A Chronicle of Amy and Sean's World Travels

How Bizarre

How bizarre became my favorite phrase upon arrival to Asia. I didn’t even notice how often I was using it until our friend Kevin made fun of me while we were in South Korea. But there is just no other way to describe Asia, especially Japan. On the one hand, it is just like home, except the people are Japanese. On the other hand, it is nothing like home. Consider the following oddities I noted throughout our month in Japan:

  • For the first week in Japan, it was impossible to get Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto out of my head, resulting in a constant soundtrack to our travels through Fukuoka and Hiroshima. Once, a Japanese man caught me singing, domo, domo under my breath and gave me a really strange look.  Okay, this probably makes me bizarre, not Japan.  Moving on…
  • The buses in Fukuoka and Hiroshima shut off at every intersection, leaving an eerie silence every couple of minutes (except for the sounds of Styx running through my head).
  • We were given 10 minutes of instructions about how to watch a parade, but were able to roam freely with monkeys with no instructions other than to not look them in the eye.
  • Japan has tons of no-smoking zones in outdoor places like parks and public streets, but most of its restaurants and hotels are full of smoke.
  • It was always a crap shoot upon entering a bathroom stall whether you’d find a super modern toilet with buttons for fake flushing noises to cover embarrassing sounds, buttons for sprays of water at different angles, a heated toilet seat, and in some cases, a seat that automatically lifts, or a primitive squat toilet that was essentially a hole in the ground with a flushing mechanism. I would have settled for a consistent happy medium of regular, non-electronic toilets, but when it comes to Japanese toilets, it is all or nothing.

  • Speaking of bathrooms, there were never any paper towels, leaving me to wipe my hands on my pants while the Japanese women daintily wiped their hands on their personal washcloths they carried around in their purses.
  • People line up in orderly queues and wait to board the metro until everyone has gotten off.
  • Ice cream comes in green tea matcha and wasabi, not vanilla and chocolate.
  • The Japanese women are obsessed with their skin, but I couldn’t find a face moisturizer or lotion to save my life. There’s whitening creams galore, and even something known as face milk, but anything marked as a lotion actually was straight liquid.
  • Kids either go to school on Saturdays, or like wearing their uniforms on the weekends. (I’m guessing the former).  I’ve never seen so many school kids in uniforms in my whole life. Young school children are forced to wear matching hats (which is adorable, by the way). Japanese school girls wear super short skirts, knee socks and penny loafers (which I’m told, by a friend of my mom’s living in Japan, is only because they hike them up after school).
  • The Japanese like things to be at the ready with just a flick of some yen, should the need arise. Need rice? Japan’s got you covered. Milk or eggs? No problem. Batteries? Sure. Want something to read? Buy a book! Drinks? Of course.
  • But don’t think about carrying that drink with you, or you’ll be carrying it around all day. Everyone who visits Japan notices the glaring absence of trash cans, but also litter. This is because the Japanese do not walk and drink; they consume their beverage next to the vending machine then throw it away.
  • You can name a drink Pocari Sweat and people actually drink it, including us. (Tastes like grapefruit gatarade).
  • The Japanese have an obsession with the floor and shoe removal that I just do not share. They sleep on the floor, eat on the floor, and insist upon removing their shoes at every entrance. This resulted in smelly shoe racks at the entrance to every hostel. Plus it also begs the question: is it more disgusting to walk without shoes in a bathroom, or wear the shared bathroom slippers? We saw just how deeply entrenched these customs are in Japanese society. At the end of our trip, when the weather grew cooler, homeless people moved into cardboard box “houses” inside the subway stations. Outside each box was a pair of shoes, lined up and tidy.
  • In our month in Japan, I felt like I was in the middle of a giant Nintendo game. There are beeps and boops all over the place, and all signs feature cutesy characters, even if they are trying to tell you what to do.
  • The most adorable public bus I've ever seen.

    Even their nudie bars have cutesy signs (that are bizarre in of themselves - I'm not sure what is going on with this bra-wearing, nose-pierced, patriotic fish/cow).

    Even when being stern, they're still cute.

  • I think I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so.  In India, way out of context, I found myself bowing my head ever so slightly in gratitude and politeness.

It is discovering the little, random observations, like these, that I love the most about traveling.

This picture pretty much epitomizes Japan for me.


Oh no, there goes Tokyo…

Some people say to skip Tokyo, that if you’ve seen one big city, you’ve seen them all. Maybe it is because we both love cities, but Tokyo was one of our favorite spots in Japan. It is a big city, sure, but it is also uniquely Japanese. If you break Tokyo down by neighborhoods, it becomes more manageable. Each neighborhood has something fun to offer. In addition to exploring Ueno, here are some of the other neighborhoods we visited:

Harajuku
We hear that Harajuku is where all of Tokyo’s young people like to hang out.

Perhaps it was because we were there during a Halloween parade, but Tokyo families (and their cats) seem to like the area as well, especially trendy tree-lined Omotesando Dori street.

The largest stroller collection I have ever seen outside of a Babies'r'Us; stroller parking for the Halloween parade

On Sundays, Japanese teenagers dressed up in cosplay can be found hanging out on the Jingku bridge, checking out each other’s costumes and posing for group pictures on each other’s cell phones. At first I had no qualms photographing the cosplayers, especially since they were in public and I had heard that they enjoyed putting on a show for the public.

But when a gaggle of tourists began swarming them, sticking zoom camera lens in their faces, I retreated, lest I become part of the spectacle and intrusion.

Stalk much?

Plus there was no shortage of people to photograph. The day we visited Harajuku, everyone was in costume, not just the cosplay kids.

Ginza
Ginza, one of the more famous Tokyo neighborhoods, is one of the really upscale shopping neighborhoods where the Japanese fulfill their desires for high end Western and Japanese brands. On Sunday afternoons, Ginza Street turns into a pedestrian only strolling lane. Ginza is where I attempted to indulge in some Pierre Marcolini, but failed. I had to settle for the Japanese chocolate brand Mejii’s 100% Chocolate Café, which, sadly, despite its devotion to chocolate, just wasn’t the same. For his part, Sean got his kicks at a 5 story Apple store.

Sunday on Ginza Street

Even though the chocolate desserts weren't up to snuff, they get extra credit for having a chocolate bar ceiling.

Not the reason Sean enjoyed his visit to the Apple store...or was it?

Two of the five stories of Apple craziness

Akihabara

Much to Sean’s delight, we were staying within walking distance to Tokyo’s famous electronics district, where building after building houses bright, beeping electronics stores with all of the latest gadgets. While Sean browsed the electronics during our multiple visits, I amused myself by taking pictures of a computer dork in his natural habitat. I am such a nice wife.

Rainy night in Akihabara

Electronics (and the geeks who love them) as far as the eye can see.

There's one, right in his natural habitat.

Shinjuku
Lots of big buildings. That’s all I have to say about that.


Shibuya
Shibuya is home to guess what, more shopping, and the famous 4 way intersection, supposedly the busiest in the world. Again, Tokyo came through for Sean: there is a Starbucks above the intersections, with big windows to watch the action.


Tsujuki
We went to Tsujuki for the same reason as everyone else: to visit the world-famous fish market. In addition to eating super fresh sushi, we toured the market. There are rumors they might close the market off the tourists; already, they’ve imposed some timing restrictions. I could see why. Despite our best efforts, we felt like we were in the way the whole time, but I’m glad we got to see it before it is off limits completely.

Sorry, Karen, and other vegetarian friends.

The obligatory octopus picture.

That's a big tuna.


Saturday in the Park

Saturday in the park/I think it was the Fourth of July/Saturday in the park/I think it was the Fourth of July/People dancing, people laughing/A man selling ice cream/Singing Italian songs/Eicay vare, eise narde/Can you dig it (yes, I can)/And I’ve been waiting such a long time/For Saturday

- Saturday in the Park, Chicago

On a sunny autumn Saturday in Tokyo, we wandered our way through Ueno Park.  We weren’t expecting to be entertained any more than our usual casual people watching, but it turns out there is a sideshow to just strolling through urban green space.

Every time we turned the corner, we came across a crowd watching someone perform.  Like this flamboyant yo-yo performer, dazzling the crowd with his high-energy yo-yoing:

Or this hunchbacked geisha, grinning and smiling for photos:

Or an acrobat, climbing higher and higher on a stack of chairs:

This three were just a sampling of the many street performers we saw that day.  The one that really took the cake, though, was this guy.  I really don’t know if I have the words to convey how utterly strange this performance was.  Perhaps I need my art spoon fed to me, but I just didn’t get it.  And judging by the faces of the others in the crowd, either did anyone else.  In an attempt to convey the bizarreness, I will show you a series of pictures of his performance.  It is one of the few times I wish I had a video camera.  If you’d really like to experience the bizarreness, you will need to pretend that dramatic songs such as Ave Maria and How a Man Loves a Woman are playing in the background.  And no I am not kidding.

Injecting confetti into a giant balloon:

Injecting himself into the giant balloon:

Walking over to bystanders while inside the giant balloon.  Note the man shielding his daughter’s eyes from this hot mess.

Trying to give his heart away:

Breaking his heart and bouncing around in a mad state, still inside giant balloon:

Busting out of giant balloon:

Completely losing it now:

Bursting giant balloon in a cloud of confetti:

Blowing up a dog balloon:

And, my personal favorite, laying on ground with dog balloon, scooping up confetti with a dust pan, and throwing it on himself.


Say it all together now: How Bizarre!


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