May 2019
  • Day8

    Hakone ; Egg, Bath and Beyond

    May 18, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ☁️ 17 °C

    Kamakura was to be a mere one-night stand. When morning arrived we rolled out of bed, took a quick shower together and ate breakfast before making our excuses and a hasty exit, promising to call despite having not taken their number.

    Today's primary objective was to reach and generally see and do things around Lake Ashi ; a crater lake that lies beside Mount Hakone near the town of Hakone. Whether the town was named for the mountain or the mountain named for the town was an awkward enquiry to verbalise even in English so I was unsurprised Yukko neither knew the answer nor, I suspect, understood the question.

    Reaching the lake necessitated, as standard, the usage of public transport. For this we were each given a brand new 2-day transport pass. This was similar to the JR pass we'd been using up till now, only it was for a set period rather than a set budget and it covered a different region and it was a different size and colour with different writing on it. They were otherwise identical.

    Two trains and a bus later we arrived not at the lake but at a small building with stilted external canopies and a sloping thatched roof known in the local dialect as 'not-on-the-itinerary'. I think it was a restaurant or cafe or somewhere in between the two and appeared to be populated mainly by locals, but we weren't granted opportunity to examine the menu and were instead immediately shepherded into the beautifully-ornate, wood-pannelled, sliding-door-fitted 'tourist room' at the back. Here we were each brought a small stone mug containing sake; a traditional Japanese rice wine.

    Now, note; I don't like sake. But, also note; my view on sake was entirely formed from a single taste way back when during a 'lads' holiday to Spain when Barnesy, who was seeing an Asian girl at the time, professed at an Asian restaurant that we should all try sake because sake was lovely and he knew what he was talking about because he was seeing an Asian girl and thus he returned from the bar having generously purchased us all shots of sake. It was sharp, strong and awful.

    However that sake had been clear, cold, indistinguishable from white rum visually but a world away in terms of taste. This sake was warm, it had bits of fermented rice floating in it and had a delicate, soothing taste that left me eager for more. I now genuinely questioned whether what Barnesy bought us was truly sake, whether he knew what he was talking about, was the restaurant Asian, was the girl Barnesy was seeing actually Asian, did we ever really go on holiday and, if so, what on earth did we drink?

    After comsuming this deliciously reconfigured definition of sake, we headed to Moto-Hakone; a small town on the shore of Lake Ashi, from which we'd be taking a 'pirate sightseeing cruise'. This meant sightseeing from a boat in the style of a pirate ship, not sightseeing pirates (which might have been more interesting).

    However before the cruise we were again granted a portion of 'free time' to explore the locale and get some lunch. Once more Ruth and I joined up with Flo and Veronika, finding a place that served yet another dish on Flo's foods-to-try list, Okowa. This, I believe, was the glutinous rice substance served within some sort of large leaf alongside a bowl of noodle soup. It was fine; similar in concept to an onigiri, only served warm, though hardly memorable.

    After we'd eaten we wandered the town for a little while, popping into a few souvenir and gift shops wherein Ruth found a satisfactory puzzle-box to purchase, thus concluding the perhaps over-egged B-story commenced in my last post.

    Also rather over-egged was the novelty of the black eggs, which I haven't set-up in context yet but the segue was so pun-tastic I had to skip ahead. Taking the faux-pirate boat across the lake, upon which I naturally insisted on punctuating converse with pirate-esque "Y'arr" tones (translating as relentless positivity to the Germans), and ascending Owakudani, a technically-active but actively-inactive volcanic zone, we found a smoking crater, an overwhelming scent of sulphur and what appeared to be an entire miniature economy centred around the marketing of 'black stuff'. Quite contrary to the preparation of foodstuffs under any other conditions, the novelty here was to utilise the sulphuric output of the volcano to transform food you might want to eat to look as though you wouldn't.

    I considered sampling the 'black ice-cream', but the climate was such that it was ideal for ice-cream longevity and therefore sub-par for its consumption. The primary draw, advertised from multiple small shops, were the 'black eggs', for which there was mixed opinion on the merits of tasting but Yukko went and bought one for everybody so individual views were rendered moot. They looked like standard chicken eggs with an irregularly blackened shell.

    They tasted like standard chicken eggs with an irregularly blackened shell. And since you don't eat the shell (at least, I don't; PM me if I've been doing it wrong) we were essentially peeling away and discarding the main selling point. It would be like visiting Hué in Vietnam and ordering the Royal Rice Cakes then immediately chucking them in the bin without tasting them. An approach I wholeheartedly endorse.

    If you were to eat them with your eyes closed, you'd likely make some mess but ultimately wouldn't be able to tell any difference from a standard egg. Come to think about it, the whole experience is blatantly discriminatory against blind people. And the chronically unimpressed.

    We ate and moderately enjoyed our boiled eggs for what they were, some salt would have been nice, and hung around for a while at the top before descending, as we'd ascended, via cable-car. We then clambered upon a bus to take us to our final destination of the day, Sengokuhara, where we'd be spending the night. En route, we managed to catch a momentary glimpse of the snowy peak of Mount Fuji through the bus window, satisfactorily checking-off a key box on our Japan bucket-list.

    After around an hour we arrived at the Fuji-Hakone Guest House. The novelty here was, and a Booking.com check confirms still is, that this is a 'traditional Japanese Guesthouse'. Not so traditional that there were Japanese people staying there, with a deep-dive into the Booking.com reviews suggesting the majority of its clientele are foreign visitors, but it very much presented as simply a large 'house' as opposed to a hotel/hostel (our group would be filling all the rooms, giving us exclusive run of the property). It was traditionally furnished with futon mattresses in the rooms in place of beds, which were comfortable once on them but the added rigmarole of getting down to / up from them rendered the decision to lie down and relax a weightier consideration than normal.

    We didn't have time to relax anyway, as we were told there was no evening food available on-site (a breakfast could and had to be pre-booked, which the now-fairly-defined 'four of us' chose to do so) and so if we wanted to eat that night, which habit dictated I did, we'd have to wander down to the nearby convenience store before it closed. It wasn't far and I once again bought some standard Japanese fare and a whole tray of gyoza dumplings on the side. It was here that Yuko bought 'reward' drinks for those of us that had achieved her 'challenge' of locating the 'hidden shrine' in 'Akihabara' a 'few' 'days' 'earlier'. I opted for a beer which I drank later in the evening and Ruth went for a non-alcoholic option which she didn't drink later in the evening and instead mis-placed and then spent the rest of the trip trying to find again in other convenience stores ; a quest I'd chronicle if it didn't have the unfulfilling ending that she never found it.

    Returning to the Guest House, we all had the opportunity to sign-up to experience the on-site Onsen (Hot Spring) wherein we could soak in the warm, sulphuric, volcanic waters of Owakudani. This would be, as was becoming standard, another nude affair and once again we were discriminatory restricted to separate gender groupings. There being only one Onsen, however, our experiences would be sequential and since we are gentleman, and they got to the sign-up sheet first, we allowed the ladies to go first. Hannah, Ruth and Veronika were before us as we (myself, Craig & Will) patiently waited for our allotted time and then past our allotted time because women always take ages getting dressed (#EdgyAF). On their departure from the Onsen enclosure there was some sort of commotion about there being a massive spider near the dual-function entrance/exit door that they were all a mite nervous to walk past. I'm not really a fan of spiders (seriously, what maniacs are) but I portrayed the tough, steely attitude of nonchalance I felt would resonate best with the crowd ; my motivation to suppress heightened since said crowd contained a particularly-pretty German. I didn't see the spider upon entering, probably because I actively didn't look for it, and our time in the water was pleasant; much like taking a warm bath at home only outdoors, ostensibly more acidic and with 200% more visible cock.

    Our evening plans had already been dictated by the formal itinerary; "Change into your kimono after a long hot bath ready to learn about the art of
    Japanese rice wine during a Sake tasting session!". Now, this initially struck me as either an unintentional gender-exclusive translation or an invitation to cross-dress, as to my knowledge a 'kimono' was an item of female garb somewhat akin to a formal, dressing-gown-style wrap-around. Indeed, supporting my presumption, you have to scroll several pages in Google Image Search before finding a 'kimono' result that isn't adorning a female body and even then, in this progressive modern-day era, the mere fact non-females are wearing them doesn't enable definite conclusions to be drawn as to the intended market from any cultural or manufacturer perspective.

    But, in a surprise and scarcely-occuring twist, I was mistaken. Each of our rooms had sufficient, beautifully patterned kimonos for us each to wear and so, fulfilling our contractual obligations, we all put them on and congregated in the common room for the scheduled 'sake tasting session'. I'm not sure why I'd supposed 'kimono' was an exclusively feminine dress-up choice. I think perhaps 'kimono' sounds superficially ladylike. Like, if I was introduced to a woman called 'Kimono' I'd think little of it; say hello, maybe shake her hand should such contact feel appropriate and proceed with whatever concourse was either expected or necessitated by virtue of our being introduced. But if a man told me their name was 'Kimono' I'd definitely double-take; enquire as to whether I'd heard correctly and, presuming I had, gently suggest he depart my company till such time as he'd gotten himself a more befitting name. Something like 'Jim', or 'Derek', or even 'Peter' would be far more acceptable. I couldn't consent to 'Nick' without getting to know him a little better, but the mere fact he's clearly considered 'Kimono' suitable up until I'd advised him otherwise infers an intelligence and self-awareness seemingly sub-par for such a hallowed moniker. 'Alan' would also be fine.

    Veronika further negated any issues I had about wearing a kimono by pointing out that they looked like Jedi robes. No, better, she said I looked like a Jedi(!), in one statement confirming I looked like a space-faring lightsaber-weilding bad-ass AND referencing and therefore displaying knowledge of and presumed appreciation for a franchise I adore, further heightening her in my estimations. I explained how this mightn't be coincidental as George Lucas was famously influenced by the output of Akira Kurosawa, most particularly 'The Hidden Fortress' from which the narrative perspective of the first film was entirely lifted, immediately undoing any cool-cred my Jedi-look had mustered.

    The sake-tasting entailed passing round a few bottles of different varieties of sake and having a quick taste from provided plastic cups. Confounding my earlier revelations, it turns out I don't really like sake; which is to say, I like some sake and not other sake. Some, much like seasons 1 through 6 of Game of Thrones, were slick, satisfying and left you eagerly anticipating your next sip. Others, like Thrones seasons 7 and 8, were still technically sake, but somehow lacking, reminding you of something you liked but ultimately leaving you with an unpleasant, 'we wasted eight years watching this for THAT?' aftertaste.

    Whether it was the social lubricant effects of the sake, the inherent intimacy of our surroundings, our matching casual clothing or just the fact that we were all, after six days, getting used to one another, this evening felt like the first where the whole group genuinely relaxed and legitimately enjoyed each others' company. An almost-week of shared experiences offered ripe material for short-term reminiscence, whilst a Jenga set offered opportunity for collective focus and friendly competition that further heightened our associative acclimation. No longer mere strangers thrust together, we were becoming something far greater; a booked-and-paid-for tour group.

    At one point I said something really funny. Like, really funny. I don't remember quite what it was, but it was a comedic extrapolation of a phrase uttered by Florian by which he expressed he'd been 'brought up on' something, inferring said something had been a prominent fixture in his early life, which I'd twisted into a suggestion that he'd been solely brought up by the something without any parents. You had to be there. And probably tipsy.

    I'm not exaggerating to say it sent those in earshot into absolute hysterics. This generated a genuine ruckus, necessitating explanation to those who hadn't heard me say it. The back-and-forth was repeated, which obviously reduced the funny but it remained pretty damn funny, validating the very high hilarity base from which it began. Somebody even uttered 'joke of the trip', which was an impossible standard to assess given we weren't even halfway through the submission period.

    I don't know if it was what I said, I can't recall the precise formulation, or how I said it or the precise timing I selected, but regardless I'd perfectly strummed a funny-chord. This was odd experience for me since, whilst I'd never posit I'm bereft of humour, my approach to witticisms is ordinarily more subtle and wry; conveyed and received humour deriving from overly-analytical observations, detailing ludicrous logicality or, most prominently, the juxtaposition of complicated prose explaining relatively mundane concepts with conclusionary statements punctuated by base or sometimes vulgar words and shit. Yet, here I was, the progenitor of a pithy, witty and concise 'joke' with mass appeal, generating true and sincere gut-busting, belly-shaking laughs from all those that heard it.

    I didn't like it and I won't be doing it again.
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  • Day7

    Kamakura-eleon ; We Come and Go

    May 17, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    Today we said goodbye to the shit-hole that was and, barring immediate refurbishment subsequent to our departure, is the Tokyo House Inn.

    This isn't quite the damning dismissal it might appear to be. Shit-holes, most particularly the plumbed-in variety, are an utterly essential facility in homes and business establishments, with their absence considered a puzzling quirk at best and, at worst, a flagrant breach of The Workplace (Health, Safety, and Welfare) Regulations 1992.They serve a purpose and are indisposable in the field of bodily waste disposal.

    Similarly, the Tokyo House Inn served a purpose. It's just a shame that purpose didn't encompass the provision of rudimentary rest-house services.

    Whilst I genuinely appreciated the attempt at providing a power-socket terminal for each bed, on mine the USB ports were broken. Worse, on the beds where they were functional, their operation entailed the permanent illumination of a blue LED which is the absolute worst light output possible for science/heath reasons I don't understand but will proclaim as irrefutable fact regardless. As a simple annoyance, however, this persistent twinkle was completely overshadowed by the absence of shadow being cast by our dorm-room door. A simple frame encasing a large, frosted-glass panel, its translucence became prominently problematic at night time as it permitted the passage of light from the hallway outside, which we were able to switch off but that would be shortly afterward switched back on again by another Inn guest as our hallway was a key thoroughfare between bunks and bathroom. Oh, and breakfast was a complete joke; the punchline being that it took about twenty minutes to mildly singe a slice of bread in a table-top toaster oven of which there were precisely two for a hostel holding upwards of fifty people, eighteen-or-so of whom would be breakfasting at around the same time every day.

    I’m informed that the female and couple dorms (in the building next-door) were better, but even if true this would be sexist/couple-ist so would still count against them. Overall, I’d give the Tokyo House Inn two-out-of-five stars ; one for location (one minute walk from a Family-Mart, mitigating the breakfast situation) and one because one-star reviews are generally discarded out of hand as being whiny and reactive and I’d hate for my considered, structured views to be pigeon-holed as such. Also any place calling itself an ‘Inn’ should serve beer and they didn’t. One-and-a-half stars.

    Before departing we all posed for a picture outside, genuinely chuffed to have the place literally behind us. Somewhat notably, this was the first time we’d all convened with our baggage ready to start actually ‘travelling’ together. I was surprised to see some people had brought suitcases instead of rucksacks, but also at how compact some peoples’ luggage was compared to my own. Still, I don’t workout multiple times a week to not bring as heavy a bag as my airline would permit. Additionally, I’d resolved to bring sufficient clothing to wear something different nearly every day without having to do laundry; a decision that (spoilers!), once I witnessed the consequent distress and trauma of those who eventually did undertake to do laundry when the opportunity arose, I felt entirely reassured by.

    I don’t much recall the specifics of the journey we took (broadly, following Yukko through and on several excellent, on-time and well-maintained public transit vehicles), but we eventually ended up in Kamakura; a coastal town south of Tokyo where we’d be spending the day and night. Today’s hostel, the ‘Webase Hostel’, was a short walk from the station and was every bit the cheese to the Tokyo House Inn’s chalk, with extensive on-site amenities, fully operational facilities and sleeping quarters encased in opacity. We couldn’t check-in immediately so we dropped our bags in a holding room and we headed out for lunch.

    A short walk down the coast-line we found a couple of small restaurants, with the majority of us opting for the Thai café. The size of our group clearly overwhelmed the kitchen and some peoples’ orders took quite a while to materialise, I noted smugly whilst devouring my speedily-delivered bowl of red curry & rice.

    Once everybody had eaten we wandered further down the coast then ventured in-land through the quant streets of this tourist-town, spying and sampling some of the various shopping establishments. In one shop, Ruth discovered the existence of and developed a quick passion for Japanese puzzle-boxes ; delicately-crafted wooden constructs with convoluted methods for opening and priced by size and complexity. Whilst none available here piqued her interest sufficiently to prompt a purchase, Ruth’s mission to find a suitable souvenir puzzle-box is a worthy enough B-story to warrant mention and follow-up. To be continued…

    We soon-after arrived at our first itinerary-stop of the day; the ‘Daibutsu’ at the Kotoku-In Temple. ‘Daibutsu’ is an informally-used Japanese term for giant Buddha statues, with this usage proven formally accurate in this case. The bronze-cast statue, dating back to the thirteenth century, was indeed large; the second-largest in Japan I was told but most definitely the largest we’d be witnessing on thistrip. It possessed this effect whereby it seemed to grow larger the closer you got to it, which is an ancient Japanese principle known as ‘perspective’. We were able to go inside it, but there wasn’t much there. Aside from excellent acoustics, which enabled me to win the hastily-devised ‘evil laugh’ competition (in doing-so likely offending many of those visiting with religious alignment to the subject matter).

    It was at this point in the day that it was highlighted to me that it looked like I was burning. Whilst I had applied sunscreen earlier in the day, we had both been on the go for longer than the specified protection period stated on the bottle and, as had also been pointed out to me, the sunscreen I was using appeared to have a greater marketing emphasis on its skin-moisturisation properties than UV-resistance, with its apparent effects reflecting these priorities. I’d also not brought any sunscreen with me this day since, as aforementioned in an earlier blog, my travel bag had either the capacity for sunscreen, a water-bottle or an umbrella but no combination of the three. Veronika kindly let me borrow (on a no-returns basis) some of her actually-protective German-branded cream ; kindness I reciprocated by misjudging my grip on the bottle and inadvertently squirting a decent dollop of it over her bag.

    Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine was the next stop listed on the itinerary, which was helpful as there’s no way I’d have been able to transcribe its name from mere audible reference. This entailed a brief, albeit challenging for some, wander through the nearby woodland wherein the less mature amongst us entertained themselves by climbing trees whilst the more mature remarked on the immaturity of this undertaking. The 800 year-old shrine itself was deep in the wooded hills, surrounded by rock walls and could only be reached on-foot via a carved-out tunnel. Upon arrival we were informed of the tradition of entering a cave beside the shrine and washing our money (both coins and notes) in the spring waters with legend stating this would cause the money to multiply. As I’ve been seeking a credit extension for a while now, I gave my Mastercard a quick rinse whilst I was at it.

    Up some steps near the main shrine was a smaller, secondary shrine adorned with a symbol that I instantly recognised as the ‘triforce’ logo from the Legend of Zelda video games. Despite this slightly marring my perception of Nintendo’s creativity, it was pretty cool to see this adorning such a place in such a country and its usage in this context went some way to distilling the aesthetic inspirations for much of Breath of the Wild ; an observation I’d have shared if I’d felt anybody around me would have appreciated it (possibly-Martin, with whom I’d previously discussed the game series with and probably-Christina, his partner/girlfriend/wife, weren’t with us today).

    Before departing the shrine I bought an ice-cream, which was interestingly churned from vending apparatus that required the insertion of flavoured capsules not dissimilar to a Nespresso machine. The resultant product was fairly good, though less interesting than the manner in which it was made insomuch as I distinctly recall and jotted down notes as regards the process but can’t remember what flavour I had. It might have been matcha flavoured, since around 80% of confectionary items in this country appear to be and all of them are distinctly and equally unmemorable.

    We wandered back toward civilisation and to a supermarket, where we were advised there were no evening dinner plans nor much close by to where we werestaying, so to buy some food for dinner and breakfast the next day. The supermarket was pretty upmarket, with concession-style food distributors offering fancily-packed prepared foodstuffs with various samples available to help inform purchases. Mind, I’ve no basis for comparison so this could quite easily have been a downmarket Lidl/Aldi equivalent and a theoretical Waitrose-level grocery-shopping experience exists to be discovered. From my perspective, however, this was at minimum Sainsburys-standard, with Tesco overtures and Asda influences coupled with Co-op conveniences, M&S Food Hall-style amenities and a bit of Booths to balance. Morrisons is also a supermarket.

    I purchased a variety of baked goods, requiring no further preparation or cooking to become edible (my favourite foodstuffs), for both my evening meal and breakfast as well as a bonus, crème-patisserie laden tart for immediate consumption. As the day’s hours waned, we then hurriedly returned to the hostel so as to have daylight time for a promised outing to the nearby beach.

    Beaches, as a general concept, are hardly high on my holiday highlight list. I feel this is likely due to the natural connotation between ‘beaches’ and ‘beach-holidays’, the latter of which I find monstrously dull. Any excess of time spent lounging on a beach is time that might be spent seeing or experiencing something of deeper aesthetic or cultural value than a narrow mass of sand or rocks beside a lapping expanse of water. However, on this occasion, as the afternoon waned and the assurance that this would be the only opportunity during our trip to visit a beach was voiced (a lie, but whatever), the prospect evolved from lazy diversion to that of time-limited challenge. Hurriedly checking-in to the hostel I rushed to my elevated bad-compartment within our group’s sleeping-quarters, quickly changed into appropriate gear, grabbed my microfibre towel, slipped on my slip-on Birkenstocks and wandered the two-minute walk to the seafront.

    Upon arrival at the beach I immediately left the beach, proceeding straight into the water-feature without which the beach would not be a beach but that technically isn’t a part of the beach itself. The sun had receded behind the clouds and the wind was picking-up, rendering the standard crotch-level checkpoint a point of no return; the maintenance of comfortable body-temperature only achievable by continuing to the shoulder-submersion depths.

    After some brief wave-jumping with various members of the group, Veronika splashed into the ocean to join the fun. The two of us somehow ended up a fair distance down the coast from the rest of the group, possibly a result of currents or potentially a reactionary defence mechanism instigated by my ego to ensure I was outside of direct-comparison range of the buff muscularity that Craig had got goin' on. I’m pretty comfortable in both my skin and with the developed fibrous tissues beneath stretching and forming said skin, but even a top-tier BMW doesn’t want to share a showroom with a Bentley. I’d already made a mental note (because of course I had) of Veronika’s stated affinity for the ‘good-looking men’ of the Marvel movies, and I doubt she was referring to Happy Hogan. Personally, even I wouldn’t kick Chris Pratt out of bed; though almost entirely out of fear of him kicking back.

    I continue to enjoy Veronika’s company, both within our established sub-group and during occasional, fleeting one-on-one moments such as this. I was also quite taken with her choice of swimwear, which I might elaborate on were I not an anointed gentleman of the British realm. That said, I still can’t be sure whether she and Flo are an item. They don’t outwardly express affection in excess of ‘friendly’, but then perhaps that’s par-for-the-course for German couples. I don’t know; I do care, but I can’t figure out a way to enquire that wouldn’t overtly outlay some ulterior aspiration. Speaking of Flo, he had neglected to bring any swimwear with him so had remained on the beach, but soon grew envious of the jollity on display so ventured into the sea in his underwear; a brave fashion choice that placed him in the highest echelons of body-confidence.

    After the beach, a bunch of us went once again for a group-soak in the hostel’s bath-house. As before, this entailed sex-segregation and obligatory full nudity, guaranteeing the inevitable movie adaptation of this blog will need significant edits to achieve a family-friendly classification rating. But this wasn’t a problem; any mild reticence from our first-time alleviated by a sense of habituality. With this repeated mention and undeniable thematic recurrence of male form and body-image you’d think I’d have something profound to say about the modern-day societal pressures imposed on men, the prevalence of gender-norm expectations and the inescapable, harmful impact toxic masculinity has on the world at large. But I don’t.

    In the evening hours we all congregated in the hostel’s common area, cooked (or simply ate) our pre-purchased food and just generally co-existed together with the generic socialising and conversation so frequently associated with such gatherings. As most people peeled off to bed, a group of us remained up until the late/early hours, with the main conversation topic seemingly being the attempted explanation of British humour to the Germans, by way of listing and detailing the premises of popular comedy shows from the last fifty-or-so-years.

    There was concurrence on the amusement value of Monty Python, though upon mention of the ‘Fliegender Zirkus’ special shows the troupe had produced specifically for the German audience I was surprised to find that they preferred the German-dubbed, original English production. I’m told that the Lumberjack song in particular is far more amusing in the German translation as opposed to the Michael Palin reciting-phonetically-transcribed-German version. Despite the Python link, they hadn’t heard of Fawlty Towers so we attempted in earnest to convey both Torquay and the particular hilarity of the ‘Germans’ episode, though I don’t think we sufficiently sold it. Whilst, somewhat ironically, this description of describing classic comedy is rather flat, as a topic on which I feel fairly schooled I found this evening to be a tremendously enjoyable cultural exchange. Although I stopped short of mentioning ‘Allo Allo’, which is questionable in terms of its portrayal of Germans but, more importantly, really isn’t very funny or well written and as such any endorsement by myself would tarnish my established taste in terms of all things comedic.

    I mean, I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it…
     
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  • Day6

    Tokyo 4DX

    May 16, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    On our final full day in Tokyo I rose extra-early to attend the pre-paid, optional activity entitled 'Sumo Experience'. This apparently hadn't been a popular choice as only myself and one of the couples, (I want to say Christina and Martin?) had signed up for it.

    I'd intended to purchase breakfast the previous night before going to bed but, as I've often held as irrefutable fact, its impossible for a person to know what they're going to want for breakfast until the time comes. This is why I have five different breakfast cereals on-the-go at any one time and still more often than not choose to grab something out and about where there's range and choice. For too long Overlord Kellogg has controlled and constrained our fundamental breakfast freedoms ; Rise up! Revolt! Or buy variety packs.

    I wandered down to the ever-open Family Mart and picked up a chocolate croissant and a large coffee. Contrary to expectation, instead of sugary cream the croissant actually had a strip of solidified chocolate running through its centre, making it taste more like a mis-shaped pain au chocolat than a standard filled croissant. I preferred this to such a degree that it was worthy of mention in this blog, which is an inarguably high bar. I noticed I was inadvertently wearing two socks from different pairs, so went back to my room to correct the situation before we headed out.

    Yukko led and directed us via the train network to the Sumida City ward of Tokyo then abandoned us to get back to the hostel in time for the rest of the group to wake-up. Martin, if his name was Martin, and I bonded briefly by discussing our shared affinity for the Zelda series whilst Christina, if her name was Christina (or even, thinking about it, if it wasn't), endeared herself to me by permitting this conversation to proceed. I feel somewhat bad I'm not 100% on their names, but whilst they were technically in our group they opted to spend much of their time following their own itinerary, so our subsequent interaction was minimal. They seemed nice, if demonstrably forgettable, and I deeply hope I made a similar impression.

    We were soon collected by the Sumo Experience organiser, who led us through some of the nearby backstreets to a 'sumo stable'. These are places where sumo wrestlers train and, most of them anyway, live. Apparently, as we were told via brief lecture/Q&A prior to entering, only around 10% of sumo wrestlers are sufficiently successful to be actually paid for what they do, with the rest receiving only room and board as recompense until they can reach the lofty salaried echelons. Sumos wearing black-belts are the unpaid, 'junior' types whilst those in white-belts receive payment and the privilege of being permitted to live elsewhere should they so choose. Every morning they train for five hours before eating lunch for a full two-hours. I was content we were here to witness a portion of the former as the latter, and the requisite 'portions' it must entail, I expect might have turned my stomach.

    After taking off our shoes at the door, a mildly annoying custom prevalent across Japan that must really extend the product life-cycle of flooring and consequently frustrate interior fittings retailers seeking to maximise recurrent consumer spend, we were funnelled into what I'll call the 'training room'; a rectangular space with wood-paneled walls and a dirt-floor furnished with some benches/cushions on the near side for us to sit on.

    The sumos wrestlers were already training and didn't skip a beat as our prying eyes entered. There were around ten of them in the room, sharing around forty chins between them, and we had an excellent, unobstructed view of their morning training regimen. We were close enough to smell the sweat, so I opted to breath through my mouth. On the ground beneath the dirt were two white lines and sketched into it was a circle surrounding them, representing the starting points and arena boundary for their practice bouts. Only two fought at a time, with the others observing, stretching and quietly chatting amongst themselves, occasionally punctuating whatever their point was with a friendly slap of each others' ample body fat.

    After observing numerous bouts, dramatic rolls and lunges (putting on my best fighting game announcer voice) "a new challenger entered the arena". Though not really a 'challenger' per se, as this guy wore a white belt and so was likely rolling in a little late from wherever he lived independently. As the largest and sweatiest (before he'd even begun) of the bunch, perhaps rolling in would in fact be a preferred locomotive option for him, so as to mitigate what must be massive strain on his disproportionately stubby legs and fat-rippled back.

    At one end of the room sat a man in a portable chair reading a newspaper. Less overweight than the Sumos, and far less sweaty, it transpired that this guy was the sumo trainer and so present to guide, instruct, develop his squad and clearly, given his reading material, catch-up on current events and possibly have a crack at the daily crossword. Do crosswords work in Japanese? Given their logographic approach to written language I'd imagine they'd be fairly complex to both design and complete. Especially if they go with cryptic clues.

    Cryptic crosswords are dumb. I'm not ; I've got certificates to prove it, but I cannot comprehend how anybody derives enjoyment from 'solving' a cryptic clue. Relying upon reading then essentially 'un-reading' a clue to distort it's meaning and arrangement to identify and extract the 'deviously' concealed anagrams, homonyms, homophones, homographs and then filtering the remaining lexical wreckage through a strainer of common phrases, idioms and quotations to return a result that, even if quite logically obtained and fitting the designated space, has a strong likelihood of being 'wrong'. Getting good isn't fun and the learned skill has nil transferable value. Trial and error isn't challenge, it's grind, with the exercise ultimately devolving into 'what was the crossword-setter thinking?' ; a telepathic feat you'll need to consistently replicate twenty-or-so times to evade mistake. And let's not forget that mistakes on a crossword require either a firm rubbing-out if you had the foresight to use pencil or the application of liquid paper should you have had the foolhardy confidence to attempt with pen. Crosswords suck and I sincerely hope the Japanese aren't subjected to them.

    After leaving the Sumo stable we went to meet up with the rest of the group at the Edo Tokyo museum down the street. The building in which the museum is housed is fairly impressive ; elevated above a congregation space and accessed via escalators. Primarily concerned with the history of Tokyo through the Edo period, a circa-250 year period of peace, development and shogunate administration, perusing the exhibitions felt like the most educational and sincerely tourist-y thing we'd done so far. I learnt that 'Tokyo' and 'Kyoto' are essentially the same word, only rearranged. How cryptic...

    To satisfy the curiosity of my tour group I at one point climbed into a reproduction 'litter' ; one of those vehicular capsules that would be carried by underlings to transport persons of royalty or other high social standing. The enquiry was whether I, as the tallest of the group, would be able to fit. I did. Anticlimactic I agree, but I don't seem to have many pictures from this day so will likely include this one and therefore needed to define the context.

    Once we'd had our fill of history, Yukko lead us through the nearby streets to a restaurant where we'd be indulging in a meal not dissimilar to, aside from portion size, what Sumo wrestlers eat called Chanko Nabe. Essentially a 'hot pot' containing meat and veg, again being cooked (or at least kept warm) via cooking apparatus fixed into the table, it was reasonably tasty without being mind-blowing. There were no seats with the intention being that we sit cross-legged on the floor, something that I, as somebody who has skipped their weekly yoga class so consistently that you could argue I never signed up for one, find rather painful. Honestly, how the Japanese can extrapolate the technology of a lavatory chair to unnecessarily complex degrees whilst seemingly un-inventing the dining chair is beyond me... But I was sat with Veronika so, conscious that my British penchant for complaining might be misinterpreted as a personality trait, I kept my moaning to a minimum.

    Particular attention was drawn to some jellified balls that were floating around in the pot, with us being invited to try them and attempt to guess at what they were. There were two variants, white-ish and black-ish, but they both tasted of very little; the novelty being purely the texture, which was admittedly quite odd. Rubbery and gelatinous, we would have never guessed what they were so consequently didn't. It transpired thst they were Konnuyaku, a substance derived from the corm of a Konjac plant. So that's that cleared up then.

    We next had some general free time in the local district, the name of which I didn't record. Regardless, myself and a few others decided to stick with Yukko and she obliged in taking us on a brief tour. Much of the area was residential, but we wandered down to the bank of the Sumida river and absorbed Tokyo from a fresh angle. There were a few men there, fully dressed in business attire, seemingly fast asleep on both the benches and the various rocky/grassy outcrops. In a city with a vigorous corporate culture and long working hours, some people are apparently accustomed to grabbing a little shut-eye whenever and wherever they can. None of them looked particularly comfortable however ; definitely an untapped market here for portable, sartorial neck-pillows.

    Returning to the station, Yukko and I decided to stage a mock Sumo battle; to show those that didn't visit the stable what they had missed out on. Mid-grapple, I'm told an actual proper Sumo-wrestler wandered past and chuckled at our amateurish attempts. It's condescending attitudes toward plucky up-starts such as this that ensures the elite/trainee divide and 90%-unremunerated status quo will remain unchallenged.

    Our next, and final non-optional, stop of the day was Tokyo's Samurai Museum, located a short 5 minute walk from the hostel. An exhibition space detailing the history of, shockingly, the samauri concluded in a live demonstration from a not-samurai (as they no-longer exist) apparently trained in their combat methods. It was fun, though in a post Kill Bill world I expect a little more blood for my buck. The trivia the demonstrator was most keen to share was that George Lucas had been inspired by samurai technique when scribing the lightsabre culture in Star Wars. Of course, if you know and care about Star Wars you knew this fact already and if you don't you wouldn't be that much impressed anyway and instantly forget it. Much like how George Lucas forgot all about this thematic stimulus come Phantom Menace.

    We also got the opportunity to dress-up in some samurai gear, which some people saw as tacky/childish/uncouth but some of us considered tacky/childish/uncouth and also possibly fun. Ruth and I dressed as combating warriors and staged a faux-fight with our faux-weapons and it was indeed faux-fun.

    In the evening a selection of us attended the optional activity of the 'Robot Show'. Held in a multi-storey venue in the heart of Shinjuku, it had no robots and was barely a restaurant but was a diverting slice of tourism-focussed entertainment clearly designed to deliver on the stereotypical perception of Japanese craziness. It's genuinely hard describe what it was/is and will likely continue to be, but I'll try.

    Upon arrival you climb the steps to the top-floor for a sort-of 'reception', where they try to sell you over-priced beer to enhance your appreciation of the live entertainment; a genuinely competent singer supported by a band dressed in cheap Halloween-standard robot costumes. Everything is grey and shiny in that way people thought the future was going to be back in the 1970s.

    After a bit, you're told to take your seats for the show so go back down the steps, deeper than where you began, to what I'll describe as the 'arena'. Sat in rows on either side of a rectangular space you're again invited to buy over-priced beer and do because by this point you're realising that whatever this is going to be it could only be enhanced by being tipsy.

    The show starts. House lights dim. Then sound; heavy beats, chords, an instant cacophony of noise as brightly-lit, colourful, fast-moving parade floats enter from either side, loaded with scantily-clad people banging drums like their lives depend on it. These floats move and spin about for a bit before being intermittently joined/replaced by a procession of increasingly weird constructions, sometimes ridden sometimes sailing solo, sweeping and dancing across the staging zone.

    There are four 'acts', but their distinctions are ambiguous. One seems to attempt a narrative, concluding a post-apocalyptic conflict with a mage-princess riding a dragon versus a battle-queen controlling a giant mecha-man (all because the good giant panda failed to best the evil animatronic serpent literally seconds earlier).

    Eventually some people adorned with glow-sticks come out and dance to a Michael Jackson medley (I'm guessing Leaving Neverland hasn't been localised yet) and it ends. We notice now, house lights back on, there's barely a single Japanese person in the audience. This wasn't for them. This isn't them. This was for us; and we had it. So job done.
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  • Day5

    Tokyo Drift (Still Fast Still Furious)

    May 15, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    I quickly quenched my mild after-effects of the previous night out with a hearty breakfast from the Family Mart just round the corner from the hostel. These brilliant little convenience stores, which I encountered previously in Vietnam, are open 24-hours and so had been 'conveniently' open at whatever time it had been when we'd come home from Golden Gai. This meant I'd been able to consume a two-litre bottle of water and savoury something-or-other before sleep, thereby supressing hangover symptoms to the degree that my morning chocolate croissant/donut/coffee combo provided all the boost I needed for what was to be another relentlessly-scheduled day. Sufficiently busy as to render the chosen title for this post adjectively cogent and not merely an esoteric reference to a low-grossing 13 year old movie uniquely released in the space both before and after its franchise was culturally relevant.

    Others hadn't fared quite as well and so the initial pace was notably subdued as we headed to our first stop of the day ; the Imperial Palace, where the Emperor and his family live. It's like visiting Buckingham Palace; you can't (or at least we didn't) go in, but we wandered around the outer grounds, admiring the moat and walls that were once a part of the largest fortress in the world.

    Looking away from the palace we had a good view of one of Tokyo's commercial districts, with large skyscrapers dominating the skyline. It looked odd somehow. Calling upon all my childhood spot-the-difference experience I eventually realised that unlike other such city views, including much of those around Tokyo, there were no corporate logos adorning the sides of the buildings. I wondered if this was because it was considered improper or perhaps even formally not permitted to direct advertisements toward the palace. I was going to raise this question to Yukko, but literally nobody else though this was an interesting observation except me so I just let it go. It was sunny this morning and I forgot my cap, which was a pain in the arse and, latterly, face.

    The most notable architectural feature of the outer palace was apparently this bit where there were two bridges. I counted them and, yep, their calculations were correct. We spent a little while in the Imperial Gardens where we were granted 'free time' to explore. I ended up going for a walk with the female half of the German duo. She seems cool ; I hope I get to spend some more time with her.

    We departed the palace and headed via the rail network to the Harajuku district; the apparent centre of Japanese subculture and fashion. Signs on archways, just begging to be vandalised, labelled the main pedestrianised road as 'Takeshita Street', which was lined left and right with stores both large and boutique-y alongside all manner of eating establishments. Now, anyone who's ever been shopping with me will know how hard it is to hold me back from sampling every clothier and accessory retailer going, trying on everything in sight and effectively enacting a real-life makeover montage, ultimately emerging encumbered with too many shopping bags to carry, but I somehow resisted this urge and patiently followed the group and Yukko through some narrow side-streets to where we'd been booked-in for lunch.

    As a large group, it was unrealistic that we'd be able to find eating establishments able to accommodate us all on a single table. Rather, we would frequently be herded into a designated area of an eatery and spread ourselves across a few smaller tables. With Ruth and I largely wandering together during our point-to-point journeys, we entered together and took two seats on a table for four. Leaving two spare seats, our eating companions would depend upon the random-ish order of entry of our fellow travellers, factoring in the preferences of groupings/couples to sit together. We ended up being joined by 'the Germans' ; Florian (whose name at this point I'd misremembered and therefore spoke aloud as 'Fabian') and Veronika, whom I'd wandered the Imperial Gardens with but whose name at this point I don't think I'd learned.

    Today's restaurant was the first we visited that involved an element that would become fairly commonplace during the trip ; cooking your food yourself at the table. I can't recall the name of the dish we cooked and I'm writing sans internet so will look it up and pop it into these extra special double-brackets later ((Okonomiyaki)), but we were essentially provided a bowl full of salad bits with an floury/batter-like liquid which we mixed together vigorously then cooked on a hot-plate similarly to a pancake, cooking/adding our chosen meats as we went. It tasted good, especially with a squirt of the provided (and recommended) mayonnaise accompaniment.

    Our table had received our ingredients last and so concluded our moderately-successful cooking also last. This, coupled with Ruth's fairly slow average eating speed, meant everybody else had left by the time our table was ready for the bill. You could therefore posit that Ruth's consumption rate was a direct cause of she and I spending further time with Florian and Veronika and, therefore, all that would subsequently flow from this grouping. I probably owe Ruth a drink. Or the equivalent of owing someone a drink when said someone has made it patently clear over two weeks of travelling they don't enjoy the taste of alcohol.

    After paying-up, the four of us went for a bit of a wander around the local area, ending up walking the length of Takeshita Street, observing some of the odd offerings. The Germans had spotted a 100-yen store when we'd first arrived, which had been on my list of things to visit whilst in Japan, so we went there for a browse. Essentially the slightly-pricier equivalent of a UK pound-store, it was fun to look at both the familiar and unfamiliar items on display, adorned with exciting, overly-enthusiastic Japanese branding. I bought a couple of cheap gifts for people that I almost immediately misplaced and lost because I brought a fashionable, cross-body sling bag for day-trips as opposed to something useful you can actually fit things into.

    We re-joined the rest of the group and Yukko lead us to the nearby Meiji Jingu shrine in the middle of the large, bulbous park we'd seen from the top of the Tokyo Met Tower on Day 1. The path was rough and gravelly down the middle with neat, level paving down either side. Yukko told us that it was expected that visitors walked down the sides as, traditionally, only those of noble birth would walk down the centre. Considering myself sufficiently removed from this tradition and of requisite station regardless to walk where I liked, I chose to walk down the left-hand side with everybody else primarily to better preserve my shoe-soles.

    The Meiji Jingu shrine itself was/is dedicated to the deified spirits of former Emperor Meiji and Empress "Doesn't-get-her-name-in-the-shrine-name" Shōken. He was apparently rather into western culture, and set an example by eating western food alongside imported wines, which must have been tricky as none of the Japanese restaurants we've visited yet have had an even halfway-decent wine list.

    En route to the shrine there was a feature comprising of barrels of foreign, mainly French, wine on one side of the road and correspondingly on the other side of the road a similar stack of far-prettier sake barrels adorned with Japanese calligraphy and symbols. I postulate that the intention of this arrangement was to symbolise the aforementioned blend of western/eastern cultures and not to suggest, as would be a fair alternative explanation, that he was a bit of a piss-head.

    The shrine itself was decent, if unspectacular. Look, I've been to lots of temples/shrines/pagodas over the past year and the consequence of this repetition is each new one loses some of the oomph it might otherwise have had. The Japanese ones are big on 'gates' it seems, which is fine but an odd aspect to centre on as ordinarily the passageway to an attraction isn't the attraction itself and, where it is, the place feels a little lacking. I guess it's not about the destination, but the journey. Much like life and, in a similar vein, Game of Thrones. Winter did come. And it was shit.

    After absorbing and appreciating the shrine, and it's gates, we travelled on to our final tour-stop for the day ; Shibuya. This is a significant commercial and business district in Tokyo and home to one of the conceptually-oddest tourist attractions I've ever visited ; the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world.

    We, of course, crossed this crossing along with the swathes of other people going about their day. There were numerous others attempting to film or take selfies within the merging mass of people, to the extent I had to wonder whether it's world-record status was self-fulfilling. Without the participation of the many tourists coming to see/ride the crossing, would it indeed be the busiest? I guess that's something of a thought experiment, insomuch as it's completely inconsequential and generally a waste of brain power that could be applied to actual productivity. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody's around it basically doesn't matter.

    Near to the crossing was a statue of a dog. There was an accompanying sad story relating to the dog that Yukko outlined which caused some in the group to get teary-eyed. Not me though. I wasn't listening.

    We entered one of the nearby buildings, which I think was part of the station (as most buildings in Tokyo appear to be) and went up to a walkway crossing the main road with an excellent view of the pedestrian crossing we'd just experienced. This exact location is, notably, the location of the first hideout in Persona 5. It looked exactly as expected and, being completely out in the open in a public space, remains a stupid place to refer to as a 'hideout'.

    Around half of the group, suffering from Golden-Gai-induced tiredness, at this point went home, but those of us that remained took an elevator up a nearby tower to obtain a sunset view of the ward. As the sun disappeared and the myriad neon signs illuminated and flashed I was struck by a sensation of awe and beauty and that this would be a terrible country for epileptics.

    The original itinerary for the day had proposed a second evening out at a more upmarket, 'fancy' zone in Tokyo, though with so many people departing the attendee list was rapidly depleting. Florian and Veronika were up for it (showing they clearly hadn't drunk enough the previous night), though Ruth wasn't and as for me...my body was willing but my brain knew that (unlike anybody else) I had to be up before 5am the next day for the optional 'Sumo Experience'.

    So, flaking on these plans, our developing foursome travelled back (via an incomprehensibly busy subway train) to Shinjuku to find somewhere to eat, both since it was that time anyway and it transpired Veronika suffers from severe hangriness which if left untreated we don't know what would happen as we never dared let it. Having little success finding places with available seating, and Florian expressing a desire to have Gyoza, I took them to the place a little off the main track I'd been to alone on my first night in the city.

    We of course ordered Gyoza and, as the main to this accompaniment, we opted for the purported 'house speciality' of chicken wings. Contrary to the rest of us, Ruth didn't want them spicy so we were careful to order three spicy portions and one non-spicy portion. This was difficult to relay with the language barrier and ultimately had to be described as 'four portions, one not spicy' with pointing and gestures reinforcing our aim. When the order arrived, we received a humongous stack of four orders of five wings apiece on a single plate and a second plate holding a single, un-flavoured wing.

    Ruth had an unsuccessful stab at scraping the powdered spice coating from the other wings before ordering a further order of unspiced ones. Those of us whose orders had been correctly provided for dug-in, keen to sample whatever exotic spice concoction had been prepared and delicately applied to our fried, dismembered fowl.

    It was pepper. Just pepper. There was no Colonel's secret here; they'd simply removed wing from chicken, cooked it to appropriate tenderness and then dunked it in a presumably-massive vat of a table condiment best enjoyed sparingly. They were inarguably 'spicy', but lacked any element of nuance or technique in their flavouring. Because it was pepper.

    The order mix-up, unique take on meat preparation and general holiday-feeling vibe resulted in much fun and merriment. I'm really starting to like the Germans. Florian does that thing I do where I correct what people say on a technicality of either fact or definition or, ideally, both. It's mildly annoying, which means I'm mildly annoying so we cancel each other out. He's a self-confessed 'foodie' and is set to sample as many of Japan's delicacies as he can manage and, dammit, I want to try them all too! Veronika is just...great. First impressions indicate a degree of intelligence (a masters degree to be specific), she's pretty, funny (like, actual funny, not the funny we pretend people are when they're just pretty), has a really cute laugh that I seem to be able to make happen with decent regularity and chose to supplement her meal with a beer, meaning I'm not the only one at the table ordering a pint (or the Japanese 'medium' size, whatever that is). Yeah...if she was here alone I'd definitely be flirting with her. I probably am a bit anyway.

    Afterward we went for a brief wander through Shinjuku before heading back to the hostel for some much-needed kip ahead of my early-start the next day. Flo and Veronika discussed potentially going out for the fancy night out by themselves, but I don't think they did.
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  • Day4

    Two-kyo

    May 14, 2019 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 18 °C

    We awoke to rain on Day 2. Not heavy rain. Not even medium rain really. Just a light spluttering of wetness, but it was excuse sufficient to wear one of the pairs of trousers that were bulking-up my rucksack and trial the mini-umbrella, carefully purchased to fit inside my equally-mini day-bag.

    First activity today was Sushi-making. Using our JR rail passes given to us on Day One, an Oyster-esque stored value card that can also be used in some shops, we travelled to somewhere I-don't-think-we-were-told-where where we entered a non-descript building to find a singular elevator shaft and no stairs. We took it in turns to use the lift till we all arrived in a kitchen, where we'd be learning how to make sushi.

    Before we'd come to Japan we'd been asked to declare whether or not we ate raw fish. After googling the question for guidance I'd decided I'd rather not, since many of the 'answers' were veritable horror stories of stomach-bugs, hospital-stays and one slow, agonising, diarrhoea-y death. Any such risk is of course variable dependent on the general competency of the chef, so with our lunch today to be self-prepared I was very comfortable with my decision. My declaration had been translated as being 'vegetarian', so I was given a plate of veg and something possibly-cheese to wrap into the rice/seaweed rolls we'd be making.

    The processes involved were all fairly simple, just finikity and time-consuming. When you're paying high prices for sushi it's unlikely the ingredients or even the skillset pushing up the price, it'll be the time, labour and tedium required to put the damn things together. Everybody's attempts were resoundingly successful and both the presentation and taste indistinguishable from the professionally-produced. It was genuinely fun to give it a go, but I don't see myself doing it again. Nice to know I could though.

    After consuming our creations we headed back to the train and travelled to Akihabara. This is a specialised shopping district also known as 'Electric Town', specialising in electronics and, increasingly, outlets catering to the 'otaku' culture, which covers general shut-in hobbies such as anime, manga, video-games and generally weird establishments.

    Our first stop in this district, following a quick stop-off at an anime 'conversion' photo booth that Hannah insisted we all attempt to squeeze into, was one of the famous (infamous?) maid cafés. Broadly, these are cafés where the waitresses dress-up in some measure of 'traditional' maid outfit and serve the predominantly male clientelle whilst displaying submissive mannerisms and speaking 'cute', insultingly reductive pleasantries in annoyingly squeaky voices and occasionally dancing about like loons swinging about glow-sticks to the apparent genuine delight of their regular customers. It was weird, and not in a good way. Also, they took about 40 minutes to serve us ice-cream. Wouldn't go back, but glad we went so as to learn the lesson not to go back.

    We were eventually served and so permitted to leave, opting to make the most of our freedom by returning to the Sega Centre we'd briefly popped into earlier so as to re-take the anime photograph that hadn't met Hannah's standards the first time round. I don't know if the second take was better as I'd thoroughly lost what minimal interest I'd had in the endeavour by this point, but afterward the big group split into smaller collectives for unguided exploration time. My little sub-group decided to more thoroughly explore the Sega Centre.

    Since Sega and Nintendo are bezzie-mates these days, there was ample Ninty presence in the Sega arcade. Whilst we've got Mario Kart arcade in a few places in the UK, I'd never before seen an arcade version of 'Luigi's Mansion' before, which makes sense for a kinda weird, slightly niche spin-off franchise that isn't even really that good. The play instructions were all in Japanese so I'd already lost a life before I'd figured out the pump/point/drag mechanics of the massive plastic vacuum-cleaner guns. After Ruth and I had both succumbed to the childish horrors of the haunted Mario-verse mansion, we hung up our vibrating nozzles and wandered over to take the wheel at the mushroom kingdom's more popular pastime. We'd hoped to play Mario Kart against each other, but Ruth put her 100-yen coin in the wrong slot so we ended up in separate game instances. We did, however, select the same course and began at the same moment, so my finishing-first still counts as a victory from a pan-dimensional perspective.

    Next stop was a four-storey, pink-ish building we'd spotted upon first emerging from the train station which may have had an elegant, subtle name in Japanese but had been helpfully translated on the signage to simply 'sex shop'. Unlike some of the places in Shinjuku, this was for the retail of accessories to the act not the act itself, so were comfortable having a look around. Everything BDSM/dungeon-related was on display in the subterrainean basement, which was pleasingly logical from a store merchandising perspective. The ground and first floors contained products of little surprise from a technological standpoint, albeit the size range of certain apparatus extended to far larger sizes than I'd before seen which, the relative average sizes of the Japanese people compared to the west, did surprise somewhat. The third and fourth floors were for 'men only' so Ruth had to wait outside whilst we perused. What we saw up there can obviously only be revealed in the 'mens only' version of this blog post.

    Before Yukko had left us to our 'free time' (ie. no formal itinerary activities) she had suggested to us to seek out a nearby 'hidden shrine'. She'd broadly waved her arm in the approximate direction, so we set out to explore the area. After around 20 minutes fruitless searching we gave up and used Google Maps, but the co-ordinates pointed to the middle of a block of buildings we'd encircled a few times already. I then spotted a tiny, dark alleyway down which you'd think only cats and possibly drug-dealers might venture and, lo and behold, it led to a small courtyard containing a basic shrine clearly placed in such a difficult-to-find spot so as to have any attributable merit. We took a picture as proof (Yukko had promised free beer to whoever found it) and left.

    We visited a few other otaku-geared shops, though much of the floor-space was dedicated to manga which isn't all that interesting when you're not into the medium and can't comprehend the language. There were some pop-culture and video-game items to peruse also, albeit little that wasn't available internationally so nothing pried-open my wallet hinge. I did find an awesome, old, Legend of Zelda Game & Watch device in mint condition, but it cost more than my trip's entire budget so sadly it remained in it's alarmed and guarded glass display cabinet.

    I was keen to try out a Gatcha machine ; basically the coin/twist capsule toy machines I feel we used to have more of in the UK but are huge here in Japan. There were lines of assorted Gatcha machines outside many of the shops on the main street but, again with a little help from Google Maps, Ruth and I found, or rather rediscovered, a dedicated Gatcha establishment we'd eyed-up a couple of hours earlier across the street from Creepy-Maids-R-Us. I had a go on pokemon and Star Wars branded machines. I didn't get either of the toys I really wanted, but then that's how the 'getcha'.

    We were running out of afternoon so decided to grab some quick food someplace familiar; McDonalds. I went as exotic as was possible and had the McTeriyaki burger, which was nice but a little sloppy. Though, adhering to Japanese custom, we weren't able to walk and eat simultaneously and the McDonalds wanted a cover charge to eat-in so we had to eat whilst standing in the doorway. Given we had to be back for an evening activity not everyone (Ruth) had time to finish so she had to politely carry her food without consuming it all the way back to the hostel. I'm told the re-heated, microwaved remnants were 'fine'.

    In the evening we went for a walk into the Shinjuku zone to visit the Golden Gai ; a network of six, very narrow alleyways lined with small bars, most seating around ten or less (most often less!) at a time. There was a real mixture of places; some had cover charges in addition to drink prices, others had cover-charge waiver offers for 'foreigners' and others were 'open' with closed doors, discriminately advising via curt signage that tourists were not welcome ; local bars for local people and there was nothing for us to see there.

    As a group of nearly-19 (I was noting by this point that a couple of people in the group were using the itinerary as more of a guideline than a law), it was impossible for us all to visit the same bar concurrently, so we branched off into smaller units. Will, Craig, Ruth, Hannah, one of the Victorias and myself opted for a tiny establishment dubbing itself as some form of 'tiki bar', albeit with only minimal aesthetic trim and half-hearted musical accompaniment to back the ruse up.

    Perusing the menu I spotted a whisky that Alex had suggested to me to try and, if at all possible, bring back for her. I thusly splashed my banker cash and ordered a 'Hibiki', the most expensive whisky on the menu, on the rocks and casually sipped it with class and dignity whilst the proletariats accompanying me knocked back lager or noisily sucked their cheap cocktail concoctions through straws. This is how you make friends.

    The whisky was delicious, as was the second, mildly less expensive whisky that followed called 'Nikka' and which had also been on Alex's suggested list. Two posh beverages consumed, we departed the tiki-bar to find the rest of the group, whom were converging on the only bar in the district sufficiently large to almost hold us all.

    At the most logical 'entrance' to the Golden Gai zone there's a bar both proudly proclaiming it's welcoming attitude to strangers AND boasting it's facilities that enable participation in a massively-popular Japanese pastime; karaoke. Huddled closely together in the far/near end of the bar (depends which door you went in I guess...), we gulped back very cheap, averagely-priced whiskies, beers and cocktails with a view to achieving sufficient merriment to have a go. Alas, the machine didn't have my standard 'go to' song, One Week, in it's selection so I mainly stuck to random duets where the performer's motivation had sapped somewhat between picking their song and their turn coming around. I did 'perform' Lose Yourself by Eminem solo when whomever had picked the song failed to show-up, which went about as well as you can imagine. Florian, one of the two German travellers I haven't spoken to much yet, seemed most keen and, as most who are keen are, was a good singer. But I later found out he sings/trains his voice in his own time, which is cheating really.

    I don't know how late we were out, which is generally an indicator of a great night out and a rough morning to come.
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  • Day3

    Toky-One

    May 13, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    I decided to have the hotel's semi-included breakfast to start my day, which they threw in for a small additional charge on check-in (also known as 'not included'). It was an all-you-can-eat buffet fusion, blending an array of Japanese dishes with some concessions made for western travellers. I began with a croissant and a bowl of granola with yoghurt, but this was just a warm-up for the rice, rolled-omelettes and various mysterious space-based blends I spooned into my neatly compartmentalised tray before shoveling mouthwards. Around half of what I tried was delicious, which was a more favourable ratio than I expected.

    Next stop was the first stop of my formal 'trip' ; a short walk a few streets over to the hostel I'd be spending the next few nights and meet up with the people I'd be travelling with for the next couple of weeks. I aimed to arrive at a quarter-to the meeting hour, figuring this would make me my standard early, but it transpired many/most of the rest of the group had stayed the prior night at the first hostel, tarnishing my promptness with the undue stain of relative apparent lateness.

    I found a seat in the hostel's common area where the 'Dragon Trip' group had begun to assemble. It was to be a relatively large group of 19 ; a quantum I was fairly comfortable with. As everyone is aware, my personal group comfort zone is somewhere between 3 and 4 plus myself, and the non-existence of groups containing fractions of people explains why I'm never comfortable in any group or with anyone, ever. That said, the more proximate the groupings to my ideal the broadly better I perform, factoring in of course variables such as personality, vocal octave and body odour. With three-to-four acceptable individuals it is possible to adequately check and balance singular conversations whilst actively monitoring body language to ensure engagement. Discussions can ebb and flow with participants able to take periodic breathers without risking isolation or disrupting rhythm, awaiting a convenient opportunity to provide iterative interjection or perform a segue to an alternative topic.

    Now then, the mathematically-minded may note that nineteen is neither three, four, a number between three and four or really rather close to three or four, unless you consider the entire possible numerical spectrum, in which case they are basically the same thing. However, group dynamics being what they are, any group exceeding 7 people will naturally split into smaller groups to enable the most favourable conditions for co-existence. Coupling this fact with the standard tolerability ratio of one person in three, variable dependent on the aligning or conflicting current moods of those concerned, then there resulted a fair likelihood I could find myself in a loose, fluctuating, multi-group setting with individual(s) that wouldn't consistently piss me off.

    We were treated to an introductory briefing by our 'adventure leader' Yukko Nakamura, who would be our guide for the duration of the tour. She told us, unlike the other guides for the Japaness Dragon Trip, she was actually Japanese as opposed to a foreigner with learned knowledge of Japan. The positive benefit of this, as she told us, was she had deeper knowledge of culture, customs and practices so our experiences may be more authentic, though this pro is an extrapolated paraphrasing of what she actually said since the balancing con was thst her English wasn't so great. Mind, it was and is adequate to task so I like to think we got the better deal, which is generally the best way to think when you have absolutely no say or influence on the matter.

    We went around the room one-by-one to introduce ourselves to the rest of the group. I told them my name was Nick.

    Leaving our bags chained up in the hostel's holding area (the corner of the common room), we set off to the first entry on the itinerary ; the Tokyo Metropolitan Building, which is the headquarters of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Whilst, clearly, a dull grey skyscraper dedicated to governmental administration is in itself fascinating, the main draw here was the viewing platform near the top which offered stunning views of the city surrounding it, which I was reliably informed was Tokyo.

    After snapping some pictures we returned to street-level and then below street level into the nearby inner-city train station to catch our very first train as an unwieldy collective upon Tokyo's crowded public transport system. Yukko did a great job keeping us all together, ensuring we all maintained a degree of connection as we squeezed across multiple train cars, emerging altogether at the apparently famous tsukiji fish market.

    After a brief guided walkround, we were given 'free time' to go grab some lunch at the market. By this point I'd achieved some low-level, safe interaction with some fellow northern-englanders ; Ryan, from Cheshire but sounding more mancunian than I do, and Ruth, from seemingly literally the middle of nowhere in the general vicinity of Ennerdale water in Cumbria. We selected an authentic market stall, insomuch as it was authentically a stall located in the market, to eat from. They both ordered fish, as you would, albeit Ruth failed to finish hers (as would become something of a running theme) whilst I was awkward and opted for a beef dish. It came with a side-bowl I wasn't expecting that I briefly considered might be for washing my fingers in, before spotting other patrons slurping it as a soup. Slurping here is considered highly complimentary and should be done with sufficient volume that the chefs can hear your positive audible supping. Insecure chefs occasionally serve their food at scalding temperatures simply to achieve this feedback loop.

    We next headed to Asakusa to visit Sensō-Ji temple. Yes, much like India and Vietnam before it this trip would, and by the time of this write-up has, entail visiting numerous temples each purportedly distinct from the rest but being broadly mild variations on a fairly narrow theme. This first one was fine, though more interesting was the large marketplace laid out in front of it. We stopped at a stall of Yukko's suggestion, serving colourful sweet-treats that looked to be fudge or chocolate but were in actuality a compacted smush of sweet-potato. First sweet-potato came for our premium fries, now they're taking on our confectionary...we need to nip this madness in the bud lest we lose all that is sacred and tasty to this terrible, nauseating taste-trend(!).

    We were given some free time to wander about, finding a somewhat dilapidated amusement park (which we had insufficient time to visit) and a woman with an owl so calm and still I initially mistook it for stuffed. They were promoting a local animal/pet cafe, which are a huge deal in Tokyo with variants spotted for cats, rabbits, hedgehogs and 'variety' offerings where they've basically popped a coffee machine into a petting zoo. Well, only the woman was actively 'promoting' the cafe ; the owl didn't have a clue what was going on.

    After a while we headed back toward the hostel, but had one final itinerary activity before check-in. Down the street was an establishment dedicated to something described as one of Japan's 'national obsessions' ; batting cages. I'd known this was a 'thing' from playing Persona 5 but hadn't acknowledged just how integrating into their culture this dull, beefed-up rounders game truly was. Without the reward of Proficiency points the activity felt lacking, but it was fun for what it was. Primary issue for me was that, given the standard average differentiation between my height and the local populace, I had to semi-squat during my swings to be at the appropriate height to make contact. Of 30-ish balls I hit it more frequently than I didn't, which I chalked up as a success.

    All swung-out, we returned to the hostel and formally checked-in. It was more complicated than it should have been to get our bags unchained, but once sorted I investigated what would be our facilities for the next three nights. 'Functional' is as generous as I can be in terms of description ; wooden, creaky bunk-beds with thin pillows and basic shared bathroom facilities. Still, the shower was hot and powerful, the mattresses comfortable and just over half the power outlets near my bunk were operational, so it could have been worse.

    We had one final, optional activity for the day ; visiting a local bath-house. This is also quintessentially Japanese, also a side-activity in Persona 5 and also I'm going to do basically everything optional since why would I come all the way to Japan and choose to miss-out on unique experiences?

    Several people did choose to miss out on this one though. Maybe they were too tired or maybe they felt clean enough, but possibly a few were put-off by the fully-nude dress code of the bath-house. A short five-minute walk from the hostel, only six of us decided to make the trip. Upon arrival you remove your shoes, pay the entry fee, are handed a very small towel and head into one of two doors, determined by your gender. Myself, a Devonshire guy called Craig and an American from Colorado called Will were the male contingent, all casually entering the locker-room to be immediately surrounded by a hoarde of naked Japanese men just generally going about the business of getting clean. Fully clothed, and also western, we were the conspicuous ones so we quickly stripped down to our birthday suits and went to experiment with the available pools and equipment. There were three pools ; one was really, really unbearably hot, the second was really, really unbearably cold and the third, in true goldilocks tradition, was 'just right'. Except for some reason they'd decided to pass an electrical current through the water, which was both highly uncomfortable and perplexing to me in terms of the science involved in making that a safe thing to do. There were also sit-down sink and shower apparatus, which I used to have a full body/hair wash before heading back to the hostel.

    Tired after a busy first day, I immediately went back out and visited a nearby vegan burger-bar with Ruth and a girl called Hannah, from somewhere Norfolk-way I think. Maybe Norwich. I remember thinking Alan Partridge when she said, but then remember trying to remember whether Alan Partridge was from Norwich or Norfolk and had no wifi so couldn't check. She's a stripper, which I do remember as I've never met a stripper before (outside of the context of stripping). I expect she found the bath-house a less irregular experience than the rest of us.

    We had vegan burgers to aid our hunger, had a quick walk around Shinjuku to aid digestion then returned to the hostel to aid our brewing exhaustion. It had been a busy first day, but there were many more to come.
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  • Day2

    Flying Solo

    May 12, 2019 in Japan ⋅ ☀️ 19 °C

    Ah, the now-customary day-of-travel blog entry. Habitually consisting of little else other than sitting still and waiting to move, then sitting still and waiting whilst being moved, then finally making a move once the thing that was moving you whilst you sat sits still, I ordinarily still manage to make a meal out of it.

    Neatly, and also customarily, this one begins with a meal. Departing from Manchester Terminal 1 and not finding the expected Wetherspoons (which is either in Terminal 2, a totally different airport or possibly don't exist in airports and I imagined the whole thing) I went to Giraffe for breakfast because I remember hearing in the news that the chain that operates them isn't doing too well and wanted to support them (and also, bearing this news out, there were plenty of available tables). I had the standard-size English breakfast, foregoing the double-sized version for a couple of quid extra because since my last Bupa medical I've been trying to eat less sat-fats, since spending most of my variable pay award on this trip been trying to spend a little less cash and since my last girlfriend trying to consume less meat. Lower-calories, cheaper price, ever-so-slightly-less dead pigs; Win / Win / Mitigated Loss.

    But I had to eat it with one of those damn silly knives that barely cut anything, all for fear that if they provided effective slicing implements somebody might smuggle one aboard an aircraft and threaten to cut something they shouldn't. This is exactly what the terrorists want. If we allow fear to mildly inconvenience our breakfast experience then they've won. How about instead you just embed microchips within your normal, sharp knives and persistently track them throughout the eating experience via a high-tec sensor array that monitors their positioning, incline and activity and ensures none leave the premises with an alarm system to alert should one pass the perimeter. Simple and practical. C'mon Giraffe ; this is why you're losing market-share to Nandos.

    Even with the delay imposed by ineffective eating apparatus, I still had time to kill so wandered around the shops. I bought a travel pillow, which I'd been meaning to buy anyway but had forgotten to, although once I realised I could deduct VAT from the purchase as I was heading outside of the EU I retroactively decided I'd made a savvy decision to delay my purchase till this moment.

    Then came the flight(s). Due to a computer error I'd been unable to check-in online so had to take the seat they allocated to me. On my first flight, Manchester to Abu-Dhabi, I was given an aisle seat, which would have been my first choice anyway.

    Now then, it was of course omnipresent in my mind that I'd never before flown without somebody I know being also aboard. Those that know me, plus now those that don't strangely enough reading this blog, will know I'm not the biggest fan of flying. In fact, to express as an equally abbreviated version of the natural antonym of the most likely etymological origin of 'fan', you might say I am a 'mod' of flying. As such, presuming that last bit made any sense to you at all, you can imagine there may have been a degree of trepidation and nervousness on my part as the plane broke away from the gate, sped down the runway and lifted itself up into the gloomy Manchester air.

    I was fine. Like, honestly, the most relaxed I've ever felt on a plane. I don't myself understand the derivation of my fear of flying but it seems it might be heightened, not soothed, by having people around me. Hear that, everybody who's ever flown with me(?) ; it's YOUR fault.

    Anyway I watched Glass first of all, the fittingly average conclusion to the generally-okay Shyamalan 'twisty-ending' trilogy. Then I watched 'Bad Times at El Royale' because I knew it was written and directed by somebody who worked on Buffy who apparently now, having seen this film, dreams at night of being Quentin Tarantino. And actually, he did a bang up job at the attempt. It had a bit of a 'Can't Believe it's not Butter' vibe, but was far better than The Hateful Eight. Next I watched an American Dad and a Family Guy, leaving me only enough time for the first two thirds of 'Johnny English : The Third One' before landing at Abu-Dhabi for a transfer.

    Much like my experience with Emirates/Dubai, transferring was a painless affair and the luggage passed straight through. I activated my new Revolut card, quickly converted some Pound Sterling to Dirham and bought a tube of M&Ms minis (which, tragically, they seem to have stopped selling in the UK) and then bought a turkey & cheese toastie with the contactless functionality. Seriously, for precisely this purpose, Revolut knocks out of the park anything that we (ie. who I work for) has to offer. For travelling to foreign destinations with pre-loaded, instantly convertible currency then get a Revolut account. For literally anything else, go HSBC. Or, you know, whoever you currently bank with.

    Second flight I watched the final third of Johnny English the Third or whatever, then the Jason Bateman-led dark-lite comedy 'Game Night', which was on par with all Jason Bateman's other dark-lite comedies; gently amusing but afraid to truly commit to the bit. I then had a bit of a kip.

    And what an epic kip it was. Not normally one to sleep on a plane, being generally preoccupied with the concept of being on a plane, I'd considered the prospect of sleep unlikely. But it transpires that the secret to getting some decent sleep on a plane is to have three whole seats, plus accompanying pillows and blankets, all to yourself. If only I'd known this earlier...

    After a little fiddling about I achieved the ideal configuration. Folding down all of the tray-tables halfway and covering with a blanket created a soft boundary to keep me from rolling onto the floor, with the one closest to the window doubling-up as a convenient bedside table. Strategic organisation of the remaining blankets provided both coverage and surface-friction to prevent slippage whilst stacking the pillows up against the window, coupled with my purchased neck-pillow, provided cushioned comfort for a soft spot to rest my head.

    Reasonably well-rested, I arrived at Narita airport and passed effortlessly through immigration to find my bag waiting for me on the carousel. Score one for the fabled Japanese efficiency. Following the directions given to me by the tour company I located the 'Skyliner' ticket desk and mentally rehearsed the Japanese phrase for requesting a ticket, but when my turn came decided instead to awkwardly point at a nearby sign instead. I was understood, and reassured by this first demonstration of tolerance for ignorant foreigners.

    The train was due in a short five minutes, but all passengers were allocated an individual, and spacious, seat with ample room for my ample legs and excessively-ample luggage. The seats were mechanical; insomuch as they spin around at the conclusion of an A to B journey so as to be always facing forwards. As somebody who oddly prefers to travel backwards on trains I was largely indifferent to this functionality, though still impressed by the ingenuity.

    Reaching Tokyo city I transferred to a busy overground commuter train, eventually reaching Shin-Okubu station. I quickly located the Premier Cabin Hotel where I'd be spending my first night and checked into my teeny-tiny room, cleverly designed to contain precisely the furniture and amenities you require with just enough floor-space to move between them. I had a brief lie-down, then ate a couple of the Graze bars I'd brought with me so as to provide the necessary sustainance to later tinker about with the electronic lavatory apparatus. Equipped with a seat-warmer, multi-directional and pressure-adjustable cleansing nozzles and a deoderiser, it was an all-round superior shitting experience.

    I showered and changed then went out to explore. Dusk was approaching so I wandered where the lights were brightest, travelling south into northern Shinjuku. As the daylight fully faded and the neon signage activated my surroundings transformed into a sensory overload of colour, sound and smells. Small restaurants lined the streets, alongside a smattering of gaming arcades, pachinko halls and other, seedier-looking establishments to be expected of an area I later learned was Tokyo's red light district. However, even more so than Amsterdam, the area is considered a respectable location for an evening out and the patrons at the non strictly-adult-oriented establishments appeared well-dressed, of seemingly high social calibre and the prices set to match.

    After some brief meandering through the main and side-streets I experienced a slow, dawning realisation that I sort-of, kinda knew where I was. Tall buildings, open spaces and weirdly particularly a parking-lot all felt to be laid-out in a strangely familiar arrangement. I then realised, and confirmed later with a Google-check, that this is one of the areas one of the hub-zones of the Yakuza video games are based upon, and I'd therefore spent many digital hours running around a fictionalised recreation of this exact place. They give the place a different name in the game (naming it Kamurocho instead of Kabukichō), but it's so similar I can only imagine this is done so as to avoid the implication that the area is riddled with organised crime. Given, as I say, the service some of these places provide I'd be unsurprised to discover some legally-dubious administration underpinning much of it.

    Whilst there were many eating establishments to choose from, I eventually opted for a place recommended to me by the hotel. I'd presumed they would be therefore somewhat foreigner-oriented, but they only had one staff member who knew any English, and her mastery was only that of a parlour trick. Like that video of a horse that can count, there was rhythmic emulation of the basic concept but minimal interpretation of its meaning. The point-at-picture method prevailed and I thoroughly enjoyed my meal of fried chicken and gyoza.

    Returned to my 'cabin' to get some sleep. But, because jet-lag, didn't really happen.
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