Saturday, August 14, 2010

Recently.

In recent history...

In June I started Aikido. I met a friend at Leafcup, my work, who had been doing Aikido for a year. He explained it a bit more to me, and I found it interesting. I went to a couple of beginner's lessons, and learnt quite a bit.

When I came to Japan, I had thought to myself that it would be cool to do some martial arts, but I hadn't thought too thoroughly about it. Meeting Andy, however, was an interesting turn of events. He had joined a very difficult course, called the Senshusei course (Senshusei meaning 'Specialists'). This course was designed by Shioda Gozo, the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido, to train the Tokyo Riot Police. It started in 1957 and was known for its difficulty, despite assuming no former knowledge of Aikido.

The course was opened to International Participants around 1991. It starts April 1st of each year, and finishes March 1, of the next year. The Senshusei course is run at the Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. This is the main Headquarters for all Yoshinkan Aikido, and is the base for the leader of the style, and many different masters. The course itself is taught by many Senseis, all Masters in Aikido.

Unfortunately, however, I started the course in July, as a special entrant. Many international students had dropped out of the course, for many reasons, and since I had been so interested in Aikido and training so hard, Kancho offered me the chance to join. This was a very special offer, and I accepted, but there was a catch... because I was starting 4 months after most participants, I had to attend extra training, to catch up to the rest of the participants.

Accordingly, every week I am at the dojo for 12 hours on Tuesday and Thursday, 14 hours on Wednesday and Friday, and 8 hours on Saturday. In comparison, normal Senshusei students spend 5 hours at the dojo on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7 hours on Wednesdays and Fridays, and 5 hours on Saturday.

Also, a lot of this time is training, and if not training, it is spent cleaning. For example, on a Wednesday, I arrive at 6:30 and clean. I start training at 7-8, then 8:30-9:30, then 10-11:30, then 12:30-2, then 3-4, then 6:30-8:30. I must be in Seiza 5 minutes before each class, even though I cannot sit this way, and after each class we must sweep.

Needless to say, I don't have much time to work with this schedule, but fortunately my cousin, Blair, is so generous and doesn't charge me rent. I also take my dinner for lunch for the next day, as after each day, all I am really interested in doing is sleeping, and food for the next day is so important, since the days are so exhausting.

However, I am learning a lot of Aikido, and even though it is exceedingly difficult sometimes, I do enjoy it. I also study Aikido from DVDs in my spare time, so that I can perform techniques perfectly.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hanami Party No. 1

Saturday, the third of April, a striking day.

Approximately 12:30 I was had just started pacing around in the kitchen, trying to decide what I would eat for lunch. Right on cue, Blair Thomson called, asking if I was free. "Yes... why?" I responded. "Come to a hanami party!"

"No worries."

My lunch died this day well before its time, and for this, I mourn. I walked to the nearby Shinagawa station, carrying a jacket for myself, as well as one for Blair, as he predicted a cold afternoon, despite the warm ambient temperature at the time of his call. Taking the familiar Yamanote line to Shibuya, I met Blair. Together we jumped the next train to Harajuku, another station along 'my' Yamanote line. 'Jumped' may not be a good word to use there, as the train was incredibly full; a more accurate verb would be 'pushed' or 'shoved.'

Arriving at Harajuku, one thing was immediately apparent; everyone in this city had decided that today was the best day for a hanami party. There was a line simply to start climbing the stairs from the platform, and this line continued throughout the entire train station, and only began to dissipate around 100 metres after the station itself finished. You may consider this 'bad,' but the mass of arrivals had forced the line going onto the platform to be single file, and it moved far slower than the 'exit' line ever could.

Our goal was to meet some friends of Blair's, and some friends of theirs, et cetera. Accordingly, we resolutely marched towards Yoyogi Park, amidst the masses. As we exited the station proper, I heard a strange sound. I shall attempt to describe it to you: "BEN."

This was strange, because we were in the middle of a veritable army of Japanese, sure my hair looks funny, but I did not think I stuck out that much. To exasperate my surprise, I really do not know that many people in this country, so what the heck? Soon enough an answer appeared, a customer of Leafcup, an English communication cafe I worked for, had noticed me. At the time, it was nice, and talking to him was fun, but later on I was even more grateful for this chance encounter.

Together we marched towards Yoyogi Park. As we walked, I was interested to find that Harajuku was the closest station to this park, not the more logical 'Yoyogi station.' Whilst we walked, Hiroshi and his friend invited us to join them at their hanami party, which unfortunately Blair and I had to decline, due to our impending meeting with his associates.

Walking through the park, the sheer number of people shocked me. On both sides of the path we tread, were groups of people seated on blue tarps, eating and enjoying the beautiful day. Nevertheless, this did not even compare with the wall of people marching with us along the path. I remember almost daring myself to jump on top of the nearest person and see if they would help me crowd surf all the way there. I have photos of this event, but until I either get my website working, or decipher a photo blog website, they shall remain displayed only on Facebook. In fact, they are not even on there... yet.

Our march ceased at what appeared to be a toilet block, located close to a pond, approximately the park's centre. Hiroshi greeted some more of his compatriots here, who again offered us a seat at their upcoming celebration. We repeated our, now quite practised, declination speech, but said we would wait with them to see which party would find its remaining members first. Blair attempted to hasten this process with a myriad of phone calls to his friend, attempting to locate their group. Unfortunately, our success was far from assured.

Whilst we waited, there was a group of five or seven Japanese young people, I cannot recall the exact number, practising a dance right there in the middle of the park. I was so impressed, not only that they were quite good, but also they were brave enough to, so shamelessly, practise this dance in such a public place. Whilst I attempted to sneak photos of them, I was informed by my companions that, not only was this common, but that they would be overjoyed to notice their momentary stardom, and would laugh at my surreptitious paparazzi behaviour.

Soon enough Hiroshi and his friends decided to go for quick turn about the 'immediate' vicinity, in a visual search of their remaining companions. I say 'immediate' here, as this seemed to imply quite a decent walk, as we were surrounded on every side by beautiful cherry blossoms, innumerable Japanese people, and blue tarpaulin as far as the eye could see.

Farewelling them for the time being, Blair and I found a seat on the edge of a nearby fountain, deciding to at least sit and have something to drink whilst we waited for his friends. Unfortunately, Softbank, the company with whom we both had mobile phones, allowed very little reception in the area, and we had issues with communication. Pondering our options, Hiroshi and his friends arrived and gave us the answer. They had not found their friends, and accordingly we all waited together on the edge of this fountain, eating a little and drinking a little more.

Soon enough more friends of Hiroshi arrived, one of which had a bag in which was situated the cutest dog I have ever seen. Please see photos.

Time, it seemed, was intent on marching on, and far too soon, division struck our group a decisive blow.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bargaining.

I hope I remember never to comment on the proximity of my posts to the present. Historically, such comments have shown 100% correlation to further delay in blog posts.

Either that or I am just slack.

This post is a comment on Friday, the 2nd of April.

On this day, I found myself in Shibuya with Blair, who had to perform some tasks at a nearby bank. I had been meaning to get batteries for my camera, and accordingly I requested he point me in the correct direction. Blair guided me to three different electronics shops, all in close proximity, surrounding Shibuya crossing. It has been said that Shibuya Crossing is the busiest in the world, I have not visited any of the other contenders, but I can vouch for its... busyness.

The first store I visited was 'Labi,' apparently the biggest of my 3 options. Finding rechargeable batteries was not as easy as I may have first imagined, as it appears this did not qualify as important enough to place on their shop diagram. Following 15 minutes of fruitless exploration in this 8 level electronics store, I asked one of the staff, who directed me to the correct location.

Upon a successful discovery of my prize, I inspected my options. ¥3500 was the average price of a battery charger with four AA batteries. My Mummy always trained me in the art of not simply spending my money, but getting the most from what I have. Accordingly, I took note of the price, and journeyed on to the second store, Bic Camera. To my dismay, I found it to be another multilevel electronics store. As I ascended the staircase to level 2, I saw something out of the corner of my eye...

Relieved to find the rechargeable batteries section with such ease, I inspected my options. I discovered a very similar spread of supplies, but markedly cheaper, around ¥3100. At this point, you may be tempted to think that I simply made my purchase and was done. You would be wrong, there were three stores, remember? I made use of the camera function on my mobile phone, and took several pictures of my preferred options, and headed for the third store.

Blair had only told me the directions to this third store, as it was on the other side of Shibuya Crossing, and we had just missed the lights. Therefore, I explored the way he had indicated, but to no avail. After an extensive search, I deduced that this third store was not open, or had permanently closed. The large rolling metal doors, painted with electronic goods, and in the exact location described to me supported this.

"Well now you just went and bought the stuff from that second store, right?"

Nope.

From grade 1, the start of my schooling, I was taught Japanese. This continued for a total of nine years, most of it with Mrs Carter. You would think that after such a long time, combined with living in Japan for almost a month by this time, my skill in Japanese would be quite respectable. If you were thinking that, along with the last 2 such statements I made, you would be wrong again. Three times now, shame on you.

Thus, armed with my photos, confidence, and such miniscule skill in Japanese that it would make Mrs Carter faint, I marched back to Labi, store number one. Finding a (very unfortunate) staff member around the batteries, I proceeded to point out my preferred pack, containing a Panasonic charger and some batteries. I then showed him the photo from Bic Camera. I then explained, in broken Japanese, how Bic Camera was cheaper, and they were expensive.

This last phase of my plan took longest. Eventually, we came to an understanding, and my victim spoke quickly into a microphone attached to his lapel. He then led me to a counter, with purchase in hand. Using a calculator, he showed me that the store was willing to part with my charger for ¥100 less than Bic Camera's price. I made one last concerted effort to increase this margin, without success.

"Crazy, this guy is crazy," you are no doubt thinking to yourself. Oh reader, you could not be more correct.

Epilogue:
Purchase in hand, I went to find Blair. A more difficult task than you would imagine. He had called and told me he was inside a certain bank at Shibuya Crossing, whose name I cannot recall. Shibuya Crossing is surrounded by many shops, so I walked into the middle of the crosswalk, and on my toes, peered around. Spying my goal, I headed over and started to explore in the bank. After checking all of the first and second level, even walking into areas where I most likely was not welcome, I decided that this was not the place.

Calling Blair, he insisted he was inside the bank, with which I vehemently disagreed. After some quick problem solving, we both deduced that we were in fact inside different branches of the same bank. Again waiting at the lights and heading to the centre of Shibuya Crossing, I spied another branch, and resolutely headed for it. On my way there, I accidentally ran it to Blair, almost literally. Apparently, I had been heading towards a third branch of the same bank.

Three branches of the same bank, within 100 metres of each other!

Even now, 20 days after this event, I cannot recall a time where Blair has laughed harder, than at my retelling of my latest conquest purchase.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Beach

Some movie or famous person must have once said something like this: We are fast catching the present!

If not, you saw it here first, folks. This post refers to the 30th of March, an interesting day. On the 29th of March, my host family, Blair Thomson and his wife Sachiko, along with their two children, arrived home from their respective holidays. On this, their first full day back in Tokyo, Blair and Sachi decided it would be nice to take a trip to the beach!

We left at around 12:30pm, to catch a bus from Shinagawa to Odaiba, the closest access to salt water from our current location. We arrived at a nice hotel, and made our way across suspended walkways and courtyards towards some cafes and the sand. It was unusual to be walking over 50 metres in the air, looking down at the water of Tokyo bay. Please refer to the following two photos.

One view over Tokyo Bay.


Turning further North, another photo.

I knew, when Blair informed me of our goal to arrive at the beach, that it would not be the same beach one would experience living on the Gold Coast. This certainly drove the point home. We found a nice Italian restaurant slightly further along the walk from this photo. Since I arrived in Japan, 26 days before this post, I have eaten more Italian than almost half a year on the Gold Coast. Please do not read that as a complaint, there are very few meals I have had in this country that I have not thoroughly enjoyed, interesting observation though.

After lunch, we journey down to bury our feet in the sand, or at least the Japanese version of that. If you had found the extreme difference between the beach on the Gold Coast and that of Tokyo Bay shocking before, these next photos may drive you over the edge.

A photo looking North

And then rotating to look west...

Then south...

And then turning...

A little to the east, I think.

Even though I was shocked to think this is the 'beach' that many in Tokyo would grow up to know, this is easily one of the world's largest cities, and one that is constantly growing. The land I was standing on when I took this photo was once the wild sea, a fascinating experience.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Job Interviews in Pretty Parks!

I am still behind, chronologically, on blog posts. This post refers to Friday, the 26th of March.

Today I had a job interview. I have been having quite a large number of these recently, as there are plenty of tasks native English speakers can apply for, no matter what your life experience. The first of these interviews was to work in an English conversation cafe. There are many of these style places around, so I shall describe it to you.

When I say 'cafe,' I mean a building owned by this business, which generally contains a couple of tables surrounded by a decent number of chairs. The other important aspect of these places is an area where teachers and students alike can forage for themselves some tea and/or coffee. These jobs are part time, and only require you to be a native English speaker, and be able to talk to others with a little sensitivity to their language abilities.

What I have just described, thus far, has proved universally accurate. The unfortunate downside for such places is this: due to the ease in which one can get a job there, they pay very little. Despite this, any work is better than no work, and this particular job is quite easy, and so far quite enjoyable. I say so far, as I have now worked not one, but 3 shifts in such a place. It was in fact the second English-speaking cafe that I applied for, that quickly provided me with work, and a pleasurable experience it was. In fact, this second cafe, called Leafcup, also provides different opportunities for staff and guests to mix in different settings. For example, tomorrow, Sunday the 4th of April, Leafcup has invited me to a Hanami party with the school.

However, I shall keep the details of Hanami parties to myself for now, as I have, what should be, a particularly enjoyable blog post or two coming up about one such event, so do not touch that dial folks!

Please forgive my tangent. My job interview on this particular Friday was not for an English cafe, but for private childcare. Our meeting place was not a home, but a park close to my employee's residence, called Saigoyama. To get there, I took my favourite train line, Yamanote line, to Shibuya. This station is decidedly familiar, as I often use it to go places, or go through it to get elsewhere.

On this occasion, I arrived here, and then had to walk quite the distance to my new location. There were, no doubt, many train stations closer to my goal, but I was happy to walk, as it provides many opportunities. For example, I may get the chance to find interesting places, such as a beautiful park or shrine, or simply get the chance to see different areas of my current home.

An interesting walk it was, and I only got slightly lost, which was nice. When I arrived, I went to, what I thought was, the designated meeting spot. I knew only to look for a Japanese woman with children, but regrettably, this was quite a common thing in this area. I slowly walked past one, then two possible candidates, but neither took the bait. Disappointed, I called my prospective employer, to be told that a child related incident had momentarily drawn her homewards, and that she would arrive again at the park soon.

With my spare time, I explored my surroundings, taking a few photos, which you may enjoy.

Though beautiful, I am not exactly sure what this tree is, I assume somehow related to the cherry trees, but markedly different in flower. If you know what type of tree this is, please leave a comment with the answer!

I am not expressly a 'flower person,' but one cannot help but appreciate the colour and order shown here.

These drinking fountains are common in parks around Japan. Note: the tap can be turned and left on, but I have never seen one left so much as dribbling; this is Japan after all.

Another beautiful flowerbed, though that pink flower in the middle seems a little out of place, even though it is immensely attractive?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Old Friends, New Country: Part II

[Continued directly from 'Old Friends, New Country']

Auspiciously, all these themed restaurants were nigh contiguous, so walking to Lockup was not a difficult task. As we ambled through the crowds, my illustrious hosts, Tsubura and Nanami, informed me how this thing would go down. Apparently upon requesting a table, one was literally 'locked up' then escorted to your dining destination. I found this astounding, and exclaimed so, saying something like, "This country is crazy!"

The door to Arabian Rock matched its theme, appearing heavy and made of gold, and likewise, the door to Lockup appeared nothing if not ominous. Upon entering, we found ourselves in a dimly lit room. At this point, if I were solo, my next course of action would have been somewhat obscure; fortunately, my Japanese companions had no hindering language barrier, and promptly turned to a desk on the right to perform the next move. As they did, there was a loud noise and bright flash, followed by a groaning if I remember correctly.

Nanami and Tsububra further buried their heads in whatever it was they were looking at, intent on remaining ignorant of the cause of the recent cacophony. Being the burly Australian that I am, I saw the skeleton emerge from the left of the door and turn its head toward us. I am no doubt incredibly brave, or possibly just slow to react to loud noises in foreign settings, perhaps we shall never know which.

I am not exactly sure what it was that the girls were looking at, but after this, we moved through the next door and into a reception style area, similar to that of the Arabian Rock, but everything was dark and dingy looking. Another Japanese woman greeted us, dressed elaborately as a guard. She inquired regarding the numerical composition of our party, receiving her answer, she bade us sit in a line of waiting seats, and went to into a separate room, I assumed to prepare for our imminent executions and the sale of our organs, or something like that anyway.

Ostensibly, this institution was well prepared for such a circumstance, and our host quickly emerged, bearing manacles and requesting a volunteer, for which task I was encouraged to put my hand up. I suggested that perhaps I was a poor choice for such an assignment, as if there was any questions given in Japanese, it was unlikely that I would be able to understand, and even less likely that I could respond lucidly. Slightly begrudgingly, Tsubura volunteered, and was promptly handcuffed and lead down a dark staircase, Nanami and I followed.

Lining the halls were many grim and gruesome pictures, some of people with half their face missing, others of clowns smiling sadistically. There were no half measures here. Tsubura's captor lead her to a room barred with a heavy jail door, complete with thick bars, here she was released and directed to sit, Nanami and I following suit. Here we inspected the menu, a fascinating exercise.

Arabian Rock had a general food menu, but a fascinating list of themed drinks, each with a suitable name. If ancient Arabia had access to ingredients for different cocktails, I have no doubt they would produce a similar display of shiny and multicoloured offerings. Likewise, at Lockup, the drinks were foreboding in name and countenance.

Included on this menu we discovered a drink named after Frankenstein himself, which Tsubura ordered. Nanami and I opted for non-alcoholic beverages in beakers, mine orange and yellow, hers dark and light green. I forget the names, but yes, you did read correctly, the pictures showed these drinks in beakers, just like science at school. Tsubura's came in a conical flask, there were test tubes of different beverages, including a bear in a test tube about a foot high.

We also ordered something that looked to me like sushi, but was apparently uncooked spring rolls. They were delicious, also included in our visit were some bread sticks with cheese inside, accompanying that was some cream. All fantastic. As we talked and ate, suddenly ALL the lights went out. I capitalise that to differentiate it between this and Arabian Rock. At Arabian Rock, the hallways remained lit, but there was no light here.

In a second some UV lights came on, and a siren sounded, informing us, in Japanese, that some... things... had escaped. Shadowing this announcement was a scream, then another. Mixed with these sounds were several growls and some banging, the rest was an indescribable tumult. Our cell neighboured a stairwell, and soon enough we heard something descending it quickly. No doubt by some malevolent design, the only view from our small dungeon booth was via the barred door, which was our entrance.

The thumping of footsteps got louder.

Abruptly, a large ape-man prowled around the corner, spied us through the cage door, and jumped on it, hooting loudly. Specifically, this creature had the face of an ape, and the body of a man, dressed in a prison outfit. Seemingly discontent with merely hanging off our jail door, which had recently become quite fond to our hearts, our guest tried reaching through the bars to grab me, as I was closest to the door...

Nanami and Tsubura are fantastic, I had a wonderful night with them, and enjoyed going to school with them, but I will not avoid telling the whole truth on their behalf, there was some loud screaming coming from their side of the table. Our primate friend soon left without any physical prize to show for his efforts, but if he accepted payment in shrieking, he went away a rich man.

'Fascinating,' I remember thinking to myself, nonetheless, the pandemonium continued unabated. Evidently, the show was not yet finished. Forthwith, another escapee, this one with a more ghostly mask and a white and black prison uniform, greeted us. He shook on our door, trying to gain entry, yelling the whole time. My cell, however, refused to be the quieter party, and he met with equal wailing, and likewise leaving rich in decibels.

Following this, it appeared that the fugitives moved to a different part of the dungeon, and Tsubura started to bemoan missing the chance to get a photo of one of our previous stalkers. "You may yet get another chance," I suggested, how right I would be. In the mean time, we enjoyed looking at each other in the light of UV, trying to capture our sinister grins on film.

If only our last tormentor had arrived 3 minutes earlier, my previous statement would have seemed even more like prophecy, but arrive he did, and in a more terrifying fashion than our previous sojourners. Not content was he with rattling the cage door and yelling, he was also so direct as to tear open the door and reach in ominously, trying to leave with more than just ringing ears. I did not think the girls could scream louder, but I was wrong.

...

Overall, it was a very enjoyable evening, and even though some members of the group had screamed and recoiled, they both professed the desire to return again for a full meal. We walked back to the train station and said our farewells, remembering how our last guessed had suddenly run off, followed quickly by some other escapees. An announcement had come over then, saying that the bad guys were dead, and all was fine. A guard even went so far as to check on our health.

Good times. Enrapturing place, this country.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Old Friends, New Country

Chronologically, this post refers to the 25th of March, a Thursday, and a very enjoyable Thursday it was.

Nanami Komaki and Tsubura Kobayashi were two friends of mine in high school. As you have no doubt guessed, they are Japanese. If you were brave, enough to attempt to read their names aloud, you may have found 'Tsubura' difficult. Fortunately, Tsubura went by Becky whilst at this Australian high school.

When I arrived in Tokyo many things happened. One of which was this; Tsubura messaged me on facebook, shocked to think I was in her country. Consequently, we arranged a meeting, to prove my existence. That was this night.

Taking the familiar yamanote line from Shinagawa to Shinjuku, I slowly walked towards the exit where we were to meet. The area was incredibly busy, and I wondered how I was supposed to distinguish two Japanese girls among a sea of black hair. Fortuitously, as I walked through the exit gates Nanami and Tsubura had just walked down the stairs, so we met easily.

Walking through Shinjuku it was decided to dine at Arabian Rock, a nearby themed restaurant. As we came upon the entrance of the said venue, Arabian style music was playing, specifically, some music from the sound track to Aladdin. We ascended a staircase and came to an elaborate door. Upon entering there was a voice suggesting we say 'open sesame,' however, a Japanese couple had entered soon before us, and the door was still open to the restaurant proper, so this was unnecessary.

An attractive Japanese woman dressed remarkably similar to Jasmine (also from Aladdin) greeted us. After some quick discussion in Japanese, and some theatrics, which I will not spoil, we were lead past many booths shrouded by a hanging curtain of gold thread. We had arrived early, soon after opening; a good thing as by the time we finished eating our dining location was packed.

All staff present were in at least some sort of costume, but none so much as the first waitress, dressed almost identically to the movie. Two other remarkable things happened during the meal though. The first was this: Whilst we were eating, suddenly the light above our table went out, and a voice over the loud speaker came on, quite loud. Obviously, it was all in Japanese, however I did understand one word: tanjoubi (birthday).

It turns out that they were impeding everyone's meals to wish happy birthday to those who were there to celebrate the anniversary of their birth. Interesting right? I said to Nanami and Tsubura how unusual this was for me, unheard of even! The other fascinating experience at Arabian Rock was one dish we had. At first site it appeared to be small, fried... somethings, tiny, barely a centimetre wide. I was thereafter informed that each piece was the soft bones from chicken, fried. Further information insisted that this was quite a popular meal.

How did it taste, you ask. Pretty good actually, I recommend it. If nothing else, it was interesting to eat. An especially attentive reader may have noticed that in the previous paragraph I specified 'Arabian Rock' when talking about this interesting experience. This was intentional. Cast your mind back to before we entered the restaurant. As we approached, some other eateries were pointed out to me. One was 'Mysterious,' apparently a space themed venue. The second was 'Lockup.' As the title suggests, it was a prison themed restaurant.

As we were deciding upon places to dine, Lockup was one of the options, and after some discussion, it was here we headed after finishing our meal at Arabian Rock, just to 'check it out.'

And this, my friends, was an even more intriguing experience.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Akihabara

This post refers to the 22nd of March, where I joined my friend Taro and two friends of his for lunch in Akihabara.

Leaving Blair's residence in Takanawa, Minato-ku, we made our way to Sengakuji station, which was the start of a small adventure in itself. I am used to taking the yamanote line from Shinagawa station to just about everywhere. I would simply stay on that train until the stop closest to my destination, and then walk, which is much easier for me. The other option is of course what we did on this day.

As we descended the stairs to the station, Taro suddenly turned to me and said, "Hurry," then started to run. As I followed him down the stairs I realised why we were moving with such haste, the train we were hoping to board was at the station. We continued to plummet into the heart of the earth, and rounding the last corner onto the last set of stairs, I looked up quickly to see the train there and the conductor on the platform, finishing the final check. Our pace increased markedly.

...

We made it, and even better, we did not have to fight the doors! I feel it necessary to say this, as many times before and since then I have seen someone perform a similar trick to this, but make the threshold as the doors are closing, sometimes being forced out, other times managing to fight off these mechanical obstacles and make it in. My favourite memory of such is still the time I saw two friends rushing to make the train, one making it on, and the other failing to follow quickly enough and missing the train to quickly closing doors.

If you were not sure, in Tokyo there are several 'lines' that trains use. Yamanote line is the simplest, being merely a wide circuit around the city centre. More complex lines are difficult to describe, but needless to say, if you need to go somewhere in Tokyo, there is a subway or train station very close by. The two main options are Tokyo Metro, and JR, if you are curious about the complexity of it all, the following links are provided for your convenience:

http://www.tokyometro.jp/global/en/index.html
http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/

After some time on the train from Sengakuji, Taro informed it was time for a change. Accordingly, we exited our vehicle at the next station, found a different 'line' and hopped the next train out of there. We were rushing because Taro was supposed to meet someone for lunch, and regrettably, we were behind scheduled time.

Arriving in Akuhabara, apparently the centre for all things technological, we met with Michi, a friend of Taro who shares the same apartment block, Tiger house. We then picked a place to have lunch, fortunately for me it was decided to eat at a nearby pub. I say 'fortunately' not because of any difficulty, but because this pub was fascinating.

Upon entering, the view was as such:
Chandeliers, a disco ball, a world map, and everything else you can imagine.

This the right side of the previous photo.
And the left.

I was simply astounded, by not only the sheer amount of items, but also the fact that almost all of them were from another country. However, the most bewildering thing was still to come. We ate a mix of Western and Japanese foods, from rice to a hot dog. There were beers from all across the world, from countries as diverse as Australia and Belgium. We talked for a bit, our fourth party member showed up, and we talked some more. Upon taking a trip to the bathroom, I saw this...


A cool sign right? The most surprising thing was that it was in the middle of Tokyo.

I hope you have found this interesting and enlightening, I found it such, and therefore felt compelled to share.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Natto

Forgive me if the title seems cryptic to you. Natto is a traditional Japanese dish, made from soybeans fermented with bacteria. The purpose of this post is hopefully to amuse you and in equal measure, to inform you, so that if you are ever in a situation where you are confronted with a Japanese style meal such as this, you will be armed with knowledge.

This post refers to the morning of Saturday, the 20th of March; forgive me for not posting it sooner, but the odd thing about Japan is that things just keep happening. On this particular morning, Taro Miyaji and his friend Saori had stayed the night to keep me company. I suspect they were secretly testing if they could encourage my brain to explode trying to remember too much Japanese.

On this morning, Saori offered to make breakfast, whilst Taro quickly ran off to a corner store to buy some natto. Some history: for over a week now Taro has been taunting me with this dish, saying it is the true test of any person wishing to try everything. A similar equivalent would be Australians trying to get foreigners to try a sandwich heavily smothered in vegemite. Unfortunately, this analogy does have its problems, as you will see.


Allow me an explanation: the bottom half of the photo shows my portion, of which everyone has the same. The top half of the photo has 2 shared dishes, the egg roll thing on the left and the black plate, which I shall explain forthwith.

In the top left corner of said plate, you will notice some brown things; these are pickled plums. On the plum's immediate right you shall see a small reddish pile of food, this is pickled radish. Continuing clockwise, at the far right of the dish, you may distinguish a black pile of something; this is pickled kelp. Finally, nestled below and slightly to the left of this radish, is another black pile, these are small fish, which I think were pickled, but were surprisingly crunchy.

My 4 dishes are a bowl of rice, then clockwise you will see an empty plate, onto which shared food, such as some of that egg roll are placed. Following this, on the extreme right you will see a square plate, contained within is the object of my trepidation, the natto. Finally, the brown bowl contains miso soup, a traditional Japanese soup made of mushrooms, seaweed and various other vegetables.

At the start of every meal, before eating, the Japanese say, "Itadakimasu," or in English, 'thank you for the meal.'

...

After which I must have noticeably hesitated, as both of my Japanese compatriots laughed.

It is no doubt difficult to tell from the poor photo what exactly this natto looks like, thus I shall attempt an explanation. Natto comes in these packages almost uniformly across the country. It is a Styrofoam container, which you see here opened. Inside is contained the natto itself, as well as a separate pack of soy sauce and Japanese mustard.

The natto was covered in a plastic film, which Taro and Saori informed me I must peel back. As I did so, the smell released was strong and incredibly difficult to describe. I had decided before hand that this would be delicious, as one gains nothing from avoiding something that is good for you. Unfortunately, my brain had lapsed in its task to inform my nose of this wonderful meal. Subduing my facial betrayal, I asked, "what now?"

Apparently, it is important to 'activate' the natto, by mixing it with your chopsticks quite thoroughly. This task is difficult as natto is extremely sticky and thick. As I stirred this sensational looking dish, the sticky substance coating the soybeans changed colour and consistency, becoming slightly more fluid, and definitely more yellow. After this process was complete, we put the soy sauce and mustard on, me of course opting to use every minuscule droplet contained therein.

At this point in the meal, I think I put the natto down, along with my chopsticks, sat back from the table and exclaimed, "Weird!" Most likely, this statement was loud and my sadistic hosts both enjoyed a hearty laugh at my expense.

Brief respite complete, "try it," was my next command. Calming my apprehension, I reached for my natto and chopsticks, procured for myself several beans and quickly ate them. Taro and Saori both had wonderful looks of anticipation on their faces. It was not that bad, weird texture, unusual taste, but really, not that bad.  The taste is difficult to describe, being composed of soybeans, it had that signature bland sort of taste. However, the fermentation process had added a sort of sour cheese kind of flavour.

The disappointment on my Japanese compatriot's faces did not last long when I informed them that, "it's not that bad," quickly changing to a smile and a clap. To my immense relief they informed me that I was now permitted to combine it with my rice and eat it, which I cannot emphasise enough, was much easier to stomach. The rest of the meal progressed more smoothly. I would eat some natto and rice, have a sip of miso soup, and grab a couple small fish from the communal centre plate, the usual.

Oh, before I forget, the plums were another challenge, since I do not normally like plums and my love for pickled anythings was equally none existent. My only recommendation to anyone going to another country, like Japan, is to decide before hand that you like everything, only then will you enjoy yourself to the fullest. Either that or you will at least have interesting stories to tell: win, win.

My first bite of plum did cause my undisciplined nose to wrinkle again, but when I focused on the salty taste, it was really quite ok. I asked Taro to eat some of his plum, which he did by taking a bite, then quickly scooping some rice into his mouth and eating the two together. I cannot advocate this method enough.

Finishing my last bite of egg roll, I exclaimed, "Finished." My host's cheered, but then informed me that I should never do that again. "Seriously," they said, "never." "What did I do?!" "It's really quite rude, you shouldn't ever do that." After several minutes of asking what it was that I did, I was informed that one should never leave food behind in your rice bowl, an insult to the person who cooked it. Chastened, I finished off the straggling rice grains and tried again, "finished?"

"Exam complete, you passed," I was told. I think I sat back in my chair at this point with an audible sigh.

A photo of our finished meal.

Some hints to those who would learn:


  • Finishing one's rice is obviously important and to that end, I would assume all plates of food specifically marked 'yours,' such as my miso soup. However, at the end of the meal there was still some shared food remaining, which it appears is ok.

  • Whilst eating my rice I was reprimanded for not holding the bowl in my left hand whilst I ate. Not only is this acceptable, but also expected, and holding the bowl close to your mouth to get those last bites of food, or a difficult mouthful, is not only unobjectionable, but laudable.

  • Eating miso soup should be performed likewise and slurping is common. Furthermore, whilst drinking the fluid of the soup is simple in this manner, eating the large chunks of seaweed or mushroom is more difficult. In such a situation, either it is commendable to use your chopsticks to pick up, or shovel said morsels into one's mouth.

  • A final note on holding the bowl: this ought to be performed with all four fingers on the very bottom of the dish, with the thumb perched on the rim; this is recommended in every case.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Imperial Palace

Yesterday, Friday the 19th of March, I went for a walk, or more accurately, a walk and a train ride, towards the very centre of Tokyo. My plan was to visit the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, to procure for myself some English literature, in which to search for jobs and other interesting pieces of information. Unfortunately, however, what I found was far removed from what I had imagined. Instead of finding one or two small English publications, mostly full of what one calls 'the classifieds', I was shocked and horrified to find a huge variation of publications. The range was immense, from advertisements for Art Galleries, to a pamphlet detailing what appeared to be every single ski field in Japan.

Forgive me though I was appalled, as I indicated, it was a joyous horror.

With my bag now heavily laden with a few publications short of everything they had, I took the elevator back to street level, already considering my journey a success. Eager to devour my plunder, I headed again for the train station. Waiting at a set of traffic lights, I hesitated, remembering my former Google Maps research, I checked my watch. 3:45pm, plenty of time.

Accordingly, with a quick about-face, I walked the wrong way through the waiting crowd and struck out towards what I thought to be a park. As I walked, I recalled my research; close to this train station there had appeared to be a large park. I like parks. On the way to my destination, there was a large map, mostly in English, a slightly unusual occurrence, indicating that this section of the city was a very popular tourist destination.

Perusing the map, I noticed that there was a park as I suspected, but upon further scrutiny, I realised that the majority of the 'green area' on Google Maps had not been a park, but the Imperial Palace itself. Fascinating. With a new spring in my step, I sauntered off towards the intersection of Hibiya Park and the Imperial Palace.

Arriving at 4pm, I realised I would not have time to see both of these. Following a brief internal dialogue I decided upon the Imperial Palace, since I had been previously informed that therein lay a fantastic garden too observe as the cherry trees blossomed. Pivoting towards the Palace, I mourned, realising that not only did I not have my camera, but that I also had still to purchase batteries for it.

The place was huge. I had started to explain how to find it on Google Maps, then I realised I could simply show you a map. My path is marked by the red line, I started at the southernmost part:


At the corner, I looked down into the water...
 It turns out all the water you see on the map, is actually large ponds! That fish is a Koi, related to the goldfish but... noticeably larger.

Those things you can see breaking the surface of the water are the fins of more Koi, they swim slowly and close to the surface. In my first post, An Australian in Japan, I referred to 'an amazing Japanese style garden.' This was Hanno-en, and when I observing the pond there, I saw a Koi leap out of the water 3 times. Fascinating fish.

This photo is still at that first corner on the map, no doubt the sign says 'don't feed the fish.' It should say below that in English, "If you cannot read the above writing, you shouldn't even consider feeding the fish."

This photo was taken just after that first left turn on the map, I couldn't resist. Though the 'no camping' section of these sign seems illogical, the same signs were posted throughout the park, so it makes sense.

I'm not sure how well you can see that, but on the ladder there is a man, and he is pruning these trees. Interesting.

This photo was taken as I walked 'west north west' on the map, just before the 'u-turn.' I'm not sure if you can see, but there are guards in front of that building, and on the bridge.

How cool is this tree?! This was taken in the short 'eastish' section of the journey, between the two long 'north' bits.

This awesome building was on the last section of the walk, as I was leaving the area. The building is marked by a red dot on the very corner.

So that was my adventure. I apologise that the photos are not that fantastic, before the cherry blossoms... blossom I will ensure that my proper camera is functioning.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Japanese Cling Wrap is Awesome

I have debated that title for a while, it was either that or 'mediocrity,' and whilst this post is about the more mundane parts of a week, I consider it in no way pedestrian by any standards in comparison to my life only a month ago.

Yesterday, Tuesday the 16th of March, was what one may call an 'average day in Tokyo.' Currently Blair Thomson and his wife Sachiko are away, Blair in New Zealand for 2 weeks, and Sachi staying with her parents for the same length of time. Accordingly, Taro Miyaji (a mutual friend of Blair's as you may recall) is staying here, to keep me company and teach me Japanese.

This story starts at 11:15am. The previous evening another friend of Taro's, Saori, also stayed over, and left at around 9:30am on this Tuesday morning, but that is a completely different story.

I woke up with a start, attempting in vain to look at my watch. After rubbing my eyes I tried again, and realising the time I quickly went to wake Taro, since, as of last night, he was supposed to be leaving for work in 30 minutes. Disoriented, he informed me that he had called work, and was now starting later. Accordingly, I bade him return to sleep, a request he had already started to comply with.

I then went about my average morning ritual of reading my bible, a little exercise and a shower, after which Taro woke. We enjoyed our breakfast at 11:45am this morning, both glad for the extra sleep. After which we set out on our first of 2 missions.

The first was to find a different supermarket. Up until this point, we had been visiting 2 'supermarkets,' both located in Shinagawa train station, and both quite small by Australian metropolitan standards, as many things are in Tokyo. This one was supposed to be slightly larger, and so with vague directions, we journeyed on.

Shinagawa station is about 7 minutes walk from the place I am staying in Takanawa, Minato-ku (an area of Tokyo). Today we walked a different direction, and sure enough, about 8 minutes into our journey we passed another subway station. This is standard across the board in Tokyo, as a Google of Tokyo subway stations will show you plainly. The city is covered in train stations, if you want to go any real distance, most people take the subway. At any time during the day from about 10am to 9pm or even later, most trains you get on will be standing room only, a fascinating experience for someone from the Gold Coast, where trains can only come close to this capacity at peak hour.

We walked on, crossing different roads, where no one jaywalked, no vehicles queued through intersections or ran lights and people drove calmly across the board. Alien for some people, but standard for Japan. Eventually we came to the supermarket, which was the largest I had seen yet. Inside, the aisles were set up similar to an average Australian store, the most interesting part of this shopping experience happened as you made your purchases at the checkout.

In many supermarkets there are 2 people working each checkout point, one 'ringing up' your purchases, the other packing your food into bags. If you have purchased meat, the person packing the bags will offer to pack the meat in ice, so it doesn't go bad on your return journey. In the odd cases where there is only one person working the counter, there will be ice machines provided, free of charge.

Since this supermarket was larger, it also had incentives for people to purchase 2 litre bottles of water: right next to the ice machines there were others provided for your convenience. Some would wash your water bottle whilst others would fill it up again with fresh, pure water. There also were several other machines, the function of which I can only guess at. Apparently, this too is relatively unexceptional.

We walked home via a different route, where people would passing on the side walk would be patient in passing, bike riders would be careful and respectful, and not a child was seen running  amok, despite many children from the local school out and about. All very ordinary.

We dropped off our purchases at the apartment and walked off again towards Shinagawa station, on the other side of which was a mobile phone store that we wanted to visit. As we arrived, we picked up a ticket, so that we would be served in order of arrival, and waited patiently. After talking quietly, we were served quickly, and were again on our way. Glancing at my watch I noticed it was 4:30pm, Taro took the train from Shinagawa to his work, though any station would have been fine, and I made my way home.

I cooked a simple dinner of spaghetti. Almost all kitchens use gas for heating, and are quite small by Australian standards, as most things are in Tokyo, space is a premium. I saved some dinner in a second bowl, and used some cling wrap to cover it. Japan is remarkable in that in everything it sets its mind to, the country and its people strive for perfection. This cling wrap was slightly thicker than any I had used in Australia, the cutting edge was a good width and it cut very well.

Doing the dishes with very little bench space was interesting, and the rack on which to dry my dishes was housed in the sink itself, as there was no room anywhere else. I am told this is conventional across Tokyo.

Forgive me if this post was boring for you, but this set of 'insignificant' experiences are, in many ways, so far removed from any in Australia, that I felt it necessary to write about them.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Enlightenment: Part II

[Continued directly from 'Enlightenment']

"Let's do it."

We walked, or more accurately: froze in the 4 degree, windy weather, progressively talking less and shivering more. After a while Taro said, "So are you hungry?" "I could eat." Deal struck, we headed for a nearby 24 hour... place. I forget what it was called, but Taro informed me that it was the equivalent of a noodle fast food joint.

To purchase your meal, you turn to a machine right next to the door upon entering. From it, you insert coins and select the meal you would prefer, of a possible... hundred or so per machine, of different sizes and types. This machine then gives you a piece of paper in return for your hard earned cash, which you then take to your seat with you. After finding a seat, you place your $5-$10 piece of paper on a nearby wall, and quickly enough this also will be taken from you by a waiter. Now that you have been stolen from by both a machine and a person, you will quickly be given a consolatory cup of green tea.

With our green tea, Taro and I talked again for a while, at which point I remarked on the fact that it was 1:45am, and not only was there another patron when we entered, but that this place was open like this constantly. In no time at all we were supplied with our meal, and enjoyed it, feeling much warmer. Too soon was this reprise over, bracing ourselves we ventured again into the chill night air. The walk ahead, I was informed, was a daunting one, 15 or so minutes in this weather, at a decent pace. We walked through Nihonbashi (literally Japan Bridge), which I was told could also be pronounced 'super central Tokyo' in a pinch.

Upon arriving at our destination we removed our shoes and put them in a locker, standard. Following this we ventured to the front desk and Taro purchased what seemed to be rooms... or something. From here we went into a second area with more lockers, larger lockers, and stripped off everything but our underwear, and putting on pyjamas that were provided, standard also. Finally we entered a 3rd room with some more lockers, in which we placed everything we had with us, pyjamas; undies; towel; and small towel. Butt naked we entered onsen proper, and went through the motions of cleaning everywhere; shaving; brushing our teeth and everything else you could imagine. Even at 2am there were several people in here with us.

After bathing we donned again our pyjamas, and headed out again to the front desk. After some more conversing with the staff there, Taro and I headed for a different floor, 'to sleep?' I guessed. Slowly we entered a dark room; in front of me I could see what appeared to be a bunk bed with 2 different beds and a curtain. Odd. As we approached a hall opened off to the left, down this corridor, lining both sides was over 30 similar bunk beds. We walked past this corridor and came to another one similar, bunk beds as far as the eye could see.

Walking down this corridor we came to the beds possessing the numbers on our tickets. "Goodnight, see you in the morning!" Climbing in to this bed was like climbing into a box, inside there was a TV suspended over the foot of the bed, with headphones and different contraptions by the pillow. 'Lucky I'm only 5, 11,' I thought to myself as I lay down, with my feet touching one end and my head scraping the other.

How alien: sleeping in a small bed, surrounded by several floors of sleeping Japanese, in the middle of Tokyo. Weird.


Epilogue:

Every time I rolled over that night and hit the wall I would wake up, afraid I'd wake everyone else. This was the biggest problem though, there was little to no snoring and it was a comfy bed. I recommend the experience.

The next day, Taro informed me that the place we stayed was called Capsule Hotel. Suitable.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Enlightenment

Chronologically, this post refers to the evening of Sunday the 7th of March, which is also the day I wrote my first post.
I left Takanawa to catch the subway at Sengakuji station, headed to Ningyocho. I was to meet with a Japanese friend of Blair and mine named 'Taro' (Apparently the Japanese equivalent of 'John'). The plan was that he would meet me at the station, and we would go to a party with some of his friends, or that was my understanding anyway.

I arrived at Ningyocho station 3 minutes early, quite the achievement I might add, and took the stairs up to ground level to see where my friend was. As I arrived at the top, I was hit with a blast of cold air, to think just 2 days previous at the same time I had been walking around in just a long sleeved shirt and pants, at least it wasn't raining too hard. I made my way back down to the station proper, to check if there was another entrance, and I had missed Taro. I hadn't.

As I decided what to do, I noticed two young looking Japanese talking to themselves on the subway stairs and glancing at me. You might think that this would be common, especially considering my current appearance (long hair, and a beard), but the Japanese are amazing in that I am yet to see anyone openly stare at me. In fact, no matter what one goes in Tokyo, whether it be to a very small local bathhouse (see 'Of Bullets and Dodging') or through the busiest intersection in all Tokyo, one would be hard pressed to see any Japanese person even register a look of mild interest upon seeing such an... un-Japanese looking person.

Back to the story, as I mused whether or not I should approach this couple, they walked towards me and the gentleman spoke up, "Hello, hello, are you Ben? Taro's friend?" "Yes, hi, nice to meet you." "Ahh, ahh, nice to meet you, nice to meet you." At this point Taro arrived, and performed the introductions. Apparently these were friends of his, who lived in the same apartment block, named Saori and Hama. Ok, the gentleman's name wasn't really Hama, but they said it was his nickname, and it was much easier for me to remember.

We walked off to a nearby coffee shop to talk for a little while. I still find myself realising that if the positions were reversed, and I was a Japanese person in Australia, with minimal English, it would be a lot more difficult to find people to accommodate me so well, especially native Aussies. After talking for a small while, over an hour passed and we decided to find a place to eat. After much quick debate between themselves in Japanese (I said I was happy to do whichever) it was decided that a nearby Italian restaurant would be our destination.

We entered and were promptly seated, with several menus for drinks and food quickly delivered. I was astonished to see 'strawberry juice' and 'banana juice' on the list of drinks. Saori tried the strawberry, allowing me a taste, and it was described accurately, it tasted exactly like you would imagine juiced strawberries would taste.

This next bit hurts to write, but it must be told:

I brazenly talked, as some Australians are wont to, yours truly being the worst offender, exclaiming how the menu was all in Japanese and that I could not understand it. I asked loudly for translations from my friends, or I would not know what to order. Yes, in hindsight I realise how tactless this was, but my embarrassing actions did not end here. After some explanations of the different menu items, I said I would love to try the risotto, all well and good right?

After ordering the food, we talked for a while, Saori and Hama being encouraged to practise their English on me. To learn a language I decided, the best way was merely to speak it, and learn as you go, as well as picking up more vocabulary from a book in private. Sometime I should really start doing that with my Japanese.

The food arrived, a small platter of different entre style foods: 2 small pieces of ham; duck; beef; cooked egg and bacon; capsicum (bell pepper in America?); pumpkin; and 2 whole, small fish, maybe sardines? After some talk about what each food actually was, we shared them out, each trying a small portion of each. Then... rather awkwardly, a single bowl of risotto arrived. Idiot. If I was not so hasty and brash when the menus came out, no doubt someone would have said that they would be ordering a series of dishes designed to share, not a single meal each.

It is difficult to describe just how stupid I felt, and it didn't help that my error was sitting there in the middle of the table, the equivalent of continually hitting myself on the thumb with a hammer. Remember though, this is Japan, no one drew attention to my error, or in fact said anything that could even have possibly been construed as pointing it out, instead we simply shared this dish as we would any other.

Learn from my mistakes!

The rest of the meal went quickly, we talked, they learning English, I learning Japanese, and everyone enjoying themselves. We ate a dish of large and small clams; a plate with chunks of spearfish, potato, capsicum and several other vegetables; a plate of fettuccini with clams, octopus and the single biggest prawn I have ever seen.

After much more talking, it was time to leave, but not in the way I had thought at the time. This was not the party with Taro's friends he had been warning me about, but merely dinner. So off we marched in the chill March air (couldn't help myself) towards Tiger house. The first thing I noticed upon entering this residence was the large set of cubby holes, full of the most shoes I've seen in one place for quite a while. After being loaned a pair of slippers, we entered the living room / kitchen, which contained only one table, at which was seated several Japanese men making dumplings.

After introductions, I whispered to Taro, asking what the dumplings were for. He responded that they were obviously for the party tonight. I surreptitiously glanced at my watch, 10:30pm. As we sat and talked, more and more people came, seemingly from nowhere, and more food was brought, prepared, and arranged. We talked, ate, I practised my Japanese, they practised their English, I forgot everyone's names a couple times, they encouraged me to try all manner of strange looking foods. All were good. In short, a good time was had by all.

This party was to celebrate the birthday of Saori (the day before) and another male member of this apartment block, whose name I cannot recall. Some gifts were exchanged and people started to clean up, I looked at my watch again. Almost 1 a.m. As people said goodnight, Taro and I forced Hama to show us his room. It was about 4 metres long, and about a metre and a half wide. Seriously. The floor was basically taken up by 2 things, his bed, and the space it required to open the door. Across the ceiling was hung his entire wardrobe. Also, in this room was a desktop computer with 2 monitors, and many other things that one needed to live. Don't ask me how it all fit.

If you're reading this Hama, please forgive me, it was too astonishing not to share. Later Taro showed me his room, which was more expensive, and therefore larger. It was far wider, almost 2 and a half metres, a good 5-6 metres long, and had a set of draws. Spacious.

After final goodbyes to Hama and Saori, Taro and I headed back into the cold night air. We were stopped upon exiting by Ryuchan, who was walking back with his girlfriend, well, he was riding a bike; she was walking. Unfortunately I cannot recall her name either, but she was very nice, and the first Japanese person that showed the appropriate emotions upon seeing a white kid in the middle of Tokyo, Japan, those emotions being shock, surprise, humour, and then cordiality. "Much better" I remember thinking to myself. After one more goodbye, Taro and I walked off into the Tokyo night.

"Where to?" I enquired. Showing me some vouchers, Taro informed me that he had free tickets to a nearby spa. I nodded and quickly glanced at my watch, 1:30am.

"No worries."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Of Bullets and Dodging

I have found a serious problem with Japan, a flaw that must be shown the light of day.

Everyday something new and interesting happens.

This is a profound issue, since it means every single time a day comes to an end, I have a new story to tell, and often insufficient time in which to do it.

Today, Wednesday the 10th of March, marked my 7th day in Tokyo, Japan. This day started much the same as yesterday, granted it was warmer than yesterday morning (it ended up snowing last night, quite heavily, but this is a story for another time). Also, the day did start slower, my host had few tasks to attend, and I was content to recuperate for a while. Eventually, however, we did venture out into Tokyo, 'we' in this case being Blair [my host], Christopher, his son, and myself.

We struck out west, along the street on which we lived, headed for a local bath house, similar though not technically the same as an onsen. For today only, using this bath house was free for residents of this area, so we went to check it out. However, as we guessed, it opened at 3pm, and as we were walking past at 2pm, this was unfortunate. We continued on towards a local coffee joint, but were doomed to fail in this endeavour also.

As we walked, we passed the entrance to a shrine or temple, which of these we weren't sure, so we entered to investigate. We ambled under the wooden entrance way, finding ourselves on a road, boarded by different housing complexes, on the right, a building made of units, 6 wide if I recall, and 2 high. On our left, a single house, squeezed in between the large gate through which we entered and a second building, who's purpose I could not deduce. Directly in front of us was a second, much larger gate, guarding the entrance to a respectably sized temple.

The gate had a mobile, wooden picket fence in front of it, along with several signs in Japanese characters, no doubt saying that the temple proper was currently inactive and closed to visitors. However, the road on which we walked curved to the right and went around this large gate, so we followed it, as we turned the bend it opened onto a car park, and on our left was the courtyard for this currently deserted temple. Our curiosity got the better of us and we went to investigate the courtyard.

The first structure housed a large bell, which Blair informed me would be rung, along with innumerable other bells throughout the city, on festival occasions such as new years. The second structure appeared new, and housed 3 different images carved from stone, the first was of a large lady, the second a small child and the 3rd an elderly man, which Blair guessed were gods. In between these two structures was a large stone monolith, around 2 metres tall, which I guessed was a grave marker, as I had seen many similar structures at a nearby site several days previous. At the time the structures were being cleaned by 3 elderly ladies, with much care and respect, whilst they burned incense.

Finally we turned to the large temple. On the left of the main steps were more stone edifices, similar to the grave marker we had just seen. We ascended the steps and came to 2 large sliding doors, which weren't locked. I didn't remark on this as I guessed what Blair would say, "This is Japan, why would they lock the doors?" We slid them open slightly and peered inside...

On the far left and right were blocks of fold out chairs, arranged looking towards each other, or more accurately the conglomeration of gold artefacts in the centre. In the centre was an indescribably large amount of gold artefacts, large and small, which were evidently used in the worship and standard operation of this temple. Again I thought to myself, 'and yet the door wasn't locked...' but then again, who would steal these valuable relics? This is Japan.

Time was now getting on, and Blair had a train to catch for some business, so Christopher and I walked him to Shinagawa station, and farewelled him there. On the way home we walked past an Indian restaurant, from which I was told you could pick up a free, English publication called Metropolis, which I did. Finally, Christopher and I returned home, as Christopher had a dental appointment.

And now the fun starts.

Since it was now around 4pm, I decided to head out to this small, local bath house by myself, to check it out. I knew where it was, and that I should bring a towel... but this was all the knowledge I had with me. Accordingly, with my towel, I set out. As I approached the building I noted that the doors were now open, both of them, one on the right, with a closed wooden section, then a second door on the left of this. Behind these openings were two more doors, each with a sign on them... in Japanese.

I was approaching from a direction that lead me to the left door, and so I approached it, slowly ascending 2 steps, my right foot hovered over the top stair, and then I realised the lockers on each side were no doubt for my shoes, the top stair and all the floor around it was made of wood, whilst the floor I entered on was tile. Quickly I removed my shoes and put them in a nearby locker. I then turned to the door... and hesitated.

I slowly reached for the sliding door, then heard something that literally made my heart leap, a lady's voice. Ever so slowly realisation dawned on me, this bath house was split in two, with one half for females, and one for males. However, with dread, I realised that the voice could've come from either side, such was the building's construction. Great, here I stood, in a small local bath house, on a back street in the middle of Tokyo, Japan, possibly in front of the entrance to the female side of a traditional bath house.

I deliberated, then quickly and with much haste, retrieved my shoes from the locker, and made my way to the other inner entrance (stepping once on the tiled floor with just my socks, a social faux pas in Japan, please don't tell anyone). Here I hesitated again, I realised I could still here some female voices, equally as clearly. As I inserted my shoes in a second locker, I decided that if I was to peek into one side, the right was the correct side in which to peek, since Japan was, and still is in many ways, a male dominated society, the men's would be on the right... right?

Or is that a European thing?

Slowly I slid the door open... and with much relief, I saw through a second set of doors inside the building, several naked men. With a sigh I stepped inside, and turned to my left... right inside the threshold was an elevated booth, in which sat an elderly Japanese man. This booth was the only part of the building which could see both sides of the centre partition, not bothersome to me as a man, but if I was a girl... "Konnichiwa [good afternoon]," I said, to which he responded with a low and fast stream of Japanese. "Sumimasen [sorry]?" was my only response. He leaned closer, "doko ni sunde imasu ka [where are you from]?" "Minato-ku, takanawa," "Dozo [go ahead]".

For those who had wondered how this bath house was different to an onsen: it was much, much smaller, otherwise the two are similar. The first room I had entered contained more lockers, large lockers, in which I undressed completely, and placed all my clothes. The next room was visible through a wall of clear glass doors, in which showers and taps lined each side. Inside the threshold were two types of buckets, small yellow ones facing 'up' and slightly larger blue ones, also stacked and inverted. There were also 3 naked Japanese men, who all turned to me, and then went back to their business.

Fortunately I had been in an actual onsen, so I knew what the deal was here, the large bucket was for sitting on in front of the low showers, and the small yellow bucket was for filling with water and tipping over yourself, to rinse off the soap. The soap. The soap that usually was provided... in this case, was not. Woops. For those of you to whom this is foreign, let me explain. A person intending to use the large Jacuzzi sized (but lower) pools inside, each of varying temperatures, first must clean themselves at these showers and taps.

The goal of this cleaning is to remove all outside impurity. One is meant to exfoliate one's entire body, wash your hair, shave and in some cases, to brush your teeth. Only after this were you permitted to enter the communal baths. It is considered the height of rudeness to contaminate this water in any way, after all, it would be shared over the course of an entire day with many people, then cleaned.

Unfortunately, I had only brought a large towel with which to dry myself, and nothing else. Slowly I collected my buckets and then sat on the left, the side with no Japanese men cleaning themselves on it. I started to wash as best I could, and as I did, a new patron to this establishment entered, and seated himself at the station next to mine, not a half a foot away. Great.

I probably spent the next 10 minutes just cleaning myself, as I did want to experience how hot each of the two pools here were, ideally without being rude. Japan is an unusual place, in that even if I climbed straight into the pools without washing at all, those present might not even say anything, even though it would offend them greatly. Accordingly, I did my best to make a concerted effort to clean, and then quickly entered the first pool. It was literally scalding. After 3 or so minutes in here, I then entered the second pool, which was cooler. The thermometer read a mere 44 degrees, and so I enjoyed this for a longer period.

Finally, I extricated myself, went back to my station, poured from the tap a bucket of freezing water, tipped it on myself, and then took my buckets and prepared to leave. After putting them back on the pile, I realised my towel was in my locker, and I wasn't sure if it was acceptable to walk across the wood floor and retrieve it and dry myself there. Seeing no other option, this is what I did, regrettably I never did see a local leaving the pools area, so I don't know whether I did the right thing or not. I thanked the doorkeeper on the way out, and walked home.
If you go to Japan, do not be afraid to experiment, to see the things that most visitors would overlook, these less common things are the things you will enjoy and remember well.

But please, learn from my mistakes.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

An Australian in Japan

This story starts, as some stories are wont to, slightly after the beginning, but well before the end.
I am sitting in an apartment in Tokyo, across from me sits at gentlemen from Sierra Leone and last night I came home after midnight after spending the evening with my host and 4 ladies from Singapore, and then with 3 Japanese University Professors.
The apartment I am sitting in belongs to my Father's cousin, Blair Thomson, who is a marriage celebrant on the weekends and a University Professor during the week. Yesterday I had gone out to explore the area surrounding his apartment, and found an amazing Japanese style garden, but this is a different story. On the way back from this garden it rained, and I arrived back at the apartment not drenched (thanks to an umbrella I borrowed before I left) but decidedly wet and cold. After a warm shower and warm clothes, I was ready to sit down for a while, at which point Sachi, Blair's wife, received a call and passed it on to me. It was Blair, requesting I get dressed and meet him in Shibuya to have tea with some friends.
These were the ladies from Singapore, one of whom had stayed in one of his apartments for a while, we met and went to a hotel to have tea. One had peppermint tea, the next had white peach, the next had a cappuccino, I had white peach tea also (I am mentally following the orders around the table), the next lady, Jean, who had stayed in Blair's apartment ordered camomile tea, and Blair had blueberry. It was all wonderful, new and interesting, even though Jean's camomile tea turned out to be vanilla. We talked, laughed and shared stories, a situation I couldn't have possibly imagined myself in merely a week earlier sitting in front of my computer on the Gold Coast in Australia.
As time marched on, Blair receieved a phone call from some University Professors he worked under, requesting his presence at their meal, so we finished our tea, said our farewells and forged ahead to the closest subway station, to make our way to the rendezvous with these Professors. After 14 minutes on the subway, and a miniscule taxi ride, we met and talked for a while in this resteraunt. After a while it was decided to move to a more comfortable venue, and so all 5 of us first started to get into 1 taxi, and then decided to divide and take 2. We drove for a while across Tokyo, past the first accident I had ever seen in Japan, and made it to the Shinagawa Prince Hotel.
My taxi arrived first, so I waited with two... venerable University Professors for the second taxi containing Blair, my host, and our 3rd Professor compatriot. After their arrival we took the elevator to the top floor, the 39th, and made our way into a more secluded area of the bar there, the north side. The whole floor had amazing ceiling to floor windows and a stunning view of all of Tokyo, especially our seats which had a clear view of Tokyo tower and the rest of central Tokyo city.
We talked, laughed and ate some wedges and a small pizza. There was gin and tonic for some, red wine for otheres and a ginger ale for me. Many times throughout the evening I stopped and thought to myself that this was a situation I never thought I would find myself in. Earlier that evening Blair had ran into an old friend, an American, who had informed me that the evening I was about to enjoy, I would find, is not so rare as one might think.
After broaching more subjects than I could possibly remember, we said our farewells, ogled the view once more, and made our way back to ground level. After saying goodbye once more, we parted ways and Blair and I walked back to his apartment, a mode of transportation I was much more familiar with, less than 10 minutes away.
As we walked I exclaimed how unusual this situation was from my perspective, especially considering where I was less than a week previous. "Cousin," he said, "welcome to Japan."