JAPAN: Translating Toyland
Sep 10, 2005
David Rich 1400 Words
JAPAN: T R A N S L A T I N G T O Y L A N D
Welcome to Toyland, an immaculately conceived country cleaner than Singapore without Singaporean coercions, a country often lost in translation. Next, welcome ATMs that disburse $28,000 at a whack, home of the world's richest bank aka the local post office. Welcome to Japan. Proceed directly to the nearest ATM.
Skip Tokyo, by far the world's largest and most expensive megapolis. Tokyo is over half again as large as city-trying-harder number two, a burg of comparatively smaller apples in downstate New York. Tokyo apples are two bucks a pop.
Skipping Tokyo will slow, though by no means halt, a descent into bankruptcy. Instead head directly for Nikko, two hours north of Tokyo where the Emperor sat out WWII in a sprawling palace on the sparkling Daiyagawa River.
Now the River is spanned by a hokey bridge chockablock with red-lacquer and Japanese tourists, opposite the entrance to the real reason for coming to Nikko. Dotting the heavily forested hillside opposite the bridge are the most intricately decorated temples in Japan and perhaps anywhere, more Chinese than China, ordered by the warlord who placed Japan in isolation for 200 years. This first undisputed ruler of all Japan was Ieyasu Tokugawa aka GOD. His Buddhist afterlife name, Tosho-Daigongen, meant the Great Incarnation, or good ole Tosho to his buddies. The principal Nikko shrines were built by GOD's grandson Toshogu after GOD was dead. Toshogu employed 15,000 artisans for two years, hammering two and a half million sheets of pure gold, the most elaborate temple coincidentally named Toshugu. He also incarnated three monkeys who hear, see and say no evil whatsoever. Monkey descendants populating local forests have back-slid some. Walk carefully or they'll relieve you of your worldly possessions: evil camera, evil eyeglasses and all things shiny and clean.
Back in town, any Japanese town, you'll find more dozens of vending machines on every block plus a half dozen brands of convenience store to provide sustenance as an alternative to the $10 or $20 lunch. Perhaps the prices are what keep the Japanese so svelte and comely, weirdly excluding Japanese schoolgirls and the kings of traditional sport. I prefer the super-sizing of Japan, which means don't miss my personal choice of aesthetics, the art of wrestling haystacks.
Marvel at behemoths with thighs like elephants, guts like vats of Budweiser beer, chests like a geriatric Marilyn Monroe fringed by the finishing touch of a g-string precariously suspended from a silky cummerbund. Sumo wrestlers would make idyllic politicians with their compulsive posturing. Their modus operandi requires dismissive scowls, fat knuckles on the floor bar, then they jump up and turn away, twice, with looks of utter disgust. On the third try they rush each other with fingers where they oughtn't, trying to push or trick each other out of the tiny four meter (12 foot) ring. May the most agile elephant prevail in the few seconds taken by each bout, precisely when the audience launches its seat cushions at the winner.
The towering Sumo physicality required my immediate removal to the Northern Japanese Alps for a spot of hiking, into the last true wilderness outside of Hokkaido, Japan's remote and lightly populated northern island. Though Japan's schools teach up to five years of English the instruction is limited to reading and writing; few Japanese outside the tourist or international business sectors speak English. Arrangements for long distance buses and trains, and alpine mountain huts, require advance ticketing or reservations, a daunting task without the ever efficient and helpful Japanese National Tourist Organization, JNTO. See www.jnto.go.jp.
Persevering through a faultless JNTO I blundered into an alpine mountain hut on a Saturday afternoon in September, normally considered outside the hardcore tourist season. The placed was jam-packed with 39 Japanese hikers and me, 40 people paying $75 each for a mat placed shoulder to shoulder and head to head as we more than fully occupied the miniscule floor of the hut. My neighbor not only snored but roared and sang in his sleep while the "lady" at my head squealed incessantly, requiring no need for awakening at the constant squeaking of the sliding door as my 39 neighbors and I sequentially tiptoed outside for necessary nocturnal relief. Meanwhile daddy-long-leg spiders insisted on scurrying across the dark of my façade, smack and smack. But we did enjoy two traditional Japanese meals and much camaraderie without the necessity of toting food, water, tents and sleeping bags.
Having exhausted my yearning for the outdoors and the Alps I went directly to must-go Kyoto, the centuries-old capitol of Japan long before Edo/Tokyo usurped the title. Kyoto is Japan's showcase for history, temples, shrines, art museums, geishas and my kitschy favorite, Toei Uzumasa Eigamura (Movie Land) Studios, Japan's Hollywood. Dress up like a geisha with sculpted towering headdress, pillow cummerbund and colorful kimono, or for the guys, as a Kabuki warrior. Attend a vigorous and colorful kabuki drama, watch a movie being made, catch the anime museum with it's colorful characters and an air-forced grill that made Marilyn Monroe famous in The Seven Year Itch. Watch monsters materialize from smoke, above waterfalls and across wires suspended in air. Fun stuff for the kid in most of us. Than you can do the museum and temple route.
Don't miss the Golden Temple (Kinkikuji) in Kyoto but most particularly visit the mother of all Shinto shrines, the Fushima Inari Shrine, the dazzling headquarters for the 30,000 to 40,000 junior Shinto shrines of Japan. Founded in 711 C.E. by the Hata family it features four kilometers (2 ½ miles) of orange and black Torii (Japanese gates) tunnels circling a small mountain on Kyoto's Southside. Inari is the Shinto God of rice and sake, serviced by fox messengers with both price and opening hours ideal; free 24/7. For other attractions, memorize directions to the closest ATM in toyland.
When You Go: Go to Nikko by super efficient train on the Tobu Nikko line from Tokyo's Asakusa Station, reasonably priced at 1340Y($12). Buy a combi ticket to see the Toshogu temples, a savings at 1000Y ($9.20) when individual admissions would total 3000Y or more. I stayed at a toyland hotel named Viva Nikko, hosted by gracious non-English speakers in a self-contained room for $54 single or $89 double. Most hotel rooms are Lilliputian, like living in an RV. Other hotel prices in Tokyo and elsewhere rise steeply upward from that of Viva Nikko. See http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3801.html. One US dollar is roughly 110 Yen. Dormitories cost from 1,500 to 3,000 Yen ($14-$27.50) per night/person. Youth Hostels about 2,500 to 3,500 Yen ($23-$32.50) per night/member. The famous Capsule hotels, a bed in a roomy coffin space, TV and outside bathroom, 3,000 to 4,000 Yen ($27.50-$37) per night/capsule. Love hotels are 6,000 to 12,000 Yen ($55-$110) per room/overnight, not normally meant as tourist lodging but for those who may euphemistically be termed romantic couples. Temples cost 3,000 to 10,000 Yen ($27.50-$92) per person/night. One of the best Mount Koya. Minshuku run 4,000 to 9,000 Yen ($37-$84.50) per night/person. These are Japanese style bed and breakfasts. Pensions cost 4,000 to 12,000 Yen ($37-$110) per night/person with Western style rooms including breakfast and sometimes dinner. Ryokan run 4,000 to 25,000 Yen ($37-$230) per night/person. These are Japanese inns with a traditional Japanese lifestyle. Business hotels cost 5,000 to 9,000 Yen ($56-$84.50) for a single or 7,000 to 12,000 Yen for a double room, usually small Western style rooms. Western style hotels will cost about 10,000 Yen to 30,000 Yen ($92-$276) per room. You can get super deals on flights to Japan from both the U.S. and Europe from $500 roundtrip. For U.S. travelers sign up with www.smartertravel.com for regular specials from your departure city. For Europeans fly out of London. See www.cheapflights.co.uk/flights/Tokyo/London-City/ or enter "Cheap flights London Tokyo" in your favorite browser.
Kyoto and Tokyo are simple to get around by buses and subways that are scheduled with a precision to shame Mussolini,. The first train I boarded proved my watch 20 seconds fast. Buses and trains offer unlimited day passes at a reasonable price and most importantly, bus drivers wear white gloves. The most disconcerting experience getting around any Japanese city is dodging the bicycles that uniformly ride with abandon on all city sidewalks, second only to the hordes of Japanese schoolgirls clad in micro-skirts over white pasty kegs (not legs; weird Japanese schoolgirls).