Halloween

It’s funny to think that one of my most memorable Halloween would come not only in my twenties but also in a country that until this century didn’t even know Halloween existed. I’d begun to see the candy sold in the stores, and then the themed signs and advertisements up, as the conbinis even started to add in a couple of halloween themed songs to their evening mixes (mostly, though, just “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas). Truly, it seems that anything that can rack in sales from commercialization can become a global phenomenon.

It started in school. Of course, two American English language teachers can hardly pass off the chance to dress up and amuse their students with a day that mostly revolves around them. All the teachers seemed to be on board with having a big party, and although the board outside our language room was void of any decor I think we managed to introduce Halloween pretty well. For about a week I gave the same presentation, and found out a lot about the holiday myself. Turns out, plenty of cultures have a days similar to the roots of Halloween. Japan has a festival called Obon during the end of the summer that I’ve really been looking forward to ever since my third year in Japan class when we had a unit about Japanese festivals. Sad to find out I’d have to wait a year until we got to that point.

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Somewhat strange to report on something so modern. The presentation wrapped up with how long lines for Haunted Houses can get and the fact that a dozen new scary movies winds up featured across movie theaters. Still got to mention the differences between a hundred years ago and now the evolution between the two, so I don’t feel like it’s a complete waste of educational resources.

At the apartment complex the Thursday night before Halloween we had a bunch of students from a nearby junior high school and even some younger ones come around a go trick-o-treating. With over ten doors to knock on it seemed like quick the hit. I spent over ¥2000 on candy and ran out half way through. I didn’t even have a costume at that point, relying on a pirate skull daizo mask that one of the teachers lent me. I was surprised how much fun I’d had, only realizing just now that it is the first time I’ve actually been the one in charge of passing out the candy… weird. My grandparents have a neighbor who used to take care of me, and every time I trick-o-treated there he’d creep to the door with a god awfully scary mask. I suppose I learned a lot from him, as I crouched next to the peep hole in my door, listening and waiting for students to get close. Once the reached out for the doorbell I’d crack open the door with a “Boo!” All night I was a bit worried I’d wind up toppling one of the kids with my antics, and it’s just my luck that on the very last one another ALT happened to get rammed by the door.

So, two days before Halloween and I was rounding out the night in high spirits, looking forward to the weekend. You see, Fukui City’s international club had this annual gig going where they hosted a Halloween party. The only catch is the party was hosted in a city almost two hours away. Well, I guess that’s not the only catch because in order to get there the IC rented out a train, old style since retired by the main transit, and to make sure the party went as long as possible decorated that train with black lights and sound systems. It’s something I’d been told was one of the best events this side of the New Year, so I’d been wanting to go. However, the tickets initially sold out, a pre-sale that I’d never even been privy to. Luckily one of my friend hit me up right away when the club was selling the remaining tickets, all I had to do was be at the station an hour before take-off.

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After a Friday night out for nomihoudai and some karaoke, Saturday comes and everything is good, except that I’m going to a Halloween party, and I have yet to get a costume. After pedaling slow in the morning I rushed out in the afternoon to trek to the not so near mall in search of black duck tape. Yes, because what other material would you have in mind for a last minute costume. Actually, I must admit, a lot of help came from the Internet (the true killer of creativity). Originally the night before I’d borrowed a cardboard box used for bulk microwavable popcorn and had initially decided to make some sort of mask out of that.

If you look back at my earliest Halloween photos you’d be hard to distinguish year from year. Not because I remained a chubby cheeked adorable kid for five year, but since I remained a chubby cheeked adorable kid in a Batman costume for five years. Honestly, looking back on it I have know clue when or where the Batman obsession came from since even in my pre-teens I was definitely rooting more for the Marvel/X-Men side of things. But in those early years it was only the wealthy, detective solving, crime fighting, bachelor I wanted to emulate. Thus, it seemed a worthy costume to attempt in the course of four hours.

I ended up buying the last roll of black tape they had in stock, and with yellow for accents as well as some fingerless gloves and black trash bags I was on my way to making the best costume yet. It had been a while after all, since I had come up with anything to wear for Halloween. Last year, I hosted a party for fifty in the space of my 300 ft living room and kitchen, so ain’t nobody got time for costumes, and every before that I’d been able to rely on my aribeito at Ragstock to provide me with endless Halloween fun. I knew the toddler sized pumpkin outfit would be a tough one to top, but I think I did it this year.

With four hours before my train left, I thought I’d be able to round out a decent helmet and utility belt. I stuck a plastic bag on my head, whipped open the tape, and scissors already on my hand, pulled up this quick and easy instructable. Perhaps, it’s a little too quick and easy. Of course, at first I felt like a fool, and wishing there was more documentation on the website clearly under stood why there isn’t. I didn’t only look like a fool, I was whole-heartedly foolish for a least an hour into the process. You’re basically just rolling tape around your head, while starting to break into a sweat because hey, it’s duck tape layered plastic you’re strapping to your head and that’s generally not a good way to allow breathability. I ended up using the popcorn box to form the nose and that’s when I felt like I was finally getting somewhere. That’s also when I realized there was no way I’d be able to finish off the costume, run to the station and make the train in time.

Luckily, Mac came to the rescue, offering a ride to the station. I wounded up shaping the eyebrows and attaching the ears to the mask before donning anything black in my closet, shoving all my materials into a shopping bag and rushing out the door. Of course I looked even more ridiculous halfway into the costume buying a ticket and waiting for the train, but thankfully I ran into two other ALTs; one dressed as a pirate and the other wore a hand sewn Popeye outfit brought all the way from South Africa.

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By the time our train arrived in Fukui station my outfit was complete. Needless to say we were gawked at by many people, but once there was a decent crowd of foreigners we were also asked to pose for multiple pictures. I think I was actually surprised by how many Japanese people were also dressed up, and not only those who were going on the Halloween Train. Mostly younger, but all wearing some form of cosuplay and bloodied makeup. It was a lot of lingering around for the next hour after I’d gotten my ticket, but also just a crowd of giddiness as people showed up in more and more ridiculous outfits. I think Ghibli themes win out, but I must’ve seen at least and equal amount of Marios and Luigis.

The train ride was gradually epic. I hopped on with a slight buzz, and once everyone got comfortable in the tight quarters and rolling experience it was really all new and cool. The one thing that I’m always anxious about in these situations, though, is recognizing people, but never remembering their names. We’re all spread across the prefecture so it’s really hard to remember so many names without ever seeing them often. Add to that the amount of first years and veterans mixed together and I’ve gotten used to never assuming anyone, Japanese people included, can 1) teach English and 2) even speak Japanese.

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Hard to describe the atmosphere of the train apart from that as part social club part night club (and I guess, also, at the very front part kid’s venue where all the parents brought their Minions (literally dressed as minions from Despicable Me) to chill and be all cool with their roles as parents in Japan’s society), and I won’t go into much of the feeling apart from decent music, the occasional bumping of the train off the tracks, and  really you sometimes had no clue where you were relative to everyone else.

On the train time didn’t seem to pass quickly or slowly. I hadn’t checked my watch when we got on so at any given time I had known clue to know when we’d arrive or how far we’d come. Eventually the train slowed, and everyone filtered off. We were literally herded off the platform and through the tiny station where a crowd of people had gathered to greet and take pictures of us all. I felt somewhere between a celebrity and saved hostage. Everyone wanted to see us, but I had no clue why. Not of course, til I got outside and saw the filling dance floor.

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It was definitely a new experience to add to the unexpected ones I’ve had in Japan. We basically had a huge party in the station parking lot. Many people cruised across the street to raid the remains of the closing supermarket. I felt I was good for the night, but ran into their backroom to use the toilet. It’s funny, but I could sense a difference in the way people reacted to me. Being Batman kind of gives you this sense of trust or protectiveness, probably along with some sort of invincibility, so it’s pretty good I was staying tame that night. On the whole. I took many a pictures with various people, and even found a tiny Batman (a me of years past?) and accompanying Cat woman. At some point, somehow, I got onto someone’s shoulders, and I’m not quite sure. One of my neighbors went as Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, so I can only assume he was strong enough to hold me. It was during the song Jump (the Kriss Kross one), and I was pumping my hands in the air getting while everyone was getting as high as they could. Pretty sweet moment.

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Surprisingly the night ended with everything still in tact. I thought for sure the cape wouldn’t make it on the train ride back, but it actually acted well, being slippery enough that anyone who wanted to squeeze past me had no problem. When we made it back to the station and said our goodbyes many people were headed to the after party at a venue nearby. Looking back it probably was a missed out opportunity to meet new people, but I decided to go back with Mac and some the neighbors, thinking two nights out would be pushing it for Monday morning class.

 

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Kyoto

The past week seemed to fly by. I was all aches for Monday and Tuesday still from the mountain trip, but my classes were very subdued. All the students have been studying more and more recently, focused on upcoming tests that Friday, so most other activities and classes were cut short. On Thursday and Friday me and my co-ALT had hardly anything to do except knock out revisions of the tests one by one. Of course it’s still mind numbing work, but in the swing of things it’s manageable and gives some leeway for me to spend time studying Japanese or be preparing for random lesson plans.

Come Friday, though, I was already looking forward to the end of the weekend.

In the beginning of October my school started implementing morning English lessons (improperly called “English Club”). In small groups of four or five I would ask the students, “where do you want to go in Japan?” I got some varying answers, but typically it came down to five places: Okinawa, Hokkaido, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. These places were actually the most sought after that I would have uncanny moments during the conversation where my responses and their answers became verbatim to discussions I’d had groups before. Later I joked about this fact with one of the English teachers and mentioned that I had only been to Tokyo out of that group. He suggested that we should go to Kyoto sometime, maybe a weekend at the end of the month and I politely agreed.

You see, from what I’ve heard from the JET grapevine, invitations (in the future tense) to do things or see places operate in about the same state as Americans treat meetings among their acquaintances. The “let’s do this again sometime” adage comes to mind. You say it as an obligation, and although you probably wouldn’t mind to do it again, you’re just never actually going to have the time. Thus were my expectations with this. Something along the lines of “Oh, you silly American, you’ve never been to Kyoto. It’s so close and easy to get to, I will make you cultured and take you there myself.”

So come Monday I was a bit surprised when he (sitting in the desk next to mine) asked casually if I was excited for this weekend.

I tilted my head for a moment wondering and asked, “Why? What’s this weekend?”

“Oh?” he said, “We go to Kyoto.”

I flicked up the calendar on my computer to see that it was indeed the end of October and he was indeed being true to his word. Another Japanese cultural myth busted.

“Alright,” I said, trying to act like, of course, I’d known. “I’m excited.”

Yet, as the week went by, I got my salary and had enough to go, the feeling still remained like: are we really doing this?

After all, this is Kyoto we’re talking about, probably the second most well-known city in Japan my foreigner standards, and arguably the city with the longest history. But Sunday morning came and I was ready with a rain jacket and camera packed in my bag.

The English teacher, who I’m used to calling Isopp, is the same age as me a coincidence I’m pretty grateful for because we’ve got a decent amount in common. He’s the one who’s gotten me into League of Legends, and will be the savior in helping me navigate Japanese computer parts when eventually I can afford to build a computer. He picked me up at 10:30, a little later than planned, but we shot off to catch the train at 10:50. (So much for Japanese punctuality.) Apparently there had been some sort of volunteer group the teachers participated in to pick up trash around the local river, so he’d already been up for three hours. (Side note, there are certain things that go on at school that as ALTs we’re never bothered to be told about. I feel like had I known, I probably would’ve gone and enjoyed it. At least I know to ask.)

The round trip the train cost about $60, and again it only shames me to think of all the weekends I wasted in Minnesota, not deciding to cheaply travel elsewhere. Hopefully–at least the way things are going–one thing I’ll learn from living here is how to seize the location or get out and explore the world a little better. I’ve made the argument that American cities are so far apart from each other (L.A., New York, Chicago, D.C.) but that’s also pretty contrary to my socialist beliefs of supporting the local communities in between.

Anyway, the train ride takes a little under two hours on a Thunderbird train so I had plenty of time to think. We both were pretty tired so after a couple of ear popping tunnels we fell into napping.

Off the train, though, was completely awakening. Kyoto’s main station is huge by any standards I’ve meet. Sure, Tokyo Station is vast, but it’s still all underground, so it feels more like a labyrinth. Here, though, seems more like an airport. As we waited on the platform for our train, the departing passengers flew out like a swarm of locust, a mash of people coming and going on the narrow track. It’s always a strange feeling now to be instantly surrounded by so many people.

We stopped for a quick bite at a Lawson’s conbini. I got a nikuman, and a sports drink, although I could’ve eaten more. Had we not only had the day to spend there I probably would’ve forced us to get a proper lunch, but being frugal I was fine to be on our way. The sun was bright with clear skies and I was thankful being that it was a torrent of rain the night before (rain I got stuck in walking to and from the grocery store).

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The first place seemed to come out of nowhere. I still actually don’t know what it’s famous for, but it is a zen temple on the outside of town known as Tenryu-ji, or (based solely on learning certain kanji in my students’ names) I would guess it means heavenly dragon temple.

The temple actually takes up an extreme amount of space. From our entrance we walked along a long pebbled road, passing by various smaller huts and temples. We stopped outside a small Shinto altar and I learned the proper Japanese way to pray for a wish for my ¥5 offering.

We first paid ¥500 to enter a building with the sole purpose of looking at the dragon painted on its ceiling. Now, the dragon is pretty large, as you might see on the website, and it’s even pretty inspiring, but not only as someone who studied Japanese art history, but with the western values of the Sistene chapel I can tell you it wasn’t worth ¥500. Especially because there were no photos allowed. But, no matter because I was soon to find out that basically everyplace worth site-seeing in Kyoto cost ¥500. And as someone who earlier mentioned that I should have no problem supporting local communities (not that they need that much support) I put the cost of the trip behind me and decided to indulge.

Isopp with not Daruma

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The gardens of Tenryu-ji

The temple would actually be a great place to lounge around in the day, and the gardens surrounding it are beautiful, but I think it’s most known for its bamboo forest. Now I thought I had known what a bamboo forest would be like. After all, throughout my life I’d seen my fair share of bamboo fight scenes.

Tenryu-ji's Bamboo garden

There’s something overwhelming about the sheer size that bamboo to get to. I was thinking that a thicket would be all pressed together and smothering, but instead this forest was incredibly tall, easily reaching 15 meters, with each shoot a good stride apart from each other. If I went again I would suggest probably going in the summer when the bamboo is more green, and definitely on a day with less people (if that were ever possible).

Pose at the Bamboo Forest

Short on time I didn’t get to see if there was more to explore, but it didn’t look like it. We cruised back down the hill, I hadn’t realized how high up we were, and found an outlet along a river and popular tradition bridge. Eventually we walked to a different station with smaller old-style trains and got our ticket to head to Kinkaku-jiI, the golden temple.

The Golden Glory that is Kinkaku-ji

The approach to this temple is similar to Tenryu-ji, where it’s a long walkway to get to the actually entrance. After paying another ¥500, we were mashed with a line of people shuffling along the narrow road to the view of this temple. It was particularly cool to see it in real life after briefly studying it in my Japanese art history class. Despite the tranquil facade the pictures often elude to–an insolated beauty in the mountains of Japan–the place is over commercialized, and it’s pretty hard to really enjoy among the mass of people. The fact that it’s actually leafed entirely in gold, though, is pretty stunning in real life as it radiates a special shine in the sunlight. The rest of the park is actually worthwhile, too.
After rushing ahead of the school trip and Scandinavian tour groups, we decided to take a break to get some matcha (again for ¥500). There’s a specific way to drink traditional green tea, which I learned, and it was pretty sweet that our little sugar/salt/anko dessert came with gold leaf on top. The warm matcha was well worth the pause.

Matcha and sugar snack Making an offering Shrine at Kinkaku-ji

By now it was nearing four o’clock, and we still had one more stop out of the many options to go to. Apparently, it’s Isopp’s favorite place to visit in Kyoto, and seems like the general must see place. After flopping around to find the right bus, we finally got on the right one, cramped but seated, and made the forty minute ride across town.

That’s probably what surprised me most. Kyoto has its own subway system, but nothing near to the extent of Tokyo. Still, the city is spread out, and it can’t take a while to get from one side to the other. We got off the bus and found our way along a famous road full of a majority of shops selling omiyage and souvenirs. Seriously, not a place to spend a quick day. It was super effective in getting me to see what Kyoto has to offer, but I’m already thinking about what do to when I go back.

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A temple in Kyoto

Isopp orders crab

We took a brief pre-dinner stop at a random temple intersection. Once we got up the step and saw all the food stalls there was no stopping the hunger. Especially seeing the crab for (the trendy) ¥500. It’s been a long while since I’ve actually had crab (since a delightful dinner in Port Angeles, WA summer of 2013), and apart from the typical costs I don’t know why I don’t eat it more often. This was a great snack and lead us away from the busy street, almost magically, into 19th century Japan with the streets of Higashiyama.

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With the sun setting and the lanterns turned on, this place really felt like a different world. Around certain parts there weren’t many people, so even though we were getting low on time, I still could enjoy the feeling of being in the heart of Japan.

Of course, then we hit the final stretch up the hill to the famed Kyomisu temple and it’s iconic red pagoda. The streets were packed with stores solely selling omiyage and souvenirs, and people in kimonos, and foreigners afoot. It was bustling for a Sunday past 5 o’clock.

We made it to the temple with half an hour left to peruse what easily could’ve taken half the day. Isopp through some change to the ticket counter and led me up steps and past altars.

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“You can see it?” He asked as he flew strides ahead of me past the aforementioned pagoda.

“Yeah,” I replied snapping a quick and grainy photo.

“Good.”

We made it finally on one of the higher platforms past the main building when Isopp finally slowed down.

“This is my favorite spot. When I come to Kyoto, I always go to here.”

It’s funny, when something is so well known for it’s location and history it’s usually completely overlooked for the littler things it has to offer. I feel like during the day this view of Kyoto would’ve been neutral and mundane, but at night it really justifies the beauty of Japan was like. Among the places and the people I got to see a lot. Plenty of kimonos and old buildings mixed with school uniforms and souvenir shops.The country’s culture has evolved so drastically in the last century, yet it still tries to maintain the values it’s held for the last millennium.

View of Kyoto from Kyomisudera

Peaks

Leaving the Chalet took a lot of effort on my part. But it was already 2 o’clock and we had a decent ridge to scale before we arrived at our destined campsite (or so we hoped). The clouds that were sweeping over us on the way up the mountain were now passed and on the other side, lingering behind. With full water bottles and a bit of respite we were off. Soon I found the fatigue had passed with invigoration.

Mt. Yari and the Chalet

At the top of this ridge line we finally reached one of the higher points on the range, and had a completely 360 degree view. It made the climb significantly more interesting and better. We also were moving more at a level pace, so the lack air seemed to have less an effect. Of course I still had no clue where we were going apart from the direction, and every time Mac pointed toward a crest or curve my eyes got lost among the grey.

The direction we were going
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

By this point we were around 3,200 meters high, about two miles, with around a three hour hike left for the day. I was thankful for not having many switchbacks anymore, and really just a straightforward climb. The top had a lot more snow than what we saw coming up, but on a whole the clouds moved away to allow the sun to shine full on. Mac had been vigilant about putting on sunscreen, but I was a little less worried (but with the dry air and sun combination, I’m feeling a bit of the consequences). It didn’t seem like long before I looked back and the chalet and Mt. Yari resumed being immeasurable points in the distance.

Mt. Yari from a distance

Can you see the chalet? It’s actually a rest point for a lot of climbers and they have a significant amount throughout the range. Of course, they’re pretty expensive, which is why we were heading to a campsite. Typically they charge you to use those (as Mac will say, a ridiculous amount per person!), but since the one we were headed to was closed for the season we’d get off free.

There were still a number of peaks to hit along the way. We headed toward this place called the daikirete, something we spent some time trying to translate. I was convinced it stood for “The Great Cut” for indeed that’s what it was, a severe gash across the mountain line (a huge but brief drop in elevation). As we crawled along the ridge I kept looking for what could be such a place that it would get its own name. In the name the first kanji ‘dai‘ does stand for big, but the ‘kirete‘ is strangely in katakana.

Scaling the first mountain
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

We picked up the pace as we hit the first big peak. Don’t get it wrong, though, we were still moving as infant toddlers learn to walk. I would find myself trying to make it all in one shot, but then forced to pause for fear of my heart working so fast it’d stop. It made for a good excuse to take in the view. Behind us the clouds were looking pretty overwhelming, but we could still see in front of the valley where we’d originally started, and across to our left where the mountains sprawled out for what seemed forever. Mac started pointing them out, and it’s amazing that he’s been to so many. Japan have three peaks in particular known as the “Holy Trinity”: Mt. Fuji, Mt. Haku, and Tateyama. Mac pointed far off to the southeast (our left) where Fuji would be without the clouds, and then to the opposite direction where we could see Haku-san. He gestured behind us and said if we were on a higher point we’d also see Tateyama over the ledge behind us. When I got here and fell into the peril that stopped me from climbing Fuji, I decided I’d climb all three before I left. It was quite inspiring to see them all from one place.IMG_0126

But of course, at that point, all the views are inspiring.

The peak of this mountain was pretty flat, shaped almost like a bowl with the rocks throughout. We stayed up there a moment relishing in the view. It was a bit of an oasis, you’d have to climb up one side to see, and then drop down to the bowl to go up the other and see the other side. I felt like any moment I stopped looking, I’d drop back down into rocks and the view would disappear.

Into the Mist
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Which, given the amount of fog rolling in wasn’t that far from the truth. As I mentioned before, when we made our ascent the clouds were coming at the mountain–piling up but stifled on the other side. At some point before we came out of the chalet all the clouds decided to head to the other side, but their density was hard to grasp. In a breeze, though, they all drew back like a tide against the mountain. Unraveling across the ridge, the blocked out the ground below and reached higher than the sun.

Wall of Fog

It was so bizarre for a while, to be going along with one side facing a vast amount of mountain range and the other completely blanked out in white. It didn’t last, though, because soon the clouds from the east reeled in towards us. You could barely see it happen until it was upon you. They started out as large clouds in the distance, but then as they got closer dropped low and spread out. So, it wasn’t until the tendrils started curling out along the mountain that you realized what was happening.

Off into the distance
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Not to mention that off in the distance (where we came from) we could start hearing thunder. There’s nothing like being stuck on a mountain and an impending thunderstorm to get you to move a bit faster. From a stint during his conquest of the Pacific Crest Trail, Mac had become a bit anxious about thunderstorms so I was doing my best not to let my imagination get to me.

The hike seemed never-ending, though, as we kept going toward the campsite. By now we had caught glimpses of the chalet by the site, but each time we reached the top of a peak it seemed farther away. Truly, it was as if the fog had created a mirage, a mythical chalet that we were striving for, but would never reach before the lightning came down and took us away for good. It was actually the curving of the ridge that made everything in front of us seem closer than it appeared. I kept on looking for the Great Rift, but Mac was certain it was ahead of us, so we knew that somehow we’d make it.

Climbing a ladder to the top

Another peak, thunder in the distance
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

This was the last peak of the day, and by now the fog was inevitable. The hike became less of a pleasing feat, and more of a threatening challenge. The thunder didn’t get closer, but would still rumble, and there was no telling if the clouds causing it would roll in our way anytime soon. At this point we were worn out for sure, I’d been hiking off no sleep and by now we reached over ten hours into the endeavor. Drinking water and eating food wasn’t enough to save me now, I desperately wanted to stop and rest.

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Out of the mist, the shape of the elusive fort formed, signalling the end of our trek. Painfully, though, we realized it wasn’t over yet. Frozen to the bone and numb in the head, we still had to set up camp–Mac’s two person tent–and replenish with dinner before we could pass out like lions.

The campsites, flat grounds spaced out by the chalet with stone built walls curving around one side, were not ideal in any way, and we couldn’t figure out where to place the tent. If the ground wasn’t partially covered in snow it was saturated with mud and it seemed we had to chose the lesser of two terrible. Instead we decided to roam around the chalet a little more, looking for maybe a flat spot that would work. I ended up sitting on the scoop of a mini tractor, idle next to a pile of rocks. I put my hand to my chin, and closed my eyes.

It must’ve been about fifteen minutes (maybe more) before I realized I dozed off. I looked over to see Mac seated cross legged next to me, looking equally defeated. Sensing my presence he looked up and said, “I guess we should just go back to that first place.”

We chose the mud, making a futile attempt with prairie grass to make some sort of mat for the footprint. It’s funny, now we were coming to a close (I wanted nothing more than to get into my sleeping bag and warm up), but the fog was rolling away, or at least lower, so the setting sun became visible. We debated not using the rain-fly, Mac firmly suggesting against it. I made the other case, and with the thunder in the back of his mind he acquiesced with the promise that if it wasn’t raining by night we’d pull it off to see the stars. To be true, my concern was less about thunder and more about heat, but I agreed because the stars were one of the main reasons to spend the night.

By now it was rounding 5:30 at night, and the sun quickly sank below the top line of the fog. I’d chomped down a seasoned chicken breast shrink wrapped from the conbini while Mac ‘marked our territory.’ When he got back we flicked on our headlamps, cranked the tunes, and cracked open the beers we brought. It was a good way to fall asleep and–with literally every piece of clothing on or in my sleeping bag–I was starting to warm up. I had a couple bruises on my collar bones from the pack, but otherwise I didn’t seem to ache either. I forget how soundly I fell asleep, but after finishing the pumpkin flavored beer it doesn’t really matter.

I woke up once to the sound of my name. It came out in a cough and I rolled over to find Mac on his stomach, with his head sticking out the entrance of the rain-fly, muttering incomprehensible words. Looking back it was a hilarious scene, as he could’ve easily been mistaken as a drunk person. Instead, I heard him hacking, and the words “so sick” come out. Of course I was baffled and had no real action but to watch. “Are you OK?” I asked, to the reply of “Yeah, just sick. Just need to throw up.”

I heard it, the loudest of the hacking, the final satisfaction that vomit brings about, and instantly myself felt sick. Could it be the conbini food? Was I going to meet the same fate off my herbed chicken? At this point I really had to take a leak, too, despite my mind trying to will my bladder into submission. I did not want to get out of the warmth of my sleeping bag. Eventually the spewing became too much for me, though, and I rushed to slip on my shoes and shiver into the night.

This was perhaps the best decision I made in the last 24 hours.

The fog was still there, as expected, but it had settled back, maybe 50 meters, to the edge of our cliff. The white clouds still reached up like columns, but this time It wasn’t impending fog saturating our path, but a gate to guard the night. There was a benign form to them and they didn’t reach as high. Instead the sapphire clearness of the sky took over the ceiling. The moon like the crescent of a thumbnail shot light all over the campsite, illuminating the sky so it shone azure in some places. I’m sure if I dared to look longer I would’ve seen a multitude of stars, but there were still enough to make me gape up for a while. It was brilliant, surreal, perfect.

Alas, the chill was superior and I hustled to make my way back into the sleeping bag. I checked on Tyler who also took a moment to get outside, but came back to his bag with an OK and a theory about dehydration. This whole trip he’d been making sure that I was drinking plenty of water but I didn’t take him serious until now.

my sleepingbag
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

I’d estimate that passage happened around 9 or 11, and later into the night I started to lose sleep. I had a problem where eventually the arm of the side I was laying on would fall asleep, so I’d have to transition to the other. I made it to a point early in the morning when it was still dark out, but I knew the sun would be coming up soon. I was tempted to go out, and I probably could’ve convinced Mac to join me, I bet he was sleeping as well as me, but my comfortable complacency won over.

In the end we still woke up within half an hour of sunrise. Our tent was caked with ice from our condensation. I pulled out a pint of orange juice and my final onigiri for breakfast as well as chomping down a power bar. I made sure to put on all my clothes (including jacket) before leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag, and then it didn’t take long to pack up the rest (since I was already wearing most of my luggage) and exit the tent.

Packing up the tent

Campsite's morning view
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

I was baffled to find the landscape that morning. The wall of fog disappeared to reveal the barren mountainside clear to Mt. Haku. At first I had mistaken the lower clouds for a lake in the distance and it all seemed majestic. I did a bit of exploring and found the sun bright in the side on the other part of our cliff. It took me a bit, but after doing some math in my head I recognized the flat topped silhouette in the greatest distance as Mt. Fuji.

IMG_0177

I found it baffling. Such a change in the landscape from the previous day and night in just a couple of hours. What before seemed wild turned to tranquility. It was supreme and isolating. I had no way of knowing if we weren’t the only ones in the world at that moment. The only form of wildlife we’d seen was the rare raichou (known in Japan as the Thunderbird and in the US as the Snow Chicken…), and even that seemed like it should’ve perished overnight.

Morning on the mountaintop
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

But of course, now we ran into the obvious problem of how we would get down. Originally we thought about making a longer more difficult trek across the spine above, making it to a lift and then taking the commercialized way down. With Mac’s health and my lack of gloves in the mix, we decided to make a quicker time and head back to the main trail, somehow. We really were in new ground, though, because it was a path that Mac hadn’t been on and that we would later find out, had been detoured due to a few rock-slides.

What goes up... A slippery slope a sheer drop

On the snowy path

looking back at whence we came
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

It really was a winding path, and we actually descended alongside the mountain, only to be diverted back up another ridge. We spent a lot of this time in the shade and it was all filled with tentative steps. The narrow trail, the ice under snow, and frost on the rocks made everything unreliable. By the time we got down the peak we started on but back to the spine of another ridge we already gassed a lot of our energy.

The sun at least came onto our side, and we stripped off the jackets (of course, Mac was still in shorts all this time.)

Mac on a cliff

On the cliffside
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

From this point it was a long and dismal way down as the rock turned back into forest switchbacks. It was a swash of snow and mud and leaves and rocks at a sever downhill. Even when the mountainside became less steep, my knees found it unbearable. They started trembling and I started taking breaks. It’s funny as the way up we went at a similar pace, only stopping for different reasons. The way was absurd and Mac even commented that he’d never go this way again.

A tangled way down

I can’t not describe how relieved I was to get to the bottom. Even just the rounding out toward the base when the ground finally flattened out. I just about jogged the remainder so I could stop killing my legs. We came out at exactly the same spot we’d eaten lunch the day before. It was oddly content to complete the circle like that. Yesterday we had gone the completely opposite way, so it was a testament to how much effort we actually gave.

That was until Mac reminded me we still had three hours to get to the beginning.

Mac having lunch
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The trek down certainly seemed easier than yesterday, and I tried to lead us at a good pace. It still took a while and we didn’t have the added incentive of getting to the top of a mountain. Alas, the valley was just as beautiful, and we were chipper with the idea of onsen and rest.

The valley overall

On the ground

The last stretch

We made it back to the car completely satiated. I downed the remnants of my food and chugged some water while massaging the aches from the backpack straps. We took a trip to the nearby onsen, brushed our teeth, and cleaned off the grime. I actually didn’t feel too dirty, and I think it was just too cold and dry climbing to really work up a sweat. It was only my second time in an onsen, and I’d forgotten how incredibly hot they were. We got a great view of the mountain as we dipped in to our shoulders. With a four hour car ride ahead of us we didn’t linger too long. This time, though, the ride was even better, as I could really take in the mountains and surroundings of the prefecture. We made it back Sunday night by sunset. A weekend completely fulfilled, and even with the aches I’d have for the next couple of days, the suntan and scrapes, it was all well worth it.

Hike

This past weekend started on a whim. I got back from school early Friday evening and went for a quick run wearing shorts and a tank top. The day was quite warm, but I knew it would be one of the last that I’d get to enjoy. When I got back and started cooking dinner there was discussion over LINE messages over who would be around and what to do this weekend.

I had asked around on Thursday to see if anyone wanted to climb Mt. Hino, the highest point in the nearby area, and enjoy what was supposed to be perfect weather for the weekend. I got some pretty weak responses, so now on Friday I was committed to finding something else to do. That’s when one of my neighbors sent out an invitation to climb an even higher mountain on Saturday, with the caption “This could be where you’re sleeping tomorrow night.”

Without even clicking on the link I replied back with agreement, and we were quickly making plans. I went to his place to pick up a hiking backpack and figure out what other things I would need. From America I didn’t really pack with great backpacking trips in mind. But I ended up pretty set with the various running clothes I’d brought for winter.

We decided to leave at midnight. Yes, midnight, another thing I didn’t consider before I gave my response. The mountain was, of course, no where near us and required a four hour drive to get to the start of the multiple hour hike. I think my neighbor was a little skeptical of my ability at first. After all, he is a pretty well known and experienced outdoorsman and I…well, I come from a land where the best hiking trails wind up in Canada. I guess I too was skeptical of how much I could handle, being it’d been a while since I’d done any camping and not a while since I started running, but as I mentioned I was committed to doing something great this weekend, and I couldn’t imagine something better coming along.

On the road, leaving finally at 1 o’clock in the morning, I managed to stay awake and keep the conversation while Mac downed energy drinks and avoided speeding tickets. Given some more time I probably would’ve passed out–as the drive passed my seat slowly reclined lower and lower–but as we rolled into the parking grounds at 5 o’clock I perked up significantly. On the way we stopped by a conbini to stock up on the next five meals and snacks for the weekend, and before we set out I chomped down a plate of fish, rice and some pickled vegetables. It also took time to pack everything up in the car, as it was barely over 40 degrees out. I had long underwear, under shorts, under track pants, with a shirt and a pullover and my winter jacket.

Start of the hike
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The first thing I noticed stepping into the chilled night were the stars. It’s something I’ve been disappointed about looking at the stars around my apartment–mainly the fact that there are none. Here, where the nearest conbini was a good half hour away, the stars speckled the clear night sky. After reading A Brief History of Time, it was really great to imagine the science Stephen Hawking tries to explain and the practicalities of it through our own understanding. I would’ve been fine just setting up camp in the parking lot for a while and looking at the stars, but with dawn soon upon us and the frigid atmosphere already seeping through my skin we set off.

Sun coming over the ridge

It didn’t take too long into the trek for the sun to crest the mountain ridge with an amber glow, and I could finally appreciate the forest that surrounded us. Out to our left the mountains rose above a river with trees curried in colors of autumn. Everywhere around my home has stayed the same tone of green; it was like skipping ahead in time. Soon it was warm enough to take off my jacket and hat (while at the same time, Mac set out that morning in shorts).

Autumn colors in the morning
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The first hour of the hike was pretty mundane, while we followed a gravel road cut into the mountainside. It made for a good warm up, as I would find out that Japan trailblazing has some unique features American trails don’t always follow. We made a quick stop for second breakfast, and chugged the water in our bottles to refill at a spring before crossing a small dam and hitting the actual start of the hike.

On the trail in the shadow

This is where things turn difficult. It was actually as if the whole day’s hike followed an exponential formula in terms of difficulty over time. At first the hike was a mixture of muddy, leaf and rock ridden trail that didn’t really go in any particular direction. We actually passed a guy who had started out the day at the same time as us, so it seemed like we were making good time. I had my Bluetooth speaker playing in the background (a playlist of various best-of albums rushed together the hours before we left) and it helped keep a rhythm. After about three hours, though, the mud and leaves waned and the rocks increased. It was like the person who crafted the trail used a blunted machete to clear the path and was followed by a truck with the most rigid ottoman sized boulders they could find. Really it was a wonder that we didn’t fall while going up. At this point I did notice that I felt like I was losing more energy than I was spending, the realization that we were gaining altitude. After scrambling over some rock slides and river veins, we reached the base of our first ascent, and I very slightly demanded that we take lunch.

photos via halfwayanywhere.com
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

The whole time I hadn’t looked at my watch (on my phone). I wasn’t exactly hungry, but I figured I should stay on top of eating to avoid any gnawing pain that could crop up. I could’ve guessed that it was rounding noon, Mac took a shot at 11:30. I’m not sure if we were glad or disheartened when I checked and saw it was still 10:30. We had been hiking for a long while, but then again, we still had a long way to go, we hadn’t even started the ascent.

That’s what came next. Packing away the onigiri wrappers, the cheese and meat sticks, the bottled water, we moved across the river to the edge of a peak and began the trek up short and steep switchbacks. Looking back I think this was actually my least favorite part. We finally came out of the shade of the trees and were on the side drenched in sun. I’d stripped down to shorts and a shirt, but still felt overheated. It really was a scramble with the occasional safety rope tied to a tree as well as parts that were swept away by dirt and rock slides.

View from the trail

2440 meters high, the first peak
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Once we made it to the top of the first peak I definitely questioned what it was all for. The mountain we were on was a bit shorter shooting up in the center of the valley. The view was grand, seeing the colors of the basin, but the surrounding ridges seemed to curve up around us. It didn’t hold as much umph as I was expecting, but it allowed me to see we still had a far way to go. It was kind of just an appetizer.

The real start

We got back on the main trail, pushing even further up. Our conversation had long since mellowed out to the occasional statements, and I noticed that I’d stopped singing along to the music playing. When I tried I was out of breath, and it was the first time during the hike that we started taking regular stops. The effect was gradual, but the lack of oxygen had finally reached us. I took the approach to go in bursts along the grassy trail, tackling the height and recuperating while Mac went steadily one foot in front of the other. Even along this lower ridge we were still higher than the peak we’d came from, all the while being able to see across to the place we wanted to get to.

The way up

peak reference

It was grueling.

Once we reached the final stage, a switch from grassy terrain to rocks and pebbles, I felt doomed. I ignored the ache in my legs and focused solely on how much energy I could be exerting. Never has my heart beat so fast while my body has moved so slow.

The precarious stairway

Top of the stairway

End of the dirt and start of the rocks
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

This by far the most thrilling portion we’d hit for the day. It seemed that any time the rocks could shift below my feet and I’d be rolling to pain. Also, the lack of oxygen played with my mind a bit, keeping it focused on one thing, letting my body go forward on its own accord. We got back onto, somewhat solid ground, and then started hitting the snow. With 500 meters to go the chalet we were trying to reach seemed so close, but yet it hadn’t grown in my perspective. We took a brief stop for lunch, downing a sandwich, more jerky, some chocolate, and lots of water.

I had to start changing my layers, switching out my jacket a couple of times, as we moved into the mountain’s shadow. I really wish I’d had gloves as my fingers were the coldest part on my body. Gripping rocks and lifting myself along ledges sucked any heat out of them.

All this time climbing up this mountain, clouds had started to move along the other side of the ridge. For a while they just lingered there, but now they were starting to move over the top and come onto our side. They weren’t the heaviest looking, but definitely a darker shade of gray–an ominous motivation to move a bit faster. They started to block out the sun and really helped to cool things down. I was convinced that any moment we would be rained on.

So far to go

 

Almost to the top
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

Within 100 meters to the top we still probably took fifteen minutes to get there. The path we were on had dissolved into short switchbacks and rocks with painted circles on them, directing us where to go. It seemed like any path was a good path as long as we went up. The chalet had finally disappeared, covered now by the rounding of the hill we were about to summit. The full ache of my body was coming to now. My bruised collarbone, the soreness of my lower back, the burning in my calves, the sleep deprivation and the occasional twitch where the scar from my foot hadn’t fully healed all surmounted to my sensory overload. I was just about done when we finally made it.

Standing by Mt Yari

I had made it, and actually staggered out a laugh with the joy. Not because we had made it to the top, or at the beautiful view, but because we were next to the chalet I knew we would enter to rest and warm up in. I needed it bad, and if it hadn’t been for Mac I probably would’ve stayed there for a while. Or at least passed out on the counter. Alas, we couldn’t stay there forever, and with my fingers hardly warm, water-bottles refilled, track pants back on, and much prodding from Mac, we got back out to finish the day.

Rest at the top
photos via halfwayanywhere.com

 

Routine

With only a week after speech ending, I’m back on pace for a more relaxing life. Really I’m still not doing anything too exciting, but it’s sometimes mundane that is the most enjoyable. I’ll try not to be vain while I write, but really this is the first time that I’ve had the chance to reflect on everything I’ve done so maybe an ego will peek through here and there.

Thursday last week I finally got the chance to go to the track club. It was something I’d been wanting to do since before I even landed in Japan, but couldn’t join because of the former obligations. It was super hardcore, compared to anything I’d done recently (working on hurdle mobility), and I was so happy to be back in action. For those of you suspicious about why there would be track club in October, don’t think too much of your American timetables. In Japan, most schools make club activities compulsory–in the form of athletic groups, science comps, art clubs–and those clubs go year round. By now, however, most of the third years have ‘retired’ from their groups in order to focus on high school entrance exams. It’s a crazy amount of responsibility, not to mention emotionally heavy perspective on flowing process of life.

So, I’d been practicing with only the first and second year (7th and 8th grade relatively), but was still finding it a bit to keep up. I was coincidentally placed at the school with the best track team in the region. My students are 13 year olds who can run 17:30 5ks, and 8th graders doing 9 minute 3ks. I knew there was a pretty heavy running community in Japan that plenty of people, even Japanese aren’t aware of, but I didn’t think I’d find it so easily.

Joining the practice was one of the better decisions I’ve made so far. There was definitely an urge to just walk home before the sunset, maybe run on my own, or make a quick game and scroll through Last Week Tonight clips on Youtube. I’d just finished Dune (well worth it, but very inconclusive) and started on the next project: A Brief History of Time. Plus, after second practice my legs were not happy with me. It’s being able to recognize students that keeps me going. Getting their names down is becoming easier, but recognizing who they are has been more important. For example, walking to school in the morning, there’s typically one path that everyone takes (meaning me and the students). Yesterday morning, on the turn that converges everyone on the same road with my long legs out pacing everyone else I started noticing things about the people I was passing. The way some of the girls do their hair is completely distinct. And you can always tell a first year boy because his uniform pants and jacket are too long for his limbs. I came by one boy who fit this last description. Out of my periphery I could make out his glasses, and the back of his hair seemed somewhat familiar.

I hesitated between mistaken identity, but decided to call out his name and see what happens. I think the biggest thing against me saying anyone’s name is getting it wrong. Not because I’m embarrassed (although, after two months I wish I could remember everyone), but more because I don’t want them to feel bad about me not knowing their name. Maybe I’m completely wrong, but I get the sense that some of the students will blame their own self esteem for not making a greater impression with me. I’m struggling much with not having favorites already. So, I called out his name, bracing to get it wrong when he turned around and I saw I was correct; it was a first year on the track team.

All the students have a huge test (what I’d compare to school-wide standardized testing) so most of the clubs are on hiatus for the next ten days. We talked about my legs hurting from practice, how he felt about the test, and I encouraged him to keep running in his down time. I think we’ve reached another level on the great teacher ladder.

With ikujyo-bu, track club, cancelled, I was back to running on my own. Walking too and from school everyday, with the nights becoming exponentially colder once the sun sets, is starting to become a hassle, but so far I’ve stayed motivated. I just think of all the wasted time between my steeple injury in May and my beach injury in August to keep me going.

It is becoming the end of the month and I am running lower on funds. I’m thankful now that those types of Silver Week vacations do only come once every five years. I’m already planning a trip to Kyoto, but otherwise I’m going to focus more on saving and doing the things I enjoy that are free. Luckily that includes my biggest hobbies: running, reading, writing. Recently I’ve also been substituting my first favorite expensive past time, Magic the Gathering, with a new faster free MOBA that a fellow teacher recommended to me, League of Legends.

As the days become shorter I’ve been seriously waffling between getting a car. So far, though, there still isn’t a purpose a car would fulfill that I can’t really do on my own. I think I’m done making trips to my favorite store Nitori and soon it’ll be safe enough to buy ice cream from the grocery store and carry it home without fear of it melting. I do really wish I had a bike, but I’m as particular about a bike as a car. The most available thing in Japan are mamachari, which I absolutely refuse to waste money on. It’s pretty difficult to find a decent bike store outside of the city, but if I went to the city I’d be pretty tough to get a bike back. I could make a decent day of it by finding the right bike and cycling the 50km home, but without any training or English map that seems set up for disaster. So it’s just something we’ll keep in the back of our minds.

It hasn’t been much of a problem sleep wise, and I’ve managed a good 8 hours at least while still waking up at 6 in the morning. It’s really absurd that I’ve grown into someone comfortable with this schedule. It’s something a high school me would never allow. But I make a decent breakfast, iron my shirt, try to shave, and even get in a pod cast to pass the time (right now I’ve been keen on the New Yorker Fiction and The Moth). By 7 o’clock I’m out the door with toast and jam in one hand and a book in the other. Back in college I mastered the technique of reading while walking, and it’s come in handy on the way to work. Even the dreaded gaijin traps don’t scare me now. I basically conquered Dune this way and it’s how I’ve gotten halfway through A Brief History of Time (which are pretty ironic books to read back to back).

Weeks ago I wrote about how reading almost seemed a necessity, but I wasn’t quite sure why I felt compelled to read. Emotionally it’s done enough to get my brain thinking and active, but I think even more it’s helped stimulate my own writing. I can think back long ago, to the second grade perhaps before, when my first dream job was to be a writer. Since then I’ve added plenty of tags to that dream, but writer has always been attached and something I’ve always had an affair with. During my last job I had a lot of time working on my own where I could just think. I’d come up with systems to keep track of what I was screen printing by applying characters and plot lines to each process. In my head I’ve got so many different worlds, some that stand out with such defined arcs that I’ve been eager to get them onto paper. It’s been good to set apart some time to actually get that work in, and with NaNoWriMo just around the corner maybe something tangible will come to fruition sooner than planned.

Apart from buying food and cooking it, which I plan on covering at a different time, I’d say the last part of my routine is watching the sunset (if I’m lucky enough to be home by then). When it comes to my apartment I still battle with the layout, not having a permanent bed, distinguished places to eat, relax, and sleep. There are other places in the complex bigger by an entire room that I can see are vacant. But every night (now around 5:30) I stop and stare and am always amazed at the extent of nature’s beauty. There’s no way I’m giving up this room for something without that view.

Autumn Sunset

Speech

For the past month I’ve been coaching a student everyday after school to give a five minute speech entirely in English about his robot contest. At the beginning it was quite simple, translating his speech, making sure it would all fit in the time, going over difficult words…

In the past two weeks, however, it ramped up to extreme levels. Particularly because my co-ALT also had a contestant who was working almost doubly as hard in his memorization and pronunciation, and through the properties of solidarity it meant that, even if my students standards were being met, we still had to stay as long. We even were asked by one of the other JTEs to come in on Sunday to work on it. It turned into such a glorious day and between my advising JTE and my student I think we were trying to work as quickly as possible. My JTE kept mentioning what a perfect surfing day it would be, so I really hope those days appear for at least the month. As a result, obviously, my blogging suffered, as well as my social time, running habits, sleep schedule, and overall enjoyment of life.

Don’t get me wrong, I now adore my student and all of his robot determinism, and even getting over the fact that he mixes up ‘r’s ‘l’s and ‘th’s should say something. But it came down to working almost ten hour days in what could’ve been done in eight that really got to me. The scary thing is I’m usually one of the first people out of the teacher’s rooms, even if I leave at 7 o’clock. To a lot of extent it just expected of teachers, and many workers in Japan, to stay working even after your salaried hours are filled, but I also think it’s due to the fact that on any given weekday night, myself included, there’s just not too much else to do. Especially when I didn’t have internet (btw, after hours of phone calls and a lot of help from my JTE I now have internet at my home), I was fine to stay later and use it to study Japanese and find out whatever news was going on back home (mostly, Donald Trump and the Presidential Race). Now as the days get dark earlier and I find myself with viable things to do–finish Dune, write my own stories, run, cook my dinner–getting the speech contest over with was the first thing on my mind.

Leading up to the contest, though, were some of the better times of all the work. As my student was saying his speech during practice I’d be mouthing along with him. Despite his “robots” occasionally being turned into “lobots” he had made such a huge transformation over the past month that I felt like I was teaching something a little bit more than English. When it came to intonation I taught him how to create a loud voice without shouting, and with posture I stopped him from slouching. The day before the speech contest was actually his fifteenth birthday, and so instead of having practice I went out and bought him a slice of cake (and cupcakes for the JTE and myself).

Then comes the morning of the contest and Coral and I drove early to the Cultural Center. Not only were our students going to be giving their speeches, but we also got the privilege of being the masters of ceremony along with another JTE. Complaints were minimal, but the whole time I was trying to figure out if I’d rather be in class teaching. Basically, with only two fifteen minute breaks, and lunch, we were sitting in the same spot for a good eight hours, introducing 58 speeches, each giving feedback for 29 of them. I must admit, it was pretty mind numbing, but only once did I zone out so much that by the time she finished and I realized I was the one who had to comment I completely forgot what her topic was about. As I struggled to grasp some blurred words in my memory I ended up saying, “Thank you for telling us about that struggle in your life, and I’m glad you were able to overcome it.”

I felt so bad, and it was a good enforcer of keeping me awake and paying attention to the remaining half, but also was a decent summary of every comment I could’ve given. There were some outstanding speeches and even better performances. We set it up so I could introduce my student and Coral hers, and I played it nonchalantly (while giving him a thumbs up), but I don’t think I could hide the bias in my voice after my speech. Granted, he wasn’t going to win, I think he knew that and at least had no expectations for himself. But his speech that day was far beyond the league of anything he’d done in practice. He said all the words–even those pesky ‘a’s and ‘from’s he was keen to forget. His pronunciation and intonation was on point. Best of all, he smiled through almost all of it, except for the part where he sold his acting skills by frowning and saying, “Actually, a week after this speech contest, I will compete in the robot contest…God help me.*

It garnered one of the few laughs from the audience of the day, and I could not have been more proud. Afterward I got to meet his mother, who explained she had no idea what he was talking about, but was so glad to see him up there. It really made all of the work worth it. Now, I’m realizing he was just about the first student that I met and it’s certainly sad to not get to interact with him as much every day. I guess I’m probably screwed once graduation comes in March and that feeling gets multiplied by two hundred.

Akiba

I could’ve spent another night in Tokyo, but knew I had to save money and energy for the remained month, so after we woke up and cleaned off in the capsule hotel, I knew that to Carmelo’s chagrin I’d be going home. But with the shinkansen running until nine o’clock, I didn’t see any rush. We started that day with a conbini breakfast and walking a complex route to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku to go to their observation deck. At 243 meters tall they’re a whopping 391 meters shorter than Tokyo Sky try, but they get the job done and best of all it’s free.
 Shinjuku

You can actually see Sky Tree off in the distance there, so some might consider this view even better. For me the view of Tokyo, especially during the day, is not considerably beautiful. It’s hardly even inspiring or enjoyable. Mostly I like to see it to be reminded of the extent of humankind’s dominance and destruction, and the fact that my presence in the history of the earth is (yet) hardly impact. For anyone who’s seen the top of (the skyscraper formely known as) the Sears Tower or the Empire State Building there’s a certain clarity there that Tokyo doesn’t offer. With American skyscrapers you can look down the grids of highways and streets to realize that even at large scales there is still some order in the world. When looking at Tokyo, for once, Japan is a sprawling chaos.

We basically spent the entire day in Akihabara venturing further than I had ever been before. If Harajuku is for twenty something girls, Akiba is for twenty something guys. They have so many otaku artifacts, often perverted, for the most obscure of animes and video games. They have objects like keychains, mugs, towels, mousepads, flags, pens, fans, pillows, lunchboxes, folders, hats, costumes, clocks, chopsticks, much more, and on top of all of that perhaps double in the amount of figurines. It’s maybe the best place in Japan to buy computer electronics. For this I suffered as my college laptop is reaching its sixth year and my fears of it dying reach their limit I’ve been in the market for buying parts to build another computer. Alas, reason won out and I was able to keep my hands off the skylake processors and the discount graphics cards.

We ended up going to a curry restaurant for early dinner, something I’d been craving for a while. After that I was on my own and could use up as much of the next four hours as I wanted before deciding to go back. At this point I really was getting sick of the city, or at least had a longing to be back in the mountainside of Fukui. But I did roam around a little bit longer, hoping to score on the location of being in Tokyo. I wound up at a used English book store, knowing that Dune wouldn’t last me forever and the remaining books I hoped to finish by the end of the year. Of course, though, it was still a holiday and I got to the store ten minutes before it’s early closing time.

It ended up being close to Tokyo station where I needed to pick up the Shinkansen home, so it wasn’t much of a detour and I saved some money anyway. Especially since the ticket home was another  $120, a price I stubbornly resigned myself to pay.

Overall, the weekend was pretty much the first type of holiday travel I’ve done in my post grad adult life so on that I’ll claim it as a success. It was expensive, fueled by my ‘wing it’ attitude, so I can see why people can’t do it all the time even if they can afford it. But it seems like I’ll often have a long weekend or time for travelling in the future, so hopefully it is something that I can start saving up for. My location is pretty ideal in the grand scheme of geography. I’m nearby four major Japanese cities: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya, and a score of well known traditional sightseeing and modern activity resorts. So here’s hoping for no more cut open foots and trips to the hospital and more getting around and trips to castles.

Ultra

The next morning I woke up with all the fatigue of travel and aimless wandering wiped away. I slept pretty soundly, which surprised me due to some of the stories I’d heard about capsule hotels being sleazy places. I got up at a decent time in the morning, around 8 o’clock, and decided to wash in their public bath in order to get rid of the smell now radiating from my armpits.

Bathing in Japan is a completely different experience, since most of the time you’re hard pressed to find a standing shower-head. In the long run, I feel like it’s a much better way to clean yourself: you still have a shower nozzle, but you’re sitting down so you can actually scrub the hard to get places. Maybe it’s from my time on the cross country team or just because I’ve been to Japan, that I don’t feel embarrassed to do this kind of bathing, but it’s always referred to as a more scandalous cultural difference. Instead I think it’s a strong point for Japan not to teach people to shame their bodies or automatically give nakedness an implicit sexual connotation. If you ever got to see my senior art show, it’s something I tried to analyze with that.

So freshly shaved and somewhat less smelly, I departed the capsule hotel that morning–this time passing two men smoking in the stairway–only to realize that I was still in Shinjuku. It was a bit strange, to in a place so associated with nightlife and tourism yet with none of that going on. As I made my way to the station I passed by a series of people doing as we usually call it ‘the walk of shame‘. It was pretty amusing and baffling to realize the type of work that goes in those places. There used to be a good documentary on Netflix that gives an enlightening overview. In a city with 13 million people it takes all types of nightlife. A couple year back when I first studied abroad I had a couple weekends to experience the process. Subways in Tokyo stop pretty early, sometime around midnight, so if you want to go out you’ve only got limited options. Especially since most places don’t really start the night until 10 o’clock and taxis typically costs what Uber only dreams about charging, the only economical option is to stay out all night (until the subways start running around around 6 or 7).

Originally I was planning on saving this type of night for Monday (having the whole train back home to recover), but seeing the aftermath I was starting to doubt its appeal. As I almost got to the main street down Shinkjuku a couple, a girl and guy, walked towards me on the same side of the street: giggling, stumbling, and in their own world. I didn’t have much to do but pass by, until the girl by some mystical magnetic force connected her forehead right into my shoulder. The guy started laughing, and the girl without making a sound just slumped to the ground. I asked if she was alright, ready to assist in getting her back to her feet, but she just slowly rolled over and continued giggling. As I walked away, cars now trying to pass the narrow street, and her refusing the man’s  attempts to get her to stand up, I had to make the connection that it’s the foreigners that are always told not to get drunk and cause problems in the city.

As I mentioned, when I went to sleep last night I knew I needed to start this day with a plan and so I made my way to one of the bigger sightseeing places in Tokyo, Sensou-ji often called Asakusa Temple, where I also hoped to snag a great breakfast.

Sensouji, Asakusa Temple

It is a very bustling place, but nonetheless enjoyable. Basically, you start by entering the front gate, and walk all the way down past a slew of tiny shops selling sovenir, food, and traditional artifacts. It is truly one of the free places in Japan who’s sole purpose is sightseeing. I ended up getting green tea mochi on a stick, while walking to the end. There were a number of food stalls at the back gate that didn’t exist the last time I visited and if I wasn’t so mean with my money I probably would’ve ordered something from each. There was yakitorikaraage, crab, dumplings, all too much for my nose to handle. In the end I settled on yakisoba, one of the best I’ve tasted yet, and ate it sitting down in the nearby shade. Already a great start and perfect contrast to yesterday.

Sensou-ji courtyard

It was kind of luck that  I started off there, because the second stop on my trip, Tokyo Sky Tree, was actually in the same part of Tokyo, almost visible beyond the building’s horizon at the temple’s court. I took a short shuttle there and followed in a small mob of people the way out of the station, around the aquarium at its base, and up the stairs to the entrance of the tower.

Taking a brief time to look around at the entrance’s mezzanine, however, I was stopped by a girl dressed like a backup dancer for Justin Bieber but holding a clip board. “Ah, hello,” she asked, “Do you have a moment to answer some questions?”

Of course, my natural American instincts went to work in coming up with a reason not to talk to her. So far my only experiences with someone in Japan asking if I have a moment has resulted in filling out a survey about my electronics shopping and politely declining to listen to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Alas, it’s not like I had much else to do, anyway hadn’t I been complaining about not talking to enough Japanese people?

We ended up having a pretty cool conversation. She was a high school student doing a project for her English class to talk to foreigners. It was kind of nostalgic, because I had been in that same situation when I studied here in college, but I was also flabergasted by her fluency in English. She said she is planning to go to America (*California, like everyone else I’ve met) next year, and was pretty happy to hear that I was an ALT. It offered a cool insight to the types of lives my students–with their identical uniforms and hairstyles–might eventually lead in their future. In the end she took a picture with me (for proof), and I felt like even on vacation I was able to do a little work.

Tokyo Sky Tree

Now I think this is dubbed the tallest tower in the world, and all my students have remarked in their essay’s about its beautiful view, so I felt compelled to check it out for myself, and maybe it’s coming from New York, but when I got to the base it didn’t seem all that astonishing. I went inside where there was a decent queue and no definite direction on where I’d actually go to get a ticket to the top. They had this counter where people were lined up that was labelled in english; rapid line, but that had the type of connotation that you’d be paying a little extra. In the end I couldn’t find a ticket counter, but I did see a sign that had prices on it. The wait was half an hour and the price was ¥3000, otherwise a bit above my budget for the “beautiful view” that consists mostly of concrete slabs, an ocean if you’re lucky, and a glimpse of Mt. Fuji you’re divine.

I knew of a place in Shinjuku that allowed you to visit the observation deck for free (somewhere I’d gone on my first study abroad trip here) and decided that that would be enough of the view for enough of the trip. I did peruse across the gift store, mostly just fuji-tv themed key chains and omiyage. I did pick up a pretty sweet Attack on Titan sticker, and a Sky Tree themed Evangelion folder for less than ¥500 so at least I’ve got something to take back with me.

It was still before noon by the time I got back on the subway, so I decided to spend a little more time alone before meeting up with the people I was going to the concert with. By now I had looked up some things going on in Tokyo and had come up with a couple of options. Strangely, plenty of places around Shinjuku and Shibuya were celebrating Octoberfest, and there was a huge beirgarten I had been interested in checking out. Alas, it also happened to be the weekend of the Tokyo Art Book Fair at the Tohoku University of Art and Design, and I had been Jones-ing for any aspect of art in my life for a while.

Tokyo Art Book Fair

It was perhaps the best decision I’d made all weekend. It really does seem so long since I’ve been involved in anything artistic. I’ve tried (poorly) to do whatever work I can in my free time, but these whole past couples of months were all full of saying goodbyes, packing, moving out, moving home, moving in, trying to study Japanese, and avoid leg injuries at all costs. Now that I’m in Japan I’ve been only vaguely looking for the materials I need to start printmaking again, and trying not to resign myself to the loss of living in the rural and not being able to figure out where to start to look. It honestly isn’t that hard and apart from start-up costs it’s just one more thing I’m waiting to start when I’m finally settled.

Anyway, back at the fair. At the entrance there were a bunch of stalls selling all assortment of foods that you’d likely find at a twenty-something’s street market in the Pacific Northwest. They had honeyed sweets on a stick, homemade tamales, crafty obento, even organic wine, and already I felt at home. Maybe (and it’s probably the case) it’s because I was completely surrounded by like minded people in the first time in a long time. Even with a grumbling stomach I skipped past the stalls and headed straight for the open rooms lining the inner courtyard.

I think I was just eager to see real actual physical handmade art, too, because I didn’t really try to absorb anything that I was seeing. I just sort of wondered around.

Tokyo Art Book Fair inside

By the end I was feeling so optimistic. I’d bought three prints (actual hand made screenprints) to take home with me and finally get up on my bare walls. I met a crew that worked out of printshop and design company that I will definitely visit if I ever get to Singapore. I also talked with two fantastic artists, one who I bought a print from, who were former JETs. It was so reassuring, like looking at some potential version of my future. Both were Australian, one who went to school at Tohoku and another who traveled back and forth doing various art pieces. They both seemed to have had eccentric lives, but like me, spent their time on JET in the inaka. After talking with them the interesting thing that stood out was their pieces of most important advice were the same: they both said to learn as much of the language as I can. I wound up getting some of that organic wine because hey, treat yourself.

I left with a goodie bag and a bounce in my step and messaged Carmelo to find out where in the Tokyo he wanted to meet up. I wound up at Harajuku, which on a normal day is packed but I suppose on a Sunday holiday is egregious. Understand that I’m slightly exaggerating when I say it took me forever to get from the subway platform to the front of the station, packed in like fish in a net, but really even Shibuya crossing didn’t have that many people. The day turned out to have a good amount of sun and it’s lucky that we’re both over six feet and people of color, because otherwise I don’t think I could have found him. Even when we were both standing at our chosen meeting point it took a couple minutes of looking around.

We basically chose Harajuku as a meeting point and then it was back into the fishing net to troll along to the platform. Harajuku is a pretty good place to visit (also for the previously mentioned shrine), but unless you have fat stacks in your wallet and are generally a woman in your early twenties, it’s basically only good for getting crepes. Instead we found our way going to Shibuya to kill some time. I should mention that we could’ve gone to the concert grounds by now. The stage opened at 10:00 and I did pay for the entire day. But really, I was kind of still worn out or at least not ready to get into a party scene. So Shibuya, known for its mass people crossing and its Starbucks was the place to chill.

Carmelo, his girlfriend and I decided that it was food we needed most. By now it was hitting well after 2 o’clock and I hadn’t eaten anything since my morning break at Asakusa. Heading down what looked like the main street we sort of kept revolving trying to splice out which places were for food, and of those places which one we wanted to eat at. I can’t say I was craving anything in particular, but the thing that stood out in my mind was sushi. I think because another guy we were meeting up with at the concert said he was going to Tsukiji for the dawn fish auction and I was half tempted to wake up that early just to eat absurdly priced cuts of fish that were less than three hours out of the ocean.

After a bit of waffling we went into a kaitenzushi place that seemed like it wouldn’t break our budgets. If you’ve never heard of kaiten it’s basically a conveyor belt buffet, which seems like it would actually have been something created in America (if not maybe for some FDA regulations). You pay by plate, each color coded by price, so it’s both easy and dangerous to keep track of what you’re eating. For example, I got one small plate of salmon that was ¥200, and decided to get another, and I also got a delicious ¥300 plate of something, and a couple ¥100 plate dishes (cuz hey, they were only 100), add on ¥500 for a beer, and you’re easily hitting a $15 meal. Although being that I was on holiday with literally the most amount of cash from a paycheck I’ve ever had, I tried not to pay too much attention to it.Conveyor Sushi

With full stomachs we departed from Carmelo’s girlfriend at the station and made our way to Odaiba, a man made island the likes of lower Manhattan now featured highly in tourist type attractions, where the concert was located. It tooks us longer by maybe an hour than expected, both at fault for taking multiple wrong turns. We rushed to find a locker to store our stuff and finally got on the right subway line. At this point I have to plug in how efficient a Suica card can be for a lot of travel around Tokyo even if you’re only there for a weekend, so if you plan on traveling there definitely invest.

Once we got there we found our way to Anton, the final link in this bro trip. Many places around Tokyo are pretty easy to make arrangements to meet people. There is usually one odd landmark that sticks out among the crowd. I think in that category Odaiba takes the cake, though, for it’s ‘life sized’ Gundam fighter.

Odaiba Gundam

Now, I’m not certain what kind of reference an anime series like Gundam can use to call something life size, but either way it is a pretty sweet feature. We actually hung out around the base for a little while chatting, and I think unconsciously it was just because it’s so cool to stand by that thing.

We went into the mall behind it for a brief drink pit stop, and needless to say it was packed. Now it was curbing six o’clock and I remained doomed to be impressed with how many people were out. Not since leaving New York had I ever seen as many people as I have this weekend. It was quite overwhelming. Yeah, but that was also before we got into the concert grounds.

Japan Ultra

We started off in the back and after realizing how crowded it actually was made some quick decisions. Now, I’ve been frequenting concerts ever since an emo phase back in junior high when I went to a warehouse in downtown Minneapolis to see a show of somewhat obscure rock groups including Houston Calls, As Tall As Lions, and June. And during that time I learned the first lesson that everyone needs when going to a concert and that’s how to stake out your ground. Most recently I’ve been frequenting the local shows: mainly Rock the Garden, and the hits that comes to First Ave. So (as all Minnesotans are passive aggressively polite) it hasn’t been since Soundset my freshman college summer, since I’ve needed to deal with the subtleties of a mosh pit.

I looked to the guys and made sure to tell them, “If we do this, I’m going in and not looking back, so make sure to stick with me.” At some point I’m sure I quoted Pirate’s of the Caribbean.

It’s a good thing too, because by the point we stopped moving we ended up without Anton and it was just Carmelo and I and a surprising amount of foreigners. I ended up next to a woman from Washington D.C. and a guy from Ireland, and that was before the crowd started moving in.

DJ Snake

We landed there during the mid-beginnings during the second to last set, DJ Snake. Now I can only describe him as potentially the club version of Pitbull. His music is really catchy, he’s decent on featured songs, but for some unknown reason you just tend not to like him. He did in fact determine the entire pop scene last year with his number one hit song, both blessing and curse, so at least I get to say I saw him live.

Then onto the final headliner, after an awkward break while they changed equipment, and Carmelo and I pushed even further to the front. Not that we weren’t satisfied, and I actually worried about going too far ahead to get out of the ambiance of it all. Then he, Skrillex, in all his long haired ray-ban glory, finally took the stage and started. The crowd of course went wild, myself included, and it wasn’t long before I worked up a necessary sweat.

Soon into the set I was hitting a natural high. I didn’t really drink too much, just enough to get a buzz going, and I really just felt like I was melting into the atomosphere with the amount of the music. It’s a bit funny the first huge EDM festival I go to didn’t involve a single whiff of marijuana or encounter with the guy who’s tripping way too hard. The drug laws in Japan really keep away a lot of problems. Not to say that all you can drink buffet hours are a good thing, but the amount of zero tolerance on substances (even for driving after any drink) is admirable.

Back to ear melting, eye blinding, body shaking rave parties.

Ultra Hands Up

I wasn’t keeping track of time, but every time I thought the set was calming down and about to finish it would restart and get going again. It’s funny to hear an American DJ speak English at a Japanese crowd. It’s like, every time he says “Put your hands up” or “Get low” you really have to wonder how many people can actually understand. Luckily, I was one of them, and there’s no form of submission better than giving full control to a world renowned DJ.

I’m pretty sure, though, overall the whole scene was a little dampened. I’m not quite sure if maybe it was because it was outside, because it was the audience, or the venue, but I’m certain the bass could’ve been just a little louder, the sound just a bit more booming. I suppose it just saves my hearing a couple years down the line. Between the shouting of the people and the air tossing of my head it’s a wonder I heard anything at all. There was a point where I realized I hadn’t drank enough alcohol to give excuse to my actions and I was in full control of my body. I wonder what it would’ve looked like if I was the only one at the concert but still moving as radically.

Skirllex on Stage

You can check out the full setlist and somewhere on the interwebs you can download most of the sets.

It ended with multiple flames, fireworks, an all girl Japanese ‘heavy metal’ band, and some flag waving. Strangely content I feel like I came down from the vibe at just the right time. I had hardly a buzz, little sweat, and my voice still had volume.

Another feat of Japan efficiency was how long it took us to get out. It did seem like a long time, but there was such an organization to it I felt like herded cattle, and it definitely halted any bottleneck effect. Outside on the mounds surrounding the Gundam under little lanterns in the trees, multiple groups sat to continue the night.

We ended up not finding Anton but meeting up with the Brazilian girlfriend of one of our neighbors. After a not so quick stop at McDonalds (oh the pain) we wound up back on the crowded subway. I think it’s pretty common to hear that they pack people into Tokyo subways like sardines in a can, and that might be true on particular weekday mornings during rush hour. I definitely experienced it years ago when I first came, but really had yet to be crushed against anything this time… until now.

The unfortunate thing about this man made island is that there are very few ways to get off and on it. Mainly in our situation, it required a train disconnected from other parts of the subway system. Actually on the way to Odaiba, after taking our wrong turns, I saw a couple with two young children rush onto the train right as the doors were closing. When they took a breath and looked down they realized they only had one child. Still standing on the track, on the other side of the closed doors was a cutely pathetic six year old Japanese girl, staring indifferently as her parents zoomed away. Granted, they were able to quickly do some gesturing with their hands for the girl to stay there, but the whole scene seemed so cliched there was hardly any anxiety. In fact, it seemed like the parents might’ve encountered this situation before as they got off on the next stop and waited to go back. Always one to make comparisons, I can’t help but think of the drama and severe panic that would ensue on both parties if that situation happened to an American traveling in New York (of course New York is a bit dire, but I think any big city would do).

Getting off the subway, we also were rushing through the station to get to the locker to find our bags. At first it didn’t look so good, as the station was pretty winding, and many areas were closing down because of the time. Thankfully my knack for retracing my steps kicked in under pressure. Although, after that we had a bit of a problem figuring out where to go. We were trying to figure out if we wanted to spend all night partying or if we just needed to wind up in a spot we could find a place to stay. Because of the time it would take to get from where we were to where we wanted to go, by the time the trains stopped running we couldn’t do both. We opted for the latter, of calling it a night, and headed to Shinjuku.

We ended up walking around to a couple of different capsule hotels, until we came across one with some vacancy in the heart of Shinjuku. We dropped off our stuff and then almost one in the morning headed out to find some food. After all, we didn’t really get dinner. The decision came to Korean or Yakitori, and since the latter is not always reliable depending on the restaurant we went for the food that would be harder to find back in Fukui.

It capped the night off perfectly. I ordered bibimbap (shoutout to Stefan) and cruised easily to sleep. The place wasn’t as nice as the capsule I was in last night, but with a day like that anything was fine.

Silver

It’s been a plain while since I’ve last had a vacation. You might consider my initial landing here a brief vacation, but if my posts say anything, being in a hotel Tokyo wasn’t really being in Tokyo, and it wasn’t all together enjoyable. I think the most recent case for me having a vacation would be the first time I went to New York a month for school nearly two years ago. Then I was in a new place, old enough to drink, a credit card limit that was way to high for what I deserved, with work that consisted of touring museums and visiting studios. Yes, it was a required daily itinerary, but it was full of things I wanted to do anyway. But I think that is still the biggest cause of it not being a vacation. It was an extended stay (a New York winter) with some freedom, though, still with financial and time restrictions. A summer before that I went to Thailand for a week with the best person in the world, and I think that was probably the last thing I would actually consider a vacation. I took time off of my summer research (an oblivious foreshadowing of designing a virtual Japanese language classroom and games) hopped on a plane and traveled around Bangkok and one of the Kohs. Sure, I’ve done road trips and gone camping since then, but I think there’s a sense of luxury the idea of a vacation has to meet and an island beach bungalow in the Pacific only barely meets those standards.

Anyway, now I had a treat. A rare aligning of three Japanese holidays that gave me three extra workdays free. In the spring there’s a whole week Japanese people refer to as Golden Week, so this occurance (the next of which happens in sixteen years) is aptly dubbed Silver Week. A couple weeks ago, Carmelo, my friendly neighborhood rascal, informed me that he was taking this time to go to Tokyo to attend a three day rave concert, Ultra Japan. The few who know my true interests are aware that, deep deep down maybe even under all the Led Zeppelin, I live for the trance and raucous beat of step and electronic music. It’s been like that ever since I was a child and that genre was barely discernible from Rob Zombie. I remember listening to early Basement Jaxx tracks and having that be my hardcore. When I discovered that noise like Sleigh Bells actually existed I understood there was an actual purpose in life. The end of my college senior year could be practically mapped out by Rusko. At the top of this discovery–as it was for most people–reigned Skrillex, a musician, DJ, performer, and seemingly great guy from California. It’s been a while for me since Skrillex was what I preferred to listen to, and I’d given up on seeing him in concert years ago. But recently he partnered with probably the greatest DJ/producer since early 2000s Daft Punk, Diplo, and came out with an album which I think you’ve heard of, and it’s quite literally (due to the broken hard drive) one of the only things I have left to listen to. Basically, he’s made some of my favorite music (yes, you can call that music) and was headlining the concert on Sunday night, and now I could finally see him, and there was no reason for me not to, because hey, I’m not getting any younger.

Wow, that’s a lot to add to an already long post, but good to know my devotion is strong.

Anyway, with Carmelo’s plane ticket booked and tickets sold out weeks before, it seemed I’d missed my chance. And good thing, too, since even a one day pass was quite expensive. The next day as I mulled over what I would actually do for Silver Week–go nowhere and buy a couch instead–Carmelo sent me a message saying that they’d have a final run of tickets that night at 10 o’clock. It seemed, as they say, too good to be true. I didn’t even have to make a decision. I was given a chance to go and I took it.

Surprisingly, a couple of people who lived around us also got tickets and in the end there were four of us going. Carmelo was taking a plane, and another guy was going by bus, so in the end we got there by planes, trains, and automobiles (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

The unfortunate thing in getting there separately, though, was having no direct overlap where we could all meet up. Carmelo spent the first day with his girlfriend, and after lack of planning on our part, our other friend made his own itinerary for the weekend. And if you recall, I decided to ‘wing it’.

I woke up on Saturday before six o’clock, and after stuffing my backpack half full of t-shirts, a rain jacket, and the other half with my camera, Dune, and food for the day I was out the door by seven. I don’t think I asked anyone for a ride, but since everyone was already on their own trips I don’t think it would’ve done me any good, so I was on my own to walk to the train station. My neighbor and former college classmate, who’d also be going to Tokyo, told me the night before to take the train to a regional town where I could then be resigned to the shinkansen. It was at first something I wanted to avoid, but with a couple cuts to my materialistic budget, I think the convenience and experience is worth it.

After all, I got on the first train at 8:00, and after switching, arrived at Tokyo some fifty pages into Dune, not sleep deprived, and around 11:00 making less than half the time of a bus ride at less than double the price. I didn’t know quite what to do first, and if you’ve never been dropped off at Tokyo station let me tell you it’s a trip. It felt like the part in a Hollywood sci-fi where the crew of a space ship has to evacuate before something self-destructs, so everyone is running all over the place and the fluorescent lights and signs are all in some alien language. Eventually, I decided to go to the place I knew would require the shortest amount of time: Harajuku.

If you were a teenager in the 2000s you almost certainly remember when Gwen Stefani hit her prime and went crazy about Bananas. Well, a lot of her influence during that time also came from Japan and specifically the unique trends from Harajuku’s Takeshita street. It is a pretty sweet spot especially if you’re a young Japanese girl ready to spend a lot of money, but seeing as I’m hardly any of the above, I knew it wouldn’t take long for me to pass through. I really just had almost a wistful longing to go there as it’s a decent vibe of Tokyo on a whole.

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It’s hard to believe that across from the street, literally on the other side of the train tracks, the city shops evaporate into almost two hundred acres of forest that make up the Meiji shrine, a park and temple dedicated to their emperor of their restorative period. It’s sort of like being in New York City, and then happening upon Central Park, but only if the entirety of Central Park was like a huge memorial to George Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan complete with cherry blossoms and air force ones. It’s a neat break while you’re staying in the city.

After that I cruised over to, well, the outskirts of Tokyo, over a half hour train ride, to go to the acclaimed Tokyo Game Show. This was one of many annual events that were being held over the weekend, and supposedly an event that should wow and please.

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I’d hate to say it was an overall flop, but it at least lacked a form of bravado. I think I was still on the thrill of the E3 announcements, and expected some more previews to come out of Japan. Alas, it was mainly promotion of smaller games and studios, plenty of mobile trials, and hardly anything blockbuster. Especially as a foreigner I hardly knew many of the Japanese based brands, and had little money to spend on the elitist gear they were shipping out. I guess it was fun to see Star Wars Battlefront being played, and I tested out the newest revamp of one of my favorite series, Need for Speed, but otherwise the next best thing was Final Fantasy Online, and with so many previews already of games that are supposed to coming out next year (FF15, KH3, Fallout, Mirror’s Edge, Uncharted) I was hoping for a bit more.

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Getting there, walking around, having lunch, and winning a free shirt still took up the afternoon, and by the time I reached the station I realized that I was actually in a pretty fantastic place. The whole convention center is beyond the normal sightseeing trip in Tokyo, so in order to entice people to stay in the city they’ve ingeniously placed a whole outdoor outlet mall right outside the station. As the nights have been getting darker and darker around six o’clock when I get home from school, I’ve been wanting to find a store where I could get some bright clothes to run around in. I hit the Nike store first, and since I was there decided to rummage around the Gap, Vans, Bathing Apes, Northface, et cetera. In the end I did only buy one flourescent yellow singlet and matching shirt, but I also recognized that no matter where I am, shopping is such a soothing hobby for me.

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I wound up drifting around Tokyo for the remainder of the night, heading around Akihabara, Shibuya, and finally landing in Shinjuku. Both places I’d hoped to stay fell through and I resigned to put down the extra cash to stay at a capsule hotel. Like the shinkansen, though, I felt the money was worth the experience. I ended up wandering over a mile through the city going to three different hotels before I found one with an open bed, deviously placed on the road in between Kabukicho and Nichome. It cost ¥3,200 which for a night in one of the world most expensive cities isn’t the worst deal. Once I made it past the cross dresser in the stairway I found the corridor for my capsule and was glad to note everything was clean and quiet. They even had razors and pre-pasted toothbrushes in the washroom. I plugged in my phone flitting at 1% battery, and read a bit of Dune (a seemingly cliched but so far terrific sci-fi epic), finally feeling content. I was more than enervated by the day that I felt alone and wasted. I knew I was exaggerating these feelings in my mind, but I really felt like I just wanted to call it a holiday and go home the next day–like that spaceship that I was on in Tokyo station really did explode, and my escape pod could only contain one person and now I was drifting seeing the wonders of the universe without really being able to interact with it. I made more of a plan as I laid to sleep, knowing exactly where I’d start my day, and deciding to tackle it with a much more positive attitude.

Capsule Hotel

Books

For the past nine, almost ten months, I’ve been living without internet. Now that’s not to say I’ve been totally devoid of internet, I think this website makes that obvious, but as far as in the place that I’m living I’ve gone without. Perhaps you’ve noticed by the sporadic way I post here. And until recently, I was enjoying not having internet. Due to the fact I had other things to fill my time: I had a college of friends to hang out with; I had a TV and plenty of movies; I had enough art supplies to make due; I had a bike (a near perfect orange and pearl 80s Peugeot) to take me places–mostly the library–where I could use the internet for free, but then, even better, when I left the library I could take something with me: books. Since arriving in Japan I’ve purchased many books–mostly manga–at irresistibly low prices (I once bought 20 volumes of Air Gear at a Book-Off for ¥600), but in the end pretty much exaggerated the amount of kanji I thought I would remember. I suppose I knew when buying it that it’d be an investment, maybe even motivation, for something I’d be able to read in two or three months. Still, all of that means that I’m left without one of my favorite activities: reading. Not to mention that since about two weeks ago my external hard drive crashed(/was dropped on the floor) and I’ve basically lost access to all music, TV shows, and movies. (No more binge watching Friends episodes.)

Basically, I’ve had cabin fever which is why, as I prepare for my trip to Tokyo, receiving a package of books is one of the best things that could happen to me. I recently read an article the announced digital book sales were waning and printed books were back on the rise. I can very much see why. When I first popped over here, I decided not to pack any books due to the weight and size they would take in luggage, and I figured with an iPad I’d be able to download anything I really wanted to read. I used to criticize the cynics who bashed digital reading for not having the “right feel of a book.” Especially since some incredible percentage of our media is consumed digitally, I always figured words are words no matter where they’re placed. I guess I still believe in that last part, but I’m closer to the ‘real thing’ band wagon than I am to liking digital. I think it’s most due to the habit of me reading at night and the science behind staring at screens before you go to sleep. Although, maybe it’s the same reason I favor compact phones over smart phones; you can bash them around as much as you’d like and never worry about it breaking.

Anyway, I found this fantastic book cafe based out of Tokyo (www.infinitybooksjapan.com) which sells used books online for amazing value. After opening what could add to a billion tabs on my phone I finally narrowed it down to a diverse selection of renowned books that I wanted but had never gotten a chance to read. I think they’ll soon be getting a lot of my service, and it’s just another place for me to checkout this weekend.

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As far as the trip goes, I think winging it will be the easiest. I have yet to pack, nor do I think I’ll need anything more than a shirt and pants, I think I can rely on people I know living there for a place to stay, and I’m not quite sure how to get there apart from going to the train station. The fact that I get paid on Friday kind of helps this process, being that if I do land in deep udon than I’ll at least be able to pay for my way back, get any extra clothes, or at least afford a hotel. But at least if anything, I’ll have a book to read along the way.