On my Air Asia flight, AA has taken lessons from Ryan Air, I bought a $5 returnable blanket and purchased a breakfast of two slices of carrot, four slices of potato and some pieces of a chicken that had been raised on sawdust and ground Styrofoam marinated in exhaust fumes. There is no other way you could get chicken to taste like that.
I was taking the tiny bolsitas Dr. F had prescribed. They come in a little tube. It requires a lot of shaking at various angles to get them to appear in the palm of your hand. A young woman on the other side of the plane saw this and decided that the little, old lady must be very ill. She sent the stewardess over to ask if I was all right.
All went smoothly at Narita until I got to Customs. There in, I suppose, the belief that I was a drug mule, they totally disemboweled my small case, putting it empty through X-ray. The large they only partially disemboweled. I was given a very intrusive body check, next door to sexual abuse. I have never, anywhere—North Korea, Saudi Arabia—had a woman guard go inside my bra and touch my genitals. Indeed, usually the woman guard tries very hard not to touch your genitals. In this case there was no such pussy footing about. Pun very much intended. It was horrible and humiliating.
However, once out of their unkind hands, all went well. The train was easy. I asked my fellow foreigners for directions. I picked up my rail pass. I found a taxi. He found the hotel. I paid 30US extra to get into my room early. I napped.
After a miserable lunch at the hotel restaurant, I went walking, finding the Roppingi Hills Mall, not that they use that last word. It is beautifully landscaped with lots of green, banks of pink and white petunias, and a Louise Bourgeois lady spider dangling her eggs in a bronze net above your head. She looks very pleased to be among the petunias.
Before I got into my room, I had a pleasant talk with a black, American man, originally from North Carolina, who admits to being a nomad. He’s been in South Korea for a number of years. Interesting.
The only glitch is, and I am embarrassed to admit it, that there are some toilets I have not been able to flush. You can have music, a heated seat–I love this—a bidet, a shower which saves toilet paper, but on two toilets encountered I could not find the flush among the multitude of options.
I bought a chit the next morning for breakfast in the hotel restaurant. There are the usual East-West anomalies. Ham is labeled bacon. There is chicken fried in armor batter. The coffee comes from a machine; oddly the cappuccino is better and stronger than the café au lait.
I received a subway map and instructions from the staff at the front desk and took off making mistakes along the way. I realized, fortunately, that I should have retrieved my ticket when it popped up from a second slot, which I hadn’t seen, because I was going to need it to exit the station. A staff member got it for me. I took the train in the wrong direction, rites of passage in a new city in an unknown country.
Coming above ground I found there were lots of signs and followed them. I do think it is charming of the Japanese to tell you how many meters you are from your destination. I knew I was in the right place because I was walking beside a dark wall of massive stones. I turned into an entrance that lead me across a park to a view of a graceful bridge, the elegant upper stories of a tower and the massive, guarded gate of the palace. I don’t care how grand or elegant these places are, they are prisons for the inhabitants.
There were tourists of all varieties, as well as Japanese but, unlike Barcelona there was no sense of being overwhelmed. From the Palace gate I went on to the East Garden, which has renovated buildings, gardens, moats and those walls made from huge dark blocks over which trees drape their green branches. Ferns sprout in the crevices, not for long though, I suspect, since the Japanese believe in housekeeping nature.
There was a small house with an exhibition of flower paintings on porcelain and screens. Two poppy paintings by Tsuchida Bakusen on hanging scrolls from 1929 were superb. I found postcards. The first I had seen.
The East Garden includes a number of interesting buildings; various guard houses, one enormously long one, where the entourages of visiting nobles await their masters’ return. This brought to mind the rowdy followers of Lear in his daughter’s castle. A tower fortress on a hill is handsome, solid and graceful. Trees are everywhere. Then there were the gardens—an area of trees, each given by it prefecture—a small waterfall in a cave of trees, a pond with lilies, iris along the shore, the usual humpbacked bridge with koi swimming in many colors on either side of it. The only disappointment was the bamboo grove, which was small and sparse.
At this point I badly needed a drink preferably with some sugar in it. Just then I came upon a “rest house” which unlike the other rest houses I’d seen had vending machines in it. As I groped for money, a Western man also examining the offerings in the machines, began discussing our options. I said I wanted something with sugar but not Coke. He bought one of the Japanese drinks and handed it to me. I took it, although startled. I was a huge help. I finished up walking along the moat with the wall dark and towering behind it.
Coming out I had no idea where I was, but started walking and recognized things. A crossing-guard with some English, confirmed my sense of direction. At a place that looked like a restaurant I entered with a Western couple. We both lost interest when we found the menu was a series of quiches.
I found my subway, discovering along the way a fine view of the old railway station. I came out at my stop and decided to try a gyoza restaurant. It was cheap, and the gyoza were very good indeed.
A Japanese sound I like a lot, the hollow clack of wooden clogs on concrete subway floors. I have seen geishas in my neighborhood but they don’t like being looked at, which considering the Western view of geishas is quite understandable.
Having breakfast in the hotel attached restaurant I looked in the kitchen and saw the “chef” pouring scrambled eggs from a large commercial plastic bag into the serving dish. Were they even made out of eggs? I stayed away from them from then on. I tried the miso soup for which you spoon dried seaweed and dried tofu into a bowl and then put your bowl under the dispenser for the soup. I don’t know whether it is loaded with MSG or it is just the quantity of sodium but I now only eat eggs, salad, yogurt and salad for breakfast because I was getting odd effects two or three hours after breakfast. Also I would develop a monster thirst.
I was trying to catch the language of the foursome sitting next to me. It sounded as though it might be Spanish. Finally I asked. They were three Romanians and one Canadian.
Following directions from the front desk, I descended into the subway and with no difficulty arrived at Asakusa. There was a way to come back by boat on the river but by that time I had lost my adventure energy. Getting out at Asakusa it was difficult to get oriented and find the temple. There are lots of shopping streets in this area. I walked one to the temple, Senso-Ji. The shops, since they were my first, were fascinating. The best was an antique shop with woodblock prints cheap (5 to 10US). But they were crude prints. He also had three of the sort of doll I’m interested in but they were not the right kind. But just seeing them was exciting.
The temple itself is large and imposing. The big red gate, the Kaminari-mon, has a monster lantern in its center in black and red, contributed by the geisha association. The main building, the Kanondo Hall, has a spectacular roof with a long low sweep. You can only stand at the entrance. The statue of the Kannon is supposedly buried beneath the hall and, therefore, not seeable.
The Five Storied Pagoda, rebuilt in 1973, is a towering eminence. There are some big and small halls dotted about with sculptures and lanterns among them, all beautiful in their reddish wood and upturned eaves. One hall, it may be Awashimado, has a female image to which women offered, once a year, their worn needles suck in cubes of tofu.
Nearby, on top of an artificial mound, is a wrenching bronze of a crowd of men in some sort of near death situation, faces agonized. I looked for an explanation but found no sign.
There is a hall where you can get a scarlet seal stamped in a book that you keep for this purpose and another with wooden plaques hanging outside it. There are two, difficult to see, dusty but superb statues on either side of the Niten-mon Gate, so protected by chicken wire that you can barely make them out. They are vigorous, dancing gods both holding what in Tibet would be called dorjes.
At first I thought, there were a lot of geishas but slowly I realized young women rent kimonos and obis to wear to the temple. The men sometimes also wore kimonos. The girls posed in outfits of their mothers’ day with elaborate hairdos and dangling ornaments but not as the Chinese pose. They are natural and a bit giggly, whereas the Chinese are all earnest Powers or Ford models. There were Japanese tourists of all ages, perhaps more than foreign tourists, a nice demographic. The temple was certainly tourist central.
I was delighted to find that the word toilet is universally understood and found one after three or four inquiries.
It was raining lightly the next morning but I decided against my poncho, although it was cold enough to pull out my down coat.
I found my way to the subway stop for the Nezu museum, changing trains. In the subway as I bought my ticket, I was helped by a young woman in a natty little uniform. She was definitely a help, but the constant smile is a strain to both the giver and receiver.
The walk to the museum is through a nice, pricy neighborhood—Prada and such– but in a leafy atmosphere. The museum was closed and will be until the beginning of June. Never, of course, would it occur to me to look on line to see if a museum was open. There were two young American women also out of luck for the museum. We talked and they urged me to go to a museum island near Kyoto. I have read about this. I told them I thought it was hype. To my surprise they could see my point.
I walked back through the elegant barrio and went, again having to change lines—this time I went in the wrong direction one stop—to the Ukio-e Ota Museum of Art which has a collection of woodblock prints. I found a sign that gave me the distance to the museum in meters. When I felt I’d reached that distance I stopped and looked about. A fellow grey haired woman came up to me and in small English and gestures asked what I was looking for. I pronounced the name as best I could and she pointed me up hill on a lane. However, when I made a wrong turn she came running up behind me to set me right. It turned out she was meeting a man and going to the museum.
It is a delightful small place with three floors. They were showing prints and etchings by Hokusai. Among the delights: roofs and kites, a red Fuji with white icing drizzling down its sides, a men riding bullocks, a long print of a waterfall with a burdened man on a path before it, a man under a tree with one leg partially extended conversing with five rats, Fuji through the circle of a tub under construction; clam diggers and Fuji in the angle of a Toriij; at Ejiri a wind blowing hats and papers while men bend against it; Fuji in the angle of some kind of construction with lots of triangles right down to the teeth of the saws; Fuji under the arch of water pouring from a pipe; Fuji seen between the naked legs of a workman.
He is really brilliant in his echoing of shapes and forms. Also he has a sense of humor.
When I left I saw a line of young people—the sign of a popular restaurant. I wandered looking for a place, crossed the big street and came down the other side where I stopped to read a menu. A chubby woman with practically no English who was leaving, with smiles and gestures urged me in, even pointing out what she had eaten. I went in and ate what she had eaten. It was a good Chinese restaurant.
The next morning I took a cab to Tokyo Station but once there had no idea where to go. An English woman, a guide with a fist full of passports, explained the system. I had coffee and a sweet potato pastry while waiting at the gate to enter the platform for the bullet train.
I noticed an American man in matching pink hat and belt, a New York Times under his arm. The Bullet Train is pretty impressive. Next to me sat a Japanese woman who tried to converse but we were mutually unintelligible. The man I’d noticed with the pink accessories sat on the other side of her. He was from outside of Boston—this was not apparent until he said the word “water”, as my New York accent shows up in “coffee”—and did better at conversing with her through an audio app on his phone. She pointed out Fuji but it was swathed—head to toe—in voluminous clouds.
Arriving in Kyoto, I found a taxi and my hotel. I went to a small restaurant down the street run by a brother and sister. The sister, the waitress, was amazed I travel alone, amazed at my age, amazed I ate with chopsticks. Her brother, the chef, seeing I was reading Mishima told me of a bookstore nearby with English books.
I am largely over my fear and into my stride.