The Life of a Tourist

At the path along the river, despite the gloomy day, everything opened up. It was our first full day in Japan. It may have had something to do with the sake tasting we had just left, but already the world was different.


It would be a few days before we would do the truly touristy things like going up in the Tokyo Skytree or seeing the pandas at the Ueno Zoo. In this spot along the river, as it had been at the Sawanoi Saké Brewery we had just visited, there were no other tourists. Just us. Everyone else grew up here, lived here, belonged here. That sudden realization was the moment when tourism ended. We were all part of the same picture.

And then again, maybe it was the saké.


Bear in mind that I don’t want to be one of those people who, having been touched by international travel, thinks of himself as Rick Steves or Anthony Bourdain. I know nothing. It became more evident as our time in Japan wore on that I know less that nothing. In part, at least as far as Japan was concerned, this was by design. I wanted to be genuinely surprised by what I was seeing.

The first days of our stay were going to be at Yokota AFB, and the last three days were set for an Airbnb in Arakawa-ku. Hannah and Dan were driving us around in a rental van while we were on base, because Hannah’s Diahatsu is built for a maximum capacity of one and one-half humans.

The first few days weren’t ideal as far as the weather was concerned. We caught a glimpse of Mount Fuji on our way back from the airport, but the clouds and haze hid it from our sight for the next couple of days. It rained on our way to see the Great Buddha in Kamakura, it rained while we were there, and it rained on the way back, but not enough to keep us from going.

At the Buddha

On the first clear morning, Hannah was driving when she spotted Fuji out of the corner of her eye. Without telling us what she was seeing, she twisted the rental van off to a side street, tossing us to and fro in the back of the vehicle. “What…?”

“Fuji,” she explained.


And so, Fuji it was. This would be the clearest it would be during our time there. But as nice as these moments were, the defining moment had already taken place.

Sawanoi Brewery

I may have taken close to 400 pictures that first day at the Sawanoi Sake Brewery. It was impossible not to. We sat through the presentation and the tour, which was entirely in Japanese, quiet and bright-eyed, nodding our heads as if we understood. Some things needed no words.

There was a helpful flyer in decent English to let us know a good bit of what was going on. We went to the room where the rice was processed and to the cave where they gathered the water. Everyone was Japanese, apart from the six goofy Americans. It was hard not to feel so different, so out of place.

After the tour was over, we retired to the solace of our own company. I took 200 more pictures to mask the fact that I felt so self-conscious that I wasn’t Japanese. There was a shrine across the river from the brewery, and a walking bridge to get to it, so we made our way over there. I took 400 more pictures.

Take us to the bridge

On our way

Hannah, chef that she is, had a tour of Kappabashi Street planned for us on our first official day in Tokyo. Kappabashi is a street entirely dedicated to the restaurant trade. We took the train in. Tokyo has a terrific public transportation system, and we saw pretty much every last bit of it. It had been years since I had been on a train, and I had forgotten how hard it is to keep your balance. I held on to the ring for dear life. More experienced Tokyo natives stood around, lightly holding their rings with one hand while perusing their smartphones with the other, barely swaying in the tumult. It took four days for me to master this art.

On the train

At the end of the line was Tokyo Station, a grand relic of another era. More reproduction than relic, as the original version had been destroyed in the war. It was raining. Raining again.

Tokyo StationHannah was relying on Google Maps to get us around. Normally, Google Maps are very reliable, but in Tokyo, walking directions can change at a moment’s notice. We stumbled out into the rain after Hannah, who went one way, and then another, and then yet another, and then stopped. She would look at her phone, then look up, and then back at her phone again, and then she went back the first way, and we followed her. We must have looked like we were terrible at collecting Pokemon.

All this in the rain. We ended up breaking for lunch until Google Maps gathered itself.

Following Hannah

After lunch, we followed Hannah down a small street, as directed by Google Maps. At the end, we found ourselves right in the middle of Kappabashi. The rain continued.

Kappabashi in the rainFortunately, the sidewalks were (mostly) covered, so we could somewhat dry out. The stores varied, from the superior-serious big-ticket items to uniforms to the items that were probably geared more for the tourists. There were more western faces here. Some Americans. Australians. French.

Not Creepy
Not creepy…not creepy…not creepy…

Even though we were popping into shops in relative dryness, we were discovering just how water-logged we had been. Our backpacks weighed about twice what they normally would have.


We landed in a coffee shop along the way. Most often, wherever we went, we saw signs in Japanese, followed by an English translation. In the coffee shop, everything was in English. After four days in Japan, the lack of Kanji was jarring.

Cherry blossomsThe cherry blossoms were in full bloom in Ome as we climbed the steps to the shrine across from the Sawanoi Brewery. The rain was holding off that day, but there was a layer of fog at the edge of the tall hills on either side of the river. All six of us could stay in our comfort zone as long as we kept moving. I took another 300 pictures.

Shrine Selfie

After that, we walked along the river. On this trail, the river was at our left and the back of peoples’ houses were to the right. At one point, we came across a small restaurant. There was outdoor seating, and although it wasn’t the best day for dining al fresco, it was time to eat. Hannah and Dan asked us if we wanted to stay here.

We kind of avoided the question. Up until then, we had never been to a restaurant in Japan, and the prospect of pointing at a menu didn’t seem particularly appealing. But there were a few people underneath the canopy near us, and one Japanese man called out to us in English, and told us to come inside.

I wish we had. But we drifted away from the restaurant and continued down the trail.

We were depending on Google Maps to find our Airbnb. Generally, this worked, in the fact that we ended up generally in the location. We followed Hannah to one apartment building, which turned out to not be it. Then Google Maps told us to cross the street, which we did. It wasn’t there, either. So we crossed again, and this time we found it. It rained the entire time, and we found no Pokemon.

We got inside, our bags arrived shortly thereafter, and we got changed out of our wet clothes. The forecast for that night said that the rain would stop. As we left the apartment in search of food, we discovered this was a lie. The rain mostly stopped. The wind picked up.

Hannah was in the mood for yakiniku. In yakiniku restaurants, they bring meat to your table and you grill it yourself on a grill built into the table. We followed Hannah into the darkness and wind. Google Maps sent us past a McDonald’s and into a parking garage. Whereas it was drier and less windy in there, there was a complete lack of grilled meat, and therefore, less than satisfactory. Once we emerged, we passed the McDonald’s again, found the place we were looking for, and discovered they were booked solid.

Following Hannah

We shuffled off into the night. All of us spotted that McDonald’s once again. It was calling to us. You’ll do no better.

This was a lie, and we all knew it. We pressed on, through the drizzle and wind, and around the corner and up a flight of stairs, there was a restaurant. They had a place to take off our wet shoes and put them in a locker. The restaurant itself loomed in the back, and just from the look of it, it looked expensive.

They seated us in a dark, private room. As it turns out, they were all private rooms. We sat on the floor on cushions in front of a low table. Saké arrived. I opened the menu with impending dread, but the prices were quite reasonable.

Rachel and Derek


They brought us sashimi, yakitori, and many other things that were so, so good. In the other private rooms, people chatted in Japanese and laughed. I grabbed a piece of salmon, looked at this room full of my family and thought, I could get used to this.


That was the second moment. The moment where I felt like I could get along anywhere, as long as I kept pressing on.

The first moment came as we walked along the river, feeling like a bit of a coward for not speaking up and saying, “Hey, you know what? Maybe we should eat at that restaurant along the trail. After all, when are we going to get back?”

I took 600 more pictures. Cherry blossoms, mostly, and a few people having picnic lunches in the dry spots of the river.


There was a trail down to water’s edge, and I followed it. Laura followed me. A family was having a picnic down there, and I could see that the mother of the clan was having difficulty taking a selfie with the whole family in it. She saw me, she saw the camera, put two and two together, and called me over. I seem to be the one stranger in the crowd that people choose for this particular service, so I know the drill. I smiled and took her phone, and got a good shot of them all.

But we’re not done. She wanted a picture of me with the family. Then me and Laura with the family. Then I took one with Laura and them.


And just like that, we belonged. We were part of this wonderful country and it was a part of us. Everyone was part of the same picture.

Then again, maybe it was the saké.

Us with the Family

The Inevitable Trip to Japan

We sat around my Mother-in-law’s apartment, the six of us: Laura’s sisters Rachel and Hannah, their husbands Derek and Dan, Laura and me. Dan is stationed at Yokota Air Base, and somewhere in the conversation, somebody said something to the effect that we should all meet up with them in Tokyo. Somebody else said it would be a great idea. I nodded, but it wasn’t anything I’d really ever considered. Laura stared blankly.

A month or two passed, and I figured, the initial groundswell of support for the plan would wane, but it did not. Passports were received. Talk of plane tickets and the like. Agendas and such. Laura stared blankly.

It was going to be a fourteen hour trip on a plane from Newark to Narita, non-stop. The best I could boast was JFK to Atlanta. Laura had done Atlanta to Los Angeles, a sprint compared to our upcoming marathon, and she hates to fly. All that time in the air. We both stared blankly.

Nothing against Japan, of course. It was distant in our minds, something so unreachable that it was unthinkable, so we had never thought about it. Instead, we thought about other places we wanted to go, places that didn’t require passports or plane tickets or even agendas, for that matter. Japan loomed, like a trip to the proctologist.

The date was set for April, in the hopes of seeing some cherry blossoms, because if you’re going to go that far, you might as well go the whole way. We dutifully got our passports, and when they arrived, the idea of Japan didn’t seem quite so bad. As we looked at them, we thought, heck, at the very least we could go see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side. If this falls through…

We thought it a lot. If this falls through.

And we also thought, but maybe we’ll make memories that will last our whole lives.

We bought the plane tickets, and when the confirmation email came through, the idea of Japan softened a bit more. Fourteen hours on a plane, sure, but there would be plenty to do once we got there, like seeing cherry blossoms. And Mount Fuji.

Great Buddha

And this guy, the Great Buddha. That was what was drawing Rachel and Laura in. They had seen it many times in Around the World in Eighty Days, and the thought of seeing it in person was sustaining Laura.

As the inevitability of this trip set in, we had come to grips with it. We bought backpacks and raincoats and new luggage, we arranged for a car to pick us up, we got somebody to watch the cat while we were gone. Hannah and Dan made their annual pilgrimage back to Pennsylvania, and we went through all the things that we were going to see and do. We were going to the zoo to see the Pandas, we were going to the Tsukiji Fish Market and eat sushi…

And during this time, Rachel noticed there was an abnormality with one of her breasts. An indentation, she said, something that didn’t belong. We all thought cancer right away, but also, is that one of the symptoms? Lumps, yes, but not indentations. She scheduled an appointment with her doctor just in case.

Breast cancer.

Caught it at an early stage. But breast cancer.

After much time of wrestling and coming to terms with this-is-what-this-is, we mentally scratched one trip to Japan off our list. We knew more about cancer than we did about Japan, and we knew this was going to be treatments, surgeries, a never-ending string of doctor visits. The trip to Tokyo suddenly became a distant memory, one of those things we meant to do, but never did.

Laura and I went up to Lewisburg to support Rachel for the appointment with the doctor where everything would be laid out. Fortunately, her doctor is a family friend. There was cause for optimism. He cited a 95% survival rate. But of course, chemo and surgery were all part of the treatment plan.

When the meeting was just about over, Rachel asked him, “We planned this trip to Japan…it’s three weeks away…do you think we can still go?”

“Oh, yes,” the doctor said. The cancer was moving slow. It hadn’t spread. Three weeks away? As long as she started the treatments as soon as she got back, he couldn’t see a reason why not.

We were kind of surprised she asked. We were even more surprised that he said yes.

“So,” I said to Laura when we had a moment to ourselves, “Japan, then.”

“Yeah,” said Laura.

Beautiful Newark

It rained a lot the day we left, so we were glad that we had hired a car to pick us up. Driving to Newark is never a picnic, and doing it in the rain is the antithesis of fun. We arrived terrifically early to stay ahead of traffic and weather delays. The four of us checked our bags and ended up in a line for security which pretty much stretched its way back to Allentown. Eventually they let us through, so we could have plenty of time to wait before they let us on the plane.

On the plane. We set it up so that three of us would be sitting in the second row and one of us would be in the first row. Laura chose to sit up front for the leg room, while I sat with Rachel and Derek. Waiting again. Painfully waiting. Something-going-on-that-we-should-know-about waiting.

“This is your captain speaking…”


“It seems that we caught a nail in the landing gear, so when we tried to taxi out…”


“It should only be an hour, though…”


Our 10:55 flight left at about 12:30. I settled in with “Doctor Strange” for what promised to be the first of many movies. A couple of American businessmen seated behind me got up and decided to talk to each other in the aisle right above me, which didn’t rise to the level of annoyance of, say, a crying baby, but close. The attendants came through with the cart, forcing the businessmen to duck back into their seats for cover, and fed us some Teriyaki chicken, which tasted reasonably good although it seemed like pandering.

I had moved on to my second movie by now, and I had decided to kick it old school by watching the Paul Newman movie “Hud”. I went to the bathroom because I felt the old familiar strains of something that wanted out of my digestive system quickly, and I was surprised to discover that apparently, that was a false alarm. I sat back down in my seat, still feeling it. Then a wave came over me, that one where everything starts to swim around.

“Are you all right?” Rachel asked me.

I said no. I was sure of that. Then I remember trying to wake up. And I was hearing multiple voices. And I was seeing multiple faces, Laura in the foreground.

I was out for about thirty seconds. I truly missed all the excitement, but from what I gather this is what happened after I passed out:

  1. Rachel called for a doctor. She got Laura’s attention in the front seat.
  2. One of the businessmen behind me tried to take my pulse. Which all good businessmen are trained to do. “I don’t feel a pulse,” he declared. “He’s not breathing.”
  3. Rachel screamed for a doctor.
  4. Laura was out of her seat in an instant and checking on me. She realizes I’ve only fainted because we’ve been married for fifteen years.
  5. Rachel stood on her seat, holding a boombox over her head, and the tape playing in the boombox is an anguished plea for doctoral support.
  6. Doctors arrive from far and wide. Some of them were not on the plane when we took off.
  7. The Cubs won the World Series. That didn’t happen while I was out, it just bears repeating.

In the end, we’re not sure what caused this episode, but I ended up in the back of the plane, heaving out everything I had eaten that day and the bishop of a chess set I swallowed when I was 6.

“If he’s sick,” one of the flight attendants said, “they may not let him in to the country. He might have to go into quarantine.”

“We may have to divert the plane if he’s really sick,” said another. After all this planning, all this journey leading up, to only end up in Seattle? No, sir. At this point, I needed Japan. I was not going to be denied. And I would have told them that, but that bishop was still stuck in my throat at the time.

There was a cardiologist among the doctors who were tending to me. “He’s fine,” he said.

And although I was weak from all that heaving, I knew that’s all it was. Another of the doctors, who was an endocrinologist, was very kind to me, and let me have her seat in first class so I could lie down. For three hours, in my suddenly upgraded seat, I slept on and off and felt the nausea pass.

When I felt strong enough, I gingerly came back to my seat. There was only an hour until we would be in Japan, and say what you will about losing consciousness and puking your guts out on a long plane ride, but it does pass the time.

At Marita Airport

It was afternoon of the next day when we touched down. I was strangely steady as we went through another decently long but decidedly more organized line at customs. Hannah and Dan were waiting for us when we got out, and our quest had finally ended. Outside we could see the cherry blossoms in full bloom. We would see the pandas at the zoo. We would see the Great Buddha. We would eat beef that makes you weep for the plight of the American cow.

We made memories that will last our whole lives.

Under the trees