Monday, April 30, 2012

The Japan Trip - Day 16

Morning of the LiSA concert! We woke up early, pushing open the coffin lids into the harsh daylight, and walked a short distance to our permanent temporary residence, the Khaosan Tokyo Annex hostel, located in the bustling city district centre of Asakusa. We checked in and found out that we were on the fourth floor, and unlike Khaosan Kyoto, this guest house had no elevators. So after a number of tiring treks up and down the flights of stairs, we stationed ourselves in the common area to wait for Lou Ee, who would be joining us.

Lou Ee appeared in the late morning, having travelled by himself all the way up from Narita Airport. He dumped his bags quickly, but since we checked in at different times, he got a different room from us. It wouldn't matter though, since our fourth floor had another common area and he would be there playing Team Fortress 2 almost every night.

First stop of the day was the Tokyo Animation Museum. We happily managed to get lost trying to walk our way there. It wasn't a very touristy part of town, and we didn't have a very accurate map, and nobody wanted to ask for directions.

What is it with men and asking for directions?
We finally managed to get to the place, but not before passing an upcoming bookstore, a post office, and a crime scene. No, seriously, there were a bunch of Japanese police and detectives standing around a stairwell to these apartments and looking like they need a forensic. As gaijin, we just walked past them as nonchalantly as possible.

The Tokyo Animation Museum! How many characters can you recognise?

The museum itself was not the sole tenant of the building. In true Japanese space-saving fashion, the museum was housed on the third and fourth floors, where the first two floors looked like the lobby of a hotel. There was a huge grand piano and plush chairs and exquisite marble flooring and everything.

Most of the exhibits were about the history of Japanese animation, and even a couple about the history of animation itself. There was a huge timeline of anime from the original 1950s Astro Boy all the way to 2010, when the wall was last updated. I recognised a couple of names on the list. There was also a large area reserved for the animation creation process. I always knew that animation was a long and painful process, but I seeing it all there made it look so much harder. For say a five second scene of a girl walking on the street with the wind blowing her hair, the artists have to draw a bunch of poses for the walking animation, and a huge panorama for the street, and multiple frames of the hair in motion. Then they put the pieces together on transparency, layer them on top of one another take a photo. That's one frame. Then they replace it with the next pose and next hair piece and wind the panorama a few millimetres to the right and take the next photo. It's amazing. A good thing that computer animation is taking a lot of the strain of these manual processes, and speeding up animation in a good way.

Lou Ee obviously has to try out sketching on the touchpad.

It's a typical artist's workstation. Mine is similar, except without all the paint.
On the upper floors were special exhibitions. There was an exhibit from one of the anime studios, which did Vampire Hunter X or something like that, so it had a lot of the concept art sketches. There was another studio which I did not recognise. There was also an anime library, where you could borrow discs of classic anime to watch on the computers there. I managed to find a copy of Gatekeepers, possibly the first anime I watched, not counting Akazukin Cha-Cha, which was an English dub anyway.

The anime library. Little kids not included.
On our way back to the station, we passed by this large glass building, where the keen otaku eyes spotted a couple of girls in school uniform, ushering a large crowd. The group just naturally gravitated towards it, and when we get to the building, we find out that there was a school band performance that day, which explains the demographic of parents and old people. Ironically enough, one of the parents asked us to help them take a photo of her and her friends, which I thought was so hilarious since for the past fortnight, we were the ones asking people to take photos of us.

A pretty obvious demographic, when you think about it.
We had lunch at a small noodle shop near the station, with the customary vending machine out front. It was quick and tasty and good.

The aforementioned noodle shop. No, I can't read the sign

Holy crap! A mountain of soba for only 590 yen!
After lunch we split ways, since Bryan and I were headed for a LiSA concert and the other three weren't. If you want to know what debauchery and shenanigans the trio were up to on their misadventures, you'll have to ask them.

An explanation is probably in order. Bryan first proposed this idea of going to the LiSA concert while we were in Japan. She's a up-and-coming new J-pop star who rose to fame through Angel Beats and the opening of Fate Zero. This is the first concert for her worldwide tour of her first album, Lover"s"mile. She is freaking adorable. The original idea was for all four of us to go, but JX and XM didn't want to pay. Bryan managed to get tickets through a Japanese auctioner, and it came up to $200 each, which I think is a pretty good price for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The concert was held in an open air amphitheatre in a large park on the outskirts of the city.

Bryan dragged me to the concert three hours early because he said we won't be able to get in before then. I was unwilling to do so, since I didn't think there was any point being there so early. And I was mistaken.

That's all the people in front of us.

Everyone and their grandma was there ahead of us. There was an hour-long queue just to get to the merchandise. I wasn't really looking for anything, maybe just a shirt as a souvenir and memento of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, but judging by the queue, they'd be out of merchandise once we got halfway there.

It was funny though. When we joined the queue we were standing by this lamppost, which marked the end of the queue. As we moved forward, joking about hardcore fans and concert-goers, and discussing about LiSA's more attractive female fans and their fashion sense, we noticed that even though so many people were there ealier than us, we still weren't the last. People were queueing up behind us as we were inching forward, and the funny thing was, the queue never passed the lamppost. We theorised that it was due to some collective sense of shame, that even the most dedicated of fans wouldn't want to be seen queueing for so long; or maybe it was due to some sense of pessimism, that one would realise that there is no way there is going to be any merchandise left at the end of that line.

A couple of hardcore fans.
We finally manage to get to the counter, and realise that all the shirts in our size were sold out. (Heard the joke about the shop which sold out of small and medium sizes?) So we had to manage with the large. We also bought a pack of trading cards each, because hey, money is heavy and LiSA is cute.

Gotta collect them all!
Once we made our happy purchases, we wandered off into the park. And speaking of hardcore fans, we saw a couple of them, decked out in full LiSA fan gear and dancing along to the tunes, rehearsing them before the big show. One guy was wearing a headband and a large, pink trenchcoat, which was the most hardcore of the lot.

LiSA's Number One Fan.

Nearby in another of the park's large open areas, they were having another festival, which turned out to be some anniversary of a radio station or something like that. I was thirsty and Bryan was hungry, but there were very few food stalls around. In the end, we ended up getting some organic ice cream; and since we couldn't read the labels, picked at random. Bryan got apple pie, and I got plain vanilla. We also picked up a couple of free fans, and there was an AKB48 advertisement spread on one side, so that was my first foray into the shady and inescapble world of J-pop idols. Oh yeah, there was also a handshaking event by some group called the Fairies, which I thought was quite hilarious. I tried persuading Bryan to queue up for a handshake with real Japanese idols, but he refused because he didn't even know who they were. Some people.

Concert time!

We get to our seats and are quickly disappointed we aren't sitting next to any cute fan girls. No matter. LiSA more than made up for that. She is so freaking cute and adorable! And the concert was amazing. I loved Crow Song and Ichiban no Takaramono and Jet Rocket and WiLD CANDY. The atmosphere of the crowd is so different from Singapore's, so much more energetic and happening. Even after the concert ended, most of the hardcore fans in the front row stayed to listen to the filler tracks, and kept singing along with them. That is true dedication, or obsession depending on your psychiatrist.

Left-right-left-right back-front-back-front something something...
Another happy funny thing happened as we were leaving the amphitheatre. We were walking along with the crowd, just really happy and high after the energetic concert, and the video crew was standing by the road, and guess who has the great ironic unforgiving luck to be chosen for an interview? That's right, yours truly. Pity I didn't speak A WORD OF JAPANESE and had no idea what the video guy was asking me. When I said I didn't understand, he just waved me away irritably like I was a gaijin. Just think, I almost had a chance to be ON THE LiSA DVD and I blew it because I had no idea what to say. Siiiiigh.

Bryan and I had delicious curry udon for dinner.
On our way back to hostel, we got lost in the dark streets. Fortunately, we met a guy at the pedestrain crossing who was staying at the hostel too, and he brought us back. He looked Japanese at first, but then he was speaking English with an American accent. Turns out he's from Florida, and is called Eddie, and he was staying alone but visiting some friends. He was a cool guy, but I didn't get to talk to him much for the rest of the trip.

Aaaand when we got back, Lou Ee was hooking up his laptop to the Japanese Team Fortress 2 servers and killing people in Japanese.

Our bunk, as modelled by a sleepy JX.

*All pictures in this post courtesy of Bryan.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Japan Trip - Day 15

A funny thing happened in the toilet today.

I'd been wearing the yukata all the time in the hostel, to get into the whole feel of the traditional Japanese clothing and all, and so I'd sleep in it and everything. That morning, I woke up and went to the toilet because I had to empty the rear ballast, if you know what I mean. So I enter the stall in a why-am-I-up-so-early stupor, lock the door, turn to the porcelain, and then the spark of sobriety wakes me right up: how am I supposed to do this?

For those who don't know, the yukata is shaped like a very baggy bath robe, but not made of towel material, and that's all you wear above your underwear. It's like having a really thin trenchcoat: it trails all the way to your calves. I'm standing there, wondering if I should take everything off to do it, or if I should try to billow the back end out like a pianist throws out his coat-tails before his performace. In the end, I settled for a compromise: I let it hang on one hand over the side. It would have been a very embarrassing situation if there were any witnesses; unfortunately, I was the witness, and I felt like an idiot.

After another awesome breakfast, we grabbed our bags and travelled to Tokyo from Odawara, a very short trip considering how close we were to the capital already. After dumping our bags off at our accommodation for the night, Bryan brought us to the Harajuku District, a long shopping street full of clothes and apparently the Tokyo hotspot for lolita fashion, the thing girls wear with lots of black and lace and black lace. Unfortunately, that week being the start of Golden Week - the week where there are a few national holidays such that the whole week is after office hours - there were millions of people but no one wearing anything avant garde.

Look at all the swanky people not in the photograph.

It was past lunch time, but the streets and restaurants were all crowded, so there was nothing for it but to go to a very normal-priced place for lunch. It was a fusion pasta restaurant, which I thought we should have gone anyway, since foreign food with the Japanese flavour twist is usually very delicious. I had a great pasta with cream sauce, prawns, asparagus and roe.

Most of the street was girl's clothes, which I don't find very interesting unless they're on girls, but Xi Min picked up a map somewhere and found out that there was an Evangelion store, so we paid it a visit. There was a lot of Evangelion merchandise, and I half-wished that I had watched this classic anime before I came to Japan, so I could appreciate stuff like this more. I did manage to catch a glimpse of some ang moh otakus though, which I thought was hilarious.

Xi Min's next spot was the Nico Nico Douga store, which I thought was a bit odd - it's like YouTube having a shopping mall. What would you get in there - you go in and pay to watch funny Internet videos? But apparently it sold all the indie stuff, things that amateurs made and put up on the site, like Vocaloid soundtracks and other stuff.

Doujin music and fluffy mascots. What isn't there to like?

Harajuku is also swarming with Africans. Presumably they're immigrants, and most of them are touts, harassing pedestrians to come to their shop. Bryan warned us about them though, and said some of them were pimps, and told us to shake them off, just say "I don't know" in Chinese, because they knew both English and Japanese.

After snaking our way through crowded streets, you'd think we'd go to a big open space, like a park or something. And you'd be right. On our way towards our next destination, we cut through Yoyogi Park, a really huge area of grass and trees that can rival Botanics anyday. Yoyogi Park is apparently famous for being the meeting point of all those rock-and-roll Japanese who cosplay Elvis Presley, but on the day we went there was a disappointing turnout and barely anyone was rocking the King's slick curl, let alone the cowboy tassels and pelvic thrusts.

Spot the Elvis Impersonator!
Yoyogi Park is also home to many talented buskers, who make a living by performing street art almost every day of the week. We were first greeted by World Yo-Yo Champion!! Tommy, who was already halfway into his act and winding down into his finisher.

That's after knocking out a dozen evil ninjas with his yo-yos. Victory pose!
He is indeed very talented, and he does a killer wind-up-toy-marionette act. However, it was a bit too slow for a finale (he set it to some classical music-box-type music) and was just after his exciting fast-paced action-packed stunts, so it didn't seem as energetic at the end.

Puppet strings? Yo-yo strings? Get it? It's all a metaphor for life!
But all work and no play makes Yoyogi Park a dull... garden. The grass was strewn with thousands of people, all just lazing around, eating, chatting, playing games, throwing frisbees and walking dogs. There's an unbelievable number of people having picnics - though it must be a lot better having low humidity, minimal heat and an obvious lack of mosquitoes. I even walked pass what looked like a mid-afternoon office party, with men and women in office attire sitting on a large chequerboard mat with sandwiches and wine glasses. Alcohol really is Japan's national pasttime.

Also, the propensity of local nature not to rain every few days must be a contributing factor.
But back to people doing all kinds of stuff. I really think these temperate climates are so much more dynamic, because nothing discourages people from coming out and being one with nature, and doing all the stuff they'd normally be doing at home, outside. Dog-walking is an adorable favourite, and so is cycling and practicing musical instruments. See, anyone trying to play music in public in Singapore would get complained at faster than you can say "But it's not illegal!" then get slapped with a fine for not registering with the government. At the large fountain (which conveniently shut off before Bryan could spend the next half hour capturing the perfect split-second shot of the water streams hanging in the air), a bunch of people had set up a full percussion band.

That guy didn't have a chair the entire time we were there.
Granted, their instruments were a really rag-tag bunch, including a number of bongos and those things that Buddhist priests whack that makes that weird hollow sound, but they sounded good. What's more, it's not just Japanese people playing it, but a whole group of people from around the world: Africans, Japanese - there was a lady who looked a bit Mongolian. And all pounding together, if not in harmony, then at least in rhythm. Faith in humanity restored.

Oh, and that guy in the blue shirt at the back, with the sling bag? He was dancing his own crazy dance back there all throughout the gig. I don't think he was one of the drummers, and I don't think he had much sense of rhythm, but he was popping his moves like nobody was watching. I have to take my hat off to that guy, for either being so courageous or so oblivious to dance badly in the middle of a thousand people.

Holy crap! Isn't that George Clooney and Angelina Jolie?
Tango dancing practice. We could have done without the underarm hair though.
We spent a good hour wandering through the park, just watching people having fun in their own ways. We stumbled upon the dog run about halfway in, filled with dozens of adorable dogs and separated according to size.

They're all freaking adorable.
We wanted to run around then, but had some urgent toilet trouble. So we managed to hunt down one, and were coincidentally reminded about the benefits of being born male, and having the ability to pee while standing. Suffice to say, if there were any girls in our group, we'd still be standing there, waiting for them.

Few people vandalise more beautifully than the Japanese.
After heading out the exit and across the overhead bridge, we happle to stumble upon a gay-pride party. Completely coincidentally and unintentionally. Now I have nothing against homosexuality, but this wasn't just any normal gay-pride event: this was the Tokyo Rainbow Pride After Party.

Oh god, what is that guy wearing?
It's disturbing enough to be sexually harassed by members of the opposite gender when they're falling down drunk, but can you imagine being sexually harassed by people of your own gender while they're falling down drunk? Coupled with the fact that this is Japan, and people will wear absolutely anything if they're drunk or crazy enough, and you get some really disturbing costumes, of which words would not do your imagination justice.

Have fun in your nightmares tonight.
Seriously, those costumes might look attractive, maybe even sexy on girls. But men weren't meant to show so much flesh. Especially grown men without the bodies of wrestlers. Eurrgh.

Another thing: the toilets aren't safe.

So we escape the clutches of same-sex debauchery and head towards Shibuya, another shopping district with more upmarket and branded goods. It was famous for the five-way scramble crossing, which is a pedestrian crossing across a busy five-way intersection where, every few minutes, all traffic is stopped, and pedestrians are allowed to cross to whichever side they want to cross to. Keeping in mind this is one of the busiest cities in the world, and the traffic lights are keeping back a tidal wave of pedestrians for a long few minutes, the crossing invariably freaks out the flashing green man until he turns red in embarrassment. The crowd is so large, you can get lost in there and drown.

Now imagine an out-of-control steamroller.

Walking across the crossing is not very amazing - it's just like walking through a normal crowd, except when you realise that you're in the middle of the road, and all that's stopping a bunch of murderous drivers from running you over from five different directions is a bunch of lights and the illusion of rules and order. I would really recommend stopping right in the centre for a moment, making sure not to knock into anyone, and just turn in a circle very slowly and look around. It gives you a feeling of insignificance, like you're just one person in a world where everyone is minding their own business, living their own lives, going around you like clockwork, everyone mixing for a brief moment but then going their separate ways.

Add that to your self-worth.

We had an early dinner at a fast-food curry place. That's one of the things I like about Japan - there are fast-food outlets of almost every variety of cuisine. It's got to do with the hectic lifestyle there. They're mostly designed for individual businessmen rushing through lunch, sitting by themselves at the counter and speeding through a quick meal. They generally don't have tables for groups, which usually caused us problems when we all have lunch together.

So... delicious...

It was still early in the evening, so we visited the large music store overlooking the crossing, Tsutaya. It has a Starbucks on the second floor, and it offers a fantastic view of the crossing and the people swarming across it. It's quite narrow and small though, so there is almost no chance of getting a good seat unless you come before it opens in the morning and are prepared to queue for an hour. Tsutaya itself was huge, and again it is very different for a country with a large enough population to support its own local music. K-pop is also slowly making an impact in the Japanese music scene, with most Korean artistes having both Korean and Japanese versions of their songs. I bought dad a Blues Brothers CD, because it was one of the only things I had seen so far that I thought he might like.

Bryan was highly amused by this second-hand CD and its coincidental relation to the Aya Hirano sex scandal some years previously.

The upper levels were filled with DVDs of television shows and movies, and there were whole sections which are just for rentals. Right at the top of the building was a bookshop and cafe, and above that, not connected to the elevators and separated by an external staircase, was the embarrassing manga section where all the otakus go.

And then another awesome event happened here that really made this Japan trip so much better than any planned tour. While we were looking at a shelf, Bryan suddenly remarked, "Hey, isn't that shelf moving?" So we instinctively all freeze in place, and you can feel it: the building swaying slightly as if caught in a strong breeze or slight typhoon. And, almost right on cue, the staff are leading us away from the shelves, towards the open area near the elevators, in case the tremor knocks over any heavy books and concusses us and we sue for damages. So add Achievement Unlocked: Survive A Mini-Earthquake to our list of crazy stuff we've done in a foreign country.

When I imagine getting killed by comics, this isn't exactly what I had in mind.

That night, we slept in a capsule in a capsule hotel. It costs about as much as a night at our hostel, but it really didn't come with any other facilities besides the bed and bath, as well as a small locker bigh enough for three shirts. If you wanted anything else, like charging your phone or extra shampoo, you had to pay for it. It was an interesting experience though, sleeping in what is essentially a box with a matress. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't coffin-like at all; it was in fact quite spacious, except there is no space for anything else except yourself. I think in part it is because of the lack of a door - I think if you could close your capsule you'd die of claustrophobia before suffocating.

Who needs floors or bedside tables?

It was lucky that we had the traditional baths in the ryokan already, because if not I wouldn't have any idea what to do at the capsule hotel. I didn't get into the heated bath though, because most of the patrons were old or middle-aged businessmen, and I didn't enjoy the idea of sharing bathwater with someone old enough to be my grandfather.

After the bath I sat outside on the balcony in the freezing night, enjoying the frigid breeze and the beautiful view across the river. XM came to have a talk, and soon we were expounding on a variety of subjects. Bryan joined us soon enough, and I learnt a lot about his personality and outlook on life.

*All photos in this post are courtesy of Bryan.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Japan Trip - Day 14

The ryokan breakfast was another amazing feast, but I cannot remember much about it (except that an egg was involved) because I think my brain was fried by the mind-blowing taste. It was a vegetable soup thing with a whole bunch of Japanese appetizers and very, very salty ikan bilis but I think pickled instead of deep-fried.

Our destination that morning was the small town of Hakonemachi, a settlement on the other side of the lake which offered excellent views of Mt Fuji. We took the cable car to to the top of the mountain, the San Francisco kind; then the Sentosa kind to get through the peaks and sulphur mines; and then a ferry across the caldera lake to get to Hakonemachi. It was very interesting: I had never seen a real mine before, and as we were passing over, we were trying to guess what type of mine it was, and when we smelled the sulphur it seemed obvious. It was slightly discomforting to know that you were suspended over a huge hole in the ground emanating the smell of rotten eggs so far below that you can't actually see any people walking about. Perhaps they were all below ground, holding their breaths.

We never get a decent fog in Singapore. This one might actually have been a cloud though.

Nobody walking around with huge baskets of yellow stones.
The highlight of the journey was seeing the iconic Mt Fuji, and over the odour of brimstone we caught a glimpse of the elusive mountain, just a speck of snow-covered tip between white clouds, so camouflaged that you can't exactly see it there.

Our caldera ferry, as modeled by Bryan.

It had pirates! Arrr!

Nothing like standing at the bow of the ship, the wind blowing through your non-existent hair...
We got to Hakonemachi just in time for lunch, and I had another tempura udon and after that, a soft serve caramel ice cream to beat the heat of the afternoon. Hakonemachi, for being a small town, was still very big, and we wandered through the souvenir shops and came up against a temple with an entry fee, so we turned around and headed up to the castle.
Never had overpriced cheap ice-cream tasted so good.

Also, Evangelion coffee. Oh, Japan.
The castle was actually upstaged by its gardens, which were huge and sprawling and offered no less than six different vantage points for famous-mountain-spotting. We climbed through the flowers and across gravel paths and past long grassy fields and up to the observatory, a low building at the top of the hill which overlooked the glassy lake and mountain range.

Singapore why aren't you beautiful like this
Any Japanese girl named sakura has a lot to live up to.
Imagine a horde of zombies lurching towards you, a line of lawnmowers just out of frame, and you with a bunch of sunflower seeds and peas...

We camped there longer than a sniper waiting to get a headshot on a 4km-tall rock, mainly for Bryan to get his "perfect shot". Our plans were foiled though, and we might have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for those meddling clouds. The brilliant white of the sun reflecting off snow peaks is not that much different than that reflecting off the evaporated supercooled condensed water vapour in the air, and almost equally blinding.

The majestic explorer waits impatiently for his companion to take the photo of the elusive mountain range.

That's the most we ever saw of one of the most famous natural wonders of the world.
We spent a lot of time wandering through the beautiful gardens, enjoying the flora that will never exist in our tropical climate.

If you were like this, Singapore, I'd walk everywhere, all the time.

Xi Min just had to do this.

I have never loved trees so much as I did here.

There was a comfortable spot a little way from the observatory with wooden benches, and you could just spot a small gigantic torii gate in the distance, at the edge of the water or, as it might have been, in the water itself.

Floating inja torii is watching you.

The path led away to some sparse forest, were the keen otaku eyes of Bryan and XM spotted a few cosplayers having a photoshoot between the trees. They didn't go up to talk to them, though, or even to take photos, but the ever-vigilant observer XM pointed out that they were cosplaying from the Touhou project.
Also taken from a hidden spot in the bushes, so this is an authentic photo.
On our way back we passed by the ninja museum, which we did not patronize because of funding issues. There were a bunch of brightly-dressed ninjas outside, though, and I remember thinking that they were quite hilarious because no ninja would dress up in a bright pink outfit. It was like a mix of Power Rangers and Disneyland, because they were very obviously a tourist attraction.

There are no fewer five real ninjas in this photo. Can you spot them all?
A return to our ryokan early for dinner prompted a short expedition to the town of Gora, at the base of the mountain; except that when we went to dump our bags we left our rail pass in the room, which made taking the cable car out of the question. We decided to take a walk, down the sloped incline, and I caught a sakura petal in my hand.

Dinner was another sumptuous spread of classic Japanese cuisine. A plate of small appetizers, tempura, sashimi, tofu, and a huge crab hotpot with glass noodles.

Five seconds before it was all promptly devoured.
We spent the night watching Japanese television again, and had a lot of fun commenting on their variety shows, because that was mostly what was showing. I remember that one of them had this game where they tested the blowing power (I am not joking) of the celebrity guests. They lined up fifty lit candles in a row, and the guest had to stand at one end and blow as hard as they could, and the number of candles you extinguished with your breath would be your score, and you'd compete with the other guests and stuff. It was pretty hilarious.
Also, this girl was bloody annoying.

Before we turned in for the night, I managed to persuade the gang to take the Suntory Boss photo in our yukatas. It went a lot better than expected.


*All photos in this post courtesy of Bryan.