April 6 was our long day of travel, flying along with the sun for a 36-hour commute, all told, only to end up in the Minneapolis St. Paul Int’l Airport on the same day we left the Ngurah Rai Int’l Airport in Denpasar. Technically. The day before was our third wedding anniversary, and the day after would be my 41st birthday, but today we spent a lovely afternoon in Narita, Japan.
From Denpasar we flew nearly two hours to the Soekarno-Hatta Int’l Airport, then caromed out over the Philippines to Narita Int’l Airport in Japan, seven hours to the northeast. Wearied, we touched down in Narita for a layover before the eleven-hour flight to Minneapolis. But this layover was five hours long, and as nice as the airport was, we didn’t want to just malinger around there for the entire time. We took some time to check out the shops and find some food, but we also wanted to plot how to get out of the airport.
(For your own entertainment, open up each of those airport websites and compare them. The results may surprise you.)
It was 8:30 in the morning when we lined up for the Customs desk, a necessary step to get out into the airport at large. We filled out our little declaration forms: I’d borrowed a pen from a very friendly, very polite worker, a middle-aged woman with a huge grin and bright eyes. There were several workers like her whose only job, it appeared, was to greet travelers and hand out pens. We filled out our forms and got into the second line when I realized I’d retained the loaner pen, so I walked back to return it. I tried to position myself within the worker’s peripheral vision and waited for a lull in her activity, then quietly said, “Domo,” holding the pen out with both hands and bowing slightly. She turned to take it, discovered it was an amerikajin who’d spoken, and momentarily lost her expression to stunned surprise. I thanked her in nihongo, she stammered and laughed, and I joined my wife where I’d left her.
Inside the greater airport, it looked like any other except perhaps more spacious and less garish, and of course cleaner. In the U.S. there is a demographic element that cannot wait to cover any clean surface in gouges, spray paint or stickers. In Japan it is better understood that any given object is not there for you personally but others must share it, and people generally have a vested interest in keeping things nice. As much as America dotes upon its graffiti artists and vandals, other parts of the world struggle with the concept. For me, an environment like Japan’s is more relaxing and pleasant, as I don’t feel like I’m wading through a junkyard or waiting to get shot in the back of the head for my shoes. It was nice to see clean walls, it was nice to sit at a clean table. Just being there felt like a treat, being in a clean environment. Americans will sneer at my naïvete on this point because I don’t know what’s really cool or dope.
Throughout the airport, of course, were hastily assembled charity boxes soliciting on behalf of the victims of Fukushima. These were usually a Lucite case with two earnest paragraphs printed on colored paper, taped to the front, and a color aerial photo of various disaster scenes on the back. We would see these all day, everywhere we went, as well as seismographs tucked into a corner at most indoor locations.
Coffee is a universal component, so Rebecca and I went for a cup in a nearby cafe, UCC Cafe Plaza (see: street view). My only apprehension with this was that we were a little travel-shabby and the cafe, despite being a small shop in an airport, was still very elegant. Here, the workers were sharply professional but absolutely without smiles, as though proving one’s proficiency was the priority rather than friendliness. After the yen/dollar exchange rate, coffee was quite pricey here (it was that impressive kind that siphons through that bulbous alchemical device) and we ordered only two very plain cups. These came to us on saucers, rather than in recyclable cardboard prototypes in a cardboard sleeve, like what I get in the U.S. when I’ve indicated it’s “for here” and not “to go.”
As though to further the distance between our cultures, the coffee was excellent. Rebecca poured a dollop of heavy cream into the center of her cup, and once the cream hit the bottom somehow it divided into eight evenly spaced tendrils that rose up the sides of the glass and blossomed across the surface, in a breathtaking display of artistry and magic. Amazed, we tried to do it again to record it on video, but the pour was too slow and my camera wouldn’t focus: this is how Japanese pixie magic protects itself from the mundane world.
Once we’d finished our beverages, we located a customer service booth on the main floor, run by three teenaged girls in uniforms that must have belonged to the airport but looked a lot like school uniforms (to my untrained eye). We asked about clothing stores in the terminal and they mentioned a Uniqlo outlet. We were delighted to hear this! We showed them the jacket Rebecca bought at the Uniqlo store in Kuala Lumpur! We may have startled the girls with our enthusiasm and love for Uniqlo. After our little micro-adventure here we poked around the store but it was far too expensive and we didn’t really need anything anyway.
In the various travel pamphlets, in a guide book and on some travel websites, I’d learned about the calligraphy museum in Narita, and I asked the girls about it. None of them had ever heard of it before. One of them instead picked out some pamphlets featuring more popular tourist attractions that we should be interested in, and when Rebecca asked them what they liked in the area, they had their own answers for that too. But I pressed for the museum and found a pamphlet that mentioned it, and then they engaged in lively discussion among themselves about where it might be near and how best to get there.
Rebecca excused herself for a break and I read up on it some more, and then I was approached by two security officers. They wore gray jumpsuits and plastic helmets, and they were exceedingly polite and friendly, almost apologetic, but they needed to copy down my passport information. This was to track travelers who were wandering around the airport, just as we were: one man pulled out a golf pencil and carefully transcribed my Western characters into his tiny spiral-bound notebook. I wondered whether it wouldn’t have been more efficient to buy a cheap digital camera and take an image of the page, but I held back from suggesting this. I did, however, summon all my psychic prowess, attempting to communicate to Rebecca that she should stall in the bathroom and absolutely not join me right now. On cue, she walked up and asked what was going on, and then the security in gray jumpsuits needed all of her passport information as well. We waited while he wrote it all out with his little pencil, and then we left the area to find some medicine.
I was coming down from a cold, while we stayed in Denpasar, and I was better but not entirely over it. We found a pharmaceutical kiosk standing in the middle of the walkway, on the second level, but everything was in katakana, the clerks didn’t speak English and I certainly didn’t know any helpful nihongo for this. However, the senior clerk had an elegant solution: she set before me what looked like a placemat. It bore the stylistic outline of a human, with words and little arrows going to various parts of the head and chest. I laughed at its brilliance and pointed to the nose and throat; the junior employee made a noise of recognition, spun away, and spun back to us with a small bottle which was not expensive at all. Those little yellow pills got me through the day nicely, and I thanked the staff as graciously as I was capable. We also picked up men’s and women’s packs of facemasks, since we were going to be out on the town and I didn’t want to present as a plague dog in a foreign land.
After all that, it required only minor detective work to identify the tram out of the airport and how much this would cost. We purchased tickets, waited for our ride and took off. The exterior of the tram looked very ’70s with its injection-molded beige panels and rounded edges, like the Chicago train, but the inside was absolutely spotless.
The ride into the town proper was brief and we got off at the first stop. There was a taxi stand nearby and we hired one to take us to the museum (now that I had a pamphlet and an address, this was simple work), and off we went. Once Rebecca and I had a few minutes in which to do nothing but look around, we noted the unusual taxi we found ourselves in: the seats were covered in lace antimacassars, with tiny, pristine sheers between the driver’s seat and the back seat. The driver was a dignified, serious gentleman in a black driver’s cap, black vest, white shirtsleeves and white gloves. This was quite a formal affair, evidently, and we merely looked like dazed gaijin schlubs, piled into the back like so much luggage. Regardless, I don’t think we paid any extra for the high overhead.
Naritasan Park & Calligraphy Museum (see: street view) shares a large grassy hillock with Naritasan Shinshō-ji Temple: the temple is in the southwest corner of the park and the museum’s in the northeast end. We did not go to the temple but were dropped off before the museum, two hours after it opened, where we paused for a minute to take in this glorious spring day in the Chiba Prefecture. Inevitably there were beautiful cherry trees in blossom; a gravel path wended gently around a koi pond, around which a diversity of sculpted shrubs and trees sprouted. Once the taxi had left, I requested a moment of silence from Rebecca, during which I simply felt the solidity of the ground beneath my sneakers and focused on slowly, intentionally breathing. I really wanted to fully absorb the idea of being here, right here, my first day in Japan. I even lifted my arms slightly away from my sides, trying to turn myself into a broad leaf to catch all the radiant, ambient alienness of this place.
None of it stuck. It was just an exercise. We went inside.
The museum seemed like a low, squat building from the outside, but inside it was an enormous chamber of blond wood and huge blocks of masoned stone. The interior was so clean I felt very self-conscious about walking across the floor, but we were compelled to a tremendous scroll, 13 meters tall by five meters wide. This is a huge charcoal rubbing of a document, the Gentaku Kitaizanmei, pertaining to the first emperor of China. To our left and right were glass cases with displays of various forms of Japanese calligraphy, some of which looked like an older style and some very artistic and capricious.
As we looked these over the curator, a reticent and shy middle-aged woman, came hustling over to us. She was averse to making eye contact and everything about her looked apologetic: her bowed head, her hunched shoulders, one hand raised below her chin. In urgent nihongo she relayed a message that we couldn’t comprehend, not until she started gesturing, pointing to the upstairs level behind this foyer. When I asked if she wanted us to go upstairs, she agreed and found a few English words to let us know that these cases were only high school projects of local students. They weren’t worth looking at. The really good stuff that was worth our time was upstairs. I tried to acknowledge that I understood her, but when I returned to look at the high school students’ work she thought that she hadn’t made herself clear. I attempted to let her know the students’ work was very skilled and interesting, but once again she needed to impress upon me that the truly worthwhile exhibits were upstairs. Not wishing to frustrate her further, we left the area and climbed the staircase.
Well, there was some phenomenal stuff upstairs, certainly. Rebecca and I had much fun reading about the pieces—their years, anyway—and admiring the centuries-old craft of artistic handwriting. There was a large stone vessel with raised characters all over its surface. It looked tremendously heavy, and I wondered what the function was for making the kanji so pronounced. Rebecca realized that it was a printing device: a spindle of wood could be run through its length, the characters would be inked, and two men would roll it down the length of a long sheet of paper to print repeating text. I was only a little envious this idea hadn’t occurred to me.
Reading up on the museum from several websites (the museum’s own website has been out of commission for a long time, and no one site has all the information), this is what I know about it:
- Most of the calligraphic displays here are from the Edo period (1603−1867) to the present day.
- What makes this museum special is that it displays exceptional work that would not be considered for other museums, merely because it is modern.
- The entrance fee is ¥500, and the museum is closed Mondays, except for national holidays. In that case it is closed Tuesday.
- The museum stands before Sanno-Ike pond (next to Monju and Ryuju ponds) and is part of the Shinshō-ji Temple complex in Narita Park. Calligraphy is a prominent focus in Shingon Buddhism.
When we’d seen all that could be seen, admired all that could be admired, we went down to the gift shop. Everything was too marvelous: we settled on some postcards and some small envelopes, but passed up many wonderful items I wish I’d thought to at least photograph. I tried to thank the curator graciously but nothing could move her from her permanent state of being flustered.
We went out on this gorgeous spring day and walked around the Sanno-Ike pond. There was such a great variety of trees and plant life, it was impossible to gaze in any one direction for very long without our attention being snapped away elsewhere. We passed the statue of an elderly man in a suit and glasses. The plaque on its base bore a quote from him, something to do with students (thank you, Google Translate), but otherwise I can’t find any information on this statue. I would guess he was a highly influential teacher in the modern era.
Picking our way clockwise around Sanno-Ike pond, we found a large map of the grounds before a short covered bridge. This stood next to a public restroom: availing myself of it, I discovered two empty bottles of sake, by which someone had intended to enjoy the lovely spring day in his own way, doubtlessly.
To our right was a pier that led out to a hexagonal gazebo in the middle of the pond, and that was too compelling to pass. We walked lightly out to it, passing a very friendly elderly couple, and looked out over the hazy brown-green water. No sooner did we place our hands on the rails and lean out than the water below us was teeming with large koi in solid black, copper and mottled patterns. Even a turtle came swimming up, vying for space with the much larger fish. I understood this to mean that the fish fully expected to be fed as soon as they perceived people in the gazebo. Coming from the States, I’ve never seen wild fish that did not have a learned fear of humans.
The ceiling of the gazebo was plastered in various stickers, all in kanji with no pictures. At the time I had no idea what to make of these, but a friend later suggested that these were ads for other temples in the area or maybe prayers. If anyone can clear that up for me, I’d love to update this post with better information.
We crossed the bridge and immediately found a large restaurant… I don’t really know how to describe it. It wasn’t a fancy bistro and it wasn’t a hole-in-the-wall. It was just a cozy sit-down restaurant done in old brown wood and stonework (see: street view). On the front there was gold-painted Chinese lettering and a seated Buddha, which may have had to do with the Buddhist temple nearby, but I couldn’t read anything and there was no one there to interpret for me.
We walked on up the hill, up a street that sloped up between the restaurant and the footpath around the park. This was only a residential area, but it still intrigued me. I’ll have to ask Rebecca what her impression of it was. The houses were a juxtaposition of traditional Japanese architecture and modern American design from the last three decades, where paper doors were replaced with glass but still retained the traditional frames, blocky foundations gave way to gently curving angles in the façade… lots of other things. If there was a pattern beyond functionality, I couldn’t see what it was, but I was still very interested in gawking at the homes. However, because these were people’s homes, I felt self-conscious about my own bald curiosity and we turned around and got an orange soda at the aforementioned restaurant.
From there we meandered, having nothing else to do but wander aimlessly until it was time to head back to the tram. It looked to us like no one in Narita ever expected a rush of Western tourists, as no signage at all was in English. That’s as it should be, I suppose, as there’s very little kanji in my own city. We strolled past a couple large parking lots, one of which had an attendant booth, the other of which did not but had a couple beverage vending machines, right out there in the open. Walking south up the road there was a large, broad dirt parking lot, the entrance to which ran next to a colorful totem pole. Painted mainly in primary colors, it was only an approximation of Native American style but topped with an elephant. (Note: one year later, another pole was added and a manual sliding gate has been installed—see: street view.)
We marched on southward, our road rising and falling, curving behind some garages and warehouses before emptying into town. On our right was a towering, cube-like institution in pale gray, which at the time I’d assumed to be some kind of industrial complex but which turned out to be the local high school. There was a track and field behind another building, blocked from us where we stood on the street. We followed the winding street on down, turned right at some local businesses, took more pictures, and went into a very nice residential area with freshly painted roads. Here, they seemed to implement a russet paint in large areas to highlight the features of intersections and crosswalks. I couldn’t understand the function but I’m sure there was one. We only picked our way along, using what looked like the downtown area as a guide, staying close to what was clearly the tram rail, held aloft throughout Narita.
Many alleys, shooting off of the main street we followed, were too narrow for cars, only suitable for pedestrians and perhaps careful cyclists. Everywhere, the pavement was kept in good repair, with no potholes or hasty gravel-and-tar filling jobs. The houses were clean and in good shape, though they looked around 40 years old in some areas. Most buildings paint jobs were in white or pale blue, with the occasional residence in pastel violet or a light mustard; only a few roofs had Western tar shingles, everything else being covered in glazed clay tiles in the more traditional style.
But some buildings showed signs of aging, usually local businesses (as they appeared to be), places I’d guess to be local garages or truck rental facilities. These had rust on the siding and maybe a slapdash couple of boards nailed up to hold a wall in place. One part of a building had even caved in with age, so perhaps no one owned it anymore and it didn’t present enough of a threat for the city to clean up. This only stood out because everything else looked so nice.
On the main highway, there were more restaurants and hotels and even a duty free shop. I was surprised to see so many places closed at noon on a Tuesday, but perhaps everything shuts down briefly for lunch or most places don’t see activity until the evening.
It was around this time, as we walked past Kuriyama Park, that I just wanted to make sure we were going in the correct direction. We had time, sure, but I don’t like taking chances on these things. Up the street a teenager was walking toward us in his school uniform, headphones on. He stared fixedly at the sidewalk, sullen and reclusive as any teenager around the world, but I still leaned over slightly and called out, “Sumimasen!”
He halted in his tracks and his head snapped up to gape at me, eyes huge with surprise. All posturing was tossed to the curb in that instant. In some areas of Japan, it must really astonish people to meet a Westerner who knows a little nihongo. Other areas, sure, maybe in downtown Tokyo no one would bat an eye, but elsewhere I’ve been made to understand that native Japanese citizens view Westerners who can speak their tongue as novel as watching a chimpanzee ride a bicycle. That’s the exact analogy that was presented to me.
“Narita-eki wa doko desu-ka?” I pronounced carefully. I was proud to speak so before my wife, hoping to prove my worth as a traveler. Yes, we’d been around southeast Asia together for five months, but I still needed to demonstrate my handiness as a companion, as well as to justify the cost of my collection of Pimsleur tapes and CDs.
The teen understood me perfectly, and after a moment to take a breath he described at length how to get from where we were to the Narita station. Of course, I couldn’t understand a freakin’ word he said: in my puffery and pride, it hadn’t occurred to me that if I asked a question in Japanese, the answer must necessarily come to me in Japanese, and I’d tapped out my usefulness with that one memorized phrase.
Fortunately, his hand gestures were very clear and we were nearly there anyway. I thanked him graciously and he walked off. Perhaps I would live on in a little story he might tell his friends, or perhaps that was the end of that. As for us, I gave my wife a sheepish grin and pointed off in the general direction the teenager had indicated, and once again we were on our way. It was the way we were originally going, I just hadn’t had a chance to embarrass myself until now.
A green sign loomed above us after a few blocks. Along with the recurrence of seismographs in various buildings, and along with the makeshift charity collection boxes, these green directional signs were posted throughout town, to assist in case of evacuation. Perhaps in a nation prone to earthquakes these signs are so common as to be beneath notice, but because of the proximity of the Fukushima tsunami, they were slightly alarming to Rebecca. We still noted them, just to know where to run in the event of a godforbid.
Now we were quite surrounded by the downtown Narita area and could hardly fail. We went off the highway and walked up an alley of small shops, including Mabo International Jeans and Shorty, Girl’s Bar (see: street view). That alley ended and we walked through to another street that led right into the heart of the city. Here were all the name-brand restaurants and very clean, stylish buildings that took more chances with colors and design.
Somewhere around here I attempted to procure a glass of saké before returning to the airport. I found a nice-looking establishment, a bit small but tastefully designed—I think it was the small, square, black building just right of center in Street View—and, after straightening my clothes, entered with a friendly smile. There were a couple of businessmen at the bar and a very handsome, fashionable young man working the bar: pressed white shirt, grandly swept mane of hair. I waited politely until he could attend to me; in English, I politely asked for a glass of saké.
The bartender’s face went blank for a moment as he regarded me, then his expression melted into a warm smile. “I’m very sorry,” he fluently enunciated, “but we only serve saké with dinner, and it is not yet time for dinner.” He apologized again, and one of the businessmen mustered a brief sidelong glance for me. I apologized as well, I may even have blushed, and politely backed out of the restaurant as best a Western barbarian could manage.
“What happened?” Rebecca asked me when I returned too soon.
“It’s not yet time for saké.” Up to this point I had managed to get the local drink in any nation we visited, from Scotland to Singapore. Well, some things call for a certain ceremony about them, and if any nation is going to place weight upon proper behavior and decorum, why wouldn’t it be Japan?
We bought our tickets for the tram. High school students were getting out of classes around 12:30 p.m. and lining up for the tram as well. The ride back to the airport was uneventful. We sent out postcards from a post office in the airport and went to find our gate. Nearby I purchased some green tea Pocky and got a pork ramen dish at a restaurant in the terminal, which I had to wolf down because boarding began immediately. When I poured the last drops down my throat, Rebecca indicated I could simply have gotten it to go and brought it aboard since we were right outside the boarding area. That was true, and I wish I’d thought of it as this was a bowl of soup to be savored.
On the flight back I watched Battleship Yamoto, which I had been looking forward to. It’s a live-action movie based on a popular anime series, I’m given to understand; I’m not familiar with the series but the trailer looked great. We saw it at some theater in the past few months, and I was gratified to get to see it on the flight home. It felt like there was something circular about that: seeing the trailer in an overseas theater, then watching a live-action anime movie while departing Japan.
However, it was not very good. The costumes were great, and if I know anything about these movies, probably a trendy J-pop singer or two was in some of the lead roles. But when the action took place on the bridge of the battleship, it really looked like nothing more than silver-painted boxes in a large room. Notable was the victory sequences, when the crew had defeated whatever opponent or surpassed whatever obstacle: the crew would erupt into quite overdone cheering and leaping, and sometimes this would go on so long that the victory music would run out and end, leaving the crew cheering to themselves in an echoing studio set. In that way the movie felt like an elaborate TV show.
Half a day later we arrived in Minneapolis, retrieved our enormous Swiss Gear bags and waited in the extended line for Customs. We filled out our forms on the plane and waited to be seen through the checkout area. I think I recall seeing a couple dogs in the area but I don’t remember anyone specifically being targeted, though I think some people did have their baggage opened and rifled through.
When we got up to the counter, we were faced with a very grumpy, bald white man perched at a Kafka-esque elevation behind a simulated wood panel desk/podium. Looking over my form he recited, distractedly, “Do you have anything that can be eaten, drunk or smoked to declare?” Uncharacteristically, I paused to mentally inventory my bag, while Rebecca stepped up and yelled, “No!”, saving us all some time and hassle.
But the inspector pointed out a small anomaly on my Customs form, where the question was “Countries you’ve visited” and after swift calculation I’d written “7.” Rebecca had to explain to me that they needed the names of each of those countries, and this has been a beloved punchline for her to relive ever after.
Despite my best efforts, we left Minneapolis St. Paul Int’l Airport intact and hauled our luggage to the LRT. We disembarked in the Hiawatha neighborhood, picked up a few necessities at a corner Walgreens, and marveled at the few patches of snow and ice still remaining in the landscape. We had been told that our city was buried in snow, but apparently it had all melted away the day before our arrival.
At any rate, our trip was done. We would still experience vivid flashbacks several times a day, whisking back to various points of our five-month journey, but we were back in Minnesota to stay and had to find a place to live. The Grand Adventure had come to a close.