A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

T*O*K*Y*O Part 3: Temple Time

Giant Sake (Japanese rice wine) containers as seen in Harajuku, Tokyo.

Tokyo is an ultra-modern cyber-neon concrete sprawl of urban decay. But it does have some traditional Japanese buildings and temples too. We checked in to a few of the most well know shrines and parks to get our fill of stereo typical Japan.

The temples and shrines are beautiful buildings, there's no doubting that, but my general opinion is that if you've seen one, you've pretty much seen them all. The now well documented syndrome of temple overdose (know as OTing) is a common complaint by visitors to the far east.

The illness is caused by trying to visit too many famous temples in any given area, in a short amount of time, and is common is Japan, China, Cambodia and Thailand. The symptoms are fatigue, boredom, and a desire to never see another temple as long as you live (though these symptoms normally pass after the victim has been removed from temple stimuli).

I am glad to say that I have managed to avoid this illness, largely by not bothering to visit many temples. By keeping my temple intake well below the RDA (the World Health Organisation recomends you visit a maximum of one temple per day) I have so far managed to stay healthy.

Stay safe, view temples in moderation.

A typical, yet no less impressive pagoda building. Apparently, this style of building evolved due to it's increased resistance to earthquakes.

We were lucky enough to stumble upon a wedding in the Harajuku district. I haven't got a clue who's the bride and who's the groom, but I expect they're hiding under that red umbrella.

One of the most famous temples shrines in Tokyo.

Now that's one funky drum. Taiko in the temple, Tokyo.

Friday, June 24, 2005

T*O*K*Y*O Part 2: Fashion Freaks

Tokyo, Harajuku district. One of the many variations of the "Gothic Lolita" look in Cosplay (costume play) - the practice of dressing up as characters from books, comics and anime.

The Fukui crew spent a good day in the Harajuku district of Tokyo. This area has become a famous place to bear witness to the freakily dressed up kids, who congregate here on Sundays, showing off their latest fashion creations.

This phenomenon is known as "Cos Play" (costume play). The main style on display was the French maid/little Bo-Peep look, of which there are infinite variations. I believe this has been deemed the "Gothic Lolita". There is even a magazine published here which is devoted to this style and advises readers on how to get the Lolita look.

Scores of teenagers, the majority of which were girls, dressed in their Sunday best milled around, whipping out the "Vs" to appease the relentless attack by the happy snappers. There were an unhealthily number of middle age, pervy looking gaijin (foriegners), who were rubbing their hands in glee at the freak fest, filling their memory cards to the brim with fresh material.

The blonde French maid (see below) was especially popular with these men, and she even tried to avoid being captured on film by one particularly depraved looking man, shouting "sukebe!" (pervert) at him. However, he persevered and she eventually gave in, letting him get the money shot.

We headed onwards to Harajuku park, where we came across some Japanese Teddy Boys, with monster quiffs, and jitterbug dance moves. We then wandered deep into the green, soaking up the buzzing atmosphere as we went. We saw all manner of spectacles; djembe drumming circles banging out African beats, high schools girls practicing synchronized dance moves, capoirea high kicking martial artists, Zion clad regeae fans grooving to Marley, and a skateboarding dog who was particularly popular with the ladies.

In in all, the park was the perfect place to watch the world flow by and absorb the energy of the "normal" everyday Tokyoites, and was one of the high-lights of the trip.

If only Fukui had a park too.

Another take on the Gothic Lolita style. The name's Peep - you seen my sheep?

Oh - the kids these days.

Most people were refering to all these people as "goths". Maybe the goth uniform has changed over the years, but I always thought they wore black, and didn't have hello kitty hanging from their neck.

The blonde french maid look. Bottle or wig...? Comments please.

A colourful quad of youngsters, clad in hello kitty tat.

These quiff sporting leather clad men had cordened off their own zone, set up a sound system, and were boogieing the day away to good ol' 50's rock and roll. Happy Days.

It's not all freaks; a regular skatboarder pops a phat ollie in Harajuku park. Flicks gazes in awe - " [sigh]...If only Lewis could ollie that high..."

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

T*O*K*Y*O: Part 1 - Sashimi Sunrise

Eels bathe in their own blood, having been sent to eel heaven only minutes before. The Tokyo fish market: not suitable for vegetarians.

Two weeks ago, JET's from around the country desended on Tokyo for the re-contractors conference. I have not been to Tokyo since my arrival in Japan last August, so I was looking forward to exploring more of this concrete paradise.

A group from Fukui headed down early so as to make the most of this all expenses paid trip (thanks Japanese Government, you shouldn't have), and I was guilty of thinking that the two day conference was simply going to be an annoying thorn in my side, preventing me from enjoying Tokyo to the full.

However, I was surprised and impressed to find that the conference itself was actually very well orgainised and every talk I went to left me with fresh ideas, and new found motivaiton for teaching as well as learning Japanese. It was also nice to see so many familiar faces and catch up with a few old friends.

A group of us opted for the over night bus from Fukui to Tokyo, taking around 8 hours. Full marks to the vehicle, it was the limo of the bus world, a far cry from the National Express or Greyhound buses that I have had the mis-pleasure of experiencing. With three separate aisles, and seats that reclined to almost vertical it was the most comfortable bus I have ever ridden. However, it was still a bus, and didn't provide its passengers with the deepest of sleep.

The worst thing about taking the over night bus is that you are rudely awakend rather early and deposited in central Tokyo at the bonne heure of 5:30am. With little else to do at this time, we headed to the semi famous Tokyo Fish Market, which was in full swing. Any sluggishness was soon forced out of us as we had to stay alert to stay alive. Miniture trucks bearing loads of fishy cargo constantly zipped about through the narrow stalls, delivering their wares, and probably getting annoyed at the annoying gaijin who get in the way, take photos of everything, and never buy anything.

Stall upon stall of octopus, eel, tuna, and every other fish under the sea was too much for the veggies of the group who lasted barely three minutes, before retreating to a nearby cafe. The rest of us took in the atmoshere, witnessed a fish bidding war, and finally managed to escape without injury. After taking our fill of fish photos, we reconviened and then headed onwards, deep into the dense concrete of Tokyo city.

T*O*K*Y*O: Part II - coming soon to a funkydrummer blog near you.

Three upside down flat fish. Tails not included.

Two strange fish, of which I have not come across before.

The aptly named "Golden Eye" fish, appears to have no pupil - so each eye is like a small, round, glass window into its head.

The hussle and bussle of the early morning Tokyo fish market.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Chopsticks and stones may break my bones

So, it's OK to serve minging little dried fish on the same plate as a slice of melon, but putting the chopsticks in this position is a crime. The Japanese still have some way to go in sorting out their priorites.

The Japanese attention to inane, pointless details sometimes infuriates me. The idea that there is only one way of doing things, and any other way, even if it has no effect what so ever on the outcome, is incorrect, pisses me off. The fact that the Japanese word for "different" (chigau) is the same word for "wrong" is a telling sign of their traditional intolerance of doing something other than in the percieved "correct way".

School lunches are served in the staff room. A trolley is wheeled in from the kitchen, and any teachers that happen to be present at the time team together to dish out the meals. If I'm there, I always lend a hand which involves laying out the trays, chopsticks, bowls and plates and serving out equal portions onto each tray.

However, it's not as easy as it sounds. There is one member of staff who objects heavily to the angle at which I lay the chopsticks on the tray. I have seen her in the past, go to the needless trouble of rearranging every pair of sticks that I have placed on the tray, simply to make a point.

Today, she went one step further. As I placed each pair of chopsticks on each tray, I could feel her eyes boring into my back, and I knew she was going to take action. Seeing the chopsticks at the side of the tray, rather than at bottom of the tray was just too crazy for her, and she jumped up, ran over, and announced: "Sam, NO, LIKE THIS!".

Now, I can understand why certain things are done the way they are. The highly ritualised Japanese Tea Ceremony, for example is performed using very precise and carefully controlled movements, appropriate for such a formal occasion and of course there is etiquette for most things, including where cutlery is placed but in this particular situation it DOES NOT MATTER. This is school lunch. Served on a tray. In the staff room. It's not silver service. The rice isn't even hot, for f**k's sake.

So feeling the scarlet mist rising, I questioned her as to why the chopsticks absolutely had to be laid along the bottom of the tray. Her demonstation soon cleared things up; she placed the sticks in the so called "correct position" and then, very slowly, making sure I was paying full attention, picked them up.

Oh, I see, why didn't you tell me before! A potential diner is able to pick up chopsticks, only if they are at placed along the bottom of a tray. Any other position generates an invisible force field, which makes it completely impossible for the hungry victim to pick them up.

In my mind I reversed the situation. If I were in England, and a foreign co-worker was helping to serve out lunch, and put the knife and fork, at, woe betide, a slightly different position to normal, would I go to the length of moving every pair back to what is considered "correct positioning"? Would I bollocks.

Do not despair though funkydrummer readers, for a terrible revenge has been plotted. I will adhere to her nit picking ways, day in, day out, letting her think she has converted me, then, on my last day of work, when it comes to lunch time, I will place the chopsticks, so that they are sticking vertically out of each bowl of rice, [a huge faux pas in Japan] and for the piece de resistance, I will attach a Union Jack Flag, to each stick.

Chop stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

The way it should be done. Only when the chopsticks are aligned exaclty like this, is the invisible forcefield that prevents chopstick pickup in other stick formations, absent.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Last Ride of the season: Haku-san Mountain

Taking in the view near the top of Haku-san mountain, Japan.

Before wiping my board down and putting it into summer hibernation, me and my team of snow lovers made one final search for snow on the scared mountain of Haku-san. At 2702m, this was to be the second highest mountain that I’ve climbed in Japan after Fuji (see October Archives) and spans the prefectures of Ishikawa, Fukui and Gifu. Fuji was tough, there’s no doubting that, but Haku-san left me far more exhausted than Fuji ever did.

The hiking team consisted of me, my American friend Brandon, local legend Yasu, and two new Japanese guys Adachi, and Yomei, both keen and talented freestyle skiers.

We kitted up, and commenced the hike at around 9am. After just a few minutes, I knew we were in for a tough time. It was a very warm day, and hiking with a board, boots and other gear in the heat was hard going. After crossing a suspension bridge and hiking up a stream bed, we hit a narrow rocky path that wound its way up the mountain.

It must have taken at least 1.5 hours to get to the first patches of intermittent snow. We stopped here for a much needed rest, my legs feeling the exertion. Haku-san is an extinct volcano and one of the three most sacred holy mountains of Japan. Because of this, it is a popular climbing destination, and we saw many others making their way up, including several skiers, but we were the only snowboarders there, to our knowledge.

Once we reached the snowline, the difficulty of the hike increased. I had opted to climb in shoes (my not so trusty Merrels) rather than my snowboarding boots, which although lighter, had considerably less grip, and saw me taking many a tumble in the snow.

Brandon too, experienced similar problems, especially during some of the steepest sections where he would take two steps forward, only to slide one step back. However, slowly, after several breaks and around four hours, we made progress, eventually stopping at the top of the steepest chute to break for lunch.

Yasu fired up his camping stove, reached for his saucepan, and was soon cooking a mix of noodles and cow intestines, which although not my favourite food, still went down well after burning so many calories on the way up.

At this point, we could see the peak, perhaps just 30 minutes away, and we sat in the sun, drank a can of celebratory beer each, and chatted away. Nearby stood a shrine and a Japanese gate. Brandon and I discussed the idea of building a ramp up to it and performing a few slides and tricks over it to impress our Japanese friends, but the idea was soon dismissed as a waste of precious energy.

After lunch came the final assault. A quick blitz of around half an hour to take us to the top. By this time I had summit fever, and my pace had picked up again, as I followed in Yasu’s footsteps whilst he powered on ahead.

Yasu is a 48 year old smoker, regular drinker, even a self confessed alcoholic (well, he does own a bar). Despite this, he was strides ahead of us young whippersnappers, all of whom are 20 years his junior, and he reached the peak several minutes ahead of me.

Brandon rolled up a few minutes after me along with Japanese friend Adachi, but Yomei decided to give the peak a miss and waited for us on the lower slope. There was much rejoicing at having reached the top. Brandon in particular was especially happy, and in true American fashion let rip with a series of “Whoops!” and “Hell Yeahs!”. Little did he know what was in store for him on the way down.

We paused for a sort while, then swapped shoes for boards, donned gloves, before finaly strapping in, and beginning the decsent. The first slope was pure joy, cruising down the perfect pitch in the sun shine sugar snow, feasting on a spectacular scenery, carving clean white lines into the surface of the speckled, dirt ridden snow.

Yasu was leading the pack, and going at quite a speed when he experienced some technical difficulties which led to him being deposited heavily onto the ground, leaving a ski and his poles strewn out in his wake. After discovering that he was not seriously injured, we all had a good laugh at him, and continued onwards, with Yasu deciding to exercise a little more speed control from then on.

After having to unstrap to walk over a rocky outcrop we arrived at the top of the next slope, which was fairly steep, and littered with rock debris. We carefully made our way down this pitch, but were then faced with a long and challenging traverse to get to the next slope.

It’s times like this that I’m reminded of how impractical snowboards are. Whilst Brandon and I where unstraping our boards, scrambling up, slipping down, and generally struggling to make our way across this steep and arkward section, the skiers were far ahead, engaging the terrain with ease.

It was at this point that Brandon decided he did not want to be where he was. He was physically exhausted, was having difficulty breathing, and was very unhappy (to say the least) with the tricky terrain. Admittedly it was challenging for us both. At one point I lost my footing and found myself flying down the slope uncontrollably, desperately hanging on to my board with one hand whilst trying to stop myself with the other. I eventually managed to grab a tree branch, halting my rapid decent and hauled myself to my feet with my last scraps of energy.

Brandon continued to verbally abuse the mountain, claiming that the situation was “ridiculous” amongst other less flattering terms. However, we both knew that the only way down, was across, so continued to make our slow traverse, praying we wouldn’t take another fall, whilst our Japanese skiing friends patiently waited in the sun, and most probably had a good chuckle at our predicament.

We eventually made it over to where they were sat, but by this time Brandon was past the point of no return, and all traces of his love for snow had long since evapourated. Next was the final straight, back down to whence we came. Our young Japanese friends flew down, popping 360 spins at every available opportunity. I attempted to follow suit, but ending up misjuding and having a close encounter of the first kind with a tree.

The very last stretch was a battle through the forest. As the trunks closed in around us, tight technical boarding was required to navigate through the birch and pine. Somewhere along the way we managed to pick up an out of control telemark skier, who provided us with much entertainment as he appeared not to have learnt how to stop, so performed a series of quite spectacular collisions with trees, rocks and other people.

By this time Brandon had given in to the mighty mountain, and fully accepted defeat. He removed his board and made the remainder of his way down on foot. It could be said with quite some certainty, that at this point in time, the young American was not a “happy chappy”.

Eventually the trees became too dense to ride through, so boards and skis went back onto packs, and out came the hiking poles. Yasu raced off down he mountain as he had to get back to open his bar, leaving the rest of us to make our way back at a more leisurely pace.

That final hike was probably the hardest of all. Exhausted from our long ascent, tricky traverses, burdened with heavy gear, and in dire need of decent rest, we still had a good 1.5 hours of walking to get back to the car. With aching legs and shoulders, sore feet and bodies in need of some serious t.l.c., we endured on. As we neared the base, Brandon’s sprits rose again, and by the time we were at the car, he was back to his normal jovial self, and we were already joking about how he had "lost it up there".

In total, the 9.5 hour round trip left us thoroughly exhausted, and good for nothing but bed. Overall, it was definitely more about the hiking than the riding, but despite our fatigue, it was a great day, and a great work out.

It would be nice to return when the snow is deep and powdery, but for now my board is in a deep sleep, dreaming of the day it will awaken from it’s summer slumber, and grace the slopes once more.

The early stages - crossing a suspension bridge at the base of Haku San.

The incredible BranMan, sporting his pink t-shirt. I'm super!, thanks for asking.

The crew warm themselves on a roof of a hut, half way up Haku-san.

Yasu cooks up a feast of noodles a la cow intestine. Might not sound too appertising, but when you've just hiked up a 2700m mountain with your board on your back, anything tastes good.

Brandon traverses a short snowless section of the path.

Sam San on Haku-san

One of the typically Japanese style huts near the top of Haku San.

Brandon makes his way up a steep section.

There's more than one way to skin a mountain. In this alternative method, one member of the pair attaches a rope to his partner, and controls the rate of descent as she slides down on her butt.

Plastic's a lot lighter than skis or a board,

Yomei takes on one of the steepest slopes of the hike, which was littered with rock fall debris.