A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


My toothpaste was confiscated at Incheon airport. Apparently it exceeded the 100g liquid or gel quota for carry-on baggage. I was going to protest that since the tube itself was 3/4s empty, that it's original capacity was meaningless, but I didn't want to find myself on a no fly list. I can understand their concern in these troubled times. After all, those offending 25 grams could have consisted of snakes.

The complimentary toothpaste at my hotel was just smaller than my pinkie, and weighted in at a respectable 5 grams.

It made me feel safe.

Nothing lurking in there except fluoride.

I guess we're never really safe...

Arriving in Japan was overcast, but the train from Narita to Ueno was a nice ride past some bamboo thickets, so fat with trees they were spilling out over the stone track walls. The sprawl began shortly after, and from that point on I couldn't see anything but city until I was back on a plane over the sea.

Surprisingly, navigating the Tokyo subway system was probably the easiest part of my trip. I cut my public transport teeth in Seoul (I had never been on a subway before) so I can safely say I'm now a pro. Despite the rainbow web of tracks and the multitude of tickets you'd theoretically need for each trip, you can bypass the calculation by purchasing a quick and easy 1000 yen ($10) Passnet card, marked on the ticket machines by a speedy orange public works-issue stick man, whipping through the turnstiles with the confidence of modern Japanese efficiency. All the stops and maps are marked in English also.

Everyone hears horror stories about uniformed men in white gloves, paid to shove that extra parcel of commuting flesh through the metro doors, but I was blessed with well-planned routes through relatively calm transit areas (old Asakusa was my base camp). I did see the infamous white-gloved ones, but they did little but provide helpful service announcements in slightly effeminate Japanese.

Initial observations on arriving at Asakusa from the Narita airport:

- Bikes.

In the short walk to my hotel from the subway station I saw about 300% more cyclists than I've seen in an entire year in Korea. Everyone rides bikes in Asakusa: old ladies, monks, trendy 20-somethings with their skinny black ties flapping at their sides. It's very refreshing.

- Pornography.

Prominently displayed in the front row of all subway magazine and concession stands, even (or was it especially...) those run by ancient old ladies. I don't think there is such thing as a Korean porno magazine! The naughty side of Japan is hardly hidden. In both Shibuya and Omote-sando, I saw a shop (chain?) called "Condomania!"

- Convenience store food.

I can only imagine how many people take most of their meals from Family Mart or 7-11. Not because you're hard pressed to find a meal under $13 otherwise, but because the selection of sandwiches, noodles, steamed buns, fresh-looking salads, and those triangle seaweed rice affairs, is actually quite appealing... and cheap!

I checked into the pleasant Asakusa View Hotel and spent the evening strolling through the streets around Senso-ji. Apparently, it's one of the city's biggest tourist draws, and there was quite a crowd even on a Tuesday evening. The temple itself was most impressive at night, when the pagoda and gate roofs are light up golden against the red. The prominence of red on the Tori gates and temples themselves was something very different between Japan and Korea. The Korean temples tend to feature incredibly detailed under painting in green, white, red and blue, which gives much more of a complex look when standing under the eaves. The redness of the Japanese buildings (as you can see from the photos, last post) is much bolder in effect.

More throughout the week.

1 comment:

Pam said...

It sounds like Japan is living at a more excelerated speed than the rest of us.
I flew to Calgary last Friday, and my tooth paste was also confiscated !!!!
Maybe there is more to this than we can get our teeht into!