6 September, 2005

Some of the many fine products available in the local convenience store. Those aren't really pretzels in the traditional sense and the BlackBlack is sort of like Blackjack gum. But different.

Or how about a nice UFO snack?

The generic Baked Cookie is also quite popular.

Most of the payphones around here are ISDN phones with all sorts of mysterious powers.

If you can track this place down in Shinjuku, it's not bad.

Here's one of those devices that allows you to charge your mobile phone. Unlike the one in Shanghai, this one wants some compensation.

6 September, 2005

Day 52. The rain kept falling today as the typhoon continued to affect the Tokyo area as well as much of Japan, particularly to the west. It's fun to watch the Japanese television reports and try and figure out what's going on. After a while it becomes pretty simple. And it's rather obvious that this is a major storm that's caused all kinds of flooding in certain regions.

They have a completely different way of dealing with these things here. I saw it on the news. They had emergency workers doing things and helping people while the typhoon was *still* in the area, rather than several days after it had left. I must remember to suggest that to the authorities when I get back home. I'm always looking for new alternative ways of doing things.

Today I was supposed to meet my friend Dave from New York at the airport. With the help of Stuart, a couple of online resources, and a little bit of prayer I mapped out a course to the airport via train and gave myself a few hours to pull the whole thing off. Of course it was nowhere near as simple as I thought it was going to be.

I'd rather not spend time every day detailing the various ways I screwed up inside the subway system or how I believe their system failed me. But let's just say I never make the same mistake twice. And conversely, the system seems to delight in coming up with new ways to foil me. But one thing has really proven helpful and that is the genuine concern of the people. After getting off at the wrong station and then getting on the wrong train which was going to a place with the same name as the airport but not the airport itself, I enlisted the help of some passersby who looked like they might be helpful. Were they ever! They made sure I got off at the right stop and even walked me all the way to one of the gates to make sure that I wouldn't be charged for a second ticket (which apparently I would have been for reasons I still don't understand). I also discovered that the reason I got on the wrong train in the first place was because the subway employee I had asked for directions from had told me to go to Track 2 which I did. How was I to know there was a second Track 2 in a different part of the station?

The system here is great if you know all the rules and an absolute nightmare if you don't. Picture the American phone system post-divestiture when nobody knew how to make a simple phone call anymore. There were local and regional and long distance companies, all kinds of ways of routing calls, duplicate services, extra phone bills, and companies that actively worked against each other while confusing and alienating customers. Well, that's the Tokyo train system. Way back in the 20th century we had competing subway lines in New York where you had to get a different token for each, maps only reflected one company at a time, and it was a lot more difficult for the consumer. Our systems merged into one many years ago. Here one system became privatized and turned into several. You have the Tokyo Metro, the Toei Subway, and the JR lines, all of which go from place to place in the city and all of which use different ticketing systems. For around $15 I can get a pass that works on all of them plus buses (I haven't even tried to figure those out) but I think that would wind up being more of a ripoff than what I've already been going through. The point is it's a terrific system but it could be so much better if it wasn't so schizophrenic.

It took me well over two hours to get all the way out to the airport including the 20 minutes or so I had lost due to my various bouts of confusion. Along the way I noticed that the city was absolutely packed almost the whole way out. It became more residential but there were very few yards or spaces between buildings. I was struck by the number of grade crossings that they had for these trains which were, after all, pretty much like subway trains. That alone seemed to cause an immense amount of traffic.

And then all of a sudden we seemed to be in the country. It was weird how quickly the landscape changed. I still saw no signs of an airport even though we were only a couple of stops away. And as we started to go underground I saw a couple of planes parked and one in the air. The airport, too, comes up on you very suddenly.

Fortunately Dave had stuck around in the terminal since I actually wound up being late even after giving myself so much time. I finally found a place I could change money (although nobody wanted my Chinese yuan) so I took the chance to change some of my remaining American money. Now we just had to head all the way back into the city. They were selling tickets for 2700 yen in the airport which was very strange since I had only spent around 1900 to get out here. So we went downstairs to get our tickets from one of the machines instead. Only this time it cost 1190! I swear I'll never understand this system.

We had the usual problem exiting and entering and reentering the system (I was glad to see I wasn't the only victim) but again with the help of the humans everything turned out OK. We made it back to our hotel, got settled in, caught up on email and stuff, and prepared to go out and wander through Shinjuku.

One of the best things to do when you're in a foreign city is to simply go into the kinds of places that you go into back home and revel in all the differences. We spent some time in a 24 hour office supply store where we found all sorts of weird and different data storage formats, an entire aisle filled with nothing but pens of all varieties, and an assortment of interesting writing tablets. (I can't remember the last time I saw the word "foolscap" used on the cover of a writing tablet back home.) The merging of high tech and low tech always fascinates me and Tokyo seems to be a place where that happens quite a bit. We also went into a couple of convenience stores and saw all of the different products they had there. It was just like being in a convenience store back home except *everything* was strange. All kinds of weird little prepared dishes with pieces of fish everywhere. Seaweed snacks. Beverages that came in plastic bags. Magazines that open in reverse. There's literally no end to the little things that can fascinate you. Or me at least.

We wound up grabbing food in a traditional Japanese joint which had been around since 1858 and turned out to be quite good. We just kept pointing to things on the menu and they kept bringing us interesting little dishes. Dave couldn't handle the chicken cartilage on a skewer but I surprised myself by not having a problem with it. All in all, not a bad place and not very expensive considering the amount of stuff we got.

In the next day I hope to be completely done with the issue which will free me up to do more fun things and also get back to doing more "Speakers' World" segments (yes, we're in IMDB now). We may wind up seeing some sumo wrestlers, a Japanese baseball game, a bunch of temples, and all sorts of other things. I'm looking forward to all of it since in a week I'll be beginning the loneliest ten days of my life. Which I'm also looking forward to in a strange sort of way.