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


  1. I'd completely forgotten about under the sea (and I only have a very vague sense that I was even aware of doing an accent).
    Anyway, I thought you'd be interested to know I just presented my omiyage to Taku. He immediately pointed out that it was 3 weeks out of date and said clearly that it should be stored in a dry cool place (which, if you recall, is not quite how things were while we were on the road). Anyway, after some discussion, we braved them, delicious.

  2. Adam's Disney song sounds like a classic.

    I have given it some thought and I have no idea what the mix is about.

  3. Is it to do with the alphabet?

  4. we made a spotify playlist with your mix but I have no idea what the theme is. I need a hint.

  5. It has nothing to do with the alphabet, other than that I put it in alphabetical order. The ordering is not important.

    The only hint I'll give you is that it was (tenuously) appropriate to the holiday.

    I miss Spotify. I have to listen to music on youtube, like it's 2006.

  6. Don't spend too much time thinking about it, you'll just feel disgusted and cheated when finlay eventually tells you.

  7. I think I've got it! The real clue there was 'youtube, like its 2006' huh?

  8. I've got it! Read my mind was the giveaway.

  9. You spotted my hidden clue! Yes, these are songs which, despite having no lyrical connection to Japan (well, the Beck track does have a couple of Japanese-ish samples), all have Nippon-themed videos.

    I thought Danny would have got it sooner, considering we saw the Killers filming their video in Shinjuku in 2007.