Innocents Abroad in Japan, Part 1

“So if you’ve got no job and runnin’ out of dough
And they moved the factory down to Mexico
Just pack your bags and don’t forget your Kimono
And you can follow me, honey, all the way to Yokohama”

From “Move to Japan” by The Band 1993

Do you remember the late 1980s with America’s manufacturing sector at a crossroads and Japan’s rising mightily? “How do the Japanese do it?” was the question of the day. Studies were done; books written. My memory of it all is pretty vague, but I do recall the so-called “Japanese miracle.” And now I’ve learned that before it, there were other periods of extraordinary Japanese growth and accomplishment.

Corner of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace

In the 1860s, with the end of two long centuries of isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate, the Meiji emperor was restored to power, and the country modernized with what seems to be incredible speed, so much so that by 1905 it was able to win a war against Russia and proceed to invade and colonize Korea and parts of mainland China. That militaristic period ended with the country’s defeat in the Second World War, but then Japan rose again. I can remember a time when, in America, “Made in Japan” connoted cheap and unsophisticated common products. However, between the 1950s and the 1980s, Japan’s cars, trucks, motorcycles, electronics, etc., became industry leaders, winning huge shares of their respective markets.

Japan didn’t do it alone. After World War II, the United States helped put the country back on its feet. But there is more to the story than that. Although Kay and I have no special insight in the matter of nation building, our first trip to Japan, recently undertaken during twenty-six days of October and November, has given us an idea of why the country rebounded as it did.

Through observation and intuition, we’ve seen first-hand what is possible when a homogeneous society adheres to a set of widely shared values and traditions. Japan is unlike any other country we have ever visited. It is highly developed, yet feels exotic with an exoticism all its own.

This is why we felt like such innocents for much of our visit. It’s not that we arrived totally unprepared. Kay has been passionate about things Japanese since her college days. We both love Japanese cinema and have read a lot of Japanese literature in translation.

Before this trip, we watched and listened to the twenty-four lectures of a course entitled Understanding Japan given by Professor Mark J. Ravina. A true expert, Professor Ravina’s talks gave an excellent overview of Japan’s history and culture. And yet, I’m not sure there is anything that can adequately prepare western tourists like us for the reality that is everyday Japanese life. What we encountered day after day was a series of surprises; most were delightful while a few were not.

For instance, we had read that Japan is a rainy country but that by arriving mid-October we would be safely out of the rainy season. Imagine our disappointment at having rain every day during our first week in Tokyo. We arrived in the rain and left in it.


Rain is such a fact of life for the Japanese that they all carry umbrellas, the long kind, and that when visiting a museum and other public buildings, they place their umbrellas in special racks where each umbrella can be locked individually.

We erred in another way, also. We arrived at Narita Airport and chose to spend our first week in Tokyo. Greater Tokyo has a population in excess of 35 million people, making it the largest megalopolis in the world.

Most of those millions use public transportation so you can imagine how large and complex are the systems of buses, trains and subways. There is a steep learning curve to figuring out how to get around the city. Combining that fact with the incessant rain, our jet-lagged brains and bodies, and zero knowledge of spoken and written Japanese, you can see that our first week was less than wonderful. We did not see the city at its best.

Still, we did have a few things going for us. Kay had done most of the trip planning and she chose a Tokyo neighborhood, Nakameguro, that a magazine article refers to as “boho-chic.” The stores and restaurants along its main street are the comfortable sort, interesting and not too pricey. There is even the Meguro River that parallels the main drag. The quiet streets that line its banks are mostly residential but with a smattering of pretty boutiques and intimate restaurants. It was pleasant to walk along them of an evening when the rain eased to a drizzle.

In Nakameguro our accommodation was the Dormy Inn Express, (Don’t you love the name?) It’s what in Japan is called a business hotel. A traveler can check in with only the clothes he or she is wearing and know that everything needed for the night and morning will be provided. In addition to the usual amenities, the small, simply furnished rooms contain pajamas, tooth brushes and paste, a razor and shaving cream. There are complimentary ramen noodles served nightly in the lobby after 9 p.m. and a very nice breakfast featuring items like corn soup, eggs sunny side up, tiny sausages, and fresh pastries in addition to the usual juices, tea, and coffee. We loved our eight nights at the Dormy Inn. The cost was reasonable, and the hotel staff was very helpful and polite. By the way, everyone we dealt with in Japanese hotels, stores, and restaurants invariably expressed themselves politely. It seems to be a universal Japanese trait.

Joseph and Miwako

The second thing that made Tokyo special for us was the kindness and generosity of a couple, Joseph and his wife Miwako. We had met and spent a single day with Joseph at a conference in L.A. years ago. He’s kept up with us over the years through our travel accounts. When we wrote that we would be in Tokyo for a few days, he invited us to dine with him and his wife at a restaurant and again at their home.

Joseph is an American from California’s Bay Area who came to Japan as a young man thirty-three years ago. He teaches in the English Department of a local university. We met Joseph and his wife the first evening in a Taiwanese vegan restaurant where the main dishes were designed to taste like meat and fish.

Our second meeting was during dinner at their home in Shibuya where Miwako served us vegan sushi with burdock, falafel, humus, mushroom soup, asparagus, and a pomegranate drink. On that occasion we were joined by a colleague of Joseph’s. Greg is a Canadian who has also been living and teaching in Tokyo for a long time. He arrived bearing French wine and his delicious homemade bread.

On both occasions, I had lists of questions to pose. We learned that unlike most cities where bank branches are plentiful, in Japan ATMs are mostly found in 7-11s. That’s right! What we know in the U.S. to be rather ordinary convenience stores, selling hot dogs and Big Gulps, are much more in Japan. Besides selling prepared foods, snacks, grocery items, and drinks, including alcohol, they are the go-to places for cash, photocopies, and postage stamps. They are everywhere, as well. In Kyoto, we had two within three minutes from our hotel. Kay and I found that if we ate a full Japanese meal at midday, we only wanted something light in the evening. On more than one occasion I bought us fresh sandwiches from the nearest 7-11 for dinner.

As soon as we arrived in the country, one thing struck us as anomalous. Japan’s electric plugs and outlets are the same as America’s. Why? Did the U.S. bring these to Japan after the war?

We asked what was behind the fact that so many Japanese go about wearing white masks that cover the lower parts of their faces, and we were given several possible reasons: 1) so that a woman doesn’t have to complete her makeup, 2) so that the wearer won’t be easily recognized, 3) and most plausibly, so that the wearer, who might have a cold, won’t infect others. Whatever the reason, people wearing masks were common sights wherever we went.

On the street, we became aware of other unusual things. The most remarkable is that the streets, sidewalks, gutters, etc., are absolutely clean. We didn’t see a single piece of trash, not a single empty water bottle, not even a single cigarette butt. Nor were there many trash cans in evidence. The Japanese simply don’t litter.

And another thing: we saw no graffiti, which separates Japanese cities from every other we know in the world.

A high level of cleanliness extends to everything. Automobiles, especially taxis look pristine. The latter are often two-toned with the side view mirrors located on the front fenders. Inside, the upper backs of the seats are always covered with a tight cloth that resembles white lace. For safety, we almost always entered a taxi through the rear, passenger-side door, that the driver opened and closed remotely. We were instructed not to touch it. Drivers always handled our luggage. On one occasion, our driver insisted on rolling our cases inside the train station for us. Amazing! We had never seen such service before anywhere.

Coming from the West, the most surprising everyday objects are the toilets. Like us, you’ve probably read about them, but actually using them, gave us a new understanding of what a toilet could be. Although there are the familiar variety and even squat toilets found in some public restrooms, the ones I’m writing about are highly engineered to provide superior comfort and cleanliness. They combine the functions of a toilet and a bidet and are operated through choices on a control panel mounted alongside the seat. Some toilets offer music or white noise to disguise sounds that their users might find embarrassing. Finally, there is a level of automation. It’s startling to open a stall door and have the toilet cover suddenly flip up, as if to welcome you.

Emergency Elevator Toilet

Some elevators have what looks like a seat with a wooden cover in one corner. It is actually an emergency toilet for use in case of a long power failure. How thoughtful!


Although Tokyo is reputed to have many great sights and pleasurable attractions, we missed most of them. We did visit three museums but saw little as interesting as what we would see in other places later in the trip.

We did go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, touted as a “must-see” in our guidebook. However, with the rain falling, instead of sea food, we mostly saw a sea of umbrellas.

Perhaps this is a good place to stress the fact that there are a lot of people in Japan. When we visit a country for the first time, we tend to gravitate toward the fabled “big sights.” I won’t belabor the point and simply say that sightseeing becomes difficult when the crowds are enormous.

Other than several excellent meals, perhaps our most thrilling cultural experience happened by accident.

Main Hall of Zojo-ji

I wanted to visit the Zojo-ji, a Buddhist temple of the Pure-Land sect that dates from 1393 and was the funerary temple of the Tokugawa regime. We found our way there on a rare morning when it wasn’t raining and discovered that our timing coincided with the start of a memorial service held in the Great Hall.

Main Hall Ready for Memorial Service

Folding chairs had been set up for those attending and we slipped into a couple in the front row. I was happily snapping photos when Kay, who always reads the signs and posted notices, whispered that photography was not allowed.

The service seemed to be performed for a single man who sat beyond a railing with his back to us. Most of those on our side of the railing were elderly and praying.

Accompanied by a series of percussive strikes on a gong, five priests emerged from behind an altar topped with a statue of the Amida Buddha. They moved slowly in single file making square corners as necessary. Two of the priests, one who seemed to be the principal, knelt in front of the altar, while the three others knelt to one side. During the ceremony, which lasted about twenty minutes, one of those priests struck a large, resonant gong at intervals. He also had a smaller object that he struck to make a lighter sound. And there was also a bell that rang from time to time.

All during the service, a strong smell of incense pervaded the hall. Other than the musical notes, the service consisted of the monks chanting in unison. At times, their chant seemed to become a drone. I heard the name Amida invoked rapidly in succession. Everything the monks did was done with great precision. By the end, Kay and I felt we had seen something extraordinary.


A Shinkansen Arriving in a Station

Traveling from Tokyo to the hills of Hakone we took our first trip on one of the famous Shinkansen or bullet trains. There simply is no better way for ordinary mortals to travel. As their name implies, they are very fast and absolutely punctual. Before leaving home, Kay had purchased first-class Japan Rail passes for us. Although they seemed a bit expensive, due to the number of times we used them, they were probably a bargain. What’s more, they were a joy to use. We never had to pay anything additional, and by going to a JR office located in every station, we could reserve seats in first-class cars. On longer journeys, we would buy bento boxes in the station to eat on the train or we could buy food from the carts that a woman would push through our car. As she entered the car, she would stop and bow to us and then bow again as she left.

Our tickets were printed with our car and seat numbers. On the platforms, we would wait at the spot where our car would stop and board easily. We could use our passes on many local trains, as well. The Japan Rail system is wonderful. Note that these passes can only be purchased outside of the country.

One reason to go to Hakone is the chance to get a clear view of Mt. Fuji. The fact that we didn’t succeed had to do with the weather and the closure, due to volcanic gasses, of the téléferique (what the Japanese call a ropeline) that would take us to the proper vantage point.

Nevertheless, of the many destinations we could have chosen, Hakone was a good one. Its name encompasses a large mountainous district south of Tokyo on the eastern side of the main island. It has a busy, small town, Hakone-Yumoto, and various wonderful sights scattered among the surrounding hills. One of these was the hotel where we would spend three nights and take most of our meals. It was raining at Odawara station where we left the Shinkansen, and although we knew we could take a local train to a station near the Fujiya Hotel, with four pieces of luggage, we chose to pay for a taxi.

One Wing of the Fujiya Hotel

How can I describe the Fujiya except to write that it is a rambling old pile that has existed in one form or another for more than one hundred years? It looks and feels straight out of the past.

Our Spacious Room at the Fujiya Hotel

Our large, upstairs room with a great view over the roofs of the hotel’s lower floors to the misty hills beyond had period furniture in the style of the 1940s. The backs of the two armchairs by the window were ornamented with antimacassars.

Fujiya Hotel’s Main Dining Room

We had arrived too early to occupy our room immediately. Instead, we passed the time over a leisurely meal in the main dining room. One look at the bill of fare told us that we were in for a special experience. We began with corn soup, the potage du jour. Then came whole trout, grilled and served with a sauce called arc-en-ciel à la Fujiya. Third, was a ragout de boeuf anx legumes. The rich brown sauce around the meat would have taken hours to make as a reduction. The kitchen must have used a prepared product. For dessert, we had chocolate sundaes; the ice cream surrounded by wallnuts and the whole crowned with a fresh raspberry. The hotel bakes its own delicious bread. We ended the meal with coffee and tea.

Although we were in Japan, the Fujiya adheres to a western style of haute cuisine, harkening back to another age when its guests were Charlie Chaplin, John and Yoko, and the Japanese emperor and his consort. The large hotel did have a separate restaurant serving Japanese cuisine, but we were unable to get a table for any of the three evenings of our stay.

The following day we had brilliant sunshine and finally saw what the country looks like in good autumn weather. We made the most of it, visiting two outstanding museums.

Okada Museum of Art

The Okada Museum of Art contains pieces from the private collection of Okada Kazuo, a gambling magnate and one of Japan’s richest men. It occupies its own, purposely built, five-story modernist building on a property that also contains a foot bath, a café, and a hillside garden. The collection represents the best of Japanese art from the 250-year Edo period, through the time of the Meiji restoration and on until the present. After spending two hours in the museum, Kay and I felt we needed look no further at examples of Japanese art because we had seen the very best.

Over the years, we’ve looked at many fine ceramics but none more exquisite than the 17th-century plates and bowls on display there. Some had foliate edges and were decorated with floral and animal motifs. The tiger was an important one. In addition, there were birds, plum and cherry blossoms, bamboo, and water plants.

One gallery contained three masterpieces by Kitagawa Utamaro, large paintings that together form a triptych. The artist painted them about 1788 and only one is owned by the Okada. The Wadsworth Antheneum in Hartford, CT owns another while the third belongs to the Freer in Washington DC. Each of the paintings contains multiple figures, all geishas and all beautifully rendered. One thing I got from looking at them is that, although their stylized faces are similar, their individuality is expressed in their dress and hair styles. We loved gazing at these works and felt very lucky to be seeing them reunited for the first time in more than one hundred years.

Another floor holds folding screens; practical room dividers whose decorated surfaces are an important art form. Most have backgrounds of gold leaf with designs painted over them. One had a subtlety drawn wicker fence with wisteria blossoms painted more boldly. Another showed deer beneath maple boughs. In Birds and Flowers in Spring and Autumn, dark green birds are so stylized that they almost loose their bird shapes

Vertically hung scrolls are another traditional art form. We looked at ones painted three centuries ago and some from the 20th century. I liked Monkeys Trying to Catch the Moon in Water and Rooster Standing on a Hat.

Though many works are anonymous, others are attributed to their creators. I loved Red Camellias in Celadon Vase by Yasuda Yukihiko. The artist made no attempt to place the vase in any kind of setting. It is painted against a neutral background, another characteristic of Japanese art.

I regret that the museum’s no-photo policy didn’t allow me to take pictures inside.

Hakone Open-Air Museum

That wasn’t the case at the Hakone Open-Air Museum. We don’t know who began this beauty in 1969, but it is the most impressive sculpture garden we have ever seen. This is partly due to stunning landscape of its setting.

Mother and Child- Block Seat

The collection must contain a dozen works by Henry Moore, more than we’d ever seen elsewhere. There are multiples by other artists, as well: Carl Milles (1875-1955) and Giuliano Vangi (1931-) are two.

“Two Figures” by Barbara Hepworth

Kay especially liked Two Figures done in 1968 by Barbara Hepworth (1903-1949.)

Satisfied by 4:30 in the afternoon, we left the museum and made our way back to the hotel for some much needed rest.

Before leaving Hakone and the Fujiya, I had to soak the hotel’s onsen located in a sub-cellar beneath an older wing of the hotel. Japan is an archipelago of volcanic islands with many hot springs. For me they provided a wonderfully relaxing respite from the rigors of sightseeing. As with many Japanese ritualistic practices, there is a protocol to onsen bathing. Before entering the mineral water, you must wash your body and hair completely, never standing but always sitting on a low stool using shampoo and liquid soap provided and a hand-held shower wand. Only then, can you enter and luxuriate in a shallow pool filled with the water from the hot spring.

From Hakone, our next destination was Hiroshima, and I’ll save that chapter for part two of this account.

Continued in Part 2