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First Stop – Japan!

First Stop – Japan!

on Jul 28, 2014 in Japan | 9 comments


Speeding west at over 150mph on the Tokyo to Shin-Osaka Shinkansen “bullet train”, I’m struck by how fast my mind has been processing the last 36 hours.   Landed in Tokyo’s Narita airport, with no sleep because the cute kid in behind me had entertained herself for 8 hours by poking at the game on the screen embedded in my chair.  Had to lie on my customs form because no, I had no cell number that worked and no, I had no idea where I was going to be staying while in Japan, and no, I wasn’t sure EXACTLY when I was going to leave…so I gave answers that had no meaning, they liked it, and let me in.  Didn’t check my luggage, nor question me except to ask “Why are you here?”  THAT could answer honestly.  “I want to look around”  The nice man harumphed, stamped my passport, and I was in.   Then I discovered that the Narita “free wifi” connects with a laptop, but not a smartphone (important because I needed to connect with my SV2 friend Stephanie who was picking me up!).   Made that connection due to her resourcefulness and email, which feels positively ancient compared to texting and took the Narita Express to S’s place near Shibuya station.

Entry into Japan successful!

The first 48 hours were speedy.  The language is dense, compared to my other  travels in non English lands like Germany, Peru, and even United Arab Emirates, where my language skills or their wide adoption of English made it easy to get around.    Here….not so much.  Almost no one speaks English.  Plus, Japanese has 3 “alphabets”, none of which are Latin based, so I can’t cheat.  The effect of this, as could be expected, but for some of you may seem incredible, is that I have been rendered largely mute.   I’ve learned some key phrases from my friend S who lives here, like “sumi masen”, which roughly translates to “excuse me, I’m sorry, my fault, forgive me”.  When I want to get the attention of a food server, I confidently call out “sumi masen!”.  When I want to ask someone a question, like “where am I?”, I politely open with “sumi masen”.  When I stepped on that woman’s heel in an oafish way that caused daggers to fly out of her eyes, I plaintively offered “sumi masen”.  For a guy with no local language or social skills, “sumi masen” is my go-to phrase.

I’m trying to avoid being annoying to people, but sometimes it’s just inevitable.  For example, when I checked into my capsule hotel, the front clerk almost went apoplectic as I continually failed to understand that I was offending everyone’s sensibilities by wearing my shoes.  They belonged in the locker behind me, against the wall…no shoes allowed in the hotel.  He retaliated by giving me what I can only guess was the least desirable “capsule” in the place – on top and right at the entrance where all the noise happened.  Oh well.  I had successfully, without S’s expert assistance, found my way across Tokyo to this little back water hotel near the Ueno train station.  Yes!  Coupled with a very short jet lag (really just one night), I feel ready to go on this trip.

I actually enjoyed the capsule hotel experience.  For those of you not fully up to date, Japan has these “hotels” that provide not a room, but a coffin-shaped capsule, complete with bedding, lighting and a TV.  Plus a convenient screen to pull down for privacy.  My capsule was 438, which was basically on the coveted top row.   My TripAdvisor review of the Sauna & Capsule Hotel Hokuoh in Tokyo is here, but for my more personal audience, here is my capsule!


Click to make more bigger.

tokyosubwaymapJA couple quick observations about Tokyo and its denizens to this wide eyed naïve traveler.  First, this is a Big City!  Seems much bigger and denser than New York, and I’m not sure why.  Could be the city’s organization (addresses are just as often out of order as they are sequential, streets just go all over the place, no grid like SF), could be the sheer volume of humanity and interactions, or it could be that all the signs are obviously in Japanese which floods my cognition like…uh…like (don’t go there, too insensitive…) like being in the middle of the grand finale of a July 4 fireworks display.  (Phew).  In any case, it’s overwhelming.  In a Good Way!  I’m like a Kansas farmboy going to the city for the first time.  Mouth agape.  Smiling at the newness and pure stimuli overload.

Second quick observation, aside from “normal” clothing attire, there seem to be three modes of dress that are different for me.  First, for the “salary man”, the one who works in offices, there is the standard white shirt / dark grey slacks look.  You see this effect especially on the train platforms, just hundreds of similarly dressed men.  What’s fascinating is that they are in the middle of “Cool Biz” days, started when the Fukushima nuclear plant went down, and electricity supply (i.e., A/C, was suspect).  At some point in the summer, everyone gets the signal that they can wear short sleeve dress shirts and no tie or suit.  Until sometime in the fall when they go back to suits and ties.  Not sure how they get this signal, but evidently they all do and one one day, everyone is in short sleeve shirts and no tie.  Since it’s been 90 degrees and 80% humidity, make sense to me.

The second mode of dress is what I can best call “adventurous”.   Mostly by the youth – bright and cartoonish or, less often, dark and brooding.   (and remember, this is in 90 degree sweltering weather)

However, there is a third mode on that just befuddles me – Lolita Street Fashion.  Women of ALL ages are wearing clothes that a young girl might put on a doll.  I don’t think it’s goth, it seems like they just want to look like dolls.  Here are some pictures ….you tell me.


I tried to take a few pictures of women on the street but they declined.  Which was wise, I suppose.   So these pictures are what I found that look pretty much like what I saw.  Curious.

All in all, Tokyo to this wide eyed innocent jet lagged traveler, seems like a very thriving, affluent and happy place.  Even more so than San Francisco – no homeless people or panhandlers, streets uniformly clean and non smelly.   And quirky in their own way (see above “Lolita”).

Tomorrow….I travel to Hiroshima.



  1. glad you made is safely there!

    i think everyone lives in tokyo because godzilla destroyed the countryside. no? 🙂

    girls there love doing “cosplay” (dressing up in costumes). it’s pretty typical. hit up the roppongi sectio of town while you’re there. you’ll see loads of strange stuff, fwik.

    • Yes, Godzilla has made his presence known here. Two stories.

      At the Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima, a classic tourist picture is of the torii (gate). As I was watching, bemusedly, a Japanese guy in his 20s posed a plastic model of Godzilla in front of the gate in a way that looked like Godzilla was attacking the gate.

      And my tour guide in Kyoto explained how the Kyoto Tower, reviled by many as ugly, was taken down by Godzilla in a movie because the director also reviled the tower.

      So Godzilla lives in Japan!

  2. So great to read about your first adventures-on-the-adventure! Thanks for the capsule deets.

    For when your laptop works, I recommend you check out the latest TED Radio Hour on NPR, “Disruptive Leadership”. The guy who founded Barefoot College in India will likely be of major interest to you in particular.

    • Thanks, Beth! I shall view it as SOON as I find my earphones. Grrr…. I read what I could about Bunker Roy and I’m excited about learning more…

  3. “sumi masen’! Dave!!

    Wow that capsule picture just made my day! So what about when you sleep? do you get any privacy at all?

    • Hi, Maya,
      Sorry for the delay in responding. Yeah, I guess you could say I got visual privacy but not so much auditory privacy. I could hear my Capsule Mates moving around, grunting, snoring, coughing, etc. But I didn’t have to WATCH them doing these things. So there’s that. 🙂

  4. The randomness of addresses in Japan is because houses are numbered by when they were built (first on the block is number 1, second number 2, etc., for all houses on that square block, not that street). Not by order they’re located in. The only people besides me who seem to use the actual addresses to find things are postoffice people. Also because most streets don’t have names. It’s a system that works once people are used to it.
    Your observations on clothing are interesting. I was watching this trip for how many people wear shorts, because when I lived there 20-25 years ago, shorts were totally forbidden outdoors for adults. Looks like it’s changed a little on that, but not much. I bought new pants for this trip, because I didn’t want to wear jeans in the heat there, or wear skirts all the time.
    I’ve never stayed in the capsule hotels!

    • I read that too, that folks in Asia – in general – didn’t wear shorts. I was familiar with that from my time in Dubai. But I saw plenty of people wearing shorts this trip. Not working people, of course, but others. Same in Korea this week.

  5. The lolita thing is pretty popular here too. Mostly at comiccons and such. It’s based mostly on anime. Goth Lolita is also definitely a thing

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