I took the Marinouchi Line from the Metro station and emerged in fabled Shinjuku 30 minutes later. There is so much neon there it even makes the day brighter. My photo tour was not until 7:30 so I had time to kill and shop.

My first stop was the Godzilla Store. I struggled to find anything of value there so I settled for a couple of holographic postcards to send to Steven and Shannon.

I ducked into a few shops here and there but they were far too crowded, especially wearing a backpack. Shinjuku is known for its nightlife and there were large packs of masked teenagers everywhere, gawking and giggling at the giant YouTube videos illuminating entire buildings.

Japan is not dollar-friendly. Everything so far (except mass transit) is prohibitively expensive. So I figure if I find something I like I can probably order it from home for less. This was true for Italian Murano glass and Irish Waterford crystal years ago. I want to find some t-shirts here but I’m not going to pay $40 per.

So I kept moving toward the Godzilla Head that looms over TOHO Cinemas and the Hotel Gracery. The street there is famously saturated with neon, like a pedestrian-only canyon of light and music. Even the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop there is Japanized, featuring all sorts of Pokémon and anime (I presume) characters. My blood sugar was low so I needed a fix.

I savored a beautifully crafted cappuccino on the 8th floor observation deck and awaited my fate. The Yank at the next table was telling his Japanese colleague all about the Chicago Cubs. But I know he didn’t understand a word because the poor guy did what everyone does in that situation: Nod profusely. So polite.

Every hour on the hour, the life-sized 1950s Godzilla terrorizes 2010s Tokyo with lights and sound.

Dusk approaches, and Shinjuku comes alive.

Mmmm, Octopus

It’s easy to find a train station. You just follow the tracks. So I did. And they led me through the most amazing scenes in less than a mile.

Nestled under Ginza’s tracks are rows and rows of quaint little shops and rather crusty restaurants. Each seemed to have a specialty — and a smell to match. One was flowers, for example. And one was octopus. So imagine the conversation in some Tokyo bank around 11:30: “I know a good octopus bar nearby. Mmmm, octopus. The one near that stinky flower shop? Let’s go!”

There was a common theme among the odors. A combination of teriyaki, cigarettes and sewer gas permeated the air until I reached the ultramodern International Forum. To compare this with the smell of Paris, just swap dog poop for the teriyaki.

Here, across from a line of retro food trucks, I naturally gravitated to a place called Shake Shack. I ordered a burger with a craft ale and sat outside to people watch. Then to my amazement, the manager came out to offer me a blanket. It didn’t feel that chilly to me but I was just amazed at the customer service.

When I left, I got a hundred yards away before I realized I’d left my backpack in the opposite seat. After all, Olivia wasn’t there to literally watch my back. So I ran back in a panic and was relieved to find it still there. The woman at the next table smiled and shrugged as if to say, “You thought someone would steal your backpack? Here? In Japan? That would be unthinkable, yes?”

On the way back I saw what Japanese businessmen do on their lunch breaks. Stand around tapping their phones. Probably shopping for black suits.

Off to Shinjuku next. After another mineral bath and a nap, of course.

Fresh Perspectives

I started Wednesday morning by ferreting out a Starbucks in the depths of Tokyo Station. The cute Japanese girl who took my order for a grande spoke perfect English, but I noticed she was giving me a funny look. And sure enough, I touched my nose to find one of those little rubbery morning booger balls. How it escaped my right nostril is a mystery.

It’s so embarrassing to be a gaijin, sometimes.

The coffee was thin, more the consistency of tea. But it got my heart started. My next mission was to hit Bic Camera in nearby Ginza to buy an intervalometer for my Canon. Inexplicably, the only thing this new DSLR doesn’t have is a time lapse function. It requires a remote controller.

The store was massive, covering an entire city block at least eight floors deep. But yes, they sell more than just cameras. The Canon desk was unmanned so a couple of Nikon guys tried to figure out what I was asking for. It took twenty minutes for me to act out “time lapse” in pantomime. Finally the Canon guy showed up and after five more minutes of kabuki theater he turned to me and exhausted his English vocabulary: “No stock.” I must have imagined him punctuating this with the universal gesture for harakiri.

But then he led me to a rack of freshly harvested intervalometers. No, the one he handed me wasn’t Canon and had no English instructions, but he seemed confident it would work. And later that night, it did. The price? ¥6,510. But at least now I can claim to have supported Japan’s fledgling camera industry.

Next I walked to the Imperial Gardens. My goal was to get familiar with my Canon in a low-pressure environment, so I wouldn’t look like an idiot for my photography workshop later on.

The gardens are like Tokyo’s Central Park. The Imperial Palace is off-limits, so what you see is a bunch of stone walls that are the ruins of an ancient castle (Edo). It’s not quite cherry blossom time but I did photograph a couple of early bloomers. The ponds were nice too. But my best shots were of the modern, bustling skyline playing backdrop to these peaceful grounds.

I’ve come to appreciate how curated this culture is. Ever polite and shy, the Japanese clearly exude national pride. Even the subways are spotless and shiny. More than once I saw someone stop and pick up garbage. And it is considered rude to walk and eat, drink or smoke at the same time here. No one chews gum. No one spits on the sidewalk. No one raises their voice. No one wears profane clothing.

The few people I saw doing these things were Westerners. And it made me realize what pigs Americans are by comparison. Take downtown Portland, for example. Chain-smoking vegans riddled with tattoos, piercings and meth, milling about a city covered in filth and graffiti. Not to mention crawling with thousands of homeless-by-choice stoop poopers. None of that here.

UThe contrast made me ashamed. Especially in light of the fact we twice nuked these people, and have somehow utterly failed to outpace them as a civil society after all that dust settled. The difference goes well beyond military spending and playing Team America: World Police. When our so-called President talks about making America great again, he’s really talking about finding ways to subjugate humble people like this so that we can be the smartest kids in the sandbox. Every time I travel outside the US I’m reminded of how ignorant and arrogant we’ve become under Republican control. In terms of infrastructure, education, healthcare, the environment — and now politics, we have become a third world country. You know, one of those shithole countries under the thumb of a wannabe dictator, where people don’t even want to procreate anymore because things are only getting worse at home.

Sigh… time for lunch.

Toto! Toto! Toto!

Forget the in-room massage. You haven’t lived until you’ve been serviced at 3 AM by honorable Japanese bidet. Meet the Toto Washlet personal hygiene system.

Always aiming to please, Toto even lifts the heated seated seat for you on final approach.

But of course my favorite feature is the Oscillator. It’s A-OK.

I feel like a new man. A bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

Come in, Tokyo!

Yep, it’s my first trip to Japan, or to Asia for that matter. I just landed after a 10-1/2 hour flight from Portland.

Just try to find the words “car” or “seat” on that ticket.

I’m starting this post from car 7, seat 3D aboard the Narita Express. I should be pulling into Tokyo Station any minute, where my hotel room awaits. Yes, it’s the historic Tokyo Station Hotel. How’s that for convenience?

The train left the airport exactly on time but it made three unexpected stops due to “obstructions.” So much for Japanese efficiency.

Damn, there are a lot of Japanese cars here.

The sun here looks just as you’d expect. An ominous nuclear fireball shrouded in haze. The Rising Sun will be setting shortly, followed by the screams of people trying to outrun Godzilla. Fortunately Tokyo is protected by power lines placed everywhere at neck level.

I’m not that hungry. Delta fed us pretty well and all the booze was free too.

My first impression of Japanese people: Why is everyone wearing masks and should I be concerned?

Tokyo Station is at least five stories underground. I got reprimanded (by another Westerner) for standing on the right side of an escalator. So I chided him back for being a conformist.

This hotel is incredible! I’m being treated like royalty here. Everyone is so polite. But not in that fake way, like in Utah. The hotel seems like it’s a mile long, straddled above one of the world’s busiest train stations. My room’s ceiling is 15 feet, and the windows overlook the main entrance hall with its dome towering above. So I’m watching masked commuters in suits swarm the station at rush hour. Olivia and I will definitely stay here when she comes next time.

After spending ten minutes trying to find various switches, my next move was to pop a couple Kirins and enjoy a hot mineral bath and some extremely silly Japanese TV. Hey, it was a long flight and I have an action-packed day tomorrow.

Oh — almost forgot. I had scoped out a currency exchange this (yesterday) morning in Portland International. The official rate was ¥112 for $1. But Travelex at PDX was only offering ¥94 plus a $9 bullshit “service fee.” Worse than Ticketmaster, right? At Travelex at NRT I got a respectable ¥103 and change. So for $500 USD I got ¥51,690. And with ¥4,000 I bought my round trip N’EX tickets on the aforementioned Narita Express. The rest will be for food and shoppage.

The key here is to remember that there’s about a 100:1 ratio, so it’s easy to just drop two zeroes to decide the value of something.