02 April 2013

Travels with Oka-san | Departure and Arrival

In 2007 I traveled to Japan with my mother. That year my wife — who is usually my traveling partner — and I had already journeyed to Sicily in the spring and Iceland in the fall. She was not up for another international trip but my mom was. Of course the Japanese are too polite to inquire about personal relationships, but I thought it was still important to learn this phrase: "Kore wa watashi no oka-san"..."This is my mother." 

My wife and I will finally visit Japan together later this year and in the process of planning that trip I came across my old journal from my travels with oka-san almost 6 years ago. I thought it would be interesting to serialize that trip with a number of Clayhaus Ruminations posts...tanoshimu!

In a Yellow Cab driven by a Haitian immigrant, watching a beautiful orange and blue fall sunrise, I head to to the airport. I do wish Bonnie was sitting beside me — as she normally would be — but I am looking forward to two weeks in Japan with oka-san. Tokyo, Nikko, Takayama, Kyoto, Nara and finally Kamakura are on our agenda. And between sushi and sake, imperial castles and shogunate memorials, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, bullet trains and ancient paths, I know we will have very memorable trip.

My flight to LAX is uneventful and after a couple of hours waiting in NWA's equivalent to Delta's Crown Room [in those days Northwest Airlines still existed and I was corporate traveler with beaucoup de Skymiles], mama-san finally shows up.

I have a most excellent seat on the plane — aisle, exit row, and no one in front of me — and mom lucks out as the Japanese guy next to me exchanges his seat for mom's. I doubt I would have done the same, but his karma bank is surely fuller than mine!

Considering the vast expanse of water we must cross, the flight seems relatively short: "only" eleven hours. It is smooth as well and I catch a few cat-naps — though no deep sleep — in between studying some Japanese and processing images from my last and very different trip: to Iceland.

Arriving in Narita in the late afternoon of the next day we are struck by how quiet the airport is...eerily so. Immigration and customs are a breeze and once the luggage is gathered up (always a stressful few minutes: Did my bag make the connection? And, if it didn't, how will it ever be delivered to me?) we troop over to the Japan Railways (JR) office where we exchange our rail vouchers for passes. [The JR pass is a convenient and usually cost-effective way to travel about the country.] The JR staff are incredibly pleasant, efficient, and helpful. I have a feeling that this is going to be a common refrain.

On our way to our train I find a watch and for a moment think about keeping it. Second thought: what would the Japanese do? Return it, which I did, to the ticketing agents. Note to self: while in Japan, score many karma points.

Later, whilst waiting to board the train to Tokyo, I see an Indian gent frantically looking for...something. A few minutes later he returns, big smile planted on face, holding his and mine, so briefly — watch. I think of saying something to him, but why? No, let it go and perhaps be a bit of a happy mystery to him.

The train ride into Tokyo is mercifully brief: just about one hour. We emerge from the Shimbashi train station to night time. Despite never having been here before, despite not really having slept since who knows when, despite being confused as to whether it really should be night or day, despite not seeing any sign I can read, I feel damn sure I know which way our hotel is. Pointing yonderly we start out on foot through a maze of busy streets and then into a kind of corporate wasteland. The wasteland being the modernist Shiodome area that at this time of night has been pretty much abandoned to the wandering and potentially lost gaijin tourists seeking hotel refuge. Seek and ye shall find and more or less directly we find our lovely Park Hotel.

Park Hotel, Tokyo
Clean, simple, non-fussy elegance greets us in the lobby as we step out of the elevator on the 25th floor of the Shiodome Media building. Shortly we ride the elevators higher and though our rooms are small, they are comfortable with the famous Toto toilets and razors, slippers and PJs.

It seems past time for dinner so I ask the concierge where we might find a restaurant open. He says "Why not eat in our restaurant?" Why not indeed! The food is exotic and wonderful and satisfying and yes, very tasty. I am going to like eating in Japan! 

After dinner I feel my usual travel-related restlessness and we wander outside for a quick stroll. Neither of us lasts long and tiredness descends as quickly as our elevator rises. Sleep and a comfortable bed beckon and I yield.  

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