Thursday, June 05, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Hachi

The day begun with me meeting the biggest damn crow I've ever seen. The crows we get in Singapore? They're canaries when measured against the breed that survives here. They're about the size of a chicken, and they look as menacing as hawks. Those black avian pests back home are a mynah threat compared to these nightmarish abominations.

"Would you like to see my mask? ...probably not very frightening to a guy like you, but these crazies, they can't stand it."

So because I spent the morning writing the previous blog post, I ended up taking longer than I expected and had to rush out of the house in the light shower that signals the beginning of tsuyu, the rainy season. I stay on the train, testing my hypothesis, and find to my delight that I was correct. (Me: 1; Tokyo Rail System: 135,837,513.)

Weaving between the Waseda students trudging towards school, I realised that I was going to be late, and wouldn't have time to sit down for a meal. So I escaped the rain into the nearby Family Mart konbini, and picked up a somen and an onigiri and some coffee to tide me through Prof Jacobowitz's class. That's another wonderful thing about Tokyo: you can grab a decent meal extremely cheaply, from almost anywhere.

Our professor's explanations of Akasaka Palace's significance in the early Meiji period was punctuated by sudden bursts of slurping.

Also, sometime midway through the lecture, I realised that my professor's desk was an Incubator.


There was a lot of stuff in class today that I didn't understand (that means you, architecture), but I think my biggest takeaway was the use of architecture as a projection of authority and power. It's not something I had seen or understood before, and I was intrigued to learn about it. I can't see buildings the same way ever again.

Side note: trains. I want to sit in the driver's seat one day, not with the passengers with their umbrellas and bags and limited ideas of personal space. I want to be where nothing is blocking the view, the unparalleled vista where the rails meet the horizon, where the mix of "I don't know where I'm going next" and "I know where I'm going; I'm following these tracks" provides one of those subtle human emotions that has no translation in English and is probably better encapsulated by a German word.

Like schadenfreude or zeitgeist or bratwurst.

Xi Min and I had agreed to meet Shaun, who was in Tokyo on vacation with his family, at Shinjuku at 7pm, so we had a bunch of time to kill until then. I was going to go home first and dump my laptop, until some people suggested going to Nakano, which we missed yesterday. So I followed them to Nakano, and after pounding through the persistent drizzle, reaching second-hand anime merchandise heaven. There are simply tons of pre-owned collectibles here, from art books to figurines to the little capsule toys you get from gachapon machines. The aftermarket is huge, and you can get some really good deals here if you're patient enough to search.

As for myself, I found a couple of English comic books (Brightest Day awww yeahhhh) going for ridiculously cheap, considering that they're hardcovers. Also, in a small corner collectibles store, I found a number of absolutely beautiful The Rebellion Story folders, especially one with Homulilly, Homura's witch form. Art is art, and it's a lot better than some of the stuff hanging in galleries nowadays.

And it's also so much more affordable to be a connoisseur.

We also played the taiko drum game, a rhythm game that instead of having you stomp on multicoloured directional arrows or wave your arms beneath sensors like some Macarena robot, you smash a large simulacrum drum in response to the beat of a song entirely out of the genre of traditional percussion instruments. It's massive fun if you're into rhythm games, but for someone with terrible hand-eye coordination like me, it's insanely depressing. It's awesome when you recognise a pattern and get into a groove, but then you miss something and the whole unexpected syncopation just messes up the rest of your combo.

We agreed to meet Shaun at Shinjuku Station, on the West Exit. Shinjuku Station is huge; it's apparently registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the busiest transport hub, with 3.6 million people travelling through it in per day in 2007. In his messages, Shaun told us to meet at the West Exit; turns out that there's also a Central West Exit, and we have no idea which one Shaun might have been talking about. We decide to hedge our bets and wait at the West Exit, which is enormous, and, neither of us having wifi, had no way of contacting our lost friend. In the end, I volunteered to venture out to find a Starbucks or McDonald's, which would have free wifi, to check if Shaun had left us any messages since coming back from his tour in the afternoon. Luckily, Xi Min called me as I was hunting the Starbucks (which turned out to be a small stall, not a whole shop, and so wouldn't have wifi anyway).

This guy was busking with his electric violin, just like in Grand Central Station in New York.

We decided to wander around the nearest mall because of the rain, and drifted around the top floors for a while before deciding on this Japanese upmarket restaurant-cafe thing. One thing I've noticed is that for the more expensive restaurant industry, there's very little Japanese cuisine. Many of the restaurants and eateries we passed (and we passed many, because of indecisiveness) were offering meals for foreign palates; at least, foreign for local Japanese people. There were many pasta/pizza shops, a Hawaiian seafood grill, Korean hotpot places and even a chic Southeast Asian cafe. Even the restaurant we finally settled on, though offering Japanese food, was distinctly more fusion than absolutely Japanese, and the atmosphere of the place was decidedly Western.

Food, though, was excellent. 10/10 would walk around aimlessly before finally settling on a decision and spend ten minutes ordering before digging in, again.

After dinner we wanted to search for dessert, and wandered into this small coffee house in the same mall (because raining). I didn't want to order anything because I was very full and the prices were for something two social classes above my own; but the waitress apparently told Xi Min that everyone has to order something. I don't know when this policy was implemented, but I have noticed that many places are adopting this standard: you can't just walk in with a group of 10 and chat for two hours with one guy ordering a glass of water. I'm sure it's meant in good intent, but it niggled me that I had to buy something just to stay chatting with my friends. We got chased out pretty soon too, because we were discussing very philosophical things in what I presume must be very loud voices; not before being able to enjoy a very tasty pancake thing with maple syrup and ice cream.

I realise these posts are turning into food porn, mostly. This would be a meringue a trois.

Bilingual puns are hard, okay?

Our philosophical discussion had emerged mostly regarding the nature of single-hood and Shaun's many failed attempts and forlorn prospects in medical school. It was depressing and painful for me especially, because I had to relay recent history, and in doing so, relive it. These emotions mingled with the night and the rain into something magnificently poignant and subtle, a flame slowly consuming everything within. Yet there was also wonder that I was here in a country far removed from my own, and having experiences that are still so translatable. It's a universal thing, I imagine.

There is a beauty to be beheld at night, and I'm not talking about Shinjuku.

Also, funny story: we had a hard time trying to find a place to sit down and chill when we were chased out of the coffee house, so we wandered around Shinjuku in the rain, passing small eateries and bars until we came to a video game arcade, and since we didn't want to wander around any more, sat on a staircase landing halfway between two floors. I was expecting security to come throw us out, and primed Xi Min to tell whoever it was that we were just waiting for a friend who was playing games on the upper level. The security guard inevitably came, and the plan worked, to an extent; he allowed us to stay but at least stand up, so it didn't look like we would be hoboing or staring a gang fight or anything. It was perfect.

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