"I've discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it."
- William Faulkner

Monday, September 10, 2007

my big, fat japanese trip

Warning: Extremely Lengthy Post! Maybe the most lengthy ever.

After an eventful week or journey, I feel a lot of pressure (be it self-induced or otherwise) to produce a good post. So, armed with Kell's laptop and a dream, I am going to try to add a little each day to be sure I cover everything and to release the post in a timely manner. Here goes nothin'...

Day 1 (and 2, kind of)
My dear husband dropped me off at the Jackson Airport for my 9 a.m. flight to Detroit (miss him already). I have a huge carry-on bag and a laptop bag in hopes that I will be able to connect to English-speakers while on my journey. The flight to Detroit was uneventful, and I disembark to navigate my way through the airport and find my flight.

After getting the stink eye from a Yankee Northwest employee, I decide to grab lunch before I depart. I haven't patronized the Golden Arches in quite a while, so I made my purchase and ate. Immediately after swallowing the last fry, I go to search my bag for the Pepto (taking NO chances on a 13-hour flight). Nowhere to be found. In a panic, I practially sprint to a mini-mart near my gate for the pink stuff and peace of mind.

And, we're boarding the biggest plane I've ever seen - it's 2 stories. I take my seat next to a young couple who I immediately assume are on their honeymoon. I always assume young couples wearing wedding rings and traveling on Sunday are on their honeymoon. On long flights, I try to sit at the window so I can lean against it to sleep. The only drawback is I am at the mercy of the others on my row for bathroom breaks. So, I go whenever they go. I'm sure they think I am losing my mind.

My interaction with the flight attendants is as follows: "No, thank you, I do not want any beef tips and rice"..."No, thank you, no green tea for me"..."No, I don't want any water"..."No, thank you, I don't want any water"..."No, I don't think I want any eggs"..."No, no water for me, thanks." I already told you I can't go to the bathroom whenever I want, so I have to drink wisely.

13 hours and 3 movies later, I practically leap off the plane and progress my way through immigration, baggage claim, customs and money change. Fortunately, almost all signage has English translations, so it's not as hard as I thought it would be. I just assume that the Americans in front of me know what they're doing, so I follow them and pretend to know what I'm doing. The last leg of my journey is the Limousine Bus to my hotel. Another 1.5 hours later, I'm in my hotel room, where the top of the bed is about at my knees, AND there's CNN on TV! It's not Fox News, but hey, it's in English. Finally, following a much-needed bath and some dinner, it's bedtime.

Day 2 (I guess)
I'm up at 6 a.m. wide awake, the 14-hour time difference taking its first hit on my biological clock. I eat one of the Fiber One bars I brought, finally figure out my calling card and get in touch with Kell. Hearing his voice does more for me than I ever expected, but it makes me realize how far I am from home. I'm going to get dressed and try to walk around a little bit before lunch.

(The view from my hotel room window)

Fortunately, most people speak some English here, so I was able to score a map of the area around my hotel and walk to the Ginza, the most famous shopping district in traditional upscale Tokyo. Since my internal compass has never worked, I didn't venture too far off the street that led to my hotel. I find a coffee shop and stop for a banana-chocolate muffin and orange juice. I'm also afraid of getting lost and not making it back for my lunch meeting, so I didn't stay out too long. I bought a little coin purse for all my loose yen, and set off on my way back home.

(The Ginza)

(The Ginza again)

(A Japanese Wendy's. NOW I feel at home.)

(Kids playing outside a local elementary school. Wait...do I see Heather?)

On the way, a young Japanese man approaches me and starts talking. I explained to him that I speak only English, but he did not give up. My beauty knows no boundaries. He says he is falling in love with me and follows me for a few yards until I tell him I am married and show him my ring. Thanks, Kell.

I head off to lunch with Chie, my new Japanese friend and colleague, who takes me to an Italian restaurant. Seriously, I'm in Tokyo and eating Italian? Wasn't my choice. After lunch, we hit the very upscale and trendy Roppongi Hills for a media marketplace. I've got some time before we meet, so I buy a book (great idea, KM) and some socks for Kell and head back up to our table. At around 5:00, I really start to drop - yawning, mind shutting down, etc. The language barrier is NOT helping, but I persevere.

Following the marketplace and reception, we're off to dinner with some friends from Oregon. Indian food this time, but no curry for yours truly. A taxi takes me home, and the first real day is finally over.

Day 3
I'm really glad today that I don't have to be up and going until about 10:30 a.m. here (8:30 p.m. in Mississippi). Chie and I head over to our first sales call - a lifestyles/trends magazine. I'd like to take a moment and tell you about the taxis in Japan. The first thing I noticed is the automatic door - the driver presses a button in the cab, and the door opens for you. Secondly, the drivers all wear suits and white gloves. Thirdly, no one, and I mean NO ONE, honks. Even as the cabs whiz by within inches of each other, the roads are almost silent. Perhaps the cabbies in NYC could learn a few things from the ones here.

We meet Cheryl from Minnesota for lunch, and it's off to another sales call. And another. Finally, I'm back at my hotel, and I call my misplaced Mississippian buddy Spencer to meet up for dinner. First thing's first - it's time to deposit some yen into the Japanese retail economy. It's raining, so Harajuku's out, but Shibuya 109 is a tall building with stores on several floors. Wearing my iPod, I visit the establishments that dress and accessorize Tokyo's young and most fashion-forward crowd.

I meet Spencer and we head to a yakatori restaurant - chicken and veggies grilled on skewers. It's a local fave, so I'm feeling really authentic. We talk and laugh like loud Americans (not to mention Southerners) over Sapporo and bacon-wrapped asparagus. Of course, it's cash only, so I dole out the yen, and we're on our way. Spencer has a huge apartment by Tokyo standards, and he makes me take my shoes off at the door. He makes me try a kiwi-flavored Kit Kat (sick) before I hop in a cab and am on my way.

Day 4
It's the first real day of JATA, and I'm going to Cheryl's hotel for breakfast. What a pleasant surprise to see actual fresh fruit - it's hard to find here. The symposiums at Tokyo Big Sight couldn't be more boring, but I try to listen even though over half of the Japanese audience is shamelessly sleeping through them. Lunch is Thai food (complete with traditional Thai dancers), and I quickly affirm that I definitely prefer the Americanized version - the best part is the guava juice box at each person's seat. The beauty of trying new food at luncheons like this is you get to try new things, but you don't have to pay for it. Free culture, essentially.

Thankfully, the afternoon session is a little better, and after it's over and I'm back in the room, I drop Spencer a line to enlist his tour guide/"babysitting" (as Kell calls it) services. Back to Shiubuya 109 (it's near his residence) for a meeting place and we make the trek to a ramen noodle restaurant. Now, I am no stranger to ramen noodles - I had my share in high school and college - but this is the REAL THING. I order mine with cheese, and we pick up where we left off - loudly.

(Spencer and me enjoying our ramen.)

It's not bedtime just yet, so we walk to the nearest Starbucks for coffee (they're everywhere here), hot chocolate and one of my favorite activities, people-watching. Although Japan is one of the safest places in the world, I ask about 100 times if we are okay walking around at dark. I am quickly told to chill out and quit asking so many questions. According to the always eloquent Spencer, this area is home to the largest concentration of "good lookin' women" in Tokyo. One of his work friends walks by and joins us for a visit before I head back to my temporary home.

Day 5
Finally - the real reason I am here - the tradeshow part of JATA. Today, I'm promoting the Mississippi River Country to the Japanese. Of course, I am less inclined to discuss Iowa tourism than my own state, but that's the benefit of ME actually being there. Our booth is located right across from Hawai'i, so the entire day is filled with hula music, leis and ukeleles. Miss Hawai'i 2007 is there and hulas on stage for us as well. I have to escape for a moment, and I find Greece's booth!

(Miss Hawai'i getting her hula on.)

(The homeland.)

Following the show, there's a reception for the show attendees (I've learned that the Japanese love a reception). Since it's hosted by Discover America, there's Oregon wine and what is supposed to pass for a hot dog. Now, I consider myself to be a lover of the hot dog, but this one imparticular is a strange color, so I pass it up. Back at the hotel, I decide to try one of the Imperial restaurants. Teppanyaki sounds good, so I take the elevator to the top floor (should have been my first clue) and check out the menu outside the door. Dinner STARTS at 15,000 yen (rough translation - $150), so turn around and act like I know exactly what I'm doing.

Plan B: head out to the Ginza again. It's about 9:30 p.m., so the odds of finding something open are slim. Convincing myself that I am safe and wearing my iPod, I try to blend in with the locals and search for my supper. Isn't it great how music you love is such a comfort? I stumble upon Cafe La Boheme (not really - I had directions), the menu looks reasonable (again, by Tokyo standards), and it's...Italian! I have a seat, order and read on my Greg Iles book. The server brings me my caprese salad with the BEST tomatoes I've ever had. And, my pizza with shrimp, bacon and green peppers (restaurant special) is awesome, too. I only wish there were a microfridge in my room. Walking back, I actually feel like a world traveler.

Day 6
Today is the consumer day of the show. Meaning, locals pay a small fee to come visit the booths and research their next vacation. It's pleasantly surprising and makes me proud to hear of all the people who have been to the South, specifically Mississippi, and want to come back. Growing up and living here, we often take for granted what others really value - fans of Elvis and blues music run rampant here. I am actually asked by a Japanese man if I am well-educated and proud of my state. I of course answer with pride, convinced that I am a victim of his practicing English.

6:00 rolls around, and I'm free! One last trip on the train, one last cab ride and one last night in Tokyo. Since I really enjoyed last night's dinner, I walk around the Ginza a little more but stop at Cafe La Boheme again. It's still strange to me that an Italian restaurant took its name from a French opera. Dinner tonight is bruschetta and mushroom risotto - both outstanding. After a little more wandering, it's off to my room to pack my things and get ready for tomorrow's trip.

Day 7
In the words of Kristen, it's "go-home day!" Even though this has been a blast and even more fun than I ever thought, go-home day is always a blessing. I buy a bus ticket and hop on. The ride is still an easy 1.5 hours, but it passes by really fast since this time it's light out when I'm riding and I get to see the sights. Plus, I'm at the window. I progress through security, check-in, security again (the Japanese don't play around) immigration, customs and I'm through. I find my gate and then explore the airport a bit. My carry-on stuff is heavy, so I don't get very far.

(What is a stuffed armadillo doing in the Tokyo airport? Harris, this one's for you.)

In broken English, I hear the typhoon in China has delayed my flight. Great. After being denied by one agent, I somehow get through to the next that I HAVE to make my connection in Detroit. She offers me a seat in the center section, and before she can finish talking, I've claimed it. This puts me cutting it close in Detroit, but it's go-home day. Again, no barbecue or eggs for me on the flight, and finally I'm on U.S. soil. I get through customs, and there's no sign of my luggage. Evidently, it's on the flight I was originally supposed to be on. I must be making a scene at baggage claim because a stranger approaches me and asks if I'm okay.

After missing my flight, I stand in the L-O-N-G line for re-booking. Thankfully, there's a flight to Jackson in 3 hours. Unfortunately, I'm already exhausted, my carry-ons haven't lost any weight AND my phone is dead. I find a pay phone (which I haven't used in years) and let Kell know when I'll be getting home. The 2-hour flight to Jackson is short compared to the one I was just on, and I'm home in no time! Kell's waiting for me and we go eat before heading home to the twins.

It's amazing how a trip like this really opens your eyes. Growing up in small town, Mississippi, you start to think that the world sort of revolves around you and the people you know. But there I was for a week in another country with a strange language and strange people, all with their own story - probably totally different and exactly the same as my own. And, if there's a next time for me in Japan, I think I'll enjoy it even more.

Arigato gozaimas and sayonara.


claire said...

I'm sorry, I'm going to have to come back and read this over Christmas break.

Courtney and Jason G. said...

i loved this. drop some yen in the mail and send jackson tennessee some culture.

LT (and Max) said...

good post. i've been waiting for you to tell all about your trip. glad you're home!!! :)

Anisa said...

fabulous recollection. sounds like a great time!

Trey and Heather said...

read every word, and I have a couple of responses:

1) thanks for the shout out. I can only hope that one day I really will be in my homesland playing amungst the children.

2) What Greg Isles book are you reading? I look a good Greg book.

3) I wish I was that little japaneese girl in that photo with you (you look cute, BTW) She is presh.

Trey and Heather said...

there were so many gramatical and spelling errors in my comment. look = love
homesland = homeland
among others. my bad.

LT (and Max) said...

what i find so humorous is that heather even spelled "grammatical" incorrectly.


JordanandSaundersRamsey said...

I loved reading about your trip. Glad you made it back safely!

The Kosko Family said...

i had so much fun reading that...what a fun trip!

Gray & Whitney said...

You crack me up EVERYTIME I read your blog, Mary Straton! Glad you had a fun trip!

Were there lots of nail salons there? haha :)

We need to get together sometime!

-Sassy :)

Gray & Whitney said...

Oh yeah, I meant to tell you how precious you look in that picture! Lookin' good girl! :)

Anonymous said...

Love your re-cap of your trip. Your communication degree from MSU was worth every penny. Mom

Paige DeAngelo said...

Strats...when are you coming to NYC for MS Tourism? I would like to have the opportunity to "babysit" you around the city.

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