THE long walk through endless halls from the arrival area at Guam Airport to Gate 8 where we were scheduled to board the Continental Airlines to Narita Airport a couple of weeks ago should have been an omen of more walks and feet blisters to come.
I was with Jinky Kintaro, one of the members of the Saipan Awaodori Team that was set to perform for the Koenji Awaodori Festival and we had to transit through Guam. Everybody else in the group took the Delta Airlines flight straight from Saipan to Narita. The three-hour flight went by and we met up with the group in Narita Airport but the minute we boarded a van to go to Tokyo a couple of weeks ago, something seemed wrong.
For one, the steering wheel was at the right side of the car, like all the other cars. I was not driving anyway so why worry.
The horror began when we emerged from the airport parking space. Mayumi-san, our guide, drove effortlessly but at a speed which somebody who has lived in an island for the last five years would consider as “maddening.”
I was about to relax when suddenly, a huge truck was careening toward us, with the driver sitting on the wrong side of the car and driving on the wrong side of the road.
There was no time to recite my goodbyes and I closed my eyes bracing for the crash, which did not come. I learned later that Japanese people drive on the left side of the road.
Mayumi-san sped through numerous toll gates whose bars automatically lifted each time a car passes by.
Miraculously, we reached Koenji in one piece. It felt good to be alive after a terrifying two-hour ride. Used to the slow-paced life in Palau and Saipan for half a decade, Tokyo was overwhelming.
A bustling city of buildings, skyscrapers and more buildings, cars of the latest models speeding dizzily on the wide roads, and thousands of bicycles on the streets which is being used by thousands of the city’s population as the best option for transportation.
Tokyo at this time is blisteringly, scorching hot. I thought fans were a part of the Japanese culture, now I know it is a necessity. Everybody uses fans everywhere—while walking, sitting or eating.
At 3 p.m., we were already so hungry, the memories of the airplane food long gone. We trooped to guess where—a McDonald’s outlet in Koenji where I ordered fish fillet, French fries and a glass of coke for 590 yen. But for dinner, we went to Okada Restaurant at Takashi Ma-Daira district and gorged up on Katsudon, sesame and vegetable soup, soba or the authentic traditional Japanese noodles dipped in sauce was good.
It felt so good to flop down in the soft bed at the room Misako-san (of Kinpachi Restaurant) gave me in her condo in Harajuko Street after a long day of changing planes, cars, trains, walking miles of corridors and hallways and going through the hassles of immigration and checking in and out of the airports.
The shrill ringing of my cell phone alarm woke me up from a deep slumber. We were to go out at 7 am so I set my alarm at 6 a.m. With eyes still half-closed, I stumbled to the bathroom and woke up to the cool blast of the shower. I did not wait for the heater to work but I’ve taken my bath and changed but still, there were no other sounds of activity from Misako-san’s room or from Ronnie Boy, our videographer.
My first blooper for the day – I forgot to set my clock to Tokyo time, which is one hour ahead of Saipan time.
A few minutes later, I heard the voice of doom— we were called for breakfast. Misako-san’s mother Mama-san served bacon and vegetables, cabbage, sausage and toasted bread oozing with cheese. I mean Mama-san is a superb cook but for me whose vocabulary does not contain the word “breakfast”, it was an ordeal.
The day passed in a blur, with us picking up the kids from their apartment in Koenji and running from one subway station to another, running up and down stairs. We visited the Asakusa Nakamise shopping arcade and the Sinsoji temple, but more on this next issue.
The train stations, especially the Tokyo main station was a nightmare, so busy especially during peak hours. Human bodies are like ants squirming and rushing in from all directions and pouring in and out of the trains.
Misako-san, the rest of the group and everybody in Tokyo walks so fast while I was tempted several times to sit on the pavement and cry.
I finally had an hour in the morning off. Lugging my laptop, I hurried to a Starbucks coffee outlet a few blocks down from Misako-san’s house and ordered coffee and a slice of cake. There were a thousand sites available but I could not connect to the internet, no matter how I tried.
Asking the waiters would be useless because my Japanese is limited to four prhases –“Ohayo gozaimasu or good morning,” “domo arigato or thank you,” “konbanwa or good evening,” and the most used of all, “wakaranai” or I don’t understand.
I found a 10-minute trial internet with www.fon.com and was finally connected. I replied to two emails and suddenly, the trial period was up. My effort to buy more airtime was futile. It was taking so long and my battery was hovering dangerously low.
What a dark life—no internet connection, no cellphone, no nothing. No connection to my origins whatsoever.
If you’re used to the friendly hi’s and hellos of the people here, forget it in Tokyo. Everybody’s absorbed in reaching wherever they are going. Oh, better luck tomorrow, I told myself.
Later, we went up to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and enjoyed a superb 360-degree panoramic view of the whole city. Tokyo is very clean, despite its millions of residents. No smoke or smog can be seen from the observatory, other cities where visibility is limited because of black smoke.
We were in Koenji once again, waiting for the biggest Awaodori Festival to begin in the district’s major streets. The Saipan kids were joining the street dancing with the Tokyo Tensuiren group. I had a couple of hours to spare so I tried to find an internet café.
Misako-san scribbled some Japanese characters on a piece of paper and told me to show it to anybody to ask for directions. Luckily, I found one café, at the basement of a department store. With one hour to spare, I spent the first 14 minutes trying to communicate with the receptionist that I want to get connected. She spoke no English and all I understood was she was asking for my passport. Okay. It took more minutes as I keyed in personal information in a computer before she finally ushered me into a plush booth.
Finally, I got connected with some friends but suddenly, the keyboard went Japanese. I spent another 13 minutes trying to solve what key I had pressed and by the time it was okay, I had to go out because the festival was about to start. I gave her a 1,000 yen bill and pocketed the change I discovered later that I paid 780 yen or almost $10 for an hour! On Saipan I pay 50 cents to a dollar for an hour of fast connection. Talk about the high cost of Tokyo living.
We left the house at 5 a.m. and took the trains to Tokyo Disneyland. Thousands of people were already ahead of us, but I estimated about 80 percent of the Disneyland visitors were adults. Only 20 percent were kids. (More on this later)
Nothing scheduled for the day so Ronnie Boy and I spent the day at Shinjuku and Shibuya combing the electronics shops and other stores. I went home empty-handed. My jaws practically dropped at the sky-high prices of gadgets and camera accessories, especially those made in Japan.
Later, I went out and finally had a leisurely street photography shoot until 10 p.m. It was time to go home and pack our things.
Here are some helpful tips I learned the hard way to get you around Tokyo.
*Japanese time is one time.
*Study basic conversational Niponggo before you go. It helps.
*Buses and trains have priority seats for the elderly and disabled, the pregnant and those with kids. Observe it.
*Lines are observed in bus stops. We didn’t fall in line and a couple of senior citizens allowed us to board ahead. It was embarrassing.
*When you ride the escalators, stay at the left side. The right side is for people who are hurrying.
*Walk in a single file in streets and stairways. I discovered this is not some part of the culture but a necessity, with the pedestrian lanes so narrow.
*Smoke only in designated areas.
*Don’t forget your fare card because you need it to board trains and buses.
Next issue, let’s visit Asakusa Nakamise shopping arcade and the Sensoji temple, one of Japan’s oldest