Saturday, May 31, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part San

Today was a pretty lazy day. For some reason I just could not wake up this morning, and slept in till 9 am. After hammering out a blog post, I quickly packed up my stuff before we overstayed our welcome and had to pay for another night.

Steve left early, probably to see if he can find an Xbox One.

We pushed our luggage to a nearby King of Curry and had curry rice for lunch. I love Japanese curry; it's spicy but not melt-your-tongue spicy, and they innovate by adding cheese. It was delicious. Another thing I've been waiting for for two years.

One of the five dishes you'll meet in heaven.

We get to the hostel pretty early and meet Payal there, who's really excited to see us, even though she hadn't slept for about twenty-four hours on her overnight flight. I went for a walk around the area; nothing especially exciting. I found this second-hand bookstore selling really cheap but really good quality stuff; I tried looking for cheap PC games but they didn't have any, only titles for the Nintendo platforms and the Xbox.

In another bookstore, I found this adorable book, which seemed to be a bunch of cat-related motivational posters, all squeezed into one book. (There was Japanese too, but I couldn't read it.)

Yeah, and the role of some colours is to look like other colours.

People were starting to trickle in during the rest of the day; the first non-YNC person I met was Stephanie, who's a Singaporean studying at Yale. I didn't get to talk to her much, but she seems like a nice person.

That's her in the bottom left, with Nia, Linus and the rare smiling Xi Min.

We're staying the night at Tokyo Central Youth Hostel, just a few minutes from Iidabashi Station. Our hostel rooms are huge; it's probably where most of the cost is going. Two bunk beds with a small lounge area with a couch, a small desk, and a wonderful view of the city. It's a shame that they have a curfew at 11pm and a 600-yen breakfast. We've checked into a prison camp; apparently it's like the YMCA hostels back home.

This isn't what I imagined when they said "pay-per-view".

We went out for dinner, a whole bunch of us. I had curry udon (because you can never have enough curry) and came back early to finish up blogging.

How does it taste so good?! It's just brown sauce and flour!

And bathe, too, because they close the showers at midnight. And they're public baths, the kind with a undressing area where you're supposed to disrobe and then saunter into the public bathing area with nothing but your towel and your dignity. Thank goodness for shower curtains, or I might not have been able to hold my own...

Apparently our host families are coming in tomorrow to pick us up. I wonder what they'll be like. I hope they're nice people, and not crazy murdering psychopaths. Their seven-year-old kid probably has more Japanese than I do. I hope they have neighbours or friends around my age so that I'll have someone more comfortable to talk to.

Friday, May 30, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Ni

Day two in Japan started off with - of course - a delicious, casual, onigiri breakfast. This involved waking up late, washing up in a whirlwind, messaging Evan who we were supposed to meet up with, checking out of our room because we had to move to a different suite, racing out of the hostel, getting Evan's  message that he didn't mind meeting us in Asakusa three minutes after walking out from the hostel where the free wifi is, grabbing the onigiri from the konbini and dashing to the train station to find out that we're on the wrong line, then scrambling up to the JR platform, and then waiting around at Harajuku for Even for half an hour wondering if he'll show up or not or if we were late and then finally Evan appears from the direction of a different station yaaaay!

So yeah, a very casual breakfast.

The only people waiting here were girls waiting for their girlfriends and guys waiting for their girlfriends.


We sped through Harajuku, which is an area more for women's fashion and has nothing much that would interest guys (except maybe the girls shopping there). This area, Takeshita Street, is full of African touts, and the first rule of Takeshita Street is that you don't talk about Takeshita Street. Also, you don't talk to the touts, because THEY LIE.

We walked up and down in the mid-morning sun, before settling down at a fusion pasta place for lunch. The great thing about western food in Japan is that any western cuisine is still Japanese enough so that you feel like you're not wasting your time eating western food in Japan. We had these really good chorizo sausage spaghetti dishes and free flow from the Drink Bar (non-alcoholic).

It's a good thing Evan wasn't wearing a tie.

And here's when Evan said the most hilarious thing I've heard in a few weeks. He was telling us about how he's couchsurfing these few days in Tokyo before going to Nagoya for his language programme. He told us that that night, he would be staying with this gay dude, and he'd be bringing Evan out to a concert, and to a public bath. So I tell him about the time Xi Min and I were staying in this capsule hotel, which are more for middle-aged businessmen and elderly gentlemen, so it was very awkward for us to sit in the public bath with a bunch of naked old men. So Evan replies, very innocently, "But they can hold their own, you know?" Xi Min and I pause for a beat, and I say, "You have terrible phrasing, Evan," before we both burst into laughter. "Yeah sure, they can hold their own; but they better not be holding anyone else's..."

After lunch, we turn down the Orchard Road-esque street of Omotesando, lined with flagship stores of expensive foreign fashion brands. The street is also known for its architectural diversity; there's this stretch mall called Omotesando Hills which is apparently one-quarter the length of the street, while we passed by this huge Hugo Boss building which looked like a giant rook.


Japan is famous for beautiful everything, and I thought this was a water feature until it turned out to be a drain.

Never has raw sewage looked so potable.

We sidetracked down a road because a tout was holding up a sign for Awesome Store. We broke the first rule, but I mean, c'mon, Awesome Store!


Turns out it was just a place selling bowls and kitchen knick-knacks, like an upmarket hipster Daiso-Ikea hybrid. It would have been awesome if we were middle-age Japanese housewives, but we weren't, so it wasn't.

A wall of sweet aroma stopped us in our tracks, and detoured us into this candy shop where they made that cross-sectional sweets thing; you know the type. Anyway we hung around to watch them make some of the sweets; there was this huge lump of molasses on the slab and the worker was just constantly rolling it; I'm guessing the counter-top must have been heated, to keep the molasses soft and malleable. Then he twisted one of the ends and pulled; and then the other worker just kept pulling and pulling and pulling...

"One giant squid tentacle, coming right up!"

She sliced them off with what looked to me like a paint scraper, and then set them on another section of counter-top to cool and harden. Then they line them up on metal blocks and chisel each piece off like a sweet-making machine gun.

They didn't allow video, but if you take pictures fast enough...

It's early summer now in Japan, so it's about as hot as Singapore is, but way less humid. But the Japanese are stickler for appropriate clothing. That's why we were amazed to see so many businessmen walking around in the tepid heat in full office suits and ties. Sure, Xi Min and I felt extremely under-dressed in our t-shirts and khaki shorts, but neither of us would be willing to slow-roast in a jacket in this heat, and we're from the goddam tropics.

"Pah, kids these days. In my day we wore thermals in summer, and we liked it!"

So we decided to bring Evan to Yoyogi Park, which I've been to before. We're facing Meiji Shrine, and we decided, "I think it's this way!" and turned right. We're walking down this tree-lined road, telling ourselves that "Yoyogi Park is coming up soon!" and "We must be almost there!" and "Hey Xim, I don't remember walking this far to Yoyogi Park last time..."

We met a security guard who is directing traffic at one of the entrances to Meiji Shrine, and he happily told us to keep going, it would be just ahead. Twenty minutes later, we talked to a lady outside the Treasures Museum who tells us that we've made a big round around the shrine, and if we keep walking we'll end up back at the entrance to Yoyogi Park.

I'll keep on walking / Yeah I'll keep on walking  / Till I find that old love, or that old love comes to find me

So we kept on walking, and finally found Yoyogi Park. It's emptier, this being a weekday, but it's nice and quiet and peaceful. There was a guy playing a saxophone, and a trombonist, and an African-American blasting some hip-hop, but other than that, peace and quiet. I spotted this European-looking lady in a Victorian dress and her skinny dog (from what I can tell from Google images, is a saluki) getting interviewed by a couple of reporters.

Honestly, it could just be a tall dachshund.

When we left, we headed out through the main entrance, which I remember distinctly last time because of all the buskers; and we find out that it was just exactly to the left of where we decided to turn right earlier. Taking the road less travelled might be fun, but it's also exhausting.

-spit-take- "We're HOW lost?!"

Evan had to head out to meet his couchsurfing host, so we said goodbye at Akihabara, where Xi Min and I stepped out for a bit to let him do some scouting. I also wanted to walk around a bit, see what was new, and what I still recognised. It was two years since I had been here, and wanted to see if anything had changed. Apart from the advertisements for specific anime, not much had changed, really. It was nice to see so much anime stuff again, like meeting an old friend.

An old, otaku, hikkikomori friend.

We had an early dinner and headed back to the hostel early. When we arrived we found out that our third roommate had already arrived; he introduced himself as Steve, and he told us he was British but living in Thailand. I asked him what he did, and he said he was a video game music composer. I was very intrigued, and asked him what music he did; he mentioned some old classics like Donkey Kong 64, but he also mentioned that he did the music for the X-Box avatar system. Like, wow! I mean, if you do music for a game you're famous to just the audience of the game, but this guy did music for the entire platform itself. I asked him if he felt a bit of pride every time one of his friends started up an X-Box, and he said he did. So when he left the room to make some calls, I surreptitiously went to  Google his name, and holy crap, he exists! So Steve, if you're ever reading this, hello from the guy you met for one night in a small hostel in Asakusabashi, and I hope you manage to find a place to stay for the next six months!

I also tried to take a bath tonight; the hostel had a single bath so if you wanted to use it you had to run for it. Since it was so early, I thought I'd check it out. It was this tiny thing which barely fit me even when I sat in it cross-legged. And since I couldn't be bothered to wait for the thing to fill up, I sat there in what was basically a glorified, lukewarm puddle for five minutes before deciding that it was a stupid endeavor and gave up.

I took a stroll out to the konbini that night, because I was feeling peckish. It's wonderful walking the streets at night; it's a lot more peaceful and cooler as well. There's a maze of small back alleys for every major block of streets, and I was half tempted to try finding my way though them but I was worried that I would get lost and fail to get back into the hostel (the door had a code and I think they change it everyday; I had the previous day's code). I hope my homestay family has a nice maze of streets I can get lost in, one of these nights.

Snakes on a plane, meet houses under the bridge.

No, not you, Arakawa.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Ichi

So I'm in Japan, for the second time! I'm on a Yale Summer Session programme in Tokyo to learn about Japanese history and culture from the Meiji period, through a bunch of things like literature, architecture, film, anime and manga. It's all really thanks to Yale-NUS College for another amazing opportunity for me to go somewhere else and learn more about this awesome world of ours. And since I have my laptop with me this time, I've promised - no, vowed - to blog about my experiences everyday.

In this piece, the artist captures the fleeting ephemerality of existence framed against the backdrop of the relentless march of modernization and technology.

I turned up at the airport at an ungodly hour of the morning, and I had a pleasant feeling about seeing so many people around already. I have mentioned before that I love airports; they are wreathed in a sense of mystery and adventure and freedom. I was also very pleasantly surprised to find out that after doing my online check-in, the baggage processing was actually done in five minutes, and that was after I showed up one hour before flight instead of two. Go go gadget one more hour of sleep!

Xi Min's girlfriend was with him at the airport since 2am. (Sigh, life.) None of us turned up with our families in tow. I guess it just goes to show how old we are now, that we're able to do stuff like this without our families having to hang around at the airport fussing and nagging you while you try to fight your way through customs. That, or they're getting too old to wake up at ungodly hours of the night.
I had to spend seven-and-a-half hours in an enclosed space with this guy. Oh, and there's Xi Min too.

I'm very happy XM and I decided to take ANA this time. We picked seats right at the back of the plane, and since the flight was mostly empty, we got the chance to spread out over two seats each when we slept, a luxury on economy-class flights. I hope I get to do the same on the flight back, where I'm in the very last row by myself, correct as of the time that I booked the seat. The airline also has some pretty good in-flight entertainment, which is both a boon and a bane, since I planned to read some more of my course material on the way here but ended up playing a bit of Mahjong and watching a bunch of movies instead.

Also, this toilet has a sensor instead of a button for the flush, and the lid automatically closes before flushing. The Japanese truly are the master race.

The Mahjong game was hilarious, very old school with over-the-top animations for each of the AI players. It even had a single-player campaign with a storyline! I didn't go that far into it, because I had decided to watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, of which I saw half at Chinese New Year at my cousin's place, and wanted to finish it. I really liked the movie, and I felt so good at the end when they finally revealed what the missing photograph was. I was worried that they might have left it out completely, for one of those artistic ambiguous endings, but I was glad that they didn't.

I wish that I, too, dreamed in technicolor and Michael Bay explosions.


I felt a lot of the feel-good of the movie was to do with escapism; we all want to escape our boring monotonous day-jobs and fly to exotic countries and jump into foreign dangerous water bodies and trek into warlord-ridden mountains with inexplicably persuasive homemade confectionery. It's escapism, and it's vicarious escapism. And then just watching the movie is enough; we don't need to go to Greenland or climb the Himalayas because Walter Mitty's already done it for us.

The other thing I found disconcerting was the reinforcement of the "geek-dream", where the shy awkward guy has to do something awesome and amazing before he gains the approval of his peers (the eHarmony guy), manages to deliver the Ironic Echo to the jerk-ass boss which makes him change his ways for the better, and "wins" the attention of the girl of his dreams. It panders too much to the story archetype we've been exposed too for too long, better explained in this article which I also read today. No, life never works that way, and working hard or doing interesting things will not guarantee you get what you want. Stories might work that way, but life doesn't.

On the plus side, David Bowie's song "Space Oddity" is really, really nice. This version's from space commander Chris Hadfield, who was the mission commander on the International Space Station. I love space, and I have massive respect for this guy.

Anyway, I also watched the first maybe 80% of The Lego Movie, and I had to stop because the plane had landed and I had to get off. I am now in a perpetual state of cliffhanger, because I don't know how the movie ended. I don't get why so many people kept praising it as a brilliant comedy; I didn't really find it that hilarious. It was good, but not gut-bustingly so. I am very, very impressed by the way that they used Lego bricks for everything, from clouds to water and fire and explosions. Also, the creativity that went into building everything that made up the world; a really brilliant Lego employee or a bunch of excited fifteen-year-olds with a Hollywood budget and a dump-truck's worth of Lego bricks.
The one movie poster you don't want to step on.

It's been a pretty chill day, landing in Narita Airport and then taking the rail down to Asakusabashi, which is where XM and I are bunking out for the first couple of nights. I love trains; I especially love Japanese trains, which are so clean and efficient. There's a certain romance to train rides as well; the fact that you can see the countryside change around you as you trundle along; all you see from planes are clouds, which, though beautiful in their own right, get boring after the first, say, fifty. XM and I had an interesting discussion: whether schoolgirl uniforms were a national symbol of Japan. It was an interesting foray into themes of intentionality and Fermi estimations, but in the end I think we decided that it was too binary to have just two categories: national symbolism should be measured by strength, not by a simple yes/no boolean, and something like sumo wrestling would rank higher along that scale than schoolgirl uniforms, for example.

Ladies and gentlemen: the things we talk about.

And the sights that we miss.

We're bunking in the Anne Hostel Asakusabashi, which is a cosy little place near the river at Asakusa. It's pretty strange because its reception is on the top floor, which probably drives deliverymen insane. The staff are nice and hospitable, if not very friendly (or maybe that's our fault for not being friendly to them first), and it's very comparable to some of the other hostels we've stayed at in Tokyo. We're bunking with five Americans who look like they're on some grad trip, and a very quiet Thai guy who doesn't really say much at all. It's funny, because XM and I were conversing about them on Facebook chat, and were wondering if they were talking about us on Facebook as well.

We walked twenty minutes to Asakusa to the big red lantern outside this temple whose name I cannot remember (spoiler alert: Sensoji Temple), where we met up with Mel and Linus, who had already been Japan a couple of days, and Kishin Kato, a half-Japanese, half-American guy we met at Experience Yale-NUS Weekend last year. He's a really cool dude; he's starting his own business making custom-built high-tech footwear, which sounds really amazing. We walked around Asakusa for a bit before settling down in this dodgy-looking eatery in one of the dark backstreets, where the food is flavoured by the lack of light and marinated by the solemnity of the store-owners' faces. It was this place which, according to Kishin, was a place to eat light food and snacks while drinking after a long day's work of being a salaryman. Of course, Mel ended up being the only one ordering an Asahi, while Linus and I got refreshing glasses of the Calpis yoghurt drink, which is simply divine. The food was really good, as all dodgy food places in creepy side-streets are, and I especially liked the deep-fried gyoza (dumplings).
I know my selfies leave a lot to be desired. What, do I look like a insecure teenage girl to you?

Then because we didn't have enough carbs, we walked to a nearby konbini (convenience store) and loaded up on snacks.

Let me tell you about my love affair with onigiri. For the unenlightened, onigiri is a Japanese snack food made of rice shaped into this triangular thing, usually flavoured and can come with many different types of filling. I absolutely LOVE onigiri, with a passion. It's cheap, and tasty, and its existence proves that Michelin food critics obviously have dollar bills for taste buds and have no idea of what good food really is. I had a tamago (egg) one tonight, and it was heavenly. It's everything you want from a foodstuff. It's perfect. I'm having one for breakfast tomorrow, and if possible, every breakfast from now. I waited two years to sink my teeth into scrumptious rice ball things, because you can't find good (and cheap) ones in Singapore. Nom nom nom now I feel like taking a stroll to the nearest konbini...

We sat at the river and talked. It's summer, but it feels like a rainy night in Singapore, but without the humidity. It's comfortably cool, and just wonderful. We talked about stupid things (army), and the Japan-China conflicts, and Kishin's crazy three day escapade where he literally party-hopped from one clique of friends to another, back-to-back, because they all happened to be in Tokyo around the same time. He had this huge roll of pig leather as well, and was telling us about how he's trying to make them into shoes. Such an awesome guy; pity he chose University of Chicago over YNC.

Kishin Kato then went on to win the award for "Best Host While Suffering from Sleep Deprivation".
Anyway it's late and I've got to wake up early tomorrow for breakfast and onigiri and things like that. Tomorrow looks like another chill day; let's see how it goes!

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Double-Edged Sword of Imagination

"Imagination, rather than mere intelligence, is the truly human quality." --Terry Pratchett, The Science of Discworld

I've always wondered if our imagination wasn't a cognitive what-if mechanism; what if it had an extrasensory function, a "sixth sense" which lets us view alternate timelines, to see the could-have-beens and the might-have-happeneds. And I guess in some sense, that's what it is. In evolutionary terms, it is the greatest tool that humanity ever developed.

And like any other human creation, it is not inherently evil in and of itself. But it all depends on how you use it. A great many inventors have made great things and new technologies; artists and writers have created fantastical worlds and beautiful art. But warmongers and tyrants have often used it to inflict pain and suffering, because with imagination comes fear, the ability to imagine the worse 

I've been thinking a lot about alternate futures lately. How, if I'd done something different here, or acted less stupidly there, things wouldn't have turned out the way it is now. I've been crying inside and slowly dying inside and I know I need to get up and keep going but I just can't. I wish I could turn back time, and try it over again. But things are the way they are now, and it's no point changing the past. There's only a chance to change the future.

Stories. We need stories. Stories are our "narrativium", the thing that keeps the world sane, in our eyes. Everything is a story; we are ensnared by our own narratives. I can't do this, you shouldn't do that, we need to do this: everything is just a way of ordering up and making sense of the crazy random chaos that is reality.

I can't remember what I wanted to say here. It has gotten pretty rambling even after thinking about it for a while. But that's the thing; even the narrative of the narrative has to make sense; the meta-narrative has to exist. And we believe what we must in order to survive.

I guess what I wanted to say is that not all stories have happy endings.

But hopefully we'll always have new chapters.
The Edna Man

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Starfish Fallacy

I realised today that I hate the Starfish Story.

You know the one. Everyone knows it. It's the one about the guy walking down a beach after a storm, with thousands of bright purple starfish littering the sand. He sees a boy in the distance, who picks up a starfish and throws it back into the ocean. Then he does it again, and again. The man goes up to him and says, "What are you doing? There's thousands of starfish on this beach. You'll never be able to save them all. You're not going to make a difference." And as the boy throws the next starfish into the water, he says, "It made a difference to that one." Cue moral, rainbows, butterflies, etc.

I used to have so much feels for this story like you, but then I took an epiphany to the knee. Now all it tells me is that life's a beach.

So here's why the Starfish Story rankles. It's been told so many times it's become a cliche, and, in a sense, the basis of our societal moral system. The idea that as long as you are doing something to help, it's good enough, because you're making a difference to the specific individual you're helping. You are convinced that you can ignore the rest of the stranded starfish as you slowly make your way across the shore - or at least, it is not your moral prerogative to help them, because what you're doing is the best you can do.

And that's the problem. The Starfish Story has created a society where people are satisfied with helping the individual without any consideration about fixing the system, so that the problem won't happen again. Instead of launching asteroidea back into the Pacific by hand one at a time, what about inventing a machine - a circle of shovels around a waterwheel - to fling them back at a faster rate. What about a giant rake mechanism to comb the shoreline and drag them back into the sea? What about erecting subterranean beach nets, which surface through the sand, capturing all stranded sea creatures flinging them back into the ocean? What about a weather-control device which regulates the severity of violent storms to prevent the starfish being stranded in the first place?

What I'm trying to get at here is the problem of "good enough". Our solutions to global problems aren't focused on fixing the broken system on a grand scale. We're focused merely on helping individuals tide through the imperfections: a stopgap measure, helping them conform to a broken system which might not be the best solution for that situation. I get the image of a child, standing in a circle of light, with a perfectly built tower of blocks, saying "Look what I did!", while the rest of her room outside of the light is in a messy chaos.

I bring up the example of Jacqueline Novogratz, who did a TED talk about a third way of thinking about aid. In it, she describes a cheap, simple irrigation technology that allows farmers to multiply their crop yield in the harshest, driest conditions, even throughout the year. She says that farmers are seeing massive increases to their incomes and stability in their life patterns. That's great and wonderful and everything, but their solution still only targets one small segment of the system, without addressing the problems of the rest of it. Assume a simple three-part system: farmers, who sell their produce to the transporters, who bring the food to the market. Everyone is in poverty, but you target the farmers to increase their yields. If you don't simultaneously find a solution for the drivers, who now cannot cope with the increased yield, all that extra food never reaches the market and is going to waste. You can hope that there is a positive feedback mechanism, where because the farmers' lives are improved, it sets off a chain reaction which brings the whole system out of poverty. But there was no mention of that in the video. You see pictures of happy farmers and you think, "She made a difference to that one," but none of the narratives tell you to think, "But what about all the ones she didn't make a difference to?"

This is annoying, and it bothers me. I find it uncomfortable that our society is content with settling for mediocrity, on settling for a "good enough" solution, on patching up holes in a shirt that might actually need to be replaced with a completely new one.

That is not to say that we shouldn't be helping at all. No, obviously helping is going to make some sort of impact, especially for the individual. That Pakistani farmer is going to be so happy; that's a great and wonderful thing. But what bothers me is that we stop there, and we focus so much on making farmers happy that we forget that the country is starving.

People are going to say that my theory isn't practical, that no one person can change the whole world. That this sort of thing is better left to governments, who are the ones who have a better understanding of the big picture. I'm just a small boy on a beach, this is the best I can do. That's the problem: you're not just a small boy on a beach. Each and every one of us has the potential to be something better, and has the capability of dreaming up or creating or designing or inventing something bigger than the limits of our feeble human frames. Generations of starfish in the future will forever be grateful for the orbital starfish relocation system that you invent today. We can do so much more.

If only we stop holding ourselves back.
The Edna Man