In January our daughter, Hayley, moved to Tokyo. This wasn’t a whim. This wasn’t an act of fancy. This was a conscious, well thought out decision based on years of interest in, and respect for, the culture, as well as decades and dollars spent learning the language. She is Japanese Government certified fluent and graduated with honors from Beloit College in Wisconsin (one of the nation’s top International Studies schools). She had also lived in Japan previously, in high school, as part of a months-long student exchange program. She knew she wanted to go back even then. So after spending a year working in the international department at Golf Channel, she decided the time was right.
A one-way ticket later, she was living, working and navigating her way around as a foreigner in, for her, a not so foreign land. She is also fluent in Mandarin Chinese and thanks to her boyfriend John, with whom she now lives, is in the process of learning Turkish. But enough bragging. My wife had some business to attend to in Tokyo and I was lucky enough to join her so we scheduled a trip to visit our girl.
As part of the adventure we included a day long detour in San Francisco to see the baseball Giants win; thanks in large part to pitcher Yusmiero Petit who needed only 84 pitches to dismantle the Arizona Diamondbacks. I am a Giants fan, living in New Jersey, with season tickets to AT&T Park. Strange, unless you consider that I grew up in Reno (218 miles from baseball’s best ballpark) and was part of a family of fans. After a good night’s sleep (thanks Bill, Kirsten, Fletch and Bear) and an amazing breakfast at Plow in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, we made our way to SFO and boarded a United flight for our transoceanic trip to Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
The “Land of the Rising Sun” was 16 hours ahead on the clock so we departed at 1:35 PT on Wednesday and landed at 4:35 PM GMT+9 on Thursday. Thanks to miles and points we ended up in business class, so after excellent service and lay-flat seats we were actually in decent shape upon our arrival. We took Hayley’s advice and road an Airport Limousine bus from Narita to The Shangri-La Hotel adjacent to Tokyo Station. We rode through an amazingly diverse landscape, alternating between farmland and cityscapes, away from the setting sun and arrived after dark. We were scheduled to meet Hayley and John for dinner and because the ride was smooth and relatively quick we had plenty of time to check in, unpack and freshen up a little. It didn’t take me long, so while my wife got ready I took a moment to look out the window of our 32nd floor room. What I saw was impressive. Skyscrapers and lights which showed signs of humanity as far as my eyes could see. Tokyo is one of Japans 47 prefectures, its capital city, seat of the Japanese Government, and the most populous metropolitan area in the world. In 2010 Tokyo boasted 37,800,000 residents which is 10,000 more than Delhi, India, 12,000 more than Seoul, South Korea, 13,000 more than Shanghai and almost 15,000 more than Mumbai, the world’s top five. If you’re curious New York City claims 20,000,000 residents (ranked 11th in the world) and has half as many people as Tokyo. The Japanese capital is also home to more than 1/10th (or 51) of the Fortune Global 500 companies. It looked immense, energetic and magnificent especially from 32 floors up.
We hadn’t seen Hayley since putting her on a plane at the first of the year and we had never met John in person so we headed downstairs with a great deal of excitement and a certain amount of anxiety. We had seen pictures of Hayley’s boyfriend and I had skyped with the two of them so we knew John was a handsome, smart and self-sufficient young man. What we could only hope was that he was also right for Hayley and that they were good to, and for, each other. We left the elevator, walked down the short hallway and turned the corner into the small, well-appointed lobby. I took a deep breath, my wife took a long stride and we both smiled as we saw our daughter. A hug and a kiss for and from Hayley, then a firm handshake from and for John broke the ice as we headed into the lounge for a cocktail and a chat.
The conversation crisscrossed from how and when they met, to how and why they liked (or didn’t like) living and working in Tokyo, to some of their hopes and dreams for the future, to finally what we might do and where we wanted to go during our first trip to Tokyo. Last, but not least, we discussed a spot for a first-night-in-Japan dinner. All the while John was easy going and easy to be around. He was comfortable in his own skin, interesting and interested in us. He was also clearly captivated and impressed with Hayley and her ability and accomplishments. I thought I saw in John what I knew to be true about myself and the way I felt about my wife from the very first day I met her, he respected Hayley and that knowledge put me much more at ease. We knew Hayley had complete command of the language and a full understanding of the culture. What we didn’t know was that John also knew his way around and, while not fluent, had a better than rudimentary grasp on the language both spoken and written. My wife had come armed with a list of things to do and see so we talked about both “touristy” and “non-touristy” things at our disposal.
We decided we would see the Meiji Shrine, The Tokyo Sky Tree (the city’s version of the Space Needle in Seattle), Shibuya Crossing, Shinjuku and Asakusa. We also had trips to Karuizawa (near Nagano) and Roppongi so we suddenly had a full slate. But first and foremost we were all starving so we headed out into the Tokyo night to find dinner.
We had a special sushi dinner planned for the following evening, so we wandered a bit before deciding on a simple, casual Japanese dinner in a bustling little place that served a variety of small plate dishes. On the way I couldn’t help but notice two things; the city was incredibly clean and its residents were not interested in making eye contact, with foreigners or locals. Heads down, briefcases, hand bags and man purses in hand, everyone appeared to be in a hurry to get where they were going completely indifferent to who or what stood, walked or sat between them and the intended destination. It’s not that they were unfriendly, just disinterested. We arrived at a restaurant in which Hayley and John had dined previously. Like many, it featured a curtain instead of a front door and cubbyholes for shoes. We took ours off, found a space for them to reside while we ate and headed inside.
We were greeted by a hostess who exchanged a few words with Hayley and led us to our table. A narrow hallway was bordered on both sides by, what I assumed were traditional Japanese booths. Tables set into the ground which allowed for patrons to sit on the floor with room for feet and legs under the table top. The other thing I noticed while walking to dinner was that no one was standing on sidewalks or outside buildings smoking. On the way to our table I realized why… everyone who smoked, smoked inside. I asked John about this and he nodded and answered that it was indeed the custom. He chuckled and said that one of the things the hostess had asked Hayley was whether or not our group wanted to be seated in the smoking or non-smoking section. It reminded me of the time when airplanes offered to seat you using the same distinction. It didn’t matter then when you were inside a 150 tube in the sky and it didn’t matter inside a 250 square foot restaurant.
We ordered drinks, beer and sake, and perused the menu then picked gyoza, edamame, chicken skewers, a handful of pieces of sashimi (I couldn’t resist) and a couple of rolls filled with pickled vegetables (Hayley’s idea) and more. It was all excellent, as was the conversation, but after about an hour the long flight, the excitement of the trip and the fact that I have spent nearly 59 years on this planet began to take its toll. I hit a wall and suddenly I started comprehending about every third word that was being said. I knew it was time for this traveler to get a good night’s sleep and continue our excellent Japanese adventure in the morning. We agreed to meet Hayley and John at the entrance to Tokyo station bright and early the next day and said goodnight with hugs this time instead of handshakes. They headed toward their train and home and we went up to the room and hit the hay.
Next up: our first full day in Tokyo and more