Saturday, May 14, 2005

Well, after a first night's skirmish with trans-Pacific jet lag, we get up around 7:30 and take our time before going down for a light continental breakfast in the hotel. Japan works largely on cash, although credit cards are becoming more and more common, so our first order of business this morning is to find an ATM that is tied into the Cirrus network, of which there is only one in our neighborhood, and that one closes at noon on Saturdays. Fortunately it's in the basement of the building next door, and takes us only a few minutes to find.  After  figuring the correct number of 10,000 Yen bills  for the amount we want, with only one mathematical stumble -- mine of course -- we set out on the second order of business, validating our JR Rail Pass exchange order and getting the actual Rail Pass. The trouble is, it's only a little bit after nine AM and the travel service office at Shinjuku Station doesn't open until eleven on Saturdays.  Well, the station itself is a hair more than half a kilometer from the hotel, so we've got plenty of time.

Before heading over to the station, we decide to check out Shinjuku Central Park, which is right across the street from the Century Hyatt. Although not nearly the size the Central Park, it's a pleasant spot, with paved paths and lots of trees a greenery, and surprisingly enough, Shinjuku Niagara Falls -- in actuality a large waterfall fountain with a paved plaza in front of it. Again, very pleasant, but only a pale reflection of New York's. I'm starting to see too much of a pattern here, but fortunately we turn a corner in the path and find a small Shinto shrine, with a little Koi pond and small but peaceful grounds.  Drawing deep upon my inner blowhard, I give  give Christine a quick lecture on the basic layout of a shrine and how to use one should the need arise.

This little neighborhood shrine is a fine example.  The central shrine building has a large open entrance blocked by the large collection box, located just behind the three dangling ropes for the bells (actually they sound more like rattles than bells, but they look something like giant jingle bells. I'd post examples of this description, but I'd decided that I wasn't going to lug my camera around this morning since the plan was primarily to get the JR Rail Passes and figure out basic subway navigation -- not really a goldmine of photographic opportunities I think to myself. This will come back to frustrate me, as it usually does, but at the moment, I'm digressing.  Above the entrance is the traditional Shimenawa, a very thick rice straw rope, often tapering at the end from which hang folded paper lightning-bolts, usually three, as in this case, but sometimes other numbers can be spotted. Directly across the grounds from the shrine building itself is a big concrete Torii gate. This is one of the quintessential symbols of Japan, although in less modern and more traditional shrines they would be made of wood painted a bright red.  This is the symbolic entrance into the sacred space, and just as I'm explaining this to Christine, someone comes by to visit the shrine and takes her hat off as she passes through the gate -- thanks for the illustration, I think to myself, still holding forth to Christine.

Back near the shrine building, over to the left side of the grounds is a large stone basin/fountain with several bamboo and metal dippers. These are used to rinse the hands and mouth before going up the stairs to the front of the shrine. removing the mundane in order to better contact the sacred, as my religion professor back in college would have said/ (Well, actually he'd have used a much more esoteric turn of phrase but it would mean the same thing. ) After this ritual cleansing, you climb the stairs to the building's entrance, toss some money in the open top of the collection box, grab one of the hanging ropes and rattle a bell. Clap sharply. Make your prayer of entreaty -- Shinto is largely a votive religion, ask a boon and home the spirit of the shrine will help you out; some shrines have spirits that specialize in certain things, others are more general purpose -- after which you clap again, usually twice, once sharply and once softly. Of course if you're in a hurry, a single clap seems to do for some folks -- I haven't seen any finger snapping, but it wouldn't surprise me, although I wouldn't count on the spirit's beneficence in such a case.

Walking back up the trail from the shrine, a truly beautiful raven lights on top of a sign-post just a few feet from us. This bird is no plain crow. Nope this is one huge, silky, gleaming black raven, staring me right in the eye from no more than ten feet away, if that much. Of course, I don't have my camera with me, so the bird stays there for a nice long while regarding us. It seems to be telling me something..."Come back with the camera and I'm history, Bub!" Which is typical of my photographic relations with all avian creatures except Canada geese. Oh well, it's a beautiful bird and at least I've got the image in my memory if not in my camera.

Finding Shinjuku Station is not at all difficult. But we've still got half an hour until the travel service office opens. Luckily, I spot a sign for Yodobahsi Camera -- hard to miss actually as it takes up half the building's front in bright red neon. We decide to take a look at this store, because we've really got nothing better to do, and I have been known to take a photograph or two. It turns out that Yodobashi Camera is a big multi-floored electronics and appliance store as well as a really full service camera shop -- frankly, I'd love to have a shop like this, although a little less noisy, back in Reston.  After checking out all eight floors, taking extra time on the camera oriented floors, we head back to the station and get our rail passes.

We now decide that it would be a good idea to go ahead and reserve our seat on the Shinkansen (better known as the Bullet Train in the English speaking world) to Kyoto for Monday morning. This is my first time having to actually transact something important in Japanese, and it works! I've still got it! Or so it seems...

That being done we decide to figure out just how to get to Tokyo station to catch the Shinkansen. So Christine quickly masters the subway maps with a little help from me in reading the Japanese only parts. We take a practice run over to Tokyo station, figure out where to go to catch the Shinkansen, and then decide to find something to eat. Above ground is mostly office buildings in this area so we find an underground gallery of restaurants and decide on a Chinese place.  They've got the plastic displays of food out front and Christine's picked out what she wants, and I've got me eye on one of the day's set lunches. But the menu has none of the items we saw in the window, and I can make out next to nothing on it. I speak Japanese, but reading it? Well, that's another matter entirely. So my feeling of confidence from an hour ago is shattered and I think that I've ordered what we want. Well sort of. I actually ordered more than we wanted but the food is really quite good, and we leave happy.  But also tired. Jet lag is waiting up ahead and we both feel another skirmish coming on. We head back to Shinjuku and the hotel, stopping in a drugstore that drives the jet lag away, for a time at least with a mind bending aural assault of high volume store jingle played over the intercom system throughout the store, and shouted communications between store employees, and shouted greeting and thanks to customers and they enter and leave. Perked up for a moment I find a comb -- I left mine sitting next to where I'd packed my bags back home -- and make a quick exit from the noise of the shop.

Back at the room, we're dead on our feet, and they're getting pretty sore. We've arrived in the midst of the May Sumo tournament in Tokyo, and I'm a fan of the sport from my prior Japanese adventure, so we tune in to NHK and catch the last two hours of day seven of the tournament. Well, I do. Christine is interested, but due to her work, she's chronically sleep deprived even at home, so she gives in to the jet lag and is soon fast asleep. I fight it though. Not difficult with Sumo on TV and Sapporo beer in the mini bar. After the end of the day's matches, Christine wakes enough to tell me that she's not that hungry yet, so I sit back with Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and let her catch up on her sleep.

Around eight we head out for dinner, still tired. The building next door has four floors of restaurants -- the top four, which seems typical in Tokyo -- one of which has promising looking Neapolitan pizza. But this is Saturday night in Tokyo, and there's an hour plus wait at Spacco Napoli. We're too tired for that so we check out the rest of the restaurants on those four floors.  Between our tiredness and the big lunch, nothing moves us. So leave the Sumitomo building and head for the next one over, the Mitsui building. Tucked away in a corner of the plaza between the buildings I see another Italian restaurant that offers Pizza. And it's got room for us. A nice, passable pizza dinner later. We head back to the room and are soon slumbering away, only to wake at four AM. I browse the net for an hour or so, and then finally get back to sleep. Tomorrow is another day, afrer all.

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