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Travel Stories: Tokyo and Singapore

Posted by in Travel Journals


I traveled to Tokyo and Singapore in the Summer of 2011, this is how I saw it.

Airport, JAX, 5am est

Newark isn’t a popular place to visit at 6am on a Monday. Newark isn’t a popular place to visit ever, but I have a feeling that Monday makes it far worse.

As it stands, the Jacksonville airport is like the waiting saloon at a post-modern funeral. Tom Waits plays a gin-rimmed ditty in my ears as caffeine fueled businessmen in cheap suit jackets ponder what manner of providence lead them to be sitting here waiting for a plane to take them somewhere, to do something for a person whose favor they hold dear primarily as an expedient to getting their Beamer notes paid.

I swear to you, this sort of human suffering playing out around me would have been really, profoundly troubling to me on any other day. I’m a very deep person – really I am, ask anyone. As it stands though, I’ve slept for a grand total of one hour in the last twenty four, so this latest recognition, like so many others, gets stacked like cord wood onto the pile of increasingly hazy perceptions that make up my waking life.

And so I sit and wait and watch and Tom Waits, well he plays another tune…

Runway, EWR, 8:17 am

New Jersey looks like a postcard from 5000 feet. Before you get too excited, understand that every State does. I haven’t decided if this says more about postcards or about air travel. Either way, I sleep like a baby on planes and this one was no exception. Swaddled in the warm, rocking embrace of a multi-million dollar steel pigeon I dreamed the dreams of the exhausted – which are, interestingly enough, mostly colorless and completely forgetable. Unfortunately not even sleep was enough to get me to forget that I will be spending the next few hours in New Jersey where the number one tip offered up by Foursquare (and just about everyone else) is, “get on a plane and go somewhere else.” A suggestion, I might add, I am more than willing to take.

I really hope there is a power outlet soon. Power is up there with food, fresh water and a long and fufilling life on my list of necessities. Even though most of the telecommunications devices I need powered will be all but useless the instant I step out of the country.

So I sit and pray for a nearby outlet and in my ears Tom Waits plays another tune.

Airport, EWR, 8:35


Airport hygiene guide

An iPhone makes a great vanity mirror.
Running water, a toothbrush and mints (all readily available in airports) are enough to make most people seem like reasonable adults.
The real sport is finding a bathroom that still uses paper towels.

24,000 feet, Somewhere in the Northeastern US, 11:35 am

I don’t understand time anymore. I thought I did, but clearly I’ve spent 25 years cultivating a lie.

You see, a flight to Narita, Japan takes something like 13 hours. You’re traveling due west along the curvature of the Earth (which doesn’t seem like west at all if you’re looking at a map) at close to 600 miles per hour. This route takes you over most of Canada, parts of Russia and a healthy chunk of the Pacific Ocean. Typically, this is also a journey back in time as you pass from eastern to central to mountain and finally to whatever weird schedule The left coast runs on. This time, however, through some alchemy I wont pretend to understand without Wikipedia, when I arrive, the flight will have taken much closer to 24 hours.

This would be disorienting enough without the fact that it will also be the middle of Tuesday instead of the end of Monday, it will be raining cats and dogs instead of unseasonably sunny, and for whatever reason everyone will be speaking Japanese, which could be really neat (in an Epcot sort of way) if I knew a word of Japanese.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I imagine Einstein or Aristotle or whoever it was that dreamed up time zones and date lines laughing at my angst.

Elsewhere I realize neither of those men had anything to do with time zones.

Gawd I wish I had Wifi.

34,000 feet, Somewhere over Saskatchewan Canada, 3:17 pm (subjective)

Planes are cold. If a plane had singular nature, an existential state to call its own, cold would be it. About ten inches of plastic and steel carapace separate me from the outside world, which at current is -56F. At that temperature my blood would be frozen in my body in well under a minute – not that I’d be conscious long enough to worry – the air is so thin up here that I’d be rendered almost immediately unconscious, blissfully unaware of being flash frozen. I draw a great deal of comfort from this fact.

Inside, it is a little better, but not as much as you’d hope. Thankfully, for a few more years at least it still makes economic sense for the airline to provide us with blankets, otherwise I’d be warming myself by the thin light of the iPhone. I definitely do not have the battery life for that.

Between shivers and bouts of unconsciousness I’ve been trying to learn Japanese. By trying I mostly mean listening to a Japanese101 podcast I’d hastily downloaded in Newark. The host, who must have been a carnival barker in a previous incarnation, takes a joy in teaching me how to see, “How are you?” that I find to be frankly unsettling. I guess if I were trying to sell hundreds of dollars worth of “learning tools” to lazy English speakers I’d be able to muster a little more motivation too. As it stands, I imagine I’ll pick up 5-6 phrases that I will use sporadically and poorly throughout the trip. Thanks to Western cultures nuclear strike on the rest of the free world, that will probably be enough.

Meanwhile, I have nine hours (objective) left in this trip and my immediate challenge is not freezing into my seat.

36,000 feet, Somewhere in Western Alaska, 6:44pm (subjective)

People do fascinating things when they are trapped in a box for 13 hours.

Mostly though, they fidget.

They fidget with their luggage, with their food, with their screens and with their gadgets. They fidget in hopes that simple acts of locomotion will make time tick a little faster. Unfortunately, they quickly run out of things to fidget with and then the fidgeting becomes self-conscious, which is bad because self-conscious fidgeting has been clinically proven to be the quickest path to insanity. That’s just science, I don’t make this stuff up.

They fidget and they sleep.

I have been staring unapolgetically at people who have been asleep for the last eight hours. Add to that the 6-10 hours they picked up before stepping onto the plane and some of them have spent the better part of a day (subjective) blissfully unconscious. Do I blame them? Not hardly, you can only stare at clouds and watch bad movies for so long before the thought of disappearing for a bit into your head starts to look better than the creeping madness of a perfect boredom.

They fidget, they sleep, and they wait in line at the bathroom.

I don’t know what it is about a plane, but even though the beverage cart is as likely to come by as a wild Platypus, every hour or so everyone seems compelled to make a pilgrimage towards the rest rooms. I found this pretty confusing until I realized rest room breaks are the only legitimate excuse you have to get up and stretch your legs and the only place on this bird you can ensure a few moments of privacy.

What do I do?

All of the above. I fidget, I sleep, I read, I write and generally I wile away the hours appreciating an opportunity to be truly unreachable. Every so often, there is nothing quite like a perfect boredom…

Someone let me off this plane.

“I’ve just done a significant bit of time travel, when I look outside the sun will be poking its head out like it doesn’t know why that’s weird.”

Bus, Somewhere outside of Narita, 3:35 pm (objective)

Being suddenly mute is a profoundly strange experience. Especially for a person who loves nothing more acutely than the sound of his own voice. I’m mute in a way more profound than i have been in any non-English speaking locale I have visited. Unlike Italy or Montreal, where most people gave a wink and a nod to their “lack of English”, here in Japan everything, everywhere is designed to reinforce my inability to communicate.

What’s strange, really strange is that even without language, communicate I do. Despite having no idea what anyone is saying I’ve managed to get a bus ticket and directions, get through customs (where they do speak English) and generally navigate the normal social transactions that seemed up until an hour ago to require wordy exchanges. Body language, gestures, smiles and single words (not to mention the miracle that is the iPhone) have taken the place of piles and piles of words. It’s exciting to see this work and frightening because somewhere in the back of my mind I wonder how long I can keep this game up for and what happens when it inevitably breaks down.

As a gentle rain falls and the endless traffic of Tokyo proper comes into view, this question can’t help but bring a little smile to my face.

“I live in a shoebox, a shoebox with a pretty nice view of the city. Designed, I’m convinced, for some complicated breed of midget.”

KKR Hotel, Tokyo, 11:36pm (objective)

I wake up confused. Not because I don’t know where I am but because I don’t know where I’m going.

My hotel room looks like a train explosion, since it’s about the size of a train car this is highly appropriate comparison. Before passing out, I bumbled through the rain to Akihabara, which at dusk was like some anime addicts wet dream mixed into a blender with a Sega Genesis that just happened to sound like a teenage girl giggling. For a place with more than it’s share of “adult entertainment shops” it didn’t seem so much seedy as plain old fashioned weird, with crushes of American expats wandering around Japanese girls dressed as Maids with cat ears, absorbing the culture like I’m absorbing the culture, through the oddly fetishized lens of anime imports.

Now it’s time to get out at night, I’ve decided that walking is the only way to travel so the real question becomes, how far do you want to go at 11:40 at night when you know you’ll need to walk back at 1am.

I hear Tokyo has some pretty friendly park benches.

Every city in the world smells vaguely of urine, Tokyo is no exception.

Heated toilet seats really make a guy feel special.

After midnight taxi cabs outnumber people 10 to 1.

Roppongai is Tokyo if it were designed by Vegas for expats.

It says something about culture that almost every anime in the video store is also available on Netflix.

Apparently Groping is the universal language of commerce.

Walking Back From Roppongi, Tokyo, 3:50 am (objective)

Sleep, yes, sleep.

Ginza, Tokyo,9:37 (subjective)

Ginza is a little like downtown Chicago but with a lot more kanji. Train lines, book stores, mega sized buildings, and a generalized sense that there are people alive and breathing and willing to invite you to their Pacchino Hall.

I still can’t get over all the rain, it’s like Seattle and Florida had babies and sent them to boarding school across the Pacific. At least it never seems to get hard enough to outpace a pretty standard umbrella.

-japan smells nice, like a mix of light cigarette smoke and cinnamon.

Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 12:55 (objective)

The mist interesting thing about the Tokyo National Museum is that about a quarter of it is shut down, “to conserve electricity”. Sign of recession? Museum troubles? Or is it that electricity in Japan is so expensive that it makes sense to shut down any exhibit that’s not raking in the yen. I also notice a distinct lack of air conditioning in about half the exhibition rooms and can’t help but feel it’s related.

Strangely, not being able to read a character of Japanese hasn’t diminished my enjoyment of the exhibits. Go figure.

KKR Hotel, Tokyo, 6:01 pm (objective)

I think I may have just walked 20 miles. The last five of them through the rain. On the plus side I saw more of Tokyo than I could ever hope for with half a day still left on the clock. Now to pass out for a bit, and let my body stitch itself back together for the next round.

Man, I don’t think there was a single analogy in that one. I must be losing it.

Road To Somewhere?, Tokyo, 1:31 am (objective)

We are all ruled by certain immutable laws of thermodynamics. The most important being that the energy that leaves a system may never exceed the energy going into it. This implies that of you walk several dozen miles over the course of a couple of days with very limited sleep and a brain that doesn’t fully understand what time it should be, something weird is going to happen. In my case, I passed out for six hours, which is how I found myself sitting here, in a kimono at 1:30 in the morning preparing to go exploring.

Things I learned today:

Rain here is serious business.
The Japanese know this and are very prepared.

I don’t and was partially prepared.

Foreign tourists like to wander aimlessly through temples like they were standing in line at Space Mountains.

I’m a foreign tourist, but at least I recognize and partially mitigate this flaw in my personality.

Every country has a place where you can buy awesome tourist crap to take home with you, today I stumbled into Japan’s version.

Maybe I should try to track down the full scale replica of the Eiffel Tower I saw yesterday (the Japanese love Paris). Before that, vending machine dinner.

KKR Hotel, Tokyo, 4:42 am (objective)

I spent the last 3 hours watching Japanese television.

I’ve seen an infomercial for “Orange County Sunscreen,” Sumo wrestling, a gameshow where young women have to impress three judges dressed as Samurai or be force fed wasabi, a teen dramedy involving Kimonos, and more J Pop than you could shake a stick at.

Conclusion: I love this place.


Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 10:55 am (objective)

The Japanese are a terribly accommodating people.

Here’s a question, why is it that about 70% of the school aged children wandering the halls of this museum are little girls?

Korakuen Garden, Tokyo, 2:06 pm (objective)

You can’t walk 100 yards in Tokyo without stumbling across something beautiful. I went to see a theme park and ended up in Korakuen Garden, where for about $4.00 I get a near endless supply of water Lilys and cherry blossoms.

Akihabara, Tokyo, 7:48 pm (objective)

I don’t think there is anywhere else on the planet where you can find 8 stories worth of anime.

Walking Home, Tokyo, 1:45 am (objective)

Idle thoughts edition:

1. This is probably the 20th time I’ve confused a taxi cab for a police car. (Near the Imperial Palace)

2. I wonder when they switched from doing their graphetti in kanji to doing it in roman characters. (at the edge of Chiyoda)

3. Tokyo is the only place I can think of that would make a more than full scale, glowing model of the Eiffel Tower and put it next to what appears to be a Shinto temple. (right outside of Roppongi)

KKR Hotel, Tokyo, 10:51 am

I think the two things I will miss about Tokyo the most are the wonderful, wonderful vending machines and the terrible, terrible soap operas. That and the fact that taxi cab doors close by themselves.

Narita Airport, Tokyo, 3:00 pm (subjective)

We had a fire drill in the airport. I really don’t know what that means, but basically no one went anywhere and they came over the loudspeaker and said a bunch of stuff in English. I’m guessing if there is a fire, it’s our role to sit quietly inside the building, pretending nothing bad is happening and politely aphysiate.

Two more hours in Japan, and then back in the air to parts unknown. By unknown I mean Singapore, which is unknown to me at least because unlike Tokyo I did not even bother to buy an iPhone based tour guide.

Luckily I have Jared, who is kind of like an iPhone. I guess.

Meanwhile, I have a new favorite type of restaurant. It is a Sushi bar where the food comes to you on a conveyor belt. I’ve never learned quite as much from a stepped up food trough. For instance, did you know that by adding hot water to one of the weird tinctures at your table you can male green tea?

Also, the Japanese are almost ludicrously helpful to foreigners. Twice I was saved from post-industrial, conveyor induced starvation by the intercession of one of my Japanese neighbors. We would do well to take this example as our own.

Now for Singapore, where hippies used to have to cut their hair before entering.

Woodland, Singapore, 9:15 am (subjective)

More than anything what surprised me as I stepped off the plane is how western everything is here. The signs are in English, the products seem English, and the people speak English albeit an interesting dialect which at least so far has been more than easily translatable. After Japan, I feel like I stepped off the plane into a particularly Eastern section of San Francisco. I wonder how long that particular illusion will hold up.

Oh yes, and the humidity remains stable at 130%.

Bugis, Singapore, 4:30pm (objective)

Singapore is about the size of a postage stamp. This is barely a superlative. From one side of the country to another it’s about 30 miles, with the main “city” taking up a fraction of this land and the rest being made up by row after row of government subsidized apartment complexes and light industry. The entire country would fit snugly into a corner of New Orleans.

Even so, it’s one of the most diverse and interesting places I’ve ever been to. Singapore ‘s culture consists of influences from China, India, Malayasia along with piles and of artifacts borrowed from the West. There are row after rows of ultra modern malls packed around street vendors, interspersed among temples consecrated to Vishnu and Kali. As you look around though you can’t help but feel that you are in some particularly Asia-centric corner of America. Everyone speaks English, almost nothing about the city could described as less than ultra-modern and unlike Japan most of the T-shirts make sense.

The only time I’ve really been convinced that I am 6000+ miles away was when I wandered through Little India. A thriving, bustling microcosm of India culture deposited wholesale in the south east of the country. I was also treated to stumbling upon a rehearsal for India’s independence day (August 5th and 6th) complete with military helicopters, marines and several metric tons of fireworks.

As a counterpoint tomorrow, if everything goes according to plan, I’ll be visiting Hell. Which is conveniently located a few metro stops away.

Woodland, Singapore, 8:04 am (objective)

Yesterday I tried to go to Hell but the power was out, so instead I crossed a bridge into a rain forest and saw the hero from a PS3 game with guns strapped to her shoes. I climbed up a mountain and saw from one end of the country to the other, climbed down a mountain and ate meat on sticks. Still disappointed at being denied Hell I took a taxi to a tram and watched Tigers playing in front of me.

Changi Airport, Singapore, 6:21 am (objective)

Dislocation is the word of the morning. Dislocation most clearly defined by the knowledge that by the time I arrive back in the United States it will be earlier than when I left.

But that, while profound, is not nearly the story.

On a trip like this, dislocation can be drawn from everywhere:

Dislocation from having to finally process this marvelous, strange, exhausting experiment in travel that I’ve been participating in.

Dislocation from realizing that while all cultures are different in wild and wonderful ways, the world is becoming smaller and more translatable by the year, the month, the hour.

Dislocation, the kind that only comes when excitement and exhaustion meets and you realize it is time to go home.