Tokyo Drifters

This is a picture of the Senso-ji Temple in the Asakusa district (click on the picture to make it very big). Note the gaggle of schoolchildren in the foreground; Senso-ji is to Tokyo as the Statue of Liberty is to New York City. Tourism central, only with way, way more souvenirs, if you can believe it. The shopping street leading up to the main gate has been around for a few centuries, and feels a little bit like the Taste of Chicago in its crowded frenzy.

The temple was originally built in 645 AD although, like most of Tokyo, we bombed the hell out of it during WWII and it was rebuilt in the 1950s. Purely by accident, Charlie and I entered through the calmer, back entrance and checked out a cool samurai statue.

Continuing forward to the massive temple, we watched people throw money into a wide, well-like thing lined with metal designed, I think, to magnify the sound of the coins falling in. Then the people prayed. The temple has a huge lantern and a cloud of burning incense in front of it as you face its equally massive gate. To the west of the temple is a five-story pagoda dedicated to the people of Asakusa. Directly to the east lies what we believe to be the cleanest public restroom we have ever seen in our lives, despite the fact that possibly fifty thousand people use it per minute.

We read in our guidebook that Asakusa is also called "shitamachi" (no snickering) or "the low city" because it's an older part of town with less development. Gangsters supposedly hang out here, although we saw no signs of this. We did see lots of energy drinks with funny names sold from vending machines all over the place. We also watched a men's lacrosse match at nearby Tokyo University. No signs exotic dancers or other forms of vice. What is wrong with Tokyo? Why must everything be so well-run and orderly? We consoled ourselves with fun candy at the Ueno train station.

We spent the next day, when it rained, in Ueno Park at the Tokyo National Museum (actually four museums for the price of one). We liked the swords, and the kimonos, and the ancient ceramics, and the scroll paintings, but the coolest thing was a smiling Buddha head from China. Our gifts for our parents come courtesy of the gift shop here. We loved buying stuff in Tokyo -- your bill is presented to you on a little tray (even for a few souvenirs) and when you've finished paying your credit card is handed back to you with a deep and formal bow. In this city, bowing happens a lot.

We saw many homeless people in Ueno Park. Or perhaps they were merely drunk -- we walked through the park on both Saturday and Sunday morning. They were all men, some sleeping on park benches, but some sprawled out right on the pavement as if they'd been shot. I was a little worried about the first guy we passed, but soon became accustomed to the sight. They all had taken off their shoes and lined them up neatly together somewhere near their passed-out bodies. We also saw a long line for Second Harvest ("America's" dropped) right in front of the museums, about 100-200 men waiting for a cup of soup. We didn't see any destitute women in the park, or anywhere else in public. I wonder what that's about.

Tokyo is like Rome in that homeless cats seem have free reign in the parks. The cats don't beg; they seem pretty indifferent to people in general. They must be well-fed. Eating was something we did pretty haphazardly while in Tokyo; we were just always on the move. Partly, too, we were afraid to order, at least at first. But most places had menus with pictures that we could point to. We particularly liked to have a serene cup of coffee (for Charlie) and cocoa (for Laura) at a cafe down the street from our ryokan.

Our nerves fried after running the shopping gauntlet in front of the Senso-ji Temple, we stopped for soba noodles in a traditional restaurant. We were seated next to a family: grandfather, mother and grandaughter, all expertly lifting their noodles high into the air, dipping them in sauce, and then slurping them down in one fluid motion. We must have looked like cavemen in comparison. But we did learn one phrase, itadakimas, "I will receive," which you say when your food is served. I think the Japanese must have had low expectations for us gaigin (foreigners), because they always looked so surprised and happy when we actually observed this little formality.

Our best eating experience by far came at the ryokan, where each morning we were served a seven-dish breakfast with rice and tea in our room. We loved our maid, who brought in the trays stacked from her knees to her shoulders. Keeping up a constant stream of Japanese, completely unintelligible to us, she smiled as she pointed out the dishes and set out bowls for the rice and cups for the tea. This old lady could have been cursing the idiot gaigin for all we knew, but she certainly seemed sweet and well-meaning. All we could do was keep arrigato-ing and hoping that thank you was enough.


Talk about the weather

Today was one of these days that starts out warm. It's almost July, so you automatically put on a short-sleeve shirt. And then, by the end of the day, it's cold outside, so cold you look around your desk and wonder if you can make a jacket out of printer paper. Something, anything, to cover your arms while you walk to the El, wait for the El, and walk home.

But maybe most people aren't as sensitive to cold as I am. Guys (and some girls) at least have hairy arms, which I really believe provides at least a little defense. Or maybe a kind of psychic shield: "It's cold out here, but mmm, I'm warm and furry."

It's not like I'm asking a lot from Chicago. I'll take the winters with a minimum of garden variety complaining. All I'm asking is that, during the summer, the daytime temperature stays between 70 and 90 degrees. Am I being unrealistic?

Apparently, I am.

Anyway, I've been trying to write this big, blowout blog on our fabu Pacific vacation, but it's not looking like that's ever going to come together. Instead, I've decided to focus on specific, attainable goals. So stay tuned for a series of bite-sized posts on things we did on our summer vacation.