Wednesday, December 31, 2014

(2014) Days of Summer

You could chuck a truckload of walking sticks into a swirling vortex and it still wouldn't be the hurricane of life that was 2014. So here's the annual thing where I scrape together ten of the marginally more enjoyable things I can remember for the year until 2015 sucker-punches me in the gut. Again.

1. Improv is Newsworthy!
Big props to Aly and the rest of the Public Affairs team, who got the Improv Comedy Conglomerate featured in the Straits Times! Dylan was basically doing his stupid Dylan things while the cameraman was taking test shots, and it ended up being used as the leading photo of the article. It's my first time appearing in a newspaper, and probably my last, unless I get arrested for doing something incredibly stupid.

2. 14th March 2014
My birthday has never been a big thing for me, but this year my Yale-NUS friends really pulled out all the stops and I had the best birthday I've ever had. Between dragging me out for Japanese dinner for the pretext to a YNC Common Lounge Ambush, to Karen's Everything video and then forcing me to sing it in the dining hall, I don't think Stockholm Syndrome has ever been a viable celebratory theme until that day. And I think you again for a wonderful evening, that I will never forget.

3. Summer Programme in Japan
I've never stayed in another country longer than three weeks before (this being Orientation at Yale) and once again YNC giving me the opportunity to see the world; this time for five weeks in Tokyo, Japan for another brilliant summer experience. I've loved living in Japan; the notion of just walking to a konbini and having onigiri is one of life's most beautiful and exquisite experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed my course as well; Prof Seth Jacobowitz was a really great professor and a really cool and funny guy to hang out with (sometimes too literally, eh, Xim?). I even got to travel to Hiroshima to visit the host family I stayed with two years ago; my Japanese family on the other side of the world. From living the Tokyo subway commute to buying plastic transparent umbrellas, Tokyo will always be my second home.

4. Orientation and Ghettopotamia
So I signed up to be an Orientation Group Leader this year again, without knowing what I'd get myself into. It was very different, running around Singapore with juniors instead of your classmates; but it was great fun and I'm very proud of my Ishstars. But I think the best thing that happened was getting closer with the rest of the RC3 OGLs: Ami, Bryant and Mel, who have been some of my closest friends during the dark and difficult past semester. And we put on a great opening act for RC3 - I honestly couldn't have asked for more perfect teammates. Ghettopotamia 4 Lyfe.

5. The Penang Boys
I'm really grateful to be travelling to places that I've never been before, and when I was jioed to follow Dylan, Josh and John Reid to Penang for a couple of days, I hastily agreed. I finally fulfilled my life dream of eating Penang Char Kway Teow in Penang, and we had a blast wandering around the island over four days; climbing stupidly-steep hills, strolling down jetties, and best of all, EATING. And I never once got food poisoning or anything, despite all the warnings my parents kept giving me.

6. The Improv Shows: Opening Act, EYWs; The Kumar Show; The DF Farewell; and Build-A-Show: Act Two, Brutus 
Looking back, I realised we had SO MANY shows this year. Our first show, Opening Act, was a brilliant hit, selling out almost immediately and even having people cram in the back. We performed for all the EYWs as well, and I'd like to think that we contributed to a lot of the intake this year (although the Egyptian girl didn't come after we did the Arabic Foreign Film Dub... oh well). Opening for the Kumar show was also a nerve-wrecking experience; not only because we were opening for a pretty well-known local comedian, but also because we were collaborating with the NUS Improvables, who are pretty damn awesome - we even started going to their shows to see them in action. We also had a crazy fun show for the DF Farewell; somehow all 12 DFs managed to squeeze in some time in their packed schedules to come for rehearsals and put on the very first all-DF show for the very first year of Yale-NUS students - a very happy and also very teary occasion. Finally, after a new-and-improved workshop schedule this semester, our new blood put on a damn good show for their first-ever improv show. It's been a pretty good year for improv, and it's only going to get better!

7. Yale-NUS Goes to Langkawi
Oh man travelling is awesome. I've (probably) decided not to take a science major, so the Yale-NUS Common Curriculum Foundations of Science class had a weekend field trip to Langkawi, which honestly was one of the highlights of the entire curriculum. It's so brilliant to just go to a tropical island and learn science. From beach treks to learn about changing sea levels to mangrove cruises with live snake-skin, to visiting an actual observatory and night-time hikes in search for nocturnal creatures, the Langkawi field trip was absolutely awesome and I loved every minute of it.

8. Escape Rooms
I like a good puzzle, and because of Dylan I've been introduced to the wonderful world of Escape Rooms, where you take an hour to break out of a room by solving the puzzles therein. I must have gone to about six or seven rooms this year, and they've all been a blast; I think the best one is still the Magician's Secret, with actually challenging puzzles and a brilliant atmosphere, especially the corridor with nothing but mirrors. My success rate is currently hovering around fifty percent, and it's been pretty fun so far; hopefully the companies refresh their rooms for the coming year so there's a new challenge waiting!

9. Cards Against Humanity
So exams are over and I've been invited to play Cards Against Humanity for the first time, and I swear I couldn't have had a more perfect initiation, with Matt Bolden, Passport, Min, Jolanda, Aaron and Abel. That was honestly the happiest I'd been the entire semester, a full four-hour laugh session with such brilliant responses as "Stockholm Syndrome" and "Incest"; and "Pedophiles. The art of seduction. The Pope." taking the award for the most serendipitous haiku ever. Thanks so much for the laughter, guys.

10. The Phantom Six takes on Lijiang Yunnan
One last stop on the itinerary this year: Josh, Theo, Hui Ran, Tiff and I travelled to Hong Kong and Yunnan for a lot of nature, exploration, horse-riding, band album cover photoshoots, giant Tiger Leaping Gorges, Wang Leehom music with a really damn cool driver, Chinese K-Box, delicious Tibetan potato chips, snow, food poisoning, and yak meat! It was a really wonderful experience, except for the food poisoning, and it's great fun scientifically categorizing Hui Ran's laughter.

The Year in Entertainment

Anime: Psycho-Pass
I didn't get the chance to watch a lot of anime this year, but I do have a lot of praise for Psycho-Pass, a brilliant dystopian thriller with a generous helping of philosophical intrigue to keep your blood pumping and brain racing.

Books: Nation by Terry Pratchett, Shame by Salman Rushdie, Y: The Last Man by Vertigo Comics; Justice League: Generation Lost by DC Comics
I've been re-reading a lot of Terry Pratchett books this year so I don't have many new things to say, except that his latest book Raising Steam has nothing on the earlier Moist von Lipwig novels. I re-read Nation and it is every bit as good as when I first read it, perhaps better; I urge anybody and everybody to read this book, no matter who or what. One of the other books I really enjoyed this year was Salman Rushdie's Shame, which, though it annoyed me with the post-colonial message and convoluted plot, delighted me with the writing style and the way Rushie plays with words in the way only someone who loves the English language can. Dylan lent me Y: The Last Man, and I have to say it is one of the absolute best comics I can and will suggest to anyone, alongside Invincible and Fables. Never has feminist topics and gender theory and, ultimately, human nature, been framed in such an interesting and literary medium, and I am privileged to have been bequeathed this brilliant piece of literature. Finally, Justice League: Generation Lost was such a great series with such a great story; I always love reading about teams more than individual heroes, and these books did not disappoint.

Games: Bioshock, Bioshock 2, Bioshock: Infinite; Patapon; Evil Genius; Overwatch (Trailer)
I bought the Bioshock 3-pack a while ago, and finally managed to play through the first game, which was bloody effing brilliant. I've never seen the railroad nature of video games being taken and hybridized with philosophy, and Rapture's promises of an objectivist utopia which culminates in what is arguably the best line in a video game ("A man chooses, a slave obeys.") has been the best roller-coaster ride a video game has taken me on ever since Final Fantasy VIII. Bioshock 2 is also pretty brilliant, and I'm loving the new combat system; the storyline was also pretty good but seemed a lot shorter. I'm like 80% through Bioshock: Infinite, and I'm loving the awesome mechanics and the thrilling rides on the Skyline, and Elizabeth's Tears mechanic really makes things very, very interesting. I also managed to get Patapon working on my system, and it's been a game I've always wanted to play, and it's pretty fun although I don't know why I keep dropping the rhythm. I also managed to finally get Evil Genius, which is a pretty fun and hilarious game; I've had a lot of fun designing evil lairs and interrogating agents. Finally, Blizzard announced their new FPS-MOBA hybrid Overwatch and even though I've not played it yet, it looks freaking amazing and I'm really hyped to play it, assuming I get accepted into the beta.

Movies: Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Guardians of the Galaxy, Big Hero 6, Fight Club, Her, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Lego Movie, The Hunger Games, Monty Python's Life of Brian, Interstellar, The Maze Runner
I've watched a few really good movies this year. The Winter Soldier was a brilliant piece of superhero cinema, and I think my favourite character was Josh Whedon's take on Arnim Zola, who in the comics was an android with his face broadcast onto a screen on his chest; the movie did that homage so bloody well. For me, Guardians of the Galaxy was a pretty okay movie; it was extremely enjoyable but nothing outstanding. Big Hero 6 was a lot of fun, and it's great to see Pixar make another superhero movie (it says Disney on the poster, but it's obviously Pixar animation, anyone can see that). I finally watched Fight Club this year too, and it's a bloody brilliant piece of cinema; even though I knew the spoiler, I was still fascinated and wondering how the whole thing would play out. I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on the plane to Japan, and it was really nice; I never expected the ending, and I found that I really liked it. I also appreciate they played David Bowie's Space Oddity; that song has so much new meaning after Commander Chris Hadfield sang it aboard the International Space Station. I also watched The Lego Movie, which was funny, but I was more impressed at the fact that someone had to build all the stuff out of Lego for the film. I also watched The Hunger Games on the plane back from Japan, and it didn't really stand out much for me; a lot of the political message was watered down in the film. I think I preferred the book. I finally watched Monty Python's Life of Brian, which is the brilliant piece of satire I've always heard it was, and now I really understand the meaning and significance of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. I watched The Maze Runner, and I found I really enjoyed it; shame it had to end on a cliffhanger, but now I'm interested to see the next installment. Finally, Interstellar was a Nolan masterpiece; few movies can cause me to cry but I cried so hard.

TV Shows: Liar Game; The Newsroom
I've just the season finale left for Liar Game, and it's been a pretty interesting show, even though the main female protagonist is kind of annoying. It's pretty interesting to see how Akiyama is always three steps ahead and knows how to play the rules. The other TV series I've watched this year is Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, and bloody hell it's been a crazy roller coaster ride. It's smart, funny, witty, and it's fighting against the misinformation and stupidity in the media. What's not to like? Plus Olivia Munn is so freaking hot oh my god.

Music: Weird Al Yankovic's Mandatory Fun; Postmodern Jukebox; Owl City's The Midsummer Station and Ultraviolet EP; Jay Chou's "Extra Large Shoes"; Wagakki's "Spinal Fluid Explosion Girl" and "Senbonzakura"; Hunter Hayes's "Everybody's Got Somebody But Me"; Passenger's All the Little Lights
After Chris introduced me to Passenger, I've loved most of the songs on his All the Little Lights album, especially "Patient Love", "The Wrong Direction", "All the Little Lights", "Keep on Walking" and "Life's for the Living". Weird Al's new album came out this year, and while there are a few songs that aren't really my taste, Weird Al's still got his thing and it's still relevant and brilliant. Postmodern Jukebox does vintage-style covers of modern pop songs, and they're brilliant. Owl City's latest album is also pretty good; it's got his usual wordplay and upbeat-ness, but there's also a lot of sadness hidden within. After hearing Jay Chou's "Extra Large Shoes" in China I can't get it out of my head; it's been playing on repeat for a while now. Also, Xim introduced me to Wakkagi Band after Japan, and their take on the Hatsune Miku song "Spinal Fluid Explosion Girl" is still giving me chills. The music video for "Senbonzakura" is also a masterpiece; you see a girl playing an electric sanshin. Finally, I happened to discover Hunter Hayes's "Everybody's Got Somebody But Me", which really describes the last semester, but it's still funny and fun I guess that's sorta like me.


Alright 2015, give me your best shot.
The Edna Man

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


 26 September, 2014

You almost got everything right.

You were right about the acting. A certain comedian called Robin Williams figured it out long ago: a grimace can be a grin if it has a good PR department. Let me tell you something: some time back, way before all this, I was in love. I thought that our love would overcome everything. Amor vincit omnia. I turned out to be wrong. At some point along the way, I developed the delusion that laughter equals love and I abused it like a drug. Every snicker, every giggle, every chuckle, was a quiet affirmation of my existence: This person wouldn't be laughing if I wasn't here. I must be important. The thing about the stage? Every time you put on that mask, you get to be the person you don't have the guts to be when you're off. You get to be the person that people love, that people cheer on, that people want. For a brief, narcotic moment, you can feel like you're wanted. And then I found the courage to love again, to yearn for another human being who love in return is a thousand, a million, a billion audiences. I found the courage to trust in humanity, to believe that maybe this time, amor will really vincit omnia. I turned out to be wrong, again. Two points make a hypothesis; I'm not looking for the third to prove the theory. Now the drugs don't work, because the trick isn't magical when you can see the trapdoor.

You were right about the black hole. It's funny you used that metaphor, because another name for a black hole is a singularity. Nothing but an infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense bit of matter, spinning around and around itself, letting things in but not letting things out, drifting along through the universe and ripping apart anything and everything it comes into contact with. Like I said, an apt metaphor. But if a black hole could think. If a black hole and an endocrine system and a hypothalamus and glands and emotions and higher-order thought. If a black hole could think and feel. Would it keep wandering through the cosmos, tearing apart all that is bright and stellar and stable? Or would it drift to its own corner of the universe, afraid at its own destructive power, and keep away from all other matters in fear of hurting them.

You were right about the conviction. You believe that you are right, and you are sure because nothing could have convinced me that I was wrong. The funny thing about the human mind is that, for some reason, it has to know its place in existence. Throughout history, we have been telling ourselves stories: we used to tell ourselves stories about gods; now we tell ourselves stories about atoms. We tell ourselves stories to reassure our brain that it knows where it is, because that is how we understand the world. But there is a difference between drawing yourself on a map, and drawing a map around yourself. We all tell ourselves stories; even this story I am telling myself is a story. I know that there is no way of getting out of that. But there are no answers to be had here. So I'm going somewhere where there are.

You almost got everything right. But you got two things wrong. One, you said I didn't leave behind a long letter. And two, you can't get guns in this country. But I do live on the seventeenth floor, and the windows have no grilles.

Monday, December 01, 2014


There is a scene in Interstellar where Cooper returns to the ship after spending a few hours on a planet in a high gravitational field. Because of gravitational time dilation, the few hours he spent on the planet corresponded to twenty-three years of Earth time. He returns to the ship to to find twenty-three years of video messages waiting for him from his children, who he is longing to get back to. Twenty-three years of life, gone in an instant, watching the people he loved grow and change and live.

I cried at that scene. I rarely cry in movies but I cried at that scene. Not because of the love he had for his children; not because he knew that he had missed all the important things in their lives. But because he had to watch from outside, and know that he could never be a part of it.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Show

The audience cheers, 
the fans scream, 
the applause roars; 
the curtain falls, 
and the player trudges back to his dressing room, 

A poem,
The Edna Man

Friday, September 05, 2014


"You know that old story about the man who asks God if He is so omnipotent, can He make a boulder so big that even He cannot move it? Well, I can't say what God answered, but what I can say is that humanity has already done that. We have created a challenge for ourselves that we have yet to accomplish. We have challenged ourselves to find meaning in an inherently meaningless world. That is why I find humanity so amazing: they are the ones who designed a game they cannot beat."

From Discussions on Theology,
The Edna Man

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Haha, nice try, but no, this is about the film.

I just watched this movie, after I said I was going to on the flight to Japan, but didn't because I didn't want to arrive at the terminal a sopping sack of man-tears. Instead, I found a opportunity on a quiet Saturday afternoon to sit down at watch it start to finish.

I like this show. A lot. I didn't end up bawling my eyes out, but it touched me. What I particularly like is that it's a science fiction film, disguised as a romantic movie. I like how a lot of very interesting philosophical questions are raised, especially about the nature of artificial intelligence and their validity as feeling, sentient beings. I thought it was handled very well, and puts a different angle on the whole surpassing-our-intellect-and-leaving-for-deep-space thing. And the thing is, it's not a very farfetched idea in our increasingly technological world, especially with the invention of things like Chatbots and Siri - how soon before the program a software with personality? Something more than a simple dating-sim - an actual personality with feelings, desires, beliefs?

But no, the truth is that this film is still about people, about feeling, about that strange wonderful mysterious sensation that we call love. And it points out things about our culture as well. Is it possible to love hundreds of people at a time, and still have an intimate relationship with each and every one of them? Can we accept that an entity with enormous mental and emotional processing power is capable of such things? And if we keep demanding that we be the sole object of their affection, does that not say something about what we believe?

"But there's something that feels so good about sharing your life with somebody."
The Edna Man

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Sanjuugo

It's the last time I'm ever going to eat at the Waseda cafeteria, that's why. And I guessed that they would have a new menu, since it was a new month and all, and I decided to try some tasty summer udon special. Little did I know that the main ingredient was uncut green chilli.

The noodles were good though, so I was happy.

Our class today was a short film documentary called Tokyo Waka, made by a couple of Princeton professors in their free time, according to our prof. It's a pretty interesting story about Tokyo told in a - what I felt at least - very The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa way, where you tell the story of a place through a set of characters; this one being the ubiquitous crows of Tokyo. Seriously, they're everywhere, and they're freaking big and damn scary. They're halfway intelligent, which I guess you have to be if you want to survive in an urban environment. It's a mix of shocking and intriguing.

I decided to make a trip to Nakano today because I wanted to pick up some art books. Nobody wanted to come with me so I went by myself. I guess I shouldn't have gone on a weekday because most of the shops were closed; good thing the Mandrake I wanted to go to was still open. I marvel at the number of different types of hobbyists the place caters to; there are of course many anime and manga figurines; but there are also shops for model train collectors, retro toy collectors, Gashapon enthusiasts, antique watch dealerships, idol fans, and so many other weird and wonderful things.

pixiv exhibition!

I had no idea Battle Cats was such a big thing.

On my way back home I also decided to finally try one of the digital vending machines that were only around in large train stations such as Shibuya. Aside from dispensing my cold beverage, it also told me the weather forecast for the next three days and happily wished me a pleasant day. Boy, I love this country.

And I didn't even have to kick it once!

Today, another crazy thing happened. Sae-san messaged me to ask me what I would be doing for the rest of my week in Tokyo, and in the middle of us both saying that it would be nice to meet up one more time before I left, I somehow ended up asking if she wanted to meet for dinner. I don't know; I thought I was just going through the motions of Japanese social courtesy and I end up asking a girl out for dinner. I mean, what?

Exhibit A, your honour.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Sanjuushi

Caryn wanted to bring Linus, Mel and I to try out a really good bento shop for lunch. Mel had some sudden sickness and couldn't make it, so we followed Caryn down backstreets and found this small bento shop run by an old lady and her husband, selling varieties of really good-looking bento boxes at student prices. I chose a 600-yen combo, and this is what I got:

There are also nine different fruits in here.

We sat outside in the shade, at some chairs chained up with their tables. (Why not just steal a whole new dining set?) And since Linus asked Caryn if she was thinking of working here (which I asked her the day before), I got another perspective on the torturous trials of graduate job-hunting. I found out that there are some positions only open to students, such that some people enroll in the university for another year (but not for any classes) just to have that "student" status so they can apply to certain jobs. It's pretty insane, but there doesn't seem to be any chance of it changing any time soon.

On the way back, I also bought a Haagen-Dazs crispy sandwich from the nearby supermarket.

Bourgeoisie ice cream for proletariat prices.

Today in class we watched two episodes a Japanese television series called Densha Otoko, or Train Man. I mean, this is one of our readings. How awesome is that, seriously? Why can’t we have different media readings at Yale-NUS?

Train Man is a television series adapted from a novel which is allegedly based on true events that occurred on an Internet message board. While that sentence should instantly repel you from any Hollywood movie review, in Japan you are allowed a little more discretion. It tells the story of an Akihabara otaku who intervenes when a drunk on a train starts harassing this young woman. She admires him for his courage, and sends him teacups as a present. The otaku, who has no experience with dealing with women, turns to the Internet message board A-channel for help. The novel is actually a printout of the message board, a stylistic variant on the traditional form of the contemporary novel; a story of the information era.

Halfway through the first episode, I cried. The show depicted the main character having the shittiest birthday of his life, just a classic sequence of misunderstandings and disappointments. He enters his family’s kitchen and sees his father and sister adding the finishing touches to a cake, and he’s overjoyed for a moment, before his sister packs the cake away and explains that it’s for her one-year relationship with her boyfriend. He goes to work, where he’s treated horribly by his superior. He’s asked to deliver some documents to a different office, and along the way he tries to help a little girl retrieve a balloon from a tree. As he’s struggling in the branches, almost reaching the string of the balloon, a woman slams open a window right next to him and accuses him of peeping, and throws something at him. He falls out of the tree, twisting his ankle, and the little girl adds insult to injury by calling him an idiot and throwing his documents into the nearby canal. He then has to fish out the documents, gets splashed by a sudden burst of water out of a drain, and then, cannot catch a cab to get him to his destination. So, limping, he runs to the office, stumbling along the way; and when he finally reaches his destination, the abusive office lady hits him and insults him for being useless. At this point, I was literally moved to tears. The next scene is of him at the top of a building, singing a lonely birthday song to himself as he mashes a slice of cake into his mouth, sobbing all the way. He climbs the parapet, but steps down again a moment later, too cowardly to even end his miserable life.

My description doesn’t do that montage sequence justice - you really have to watch it. But I don’t know why I was so personally affected by this sequence of events. Obviously it’s meant to evoke sympathy, but as to why it moved me to tears, a physical manifestation of my empathy, is puzzling. It’s maybe because I clearly identify strongly with this character – I’m terribly awkward with girls, I know what it’s like to be interested in hobbies which aren’t mainstream or socially acceptable, and I also know what it’s like to be treated like dirt by every other living thing (see: NPCC, army) – and I’m also familiar with the notion of the “one bad day”, where everything seems to be going wrong, and instead of giving up you keep going because you know that’s the right thing to do, but the world just spits in your face and offers you no karmic reward for your actions. It’s like I felt all my frustration with the world at the point was shared by this guy, and even though he’s this fictional character, silently root for his success. This is truly the power of fiction, to enable our empathy, and to bring us closer to others. I realise that the same thing happened in the show itself, where the members of the message board all give Train Man advice and rally behind him and his story, and kind of lift themselves as well.

I’m not sure how the rest of Train Man goes, but I definitely recommend watching at least the first two episodes; if not for the immense amount of feelz, then at least for the realisation that maybe everyone is a little bit otaku, in their own little way.

Tonight we also had the graduation party for our class, even though it isn't the last day, due to scheduling reasons. We had a large dinner and all the host families were invited, and Steph put together a video to show them what we have been doing over the past month and with little messages of us to our host families. It was incredibly sweet; it would have been a lot better if the projector wasn't lagging and de-synching the video with the sound.

Also: I passed the class! Metaphorically, since I still have a final paper due!

The happy graduates with our awesome professor.

(Photo credit: Steph)

Monday, June 30, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Sanjuusan

Today for lunch I decided to try one of the many different food shops lining the road to Waseda University. I've always been meaning to try some of them but they've always had long queues or their menus were all in Japanese and so intimidated me from ordering. However, today I braved my way into one of them, getting weird stares from the fully-male university student patrons, and I finally managed to order a hamburger curry rice after staring at the vending machine for a long time and realising that it wasn't there.

Nobody makes hamburger steaks like the Japanese. Nobody.

Today in class we watched the anime classic Akira, which, again, is one of the reasons this class is awesome. I realised today that pre-contemporary Japanese films don't usually follow a traditional plot structure; that or I'm just too used to Western-style storytelling. Maybe I just don't understand retro films. But it was an interesting film nonetheless, though it stuck to the traditional science-fiction tropes of having a weird god-creation-of-the-universe ending which I completely did not understand. Good luck to Mel, who is writing her final paper on Akira.

I was supposed to go to a casual conversation with the Waseda students today, but I skipped it because over the weekend, I got it in my head that I wanted to purchase a yukata for myself, and I went out to try and look for one. Caryn, the Singapore girl studying at Waseda, came today to crash our screening, and one thing led to another and somehow she ended up bringing be around to help me hunt for yukata. She brought me to Takadanobaba to help me find unique Japanese snacks, and then she dragged me back to Shibuya to help me search for it before meeting her friend for dinner, and then somehow I ended up meeting her friend and joining them for dinner. The world works in mysterious ways.

Also, we passed a pet store, which had the most adorable kittens gambolling around their pens:


Caryn's friend Sae-san is a bubbly Japanese girl who lives on the outskirts of Tokyo, and who Caryn met at a windsurfing event. Again, strangers equals awkwardness, but I gradually opened up and tried talking more. Apparently Sae-san is going to study English at Oxford for a year, and throughout the night Caryn was trying to get her to practise her English on me (also becoming a recurring theme).

They wanted to bring me to this teppanyaki place in Shibuya, and we ended up walking the entirety of the neighbourhood to find the place. We passed one shop which had this book clock, which I found terribly amusing:

They actually got a guy to flip a bunch of pages sixty times a minute!

Caryn assured me that this teppanyaki would be nothing like I had before. And again I found I was on the receiving end of some unusual Japanese business practice: apparently our meal was supposed to come with soup, but because we didn't want to order drinks, we were told that "water wouldn't go with the soup", and so they recommended us to hold the soup or order a drink. This is absolutely dumbfounding to me, but I think in the end we decided to forgo the soup. It was made up with some really good fried chicken, hot pot fried rice, and a omusoba, if that even is a real term.

I recall this tasting a lot like KFC Popcorn Chicken.

I picked this!

We decided to hunt for dessert after dinner, and with the girls being indecisive, we said that we'll just walk into the first dessert place we saw. It turns out that it would be a Lindt chocolate shop, which sold luxury ice creams at luxury prices and which also didn't match their pictures.

These were all 1.5x bigger in the photographs.

We had a good time nevertheless, and I really enjoyed my ice cream; you could taste the chocolate that went into it, not the cheap Magnolia kind that you can find in supermarkets, but the really good kind, the expensive kind that costs you 700-yen for a tiny cone such as this.

Caryn and Sae-san were showing some of their photos they took, so I volunteered to show some of my photos as well. That took up most of the night, and before we knew it we were being chased out of the place. Somewhere along the line I also helped Caryn with an interview she had for her rowing club, typed out on her massively lagging phone.

I'm happy I made new friends!

I have to give a huge shout-out to Caryn here, who I have to credit for showing me around so many places and helping me translate things and generally being great with helping me search for a yukata (even though I didn't manage to find one; it's not full-blown summer just yet so not many places stock it). She was really open and talkative which I guess made me more comfortable and less nervous as well. I'm really glad to have met her and Sae-san too, hopefully we'll meet again in the future!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Sanjuuichi

The Hikidas are our previous host family when we came to Japan two years ago and visited Hiroshima.  They're a very fun bunch of people, not what you'd expect when you hear that they're a family of Buddhist priests. Hikida-san married a well-known enka singer; his two sons Aki-san and Ren-san are both priests-in-training but they drink and make merry like any regular folk; and his daughter Yumiko-san is a lecturer at a university. Since Xim and I just happen to be nearby, we decided to make the trip to visit them, even though this was the last weekend and we had final papers due.

We decided to take an afternoon train to Hiroshima (five hours away by shinkansen) because Yumiko-oneesan said that that they would be arriving home from a trip to the UK just the day before, so we wanted to give them some time to rest before dropping in. We made the hour-long trip down to Shinagawa Station where the shinkansen would take us to Hiroshima. We had bought rail passes to alleviate the cost of travelling such a distance; we'd save about sixty dollars and be able to take JR lines around Tokyo for free.

When we get to the information counter to redeem our passes, it turns out that Xim didn't bring his passport, which was necessary for the pass redemption because only foreigners are allowed to use the pass. So, dropping all his bags with me, he makes his way back on his one-hour journey to his homestay family's house. Luckily, he remembers that he would be able to use his rail pass on another part of his trip, where he's up on the northern island of Hokkaido, and asks me to check if it's worth it to just buy a ticket to Hiroshima now. Turns out that it is, so Xim turns around and comes back to Shinagawa. We missed our targeted train, but we managed to catch the next one.

Trains rides are complex stuff.

Because of the huge frantic panic, we had to eat on the train. I purchased a good box of dip noodles at a nearby konbini and had delicious cold noodles in tonkatsu sauce.

It even had little slices of pork in it!

There's nothing like travelling on a shinkansen (bullet train). It's wonderfully luxurious, and if you're lucky you get a whole row of seats to yourself. We sat at the back so we could plug in our laptops and work on our essays while we travelled. Also, I noticed that every shinkansen stewardess is incredibly cute.

Unfortunately the sequel Snakes on a Plane II: Snakes on a Train flopped in theatres.

I was pretty much focused on my laptop screen for the most part, unless I was staring out the window in procrastination. The view of passing suburbs and rice fields, while failing to be suitable inspiration, nevertheless was pretty breathtaking.

2,375 rice fields, 2,376 rice fields, 2,377 rice fields...

It's a train passing through a train station! That's so meta!

At our transit stop I was sent out to hunt for a free wifi connection, because we needed some way to tell Yumiko-oneesan that we would be an hour late. I finally manage to connect to the free JR East wifi and shoot off a message on Facebook. We would have no idea if she received it or not, because our transfer was only twenty-five minutes, and soon we were back on another train, and off we were.

We arrived at Hiroshima Station and I was filled with nostalgia. The place wasn't much different from how I remembered it two years ago, save for a boarded-up area where they were doing some renovations. Yumiko-oneesan said she'll meet us at the station, but they were nowhere in sight. I couldn't find a free wifi to contact them; we (stupidly) didn't have their phone numbers. Luckily, Aki-oniisan and Yumiko-oneesan showed up within ten minutes, and I recognised them almost instantly, and they recognised me almost instantly as well, which was wonderful.

Aiko-san's (Their mom's) manager drove us to the Italian restaurant which she owned, where they had booked a table for us to have dinner with them. Yumiko-san apologised, saying that their parents were too tired (jetlagged) to come see us this evening, but Ren-oniisan was waiting there to greet us. We were also introduced to a girl, Risa-san, who we learned used to be Yumiko-oneesan's student at the university but was now a close friend.

Salad and meat for starters...

...with courses of pasta and sausage cannoli...

...seafood risotto...

...and a slice of chocolate rum cake.

We caught up over dinner, and again I was frustrated with my lack of Japanese. Xim did most of the talking, regaling the Hikidas with his mastery of conversational Japanese, while I mostly chewed and picked out the few words I understood to guess what the conversation was about. Risa-san was very quiet at the beginning, but she became more uninhibited as she downed her glasses of wine. Yumiko-oneesan kept getting her to practise speaking English with me, partially I guess because she noticed I was left out of conversations a lot, and partially because I think she believes that Japanese people should learn to speak more English. She said she might want to live in France in the future; she said she thought the place suited her very well when they visited.

The Hikida family reunion.
On a side note, here's why knowing Mandarin can only get you so far in Japan. Here, the kanji reads "emergency exit", but in Mandarin the characters mean "very mouth", which certainly isn't helpful when a fire breaks out.

It could also mean super mouth, which is a whole different context.

Everyone except us was tipsy or drunk by the time dinner was over. If you thought taking care of drunk people is bad, try keeping an eye on inebriated Japanese people, whom you cannot even try persuading because they don't know your language. We all walked back to their temple near midnight, and Aki-oniisan was laughing and talking loudly through the dead-quiet streets. Risa-san could barely walk in a straight line.

I assumed they would immediately show us to the guest house where we stayed the last time, but they invited us into their den, which turned out to be a small playroom just next to their recording hall. (They're very rich monks.)

The first half of my failed panorama of the whole room.
We ended up talking until 3am in the morning. Aki-oniisan showed me the magazine he appeared in for catching a large fish; apparently he took up fishing as a hobby. Yumiko-oneesan also asked us to share some of our favourite music, and I introduced them to Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari, my absolute favourite Japanese song. There was a hilarious period when they kept pressing Xim for details about his girlfriend, and when they found out that he wrote her a haiku, they initially didn't believe him, but eventually (with the help of myself) persuaded him to recite it for them. Needless to say, they were very impressed.

Here's the thing about the Hikidas. I don't understand how they're so open and accepting. Xim and I, we're practically strangers to them; we've stayed in their guest house for a couple of days two years ago, and here they are welcoming us into their household with open arms, plying us with drinks and buying us a truckload of snacks. I felt so close to them, that when they kept pressing me as to why I didn't yet have a girlfriend, I almost wanted to tell them the real reason. (I didn't manage to, because Xim eventually stole all the attention, and I never got the opportunity to bring it up again.) They've accepted me into their family, and I recognise them as such. I love them all very much and I'm glad I'll always have family in a distant corner of the world.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Sanjuuni

The Hikidas arranged to meet at noon today, partially because they kept us up so late and partially because (I'm sure) they needed to recover from their hangovers. As I groggily made my way to the bathroom at 11.50am I was greeted by Hikida-san himself, who I was very surprised to see but also very happy. After greeting him, Xim took over with the pleasantries; he left soon after to do whatever Buddhist monks do on Sunday afternoons (probably tending to the cemetery).

Yumiko-oneesan, Aki-oniisan and Risa-san were around to take us to lunch (Ren-oniisan had disappeared the night before, splitting off before we reached the temple, which made us wonder if he was already married and had a home of his own to get to). Yumiko-oneesan drove us to this mall near the train station, bringing us to a well-known okonomiyaki place. Hiroshima okonomiyaki is slightly different from traditional ones, their specialty being that they fry it with soba noodles, which offset the amount of cabbage one has to consume, and also makes it taste wonderfully delicious.

Okonomiyaki stalls all vying for attention.

You can practically hear it sizzling on the teppan.

There was a huge queue (this is becoming a recurring theme) and so we spent about half an hour salivating as dish after dish of hot steaming okonomiyaki was served. While we waited, I picked a the shop's specialty, okonomiyaki with prawns and squid, eagerly anticipating the savoury flavour with every ticking second.

It was a long and brutal queue.

When we were finally shown our seat, I was slightly disappointed that we weren't sitting at the teppan seats, because I wanted to watch the masters cook up a storm of friend noodles and cabbage. I was, however, quickly satiated by the arrival of my lunch:


And no specialty dish is complete without the Japan-hour close-up:

"Orrrhhhh... oishi!"

Here's the big puzzle that has been intriguing Xim and me: Who is Risa-san? It sounds like the opening to some pulp-fiction mystery novel, but that was the thing that was really niggling at my hindbrain. Yes, she was Yumiko-oneesan's student, but she seemed way too close to the whole family to be just a friend. Perhaps she was Aki-oniisan's girlfriend? But certain behavioural evidence suggested otherwise as well (she seemed a lot closer to Yumiko-oneesan). Perhaps she simply took to Yumiko as a kind of older sister as well; she certainly seemed to treat her with respect, in a kind of senpai-kohai relationship. Maybe it's a romantic relationship? Well, whoever knows, it certainly wasn't me nor Xim. We left without the answers to this nagging question.

We had to catch an afternoon train back to Tokyo, if we wanted to make it in time for class tomorrow. It was a sad and tearful goodbye, but of course with the obligatory final photo-shoot:


This is the cover of our next album, He Ain't Heavy, He's my Buddha.

This is my family. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

That's their gigantic temple. And it even houses a pretty big Buddha inside.

Xim went to buy some omiyage for his host family: a squishy confection shaped like a maple leaf known as momiji manju, which is a specialty of Hiroshima's Miyajima Island. While waiting, I bravely ventured into a McDonald's and tried one of the special World Cup offerings, a honey-flavoured McFlurry:

It was terribly small, for some reason.

There's nothing much to report except our trip back to Tokyo. Fairly standard stuff now, since Xim had all his tickets this time.

Putting things in perspective.

We had dinner inside Shinagawa Station, and were happy to find out that most of the restaurants were still open; we both ordered the same delicious udon with the famous kurobuta pork. It was homemade noodles, so the consistency was very different, but it was delicious all the same.

A wonderful end to a wonderful weekend.

Friday, June 27, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Sanjuu

Field trip! Today was a trip down to Omotesando, because our professor wanted to show us the architecture of the flagship stores that line the streets of Tokyo's biggest brand-name boulevard. We met up at Harajuku Station first, though, because we were supposed to also pay a visit to the Meiji Shrine, the one where Evan, Xim and I got hilariously lost the last time we came here.

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It was a relatively cool day; the weather report said it would be cloudy with a low chance of rain. We meandered between other visitors and tour groups on the long gravel path up to the shrine itself.

Other visitors and tour groups not pictured.

Xim and I have visited Meiji Jingu before, but we must have taken a different path to the shrine, because this time we passed through rows and rows of barrels of sake:

Oh, for Pete's sake!

They were apparently gifts to the Meiji Emperor (whose deified spirit is enshrined in this place) from the many sake breweries in Tokyo. Facing them was rows and rows of barrels of French wine:

Japan really needs to start attending her AA meetings.

which were gifts from French wineries to maintain good relations between France and Japan. I'm pretty sure that there isn't actually any wine in those barrels - and if there were, I'm sure they're tapped dry by now - but I can't help wondering how good the aged wine tastes, almost a century down the line?

We arrived at the shrine itself, and there wasn't actually very much to see. Most of the interior was cordoned off since it was a sacred site (but naturally the donation box is outside the barricades). Aside from its size, the shrine was mostly similar to any other shrine I've seen in Japan. Maybe with a backstage pass to see the inner workings, I would be able to tell you more.

You can tell that I was very excited about discovering the panorama function on my phone.

It started drizzling somewhere in the middle of the afternoon, so we quickly headed back out and off to lunch.  On the way out I managed to spot some elusive shrine maidens:

Better you see them in the day, rather than at night when all you're armed with is a magic camera.

On the way out, we also managed to spot Yoyogi Park, whose entrance looks very forlorn in the middle of a weekday:

Rockabilly otaku are mortally afraid of schoolchildren.

And also of the Yoyogi Stadium, which has a lot of architectural features which I cannot remember right now. I just think it looks like a fish:

With the spine and the bones sticking out along the side, see?

There were a lot of old Olympic buildings in the area, from when Japan hosted the 1964 Olympic Games, and the story was told in the architecture.

It must have looked a lot less tarnished when it was first built.

The bridge is lined with the traditional Olympic sports.

We had lunch partially sponsored by the programme (up to 1,000-yen), so we ate in style at a Japanese pasta place (all Japanese pasta places are automatically fusion), also partially to wait out the rain. I had a delicious dish of mentaiko in cream sauce which I enjoyed so much that I forgot to take a photo of.

We next made our way to Omotesando and visited the famous Omotesando Hills, a huge shopping mall disguised as a three-storey low-rise but actually concealed half its volume underground; it's also extremely long, taking up almost a quarter the length of the whole street. I think our guidebook said something along the lines of the architect rolling up a long strip mall into a tightly confined space, but still giving you the illusion of the long boulevards. Almost everything is ramps:

Someone should release a whole bunch of rubber balls at the top.

Prof Jacobowitz also pointed out something interesting in the concrete walls. They were unpainted and not tiled, and he was saying that although steel-reinforced concrete was not new, what was impressive was the fact that the concrete was an even colour throughout, because different batches of concrete tend to have different colourations due to small differences in the mixture. And it was a testament to the perfectionism of the architect to maintain this kind of high standards. Cool stuff.

We passed a lot of other buildings, but my favourite was the Louis Vuitton store, not because of brand-name materialism but because the architect designed the shop front to look like a stack of luggage trunks:

You can't really see it, but it's there.
We got rained out again, so we hung out at one of the large staircase landings which supposedly had some architectural significance but it was just a nice place to sit down out of the rain.

Why don't you build covered walkways, Japan?

Our last stop for the day was the Prada flagship store, a little ways off the Omotesando main street.

This isn't it, but it's a cool corridor nonetheless.

I didn't take any pictures, because the shop owners didn't allow us to take any photographs. I often wonder about how the super-rich feel when browsing a store like this. Aside from the inch-deep carpets and the thousand-dollar shoes, and the sales assistants who are more like personal butlers. Is brand-name loyalty really worth that much? I don't understand it. I felt like they were going to scrub the floor after I left, making sure to buff out all the plebeian footprints I was leaving behind.

The day was officially over, but some of us had to head back to Waseda to attend a tea ceremony and yukata-trying session hosted by the International Community Centre at Waseda. On the way back though, Prof Jacobowitz brought us to a crêpe shop in Harajuku, which sold a variety of crêpes at about 500-yen apiece. I had an Oreo cheesecake with vanilla ice cream - it was amazing.

It didn't taste like crap at all!

The girls went to do some shopping so I split off from them and went to wander around the backstreets of Harajuku by myself. It was pretty fun; I saw a lot of interesting shops and crazy good graffiti. I also walked past a taiyaki shop and the salesgirl had twintails and she called out to me and I almost turned around and bought a taiyaki just because she was so cute but I decided that my stomach was too full after crêpes and didn't.

Guess I didn't heed the advice of the writing on the wall.

Steph and Nia were extremely late at Harajuku Station because they were shopping, so they told me to go ahead first. I took a train down to Waseda by myself, and navigated my way to a large room near the cafeteria, where I met Payal, who was there conscientiously on time. I managed to snag tickets to both yukata-trying and  tea ceremony, which was fabulous, because apparently you could only have signed up for one or the other.

Nia, jealous of my good fortune.

I was helped into my yukata bya Waseda student by the name of Kensho-san. He was very friendly and excited when I told him I was from Singapore. He helped me into my very martial-arts-looking yukata and then I had Payal help me take some pictures.

"Your waist is like a girl's!"

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Steph then proceeded to take many pictures of me in various poses, which I shall not recount here because they are too embarrassing. There is one, though, that is absolutely FABULOUS:

No, on second thought, I really can't do "coy".

(Photo credit: Steph)

I also got to try out a traditional tea ceremony. I was sitting right next to the tea master, or whatever you call him, and I noticed that he was very intense and concentrated (much like the tea, hahaha). Most of the ritual involves actually cleaning out the utensils used to prepare the drink. Since I was closest, I got the one specially prepared by the guy; the rest all had it made by the other members of the tea club (I assume they're part of a club). I was really annoyed, though, by the people on my left, who were all joking around and laughing and having a jolly time. It also irked me a lot that they were Singaporeans. I think I recognised one of them from the army, but I wasn't sure and he never approached me anyway, so.

I spent the night working on my essay and also packing hurriedly for my trip to Hiroshima the following day. More about that in the next post!