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...