A Fish Out of Water

I had wanted to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market, the busiest in the world, but my guide book had said that one needed to get there at the crack of dawn in order to see any action. Since I had been unable to convince either Don or Kristin to leave that early on another tour, I had decided to go there on my own. I must have been getting used to the time change, since I awoke before 6 without setting an alarm, around the time I would normally wake up at home. I quickly got ready and quietly slipped out of the room. After the trip to Disney Sea, I more confident about navigating the Tokyo subway system, but realized on the last leg of my journey that I actually had no idea how to find the fish market once I arrived at the closest station. As I exited the subway car, I spied a man wearing a pair of rubber boots who had also just gotten off. Concluding that he was heading to the fish market himself, I decided that I would follow him at a distance. Sure enough, the man rounded the corner and headed down a hill, soon disappearing into a warehouse which was lined with hundreds of stalls that were selling various types of seafood.

I walked through this warehouse to find another, mostly deserted, one behind it. There, workers were using forklifts to arrange stacks of 4 foot-long tuna, finally loading them into the backs of trucks for shipment. Since it was after 7 am by this time, I had missed the daily auctions where sea food is unloaded from fishing vessels at daybreak and then sold to the highest bidder. The stacked fish already had Japanese characters painted onto their sides to indicate who had purchased them. I felt that I was somehow intruding, but the workers ignored me as I wandered around the warehouse, taking pictures. Likewise, no one seemed to notice me as I returned to the original, large warehouse to finish looking around, even though I was apparently the only camera-wielding foreigner in the area. I was intrigued by the bins of every variety of fish, in addition to the clams, oysters, conch, octopus, and squid on display. Vendors were mostly using large knives to cut the large fish into pieces, but some could be seen using band saws to accomplish this task. I couldn’t let myself get too engrossed with the intriguing sights, however, since I had to keep an eye out for the ubiquitous forklifts which continued to dart in and out of the throngs of people, in addition to large wooden carts loaded with seafood that were being pulled around by dock workers.

I returned to the hotel in time to have breakfast at the nearby Denny’s as well as to embark on a walking tour of Shinjuku with Don and Kristin. While Shinjuku on a Saturday morning was not able to approach the sheer levels of intensity found in Shibuya at night, the buildings and displays were still interesting. One particular sign caught my eye: it was for a health clinic located on the 4th floor of a building which featured a caricature of a nurse holding a syringe that was as long as she was tall. I wondered how many Americans would frequent a clinic with a similar commitment to truth in advertising. Our walk also took us past the main kabuki theater in Tokyo, but the show being advertised was for a modern singer, not the highly stylized Japanese drama for which the theater was named. We then poked our heads into one of the many Pachinko parlors which lined the streets. It was difficult for us to understand the Japanese obsession with watching small metal balls clink their way down a slot machine-sized interface filled with tiny metal pegs. Yet, dozens of people were packed into the noisy, garish, smoke-filled surroundings, doing just that. We suspected that Pachinko was adored more for one’s ability to escape from the rigors of everyday life in Japan than for the promise of minor amounts of cash and prizes that could be won from playing.

By noon, it was time for me to venture off on my own once again, this time to meet an old friend. Hitoshi had worked in the same laboratory at the National Institutes of Health as Kiyoe and I had. He was now a professor at Waseda University, very close to Shinjuku. I took the subway a few stops away from the hotel, to Takadanobaba station. I liked the sound of the name, which referred to an ancient horse track that had been adored by one of the shogun’s concubines. Hitoshi met me at the station and took me to a nearby Italian restaurant, where his entire laboratory group of two dozen graduate students was waiting for us. There he treated me to delicious lunch, while his students took turns sitting next to me and grilling me about my life as a professor in America. After we finished eating, it was a 15 minute walk to Waseda’s engineering campus, where I was given a tour of Hitoshi’s labs. Just as we reached campus, it started pouring rain, so I was grateful for the opportunity to duck inside my friend’s building.

Hitoshi’s labs were not unlike those that I had seen at Osaka University, except that they seemed a bit larger and Hitoshi, unlike Kiyoe, had his own private office. I pondered the role Japanese societal norms may have played in the fact that Kiyoe had been relegated to a subordinate position with a shared office, while she had been senior to both Hitoshi and me when we were undergoing our postdoctoral training together. Hitoshi had wanted to show me around Tokyo, but since the rain had picked up considerably by that time, we decided to go to a museum, instead. He then proceeded to select four of his graduate students to accompany us. Since the six of us could not fit into the tiny car that one of them was driving, Hitoshi and I took a taxi to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, near the historic section of Tokyo called Asakusa, meeting his students there.

The title Edo-Tokyo was a perfect description of the focus of the museum we then visited. Edo being the name of the small fishing village that was chosen by the first shogun to be the new seat of government, far removed from the traditional seat of power in Kyoto, which was later transformed into modern Tokyo, the “Eastern Capital”. We started our tour by crossing a life-sized recreation of the wooden Nihombashi Bridge, the main entrance to old Edo. Most of the following replicas were in miniature, with the exception of typical peasant living space, a print shop, as well as the old kabuki theater. We spent about 2 hours going through the whole museum, during which I learned a lot about Tokyo’s history. At 5:30, just as the museum was set to close, we all took turns posing in the various modes of transportation that had been used in the area, from the palanquins used to carry around high officials during the Edo period to the rickshaws that were first introduced to the world in Tokyo, starting in the late 19th century.

Since it was still pouring rain as we left the museum, Hitoshi insisted that I take the umbrella I had borrowed from his laboratory with me back to my hotel. One of his students happened to be going in the same direction, so he offered to ride the trains with me and make sure that I knew my way back. By the time I arrived at the hotel about an hour later, Don, Kristin, and Christie had already picked up something for dinner, so I headed off into the rain once again to get some for myself. Since Denny’s was the closest restaurant as well as one which I already knew how to get to it, I decided to go there once again. Now that I was holding an umbrella, I was introduced to the Japanese custom of coating your umbrella with a thin plastic sheet, irreverently referred to by fellow gaijin as an “umbrella condom”, before entering the restaurant. After all, dripping water from the outside onto the floor of an indoor space would be considered quite rude. Baring this, umbrellas were usually left in racks outside of the building that one had entered, with little fear that they would inadvertently disappear while you were inside.

Back at the hotel, Kristin and I discussed the entertainment options for our last night in Japan. She had wanted to see the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha”, which had just come out in Japan under the name “Sayuri”, the name of the main character. It was not uncommon in Japan to change the title of American movies in order to make them more appealing to the Japanese market. Other than that, they were typically shown in English, with Japanese subtitles. We both viewed this as a fitting end to our amazing journey to Japan. When we asked the concierge where it was playing, however, we found that, although it was not yet 8 pm on a Saturday, the last showing had already occurred in the Shinjuku area. He said that we would have to travel to Roppongi in order to see it and that the price was 1800 yen per person! Having lived in New York, I was not entirely unfamiliar with the concept of a $9 movie, but twice that seemed a little steep to me. Between the rain, the prospect of taking public transportation yet again, as well as the exorbitant price of the movie, we decided to stick around the hotel for the rest of the evening, instead.

This entry was posted in Study abroad in Japan. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *