Thursday, June 18, 2009

Leisure Day - Seizure Day


This was the most worrisome day for me. It would be the day that we had no tours, no support, and no guidance. It was just us, our non-existent grasp of the Japanese language, and Tokyo. We had breakfast in a small cafe and ventured into the subway. Earlier we had found that if we were to take Taxis as our main mode of transport, our funds would be depleted rather quickly.

Into the subway we went. We wanted to go back to Asakusa for souvenir shopping and then to Shibuya, so that I could buy some requested hair grease for a friend's husband. The subway experience was far from fun for me, though as I look back on it now it will be a fond memory. First, we got on the wrong line many times because it was difficult to read the maps and understand the setup. Second because as soon as we boarded the subways, my father and Javier immediately started taking pictures of each other, making it blatantly obvious that they wanted the Japanese people in their background.

We made it to Asakusa but had almost depleted half our day. We walked around, bought many trinkets, and took many photos. Next we would need to make it across town to Shibuya. I was armed with only a map and the store name "Tokyu hands" where I could buy the hair grease for my friend's husband. We jumped back on the subway, but hadn't gotten any better at understanding the subway system. Several wrong stops later, we finally made it to Shibuya. I was tired and was hoping that Tokyu hands would be within walking distance. Unfortunately it was not. By then I was so tired that I told my family that I was willing to pay for a taxi however long the distance was. We found a taxi and luckily it was not so expensive.
I walked into Tokyu Hands to find that it was a 7-story department store. I was told that I could probably find the Cool Grease on floor 3B. As I walked up the stairs, my heart started to beat from anxiety.
What if we had come all the way here, and there was no Cool Grease? Then what? I tried not to think about it. I made it to the right floor and walked around.
There it was like the sun's rays breaking through the clouds. Cool Grease in all kinds of colors and sizes. I grabbed the hardest one I could find (I assumed the XX meant that it was 2wice as strong).
Upon leaving Tokyu hands, my father joked that I should charge my friend the cost of transportation to get here. I just laughed. My family had been troopers for coming with me all this way for some hair grease.

We were hungry so we decided to walk around to see if we could find a nice place to eat. On the map I noticed that Shibuya was very close to Harajuku, which is a place known for Japanese fashion. I was hoping I would catch glimpses of the street fashion. Shibuya was a nice shopping district and it had an almost eerie resemblance to Union Square in San Francisco. At one point I would've sworn I was back in SF if it had not been for the Japanese characters on all the signs. There I noted a lot of young girls in Japanese fashion outfits - an urban look with knee-highs, skirts, and dirty blonde (obviously died) hair. They were all so beautiful and well put together and maintained. I was really beginning to like Japanese fashion.
We were sort of tricked into eating dinner at an expensive restaurant. That, and we had no alternative since this was a pricey part of town. It was dusk when we left the restaurant and there were significantly more people walking the streets - probably because it was after work hours. We made it to a large intersection which included tall buildings and flat jumbo screens. We were on the corner waiting at a red light when we glanced all the way across the street and noticed that the number of people waiting at the red light was getting so large that it seemed like a large spectator crowd. Looking back at our side, we realized that we were also part of a large spectator crowd. There must've been hundreds or even thousands of people, and yet no significant event occurring. This was just normal.

Everyone was so considerate, that no one dared cross the street until the light turned green. When it did so, we didn't move. We merely stood there in astonishment as we saw two big crowds of people coming towards each other and converging in mid-street. My father's eyes widened and he looked like a kid in a candy store. Both Javier and my dad started snapping pictures of themselves among the "organized chaos". We spent a ridiculous amount of time at that intersection, basking in the spectacle. By the time we were ready to try and take the subway back home, my dad's message to my friend had suddenly changed.
"Tell your friend I said thank you." he said smiling.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Daddy!


We awoke refreshed from our long trip the day before. Although it was still 2pm May 24th in California, I live by the Chinese Proverb, "Wherever you go, you are there", therefore it was 6 am May 25th, my Dad's 60th birthday. It's weird for me to say that because he neither looks nor acts like what I would expect from a typical 60 year old. His hair has whitened, but I consider it only moderately.

So we wished my father a happy birthday and went around the block in search of breakfast. Somehow we Americans ended up at a McDonald's. We got a little confused because we thought the McDonald's had both a register outside facing the street, as well as inside if you wanted to dine in. After entering the McDonald's it was evident that we had to go back outside and order first.

I looked around and knew this was going to be another stressful meal for me so I prepared myself. The restaurant was semi-filled and all the customers were once again Japanese men in business suits quietly eating their Micky D's. As we ate our breakfast my stress began. Even my mother seemed concerned by "Shhhhhshing" my father occasionally when he got a decibel too loud.

But even she, after awhile seemed to loosen up and get a little loud herself during conversations. You know you're bad when even your mother - the woman who is famous for being a worry-wart - is even less concerned than you. So I got myself together and just dealt with it again.

The streets were calm, quiet, and peaceful even though there were cars, it seemed as if each auto had been stripped of a horn at the manufacturing plant. This was far different than my recent vacation in Peru. There were a few Japanese business men walking the streets or even riding their bicycles to work (the old-school bikes with the basket in front). Javier commented how one would never see that in Peru, due to pride. I just thought to myself how incredibly "green" (environmentally friendly) that was.
Directly in front of the McDonald's was the street entrance to the subway. My dad commented on it, and Javier quickly suggested that we go down. Going into the subway station felt like any other subway station, other than the lack of homeless asking you for money and the fact that everything was clean and immaculate. I would later come to realize that I never caught a gross smell while walking in the city. The only scents I would catch in the breeze were fragrances such as cologne, flowers, or shampoo. Another significant difference was the quiet (can you feel a theme?). There were only a couple of people in the subway area who weren't verbose of course and only the sound of an incoming train. We looked around at the maps and the ticket machines. Suddenly an influx of people were walking towards us - predominantly Japanese business men no doubt from the incoming train. It seemed as if there were 100 of them, but once again it was a tranquil influx. I will never forget what my ears heard and my eyes saw because I felt like I was in an episode of the Twilight Zone. What was audible was only the soft shuffling of 100 pairs of shoes (not even a pitter-patter, just a soft shuffle). Before me were 100 men in black with suitcases all coming at once. The silence, combined with the occasional man in black wearing a surgical face mask was so awkward for me that all I could do was take it all in and process it later. Even now, I don't think I processed it fully.
After that experience, our next experience would be our first and only tour in Tokyo. The Tokyo Morning Tour. We assembled with a group of other tourists and boarded one of those huge sight-seeing buses. Our tour guide was barely understandable. But I learned that his name was Shima and it meant "island". I wondered about my high school friend's little sister, Shima. They were Hindu; did it mean "island" in their language as well? Shima also taught us that "mon" means "gate" and showed us the Japanese character for gate. My mind immediately went to the Japanese cartoon, Pokemon. Did that mean Poke-gate? Then what does Poke mean? My ignorance was evident in the thoughts I was having as Shima-san spoke.
We went to several places on our morning tour. The Tokyo tower was like a Japanese version of the Eiffel Tower only according the Shima-san it was 10 meters taller. We entered the tower and got a nice view of the city, although it was quite overcast. Next we went to a place called Otemachi. I have to admit I'm still not sure what it was. There were many gates, but it was closed for the day so we could only walk around and enjoy the beautiful Japanese landscapes. I think that the emperor's family lived there. We went to a nice little market and Temple called Asakusa, though we didn't have enough time to shop, we knew we would need to come back to this place for souvenirs. Finally, we went to a part of town called Ginza. Shima said this was a very expensive shopping district. Our last stop was within Ginza in a place called Takadashi Pearl Factory. When I first found out we would be stopping at a pearl factory, I told Javier that I should buy myself a Pearl.
Many years ago, Javier was tricked into buying me a beautiful set of pearls during our trip to Hawaii off of one of those oyster stands. They were pink pearls and in total I got 3, a necklace and earrings. Sadly, I only wore them once before I lost them. To this day I truly believe that they are still somewhere in my old room at my parent's house.
Although I thought my beloved pink Hawaiian pearls were irreplaceable, I thought that a Japanese pearl would be even better. When we entered the pearl factory, we were asked to pick a numbered chip out of a basket. I hoped there would be a pearl give-away so I placed my hand over the basket and felt for the energy. I felt the most energy from chip #33, so I grabbed it. We sat down and a lady began her demonstration of how a pearl is made. During her demonstration, she showed us a heart-shaped pearl that they had recently been able to create. It was attached as a pendant on a sliver necklace. She immediately asked me to take center stage and placed the necklace on me; a great marketing move. She said I could wear it for the rest of the demo. Now Javier felt obligated to buy it, and the rest of our tour group wasn't shy to state this fact. During the demonstration, Javier kept whispering excuses that I should use at the end of the demonstration for why we would not purchase the necklace. "Tell her I already bought you one, tell her that you don't like it, tell her... etc." I thought it was funny, and the truth is that although beautiful, silver is not my color and it truly wasn't my style. Though the price tag was not as bad as I thought at a bit over $217.
The lady called on another woman to pick a live oyster from the bucket. She proceeded to open the oyster to see what was inside. She said it was a pink pearl, though it looked pretty white to me. Everyone in the group "ooooo'd" and "ahhhhh'd" as she held it up to the light.
"Now let's see who will win this pearl by playing with this digital Bingo game!" she said.
So I was right! A pearl giveaway! I stared at the Bingo screen as the numbers changed. It seemed to land on 52 then changed a few times more before landing back on 52 (I used to have an old Bingo game that would tip you off before it was finished too).
"52?" she yelled. Everyone looked around, but no one had 52. So she pressed the button again. This time the numbers jumbled and stopped at 33 for a second, and that's when I was almost sure I had won. The numbers jumbled once more and in fact did land back at 33! I won! The lady's face did not show too much emotion when she found out I had won; Javier and I had foiled her marketing scheme! Now I have a beautiful pearl that I must make into a necklace eventually.

After the pearl factory, the tour was over. We took Shima-san's recommendation and ended up at a fish market for lunch. One thing we noted while walking around the fish market was that there wasn't a fly in sight; everything was so clean. Unfortunately, none of the restaurants sold cooked fish, so sadly for my mother and I, we would be dining on raw fish.

It actually wasn't so bad. I ordered some type of tuna dish because I figured that since tuna steak doesn't smell fishy when I cook it, it might not taste fishy when I eat it raw. It was a good choice. My mother on the other hand, ordered a salmon dish with caviar, and did not fare so well. Javier and my father were in heaven with all the seafood. They ordered a mix of fish and shellfish.
After the raw lunch we walked around the city a lot and went to Akihabara, the part of town famous for electronics. We walked around for blocks because we read the map wrong and thought that our hotel was nearby. We even passed our hotel and got lost. By then it was nightfall. By the time we found our hotel, we were ready for bed.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Japan Airlines (JAL)

SHIRLEY'S JAPAN JOURNAL - 05/23/09, 05/24/09

We hadn't even taken off, and I already felt like I was in another world. I had never flown on JAL before, though the JAL brand (prevalent on napkins and silverware) was something that was actually near and dear to me; a part of my childhood one might say. My dad, having worked for catering for United Airlines when I was a child, would always bring home trinkets and treats from work. My sister and I were always treated to food (little smokies sausages were my favorite!), kitchen utensils, and other odd items that he occasionally found left in the airplane cabin. Growing up, my mother never went without kitchen utensils. Actually, it got to the point where there was a secret stash of chef knives, soup spoons, etc. that my mom had to saran wrap together and put away or even give away to my aunts and uncles. Most of our utensils had a UAL or JAL logo on them. I remember our teaspoons always had the JAL logo on them. I don't know why I remember this, I just do. So seeing it now on the plane, brought back those childhood days of eating the Little Smokies using a fork and little glass cup with JAL on them.

Right when I found my seat I noticed that the man I would sit next to was wearing a surgical face mask, no doubt due to increasing concerns over the global swine flu pandemic that has to-date caused more than 140 related deaths with a significant number (106) having occurred in Mexico. I didn't think I would see the repercussions of this so early in my trip, but there it - or should I say "he" - was starring straight at me.
Of course on my other side was Javier, and we settled into our seats for the long 10 hr flight to Tokyo, Japan. Take-off was another source of wonder and amusement for me. Again, because my dad worked for UAL, I am no stranger to plane trips. However, as the years have passed the emergency demonstration, often performed by the flight attendants, has slowly evolved into a pre-recorded video found on wonderful flat panel monitors found in the cabin and sometimes right at your seat. This airlines' demo video was especially curious. Would you believe me if I told you that the video seemed to have a Japanese twist to it? It was an animated video, and it seemed to have a lot of Japanese Anime influence. As I watched the video further, I decided that it was a cross between Anime & the SIMS computer game.
Then came take-off. Would you still believe me if I told you that there was some type of webcam outside on the nose of the plane that it transmitted the video footage of our takeoff as it was happening? Well, I for one found this a difficult pill to swallow. Imagine if I had a fear of flying. This would no doubt cause me to go into convulsions. Thankfully, my fear of flying is under control and I starred with wide-eyed amazement as the plane took off into the air! Even while having the windows available in the plane, everyone's head seemed to be focused directly in front of them witnessing the magic on the screen. We even passed through a cloud and the frame turned white. Then when we reached our target altitude, the camera changed angle and was now recording the bird's eye view. In about 20 minutes, the image was gone from screens, but if you wanted more, you could find the constant footage via your personal monitor at your seat.
I got even more settled into my seat and pulled out my book, as the Japanese flight attendants made their rounds. That's when my father (sitting with my mom in the row in front of me) started with his little jokes. He pointed to the flight attendants and commented that all I needed was my hair in a bun, and I would fit right in. He was alluding to the fact that I look Asian. I laughed, if anything is true, it's that I got my Asian looks from him. I knew there would be many more of my dad's jokes to come throughout this vacation.
I'm ashamed to admit, but it's been years since I've actually read a book, and I had no idea how quickly - slowly might be a better word - it would take me to finish one. Therefore at the bookstore, I had decided to buy just one. I bought Twilight, the popular teenie-bopper book about vampires & romance. Actually, popularity spread so fast like an infection; you might say it spread faster than the swine flu. I had recently watched the movie based on the book, and was so infatuated by the lead vampire that I had to read the book to get more. As the hours passed, I realized that I had underestimated my reading abilities as well as how good the book would be. At the rate I was going I would need another book for the flight back. I began regretting not having bought the second Twilight book while in that bookstore.
I started to feel like I had things in common with the main character, Bella. She grew up in a foggy town (a town that had the least sunshine days in the year, which is ideal for vampires). She moved away, and was now in a part of her life where she found herself moving back. That definitely mirrored my life. Although I live in California, the town I live it has more foggy days than sunshine days. To make things even more depressing, if you drive 10 mins. away from my town, there is sunshine. And the irony of it all is that my childhood home was on a street called "Sunshine Drive". One of the main reasons I moved away was because of the fog. But now because of the economic crisis, I somehow find myself back in my foggy town. At least the new street I live on doesn't taunt me about the weather.
Although I was so caught up in the reading, at some point almost near the end of the book, I fell asleep. I woke up to find that we were descending. Could it be that I was in Japan? The screens were now back on, recording our descent. All faces glued to the screens.
Needless to say, we arrived with no casualties. It was 4:30 pm Tokyo time which was around midnight back in California. We got on a shuttle to get to our hotel. The shuttle ride lasted for at least an hour but I'm not sure. All I can tell you is that it was apparent that there wasn't much sunlight left when we got to our hotel. We checked into our hotel and decided to walk around our hotel area in search of restaurants. Not many establishments were open. We found one that seemed to be a Japanese chain fast food restaurant called "Yoshinawa's". We decided to try there. Walking in, there were only a couple customers - japanese men in business suits. It was very quiet and respectful in the restaurant, and I felt like the mood was killed when we walked in. Leave it to Javier & my father - two men who are extremely verbose. We tried to talk to the staff, but no one knew a lick of English, and we didn't know a lick of Japanese. Somehow we found out that they didn't accept Visa nor did they accept American dollars.
That caused our next adventure to be finding a place to get Yen. I won't bore you with that. We came back to the restaurant and started the scene all over again. One thing you should know about me is that it stresses me out to inconvenience or bother people, and it also stresses me out to be the center of attention and stick out like a sore thumb. Therefore, you can probably deduce that I was undergoing a whole lot of stress at that moment. When I feel this way, I become reclusive (like I'm curling into a ball and don't want to talk to or see anyone), and I'm sure that I come across as a bitch at that point, but there's nothing I can do about my personality traits. I told myself that I'd get through this, and sure enough I did. We ate, we paid, and we got the heck out of that restaurant so that it could return to it's prior tranquil state.
I hated the idea of this being a daily stress that I would encounter, but loved the idea that I was finally in Japan!