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Last full day, that is. I began writing this in the airport hotel before waking the boys to head over to the airport for our 11 AM Monday flight and I’m finishing it up in Dallas at 9:45 AM Monday. Amazing – it makes up for the whole two days we lost at the beginning, I guess….

Those of you who have followed this trip know that the plans changed over the month before we left. My original original thought was to split the time between Tokyo and Kyoto, and therefore fly into Tokyo and out of either Kyoto or Osaka. I then decided it would be better to stay in one place, so booked the AirBnB for Tokyo for the entire duration. Then AirBnB and Japan had their problems, so the trip was split again. For which I am now, at the end of it, very grateful. I’m so glad we spent time in Kyoto – more thoughts on that score later. When all of that came down, I looked into changing flights to leave out of Osaka or Kyoto, but the cost for changing was ridiculous (which I will never, ever understand – except I do understand – profit – but really.) so I stuck with a departure from Tokyo, knowing that we’d have to spend at least half a day getting back up here. I had hope that it wouldn’t be wasted because the town of Narita – near the airport – apparently had Things to See. Hopefully, we’d see them.

And we did – not as much as I would have liked, but we did see a few things, and, as I always say – it’s all new to me, and whatever we saw – were things that we saw, worth seeing and thinking about and learning from.

In order to see anything at the end of the day, we’d have to start early. Mass was the big challenge of the day. I’d been researching it for two days. First idea was a church less than a mile from the apartment that we could walk/train to – but as I discovered when I walked there on Saturday morning for research, Mass was at 10:30, which was too late. Next idea was a church about halfway up the train route from our place to Kyoto Station. Mass there was at 9. I thought we could just take our stuff, go to Mass, then get back on the train to the station. I got a bit of pushback on the whole “march into Mass with backpacks and suitcases” idea. Then I looked one more time and found a church with Mass at 7 am. Okay, I said, if you don’t want to do the 9 am, we’ll do 7 – but that means, well, getting up at 6 (20 minute train ride, 6 minute walk). They agreed, and my compromise was that when we got back and finished packing and cleaning, we’d grab a taxi to the station – although I felt fully confident by this point in getting us there with luggage on the train, especially since it was Sunday morning – but they, again, were not enthused.

And it worked. We got up, walked to our train station, rode the train with a few other people, found the right neighborhood, which, it seems, must have it share of bars and clubs, considering the number of tired looking groups of young women in micro-minis (never seen in Japan during the day, in my experience) and trendy-looking guys either walking towards the train station or hanging out on the sidewalks. They’d obviously been up all night and were just wrapping it up.

I discovered later that we’d actually attended Mass at the Cathedral. It was a nice modern structure, with a roof sweeping upward and stained glass on one side. The church was maybe a third full – pretty good for 7am! – and was a little more demographically diverse than we’d seen in the Tokyo church – a lot of older women, yes (many wearing veils, as is normal here for older women), but a few families, more westerners and a greater sprinkling of young adults.

Music was minimal – opening and closing song and the Responsorial Psalm sung. Communion in the hand is the norm here, in case you are interested (which it isn’t, for example, in some areas of Europe, particularly Italy, where I’ve attended Mass), and the Sign of Peace is awesome: quick bows all around and we’re done.

Then across the lovely river,  back on the train (which was a bit more crowded by this point) pack up, clean up the apartment, take photos of the apartment (which I always mean to do right when we arrive, but never do, and then we immediately trash the place, so it’s not presentable), then walk up the street to the train station, get a taxi, then a 15-minute ride to the Kyoto Station to catch the bullet train. That journey was uneventful (I think it always is – there’s never been an accident with these trains) and quick and moderately scenic – more rice paddies and batting cages, everywhere.

I’d done some research and discovered what I thought was the best solution to get from the Tokyo station to our hotel near the airport: a shuttle bus that runs directly from the station to the airport hotels. We’d catch it – because I thought it ran more or less constantly – check in, or at least store our luggage – and then head into the town of Narita to get one last taste of Japan.

Well, as per usual, things didn’t turn out as hoped or planned. Everything ran later than I thought. We got to Narita airport and two out of the three of us were hungry enough to merit a meal (and granted – it was two o’clock by this time and no one had eaten anything all day except for some sweet rolls after Mass), and since we’d be at the airport anyway I decided we a) turn in our Pasmo transportation cards to get the refunds due on those and b) complete the check-in process for our flight. I couldn’t finish (b) online because I suppose passport confirmation was needed. So we did all those things, and by the time we got down to the place where the shuttle stopped, we discovered that it did not, indeed, run around the clock, but only once an hour – so we’d have thirty minutes to wait until the next journey.

Fine. Pay a cab to take us five minutes to the hotel. No problem. Because we’d get to the hotel and soon enough be able to hop on the shuttle to town, which, I thought I’d understood, ran around the clock. Well, no. It doesn’t run around the clock or even around the hour. We got into our room a little after 2:30 and discovered that the next shuttle to town wouldn’t be until 4:15. Drat. Especially since what I read online indicated that the big Zen temple I wanted to visit in Narita closed at 4 on Sundays, plus most of the restaurants seemed to close at five.

This was not going as I’d hoped. Because particularly after the debacle that marked the beginning of our trip, I didn’t particularly want to lose one more day of this rather expensive jaunt on a travel day. I admit that I let my irritation spill over – something I usually try very hard not to let happen, especially since I grew up in a household marked by very high flood markings on the wall made by years of irritation spilling over.

So we waited and hung out in the hotel room for an hour or so. We headed down to the lobby for the shuttle where a fluent English-speaking employee (finally!) told me that while the doors of the temple might close at 4, the grounds were certainly open – which made me feel better.

Fast forward: shuttle to town – Narita which is a very busy, suburb-like city, just like your American suburb except for the sign lettering. We were dropped at the train station in the middle of town, and made our way down the tourist-oriented street, lined with shops and restaurants, most of which were, indeed, either closed or in the process of closing.

But all was not lost!

Narita is known for unagi– eel. It’s the local delicacy, and many restaurants feature the …er…processing…of the eel right in the front of the house. As in: one guy grabs a live eel from a buck of water, chops its neck, takes its still wriggling body, skins and de-spines it, and hands it to the next guy, who cuts it up into pieces which are then put on skewers. The spines are fried and sold as bar food, essentially.

Before we went, I was all up for trying it, but once we got there, the only place still open and selling was rather expensive – about twenty-five bucks for four pieces with rice, and I just wasn’t willing to invest the time and money on something I wasn’t even sure I’d like. If it had been one skewer of part of an eel for like five bucks, sure – but this was just too much for the moment and my mood. At least I got to see the process, which is what I was really after.

Then we proceeded down the hill to the Shingon Buddhist temple, which is part of a large park. It was gorgeous. These temples and shrines are naturally not as interesting to me as churches are, but I find them fascinating, nonetheless.

We walked around a bit, saw temples, pagodas, statues and turtles. The time down by the water was deeply peaceful and something I needed at that moment, the last night of a long trip, the night before leaving to return home.

As we rounded our way back out of the park, a small group of girls – most probably between 8-12 appeared, each carrying a pole with rings on the end. They were led by adult women, and it became pretty clear to me that they were rehearsing for something – perhaps a  procession of some sort. They’d walk around, rhythmically banging the poles on the ground, stopping at various points, including right in front of the main temple, at which point, two young men with them would go part way up the steps, stop, and them lead them all in a bow.

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A small group of women was gathered nearby watching, and I’m assuming they were the girls’ mothers. It was like Dance Moms: Buddhist Edition.

A short walk back up the hill, where the few shops that had been open when arrived had closed. There was an activity happening in front of the tourist office, thought: a group with fans, doing some sort of chanting and waving. It seemed to me it was a cultural activity directed at tourists – sort of like if you were in Spain and there was an invitation to try to do flamenco.

Dinner was very good – a fitting last meal for Japan. Granted, the place was not people by locals – it seemed to be mostly tourists or airline employees (the decorations were all airline-related), but it was tasty nonetheless: fried rice for one, a ginger pork dish for another, a great chili-based soup with pork for me, and dumplings for all.

Everything, it seemed, turned out all right in the end.

 

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Super fast blog post. It’s late and we’re up early tomorrow. If you want to see some videos related to the post below, head to Instagram Stories.

The day began with me heading out to find the closest Catholic church, so I could figure Sunday out. Maps told me there was one less than a mile away, and it had a website, but either the Mass times weren’t listed or I just couldn’t figure it out. So out I went on a walk to see if the actual building had anything to tell me.

It was a lovely walk (albeit very hot) along the canals in this area – Fushimi – which I will write about later. I eventually did find the church, and was pointed to a sign by a very nice lady, and the sign told me that Sunday Mass would be at 10:30 – too late for us, so Plan B it will be. Upon reflection later in the day, I transitioned to Plan C, which is going to require very early rising and great suffering but I’ve already prepared us for that by pointing out that there were, according to what I’ve ready, Christian martyrs in this very area of Kyoto. So stop your whining. (Including myself in the order, to be sure.)

It was so hot by then…I took the train back. Speaking of avoiding suffering…

Anyway, it was then off to Osaka. The train was – very unusual for Japan – rather late. It seems there had been an accident of some sort on some tracks, which caused us to wait on the platform for about twenty minutes. As I said, this is very unusual. Japanese trains are known for their timeliness.

A side note on a day trip to Osaka – we might or might not have done this, but the weather told me that there was going to be heavy rain in Kyoto all afternoon and nothing worse than intermittent showers in Osaka. Now, I don’t know if it ever did actually rain here, but just in case, I didn’t want to be stuck. So off we went, on a not very deep, but nonetheless educational afternoon.

We had every intention of starting out in a serious way with Osaka Castle, but when the time came to transfer, we got on the train going the wrong way, so we shrugged and said, “Eh. We’ll just go see other things instead.”  So we ended up, first at Osaka Station and the very, very big Pokemon Center (the largest in the world) and, adjacent to it, a large Uniqlo store – Uniqlo does have some stores in the US, I believe (I went into one in New York City last year), but I don’t know how many. It’s a good, basic clothing brand – simple styles, affordable prices.

So we did that, and then went right over to Dotonbori Street, widely known (and photographed) as a crazy busy food street with monstrous signage. I’m sure the place is even more fantastic at night, but because of the early day we have on Sunday, it just wasn’t a good idea to hang out to see it, unfortunately.

But what we did see was fun. The street is all restaurants, food stalls and, it seems, drug stores. We are not sure why every store that doesn’t do food seems to be a drug store, but there it is. Also – Osaka is just like Tokyo and Kyoto – especially Tokyo – with extensive – extensive underground shopping – that’s where the variety is, it seems.

You can get a sense of it from the photos (but if you want a deeper look, just search for img_20180630_142728videos on Dotonbori – easy to find). It wasn’t as packed as I expected – it wasn’t, for example, as thronged as Shibayu in Tokyo was. The food is almost all one of just a few types: ramen, sushi (although not tons), IMG_20180630_135903.jpgokonomiyaki (characteristic Osaka pancake type thing), kushiage (skewers of mostly breaded fried things), crabs, beef, and most of all, takoyaki, sauteed balls of batter with octopus inside, either chopped or whole baby octopus. We had street okonomiyaki, some very good fried chicken bits from a street booth, an ice cream sandwich made with what they call melon bread – you find something similar in Sicily using brioche and gelato, and then sat down – shoes off, on cushions, finally – for kushiage. In the restaurant, in fact, with the angry-looking fellow in the photo above.

 

The guys spent some time in an absolutely insane 6-story gaming/entertainment/indoor sports complex called Round 1, and then it was time to go. Not the most cultured day, and there’s a lot more to see in Osaka, but we did what we could and experienced something new – always something new.

From Osaka, we went straight to downtown Kyoto, parked our purchases in a coin locker at the Gion station, then plunged into the Saturday evening crowds to finish up some souvenir shopping and grab some fuel for those who need refueling. The quick choice, rationalized by a full day of eating Japanese, was “Wendy’s First Kitchen” – the Japanese Wendy’s that has a bit broader menu – including 4-patty burgers and pasta and actual fried chicken – and serves beer. The customer who got the chicken nuggets and chicken pieces (came in a combo) reported that they were of far higher quality than you’d find in the US – and I had a couple of bites of the chicken, and was duly impressed. Good job, Wendy’s First Kitchen.

Followed by some matcha ice cream – which I felt a responsibility to try since it’s everywhere here. I still don’t like it.

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Kyoto: the third largest city in Japan and in many ways, its cultural heart. The city was the capital of the country for centuries – from 794 to 1868 – and much of what we associate with traditional Japanese culture developed in this area. Included in this is religion. Kyoto is the site of over a thousand temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto). Learn more about Kyoto here. 

We like it. There’s a ton to see, but even so it’s more manageable than Tokyo, and once again, I’m grateful that circumstances changed and brought us here (but remember, my original, original itinerary included Kyoto or Osaka anyway….)

The plan for the day, such as it was, was to attempt to see temples everyone was interested in: that would include some that are famous for their visuals, some for their architectural features and some that people know about because of Pokemon. 

So yeah, we’ll start with the Pokemon one, which was the furthest out, chosen so we’d go out and then work our way back in closer. I used a lot of this itinerary to help us get from one place to the next. Never fear – this particular temple – Kinkaku-ji – is well known and hugely popular for other reasons, too – mostly because, well, it features that stunning gold leaf exterior.

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(How did we get around? On buses and trains – the public transportation here is excellent)

Then on the bus over to the Ginkaku-ji temple, which is nicknamed “silver” although it doesn’t feature any – they think it was so named to contrast it with the Gold pavilion – silver being built by the grandson of Gold’s. Both were originally built as villas for aristocrats, then turned into temples.

 

Then a long walk down what is called the “Philosopher’s Path” – so named because of a 20th century Kyoto University philosophy professor who took walks on the path as a way of clearing his head. The path is paved, it’s on a hillside next to a stream in a residential area and lined in places with shops, but it’s still peaceful. I find that I didn’t take any actual photos of walking on the path, so sorry. Also, you can take side trails off the path to visit more temples or shrines, all more peaceful and focused that the tourist and pilgrim-heavy big temples and shrines that anyone who sneers at the tat surrounding Lourdes really should visit.

 

But…there’s a collection of cats in residence, too:

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We then took a bus to Kiyomizu-dera, which was probably the most interesting – from a cultural perspective. It’s a huge, colorful, gorgeous set of buildings, thronged – thronged with visitors, many in kimonos (I will right about this later, but wearing a kimono out and about in Kyoto is a thing. It’s not an unusual or exotic sight. Many are rented for the day, but not all.) It was unfortunate that the famed huge porch on stilts was essentially covered for renovations, but we still were able to see and absorb some of the impact of the setting.

 

One feature of this temple is a three-springed fountain coming from a mountain. People line up to drink from the spring: choosing one of the streams for longevity, one for success in school, or one for success in love. To drink from all three would be considered greedy. I couldn’t tell if the springs were actually identified as being specifically associated with each wish, but in watching the dozens of school children take their drink, it was clear that they all picked one particular stream..so I’m guessing that was for success in school?

Finally – last major temple of the day, not on that itinerary list, but on the way to somewhere else, so why not – Yasaka. There we watched people offer prayers and ring bells:

 

Two missing pieces from the day, although we’ve got three more days in the area, so plenty of time to get to them: the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famed for the long line of brilliant tori gates, and Choin-in Temple, a center (if not the center) of Pure Land Buddhism. At the beginning of the day, I had tried to work Choin-in in – but could not figure out where it was and how to work it into that 1-day itinerary – only to discover that it’s right next to the Yasaka shrine – and closed by the time we arrived. Oh! Well at least now I know – for both of them – both are located pretty close to the main train line that runs near our apartment, so at least now it will be quick to get to them – no standing in shaded doorways with GoogleMaps pointing this way and that, squinting at bus line numbers.

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On leaving Yasaka, we were right in the midst of one of the main “downtown” areas (maybe the? I don’t know) of the city – and it was great. Busy, but not frantic, full of interesting shops and the usual huge Japanese department stores and food halls. It was a good two hours, laying the groundwork for a return – at least a couple of times – again, it’s not close, miles-wise to our apartment, but super easy on the train.

 

 

Oh, and yes – a real live geisha sighting. It took me a second to get what was happening, since all I saw at first were kimonos, and they’re everywhere. It was in the evening, a bit before nine, as we were about to cross the bridge downtown to get to the Gion station. There were several solid black shiny cars stopped along the side of the street, with a bit of a bustle happening, and folks gathered taking photos. When I finally clicked into observation mode, I saw one geisha get into each of the cars, along with one or two older men dressed in business suits and an older woman, not made up and not in full dress kimono, but still in traditional garb. I am wondering if she was some sort of supervisor/chaperone, and who we saw were not full geishas, but geishas-in-training, called maiko. 

You can sort of see that pure white face in the back seat of the car:

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Today…Thursday…Nara.

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Tuesday morning, first order of business was finishing the laundry that I’d begun Monday night.

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Our hotel had a laundry, which was great news, and the instruction panel on the machine was even decipherable, which was good, too, and it automatically dispensed detergent, which was fantastic.

But it was also a combined washer-dryer which, in my experience is never good news.

I was right. The first cycle was two hours. At the end of that, the load was still pretty damp, which didn’t surprise me – so I added another half hour of drying. By this time, it was midnight, I dozed off (in the room!) waiting, got back down to to the laundry at 12:45, found negligible progress, gave up for the night, took the load back to the room, draped the clothes around where I could, and went back to sleep. When I returned to the laundry in the morning to give it one more 30 minute run (which finished it off, at last) I encountered the same heavily tatooed Australian woman I’d shared the space with the night before. “Twelve hours later….” I commented.

Next order of business, pack up and figure out this train business.

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There are any number of ways to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, including buses, regular trains and budget flights, but of course we wanted to do the Shinkansen, or bullet train. Round trips tickets are not cheap, but I saved a bit of money by purchased a “tour” through a site called JapanICan – details here. Cheaper, but of course, there’s a cost to everything, and the cost here is another layer of complication. So the steps were:

  • Check out of hotel, go to Oshiage Station, and from there go to Tokyo Station.
  • At Tokyo Station, find the tour office, present passports, printed e-voucher and “tour application” – after a few minutes, received both sets of tickets, plus a voucher for a day of free public transportation use in Kyoto.
  • Go find a train!
  • These trains run many times during the hour. These vouchers are for unreserved seats, so you basically just find a train that’s about to leave, find one of the cars with unreserved seats (one of the first three cars), line up,  wait for the super-charged train cleaners to finish their work and get on board.
  • Apart from the confusion of finding the tour office, it was a very simple process. The seats are comfortable, the train is very clean. Snacks are offered for sale, but we didn’t buy anything. No wi-fi on this particular train.
  • The advantage of using this voucher is that you could use it on any of the three bullet train lines, including the fastest, the Nazomi  – which is not possible if you use the JR Rail Pass, a popular choice with international travelers. So Nazomi it was, on a clean, on-time train, getting us to Kyoto in a little more than two hours.

You can see some landscape on the way, but a great deal of the journey is between barriers and some even underground, so it’s not incredible scenic. What sticks out to me from the space between the cities? Rice paddies and batting cages. Everywhere.

We got to Kyoto around two and couldn’t get into the apartment until 3, so we parked our luggage in storage lockers, grabbed some McDonalds and set out to see some of the area around the station.

First, on the McDonald’s:  No shame! I mean – I don’t eat it, just because I don’t have any interest, but it’s quick, reliable fuel for others who hadn’t eaten much all day. Secondly – it’s fascinating to eat at American fast food chains overseas. One son reported that the chicken nuggets are actual chicken parts, not the American reconstituted chicken sludge. Other son got a ginger-pork burger, which had a good ginger bite to it.

We had a brief conversation with an older couple from Florida – drawn to us because of son’s Gator gear on his body – who’d been in the country for their son’s wedding on one of the smaller, scenic islands. They’d been in the country for ten days. I asked if they had any tips. The woman shrugged, studied her french fry and said, “The island was pretty.”

I guess someone was ready to go home….

The Kyoto station is very impressive, with a rooftop observation deck.

 

There’s a large department store that’s part of the station. Here is a thousand dollar school bag for you. J flipped the tag and discovered why – Kate Spade.

 

Then out – we looked at the Kyoto Tower from the outside (can’t avoid it! It’s retro and funky, but you have to pay to ascend and we’d just taken in the views for free) then headed to a couple of the thousand temples that are in this area.

There are two Honganji temple complexes, about six blocks apart, not far from the station. They are temples for sects of Pure Land Buddhism..

(If you were in Kyoto yesterday and saw two teenaged boys nursing cokes with a middle-aged woman trudging behind them droning about the Four Noble Truths and bodhisattva and such – why didn’t you say hello?)

 

It was a far more peaceful scene than the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, but it was also late in the day. These are enormous, gorgeous wooden structures, and yes, you must take off your shoes to enter – they provide plastic bags to carry about your shoes if you wish. Don’t forget to check out the rope made of hair:

 

Before we reached the station, we had an ice cream break – rolled ice cream, which is not, of course, unique to Japan – we have a couple in Birmingham now, and the newest one has a Japanese theme, though – so is it a trend that started here? I don’t know.

 

All I know is that sitting there in front of Starbucks watching them eat their ice cream, I didn’t feel as if I were in a foreign country at all. There, in Kyoto, which is, they say, the most Japanese of all the major Japanese cities, I felt as if I could have been anywhere, img_20180626_171649including Birmingham, Alabama. I think it is not only because, well, I was sitting in front of Starbucks, but because the ratio of tourists to locals here is higher – or lower? Not a math person, but what I’m trying to say is that there are fewer inhabitants than Tokyo and a lot of tourists, so looking out at a crowd around the station, the demographics don’t seem much different – except for the miniscule number of black faces – than they’d be in New York or Chicago. What makes it even more so is the commonality of culture now – everyone has a phone, everyone dresses the same and I swear, even Japanese teens walk with the same exact gait as American teens.

Then back to the station, get luggage, get taxi and then make the trek to the apartment – which is not in the center of Kyoto, took about twenty minutes by car to reach, but is also a block from a train station, so I think (hope) getting around should be efficient.

I’ll do a post on the house later, once I get more photos. Just know that it’s utterly charming – a traditional Japanese house with tatami mats, sliding doors, and sleeping mats. No daily housekeeping, but more space – everything’s a tradeoff, I tell you.

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Dinner was great. As they were resting, I did my usual reconnaissance walk, and within seconds found our dinner spot – a yakitori place right around the corner. Yakitori is grilled meat on skewers – bar food, basically. But it was enough for us, and a great experience – the place was tiny, smokey (grilling smoke) and full of locals.

 

The staff was very friendly and in a sweet gesture, after I paid the bill, the waiter said, “A present” – and handed me this teeny-tiny lucky cat.

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Tokyo, from the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – a free alternative to seeing the city from above. It’s 45 floors up on a floor that has an almost 360 degree view, a gift shop and cafe.

As we were walking around taking in the views, I could sense a much older gentleman in a volunteer vest watching us. For several minutes, he didn’t take his eyes off us while we talked and took photos. At last he ventured forward and asked if we had any questions. No, not really. Even so, did we have a few minutes for him to point out some features? Ten – twenty – thirty? Well, if you insist – ten. Sure, we have ten minutes. I don’t know if the volunteers are observed in their work and have an interaction quota – but he did seem (politely) insistent.

And it turns out – as these things always do – to be fruitful. I learned that a great deal of the land I was looking at had held nothing but a water filtration system until 1971, when the area began being developed. He showed us photos from his notebook, and it certainly was different. He pointed out the construction for the 2020 Olympics stadium and other sites. (In case you are wondering, it wasn’t rainy on Monday, but it was still far too hazy to see Mount Fuji)

And then he had a question for us.

He pointed to a building constructed of three towers in a row, staggered in height. He said that one housed the Tokyo Hyatt, and then flipped to a page in his book with photos of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson – it was the locus of a lot of the filming of Lost in Translation of course. Then he said, “I have a question. Some people say that each of the towers represent either the past, present, or future. Which do you think is the future?” My oldest son answered, “The tallest.” I honestly didn’t care or have an opinion, but just said, “Sure. The tallest.” As did my younger son.

“Ah, just like Americans – always thinking the future is great in size. The right answer is – no one knows which tower represents the future, because no one knows the future!”

Well, that’s very Zen of you, Old Volunteer Guide Fellow. And also…true.

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Monday:

Another kind of weird, unfocused day, because Tokyo is doing that to me. I do think that if we were, indeed going to be in Tokyo for the whole trip (as originally planned), I’d have more focus. But as it is, with Monday being our last full day in a vast city of 30 million people…it’s hard to figure out what to do except, “Experience more Tokyo in general and without a plan and hope for the best.”

When we travel and are not in a place with free breakfast and are within walking distance of shops, my usual practice is to wake up earlier than everyone else (which happens anyway) and then walk out, see morning city life and grab milk and pastries somewhere.

View from our hotel – the Richmond Premiere right next to the Oshiage Station. It was a fantastic location. A little far from popular areas like Shinjuku, but honestly – that’s fine. It wasn’t crazy, and there was plenty to do, see and eat nearby. 

Well…life here in Tokyo doesn’t get rolling until later in the morning, I discovered. Oh, things are open, but not many. We are right across from the Tokyo SkyTree which has a great mall with a fantastic food court – including a bakery. I headed over there first, a bit before nine, and found the shops all blocked off, not to open until ten. Okay – there’s a large grocery store next to the hotel  with two levels – the top being a Whole Foods-type place with lots of prepared foods, organic goods and a bakery, and then a large regular grocery store in the basement. Head to the bakery! Well, it didn’t open until nine – so I waited for a few minutes, went in  – and saw all the bakers working hard, yes…but not a thing put out in the cases yet. Nothing. I stood around for a few minutes, and they didn’t seem to be at an “almost there” point – so I gave up, went downstairs, got a bunch of prepackaged donuts and such, found some milk and went back up to the room.

After everyone was “nourished” we went to the train and traveled way across town (at least a 30 minute ride) to the Shinjuku area, the first destination being the Tokyo Municipal Government Building observatory – described in this post.

That done, it was time to wander – I had a couple of destinations, one of which we found, the other of which eluded us. Shinjuku is certainly busy and crowded, but it was nothing like Shibuyu, and so not as much of a hassle to walk around in – although the difference being today is that it was very, very hot. The hottest it been – which doesn’t bother me, but does some others in our party.

My takeaway from that hour or so in Shinjuku was this:

There are, it seems to me, two cities in Tokyo – one above ground and other below. What’s above ground is what you’d expect – crowded, jostling, with rather mysterious doorways leading off into the unknown. Just a little gritty, but not American-city gritty, because this is Japan. Underground there’s another country, extending for (it seems) kilometers around every major train station are dozens and dozens of shops and eateries – you find similar things in many major cities, but it’s more striking here in Tokyo because of the contrast. Underground, the shops are well-lit, spacious and it’s very clear what’s what and how to get in and out and get around. You might have this idea, going to Tokyo, that you’re going to eat in some little satori or ramen place in a cute neighborhood, but what I’m finding here is that to find a place where I feel comfortable, since I don’t speak but three words of Japanese and don’t really understand the cuisine very well at all – is a challenge above ground, and okay – this place in the underground mall looks good, so we’ll go here. It’s the same stuff, the same style (most Japanese restaurants specialize in one kind of dish – ramen, satori, udon, etc) and perhaps more expensive, but darn it – guess what – all the customers are Japanese down here, too – so why not?

Selling out? Probably. But People Get Hungry, so here we are!

In our wanderings we did see the exterior of the famed Robot Restaurant/Cafe, which is insane – I didn’t take photos, but it’s a gaudy, ridiculous-looking place on a side street, where it costs 80 bucks just to get in and see the “show” with food being extra. Oh – and Godzilla!

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Our food was tonkatsu, a traditional way of preparing pork cutlets. It was very good, although I have now discovered something…

I don’t like matcha tea. The first tea we had here, I took a sip and was put off by what I would describe as a smokey taste. Weird, I thought. Then I had it again at this restaurant (it’s just served automatically) and figured out that’s what it was – matcha – and well, I don’t think I like it!

The meals are provoking interesting conversations about the differences in cuisine and what that reveals about culture: for example, a cuisine that emphasizes presenting the diner with elements of the meal – either cooked or uncooked – and leaving up to her how to season and finish it.

After that, we ended up at Sunshine City, yet one more large shopping and entertainment area which features an anime-themed amusement park, some other amusement park (didn’t go), a Pokemon store (waited outside) and then an aquarium on the rooftop, which turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

It’s not huge, but it’s substantial, with two sections – a larger one indoors and a few outdoor exhibits. Most of the exhibits focus on creatures you’d find around Japan. At 4:00 on a Monday afternoon, the place was crowded – with hardly any children. A few toddlers, perhaps, but everyone else was an adult…although….

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We judge an aquarium (or zoo) in part on the question, “Did I see something I’d never seen before?” The answer here was yes. 

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It’s called a sunfish, it’s huge and weird looking, and my zoologist son is pretty sure it’s illegal to keep them in captivity in the US. Also – mudskippers. That got him psyched.

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We were there for the sea lion (seal?) show and while of course it was in Japanese, it was pretty evident to me that the content was more substantial than it’s been in similar shows I’ve seen in the US. With the added bonus of these little pads that were distributed to the audience to prevent direct contact with the ground, and perhaps a quarter-centimeter of padding. So thanks!

There were also some gorgeous pink pelicans – but the photos didn’t turn out for some reason and I don’t have time to try to fix them, so just know – there were giant pink pelicans.

We trekked back to our part of town – as we approached the station, we were a little afraid because it was rush hour, the crowds were heavy, and have you seen the videos of subway attendants pushing, shoving and packing people in the train cars? Sure, it would be interesting to experience, but still a little weird. No worries, though – maybe not many people actually live in the direction of our hotel, because the ride back was relaxed and uncrowded.

After a break, we headed over to the Skytree, where Someone had noticed conveyer-belt sushi – a definite goal of this trip. We had to wait for a while – but waiting for restaurants in Japan is so orderly, it’s almost entertaining. You don’t mill about with buzzers, glaring at parties who seem to be unfairly favored – no, there are seats. You sit on the seats outside the restaurant, and as parties are called up – you move your own seat up.

There was an English menu, but no one spoke English, which was fine. What you miss out on in these situations, though, is understanding what people are saying in random moments – so in this sushi restaurant (perhaps in all? I don’t know) new diners are greeted with shouts from the staff (it reminded me of “Welcome to Moe’s!”) and then when customers leave, there’s more shouting. At one point, a chef brought out a tray of freshly prepared plates from the same fish, at which point, a staff member made a speech of some sort and everyone applauded.

So – the sushi? Here’s the thing – I’ve never eaten sushi before in my life – no desire to – but I was determined I would do it here. That means I have no basis on which to judge it – I will say that it tasted absolutely fresh and clean. I suppose that is the goal? My take on sushi (I think I had tuna, salmon and a couple of kinds of white fish): eh. I suppose I sort of understand why people like it, and it does have a certain appeal – I am guessing the appeal lies precisely in that simplicity of flavor – but to me, the experience was basically of a big chunk of flesh. Sorry I can be more sophisticated than that! We all like what we like – I appreciate simplicity and straightforward taste when it comes to fruits and vegetables, but otherwise, I tend to go for layers of flavor that are the result of the cooking process – why I’m such a soup fan, for example.

But – been there, done that! We will probably do it again here. I want to go to one of those places – there are ramen restaurants like this too – where you punch in what you want on a machine in the front and then hand over the printout.

So then…back to the room, to prepare for…Kyoto!

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Tuesday morning here – the high schooler stumbled off to school at the usual time, but I’m letting the homeschooler sleep in. He has boxing this afternoon, and our main priority this week is reinvigorating the piano fingers that didn’t get exercised all last week – so he can rest. Plenty of learning happened last week, after all.

Let’s finish up Holy Saturday.

The taxi driver got us back to Puebla around 5, I think. I walked around a bit by myself while the boys chilled in the room, with the plan being to regroup around 7, then walk the city, peeking into  churches in which the Easter Vigil was ongoing, and eating here and there. We’d go to Mass from beginning to end in the morning – they would be happening every hour on the hour almost all day at the Cathedral.

First, a general comment. I really was not expecting commerce as usual to be the case – but it was, and that continued to Sunday. In Cholula, I’d asked a souvenir shop owner if shops would be open on Easter, and she nodded vigorously. “Oh yes,” she said, “It’s a very good day for us.”

So on Holy Saturday night, Puebla was bustling from end to end – just like a typical Saturday night, I’d imagine, and perhaps even more so, considering it was vacation.

The churches I looked in on this round of walking were still being set up and cleaned – in many of them the statues were still veiled, which was even the case when we looked in during Vigil Masses – is there a moment during the Vigil in which they are unveiled? I don’t know.

So below are some photos of that walk – notice that in one church, white balloons are a design feature. All I could imagine when I saw that were the inevitable sounds of popping during the coming Vigil….

Also go to this Instagram post for a video of a lovely light aria performance in a courtyard. (Click on the arrows superimposed on the first photo to see the rest in the post, if you are viewing it on a computer.)

 

Return to the room, pick up the boys walk some more. The younger one satisfied his curiosity about Mexican street corn – he liked about five bites of it and then that was enough. Logically speaking, I know that since mayonnaise is mostly oil, therefore it is fat and not radically distinct rom butter – still, I don’t care. The notion of corn slathered in mayonnaise is just gross. He’d had the cup version at a festival here and liked it, and really wanted to try the cob version – as I said, It was good for a few bites, then enough.

Every church we looked in during a Vigil Mass was full. (In case you are wondering about the propriety and awkwardness of just “looking in” during Mass – remember that these are all traditionally constructed churches fronting on busy streets. During Mass, the doors are flung wide open, and people do wander in and out constantly. A metaphor for faith in the midst of the world.)

Below are some photos. Go back to that Instagram post for video, which includes a  bit of recording of music.

Oh, and there was a weird light show on the Cathedral facade that we couldn’t make head or tail of.

Remember that I wrote that on Palm Sunday, the churches don’t just hand out palms – you bring your own, and most have been purchased at the church door from families selling, not just plain palms, but woven standards and even crucifixes they’ve constructed from palms. It’s the same with Easter Vigil candles – you bring your own, and there are people selling them at every church door. They’re not little taper candles with paper disc protectors – they’re pillar candles, some in glass, some not, and they’re all decorated in imitation of the Paschal candle. People who use candles that aren’t in glass supply their own holders, and most off what I saw were simple good sized plastic or Styrofoam bowls.

Also – there are no “worship aides” in Mexico, it seems. At least in none of the dozen or so churches I saw Masses and Good Friday happening in. Some people had their own published missals with them, but there was nothing in the pews or handed out. All music was sung without written copies. In the Cathedral there was a bit of solo and choir-only stuff that happened, but for most of it, the whole congregation sang from memory.

We returned to the room, and later, I set out by myself back to the Cathedral where the vigil would not be starting until 11. I had no intention of staying for the entire liturgy, but I wanted to see what they did with the fire and hear the Exsultet.

They didn’t do the fire outdoors (which they did in all the other churches we’d seen) – there is a huge courtyard and I don’t know why they couldn’t have built some awesome fire out there – it would be better than the silly light show – but they didn’t. Because of the awkwardness of the interior (remember it’s got this big organ/choir area in the middle of the Cathedral, with a few seats in between it and the altar and more to the side and behind) – I couldn’t really see what the fire was like, but I’m guessing it was just in the aisle in between choir and sanctuary. The Exsultet was magnificently sung, and guess what – even though it wasn’t in Latin, singing it in Spanish is just as smooth.

There’s video at this Instagram post. 

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