Burning Dolls in Ueno Park

Burning Dolls in Ueno ParkI wandered into Ueno park with every intention of spending a quiet afternoon watching pandas and penguins at the zoo. I started the day with a visit to the statue of Takamori Saigo, the legendary Ronin then wandered among the various shrines and temples located in the park.

I paused briefly at the Kaneiji Kiyomizudo Temple. According to the guidebook, this is where women wishing to become pregnant come to pray to the Goddess of Mercy (fill in your own punch line). Those whose prayers are answered return later to pray for the health of the child. Many leave dolls behind as a sort of offering. The description in the book left me with visions of a mound of dolls piling up in the back room of this temple while disgruntled monks looked for a way to quietly dispose of these ritualistic offerings. Or maybe the monks were also doll collectors. The mind reels with possibilities.

The area was mostly deserted and the temple appeared to be closed. I peered through the gates hoping for a glimpse of some massive mountain of dolls, but there wasn’t much to see on this particular morning. Just a maintenance man raking some leaves.

After leaving the temple, I worked my way around the park and down towards the lake. At this point I was wandering aimlessly, and as I climbed back up Ueno hill, I must confess I was not sure exactly where I was and was actually feeling a bit lost.

In time, a strange and discordant music seemed to engulf the hill. It was an unearthly sound. Since I wasn’t sure where I was or where I was going (a typical state of mind in Tokyo) I decided to follow the sound and see where it might lead me.

As I arrived at the top of the hill I realized that my aimless wandering had lead me in a complete circle and I had returned to my starting point in front of the Temple. My walk through the park must have taken longer than I thought. The formerly deserted temple grounds were now the site of an incredible amount of activity. Loud music was coming from an amplifier set up in front of the temple, right next to what looked like a large barbecue pit made out of concrete slabs. As I moved closer to take a look at the pit, I realized it was literally filled with dolls. There was every kind of doll imaginable: porcelain geishas carefully mounted on wooden platforms, floppy over-stuffed dogs, and traditional teddy bears. Even Barbie, Ken and Elmo were all in the pit awaiting some uncertain fate.

A crowd was slowly gathering. They were mostly Japanese and dressed as if they were going to church. They had come for the annual doll burning ritual, which, much to my surprise, was about to take place. The event is held every year on September 25th in front of the Kaneiji Kiyomizudo Temple.

The crowd waited patiently as the ceremony began. A processional lead by a pair of young Japanese women dressed in traditional Kimono marched slowly from the temple. They were followed by a Buddhist priest and four Buddhist monks. The processional slowly made its way to a canopy near the pit. This is where the ritual began.

The priest and the monks sat under the canopy and began chanting in unison. The Buddhists have a tremendous command of sound in ritual; this ritual featured percussion, which became a kind of hypnotic counterpoint to the chanting. The monks were chanting prayers written on brightly colored circles of paper. Each monk had a small stack of these prayer circles which they would touch, one by one, to their foreheads and then toss them to the ground.

When the chanting ended, the women from the processional stood with dolls in hand and slowly walked toward the pit. One of the women read something in Japanese (which means I have no clue what she said), and then both women placed their dolls on top of the pile in the pit. They stood back as two men with flaming torches lit the pile of dolls. In seconds, the dolls were engulfed in flames and the crowd became chaos.

The place was swarming with professional media photographers (and me with my cheap disposable camera). As soon as the dolls were on fire, the camera crews moved in to capture the event. The carefully erected media barriers were instantly obliterated. I jumped the barriers with my compatriots from the press corps.

The monks looked on in amusement. The priest was actually taking pictures of us taking pictures of the burning dolls. Very Zen.

Within minutes, the fire had died out and the dolls were transformed into a pile of ash.

Then it was over. People raced to the canopy to grab the prayer circles. The camera crews packed up and left the park. Presumably the priest stopped off at a Photomat to develop his film.

Everyone went back to the bustling world that is modern Tokyo.

JBall: A Real Japanese Pennant Race

JBall A Real Japanese Pennant RaceIt was the middle of a heated pennant race, and there were only three games left in the season when we decided take in a Japanese baseball game. We boarded the train to the Tokyo Dome (aka The Big Egg) with no tickets and no plan. The trip to the stadium itself was more complex than usual. A half a dozen transfers later, we arrived at the Big Egg and were immediately engulfed by a seemingly endless sea of baseball fanatics. We had no choice but to follow the crowd and hope we were headed in the right direction.

We arrive at the box office just 10 minutes before game time and attempted to buy tickets. It was all the attendant could do to keep from laughing at us. SOLD OUT! Of course! What were we thinking?!

We’re from Los Angeles, what do we know about locals supporting their home team?

Dejected, we found what must have been the only isolated spot outside of the Tokyo Dome and sat outside admiring the extremely cool neon sign and wondering where we’d gone wrong. It was our last night in Tokyo and we had lost all hope of actually seeing a Japanese baseball game. In a matter of minutes the sea of fans vanished into the stadium and the steps just outside the stadium were almost entirely abandoned. At that point it was just us and the scalpers.

SCALPERS! It suddenly dawned on us. Japanese Scalpers! We might have been naive about purchasing tickets in advance, but there was still some hope for us.

Of course the prospect of dealing with Japanese scalpers was less than promising. Three weeks of Power Japanesedoes not prepare someone to negotiate black market transactions outside the Tokyo Dome (it barely prepared us to negotiate the subway system). Deficiencies in the language notwithstanding, we quickly developed a strategy. Well, in reality, I decided we should wait. It was obvious who the scalpers were and their potential market was shrinking by the minute. We’d just sit on the steps outside the Tokyo Dome, take in the perfect view, and see what happened.

About ten minutes later we heard something that vaguely resembled a national anthem. The game was about to start and almost no one was left outside the stadium. This was our signal to move in on the scalpers. Surely they would be desperate to unload any tickets they had left.

Japanese Scalpers

There was just one problem. A serious language barrier prevented us from initiating the transaction. It isn’t until you face a situation like this that you realize there is no international sign for ticket scalping. After a few false starts we managed to attract a small group of scalpers who understood that we were interested in purchasing tickets to the game. At this point they actually outnumbered us.

First they offered us seats behind home plate. A mere 25,000 yen each! That’s about $250 for a baseball game! At this point it was clear that they were somehow under the misimpression that we were wealthy Americans. I quickly made the international sign for “we have no money” and they began to lower their expectations. The next offer was a bit better, but not much. 5,000 Yen for seats in some undisclosed area of the park. That’s still $50 per seat. Not only is it a lot of money for a baseball game, it’s actually more cash than we had between us.

I quickly lowered the scalpers’ expectations even more by pulling change out of my pocket and counting it carefully (mostly single yen pieces – practically worthless in Japan . . . or any other country for that matter). At that point the scalpers figured me for a total loss and began to scatter.

It didn’t take long for them to realize that the game had already begun and their options were limited. I then pulled out my wallet and showed a few thousand yen notes. Suddenly we were back in business again. I emphasized that I had more American money than Yen. I showed them a twenty dollar bill. They all shook their heads knowingly. This was something they seemed to understand.

Ultimately they sold us a pair of seats in right field at face value (2,000 Yen each – a little less than $20, a bargain in Tokyo). We were in our seats before the top of the first inning was over. In fact, there was only one out — although there were three runs. Apparently we missed some serious Japanese baseball action during our negotiations. Not much however, because in Japan most of the action at baseball games is in the cheering section. And our seats were right in the middle of the home team’s cheering section. If you’re ever in this situation, be forewarned, these people are serious about baseball and cheering (not necessarily in that order)! Every one of the approximately 2,000 people in the cheering section had a loud noise-making device; some of them had multiple devices. And believe me when I say they did not hesitate to use them (although they did so in an orderly and polite manner).

That’s OK, Try Again!

The cheering section was lead by a band of long hairs in orange and black yutaka with the Yomiuri Giants mascot (a large, goofy rabbit) on the back. They had some very elaborate cheers that everyone seemed to know by heart (except us). Our favorite was repeated whenever a Giants batter swung and missed. It sounded something like “That’s OK, try again!”.

There was also a horn section. Lots of trumpets. Real trumpets, not toys. Real trumpets blaring what sounded like cartoon theme music from the 1940’s. And drums! Big bass drums. More chanting and flag waving. And all of this racket never stops. My ears are still ringing. We were literally in the middle of all of this.

The rest of the crowd outside of the cheering section was surprisingly sedate. It’s almost as if the cheering section is the only area authorized to make any noise. Or perhaps they were making noise, but I was temporarily deafened by the noise around me.

The excitement of the cheering section is fueled by a group of very happy young Japanese women with kegs of beer strapped to their backs. They race up and down the aisles desperately trying to make eye contact with the crowd. If you look at them, they smile and hold up a beer glass. Actually, what they really do is more along the lines of a model displaying a new automobile. Their every action seems to say, “this irresistible beer could be yours”. Simply nod your head, and they’re at your seat pouring a fresh draft beer, right from the keg mounted on their back. American Baseball could learn a lot from the Japanese.

This all seemed strangely dangerous. At least for the traveling American.

Ultimately, the Yomiuri Giants lost the game (and the pennant race, and the title, but that’s another story entirely and will be written when some great Japanese sports writer writes the complete history of Japanese baseball — sign me up for the first copy please). By this time, we were such diehard Giants fans that we were shouting nasty comments about the umpire’s eyesight. We are not gracious losers.

Oh sure, there are more glamorous things to do in Tokyo. But my point is this: don’t pass up a chance to see a Japanese baseball game. You’ll witness a part of Japanese culture that isn’t readily apparent in any other public venue (except maybe at a Sumo match). And if you don’t have tickets, don’t let that stop you. Negotiating with those scalpers is at least half the fun.

Gin Margaritas in Roppongi

“…The Chinese over there in China, they was all wantin’ to eat macaroni and cheese. Don’t you think that kind of odd, what with all the Chinese food they got?”

– From the movie Mystery Train

Gin Margaritas in RoppongiOne of the joys of travel is to experience a favorite cuisine first-hand. Even the best ethnic restaurant seems to be missing something when compared to the same restaurants in a home country. But just as the above line from the classic film Mystery Trainindicates, no matter how incredible the cuisine, you’ll want something different every now and then.

For us, it’s Mexican food. No matter where we are, we want Mexican food. Because we live in Southern California, this need can be met pretty much any time of day or night – in just about any incarnation we desire. And I suspect that it’s the knowing that our easy access has been eliminated that makes the desire for just one little chile relleno that much stronger. Or why, when faced with an array of local beers (both new choices and old favorites), we suddenly crave Dos Equis.

The hardest thing that we’ve had to accept is that Mexican food hasn’t reached the worldwide saturation of, say, Chinese or Italian food. In many locations, it’s still exotic enough to be rare or interpreted rather strangely – much in the way that Chinese food was, um, transformed for the North American market. For example, the highly cuisine-conscious London has a smattering of Mexican restaurants (much to the dismay of expatriate friends) while Tokyo is home to an abundance of Mexican restaurants – with mixed (read: sometimes weird) results.

In fact, Tokyo pretty much represents the highs and lows of our Mexican food obsession. The lowest of the low came in the form of…gin margaritas. Well, we don’t have absolute confirmation that we were actually served gin, but being the trained professionals that we are (yes, we have credentials), we know for a fact that we were not drinking tequila, vodka wouldn’t have been so obvious, whiskey is sweeter…you get the picture. Luckily, the restaurant had a fine selection of Mexican beers, and the meal was saved by the timely intervention of our old friend, Dos Equis — ok, after choking down the truly horrible margaritas, we were willing to go that additional step and declare both the green and brown members of the Dos Equis family to be our best friends in the whole, wide world!!!

The high came after a most unpromising start. After hiking the streets of Tokyo, trusty map in hand, we finally locatedCasa Monnon. We wandered in, looked around, and started to worry. It didn’t look like a restaurant — in fact, a more accurate description would be a neighborhood bar with limited patronage. And the bartender was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and strumming a ukulele (normally, we take this as a positive sign — but at this point we were close to starving). We were disheartened, and handled the situation like the pros we are: we decided to have a drink while we decided what to do.

So we ordered margaritas…and they were made with tequila! Eventually, the bartender (ok, he was the owner, cook, bartender, entertainment) asked if we wanted food. We did. He told us that they didn’t really serve food, but he could fix us a little something. We accepted, assuming that we could have some chips, some salsa, finish our margaritas, and move on.

Our little something was incredible. As in really, really good Mexican food. Perfect enchiladas with green sauce. Tacos. Spicy. Food that made a mockery of so many of the other Mexican restaurants that we’d tried during our travels (the restaurant in Paris comes to mind: the only condiment in sight was a bottle of Heinz ketchup conspicuously placed on every table. What the hell is Salsa, anyway?). Food that made us wish our trip was longer so that we could work a second visit into our itinerary (we really did try, but one member of our party insisted that she must eat udon. Whatever.).

After we ate, we stuck around long enough to talk to our new friend and to learn that this meal wasn’t a fluke — our host had lived in Mexico (and the United States). He had studied the cuisine at the source, and understood the concept of the spices. Just as with any cuisine, it’s critical that the right seasonings are used with Mexican food. It’s not the same without that taste of chile or cilantro. Not necessarily a heavy-handed reminder, but more of a ephemeral thing. Just enough to enhance flavors, not mask them. Not too much, not too little.

Exactly the way Casa Monnon served it.

Afterward, we wandered slowly back into Roppongi, full and happy.

Towel Incident At The Westin Tokyo

I blame Douglas Adams for what happened during our last two days in Tokyo. It’s because of him that we always take towels with us whenever we travel. Sure, the Westin Tokyo has towels, but we were unsure of what to expect from the budget ryokan on our side-trip to Kyoto. As a result, we lugged a couple of our best bath towels half way around the world “just in case”.

Ultimately our towels sat on a bench in our room for the entire trip (except for our Kyoto trip, where, of course, we ended up not needing them).

During our frantic packing spree the evening before our departure we noticed our towels had vanished. Apparently the cleaning crew had swept them up with our bed sheets and sent them off to be washed. Upon making this discovery I made what I thought was a harmless inquiry to the front desk. It didn’t take me long to realize that I should have kept my mouth shut.

The service desk passed my inquiry on to the management, and the cleaning crew, and the cleaning company that washes the Westin Towels, and the Tokyo police department, and possibly several international law enforcement agencies. They generally set out a dragnet over the whole of Tokyo looking for our towels.

How was I to know they’d see this as some kind of national shame?

At first I was amused by the situation. It must have been the first time in history that a hotel had stolen towels from its guests. It didn’t take long for my amusement to fade as I spent my last night in Tokyo fielding a series of mind numbing phone calls from various levels of management within the Westin chain. All of them in very broken English. All of them extremely apologetic. Each caller more regretful than the last.

At first they called every hour or so. Then, as our check-out drew nearer, the phone began ringing every five minutes.

“Mr. Krausen, [not my name, but I wasn’t about to point that out] we are looking for your towels right now! We will not rest until they are found. We are most sorry!”

Meetings were held. Half the cleaning staff was dismissed, the other half committed ritual suicide and died in shame.

Finally, just before our departure, it all came to an abrupt end as the manager of the Westin arrived at our door to personally apologize and promise that a mistake of this sort would never happen again. There was some strange ritual involving incense and sake, and then we were presented with two gift boxes which we were assured contained “only the most high quality Westin bath towel”.

At that point it appeared that the Towel Incident had finally come to an end. A very strange way to spend our final hours in Japan.

And so we flew back to Pasadena with our gift wrapped carry-ons (in addition to our normal carry-ons). I used to wonder who those people are who bring gift wrap packages onto international flights. What could they possibly be thinking? Thanks to the Tokyo Westin I actually became one of those people.

Upon our return the packages got stacked in a corner while we unpacked, decompressed, and generally tried to get back to normal after half a month in Japan.

After a week we had a discussion about the boxes in the corner. My wife favored hiding them in the closet fully wrapped as last minute emergency gifts. I favored opening the boxes, taking a shower, and using the towels to dry off. There was actually a surprising amount of debate over what we should do with those boxes.

Eventually something strange happened — my wife agreed with me. So we opened the boxes to take a look at our new towels. Except it turns out that they weren’t towels at all. They were bathrobes with the Westin name embroidered on them.

Now don’t get me wrong. I appreciate those Westin bathrobes, but we’re still missing two of our best towels. Instead we have two new bathrobes that say “Westin Tokyo”. That way we’ll always know where we lost our towels.

I suspect this story will have at least one more chapter. I’m expecting a special delivery package from Japan any day now.