Friday, May 10, 2013

#1. Akita ryokan

Well, I've stretched this out for almost three months, so it's probably about time I brought it to a close.

1. Akita ryokan, October
In her role as social co-president of the Yamagata JETs, Amber organised a group trip up into the mountains of neighbouring Akita. We were to spend a night in a fairly basic self-catered ryokan with onsen. The place was a short drive from Lake Tazawa, which particularly keen readers might remember was the location of the jazziest night of my 2010 summer road trip.

We arrived mid-afternoon, and Amber, her co-president Alyssa, and I did a quick spot of caching around the aforementioned lake before the sun went down. And rather successful it was too: four for four! We then returned to the ryokan where the presidents cooked a monster batch of yakisoba (fried noodles) for the 20-odd of us. Appetites sated, it was time to commence the night of boozing. After an hour or so in the biggest tatami room we had, about a dozen of us took the party to the bath. You see, the USP of this place was that it had mixed onsen. I'm not talking about the little bookable “family onsen” that Amber and I tend to bathe in; these were decent-sized (though still smallish as onsen go) public pools, indoor and out. We didn't have the ryokan to ourselves, but fortunately the outdoor pool was empty, so we claimed it. Let's face it, once 10+ drunk naked foreigners are occupying perhaps 6m² of water, it would take a certain chutzpah for a stranger to intrude.

I suppose for many people reading this, the idea of a single-sex onsen may still be rather daunting. After almost four years in Japan, I am entirely inured to that concept. However, this was uncharted territory for me, and most of my fellow bathers. What is the etiquette in this situation? Where does one look? At first, everyone played it rather conservatively, concealing their sensitive areas with the water, hand towels, or their limbs. Everyone, that is, with the exception of Amber, who made no attempt to hide anything. This may have been a commendably bold act of ice-breaking, but knowing her, she probably just didn't give a shit. Anyway, as time and alcohol consumption progressed, people became more relaxed.

Over the evening, people came and went. It should be noted that quite a few of our party flat-out refused to join the mixed onsen, which is fair enough. However, I stayed for the duration, which amounted to about five hours, only getting out to fetch chocolate covered almonds, dried squid, and more alcohol; I was having a great time. As I like to do with all aspects of my life, I shall now over-analyse why, using one of my beloved bulleted lists.
  • As I've remarked many a time, I really miss the British pub experience. Strange though it may sound, the mixed onsen was perhaps the closest I've come to replicating that feeling in Japan. Nudity aside, this was a long, relaxed evening of gradual intoxication (in contrast to a two-hour nomihodai rampage) with conversation as the primary form of entertainment. It put me in mind of those fondly-remembered Edinburgh IPUBs (friday night drinking sessions with my fellow informatics postgrads). Except with girls, obviously.
  • I must stress that nothing at all untoward occurred in the onsen. That being said, it still somehow felt as if we were breaking some taboos. To me, many of our society's hangups about sex and nudity seem rather pointless and arbitrary. Though I am very happily in a monogamous relationship, I've always been intrigued by the notion of polyamory and free love. While I've made my peace with the way our culture has decided relationships should be conducted, in an “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em” sort of way, I've often thought that if a found myself in an alternative universe where anyone exclusively sleeping with one person for more than a few months was seen as some kind of deviant, I could probably adjust fairly easily. Like in Brave New World – one of several fictional dystopia that I actually think sound kind of golden. So yeah, in some small way, I felt that communal bathing was a step towards that more rational and liberated world.
  • One of the main reasons that I update this blog so infrequently these days is that I've grown accustomed to life in Japan. I rarely feel like I'm experiencing anything alien any more, but this onsen evening was something completely novel to me. Having said that, I don't think we were really experiencing a Japanese custom. As far as I can gather, mixed onsen are mainly the preserve of middle-aged to elderly married couples; I don't think many Japanese youngsters (I reckon I can still consider myself a “youngster” for maybe another fortnight or so) would organise a mixed onsen party of a saturday night.
  • Breasts.

We called it a night at about 1am, by which point I was drunker than I'd been in quite some time. Consequently, I wasn't feeling particularly sociable as the presidents whipped up a megaomelette for breakfast the next morning. As the group disbanded to return to Yamagata, Amber suggested going on a shortish hike up nearby Nyuutou-san (literally “nipple mountain”, so called because of its shape) but I vetoed that plan as I really didn't feel up to the exertion in my hungover state. We therefore scaled back our plan, and set out (once again with Alyssa) to find a cache on top of a smaller hill called Oname-dake, literally "man woman mountain" - what is it with the weird place names around there? It turned out that the road to this place was closed to private vehicles, necessitating a bus ride up a winding mountain road that nearly caused my omelette to make a reappearance.

Once up there, the terrain proved rather tougher than I anticipated. We were soon scrambling over a steep and eerily sterile hillside of volcanic gravel. In my haste to catch the bus, I had neglected to bring any kind of jumper, and it was getting rather breezy. Between the cold, the hangover, and some rogue app that was guzzling my smartphone battery and refusing to die, I was rather ill-equipped for the whole venture. However, I persevered and we made it to the summit, where we were rewarded with a cache and a beautiful view of the autumnal forests. We got a great view of Nyuutou-san too, bringing my total count of nipples seen that weekend to an unusually odd, as well as high, number.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

#2. Kyoto

2. Kyoto, November

I've been to Kyoto a couple of times before. Despite its undeniably impressive abundance of historical and cultural treasures, I must say I've never really taken to the place. One reason, I suppose, is that I'm more interested in the future than the past. Another is that the whole city is a huge tourist trap, and the contrarian hipster in me hates the feeling of being one of the crowd of suckers. Also, the place is a nightmare to get around: all the temples and shrines are around the periphery, and the centre is the standard congested concrete mess of most Japanese cities. But I think there's something more than that. Kyoto reminds me of the prettiest girl in school, who know that people would lavish attention on her without her having to make any effort to be nice to them. So, what's it doing here at the dizzy heights of number two? Well, I think I've finally cracked the secret of a good day out in Kyoto: monkeys.

On a long weekend in November, Amber and I took a little tour through central Japan, mopping up a couple of prefectures that had eluded her on her quest to bag all 47. Kyoto was our final destination, and I'll start the story on the morning of our only full day in the city. In a surprising stroke of luck (for Amber anyway) we'd noticed people setting up a vegetarian festival in a park not five minutes' walk from our ryokan the previous night. So, we started the day with a breakfast of falafel pittas and chick pea curry. I didn't actually mind the absence of meat (and the presence of hippies) too much; the sun was shining, Amber was happy, and any exotic food is a welcome change from rice and soy beans.

Next up was the bamboo grove at Arashiyama. This place was mobbed, and I started to get a little stressed out. If there's something I've learned about myself in recent years, it's that I really hate being in large crowds. Shuffling along at half walking pace, frustratingly unable to get where you want to go, yet also unable to stop for fear of becoming an obstacle... I can't stand it. When it's something like a concert I can accept the crowds as a necessary evil, but when you're at a temple or garden, and the essence of the enjoyment is presumably the tranquility and beauty of the setting, then the crowd defeats the whole purpose of being there, as far as I'm concerned. I'm sure the bamboo would have looked very fetching on another day, but all I can remember is my fury at people who thought that possession of a camera gave them the right to declare 40° wedges of busy thoroughfare no-go zones for several tens of seconds. Amber was one of those people.

Eschewing the temple, we headed into a park where the crowds were substantially thinner and we could enjoy the stunning autumnal colours at our leisure. Noticing that Iwatayama Monkey Park was just across the river, we decided to check it out. I'm so glad we did.

I'm by no means an animal lover, but I find primates endlessly fascinating because of their close evolutionary proximity to Homo sapiens. (Sorry Danny, I feel like I'm encroaching on your territory here.) One of the many things I love about Japan is that they have macaques just roaming around wild, whereas my home country only has boring animals like deer and grouse. These particular macaques were semi-wild, meaning that they were free to come and go as they pleased, but they stuck around because the humans fed them. The place built up the anticipation nicely: once you paid your money you had to walk uphill through a forest, past lots of signs giving you fun monkey facts and reminding you of the rules: not to feed them, make eye contact with them (in case they perceive it as a threat) and not to crouch down near them (I remain unsure as the rationale of this one). As the woods thinned and we came to the top of the hill, we caught our first glimpse of one perched atop a tall tree stump. Soon we were in the thick of the troop, surrounded by literally more simians than you could shake a stick at.

There was a shack selling food to give to the monkeys. The rule was that you could only feed them while you were inside the hut, passing the food out through the barred windows. This led to an amusing role reversal, with crowds of monkeys surrounding a cage of humans. I opted for chestnuts, and I could have have happily handed them to monkeys all day. You weren't supposed to touch the animals, but I did linger with my grip on the nut a few times, like I was flirting with them.

We wandered among the primates, snapping many many photos. I was particularly pleased to get one of a monkey on a scooter. It was mating season, so every once a while a scuffle would break out between males, with much screeching and chasing. We discussed how one would defend oneself in the event of a a macaque attack; we reckoned you could fend one or two off pretty easily, but if five or more ganged up on you you'd be in serious trouble. Eventually we'd had our fill of monkey business and descended back to the riverside.

It was late in the afternoon and getting a little chilly, so we stopped for a warm amasake (a sweet rice drink made from sake but virtually alcohol free), and then bagged a quick cache as the sun went down. Interestingly, the trackable that I gave Amber for Christmas and we deposited in Edinburgh with the instruction to get to Japan is, at the time of writing, in that very cache. Apologies to those unfamiliar with geocaching, to whom the last sentence will have made very little sense.

Then it was back into central Kyoto for an Italian dinner, and out the other side (like I said, all the attractions are on the periphery of the city) to Kiyomizudera, one of Kyoto's most iconic temples. This was the venue of a special raito appu ("light up", i.e. illuminations) event for the autumn foliage. Inevitably, this was also packed to the Sally gunwales, but I didn't object quite so much this time around. I felt that the crowds added a certain buzz to the spectacular surroundings, although this mellowing of my mood may have had something to do with the red wine with dinner and the jar of sake I was now sipping from.

Just one to go! Although, at the rate I'm putting these out, it'll be time for the next countdown pretty soon.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

#3. Baltimore

3. Balimore, August

Summer is conference season for academics like myself, so August saw me going all the way to the University of Maryland for the Tenth International Congress of Neuroethology. I was in the unusually relaxing position of having nothing to present, as my postdoctoral career was but four months old. The conference itself was simultaneously enjoyable and grueling - I find "networking" tough at the best of times, but trying to stay on point all day whilst battling almost the worst jetlag the planet can offer (11 hours) really took it out of me. Anyway, after five days of coffee sipping and lanyard wearing, I had a free day before my flight back, which I spent with the Dawg.

Big Dawg, aka Adrian (he's English, about 5'8", and a Cambridge graduate, but somehow he pulls this moniker off) is a friend of mine from my postgrad days. We used to play poker every week, and he was a keen participant in the heyday of dicecrawls. When I flounced off to Japan, he got a postdoc at Johns Hopkins and relocated, along with his lovely wife Melissa, to Baltimore. Since I'd last seen them, they had taken the curious step of manufacturing another human to live with them. At the risk of inviting further unfounded accusations of man-broodiness, Madeline was a delightful baby, with huge eyes, pudgy little limbs, and - most importantly - a rather quiet disposition.

Our first activity for the day was brunch at a fancy diner. As appears to be standard in the US, the waitress was way too over-familiar for my liking. I was intending for our relationship to be brief, and almost exclusively based around the logistics of exchanging currency for pancakes, so I didn't see how her name was relevant. Of course, the reason for this insincere chumminess is that they are trying to earn a tip. Not having to tip is one of the long list of things I take for granted about Japan, but which I am sure to sorely miss if/when I leave. It's between "affordable sushi" and "politeness". Anyway, I had a calorifically indecent cream cheese monstrosity. It was delicious.

Now, I consider The Wire to be the best TV drama ever made, so I was keen to see first hand some of the grim urban decay that forms the show's backdrop. As these are not the kind of neighbourhoods that it advisable to walk around, it was to be a driving tour. Sadly, it wasn't as much fun as I had hoped. It was hard to shake off the feeling of guilt at being a bunch of middle class Caucasians gawking at poverty for the purposes of, essentially, entertainment. Plus, you couldn't really have a proper gawk because you were in a moving vehicle, and didn't want to be obviously rubbernecking for fear of antagonising someone. It was like going to Mt Fuji but not being allowed to look directly at the peak. Perhaps Madeline has a precocious moral compass, as she started getting restless and we called the whole thing off.

Following afternoon naptime, we went out for dinner in a lively area with lots of trendy bars where young hipsters, rather than crack-addled destitutes, roamed the streets. We were to have the local specialty of crabs. Now, I like to think that life in Japan has made me quite the sophisticated seafood gourmand; I've sampled raw whale, I've tucked into the reproductive organs of still-moving sea urchins, I've even quaffed back living fish. However, prior to this evening I had never attempted to shell a crab. The waiter (Mark) covered our entire table with butchers paper, and issued us each with a plastic knife, a wooden mallet, and no plate. Some time later, he brought us a bucket containing a dozen smallish crustaceans (they didn't have the big ones in that day) coated in spices. Adrian then tutored me in the art of separating the tasty white muscle from the nasty internal organs and inedible shell, using a variety of moves including hitting the knife with the mallet, like a sculptor. It was a tricky business, but by my fourth crab I think I was getting the hang of it. It's a very labour-intensive way to eat, but I think the effort of getting to the meat is part of the fun. In this regard, I'd say crabs are like pistachio nuts taken to the next level.

Melissa took Madeline home, leaving Adrian and I to do some manly drinking. While mass-produced American lagers are bland and uninspiring ("Why is Budweiser like making love in a canoe?"), there seems to be a burgeoning indie craft beer industry these days. We sampled quite a few of these, like the hipster ponces we are. It was just like old times, when we'd go to the pub after work on a friday (and more often than not, stay there until closing time), but with one significant change for the worse. We were sitting at the bar, and this being America, every time we bought a drink we had to put a dollar bill down in front of us, as a tip. At some point - not immediately, but within a few minutes - the barmaid who had served us would come by and pick it up. This, more than the other tipping customs, made me uncomfortable; I felt like I may as well just tuck the note into her underwear, while lighting my cigar with another one. In both Britain and Japan, there seems to be an understanding that while money changing hands is a perfectly reasonable and necessary, there is something slightly unseemly about it, and thus it requires to be handled a degree of discretion. Rather like bodily functions, I suppose. Thus, to my Anglo-Oriental sensibilities, this vulgar tipping system was tantamount to squatting on the bar and taking a shit.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

#4. The dicecrawl

A problem with this top-x format that I've settled on is that it under-represents longer periods of general, low-level fun; it's the singles rather than the album chart. For instance, snowboarding in Yamagata has never made any of these lists, despite being an activity that has brought me countless hours of enjoyment. So I hope my UK friends and family will understand this bug/feature, and not feel too affronted by the low showing of my festive trip home. Furthermore, I have to pick I single day (I don't make the rules! Wait...), so I'm going with...

4. Edinburgh dicecrawl, January
Right, this is going to require some backstory. Back in the final year of my undergrad degree, I was out drinking with a couple of mates (Adam and Aidan, as I recall). For reasons that are lost to history, I had a dice in my pocket. (I know the singular is "die", just as I know "data" is actually the plural of "datum". I don't care.) We had the idea that we should mix things up my letting the dice decide where we would drink next: odd we turn left, even right; odd we skip this bar, even we go in, and so on. It would be like The Dice Man, but hopefully with less rape and murder, we reasoned. And so the dicecrawl was born. Over my postgrad career it became a semi-regular event, and it grew both in terms of participation and complexity. At its zenith/nadir, we had about a dozen crawlers ordering dice-dictated drinks from a 6x6 table, with provision for boarding buses if the dice commanded it.

When I was back in my old stomping ground over New Year, we decided to have a crawl for old times' sake. Being a rather improvised affair, we would scale things back, with a fairly simple rule set and a crew of just five hardened dicecrawl veterans. Well, four plus Graham. We met for lunch in a Thai restaurant in Newington and hashed out the details over satay sticks and pad thai. Now, perhaps the most vociferous champion of the crawl is Danny, who has a PhD in maths. The problem with letting someone like him be in charge is that he is unable to resist the temptation to add sub-games, bonus tables, and meta-rules (rules that allow the rules to change) until the whole thing becomes impossible to follow when stone cold sober, never mind at pub number eight. He succeeded in getting into the rules a soft drinks submenu, a pub snacks submenu, and - most surprisingly of all - a rule about having to buy things from any bakeries that we passed, before we wrested the jotter away from him. The last one actually only came into play once (bakeries don't tend to stay open very late into the evening), and resulted in us sharing some tasty millionaire's shortbread.

We set out. The dice initially took us south, directly away from the city centre but towards where most of us had lived for much of the latter half of the of 00s. The first port of call was our old haunt The Old Bell. Thankfully, the dice turned us around and we were headed back into town after that. One of the things I like about the dicecrawl is the friendly arguments that inevitably ensue about when it is acceptable to overrule the dice, e.g. if one is heading for a rough council estate or a pub-barren residential wasteland (or simply walking around in circles). I tend to play things pretty much by the book, and for that reason we found ourselves pointlessly bouncing around the Meadows and the swanky new Quartermile development for about half an hour as the sun went down.

Thankfully the six-sided gods smiled on us then, and took us into the pub motherlode of the Grassmarket. Actually, coming down the Vennel, with the Castle in front of us looking imposing and majestic in the moonlight, is probably the most memorable image of my whole trip home. We spent quite some time there, losing founder-member Adam (insert whip noise and under-the-thumb gesture) but picking up Northern Irish mentalist Joy. Another nice feature of a randomised pub crawl is the element of jeopardy that comes from the chance of having to enter a rough pub that a bunch of middle class ponces like ourselves would never normally dream of going to, and having to order something weird like two lagers, a port, a Smirnoff Ice, and a tea. No dicecrawl is complete without this experience, and it came in the shape of "Andersons" on Lothian Road. We huddled awkwardly around a large cask (we were literally and figuratively over a barrel), and drank up as quickly as we could while everyone stared at us. We ended the night drunkenly playing a kind of charades/articulate/pictionary hybrid and eating chili flavour Nobby's Nuts (which I contend are the most delicious and addictive foodstuff commercially available in the UK) in the Merlin of Morningside, the dice having taken us on a pleasing U-shaped soujourn in and out of town. I can't think of a better way to spend a January day in Edinburgh.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The biannual countdown: #5. Oshima

Or, “Sixmonth none the richer”

What's better than a top ten? Two top fives! Rather than face the daunting backlog of documenting my ten highlights of the past year come August, I've decided to give you my five best days of the first half of my fourth year in Japan, i.e. the period from August 2012 to January 2013 (inclusive). And since the blog is otherwise dormant, I may as well stretch it out into five separate posts. Strap in!

5. Oshima, October
On a bit of a whim, Amber and I ventured out to Oshima (literally, “big island” - inspired naming there, guys), the most proximal of a chain of volcanic islands that stretches south for hundreds of miles into the Pacific. (Interestingly, these are all technically part of Tokyo prefecture. If only Japan embraced the concept of pub quizzes more, I feel sure this fact would be well worth knowing.) Perhaps the most notable thing about Oshima is that its volcano is where the eponymous fictional monster is entombed in The Return of Godzilla.

It was very much a trip of two halves, the first of which was an unmitigated debacle. We arrived by overnight ferry from Yokohama, which entailed sleeping as best we could on a big communal floor. Stumbling bleary-eyed off the boat at 6am, it took me a while to realise that we were not at the main port. It turns out they switch the port according to the weather/tidal conditions, and we were at some nowhere outpost on the north of the island, with an hour to wait for the next bus to civilisation. However, there were several cats, so Amber was happy.

Once we finally made it to the island's main settlement, we set off for a refreshing morning onsen. I should point out that it was raining fairly heavily by this point. The first place we went to didn't open until 1pm, but we expected as much from our Wikitravel research. However, when the other one turned out to be closed all month for maintenance, it came as a crushing blow. There was nothing for it but to trudge back into town in search of breakfast.

This too proved to be more of a challenge that we'd anticipated. Nothing in the tiny sleepy town was open yet. Most shockingly of all, the entire island appeared to be devoid of konbini (convenience stores). Living in Japan, one gets very accustomed to being able to buy noodle sandwiches, crème brulees, nasty fried chicken, or pornography, 24 hours a day at your local 7-11 or Family Mart. We eventually decided to give up on breakfast and find the campsite to pitch our tent.

The place Google Maps led us to looked like it might have been a campsite at one point, but didn't give any strong indication of fulfilling that role any longer. Certainly, no-one was camping there. Dejected, we walked back, once again, to the ferry terminal that we hadn't arrived at. Spirits were low and tempers were getting frayed. See, this is what happens when you're spontaneous and neglect to plan things properly, I pointed out to Amber, helpfully. Having arrived at the ungodly hour of 6am, it was now approaching noon, and we had achieved exactly nothing. We needed to get it together, and step one was sorting out transport.

After fruitless enquiries at a couple of car rental places, we found a friendly couple hiring out 50cc scooters. They had none left (naturally), but would have some from 2pm onwards. They recommended a soba restaurant that we hit up for lunch in the meantime, and then we had time for a quick dip in the now open aforementioned onsen. The sun had even come out. Things were starting to look up.

We picked up the scooters, and with no time to lose, sped (or rather, travelled at a maximum of about 55km/h) around the coast to a campsite that the helpful motorcycle purveyors assured us actually existed. With just a few precious hours of daylight left, we erected the tent with what I felt was commendable efficiency, and set off uphill towards the volcanic peak that dominates the entire centre of the island. The road became became steadily less and less suitable for our puny vehicles, so when it became no more than an ill-defined volcanic grit dirt track, we dismounted and continued on foot.

The scenery was truly astonishing. We found ourselves in the volcano's lava field, a barren wasteland of sharp black rocks. Neither my words here nor the photos I took can do justice to the vista we saw. It was just so dead and empty, it was easy to imagine that we were on an alien world, or perhaps Earth millions of years ago. We were on the rim of the outer crater, giving us a clear sight of the central peak. Sadly, the sun was setting so there was no way we could go for a closer look. Back on the scooters, we took a circuitous coastal route through the dusk to the campsite. On the way we stopped off at the closest thing we could find to a supermarket. It was a weird little independent place, stocking few fresh goods because of the island's isolation. I felt like we were buying “provisions”, rather than “food”; it reminded me of the little shop in the static caravan park of my childhood family holidays. Then it was back to the tent with our haul for a feast of cheese, crackers, crisps, and booze, and then an early night.

We awoke bright and early, rapidly packed up the tent, and had time for a power hike up to the peak that had eluded us the previous day, before dropping off the bikes and getting the 10:50 hydrofoil that whisked us back to Tokyo in time for lunch.