Click around on the map, zoom in, and you can see the layout of the Asakusa grounds.
Drawing a Omikuji
I'Outside the Sensō-ji temple, people coming to worship (and tourists) are able to draw a Omikuji (paper fortune). A building houses what appears to be hundreds of drawers- each with piles of fortunes in them. In order to draw a fortune you first give a donation of 100 yen (10 cents) and then shake a hexagonal metal container. You can hear sticks/dowel rods) rattling in the container until one begins to poke out of the opening. Once you draw a stick, each has a character on it that matches with one of the gold drawers. You then open the drawer and take out your omikuji. I've shared a photo of my fortune below- much to my disappointment, I drew a "bad" fortune. I've been told that bad fortunes are common at this shrine, so I felt a bit better. I felt infinitely better, however, after I was told there was a way I could prevent my bad fortune from coming to fruition. Tradition says that if you fold up your fortune and tie it to iron rods next to the temple, you are free from the bad fortune. I really wanted to take my fortune home to show my students, but at the same time, it looked like a pretty bad one, so I opted to tie it to the rods and leave it at Asakusa.
Upon arriving to the hotel, I took a shower and then met some of the fellows and the executive director of the Japan America Society of Pennsylvania, Amy Boots, in the lobby for dinner. Unfortunately a few of our fellows got in much later than planned due to a delayed flight, but the remainder of us decided to head back to Tokyo Station to eat. We seemed to walk and ride the subway forever, and then we seemed to walk some more trying to find a place in Tokyo Station that could seat all of us. We settled on a place off of Ramen Street- a corridor of Ramen restaurants. Ramen in Japan is not the cheap hard noodles we microwaved in college. Ramen usually consists of noodles in either miso broth, soy broth, or salt broth. There is typically meat served in the broth as well- I chose pork. Ordering the ramen was a different experience- outside the restaurants, there were menus posted, but fortunately for us non-Japanese speaking folk- they also had photos! Each photo then corresponded with a button on a vending machine. After putting in your money, the vending machine spit out a ticket that you then took to the guy behind the counter. Pretty efficient process!
Here is the view from my hotel room at the KKR Hotel. Not exactly what I thought I would see. I imagined looking out at a sea of concrete and skyscrapers. The KKR Hotel, however, is located next to the Imperial Palace Gardens so the view was quite nice.
The rooms were also spacious- not what I had in mind for Tokyo having such high density. The toilet was somewhat elusive, however. Next to the toilet seat, there are symbols and buttons- but nothing that looked like a handle for flushing. I knew I didn't want the ones marked, "shower" or "bidet", I'm wasn't sure what the "stop" button would stop, and the button with Japanese writing was a complete guess... I would later find out that was the seat warmer button. I returned that evening to find I had apparently turned the seat heat to high- quite the unexpected experience. I did find the flusher- it was directly behind the toilet (hidden by the toilet lid when it is up). I've included a video that was shared with us about Japanese toilets on our first full day:
Our hotel seemed to have an emphasis on hosting weddings- as suggested by the "wedding fair" sign in the front of the building an the wedding packages advertised in the lobby. Interestingly, from my floor of the hotel, you could see into a chapel where ceremonies were held. The chapel appeared to be Christian, with a large cross above the pulpit. I found this interesting, as very few people are Christian in Japan. I later asked about this and learned that "western-style" weddings are very popular for couples. They pay the hotels to do everything, including a chapel wedding. Later during our stay we saw wedding parties getting prepared for a ceremony. Several of the older women wore very fancy kimonos to the ceremony, which was pretty neat to see.
We were visiting during the yearly celebration of Tanabata, the Star Festival (officially on July 7). For this holiday, people write wishes on ribbons and hang them from bamboo. I've added a photo of the wishes people had hung in the lobby of KKR Hotel. We saw many of these as we toured Japan- and even added our own wishes while we were in Kyoto later in the trip. It was my understanding that these are burned as offerings after the holiday passes.
I'll be honest, I was a bit nervous about flying to Japan without having met anyone from our group. In past travel trips, we met in the United States prior to traveling or met at a U.S. airport and then traveled as a group to the international destination. This was a bit different. There were several people traveling on the same flight to Narita, but without knowing what anyone looked like, I would imagine it was difficult to "meet up". I was the only fellow flying out of Minneapolis, so the trip would be a lone one for me. Regardless, my day began at 5:30am- I left the house at 7:00am, flight to Minneapolis took off at 9:15 and arrived at 11:00am. I felt a little rushed due to my flight to Narita leaving at 11:40am (seeing as it's the only flight to Narita each day), but I had plenty of time to find my gate, use the bathroom, and get a bite to eat. The gate to Narita was in itself a cultural awakening- I was definitely one of very few non-Asians waiting for the flight and I was already hearing conversations in tongues foreign to mine. Once on the plane, all announcements were made in English and Japanese and the second meal served included a more Asian-themed fare- curry, salmon, and rice.. I had calculated that leaving at 11:40am CST meant 1:40am Tokyo time. I promised myself I would at least get 5 hours of sleep- I'm not sure whether that was a reality, but I did manage to sleep some.
Upon arriving in Narita, (at 4:50pm the NEXT day) I followed the hallways ushering me to customs and at the bottom of the first escalator I found a "welcome to Japan" sign. Immediately after exiting the escalator, I was greeted by a whole slew of Disney characters on the wall. Globalization at work. After going through customs, getting fingerprinted and photo'd, and picking up my bags, I exited the arrival gates only to be immediately overwhelmed by my next steps. I knew I first needed to find a way to get money- I followed the Delta flight crew to an ATM (when in doubt, follow the flight crew) and pulled out some crispy yen. I noticed that regardless of where I was given yen in cash- it always felt new- not crumpled and fragile like some of our currency. Next step was to find the Narita Express train (but there are so many trains!). I wandered around like an idiot looking for the NEX and meanwhile kept an eye out for wifi hot-spots you can rent at the airports- unfortunately I was pretty intimidated by the signs at these kiosks. The only words I could read on their signs were "wifi rental". That's it. No prices. No terms. Nothing. This is what it must be like for foreigners entering the United States without knowledge of English. I have made it a point to be more empathetic toward people wandering around and changing directions suddenly in airports. Without an understanding of the native language, everything is 100% more overwhelming. After deciding against renting wifi at the airport, I checked my facebook to see if anyone else had landed. There was talk of several of us meeting up and heading to Tokyo together. Unfortunately, no one had checked in and I didn't know what anyone looked like, so I decided to go ahead and head to the hotel on my own. I found the NEX ticket counter, managed to purchase a ticket headed in the correct direction and also purchased a return trip ticket for July 9th. While I felt great about successfully purchasing tickets, I had yet to get to the train. I wandered around a bit more- realizing that I needed to be a bit more "on"- no more wasting time. All signs were above hallways and corridors and while many were written in Japanese, in small letters English was visible. I followed the signs, fumbled with putting my ticket into the gate machine (does it go face up? face down? a side with arrows first? no? none of those? just stick it in the machine? okay. The poor people behind me. As I came down the steps to the train platform, people began running for the train. Great. I took off looking for Car #8- two bags and a backpack in tow. I made it to the car and saw that there was a yellow belt across the opening. I wasn't sure what this was about, but I was pretty sure I needed on the train. Come to find out, the yellow belt was placed there by a train sanitation worker who asked me to get back off of the car (that's what I gathered anyways), as they clean the train at the end of the line before leaving Narita again. So there I was waiting for 20 minutes after running to "catch" the train. In that 20 minutes, however, I was able to observe the cleaners- and boy did they clean. I mean, they scrubbed the train. I'm not sure whether public transportation in the United States ever gets scrubbed, but this is something we should look into. I also connected to free wifi just long enough to let my parents and BJ know that I made it safely.
The train took off for Tokyo- I was ready to close my eyes for a bit, but wanted to see the landscape. There were so many hills, all appearing green and lush with vegetation. There were rice paddies in the valleys and many, many, electrical/telephone lines. There appeared to be several smaller towns between Narita and Tokyo- some with more traditional Japanese roof lines, with others appearing more modern tucked in next to strip malls with shops like Sports Authority in them. The ride was about 1hr- just long enough to cool off before arriving at Tokyo Station.
Tokyo Station, by the way, should be deemed its own city. It was the most overwhelming place I've ever been- people everywhere. I knew I needed to find an exit, which I realized were indicated with yellow signs. I stopped at several maps before finally just choosing an exit. Any exit. Upon exiting at the Yaesu Central Exit, I found the taxi station- the taxis here are awesome- the doors open automatically. I was told that if I said "KKR Hotel" the taxi driver would know what I meant. I wasn't so sure at first, as he repeated my request to himself a few times, but five minutes later I arrived at the KKR Hotel in Tokyo- at roughly 6:45pm. After the white gloved taxi driver helped me with my bags at the curb, he bowed to me before leaving. I have never been bowed to. What an interesting place.
In addition to my ordinary travel preparations like finding my passport, checking visa requirements, and making a list of things to pack, I have been doing some research about my destination. When deciding what to pack, customs and taboos must always be taken in to consideration. For example, when traveling to Turkey and Morocco, I packed long skirts, blouses with high necklines, and carried a scarf in order to enter a mosque. For Japan, I have found it is is important to dress modestly, particularly in the work place. No low cut blouses, sleeves are preferred, and Japanese women even wear hosiery in the hottest months when wearing skirts or dresses. At the advice of an AP Human Geography colleague, I began reading the book, "Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West" by T.R. Reid. The book, written in 1999, may be a bit dated, but the underlying themes and questions of the book are worth considering. Among those ideas, I'm most interested in observing the following during my trip:
For those of you unfamiliar with teacher travel fellowships, I wanted to briefly explain the preparation for participating in a travel program. There are several travel opportunities for teachers, but many teachers aren't sure where to learn of these programs. Google is your best friend, in this case. Search for "teacher travel opportunities", "teacher travel fellowships", "teacher travel grants", etc. You will find an array of programs: some are designed for teachers in specific disciplines, some are for those willing to participate in 3-4 week programs, some require fluency in a foreign language, some programs expense-paid, however others require fees-prices are often reasonable and grants are often available with these programs. Do some exploring on the internet, read teacher travel blogs, and research the programs prior to submitting an application. Be certain you are willing to carry out any responsibilities assigned to you as part of the programs. Most programs will require you to create lesson plans, give presentations, and share information within professional and community settings. Some programs require online classes and culminating projects or research presentations. Additionally, teachers need to keep in mind: travel tours usually have an intense itinerary with little free time, tours may require physically demanding tasks, some programs require rooming with another teacher, and many programs are unable to guarantee diet preferences. Traveling in this manner is not for everyone- so be sure you are on board before putting effort in to preparing your application. I have found these opportunities to be incredibly rewarding- I would encourage anyone interested to begin applying as soon as possible. Expect to hear a "no thanks" and be ready to reapply- there are thousands of teachers interested in such programs... but as I like to think about it- they have to choose someone, why can't it be you?