Monday, August 14, 2006

A Day Off

On Saturday, my much-needed and demanded day off, I did a few fun things. I rode on the Arakawa line, the last streetcar route in Tokyo, running 12 miles through a bunch of Northern neighborhoods you'd never see otherwise. Kind of the Queens of Tokyo, the tram travels through the areas where regular folks live day-to-day. After I getting hopelessly lost trying to find the subway stop that was 600 feet away (happens at least twice a day -- there are no street names, only numbers indicating which one of 25-odd sections you are in in one of the 23 wards of Tokyo, and what number building it is in that section i.e. 8-2-9's impossible for everyone, so maps are everywhere), I went to Asakusa.

Asakusa is supposed to be the section of Tokyo most like the ye olde Edo era (1603-1867 AD), when people lived on top of each other on twisty streets jammed full of wooden housing and temples. Nowadays, these streets are full of covered walkways, lined with trinket shops hawking every kind of plastic crap-o-la and street food you can imagine. These stores surround the biggest Buddhist temple of them all, Senso-ji. The temple was founded on this site in 628, and the street that leads up to its entrance has been a place for vendors to sell their wares/food/whatever to people coming to pay respects for over 1,000 years, but it reminded me of Canal Street in NYC. So I went and had McDonald's for lunch in order to make me feel really at home (tastes the same, btw). The restaurant supply stores are in this area, too -- I can't imagine trying to takes knives on planes is a good idea with worldwide chaos at airports, so no dice on the cleaver. Dropped into the 'galleries' that only sell huge arrays of the plastic foods you see out in front of restaurants, showing what deliciousness lies inside. A nice quality fake bento box of sushi or tempura will set you back about $70. Who knew?

Next, over near the Tokyo Dome to check out the LaQua Spa, a schmancy modern onsen that, as they all do, makes use of the traditional hot springs that run underground throughout Japan. Basically, here's what went down: I muddled my through the check in/rules/locker room via no Japanese and pigeon English, and then got naked with like 300 Japanese women. It was a bit odd but excellent, especially when I closed my eyes and thought of Greenpoint. Before soaking in the variety of pools (5 at various temperatures + 2 outside in an enclosed area away from the mens) or using the 3 kinds of saunas, you scrub yourself completely clean sitting in these individual shower stalls of all soap, perfumes, anything that would contaminate the group water. You are good to go and can get in the tubs/sauna but you NEVER dunk your head under. The place is huge, really clean and not skeevy like the weird on-the-on-the-sly lesbian onsen I went to in SF many years ago, and it got better after everyone cleared out around dinner time. I was the only gaijin there, and the only person with tattoos and a tan. Again, I don't understand any Japanese (nor will I ever, I doubt), but you sure as hell KNOW when people are talking about you!! Ah well, so it goes. I did get to check out a lot of Japanese women's bodies in the flesh while trying not to be pervy, and it was pretty darn interesting to see all types. We'll call it a sociological immersion. You can spend hours here for about 2800 yen ($25). In the co-ed section, there's restaurants, relaxation lounges with super-recliney seats with your own private TV, spa treatments, the whole works. I'm told that when people miss their train, they'll go here to sleep and chill until the trains start running again at 6:30 am. The place is open 22 hours a day (closed between 9-11 am).

Later on, I read the English brochure, and saw that "people with tattoos will not be admitted." I'm guessing that rule is to keep the yakuza (japanese gangsters) out. It was a great way to spend a day, relax and get a taste of some Japanese-style fun.

That evening, I went to Bobby's Bar in Ikebukuro, hosted by the ubiquitous Bobby himself, a friendly Persian guy with more kinds of whisky in one place than I've seen in sometime. Hello, Maker's Mark. The small bar on the 3rd floor was quiet due to the start of Oban holidays in Japan, a Buddhist holiday that runs from August 13-15. It's the big summer holiday, where people go back to their hometowns to pay respect to their dead relations, and the whole city has emptied out. I had a nice talk with Mark Schilling, the American-born film critic for the Japan Times who has been living in Tokyo for 30 years. And Mark was, of course......originally from Zanesville, Ohio. Man, Ohio people are everywhere.

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