Stories from a Tour of Asia III: Japan

July 12, 2004

Dear Family and Friends,

Japan is awesome even though it has not inspired me as much as my stay in India did. I have few remarkable stories to tell in part because Japan is so similar to America, at least outwardly.

I’ve played musical rooms with classmates and now am settled down with Phil, who is from Shanghai. We’ve got a great set up in an apartment hotel in Akasaka, just about the most upscale happening neighborhood in the Tokyo. Three blocks away, there is a row of restaurants half a mile long. We’ve hesitated to wander down there since about 80 percent of the places charge prices that we would consider justifiable once a year, if that often. Within walking distance is Rogoppongi, the primary club scene for foreigners and adventurous Japanese. They say of both Mt. Fuji and Rogoppongi that visiting both are necessary but only a fool skips them or visits twice.

Whether it’s paying 263 yen (a yen is about a penny) for three spoonfuls of Hagen Daz or 1,850 yen for a 1 liter bottle of sake, the cost of living in Tokyo is downright exorbitant. I was hoping the sake would get my writing juices flowing one evening but had to top it off with two itsy bitsy ice cream cups first because I was still hungry after a 2,000 yen meal and that dulled the edge. Certainly, I feel like I’m living the good life compared to most of the places that I’ve been.

God–For what I’m paying, I better be experiencing the good life. But I find even if it’s expensive, at the very least, I’m not roughing anything. Tokyo is clean, like being in a ward that has been scrubbed down with antiseptic. One of the mysteries is that there are very few trashcans but there is almost no trash anywhere to be seen. The subway is just incredibly beyond nice, convenient, fast and almost exactly comparable to the cost of riding SEPTA (What an ironic and apt acronym we have for our transportation system in Philly now that I think about it). The subway stations even have sparkling restrooms.

I’ve eaten at enough soba and undo noodle places to ensure that by the end of my stay, I will have had a lifetimes worth of noodle soup. The places are rather neat, homey and affordable, generally tending to be father and son places. They serve just about the cheapest meal you can find for 5 to 7 bucks. I’ve also been to quite a few decent restaurants. One of the honors I have had since I was among the first to arrive was to take others out to see the scene and that put a nice little dent in my pocket since walking out of the dorm cost at least $10 and probably $30. There are several little convenience stores around and although they are not particularly cheap, they are open 24 hours and have the requisite bread, peanut butter and jelly as well as plenty of dried ramen. My room also has a hot plate and a refrigerator which help keep costs down.

Temple is the only full scale US University in Japan and is not recognized by Japan’s ministry of education. This causes lots of complications and means that students do not qualify for discount travel passes and are sometimes not recognized by Japanese companies. Oddly enough, foreign companies in Japan value the education that Temple provides to its 3,000 students highly all the more so because of how different the US style of education is from Japanese institutions. The university does seem to be extraordinarily well connected and has access to the ears of the US embassy and many local business people.

The Temple campus is about mile walk from the dorm or a 5 minute subway ride and a six block walk. To tell the truth, even though we have four days of classes a week, I am in no mood for academics. We went on a corporate visit to Price Waterhouse Cooper and the gentleman decided that he wanted to talk to us about corporate citizenship. I just about wanted to smack the guy he was so patronizing. On the other hand, we had a guy come in and talk about real estate in Japan and that was incredibly interesting.

As always, personal experiences are much more powerful than general abstractions. One day, my roommate Phil and I went to Shinjuku train station in Tokyo which has millions of travelers each morning. Purportedly, Tokyo has the two busiest train stations in the world, one of which is Shinjuku. Well, Phil and I arrived about fifteen minutes too late to see the bustle but we walked around the neighborhood. Tokyo has a number of parks and at Shinjuku Park, Phil and I came across about five hundred homeless people, all men as far as we could tell. They were in a soup line and at first we could not really tell if they were homeless. Many had suits on even if they looked a little ragged.

We initially thought it might be some company sponsoring a morning breakfast in the park but continued examination revealed otherwise. Throughout the park there was make shift living quarters covered with blue tarp. I could not imagine being homeless in Tokyo since I have not seen any beggars, have no idea if beggars can collect a dime and there are no cheap places to eat. Rice costs four times what it does in the States thanks to government price fixing.

On the way back to our dorm, we found a LOVE statue just like the one we have in Philadelphia. It was quite awesome.

I think my favorite experience so far has been visiting Tsujiki, Tokyo’s Fish Market. Japan consumes a sixth of the world’s fish and one third of it passes through Tsujiki. We went at 5:30 am the morning.
The market has an indoor and outdoor section and both are several acres. Inside there are thousands of stalls specializing in every type of seafood you can imagine. Little motorized flatbed carts zoom back and forth all over the place. In one section there are lines of frozen 300 pound tunas being auctioned off one at a time to the wholesales food buyers and the best restaurants in town. After visiting the market, five of us went for sushi. It was about $20 bucks a person and it was the best sushi I’ve ever had. At 9:30am, we still had the whole day free.

I made a trip to Hiroshima which was quite moving. The Shinkansen (bullet trains) was similar to the one I rode in Spain, very fast and convenient. Five hours flew by like nothing. The city has created a park to commemorate the neighborhood demolished as a result of the Atom bomb. The statistics on the horrors wrecked by the bomb were quite overwhelming. 140,000 people died in the year after the bomb exploded. I loved the letter the Mayor of Hiroshima wrote to President Bush asking him to visit the city’s museum before going to war in Iraq even if it was to no avail.

I’ve been to half a dozen shrines and lots of commercial districts in Tokyo, most of which are quite nice. I am trying to pick up a little Japanese and it’s not too hard but I need to put some more effort into it. There is this one spot with teenager girls dress up as Goths and hang out. It is corny but neat. It doesn’t look like I will have time to climb Mt. Fuji but I will probably go to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka this weekend. I’ll try to send another missive before I leave Japan in two weeks.

All for now,
Mike

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~ by Admin on July 12, 2004.

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