Friday Dec 28 Tokyo. Overcast, but warmer.
D and I explore midtown which, although an office area, does not seem to get going until 10 am, when a wave of young office workers (salarymen) in black suits and white shirts floods through the underground shopping center and people queue up to enter airport-like gates just to wait for the elevator to their office. They’ll be doing this for the next 40 years.
Later that afternoon the Tokyo train station is packed – the entire city seems to be on the move. And it’s pouring – not a great start. We take the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka – the big-shouldered Chicago of Japan. Big (non-stop big) – it seems muscular and crude compared to Tokyo’s (occasional) elegance. We check into the Swissotel, eat local cook-yourself pancakes (okonomiyaki) in a maze of alleys and the guys go drinking while we act like the responsible parents (relieved that we don’t have to figure out pubs in a really strange place where people are lying drunk in the street with banners overhead announcing what appear to be reality TV shows for martial arts wannabes – or maybe extreme meditation marathons – it’s hard to tell.)
Saturday Dec 29: Osaka – Nara – Osaka. Sun!
We head to Nara by train, former imperial capital prior to Kyoto. Sash again negotiates admirably as English signage is nonexistent and these subway/train stations are ferociously busy (but surprisingly orderly). Fortunately it’s a sunny day and Nara is just lovely – delicate pavilions, temples and shrines built into the hillside in a national park looking like postcard Japan. We walk for hours from shrine to shrine, many of them being cleaned and prepared for New Year’s as many stalls and food stands begin to line the roads. The temples, mostly dark wood with white trim, all appear to be a mix of Buddhist and Shinto with clean, simple lines. We light incense sticks and hang good luck wishes (or at least I do) in origami slips on wires by temple entrances. Both Sash and Max have temple calligraphy books and wait at each shrine for a monk to calligraph the name and stamp of their temple. After about 30 temples they will have a beautiful scroll that may stretch for 10 feet in red and black calligraphy.
Nara is home to “sacred” deer that roam around begging for food – this seems loony to me as the last thing you want is wild animals pretending to be tame and then ganging up on small children who hope to gently feed them. We witness many such incidents which Japanese parents seem to find hilarious until the deer turn on them. As soon as tourists are out of sight the local shopkeepers turn on the deer with brooms and knock them out of the way.
Back to Osaka by train and at some point after a detour through an underground food market with museum-quality food but nowhere to eat it (and we are starving – family dynamics get murky, it’s inevitable), we end up in the Swissotel rooftop bar with spectacular view and similar prices and everyone is happy.
Sunday Dec 30: Osaka – Kyoto. Pouring – really raining.
We head to Kyoto by bullet train (30 minutes) and check into the Granvia hotel that sits above the modern and stunning open air Kyoto train station – sort of a sleek updated Asian version of Boston City Hall The entire country appears to be checking into the hotel all politely herded in line by silk-robed, impossibly thin women who whisk away your luggage and seat you at a desk as though you are about to be interviewed for a very important job. Between the extraordinary flower displays and the teeny-tiny women with flawless skin, my self-esteem slips to near zero. By now it is not only pouring non-stop, but the temperature has plunged 10 degrees and the rain threatens to turn to snow. We wear everything we own, buy umbrellas and head out with great determination. 3 hours later, determination unflagged, despite feet wet and freezing from roaming shoeless in mostly empty temples, we take a taxi to the Gion district of old Kyoto. It really doesn’t matter how beautiful something is supposed to be if you are staring at it in the non-stop rain. You can tell yourself that it’s supposed to be terrific and must be gorgeous covered in cherry blossoms but…
By now we’re starving and it appears that either every restaurant is full or closed and I can tell that various stages of meltdown might occur regardless of our group determination. Fortunately we find a restaurant with an actual table that is not on the floor and gratefully drink tea. We let Sash order for us and are prepared to eat whatever it is – gelatinous fish crap or whatever. Happily it’s some kind of tempura and rice and soup. The kids eat the gelatinous crap with gusto. After two more hours of roaming in the rain we taxi back.
Monday, Dec 31: Kyoto – Tokyo Sun!
I am practically jumping up and down with delight at the prospect of no rain. We head back to old Kyoto and start the Philospher’s Walk from hillside temple to temple. While it is sunny, it’s also freezing and clouds threaten, but we finish most of the walk which takes about 5 hours through small shrines and delicate gardens, and narrow lanes along a canal. We stop in a tiny Udon shop for lunch and slurp noodles at a counter with 4 stools while Sash chats with the owners and learns various New Year’s greetings in Japanese. I am stilling working on “thank you very much.” It’s by far the cheapest meal we’ve had and perfect for a cold day. By the time we finish the whole town is getting ready for New Year’s Eve and suddenly the hilly streets are packed with women in kimonos and children in strollers eating ice cream. We barely make it back to the station to catch the bullet train to Tokyo. (2.5 hours to cover 700 kms). When we emerge in downtown Tokyo it appears to have been evacuated. Evidently New Year’s is a family event and people either leave town or stay home. We go to the Ritz for a lovely dinner with spectacular views from the 49th floor.
Tuesday January 1: Again sunny – yippee.
We head into the eerily deserted streets and take the Ginza line train to Asakusa where we naively think we can visit the large Sensoji Temple complex – a customary New Year’s pilgrimage evidently shared by the remaining population of Tokyo. We immediately give up on this as a good part of the police force has been commandeered to keep order in the endless lines snaking through the streets; remarkable order truthfully. It is hard to imagine any other country where people would wait patiently and obediently for 4-5 hours in the cold. Instead we follow the overflow lines that head for the food and trinket stalls on the opposite side where we keep congratulating ourselves for not getting in the temple line (from which there would no exit). As soon as we leave the complex it’s clear that the city is shut tight. We walk through the ceramics area, the cutlery area and small residential areas to Ueno park, sort of a Central Park with major museums, shrines and temples and watch the Asian ducks swimming in the reeds in the lake surrounding another major temple with patiently waiting lines. The sun at 3:00 is at an angle I’ve never seen before – piercing and blindingly intense. I marvel at this every day that it’s sunny – perhaps it’s being so far West that you’re East? Or vice versa? After our 3 hour walk we brave the subway and get off at Ginza – Tokyo’s Fifth Avenue where everything is shut tight. Sash stands in the middle of the empty street – usually swarming with traffic – to take a picture. I need to be a mommy and insist on cooking so we find a shop that is open, find our way through strange vegetables and assemble enough stuff for a pretty hearty pasta.
It’s nice to be a family again sitting around the table eating our own food and we know how rare this has become.