Denverite Abroad – First Week in Japan

Beth's Pride and Joy, a Nissan Bolero!

Beth's Pride and Joy, a Nissan Bolero!

Well after ten hours in the air, four movies to watch, and some very crowded rows my full flight from San Francsico touched down at Tokyo’s Narita Airport late Sunday afternoon. Amazing to think that in just a day’s time I traveled halfway across the globe; over an ocean to the East.

After getting picked up at the airport Beth and I made our way south on the highway system through the urbanized subrubs outside Tokyo. It was a dark and rainy by the time we left, but I will say it is astounding how familiar modern, Westernized Japan feels despite the obvious differences in the langauge and geographically. Sure they may drive in narrower lanes on the wrong side of the road, but their highways are in better shape than ours, complete with the same toll roads, construction zones, and full sized vehicles (except very few SUVs, and though they may be tall and long, no van is wide.)

Beth's Japanese home...snuggled right up to the hillside

Beth's Japanese home...snuggled right up to the hillside

Two hours later I was given the tour of Beth’s house, a quite little home down a side street of a side street, with only four other homes on her “block”. I say block because in this town, and in the surrounding subrubs, the “city-grid” style of urban planning is pretty loose. Between the history of the neighborhoods and the winding hills and valleys that make up most of Japan there is little to no “grid” work of off. But nonetheless her home is prefectly outfitted, with all the modern conveniences we have in the states, as well as a few aspects that make her home decidedly Japanese. The most prevalent of these is the two tatami rooms, traditional Japanese rooms with woven straw mats as the floor with wood work, sliding doors, and wooden framed paper. One room is one the ground floor and is slowly becoming the dining room, the other is empty for now, but is likely to become a small guest bedroom on the second floor. Another noticeable difference is a bit more modern, but certainly stems from the Japanese cultures affinity for efficiency. Almost all of her lights are flourescent, there is no central air as each room is heated and cooled when needed, you turn on the hot water for the kitchen and shower before you turn on the tap, and all of her trash is seperated into five categories for recycling.

Typically homes along Higashi-Zushi's main roadway

Typically homes along Higashi-Zushi's main roadway

But the home isn’t the only noticable place for Japanese efficiency. Its a myth that everything out East is small, its just minimizing uneccesary space. Driveways are only as wide as the cars that sit in them. Most homes a designed in a square fashion, much smaller than the typically American suburb home. In fact the most doorways in Beth’s how only have about 6’2 in clearance…and have certainly given me a few scares and false ducks. Most of the roads here are two lanes, complete with a small shoulder for motorcycles and pedal bikes to use, but when you look at it would match one, relatively wide suburb road in the States. Yes, most of the cars are narrower, but the reality is they drive much closer together and pass/are passed by scooters and bicycles often. After walking around town and riding shotgun for the past week or so (including in a rental delivery truck for Beth’s latest furnishings) I’ve come to the conclusion that the transit system in place is very effective, but heavily relies on trust. Mothers let kids as young as 8 or 9 ride their bikes down these narrow narrow shoulders because the trust that all of the other drivers will take care and consideration when passing them.

Higashi-Zushi train station

My link to the world outside of Higashi-Zushi, this station connects Beth's neighborhood to a whole slew of others between Tokyo and Yokosuka.

But enough about the mundane, time to hear about the fun! Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city is a hub of commerical activity and is one of Japan’s  largest ports. It’s here that Beth and I went out for our first Japanese “Date Night”, riding the cheap and efficient JR (Japan Rail) line. Lucky for us, Beth’s town is situated right along a JR line that connects Yokohama and Yokosuka, and runs extremely often; I’ve ridden it about a dozen times so far, never had to wait more than ten minutes once I got to the station. Anyway, we rode up and got to experience first hand the hustle and bustle of Yokohoma’s train and subway depots during rush hour, an amazing occurence that lasts most of the night. Japanese culture has strongly enforced the idea of “a working man” and most jobs feature long hours. As a result rush hour here lasted, from what I could tell, 6pm – 9pm, possibly even later. But what amazed me most was the high volume of people who all seemed to know exactly where to go at any given time, as if following invisible lines on the floor. And endless wave of black suits marching along to each of the correct trains. I’ve been through subway stations in Rome, New York, and Washington DC none of them compares to the modern marvel of a Yokohoma train.

Yokohoma skyline

Yokohoma skyline as we walk back to the train station from Bill's

But back to the “Date Night”, after rising out of the subway station at one of Yokohoma’s multistory shopping malls, we journeyed outside to take a look at the town. (An advisory here, we only saw a small part of Yokohoma, it would take weeks to thoroughly report all the ins and outs of the city). Walking around we saw a beautiful riverfront area, filled with shops and an amusement park. The amusement park has all your standards: roller coaster, log flume ride, carnival games, etc. But it also features a huge Ferris Wheel, so big that it had gondolas as the seats, a digital clock at the center, and the frame has a light show on it! Formally known as Cosmo Clock 21, it is the second largest Ferris Wheel in Japan and one of  the world’s largest clocks. We also spotted two if Japan’s most famous suspension bridges, the Yokohoma Bay Bridge, fondly known as the Rainbow Bridge. After seeing the sights we ventured to another shopping plaza, this one inspired by Berlin’s famous Christkindl Market. It was here than we enjoyed some American cuisine, light jazz, low tables, and the beautiful atmosphere of Bill’s. Dinner was delicious, as Beth enjoyed a lightly breaded calamari and I enjoyed a penne and cream sauce pasta featuring green peas, parmeasan, and prochutto.

Yokusuka waterfront gardens

Gardens along the waterfront during my walk to the US Naval Base in Yokosuka

The second city worth mentioning is Yokosuka, home to the the United States Navy’s 7th Fleet as well as a large portion of the Japanese navy. This military port town is exactly that, with a vibrant downtown filled with hotels, restaurants and bars. It was here that I took part in my first “Sushi-go-Round” restaurant. This semi-fast food sushi place offered a delicious menu and the best part, each plate is about a dollar. The plates revolve around on conveyorbelts past each of the booths and we could special order plates marked for your table, or in most cases we just helped ourselves. All sorts of sushi, noddle bowls, and desserts were made available, and almost all of them delicious.

Beth and I also enjoyed one of Yokosuka’s famous curry places for another fun “Date Night” That day she gave me a tour of base, we picked up her latest furniture and then returned for a night on the town. For dinner we dined on tasty homemade naan with garlic and cheese baked in, accompanied by the smoothest and best spinach and chicken curry I’ve ever had. And to that the spiciest chicken tika masala I’ve ever eaten and an ice cold Asahi beer to wash it down…mm mm mm, we ate til we couldn’t anymore and left as happy as could be.

The author, beachside in the costal town of Zushi

The author, beachside in the costal town of Zushi

Finally, I should mention my side trip to Zushi, the next town over. This small town is a fishing and beach community, setup along a bay already on a section of protected Pacific shoreline. After taking the train over and walking around the town I came upon the beach. Dark sand and a gentle rolling were a sight for sore eyes after walking around dense collections of homes and condos. A hot spot for wind surfers, many were packing up there things and heading back into town. Following them back to the train, I spotted many beautiful homes and surf shop rental businesses. Though just a small suburb along the a JR line, this town seems like a prefect place to get away from work and city life for a relaxing weekend on the coast.

Well that’s all for now, the rain is falling and its quite cold and muggy out, much like in the Pacific Northwest of USA. Starting next week Beth goes on leave, so without having to report in to work each day we’ll be able to travel around a bit. Already we’ve made plans to visit Kamakura, Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Nagano, so stay tuned for more news from a Denverite Abroad.


Posted on November 13, 2011, in Denverite Abroad and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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