So, Tokyo Rose I’m Not….


“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and the struggle for survival.” Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

It feels like three years have passed since I’ve written last, though in truth it is only a little more than three weeks. But what weeks….

I had a lovely visit with my friend Holly. I learned straight off just how acclimated I had become to Taiwan life when she got in on a Thursday night and I immediately offered her the best thing I could think of after a long flight: a nice glass of hot water. (She didn’t take me up on this, preferring, oddly, to drink cold water….) It’s the little things that remind me of how far I’ve come in adapting to my Taiwanese lifestyle. In a similar vein, I kept trying to speak Chinese to her, forgetting that she couldn’t understand me. For example, buying bus tickets. Holly asked me how much the total was, and I answered “Wu bai liu.” She said, “huh?” So I repeated myself, enunciating slowly and carefully,” WU…BAI…LIU.” That, I finally discovered, did not do much to clear things up.

One fascinating phenomenon was the tendency of total strangers to go long distances out of their way to compliment Holly, whose curled blond hair offered the Taipei residents a somewhat different look from the more common straight black locks on every head. One woman crossed a street and a long block to tell Holly she was pretty. We thought at first she might simply be waiting at the same bus stop as us, but after I thanked her on Holly’s behalf, she took off again, making it clear that the compliment was the only item on her agenda on our side of the street. Meanwhile, at the same bus stop, I couldn’t even get a bus driver to stop for us; I waved at him to stop, in the standard Taipei-hailing-a-bus manner, but the bus driver waved back and sped by (I guess he thought I was offering a greeting rather than seeking a means of transport). This combination of events was a bit more fun for Holly than for me, but such is life.

Actually, my attempts to prove myself an “insider in the know” failed on several occasions (beyond the bus incident mentioned above). Perhaps the worst was when I took us quite a distance up the wrong road on our way (well, out of our way, really) to Chihnan Temple in Mucha. This temple complex is one of the largest in North Taiwan, and near my school, so I was determined that Holly should see it, but I’d never actually been there myself, so it was especially easy for me to lead her astray. As soon as I realized we were, more or less, lost, I admitted it and went for the handy Lonely Planet guide to try and determine how to correct the situation. I may not always know where I am or where to go, but I pride myself on preparedness and a wealth of reference materials. Holly might have been more impressed by my resourcefulness, however, had I not accidentally brought along my Lonely Planet Tokyo guidebook, instead of Lonely Planet Taiwan (hey, they’re both blue, and both places start with “T”…). Having failed to find ourselves on the Tokyo map, and feeling it of limited utility if we ever did managed to locate our current position in the wrong city, I was forced to call a friend and get him to talk us onto the right road. Well, actually, that was after we paused so Holly could enjoy a good laugh at my expense.

Taipei managed to offer Holly a wealth of others things to marvel at, from perfect weather to lovely vistas. In the Yangmingshan national park, we saw a family wandering around the park with a baby stroller, but when we all stopped at the same spot to sit and rest, we noticed that there was no child in the stroller, but instead one white rabbit. What is most remarkable about this, beyond the idea that anyone would take the family rabbit for a walk in a stroller, which cannot be a common phenomenon anywhere in the world, is the fact that the rabbit stayed put – in fact, sat demurely in the stroller watching the world go by.

We ventured around Taipei, took in a choir concert titled “The Golden Age of Jazz” at the national concert hall (which, aside from including some musical choices I would not have defined as “jazz” – Golden Age or otherwise – like the Beatles’ “I Will,” involved some of the most well-organized scat and least-rhythmic snapping in musical history), embarked on a quick trip to Alishan in South Central Taiwan, and climbed pretty close to every step in Taiwan, give or take a few. I had not intended to take Holly on the “stairmaster tour” of Taiwan, but sometimes things just work out that way…. Anyway, aside from being REALLY homesick when she left, I had a wonderful time hanging out with someone from home and showing off the world I know at the moment.

A few short days after Holly’s return stateside, I took off for my grand adventure in Japan. I armed myself with three vital books: the Lonely Planet Tokyo (for those of you who, reading the above, began to worry, I assure you I did not try to navigate Tokyo with a map of Taipei), a Chinese-Japanese phrasebook (I was feeling very bold and adventurous when I bought this… which was good, since I couldn’t find a pocket-size Japanese-English phrasebook), and Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel (highly recommended – the next time any of you go anywhere I suggest you bring it along — it is a near perfect mix of travelogue, philosophy, and biting sarcastic humor).

My very first act, upon arrival in Japan, was to lie to the customs officials and smuggle contraband into the country. My landlady had insisted I bring a banana with me to the airport in case I got hungry along the way, which I stuffed in my backpack and promptly forgot. I read all the signs and dire warnings about bringing fruit – which could, potentially, carry bugs or pesticides, I gather – across international borders, but failed to note how these regulations applied to me or my banana. I’m only lucky I didn’t get caught; Japan enforces the death penalty for smuggling drugs, but does not post the penalty for illegal fruit. It was not until I began to eat the contraband banana that evening that my crime dawned on me, and let me say the taste of banana soured a bit in my mind at the realization (so much for the forbidden fruit tasting sweeter).

My first priority was to apply for a visitor visa at the Chinese Embassy, which I could have accomplished much faster if I had been able to find the Chinese Embassy. In Taipei, every street has 3 or 4 names – the Chinese Characters, an irrelevant English name for the tourists, and a couple different transliterations of the Chinese just to make things thoroughly confusing. As much as I complain about this embarrassment of riches, which I tend to think is overkill, I’d take it any day over Tokyo, where only a few very large avenues have names at all. To get to the Chinese Embassy, you can take the subway to Roppongi, take the 1st exit, turn left, walk forward, then turn left on “a street” after the Roppongi Hills apartments, and after passing a couple parks, a fire station, and an uncountable number of Happy Marts, the embassy entrance is on the left. The address is a number, referring to the grid number on a map of Tokyo – the street has no name, so there can be no name in the address, which can make it awfully difficult to ask directions, with or without Japanese language skills.

[Incidentally, I did try to use the handy Chinese-Japanese phrasebook to ease my communication woes, but inevitably I would consult the book, then look up and recite the Chinese sentence, rather than the Japanese one. Seeing a confused look, I’d mutter, in English, “Wait, wrong one, sorry….” then try it again in Japanese. Soon I gave this up altogether, and simply started bowing a lot to cover my language limitations. I figured as long as I was demonstrating my determination to be polite by bowing, it didn’t much matter if I could say anything they’d understand.]

After turning left enough times to complete not one but two 360 circles without ever threatening to get close enough to the embassy to find it, I was forced into a Happy Mart to seek assistance. After several failed attempts at inquiry, I finally placed a large map of Tokyo on the counter and put my finger on the Chinese embassy, indicating with sign language and meaningful glances (and a few well-timed bows) that it was my chosen destination. The helpful Happy Mart hirelings finally pointed out their location on the same map, and gave an indication of which direction to walk. I wish I could say that on my second trip to the embassy to pick up the visa I had the knowledge of past experience to guide me, but my left turns quickly revealed the neighborhood to have, inexplicably, several new streets I had not managed to explore the first time around.

I spent much of my first day in Tokyo wandering around Ginza, noting that I’m really not rich enough or, frankly, cool enough to spend much time in Tokyo. (It’s okay, I’ve already come to terms with this and moved on.) I marveled at the black and white art deco signs announcing “West 5th Street” [aha, you might say, so there are street names in Tokyo… to which I might reply, there is only the one named street in Ginza, and it is a pedestrian alley) which reminded me of the art of Alphonso Mucha and conjured up images of turn of the century geishas strolling in Ginza and “acting out modernity,” as we studied the cultural history of modernity in this neighborhood at length in my Japanese history class at Georgetown. I tried to push this from my mind, however, as all my grad school friends out there realize that this was by no means a nostalgic recollection (“I can’t use Japanese sources, I can’t read Japanese”)].

Tokyo is an interesting place, however. The most international city I’ve ever been in, bar none, but this is partly because it has, simultaneously, an Asian frame of reference and lots of European connections. I was completely amused by Tokyo Tower, which is a replica of the Eiffel Tower, but taller and painted with wide red and white stripes (which, frankly, I just don’t think the French would stand for). Tokyo station’s west side is also, inexplicably, an exact replica of Amsterdam’s central station (I’ve never seen the original, but assert this on the strength of a claim in the Lonely Planet). Perhaps my favorite sight was the memorial to fallen war heroes, which had a small sign in English explaining that a mere 1000 yen would buy an offering to those enshrined within. Given the fact that interred at this shine are, among others, several class “A” war criminals from World War II, I thought it rather unlikely that this sign was needed. After all, no matter what the Georgetown undergrads assert in their term papers, there were no Anglophone nations on the side of the axis powers in World War II, and it is hard to imagine an Ally tearing up at the sight of this particular memorial….

I did not spend all of my time in the city center, but instead took a few ventures to points beyond. I was particularly proud of a day trip to Tobo-Nikko, which is a two hour train ride north of Tokyo (proud because the process of buying tickets and getting around was so complicated, I was a little amazed I managed it at all since, after all, I don’t know any Japanese after “sushi,” “kimono,” and “sumo”). Nikko is the home of a number of temples and shrines, mostly built by members of the Tendai sect of Mahayana Buddhism (ack, too much information). The Shrines and temples were pretty enough, but the aesthetic value of the whole scene (to say nothing of the ascetic value) was improved somewhat by a sudden snowstorm. Remember, there is no snow in Taiwan, so this was a bit of a novelty for me this year. The novelty soon wore off, however, when I began to realize just how difficult it was to get around in the snow. First off, I wasn’t really dressed properly for such cold (I know, 30 degrees is not cold, but it feels cold if it’s 55 all winter), and second, not many tourists are crazy enough to embark on outdoor shrine viewing in winter, so the roads were not well-cared for (if, noting that indeed not many tourists would be crazy enough to take this particular day trip in the winter, you are wondering what led me to venture out to Nikko anyway, see Alain de Botton on “the tyranny of travel guidebooks”).

It took what felt like ages to walk up the road between the two largest attractions, not because the road was particularly long, but because I kept falling down. This was a problem for me not so such much because it was painful (though I have some nice bruises even yet on my knees) or because it was embarrassing (pretty much the only people who saw me were monks anyway), but because it took so long to get anywhere. It was this endless cycle of fall down, get up, brush myself off, take a step, fall down, etc. When I came out of the destination shrine and, with deep sighs and a heavy heart, set off back down the road, it had (magically) been sanded: it took me about three minutes to return on the same road that I trekked for 20+ minutes on the way up.

The other major annoyance at Nikko was the fact that in Japan, you frequently have to remove your shoes every time you enter a shrine or temple. In the summertime, I’m sure this is no big deal, but padding around through the snowy entry onto a frozen marble floor in my socks was not altogether pleasant. I did it twice, but when I reached the third temple, I put my frozen foot down, deciding that I could see plenty peeking in from the steps with my shoes on and that there was no reason to suffer further.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that day trip to Tobo-Nikko proved to be my last truly conscious act in Japan. By the next morning, I was sick as a dog. No simple cold, this one; I had an easily discernable fever (aside from symptomatic and third-party-feeling-the-forehead style evidence, I can provide further proof that I was definitely feverish, in that when I landed in Taipei last Monday, my temperature was still high, at 100.6. This was a day I was feeling much better). I kept getting dizzy from being on my feet too long, and was unable to consume anything but tea and the occasional piece of toast for the remainder of my trip. (This was a pretty severe disappointment, in that I hadn’t had any sushi before falling ill, but I’m happy to report that I had squeezed in my visit to the Sapporo Brewery “beer museum and tasting lounge” before the Nikko trip, so all was not lost. This, I might point out, was not so much a question of priorities as one of geography – Sapporo is near the Chinese Embassy.)

Being a tourist’s tourist, becoming deathly ill did not slow me down much, and I still hit museums, shrines, parks, and monuments for eight to twelve hours each day. The unfortunate truth, however, is that I don’t really remember all that much of it. I have oddly blurry recollections of particular sites and places, but it is all a little fuzzy. I have reasonably solid photographic evidence of where I went, though some of the pictures are also blurry from having moved while taking them, and some don’t appear to be pictures of anything. (I’ve got one of a random building and my camera strap, with a construction crane in the middle. What feverish logic led me to capture that image? I’ll never know.)

One sight I do recall vividly, however. On February 1st, the lunar new year, I took off for Yokohama (a coast town just south of Tokyo), which boasts the largest Chinatown in Japan. It was bustling with people shopping, eating, and taking rickshaw rides in celebration of Chinese new year. I was looking around for a tea shop, needing a rest from my 3 block walk from the train station into the heart of the Chinese quarter, when I saw it: nestled in the heart of Chinatown, Japan, was a Norwegian restaurant. All I could think of was my Grandma Kay’s story about eating at a Chinese restaurant in Norway, ordering Chinese food in Norwegian: I wonder if this restaurant takes orders for its “Norwegian food” in Norwegian, Japanese, or Chinese? (And, of course, is there really enough beige food in the world to fill an entire menu?) The Chinese diaspora might have sheer numbers on us, but as a member of the (later generation) “Norwegian diaspora,” I gotta say, they got nothing on us in creativity of geographic positioning.

Anyway, I am back in Taiwan and, naturally (now that my vacation is over), fully recovered. From the extent of the firecrackers still erupting about town in celebration of Chinese New Year, I’m pretty happy I missed the actual thing. The Lantern Festival is next, but that should be much quieter (unless it involves blowing up lanterns and no one has thought to mention it yet).

Happy (Chinese) New Year!

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen


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