Culture Shocked

Its 5 am and I can’t sleep. I slept 4 hours last night, and 2 hours the night before on the plane. My body thinks its 8 pm Sunday night.

We survived the 10 hour flight from Tokyo to LA, then a few more hours to Denver, avoiding the tornado at the airport. Culture shock has hit, something I was not prepared for, which highlights some things I already miss about Japan. My initiation was boarding the plane in Tokyo, when I found my seat next to an obese American who lifted the arm rest between us to allow his hairy arm to spraw into my lap. Half of the area in front of my legs was occupied by his leg. And somehow, he didn’t get up for ten hours, even after three drinks and two meals. During the turbulence, he commented on the pilot’s poor use of air speed and altitude.

Maybe there’s something to the Japanese values of appearance, pride, and friendliness. I can count the number of homeless people we saw on one hand. Tokyo was the cleanest big city I’ve ever seen, and everyone was super friendly, even when trying to explain something to my big gaijin smile and look of confusion. In a Tokyo McDonalds: “Please forgive me for mopping the floors and the inconvenience it has caused you.” Are you kidding? We saw workers everywhere wiping down railings, cleaning video games, and mopping. Our welcome back to US customs was an agent barking: “Can’t you see? The sign says no photos!” Most of us Americans could learn something from their way.
Its these things, plus the time change, that make the shock of returning so brutal. I am back to the conveniences of big: house, car, and portion sizes. And But these are in place of healthy food, nice people, lots of walking, and great mass transit. I lost weight, read a lot, went on a news fast, and didn’t watch TV or drive a car for 16 days. But now its time to get over it, organize the pile of clothes, and be thankful for John Stewart and Amy Goodman.
I still have the kids final journal entries to post one of these days, and that will put the wraps on the blog. Thanks for participating in our journey!

Heading Home

Its Saturday at 10 am here, Friday at 7 pm in Denver. Its time for the 50’s and rain to end in Denver, a strange streak of weather at home we’re happy to have missed. We have one bag full of the funk, visible odors emanating from that dirty clothes suitcase. We have been staying in the hotel part of the National Children’s Castle, which has several floors of kids activities. So far, we’ve only made use of the pool once, so the kids have a few hours this morning to run around.

Reflecting on our trip, we both gave it an 8 out of 10. The kids did way better than expected and seemed to enjoy most of the outings, without many complaints. It was as if they each had brought a friend on vacation, which made this easier than if we had traveled with only one child. They were able to practice the little big of Japanese language they had learned, simple requests like asking for water or the bathroom. That’s the kind of experience that opens your eyes to the other world out there, and hopefully provides some motivation to learn about it. At least, that’s how it affects me, even in my old age.
At the end of any trip, it always leads to questions of living here. Teaching English here temporarily would be perfect, but seems to only be for recent graduates. I haven’t seen any programs like that for two parents where sufficient housing for a family is provided. However, we should be able to find some home stay programs for the kids in the coming years so they should be able to return again. By then, they should be old enough to visit what we skipped due to their age, primarily Hiroshima and Mount Fuji. Hopefully, it will be with JoAnne and Youth in Action.
The language barrier is a big challenge, something I wish I would have spent more time learning. But between the daily kids activities and work, there just wasn’t time to take it seriously. Knowing the language would have openned up the culture for us to explore, all the movies, music, books, and interactions that we missed out on. For me, this would make the trip even more fulfilling.
Despite all of what I love about Tokyo, living here would likely be too much of a contrast in the very good and bad. The trains are great, the city is very clean, people extremely nice, and innovation all around. Its an incredible, international urban lifestyle, in those respects. But opportunities for women and work-life balance seem to be lacking. Even Motoko was thankful for the advantages that her husband living elsewhere in the country has provided her, mainly advancing her career in the school. Living as one family unit meant she would have been responsible for all the meals, children, etc, and couldn’t work. When I see all the men in suits riding the trains until 11 pm and later, someone else must be at home taking care of the kids. Work-life balance must take a back seat to the long hours and relationship building among co-workers. Maybe these things will change in the coming years.
So I don’t think Japan gets added to my list of best places to live: Vancouver, Sydney, Seattle, and Boston. But we’ll have to return another time to see more of the country. Every day in Japan is interesting, whether its seeing the sights, trying new food, or just people watching in eclectic Shibuya.

Day Fifteen: Disney

Having seen most of what we want to see in Tokyo, we thought the girls deserved a little surprise, even if its not the “happiest place on earth” for me. We got an early start, leaving at 8:00 am, taking the train to Tokyo Disneyland. There’s also a Tokyo Disney Sea, but for a one day pass, you can only go to one of the parks. We didn’t tell the kids where we were going, letting them see in the signs when we arrived. They were definitely excited, but I’m glad they weren’t ecstatic, which would have told me they really were bored out of their minds the rest of the trip. Of course, we want this to be a fun day for them, but hopefully Toontown won’t be there best memory of Japan!

The park was modeled after Disneyland in California and seemed to have most of the same rides. But this experience was much different from our previous trip to Disneyland in California, when the kids were turning 2 and 4 years old. Then, Melina only wanted to see the characters, but Maile was too scared of them. This time, they just wanted to do the rides,which was a lot more fun for me. We were able to ride most, except the Monsters Inc ride that openned two months ago. It had a three hour wait at 10 am. Do people really wait in line that long for a five minute ride? Is this ride that good? We arrived 3o minutes after the park openned, and the Fast Pass for it was already closed for the day.
I’ve had some issues in the past with finding vegetarian food in the Disney parks, but thankfully there was one good restaurant (two, if the waffle place counts), Eastside Cafe. I’m still surprised that none of the little restaurants in the park offer pizza with just cheese, since that’s so popular with kids. But we found our place for lunch, and had waffles for dinner. We left at 8 pm, getting back to the hotel well before the 11 pm curfew this time. We already knew the trains here were great, but to be able to travel to Disneyland by train is incredible. The park is right next to that train station.
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We appreciated the row of seats in the Buzz Light Year show that included headphones that play in English and Chinese. Standing in line for it, I had to wonder about this guy and his Confederate flag. I can only guess he doesn’t realize what it represents.

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I believe this puts me 3/5 of the way toward completing the Disney parks tour, just Paris and Hong Kong left. I’m afraid this won’t make the bucket list.
One problem we’ve had this week is that the laundramat is eight blocks away. He had thought it was in the same building. Walking that far seemed like too much effort, so we’ve been making do with our three sets of clothes for the past eight days. I must have four days with the same shirt, even while sweating through some hot days. Michele has squeezed into Melina’s underwear for the past two days, and Maile has some mildew on her fleece jacket from trying to wash and dry in the room. I think we’re ready to get home. But I feel for whoever is sitting next to us on our flights tomorrow!

Day Fourteen: Roppingi and Mori

It was a late one last night, and no one moved until after 9:30 am. We found a bus to Roppingi, a neighborhood of Cherry Creek meets Flat Irons. We wandered the shopping mall for a bit, and eventually made it into the Mori Art Museum, the last item on my list to see in Tokyo.

It was like no other art museum I’ve seen. Lots of lights and electronic imagery, little of it from Japan. The exihibit is called the Kaleidoscopic Eye, and hopefully it will be on tour to other museums around the world. Its way beyond the gritty arts scene of Tennyson that I’m used to in Denver, but fun to see something new. Admission included the Sky Deck, with views of the city from the 52nd floor. The girls found a shiba inu stuffed animal that has become the world to them. They named him Hachiko, and want him to appear in all the photos.
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Day Thirteen: Virtual Sickness, Nude Baths, and Nearly Homeless

What a day, our trip to Odaiba. We left the room at 8:30 am, returned at 10:59 pm, one minute before the doors to the building were to be locked! We saved some money by going with a hotel with a curfew, never thinking we’d ever be out that late. I can’t even think about what we would have done if we had been locked out, looking for another room at 11 pm.

We took the usual JR Yamanote Line, but then transferred to a private, driverless line called Yurikamome to get to Odaiba, where we spent the entire day. We did the virtual reality games at Sega Joypolis, toured the Toyota museum, went to the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, and I went to an onsen, way outside my comfort zone.
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Age is measured in many ways. Hanging with your kids on all the rides at the amusement park is one of them. For me, it was one of the virtual reality games at Joypolis that did me in, sent my stomach churning and almost re-visiting breakfast. I did recover to play more games, after a break. I wonder if any of their other prior guests had this problem: Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

I think it was the Wild Wing game that did me in, but I recovered soon enough to encourage Maile into the very scary Room of Living Dolls with me. I found out later that it is for kids 7 and older only, 7-12 only with parent permission. She just turned 6. Melina was smart enough to opt out just before the entrance. We were escorted into a pitch black room with gory looking dolls on the sides of the room, and we wore headphones with freakish sounds and shrieks coming from all sides. At one point, the stools suddenly descended, and puffs of air blew on us. The only thing that saved us was that the story of the dolls was told in Japanese only, hopefully saving Maile from future nightmares. The second half of this youtube video shows what its like. I should have known not to underestimate the Japanese for their skill in horror and suspence. See Ju-on: The Grudge.

The Burnout Running was fun, racing against others on a treadmill while watching your progress on the screen in the sprint, hurdles, and long jump. Of course, their largest shoes were too small for my size 11’s. The other fun ride was the Halfpipe Canyon, skateboarding without any falls. We need a place like this in Denver, though with a cheaper unlimited pass ($35).

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Next was the visit to Mega Web, the Toyota showroom, the only car place for me. They have their upcoming electric vehicles on display, including a Prius with solar panels. The kids played a video game where they balanced the energy source powering a car between electric and gas, just as we do, holding up traffic while hypermiling the Prius. Maile missed out on the fun stuff: a driving simulator and hybrid go-kart that only Melina was tall enough to ride. All this was free.
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The science museum was next. We needed more than the few hours we had. Since this is “emerging,” not much on basic science, moving right into the internet, video, electronics, and robots. They have good English descriptions, and blend art, science, and ethics in many of the exhibits. Like this quote, likely with some translation challenges:

Who we are alive must now determine how to use the wisdom and technology stored in the sea of fertility. We must decide what sort of future society we will build. It’s time for you too to plunge into the great deep full of this duman wisdom and exercise your creativity to help build the future!

Finally, I had to check out an onsen, where all is bared for hot water to soak in. I wasn’t able to get to a more authentic one, so went to Ooedo-Onsen Monogatari. It is setup more like a touristy destination, with a food court to eat before and afterwards. With a guide, I might be daring enough to try a more authentic onsen, but going solo is easier in some ways, too. I wasn’t able to convince anyone else in the family to go, even though it is separated by gender. The girls already insist on locking the door from us even when they change clothese, so they had no interest in this.

I was plenty nervous. It didn’t help that the kids kept questioning why I’d want to do such a thing. The brochure had specific instructions in English on what to do, but that wasn’t enough for me to get it right. I did figure out where to put my shoes, pay the $20, and choose my yukata. And I found the changing room and lockers to put my clothes and change into the yukata. Walking around barefoot, I found the bathroom and put on the slippers to use it, but then walked out with the slippers on. The staff started laughing, pointing at my slippers, asking me in Japanese to return them to the bathroom. After surviving that, I was stuck in the food court, unable to read the signs in Japanese, instructing me where the actual hot baths were. I must have paced for fifteen minutes, too afraid to ask. I tried to follow some others, but it was mostly women at that time, and I couldn’t risk following them into the women’s bath. Eventually, I found a group and followed them in. Then, my yukata had to go into another locker. I was given a big towel and small towel, and tried to take them both into the baths. The staff pointed, indicating only one towel in the bath area. I tried to take the big one and was then told, only the small one. It was just a washcloth, nothing I could use to cover myself, though I did see a few others try this. Not good.
Suddenly, I’m walking around naked with all these other men. Some kids were even there, girls and boys (kids up to 2nd grade are allowed in the bath for either gender). I soaked away all the walking we’d been doing, which made for the most relaxing and stressful experience, at the same time. The only respite from the heat was to exit a bath and walk to another, a parade of men walking between baths.
I had to leave before I passed out from the heat, but wasn’t sure which door to walk out. I sat in the tub closest to a set of doors, and tried to watch others inconspicuously, but no one was leaving at that time. I must have spent an extra twenty minutes in there, trying to figure out where to go without drawing any attention. I eventually found the exit, and was extremely relieved to find my way out and back to the train.
Its amazing that this is so normal and comfortable for many (most?) Japanese. As Kevin predicted, even Motoko asked us about going to an onsen, even though we barely know her (I had tell her there was no time, to not offend her and keep Michele’s request to avoid going to one). Nearly everyone must go to them, even though I see most men during the day in suits, and women covered up a lot more than in the US. Yet is us, the American family, who brings all the body issues to the onsen.

Day Twelve: Edo-Tokyo Museum and Kiddy Land

Lonely Planet is right, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is a great museum of the city, one of the best they say. It traces the history from the days of samurai in Edo, to the modern (renamed) city of Tokyo. The city fought fires repeatedly, and was levelled once by the Great Taito Earthquake in the 1920’s, and again in WWII. But it didn’t take long for Tokyo to host the Olympics (1964), and soon thereafter surpassed many Western countries in wealth, technology, and more.

In the exhibit, the causes and beginnings of WWII were sidestepped entirely, but the firebombing was highlighted, with casualties of over 100,000 compared to the atomic bomb deaths. The kids are too young to visit the Peace Museum on this trip, but someday we’ll make it to Hirsoshima. We both have histories tied to this: German and Japanese ancestry, Michele’s grandfather’s service in the 442nd Infantry in the US Army (even while other Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps), and my great-uncle dying in the Pearl Harbor bombing.

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The museum is next door to the sumo stables and sumo museum, and we saw an actual wrestler eating in the same restaurant where we had lunch. It was another noodle place, but this time we ordered our food at the vending machine and handed the waiter our ticket. What is it with all the machines? They are at most places requiring an entrance fee, eliminating the need to interact with anyone to pay, and staff can be freed up for other things. I’m not sure what they’re freed up to do, though. In the subway stations, I saw someone cleaning the railings while another supervised, walking behind and watching. At the baseball game, one employee helped to rotate the revolving doors on the inside, another on the outside. The service is great, and everyone is incredibly nice, just hard to get used to.
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We walked a few miles to Akihabara (Electronics Avenue) for the afternoon, where I thought this would be a fun place. But we were tired, and electronics is challenging in a foreign language, with so many limitations on usage in the US. I know DVDs won’t work in the US, and we found out video games won’t work, either. Any eletronics we buy seems risky to bring back to the US. Today was the one year anniversary of the rampage where seven people died in Akihabara, and flowers were set out on the street corner.
Then, we finally made it to world famous Kiddy Land for the kids to spend their money. And that they did, though not on much that is truly unique to Japan. One entire floor was entirely Snoopy, others had a lot of Disney, though there was a good selection of little robot toys, Hello Kitty, and Ghibli. The big purchase for the kids was the dolls they found buried in the anime part of the store. Each has has eyes that follow you, Mona Lisa with batteries. Back at our hotel, I looked them up online to find that they are made in Korea, and distributed in Japan. Its a company called Pullip. Each doll has its own name, with new ones released throughout the year, similar to American Girl. Melina seems to love the goth scene, as much as she knows about it, and choose an appropriate doll, Neo Noir.

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After a few hours in Kiddy Land, we were dead tired and wasted no effort for dinner, finding Shakey’s right around the corner. Michele has fond memories of their fried potatoes, but I had never been there before.
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Tomorrow should be our last fully planned day, at Odaiba, the artificial island build in the ’80s. Could be a tourist trap, but seems like there is lots to do.

Day Eleven: Ghibli and Giants

Today has been planned since January, since tickets to both are in such high demand. The Ghibli Museum, the Hayao Miyazaki’s studio, is the Disney of Japan. All of his anime is here on display, from replicas of the characters to the scripts. It really shows the intense process for making these films. I only wish that photos were allowed inside.

Like Disney, you pay a premium for all the memorabilia and souvenirs in the gift shop. In Japan, we’ve found most of the clothes to be American-influenced and very expensive, and this was the first place that only the latter was true. We made off with trinkets, T-shirts, and stuffed animals. We’ll be looking forward to their next movie, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, to be released on DVD on August 14 in the US.

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After a quick lunch, musubi on the train, we went to the Yomiuri Giants baseball game in the Tokyo Dome. The Giants seem to be the NY Yankes of Japanese baseball: they have the fans, money, and wins. We’re in their home stadium, and I’m a fan for the day, at least. The kids barely made it through eight innings, but we did it. Here’s the differences I saw in Japanese baseball, from the fans perspective:
  • Beer served by women (I saw no male vendors) with mini keg backpacks. Very cool! Imagine all the waste reduced by refilling the same cup for each beer.
  • The stadium is not exclusive to one beer, so each beer was available: Sapporo, Kirin, Suntory, Yebisu, and Asahi. At 800 yen, its definitely cheaper in the US, though.
  • They sell ice cream, fully contained inside the “cone.”
  • Lots of mascots. And cheerleaders.
  • The fans are into it, much like a college football game. Their chanting and banging bats together makes it really loud in the dome.
  • Lots of bunts (sacrifice) and home runs (small stadium). We saw five home runs in seven innings, including one by their star Alex Ramirez, who played for the Indians and Pirates in the US before moving to Japan in 2001. Giants won, 8-3.
  • Standing only tickets are popular, but difficult to see if you don’t get their earlier. Many took to the floor to watch it on TV inside the stadium. I saw someone else watching the game on TV outside the stadium, on her cell phone! I knew they had better technology than the US, but this is way beyond even our iPhones.
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I’ve been noticing the advertising for the latest pop culture and art. Here’s what seems to be hot right now:
  • A Greatest Hits CD from Glay is coming out next week, a popular rock/pop band.
  • The Rookies just hit the movie theaters, and ads are everywhere.
  • Haruki Murakami’s new book 1Q84 is out, but only in Japanese. I’ll be waiting for the English translation. Apparently, the number nine in Japanese is pronounced like the English letter Q, making this George Orwell inspired.