Journey to Japan v.1: Introduction to Tokyo

Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo, Japan

A Very Gaijin Introduction

After the usual work-pack-depart marathon, we flew 3.5 hours to Dallas and another 13.5 hours, impatiently awaiting our big introduction to Tokyo. Despite the flight time, both flights were pleasant and seemed to pass by pretty quickly.

I sat in a center seat next to a super tiny Vietnamese woman, so that helped significantly with your usual “center seat spatial” issues. I’ll never forget flying something like 11 or 13 hours in a center seat from Fiji next to a rather big-boned woman with tons of hair. It kept getting in my mouth and she had the most gigantic baby known to man in her lap. Etched in my mind forever, that one. Fortunately (or unfortunately?), the baby was practically mute. Never encountered a quieter baby in my life. I do have some great tips on surviving long flights, though; I’m convinced I’ve mastered the art.

Bringing Prescription Medicines to Japan

Things to know when traveling to Japan—the legalities for American prescription and OTC medications are very, very strict. For example: standard cold medicines are illegal (Vicks, Sudafed), and inhalers and injectables (for diabetes or migraines) are prohibited. Any medicines with codeine or stimulants are not allowed (Adderall), and psychotropics are banned (Prozac is sold on the black market).

I’d only learned this the evening before we left. So I spent hours frantically calling Japan to confirm I could get through customs without being detained. Because that would be an incredible start to a trip after almost 24 hours of traveling. To no avail. The information online is super general and not very helpful. But if you have have questions, call the Ministry of Health well in advance. Depending on how much you want to bring, you may need special approval, and that process can take a while.

I brought some necessities, but left others behind, one being my migraine medicine, which is loaded with stimulants and Naproxen. I was able to clear customs without incident, but they did pull like ten people in line in front of me for a security search.

Seems I dodged that bullet because I didn’t exactly declare my medicines either. I’d’ve pulled the ignorant foreigner card to the best of my abilities (dumb gaijin). But I’ve read they’re not exactly sympathetic to stupid people. I’m also a terrible liar. The best part of this whole saga was when some guy on our flight was talking to us about traveling in Asia. He mentioned on his own volition that they hang people in Thailand for drugs. Yeah, I’ve seen “Brokedown Palace.” Thanks for the reminder, buddy.

Anyhow, all turned out fine. The couple of days I’ve been here, there has been a little Japanese culture shock. I’m positive I’ve offended at least five people an hour in one way or another. They’re so polite here, though dumb gaijins get a free pass (for the most part).

Of the peculiarities and most notable for me after 24 hours of traveling is that smoking in open public spaces is a fine-able offense. They have little smoker’s boxes to keep the animals separated from the civilized public. After a day now, I can say these boxes aren’t nearly as available as a smoker might like (at all). But they do seem to have smoking sections in some restaurants and cafes. Thankfully, a terribly-ventilated smoking cube was right outside the airport.

I’ve been an on-again-off-again smoker for a few years now. Just for the record, everyone, just because I currently smoke does not mean I enjoy actively sitting in a fog of toxins with nicotine-stained everything. Ventilation with the ability to kind of inhale some fresh air wouldn’t be a bad thing. That’s all. And, yes, all the more reason to quit again. Of course.

Tokyo at night

Our Tokyo Hotel

We caught our transport from Narita to downtown, about a hour and a half drive. As the sun was quickly setting, it was pretty cool to catch a glimpse of the side streets between high-rises with the stereotypical Japanese neon lighting. Our hotel turned out to be fairly lavish and we scored a 27th-floor king room.

As we wandered through the lobby, Jeff randomly commented to me, “Congratulations, you’re the biggest-chested person here.” In addition to suddenly realizing that observation required “sizing up the competition” on the part of my husband, it also basically gave me a complex. Because it did seem to be very, very true, in fact. Later read that, while skimpy clothing is not unusual in Japan, you might elicit giggles from the locals if you’re on the more “buxom” side. I don’t dress skimpily whatsoever, but I did bring V-neck t-shirts, which are sometimes problematic for us more endowed women. …I dunno. Gaijin. Laugh if you must, bitches.

If you take anything from this post at all, please note the awesomeness of the Japanese toilet. (At least the ones in our hotel.) Automatic, with heated seats, and little sprayers I’ve yet to test out. If you’ve seen “Why Him?” yet (which Jeff and I both watched on the flight over), that’s exactly what we have. Literally. America’s slackin’.

Hand Towels & Flip Flops

Last, but not least, Jeff and I both screwed up social customs getting drinks at one of the hotel bars. I dared to wipe both my hands and my face with the little hot towels they provide you before beverages or meals. This, apparently, is a huge faux pas. Hands only, folks. And Jeff was stopped on the way out of the bar. “It [was] okay for now, but please to not wear flip flops next time.” No idea whether that’s a “this place” thing, or a “he needed socks with his sandals” thing. Or, just a… “never” thing. If anyone happens to know, I’m all ears.

Tomorrow, we’ll be having an easy Tokyo tour day and recovering from jet lag. Let’s see how many social customs I can butcher given a full day in this country. Until then, friends!

Coffee Struggles & Senso-Ji

Surprisingly, I woke up at a normal Japanese hour this morning—5 a.m. (the same time I wake up on workdays—and non-workdays—at home). I typically find my ever-so-familiar Keurig difficult to operate at that hour and just fumble around in the dark until everything suddenly fits together and voila!

This morning proved a touch more challenging when I discovered Japanese hotel coffee is basically individually wrapped baby filters that you have to pull and tear and stretch to fit your coffee cup. And, of course, the directions were all in Japanese. Thank God for pictures.

This, my friends, is why designers exist and why I’m a gainfully employed art major against all odds. Once I figured out the whole coffee routine, I was able to chill and watch the sunrise over the city while a couple still-awake friends in the US messaged me.

Japanese hotel coffee

Special Exceptions for the Very Special Gaijin

I thought I’d be able to return to the lounge area downstairs for a quick nic fix with my coffee, but found it was closed and no entry was allowed. When I asked the front desk where the closest cage was outdoors, they escorted me into the lounge for a “special exception.” Everyone is so polite in this country, I don’t even know what to do with it. I’ve already managed to accidentally offend multiple times in a span of a few hours and they just… keep being nice to me. Gaijin. What can I say?

Side note for those of you who haven’t made use of contextual clues in these two posts, “gaijin” means “foreigner”… and, apparently, being gaijin allows you many “special exceptions” for unintentionally being an asshole. Or, maybe even for just being as asshole. I haven’t tested that approach out just yet.

More Etiquette… & Vacation Brekkie, Of Course

I headed back up to the hotel room to get ready for an easy day of sight seeing. Aside from awesomely fantastic toilets, our hotel also had a fantastic shower and every conceivable toiletry known to man—hairbrushes, toothbrushes, razors, shaving cream. Evidently, the English translation for “body lotion” is “body milk,” which seemed to entertain Jeff for much longer than it really should have, in my humble opinion.

Another etiquette note when bathing oneself is that the bathtubs in Japan are not supposed to get soap or shampoo in them. This is considered extremely disrespectful. That’s what the shower right next to the bath is for. I have no idea why this particular custom is what it is. Might be something worth looking up later.

We left the breakfast room service tag on our door the night before because we assumed we’d be too exhausted in the morning to find a place of our own. We ended up waiting like an hour for our scheduled delivery time because we were wide awake at this point. Little did we know, the cost of food at our hotel was completely outrageous. I dunno, though. I have a thing for room service. And really overpriced hotel rental movies. Those are just my hotel “things.” Okay, and also shamelessly stealing the nicer brand toiletries.

Morning coffee in Tokyo

Golden Week Woes

After brekkie, we finally ventured out into the city. We had a couple of last minute travel planning to-dos and figured we’d handle those first thing so as not to get jammed up during Golden Week. I’m usually pretty good about researching (and avoiding) these things, but it seems I really screwed the pooch on this one—Golden Week is an entire week where the country of Japan is on holiday. Yep. That’s why our flights were literally half the cost of the surrounding week flights prices.

Also, a bagillion tours I tried to book to Mount Fuji and Aokigahara Forest (the infamous suicide forest) were completely sold out and/or not running at all because of the holiday. I also seem to be leaving my travel planning later and later these days and I’ve kind of just started winging it, a habit that gives me a little anxiety (think prescription medicines in Japan), but always works out just fine (think negative anticipation). Jeff knows I’m a negative anticipator at this point in our marriage and just ignores me now. Probably for the best.

The Tokyo Train Station

Anyhow, we walked to Tokyo Station, the busiest train station in the world in terms of daily departures. Someone told us navigating the train system in Tokyo was easy, but we basically found that there’s an entire underworld of tunnels upon tunnels (upon more tunnels) in the depths of this transit system. Fortunately, it’s reasonably well marked and most of the signs have English subtitles. But, no… not a total cinch.

We finally found the high-speed train ticket office where we booked reservations for the Bullet Train to Kyoto for the next day. I’d spent the wait on breakfast translating the specifics on a hotel notepad in preparation. Funny enough, the attendant had a few tricks up his sleeve too because, when he wanted to communicate back to us, he just held up a little flash card from a deck of them on a chain with the English translation of what he wanted to say. Vey clever, Japan. Very clever indeed.

Next, we walked to the tourist information center to see if we couldn’t find a local tour operator to Mount Fuji, but to no avail. Thwarted again. We did at least meet Pepper, a robot staff member at the center, who follows you around and offers to help you. If you say her name after you meet her, she asks how you know her. A little strange, but… go Japan. I was impressed enough to take a video on my phone.

Tokyo Sightseeing

We finally embarked on our official Tokyo sightseeing for the day, where we got to test out a new transportation system, the subway. This was a much easier feat and is actually really similar to the DC Metro system.

Apparently, it’s not uncommon for women to get groped in crowded cars, so they actually have women-only cars you can board. None of the cars were all that crowded, though, and, well… Jeff kind of hovers over most locals. Beware, locals, because Jeff is a super mean guy.

That was total sarcasm. Jeff actually has a nickname at his current job—Nice Guy Jeff. And he likes to have “Nice Guy Tuesdays.” If anyone would “handle” that problem, it would be me and they’d have a suddenly insane, very small person on their hands. Despite hearing this one thing, I don’t think I’d be afraid to travel solo to Tokyo at all. Seems super safe.

Senso-ji Temple walkway

Senso-Ji Temple

We stopped off at the “most sacred and most spectacular” temple in Tokyo—Senso-ji. The gigantic entrance is called Kaminarimon Gate, which opens up to a long strip of little shops, or Nakamise-dori. This is where I found my “beckoning cat” trinket. I typically only purchase postcards when traveling, but it’s true, I do have a thing for beckoning cats, the little cats with the waving paw. Just add it to the Cat Lady List. I’m comfortable with that.

The temple and its grounds were amazing. It seemed like every which way you turned, there was another custom being honored, most of which I attempted to partake in. There was an incense hut, where you waft incense over yourself for good health. There was a water fountain with little cups that people poured over the edge of the fountain. I have no idea what that one was for, didn’t try it. There was a big decorative honoring area where you tossed coins in some sort of contraption and prayed and made a wish. And lots of little statues in surrounding gardens to which people were praying.

Senso-ji Temple detail in Tokyo, Japan

They had small huts where you shake a metal canister with sticks in it and select a stick. The stick has a number on it and a corresponding fortune. They warn you that not all the fortunes are positive. Fortunately, I got No. 11 Best Fortune! “You can get both treasure and dignity. Your family business will be really prosperous. Your skill will extremely develop and will be well-known to the people even in the capital. Shooting arrows to the sky brings you big game. You are happy, you can also get help and assistance of the gods.” Sounds good to me, shoot.

Senso-ji Temple statue in Tokyo, Japan

Out & About

We stopped at a small side street cafe to grab our first legit Japanese udon. It was pretty good, but not exactly an American-sized portion. Not that either of us needed one. There was something to the side that I figured was shredded cabbage and I took a whole mouthful of it. Whatever it was, it was insanely spicy (like… owie-spicy), a little sour. Kimchi-ish, but spicier. Reddish-orange in color. Note to self: do not take a whole mouthful of something when you have no idea what it is. Just… don’t do it. Took me a moment to recover from that one.

Senso-ji market in Tokyo, Japan

We started walking towards a park with a garden and temples and cherry blossoms (Ueno), but by the time we were almost there, a complete deluge had ensued and we figured we were tapped. Not to mention that Jeff forgot his raincoat and, I dunno, his $5 umbrella was of questionable quality at best. Made our way back to the subway to call it a day. One of the things I love about the train tracks here are that, underneath them, in tiny side alleyways, there are tons of little half-dome shaped bars and restaurants. I’m certain those are actually the best places to have a few drinks and eat and interact with locals, but we’ve yet to stop at one, unfortunately.

Drinking With a Japanese Psychic

Arrived back at the hotel, where we stopped off at the lounge for a smoke break and ordered some alcoholic beverages. Little did we know, the guy next to us was giving a psychic reading to some very well-to-do business man. I’ve read the Japanese are very superstitious. The psychic did the deepest bow I’ve seen yet upon the businessman’s departure. How do I know all of this? Well, the physic introduced himself to us and started sensing our auras by placing his hands very closely over ours and over our heads. He didn’t speak much English, so we literally used Google Translate for an hour (plus?) long conversation. The wonders of modern technology.

I’m not exactly sure how good of a psychic he was, but he was a really nice guy nonetheless. He said we had wonderful balance in our relationship and asked what we did for a living—creative director and law firm accountant. “Oh, very soft and very diligent! Good balance, yes?” I’m not so sure many people would say I’m a “soft” worker, but I got the general gist of what he was saying.

The Best Fortune

We told him about our trip thus far and our plans and asked if he had recommendations. I asked him of he’d been to Aokigahara as a psychic and experienced the “yurei,” or lost souls. Twice. He actually even asked the waiter to connect with the concierge so we might get an excursion to Mount Fuji, but alas, still none were available. Very kind gesture.

He flipped through our tour book for recommendations and my No. 11 Best Fortune paper fell out of it. He, more or less, exclaimed with glee and said we were blessed. “This is very, very good fortune.” Thank you, psychic. Actually, I think it’s the “best.” (Okay, okay, I feel sorta bad taunting him because he was so kind to us, but it’s all in good fun. Way more entertaining than the Australian tuna salesman we attempted to converse with on the other side of us. Happier, too.)

After all this, our day was done. Apparently, we walked 7.31 miles, so I’d say we put a pretty good effort on what was supposed to be our easy-going, jet lag day. Tomorrow: SUMO!!! And Kyoto on the Bullet Train.

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