April 2008. I was a week away from earning my college degree, a goal I long thought I’d never achieve. Three members of my family had just arrived, and were preparing for the grand tour. I had a couple of papers to finish and another couple of exams. We started sightseeing a day or two before I finished, so I was juggling being a student and being a host.
Obviously, our time in Japan was limited, so we had to jam a lot of sand into a small shoe. On the day of the final exam of my undergraduate career, I rose before the sun (a misdemeanor in Japan). The test was at seven o’clock that night, but we had a full day planned.
I put on some clothes and a shoe or two and walked around the corner to meet my parents and grandmother at the Sunshine Prince Hotel. It was four in the morning, so we had to take a taxi across town. The trains weren’t running yet, and we had to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market in time for the tuna auction.
This was my second time watching this daily event. I did a little interpreting for my folks when the auction started, but it was really hard to pick up what they were saying. Even on my third trip, four years later, I couldn’t catch much of anything. Fly to the other side of the world to watch an auction, and you’ll realize that we’re all fundamentally the same. I did speak to one reporter though, and when I asked about the most expensive fish he’d ever seen there, he told me that a solitary tuna had once sold for six million yen. That’s approximately sixty thousand dollars. This was where the best fish were sold. The sushi you could get at Tsukiji Fish Market was the best in the world.
We got breakfast at that McDonald’s right there across from the station. It was still only about seven o’clock in the morning though, so the coffee was magic. We had a long way to go. After checking out a small shrine or something in the area, our next stop was the Ueno park and zoo. We got there before the zoo’s opening, so we had to wait around in the park for a bit. It was fine though, because there were kindergarteners waiting with us. If you’ve ever seen a class of Japanese kindergarteners…
We spent the whole morning with the animals. Ueno Zoo has a magnificent population, but some of the cages are pretty depressing. The otters, in particular, seem especially dejected. The zoo is split into two sections. Typically you’d start the visit with a walk around the east garden, taking a look at the panda, other bears, elephants, gorillas, birds, monkeys, penguins, and big cats. The west garden is below, and you can get there by walking down the hill or riding a tram. Then you can go back up to the east garden because you missed the capybaras. If you come down the path at dusk, you can catch the angular sunlight gleaming through the bamboo and off Shinobazu Pond as the pelicans flutter about. It’s one of those sights that really allows you to feel shitty about yourself. When you’re looking at those birds, it’s kind of embarrassing to think that you complained about your download speed no more than an hour prior. You think about the things you call problems and you say, “Fuck that. Look at this.” Either that or you need to learn to appreciate your world a little more.
We were really hoping to see Japan’s only fully-Japanese-owned panda, but Ling Ling wasn’t feeling too well. He ended up dying the next day.
In the afternoon we went to Asakusa. Exiting the station, I told the folks to turn around and get a look at the Asahi building across the river. It’s a tower of twenty-two stories, built to resemble a foaming beer glass. It’s difficult to hold onto a bad mood while looking at the beer tower and the giant flaming turd next door (look up “Asahi building”), so we proceeded to Kaminarimon with a good chuckle. The giant traditional gate summons thousands of tourists each day, and rickshaw runners try to get their money.
We proceeded through (around) the gate, three of us in awe. I had seen it many times, but I still adore the sight. There’s a good little flea market on the path to the temple, Sensoji, and we got a chance to look for trinkets. Sensoji is the oldest temple in Tokyo, and it’s one of the city’s most famous attractions. After gazing into Buddhist wonder, we proceeded to the river. The plan was to take a cruise down to Odaiba, which is the perfect cap to an Asakusa visit.
We relaxed on the Sumida River, passing under a thousand bridges. The boat docked at the man-made island, where we walked around the shopping mall and took in some breathtaking views of the city. The sun started lowering and my seven o’clock test began to loom. It wasn’t exactly multiple choice, so it had been grabbing at my shoulders all day. I had already turned in a ten-page paper entitled “Japan and the League of Nations” for this class. Here is a totally random selection:
“It was well known that before the annexation of Manchuria in 1932, Japan was alienated from the other members due to the distance between Tokyo and Geneva, the lack of a racial equality clause, the lack of Asian representation, the lack of concern for Asian issues, and eventually the Manchurian Incident.”
This test was going to be another handwritten paper of five to ten pages. We had from seven to ten o’clock to complete it. This was a capstone class, which meant that it was requisite for graduation. I was in no trouble of failing, but I had become a competitive student. I just now looked at my transcript and saw that I got a B+. I still graduated magna cum laude, and summa was way out of reach, so it ended up not being a big deal. I had been out for drinks the night before, up at four in the morning for the fish market, walking around all day, and writing a freaking book in a silent room with about twelve people on a weeknight, so I am not ashamed of what happened.
The professor was named Kazuhiko Togo. He is an incredibly impressive man. The first night of the class, he introduced his career to me and the other students. I can’t even scratch the surface of his résumé, but he was a diplomat who worked in Russia, The Netherlands, and on many other assignments. One of the last questions we asked him that first night was, “Aside from Russian, Japanese, and English, do you speak any other languages?”
“French,” he replied, “and Dutch,” he added almost as if there might have been more, but he couldn’t remember them all. He was brilliant, moderate, and descendant of a historical diplomat cut from the same cloth. His grandfather was Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Second World War. He was also once the Minister of Colonialism. Needless to say, he was a contentious figure. After the war, he was indeed arrested by Douglas MacArthur and convicted of Class-A war crimes (though there is a great debate about not only his guilt, but the validity of his conviction). His grandson, my professor recalled that Minister Togo answered the call of his country because he felt that it was his responsibility and he thought his best chance to do good was to effect change from the inside. It is universally recognized that my professor’s granddad was an adamant opponent of most of the campaigns which constituted his crimes, but he was a victim of circumstance and his own patriotic loyalty. Shigenori Togo died in Sugamo Prison in 1950. His soul was enshrined at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. In 1971, Sugamo Prison was torn down. Today, its former site is home to the Sunshine 60 building, and the Sunshine Prince Hotel, where I picked up my parents the morning of the test.
I can’t recall the subject of my exam, but like I said, I barely missed out on the A for the semester. I’m quite sure I know what happened.
I fell asleep four times while composing my paper. I literally trailed off mid-sentence. There were at least three spots on my paper where a letter became a drag mark, and one of them ran off the top of the page. I apologized to Professor Togo, and before hearing my excuse, he said, “I understand. Well done this semester.”
After making it out of the room, I met up with my best friend Bernadette, who was also in Togo’s class. We hustled across town to Shinjuku where we met up with my family and went to an izakaya. We were joined by our buddy Tatsuya, and the six of us held graduation ceremonies for me in a red-light district tapas restaurant. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.
Soon after, we sailed south for some squid.
To be continued.