Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Space Marine Day

A lot of things have been left unsaid about Japan. In my rush to try and force out three weeks of posts, I skipped over the every day – those things that seamlessly blend in with expectations that they fail to be noticed.

When I first arrived in Japan, I was shocked with the numbers of corner stores there were. Japan seems to take this to the fullest point, every corner should have at least one store. And then there are all number of them in between, as well.

The most visible brand Lawson's. Apparently they're from the states. At some point I knew far more about Lawson's than I ever wanted to. My buddies became a wee bit too interested in the brand and read the wiki. Suffice to say, Lawson's made an impact. And there's not just one variety of Lawson's – oh no. There is the Lawson's 100, 100yen shop. There's Lawson's, Lawson's Station, and Lawson's Organic. There could be more, some I didn't take in, or some I just never encountered – but the rule of this Lawson extends far and wide in this fair country.

There's also your Family Mart, your am+pm, and your – what is it? Sun Kist? Something like that.

And the shrines. There's always another shrine. About as many of them as there are corner stores. Rather than spread near the stations, these are hidden away at corners in the more residential areas. Do I know what they're for, or why they're there? No I do not. But there they are.

And McDonald's – McPorks, and Shaka Shaka Lemon. I don't know what to say about these tasty treats other than if you're in the country and have a hundred yen kicking around, you really should go out and pick one up.

Certainly there are more things I'm forgetting, and I'll try to put them in as they come to me, but for now, we move on.

So, what did I do today? Not all that much. And that was what I wanted. I wanted to do nothing, and enjoy that nothing. There was a projector hooked up to a PS3 on which I downloaded terrible amounts of demos, while watching the Halo: Legends anime. It's a strange mix, but I do so love my space marines, and I do so love the Haloverse, so that was time well spent.

Plus I got to sit in the magic chair – the peak evolution of all chairs. It bends and contours to your head, back, and knees. It's wonderful, and it's meant for sitting on the floor. This Japanese floor sitting? Wave of the future – lets all join in, and perhaps then the chairs will be available on Amazon.com not just Amazon.jp

For what it's worth, I did manage to get a lot of the emails I'd been meaning to send out. It's not the easiest thing, keeping in contact with people back home. Though I sent off a number, and replied to all those in my gmail “starred” folder (starring only works if you mean to go back to it, by the by) I could still think of a few people I wanted to send additional messages to. The only thing that makes this even slightly possible to upkeep is that, back home, their lives are as involved and time consuming as mine. More often than not I shoot out replies faster.

I'm normally pretty good at the email game. It just hasn't been the most down-time-filled month.

So, Halo: Legends, check. eMails, check. Time to get those demos going. Of them all, the one that stands out the most in my mind? Afro Samurai. If a game can pull me in with its art style, keep me interested with its game play, and then get me laughing through its dialog? Well then that is the game for it. It's the first demo that has made me think, you know what? I need more of this. I do think I might look into it when the world back home hearkens to me.

And you know what? I'm feeling that world hearken all the time these days. I really do feel this trip coming to an end, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. There are times when I'm so ready to go back, and try to find my place in the world, and there are other times when I want to try and make this my place in the world.

I do miss the community of friends back where I'm from, and I miss the familiar, and I miss the Combo C. But then, I like that I can do what I want out here, am answerable to no one, and don't have to think any more than “what do I want?” Sure, it's selfish but that doesn't make it any less ideal.

I flip back and forth between the two thoughts. If I could transplant a few people out here to travel in a group, well then that would be the real ideal, wouldn't it? I don't want to go back, but then this last month has been a far cry from travel in the past. Perhaps the next couple of months will find me in situations like in BA, or even Thailand. That was travel, sure – but of the type where seeing it end might not have been the worst thing. Japan, though? Well this has just been fantastic. And people. There have always been people. No nights up alone listening to podcasts, wondering if I should have done more with my day. No going out just to do enough things to write about. No, these days have been organic, and taken care of themselves.

Well – there's still China, Singapore, New Zealand, and Australia left. And there's America. But I almost feel as my trip will end when I leave Australia. Then it will become something different. A joint road trip, and still travel – but even that it's in America for that long. It will just be – something different.

When my buddy got back from work, we went out for food. Okanomiyaki. I have no idea how to spell it, but the more I think of it, the more I want it. And there are so many styles – Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima from what I know. I prefer the Hiroshima style, and I think that this could do real well in North America. But the more I think, the more I realize I don't think I know any Japanese restaurants back home. Surely they exist, but...

Basically you make a base of liquid flour, water, broth, and let that slightly pancake. Then you take your noodles, toss them on the griddle too, on top of the base. Then you put on a mountain of sprouts which get smaller and smaller. Then – and here's where the America crowd starts to love it – you layer it with bacon. Once the bacon is on, you slather it with sauce, which we could call BBQ sauce. I don't know what it is – it's brown? And then you make another base, flip the whole thing over onto it, let it finish cooking, and put it on a plate, cut into four slices, and serve.

Once served, and it's on your plate, you slather it with mayonnaise. Once more, bless the Japanese and their mayo loving hearts.

Honestly – tell me American's wouldn't go nuts for that. Only you'd have to call it something less ethnic, like... Spaghetti pie. And instead of the mysterious brown sauce, which undoubtedly has a Japanese name, you'd need to rename that Freedom Sauce.

Who wouldn't want a slice of Spaghetti pie, covered in bacon, mayo, and freedom sauce?

I'm telling you – this is a workable image.

On the way home from food, I popped into a video store to pick up Avatar (just released on this April 23rd) on BluRay as a way of saying thanks. Not that it equates, but hey – it's something.

Once back at the house, we proceeded to stay up watching it. Sure it wasn't in 3D like it was in Bangkok, but it was still solid. I still do like this movie. I mean, come on, space marines. That, and watching it up a giant projected HD screen really works to recreate the theatre environment. I'm so smitten with this set up, and the chairs. Such wonderful, wonderful chairs.

Three times I've watched the film – still, I have no idea what the aliens are saying to each other. The first two times? Their voice was subtitled in Thai. Now, Japanese. One day I'll figure it out. One day.

Failure in Akiba

Today I had a mission. Buy the Yuffie action figure.

Yuffie is a character from FFVII. My favourite character, at that. And as such, I would like the action figure version of her. I've seen it everywhere for forty plus dollars, but I was not willing to pay that price. Back home it was twenty to thirty dollars.

Only a few days ago I had seen it on sale in the Mandarake in Akihabara for 2100 yen. Unfortunately, this coincided with my having asked someone to see if they could find it back home. On the off chance that they worked fast, I didn't want to end up with two, and so I left the figure in the case, vowing to return to pick it up later once all that had been sorted.

Today was the day to return. 800yen round trip in subway fare. But when I got the figure all would be worthwhile.

Of course, when I got there it was gone. Of course it was.

I can not say anything to describe my sense of disappointment, save for that, coupled with the lack of food in my belly it made for a very dreary day. It was gone. I am figureless. While on the whole this is probably for the best (not having to truck it down) the feeling of failure was overwhelming. Sure I found a few 8gig USB keys for 1200yen each, and buying two of those helped to offset the subway fare, but still... I had failed.

[authors note: looking back, a few days later, I think not getting the Yuffie, and instead getting the memory to free up another 16gig SD card for my camera was probably the best way things could have gone, but you couldn't have convinced me of that day back.]

I left Akiba, passing the launch, or demo, or something, of Gundam Online. All I know for sure is that there were girls dressed up in Gundam uniforms, with a giant robot head, and people lining up to play something on laptops provided. Even seeing that unique event, I till left, head hung low in defeat. I then headed back for the transfer at Shibuya. I kicked around there for a while, and ended up finding some more food, which worked to raise my spirits a tad. So many environmental factors at work clouding my thoughts right now – the ongoings in the novel I was reading, the lack of juice in my system, the hunger... the failure too, but I think that was the smallest of the four impactors.

Eventually I made it back to the house, using the key attached to a giant plush chicken with a creepy mouth, instead of a beak, to get inside. And there I crashed around, playing some Oblivion, and reading internets. I may have also crawled under blankets and caught up on LOST. And let me tell you, if I did, it was wonderful! I will miss warm accessible beds.

Dinner was sushi, hand rolled. Finally I know what those things, slightly resembling (and perhaps once used as) place mats that come with chop stick sets are. Colour me embarrassed.

Sushi – like a giant seaweed burrito. Things I added to my list of newly eaten: natto (gross, terrible, rotten beans. My god Japanese people... really? Like Aussies with their Vegemite!) sea urchin (no it is not delicious, despite what I was told!) I narrowly avoided having wee little squid added to the menu. No more. Never again.

Sleep came early(ish) and welcomed on this day. A first in some time. And, as tomorrow would see me at the orchestra, this was definitely for the best. No one wants to nod off during a concert.

Blogging Day

Nine Thirty. I'd slept enough. I had a lot of work ahead of me. A lot of blogs to write.

It was now April 22nd. My last blog went live on the first. Three weeks to write – around twenty thousand words needed thinking up and typing. Open up my notes and...

You know what? Better to browse some internets first. O.K. Eleven o'clock, time to blog!

And time passed by. Thankfully I am not a slow typer, otherwise this may never have happened. I also had the practice from writing all my Africa blogs at once too. But still it was no easy task.

Around one or two in the afternoon I decided I should probably look into booking my flight from China to Singapore. I messed with my schedule and decided to fly out of Shanghai, visiting Beijing earlier on. This works as I know someone there so I don't need to worry about booking a place to sleep – so I can stay however long I want and not be rushed in or out. Also she will provide me with knowledge of where to go, and how to get there in China.

Flight booked. The hostel in Hong Kong was harder – only a few days away most were full. I couldn't believe it, but it as true. Eventually I found one that wasn't too terribly expensive, though it was still about twenty bucks a night on average.

With that taken care of I wrote more blogs.

Crap the train – how would i get from Hong Kong to Beijing? Future Mike was not present Mike and needed to deal with it. I had to email the train office and request a ticket, but I would have to wait on their reply. Still – message sent.

More blogs.

Around five I decided I needed a real break, my adrenalin was pumping, as it often is when I speed stream of conscious, and I had to slow myself down. One hour – an hour – I played Oblivion, before I felt guilty and was drawn back to the moment, and had to type more. And type I did – not stopping to eat, or leave the house, or anything until 9:10pm.

It was at that moment that my final blog went live, and then became now.

Thankfully my buddy and his wife both worked late today, otherwise I'd be drawn into socializing, which I love to do and become quite distracted by (hence the lack of writing before now.) But no. I was caught up. All that was left was to begin today's blog.

ts of nine nineteen pee em then has become now. I am writing in real time, and it feels great. Now if you'll excuse me, I have more games what need playing.

That was it – that was the extent of the day. Writing, writing, and writing. And then it was done, it was over, and a weight was lifted from my shoulders. I should reward myself, by not writing any for a few days. I mean what could go wrong? What could happen if I left myself fall behind a day, or two, or three...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chinese Visa Day

April 21st. That's the day it says on my passport claim slip from the Chinese embassy. That's the day it is. Upsettingly I dragged myself from sleep and headed out to make sure I would get to the embassy with plenty of time before they closed at noon.

When I got there I was sent from line to line to line before paying for my passport from a vending machine (of course). With passport and brand new visa in hand, I was ready to head back and nap.

But then I thought, I had to go to Shinjuku to make my train connection, and since I was there – why not poke around a little bit. So off I went to the Tokyo Government building, heading back up to floor 45 to look out again, but mainly to make a new mini-Katherine. And then back down I went, collecting an English version of the fantastic German guide book that has been my most trusted friend over the last three weeks.

Also in Shinjuku was the Square/Enix Character shop. But to be honest, it's not that good. I mean, sure, check it out. It's cool and all – but everything there is more easily accessible from Akiba. And cheaper too. Still – they do have Vincent's outfit from FF7 and Sephiroth sleeping in the life stream, under the glass floor tiles. That's neat.

But where are my Slime Earings?! Where are any earings in this country? They don't exist. Fact!

Leaving the shop, I made my way to the hotel from Lost in Translation, lay down n the ground to snap off a few pictures, and then made my way to Shibuya. Once more, I was headed home. But then I thought – I had to transfer in Shibuya, so why not poke around there a bit? Go see the geek shop again?

Good plan! Off I went to make a final pass, but finding nothing to buy.

Then it was back to the place I was staying at. Armed with Chinese Visa I could look up flight information in and out of China. However I soon discovered this was a stupid way to get around in that country. The train was the way to go! Future Mike could deal with that. So off I went to sit in the reclining, movable, floor chair - turn on the projector – and play the game I'd been thinking about since the early days way back in Amsterdam. I was playing Oblivion, larger than life.

My pink haired Nord, Jalica, was ready to rip up these lands.

Strangely, exploring a digital world no longer held the same draw it used to. I'm not saying that two hours of my life didn't quickly disappear, but it wasn't what it used to be. Stupid real world.

Still – in the real world I couldn't rob people blind, or kill whatever I wanted to. And I still was too scared to go down the dark crypts, and I still felt nervous breaking into peoples houses – so I wasn't too far gone. My love for games can come back. Must come back. Will surely come back!

And with that as a final thought I headed to sleep content with the idea that for the first time in weeks I had no reason to wake up early the next day.

Well, except to write blogs. A terrible terrible amount of blogs.

Forests, and Fish, and Caves - Oh My!

We did not wake up for breakfast.

We woke up with only twenty minutes before we had to check out at ten. Still, what would they do if we were late? We don't pay them, and we didn't pay with credit card. We used a vending machine to pay for the room (I do love this impersonal payment set up they have in this country.)

Rushing to pack up we headed out, with a mission to visit the Fuji-Q Highlands theme park. It would offer a great view of Mt. Fuji, I was told. It would not.

The sky was covered in clouds, rain was falling.

Fine, scratch the theme park. But where would we go? I suggested Aokigahara. It was a forest in the Fuji five lake area. But why this forest? And why did I know about it? All good questions. The answers will reveal themselves – now.

Aokigahara has another name: The suicide forest. Japan is known for having one hundred suicides a day. That's quite the statistic. And this forest is the second most popular place to kill yourself in all the world. First is the Golden Gate Bridge. As it would turn out Niagara Falls is number three – so I've been to the top three places to kill myself, yet still I stand. A triumph!

Only once a week do people actually off themselves within the woods (most Japanese people choosing not to travel that far before their death, I guess) and we did not spot any potential victims. This was, I'm sure, for the best. No bodies either. How do you say, “I found a dead body over there,” in Japanese anyway?

The forest proved for a lovely walk. We made sure to stay on the path. Terrible things can happen if you leave the path. Sound doesn't travel far within the sea of trees, and compasses are rendered useless by the iron in the volcanic rock.

Wandering the paths we stopped only once to see a mystery sock. After some persuading I decided to examine it – inside? A mystery sock. Within that? Another mystery sock. Finally within that? a mystery sock. But inside that? ... ... ... a pair of boxer shorts.

Alright so it was no suicide note, but it was still odd.

Once we had left the forest, and returned to the world outside of potential suicide zones, we headed for an Ice Cave we'd spotted on the drive up. Who would have thought that it would be cold inside an ice cave?! But it was, and it was quite pretty, and well lit. My prepared head lamp was, sadly, not needed.

After emerging from the cave I grabbed the stamp there, and then we drove towards Mt. Fuji. Look, I know I was standing on it, at the base, and so it must – in theory – be something... but I was standing on it, and I still could see it! This mountain does not exist!

Now, there is a pricey toll to drive up, which we were not willing to pay, but what we did get access to was far better. A musical road! I'd heard about these, then forgotten them. When you drive over the bumps in the ground they create tones that play music. At fifty kilometers an hour the song is played correctly. Did we drive up and down the strip to play them, and then dangerously attempt to play one backwards? Of course. And it really was magical. I envision a future where you can drive the Green Day International Highway, where their albums are played as you drive along. I wonder what this does to the tires?

Then it was back to Tokyo to meet up for dinner at a fabulous sushi restaurant. On the way we passed a battle ship in the water, and cursed at more toll booths.

The restaurant was one I'd been taken to last time I was in Tokyo, and it was no less impressive today.

You catch the fish from a river in the restaurant, and then give it to the chef who turns it into the most delicious sashimi with speed and skill unparalleled. The fish is still twitching as you begin to eat its flesh. It is, of course, on the plate for you to verify its freshness.

There were other dishes and ways to eat fish – salted, ripped from the cooked insides, and sashimi dipped in boiling water to cook it before eating it, after dipped in a number of sauces.

This meal – well, here in Japan I've just had so many great meals. I will miss the food here greatly and must seek out a place that serves it back home. Chinese food? That's easy. Japanese? I may have my work cut out for me.

At the restaurant we were joined by two wee children – a niece and a nephew. They, of course, spoke Japanese. I had met them before, and learned the word “old man” quite fast – as they kept calling me one. Our conversation over dinner was mostly name calling, such as calling the boy a beautiful cherry blossom, and him calling me an octopus. I then used my knowledge of asking if someone was cute, by allowing his sister to say he was not.

Name calling of this sort went on until it was accepted that I was, indeed an octopus (tako), the boy was a samurai okami, and the girl was a cute little eel.

Then I may have held one of them over top of the fish river, upside down. And, yes, there may have been a shark in there. But it was all fun. Trust me.

At last my rushed days were coming to an end. Why, tomorrow, I might even have some down time. Sure I still have to get up early, but – soon – so soon – I'll be free to do nothing all day and enjoy it. Such a dream that men can dream.

Japan Roadtrip: Izu Biopark

Setting off for two days of driving, my buddy picked up the rental car and brought it back to his place to gather me. His wife had created a most delicious pack lunch for us, and with car and food in hand, we started off.

Our first stop? Izu biopark. Why? Because it had Kapibera. After a week of hearing about them, and seeing their stuffed representation everywhere, I'd be lying if the excitement to see them hadn't gripped me as well.

It took hours to drive out there, passing all number of terrible toll gates where fees kept increasing as we drove along. The view, however, was beautiful. Driving along the ocean, I was witnessing a very different Japan than the one I had come to expect. I was witnessing a Japan accessible only by car.

Unfortunate, because they make it damn near impossible to ever own one. The fees, and taxes, and other horrible things that compound the purchase make them far too out of reach. Unless they have a yellow license plate, and as such aren't “real cars.” There's more to this, I'm sure, but I don't know the specifics.

All I know is that eventually we reached the biopark.

Before going in we ate the more-than-fantastic pack lunch provided and discussed just how wonderful it was. After it was fully eaten, and instantly missed, we headed into the zoo.

Inside were fifteen types of animals, a whole lot of construction vehicles, a petting zoo, and zombies. I'm fairly sure there were zombies. But we'll get to that.

The animals were a quick pass to see, however it was the petting zoo that captured both our interests. Imagine a six foot three, white man with his head shaved, and a bearded me in a Japanese petting zoo to visit the small rodent that is the Kapibera. We stayed there for nearly an hour.

I'm not going to lie, it was pretty fantastic. The boring giant monsters hung out, trying to escape the touch of people like me, but the bunnies ran rampant. In fact they seemed to enjoy napping on top of the disgruntled kapibera.

All around us they ran, and still other locations offered other toys to play with. Err animals. Animals to play with. You could pick up baby ducks, or pet the guinea pigs. It was at this point that I felt a little guilt for having eaten one only a few months back. They were so terrified and afraid, with only a small feeble shelter to protect them. They were like tribbles who had lost their ability to reproduce in great quantities.

Konichiwa! Konichiwa!

Did that parrot just say hi to me?

Konichiwa! Konichiwa!

It did! A talking Japanese parrot! This was even more impressive than the Toy Story action figures that spoke Japanese. Now it stands to reason that a parrot can mimic any language, which suggests that we could teach them all sorts of fun things to say. They could make parrot cages that are themed for different countries and teach them to speak those words. Maybe even give them little costumes! I know, this wouldn't be so good for the bird but – well, here? A lot of animals were having a rough go of it.

At two we were allowed to feed the kapiberas (thrill upon thrill! How I wish I wasn't serious) and then we headed off to see the chimps. The poor sad chimps clapping their feet and bouncing around, showing clear signs of insanity due to capture. Without warning the animal jumped at the glass wall screaming, throwing its feces at us.

Thank you glass wall.

Then it went to the corner and began rocking back and forth, which it would continue for some time to come.

That was our final animal to see, as they were renovating the park. There was a black bear cage open, as it was being painted. And while I very much wanted a picture of me inside it, I had that little itch of, what if the animal really is there, and it was left open by accident.

I should have taken the picture!

A bridge led away from the animals towards the amusement park. This is where the zombies lived. They must have. There somewhere, just out of sight.

The amusement park was empty. As we walked through it there was no one, and nothing to be seen. Still, the haunting music of a maniacal circus gone wrong, played from every speaker hidden along the paths. In one corner there was a spook house – a mannequin screamed from the upper window, as the door was presented as an evil face, through whose mouth we needed to enter.

This was the type of ghost house from the early years of my life – but with the added terror that there may be something real waiting inside to kill us. This was, after all, Japan.

As it turns out, the creepiest thing was a statue of a naked woman, guts ripped out, eating herself on a table. You know, come to think of it, that is pretty creepy indeed!

Once free from the terror pit, we headed to the abandoned arcade, where I played (terribly) some pachinko. I now have an understanding of what makes the game tick. I'm ready for the big leagues.

From there we walked the go-kart tracks, as there was no one manning them. The only person we saw was the fellow missing a good number of teeth pressing the button to make the monorail go. Or he would, if there were any customers – which there were not.

From the end of the go-kart track we headed along a path with statues of more nude women in a number of poses – art pained primary colours – until we reached a golf course and driving range. There was also a dog run, the air still filled with the terrifying upbeat music.

In my head I plotted the zombie story I hope to write when I no longer have any other pressing business to finish. And with that complete we left the park, and headed off on our way once more.

With most places closing down, we headed to Lake Ashi in Hakone. Why here? Because it was part of Tokyo III where the sixth angel appeared, of course. But never mind me geeking out for a moment, to get there we had to drive through the mountain roads. Tire treads could be seen left in the asphalt along the twists and turns. This was the land of Initial D and though the tiny car had little power, it was still a fun trip down the narrows bends. Mirrors allowed for future-foreseen around the upcoming corners.

At the top of the hill I could just barely make out Mt. Fuji. I could see enough of it to admit that it might be real. It was a line behind the clouds. Though I should have been able to see Fuji a number of times in my trips to Japan, I never have. It is for this reason I claim it does not exist.

After the lake we headed to the hot springs where black eggs with make you live longer. But it was closed. There would be no black eggs or longer life for me. Instead we stopped at an abandoned hotel. After the economic boom a number of fully realized places were simply abandoned, tables still set, beds still made, as if waiting for someone to reopen them and start accepting customers once more.

Finally we found our hotel and broke off to find the night life, or perhaps a karaoke booth. Of course the town we were in was dead, and the last karaoke bar closed at eight at night. I mean, really, who does that? This is Japan – hadn't anyone told them?

The hostess bars were still open – but that didn't seem like a good use of money. Not when I could buy a bottle of Zima that came with a a replica of celebrity lips. Zima does not exist in North America anymore, for good reason. That made me want to at least try it. That it came with creepy false lips? I needed it! Oh Japan, I love you so.

Back at our place we past the time with music from the iPhone, and by learning how to play Gin. That's a card game, to be sure, and that I know how to play it means only one things – I truly am getting old.

Alright, off to sleep. Breakfast in the morning. The last hotel breakfast, back at the Onsen, that I expected to be terrible was quite good. I had no desire to miss this one.

Samurai Homes in Kakunodate

Go to Kakunodate, she said. You'll love it. Uh-huh. Sure. I just wish I kept my winter gear.

Last night over dinner (a most delicious treat of boiled meats and veggies dipped in raw egg – once more, why don't we eat this back home?! I'll tell you – because dipping things in raw egg sounds gross, but my lord is it good.) when I presented my well researched plus present – one of the few they didn't have – I was told that I should go to Kakunodate. I didn't know what was there, or why I was headed there, only that it was a place to check out.

I knew this because, after a night of hard karaoke (p-p-p-poker face) I had a scrap of paper with the word written on it.

When I woke up, and cleared my head, I set off to the train station, slammed the paper down, and said, “ticket please.” Then I boarded the train and proceeded to pass out.

I needed sleep. I needed more sleep than the three hour train ride could lend me. But I took what I could get (yes I took what I could get). However when I woke up I was less than pleased. I didn't know what direction I was headed in, nor where I was going, and while the forests out the windows were lovely to see, the snow covering the ground was a wee bit less delightful! Where was I being sent? Was this an attempt to kill me? It must have been! I didn't even have socks!

When the train stopped there was nothing out the window, just fields to the mountains. I was about to rage, rage, against the storm until I saw the other side of the station. Ahh – there was the town. Good then. Great.

Before going out I put on my thermals that I'd carried the last few weeks, without cause to wear. Oh there was cause today! With them on, I headed for the tourist office (this is why I love trains – you get off, and all the information is right there for you.) I grabbed a map, and was told the best way to make my way through the city. I had just under two hours.

As it turns out, Kakunodate was a samurai village. Samurai houses lined the main street, each with their own unique stamp to go into Jurassic Park (I was running out of blank space here). Some were free to wander and check out, but a couple from North Dakota pointed out one location and said I really must see it. Not knowing when it closed, I moved as fast as I could to get there. It was open for hours more. Inside a guide showed me around the house, pointing out the different rooms, the paper walls, the collection of items needed for the daily life, as well as some ore ornamental things. Also, there were cut outs of turtles in the walls, so when the flame behind them flickered shadows were cast upon the wall granting the illusion of a swimming animal.

Wandering the house, and experiencing the town, once more put me into ninja video games, and while I shouldn't have though it, it made me excited to play the games and think about how I'd experienced those locations in real life. It adds a new dimension to play.

Down by the river two kilometers of bare trees lined the pathways. During cherry blossom season (either long over, or not yet arrived here) the walkway becomes a national spot for people to visit. And I can only imagine how beautiful it must be. But now there was nothing. Just a path back to the station. And as I checked my clock I noticed I had only twenty minutes before the train left. Hightailing it back, I arrived just in time, got my seat, and then started back for Tokyo. All these out of reach day trips may seem a bit strange, but I've been sure to make good use of my rail pass. This trip was my last, though the pass would still be good for another two days.

The reason? My Japanese road trip would begin tomorrow. Where it would lead us? None could say. And if they guessed, they'd have only been wrong.

On a related note, I love train food – three or four dollars will buy you a pack of the tastiest Japanese food laid out before you, perfect for eating while on the move. Honestly, it's wonderful. And I love it so.

Ah, but wait – that wasn't all to be experienced on this day. No, the train ride home offered views of one of the best sunsets I'd seen in some time. the sky burst orange, power lines and trees silhouetted against the apocalyptic background. Though moving at three hundred kilometers an hour, I tried my best to take shots, unable to read my book for fear of missing one captivating moment of the experience.

It wasn't until finally the sun had gone down, and the sky turned black, that I could pick up my text and start to drift off as I rode the rails home, hundreds of kilometers away.

Tokyo III (Hakone)

Fly me to the Moon is inextricably caught in my head.

I took off to Hakone with time enough to spend a good couple of hours there. Stepping off the train my first question was, where can I get that bloody Neon Genesis map?! I went to the tourist office, and the poster of Rei on the door was a good sign. But there was no map inside. I looked around, and found nothing – nothing!

Look, I came all the way out here to get a map, and while I'm sure I'd have loved it anyway, it would feel like a failure without it. I needed that map!

Once the lady trying to figure out that, indeed the bus outside the building was the one she wanted (this concept was just not getting through) I was able to ask the english speaking employee about it.

Well, actually, she pushed the bus lady aside, to help me. How many more times could she really explain – orange bus – you can see it through the window – go now!

When I asked about the mysterious map I had read about, she smiled and fetched me a card. Apparently you had to fill out a card and exchange it for the map. No doubt this is to gather information about how many tourists that aspect is bringing in, and also to keep people from taking a whole stack of them. It's not like that's what I was planning on doing – I just wanted one, just one for me – ok, fine, I wanted a whole stack and was going to take every one they had, but no – I was foiled. That's OK though, I left with my one map and that was all I needed.

It turned out that aside from the main train station most of the sites were far from the city centre. Fair enough, this was still a scouting mission, and I had now seen where I need to return on my next trip here. There are cable cars, and all sorts of other fun ways to get around (in the anime the cable cars all have automatic weapons and serve as a defense system.) For a low price you can get a pass that lets you get all over the area. It would take two days to fully see though, and I only had a couple of hours left. Next time.

With map in hand, and regular tourist map of the area, I headed out to wander the streets. For the most part I saw two things on this day. Two temples, each uniquely juxtaposing one another and bringing modern day Japan into sharp focus.

One was a waterfall temple – two waterfalls bordered the building, and a day spa had been built close by to capitalize on the location. It's hard to picture the area one hundred or more years back, when all there would have been was a path to the falls, and the temple atop a short hill. One can try and picture the terrine, but it's nearly impossible as the falls have been manicured to best suit the visitors of the spa/onsen.

This is Japan today.

The other temple took me up into the hills. On my map it did not seem quite so far off the path, and had I known just how long it would take, I would probably have ignored it completely. But I was ignorant, and all the better for it.

Walking up some stone steps, I found myself on a path leading ever upwards, wondering when I would reach the top. Although at this point I didn't know if there would be a top, nor that there was a temple located there. I was simply climbing stone steps into the moss-grown forest, assuming that something must lay ahead. The path had to lead somewhere.

Every landing presented me with a number of small tombstones, and wooden planks engraved with text undecipherable to me. Ever upwards I wandered as the shadows closed in around me, and blocked all vision – all sound – except for that which was immediately before me.

At that moment I was travelling again. I loved travelling with a large group, but there was no off the path. I doubt may of them would have wanted to turn down this side journey. In fact I doubt I would have followed had one of them suggested it. So communal were our travels, so social, that it was hard to appreciate why one would want the sanctity of something cutting one off from the surroundings.

the path was lined with small statues, glad in red knitwear. I know not what they were for, nor how long they had been there. All I knew is that I was walking up, ever upwards.

Losing myself in the experience I was both shocked, and relieved, when finally the end was before me. Silently I had cursed my desire to explore, spending twenty minutes climbing higher and higher. But then, there was the end. A temple before me. And one lone cherry blossom tree. These would be the last blossoms I saw in Japan, and they stand out in my mind, perhaps more so after the climb, than had I just found them with ease.

The temple, as I drew close, was a lonely one, with one man sitting inside. I peeked in, but then quickly left. This wasn't about the destination. This was about the journey to the top , and then back down once more. This was exploring, and travelling, and being alone with your thoughts.

No, it was not isolated by days of trails from the quote unquote real world, but it was a momentary escape. And I saw no one else from the time I started the climb, passing a group just headed down, until I reached the bottom once more, as another group started going up.

The walk down took as long as the walk up, but every step held meaning, a value of sorts. Once more I had found my way and I loved it. That moment, never to be repeated, filled me with the type of warmth I experienced wandering through Akiba with my friends from back home. I did not think it could be topped. And it wasn't – but this? It was something as equally wonderful. And I thought about how I'd like to share it with others – but could it have been shared, or was the experience in going at it alone?

Just letting someone know there is an end point, or pointing the location out to them – would that take away some of the beauty?

Every now and then it's worth taking the stone steps leading up into the forested hills.

And this? This is the old Japan.

Day Tripping Nagano

Only three hours on the train each way today. Joy.

Continuing my Japanese scouting mission I took myself out to Nagano. Why? Because it once hosted the Olympics – that's what I do: I go to Olympic cities. Everyone needs a hobby.

Olympic cities are sad in a way that you really need to feel to understand. It's like they want to forever live off of their former glory. The rings still exist all over, manhole covers are decorated with images. The people, you can tell they remember what it was like all those years ago – but today there is little tourism. In fact there is just one reason to come to Nagano, and it's a temple at the top of the road.

A temple that looks just like the one in Asakusa to the untrained eye.

Yes I went there, sure I took pictures of the cherry blossoms, but then I left. I had seen all this in Tokyo, and then Kyoto, and also Kobe – I'd seen this all over Japan. what struck me about Nagano was that there were some lovely shops. I continued to look for the FF7 piano book in music shops, failing each time. But that was how I passed my time. In fact, I was done with the city earlier than I thought I would be, and so hustled quickly to the station to book an earlier train, jumping on just in time.

Back in Tokyo I went to Akihabara. The folks I'm staying with love Kapiberas. what better way to thank them then by getting them another stuffed creature for their collection? Problem – they had so many that I had no idea what one they didn't have. It was starting to rain anyway. Akiba would be left for the next day when I had studied the stuffed creatures more.

On the way back to their place, just west of Shibuya, I started to read the magazine I picked up from the Nagano tourist office. Alt.Japan had a special on the anime culture. It mentioned that the city of Hakone created a map of the area pointing out all the locations that were featured in Neon Genesis Evangelion. In the show Hakone is Tokyo III.

An Eva map, only available in Hakone... Clearly I had my mission for the next day set.

I was shown the entertainment set up at my hosts place. And my god, I thought what I saw in Silicon Valley was good – well now I know there is better. An HD projector, splashed on a screen as big as the whole wall. If your racing games aren't being played in true to life size, then you just aren't properly experiencing them!

With the night stretching on, and me still needing to get up early for the train to Hakone, I had very little time to play and enjoy the experience. But time would be set aside for that later, I hoped – when things finally started to settle down. Surely things would start to settle down, right? Right?!

Hiroshima for an Hour

What type of idiot day trips to Hiroshima from Tokyo?

I do.

Waking up early I caught the nine o'clock bullet out to Hiroshima. I got there at one thirty. My return train, which would get me to tokyo by eight, and back to where I was staying at nine? Well that left from Hiroshima at three twenty. I had just under two hours to see what I wanted to see.

Fun fact: The Atomic Dome is twenty minutes by bus from the station – Forty minutes for transit there and back, and I was down to an hour. But I made the most of it. I saw the dome. That's what I wanted to see in Hiroshima, and there it was. It's strange that with their revisionist history that it still exists. One expects them to have torn it down, and claim that nothing strange ever happened in Hiroshima – what? Why are there no buildings from before the fifties? Don't worry about that – move along, move along.

This may sound crass – but when you start learning about the Japanese version of Japanese history you too may be surprised of its existence.

In fact, reading, I learned they were planning to tear it down, but an outcry from the population saved it.

Looking at its twisted beams, and cage-like dome it is shocking that of all buildings to be left behind it was one as hauntingly beautiful as this. Rubble lines the surrounding area, and visitors make the pilgrimage out to see it in a constant flow.

Not far from the structure is a statue clad in red, with an atomic shadow burned into the ground under it.

There is a peace museum with stopped watches, and other testaments to the terrible time, but I had no time to visit it. My moments were already ticking away. After taking in the site it was nearly time to head back to the station and jump on my return train bound for Tokyo.

For me, this was a pilgrimage to see the one building and learn more about the area. I plan to return to Japan for a month in 2011, and now I've scouted this city out and know where I'd like to go. The water temple mocked me in the far corner of the map, out of reach to me now – but not then.

As I grabbed the train, I spent the time both reading and sleeping. Six hours from Hiroshima to where I was staying. My friend's wife made dinner once more – takoyaki made at the table by heating a skillet with rounded dents in it. There you poured the batter, and placed in the pieces of octopus. Fish flakes, onions, sauce, and a terrible amount of mayonnaise are added after. It's a fun way to cook with minimal set up, and it's very social. Why we don't have things like this back home, I don't know.

I must look for one of these griddlesque cookers in the future – I imagine pancake batter and funsized chocolate bars could also be combined for greatness within.

Over twelve hours in transit for one hour on the ground, in Hiroshima. Was it worth it? Of course it was.

Once more: Thank you JR Rail pass. The price of the pass, nearly covered in just this one day.

The Ghibli Museum

Before Mike and Tonia left back for Canada, and I left Nick and George to meet up with a buddy of mine who lives in Tokyo, we had one last destination: The Ghibli museum.

Getting there may have taken more time than we would have liked, but once inside all was forgotten. Tickets for the museum had to be purchased weeks in advance, the wait was worth it. While I am not more than passingly familiar with the movies to come out of Ghibli studios, it was still like entering into the mind of a crazed animator.

The museum is a fine arts museum, but you may forget that the moment you step through the doors. Inside you are given your ticket – three cells from one of the studio's movies. And then you are left to wander and explore. A sign admits that there is no set path through the rooms, and that this museum is one best experienced by those willing to explore and have fun. It is, to be truthful, quite the experience.

Wandering into the first obvious room I was met with models of various characters from the studio. A great number of them were made real in various stages of animation. There was a section where you could look at the models and see each individual frame-made-physical. Beside them was a carousel with the models attached in the correct order to be animated. Without warning the lights went dark, the wheel started to spin, and a strobe light allowed for the illusion of movement. At one point it was so real that I caught myself wondering how the skipping rope got around the pole holding the jumping character in the air. Of course there was no rope, it was just part of the static models.

From there I wandered the halls noticing that even the fire extinguishers had been made part of the museum, with ornate helmets and tools linked above, preventing fire code violations while working them into the art.

For those who want to see inside the animators studio, there is a room set up just as one of the the home offices would look, with books strewn around and supplies laid out as if the desk was just left mid-work. Some of the books can be flipped through, such as the scrapbook containing images used for reference during the creation of Grave of the Fireflies. Grave of the Fireflies... A silent tear falls to the floor.

Next is the colourist's office with all his paints laid out, and hand painted animation frames. They are truly works of beauty, and seeing the actual frame is something that makes the whole experience more tangible. To know that every movement on the screen is actually a crisp piece of art... and while some of the movies may not hold up today due to poor colour actualization on the screen, they were all drawn and painted in the same quality used for today's HD films. And they are beautiful.

It's a shame they are lost, destroyed, or sold preventing the old movies from being remade in full HD. Still, that they are sold allows each frame to find an owner, and a place outside of its own personal history. In the gift shop I considered what would need to occur for me to start collecting these five hundred dollar stills.

Aside from the cells, background art is also shown, along with a machine set up to move the background while keeping the frame static. Basic animation at work.

Up on the roof is another giant robot – who is well known, and of great importance. I will need to get my hands on Caste in the Sky and watch it.

The large cat/bus is made plush, and school aged children can climb around it, and play in it.

There are some other rooms dedicated to other works, and one room with a changing exhibit. But once those have been explored, the museum still has more to offer. There is a well under a gazebo taken directly from one of the studio's works. And there is a corner with a witches broom, also a location made real from one of the films. The building itself, and all aspects of it are the imaginings and recreations of things originally seen on screen. And before you leave, you can get your ticket stamped and watch a fifteen minute animation (changing with the season) available only within the museums walls.

It's obvious to anyone who enters that this is the work of those who understand the art form, and care about their target audience. Yes, it's a museum, but I'll forgive you if you forget that once you step in through the doors. I did.

After leaving the museum, which is comparable only to the Manitoba museum in Winnipeg, I headed for the Chinese embassy to apply for a visa. I figured they'd close early, so left in order to get there by three.

Of course they did close early – at noon. I had failed. All that was left now was to go back to my place, grab all my gear, and say say goodbye to Nick and George. From there I went to Ginza to meet my buddy's wife who would show me the way back to their place. It also seemed that she would be cooking dinner. And what a fabulous dinner it was! I can't express how much I love Japanese cooking. It simply is – the best. Well, it's pretty great. It's no Combo C, but I wouldn't want that every day (would I?)

I forgot all about McDonald's, that's for sure.

Also – having access to a washing machine? Perfect!

Back to Nakano

April 13th: Our last full day together in Tokyo – never mind that Stew was already gone, and that Japan had claimed another back in Kyoto. This was our last big group day. And so we went where we all loved – Nakano Broadway. Except Alan. He went back to Kyoto – bless that Rail Pass.

Why did we return? Yes for the toys, and the shopping – but also the ice cream.

While Mike and Tonia shared another giant cone, I had learned from my last experience and whilst I wanted to try again, I thought better – Calpis ice cream – medium. It was wonderful to enjoy my treat this time. Still without the big one before I'd not have discovered Calpis. It's a soda flavour, and you can – somehow – taste the bubble while you eat it, which should be impossible in ice cream form. Still, it was a good half sized treat that never once attempted to hurt me.

With that checked off, we went off on our own again. I found a shop that sold Dragon Warrior magnets, and they were super awesome. Little pixelated magnets you can stick to a field with battle menus in the corner. I bought three. They were fantastic, and I knew I'd never see them again. The things I bought last time I was in Japan for two bucks a pop were now selling for around ten dollars. If you see something, don't think – just buy it. Unless it's Kobe beef. But I had not learned from the FF7 book at that point.

I also picked up some more Kingdom Hearts toys, and then made my way back to meet up with people.

From the mall we headed to a mysterious noodle shop. And it is mysterious. Here's what I know about how to get there – get off at the Yamanote line stop that plays the Astro Boy music, then exit. If you're at the exit with the Astro Boy mural, good, if not – find it. Turn right, and walk down the street for about ten minutes, looking to the left down all the alleys. Down one of them is a black tarp covering the front of a brick wall. This is what you're looking for. There will be a bone hanging from the tarp as well – don't run in fear, go under the tarp, and then open the blacked window/doors. Step inside and sit down at one of the five seats (just the right number for us) and be amazed at the methodical way the man makes noodles, the fantastic tastes of them, and all the wonder that is provided.

Eat here, and eat here often. It was one of the best finds in the city. Some how our food Guru Mike knew about it, and led the way – not unlike Moses. I'm sure that the two are comparable.

After food it was time to head to Shibuya for last minute shopping. More Mandarake, Disney, and Tower Records.

After that? Back to the flat to rest, watch some Venture Brothers, and then head out to meet up for dinner.

We ate at Doma Doma (a chain restaurant that, apparently, Japanese people scoff at – but I quite enjoyed it.) There a mochi pizza tried to kill me, but aside from that – it was great.

Just like when Antarctica came to an end, this leg of my Japanese trip would end with good times, good people, and good drinks. It's the only way any experience such as this can end – with conversation, and explanation free of inhibitions. It was also here I learned about how a random construction paper book could be opened and framed as art.

While some hate it, I almost sort of sold myself on the brilliance of it all.

Japan with a large group – I thought we would have all tried to kill ourselves by the end of it, but clearly now I know better. And I wouldn't have wanted this any other way.

Also, I ate horse today.

Osaka and Akiba

Well what more is there to do in Osaka? Not that much really – but the same streets are just as good to wander during the day as they are at night!

This time the Disney store was open, and all the characters were jumping off the wall. I also heard music for a Lilo and Stitch music video, and wondered if it was by The Pillows. It was! My most favourite of all Japanese bands – they did the soundtrack for FLCL. They're quite fantastic. I'll have to track down the source of this music video song in the future.

After the Disney store was wandered, and cooed over, we headed out to the streets once more and came across a music shop. I'm not sure who suggested we go in, but when we got to the piano section, I saw a song book of Final Fantasy songs displayed. Alan had picked it up and put it down.

What better way to combine the hobbies of Mike and Tonia than through this book? She likes piano – he digs Final Fantasy. Snatching it up, Mike went and bought it. Apparently they were going to the FF Symphony back in Toronto. What a coming together.

On the shelves I saw the music book for Chrono Trigger and claimed, picking it up, that it was gone forever never to be put down. And I too made my purchase. This would become the greatest thing I bought in the entire country. I passed up buying the FF7 song book however.

[authors note: I have tried to find it in other cities, and stores since – no luck. Lesson learned – you see something unique? Buy the bloody thing.]

This music store had made coming to Osaka worth it (not that the ball game didn't... but that wasn't really IN Osaka was it? It wasn't.)

After our shopping we hightailed it back to the station, where we caught a train back to Tokyo. We missed our train. But through the magic of the JR Pass we were on the next one without any penalty. It's also good that Japan runs trains twice an hour from most cities to Tokyo.

Back in the big city it was time to show Tonia Akihabara. She left before we got to the – unique – shops last time. This would be different.

Smut, smut, smut.

Eight levels of items ranging from anime costumes used for purposes other than Halloween, to figres of characters doing all sorts of terrible things to themselves, and to others. Rule 34 comes to life in this part of the world. Business men search through boxes of hentai with each other, perhaps finding the latest Phoenix Wright porn comic, because – of course – those exist here.

There is a floor of video games in which you do the most terrible of things. And movies where you can watch it all play out, if you're too lazy to click yourself.

You know, I thought I could describe these locations, but I can not. Not in a public forum. Just know that rule 34 is all alive and well here. And just about the only thing lacking was tentacles (strange they should be missing.)

With that out of the way, and Tonia starting to understand that mysteries of the country, we headed to Super Potato – the greatest video game store of them all. They sell just about every game every made for every system. Just be prepared to pay for the rarer ones.

Luckily if you're into RPGs you can grab Chrono Trigger or FF[anything] for about five bucks each. While you'd pay hundreds back home, here they're nothing. It was just a shame that they were sold out of Mother (Earthbound) carts.

Also, you know, you'd need a system to play them on. And knowing how to read Japanese would help out a lot too.

Without getting into it too much – another smut building showed Yoai to the masses. “Are those boys?” / “Yes.” / “Both of them?” / “Yes.” / “But look at them? Are you sure.” / “Yes!” / “O.K. but that's girl right?” / “THEY'RE ALL BOYS!”

It takes some people a while to get used to the idea.

The best line of the night: “Used panties?! Why would anyone pay for used panties? I've already got used panties!”

In cases like these it's probably best not to press the explanation.
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