashi, are given to the wrestlers by their supporters: starting price 200,000$ CAN and they can become astronomical as pearls, diamonds, or other precious gems are sewn into the silk.

We even got to watch the famous Bulgarian, Kotooshu (his Japanese name) born in 1983 (at 143 kg he is by far the smallest of the big boys) he was scouted for sumo while in college.

Did you know sumo wrestlers live in “stables”? They have stable masters too. Their traditional meal is Chanko which consists of a boiled potpourri of vegetables, meat and noodles.

Walking around the sumo area was the first time I've felt small in Japan. I'm sure all know, but if you exist in this world larger than an American size 3, as a woman, you are large to most Japanese. Ha, my German friend, Simone, from the hike has been mistaken for a man in part because she is so tall (6"1) and wears size 10 shoes.

The picture to the left is the "face off" or the psych out session. Every so often the crowd would go wild and one or the other wrestler would leave and toss some salt. Salt in the ring is said to purify the wrestler, well that and drinking water.

This is the leg stomping. Some sumo's liked to show off and do the splits like figure skaters and ballerinas by arching their leg into high above the 90 degree angle this picture shows. As of 2001 there were 83 official winning moves of sumo (up from 41 in 1920s). I have to say I really could only see "da grab" pictured to the left.

The most perfect “wish I had a camera” moment, was watching a massive sumo wrestler in purple housecoat and hair in the greased topknot steadying himself on his bike (there was quite a number of tentative starts) and gently beginning to peddle. His giant frame, cautiously moving down the street, swerved out to avoid the old, the young, and the gaping tourist. I could hardly stop myself from laughing, which Lind and I did once safely around the corner.

Ah, sumo. What a fun day.

Friends of the Earth

While Mt. Fuji didn’t make an appearance, the forests clumped around the new development offered spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, tress, rural farmingand hydro poles. Oh a poetic juxtaposition! You are never too far from 100,000+ people here. Poured concrete to hold up the mountainsides from falling onto the newly built homes was a nice touch.

Seeing the Pacific Ocean to the left and the right, I remembered I was on an island, a small one at that.

Grievances of urban sprawl aside, it was wonderful to change from city life to country life. The hike lasted 5.5hrs, but including transport and lunch I was gone from 07:00 until 19:30. Arriving at Shinagawa Station to find the group was a bit harried, and picking which hiking group was difficult. Apparently there is quite a community of hikers who travel every Sunday for day trips. Each group wears a different bandana around their necks…and then there were the long-haired US hippies who directed me to Friends of the Earth. I felt right at home.

Our guide spoke only Japanese, and for all but me, this was fine. There were 41 people participated, 12 of whom were foreigners. Of the foreigners I was the only one who didn’t speak Japanese (alas, the only tourist).

We foreigners were a good mix: the ubiquitous American hippies, genetic scientists from Russia, IT headhunters from Germany, a South African philanropist onto wifey #4 (I unapologetically eavesdropped on the saga of his love life for awhile) who incidentally makes fantastic home-made bread and Doug “the psychiatrist” from New England. The latter has spent 20 years of his life off and on in Japan and was quick to tell me that over half his clients are lawyers. Bah! I’ve heard that before. I half-expected him to hand me his card.

Most of the participants knew each other, I was certainly creating a buzz among the Japanese over lunch. I knew this because I was offered food from more people than I can count and I was introduced as “Ash-el-ee the Caan-ahdien” to many who all seemed to know I was staying with my sister...someone talked. (Their vowel sounds are very rounded, no pinched or nasal pronunciation of my name, or Canada, it makes the words sound sing-song). Until this time, I had been walking with Izumi, a sweet woman (beautiful) who seemed very anxious but determined to practice English. I have the utmost respect for that.

My new Japanese walking companions each had a story about living in Canada (mostly Vancouver or Montreal) and about how beautiful the country appeared.

I’ll take a moment to mention how the Japanese adore, revere, celebrate, colour of the Autumn leaves. Linden describes a trip she took in the Fall to some shrine because of the rumoured Fall colours. She said there were so few trees/colours that it made her realize just how exquisite Canada can be in the Fall. The explosion of firery colour is beauty indeed. A number of people mentioned “Ahhh Canada is beautiful colour” or “Canada: the Fall.” I find myself looking forward to the Fall already.

I made some new friends and heard about the active adventure clubs in the area. Wherever you are, the internet certainly makes it possible for you meet like-minded people, or so it appears. I’ve found mountain biking, road cycling, mountaineering, your run-of-the-mill adventure and hiking clubs with a few google searches. If I had all my ice-climbing gear I’d be set for next week’s trip up the ice shafts somewhere in the North, or the 100mile road-cycling day trip hmmm I didn’t bring my gear…

I’m hoping to attend just one more hike before I go. My enthusiasm has peaked Mhairi and Linden’s interest. I was assured by most participants that normally only 20-25 people attend.

To the right, this is my favourite picture. These trees in the afternoon light, absent no concrete and people (I was far ahead of the other members, so it was fairly quiet).

Sunday, January 14, 2007


hee hee hee hee...

I'm here...hacking into Linden's blog...sleeping her room...generally driving her crazy (oh the good old days of London). That's what sisters are for. Well, that and wardrobe sharing. Oh I lucked out!

(Don't worry Linden will write too)

For those who don't know, I'm here during my January Term to complete my studies while visiting my dear sister. I'm researching electronic waste for an upcoming paper. Japan has a comprehensive recycling program for electronics, the post will even come to your door and pick up your old monitors and take them to a depot for disassembly.

Living here is a great excuse to observe environmentalism in another country. Tomorrow (Sunday) I'm heading out with Friends of the Earth Japan for a 5hr. nature hike outside of Tokyo. Views of Mt. Fuji are promised.

Sometime next week I'll get around to Greenpeace...So far, many of the same concerns are raised here, but to varying degrees. For instance, the public concern over dioxin contamination, a chemical released in the burning of some plastics, is widely publicized (more so than I remember in Canada). Climate Change too. However, there appears to be little discussion of urban sprawl (obviously I can only glean a bit given the language barrier). This is interesting since Tokyo, at approximately 13 million is a bit less than half the population of Canada.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Kyoto Trip Day 3 & 4

Saturday we woke up to rain. Rain, rain and more rain.
So, we decided to take it slow and ate a delicious breakfast of French Toast and Eggs Benedict at our local bakery.

In the afternoon, we travelled to Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a shrine dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in the 8th century. (Westerns may recall it in Memoirs of a Geisha...she runs through the orange/red archways in one scene). The path of follows 5km and very steep mountainside given exquisite vistas of Kyoto and surrounding areas. Linden and I took 2.5 hours to complete the walk. Its steep! I had many an urge to stop for sake at the occasional lunch/rest houses in front of shrines.

Saturday night we spent in Koya-san. This is in the region of Kii-Hanto and is a raised tableland covered in thick forests (bamboo and Cyprus) and surrounded by eight mountain peaks. It is the center for Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism. I loved it. Numerous temples in this small town of 3,000. Women have only been allowed in the city since the late 1800s.

We stayed at a beautiful hostel. The traditional Japanese style room, measuring about 14 tatami mats (this is the measure of a room here not sq. meters) with our own table. You can stay in the temples if you have the money, and take part in the prayers and traditional work of the monks.

That night we happened on an "international cafe" run by a French woman, her Japanese husband and their 15 month-old daughter. They are renting the space for the year and have designed it so you are eating in an art gallery of pottery (I thought of you, Katie). Veronique makes the best espresso I have had since coming to Japan. We played with Mayana (their daughter) for at least an hour while they closed up shop. As a reward for our conversation and practiced baby-sitting skills they gave us a lift back to our hostel.

Sunday morning we woke up to at least an inch of snow. As I did not see snow in December this was welcome. We had spent the night shivering (I had complained about the nauseating smell of the gas generator and had shut off our heat) and the winds shook our reinforced "paper" walls. Linden has yet to forgive me for that.

On our walk to Okuno-in (a famous temple on Mt. Koya), we were able to quietly walk through thousands of tombs nestled in the cyprus forest winding up to the temple. The light was a bit flat to take pictures, but it did deter other tourists from a normally crowded walkway. We had it all to ourselves (well unless you count the few thousands Buddhist spirits).

After an afternoon indulgence in espresso and thai currie at the Int'l Cafe, we wandered around more temples and shrines with two new lawyer friends we met at the cafe (A Brit and an Aussie working in Commercial Arbitration with English Law Firms in Tokyo). In the evening we ordered dinner from the Hostel. Many traditional Japanese foods, with no instruction or translation. I cannot tell you what I ate, but it was all delicious and savory.

Monday morning I attended the fire service/ morning prayers at 6am at Muryoko-in temple. Our generator had broken the previous night so I gave Linden my blankets and she opted to try to get some non-shivering sleep. I was unable to sleep from jetlag, I dressed in everything I had with me and sat on the floor of a temple for 2 hours of prayer. It was interesting, but I did feel sorry that I didn't understand much of what was going on through the chanting or the symbolism. An older monk led me to make offerings with the incense and water. The monks are used to observers and make an effort to include foreigners in the service. Luckily, this bleary-eyed traveller noticed that the apples and oranges in the temple were specifically placed around the alters, beside incense...not food for me. The thought did occur to me to eat an orange. Thankfully I am no longer 4 years old and did not act on my hunger impulse.

Monday we caught the cable car down to Hashimoto and onwards to Osaka. We hopped on the bullet train back to Tokyo and for another impression of Japan.

Kyoto Day 1 & 2

Linden met me at the airport. I was dazed and confused (note picture) after a horrible flight...14 hours flying over the NWT and the Berring Strait was interesting but the novelty quickly wore off with the bad food, freezing cabin, and lack of sleep. Lind informed me that the next morning at 9am we would be off to Kyoto. (Note: bullet trains are fast, but you can still see out the windows just fine...Ashley Myth #1)

Kyoto is a beautiful city. At first it appears unassuming. After little exploration it reveals an old world beauty of Japanese architecture and culture. The district of Gion and Ponto-Urcho were particularly pleasant with numerous cobbled walkways and the rare glimpse of traditional geisha.

We started the day off "trapped" in the maze of the train station/subway lins while trying to get food. We then got on the right bus, heading the wrong way and took the scenic tour of Kyoto perimeter...ah well it started off slow. We managed to find an amazing bakery close to our run down hostel...We lucked out with the windowless room with cigarette stained walls but you cannot beat the price. We very quickly warmed to our Kyoto surroundings (including the hostel with the never ending green tea supply)

The temples are numerous. The golden temple, stunningly situated against a forest backdrop draws hundreds of tourists a day seeking the perfect picture of the temple and its image mirrored in the lake. (See Pic)

Lind and I particularly liked the Nijo Castle. It was built in the 16th century and is the only Imperial Palace still intact in Japan. My culture shock aside, I was struck with how the interior designs, even of a palace, lack the grandeur that I am so accustomed to seeing from Europe. I am conditioned to think of ornate chairs and sitting areas when I think palace. I coundn't help myself wondering "where is the furniture?...I know it sounds silly.

We marvelled at engineering of the palace, the numerous rooms for the shogun, the waiting rooms for the samurai, the district lords and the offices and ofcourse, the "Nightingale Floors" encircling the rooms of the palace. Each footfall creates an audible squeak no matter how quietly you walk. The floors were designed such that the joists and the nails create the squeak with pressure applied anywhere along the board. So what did we do? stomped around of course. Calf raises are particularly enjoyable over a squeaky spot. It was fun.
The pic is of us at the top of the wall surrounding the Castle.

There were lots of tourist with young families in Kyoto (Jen? Chris? Autumn? Interested...)

Day 2: We traveled to the famous Zen Rock Garden. This shrine was a joy to visit. The surroundings were lush; even in the winter. This place must be glorious during the Cherry Blossom Season. In the afternoon we did lots of walking and I bought myself a coat, in preparation for our journey into the mountains.

Shibuya (lovingly pronounced Shi-BOO-ya)

So this "Mecca" for commerce is reminiscent of Times Square with plenty of flashing colours to mesmerize the innocent bystander should she or he be so silly as gape up at the 5-story televisions or movie ads. For those who do not know, this area is famous in at least one movie, Lost in Translation (and likely others) for the crossing. 100,000s of people pass through the Hatchiko Crossing and it makes for a shocking swell of movement synchronized perfectly with the traffic lights. Are the intervals timed to the flow of people or the cars? People might win out on this act of urban engineering. It seems to run smoothly.

The crossing is name for a dog, Hatchiko, that came to great his deceased master at the station for ten years. The loyalty was enough for the Tokyo residents to erect a statute in the dog's honour.

I ended up in Shibuya this afternoon because Lind and I met for Indian (her favorite) while on our respective lunch breaks (my first alone venture on the transit system). After she dashed to work, I walked around to get a comprehensive sensory overload (really how many types of music does one need to be blasted at strolling shoppers?) Lind has challenged me to find shoes in my gigantor sizing of *gasp* 9.5, so I forced myself to browse in a few shops but quickly got bored of looking.

Not sure where to set up my “reading” spot dozily spent time staring up at what I think is a toy shop. Impressively large cartoon figures (Superman, and Buzz Lightyear as prime examples) stand 4 meters tall facing the street. It is positioned directly across from the Disney Store…appropriate. Have I mentioned that the magic and love of Disney is very much alive in Tokyo?

I may gradually become enamoured with the fashion here. Odd glittery golden balls, random ruffles and lacy ornamentation wherever you can fit it result in fascinating (and colourful) outfits. As Linden has told me on more than one occasion: “Your tacky meter just doesn’t register after awhile, celebrate the outfit.” Good advice. Sitting and occasionally peering over my coffee mug onto the crowds people in Hachiko crossing I got an eyeful of examples.

More people get dressed up to "live" (vs. the occasional I'm wearing heels because I have a job interview or am going to a concert) thus its very easy to spot the counter-culture peeps. This is not the same as a sloppy dresser. Clothes have a distinct purpose here in Japan.

Getting Lost in Tokyo...

Ashley's Tokyo Metro Line Adventure (coming soon to a theater near you).

So, I leave Shibuya (somewhat frazzled as an overly friendly Starbucks patron had spent 2.5 hours randomly staring at me) and walked into the wrong entrance. By wrong entrance I mean, I entered the station building, but no where near the subway entrance. These stations are structural mazes meant to test one’s lateral thinking or animal instincts: okay so I’m able to feel wind on my hands and smell cigarettes...there must be a way out.

I stared at the Japanese characters for awhile, and realized that IF I had brought the English transit map that Linden had given me I would be able to figure this out. Realizing I wasn't close to the subway I thought...Okay, well “Yamanote Line” sounds familiar. I paid the same fair as getting to Shibuya, surely that’s enoughDid I mention that I was doing this at rush hour?

Inadvertently, and not-surprisingly, I traveled the “wrong” way. I’ll explain what I mean by wrong. I didn’t realize this, but Yamanote goes in a circle. My destination, Ueno, is on the other side. There is no wrong way. However, there is a sliding price scale depending on your destination. You pay your fair at the beginning. Fare adjustment (if necessary) consists of a relatively simple conversation with a ticket agent if you’ve overpaid, or underpaid. It was rush hour...I didn't feel like conversing with Police or Ticket Agents.

The Tokyo Subway Map (Left)

The JR (Trains) Map (Right)

These maps are my 2 best friends when without my sister.

Realizing I needed some time to re-think my plan home I jumped off at Harijuku (Lind loves this area).

Before trying my luck with the Tokyo Transit for a second time, I did some sightseeing down a funky alleyway reminiscent of an exotic version of Toronto’s Queen St. West).

My trip home on the JR line was comfortable, having successfully won my battle for a seat. (I had to compete with an elderly woman for my train seat – For those who might think less of me I'm told this is common in Japan…the elderly are surprisingly spry, as Linden and Mhairi have warned me).

Getting into Ueno I was again confronted by the rush hour river (Think: Finding Nemo and how the turtles had to swim into the Gulf Stream…similar skills at merging apply when entering into rush hour left-leaning lanes.) I nearly smashed my head against the ceiling of one of the tunnels. They have painted yellow warning strips for tall people. At the last second I saw the concrete and ducked.

Finally, the subway arrived.

I gaped.

The people were squished so tight a man’s cheekbone was pressed against the glass doors.

I’m supposed to get on one of these cars?!!

Gob-smacked I backed up and decided I’d try my chances with the next train.

Next train was the same; oh my God I need a picture of this.

I held my breath and shoved my way on. I felt a decided push from behind. Unbelievable, the train station attendant (complete with white gloves) was shoving someone behind me on to the train. A moment of feeling crushed and then I had arrived in Iriya (Pro-nounced eel-ee-ya). Relieved, I let myself fall out of the subway car and chuckled all the way home.

Linden had Mhairi have scolded me for evening daring to leave home without Linden’s cellphone number or my English map. They have even funnier/scarier stories depending on how you feel about crowds.

Ah well, I feel like I’ve passed some Tokyo test. It’s exhilerating.

Walking (Sorry, Biking) to the Left

In Japan, we walk on the left. This may not be an issue for some, but I seem to be inept at this. I’m so conditioned to moving to the right that I am forever avoiding collisions. Forget jaywalking, I am not confident that I will look the correct direction: a formula trauma.

Bikers use the sidewalk. Thankfully, only a marginal number of bikers travel at “my” traditional speed. Thus, being passed by Granny with her bushels of veggies does not necessarily translate into a near-death expierence.

Linden is thinking of getting a bike to make the commute to the subway stations more convenient. The parking system for bikes is far more elaborate than anything I’ve ever seen before, whole buildings converted into bike parking lots with allowable times and attendants to watch over the bikes. I’ve learned quickly that one cannot just park anywhere.

A Full Stomach in Japan

The first thing I needed to learn here were the rituals around food - no eating while walking, sitting on the subway, sitting outside the National Museum...unless you are eating ice cream or anything from a crepe stand (See Linden and Ani in Harijuku)

This is actually harder than I initially realized. I'm careful not to offend, but it's hard to keep my hands from the bag of mixed nuts in my purse.

There are a number of Indian, Korean, Italian and one superb Thai restaurant throughout this city. Apparently Korean food is to Japanese like Mexican is to the Americans. Whether or not that's true, I've sampled all of the above and enjoyed most of it.

Oddly, Japanese food is a little harder to find in our price range. I imagine I'll splurge once or twice for the experience. For now, I'll continue to sample the food in the bakeries (so long as you are not looking for "typical" bread). Mhairi's comment to me was "bread here is atomic, it doesn't grow moldy, get stale, nothing."

Normally I avoid this massive corporate entity when local, small, organic, fair-trade, ANYTHING else is available. Many times in the past, Linden and I have argued as to whether there are enough positives of this corporation that would act as an incentive given other options…good hiring practices, part-time employee benefits, etc. Regardless of my arguments in Canada, I’ve come to appreciate a few unexpected positives while in Japan

  1. non-smoking policy,
  2. a space to read for hours
  3. coffee that tastes like something more than water, and
  4. cheap and large sandwiches (in comparison with the local lunch fair…Starbucks food makes sense on a budget here).
Given the near-universal acceptance of chain-smoking in restaurants and lack of public space I am willing to pay for a java, a breathing and thinking space.

Ashley’s Fashion Non-sense

Longchamp. My learning curve for fashion exemplified. I managed to offend and show my ignorance to my sister when I blurted out that I thought her designer bag was a gift bag from some fancy department store.

In my defence, it is canvas.

Sort of silly defence.

I suppose I have been curious as to why increasing numbers of women in Ottawa and Toronto seem to like these bags recently. Durability? No, apparently it's designer. Yes, to all my friends who have tried to help me out of this ignorant hole, I’m afraid I’m still walking into one of the many dirt walls trying to find a way out.

The wealth in this city is incredible to behold. I've never known of a Harry Winston store, seen a Dolce & Gabbana store or encountered a seemingly unlimited number of Gucci stores (A tourist attraction if only for the model-like doormen). Japanese seem to love designer labels. Ralph Lauren has an absolute mansion in Ginza. Random boutiques we entered have Manolo Blahnik shoes... It's overwhelming.

A typical scene as we stroll down any major shopping district are women in kimono/or otherwise elegantly dressed/ lunching with big Burberry, (insert any designer label) bags at their feet. I suppose if I'd spent more time in Yorkville I might be less suprised.

I'm definetly out of my element but finding I'm enjoying the wandering.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Busy Busy Busy

Well I have been very busy the last few weeks . I am sorry for not updating.
I have a three of my best girlfriends visiting and now my sister Ashley is here for the month of January.
Ashley has asked to post on my blog so I am letting her. Therefore in the next few weeks there will be posts from both of us. I will update about my time with my girlfriends in a bit, but first I will let Ashley post here thoughts on Japan and our trip to Kyoto.
Cheers and Happy New Year.