Japan: the land of the rising sun, sushi, sake, sumo wrestling, and many other natural, and not-so-natural wonders. Thus this will be a rather lengthy screed. We arrived on a dreary rainy day. After the usual customs conga line, we made contact with our driver, who had apparently been given some erroneous information. He was full of “I’m sorry,” and “I don’t know.” The one-hour drive to our hotel turned into a five-hour enduro. Did this dampen our ardor for the adventures that we knew awaited us? Not at all. If anything, it made us more desirous to “let the games begin,” as well as made us very hungry, which matched our fatigue after the eleven-hour flight from L.A. to Tokyo. We arrived at our hotel thirty minutes before the last restaurant was to close its doors. Thus, we made a beeline for our room, dropped off our luggage, and made it to the restaurant, where we had a wonderful meal of miso soup, shrimp and vegetable tempura, and a healthy serving of sake, followed by a hasty retreat to our room for some well-earned sleep. Yeah man. We were finally in Japan at long last. This trip had been planned a couple of years ago, but was cancelled due to the tsunami that had hit Japan with devastating results. Hooray for tenacity!
Upon awakening the next morning, we decided to check out the hotel amenities, and have a day of rest. Following breakfast, we hit the swimming pool, sauna, and Jacuzzi, all of which helped to take the kinks out of our bodies. On our way back to our sanctum, we found a shop that had, among other things, a vast array of sake, ranging from moderate to high quality. It felt funny seeing “domestic” as their top-shelf brand. It happens so rarely in our country. We wouldn’t dream of leaving this hallowed hall of rice brew empty-handed. Yes. Sake is brewed. Therefore, technically it is not wine, but rather rice beer. You only need to know that if you’re a mixologist, hung-up for a topic of conversation, or going to appear on Jeopardy. Kikusui, we were told by the seller of spirits, is considered the “Dom Perignon” of sake. He knew that of which he spoke. It is a fabulous brew that accompanied us back to our hotel room.
Up bright and early for our first steps at trying to get around on our own. The maps of the streets, subways, and major trains (JR Line) are wonderfully detailed not only with colors for the lines, like in Europe, but also with numbers for each stop. Thus, we took the gray line, H, to the world famous Tsukiji (Tokyo Fish Market). It more than lived up to its reputation. The varieties of ocean creatures were mind-boggling. The different classes/qualities of each creature was explained to us as we cruised from kiosk to kiosk. Samples were proffered at many of the stations with which we were unfamiliar. For example, there were three grades of tuna: lean (very good), medium fatty (lots better), and very fatty (incredible texture and flavor). The dried squid, upon starting to chew it, became like “inflatable” squid in my mouth. Their method of grilling huge scallops is quite different from what we’ve seen in our country. First, the chef opens the shell and shucks the scallop from the shell. Next he puts some “magic sauce” in the shell, and returns the scallop to the shell. Now comes the fun part. He grills the scallop in the shell, while intermittently scorches the top side of the scallop with a hand-held butane blowtorch. When the chef deems the scallop to be “done,” it is handed to you to cut up with their scissors, and eat with hashi (chopsticks). Yes. We picked up some useful words and phrases to get around, and communicate more rapidly, as well as have a bit more fun. The flavor is beyond compare. It must simply be seen and tasted to be believed. All of this walking and tasting actually made us hungry. We stopped at what looked like a reputable restaurant, “Yachiyo.” We weren’t disappointed. The miso soup was perfect, as was the array of sushi, served with real wasabi, not the kind we get here in America, which, if you check the ingredients, has everything in it except wasabi. Naomi noticed the difference right away, and remarked about the difference between that which we get Stateside, and what the real deal is.
After this gorgeathon, we took the metro to Ueno for JR (Japanese Rail) tickets to cover our entire stay in Japan, excluding the metro. We also were seeking directions to Kyoto and Osaka. The first lady to help us spoke very softly, had a speech impediment, and wore a mask. Top this off with the fact that she wasn’t too well versed in English, and you get an hour of “Huh?” “What?” “Please say that again.” This hindered our progress only slightly. We kept our humor, and found another “masked lady,” this time in the midst of an incredibly crowded, noisy area. Thus it was the same story, but at least we felt that we were making progress. It reminded me of when I was doing one-nighters in the early 1970s, when the driver, drummer, Jerry Homan, remarked that we were making great time. And I retorted, “Yeah. But we’re lost,” which we were. Ah the days of car caravanning. Meanwhile back at the counter, we finally found an unmasked maiden, Suzette, who spoke perfect English, if there is such a thing, and solved our problems. We left her with tickets in hand, and smiles on our faces, and relief in our nervous systems. To get ourselves back on track, we took a walk around midtown Ueno. It does not want for lack of shops, restaurants, toy stores, pachinko parlors, or chestnut vendors.
Our meanderings took us to Ueno Park, which was packed with cherry blossoms, statuary, fountains, and beautifully sculpted trees, bushes, and other shrubbery. We took a tea-break at the Park Side Café, a lovely al fresco restaurant, where we got some wonderful “Ocha,” Japanese green tea. Strangely enough, it was right across the way from Starbucks. Our legs began telling us that it was time to re-trace our footsteps, and beat it back to our hotel for some rest.
Following breakfast, et cetera, it was time to explore Shinjiku, another area of Tokyo, again, full of shops, restaurants, kiosks, and every kind of goody imaginable. As lunchtime approached, we decided to give a street kiosk a try. It was a one-stove setup manned by two fellows. One took the orders while the other cooked. Naomi and I both ordered the “Ken Soba,” which is a wonderful combination of shrimp and vegetable tempura on top of noodles (soba) steeped in a delicious soup. The kiosk, five feet across the street, alley if the truth be known, dealt in hibachi eel, which was also fabulous. We felt like we were on a set for “I Spy.” While prowling around Shinjiku, we took in the sights, smells and sounds. Somehow we found Gyoen Park National Garden, which had a plethora of plum and cherry blossoms in full bloom. What an orgy for the senses. After much oohing and aahing, along with picture taking, we made our way back to downtown to pick up the metro back to our hotel area. Upon exiting the metro station, we started walking in the wrong direction. At this point, as if by magic, a lady appeared and said that we looked lost. Without being asked, she gave us perfect directions back to our hotel. We thanked her profusely. When we turned to go, I looked back, and she had disappeared in the crowd. So, back to our hotel we went. Dinner and sleep were now the prime priority.
Knowing that the Jewish holiday, Purim, was approaching at sundown, we plotted our route, along with directions from the rabbi’s wife, to the Chabad Synagogue. The crowd at the train station was beyond Manhattan at rush-hour. The people were packed into the train cars like sardines. It took us two trains and a metro to get to the neighborhood of the synagogue. Everything went along fine until we got to a fork in a road. Both of us thought of Yogi Berra, who used to say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” We stopped at a jewelry store and handed the proprietor the directions we’d been given, along with the phone number of Chabad. He was nice enough to call Chabad and tell them that two of their flock were hopelessly lost. The rabbi dispatched two of his nine children to rescue us. Upon our arrival, we were welcomed like long-lost relatives. It was like the U.N. at the dinner table. There were people from Japan, China, Spain, Israel, England, America, and points elsewhere. The rabbi, Binyomin Edery, and his wife, Effra, were cute as they pointed out that their children were all “Made in Japan.” Needless to say, we had a ball. As an aside, one of the gentlemen from Japan asked if this was my first time in Japan. I told him “no,” that I had played there in 1973 with Ray Charles. At this point, his face lit up, and he asked if one of the concerts was in Shinjiku, to which I responded “yes.” Here’s where it got weird for me. He described the concert, including my solos in front of the band. I couldn’t believe my ears. He told me about the whole concert! Naomi joined me in my disbelief as he iterated on and on. After listening to his oration, it was indeed time for a drink, or two, or three…Not just the usual wine, but also Schochu, a vodka made from sweet potatoes which was quite good. After a few hours of food, drink, story-sharing and dancing, it was time for us to take our leave. At this point, the rabbi gifted me with a “Chabad House of Japan” kippah. And so we were off again with a long walk, two trains and a metro back to our hotel area. This time we walked in the right direction.
Now for our version of “The Longest Day.” We had to be up and on our way quite early for what we, Naomi, had planned for us. Yes. You guessed it. The sumo wrestling championships in Osaka. Now that doesn’t sound like a very challenging destination. However, there was a hook. Ah yes, the ubiquitous hook. The hotel room that we reserved was in Kyoto, which, after taking a taxi from our hotel in Tokyo, to the metro, the metro to the train station, and being told to get on the next “Bullet” train by one of the officials at the track, and it turns out to be the wrong train, a “local,” not an “express,” it takes four and a half hours to arrive at Kyoto, which, due to time constraints with the sumo caper, left us only a few minutes to check into our hotel, deposit our luggage, and grab the correct metro to the great flabbathon. These battling blimps are like rock stars in Japan. They would dwarf Haystack Calhoun. We got in at half time, and were able to purchase some snacks to watch the ferocious flabbists. Yes. Sake, and seaweed crackers. By some stroke of luck, we were seated in an ideal location. After a few sips of our brew, and some snacks, we were right in with the homeys, cheering for our favorite leviathan in each match. There were a couple of “guyjings,” caucasian foreigners, also on the wrestling card. What they lacked in girth, they made up for with muscle and hair. They both won their matches. The preparation before each match is a show in itself. First is the announcer, who sounds like Michael Buffer, two octaves higher, as if he is being throttled. Next is a series of guys with flags that have the sponsors’ names on them. Hey, somebody has to foot the bill for this extravaganza. Next, and finally, the combatants enter the circle that is used for their ring. There are no restraining ropes. Thus, these behemoths can throw one-another into the first few rows of the audience, which they do quite often. Now the fun begins. First the wrestlers pick up some salt and toss it around. Next, they pick up one leg at a time and slam their foot onto the mat inside the circle. This, we were told, is to intimidate their opponent. One look at any of those guys would do it for me. At this point, they get into a squatting position, facing each other, with the “referee” at their midpoint, but far enough back from them that he won’t be involved in the titanic battle about to take place. If for some reason one of the combatants doesn’t like the look of things, he can get up, towel off, and start the whole ritual again. This can be repeated until both feel that they are ready to start grabbing, pushing, and shoving each other until one falls down, or gets pushed out of the ring. One of the guys goofed, and in his zeal to shove his opponent out of the ring, he hit him in the nose. That was the only blood shed during the whole afternoon. All in all, it was quite an adventure. For this crowd, “thin is in,” but “fat is where it’s at.”
Kyoto is a wonderful city. Just don’t get lost in it, or get on the wrong bus. After watching a bit of Japanese baseball, the Hiroshima Carps, to be specific, complete with male cheerleaders, on television, we had a terrific Japanese breakfast, consisting of miso soup with tofu and nori (dried seaweed), rice, pickled vegetables, fruit salad, fish, and ocha (green tea). Having been given wrong information, we rode buses for two hours, and wound up at where we had begun. We licked our wounds and headed for a super sushi bar, complete with nigiri (raw fish on a bit of rice with wasabi), and, of course miso soup with the nori, tofu and wasabi. There are some incredible department stores that carry upscale clothing, luggage, et cetera, and have some great restaurants in them also. One of them is Iseta. Takashimaya is another. These stores have to be seen to be believed. They are huge, and manned by well-trained sales personnel. As per usual, we found, and bought things that until that very moment, we didn’t realize that we needed, such as chopstick holders, a sake carafe, and sundry other “necessities” of life. Back to the hotel for some well-earned rest after a hard day at play.
After a complete Japanese breakfast, we rode the correct bus to Geon. The bus, of course, was packed. At one point, I raised my left hand, showing my wedding band to a lady who kept bumping into me and said, “Please. Enough. I’m married.” She apparently thought that was cute, because she bumped me again. “Why,” you ask is it so important to go to Geon? Here’s why. That’s where the Yasaka Pagoda is, which is incredible to see. It is also the home of Maruyama Park, which is a very serene area set aside from everything. Another amazing site is the Sanjusangen-do Temple, an amazingly long wooden structure that is hundreds of years old, with some wonderful religious art inside, including a huge statue of Buddha, 1,001 identical goddesses, and great sculptured shrubs, trees and bushes outside. After all of this walking and gawking, it was time for lunch. I opted for some Udon noodle soup. Udon noodles are long, thick, and flimsy, making them tough for guyjings to eat with hashi. It took a while, but with some slurping, and cursing under my breath, I made it through. Naomi opted for their version of red beans and rice, which she put away with aplomb.
We visited the aforementioned sites, and then caught another eight-wheeled sardine can. This time I was chastised on the bus for standing by the door, on the “yellow line,” which is a definite “Bozo No-no.” The locals looked at me, and simply giggled. After this squeezathon, we got off near our hotel. After all, it was the cocktail hour, and our bottle of sake awaited us, along with a good night’s sleep.
At the Ginkakuji Temple, otherwise known as the Silver Pavillion, we prowled around and marveled at its very existence. We also picked up a “Bento Box,” which is a complete meal, tempura, or meat, rice, vegetables, et cetera, with hashi, shoyu (soy sauce) and wasabi included. During our adventures, we noticed that recorded light jazz was piped into almost all of the stores, metro and train stations, and most restaurants.
For those of you who are thinking of making the trip to Japan, here are some words/phrases that got us through our trip that might help you.
Where is? Doku deska?
How much? Ikura deska?
Toilet…Toy Deh (Very Important)
Table…Teh boo roo
Good Morning…Ohay Gozaimasu
Good Day/Hello…Konnichi wa
Good evening…Konban Wa
How are you?…Ikaga desu ka?/Ogenki desu ka?
I’m fine…Genki dess
Thank you…Domo Arigato
You’re welcome…Do ee tash ee mash te
We found that even if we scrambled the order of the words, the people appreciated our efforts, and treated us in a friendly, helpful manner, rather than the usual insouciant attitude reserved for strangers in so many societies.
On with the adventures! The Fushimi Imari Temple is a study in orange, very vivid orange. There are many pagodas there, each more elaborate than the next one, and the one before. The plant sculpting was wonderfully designed, and meticulously presented as we ascended the hill to the top shrine. The bus back to our hotel was once again proof that bus-riding can be an incredible contact sport.
Rightfully famous for its rock gardens, the Nijo Jo palace is really a work of art. The only puzzlement, to us, was that all of the hand-painted wall panels were replicas, not the originals. Even so, they prohibited photography, even non-flash inside the palace. I guess there’s value of some sort for good imitations. Just add up the receipts for Elvis, Sinatra, and Beatles impersonators. The inside of the palace itself was very large, but very pedestrian by European, Indian, and Russian standards.
The good news is that Bullet Trains shorten maps dramatically. The bad news is that Bullet Trains shorten maps dramatically. So by the time you raise your camera to photograph something, it’s gone in an instant. I mention this at this juncture because we were on our way to Hiroshima. Yes. Hiroshima. The home of the Hiroshima Carps, the baseball team we had seen on television earlier in our trip, the epicenter for the best okonomiyaki on the planet, which can be had at the Taka Sago Maru restaurant, and home to the first place to be devastated by an atom bomb.
The Hiroshima Peace Museum was filled with photos of the devastation caused by the bomb. The Atomic Dome, just up the street from the museum, bore tacit testimony to the horrors of modern technology warfare. What seemed to be left out during the “After Tour Lecture” of the Peace Museum, was the ultimate “Why” of the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one seemed to want to address the immense loss of life on both sides if the bombs had not been dropped, and the Allies would have invaded the mainland, and outer-islands of Japan. The docent at the end of the tour brought this up, and when countered with the more brutal-than Holocaust-Style treatment of the the citizens of Nanking, and Shanghai, called the meeting to an end.
Upon leaving the the Peace Museum, we headed for the Atomic Dome. On the way, we were regaled by the most dazzling display of cherry blossoms imaginable. Families were shaded by the phantasmagorical canopy of pink as they picnicked along the banks of the river. The colors were beyond description. The perfection of the pastoral beauty, mixed with the familial serenity is the stuff of 19th Century poetry. It truly defied hyperbole. So much for brutality. Let beauty reign!
It’s a five-hour ride on the Bullet train from Hiroshima to Tokyo. Having been up since 4:00 AM to catch the train, we were a bit tired when we arrived at the Tokyo station. Because our room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00, we did a bit of shopping and snacking. Finally it was nap time in our room. YAY!
No trip to Japan is complete without prowling around the Ginza. This was our last chance, so we took it…. ”STORES ARE US.” The cluster of high end stores is amazing in this neighborhood. It simply must be seen to be believed. It’s like Rodeo Drive on steroids.
Due to the time of our flight home, we had to be up again very early the next morning. It was a one-hour ride to the airport. This driver wasn’t “sorry.” Nor did she get lost. Like the day that we arrived, it was a rainy, dreary day, but we knew that things were going to get brighter when we landed in the good old U. S. of A. Lots of subarashi memories.