Japan: J-Love at First Sight

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Dear Japan, in true straightforward Japanese fashion, let me tell you this: I have always loved you from afar.

I may have missed the glory days of Voltes V in the 1970s, but I have witnessed every battle Yusuke Urameshi fought, 100 percent, against the younger Taguro and his minions in Yu Yu Hakusho (better known in my country as Ghost Fighter). I may have on occasion suffered from stomach-ache out of consuming poorly prepared local imitations of your sashimi, yet I remain a believer in your stand that the healthiest way to eat is to eat fresh, and in bite-size moderation. Though I have never been with you before, I have always felt that I knew you.

Perhaps this was why I was never alienated when I finally reached your capital, Tokyo. It was every inch the vast, pulsating, affluent city I have read and heard about, and more. How can I even fathom you when I could not remember to keep left in your escalators to give way to your rushing working men, as I always open-mouthedly looked up at your skylines, and fumbled to catch your trains and buses? I write to you here not to define you – I cannot do that. But please let me relive here our encounter.

With Requisite Flowers

I came to see you during spring, a peak time for travelers and coinciding with spring break, but this did not deter most of Tokyo’s working population from taking on their early morning marches to their offices. I saw these flocks of black-suited employees every day, walking briskly and either looking ahead or down at their phones, and taking Shiodome City Center’s multi-level passages that lead to the various train lines.

From the city center’s sky rooms, I saw the nocturnal glow of Tokyo buildings, particularly upon having my first traditional Japanese dinner of sushi, sashimi, tempura, matcha jelly, sweet red beans and Suntory beers at the En Shiodome one night. The dining rooms are in the classic tatami-room style, separated by sliding doors, and where diners are required to be barefoot upon entering. Working men apparently occupied the adjacent room, and I could overhear their laughter as they unwind.

I had a better close-up of your working men through our tour of the All Nippon Airways’ (ANA) 24-hour Haneda operation center, where they remained busy in their desks, unfazed as I took photographs of their work areas. Tokyo’s Haneda airport, compared to Narita in Chiba prefecture, is actually nearer to the center of Tokyo. The high-tech vibe of this facility reflects the technological character of your other attractions which I saw in Odaiba, another one of your leading commercial and leisure centers on the Bay of Edo. Here I saw architecture of a futuristic hint, through the Fuji Television building, Rainbow Bridge which connects Odaiba to central Tokyo, and the Daikanransha which was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel until it was surpassed by the London Eye.

At the Miraikan, your National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, I saw the Honda robot Asimo (Advanced Step in Innovative MObility) interact with schoolchildren, and robotic puppets move when spoken to, such as when I said “Watashi wa anata aishite masu,” to which they nodded. A couple of boys followed my suit and spoke in Japanese to the puppets too, and the puppets moved as well though I was no longer able to understand what the boys were saying this time.

Seeing all those children somehow contrasted what I heard from my brilliant guide, the precision-timekeeper Toshi-san. Just after our Sumida River Cruise, he expressed his concern about your current issues: your aging population and the preference of your women to have careers instead of starting families. For a while, spiked a bit by my first taste of sake, which he poured for me, I wanted to kid him and say, “Well, I would not mind having a family here.” But of course, until I can learn Nippongo, how can I?

I’d like to think I may be welcome, because you gave me flowers. True to what ANA’s sales supervisor Rhea Velez told me, I am lucky, because I would be able to see cherry blossoms still adorning the trees at this time of the year in Tokyo. Cherry blossoms come out only once a year, and approximately in the last few days of March for the capital, clinging on the branches for not more than 10 days. Sakura, you call these flowers in your language. I was so transfixed by the rows of the cherry blossom trees that lined Nakamise Street, leading to the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, I hardly was able to keep score of all the trivia Toshi-san was sharing about this ancient Buddhist temple and its surrounding structures, such as the shopping stalls, the Thunder Gate and the five-storey pagoda. By your grace I was able to pick up fifteen cherry blossoms which I pressed within the pages of a book I specifically brought for this purpose. I shall be making bookmarkers of them, for friends also infatuated with you.

Tryst in Toyama

To show me your laidback, extra-healthy side, I was led by a new guide, the motherly Nao-san, to Toyama City, a one hour plane ride from Tokyo. This industrial prefecture on the western side of Japan is known as a pharmaceutical city. As Nao-san put it, “For me, as Japanese, Toyama means medicine.” Thus our stop at Kokando Museum, where I saw audio-visual exhibits of ancient drug vendors who allowed people to have medicine while paying later, without documents, and just out of mutual trust. I also purchased some of Kokando’s interesting health products, such as chocolate bars for beauty, and candies for curing sore throat, eye problems, and again, for more beauty.

All the authentic Japanese fare I feasted on earlier in Tokyo were superb, but your sushi from Toyama is of a different plane. At the Minamoto Trout Restaurant and Museum, Toyama’s renown for its trout sushi was proven. Fresh, fragrant, and exquisitely packed in bamboo leaves and round bamboo lunchboxes, this sweet and juicy sushi reaches all the way to Tokyo at the rate of 2,500 packs every day. I enjoyed it best with the hot and palate cleansing soba, and the equally soft and strongly seasoned raw firefly squid.

And in stark contrast with your towering Tokyo skyscrapers like the Sky Tree and Tokyo Tower, your demure Toyama had the moated white Toyama Castle, which has withstood several sieges and reconstructions, from days of feudal lord occupation up to World War II. Within Toyama, you also showed me Iwase, an old port town where the famed Mori residence can be found. I learned that it was the home of the Mori family, who did business as kitamae-bune (cargo vessels) shipping agent. I appreciated that this traditional tatami-floored house, built in 1873 was declared a National Important Cultural Property. After the last sliding door was drawn when we were about to step out, you sent its caretakers to let me pick an origami from a tray. There were paper tops and paper horses. I chose a horse, in anticipation of more travels within you.

Running After You

I love you best at night, exploring Tokyo on ground level. I am amazed at how safe I felt holding up a pricey, borrowed camera, taking shots while walking along Ginza, dwarfed by luxury flagship stores bearing your signature – Uniqlo, Shiseido, Yamaha, Sony. And thank goodness the 24-hour discount superstore Donki was there, I was able to buy take-home treats for under 4000 yen (about Php2000) – a wooden Japanese doll, an “I love Japan” t-shirt, packs of senbei (rice crackers), green tea chocolates.

In Shibuya, just as it was getting late, my camera finally got drained after a full day of shooting, right after I took shots of the scramble crossing. I was contemplating whether I should follow fellow travelers who went to the department store Shibuya 109 or the one who went to Tower Records, until I heard a young jazz band play just right outside the station. Clutching on to my passport and charger, I spent the next 30 minutes asking clerks from Starbucks, McDonalds and Family Mart if I may buy anything from their stores so I may be allowed to charge, or to please point me to anywhere I can, just so I can take one shot of the band. The answer was almost uniform, “Ah, no, sorry, no charging.” Two clerks gave me directions to look for a certain café or restaurant, but I just could not understand the instructions in Nippongo.

So I looked for the best place to go to for help, which I should have done earlier – the police station. One cop spoke English, and he pointed out a building with a giant lit signboard on top, “You go, Joysound! See? Joysound!” I bowed my head, thanked him, then ran as fast as I could to the building, at the ground floor of which was an internet shop renting out booths where laptop owners can charge. Without even fully consuming my 12 minutes for 100 yen, I plugged out and ran back to the spot of the jazz band, only to find that they were gone. What have I run all around Shibuya station for? Then I remembered the bronze statue of the famed faithful dog, Hachiko, which I sacrificed not taking a shot earlier to capture the scramble crossing.

I photographed Hachiko beneath the cherry blossoms, all the while wanting to make sense of what you and I have just been through. In my country, I am sure people would just readily allow a stranger to plug in any outlet to charge, perhaps out of compassion. But you wanted me to bring home something else – a pure glimpse into your greatness. I guess you did not want me enabled. You wanted me to keep finding a way, but a way that respects rules, in discipline, a noble perseverance.

I went back to the scramble crossing and clicked away with all the power I have left. I felt all warm and fuzzy, as if I just crossed a great distance, arriving at a place I have never been before yet again, but this time wanting to stay.

Where to eat

• For dinner, En Shiodome (or Washoku En Shiodome) at the Shiodome center for mouth-watering tempura, sashimi and sushi with Suntory beers. Make sure you order their vanilla ice cream served with soft green tea jelly and sweet red beans.

• For breakfast, Restaurant Harmony at the 24th floor of Shiodome Tower serves international breakfast dishes and treats, buffet style. The salad bar is a hit among the early risers and their salmon salad is highly recommend. The breakfast buffet runs from 6:30 AM to 10 AM.

Where to stay

• Book your rooms at Royal Park Hotel The Shiodome, Tokyo. It is the best accommodation if you wish to explore the shops at Ginza district, and coming from Haneda airport, which is just a 30-minute drive by car.

How to get to Tokyo

• Book a flight to Tokyo landing at Haneda through ANA (All Nippon Airways). Haneda, the original Tokyo International Airport, is a much better option than going to Tokyo via Narita airport at Chiba, which can be around an hour’s drive by car away from Tokyo. ANA starting March 30 this year, now offers direct flights from Manila to Tokyo via Haneda.

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