Another full day in Japan. It was the day John Jack (by now, better known as “Jesus Jack”) had to head back to Los Angeles. We sooo enjoyed his company that we hated to see him leave. We have a tradition when we are in Japan that we go to Dennys for breakfast. Yep – I said “Dennys”. It’s a funny aberration of what we have here but is none the less a Dennys – logo and all. There are lots of things you can get at Dennys in Japan that just aren’t available at the Dennys here, so it makes it an adventure. Salmon and rice with natto (fermented soybeans – yum) is on the menu and quite delicious in my opinion. Google “natty” – it’ll bring a smile to your face.
The Japanese never seem to offer decaf coffee in their restaurants, so those of us who drink it end up having to drink the regular “high test” and get a caffeine rush to start the day. So after breakfast, I was ready to run a marathon but it was time to take Jesus Jack to the hotel so he could hop a bus to Haneda airport.
We were about a week early for the cherry blossoms but we found one tree that was blooming and did a selfie with JJ in front of it for a good memory. We got JJ on the bus at the Shinjuku Hilton and Squi did his now famous “Goodbye Dance” that he had invented especially for this trip. As bad as we felt seeing our dear friend leave, I think JJ felt even worse knowing there are so many adventures to be had in Japan and he didn’t have enough time to explore. Next time, JJ. One of the top things on our “To Do” list in Japan was to take Squi to the Doraemon Museum. Doraemon is a Japanese animated figure that has been around a long time. It was Kaz’s favorite character when she was a kid and now it is one of Squi’s favorites. The museum, I am sorry to say, was a HUGE disappointment. It WAS more of a historical museum than a place for children. Oddly there were large fiberglass castings of the characters in the Doraemon cartoons but they had signs on them not to touch them or climb on them. Some were available to touch and take photos with but most of them were off limits. It was like having kids in a candy shop and not letting them have most of it. While I did enjoy reading about the history of it, it was disappointing from the standpoint of a good time for Squi. He got bored and was wanting to touch all the “untouchable” so we cut our visit down a bit.
We jumped train and headed to Yokohama to nose around and visit, of all places, Chinatown. So weird to me to go to Japan and visit Chinatown but it was interesting and fun. We had some good food and walked our legs off. The ship “Nippon Meru” is in a dock there and is a beautiful old vessel. It was built in 1930 in Kobe and was a training vessel for the Japanese Merchant Marine. I’m not sure if it is the original ship or a replica but it is a lovely old thing if you are into ships.
Our dear friend, Tamara, is into anything “Panda”, so we sent her a text message with a photo of a shop in Chinatown that is COMPLETELY dedicated to all things Panda! I’m sure she will have to buy a ticket to Japan just to shop in that store. I’m sure she would go crazy buying panda stuff and have to buy another suitcase for her trip home.
We were exhausted again from a full day of walking, shopping, eating, and riding trains so we headed back to our room and had a nightcap of sake and beer. Nice way to end another terrific day in this gracious wonderful country.
Day 4 was a long one for poor Squi. Kaz and John Jack were teaching and in meetings a lot of the day and into the evening. Some of the time I was able to take him out and walk around and try not to get lost. We came up with a game where we would walk and every block or so I would take a photo of where we came from so we could find our way back. Much better than bread crumbs. I still am not sure how to do it in a way that shows me where to turn left or right unless I make notes. I’m working on it.
Squi enjoyed this game and wanted to play it everywhere we went in Japan but it doesn’t work so well on a bullet train!
It was mostly a day of sitting and trying to behave while Kaz and John Jack lectured but since Squi is only 4 and I have such a juvenile sense of humor, we are dangerous to have around for any length of time.
Squi got so bored he fell asleep, which is not a good thing to do around us. We have a tradition of, when he goes to sleep in a public place, we stack things on his forehead and take a photo. We have tons of photos of the poor little guy passed out with various things stacked up. I’m not sure what these things are – maybe mochi or rice cakes or some kind of cookie. The stack fell over twice and hit him in the face before we got it to stand but he never woke up.
Kaz and John Jack spoke to some students at Digital Hollywood and it went so well, they were invited back to have a meeting with the head honcho for future projects. I think it will be a great connection and students from there are going to come take some cases at the Stella Adler Acting Academy here in Hollywood. John Jack is quite the statesman. Stella Adler couldn’t ask for a better PR person than him, especially if Kaz is along also…quite the team. Although I will say, John Jack in his tireless ambition is happy to hang out and answer all the myriad questions that actors throw at him. Being from the South, he answers in a way I would call “thorough”. Sometimes this thoroughness goes on for a while, at which point some of us who shall remain unnamed would remark,”Jesus Jack!”. After a few days of teaching and meetings, he became known as “Jesus Jack” and now owns a special pair of chopsticks with his new name on them. Well earned, my dear friend!
The best tour advice always comes from the cab driver. So after the workshop, we hopped on to a cab, and asked him “Take us to the best steakhouse that is open this late!”
Back at our Air BnB, we chatted more about future plans and went to bed happy and full of amazing Japanese food and sake!
Today we got up early due to the time difference, even though we are NOT morning people. By 8:30AM, Kaz, Rick, and John Jack had gone off to teach acting class.
After poking about and having morning coffee, checking email, and reading a bit of the ever depressing news from the States, our friend, Seri came by and we nosed about Shinjuku a bit before going to hang out with Kaz and gang.
There were a few actors who had signed up to get head shots done, so I was busy doing that while Kaz translated. We were in a hallway of a building and I was checking out the light there but had decided against shooting there. As we were leaving the area, I looked down and there on the floor was a very special necklace that I had given Kaz years ago. Somehow it had simply fallen off and I found it. Weird.
After a LONG day of waiting for the teachers to stop chatting with actors, we headed off to the “Robot Restaurant”. It’s a huge production with robots “fighting” dragons, and other robots, and dancing ninjas, and crazy mad costumes of all sorts. It was a formidable costume and light show with lots of loud music. First of all, allow me to clarify…it is NOT a restaurant in any way, shape, or form. It is an amazing, wonderful, colorful, fantastic show….if you are 8-10 years old. Otherwise you will feel completely ripped off. Maybe we’re jaded because we are from LA LA Land, but it takes more that costumes, lasers, and jumping around for me to be drawn in.
We got a kick out of that and wound our way out of Robot hell to try and find a bar. Dan, Rick’s brother, mentioned there was a fairly famous bar nearby. It’s the Albatros Bar and was visited and recommended by Anthony Bourdain when he was in Tokyo.
When we got there we were informed there wasn’t much room left except a bit in the upstairs loft overlooking a small part of the city. That was great for us, so we headed up the stairs. The group of Californias asked us “Did you take JAL from LA on Friday? We were sitting in front of you guys.” We found out they were at the same show at the Robot Restaurant. AND one of them were living in SF – where Dan works, and his cousin lives in Little Tokyo in LA. What are the odds, eh? In all of Tokyo, we ran into them 3 times.
We had a good laugh, tried to join them for drinks but there wasn’t enough room where they were or where we were the next floor up….so who knows, maybe we’ll run into them again in LA.
When in Tokyo, it’s hard to keep track of time because everything is lit and even at 2 or 3AM people will be scurrying about the city, so at some point we made it back to our house just a little worse for wear.
Things always start out innocently enough in Japan, maybe even with honorable intentions. But inevitably, there comes food. Small portions, so you think,”Oh isn’t that cute and pretty and delicious!” And then there comes some more food, and more food, and more food, and beer….LOTS of beer…and Sake….LOTS of sake.
You have lots of moments in Japan where, toward the end of the evening as you are staggering home, you are unable to cipher how you got from “innocent tiny food” to full, happy, and barely able to walk. The good news is, the dreaded hangover never comes. I think it may have to do with the lack of preservatives in the booze there, but whatever the magic is, I’m glad for it because there were a LOT of evenings that I went back to our room wobbly and smiling. Since the day we met, I have never attempted to keep up with my lovely wife. Kaz must have a super liver – or maybe doesn’t have one at all – but she is
a force and unerringly led the “fool brigade” back to wherever we had come from. At that point none of us knew in all of Japan where that might be.
The day started with Kaz and Rick teaching an acting class from 9Am- 2PM. John Jack, Squi, and I hung out at the BnB, went for a walk, and waited for Rick’s brother, Dan, to join the gang.
We were joined by Kaz’s long time friend, Seri, who brought Squi some adorable cookies.
Many things are just SO “Kawai” (cute) in Japan. Cookies, information signs, bathroom logos, and even the street construction barriers are often some sort of adorable little bear or bunny. It’s odd to see a well dressed suited business man on a subway with a cute little charm hanging off his phone. But Japan is that way….Kawai is everywhere.
When we all reunited at the house, it was off to the subway to Izakaya to meet up with Kaz’s brother who had invited ALL of us to dinner. THAT’S when it started. Kaz brother ordered food…cute food….awwww…I can eat that. The more food, and beer – LOTS of beer, and Sake….LOTS of sake.
Here’s John Jack pointing and saying,”Drink THAT!? ALL of THAT!? OK!”
Here’s John Jack a bit later when Squi found some spooky eyeball stickers. Yea – that’s NOT Kawai.
There was a family sitting nearby to whom we apologized in advance, during, and after our meal. In typical Japanese fashion, they joined in and people we’d never met before laughed and took photos with us as if we were long lost relatives.
There was singing…a LOT of singing. And there was bonding over some group named “Bauhaus” and bowing and scraping when the name Peter Murphy was mentioned. John Jack, Rick, Dan, and Kaz’s bother became united allies in the name of post punk rock.
Guess I’m too old….never heard of the dude…but I don’t care, I’ll drink to him.
Squi and their children bonded over the absurdity and silliness of adults.
And of course, the requisite selfie was taken by our waiter. Kaz’s brother, Takeshi, picked up the entire tab and we will be forever grateful.
Boarding a plane bound for Japan is an exercise in mixed feelings. We’re SO HAPPY to be going but dreading being trapped in an aluminum tube at 37 thousand feet for 12 hours.
I’m jealous of those who can sleep on planes…I can’t. So, I have found the best way for me to pass time is to catch up on all the movies I haven’t seen. “LA LA LAND” was first on my list. What a horrid film…slow paced, predictable, schmaltzy, and I’m sorry but Emma and Ryan are neither singers or dancers. Watch Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire…listen to Julie Andrews or Judy Garland sing.
On the other hand, I LOVED “Moonlight” and feel it deserved to win. Well shot, directed, acted, and a wonderful story that walked a tough line concerning a sensitive and current topic. Sadly, the people who SHOULD see it, probably won’t.
I saw “Doctor Strange” – liked it a lot and recommend it. I’d watch Benedict Cumberbatch read a phone book.
We arrived at Narita Airport and on our way to pick up our baggage, Squi was running through the airport, tripped, fell, smacked his face on the floor and got a black eye. Great….we hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come.
We got to AirBnB rented house in Shinjuku around 3 in the afternoon and Kaz had to leave soon after to go teach an acting class. Squi and I decided to have a treasure hunt, so we went out on our own and wondered around. The “treasure hunt” consisted of taking photos as we went so we could find our way back home. I think it worked better than bread crumbs. But ultimately we were too tired to walk very far, so we found our way back home, put our feet up, and watched Sumo Wrestling!
John Jack, the head honcho at The Stella Adler Acting Academy arrived that evening.
So when Kaz got back, we started our first food search.
We knew of a teeny hole in the wall restaurant in an alley in Shinjuku called Shinagawa Tei. The restaurant has room for about 8-10 guests and is owned and operated by a little old lady and her son. It’s a VERY popular local eatery and is practically impossible to get reservations but the last time we were there we just walked in at the right time and got seats! So we thought we’d go by and just say hello. As fate would have it, we got there just as they were opening and we got to eat there again!!! When we walked in the little old lady looked at Kaz and said, “OH….Matamura-san!!” We were stunned that she remembered us but so happy to get to have more of their wonderful food.
We love Japan and I’m pretty sure living there part time will be in our future. Also – MANY of these blogs will mention food! Food you can’t get in the US, food that you can get in the US but is WAAAYYY better over there, and food served in a way (both in terms of service and presentation) that you can’t find here in the US.
After our meal, we wondered around a bit in Shinjuku before we met up with Rick, an instructor from Stella Adler, who was also coming in to join the teaching forces.
We’d been up for a LONG time, so after a snack and too many Asahi beers, we crashed at our house, happy, full, and excited about the days to come!
A final word on Minamisanriku, then on to Fukushima.
There was one building I really wanted to shoot when we went to Minamisanriku. It was the place where Miki Endo worked. She was a lovely vibrant 24 year old newly wed who worked at the Minamisanriku Disaster Response headquarters. It was her responsibility to announce the warning of an approaching tsunami.
“Tsunami warning, get to higher ground”, she repeated over and over again. In many of the videos from that fateful day, you can hear her voice echoing through the town as water rushed in and swallowed everything in it’s path. She was on the second floor of the building. Thirty people worked there and when the tsunami came they all rushed higher and higher but Miki stayed at her post issuing warnings until the very last second in an effort to save as many lives as possible. Along with others, she hurried to the roof, but the raging tsunami ripped the skin off the building and gutted it, taking everything and everyone inside, and then it rose even higher. Among the people working in that building was the Mayor of Minamisanriku. Nine people made it to the roof pushing their Mayor ahead of them…but still the tsunami rose higher. They climbed a radio antenna and clung to life while just inches beneath their feet all the places knew and people they loved disappeared beneath the roaring torrent.
Nine people will never forget that day, suspended above the furious tsunami, clinging to fragile life while 21 of their friends and coworkers, including Miki Endo, were devoured in the deluge.
This is a composite photo of the building where Miki and 29 others, worked. The top frame is as it was, the center frames show the Mayor and 8 others hanging on for the lives while the entire building is devoured, then the water begins to recede. The bottom frame, I shot, and you can see MUCH of the debris has been bulldozed away. Initially, people wanted to make the building a memorial to Miki and the tsunami victims, but her parents (who were saved by their daughters warnings), could not bear to pass by it and asked for it to be demolished.
Miki Endo’s body was recovered in April.
When we left the hotel at Minamisanriku, 3 attendants rushed out with a 10 foot long banner that said “Thank you for coming!” and then they bowed graciously as our bus pulled away. It was raining.
It was a couple of hours bus ride back to Sendai to catch a train to Fukushima. On the bus my gf got a call and turned to me,”Wanna do a shoot in Sendai!?”
Sometimes I think she knows every single person in Japan. Someone heard we were there and knew my work. This guy SHU CHIBA represented a Taiko Drum group. This particular group has been traveling a lot doing fund raisers for the earthquake/tsunami victims. They wanted to shoot at this particular shrine in Sendai that is the grave site of Date Masamune who was the founder of Sendai. If you Google him, it’s a fun read.
Hauling all my gear and a packed suitcase, we caught a bus for a half hour bumpy ride, then walked another 6 blocks to the entrance of the shrine. When we arrived at the shrine we rounded a corner and stopped dead in our tracks, staring at 650 million wet and slippery stone steps. “Awww…. I can’t do this” my gf whined.
“YOU got us into this, so come on…they wanna shoot up there…so let’s go!” I grumbled
When we got to the top we were sweating in the chilly drizzle. There was a kiosk where the band and their rep were hiding out, so we all exchanged greetings and headed out to our shooting location. Much to our horror, we rounded a corner and came face to face with another set of 650 million wet and slippery stone steps.
I glared at my gf but couldn’t be irritated because she looked like a soaked kitty and she was just standing transfixed staring glassy eyed at the steps. If misery does indeed love company, it didn’t seem to exhibit itself that day. Even the Taiko Band made jokes about their location choice. But fortunately, there was a nice location at the top where we could shoot and they could be out of the rain. Unfortunately, yours truly, had to stand in the drizzle and try to get a good shot in between tourists walking through the backgrounds of my shots.
We took a taxi back to the station, caught a train for Fukushima, and watched out the window as the clouds parted in time for a lovely sunset.
Yet another bar in Fukushima. More sake tasting. More staggering back to our room…well, I staggered… my gf can put me under the table SOOOO easily. Whatever.
We are upwind and on the opposite side of the mountain range that separates Kitikata from the nuclear reactors that blew. There is less radiation here than there is in Tokyo but just the NAME ‘Fukushima” stops people in their tracks, so the economy in this area is suffering horribly. It’s so sad because the crops here are fantastic but are virtually unmarketable.
At 6 AM we received a wake up call from Mom Nature… an earthquake. I’m a kind of twisted sort – I LIKE earthquakes. Only one made me nervous and that one was the 6.7 Northridge earthquake of 1994. I lived 10 miles from the epicenter. So the Fukushima quake was kinda fun but a solemn reminder of all we had so recently seen and experienced.
We took a nice tour of the city with a local guide and he overwhelmed us with tons of information about this 1500 year old city. Many of the buildings have double roofs for insulation. Fukushima is known for it’s roof tiles, brick, soy sauce, and of course, the local sake. So, of course, part of our tour was, yet again, another sake brewery. Geeez… Japan was beating me to death… I finished the tour in a daze after sampling all the local brews.
I would like to pause for a brief second and say one thing. Of ALL the MANY and PLETHORA things I love about Japan and it’s culture… what the hell is it with their TOILET PAPER!!!! It’s so thin you can almost see through it and you have to be careful not to get a paper cut. OK…it’s not THAT bad but GEEEEZ PEOPLE… you have complicated electronic toilets but ya can’t get the paper right!??? WTF??? OK…rant over.
Now…I feel better…so back to my story. We were driven around the city by the owner of the local sake brewery YAMATOKAWA (don’t ask me how my gf knew HIM – she seems to know everyone on Earth) and we stopped at a town center where a small gathering of locals were celebrating a low key version of harvest festival. They invited all five of us to have lunch with them (by this time we had been joined by my friend Jim Beaver and his guide, Kazumi) so we sat down to a HUGE spread of marvelous marvelous food. My girlfriend’s ancestors are from this area, so as we spoke with the locals, they connected the dots and several of them, it turns out, actually knew her grandmother. “She was a good Doctor” one guy said nodding approvingly. But then… “She was a drunk…. and she touched me!” said his friend.
Maybe it was the sake but I’m pretty sure that was one of the funniest things ever uttered by a human being. The timing couldn’t have been better.
In her defense, my girlfriend’s Grandma WAS a good doctor and was VERY aware that the locals often didn’t have the money to pay her. So they brought her food, housewares, and of course, SAKE! Being Japanese, she HAD to drink it so as not to offend. It also came to light that her “touching” was chest tapping done during an examination. But…even so, it was hysterically funny and delivered ever so perfectly by an eight hundred and thirty five year old wrinkled little Japanese man. Classic.
From the celebration we drove over to a property still owned by my girlfriend’s family. I had visions of fixing up the house there and turning it into a Bed and Breakfast and getting out of Los Angeles… going somewhere that I can’t actually see and taste the air.
We boarded a train and headed for Tokyo, our heads spinning with 11 days of madness. More than once on this trip, I had asked where we were.
Back at the Tokyo Hilton we picked up a few bags we had stored and headed for Narita Airport. We passed, I kid you not, a hotel named “First Wood”… then “Hotel Slit”… then “Hotel Rainbow”. I guess some things just don’t translate.
My friend Jim speaks a bit of Japanese so he did his best to leave a good impression. As he was getting off the bus, he MEANT to say,”Thank you for driving us”… but he attempted to use past tense and failed. What came out was, basically, “Thank you for driving us… NOT!”
We are STILL laughing WITH him over that.
I stopped in one of the tourist trap shops to buy a pen before we boarded and was a bit undecided. My gf handed one to me and said “this one!”. I guess I must have looked at her quizzically because she snapped,”Hey, I’m Japanese, I know more about pens and toilets than you do!”
I bought the pen… and by the way…she was right.
On board the plane I watched the little monitor’s trace of our flight path over the ocean. I didn’t want to leave that beautiful charming land. I HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend EVERYONE visit Japan. It fits the bill for something John Muir once said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread…places to play in and pray in…”.