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 Jägermeister 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.