It was the first November snow in Tokyo since 1962. It was one of the largest earthquakes since 2011. It definitely shook me around in the bed of my small hotel room. But these events, although newsworthy to the people of Japan, just seemed a small part of the excitement of life in Tokyo. For me, the ways the train move, the somehow skinnier cars, the programmable toilets, and the massive scale of the city are much more surprising and exciting.
The trains are impossibly full. The riders entering a packed train actually push their way in, with their backs first, to squeeze everyone; human sardines. But the amazing thing to me is how people leave their purses and backpacks on the luggage racks, without concern of theft. This is the epitome of social trust and is lacking in many parts of the world, noticeably the USA. Even Stockholm doesn’t have this level of honesty. I also love that each subway station has a free clean bathroom. No smell of urine in the subways here. There is no thought of tips from the bathroom cleaners, or at the restaurants, but the waiters are among the most helpful and gracious I have ever met. It is just a special place that way. But in other ways, the people of Tokyo are somewhat behind. Plastic is overused: plastic bags are given out generously, and the amount of fish and meat eaten is extreme. Smoking is still allowed in many bars and restaurants. There is no gay marriage. There are very few female professors, although more than half of the students are women. Conservative societies have pluses and minuses.
The Meguro Parasitological Museum is the only one of its kind in the world. Since I am considered a parasitologist, this was a must. We met the curators for a backstage tour of the collections that include many monogenean worms of fish, and plenty of tapeworms. The museum highlights the diversity of parasites and has lots of glass jars filled with icky helminths. They say that hundreds of people come here on dates, up to 300 per day. I wish I could do a field trip here with all of my students at SFSU. I also enjoyed the Tokyo National museum with its treasures of Japanese art, and the Mori Museum with its incredible city view in Roppongi Hills.
We caught some nice birds in the research forest at Nihon University. I showed the students how kingfishers “fall asleep” when they are placed on their backs. I recognized that I have a very peculiar skill: I can erect mist nets in a logical way, and get birds out of them quickly. I am treated like a prince, with gifts, special meals, and ultimate respect from the students and professors at Nihon University.
A tour of the ancient city of Nikko was my final day in Japan. It took 4 trains to get there, including one Shinkansen bullet train. The Tosho-Gu complex is the ornate mausoleum of the first shogun. Thousands of people visit to see the three monkeys, “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”, and the ornate gilded temples. All of the shrines are surrounded by ancient cedar trees, in the foothills of the mountains. There are waterfalls, and stone stair paths through the forest. The temples just near the main complex are much less crowded and just as beautiful. One of my favorite stops was the hall featuring the “Crying Dragon” painted on the ceiling. A guide claps two sticks together and only at a certain spot, just under the tears of the dragon, the whole room is filled with a magnified echo. They sell small bells as luck charms, and there are warriors for each year of the Chinese zodiac. The tourists, including me, are convinced of the magic and readily purchase the differently colored bell-charms.
For a final stop, my student guides took me to the Syungyotei onsen, a Japanese hot spring. After a long day of hiking and visiting temples, this was the perfect spot to relax, in a hot bath outside among the trees. This is not a tourist spot. The men strip off their clothes, rinse off, and rush outside to sit in the rocky pool. It is a nice way for friends to spend a Saturday evening together, just catching up and talking while relaxing. A perfect last night in Japan. I love that I will arrive in San Francisco before I left, and be able to say that yesterday I was walking among trees and temples in Nikko.