I forgot to mention the one night we stayed in Hakodate was actually spent in what is known as a rider’s house. A motorcyclist hostel of sorts. Greg and I met some of the funniest guys there that night, a bunch of students none of whom were older than 22. Ryosuke, Go, Mamoru and Kenji. Drinking and laughter featured heavily that night. As did a motorcycle ride to fill up a backpack with beer.
Getting onto the bus the next day, a woman gave me the thumbs up sign for the Batman t-shirt I was wearing. I’m pretty sure that all my nods of approval for anything t-shirt related invoked some sort of ‘eye-rolling’ response from Gregglypuff.
Matsushima. The inlet with something like 150 small islands all around the place. I can still remember the maniacal laughter from the guy at the ticket booth who said it was impossible to get lost because the town was so small… But then came the maniacal laughter, which made me think twice. Millee, whom I’d befriended the night before, had agreed to come along to Matsushima with us from Sendai. So, we made the mistake of feeding her Black Thunder ice-cream. All manner of madness ensued from that point on.
At one point she was asking me to act like I was swimming in a gutter that had a very limited supply of water running through it. Many other random, random moments occurred that day. I’m not sure whether my memory is failing me or I’m just repressing them.
Matsushima was a gorgeous little town, though. So many mini islands to explore and roam around on.
Tokyo. Where do I even start with Tokyo? In total we had three separate stays in Tokyo. The first was at a place which was like, 30-40 odd minutes from Tokyo central and that weekend was packed with two different events on sequential days.
The first event was Tokyo Game Show (TGS), which should have been the Mecca for me of all things about me that represent my nerdy/geekier instincts. Instead it was kind of awkward and really off-putting. I would even argue that I don’t play as many video games now as I did before experiencing TGS. For those of you not in the know, there’s something called Booth Babes at these kind of things. That is, women dressed like characters from the games that are either scantily-clad or wielding some ungainly weapon that is meant to turn guys on for some reason. Odd that a massive phallic symbol that fires things would turn guys on, but have at it, you socio-sexual analyst types.
Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of attractive women dressed in all manner of costumes, etc, which is all well and good. And a lot of the Cosplay was very creative and well done too. However, what I couldn’t abide by was the amount of guys LEERING with cameras at the ready, almost like they were locking away image after image in their spank banks and creating an idyllic fantasy world in which these women would actually choose to come within 10 metres of them. But here’s the weirder thing – no-one actually monitored this kind of thing or told guys to actually stop at any point.
TGS did afford me the opportunity to purchase random video game merchandise, though. So it wasn’t all bad.
Sumo. When planning the trip to Japan, my friend Greg and I were discussing things we could do in Tokyo. It was pure coincidence that TGS was on at the time it was that enabled me to actually partake in witnessing all it had to offer, same goes for sumo wrestling.
At the time, Hakuho had a string of some ridiculous amount of victories – 53 in a row, I believe – and was fast approaching the record that had stood for some 70-something years (69 wins in a row).
The sport, once you understand the intricacies involved and the methodology behind the various fighting styles is a sight to behold. There are fan favourites like Takamisakari, who has a pre-bout routine that can’t help but bring a smile to your face. I even managed to taste what is considered to be ‘Sumo Stew’, which consisted of a lot of pork, animal fats and some cabbage thrown in for good measure. Apparently, though, this stew is designed to help sumos build mass. After devouring one small bowl sized portion of it, I can understand how anyone would easily put on weight if that’s all they ate.
When I returned to Australia, for the following tournament, I streamed it online and watched it at home. This invoked all sorts of odd responses from my family. The second day that I was watching that tournament, I witnessed Hakuho’s winning streak come to an end. I couldn’t believe it. After seeing the guy in action and seeing what he was capable of, I thought he was going to go on and smash the record.
Akihabara, the town where nerds can cram their eyesockets with as many nerd-related goodies as they want. Stores everywhere to cater to whatever level of nerdiness you have attained (or potentially wish to attain). A Gundam cafe, for crying out loud. Giant seven-storey stores containing stuff like Pikachu onesies, floors dedicated to AKB48 (Quite possibly the world’s largest all-girl group – HERE) and random hats like the Mike from Monsters Inc. and Stitch from Lilo & Stitch that I purchased. And I should probably mention the seven-storey arcade game centres, covering decades worth of arcade games. I played Star Wars Trilogy: The Arcade Game while I was there and damn-near clocked the game, impressing the small crowd of followers paying attention.
Maid cafes. I managed to find the most laid-back one. I’d heard all these stories about how absolutely maniacal they were and my experience at one was pretty pleasant and easy-going. There was a moment of oddness as I was leaving, as I had to pick out a piece of paper from a box and hand it to the maid who had served me. I imagine that if there had been something different on the piece of paper that I may have received some sort of parting gift or something, but nevertheless, I got a ‘no deal’ sign and an apology from the maid. Because I had no fucking clue as to what was going on, I shrugged, smiled and walked out.
The day I spent exploring Odaiba. Interesting town and the only cat cafe I visited. Indoor theme parks with endurance tests for kids. Arcades where you could ride mechanical pandas. And a weird shopping centre that had a fake sky painted on it as well as a variety of architecture types for all the stores within.
Roppongi… Oh, Roppongi. I spent three nights of my time in Tokyo in Roppongi. The first two times were to watch the AFL Preliminary Final and the drawn AFL Grand Final between Collingwood and St Kilda. Roppongi is expat central. Paddy Foley’s was the bar we ended up at to watch these games. I have to say that it felt strange being in a bar full of Australians and feeling less at home than the entire time I had spent in Japan.
It was also the only time I encountered any sort of aggression from anyone in Japan. Some young punk was getting impatient about needing to use a public toilet (even though I’d only stepped inside no more than 10 seconds earlier) when I sized him up on my way out after spending longer than I needed to in there, he avoided eye contact and reluctantly entered the cubicle. It was good to know that I can at least present myself as a threat to someone’s well-being, even if I’m not someone who actively seeks out physical conflict.
And the last night I spent in Roppongi was with two awesome German guys – Andi and Basti – my recollection of this night is hazy except for a few fine details. Before I was in Roppongi that night, I’d been shown around Shibuya district by Trevor and Lee, friends of my good friend Dr. Marmo. Good times were had and then I caught the train to Roppongi.
The hostess bar we were talked into going into by Andi after a Nigerian guy on the street had convinced him it would be the best idea ever. Well, we were manhandled and groped for the better part of 30 minutes by South East Asian hostesses for the mere price of 500Y for one drink. I ensured we didn’t stay beyond that drink, because rumour is it can get quite messy for foreigners beyond that point – Yakuza bars, etc…
So we walked across the road to…
That’s right – three nights in the one town and I wind up at the same bar. This last night, though, Andi, Basti and I must’ve drank until at least 4am. Nonetheless, I do remember spending most of the night talking to a very attractive woman named Fumi. I did get her email address at the time, and did email her once, but never got a response. Le sigh… What could have been… Ruminating… Far from it.
The very next day – my penultimate day in Japan – was spent travelling out to a small town called Tsuchiura. I met Millee out there and we headed on down to find a spot beside the river to sit, talk and wait for…
Japan’s national fireworks competition.
Two and a half hours of fireworks. Correction. Two and a half hours of the most amazing fireworks display I’ll probably ever see.
And on the last day of my trip was a visit to Namja Town.
I have since recommended Namja Town as THE place to visit in Tokyo. I have also been asked ‘WTF?!’ about Namja Town from people who have been willing to listen to my advice.
Namja Town defies description. The mascot of Namja Town is a giant psychotic cat. This is not an exaggeration. He takes on many forms. He wears eyepatches. He sits above a massive organ that looks like something circa-early-1940s Berlin.
And Namja Town contains the following places to visit – Gyoza Stadium, Ice-cream City, Dessert Island and Mystical Fruit Cafe. At Ice-cream City I sampled the following flavours – nama chocolate (rare chocolate), shochu (whisky) and tebasaki (chicken wing).
That’s right. Chicken wing flavoured ice-cream. It actually had shredded pieces of bbq chicken wings in there. That wasn’t as bad as the takoyaki-flavoured lemonade or the kimchi-flavoured lemonade, though.
For those of you wanting to know – takoyaki is deep-fried squid balls with a mixture of mayo and special sauce. Kimchi is pickled spicy cabbage. Yes, I drank them both in lemonade form.
In closing the recap of my trip part of this entry, I’m going to talk about my journey to Nikko and Kita Onsen.
Nikko is a very pretty town. Well worth taking the time to explore and see Kegon Falls. Seeing that I was only staying the one day/night, I had to make the most of my time there.
Kita Onsen. From Nikko, it’s easily an hour train ride followed by a 1.5 hour bus ride all the way out to this hidden ryokan. Once you actually get off the bus, it’s about a 1.2 km walk. Considering I had no fucking idea where I was actually going, only following the advice of the bus driver who said in broken English, “Walk down there”, I have to say that I’m glad I managed to survive this small portion of my trip.
It rained the entire time that I walked towards Kita Onsen. Needless to say, I was drenched through by the time I got there. It was an amazing place – constructed 400-odd years ago with at least five natural springs that you can bath in at any time of the day. The time spent there, while brief, will stay with me forever. Sitting with the owner of the establishment and trying to figure out the exact words for sit and kneel and what that meant when dinner was served. The 6-year-old kid fascinated by me who said ‘Goodnight’ to me on his way out. Toshi, the radio signal operator I befriended and shared the largest nashi pear I’ve ever seen. The elder men on my left who were clearly taking the piss out of me, to the point where I wanted to insult them in Japanese to inform them that I could understand them. The elder women on my right who thought I was quite handsome…
Everything about that small portion of the trip, including the walk back to the bus stop in the rain, I remember like it was yesterday.
Time for some other random thoughts…
Nikuman are awesome snacks. Especially after you’ve been drinking. Hot buns with pork/curry/pizza filling. So tasty.
Ryoma Sakamoto was everywhere. Movie and TV show tie-ins with merchandise and foods over there is ridiculous.
There’s a series of films called Uzumaki. One night staying at Asakusa Smile, I was fortunate (I guess) enough to watch Uzumaki II – Limit of Love, in which a ship is sinking for most of the film, testing the protagonist’s ‘limit of love’. Unbelievably cheesy love/action story.
It’s so much cheaper to drink in Japan than it is Australia.
Indian lunches in Japan are cheap and you get a ridiculous amount of great food.
I’ll never forget the cup ramen ad associated with Uzumaki III – a 10-second spot showing a guy opening up cup ramen, lifting out the flavour cube, shedding a single tear that lands on the flavour cube – cut to a wide-angle shot with him on his knees and a massive explosion in the background. Win.
Takeshi Kitano’s Number One Idiot TV show. Watched the one night we spent in Hagi. I really wish I could chase this show down, it was amazing.
Now that’s all said and done, it’s time to yammer on about what I took away from the experience.
A lot of people can suffer from cultural readjustment shock after spending time abroad. I have to say that I did suffer from this to a mild extent. Initially I wanted to spend more time alone, writing and drinking (not into a stupor or drunken state).
So much of what I loved about Japan was the cultural shock of actually being there, as it was the first time in my travels that I really felt like a foreigner. But I wanted to adapt to my surroundings the entire time I was there. I was learning conversational Japanese daily, picking up phrases and little tidbits of useful information along the way. By the end of the trip I was ordering items at bars and restaurants with no trouble at all.
Coming back, I was fuelled with a determination to change my life as it was prior to experiencing Japan. I had felt, for the first time in a while, an urge or willingness to seek out a purpose in this giant fishbowl we all occupy.
I made frivolous and exaggerated proclamations, saying that I was going to learn Japanese and Korean within the space of the year. Needless to say, neither of these things have happened.
Change has occurred, though. And changes are going to occur. I can’t say exactly what just yet, nor can I even begin to predict what changes might take place. All I know is that I’m a richer person for having spent the amazing month that I did in Japan and looking forward to what the future holds.
As someone who was previously very reluctant to change (those of you who read this who’ve known me for an extended period of time will know more about who I was say, five years ago). While some things have inevitably stayed the same in the past year, there’s no rush on the things that I can’t control and an acceptance of things that come my way when they do.
I no longer want to accept my limitations. I want to find out what’s behind them and whether there’s a way I can actively overcome them and act on it.
A big part of that is me sitting down and writing every week.
But an even bigger part of that is you taking the time to sit down and read whatever nonsense it is that I decide to put out there every week. And for that, I thank you, one and all.