50 Things About Japan

1. I saw a vending machine on every corner.

2. Hardly any had food, and none had underwear.

3. The ginger ale from those things was exceptionally fizzy and good.

4. There was a soda that tasted like liquid bubble gum.

5. There was a soccer field up on top of a 20-story office building in the busiest part of downtown.

6. Kids were playing on it at 10 at night. That was probably my favorite sight in Tokyo -- the juxtaposition of the soccer and the neon and the night sky.

7. Japanese drivers don't honk. Traffic was nearly unmoving in Tokyo, there were merges and lane changes and sudden stops by bus and truck, and every other kind of traffic chaos. But no honking -- therefore, it was all quite calm.

8. Yes! There is conveyor-belt sushi.

9. I got food poisoning from some of it the second day I was there and didn't eat any more sushi the entire trip.

10. Here in the U.S. I'm a pretty small person. In Japan, the size large clothes are quite a bit too small.

11. That thing about the trains being on time to the minute is true. In fact, probably my watch was wrong, but I think some of them even came early.

12. The Kyoto subway stations are dark, painted in nice colors, and impeccably clean.

13. I'm in love with the Arashiyama area in Kyoto. It reminds me of West Portal. Surprised?

14. At times I was astonished how different it is in Japan from here. At other times, I was shocked at the similarities.

15. Kazumi was the girlfriend of Daniel, the guy JD was working with in Tokyo. She was really sweet and her English was amazingly good.

16. She took me shopping in 109, a huge tower of a mall right downtown. We basically hit every shop. She didn't buy anything and I only bought one shirt, a fuzzy camisole ...

17 ... which was too small. I'm going to give it to my tiny coworker and maybe it'll fit her.

18. Anyway, I had Kazumi dying laughing the entire time by telling her what the English slogans on the clothes meant. They weren't "Engrish" -- they were just phrases, like, why would you put that on a shirt? I can't remember them right now. But some of them were not really appropriate.

19. There was a Western-style boutique. Not Western hemisphere western, but country-western. There was cow print. There was leather fringe. There were t-shirts with "Montana" on them.

20. I made Kazumi ask one shopgirl what she was playing on her CD player in the store. I don't know why I did that. Chalk it up to jet lag. I was positive I knew who was playing (rapping). But I was wrong.

21. The people that I met were the best part of going to Japan. I didn't feel that way about Italy or Germany.

22. One night in Osaka we went to dinner with a huge party of computer geeks. That's when I really started to see that no, all Japanese people do not look alike.

23. There was one guy with a really broad, flat face, a large nose, and freckles. He was skinny and he ate like a horse. The more food they'd bring, the faster he'd eat it.

24. This was a restaurant where you grill your meat on top of your table. The guy who was ordering and paying, who was the head of some company and had a fancy car, kept ordering more and more food, hours after JD and I stopped eating. Octopus, chicken belly, Kobe beef and every kind of vegetable appeared, was thrown on the grill by the CEO, and consumed by the skinny guy.

25. My least favorite part about Japan was the food. This from an avowed sushi addict! But most of what we ate wasn't sushi. I liked the cook-your-own places, but I didn't like the kaiseki -- weird little bits of I-know-not-what made into strange shapes and dyed strange colors. This is the highest of haute cuisine in Japan. By the end of the trip I was suffering severe carb-withdrawal. I remember sitting in the airport typing to Brittany, "I NEED A DONUT OH MY GOD."

26. The tea in Japan was consistently good.

27. I went to Starbucks at least once a day. Tazo tea and a waffle. Yes, a waffle. That's one thing they have in their Starbucks that we don't. Also, apple pie slices. The waffles are better.

28. JD and I had a couple of amazing cappuccinos at a place in Tokyo Station with a British-sounding name. Every cappuccino JD had was above and beyond, he said. They take their espresso drinks seriously.

29. In Kyoto we stayed our last night at a ryokan, a traditional guest house. It was one room, and before bed the maid puts out the futon on the floor, then after you get up, she puts away the futon and puts up the table.

30. Our room had a sunroom looking out onto a river. This was in the Arashiyama area I mentioned earlier. While JD napped one afternoon I sat there at the window, wrote a bunch of postcards, knitted, and looked out at the river.

31. In the ryokan, you eat a formal dinner of kaiseki in your room. At breakfast you eat more kaiseki with all the rest of the guests in the dining room.

32. Also in the ryokan, there was an onsen, a spa/hot springs kind of area, segregated by gender. Daniel had warned me I'd get stared at. He was right, the older women all seemed to give me this death glare. But there was a young woman bathing too, probably younger than me, and she was friendly and asked me in English where I was from.

33. We tried to talk in English for a few minutes and then it was discovered that we both knew some German. After that the conversation went much more smoothly. Her German was about as good as mine. It was definitely one of those moments: sitting naked, baking in a hot spring pool in a hotel in Kyoto, talking in German to a Japanese woman who was on a weekend trip.

34. At breakfast she saw me again and we chitchatted away in German -- drawing more stares, and also confused looks from our SOs.

35. Also at breakfast, there was a woman trying to say something to me about my chopsticks. I had no idea what it was -- none at all. I assumed I was doing something hinky. But then the German-speaking girl told me that she was saying I use my chopsticks very well! How's that for representing the good old US of A. It seemed like the same women who'd given me the odd looks in the onsen had now decided they liked me.

36. The most beautiful thing I saw in Japan was a Buddhist temple in Kyoto all lit up at night. I tried to take pictures but I can't even describe how it looked. Every bamboo tree was lit up in sharp relief by floodlights. On the lawn there was a mesh of Christmas-type lights that changed colors and angles. Sometimes the lawn looked like it was crawling with blue fireflies, and sometimes only the pathways were lit up. Nobody was saying anything.

37. On a train in Kyoto we saw an American -- or rather she heard us talking and joined me, JD and Daniel. She was a lawyer from Boston, traveling by herself, but very social and gregarious. We hung out with her for the rest of that afternoon and night. Unfortunately, I can't even remember her name now. But I have her email address written down at home. She said her trip was a thousand times better since she joined us because Daniel was there to talk to the taxi drivers, read the signs, and generally keep us from getting lost like a bunch of gaijin ducklings. So I'm glad we found her and I know she's glad she found us.

38. The pesto in Japan doesn't seem to have basil in it.

39. Now I remember what one of the t-shirts said: it said "Fuckin' Fuckin' Body" and Kazumi asked "What does that mean exactly?" and I said it doesn't really mean anything but she wouldn't want to wear it. She knew fuck was a swear word but didn't get the context here. Because there was none.

40. The only person to talk to me in Takeshito-dori was a Jamaican guy who said "Where are you from? Hey wait a minute! Where are you from?" Everyone else roundly ignored me.

41. The bathroom in Osaka was hooked up so that the toilet seat started to warm up when the bathroom light was turned on. The toilets in Japan are not to be rivalled. If you hit a little button with a musical note on it, sometimes the toilet will sing at you or make flushing noises.

42. You say "OH-saka," not "o-SAH-ka." But I'll probably still say it the American way.

43. White people gravitated toward me the whole trip -- mostly women by themselves, with guidebooks. One woman rushed up to me out of breath and said, desperately, in a British or Irish accent, "Do you know where the Disney store is, the Disney store!!" I said, no, I had just gotten to Tokyo that day. Then I was wondering why someone would be looking for a Disney store in Tokyo. Just go to LA!

44. I went to two parks and three shopping districts and rode the subway four times in Tokyo in one day and miraculously didn't get (too) lost. I also didn't spend very much money.

45. In the Ginza, the most expensive shopping area of Tokyo, I wandered into a department store looking for a bathroom -- and into a whole mob of paparazzi. There was an elderly lady there who was evidently some kind of fashion celebrity, likely a designer. Every cameraman and Japanese equivalent of Entertainment Tonight reporter seemed to be in evidence. I, of course, had no idea what was going on. There was another slice of life moment. I didn't buy anything in the store -- the clerks were all preoccupied and everything was too expensive anyway.

46. Speaking of money, even though it isn't directly a 1-1 ratio, I found it pretty easy to just think of $1 = 100 yen. Or 1 yen = 1 cent, as you like. In this way I didn't get completely blown away by how much I had spent.

47. On the train back to Tokyo from Kyoto, JD and I spent some time staring out the window trying to figure out which of the mountains we were passing might be Mt. Fuji. When we finally did see it, we realized there was no way we could have mistaken any other mountain for Fuji-san. The thing is huger than huge, even from hundreds of miles off. We only saw it for about a minute before the train ducked into a tunnel and then out of sight of it, but hey, we did see it.

48. I had the conceit that most people in Japan spoke English. But they don't. Witness me trying to say thank you to the cashier in Takeshita-dori and her looking at me like, What the hell, foo'.

49. If you go to Japan, bring a few packets of tissue. Some public bathrooms don't have TP. If you get lucky, you will find one that sells it in a machine for 100 yen. These machines are never broken. I read about this in a guidebook so now I'll pass it on.

50. The Gion, in Kyoto, was one of the great sights I've seen. It's the geisha district, but they weren't working on Sunday. That was OK. We wandered through the streetlamp-lit alleys -- me, JD, Daniel and the Boston lawyer -- watching the laundry flutter on clotheslines above the streets and the dishboys dump water out the side doors. We ate at a restaurant up on the second floor and could hear the tourists going by while we sat there for hours. JD heroically finished the huge meal he had unwittingly ordered, I sipped tea and sake, and there we were.

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