Right on schedule (about 4:40 PM Tokyo time) we landed at Narita, which posessed the weird placelessness common to all airports. I knew I was in a foreign country because the announcements over the public address system were in Japanese first, then English, but otherwise, basically, an airport’s an airport. I went through the passport check and customs inspection uneventfully, though it did slightly bum me out that, out of the 10 or so inspectors checking passports, I got the scary guy wearing one of those SARS-masks (the only one of the inspectors wearing one.) That shit freaks me out — the only Americans wearing things like that are Michael Jackson. The passport / customs pricess went very smoothly, considering how many people (several hundred) were going through at the time I was there.
I picked up my suitcase and headed into the ground transportation area at Narita and had my first encounter with several thousand people heading in dozens of directions, all very much more sure of where they were headed than I was. This was to be one of the themes of my trip. At my third bus counter, I found the correct bus line and got my ticket for Omiya Station. I walked out into the beautiful clear evening and got my first taste of Japan. It’s warmer here than in Detroit — high temperatures have been hovering around 75F / 24C most days. Japan doesn’t do Daylight Savings Time, so it gets dark around 6PM.
My bus arrived at precisely the scheduled time, which is how things work here. The bus ride was a fairly long one, nearly 90 minutes. We must have travelled on 4 ot 5 different highways on the way to Omiya. It seems that all the freeway signs had Roman place names as well as Kanji, but I still imagine it would be terrifying to try to drive somewhere as a non-Japanese speaker.
I arrived at Omiya station shortly before 8PM. A couple of Americans working for a local company who were in town for a few weeks saw me and waved enthusiastically. It turns out that they thought that I was another gentleman coming to work with them from the US. They were very helpful, and, I could tell, quite homesick (they’d been in Omiya 3 weeks, with another week to go.) They got me pointed towards my hotel, and even walked me part of the way there.
I checked in at the counter and noticed a group of about a half dozen sumo wrestlers across the lobby. They were being fussed over by a couple of attendants — I don’t know whether they were their hosts or their management staff. Being a good tourist, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make this the very first picture I sent back to the folks at home.
An attendant took me upstairs and I dropped off my luggage. This was my first exposure to Japanese hotel rooms, which are very, very, very small. My room in Omiya was about 10 feet / 3 meters on a side, not counting the short entry hall and bathroom. It was dominated by the bed, with a very small desk (with a tiny LCD tv) and a small stool against the wall to the left. The ceiling was maybe 7 feet or so high. After a few minutes, the phone rang, and my compatriots from our Japanese office: Kokubo, Taka, and Mai let me know that they were downstairs. I knew them all from their previous visits to our corporate headquarters in Troy, MI.
We went back towards Omiya station and out of the opposite gate and into the other side of town, which is neatly bisected by the train tracks. The general pattern in just about every area I’ve visited in Japan is that there tends to be a large number of retail and food establishments clustered near every train station. This actually makes things convenient for visitors, as it’s possible to get food and grab necessities from convenience stores and such all without having to worry too much about getting lost. I quickly figured out that I was never truly “lost” as long as I kept straight in my head where the train station was.
We headed off into one such retail quadrant in Omiya, and my hosts had selected a traditional yakitori restaurant. This was my first exposure to Japanese-style dining, where you order many small plates which are then shared communally around the table. The staff brings out a plate or two, which everyone takes a bit from, then, as the meal progresses, you order more and more small plates. The very first plate consisted of chicken sashimi, taken from the wing, thigh, and breast. Okay, now, as an American, I have a confession to make. We Yanks, in general, have a problem with raw. Many of us, myself included, have gotten past this and enjoy various seafood sushi and seafood sashimi. But chicken? Chicken? Culturally, speaking as an African American, our tradition is to regard chicken as a fairly “dirty” animal that you, well, cook the shit out of. I might eat my beef medium rare, but generally speaking, even the slightest bit of blood is enough to totally turn me off a chicken dish. Chicken is eaten well-done or not at all.
So here I had this frankly beautiful platter, perfectly balanced in color and texture with various garnishes, condiments, and accents, featuring several wafer-thin slices of, um, raw chicken. What did I do? I took a long pull on my Asahi, speared a likely looking piece with my fork (more on this later), dipped it in soy sauce and, accompamnied with a small bit of wasabi, placed it in my mouth, chewed a few times, and swallowed. I then took another long pull on my Asahi. Everything from there on was easy, though. We had a number of delicious vegetables, many of which I’d never even heard of before. Everything was strikingly fresh, crispy, aromatic, you name it.
We exited into the night air and my hosts walked me back to my hotel. I got back at about 10:30, and promptly fell into dreamless sleep. Not counting a couple of catnaps on the plane, I’d been awake, as far as my body knew, 26 hours. By the clock, I’d been up 38. Yep.
A little suffering is good for the soul.
— Kirk, “The Corbomite Maneuver”, stardate 1514.0