Colors

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been moving since Halloween. I wasn’t looking forward to this past weekend because I had to come in for class on Saturday. Usually my school makes up for it by letting us take the following Monday off, but unfortunately all the ALTs had a conference in the city scheduled for that day. Eventually I will take the Monday off, but for now I have to suffer. Because of all that I was really looking forward to Sunday being as lazy as possible. Maybe catch up on a ton of self-help organization I’ve been trying to fit into my life, and also fulfill some other obligations I’ve given to other people. Alas, somehow I managed to talk to Yukie, my friendly-neighborhood-English speaker, on Saturday night who almost immediately invited me to join her the next day to go with another couple to Shiga prefecture to see the colors change. As my great art professor John Saurer once told me, “say yes to everything.” Of course, he was mostly talking about work-related situations, but I’ve began to adapt it to every day life. Organizing my lazy life could always wait, and I had never been to Shiga before.

We left early in the morning, a little after 8 o’clock. The couple we were going with, Mr. & Mrs. Takahashi, are actually pretty close to me. I met their three sons at a wine party last New Year’s Eve, and since they seem to look out for me like their own. They donated their bike for my use back in January, and over spring vacation I joined them to the youngest son’s college graduation in Osaka. I actually have been trying to go around Japan to visit where their sons live, but instead it seems I’ve been running into them more often. Mr. Takahashi pulled up to the apartment with his wife, Yukie, and to my surprise her thirteen-years-old Norfolk Terrier in the backseat. From there we were off, to a place I couldn’t even point out on a map, with a mix of Japanese and English, and some CDs I’d brought with.

 

192We arrived maybe two hours later, to gorgeous weather, at the steps of Eigen-ji (A-gen-G, the ji stands for temple). Now, it may be a bit confusing because Fukui-ken also has (the oldest temple in Japan) Eihei-ji, so going to another prefecture to see something that sounds similar was a bit misleading. Really, the temple is less pronounced than the nature that surrounds it. Here especially the changing colors were blazing.

The place was pretty popping. You could tell that people were just coming out to enjoy the warmth, but there were also a suspicious amount of artists with books or canvases scattered about the grounds. We discovered that there was a contest on that specific day for whoever made the best painting within the allotted morning. As we went along it was pretty fun to snoop over the shoulder of  everyone and try to discover why they chose the specific spot. Also I was experimenting desperately with a new camera lens.

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From the temple we ate some hot soba noodles and delicious various foods on a stick before setting out back on the road. Before heading back we took a detour to see this famous temple that at one point might have housed the sun goddess/mother of Japan Amaterasu or was built by her parents or something like that. This month is also a traditional time for families to celebrate the shichi-go-san holidays when children turn 3,5,or 7 years old. The temple had plenty of dressed up visitors and adorable kids wrapped in kimonos so it was a fun stop to watch.

From here on out it seems the weather will start to go downhill, so I’m not quite sure when I’ll enjoy tourism as much as I have lately. Already my school is talking about introducing Thanksgiving in class. It’s a constant reminder to make my stomach growl wishing for all the delicious home-cooked meals I won’t be able to find here.

 

Daytripper

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through the changing weather it’s you’ve gotta take what you can get. So many days now I come to school wearing a light jacket only to have it dark and freezing by the time I leave. Often it’s begun to rain. Sooner than last year I expect it’ll start to snow. Sometimes I wonder if I should go for a run, or wait until I’m free in the evening with less errands to do. Too many times I’m stuck at 9:00 bundling in gloves and long pants, when during the day I could’ve gone out in shorts.

Thus before I’m completely shut in for Winter, I’ve been able to go out and enjoy the season just a little bit more. This has probably fatigued me a bit, being my weekends have been booked completely since Halloween, but I’ve also at least been more active than I would’ve otherwise.

The first weekend trip followed a day where I volunteered as a judge for a high school English debate tournament. Seeing the dozens of students compete in such advanced English made my average work seem inadequate. I doubt there are many opportunities in a junior high school where they can learn such enabling English, even after three years they’re barely learning how to use prepositions to connect verbs with nouns. I did find a reward though meeting one of my students who graduated last year. During the last round he asked me to sit by him and we talked pretty fluently about the points each team was making, as well as how he studied English, and what he was enjoying in high school. At least that gave me some hope that not every student I teach will go on to expel any hint of English by the time they graduate high school.

I woke up my usual weekday time on Sunday morning to car pool with some neighbors to the train station where we’d be picked up by a Japanese lady. I must admit I didn’t really have any clue what I was signed up for. Another American English teacher who arrived in the summer had invited me to go, so I didn’t even look at any of the details. Just that we’d be taking a tour of some ruins basically only famous in our prefecture. Maybe they were some sort of heritage site, but on that I can’t be sure. I didn’t even know how to dress. For some reason I had the impression we’d be hiking a mountain, so I packed extra snacks and gloves in my backpack just in case.

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We drove out of the city and arrived to meet two other cars of people at the entrance of a small museum. Literally, it was the most budget friendly museum in just an open foyer and a single humidified room. Most of the objects in glass casing lining the walls were broken pottery somewhat assembled back together. There were some scale models of what the area looked like hundreds of years ago, but the most interesting object to me was an old sword.

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After that short tour we drove out to the actual valley where these ruins were partially reconstructed. From what I gleaned a ruling family, Asakura something, had set up shop in the area about 500 years ago. Even more surprising was at the time it was the 3rd most populous place in Japan right behind Kyoto and Tokyo! The inaka countryside that I’d been living in for over a year used to contain the center of Japan. How things have changed.

Seeing the ruins and replicas they built was definitely not spectacular, but there was some solace about the place. If you imagined the type of people that would have lived there and the strains that society has taken to evolve into the present. Even among the inequalities and famines, the simplicity of the life appeals. This is certainly a weather-changing-another-year-overworked-pessimistic-me point of view, but the focus on living instead of life has some advantages.

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One of the best uses of the day came while strolling down the village street and finding inspiration to write. Actually through the whole day I realized I’d been gaining experience helpful for any sort of fantasy or old-world story I might dive into. Just being there and seeing what life was life gives my writing a bit more authenticity.

I’m quite surprised I’ve made it this far in my description because at the time I really didn’t seem to feel so affected by the tour. I suppose I was happy to be out in the nice weather, but to be honest I was more distracted by Pokémon Go half the time. Then again, there really wasn’t much to look at.

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Maybe the highlight of the day actually came in the afternoon once the tour was finished. We moved from the outdoors more into the valley to an old restaurant lodge specializing in soba noodles. They had an entire hall full of tables to teach how to make soba. Of course, you’ll remember from my post last Christmas about how to make soba. Well, maybe you won’t, I almost didn’t. It was fun to make again, especially since our tiny grandma of a teacher kept interrupting what we were doing to fix any mistakes. This time we left the cooking to the actual chef, though, so the end result lost some of its majesty.

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Still delicious, and I topped it off with a beer from the cooler.

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.

Pokémon

When the game first came out I heard about it from Carmelo. He pulled it up on his phone, and I watched baffled how such a thing could exist. I downloaded it, and learning it wasn’t released in Japan, set it aside for later use. When it did get released, I was still using a disintegrating iPhone 5C wihtout a working clock or GPS. On one hand all my lucky eggs and incense were infinite (a bug now solve, by the way), on the other I could hardly catch any Pokémon because I was stuck in one spot. Once I finally got a new phone in the mail, I logged on and twirled around the screen, hopping at any moment a Pokémon would pop up. I was a bit disappointed. The gameplay for Pokémon Go still has a lot to make up for, and without the surge of popularity I probably would’ve deleted the app and just bought a DS and Japanese copy of Black or White secondhand.

Then midway through August I was strung out on my cash. My unexpected vacation to the Narita airport set me back almost $300. The lack of school activity also made my weekdays a bit more translucent. At night I my typical bedtime was moving further and further back. With a bit more time on my hands, and not too many free things to do (in the countryside) I found any excuse to be distracted. It came on a Sunday morning. I woke up earlier than usual for the weekend, feeling refreshed, and instantly did my laundry. By 10 o’clock, I had a vacuumed apartment and a bright and sunny day ahead of me. So thinking I’d go downtown to run some errands, I hopped on my bike and (because I’m a dangerous fool with ignorance to caution) pulled up the Pokémon Go game.

The next seven hours was filled with me riding around in the sun, waiting for my phone to vibrate, hatching several eggs, and searching out whatever Pokéstops I could find. By the end of the day I’d leveled up, attained a couple medals and increased my Pokédex. I felt pretty accomplished, but not only for my status in the game. Following the tiny map on my phone, I’d discovered parts of the city I hadn’t bothered exploring before. Perhaps one of the biggest visitor’s spots we have, Murasaki Shikibu Park, which was always just a block away from my apartment, is something I never stepped into before. I took a tiled pathway from there and found the back roads past the community pool to the post office. I discovered the town has way more shrines and temples than I ever imagined. There are plenty of remnants from decades ago, too, where the city was bigger and full life. That was during a baby boom before the population decline fell into crisis mode.

Playing the game made me realize more about the community I’m placed in, what has been thriving, just how many other people play Pokémon Go. There are plenty of restaurants that look delicious and even side streets that at night turn into a time machine for the past. So often as I make my way home, I’ll get distracted by a rare Pokémon that will divert me to a difference way.

Often this happens when I’m running. Granted, it’s not the best thing to play as a runner (you tend to stop and reorient yourself a lot), but it’s also one of the main supporters in getting me out the door. I’ve been running everyday for over a month now — something I could hardly do in college. It also keeps me out longer, going just a bit further, to see what’s around the corner, or to hatch that second 5k egg.

On trips it can be especially fun. When I went to Tokyo last month, I kept getting a buzz from my phone, looking at the map to catch some Pokémon, and then noticing a bunch of Pokéstops in a nearby place. Especially in bigger cities, if you follow the trail it usually leads you to some sort of tourist attraction or sightseeing place, or even just something locally worth knowing about.

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I write this because when you ask me what I’ve been up to the past 2 months I would definitely be lying if I didn’t mention Pokémon Go. In light of the election which I’ve been following off NPR podcasts and radio fervently, it’s nice to have a lighter distraction. It’s a mind-and-time sucking game with significant amounts of room for improvement. But it’s also kept me active, choosing to go outside on a better (or even typhoon) weather day than stay in and watch movies. I suspect the fads and interest in parts of America are dwindling as they are in Japan. Whenever I do go out to hunt down a silhouette on my Pokétracker, though, I still see the devoted fans, walking by with cell phones raised, or standing still and flicking their screen, and at least for now I’ll join them.