Thousands of Miles from Home


Ben VS The Most Populated City in the World (Part I)

The only suitable way to end a whole week of excellent trips to Takamatsu, Miyajima, Hiroshima, and Iwakuni is a proper finale in the big T itself, Tokyo. Tokyo, I have been told, has a reputation for not only blowing your socks off, but those of your grandmother and her bridge-playing friends as well. Tokyo has a lot to offer, much more than I could or care to list on this blog. However, accompanied by members of my first host family (Shoko, Shun, and Mai), I planned to meet Rahul from Fukuoka and pillage Tokyo for all the fun, excitement, and (pirate) booty it could offer.

The journey began on a day like any other. A Thursday, to be precise. Shoko, Shun, and I caught the train from Tamano to Okayama where we purchased 9AM tickets for the Nozomi Shinkansen line to Tokyo. A mere three hours later, we found ourselves on the massive Shinkansen platform of Tokyo Station. Rahul, who was flying from Fukuoka, messaged my phone to let us know he would arrive shortly on the monorail from Haneda Airport. Shoko, Shun, and I took our bags to the Yaesu Central exit of Tokyo station where we met Mai waiting for us by one of the numerous pillars. If you aren't accustomed to the daunting size of Tokyo, you can at least count on the station to give you a good idea of the madness that is to come. Tokyo Station has several exits, and each of these exits usually sports three smaller exits (North, South, and Central). There should honestly be a paid attendant waiting beside the Shinkansen when you exit to punch you right in the face, just to get you ready for the task of trying to exit the station where you would like.

Surprisingly, even though I packed a semi-large bag for the weekend, we had little trouble navigating our way through the sea of people to the Yaesu exit. While waiting for Rahul to arrive at the station, Shun spotted our first famous person of the trip, a guy named Shibata from the comedy duo "Untouchable" walking toward one of the exits. Nobody else seemed to recognize him, and I don't watch enough Japanese television to tell the comedy groups apart (there are quite a few), but I chased after him and introduced myself, asking if he was indeed a member of "Untouchable." "Un," he replied, meaning yes, and I quickly asked him if it was alright to take a picture together (I doubt many foreigners stop him on the street, he seemed slightly shocked but let me take the photo). Shun and Mai also got in on the action, and we laughed our way back to the terminal to wait for Rahul.

When Rahul came through the gate, it was my turn to be shocked at a number of things. For one, he was amazingly tan. He was also much taller than I remembered, but perhaps living in Japan for all this time has made me accustomed to feeling large. We exchanged pleasantries; I intoduced him to my host family, then we were whisked away to a small restaurant in the station to grab some lunch. Rahul and I talked a bit about our exchanges, host families, school, etc, but eventually decided to postpone the conversation until later due to the numerous occurences of "it's a long story."

After lunch we stashed our bags in a locker and met our first Japanese guide, Yosuke. Yosuke, now 17, spent four years in England and speaks excellent English. Yosuke's mother is a friend of Shoko's, and Rahul and I were scheduled to spent the night at their house. All assembled, we took a train to Asakusa, known for it's shopping street and large red lantern outside the nearby temple. While admiring the goods of various quality levels (keychains, swords, dolls, and every other tourist item available), I noticed a man who appeared to be staring right over my shoulder when we stopped to buy some deep-fried omochi (Rahul later informed me the man was staring directly at him). The man approached not Rahul, but Rahul's right ear and uttered the following, "Are your ancestor's from India?" "Yes," Rahul replied, "my parents are from India. But I live in West Virginia." "Ahh! West Virginia!" the man retorted, "West Virginia used to be part of Virginia, but split during the civil war over the concept of slavery eventually involving the creation of the Mason-Dixon line. Stonewall Jackson, leader of the South in the civil war was born in West Virginia." While Rahul was slightly stunned by the man's knowledge of West Virginia History, I was wondering where this man was when I had to take the Golden Horseshoe test back in 8th grade. The man proceeded to recite information about India and various other topics until he abruptly finished and walked away, thanking us for our time and leaving us with a cryptic, "just my English practice" final message. The whole set of circumstances struck me as very odd, not the only man's omnipotent knowledge of the world but also his tendency to talk directly into Rahul's right ear with a blank stare on his face. The encounter only lasted a matter of minutes but was crazy weird. Shoko, laughing, finished eating her deep-friend omochi and walked on.

After Asakusa we took the ferry down the Sumida River to Odaiba. The ferry ride, which Rahul later dubbed as a structural engineer's wet dream, passes beneath 12 unique bridges of differing structural materials and construction before arriving on the island of Odaiba. Ascending the stairs to the upper deck of the ferry, we encountered a woman holding a very large Kitana. Quite shocked (we were on a ferry, which implies motion and instability, which are not friends of edged weapons) I took a few pictures of the woman (who we later learned was from Romania) and then asked if I could take some photos holding the sword myself.

Without injury we arrived at Obaida. An entirely manmade island, Odaiba plays host to the famous Fuji TV Building as well as various museums, a large shopping mall, and a likeness of the Statue of Liberty. We toured the Fuji building, took some pictures of the Rainbow Bridge by night, and ate a delicious meal at an Indonesian restaurant before returning to the mainland (extra points there if you thought to yourself, "but Japan is an island...").

That evening Rahul and I said goodbye to Shoko, Mai, and Shun before taking the hour train ride to Yosuke's house on the outskirts of Chiba where we would be spending the nite. Yosuke's mother (an English teacher) offered us more dinner and cakes, and we were introduced to the whole family after watching Jackie Chan's "Legend of Drunken Master" (the old version) dubbed in English and subtitled in Japanese." It turns out that Yosuke's father (family name Shibata, like Shibata from "Untouchable") works for the Tokyo branch of Mitsui Zosen, the same shipbuilding factory I toured a few months ago in Tamano. After some conversation with the Shibata's about Japan, Rotary exchange, and West Virginia, Rahul and I tried to sleep but ended up talking about our exchanges all night, which was not a great idea because we had to wake up early for a trip the next day to the Tsukigi fish market.

Rahul is impossible to awaken. It's an involved process which involves the use of force and moaning. Even so, he, Yosuke (our guide for the morning), and I were up and out of the house by 6 to head to the Tsukigi fish market near Tokyo Bay. Tsukigi is the largest fish market in the world, with over 2500 tons of fish being sold daily (that's 23 million dollars of fish rolling through those streets every morning). We made the mistake of going directly by train to the fish market, and ended up carrying our baggage with us for lack of coin lockers, but I still found the fish market amazing. Hundreds of little motorized carts zoom through narrow streets next to men pulling wagons filled with fish, squid, octopus, and other various sea creatures. After being overwhelmed in fish, we looked for a sushi restaurant (our first choice restaurant was closed) but we found a quaint little back alley shop with a friendly Ojii-san and Mama-san who whipped up some crazy fresh sushi (right out of the ocean) and miso soup for a decent price.

Sufficiently full, Rahul, Yosuke, and I walked back to Tsukigi station where we met two new faces, Yusuke and Yo (real name Yosuke). Yusuke is also the son of Shoko's friend in Tokyo, but not to be confused with the Yosuke whose house we stayed at the previous night, or the other Yosuke who is friends with Yusuke. There were five of us, I will make a small chart:

Rahul Syamlal- AKA Rafuru Shamurairu
Me - AKA Funkmaster B
Yosuke Shibata- Lived in England for 4 years, hosted Rahul and I at his house on Thursday night
Yusuke Takakou - Currently attends a prestigious school in Tokyo whose name I cannot remember, studying Economics. Rahul and I stayed at his house on Friday and Saturday. Enjoys Jack Johnson and the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Yosuke (AKA Yo) - also attends a good school in Tokyo, studying Literature. Friends with Yusuke, but had never met Yosuke Shibata before. I believe he asked us to call him Yo to avoid confusion, which was impossible given the situation

Japanese names are fun, aren't they? Anyone other than John Nash or Einstein would be lost without nicknames, which I use whenever I can.

Anyway, Yusuke, knowing Tokyo well, had researched the movie "Lost in Translation" and took us to the hotel where it was filmed, the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. Rooms here for the night start at $500, so I was skeptical if we would even be allowed into the building without two bottles of Krystal and keys to a Bentley. Luckily, it being 10 in the morning we snuck (or rather walked right by) the guards and into what we thought was the main entrance of the hotel. Instead we found a lot of businessmen in suits (some sort of convention) next to a catacomb of elevators. Stepping into one of the lifts, we rode it to the top floor only to be told by one of the hotel staff that we were in the wrong area, and that the hotel was not open to the public. Distraught, we walked back outside where some sort of fire hose demonstration was being performed by the businessmen. Not to be defeated so easily, we then spotted a set of stairs leading to a second level with a large "Park Hyatt" sign and arrow. Entering the upper lobby I thought I recognized the reception desk from the movie. The floor was deserted so we walked straight to the elevator which had only two buttons, "2" and "42". In a flash, we were on the 42nd floor overlooking the city below from large panoramic windows. Mirrors on the walls were polished to the point I was positive I could walk through them, and I noticed a clump of bamboo trees that I certainly recognized from the movie. We took an adjacent elevator to the "New York Bar and Grille" where we found the famous piano bar at which Bill Murray spent his evenings. Snapping a ton of pictures and feeling important (we seemed to be the only visitors since the restaurant was closed) we stood by the windows for a while surveying Tokyo. Even by day the sight is impressive.

Around lunchtime, and after visiting some famous music stores in the Shinjuku area, the five of us met Shoko, Mai, Shun, and Mrs. Shibata in a restaurant in Harajuku. Harajuku is known for it's outrageous fashion styles and equally shocking people. Foot-tall platform shoes, Little Bo Peep costumes, and dyed hair seemed to be par for the course. In fact, we found a whole clothing store devoted to Goth jackets (I'm all for a little originality but I enjoy my Goth dark, dirty, and a little less mass-marketed). Over 500 clothing lines have been founded in the Harajuku area, which makes it a pretty cool place to find weird styles.

After lunch, Anna sent a mail on my phone to let me know she would be meeting her friend Ana (that makes two Yosuke's and two An(n)a's) in Shinjuku. I met Anna, much like Angela, through her blog of Japan. Anna is also a Rotary exchange student (from Austria) and got me hooked on collecting free cards in Okayama city. I had never met Anna in person, and since Yusuke didn't have any plans we went to a small art musuem in Harajuku (to kill some time) then walked to the Shinjuku Starbucks to meet Anna and Ana.

Ana, or Ana Luiza, I later learned, is from Brazil. The whole group of us got a table in Starbucks and introduced ourselves (I got confused as to who was who when it came to Yo, Yosuku, and Yusuke). Anna got a call from her friend Bhaveen (another Rotary exchange student), who came to join us at the Starbucks as well. Bhaveen, from India, fit the mold perfectly as Rahul's counterpart. When Starbucks told us to leave (I suppose there were two many foreigners and not enough coffee being purchased) we all went to the housewares section of Tokyu Hands to sit on couches. Ana Luiza was leaving to see a movie with her host family, but Bhaveen and Anna were convinced to come with Rahul, Yo, Yosuke, Yusuke, and I to sing Karaoke. But not just any Karaoke, the same Karaoke parlor as "Lost in Translation" (with great big windows overlooking the city). We all sang and laughed and had a generally awesome time with the bright lights of Shibuya in the background. From what I can remember the highlights include:

Yosuke singing "Scarborough Fair" and "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough"
Yo singing Orange Range's "Hanna"
Yusuke singing "Scar Tissue" perfectly which made me jealous of the Japanese innate ability to sing
Rahul singing "Bittersweet Symphony"
Anna singing Aqua's "Barbie Girl" and Spice Girl's "Wannabe" in a duet with Bhaveen
Me singing "Ch-Check It Out" and "More Than This" just because I was in the Lost in Translation mood

About half way through the singing, Anna's friend Gabe joined us. I am not just saying this because everyone already seemed to have a twin, but Gabe had the same personality, facial expressions, eyes, and hair as me. It was creepy. But he was an awesome guy. Because he's me, of course.

We had a rousing finale of "The Beatles Megamix" then left the Karaoke joint to procure some dinner. We stopped in a kaiten zushi restaurant (where the sushi goes around on a conveyor belt) but it happened to be full. Instead, we were given our own room (and sushi chef) on the second floor where we could be as noisy as we wanted. The sushi chef seemed to be entertained with whatever we were talking about (I doubt he could understand it) and he sure made some tasty sushi. I got a better chance to talk with Anna who is a very awesome person (all the Rotary kids I meet in Japan are cool) and we ate sushi late into the evening.

We finally said goodbye (after an in depth discussion of proper hand shakes), but promised to meet the next day because all the Tokyo rotary kids were getting together for a meeting. Overall, I was very happy to have met so many charismatic people.

Rahul and I went back to the station, got our bags out of the locker, and boarded the train for Yusuke's house. At our station we left Yosuke sleeping (he got off at a later stop) and said goodbye to Yo, who lived in a nearby apartment. Yusuke introduced us to his mother (who I had met once before when she came to Tamano to visit Shoko) who fixed us some cookies and tea. Rahul and I stayed up talking again, and then fell asleep with the sounds of Tokyo drifting through the window.


  • LOL
    Ben it was just like being there.
    Tell Rahul we are going straight to Karaoke when he gets home. I won't believe it until I see it. Can't wait for the pictures and Part II.
    Love you

    By mom, at 12:09 PM  

  • Hi Ben--thanks for taking the time to keep the world up-to-date on your exchange. Loved the Lost in Translation photos. We spent four months in Scotland primarily because I'd determined I was going there after seeing the movie Local Hero, so I can relate. You should be the poster boy for Rotary Exchange, the poster titled How to Make the Most of Your Exchange.

    By Donna, at 7:44 PM  

  • what the hell!??! Ana Luiza?!?! who told you this?! did you read my card?!?!

    haha not even my mum calls me Luiza... it's like... not me.

    and my seal outfit: you missed the Halloween parade...

    anyway, you got me inspired so:

    Ben, i liked you: more than Gabe's little clone, you're nice :)

    By ana, the seal, at 1:43 AM  

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