Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tokyo, Japan

At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I will admit that when Bob invited me to travel with him to Japan from September 5th through 12th, I was afraid that I might be in for just another Asian temple site-seeing experience.  I guess having low expectations worked in my favor, because although Bob ended up spending more time working there than initially planned, I really enjoyed my first visit to Japan!

We arrived in Tokyo Thursday night and Bob went off to meetings the next morning.  So I decided to walk around the Ginza District where luxury stores line the streets, and the Marunouchi area which houses the Imperial Palace.  My first impressions of Tokyo were very positive.  I saw a clean, orderly, modern city.  There were not nearly as many skyscrapers as I anticipated seeing, but Bob reminded me that Japan is a country prone to earthquakes.  The sidewalks and roads were wide and the people were very polite and friendly.  I was impressed by the courteous crowds of businessmen and travelers who managed to navigate their way through extremely busy train and subway stations without pushing and shoving or overly infringing on personal space.  It was a very nice change from what we had grown accustomed to!

Tokyo Station is the main and most busy train station in Tokyo.  We were there several times, making connections to other parts of the city and boarding the high-speed "bullet" train to Osaka.   It is interesting because one side of the station is very modern looking, and the side facing the palace has a more traditional European style. I did not visit the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, which appeared to be undergoing renovation, but strolled around the perimeters and took a peek at the moat, surrounding walls, and the famous Seimon Ishibashi bridge entryway.

That afternoon, Bob and I went to visit Elder Ringwood and Elder Whiting at the LDS Church Office near the Tokyo Temple.  Sister Ringwood then guided us to a typical simple Japanese restaurant nearby to grab a quick dinner before attending an English-speaking session at the temple.  We found it interesting that many of the restaurants operate by having the patrons place their order and insert payment into a type of vending machine at the entrance to the restaurant.  A ticket is dispensed showing what was ordered and is given to the hostess, who in turn, gives the order to the cook.  We assume this is one way the owner maintains control of the incoming cash.  We enjoyed some delicious gyoza (dumplings - or, mandu as we know it in Korea), fried rice, and egg-drop soup.  The Tokyo Temple is very large, and seems to be kept quite busy.  The endowment room (with capacity for about 80 people) was nearly full that evening, but they must have had about 30 certified temple volunteers helping out and moving the group through to the celestial room quite quickly.

We had arranged a tour to visit a Sumo Wresting Stable on Saturday morning.  This was the week prior to the beginning of official tournaments in Tokyo.  The young men who compete in these tournaments live together and practice each morning in what are called "stables".  It was interesting to see the various sizes of the wrestlers.  Some were enormous, and yet not very strong, and others were small and quick.  But those who were most successful were more athletic and solid in build.  The rules of the sport are quite simple, with the goal to be the competitor who remains inside the ring without any part of his body touching the ground except his feet.  It was quite a unique experience and one we will never forget!

Returning from the Sumo stable, we stopped in the Asakusa district, had lunch at a tempura restaurant, and visited the Sensoji Temple.  This is a popular tourist spot where vendors are lined up all along the street to the temple selling souvenirs and snacks.  The fairly new Tokyo Skytree observation tower can be seen from here as well.  The best part of most Buddhist temples, however, are the peaceful gardens surrounding it.

Leaving the temple we enjoyed spotting visitors dressed in traditional kimonos and yukata robes, tourists being pulled in rickshaws, snack packs for sale that included bugs and worms, the Asahi beer
"flame" - more commonly called the "golden turd", and even some real-live Power Rangers!  But the most touching moment was when a kind gentleman sat on train next to Bob, and in his broken English insisted on giving us some traditional sweet red bean filled cakes produced nearby.  His genuine friendship and warmth are a wonderful example of the Japanese hospitality we encountered frequently as we travelled.

Saturday evening we enjoyed a delicious variety of Japanese dishes prepared at a nice restaurant on Odaiba Island overlooking Tokyo Bay.  We invited Kaz, one of Bob's long-time work associates, and his wife and daughter to join us for dinner one night and they graciously made arrangements to meet us there.  What a delightful family to spend time with!  It was actually fun to sit on the floor this time, because of the built-in "well" beneath the table which our legs dropped down into, making it a much more comfortable experience than we have often had other places.  Food presentation in Japan is truly an art, and the quality of  ingredients we consumed throughout Japan was really very good.

The next morning we arose and attended church at the LDS English Ward building near the temple.  Can you imagine my surprise at finding ourselves sitting next to Richard Folsom, a childhood friend and high school classmate of mine who has lived in Tokyo for the past 20 years?!  Once again, I am reminded how small the world is, especially among the "Mormon" Saints.  Later that afternoon, we boarded the bullet train and sped toward Osaka.

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