Tokyo: Sleep-Deprivation, Slow Travel, Sumo Wrestling and Sushi
Before launching into our travels, we spent the better part of the July and August at Mitchell's parents' house in Wisconsin as we prepared for our adventure. This means that once we landed in Japan, our internal clocks needed to shift forward 14 hours. Our bodies rebelled against THAT nonsense, which means jet-lag kind of kicked our butts this first week in Tokyo.
When planning for extended travel, we read a lot of books and blogs and articles, and almost all of them talked about how traveling hard and fast is all well and good, but that a pace too intense for too long will cause fatigue and frustration. So we've purposely built in pockets of time: time to adjust to the aforementioned jet-lag, time to simply urban-hike (agenda-free) through a city, and time to rest in and observe a new culture before we learn about and experience all it has to offer. Slow travel affords us (especially our little one) to enjoy the impromptu sites -- for example, sites that squirt and sparkle.
Slow travel also means that we can take our leisurely time to read signs, and when the signs are written in words I can actually understand, I perk up a little. On our way to the park one day, for example, we learned that this hotel pool forbids people with tattoos. This regulation surprised me, so I looked it up. Sure enough, the tattoo stigma is pretty widespread in most of Japan. Apparently, tattoos have a long-standing history with organized crime (think mafia-type gangs), and therefore many Japanese find them offensive. I found this article to be a pretty fascinating read on this subject.
Also near our Tokyo apartment by a park where Eden played, we stumbled across the Zojo-ji Temple where, in the courtyard, there resided hundreds of Jizo statues — stone figures in the shape of tiny babies. Exhibiting red, crocheted hats, and some dressed in baby clothing, each represented children who were stillborn, aborted, miscarried or who otherwise died before their parents.
They’re called Jizo statues after a bodhisattva (a person who has reached nirvana but who delays doing so out of compassion for suffering beings) who is believed to protect and guide deceased children past the mythical River Sanzu and into the spirit world. Without Jizo's assistance, believers fear that their deceased children will spend eternity laboring beside this mythical river because their lives were too short to accumulate the necessary good deeds to get them past the river in the afterlife.
On a brighter note, we saw several preschool-age daycares (I assume?) on park outings. The children wore matching hats, and the teachers literally carted them around (as in the kids were in carts!).
One of the highlights this past week was attending the Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryōgoku Sumo Hall in Tokyo. Honestly, Mitch was really the only one excited to attend, but in the end, we spent the whole day there and all of us loved it. (Well, except five-year-old Eden who understandably grew bored after several hours.) Here are a few pictures. They aren’t great because I used the zoom on the phone to get the pics from our nosebleed seats. But you get the idea.
At first glance, sumo wrestling seems... simple (try to either shove your opponent to the ground or out of the dohyo ring before he does it to you) and short (each match lasts from seconds to maybe two or three minutes). But the ritualistic singing announcement of each wrestler's name as performed by the referee (gyoji) and the announcer (yodidashi) before each match began, indicated that what we were watching was much more than a physical contest.
And to learn that the bowing, foot-stomping, leg-splitting, clapping, arm-lifting, squatting, ladle dipping and salt-throwing each portray significant ritualistic meaning as well as psychological intimidation? Well, lets just say I think we all left the arena feeling a lot more respect for these athletes and all they do to prepare for their matches. It's not just a sport for them; it's a way of life. This article gave us a little more basic information about the sumo match, and this article helped us to understand how, for each wrestler, sumo is a huge, lifelong commitment.
Oh... and before I forget: Flat Maya has joined us on this trip. Maya (our niece/cousin) is currently living life (living!!) with liver failure at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital in Wisconsin, so we brought Flat Maya along with us so we could share our experiences with “real” Maya back home. You can follow Maya's story here on Facebook if you don't already.
We were told that a trip to Tokyo wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Shibuya ward to see the famous Shibuya Crossing. (It would be like visiting New York City without seeing Times Square.) So we made a special trip to go check it out. We were pleasantly surprised to find quieter, interesting side-streets like this along the way.
While it's true that the Shibuya Crossing is similar to Time Square in terms of the number of flashy ads on its buildings, the sheer number of people crossing at any one time was madness!
By the way, we’re in Japan because of Autumn. We've fielded a lot of questions about what it's like traveling with kids -- especially kids of the teenage variety, and our response is always this: include your kids in the planning process. When planning a time of extended travel, ask them for their ideas. In all honesty, neither Mitchell nor I had Japan on our travel radar, but Autumn did. She really wanted to visit the land where sushi was born, and she wanted to visit Tokyo Disney. So we worked Japan into our schedule. (And we're so glad we did!) Including her in the planning process helped her to buy in to this travel life.
So this sushi place -- Uobei -- was pretty cool. Using a touch screen menu, we each ordered tiny, two-bite portions of sushi, and then our orders traveled from the kitchen to a spot directly behind our touch screens via a moving track. No waiters!
We're not sushi connoiseurs by any stretch of the imagination, but we all enjoyed the food -- especially for the price. At about 97 cents (US) per plate (some were a little more, but most were in this price range), we felt like we could experiment outside our usual comfort zones and order more unusual fare (Autumn ordered squid, for example, and Mitch tried tilefish tempura).
On a separate note, for those of you wondering how our little fireball of extroverted energy (Eden) is doing? Well, let's just say this: every other day she is asking if she can make some friends in Japan. Of course we say yes. And boy has she tried. She hasn't had a lot of success yet, but it'll be an ongoing challenge for her.
All in all, we'd each deem our first week in Tokyo, Japan a success!