Archive for July, 2013

Return to Japan 2013: July 15 (a) – A well deserved hangover

morning banana

I woke up on July 15 feeling like death. Or at least how death would feel if he (or she) drank too much the night before. Like many other mornings after an overindulgence, I started to wonder why, exactly, I was feeling so terrible. The thought of “I didn’t drink all that much, did I?” bounced around in my swollen, throbbing brain. At that point I started doing the drink inventory from the night before. Beer before leaving the house, 3 very large beers at the bar, peach fizz, another beer, 2 gin tonics of undetermined strength and then one, or was it two scotches on the rocks. Upon reflection I realized that it truly was a well deserved hangover.

Despite my condition, there was no time to sleep and recover. Checkout time was 10:00am sharp. Before leaving I would need to shower, get dressed and ensure I wasn’t forgetting anything. This involved some horrible situations where I would need to put my head down to look for things which caused my tiny hotel room to spin wildly. I was not having a good time.

I managed to check out, which then brought the next challenge; my next plans were in Atami at 6:00pm, and it would only take me 2 hours to get there.  The thought of taking slow, gently rocking trains or wandering around Tokyo in my condition were not very appealing. The thought of finding a nice cool cave to hide in for the next few days was appealing, but the only real option I had was to call up Azeroth and hope he was free for some low intensity hangouts. Fortunately for me he was available and was going to meet me at the station after calling his parents at home.

While waiting, I had time to get some food into my system. Usually when I am in Japan, I try to eat Japanese food as much as possible. However there was one sign calling out to me. One bastion of hope for my unhappy stomach. One glowing beacon of familiar grease that could quiet my unease. The sexy yellow curves on the red background were literally calling out to me in my moment of need. I decided to go for it, and shakily walked into McDonalds and ordered an Egg McMuffin combo, and it was glorious.

Azeroth and I met at the nearby 7-11 and stocked up on hangout food. I grabbed sports drinks and a product called “Morning Banana” (insert penis joke here). In the past I have read that bananas are good for hangovers, so this seemed like a good time to test the theory. After a slow walk to Azeroth’s tiny apartment, I sad down and opened the top of the morning banana and took a – drink? Imagine, if you will, banana flavoured gelatin. Now imagine that someone chewed it up into tiny pieces and spit it into banana flavoured yogurt. Now imagine slurping the result out of a straw attached to a foil bag. Yes, it was that good.

Following a few hours of Call of Duty, YouTube videos and general hanging out, the hangover started to finally wear off. I was able to get to the station and start my journey towards Atami. In my younger days I would have made a solemn oath to my liver that I would never drink again. The best I will do these days is swear to my stomach and taste buds that they will never again, as long as I live, know the horror of Morning Banana a second time.

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Return to Japan 2013: July 14 – Drinking in the danger zone

Beer and Yakitori in Koriyama

Beer and Yakitori in Koriyama

My former roommate and coworker Azeroth left Japan a few years ago to return to the US. Last year he returned to start working for a rival English conversation school. His new home is in Koriyama, located about 60km due west of the Fukushima Dai Ichi nuclear reactor that had a meltdown in 2011. Having never need north of Nikko before, I volunteered to travel to Koriyama to visit. Since Koriyama is just outside of the evacuation zone so it is considered “safe” by the government, but I was still happy to only be going for one day.

The easiest way to get from Numazu to Koriyama is to take the Tokaido Shinkansen to Tokyo and then switch to the northbound Tohoku Shinkansen. Since I was on vacation and not expected until mid afternoon, I chose a route with 4 trains instead. From Ooka I took the scenic Gotemba line to Matsuda. At Matsuda I had 5 minutes to leave the JR station, walk across the street, buy a ticket at Shin Matsuda station and then get on the Odakyu line for Shinjuku. The Gotemba line train was full of Mt. Fuji climbers, so getting to Shin Matsuda station on time involved weaving in and out of crowds of backpack wearing climbers with big sticks and a questionable rush in front of a bus. I got my ticket and got to the platform with seconds to spare, jumping on the first train I saw. Unfortunately for me, this train was going the wrong way. I would have noticed right away, but I was in the middle of a good book. It’s a good idea to bring a book when traveling, but you should always make sure you are going the right way before you start reading.

My train ended in Odawara. Fortunately I had a few minutes before a limited express Romance Car train was going to leave for Shinjuku. I bought a ticket and settled into a nice cushy window sweat. The Romance Car is Odakyu’s version of a green car, but is part of an express train that only stops at the biggest stations. “Romance” is a bit of a misnomer because the children running up and down the aisle are hardly anyone’s idea of romantic.

The entire distance from Odawara to Shinjuku is almost continuous city. The only difference is that the city gets much more dense as you approach Shinjuku until it reaches a critical mass of high rise buildings stacked on top of more high rise buildings. At Shinjuku station I switched to the Shonan Shinjuku line for the first time ever. It is a unique train in that it doesn’t have it’s own line, instead running on other passenger and freight lines. I was able to cover a lot of ground quickly until my destination at Omiya station. At Omiya I boarded the Tohoku Shinkansen for Koriyama.

I had never been to a Japanese city like Koriyama before. It is an inland city on a small plains area between mountains to the east and west. Unlike the greater Tokyo area, there is actually some (mostly) empty space before the next city starts. I was met at the station by Azeroth who took me for a brief walking tour of the area around the station and a stop at the 23rd floor of the planetarium building to get some city pictures.

The next order of business was getting beer and snacks at Don Kihote. One of Azeroth’s most valuable contributions as a roommate was his ability to recommend good snacks and drinks. We stocked up and went to his apartment to kill some time. His apartment was small, even for Japan. For those who work in an office, imagine the total space that 4 cubicles would take up. Now imagine that one of those cubicles was a bathroom, and the other 3 were an open space that functioned as the kitchen, dining room, living room and bedroom. That’s how small Azeroth’s apartment was. At this point I was very happy that I booked a hotel near the station for the evening.

And thus the drinking began.

We had a beer at the apartment and went to Azeroth’s current favourite place, an izakaya that was decorated in a 1950’s Tokyo theme. There were old movie posters everywhere and classic 50’s Japanese music was blasting out of the speakers. The izakaya was mostly full, but since Azeroth was a regular we were able to get counter seats. For traveling so far, Azeroth treated me to a 2 hour nomi-hodai (all you can drink) and izakaya food. I had 3 large beers and an excessive amount of meat on sticks before we got the last order warning. With my beer fueled Japanese language skills I asked the waitress for her recommendation. She recommended a peach fizz. Azeroth made fun of me in two languages for ordering a girl’s drink. It may have been a girl’s drink, but it was f**king delicious!

The next stop was a nearby modern styled bar. It was a Sunday night, so we were the only customers. The 3 bartenders knew Azeroth well and immediately started calling him by his nickname imoyaro, which could best be translated as “potato bastard”. We had a beer and then two special gin tonics. The karaoke microphones came out, and the staff encouraged the drunk gaijins to rock out. I pulled out classics like “Baby Got Back” and “Baby One More Time”, and then we got one of the bartenders to rock out on X Japan. At this point, despite me spilling half a drink, we decided that scotch was a good idea for some reason. Fortunately the remaining few sober brain cells that I had left suggested that it would be a good time to leave.

You know you are good friends with someone when you can go years without seeing them and then pick up right where you left off the last time. I am fortunate to know a few people like that before, during and after my Japanese adventures.

After the bar we had a slightly crooked walk to the convenience store for snacks and went to hang out at Azeroth’s place. Playing Call of Duty 3 is especially  difficult when hammered. Despite going on an impressive stabbing spree earlier on, it didn’t take long for me to get shot by the weakest enemies in the game, a sure sign to call it a night. Azeroth made sure that I got safely back to the hotel where the last few sober brain cells let me know that I should find out what the checkout time was.

New rule: if a hotel has a 10:00am checkout time they should have that in giant bold letters on the front of the building. 10:00 comes way too quickly when you have been out late drinking in the danger zone.

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Return to Japan 2013: July 13 – Budda Zoom

A sign in Kamakura that is trying to explain that the Big Buddha station is 200 meters ahead. Looks like "Budda Zoom".

A sign in Kamakura that is trying to explain that the Big Buddha station is 200 meters ahead. Looks like “Budda Zoom”.

On July 13 The Wife and I went to Kamakura to meet her friend and husband. I have been to Kamakura many times before, and it is always interesting every time. This particular day was hot, humid and sunny. Since my shorts were in the wash, I was stuck wearing jeans which allowed me to slowly cook through the day like a Thanksgiving turkey.

From Mishima station we took Tokaido line to Ofuna station. At Ofuna we changed to the Yokusuka line and had a short ride to Kamakura. We met The Wife’s friend at the station. Kamakura gets a lot of visitors from other countries, but with my blond hair and giant nose I stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. I am always easy to find in busy train stations.

From Kamakura station we got on the Enoden line. The Enoden line is a unique experience because it is so narrow and essentially winds its way through people’s back yards. I got off the train at Wadazuka and nervously followed The Wife and friend along side the tracks to a hidden dessert restaurant. Seriously, if a train had come we would have had to flatten ourselves against the wall. The restaurant itself was beautiful and served fantastic traditional Japanese sweets at low tables with tatami mats. For the record – I do not recommend walking along busy train lines looking for hidden restaurants.

After another scary walk beside the train line, we took a train to Hase station and began the walk towards Daibutsu, the giant Buddha statue of Kamakura. Along the way we encountered endless souvenir shops and restaurants. Among the highlights were a Turkish Donair Kebab restaurant, an ice cream shop where US President Obama stopped for Ice Cream and several stores that sold gummy Buddha candies. The Wife happily bought some gummy Buddhas as a souvenir, but I had mixed feelings on the issue. Imagine the controversy if someone sold gummy Jesus candies at the Vatican, or gummy Mohammad candies just outside of Mecca. I don’t think people would be impressed even if they saw that the gummy candies were available in 4 different flavours.

I have been to Daibutsu before, but it is still an impressive sight every time. It was built in 1252 out of bronze and stands over 13 meters high. It has survived tsunamis, earthquakes, wars and millions of tourists, only needing a little rebuilding and reinforcing from time to time. If you are visiting the greater Tokyo area, Kamakura is always a worthwhile stop.

Leaving Daibutsu, we took a sweaty walk down the street and made our way to Hase Dera, home to a massive wooden statue of Kannon. The temple grounds are elaborately landscaped with lush trees and flowers. Like Daibutsu, I had been to Hase Dera before, but never in this season. The trees were almost overwhelmingly green and delicately manicured. The grounds are also home to some beautiful stone statues and a cave with carvings of different gods inside.

On the way home we treated ourselves to the Green Car on Tokaido line. The Green car has reclining seats with tray tables like the Shinkansen, but is just a part of the regular train. We ate sushi bentos from Ofuna station, which has a huge selection of restaurants and bento shops. I love sushi, but sushi where the fish came out of the ocean that morning is light years ahead of sushi made from frozen fish. I also treated myself to a Chinese meat bun (nikuman) because it’s been way too long since I had one.

We returned to Numazu and I immediately peeled off my still damp clothes and took a shower. Summer in Japan is WAY too hot and humid especially in a popular tourist area full of people.

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Return to Japan 2013: July 12 – The Best Game You Can Name

My former roommate Klaxman was providing English lessons to a very friendly middle aged woman who I call Friendlyko. Friendlyko is also friends with The Wife and The Mother in Law. On July 12, Friendlyko was going to have some of her friends over at the house and we were invited. The catch is that everyone was expected to perform a song. I was specifically asked for a Canadian song.

Trying to think of a Canadian song is hard. There are so many famous singers and songwriters from Canada that picking just one is difficult. Plus, I wanted to think of something that would really capture Canada, instead of just being a good song written by a Canadian. After considering offerings from Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, The Tragically Hip, Anne Murray, Paul Anka, Our Lady Peace, David Usher, The Arrogant Worms, The Guess Who, April Wine, Loverboy, Fucked Up, Grimes, The Besnard Lakes, Feist, and of course Nickleback (sarcasm on the last one) I ended up with only one logical choice – the most Canadian Man ever – Stompin’ Tom Connors. My song had to be The Hockey Song.

For those unfamiliar with Stompin’ Tom (aka everyone outside of Canada), he was a fiercely patriotic Canadian singer and songwriter who wrote songs about Canada and all things Canadian. He got his nickname from the habit of stomping his cowboy boot to keep time with his guitar playing. Many small towns and historical events in Canada have a Stompin’ Tom song written about them. The Hockey Song is easily Stompin’ Tom’s most recognizable song and is commonly played at hockey games at all levels throughout the country.

In the time leading up to my trip I didn’t have a lot of free time to prepare or practice. While in Japan, I downloaded the song from ITunes and got a free app that removes vocals from songs. I totally forgot to find the lyrics ahead of time. In the minutes leading up to my performance, I was searching for lyrics on Klaxman’s outdated cell phone.

I was up last after seeing other people play the shamisen, sing acapella, play traditional Japanese music on the ukelele, and demonstrate hula dancing. A crowd of about 12 Japanese ladies ranging in ages from mid 30s to early 90s stared at me expectantly. With the help of The Wife I was able to give a little intro on Stompin’ Tom Canada’s love of hockey. I also taught everyone a very basic translation of the chorus of the song and got them to practice so they could sing along. Then came the actual performance, which went fairly well and got a polite round of applause.

A lot of people come to Japan and have fantastic adventures. However, I doubt that many people can say that they got some 90 year old Japanese women to sing along with The Hockey Song. I will hold on to that accomplishment for the rest of my life.

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Return to Japan 2013: July 8 – Driver license offices are slow everywhere

Aside from visiting family, one of the other reasons for our trip to Japan was so the Wife could renew her Japanese drivers license, which can only be done in person. Going to another country to see all of the tourist stuff is fun. But to really get a feel for the lifestyle you need to get out and do some regular, boring, day to day stuff as well. We loaded the family into the car and drove to the Numazu driver license centre.

The Wife had a 12:45pm appointment. We arrived at 12:00. All of the staff were on lunch break. As soon as they came back, all of the people sitting around suddenly rushed to form orderly lines in front of the various windows.

Bureaucracy is an art form in Japan. People are moved from the stacks of forms to the first window. Depending on what they are at the office for, they then proceed to windows 2, 3 and 4 or windows 3, 4 then 2 in that order. Showing up at the window with an incorrectly filled out form will have you sent back to the stacks of forms and then to the back of the line that you came from. Sitting and watching the dance of bureaucracy in action is actually pretty fun.

The Wife’s Japanese license had expired completely, so in addition to the forms and lines, she was required to watch a driving safety video. After the video she found that she had filled out one of the forms incorrectly and had to redo it.

While I was waiting I spent some time talking with The Mother in Law. Her mother passed away last year, so she has really been lonely with her daughter half way around the world. The Father in Law is great, but is completely incapable of small talk. At the end of our short conversation which was limited by my Japanese ability, I wanted to give her a big hug. Public hugging is not very common in Japan. I will give her a big hug later.

After talking with The Mother in Law, I spent the remainder of time watching the motorcycle license tests out the window. If you have a foreign issued motorcycle license, you need to pass a road test in Japan to get your Japanese license. Two Brazilian looking men were taking the test, navigating a series of narrow turns, slaloms and bumps. A female friend was inside recording the test with her IPhone.

Finally, three hours after we arrived at the license centre we were done. We rewarded ourselves with delicious cold ramen at Gomi Hatten. Although not the most interesting use of 3 hours, I did get a good insight into life and bureaucracy in Japan. Also, the driver license office was about as much fun and excitement that my jet lagged brain could handle.

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Return to Japan 2013: July 11 – Shopping and “Shopping”

On July 11 The Family took me to Yamada Denki to buy a new home computer. The computer they bought about 5 years ago was taking about 5-10 minutes to start up. This is usually a sign that it needs a good defrag, virus check, spyware check and some house cleaning. I would normally offer to do this, but I am mostly useless with a Japanese OS. They also wanted to switch their desktop for a laptop, so off we went.

I wandered the store while The Family did their shopping. I got to see a display of the new 4K TV, which has twice the resolution of a 1080P HDTV.  It looked fantastic, but I don’t expect that I will rush out and buy one when I return to Canada. I also looked at kitchen appliances and was amazed at row after row of rice cookers all with different features and functions. The rice cooker that The Wife and I use in Canada is a $60 Superstore special. It cooks rice, which is exactly what we need it to do. I guess that if I lived in a culture where rice was the staple food, I would appreciate some of the additional bells and whistles.

After about an hour of amazing myself with new technology we returned home with a new computer, a new internet plan, a new TV package and a new phone service provider. Up-selling is alive and well in Japanese consumer electronics.

Returning home we turned on the new computer and were amazed at how easy to use and fantastic Windows 8 was. It was an easy adjustment from all of the other Microsoft operating systems, and all of the new features are wonderful and are no doubt loved by all. Having to get a Microsoft account to use any software totally makes sense and should have been implemented long ago. Also, Windows 8 is simply a pleasure to use without a touch screen. The new start screen absolutely doesn’t look like it was designed by children. During the setup, nobody was cursing Bill Gates in either English or Japanese. We then won the lottery and celebrated by climbing aboard our majestic unicorn to fly to the moon for lunch.

Just in case you have trouble with sarcasm, everything in the last paragraph after “we turned on the new computer” is not true.

In the afternoon The Wife and I took our first trip out of the house without The In-Laws. The goal was to check out some used clothing stores near the station. We ended up getting distracted and spending our afternoon in more enjoyable ways. You may notice that there are no pictures attached to this particular blog entry. No, this isn’t that kind of blog.

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Return to Japan 2013: July 10 – Cooking in Tokyo

From one of the many models of a Tokyo street scene at the Edo Tokyo Museum

From one of the many models of a Tokyo street scene at the Edo Tokyo Museum

The plan for July 10 was a solo trip to Tokyo while the Wife spent time with her family. I have been to Tokyo many, many times before, so the goal was to find something new. After some time spent on Wikitravel, I ended up with a plan to go to the Edo Tokyo museum, the nearby Fukugawa Edo museum, and then shopping at Disk Union in Shinjuku.

From The In-Laws house I went to nearby Ooka station on Gotemba line. Ooka station is so small that they don’t have an automatic ticket gate. You have to show your ticket to the JR employee in the station window as you pass. When I arrived at the station I was wondering why everyone was sitting down in the station building and nobody was waiting on the platform. Then I realized that the platform was directly in the sun with no shade. Even at 9:00am it was crazy hot. Travel Protip: when all the locals are doing something, it’s probably for a good reason.

From Ooka station it was a short ride to Numazu station, where I changed to the Tokaido line bound for Mishima. At Mishima I upgraded my ticket to a Shinkansen ticket for Tokyo, which can be done on the machine easily in English. My train was not coming for some time, so I went into the nice, air conditioned waiting area hoping to find some Wi-Fi. Unfortunately there is not a lot of free Wi-Fi in Japan, and I didn’t have a subscription to any of the available paid options. This is exactly why you should always travel with a book.

On the platform at Tokyo station I got my first blast of the days weather. It was just before 11 but the temperature was already north of 30 degrees and the humidity had to be in the high 70% range. I quickly worked my way inside to the main station and followed the signs for the Sobu line. Tokyo station is quite simply well organized chaos. There are excellent signs directing you to the various train lines and exits, and a huge selection of restaurants, food stands and souvenir shops. Also about a zillion people walking around in every direction.

One final quick ride had me at Ryogoku station. Ryogoku is the home of sumo in Japan, with several stables in the area. On this particular day there was a tournament going on in Nagoya, so I didn’t see any wrestlers walking around on the streets. Ryogoku station to the museum is only a few minute walk, but in the heat it felt like half an hour. The museum itself looks like a giant AT AT walker from The Empire Strikes back. Unfortunately due to its massive size it is nearly impossible to photograph from ground level.

Edo Tokyo museum shows the history of, unsurprisingly, Edo, which is now known as Tokyo. The main attraction is the detailed scale models of street scenes from Tokyo’s history. Most of the scenes of the have hundreds of tiny people, all with different clothing and facial expressions. Binoculars are provided so you can get an up close view. You could literally spend hours looking at everything in the models. Other highlights include a recreation of a late 1700’s book store, Japan’s first phone booth, and full size recreations of houses that you can walk around in. The museum is one of the best in Japan, and an absolute bargain at 600 yen.

After the museum I walked back to the station. At this point the sidewalk was so hot that I could feel the heat through the soles of my shoes.  I avoided the nearby McDonald’s and stopped to eat at Pepper Lunch, a hamburger steak chain. Hamburger steak is a ground beef patty usually served with some veggies. When I left the restaurant, I was so hot that I decided against the Fukugawa Edo museum due to the 10 minute walk from the station. I instead headed to Akihabara, the geek capital of Japan.

Knowing that I would be back in Akihabara about a week later, I confined myself to Yodobashi camera. If you like electronics, video games, models, etc, and only have time go to to one place, make sure you go to Yodobashi Camera. The Akihabara store is 6 floors of awesome. I bought a memory card reader, a Bluetooth audio transmitter and successfully avoided buying about 500 other things that I really really wanted to buy.

Escaping from Yodobashi, I returned to the station and took the Chuo line to Shinjuku. The Chuo line cuts right through the centre of Tokyo at a high rate of speed. It is very convenient, but it is also host to a lot of train suicides due to the high speed and number of trains. Fortunately I got through with no incidents.

At this point it is repetitive to say that any part of Tokyo is insanely busy, but Shinjuku station and surrounding area is the very definition of insanely busy. The station is used by over 3.5 million people per day. The key is to think of the crowd like an ocean current and just get into the flow that is going in the direction you want. Also, know which exit you need to use.

Disk Union has 5 different stores near Shinjuku station. Some of these have multiple floors and different genres of music on each one. The stores are very narrow and crowded, so I immediately regretted wearing my big traveling backpack. I ended up in 4 different Disk Union genre stores – classic rock, Japanese rock, punk and metal. The final tally was 8 used CDs and one brand spanking new copy of the 40th Anniversity Ziggy Stardust rerelease with Japanese writing on the package.

Since I was close to the entrance to Kabukicho I wandered over and started taking pictures of the famous entrances and tall buildings full of stores. I wad not feeling adventurous enough to wander through Kabukicho itself and take pics, and by this time I was started to really feel that I had been walking around in the heat all day. In fact, other than sitting to eat lunch I had been on my feet all day. It was well and truly time to call it a daay.

If going to Tokyo – wear comfortable shoes, check out the Edo Tokyo museum, and don’t go during the summer. Just don’t. It’s too f**king hot.

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