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Spring Break Ends, Spring Begins

April 10th, 2012 No comments

Cherry-blossoms in Togane.

Just as the cherry blossoms start blooming, the new school year gets started in Japan. I’m technically working again, though because the first week of school is just as abnormal as the last week of school, I have no classes and have been told to stay home (but be “on call”) until next Tuesday when the normal schedule begins. The opening ceremony was yesterday and I spent half the day there, and while that was a deeply weird experience and I have a lot to say about it, it’ll have to wait. The last few days of what was technically “Spring Vacation” (though for all practical purposes I’m still on mine) were quite eventful and must be documented. However, because I have no desire to spend another entire day blogging I’m going to break it up into pieces and post the entries over the next few days.

I’d made plans to hang out with Ryan in Chiba on Tuesday evening, but that had to be post-poned because of windstorms. I went to the station at 5:20 to catch the 5:25 and everything looked normal, but the train from Togane to Oami was 20 minutes late and I was nervous about what might happen with the train from Oami to Chiba. My fears were well-founded, as while we got to Oami just fine and the train to Chiba arrived just a few minutes late, it was held on the track for close to an hour before the entire trip was cancelled and I had to take a train back to Togane.

But the weather was better on Friday, and I met up with Ryan at Chiba station at 6:00. He recently quit Interac because he got engaged and isn’t making enough money, and I’d actually met his replacement that same afternoon as she moved into the same building as me and the Interac employee helping her move rang my doorbell and introduced us when she moved in. Though we met on Friday we wouldn’t hang out until Sunday, so there’ll be more about her in tomorrow’s entry.

Ryan first took us to a pool-bar in Chiba, which was the first time I’ve gone to such a place in Japan. You are assigned a specific pool-table and don’t pay by the game but how long you spend there (you’re charged for every 15 minutes). There are phones by the table and you call in your drink orders from the bar. Ryan and I both suck at pool, so we were very evenly matched, with him barely winning the first incredibly long game and me barely winning the second. During that time we compared our impressions of teaching and the whole end-of-the-schoolyear routine. He feels a little bad about leaving his school so suddenly and he’ll definitely miss the students, but he just can’t support a family on an Interac salary.

After that we had dinner at a pretty good restaurant he knows, then went out to a bar where we ran into his friend Michael (also an Interac ALT but in his 40s or 50s) and his Japanese wife who speaks good English. They were fun people to hang out with but I only got to spend about an hour and a half there, as the last train leaves at 10:44 and I had no intention of pulling an all-nighter. I didn’t hang out with Ryan much even when we were colleagues, but now that we’re not anymore I don’t know what will happen. He’s a really nice guy, and one of the only people around who’s as big a nerd as I am for things like Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. I imagine we’ll probably hang out again.

Saturday was a big day. I went into Tokyo where I met up with Stephen and Amy, the two ALTs from my original training that I’d met up in Tokyo back in September (when we went to Tokyo Dome City and Shibuya). Stephen wanted to take us to what he calls his “happy place” but that first meant getting on a train for a 50-minute ride to a town called Fujisawa. It’s practically due south of Tokyo and right on the coast, but Japan curves inward there so the coast is to the south. Our destination was an island connected by bridge to the mainland called Enoshima.

 Hey, it's these guys again!

Stephen had decided to take us there when he saw how nice the weather was in the morning, but by the time we got off the train in Fujisawa it had clouded up significantly. Remembering how the last time the three of us met there’d been a typhoon and I’d jokingly made a comment after the third time it cleared up that it was definitely not going to rain for the rest of the day, it actually didn’t so they said I must have controlled the weather. I said I’d do my best to bring the sun back out with my powers of sorcery. Somehow we’d got into a conversation on the train about what mythical being each of us was, and it was decided that Stephen was a centaur, Amy was a fairy, and I was a sorcerer. I said we could become the new popular anime show, the “Magic Gaijin Trio and that became a running joke for the rest of the day.

As we walked down the bridge to Enoshima we could already see the sun starting to bleed through the cloud cover. Perhaps utilizing the powers of “The Secret” without even meaning to, I told them that if we all believed it would clear up it would, and lo and behold the sun actually did make a big comeback in the afternoon and we had great lighting for pictures the whole time. Maybe I really am a sorcerer.

Stephen waiting. Clouds breaking.

Stephen’s “happy place” turned out to be quite a happy place indeed, especially now that it’s cherry-blossom season. There were three shrines, gardens galore, and lots of little areas with food-stands, shops, and restaurants. Everyone there seemed to be in a good mood, more outwardly friendly than most Japanese. Also, there are apparently a great deal of stray cats who live off the generosity of tourists and are therefore very friendly and willing to let you pet them.

Me and Amy. One of many dragons.

Awesome view.

One of many cats.  Blowfish, blow!

Open mouth = life. Closed mouth = death.

The coolest feature of the island though is it’s view of Mt. Fuji, though this was unfortunately not on full display at the time. It could still be seen through the haze of the distance, but just barely and it refused to come out in any pictures. Still, that marks the third time I’ve seen Mt. Fuji (the first and second being from the shinkansen to and from Kyoto).

To the south. Volcanic rock outcropping.

We had lunch at this incredible place overlooking the bay, and we were able to sit outside and watch the sun descending over the water as we ate. The food was good, but I ended up ordering something too similar to something they serve at school-lunch all the time.

Lunch time! The view from our table.

After lunch we found our way down to an outcropping of volcanic rock stretching out from the island and spent a good chunk of time taking pictures there. It was beautiful, but also incredibly windy to the point of being uncomfortable. Still, there were some lovely images (most of them not adequately captured on camera).

On the rocks.

Some stones do gather moss. Starfish, star!

By then it was already getting late, so we just headed back to Tokyo and went our separate ways. But before we did, we made tentative plans to do a Mt. Fuji climbing trip on the weekend before Stephen’s birthday, the first weekend in May. He wants to camp out on the mountain and go all the way to the top, which sounds good to me but apparently it’s out of season and you need a permit, which is something I found out the following day. But after writing to Stephen this morning he tells me he’s going to try and get the permit. So if that works out, I’ll be standing on top of Mt. Fuji a week before I’m sailing on a boat in the Caribbean. May should be an incredibly awesome month.

Tranquility.

2011: Epic Globetrotting

December 31st, 2011 No comments

Without a doubt, I’ve been to more places and more kinds of places this year than any other year in my life.  To close out the year, I’ll compose a list of every city or town I was in this year in alphabetical order.

Of course if I were to include every single town I passed through by car or by train the list would be enormous, so I’ll make the cut-off time one hour. If I spent at least one hour in the city, it goes on the list. That means my 1:15 flight layover in Chicago counts (I did see the skyline so that city was a part of my experiences for the year) but my 15-minute train changeover in Baden-Baden does not.

Check this out:Hannover Rathaus

 

Allentown, PA, USA

Berlin, GermanyRome

Bridgewater, NJ, USA

Brooklyn, NY, USA

Celle, Germany

Chiba, Japan

Chicago, IL, USA

Clinton, NJ, USAIchenheim

Düsseldorf, Germany

Flemington, NJ, USA

Glen Cove, NY, USA The Berlin Wall

Glen Gardner, NJ, USA

Goleta, CA, USA

Hannover, Germany

Hemmingen, Germany

Ichenheim, Germany

Isla Vista, CA, USAManhattan seen from Brooklyn

Kujukuri, Japan

Kyoto, Japan

Los Angeles, CA, USA

Manhattan, NY, USASanta Barbara

Mannheim, Germany

Narita, Japan

New Hope, PA, USA

Offenburg, Germany

Red Hook, NY, USA

Rome, ItalyTogane

Sanmu, Japan

Santa Ana, CA, USA

Santa Barbara, CA, USA Tokyo

Soga, Japan

Togane, Japan

Tokyo, Japan

Washington, NJ, USA

Wennigsen, Germany

Witten, Germany

Golden Pavillion, Kyoto

 

 

 

It’s been a hell of a ride, 2011.

Auf wiedersehen, ciao, farewell, and sayonara.

Categories: Personal Tags:

Adventures in Kyoto

December 30th, 2011 No comments

Kyle in Kyoto

I returned last night from my last major travel adventure of a year chock full of them. I’d been itching to see another part of Japan ever since I arrived in August, but working five days a week makes that somewhat difficult, not to mention the fact that I haven’t had much time to save up a great deal of money yet so the spending-sprees must be kept to a minimum. It was a costly trip, but worth every yen.

Kyoto is like the Rome of Japan in that thousands of years of history are all right next to each other with the ancient and the modern meshed together wherever you go. It was the capital of Japan from the 800s to the 1800s, so there is a great deal of history to be found. Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as familiar with Japanese history as I was with Roman history when I went to Rome, so I couldn’t appreciate it as much. The overall feeling was simply one of profound satisfaction: This is it. I did it. I came to Japan and now I’m experiencing what it has to offer.

So I won’t go into quite as much detail as I did with the Rome trip, but I will post a great deal of photos as I snapped several hundred. The pictures will tell as much of the story as my words.  [Don’t forget to let your mouse-pointer hover over the images to read the captions.]

Day 1

After taking the bus from Togane to Tokyo I got my first taste of another uniquely Japanese experience: a ride on the Shinkansen (or bullet train). While expensive, the price is comparable to the Deutsche Bahn, but with the DB you can buy tickets at a major discount if you purchase well in advance of your trip, which doesn’t seem to be the case with the Shinkansen. Fare from Tokyo to Kyoto is 11,000 yen (about 140 USD), and the distance is 372 km. Coincidentally, the distance from Hannover to Offenburg is very close—about 412—and the non-discounted price on the Deutsche Bahn is 110 Euros, about 140 USD. But the Shinkansen is much, much faster than the ICE trains in Germany. It took me 4.5 hours to get from Hannover to Offenburg (if there were no delays) whereas it took less than 2.5 to get from Tokyo to Kyoto. Maximum speed of the Shinkansen is 300 km/hr (186 mph). Once the thing gets going you really feel like you’re riding a bullet.

Shinkansen!Fast as a speeding bullet...

I got another unexpected treat during the journey—I didn’t know this but the rain rides right by Mount Fuji, so I got to see the most recognizable landmark in Japan. It was tricky but I managed to get a photo. That was truly awesome.

Fuji-san!!!

I’d left Tokyo at 12:30 so I arrived in Kyoto at 3:00. The sun sets now at about 4:30 so I knew there wouldn’t be much time for sight-seeing on the first day, and my only plan was to find my hotel and check-in, then have dinner and walk around the city. Thanks to my I-phone I was able to orient myself towards the hotel without much trouble, and even check the internet to reassure myself that I knew exactly where it was.

Along the way I kept passing by interesting sights. I came across my first shrine within five minutes of leaving the station, just a tiny little thing on a side-street. The people passing by must have thought it curious that I was even bothering to take a photo when there must be thousands more just like it in the city.

My first Kyoto-shrine.

I discovered to my dismay that my camera’s battery was nearly dead. I’d charged it before the bonenkei but apparently I’d drained it far more than I thought on that occasion. I hadn’t brought my charger, but I noticed an electronic shop on the way and considered stopping in to buy a new one but I also had my I-phone which can take pictures so I thought I could just settle for that.

Kyoto station. Electronic shop.

About a block north of the electronics store I came to the first major Buddhist temple I’d see on the trip. Unable to resist, I walked through the gate and went inside to check it out and take sub-par I-phone pictures of the stuff there. I went inside the main temple (removing my shoes beforehand of course) and took in the awesomeness within, which unfortunately you are banned from taking pictures of. I got there just in time too, because they were closing the doors to the shrine with all the golden statues and artwork just when I got in, so I was able to catch the last glimpse of it.

My first Kyoto Buddhist-temple. There be dragons here.

I’d come to find that Buddhist temples in Kyoto are like churches in Rome. They’re everywhere, but when you go inside you can’t help but be overwhelmed with their aesthetic magnificence every time. But it’s more than just aesthetics—something essential about the spirit of the culture can be felt there. In those churches you just feel like this is distinctly Europe. In the temples it is distinctly Japan.

The old and the new. The temple gate.

I went out the side entrance and circled back around to head out the main gate where I came in. As I was exiting an old Japanese man came right up to me with a smile, saying “Hello! Welcome to Japan!” This guy was just radiating friendliness, so I warmly greeted him and we got into a conversation. He wanted to know my impressions of Japan and what I thought were the differences between American and Japanese culture. He says he likes Americans because they are very honest and direct, unlike the Japanese. He also said that he doesn’t like British because they’re not direct either and often can be rude. But he agreed that these are just generalizations and there are very nice British people as well as rude Americans.

He said he’s learning English by attempting to translate sentences from novels, and he busted out three sheets of paper with translated sentences and asked me if I wouldn’t mind telling him if he got them right. I was slightly wary, worried that he might keep me all evening, but I agreed and sat next to him on the steps to the temple as he went through each sentence and asked me if they were correct. Most of them were perfect, but I was able to make a few corrections for him. It is my specialty after all, though I didn’t tell him I was an English teacher because he never asked. Occasionally he’d ask me what the meaning of a word was, and he seemed to get a little annoyed when it had the same meaning as a word he already knew. He knew the word “figurative” already, and asked me why English had to be so complicated and why we always had to use one word to mean something else. In English one word can mean many things, but he said that in Japanese one word just means one thing. I realized later that that’s not true at all—for example the word kami can mean paper, hair, or god—but I didn’t disagree with him at the time.

Shoji-san. He had a very jolly laugh, which I heard frequently especially when explaining words like “lewd” or “cannibal”. He asked me if women can run around naked in America because he’d been to Miami Beach and there were lots of topless women but the police didn’t arrest them, and I explained that Miami Beach is just an exception. And he asked me if there are people in America who eat people, and while I said there weren’t he reminded me of Native Americans, some tribes of which did indeed practice cannibalism.

When we’d gone through all three sheets of seemingly random sentences from random novels, he thanked me and said goodbye, apparently not unaware of the rudeness of keeping someone locked in a conversation for too long. I got his name: Shoji, which I assume is one of those words with multiple meanings because I know it as “sliding door”.

Evening was turning to twilight as I headed up the road in the direction of the hotel, and in spite of the help of my I-phone it still took some doing to finally find it, by which time it was fully dark. I was staying at the “First Cabin” which I’d booked online beforehand. It was a “capsule hotel” but apparently much more upscale than most such hotels as I discovered later. The sleeping capsules were all relatively spacious, and while they had only magnetized curtains to open and close there was a lock-box under the bed to keep your valuables. The restroom and shower rooms were communal, but everyone got their own capsule (at least if you’d booked a single-room). The male and female sleeping areas were segregated, and the sleeping areas themselves were behind thick doors beyond which you were supposed to keep quiet. It being the middle of the week and probably an off-season, there were only a handful of other occupied capsules, so it was indeed very quiet except for the occasional ruckus on the street outside. There were no windows, so day was exactly the same as night in terms of lighting, which turned out to be very helpful in not waking up early.

My sleeping-pod.Time to leave the capsule if you dare. 

But I didn’t stay too long when I first arrived. I just emptied my back-pack of the excessive clothes and went back outside and into the night. I walked around the block looking for a place to eat, and settled on an udon restaurant nearby. In Europe I always felt weird eating at a restaurant alone, but not at these places. There were five other men there when I sat down, also eating alone. It would seem that dining-out solo is extremely common in Japan, at least for men.

When I finished eating I decided I would head back to the electronics store and just see if they had a camera charger, because I wasn’t satisfied at all with the photos my I-phone was taking and figured it would be worth the price of a new charger to be able to take quality pictures of Kyoto. The photos would last forever, after all.

I went inside and showed my camera and battery to one of the people who worked there, and he knew exactly what he was doing as within five minutes he’d taken me to the counter where his colleague handed me the exact charger I needed and got me checked out. It was 3400 yen, but I did not regret the price. The charger I currently have is actually from Germany so I’ve needed to use both the charger and a bulky adapter up to this point, but this is small and much more conducive to travel.

I didn’t want to go out drinking because I wanted to be fresh for tomorrow, but I didn’t want Kyoto at night.to just go back to the hotel and go to bed so early (it was only 6:30) so I checked my I-phone map and planned a long route back to the hotel which would take me along the river. Along the way I was texting back and forth with Lily, the French girl I’d met at Ben’s Christmas Party who would be coming with her boyfriend Jack and two of her friends from France the next day.  They were considering stopping at Nara first (Nara was the very first capital of Japan but for less than a hundred years) but I convinced them to do that on their way back because otherwise I’d barely get to see them. She said they could probably arrive about 1:00 the next day.

It was a lovely walk along the river and I took a few night photos, but my good camera was still dead so I had to take them with the I-phone and they didn’t come out well. But I was feeling very good, experiencing that old familiar buzz of being in a new city for the first time. I got back to the main road leading back to the hotel far sooner than I’d imagined, so I busted out the I-phone map again and decided to walk a good distance north to Nijo castle and then circle back around.

The river at night. That turned out to be a very long walk indeed, and by the time I got there my legs were hurting and I’d already worked up another appetite. The castle itself looked very impressive but it was hard to tell in the dark. I figured I’d go back there the next day, then headed back to the hotel, stopping at a Chinese restaurant for a second dinner along the way.

I got back to the hotel at a respectable late hour of 9:00, and spent the next two hours in my capsule reading a book on Japanese history I’d downloaded to my Kindle a few weeks ago. I got to the part where they moved the capital to Kyoto while I was in Kyoto, so that was pretty cool. At about 11:00 I turned out the lights and had a nice long sleep.

Day 2

Included in the price of my hotel stay was a breakfast, and while I was expecting little more than the standard continental breakfast-buffet, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they actually prepare a bona-fide genuine Japanese breakfast for you including soup, a bowl of rice, some vegetables, and a strip of delicious fish. That filled me up quite nicely and fueled me for the whole first half of the day.

Before leaving I took advantage of the hotel’s wireless internet to boost the speed of my I-phone and do a little internet research on things to do in Kyoto. I had a week-old Facebook message from a girl named Yuki who lives in Kyoto and whom I’d asked for recommendations. She was a colleague of mine at the Doubletree in Santa Barbara before moving back to Japan, and while I would have really liked to have met up with her while I was there she said she had other plans. Though she’s always been nothing but friendly to me, I don’t think she likes me all that much but being Japanese she would almost certainly never come right and out and just tell me flatly that she has no desire to see me.

But she did give me a bunch of recommendations, one of which was just a block away from the hotel: Nishiki Market, a five-block stretch of shops where you can supposedly find every kind of food you can imagine and a whole lot that you can’t. I also looked up the “palace of the squeaking floor” which my Grandpa said was a must-see, and while nothing matching that exact phrase came up I believe I found what he meant and that it was actually in Nijo castle. So my plan for the morning was to head to Nishiki Market and then back to Nijo castle, which would hopefully take me to about 1 p.m.

I found the market quickly enough, and proceeded to walk through it and behave like a reverse-Japanese tourist by taking photos all along the way. It was indeed a phenomenon, but I’m afraid pictures can’t adequately capture in any more than words can. The most distinct thing about this place was the smell—a very fishy aroma but mixed with other things, altering slightly between this and that as you walked along.

Entrance to Nishiki.   I can see food for miles and miles.   How much caviar do you need?

Fish that were alive this morning. Yummy.

At the end of the market I came to an intersection with another enclosed street filled with shops of different kinds. But straight ahead was a Buddhist shrine so naturally I had to go in and take pictures, the most curious thing about it (other than the location) being a mechanical animal that moved around whenever someone put a coin in the slot. That’s one way to solicit donations.

Shop, visit shrine, continue shopping.   Insert coin for everlasting bliss.

I walked north through the shopping area, surprised to find another two Buddhist shrines along the way. The juxtaposition of commercial area and Holy Ground was alarming—one of the shrines was literally directly across from a sporting goods store. It would be like having a church in a shopping mall. But that particular shrine had a very amusing sign, as apparently its location does lead some tourists to believe they can shop there too.

Go shopping... ...visit temple...

...continue shopping. Read the sign, gaijin!

I finally got out onto another main road and checked the I-phone to confirm if I just headed due west I’d eventually get to Nijo castle. It’s a wonder that I ever managed to travel without an I-phone. Before I got it I might as well have lived in the Dark Ages. Every time I was unsure of my location I’d have to unfold this giant and unwieldy map and stand there like an idiot looking around me for some street signs to hopefully match up with the streets on the map. In Japan that would be extremely difficult because most of the street signs—when there were any—are in Kanji. But with the I-phone you just open the map app, wait for a satellite to pinpoint your location, and bam you know exactly where you are. If you’re not sure which direction you’re pointing, just open the compass app and bam you know where you’re going. God bless technology!

When I was approaching the castle I noticed a lot of disappointed-looking tourists walking back in the other direction, and I grew apprehensive. There was a line at the ticket counter, so I didn’t lose all hope immediately, but I soon spotted a sign that said the castle was closed from December 26 to January 2. The most convenient possible dates! It turned out the line at the counter was for tourists to go up to the unfortunate lady there and get the news directly from her mouth that one of the most must-see sites in Kyoto just happened to be closed during the exact dates they were there, but can we at least get an information pamphlet?

Alas. At least I got to see the outside.

I’d gotten a text from Lily saying they were running late and probably wouldn’t arrive until 3:00, and it was 11:30 now so I had much more time to kill. One of the other sites recommended by Yuki as well as the teachers at my school was the Kinkakuji, or “Golden Pavillion”. I-phone time. I checked the map and saw that it was quite a ways away to the north, probably at least an hour of up-hill walking to get there. And there were no subway stations anywhere near it. There was, however, a taxi right there outside the castle. I went up and asked the driver in Japanese how much it would cost to get there, and he answered me in English “about one thousand seven hundred”. In my mind I’d been thinking it would be at least three thousand, so this sounded pretty good to me and I decided to go for it. The ten-minute ride actually ended up only costing 1,530 making this the first time a cab-driver has ever over-quoted me. It only occurred to me a few minutes later that this was the same basic price as the much longer trip from Togane to Tokyo, and while my mind had been dwelling on the lack of a nearby subway station I’d forgotten the existence of busses.

But there was no use dwelling on it. Just another twenty bucks spent, and it wasn’t a complete waste as I got there much quicker and easier than if I’d had to figure out the bus situation.

So I headed up to the temple and paid the admission price (less than the cab fare) to go inside. It was a whole complex like most Buddhist temples with multiple buildings and shrines galore, but the main feature and the reason it’s such a popular tourist attraction is the pavilion out on the pond, an absolutely gorgeous building in the loveliest setting imaginable. According to the info pamphlet, the pavilion was originally built in 1220 though it’s since undergone several restorations. It’s three stories tall and each story is a different type of architecture, the 1st floor being “palace style”, the 2nd “samurai style” and the 3rd “Zen temple style”. If I knew anything about Japanese architecture I’d probably find that fascinating.

Kinkakuji!    Heavenly.

I got my obligatory pictures of me in front of the temple and posted one to Facebook (another super-awesome thing you can do with an I-phone). The guy I asked to take my picture was a white guy and I assumed he was American so I spoke English to him, but he didn’t actually say anything to me but communicated with only facial expressions. On the other side of the pavilion I heard him and the people he was with speaking German.

I figured “what the hell?” and went up to them. “Entschuldigung,” I said. “Sind Sie Deutsch?” Ja, apparently they were. “Woher kommen Sie?” Apparently they kommen from München, but they spoke High German well enough. So I got into a nice little chat with them and got to know what they were doing here and they got to know about what I was doing here. Apparently the girl is studying in Kyoto and her brother and parents were just there for the holidays to visit. How nice that they would do that even with all the radiation-phobia in Germany. They were going to Tokyo for New Years’ but didn’t know if there would be anything going on there, and I informed them that there would be fireworks at the Tokyo Sky Tree. When I told them that was in Asakusa they got excited because that’s where their hotel is, so that’s what they’ll be doing for New Years’. I hope I’m right about those fireworks—I only heard about it through Stephen so if I’m mistaken they’re going to be thinking bad things about me on New Years’ Eve.

But it was a pleasant little chat and I was pleased with myself for still being able to hold my own in German. It’s much much easier than Japanese anyway. The only problem is that now that I am speaking Japanese much more than German, the whole foreign-language part of my brain gets a little mixed up and I want to say a Japanese word like muzukashi (difficult) when I should say schwer, and I could not prevent myself from saying hai instead of ja, which I noticed them chuckling at. But still, I had to give myself a pat on the back.

Prettiness.    Another clever way to solicit donations.

More prettiness.    More heavenliness.

A bit further up the pathway I was stopped by an Asian guy with a big fancy camera who asked me to take a photo of him with the pavilion in the background. I happily obliged, and afterwards when I started to walk away he came up to me and asked me if I was travelling alone. I said that I was alone until 3:00 at which point I’d be meeting some friends at the station. He was from Korea and travelling through Japan with friends but he’d told them to go on ahead as he wanted to visit Kyoto alone, apparently preferring solo travel because—among other advantages—you meet more people. I love solo travel too both for that reason and the fact that you get to plan your own itinerary and take in everything all on your own.

I asked him for his name and he said, “English name or Korean name?” as apparently it’s popular in Asia to have one of each. His English name was John and his Korean name was   something very hard to pronounce and which I forgot, so I’ll refer to him as John. We ended up spending the next hour or so together, as I had no other plan until my friends came. After leaving the pavilion area we decided to just walk down the road and stop at the two or three temples along the way. I learned a bit about Korea from him and he learned a bit about America—as well as a little about Japan because this was his first time visiting—from me. He was a great guy and luckily appreciated my American sense of humor, which I found interesting because the Asian sense of humor is so different. But he even likes shows like South Park which is about as American as it gets.

John and me.

The first temple we came across was small but beautiful, and absolutely no other tourists were there. They were all up at the Golden Pavilion, and this place was tucked away nice and secret. We could have gone inside for 500 yen but he’s a student and therefore has to pinch every penny so we didn’t.

Lonely temple. Spirits undisturbed by tourists.

While there I got a text from Lily saying they’d actually be arriving at 2:00, and since it was now 1:15 and we were as far away from the station as it gets I figured I had to start heading back. A cab ride would be just too expensive so we found the nearest bus-stop and asked the people there to help us figure out  which busses to take. To do the next thing on his list, John had to take the bus before mine, so I bid him farewell and that was the last I saw of him. I typed up my name on his I-phone and told him to find me on Facebook though, so I’ll probably be hearing from him soon. God bless technology.

The bus ride was about 40 minutes and I ended up arriving at the station at about 2:15, which was perfect timing because Lily and the others arrived at the same time. After some texts and phone calls back and forth we finally found each other at the entrance, and for the rest of the day it was no longer solo travel.

Lily’s boyfriend Jack is American and her two other friends are from France: Hugo and Gauthier (pronounced like ‘Gucchi’). They were nice guys and spoke surprisingly good English though not as good as Lily who speaks perfectly.

Left-to-right: Hugo, Lily, Jack, Gauthier

The first thing we did was find a place to eat, and settled on a Chinese restaurant of the same chain as the one I’d eaten at the night before. I’d only ever hung out with Jack and Lily at the party two weeks ago and then it was only briefly, so I got a much better sense of the dynamic of how this group would be during our meal. The two guys kept pretty quiet, while Jack pretty much constantly cracked jokes, most of which were quite funny. Lily and Jack were very affectionate and playful, but not so much so that it was annoying. It was a nice group overall.

It was after 3:00 by the time we finished eating so most of the tourist things would be closing, and I suggested we head to the Nene no michi (the path of Nene) which is something Yuki recommended and which sounded awesome when I looked it up in the morning. They had a French guidebook for Kyoto but it wasn’t in there, but I showed Jack the description of it on my I-phone and he agreed that it sounded very cool. It’s basically a long strip of road in East Kyoto, starting with a shrine and ending at a temple, where modern architecture is banned so it’s all old-style buildings. I figured it would be perfect for an evening stroll.

One thing I quickly discovered about this group is that they don’t like to walk, so we found the nearest tram station and rode it two stops to the road leading up the Yasaka Shrine where the Nene no michi begins. Another thing about the group is that it gets easily distracted, but that’s mostly due to Lily who not only likes to shop but likes to check out all the cute little souvenirs she comes across. There being a large number of souvenir shops leading up to the shrine, it took us a little while to get there.

But we got there by 4:00, giving us a half-hour of sunlight and half-hour of twilight for the walk. The Yasaka shrine was pretty cool, but from there I wasn’t exactly sure which way to go so I asked some of the Japanese workers there to point us in the right direction whenever I wasn’t sure.

Yasaka! Within the shrine.

The gate.    I wuz also here.

One of the curious differences between Kyoto and Tokyo is that the people in Kyoto actually speak English whereas in Tokyo they almost never do. Even though I always asked for directions in Japanese, nearly every single one of them responded in English, even if their English was poor. The Japanese people in Tokyo probably speak just as well as in Kyoto, but for whatever reason the Kyoto people are less shy about putting their English to use.

We eventually found the path and headed down it, also turning off to head up some stairs to a temple at the top of a hill with a giant statue against the mountainside and very awesome view of the city below. It would have been nicer if there had been a bit more light, but it was still pretty breathtaking. The coolest part was seeing all of the old-style roofs in the foreground and all the modern architecture in the background.

Up to the temple.    Giant statue.

Old in front, new behind.When Lily got tired of walking up-hill. At the temple.

Serenity now.

We headed back down and to the final stretch of the Nene no michi just as twilight was turning to night, and Lily stopped at more souvenir shops and Gauthier stopped at a place selling some interesting food called mitarashi dango, which Jack explained were balls of rice meal drenched in a sweet sauce. They smelled delicious and Gautheir said there were good so I got some as well. They were okay but nothing spectacular.

Nene no michi. The guys.

Nene no michi coolness. Don't you want one for your roof?

Mitarashi dango! Nene no michi at twilight.

We were very close to the Kiyomizu, which Jack said was Kyoto’s most famous temple. He’s only 24 but he’s lived in Japan for 5 years and has been to Kyoto once before so he knew the most about it out of all of us. He said it was a big temple on stilts and very impressive, but as there was no sunlight left we decided not to go. I put that on my list of things to see the next time I come to Kyoto, along with Nijo castle.

Awesome.

After some discussion it was decided that the next destination would be a place called Loft, which was just a department store but apparently with a lot of crazy things to see. The deciding factor in going there was the fact that it was open until 9:00.

We took the subway to the center of town and then started heading toward the store, Jack discovering along the way that it was actually closer to the subway station we’d departed from, but we got to see plenty of cool things along the way. We were back at the same enclosed shopping-space that I’d been to in the morning after passing from Nishiki market.

          Back to shopping-town!           Mega-parfaits!

Jack was shocked to come across a Shakey’s Pizza there, as that’s an American pizza chain you can’t even find on the East coast, but the group decided we’d eat there after the Loft. I’d already eaten Japanese food in Kyoto and I like pizza, so I didn’t argue. At least it wasn’t McDonalds, though apparently their group had eaten at McDonald’s several times throughout their travels.

We got to Loft at 7:00 and to me it looked like just another department store, but I was having fun so I didn’t care. Lily wanted to do some shopping so we agreed we could split up and meet back downstairs at 7:45. Lily wanted to make it 8:00 but I couldn’t imagine spending a whole hour at a department store. It turned out we did anyway.

The one and only Loft (in Kyoto) Thought we were real samurai, didn't you?

But it actually was a lot of fun. I hung out with Jack the whole time and we just made amusing comments about all the things we came across, like at the section of diaries where they had a specific diary for everything, including a wine journal. I like wine as much as the next guy, but the idea of recording every type of wine you drink in a journal just seems like the quintessence of snobbery to me.

Shakey's! At any rate, Lily found a few things to buy and Hugo got something as well, and by 8:00 we were out the door and on our way to Shakey’s. There you paid about 900 yen for all-you-can-eat, going up to get fresh slices of pizza whenever they put out a new pie, as well as spaghetti or—probably unique to the Japanese Shakey’s—curry rice. Gauthier made the mistake of going for some curry rice, which fills you up much faster than pizza and is undoubtedly the reason they include it. But I stuffed myself with mediocre pizza (thankfully most of it was meat-free) and got my money’s worth. The conversation was pleasant and filled with Jack’s humor, and before we knew it we’d spent an hour and forty-five minutes there.

At 9:45 we were back outside, and the next thing the group decided to do was go into an arcade. There were about seventeen arcades spread throughout that shopping area so we had no trouble finding one (called “Game Panic”) and we went in and played some racing games. Only four people could play at a time so I opted out of the first one but tried my hand at Mario Kart, which I’m an expert at on Wii but which is much much different at an arcade so I only came in 3rd. The only other money I spent was on one round of Pachinko, which I’d never tried before so figured I had to at least once. I found it to be just as stupid as I’d thought it would be when I heard it described—just shooting dozens of little marbles into the game area and hoping they bounce of the pegs just the right way to earn you points. Its cousin pinball is only ten-thousand times more fun.

Don't panic. It's-a-me, Mario Kart!

          Racing action.                    Pachinko "action"

One of the Japanese workers approached Lily and told her she wasn’t allowed to take pictures, so I got away with the ones I took.

After that they decided to start working on getting to their hotel which was on the other side of town. All their bags were in lockers at the station so it was going to be quite a slog and full of subway-riding, and it was late enough for me so we parted ways and I headed back to the hotel to get in one more hour of reading before passing out.

Day 3

There were a few more people at the hotel on my second night, and much to my dismay one of them was a snorer. But I turned the air vent on in my room and covered my ears with the headphones they have for TV-watching and that was enough to drown out the sound and get me to pass out.

I tried to sleep as late as possible as Jack and Lily warned me they’re late-sleepers and might not be up until 10:00. Ah, the young ‘uns. That’s how I was at 24 as well, but somehow in the last three years I’ve completely transformed from a night-person to a morning-person and now I can hardly sleep past 7:00 let alone 10:00. If I’m tired enough I can sleep until 8:00 but that’s it, and that’s how late I slept that morning but I stayed in bed until 8:45.

I shaved, showered, and had breakfast and was ready to check-out of the hotel at 9:45. One of the things we said we’d be doing in the morning was going to the Geisha village, and I tried to figure out where that was with the internet on my I-phone and found the road that was mentioned. It was directly west of where I was, and I knew their hotel was west, so I figured I’d just walk there and hopefully they’d wake up and meet me there with good timing.

It was a very pleasant walk through the cold, clear, Kyoto morning. Naturally I planned my route to take me by some temples and shrines along the way. These were smaller ones with no tourists at all, so I felt self-conscious taking pictures while the faithful went there to drop their coin, ring the bell, and say their prayer (lord only knows to whom), but I did anyway. I dropped a coin in myself in compensation.

Yet another temple. Yet another shrine.

I arrived at the stretch of road that the internet had led me to believe was the Geisha district but there was nary a Geisha in sight. It was now 10:45 and there’d been no word from Lily & Co. yet so I decided I’d better just make plans without them. There was a nearby train station so I went there and figured out how to use the train and subway to get back to the eastern part of town where I’d walk south through a park with a bunch of temples and eventually get back to the Nene no michi and the Kiyomizu. Once I’d seen the Kiyomizu I’d be finished and then head home, whether or not I met up with the group again.

While I was on the train, Lily texted me at 11:00 informing me they’d overslept and it would be at least another hour before they were ready. I said I was heading to the Kiyomizu but to let me know their plans and maybe I’d change mine and meet up with them if it wasn’t too much trouble.

I somehow got to where I wanted to go without any trouble at all, proud of myself for figuring out the Kyoto public transportation system all on my own, and I headed from there up a hill where I quickly came across another temple complex. Obviously, I had to go inside and take a bunch of pictures, so that’s exactly what I did. I took off my shoes, went in and paid the 500 yen entry fee, then went inside to the awesome Japanese-as-can-be building and read the information sheet I’d received with my ticket.

The place is called Sho-ren-in which belongs to the Enryaku Temple in Mt. Hiei, which is apparently the main temple of the Tendai Buddhist sect. There was no date of construction on the sheet but luckily we live in the age of Wikipedia so I could find out it was constructed around the year 800. So yeah—damn, that’s old.

Inside the temple. Old-style "hallway"

View from the "hallway" The clutter room.

You could walk in and out and around this place, which was as lovely as can be with gorgeous Zen gardens complete with waterfalls and koi. You had to keep taking your shoes off and putting them back on again, but that was a small price to pay to take in this scenery.

We got your Zen right here.       Those fish are Zen-masters.

I got my fill of that and then continued up the hill, getting another text from Lily informing me that they’d be going to Pontocho, the Geisha village, which was very close to me. Apparently I’d researched the wrong Geisha village that morning. I checked and it was indeed just a 15-minute walk from where I was, but at that point I had arrived at the top of the hill and there was a gigantic gate with a freakin’ stairway to heaven beyond it just beckoning me in. I called Jack and said I had to check this out and he said to take my time because it would probably take them awhile to get there as well.

Outside Chion-in All that glitters is gold...

       In Chion-in                 Kyoto through the gate.

So I went up the stairs and into yet another giant temple-complex—this one called Chion-in—and it was the most impressive one I’ve seen by far. There were giant shrines everywhere and at least three temples spread throughout the area. I heard chanting coming from one of them so I took off my shoes and walked up the steps to peek inside. There was a giant golden Buddha and a monk sitting off to the side chanting and striking something with a mallet every couple of minutes, and a few faithful knelt at the altar getting their Zen on. As tempting as it was to take a picture, I decided not to be disrespectful.

Temple with kami-antenna.      Looks like a Boy Scout lodge, actually a temple.

I circled around the main building which looked like a palace made completely of wood, and when I got to the back I noticed an entrance similar to the other temples with boxes for people to take off their shoes. I didn’t see any tourists walking around there so I wasn’t sure I could go in, but there were no signs in English telling me I couldn’t so I decided to go for it.

I managed to walk around for a good five minutes, even stealing one very nice photo of the place, before a monk spotted me and made an X with his hands and said “No”. I immediately launched into ignorant-tourist-mode, giving him the sumimasen and gomen nasai and even using the word deguchi for exit, which he gladly showed me to. He showed no anger but I’m sure he was annoyed. But seriously—that must happen a hundred times a day. If they don’t want tourists entering they really ought to put up English signs.

Illegal photo!

In any case, I walked back to the main area and down some steps, ready to start heading to Pontocho, but there was an entrance to a Zen garden right there and I couldn’t resist. So I paid the 300 yen for entry and went inside. There were a couple of Japanese women on a bridge looking down at the water and remarking at the size of the enormous fish in the pond. They were indeed the largest fish I’ve ever seen in such a pond, which was appropriate as it was part of the largest temple.

The pamphlet I got from the Zen garden (was I supposed to pay for entry to the other part?) is what informed me the place was called Chion-in, built to honor Honen (1133-1212) the founder of the Jodo Buddhist sect. It’s the main temple of Jodo Buddhism (which I’d never heard of before).

There be Zen here.

Big Fish Zentastic.

The Zen garden was quite lovely, but somehow not as charming as the one at Sho-ren-in. I got my pictures and then stood at the pond for a moment, attempting to get some Zen going but distracted by all the other tourists taking pictures, and then my phone buzzed informing me that the others were almost at the Sanjo station near Pontocho.

From where I was it would take me about 20 minutes to walk there, but there were taxis right at the bottom of the temple steps and fare to the station was ‘only’ 640 yen so I took one and met the others just shortly after they got there.

From there we had to head back across the river and then through some side-streets to get to Pontocho, where supposedly there would be Geishas doing their whole Geisha-thing. We were slow to get across the river because everyone—myself included—wanted to take pictures. We definitely took our fair share.

The Kamo River

 To commemorate our historic reunion. I wuz there too.

We got across the river and found ourselves walking down a very nice road where we again had to stop and take pictures.

         Pretty road.              The group, candid.

Finally, we found our way to the street where the Geisha village was supposed to be, and—you guessed it—took pictures.

         Geisha village (not pictured: Geishas)    Me and Lily 

We continued to walk down along the street but just like for me in the morning, there was not a Geisha in sight. It must not be Geisha season. What we did find were cats. Cute little cats and kittens in a little opening between two buildings with stairs that led down to the river. Naturally, photos were obligatory.

Adorable! Can you even handle the cuteness!?

Our next album cover.

We got to the end of the whole road without spotting a single Geisha, but it was still a nice road so it wasn’t like it was a waste. It was about 1:30 now and I was getting hungry. They hadn’t eaten breakfast so they could eat too, and while we’d just passed about two dozen Japanese restaurants on that road we’d been walking down, the others wanted to go to Burger King. Having never been to a Burger King in Japan before (they are just as rare here as they are in Germany) I figured I wouldn’t argue—it’s still a new experience.

Turns out Burger King in Japan is a lot like Burger King anywhere else, only according to the others it tastes better. I had a spicy chicken sandwich with teriyaki which I’ve never had in any other Burger King so I couldn’t compare, but it was definitely very tasty. Better than the Chinese food from before anyway.

It was 2:20 when we were finished, and the next item on their list was the Manga Museum. Not being into manga at all and wanting to get home at a reasonable hour, I bid them farewell and began my long journey back to Togane. I’ll see them again soon, if not on New Years’ Eve then on January 2, when they’ll be back in Togane and I’m invited to come out to eat with them.

Adieu

And that was pretty much the end of my first trip to Kyoto. I took the subway back to the main station, and when I asked one of the workers there where to go to buy Shinkansen tickets he just dropped everything he was doing and took me to a machine where he completely walked me through the process. Not only that, but he pointed me in the exact direction of the track I needed to go to and wished me a pleasant journey. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but the Japanese people are extremely friendly, helpful people.

The Shinkansen ride through the sunset was a pleasant experience, and after a quick and painless changeover to the bus in Tokyo (which I made by exactly 3 minutes before I would have had to wait another hour) I was on the way back to Togane. I left Kyoto at 2:52. I arrived back in Togane at 6:17. You can go places fast in Japan.

And that was the last big journey of 2011, though not the last adventure. That will come tomorrow night when I go with Trey and a whole bunch of others back to Tokyo to a giant party at a place overlooking the bay that apparently has acrobats and will be raging all night long until the first sunrise of 2012 rises over the land of the rising sun. I’m not sure what I did to deserve a year this incredible, but an incredible year it has most certainly been.

The Story of My Life

December 18th, 2011 No comments

Akibahara in Autumn

Prologue

Yesterday was epic. Now I’m faced with the task of writing about it in the level of detail it warrants while attempting not to step on the toes of any of the people involved, which in this case won’t be so easy. I could make this a private entry but the story is too good not to share and too significant not to include in the publicly-available narrative of my life, as these events will no doubt be referenced repeatedly for some time. I could give just a bare-bones account of what happened and avoid the risks of going into detail, but that would neither be true to myself nor to the original intent of this blog. I’m already editing myself much more than I was when I started, but I still feel as though I’m providing a deeply honest account of my life as I live it in my own unique style of aiming to making anyone who cares enough to read about my experiences feel as though they’re living through them with me. This entry will be no different, and in the unlikely event that any of the people involved read it and take issue with something I’ve written here, they need only confront me and I will remove the offending material.

Act I – Akibahara

I’ve had the intention of going to Akibahara, a district of Tokyo world-famous for its electronic shops, for several months. My external hard-drive needs at least 120 volts to run, but Japanese sockets have only a 100-volt output. Converters which reduce voltage are easy to come by, but converters which boost voltage are a bit harder to find. Neither of the electronic shops in Togane have them, but I’ve been told that if you’re looking for any piece of electrical equipment, you can find it in Akibahara. If it’s not there, it doesn’t exist.

The trip kept getting postponed week after week for various reasons, but that ultimately ended up working very much in my favor, as last week when I met Diana at the Togane International Friendship party and invited her to come to Tokyo, she couldn’t come the next day but she was able to make it the following weekend—yesterday—the day we finally went.

In keeping with my tradition of always getting sick at the worst possible times, I started coming down with a cold on Thursday. I called Diana on Friday evening to warn her that I might be contagious and if she decided not to come I would understand. She said that if I was going she would go, but thanked me for the courtesy of warning her about the germs.

Sweet Luckily the cold has been extremely mild, and my only symptom yesterday when I went to meet up with her at the train station was a sore throat. We greeted each other warmly and then walked together to the bus-stop where the direct bus to Tokyo stops. There was a little Christmas event happening across the street, and I couldn’t resist trying to take a shot of the man in the giant-head costume. Diana, super-outgoing person that she is, brought me across the street and talked to the people there, giving us a chance to get our picture taken with the guy.

We chatted while waiting for the bus, and when we got on I paid for both of us which she graciously accepted. On the 1 hour 15 minute ride, we listened to some music on her I-pod as I’d thought to bring one of those splitters that allows you to plug two sets of headphones into a single jack. It was some Japanese pop singer whose name I don’t remember, but it was surprisingly decent. Not something I would ever listen to on my own initiative, but enjoyable enough.

We were supposed to meet Stephen at the entrance to Tokyo station at 11:30 but he sent me a text saying he’d be late. Diana and I killed time by wandering around the station, but before we did we checked the schedule for when the busses would return. She suggested we shoot for the 7:35 bus but I said I’d rather leave an hour earlier because one of the other Togane ALTs, Ben, was having a Christmas Party that night which started at 6:00. Diana said that she’d heard people talking about the party and someone had asked her to come, so I said she should come and we could go together. So suddenly I’m not just spending the day with her but going to a party with her as well. Could the timing be any more fortuitous?

One of the things we had to bring to the party was a gift worth about 500 yen, and luckily the train station was full of gift-shops so Diana and I were able to take care of that very easily. After a bit of wandering, Stephen called me to announce he’d arrived, and we went to the exit to meet him. On the way, she remarked on how Japanese girls wear makeup all the time, but she thinks it takes too much time and only wears it on special occasions. She said she’ll wear it if she goes on a date. Um…don’t look now, Diana, but you’re kinda on one right now…even if you’re not aware of it. But at least that confirmed 100% that she isn’t married.

I was preparing for the hassle of figuring out how to get to Akibahara, but luckily Diana had been there once before and had a pretty good idea of what we needed to do. She double-checked with her I-phone but quickly determined that we just had to take one of the JR trains two stops and we’d be there.

The one and only.

When we got there the first thing we spotted was the AKB48 Café, which I was told by some people I should definitely check out and by some people that I should avoid at all costs. For those of you who’ve never heard of AKB48, they’re a Japanese pop-group consisting of forty-eight super-attractive young women who sing and dance in heavy makeup and skimpy outfits. Whoever came up with the idea is a very wealthy man, as they’re enormously popular and are likely to remain so for quite some time. Unlike other bands created purely for marketing purposes like N’Sync or the Spice Girls whose popularity fades as the members get older, AKB48 has enough members to be able to just kick the old ones out when their attractiveness fades and bring in younger ones, sort of like the Mickey Mouse club but with sex-appeal instead of cuteness. It’s a pretty disgusting concept if you ask me, but I don’t want to judge too harshly. Even the women who get booted will always be able to brag that they were in AKB48.AKB48

Incidentally, I finally learned what the AKB stands for: AKiBahara, where they do most of their shows in the theater beside the café.

So since we were there I figured we might as well go in and check out the place. We had to wait on a short line before a table opened up, and while we did Stephen and I discovered that Diana is actually a huge AKB48 fan. She was ridiculously excited to go inside, and when we got in she was grinning and gaping at everything, particularly the benches and tables autographed by real AKB48 members.

Wow, autographs of women I've never heard of!

Aside from the TV-screens everywhere showing AKB48 videos and the incredibly-attractive waitresses dressed in the schoolgirl-like AKB48 uniform, it looked just like any normal café. But unlike most cafés, the clientele was almost exclusively male. Diana was one of only three or four females there, excluding the waitresses who were no doubt the reason most of the men came there. It was kind of like Hooters without the big boobs.

We each got a ridiculously over-priced beverage and chatted for awhile, mostly about AKB48. This was the first time I’d heard their music (at least while conscious of the fact that I was hearing it) and it was just as bad as I’d imagined. But I didn’t rain on Diana’s parade and just let her enjoy the videos, which I have to admit were at least quite pleasing to the eye. Stephen got a real kick out of just how happy she was to be there. Her girlish joy rubbed off on me as well, so in spite of the assault on my eardrums I was very glad to have come there.

After that it was finally time to go off in search of the elusive adapter that would allow me to use my German external hard-drive in Japan. Diana’s presence turned out to be invaluable in that regard, as she was able to explain what I needed in Japanese at every shop we went to, and translate to me what the workers there told her. This was quite the impressive feat considering her native language is Chinese, and while she confessed that it was hurting her brain a little, she held up very well.

A colorful town.

One of the million electronic shops. The coolest ride ever.

Unfortunately, finding the required piece proved to be extremely difficult, even in the Electronics Capital of the World. Place after place just kept telling us they didn’t have it, though some helpfully pointed us in the direction of shops that might. We eventually came to a place that had all kind of voltage-adapters and it looked like we’d finally found the right part, but for some bizarre reason they wouldn’t let us test it before I bought it. It made no sense to me that the store would insist you buy something you couldn’t even be sure would work, but apparently that’s another element of Japanese culture I wasn’t aware of—they wouldn’t want to take the responsibility it didn’t work. They didn’t even want to sell me the thing because they were unsure if it would damage the hard-drive, but when I finally insisted that it would be my responsibility they let me buy it, but they still wouldn’t let me test it in their store.

Stephen at the sushi-go-round. We were all very hungry at this point, so we decided to find a place to eat and test it there. The first place we went to, it turned out didn’t have a single menu item other than soup or plain rice that didn’t have beef or pork in it, so we went to a sushi restaurant instead. That was delicious, and we had some very pleasant conversation there too. Once we’d had our fill of sushi I busted out the new adapter and gave it a test run on the electrical outlet in the wall, and for a moment it appeared to be working until the hard-drive shut itself off. I thought it might need a little while to get charged up, so I left it in the wall a bit longer, but it shut itself off again after the same amount of time.

So we went back to the shop and got a refund. Had we been allowed to test it there it would have saved everyone the extra hassle, but that’s just the way it goes.

We tried three more places, the last of which Diana made clear would be the last place we would try. She was getting tired of this and I couldn’t blame her. I had no idea it would be so difficult to find a particular electronic device in Akibahara. I’d assumed it would take a half-hour tops but we’d been searching for over two hours. When we came to the last place and the woman there said they didn’t have one, I decided to try something else and ask for just a basic voltage-converter which boosted the 100-volts from Japanese sockets up to what the hard-drive needed. Those were a lot more expensive than the adapter would have been, but after spending so much time on this I refused to go home empty-handed. The woman found a converter which boosted 100 Volts to 220 (the voltage in Germany) and I coughed up the dough and bought it. I hadn’t brought the cable I needed to test it, so I’d have to wait until I got home to test it.

Evening in Akibahara.

It was now about 4:30 and we decided to start heading back. At the Akibahara station Stephen wanted to know if we were going back to Tokyo station or if he should just buy a ticket back home directly from there. Diana mentioned the Christmas Party and I said he was welcome to come if he wanted, and he said he was so we decided to go back to Tokyo station and all ride the bus to Togane together. I hadn’t thought he would want to come all the way to Togane for a Christmas Party but I was glad to have him along.

Intermission

I sat next to Diana on the bus ride back and she dozed off while listening to her music, and I listened to music of my own. I was feeling pretty neutral at that point. She’d been just as warm and friendly with Stephen as she was with me, so I figured I’d just been misreading her last week and perceiving signals of attraction when there were none. This was probably just the way she is with everybody. That didn’t mean I didn’t have a chance or that I should give up, but at that point it felt likelier than ever that a casual friendship is all this is going to amount to.

But as I wrote last week, that would be a perfectly valuable thing too. At the AKB48 café we discussed what we were all doing for New Years’ and none of us had any solid plans but Stephen said he was thinking about going to the Tokyo Sky Tree where there would be fireworks. That sounded like a good plan, so both of us decided to join him. Being in Tokyo with two great people sounds like a perfect way to ring in the New Year whether or not romance is involved. Plus, Diana is going home to China for a month this year and some of that time will coincide with the school vacation, so I could visit her in China and she’d be happy to show me around and take me anywhere.

There was reason to be happy.

Act II – The Christmas Party

We stopped at a convenience store on the way to the party to pick up drinks and snacks to bring, as well as a cheap gift for Stephen to enter in the gift-exchange. He picked a magnet of a Japanese anime character, but the clerk at the counter wouldn’t let him just buy it but instead insisted that he pick a card from a box she had and open the back to see what the prize was. Apparently you couldn’t just buy the magnet—you had to win it. And you had to pay for the ticket first so if you really wanted the magnet you’d have to keep buying tickets until you got lucky. I thought it was absurd. If a person wants to exchange money for a particular item, such a transaction should be perfectly allowable. What’s the point of capitalism if you can’t buy something you want even if you’re willing and able to pay for it? But Stephen bought the ticket and instead of the magnet he got a little head-pillow with a different Japanese anime character on it, and while it looked pretty crappy we just had to settle for it.

I navigated the three of us through the cold to Ben’s apartment, which was already hopping when we arrived. Trey was among the first to greet me, surprised to see I’d brought another black guy. He jokingly told Stephen to go away because now there were too many. I introduced Diana to people but most of them remembered her from last weekend, Ben included. I saw a lot of familiar faces and a couple of new ones. I met a guy named Dan and a guy named Will as soon as I walked in the kitchen.

Red room.

I quickly noticed that the male-to-female ratio was about the same as it was at the AKB48 café. Other than Diana, there was only one other girl at the party: Zintia, the Hungarian girl from the International Friendship party last weekend (whom I now know likes to be called “Cinty”).

Diana and Stephen both went off and mingled as soon as we got in, and I poured myself a whiskey and coke and proceeded to mingle as well, saying hello to some of the Japanese guys I remembered from previous encounters: Kio from the two music festivals and Atsushi from the Okinomiyaki night. I found out that one of Atsushi’s judo students goes to my school, a kid whose name I actually recognized so I knew who he was talking about.

Trey busted out a deck of cards and got a drinking game going on the floor of what I’ll just call the “green room” because Ben had somehow managed to get the kitchen draped in red light Green room. and the other room in green. I sat down and joined the action, Stephen and Diana joining as well but sitting on the other side of the circle. But from where I was sitting I could see the next card in the dealer’s hand and I helped Diana cheat her way out of the drinking penalty whenever it came to her. Trey’s game started out well but fizzled after a few rounds as people kept leaving. Andrew, the guy from Alaska I’d met at the hippie music festival, tried to start up a drinking game of his own but by then only Stephen and I were left to play. It was a pity because his game was much more fun.

Before long it was time for the gift exchange, and Ben had about as difficult a time getting everyone to shut up while he explained the rules as I do getting my students to shut up while I explain the rules of a classroom game. But it was pretty clear—everyone got a number and each person would pick one of the wrapped presents on the floor when it got to their number.  You could either pick a new present or steal somebody else’s but no gift could be stolen more than three times. I was number 18 so I had the advantage of going very late. The most popular gift in the bunch was a slingshot Ben had bought, and it had been stolen twice by the time it was up to me, so I got to steal it and keep it for good. I can think of a few fun ways to use it in class.

Can you shut up please?

Diana opening her gift. Trey trying out his present.

When the gift exchange was over I finally found an opportunity to sit down by Diana and talk to her some more, although at that point I had to share her company with Dan, one of the guys I’d just met that night who seemed really nice but clearly had eyes for her. But the three of us talked and had a nice chat until the need for another drink or bladder-relief naturally split us up.

Trey came up to me and said, “Dude, I don’t think your girl is married.” I told him I knew. He then proceeded to give me advice. “You need to be more aggressive, man. Saddle up to her, keep talking to her and at some point take her outside and kiss her. I think she’s definitely into you and really likes you, but you just need to go for it.”

Trey is a wise man. I took a deep breath and resolved to do just that. Hearing from him that he thought she was into me gave me the extra confidence I needed, and at that point I had just the right buzz going to pull off the move I’ve never been able to make before: the leap from casual-friends to more-than-friends.

But just as I was about to go find her again, a new group of people arrived and were introduced to me. There was a French girl from Paris, another Josai student, and her boyfriend Jack who was one of the only American students at that university. They were a really nice couple and I didn’t want to leave them right away. The French girl, Lily, was interesting to talk to and we could compare our impressions of Europe. Although she’s from Paris and loves the city, I was surprised to hear that she agrees that the people there are snobs and it’s ridiculous that even the people who work at the train station refuse to speak English. I parted from them with a promise to talk later.

Before I could find Diana, I somehow got sucked into a political discussion with Trey about Obama’s chances in next year’s election. It was more of a lecture than a discussion as I could barely get a rebuttal in edgewise, but Trey was very persuasive and convinced me that Obama has a much better chance of winning than I’ve been thinking. When he leaves Japan his plan is to go to Stanford and get a master’s degree in law, then go into politics himself and maybe even run for office in California. It’s always nice to have a chance to talk politics as those chances are rare, but I had to pry myself away because it was getting late and I’d barely talked to Diana all night.

Now that I had the sole purpose of finding her and engaging in actual no-holds-barred flirtation with her, she was nowhere to be found. I looked everywhere twice and couldn’t find her, then I went outside and called her cellphone. She didn’t pick up, so when I got her answering machine I just left a message. “Hey, it’s Kyle. I can’t find you here so I guess you left. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I’m glad you came tonight. I hope you had fun. I’ll talk to you soon. Goodnight.”

So I breathed a heavy sigh but figured it was for the best—I’d been spared the anxiety of having to actually try to make things happen with her—and there would be another chance another time. I walked through the foyer towards the main room when suddenly the door to the washroom swings open and who should emerge but Diana…and Dan.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the story of my life.

They both acknowledge me like nothing significant has just happened and she walks into Ben’s room while he heads by me towards the party. I can’t help but stop him and ask, “Hey Dan, are you interested in Diana?”

He obviously has no idea that I’d been going for her as well. “Uh…yeah,” he admits, understanding immediately. “Is that a problem? I’m sorry.”

“No, I mean…” I stumble. What the fuck had I even wanted to say?

“Shit, I’m sorry,” he says. “You were trying to get with her?”

“Well, yeah, kinda, but…I honestly don’t know what I’m doing.” Keep talking. “But hey if you’re into her and she likes you than go for it.” My heart doth protest but my mouth pays no heed. My head knows that it’s the right course of action. I have no more of a right to Diana than he does. She isn’t mine and never was.

“Really?” he asks. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Because I don’t want to be that guy. I’ve been on the other side of this situation more times than I can count.”

He’s just won me over. He deserves her more than I do. After all, he was the one who went for it. I hadn’t been aggressive enough and I let her slip through my fingers. To the victor…

“Yeah,” I say. “You should go for it. Honestly, no hard feelings.” I mean, I’m still going to despise you and everything but that’s not your fault.

“Thank you,” he says. “I appreciate that.”

Diana emerges from Ben’s room. “What are you guys talking about?”

“Nothing,” I say reflexively. I think it’s pretty clear what our topic of conversation was.

“Basketball,” Dan says playfully, then moves in to playfully tickle her, thus diffusing the whole situation. Good man. I don’t think I’ve ever loathed a fellow less-deserving of it.

Diana asks me if I have a cellphone charger and it just so happens I do. I go into Ben’s room and find it in in my backpack for her, then she plugs in her phone. I don’t know if it was dead or just dying, if she’d heard my call while making out with Dan or listened to my voice message after. These are things I’ll never know.

The next few minutes are all kind of hazy. I head to the kitchen table in search of more booze. Ben asks me what I’m looking for and I just tell him I need something strong. There’s a little bit of whiskey left in the bottle. I just finish it off and then grab a fresh beer.

Before I know it, Dan is getting ready to walk Diana back to her place. I say goodnight to him and Diana walks right up to me and gives me a very long, very warm hug. Through her embrace I perceive a mixture of mild intoxication and guilt. Our first hug, and it’s also our last.

I walk away as they proceed to get ready to leave, and Trey comes up to me with serious news: “Dude, did you know your girl is leaving with another guy?”

“Yes,” I say without bothering to mask how that makes me feel at all. “Yes, I’m well aware of that.”

“What happened, man?”

“I got distracted. I got held up in other conversations and another guy swooped in.”

Knowing he was partially responsible for that, he runs to the foyer and grabs Diana as she’s trying to leave. What the hell are you doing, Trey? The damage is done. Leave it alone. I make sure I’m totally out of sight during whatever exchange goes on between them. When he gets back he just comes up to me and tells me I wasn’t aggressive enough.

I know. That’s always my problem.

He says I shouldn’t feel bad because she wasn’t worth it. He calls her a nasty name she doesn’t deserve and which I won’t repeat, but that’s the end of that. I go find a place to stand and think.

Oh, hello darkness, my old friend. It seems you’ve come to talk with me again.Lucky bastard.

As I stand there staring at the fish-tank and contemplating who I am, I feel that old familiar  emptiness, the same aching in my gut I used to feel in high school often. Oh goldfish, how I envy you. If my brain were as small as yours I would have already forgotten the whole thing by now.

The question is whether I should stay or go. I’m so tempted to just gather my things and slip away quietly without saying goodbye to anyone, to just head home and toss on some brooding music and do some serious wallowing. But I promised Stephen a place to crash. Plus, fuck that. It’s too familiar a pattern. I’m sick of it. I’ll just stay and try not to let my gloomy presence suck the fun out of everyone else’s night.

There are a few surprises left in store. Cinty, the Hungarian girl, has been in the process of getting together with Ben all night, but somehow her attention turns to me. She asks me how I’m doing and I’m drunk enough at this point to tell her honestly that I’m not doing well and what the reason is. She takes pity on me and asks me if I’d like to join her on the balcony for a cigarette. You have cigarettes! God bless your cancer-spreading heart!

So I join her for a smoke and find myself engaged in an incredibly unexpected emotional conversation with this girl I’d had such a hard time communicating with last weekend at the Friendship Party. Thanks to the alcohol and the fact that we now actually had something real to talk about, things are going much more smoothly now. She’s not just sympathetic but complimentary, telling me I shouldn’t care about Diana and that I could have any girl because I’m smart and handsome and funny and all that. If she’s trying to make me feel better, she’s doing a pretty good job of it. She even has me laughing a little. Who would’ve thought. This girl actually does have a personality. A damned good one too.

Once I’m shaken out of my initial slump, things become a little easier. I find myself in another conversation with Jack and Lily, the French girl and her American boyfriend. We’re discussing plans for Christmas and New Years’ Eve. It turns out that they and a small group of other Josai students are also going to the Tokyo Sky Tree on New Years’ Eve so Stephen and I can join them. (Diana probably won’t be a part of that now). But not only that, they’re also going to Kyoto that week, though on the days after I’d been planning to go. But they’ll be in Tokyo for Christmas and I’m welcome to join them, so I think that’s what I’m doing. I’ll cancel my reservations at the hostel I made and spend the holidays with this awesome couple and their friends. I won’t be alone on Christmas and I’ll ring in the New Year properly.

Cinty and Ben are clearly bound to hook up tonight and nothing is going to stop that train, but I still find myself smoking and talking to her on the balcony frequently, not just the two of us but with Ben, Stephen, or other random people as well. I’m so astounded by how wrong my first impression of her was that I actually come right out and tell her.

Back inside and near the end of the night, Ai and Miko come to the party. Those are two of the three girls from the okinomiyaki night, the hip-hop dancer who speaks decent English and the really beautiful girl who speaks almost no English at all. I’m actually loose enough and—thanks to Cinty—confident enough to try and flirt with Miko now, and while her reaction seems promising the language barrier is just too great. We do make a genuine attempt to try and communicate with each other but it doesn’t work. Oh well.

Finally, at around 2:00 a.m. a large group of people from the party including three Japanese girls other than Ai and Miko (who leave after a relatively short time) are getting together to go to a karaoke bar and Stephen and I are welcome to join. Neither of us feels like going but something tells me I should. I ask Trey for guidance. He’s not coming because there’s a Japanese girl with a one-way ticket to his bedroom hanging onto him, but he talks me into going with the group that’s leaving. I didn’t need too much convincing. My inner hobbit almost always gets me to err on the side of adventure.

Stephen and I take too long to decide so the group is already gone by the time we leave. We wish a goodnight to the few who remain at Ben’s place, and I call one of the people who went and find out where they were going. He says it’s a place right across from the train station so I assume it’s the same place where the infamous lost-key welcome party took place, and Stephen and I head there.

While we’re walking Stephen mentions Diana and says, “That was really funny when she left with that guy. I wonder what they’re doing tonight.”

“Actually, I didn’t think that was funny at all,” I tell him, and he guesses right away that I’d been interested in her, which I thought he’d already figured out. So I explain what happened, and that leads to another conversation about confidence and not selling myself short and all that stuff I’ve heard a million times already but never hurts to hear a little more. Stephen’s got a good heart. I felt comfortable enough opening up to him completely, even confiding the fact that I’m a virgin when he asked me what my longest relationship ever was and I had to explain I’ve never had any relationship.

But we leave all that shit at the door to the karaoke place when we arrive. When we get inside I barely have to use any Japanese to explain to the waitress that we think our friends are here—she leads us right to the room full of foreigners.

And for the next two or three hours it’s just pure and simple beer-drinking, food-eating, and bad-singing. The Japanese girls there sing a bunch of songs I don’t know, and once I finally figure out how to work the song-selection device I and the other Westerners sing a bunch of songs they don’t know. Some of the guys know songs that the Japanese girls know but I don’t. I would totally try and rectify that if I didn’t find the music to be so bad.

It’s actually the first time I’ve ever done karaoke. It always seemed like something I’d never do unless I was really drunk, but last night certainly qualified. Stephen had never done it either, but both of us found it surprisingly fun. I never fully shook off my depression, but I was able to enjoy myself in spite of it.

Andrew passing the Mike.Stephen popping his karaoke-cherry.

Sing a Japanese song, please. Mmmm that's good karaoke.

In case you’re wondering about the girls there, they were as uninterested in me as I was in them. One of them was getting cuddly with Andrew, but the other two just seemed interested in talking to each other and singing the occasional song. At that point I really didn’t care. One of them was cute but she never held eye contact with me for more than a second and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because she couldn’t speak English.

We had our last call at around 4:30 a.m. and left shortly before 5:00. Luckily it’s just a five-minute walk back to my apartment, and this time I didn’t lose my key. Stephen crashed on my couch and we finished our conversation about women and relationships while passing out. I told him and he understands that I really don’t feel like I need a woman, that I love my life as it is, but it would be nice to have someone to share it with and it feels like I’m missing out on one of the most fundamental parts of human existence.

Curtains

This morning I walked Stephen to the train station and saw him on his way, but not before testing my voltage converter to see if the trip to Akibahara had at least paid off in that respect. All I could do was laugh when it didn’t work.

We only got four hours of sleep but somehow it was enough and somehow, miraculously, the hangover wasn’t that bad. Rather than immediately go back and write this journal entry, I decided to spend the morning going to the beach and doing some good old-fashioned staring at the ocean and pondering life.

The story continues...

That was very pleasant. I didn’t come to any new revelations or anything, but merely confirmed what I’d told Stephen the night before. My life is fantastic. I live in a wonderful place, I have an excellent job, I know lots and lots of fantastic people and I’m meeting more all the time. So I let one chance for romance slip away from me. So what? It seems there will be other chances. It’s just that if the story of my life is anything to go by, I’ll probably fuck those up too.

Tokyo Team Tour!

September 4th, 2011 No comments

Picture of the day (if not the year)

The last three days felt like three weeks. After the incredible experience of starting my ALT job on Thursday and Friday and the crazy misadventure of Friday night and Saturday morning, my natural impulse was to just kick back in my apartment and have a nice long rest. Instead, I went to Tokyo.

This time I didn’t go alone. Two of the other ALTs I met at Narita training, both of whom live closer to Tokyo than I do but are stationed in different towns, had made plans with me to meet at Tokyo station and spend Saturday afternoon doing some sight-seeing. It was Stephen’s first time in Tokyo so he was really excited (I was psyched enough about going there for the second time, but it’s never the same as the first), while Amy lived and taught at a school in Tokyo two years ago. She would therefore be serving as our guide.

I took the bus into the city this time instead of the train, and found it to be well worth the extra ¥400. There was no changing trains, and while the bus made a few stops in the Togane area, once it got on the highway it went straight to a parking area on a road just outside Tokyo station. Rather than 80 minutes by train (and if you count the time it takes to get outside of the station from the train platform—90 minutes) the bus took just under an hour. That and the plentitude of seating makes the bus a far superior option.

I called Amy when I got to the station and she said she was there at our meeting point—the Yaesu Central Entrance—and waiting for Stephen, who unfortunately doesn’t have a phone yet. I went inside and spotted Amy, then we both went outside to wait for Stephen, hoping something hadn’t gone wrong because if it had he’d have no way of contacting us. We chatted for a few minutes about our experiences of the first couple days of teaching, and were relieved when Stephen walked up to us within five minutes.

Amy rattled off a list of possible places for us to go, and they all sounded perfectly good to Stephen and me. We decided to walk towards one of those places—I actually don’t remember which because the destination would change a couple of times as we walked—and headed off in that direction.

There was a typhoon making its way across southern Japan at the time, so the weather was somewhat schizophrenic. It was sunny one moment, then all of a sudden it would start pouring rain and everyone would run to take shelter. During the first downpour we were lucky enough to be right near a highway underpass, and from there we took our first pictures.

 Shelter from the typhoon. Waiting for the rain to let up.

Stephen and Amy Dragon streetlights. 

The rain let up within just five minutes and then it was sunny again, so we continued our journey, mostly just walking the streets, taking in the scenery, and exchanging stories about teaching. Both of their first days apparently went just as well as mine, and we were all on the same page in terms of how awesome it was to be able to talk and communicate with the Japanese students. Although I must confess I’m a little jealous of them, as Stephen teaches high school so their English is more advanced so it’s much easier for him to talk with them, and Amy’s Junior High School is much smaller than mine so she’ll actually be able to get to know all of her 120-some-odd students, while I don’t think I have a prayer of getting to know all of my 600.

None of us had eaten lunch before we came, so before too long our primary goal was to pick a place to eat. Our destination then switched in favor of a place where Amy was more familiar with the restaurants, but she wasn’t quite sure how to get there and we ended up wandering through a part of town conspicuously devoid of eateries of any kind. It’s just like it is with ATMs—they’re everywhere when you don’t need them, but as soon as you need one they’re nowhere to be found. Of course the weather also decided to hurl some more wind and rain at us, but none of us minded too much because it was a welcome relief from the heat and if you’re going to be wandering around semi-aimlessly in any city, it might as well be Tokyo.

Typical Tokyo street. Typical Tokyo weirdness. 

When the rain did let up, I jokingly predicted that that was it and it wasn’t going to rain again for the rest of the day. At the time I figured that there was no chance of it not raining again, but it was like the kami heard me and adjusted their plans accordingly because it actually didn’t rain again for the rest of the day.

We eventually came to a place Amy had eaten at before and said was good, so we went inside and sat down for a much-needed lunch at 3 p.m. Stephen got dumplings of some kind and both Amy and I ordered strips of garlic-covered chicken which were extremely delicious (oishi). I was surprised when Stephen said he hadn’t yet tried Japanese beer yet and ordered one. He said he wasn’t much of a beer drinker, but he definitely liked the beer he ordered—some seasonal brew of the Kirin company—and both Amy and I tried some and were surprised to find we liked it too. Normal Kirin is crap, but this stuff wasn’t bad, and was certainly refreshing after all that walking through the humidity.

Dome City!After lunch we headed off to what had at some point been decided would be our actual first destination—Tokyo Dome City. It was where the Tokyo Giants baseball team play their home games, but they also have concerts there and we later discovered that this evening there was a big event with a bunch of Korean pop stars all from the same record label. But right next to the stadium is a little theme-park with a Ferris wheel you could pay to go on and get some breathtaking views of Tokyo.  There was a great location to take pictures there at a little river along the way.

Close-up. Beautiful shot of Stephen and Amy.  What a place to be.

We went in the wrong entrance at first and found ourselves in a little-kiddie area, which had a Massive crowds for the concert.very cool steam-thingy that Stephen and I took pictures of before realizing how we might have looked. We got out of there and found the correct entrance, and headed up the stairs to the  Ferris wheel.

While this place was packed with people I was shocked to find absolutely no line at all to get on. We just purchased our [somewhat overpriced] ¥800 tickets to get on, had our obligatory photo taken by the professional photographer who tries to sell you the picture for ¥1000 when you exit (none of us bought), and hopped into our car for the fifteen-minute go-around.

Dome City, on the way up.

There was a jukebox in the car and while I couldn’t stand the J-pop that was playing and just wanted it to be turned off, Stephen really wanted to hear it because his students were always talking about it. I acquiesced and we listened to about 4 minutes of the stuff, and while Stephen actually seemed to genuinely enjoy it I eventually had to put my foot down because it was sucking all of the potential profoundness out of the experience.

Super-tourists!Climbing higher.

All three of us were snapping massive amounts of pictures the whole time, and we definitely got some incredible shots. This was the first time I was able to see Tokyo from an aerial view and it was just as awesome as I’d imagined. Just this gargantuan urban environment stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions, and even then we were only seeing a part of it.

No edge in sight.

Even the sky was picturesque, with low-hanging clouds from behind which the sunbeams could be seen raining down on the city below. Unfortunately pictures can’t really capture it, but that didn’t stop us from trying.

Awe.

On the way down we discussed what we wanted to do next, and it was decided that evening would be the perfect time to go to a part of town called Shibuya, a busy place filled with all kinds of shops, arcades, bars and restaurants, and all kinds of random Tokyo madness.

We had to take the subway to get there, but luckily Amy knew what she was doing so it was not nearly as confusing an experience as it had been for me a week ago (was that only a week ago?) I also loved having Stephen there because he was impressed by just about everything, including how you could see the subway cars twist and turn as they made their way through the underground tunnels. But even he felt a little too weird about taking pictures on the subway.

Shibuya! Crazy scultpure.

We got to Shibuya (which I liked to call “Shi-booyah!”) just as evening was turning to twilight, and found ourselves at this crazy triangular intersection which is apparently famous or something. The whole atmosphere of this place was so insane and so distinctly Tokyo that I had to get a video of it.

After walking around that little area—apparently some famous meeting point—we crossed that crazy intersection ourselves and walked up one of those streets, snapping photos all along the way.

Streets of Shibuya.

Like Asakusa last weekend, Shibuya was filled with tourists and foreigners. We heard lots of English being spoken, including by Asians which always gave us pause. But I think unlike Asakusa the majority of the people there were still locals who just like to go there to hang out, shop, or play at the arcades.

Last week I remarked about how Tokyo is swarming with beautiful women, but Shibuya took it to a whole other level. The establishments there mostly catered to the young, so nearly every girl there was somewhere between late teens and late twenties, maybe early thirties (it’s so hard to judge with them). But there was enough going on all around that I wasn’t bothered by them. One pair of super-hot girls would walk by and there would be six more behind them.

Arcade megaplex.I spotted a crazy-looking place across the road and asked Amy what it was. I couldn’t tell from the outside, but it was apparently some kind of arcade/gambling-megaplex. We decided to go inside and check it out, and I’m glad we did. The first floor had a bunch of those claw-machines and those photo-booths where you can edit your photos to do things like massively enlarge your eyes (which the Japanese seem kind of obsessed with), and each of the upper floors had its own unique flavor of things to play. There was a gambling floor with some kind of electronic roulette-table thingy (I actually have no idea what it was) and a corner where you could actually just sit and bet on horse-races, which I assume were being broadcast live from various parts of the world where horse-races were going on. The top floor was just a straight-up video arcade, mostly fighting games with graphics like you wouldn’t believe. I remember when arcades were little more than pinball machines and Pac-Man. We’ve come a long way.

Photoshop-booths. The look on Stephen's face...

Super-fun happy time!

6000 yen on...um...? The fastest way to lose money.

After that madness I kind of had a hankering for a beer, so we went inside the nearest bar and sat down. It was a very western-style bar and there were a lot of foreigners there, but none of the pictures I took of it came out. We wanted to ask the bartender to get a picture of the three of us but he was too busy so we decided not to bother him. The most interesting thing about that place was the food menu, which had just about every type of bar-food from anywhere in the world you could think of. You name it: pizza, fish & chips, bratwurst, quesadillas, spaghetti, and on and on. The only thing missing was—alas—buffalo wings.

It was about 7:00 now and I wanted to get home at a decent hour because, after all, I desperately needed a good night’s sleep, and the others seemed to agree that it had been a nice full day and we were ready to go home. Amy helped us navigate back to the Shibuya station, and I took a few night shots along the way.

Sibuya at night.   Happiest man on earth.

Kind of a lot of people...

I’ve yet to truly experience the true Tokyo night-life, but I’d left quite early last week so this was the first time I’d seen Tokyo all lit up. Amy, however, informed us that there used to be a lot more lights than there were now. Apparently the Japanese are conserving energy due to the earthquake (which is, incidentally, the only sign in Tokyo that there even was the biggest earthquake in Japanese history just six months ago).

We changed trains at Shimbashi station, just like I’d done last week, and got to Tokyo station  and the Yaesu Central Entrance from where we’d started. Neither of them were in a hurry to get back, so they came with me to the busses and I asked the very friendly guy there when the next bus to Togane would be (in Japanese of course). He said 8:15, and it was now just 7:40, so we had some time to walk around this area and take some night photos, though almost none of mine came out.

Stephen's photo: "Two Passengers in a Foreign Land"

We came to a point where we spotted a German flag across the street, and I said we had to go in for a closer look. It turned out this was a genuine German bar in Tokyo, and not only that Die haben echtes Bier hier!but they served hefeweizen, my favorite kind of beer. I didn’t think I’d be able to find hefeweizen anywhere in Japan, so I couldn’t resist going in to have one. I asked the others if they wouldn’t mind and they didn’t mind at all, so we went downstairs and into the bar, which was completely and utterly empty except for the two Japanese guys who worked there.

I was running out of time and just wanted a quick beer, but these guys clearly expected us to sit down and spend some time there. I explained in broken Japanese I just wanted one beer and we would have to be fast (hayai), but when he showed me the drink menu and I saw how much the hefeweizen cost, I had to decline. It was about ¥1150—almost $15—and practically as much as the bus to Tokyo itself cost. As much as I wanted a hefeweizen I wasn’t going to pay that much for it and there wasn’t really enough time anyway.

The guy there was extremely friendly though, and joked that maybe I wanted a bigger one, taking out this giant 2-liter hefeweizen glass, which Stephen couldn’t resist getting pictures of, though unfortunately they didn’t come out well at all.

Trinken wier hier? Nein, trinken wir nicht :(

We apologized to those guys on the way out and they were both very friendly about it, and I resolved that I’ll eventually go back there sometime and fork over the price for that hefeweizen, assuming the place hasn’t gone out of business by then. It was a really nice place—just a terrible location. And it’s a shame the Japanese don’t seem to have much of a taste for German beer.

We walked back to the bus stop and I bid Amy and Stephen a goodnight. They were definitely great travelling companions and I hope to see them again at some point. Stephen has expressed an interest in coming to visit me in Togane, as he likes to surf and the beach is much closer to me than it is to him.

I tried to pay when I got on the bus but was told to pay after. But after an hour when we reached Togane station, everyone who got off the bus there just said goodbye to the driver and left without paying anything, and there was no one there to collect money. It wasn’t even like everyone went back to the station to pay someone there—everyone just went their separate ways. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I somehow got a free trip back from Tokyo, which actually meant I paid less overall than I did when I took the train.

When I got home and made myself a quick dinner I couldn’t resist having a couple glasses of whiskey and listening to music while contemplating the events of the past few days before going to bed, so I didn’t actually make it to sleep until midnight. At least I got a full eight hours, and I’ll definitely get another nap later on. But it’s nice to finally have a day completely free. Other than blogging and doing laundry, there’s nothing at all I have to do. I don’t even feel the need to “seize the day” because I’ve seized the living crap out of the last few days and starting tomorrow I’ve got to work six days in a row. On Saturday there’s some kind of open-house thingy at the school and I’ll be teaching to the students while their parents are there, as though they haven’t put me through enough stress already. At least they cancel school on Monday to make up for it.

There may not be another blog entry for quite some time, but I still plan on doing some work on this site. I started publicly posting journal entries a few months into my first year in Germany, but I’d like to go and back-post the entries I wrote before that, stretching back to my first day in Germany so readers can go back and compare the initial experiences of Japan with those initial experiences. I’ll make a note whenever that’s complete.

Until then, enjoy your break from the heavy reading material! Get some rest if you can. After today, I certainly won’t be getting much.

A Tiny Taste of Tokyo Town

August 29th, 2011 No comments

Cross another city off the list of places-I-must-see-before-I-die. When I was placed in a city within reasonable travelling distance of Tokyo, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to wait too long before heading there to check it out. Having discovered on Saturday what a trip from Togane to the beach entails, Sunday was about determining what it’s like to get from Togane to Tokyo.

Tourism Center of the Universe

Trey told me there’s a bus that goes there directly, but I was just as curious about the Japanese rail-system as I was about Tokyo itself so I decided to make my first trip there by train. I checked the schedules online at a site called hyperdia, and decided that the 10:31 train would be my best bet. I’d have to changeover once in a city called Soga, but from there it would be a straight-shot in.

After riding my bike to the station (which took about 4 minutes) and locking it up, my first problem was figuring out how to get a ticket. As far as I could tell there were no live human beings working there, either because it was Sunday, because there was another building I wasn’t aware of, or because they just don’t have people working there. I went up to the ticket machines and attempted to buy a round-trip ticket for the day, but they only offered a small list of destinations—all nearby cities—and none of them was Tokyo. I stood there scratching my head for a minute and was about to go ask someone for help, but it turned out I didn’t have to. An older Japanese man came right up to me and said in English, “Would you like some help?”

“Please,” I said, and explained that I was new in Japan and this was my first time taking the train. I told him I was an ALT, and he turned out to be an elementary school teacher in Narita. So this super-friendly English-speaking dude helped me through the whole process, which involved going to a different machine and calling for an operator, then explaining in Japanese that I needed a round-trip ticket for the day to Tokyo. The price showed up on the screen, about ¥2100 (just over $25), I put my cash in and as though there was a man living inside the machine, it took my money, printed out my tickets, and gave me an arigato gozaimashita.

I chatted with the teacher for a few minutes, telling him I was from New York which turned to the subject of the hurricane that’s currently blasting my friends and family there right now. Everyone in Japan is aware of it, as they’ve even got Japanese reporters in Manhattan to cover the story for their TV news reports. We also talked a little about the differences between JET and Interac, as the school where he works in Narita has JET ALTs and he says he thinks JET has better working conditions for its teachers. I wouldn’t know.

The train was right on time, and I stepped aboard and sat down for the 20-minute journey to Soga. Compared to the Deutsche Bahn, these trains measure up nicely. The seating is all along the side as opposed to rows like in Germany, but the seats are just as comfortable and the trains run just as fast. They stop for less time in each location, but other than that there’s no substantial difference. I do have a feeling they’re a bit more efficient than in Germany, as while the Deutsche Bahn was once famous for its efficiency, they’ve been slipping in recent years (which I judge both from my own experience and from talking about it with Germans). Every train I took throughout the day was exactly on time, but we’ll see how they operate in bad weather. I’m sure the efficiency falls apart pretty rapidly whenever there’s an earthquake.

Changing trains in Soga was not nearly as confusing as I’d feared it would be, as the train to Tokyo had LED-screens on the outside flashing the words “To Tokyo” in both Japanese and English. In fact the entire Japanese rail-system was incredibly user-friendly, with everything clearly marked and easily-readable schematic maps posted everywhere. The train to Tokyo itself had each stop announced in both Japanese and English, as well as LED-screens above the doors constantly letting you know what the next stop would be in kanji, katakana, and roman letters.

I was tempted to take some pictures from the train but I held back. We did pass through some very cool scenery though, including Tokyo Disneyland. I don’t foresee myself ever going there, but I suppose there are plenty of pictures online and everyone pretty much knows what Disneylands look like anyway.

The last few stations were all underground, so I only got to see the outskirts of the city on the way in, though the outskirts were certainly urban enough in their own right with skyscrapers aplenty, quite in contrast to Europe where everything is low to the ground. Japanese cities are far more in resemblance to American cities than Europe, with very little mind paid to aesthetics and almost no statues or fountains to be found.

We arrived in Tokyo station, and its monstrous size felt like a microcosm of the city itself. It took almost ten minutes just to get up all the escalators and finally emerge outside. Incidentally, just as driving is on the left side here, escalator-etiquette is also reversed. Because on Japanese highways the right-lane is the fast-lane, those who stand still on the escalators do so on the left while the people on the right are moving. They also really stick to that, as while you’ve often got some jackass standing still on the left side of the escalator in America (or even in Germany), every single person on the right-side of these escalators was moving.

My first glimpse of Tokyo.

So I finally got outside, took my first pictures, then headed off in the direction of the park. I was flying with absolutely no plan whatsoever, as while the original plan had been to meet a really nice guy I’d met at ALT training in Narita named David and have him show me around, he cancelled on me at the last minute because he had to do a one-on-one lesson with a guy who had an upcoming job interview in English, and besides that he had no spending money anyway. So without David I was left to my own devices, which I wasn’t upset about at all because I’ve probably solo-travelled more often than I’ve travelled with company anyway, and I felt it appropriate that my first time in Tokyo would be through my own eyes alone.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day and the park seemed like a natural first destination, so I moved in that direction until I spotted an empty tour-bus parked on the side of the road. Having had great experiences with bus tours in London and in Rome, I figured a bus tour of Tokyo might be a good way to start me off. I went up to the driver, asked him in Japanese if he spoke English—he could not—then proceeded to strain my Japanese skills to the limit to get the information about the tours. Luckily he had a flyer with all of the information, so he gave that to me and gave me some rough directions on how to get to the office where I needed to sign up.

I headed off in search of this office but I couldn’t find it. I found a few information boards with maps of the area and the locations of interest clearly marked, but the tour bus office was not among them. There was, however, one circle that marked the Tourist Inquiry Office, so I decided that would be my first destination. At the very least, they could tell me how to get to the bus-tour office.

The tourism office was in a giant building filled with shops and restaurants on the bottom floor and various other businesses in the floors above. The tourism office itself was actually on the tenth floor, which I suppose helps keep the place nice and empty most of the time. When I got there I was instantly greeted in English by the two ladies who worked there, the only two other people in the room. I’ve never seen a tourism office so empty before, but I was rather pleased because the ladies could focus all their attention on me.

All I did was ask them how to get to the office to sign up for the bus tours (it turns out it was marked on a small map in the flyer the bus driver had given me—I am an idiot), but they were eager to give me far more information and suggestions about where to go. They gave me free maps of Tokyo and Japan, circled points of interest in Tokyo and showed me brochures with pictures of what I could find there. I don’t know why I’m still surprised by how friendly Japanese people are, but these women were among the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve yet come across. They even gave me free postcards and a little paper-crane as a “welcome to Japan present”.

They said they were the only Tourism Office like this in all of Japan, and I think I believe them. They gave me a flyer with their phone number and said I could call them any time if I had questions about Tokyo or anywhere else in Japan. I thanked them profusely before leaving, making sure to use the Japanese, and they told me “gambatte” which has no real English equivalent but carries the same basic meaning as “go get ‘em!”

One of the areas they suggested I go to was called Asakusa, where there was apparently a temple and a shrine located in a big shopping district, as well as boat tours along the river. I could head there, check it out, then take the boat tour down to a small island in the harbor where there would be more awesome things to see including some kind of dancing robot. Seemed like as good a plan as any, so I nixed the bus-tour idea and decided to do that instead.

I was a bit wary of having to figure out the Tokyo subway system, and it was kind of a pain. The subway map is a mess—easily the most complicated subway map I’ve ever seen—and even though I was supposed to go to Ginza station to take the Ginza line, the first “Ginza station” I came to was only for a different line. But I certainly don’t mind walking around awesome cities, and I got to go down a pretty cool street that was blocked-off from traffic and where I spotted a film-crew of white people shooting some kind of film (perhaps Lost in Translation 2).

No traffic today.

But I eventually did find the right station and the right machines to buy a ticket to where I needed to go, the simplified maps posted everywhere marking exactly how much you had to pay to get to each station a huge help, not to mention the English option on the machines. [Side-note: screw France. They give you an English option on the ticket machines in Japan, but you French assholes can’t even give your tourists that simple courtesy?]

By the time I got to Asakusa my stomach was in desperate need of something inside of it. There were restaurants all over the place, but I just wanted something quick, easy, and guaranteed not to make me sick so I went to KFC. I know, I know. But I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to sample the genuine Japanese cuisine in Tokyo, perhaps even with people who know the best places to go.

After eating I went to the river to snap a few photos and find out about these boat-tours, but it turned out there were only two of them today and they were both happening after 4:00, by which time I was planning to already be on my way home.

Across the river. Asakusa

I followed the signs to the Senso-ji temple, a very familiar name and a place it turns out I would have put near the top of my list of things to see in Tokyo if I’d remembered it was there. There was an awesome gate leading up to it, and I decided to take the obligatory photo of myself in Tokyo in front of that, going up to a pair of cute girls and asking them to do it. I asked them in Japanese but they replied in English, and afterwards they asked me in English if I could take a photo of them. They must have been tourists too.

The Gate

           A shrine.    Another victory.

Incidentally, one of the most noticeable things about Tokyo is that it is absolutely swarming with beautiful women. That seems to be pretty much true of Japan in general, and I know I’m going to have a hard time living here. It was nice and easy in Germany because while there are certainly exceptions (and long-time readers of this blog know there are exceptions) the vast majority of German girls are completely undesirable. Most guys love having lots of gorgeous women around, but only because to them they exist as possibilities while to me they’re just objects of unquenchable desire, and I hate desire. Living in Hannover I was lucky enough to rarely experience it (maybe only three or four times a day) but in Japan it’s been about fifty times a day and in Tokyo easily in the hundreds. It’s no wonder the Japanese are so into porn.

Anyway, back to the story. Between the gate and the temple was a long walkway of souvenir shops, ice-cream stands, and what-have-you. It felt like the center of the Tourism Universe.

Tourists, tourists, everywhere. Souvenirs, souvenirs, everywhere.

I’ve been behaving like a Japanese tourist ever since I got here and snapping photos of every little thing, which in certain places (the supermarket, for instance) makes me feel very awkward. But here I was surrounded on all sides by fellow tourists with their cameras also snapping photos of everything, and it made me much more comfortable.

There were plenty of white people around for sure, but most were still Asian. I’m sure plenty of Japanese people who don’t live in Tokyo come to Tokyo for sight-seeing, but I’m certain there were plenty of non-Japanese Asian tourists in the crowd as well. You could spot the non-Japanese Asians whenever they were simultaneously walking and eating food at the same time, which is rather frowned-upon here and which I’ve refrained from doing myself.

I saw a sign for “Ice-Cream Burgers” and decided to stop and try one (after my lunch I was kind of having an ice-cream craving anyway, and this sounded interesting). It turned out to just be a small wad of ice-cream between two wafers, and while it was tasty it was a bit overpriced at ¥300. I’m sure I could have done much better for myself at Baskin Robbins.

The Senso-ji Temple.

I finally reached the Senso-ji Temple, got another picture of myself in front of it, took more photos of the surrounding area, and went inside. It felt very weird in there, but comparable to a cathedral in Europe. It’s supposed to be this holy place, and you’ve even got people praying there, but they’re surrounded by assholes with cameras taking flash-photos of everything, and now I was among those assholes. I only wish I was a bit more versed in Japanese history so I could have appreciated it more. I’ve only read one book on Japanese history and the bulk of it was focused on the 20th century.

 Awesome stuff inside the gate. Another awesome Japanese structure.

Holy smoke! The devout.

Outside there were some awesome Giant Buddha Statues (daibutsu) and a little pond with awesome fish. It was a lovely little area, and would have been quite peaceful if it weren’t for the theme-park right next to it. The sound of screaming kids kind of spoils the atmosphere just a little.

               A Buddha statue?  In Japan?  Get outta here!    Map of the area.

Fish pond. Serious ninja-faced fish.

I walked along the outskirts of the park and came across a performer putting on a little show for the kids, and used my camera to take a rare video which I shall now post here in lieu of a description.

A bit further down I spotted a Dippin Dots vendor and stopped dead in my tracks. Although I’d just had some ice-cream I absolutely had to indulge in some Dippin Dots, as they’re one of my all-time favorite edible substances and I haven’t come across them since 2006. When I was young the rarity of them tricked my brain into thinking they were the best stuff on earth, to the point where I actually fantasized about becoming a Dippin Dots vendor myself so I could eat them whenever I wanted. So having found to my delight that they exist in Japan, I got myself a cup of banana split and ate it right outside the shop (wouldn’t want to do it while walking), discovering that they’re not nearly as delicious as they were in my memory.

I checked my phone to find that it was 2:30, which I thought would give me just enough time to do one more quick thing before going back to the station to take the 4:00 train back which was my plan. I could have stayed longer but I wanted to be back to have dinner at home, and the longer I spent in Tokyo the more money I’d be wasting on things like Dippin Dots.

One of my favorite things to do in big cities is to go up to observation decks on tall buildings to get an aerial view. There was a giant tower right across the river but I wasn’t sure if it was open to the public. Because I was short on time I didn’t want to go all the way there, so I called the Tourism Office at the number they’d provided me with and asked them about the tower. It was called the Tokyo Sky Tree and it was, in fact, still under construction and won’t be open to the public until next year. I thanked them for sparing me from a long disappointing walk.

Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance.

I decided to head back to the area near the main station and check out that park that had been my original first destination. I took a different route back to the station than I had coming from it, got a few more photos of shrines and Buddha statues along the way, and after a bit of wandering eventually got back to the station and managed to figure out how to buy a ticket back. It wasn’t as easy as it should have been because for some reason not every machine sells tickets for every line.

More shrines. More Buddhas.

On the map of Tokyo the Tourism Information ladies had given me, it looked like the nearest station to the park was called Shimbashi, so after a twenty-minute ride I got off there and left the station, attempting to figure out which direction the park was in. I thought I figured it out but another glance at my clock revealed that there wouldn’t actually be enough time to get to the park and back to the main station with enough time to figure out how to get to whatever platform I needed to get to, so I just wandered around this area a little and took in the scenery.

When it was 3:30 I figured I should start walking back to the station, and since there were no information boards around I went to a little food stand and asked the guy there in Japanese which direction was Tokyo Station. Luckily I know the Japanese words for “far”, “30 minutes”, and “walk”, so after he kindly came out onto the street to show me with hand motions and words like “lefto” and “straighto”, I decided I’d probably be much better off heading back to Shimbashi station and hoping I could get from there to Tokyo station in time for the train I wanted.

I bought a ticket without really knowing what I was doing, but I asked a guy who worked there which train I needed for Tokyo station and he told me Platform 5. Luckily enough, the train came just a couple of minutes later and Tokyo station was just two stops down. I entered the station and went up to the Information counter. I showed one of the women who worked there my ticket and prepared for another Japanese explanation of where to go, but she spoke English so it was an easy process. She not only told me which platform to go to and how to get there, but she looked up all of the information about connections and wrote it down for me. I’d actually be taking a slightly earlier train than the one I’d looked up, and changing over in Oami instead of Soga, Oami being just two stations away from Togane.

Although the train was packed when I got on it, I was miraculously able to get the last open seat and I stayed there for the whole 72-minute trip to Oami. There were lots and lots of people coming in and getting off at each station, but the overall trend was a gradual thinning-out of the crowd the farther away from Tokyo we got. I successfully changed trains in Oami, confirming that I was taking the right train by asking one of the guys on it, and ended up back in Togane at 5:25 and my apartment at 5:30.

So having now officially journeyed from my apartment to Tokyo and back, I can safely assume that I’ll be doing it quite often. It’s not difficult at all to get there (it’ll be even easier if I take the bus), the cost is very affordable, and the time it takes is very reasonable. It takes just a little bit more time to get from here to Tokyo than it did to get from where I lived in New Jersey to New York City, and a little bit less time than it took to get from Hannover to Berlin.

It wasn’t the world’s most exiting trip ever, but this was just a taste. Tokyo hasn’t seen the last of me.

Welcome to Japan

August 16th, 2011 No comments

After years of dreaming about it and months preparing for it, I’ve finally arrived in Japan. It feels very strange to actually be here in person, to see the country in its actual “in-the-flesh” form as opposed to the ethereal idea in my head it’s always been. I’m not sure what I expected, but it’s just strange how different it doesn’t feel to everywhere else in the world I’ve been. There are still roads and cars (though people drive on the left), there are still stores and restaurants (they’ve just got a lot of weird symbols on them), and there are still a bunch of people going about their business (it’s just that most of them are a lot smaller than I’m used to). But the sky is still blue, the clouds are still white, and the sun and the moon still trace the same path across the sky. It’s just another piece of the planet earth, after all.

Of course that’s not to diminish the awesomeness of the fact that I’m here. And to be fair, even the pamphlet that Interac gave out to all their new teachers insists that our first impressions of Japan are going to be slightly skewed towards the Western, as we’re in a Western-style hotel in the town of Narita, where one of the closest international airports to Tokyo is located. Asians still outnumber Westerners by a large degree, but I’ve been shocked by how many white people are around.

The entire trajectory of yesterday was like a gradual descent into surroundings more-and-more Japanese, until it finally came to an end with the most authentic Japanese dinner I’ve ever had.

The flight over was Continental Airlines, so it felt like any other American flight only with half the passengers being Asian. The announcements were all made in English first, followed by a Japanese translation (which always seemed to take about half the time to say). I sat next to a couple of Asians but I don’t think they were Japanese so I didn’t try and practice any of my Japanese with them. In fact it wasn’t until much later that I summoned the confidence to actually try and put that to use.

Crossing the Pacific Ocean and going over the international date-line was enough of a novelty in itself. The plane was following the sun, so we never hit the night-time side of the earth, but when we were half-way between Alaska and the Siberian peninsula, we had officially crossed into tomorrow. When we landed, 13 hours after take-off, there had been no night-time but it was three hours later on the following day. It really felt like time-travel.

Getting through customs and picking up my baggage was as smooth as I could have hoped, and I was able to spot the Interac representative waiting for me without much trouble. He then directed me to a group of people already standing around and talking, some of the other teachers who had arrived slightly before me. From that point on I was no longer on my own, as the rest of the day was spent among this giant group of new English teachers.

Most of them were new to Japan and like me had been dreaming about it for quite awhile, but some of them had been to Japan before and were now returning. One of the guys had actually lived here for nine years before spending the last two in Korea, so he was a wealth of information.

Narita View HotelWhen there were enough of us, we all took a shuttle bus to the Narita View Hotel, which is  where they conduct the week-long orientation session and where we’ll all be until Saturday. Upon our arrival here we had to pick up name-tags, then go to a suite on an upper floor for a “pre-orientation orientation” so we could be given our schedules and a run-down of how this was going to work, as well as useful information about shuttle busses from the hotel into town.

I’m not sure how many of us there are in total, as there were only about 15 of us at our particular pre-orientation (they were doing this all day as new waves of arrivals came in), but I imagine it’s somewhere between 50 and 100. When our group had finished, it was suggested that we all meet up in the lobby at 6:00, which gave us an hour and a half to shower and get settled in. Everyone is sharing a room with one other person, and I feel lucky that my room-mate Sam is a very easy-to-get-along with guy (and as I discovered last night much to my pleasant relief, he doesn’t snore).

Outside the hotel Bus full of foreigners

At 6:00 we gathered in the lobby, and there were noticeably more people there. Other people who had arrived at other times were also there, about 30 in total, and when the shuttle bus finally came we took up just about every seat. Our bus full-of-foreigners stopped at the train station near the center of town, and most of us got out and proceeded to take pictures. I remarked on how often I’ve seen large groups of Japanese tourists in Western cities all snapping photos with their cameras, and here we were in bizarre-world where the situation was flipped on its head.

Real-life streets in Japan! More actual Japanese streets!

Some of the people stayed on the bus to go to the second stop, a shopping mall where food was apparently cheaper, but a good twenty of us headed down one of the main strips filled with bars and restaurants in search of food. One of the girls had been here for a few days already so she said she knew where she was going and we were all following her, but when she took us to a British pub a bunch of us said that for our first night in Japan we would rather do something a bit more authentically Japanese.

So now reduced to about ten people, our group finally came upon a restaurant that everyone agreed we could try. It turned out to be a great decision, as the upstairs area was as authentic-Japanese-looking as you can get, with low tables and mats on the floor, and even a cubby for you to remove your shoes before sitting down.

Where we ate Dining in style.

We all got to practice our Japanese as we ordered food from the waitress there, and when we got our beer some of the guys who had been to Japan before informed us that you’re never supposed to pour your own beer in Japan, but you have to get someone else to do it. The girl across from me, Amy (also from New Jersey), seemed to really get a kick out of that, so I could always count on her to top me off.

Our group. Me and Sam

I trusted the others that the first item on the menu, something called “Okinoyaki” or Dinner!something, was very good, and as strange as it looked I’m happy to say they were right. It was like a pancake made of cabbage, stuffed with ginger and meat of your choice, and covered in delicious teriyaki-like sauce. The portion was the perfect size, just enough to fill me up without feeling like I’d eaten too much. I also got to practice my chopsticks-skills, which I’m happy to say are not as shabby as I’d feared.

Another minor culture-shock occurred when a young Japanese couple entered while we were eating and the girl lit up a cigarette. Apparently smoking is not only tolerated indoors in Japan, but they don’t even have separate smoking and non-smoking sections in most restaurants. Unable to resist the novelty of smoking in a restaurant for the first time I can actually remember, I had to join the other two smokers in our group after dinner.

There was some very pleasant conversation among all of us in the group, including a black guy called Don who has been working for Interac for awhile but was invited to orientation to impart some of his experience onto us newbies. He was an incredibly nice guy with a great sense of humor, but I was struck by how incredibly nice everyone there was. Maybe there’s something about Japanophiles that just makes us generally pleasant people.

It was only 8:25 when we’d finished dinner, but most of us had been up since an ungodly hour of the previous day, so while some in our group went to the British pub to join the others, I and most of the rest went back to the bus to head back to the hotel and finally get some sleep.

I had one of the most insane dream-experiences of my life this morning. Both Sam and I woke up in the middle of the night and the jet-lag prevented us from having an easy time going back to sleep, but I apparently did because the next thing I knew I was having a dream that my friend Krissi had showed up at the hotel to surprise-visit me. Sam wasn’t happy to have an extra person in the room, but when I woke up and told him about the dream we had a good laugh about it. But it wasn’t long before I realized that I hadn’t actually woken up at all, and that had just been a dream-within-a-dream and I was still asleep. I woke up again and the same thing happened. It all felt perfectly real to the point where I was convinced I had actually woken up in the real world, right here in this hotel room with Sam in the other bed, and whenever I’d ask him he’d assure me I was really awake, but this kept happening over and over again until I was eventually so skeptical that I jumped out the window and flew away, enjoying my lucidity for a little while (I was curious as to how my subconscious would portray the Japanese landscape having so little experience of it) but that wouldn’t last long before I falsely-awoke again and went on an entirely new crazy adventure. This happened at least 15 times and eventually I reached the point where I was worried that I had died somehow and would be waking up in the same room at the Narita View Hotel again and again for the rest of eternity.

When I finally did wake up for real, Sam told me I’d been mumbling in my sleep, crying out things like, “Why?”. I made him assure me several times that this was actually really real, but it wasn’t until I’d successfully shaved and showered without waking up again that I was convinced I’d made it back to the correct plane of reality.

And now I’ve got to change and get ready for the first day of orientation in this new reality I find myself in. Life is going to be a hell of a lot different than it ever has been for me before, and I can’t wait to see how it develops.

When in Rome X – Veni, Vidi, Vici

May 6th, 2011 No comments

April 26, 22:00 – April 27, 16:00

I was now on the final stretch of my Rome trip, it was getting late and I still hadn’t really met anyone. Not wanting to interrupt the Floyd-playing street musician as he talked to the restaurant owner, I went off in search of somewhere to buy beer, and found a “Bar” towards the south end of the square that allowed me to buy a bottle of beer and take it out with me into the square—just so long as I stayed in the square. Unfortunately, Italy is not like Germany where public drinking is not only acceptable but expected.

I took my bottle of beer to the fountain near the street musician and waited for him to be done talking to the restaurant owner. Because he’d been smoking a cigarette while playing, I knew I could try my lighter strategy with him. I went up and said, “Scusi, do you have a lighter?” making the standard cigarette-lighting-motion in case he didn’t understand me. “Lighter!” he said. “Ah yes, it’s called ‘lighter’!” I asked him what it was “in Italiano” and he told me but I once again forgot. He asked me in broken English if I was a musician. I told him I wasn’t but I loved Pink Floyd and he said I look like a musician. I said lots of people tell me that and I wish I could play. [Unfortunately, my only talent seems to be writing, the least sexy talent on earth].

It would have been nice if I could have had a conversation with him, but the language barrier was too great and we just wished each other a pleasant evening. I turned and sat down on the rail on the edge of the fountain, finishing my smoke and keeping my ears open for English.

Where I was sitting. I should have taken a picture.

The Piazza Navona at night was lovely but unfortunately the atmosphere was somewhat tainted by all the kids around. As I mentioned before, there were swarms of middle-school or high-school students all over the city, and a whole lot of them were now concentrated in the square, running around and laughing loudly and clearly not appreciating a damned thing about where they were. I wasn’t about to try and strike up a chat with any of them whether they spoke English or not.

But I had a little bit of luck as before I finished the cigarette a young couple with American accents came up right next to me and talked to each other. I waited awhile for a good chance to turn and speak to them, but whenever they stopped talking and I turned I saw that the reason for the pause was they were making out. When they finally paused without making out I turned and said, “Are you guys from the states?”

My worry that they might not have wanted someone to interrupt their romantic moment turned out to be completely unfounded. They were quite friendly and more than happy to have a chat, especially when I told them what I did for a living. They were travelling for a month before having to go back and take exams in England where they were studying. But they’d heard about English teaching as a way to keep travelling and they were excited to hear more details about it from me. The guy said he would definitely look into it and it’s possible I might have had a serious influence on his life. Maybe.

After about a thirty-minute chat involving all the standard “where have you traveled so far?” and “what were your favorite places?”-kind of questions, they decided to go off in search of their friend whom they had apparently just lost. They said he was drunk but they didn’t think he would have left the square, and they kept thinking they spotted him but never did. I joined them on the walk to the other end of the square, as they said he might like to talk to me because he was interested in Germany, but their friend was nowhere to be found. They decided he’d probably just gone back to the hostel, and now they were just going to head to the Pantheon and then go back home. I was welcome to join them, but I said I’d rather stick around and try to meet some more people. They were really nice but I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night with them. I’m still glad to have met them, Hannah and her boyfriend (the other one of the two people whose names I forgot).

I went back to the “Bar” but the guy told me they were closing and he couldn’t sell me another beer, so I just asked if I could use the toilet and when I was done I decided to leave the square and try my luck at the last night-life location that had been circled on my map: the Campo de Fiori.


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This square is a bit smaller than the Piazza Navona but just as densely packed with restaurants for sitting outside and drinking beer, wine, or cocktails. A lot of young people go there, but I was hoping to talk to people a bit older. I settled on one of the restaurants to sit outside in, partly because there was a couple there who struck me as perhaps being interesting to talk to, and I sat at a table near them and ordered a beer.

The girl was still finishing her pizza when I sat down, so I waited for her to be done and for a pause in their conversation before I turned and asked them if they were from the states. They were—they were from Wisconsin—and I later learned their names were Ira and Sara [I don’t know if it had an ‘h’ or not but I’ll omit it to distinguish her from hippie-chick Sarah, whose name might not have had an ‘h’ either].

Someone else's picture of the Campo de FioriIt wasn't as crowded when I was there.

I’d definitely found some good conversationalists in Ira and Sara, as we were able to talk about more than just the standard traveler’s questions. Telling them about teaching led to a conversation about education in general, and I was even able to get somewhat political with them. One of Ira’s relatives was a teacher and she’d recommended a documentary called “Waiting for Superman” done by an actual teacher who explained everything that was wrong with the public education system including teachers’ unions, and which they both insisted was one of the best documentaries they’d ever seen. They told me a bit about how poorly the schools are doing where they’re from, and I said that surprised me “because the government just keeps throwing all this money at education” at which they laughed quite a bit.

One question I’d been asking people whenever I thought of it is whether they’d seen HBO’s Rome. I wanted to know if anyone there had been looking at the city through the same HBO-tinted lenses as I’d been, but nobody had. I’d even asked Cristiano the night before because I wondered whether the series was well-known in Rome itself, but he hadn’t heard of it. Ira and Sara had heard it was really good but they hadn’t seen it. I told them it was one of the best things ever made for television, and Sara said she’s heard the same thing about the show Lost. I explained that this was high quality writing with extremely well-developed characters and she said, “Oh, so not like Lost?” and I insisted that on the spectrum of TV-entertainment, Lost is as one end and Rome is at the other.

They said they wished they’d brushed up a little on Roman history themselves before coming here, as they probably would have appreciated the ruins and monuments on a much deeper level than, “ooh, think about how old this is.” I agreed that knowing about the history of a place before you travel there is probably the best way to amplify your appreciation of it.

At around 1:00 we all agreed that we should probably get going, and after making sure to get a picture of myself with Ira and Sara I wished them a fond farewell and headed back towards my hostel.

Ira, Sara, and some guy they met in Rome.

This time I took the scenic route because I knew the next day I was just going to go straight to the train station as soon as I got up and this would be my last chance to see the Colosseum and the Forum ruins. I took those sights in one last time, injecting one last dose of Enigmality into my soul before bidding Ancient Rome farewell and heading back to the modern part of town.

It had been a pretty successful night. It wasn’t as climactic as a pub-crawl might have made it (I actually found out from Ira and Sara who’d checked online that the pub-crawl only met on Mondays and Wednesdays), and I’ll forever remain a little disappointed that I hadn’t offered to escort those Asians to the Trevi Fountain, but I did get to hear Comfortably Numb because of that, and I think I did well enough for myself with the two nice couples I’d met.

Goodbye, Colosseum. Ciao, Forum.

Just before I reached my hostel there was one final bit of amusement as I found myself walking behind a couple of Japanese girls (real ones—they were speaking Japanese) who were walking at a slower pace than me. As they heard my footstep getting closer and closer they started walking closer together and the one girl put her arm around the other. One of them nervously glanced behind her, and I smiled and waved which made them both start giggling. “Don’t be afraid!” I told them, and their giggling increased in intensity as they walked off in a direction I wasn’t going.

Sleep came very easily as I was now thoroughly drained of energy, and although I was woken up at 7:00 I let myself lie in bed and recover a bit more energy until 9:00. I considered going for a walk among the ruins one more time but I figured I’d already had an appropriate enough farewell the night before.

I’ll spare you and my future-self from the details of the voyage home, but there’s one last anecdote that needs mentioning. I knew I’d probably be seeing the German couple with the Sara-look-a-like at the airport, and I did spot them on the check-in line but they were far ahead of me. I didn’t spot them at the terminal or on the plane, but after the very pleasant flight home I knew I’d have an opportunity to talk to them at the baggage claim.Remember them?

Unfortunately I wasn’t actually in the mood to chat with anyone, let alone in German because my brain was now operating more slowly and it would be a lot more difficult than it had the first couple of times. Furthermore, I was pretty sure they spotted me at the baggage claim but they didn’t acknowledge it so I figured they had no interest in another encounter with me either.

And yet I knew that I should talk to them one more time simply for the sake of the story, so I went up to them at the baggage claim and we exchanged a few words. I was correct in thinking that my German-skills had been reduced, and I felt a little embarrassed with some of the mistakes I made. Of course they’d had no way of knowing until then that I wasn’t actually German, so it felt especially awkward after our brief exchange during which we only spoke about being exhausted and having crammed so much into the space of three days.

When I wished them goodbye and headed down towards the S-Bahn platform I realized I’d forgotten to ask them for their names, which bothered me for reasons I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone who’s read this far. I’d made it a point to get the names of everyone I’d met, and if I wanted theirs I’d have to approach them again.

But when I spotted them on the S-Bahn platform and they seemed to be pretending not to see me, I became even more wary of doing this. The guy even walked right in front of me at one point without turning his head. To them I must have been this creepy weird guy that kept popping up during their trip to Rome.

Hannover Hauptbahnhof, 1180 km from Rome Still, I knew that if I didn’t get their names it would leave a sour taste in my mouth and that was the last way I wanted this trip to end. Yet when I got off the S-Bahn and waited at the bottom of the stairs in the Hannover main station for them, they’d somehow separated and the girl walked by me with no acknowledgment. Clearly she had no interest in another exchange of words with me.

But knowing how I’d feel walking out of that station without having got their names vs. how I’d feel if I did, I forced myself to catch up to them and “Entschulding” them before they could get away. I apologized for interrupting them but they laughed and smiled, thus relieving all the tension. I explained that I was too tired to speak German very well right now, but I’d forgotten to ask them for their names. They happily gave them: Christian and Inge.

Now that the cat was out of the bag that I’m not actually German, we had a brief exchange in which I explained what I was doing in Hannover, that I’d lived there for three years but my Hannover Opera House, 1.2 km from the HauptbahnhofGerman still wasn’t perfect, and Christian assured me it was better than his English. Before finally saying goodbye one last time, they remarked how Hannover was a small town and we’d probably spot each other again, just like in Rome. Hwaatacoeenzedenze that would be.

And so I left the station and headed to the Opera House, where I sat and went through all the photos I’d taken before Lena came to meet me so I could give her back the camera. The rest is history.

And that concludes the story of my trip to Rome, which I hope you’ve enjoyed reading half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing. Not only was it a wonderful experience in terms of the fulfillment of a lifelong goal, but I had a genuinely good time for nearly every part of it and I feel like I can be proud of myself for having gone about it so well. I learned a lot more about Rome but I also learned a lot more about myself.

I’ve come a long way since my first solo traveling adventure in Europe when I went to Paris and London in April of 2005 during my exchange-student year. Back then I saw only the most famous sights in each city, while this time I managed to check out a few lesser-known points of interest as well. Then, I’d been too nervous about eating alone at a restaurant and ate only fast-food the whole time, but this time I ate at actual restaurants and while the food wasn’t spectacular it was a much better way to go about it. Most significantly, back then I’d avoided the night-life altogether and failed to approach anyone in an attempt to meet people. This time I made it a point to go out at night and to meet as many people as I realistically could. Whenever I approach others I worry that I might be imposing my presence on people who would rather be left alone, but I think I realized that I’m actually a pretty interesting person and that most people enjoy talking to me.

I can now leave Europe feeling like I’ve seen everything I’ve really wanted to see here. I may not have been everywhere but I feel like I’ve experienced enough to have a much better impression of life here than most people from elsewhere. It’s a great continent with a hell of a lot going for it in terms of culture, history, and people, but I know there’s a lot more to learn in other parts of the world. It’s helped me grow tremendously as a person—far more than I would have had I remained in the states—and I can be sure that spending the next part of my life in Asia will help me grow even more.

And so I leave Rome and prepare to leave Europe behind with the same sentiment on my mind that Julius Caesar had over two thousand years ago: I came, I saw, I conquered.

Arrivederci!

When in Rome IX – The Sun Sets on This Former Empire

May 5th, 2011 No comments

April 26, 17:00-22:00

The final bit of sight-seeing I had to do in Rome was to head back across the river and visit the church that Cristiano had taken me to the previous night—the Santa Maria in Trastevere. I could have walked there from the Vatican but I had plenty of time to kill and that walking tour had completely exhausted me. So I got back on the tour bus and let it drive me all the way around Rome again, even remaining on-board during their 30-minute break at Termini station, giving me ample time for more reading.

My final departure from the bus was at the bridge leading to the Isola Tiberina, the only island in the Tiber river located within Rome. The bus tour had informed me that the two bridges connecting the island to each respective side of the river were the oldest in Rome.

Oldest bridge in Rome #1 (looks just like Bridge #2)

I walked across the island and back into the maze of streets leading to the church. It took a few checks and double-checks of the map, but it wasn’t long before I found it. I went inside and I have to honestly admit that my first impression was disappointment. This was perfectly understandable—I’d just come from St. Peter’s Basilica which would blow just about any other church out of the water. This place was not without its charm, but I’d hardly consider it the nicest church in Rome.

Photo from internet of the Church from outside. Maybe A nicest church, but not THE nicest church.

But one thing this church had going for it that none of the others did was the music. They were playing this soft, spiritual music at a low volume—some songs with what sounded like Gregorian chants and some with female voice choirs singing hymns. Gradually this music started to seep into my soul, and by the time I found a little room in the back with some incredibly lovely artwork adorning the walls and ceiling, I was sold. I sat in that little room and just soaked up the atmosphere for about twenty minutes, knowing this would be the last new place I’d visit in Rome. The trip was coming to a close, and this seemed like a perfect way to end it.

Bliss

Other tourists held the door to the church open for me with a smile, the only time that happened during the trip. I suppose the atmosphere of this place had touched their souls as well, and I warmly smiled back.

The next item on my agenda, however, was not quite so holy. I intended to find the pizzeria that Cristiano had recommended to me the night before, but this was no easy task as I remembered neither the name nor the exact location and there were about twelve different restaurants serving pizza in the vicinity. I wandered around for at least a half an hour, passing by a few places that I thought might be it but wasn’t sure. The one I ultimately decided was most likely to be the one wouldn’t let me sit outside, so I decided I’d just go somewhere else. The atmosphere is half the point of eating out, and the atmosphere is always much better outside even on a cloudy evening.

I finally settled on a place and sat down, the waiter offering me a table right next to a couple that I heard speaking some German dialect as I read more of my book and waited for my food. I got a mushroom pizza, which was a slight improvement over the pizza I’d had the first night A mushroom pizza, not THE mushroom pizza.but still far short of the awesome flavor experience I’d been hoping for. I decided that after having tried two different pizzas in Italy I have more than enough evidence to leap to this conclusion: the best pizza in the world is in New York and New Jersey—not in Italy. Congratulations, Italian-Americans. Sorry, genuine Italians.

When I was finished with my meal I took out a cigarette, and here’s where my non-lighter-having really came in handy. The woman at the table next to me had smoked a cigarette earlier so I knew she had one, and I turned to her and said, “Entschuldigung, haben Sie feuer?” which is how you ask for a light in German. Cristiano had taught me how to ask in Italian the night before but I’d already forgotten.

Of course having heard me speak only English to the waiter the couple was surprised that I knew German, and we got into a nice little conversation. They were from Austria so their dialect was different, but the man had apparently lived in Berlin for some time and his High German was flawless. The waiters at this restaurant, like the one from the night before, never seemed to want to bring the check so we had plenty of time to chat while we waited, during which I once again surprised myself with how easily I was able to carry on a conversation completely in German.

There was something about being surrounded by Italian the whole time that made me far less self-conscious about speaking German. Knowing next-to-no Italian it was clearer to me than ever before just how much German I actually do know. I was able to speak quite easily about my job and my life situation as well as ask them questions about their time in Rome—how long they were staying, what they’d seen, and so on. When they got their check and were ready to leave I asked for their names. The guy was Wolfgang, but the woman was one of the only two people on the entire trip whose name I got but don’t remember.

My plan for the evening was to try the pub crawl from the advertisement on my map, which said they meet every night at 9:15 in front of Trajan’s Column. It had taken me far longer to find a place to eat than I’d though it would, so I was a bit worried that I’d miss it when I finally got my check at 8:45. I asked the waiter to point me in the direction of the “Tevere” and he gave me excellent directions which spared me the hardship of once again navigating the labyrinth.


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On the map it looked like Trajan’s Column was extremely far away, but as I progressed I realized that it was perfectly reachable within my time-frame. I walked quickly and with a purpose, and in spite of the swarms of middle-school students all there on class trips and clogging up the sidewalks, I managed to make it to the column with ten minutes to spare.

The only problem was there was nobody there who looked like they had anything to do with a pub crawl. I re-checked the ad on my map and saw that the meeting time was actually listed as 9:15-10:15, so I hadn’t had to hurry at all. But when 9:15 came and then 9:20 and finally 9:25 with nary a sign of pub-crawlification in sight, I began to think the ad had it wrong altogether and they either didn’t meet here anymore or didn’t meet here every night.

But I wasn’t going to be disappointed—I was actually a little afraid of what a pub-crawl might do to me in terms of making the next day’s journey home a lot more painful, so this meant I was off the hook. My back-up plan was to check out the Piazza Navona at night and hope there would be opportunities for drinking and meeting people there.

Where the pub-crawl didn't meet. Just as I was getting underway I noticed a couple of Asian girls asking people for directions to the Trevi Fountain. When the woman near me whom they asked couldn’t give them clear directions I told them I knew exactly how to get there and pulled out my map to show them the way. They looked Japanese but spoke with American accents so I assume they were from the states but I didn’t ask. I was happy to be of help to them and I wished them a pleasant evening as they went on their way.

On the way to the Piazza Navona I stopped at one of the pubs I’d seen the night before but hadn’t gone inside, and because it looked decent enough I figured I’d check it out. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer, scanning the room for approachable people but everyone there seemed kind of lame. I tried to get into the soccer game they were showing but like most soccer games it was quite boring. I checked outside to see who was smoking so I could maybe use my lighter-strategy, but the only people out there were clearly not the kind of people I had any interest in meeting.

Half-way through my beer I realized I should have offered to escort those Asian girls to the Trevi Fountain. As soon as this thought occurred to me I started beating myself up in my brain Where I didn't take the Asian girls.about not having thought of it at the time. “You idiot! Why didn’t you offer to take them there yourself?” But I knew why. Subconsciously I was afraid they would decline my offer and spoil the good spirits I was in. My brain had decided not to take the risk without even telling me it had been making a risk-calculation. Had I been conscious of this I probably would have overruled my subconscious mind’s decision, but alas it had just happened too quickly. In any case, there was no use beating myself up over it.

But I had to finish this beer as quickly as possible and get the hell out of the crappy place. I did that, and headed back out in an attempt to once again find my way to the elusive Piazza Navona. I had to ask a waiter for directions, but it was right down the alley from there and I reached it without much trouble. The square did indeed look much more beautiful at night.

“Is that music I hear?” I thought to myself when I got there. Indeed, there was a street musician playing somewhere nearby and I began walking towards the sound. “Oh my god, is that Pink Floyd music I hear?” As I walked closer it was unmistakable. “Oh my motherloving lord is that Comfortably Numb I hear?!”

Yes, it couldn’t have happened in a more perfect way. An incredibly awesome street musician was sitting on a stool in front of the outside area of one of the restaurants near the north end of the square and just beginning to play “Comfortably Numb” without the words. I went up and got ready to enjoy the song, but not before snapping a quick picture because I knew I’d want an image to remember this by.

You are only coming through in waves.

I tossed him a €2 coin as soon as my hands were free and he looked up to give me a smile and a “Grazi”. His guitar-strap had Dark Side of the Moon prisms on it so he must have been playing Floyd the whole time, and clearly I wasn’t the only one who was appreciating it. The restaurant tables were all full and there were at least a dozen other people gathered around him. His guitar case was more full of money than that of any street musician I’ve ever seen—not just coins but paper money too. I even saw a $10 bill.

Of course I just wanted to enjoy and appreciate this moment, and I got ready to slip into the zone once he began the solo. But as I was closing my eyes and getting ready to rock out, someone tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that there was a police car behind me on the little road between the musician and the restaurant. I got out of the way and the police car pulled up to him, the officer at the wheel pointing to his watch and saying something in Italian. You’ve got to be effing kidding me—not right now. Just give him three more minutes, please!

Luckily, the musician promised to be done in just a few minutes, and he picked up the song again at the end of the last verse. When he launched into the solo it quickly became clear why his guitar case was so full. He played the Comfortably Numb instrumental perfectly, just like on the album, and it put me right in that spiritual place that only that song can.

Picture I didn't take of the Piazza Navona at night.

When he was done I loudly applauded and said, “That was brilliant! Brilliant!” and he thanked me again in Italian. I wanted to go up and talk to him and see if he knew English, but he was quickly accosted by a guy who might have been the owner of the restaurant, who clearly appreciated having him there to play.

Of course I was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten there earlier to hear him play even more Floyd, but I felt incredibly lucky to have got there no later than I did. That was one of those moments you can’t plan for, and I knew as it was happening that it would be one of the most memorable of the trip.

When in Rome VIII – Roman Catholicism: The Epicenter

May 4th, 2011 No comments

April 26, 13:00-17:00

The flyer for the Vatican tour that David from the Palatine hill tour had given me said the tour would be meeting outside the nearest subway station at 1:30. I got to the subway station and looked around for him because he said he would be the one giving the tour, but he was nowhere to be found. There were other people stopping tourists and offering guided tours of their own, but I already knew that David would be a good tour-guide and didn’t want to take a chance with someone else.


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But David never showed up and I began inquiring about one of the other tours being offered, which sounded exactly the same as the one David had been advertizing. Someone finally came up and asked me if I was waiting for David, and when I confirmed that he said that David wasn’t coming today and the tour guide would be someone named James. He also said that he wasn’t sure there’d be enough people in the group to get a voucher—which I guess is the thing that tour groups get so they can bypass the lines and go straight inside. The other tour had promised we’d bypass the lines so I ultimately decided that if David wasn’t coming I’d take my chances with them.

I was happy when we met our tour guide as he seemed like a nice guy, a genuine Italian who not only spoke perfect English but several other languages as well. He had a very nice voice, which was important for the Vatican tour because the only way you can hear the tour guide is through a radio with an ear-piece that they hand out to you. Because there are so many people and tour groups and they can’t have everyone shouting in the Vatican, all the tours do it this way except for the very small ones of just a few people.

There was an absurdly long line we had to wait in anyway, which our tour guide—I later found out his name was Enzo (another popular pizza name)—told us was because they’d recently installed metal detectors and that slowed everything down even for tour groups. All the tour guides had little props on sticks to help their groups spot them in the crowds, and Enzo had what was definitely the funniest one—a mini-umbrella made to look like the head of a panda.

This better be a damn good roller-coaster. Enzo with his panda-brella.

While waiting in line I chatted up a couple of Canadians who were also on the tour, Jesse and Jera. They’d been travelling around Europe for several weeks and would probably continue for several more. As usual I’d been to plenty of the places they’d seen as well—Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin—so it was easy to converse with them. The more you travel, the easier it becomes to chat with other travelers.

Speaking of which, just as we were about to enter I spotted the Bostonians from Sunday night waiting in the other line. I waved hello and the guy said, “Kyle?” Impressed that he remembered my name I showed off by responding with, “Mark and Sasha?” and they confirmed that I had in fact gotten it right. “Wow, what are the odds?” Mark said. “Hwaatacoeenzedenze,” I thought, but did not say. We both explained to the others around us that we’d met the other night at a bar and everyone thought it was funny. We wished each other a good tour and that was the last I saw of them.

The Catholic Church now acknowledges that the world is in fact round. The giant head of a man with a giant head.

The tour started out in a courtyard which had some nice statues and sculptures including a giant head of Augustus. Because you’re not supposed to talk in the Sistine Chapel, the tour guides have to point out everything you should pay attention to ahead of time, so the Vatican has conveniently put up posters all around the courtyard showing Michelangelo’s paintings. Those being among the most famous works of art in art history I was already familiar with most of them, as I was with the story of how it took him years to complete and what a major pain in the ass it had been for him to do so.Not the most ideal way to be immortalized.

One little tid-bit I hadn’t been aware of was that Michelangelo had painted a real person into  “The Last Judgment”, the guy whom the Pope had sent to keep an eye on him and who was constantly pestering him about the nudity (whom Wikipedia informs me was named Biagio da Cesena). He painted him as one of the souls condemned to Hell, with a snake wrapped around his body and biting his genitals. That’s got to be the most awesome bit of revenge-through-art ever taken by a human being. That guy was giving Michelangelo crap for all those years about his work, and while that work secured Michelangelo’s name as one of history’s greatest artists, that guy will be remembered forever only as the dude in “The Last Judgment” getting his balls bitten by a snake.

Our tour guide brought us through room after room of impressive sculptures and artwork. It was just like the churches I’d gone to earlier but on steroids. I took lots of pictures but of course I don’t remember the significance of each thing. I definitely got one of the oldest statue in the Vatican which depicts the High Priest of Troy, who warned the Trojans not to take the Greeks’ horse inside the city walls but apparently never lived to say “I told you so.”  You’d never know from looking at this incredibly fine piece of craftsmanship that it’s over a millennium old.

Sculptures, sculptures everywhere. Ancient shop-owners used mosaics to advertise their goods.

Pantheon knock-off. High Priest of Troy: "Why didn't you listen?!"

One thing I hadn’t expected but should have were the massive, massive crowds. There was never much room to maneuver, especially in the narrower hallways, and if you paused to take a photo you’d quickly find yourself far behind, having to elbow your way through the crowds to catch up to the panda-brella once again.

About as many sculptures as people. One of the nicest hallways anywhere.

Not really knowing what’s in the Vatican other than the Sistine Chapel, the Sistine Chapel was really the only thing I knew I had to see. It was the very last thing on my original Rome check-list, and once I’d seen it I’d know the trip was complete. It seems funny to me now, but I was quite miffed by the fact that the Sistine Chapel is the only place inside the Vatican that you are not allowed to take pictures. Apparently it’s not so much about flash cameras ruining it as it is about copyright issues, which I don’t understand at all.

But they were pretty serious about that rule, as on the way down the stairs to the chapel there was a looped recording telling people in every major language of the world that in the chapel you were to remain silent and absolutely not take any photos. Here I’d been going about the whole trip taking photos of every significant thing I saw, and one of the three most significant things I’d been planning to see was something I wasn’t supposed to snap a photo of. Of course, there are hundreds of people in the chapel at a time and if a few of them want to take pictures there’s absolutely nothing they can do but yell at you. If they tried to confiscate every camera that had taken a photo of the chapel they’d probably run out of space at the Vatican within a week.

So the whole experience of the Sistine Chapel was tempered by this constant mind-struggle of “should I or shouldn’t I?”, knowing that there would be no consequences if I actually took a picture but also knowing that I really shouldn’t. Besides, the whole way there Enzo’s voice was coming through the ear-piece asking us to please respect the place and not take any pictures. When we finally got to the chapel the urge to just point my camera up and take one little photo for posterity’s sake was overwhelming, but I’m happy to say that I resisted the temptation and did not in fact snap a photo. And I’m quite glad I didn’t because the pictures you can find online are much better than any I could have taken anyway!

Once I’d made peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to take a picture, I was able to really appreciate the gloriousness of this place. No photograph, professional or otherwise, would be able to do it justice anyway. This is just one of the things you really have to see for yourself. The scale of the thing is so impressive and the idea that one person, a single human being rather than a team of painters, did this all by himself, working on it tirelessly year after back-breaking year…it got me feeling all Engimal once again.

The Last Judgment

The world's most famous ceiling.

There was almost too much for the eye to take in. The magnificent fresco on the ceiling with  that immortal image of God reaching out his hand to Adam, scenes from the life of Moses on one wall and the life of Jesus on the other, and of course “The Last Judgment” just dominating the front of the chapel were all so beautiful and finely detailed that no living soul could possibly fail to be impressed. The sheer scale of it, combined with the idea that millions of eyes have been gaping in awe at these same images throughout the centuries, and that now I was finally there to behold one of the sights I’d dreamed of beholding myself every since I was a child, gave rise to such intense feelings of Enigmality that it was almost a spiritual experience. I could imagine how some might interpret the sensation as a kind of communion with God, and I’m open to the idea that this might even in a sense be true—depending on what one imagines when one thinks of “God”. If God is the creative force behind the universe, something abstract and intangible which lies behind every pair of conscious eyes, then perhaps in moments of strong experiential significance people really do have a kind of connection with God. I don’t know. All I know is that if there is a God, it’s nothing like the bearded character painted up on the ceiling.

The most iconic image in the Vatican. What God doesn't look like.

The tour came to an end shortly after the Sistine Chapel and Enzo led us outside to the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica where he would collect our radios and return the €5 deposit we’d had to place on them. The tour itself had been €45, which was €20 more than a non-guided tour would have been but knowing how much pre-recorded audio-guides suck and the fact that I really didn’t know what to see before I went in made me certain that it was worth the extra money in my case.

But apparently the same did not go for everyone. Just before I handed my radio back, the woman who handed hers back before me told Enzo, “I’m sorry but I just have to say that I am extremely disappointed in this tour. The brochure said we would see the Raphael rooms and that was one of the things I came all the way from New Zealand to see, and you didn’t even take us to the Raphael rooms. I’m not going to ask for a refund but I just want you to know how angry I am.” As she spoke you could hear the emotion-level in her voice rising—she was genuinely upset. Enzo tried to calm her down, apologizing for that but explaining that the Vatican is so big you couldn’t possibly see everything, and that if she liked he would stick around and give her some information about them now. She wasn’t interested and she left in a big huff.

As for me, I couldn’t care less about the Raphael rooms. I suppose if it’s one of the main attractions at the Vatican it must be pretty impressive, but I doubt it would even come close to the Sistine Chapel. All of the paintings there were just religious images anyway, and I’ve gone to enough art museums in my lifetime to have seen more than enough paintings of the Madonna with Baby Jesus, Jesus turning water into wine, the crucifixion and so on to last a lifetime. Why should I care whether this Jesus was painted by Raphael or not? I couldn’t tell a Raphael from a Michelangelo (or from a Leonardo or Donatello for that matter either).

I was the last to hand my radio back to Enzo, and when I did I said “I really enjoyed the tour, thank you so much,” and he told me how there’s always someone on the tour who doesn’t get to see what they wanted to see and it just couldn’t be avoided, but that if that woman had really had her heart set on seeing Raphael she could have told him at the beginning of the tour and he would have been happy to take us to those rooms. He said that he’s been doing this for years and Americans are always the most appreciative, which I was actually surprised to hear and I told him as much. He insisted that it was true, so I suppose American tourists have a better reputation than America itself.

After that I went into St. Peter’s Basilica and was once again blown away by the magnificence of it all. The place was gargantuan and there was nothing but pure aesthetic bliss every which way you turned. To attempt to describe it in words would be hopeless, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Gives you an idea of the scale of this place.  Awesome marble sculpture.

Beautiful professional photo of the interior. My photo - not quite as good. Best shot I got from inside.

Ever since I first saw the Cathedral in Cologne I’d considered that to be the most beautiful cathedral in the world, but this one rivals if it doesn’t completely take the cake.

While I was there, Jesse and Jera—the Canadians I’d met in line earlier—came up to me and said, “Do you feel like you just got massively ripped off?” Apparently they thought the tour was too short, they’d expected to see more, and were also looking forward to the Raphael rooms. Without directly saying, “No, I don’t feel ripped off at all,” I expressed some ambivalence but tried to defend Enzo a little by repeating that there’s no way you could possibly see everything and if that woman had wanted to see the Raphael rooms she could have told him at the beginning of the tour. [On Sunday at the Palatine, David had told us that if you spent one minute in front each work of art in the Vatican, it would take you 13 years to get through all of them.] They said the Raphael rooms were in the brochure, which is a good point, but Enzo had told us that we would be skipping some things so if it had been me I would have gone up and confirmed ahead of time whether or not we would actually be seeing them.

We parted ways and I didn’t see them again, and while they were definitely nice people I just couldn’t share their attitude. The tour had cost €45, which is a pretty steep price compared to most tours but I felt like I’d just had the experience of a lifetime, especially after all that Enigmality at the Sistine Chapel. €45 is about what I make for a single hour-and-a-half English lesson, and those are definitely not experiences of a lifetime. To trade one English lesson—one week’s worth of groceries—for that experience was a price I would gladly pay.

Outside again. Vatican City, Population: me.

Once I’d soaked up enough of the atmosphere at St. Peter’s I exited the Vatican to get one final shot of myself in front of it—which involved speaking German to a family of German tourists—and then headed off to find a place to sit and finally relax my legs for a moment. It had already been a day full of more valuable experiences than I have in a typical month, and it was only half over.