Monday, June 7, 2010

(Mrs) Adventure #12: Not So Lost in Translation. Tokyo/Kyoto

I am riding up the side of a mountain in Kyoto, Japan; the metal basket at the front of my bike rattling its contents each time the slender tire hits a gravel bump. Twenty feet ahead, my husband stands on his pedals, balances himself and turns around to grin wildly at me. I narrow my eyes at him and not so silently curse as a Toyota whizzes closely past me on its journey down the mountain.

“I did not sign up for this,” I grumble under my breath and continue on with a string of complaints as I concentrate on moving my jelly like legs in rotating circles. For a moment I pretend I’m in a spinning class, until I hear a Japanese motorist shout something at me from a passing car that sounds mysteriously like, “Sayonara Americcaaaan”. In my head, I entertain fantasies of tossing the fragile three-speed bicycle into the roadway and marching down the mountain until I hit the first tempanaki resturant that serves alcohol or paint thinner. And then I remember that moment where my husband and I relaxed on our couch in San Diego, laughing together and analyzing recruits in a documentary about young Marines at Parris Island. In the program, one girl cries into the camera and complains about the tough life at Boot Camp. I remember leaning over to my husband as I sipped a glass of Merlot and said, “Rubbish, that doesn’t look so bad. Even I could do that. ”


Pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal and then I hear my husband shout, “There it is!”

Thank you, Jesus.

I catch up to him and as I am about to get off my bicycle, I think about saying something like, “Wow! That was a wonderful jaunt! What a workout! Thanks for taking me up that mountain! And now look where we are: an ancient shrine! Gorgeous!!”

Instead, it comes out as, “That’s it. This is the last damn Shrine I care to see. They all look the same. If I need to see more, than I’ll go to Epcot Center, because that’s all I’m seeing. Disneyworld. It looks like Disney World. I’m done. I am dooooo-ne. If you want to see more of these stupid shrines, then you can do it on your own, mister. I’m heading back to the hotel and I’m going to have champagne on the rooftop.” And then I start to tear up.

Oops. In my defense, mountains are best not tackled with excessive jet leg or without a cushy ski lift.

He simply laughs and wraps me in a giant hug.

We are perfect traveling companions, My Marine and me.


Tokyo does not feel like a foreign city. Its lush gardens give way to wide streets the same slick and glossy color of the rivers that line them. I imagine neon and over crowded walkways, instead I find respectful rows of people marching back and forth on their afternoon rush hour. In fact, it feels almost like Chicago. Tokyo’s residents are not all together a friendly bunch, but they are incredibly well dressed. I joke to my husband that George Zimmer of the Men’s Warehouse would retire a gazillionaire here. I don’t see one man or woman that is not outfitted in a very smart looking suit. They do seem a bit like automatons marching to their next point; most don’t stop in the middle of sidewalks to share a quick conversation like their American counterparts. It is impossible for my husband and I not to stand out and look like tourists. This is only aided by Matt’s Michelin Green Guide; he pulls it out at every stop and for the first time I am supremely jealous of a book.

The subways are an entirely new adventure. For starters, they are incredibly clean and organized. I scan the cars for signs of the homeless, but see none. There is no trash lying in the terminals and aside from the whine of an approaching subway car, the terminals are eerily silent although filled with thousands of bodies. Matt and I are brash and loud, or at least it feels this way. We giggle back and forth at advertisements in the cars for “Black Punch” a gin based drink, or an ad that features a large weightlifter enjoying a cigarette. Our cheeks redden. We are outsiders.

We spend our days snapping pictures, “Japanese tourists in Japan!” we joke. My husband and I tour the Imperial Gardens; we remove our shoes when we enter Shrines and pad through the wooden floors that housed the Shogun, past rooms where he took meetings with Feudal Lords and Ladies in Attendance. As I walk, I imagine ancient feet traveling on the same wooden floors, hundreds of years before me.

“Maybe we are re-incarnated,” I suggest to my husband. “Perhaps we have been here before.”

He smiles at me. But I don’t really believe what I am saying. Unlike the hallways of ancient palaces of Europe, or the wooden edifices that still stand home to our forefathers, I don’t feel that I have been here before. It feels as it should, foreign. I am nothing more than a modern visitor; I don’t feel ghosts tingle my skin, just patches of warmth where sunlight cuts through paper walls.

Together, we stumble upon a Degas exhibit at one Tokyo art museum, and we wander through the galleries of another in Ueno Park. We zip to crowded markets that cater homemade sweets to throngs of thousands of Japanese school children, all dressed in uniforms that make them appear to be miniature sailors or flight attendants. We watch elders relax on park benches and feed pigeons tiny pieces of bread. My husband and I witness Japanese businessmen and women stop by local shrines during their lunch hour. They approach giant iron tubs of incense and fan the smoke in their direction. Sometimes I watch them write tiny notes and stick them in the crevices of the religious foundation. By night, we dine on mostly American and French faire, and before bed we sip cocktails on the fortieth floor of our hotel.

Our words may be lost in translation, but when he places his hand in mine and leads me along cobblestone paths in a leafy park, I feel only found in this green, limbo-like world.


Three days into our trip, we board the Shinkan-sen, also known as ‘The Bullet Train’ en route to Kyoto. We weave on tracks that cut through the hazy landscape, fields flooded with rainwater, pagodas lining mountains, the ocean blending into the sky in the distance. The world outside the window passes in a blur; when I try to train my eyes to focus on one element beyond the transparent plastic, it passes too soon and I grow dizzy. I listen to a Japanese couple giggle secrets two rows ahead, I train my eyes on the outline, the perfect outline, of my husband’s face.

When the train pulls into the station, and we exit as ants from a muddy underground tunnel, I am overwhelmed. We study a map, we navigate the trains and subways, and we board the car again until we realize we’ve gone the wrong way.

I break down in an abandoned subway tunnel, the first I’ve seen since entering Japan. Something about its stillness seems foreboding and dangerous.

My husband stares first at me thoughtfully, and then grabs me in a large bear hug. In my ear he sweetly whispers, “Domestic violence is not a joking matter.”

I start to laugh, that sniffling laugh as two teenagers bound down the stairs and pause momentarily to scrutinize us. Kyoto receives far less ‘Western’ traffic than its sister city, Tokyo. The first thing we notice, ironically though, is that Kyoto’s inhabitants feel much more Western than their Tokyo cousins.

Our hotel, The Screen, rises out of a corner of the Imperial Garden, its modern grey fa├žade a stark contrast to the ancient park. Once inside, we are led into a swanky looking dining room, where we are handed chocolates and mango soda pop in a champagne glass. Now this is my kind of hotel! With only thirteen rooms, each decorated by a different Japanese designer, The Screen Hotel rivals any American boutique hotel I’ve ever seen. Our room is modern, yet comfortable, and large by Japanese standards. We have a balcony, a rock garden, a Bose sound system, a big screen television, a large King sized bed, a Jacuzzi, and a heated toilet that speaks.

The staff takes customer service and hospitality to a new level- organizing bikes for us, pouring drinks, showing us to their rooftop. We meet a couple on vacation from Shanghai, though they are both French Canadians. Our server attended North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. He cannot believe he’s met someone from Chicago, as he has spent the majority of his life living with his parents in Kyoto. We find a French bistro that we will laze away hours over the next couple of days.

And yes, we visit every single shrine in Kyoto. On bike. We ride up and down sidewalks, play chicken with cars and pedestrians.

On Sunday, we bike downtown Kyoto to find the one Catholic Church that offers an English speaking mass. Unfortunately, or fortunately for us, the priest speaks little English, as evidenced by him asking the entire congregation to give thanks for Jesus Christ and ‘his erection.’ As soon as I hear him utter the phrase, my entire body stiffens. I pray to God that my husband hasn’t heard him say this, but when I hear what sounds remarkably like the final cries of a Brazilian guinea pig and see my husband’s body start to shake, I know I’m going to lose it. I see him look at me, he sees my shoulders start to shake as I try to hold in the laughter, and the audible hysterical sobs pierce through the air. He bends over and covers his eyes with his hands. Not laughing out loud has now become painful, and I anxiously wonder if I am going to be able to contain myself. I briefly wonder if I could pass it off as some sort of religious conversion, but stop when I think that any fake speaking in tongues I could pull off would inevitably sound like some sort of butchered Asian language.

“Don’t look at me. Please don’t look at me,” I laugh as my husband, still bent over with tears in his eyes, grabs my hand. Finally, we both calm down enough to take deep breaths, until the priest opens his mouth again and we start all over.

I can’t think of one time, perhaps our wedding aside, where my husband and I have been able to attend Church without laughing hysterically. In situations where we are supposed to be solemn, the two of us are not able to successfully pull this off when together. We’re the two bad kids in the back of class.

True, half the time I want to throw the bike into the street, into a laughing Japanese tourist, into his head… I am admittedly not the athletic type that I once claimed to be, I am more the casual jaunt around the city type of girl. But, it is when I want to throw that bike in the middle of the road while pedaling my little want to be champagne-soaked heart out that I fall desperately in love with my husband… for the three hundred and fiftieth time.


We end up back in Tokyo for the last leg of our trip, now more knowledgeable about the city and its residents. We stop in a bar on our way home from dinner that turns out to be an American ex-pat bar. By the time we leave, my husband and I have met an absolutely charming group of new friends; we are all Scarlett’s and Bills in our own way. Some are there to visit relatives; others are touring with the Broadway cast of DreamGirls. For a moment, I never want to leave.

‘Let’s never come back,' I whisper to no one, ‘because it will never be as much fun.’

I am repeating lines, of course, but they hang and drift in the smoky air. My husband glances at me, winks and grins. He doesn’t have to know what I’m saying to understand. There are moments shared when holding hands, leaning in to one another and whispered as two close confidants, and there are moments shared from across the room. The particles are still the same. Energized.

The following day we tour Harajuku for a sight of the Harajuku girls; we wander among shops with neon signs advertising the latest fashions. Everyone is dressed as they’ve walked out of a catalogue; next to us European models prance down the street, setting themselves apart from the rather homogenous crowd.

“They must love the attention,” my husband reflects.

And I think back to a time when I too would have loved that attention; then as I lean into him I think I need only the attention of a single audience member. And all rosy spotlights are on us.

We dine at the Park Hyatt made famous by Sofia Coppola’s master film. On my way back from the bar, I nearly run into a very tall brunette man. I glance up quickly to see that it is John Mayer. He steps aside and I brush past him. He is too young to be seeking his Scarlett, though I am sure he is regardless. In the distance, I see my husband and I am walking towards him. John Mayer is just another body in this sea of wealthy patrons, and even his bright white t-shirt can not outshine the lights of Tokyo that reflect on Matt.

We grab a drink at the bar, we briefly plan a prison escape, and I lean my head on the granite. The cocktail lights angle up in my eyesight and reveal an enormous painting of Wall Street. The lounge singer starts to sing, “I’m in a New York state of mind…”

The following day at Narita, I am still in a daze. I grip my husband tightly and tell myself that the deployment is half over. He waits until I go through security and as I board the escalator down to the International Terminal, I catch sight of him leaning against the glass. He blows me a kiss and I can feel his hand in mine.

As the escalator carries me down and his image starts to fade into the crowds I realize I know but one truth about love. Wherever I am and wherever he is, we will never again be lost.


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