Idiots Abroad

(With apologies to S. Clemens and others.)


Marx Brothers.

Chapter One: A Night at the Okura

21 March 1987
Pacific Ocean

Finished final preparations last night. Didn't get done until about 12:30 A.M. That beer may have slowed things down a bit. Adjusted every alarm clock/watch in the apartment (5 alarms) to wake me up at 5:30 am. The first one got me out of bed like a shot and I rapidly disarmed the others. Triple S'd then drove to the airport in South Bend, Indiana to catch a shuttle to O'Hare.

I was supposed to meet E___ (Z_____ Chicago) to get my passport and visa. I'd never seen him before, so, when we were talking on the phone a couple of days ago, we agreed to meet at the 42nd Parallel Lounge at O'Hare. We decided that the best way to recognize each other was to walk around and look like we were lost. I didn't locate E___ until almost the last minute.

I got my visa and gave E___ some money to pick up a few thousand yen while I checked in my baggage. (During that week, the exchange rate dropped from about 150 yen/$1 to about 140 yen/$1.)

We finally got on the 747 and then sat there on the ground for over an hour because the plane had fueling problems. Apparently, the airport had shortchanged them by a few hundred gallons. The pilot was telling us this over the intercom--they wanted to make sure that the jet was fully fueled so they wouldn't have to stop in Alaska and that the ground crew was checking the level of each tank at that moment. This of course brought up comments from the passengers such as "why doesn't he just look at his gas gauge?"


We arrived at Narita Airport and got through customs with no problem. However, I was extremely tired. For practice, try sitting in a narrow armchair for 11 hours. The bus to Hotel Okura in Tokyo took another couple hours. We didn't arrive until about 9 or 10 P.M. and were so tired that we could barely keep awake. Signing in didn't take too long, however. The bellhop grabbed my luggage, led me to my room, handed me a card while grinning orientally, and scurried off.

The hotel is the best I've ever been in. You notice the little things. When you ride the elevator, you can't feel it move. The shower temperature control is calibrated in degrees C. A couple of TV channels are delivered in English. Picture quality is excellent. All hotel employees speak English and are always polite. None of the employees will accept a tip. One was confused about the purpose of a tip. I found out later that tipping isn't a custom in Japan--in fact, many Japanese consider it an insult.

The room has three phones and a bar. The bar has both Japanese and imported drinks. Prices?

Sake 800 yen (Silver Sake) Beer 830 yen (Asahi)

The sake was cold, a trifle sweet for my taste, and hits you before you know it. I understand that traditional sake is served hot and is much dryer.

We did stay awake long enough to grab a bite at the hotel diner. It's expensive. A hamburger cost $8.60. Coffee is $3.00. Japanese beer costs $4.70.

Later, I took a look at that card the bellhop had handed me. It was a statement of hotel charges. When I saw it, my eyes bulged out and my jaw hit the floor. A night at the Okura costs 29,450 yen.

23 March 1987


I stayed up to midnight last night. I woke up at 4:30 A.M. and read a book until 6:30. The sun came up--but the weather was rainy. I used the Tokyo map to orient (no pun, etc.) myself. My room (S1136) faces west towards the Shuto expressway. The U.S. embassy is one block NNE. Embassies surround the Okura--Russia is a couple of blocks away.

E___ and I met Mr. Y________ about noon. He's our contact in Japan--a manager at M_____ who is our translator and instructor for one of the courses. After discussing our plans for the remainder of the week (today is free time to allow for jet lag), he took us to the Ginza in downtown Tokyo. We had sushi at a restaurant called Edogi. That's his translation as everything was in Japanese. That was the first time I've eaten sushi--found it to be excellent. It must be the way they add the spices, since there's not too much else you can do with raw fish and roe and prawns. We also had mussel soup (with lots of tiny half-shells in the bottom of the bowl--this was cooked), Sapporo beer, and finally green tea (excellent). This last was in a thick stone-like cup/glass with no handle and was very hot. We ate the sushi with chopsticks (trying) and drank the mussel soup by lifting the bowls to our mouths. We sat at a table with chairs, but other areas had raised floors and low tables where people were expected to take off their shoes and sit cross-legged.

We had taken a taxi to Edogi--you drive on the left side of the road as in England. It can be unnerving as the streets are narrow and cars are well within a foot of the one beside it...

After the sushi dinner, Mr. Y________ had to get back to work--but he did lead us down to the main part of the Ginza and showed us the subway to take back when we wanted to quit sightseeing.

Incidently Mr. Y________ confirmed a couple of things: tipping is verboten in Japan (it's considered an insult), the crime rate is low (which is good, since I'm carrying $1000 worth of yen and about $300--plus $1000 worth of TCs back at the hotel). He also said that if we get lost, find a high school student and ask them for directions--they can be recognised because students must wear uniforms. They also have to study English as part of their course and are usually eager to practice (Japanese schools are very tough) -- since they're studying it, the knowledge is fresh in their minds. All of the above agrees with Fodors.

Choke a horse.

Chapter Two: Enough to Choke a Horse

25 March 1987

Tottori - 3 A.M.

After tax and gratuity was thrown in, Hotel Okura was $195 a night.

8:09 A.M.

Finished the seminar for the day and went on a tour of the LCD division of S____. The technology is impressive. High-density monochrome LCDs and medium-density color about the size of the one used in the Z_____. Japanese translation to English can be humorous, though. All their department areas had signs written in Japanese and English that identified the department. One was "breaking and sucking."

Exploring Tottori that evening, we found a place selling a drink called "Pocare Sweat."

The price of food is cheaper once you get away from the hotel. E___ wasn't in the mood for Japanese food so we went to a western-style junk food place called Mos Burger. A double cheeseburger, chicken sandwich, small fries, and a large coke comes to 1140 yen ($7.60).

Had this funny dream last night that caused me to wake up laughing. I laid there adding details to it and going more and more into hysterics. In the dream, J.B. has started his car (a bright red '60 Chevy convertible with the top down) and is about to drive off when someone tells him that he better get out of town before he gets sued. Why? Because when he started his car, a potato shot out the back and killed a horse down the street.

Build up: Some joker plugs a large potato into the exhaust pipe of J.B.'s car. J.B. returns and starts the car. With a boom, the potato blows free and rockets down the street. A horse, parked by the curb, opens its mouth to yawn. The potato sails in and blocks the horse's wind pipe. It's a terrible thing watching a horse choke to death--all that bucking, kicking, and flopping.

The horse plants a hind foot into the face of a passerby, knocking the man head over heels. He's lying on his back out cold with a silly smile on his face that stretches all the way up to his eyes. Looking closer, you realize that it's the imprint of a horseshoe. All of his teeth are knocked in, of course.

Returning to the reality of the Mos Burger, E___ had noticed that they had spread mustard on his fish sandwich. The only thing I could think of was that some American visited the place once and, just for kicks, told them that all Americans ate fish sandwiches with mustard.

I tried some sake tonight--dry and warmed to body temperature. It was good until it hit room temperature, then it was like drinking cold coffee.

They don't use WALK/DON'T WALK lights in Tottori. There's green lights to make cars go, but when it's time for people to cross, you hear this giant coo-coo clock. No shit. I can even hear it up here in my room on the seventh floor with the window closed. For variety, some street corners pipe in a giant canary.

(Later, I was told that this was a courtesy to blind people. They used the sounds to determine which street was safe to cross. One sound was for north/south, the other was for east/west. --ww 4/27/96)
Trivia from M_____ N_____: Japanese school children must spend a minimum of six years studying English.

Electric chair.

Chapter Three: No Shit!

30 March 1987
Tokyo - 10 P.M.

The lack of body taboos in Japan exposes itself in unusual ways. For example, there was a television show that I heard about but (thankfully) didn't see; where an important part of the plot concerned people farting. And, of course, there are public Japanese baths, some coed, which I also missed out on.

What I did see was an unusual series of toilets.

For example, the bathroom at the S____ plant in Tottori had a common hallway. The women's room was straight down the hall behind a door made of frosted glass and wood and marked with the silhouette of a human wearing a dress. The men's room was on the right side of the hallway behind two swinging doors similar to those at the entrance of a saloon in cowboy shows on TV. Immediately on the other side of the door were the urinals. If any lady wanted to satisfy her curiosity as to what you were doing, all she had to do was glance to her right as she headed down the hall.

I discovered the next unusual toilet at a Chinese restaurant near the C______ factory in Tanashi, Tokyo. The urinal was being used, so I went into the stall and found nothing but a porcelain hole in the floor. Well, there were two other things. Mounted in the wall was a handle for flushing and on the door of the stall was a hook where I expect you were supposed to hang your pants if you were going to take a dump.

That evening, we were treated to dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant. K____ K______ and M_____ T____ of C______ were our hosts. The dining area was a small room with paper walls and sliding door. The table was at floor level but had a hollowed-out area beneath it to allow you to sit western-style. Two women dressed in kimonos served our food and provided entertainment (which, later on, included singing).

The food was sishumi (or sishimi or something like that) which consisted of bite-size chunks of raw fish that you dipped into a combination of soy sauce (I think) and Japanese mustard--a green substance that was extremely hot. We were also served tempura, (a food consisting of cooked shrimp and vegetables), tofu, and various delicacies such as octopus and eel. All of it was delicious.

Incidentally, I was told later that it's rare for a westerner to be served such a meal. Not only is it expensive, it's also difficult to get a private room unless you have Japanese contacts. In contrast, the remainder of the restaurant consisted of a public dining area with western-style tables and chairs.

It's a custom for Japanese hosts to keep their guest's glass of sake or beer full at all times. You take a drink, set the glass down, and they immediately top it off. This makes it difficult to pace yourself, so it wasn't too long before I had to get up and stagger off to the bathroom.

Both the urinal and stall were occupied, so I waited. When the man finished at the urinal, I took his place. Shortly after that, a woman dressed in a kimono exited the stall, smiled at me, said something in Japanese, and left. It didn't occur to me to check if the toilet in the stall was a porcelain hole in the floor.

* * *

Over the weekend, I took a walking tour of Tokyo. This included Hibiya Park and the Imperial Palace, both of which were near Hotel Okura. The park was one giant Japanese garden with lots of greenery and where the fountains, plants, and even the stones were carefully placed. There were trees everywhere and narrow paths twisting among them. There were an unusual number of crows in the park, most of them large enough to play the starring role in a Japanese monster movie.

The grounds of the Imperial Palace wasn't so parklike. Though there was lots of greenery, most of the area (what was visible) consisted of large moats and huge fortress-like walls. Only certain areas were open to tourists. One consisted of a wide concrete walkway about a block long that led to a large gate with thick wooden doors. The walkway was used by Japanese tourists taking pictures, joggers, and a bunch of karate types in white uniforms and black belts who were jumping around and screaming a lot.

Off to the left was a small white concrete building that was obviously the bathroom. Though the lettering above the two entrances was in Japanese, the men's room was immediately recognizable since you could see the urinals from the street. The entrance did not have a door that could be closed. I decided that I could wait until I got back to the hotel.

* * *

While touring the factory at C______ (or maybe it was J__), all that Japanese food that I had eaten demanded that I answer the call of nature. It was with some trepidation that I asked for directions to the bathroom. Amazingly, the stall not only had a door that closed, but a western-style toilet. When I sat down, however, I discovered that the seat contained heating coils and was quite warm. I later found out that such toilets are becoming popular in Japan. But at the time it surprised the shit out of me.

Wet dream.

Chapter Four: Japanese Wet Dream

31 March 1987

The taxis in Japan seem to be better than those found in America. At least they're better than the wrecks used in the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph area. Though not as good as German taxis (which were Mercedes when I was there), they do have one neat high-tech feature; the driver can open the left-rear door by pushing a button or pulling a lever. Why the left-rear door? Because Japanese traffic is on the left side of the street, you silly.

Japanese drivers are extremely polite compared to American drivers. Consider a city of 12 million people with driving conditions worse than downtown Chicago. That is, some of the streets are only wide enough to let one car pass at a time. Yet they are two-way streets that also support pedestrians (no sidewalks) and parking on both sides. That latter feature was what usually narrowed the street width to one lane. If an oncoming driver was moving through the bottleneck, the other driver would pull over and patiently wait until the lane was cleared. No one leaned on their horns. You would occasionally hear horns honking-- especially during rush hour. But I think it was usually to alert other drivers to a hazardous situation rather than as a threat to the other driver.

Pedestrians also get courteous treatment. One evening, E____ and I were walking down the Ginza and sightseeing. This is a more modern area of Tokyo and has two-way streets several lanes wide. Emptying into it, however are lots of narrower streets. (In the U.S., we call them "alleys.") The wide streets contain lots of big department stores while the narrow ones are packed with little shops. All are brightly lit with neon signs. There are crowds everywhere. The general attitude seems to be carefree--possibly because of the low crime rate.

Even at night, the traffic is heavy. We were crossing one of the narrow streets along with a crowd of Japanese while a driver was trying to make a turn into it. It was one of the few streets without traffic signals, so whoever got there first had the right of way. The driver waited patiently for us to cross, then continued on his way. If that same situation had occurred in Chicago, we'd have gotten splattered all over the intersection. The driver would have blasted us with his horn with one hand and given us the finger with the other. Not to mention describing our ancestry and sexual habits.

Incidentally, the majority of Japanese pedestrians obey the traffic signals. Even if the street is empty, they will wait until the walk light turns on before crossing. Compare this to Chicago, where everybody ignores the crossing lights. Chicago could save a fortune if they removed the walk/don't walk lights, which are so much useless ornamentation.

I think the Japanese attitude towards driving comes partly from their culture, which has a strong degree of politeness. It's also possibly due to the fact that a driver's license costs about $1000 and involves a rigorous driver's ed course and exam. That would tend to make one not do things that would jeopardize one's license.

It's easier for an American citizen to get a driver's license in Japan. Simply have a valid U.S. license and apply for an international driver's license. But, considering the traffic density, narrow streets, left-hand driving, and unreadable street signs, I wouldn't want to try driving over there.

* * *

Saw another English-translated sign that didn't make any sense. While taking a taxi from a restaurant in the Asakusa-Akihabara area we passed a tall building with a single sign about half way up it. No other markings on the building but this big white sign. A big white sign with large black capital letters that spelled "wet dream."

When I returned to the States and described that to a coworker (D___ S___), he suggested that it might have been a waterbed company.

Pacific Ocean

Took Northwest Orient flight #4 back to the United States. This was a nonstop flight that went north to Alaska, south to Chicago ("Way up north..."). Eleven hours of nonstop boredom.

When the stewardess came by to offer refreshments, I stretched the Japanese experience by ordering a Suntori beer. As I sipped the drink, I noticed that a Japanese traveller sitting across the isle had ordered a Miller Lite. So we both sat there enjoying our fine foreign beers.

Copyright © 1996, 2001, 2002, 2004, William Albert Wilkinson. All rights reserved.