Friday, August 29, 2008

Lost in Translation - I'm living it

Today was a travel day so we planned to take a quick trip down the city of Toba to find some pearl earrings. Toba has grown up around the Mikimoto pearl empire, created by Kochichi Mikimoto who perfected the process for culturing pearls. There is a square island in Toba harbor that houses the Pearl Museum as well as the personal estate of Mikimoto-san. Most of the web guides call the place out as a tourist trap to be avoided ($19 to walk across the bridge to Pearl Island) and it pretty much turned out to be that way, but there we were and there is (perhaps) nothing like a famous pair of pearl earrings and so off we went.

The weather in Ise was threatening, it had rained earlier and while the sky was still gray, it was clear it wasn’t going to come down in buckets any time soon. We caught a local train and headed out of the station towards the south.


The land was a bit different along this route. It was mountainous and we passed through several tunnels as we gained ran along. For the first time, the tracks were lined with tall, dense forests of bamboo interlaced with copses of deciduous trees. Again, it was greener than imaginable and so heavily wooded and dark beneath the canopy.

Crossing one range, it began to pour – clearly some maritime storm was backed up against this line of mountains making the weather on this side far wetter. We arrived and left the station during a brief respite from the showers walking along the harbor front towards Pearl Island. It looked quite a bit like Monterey, and one lone cypress tree on the top of a small island sealed that impression.

While a couple of the crew found a pearl shop and started bargaining, the rest of us wandered around. Boats were pulling into a big dock unloading baskets of fish. Pearl stores lined the streets and mothers with children headed in clumps into the Aquarium. We headed back to collect the shoppers and the sky opened up. We walked under what cover we could find up onto the second floor of the Aquarium and decided to wait the showers out. From the patio we could see a tank full of madly swimming seal lions, so animated that you’d think they were heating the water in their tank. Once in a while one would stick its head out of the water and issue a yell that sounded like an angry man. At the other end of the patio, walruses languidly drifted in their tank offering a peaceful alternative to the seals. A cage full of flamingos and a trough full of domestic ducks completed the menagerie.

It more or less let up a bit so we tried to make our way back to the train station. The sky opened up a second time and so I pulled up my hood and bent forward into the sheets of rain. I was getting into that Zen zone where nothing matters like the mission when I was rudely awakened – a truck hit a big puddle and sent a sheet of water straight into my face. I wiped off and kept on moving.

Nearing the station we took a detour into a building that offered a covered path over the highway to the trains. It was an interesting place, more or less an small mall offering local goods, cheap toys, expensive pearls and all kinds of seafood from dried lobster meat to live abalone to huge living scallops to strange fruit filled pastries. It was quite a smorgasbord so we wandered around taking in the sights.











The train ride back to Ise was pretty much a bore aside from these three school girls who thought we were the funniest five people on two legs. They thought nothing of pointing at us and saying things in that voice that only a sneering teenager can offer, punctuating that with uncontrolled laughter. I know it shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did, because it was just so blatantly and obvious and in some way it summarized my feelings about my visit here. I’ve been to China so many times and have never felt as alienated as I have during these three days. Part of it is the language and part of it is the behavior and character of the people. In China, if you can’t make your wishes clear, the person you’re attempting to communicate with will push back and try to pull the answer out. Here, they just stare at you. In China, English is everywhere, even in the remote places. Here, English is hard to find, even in cities as large as Nagoya. The contrast is stark. I took their picture just to remember the moment.



Arriving in Ise, we returned to the hotel to collect our bags from the concierge during a power blackout. We got our bags, turned around and headed back to the station, once more in the rain.

We had a very hard time at the station with the agent trying to buy tickets; again no English and for some reason no willingness to try. The schedules on the boards are bilingual, as are the tickets. But no matter how many times we repeated “limited express” it wasn’t sinking in. But finally the light bulb came on and we paid up and tried to enter the station where we were stopped by a different guy. Seems the tickets were for the train that was now on the other side of the tracks and for which we had no chance of catching. So the original guy took back our tickets, cut us five new ones and pointed us on our way.
Again dragging our luggage up two flights of slippery steep stairs, we waited, boarded and left on time. The ride in was uneventful


The rest of the day was pretty standard – we tried to by lunch in a restaurant that only offered set meals (appetizer, entrĂ©e, desert) and were told that no, we could not have 3 pizzas for 5 guys. We finally found a place that would satisfy that apparently challenging criterion and ate there, following it up with Starbucks where it was decided that the baristas did not master our native tongue, but did speak “Starbucks.” They understood the words for the products and could thus fill your order.

After nap and a shower, we went out for Indian food which was really, really good.

It was early so Matt and I decided to take the elevator up to the 51st floor to the Sky Lounge for a cocktail. We were told we could not be seated at a table – they were all full – and were instead shown two seats at the empty bar which was fine with us.

The bartenders were classics in bow ties, vests and slicked back hair. Both were fun to watch as they meticulously prepared every drink, shaking the shakers with a personal flourish. After a half hour or so of watching incredibly drunk women in sprayed on blue jeans and designer tops stagger our of the place, one nearly landing in my lap, the band came on.

A gray haired man and a middle aged woman in a ball gown, both Americans took the stage and launched into their rendition of “Route 66.” I figured that was some sort of message from my homeland. Next up was “I’m in the Mood for Love” followed by “Smooth Operator”, “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Take the A Train.” Apparently on request, they sang a lengthy “Happy Birthday” to the clapping of everyone in the bar. This all went on for a while before they took a break and left me thinking about the movie whose title has been borrowed for tonight’s blog.

This is a strange place, for me it varies from the sublime beauty of the Grand Shrine to the psychedelic green of the rice paddies to the human crush of the train stations. It never feels as good as China, which I find interesting, instead it just feels alien. The Chinese impress me as wanting to meet the cultures of the world halfway, Japan feels like its saying “this is it, take it or leave it and we’d really appreciate it if you chose the latter.” I think some of this is shown by the tough young kids in the street with platinum hair, pancake makeup and a million piercings. It just seems to be a culture adrift.

But back to the lounge. When we came in, the host who seated us made an oversized gesture of pointing out the “Reserved” sign protecting the two seats next to us at the end of the bar. Not a problem for us, until the patrons showed up. He was an aging American hipster in an oversized black shirt and slacks. He had hair to match pulled back in a fuzzy pony tail and a nice enough gold watch. She was a much younger, subtly well dressed gorgeous Japanese woman. I knew we were in trouble when he pulled out a packet of cigars, each 6+ inches long, entering into the ritual of lighting one up. She ordered a tall red fruit drink and stared ahead. He order something on ice and then made a grand show of expressing his dislike for it by screwing up his face, rolling his eyes, rocking his head back and forth and gasping for breath. The bartender stood their smiling obsequiously explaining that it had been concocted properly. The cigar smoke was drifting our way and so we beat a hasty retreat back to civilization.

Tomorrow, weather permitting we’re headed to Kyoto and hopefully a chance to recapture some or the serenity we achieved at Naiku. I hope so, because about now I need a bit of centering in this alien world.

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