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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Eye of the Storm







And speaking of Weather…I am about to experience my first Typhoon! Typhoon Jelawat (cool name!) is set to hit Tokyo full on in the early morning hours.  It’s 9pm and right now, pre-hit, the wind is picking up and it’s pouring rain (by LA standards anyway.)  From what I understand, the typhoon is hitting Okazaki – the city in which the Yamasa institute resides, right this very minute. Then it will head north and hit Tokyo.   Mochiron!  (Of course!) でも,しかたがない(But…it can’t be helped…)

I'm sitting in the hotel restaurant, Itanova, that is totally charming in the morning…(I'll take a picture of the lovely breakfast) but in the evening it has the slight flavor of a Dennys.  The lights are too bright, the cozy plaid chairs that somehow “work” in the sunshine, don’t read “sophisticated” at night.  For now, I'm happily able to buy dinner, eating Japanese Italian food (spaghetti with shrimp and mushrooms that I’ve never seen before). And a beer - because it’s damn hot, inside and out.

But on to my arrival...



Arriving at Narita, it surprised me how easy everything was this time.  I remember being overwhelmed by the crowds and the odd look of the security guards with their crisp uniforms, white gloves and medical face masks, who seemed to be everywhere, many of them with German Shepards.  Now I realize there must have been a security breach at the time, a possible drug or bomb.  I thought last time that the airport was just run very militaristically.

This time though, not at all... very few people arrived when I did, our plane was not full.  The lines for immigration took 15 minutes, not 45 as they did last time.  I felt sad in a way, like people still aren't coming to Japan to travel after the tsunami and radiation leakage.

As suggested by a friend, I walked my bags over to the takkyubin office and had my bags delivered to the hotel the next day.  At first this seemed hard to do, it meant packing stuff in my carry on for the next day, since the luggage doesn't arrive until 10 am.  But actually, it was just fine and saved me from having to lug my two suitcases around on trains and taxis and through the station itself.

The Richmond Hotel stands just at the edge of Asakusa (pronounced Ahsocksah).  Asakusa is Tokyo's old town and is a favorite tourist destination for Japanese travelers as well.  People come from all over to try the regional sweets, to stand under the giant lantern at Sensoji and walk down the Nakimase Dori where street vendors sell their goods at the foot of the temple.

My room is called a precious room.  Precious rooms are the rooms on the floors above the 6th floor. And after entering the room, I knew why.  Here's the view out my window:





The two buildings lit with golden lights are the Sensoji temple.  The tall building in the center is the absolutely brand new "Tokyo Sky Tree."  My lens doesn't capture how close I actually am.  The Sky Tree Tower is Tokyo's newest architectural marvel.  Each night it glows one of two colors -  that first night, sapphire. Last night, amethyst.  Pretty good for $130 a night in Tokyo, ne?


After sitting for a long time on the bed, I contemplated sleep versus food.  I hadn’t slept much on
the plane and my clock was off, but I was wide-awake and hungry.  It was only nine o’clock at night.  I thought I might see if the hotel café was open, but when I went down to the lobby, it had just closed, so I strolled out into the charming old-world neighborhood of Asakusa.

Asakusa, with its little wooden buildings housing omise or shops of artisan crafts and traditional foods felt like old Edo, or what I imagined old Edo to feel like, during the time of the Shogun, before the city transformed itself into the slick, argentate city of post-war, post-bubble Tokyo.  

Just a street away from the hotel, a little lane stretched out for three blocks in front of me, lined with open-air izakaya, Japanese pubs, on both sides.  Tiny paper lanterns were strung along the pub fronts that opened to the street. The night was warm and breezy as if a Santa Ana wind from California had shifted and found its way across the Pacific Ocean, following me.

A boisterous atmosphere, the street was alive with talk and television, which blared out from behind the open bars.  Men smoked everywhere, leaning heavily on their elbows, glancing up at the TV and chatting with their friends without looking at them. Couples ate pickled vegetables and skewered fried rice balls with tall glasses of cold, malted beer at the bistro tables looking out onto the street.  The savory aroma of browned sticky rice and grilled meats mixed with the high, thin scent of tobacco.  Each izakaya had a hawker in front, calling out in Japanese, irashaimasei! “Welcome!” and oishii desu, totemo oishii de gozaimasu! “Delicious! Very delicious!” Women hawkers had shrill voices that rose above the din, male hawkers had height and good looks as their marketing tool.


Trying to look as if this is what I do every Friday evening, come to Asakusa for an evening stroll and dinner, I walked slowly along. I was too hesitant, I knew.  This didn’t feel natural and it wasn’t, in a land where women do very little on their own like this.  Small pangs of hunger accompanied my knotted stomach; the only white woman for miles, and most certainly the only white woman alone, I felt as if I was walking in front of a line of construction workers: all eyes on me.

I didn’t know how to walk into a Japanese restaurant or pub by myself.  It didn’t occur to me before this that it would be any different than doing the same thing in Santa Monica or San Francisco.  A book, an iphone, a sketch pad or nothing at all, were all acceptable means of sitting alone with a drink and an appetizer and watching the world go by in America. Here, in modern Tokyo, I felt like a bold western woman, an outlier.

I saw the men at the outside tables leaning into one another, talking and staring at me, wincing through inhales of their cigarettes.  The hawkers smiled and stopped their shrill calling out to passers by, bowing once, twice, letting the white lady pass before hawking their pub again. I was clearly not welcome.  Or perhaps they didn’t know what to make of me, and were embarrassed.

I walked past the main pubs and wound around through the labyrinth of side streets also lined with izakaya.  Down an alley dotted with pink and yellow lanterns, I spotted a pub with a line of tables outside. The very last two were empty. 

It seemed easy enough on this quiet alley to just walk up, sit down, and quickly bury my face in the menu.  I hurried towards the table and began to bend into the seat.  A tiny restaurant hawker rushed up to me, smiled, bowed and said, “Two peoples only.  No one womans. Please.  Please.  Sit inside just there,” she waved to an empty seat inside the smoky bar.  “Please, please.”  There had been plenty of men sitting alone at tables, and even at this restaurant. The American in me, the demanding and yet socio-politically evolved American woman in me, screamed inside my head “This is not the 1950’s! If I am a paying customer, I should be able to sit where I want to; I am not an embarrassment!”  

The cultural divide – the clear prejudice against single women, the intensity of which was so palpable that I couldn’t bring myself to ignore it, felt unacceptable.  And I was starving.  I stood up, stared her down and said in a dark tone in English “Really?”  I pointed inside the smoke filled pub full of men, “Really?” I said again loudly, my face twisted in harsh judgment.  She merely smiled and bowed. “Yes. Please. Right here, “ she pointed again.  “OK, whatever,” I practically yelled and stomped away from the restaurant.

This was unconscionably rude behavior on my part and I recognized that not only was I acting like a seven year old but I was also not creating the best impression of single white American women. I heard the alarm in her voice as she called after me, “Oh no, you can sit inside! It is OK! Please come. Sit inside please Miss!”  My own embarrassment was too great to turn around and face her so I kept going.    

This was getting ridiculous.  I circled back to the main lane again.  I could only get away with doing this once more; this was my last chance.  I was certain that everyone seated outside had commented to each other about my presence on the lane already.  At least that’s what it felt like as I walked the same two blocks again.

As I approached the last block I decided that this was it – dive in or starve.  I strode confidently past a hawker and sat at an inside bar, plonking myself down and making myself busy with my purse, looking for my iphone, not making eye contact with anyone.  The hawker, a young handsome man with a thin mustache brought a menu for me.  “This is English,” he said loudly and smiled as he turned the menu over for me. “Arigatou gozaimasu,” I thanked him.

The large blonde-wood bar wrapped around the cooks in a horseshoe.  The cooks, who never looked up, were young and wore black bandanas wrapped around their foreheads, marital arts style.  The grill they worked was situated on a riser so that all I could see from my seat were their heads, arms and shoulders, which moved like drummers as they grilled, fried, steamed and plated food.  The TV screamed behind them.  

Nobody sat next to me, my back to the street. I made an attempt to look busy perusing the menu.  Avoiding the skewered grilled chicken skin and braised offal, I ordered a meal-set with chicken skewers, edamame and a large beer. The pint beer arrived, ice cold and beaded on the outside with water pearls, perfect for this warm evening.  I took a sip of the malty brew and relaxed into it.  The anxiety slowly ebbed.  I was finally situated and no one took notice of me now, ensconced in the stomach of the pub, safely away from street view.

I watched the television, which as far as I could tell, was showing the most hysterical TV game show on earth, since the host, audience and contestants were practically falling on the floor laughing and using the largest facial and body gestures imaginable to punctuate the action.  The izakaya crowd was mesmerized, chatting to each other while not taking their eyes off the television. Every once-in-a-while a loud "whoop" rung out from one of the customers, as hilarity ensued on screen.   I asked the good-looking hawker what was going on in the TV show.  He bent down to me and said, “This is comedy."

I finished my food and sipped my beer, studying Japanese on my cell phone with my “Imawa” app. I had just a few sips left in my glass when an older man came in.  He seemed to know the crew there, including a beautiful older woman to whom he called out “Konbanwa!”  Good evening. I hadn’t noticed her before, keeping my eyes and movements on one plane as I ate and drank, not wanting to call attention to myself by scanning the room as I might have back in Santa Monica.  The woman was stationed at the end of the horseshoe, deep within the pub, looking straight out to the street.

She was simply gorgeous.  She could have been an older madam in a wild west flop house.  Rather large and wearing an aqua green blouse, her dyed blonde hair was coiffed in an up do, with tiny perfect curls framing her temples.  The dye job and clothing were odd to see, but didn’t take away from her natural beauty. Although she looked Japanese she may have been half, for her eyes were Elizabeth Taylor eyes, if Elizabeth’s eyes had been brown.   Drawing a long pull from her cigarette as the older man came in, she slowly walked over and sat him on the corner of the bar, near me.  She looked at both of us, then slowly walked back to her station and watched, smoke curling up from her cig, her arms crossed.

I kept working on my iPhone, trying to look as busy as possible.  I had a small notebook too in order to write down new vocabulary. The man seemed to be a regular who knew everyone who worked there.  Through side glances I noted that he was dressed smartly in a dark insignia sweater pulled over a collared shirt, dark slacks and shiny black leather shoes.  His gigantic balding forehead was shiny with sweat.  His wide, large eyes were moist and pink, as if he’d already been drinking.  There was something turtle-like about the way his wide head was situated on his long neck.

He ordered a vodka, chatted loudly with the cooks, laughed with the hawker, sang out loud, threw jokes back over his shoulder to the owner who yelled back to him without a smile, rapped his fingers on the counter, ordered another vodka. We were only two seats away from each other but I didn’t speak to him, he seemed assertive and somewhat drunk.

I finished my beer.  My empty plate and glass sat in front of me for what seemed a very long time.  Neither the owner, the hawker or any of the cooks offered to take the plates away or bring me a bill.  I was trying to remember what to do in order to get the check for myself, did I have to ask or did they eventually leave it for me? Pondering how to get the attention of the hawker, I turned around to find him and the older man caught my eye.

He leaned over and asked me in Japanese what I was doing.  I answered, careful of my conjugation, "I'm writing."   "Ahhhh!  And you drink!  How is the beer?"  The staff all laughed.  I laughed too.


He began to tell me about himself.  It was his birthday, and he had bought himself a shirt.  He pulled another collared shirt out of a plastic bag he carried with him.  The owner sneered a laugh and the man bobbed his head with a large smile.  “sugoii desu ne?” he said. Cool, isn’t it?.  The owner giggled from her barstool.  He was 62 today he said, looking around.  “62!” he yelled and the cooks yelled something and the bar laughed.   “Sore wa ii desu ne?” I said. Yes that’s good, isn’t it? The older man answered, “So da na!” Is that so?  The good-looking hawker laughed and shrugged his shoulders at me. I said, “Daijoubu desu.” It's OK.

We chatted about his business, he owned three hotels somewhere - one of them in the area, and then he ordered me another beer, and a bowl of stewed beef and potato, both of which I didn't want.  I insisted that he didn't order them, but he insisted more strongly that he wanted to, it was his birthday after all.  When I looked over at the owner in a pleading way, she didn't smile but merely nodded slowly at me.

I told him about my kids and Los Angeles.  He yelled "Holly Wood! So da na!!"   The cooks yelled, "Holly Wood!" The owner stood up, walked slowly over to my barstool, leaned down close and said, in English, "My grand kiddies, they are in Vancouver."  She pointed to a calendar with the pictures of two beautiful children and their Caucasian father climbing around a jungle gym.  "Oh, is he your daughter's husband?"  I asked.  Her eyes went heavy.  "Yes."  “They are beautiful,” I said. “Yes.” She stared at the calendar.  “I never see them.  Just like this only.” Her sadness sat in front of us like another plate of food.  She sauntered back to her bar stool, lit up another cigarette and crossed her arms.

Eventually the older man asked if he could take me around Tokyo for the weekend.   I had a feeling the evening would come to this. "I'm sorry but I'm meeting a friend, and we are working," I lied, hoping my Japanese was holding up.  He melodramatically frowned.  "Ahh.  So.  So.  Nan hataraku?" What work?  "Watashi wa wri-tah desu"  I’m a writer.  "Ah! Wri-tah desu!" he yelled.  The cooking staff yelled "Ahh."  “Nani kakimasu ka?”  What do you write? “Zashi,” magazines, I said.  He slammed the counter with his hand and yelled, in Japanese,  "When are you done writing?"  I said, "I don't know.  But I will be working hard all weekend."  I felt bad that I had to say such things, that I had to lie, but I knew no other way out of it, given the language barrier and his aggressiveness.  He shrugged his shoulders, and the good-looking  hawker shrugged his shoulders and I shrugged my shoulders and then he slammed his hand down on the counter again like a petulant child full of dissapointment.   The beautiful owner walked slowly over and stood in front of the man, crossed her arms and said, "Hatarateimasu!” She's working!  And that was that.


We left the izakaya at the same time, and he walked me towards my hotel.  I thanked him profusely for the dinner, for which he paid my entire bill, and the beer and the good conversation.  Embarrassment came across his face and it was clear he didn't know how to end the evening. That made two of us.  I hoped a kiss was not expected.  To my relief, he left me on the corner, waved child-like saying,  "Bye-bye, bye-bye," while looking the other way, and quickly scuttled down the street and around the corner.  

I walked into my hotel lobby tired, a little dizzy from the second beer and thought, "This is either the beginning of an amazing trip or portends a disastrous one...time will tell..." I took the elevator up to the 6th floor and my tiny, precious room and got into my pajamas.  I stared out the window at that unbelievable view until I fell asleep.