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.