we woke up at 7am so alex could go take his network exam in takadanobaba (say it out loud, it's fun!)it was brisk this morning and the wind didn't help. i regret not listening to my mother and packing more warm clothes. crossing the ara kawa (river) gave us a good view of mount fuji off in the distance. while alex was getting tested, i rode one train stop down to shinjuku and decided to spend a few hours visiting the shinjuku-gyoen park, where i read that this time of year the least prestigious but no less pretty plum blossoms were in bloom (the cherry blossoms bloom in the spring). it was 8:30 when i got to the park after getting lost trying to find it. the wouldn't be opened until 9:00 and i waited outside along with a handful of japanese women setting up tables and selling hellebores (lenten roses)for 650 yen a pot. more people started to arrive at the entrance, mostly senior citizens out for a morning stroll. once the gates were opened, i went to the information pavilion to get an english map of the park then bought a ticket for 200 yen.
the 144 acres shinjuku-gyoen was originally an imperial garden but was opened to the public after WWII. finished in 1906, it combines elements of french, english, and japanese landscaping. about half of the people arriving early at the gyoen were photo enthusiasts who had the exact same idea i had, which was to photograph the short-lived blossoming of the plum flowers. when i got to the japanese area of the garden (which had the largest concentration of plum trees), i found myself "competing" with several other photographers. these were serious men, men who lugged around bags of equipment, with embarassingly long lenses attached to their equally embarassingly expensive SLR cameras. some were anti-social, quiet loners dedicated to their art and couldn't be bothered with the likes of me, a mere amateur toting around a relatively small nikon coolpix 4500 in my hand. others were friendly, saying things to me in japanese that sounded quite meaningless to somebody like me who don't understand their language (even though i should, with 3 years of collegiate japanese underneath my belt). "nihongo wa wakarimasen, sumimasen," i told them all, and they smiled and left me alone. all with the exception of one man, who wasn't even a photographer, just some older gentleman clutching a plastic bag walking around the park. i had already labeled him as an eccentric, which is a polite way of saying retarded. he saw me taking photos of an egret hiding in the bushes across the pond and he laughed happily, talking to me in japanese. i told him what i told the others. i don't understand japanese. sorry. it didn't seem to matter to him. maybe he was overjoyed at finding a fellow nature enthusiast, and just wanted to share. he kept on talking to me in japanese, but every so often would catch himself, like he realized i didn't understand what he was saying, but soon afterwards would get so excited that he would talk to me in japanese again. i tried to communicate with the few other words of nihongo i could recall from the last time i used japanese, which was back at tufts 9 years ago. "samui desu," i told him. it's cold. "sakana," i pointed to the colorful kois in the ponds. he wanted me to follow him to somewhere (back to the information office maybe?), but i bid him a fond farewell, as i returned to the pond. besides egrets, there were also some kind of huron, and through the spotting scope i saw a group of mandarin ducks! i challenge you to find a better looking duck. seeing these mandarins (a close relative of our new england wood ducks) would easily be a naturing highlight of my 2 weeks stay in japan. i walked around the garden some more, including the taiwan-kaku pavilion and the avenue of plane trees on the other side of the garden. i got something to drink from one of the few rest areas, a bottle of cold tea (130 yen, and no, that's not secret code for beer); the old woman helped me fish out the correct change from the fistful of japanese coins i had in my hand. at one point i saw a group of japanese men and women armed with cameras shooting a large pink-flowering plum tree in the middle of the park. maybe in another country you'd laugh and make fun of them, but nowhere else is photography more revered than in japan, and i found myself drawn to the photo circle, unloading a series of well-placed shots, particularly of these yellow-green warblers (with white eye-rings) feeding nectar from the flowers. it was quite beautiful, pink petals falling from the tree like confetti, the fragrant smell of their blossoms filling the air. occasionally these larger birds that look like american mockingbirds would chase the warblers away, but the more agile warblers would always come back. in this peaceful garden, surrounded by people with a deep appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, i felt very moved, like i was sharing a connection with them.
i left the garden with 15 minutes to spare before i had to meet alex at the southern exit of the shinjuku train station at 11:00. he told me the bad news when i saw him, that he had failed the test (a few correct answers shy of passing), the second failed exam of the week. we walked to western shinjuku where alex knew an indian restaurant but it wasn't opened for lunch until noon, so we went next door to a japanese noodle place, which opened at 11:30. we were the first ones there, and the waitress was more than willing to help me when she realized i didn't speak japanese like alex, and filled in the blanks for me with some broken english. although several lunch specials were advertised outside, in actuality, there was only one special (it might be because it was the weekend), japanese style beef noodle soup with a side of rice. before we finished eating, two sararimen came in and sat at the table right next to us. that wasn't the problem. the problem was after they finished eating, they each lit up a cigarette. living in boston, where so many businesses are now smoke-free, i take it for granted that i don't smell cigarette smoke all the time. not the case in japan however. these sararimen were of a rare breed, seemingly contrary to the stereotypical image of the japanese as a very polite individual. they were longing on their chairs, legs raised, and one was even sucking on his teeth, which almost drove alex into a frenzy as he cursed at them passive-aggressively in english, seemingly unworried that they might understand. it was only then that i noticed that little colorful dish on our table was in fact an ashtray.
the western half of shinjuku is the business district, populated by tall office buildings. here is where alex works, in the black mitsui building. the highly sensitive nature of his networking job forbids visitors into his work space, although we could use the bathroom, which alex said was clean and state-of-the-art. so we took the elevator upstairs, and went through the empty kitchen area, where several sliding-door refrigerators were well-stocked with free beverages for the employees. "take whatever you want," alex told me, and i cursed him for working in a big company with perks i've never experienced before in my own work history, while at the same time filling my small bag with drinks. we proceeded to the bathroom, with alex in front, poke his head out the door for a brief second. "somebody's here!" he shrieked, as we both ran out of the kitchen and hid in the opposite hallway. apparently alex wasn't sure if guests were allowed to use the bathroom, and at the last minute decided it probably wasn't kosher. but once the coast was clear, we slipped into the facility, each man occupying his own stall. "how do you use this thing?" i asked him from across several partitions, looking confused at the automatic toilet with an array of buttons and levers. "the second button from the back heats up the toilet," alex instructed. "the second button from the front shoots out water," he continued. "it what?!" i answered back, incredulous at such an affront to basic bathroom decency. "you know, it wets your ass so you use less toilet paper," alex replied. "okay," i said, still in disbelief, then sat down to a warm toilet seat. we were both taking care of business when we heard noises in the bathroom. somebody else was here! we both kept quiet in our respective stalls, waiting for the noise to leave. whew! that relief was short-lived however, as a minute later, another person came in. keep quiet, keep quiet, i thought to myself, waiting for the sounds to leave again, which it eventually did. i looked to my side. the button that shoots water up your ass. what the hell. when in japan, do as the japanese do. so i pressed it. i heard a soft gurgle like a bubble escaping from the ocean's depth before i felt tickling on my ass from a steady stream of warm water. i was mortified. i waited for it to stop. it didn't. when will it stop? i thought. i don't feel good anymore! this fancy japanese toilet with the warm-inviting heated seat was molesting me in alex's office bathroom and i couldn't stop it from happening because i didn't speak japanese-toilet and couldn't say no. i wanted to get up from the toilet, but was afraid the water would just then splash everywhere, making a bigger mess. i couldn't ask alex for help, because i was afraid we'd get busted. i looked to my side and saw this big round button. dear god please let that be stop. and it was. and the molesting ceased. filled with shame, i quickly wiped myself clean and came out of the stall. alex was waiting for me by the sinks. i wanted to wash my hands but he was gesturing the universal sign for "let's get the hell out of here!" i did the best i could, and with hands still soapy, i followed alex as we ran inside an elevator. "alex, that toilet molested me," i confessed. he looked at me and laughed, like uncle toilet would never do such a thing.
view from the 45th floor of the tokyo metropolitan building. the view is free and you can choose between the northern or southern tower (or do both).
after taking a careful tour of kabuki-chou, japanese infamous red-light district, we came across a crowd of people fitting an alley way. the buzz was infectious and we joined in the fray. i figured maybe it was a japanese celebritity, maybe an actor or a singer or perhaps a baseball player, but the word on street was former president bill clinton would be making an appearance at a local bookstore to sign copies of his new autobiography. so alex and i waited in the cold along with everyone else, craning out necks to see if there was any action.
just minutes before we decided to call it quits, the police held the crowd back as secret service agents suddenly appeared on the doorsteps of the bookstore. turns out clinton had just been signing books and was about to leave in a white SUV. clinton, ever the crowd pleaser, got out of the vehicle to wave to the crowd of excited japanese waiting outside. there was a uniform cry of "woah!" as the multitude glimpsed the former president, and a wave of raised arms holding digital cameras, camcorders, and photo-enabled cellphones, trying to capture the moment. i could hear alex shouting, "hey clinton!" which seemed to alarm at least one of the secret service agents, who didn't expect english to be uttered from a sea of japanese. the clinton appearance lasted mere seconds, and the crowd quickly dispersed as the SUV drove away, but everyone had a smile on their face.
for dinner, we went to ikebukoro for some conveyer-belt sushi. it was crowded and we waited 10 minutes before sitting elbow-to-elbow at the sushi bar. the experience was well worth it though, it only seems fitting to be eating sushi in tokyo(my very first time), and in such a way that showcases the japanese talent for creativity and efficiency.
maybe it's jet lag, but i still feel like i'm on the plane, bouncing up and down from the turbulence! i still got my "air" legs!