I actually tried to go to Japan through the JET program, but that fell through. Totally my own fault; I failed in spite of getting a ton of help from my awesome college professors. That made it easy to choose where to go for my last trip. If I couldn't go as a teacher, I'd go as a tourist.
Since Tokyo recently topped a list of the most expensive cities in the world, my choice of accommodation was critical. I felt I had too much luggage to risk staying in a hostel, so I looked for the cheapest hotel I could find. I finally settled on the Asia Center of Japan after reading a review in Frommer's. Although the review described it as college dormitory-style, the recent renovations made it nice enough to qualify as a real hotel. The review was right in how small the single rooms were. My room was about as big as my walk-in closet at home!
Before I went to the more Blade Runner-esque parts of Tokyo, I wanted see the old Japan. So my first stop was the Meiji-jingu Shrine.
It's in Yoyogi park on the west side of the city. I washed my hands in a big stone basin, walked up the steps to wooden offering boxes that blocked the inner sanctum of the shrine. I had to watch other people to figure out what to do: throw a coin into the offering box, bow twice, clap twice, and then bow once more. There was a gift shop that sold charms for every occasion: good luck, recovery from illness, etc. The most expensive charms were these: "Charm for Passing an Entrance Exam."
The receptionist at my hotel told me about an international festival that would be going on in Azabu Juban, a big embassy district full of foreign representatives. During the subway ride there, I met Reiko, a Japanese girl on her way to the same festival. I complimented her on her excellent English. She was an American Studies major and had studied abroad in America for a year. Now Reiko worked as an advisor to foreign students studying in Japan.
The streets of Azabu Juban were crowded with celebrants that night. A good portion of the people were dressed in traditional kimonos. Everybody had fans to keep themselves cool. All kinds of food were on display: fish heads on sticks, Turkish kebabs, Indian cuisine, etc. I drank Asahi beer while Reiko looked for something. I met her under the stage where taiko drummers were performing. She brought back Japanese food. I was so hungry I started eating immediately.
"This tastes pretty good," I said. "What is this?"
"Takoyaki," Reiko answered.
"What's that?" I asked, munching away happily.
I guess that wasn't enough seafood for me, since I visited the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market. It's a tourist attraction and it's not. There's no gleaming displays and a path set aside for visitors. I was just thrown into the chaotic, noisy, stinking real deal. Men whizzed by in little motorized loading carts. Fisherman carved up giant fish on cutting boards. Water spilled from wash basins.
I had met Estelle, a blonde American girl, when we were both trying to find the market.
We went around to all the booths, amazed at the variety. A couple of times we couldn't recognize the animal we were looking at.
At one fish display, Estelle said, "Look at how fresh this fish is!" She started poking at it.
I heard a burst of yelling. I looked up. Nearby, a big Japanese man with a big knife was cursing us.
As calmly as possible, I tapped Estelle on the shoulder.
"What?" she asked.
"That man over there, he says to stop touching his fish," I said.
Estelle caught sight of him, and we both quickly moved on.
After we'd escaped, she asked, "Wow! Do you understand Japanese?"
"Not really. His knife did all the translating."
On my last day, I went to Shinjuku. This was the full-on Tokyo I'd imagined: it was packed with neon lights, pachinko parlors, giant TV screens on buildings, and a tourist attraction I wasn't expecting.
As usual, I had gotten lost. Always happens when I'm in a new city. I wound through side streets trying to get back onto the main drag. I stumbled onto an alley where a bunch of Japanese men in suits were standing outside a run-down doorway.
At first, I thought they were just salarymen. When I took a closer look, I noticed that they seemed too big for the suits they were wearing. Bouncers at a club? I checked my watch: only 6:00pm. Too early for them to be throwing out troublemakers. Maybe they were Yakuza. I tried to see if they had cut-off fingers.
I stared for too long. One of them, a chunky one with an unshaven face, looked right at me. Oh shit! I did an awkward about-face and got the hell out of there. Your fearless reporter in action.
That's it for Tokyo. I have some disappointing news. This won't be the start of an all-out blitz through Asia like I did through Europe. Have to start working and saving some money! So the next country I visit will be a longer stay. I've never worked abroad before, so a lot of things can go wrong. I hope everything works out.
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
I had just completed my latest bowel movement when I noticed a row of controls on the side of the toilet. At random, I pushed the blue button. A jet of hot water shot into my ass! I was so shocked I almost leaped out of the seat. I didn't think my hotel room was expensive enough to have one of those hi-tech toilets.
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