Japan Trip Six: Arrival

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This is the sixth part of the multi part series. This post will cover my arrival in Japan, so I suppose you could start here if you wanted. The only trouble is, it might not make a lot of sense without the background information. Please back track to the first post, here. If you already faithfully read all that came before, I commend you, and you may proceed without confusion. 

As I stepped off the airplane and into the gate, it felt like I had been hit by a wall of humidity. After the freezing interior of the plane, where I had sat shivering for the past thirteen hours, it was like stepping into a warm bath. At first it was a relief, and then after walking for a few minutes it was becoming uncomfortable.

I would never dream of complaining, since my entire trip was paid for and it was a once in a life time opportunity...but I come from Alaska originally, and I have always hated hot summers. If I had been picking the time of my trip, I should never have settled on going to Honshu in the end of June. However, none of that mattered anyway, because I was in Japan. From the moment that the wheels had hit the tarmac, I had finally accomplished my greatest goal in life and found my way to Japan. 

My eyes roved from side to side taking in everything. So far, it wasn't much different from every other airport I had been to in America. Blank walls, long hallways, typical walk to the gate. The only real sign that I was in Japan were the signs, which were in both English and Japanese. Mostly they were written in hiragana, the phonetic alphabet, which I just so happen to be able to read. Not that I can understand what I'm reading, but hey, baby steps. I got a lot of joy out of being able to sound out those signs while I made my way to customs. 

Narita airport is a big place, and the busiest international airport in Japan. It took me a little while to figure my way out of it, but I finally I had my luggage, I had cleared customs and I was headed out of the doors. There was a throng outside the airport, people picking up friends, family, or clients. I barely had time to take in the crowd before I heard someone shouting "Kipp-San!" I turned to the left and saw three people beckoning to me. One of them was holding a large camera. Here we go again. I rolled my suitcase their way and put my show-face on. 

I had already been informed that Mari-San wouldn't be available to film the second part of my episode. None of these faces were familiar to me, but they all beamed and treated me like a long lost friend. The new director, a small man with dazzling orange tinted glasses, started talking to me immediately. The woman to his right, my new interpreter, started translating in flawless, British accented, English. 

"Welcome to Japan!" they said. I can remember very little of what was actually said during these first moments, I was so overwhelmed, and it took me a few minutes to adjust. They asked me what I thought about Japan so far, how the flight had been, and if I was excited to try kamaboko. I nodded and smiled and answered to the best of my abilities. They then asked me if I had heard of Nagasaki. When I said I had, they asked if I knew anything about it. I suddenly felt pretty awkward as an American. "Um, a little?" 

"Did you know that it's famous for it's kamaboko?" the director asked me. 

"Oh, no, I didn't," I said. 

"Oh, then how do you know about Nagasaki?" he asked. 

I hesitated to mention 1945. "It's one of the better known Japanese cities," I said hurriedly. 

"Well, that's where we will be going tomorrow," said the director with great excitement. After I had expressed my enthusiasm, the director spoke to the interpreter in a low voice. She turned to me and said, "Sorry, but he's going to ask you again if you know anything about Nagasaki. Could you just say that it's famous for its kamaboko?" This was my first introduction to the unreality of television. The director asked me again and I prattled for a few seconds about the cities incredible kamaboko. Satisfied, the director nodded his head to the cameraman, and the lens moved away from my face. The director shook my hand and welcomed me to Japan. I asked him what his name was and he paused. 

"He says he'll have to think about it," said the interpreter. "His name is too long, so he'll think of something you can call him." I tried not to laugh. 

"I'm Saori," said my interpreter, also shaking my hand. 

The unnamed director beckoned and we followed him out of the airport. Across the street, a van was waiting for us, as well as a small group of people. They immediately began opening the doors, taking my bags, and collecting up their gear. There were two young men, a woman, and an older man with long black hair and large gages. The woman bowed and welcomed me to Japan, speaking in English. I was glad that there were two people I would be able to speak to normally. 

Everyone piled into the van and slowly we pulled away from the airport. Narita is located about an hour outside of Tokyo, and is of course a complex of modern buildings, roadways, and parking lots. It was hard to really get a feel for being in Japan until we had passed these structures and got onto the highway. It was sometime around then that I realized that the man with the long hair and gages was driving, and that he was sitting on the right hand side of the van. And that meant, of course, that we were driving on the left side of the road. This was something that I had known about Japan, but it was singularly bizarre to experience it. 

I tried to look at the countryside as we drove, but it was hard to see, since there were tall concrete walls on either side of the highway. Before I could really take in that I was in another country, Saori-San started asking me about life in Maine. She asked if we had very harsh winters and I said, no, not really, not on the coast anyway. "Do you have summertime?" she asked. I was confused and must have looked it, because she continued.

"I don't know if you do it in America," she said, "but in Britain they change the time, during the summer, and then again in the winter." 

"Oh," I said, "yes, we have it, but we call it Daylight Savings Time. You don't do that here?"

"No," she said. "Why do they do it in America?"

"Well, they say that it's for farmers," I said, "but it's pretty universally hated in America." Of all the things that I would first talk about in Japan, I didn't think Daylight Savings Time would be one. 

We drove on for a while, me talking with Saori-San and sometimes the director. Suddenly, everyone got really excited, pointing out of the window and attracting my attention. I looked where they were indicating, but only saw a somewhat strange collection of colorful concrete buildings. "It's Disneyland," said Saori-San. "Oh," I said, looking again, but the buildings were passed. Someone else said something and everyone started laughing. For a minute I thought that they were laughing at me, in the self-conscious sort of way you do when everyone else is speaking a different language.

Saori-San smiled at me and explained. "I guess they were excited to show you Disneyland, but it turned out that was just a Disney hotel." "Oh," I said again. 

"I'm not really into that sort of thing," said Saori-San. I said I wasn't either, meaning theme parks. "I don't even really know what it's all about," she continued. "What is it? Mice?"

"Oh," I said. "Well, a mouse, Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse and Princesses."

Saori-San looked very confused. I had one of those weird out of body experiences when you see your familiar culture through someone else's eyes and realized how bat-poop-crazy it sounds. 

Once the conversation had died down a little, I rested my head against the window and watched the countryside fly by. I was exhausted. I hadn't slept in about twenty four hours, not to mention it was about four o'clock in the morning according to my internal clock. Before I realized what was happening, I nodded off. 

Fifteen minutes later I jerked awake, and quickly wiped the drool off my hand. We were just entering the city. I don't spend a lot of time in cities in general. Aside from the occasional visits to Portland, or passing through Boston on my way to Nantucket, I'm a country bumpkin. The last time I was in a city as impressive as Tokyo was the summer of my freshman year of high school, when my dad took me on a trip to New York. Tokyo was breathtaking. 

We drove over the Rainbow Bridge, and I was treated to a stunning view of Tokyo Tower, the iconic red lattice structure built in the 1950s. It was like a cross between the Eiffel Tower and the rocket ship that Tintin flew to the moon. Despite the fact that I had been asleep seconds before, I felt wide away, my eyes taking in everything. The tall buildings, the green trees, and Tokyo Bay. Unfortunately, I didn't think to take any pictures. 

  Since I didn't take any pictures, I've done a sketch.

Since I didn't take any pictures, I've done a sketch.

Saori-San told me that I would be staying in Shibuya that night. "I don't want to give you a heart attack or anything," she said, "but we have to be up at four tomorrow morning to catch your flight." My heart sank. I had been hoping that we would take the train to Nagasaki, not an airplane. But, I consoled myself and said that I could be up at four. 

"We are planning on taking you out for a little welcome dinner tonight," she continued. "We're going to the hotel first to check in and drop off your luggage. I know you're probably tired, but how long do you think you need to be ready to go out?" 

"An hour?" I said, tentatively. Saori-San held a brief conversation with the director and came back with fifteen minutes. Very well, but I was going to take a shower, damnit. 

We arrived at the hotel in Shibuya, an APA Hotel, which was the very chain that I had booked myself for the four days I was spending in Tokyo after filming. I mentioned this to the director and he told me that he has stayed in a lot of hotels over his life. These hotels had very small rooms, but they were always clean. They unloaded my luggage and I was escorted inside by Saori-San, the other woman, and one of the young men. 

The young man and woman checked in and then gave me my keycard. I was shepherded into the elevator. "We'll meet you down here in fifteen minutes," said Saori-San as the doors closed. I found my way to my room, 803, and resisted the urge to collapse onto the bed. Instead I speed showered, got into my nicest black dress and headed back downstairs. 

Saori-San and the other woman, who I still didn't know the name of, met me in the lobby. Outside, we joined the director and cameraman, the others had disappeared. The director smiled at me and gestured to the right, indicating the direction we would be walking. "It's just a short walk to the restaurant," Saori-San explained. 

Shibuya is one of the busiest wards in Tokyo. It's famous for its shopping, nightlife, and fashion. The iconic 109 department store, which I wrote about in my emoji post, was within walking distance of my hotel. Knowing these things about Shibuya, I was expecting it to be very busy, to be buffeted by crowds of pedestrians, and keep my eyes peeled for my party. However, it wasn't a busy night, the sidewalks housed a good number of people, but nothing I hadn't seen before. I felt at ease and was able to take in my surrounding. Despite the fact that I was experiencing the double culture shock of being in a big city and a foreign country, I felt wonderful. I could hardly believe I was there, but I loved it. 

Several blocks from the hotel, we turned down a side street. These are my favorite part of Tokyo, narrow roads that are always filled with people, not minding the sidewalks at all. If cars ever do have to drive down these little streets they must have to wait for people to move aside, like Moses parting the Red Sea. Shops, restaurants and night clubs line the road, their neon signs and music spilling out and welcoming in people from outside.

  I was walking while I took these, so they're a bit out of focus.

I was walking while I took these, so they're a bit out of focus.

 This is the side street where the restaurant was located.

This is the side street where the restaurant was located.

As we walked, Saori-San pointed out a certain American fast-food chain that serves mostly "Mexican" food. "That's American, right?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. 

"Here it's really popular," she told me. "Good quality."

"Really?" I said, surprised. "In America it's pretty much considered to be the lowest quality fast food." This surprised her greatly. Hmmm, maybe someone who was raised a liberal hippie isn't the best ambassador for American culture...

Finally, the director lead the way into the restaurant, which was basement level, and reached by a narrow staircase. I don't remember the name, but I do know that it had "Goma" in it, which is Japanese for sesame. It was dimly lit inside, with a long bar and a red decor. We followed a waiter around a wall and took a long booth style seat, big enough for at least ten people. I sat between the two ladies, facing the director and camera man. Menus were handed around and Saori-San helped me interpret them. 

This was the first time I was introduced to a popular dining out method for Japanese people. It was like ordering a selection of appetizers and sharing them with everyone. Everything on the menu had some sort of sesame aspect to it. Everyone picked a few items and placed their orders with the waiter.

A few minutes later he appeared with a giant bowl of steamed edamame beans still in the pod. I was given a plastic bag to place over my hand and given the honor of grabbing a fistful for our table. "Get a good amount for us to share," said the director, miming a massive portion with his own hand. I dug in and attempted to do as bid, but my hands are pretty small, and the beans were somewhat slippery. Our portion was pitiful but the waiter took pity on us and added his own handful to the bowl.

If you've ever been to a Japanese restaurant, you've probably seen people eating edamame beans like this. The trick is to put the whole pod in your mouth and gently bite down on the edge, then pull the pod out, pushing the beans into your mouth with your teeth. Boy, that sounds weird when you write it out. I don't know if I've just never had nice fresh edamame beans, which I'm sure these were, but I have always disliked them. Eating them here, in a real Japanese restaurant, surrounded by people enjoying them...damned if they weren't delicious. 

 
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Our dishes began to arrive, starting with raw eggplant with a miso sesame sauce. I would never have thought about eating eggplant raw, but it was amazing. It's such a bland vegetable, that usually gets paired with flavorful foods, that I never really realized what a delicate flavor of its own it has.

 
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Next was a salad made with thin crispy noodles and shredded cabbage. It had a ketchup like dressing, which made it taste like a french fry salad. Is that weird? Possibly, but it worked.

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There was a sesame and beef lasagna, which sounds like an odd addition, but was actually really good. Also a delightfully fresh Chinese parsley salad with shrimp, which I could have eaten a giant bowl of. The grilled chicken with a thick sesame sauce was very tasty as well. I had to pace myself to not eat to much of everything. 

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You know burdock? That stuff that you have to pull off of your dogs fur, and sticks to everything? Well, it's delicious, or rather, its roots are. I've had them in soup before, but the best way to eat them is definitely cut into strips and deep fried. They were like crispy carrot chips. Perhaps the oddest looking dish to arrive at our table was one of the tastiest. Chicken meat balls coated in sticky rice. The meat was so juicy and delectable, the rice was sticky and slightly sweet. I could have eaten my weight in them.

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But the acme of the meal, for me at least, was the plate of grilled oysters from Tokyo Bay. When I was a little kid, my family lived in the Alaskan bush where we grew oysters for the half shell market, so I'm always interested to try selections from different places. These oysters were fat, rich, and perfect. They were much more similar to my families harvest than any of the oysters I've had from Maine. The green stuff you see on there is a sauce made from shiso, my favorite Japanese herb. 

While we ate, they asked me a lot of questions about myself and my life in America. Saori-San translated for everyone, and also kept up a steady conversation with me herself. Any time that there was a word that she was unsure of she would type it into her phone to translate it. The other woman, spoke less English, but she did ask me if I played Pokemon Go. When I said I did she told me to make sure that I checked whenever I had wifi, because there were Pokemon all over the place in Tokyo. I noticed that she had the most amazing manicure I have ever seen, with tiny jewel studs embedded in the nail. If I had those, I know I would get caught on literally everything, but I thought they were beautiful. 

When the plates were cleared away, we were suddenly joined by the two young men from the airport. Saori-San told me that they had been preparing for the trip tomorrow, but that they wanted to do introductions before I went back to the hotel. Since I still only knew Saori-San's name, this was good news. They started with the director, who had settled on the name You-San (pronounced Yo). The cameraman wanted to be called George-San. The two young men, who were the assistant directors, were Youki-San and Sato-San. The woman, who was the assistant producer, was Mine-San. I repeated everyone's name, to make sure I was pronouncing them correctly. Saori-San very helpfully wrote them down on a piece of paper for me. 

With the introductions over, Saori-San and Mine-San walked me home, while the boys stayed behind for more beer and food. While we walked, the two woman talked to each other in Japanese and I took in the beauty of Tokyo at night. There was a cool breeze, relieving the humid air. I don't think I've ever felt more utterly exhausted and more content. 

In the next post, which might not be quite so long, I shall tell you about our flight to Nagasaki and the subterfuge that the crew was engaging in. 

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Until next time, goma forever!