Apr 10, 2009

Notes from Japan, Part 4

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We spent almost a week in Tokyo, but feel like we only saw about 1% of the city — it’s that huge. Actually, I don’t think “huge” even comes close to capturing what the city feels like.

Due to Simon’s aforementioned illness, we weren’t able to explore as much as we would’ve liked. The only two places we really went to were the Imperial Palace Gardens and Akihabara.

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The Imperial grounds are surrounded by a moat, which, in this day and age, is absolutely worthless from a military perspective. But I was struck by how a moat can still inspire wonder and awe; as you cross it, the mere fact that a particular tract of land has been set aside by this water imbues it with a certain feeling that could almost be described as sacred.

The Gardens, as you might imagine, are beautiful, full of flowering trees and wide open expanses that would make for the absolutely perfect picnic spot. It was a little chilly the day we went, but the place was still very active with families, salarymen on their breaks, and of course, tourists. It’s quite a walk, so make sure you prepare beforehand (we didn’t really), but a gorgeous walk nevertheless.

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Akihabara is nuts with a capital “crazy”. Imagine the nerdiest, geekiest place on Earth, then multiply that by ten. Everywhere you look, you see stores selling crazy gadgets (apparently, this is where all of the Westerners come to get heated toilet sets), anime models and toys, the latest cutting edge technology, erotic sake cups, and of course, porn.

Speaking of anime models and toys, I think my VF-25 Messiah and EVA 01 figures are going to look pretty boss on my desk.

The Japanese are the masters of muzak. Case in point: we walked through a massive department store/shopping mall in Akihabara called Yodobashi Akiba — think 50 Best Buys rolled into one — and over the PA we heard a woman singing what we could only assume was an ode to Akihabara, but set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Best. Muzak. Ever.

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We spent part of our time in Tokyo with our friends Chris and Molly, who are involved in college ministry. Thus, we were able to experience a Japanese college campus during recruitment time, which is when all of the college’s clubs attempt to sign up new students. For you UNL folks, imagine Big Red Welcome on a bender of crack and steroids, and you’re about halfway there.

I was actually reminded of the Cornerstone Festival, what with all of the booths and bands playing in the background. Indeed, one of my favorite moments in the entire three weeks was watching an unidentified Japanese college rock band tear it up on stage.

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The day after visiting the campus, we went to an all-day BBQ with Chris, Molly, and the rest of their club. BBQs are BBQs no matter where you are. You eat hot dogs, play games (for the record, I did play a round of Ultimate Frisbee, something my body is still paying for), and just generally have a great time. Simon was a big hit; he had a trio of Japanese girls following him around like the paparazzi, doing their best to make him smile and taking his picture as often as they could.

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The students were a delightful and awfully bright lot, and we had many pleasant conversations about our trip to Japan, Nebraska life, anime, and blogging, among other things. Every time I think about Tomohito, Tetsu, Tomoko, Masaki, Jun, and “Jack” (he was a big fan of 24), I can’t help but smile.

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Going to the Ghibli Museum was, by far, the most bittersweet moment of the trip. If you’re at all a fan of My Neighbor Totoro, Grave Of The Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, or any other Ghibli fare, then this place is your Mecca. But it’s not just a celebration of all things Ghibli; it’s also a celebration of animation in general. There are several tremendous exhibits — if you can call them that — that showcase the techniques and concepts behind animation, the history of animation, and a “behind the scenes” look at how animators work (complete with hundreds of beautiful sketches and paintings from past Ghibli films).

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Other highlights of the Museum include: the Totoro that welcomes you and points you to the museum’s front door (one of my single favorite sites of the entire trip); the ode to Castle In The Sky’s floating island of Laputa on the museum’s roof; the Catbus replica, which, unfortunately, only young children can climb on; and the theatre that plays various shorts including Mei and the Kittenbus, a spiritual sequel to My Neighbor Totoro that is exclusive to the museum. Which brings us to the bitter part of visiting the museum. I’m not sure if Simon was still recovering from being sick or if the museum crowd got to him, but he was quite the pill that day. So much so that Renae had to leave the theatre during Mei and the Kittenbus, an absolutely heartbreaking experience since there’s no way she’ll ever get to see the film again unless we return to Japan.

One of the tricky things about traveling overseas is that different countries have different security procedures. So what might’ve passed when you flew out of the States could throw up red flags when you fly out of Japan. Not that we caused any international incidents, but still, it was a little worrisome. Of course, the Japanese security officer was as courteous about the whole thing as you could imagine, and even cleaned our toiletries bag when she saw that one of our travel shampoo bottles had leaked.

Jet lag is a bitch. But jet lag when you’re sick? The only words to describe that are not ones you say (or type) in public. However, one thing that makes up for jet lag is having good neighbors and friends who will look after your child — who, of course, got a good night’s sleep on the 11-hour flight while you got zilch — when you get home so that you can get a couple hours of real, blessed sleep.

In a word, our trip to Japan was awesome. The only stress we experienced was during Simon’s bout of illness, at which point we seriously considered buying tickets to come home early. But I’m glad we stuck it out. Japan is a wonderful country, so much so that it’s really hard not to romanticize it. And it’s an especially great country if you’re traveling with young children. Indeed, we found it easier to travel in Japan with Simon than it is here in the U.S., language barrier notwithstanding — and even the language barrier is negligible, due to the fact that so many Japanese understand and speak English reasonably well (which couldn’t really be said of us when it came to their language).

Of course, we were incredibly blessed to have several friends in Japan to provide us with free or insanely cheap lodging, food, and guidance. So many, many thanks to the O’Donnells, Nethercotts, and Ebbers. Our trip wouldn’t have even been half of what it was without them.

Suffice to say, we can’t wait to go back. It might not be for several years, but we will make it back to Japan someday.

All of our Japan photos can be found in this Flickr set.

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