The flight from Honolulu to the Osaka-Kansai airport lasts roughly nine hours. When you’re stuck on a plane for that long, service matters, something Japan Airlines understands.
My brother and I sat in an emergency exit row with a pair of flight attendants seated across from us during take-off. When the two ladies bowed to the cabin before take-off, I had a sense this flight may actually be … nice.
They served food. They served drinks. They even handed out hot towels toward the end of the flight. Flights from the Mainland to Honolulu offered that level of service once upon a time but not anymore. I actually managed to begin and finish Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink on that flight.
A co-worker would later tell me Japan Airlines isn’t doing well financially, and that level of service is pretty anachronistic. But the Japanese market demands it, and I was glad for it.
Little things really tickled me. The video for the emergency procedures was completely animated, and they broadcast the take-off and landing on the video screen. In fact, all the seats in the main cabin included video monitors, allowing you to choose your own in-flight movie, headphones included.
It was nice to travel back in time for a spell.
It was already evening by the time my brother and I arrived at Osaka-Kansai, and it took roughly another hour by Shinkansen to reach Kyoto. By the time we checked into the ryokan, it was already well into the evening. We had dinner at a nearby curry place, and that was it.
Gotta say, though: damn that Shinkansen is fast.
Even in those first few hours from Osaka-Kansai to Kyoto, I had already noticed how every adult man wore a suit. On the bullet train. In the station. Out on the street. Suit after suit after suit. The young guys would wear fashionable clothes, and tourists would be dressed casually.
But if you’re an adult man in Japan, you’re pretty much wearing a suit.
At the start of the trip, my trust in my brother was implicit.
He’d been to Japan numerous times before. He knew where things were and how things operated. I was willing to follow his lead.
I would learn quickly to retain some of my instincts.
My brother is a big guy. I’m about an inch shorter than he, but he’s far more heavier. He’s got enough … insulation to keep him warm. I do not.
I misjudged the weather the morning after our arrival — we were heading to Tokyo by bullet train. I also hadn’t brushed up on how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit. I got the impression the weather would not require layering. My brother doesn’t need to layer, and I figured I probably didn’t need to either.
As we waited for the bullet train to arrive, I realized my mistake, and I would repeat my regret as we wandered Tokyo: "I should have layered."
The three-hour train ride was comfortable enough for me to forget how cold it was, but when we reached Yasukuni Shrine, I couldn’t enjoy it. I wanted to get indoors and down a cup of tea.
I lived in New York City from 1992-1993. I would buy $25 worth of tokens every week, and I dropped them into a slot whenever I needed to ride a subway or take a bus. When I returned to New York City for a vacation in 2005, the city moved to using a card system. I would slide a card through a slot, and I would refill the card anytime the balance got low.
The Japanese subway system is not so transparent.
First, you have to figure out where you are. Next, you have to figure out where you want to go. Then, you have to see how much it costs to get there. You go to a ticket machine and pay for a ticket in that exact amount.
When you approach the turnstile, you put the ticket through a slot, then pick it up again as you exit the turnstile. You ride the subway to your destination. When you exit the station, you surrender the ticket to the turnstile.
That just struck me as a lot of work.
My brother said we’d be getting our meals from the train stations. I thought he meant we’d be picking up bentos from some kiosk on the train platform. I had an inkling that some train stations in Japan had entire shopping malls, but I couldn’t picture it till I got there.
The larger stations in Japan are usually attached to department stores, and the two basement levels of those stores are usually dedicated to restaurants and food courts.
We’re not talking some suburban mall food court bullshit. We’re talking real restaurants with hosts, waiters and menus. "Restaurant courts" would be a better description.
In the US, restaurants provide a glass of water. In Japan, it’s a cup of green tea and a bowl of miso soup. Every meal starts with a hot towel.
A number of savvy restaurants gave us English-language menus, but some did not. I was able to decipher enough Japanese to know what I wanted to get.
A long time ago, I heard the phrase "Americans eat with their nose. Chinese eat with their tongues, and Japanese eat with their eyes." Flavor in Japanese food is not a priority. Texture, sure. Appearance, most definitely. Flavor — let’s just say American-adapted Japanese food ratchet up flavor to a ridiculous degree.
I enjoyed all my meals in Japan, but I would warn Americans against expecting the same kind of flavor they get from their neighborhood Japanese restaurants.
My brother and I had an ambitious itinerary, but the rain and a few moments of getting lost forced us to cut Tokyo Tower.
I wanted to find a Yamaha Music Store, and my brother printed out a map from Google. He plugged in the wrong address. I ended up at a teaching center, not a music store. Another hint that perhaps I could control my own destiny while on this trip.
After Yasukuni Shrine, we headed to Ginza to shop at Kinokuniya. Real estate is scarce in Japan, and pretty much all the cities — Kyoto included — are vertical. The likes of Barnes and Noble can usually spread out on one level in a place like Austin. In New York City, the Barnes and Noble on 18th Street and Fifth Avenue has two floors.
Kinokuniya in Ginza, however, is deep but narrow, and it occupies six floors of a building. I wanted to find some band scores, and according to my brother, they weren’t located next to the CDs as they had. I checked the store directory and saw music was located on the top floor.
It took a bit of scouring, but I found the band scores. I bought scores for Shiina Ringo’s Sanmon Gossip and Tokyo Jihen’s Otona (Adult). Two items down on my shopping list.
After a relatively late lunch, we headed to Akihabara. I didn’t explore the area as much as I probably should have because I found a Book-Off and got stuck browsing the walls of CDs. I didn’t buy anything because I wanted to save my cash for a trip to Tower Records in Osaka.
I did go to McDonald’s and ordered an apple pie and a drink as I waited for my brother at the train station. I wanted to see how big the portions were. The apple pie was an apple pie, but the small soda? The size of an orange juice in the US.
By the way, Diet Coke is never on the menu. Anywhere.
The rainy weather forced us to buy umbrellas from a convenience store. I bought two because I lost one of them.
Stores in Japan have a contraption that allows you to insert your umbrella into a bag holder. The holder wraps your umbrella in a long plastic coat, and then you slide it through a hinged gate. Now you don’t have to worry about getting the merchandise wet with your umbrella!