Saturday, October 17, 2009

Don't go chasing waterfalls

(Not the tortured pun you've come to expect, but it just seemed too apt to pass up on.)

I don't have a drinking problem! It's after midnight on saturday night, and my drinks total for the weekend is one beer, plus the whisky I'm drinking now. Admittedly I got a bit mashed on wednesday, but that's besides the point.

Last night I was sober because I was driving. I went to play some pool and darts in Yonezawa with other ALTs and associated gaijin. I imagined that this would take place in a bar, and I was a little rueful that driving was the only practical transport option. But I was wrong! It was in a place mysteriously called 'Space Create', which was a peculiarly Japanese facility for which there is no Western analogue that I'm aware of. It's partly an internet cafe - it had rows of private-ish booths with TVs, high-spec computers and PlayStations for people to get some electronic entertainment. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. There were also racks full of manga, so you could get your otaku on with the printed medium if you so fancied. I know what you're thinking, and yes, there was an 18+ section tucked away in the corner where presumably the booths were fully private. There were also larger 'family rooms', which I'm struggling to understand the rationale behind.

Having more sociable pursuits in mind, we availed ourselves of the pool, darts and table tennis facilities that were also on offer. Despite my school lunchtime training, I still received many a sound drubbing at the ping-pong table. The dartboards were plastic electronic affairs, which although offering a reasonable emulation of real thing, weren't quite the same as throwing real weapons into a bristle pad. On the plus side, the scoring is automatic. Anyway, what was good about this place was that the games were all free; you simply paid for the time you spent there, and at 1000yen for three hours, this works out very cheaply assuming you're in for the long haul. Being Japan, potential awkward and undignified quarreling over whose turn it is to play which game is avoided by having people explicitly choose their table/board, and logging these assignments on a computer.

Also included in this price is unlimited use of the drinks bar, which offered just about every kind of non-alcoholic drink you can think of, including soup. I alternated melon slush puppies and Earl Grays. It's no surprise that inventive vagrants have taken to living in these places.

Today's entertainment was a trip to an allegedly haunted waterfall, with a large group of ALTs. (What's the collective noun? A skive? An annoyance?) An impressive body of folklore surrounds this place. Some selected highlights, in descending order of sanity:
  • In feudal times, it was an execution site.
  • Many people have committed suicide there.
  • The statue at the shrine there has repeatedly been found to be beheaded.
  • It's unlucky go there in a white vehicle, or as a couple.
  • People report feeling their hair being pulled.
  • Pictures taken there often feature ghosts (the advent of digital cameras has really taken the fun out of that one, presumably).
Particularly detailed myths surround some swords which were to be found at this place, but were apparently removed some years ago. These swords were supposedly used to carry out the aforementioned executions. It is considered very unlucky to touch the swords, but apparently fate will conspire to make some member of any party who goes there accidentally touch one.

The waterfall itself was underwhelming, being essentially just a stream tumbling down a few metres of rocks, and the shrine was very modest. The place was noticeably cooler than the surrounding area, lending it a slightly eerie air, but I think that can be readily explained by the dual phenomena of trees and shadows. Indeed, as a representative of Science, I felt it was my duty to demonstrate the foolishness of such superstitious beliefs, so I went into full-on unbearable Richard Dawkins / James Randi / Penn and Teller mode. I dearly wanted to touch the cursed swords, but since they were not in evidence, I settled for touching the stone swords of the statues. Since some of these were located in the waterfall, it meant clambering around like a buffoon on slippery mossy rocks, offering Fate an open goal to give me my comeuppance. Nothing happened. Some of my more credulous companions insist that my bad karma is biding its time, and some unpleasantness is sure to befall me in the coming weeks. I'm unconcerned.

After the waterfall we went for some bowling. After an early spare/strike one-two, my performance reverted to its normal level. Fortunately, since I was playing with Westerners, my score of 85 didn't look quite so pitiful. The bowling alley had an amusement arcade, so I played a spot of Dance Dance Revolution, throughout which I was apparently being stared at by a schoolgirl, presumably awed by my moves. I didn't notice, being fully focused on the scrolling arrows.

Then, not for the first time, I did some purikura. This is another Japanese pop-cultural institution, the name being a very unlikely contraction of 'print club'. They are essentially photo booths, but have been carefully designed to maximise their appeal to their target demographic of pubescent girls. The are decked out in pastel pinks and flowery script, with pictures of models that explore the intriguing area between kawaii and straight-up hot. There are tables and mirrors next to them for you to do your hair and make-up. Once inside the booth, you stand in front of a green screen and select various background and foreground effects. But, taking the pictures is only the first step. You then get to customise the images by using a bewildering menu system to add various graphics and doodles with a stylus. I tend to just go crazy with sparkles. Finally, you print out your super-kawaii efforts, and cut them out to share with your friends and stick on your jotters or pencils cases or whatever. I must say that I've never actually seen any teenage girls using these machines, just twenty-something gaijin like me who should really know better.

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