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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.

Mr. DNA

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Tonight I feel as if there is a lot I need to blog about, not because anything super important or life-changing happened, but just because I am slightly bored and haven’t written on here in a while. Expect multiple entries.

About 2 or 3 weeks ago, for some reason, I got into a museum kind of mood. Yes, this happens very rarely, although it does happen. I like museums. Mainly science museums or history ones. Not especially art. In fact, my feelings towards art can best be summarized in a conversation I had with Blanchard a while back after he got conned into going to an art exhibit.

Me: “So what’d you do in Odaiba?”
B.: “Oh, we went to this art exhibit.”
Me: “…art!?”

It’s not exactly like I’m so ignorant as to art that I can’t appreciate it. I mean, there are some kinds of art that I actually don’t mind going to see. Swords, toys, and tattoos on fat men are all in the clear. But most art, especially modern art, is so pretentious and stupid that I wouldn’t waste time or money going to see it. Science, history, that kind of stuff, however, I will totally go to see in a museum. And that’s what I wanted to do. I was all set to head to Ueno, where there are a bunch of the Tokyo major museums a few Mondays back, but checking their hours online before leaving, I found that they were closed on Mondays. Not just the Science Museum, but all museums. Being a public-run place, they are opened everyday but Monday. I’m glad I didn’t make the trek into Tokyo.

Last Sunday, the 8th, I woke up pretty early, having gone to bed earlier the night before after working a full Saturday and then having Matt’s going away party at Yushun. So I went to the museums. Hit up The National Science Museum (国立科学博物館), Kahaku for short. Best part of this museum was the dinosaur, animal, and human anthropological stuff. Nice exhibits. Also they had a pretty high-tech system where you get an IC card badge when you enter the museum. You can use it at the computer display terminal at every exhibit. Not only does it remember what language you want all the information to display in, but it keeps track of where you’ve been. When you get home, you can log in to the website with a provided ID and password, and see and read the info for all the exhibits you visited. Pretty awesome system.

After that, I visited the Tokyo National Museum, which was nice but kind of boring for my tastes. They had some nice swords on display and some nice scroll and woodblock print art, but other than that nothing as sweet as dinosaurs. It was still worth walking around, even though I got into right near when the doors close at 4:30 so I only had around an hour to explore.

I’ll upload pics one day, but since I know it will take me several months to get to that, here are some collages:
Bill Nye
My name is Chris and I like swords

Pop pop pop pop

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Headed into Tokyo for the first time in a long while today. The International Tokyo Toy Show (link) was going on, so I decided to check it out. It was being held at Big Sight over in Odaiba, which is only about an hour away from Goi; much closer than I would have thought. I also am really enjoying the Pasmo/Suica situation these days. Since you can use either of the train pass IC cards to ride almost any kind of public transportation in the Tokyo area, you don’t have to worry about different tickets for different train lines. For instance, I rode JR to Shin Kiba, then transferred to the Rinkai Line to head into Odaiba. Changing lines just took a quick touch with my cell phone through each ticket gate, taking pretty much zero time. Technology is sweet.

Unfortunately, the Toy Show was quite a disappointment. I guess for some reason I was expecting a huge event with sweet toys and robots all over the place, in addition to video games. I was really hoping for something like Tokyo Game Show only with toys. But yeah, at first glance it looked a lot like a regular big convention. Then you notice that there are little kids everywhere. That’s always a bad sign. So yeah, pretty much the entire show was some pretty weak displays of new toys. Bandai and Takara Tomy combined took up at least 40% of the show I’d say, and they did indeed have some sweet stuff on show. However, the rest of the booths at this show seemed to be either weird foreign toy companies trying to show off their crappy products, or Japanese companies that sold some kind of Anpanman licensed product. While it was cool to see the few interesting toys they had, it was definitely not the spectacular toy-o-rama I was hoping for.

One thing worth mentioning is the sweet not-so-high-profile toys that Bandai always makes. Sure they have the normal Kamen Rider, sentai, Digimon stuff, but they also must have a few different departments that make the stranger stuff. One that seemed so retarded yet genius at the same time is this one. Please look at the picture and see if you can guess what it is:

Any idea?

∞プチプチGuess it? So yeah, this thing is called the Mugen Puchi-Puchi, which can be roughly translated as “Infinite Pop-Pop.” OK, so translating into pop-pop sounds way sketch. But “puchi puchi” is the sound for popping. As in the sound that you make when you are bored and popping bubble wrap. Yeah, Bandai has made an electronic bubble-wrap toy. It’s of course not real bubble-wrap, but a little keychain with bubble buttons on it. You press the button just like real bubble-wrap, and it makes that familiar sound. This is probably the stupidest idea for a toy ever, right? Yes, but it’s also so stupid that it will sell billions. I think I’ll be buying tons of these for people’s Christmas presents this year. Seriously, how addictive will this be? Bored? Let’s pop some bubble-wrap. And even funnier is that apparently ever 100 pops, it will make either a fart noise or a “sexy voice.” What better excuse to sit and pop 100 bubbles at a time!

This thing is coming out in September for like 8 or 900 yen. It comes in 5 different colors and kids and old people everywhere (in Japan) will rejoice in the fact that they can spend hours popping fake bubble-wrap whenever and wherever they want.

Nothing else super sweet to report from the Toy Show. I did, on the walk back, check out a building that has a La Rochelle Bistro Cafe owned by Iron Chef Sakai. It’s apparently a lunch buffet restaurant, and for pretty cheap. It was closed today but at some point I definitely want to try out a Sakai Viking.

Oh, and as if the Toy Show couldn’t have gotten any worse, guess what showed up.

Yakety Yak

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三社祭、浅草

What could have been another fairly normal Sunday of sleeping, walking around, going to arcades, and making fun of Chicken Heads instead turned into another slightly strange yet sweet Japanese festival.

Checked out the Sanja Festival (三社祭) in Asakusa, one of the major Tokyo summer festivals, which has been going on since Edo times, I believe. It also happens to be a festival that the local yakuza actually take part in, and you can see them riding on the mikoshi floats, almost completely naked to show off their full-body tattoos. Although seeing a bunch of old Japanese guys wearing nothing but a sweat rag to cover their balls might not seem like entertainment, it was pretty cool to see the yak tattoos. Not so much the buttcracks. I’ve got a bunch of pictures from the festival like the above one, which I’ll upload someday on my Pictures page. For now, I uploaded 2 short videos on YouTube from the festival. They’re both from the same mikoshi float, but different sides of it.

The first is of some crazy looking older yaks, most likely high-ups of some kind. Especially the guy in the black coat with the permed and orange hair. The second has 3 nearly naked guys covered in tattoos. They’re all somehow standing up on a float that is being carried and bounced up and down by a group of people. It must be nauseating riding that thing.

You can see, kind of, from the videos how loud and crazy this festival was. Of course I only saw a bit of it on Sunday, the last day of the 3-day event, but it was packed full of people and there were tons of onlookers following each mikoshi as they paraded up and down the streets. People were cheering and clapping for the yaks on the mikoshi like they were national heroes. Maybe they kind of are. I’ll bet that if the police or something had a festival, people wouldn’t be nearly as happy. And there wouldn’t be any sweet clapping in rhythm.

GW Wrap Up, Back to Twerk

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Golden Week’s already over.

So yeah, on Thursday went to LaLaPort in the daytime. Had lunch at the Shakey’s there, where Nick had the balls the challenge me to a pizza eating contest. It was a grueling match, with me defeating Nick as he was nearly in tears with his 14 slices of pizza. I had 15 slices, and claimed victory as the Shakey’s Champion. Afterwards, we both felt rightfully ill and I spent the rest of the day digesting. Nick somehow needed the rest of the week to do this. Anyway, that night we went to hang out in Chiba with Sato-san at an Izakaya. I was still full of pizza, so it was hard to do anything but rock back and forth. Either way, it was a fun night that ended up with Nick trying his eyebrow-slicked “hey hey kanojo” pickup line on random old women outside of Chiba station. And when I say old, I mean like over 50. Pretty gross. He was joking, at least I think (and hope).

On Friday, headed into Tokyo and checked out Shinjuku, Harajuku, and the Meiji Shrine. Brian met up with us after recovering from a week of being tourguide, and we walked down Takeshita street. UNFORTUNATELY at some point during the walk back from Meiji to the end of Takeshita, I realized I had dropped and lost my sunglasses. Rest in peace, trusty old black aviators. We had a lot of good times. Anyways, me, Nick, and Brian wanted to hit up Tabasa for dinner, since we were in the mood for some all-you-can-eat hip hop and jelly, but the line was super long and we opted to go around the corner to a very similar (looking) place offering all-you-can-eat pasta and pizza and stuff. Big mistake. The place we went to, called Gonzo’s or something Italian with a G, had sub-par cold food, pizza that was hard as a rock, and not even any hip hop. Add on top of that a fat Russian waitress who could barely speak English let alone Japanese, and a table of lowlife hippie types who came in about 30 minutes after us, and you can see that I will never go to a Harajuku pasta buffet ever again that is not named Tabasa.

After eating, we walked around Kabukicho for a bit, looked around, and got harassed by some Nigerian princes who wanted us to come to their clubs. Mainly we just went to a few arcades there, and realized that karaoke would be too expensive at this early in the evening. Thus, we went to Shibuya around 10PM to kill some time before finding an all-night karaoke spot. Went to The Lockup*, which was actually pretty sweet although there were no jail breaks or monsters. The nomihoudai was decent, and about the same price as a normal izakaya. We had the Electric Shocks first, which were as bad as before. After that, went to a Shibuya branch of Utahiro; not the one I went to last time in Shibuya, and it was a nice place. Did that all night, during which time I was given permission to use Nick’s phone to be a jerk to his ex; some yakuza-speaking girl who didn’t believe I wasn’t Japanese. It was pretty funny. After karaoke ended at 5, hit up McDonalds for some breakfast, saw some cops get all riled up because of a security alarm going off, and then headed back home. All in all a good Shibuya all nighter.

*Note: I uploaded my first YouTube video; us entering The Lockup. There are automated traps and stuff that are supposed to scare you. I took it with my new camera, so it’s pretty shaky, dark, and terrible, but hey, it’s online.

After getting home around 7 and sleeping for a few hours, Nick headed back to Hyogo via Shinkansen. I slept some more and headed to Chiba to hang with Brian for the usual family restaurant/arcade excursion. We ended up finding a trick to one of the UFO Catcher-type machines, and ended up walking away with an entire bag each of plastic Mario Mushrooms. Pretty awesome. Sunday hit up Global Viking again, and saw Spider-Man 3 again. It was totally worth it for the Venom scene, and also since Blanchard and I used our IU IDs to get student tickets.

Today, Tuesday, I started back up at work. It’s seriously rough having 9 days off, with complete freedom, fun, etc, then having to haul back into work. I couldn’t even speak slow enough to my first student today, so for the first half of class he had no idea what I was saying. I’m not going to write more about work now, since it will make me depressed. Tomorrow I have to wake up early and go to the head office in Shinjuku for a workshop. Yippy skippy.

I love vacations

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It’s been a great Golden Week so far. A lot of free time, hanging out, eating, and most importantly, NOT WORKING. Basically, Golden Week is like a national spring break here in Japan; a week long period where so many national holidays ended up being close together that the country decided just to declare the whole week like a holiday. Technically, May 1st and 2nd this year were the 2 weekdays that weren’t national holidays, but a lot of people take these off anyway. Overall, a lot of people have a full week off at the beginning of May, including luckily AEON staff.

Sunday, spent the entire day sleeping and relaxing. Nick decided to come to Chiba/Tokyo for Golden Week, and flew up via Haneda. There is actually a bus that goes directly from Haneda Airport to Goi Station, so he took that and I met him at the station. Headed to Global Viking for dinner, that enormous yakiniku all-you-can-eat plus more restaurant up in Hamano. Checked out arcades in Chiba and Goi, and watched some of Curb season 4, which I had never seen. On Monday, we checked out Asakusa and Ueno, then stopped by the Don Quixote on the way back. The JR Holiday Pass or the Tokunai pass have been pretty useful so far this week, although I guess we haven’t been using it to the potential that we could be. Overall I think we’re at least breaking even on the value of the ticket versus how much it would cost if we bought separate tickets every time we went somewhere.

On Tuesday, had a scheduled “geek day” with Matt, Yori, and Nick. Went into Akihabara to play in the arcades, look at video game shops, etc. Also we decided to try a Maid Cafe, since none of us had ever been to one. We wanted to go to the one near Super Potato that they used in Tadano Hitoshi, but there was a long line and we didn’t really feel like it would be worth it. We just walked around and picked one, since there were quite a few around the same area. Overall, it was a really weird experience. The one we went to was really small, and had a little stage (more like a 2×3 ft platform against the wall that was only about 4 inches off the floor. Drinks, food, and coffee were of expensive but fairly normal prices for Japan. I guess where they get you is paying for maid services, which is not the sexually explicit stuff you would maybe expect when talking about a place like this. Maid Cafes are, in many ways, like sex clubs without any reference to or inclusion of sex. The nerdy customers who frequent these places are apparently perfectly satisfied with just saying Hi to a girl in a maid outfit, or maybe springing to take a picture with them. There is no kind of sexual interaction, no flash of skin, no dirty talk. In fact, the maids and stuff generally talk in a disgustingly super-cute manner. Oh yeah, maid services. We didn’t buy any of them, but we read the menu. Most things cost around 700 or 1000 yen, but they had stuff like “take a Polaroid with a maid,” “play video games against a maid,” or “have the maid do a song and dance on stage.” Really strange. During the 15 or 20 awkward minutes that we were there, this creepy guy in the corner paid for one of the maids to sing a song on stage. The entire time he just kind of stared at her like a creep. Overall, I’d have to say that maid cafes are extremely uncomfortable, expensive, and not really even that interesting as a cultural phenomenon. Or maybe we just went to a bad one.

After the geek day, we headed back to Chiba and were just hanging out in the Hana no Mae up there, which is very different form the Makuhari one, but a really nice place overall. Hana no Mae is another one of those Japanese restaurants that changes their menu with the season, and apparently the “new” menu now features horse meat and a whole selection of whale dishes. I’m going to try them sometime over the next few months just to say I did. After that, Yori headed out and Brian took his place after spending a day showing his mom around Tokyo. So it was me, Nick, Matt, and Brian. We then proceeded to Utahiro for 2 hours of karaoke. As if that wasn’t enough, we then headed to Kamatori, sort of near where Matt lives, for more karaoke. Of course by this time it was after 11, meaning we had to commit to all night. Oh well, we were having fun and it was Golden Week. Overall a very fun night although as expected making it all the way to 5AM was very very rough. Surprisingly, I think this was the first all-night karaoke session where I didn’t fall asleep, although Nick and Brian were sleeping for about 15 or 20 minutes near the end of it. As they did that, I played a bunch of Kamen Rider songs just to watch the videos in a daze.

Got back to Goi around 6AM, then showered and went to sleep until the late afternoon, which felt absolutely amazing. Completely refreshed. Some people would see waking up at almost 4 int he afternoon a complete disaster, but I see it rather as a great triumph. Finally got out of the apartment and headed to Soga with Nick to see Spider-Man 3 and eat tacos. What’s that, Spider-Man 3? Already!? Yep. And that will deserve it’s own blog post next…

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