Finding Nemo

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Buck-naked and Steaming

I stood buck-naked in the room, with a large yellow towel in one hand and a little towel in the other.  A naked Japanese man in the pool below me looked up quizzically.  I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do.  I whistled and looked at the spot where my watch would have been.  The Japanese man shook his head.  I figured rinsing off was in order, so I wandered over to the spigots in the corner with little wooden seats.  I sat down on one, and it collapsed.  It turned out to be a bucket, not a seat.  I was stuck with my ass in the bucket, legs off the floor, trying to get up.  I heard chuckling behind me.  I pried the bucket off my butt and sat down again on the granite seat.  After some practice, I realized the bucket was intended to be filled from the spigot and then poured over your body.  I still hadn't figured out the purpose of the two different sized towels, but sufficiently rinsed, I plunged into the pool.

In a few minutes, some more Japanese men walked in.  None of them had the big towel, but they all had the little towel covering their genitals.  Doh!  The little towel's purpose revealed.   I wondered if my walking around with my twinkie swinging had offended anyone.  But soon the man who had laughed at me got up.  He didn't use the little towel, and I realized why.  He was Donkey Man.  So much for Japanese stereotypes.

After a few minutes, I scouted the place and found the perfect spot. A stream of steaming water poured from a Koi Fish's mouth, 10 feet above me, splattering forcefully onto my neck and shoulders.  I leaned forward and let it massage my back.  Soothing music that could only be called Japanese New Age played from hidden speakers.  Enormous snow-covered Mt Fuii stood directly above me.  Although I was in my birthday suit and steaming, I didn't care that Fuji-san was looking down.  It was at that point I wondered how on Earth the incredible concept of the Onsen had not been exported into the states.

An onsen is not just a simple hot tub.  As I learned in Kyoto, Japanese temples, shrines, and onsens are often built to fit naturally into the surrounding environment.  At the one I went to, pools were built from large natural rocks, surrounded by little zen-like gardens.  You could lean back and stare at the real koi fish pond next to you, ease back into bubble jets built directly into the boulders, or get splattered under the tumbling waterfalls.  My favorite was the pool enclosed in cypress wood, with little bubbles streaming up from below.  The water was cooler, the air was scented with pine, menthol, and natural cypress smells from the wood itself.  It was a wonderful place to meditate at the end of a long onsen soak.

But its not just the pools that make a good onsen.  The great ones are situated in beautiful natural settings, in this case directly at the foot of Mt Fuji.  Others are built into riverbeds, scenic valleys, or mountain lakes.  After my first long soak, I wandered over to the tatami room and took a snooze.  But I couldn't resist the wonderful looking chair in the corner, stocked with a variety of buttons and even a remote control.  Yes it was a full body massage chair, the first I'd ever seen!  I gingerly encased myself into the device, it was a basically an Easy Boy, but the arm rests and leg rests actually came up and around your limbs.  Not quite sure if it was a wise idea, I dropped in a 100 Yen coin and waited for the worst.  The machine started vibrating, and the leather warmed up to a pleasant temperature.  Before I knew it, the arm and leg rests closed on me and I was simultaneously getting a back, neck, arm, and leg rub.  Yeeeaaaahhh.....  My little 100 Yen coin got me a full 30 minute massage, not bad at all.  After that, I knew I had to try the foot machine.  I put my feet into the device and watched them disappear.  When I dropped in the coin, suddenly the thing squeezed onto my feet from all sides and started hammering.  I jumped and howled but was trapped, much to the amusement of the attendants.  Apparently the machine was sized to Japanese feet.  I found with a little adjustment the machine would merely squeeze all the blood out of my feet instead of removing flesh.  The torture was relentless, the vibrations went all the way up my legs and jiggled my butt.  I sat back and tried to find my happy place.

My Origami Sensei

Showing off my drunken crane with my origami sensei Mayumi
I sat at the bar alone, where I had walked from my empty hotel in Kawaguchi-ko, at the base of Mt Fuji.  People fleeing Tokyo had gone much farther to the West.  My bartender Mayumi seemed genuinely pleased to have a customer.  She poured me a Guinness and placed it on a little Guinness-labeled plate and pushed a button.  Suddenly the pint of black liquid foamed up and formed that nice creamy head that normally takes 2 pours and 2 minutes of work.  I chuckled in amusement at the Japanese fondness for gadgets, and I had to admit this one was pretty cool.

I looked around at a number of pretty little paper cranes scattered around the bar.  She confirmed she had made many of them, and I asked if I could be her next student.  Bartender Mayumi was now my Origami sensei.

Origami Dragon made from many sheets of paper
All Japanese schoolkids learn the basics of origami, including the ubiquitous crane.  Origami paper is colorful and a perfect square.  All sorts of weird and wonderful things can be made from this simple base, including frogs, peacocks, and even massive hybrid inventions like soccer balls or dragons.

My first attempt eneded up more like a drunken crane with a bum wing, but Mayumi was a wonderful teacher, and by the 3rd attempt I was putting together an almost respectable specimen.  The crane, or tsuru, is actually quite complicated and takes about 20 or so folds.  Some of the folds are delicate maneuvers that require both hands and the occasional thumb to pull off correctly.  Mayumi's movements were quick and precise, her finished crane was perfect each time.  After my first couple attempts quacked out of the sky, I found that the folds, especially the first few, really do need to be done with great precision.  Any asymmetries quickly multiply.  Soon I was feeling pretty good about my skills, and started to think I was something of a sensei myself.  But at that moment, Taro from the hotel got off work and came in.  After seeing my cranes, he quickly got to work and whipped up an amazing peacock.  Humbled, I realized I still had a lot to learn.  Fortunately, there was no shortage of Guinness.
Taro with his pretty sweet peacock

Go-Go Izakaya!!

Into the Izakaya (no it smells fine)
The best way to describe the Izakaya is that its just a bar, really.  Yes you might be sitting on tatami mats or eating fish chips instead of potato chips, but other than that the setup isn't much different from Sharkeez back home.  Yes the hot towels are nice, and the puke tub in the bathroom is quite considerate.  But the real thing that makes it Izakaya is: ALL YOU CAN DRINK!!!  Or eat.  I guess its usually either one or the other.  But honestly, what sarariman worth his karoshi would pick the latter?

Round 1 of ?
Anyway, I went with my brother's friend Kevin to a local Izakaya in Shinjuku.  We missed the happy hour I guess but drinks were still dirt cheap, a revelation in Tokyo.  As we tucked into our smoked salmon chips, we noticed a parade of big-haired anime guys walking past with their girls.  They looked like the anime girl-catchers outside but were too young.  We realized later it was a graduation party, and they had come to celebrate.  It was a good atmosphere watching the kids bang away at Japanese drinking games, especially when the chorus was all girls chanting at the guys to catch up.

Starring in my own anime comic
We wandered over to see if we could get some pictures.  I lifted up my camera and said as politely as I could "Shashin kudasai?"  They were obliterated, and all stumbled over themselves saying "Hai!!!"  "Dozo gaijin!!!"  I was pulled headfirst into the pile of drunken students, pulling off my shoes in mid-air to avoid stepping on the tatami.  Now, as everyone here knows, the peace sign is required in every photo, and it has to be straight into the camera.  No low-slung casual peace signs allowed in Japan.

I got into the act and pulled a double-peace-sign, even though I'm not sure that's even allowed for a foreigner.  All in all, I have to say that the Izakaya is a good night out.  Just make sure you pass on the Zima.

Getting Gone

I wasn't truly alone at that point in Tokyo.  In the massive 16-man dorm atop Ace Inn Shinjuku, another guy named Jeff was hanging out as well.  He was trying to setup a pretty cool Asian concierge business and had to finish some things in Tokyo before fleeing.  Noticing I could barely shuffle to the bathroom with my bum foot, he asked me what was the problem.  I showed him my shiny new $200 REI Salomon boots I had bought for Nepal.  "Ahhhh," he replied.

He offered to split a taxi to a sporting goods store he knew of where I could buy some sneakers.  I jumped, figuratively, at the chance.  Soon I was dropping $180 for a $60 pair of ASICs trainers, but it didn't matter.  I could WALK!!!!  Strains of hallelujah filled my head and the heavens parted.  Game. On.

Just the day before, I had decided that with my foot problems I might as well skip out of Tokyo and head to a beach in the Philippines to re-coup.  But now, with my new zillion dollar wonder-sneakers, I had new life.  I changed my flight a 2nd time so that I could check out Mt Fuji and Kyoto.  My wallet singed to a crisp and my feet light, I hopped a bus to Mt Fuji.

There is not much to say about my time in Fuji, other than that it was raining or cloudy the whole time.  I had a wonderful first experience in an Onsen.  I had a marvelous hoto soup.  And I learned to fold a paper crane, origami-style from my bartender Mayumi.  But Fuji-san didn't want me there yet.  It was time to get on the Shinkansen and head to Kyoto.

Nemo-san Haiku

Haiku syllables
Five seven five and no more
Let us make some noise

Day 3 Tokyo
New boots REI top dog
Evil pain demons

Soon my achilles
Snap strain pop against the boot
My year away done

Last month surgery
Left knee still swollen and stiff
Now right foot: Satan!

Cannot walk.  Caged, Sunk.
In hotel alone.  Despair.
Why did I come here?

When one travels long
The most important thing is
Health. Thus, I am scared

But life gives lessons.
Each fall teaches, guides, strengthens.
Pain fades, gratitude.

Tokyo Nights, part V

Tokyo clubbin'
After watching my St Patty's day mates stumble drunkenly off into a taxi, I knew it was time to hit the club.  My American tour-guide in Akihabara had recommended Gas Panic.  I walked in hoping for the best.  After a look around, I instantly dropped my expectations for the worst.  The guide book and the American Tokyo veteran both said something to the effect that Gas Panic was a great place where Japanese girls come looking for gaijin guys.  But it was clear neither was out tonight.  I knew where all the gaijin where... fleeing Japan like rats from a sinking ship.  And after a few inquiries, I figured out where the Japanese girls were.  They were all home eating ramen noodles.  Their families were laying down the earthquake kibosh.  So instead, I surveyed the scene of 50 or so Japanese male youth, smoking cigarettes, looking as Tokyo-cool as possible, leaning against the bar.  I finally spotted a gaijin floating around, he came up and was happy to see me.

"Dude!!!  Where you from?"


"Dude, can you believe this place?  Sausage fest.  You wanna party with some girls?  Let's hop a cab to Shinjuku."

I looked around, and after a second nodded.  He probably knew of a cool spot.  We hopped a cab.  During the day, taking a cab is a disaster.  There is so much traffic and so many lights and the cabs are so expensive, you are dropping US$50 before you get 10 blocks.  The subway is really the only way to go.  But at 2am, the trains are done and I couldn't believe it as we sailed to Shinjuku for only 2000 yen (US$24).  We walked down into the main district, and in a few moments we had about 3 or 4 Japanese and Nigerian hustlers giving us advice on where to go.  My new tour guide picked a nice looking Japanese guy who didn't look Yakuza, and next thing we know we were at a "bar".  My fuzzy idea of just hitting a good club quickly vanished.  In front of us were 5 women lined up for our inspection.  There were 4 guys scattered around in suits, lurking in the corners.  This was beyond bad.  As I tried to formulate something like "Sorry, we were just leaving," my new BFF from Roppongi spoke up.

"Dude, pick one.  Let's sit down and have some fun."

Tsunami alarms sounded in my head.  "Dunno man.  I'm pretty tired."

I had to think of an exit.  We sat down for a minute.  My Gas Panic friend started asking specifics about the "arrangement" he wanted.  He asked too many questions, and after 5 minutes one of the girls got upset.  She yelled "You take too long!  You pay now!"  I glanced around the room.  There were the 5 girls, but in the shadows wearing suits were another 10 guys.  I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed them before, they were like stealth ninjas.  My stomach gave me a funny feeling.  Before I even realized what I was doing, I was walking out the door.  I looked over my shoulder, and realized my guide was surrounded by a mob of girls and the guys in suits were holding him down and poking him in the chest.  Tough luck kid.  I hoped he was alright, but at that point it was a powder day at Mammoth, every man for himself.

I never heard from him again.  It is Japan though, not Bangkok or Moscow.  I'm sure he's fine, wallet a little lighter, and has a funny story.  And I made a mental note... when asking for good clubs at 2am, stick with the bartenders.

Tokyo Nights, part IV

Sketchy Sweet Shinjuku!!
The next day, I decided to explore fascinating Shinjuku.  To the West of the subway station is a modern skyscraper complex.  To the East is a gaudy neighborhood full of everything under the sun you could ever want.  At night it switches to a Japanese-centric party hub.  Its a great place to go for hitting an Izakaya, and late at night the seedy side of town comes to life.  Yakuza pimps stroll around in insanely comic disco suits, scantily clad girls hand out flyers, and beefy Nigerian men hustle gaijin and locals alike into their local girlie bar.  I was puzzled by the well-dressed Japanese guys who were ignoring me, though.  It turns out that these self-styled-anime heroes were recruiting GIRLS into bars.  I found that pretty funny, I imagined the cast from Thunder from Down Under walking down Hollywood Blvd handing out flyers to Sharkeez.

For the first time since I'd been to Japan, I felt a little bit uncomfortable.  It wasn't just the fact that I was doing a limping shuffle from ongoing foot and knee problems (more on that later -- in Haiku!).  It wasn't the Yakuza, who were mostly looking for drunk sararimen and Japanese tourists.  It was the Nigerians.  They were pretty big dudes, and they were not at all like the Japanese hustlers.  The Japanese hustlers were pretty polite, and when you told them you weren't interested they left you alone.  But the Nigerians had that old scam I'd seen a million times in a hundred other cities.  That scam that I'd come to hate.  They came up and said "Hello!"  "Where are you from?"  If you take the gambit and say where you are from, you doomed to a suddenly even more chummy hustler talking about his friend in [insert town you are from], and how he loves the place.  Eventually your new best friend will say, "Hey mon, you look like you want a good time.  I know a very good bar close by."  If you refuse, he gets pushier.  Eventually, he pulls "the switch."  "I'm just your friend, mon, why you gotta treat me like that!"  "Why you so rude, huh?!!"  You have to walk away from something that always gets annoyingly intimidating and just keep your eyes ahead and mouth shut.

Even if you ignore the initial "Hello my friends!", the hustler will still pull the switch.  Suddenly he'll get mad, wave his arms at you and say, "Hey why you not talk to me?  Why you treat me like that?  I'm just saying hello!"  Its always bad.  At that moment, I suddenly felt sad for Japan.  It was such a friendly, pleasant country.  People were so genuinely nice and helpful.  But us gaijin, foreigners, were slowly changing the place, for better or for worse.  I understood why there were so many Japanese-only bars, why you needed an invitation to get into many places.  I pictured the hordes of US military men on shore leave in the days after WWII, barging through Japan.  I realized how many of my own stereotypes about the Japanese were not entirely true, how I was finding that it would take a long time to truly understand their culture.  Of course, this sort of thing always happens to me anyplace I go, its one of the wonderful things about traveling.  But the natural shyness of the Japanese makes it that much harder to break through the gap.  Meaning that travel writers and foreign journalist are only too happy to perpetuate myths, and people like myself are only too happy to believe them.

Izakaya party time
But enough of that, it was on to the Izakaya!!!

(to be cont.)

Tokyo Nights, part III

see parts I and II here.

My geek-blood levels reaching the danger zone, I wrenched myself out of Akihabara and hopped the subway back to my hotel.  After showering up, I mentally prepared for a Big Night Out.  After all, it was St Patty's day!!  The one holiday that the entire world celebrates, if only because of the fact that you can't walk more than mile in any major city without smacking into a faux Irish pub.

Lonely Planet is great when it comes to maps, essentials, and general write-ups on a city.  But I've found that when it comes to nightlife, the guide books only go so far.  Nightlife is trendy, and bars and clubs come and go in big cities faster than travel writers can keep up.  But I had to start somewhere, and with LP describing the Roppongi neighborhood as the best place where gaijin and locals mix, I rolled onto the subway and cruised down.

It was windy and cold in Tokyo, and I was under-dressed.  After getting lost for the hundredth time and chilled to the bone, I decided to throw out some "Irish bar wa doko des ka?" to passer-bys.  They pointed me back the way I came, and suddenly I stumbled on a broad boulevard filled with bars and people.  This was it.  I walked into the first hole that said Guinness.  As with many night spots in Japan, it was on an upper floor and tiny.  3 Japanese people looked up at me.  Two were working behind the bar.  I said "Woo-hoo!  Happy St Patty's Day!"

Roppongi, Tokyo
After getting 3 blank stares, I realized that my Big Night Out expectations might have to be adjusted.  I got a pint of Guinness, and refreshingly found that two of them spoke decent English.  After explaining the meaning of St Patty's day (a mostly American holiday celebrating greatly exaggerated Irish lineage, green food coloring, and puking in bushes), I asked where the heck everyone was?  The looks said it all.  All the gaijin had already fled Tokyo.  It was March 17, 6 days after the Big One, 4 days into the nuclear meltdown, and 3 days after the Big Aftershock.  As one girl explained her Big One story, suddenly it got quiet.  The glasses behind the bar started clinking and swaying.  It was another quake.  Afterwards, we all just nervously laughed and she continued..... Hers was like many other stories, going about her business when it struck.  Stuff was thrown around, the quaking starting sideways for minutes, then going vertically.  Sea-legs after it ended, not sure if it had really stopped.  Getting told to go home only to find that all the trains had stopped.  Joining the throngs on the streets, forced to walk 8 hours back home.  Her friend behind the bar said he walked 12 hours that night.  Cell phone voice service was out, so only gradually did people hear about the devastation up north.  Many didn't find out until later that night when they were finally able to watch TV.

Not sure what we played, but we WON!!!
I was told there more Irish bars down the street and perhaps some would have some gaijin, I thanked them and left.  After 3 more attempts, finally I walked into Paddy Foley's.  I opened the door and shockingly it was packed with gaijin in full song, belting out an Irish jig.  YES!!!  Big Night Out was back on.  Quickly I found out that there were indeed some foreigners who were planning on sticking it out.  Most of their compatriots had fled to the West; these were the last men standing.  Noone was a crazy tourist like me, they were all people on Earthquake Holiday.  This new form of Holiday involved sitting around all day monitoring radiation news, trying to figure out what was happening to their job, then going out and drinking every night.  All in all it didn't sound half bad, aside from the unemployment part.

I made friends with a guy and girl, and we wandered around to a few other places.  Apparently Earthquake Holiday was still pretty fresh, the girl hadn't built up enough tolerance for St Patty's day yet.  After a shot of Jeigger at 1am, her eyes started de-focusing like Paris Hilton, and that was that.  Her guy friend chucked her in a taxi and I was left in a smoky empty pub, listening to old Madonna tunes.  Ahhh, another successful holiday overseas!!!

(to be cont.)

The Pachinko Parlor

Wall of Sound
Pachinko Parlors are all over the place in Tokyo, especially in Akihabara.  My impromptu guide from America said he hadn't really spent much time in any, so I had to find out what made Tokyo-ites so crazy about them.  I found one close by and opened the door.  A wall of sound and smoke smacked me in the face.  After a few coughs and a second for my brain to adjust the volume on my ears, I plunged in.

Inside were row upon row of things that looked very much like slot machines.  And sitting in front of each were men of all of ages, most chain-smoking away.  A flock of attendants wandered around, bringing drinks, cigarettes, whatever the men wanted.  They also instantly appeared to stop me the minute I pulled out my camera.  It was feeling more like Vegas every minute.

I waded through the barrage of sound, futilely waving the smoke away, and walked up behind a guy banging away on one of the machines.  Pachinko looks very much like "Plinko", that game we all know (well anyone over 30 years old, haha) from the Price is Right game-show.  But instead of a formaldehyde-filled Bob Barker next to a 8-foot game board, Pachinko is a miniature version.  You get something like 100 little steel balls.  The balls enter from the top, bang around some little posts, then hit a spinning wheel which flips them down some chutes.  Most of the balls fall into the bottom catch, but some pop into a hole and vanish.  Graphic images flashed and sound effects blared so loud you couldn't talk as the man played.  A stream of girls, dragons, and weird anime characters danced around in the background.

Pachinko Weird-Fun Time!
The strategy wasn't very clear, but the after asking the attendant via hand-wave (basically I put both hands in the air and looked confused), he pointed to a hole that you supposed to get the balls in.  I guess getting balls in the hole somehow gets you points.  There are only two controls.  One is a knob that releases the balls.  Another is a big button that you smack when the machine screams at you "ATTACK!" with a big arrow that points to the button.  In other words, you are supposed to smack the button like a trained monkey when given a signal.  I contemplated training a bird to peck the button when the attack signal came on.  But I couldn't believe this many Japanese were so addicted to the game, there had to be more than fish-brain-level strategy involved.  I knew this required detailed personal investigation.

I plunked down a 1000-yen note (about US$12), time to see what this thing has got!!  Of course, I felt it only appropriate to pick the one featuring school-girls in plaid skirts... hey, these are the most common!  After turning the knob to release balls, they bounced down and some got flung into the hole.  Eventually, enough hit the hole that 3 girls appeared and screamed "ATTACK" at me in Japanese.  My Pavlovian mouth watered as I smacked the button.  Kanji characters changed on a scoreboard, indicated that my score was different than what it used to be.  But, to be honest, I had no idea if the scoreboard said I had a million points or negative a million.  Perhaps the machine could sense my gaijin touch and was cracking jokes at me in Japanese.

After awhile I gave up and handed my game over to my professional nerd handlers.  They seemed to do a bit better.  Apparently I hadn't noticed that you occasionally had to take the balls in the bottom and move them from one shelf to another.  This greatly increases the amount of time you get to turn the knob and smack the button.  I wondered if the game said anything about Japanese culture.

The only thing I could come with up is, perhaps something that seems simple on the surface has a level of complexity underneath that the average gaijin completely misses.  Or, maybe it really was just another way for men to stare at school girls, smoke, and drink.  Oddly, the whole experience made me longing for a round of golf.

Monday, March 28, 2011

And now for something topical

Anyone else uneasy with America entering into a 3rd simultaneous war?  Yes, Gaddafi should go.  Yes, I tentatively support the No Fly Zone.  But, its always good to consult history ...
Also, my brother sent me this related link, it describes the blank check the US President has to send troops anywhere he wants, whenever he wants.

Let's review the case:
1) Justification, best-case scenario: remove middle east dictator to usher in democracy friendly to US
2) End point: very unclear
3) Exit strategy: hand over control to loose coalition of various bickering tribes and defected military

Reminds me of something, rhymes with "Attack," has four letters,... hmmm.

Hopefully this war goes much quicker and smoother.  But I have a bad feeling about it.

However, I think we can all agree that at least one awesome thing has come from this.  That insane rant Gaddafi went on a couple weeks is now a huge Youtube hit, and this version with the go-go dancers is pretty juicy-juice.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Japan: Shaken

This is a post from a nice Aussie girl I met in Kyoto, who was an English teacher in Tokyo / Yokohama area during the big earthquake.  She has a great storytelling style, and this post describes what I imagine many people in the area went through...

Japan: Shaken: "I stood holding the door frame and looked at the roof. I wasn’t sure if it was a bad one. It was my first earthquake.At first I just felt d..."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tokyo Nights, part II

See part I here.

Famous Shibuya intersection
After leaving the Meiji Shrine, I hopped the train down to Shibuya to check out another of the many cool neighborhoods in Tokyo.  Shibuya is famous for one of its busy street crossings, and is also one of the more upscale neighborhoods.  I tend to skip the shopping malls but I guess Shibuya is chock-a-block, and the giant Starbucks sign across the street pretty much said it all.  But hidden behind the broad boulevards are a maze of tiny colorful alleys full of strange pet stores, noodle shops, little designer huts selling all sorts of weird nitnacks.  I didn't get a chance to properly explore the place, its definitely worth a full day.  I was too fired up for the next spot: Akihabara!

Woo-hoo!!!  nerd meets nirvana
In a nation that already is decidedly geeky, Akihabara is the crown jewel nerd nexus of the Japanese universe.  When I spilled out of the subway, the first thing that greeted me was a 5-story SEGA arcade!!!  I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  First of all, I didn't even realize Sega was still around, but for them to own a 5-story building in downtown Tokyo filled with arcade games blew my noodle.  My nerd-meter hit 11 and I practically ran inside to check it out.  I haven't really played games in an arcade for awhile, so needless to say I was pretty blown away with what I found on the first floor.  It was.... drumroll... endless rows of claw-cranes.  As Scooby likes to say... "huuuhh?".  Instead of some high-tech neon shooter-game, I was staring at row upon row of fuzzy pink bunnies, sheep, anime toys, school-girl pillows, you-name-it, all in claw-crane boxes.  Where was the good stuff?

Up on floor 2, I finally found it.
Here was the holy grail of arcade games... it was an insane 6-man cockpit seat setup for a team game, World of Warcraft-style.  There were only 2 guys duking it out, but they basically controlled giant samurai armies on huge big-screens, hucking swarms of arrows, rushing infantry into battle with swords, rows of cannons firing away, all in high-definition.  It was like watching a big-screen anime cartoon, with all the 1000's of individual soldiers dying gory awesome deaths.  The sound effects were deafening and perfect.  After that, I wandered off to a machine were a guy was banging away at a big drum.  He was pretty good.  On the screen were teen anime girls wearing their well-known plaid school-girl skirts.  I guess if he hit the right rhythms they danced around.

Then I found an even more absurd teen school-girl-watching game... basically this guy would hit a button when the matching icon fell down on the screen... but it was all just a way to pretend you were playing.  He was more focused on the movie playing in the background: a young girl in a bikini with ponderous cartoon breasts, jiggling and dancing around to Japanese pop music.

Maid cafe billboard
 This theme of men voyeuristicly staring at teen school girls is pretty big in Japan.  Sararimen on the subway trains will have manga magazines open, or will watch anime on their cellphones.  And its best not even to discuss the weird world of hentai.  The whole theme comes to a strange meeting place at the maid cafes.  The concept is pretty simple: a bunch of very young woman (or teenage girls? its hard to tell) dress up in fantasy outfits (various maid costumes are the most popular), and serve insanely overpriced desserts or drinks in exchange for you to talk to and ogle them.  Talk about revenge of the nerds ... the guy gets to pretend he's Hugh Hefner for an hour, surrounded by hot young chicks dressed up in outfits.  But then again, I realize this is the exact same concept as Hooters.  Its just that in Akihabara, you get to pick what type of outfits you want them to dress in by going to different cafes.

I randomly met up with an American guy who said he had been to Tokyo 22 times.  He and his buddy were strolling around showing me the place, when he spotted some playstation gaming consoles.  They ran over and exclaimed how cool they were.  Apparently they were some rare purple see-through console you can't get in the US.  It was then that I realized that Akihabara is actually a proper tourist destination for nerds all around the world.  These guys were hard-core, and they were loving every second of the claw-machines, anime posters, 2-foot tall action figures, robot dogs barking around, maids walking around handing out flyers, and 5-story arcades.

(to be cont.)

Japanese Culture

I don't tend to think of CNN as a source for in-depth reporting, but this article on Japanese culture today is actually quite good.  The summary is that the cultural need to appear "ideal" results in suppression of timely and accurate information share.  The author posits that the Japanese stoicism in the face of crisis is not always a good thing, this can result in a lack of urgency.  But perhaps this monumental disaster could galvanize the society, much like WWII resulted in Japan's economic miracle.  Worth a look.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Last post on Radiation

Well, this from the US Consulate in Tokyo today:

"Farther from the reactor site, radiation monitoring by the Japanese government, U.S. government assets, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) all indicate that levels of radiation measured in Tokyo as well as Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures remain at background levels, well below levels which are dangerous to human health....We have consistently observed normal background levels of radiation."

So it looks like I didn't get any exposure whatsoever.  Anyway, its still good to be out of there and not have to worry about it.

UPDATE: OK, now I'm pretty happy I left.  On Tuesday as I was jumping on the shinkansen out of Tokyo, it was reported that the radiactive iodine in the tap water jumped briefly to twice regulatory levels.  Mothers were warned to keep infants away from it.  Once its in the tap water, you are going to get exposed there's no way around it.  You have to shower, food has to be washed, noodles boiled, clothes laundered.  There's been a run on Tokyo bottled water.  And the #1 real unspoken fear still boils under the surface....  if there is a big catastophe up north, Tokyo will turn into a huge mob running for the exits like rats off a ship.  There will no way to escape from that kind of situation.  I'm glad to wake up in Kyoto today.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Clouds over Kyoto

Hmmm... supposed to wander around and get lots of snaps of Kyoto temples and shrines next couple days.  Too bad the Rain Kami has decided to set up permanent camp.  Looks like my 2 weeks in Japan will be 2 weeks of rain and clouds.  Oh well, water is the source of spiritual cleansing and perhaps it will help wash off some of that Cesium-137.

Out of the Fire

Just hopped off the bullet train, I'm finally out of Tokyo.  In Kyoto tonight, well to the west and out of danger.  Looks like I just missed a small cloud of radiaction !  Yikes.  Well, sorta just missed.  The radiation was definitely a little higher today... uggg.  Maybe got a few extra X-rays.  Then again, I think glowing in the dark could come in handy sometimes.

Oh well.  I'm outta that twilight zone now thank god.  I had been the only one in my hostel when I left today, the last man standing.  I wasn't sure if there would be foreigners here in Kyoto even, I figured everyone had left the country.  So when I checked into my hostel, I was surprised to see loads of gaijin wandering around.  I asked reception how many there were.  The guy says, "Not many, we only have about 60."  It was the funniest thing I'd heard all day.  Much to his confusion, I busted out laughing.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tokyo Radiation Levels

To those who may be concerned,

Man, I keep getting people yelling at me (via email, can you really yell via email?) that I'm crazy and need to get out of Tokyo.  As Obama likes to say, "Let me be clear."  He also likes to say "Make no mistake..." before stating something he thinks is important.

So in salute to our prez, I say this.  Let me be clear, and make no mistake.  The ambient radiation levels in Tokyo since I've been here have been at almost NORMAL levels.  They are slightly elevated but its almost not even worth mentioning.  The real concerns are:

1) Iodine-131 in the water, which currently are at TRACE levels.  Trace means they can measure them but its orders of magnitude below government standards.  The concern I have is that Japanese government levels are not EPA levels.
2) The wind is starting to blow NE.
3) Unit 3 pressure is building up.

There was a single radiation spike in Tokyo right before I landed, and the media and especially internet bloggers seized on it blaring things like "Radiation in Tokyo is 10x normal!"  Yes, it was 10x normal for a few hours before it dissipated.  The wind was blowing from the N as the explosion happened last Tuesday.  This carried it down to Tokyo, where there was a big report about the US warship detecting radiation.

So for something like that to repeat, there would have to be another explosion during this current wind pattern, which is supposed to end Wednesday.  That is a real risk since Unit 3 has a possible core breach and pressure build-up.  BUT it hasn't happened and its unlikely to happen from all the material I've read.  And I have to say, at this point I think I am as well informed as any CNN or Reuters blogger.

Anyway, bottom line is I haven't suffered any radiation exposure and don't expect to, and I am skipping town in 48 hours.  So don't worry about me, there is nothing dangerous happening here in Tokyo for short-timers like myself.  Yet.

Domo arigato go sai e mas


Tokyo Nights

What a crazy few days its been.  There is the constant threat of quakes and radioactive fallout hanging over Tokyo, but still the city moves on.  So many stories, I barely know where to begin.  I arrived Wednesday and was so jetlagged, drained from the culture switch (signs are unreadable and noone speaks English), and freaked out by the state of things, that I pretty much just passed out as soon as I got to my bed.

When I awoke Thursday morning, the first thing on my mind was the nuclear meltdown up north.  I immediately called my travel agent and put a Plan B in place (jumping a bullet train to Osaka and flying to Manila).  That sorted, I figured I only had a couple days to see Tokyo at most, so I felt rushed and overwhelmed.  I was still reeling a bit from how messed up my hasty departure had left things.

Subway guards packing in the herd
Tokyo is huge!  It reminds me of New York, lots of very cool different neighborhoods that all need explored if one wants to truly get a feel of the city.  Thursday I was on a mission, jetlag and noodle-numbed as I was, to see as much as I could.  Luckily the city is very easy to get around once you get the hang of it, subways and elevated trains connect everything really well.  The problem is that "getting the hang of it" part.  Very few people speak much english, so a lot of times you are on your own staring stupidly at some weird kanji characters that are hopeless to decipher.  At the end of the day its a lot of pointing, Jap-lish, guess-work, and forehead slapping.  And more fore-head slapping.  (The red mark hasn't faded yet.)  Eventually, I got the trick down.  Basically you touch the lowest number on the ticket machine and feed it some yen coins.  Then, after getting lost and circling around 5 times like some kind of rain dance, you get on what you hope is the right train.  If you are fortunate enough to be headed the right direction, from there it gets much easier.  Tokyo subway cars are clean and comfy (when people aren't packed in like sardines), and there are flat screens announcing the destinations in English, a life-saver.  You jump in the exiting pack by performing what one guy I met called the "Gaijin Crash", basically bowling Japanese over to make sure they don't out-flank you by swarming underneath.

When you get up the stairs, you can pay any fare difference at the exit gate.  This method ensures you never overpay your ticket.

Takeshida teen gang
Picking a place to start is hard, there are so many things to see.  But I tossed a dart and started in Harajuku (hey Gwen Stefani must have been on to something).  I was hoping to see some "harajuku girls" even though I wasn't even sure exactly what that meant.  The main drag is Takeshita street, packed with swarming Japanese teenagers looking for the latest trend.  Its hard to describe their look, but the best I can do is that its some kind of fuzzy neon punk that is on cute overload.  The brighter the better, and there are tons of fake leather studs and spikes, chains, skulls, bling, and rhinestones.  The patterns are outlandish.  And its not cool to have regular ripped jeans.  They have to be ripped in at least 20 or 30 places, but patched up neatly each time.  Its like the cast of Jersey Shore decided to start a heavy metal band, and then dyed everything in neon.

Painful ramen.  I think they meant 'spicy', but maybe not...

I was constantly smiling, its just so weird and funny, but its all so PG and harmless too.  Its like they really really want to be cool and different and individual, to break out of that strict Japanese upbringing, but then they realize they might be late for dinner.  The funniest part of the whole thing are T-shirts and slogans in English, with just a slight mis-translation that makes it hilarious.  One night I was with some of Saber's friends and everyone pulled out their iphones and shared the day's latest.  Its a constant source of amusement even for the gaijin that have been here for years.

Cosplay girl in Harajuku

There weren't many harajuku girls that day, I later found out they come out more on the weekend.  The locals call them Cosplay, which is Jap-lish for costume play.  It was a lot bigger 10 years ago, but now its less common.  But that said, I did see a few people wandering around with tails sticking out of their skirts, wigs, and other stuff.

Meiji Shrine entrance
After getting my fill, I wandered over to the famous Meiji shrine.  Wow, it was the last thing I expected.  Right across the train tracks from the frenetic action of Takeshita is a huge stately forest of old trees.  Right in the middle of Tokyo.  I couldn't believe it.  Suddenly I was wondering down a gravel-strewn path in the shadows below the trees.  It was very peaceful.  Halfway to the Shinto Shrine, I came across a huge wooden Torii that you have to walk under.  When you come up to the main shrine, there is a little awning off to the side, with water running into a basin.  Wooden spoons are placed across.  I watched as a few people went up, then used the ladle to rinse their hands and mouths.  I later read its a form of cleansing required before entering the shrine.  I gave it a go, but skipped the mouth.  Tokyo water wasn't known for its purity even before radioactive Iodine began to show up.

Shinto Shrine Cleansing
The main shrine is large and nice enough.  It was during the week so it was quiet.  Overall though, I guess I wasn't floored by anything.  Japanese will go up to the entrance to the inner shrine, then clap, bow, and pull a rope that sounds a gong to alert the spirit, or kami,  inside of their presence.  I didn't think anyone would appreciate it if I gave it a go, so I bit my lip and kept control of my desire to jump on and swing from the gong rope.  Inside the inner shrine are huge Taiko drums, that I also had to refrain from beating on.  I was leaving when I noticed a young girl in full kimono coming up the path.  I stopped and surreptiously took a few pics on my way out.  There's always the risk of getting busted, but its almost impossible to get those kind of pics otherwise.

On the way to the shrine

(to be cont.)


What a few lucky people (not me) see when the clouds peel back

So its Sunday and I'm in a really beautiful noodle restaurant, looking up at enormous Mt Fuji blanketed in snow and hazy clouds.  Kawaguchi-ko is such a nice little town, nestled under Mt Fuji by a pretty lake.  Mt Fuji is so.... big and up-close.  I didn't know what to expect exactly, but it is a presence.  Maybe its because there is nothing blocking the view, or that it rises so dramatically right in front of you.  The large winter snow-cap adds the finishing touch.

Beautiful noodle restaurant in Kawaguchi-ko

Sunlight is streaming in the windows.  Classical Japanese music is playing.  I'm sitting here on a tatami mat, in my socks, feeling like I'm in some kind of living Japanese waterpainting.  That "Traveler's Zen" has finally arrived, like an old friend.  It is a happy feeling.

 I stare down at my huge steaming bowl of "sumo-training"seafood hoto.  (I guess hoto is a type of stew.)  There are big shrimps, squid, veggies, little bird eggs, pumpkin, gobs of fat noodles, sausage ball things, whole shitake mushrooms, potatos, and god knows what else in this cauldron.  I have zero chance of putting much dent in it, but I'm really enjoying the idea of chowing sumo-style!

Huge Sumo-style hoto with ladle

Just what I was looking for

Just found a nice blog from a forecaster at Wunderground... basically he is confirming my fears that radioactivity may increase by Tuesday due to new wind direction.I am at Mt Fuji today, but I have to head back to Tokyo Monday night to pick up some stuff I left there. I plan to be completely out of Tokyo by around Tuesday Noon and get to the Osaka region well to the west for the rest of my time in Japan.

The wunderground guy will send updated post on Monday. He says the levels that will reach Tokyo Tuesday are still not expected to be that high, but now pressure is building in the Unit 3 reactor.   There is rampant suspicion that the Unit 3 core already has a breach.  These combo of events definitely have me pretty worried.  Hopefully I can get in and out of Tokyo Monday night--Tues morning and be not much worse for wear....  why do I always have to push my luck?  I was crazy to come here in the first place, but now I gotta feeling I'm being crazy and stupid.  Well, I'm going to watch that Tokyo geiger counter like a hawk and I suppose if it jumps up, I'll just turn around and get my crap later.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Agggg.  New wind forecast shows wind to blow radioactivity down to Tokyo Tuesday.  I wasn't planning on leaving Tokyo until Wed.  Looks like my plans have changed.  Winds will resume offshore flow on Wed., but there will be a period on Tuesday where radioactivity is expected to spike.  Not sure what to do.

I could go over to Osaka for the day... hmmmm.... and with the new reports of radioactive Iodine in Tokyo tap water it may be time to finally wave the white flag and get the hell out of here.

Well its safe to say that I'm not laughing at the Japanese wearing masks anymore.

And now for something called Good News

Electricity is up and running at unit 3.  Situation is 'stabilizing.'


This Google-Earth video mapping the quakes vs time is absolutely fascinating.  I flew in Wed., 5 days after the main quake.  So far on average I have felt a pretty decent earthquake about once a day.  To me they feel like at least 5.0's, tremors that back home in LA would have everyone jumping out of bed and posting on Facebook.  In LA I've felt maybe 3 or 4 total in the 12 years I'ved lived there.  SInce I've been here in Tokyo, I've felt at least 5 or 6 and they are stronger.  They are always spooky, and a really weird thing has been happening to me.  After a quake hits (usually last about 15-30 seconds), everything calms down.  But, sometimes, there will still be some movement afterwards.  It messes with your mind.  Sometimes you are not sure if the building is shaking or not, you get these "sea-legs" where ..... HOLY SHIT!  A quake just hit.  I ran out of the building.  Haha, serves me right for writing a post about aftershocks.  Man.  Speaking of sea-legs.  The quake is....  oh its coming back....  OK now its gone I think.  Dude.  Messing with my head.  Anyway, I am pretty sure its gone now, but I still feel like I'm moving a bit.

Sometimes you have to look at the blinds or a cup of water to see if its in your head or the ground is still really moving.  And that's coming from someone who missed all the action.  I can't imagine the PTSD of the people who went through the big swarm in the the days after the big one hit.

UPDATE: the quake that just hit was the biggest since I've been here, 6.1!   Its funny, it really depends where you are.  It didn't feel as strong as the one yesterday, but at that time I was on the 10th floor of my hostel and the place was swaying back and forth and the windows were rattling.  This one I just ran outside and then it was over.

Incredible footage of boat taking on Tsunami

It seems few people have seen this clip yet (only 30,000 hits).  WOW.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tokyo Bomb

Click for Pics on Tokyo

The Tale of Justin

So tonight I met up with a friend of my brother (Saber), and he knows a few folks here in Tokyo.  But most interestingly, he knows a gaijin (foreigner), Justin, who just escaped from Fukushima.  When I say escaped, that is literally what it means.  Currently in Fukushima prefecture (prefecture is like a state or province), there is no train service, no bus service, and electricity is scarce.  Which means that where the radiation is strongest, the local people have the least knowledge of the current situation.  Its pretty messed up.

Justin is an English teacher.  He had a feeling something was wrong because the last few days, there were many many earthquakes, each stronger than the last.  The teachers would joke about it amongst themselves, saying what a strange week it had been.  On Friday, March 11, it was another day of minor quakes, but nothing to worry about really.  It is Japan after all.  In the early afternoon, the school kids had just left the building and were outside about to go home.  At 2:46 pm, Justin was looking out the window at the kids.  It started like all the others, about 10-20 seconds of strong shaking.  Suddenly, it intensified dramatically.  All hell broke loose as the desks, computers, and books began to fly around the room.  He was in a state of shock, not sure what to do.  Instead of running outside, Justin, along with the other teachers, simply held onto the bookshelves to prevent them from falling over.  I asked him, "why didn't you run outside?"  He said he didn't think about anything at that point... the ground was moving so violently he couldn't stand up without holding onto the wall.  He said he couldn't walk outside if he wanted to.  At first it was just another quake, but when the computers started flying across the room he started fear for his life.  The school was 5 stories tall, he was on the 2nd floor.  I asked him, "Did you think you might die?"  He responded immediately, "I was sure I was dead." He put down his beer and was quiet as he stared at the table.  I was ready to stop the "interview," but after a pause he continued.

Helicopter Tsunami footage
Finally it slowed.  The shaking continued, but it was just a slow rolling motion.  The worst was over.  He went outside with the other teachers, and found that the ground was ripped apart with cracks.  The parking lot was barely navigable, large chunks of asphalt were ripped apart everywhere.  "People started saying 'Tsunami!'  Japanese people are very aware of the dangers of a tsunami.  But there wasn't any panic.  No one had any idea of what was about to happen.  The teachers decided to go back to the school to get their belongings before moving to higher ground.  But as they entered, another large aftershock hit.  They had to rush back outside.  After it subsided, again they tried to enter.  Again a large aftershock hit.  After 4 attempts, finally they made their way into the building, when again another quake hit.  They waited it out inside the ruined school building.  Time was ticking away, little did they know that a wall of ocean was moving towards them at 700 mph..

Justin got on his bike and went to a local shop owned by a friend.  It was deserted.  He got a text message... "Tsunami coming!'  This was disturbing, but Justin wasn't overly concerned yet.  Against better judgement, he biked back downhill to his school, worried that his gaijin teacher friend might still be inside.  His friend wasn't there, but instead he found all the Japanese school-children still outside, huddled in fear and waiting for direction.  Then, fire trucks came down the street blaring 'Tsunami!'  At that point, there was no doubt.  It was clear that a real tsunami was coming.  Everyone just took off running.  There was a "safe zone" at the high school up the road, but instead, Justin decided he had to make sure his house was OK.  Specifically, he was worried about his new turntables he had just bought.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing, here was this guy who knew a tsunami was about to hit and he went back to his house to check out some new toys.  But then I thought how people don't think straight in those kinds of situations.

Anyway, when he entered the house, he said "It was complete insanity.  It looked like some kind of crazy giant decided to chuck everything around.  The fridge was tossed about 10 feet from the wall, shit was broken all over the place, the walls were cracked."  His turntables had fallen to the floor.  He put them back in their place, and decided it was time to go.  About 15 minutes had passed since the earthquake.

He was about a half mile inland, at least 10 meters above sea level.  As he opened the door to walk out, he couldn't believe what he saw.  There was the ocean rushing right up at him, right to his front door.  He had to run out the back door, up the hill, finally reaching the high school meeting place.  I looked at this person in front of me, thinking how very lucky he was to be talking to me.  If his house had been a few feet lower, if he hadn't tried to leave at that moment, .... he might not be here.  It was just dumb luck that he was alive.

He found his gaijin teacher friend, and together they watched the tsunami continue to rise.  He said, "It was just endless water, flowing on and on.  Above the water, waves would come in every few minutes.  After each wave, the water would be higher and higher.  We stayed up there for about 30 minutes.  Finally, it started to go down."  But... the downtown was still flooded for the entire day.  Not until the following day did the water fully drain away.

Like all other people in his town (Yotsukura), he immediately realized he had to do something.  Over the next couple days, he pitched in with everyone else and tried to clean up the city.  There was news of a reactor problem but nothing to really worry about.  On Monday, he reported back to work and another very large aftershock hit (6.0).  Everyone evacuated, but another tsunami did not materialize.  As school was out and Justin finally had a day with some time to kill, he decided to wander all the way down to the Yotsukura port.  Only then did reality finally set in.  He saw large ships on top of rows of houses, cars in trees, houses ripped from their foundations and stacked against the hills, he said the destruction was unimaginable.  He paused again before continuing.

Its one thing to see something on TV.  But when he described his first-hand experience, it gave me chills.

Yotsukura house
He wanted to stay and help, but everyone around him was leaving town, the news from the reactor was getting bad.  On Tuesday, he went to work at the school and found he was the only one there.  His friend said he was leaving that day, and if Justin didn't come along, his friend wouldn't wait.  With mixed feelings, he decided to get in the car.  No trains were running, no buses, and even worse, there was no gas anywhere.  Luckily, his friend had a half-tank from before the disaster.  They made it to Tokyo on fumes.  I asked him, "why didn't you get gas when you got out of Fukushima?"  He replied, "There is no gas.  Not even here in Tokyo.  You have to wait an hour to buy $4 of gas, that's all you can get."

Cars in Yotsukura
Its very weird being near an apocalypse like this.  People far away in the US and Canada are probably over-reacting to radiation fears.  The news is titillating, its like watching a train wreck on the local channel 7.  In the modern world of interconnectedness, they feel perhaps that something so monumental can't possibly not affect them.  People want to make it somehow apply, so they decide to make a show of staying indoors to protect themselves from 0.000002 Sv.

Ironically, in Tokyo it is the complete opposite.  Noone here wants to believe that they might actually have to really leave their own home, that they might have to abandon everything....their way of life, their friends, their city.  So of course, human bias comes into play.  News that downplays the disaster is readily absorbed.  News that says things in Tokyo are dire are quickly dismissed.  People want to believe that it is safe.  And so they put on a little paper mask and tell themselves they are protected.  And they go about their business.

And perhaps, that is what I am doing right now.