Monday, June 13, 2011

On a rope, on a rope, got me hanging on a rope

Right, this month-and-half delay is getting silly, so I think it's time to just purge my backlog as quickly as possible. Think of the following as a blog enema.

Sunday: Kyoto
Morning: Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), free tour in English from some kind university students; thunderstorm; Marlo lacks umbrella/hood. Then, the Philosopher's Walk: blossom, sun comes out, pretty. Lunch: traditional Japanese; excellent; would have cost arm and a leg, but we wisely got the lunchtime special.
Afternoon: geisha dance, a rare chance to see actual 100% legit geisha. Preceded by a very unceremonious tea ceremony: rip-off. Dance itself: almost robotically precise and disciplined, and pretty much unfathomable to us. Nevertheless, Mum and I enjoyed it, Davo unconvinced.
Evening: We hit a low; indecision sets in, we flounder looking for a restaurant, tempers get frayed, we settle for okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) and teppanyaki (hotplate-fried meat and veg) at the (very impressive) station.

Monday: Osaka (again)
Morning: Leisurely start. Museum of Ethnology: pain in the arse to get to, but excellent; highly recommended. It ambitiously attempted to showcase all of the world's cultures; I challenge anyone religious to go there and tell me with a straight face that their belief system is the one correct one. Took us well into the...
Afternoon: Umeda Sky Building. Stuck around on the observation deck until sunset, beautiful views, awesome photo opportunities.
Evening: Dotombori, Osaka's lively entertainment district. Dinner at a middling-to-up-market sushi place; very good. Then, all-you-can-drink karaoke. Parentals initially skeptical, but quickly got into it. Marlo gets the hang of the Japanese-language touchscreen remarkably quickly, and both display an impressive instinct for what makes a good karaoke song. Highlight: Ballroom Blitz. Lowlight: Stan (Dad was Dido, I was Eminem). We extended our session, and only just caught the last train home.

Hungover, comedy of errors (guidebook locked inside locker), quick look around a modern art gallery, then slightly emotional goodbye as parents get on the shink back to Tokyo.

Digital, skateboard, turd, spliff, text, trilby...

Aaaah, that's better out than in. Alright, let's bring this almost back to the present by telling you what I did just a week ago. Rising at 5:15am on saturday morning, I was on the road by six, heading west to a rendezvous point in Niigata prefecture where I would very dubiously legally park my car, and get picked up by a bunch of north-Yamagatians in an eight-man minivan. Surprisingly this went to plan, and a little after eight we were powering down the expressway, studying Japanese in the back. (Many of my fellow passengers are gunning for the N3 in July; I've decided to keep my powder dry until December.) Our destination was Minakami, a mountainous place just inside Gunma (notch up another prefecture!). We got there on schedule, which couldn't be said for the (female) portion of our party who got busted for speeding and then missed the exit from the expressway. I didn't make a single comment about women drivers all weekend, for which I think I deserve some kind of medal.

The place was to be the venue for various EXTREME (though I am, I suppose, an extreme sports enthusiast, I just can't take the term seriously) outdoor activities. First up for me was 'canyoning', which I had signed up for without fully understanding what it entailed. Soon I was kitted out in a double-layer wetsuit, helmet, life-jacket, and harness; and was hearing troubling rumours about a 20m waterfall.

Canyoning, it turns out, means getting down a fast-flowing mountain river in a combination of three ways: walking, sliding and jumping. I think at more advanced levels stuff like abseiling also takes place. So, before I knew it I was lying in the water, letting it carry me along. So far, so serene. But of course, serenity has no place when extremity is the order of the day. Next we were doing 'the Superman', a face-down sliding technique. I have never been much good at swimming, and tend to panic a bit whenever my air intakes are under the water. But I soldiered on.

The extremism was only just getting started. Soon we found ourselves at the top of the unfortunately real 20m waterfall, being told to slide down it. It wasn't quite as bad as it seemed, as we were put onto a loop of rope and lowered about halfway before being dropped into the plunge pool. A little further on was 'the abyss', a waterfall which despite being just 5m high, was the scariest part of the whole thing. We had several bites at this cherry, first taking it on face-up, feet-first; then climbing back up for face-down, head-first (the Superman), where the more gung-ho amongst us were instructed on how to frontflip on the way down. Needless to say, I didn't try. Then it was face-up, head-first, which I completely ballsed up and ended up going face-down, feet-first, the only combination which isn't a recognised way of doing anything. Then finally it was the jump. I'm pretty sure I've never jumped off anything more than 2.5 times as big as me before. Though we had been told the correct technique for such a manoeuvre, I found that once I was free-falling panic took over and I flailed my limbs around like an idiot, only just having the presence of mind to tuck them in before impact.

Adding yet more jeopardy to proceedings was the fact that getting out of the plunge pool wasn't without its hazards. Firstly, we were told to defend our face with our hands to avoid eating the opposite wall of the canyon when we surfaced; and second, we were to try to steer right (away from the churning water) and not left, where the down-current would just drag us under again, though there was an instructor on hand to manhandle one out of this predicament if necessary. This happened to me two out of four times.

Finally, we had the opportunity to do some 'fun' jumps off a tame little 3m drop. Those of us who had experience of acrobatics or diving (or at least swimming) were nailing backflips and the like, but I just managed what the instructor called 'the least committed frontflip [he'd] ever seen', followed up by a slightly better effort where I at least rotated enough to hit the water with my arse. Then it was over, and I was mercifully intact (apart from my left contact lens, which is still MIA). You know how sometimes a curry isn't so spicy that you can't eat it, but it's still sufficiently hot that it's not really enjoyable? That's pretty much how I feel about my first (and let's be honest, probably my last) experience of canyoning.

That night we had a barbeque, followed by a night of drinking and partying. Someone took my request to 'surprise me' rather literally, and ordered me a beer float. Thankfully, I didn't vomit.

At the bar there was a dancefloor. I hereby announce my retirement from dancing. I'm 29, it's over, measure me up for my tweed pipe now. As many of you will know, I had a number of issues with dancing even in the prime of my youth. But the real kicker now is that I don't even know any of the tunes anymore (with the notable exception of Gaga, obviously). When some generic-sounding dubstep beat comes in and everyone recognises it and gets excited (as I would for, say, Killing in the name, or, I dunno, The Charleston or something), it's difficult not to feel very, very old. Also, I should point out that it's become a dumb, frat-boy sort of tradition that all the guys (and occasionally the girls) take their shirts off at a Yamagata party, which I regrettably got roped into.

I woke up feeling a little dodgy, which was not ideal, as at 11 I had an appointment with a 42m high bridge and an elastic rope. Bungee jumping is something I've always idly said I'd like to try someday, so when the opportunity actually arose I felt honour-bound to take it. We arrived at the place, signed a disclaimer saying that we weren't pregnant, on drugs, or hungover (it did actually say that), and got weighed. One's weight is then written on the back of one's hand in permanent marker, which I imagine would be quite distressing if one had body-image issues. But I wasn't bothered by the blue '85' identifying me as comfortably the heaviest member of the party - hey, those shoes were pretty heavy...

I was second up, so took my position to watch the first jumper. As the most proficient backflipper of the previous day, she was full of big talk of backflipping off the platform. But when she got up there, she thought better of it, and went for a backwards drop. She leaned back off the edge, her harness being held by the instructor, meaning that she didn't have to make the actual decision to jump herself. He messed with her, holding on past the countdown and then dropping her unexpectedly, causing her to feebly reach out just like Alan Rickman falling off the Nakatomi Tower, which gave us all a laugh. Watching her plummet and rebound back up, and knowing I was next, I felt a wave of excited terror. But it was ok; it was the kind of fun terror one experiences on a rollercoaster is ratcheting up its climb. However, jumper #3 looked genuinely terrified.

With no further ado they switched over to the 'all the pies' rope, and I made my way to the platform, dead man walking style, and got fastened in. I decided I wanted the decision to drop to be mine and mine alone, so went for a classic forward jump. My toes hanging over the edge, the guy advised me to just look at the mountains in the distance (as opposed to the rocky river below) and leap. As this was 8.4 times higher than the jumping PB I set only yesterday, it was quite daunting; one possesses a lot of powerful instincts preventing one from jumping off bridges. He started to count me down, but I didn't feel psyched so I stopped him. Just like Nick Cage listening to Low Rider, I spent a few seconds composing myself, then was good to go. He counted down, and I jumped into the void.

I had intended to spread my arms wide in a majestic swan dive. Predictably, once I was accelerating earthward at 9.81ms-2, my limbs were no longer under my control and I was frantically thrashing at the air, screaming. There was no real jerk at the bottom, possibly because I was heavy enough to give the cord a good old stretch. The rebound back up I actually enjoyed; it felt a bit like the biggest snowboard vert trick of my life. I even had the presence of mind to figure out my orientation relative to the photographer on the bridge and throw her some peace signs. (It came out beautifully, but she was asking 2500yen for 30-odd shots so I told her where she could slot her microSD card.) I did not, however, have the presence of mind to tuck in my T-shirt before the jump, so everyone got to see my pasty belly as I dangled at the bottom. The guy responsible for detaching me at the bottom had been at the bar last night, so this was in fact the second time he'd been subjected to the sight of my gut in just 12 hours. He said to me "You aren't hungover, by any chance?" and due to my elevated levels of adrenaline, I could barely produce a coherent sentence in reply, which probably didn't help my defence.


  1. Hahaha bloody heck! Good on ya for getting stuck right into the XTREME activities! Watched some of the videos on your flickr, dont think there would be any chance of me doing the same.

    Nice blog too, I lolled several times and almost l'mayoed.

  2. Hah, I love your Nic Cage/Lowrider reference!

  3. agree with blairo (marlo? Davo?) best laugh for a while. Think I would stick to the canyoning tho and give the bungee a body swerve.

  4. Good blog today! Watched the bungee videos too - is there any danger of bouncing back up and hitting the bridge? Also is there a video of your turn?