FIRST DAY DISORIENTED IN THE ORIENT
Leaving the safe mantle of home, in our case the United States, is always a remarkable experience, no matter how many times you may have done it. We set out from Honolulu's airport hauling enough stuff to balance any trade deficit, stepped aboard our flight and headed across the Pacific to our new destination, Japan.
We were cool, the Mason-Slaughter Family, the around-the-world cyber-circumnavigators. And we were headed into the first place where we needed passports, as well as foreign phrase books and calculators capable of converting dollars to yen, and kilometers to miles.
We landed in Tokyo late in the afternoon. Since the root of the word "disoriented" contains the word Orient, it's no surprise what our condition was like. The newly built international Narita Airport is about the size of an average midwestern state, but somehow we managed to thread our way through. We waded through customs, got our first visa stamps, collected our ten tons of baggage, and made our way out to the front gates where we were met by Toh Yabuki, our appointed guide, a director with Fuji Television.
For the next three hours we rode by van across the intricate and packed highways from Narita Airport into Tokyo. Since it was 2 a.m. by our biological clocks, we were giddy at the newness of it all, and Cassidy quickly fell asleep. As night fell Tokyo began to glow. Entire walls were lit with intricate neon signs, and almost nowhere were English or Roman letters to be seen. It was the backdrop for the opening scene of "Blade Runner," and we were cruisin' in for a landing. We arrived in our hotel rooms confused, bemused, and hunchbacked from the short walk with our over laden packs.
"Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."
The next morning was ours, and for the first time since we left Alaska we were truly beginning to realize that we were actually doing it! We were going around the world. And like all great travelers before us we donned the appropriate garb and assembled the most current maps, steeled ourselves to the challenges ahead, and marched proudly out the hotel doors into the teeming, streaming, people-packed streets of Tokyo.
For less than a minute we stood there, nearly clutching each other in panic. We were already lost and we hadn't even gone three steps from the hotel. Like drowning sailors grabbing for a tossed life ring we hung on each other and clambered back into the hotel lobby clutching our maps and begging for help. Where were we? How do we get anywhere? Where in the hell do we want to go anyway? The hotel clerks were bemused and helpful, (although Samantha insists she picked up a strong impression of scorn with a smile) and after we stopped hyperventilating we headed back out into the wilderness confident we could do it this time.
After we finally figured out just where our hotel was on the map, we strutted through the door, turned left and began walking, past shops the size of phone booths, store windows crowded with foods we couldn't identify, doorways that led up and down steep staircases into dark mysterious recesses. Old women cleaned pots, young men in sharp suits with cell phones marched by, shop keepers in aprons cleaned windows. Scaffolding was covered with clean fine netting to keep small bits of flotsam and jetsam from passers by.
Within a hundred feet of our hotel we found a well-lit shop serving something we understood. We quickly entered and ordered European-style coffee and sweet rollsnot very exotic given our location, but a start to the day, even if it was only a few meters from our hotel.
For the rest of the day we walked the chaotic, random streets of Tokyo, with a brief respite in the large but hidden Imperial garden. We felt like the classic rubes in New York City, unabashedly gawking at all of the sensory input and disorienting maze of unmarked streets around us. Story has it that the streets were laid out as a maze to prevent invaders from making it to the castle. We can attest to the truth of this because they kept us confused, and we never did find the Emperor's home except once while riding by in a taxi a few days later.
Tokyo is a patchwork of distinct districts, and we were in Shinjuku, the very heart of the city. If you are exiting or entering Shinjuku (train) Station, you'd better know which exit or entrance you need. The station alone goes for blocks and on several levels with a veritable city of stores threaded throughout the station.
Tokyo itself is a mishmash of styles and structures, a remarkably smooth blending of the ancient and the modern, of Zen simplicity and high-tech complexity. It is a city of contrasts which like most else in Japanese culture blends to create an elaborate texture of balance. Unlike American skyscrapers, here architects seemed to spare no expense at creating interesting and stimulating structures, the buildings are really a joy to look at. Streets were filled with cars, but unlike most modern cities you rarely hear a horn, and instead traffic moves along courteously. At major crosswalks a hundred people would stand on each side facing one another, and when the signal was given would march at a fast pace towards each other like a scene from a samurai epicbut with little effort or sidestepping they would all pass through each other as if vapor and move effortlessly to their opposite sides.
High over head, at ground level, beneath the ground, painted on the ground, in every window and nook are constant ads. Also everywhere are vending machines, including in hidden recesses in back alleys. Later we would find these same machines sitting alone alongside country roads, selling iced coffee, cool green tea, Coke, Pocari Sweat (the Japanese version of America's "Gator Aid") even beer and liquor. And always the cawing of crows, in the canyons of skyscrapers and the park forests.
That first day was oursneither helped or impeded by others. Free to have our own adventures and make our own mistakes. Free to marvel at all the strangeness around us. It was a gift. And we were thankful.