March 29, 2004, 19:40: Tokyo, Japan - New Takanawa Prince Hotel
The best way I can describe Japan is as follows: Picture landing on Mars and you find there's a whole culture there, that's quite similar in many ways, but totally different all at the same time - huge culture shock. Once you get to work around you realise a few things. Firstly, they want your money. All of it. Then some more. And more after that. I could keep on going. I just walked by an advertisement for a teppanyaki steakhouse where it costs 17000 yen for a steak dinner. After working out the exchange rate – I figured it to be about $230 Canadian. That’s pretty mad.
I was picked up this morning to go on my tour. I was driven to the main bus station, and noticed a lot of businessmen walking around the streets. There were A LOT of businessman. All wearing suits, some wearing face masks, like a doctor would in the operating room. I got my ticket and boarded the tour bus, quite unhappy that I was assigned an aisle seat instead of the window seat I thought I had, especially since I booked this a couple of months in advance. Oh well. We drove through Tokyo on the expressway (60 km/h, with a toll gate every 5 or so kilometres) and made our way straight to Mt Fuji's 5th station. The hills surrounding the mountain weren't exactly spectacular; they were nice though, kind of like New Zealand, except with slight different trees, and totally different cities at the foot of the hills. Mt Fuji itself is every bit as spectacular as any photo would lead you to believe. Trouble is, it wasn't especially clear; maybe it was the smog drifting over from Tokyo. Worst I've ever been in. I understand the masks much better now.
We got off at the 5th station, about 2300m above sea level, and had a quick stop. I took the opportunity to write my Mom a postcard, and posted it. I also got into the Japanese spirit of spending money unnecessarily on random commercial crap. I bought a pair of chopsticks and a scroll depicting Mt Fuji with the sun, as well as a couple of postcards that have much better photos than I could dream of taking with my camera. There was some absolutely bizarre stuff in the shop. I picked up a bag of small dried whole crabs - and within 2 seconds, the shop keep was thrusting an open container of them in front of my face, begging me to try one. I was just picking up the bag to see if it was for real. Of course, it was. Bizarre stuff. None of the food was attractive - and I'd not eaten a thing all morning, it was now 11 o'clock. I was quite hungry. Even the barbeque outside was serving items that just seemed far too strange to even contemplate eating. I resigned myself to the bus, and we were off down to lunch at the base of the mountain, right next to the theme park complete with multiple roller coasters. Did I mention yet that this place seems like another planet?
I had a "western style" chicken lunch, and it was half decent. Much better than I could have expected from the dried miniature crab and nondescript cooked item on a stick shops on the mountain. I was ravenous enough to polish off someone else's untouched salad, as well as the rest of the bread on the table. I was even tempted to go across to another table and grab their bread, but decided against it. I even worked up the courage to say Arigato (thank you) to the gentleman serving me. After this, we were off to Hakone, an area which I knew nothing about. We drove for a little while, and made it to a place called the peace park. This is what I would think of when I thought of a Japanese Garden. Very tranquil apart from the American and Japanese armies testing out all sorts of firearms in the background at their respective bases a few kilometres away. The scenery was unreal. Pruned shrubs, mini temples, all arranged so nicely. This was probably the highlight of the trip for me, I didn't want to leave.
Unfortunately for me, we had to leave, as this is a tour, not a "drive to the Peace Park and move in" service. We drove through some precarious mountain road very slowly and went through a tunnel, and next thing I knew, my view of Mt Fuji was gone. I wasn't terribly impressed with the landscape in front of me, and wondered why we had spent so little time at Mt Fuji and the peace park. It was due to the fact that we had a boat cruise at Lake Ashi and a cable car ride in store for us. The wind was blowing fiercely on the boat, and was quite cool. I can't say I was downright cold, but I definitely would be after more than a few minutes in the wind. The boat cruise was really uneventful, and didn't do that much for me other than give me a view of the hills around me from the lowest possible point. We got off at the cable car station, and were set free for 20 minutes. It was pointed out there was a shop selling "trick boxes" which had been previously demonstrated on the bus. These things are awesome; an incredibly skilled woodworker would have a tough time making one of these. To open it, you must slide a few cleverly disguised pieces around to release certain portions of the box - to allow for further sequential movements, eventually opening the box. You have to see it to believe it.
Japan is out to take your money. After going to a couple of shops, and picking up some more scrolls, to decorate my room with, I made my way to the cable car. Nothing really spectacular about it, just a ride up the side of the hill, and giving a view of the small town below. It quite reminded me of New Zealand. We got to the top and were warned about the wind. Secure everything you can. It appears they were probably understating the importance of that, as the wind was quite strong, and quite cold at the summit, about 1300m off sea level. There was a Shinto temple, and a great view of Mt Fuji to one side. To the other, the ocean. Looking back towards the cable car, you could see the town below (that is when the wind died down enough for you to partially open your eyes - just kidding). You could see the golf course charging about 15000 yen (about $200) for a round of golf below. We walked around, and headed back to the cable car and rode down. We got on the bus, and it was time to start dropping of people at random hotels in the middle of these small cities. We managed to clear out about 2/3 of the bus at these buildings on narrow twisty downhill roads, and set off for the Shinkansen station, known to foreigners as the Bullet Train.
We were handed tickets, given a briefing on how to get back to the hotels, and were set free into the Japanese transit system. I got to the platform, and found the area to stand for my car. I bought a Pepsi, with the following dimensions. 2" wide, 6" tall. Bizarre. While standing around, there was a sudden "whoosh" and before I could blink, half a bullet train had already passed through the station, and continued on. It must have passed through the whole station in 3 seconds. These are fast. Really fast. I was told by our guide that we would hit 270km/h on our return journey - a reduced speed from the possible 300km/h that the train reaches on different sections of the route. This is such a contrast from the roads, which average 50-60km/h limits. I was really starting to this there has to be some serious insanity going on with the Japanese population. One of the newest and most powerful Kawasaki production motorcycles being made gets to nearly 180km/h our in first gear. Yes, first gear. Clearly, this is a very technologically advanced culture, set on pushing the envelope no matter how impractical or insanely dangerous it might be. I remember earlier on in the tour, the guide pointed out a bridge that headed straight into a tunnel into the mountainside, built for an experimental/mental Maglev train that goes well near 600km/h. This train works by floating over a concrete base, suspended by magnets, and getting speed by alternating polarity on the magnets. This was in the middle of practically nowhere.
Having digested all this information, I was pretty excited when the train pulled up and I boarded, going to my window seat. We waited around for an agonizing 5 minutes and set off. It started off quite slowly, quite smoothly. Acceleration was hardly noticeable. I watched the outside scenery going faster, faster, and I was certain that we might be close to our top speed. Impossibly, the scenery just started getting faster, and faster, and faster, and even lights were becoming blurred as they flew by. Suddenly, the train jerked its position and there was the sight of another train out the window for just over a second. If we hit, the combined speeds would make for a 540km/h collision. Fortunately, we didn't, I was amazed, and we continued onwards. This happened a few more times before we got to the first stop, Yokohama station. This was a very short stop and we set off for my stop, Shinagawa station, which was conveniently a 5 minute walk from my hotel. I was amazed with the precision at how this train stops and your gate to get off is right in front of you. Very impressive, considering this beast was just going 270km/h not a couple of minutes before.
I walked back to the hotel through the Japanese garden connecting all the different hotels in this chain, and now I'm here in the hotel room writing this very sentence. There is far too much culture for me to digest in one day, and it almost seems over the top. I'm glad my stay here was quite short relatively, as this is not a good country to be in if you only have a bit of money. Actually, no a lot of money. You need pretty much unlimited amounts of money to stay here for any length of time quite comfortably. The tour guide mentioned that most people that live in the suburbs pay over half a million dollars for a detached hut, and commute 1.5-2 hours each way to work. College education can cost up to $100000/year. I'm really grateful for the extremely high standard of living that we are afforded in Canada, and wouldn't mind seeing the old place again. By this time tomorrow, I'll have been settled at home for a few hours, and I'm ready to get back to the real world. At least I hope so.