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!

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