Three's a Crowd
Exhausted from--well--everything, we meet my mom at a coffee shop in Haneda Airport where I am happy to get and give a hug, though I am saddened when I have to watch all three of us struggling to buy metro tickets. As someone who only has a bad time when other people exhibit symptoms of having a bad time, I am about to enter a new ring of Hell: family vacations.
Meeting with my parents on occasion as I zigzag through the world is both necessary and, don't get me wrong, typically enjoyable. I need my medications, smuggled from the United States, and relish regular supplies of American snacks and toiletries. I also obviously love to see my family, and share new experiences with the people who raised me. What I don’t like is feeling responsible for other people having a good time, forgetting about my own desire to enjoy these trips, feeling constrained by some undefined schedule and generally suffering the slings and arrows that family vacations are heir to. A wave of depression floods over me the likes of which I haven’t felt in months when we enter our sixth minute at the subway ticket kiosk. I just want to sleep. Forty-eight hours of barely-obstructed consciousness has made me incapable of dealing with all of this. Sometimes I’d rather go through it all alone. This is one of those times. The subway ride goes quickly, as we catch up, and after a dan dan noodle dinner I finally return to blissful sleep and become normal again.
Hitting the Streets
As I am sure you know, I have no idea what I am doing most of the time when it comes to filling my days. When you are crossing borders, learning languages, and booking hotels and hostels constantly as I am, you often don’t have time to look at Tripadvisor or browse Lonely Planet guides for the Must-Sees of a given city in advance. So, I either tend to do these things day-of or not do them at all. Needless to say, my parents do do them, and I am happy to oblige on our first day together as it will mean I do not have to worry about planning and can have a day to relax.
Do I relax though? No, not at all. In fact, I start to question if I am even fit for human society anymore as I get just as tired as I was the night before after only ten minutes of shopping in the Ginza district. Suddenly I can no longer compromise with anyone and realize I can only maintain a day’s measure of energy if left to do what I want to do when I want to do it.
No one ever mentions just how restrictive being a free spirit can be.
In the evening, we seek out a sushi shop that is either locals-only or is just fully occupied by locals, and a nice woman shows us to another sushi spot where the chef is ok with our party eating with our hands. Shiba Park is hauntingly illuminated in the cloudy twilight and we snap pictures of the shrines and towers before bed.
Morning takes us to Shibuya Station, especially the giant 4-way crosswalk and Hachiko Statue that have become such integral parts of the neighborhood. We share our first familial moment discussing Hachi, comparing it to the Balto statue in Central Park, a New York must-see for our family back when my brother and I were little. It is already lunchtime, so I direct us to Uobei, one of the neighborhood’s renowned conveyor-belt sushi restaurants. There, an iPad sits poised on a stand at each of our seats, at which we simply order and then our dishes roll out to us minutes later. The rain starts when we leave and continues as we take the metro to the Meiji Shrine one stop away.
A three-hour day has sapped my energy and I have to return to my solo travel state even if that means not traveling at all. I condemn myself to the hotel room where I write, read and play on Duolingo while my parents explore Tokyo, out of my hair. In the evening, we regroup for cheap ramen which we order from a vending machine and slurp as the chef smiles at us from across the counter.
The Bernabei family crams itself into tiny Omoide Yokocho, an alley known for food and nightlife. After paying an exorbitant amount for drinks and appetizers, we cross to neighboring Golden Gai where bars are less of a rip-off and tourists are a bit more scarce. This is, of course, for a reason. Many of the bars in six-block Golden Gai can only fit seven or eight people, and so locals and friends often can get a seat while foreigners are strictly prohibited. Instead, we walk to Champion bar, a slightly larger fixture of the neighborhood known for its karaoke and 200-Yen sake shots. We hole ourselves up there and my dad and I sing a couple of songs before the waitlist gets too long and my mom grows bored of befriending young Anglophone couples in an effort to poke fun at me and my father behind our backs.
The following morning we stop at Tokyo’s military museum, intent to see 20th century military history, especially WWII, from the Japanese perspective. What we found differed slightly from what I learned in grade school U.S. history, which made for an interesting study on bias. Firstly, allow me to share my ideas, that is the lessons that have been imparted on me, by an American public school education and then I will point out a few places where the museum differs:
This is where my museum fatigue fades because it allows me to view history not as a monolith but as a series of narratives, perspectives, and opinions. It may not be a popular notion, but I believe two ideas that seem contradictory can be true, it all depends on how you tell the story and who tells it. Let’s start with Pearl Harbor. Tokyo’s military museum argues that the long-isolated nation was dependent on America for a lot of resources, including 70% of their gas imports. When the U.S. introduced an embargo with Japan, the writing was on the wall that the U.S. would side with Allied forces. Attacking Pearl Harbor, according to the exhibit, was just a way of crystallizing what was already known to be true.
Second, the museum makes a point of saying that surrender was considered long before and during the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that they were bombed while terms of surrender were being discussed. Admittedly this seems like a lame excuse, but it stands as the truth for young Japanese learning about the war and that is its own kind of truth, that is to say it is a truth that is accepted by many people and shapes their national identity.
Finally, death tolls for both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are estimated to be as high as 226,000 (though the museum states that "up to 280,000 may have perished as a result"). Nearly all of these are civilian deaths. If we accept that the Japanese had been discussing surrender, then not only do American attacks on these two cities become immoral (which even my American education argues that they were), but they also become unnecessary. Just because we are the heroes of WWII does not mean everything we did was heroic. Of course, I had to take everything in the Japanese military museum with a grain of salt, but I take everything with a grain of salt. We have to acknowledge that nearly all sources have some sort of bias, or tell only part of a story. Tokyo’s military museum is a must-see, if only for the cognitive hygiene exercise the museum provides. What is true? What do Japan and America stand to benefit from changing the facts now? And is there a value to emotional truths, revisionism, or historiography or should these things just be regarded as "fake news" and discarded?
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.