Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The annual countdown, part 3.2

7. Hakone, June
To mark our first anniversary, Amber rented a scooter and together we rode to the popular onsen resort of Hakone, at the opposite end of Kanagawa prefecture. Oh, "btw", I bought a 50cc scooter when I came down here. It's awesome.

Late June is smack-dab in the middle of tsuyu (rainy season), so just as on that fateful climb up Mt Asahi a year previously, we got soaked on the way there. To make matters worse, one of us forgot to bring waterproof trousers (clue: it wasn't me). But conditions were somewhat better the next day, which was merely dull and overcast but largely dry.

First on the agenda was a trip to Owakudani (literally, "great boiling valley"), where steam and sulphurous vapour erupt from the ground. Coming from Yamagata, Amber and I are no strangers to the otherworldly spectacle of steamy barren hills and the stench of brimstone, but this place had a clever gimmick: kurotamago ("black eggs"). They hard-boil eggs right there in the spring water, where a chemical reaction turns the shells black. Legend (or possibly just marketing) has it that each egg will add seven years to one's life. I had two.

Next we rode down the mountain to an open-air sculpture... museum? Gallery? Whatever you call it, the lush green mountainside made for a striking backdrop to the various quirky installations. As ever, I found that the key to enjoying modern art is just to not take it too seriously.

The place had a special hall devoted to Picasso. Realising that the collection could only have represented a tiny fraction of his life's output, I was struck by how prolific the guy must have been. But to be honest, some of the stuff was a bit rubbish. It looks like for every Guernica, he must have made several hundred dodgy bowls. One kind of wonders why he bothered with all the filler.

By this point it was well into the afternoon, so we grabbed some soba by the lake, took in a quick shrine, bagged a cache, and rode back to our guesthouse. We decided that we'd hit an izakaya for our evening's entertainment, but it was now sunday night in a small town, and pickings were slim. We ended up just stocking up on booze and otsumami (drinking snacks - despite Amber's protestations, I insisted on some dried squid) and taking the party back home. We rounded off the night with another slightly boozy bath in the bookable private onsen.

6. The Born This Way Ball, May
Regular readers will be able to imagine how excited I was about this one. Despite all the upheaval of moving down south, I'd managed to be on the ball enough to snap up a couple of tickets for one of Ms Germanotta's sell-out shows at the Saitama Super Arena, among the first few dates of the still ongoing world tour.

I have to say, I was a little disappointed in some respects. I found Gaga's inter-song banter to be rather weak; her gushing about how much she loves all her little monsters (for the uninitiated, that's the intensely patronising term she uses to refer to her fans) just came across as insincere and tedious. I have no doubt that Holden Caulfield would have denounced her as a goddamn phoney.

I guess the underlying problem was that I'd really rather have been in 2010 and at the Monster Ball. I'm still unconvinced by the direction she's gone with the latest album. I wish she'd just stick to making amazing pop songs rather than trying to be some saviour of the downtrodden; I'm pretty sure The Gays had been doing alright before she came along to reassure them that they had indeed been born that way. And getting back to the concert I'm supposed to be talking about, the problem was that some of the big hits from The Fame / The Fame Monster, being fairly straightforward upbeat party tunes (Just Dance, Poker Face, Telephone, etc), weren't really in keeping with the whole overwrought rock opera aesthetic of the show. It seemed that she felt the need to ironically repackage them, almost as if she was trying to distance herself from her more radio-friendly roots, which I thought was a real shame.

But these are minor complaints really. In terms of spectacle and vocal performance it was difficult to fault the show at all. She really is a pro. And the atmosphere of being one of the 32000-strong crowd, all screaming "Ju-das! Ju-da-a-as!" in unison was every bit as awesome as I'd hoped.

The night came to a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion, however, after Amber and I enjoyed a rather too leisurely post-gig meal and then somehow got on the wrong train. Thus, we found ourselves in "Hiratsuka" at 1am, with no plausible way back to Zushi. In this situation, there are a couple of things one can do. The truly hardcore would just karaoke through the night. However, since neither Amber nor I is a crackhead, we instead went to a 24-hour "manga cafe". These are weird glorified internet cafes where one rents a semi-private booth with a computer. I'm not sure if anyone actually uses these places for their ostensible functions of reading comics or playing computer games, because their primary purpose appears to be cheap overnight crashing.

That's what we were there to do, so I got into my individual booth and curled up with my head under the computer (where it was slightly darker) and had 4 hours of fairly poor sleep until we could catch the first train. Not a great way to spend the night, but at least that's a Japanese rite-of-passage ticked off. And hey, it beats sleeping in a car park.

5. Yuza beach party, July
As an unofficial goodbye bash for the departing Yamagata JETs, a beach party was organised up in the very north-west corner of the prefecture. There wasn't anything particularly remarkable about the shindig, but it was thoroughly enjoyable simply because it ticked all the boxes of what one looks for in a beach party. You probably don't think I have a literal beach party checklist, but that's where you're wrong.

Good weather: Dry, blue skies and not too hot, maybe just pushing the 30deg mark. After the gorgeous sunset (we were on the west coast) it became cool enough to necessitate a jumper. There was a stiffer-than-ideal breeze though, so we pitched our tent in the lee of a refreshment stand. This was a little problematic when the proprietors set up shop at 7 the next morning, and requested - not unreasonably - that we relocate.

Well-equipped: Impressively, someone had managed to borrow a couple of proper marquees from their board of education or something, so these served as party headquarters. Someone else had brought an honest-to-goodness hammock which she strung up in the (empty) lifeguard stand. I don't know about you, but sometimes I like to just drop out of social gatherings for 15 minutes of quiet introspection, and the hammock made for an excellent place to do that.

Amber and I brought a tent each, meaning that we had a decoy, substantially boosting our chances of having the remaining one to ourselves. But the item I was most pleased about bringing was my new favourite gadget: my solar panel that ensures I will have internet and GPS wherever I go (as long as it's sunny).

Aquatic antics: I wouldn't go so far as to say the sea was warm, but it was certainly a whole lot more pleasant than any outdoor swimming experience of my childhood in the UK. There were some jellyfish floating around, but thankfully these were few enough that they could be spotted and avoided fairly easily; it just gave the otherwise carefree frolicking a slight element of jeopardy.

Food and drink: We had ample barbeque capacity, though the aforementioned wind did make getting the things lit a bit of a challenge. However, there is nothing blokes enjoy more than discussing how to start a fire in tricky conditions. We had ice boxes well stocked with drinks, so there was never a queue for the summertime booze. And in the morning, the yakisoba and ice cream of the also aforementioned refreshment stand made for a delicious, if not nutritious, breakfast substitute.

Campfire: Everyone loves a fire. Not only does it provide heat and warmth, but beach-combing for fuel is a fun activity too. Late in the evening, Amber and I went for a stroll down the beach to swig J├Ągermeister and look for shooting stars (I think I actually saw one), and when we returned dragging a huge piece of driftwood, we were campfire heroes.

Good company: It was a nice size of group - around 25 maybe - and there weren't any real dicks among them, so that was nice. After the massive influx of newbies last year, there aren't actually that many leaving us this summer, so there was less of that bittersweet feeling that often taints JET events around that time of year.

That's it for this batch! Stay tuned for the top... um... four.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The annual countdown, part 3.1

Well, I said I'd come out of retirement for my now-customary rundown of the year's personal highlights, so here I am.

I should warn you right now that this list will be quite Amber-heavy. I shall endeavour to keep the mushiness to an absolute minimum, but I fear it may still end up being the kind of document that would make the celibate Zen-master me of 2009 want to punch the current me in the face. So, please have your sick bags and insulin at the ready, and let's go!

10. Shirabu Onsen ryokan, February
As I sit here in the 30 degree evening heat, it's hard to imagine the metres of snow that blanketed southern Yamagata for this weekend of wintry revelry. On the friday night a large group of us converged on the Yonezawa snow lantern festival. I wasn't in the best of moods due to: a mysterious ache in my little toe, one member of the party's annoying religious taboos, Amber's whining about the state of my house, Amber's challenging dietary requirements (a perennial irritation), and Amber's negligent approach to forward planning. We ended up having one of our more severe fallings out.

The next day everyone went ski-ing / boarding at Tengendai, but I sat it out due to my aforementioned foot issue. To this day I have no idea what that was all about. I rendezvoused with the group and we checked into a ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse) in a little onsen village high in the mountains. We had time for a quick bathe before dinner. An outdoor pool, surrounded by walls of snow taller than me, on a still winter's night - onsen experiences don't get much better than that. My only complaint was that it was single sex, so I couldn't share the moment with Amber (who was, thankfully, speaking to me again by this point).

We donned our yukata and took our places in the dining room. Actually, I donned my new samue - how many opportunities would I get to wear the thing? Ryokans seem to pride themselves on just how complex they can make a meal, and they didn't let themselves down with dinner: a bewildering but mostly delicious selection of seafood, pickles, and mountain vegetables; some raw, some cooked, and some transitioning between those states before our eyes thanks to individual candle-powered rudimentary stoves.

Eventually we retired to the biggest room we had access to for an evening of drinking games. With our inside knowledge of each other's embarrassing secrets, Amber and I ended up in an amusing kind of mutually assured destruction ("Never have I ever shat myself in the last year"). As the game wound down, we got wind that there was a small private 'family' onsen on the premises, which some of the other couples had been using for some more intimate bathing, so Amber and I ended the night with a drunken bath.

9. Sokendai interview, December
Sitting on the shink in my suit on a friday morning, on my way down to the Tokyo area for a 3pm job interview, I was obviously quite nervous. But given my prodigious capacity for stress, I was actually remarkably calm. I didn't even fret over the content of the 45 min talk I was about to give, my first scientific presentation in well over two years. Perhaps had I fully grasped that I wasn't applying for a postdoc, but rather a faculty position, I would have been somewhat more anxious.

I arrived with loads of time to spare, so I paced edgily around the chilly, overcast campus for a while, receiving good luck messages from various friends. A particularly cute bit of well-wishing from Amber brought a lump to my throat. Around 2:30 I headed in, meeting my boss for the first time. We chatted briefly (including a little in Japanese, as a test) before he left me to set up for my seminar.

My presentation went smoothly, and none of the questions at the end gave me any serious problems. I surprised myself at one point by sketching a circuit diagram on the whiteboard; after two years of mental atrophe, apparently I still had it. Then it was time for the private interview section. I didn't attempt to bullshit at all: yes, I only have one respectable publication. No, I don't have any more publishable data in my locker. No, I don't have a strong background in biology. Yes, I reckon I could build my own experimental rig.

When it was over, I felt euphoric. Of course, a large part of this was just the relief of having got through it, but I also felt I could hold my head high in the knowledge that I had given it my best shot. I was thinking these things as I walked down the hill from the institute to the bus stop, at which point I looked out across Sagami Bay and saw a truly majestic sunset over Mt Fuji. The mist of the afternoon had acted as Mother Nature's spoiler alert to ensure my optimal enjoyment of this breathtakingly beautiful vista. I'm not a spiritual man, but I was very tempted to see this as a sign.

On the train back home I treated myself to a posh bento, which I only realised was self-heating as I polished off the last few morsels of rice and noticed the unaccounted-for volume and mass of the chemical pack under the bottom of the tray. I washed this down with beer, sake, and whisky, leading me to rebrand the vehicle a drinkansen.

8. Takamatsu, April
Amber's parents came to visit around Golden Week this spring. As part of her ongoing mission to visit all 47 prefectures of Japan, she decided to take them on a tour of Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands. I tagged along for a couple of days.

The day I've selected was my third and final day with the Mezbourians, so I was over the initial stress of meeting the parents. I think I'd been reasonably charming, even when Amber deliberately tried to sabotage me by steering the conversation to politics. (Her mum is a local politician; I'm an anarcho-capitalist.) I did however seem to lose points for being "afraid" of pigeons, i.e. not wanting to have the filthy vermin perching on my limbs.

Anyway! The destination for the morning was Yashima, a small coastal mountain with a shrine at its summit. The shrine's gimmick was tanuki - the place was full of idols of the supposedly magical raccoon-like creatures. I'd introduced Mr and Mrs M to geocaching earlier in the weekend, and they'd really taken to it, so I was pleased to find a cache within the temple complex. It led us to a kind of terrace with a sharp drop overlooking the city. This place, the cache information told us, was the venue for a quaint custom whereby one would purchase a stack of brittle clay disks and hurl them over the cliff edge. It was only once we'd exhausted our arsenal that we walked along a little further and found a special clay-tossing zone marked out, complete with hoops to aim for. Oops.

Next on the agenda was an open-air museum at the bottom of the mountain, where historical buildings from all over Shikoku had been dismantled and reconstructed into a (probably very anachronistic) village. As I've mentioned many times on this blog, I find it very difficult to get excited about history. But this place captured my imagination in a way that countless other museums have failed to. Actually walking around the buildings and touching the millstones and soy... um... flagons? brought it home to me that this was actually how people lived just a couple of centuries ago, and gave me some real respect for their industriousness. Papa Mezbourian is a retired engineer, and I feel I bonded with him by puzzling over the workings of various contraptions. The sugar cane press was a highlight.

Takamatsu is famed for its udon (thick wheat noodles), which we hadn't yet sampled, so we rectified that situation at lunch. Amber's dad, being a northern gentleman of a certain age, has quite a no-nonsense approach to food, so I was a little concerned about how he would take to the noodly broth. The previous night I'd taken them to a fairly fancy sushi place, where he'd declared that he wouldn't eat any raw fish, and didn't fancy any grilled eel either, thank you very much. His fairer half, meanwhile, was relishing the experience of taking her life in her hands with the fugu (blowfish) sashimi platter. I eventually got him sorted out with some cooked scallops.

But there was no need to worry on this occasion. Although he eschewed the dashi (on account of it smelling like "wet dog"), he seemed to enjoy the starchy stodge of the udon and pronounced it delicious. Job's a good 'un.

Stay tuned, I can see this being a four-parter.