I have been here for about ten days now and every day I find something new and exciting. The mysteries of Tokyo seem endless; in many ways it is a giant maze that invites exploration. I am doing a home stay with a family of four living in a neighboring prefecture (state) called Chiba. It takes little under an hour by subway to reach downtown Tokyo. My host father does not in fact live at home, but rather is stationed with the Japanese Coast Guard on the island of Hokkaido. Thus I am in the house with my host mother and two host sisters, ages 24 and 20. They giggle amongst themselves quite a bit, like another pair of sisters that I know. I am more or less a part of the family now. Every day we joke together, eat meals together, and talk about our days, like any other family. The meals, of course, are fantastic. The varieties of Japanese cuisine are endless. I am sure many of you would be surprised to learn that I have had sushi only once since arriving here. I find myself eating noodles (soba or udon) or donburi (meat over rice) much more often. The other joy of living in a Japanese home is that every day ends with a dip in the ofuro (steaming hot bath), surely one of the finer aspects of Japanese living.
I could not have picked a better time to come to Japan. The old standard lavishes praise on April in Paris, but I am sure Tokyo can give Paris a run for its money. All of the major boulevards and waterways are lined with blooming cherry trees, and every breeze carries a veritable blizzard of blossoms as well as their smell. Every day crowds stream into the city parks to hana-mi (literally ‘flower view’), resting on the grass with drinks and food for hours. The other day I went to Kitanamoru park, near the Imperial Palace, for hana-mi with my host family. I will never forget strolling through the sakura, with the smell of the blossoms mingling with the taste of baked sweet potatoes sold by vendors in the park. It is easy to love Tokyo when one is surrounded by such beauty. Naturally the blossoms will soon be gone, and then will come the rainy season. I guess we will see how I like it then.
Early last week I had the opportunity to escape from Tokyo briefly, as the program took an overnight trip to the country town of Nikko. Nikko is home to the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, as well as a handful of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples associated with his tomb. The most impressive thing about Nikko is how it demonstrates the seamlessness with which Buddhism and Shintoism merged in Japan. One walks through a Buddhist temple, exits, enters a Shinto shrine, exits, enters a Buddhist temple, and so on in rapid succession. Another interesting note is that the phrase ‘hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil’ comes from panels decorating the stable at the shrine. The panels depict three monkeys performing said actions. The second day of the trip involved a visit to Nikko National Park, which incorporates several locations in the mountains around Nikko. We saw Lake Chuzenji, a resort lake that at this time of year seemed more like Alaska, and Kegon Falls, a giant waterfall.
Returning to Tokyo after the trip, I gained a greater appreciation for just how crowded Tokyo is. Tokyo moves like a mighty river. Its residents don`t merely move about: they flow. Whether crossing one of the city`s many broad intersections, entering or exiting a train, or streaming through one of the giant train stations, Tokyo-ites are a relentless force that can carry away those who are caught unawares. I do not exaggerate. I experience this every morning going into the city. While it is of course cliche to call the trains crowded, crowded does not begin to describe it. The doors open and no matter how much space is available in the train, everyone on the platform is boarding. After the first day I learned to move as far away from the doors as possible lest I get pushed out of the train as others flowed in. One experiences something similar on the sidewalks in just about every part of the city. Walk too slowly and you are likely to be pushed to the side by a swarm of Japanese rushing somewhere.
In addition to the cherry blossoms, the best part of Tokyo in the spring is without a doubt the new baseball season, which began with the Yankees and Devil Rays playing exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants (the Yankees of Japan) and the Hanshin Tigers (the defending champions) and then playing against each other. I had my first Japanese baseball experience this evening, when I went with a friend to the Tokyo Dome to see the Giants play the Tigers in the second game of the first series of the season. It is comforting that I can watch a game that is more or less the same 6,000 miles from home. We sat in standing room seats, which were essentially behind the last row of the bleachers. Having adopted the Giants as our team, we sat on the right field side, the designated Giants sections. (It is nice that I was able to to choose freely the team to root for, as opposed to receiving it like an heirloom. And since I could pick, why not pick the Yankees of Japan. NB: my love for the Cubs remains true.) The experience was something like a college football game, but without the rowdiness and with a professional level of play. The die-hards epitomize die hard; the best part of the game was joining in the chants that accompany every player as he steps to the plate and the team songs that are sung repeatedly throughout the game. Unlike American fans, however, the fans are respectful of the other team; when a Hanshin player hit a grand slam that turned out to be the game winner (the Giants lost 5-1), the Giants die-hards clapped respectfully. Imagine that happening at Fenway Park, or anywhere else for that matter. The tone throughout the stadium is overwhelmingly positive. The game would have been better outdoors, of course, but all in all it was a great experience, so great that after the game we went to the ticket booth and bought tickets for next Friday’s game against the Yakult Swallows. It is probably a good and bad thing that the Tokyo Dome is a twenty-minute walk from campus. As you can probably tell, I will be back. Often. Especially since Tuffy Rhodes, the three home-run wonder from the Cubs ten years ago is playing center field for the Giants.
I think I have written enough for now. I hope I have given a sense of my life in Japan for the time being. Hopefully it won’t change too much when classes begin a week from Monday. I have pictures of most of the things I just described. If there is a demand for them, I will figure out how to upload them. I hope to hear back from all of you. And now, ofuroni hairu.