Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Day 76 - 82: Shibuya Rampage, Tomato Ramen, and Really Famous Rats

We begin our story on a Friday night. Invited prior to an event, I decided to go to my first ever club and support good ol' Georgie, who was DJing a little shindig in Shibuya. Flanked by some friends, and another club-virgin, we headed out for what would be my first true all-nighter in Japan. The reason for this is because the trains stop from about midnight until 6AM the next morning, so if you miss that last train, you've got to stay out and about until the stations open back up. This event was, of course, late at night, so we got to party hardy until the sun rose. But more on that in a moment.

It all began with the pregaming. Of course, one cannot possibly expect to pay the exorbitantly overpriced cost of a few drinks at the event, so pregaming is vital in order to get a sufficient good feeling going that will last. As per usual, can't ever go wrong with a tall can of Strong. I'll miss these guys back in the states. A double dose of 8% lemon-flavored drink later and I was ready to go. We met Zaru at Totsuka station and all headed down to Shibuya as a team.

And I'll tell you, the infamous Shibuya crossing at midnight is no different than Shibuya crossing at any other time of day. People were EVERYWHERE, and despite the chaos, there is still a clear definition to where everyone is going. If you mess up just a bit though, you may get swept up in another stream of people and lose sight of all your friends (and destination). So take care out there! We met up with George and his girlfriend Arisa shortly after arriving at Shibuya and decided to find a bar before we went to the venue. The bar of choice was a popular spot for foreigners such as myself, holding within a wealth of whiteys found every which way. English speakers all over the place! We spent some time there chatting amongst ourselves, and lucky Zaru and I chose to give some very special drinks a try. We both took a "shot" of what's called Dynamite Kid, a 63% concoction of who-knows-what. All I know is that it tasted of pineapple and other assorted fruits, and was definitely bigger than your standard shot. We sipped half of it down and then shot the rest like champs. Her first time feeling truly buzzed; adorable! =P I got the ultimate brew there, the Stairway to Heaven (68%), containing probably the strongest concentration of absinthe I've ever had. That one, I needed some help with. My tummy was not happy with the mixture. Zaru followed up her shot with a Bailey's Ice Cream, which tasted of no alcohol whatsoever. Just chocolatey, ice cream-y goodness. I wanted one for myself after that Stairway fiasco.

Little did we know, the foreigners at the Hub bar were merely a prelude of what was to follow. The Trump Room was where the event was to be held, and it was basically someone's four-story apartment complex, with each floor holding only one, tiny little room. It was, in so many words, a multi-level house party. And boy howdy, if I ever felt like I was back in America, it was then. Gaijin as far as the eye could see. Tall ones, short ones, European ones, American ones, Hispanic ones, you name it. In fact, the entire night, I probably could count the number of Japanese on my two hands. It was a bit of a letdown, to be honest. Not to mention the DJs before George weren't exactly playing the most superb of musical numbers.

Therefore, myself, Max, and Zaru took a break by exploring a bit outside until we hit an izakaya (restaurant/bar thing). We spent a while there eating some edamame, chicken dishes, and a couple more drinks until it was just about George's time to shine. Trump Room round 2 went much better, with George up at bat. His music choices were superb compared to the other guys before him, and he knew how to play to the crowd. I wish the guy he was co-DJing with wasn't so obnoxious though, as we later found out he screwed with George's set more than once. Either way, good stuff! I taught Zaru how to shuffle a bit, which I certainly hope she'll practice in time for another upcoming event (more on that soon)! Yes, there were dudes everywhere, a proverbial sausage-fest I daresay, but it was still fun out there with the friends.

Afterwards, around 5:30AM, we got tomato ramen. Yes, tomato ramen. This is just what you might guess it would be: tomato soup + ramen noodles, with added corn and cheese too. And it tastes as good as it sounds: fantastic. Such a unique combination, but it was so good! I know now I'll be testing this out myself by mixing ramen noodles in the US with tomato soup. We were all getting mighty tired at that point, worn down by the all-nighter, and thoroughly enjoyed our reprieve in the tomato ramen shop.

I learned earlier that night I would get my own chance to DJ very soon. On December 15th, I am going to DJ at a rock bar in Shibuya for half an hour. My FIRST LIVE DJ SET. AHHHH. I don't know how to mix besides fiddling with Virtual DJ, so I'm trying my best now to hone my skills so I'll be presentable in time for the event. Wish me luck. I WILL need it. Also, I need a decent playlist. Suggestions anyone? :D Electro/house/dubstep is the theme I'm going for.

A day of rest came and went as soon as you might have guessed. Sunday brought with it a fresh, new, tiring day at Tokyo DisneySea. As you might guess, it was big. It was a ton of walking. It was FREEZING outside (and it rained later, just to make it worse). But it was cool. Tokyo DisneySea is the other Disney park in Japan besides their copy of Disneyland. And just like most Japanese things, the power is in the presentation. The theme park was super well-designed, the architecture of the buildings, choice of variety in all the attractions, and even the various unique foods sold throughout the park made it quite the experience indeed. I got to ride on Journey to the Center of the Earth, Sinbad's Voyage, the Tower of Terror, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull, watch an Aladdin 3D movie, see a Little Mermaid live play, and ride a 3D Star Tours-esque attraction called StormRider. It was all so neat, I can't even begin to describe it all!

For the rides you can find at Disneyland in CA, they were much the same, but with slight differences. For example, the Indiana Jones ride is laid out exactly like the one at CA Disneyland, except they chose to change the face of the "Hidden Eye" into a Skull that shoots green lasers out of it's eye. Also, the giant snake in that portion of the ride, for some reason, has no hood on it's neck. So instead of being an obvious cobra, it's instead.... a snake of some kind. There was no fire being shot underneath the bridge in the center of the ride either. What was cool was that, while standing in line for quite literally 2 hours, they had a guy dressed up as Indiana Jones walk around and roleplay the character. He was about as American as they came, and only spoke English too, adding to the "wtf scary" looks of all the Japanese attendees. Speaking of, I saw a total of 7 non-East Asian people throughout the entire day. Is Japan homogenous? My experiences point to a resounding YEP.

I almost didn't have enough money to get back to Totsuka, so that was fun. I didn't eat very much that day, and when it came to counting coins, I was over the required train fare by a whole 15 yen (20 cents). CLOSE ONE. And regarding food, I ate three things throughout the day. First was something called Chandra's Tail. Apparently the Sinbad movie is popular in Japan (no, not the washed-up comedian) and spawned that aforementioned ride. They also sold a food item in the shape of a tiger's tail (Sinbad's companion is a tiger named Chandra) that was made of some sticky, chewy bun with a creamy chicken interior. It was really, really good, and the consistency of the "bun" with the inside made it quite fun to eat. Second, I ate at what could be considered the "pineapple ice cream" of Tokyo DisneySea. There was constantly a line throughout the day at the one and only cart there that sold.... Gyoza Hot Dogs. They were in a bun similar to that of the Chandra's Tail, except in the shape of a hot dog. But within was all the ingredients of a typical gyoza (potsticker). Loved it. Can't say I've ever had anything like that either. Finally, I ended my meals of the day with Curry Popcorn. That's popcorn topped with curry-flavored powder. It tasted like curry and popcorn. It was good. 'Nuff said.

DisneySea, Shibuya, and crazy-good foods? Conquered!

Friday, December 7, 2012


What do you think when you hear "arcade"? Do you imagine swarms of greasy, sweating men sitting in front of brightly-lit screens, rapidly tapping buttons and wiggling joysticks every which way? In Japan... well, this is exactly the case. But it's certainly not the entire story.

See, in Japan, arcades are still massively popular. In fact, they are so popular, you could walk into any given arcade and likely see a salaryman, a junior high school student, a gaggle of giggling girls, and a bored housewife on her way back from the grocery store. The arcades here are a place that brings together many types of people in part because of the diverse genres of games represented. Like many establishments in Japan, arcades are often multi-leveled, designating each floor to a different genre. On the bottom floor or two, you will usually find the UFO catchers. These prize-grabbing machines are nothing like those found in America, where all you can nab are junky, miscolored plush toys no one would want. Instead, you will find rare, expensive, highly sought-after prizes like anime figures, gigantic plushies, chopsticks, fans, rice cookers, pocket watches, wallets, purses, and much, much more. At the cost of about a dollar a try, these games may take an investment, but can really nail you with a return profit. They take skill, they take finesse, but if you can master the UFO catcher, you can win prizes anyone would be jealous over.

There is also often a floor just for fighting video games. The fighting game scene in Japan is HUGE, with a multitude of games available to test your might at, all of which are only the latest and greatest versions playing from a pristine condition machine. Street Fighter, BlazBlue, Persona 4 Arena, Melty Blood, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, you name it. Everything is there, and often with a line of people waiting for their turn to take on the reigning champ of the building.

Another floor is the one dedicated to just music-rhythm games. These floors are where I make a home. Machines that you'd be lucky to find one or two of in a 1 hour driving radius in Southern California (considered to be the biggest scene for Japanese music-rhythm games btw), you will find 4 or 5 machines in a single room. Beatmania IIDX, PopN' Music, Hatsune Miku Project Diva Arcade, Jubeat, ReflecBeat, Sound Voltex Booth, Drummania and Guitarfreaks, Dance Dance Revolution, Dance Evolution, Taiko Drum Master, all in glorious condition and playing oftentimes on shiny HDTV displays. It brings tears to my eyes thinking of it's awesomeness. Truly a haven for us music-rhythm addicts.

There is usually a floor somewhere for miscellaneous games. These include card games, where you place cards on a matte surface that scans their data and allows you to move them around in a strategy game-like format, mech games like the ridiculously popular Gundam vs. Extreme Boost series, Mahjong Fight Club, which is just like it sounds, betting games like virtual horse races, and even traditional bar games like billiards and electronic darts. Smoke usually permeates this floor, as it is welcomed with ash trays at every game station. What better way to wind down a day of work than to mahjong the night away and blow through a pack of cigarettes? Only the mightiest of men are found on this floor.

A floor for pachinko and slot machine games also exists. Those people who are just too addicted to Japan's most popular game can find themselves machines to sit at and turn a nob to watch steel balls shoot all around through a forest of pins, hoping that it'll reach some tiny hole and give them a jackpot prize. Many women can be found on this floor alongside the salarymen, as they look to hang out after a day at work or housekeeping.

Finally, the basement floor is usually given to purikura (picture club) machines, or the photo booth machines where you and a bunch of friends stand in front of a camera, pose together for a bunch of shots, then customize the photos with various clipart-like things until you decide to let the machine pop out a sheet of the pictures right then and there. Always a good group activity, though I have never seen a man do purikura (besides myself and a couple other UC guys, of course). EXTREMELY popular amongst the high school girl crowd. They also have a section in the room where, for a small fee, an individual can rent a costume to wear while taking purikura. Seasonal costumes can be found too, and I myself have seen a couple girls looking like santa and a reindeer step out of a booth before. For reals.

Arcades are never empty. There are always at least three people on a given floor, even just before closing and in a quiet, small city like Totsuka, but in the biggest cities, you will not be able to tell the difference between a 3PM crowd and an 11PM crowd. People. Are. Everywhere. They eat these arcades up, feeding money into machines for hours and hours on end, and we're not just talking a couple quarters here and there either. The arcade scene in Japan is still running strong, helped by the backing of major companies like Sega and Namco in order to deliver the best quality of experiences possible. Little arcades, mom and pop arcades, are nowhere to be seen, except in the dingy darkness of Osaka or randomly interspersed in a street mall in Kyoto. Despite this, the feeling is much the same as in a small, privately-owned operation, with a sense of community, belonging, and excitement in the air, beckoning the player to stay for a while. Just hang out for a few hours. Blow off some steam. Enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells (some admittedly not-so-pleasant) of a Japanese Game Center.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Day 68 - 75: Horseback Archery, Turkey Day, and Studio Ghibli

The day after our Edo-Tokyo museum trip, a couple of us gathered together with professor Roberts and his wife to go to a festival in Zushi, just past Kamakura. This festival started with a parade of samurai marching through the streets of the town, all while vendors sold such delicacies as gyoza, yakitori (chicken kebabs), roasted corn, and taiyaki (custard-filled soft waffle-like pastry in the shape of a fish). The costumes of these samurai, retainers, and the princess (Hime-sama, we called her) were elaborate, detailed, and ever-so impressive contrasted against the modern buildings surrounding the procession. After we shared a lunch and watched the exhibition make it's way through the streets of Zushi, we headed down to the beach nearby where the main event would take place.

It is here that Yabusame, the age-old exhibition of horseback archery, was enjoyed for the next few hours. Such a pleasant day spent on the coast, alongside new friends, viewing such a unique celebration of the Japanese heritage, I was so content to just sit there and take in that singular moment in time. How did I exactly find myself in such a lucky opportunity as this? What did I do to deserve this chance to go across the world and take part in this special event? I couldn't come up with an answer, but I knew that I wanted to do all I could to help my future children get a similar opportunity one day.

Amidst high school taiko drum performances and festival foods, we watched the many archers race down a stretch of sand such that they had three chances to hit a target before reaching the end of the roped off section. With how fast they were going, it was certainly a challenge to hit any of the targets, most of which got progressively smaller, until eventually the target was a clay plate that, if broken, would explode in a mess of shiny confetti. Very few of these were ever hit, but when they were, the effect was so exciting! And in addition to borrowing Zaru's amazing camera lens to use on my camera, many amazing shots were taken. I simply MUST have a telephoto lens one of these days when I get back to the states.

The day was finished off with Professor Roberts being super-kind to us and buying us all Starbucks, as well as a souvenir from the festival. Apparently, they make souvenirs out of broken target pieces, burning kanji into the materials to commemorate the event, so I got a piece of one of the wood targets. Also, for the first time, I tried out a gingerbread latte, which was pretty much fantastic. Not as strong of a gingerbread taste as I expected, but still greatly appreciated, especially when one is freezing to death.

The next major event was good ol' Thanksgiving. Of course they do not celebrate this in Japan, but the UC students decided to hold a bit of a potluck/group meal to spend the evening. Almost everyone attended, save a couple of the shut-ins, plus a couple of the Meigaku students especially important to us,
making it quite special overall. It was good to have this moment and sum up all we were happy to have in our lives, here on this lovely little island country. A lot of us thought that, since turkey wasn't exactly readily available, we would go with the next best thing and get fried chicken, so KFC and McDonalds was our go-to for the evening. My meal? 15-piece chicken mcnuggets. I don't buy McDonalds anymore, but this just proves how special the occasion was. My first Turkey Day with more than 2 other people at the table, and I'd have had it no other way. Thanks, all.

That weekend was spent doing some Black Friday shopping in between trying to feel better. I had come down with a bit of an illness and didn't want to spread it around, so I had to cancel my plans to meet my host family for my host-grandfather's birthday dinner on Saturday. I felt really bad, but I knew it would be better to save risking them getting sick from me. That would have been way worse! I hope I get to see them again before I have to leave for the states.

I wasn't entirely better in time, but I forced myself to go to the infamous Studio Ghibli museum in Shinjuku, as we had had our tickets pre-purchased (over a month ahead of time, at that). The way it works is you purchase for a certain time frame and you get 2 hours to enjoy all the many Ghibli exhibits throughout the premises. Unfortunately, they do not allow pictures inside the museum, but I can assure you it was nothing short of magical. Recreations of the Ghibli studio, storyboards, inspirations for many of the movies, influences from Western fairy tales, statues, a giant Catbus kids could go inside and play around on (SO JEALOUS!), and even a movie theater showing a rotating selection of short films. Ours was a story about an old couple who lived a quiet life in the mountains, tending to fields, but one day encounter the secret world of the mice who inhabit the area around their home. It turns out these mice have a friendly rivalry with a few of the larger white rats, such that they hold sumo competitions to prove their dominance. None of the mice can win because of their size difference, so the old couple help the mice get big and strong to win the next competition. It was so cute! And just like Disney movies, you don't really need to know the language spoken to understood the events (though it did help picking out words here and there I understood to supplement the film). Such a cool place! I would love to go back, especially in future years, since they change exhibits from time to time like in an art gallery. Studio Ghibli is, without a doubt, unrivaled in their production of quality animation for the entire family, regardless of age. Simply wonderful~

Monday, November 26, 2012


So, upon coming to Japan, we were all given the option of signing up for a prepaid cell phone service. Like Virgin Mobile or Metro PCS, Softbank's prepaid options use proprietary handsets that only work on their service. Therefore, we got to become very comfortable with using a cell phone probably most akin to a model from 2003. A flip phone, available in white or black, with the option to be used either in English or Japanese at the press of a button. While ridiculously old school, it brought me back to the days where all you had was text and calling. Not being so connected to the world 24/7 is refreshing in it's own way, and it's prompted me to consider giving up my cell phone plan back in America for something more simple.

Surprisingly, while there are plenty of people here who use iPhones (very few use Android or Windows phones, from what I've noticed), the majority I've seen opts for these old-style phones. One big difference is that these old phones have a small hole with which people often attach charms to. These charms can be something akin to a little souvenir medallion one might find while going abroad (Kyoto, for example, had cell phone charms galore) or they can be like absurdly oversized plushies with a tiny loop to attach it to the phone. You will frequently come across teenage girls who attach dozens and dozens of charms to a single phone, creating this mass of cuteness that jingles and rattles with it's many bells and whistles, quite literally. The new smartphones like the iPhone and Android sets do not have this space for whatever reason (to keep the device slim, to adhere to the minimalist style, etc.), but almost every flip phone out here has the slot for these charms.

I really wonder if that is a factor to the Japanese people in the market for a new cell phone, whether their new device will have a slot for charms. People proudly display charms of their favorite anime/manga characters, cutesy animals with silly faces, and more, so I gather there are those who would choose something besides a smartphone just so they can continue using their many charms. There are also charms that probably reflect a particular memory for someone, like going to Disneyland or the Studio Ghibli museum, so keeping a bunch of charms on a phone can perhaps be likened to keeping a scrapbook, inspiring pleasant memories of days long past.

My final observation while handling cell phones here in Japan: there is a big focus on keeping your phone in "manner mode", or vibrate-only mode. In the train culture, it is rude to talk on your cell phone while riding, such that it is even mentioned from time to time over the intercom to "please set your phones to silent mode and refrain from talking on your cell phones". An example of an unwritten rule becoming a rule of sorts. However, when I first set my phone to manner mode, I took note of a strange contradiction: this phone was not completely silent. Indeed, whenever I would use the crappy, outdated camera on the back, even if the phone was set to complete silent mode, it would always take pictures accompanied with a loud shutter sound. I looked around for options everywhere to turn this off, but to no avail. And then I started to wonder why that was. Was it only my phone that was this way, or was there something else going on?

And then it hit me. Perverts on the trains. With how packed the trains can be sometimes, it is much like being a sardine in a can. People with bodies touching, no room to move one's hands in front of themselves, similar to being at the pit of a rock concert. An unfortunate result of this is that women can be sexually molested on trains with no idea who the culprit is. Due to various social norms and pressures, traditionally women do not always cry out at the act being committed, allowing the perverts to walk away scot-free. In addition to this, with the advent of high-definition cameras now being used on cell phones, one could easily slip their phone's camera underneath a woman's skirt and take a picture. It may sound strange, but it is a common enough occurrence such that Japanese cell phones now cannot have their camera shutter sound function turned off. This is so that anyone around knows when a picture is taken. And why else would someone take a picture of the floor in a packed train car than to snag an upskirt shot? This (hopefully) has served as a deterrent for possible criminals, as they would certainly not want to be caught in the act and be shamed while waiting for their train ride to conclude. The feeling of shame here is a major factor in what norms exist, and this case is no different. Therefore, cell phone companies seem to have complied and worked to help alter the invasive behaviors of the perverts in Japan.

Thus concludes my interesting Japanese cultural thingy #2. On the next episode: Japanese arcades - fun for the whole family, guaranteed.

Day 56-67: Back on Track

Catching back up to speed. It's been quite a long time since the end of my Kyoto/Osaka trip and I obviously find it difficult to recall the many events that have happened in the meantime. Where to begin with the many events that have happened since that fateful weekend…

First off, and perhaps most obviously, Obama has been re-elected to the Oval Office. A big deal for us US students. I know many of us raced back from class that day to get internet access and find out the state of the race to presidency. I don't think there were too many people in the house unhappy with the election results, which saved us from some awkward conversation regarding political opinions. But those can also be fun to share and debate, so a little was missed out on.

A couple of trips had been made over those past few weekends. Akihabara (twice *cough*) resulted in some fun adventures with Cheryl, Zaru, Fione, and Anastasia. Many gundams were seen, cheap and absurdly expensive, and plushies/figures were won. More and more, my addiction is fed *_* Although, by the end of that second trip to Akiba (fourth overall, I think), I was way overstimulated, such that one could say I was even "Akiba'd-out". Yes, you heard it here folks. I don't want to go to Akiba again, at least at this point in time.

Some delicious food has been eaten lately, as well. Two particular places stand out most in my mind that I simply must describe. The first of which is the Krishna Kitchen Indian and Nepalese restaurant. This place has authentic curry, the biggest nan I've ever come across, and allows customers to eat nonstop nan along with their meals (tabehodai, or basically free-flowing food). Deliciousness is in no small amount at this wonderful restaurant, and we've been trying to make this  a weekly excursion from our first discovery of the establishment-onwards. The second place is a ramen shop in Yokohama, just outside the main station inside a major shopping district. Zaru took Kim and I there recently and I was floored by how fantastic this place is. You go inside and order your meal from the ticket vending machine (a regular occurrence for ramen shops). You can add mushrooms, a soft boiled egg, double green onions, and various other things to your ramen too. But what adds the most customization is the piece of paper on a clipboard the hostess gives you before seating you. On this paper, you are able to select the firmness of your noodles, the strength of green onion taste in your ramen, the presence of a pork cutlet, and strength of the "secret sauce" they use to add spiciness, all at no extra cost. Once you have completed the customizing sheet, you are seated at a cubicle where you hand them your tickets, and then wait for but a few minutes before feasting on some of the best ramen ever. I'm no food critic, but I knew good food when I tasted it. Superb.

Other business that has happened lately… a field trip to the Edo-Tokyo Museum! Required for all Japanese Language students, we got to take a couple trains to Ryogoku Station, nearby one of the major sumo stadiums in Tokyo. The building itself, Edo-Tokyo Museum, was GIGANTIC, taking a good long time on escalators to just reach the level in which the exhibits were kept. The museum was made to be the same scale of the main capital castle back when Tokyo was still Edo, which is why the museum itself was raised above the ground so high. Inside were two areas separated by era: The Edo Zone and the Tokyo Zone. Edo was the older of the two, of course, lending itself to exhibiting many artifacts and showcasing facts about ancient Tokyo. Kimono, kabuki, katanas, and all the many items people know so well to represent pre-Meiji Japan. Meanwhile, the Tokyo zone started with Meiji-era changes, like the introduction of western-style architecture, appliances, and other products into Japanese culture. The car, cooler, and fridge, for example, were given attention, as well as mention of the war's effect on Tokyo. It was quite shocking to see how completely leveled Tokyo was after the many air raids on the city during World War II. Nevertheless, it was a fun trip, albeit at a breakneck pace due to time constraints.

Lunch was eaten together by all the students at a nearby Chanko Nabe restaurant. Interestingly, this place had a hot pot-style of feeding, but individually: that is, you had a propane-fueled device in front of you with which was used to cook the food within the pot they would bring to you. Chanko itself is known for being a stew with which sumo wrestlers often eat in order to gain/sustain weight. It was delicious, if not a bit too salty for my tastes, but overall a warm and well-received lunch. A handful of us, including new friend Diane from Thailand, made a trip to the official Tokyo Pokemon Center. On a saturday, this meant that the store would be packed to the brim with kids, parents, high schoolers, and every other kind of person you might expect (and not). Rain kept us from doing too much more that day, but I think our adventures those days were more than enough to keep me satisfied.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Day 55: Kobe/Arima

Our day finishing up Osaka began simply enough: Waking up late and being given 5 minutes to gather all our belongings, brush our teeth, and hit the road. David and I were awoken first by Kim, then reminded to vacate the room when one of the cleaning ladies came by. Embarrassing? Just a tad.

After all that commotion finished, we made a short pit-stop at a famous Osakan shopping district nearby that is overseen by a particular deity, Biliken. This opportunity was nice and kind of fun, as the many shops there were adorned with massive advertisement structures above their entrances. Pictures on the flickr will help give you a better idea of what this district was like. While nothing particularly amazing happened during this short trip to do last-minute shopping, I did find it really surprising that there was a pachinko parlor with blatant pornographic posters affixed to it's building on the outside. There were children everywhere around, yet it was no big deal that there were these rather graphic posters being displayed. I wonder if this is just part of a culture difference or if it's even strange/unheard of for Japan. Either way, that threw me for a curveball while perusing the many shops.

Once shopping time had concluded, the group, complete once more, hit the pavement and trekked to the nearby Kobe area. Interestingly, we did not go to Kobe the city, but instead opted to take about 3 train transfers to a remote village called Arima. This town, while tiny in scale, had become a bit famous in the area for being host to a handful of fantastic onsen, public bath houses. As a result, our main focus for this trip was to soak up a totally different atmosphere from the big cities we'd toured the past few days, as well as soaking up some scalding hot water in a bath with 40 other people.

See, for those that don't know, onsen have been a part of the Japanese culture for a very long time. Originally used by the poor, for the lack of available water to shower individually, people would come together, wash themselves outside of the bath, and then use a hot spring to relax in silence or shoot the breeze with other citizens. It became a communal event, if desired, and is still enjoyed to this day in open-air or roofed establishments. What does this bath entail exactly? I'm glad you asked. First, we were divided by sex. Some onsen have co-ed baths, but this particular one was segregated. So I entered the men's section and was greeted by about 20 other men, ages ranging from about 7 to over 60, in varying degrees of nudity. Not a single gaijin, foreigner, like me in sight. Whoo, here we go. After entering the changing area, I used a nearby locker to place my glasses, my pants, and every other bit of clothing in, save for a towel for later use. This marked the first time in my life I'd been completely naked in front of so many unknown, grown individuals. Was it embarrassing? To a degree. But I dug deep and stood my ground. From the changing room, there was a single other room: the wash/onsen room. Lined up on the left side of this massive enclosure were individual showers where one would sit down, use a nozzle to spray one's self, use the provided soap/shampoo to clean, and then rinse thoroughly. The reason for this is because the onsen water is not changed. It's meant to be clean all the time, since everyone showers beforehand, and thus has no reason to be changed. And when I entered that water, I can't even begin to explain how hot it was. I had never, in all my days, experienced such hot water. I thought I would be able to soak and relax and enjoy jacuzzi/hot tub-esque water. NOPE. I sat in that water, sweating rivers, for 15 minutes before I could not take any more for fear of fainting. I rinsed myself with lukewarm water afterwards just to cool down a tad but retain some heat, went out to the changing room, and dried off.

Interestingly, onsen oftentimes have a strict rule against people with tattoos. They will usually say that they do not allow tattoo-bearing patrons due to an age-old belief that those with tattoos are of yakuza affiliation. Luckily, with this onsen, they allowed me in. Perhaps because I'm a foreigner, perhaps because I'm a short kid who wouldn't harm a fly, who knows. Either way, I got to enjoy the stares of dozens of men for three reasons: I was a stark-naked white boy with a big, red tattoo. Truly a unique experience unlike anything else.

From this onsen, we enjoyed the lingering warmth, as it was freezing outside in the cold, autumn mountain village, and explored the streets. At one point, we found a public "ashi onsen", or foot bath. This foot bath, unsurprisingly, held the same heat level of water that the onsen prior had, so I stuck my toesies in for a whopping 10 minutes before taking my leave. We scoured the village some more until around the time we absolutely had to leave in order to make our bus back to Yokohama. Luckily, we reached our station early and allowed us all to grab some food/sit down and rest. Most everyone split into smaller parties, and I had the rather lucky opportunity to share a heart-to-heart with Kim. I've had discussions with a lot of other people here from the UC's, but Kim wasn't one of them at the time, so I was very glad to get that chance and learn more about her. Post-conversation under the Kansai nighttime sky, we went to join up with the others again, as well as purchase BEARD PAPAS CREAM PUFFS! This franchise has had one or two shops in Orange County before, but they closed down, so I had not had their unbelievable cream puffs in a handful of years. Just the right way to end a vacation.

In just a little bit, we hopped over to the overnight bus and did our best to knock out during the 8-hour ride. This time, the seat was much more comfortable (for some reason), and we all sat by each other, so we could interact with one another a little more easily when the lights were still on inside the bus. Sir Francis was shared and got plenty of attention. I actually snagged some hours of sleep. It wasn't nearly as awful as the ride there.

Upon arriving in Yokohama, we took one of the first trains back to Totsuka, and, as quickly as we could manage, raced through the cold back to MISH. Just as I reached my room, the sun came up directly across from my balcony. What a sight it was, coming back home and enjoying a sunrise for the first time in a very long time. The perfect way to cap a grand adventure.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Day 54: Osaka

If I were given one word to sum up Osaka, I'd have extreme difficulty picking between "attitude" and "ghetto". Both of those words fairly accurately described my experience in the city known as Tokyo's less-rigid cousin to the west. We only had one day there, but I am pretty okay with having had that much time to explore the city. Where we stayed, the hotel was actually quite nice and unlike what I'd expected. However, the area we were in very much reminded me of downtown LA, a few blocks away from the skyscrapers. It was run-down, it was dirty, and it was at times scary when roaming around at night. Not necessarily a negative thing, but it was certainly different from what I'd experienced thus far in Japan.

This time, since our usual guide Niki was off doing her own thing in another city, Kim graciously took the reins and steered us around Osaka for a little while. We did plenty of wandering, while a couple of the others went to the only zoo I've yet to come across. The weather was fantastic and very conducive to just strolling about. While the others were at the zoo, the remaining three of us went to the first Buddhist temple in all of Japan. It was actually rather small and not terribly ostentatious, further helping along the idea that not much has changed in the 1200 years since it was founded. It was quite busy though, as some sort of service may have been going on at the time.

We met for lunch later on, though while on the street with our restaurant, I noticed a small fruit shop. Within held the most expensive fruit I'd ever come into contact with in real life. Three melons sat in a neat row, one costing around $50, another costing around $75, and a final priced at a massive ~$190. For a single melon. Yes, really. The picture I took is evidence. Mind = blown. After lunch, we headed to a shopping district well known in Osaka for being the longest covered, straight shopping arcade in the world at 2.6km (Tenjinbashi-suji). We split up at that point so everyone could do their own thing shopping for the next 3 hours. While on my lonesome, I got to travel the length of the entire shopping arcade, while also enjoying quite a few firsts.

For one, I got to enjoy the traditional Osaka delicacy of takoyaki, or fried squid balls. They were simply fantastic and I could not recommend them more, if you're in the mood for authentic Japanese food. I also had dinner by myself at a curry place called Kuroneko Curry, or Black Cat Curry. I was the only one in there and the senior couple who ran the place were super-sweet to me. I'm slowly weaning myself off medium spicyness and working up to hot, so I went with a small shrimp curry with a bit of a kick. Inside the curry house, they had a radio station on, and to my utter amazement and delight, on popped The Pillows with a song from my favorite album of theirs, "Scarecrow".

It was at that moment that I realized I was truly living the dream. Eating curry, listening to a Japanese rock station, not a care in the world. I thought about it, and thought about it, and thought about it some more, and discovered that I would be quite content if that moment had never ended. Pointless as it may be, from that point on, I started looking at prices of apartments around town just to gauge what a typical price point might be for a big city place. It both excited me and scared me. What has changed within me to determine that I would want to pack it all up and live in another country, across the great, blue pond? I've always had this set idea of what I wanted to do with my life, and I still feel pretty solid on that desire. But taking a break from education to live life in another country, to really do something besides the normal graduate-job/grad school route, is what I felt most compelled to do. How viable is it for me to live abroad for a year or more? Is it selfish of me? Should I be more considerate of other important people in my life? How will this impact my desired career choice? So many questions and variables to consider. It's just a bit overwhelming. I just know I'd very much like for it to be reality.

After this not-so-mid-life crisis type of event, I also got to witness my first Japanese argument. There were two men standing outside an alleyway by a fruit and vegetable delivery truck. One of the men, not the driver, used such an interesting voice to convey anger. It was like his words were bricks; not necessarily big and painful, but solid and carried much heft. He rolled his R's like a champ, which I've noticed is a common trait for men's speech patterns when they're upset. I think they were arguing over the delivery, making the event all the more amusing to me. Many others were looking at the two's disagreement, but just kept on walking. Pretty unique.

The group reconvened, but now met with added friends! Kim had joined up with a fellow UC David student who is on an exchange program in Osaka, as well as one of her friends from China (? My memory is awful). They were quite friendly and provided some nice conversation, rare though it was on our way to/during dinner. We did not all fit at a single table at the restaurant we went to, so we had to split up. It would have been nice to talk more as a group, but I suppose this is what Facebook is for haha. Megan, the UC David girl, might take a trip east to Tokyo area, so hopefully we get to all meet up once more and be tour guides. This restaurant was kind of neat in that it randomly had Gundam figures on the bar wall. Go Japan! I also had my first gin and tonic, recommended to me by one of my best friends currently teaching in South Korea, and happily sipped up the mixture. I didn't know the concoction was so tasty!

Upstairs from this restaurant was the Umeda Floating Garden Observatory. Basically, a giant tower people could take an elevator to the top of and see the beautiful Osakan landscape. Though freezing, the view was incomparable, so different from the observation deck of Tokyo Tower in Roppongi. Yet another surreal moment passed, between an onslaught of pictures with buildings, friends, and more than that. Just staring out at 360 degrees of lights, natural and not, it helped to both clear my mind in various respects. The cold certainly helped too. My lungs!

We later traveled to an area very hip and keen with the young folk. This is the nightlife Osaka is well known for. Around a mall-ish building known as Hep Five, it was like Times Square with men dressed up like anime characters, hair of various colors pointing out every which way in order to entice potential customers. These individuals were known as hosts, the "beautiful men" who are paid to simply talk to customers in a cafe. Like the maid cafes of Akihabara, they are the draw of the establishment, much moreso than any type of food or cocktail. Getting to converse with men of such beauty and grandor is a luxury enjoyed for quite the steep entrance price. Besides the hosts attempting to gather customers, this Osakan wonderland held a 24-hour Round 1 entertainment and amusement building, complete with karaoke, bowling, video games, UFO catchers, pachinko, slots, and anything else you can think of for approximately 8 floors of greatness. This wonderful addition to the Osaka trip had a floor with four Dance Dance Revolution machines. When I first entered, every last one of them was being used by one of those professional-status DDR players I've idolized since I was a youngin'. I eventually got my turn to play, along with a tag-team duo of Fione and David, and rocked the house as best I could (in shoes unfit for dancing. Boo). And I can now say that, for my 68th completion of the song Sakura, my favorite tune in DDR, I have reached the milestone in the homeland of DDR. Whoo nerdyness at it's finest!

Finally, we got to enjoy an evening back at the hotel without any hassle or worry. On the way there, I was crowded by three rowdy, drunk Osakan guys on the train, but I stood my ground and ignored them entirely. The train was super open, but they still for some reason crowded around me. It was strange. But this little white boy was not afraid! Back at the room, a little more than a little alcohol was consumed, knocking out on the bed horizontally, reminiscent of a very special memory from an Anime Expo long past. Nevertheless, we ended the full day of Osaka on a fun and friendly note rather appropriate for the unique time enjoyed there.