Thursday, April 30, 2009

Season 2

So I leave Japan today. Boarding a flight to Seoul for a couple days before going to Vladivostok to catch a train to Moscow. Not sure how much time I'll have for updates. Not that I've been posting much lately anyway.

The (Next) Adventure Begins

Having fully mastered all aspects of Japanese culture, I've decided to move on to new environments where I can feel completely and totally out of place. So on Friday I will be leaving Japan and flying to Seoul, South Korea. This is just a stopping point on my way to Vladivostok to board a trans-siberian train to Moscow. From there things get fuzzier, but I'm hopeful to get to St. Petersburg and will eventually be stopping in Germany and Austria. The itinerary is largely dependent upon how much money and time all of this takes. I intend to be back in the states by the end of May.

My first stop takes me back to Fukuoka to catch a flight to Seoul. I could have flown out of Tokyo, but taking the train and flying from Fukuoka costs about the same and allows me to stop off in Osaka (to visit the Tai Sakuma memorial plaza) and see a bit more of Fukuoka.

I mailed the bulk of my possesions back to the US on Wednesday. Unfortunately, I overestimated the capacity of my backpack. (Note- this is a school-type backpack, not a hiking pack. And I have a laptop. B/c that's how I roll) I managed to cram my remaining crap into, but 5 minute of walking w/ it on is enough to start killing my neck. This might be okay if I can count on leaving my bag in a locker everywhere I go, but that doesn't seem like something I should count on.

Before boarding the Shinkansen, I decide I need to lose some of the bulk. I figure I can get by with 1 less change of clothes or so. I mean, really, 2 pairs of pants seems kind of excessive now that I think about it. I find a post office without too much trouble, but I decide I'd rather keep the cargo hiking pants that are in my pack and send off the jeans I'm wearing.

So I need to find somewhere to change. There's a subway station nearby. Subway stations have bathrooms. The bathroom is closed for cleaning. A dilemna: I am really tired and don't want to continue wandering around in search of a bathroom (I didn't sleep the night before as I cleaned and made last minute comments in my code for work). The solution: I decide I'll just change in the subway station. I mean, if homeless people can sleep in them, surely no one will blink at a gaijin changing clothes.

So I haven't even left Tokyo yet and I'm already stripping in public. This bodes well for my adventure.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Fitting End

So my last night in Tokyo did a good job of reminding me of the things I will miss about Japan.

Since I've returned from Yakushima, I've pretty much been living at the office attempting to get something worthwhile out of my work. Well, that didn't work out so well. Even after presenting yesterday I've continued trying to clean up my code so I could leave something semi-useful behind to justify my time here. While this hasn't made for a very entertaining final week in Japan, it's pretty much what I'd expected.

For dinner, I decided to go back to the little place near where I live that I first had taco sashimi. Bunkyo-ku generally seems to be pretty off the beaten path for tourists and this place is especially so. I was hoping to try eel, which is the one thing I've been meaning to do but haven't gotten around to. Of course, the is no English menu and between looking it up online and getting to the restaurant, I'd managed to forget the correct pronunciation.

I ask the waitress if they have 'Ugani'. This is not the correct word. She is confused. I attempt to explain. A game of charades ensues. "It's like a fish". "No, not salmon". Good times. Finally, the guy at the next table over guesses I mean Unagi. "Hai, hai, that's what I want". They do not have it. She points out something on the menu and says something. I agree that that will be fine. She asks if Sashimi is ok, I say it is. I have no idea what I will be eating. Apparently some type of fish.

While I'm eating, a spot clears at the small bar overlooking the kitchen. The guy who solved the eel mystery indicates that I should move to the bar. I assume this is b/c the place is crowded and I'm currently taking up a whole table. I don't argue.

Being at the bar puts me in close quarters with others and begins everyone's favorite game of "Will the gaijin eat random crap we offer him?" Yes, yes I will. It's a fun game. Random people sitting around me offer some sort of food or drink. I say thank you and ask what it is. They say something I don't understand, but I nod gravely and attempt to repeat the word. I think eat/drink whatever thing is offered while they intently watch my expression. Usually it's good. An OK sign and 'Oishi'. All are pleased.

I explain why I'm in Japan. I mention that I visited Yakushima. This seems to impress people. The eel guy, Michael (when I askd him to repeat his actual name, he insisted that I call him Michael) was from Kyushu and had friends in Kagoshima. Michael and I are officially BFF's by this point. He even gives me a keychain of the Masked Rider, who he informs me is Japan's number one hero. So that's awesome.

After a little bit the waitress, who appears to run the place along w/ her husband the cook, starts trying to tell me something about a camera. The guy next to me says I should follow her. I'm a bit confused, but figure I'll just go with it. They tell me to take my beer. This seems strange. They give me a handful of the peas they have as bar snacks. This seems stranger. The lady leads me behind the bar and through the kitchen. I follow her through another small dining area and am asked to remove me shoes. I'm still not really sure what the point of this is.

Turns out, she's a photographer and has a small studio of her pictures that she wanted to show me. Some of the pictures are pretty cool. Lots of cherry blossoms. Apparently she was hired to do some photos for ads for one of the subway lines. After this, the husband cook brings a log book and asks me to sign it. Awesome.

I return to the bar and eat the peas. Upon learning that I will be heading to Hakata to catch my flight, Michael scribbles some notes of places I should go while there. He also insists on taking this photo, which he then emailed to me.

I think this is my favorite picture from my time in Japan. It pretty well captures how I will remember my Japan experience, right down to the guy in the windbreaker awkwardly touching me.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Day 3 on the road

I'm in Yakushima. Today I went scuba diving. I can now confirm that there are fish in the ocean near Japan.

Also included in the guided scuba trip is a stop at a hot spring afterwords. We stopped at Yudomari, which is outdoors and right by the ocean. I must admit, the onsen concept has grown on me. I also like that it's included in the scuba trip package. It's like if outdoor guides in America were to include nude hot tubbing as part of the package. I'm sure that would work out well.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Suspense

So I've been pretty busy lately. As the end of my stay approaches I've been trying to actually accomplish something at work (to little avail). Also I've had to write a couple other things and I apparently have a very limited tolerance for writing of any kind.

To further heighten suspense regarding what I've been up to, I'll leave you with this few tidbits:
I discovered Beef Sushi.
Takashi came to Tokyo.
Pablo the cat has ceased protesting the loss of his bedroom.

Now I'm off to Kyoto, Yakushima and other points unknown. I'll have a lot of time on trains so maybe I'll get something written to be posted upon return. Hopefully, though, I'll stay busy on my trip and you'll all just be left to wonder what became of me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Explanation Pending

So Sunday proved to be a pretty interesting day. I'll post more of an explanation later, but for now, here's a picture from a Shinto Shrine I visited:

Sunday, April 5, 2009


It's Saturday evening. It's drizzling a bit as Leo and follow the Japanese women down a small street near Asakusa. I have a few reservations, but that voice in the back of my mind has been quieted by a beautiful day spent eating and drinking under the cherry trees. And besides, I'm in Japan. Different culture, different standards.

And the day had been just about perfect. The rain had held off till dusk, allowing for a full day of hanami (flower viewing) in Sumida Park. The park runs along the river, lining it with cherry trees on both sides. The place was already crawling with people when Leo and I arrived at a little past 11.

*(I forgot my camera. This is not Sumida Park. Sakura look the same everywhere though.)

Towards the middle of the park were rows of vendors selling a variety of Japanese carnival-type foods and wares. Small children were forced to perform choreographed dance routines on a stage not far away. Ferries, packed with sakura viewers, cruised up and down the river. Kimonos were a regular site and even a few rickshaws could be seen crossing the park.

Last weekend, walking past the groups of people all clustered around their makeshift tables, had been a stark reminder that I was a foreigner with few connections in Japan. This week, however, Leo's language-exchange partner, Chia, had invited us to join her and her friends at the park. That tenuous connection made all the difference and instead of merely observing everyone picnicking, we had spots on a tarp.

We were a bit late getting to the park and, given the crowds waiting for the ferry where we'd agreed to meet Chia, we were afraid we might not find her. Fortunately, despite the crowds and higher than usual gaijin concentration, Chia didn't seem to have to much trouble finding us. She led us to the spot her friend had staked out earlier that morning and been guarding ever since.

We laid out mats and assembled a low table from a collection of boxes Chia and her friend had brought. Periodically, as more people showed up, more mats and boxes would be produced and the table would be extended to accommodate them. The group next to ours took what they termed a more 'American approach' by bringing a table, camp chairs and even actual glass wine glasses. While I generally liked the makeshift box table approach, after several hours of sitting on the ground, I was quite happy when we annexed a bench that our neighbor group abandoned.

People came and went freely, often arriving with new batches of food and drink which would be divied up around the table. Not everyone spoke English, but no one seemed to object to the two foreigners hanging out. There was even a point when I'd been talking to a new arrival for a little while before they asked me who I was. I was kind of surprised to realize that I'd become comfortable enough to temporarily forget that I didn't actually know anyone outside of Leo.

So, that was how I spent the afternoon. And now I'm walking into a garish building with a few too many neon signs and hourly rate ads in the window. The lobby is large, spotlessly clean and sparingly furnished. The replica greek statues, marble tiling and cheesy chandelier create an odd aesthetic that clashes horribly with the neon lights that run along the ceiling.

One of the women talks to the bellhop-looking attendant behind the counter. Leo glances at me. I shrug. The place is odd, but by this point curiosity has taken over.

In the elevator. Up to the sixth floor. The hallway is narrow. The rooms are packed closely together. I arrive at room 66.

The room is small. There's a TV in one corner, a phone near the door and a room service menu on the table. When the light is dimmed, a black light comes on that reveals an alien landscape with crumbling roman-esque pillars scattered throughout it painted in fluorescent paint. Nice.

In addition to the menus, there are two thick binders. One's mostly in English with a bit of Korean and Chinese thrown in as well. The binder's kind of useless though since it's alphabetized according to Japanese song title. Fortunately, the electronic touchpad that controls the system has an English mode. Even more fortunately, I've had opportunities to practice my karaoke skills and have learned a decent selection of songs that I'm both capable of singing and that Japanese people will also recognize. Leo struggles a little bit at first since there isn't much in the way of French music in the system, but after a song or two seems to be enjoying himself. The Japanese women are quite good singers (though I have no understanding of the songs they stick to).

Anyway, the real highlight of the Karaoke parlor is that I now have a new career ambition: I want to direct the videos that they play behind the lyrics in the Japanese karaoke places. Newer songs that have real music videos will show them, but older ones have awesome videos made to play along with them. I'm really curious if each song has a specific video, b/c there are a lot of songs. I suspect the songs have some sort of 'mood' tag that selects a corresponding video from a group that matches that 'mood'.

For the most part they're big on soft focus and cheesy melodrama that would seem over the top for a soap opera. My personal favorite was a video of a girl who sucked at basketball. At first it seemed like her boyfriend just liked to humiliate her by showing her up with his defensive prowess, but after a while he stopped playing defense and she still would throw the ball off the pole holding the basket when attempting to shoot. The boyfriend would then stare disdainfully until she went and retrieved the errant ball.

I thought I had the whole plot figured out, and was certain that the close up of her determined expression after falling over signalled the beginning of her redemption. They'd even thrown some water on her face to imply sweating (this occurred in a few videos, except it never looked anything like sweat, just like someone had splashed some water on the person. it was really weird. I mean is realistic sweat that hard to fake? Or real sweat that hard to cause?) But instead, the video switched it up and just cut to a girl jumping out of a wrapped present in the middle of the street. Blew my mind. Then back to the girl who sucked at basketball, then some unrelated wind surfing shots. The the girl gains the ability to dunk and knocks her boyfriend over the in process. Amazing.

There was another great one about a puppeteer girl who worked at a book store and was using her puppeteering as a means of seducing a customer. I could probably watch these videos all day.

Otherwise, karaoke parlors are weird. I can totally understand karaoke in a bar. You can hang out with your friends, talk, make an ass of yourself singing a song or two, whatever. But going into small private room with only your friends just to sing with each other? I don't know. But the videos are sweet.