Off to Tokyo!

The time had come to bid farewell to Kyoto. I ate breakfast once again at the top of the hotel for one last glimpse at the city before heading to Tokyo for the rest of the week. Mitch met the group at the train station in order to see us off. He and the students had developed their own “secret” handshake, which he taught me while we waited for our train. It was clear that, although I had known Mitch for only one week, we were going to be close friends. The three hour trip to Tokyo went off without a hitch, by this time I was starting to grow accustomed to traveling on the shinkansen. This time, however, the train took us through the snow covered mountains east of Kyoto, instead of our normal path southwest towards Osaka. As a Japanese woman passed by pushing a cart full of goodies for purchase, I couldn’t help but picture the Hogwarts Express as it headed towards the famed school of witchcraft and wizardry hidden deep in the surrounding mountains.

As we neared the expansive Tokyo metropolitan area, I was pleasantly surprised to catch a glimpse of the elusive Mount Fuji, which is often shrouded in clouds. After that, the tracks briefly followed alongside the ocean, which was also a spectacular site. Around 11 am, we finally pulled into Tokyo Station. Although we had said our goodbyes to Mitch, even in Tokyo we remained the recipients of his family’s hospitality: a Yasaka tour bus, complete with a diminutive female tour guide dressed in an official-looking uniform, picked us up at the train station to take us to a meeting with the Goldman Sachs company in the swank business district of Roppongi Hills, an event mainly geared toward the business students on the trip. On the way there, we drove past the expansive grounds of the Imperial Palace, as well as by Tokyo Tower, which had been modeled after the Eiffel Tower.

We were soon dropped off in parking garage of the Mori Tower, home to Goldman Sachs. Since we still had about an hour until our 1 pm meeting, we were free to explore the nearby mall and to find something to eat for lunch. Looking around, it became immediately apparent to me that the prices of food in this area of Tokyo were much higher than in the other parts of Japan that we had visited already. As I was not too keen on paying an exorbitant amount of money for a lunch there, I finally settled on a restaurant which served gyoza to tide me over for a while. The way that one ordered the food was a new experience for me. I picked out what I wanted from the pictures on a vending machine, fed my money in, and received a ticket, which I then turned in a the counter. I soon received my food, along with a green tea, from the restaurant’s wait staff. Once I had eaten, I made my way back to Mori Tower.

Most of the rest of the faculty and students had already made their way to the meeting by the time I walked through the doors which led to the offices of Goldman Sachs. Maybe it was the casual air that I had about me, or perhaps the ever-present camera hung about my neck, but as soon as I entered the lobby I was singled out by the security guard who stood there and soundlessly directed to a sign that was posted just inside the doors. The sign essentially said that Goldman Sachs property was restricted to people actually doing business with the company. “I’m going to the boardroom”, I said, in Japanese, and brushed past the guard as I marched up to the reception desk. “I’m with Monmouth College”, I told the girl behind the counter, showing her the nametag that Mitch had provided for us upon our arrival and which described my position as a “distinguished professor” with the college. Soon, I was on my way up to the 53rd floor boardroom, one story short of the top floor.

The table in the boardroom was huge, easily accommodating our group of 21. The views out the windows were even better, offering views of the massive city which surrounded us. The meeting centered on an ex-pat who had worked for the company for a number of years and who shared with us his experiences of living in Japan. I was relieved to be listening to his enthralling stories than to be learning about the inner-workings of an investment company. One thing that stuck out the most to me was his descriptions of going places with his Japanese-American wife, who spoke little or no Japanese herself. In almost every restaurant that they would visit, the waiter would address her only, who then had to turn to her husband for a translation. Our speaker would then convey her wishes in his fluent Japanese to the waiter, who would continue to address only the wife, despite her inability to understand. The ex-pat stressed that no matter how well you knew the language, a visitor to Japan would always be a gaijin, a “foreign person”, and would never be fully integrated into Japanese society, despite their best efforts.

Following the meeting, we once again boarded the bus, which took us to the Yoyogi Olympic Youth Hostel, where we would be spending the night. Yoyogi was the name of a huge park in Tokyo, roughly equivalent to Central Park in New York. During the 1964 Olympics, a nearby area had been developed in which to play the games, along with providing housing for the athletes. The Olympic village had since been converted to relatively low cost housing which catered predominantly to backpackers. We arrived at the hostel around 4 pm and I had soon deposited my belongings in my tiny 6 by 10 foot room. Despite the small size of the room, it was quite cozy, with an even smaller private bathroom, as well as a stunning view of the Olympic village, the surrounding park, as well as the outlying cityscape. The view from the hostel’s restaurant, perched at the very top of the building, was even better. Like many Japanese restaurants, it had plastic models of the food that they were serving that evening in a display case near the door. Since I was not completely immune to the desire to have familiar food in unfamiliar surroundings- I chose the pizza over the local cuisine that was on display. My dinner ended up being good, even though the “pepperoni” topping ended up better resembling sliced hot dogs.

After dinner, most of the students were headed back to the Roppongi area to search out the Hard Rock Café, in addition to various other drinking establishments. The faculty, however, had other plans, as Don had offered to show Kristin and me how to get to the Time Square-esq neighborhood of Shibuya, although he already arranged to meet a friend later in the evening and couldn’t stay for long. The three of us walked to the nearest bus stop and boarded a bus bound for Shibuya, arriving there about 7:30 pm. Although it was a Thursday evening, that didn’t seem to faze the throngs of people who crowded the famed shopping and entertainment district. Having lived in New York, I had been to Times Square a number of times, but it had never seemed as big, as crowded, or even as bright as Shibuya. Don told us that the easiest way back to the hostel was probably via JR train, using our passes, instead of by bus, which could be confusing. He then showed us around what was reported to be the busiest intersection in all of Japan. We then took in the array of shops that were located in the vicinity, also keeping an eye on the interesting people in our midst. Among teenagers, the 80s seemed to be back in full force in Japan, as many of them spouted the big iconic hairdos. Although it was January, most of the girls were wearing ridiculously short skirts, often accompanied by black pantyhose, fishnet or otherwise.

A number of the teenagers were congregating inside an arcade from which liberal amounts of noise and light were emanating, so we ventured inside. Just inside the door were large drums that were being pounded in rhythm according to instructions on a video monitor, along with various bins which contained prizes that could potentially be extracted using a mechanical claw. Kristin was immediately drawn to the purikura machines, Japanese photo machines that produced sheets of stickers. She then went through the process of getting her picture taken in a booth and choosing a variety of pictures and sayings to add to her image for inclusion on the stickers. We had to ask for help from the arcade staff, however, since all of the instructions on the machine were in Japanese. Having produced a few sheets of stickers that would be the envy of any Japanese schoolgirl, we headed back out into the crowded streets.

The next stop was by my request. As we passed the Apple Computer store, I decided to stop in and check my email, as well as check on any electronic gadgets which were featured in Japan but perhaps not in the U.S. A live band happened to playing in the back of the store, so it was quite crowded, but most people were paying more attention to the band than to the computers at that moment. At this point, Don excused himself so that he could meet his friend, and soon disappeared into the busy streets of Shibuya. After I had accomplished my technological goals, Kristin and I listened to the band for a while and then headed out once again. Since, by this time, my personal sized hotdog pizza was beginning to wear off, we decided to stop by TGIF for a snack. This was just one of a number of Western chain restaurants that could be found in Tokyo. Our table overlooked the busy streets below, and we continued to people watch while we ate. Around 10 pm, we decided that it was finally time to head back to the hostel- although the crowds still showed no signs of abating.

We took the train, as planned, to the fashionable shopping district of Harajuku. If Shibuya was comparable to NYC’s Times Square, Harajuku was Japan’s answer to L.A.’s Rodeo Drive. Unlike Shibuya, however, the stores in Harajuku had long closed and the area was practically deserted. I had a good sense that the youth hostel lay around the corner to the right, so we rounded the bend, passing underneath a pedestrian bridge and also passing an entrance which led into Yoyogi Park itself. When we came to an intersection, I tried to remember in which direction we had to turn, as we had not brought any map along with us. Taking a left brought us by the huge stadium complexes which had been used in the Olympics, something I viewed as a positive sign that we were nearing the old Olympic Village. However, after 30 minutes of encircling the grounds, we ended up back at the pedestrian bridge in Harajuku.

I was now convinced that we should have turned right at the first intersection, not left, so we headed back in that direction once again. As we passed the entrance to the park a second time, part of me wanted to cut through it, since I now expected that the hostel was on the opposite side of the park from us. I was a little leery, however, of crossing a city park in the middle of the night. After all- who in their right mind would wander across Central Park after 11 pm? We therefore passed the entrance once again, which I later discovered led to the Meiji Shine, the most famous Shinto Shrine in Tokyo, and then through the rest of the park, leading out of it directly adjacent to the Olympic Village. In reality, it would have probably been perfectly fine to take such a shortcut in Tokyo. Since violent crime was virtually non-existent in Japan, I had experienced little fear so far of wandering around its largest city’s deserted neighborhoods. As it was, we turned right at the intersection in question and arrived at the hostel after another 30 minute hike. By that point, I was overjoyed to see my tiny room once again.

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