A simple “Ii o-tenki desu-ne” was sufficient to launch me into a 3 hour Japanese conversation. That ubiquitous phrase, meaning “Nice weather, isn’t it?” is often used as a conversation opener. Little I knew, when I offered it politely at the passenger sitting next to me on the Shinkansen to Tokyo, that the older lady would become immediately curious about my entire life and understood the sentence as “I speak perfect Japanese, why don’t you go on and throw all you can at me and see how I score?” I feel like I’ve learned more Japanese in the three hour train ride than I did in the past two weeks. She relentlessly questioned me about my travel, my origins, if I like her country (she smiled and nodded satisfactorily when I told her that I loved the geography and found the people to be the most hospitable I have ever met) and she went on telling me about her visit to Tokyo. I had to pull my faithful dictionary every now and then, and she waited very patiently for me to understand and reply. My advantage as an Italian is that when I hear a Japanese word I know exactly how to spell it, making it easier to look it up. The day before, my friend Chakie was actually quite surprised that, listening to a song on the radio in her car, I could repeat the words correctly.
At noon, the lady opened her bento box and offered to share it with me. I politely declined saying I would eat once in Tokyo. I didn’t feel like subtracting her of part of her meal, for as appetizing as it looked. The trip was very pleasant and I enjoyed our conversation, which added an extra glimpse into the life of Japanese people. After the necessary “Ja-Mata” (Goodbye) and her “Gambate Kudasai” (Good Luck) I left the train station heading to the subway toward Asakusa, to the twin hostel of the one where we previously stayed. A small double room, no windows, was $20 each. You can still get a bargain in Tokyo. Lindsey had left Osaka earlier in the morning with the intention of hiking around Mount Fuji, of which I caught a glimpse of the base from the train as it was completely enveloped in the clouds, enough though to show me how massive it is. My plan was completely different: tour Mitaka, in the suburbs of Tokyo, and visit the Ghibly Studios. This was the fulfillment of another childhood wish: I grew up immersed in Japanese animation and Ayao Miyazaki has always been a favorite of mine among Japanese animation directors/creators with such acclaimed movies as Princess Mononoke, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Lupin, My Friend Totoro, Nausicaa and my all time favorite: Conan, the boy of the future (based on Alexander Key’s rare novel “The Incredible Tide”). I was lucky enough to make a reservation as often tours are sold out months in advance, so at the train station I hopped on a yellow bus painted on both sides with Miyazaki’s famous character and shortly after, with excitement, crossed the gate to a childhood world. At the gate the attendant took my reservation voucher and gave me a ticket, which is actually a celluloid frame from a random movie; with much joy mine is from “Castle in the Sky,” an instant collectible. Part of the museum is build underground and entering it feels a bit like being inside a Disney park, they even have a cinema where a movie expressely made for the studios is shown. The studios/museum was being visited by people of all nationalities as well as all ages, I even met several Italian tourists. The part I liked the most was the roof where, after climbing on a winding staircase, other than having a great view of the rest of the facilities, I could stare up at a replica of a giant gentle robot from the movie “Castle in the Sky.” People were taking turns to take snapshots of themselves with it. For those who have not seen this movie yet I strongly recommend it (Distributed by The Walt Disney Studios in the U.S.): it’s set in a not too far future, but contains elements from classic Disney tales. It’s not by chance that Miyazaki is known as the Japanese Walt Disney. The biggest difference is that in Disney movies you always have a battle between good and evil, whereas in the Ghibli movies at the end the evil is not so evil and turns out it has a heart, too. Photo opportunities abound here, too. Sure, it’s not your typical landscape but, just as in a Disney park, this is living artwork. I returned to the station by foot, crossing a green park and along a beautiful and lush avenue with lanes divided by trees, flowers and a stream… who would have guessed, a stream in Tokyo. Lindsey arrived soon after my return to the hostel; she said she hiked a lot but had been unable to see Mount Fuji, I think the photos of this famous volcano will have to wait until my next trip to Japan. We walked out for dinner and found a place near the station with prices comparable to those of a candy bar and then took a train to Ginza to take more photos of neon lights and the Tokyo Tower. Lindsey made me notice how Japanese cities seem to go through a transformation at night, I have to agree with that.