Sunday, November 09, 2008

To Another World: Travels in Japan, part 1

A patch of blue makes a cameo against the horizon, tucked precariously between puffed plumes of gray/white clouds and indigo sky. The ensemble reflects placidly upon Lake Washington's surface, and a crisp autumn wind stirs yellow and orange leaves around the pavement outside the house. It's a textbook-beautiful fall afternoon in Seattle. But I miss Japan.

My US store-bought green tea tastes wanly fruity and insubstantial compared to the bitter and earthy Japanese green tea I repeatedly drank during the preceding week-and-a-half. The cold and moist air of the Northwest (literally) pales against the 70-degree cloudless warmth of the Kyoto skyline. And the sleepy suburban neighborhood surroundng me feels positively stale alongside my mind's-eye view of the eerily-tranquil Koyasan graveyards. Any good vacation leaves you feeling good and enriched on some level, but our trek to Japan seeped into me like no other port of call ever has.

I could natter away endlessly about the unique impact that Japan had on me inside, but just telling the story relatively free of garnishment feels a lot more appropriate, so here goes.

October 27, 2008: Rita and I hop our plane at Sea-Tac somewhere around 1pm-ish.

I'm one of those wide-eyed rubes who seldom tires of flying. The view of the earth 'neath from tens of thousands of feet in the air never fails to enchant me.

At about the three-hour mark we're over Alaska. The land's epidermis looks like white veins and cellular corpuscles scattered over infinity. Just beyond the dots and splotches of white, mountain peaks portrude above the ground like spikes on some unearthly-huge organic EKG monitor. The whiteness--threaded by arteries of waterbodies and what look like glaciers--stretches without boundary.

Photos never do this type of view justice. There's no simulating/replicating the multiple layers of cloud cover: Some hover near-membranous in their thinness, others swirl creamily, and still others appear so densely-puffed they look as if you could walk atop them. And when they all stack gradually atop one another, it's hypnotic.

That said, being jammed in a metal tube at 37,000 feet above the earth does wear away at a person physically after ten hours, so touchdown is welcome. We arrive at Narita Airport about 6pm Japan time on October 28 (Japan's sixteen hours ahead of Seattle). Narita shares many traits common with typical urban airports, only it's far neater. Within minutes of our passage through customs I note no less than three different members of airport staff spit-shining various quadrants of the airport. Everything's clean and orderly, an aspect of Japanese culture and living that will surface repeatedly over the next week-plus.

Another aspect of Japan noted early, and often during our stay--The beauty of the people. Nearly every man under the age of 35 looks like a dreamboat J-Pop star; all perfect cheekbones and thick, stylishly-tousled hair. Rita and I immediately begin playing our own exotic version of Slug-Bug, that old travel-standby game: Whenever we see one of these dreamy males in our path, one of us punches the other in the arm and blurts out, "J-Pop!" Yeah, we're strange.

Nearly every woman is likewise luminously beautiful. Each of the various service counters at Narita seems to be staffed by a girl with smooth glowing skin, lustrous black hair, faultless cheekbones, and a smile that lights up the airport more aptly than a warehouse full of flourescent bulbs. And even the Japanese who aren't traditionally handsome or pretty possess faces of wonderful character: Small wonder that all of us Americans and Europeans standing in customs look like squat, pink toads in contrast to the locals who crisscross Narita Airport.

The airport already begins yielding cultural gifts of the strangest sort, including an electrolyte supplement known as Pocari Sweat and a giant, apparently suicidal hot dog slathering himself in ketchup and mustard outside an airport snack bar. The latter demonstrates an element of Japanese culture that will also surface time and again during our stay: The nation's tendency to adorn even the most mundane instructional signs and advertising with buoyantly whimsical, cute cartoon characters.

Rita and I hunt down a cell phone rental booth, grab a phone for international communication (gotta be able to check on the dog while we're away, y'know), and hop on our shuttle for the Grand Prince Akasaka Hotel in Tokyo. The ninety-minute shuttle ride takes place at night, so our view of the environs consists largely of glowing neon signs and structures rendered exotic by the extensive Japanese kanji and hiragana that intermingle with English lettering on the signage. No culture shock yet--Just a bit of local color gently seeping into the pores.

The Grand Prince Akasaka is a huge, state-of-the-art hotel, and the customer service is jaw-dropping in its efficiency and attentiveness. Instead of having our keys thrown at us by the front desk clerk and being left to our own designs (as is frequently the case in non-luxury accommodations in the West), a staff member scoops up our bags, places them on a cart, and personally escorts us to our room.

After ten hours in the air, an hour-and-a-half of shopping for rental phones in Narita Airport, and another 1.5 hours on a shuttle, we're a bit wiped out for too much exploration of the area. Fortunately, there's much to learn and see within the confines of our small but lovely hotel room.
There's quite a learning curve here for even the smartest of westerners, and that learning curve begins with the Japanese toilet. Modern buildings like the Grand Prince have blessedly eschewed traditional squat toilets for more westernized models, but the Nihongo toire includes a heated seat (very nice), bidet, and spray. Rita and I stare at the non-descript throne and analyze it for several minutes like the ape men in 2001: A Space Odyssey scrutinizing that black monolith thing. Necessity dictates that Rita be the first to, um, make full use of the equipment. Ever the resourceful lass, she figures out that the bidet and spray only activate when a human derriere is in contact with the seat, which sadly renders a videotaping of the bidet in action impossible without a major broach in decency, a soaked camera, or both.

I discover very quickly how easy it is to be sucked into the vortex that is Japanese television. Instead of spacing commercials at fifteen-minute intervals a la the US, Japanese advertisements come between programs in large clumps with no fades between spots. In stark contrast to the manufactured cool and pretense rampant in stateside advertising, Japanese commercials all good-naturedly assault the viewer with wild colors, whimsical talking animals, and unrestrained exuberance. They're scarily fun to watch.

Japanese game shows share this absence of restraint and inject a hefty dose of queasy surrealism into the mix. The apex of strangeness: A quiz show in which a celebrity panel is shown a clinically-excruciating photo of a minor physical fault--a mole, liver-spot, or scar--and then asked to guess which of their number actually possesses said deformity. This David Cronenberg-ian deviation of Match Game hypnotizes Rita and I for several minutes before another salvo of genially-sledgehammering commercials breaks the dark spell.

Once we disconnect ourselves from the terebi, I bring up a piece of (birthday) cheesecake for Rita. It's October 28, so according to this land, my lovely wife is 39 years old. We ring in her 39th year by surveying the view of Tokyo from our hotel window. It's as dazzling a skyline as any big city could offer.

We'll be travelling to Kyoto, then Osaka tomorrow; all to visit the most transcendental of sites. More pictures, less jabbering next time, I promise.

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