Sunday, September 20, 2015

A trip to the other side of the Pacific

I have a friend who used to work booking VIP travel for her employer.  Whenever one of the higher-tier or supercool hotels was having a party, she was always invited.  Occasionally, she would invite me along.

At one of these parties, we met a man who was invited because he was flat-out stinking rich and because he booked enough rooms at this particular property to warrant an invitation.  He sat at our table and talked about how he went to Cuba every year at a time when Cuban travel was not allowed and the only way to get there was via Mexico or Canada.  The man was so tan he was purple, a most unattractive shade on a human.  He'd been everywhere several times, too, and he had opinions.

The man asked me where I'd always wanted to go.  I said, "Tokyo."  He said, "You don't want to go there.  You want to go to Kyoto or Kobe or Nagoya.  You don't want to go to Tokyo."  I told him, "I said I wanted to go to Tokyo because I want to go to Tokyo." After that, I didn't give him another look (although the shade of his flesh is burned into my memory forever).  I wanted to go to Tokyo.

At the urging of my friend whose husband fell ill about a year and a half ago and, I am sorry to report, will never recover, I decided to go to Tokyo.  She said, "You don't know how much time you have left.  You don't know what's going to happen.  If you can afford to go, you should just go."  I've been saving for years and I decided to take her very good advice and I booked myself a trip to Tokyo via Los Angeles using United and Singapore Airlines.  It was a very good fare, otherwise I would have selected a nonstop out of O'Hare.

A few things surprised me about Tokyo:  It is huge, huge, huge.  On my first day there, I wanted to go to Tokyo Tower in the afternoon.  I asked at Shinjuku station about getting there and the station person told me where to get off, how much it would cost, and then added, "It's going to take 30 minutes."  I told him, "That's fine; I want to go there."  Getting almost anywhere I wanted to go was about 30-40 minutes.  Depending on the mode of transportation you take, it can take even longer.  There are many, many subway and JR lines to use, many options for changes.  That is just what I like -- options.  I have friends with whom I discuss the best routes to get from Point A to Point B here in Chicago.  Tokyo is even better with more options and it is magnificent.  It is so huge and hustley-bustley that I can see how native Tokyo residents can go to NYC and have an easy time of it.  Next to Tokyo's transit, NYC's system is a skipping contest from one bakery to another.

Tokyo is also safe, especially compared to a big American city like Chicago.  No one is looking to snatch your things and run away.  On trains everyone sits or stands with their smart phones out, using them, engrossed in them.  They put their briefcases or bags on a shelf above the seats if they stand.  No one grabs the phones; no one absconds with their bags.  The trains come into the station to make a slow, gradual stop that is so gradual that a lot of people don't bother hanging on.  It took me days to get used to how safe it is.  "Could this be?" I kept asking myself.  Yeah, it was.  I'd be in a very busy area, Shibuya Crossing for example, and put my bags down to take a picture and no one would touch my things.  I went in the area of Isetan, the department store, in the evening and visited a nearby shrine.  The entrance is dark, between two tall buildings, so one walks down a long dark outdoor corridor.  The shrine and the courtyard it's in are illuminated but, really, not that well.  The dark corridor and the lack of high traffic and illumination -- neither of these things matter.  Tokyo is safe and no one is interested in taking your things or assaulting you.  Well, there might be some who are but I never came across any of them.

People also take pride in their city and in their country.  There were no trash cans around but there is also no litter.  People take their refuse home, it seems.  The only place I saw litter of any sort was by the Tokyo Fish Market but it is a working, busy, real market and I am certain they pick up the trash when the market closes in the afternoon.  Kyoto, up on Mt. Fuji, smaller towns we passed through on the way to Mt. Fuji -- all the same.  No trash cans, no litter.  People take pride in their surroundings.

Time flew by!  I was there a week but it seemed much less.  I totally got into step with my environment and was sorry I had to leave.  Yes, I would love to go back and visit Hiroshima (there is supposed to be a very good view from the top of a nearby mountain in addition to the obvious historical significance) and, of course, spend more time in Tokyo (I like the rush), but first I will be saving to visit New Zealand and Tasmania with a few days in Sydney to visit friends there.  As my friend above said, "You don't know how much time you have left.  You don't know what's going to happen.  If you can afford to go, you should just go."

You should do the same.

Pictures and Sumo tournament info next week!!  This to tide you over: 
Dusk and Mt. Fuji:  The view from my Shinjuku hotel room

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