One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Friday, October 07, 2005


As I was leaving Ryokan Rikiya in Kyoto yesterday morning, the owner, a tiny little old lady, came out of her room to thank me and to invite me to come back. I told her that her ryokan was beautiful and that I loved staying there, and she squealed wth happiness, whether real or affected, giggled, covered her face with her hands, and said, "Oh, no! No, no, no, no!" It was quite a spectacle.

On the shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo, I was sitting at first in a smoking car. It happened by accident. After about ten minutes I was starting to get lightheaded and nauseous, so I moved to a non-smoking car. Cigarette smoke is my kryptonite -- my weakness. Imagine if cigarette smoke was Superman's one weakness!

The taxi I took from Tokyo Station to Kimi Ryokan had an onboard navigation computer with a cool three-dimensional display. The driver relied on it heavily -- I guess he didn't know Ikebukuro that well.

At the ryokan, there's a dry-erase board behind the reception desk with all the guests' names and nationalities. I'm the only Canadian right now. The most common nationalities are American, Italian, Swiss, and Australian.

I took the metro last night to meet Matt and his friend Minami in Ueno. It required interventions by three kindly strangers -- a hip young dude, a woman with a small sleepy dog in her handbag, and a metro employee -- to get me from Ikebukuro to Ueno on time. The three of us walked to a bar a few blocks from the station, passing several hostess bars with crowds of whooping salarymen outside. I drank two glasses of Suntory beer. The bar was below street level, crowded and interesting. At one point, we heard a woman way in the back screaming angrily and drunkenly at her date.

Matt told me some things about his life and work here in Japan: originally from Melbourne, Australia, he's been here for three years, teaching English and doing translation work. Minami is a student of Chinese literature, Chinese culture, and gender studies at a university here in Tokyo. She mentioned that a transgendered person had just given a lecture in one of her classes.

We talked about Haruki Murakami. Matt has read a lot of his stuff, mostly in translation before coming to Japan. Minami has only read Norwegian Wood, and she's not a big fan, because she doesn't think the dialogue reads as authentic and natural. She recommended a different Japanese author for me -- Shimada Masahiko.

Matt and Minami told me about some of the more exotic and challenging foods you can eat in Japan, including the octopus or squid dish where the creature is cut up alive in front of you, and then you eat its arms, still thrashing and twitching, one by one. Apparently, it's quite a painful thing to do, because the suckers on the tentacles grab at the inside of your mouth and throat. It was in the course of this conversation that I taught Minami the English phrase, "death throes." Another disturbing one: you have a bowl of water with a chunk of tofu in it; the water has tiny carp-like fish called loaches swimming in it; the water is heated up; the fish try to escape the heat by burrowing into the cooler tofu; they get stuck; they die; then you eat the tofu with the dead fish embedded in it.

They taught me the hierarchy of thank you phrases, with "domo" being the most casual and "domo arigato gozaimus" being the most effusive and super-polite. They taught me how to order another beer, and how to ask for the check -- "kaikei." They taught me that it is unnecessary, and perhaps even a bit weird, to reply or make any gesture in response to the cheery welcome one receives when one walks into a Japanese convenience store.

The guy working at the desk in Kimi Ryokan is not Japanese. He's from Beijing, but has lived here for ten years and speaks the language fluently. We talked a bit this morning about the relative merits of Beijing and Tokyo, China and Japan, and he described for me how difficult it is to feel fully accepted in Japan -- to no longer be treated as a "foreigner" and kept at a psychological distance. Even after ten years, he feels that distance, and he argues that in China, a less insular society, foreigners can integrate much more successfully. "Like Dashan," I said.

I've been having problems using my bank card at ATMs here in Japan, and a helpful lady at Citibank allowed me to call the customer service people back in Canada to sort it out. It amazed me that a person in Toronto could tap a couple of keys on a keyboard, and seconds later, tens of thousands of miles away, across the ocean in a different country, my ATM problem could be solved. But it was!

It's 12:30, and I'm meeting Emeryll at 2:00 by the statute of a dog outside Shibuya Station, so I should get going.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an amazing co-incidence. I was looking for a webpage re the Ryokan Rikiya, and found your blog. I am Matt's mum, from Melbourne, Australia.

7:56 AM


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