Monday, July 11, 2005

Visiting Tokyo University

Yasuda Auditorium is a famous symbol of Tokyo University and the scene of a riot in 1969

We left Osaka in the rain for Tokyo by the Shinkansen (bullet train). I have ridden this so many times that it does not seem unique any more. But it is always enjoyable to ride. We stayed at a cheap hotel in middle of Asakusa. My first impression? Unbearably hot in the lobby. I had the feeling that this was a former place of ill repute for lovers to meet converted to a hotel. We paid 6,000 yen a night for a double room barely big enough for 1.5 Americans.

The room came with tatami floors, small furo, shower, and postage-stamp sized toilet. I could barely fit into the cubicle that passed for a restroom. I have seen American studio apartments that are three times the size of this hotel room. Still, one could hardly complain with a location conveniently in the middle of Asakusa, one of the few old town remaining areas of Tokyo.

I ran off to visit Tokyo University, or "University of Tokyo" as they are now marketing themselves. Yoko went off shopping. The subway station had been modernized with bright lights and escalators (none before). I use the brand new restroom, and a middle-aged female janitor is there to shoo me away from the urinal. Says this urinal is broken so use that one. It was very embarassing to use the restroom with another woman right there, but I just had to go... Other men in the room seem to urinate with no problem with a kneeling cleaning woman only two feet away. So when in Rome…

The gate of Tokyo University is a famous landmark, and dates from the Tokugawa era. The school had modernized somewhat – new restrooms, signs in the area, and the hallway was clean. This trip made me feel as if I was still a research student studying there back a few years ago. All sorts of memories came flooding back to me, which is usual when I revisit old places from my past. Now this visit reconfirmed to me that the Japanese must be the world’s greatest memorizers. When I walked into the library, the staff member greeted me, and said, “Wow, it’s been a long time. She then proceeded to call me by my first name. We are talking a woman who last saw me five years ago and at that time, I only told her my name ONCE.

After the library closed, I met up with Yoko at a nearby subway station, and we took a quick tour of Asakusa. I nearly got hit by a bicyclist along the way. So when you walk in Japan, do not weave left to right but stay in a straight line. Remember the laws of physics – bicycle moves fast and you don’t want to be hit from behind. We saw the famous Senso-ji temple, which you always see pics of when there is a tourism in Tokyo brochure. I have been here many times, but still feel a sense of peace when I visit. It is especially beautiful at night when the tourists have gone home, and you feel like you have the temple to yourself. Notice how the temple has been illuminated, and notice the lack of crowds. So you can be in deserted places of solitude in Tokyo if you know when and where to go.

For dinner, we had cheap but very good tempura at a tempura chain called Ten-ya.

Who says Japan is expensive? For only $7.00, I had perfect tendon – perfectly fried tempura pieces not greasy, perfectly fluffy-crunchy, and it came with a bowl of miso soup and iced tea. You can eat cheaper in Japan than in Hawaii if you know where to look. Unfortunately, the menu was in Japanese, and so you will need to know the language if you want to eat cheaply. But it can be done.

We took a furo bath at a famous bathhouse called Jakotsu-yu. Yoko and I split up, she goes to the women’s section and I went to the men’s section. The female staff member, in her thirties kept on coming into the men’s room to do cleaning, and nobody batted an eyelid. Men here must be used to women walking into the men’s section to do cleaning. You clean yourself outside the bath before entering. Now it has been awhile since I was in a bathhouse, so it felt odd at first to be surrounded by so many naked men. But after awhile, I got used to it, and only felt conscious because I was the biggest guy (No, not in that fashion! we are talking STOMACH!!) in the room. Am I that fat?

The water was boiling hot and I could only stay in for a minute at the most. You could’ve boiled an egg with that temperature. While I waited for my laundry to dry, I watched Japan’s version of Cops on the TV set in the waiting room. This documentary episode featured two female detectives on the stakeout for a serial shoplifter. That’s right, protecting Japan from a serial shoplifter. Now you know why Japanese think America is a dangerous country – it is dangerous! The documentary followed them as they kept watching the suspect woman, who kept on slipping groceries into her bag. They finally caught her and made her confess to the crime. Then the cop told her to stop shoplifting, and she tearfully mumbled that she would stop. BTW, they also caught a college student shoplifting, and had his mother come in. His mother broke down in tears at the shame of her son being caught shoplifting, and he slumped in his chair in shame as well. You can bet that he will never shoplift again. Alas, such tactics would not work back in the U.S.A. Shame? What shame? Even if their son has murdered ten people many parents would stand there and say, “I know he would never do such a thing and I will always support him!”

Our room smelled so much like tobacco that I bought a big bottle of room spray to get rid of the cigarette smoke smell. I sprayed half the bottle, and yet it still smelled like a seedy strip club. At night, I watched DVDs of old Japanese TV shows that I borrowed from the Tokyo University library. We slept with the AC on but it was bad. Choose your poison – sleep in sweltering heat, or with an air conditioner that smells like tobacco.

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