Japan, Day 1: Tokyo · Jun 25, 04:02 PM

Entrance to Meiji Shrine
We got into Tokyo at 4 pm on Friday afternoon, having been in the air 13 hours and having left Chicago at 1 pm Thursday afternoon! Such are the strange things that happen when one crosses the international date line. I imagine it will be similarly disorienting when we return to Chicago; we’ll leave Tokyo one day and find it’s 2 hours earlier on the same day when we arrive at O’Hare after flying for 12 hours!

We flew a great circle route, which meant we cruised over the upper midwest, the Canadian plains provinces, Yukon Territory, and the southern edge of Alaska. The cloud cover was thick for much of the way, but we got to saw Lakes Winnipeg and Winnepesaukee from 33,000 feet and the Chugach Mountains, the Bering Glacier, the Alaska Mountains and Kodiak Island from 38,000. (There was fairly frequent turbulence, causing the pilot to keep increasing our altitude.) I hope we’ll have even less cloud cover on the flight back; I’d like to see Russia, if we’re seated on the left side of the plane on the flight back east.

On Day 1, Saturday, we tromped thru the three torii of the Meiji Shrine. Before entering the shrine, we purified ourselves with a sip of water and a splash of it over each hand from the fountain just outside the main shrine. We had a chance to pray by throwing a coin in a large shallow box, clapping twice (to catch the gods’ attention) and bowing our heads and praying. At the shrine we also got glimpses of a wedding party and a few babies being brought to be baptized; many of the women involved in those events were wearing kimonos. (My father-in-law said that the saying goes that Japanese are “born Shinto, married Christian and die Buddhist”.) One of the most impressive parts of the shrine’s gardens was the iris gardens. They were in full bloom, a sea of purple, lavender and white.

We also visited the Ota Memorial Museum, which is full of 19th century ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Hiroshige. It’s tucked away on a side street a few minutes’ walk from the shrine. I was particularly charmed by the architecture of the place, which included a small Zen garden of large stones and raked pebbles around the stairway to the second floor.

Shorts are worn mostly by children and gaijin like us. Younger people wear jeans or pants (or capris, for women) and frequently their t-shirts have inscrutable or just plain odd English phrases. (I saw one young woman wearing a tank top that read “Vote for my body”. Hmm.) Many older men touring the Meiji shrine were wearing suits (!) and many women were in long sleeves, long pants or skirts and/or hose – ugh. Women of all ages seem to walk with a nearly pigeon-toed gait – perhaps this is just another Japanese peculiarity? Thank goodness teeth blackening went out in the 19th century, ‘cause that might be hard to deal with.

The weather is hot (90 F+) and muggy but no rain. Better for us sightseers, but bad for the Japanese rice harvest, as it’s the rainy season and supposed to be raining every day. In fact, the heat and lack of rain was the top story on the somewhat banal and badly edited English-language TV news. The second story was the 2nd BSE case in the US. Our favorite story was of a shoplifting policeman, who went on TV to apologize and say that he “must have been tempted by an evil spirit”. No joke!

Tho’ Japan is a homogeneous society, there are plenty of gaijin where we’re staying in Roppongi. I’ve also gotten confirmation that there most domestics in Japan are Filipino. However, I’ve also seen plenty of Japanese in the service sector. They work as waitstaff, ticket takers and baggage handlers…and there seem to be at least twice as many people in those sorts of roles as there would be in the US or Ireland at similar shops or businesses. My father-in-law says the strong emphasis on service and the concomitant numbers of service staff are one of the reasons prices are so high, and I believe him. It took three parking attendants and a couple of traffic guards to park the car at National Supermarket yesterday. Ah, Japan.