neither alex nor i woke up until noon: i was exhausted from a week's worth of traversing the kansei region exploring the various sites, while alex had been battling his own inner demons. on my schedule today was the ueno zoo and the senso-ji temple in asakusa, areas northeast of tokyo. i decided at the last minute that the ueno zoo wasn't worth going to (especially on a weekend, when it'd be crowded, and i'd already been to the zoo before, and it mustn't have been that good because i can hardly remember the experience). while alex was getting ready, i slipped out of the apartment and went to the macdonalds on the corner of the train station to get some lunch. i had already cashed my macdonalds card once, and here i was doing it again. you just can't beat the golden arches in terms of convenience, price, and the fact that i may not speak japanese but i sure can speak macdonalds, with thanks to globalization is an international language. a homeless japanese man wearing a boston red sox cap cut me in line, putting down a fistful of coins on the counter. i ordered the BLT, which i believe is not available in the US, but varies from the classical BLT in that it's just a regular hamburger with a few slices of bacon (the "b" apparently stands for both burger and bacon). the girl gave me my tray with just my drink and my fries on it. she gestured towards the side, which i interpreted as "move out of line so others may order," which was what i did. a minute later i noticed her dashing out to the side with my BLT in her hand. i guess what she meant was for me to grab a seat (and not stand in line), and that she'd then deliver the hamburger to me, which in all my macdonalds experience this has never happened before. while i ate by the window alex wandered by the station and saw me. he decided to not go to work and go with me to asakusa instead.
you can't get to asakusa by JR train alone; it involves getting off at ueno station then taking the subway three stops to asakusa for 160 yen. once we arrived at the station and came out of the exit, it was just like every other arrival, correct destination but no attraction, just more people and city and cars. we followed the crowd, which included many gaijins, and shortly came across the first of several large suspended lanterns. conveniently across the street was the local tourist office and an old man with excellent english helped me out along with his beautiful assistant, who i got the impression was just learning english (he asked her later after i finished talking if she had understood everything i said). i got some maps and instructions on how to get money with my debit/credit card; it turns out that i don't go to a bank to do that, but rather every post office have special ATM's that can give me money. i did that, dispensed a crisp new 10,000 yen bill, and we went back to the temple site.
asahi beer tasting building
past the first gate into the temple compound is nakamise-dori, a stretch of road festooned with silk cherry blossom flowers, a gauntlet of vendors selling souvenirs of every kind, postcards, kimonos, maneki neko statues, darumans, fans, crackers, toys, etc. past this street is the actual temple, with an even bigger red lantern suspended from the ceiling.
i'd been to asakusa before, during my last visit to tokyo, but we were unlucky (or lucky, depending on your point of view) enough to have visited during some sort of festival where men dressed up in diapers and carried some sort of religious relic around. the place was crowded with people and the big lanterns were collapsed in order to protect them. this time around there were no men in diapers (although some gaijins on rickshaws, which drew the attention of camera wielding japanese locals, with one woman asking me, as translated by alex, "are they famous?"). on both sides of the courtyard people were getting their fortunes read, rattling a shaker until a stick with a number came out, then you match the number to a drawer and take out a piece of paper which is your fortune. for those who received bad fortunes, they can tie them up so it'd be carried away by the wind. alex, debating whether to get his fortune read, finally submitted to his curiousity. the chance of getting a bad fortune is 25% and wouldn't you know it, he pulls out a bad one (something about not being able to keep promises at work), and then was in a sullen mood for the remaining part of our stay in asakusa, occasionally muttering to himself, "i shouldn't have gotten my fortune!"
we left asakusa, taking the subway back in the direction of ueno. alex was going off to some international party which i wasn't invited to, so instead i had to make my own fun and decided to revisit the yokohama chinatown. i got in touch with claudio who happened to be on call at work and waited for me at the ebisu train station. i was late by almost half an hour because i took the yamanote train in the wrong direction and when i got to the station, i couldn't pick claudio out of the sea of other japanese people. we met up with his girlfriend, who was waiting for us in the mall. claudio was driving his car, conveniently parked outside the station, and we got a few minutes out of ebisu before he received a call from the office, about a server being down, so we had to return briefly for him to fix it, before we left again. i got a chance to see his workplace, a vast expanse of cubicles and computers. hanshin tigers momentos were prominently displayed around his desk area.
people drive on the left side of the road in japan. i've never been in a car were the steering wheel was on the right side. the whole time i was sitting in the passenger side i was completely weirded out. it felt like my passenger was driving. not to mention how all the directions are reversed, every turn felt like we'd hit a pedestrian, every car we passed felt like we were going to crash into them. eventually i stopped trying to make sense of it all, pretend it was just an amusement park ride where rules of driving as i know them don't necessarily apply. the kicker was the gps system he had in his car. it wasn't just tracking our location, but giving us advice via isometric diagrams. the whole thing looked very complicated, like it should belong in a cockpit of a plane and not in the dashboard of a car.
i took claudio and tami to the sichuan restaurant i went to the last (and first) time i came to the yokohama chinatown. i was able to order in chinese but the waitress we got only spoke a little bit of mandarin. we each had a bowl of hand-drawn noodles of varying degrees of hotness, along with a plate of fuxifeipan (fuqifeipian) and another plate of chinese watercress. after we left the restaurant, about 9pm, almost half of the places in chinatown were already closed for the night, heavy metal gates pulled over their storefronts. despite the cold, we walked around a little bit more so i could take photos and so tami could buy some chinese pastries. we walked as far as the yokohama harbor before returning to the car. it was close to 10:00 and most of the shops in chinatown were already closed, the place seemingly deserted. say what you will about japanese night life, but at least here in the yokohama chinatown, 10:00 seems like closing time for everyone. claudio theorized that maybe it was the cold weather, driving a lot of business away, compelling managers to shut down early.
claudio and tami offered to let me stay at their place in ebisu but i declined (they had a spare futon). instead, they drove me back to toda city north of tokyo (yokohama is southwest). i got back before alex, and when he returned he was in a better mood, having met a bunch of gaijin-hungry japanese girls at the party he attended, including a race queen and another girl who said her friend was looking to find a chinese-american boyfriend.