11 September, 2005

At the "junk" store called Don Quixote, each of these shirts costs around $150.

Or how about a $500 purse?

That purse was going for around $1200 and the wallets for $500.

Another reminder of the outdoor smoking restrictions. Oddly enough, there are less restrictions on smoking while indoors.

These are some of the people still wanted for the gas attack on the subway ten years ago. It's widely suspected that they're all dead. We found out that the cops don't like it when you take pictures of this for some reason.

This is one of the many Korean businesses in the area.

And this would be another.

More smoking reminders.

This is a poster warning against child stalking.

And here we see an example of discrimination against foreigners.

A sign warning about the perils of air pollution. Incidentally you often see people wearing masks as they walk down the street. It's either because they have a cold or they don't want to breathe whatever is out there unfiltered.

In Japan, stamps are very important. If you know where to look, you can often find these ceremonial stamps in train stations and tourist attractions. A stamp also becomes your signature if you get one with your name on it which many people do.

A condom vending machine.

You don't see this in very many supermarkets back home.

I'm not even sure what this vending machine was selling.

A ticket machine, usually found inside small restaurants.

Yes, this was a real surprise too. So far I've seen three.

11 September, 2005

Day 57. Much as Dave and I wanted to do the sumo wrestling thing, it just seems like too much trouble. There are a limited number of tickets available and you really have to be fluent in Japanese on the phone in order to get them. Plus they're expensive and you wind up throwing away an entire day. And I'm not even sure how much fun it would actually be.

So we wound up contacting Adam and Jason, two of our listeners who live here in Tokyo, and arranging for them to meet us at our hotel. What's interesting is that they don't know each other and we're sort of combining them together. But it's really the only way we can fit everything in and I figured it was the best solution.

Today was one of those rainy days where the sky would occasionally just open up and drench the entire city. So everyone was armed with umbrellas throughout the day. Both Adam and Jason had no trouble finding our hotel and both were right on time in true Japanese tradition. (Unlike in laid back places like Mongolia, when people in Japan say they're going to be somewhere at a certain time, they will almost always be there are precisely that time.) Adam had moved here from Detroit, Jason from Seattle. Both were fluent in the language and knew a great deal about the city and the culture. This really adds so much to the experience when you're in a strange place. It's always a good idea to spend at least part of your time with people who can answer some of the many questions you may have.

One of the first places we went to was a branch of a store called Don Quixote that literally seemed to sell a little bit of everything. I'd hesitate to call it a junk store but it certainly was jammed with all sorts of odds and ends on four floors. Everything from lighters to weird DVDs to strange dolls to really expensive clothes. It's the kind of place you can just spend hours walking around finding really odd objects, some very old and some just very bizarre. Naturally the place was jammed with people since this is precisely the type of thing the Japanese are known for. Of course, Dave and I had no idea this place was even here so we were very fortunate to be in the company of people who did.

Then it was off in search of food and for some reason we decided to find a place that served horse sashimi. Now for all I knew this was some sort of joke but I don't like to cause trouble so I just went along with it. We found a Korean section of town and started to look around for a decent place. It was rather neat going from street to street in the light rain looking at all the different Korean businesses. It didn't take us very long to find a place to eat. Like most of the ones we'd already been to, we had to climb nondescript stairs in order to get there. They really stack things here, both above and below ground. And if you don't read the language, you'll miss most of it.

This was one of those places where you had to take your shoes off. So far everyone we've talked to practices this custom in their homes. In fact, we even noticed homeless people who live in cardboard boxes along the street who carefully place their shoes outside their structures before entering. And there really are a good number of homeless people in this city. But not a single one has come up to me asking for anything or even calling out as I walk by. They just exist like someone in a house that you pass on the way to somewhere else. In fact the only people who have initiated any sort of conversation with me are Americans looking for money and Nigerians trying to get me to go to swinging nightclubs.

We let Adam and Jason order something from the menu and it was the best move we could have made. The food just kept on coming even after we thought it was all over. There really is no better way to do this. Plenty of different dishes and people who know what they are and can explain it in your language. Apparently it was an essential part of one of the selections that the fish not only be laid out on the dish but still flapping. A bit unnerving but I wouldn't have missed it. I'm sure the fish would have preferred to.

We didn't find any horse sashimi at this place and that actually suited me fine. In this part of the world they have no qualms about showing you exactly what you're eating and not hiding the animal ingredients behind packaging and processing. So God only knows what a piece of horse would have entailed. Of course in the States eating horse is taboo to start with. But I'd already been through this when I got addicted to the Stabburpolse sausage from Norway. When I found out that it was actually horse, it really didn't matter to me as much as I thought it would. I just had to have more.

After food we wandered through the streets once more but Dave and I wanted to do something different. As it turns out, one of the tall buildings in the area is run by the city and has an observatory on the 45th floor. What's really cool is that it's totally free. From there we were able to look out over the city and appreciate its vastness. I only wonder what it might have been like from twice that height.

While they don't hit you up for going to the observatory itself, they have a "toy park" up there which I imagine would be impossible for any parent to pass through without being forced to buy something for the kids they've brought with them. It was impossible for us - they actually had two different little model Smart cars on sale.

We went back to the hotel and did a little filming for "Speakers' World." Then we just hung out in front of the place and talked about various things for a couple of hours while the world passed by. It was a lot of fun. I learned an awful lot about the challenges of moving to Japan. For one thing there is a lot of racism here, not unsurprisingly. When you have such a homogenous society that kind of thing is really inevitable. Both Adam and Jason had all sorts of stories about how they have been discriminated against for not being Japanese. Some of it is really quite nasty, such as having a man erect a little newspaper barrier to separate him from one of them on a subway seat. Or more commonly what happens is that there's discrimination when trying to find an apartment. Adam told the story of how the person renting an apartment insisted he "wouldn't be comfortable there." The reason given was that he was too tall and would hit his head on the ceilings and door frames. Even after he said he'd be fine with it, they wouldn't budge. It also happens with hotels. You go to a hotel and they say they're full. Then you call them and speak in Japanese and they have plenty of rooms. Taxis often won't pick up Westerners for one reason or another. We even passed a sex club this evening whose policy on a sign was to not let foreigners in. What's interesting is that this sort of thing not only happens but it's perfectly legal. Japan, as many are aware, has no laws against discrimination. It seems to be one of those cultural things that's going to be rather difficult to change. But again, this is what the rest of the world needs to pick up the slack with as with China's horrible human rights record and the States' propensity for invading helpless nations. These kinds of things won't ever end unless pressure is put on the offender. It's that simple.

Both Adam and Jason stayed until the last possible moment when they had to hurry back to Shinjuku to catch their respective last trains. I had been hoping to witness the rush hour at Shinjuku in the morning but I came to realize that this would involve my also getting up really early. We'll see how I feel about that tomorrow.

Dave and I got a late night snack at around two in the morning at one of these ticket machine places. They work like this. You go in, feed money into a machine, and then select various buttons which, if you're lucky, have pictures of what you're selecting on them. Then these little tickets print out and you hand them to the guy behind the counter who then goes and gets whatever it is you ordered. It seems like a strange way of doing things at first but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. Why bother handling money at all if you're involved in making food and there's no such thing as a tip? It actually makes everything move a whole lot smoother. It's not like the crazy system I witnessed in China where you had to visit a cashier in a central location and all sorts of unnecessary paperwork was generated. In a society where machines actually work most of the time, this ticket system is a damn good idea in my opinion. And they actually exist all over the place.

Tomorrow is going to be my last full day in Tokyo. I'll be getting my final instructions from the freighter people so the next chapter of my voyage will finally be defined. It's going to be a really dramatic change and I imagine I'll have all sorts of sentimental thoughts of this place while on the high seas. But it's time to move on.