July 22-24, 2016: The Most Western of Toilets, The Most Eastern of Toilets

Chika took us to a great Thai place for lunch on our final day of Week 1. I had a braised pork over rice that was really good. But as with all restaurants in Tokyo, it was tiny. So we couldn’t all sit together. We had to split up. But I like going out with Chika and Sayaka. They are very nice to us and they’re fun to hang out with.

The final day of English Camp was all about our life missions. We had one student who was already very sure of what he wanted to do. But our other student really wasn’t sure. So it took some work to figure something out. We had 6 interns, and yet we still had some trouble. But the final day was really about farewells. This was our last day with our students. And we had a big closing ceremony at the end of the day. Two interns from each group went up to say some words (some people spoke in Japanese and others didn’t even try). And I think the students really appreciated the effort. Some people spoke Japanese with terrible intonation. Others surprised the students by being really good after feigning ignorance–and maybe scared them if they said things behind our backs in Japanese. Then the students had some words for us. Jumpei, bless him, said “I have a dream that one day I will drink alcohols with you guys.” He is a riot.

After taking pictures and saying our goodbyes, we went to Mcdonalds. That was my first time at McDonalds here. There are a lot of them. The McDonald’s counter was pretty much on the street, because there isn’t that much space. And then the seating was upstairs. The menu is severely reduced. But the burger and chicken nuggets were about the same as in the US, maybe a little less greasy. Also McDonalds is a sponsor of the new Pokemon Go game. So every McDonalds in Japan is a Pokestop, which attracts customers. It might have a real effect economically, but that is yet to be seen.

Then we hung out for Meg’s birthday at a pub and did some karaoke. She loves karaoke. And she loves Adele. Specifically, she likes “All I Ask.” To be honest, I’ve kind of gotten sick of that song by now. I have heard it so much. Afterwards, we hung out at Meg’s all night. She has a rooftop that we have access to and she is in a pretty urban area unlike my neighborhood. I slept on a tatami mat, which was arguably as comfortable as my futon on hardwood.

We were planning on going to Kawagoe the next day with the group. But everyone was exhausted. I was ready to go in the morning at the right time, but no one else was. Everyone is slow and lazy. But it was fine. Instead we hung out and headed to Kawagoe later in the day to join our group. For lunch we went to Dennys. And Dennys is totally different in Japan. There is no Moon Over My Hammys or Grand Slamwiches. No, the portions here are much smaller. You get one strip of bacon and one link of sausage. It’s almost comical. It seems so anti-Dennys. Here they serve you two eggs, a small thing of salad, a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup. Not exactly what I expect for breakfast. It’s a Japanese style breakfast. The scrambled eggs look gross. For some reason, they’re shiny and watery looking.

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We took the train from Asakusa all the way North to Kawagoe, which was a very long train ride. I know I have complained about the train being expensive and that is true for short distances. But at long distances to the outskirts of Tokyo and even beyond Tokyo, the public transportation is comparatively cheap. In the United States, to travel these distances you wouldn’t be able to take public transport. To get as far as Kamakura, like I did on Sunday, you would have to take an Amtrak at a much higher price. So at long distances, it is actually relatively cheap.

Kawagoe was cool. Upon exiting the train station, we found a garbage can much to our surprise. It is much more peaceful than central Tokyo. This is also the location where I first used a so-called squatty potty. So apparently, the logic is that a squatting position straightens out your bowels and eases constipation. Maybe that’s true. But nonetheless, I can’t say that it was a pleasant experience. It was traumatic.I mean, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting but the squatting position is not particularly comfortable.  And it is a miracle that I didn’t get any poop on my pants or shoes. And it is hard to wipe in that position. It amazes me that the same country that has advanced toilets with buttons still has squat toilets too. It’s something I expect from China, not advanced Japan. But it seems the further outside of central Tokyo we get, the more common it is.

But unbeknownst to me, they had western toilets inside the temple. The first thing we did in the temple was the abbreviated tea ceremony. Much like noe theater, it is very slow. I understand it is a ritual. It is more about going through the motions than actually drinking the tea. And I’m not really much of a tea drinker to begin with, but I guess it was cool. First, you eat a red bean thing wrapped in a leaf. I’m not really sure what it is, but it has whole beans in it and I didn’t really like it. I wasn’t crazy about the tea itself either. It’s supposed to be a ceremony that lasts several hours, but ours was about an hour. The proper sitting position is on your knees seated on your feet and I couldn’t really do it. I’m not very flexible. I could do it for a little, but it hurt my legs after a while. I’m not used to sitting like that.

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Then we went to meditation, which was in a different uncomfortable sitting position. I guess that means I my mind wasn’t properly cleared. I’m just really inflexible and incapable of clearing my mind. There’s too many things going on in there. There are these cicadas that are extremely loud and incessant. When you leave the tall buildings, you get bugs. There was also a baseball field not too far away where they had batting practice and loud drumming music. The monk came over to me and hit me on the back with a stick because my posture was wrong. He said the real stick hurts a lot more. We also tried our hands at calligraphy. It’s really hard, but I’m not really good at painting either.

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Right outside the temple was a zen garden with perfectly raked rocks and bonsai trees and a cemetery. And there are always large gorgeous entryways. Very near the temple was another temple called Kita-in that houses 500 statues of the disciples of Buddha. Each statue is unique. It was very cool. I didn’t have too much time to enjoy the statues though, because I had to make my way back to meet Danny.

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I was already running late to meet Danny. I was really far from where I needed to be, back in the direction of Meg’s shared house. I did a lot of traveling. We were meeting some SAISers to see fireworks (hanabi). I met some really cool people and got a glimpse of what my future might look like. They don’t have picnic blankets in Japan, instead they use tarps.

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Now fireworks aren’t just like the fireworks we know in the US. This took fireworks to a whole new level. The Macy’s 4th of July fireworks may be 30 minutes tops. This was literally an hour of fireworks. Can you imagine how expensive that is? And how many fireworks they launch? Some segments had music (including Let It Go) and other segments didn’t. They took short intermissions between segments. But the end of each segment had a finale of its own. Each segment could be a whole show in the US. It was really incredible. I’ve never seen such a large fireworks show. And I have never seen so many people at a fireworks show. Check out the finale here: https://goo.gl/photos/kjKhXEivPhVBtyEo6.

People filled the entire riverbank. There were so many people coming out of the train that it took us 15 minutes to even exit the station. The 20 minute walk to the river bank took over an hour because the streets were so congested. The street vendors were making a killing. The police were deployed to keep everything orderly and to direct people to the fireworks. It’s really hard to describe just how many people were there. You should’ve seen the line for the bathroom. It wasn’t even a holiday. It was just a random summer fireworks celebration. Imagine how crowded the trains were.

Everyone on the trains play Pokemon Go now. It has literally taken over Japan. And I am addicted too. It’s dangerous because it kills my phone battery. And I don’t like to walk while playing though that is the point of playing. When I have time to play is at home when I’m not leaving the house. My phone also lags too much for a seamless experience. When I’m on the train trying to get the Pokestop, the trains pulls too far away from the station by the time my phone can open it up. Talk about first world problems. It certainly makes my walk home more enjoyable though. I walked around my neighborhood taking unnecessary detours until my battery ran out once.

On Sunday, Lucia and her friend and Chika and Teddy and I went to Kamakura, about an hour and change away from Tokyo. Lucia was in charge of planning the day–it was nice to just tag along and not have to worry about planning. Teddy woke up late and missed the train, but he caught the one about a half hour behind ours. I caught the train at Yokohama. The great thing about Japanese trains is that they are very prompt and the cars are numbered. You know which door of which car will open where on the platform because it is labeled. So I was able to find them even though I got on the train at a different stop.

While we waited for Teddy, we went to a Ghibli store that sold a lot of the same stuff that I saw at the exhibit in Roppongi. I had a corn and fish cake on a stick that was interesting. Morgan would like it.

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We hiked to Hokakuji Temple. The hike seemed a little unnecessary because we left civilization for a forest and then re-emerged in civilization. So maybe we could’ve just walked on flat street the whole way. But no, we hiked. There was a nice view of the rooftops and the Pacific Ocean. This was the first time I saw the Pacific from this side of the ocean. It is gorgeous. So I guess ultimately the hike was worth it, but required more exertion than necessary. Chika got tired–Lucia lied to her and told her it would be an easy hike. Luckily it wasn’t too hot. The weather has been considerably cooler the last few days. I have even been using my blanket at home.

Anyways, it was a long hike + walk to the temple. Incidentally, we passed by a lot of other shrines and temples on our way there. Each time we had to ask, is this THE temple? At first, we were stopping at all of them to take pictures, but there were just too many. They have temples for everything. There is a mochi temple, for the man who (as the story goes) was given a death sentence, but offered mochi to the Gods who subsequently saved him. And all the temples are coincidentally Pokestops. We saw a family that was poke-hunting. That’s how you know there are good things at a certain location.

But Hokokuji…the temple was not really any more special than the other temples but there was a bamboo forest behind the temple. It’s the kind of thing you see on computer screen savers. There are really tall bamboo stalks. It is gorgeous. I tried to capture the beauty on camera, but I couldn’t really capture the colors correctly. I don’t know if I got a good enough picture there. There is also a cave where people are buried, but that was off limits for fear of cave-ins.

We took a bus to get back to the train station to find a place to eat lunch, but the bus was super crowded and then we accidentally got off at the wrong stop. But this stop happened to be at the largest temple in Kamakura, which was not originally on our agenda. There happened to be a traditional wedding ceremony at the temple. It was cool to watch the procession. They play traditional Japanese music and they perform the rituals. By the time we finished here, we went to lunch. I got a bowl of rice topped with little silver fishes (a specialty of the region). You can see their eyes. I also had a bowl of cold noodles. Japanese meals always come compartmentalized with lots of little plates with different pickled things on them. The kids bring to school compartmentalized bento boxes. They do know how to organize lunch.

We took a train a little further south to reach the famous big Buddha statue (daibutsu). Thank god we took the train, because we wouldn’t have made it before closing if we walked. The train station was basically on the street. There are spikes on the tracks to prevent people from walking in around the turnstiles. The trains look vintage. It is an old line.

We saw the Hasadera Temple because we thought you could see an aerial view of the Buddha statue from there. Turns out you couldn’t. But the temple was also very pretty. In addition to a view of the sea, there was a shrine for dead babies with hundreds of somber baby statues. There was a really tall statue of the eleven faced god. No pictures were allowed though. Anyways, we ran through here quickly so we would make it to the Buddha before closing.

Daibutsu was the highlight of the day for me. It’s like the Kamakura equivalent of the Statue of Liberty. It is enormous.We got some really good pictures there. We were too late to go up inside the Buddha though. That had already closed. It was incredible nonetheless. There is a big pair of sandals along a wall that was supposedly made by a bunch of local first graders.

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After the statue closed, we went to get some ice cream and check out the beach. I had a sweet potato flavored ice cream. It actually tasted like yam. They also have Ramune flavor, which actually tasted like the drink, tastes like candy. The cones are triangular, which is kind of unusual. In the background of the picture you see the fake ice cream cones for display. There is a whole industry for making fake foods. All of the restaurants on the ground floor have displays so people can see.

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The beach was nice, but not as pretty as the Mediterannean beaches. It isn’t dirty but it looks dirty by Japanese standards. It’s mostly shells, not litter. Japanese don’t litter. So I guess it’s not really dirty. Chika took this photo. She (and many Japanese girls) uses a camera app that beautifies you to take pictures on her phone. Don’t we look beautiful?

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And after this long day of adventures, we weren’t done. We went to the ramen museum in Yokohama for dinner. Yokohama is rapidly westernizing and there was a lot of English where we got out at Shin-Yokohama station. Now museum is kind of a misnomer. It isn’t a museum at all. It is a ramen theme park. It is two floors underground. It features 8 different ramen shops that serve different styles of ramen. And the stores are fashioned like something out of Vegas. I belive it is an old 1920s Tokyo look that they’re going for. It is a nostalgia trip. There is even a store inside that sells old Japanese candies. They built a whole little town down there. It is a very cool place. There is an admission fee to get in, but it’s really more like a cover charge because it’s not a museum in any sense of the word. I love the aesthetic though. It was like stepping through a time machine into the past. And the rest is history.

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