The Summer Trip 2009: Part Two
Part One - Shopping
There was a problem, however; my wife realized that we had set out on our trip without our cleaning supplies, so a shopping stop was in order. It was still early in the morning, so most regular stores were still closed, but after a bit of nosing around in Kisarazu I saw the sign for a Jusco shopping center and headed in its direction. The parking lot appeared to be designed to deter outsiders; you couldn't realistically enter it from the main road during times of busy traffic, but luckily it was fairly early on a Sunday morning. I was able to turn across the main road and pull in without getting blocked.
The Jusco department store section and the satellite stores (including a Subway, unfortunately) were all closed, but the supermarket section was open. We were able to go in and fill a cart up with all manner of dusters, wipes, and cleansers...and draw some stares. My wife's "quick" pit stop also gave my son time to hit the toy/gum machine row and get yet another little model robot (to get left on the floor and stepped on). Meanwhile, while I stayed near the store entrance waiting for my party to come back, I managed to give a store security guard a chance to think he was surreptitiously keeping an eye on me, though his hovering about was about as inconspicuous as a helicopter gunship. I gave him a quick smile as we left. Naturally, he pretended not to notice.
Part Two - The Aqua-Line
It wasn't long before we were back on the expressway network, but instead of heading back to Ibaraki I aimed my nose toward the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line, the half-tunnel/half-bridge route that crosses Tokyo Bay between Kisarazu and Kawasaki.
I know I've posted about the Aqua-Line before, but I can't seem to find any of it. I've been on it a number of times, and I never fail to stop at Umi-Hotaru, the little rest stop on the man-made-island where the bridge and tunnel meet. Other than the engineering feat itself, I always thought the most notable feature of the Aqua-Line was the fact that people didn't use it much. You see, despite all the hype and all the hope that the Aqua-Line would help relieve some of the bloated congestion on the Tokyo highway system, it had one serious problem: a ridiculously high toll. It cost about 3100 yen (about $32 at the current exchange rate) one way in addition to the fares of the expressways getting to and from it. It was far cheaper to take the long way around, so most people did. The Aqua-Line wound up being mainly just a tourist attraction...one that was losing money at an alarming rate.
Enter the government with its ongoing drive to encourage people to buy ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) machines for their cars. All of the expressways currently have special, changing discounts for cars using ETC. Well, this summer someone managed to put through the idea of reducing the Aqua-Line toll from 3100 yen to 900 yen for ETC-equipped cars. I think you can guess the result. Traffic has gone up by around a factor of ten, and the Umi-Hotaru rest stop has been consistently packed. The Aqua-Line is now turning the first profit since its opening. And since I now have ETC in my car, I was perfectly happy to offer my contribution. Naturally, we stopped on Umi-Hotaru, and I was surprised at how easy it was to find a parking spot despite the crowds.
It was turning into a rather hot and muggy day, which kept the crowds inside the shops. That at least meant that the observation deck on the Tokyo side was relatively empty.
Turning around a hundred and eighty degrees from the first shot, you can actually see all that water surrounding the Umi-Hotaru island. Of course, it's hard to smile for a picture when the sun is glaring balefully right in your eyes.
After doing some obligatory souvenir shopping, we got back into the BLUE RAV4 and went through the several-kilometer tunnel that is the Tokyo side of the Aqua-Line. Soon we were just another ant packed into the "expressway" network in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, but only for a little while. After that we were nosing our way around the various veins and capillaries of the city itself.
One problem with driving in Tokyo is all those winding, one-way roads, divided parkways, and non-euclidean street layouts that don't make a damned bit of sense. You might as well try driving in R'lyeh. (Godzilla fhtagn!) If you miss your turn-off, chances are you'll spend the next half hour fumbling about trying either to get back onto the same street pointed in the opposite direction or go around the block and try it again (assuming you're even still in the same dimension). That's exactly what happened to us. Somehow I went past our usual, little pay parking area without noticing it, and my windows were all frosted up from my yelling (and the rest of my family about ready to throttle me) by the time I managed to come back again for another go. I got it right on the second try, so we were finally lugging our payload of gifts and cleansers through the muggy streets of residential Tokyo.
Our visit was unannounced, and I said through the doorbell PA that we were Takkyubin (the Japanese equivalent of UPS package delivery service). That brought my wife's uncle to the door immediately. They weren't disappointed to learn the truth. We chatted only briefly before setting to work. This time the protests weren't quite so heated, and the the mess, though still pretty nasty, wasn't nearly as bad as before. My uncle-in-law still had trouble dealing with the concept of a man (i.e. me) doing housecleaning, and my explanation that we always do housework as a family team simply didn't compute, but they were pretty happy when I left their bathroom a completely different color from before.
At one point I heard what sounded like a little girl shrieking in horror. Actually, it was my son. He'd uncovered a whole nation of cockroaches under a pile of boxes. We weren't sure whether to laugh or sigh, so we did both.
We did what we could within the span of a couple of hours. Then we had a spot of lunch, tidied up a bit, and then got ready to leave. As we did so, my wife's grandmother insisted on giving the kids gift money...to the tune of 10,000 yen (about $110 at the current exchange rate) each.
We couldn't possibly accept it. My wife's grandmother and uncle are living off the grandmother's savings and meager pension. Add to that the increasingly expensive medical care and the cost of the house-calling nurse that stops by from time to time. They may not be desperate now, but they could wind up that way at any time. We knew the kids wanted the money, but we (secretly) explained the situation to them, and they seemed to understand. Promising to make it up to them by buying something nice for them later, we hid the money in one of the gift bags we'd brought and took our leave.
Part Three - More Shopping
We decided to take a little detour on the way back. My wife had decided along the way that she wanted to have a barbecue party at our house in a couple of days. We'd planned to have one last year, and I'd already sent out feelers to some of my friends, but it wound up not happening. This time we hoped to see it through, though at such short notice the only guests looking to come were some acquaintances of my wife (who she'd already invited). So where did we go to get the barbecue fixin's? Where else? COSTCO!!!!! (Cheesy but powerful fanfare)
Of course, it being Sunday afternoon, the place was packed solid. It was also the last day of a special sale on certain food items, so the produce and meat sections were like a Tokyo gridlock. I'm chronically allergic to crowds, even despite living in Japan, so after only a few minutes of clawing, biting, and cart-slamming my way to get anywhere I started getting really irritated. Fortunately, my wife knew what she wanted, so we were able to grab what we needed on the fly and beat a retreat. I'd hoped to make a stop at Carrefour after that, but we bagged that, headed for home, and made a stop at our local Apita shopping mall instead.
The main reason we went to Apita was for the kids. Since we hadn't let them keep the 10,000 yen they'd each gotten from their great grandmother in Tokyo, we first gave them some free play time and then let them pick out something for us to buy for them. Not surprisingly, my son chose a game cartridge for his Nintendo DS (cost just under 6000 yen). My daughter got a couple of "cool" outfits on sale at a young women's fashion boutique (total cost around 4000 yen). Then, tired and happy, we went home, had a quick dinner, and settled down for what we hoped would be a relaxing evening.
Part Four - The Bombshell
(This part has been re-edited by request.)
You might recall that, in part one of this two-part blog post, I mentioned that one point of the trip was to try to mend ties. Unfortunately, things have been kind of strained in my family over the past year or two, and it isn't just because of my father-in-law. There have been issues. There have been incidents.
I probably shouldn't go into too much detail about what had happened before the trip, but it involved a considerable amount of money stolen from my wife...money that was supposed to go toward the Shin-bon observances for my mother-in-law. Basically, one kid had stolen the money and made it look like the other kid had done it, compounding already existing issues. We found out the truth later, but only after the wrong person had gotten into a lot of trouble. Things stayed pretty tense in the house after that. I made an effort to talk to the kids to find out how we could patch things up, and it was from that conversation that we'd come up with the plan for the Boso trip. As warm and happy as things seemed to be after that, I was fully convinced that it had all been a success.
But then the phone rang. It was my wife's uncle in Tokyo. He'd found the money for the kids that we'd returned. However...there was only one. That meant one of the two kids had secretly pocketed his or her share. Both denied it, of course, but I wound up catching the culprit red handed as the money was being hidden behind a desk. Things got pretty ugly, but when the explanations finally came, things just got complicated.
Things are better now between our family members than they were before, but now there are new issues to deal with. That'll have to wait till another season, because summer is done.