Thursday, March 27, 2008

My trip part 2

Part 1, 2, and half of part 3 were written when I was away. School is kicking into high gear, so the other parts and pictures might come a bit slower, but I assure you they are coming. So, without further adieus, here is part 2:

Since moving to Japan, I have spent my entire time somewhere in the metropolitan area of Tokyo. The closest I got to escaping this city was Kamakura and an afternoon in Takao. While Kamakura was quite lovely and interesting, it was filled with tourists and sightseers from Japan and abroad. Takao certainly didn’t have tourists except for those changing trains to go to Mt. Takao, but it would be difficult to describe it a as anything but a picturesque suburb of Tokyo. While this was fun and all, spending all my time in a small portion of this country was not what I wanted to do.

One of my best friends in America is Japanese. She has two sisters and two parents. I have met both of her sisters in Tokyo, and much like my friend, they were quite delightful. One of them lives in the city and doesn’t speak much English. The other sister lives with her parents, something not uncommon in Japan. Upon meeting this sister, she invited me to spend time with her parents in her hometown. As I had a four day weekend approaching, I was invited up on Wednesday night to spend Thursday and Friday relaxing and enjoying the sights and sounds of small town Japan.

And what a small town it is. After getting off the train, we drove through the tiny city and on towards a liquor store. The whole place reminded me of a tiny East coast town that had been there for a long time, but never became a big place. It was cute and charming, but also a shade run down and old fashioned. Unlike Tokyo, here the car was the desired, and often times only, mode of transportation. Shops were almost indistinguishable from those in America, as they had parking lots and were obviously built with cars in mind, unlike those in Tokyo which are shoved where ever they can fit them.

On the ride to the parent’s house, the sister informs me that we would be eating dinner the mother has prepared. After asking if I can eat Japanese food, a question I get often, I say “Sure. Anything but raw squid”, as raw squid is still probably the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. After saying that there was a long pause, and I knew it… Fuck. We’re having raw squid. My imagined nightmare of being invited to a Japanese home where I was served a traditional, delicate, and expensive Japanese meal that was comprised of things that I would never in my life imagine eating was coming true. I envisioned a plate full of all manners of things yanked out the ocean staring at me with their cold, dead eyes and some gracious host was insisting that these were the tastiest parts. Of course, in such a situation I would swallow my squeamishness right before I swallowed my eyeball.

On the morning of my departure I packed what I thought would be enough then took off. I realized that I forgot to pack a sweater, and while Tokyo was becoming quite warm, I was told that my destination wasn’t. Conveniently, the liquor store we were headed to was next to Uniqulo, a cheap yet trendy clothing chain in Japan. I stopped in and picked up a track jacket, one which I’m sure will serve me well in the future.

The liquor store was stopped at was absolutely massive. I would compare it to a large Beverages and More in America, but after seeing nothing but tiny, crammed shops in Tokyo, it seemed astoundingly large. Their selection was quite nice too with decent American wines, a Canadian beer that was a favorite of the sister, and to my surprise, Tim’s Salt and Vinegar Potato chips. In America, I would sometimes buy these and eat them with a nice deli sandwich, but finding kettle-style potato chips in Japan was tough, not to mention a brand that I was quite fond of in salt and vinegar flavor. They were only 400 yen, which is about $4. Considering that in the US, they cost $3-$3.50, this was a great price.

We left the store and headed off to what only can be described as the country. Views of shopping centers and houses were replaced with snow covered rice paddies. After a bit of driving, we were in a tiny town and quickly pulling into the driveway. The house was surprisingly not very foreign looking from the outside. It wouldn’t seem that out of place in America. I was warned that the family dog would be barking at me, but this didn’t seem to be the case as we pulled up. He was quietly and calmly waiting for my arrival.

The father and the mother, who I had already been warned they didn’t speak English, greeted us upon our arrival. The father had surgery a while back and can’t talk without an aid and when he does talk, which he did so by pushing something on his throat, it is quite rough and a bit shocking. Since his first words were kind and welcoming and I had been expecting this, it quickly stopped being something that was a bit frightening and became normal. The mother was full of smiles and was obviously eager to have us.

The house itself has obviously been a family home for quite some time. There were knickknacks hanging about, plenty of gorgeous flowers in the mud room, something the mother was obviously proud of, and the kitchen cabinets were full of all sorts of dishes, glasses, and other things. I was never given a ‘grand tour’ of the house, which is seemingly not something done in Japan. I was shown the bathroom, the shower room, and the kitchen, where we all sat down at the table.

To describe the kitchen as cluttered would be describing a bookshelf that was completely full of odd shaped books arranged in order based on category, not size, as cluttered. Everything in this kitchen had its place and the mother seemed to know instantaneously where things belonged. Everything wasn’t quite finished being prepared, so I was offered some beer and light snacks to go with it. The father graciously offered me some dried whole fish as he was chomping on one and clearly enjoying it. Having eaten these before and not being fond of them, I didn’t really want to join him, however he was anxious to share with me, so I was anxious to take one. The only thing that comes to mind when I think of the flavor is the smell of fish food. In truth, it wasn’t that bad, which I think is an indication of my changing tastes.

While we were waiting for the mother to finish, the sister and I helped by making gyoza (pot stickers). While the process was easy, all of mine were odd looking and mangled while the ones made by the sister were delicate and quite pretty. The father shared some delicious sake made of rice from his cousin’s farm. It was also clear that the father did not have to do the work.

The food was placed in front of us. For starters, a delicious appetizer of boiled cabbage with a peanut butter and soy sauce was presented. Then came the freshly made gyoza, which was very flavorful. The mother made a custom sauce which was simply soy sauce, lemon juice, and Chinese hot oil to taste, but way better than what I was used to with this quite common dish. At the same time, salad was served, with some type of shellfish and cherry tomatoes, which I wanted to avoid but a plate was made up for me. These tomatoes were obviously fresher than most I had eaten in the past, thus making them better, but I still did not go back for more. The shellfish was surprisingly good in the salad, if not a tad chewy. I ended up going back for more a few times, avoiding the tomatoes. In front of all this was what I would consider to be the main event, a plate of sashimi, or straight up raw fish. While pointing out what was on the plate, there sat my nemesis, the raw squid.

The drinks were flowing and I was very much enjoying myself, as was everyone else it seemed. Plans for the next day were discussed. While skiing was the initial plan, rain kind of put a damper on that. The next day was spring equinox, and according to them, a priest would visit the house in the morning and we would have lunch with some family friends. After that, the sister and I would head out to go sightseeing.

Drinks were flowing and everyone was having a great time. The father was anxious to pour sake for me and told me that my tiny glass was from an area known for having the best chinaware in Japan. I was ready to be brave and try some raw squid, giving it a second chance. When I went to go reach for it, it was all gone. Apparently, raw squid is the father’s favorite and he gobbled it up. I was both saddened and relieved to know that it was not the time for me to try this dish again.

The father retired to bed and the sister, the mother and I sat down in the tatami room for a rest. Tatami is a straw mat that covers the floor and we sat at a kotatsu, or heated coffee table like device. Unlike the kitchen, the tatami room was quite empty by comparison. Sitting down, I was surprised to find that while I sat on the ground, there was a large hole for everyone’s feet, and the heat came from below this. It was really nice and after some light conversation, we all headed for bed.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

My trip part 1

Recently I took a trip over my long weekend. In the process I took a few hundred pictures (which I will post when I get the time), and I wrote a long essay about it. Here is part one:

Arriving in Tokyo station just in time to get cash, buy a ticket, and get on the train forced me to push my mixed feelings about this trip aside. Realizing that I had an aisle seat instead of the window turned my feelings towards something as trivial as a seat on a train. As I’d never been on a shinkansen, I was terribly excited. I remember as a young boy owning a book about different type of vehicles around the world. I very clearly remember reading about the “Bullet Trains” of Japan, and how they were, at the time, the fastest in the world. Just the phrase “Bullet Train” causes the eight year old imagination to go spinning. Add in that these trains are in the far off land of Japan, which at that time was about as close to being a place I would end up living as the moon, possibly less so in the mind of a young boy.

Since reading that book about these trains, the title of fastest train in the world has been moved to France, as they can be a little more liberal in their safety precautions because they don’t have to deal with pesky earthquakes. You can tell me that I’m not riding in the fastest passenger land vehicle in the world, but the child in me simply won’t listen. Because of this, sitting in a window seat is a bit more important than just having something to lean on when I get sleepy. At first, I was located in seat 4C. As nobody sat down in 4D (out of A-D), I quickly moved to my desired seat, using the passive-aggressive businessman technique of throwing my bag down next to me, hoping anyone desiring to sit there would be intimidated and would go somewhere else.

As the train pulled away from Tokyo station, feelings of excitement came equally as fast as the shinkansen had accelerated, which is quite fast. The grey buildings and concrete whizzed by underneath the grey, overcast sky, but it was sunny inside my utopian dream of my first “Bullet Train” ride. The first stop was Ueno station, which is fairly close to my departure point, so the short lived excitement was replaced by stares at people waiting to board, wondering who, if anybody, was supposed to have lucky 4D.

When the old lady came up to me two stops later, I was terribly relieved when she indicated her lack of desire to usurp me form my position. The only thing she wanted was to know if I would like her to put my bag up for me, as she found her newspaper far more interesting than what was outside the window. This is an appropriate response for anybody who’s taken this trip before. However, I was not in that position.

As the train accelerated, I was impressed at how smooth the ride was. Hardly any shakes or bumps like I get on my daily train rides or even the commuter rails around Boston, this shinkansen was the smoothest train that I could recall. It was fast too. Not as fast as the eight year old in me would like, but certainly faster than any other land-based vehicle I’d been on.

Tokyo stretches out for miles. Once I left Ueno and saw the familiar train that loops around Tokyo, the Yamanote line, turn left as I went straight, the glitz and glamour of the big city faded into bland apartment buildings and acre upon acre of houses. The amount of homes was truly mind boggling. There were town centers that were visible and some skyscrapers and giant apartments that humbled anything I’ve seen anywhere else, but most of the land was just houses with a few single or double story businesses scattered about and after a while, an occasional tiny farm.

One could notice after a while that the automobile was becoming much more of a viable transportation. Other train lines were less prevalent, establishments had parking lots, main roads and interstates were seen filled with traffic, and there were fewer small business centers based around stations and more massive malls. I have been to the giant shopping centers in Shinjuku and I’ve been to a mall outside of Atlanta reported to be the second largest mall in America***, but these buildings dwarfed it all. Sure, Shinjuku has these gigantic shopping centers humbled by amount of people and amount of shopping centers, and the plaza near Atlanta*** uses more land by a substantial amount than these monstrosities in the suburbs of Tokyo, but because they actually had the land at one point to build them instead of attempting to squeeze them into anywhere they had left, they built them as big as they could. They looked like fat, short skyscrapers of nothing but commerce. It’s as if someone took four city blocks, fused them together, and built a 30 story building there. That may be a slight exaggeration, but I believe I recall seeing one of them advertise 27 floors.

Around both the second and third stops, there were cities that came thrusting out of the endless houses. While the lights of Shinjuku or Shibuya are enough to truly be considered some of the most dramatic scenes in the world, these cities were nothing to scoff at. It seemed a bit perplexing that after miles of flat, boring suburbs, there were these incredible town centers, but I don’t know much about how towns are formed, so I am not a credible source for commenting.

While all this urban and suburban chaos was happening outside my window, on the inside of the train, businessmen slept and read books or papers, a family a few seats up and to the right a family enjoyed their Pokemon bento boxes, a Caucasian couple started off as excited as I was but quickly became bored, and two men directly behind me talked loudly about sports. Occasionally, a young woman would go up and down the aisle selling snacks, drinks, and the signature desserts of an area designed to be presented as gifts. There were two trains connected as one, which would veer off in different directions later on, and I was on the one towards the front. The announcer spoke much more politely than on normal trains around here, and with a soft, British accent. As stops were few and far between, they were able to have long winded speeches about how happy they are to have you aboard and where you were going. Also, the silence inside the train made the soft voice audible, as on a normal train, it would not have been heard.

A bit after the third stop and the generosity of an old woman who had no idea what she did, the fields of houses were spotted with just plain fields. Occasionaly a major highway and a few distribution centers could be seen, but it was no longer the infinite ‘concrete jungle’ that I have become used to. After the houses with some fields, it became fields with some lumps of houses, and eventually, just fields. As soon as I was ready to declare it the end of metropolitan Tokyo, the train would slow down and before coming to a stop, another city would pop up. While this was by no means Tokyo, these areas would give any medium-large city in America a run for their money. As we departed these stations, the town slowly began to fade back into fields.

After a while, we started to go through a few tunnels. Since I can only see out the sides of the window and not the front, I had no concept of what these were going through, but understanding that this train was going really fast and any curve at all would slow it down, the tunnels seemed logical. After one tunnel, the darkened cloudy grey sky had become noticeably darker. I have no idea why it got dark so quickly, but because I was intently focused on the world outside, I can say without a doubt, it happened quite suddenly.

The shinkansen stopped at the point in which the track split into two directions, taking each half of the train in a different direction. This was yet again another large town and it lead me to assume that the next stop and my final destination, Yonezawa, was going to be a fairly decent sized place. I also had found it curious that I hadn’t seen anybody get off, but realized that all the earlier departures were on the other train.

I could feel the train ascending up a mountain. Compared to earlier, the train felt sluggish, even though it was still quite fast. There were more tunnels and some of them were quite long, but most were fairly short. I noticed that the sides of the trains bowed out a little bit in these tunnels, most likely due to the difference in pressure at such great speeds. Much like the darkness came earlier in the day, after one fairly average and not too long tunnel, there was snow. It wasn’t like I rode through areas where there patches of snow or I saw mountains where there was snow on one side, or fields with snow in the shade, it was simply no snow-tunnel-snow.

The mountain views were amazing, if not a bit hard to see at night. Sometimes it looked like we were mere millimeters from the edge of a cliff, causing even the slightest shift in ground soil to lead us plummeting to our dooms and sometimes we were deep inside a mountain tunnel, but when we were above ground, the views were amazing. It was quite dramatic and I attempted to capture the moment with my camera, but didn’t quite get the ambiance, as the glare from the window was overwhelming.

Trains in Japan are so accurate that I would have almost bet my life that my train would arrive at 6:20, as that’s what my ticket stated. So, a few minutes before, I started getting ready to depart. I was half expecting a very large small town like I had seen before, but when the train was slowing down, it was clear I wasn’t getting that. Instead, I was greeted by a tiny station and the strangest clash between old world and new. There was a man taking tickets at the gate by hand and in front of him, a sensor for Suica, the automated ticket counter service which I use every day.

After I left the station gate, two things were painfully clear. First is that this was not Tokyo or anywhere that could even be considered on the outskirts of Tokyo. This was very much a small town in the middle of nowhere. If town centers are around the main transportation hub, which has always seemed to be the case in and around Tokyo, this place wasn’t even as big as my hometown of Auburn, Alabama, which is quite small. Even if the main ‘downtown’ was somewhere else, there was next to nothing near the station.

The second thing that became quite clear is that I was no longer one of the many Caucasian foreigners around. I instantly got stares of surprise and confusion. Although I am aware of how homogenous Japan is, as it is over 99% comprised of Japanese people and the majority of that 1% is made up of other Asians, I have become used to not fitting in, but not sticking out too much. I felt like I had a giant sign over me, but I didn’t at all feel like anyone was displeased, which was nice. I just felt a level of curiosity that I’m not really used to. It was a tad disconcerting, but even more than that, refreshing to know that I wasn’t in Tokyo at all and that I had reached small town Japan.

I was waiting for my ride to pick me up, so I wandered around the tiny station which had a large waiting room (an unfamiliar concept in Tokyo), an attached convenience store, and not much else. Out front, there was an interesting but odd statue, a disproportionately large amount of taxi cabs, a parking lot, and a circle for passenger drop-off/pick-up. It was clear that here, the car is King.

So, where was I, and why was I here? Like most things worth talking about, that wasn’t so easily answered.

Friday, March 14, 2008

My favorite band in Tokyo.

A few months ago, I went to go see my roommate's band. With his band, there were also a few other bands that played. One of them was the excellent Highered-Girl, who I highly recommend you check out their website. But, another band blew me away with their music, the singer's voice, and their overwhelming exuberance. That band is called BB Mojaco.

Made up of three of the finest individuals I've met around here, Mojaco is a delight to see. The drummer (pictured above in the center) is also the singer. Her exuberance and sheer joy while performing is unbelievable! The other members (guitarist on the left, bassist on the right) are also talented, energetic, and fun to watch on stage.

When I saw them live for the first time, I was first struck by their talent and accuracy. It was clear that they had practiced several times before and almost seemed to know what the other members were doing automatically. But, the major striking feature of the band is the lead singer's voice. It's amazingly robust and incredibly high. If you want to hear their muisc, click here.

But, this isn't really a story about music. It's more about the people themselves. After the first show I saw them at, I got their contact information, viewed their website and found out about future shows. Shortly after, I went back to America for christmas and missed their next show. I caught the show after that and afterwards, we went out drinking. I got to try sake from all across the country and enjoy the company of a lot of new people. The whole evening was a nonstop thrill ride filled with laughter, good discussions, and awkward English to Japanese translation difficulties. It was an absolute blast, and I had so much fun.

The third time I saw them was on a Monday night which I had Tuesday off. I had fun, but it wasn't the sake drinking nonstop riot that the first time was, since everyone had to work the next day, but it most certainly was fun.

The most recent time I saw them was a week ago Tuesday. I convinced my American friend in the area to come with me, as they were playing in her neighborhood. For reasons I don't quite understand, I had no school on Wednesday as it was a school holiday. We ended up staying up all night drinking beer and enjoying everyone's conversation. Needless to say I had yet another good time.

When will I see these guys again? I don't really know, but I can tell you that I am looking forward to it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The end of the line.

I've been living in Tokyo for over 6 months now and it's been 3 months since I got back from America. I haven't left the city since I got back, so it was high time that I did something about that. Also, there is something that I've wanted to do since I moved to Japan... Hop on a train and get off at the end of the line, just to see what's out there. No planning, no maps, just hop on a train and get off when I'm forced to.

I suckered a friend into joining me, and had a very interesting time. Even before I stepped off the train, it was quite clear I wasn't in Tokyo anymore.

This fellow right here is a Tengu. I don't know much about the Tengu, but they're supposed to live in the woods around here. This one sure was massive.

Where the hell is 'here' anyways?

We ended up in Takao. I couldn't find out a whole lot about the town of Takao, but apparently there's a Mount Takao, which is a famous hiking spot for Tokyo citizens. Mount Takao isn't really accessible by Takao station. You have to change trains and go one more stop on a different line. That's fine, I wanted to explore, not hike on a popular, well worn trail.

So, we left Takao station and enjoyed the neighborhood.

And what a neighborhood it was. I know it's kind of silly to say this, but I really felt like I was in Japan. I understand what my friends were talking about when they visited America and they went to all the major cities and when they got to the small towns, they said "I feel like this is real America".

Trees lining the street? Where am I?

So, me and my friend decided to cross the river and walk up a mountain. Just like our arrival in Takao, there was no reason for it. Just to see things.

It seemed like something out of a movie. A quiet mountain hill in a sleepy town.

It was a pretty steep climb up the mountain, but it wasn't so bad.

It was also a bit unusual to see so many cars and so few pedestrians. I'm used to living in a pedestrian paradise, but there were less than a half-dozen people on food and tons of cars.

These cars ranged between small and tiny and are nowhere near the cars I see around town that are significantly more expensive and generally larger. I guess these cars are used daily as opposed to Tokyo cars, which are there more for fun and to show off.

But, this was just some small, sleepy town.

It was kind of hard to describe. Familiar and foreign at the same time.

Anyways, there was a field with snow in it!

And a house with a lightning bolt on the side!

And someone growing vegetables!

In a sense, it was everything Tokyo wasn't. I got to see a few people argue about how to plant vegetables, a Denny's-like diner, traffic, two dry cleaners, and other rather normal things. And PARKING LOTS! Like, just empty lots with white lines. No numbers, no gates, no machines lifting cars up, just a few normal parking lots.

Well, we left and got a nice view of the city.

Looks like you can go bowling in Takao.

Something caught my eye on the horizion:

What the hell is that thing?

I HAD to find out! That really didn't look like it belonged here. And it's HUGE! Significantly larger than everything else in this town, but what is it?

Well, we were near the train station and decided to stroll down 'main street' Takao. It was pretty interesting.

At this crazy shop, I got a 'cola float' beverage. It tasted just like what you'd expect. It was kind of weird, though as there was no ice cream. This store was also weird because there were like old, dying plants in the corner, children's toys on the floor and American sized isles. I'm so used to barely fitting, it was a nice relief. Oh yeah, and the sign was weird too.

There was also an old gum vending machine.

I don't recall ever seeing a gum specific vending machine. I've seen tons with gum on the bottom, but not a whole dedicated machine.

Also, in somebody's house, I saw some lovely flowers.

And down the street was a plum tree blossoming.

It was magnificent.

But, I was no closer to figuring out what that thing was.

There was this huge empty space before it and a pretty river. It was quite striking.

But what is it? It's huge, I know that.

So, on the left was a road and a small building and on the right was a relaxing bull.

So, should I take the logical, straight path or go around and across a small bridge?

Why don't I ask the stone bear cub?

He's telling me to look up the hill? What's up th...

Holy crap!

What is that? I couldn't resist checking it out, no matter how many stairs there were.

After a LOT of stairs, I see this guy:

Who is he?

Yeah, I can't read that. There was also a plaque with lots of words on the back of the statue. Even if I knew Japanese fluently and understood all the kanji, I still probably wouldn't be able to read it as it was quite faded and dirty.

He looks less scary from behind. The sun behind him makes it more dramatic.

Speaking of dramatic, the view atop this hill was worth mentioning.

See that road on the far left of the picture below?

That's where we were earlier.

Also up on this hill was a small hut:

And a statue of a boy.

This is exactly the type of unplanned sightseeing I love.

I come to escape the city and see all these incredible things.

It was just so unexpected.
(again, you can see the road we were on earlier, on the center left of the picture below)

But, I still didn't figure out what this massive structure was.

And I guess I wasn't going to.

I did some research online, and apparently it's a monument that honors those who died in industrial accidents.

Still didn't answer what was inside that massive building, but now that I knew that, it's not really my business what's inside, so I'll leave it be.

One thing I wouldn't leave be is my stomach. After walking around all day we were kind of hungry.

We passed by this Oknomyaki joint on the way to that massive monument. For those who aren't familiar with okonomiyaki, it's been described as 'Japanese pizza', but really it's nothing like that. It's simply dough, cabbage, and other things. Normally ginger, some type of meat, some sauce on top and mayo.

This place was pretty good. It was strange though. First off, it was clearly somebody's house.

Those toys? Those belonged to the 8 year old boy who was running around. It was also a no-shoes restaurant, which isn't so unusual here. It was just unusual to see soccer cleats and roller blades in the shoe rack.

After a round of ginger and then pork okonomiyaki, we saw something that caught our attention... Banana okonomiyaki.

We both thought they would have a different concoction of bonus ingredients with the banana batch, but nope. Green onions, ginger, little baby shrimp and all.

It looks and sounds nighmarish, but smelled and tasted really good. It wasn't what I would have concocted as a dessert under normal circumstances, but I actually really liked it. It wasn't too sweet but not too savory. I'd most likely order it again, but I could have done without the baby shrimp.

So, any logical person would have just headed home and called it a day. But not me.

On the Chuo line, that I take every day, there is a station that kind of branches out into 4 different lines. The place is Tachikawa and I thought anywhere with such a big train stop had to be interesting.

I was right. Tachikawa was an interesting blend of high class, vintage American and Japanese goods, sleaze, and regular working folks. There are a few huge shopping malls which we didn't go into, a quite healthy red light district, some cool vintage shops, and apparently one of the largest movie theaters in the Tokyo area.

And a lot of taxis.

It was a really funny place. I got to see this:

Really? Too bad I ate all that okonomiyaki.

I got to see a hooker enjoy a pearl drink, a crazy collectible shop, a few good looking places to eat.

It was very interesting and looked very new. It's really not that far from my house, and inside the train station itself was an amazing row of bakeries. I got a slice of apple pie that was really good and I keep dreaming about this cheese cake I tasted. I want to go back!

So, that was my adventures with random train stops. The number one lesson I learned is to explore. I had such a great time, and I'm anxious to get off at the end of a line again.