Saturday, 18 August 2012

Across the other pond!

Being the travel fiend that I am, I am happy to present you with my next entry in the series. This one is all about Japan, but as I was traveling the week before, I'll give you a quick prequel.

I was in San Antonio for work from Monday-Friday. Me and another VCA engineer (Chuck) were down there testing engine power for John Deere. Basically it consists of making sure the engine has all the proper sensors attached to it and then sitting outside the test cell for 8 hours straight while the operators bring it up to a certain speed, wait for the oil temperature to stabilize, make sure it's producing the power John Deere says it should and then move on to the next speed. They have to do that for like 15 different speeds per engine and we were testing 6 engines. It took a full 40 hours for two of us. Very tedious, very boring. At least Chuck is a cool guy. I always hear other people at our office complaining about him because his work is disorganized, but he's a 62 year old dude who loves South Park. We get along just fine. Anyway, on to the fun stuff...

I got home from San Antonio Friday evening. Happily, that was the same day that Kevin came into town, Kinsey got back from Greece and Crumble came to visit. That night we all hung out at Archwood along with Sam, Allie, Josh and Kelly. We watched some movies, drank and generally had good times. Saturday, Crumble, Kinsey, Kevin, Kelly and I went cabrewing (that would be drunken canoeing for those of you who've never lived). Later I had dinner with Grandma and Grandpa Haupt and Jason at Creekside. It was really nice to see them, especially without the usual hectitude (is that a word? it is now) that comes with a big Haupt family gathering. After dinner I came home where Kevin, Crumble and Kinsey were still hanging out. We watched some more movies while I did laundry. Eventually I started packing around 3 am for an 8:40 am flight. Cutting it close? maybe. A good way to keep yourself awake? Absolutely. Around sunrise Crumble came back over to pick me up and take me to the airport. I slept a bit on the flight to LA and had a good ham and cheese croissant during my layover at LAX. Finally, around 1 pm I giddily boarded my plane to Tokyo. During the flight I watched a bunch of movies: Red Tails, Iron Man 2, slept through Ghostbusters, and woke up to watch a few episodes of Parks and Rec and the Simpsons. After about 6 months of anticipation, I had finally arrived in Japan. I went through customs, met Mike, had a nice bro hug, exchanged all of my cash into Yen and then hopped on a train back to Ryugasaki. I dropped off my stuff, checked out the apt then we went to Hana No Mai, a local izakaya. An izakaya is a restaurant where you get a fairly private table and then have drinks and tapas style plates. The waiters only come when you press a button on the table. we had gyoza (pan-fried and steamed pork and veggie dumplings), kara age (fried chicken), cheese wrapped in bacon and fried, grilled pork belly, salad, miso soup and pickled daikon radish. Oh, and a few rounds of beers, this would become a theme for the trip. It was all quite good (and not very expensive).

Tuesday we walked to the local shrine which was on the other side of some rice paddies (Ryugasaki is a rural city outside of Tokyo). It was pretty, but since it's active, we couldn't go into the main building itself.

After we got back, completely sweat soaked, Mike's friend Tyler (another American teaching English over there) drove us all out for lunch, we had udon noodles with yummy fried stuff in the next town up from Mike's. We also checked out Don Quijote and Uniqlo. Donqui is I guess as close as Japan would get to a Walmart or target. They have everything from costumes to iPod docks to groceries. It was certainly interesting. Uniqlo is a clothing store similar to an old navy or maybe H&M. I got a pair of athletic shorts to sleep in since I forgot to bring some. We climbed this big mound and got a peek of the daibutsu (big Buddha) statue. More on that later. We had curry for dinner and it was delicious. That night I met a bunch of the other english teachers in Mike's town (they're all american except for one brit). It's definitely an interesting mix of characters, I can see why some of them would have left America, as they probably had some social issues there (coming here didn't exactly fix them) but as Mike says, they're patient with them because Americans are rare over here and you don't want to alienate yourself. Anyway, we went to a couple local bars, one was very small. As in, 2 tables, 4 seats each and another 4 seats at the bar. The guys here all know the bar staff and have a great time with them. They also have karaoke set up there so we had a great time doing that. The other bar was more what you'd expect, several tables, darts, Olympic soccer on tv. We had a couple drinks there and then headed back to Mike's apartment.

The big crosswalk in Shibuya
Part of Meiji Jingu. I love the color in this photo.
Timing it so there weren't people in the shot took awhile.
Wednesday Mike and I went into Tokyo for the day. We wandered around some shops near Shinjuku (the biggest train station in the world) then went to Harajuku and Shibuya. Shibuya is the equivalent of Times Square in Tokyo. It's where you see that huge crosswalk with thousands of people crossing at once. Harajuku was where we found a gyoza place for lunch that Tyler had recommended and it was really good. We also wandered through Meiji Jingu which is a large park and shrine in the middle of Tokyo. It was really serene, kind of like walking through the arb, it's easy to forget you're in the middle of the city until you see a huge building peeking through the trees. We were planning on meeting up with a former student of Mike's from when he taught summer camp there years ago and one of her friends. We were supposed to meet in Shibuya near a lion statue that roars if you put a coin in it's mouth but we were a bit early so we decided to go to a convenience store to get some drinks and as luck would have it, while we're looking at the drinks, Chinami and Asami are standing right next to us picking out some drinks for themselves. Even in Tokyo you can get that small world feeling. The 4 of us went out to another izakaya that offered unlimited drinks for 2 hours for 1000 yen (about 12 bucks) and then you add food to that. It was ridiculously cheep, but the drinks weren't especially strong so I was still fully with it by the time we left. We ate a bunch of pretty good bar food, including my favorite dish over here so far, takoyaki which is an unsweetened pancake batter with octopus, cabbage, ginger, tempura fried bits (imagine the stuff in the bottom of a deep fryer), and green onion fried into a ball with flakes of smoked, salty whitefish, a brown BBQ sauce and more green onion. Delicious! We had to catch the last train back to Ryugasaki around 10:45 so we parted ways with the girls and called it a night after that.
Shibuya: Me, Asami, Chinami and Mike

Me and the Daibutsu
Thursday we took it easy because we were wiped out from all the walking around Tokyo. Tyler drove us out for kaiten sushi (conveyor belt style). Basically there's a whole bunch of different plates with a piece or two of sushi on them and they parade around the restaurant on a conveyor belt. When you see one you like you just grab it. They're all 100 yen each so they just add up the plates at the end. You can also order specific things off a computer screen at the table and it comes out on a little train on a different track. It's really neat! After that we drove to the Daibutsu and just looked at it from the parking lot. There wasn't a whole lot of point in going any closer since you can see it quite clearly from miles away. After all, it is 2 and a half time taller than the statue of liberty. When you see it you expect that it'd be some several hundred year old marvel of engineering, but nope. It was built in '93, still cool though. After visting Buddha, we wandered around an outlet mall for a while. It was pretty much exactly the same as Birch Run except with awful coffee and it has a cool view of the Daibutsu. After that we stopped by a grocery store, picked up some food and Mike made a nice Japanese dinner (I helped!) it consisted of rice, a salad (cabbage with dressing), garlic pickles made from the garden behind the apt, some fried things (one crab-cheese, one pork with some other stuff) and yakisoba (fried noodles with pork and a bunch of seasonings). It was really good and actually pretty healthy. I've noticed that about Japanese food and it's making me want to cook like this all the time. We were still pretty wiped from Tokyo so we took the night off and went to bed early.

Friday we went to Yokohama with Mike's friend Jacob (another English teacher from the states). It's a really cool city near Tokyo and has a similar feel but a little younger and more casual. We checked out a couple arcades, had some lunch consisting of a delicious tonkatsu (fried pork chop), miso soup, cabbage salad and rice. Then we wandered around the mall there and eventually found this cool mini amusement park. It had a couple arcades, some carnival games and a few rides and roller coasters.  Mike and I went on the roller coaster that dives into a tunnel of water which was way cool. We stopped by a restaurant which felt ridiculously like a TGIFridays but it had beer and a view (and Obama was hanging out on a bench outside the door) so we were happy. After geting our America on, we wandered around the Tokyo bay a bit, saw some really nice views of the Yokohama skyline and then went to Chinatown. It felt super kitschy with lots of cheap little souvenir shops and street food. It was really interesting to see the difference between that and regular areas of Tokyo.

Me and the prez, no big deal.

Cool skyline
Another angle
After Chinatown we all grabbed a walking beer from a convenience store (yup, you can drink in public in Japan) and made our way to Ueno which is the area of Tokyo where the train for Ryugasaki leaves from. We stopped by an izakaya for a couple more rounds and some food and then made our way back to Ryugasaki with Jacob in tow. Tyler met us at the station and we went to Nyan Pis (the same tiny bar from Tuesday night, and yes, Nyan like Nyan cat. It means meow. For the readers not well versed in memes, this is nyan cat: and hung out with the bartenders there. I was the only one who didn't speak Japanese so I missed most of the conversation, but I had a good time anyway because Mike was translating enough for me to sort of follow what was going on.

Saturday was another lazy day. We were going to go to the beach but it rained all day, so Mike, Tyler and I went to an all you can eat chinese buffet which was delicious. That evening a couple other English teachers, Lloyd and Colin came to Ryugasaki and then we all went to Toride (a city just south of Ryugasaki) for their summer festival. There were a ton of people there with lots of street food and a really cool fireworks display that went on for at least an hour. We met up with Colin's Japanese girlfriend and a few of her friends. After the fireworks ended we all went to an all you can drink karaoke bar for an hour or so. We took full advantage of the all you can drink policy and left stumbling. Did I mention I love karaoke? I don't specifically remember where everyone slept that night, but in the morning, Mike, Lloyd, Colin and I all piled into Lloyd's car and drove a couple hours to Sano (near the city where Lloyd and Colin teach) for some famous Sano Ramen. We had to wait outside for an hour all sweating profusely. I suppose this is a good time to mention that the entire time I was there the temperature was in the mid 90's and the humidity probably never dropped below 85% and was usually higher. I don't think I went an hour without breaking a sweat while I was there. Anyway, the ramen was delicious, definitely better than the stuff you make in 3 minutes on the stove! After ramen we had planned on going to Niko which I guess is another park/shrine kind of place similar to Meiji Jingu but they closed at 5 and by the time we could have gotten there it would have been too late so instead we went to this really beautiful shrine on top of a mountain. Apparently this place was something like 1200 years old. Also of note, there were cats EVERYWHERE. I probably saw 40 different cats in the hour and a half or so we were walking around up there. The views of the countryside all the way to Tokyo were amazing. Looking one direction you could see rice paddies leading up to where Tokyo starts and finally the Tokyo skyline on the horizon. Looking the other way you could see rows and rows of mountains fading into the distance. It was really stunning. Here, enjoy some pictures (but note that they really don't do it justice)

Goofy cat
Scenic view #1
Scenic view #2
Scenic view #3, Tokyo on the horizon
Colin, Mike, Me and Lloyd. Awwww
After checking out that shrine we headed back to Lloyd and Colin's town (can't remember what it's called) and had some okonomiyaki for dinner. Okonomiyaki is basically all of the same ingredients as takoyaki (the fried octopus/pancake balls) except actually made into a pancake and you grill it up yourself. I got what I thought was a chicken one but it turned out to be chicken "soft bone", that is the crunchy cartilagey bits around the joints. Not exactly my cup of tea, but the rest of it was delicious. We spent the rest of that night hanging out at Colin's apartment drinking and watching youtube videos. Another teacher, Gareth from England, came over and chatted for a bit. He was a very interesting character, I had a nice conversation with him about the magazine he used to publish and trains (that's what the magazine was about and what he totally geeks out about)

The next morning Lloyd drove us all back to Ryugasaki and we had lunch with a local woman who absolutely loves foreigners. She's probably in her 70's and is very eccentric. She prepared a huge traditional summer feast for us which we all felt bad about because we were all feeling a bit under the weather (read: hung over) but we struggled through it. After lunch she made us all get up and start dancing and then asked us to play her koto ( so we all took a turn. Though Lloyd was a music major, in this case I have to toot my own horn (pun definitely intended) and say that I took to it the most naturally (proof here: It helps that I already knew the song she had us all playing and that I've been practicing guitar lately. I'm not sure if it was a prize for being good at the koto or because I was visiting and going home soon, but she sent me home with a TON of gifts/souvenirs. I got a table runner and fan pendant to give my mom, a bright orange shawl to give to the girl I've been dating recently, a nice water color painting, some traditional wooden sandals, a decorative fan, one of those collapsable painted paper lanterns that you (probably shouldn't) put a candle in and a can of green tea powder (just add water!). I honestly felt guilty taking all of that stuff but I guess it's pretty common in Japanese culture to keep a bunch of stuff like that on hand to give to guests so I would have felt even worse had I refused it. Plus it made souvenir shopping easier, thanks Niwa san! After we left her place, Lloyd and Colin headed back to their city and that night Mike and I went back to Donqui's so I could do some more souvenir shopping. I ended up getting a bunch of random foods (green tea kit-kats, fizzy hard candies, hi-chews (like starbursts), insect jelly (turns out its actually for insects), dried shredded squid, dried fish fins, seaweed with sesame seeds, curry and instant miso soup) and liquor (a couple bottles of sake, shochu and some sake cups (cute little jars with pandas on them full of sake). We also went to the curry place in town and it was SO GOOD. It's run by a Nepalese guy, so apparently Nepalese curry is the way to go. The nan was perfect and the butter chicken curry… well I can't put to words how good it was so you'll just have to take my word for it. I'd have to say it was my favorite food out of everything I ate in Japan.

Souvenir food!
The next day, Tuesday, my last full day in Japan, Mike and I went back into Tokyo to meet up with Tyler who was already there hanging out with a friend who was in town before his flight home. We met up at Ueno, got some ramen for lunch which was also delicious. It had better broth and pork than the place in Sano but the noodles weren't quite as light and tasty. I'd say Sano wins by a hair. Eventually Tyler's buddy left to catch his flight and the 3 of us headed to Akihabara to check out video games, electronics and porn shops. I gotta say, the Japanese are into some weird stuff. There were 8 story porn stores and they just get freakier and freakier as you go up. Apparently we didn't even get into the really bad ones but I saw plenty. On a different note, I was able to pick up a most excellent souvenir for myself (no pervert, not from the porn store), I present you with the Supaboy. It's basically a super nintendo with a built in screen. You can use it like a gameboy or plug it into a tv and separate controller. My (brother's) super nintendo has been acting up the last few times I've used it so it's nice to have one that works consistently (and with both controller ports).

Best souvenir evar!
After Akihabara we went to Asakusa which is this big touristy shrine/street vendor area. We did some window shopping, taking more time in front of the stores that were air conditioned and felt a good 10 degrees cooler on their sections of the sidewalk (good marketing!). From there we decided to head to the Tokyo Skytree which is the 2nd tallest structure in the world. The only thing taller is the Burj Dubai. I guess it's basically a giant radio tower with some observation decks but it looks pretty cool. We didn't actually go all the way to it since it was too cloudy/hazy to be worth going up anyway but we got close-ish and it is damn impressive. The kind of impressive that makes you wonder who's compensating for what… I'll let you finish that line of thought at your own discretion.

The Tokyo Skytree
Cool reflection
Later we met up with Mike's former host mom when he studied abroad in Japan, Asaka and a couple of her friends. We went to a yakiniku restaurant for dinner which was either my 2nd or 3rd favorite thing we ate while I was there, after the curry and maybe the takoyaki. Yakiniku is essentially DIY grilled meats. You order the animal, cut and quality and they bring it out in bite size strips which you grill yourself on the grill set into the table. We had some Wagyu beef, pork, some other beef and an assorted veggie plate. I ate way too much, but it was delicious. After that we went to a convenience store to pick up a couple bottles of shochu which is like a distilled sake that's more alcoholic to take to a karaoke place. We got unlimited soft drinks and mixed in the shochu (college student style!) and sang like crazy people. It was a great time for everyone involved (except maybe one of the girls who had too much to drink). After our time was up at the karaoke place we all went back to Ryugasaki. The aforementioned girl who had too much literally passed out standing up while we waited for the other two girls to pick up some more drinks and munchies from the convenience store by the train station. Tyler and I ended up having to carry her back to the apartment. It was a good, albeit unexpected workout. Eventually we got her into his bed where she slept for a couple hours and then woke up feeling great apparently. The rest of us were all just chatting and drinking a bit more. Eventually I got tired so Mike and I headed back to his place and passed out. I guess the rest of them stayed up all night until the first train around 5 am which the girls all had to catch back to Tokyo.

A pretty useless superpower, but impressive nonetheless
The next morning I woke up, finished packing, got cleaned up and then Tyler drove us to the airport where we all shared a tearful goodbye and I checked in and headed to my gate. Apparently since I had the San Francisco to LA leg of my trip upgraded to first class I also got to use the sky priority security line in Tokyo which was awesome. They had it walled off so the lowly commoner passengers (I kid!) couldn't see how ridiculously short that line was (there wasn't one). It was excellent. I got to the gate with plenty of time, wrote a bit of this blog post and played Mario Kart until it was time to board. I dozed a bit on and off the whole way back and was forced to watch crappy movies since there weren't individual screens. I think they showed This Means War, the one where Tom Hardy and Chris Pine play spies dating the same girl, then they showed the one about the whales trapped in ice in Alaska. I only watched half of that one. Then they showed some Sarah Jessica Parker flick that looked absolutely awful because she is absolutely awful so I decided to take that opportunity to stare out the window. Turned out to be one of the coolest things I saw during the entire trip. 33,000 feet above the Aleutian islands off the coast of Alaska, above the clouds I could see more stars than I've ever seen, including the most vivid view of the Milky Way. It looked like a cloud but I knew it couldn't be since we were above all of the clouds. The best part though, was the fact that the Perseids meteor shower was still going on. I never could have imagined how awe inspiring watching a meteor shower from what felt like the edge of space could be. All I could think was how badly I wanted to see the stars from even closer at some point in my life. I decided to start working on a bucket list and wrote down some words to live by. The one that occurred to me first and felt the most natural was this: "I want my sphere of daily thoughts and concerns to extend beyond myself and people and things I know" Seeing the universe "close" up has this unique way of making you realize how personally insignificant you are and it's a very humbling and, for me at least, comforting. Some people hate that their life won't make a big difference in the flow of events on a universal scale. I love knowing that no matter how bad I screw up in my daily life, the stars will continue to live and die. I love that level of perspective.

So in some sense, and this may be the only time these words have legitimately been put together, thanks for the inspiration Sarah Jessica Parker.

Also, thank you to Michael Rudowski for being a fantastic host and tour guide for the 10 days I was there. The trip was everything I hoped it would be and more!