Monday, August 30, 2010

The annual countdown

I've been in a bit of a slump lately. I think there were a number of reasons for this:
  • Heat. It's an unusually hot summer; the temperature has consistently topped 30°C every day for a fortnight, and it's been pushing up to 35° at its peak. I've heard some talk that La NiƱa is to blame. Even the locals are struggling with it; it just saps your energy and your enthusiasm for doing anything other than sipping ice tea in an airconned room whilst wearing only boxers.
  • Hectic social calendar: For various reasons, I've been doing a lot of drinking with assorted Japanese people this month. I know I've laboured this point already, but if you haven't been here, it's difficult to appreciate just how pushy the hospitality can be. Back home, if someone declines a drink you might offer again, in case they were just being polite and actually wanted a drink. But if they continued to refuse, you'd probably drop it; it is, after all, their business what they ingest. But not here. Short of being out-and-out rude, it's very difficult to avoid spending the next day sleepy and hungover. On top of this, I'm actually making a reasonably serious attempt to lose weight - I bought a set of digital scales and have a spreadsheet recording my mass at daily intervals (currently: 85.2kg) - so I have an added reason not to down too much Asahi. I'm starting to experiment with using white lies to avoid boozing sessions.
  • School holidays: As I've said before, doing nothing all day is harder than having some moderate tasks to take care of. It's especially galling when you do nothing for your contracted eight hours, then are asked to stay until seven to help with speech contest coaching.
This malaise has manifested itself as extreme laziness. Despite having copious spare time, I haven't been blogging and I haven't been studying Japanese. I've also been neglecting to take part in the gaijin social scene. The new JETs arrived this month and while I really should have taken the opportunity to meet them and give them the benefit of my year of experience, I felt a curmudgeonly reluctance to deal with their wide-eyed, breathless enthusiasm. Instead, I've been becoming even more of a nerd than I was previously. At the moment I'm watching Firefly and playing Final Fantasy Tactics, a strategic RPG from 1998.

But I'm getting it together now. Term has started, and it has to start getting cooler soon. Yesterday I cracked out the kanji cards again, and here's a blog post.

In the manner of a lame saturday night Channel 4 show, I'm going to count down my top ten most memorable moments of the previous year. I had been planning a post like this to mark my one year anniversary in Japan, but that ship has now sailed. I shall exclude my recent holiday, since you only just heard about that. Without any further ado:

10: School imonikai
Slipping in at number ten is the only entry directly relating to my work as an ALT. I feel a bit guilty about that, but what can I say, it's my job. I do get a fair amount of satisfaction from teaching, and there have been a few genuinely touching moments: the picture of me a kid with learning difficulties drew, the tearful goodbyes of the departing third-years, the sweet English diary entries...

However, I'm going to go with something less sappy and more fun. Imonikai (potato stew parties) are a Yamagata tradition in autumn - I missed out on the big one in Yamagata City, so I intend to bag that this year. But one of my schools held their own, where we spent a sunny October afternoon variously building fires, cooking stew, eating it, and hanging out on tarpaulins.

It's a slightly bittersweet memory, this one, because it was at one of my now-defunct small schools. I doubt anything similar will be happening this year; while it's just about practical to get 80-odd kids organised into stew-cooking teams, it's probably not going to happen with 300.

9: Hanami
Spring hadn't properly sprung when a bunch of ALTs gathered in my hometown for the quintessentially Japanese activity of cherry blossom viewing. This caused two main problems: a) the blossom hadn't bloomed yet and b) it was freezing. But we didn't let these setbacks dampen our spirits. Once we'd had enough of our chilly hilltop picnic spot, we warmed up in the onsen, and then went back to mine for further drinking, accompanied by Rock Band and Chatroulette. Not only was it a fun day, but I got to enjoy the Hannibal-style satisfaction of something I'd planned coming together nicely.

8: The Stewarts at Marie-chan's
Of course, Marie and her friends were going to feature in this list. I think I covered this one in a decent amount of detail at the time, but to reiterate, the highlights were my brother teaching the Japanese origami, and my first experience of eating insects. While the entertainments of the evening were a lot of fun, what really made it such a happy occasion was that I could see how pleased my parents were that I had such nice people looking after me here in Nanyo.

7: Boxing Day at Alda's
Christmas Day was a bummer. I had to go to work, and though it was nice to see my family having Christmas dinner on Skype in the evening, it made me feel very far from home. Fortunately, my buddy Alda cheered me up the very next day by throwing a traditional Italian-American Christmas dinner party for all the homesick gaijin. We watched Christmas movies, we did a Disney jigsaw that I'd won in a raffle, we got slowly drunk throughout the day (a rare pleasure in fast-drinking Japan), and we ate turkey and potatoes and stuffing. Although everyone there would probably rather have been with their respective families, there was a really nice feeling of camaraderie and making the best of a bad situation. Like the Blitz, possibly.

6: The stick of Zen
My interest in Zen has pretty much run its course now, and since I get drunk with a Zen priest on a semi-regular basis these days, the novelty value of the enigmatic religion has worn off a little. But when I was a n00b, my session with a real live Zen master (he had the robes and everything) at a JET seminar made quite an impression on me. I'm really glad he hit me with his stick; even most Japanese people have never felt the sting of pure Zen.

5: New Year
As Hogmanay is kind of a big deal back home, New Year threatened to be another time of crushing homesickness. But thankfully, oshougatsu (literally 'righteous month', which is a funny way to refer to New Year) is the biggest event on the Shinto calendar. Marie and her husband invited me round for a smorgasbord of lucky foods, and we watched Kouhaku uta gassen, the campy five-hour musical extravaganza that is a Japanese New Year institution. But probably the most memorable part of the evening was going to the temple at midnight. It was a beautiful clear winter night, and looking out over snowy Akayu as we welcomed in the oneties by ringing a massive iron bell is an image that I think will stay with me for some time. Little did I know that twelve hours later I would be immobilised with excruciating lower back pain, but that's another story.

4: Bon-odori
I'm going way back to the beginning on this one. The biggest event on the Buddhist calendar is O-bon, or the festival of the dead, which happens in mid-August, so has in fact just occurred. You can imagine my excitement when, on just my second weekend in Nanyo, I was given a yukata (light summer kimono), a straw hat with crepe paper flowers, and a plentiful supply of beer, and instructed to dance up and down main street with a bunch of other civil servants. The evening pretty accurately summed up the year that was to come; I was out of my element and had no idea what was going on, by everybody was really nice to me and I had an amazing time. And I was drunk.

I wasn't invited to dance this time round though, which I'm slightly peeved about.

3: Uesugi festival
In terms of iconic Japanese experiences, it's pretty hard to top being dressed in samurai garb and re-enacting a battle in front of hundreds of cheering onlookers and a backdrop of cherry blossom. The reason this is only at number three is that it wasn't actually that much fun; for my few minutes of combative glory I had to spend all day waiting around in the blazing sunshine, wearing armour. This is one of those things where I'm glad I did it and have the story to tell, but I'd be in no real hurry to do it again.

2: Sumo in Osaka
As my end of term assignment for Japanese class, I had to write an essay titled (in Japanese, obviously) "My most enjoyable experience in Japan". I wrote about the day I spent at the sumo during my spring holiday in Kansai. I went with this, despite it only being runner-up on this list, partly because 'memorable' and 'enjoyable' are different criteria, and partly because I though the vocabulary would be easier to handle. I shall now give you a direct translation of what I wrote. Please note that this was the result of a lot of dictionary work; I couldn't just freestyle something like this in a month of sundays.

I came to Japan one year ago. Since then, I have had lots of enjoyable and interesting experiences, so it is difficult to choose one. Dancing the Hanagasa down Akayu Main Street at O-bon, snowboarding at Zao in winter, drinking with my new friends while viewing the cherry blossom at hanami in Eboshiyama Park...

But, I think my most enjoyable time was watching sumo in Osaka. In the spring holidays, I took a five-day trip to Kansai with three friends. One day we got up early and went to the [sumo] gymnasium. If you arrive early, there are few people there, so you can sit very close to the ring. Thus, we were able to watch the rookies' bouts very well. After about two hours we went to eat lunch. We wanted to try Osaka cuisine, so we went to a kushikatsu restaurant beside the Tsuutenkaku tower. Because it was busy, we had to wait a long time. But, the kushikatsu was delicious.

After that we returned to the tournament. The atmosphere was totally different. There were many cheering people. Luckily, the neighbouring box was empty, so we could sit comfortably. While watching the sumo, we drank warm sake and bet loose change with one another on the bouts.

What a very enjoyable day!

1: Firewalking
Walking across burning coals is a pretty interesting thing to do anyway, just from a physics standpoint. But it was the beautiful setting that really made this experience special. Along with a crowd of gaijin, I was at a shrine in the woods. The shrine's roof looked ready to collapse under the two feet of snow that covered everything, and huge flakes were tumbling lazily down throughout the ceremony. Clutching our paper cups of warm rice drink, we watched priests in bright yellow robes build a roaring conflagration, then flatten it out and serenely walk across it, before throwing it open to the public.

So there you have it. I should point out that by listing memorable experiences, I have neglected lots of things that were very enjoyable in a slightly more pedestrian way. Most notable is snowboarding - Zao gave me many, many hours of enjoyment, but no real standout moments. Similarly, the humble day-to-day pleasures of things like eating kaitenzushi or having a karaoke night with my friends don't appear on the list either.

As a scientist, I can't resist analysing the data I have just presented. There seems to be a fairly even split between times spent with natives, gaijin, and both. That seems about right; I think my social life is usually quite well balanced between the two. Sixty percent of the events on this list involved alcohol (I'm not counting the sake in the stew), which I think is actually respectably low.

There is a noticeable bias towards the start of the year. This is to be expected, as the glorious honeymoon period of culture shock means unfamiliar experiences are initially greeted with great enthusiasm. This then gives way to frustration (although I don't think I suffered too badly from this) and eventually just acceptance, as these things cease to be new. This is where I am now, and I think it's safe to assume that the coming year won't hold quite as much wonder for me as the one just past. But that's ok, that's just how things go. Hopefully I will experience the more subtle pleasures of properly settling in and beginning to understand the culture that surrounds me on a deeper level, though I'm going to have to pull my finger out on the language front before that can happen.

Alternatively, I could just attempt to ramp up the excitement level by embarking on increasingly rash and ill-advised adventures; bigger and bigger hits. Naked man festival? Trip to Pyongyang? Get married?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Domeward bound

Ok, time to put this to bed before I forget what we did.

Tokyo day 3:
Third time was the charm, as the crew (minus Joy, again doing her own thing) took no chances in banking the Imperial Gardens. It was something of a hollow victory, as it was really too hot to enjoy the serenity of the surroundings. We ended up spending most of our time in air-conditioned 'rest houses' that were thoughtfully provided, feeling vaguely guilty about being so lazy, but being unable to face the scorching heat outside. However, Adam did find a cicada, an insect that one constantly hears in summer, but very seldom sees. He called us all over into the wooded thicket where the chirping beast could be seen, and in our two minutes there Aoife and myself both picked up an astonishing number of insect bites on our legs.

The heat, on top of the fatigue from almost two weeks of holidaymaking, was taking its toll. Apathy was taking over; Adam was reluctant to walk anywhere on account of his third-degree chafing, and Graham seemed generally out of sorts. Nevertheless, after a while Tim and I hashed out a plan to visit the Ebisu Brewery (or Yebisu, if you're feeling olde-fashioned in your spelling - the 'ye' character no longer exists in modern Japanese).

The guidebook made it sound like there we be cheap/free beer aplenty, but this turned out to be inaccurate. Also, while admission was free, in order to see most of the museum you had to pay for a guided tour. In fairness to them, the free section, though small, was exactly what you want from a brewery museum. With a linear progression of exhibits and photos - and a healthy amount of well-translated English - they charted the history of Ebisu beer, from its humble beginnings in the late 19th century, to its death by nationalisation during the Second World War, then its triumphant rebirth by popular demand in the 1970s. I enjoyed a glass of their finest stout, but due to the steep prices we stopped rather short of a piss-up in this particular brewery.

That evening was the main event, our trip to the Tokyo Dome to watch some baseball. Back in Akayu I had risen to the not inconsiderable kanji challenge of buying the tickets from a machine in a convenience store. Though I had got the cheapest seats available, they turned out to be not too bad; our vertiginously high position in the steep bank of seats at least gave us a commanding view of the whole field (and the big screen) from which to observe this classic tussle between the Giants (the home team; they are the Manchester United of Japanese baseball) and the Dragons (of Nagoya).

Joy successfully found us, and we meekly accepted a fleecing for chili dogs, beer, and the like. I think you just have to accept that you're going to pay hugely over the odds for refreshments at a major sporting event - who could forget my $8 beer at the Los Angeles X-games? Unbelievably, I was the group's baseball authority, thanks to playing Monkey Baseball on the Gamecube, and having the background exposure to the sport that comes from living in Japan for a year. In the kingdom of the blind, I was the monocular monarch, and I did my best to explain what the hell was going on. I was a little mortified at one point when the guy in front turned around and corrected me in fluent English.

Perhaps more interesting than the game itself was the armchair social anthropology the event allowed us to indulge in. Though I have negligible interest in football, I have been to a few matches in my time, and the atmosphere could hardly be more different. Though my Japanese isn't too hot, I am fairly confident that no-one was suggesting that the umpire indulged in onanism, or that the opposing fans would be returning home in emergency vehicles. No, the chanting seemed a lot less threatening and a lot better rehearsed, which is perhaps to be expected given how many hours a Japanese person will have wasted doing ouen by the time they reach adulthood. One of their favourite chants sounded quite a lot like the intro to Bad romance, which amused me.

If one wanted a drink, and was too lazy to walk all the way to one of the shops, one could summon one of many fluorescent-clad vendors who were lugging barrels around on their backs. These people were invariably a) female, b) young and c) heavily made-up. I had quite a lengthy private reverie about a hypothetical cat-fight between the Asahi girl and the Kirin girl. I couldn't help but think that sexism is alive and well in the baseball industry, an impression which was strengthened when the cheerleaders came out after the third inning.

The game was unusually high-scoring, with no shortage of home runs. While the first few innings were played at a brisk pace, the match then progressed into a cagey endgame, and proceedings slowed drastically. After seven innings (of nine) and over two hours of play, with the game poised at 5-5, we called it a night. Graham wasn't feeling well, which he bizarrely attributed to the pressurised atmosphere holding up the dome's roof. I later found out that the game went into extra time, so we would have been there for hours if we'd waited to see the conclusion.

Day 4:
Group unity broke down entirely, and it was every man for himself on thursday morning. I set out with the mission of buying tickets to see the stage show of The sound of music [I just watched the video at that link, which I couldn't do on the Archos at the time, and I now definitely have to see it], which we had been seeing posters for everywhere and which Aoife and I fancied for our last day in Tokyo. Failing to acquire any from the machines at convenience stores, I went all the way to the theatre itself, in the pouring rain. My quest was fruitless, as the kiosk woman denied me tickets for the next day's show. Much as I wanted to try to get to the bottom of this, I realised that this could take some time, and there was a big queue behind me. With a heavy heart, I gave up the dream of seeing Japanese people attempt to pronounce 'Liesl'.

I got on the subway and headed to Ikebukuro, for no real reason other than that I hadn't been there before. It turns out there was a reason for that. I found a huge department store in which to shelter from the downpour, but unfortunately I hate shopping. Still, I salvaged something from my abortive day by having burritos for lunch.

With my tail between my legs, I returned to the hotel. As it was out last proper night in the capital, I wanted to go out with a bang, and have a meal in a somewhat up-market restaurant. In a rare role-reversal, the rest of the group were feeling rather less extravagant, and wanted to just grab something simple near the hotel, as we had done twice already. In the end I came up with the compromise of walking to a guidebook-recommended okonomiyaki joint in nearby Asakusa.

Do-it-yourself okonomiyaki is a fun and relatively cheap way to eat out in Japan. Okonomiyaki is often translated as 'Japanese pizza' but this is bit misleading; it's more like a savoury pancake. It is only like pizza in that a) it's disc-shaped and b) it consists of a basic framework to which you can add whatever takes your fancy. In fact, the name literally means something like 'whatever you like, fried'. Anyway, you order bowls of raw ingredients (shredded cabbage, batter, egg, toppings; if you're going Hiroshima- as opposed to Osaka-style, there's noodles in there too) which you mix up, and then pour out onto a hotplate in the middle of your table. About five minutes later you have a tasty treat to slice up and share between your party, assuming you don't burn it or disastrously cock-up the 180 flip.

After the meal I took them on a quick sightseeing stroll. We walked past Senso-ji with its huge lantern, one of the iconic sights of Tokyo. We then crossed the Sumida-gawa to the unusual Asahi building, a bulging black cube with a sculpture on top that either looks like a flame or a dog turd, depending who you ask.

Karaoke was next on the agenda. We dithered a little, as all the places seemed a bit expensive. Reasoning that drinks would be a lot cheaper in convenience stores than at the karaoke, I bought some cheap and dirty booze to drink while we we walking. Tim and Joy joined me in this, while Graham and Adam were clearly disgusted at our trampish behaviour. Aoife wisely remained neutral.

Our dithering was somewhat useful, as karaoke became much cheaper after 11pm. We ended up going to the classiest karaoke establishment I've ever been to. The decor was nice, the staff extremely polite, and there were no grubby song catalogues, only handheld touchscreen terminals. But what really proved that this place was upmarket was that some of the songs had the proper videos, rather than the hilariously naff visuals they usually come up with.

Our karaoke practice had paid off, and we were in fine voice. Adam surprised me with a comprehensive knowledge of Disney songs, and an impressive (if slightly offensive) cod-Jamaican accent for Under the sea. Graham meanwhile pulled off an incredible Bowie impression on Space Oddity. Talking of Bowie, I dedicated a performance of Under pressure to Graham and his Tokyo Dome problems. We were having an awesome time, but as the clock approached 2am we became painfully aware that we were drunk, and we had to have the room cleaned and be out by ten the next morning.

Day 5

I felt predictably terrible. I tried very hard not to take out my hangover on my companions, but it was a struggle. We heaved our bags to the station, where we stuck them in a hi-tech locker and then set up camp in Starbucks. As none of us were feeling particularly adventurous, we kept a kind of rolling presence there while people went off in twos or threes to go shopping or do whatever else they fancied in the vicinity of Ueno station.

After our arcade fun in Yamagata, Adam and I had been on the lookout for token-shunting fun all week. We took this opportunity to find an amusement arcade, where we became hooked on a particular maritime-themed machine (dolphins, starfish, sexy mermaids, etc.). Like all gambling addicts, we kept telling ourselves this was definitely the last 500yen we would spend, before coming back for one more.

You know how you can't really enjoy the last day of a holiday because you're painfully aware that it'll soon be all over? Well, a stinking hangover does nothing to help that ennui. As the day wore on, I felt that I needed to be alone for a while. I went to the park and sat on a bench reading the excellent but heartbreaking Flowers for Algernon (the short story version of which being one of the few things I read in high school English that didn't massively suck). To cheer myself up I went back to the arcade. I managed to eke a solid twenty minutes of entertainment out of 500yen - I collected enough balls to fill the accumulator and trigger a cascade of tokens - which I could justify to myself as not being a total waste of money.

I returned to Starbucks, and met Tim and Adam. We decided to take a trip to a local onsen. In Tokyo, unlike the mountains of Yamagata, these aren't genuine geothermal springs, and thus lack the sulphurous aroma. I kind of missed it. What the onsen lacked in authenticity it made up for in facilities, boasting indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures, jacuzzis, and a sauna. The last of these cost extra, but Tim gaijin smashed his way in regardless. Beside the sauna was a cold pool, which was very refreshing. I suspect that while I was in it I had the whitest skin in Japan.

Having successfully killed the afternoon, we rejoined the group. Aoife had a migraine, and looked to be in serious discomfort. We went to a restaurant that turned out to specialise in chicken, and had a fairly disappointing meal. My chicken rice bowl was weirdly sickly, and other people ended up with tororo (not to be confused with Totoro, who is a lovable animated monster), a sticky beige goop made from grated yam. The constant fear that poor Aoife would pass out, throw up, or require hospitalisation didn't help the ambience much.

Though my friends weren't actually flying home until the next morning, they were staying in a hotel nearer the airport; Narita's distance from Tokyo is enough to make even easyJet blush. We had one last debacle for the road trying to get them train tickets, and I bid them goodbye. I'm not good with sincere emotions, so I gave them all an ironic chest bump rather than a hug or handshake. I was very gentle with Aoife.

I still had another couple of hours to kill before catching my night bus home. You see, I had elected to save myself 5000yen compared to the cost of a two-and-half-hour shink by taking a seven-hour bus through the night, much to the amusement of my friends. I figured that my shrewdness put me firmly in the black, so I paid the mermaids one more visit. I really do have quite an addictive personality. Feeling dirty, I called it quits after 1000yen. I killed the remaining time stealing wi-fi and watching videos on the Archos.

I had heard that the bus was quite a miserable experience; specifically, that it was oppressively hot. Thankfully, this turned out to be unfounded scaremongering, as it was perfectly comfortable. My only complaint with it was that the curtains over all the windows - combined with the frequent starting, stopping, and turning associated with driving through the Tokyo sprawl - made me feel rather queasy.

At 05:38am I arrived back in Akayu. Later, I would face the bin that had been incubating insects in the 30deg warmth for the previous week, and later still I would enjoy the simple pleasure of being the sole occupant of my house. But first, I hit the futon until well into the afternoon.

So that was it. The holiday did end on a bit of a bum note there, but that shouldn't detract from the awesome times that we had on our travels. To mark the end of this six-post epic, I would like to offer you another game. Below is the tracklisting of a mix I made especially for my friends' visit. Can you guess what the theme is? They couldn't, and when I revealed it to them they denounced me and my mixes in the harshest possible terms.

Basement Jaxx - Bingo bango
Beastie Boys - Intergalactic
Beck - Hell yes
Britney Spears - Break the ice
Kanye West - Stronger
Killers - Read my mind
Lightning Seeds - You showed me
Linkin Park - Breaking the habit
Madonna - Nothing really matters
Mark Ronson ft. Q-Tip & MNDR - Bang bang bang (that is an amazing tune, btw)
No Doubt - Spiderwebs
Prodigy - Hotride
Squarepusher - Come on my selector (this, on the other hand, is virtually unlistenable)
Weezer - Hash pipe

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ob-la-di, Odaiba

Tokyo, day 1:

Feeling rather jaded (it worries me how much of my life is spent hungover) we got packed up and caught a mid-morning shink. This wasn't as straightforward as you might think, as I had to shuttle five people and four large bags to the station using a four-seater car, which I didn't want to leave at the station. And I couldn't leave the fox and the chicken together on the same riverbank.

I blew my companions away with the trick of swiveling the shink seats 180°, and Tim rashly declared that his hangover had only lasted two hours. Arriving in the early afternoon, it was a punishing heavily laden fifteen minute walk in the summer heat from Ueno Station to our hotel. Though not quite as swish as the one in Osaka, the Weekly Mansion chain once again came up trumps with a basic but pleasant place to stay. What I particularly like is that the rooms have cooking and dining facilities. We didn't make much use of these, but they were handy for breakfast.

In the three times I have organised my own accommodation in Tokyo, I have always ended up in Ueno or neighbouring Asakusa. Evidently, this is the cheapest part of town. I'm not really sure why, as it isn't at all dodgy or run-down. I can only assume that it's because it's a little out-of-the-way (though still well-served by the metro), and compared to the rest of Tokyo, a bit boring. Compared to Nanyo, though, it's a Jason Statham-esque adrenaline-fest.

We conducted a little recon of the area around the hotel, and attended to the perennial problem of finding ATMs that accept foreign cards. For all it's hi-tech, credit cards have never really caught on here. Cash machines are thin-on-the-ground, and when you do find them, they're picky about what cards they take. Japan tip: the post office is your best bet.

Hunger overrode cultural curiosity and we shamefully went to McDonalds for lunch. Well, I think everyone else considered it shameful; I personally think Mickey D's is great for what it is. Tim, despite definitely not being hungover, wanted to go back to the hotel for a nap. Dressmaking enthusiast Aoife went to the nearby Nippori, Tokyo's premier fabric district. And to think I said we were staying in a boring area! Adam, Graham and I decided to head to the gardens of the Imperial Palace, for some relaxing sightseeing. Our hopes were dashed, as we got there to learn that it was closed on mondays. Since it has a moat and armed guards, there was no question of sneaking in for a peek.

As our half of the party comfortably possessed at least 90% of the total geekiness, and since it was on our way home anyway, we decided to play our trump card early with a trip to Akihabara, or Akiba, or indeed AKB, as in AKB48. Sadly, Electric Town loses some of its impact when you see it in daylight. My friends seemed impressed in an abstract sort of way at the scale of the arcades, and in the technological novelty of strategy games that one controls by moving physical cards around on a tabletop. But they had no real desire to spend any time in the noise and smoke. Graham, who specialises in puncturing fun with laser-guided gloom bullets, pointed out the arcades are a dying business; when everyone owns a machine that allows them to experience hi-def 3D worlds from the comfort of their living room, there isn't much point in pumping 100 yens into a machine in some cacophonous hall. He's right, of course. Indeed, a considerable portion of the space was devoted to quaintly primitive retro games like the almost-20-year-old Street Fighter II, which is surely a sign of a moribund industry. Having said that, people were literally queueing up to play Project Diva, which is apparently the hot new game. Actually, a quick look on Wikipedia tells me that it's an arcade port of a PSP/PS3 game. Moribund.

We had a quick look in some shops selling anime figurines, but quickly realised that they were too expensive to make good novelty gifts. And disappointingly, Adam and Graham found the maids on the street creepy and depressing, rather than fun and kooky. So we didn't stay long in Akiba, instead returning to the hotel for a game of Catan. Graham uncharacteristically won.

We rendezvoused with the rest of the group, including Joy. She had failed to get any surfing done on account of a poverty of waves, but she sounded like she'd had a nice enough couple of days anyway. We had dinner in a vaguely Chinese-themed bistro, and ended up back in Akiba. Sure enough, it did look a little better with all the neon, and we managed to find a couple of enjoyably odd novelty games.

-- Oooh, earthquake, in the present. Nothing too major here, but apparently it was quite a big one out in the sea. --

One was an incarnation of the Bishi Bashi series (as ripped off by WarioWare), which brought back happy memories of an ex-girlfriend of mine. Our relationship had been based on snowboarding, weird Japanese video games, and her delightful bosoms, in roughly equal measure. But even better was a game whose name I sadly can't remember, which had a novel controller shaped like a table. The player had to choose one of four scenarios: a home, an office, etc. We went for the home. You then assumed the role of a grumpy father trying to enjoy a family dinner, while your daughter chatted on her mobile and your son played some handheld game. When your fury could be contained no longer, you had to violently flip up the table to cause the maximum possible damage. Your outburst was then replayed in super slo-mo from various angles, and that was your lot. Adam made the hi-score board when some stray debris fortuitously sailed into a cabinet of china.

Tokyo, day 2:

Most of dinner the previous night had been taken up with a discussion / argument about what we would do this morning. In the end, team B (Aoife, Joy and Tim) decided to get up painfully early and go to the famous Tsukiji fish market, while team A (Adam, Graham and I) took things at a more leisurely pace and met them at the science museum on Odaiba, the man-made island in Tokyo Bay. Our two teams ended up quite far apart in a long queue for the museum. Communicating via the limited medium of gestures through a window, we managed to get into a misunderstanding that resulted in my team abandoning the lengthy queue in the mistaken belief that the advance party had bought tickets for us. Tempers were frayed.

Once we finally got in, the museum was excellent. Perhaps our group was biased, containing two scientific doctors and two more prospective ones, but I'm confident that anyone would enjoy it. Highlights included a demonstration of Honda's Asimo humanoid robot, and a huge spherical screen displaying various data about the planet. I also enjoyed the cloud chamber, which gave one the rare opportunity to see the individual particles of radiation that bombard us constantly; and the thermal imaging camera, from which we learned that Joy has terrible circulation and I, with my cold glasses and relative lack of insulating hair, look like some kind of awesome cyberpunk when rendered in lurid thermal pseudocolour. The only part I didn't like was the neuroscience section. I feel like I can happily go the rest of my life without looking at another neuron. Anyway, at only 600 yen, I can't recommend the place strongly enough.

We spent a while sampling the synthetic delights of Odaiba, including a shopping centre decked out like a classical Mediterranean plaza, full of fountains and fake marble. After that the group once again splintered, with team A + Joy taking the sea bus back to the mainland for some impressive views of the Rainbow Bridge. We headed to the Imperial Gardens once again, but arrived at about ten past four to discover that they closed at half past. It seemed that the Emperor really didn't want us to see his flowers.

Joy went off to do her own thing, and we gave Shibuya a cursory glance. As it is a chic shopping district, it didn't really hold a lot of allure for three nerds with hardly a shred of fashion sense between them. We headed on to Shinjuku, our arranged meeting place, by way of Harajuku, which was disappointingly but predictably (it was a weekday) bereft of cosplaying teens.

Running a little short on time, we darted into a British pub for dinner. It was reasonably authentic; in particular, you ordered at the bar. I'd never really thought about how alien a concept this is in Japan, but they felt it necessary to have prominently-placed signs explaining this wacky system. We each got a classic fish and chips, and though the portions were laughably small - my chips must have numbered less than 15 - it was impressively tasty. As a pint of Guinness was an outrageous 900yen (but it was a pint, not 500ml), and cocktail happy hour was on, we washed it down with some less traditional Moscow mules.

The crew reunited at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, the reason being that this is a place where you can get a free view of the city from the 40-somethingth floor. Incidentally, it is right across the street from the hotel used for the JET Tokyo orientation, so the place book-ended my first year in Japan nicely. I have to say though, you get what you pay for. The whole place is a brightly-lit gift shop, meaning that you have to mash your face up against the glass (smeared with the face-prints of those that have gone before you) to get a decent view at night.

Minus Adam, who had gone home with severe sweat-chafing, we took a quick wander around Kabukicho, the red light district and hotbed of mob activity that is widely held to be the most dangerous neighbourhood in Japan, though that still makes it safer than just about anywhere in Los Angeles. I was glad that we had the girls, as they made it clear we were not in the market for pleasures of the flesh, and as such the pimps left us alone. Confirming this observation, team B went to get some noodles, and literally within seconds a pushy Afro-Caribbean gentleman was hassling Graham and me. We fled into a subway station, and didn't stop until we were back in the safety of boring old Ueno.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Dharma police

Now that we were back in Akayu, we had a three-day intermission before setting off for Tokyo. On friday, we lazed around all morning, then I took the party to Nanyo Skypark, the hang-/paragliding facility overlooking the town. No aerial sports were underway (it was a bit windy) but they enjoyed the view anyway.

While we were there, I got a phonecall from a teacher. In fact, he had been phoning me all week, but I didn't pick up during the road trip. Illustrating the Japanese concept of 'holiday', he wanted me to edit a speech contest script, asap. We ended up all doing it as a team effort, which was actually quite useful. Sometimes in this situation the Engrish is so impenetrable that you have to start just making up what you think they were trying to say, and it's useful to have second and third opinions to prevent yourself from going crazy.

Once that had been emailed off, the girls went to check out the 100 yen shop, Graham went for a stroll, and the remaining three boys had a game of Catan (with a board loosely based on Yamagata prefecture). I romped to victory. The game was not quick (due in large part to Tim's ponderous playing style, though in fairness it is a bafflingly complicated game [Cities and Knights, clearly; I don't get out of bed for basic game] to which he is a relative newcomer), but when we finished the girls still hadn't returned. We shrugged, poured ourselves another sake, and assumed they had gone for coffee or a walk or something. But no, they eventually showed up with bulging bags of 100 yen items, mostly intended as wacky gifts. Joy admitted that only after checking out for the fourth time did she actually leave. To be fair, 100 yen shops are great. They don't have the depressing, desperate feel of similarly cheap shops back home. Right now I'm drinking from a periodic table mug that I picked up for 100 small ones. Admittedly, it does list fire, unobtainium, and melancholy among the transition metals.

Perhaps emboldened by my afternoon of sake quaffing, I decided to do something a little ambitious for dinner: take my friends to my favourite izakaya. You see, I have never led an izakaya outing before, and the menu is in dense, handwritten kanji. Being friday night, the place was busy, but we got the six of us squeezed around a table for four - not using chairs has its advantages.

One thing that I really like about dining in Japan is that you don't have to order everything all at once. It is acceptable, nay encouraged, to order several rounds of food, rather like one does with drinks at home. So, we got the drinks in, and I bought us some time with a few easy orders like riceballs and yakitori. You can walk into any izakaya in Japan and ask for yakitori, and they will present you with an unlikely assortment of chicken anatomy on wooden sticks. While I've learned to enjoy the liver, I'm not so keen on the skin, but other people mopped that up. The cartilage, however, was universally unpopular.

Having studied the menu, I got more adventurous, ordering up a daikon (Japanese radish) salad, a cooked mackerel, and - the piece de resistance - raw horse. My party had made it clear to me that they would draw the line at whale or dolphin, but happily they were alright with equine meat. Everyone - even the horse-riding Joy - declared it delicious.

It's friday night, your belly is full of Asahi and greasy chicken, what do you do next? Karaoke! One of us, possibly feeling a Pavlovian aversion to the opening notes of Bad romance, called it a night, but the other five went for a marathon three-hour session. Having learned our lesson, we eschewed nomihodai and bought nice, individually priced drinks. I picked up my first ever karaoke injury, as I drunkenly lunged for the phone and caught my arm on the surprisingly pointed corner of the song catalogue.

The next day, everyone but the early retiree was feeling a little lethargic. Joy had hatched a plan (that was maybe a little shy of being fully baked) to go surfing on the Izu peninsula near Tokyo, so she bid us a temporary farewell. This being the last day we had the rental car, the rest of us decided to go to Yamagata City in search of some 'artificial fun'. After a lot of confusion over the price and legality of our parking, we hit Mos Burger, which I had been bigging up all week. Apparently it didn't live up to my hype, with Tim in particular giving a scathing review of his teriyaki burger.

Next was some arcade action. Aoife had somehow never heard of Dance Dance Revolution, so I gave her a demo during which I worked up an embarassing amount of sweat. Then we did the obligatory purikura, yielding some super-kawaii photos that I could stick on my Hello Kitty pencil case and be the envy of all my friends, if I was a 13-year-old girl. Then the boys went bowling. In a close-fought match I ended up coming last, with the frustrating total of 99. We were left with a bad taste in our mouth when a 300 yen 'shoe rental' charge was added to the already steep bowling fee. Shoe rental.

We headed home, got the car returned, and then had a meal of supermarket food. We seemed to hit a morale low-point from which I don't think we ever completely recovered. Tim sprayed noodle sauce all over my living room, then got angry at Japan for making tricky packaging. I in turn got angry that he thought the appropriate response to this mishap was fury directed at a whole nation, rather than contrition directed at me and my now soy-flavoured tatami. I showed him how easily the ruptured bag could be opened from the other end, and he looked like he was going to punch me. Good times.

On sunday night we had been invited to a big party with Marie et al, and an American family that were staying with Marie (the mother had been an ALT twenty years ago). Thus it was to be a seven nation party, but Joy's departure denied me this open goal for a title pun. Anyway, once I had deciphered Marie's message, I realised that we were expected to contribute some food. Tim is more than a little handy in the kitchen, so I appointed him head chef, and we spent the afternoon making some classic British bread-and-butter pudding, and Spanish omelette, which is at least European?

The venue for the party was none other than the temple, as one of Marie's friends is married to the local Zen priest. We were told to arrive a little early so that we could ring the bell. Tim had been eying up the huge bells at every temple we'd been to, so he was excited by this prospect. Sadly, our disorganisation cost us, as we showed up a couple of minutes after the allotted time and bell-ringing was out of the question.

Nevertheless, the temple made for an atmospheric venue. The priest gave us a tour of the main hall. In broken English, he pointed at a large statue of Buddha, and said "number one". He then gestured towards smaller carvings of his disciples, and said "number two". Then, he pointed at himself, and said "number eighty-seven". I immediately understood what he was saying: rather like a PhD, Buddhist priesthood can only be obtained by studying under someone who already has it. Thus, he could trace his spiritual ancestry (or "dharma transmission", as it is actually called) back through 86 teachers to the big man himself. I only know who my academic grandfather is.

The party was excellent and the hospitality very hospitable. The priest pulled out all the stops, serving us four-year-old sake (sake is normally matured for a matter of months) and single-cask Scotch whisky. Chatting to the Americans, they explained that the three daughters were homeschooled. Quick looks of "Oh Jesus, here we go" flashed around our group, but I have to say they actually seemed like very nice, sensible, together people. They certainly weren't Bible-bashing right-wing zealots, though I suppose they probably wouldn't have been hanging out in a Buddhist temple if they were.

The kids couldn't stay too late, so Marie had to leave with the Americans. She urged us to stay on, meaning that I had to step up to the linguistic plate. The priest could speak some English, but I'd say that my Japanese is now not too far behind his English, so the two of us shared the load of translation. I find that like dancing or ten-pin bowling, my Japanese ability is actually enhanced by alcohol (up to a point), as it makes me more confident and less focused on my frequent errors. Or maybe it just makes me think I can speak Japanese, and I'm actually generating incomprehensible nonsense. Anyway, Tim tested me to the limit by asking all sorts of obscure philosophical questions; as a keen martial artist he knows quite a lot about Japanese mysticism, and was curious as to how this related to Zen.

Trying to steer the conversation onto simpler territory, I asked him what he would recommend to see or do in Tokyo. He asked what we were interested in, and without a moment's hesitation, Graham said "Robots". Watching a Zen priest puzzling over the best place to see robots was one of those moments of surrealism that make me really glad I came here.

Though it is very difficult to tell when one has worn out their welcome at a Japanese party, I decided to pull the plug sometime after eleven. I forgot the way home, indicating that I was rather drunker than I thought, and Tim, who had been on top form at the temple, seemed unable to form a coherent sentence by the time we got back to the house. None of this bode (boded? bade?) very well for our shink to Tokyo the next morning...

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I think we have an em-urchin-cy

Road trip, day 4.

With one of us looking sheepish and queasy, we struck out east to the Pacific coast with Aoife in the driving seat, crossing the border into Miyagi prefecture (yes, like Mr Miyagi). It was a real scorcher. Seeing our first beach, we couldn't contain our excitement and stopped the car to take a morning dip. Or rather, we adopted our standard swimming formation, i.e. me, Tim, and the girls actually swimming, Adam wading around with his trousers rolled up like a true Brit, and Graham sitting in the the shade somewhere. Compared to the lake, the water was surprisingly chilly; I guess the ocean has quite a bit of thermal inertia. On the plus side, we were more buoyant. Tim complimented me on my floating skills, which I think might have been an indirect way of saying I'm fat.

We drove on, hugging the jagged coastline in what must have seemed to person X like a deliberate attempt to make xem lose xry buffet breakfast. When the call went up for lunch, I directed us to the first place I saw with the symbols for 'fish' and 'eat'. Walking in, I had some misgivings. The place appeared to be a fishmonger's that had cleared a bit of space and set up a couple of tables for customers to eat at. But what it lacked in presentation it made up for in unbelievable quality and value. For 1000 yen each we got a generous sashimi (raw fish) set with rice and miso soup, and they kept chucking extra freebies our way. This started off with the routine appetiser of cucumbers and miso paste, but they quickly upped the ante with some fearsome-looking hoya, which the Archos tells me are sea squirts. Raw, naturally. But then they wheeled out the really big guns, plucking some sea urchins from the tank, cracking them open to expose their edible orange innards, and serving them up to us with their outer spines still moving as their primitive nervous systems gave up the ghost.

You'll recall that raw sea urchin was the only thing that my guests had been unable to eat so far, so it was with some trepidation that we sampled these delicacies. However, the real deal is far more palatable than the low-grade stuff they use at Kappa Sushi; I'd go as far as to say it's quite nice.

For me, the star of the whole show was the raw octopus (rawctopus?). This is something that I usually tend to avoid, as it can be tough and rubbery. But when you're eating at a fishmonger's that's within sea-squirting distance of the ocean, you get the very freshest stuff, and this was beautifully tender. The only thing I didn't like about the meal was that I fear it has permanently damaged my enjoyment of dodgy 100yen sushi.

I should point out that person X, in xyr fragile gastric state, opted out of the seafood, but they gave xem rice and soup for free anyway. They went even further above and beyond the call of customer service when we, seeing that someone was eating riceballs, tried to order some. It turned out that she worked there and the riceballs were not on the menu, they were simply her lunch, but she gave them to us anyway. As we were about to leave, they insisted that we go upstairs to see the free exhibits. The place was in fact a triple threat: a fishmonger, restaurant, and museum of marine fossils all rolled into one. Sure enough, I noticed that its name translated literally as 'fish dragon hall'. It stands out as a shining example of how well things can go when you ignore the guidebook and improvise.

We drove on, soaking in all the beautiful little coves and trying not to imagine dolphins being slaughtered in them. Our travels took us to the city of Ishinomaki, whose claim to fame was that a celebrated manga artist came from there, a fact that they were milking for all it was worth: there were life-size statues of various comic book characters all over the place. As it seemed like the thing to do, we went to the manga museum, which was shaped like a fat flying saucer. Because it was closing soon we didn't pay to go into the exhibition, and the free part wasn't really up to much. The gift shop did however have the most comprehensive selection of Hello Kitty merchandise I have seen to date, although sadly the fabled Hello Kitty 'massage wand' still eludes me.

We had one eye on potential places for dinner, but nothing jumped out at us so we pressed on to our hotel for the night. It was a good thing we didn't eat, as a quick look in my holiday dossier reminded me that dinner was included at this place. And what a dinner it was. As is the Japanese style, it consisted of many little dishes. In fact, I counted twelve, which has to be some kind of record. It was all excellent, but the highlight was probably a flat fish that they had taken the unusual step of cooking. The atmosphere was really nice too; Aoife accurately described it as being like visiting the Japanese granny you never had.

The place we were staying was on the less touristy east side of Matsushima, a bay containing over two hundred pine tree covered islands (the name literally mean 'pine island(s)') ranging from a couple with houses and schools on them to those that barely have space for one pine tree. It is widely held to be one of the three most beautiful spots in Japan, and there are four specific points to view it from, each with a supposedly different character. We started day five with a short but punishing uphill walk to take in the 'magnificent view'. (The others are 'beautiful', 'enchanting' and 'grand' - maybe something is being lost in translation.) We then hit another beach, and this one had the added attraction that a bunch of fighter jets were doing an aerobatic display overhead. Since the Japanese military is basically forbidden to do anything more violent than a nasty Chinese burn without America's express written consent, I guess they have a lot of time for training.

We pressed on to the heart of Matsushima. It is a bit of a tourist trap, and we had to fend off some hard sells of lunch. I was glad it was a thursday, as I imagine the place would be hellish on a summer weekend. People weren't up for the boat tour, so we paid a couple of hundred yen to cross a bridge to an attractive private island for a stroll.

We had been having a kind of ongoing competition to see who could find the most weird / horrible thing in a vending machine. Adam had been making a strong showing with 'Miracle Body', which appeared to be 500ml of potent stimulants, and 'Cola Up', which was bad cola with chunks of jelly in it. But I think I outdid him when I purchased a creme caramel in a can. I'm not talking about a creme caramel flavour drink; this thing had to be sucked out. It was not very thirst-quenching.

Having got our fill of Matsushima, we headed back home to Yamagata. We took the mountain road, which was an adventure in itself. Some of the roads around these parts really are bonkers. Joy had to make extensive use of the semi-automatic mode, but fortunately she seemed to be blessed with an uncanny ability to only meet oncoming traffic where there was a place to pass.

The reason for this mountainous diversion was to take in the Okama crater lake, which is becoming old hat to regular readers. All I'll say is that I'm starting to have serious doubts about its claim to having five colours; it's been green three out of three times I've been there.

For dinner we went to a huge shopping centre on the outskirts of Yamagata City and had some shabu shabu - always a crowd-pleaser. We concluded the evening by crashing the mall. Tim bagged a couple of excellent Engrish T-shirts. The first had a cartoon picture of a cat's paw, and said "A sensitive tongue to heat". I impressed myself by knowing what that was all about: in Japanese there is an idiom, 'to have a cat's tongue' meaning that you have trouble eating hot food. The second T-shirt, however, mystified me, and I suspect that it defies explanation in any language. Beside a shape vaguely resembling a running man, it said "Digestion: there is no royal road". Your guess is as good as mine.

While Tim was doing this, Adam and I hit the arcade. In one corner it had a few pachinko machines, and since this was a far less threatening environment than a proper noisy, smoky pachinko hall, I decided it would be a good opportunity to initiate him to this quintessentially Japanese pastime. We quickly squandered a few hundred yen and walked away, failing to see the attraction. Having since looked into this, I get the impression that when these machines pay out they pay out big (somewhere in the region of 5000yen) but to stand any chance of getting that prize you need to be in for the long haul, investing (on average) rather more than 5000yen.

Adam fancied trying his hand at the other quasi-gambling games. You know those crappy penny falls machines, where 2 pence pieces get shunted along by sliding platforms? The Japanese have raised these to an art form. They are typically arranged as octagonal or decagonal islands with the familiar platforms around the outside, and all sorts of crazy balls, tubes, chutes, rails and screens in the middle. If your tokens fall through certain slots, various sub games like video slot machines can be activated. Should you win this, then something exciting happens, like a ball being released onto the platform. Should you pump in enough money to push that ball over the edge, one can only dream of what might happen next. I have to applaud the way they have taken a fairly boring game and skillfully injected just enough intrigue to make it fiendishly addictive. Like Peggle, but more expensive.

And that concludes the road trip portion of the holiday! To celebrate, I'd like to offer you a game: guess which of my friends (Adam, Aoife, Graham, Joy, Tim) became obsessed with each of the following things on holiday. Flickr might give you some clues, as might future posts, I guess.

Plum wine (three people)
Japanese insects and the size thereof (two people)
100 yen shops (two people)
Vegetable patches
The dietary supplement Calorie Mate
Sweating shortly after having a shower

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dango breaking my heart

Or, "This town is 'coming like a ghost town"

I wonder how long I can keep using Elton John songs...

Road trip day 2:

After a jazz breakfast, we set out to take in the sights around Lake Tazawa. With Joy at the wheel, we completed a quick circuit of the lake, then headed for the Daikannon, a big golden statue of a Buddhist goddess. It was mentioned in my guidebook but there was surprisingly little in the way of signposting on the ground alerting one to its presence. Surely if you had a 35m tall Kannon in your locker you'd want to shout about it, we thought.

When we found it, we realised why they had been keeping it on the DL. The statue was clearly decades rather than centuries old, and the whole thing had more the atmosphere of a clapped-out third-rate theme park than a sacred site. They were asking 800 yen for admission, which seemed rather steep for the privilege of looking at a statue covered in flaking gold paint. We peered at it from the gate (it's pretty hard to hide a 35m goddess), and were about to get back in the car when the man at the booth must have sensed that there was no way he was getting 4800 yen out of us, so waved us in for free. In addition to the Kannon there were some gardens that had long since fallen to the ravages of entropy, and a strange tacky visitor centre that literally had smoke and mirrors accompanying various idols for one to worship. I particularly liked a weird fluffy cloudy display, presumably supposed to evoke heaven. As its centrepiece it had a little old CRT TV inside a reflective orb, which was displaying static. I suspect that this wasn't intended, but for my money it was easily the most Zen thing in the whole place.

The whole experience was fairly depressing, but there is something I like about this kind of crass commercialisation of religion. It is as if they are acknowledging the whole thing is just a big crowd-pleasing scam, which is a kind of candour that I would like to see more of in Christianity.

The bleakness continued with the next leg of our journey, on which we crossed the Hachimantai plateau into Iwate prefecture (cue another GPS jingle). I am assured by my guidebook that the views from the summit are spectacular, but unfortunately I'll have to take their word for that since it was a right old pea-souper (guv'nor), with visibility down to about 10m at times. We got out at the top anyway, and though we couldn't see the other end of the car park, we could revel in the fact that the temperature was only 18deg at that altitude. It was the first time I've felt cold in about three months.

We stopped off at a roadside visitor centre / market / noodle bar for lunch. We made a massive hash of ordering, as there was once again no English or pictures, and you had to buy coupons from a machine and then present them at the counter to get your food. They would then call out your number (in Japanese, naturally) when your meal was ready. I could just about handle all of this myself - I've eaten in plenty of places like this before - but trying to herd the whole group through these admittedly confusing hoops made me feel a bit like a single parent with five unruly children. Anyway, Graham ended up with the cold soba that I've described previously, and he loved it. I should have known that a man who lives on muesli would enjoy the spartan austerity of cold wholemeal noodles and soy sauce.

After that we went to an onsen town. Graham didn't fancy it, fending off accusations of prudery by insisting that it was the heat rather than the nudity that bothered him. So, he visited a geothermal power plant while the rest of us took a dip in a sulphurous outdoor pool, or rotenburo. (Or more accurately, two outdoor pools, although this place did seem to play things fairly fast and loose with the gender segregation. I'm pretty sure the male pool was technically mixed, and by simply standing in the right place one could easily see through to the ladies-only pool.) It started to rain a little while we were bathing, which was gloriously refreshing, though they did have conical straw hats you could wear to rather pointlessly keep your head dry. Kicking back in the rotenburo whilst looking like Rayden was a good moment.

We then headed to our hostel, but we had a little trouble finding it. Exactly in line with hackneyed gender stereotypes, Joy favours the entirely sensible policy of asking for directions in such a contingency, whereas I will go to fairly insane lengths to solve problems like these without troubling another human, like the undiagnosed-Asperger's weirdo that I am. This caused some slight friction, as I was the only one who had the linguistic capability to ask. We eventually got directed to the place, and 'That sounds good' seemed very far away.

To be fair, if it was just a no-frills hostel that would have been ok. The trouble was that said hostel turned out to be in a ski resort, and it was July. Consequently, the place was a full-on ghost town. No restaurants were open, so we had to resort to buying bento from a convenience store. We ate these back in the hostel common room, with the owner creepily watching us. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to find his long-dead mother in a rocking chair in the basement. Then we repaired to one of our rooms, and Tim taught us a card game at which he then clearly cheated and tried to justify his actions, to fierce and widespread condemnation. And there was no aircon. All in all, quite a bum day.

We set out on day three with high hopes of turning around our fortunes. Graham blasted down the expressway to Hiraizumi, a famous historical district. First on our hit-list was Chuumon-ji temple. It was pretty impressive as temples go, but having lived in Japan for a year - and having visited Kyoto - I've become a bit desensitised to temples. I need bigger and bigger hits; to really get me excited now a temple has to have a pretty special gimmick, like being made entirely of ice or floating six inches above the ground.

For lunch we went to a place, recommended by my guidebook, that sold 'dumplings'. Its special gimmick was that it overlooked a gorge, and one could buy dumplings from the other side by putting money in a basket which would be reeled in and then zip-lined back out with a payload of tasty treats.

Now, we made a couple of errors. Firstly, we went to the side of the gorge where they make the dumplings, denying us the pleasure of using the basket. Secondly, we had assumed that dumplings were savoury, but it turns out that dango (as they are called) are like marshmallow kebabs, served with three difference sauces: the ubiquitous red bean jelly, the delicious but ominously coloured sesame (it's black), and a weirdly salty orange one that I reckon must have been soy based. Aoife couldn't stomach the things at all, and while I quite enjoyed them, they weren't really the hearty lunch we were after. The owner of the dango shop - an old gentleman missing most of his teeth (too many dango, perhaps) - came and tried to have some banter with us. As the only person with any chance of communicating successfully with him, I took the brunt of it. It's fair to say that this guy was an eccentric. He said he was an amateur film-maker, and sure enough, the whole place was decked out with antique-looking video-editing equipment, the big reel-to-reel recorders with their chunky buttons giving the place the look of the villain's lair from a Roger Moore-era Bond moive.

He invited me upstairs to what turned out to be his basket dispatching nerve-centre, and thankfully Tim decided to tag along and see what was up. The little room was covered in Polaroid photos of people like us posing with him, and he had a wide selection of flags. Learning that we were British, he stuck a Union Jack (yes, I know that's technically incorrect; I don't care) on the basket, and when some punters ordered dumplings from across the gorge (he had a camera with a zoom lens trained on the spot) he let us do the honours, while blasting out God save the Queen. There was also a young woman there, and it's still not clear to me whether she was a friend of his or just a hapless customer who was too polite to leave. Tim was backing towards the door, but dango-man wouldn't let us go without a whole lot of picture taking and guestbook signing.

By this point the sightseeing day was essentially over, so we went to our hotel in the unremarkable town of Ichinoseki. City centre business hotels are the way to go - they're convenient, clean and cheap as chips. Team GB (minus the free-spirited Joy) went to a soulless but pleasant chain izakaya for dinner. They were heavily promoting a beverage called 'Hoppy', claiming in English that it was 'a modern drink'. After unwittingly burning some serious yen on a round of premium draft beers, our curiosity got the better of us and we ordered the mysterious drink. It turned out to be non-alcoholic beer that came with a shot of shochu (Japanese vodka analog) for you to add. I can only assume that this is some kind of tax dodge, because far from being the future of drinking, this was every bit as rubbish as it sounds.

The evening's entertainment was to be our first karaoke session of the holiday. I had found a place by the station with a stupidly cheap deal, so we went there. The guy at the desk was quite surly, which would be unremarkable in any other country, but having grown accustomed to hyper-polite Japanese customer service, I felt as though he had just questioned my mother's romantic propriety whilst teabagging me. Undaunted, I got us a couple of hours of the very cheapest nomihodai (all you can drink) deal, which meant that we couldn't drink anything nice, only dubious cocktails.

For those of you wondering, the way you order drinks from a private karaoke room is by picking up a phone receiver that puts you through to the front desk, and yelling Japanese in a bid to be heard over Hotel California. I invariably take a back seat and let a Japanese person, or failing that, a more experienced gaijin, take care of this. But now I had to step up. Thankfully, cocktails all have phonetically written foreign names like sukuruudoraibaa and mosuko myuru, so I was able to make educated guesses as to what I was ordering. Not that it really mattered, since it was all free, but it strikes me as rather churlish to leave undrunk a drink that you haven't specifically paid for, if you follow me. Joy, however, seemed unconcerned about these finer points of nomihodai etiquette.

We were having a great time. Graham and I joined forces for a memorable rendition of Katy Perry's Hot and Cold, and then overstayed our welcome at the mic with Paranoid Android, which was funny for the first minute and painful for the subsequent five.

Little did we realise the storm that was brewing inside the gut of someone, who at his or her request, shall remain nameless. It could even be me (it's not). I shall henceforth use gender-neutral pronouns. Looking back, we should have read the warning signs: when xe started holding xyr mic at an angle greater than 90 degrees we should have cut off xyr 'whisky on the rocks' supply line. But no, we didn't smell a rat until xe spent an abnormally long time in the toilet. Sure enough, xe was blowing chunks. Xe seemed lucid, so there was some hope that maybe xe'd nipped it in the bud with an early vom. Alas, this optimism was misplaced, as xe proceeded to spend the next several hours back in the room hugging the toilet. I dealt with this by putting in my earplugs and going to sleep.

Man, I need to be more concise. Covering just two days in a post this size, it's going to take an age to finish at this rate.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Hey Akita, is it cold?

(no, it definitely isn't)
Or, 'SweatyBack'.

The blog drought is over, I'm back! Today is in fact something of a milestone, as exactly 365 days ago I was arriving, tired and apprehensive, at Narita International Airport to begin my new life. But rather than getting all misty-eyed and introspective about that, let me tell you about my holiday. I imagine this will run to several posts.

The week prior to my friends' arrival was a busy one, involving a couple of mornings at kindergarten and a mid-week boozing session with the Rotary Club. I had also been trying to ready my house for its imminent 500% increase in occupancy. Due to my profound aversion to doing housework, I called this effort off as soon as I reckoned I'd raised the place to a kind of minimal standard for human habitation, stopping well short of any reasonable definition of 'tidy'.

The party of five arrived more-or-less on schedule on thursday evening. Pleasingly, the group contained one representative from each nation of the UK, plus one from Ireland proper, so that whenever we walked into a bar it felt like the set-up to a joke. They came bearing gifts of various unobtainable goodies from home, including a bag of Sweet Chili flavour Nobby's Nuts - surely the most addictive snack ever conceived by humankind - and a couple of slightly dehydrated-looking macaroni pies from my former workplace Greggs. These carb-laden monstrosities were my signature lunch back in my postgrad days. They also brought a box of less perishable Scottish treats (including tinned haggis) on behalf of Jude - thank you Jude! After a dinner of assorted supermarket convenience foods and some light squabbling over how best to arrange futons in the limited space available, we called it a night.

Friday was a fairly low-wattage day of looking around the modest sights of Akayu. After a satisfying breakfast of intercontinental pies, I took them to the temple, the shrine, and the park. The temperature was somewhere around the 30deg mark, necessitating frequent drink stops. They were impressed by the ubiquitous vending machines and the novelty of cans of ice coffee. 'Boss' coffee quickly emerged as the favourite on account of its name; there is something undeniably enjoyable about drinking coffee like a bawss. Lunch was of course at Kappa Sushi, and I'm pleased to say they were just as taken with the touchscreen / shinkansen system as I was. My guests were disappointingly unfazed by all the weird and mostly raw food on offer. Incredibly, most of them even pronounced natto to be tolerable. The only thing I successfully grossed them out with was uni, or raw sea urchin, which is a kind of slimy orange paste.

That evening Marie et al had very kindly thrown a welcoming party. I was a little stressed out, experiencing the particular anxiety that comes with being the lone inhabitant of the intersection of two otherwise disjoint social groups. However, I think we got through it without causing too much offence, the hairiest moment being when Joy went on a baffling conversational sojourn about how out hosts' light-coloured dog would almost certainly die of skin cancer. The hospitality was typically Japanese, by which I mean almost embarrassingly over the top, with an amazing spread of dishes. I realised that I have learned to deliberately hold back in these situations, pacing myself for the inevitable second and third waves of food and the hurt looks on people's faces when you tell them you are full. My inexperienced guests were also surprised by the endless drink refills and polite but persistent nagging to keep drinking. As I suspected they might, our hostesses (not that kind of hostesses) wheeled out their secret gaijin-surprising weapon: the grasshoppers. 80% of the newcomers manned up and tried them, with Graham flatly refusing. The big wuss.

The next day we set out to the mountain temple Yamadera, probably Yamagata Prefecture's premium tourist spot. Because of the faffing about that inevitably occurs when you try to mobilise six people to do anything, we were a little late in setting out for the station (my car struggles to accommodate four people; six was out of the question). As a result, I ended up marching the group in brisk single file through the baking heat to the station, running ahead alone to buy tickets when we got within a hundred metres or so. We must have looked quite strange - it's not every day you see six Caucasians charging down the street in Akayu. Anyway, we made it.

The ascent of the 1000+ steps to the temple complex was fairly taxing in the heat, and we were soon marvelling at the Rorschach-like sweat patches blossoming on each other's T-shirts. This then became a sweatiest back competition, which was a close battle between Graham and myself, but I pipped him in the end. My companions seemed suitably impressed by the temple complex and its views of the steep-sided valley below. As we finished our descent we felt a few spots of rain and heard a distant rumble of thunder. We made it back to the shelter of the station just in time to see the oppressive heat and humidity give way to one of the most torrential thunderstorms I've ever seen. On the way home we experienced the rarity of a delayed Japanese train; I'm guessing lightning must have hit something important.

Sunday was the first day of our road trip. We picked up the rental car (a 7-seater Toyota Exiga) with surprisingly little hassle; they didn't even object to Aoife's almost-certainly-expired international permit. Thankfully there was sufficient room for all our stuff (we made sure to travel light), and after a little confusion as to whether the car was in fact automatic (it had a semi-automatic mode that Joy accidentally engaged), we were soon on the road, with yours truly at the wheel. It was enjoyable but a little frightening to drive a powerful car after a year in the Wagon R. Boy, were the brakes responsive.

Like any modern Japanese car, our vehicle had a big fancy touchscreen panel for GPS navigation, which would switch to a view from a rear-mounted camera when in reverse. Adam (in the passenger seat) was quite taken with this technology and spent a long time wrestling with the Japanese controls. His random prodding managed to activate the navigation program, and the voice cutting in over the music to issue directions in Japanese to some unknown destination got on my wick so much that I pulled over and refused to drive any further until we found a way to turn it off.

The first leg of our trip was the longest, a five-hour slog on non-toll roads to Lake Tazawa, in Akita prefecture, Yamagata's northern neighbour. Much to our delight, the GPS emitted a cheery little jingle and splashed up a welcoming graphic whenever we crossed a prefecture border. As I mentioned previously, Akita has the dubious distinction of being the part of Japan that is depopulating faster that any other. Sure enough, it did seem like quite a bleak place, appearing to consist of endless rice fields and run-down little towns. However, that all changed as we neared our destination. Though the GPS was telling us we were mere kilometres away, there was no sign of a lake, just steep tree-covered mountains. Graham casually informed us that it was a caldera, as if 'caldera' was a word anyone had ever heard outside of an episode of Call my bluff or QI. After we berated him for being a ponce and demanded that he explain himself, we understood that the lake was inside a large volcanic crater. Thus, it was almost perfectly circular and completely enclosed within steep slopes. It was very fetching; in fact I would say that in terms of natural beauty it was probably the high-water mark of the whole holiday - we peaked early.

Some of us went for an early-evening dip in the lake, hanging our clothes on a sign that I'm pretty sure said 'No swimming'. Oh well, I'm not above the occasional gaijin smash. I am a woeful swimmer, and I can't actually recall the last time I swam prior to that occasion. But thrashing around in my ungainly breast stoke in the pleasantly warm water as the sun set - in an honest-to-goodness caldera, no less! - was a memorable experience. Even the knowledge that I was swimming in my boxers, meaning that I would have to go commando for the rest of the evening, couldn't dent my contentment.

There only seemed to be one place selling food in the immediate vicinity, so we went there. It turned out to be a microbrewery with an attached restaurant vaguely themed as a German bierkeller. We got off to a bad start as the menu was in Japanese with no pictures. Neither my friends nor my family when they came to visit me seemed to understand the difficulty this causes me. Given my Archos and a couple of minutes I can probably decipher any given menu item, but when one reads a menu one wants an overview of everything that's available, which is a big ask. In the end we ordered more or less at random, and the results were pretty disappointing. The worst of a bad bunch was a kind of proto-stew consisting of a nasty gnarled hunk of ham and a handful of vegetables in a watery broth. The restaurant's saving grace was the beer, which was of course brewed on the premises. We got a couple of pitchers of their 'dunkel' variety, and it was delicious. The bottled product was apparently 5.5%, but based on our surprisingly fast inebriation we all reckoned the stuff fresh from the source must have been closer to 8%. I don't know enough about brewing to judge whether that is at all feasible. At any rate, I had successfully organised a piss-up in a brewery.

We were staying at the oddly named 'That sounds good' - that's not a translation, it actually has an English name - which was somewhere between a hostel and a hotel. I believe that's called a pension, at least in Europe. It's USP was that the owners were jazz nuts, so everything was jazz themed. There were jazz posters on every wall and jazz mags (tee hee) in every toilet. The mini-onsen that the place had was shaped like a piano, making it ideal for a couple with a large height discrepancy. We hung out in the lounge for a while in the evening, and the owner asked if it was ok for him to have a jamming session with his friend, and whether we would like to join in. We declined the invitation but urged him to go ahead, and we were treated to some highly noodly guitar and drum stylings. I'm not a huge jazz fan, and I realise that on paper (or more likely, on liquid crystal) that might sound fairly excruciating, but the atmosphere was actually very laid back and enjoyable. A little later some other guests came down, including a four year old girl who adorably joined in on a toy drum. I have come to the conclusion that Japanese children are at least 80% cuter than their European equivalents. As it was jazz music, the fact that she was miles off the beat actually seemed to enhance her performance.

Ok, I'll hang up my blogging gloves for the night. Stay tuned for our road trip taking a turn for the rubbisher, one of our number throwing up, and - in an unrelated incident - us eating something that was still moving.