Sunday, March 11
Double whammy. Six months with Mari & one year since the Tohoku Earthquake (東北地方太平洋沖地震.) It was a busy day. Let’s start with the good.
Six months with the girlfriend. Six amazing months! We spent the day down by the coast in Yokosuka (横須賀.) The plum trees (梅) were blossoming and marked the early beginning of spring. We visited a park atop a large hill and strolled around. The trees were blooming. The sun was warm. Laughter filled the air. It felt great.
We completed our walk and pushed closer towards the sea. We were near a major US Navy base. Americans were everywhere. I heard English. I saw massive (tall & fat) foreigners. They seemed foreign to me. I found myself not identifying with the Americans. Then again I don’t identify with Japanese people either. I feel like I’m occupying some strange place between the cultures. Strange and at times lonely.
Walking along the waterfront we chanced across an old Japanese battleship turned museum. It was the Mikasa (三笠.) It had fought in the Russo-Japanese war and had long been a source of national pride. Mari was kind and let us spend an hour walking around the decks and inside the ship. Isn’t she awesome?
Being a history major, I found the whole experience fantastic. At the stern of the ship flew the Imperial Japanese flag. I have never seen that flag on display in Japan. I had also never seen Japanese culture embrace anything war-related. The whole scene made Mari feel a bit uncomfortable. Understandably so. However I marveled at what was a true historical rarity in this country. We soon left and forgot all about it.
We ate dinner in Yokohama and stayed together as long as possible. By the end of the day we had easily walked 20 km and were spent. It had been a good day together and we both looked forward to another six months together.
Earthquake. Tsunami. Radiation.
Exactly one year since the Tohoku quake and triple disaster. It occupied the back of my mind the whole day. At 2:46 PM, Mari and I stopped walking and stood still on the sidewalk. We bowed our heads for a moment of prayer. In the distance I could hear bells chiming. My awareness of the enormity of the situation had grown over the year. Now suddenly it was the anniversary. My mind flashed back to my first image at work and on the hospital television. To stories I had heard. To invisible threats of radiation.
Then a car sped by next to me. My attention broke. The world kept turning. I grabbed my girlfriend’s hand and we kept walking.
Wednesday, March 14
White Day! White Day in Japan is what Valentine’s Day is in the US. Every white day men should shower women with gifts. And on Valentine’s Day women lavish men with chocolates. I like it! And so when in Rome, do as the Romans…
I met Mari after work. I gave her some sweets from my local bakery and a wooden flower to decorate her garden. We hung around Starbucks and chatted until they closed. Mari was happy to receive her gifts. But more importantly she was happy to see me on a weekday after work. I felt the same.
Saturday, March 17
BEEP BEEP. BEEP BEEP. BEEP BEEP.
The sun wasn’t awake yet. Why should I be? Because my baby brother was coming to visit! I brewed a to-go-coffee and brushed my teeth while the bread was toasting. Pocketed a banana and hit the road. I took the first train and zig zagged my way into southern Tokyo, home of Haneda International Airport. I found my brother, Max, and his girlfriend, Kelsey, waiting for me. I hurried my pace when I saw them and embraced my brother in a long and tight hug.
“You’re huge!” I said.
“And you’re tiny!” He replied.
16 months apart and we picked up right where we had left off.
I gave Kelsey a hug too. We picked up their bags and began the trip home.
“I have to work at eleven today, so we need to hurry back.”
We made all of our trains back. Max & Kelsey (herein referred to as M&K) were immediately introduced to the world of Tokyo & Japan. Trains. People everywhere. And a sense of hurry. We returned home and joined Mari for breakfast. The meal was quick as I was soon out the door for work.
I could barely contain my excitement during my morning classes. My brother had just relocated 9,000 miles and was now sitting in my apartment! I left the office for lunch and found my guests waiting downstairs. I took them to one of my favorite Japanese fast food restaurants: Coco Ichi! I introduced them to the wonderful world of Japanese curry. They liked it as much as I did.
Back to work. After a quick evening shift I again joined my brother. This time I took them to my favorite bar, Angie Cafe. Angie Cafe is run by an old Japanese woman, whom I call Angie. It’s decorated with 1960’s Hollywood and French memorabilia. The music is always something groovy from decades past. I love it, and so did they. Mari joined us for a drink and some dinner. Before long the jet lag had caught up with M&K. We called it a day and went home.
Sunday, March 18
Sunday came and we went to northern Tokyo, to Asakusa (浅草.) Asakusa is an old part of Tokyo and a popular tourist destination. It was actually my first visit too, so Mari was our tour guide. There we visited M&K’s first Buddhist temple. We prayed, bought fortunes, and had good luck. Here we could have a great view of new Tokyo Sky Tree and Asahi building. Lunch was okonomiyaki and monjayaki (お好み焼き と もんじゃ焼き.) A delicious Japanese food that I’ve blogged about on more than one occasion.
Next stop; western Tokyo and the Ghibli Museum. Ghibli studios is an internationally renowned animation studio. They’ve produced 18 films of which I’ve seen 17. Max wanted to visit so we made a point to do it. Mari had bought us tickets in advance, as is required. We were granted admission and spent two hours wandering around the museum. Almost everything was in Japanese, but it was still easy to understand and appreciate. We finished our tour with an ice cream cone and hit the road.
Dinner was in Shimokitazawa (下北沢) a fun college district I’ve mentioned before. We ate dinner at a small hip restaurant. Mari and Kelsey are vegetarians. Max is a carnivore. I’m somewhere in between. Vegetarian tacos for the ladies, steak for the gentleman. I joined the ladies team this time. A round of highballs were order. Basically whiskey & tonic water. Welcome to the world of Japanese businessmen, my brother!
We paid the bill and left for home. Another busy day and we were tuckered out!
Monday, March 19
We started our day as so many people in Tokyo do; on the train. We took two trains to visit Yoyogi Park (代々木公園.) This is Tokyo’s equivalent to New York’s Central Park. While there we also visited Meji Shrine (明治神宮), a major shrine dedicated to the late emperor Meji. Pictures. Souvenirs. Exit.
We took a quick walk down Harajuku’s (原宿) main shopping street. This street is as wide as a single American driving lane. And it is also packed with thousands of pedestrians at all times. We fought like salmon moving through the crowd and finally came out the other side.
“That was the main strip. Do you want to go back and see any shops?” I asked.
“No,” they said together.
I’m glad they could sample a bit of Tokyo’s crowds. Even if it was a Monday, it was busy enough to get a feel for what I deal with every week here.
Next stop: Shinjuku (新宿)!
Equidistant, and equally far away, were the two nearest stations. We decided to walk to Shinjuku instead. We visited a convenience store (コンビニ) and secured our first road beers. It was a little early in the day to be drinking. But what the heck? You simply must experience walking down the sidewalk with an open container while in Japan. I even gave a slight bow to the police officers as we passed their station. A short time later and we had arrived at the station. We recycled our cans. I got my bearings and we were off. Lunch time.
What better lunch than sushi! We visited my favorite conveyor-belt sushi restaurant (回転寿し) and took a seat. Soy sauce with wasabi & hot green tea were served to all. I started pulling plates off of the belt and explained how best to eat. Grab your chopsticks. Pinch. Dip. Eat. Savor. We tried an assortment of dishes. I was blown away by my brother. The picky eater I remembered from growing up was trying new & “strange” things. Whatever I put in front of him he would eat. Some things he enjoyed, other things he didn’t. I was amazed. We left with a bow.
Akihabara (秋葉原)! Tokyo’s famous electric town! We took a ride on the famous Yamanote line (山手線) . Another must-do for anyone visiting Tokyo. Akihabara can be viewed in an afternoon. And that’s exactly what we did. We visited an electronics store and an arcade. Max and I found a brand new Dragon Ball Z arcade game. We proceeded to drool over the controls as we played. Kelsey was not amused. We were enchanted. After we spent more than a few quarters we returned to the sunlight. Bright! Satisfied we had seen it all we hopped a train back to Shinjuku.
Outside the station we found Elisha & Lauren. Time for karaoke (カラオケ.) We visited a karaoke joint and enjoyed two hours of singing and all-you-can-drink (飲み補題.) M&K soon took a liking to singing out their favorite songs. More than once I had to wrestle the microphone out of Max’s hands. All too soon the time was up and we had to leave. We said goodbye to my old friends and were suddenly unaccompanied & unsupervised in downtown Tokyo. Joy!
We did some light window shopping and made a visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Office building. We took a free elevator to the 49th floor and looked out over the city. Clearly the view was nothing like in Nebraska. When we had enough we walked back to the station. Dinner time.
I took my guests to an interesting area near the station. In a small block next to the station is an eating area. Small, poorly lit walking paths twisted around leading us past dozens of Japanese barbecue shops (焼き肉.) We had a seat and placed an order. Vegetables for Kelsey. Mystery meat for Max & myself. I instructed Max to eat what I told him to. First chew & swallow, then I’ll tell you what you ate. And I’ll be a monkey’s uncle, he actually did it! Together we ate: tongue, lung, liver, intestines & heart. Mostly from cattle, pork & poultry. I think. I also taught him how to swallow large bites of food if you can’t stand it. I was sure to swallow my liver near whole. Yuck.
We came back home and crashed. We had easily walked 15-20 kilometers today. Lots of sightseeing, eating and drinking. It had been a successful day in Tokyo. And we still had five more days.
-The Almighty Yen-
Due to a number of domestic, and international, issues The Japanese Yen is trading at an all time. This has created severe problems for the Japanese economy. The United States Dollar is conversely staying at a low-level. Causing problems for the US economy. Yes everyone seems to be suffering except for me. I’m making out like a bandit right now!
I’m paid in yen. I plan to one day return home to the States. So I work hard, save hard, and every so often I’ll send some change home. In doing so I’m converting my yen to dollars. This is now the greatest time in 60 years to be converting in this direction. As of today I can buy 1 USD for 82 JPY. Just three years ago $1 cost ¥120. That’s a price change of ¥40 yen!
Let me put all of this into context. For simplicity, you can drop the last two digits of a Japanese price to know the USD value. Thus, a ¥100 bottle of soda is roughly equal to $1. A ¥10,000 note is $100. It’s rough math but can give you a quick idea. Using that theorem, I can buy one dollar with 82 “cents” (¥ 82 = $ 1). Now when this savings is multiplied by a factor of 1000, I can get a nice bonus transferring money. For example, today ¥100,000 = $1213. Using the ¥100:$1 ratio, I received an additional 200 dollars. Great! Right?
I am making good money now and better money when I convert. But I do need to remember that I am one of the few benefitting from this situation. The power of the yen makes Japanese exports too expensive for foreign companies. In turn Japanese sales stall and Japanese business suffer. Next workers get laid off. Tax revenue decreases. Public services are cancelled. Next a recession. Then a 25 year recession. You get the idea.
What’s good for the individual is often not good for the whole. What is good now may be gone tomorrow. Thus I should be sure to be grateful for what I have now. I shouldn’t plan on these rates forever. And most importantly, I should get to the bank right now!