Sayonara Kumagaya

Dateline: Saigon.

Even the world’s most expensive Internet Cafe can’t stop me from blogging the end of my trip. Farewell Kumagaya, shining pearl of lesser-known Japan. I shall miss your embarrassingly titled brothels, your indifferent schoolgirls, your solitary tolerable watering hole. Add it all together and you’ve got a place of such character that it echoes through the ages. Paris! New York! Bendigo! Kumagaya! Now I’ve seen them all, I can die happy.

While I’m on here, big ups to Matt for being such a terrific host and friend. Our goodbye was short – my train was waiting on the platform when we got there – but perhaps it was for the best as I didn’t have to put into words how I felt, and maybe muck it up. You know what I think of you, dude.

How’s the ass?

Well, the timer’s already down to three minutes, and my plane to Melbourne leaves in under an hour, so I’m off. End of the trip.

Playing Quake with a rumble pack

Okay, so I just experienced my first earthquake. I’m sitting in the cheapest Internet cafe in Kumagaya, trying to decide whether it’s worth blogging on the world’s stupidest keyboard (the space bar is smaller than the shift key, and the extra space to the right of it is taken up with a key that switches the computer into “Kanji mode”, turning everything I type into a series of symbols. The bloodlust is rising.), when the entire building starts shaking in all directions. It was very mild – nothing fell off the shelves, the walls didn’t crack, people didn’t even look up from what they were doing – but it was also very, very cool. They happen once a month here, or thereabouts. In case the big one hits, I have compiled a list of things I’m going to loot:

– More PDA’s for my friends
– The Zoom MRS-1266 home recording system from the Nittoh Mall (I don’t care how many corpses I have to trample)
– The contents of the kitchen at Mos Burger (I’m hungry, and they’re healthy for fast food)
– The robotic James Brown toy from an idol shop in Kyoto (After commandeering a Nozomi Shinkansen)
– An AIBO ERS-7 for James Brown to ride into battle in his new role as head Robo-Knight for the New Way
– A trolley full of fish-shaped fruit pies

Last couple of days in point form for later…

Wed night
– went to A-Bar with Katie, a fellow hosteller from San Diego. Met up with a whole bunch of sozzled Irishmen and an American/Arabic couple living in Kyoto.
– The arabic gentleman promised to take us to a great bar when A-Bar closed. It turned out to be his friend’s open-air Kebab shop. His friend is Iranian, and therefore doesn’t speak Arabic, so they conversed in Japanese, which seemed odd at the time.
– The Irish group became increasingly incoherent, so we went off and found another bar, Ike, run by a Japanese guy who has an almost superhuman obsession with the Rolling Stones. Nice place.

Thursday
– Went to Nara with Katie. That same day, we later found out, a temple burned down killing the wife of the priest. It wasn’t me.
– Saw world’s largest wooden building, which is actually 2/3 of it’s original size (it was rebuilt a few centuries ago). It contains a 13m bronze-and-gold statue of Buddha, surrounded by intricate wooden statues of other god-like creatures.
– Saw Japan’s second tallest pagoda (by a few centimeters – the tallest is in Kyoto)
– Fed a few of the many deer that wander the park, using special bicuits designed for the purpose. Deer go sleepy-bye-byes now.

Friday
– Caught Hikari Shinkansen back to Tokyo. Went to Shinjuku and bought iMac DV (400MHz, 128MB RAM, 13GB HDD) for Matt
– All went out to a Jazz club called Acoustic House Jam, deep in Omiya’s brothel district. The act was called BLUESION, a mixture of BLUnts and frESION cows. Beef smokers.
– Was soundly beaten by Matt at the Taiko drum arcade game.
– Had some photos taken at PuriKura. Painted glowing, jewelled cocks onto them.

Kyoto: Tasty, isn’t it?

J-Hoppers hostel in Kyoto is situated centrally, yet near nothing in particular. It inhabits a cultural wasteland of convenience stores and car repair shops, and from this vantage point it would be easy to be disappointed with Kyoto. However, today I cycled to the Eastern outskirts of the city, and discovered a mountainside covered in ancient temples, streets lined with elegant wooden houses, and intricate gardens teeming with wildlife.

The trip to Kyoto was intriguing. I took the Shinkansen, which is probably still the world’s fastest train, at around 300Km/H. Within half an hour of leaving Tokyo, we shot into a mountainside, and when we emerged a few seconds later it was into a gorgeous valley, with the sparkling ocean on one side and looming forested mountains on the other. The rest of the trip repeated this pattern, thundering through mountains and admiring the ever-changing scenery when we emerged. Most of the journey was through semi-rural or built-up areas, as between Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka is an almost uninterrupted strip of civilisation.

The trip to Kyoto from Tokyo took about 3 hours. That was on the Hikari. The Nozomi super-express shaves a further half-hour or so from the trip. To compare, a bus takes between 9 and 12 hours depending on who you talk to.

Last night I went looking for food with Royce (NZ) and Asha (UK), two guys I met at the J-Hoppers. We wandered for an hour before buying some microwaveable crap from the 7-11 around the corner. I need a menu with pictures, or I’m lost.

Late at night, we all sat down to watch The Ring (unfortunately, it was the American version, but it still frightened the sushi out of me).

As I mentioned before, today I cycled to the Eastern outskirts and spent most of the day climbing up the steep mountainside, exploring the temples. At one point I came across an enormous graveyard which stretched up the mountain. It seems that the bereaved visit and offer water and light candles on the graves of their loved ones. How they do so without having a cardiac arrest I have no idea. I climbed to the top and almost died myself – I can’t imagine doing it with a bucket of water. Damn these weak Western legs!

Afterwards, I treated myself to a movie to escape the heat. Reign of Fire – it’s actually really good for an action film. I recommend it. Dragons awake and take humanity to the brink of destruction. Alas they are let down by a cataclysmic evolutionary flaw. Stupid dragons.

Time just keeps on slipping

Thursday
– Went to Matt’s school for the day.
– He taught his students to rob each other.

Friday
– Met and hung out with Matt’s friend Leila. Went Engrish shopping. Kicked Leila’s ass at her favourite game, Guilty Gear XX. Had photos taken.
– Went clubbing at night. Met Masami, a Kumagaya local living in New York.

Saturday
– Went into town with Matt and Leila and met Andrew.
– Toured around Akihabara’s “Electric Town” until about 4:30
– Went to Shibuya and visited crazy Anime store, Mandarake, mandarake.co.jp, where I bought an original frame of Ken from G-Force for 3000 Yen. Ate great food and had all we could drink as well. Went to a Karaoke parlour.
– Andrew’s girlfriend Momo and her friend Anri arrived.
– Matt and Leila went home, the rest of us went dancing at Gas Panic in Gaijin-central: Roppongi. Afterwards we watched the truly god-awful “Simone”, in which Al Pacino performed ritual Hari-Kiri on his career.

Sunday
– Slowly recovered then met Matt and Kazuyo at Shibuya station. Had Thai food for lunch, visited the goth hangout and nearby Meiji Shrine at Harajuku.
– Visited a large buddhist temple but it was closed.
– Went back to Kumagaya.

Monday
– Met Yuka for breakfast, she spoke about her visit to Thailand and her Thai boyfriend, who is leaving his wife and children for her. Wondered if two different planet Earth’s might have been confused somehow.
– Went home and then bought headphones for Zaurus, played Guilty Gear XX against Matt and kicked his ass too. New favourite game!
– That night, went out and met some more of Matt’s Japanese friends. Their English wasn’t great, but we had a good time and ate some great food, like crab claws and deep-fried squid.
– At night, went for long, semi-drunken walk. Used Internet

Tuesday
– Caught Shinkansen to Tokyo and Kyoto
– Wandered Kyoto with Royce (NZ) and Asha (UK), two guys I met at the J-Hoppers, the hostel I’m staying at.

Ask an Imam

Anything you ever wanted to know about the Islamic faith, you can ask here. e.g.

1)My friend was asking if it is permissible to let his wife dominate him.also,is use of sex toys like dildo on private parts of wife and husband permissible in islam?

Ask this of a catholic priest, and he’d run to the bathroom. Also, how paranoid do you have to be to use the “My friend…” line in an anonymous chat room?

Nippon Ease

The continuing adventures of JaDan.

Wow. Every time I write it seems I’m further behind. This time I’ll be a little more terse and try to power through it.

Monday
On Monday morning I had to leave the house at 7.15am, as Matt was leaving for work and he only has one key (it turned out later there are actually two keys – Matt is evil beyond measure).

I caught the train to Ueno, a northern district of Tokyo and one of the most historic. There is a large park (you guessed it, Ueno Park), containing a zoo, Shinto shrine and several museums and art galleries. It turns out that most things are closed on Mondays, but I had a nice walk around regardless.

One place that is most definately open on Mondays is Shinjuku. In fact, Shinjuku is so open they had to invent new days of the week for it to be open on. It’s that open. Part of central Tokyo, Shinjuku embodies all of the qualities that make Tokyo so unique and exciting packed into just a few buzzing neon-festooned blocks. There’s countless games parlours, bars and “pubs”, several large department stores, Tokyo’s enormous silicon-chip-like public offices, and a sprawling park inhabited by tribes of well-organised bums under blue tarpaulins.

The west side of Shinjuku is largely big-business. This is where I found the civic offices and major banks. It’s also where I found the largest camera shops I’ve ever seen, five sprawling floors of imaging technology in every permutation. If it selectively reflects and absorbs light, you’ll find something to record it here. There are coin-operated photo printers here, which will print from common digital camera memory cards. My first attempt failed miserably, when I used one that actually printed out in a building several blocks away – a building I failed to find. The next machine was nice enough to produce the photo on the spot – a cute shot of Matt enveloped by a six-foot detergent bubble, apparently being interrogated by the feared Japanese Cute Police.

While there I bought my Sharp Zaurus SL-C760, a mightily powerful PDA (miniature computer), for far too much money to tell anyone.

The east side of Shinjuku is where you go if you want trouble with your wife and your creditors. Department stores and games parlours to consume your notes and coins respectively, and innumerable strip joints to consume your dignity. Most strip joints don’t accept Gaijin though (as I told myself over and over while walking away staring at my feet). Their density was amazing, several in each building on one particular street. The volume of human traffic required to sustain such an industry must be enormous. In this area, one could be forgiven for thinking that Japan is a nation of filthy perverted men and resigned, long-suffering women. In fact, that’s not so far from the truth. You might not be in the same ball park, but you’d definately be playing a similar sport.

At one of the games parlous, I saw what could only be the result of decades of gaming evolution, a bizarre fusion of first-person Zombie-Killing action and Maevis Beacon Teaches Typing. Yes, it’s “The Typing of the Dead”. Phear my WPM! The player is repeatedly assulted by teams of zombies while exploring various spooky locales. As the zombies approach, a word or sentence appears under each one, and the player must type in on a supplied keyboard before they’re slashed. As I died, I typed “AAAARGH”.

It’s not made clear exactly how typing defeats the zombies. Perhaps they’re so impressed by your typing they decide to become friends with you instead of consuming your brains.
Picture here (needs to be rotated, sorry).

Monday night, I got on the ‘net, and failed to blog.

Tuesday
Today I kept the key, and promised Matt I’d be home before him. I slept in and barely did anything all day. Surfed the ‘net. Played with my Zaurus. In the evening, Matt and I jammed on guitar and banjo for a bit, and then attempted to see the late showing of Pirates of the Carribean. We were later than the film. D’oh! So we ate for comfort.

Wednesday
Refreshed and rejuvenated, I took a punt on the trains again and headed back into Tokyo. This time I’d hit the dead center; no more of this dicking-around-the-edges nonsense.

First stop: Tokyo station. This is built into a Daimaru and fairly large underground shopping center. It’s entirely possible to catch a train to central Tokyo, spend a fulfilling day shopping and eating, and never actually emerge above ground level. If you do emerge, and it’s September, prepare to have your very bones buckle from the heat. I was darting from one air-conditioned shopping-complex to the next and pouring gallons of water down my throat just to cope.

My first stop (and if it had been my only stop, I would have been fine with that) was the Sony building. Tall and slender, the eight-story mosaic facade looks like chipper vomit. Indeed, sometimes my stomach turned at the technology inside. People who write about technology tend to use the word “marriage” a lot. You know, “The ultimate marriage of old-style cool and 21st century technology” or “A seamless marriage of cassette player, bicycle pump and polka-dot jodhpurs”. Well, I would have happily married many of the pieces on display, many of which have yet to be released. My Zaurus damn near turned purple with envy at some of the palm-top computers, tiny video recorders with built in special effects (warping the image, distorting colours, pixellation and more).

A definate high-light was playing with a current-generation AIBO. These a dog-like robots that experience “emotions” (indicated by a handy light on top of their head – I’m going to campaign that something like this be fitted to humans at birth), play fetch, and fall all over the place in the cutest possible way. The new ERS-7 model is due to be released shortly after I leave. Dammit. One of the AIBOs played “guess which hand” with me. It sat on its hind legs and held up both front paws, and asked me to pick one. I hit one, and if I guessed right, it would sing a short and fairly chirpy song. If I was wrong, it would scold me. It got bored before I did.

I ate a burger lunch in the Sony building, overlooking a neighbouring building that was constructed entirely from large glass bricks. If I had been munching on a glass brick and looking at a building constructed entirely from burger lunches, it would have been only a little less weird.

After wandering the streets for a while longer (about four-bottles-of-water worth), I found the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which I gawked at through a pounding dehydration-induced headache (the refreshment stand bafflingly sold curry and beer but not water). It’s surrounded by enormous moats (more angular lakes, really), and a neat park. It was also under attack from hordes of screeching black bat-winged demons brandishing fiery morning-stars. I suspect that was the heat playing tricks.

My last visit was to the Tokyo International Forum, which it turns out formerly housed the Tokyo Tourist Information Center. It’s worth a visit anyway. The Forum is considered the last great architectural splurge of Big Spending Japan, before the recession forced them to cut back on spending and only outpace the rest of the world by five times instead of ten. The main building looks like a giant safety visor, facing the sky. It contains a central atrium, branching off into underground conference and display facilities, and connecting it to four other convention centre buildings. In some ways, it’s a bigger version of Jeff’s Shed (apologies to non-Melbournites).

In the evening, Matt and I went to an English Conversation dinner. These are a great chance to meet locals. The idea is that Japanese persons who are learning English can practise with native English speakers, and in return, the English speakers have their meal and drinks paid for, up to a limit of 1500 Yen. Everyone there was great, a real mix of ages and backgrounds (quite a few teachers, though). The organiser is Kobayashi, a P.E. teacher who learnt English from listening to an English conversation radio show every week for 20 years.

On the way home our lift, Kazumi, took us to her enormous and very beautiful house, and introduced us to her considerably less enormous but no less beautiful daughter, Yuka. We ate ice-cream candy and pears and talked about Japanese culture and the English language.

Tired.

For those that are interested, my itinerary is here.

I’m back, and now it’s Friday. I haven’t been writing much, party because I’ve been so busy, partly because the Internet here is quite expensive, and any time I’ve spent in Internet cafes has been taken up by personal e-mails and playing with the almighty Zaurus.

The Zaurus rocks, but I won’t bore you with that information here. I’ve got far less nerdy information to bore you with.

On Saturday, I arrived at Tokyo’s Narita airport at around 7:30am. There is a bizarre bus/train that runs between the terminal we docked at and the main terminal. It only travels about a hundred meters; it seems like an awful lot of effort to go to to save people one minute of walking. I guess they’re showing off.

The theme of Japan does seem to be “your’re never more than ten meters from a train station”. Tokyo has the most intense rail service in the world, but I’ll get to that later.

The train ride into Tokyo’s Ueno station is about an hour long and the countryside is beautiful. The golf courses are so densely packed that there’s a decent chance you could miss-hit and have your ball land on another golf course entirely.

Disembarking at Ueno station is my first foray into the mind-warping universe of Tokyo’s public transport system. You must allow yourself to be consumed by it, or it will tear you to shreds. Not literally, but almost. There are dozens of lines, all criss-crossing each other, many owned by different companies. Some go to the same places, along the same path, but one is built above the other (the Shinkansen high-speed train is an example of this). There is very little English in the stations – most signs are marked up by a combination of Kanji (traditional chinese characters used with Japanese words – there are tens of thousands of these) and Hirigana (the japanese-language phonetic alphabet), a combination called Furigana. For some English words, they use Katekana, which is unreadable to me too. Occasionally, you come across a map with some English-alphabet names on it, usually greeted with a deep sigh of relief.

Thankfully, the Japanese are very helpful, although surprisingly the level of English here is lower than in Vietnam, despite the high comparative wealth of Japan. Perhaps the Vietnamese have a greater economic imperative to learn English.

So, I met Matt at Ueno station (the second one – there are two, with the same name, about a hundred meters apart. This confusion caused a 15 minute delay in finding him). We travelled to his house on the Takasaki line (stop that sniggering up the back!) to his local station of Kumagaya.

Entering Matt’s apartment I feel like I’m visiting Hobbiton. The doorways are so low, it’s beyond crouching – I almost have to waddle through. His whole apartment is the size of my lounge room (maybe smaller), and apparently it’s spacious for Japan. I’ve already knocked myself almost into unconsciousness several times.

He sleeps on a futon on the floor of his loungeroom (mercifully air-conditioned), and his couch is sort of like a bent mattress. As with everywhere else in Japan, shoes are removed at the door. The Japanese are experts at elegant, minimalist interiors. Matt is an expert in clutter (no offense matt! I’m the same). You should see his desk at work. You don’t need to be told which one it is – look for the giant pile of empty water bottles and dog-eared books 😉

It is absolutely awesome to see Matt again. It feels like we’ve rarely stopped laughing since I arrived.

After dumping my stuff, we went to get some Indian food from the Tandoori kitchen near Matt’s apartment. When we returned (skipping several hours here where we watched DVDs and played Playstation games involving office-block-sized robots), we met up with his cell mate neighbour Micki (a girl, an elementary school teacher), and grabbed some sushi from a conveyor belt restaurant. You take whatever plates you like from the conveyor, and each plate is colour-coded according to how much it costs (usually 100 to 200 Yen). My first taste of raw fish, I believe, and not too bad at all. I polished off about eight plates before Matt and Micki bundled me into an hessian sack and dragged me from the restaurant.

Next we went to a bar (you have to be careful not to call them pubs here – a pub is a strip joint), and after a Long Island Ice Tea I felt ready for some Karaoke (well, more than Karaoke, but it would have to do). Here, Karaoke is usually performed in booths with only your friends watching, which to my mind takes some of the thrill out of it. Nevertheless with Matt and Micki it was an absolute riot. A selection of songs that Matt and/or I performed (Micki’s were mostly Japanese pop hits):

  • More Human Than Human – White Zombie
  • Video Killed the Radio Star – The Buggles
  • Giant Robo – Theme song for a cartoon called Giant Robo
  • Astro Boy theme song (in both English and Japanese)
  • Mister Jones – Counting Crows
  • Don’t wanna miss a thing – Aerosmith (Micki’s idea 😉

You get the idea.

Alcoholic drinks were free during the time we were there, so I got mildly sozzled, and we lurched home some time after 2am. I had had 2 hours sleep since 10am the day before, so I was fairly tired.

Sunday the 7th
I wrote the previous post on Sunday the 7th, so you get an idea of how I was feeling. Matt and I went to a Bunkosai, an annual festival held by schools. Each school has theirs at a time of their choosing, rather than all together, but they generally occur during the summer sometime. This one was not at Matt’s school, but another a short train ride away. Let me just say, this school by itself summoned more enthusiasm in this one day than every child in Australia combined, over a year. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating, it’s been a while since I’ve been to a high school, but it certainly felt energetic.

Each classroom had been transformed into an activity of some type, such as a house of horrors or cabaret show. The first room we entered was a carnival game of some kind, where we collected coloured cards by throwing velcro balls at a spinning velcro wheel. The wheel was inexplicably decorated with a swastika and the names of Heinrich Himmler and that Goebels guy. I didn’t want to ask. Once we had a handful of cards, we would go to an activity identified by the colour of each card. One involved smacking the bottom box from a pile of boxes out of the way with a makeshift baseball bat, and hoping that the pile didn’t fall over. The more you could knock out without the tower of boxes falling, the more “money” (bottle caps embedded in a cardboard square) you won.

Another game was assembling a face from its parts (eyes, nose, mouth etc) with a blindfold on.

The first game that I played was an elastic band shooting gallery.

At the end, we redeemed our Bunkosai cash for a plastic fan and a lolly.

Another classroom hosted a transvestite ballet and cheerleading show, in which a group of boys danced effeminately to music that was way too quiet (you could make out the uncomfortable coughing). I have some footage of this – it’s genuinely weird, but fun. Matt and I stared wistfully out the window at the considerably less weird performance in the courtyard below.

In another room, we ate brick-shaped icy poles with edges so sharp you could shave with them (leaving you with a smooth and lemony face). Tasty though!

I conversed with a few students… well, not so much conversed but was gawked at for my height and general non-japanese-ness (here I am a Geijin, a foreigner). Some of them were very cute about it, in a distinctly Japanese way. We met a girl who Matt had judged in an English speaking competition. She was so cute I wanted to burst. Eyes like dinner plates, a voice like minnie mouse, and about four and a half feet tall.

That night, we watched more DVDs. Laziness!

Goodbye third world, hello first.

It’s 4:50 on a humid and cloudy Sunday afternoon, and I:m sitting in an Internet cafe (more of a library/bookshop/cafe). The keyboard in front of me looks like it fell through a time-warp from the future, where all keys have four or five functions ) or, alternatively, from the past – see C64 keyboard for details). It’s been a while since I’ve posted, because a lot’s been happening and I haven’t had a lot of time to write. Today’s post will be lacklustre, due to excessive partying last night. Here’s a rundown of the last few days.

Wednesday afternoon
Spent entire afternoon on beach. Bought a photocopied version of Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” from a guy who was walking past with a huge box of books. Drank cocktails, ate like kings, etc.

Thursday
My first and last full day in Nha Trang. We had booked a boat trip the previous night (with Mark and Sarah, a lovely couple of Aussie doctors who we met in Hoi An). The bus picked us up at the hotel at 8am, and we “enjoyed” a greasy egg-and-bacon breakfast at the travel agency.

The boat trip took us around four islands, whose names I can’t remember. The first was for snorkelling around the coral. Unfortunately, due to wanton stealing and damaging of the reef (some of which occurred by the tour operators while we were there), the coral was less than impressive. The fish, too were in short supply compared to other boat trips our companions had been on (in Indonesia or the Gold Coast, for example).

We stopped for lunch at the second island. We were served a smorgasboard of seafood and vegetables. Afterwards, the crew grabbed some instruments and sang a bunch of English-language and Vietnamese songs.

Ugh. That’s all I can be bothered writing for now.