Festivals and the finish line

Recently I have been becoming less frequent with my writing. I feel like it is becoming harder to write the more used to Japan I get. The little things that took me by surprise are now much a part of daily life for me. Anyway I digress and wish to recount what I have been doing since I climbed Mt Fuji.

Going right back to my decent of Fuji, only days after I was to sit the first level of the Japanese proficiency test, the JLPT L5. So I had to switch from the physical to the mental to prepare myself. It turned out I failed miserably at that planned preparation and went out partying the night before by the evil power of whim. I crashed at Cam’s placed so the train journey would be quicker in the morning. It felt very surreal the next day like a strange feeling of nostalgia from my university days but as if it was in a alternate universe where everything is Japanese. All the boring test instructions were even given in Japanese. The test the itself went well, it just seemed to take forever (Last week I found out I passed, やったー!). After that I was back at work and it was nice to have a bit of structure again after 2 weeks of intensity, exploring with Rosa and Taz, climbing Fuji-San and testing my Japanese ability.

The remainder of July was festival packed. Japan in the summertime opens up. In cities and towns all around the country people gather for traditional festivals. The first weekend me, Teru and Shunsuke went to Kuki for the lantern festival. The streets were lined with food stalls selling all the Japanese goodies, and people gathered everywhere to watch the passing “dashi” floats. The festival floats were these huge wooden structures, lined with hundreds of paper lanterns, which reached up to the electrical cables hanging over the streets. People rode precariously on top or hung off the side. Inside people played the traditional “taiko” drum and “fue” pipe to a lively rhythm. A group of people were in charge of pushing and pulling the humongous float. When it reached a corner the leader shouted “sei no!”, and everyone together would pivot the float on its wheels to face the right direction. You can see scrape marks on the roads from the many years this has been going on. The vibe of the festival was really amazing, as it had such a traditional feel with these wooden floats, pounding drumming and many people walking around dressed in kimono. However, not long after the floats got going the heavens opened and the rain really came down. People ran off the streets and took cover anywhere they could, in shops and under the awnings of the food stalls. This only stilted the festival for a short while and when the rain had stopped, the procession continued, the men on the floats tried to get the lanterns burning again, and the crowds emerged once again. The floats are all built by different areas of the city, bringing an element of competitiveness, so as a finale they all gathered together and showed off their prowess of drumming and maneuverability of the floats, going round in circles. Teru told me they used to fight with one another by crashing into each other for the ultimate test of endurance, unfortunately a few years back they stopped this as it was too dangerous. The following weekend I made a brief appearance to the Kazo summer festival. It was a similar affair to the one in Kuki, however, instead of a procession of floats people were carrying portable shrines, or “mikoshi”. Each one was a pretty hefty lavishly decorated wooden structure and about 8-10 people had it resting on their shoulders. They would bounce it up and down crying “wasshou…wasshou…wasshou!”, like as a heave ho to display their physical prowess. I arrived late so didn’t get to see much before it died down, so I headed to one of my local izakayas. They were cooking “yakitori” outside and as the owner knows me now he kindly gave me some free of charge. So I rode the festival vibes there until it was time for bed.

Only a few weeks after that was the festival I was really waiting for. Fuji Rock. I got the Saturday off work so I could go for the whole 3 days. I feel it is almost heresy to go to a festival for a just a day. Despite being called Fuji Rock, this festival is now located in a Naeba ski resort in Nigata prefecture, the name remains from the few years it was held near the base of Fuji-San. So I took the trip up north with my fellow Fuji rockers, by local train (5 of us used a “seishun jyuuhachi kippu” making it a really cheap journey, I recommend checking this out if you are going to go) early in the morning from Shinjuku at around 5.30am. After taking the free shuttle bus to the festival site, it allowed us to get there and set up our tent by midday. First reflection was the breathtaking scenery that surrounded us. There was nothing but rolling hills of luscious green and forest. However, this did hinder our pitching ability as about 80% of the campsite was at a 45 degree angle. We then proceeded to have 3 days of intense, multifaceted, and exhilarating festival antics. I won’t go into a day by day as most of you know what a festival comprises of daily…drinking, partying, rough sleep, and loosing respect for the maintenance of a human body, but most importantly careless and unimpeded fun. The food was amazing and cheap. The weather debatable. It rained a lot but was hot and summery, too. This caused wardrobe problems, I tried to power through 8 hours of rain in only shorts and t-shirt, but gave up only a little way into the Nine Inch Nails set. The festival makes the most of its location. It has walkways through parts of the forest, lined with glowing sculptures, and even hidden amongst the trees was a small stage. A clear blue river runs through the festival, which was perfect for a quick splash, when it was hot. The music I saw was so incredibly diverse, ranging from funk to metal, with piles of electronic music on this side. Some such acts were, Bjork, Tower of Power, Lettuce, My Bloody Valentine, The Foals, Modeselektor, Killswitch Engage, Death Grips, The xx and Jurrassic 5. The festival goers were all so great as well. The Japanese are friendly and respectful even at a festival. After jamming on some handmade instruments in a hippy hands-on area, getting a few people dancing along, I felt it necessary to buy a small glockenspiel so I could jam on the move. This got so much use from conga lines and dancing about it literally got played to death and collapsed after the festival madness was over. The Monday morning we packed up and regrettably made our way home. I had to take the Shinkansen to make it back for work. The reality really struck hard after a weekend of that calibre.

After that things started to get serious and the partying was over for a while. I made a big decision and started to look for a new job so I could carry on working in Japan. So August was full of applications and interviews, and after gruelling weeks of selling myself I was actually lucky enough to get a new job, which could provide me with a new visa. Soon after, I sorted out a shared house in Harajuku. And then all of a sudden things felt incredibly real. My journey in Japan was yet to be over. Although, the end of a year and a farewell to Intersect SFL, draws in. This week I have been having final lessons with students and it feels surreal to be saying goodbye. At Fudoka preschool they had prepared something for me after the lesson. All the kids morphed into a mini marching band and played me a song, “the Mickey Mouse march” if you know it, which was awesome and surprisingly well performed for a group of 6 year olds. I then got some presents and swamped by them climbing all over me. One kid couldn’t take me leaving and started crying. They will be missed.

It turned out I have to leave to country and return to Japan to renew my visa. So I will have a brief holiday in Seoul, South Korea, then back to Japan for my last day at Intersect SFL. And then I will start my new job and new life in Japan.

How not to climb Mt. Fuji

After the girls left I had only a few days of well needed relaxation time before I had another strenuous excursion planned. I was to climb Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, reaching a not so modest 3776m. However, it is a popular challenge for both the Japanese and tourists. Many people climb it every year, so my confidence was pretty high. I felt like it was going to be a challenge, although something that I shouldn’t be too worried about. I had arranged to climb with my friend Cam and we had agreed on the 3rd of July to start a night climb, walking through the night to catch the sunrise at the mountain peak. The few days before the climb Cam was quite busy so we didn’t get much of a chance to organise anything, which was probably needed for a mountain hike. Nonetheless, we met up on the 3rd and sorted out our provisions. Lots of food, drink, warm clothes and a Lego man headlamp. Once packed we went to get some food before we got the bus, and a cheap izakaya sufficed. At only ¥180, we couldn’t resist and had a couple of beers, which in hindsight was probably our our first problem. (#1 non-tip: Drink beer before going on the treacherous 12 hour hike)

We caught the bus from outside Shinjuku station, booking a return that got us to Fuji 5th station around 10pm and left about 10am the next morning, at certainly a reasonable price. This is probably one decent piece of advice I could give to potential climbers. Use the “Keio highway” bus, a return is only about ¥4500. While waiting for the bus, Cam’s bag decided to break and the zip fell open, spaying the contents of the bag all over the floor. So we went on an emergency safety pin hunt, but luckily Japanese “konbini” are extremely resourceful. (#2 non-tip: Bring a bag that will break and isn’t waterproof). The bus took just under a couple of hours so we managed to get some kip along the way. We arrived at Kawaguchiko 5th station just before 10pm. It was pitch black and pissing it down. There was a souvenir shop open, so we ducked inside and used the toilets, geared up, and then set off into the darkness, to follow the Yoshida trail. We had a quick glance at the map but felt confident there was only one way there…up. At first the walking was easy, we actually started on a slight downhill, then gently ascended through some forest and up a friendly slope. It took us about an hour to reach the 6th station, maybe even less time. So we were elated with confidence and strode right past it, wanting to carry on. However, we should have looked more carefully at the map, as this was probably the most important split in the trail. (#3 non-tip: don’t take a map or bother to look at them, they are not useful).

At the 6th station we took a left and powered on. The first stretch was a long and steady uphill and the ground became increasingly forbearing, as the terrain started to turn into loose gravelly stones. We came to a map on a signpost and saw that our route was to follow a long series of zigzags slowly ascending up the mountain. The biggest indicator that we may have taken a wrong route was that the route was marked with “trail down mountain”. At first we didn’t think this would be much of a problem, “up is up, right?”, but this confidence soon died after a couple of zigs and then a couple of zags. Each one was incredibly steep and completely layered with those loose stones, so it literally felt like walking up sand, which is not easy. By now the rain and wind was relentless. The wind was so strong at points it almost blew us over and the rain soaked us and made the ground even harder to walk on. It was so dark and our headlamps weren’t that powerful so we could probably only see about 2 metres in front of us, which became problematic as we frequently lost track of the path, leading us to the danger of on one side nearly walking off the mountain and the other side into a massive mound of rock face (#4 non-tip: buy your hiking gear on the basis on novelty not practicality). The down route had no 7th station so we had to trek it straight to the 8th, taking a few zigzags at a time then huddling in the rain catching our breath. This part took us around 3 to 4 hours and was literally like hell on earth. I thought I was going to die. (#5 non-tip: take the “trail down” route going up is just as easy and twice as fun).

When we arrived at the 8th station we immediately looked for a warm place to rest. There was a hut with people going inside and we asked if we could come in and rest. The cabin master, bluntly refused while laying out comfy futons and warm blankets for the lucky patrons. I asked if we could buy a coffee with the hope he would let us stay while we drank. “Yes, you can have coffee. Go wait outside”. So he made me wait by a window outside, which he swung open and hastily thrust me two coffees, rain pouring into them. In response to that hospitality we went and hid the toilets. After our smelly coffee break, it was out of comfort back into the relentless rain. We powered on up and made it to the 8.5th station within another hour or so but fatigue was really setting in. We went into another hunt for an overpriced coffee, luckily this place was kind enough to let us stay for 15 minutes. Only 15 minutes, they were quite strict. Here we spoke to some climbers who had woken up from their cozy beds to inspect the weather. They all seemed far to sensible and thought we were mad for being so blasé about climbing to the top. When time was up we psyched up for the next 400m to the top. I don’t remember much of this apart from it being the best part of the climb. For some reason it flew by and felt so exhilarating. The ground turned more into large boulders that we started to navigate with both hands and feet, really getting into mountain climbing mode, and the rain died down a bit or I stopped caring. I think that everything started to feel more real, like we were actually going to get to the top and make it there in the time we estimated, in one piece. Then before we knew it there we were there, standing at the top, way above the clouds looking down on everything below.

We stayed and watched the sun rise, slowed peering through the clouds, changing them from blue to a golden yellow. It was certainly beautiful and awe inspiring. I tried to take as many pictures as possible but the respect for my body started to creep back into my mind. We were both soaked from the rain and up there it was below 0. Our wet clothes became like sheets of ice around us, as none of it was particularly waterproof. (#6 non-tip: waterproof clothing is for pussies). Cam made a lovely sight standing trying to get shelter from the icy wind with her hands down her pants in search of warmth. The crotch is a resourceful place. Enough was enough and we needed to start our walk back down. We rushed back down as morning arrived. We crashed in another hut near the 8.5th station and gained comfort from some miso soup. By now I was going crazy. I felt dead and couldn’t stop groaning with tired and fed up noises. Cam found this hilarious but I could barely feel my feet, or my sanity. Slowly we encouraged ourselves to get up and carry on and we started to trudge down the “trail down” like it was meant to be done. It was so much easier than on the way up. The looseness of the stones allowed you to almost skid and slide down the mountain. I think by now we were both too fatigued to care anymore and everything seemed hilarious, allowing us to get back to the 5th station a step at a time. It was nice walking down into the heat, as the sun got brighter and it steadily got hotter. Finally so did we, which felt unreal, something we had lacked for the previous 7 hours. It took us roughly 5 hours to get back to the bus stop, where we just crashed on the floor. There we waited impatiently for our coach to arrive looking like zombies sprawled on the ground. The 5th station is quite a tourist spot, therefore buses and buses of children and old people were unloaded. Some tried to take pictures around us, trying to capture their moment on Fuji mountain, however they probably should have taken a picture with us to get a taste of what the mountain is really about and what evils it brings. When our bus finally arrived we both got on and rested our heads not saying a word, glad it was finally over, after no sleep and a 12 hour straight hike covering thousands of vertical metres. (#7 non-tip: don’t climb Mt. Fuji).

Round 3 around Japan (part 2)

After a long sleep at mine, mostly throughout the day due to our 8am return, we packed up ready for a trip west, to Kansai area. We were to catch a night bus from outside Shinjuku station in Tokyo, for a morning arrival in Kyoto. Shinjuku is a lovely, huge, metropolitan area with lots of nice pockets to see, and we wished to experience some of this before getting on the bus. However, the instructions for the bus location were simply outside the station west exit, and because of the vastness and size of Shinjuku and the station itself it proved more difficult than the instructions made us initially believe. We ended up walking for almost a couple of hours asking various people who all seemed either clueless or pointed us in the wrong direction, finally arriving in the unexpected, but correct, location on the second floor of a massive skyscraper, thus, wasting all our sightseeing time. So we had a Seven Eleven dinner, got on the bus and awaited for the morning and Kyoto to arrive.

Unnecessarily early the next day, we arrived, although went straight from one bus to another, heading once again for Andy’s house, my Japanese Kyotonian friend. After a quick nap, we hopped on the mountain train line up to Kurama, to soak in the local natural onsen. Kurama, is a cute little place, barely more than a single road lined with wooden houses, a river running beside and surrounded by a forest of large green trees. Once at the onsen we paid our entrance and we were given towels and a “yukata”, a traditional Japanese bathrobe. Most disappointingly they told us the outside pools were closed, which was mainly why we were there, however the inside was still natural water. I parted ways with the girls, stripped down and got my zen on. When revitalised, I put on my yukata and met the girls in the common room where we got some nice snaps in our lovely attire. The girls seemed to enjoy it, however, Rosa still didn’t quite agree with the necessity to be naked. So feeling fresh, we were now set on food. I heard of this nice place in the next valley called Kibune, walk-able from Kurama, where the restaurants are built over a river. You could walk up to a temple in the hills and walk down the other side to Kibune, a plan we decided on. The walk up to the temple, was more than I expected and it replaced our fresh clean feeling achieved from the onsen with a sweaty exhausted feeling. However Kurama-dera temple was worth it. Set in the rolling hills, with beautiful scenery it was incredibly peaceful. Rosa managed to find a room underneath the temple that was a maze of shelves lined with urns dimly lit by candle light. It was a little bit ominous but wonderfully amazing. The temple was only about half way up Kurama-yama mountain, which we had to walk over to get to Kibune, so we had to power on and up. It was actually not such a bad walk, it just made us more sweaty and more hungry. When we reached Kibune, we immediately looked for somewhere to eat, but disappointment soon dawned on us. Due to the rain most places were closed, and the unique decking areas over the river that I wanted to experience were not in use. The few places that were open were incredibly expensive, some from ¥12,000 a person! After walking around in the round the rain, tummies rumbling, one of the less expensive restaurants took pity on us and offered us some “soumen”, a type of noodles, for a much more affordable price. It was good, with the nice warm tea, and also just to rest and be out the rain. Although the potion size was very Japanese. When we finished the owner kindly drove us to the train station so we could get back to main Kyoto. So it turned out as a bit of a result.

In the evening we went in to Gion area to find some dinner. We looked around a few places, some izakayas were offering “nomihodai” and “tabehodai”, the all-you-can eat and drink options, but Andy has said that he would meet us later and show us a real cheap place. So to start ourselves off we found this nice little street bar that had a some food stalls, got a couple of beers and some “takoyaki”, the battered octopus balls. Andy then met us there and led us to this awesome izakaya. The deal was you paid ¥1500 and you could drink until your hearts content until the place closed, which of course was fantastic. It also allowed us to spend more money on food. We tried some kind of raw octopus salad that I can say I was not that fond of, but interestingly we all loved dried skate fin. It was incredible, like a slightly chewy crisp. After the drinks got flowing, Taz was up for learning a bit of Japanese, so Andy and I were getting her to say phrases to the waiters as they gave us food and drinks, such as “anata no chinko wa dekai desuka?”, which means “do you have a big penis?”. It got some pretty hilarious results, as they struggled to reply in English, but they loved it. We left early in the morning after much sake, beer and umeshu (plum shouchu, a sake like liquor).

The next day, due to the previous banter fueled late night, we got up pretty late, but had really lovely and more relaxed day. We went to the 1000 gate shrine, Fushimi. It was beautiful weather so we got to walk around much more of it than I did last time. It really is surprisingly huge. It goes on for miles winding up and down through forest, lakes and waterfalls. At one point we were joined by a cat who kindly gave us some affection and posed for some pictures. I highly recommend Fushimi. Later we tried to catch the happenings of Nishiki market, although we arrived a bit late and the days work was pretty much over. So we headed back and treated Andy to an aunty Rosa dinner. The next day, it was my birthday! We were off to Osaka in the evening but decided to get one last day of good sightseeing in Kyoto. We went to Kiyomizu, the temple set in the hills that over looks the city below. I like this temple because a spectacularly vast graveyard covers a whole side of the hill up to the temple and it gives a powerful feel to the whole place. Within the temple there is this area where 2 sacred rocks face each other separated by about 20 paces. The myth behind them is if you can successfully walk between them with your eyes closed your true love will be realised. Rosa made a successful attempt, so watch out Josh. Our next spot was Nijo castle. I was excited about this as I missed it last time I was in Kyoto as I was far to hungover to go sightseeing. It was impressive, although very modest for a castle. The walls around it was huge, but the castle itself was not what I was expecting, it was smaller than I thought and very subtly decorated inside, with barely any furnishings. However, the squeaky floor was enjoyable. All of the wooden boards inside squeak when you walk on them, supposedly like a nightingale, but I am not convinced. Back it the day it was to alert the residence of intruding ninjas and such like, now it is just good fun to bounce up and down squeaking away. Before we got on the train to Osaka we made one last try with Nishiki market, and it was definitely worth it. It was ripe with the finest Japanese foods. Many places sold Kyoto’s famous “Oshinko” pickles, all with taster dishes out the front, so we got to walk along the market sampling as we went along. A common item for sale was this whole little baby octopus on a stick with a quails egg inflating its head, making it look extra alien. A little too much for me to try. We all bought some “Shichimi”, a seven spice mix great for topping anything. The women in the shop let us try a variety. The original one was pretty spicy but the wasabi one definitely gave us a smack in the face.

A quick birthday beer later and we jumped on the train to Osaka for a little birthday banter. Spruced up and bags dumped at the hostel we made our way straight to Doutonbori, the hub of the south Osaka, for nightly happenings. Doutonbori is great. Each place boasts an elaborate shop front with huge octopi climbing out the walls or dragons flying about, I even saw a huge cluster of gyoza dumplings, each bigger than me. Everywhere is brightly illuminated by flashing lights and screens and the local youth walk around with their “Vijyuarukei” (visual rock) hairstyles, looking like someone out of final fantasy. We started a little izakaya crawl, hopping from place to place when our “nomihodai” (all you can drink) time had run out. At one place I got to try some horse sushi. Delicious, tender and different. The night progress quickly and soon it was no longer my birthday, but it didn’t matter because it was a good one running around the streets of Doutonbori. The next morning check out was at 10am. Not so great when we had got back to the hostel around 5am. When we felt a little bit more alive we explored Shinsekai area, where the retro looking and very bladerunner-esque Tsutenkaku tower inhabits. We sampled the local culinary specialty of “Kush-katsu”, literally loads of things fried in breadcrumbs on sticks. We found this one place and hung their, sampling the variety. Andy came to meet us and we went into Nihonbashi, an area that resembles the geekiness of Akihabara in Tokyo. The girls were on a hunt for some souvenir manga, but most shops we tried we just sold walls and walls of porn DVDs. Andy pointed out this one controversial shop that we made sure to avoid, as it specialised in school girl erotic goods, literally like 13 year old girls. Very disturbing. Japan can surprise you around every corner. Soon it was nearing our time in Osaka, and Taz’s time in Japan. We slowly made our way to the station, collecting souvenirs along the way, but by then it was time for Taz to catch her flight out of Japan. Then there were only two. Another night bus back to Tokyo, almost sapped all of our energy that had been battered for the past ten days of intense exploration around Japan. Me and Rosa managed to make it for quick walk around Harajuku, but it was too much to take, so we sat in a friends bar, eating and drinking, then crashed out for one last rough sleep in an internet cafe. Then the next morning it was goodbye for Rosa and once again, I was back to my normal life in Japan, however already missing the great times we had just had.

Round 3 around Japan (part 1)

After a few weeks of mostly work and no play it was time welcome some more visitors from England, two of my friends from Uni, Taz and Rosa. The visiting party was meant to be 3, the absent being Max, Taz’s traveling buddy, who unfortunately caught dengue fever when they were in Thailand, a few days before their flight to Japan. So I met Taz alone after a day at work on Thursday, at Hamamatsucho station where the shuttle ends from Haneda airport, and then headed into Ueno. We didn’t waste much time and went straight to an izakaya to drink, eat and, most importantly, catch up. We exchanged our experiences of traveling over beers and food. Although the night caught up quickly on us and we headed to an internet cafe for somewhere to stay. Normally these internet cafes have a huge library of manga and dvds you can chose to use, however the place we picked seemed to specialise in porn. Walls and walls of porn. As we checked in we were each given a basket, seemingly to fill it with as many naughty dvds as we could muster. However we were there for the sleep. The booths we stayed in were mainly taken up by a huge 40inch TV for which patrons could use to enjoy their basketful of porn. The next morning we got up and met Rosa at the train station. We dumped the heavy bags and headed for our first destination, the Studio Ghibli Museum, the pinnacle of Japanese animation. The museum is really special. It is like a fantasy fun house, with every little detail very Ghibli-esque. Its mainly filled with innovative ways to animate using crazy contraptions mostly allowing a hands on experience. There are spiral staircases leading you up to the roof where a giant robot from “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” awaits and several rooms set up to look like the creative spaces of Hayao Miyazaki, all covered in beautiful illustrations and tools of inspiration. You also get to watch a Ghibli short film that is unique to the museum, staring a creature made out of bread with an apple for a nose. The only thing I will comment is that there is a certain lack of Totoro, only a big one by the entrance, and the Cat Bus is only for kids to play on. No fair. After our fill of Ghibli we had a superb Japanese style late lunch, and later headed into Akihabara for a quick tour. We did a little gaming and browsed “electric town” and the “Otaku” (geeky) collector stores marveling over the array of manga figurines. Although fatigue hit us all and we settled for going back to mine to relax and get some grub.

The following day I had quite a long day at work so nothing much was accomplished in the day apart from the girls catching up on sleep that the had lost from the jet lag. They came to meet me when I was finishing up with work and briefly met Teru. We then headed out for some ¥105 sushi. I got them to try uni (sea urchin) and natto (fermented soya bean) with most unentertaining results, as they both didn’t mind either so much. For some reason I was feeling adventurous with the more neo-sushi, such as, meatball, hamburger, and bacon, which again only turned out with a disappointing outcome. However, cheap sushi is always good because you can eat lots, so if you don’t like something it doesn’t matter, just get something else. The next morning (well when we got up, which actually was nearing afternoon) we headed to the mountain town, Nikko, home of the Tōshōgu temple complex. I really like this area as all the temples are nestled among towering trees and it is really peaceful. We arrived pretty late so had to power sightseeing before things closed. Tōshōgu is pretty impressive. It is lavishly decorated with gold and intricately designed with twirling patterns merging into dragons and other godly deities. You can gain entrance to one of the main halls to bear witness to a rather spooky phenomenon. A monk in various places around the room hit a pair of wooden blocks only producing the expected sound, although once demonstrated under the head of the dragon painted on the ceiling above did it produce a eerily long and echoing sound, like he secretly wacked up the reverb level. I had heard of this before, but did not realise how baffling it actually is.  We just about managed to squeeze all the sights in just in time. We found a nice cafe and got some tea and cake, taking refuge from the heavy rain until the place closed and it was time to head home.

On Monday, we met up with Teru, his wife, Kumiko, and one of my students for a nice lunch. After eating we got into the discussion of kanji and they tried to make some good kanji names for Taz and Rosa. Among the good ones we found there were also the hilarious ones. We tried one for Rosa’s boyfriend, Josh, which can be 女手, read Jyoshu, translating to “lady hands”. For Taz, whose full name is Tazuko, a Japanese name thus allowing many possibilities, one of which is 他頭壺 roughly translating to “strangers heads in pots”. One of the more interesting ones. When lunch was over, we said our goodbyes and headed into Tokyo. We tried to go to the Edo history museum although we managed to pick one specific days that it was closed so then decided to have a look around Asakusa area, to see Sensoji temple and wander the bustling streets. We later went to Shibuya and thought it wise to have a little break from walking so we ducked in for a coffee in a “cat cafe”. It pretty much is no more complicated than that. It is just like any other cafe where you can buy drinks and relax reading a magazine or whatever, although it is just full of cats. The place is packed with scratching posts, cat beds and various other things for the cats leisure. There was one chatty old man that I got talking to and he told me that he had 6 cats at home, which made me wonder why he had the need to come to a cat cafe. It is pretty calming chilling out stroking some cats. I highly recommend it.

After our cat time was up we got our drink on. I took them to the cheap izakaya I know in Shibuya. Only ¥120 for a beer. Our plan was get a bit drunk and stay up partying as we had planned to go to Tsukiji fish market, the biggest in the world, to catch the notorious tuna auction. After our warm up at the izakaya we headed for a club. Once in a queue, I said “has everyone got their I.Ds?”. Taz’s face dropped. The bouncers at that club clocked on she didn’t have any I.D so we were forced to go elsewhere. Rosa had two forms of ID, so we tried getting Taz in with one of them. Suprisingly, a bouncer fell for this and let in two “Rosa Marvels” with the same birthday one after the other. Despite our success of getting in somewhere, the club was terrible. Small, lifeless, empty and most of all bad music. However, we decided it best to work very hard and liven up the club by dancing like fools and embarrass everyone by forcing them to join in, with actually quite good results. It turned out to be a good night. Although it wasn’t over yet. When it reached about four, we left and jumped in a taxi to Tsukiji. After the taxi dropped us off we eventually found where we needed to be. Each of us got a special little bib to wear and we waited with everyone else that had turned up to see the tuna auction. I believe that we were the only ones there that were drunk, hadn’t slept and looked pretty disheveled. To keep my sanity I got talking to this old American couple for ages. They were both university lecturers of finance, so I can only imagine what crap I was talking to them about at 4.30 in the morning.

After waiting about an hour for our turn, we were led into the auction area, which was a thin little sectioned of area right in the middle of the tuna warehouse. There were, unsurprisingly, a crazy amount of tuna, and some took me by surprise at how incredibly big they were. All the buyers were walking around inspecting the catch of the day by scrutinizing the section of exposed flesh near the tail. When the auctioning started everything seemed to speed up. The auctioneers, spoke with such a crazy rhythm with such speed and animation, it almost brought a theatrical aspect to the auction. One auctioneer threw his arms around, waving his bell about, and jumped up and down on his little box so much that it almost look like he was dancing. One of the buyers looked so upset at not winning his bid, his mate had to rub his back for comfort. Each fish got dragged off after the winning bid was made, by someone brandishing a ice-pick thing that effortlessly stuck into the fish. After the auction was over we were led back to the entrance, although through the utter chaos of the market. Everyone was rushing around on these tiny one man flatbed vehicle things without the slightest bit of concern for the trail of tourists. It was pretty spectacular as we really got to see the inner workings and liveliness of the market. Although, by this point everything felt so much more surreal due to our lack of sleep. So after the tour was over we made sure we got the train straight home to get some well deserved sleep.

Sumo and Envy

After Jake and Katy left it was back to work for me. I led a relaxed life the few weekends after, which suited me nicely as it was nice to do nothing, like catch up on reading, gaming and music. However, I had something rather special to look forward to. The previous month I had booked tickets for a day at the summer Tokyo sumo wrestling tournament that was held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo hall. The tickets sell out relatively quickly as there are only 6 sumo tournaments held each year, three in the Ryogoku Kokugikan, the others each in Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya. So I did not manage to get the best seats in the house, the ones that are literally metres from the ring, but instead seating tickets on the second floor mezzanine. The day crept up fast and it was time to see some belling slapping salt throwing action. The tickets allowed us entry from 8am, a time that is a bit hardcore early seeing as bouts do not start until around 10.30 and end around 6pm. So still fairly eager to get our moneys worth I met my friend Cam outside at around 10. The Ryogoku Kokugikan is extremely close to the station and it stands out quite a bit. It is a huge square building with a dominating pyramid like roof, and is very hard to miss. On my way there I spotted a few “rikishi” (sumo wrestlers) dressed in colourful robes, wearing “geta”, the traditional wooden sandals, getting of the train with the rush of everyone else, towering over the normal Japanese person.

We went inside, and found our seats. The place was fairly empty as it was still early in the day and the big stars did not come on until much later. Although this was good for us as we could wander around and admire the place. We walked as far down to the ring, or “dohyo”, as we could and got a few snaps. The dohyo itself is only about 7-8 metres square but it made out from a huge metre thick slab of clay and the huge “tsuriyane” hovers over it. The tsuriyane looks like a roof stolen off a Shinto shrine with 4 giant coloured tassels hanging down from each corner to symbolise each of the four seasons. The first set of matches started, the lower class rikishi fighting for promotion into a higher ranking. The bouts sometimes only last a matter seconds if a competitor is heavily out skilled or out weighed, as there are no weight limits or classifications. However, we witnessed this one fight between a slightly muscly built skinny guy and a ginormous fat guy, and to much of the crowds surprise the skinny guy flattened the big chubber. We watched a few of these matches to get the feel of the vibe and the game. Despite the low ranking, you would still get the odd fan screaming out a name for encouragement.

Later we ducked out to fill our boots with food and beer as to make ourselves comfortable for when the big boys came on. On the way back in Cam spotted a sumo special プリクラ (print club) photo booth, where you could get a creepy distorted photo of yourself with a superimposed picture of the top dogs of Sumo. It was too hard to resist. Back inside we got ourselves comfortable and watched the remaining lower ranked matches until the “maku-uchi” ranks started. These include the top five ranks of sumo, right up to the “Yokuzuna”, the highest ranked rikishi. Before these ranking bouts start the group from the east and then the west come on to the dohyo wearing their elaborately embroidered aprons and gather in a circle and perform an entrance ceromony. Then each bout started after a wailing tune was sung from a kimono clad man. These wrestlers did not just jump into conflict, instead they were allowed time to intimidate their opponent by glaring at them slapping themselves all over and roaring. They throw salt to cleanse the dohyo and their bodies of evil spirits, which is then neatly swept away by a budding team of sweepers. The rikishi showboating performances got the crowd excited with anticipation, and the screams and shouts got louder the higher the rikishi threw the salt or the more intense the stare got. Then suddenly after one final stare they would crash into each other to force their opponent out of the ring or chuck them to the floor. Some would push with such force that their opponent would fly right out of the ring and crush a referee or an unlucky spectator. Others would make a fatal wrong footing and loose balance, falling down to their defeat. If both fell at the same time in a tumble the referees would gather and decide on a winner. When it got to the really high ranks, lines of men would circle round the dohyo holding scrolls of the rishiki’s sponsors. Nothing is modern about sumo. It felt as if I was watching it 200 years ago it would be exactly the same. When the final Yokuzuna fight started each rikishi performed their own entrance ceremony, with surprising dexterity, raising up their legs and stamping their feet, then finishing with a shuffling movement up the white lines of the dohyo. They both fought with might, but the stronger Yokuzuna, Hakuho, was declared the winner after throwing his opponent to the floor. He was then honored with a bow with which he performed a final victory display, waving and spinning it all around the place. So then after countless amounts of bouts, some more exciting than others, it was all over, but I can say I was amazed by my first sumo experience.

The next weekend I had something completely different lined up. Teru had managed to get us guest pass tickets for the Japanese post-hardcore band “Envy”. I was really interested to see them as in my interview for Intersect me and Teru talked about them as I expressed interest in the Japanese band “Mono”, who are friends with Envy as they are both signed to “Temporary Residence” records for releases in America, and I said I also like “Errors” and “Mogwai”, who are both signed with Envy to the UK label “Rock Action”. Teru has been translating lyrics for Envy for about 15 years now, I even helped out on one, meaning he is good friends with band, thus why he was able to get good tickets. It was on a Saturday so we had work but Teru had arranged it so we had minimal lessons and could get off early. The gig was held at Liquid Rooms in Ebisu, Tokyo, a relatively large capacity venue, and where I previously saw Beach House. They were the only band to play as it was the start of their 20 year anniversary tour. They played for over 2 hours and were loud, pretty diverse, playing old and new songs, the old ones being faster and harder the newer ones being more progressive and layered. I had not been to a gig like that for a long time and it was really refreshing to get my ears blasted. The crowd were loving it, moshing and crowd surfing. The lot. There seemed to be a lot of devoted fans, especially this one really odd white guy that insisted on running around and shouting “Yeeeeaaaaah! in people faces, which I’m sure impressed no one . There is always one arkward white guy. After their impressive set Teru got us back stage to say hello to his old friends. Although we did not stay that long. The intensity of the Japanese was a bit too much for me to get involved, however, I did get to say “hi” to the band. Later headed home ears ringing, satisfied by a night of good music.

Jake and Katy visiting (part 3, Kyoto and back)

The bus dropped us off in Kyoto really early the next morning. Dazed and confused we headed to Maccy D’s for a coffee and breakfast. After waking up a bit more I tried to get my bearings and tried to get us heading in a sensible direction, but instead got increasingly frustrated when I kept getting us lost. We hopped on a bus that took us in the opposite direction to where I thought we were going, unaware and exhausted we started to dose off. Luckily I snapped out of my nap when I heard the announcement for the stop by my friend, Andy’s house and I dragged everyone off. We were not where we intended but it was a start. I told Andy we would not be there until much later, and tried knocking on the door, only to no answer. I slid the door open a little and saw they had obviously been partying as there was some guy sleeping in the corridor with sick smeared on his pillow. So, we slipped our bags in the porch and left them to later enjoy their hangover. From his house I was able to navigate us to Arashiyama, the western area of Kyoto. This is a quaint little area set by the river side. Here we went climbed up the not so modest Mt. Arashiyama to the Iwatayama Monkey Park, inhabited by Japanese macaques. The monkeys dominate the area and run around everywhere, groom one another, relax in patches of shade or bicker with one another, completely unabashed by the humans. At the top of the mountain you get a spectacular city wide view of Kyoto, with the added enjoyment of the company of monkeys. There was a feeding area, although, unlike a zoo, people were caged in feeding the monkeys that were running freely outside. While we were there some filming crew were filming some Japanese girls clad in school uniform, as is the norm in Japan, squealing when the monkeys competed over the presented piece of apple. Some are amazingly cute and will just hang on the side of the cage, palm stretched out expectantly and will ever so gently take the food from your hand. From the monkey park we wandered around the bamboo grove and Arashiyama, which is completely merited by its beauty, although I think we were starting to care less and less due to hunger and exhaustion. So, we headed to Gion area for some food and time to sit down, then headed back to Andy’s for a night of rest.

The next morning we got up fairly early to set off for our sight seeing as we had agreed to be back at Andy’s for a BBQ around lunchtime. We first visited Kyoto’s iconic Kinkakuji golden temple, which was nice to see although crazily crowed because of the Golden Week influx. We then went to Ryoanji temple, considered to be the home of one of Japan’s best rock gardens. This is quite a special place, the temple itself is nestled in the surroundings of a large pond and gardens. Once you enter you of course take of you shoes and can perch on a decking area that overlooks the minimalist rock garden. And it really is minimalist. 5 or 6 rocks sit among finely raked gravel. Serious or not, people spend their time contemplating the meaning this garden. We gave it a good 10-15 minutes of long hard contemplating, with probably not much luck at extracting any significance. We then headed back to Andy’s ready for our BBQ. We made some burgers and got some drinks to start what was meant to be a brief interval between sightseeing. Although, as more people arrived the time crept on, and the drink went down. From then we never made it back out again to view some of the sights of Kyoto, instead we got increasingly drunk in the company of Andy, his friends, his housemates, and two other couch surfers, a guy from Czech and a guy from Belgium, who were also staying at his house. For me the night soon became a blur, possibly due to an introduction of “sake beer bombs”, however it was filled with great chat and banter. We even got a sing song from one of the girls. At some point in the night we all hid in between the shutters and pretended to not exist as the landlord came knocking at the door, and Andy did not want to alert him of party activity as there were still tomato ketchup stains around the house from the drunken sauce fight a couple nights before. At some point after buying another 2 bottles of whiskey the booze was too much for me and Andy dragged me upstairs to my pass-out spot. The next day was a real struggle and basically a wasted day for me because of my excruciating hangover. Now I remember the Japanese for hangover, though. Jake and Katy left me to be ill and went off to get some sightseeing done. So I missed out on Nijo castle, which was one thing I wanted to do. I met them later to get a bite to eat and wander around Gion for some last minute shopping and browsing. That night we left Kyoto on another night bus back to Tokyo. I had a great time, although felt like I hadn’t made the cultural effort I should have made in the cultural capital of Japan. Nonetheless Jake and Katy seemed to have a wicked time there, and in retrospect we did get up to a lot.

7 or 8 hours later we were outside Tokyo station really early in the morning. We hopped on a train to Ueno and found a manga cafe to catch a few more hours of well needed sleep. After waking we strolled around the now bustling marketplace of Ameyoko street for a while and headed to Ueno Zoo. We found out that it was free to get in, which was a bonus, however it seemed like everyone else in Japan took up this offer. It was so incredibly busy that to see the new panda resident it was over a two hour queue. Despite this is was a wonderful day and it is always nice to stroll around looking at animals. Towards the evening we headed into Shibuya to get some grub at Shakey’s, an all-you-can-eat pizza place. It is pretty amazing. For ¥1000 you get to eat as much as you want, but also for an extra ¥500 you can drink as much as you want, too. Alcohol and everything. Amazing. Just as well because that evening we were going to see Andy C at the club Womb. After refueling we met up with some friends and went into the club for one last night of devious behaviour. Of course Andy C was wonderfully flawless. It had been a while since I had been to a DnB night so it was nice and refreshing. We left around 4 in the morning as our plan was to go to Tsukiji fish market to see the famous tuna auction. We got in a taxi and were on our way. Although on arrival, for being the largest fish market in the world in was desolately quiet. I asked one of the few people there and he confirmed it was shut. Golden week closure. Dammit. Luckily the taxi driver noticed us looking lost for what to do and did a u-turn and picked us back up. He kindly drove us all the way back to Tokyo station, with occasional detours to give us a little guided tour, all free of charge. Absolutely shattered we slumped on a train back to Kazo. Slightly unfortunately we had arranged to meet up with Teru and his family for lunch that afternoon. So with barely stepping foot in my apartment and with minimal sleep we were back out again. However, it was actually a really nice and well needed meal and afterwards they incredibly kindly rushed all around Kazo with us getting the last minute things ready for Jake and Katy’s departure. Teru drove us all to Kazo station and from there it was goodbye, after an amazing few weeks.

Jake and Katy visiting (part 2, Kawaguchiko)

After visiting Kamakura we got on the train again and made an unnecessarily long journey to Kawaguchiko, a town name after it’s lake. Lake Kawaguchiko is one of the “Fujigoko”, 5 lakes of Mt Fuji. We arrived late in the night in this peaceful town, everything was quiet and sleeping. We were shattered but luckily our hostel was just across from the station. We chucked our stuff in our room and decided to relieve our aching bodies with a wash. I discovered on the top floor an onsen, a Japanese style public bath, although an unnatural one. The rules are pretty simple for use. You have to wash before you can get in the steaming hot bath, and only naked. No swim wear or towels allowed. Luckily when I braved it and went in there was only one other man, who left soon after I got in. So I got the whole place just to chill out.

In the morning I washed in the onsen again and was pleasantly surprised by the breathtaking view out of the wall sized window that had been obscured by the dark the previous night. There I was sat relaxing in a steaming hot bath with postcard perfect sight of Mt Fuji. What a great way to wake up. We left to have a wander and find our hostel for the next night that was located nearer to Kawaguchiko lakeside. Kawaguchiko town is not much less sleepy in the day. It is small, cute and barely interferes with the natural beauty it is surrounded by. We had to walk through the town and cross the bridge over the lake to get to our hostel, constantly stopping to take pictures of the increasingly arresting views of Mt Fuji. We checked into our hostel and hopped on the free bikes it provided and went for a little explore around the lake. An old man tried to sell us a speed boat ride around the lake with a enthusiastic pitch, despite his limited English. He just repeated “fast, fast, fast, brrrrrraaaaww!!”, accompanied with crazy arm movements and he assured us that we could stand up on the boat as well, which I don’t think convinced us anymore. Instead we settled for the slower, cheaper, and probably safer tourist boat that took us on a gentle 20 minute ride around the lake and as part of the boat ticket we could also go on a cable car up the smaller Mt. Tenjosan to view Fuji and the lake. Here it was nice to sit and have a break taking in the scenery. We got a free postcard made of us in front of Mt. Fuji brandishing Fuji-kun (Fuji Boy) plush dolls posing around a big Tanuki raccoon dog model. Apparently there is some kind of folklore story about these Tanuki tied to Mt. Tenjosan. I am not quite sure what it is, although regardless of not knowing their story, Tanuki statues are always amusing as they are depicted with a garish smile and huge bollocks, even in the childrens’ books.

After enjoying our touristy excursions we thought it would be nice to make our way by bike around the lake to get back to hostel. A little way around the lake a sandy peninsula stretched out with a cute little shrine perched on the end. Me and Jake found it fun to practice skidding on the sand with our bikes. The route around the lake was fairly gentle and rewarding, although we slightly miscalculated how long it would take and did not get back to the hostel until after dark feeling a little spent. To wind down we went to a local restaurant and tried Kawaguchiko’s noodle speciality, “Houtou”. The noodles are big, wide and flat and are served in a broth with vegetables. Everyone chose it with pumpkin, which turned out to be a bad choice as it was disappointingly dry and flavourless. Following dinner we made our way up a steep dark road to go an all natural onsen, named “天水 tensui” or heavenly water. It was a quintessentially Japanese place, mostly made from wood, with paper sliding doors, tatami mats all subtle in appearance. We paid and me and Jake parted ways with Katy to the men’s baths. After stripping down and having a quick wash we followed the door to the outside pools. There was a series of large steaming rock pools molded into the contours of the hill. It was a bit chilly being butt-naked standing outside in the cool springtime night so we did not hesitate to join everyone in the water. At first it was a bit weird bathing with a load of naked strangers, and your brother, which felt like regressing into early childhood. But after some awkward man noises it was amazing to settle and allow the therapeutic qualities of the hot fresh water sooth our aching bodies. We spent time chilling out in all the various pools even the few inside. Even though I was getting more used to the open nakedness, this man decided to bend down and clear the floor of soap in front of the pool I was sitting in, which unfortunately gave me the clear sight of his arse and dangling balls. It was a little bit unsettling. About then was time to get out. Feeling fresh, clean and rid of aches we went back to the hostel. The owner was seemingly a little restless and offered us some whiskey. We chatted for a while sipping our whiskey but soon crashed out.

The next day we took the bikes out again to have a explore. We decided to ride to Lake Saiko (literally meaning west lake), the next lake on from Kawaguchiko. This was a spectacular route and we took a few rests along our way. Human life seemed to become increasingly scarce. One stop we made was at a little cafe perched on the edge of Lake Saiko surrounded only by hills. An old man served us some coffee and cake and we sat and admired the peacefulness. It felt almost eerily different to our shenanigans in Tokyo, nonetheless the contrast was soothing. We carried on round the Lake and visited a “bat cave”. It soon came apparent why we needed hard hats as there were no attempts to make the cave wheelchair/OAP/person accessible. Although we had fun crawling around on our hands and knees we did not see any bats. I think it was the wrong season. Next, a little further on we visited an “ice cave”. Here there was ice, lots of it. This made it dangerously slippery as well as cramped and inaccessible. Health and safety would have gone crazy. Nonetheless this added to the excitement and the icicle room is worth a visit. From here we started to make our way back to Kawaguchiko area and along the way we stopped for a bite in a cafe that conveniently had benches facing the inescapable view of Mt. Fuji, saw children gathering at a spectacular school surrounded only by that same view, and a strange remotely placed shop that only sold wood and stone carvings of Japanese deities and traditional figures. When we returned to the hostel we dropped of the bikes and crashed out. We felt exhausted and were dreading walking back to the station as in those two days we had probably cycled around 50km. Luckily the hostel owner was a great guy and drove us to the station. From here we caught a night bus to our next destination, Kyoto.

Jake and Katy visiting (part 1)

Towards the end of April I prepared myself for visitors. I mainly stayed unoccupied to avoid unnecessary money spending as I knew that soon my brother, Jake, and his girlfriend Katy where coming to visit. What made it even better was that I was going to be having time off work because it was “Golden Week”, a series of national holidays that got bundled into one long week, meaning I could really relish their visit and generally the spirits in Japan will be high. They arrived just before the beginning of “Golden Week” and for the first couple of days they stayed in Tokyo to have some time exploring on their own while I was at work. Then on the Wednesday evening, before the holiday had started, they made their way to Kazo to meet me at Intersect SFL, aided by some vague instructions I had given them. It was all quite surreal as those couple of days at work had been, what is now, normal to me and then just as I am finishing up they come casually walking into my school, like I have just been living round the corner all this time. I think was also surreal for Jake seeing me in a suit. We headed home, made some gyoza, drank and caught up on the almost 8 months since I had seen them last.

The next day in Kazo I had a busy day planned for us. I had work that day but it was the perfect chance for them to come and have a peek at what I actually do with most of my time here. Kindly enough, Teru’s wife had booked a wonderful traditional Japanese restaurant for us to all have some lunch. It was pretty much a feast. The centrepiece was “kamameshi” a  seafood rice dish served in the eponymous pot. The “kama” pot sits in a wooden frame and underneath is a small flame. Once the flame goes out it is ready to eat. Its resembles a Japanese risotto. With this we all each got a fair helping of sashimi, tempura, Japanese pickles, miso soup and some vegetables. I’ve never been a massive fan of seafood and neither has Jake, although I am getting much more used to it now I have been in Japan but I think it was a bit of a shock to him. Still the squid sashimi is something I do not think I will ever get used to. It was a great lunch as it also felt like a proper Japanese experience. We then headed to Fudoka preschool for their first Japanese teaching experience. Jake seemed like he was getting a bit nervous, but I told him there was nothing to be worried about and Michiko, who owns the school made them feel right at home. She even made Katy a cute necklace and origami crane. The kids had been told they were coming so they were extra excited and curious when we started teaching. Unfortunately they were clued up about them so we did not get any funny responses from the questions about where they were from, like they did with me. We practiced food vocab getting Jake and Katy involved and then practiced “do you like?” questions. Me, Jake and Katy asked each student together. Most were quite good but some where a bit overwhelmed by 3 white people asking them questions. Luckily we got no one crying but they did freeze up, mouth open gazing into our strange alien faces. Overall we had a good lesson, I think the kids found us just as amusing as we found them. The next day in Kazo, and the last before we went on our planned travels, we had a more relaxed day. We met Teru and one of my students, Hiromi, for some ramen noodles. For some reason Hiromi wanted to go when the restaurant first opened, so it was more like breakfast, and I never thought I would have ramen for breakfast. Despite this it was the richest and most delicious miso ramen I have had so far, and it was of course accompanied by gyoza. We then went to the local shopping centre for a browse. We tried out all of the massage chairs in the electronics store, marveled over the prairie dog in the pet store, which I now want, and checked out the weird children’s books, including the midget encyclopedia (こびとづかん), a book about poo (うんこ), and arse detective (おしりたんてい).

The next day we set off for Tokyo. We caught the train to Harajuku and went to see the Meiji shrine. It was a beautifully hot day and we were lucky enough to witness the procession of a traditional Japanese wedding being held at the shrine. The bride and groom both dressed in Kimonos, being shaded by people carrying umbrellas, were being followed by their guests in a formal line. The bride wore this interesting Star-Wars-esque hat that is like massive balloon-like chefs hat. Later we wandered through all the bustling areas of Harajuku, such as Takeshita street, looking at the all the hip and wacky shops, slowly walking our way back to Shibuya. It was around rush hour time when we got to Shibuya so it was a great time to walk across the crazy spaghetti junction that Shibuya is famous for. It was then to the cheap izakaya that sells beer for only ¥120 to start our long night ahead. We stayed here for a while drinking and tried one of the most disgusting alcoholic drinks I have drunk, and I assure you I have had my fair share. It was an “ウコンサワー” (Ucon Sour), a turmeric type tea mixed with soda water and “shōchū”, a sake like spirit. After having maybe few two many drinks, we headed to Shinjuku to see Teru’s band perform. It was a pretty wicked gig and it got us in the mood for dancing, it was a little bit of a bad turn out but I think our drunken dancing made up for that. After the gig we met up with some friends back in Shibuya ready for some fun. Jake managed to gear everyone up to go to Ageha, a huge club, if not the biggest in Asia, located a free bus away from Shibuya station, which Jake managed to smash a whole bottle of red wine on when getting on. Getting inside Ageha made me thankful for Jake trooping on and insisting on stamping out our reservations on going, as it is a ridiculous place. It really is huge. The DJ booth is a massive square that ominously floats in the wall over looking a dance floor fit for a game of football. For some reason it even has its own swimming pool, in which I managed to have a quick dip before getting dragged out. It seriously makes no sense why it’s there if you can’t go in! The music was pretty much flawless, too. Despite it being a hedonistic paradise it may have been a bit much for us towards the end of the night. I spent a lot of my time trying to look for a not so cheap hat I was wearing that I had bought as a birthday present for a friend. I had taken off it off with my other clothes when I braved going in the pool and then just wandered off. Jake took a turn for the worst and for much of the night and became well acquainted with the toilet. Katy got worried and did laps of the club looking for Jake, as he had mysteriously disappeared to the only place she could not look, the little boys room. How ever many hours later, I found the hat exactly where I had left it, which I thought would only happen in a Japanese club, Jake emerged and got reunited with Katy. By then the music subsided and it was kick-out.

After leaving the club we then realized we were in a pretty inaccessible part of Tokyo for around 6 in the morning. Jake was not well at all. So instead of getting some form of transport out of there we passed out on some grass, in the blazing hot heat. We got a few hours sleep and also quite sunburnt, which in retrospect probably did not make us feel any better. That Sunday was when we had planned to stray away from Tokyo and start our travels around some of Japan. Surprisingly despite our state after our nap we managed to get on a train and head to Kamakura, a honeypot tourist town a little bit outside of Tokyo. It was a wonderful day, a perfect day for sightseeing, although we had no energy to appreciate anything at all. We visited the “daibutsu”, a large bronze budda, but only through a slit in the gates as it was too much of an effort to go in. We visited a secluded and tranquil shrine that had a wonderful view of the coast, which we enjoyed it by taking another quick nap. We sat down complaining about how rough and tired we were feeling in “Hasedera” temple a really attractive temple accompanied by an equally beautiful Japanese garden. Later we visited the beach to enjoy the nice day and view of the Japanese coastline, but instead caught up on the lost sleep from the previous night. We really adopted the beach bum style. So now I can say I have been to the lovely town of Kamakura, however I do feel I should probably go back.

Entrance Ceromony

This month has been the start of the new school year in Japan lots of the students have been going through changes. Some of my elementary school students have now become junior high students, and some of my junior high students have now moved onto high school students. Moreover, those students at Fudoka preschool I received a farewell from in March have now all been replaced by fresh faces. I have now taught them a few times and they seem to be getting more used to me and Teru. They have just got over the initial shock of me being so tall and white, although they were still terrible at guessing where I was from, China or Korea being the top choices. However they still are not completely at ease with us. When we tried some one-on-one questions a few of them froze completely, staring into oblivion. It took a while to jerk some of them out of this trance like state. One good thing is that all our tricks and silly techniques are completely new to them so they seem to find everything hilarious, which is definitely nice and refreshing. Already you can see the kids that are going to excel. I am looking forward to teaching them more.

Last week we attended the entrance ceremony for the newcomers at Kuki kindergarten, so I got to see all the new kids I will soon be teaching there. The ceremony was quite a contrast to the graduation I saw a few weeks previously. Despite their still being tears, there was definitely no order to this group of kids. Although I do not blame them. Most of them were only about 3 years old and this was probably one of the first times they had to act as independent members of society in the absence of their mummy. So most looked incredibly lost, were crying or finding it hard to sit in these stupid chairs that were all lined up facing a stage for some reason. There were speeches from the teachers to introduce themselves and say something like “let’s have lots of fun!”, some even got the kids to try sing along to a song, only to the success of amusing results. Me and Teru had a quick turn to introduce ourselves, putting on a comedy act to break the ice with children. I pretended to ignore their attempts at shouting “hello” acting bemused as if I could not quite hear what I was hearing. After this teaching experience I now feel like I would be a perfect participant to any pantomime. Sign me up!

The Sakura and Hanami

You know spring has finally come in Japan when all the “sakura”, the infamous cherry blossom trees, have sprung in to bloom. They supposedly arrived early this year and the flowers started to appear a couple of weeks ago. For the Japanese, its a time of year that brings around change and a fresh start to life, as the blossoms miraculously coincide with the new financial year and school years in Japan. Therefore it is a really special time in Japan as everything becomes revolved around these trees for the oddly short amount of time they are in bloom. They even have daily coverage on the news keeping everyone informed about which areas of Japan are starting to blossom and what percentage of full bloom the trees have achieved. I am lucky enough to have a good spot really near my house, the little Suwa Shrine, so every day on the way to work I would be able to notice the progress of the bloomage. Also Teru took me took a place in Kuki on the way to the kindergarten to admire another good spot. Not that surprising but the street was called “Sakura-dori” or cherry-blossom street. It was pretty nice, breathing the fresh air, slightly scented by the flowers all around and seeing the locals enjoying this too, walking their dogs or with their families, just enjoying the arrival of spring time. Although I was itching to witness and be part of the main act of the cherry blossom season, “hanami”, or literally flower watching. The literal translation might sound dull but it fact it is much more exciting. People amass under sakura trees at the greatest known spots around Japan and set themselves up with food, drink and friends to basically have one mega picnic/barbeque/piss up/romantic date/social bonanza…Japanese style.

So on my day off at the weekend I prepared myself to go to Ueno park for my own hanami experience. Ueno park is notoriously one of the best places in Japan for hanami and has been so for hundreds of years. I arranged to meet a friend at the station exit, although when arriving there it was pretty obvious that something was going on as it was even busy by Tokyo standards, and noticeably, there were so many tourists around. I got approached by these two German guys who asked if I was there for a couch surfing organized event. They had me mistaken but I was glad to help them get hold of the organizer with the help of my Japanese mobile. In the end it all escalated into various people joining in on this organized event, but the actual guy who created this event never showed up. Anyway the group of tag-a-longs, me included, all gathered under our designated spot under the trees in Ueno park. I am quite thankful that I joined this group as I would not have found a spot to sit otherwise. It a competitive game to get the best spots under the trees as people arrive extremely early to place their tarpaulin down, marking their hanami territory. Our group got on with our drinking and snacking enjoying the spring time air an occasional shower of pink petals. Everyone that joined brought a handful of goodies to share about, some a little stranger than others. I tried some dried squid that was almost like the texture and edibility of beef-jerky but with a suspicious fishy taste. I just brought gin and tonic, which I thought would suffice. I could not help but admire the setups around us. Two younger businessmen had be working hard for around and hour setting up tables made out of cardboard boxes and neatly placing beer and all of the best Japanese style munch neatly on each make shift table. It was like a properly catered party by the time the rest of their older co-workers arrived. Dusk crept in and all the lanterns lined up amongst the trees started to glow, while everyone got more and more merry. I tried to introduce myself to the group of Japanese businessmen next to us only with great success. The welcomed me to their group handing me some chopsticks and wanting me to try some of their delicacies. They admired my ability to use chopsticks and my poorly constructed Japanese, which I think highly amused by both me and them.

As it started to get a bit cold, people started to dismantle their shanty tables and fashion them as box jackets. It is highly amusing to witness a man in a suit using a cardboard box as an overcoat, and my friend could not help but box-up next to one for a photo opportunity.  Our group also decided it was too cold so headed on to a “shabu shabu” izakaya. “Shabu shabu” is an onomatopoetic name derived from the sound when dipping in thinly sliced beef and vegetables into a big bubbling pot that are placed on each table. It sounds all fancy with its hands on approach and that but this izakaya was “tabehodai” and “nomihodai”, which is basically drink and eat as much as you want. I was extremely pissed by this point and I do not think that the “nomihodai” (all you can drink) did me any good. I remember having fun playing with the food but can not remember much past that. I had to leave to catch the train home as I had an early start at work the next day, but in good spirits managed to get the rest of the izakaya involved in a massive group photo. It seems that everyone around hanami time is very willing to have fun and let loose a little. I felt like I had a good experience of hanami. I think I did what you should do; have fun under some sakura trees, socialize with some local businessmen and of course get really drunk. Now all the sakura trees have shed their leaves, leaving the ground tainted pink, almost as a reminder to focus on the new things that await.