Friday, May 10, 2013

#1. Akita ryokan

Well, I've stretched this out for almost three months, so it's probably about time I brought it to a close.

1. Akita ryokan, October
In her role as social co-president of the Yamagata JETs, Amber organised a group trip up into the mountains of neighbouring Akita. We were to spend a night in a fairly basic self-catered ryokan with onsen. The place was a short drive from Lake Tazawa, which particularly keen readers might remember was the location of the jazziest night of my 2010 summer road trip.

We arrived mid-afternoon, and Amber, her co-president Alyssa, and I did a quick spot of caching around the aforementioned lake before the sun went down. And rather successful it was too: four for four! We then returned to the ryokan where the presidents cooked a monster batch of yakisoba (fried noodles) for the 20-odd of us. Appetites sated, it was time to commence the night of boozing. After an hour or so in the biggest tatami room we had, about a dozen of us took the party to the bath. You see, the USP of this place was that it had mixed onsen. I'm not talking about the little bookable “family onsen” that Amber and I tend to bathe in; these were decent-sized (though still smallish as onsen go) public pools, indoor and out. We didn't have the ryokan to ourselves, but fortunately the outdoor pool was empty, so we claimed it. Let's face it, once 10+ drunk naked foreigners are occupying perhaps 6m² of water, it would take a certain chutzpah for a stranger to intrude.

I suppose for many people reading this, the idea of a single-sex onsen may still be rather daunting. After almost four years in Japan, I am entirely inured to that concept. However, this was uncharted territory for me, and most of my fellow bathers. What is the etiquette in this situation? Where does one look? At first, everyone played it rather conservatively, concealing their sensitive areas with the water, hand towels, or their limbs. Everyone, that is, with the exception of Amber, who made no attempt to hide anything. This may have been a commendably bold act of ice-breaking, but knowing her, she probably just didn't give a shit. Anyway, as time and alcohol consumption progressed, people became more relaxed.

Over the evening, people came and went. It should be noted that quite a few of our party flat-out refused to join the mixed onsen, which is fair enough. However, I stayed for the duration, which amounted to about five hours, only getting out to fetch chocolate covered almonds, dried squid, and more alcohol; I was having a great time. As I like to do with all aspects of my life, I shall now over-analyse why, using one of my beloved bulleted lists.
  • As I've remarked many a time, I really miss the British pub experience. Strange though it may sound, the mixed onsen was perhaps the closest I've come to replicating that feeling in Japan. Nudity aside, this was a long, relaxed evening of gradual intoxication (in contrast to a two-hour nomihodai rampage) with conversation as the primary form of entertainment. It put me in mind of those fondly-remembered Edinburgh IPUBs (friday night drinking sessions with my fellow informatics postgrads). Except with girls, obviously.
  • I must stress that nothing at all untoward occurred in the onsen. That being said, it still somehow felt as if we were breaking some taboos. To me, many of our society's hangups about sex and nudity seem rather pointless and arbitrary. Though I am very happily in a monogamous relationship, I've always been intrigued by the notion of polyamory and free love. While I've made my peace with the way our culture has decided relationships should be conducted, in an “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em” sort of way, I've often thought that if a found myself in an alternative universe where anyone exclusively sleeping with one person for more than a few months was seen as some kind of deviant, I could probably adjust fairly easily. Like in Brave New World – one of several fictional dystopia that I actually think sound kind of golden. So yeah, in some small way, I felt that communal bathing was a step towards that more rational and liberated world.
  • One of the main reasons that I update this blog so infrequently these days is that I've grown accustomed to life in Japan. I rarely feel like I'm experiencing anything alien any more, but this onsen evening was something completely novel to me. Having said that, I don't think we were really experiencing a Japanese custom. As far as I can gather, mixed onsen are mainly the preserve of middle-aged to elderly married couples; I don't think many Japanese youngsters (I reckon I can still consider myself a “youngster” for maybe another fortnight or so) would organise a mixed onsen party of a saturday night.
  • Breasts.

We called it a night at about 1am, by which point I was drunker than I'd been in quite some time. Consequently, I wasn't feeling particularly sociable as the presidents whipped up a megaomelette for breakfast the next morning. As the group disbanded to return to Yamagata, Amber suggested going on a shortish hike up nearby Nyuutou-san (literally “nipple mountain”, so called because of its shape) but I vetoed that plan as I really didn't feel up to the exertion in my hungover state. We therefore scaled back our plan, and set out (once again with Alyssa) to find a cache on top of a smaller hill called Oname-dake, literally "man woman mountain" - what is it with the weird place names around there? It turned out that the road to this place was closed to private vehicles, necessitating a bus ride up a winding mountain road that nearly caused my omelette to make a reappearance.

Once up there, the terrain proved rather tougher than I anticipated. We were soon scrambling over a steep and eerily sterile hillside of volcanic gravel. In my haste to catch the bus, I had neglected to bring any kind of jumper, and it was getting rather breezy. Between the cold, the hangover, and some rogue app that was guzzling my smartphone battery and refusing to die, I was rather ill-equipped for the whole venture. However, I persevered and we made it to the summit, where we were rewarded with a cache and a beautiful view of the autumnal forests. We got a great view of Nyuutou-san too, bringing my total count of nipples seen that weekend to an unusually odd, as well as high, number.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

#2. Kyoto

2. Kyoto, November

I've been to Kyoto a couple of times before. Despite its undeniably impressive abundance of historical and cultural treasures, I must say I've never really taken to the place. One reason, I suppose, is that I'm more interested in the future than the past. Another is that the whole city is a huge tourist trap, and the contrarian hipster in me hates the feeling of being one of the crowd of suckers. Also, the place is a nightmare to get around: all the temples and shrines are around the periphery, and the centre is the standard congested concrete mess of most Japanese cities. But I think there's something more than that. Kyoto reminds me of the prettiest girl in school, who know that people would lavish attention on her without her having to make any effort to be nice to them. So, what's it doing here at the dizzy heights of number two? Well, I think I've finally cracked the secret of a good day out in Kyoto: monkeys.

On a long weekend in November, Amber and I took a little tour through central Japan, mopping up a couple of prefectures that had eluded her on her quest to bag all 47. Kyoto was our final destination, and I'll start the story on the morning of our only full day in the city. In a surprising stroke of luck (for Amber anyway) we'd noticed people setting up a vegetarian festival in a park not five minutes' walk from our ryokan the previous night. So, we started the day with a breakfast of falafel pittas and chick pea curry. I didn't actually mind the absence of meat (and the presence of hippies) too much; the sun was shining, Amber was happy, and any exotic food is a welcome change from rice and soy beans.

Next up was the bamboo grove at Arashiyama. This place was mobbed, and I started to get a little stressed out. If there's something I've learned about myself in recent years, it's that I really hate being in large crowds. Shuffling along at half walking pace, frustratingly unable to get where you want to go, yet also unable to stop for fear of becoming an obstacle... I can't stand it. When it's something like a concert I can accept the crowds as a necessary evil, but when you're at a temple or garden, and the essence of the enjoyment is presumably the tranquility and beauty of the setting, then the crowd defeats the whole purpose of being there, as far as I'm concerned. I'm sure the bamboo would have looked very fetching on another day, but all I can remember is my fury at people who thought that possession of a camera gave them the right to declare 40° wedges of busy thoroughfare no-go zones for several tens of seconds. Amber was one of those people.

Eschewing the temple, we headed into a park where the crowds were substantially thinner and we could enjoy the stunning autumnal colours at our leisure. Noticing that Iwatayama Monkey Park was just across the river, we decided to check it out. I'm so glad we did.

I'm by no means an animal lover, but I find primates endlessly fascinating because of their close evolutionary proximity to Homo sapiens. (Sorry Danny, I feel like I'm encroaching on your territory here.) One of the many things I love about Japan is that they have macaques just roaming around wild, whereas my home country only has boring animals like deer and grouse. These particular macaques were semi-wild, meaning that they were free to come and go as they pleased, but they stuck around because the humans fed them. The place built up the anticipation nicely: once you paid your money you had to walk uphill through a forest, past lots of signs giving you fun monkey facts and reminding you of the rules: not to feed them, make eye contact with them (in case they perceive it as a threat) and not to crouch down near them (I remain unsure as the rationale of this one). As the woods thinned and we came to the top of the hill, we caught our first glimpse of one perched atop a tall tree stump. Soon we were in the thick of the troop, surrounded by literally more simians than you could shake a stick at.

There was a shack selling food to give to the monkeys. The rule was that you could only feed them while you were inside the hut, passing the food out through the barred windows. This led to an amusing role reversal, with crowds of monkeys surrounding a cage of humans. I opted for chestnuts, and I could have have happily handed them to monkeys all day. You weren't supposed to touch the animals, but I did linger with my grip on the nut a few times, like I was flirting with them.

We wandered among the primates, snapping many many photos. I was particularly pleased to get one of a monkey on a scooter. It was mating season, so every once a while a scuffle would break out between males, with much screeching and chasing. We discussed how one would defend oneself in the event of a a macaque attack; we reckoned you could fend one or two off pretty easily, but if five or more ganged up on you you'd be in serious trouble. Eventually we'd had our fill of monkey business and descended back to the riverside.

It was late in the afternoon and getting a little chilly, so we stopped for a warm amasake (a sweet rice drink made from sake but virtually alcohol free), and then bagged a quick cache as the sun went down. Interestingly, the trackable that I gave Amber for Christmas and we deposited in Edinburgh with the instruction to get to Japan is, at the time of writing, in that very cache. Apologies to those unfamiliar with geocaching, to whom the last sentence will have made very little sense.

Then it was back into central Kyoto for an Italian dinner, and out the other side (like I said, all the attractions are on the periphery of the city) to Kiyomizudera, one of Kyoto's most iconic temples. This was the venue of a special raito appu ("light up", i.e. illuminations) event for the autumn foliage. Inevitably, this was also packed to the Sally gunwales, but I didn't object quite so much this time around. I felt that the crowds added a certain buzz to the spectacular surroundings, although this mellowing of my mood may have had something to do with the red wine with dinner and the jar of sake I was now sipping from.

Just one to go! Although, at the rate I'm putting these out, it'll be time for the next countdown pretty soon.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

#3. Baltimore

3. Balimore, August

Summer is conference season for academics like myself, so August saw me going all the way to the University of Maryland for the Tenth International Congress of Neuroethology. I was in the unusually relaxing position of having nothing to present, as my postdoctoral career was but four months old. The conference itself was simultaneously enjoyable and grueling - I find "networking" tough at the best of times, but trying to stay on point all day whilst battling almost the worst jetlag the planet can offer (11 hours) really took it out of me. Anyway, after five days of coffee sipping and lanyard wearing, I had a free day before my flight back, which I spent with the Dawg.

Big Dawg, aka Adrian (he's English, about 5'8", and a Cambridge graduate, but somehow he pulls this moniker off) is a friend of mine from my postgrad days. We used to play poker every week, and he was a keen participant in the heyday of dicecrawls. When I flounced off to Japan, he got a postdoc at Johns Hopkins and relocated, along with his lovely wife Melissa, to Baltimore. Since I'd last seen them, they had taken the curious step of manufacturing another human to live with them. At the risk of inviting further unfounded accusations of man-broodiness, Madeline was a delightful baby, with huge eyes, pudgy little limbs, and - most importantly - a rather quiet disposition.

Our first activity for the day was brunch at a fancy diner. As appears to be standard in the US, the waitress was way too over-familiar for my liking. I was intending for our relationship to be brief, and almost exclusively based around the logistics of exchanging currency for pancakes, so I didn't see how her name was relevant. Of course, the reason for this insincere chumminess is that they are trying to earn a tip. Not having to tip is one of the long list of things I take for granted about Japan, but which I am sure to sorely miss if/when I leave. It's between "affordable sushi" and "politeness". Anyway, I had a calorifically indecent cream cheese monstrosity. It was delicious.

Now, I consider The Wire to be the best TV drama ever made, so I was keen to see first hand some of the grim urban decay that forms the show's backdrop. As these are not the kind of neighbourhoods that it advisable to walk around, it was to be a driving tour. Sadly, it wasn't as much fun as I had hoped. It was hard to shake off the feeling of guilt at being a bunch of middle class Caucasians gawking at poverty for the purposes of, essentially, entertainment. Plus, you couldn't really have a proper gawk because you were in a moving vehicle, and didn't want to be obviously rubbernecking for fear of antagonising someone. It was like going to Mt Fuji but not being allowed to look directly at the peak. Perhaps Madeline has a precocious moral compass, as she started getting restless and we called the whole thing off.

Following afternoon naptime, we went out for dinner in a lively area with lots of trendy bars where young hipsters, rather than crack-addled destitutes, roamed the streets. We were to have the local specialty of crabs. Now, I like to think that life in Japan has made me quite the sophisticated seafood gourmand; I've sampled raw whale, I've tucked into the reproductive organs of still-moving sea urchins, I've even quaffed back living fish. However, prior to this evening I had never attempted to shell a crab. The waiter (Mark) covered our entire table with butchers paper, and issued us each with a plastic knife, a wooden mallet, and no plate. Some time later, he brought us a bucket containing a dozen smallish crustaceans (they didn't have the big ones in that day) coated in spices. Adrian then tutored me in the art of separating the tasty white muscle from the nasty internal organs and inedible shell, using a variety of moves including hitting the knife with the mallet, like a sculptor. It was a tricky business, but by my fourth crab I think I was getting the hang of it. It's a very labour-intensive way to eat, but I think the effort of getting to the meat is part of the fun. In this regard, I'd say crabs are like pistachio nuts taken to the next level.

Melissa took Madeline home, leaving Adrian and I to do some manly drinking. While mass-produced American lagers are bland and uninspiring ("Why is Budweiser like making love in a canoe?"), there seems to be a burgeoning indie craft beer industry these days. We sampled quite a few of these, like the hipster ponces we are. It was just like old times, when we'd go to the pub after work on a friday (and more often than not, stay there until closing time), but with one significant change for the worse. We were sitting at the bar, and this being America, every time we bought a drink we had to put a dollar bill down in front of us, as a tip. At some point - not immediately, but within a few minutes - the barmaid who had served us would come by and pick it up. This, more than the other tipping customs, made me uncomfortable; I felt like I may as well just tuck the note into her underwear, while lighting my cigar with another one. In both Britain and Japan, there seems to be an understanding that while money changing hands is a perfectly reasonable and necessary, there is something slightly unseemly about it, and thus it requires to be handled a degree of discretion. Rather like bodily functions, I suppose. Thus, to my Anglo-Oriental sensibilities, this vulgar tipping system was tantamount to squatting on the bar and taking a shit.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

#4. The dicecrawl

A problem with this top-x format that I've settled on is that it under-represents longer periods of general, low-level fun; it's the singles rather than the album chart. For instance, snowboarding in Yamagata has never made any of these lists, despite being an activity that has brought me countless hours of enjoyment. So I hope my UK friends and family will understand this bug/feature, and not feel too affronted by the low showing of my festive trip home. Furthermore, I have to pick I single day (I don't make the rules! Wait...), so I'm going with...

4. Edinburgh dicecrawl, January
Right, this is going to require some backstory. Back in the final year of my undergrad degree, I was out drinking with a couple of mates (Adam and Aidan, as I recall). For reasons that are lost to history, I had a dice in my pocket. (I know the singular is "die", just as I know "data" is actually the plural of "datum". I don't care.) We had the idea that we should mix things up my letting the dice decide where we would drink next: odd we turn left, even right; odd we skip this bar, even we go in, and so on. It would be like The Dice Man, but hopefully with less rape and murder, we reasoned. And so the dicecrawl was born. Over my postgrad career it became a semi-regular event, and it grew both in terms of participation and complexity. At its zenith/nadir, we had about a dozen crawlers ordering dice-dictated drinks from a 6x6 table, with provision for boarding buses if the dice commanded it.

When I was back in my old stomping ground over New Year, we decided to have a crawl for old times' sake. Being a rather improvised affair, we would scale things back, with a fairly simple rule set and a crew of just five hardened dicecrawl veterans. Well, four plus Graham. We met for lunch in a Thai restaurant in Newington and hashed out the details over satay sticks and pad thai. Now, perhaps the most vociferous champion of the crawl is Danny, who has a PhD in maths. The problem with letting someone like him be in charge is that he is unable to resist the temptation to add sub-games, bonus tables, and meta-rules (rules that allow the rules to change) until the whole thing becomes impossible to follow when stone cold sober, never mind at pub number eight. He succeeded in getting into the rules a soft drinks submenu, a pub snacks submenu, and - most surprisingly of all - a rule about having to buy things from any bakeries that we passed, before we wrested the jotter away from him. The last one actually only came into play once (bakeries don't tend to stay open very late into the evening), and resulted in us sharing some tasty millionaire's shortbread.

We set out. The dice initially took us south, directly away from the city centre but towards where most of us had lived for much of the latter half of the of 00s. The first port of call was our old haunt The Old Bell. Thankfully, the dice turned us around and we were headed back into town after that. One of the things I like about the dicecrawl is the friendly arguments that inevitably ensue about when it is acceptable to overrule the dice, e.g. if one is heading for a rough council estate or a pub-barren residential wasteland (or simply walking around in circles). I tend to play things pretty much by the book, and for that reason we found ourselves pointlessly bouncing around the Meadows and the swanky new Quartermile development for about half an hour as the sun went down.

Thankfully the six-sided gods smiled on us then, and took us into the pub motherlode of the Grassmarket. Actually, coming down the Vennel, with the Castle in front of us looking imposing and majestic in the moonlight, is probably the most memorable image of my whole trip home. We spent quite some time there, losing founder-member Adam (insert whip noise and under-the-thumb gesture) but picking up Northern Irish mentalist Joy. Another nice feature of a randomised pub crawl is the element of jeopardy that comes from the chance of having to enter a rough pub that a bunch of middle class ponces like ourselves would never normally dream of going to, and having to order something weird like two lagers, a port, a Smirnoff Ice, and a tea. No dicecrawl is complete without this experience, and it came in the shape of "Andersons" on Lothian Road. We huddled awkwardly around a large cask (we were literally and figuratively over a barrel), and drank up as quickly as we could while everyone stared at us. We ended the night drunkenly playing a kind of charades/articulate/pictionary hybrid and eating chili flavour Nobby's Nuts (which I contend are the most delicious and addictive foodstuff commercially available in the UK) in the Merlin of Morningside, the dice having taken us on a pleasing U-shaped soujourn in and out of town. I can't think of a better way to spend a January day in Edinburgh.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The biannual countdown: #5. Oshima

Or, “Sixmonth none the richer”

What's better than a top ten? Two top fives! Rather than face the daunting backlog of documenting my ten highlights of the past year come August, I've decided to give you my five best days of the first half of my fourth year in Japan, i.e. the period from August 2012 to January 2013 (inclusive). And since the blog is otherwise dormant, I may as well stretch it out into five separate posts. Strap in!

5. Oshima, October
On a bit of a whim, Amber and I ventured out to Oshima (literally, “big island” - inspired naming there, guys), the most proximal of a chain of volcanic islands that stretches south for hundreds of miles into the Pacific. (Interestingly, these are all technically part of Tokyo prefecture. If only Japan embraced the concept of pub quizzes more, I feel sure this fact would be well worth knowing.) Perhaps the most notable thing about Oshima is that its volcano is where the eponymous fictional monster is entombed in The Return of Godzilla.

It was very much a trip of two halves, the first of which was an unmitigated debacle. We arrived by overnight ferry from Yokohama, which entailed sleeping as best we could on a big communal floor. Stumbling bleary-eyed off the boat at 6am, it took me a while to realise that we were not at the main port. It turns out they switch the port according to the weather/tidal conditions, and we were at some nowhere outpost on the north of the island, with an hour to wait for the next bus to civilisation. However, there were several cats, so Amber was happy.

Once we finally made it to the island's main settlement, we set off for a refreshing morning onsen. I should point out that it was raining fairly heavily by this point. The first place we went to didn't open until 1pm, but we expected as much from our Wikitravel research. However, when the other one turned out to be closed all month for maintenance, it came as a crushing blow. There was nothing for it but to trudge back into town in search of breakfast.

This too proved to be more of a challenge that we'd anticipated. Nothing in the tiny sleepy town was open yet. Most shockingly of all, the entire island appeared to be devoid of konbini (convenience stores). Living in Japan, one gets very accustomed to being able to buy noodle sandwiches, crème brulees, nasty fried chicken, or pornography, 24 hours a day at your local 7-11 or Family Mart. We eventually decided to give up on breakfast and find the campsite to pitch our tent.

The place Google Maps led us to looked like it might have been a campsite at one point, but didn't give any strong indication of fulfilling that role any longer. Certainly, no-one was camping there. Dejected, we walked back, once again, to the ferry terminal that we hadn't arrived at. Spirits were low and tempers were getting frayed. See, this is what happens when you're spontaneous and neglect to plan things properly, I pointed out to Amber, helpfully. Having arrived at the ungodly hour of 6am, it was now approaching noon, and we had achieved exactly nothing. We needed to get it together, and step one was sorting out transport.

After fruitless enquiries at a couple of car rental places, we found a friendly couple hiring out 50cc scooters. They had none left (naturally), but would have some from 2pm onwards. They recommended a soba restaurant that we hit up for lunch in the meantime, and then we had time for a quick dip in the now open aforementioned onsen. The sun had even come out. Things were starting to look up.

We picked up the scooters, and with no time to lose, sped (or rather, travelled at a maximum of about 55km/h) around the coast to a campsite that the helpful motorcycle purveyors assured us actually existed. With just a few precious hours of daylight left, we erected the tent with what I felt was commendable efficiency, and set off uphill towards the volcanic peak that dominates the entire centre of the island. The road became became steadily less and less suitable for our puny vehicles, so when it became no more than an ill-defined volcanic grit dirt track, we dismounted and continued on foot.

The scenery was truly astonishing. We found ourselves in the volcano's lava field, a barren wasteland of sharp black rocks. Neither my words here nor the photos I took can do justice to the vista we saw. It was just so dead and empty, it was easy to imagine that we were on an alien world, or perhaps Earth millions of years ago. We were on the rim of the outer crater, giving us a clear sight of the central peak. Sadly, the sun was setting so there was no way we could go for a closer look. Back on the scooters, we took a circuitous coastal route through the dusk to the campsite. On the way we stopped off at the closest thing we could find to a supermarket. It was a weird little independent place, stocking few fresh goods because of the island's isolation. I felt like we were buying “provisions”, rather than “food”; it reminded me of the little shop in the static caravan park of my childhood family holidays. Then it was back to the tent with our haul for a feast of cheese, crackers, crisps, and booze, and then an early night.

We awoke bright and early, rapidly packed up the tent, and had time for a power hike up to the peak that had eluded us the previous day, before dropping off the bikes and getting the 10:50 hydrofoil that whisked us back to Tokyo in time for lunch.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The annual countdown, part 3.4

Ok, this delay is getting silly. In addition to my standard excuses of now having a job that actually occupies me full-time, and a relationship that occupies many of my weekends, I was recently struck down with a nasty kidney infection. For a full week I was rendered pretty much useless between waves of fever, nausea, and fatigue. But my urinary system is once again firing on all cylinders, and it's time to finally put this countdown to bed.

As I write this, I'm on a shink speeding north of a friday night to see my sweetheart. I have eschewed my normal shink entertainments - studying Japanese vocab, listening to Scottish hip-hop, and watching possible-glimpse-into-my-own-future Breaking Bad - and hefted out my laptop. Let's do this.

2. Izu peninsula, June
Leaving our rather sketchy hotel at a brutally early hour, Amber and I strode to the bus stop, hiking boots on feet and rucksacks on backs. About an hour later, we were dropped at a golf course, from which we began to hike through the drizzle up Amagi-dake.

Within a couple of hours we had reached the summit. The hike was fairly tame; more of a traverse across a ridge than a proper peak ascent. Sadly, because of the weather there weren't really any views to speak of, although given that it was rainy season, I suppose we lucky to get away with only a gentle moistening. In fact, as we descended through the forest on the other side, the sun made an appearance.

Pleasant though our downhill woodland stroll was, it did go on a bit. As the hours wore on and still the trail continued, we began to get a little concerned about catching the last bus back to civilisation. But as it happened, we made it with about half an hour to spare, during which time I managed to cockily bag a cache.

The bus took us to the only slightly less middle-of-nowhere locale where we would be spending the night. Given Amber's dietary disability, it was tough finding a place to eat, but we eventually settled on a cosy little bistro, where I had the local specialty of venison curry, though it was a little dear. Hahahahaha.

By sheer dumb luck we happened to be there during the firefly festival, so after dinner we went down to the river and saw some local schoolkids re-enact the memorable moment when the Serenity crew gave the Reavers the slip by pulling a "crazy Ivan". That's not true. What we did see was dozens of bioluminscent insects, which Amber had never previously witnessed. It was all quite romantic.

At last it was time to walk our now-aching legs to the ryokan. As soon as we got there, we realised we had lucked out: the place was seriously nice, overlooking a river in a beautiful steep-sided mountain valley. It was the sort of place that would normally cost an arm and a leg, but thanks to a) it being a sunday night and b) us having opted out of dinner and breakfast, it actually worked out cheaper than the crappy hotel we'd stayed in the previous night. Thus, we thought nothing of paying an extra thousand yen to book the private onsen for an hour of boozy bathing.

1. The DMZ, November (photos)
Well, in a shock development, this year's number one doesn't take place in Japan.

Once again, it was an inhumanely early start as we made our way across Seoul to Camp Kim, which turned out to be a US army base, not just a particularly flamboyant Korean guy. From there a bus took us north, and after about an hour we got our first glimpse of the "Democratic" "People's" "Republic" of Korea across the water as we drove along the heavily fortified coast of a wide bay. From there, things just got spookier and spookier.

Our first destination was another army base, just outside of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Here we were ushered into an auditorium and given a briefing on the history and politics of the North/South Korea border. I suppose I could have called it a presentation, but I think when it's delivered in a rapid monotone by a guy in camouflage, it's a briefing. At this point we were also made to sign a disclaimer, and told the rules. Basically, we were not to do anything that could conceivably be viewed as provoking the North, which included pointing at them. Oh, and don't photograph anything unless explicitly told that you may.

Being sure to display our visitor passes clearly, we got back onto the bus, and negotiated the 2km gauntlet of checkpoints and Jersey barrier slaloms to heart of the DMZ. We visited Conference Row, a series of huts straddling the border, for tense pow-wows between the two sides. From here one could look across and see North Korean soldiers standing guard perhaps 50m away. We were allowed into one of the huts, meaning that we were able to step over the line bisecting the building and technically be in North Korea. Of course, a mean-looking South Korean soldier in mirrored shades was guarding the door on the north side. Apparently they are all masters of taekwondo, though I'm willing to take their word on that.

After that we were taken to an observation post, and then to the site of the infamous poplar tree incident of 1976. The last stop in the DMZ was a place where one could view "Propaganda Village". You see, each side is allowed to have one settlement inside the DMZ. While the South's one is about as ordinary a village as it's possible to have within around a mile of the world's most heavily fortified border, the North's appears to be just for show - it's home to an enormous flagpole but apparently no actual people other than a skeleton crew of janitors. Or so we are told, though of course one has to remember that propaganda works both ways. Anyway, being able to stare out across no-mans-land to this supposed Communist ghost town was intensely interesting. I'm pretty confident that I will never experience a better coin-op telescope thing in my life. I'm convinced that I spotted a group of people running, as if they were training...

After that we stopped for lunch and a couple of second-string tourist spots including a formerly secret tunnel from the North. Being outside of the DMZ, any Tom, Dick or Harry could access these, and they were mobbed. If you are ever in the area, I heartily recommend ponying up for the military escort into the DMZ proper.

Once back in town, we spent the afternoon in Bukchon, the picturesque historical district which appeared to be home to lots of hipster boutiques and coffee shops. Then for dinner, Amber had her heart set on a traditional Buddhist restaurant that served only vegetarian food. In this upmarket but quirky establishment, there was no menu as such; everyone was served twenty - count them, twenty - different little dishes, with not a morsel of flesh among them. Even Amber, who voluntarily eats vegetarian food every day of her life, had to admit that it got a bit samey, and at least 30% of the dishes were rubbish. On the plus side, we ordered "homemade rice wine", which turned out to be a milky liquid a little like Japanese nigorizake (cloudy, unfiltered sake), served in a huge wooden bowl with a ladle. The drink turned out to makkori, a Korean beverage popular in Japan, which I have had a taste for ever since.

Tired and pleasantly full of makkori (and somewhat less pleasantly full of unidentified leaves and pulses), we returned to "Jelly Hotel", which was very much designed to cater for couples, if you know what I mean. Never before have I seen complimentary contraceptives alongside the usual soap and toothpaste. Although it meant nothing to us at the time, I'm retroactively very pleased that our love hotel was situated in the Gangnam district of Seoul. Oppan Gangnam style!

Well, that's it. I think the main conclusion that can be drawn here is that drunkenly bathing with Amber is to 2011-12 what drunkenly screaming Rinda Rinda was to 2010-11. Which I suppose is progress of a sort.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The annual countdown, part 3.3

4. Sapporo with Blair and Martha, October (photos)
When I look back on our trip to Hokkaido (Japan's north island), I tend to remember it being a debacle. But to be fair, that's only because one truly disastrous day cast something of a shadow over the whole thing. Briefly: we went to an art gallery that was shut, a brewery that was shut, a vegetarian restaurant that didn't exist, had a late lunch of deep fried things on sticks, attempted to go on a cable car that was closed for maintenance, and finally gave up and spent about 4 hours in a bar until it was time for our sleeper train.

However, the previous day had been better. We took a trip out to the port town of Otaru, which is famed for its European-style canals and warehouses. Fetching though the canal was in the moments of autumn sunshine between the showers, it was pretty underwhelming for a group of four actual Europeans.

The guidebook recommended an ice-cream parlour famed for its wacky flavours. We each got a double scoop, yours truly opting for a quintessentially Japanese combo of sake and ikazumi (squid ink), the latter being alarmingly black. I have to give them credit: in their tireless quest for gustatory authenticity, they had not let any concerns for whether the end product would be in any way palatable stand in their way. Blair's beer ice cream really did taste like beer (or perhaps beer foam), which isn't really what one looks for in a milky frozen confection. But the worst of the whole bunch had to be "buttered potato" flavour. Eww.

After some more canal-side strolling we went to a microbrewery that was decked out like a German bierkeller, in keeping with the whole European vibe. You know, the sort of place where one could actually get away with wearing lederhosen. We had some tankards of pricy but delicious weissbier, accompanied by sausages (of course), and a baguette that had been curved 180 degrees into a freestanding arch, in one of the more impressive examples of bread architecture that I've seen.

We got the train back into Sapporo, and after some slack time wandering around in a park, we headed for the entertainment district of Susukino for dinner. Sapporo is famed for its seafood, so we settled on kaitenzushi, allowing Amber to choose from the approximately 10% of the items that didn't involve any animal death. It was a good choice; the place was small and fairly quiet, not too flashy but with much nicer fish than you'd get in your average 100-yen-a-plate chain place. They didn't have that much on the conveyor at the time, so one had request things directly. Blair really got into this, enjoying the challenge of remembering the pronunciation that I whispered in his ear and then confidently shouting it to the chef. Despite some initial hiccups, he was ordering fried squid tentacles by himself by the end of the night. All told, it was probably the most fun I've ever had at a kaitenzushi joint.

Bellies full of vinegared rice, Sapporo beer and (mostly) raw seafood, it was of course time for our guests' first Japanese karaoke experience. Two hours, all you can drink, standard. As might be expected from someone who voluntarily raps in public, my little brother didn't hold back on his performance. Martha was no vocal slouch either, and had a knack of picking excellent tunes. For me, the highlight of the whole evening was Blair declaring, after a memorable performance of Lavigne's Sk8r Boi, that "We may as well just give up on 'music' now. Ever since the first caveman banged some rocks together, that's the song mankind has been aiming for."

3. Fake Christmas, December
'Twas the weekend before Christmas, but since Amber was going to be on holiday in the Philippines for the day itself, and neither of us had any prospect of experiencing any proper yuletide festivities, we decided to try to have a surrogate Christmas at hers, just the two of us. We exchanged presents, and then went for a walk (or rather, a trudge) through the snow-covered woods. It was a beautiful still day - all was calm, all was bright - and as we looked out over Amber's little village, a few flakes began to serenely fall.

Returning home, we fired up the kerosene, opened the wine, put on the Christmas tunes, and prepared dinner. Of course, there was no meat on the menu, but I have to say that Amber's fake chicken mix, despite tasting nothing like chicken (though a bit like stuffing) was actually really tasty. We even had some warm tamagozake (egg sake), a sickly yellow drink which I thought was a pretty good analog of eggnog.

You know that strangely intense sensation of satisfaction that comes with being indoors on a winter day, like you are inside a little protective sanctuary of warmth? Well, on top of that we had the pleasant feeling of having created a little bubble of home in a strange land that doesn't give a hoot (or indeed, a fig) about Christmas, where December 25th is just another day. There isn't really much more to report about this one; it was just a blissfully cosy and intimate day with the woman I love.

Sorry, with that last paragraph I was just trying to evoke the feeling of downing a whole cup of warm tamagozake.

Stick around for the exciting conclusion!