Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Japan, April 7th - Nagano and Tokyo

After a nutritous breakfast at Mr. Donut, we visited Nagano's central attraction, Zenkoji Temple. On the way, we passed the 1998 Winter Olympic medal podium, a sad platform in front of a corrugated tin wall in a parking lot.

Zenkoji houses the "key to paradise." It's a pitch-dark, twisting tunnel area of the basement, and you can pay 500 yen to go down and try to find it. When we went, a monk spoiled the surprise by telling us where it was in advance. So we are now enlightened.

The shinkansen ride to Tokyo was quick, and Tokyo was a balmy 50 degrees. We rode the elevators to the top of City Hall in Shinjuku and looked down on the endless city from the 54th floor. Then we walked through Ueno park to see the cherry blossoms. We found lots of picnic spots staked out on blue tarps by lone junior office workers, hunkered down in their coats (and even in a sleeping bag in one case.) We walked past the zoo and kids' amusement park, then moved on to David's paradise, Akihabara.

Akihabara is a small area of Tokyo that sells a huge percentage the cell phones and other electronics for all of Japan. We wandered through the cramped, poorly signed alleys and multistory malls, marvelling at the obscure do-it-yourselfer components, high-end GPS navigation systems with traffic flow information and pictures of individual buildings, encyclopedic handheld translators, old computer parts, and incongruous action figure and doll stores. We didn't see anything that resembled a BlackBerry, though; maybe regular-looking cell phones have usable email and web browsing here? We couldn't figure out all the cell phone features, but they definitely have larger screens, credit card-like payment capabilities, and interesting text messaging keyboard shortcuts to support Japanese.

Our next stop was Ginza, to see the bright lights at night. We got lost looking for the Yon-Chome intersection, but eventually found our way to the kabuki theater and got tickets for the last hour of the day's performance. After a quick dinner at Pronto (involving some delicious cod roe spaghetti), we experienced what may have been the longest hour of theatre in our lives.

My theory was that we'd get to see the exciting climax of the 8-hour performance if we bought tickets for the last hour. But the first 45 minutes involved just a few people walking in and out of a tatami room and sitting down and talking to each other. We definitely suffered for not buying the English translation earphones; all I could figure out was that there was some sort of love triangle and a lot of nagging. The impersonation of women's voices really grated on my ears, and I found the stylized tones hard to understand too.

In the last 15 minutes, we did get some action -- a man started chasing people around with a sword and ended up murdering a few people, before someone convinced him to stop and the survivors lived happily ever after...or something. We really don't know. But at least we can now say we've seen Kabuki in Japan. Check.

Ginza at night was crowded and full of bright lights, a stereotypical image of Tokyo. We went to bed tired after lots and lots of walking.