Tokyo

It reminded me of the first time I lived there studying abroad, and even a bit of my life in New York. I’ve been going back and forth on Tokyo ever since I left four years ago. It’s a sprawling but dense city of monotone concrete but eccentric culture. The pros and cons are bipolar and throw off any scale you try to weigh them on. You can’t find a trash can anywhere and yet the streets are sterile. The nature is equally as sparse apart from tourist traps and out of the way parks of which there is an abundance. Foreign people are few enough to stand out, but common enough to not warrant overt friendliness. It’s a dream city where literally any hobby is respected and any behavior tolerated — if not first marginalized. It is one of the most expensive cities in the world (beating out any city in America), and despite shrinking apartment sizes it’s ranked high for quality of life.

Last year I wrote a length about it when I went with Carmelo to celebrate a concert and Silver Week. It was hardly thought out, nearly affordable, but still a decent amount of fun to be had.The days before I was getting a paycheck, could remember how to speak Japanese, or even knew how to enjoy the city as a non-tourist, non-student. This year the holidays lined up well enough that I could take a Wednesday off and still have up to six days of vacation. Longing for the summer freedom again, I figured the end of September was good enough as any anniversary to make another venture to the city, my first in a year.

My weekend wasn’t as long as I’d originally thought because of the two day culture festival the bit into the first Saturday. Now, the culture festival is great. I took plenty of pictures I’d love to post here. I had franks on a stick, fried chicken, ice cream bars, shaved ice, donuts, juice, and a matcha flavored cream puff before I felt like I couldn’t eat anything more. The talent show was pretty entertaining, though I did feel a lingering nostalgia too that shadowed everything a bit. This was about the time I really started knowing my students last year, finally remembering their names, and caring about their successes. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen in a years time, and no matter what happens my favorite class (the current third years) wouldn’t be around.

That all, however, was on Friday. It’s Saturday that really bites. Twenty-one classes — luckily, because last year it was twenty-four — performed songs, usually traditional staples, one after another the whole day in the gym. Last year I remember falling asleep a little too early, but this time I managed to stay alert the whole time. Perhaps I can thank two surprises. A bit before lunch one of the English teachers who switched schools at the start of this year, showed up. He’s the same guy I went to Kyoto with, so the rare moments he shows up are always good. Then in the afternoon one of last years third years found me. He was the same student who I’d spent three months with working on the English speech contest. His was visiting because his younger brother is a second year. At first I was shocked just to see him, a bit taller with the adolescent badge of a sparse peach-fuzz mustache along his lip, but then he started talking and I was flabbergasted. Last year I felt like I had to pry words from his mouth, even as he was rehearsing his speech. Now, however, we were speaking almost normally. He told me he’d visited Australia for two weeks, joined the archery club at school, and had a continued hobby for guns. Not for the first time since my birthday did I feel like an old man. This kid had only graduated four months ago, and already he’d changed so drastically. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting precious time.

So, the Saturday was worthwhile if not monotonous. I took an afternoon shinkansen the following Sunday with just my backpack and an umbrella. The weather on my side of Japan was holding out, but in the midst of rainy season with a typhoo on the way, I’d learned not to take chances. I got off the train at Tokyo station and instantly remembered why I hated the city. Tokyo station is a distilled version of all that’s bad. It’s a tangling mess with multiple floors, thousands of people, and every direction. There are gates that exit, gates that go to different trains, gates for trains that go to different cities. You can wrap your way around hallways of shops that sell nothing but tiny packaged sweets to give out as gifts to your co-workers without ever seeing an exit sign. Certainly some for of direction is intended by the way the floor plan is laid out, but really people just dash in and out like a school of fish. Occasionally, especially at night, it’ll slow down, but then you’ll just see the people overworked, or homeless, or drunkenly stumbling and passing out from the clubs. With that in mind, and excluding its sprawl, it is also effective as the quintessential station. You’re either going or leaving, and never wanting to stay.

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By this point I realized I might’ve packed a bit too much, too. I would inevitably be shopping and buying things, so I probably didn’t need the spare book to read, the extra clothes. I even brought running clothes and shoes only to be neglected. Carmelo was at the same concert we’d gone to last year, so I was stuck making my way to his apartment outside Shinjuku. Another two friends of ours were staying with him this weekend, too, so I decided to try and meet up with them. After stopping for a hour or two at a cafe, I decided to ditch my bag at a station locker to lose the weight and head out to start my night. I’d messaged my college roommate Yasushi who’s now working in Tokyo doing important things. We planned to meet at the Hachiko statue in Shibuya (a place I thought I knew, but in fact didn’t actually know) but eventually we found out way out to a dive for drinks and food. It didn’t feel like a year since we’d last seen each other, but I could tell his time at grad school in DC had matured him. He spoke way more fluently, and I was happy to see he hadn’t gotten fat (even if smoking was an occasional vice). We caught up well over the next two hours, and then went back to the statue to join up with Carmelo and friends. I offered for him to come with, but a bit more responsibly he declined because he had to work in the morning.

The remaining five of us — the unemployed Carmelo and his girlfriend, and vacationing ALTs — did not have to work. So, fresh off the vibes of an outdoor EDM concert, Carmelo took us down the streets with Coke bottles of gin and ginger beer in hand to what is one of Shibuya’s most reputed nightclubs: Womb. I’d like to say I went into it open minded, but the appeal was almost instantly lost to me. Through a smoky entrance, ¥3000 cover charge, and the grim realization that we’d have to stay out until the first train at 5am I tried to disagree with the fact that I was not drunk enough. Nor was the club packed enough. There were plenty of people, as it was deemed the after party for the mentioned concert, but there was certainly open space, too. I went through the crowds, occasionally dancing, trying to work up a sweat to at least seem like I was having a better time. As the night wore on, it simply became a meditation for survival more than anything, though, I did have some fun embarrassing moments with some local Tokyolites.

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We did make it on the first train back to the apartment, and I did pass out until two o’clock the next afternoon. Carmelo, Eri, and I left the apartment bravely at my prompting under clouding skies. By the time we’d made it a block the sprinkling mist was turning to a full shower, but I was determined to make it to the same event I went to last year: the Tokyo Art Book Fair. As cheapskates we decided to walk the hour to the campus it was held. My raincoat, pants, and shoes were fully saturated, but also so was everyone else. It also made the place feel a bit more crowded since everyone was inside roaming the aisles, trying to get away from the rain. We perused, I bought some postcards, but nothing as good as last year. One the way home we diverted under a train overpass, and stopped by a specialty food store to pick up some curry for dinner.

That night we stayed up catching up on the latest episodes of the anime Dragonball Super, a weekly ritual we used to do. The next two days were still just as rainy, and just as lazy. I think I slept until noon both Tuesday and Wednesday. Following a small breakfast and we planning I went out to find the geekiest shops around. We started in Shibuya, but I also ran solo to Ikebukuro and Akihabara, discovering some new places that I hadn’t really explored. Usually when I’m out travelling alone I don’t have too much fun, but Wednesday when I set off by myself I was kind of having fun. I think this time without having to lug a backpack around, or be on a time constraint to check in somewhere really helped. That night, meeting up with Yasushi, we went out to Shinjuku, trying to wind up at a club that I’d enjoyed as a college student. Eventually we got there and the passage of almost five years felt like nothing. If it’s to get from point A to point B without any references, I’m usually a dunce for directions. But give me a place I’ve visited before and I can trace my way through parts like it’s my hometown. So being there in the night, a bit more refreshed and at the end of a vacation, felt a little bit better than the start of the week. I had a good time, stayed out all night, and didn’t mind catching the first train home.

I took the night bus home the next day, almost missing it when I couldn’t find the right loading zone. It was a grueling 8 hours and some of the worst time I’ve spent traveling.

Nonetheless, I had already started planning when I’d be going back.

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Gathering

Waking up in the morning was quite the feat. Maybe the anticipation of the tournament had worn on me, or maybe the anxiety of making sure everything was in order, but before 7 o’clock I was up and dressed. Soon after I said goodbye and went out in search of the train station.

The sky was a bright gray with just the fresh remnants of rain. I had only my phone to get me to where I wanted to go, but had at least memorized the colors of the trains I needed to travel by. I popped on my headphones and plugged in the latest podcast from Limited Resources banking on their latest set review to be my saving grace in understanding how to play in this tournament.

(For those interested in Magic: before I mentioned I play a format called limited, which means you only get to play with cards you see on the spot. I like it more because it can be relatively cheaper — for example, a card from a recent set has been hovering around $50 with it topping $100 in the fall — increases strategy, and does a good job at supporting those who truly understand the mechanics. It also focuses a significant amount on the actual deck building and tweaking which is 50% of why I like the game. A big appeal of this tournament was the entire main even being done in limited sealed and draft formats.)

With a quickened pace through the crowds, I twisted among the center of Nagoya’s largest station and arrived just on time to catch the train before its doors shut. As with many things in my life, I didn’t double check any of my steps, so as we rolled away from the platform I became I little panicked I was going in the wrong direction. I’m almost certain there’s some trait in my DNA, or perhaps humanity at large, which requires us to panic within the first fleeting moments of feeling relief. I looked around at the somewhat crowded train and felt assured by glancing at the cell phone of a pair next to me to see previews of the latest cards.

As with most convention centers this on was placed on the outside of the city. The long train ride gave me time to go over the game in my head, but also made me realize how tired I already was. I followed the crowd from the station to the pathway toward the center. The whole thing was pretty free form and I was pretty unsure about what exactly I needed to be doing at any one point. There were mostly just stalls set up showcasing hundred of rare cards in glass cases. It was actually the first time I’ve seen such material outside a game shop. I can hardly recognize any of the cards, it hardly seems possible that the game has been evolving for almost thirty years now. Among the Japanese faces I could also see plenty of foreigners, some who I found had come to Japan specifically for the event. Here I am planning my trips less than three hours away, looks like I should dream a little bigger. One of my friends played a guy from Norway who said he came with a couple of teammates to practice. Serious.

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I picked up a coffee from the vending machines (a staple whenever I plan a Magic marathon), and downed a small fruit flavored shot of vitamin D. Originally when I first studied abroad and lived in Tokyo, it was introduced to me as the cure for a hangover, but now I’ve learned that it’s the best sort of preparation whenever you plan on straining your brain. After meandering back and forth looking at all the merchandise and trying to supress a nervous feeling, an announcement was finally made to send everyone to their seats to start the rounds.

I found my seat, on the very edge of the English section of participants. Because hardly any of the critical information had been translated off the original website, I hadn’t expected this much grace. Looking back, though, it makes perfect sense that out of 2,000 participants they’d dedicate at least ten percent of the competition to English players. This only served as a better advantage being I’d practically memorized all the cards anyway thinking I’d have to play entirely in Japanese anyway.

I tried to make tepid small talk with the person across from me while at the same time trying to assume he didn’t speak English. In fact I would’ve guessed he was Brazilian from the phone calls he made, but either way he didn’t really show any interest or enthusiasm towards being there. I was still confused as we passed out packs and promos, wondering if he would have to be my first opponent and how disappointing that would be.

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Another perfect part about this format of the game is you’re always opening new packs. The thrill of finding rare cards, or the grind of making good with what you’ve got, makes even the start  of the game great. For me, after playing with physical cards in Japanese it was bizarre to be in Japan and have fresh English packs in front of me. I tore them open in my normal ritual, a slap on the back of the hand for good luck, and then counting them face down before looking at the lot.

(The next portion will be heavy on Magic, and instead of explaining every little detail, I’m just gonna put it all out there with the assumption what I say makes sense. Sorry in advanced.)

The system was well regulated, I even had to sign a consent form. The pressure was a bit different than what I’ve been used to because the time was also split up so we could mark on a checklist all the cards we’d opened. I supposed this was their way to prevent cheating, if anything absurd happened in a deck a player could always call a judge to check the list.

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I opened a strange combination of cards. Typically people have an affinity towards a certain type of deck. I definitely favored red/white aggro as of late, hoping instead to pull off b/w allies, but was pretty stifled by all the colorless cards I opened. With a Thought-Knot Seer and plenty of colorless mana, I ended up going blue/colorless/black — a strong but complicated way of playing. Typically control decks are what I avoid because their margin for error is a lot smaller, but alas it’s what cards I was dealt.

It actually worked out quite nicely. My first opponent was Japanese playing with Japanese cards, but I understood almost all of what he was doing, with a blue black mirror that I was able to out perform. One of the biggest concerns, of course, was getting mana screwed, but I stayed pretty even the whole tournament. I won with plenty of time in the fifty minute round. I found another first year ALT from Fukui named Blake, who had barely arrived in time to open his cards and make things work.

The second round was a bit surprising as I faced a kid less than half my age. He was undeniably intimidating with slightly chubby cheeks, puppy dog eyes, wispy strands of hair carelessly strewn across his forehead, and an overtly cute blue hat in the shape of a dragon quest slime. (I quickly noticed that his father and mother were also in the tournament wearing the same hat, and noted it as a safeguard against missed connections.)

Onigaishimasu,” I said sitting down, the custom in Japan.

“Onigaishimasu,” he repeated nodded his suede blob my way.

Luckily, it wasn’t too difficult to win the first game. The advantages were clear cut, and there was no calling over a judge. For all I knew he could win the tournament, and I tried to treat him with that respect — even in that adorable Japanese lisp that all children seem to have until they turn twelve. The second game, well, that was less concise. By turn five he had the win. He’d ramped into a creature that continued to get pumped by counters while all I had was a potential deathtoucher. Our board states were hardly at parody when I started drawing into removal and evasive creatures. With an oblivion strike it was over, but I still felt guilty about the win. In a more casual game I would’ve made the assumed motions that he was attacking, or even suggested it to him. He clearly could’ve won and I would’ve been fine sealing my win in a third game. But this is the top tier of competitive Magic, so I could only hope that he saw his mistakes once we finished?”

“How old are you?” I asked. I wasn’t going to ask because I didn’t want to sound patronizing, but I was genuinely curious.

“I’m eleven.”

“Really? How long have you played?”

“Let’s see, I started when I was about 8, so three years.”

Damn. If he keeps it up he’ll be a pro in no time. I thanked him again, and this time with even more time left on the clock decided to go outside where food trucks had lined offering all senses of overpriced concessions. I got what was advertised as a Chinese burger, basically a burger on a steamed bun with lettuce and teriyaki sauce, and chowed down a little too quickly. Along the wall and people waiting, were also the slew of smokers and the smell overwhelmed the scene. Sometimes I’m amazed how quickly American laws changed about tobacco and how unaffected I was by it’s presence. I still don’t care if I’m at a rooftop bar or passing by, but here it’s still saturated to the point that my school still has a room the teachers can go to in between classes.

I lost the third round. It was close off a mulligan, and potentially misreading cards, but a loss is a loss nonetheless. It wasn’t until now, a little more than three hours since the start of the tournament that I finally did the math and asked Blake:

“How many rounds are there?”

“Nine total, but you’ve gotta win six to go onto Day Two.”

“Nine… but that means it won’t end ’til, like, nine or ten! I was thinking it’d be done by three or four.”

“Yeah, Grand Prixs a grind, man.”

So here we go. The real start of the marathon. Only, there was something else. By the time I lost in round four and looked down at my results sheet I noticed an amount of points next to my name. Each round is worth three points, with the goal of 18 (in the case of draws) being the qualifier for the next day. However now the slip only showed me with three points, when really I should’ve had six.

I approached a judge to find a solution to my problem. It’s a supreme level of geek now, but after watching plenty of tournaments on Youtube I’ve started to recognize some of the more frequent judges who travel with the tournaments and get on the feeds. It was pretty impressive to actually see them in action, or at least gave me a feeling of accomplishment for finally being at the same tournament as them.

The judge I started talking to introduced himself as Eric (Eric Levine) and he was practically everything anyone would want from customer service. He took me to the main booth at a raised platform in the front where Judges and players were dodging back and forth like bats in a fly-storm. He got someone to look up my results my matches, and thankfully I’d been smart enough to write down the table numbers I’d been playing in my memo. “Alright, no worries, this guy will get it all sorted out for you.”

No worries, but just a lot more embarrassed guilt coming my way as they made an announcement for my second round opponent to come to the front.

Needless to say it didn’t take long for me to see the three matching blue slimes bobbing among the heads my way. Where’s a soldier’s sword when you need it?

My eleven year old opponent approached the booth and the man behind him, in an excessively polite voice asked if I’d played him the earlier round.

はい.”

“And did you win?”

“ちがう、まけた.”  Wrong, I lost.

When I didn’t think beating a kid could get any worse the system has to go and rub it in my face, reminding me of what a horrible person I am to have no such mercy on someone willing to wear such an egregious hat simply because his mother told him to.

With my points back up, and my score now 2-2 I was ready to bounce back, refusing to let my chances at the second day end so quickly. (Blake in the meantime was scoring 3-1, while my ride from Fukui had made it 1-3. At least I had that to stay optimistic: I could do better, and I could do worse.)

Eric, the judge I’d met earlier, also boosted my confidence simply back making sure everything got sorted out and wishing me luck when he saw me heading to my table for round number 5. Honestly, the usually friendly community of players and people around Magic is often overlooked, but hard to say that’s not a genuine reason to like the game.

I’d done back to back tournaments before during pre-releases, and certainly online. This was nothing like those. The breaks never felt long enough, especially as people became used to their decks the rounds seemed to drag on a lot longer. I could only imagine how I smelled, and took breaks outside every moment possible. My mind wasn’t cracked yet, but it was pulsing to the point of unbearable.

I won the fifth round against a jolly guy in his forties, who by the end of the games seemed more happy to be there and experience his loss then to actually be playing. I tried to embodied some of his spirit as he shuffled away from the table.

The sixth round I lost to another foreigner. It made the game play a lot easier, the moves and typical intuitions came back, but also the easy misplays and bad habits. Japanese play includes a ton of checks and pauses, so no intention is overlooked. It takes a bit of time, but is a lot more efficient to avoid problems.

I lost my fourth round at number seven making me ineligible to get to the second day. At first it was a bit of a disappointment, but not hard to believe. This was, after all, my first time playing this level of Magic. It did mean, however, that I was free to drop out, as many other players had already done. The clock approached 8 o’clock and the night had already started. Didn’t I want to go out and actually see the city I was visiting?

Of course I stayed at the tournament. In the end I paid to play nine rounds, and I really couldn’t turn down the extra opportunity to play Magic.

Both my next opponents were also in the same position so it made the game more fun. We didn’t have to worry so much about the right plays as much as the cool plays, and the pressure lowered the competitive atmosphere as well. Also I won both of them to end on a high note and realize that I was only one round away from making it to the second day.

I ALSO PLAYED TWELVE HOURS OF MAGIC.


By the time we left it was 11 o’clock, and Blake offered to drive me back to the city. It hardly seems possible that this trip could be split into three separate posts, but with the end of another day it seems a good time to break.

Magic

Only a small amount of people who know me (mostly those who’ve lived with me) will know one of my nerdiest and strongest interests. Indeed even when I subtly tell people that  one of my hobbies includes Magic, they often only think of it as the Penn & Teller version that junior high school boys get into one summer and then hopefully give up in pursuit of sports or even theater. Alas, my Magic is much more functional, geeky, addicting, and always concluded with “: The Gathering.”

After an early departure from President, archaeologist, and astronaut — goals which even at the age of five I could tell were not as fun in real life as in the movies — there have only been a few futures that I’ve really ever been passionate about in my life. Sitting right between writer and artist, somewhere before lottery winner and globetrotter, comes the dream job title “Professional Card Player.” It’s not too hard to imagine where this would come from. Before I learned to count in school I was playing card games like war with my Grandma. From there it graduated to complexities like Canasta and somewhere around Junior High my Dad taught me the ins and outs of poker. After solving a Rubik’s cube while waiting between races at track meets, Kelson and I quickly went to conquering counting cards in Blackjack with eighteenth birthdays looming.

All the while my generation grew up on Pokemon, with a slew of cards to collect and a somewhat functional gameplay I’d try to figure out with the other boy who lived in the apartment above me. When I finally moved in elementary school I met another neighbor who turned me to my first otaku habit: the Saturday morning cartoon show and card game imported from Japan known as Yu-Gi-Oh! Really it was more like the Pokemon for teenagers and I became engrossed. My past times included waking up early on Saturday mornings to catch the latest episodes; delving over all my cards and makings lists of decks; walking the block to my local game store to play on Friday nights (ironically next to all the MTG players); forcing Mom to get me the PS2 and Gameboy spin-offs; not to mention towards the end writing my own fan-fiction that poised me as a finalist in the Battle City Tournament. If you haven’t looked it up yet, the Japanese word otaku is almost always synonymous with obsessed, and recalling it now it’s really unbelievable how much of a passion it can still stir up in me. Ah, the good ol’ days.

Upon entering the hurricane that is High School, however, those hobbies got replaced — or oppressed — as I focused on all the new things a burgeoning hipster has to discover. Occasionally I’d sort through my Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! (and Harry Potter) cards, I’d even briefly learned the basics of Magic with Kelson (using a starter deck Dad had bought me and X back in 2000), but really my overall appetite for the game became subdued. Although I should probably mention for the last two years of high school I got decent into WoW becoming a pretty heavy player over the summers, so maybe I only replaced the physical of strategy with a virtual one.

Then college happened and my MMORPG time was limited. I met a guy we called “Lucious” who ran for Olaf who shared my enthusiasm (at the least) and basically became my instructor for the intricacies of rules and gameplay. It was a lot easier to find time to talk about the game when you’re on an hour long run. Then an app came out for the iPad which made it easy to play, as well as an increase of material on their website and Youtube channel. What originally served as a distraction from homework has turned into a way to stay connected and social after college. When I was in New York with hardly any friends not named Kath, I was able to go to an awesome game store for some FNM where they even started to recognize me by name.

It’s quite popular in Japan, but I never really sought it out because the language difference. Instead I still find it easier and more convenient to play online (I focus solely on limited formats anyway), although, that still didn’t stop me for signing up for a huge tournament for February in Nagoya way back in December. I figured it was a good way to get me (who dislikes travelling alone) to go out an travel alone. When Gavin, who himself had sought out the Fukui MTG community, brought me to a pre-release tournament with a little over a dozen people at our local shopping mall — all in Japanese — I took it as a sign I was ready for the big leagues. You see, the biggest problem would be understanding the rules. Since everything is in Japanese, and there are over 200 cards in the set, I basically had to memorize the art from each card and then remember which rules and effects applied to them. Really when you’ve played through a new set each year, it’s not hard to follow intuition, but with each set comes a new group of mechanics which can sometimes throw you off balance.

Alright, the adventure begins:

I signed up for the event in late December, even though I’d been considering it since before the fall. That gave me well over a month to make of some sort. Since in half a year I hadn’t drifted very far from Fukui, I’d never been to Nagoya let alone really knew it’s relative location. My former roommate Yasushi had always said he’d lived close to Nagoya, but I couldn’t remember, did he mean the city or the prefecture? I was a little lacking on the details, so assuredly I’d reach out to the JET community and find someone to stay with, probably someone else who’d be going to the event, too. That’s what I thought, at least, and unfortunately anyone who knows me knows that I’m a class S procrastinator. The week of the tournament approached and livin’ on a pray I just decided to wing it like most things. Remember only the weekend before I’d gone to Costco and stretched my budget a little bit more than I’d wanted. A hotel was certainly out of the question, but a capsule was something to look forward to. A lot of this trip hearkens to my experience in Tokyo last September, so I figured if I could do it there than Nagoya would be a piece of cake.

Luckily enough, about two days before the day I was planning to leave by God only knows what kind of transportation, I got a message from Gavin connecting me to one of the guys who runs most of the the local Magic events. Through my elementary Japanese and broken English we figured a way to meet and car pool with another local to Nagoya. About the same time my last minute pleas to various couch surfers were finally answered and it seemed like I had a place to stay.

The rain as we left on Friday night had been pouring for hours. It seemed like a perilous plan to make the two hour drive with limited view in a kei car, but then again our other options were naught. For an hour we drove smoothly making a merciful attempt at awkward conversation, or otherwise cruising in silence. He had switched off a playlist of what I thought was hardcore videogame music (think Castlevania), probably out of assumed embarrassment. We picked up our third companion and he drove the rest of the way. During that point I was only glad to be in the back seat, trying to ignore the speeds that he was flying at. We stopped briefly for dinner, but were still a bit lost on time. All the while I messaged my host giving him estimates that kept creeping later. When we finally made the outskirts of the city we detoured from a huge traffic jam, adding some more time.

With the map on my phone we slid down side roads, a bit turned around, until finally I decided I’d be able to find the place. They dropped me off, and I waved goodbye glancing up at the stories of apartment buildings surrounding me. As I closed in on the pin I messaged my host hoping I had the right place. Thankfully the rain had stopped in the city, so I loitered a moment at the bottom of some buildings until one of the various doors opened to a lighted hallway.

“Hey, Dillon?” a fluently English voice called out.

My eyes adjusted to see my unexpected host as we went into the elevator. I don’t think he’d mind me posting, but I’ll just say from his profile name alone I could tell two things: he was Japanese, and he wasn’t. That fact was reaffirmed as soon as we began talking. He was shorter than I expected (though, I should really just readjust my expectations in this country), with sleek black curls on his head that reminded me of my older brother. His skin is a light shade of cream like everyone else during the winter, but among his features I can see what’s characterized as Japanese and what isn’t.

“I’m sorry, am I pronouncing that right: Dil-lin? Dee-lon?”

“Don’t worry, even I get it wrong sometimes. But you’re gonna have to help me with your name.”

“Well,” he pronounced his name, “but you can just call me Vyn.”

I was happy to see his apartment wasn’t too larger than mine, just a bit more modern. If I’m living in the country and I can’t even boast about how much space I have, at least I get be proud about how freaking fortuitous my subsidized rent is, right?”

“Yeah, I pay a decent amount for this place, but I used to have a roommate who left about three months ago, and thankfully the landlord just hasn’t charged me differently.”

He opened a door that could’ve led to a closet and showed me my new room for the night.

“So now I’ve just been using it for friends and to host couch surfers. Usually I have to tell people how to use the air conditioning and lights, but I guess you already known how to do that.”

It was probably the same size as my room, with just a cheap bed, blankets and pillows.

“And the place looks a little weird right now because I’m actually moving out tomorrow, which is why you can’t stay on tomorrow night.”

Right, he’d mentioned something like that before. This last moment savior seemed more like another twist of fate to introduce me to another world’s version of myself (Gavin being the former). At first I didn’t understand what he meant by “a little weird” because it looked pretty normal to me: shelves of books, and kitchenware, and shampoo. Except I’ve moved from tiny room to tiny room more than a couple time the past years, and it dawned on me that he was seeing what tomorrow would bring: how to carry the bookshelf with the books still in it; stack the plates so the forks will fill the between; and mix the shampoo with the videogame controllers. He was super accommodating, ready to let me do my own thing and call it a night, but from what bits I’d already found out about him I had to ask, “Mind if I stay up and talk a bit?”

After confessing my commitment to Magic as the reason I’d be leaving so early in the morning, he spit out a slew of nerdom mostly in the form of videogames to even the playing field. I found out he was from the prefecture, but one side of his family had Brazilian heritage. Being that a large population of my town  consists of Brazilian immigrants, I asked how it was for him growing up as hafu looking for some insight on how my students might feel. Also a bit of a coincidence that we could compare my experience being racially diverse in American school systems. It was easy to understand how he knew bother Japanese and Portuguese languages, but the English was still a mystery.

“Well, I learned it in school.” Yeah, my purpose of being here, but also none of my students learn to speak so fluently. “And then I also watched a lot of American TV shows.” Some of which I watched, but he was way more versed in prime time television.

He’d moved to the city first to go to college in computer science (he’d graduated about the same time as I) and was moving again because of a job. In the interim he’d be going to Amsterdam, to do enjoy what Amsterdam has to offer, and was planning to leave the following Tuesday.

“Yeah, I’m not really Japanese,” he said with a laugh.

I’ve heard this from a number of Japanese people, but none with more candor. After breaching midnight, figuring the long day ahead of me, and the amount of packing he may or may not have spent all night doing, I decided to call it a night.


I really wasn’t expecting to say so much in this post but to keep things concise I think I’ll call it there. After all, most of the magic from the weekend actually happened in getting there, and the tumult that follows will probably be an equally long story.

 

Tradition

Anyone whose known me long enough knows that I don’t see movies (barring special events like Star Wars) except for on New Years day when I hop around and see four of them. It’s been a tradition of mine for nine years now. Nine whole years! Created off a whim and the realization that movie theaters don’t close on winter holidays. I recruited a crew with my brilliant idea and we went to the theater  back on January 1, 2008 pockets full of gas store snacks to see Valkyrie, Slumdog Millionaire, Yes Man, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Ever since it’s pretty much become the only annual tradition I have in my life, and certainly up there (if not number one) for the day I look forward to most in the year.

Except now here I was in Japan where most Hollywood movies don’t even get released until six months after their Western dates. I wasn’t only worried about hopping around this time, but just seeing any movie in general. Usually it takes a decent bit of research and planning ahead for a aligning schedule of movies and times, though now I didn’t even have a website to visit. I woke up that day in the afternoon and after much waffling eventually determined that  I had to do it. If I did it this year then next year I’d definitely be able to do it, and that would make it a decade. Unfortunately there isn’t a movie theater in my town, but it’s not too hard to walk to the theater in the city if you take a train. Lucky for me on the first of the month the movie theater has a discounted price, too.

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When I looked at the list of options I didn’t have much to work with. There was Star Wars which I’d seen, and James Bond which was already half an hour in. The Peanuts movie was showing too, but I’d  have to wait over an hour for the next time. That left me to choose between three other viable options, all Japanese movies I didn’t know. I was left staring at the posters for what looked like the typical high school romance drama and what seemed like the Japanese version of Philomena. Honestly I had know clue.

Originally there was system I’d follow to choosing movies. You typically eased into it with some sort of action or comedy movie first, then there is always one kids movie (God forgive me the year I took Steph to see Up in the Air followed by M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar), then third is the main course which was usually that year’s best picture or at least a nominee. If you’ve made it thus far–a reasonable six hours–without collapsing or depleting your supply of smuggled sandwiches, the finisher would be something light but worthwhile for example True Grit or The Adventures of Tin Tin. (If you noticed the very first time we ended with Benjamin Button as our fourth movie, a mistake never repeated.)

Lately, however, the purpose of me movie hopping on New Years has been to go on an emotional sweep and start the year fresh. In fact it all started after that terrible New Years eve party (mentioned in the last post) when I at the last minute–and for the first time without anyone to join me–decided to go and see Life of Pi and Les Miserables. Both are pretty heart-wrenching movies to watch at any time, but to watch them back to back and then be alone in a movie theater full of people was an experience I had not prepared for.

So with all the above in mind and the time limit of only seeing one movie, I decided on the high school drama. I figured it’d at least be a little more practical. First, it’d be all in Japanese without any subtitles so at least I was more familiar with the vocab, and second, it was a movie targeted to the people I spend everyday with so maybe I’d be able to relate to them with my pop culture knowledge.

Predictably the movie theater was pretty vacant, but I was surprised to find a few clusters–maybe a dozen people–in their seats while I skulked in three minutes past the start time. I got to see a few trailers, and then the movie started. I’m not sure if I had to adjust to the language. Visually it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s happening, and I mean, it only involved high schoolers so it never got too complicated. With that said, it was hardly the typical love story I expected.

In fact, I don’t even think it was a love story. The movie I saw was Orange made on a trend of turning shojo manga into live action movies. Pretty quickly I could understand it was about time travel. The main character gets letters from her future self and in way of the movie Frequency, this present version would have to figure out how to stop a person she cares about from dying. Incredibly, as the movie goes on you figure out it really a story about perpetual suicide and depression and all but the lightest of topics that high school students should have to think about. Needless to say I cried a couple of times, thankfully less than when I saw Life of Pi, but still one of the most unexpected movies I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended. I never quite understood the title, there’s this moment with a juice box, and that’s about the only thing bad about the movie. Granted, I didn’t understand it word for word and there’s a lot of corny Japanese tropes that I was OK overlooking, but really I left the theater lighthearted, emotionally fresh, and ready to start this year.

I think I’ve got a plan (not calling it a resolution). It’s not really anything that’s brewing, but just sort of an idea I’ve finally left out in the open. Something to get me motivated to enjoy my life more, to prod my laziness, and make the most of this time.

 

Winter

So here’s a dangerous combination that I haven’t really encountered before: a paycheck, a city, and a vacation. Dangerous because it really throws a dent into any habits I’ve made in the past couple months. For the first time in my life I’ve become not only comfortably but naturally waking up before 6 o’clock in the morning. I’ve bought groceries without needing to forgo flavor. And I’ve gotten used to spending my time in a two mile radius (something I learned in good old Northfield). I can tell you none of those habits were continued through my winter break; although in school I usually say vacation because they tend to think of something completely different when I say the word break.

So the Christmas holiday comes and goes along with seemingly every other foreigner around. To be true a couple of my neighbors were still around, but it’s pretty easy to get lazy about trying to meet up or even just better to travel alone sometimes. Honestly I hate it, but there is the appeal of doing things on your own time. Luckily right before break  I was introduced to two great people.

First, Carmelo took me out the week before break to meet Yukie, a retired English/Math teacher with a part time job at Curves and a love of wine. We had great sashimi and washoku at a restaurant actually operated by one of student’s family. He showed up to see me, and I suspect boosted my street cred a little as he messaged all my other students about my unexpected appearance at this completely local dive.

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Then around the same time Amber,  who has probably met more people in the past months than I have total since leaving college, introduced me to Gavin who’d taken over the English tutor position of one of her friends. It was a bit uncanny the first time I met him, as we started to seem pretty identical in terms of interests. He started off by saying he was from Washington and lived in Seattle (my home away from home), and that he was into rock climbing, anime, and Magic the Gathering. Now if those weren’t already too specific the real kicker is the fact that he worked at Trader Joe’s after college (the exact job that I did on the opposite side of the country). At the end of the night I was beginning to think maybe we’d be too similar to get along. (After all, I do like to spend a lot of my time disagreeing with people.) Thankfully with our similarities it’s pretty easy to understand his way of thinking while there’s still enough difference to have some great conversation.

He’d only been in the country for a month by the time winter vacation hit, so we both hadn’t made plans and didn’t know where to go. On top of that it was his birthday right after Christmas (a fact he claims he almost forgot), I insisted we go to the city to celebrate.

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Thus begins the downfall into thinking like we could afford to do anything and go anywhere. After all my paycheck was still fresh, and there was nothing to do. We ended up going back to the city a couple more times in the next week to shop, explore, or drink. It was weird to see this different social side of Japan. One night we went to find dinner after 7 o’clock and went through at least ten restaurants before we found one that was open. Granted many people had time off because of New Years, but coming from the inaka, I wasn’t used to seeing so many crowds.

The New Years was also a strange thing for me. New Years eve has never been a big selling point for me. It seems like in the past every party I’ve been to has been a bust of either people getting to drunk or awkwardly having no other reason to come together. One time four years ago I wound up on the couch of a frat house at the U of M with a bunch of high school friends and company, while not knowing really anyone who lived in the house. It was almost awful, and awkward coming from a tiny liberal arts school with no frats/sororities or drinking culture.

So Yukie invited me to join her for a wine tasting party on the New Years eve and figuring it could be the best New Year’s eve to date I accepted. Her house is about a fifteen minute walk away from my apartment, so I left without a hurry after getting ready in whatever apparel I’d hoped could compete with the always on point fashion trends of Japan. I should also mention that I’d been growing out my facial hair since the vacation started and was now spotting a lackluster mustache and goatee. By Japanese standards it was pretty envious, but on a whole I’d call it dasai. Not to mention within a moment of heading out the door the entire sky unleashed a torrent of horizontal rain. I arrived with two tone pants and a hardly functioning umbrella thankful that this was the type of tasting where we wouldn’t spit out the wine.

All in all it was probably the best New Year’s Even I could’ve hoped for. When I arrived I met Yukie’s four other guests, a mother and her three sons. Two were in college at 21 and 23 while the other who was 26 worked for Toyota. Now before this Yukie had invited me over twice before. Once I met another one of her older members at Curves, while the other time was with two high school sisters who were going abroad to Seattle. As someone who’s yet to really make any Japanese friend (or even at most acquaintances) they were not quite the company I’d been hoping for. Also the dating culture is a bit hard to understand so at many points I kept thinking she might’ve been trying to set me up, too. And yet now she’d introduced three incredibly smart and stylish guys my age, two of which lived in Osaka and Tokyo. Finally my potential for leaving my hermitage and exploring Japan gained some motivation. We opened six bottles of wine and one of champagne while, possibly, going through at least two more. We also ate mochi and osechi to celebrate the new year. In the end they even offered to give me their old bike (probably at the prompting of Yukie, I didn’t mention the subject), and gave me a ride home.

That night I went over to Gavin’s where we tried to figure out something to do while watching anime. As the inevitable midnight approached, I pulled out some fresh soba noodles Yukie had left with me and cooked them. Apparently there’s a tradition of eating them on New Year’s eve because they’re long and represent a long life or something. We chowed down, and then went outside to the chiming of temple bells to see what the night had to offer.

There were still people shuffling together down the empty and dark streets as we wound toward the river and a temple by another ALT’s apartment. It was weird walking around so late, and taking the back roads we passed through the normal road I take to get to school without me recognizing it until we were a block away. It really made me acknowledge how much I have to discover even in this city that I live in.

When we arrived we accepted a piece of dried squid and shot of hot sake from the oldest band of Japanese men manning the shrine. Not a bad life. We met the two other ALTs and hung out at an apartment for a while longer. It didn’t quite feel like 3 in the morning when we left, and it definitely didn’t feel like New Years. On the walk back home we stopped in a McDonald’s to truly celebrate like Americans.

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