I’m writing this from the shinkasen, or bullet train, hurtling at 170 miles per hour towards Kyoto. It’s day two or so of our journey to Japan and this first 48 hours have been like a fevered dream — more real than real and hard to shake once you’re awake.
I’ve dreamed of visiting Japan since I was a child taking karate lessons. I suppose that the visible and mysterious aspects of the country have always fascinated me — the traditional garb, samurai and ninjas, the technology, and recently the richness of Japanese Buddhism. Patrick has always wanted to visit Japan as well, for reason likely as fascinating as my own. It seemed appropriate that we would make this journey in the year of our 10th anniversary. Not of marriage, per se, but of the moment we found each other and knew that our searching was over.
We set the date for the Saturday after Patrick’s finals. My dad offered to help with airfare and places to stay, and my mom gave us a generous amount of spending money. As the day approached we were more and more giddy, ready for our adventure and expressing no hesitation or consternation. We had convinced our good friends, Breanne and Chris, to come with us, and they had been in country for two or three days already. We had Facetimed with them multiple times, getting a sense of their adventure to date. They were successfully navigating the subway system, visiting places, and enjoying amazing food. We were even more pumped.
The first flight was at 5:40 in the morning from Phoenix to San Francisco. Oatmeal and Emmitt had successfully lobbied to go with us, so they were also in tow. The next flight was at 11:40 or so from SFO to Tokyo. We parlayed my dad’s standing with United into the ability to relax in a lounge that provided free beverages and comfy seats. While we were sitting there our plane arrived. A 747 double-decker, it looked like an aeronautical beluga whale. Even more giddiness ensued — not a trace of anxiety about flying or my usual hang ups. Soon we were bouncing into the plane and taking our seats — luckily in a section that provided a full recline for sleeping. My 6’ 2” frame appreciated it greatly.
Flying is flying, and although the food was good and the inflight entertainment vast, there’s not much to say about it. We arrived in Tokyo after some sleep, and found ourselves in customs. Passing through was easy — we were heat-camera scanned upon entering the area, where multiple signs in Japanese or another Asian language warned us about the deadly characteristics of chickens (I’m assuming — there were lots of chickens on the signs). Gerbils (or hamsters) were also problematic. We scanned our first fingers and then checked through customs without issues.
Collecting our bags was the first place where the core issues of day 1 arose — when you don’t know the languages and aren’t sure what you need to do, anxiety ensues. I’ll admit that I was more reactionary than I needed or should have been, but I wanted to get out of the airport and into the world. We needed to locate our wireless unit that we rented — we were not going to be making phone calls in Japan, and we just needed to be able to text Breanne and Chris. Wi-fi would be sufficient for that, as we all had iPhones (thank you, iMessage). We were in Terminal 1 and the unit was in Terminal 2, so we had to shlep over by bus to Terminal 2. Once found, we then made our way to the JR Rail pass location to receive our ultimate pass to the Japanese rail system; that was relatively easy. Then we made our way to the JR Rail station to take the train from Narita to Shinjuku, where our hotel was.
I will not go into, nor do I particularly want to recall, the shit show that trying to figure out Shinjuku Station. It was a madhouse in the worst sense. I am not a city person, and the crush — literally — of people combined with a complete lack of where we should be going was frustrating. Needless to say, we both got very angry, at the situation and each other, and we should have just taken a fucking cab to start with. Once we got into a fucking cab, everything was fucking fine. Ironically, when we were walking around Shinjuku this morning we quite easily found our way to Shinjuku Station. Ah well — it’s the nature of travel.
More confusion ensued trying to meet Breanne and Chris, and then even more when we attempted to find a restaurant. My first meal in Japan turned out to be a hamburger (two patties, bacon) and French fries. It was a repeat of my first dinner in Siem Reap at some restaurant with “monkey” in its name. It was amazing to see them, and a reminder that adventure is always done in the company of good friends. Getting lost is a matter of perspective in this case, not a disaster.
Day two we met Patrick’s friend Go Yakinuma. A native of Japan, Patrick and Go met when he was dancing with the Colorado ballet. Our morning was spent walking around Shinjuku Central Park, enjoying the feeling of nature in this city of skyscrapers. Inside was a Buddhist at which I made an offering of prayers after a traditional cleansing ritual. A bell rung, two claps, and prayers for happiness for all beings.
We met Go at our hotel, and you could feel the love between Patrick and Go when they saw each other and embraced each other. He also brought his aunt, who was a diminutive and gracious woman who would be joining us. Go was taking us to the fish market, so we hopped into a cab rather than braving the subway at rush hour.
Every person should experience sushi for breakfast at some point in their lives — and better yet if it’s at the fish market. A simple piece of fish on top of rice became a sublime experience. Each piece was served with or without wasabi placed underneath the fish. Chopsticks clasped the little servings of extraordinary, and turned them fish side down into soy sauce. Delivered to mouth, and then a chorus of happy sounds. Repeat, seemingly endlessly. Breanne and Chris joined us after we were some 15 or so plates in, and dug in with us. When we were ready to leave, the waitress waved a device near the plates, and extracted a total. Mind blown, we discovered that each plate had an RFID in the bottom, giving us a total with ease. Forty-five dollars for the most amazing sushi we had ever eaten, for six people. All before 10 am.
We wandered the fish market, packed with stalls and people. Foreigners were present in abundance, both Anglo and Asian. As we walked we gawked at the arrange of fish, beef, and vegetables on display. I sorry-not sorry demanded ramen, so Go bought us three bowls of the most amazing ramen I’ve ever had. Not the least bit salty, but so full of flavor that I wished I would never get full. It was simply incredible. I had gone around the corner to purchase water. In addition to a large bottle of it, I discovered Pocari Sweat, Japan’s Gatorade and about a million times better. Pocari Sweat disappeared much faster than the water did.
From the fish market, we visited a nearby temple. Inside we listened to a Buddhist funeral service, the monks chanting creating an otherworldly sound. Each form of Buddhism is so beautiful, and I am amazed by what unites our lineages as well as what is different. From this temple we took the subway — first time — and visited Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. This place was a bit more chaotic than I expected — an obvious tourist attraction and so literally lined with stalls and packed with people. It was beautiful, but I wish that we had come at a slightly less busy time.
Both Patrick and I were getting tired — the sun was bright and the air was more humid than we expected. We decided to head back — Go needed to catch a train back to Fukushima prefecture, and we needed a break. Go’s aunt generously offered to guide us back to our hotel by subway. Under her expert guidance, we soon were back near our hotel. As we exited we saw Shinjuku Central Park, and exclaimed in delight that we knew where we were (another first!). After offering a deep bow of gratitude and a hug, we went back to our hotel.
Planning on taking a nap and going out for dinner, we ended up falling asleep at 5 and waking up again at 2 AM. I was all for it — Patrick was a bit concerned. We fell back asleep and woke up again at 4:00 AM (the same time we did yesterday). We took a morning walk at around 6, discovering not only Shinjuku station and laughing about how close we were to it all along. An amazing breakfast buffet of American style items and sweets was followed by a light rest in our room. We renewed confidence we walked to Shinjuku to pick up our rail passes for the Shinkasen to Kyoto. We had set our luggage the day before to our next hotel, so we only had to pack ourselves, Oatmeal, Emmitt, and some clothes and technology. We made it to the station again, took a relatively empty train to Tokyo station, and then picked up the bullet train.
That brings our story up to the present moment. As I’ve written this, Mount Fuji as appeared and disappeared majestically outside my window, and we’ve gone from metropolis to smaller cities and countryside. We’ve traveled at nearly 200 mph on land. Breanne and Chris await us in Kyoto for more adventures. The love of my life is sitting next to me. My heart is full and soft.