Japan Journal

A collection of thoughts, stories, anecdotes, vignettes and observations during my time in the land of the rising sun.







Here's an aerial view of where I stayed while I was in Japan (click the link and zoom out three times).  You can see the airbase to the right and a river to the left.  I stayed between the two.  Downtown Tokyo is to the far right and if you pull back far enough you'll see Tokyo Bay to the east as well. 
You can also see pictures from my trip here.

Monday, May 15 


After a rather long flight, I arrived in Tokyo in the late afternoon. I wasn't on the ground long before being impressed. The place felt like the very definition of "civilized." Riding the trains through Tokyo from the airport, I couldn't help but marvel at how clean and quiet they were. Even though it was crowded to capacity, the crowd wasn't yammering away on their cell phones. Instead, people read, listened to music, nodded off, or madly thumbed their cell phone's keypad as they text messaged. Despite the crowd, I felt as if I needed to whisper. As the crowd thinned out, one man became the exception as he talked on his cell. Even then he walked to the corner, turned towards the wall and spoke very softly so as not to disturb anyone else.

Thursday, May 18 

Random Observations

I have traveled to the future! About 17 hours in the future to be precise, but what a strange new world they have here. Even the toilet looks like it's out of Buck Rogers. 
The apartment itself is very nice, but it is definitely bad for my posture. The doorways are just at the top of my head level so I have to keep ducking -- just to be safe. And the sinks are low so that when I'm brushing my teeth, washing dishes, etc., I feel like I'm bending way over. The only other bad thing about this place is that the train tracks are about 60 feet from my bedroom window. It has turned me into a morning person. 
This is definitely a bicycle culture. There are not only parking lots for bikes everywhere, but I've even seen entire parking garages near some of the train stations built for nothing but bikes. Some of the bike parking lots outside of apartment buildings even have two-levels. One bike is parked and then somehow lifted up about four feet so another bike can fit underneath. 
We're getting hit with a lot of rain from a typhoon far south of us. So far it's rained almost every day since I arrived.

Friday, May 19

I'm sick. I started feeling it last night, but I now have a sore throat. It was so painful it woke me up in the middle of the night, but I took something for it and managed to get back to sleep. As a result, I've spent most of the day parked in front of the TV or the computer or I stayed in bed reading. In fact, I didn't leave the apartment except to stand or sit on the balcony. But it was overcast or lightly raining all day and tomorrow it's supposed to get worse. In fact, it's ironic that I've been in the land of the rising sun for four days and I have yet to see the yellow orb!

Saturday, May 20 


Angie went out to a company BBQ while I stayed in because I'm still congested and feeling somewhat ill. Nevertheless, I managed to do a short workout, showered, then settled in to watch something on TV. Outside was the first sunny day since I arrived. In fact, it was very bright, hot and sunny. I shut the curtain so I could see the TV better. About twenty minutes later, a gust of wind sent the curtain flying. I jumped up to look outside and I saw the sunny day was quickly fading as storm clouds rolled in with a furious intensity. I had laundry hanging on the line (there are no dryers here, so everyone hangs laundry on the balcony) and I could tell the skies were about to burst open with rain, so naturally I did what anyone would do -- I grabbed a camera to capture the storm clouds! After snapping a couple shots, it began raining, so I frantically pulled in the laundry just as sheets of rain fell at a 45 degree angle. The rain soaked the balcony, but not the laundry, which I managed to pull inside just in time.

Sunday, May 21

Not too far to the west is a place called Ome. It's nestled in a valley surrounded by trees. Angie and I went hiking in the thickly wooded hills. It was quite tranquil and beautiful.

Monday, May 22

Angie's cousin Matt loaned me his bike and I finally picked it up today. At last, freedom.

Tuesday, May 23

I threw in a load of laundry and decided I needed to take the bike out. I didn't know where I was going to go, but I headed towards the Tama River. Last night I looked at a map of the area and I saw that I could get to Ome if I followed the river west. I didn't plan on heading there when I left, but that's exactly where I ended up going. 
It was a difficult ride since I was always trying to keep the river in sight and sometimes that was impossible. I ran into several dead ends or stairways that I had to carry the bike up and over, but eventually I made it to Ome. I did a short hike and discovered a ropes or obstacle course of some kind. I played around for a while, then resumed hiking. Finally, I headed home, but this time I decided to take route 29 instead of following the river. It was much faster and I found my way home quite quickly. It convinced me that it's easy to get to Ome without taking the train. I'll definitely head back there soon.

Wednesday, May 24 


Wherever I go, danger seems to follow (though always at a discrete distance)... 
U.S. embassy in Japan receives possible threat against American facilities 
TOKYO (AP) - The U.S. Embassy said Wednesday it had received a possible threat against U.S. facilities in Japan and warned American citizens to be on guard against suspicious activities. 
The embassy, which remained open for business on Wednesday, would not say how or when the threat had been received. Officials refused to specify what precautions had been taken. "The U.S. Embassy has learned of a possible threat against American facilities in Japan, the credibility of which has yet to be determined," the warning sent to U.S. citizens via e-mail read. 
"Given the upcoming Memorial Day holiday, we advise American citizens to exercise caution and report any suspicious activities to authorities," it added. 
U.S. Embassy official Doug Morris said he could not add to the warning, and that the Embassy would determine whether to take further action as it investigated the credibility of the threat. 
Maj. Richelle Dowdell, spokeswoman for U.S. Forces Japan, said she had not heard about the threat, and that security levels at the USFJ headquarters had not been affected. 
Some 50,000 American soldiers are based in Japan. 
The Tokyo Metropolitan police department has received no reports about any threats, damages or incidents at U.S. related facilities in Japan, a police spokesman said. 


» Read the article on CNEWS

Wednesday, May 24

I decided to take the bike out exploring and ended up going on a longer bike ride than I intended. 
I headed southeast around Yokota Air Base and then went east. I thought about visiting a park, but instead simply rode around taking in the sights. I stopped at one point to watch an inning of a baseball game. The Japanese really do love baseball. 
After a few hours of riding, I decided to head home, especially as it would be getting dark soon. I knew where I was most of the time, but I decided to take a different route home. Looking at the map, route 7 should have taken me almost directly back west. Somehow, I managed to get lost. 
It's very easy to get lost here. First of all many of the streets have no name. There are simply no street names at all for many of the smaller twisting and windy streets that make up the bulk of Tokyo. Major intersections have street signs, but instead of the street name, they name the intersection! So when you look up, all four signs have the same name! Not very helpful. 
Somehow, I had strayed from route 7. I stopped at an intersection trying to read my map but not having a clue as to where I might be. I ended up asking an old man for directions. Fortunately for me, he happened to speak fluent English. When he found out which direction I was going (towards Yokoto Air Base) he said, "I'm heading that way, follow me." At first I was annoyed because he was on foot and I was on a bike. I had to walk the bike behind him. Also, it was getting late and I wanted to get back to familiar territory before dark. But we ended up talking and having a fascinating conversation. Although he appeared to be 60 or 65-years-old, I found out that he was actually 80 years old! He was walking home from the park where he'd just finished practicing Shotokan Karate. He was a blackbelt. I learned his name was Katsuhara and he'd spent some time in Los Angeles working as a translator. I think he wanted to talk to me so he could practice his English. Anyway, he was kind enough to walk out of his way just to point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, it didn't do me much good as I still wound up lost and didn't get home until well after dark. This later prompted me to buy a compass which I often used to make sure I was at least heading in the right direction.

Friday, May 26

We went to the Blue Note in downtown Tokyo to see jazz pianist Michel Camilo play with his trio. He's an amazing player. It was also great to walk around Tokyo at night.

Saturday, May 27

Rain. Lots of rain again today. All day.

Tuesday, May 30

More rain.

Wednesday, May 31

After being cooped up, I decided to head for Ome in the late afternoon. I'm glad I did. It was a good ride followed by a good hike. I even played around on the obstacle course again.

Friday, June 2

I rode along the Tama River and discovered a new hiking trail in Hamura. I parked the bike and headed down the path -- which quickly led up and up and up. After a long climb, I found a Shinto Shrine overlooking the valley at the top. Though it provided a wonderful view, the trail continued so I followed it back into the woods. I wandered for over an hour before I decided to head back. It's amazing how quickly Tokyo ends and the woods and mountains begin.

Friday, June 2 

 Mt. Fuji

I had hoped to climb Mt. Fuji, but this suggests it might not be wise, especially since it is still completely covered in snow!

Sunday, June 4

Every once in awhile we accomplish something we're really proud of.  One of my original goals in coming to Japan was to climb Mt. Fuji, but alas, I didn't know it would still be covered in snow and that the "climbing season" doesn't even begin until July.  At any rate, it's considered fairly hazardous to climb right now.  So while riding my bike along the Tama river last week, I wondered to myself, how far is it from here to Tokyo Bay?  The answer -- far.  The more specific answer is about 60 miles (100 km).  I've ridden 20 mile treks often enough in L.A. and knew that 30 shouldn't be too much of a problem. But 60? Well, if nothing else, I knew I'd make it to the Bay at least.  At any rate, today was beautifully cloudy and cool and I decided that this would be the day to make the journey.  I made it there and back in roughly 7 1/2 hours with few stops other than to snap pics or grab a drink from a vending machine.  Needless to say, I'm tired, already sore, and probably won't be able to move tomorrow.  But I made it -- not only to and from the Bay, but also on the longest bike ride I've ever done -- and probably will ever do.

Monday, June 5

I felt sore last night and had a lot of trouble sleeping, but I'm surprised that I'm not twisted in agony today. I expected it to be far worse. Instead, I felt pretty good.

Tuesday, June 6 

Random Observations

They make lots of announcements in Japan. There is a 9 p.m. announcement every night. There are often announcements around 5 p.m. but I don't think they occur every day. Sometimes they'll make random announcements about something. During the day, trucks will pass slowly through the street with a PA system. Because they're big on recycling, a truck goes by picking up electronics and appliances. As it rolls down the street, the PA apparently lists the items he'll pick up. 
The Japanese are very fit. I've hardly seen anyone overweight. It's quite rare. Though very unscientific, I would attribute this to the fact that people walk or ride bikes significantly more (either to get around or to get to the train stations) and that the portions of food served at restaurants is much smaller than the over-sized American portions. In other words, this is a healthy amount of food. 
Bikes -- people ride them in heavy rain while carrying umbrellas. Gloves that are permanently attached to the handlebars resembling oven mitts are mounted on some bikes to keep your hands warm and dry.

Thursday, June 8

I decided to head to Shinjuku. I spent the afternoon walking around taking lots of pics. As usual, it looked as if it would rain at any second, but it never did. There is a lot of impressive architecture around this area, so many of my pictures are of the buildings. I also found a homeless camp in the park. It was quite elaborate and rather tidy.

Thursday, June 8

(An e-m I sent one of my friends) 
I just got back a little while ago from a day in Shinjuku. Unfortunately, I have developed an addiction while I've been here. No, I haven't started chasing the dragon (actually, I never stopped), but I'm afraid I now spend hundreds of dollars a day on pachinko. Oh, it is a lark. You feed money into a machine and then you... do nothing. Except watch ballbearings run through a crazy maze of pinball-esque gadgetry and if you're lucky... you win some of the ballbearings. So far, I have roughly 80 million of them.

Saturday, June 10

Angie and I headed to the Parasite museum in Meguro. I discovered that museums are more interesting when you can actually read the descriptions of the placards beneath the exhibits. Nevertheless, it was still rather fascinating and where else can you buy a shirt with a tapeworm on it? (Not a real one.)


» Take an on-line tour of the museum

Monday, June 12

Instead of states, Japan has prefectures. Looking at a map one afternoon, I realized that by riding east along the Tama River, I'd biked halfway across Tokyo prefecture. Since I'd already ridden west to Ome, I started thinking that another goal could be to ride West all the way across Tokyo prefecture (north to south isn't even half as long). Unfortunately, the idea came too late as I'm leaving in a few days. But I noticed Mt. Mitake isn't too far from here and I always wanted to bike that, too, but I heard that the terrain becomes too hilly and rugged. So this afternoon I set out to find some new hiking trails. Little did I know it, but I ended up going almost all the way to Mitake Station and it wasn't a difficult ride at all. Once I returned, I wished I had a few more days to make the entire trip. 
I didn't even realize where I was until I stopped at a small pottery shop and showed the merchant a map and asked where I was. I was surprised to see how much further I'd traveled than I imagined. At this point, Tokyo prefecture is almost entirely country as the road winds its way through a thickly tree-covered valley. 
The merchant, a woman in her forties, offered me some delicious mint tea as we attempted to communicate with our limited language skills. But I appreciated the chance to rest and enjoy some tea while sitting in her backyard (it was a tiny shop located on the side of her house) beneath the tree-lined hills.

Tuesday, June 13 


Everyone knows that Hollywood doesn't depict violence realistically.  That's because the real thing doesn't take place in high speed action sequences with people jumping over tables and smashing chairs over people's heads.  Instead, acts of violence are almost comic in the slow, uncoordinated way that they unfold -- and they are never pretty to behold.  
Although I absolutely loved my stay in Japan, Tokyo decided to show me its dark underbelly on my last night. While the fight I witnessed, between several drunks, could have occurred in any country at any time. It just happened to be in Japan, and it just happened to be the worst fight I've ever witnessed. 
When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was warned that, because of several fights involving American serviceman (an American Air Force base was less than a mile away), a curfew was initiated on the aptly named "Bar Road." Of course, there are more than bars located on this tiny one lane road, there are also night clubs, strip joints, and even a few restaurants. And the curfew is only active between 1-6 a.m. I originally went around 11:30 p.m. to pick up some milk from the store, but decided to take one last walk around the area. 
Fussa City is the name of the suburb where I was staying, and Fussa station is one of the larger stations in the area with an all night grocery, pachinko parlors, and all night vendors. Because I needed milk, I found myself walking around the area surrounding Fussa station. I had just walked through a very dark and quiet street when I rounded the corner and found myself facing the glaring lights of Bar Road. Not only were my eyes assaulted by the neon glow emanating from the depths of the street, but my ears were assaulted by the sounds. As soon as I turned the corner, I heard a commotion further down the street.  I could see some guys tussling, but I couldn't tell if it was serious or just an argument.  I soon discovered it was serious.  
The main fight took place between two men; one incredibly tall, probably six foot two or six foot three, and heavy. Not the kind of guy you want to mess with. The other guy was much smaller; maybe five foot five, and thin. Both were drunk, but the big guy had a firm grip on the smaller one so he couldn't get away. When I first saw them, they almost looked like drunken buddies helping each other stagger down the street. But they were surrounded by others, five or six at least. When it was clear the two were fighting, I couldn't tell whose side the others were on. At least one other guy was trying to help the spindly man caught in the big guy's grasp, but the others were like jackals, constantly jumping in to quickly punch or slap the small guy. That's when I realized it was a gang. 
Then the jackals seemed to part, and the two men were alone as they passed me in the street. For one brief moment, the little guy almost got away. He pulled free and gained some space from the larger man, but the man had a firm grasp on the small guy's coat and he wouldn't let go, nor could the smaller man escape. The coat held him like a fisherman's net. The small guy's buddy tried to grab him and pull him free, but to no avail. The big guy reeled his victim back in, and put him in a headlock. 
At this point, one of the big guy's friends, about five foot ten and muscular, came running down the street carrying four or five empty bottles, each roughly the size of a forty ounce bottle. These were big, thick glass bottles. I'd already seen the big man break one glass bottle against the little guy's back when they were enmeshed in the gang. In fact, that could have been what caused the jackals to move away, I can't remember anymore. Now he was supplied with fresh ammunition and he was ready to use it. One by one he took the empties from his friend and smashed them over the small guy's head. 
In the movies when someone breaks a bottle over another person's head, it always breaks the first time.  That almost never happened during this fight.  Instead, a bottle would come crashing down against the small guy's head and I'd hear a sickening thunk as it cracked against his skull. Usually they would break with the second strike, sending glass flying everywhere. After all five bottles were broken, the street was covered in glass. Somehow, the little guy still stood. 
Finally, the poor hapless victim broke free. He took off in a staggered run, his friend helping him. Blood was everywhere and someone walked by me, blood dripping down his hand where one of the glass fragments had hit him. Another victim. 
The assailants took off. I wondered where the police were. The fight seemed to last forever. All up and down the street, people watched from the doorways, but no one had interfered. I was tempted to try and help, but not knowing who was who, I was afraid I'd get jumped, causing me to miss my flight home because I was laid up in a hospital with stitches. Or worse. 
Finally, the police arrived. Once they did, the street became thick with them. More than thirty police and several ambulances arrived. They stretched out along the street and I could guess where the fight started by the throng of cops interviewing people outside a bar up the street. 
I hung out and talked to a few Americans, but I never did find out what the fight was about. I only know I'll never forget it.


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