Friday, November 11, 2011

Tokyo: September 24, 2011

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As usual, in a new place, I had a somewhat restless first night. I woke at 2:30 a.m., then again at 4:30, and finally at 6:15 I gave up and got up. The first thing I did was to open the window. I was more than surprised to be greeted by a murder of crows, on the next building over, serenading the city as it came to life. In the distance the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower held sway over the sky line.

I welcomed the hot water as it cascaded over my head and down my torso; without a shower in the morning I never feel fully awake. Dressed and loaded for bear, I was out the door by eight.

Down at the desk I got a safety deposit box and put in my passport plus my emergency cash. I also checked my computer in for the day and found that there was a Currency Exchange Machine in the lobby. I changed a hundred and got better rate, 76 yen to the dollar (the extra 3 yen was a moral victory at least).

I had a map to a local Denny's but had difficulty in locating the restaurant. It seems that the city streets are laid out in a very counterintuitive manner, so after plodding around for a while I gave up the notion of having a "Grand Slam." 

I was right next to Yoyogi Station, so I availed myself of the opportunity to purchase a Suica card. I have a translation program on my Mac and used it to print out phrases that I thought I might need. In the customer service office I pulled out the "I want to buy a Suica Card" sheet and showed it to the JR representative. He smiled, nodded and asked for ¥2000 (about $26.32). I asked (or more accurately pantomimed) that I wanted to add additional money to the card, but he shook his head and pointed out into the station proper, where I could use one of the machines to add to my card up to 18,000 yen ($231).

Travel Tip: I highly recommend the Suica card. Very similar to Hong Kong's Octopus Card, it's a prepaid travel pass that makes using the trains and metro system a breeze. Just swipe the card and you're on your way, no need to spend time trying to figure out which ticket to buy. It's really a time saver and alleviates a lot of stress, plus you don't need exact change.

Travel Tip: Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in the world, with an average of over 3.5 million people passing through it each day. It can be very complex and confusing. I found that by using Yoyogi Station, just a few block to the south, you save a lot of time and don't have to deal with the ebb and flow of the massive crowds.

According to the internet there are more than a thousand McDonald's franchises in the greater Tokyo area, and I think that might be correct because there seems to be one on every block. After I had gotten my Suica Card, I walked across the street and got a sausage sandwich. Unfortunately I pointed to the wrong picture and got a bacon, egg and cheese McGriddle and a small Coke (and when they say small they're not kidding). I found the McGriddle part of the sandwich was not to my liking.

After I finished breakfast I consulted my pocket map and began to trek over to the skyscraper section of Shinjuku. I was looking for Bic Camera and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. My itinerary called for me to hit the camera store first, but halfway there I found signs directing me to the Metropolitan Building. I hung a left and walked five or six more blocks to the east. The "Observation Deck," on the 45th floor, is free, but there's always a line. It takes a while to get your turn to be squeezed into the elevator with 10 or 12 other individuals and be whisked up, to get your opportunity to observe.

It was a clear but somewhat hazy morning. This observatory is great place to see the city from above, but not the best place to photograph it. There are massive reflections everywhere, and the best views (of Tokyo Tower and downtown) are usurped by a restaurant. You need to be a patron if you want to photograph in that direction.

The day views were just so-so, and I decided that I'd do better if I came at night. As I was standing in line for the descending elevator ride, I noticed that they had a souvenir stamp that you could use to denote your visit. I availed myself of the opportunity by annotating my journal.

Once down, I walked back the way I came. It was a bit cooler than I would have preferred, especially in this section of the city. Skyscrapers always disrupt the normal air currents, creating wind-tunnel effects that can chill you to the bone, even on warm days.

At Bic Camera, they have a special counter for English-speaking customers. I told the representative that I was looking for a Fugifilm Finepix X100, and he found it for me immediately. The only problem was that it was $400 more than I could purchase it for in the U.S. All the cameras there were more expensive, by about 30%, than you can get them for at home. What a disappointment! I took the rep's card and headed back to my hotel.

I had an appointment with Tatsumi Orimoto at 1 p.m. I'd first met Tatsumi in the early 1970s at Chouinard's Art Institute. We were there the last year it was open; the next year, I headed to California Institute of the Arts and he'd headed to New York City. I was sitting in the lobby when he arrived at 1:30, late as usual. We hadn't seen each other for over 20 years but there was instant recognition when he came through the doors. We left looking for a cheap place to eat.

There seems to be a one restaurant for every single person in Tokyo. They are everywhere. One out of every three ground-floor establishments seems to be either a snacking, dining or drinking concern. I can't see how there is a large-enough customer base to keep them all afloat.

We found a place where Tatsumi could get soup and went in. We had to sit at the counter because we needed to be a party of three or more for a table. I sat down and he went over to the ticket machine to purchase food vouchers. A lot of lower-end establishments have vending machines that display the bill of fare. You decide what you want, insert coins and it dispenses a ticket that you then give to your server. I guess it's a way for the owner to keep his employees honest. Tatsumi passed over our tickets to a very slight young woman and within five minutes our food had arrived. I had some weird fried rice with some cheese sauce unmentioned on the menu, and he had some very hot soba (noodle soup). Plus, as he observed, I had to have my usual "girly" cola.

He wanted to show me around Kabukicho, which is Tokyo's red-light district and all-around place for "company men" to relax. It's also the place for unwary "gaijins" (foreigners) to get ripped off. It is supposedly run by some very tough Japanese, Korean and Chinese gangsters. As you enter the district, there are audio warnings playing, from the local merchant association, letting you know that visitors must beware (i.e., settle on a price before sitting down or you could end up paying a lot more than you than you think is fair).

Tatsumi is an internationally recognized performance artist, especially in Europe. He spent a lot of time there drinking ale, and that has contributed to him coming down with gout. Last month, he told me, it was so bad he had to use a wheelchair to get around. He was better now, but still couldn't walk for long distances without resting every now and then. We spent a couple of hours in Kabukicho with him pointing out the sex shops (whose signs appear innocuous to westerners, who are unfamiliar with Japanese fetish vernacular) and the dark-suited Yakuza who directed their operations. I kept trying to photograph people but they were uncooperative, and Tatsumi advised me not to push it. 

We had a late-afternoon snack at KFC and then walked back to Shinjuku Station, where we agreed that I'd meet him on Wednesday in front of the statue of Hachiko (faithful dog) in Shibuya Station. From there we'd go to his home in Kawasaki City to have dinner with "Mama." He disappeared into the bowels of the station after giving me instructions on how to get back to my hotel. And to my surprise, after following them, I found the hotel in the same place I'd left it. Once assured of its location, I then turned around and continued to explore for another few hours.

Tokyo: September 22-23, 2011

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All materials including photographs are ©2011 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios. 
All rights reserved.

The sun rose over the foothills, bringing hazy sunshine to my bedroom window. It was 6:30 as I crawled out from under the covers and slid my feet into tattered shower clogs. I was leaving for Tokyo today, and the airport shuttle would be here in a little over an hour. It had be over 43 years since I last set foot in Tokyo. I'd been stationed there as a young man; now I was returning as a much older, and only a little wiser, senior.

I'd packed yesterday, and after I showered and finished dressing I stuffed the last few toiletry items into the smaller of my two bags. I zipped up and locked them both, then carried them down the stairs, placing them out on the porch. The airport shuttle ride cost $47, which seems a little overpriced to me, but then again, I'm a frugal guy (some people might think of this as a flaw, but when you're my age and want to travel, it's definitely an asset).

As usual, Lynda and the dogs wished me a safe trip as I made my way out to the Super Shuttle-branded blue Ford van. These shuttles are always a little adventurous. They seem to shake, rattle and roll as we negotiate the arteries of the city at what seems like breakneck speed from the back seat.

LAX's Terminal 5 is Delta's main hub in Los Angeles. Their set-up has changed a little since my last flight in February, but I found the "bag drop," checking two bags (free of charge, since it was an international flight). I got my boarding pass and made my way to the TSA passenger screening area, which was the usual pain in the ass, especially going through the body scan, but it was one of the ways the government has of giving us a totally unrealistic sense of security.

Gate 58A was at the far end of the concourse. After finding it and orienting myself to the facilities, I patronized a coffee shop, purchasing hot chocolate and a cinnamon roll, my usual pre-boarding routine. I also purchased a bottle of water. They never serve enough water on the plane, which I think is one of the major causes of jet lag.

Flight DL283 (also Vietnam Airlines 3015) began boarding at 12:15. The Economy Plus was called just after Business Class, so I was able to get both my bags up in the overhead storage bin. It was around an 11-hour flight and I was hoping to sleep some. I'd splurged on a seat in Economy Plus (an extra $120 each way) in order to get some extra leg room. I was in an aisle seat, 33G, and thought I might have all three seats to myself, but just before they closed the doors a young Japanese couple arrived to occupy 33H and 33J.

They were connecting from Las Vegas, where they had just spent what seemed to be an eventful week. After we'd been served a snack and dinner they were able to sack out. I got about two or three hours of sleep, but then I was wide awake. The screen in front of me did have the first season of HBO's "Broadway Empire." It wasn't what I expected but really enjoyable. I also got in a few episodes of Game of Thrones, which are as good as the books. An aside: Peter Dinklage really deserved the Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his roll as Tyrion Lannister.

About an hour before landing, we were served a very light breakfast snack. The young couple, just awakened, laughed at the little food boxes of dubious nutritional value. I smiled and tried out some of my Pimsleur Japanese on them, and they laughed some more. We exchanged cards and parted on very amicable terms. The big 747 had touched down right on time at 4:25 p.m., and the deplaning was fairly fast. From there I made my way through the immigration maze, where I had the mandatory photo and fingerprints taken. Past that obstacle, I grabbed a baggage cart and headed for the carousel. My bags appeared in the first third of the unloading, and I hefted them onto the cart and headed to customs, where I was given a polite pass-through.

I had done a lot of research on the internet and had the layout of the arrival area pretty well memorized. First thing I did was find the currency exchange. I had intended to exchange a thousand dollars, but the rate was only 73 yen to the dollar, so I only did $500, hoping to find a better rate somewhere else. Jesus, when I was here in the service we got 360 to the dollar. Globalization is really working great for America's working class.

I found the Limousine Bus ticket counter just where the internet diagram said it would be. I had chosen the bus over the train, even thought it was a little more expensive, because my hotel was one of its stops. I figured not having to drag my bags around Shinjuku looking for my lodgings was a great incentive. I purchased the two-day roundtrip bus-ticket and metro pass (¥6,000). It's a good deal, you pay for the round trip on the bus and get two free days on the Tokyo Metro System, for basically no cost.

I was told my bus would leave at 5:40, which was 30 minutes away. They are very strict about reservations and what bus you can board, even though most of the buses I saw left half empty.

At the next bus stop down I saw a couple I'd met waiting to depart in Los Angeles. Rick and Jane were heading to watch a Grand Prix race in Singapore, but for some reason their connecting flight from Narita was cancelled so they were forced to take a bus across Tokyo to Haneda Airport to catch another flight. They were still in good humor, but what a pain in the ass it was to make a change like that.

5:40 arrived, and my bus pulled up. I was first in the queue (which they strictly enforced) and found a seat about midway back on the driver's side of the bus. The bus ride in took a little over two hours, due mostly to heavy traffic. Hotel Sunroute Shinjuku Plaza was the last stop. The hotel has a little driveway out front and the limousine bus took up all of it. After unlatching the baggage compartment doors, the driver lifted out my two bags. The doorman said to wait, as he'd fetch a baggage cart.

For some reason, most of the hotels in Japan don't have bellmen, so you have to haul your own luggage around, which was fine with me. The cart arrived and I piled my luggage plus camera and computer bags onto it and wheeled my way inside to reception. I handed over my passport and Agoda voucher. The very well-groomed young lady behind the counter punched in a bunch of info and handed me the magnetic key card for room 1150 and amazingly didn't ask to take an impression of my credit card for incidentals.

Hotel Sunroute Shinjuku Plaza is a security-conscious place. You need the magnetic room key/card to do anything. From operating the elevators, to turning on the electricity in your room, it's all triggered by a swipe of the little magic piece of plastic.

The eleventh floor was a bit of a maze, and I had to pushed the baggage cart around a bit until I found 1150. I swiped the door knob with the card and unloaded my bags inside. I had been asked to return the baggage cart to the elevator area after I was done with it, and being the good citizen that I am, I did. Back at my room I had to climb over my bags to get inside. The passageway was so narrow that there wasn't room enough to walk around.

Once inside, the first thing I did was use the Gentleman's Convenience to relieve and refresh myself. I washed my face and combed what's left of my hair to try to rejuvenate my psyche. I needed to stay awake until at least 10 p.m. in order to adapt myself to this time zone.

I found that by placing my bags under the desk, it freed up enough space to make the room perfectly adequate. A lot of the reviews of the hotel complained about the room size and hardness of the bedding, but if you are traveling alone, the place is perfect, and I would recommend it highly.

The best thing about the room was that, unlike most high-rise buildings, the window opened. The opening wasn't more than six or eight inches, but at least I could let the outside in. I found the remote and flicked on the TV looking for a local weather forecast, then lay down for a bit to slow my heart rate and clear my head.

After 20 minutes I arranged my belongings in the most secure way I could, and then found that even after I pulled the room card out of the electrical authorization slot the TV kept playing. So I left it on and exited the room, placing the magnetic Do Not Disturb sign on the door. With my camera at my side, I was prepared for my sojourn out into the vastness that is Shinjuku.

Sunset was at 5:38 p.m., so it was near dark as I ventured out. A lot of the guidebooks all give the impression that Shinjuku could be a stand-in for the location in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," but I didn't find it nearly as dour or alienating.

I was out trying to acclimate myself a little and to walk out some of the blood that may have accumulated in my legs after sitting for so long. I also needed to find a convenience store so I could load up my mini fridge with junk. My pre-trip itinerary called for me to find an Italian restaurant to savor the goodness that is spaghetti; but I was feeling a bit overwhelmed, so after looking around for an hour without finding the Italian joint, I settled on a Big Mac and some junk from the Family Mart that was catty-cornered from the hotel. I took my purchases back to the room, loaded up the fridge and devoured my dinner.

At 10 p.m. I changed into my sweats, climbed into bed and took a Xanax in hopes of defeating "Mr. Jet Lag."