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年末 Back to the Japan

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At multiple points during the past few months, I’ve (OK fine, only very slightly) deluded myself into believing that 2012 would have me jumping back on the blogging bandwagon, rather than neglecting this poor excuse of a website, save for a minor post once every few months that consists mostly of me talking about how I don’t blog anymore.  So ignoring that, I’m not going to waste any more time talking about not blogging.  I am going to just do it.  So hold on to your butts, here comes a somewhat old-school style mind barf as I recount my short trip back to old Nippon in a semi-followable manner.

START UP!

Despite booking the ticket to Japan back in like August, it still seems like it kind of crept up on me.  Could have been because December was pretty busy with school and work, but all of a sudden it was Christmas and even sooner after that I realized that I needed to pack to head over to Japan.  This was the first time going back since returning to the US in August of 2010.  Nervousness, anxiety, curiosity, dyslexia – I had none of these issues while preparing for my “return voyage.”  As I’ve explained to a few people since, going to Japan just isn’t a huge deal for me anymore.  It’s along the same lines as if I’m going to take a trip to Bloomington: I of course look forward to revisiting old hangouts, seeing friends who are still around, walking down familiar streets, and all that normal stuff.  It’s fun and I love going, but going to Tokyo is no longer a big adventure.  It really doesn’t even feel like I’m going to a foreign country at all.  I don’t think this is a bad thing, but rather something to be expected after so many trips to Japan, topped off by living there full time for four years.  So while it might sound amazing to some people when I say “I’m spending New Years vacation in Tokyo,” really it’s not such a big deal for me.

I was back in the Tokyo/Chiba area for about a week and a half total, which seems like a long vacation but honestly still is a pretty short trip.  Especially when trying to meet up with so many people in the area and hitting up old favorite restaurants and shops, I do kind of wish I could have stayed longer.  I definitely feel like I didn’t waste any days over there though – pretty much every day had something planned at least roughly.  It seems like a lot of old friends would say “wow  you haven’t changed at all!” which I guess is better than hearing something like “my god you’ve turned into a totally different person” or “Godzilla is attacking the city!”  At first I thought it was a little strange, but I did quickly come to realize that although a  year and a half had passed, not much really had changed.  Everyone and everywhere is pretty much the same as before, which I guess should be kind of expected.  It’s hard to explain the feeling.  I guess if anything, it was weird that it wasn’t weird to be back in Japan.

This is getting a lot more introspective than I thought it would have.  I guess I should give more details about what I actually did during my week and a half over there.  I didn’t really do anything touristy of course, so it was more just hanging out with friends and hitting up old tabehodai buffets and restaurants.  Also I expectedly bought a decent amount of plastic toys and junk.  Surprisingly though, my suitcases didn’t come back as full as I might have thought they would.

The flight over to Narita was via Chicago, on an early morning series of flights.  Following my modus operandi for international travel, I stayed up the entire night beforehand packing, which means I was pretty exhausted as I stumbled around O’Hare waiting for my international flight.  Finally got to my seat, and luckily there was an empty seat in my row so I could spread out a bit more with an empty seat separating me from the next passenger.  I slept around a total of 6 or 7 fairly solid hours during the 11 hour flight, eventually watching some TV on my iPhone.  Breezed through immigration, getting the first stamps in my brand new, renewed passport, and picked up the rental SIM card I had pre-arranged for my iPhone.  It did feel slightly cool and spy-like, picking up a package at the airport post office, going to a bench in the corner, swapping the SIM card from the rental phone into my own, and having my iPhone work in Japan.  Or it might have just been the jetlag and lack of sleep doing their thing.

As I was spending the first few nights of my trip in Chiba, at the Mitsui Garden Hotel just 2 or 3 blocks from my old apartment, the nostalgia kicked in pretty quick.  Took JR from the airport to Chiba, and cabbed it from there.  First meal was kind of late, at Choshimaru, for real sushi that was actually prepared fresh with fresh ingredients.  It might not be a fancy place, but it’s light years above what they have in St. Louis (no offense to the many St. Louis sushi shop owners who I’m sure read this blog religiously).   Crashed hard that night, sleeping until late the next afternoon.  Jetlag wasn’t too bad after that, although my sleep schedule was slightly weird for the first few days.  It might not have helped that there was an all night party/karaoke planned for my first full day in Japan.  I was surprised that I could stay awake for as long as I did, being jetlagged and out of practice for so long.

Hmm… If I actually do a full, detailed description of every day back in Japan, this entry will be way too long.  I’m going to have to kind of summarize stuff from here on out.  I’ll throw in some pictures though, since supposedly 1 picture is worth 1,000 words.  Coincidentally, this is much, much better than the exchange rate of 1 USD to Japanese Yen.

千葉神社での初詣

Spent New Years Eve in Chiba, with the countdown to 2012 at The Hub.  On New Years Day checked out Chiba Shrine for a kind of hatsumode I guess, which was actually pretty cool because I don’t recall ever going to a shrine on New Years Day proper.  It was of course super packed with people.  That afternoon I changed hotels to spend the middle portion of my trip in “THE TOKYO.”  Got a pretty good and cheap hotel, the Keikyu EX Inn Asakusabashi-Ekimae, which ended up being great and a good central base of operations for doing stuff in the city.  Went to Kamen Rider The Diner in Ikebukuro, saw the national college rugby semi-finals, and almost died eating shabu-shabu tabehodai.  I feel like my mass-eating skills have gone down significantly since leaving Japan, which is kind of a shame.  It was delicious, but wow there is only so much beef and goma-dare you can eat.  The next morning I experienced a post-food coma food-hangover of epic proportions, which could be the really disgusting plot for The Hangover Part 3 if those writers get really desperate.  

Ichiran ramen - I am drooling as I look at this pic

Speaking of food, that was definitely one of the highlights of the trip, since it really is just totally different being back in the States.  When you’re in Japan for a long time, you really start to miss stuff like pizza, Mexican food, and steak.  I mean, you can get all of those foods in Japan, but they’re just not the same.  They’ll work, and there are even some good places to go, but you still always are wishing you could get stuff from the other side of the pond.  Well after being in the US for a long time the same thing starts to happen with Japanese food.  Sushi, ramen, donburi, and stuff like that are kind of available in the US (especially in places like LA or NY), but it’s still not the same.  So being back in Japan was awesome at the very least just because of all the good food.

Y's 新年会 2012Got to see a lot of old friends (thanks to everyone who made time to hang out!) at random times during the trip, but the main event was of course a massive party at Y’s with tons of people.  Since the IES days in 2004, Y’s really has been the location for some of the best and most memorable events and parties, so it was awesome to go back and do another one there like in the old days.  Bryan and Karen, who also live back in the US now, happened to be  in Japan while I was there so it really was like a massive reunion.  All in all it was a great time and I got to see a ton of people who I hadn’t seen in at least the year and a half since I moved back to St. Louis.  Even certain friends who only have a 60% encounter rate for Y’s events showed up, haha.  We went back to Chiba afterwards for all night karaoke again and I actually managed to stay up the whole time.

The last part of my trip I went back to stay Chiba, and was able to meet up with some old AEON people, etc. who couldn’t make it to Y’s because of the Saturday work shifts.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been so long since I graduated college and moved to Japan to work as an English teacher.  Actually, I only now realize as I type this that that was about five and a half years ago.  Things have changed but then again they really haven’t.  I could definitely see myself moving back to Japan at some point, although I am honestly pretty happy with the way things are progressing back in St. Louis right now.  I’m definitely not going to just settle down here for good just yet, so maybe in a few years I’ll get the urge to work and live abroad again.  I guess you could say that life right now is a lot more routine than during the years I spent in Japan, but I don’t know if that’s because I’m busier and living in the American suburbs, or if it’s just because I’m getting older.  Eh, I’m not really worried about it because I still have several more years of wandering around the planet trying to figure out what I’ll do when/if I grow up.

And with that, since my eyes are starting to close on their own  I guess I will wind down this absurdly long post.  I am seriously going to try to at least post more often than once a month during 2012, but that is a promise that will most likely be broken several times if not every month.  Actually, I’m sure I’ll have at least one  follow up post regarding weird or random stuff I saw in Japan, so there is at least some content there.

Here goes my attempt at logging my trip.

5:38AM – Right now I’m sitting on a plane to Chicago waiting for takeoff. I stayed awake the entire night packing and getting other stuff done for the trip/end of the year, which is per my usual pre-flight routine.  I am sure that I’ll sleep the entire way to Chicago. Will probably be able to sleep at least a good 6 hours of the 11 hour flight from Chicago to Tokyo. I didn’t really fill up both of the suitcases I brought, but hopefully that will allow me some flexibility in buying crappy Japanese robot toys and other stuff that I don’t need anyway.

Note (1/30/12): Yeah that was pretty pathetic.  That’s the only mini-entry I wrote during my entire trip to Japan for New Years.  I’ll have to do a real recap sometime soon.

Whoa it’s almost April

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I’ve been putting off writing a blog for a while since I’ve mainly just been lazy, but partially also because I’ve been busy.  Working full time and going to school three times a week has left less time for publishing complaints and stupid pictures onto the internet.  But since I realize it’s been quite a while since my past post, and I don’t want to go several months with no updates to this crappy website, I’m just sitting down for 10 minutes to crank out a quickie.  Ew.

Topic 1: JAPAN
Hey you might not know this, but Japan got super mega knocked with a disaster trifecta earlier this month!  Of course you know this, I was just being sarcastic.  So yeah in case you were unaware of my current whereabouts, I am back in the United States and have been since the end of summer.  If you’re one of the four creepers who read this site, you already knew that.  But there apparently are still several people who didn’t know where I was, and so they assumed I was still in Japan.  Imagine that!  Someone not keeping their eye on my every move around the planet!  So once the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear stuff came about I had more than one person contact me all like “hey Anthony where are you I hope you’re not dead” etc.  Thank you for your concern, but yeah St. Louis county didn’t get too much damage from the earthquake that hit Japan.  No seriously, it’s nice that you did ask where I was.  I don’t really know what to say about the Japanese disasters other than it’s a horrible thing and I’m glad that no one I know (that I have heard about, either directly or indirectly) has been injured or anything.  While the area that I lived in (Chiba/Toyko) wasn’t in the tsunami area, they still got (are getting?) a ton of earthquakes and the nuclear problem is pretty widespread although possibly a bit blown out of proportion.  I hope.  Times are still tough in Japan but I hope that things will all get back to normal sometime soon.

Topic 2: WEATHER
It’s finally feeling like spring here, even though a week ago it was actually snowing where I live.  Strange midwest weather.  I’m definitely happy that things are getting nicer outside, with the only drawback being that I must have developed some pretty wicked allergies having been away from the area for so long.  Getting some random allergy attacks is pretty weird although not really a problem as much as they’re just annoying.  Still not sure if it’s actually pollen, mold or something, or if I am being secretly poisoned with nuts in all of my food by a squad of ninjas.  I hope it’s seasonal allergies.

Oh no I’m getting distracted by the interwebs.  Weather must have been too boring a topic!  Onward we march.

Topic 3: SUMMER TRAVEL
This summer I’ll hopefully be able to get some traveling in, with the family and also on my own.  Where should I go?  I’m thinking primarily within the US for now but international isn’t out of the picture just yet.  My youngest brother turns 21 in a few weeks so maybe we’ll go take a Vegas trip after the spring semester is over.  I also wouldn’t mind hitting up LA or New York or something, and a drive out to Indiana at some point is probably called for too.

Topic 4: OTHER
OK so I’m not really going to have many other topics during this brief mindbarf onto the WordPress page.  Last week I was actually all raring to write a detailed complaint post about the idiot lady in front of me in the checkout line at Target, who pretty much held up my evening by a whole 10 minutes, but then I got distracted and found something better to do.  Like eat dinner.  It would have been a very classic NR7000-esque post, but unfortunately the fire is gone and I probably won’t be writing about that subject ever.  It did make me think about how much I’ve grown to dislike shopping in real stores and how important Amazon Prime has become.  Speaking of, I got a pretty sweet remote control helicopter a while back and I don’t even care if you’re snickering to yourself right now about me getting another toy.  It is pretty awesome and on an even deeper level I think I’m just amazed at how far toy technology has come since I was a kid.  I mean for $25 I have a freaking helicopter!  It can hover and fly around the room and land on the top of my cheese ball barrel.  You pretty much have to see one for yourself to beleive it.

That’s enough for now.  A whole 15 minutes of me rambling.

Landlocked

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I am still in the final stages of recovery after last night’s partial food coma, brought on by going to a casino buffet here in town for birthday celebration/gambling thing.  The food there isn’t especially great in terms of flavor, but they do have a lot of variety I guess.  One of the items they had on the buffet was sushi.  As you can imagine, it was standard American buffet grade sushi.  Soggy seaweed, bland crumbly rice, cucumber, a fish-like substance, and some kind of “exotic” Asian ingredient like black sesame seeds.  I’ve noticed this is gaining in popularity here (in the US), even having sushi as a selection at various buffets, etc.  Here in St. Louis, which is pretty much about as far as you can get from the ocean, there are about a dozen more sushi/”Japanese” restaurants than I remember there being 10 years ago.  That’s just off the top of my head – there are probably many more.  But does that mean they’re any good?

Well I don’t really know.  I haven’t actually been to any of these newfangled sushi shops stuck in the middle of the United States, primarily out of fear of food poisoning or just plain being afraid of eating gross food.  Sure I’m biased since I just moved back from Japan, but in my experience up to now, a lot of the sushi in the US is pretty terrible.  I don’t really like the emphasis on rolls with all kinds of crazy stuff in them, although sure that’s the kind of cosmopolitan sushi re-working that is popular on the east coast.  And since that’s what’s popular over there, it has filtered across the country and that seems to be mainly what they have in the Midwest.  While there are of course some of those fancy US-style sushi rolls that are decent, I’d almost always rather eat plain old traditional workin’ class salaryman sushi.  Less focus on making something crazy and just focusing on fresh ingredients that speak for themselves.  I think when the Choshimaru (kaiten sushi place) in Chiba near my old apartment had the “aurora salmon” on special for 150 yen a plate a few summers back I ate like 10 plates worth in one sitting.  You can’t really beat fresh fish like that.  Melts in your mouth.  And now I am drooling all over my laptop.  Even the cheap places like Kappa Sushi are about 20x better tasting than most sushi I can remember eating stateside.  I haven’t tried much in California though, and I’m sure they have some pretty good places out there.

Prices are also going to be a main problem, because even if I’m able to find a place here in town that has great quality sushi, I’m positive the price for standard grade (good) sushi will be several times more expensive than even a high-end place was in Japan.  I understand that transportation costs, etc will factor into that but there will inevitably be a markup just because there isn’t much variety and this is a specialty food here.

So yeah sushi in Japan = fresh and delicious.  Sushi in St. Louis = scary and intimidating.  I’ll try to get out and actually give some of these places a chance – maybe a place that seems more like a somewhat authentic Japanese restaurant rather than a trendy place catering to Americanized varieties.  How did this entry turn into me rambling about sushi?  Eh.  I think in the long run, sushi is going to be the equivalent of pizza and Mexican food when I was living in Japan.  Amazing and abundant in one country, more rare and not nearly as good when you’re living in the other.  There were a few decent places I knew in Chiba/Tokyo that had pizza or Mexican food, and even a few really great ones.  But for the most part they were few and far between.  Sushi places in St. Louis will likely be even harder to come by.  I have noticed though, that my #1 favorite food genre, Chinese, is pretty much universally good (as long as you choose a decent restaurant, but they’re not as hard to find I don’t think).  Maybe because whether you’re in America, Japan, or probably anywhere else, you can find places actually run by Chinese people.  We are all over the place, after all.

On the passive To Do list: find a decent sushi place in St. Louis.  Also while I’m at it, if I can find a good Korean BBQ that would be awesome too.  I am open to recommendations.

HK bonus story of terror

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Even though the previous blog post is dated September 8 (the day I started writing it), I didn’t actually get around to finishing and publishing it until earlier this afternoon. I almost totally forgot about the return trip from Hong Kong, which was quite possibly one of the worst travel experiences I’ve ever had. The day I was leaving HK, it had been cloudy and raining here and there for most of the morning. My flight wasn’t until about 3:30 in the afternoon, so I had a pretty easy morning and got to the airport super early.  Checked my bags in, grabbed some roast pork and duck for lunch, and everything seemed to be going fine.

しかし!!

Things did not turn out fine. Due to thunderstorms, our plane was stuck on the tarmac for over 4 hours. This was after we had already boarded and everything, so that entire time we were sitting on the plane, without drinks, TV, food, good air circulation, etc. All the captain/attendants would tell us over the intercom was that fights were delayed due to weather and they would let us know when we would be moving. Oh, and they apologized several times. Which, unfortunately, does absolutely nothing to actually ease the pain of having to sit on an airplane that is not moving for longer than your actual scheduled flight time. I’m sure there are safety regulations to keep planes from letting their passengers off after they’ve boarded once, even though that would have been so much nicer. Better yet, they shouldn’t have boarded our plane at all if they knew that the storms were severe enough to keep us from moving. It’s not like the thunder just came out of nowhere between the time they started boarding and the time they closed the hatch on us. I fell asleep a few times but the time still passed by pretty slowly. Then we finally took off, so you’d think that would be the end of the nightmare.

Nope! About halfway through the 4 hour flight, the captain comes on and tells us that since our arrival time is now looking to be around midnight (8:00 scheduled + 4 hour delay), we will be unable to land at Narita Airport as scheduled. Apparently Narita, the biggest international airport in all of Japan, closes at 11:30 at night. I still don’t understand this one, since I’m sure it doesn’t actually close. But regardless they were no longer going to be taking me to the airport that is about 45 minutes away from my apartment. No, they’re instead going to Haneda, the primarily domestic airport south of Tokyo that is about an hour and a half away from home. That is, if there are trains running. Which there weren’t, since most Japanese trains stop running around midnight. I realized very quickly that I was going to be stranded as Haneda airport with no way to go home, but there wasn’t much I could do before we landed. The air staff also assured us that they’d “take care of us and help us get home” which made me think, with the slight bit of optimism I still had left at that point, that they would either put me up in a hotel near Haneda or pay for a cab all the way home. I should have known that wouldn’t happen.

Arrived at Haneda, and everyone is stranded. The airline, ANA, gave all passengers 5000 yen (about 50 USD) as we exited the plane. That’s all. No hotel stays, no coupons for flights, nothing. And of course at this point there are no trains, and a taxi back to Chiba would have cost me well over 200 (maybe even 300) dollars US. There was a super pissy Australian guy with long hair who made a bit of a whiny scene at the payphone lobby, but there’s not much to go into there. So yeah I was trying to figure out what to do, and eventually I decided to just take a taxi to the southernmost (i.e. closest) part of Tokyo, where hopefully there would be a capsule hotel or a net cafe. Talked to the cabbie and told him my situation. Shinagawa was close but there weren’t really any net cafes there. So I opted for Gotanda, which was fairly close and has some net cafes (in addition to lots of super shady stores and people around the vicinity). Taxi fare cost me like 7000 yen, and I had to spend the night in a cheap net cafe, which cost another 2000 yen. Thanks a lot ANA for a great welcome back.

I went home the next morning at about 8AM tired, still pissed, and lugging my suitcases around. The only extremely minor benefit from this excursion to the net cafe was that I got to watch Ame-Talk for the first time, which is actually a pretty funny talk show. But yeah that was it. The ordeal wasn’t enough to ruin the HK trip necessarily, but it was a pretty terrible way to end my last vacation during my stay in Japan.

Blink

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I’ve been back for about a week and a half now. Things are pretty good. I’ve already gotten into a decent routine, and jetlag never got to me too bad. I didn’t really have a chance to be jetlagged, since I had to start work the Monday I got back, and I don’t think it’s possible for it to catch up to me now. Even after I had been back in the US for only a week, it felt like it had been a lot longer than that. Not in a bad way at all – just that there wasn’t much transitioning at all. I just kind of came back and everything went along smoothly. Almost too smoothly, if that’s possible.  Hard to describe. I knew I wouldn’t really have too much “reverse culture shock” but I thought it would at least be a little more weird, having been abroad for 4 years. But it’s not like I never came back home, and it’s not like I was disconnected from the world outside of Japan. If this were 50 years ago it would have been a different story (disregarding the fact that everything else would be so different it wouldn’t have been possible for this whole situation to occur) and there would have been a much higher chance of being totally reverse culture shocked. But no, I’ve kept pretty darn well connected over the past four years thanks to technology. With Facebook I’m in the loop about things my friends and family are doing, and also strangely very aware about what most people from high school have been doing too. Thanks to Bittorrent I’ve kept up to date on current American TV shows, being horribly disappointed by Lost and Heroes just as much as anyone in America.   Daily news, memes, pointless time wasting YouTube videos, and pretty much everything else also has been brought to me via internet.  There are of course small things that I’ve missed out on, but they’re so minor that it doesn’t really matter.  For the record I don’t think I knew until about a year ago who Hannah Montana was.

Someone mentioned to me a few days ago that my last blog post made it sound like I was depressed about moving back.  I didn’t really have that intention when I was writing it and I don’t think I really felt like that anyway, but looking back on it I can see why some people might think that.  Nah, things have been pretty good this whole time with the packing, moving, and getting re-settled in the US of A.  Sure I’ll miss hanging out with people in Japan but it’s not like I’ll never see anyone ever again.  I’m sure I’ll think of some kind of scheme in the near future.  OK it might just be something as boring as going on a vacation over there but who knows.  But yeah don’t be reading this and thinking I’m sitting here weeping over having to come back to the land of awesome pizza.  (I do really wish I had some good sushi though.)

I really need to get to sleep but I figured I should at least try and get some words out to form a somewhat readable blog post, since I already have WordPress open and everything.  I guess one thing I’m happy to be catching up on back in the US is books.  TV, music, and movies can mostly be “obtained” online or through more traditional methods (like paying for them) even while living abroad but books, at least to me, always seemed a bit more difficult.  Sure I could probably find PDFs or eBooks or some titles online but for me a book is still something that should be on paper, held in your hands, and read either on a couch, recliner, or toilet.  I now have a literal giant stack of books to get through, many of which are newer books that I didn’t have access to (I guess I could have spent a lot of money to get them over there) when I was in Japan.  Also I went to this used book fair over the weekend and got a whole bunch of other books to add to my stack.  I’ll be doing a lot of reading over the next few months, which is a good thing.  I think.  I mean, it’s better than doing something psycho like strangling little animals with my toes or building a scarecrow made out of tin foil.

That’s about all for now.  I’ll try to write something more coherent over the weekend.  Good night America.

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