March 2014.  Jet lag in translation: Tokyo early days

March 2014. Jet lag in translation: Tokyo early days

Sunday March 16.  

Land in Narito after a 14.5 hr flight sitting in a coach middle seat next to the only fat man on the plane, who also is missing the fingers on one hand.  Sasha picks me up in a borrowed car and we hit the road (drive left, look right) through several tolls for $8 each, missing the correct turn-off and driving through a futuristic version of megalopolis.    As soon as I landed I promptly lost the scarf I bought in Damascus and Sash points out that I will never be going back to Damascus to get another.  Since my scarf collection is high on my list of personal accomplishments, pathetic as that may be – I am now quite annoyed but too jetlagged to actually be annoyed, and of course quite delighted to be with Sash, so I can’t dwell on this – other than to note that I am losing things much too often and I don’t quite know what to do with this information. 

      Paying one of many tolls; good thing I am not driving




I change and we hop the subway to meet a group of his Fletcher friends at a restaurant that I wouldn’t have found in two lifetimes – up an alley, around the back, through a side entrance and into a space created to look like old Tokyo.  Shoes off and I mostly sit and smile (like someone’s grandmother) and say hello as people come and go and exclaim over my ancient connection to Fletcher.  Most of these alums are Japanese women who work in the Foreign Ministry and I point out that I was one of about only 15 women at Fletcher  in 1976.  They exclaim politely but I could be talking about the Middle Ages.

Sasha and Japanese Fletcher alumnae

There is a bell on the table (shades of Staples and “this is easy”) and we hit the bell and waiters magically appear. Small plates arrive daintily presented with seasonal items that are unidentifiable but tasty.  I have learned not to question and they are so pretty that what the hell….  Sasha babbles fearlessly in Japanese and the locals laugh at him and correct him good naturedly.   Even though it is about 9 AM my time I am still puttering along.  We walk back through Ginza to Akasaka when it becomes clear that collapse is imminent.

Shisheido window nighttime Ginza; Cherry blossoms R Us

Monday March 17.     

I am up at 4:00 and there is no way I can get back to sleep.  I head off to the Embassy with Sash stopping at Nagano Bakery on the way for croissants, which are just about as good as in France, then on to the Embassy where I change money and stare at the bills to make sure that I don’t confuse 100s and 10s. (10,000 yen vs. 1,000).  Sash goes to work (it feels like a 1950s UN building – blonde wood, low furniture; Mme Ambassador is not in residence at the moment and many uniformed armed forces personnel come and go)  and I head off solo into giant Tokyo, braving the subway.

Ginza Line. I get it now. Stop 6; Stop 9, Exit 12

I find my way to Ginza and the Matsuya Dept store where I check out the food offerings in the basement – like a food museum – and find my go-to jet lag food of egg sandwich – or anything with egg.   Conundrum: Every dept store has fabulous and extensive food courts but there is NOWHERE to sit and eat.  This staggers me.  The food is all prepared to go and people buy it and disappear. Where do they eat?  The first of many mysteries.  And where do they put their garbage? There are no trash cans and yet the streets are spotless. (Sash maintains that people are not encouraged to toss trash and they carry it with them  — in what? Their Louis Vuitton handbags? — until they can throw it out.)
After roaming through all 8 floors, I end up on the top floor with something that seems to be sale items.  I am so drawn to the kimono fabrics and obis – some of which cost thousands of dollars.  
Instead I come across scarves and have an extensive parallel conversation with a saleswoman who keeps showing me soft pastel silks with the faintest hints of embossed cherry blossoms, chattering in Japanese, to which I respond, “wow, that is gorgeous,” and she says many things that all end in maaaaaas  and neeehhh (all you need to know).  I explain that I look like I’m dying in these gorgeous soft pastels and could not wear them in my grave, even if they are emblematic of the season.  Instead I pull out a bright orange scarf that she takes out of my hand and replaces with soft pastels, insistent. So it goes until I feel like I have to buy the orange scarf just to prove to her that I can’t wear the soft pastels, even though they are so appropriately seasonal, welcoming the coming cherry blossoms.  She seems very sad that I am not towing the line here.  Nonetheless, a sale is a sale.  Then two additional people get in the act, bowing and writing up receipts, wrapping and cooing in high voices ending in the long drawn-out Maaaassss.  (I have practiced Arigato Gozaimas but you just need the last syllable evidently.)  
I take my purchase and sit through half a kimono demonstration of how to wear, and how to follow the correct pattern. 
Again, it’s remarkable how much language you don’t need in order to understand what’s going on. A group of ladies keeps beckoning me to sit, and for the first time in my life I feel like a giant among them. I don’t sit, apologetically, because I don’t want to have to extricate myself when I almost immediately stand up and look for the bathroom – which again – hello TOTO – so many cute buttons to press but how do you flush?  

But I don’t want a bath;  how do I flush?

My favorite is the sound button which you can press to hear a loud flush – and I realize that this is a modesty button so no one hears you over the sound of the flush.  I believe some toilets actually make other sounds – like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth – but I have become quite occupied with the multitude of instructions for cleaning, washing, wiping the seat, adjusting heat  — really. It’s no wonder they can make cars.  On the other hand, much like the missing seats for consuming the food offerings, the bathrooms are lacking certain key elemets – soap and paper to dry hands or machines to blast heat. And teeny tiny trash cans.
Now I go into post jet lag hyponchondria and can’t decide if I’m too hot or too cold and am I coming down with something.  I walk up to the Midtown park and sit watching the kids coming home from school in their uniforms, (school bell quitting time rings city-wide at 5:00 PM) while workers set up the Martini Blossom lounge for outdoor cherry blossom viewing – while it’s sunny, it’s still pretty cold and spring still seems several weeks away.
Monday night we go for Sushi in Akasaka—I get the tamest things on the menu and don’t finish them.  I observe the vocal call and response which seems both deliberate and dramatic – sort of like the barking dogs in a kennel when one of them gets liberated to walk or go home.  (Sash observes that the Japanese seem to do a lot of narrating of what they are doing at that moment.  “Hi I’m welcoming this customer! Chef, get ready, here’s a customer. Now, this guest is leaving.  Good-bye guest!  Thank you thank you very much!  I know that you do not understand a word of my very lengthy thank you and good bye but here it is all the same, echoed and repeated by every member of the staff…”) 
We leave, stepping over the tiny bowls of salt in the corners of the threshold – a Shinto purification rite.   
Off to the grocery store where I splurge on blueberries, strawberries and a few other items that come to $30 – no kidding.  (15 strawberries for $5.00)  The melons are $19 – so we give that a pass.




Monday night is full on jetlag; wide awake at 2:00.