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.