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!