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Tamago thought there'd be more ninjas in Japan. Then again, maybe they're everywhere, and they're just very good at hiding...

When deer attack: Nara edition

Nara is Kyoto’s slightly less flashy cousin. Nara was the capital of Japan during the (aptly named) Nara period, from A.D. 710 — 780. It’s got some fantasically old and impressive temples, and less tourists milling around than at Kyoto (though that just means merely “heaps” rather than “hordes”).

Nara also has lots of deer. The deer are used to humans, and have learned that humans tend to carry around a lot of food, or at least things that can be eaten. Like delicious cash, or hotel booking confirmations:

"Nom nom nom. May I have your train tickets for dessert?"

Deer can be very cute and innocent-looking. That’s part of what makes them so dangerous:

The real problem comes when you run out of things to feed them. At that point, the deer become very, very grumpy.

The following photo is taken a second before a small child tragically lost her hand in an unprovoked deer attack. Note the evil glint in the perpetrator’s eye:

You start off feeding one deer, and then suddenly it’s a party. And when you run out of food — no joke — they just start biting you. They can also move quite quickly, and they will follow you for a long time unless distracted by an even more tasty looking tourist (Americans proved to be good diversions).

Which is all just a round about way of explaining why Moon Tan looks happy but also slightly concerned in this photo:

Nara: fun but dangerous.

Postscript: having now also met the deer at Miyajima, near Hiroshima, I can tell you that the Miyajima deer are much better behaved. They don’t seem to have acquired a taste for human flesh. The difference seems to be that it’s forbidden to feed the Miyajima deer, so they don’t necessarily expect humans to come bearing snacks. Happily, though, they’re still willing to be patted and photographed. Win!

Osaka

As Moon Tan’s last hurrah before heading back to Oz, we took a trip to Osaka and Nara. Osaka has a different feel to Tokyo. The people really do seem friendlier, and there’s a nice buzz about the place without the slightly stressed vibe of Tokyo.

This is Moon Tan out the front of the Osaka Aquarium. It lives up to the hype: it’s massive, and interesting, and there’s penguins, both real and electric.

Moon Tan loves penguins.

I love these guys. And as an added educational bonus, we learned how to tell the difference between boy stingrays and girl stingrays! (It’s not as straightforward as you’d think.)

For the life of me I cannot remember what kind of animal these guys are. I think they might come from Indonesia? Perhaps Moon Tan can enlighten us in the comments.

Did I mention that there were penguins? Luckily they were behind glass, so Moon Tan couldn’t steal one.

Okay, I have to stop myself from posting a million photos of fish. But suffice to say there’s a lot to see, and the cool thing about it is that the tanks are quite deep, and are arranged so that the path spirals down around them, so you get different perspectives on the same group of animals as you descend.

We did other stuff in Osaka (sampled some okinomiyaki and some excellent kobe beef, walked the old quarter at night), but the aquarium was probably the highlight.

Osaka: it’s okay!

Autumn in Ueda

In November last year we took a quick trip north to Ueda, Nagano, and I’m just now getting around to uploading the photos…

We were very lucky to have a local guide with us: my Japanese teacher, who lives in Ueda. She set us up in a great Ryokan for the evening, and then took us to see the local sights, including a beautiful shrine up in the hills that was off the beaten path and that few tourists would ever see…

Hokkaido Part 4 – Mountain Climbing!

In the mountains autumn was just starting to arrive, with patches of yellow and red dotted up and down the hills. We had made the brave and possibly foolish decision to attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Furano, standing 1912 metres above sea level. We couldn’t have picked a better day.

(The above is not Mt. Furano. Just one of the many ridges you have to ascend to get closer to the peak…)

In retrospect, the scene above provides several clues that we didn’t really know what we were getting into. As you can see, the path was quite rocky, and we didn’t have hiking boots. Secondly, in the background you can see a dude with all the gear — backpack, walking stocks, special blue hiking tights or whatever they are — we had none of that. Finally, that guy was already coming down the mountain. We were just starting. Would we be able to reach the summit and come back down before nightfall?

As we continued to ascend, the path got steeper and rockier. Every time we crested a rise we found another impossibly tall section towering above us. After several hours of hiking Moon Tan was struggling, but to her credit she grit her teeth and pushed on towards the summit.

The trail got more precarious the higher we climbed. I’m glad the wind wasn’t any stronger.

To the east, the Asahikawa National Park stretched as far as the eye can see. It’s the largest nature reserve in Japan, and hikers are required to wear bells to ward off bears (or announce to the bears that lunch has arrived. One or the other…)

Finally, we reached the summit! The view was absolutely spectacular.

Once we got back down to the base of the mountain the sun was setting. There was a fantastic outdoor hotspring overlooking the mountain, and Moon Tan and I soaked our tired muscles and looked at the autumn colours (in our respective gender-segregated areas, of course!). Then I had a beer. It was great.

Mountain climbing in Hokkaido: 10 out of 10.

Hokkaido Part 3

Furano is a farming area smack-bang in the middle of Hokkaido. It’s also one of the most picturesque places in the world. It’s hard to take a bad photo here (although after I mucked around with the white balance settings on my camera, somehow I managed). These are a few that turned out okay.

Moon Tan and I have been bad bloggers recently. Further updates soon, including the final Hokkaido installment; autumn leaves in Nagano; under the sea at Osaka; and getting eaten by deer at Nara…

 

Hokkaido Part 2

On the road. From Lake Toya, we headed up to Niseko (a ski resort which is apparently invaded by Aussies every winter), then to Ootaru for some architecture, fresh fish, hand-made glass and excellent German beer. This was my favourite photo of the journey:

I’ve never seen someone so dour riding a quad bike. I like to think that he was busted for drink driving and lost his licence, so now he has to commute to work on the bike.

2 more photos:

More to come…

Hokkaido Part 1

Hokkaido is my new favourite place. It’s like the Tasmania of Japan. All delicious food and stunning countryside. Made me almost sad to come back to our urban cave in Tokyo (almost — but then I remembered Tokyo is where computer games live).

The photos below are from our first day, which we spent driving down to Lake Toya.

If you like really long tunnels, then you will love Hokkaido. Also if you like crabs:

Moon Tan spies a delicious-looking goat in yonder field. Lunch!

Luckily for the goat, Moon Tan then spied an even more delicious-looking ice cream.

The goat is safe… for today.

This shetland pony was seriously grumpy. Maybe it was hungover from drinking with Wild Horse? He didn’t say it, but I could tell that he really wanted to bite my hand.

Lake Toya is actually a gigantic caldera, and there’s still a lot of active volcanoes in the area.

We stayed in a backpackers hostel right on the bank of the lake (near the house with the red roof in the photo above). The hostel was clean and quiet, and the only slight complaint was that we both had the unshakeable feeling that we were going to be murdered in our sleep by the owner. In the event, of course, we weren’t. Still, even the inspiring the feeling that guests will be murdered in their sleep is something that an accommodation provider should try to avoid, in my view. I give the hostel a rating of 7/10.

Lake Toya is a nice place.

Tokyo Game Show

[Warning: nerd content ahead. If you are not a nerd, check out this video of a sloth orphanage instead. So cute!!]

What can I say about the Tokyo Game Show that will fully communicate its total awesomeness? It would be like if anthropomorphised versions of Final Fantasy VI and Civilization II had a baby, and that baby was a Japanese video game trade show.

Moon Tan bravely volunteered to accompany me on a very wet Tokyo day. The convention centre was across town, and we had to wait outside in the rain for like an hour before we could buy tickets. But it was totally worth it! (Moon Tan’s opinion may vary…)

Pictures!

There were a phenomenal amount of people (okay, mostly dudes). Apprarently about 250,000 people visited this year over the two days. That made it pretty hard to get to actually play any of the games, particularly if they were highly anticipated by the locals. Still, there was a lot to see, and a lot of freebies to collect.

Two of the most popular games at the Capcom booth were:

Street Fighter x Tekken. (I mean, it was inevitable, right?) And…

…Ace Attorney 5, the fifth instalment in the definitive Japanese fantasy courtroom simulator. As my mate ReserveList pointed out to me, it’s now being made into a ridiculous movie (hilarious trailer here — incidentally, this is exactly what it’s like to be a Tokyo lawyer).

Personally, I was most excited about the Squaresoft booth. I know, I know, they’re Squenix now, but I’ll always know them as Squaresoft. In any case, they had a giant inflatable chocobo towering over their booth!

They had some info on some new games coming out which look veeeerry interesting, but I was actually most excited about the remake of Final Fantasy III (which some call “the forgotten Final Fantasy”, but most just call “FF3J”) which seems to feature completely redone graphics and music:

Best of all, it’s on the Vita right now. Now all I need to do is learn some Japanese… (actually, I’m playing FF Tactics in Japanese at the moment, and let me tell you, that game is already hard enough without not being able to understand what you’re doing).

Aside from all the awesome games, the cosplay (that’s dress-ups, for all you non-geeks — hey, shouldn’t you be watching that sloth video?) was mind-blowing. The Japanese fans really go that extra mile to get the costumes just right.

FFX is still (unaccountably) really popular over here. Above is Lulu, Yuna and Rikku.

…and here’s Tidus photographing a rather camp Wakka.

…Zack and Aeris from FFVII: Crisis Core.

Hmm… I don’t think that’s canonical….

All in all, I had a great day. It’s always good to be amongst your people. Tokyo Game Show: highly recommended.

Lost at Fuji

In Tokyo, it had been raining all night. Foolishly, I’d decided to hold a Wayne’s World 1 and 2 marathon into the early hours of the morning (“party on, Garth!”), so I was not a happy camper when my alarm went off at 6:20. I had a bus to catch, though, so there could be no snoozing.

The bus was headed for Yamanakako, a lake at the base of Mt Fuji. One of my mates from work has a cabin up there, and he was hanging out with his kids and had invited me up for the day. Booking the bus was a serious test of my Japanese reading skills. There was no English help available on the bus company web site, and all of the bus routes and booking forms were rendered in kanji (Chinese characters). I was 85% sure that I’d booked a ticket on the correct bus, and that’s about as good as it gets for travel arrangements concluded in Japanese. Apparently it was the last weekend before the end of school holidays, and it seemed everyone in Tokyo was keen to get out of the city. I got one of the last available tickets departing from Tokyo on Sunday (Saturday was completely booked out), but couldn’t get a return ticket back to Tokyo at the end of the day. No problem, my friend assured me — we could catch a train back into the city.

The day before, I’d spent a fair bit of time wondering what you’re meant to bring when you visit a friend’s house in Japan. I thought about a bottle of wine, but that’s not a universally enjoyed beverage over here. Some chocolate? What if the kids aren’t allowed to eat chocolate? Eventually I went shopping and settled on a rockmelon/honeydew-looking thing. Everybody loves melon in Japan. It’s luxury food. Sorted!

At the bus terminal, I wandered around for a while trying to find my bus. I still had plenty of time, so I wasn’t too worried, but I must have looked lost, because an elderly man came bounding up to me and, in pretty excellent English, asked where I was going. He snatched my ticket out of my hand, studied it for a second, and then marched off to a service counter, where he badgered a hapless employee until she told us which bay my bus was leaving from. This all makes my intervener sound rude; he wasn’t, he was just… enthusiastic, and I was grateful for the help, even if I probably could have managed by myself.

After guiding my to my bus, my new friend explained that he was a minister of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints, and would I like some material to read on the bus? I couldn’t refuse after he’d gone to so much trouble, and he wasn’t too pushy about it, unlike some evangelists living near our house. (The pushy ones camp out at the only exit to our local train station on a Saturday night, and want us to come to church with them the next morning. They only very reluctantly take no for an answer.)

Armed with literature and a can of coffee, the bus ride was pleasant enough, and once outside Tokyo the countryside was, as always, stunningly beautiful. It was raining and foggy, and the tops of the forested hills were obscured by clouds. In the valleys, small shrines were dotted amongst the rice paddies. I closed my window blind so that I could play my Playstation Vita.

I’d never been out this way before, so I kept (I thought) half an ear out for the stops as they were announced. I had to get off about 4 stops before the end of the line, at Yamanakako-something-something-iriguchi (I couldn’t read the kanji for the “something-something”, and therefore couldn’t pronounce it). The stops immediately before and after the one I wanted were named, respectively, “Something-Yamanakako-something” and “Something-yamanakako-mura- something”. At some point, I noticed that the road we were on skirted a lake. Then I heard that the next stop would be “Something-yamanakako-mura-something”. That’s funny, I thought to myself. I thought that was the stop after the one I wanted. I decided to stay on the bus for a while longer, to see if they’d announce my stop. Eventually, we reached the end of the line.

Lost! I rang my mate to explain that I was not where I was meant to be; and that my phone had a low battery; and did he have any idea what I should do? He told me to walk alongside the lake until I found a restaurant called “Mameson”, then turn down a road alongside a stream, and to call him again when I saw “the orange house”. “Oh,” he added, “But you’re probably about an hour and a half or so from where you need to be, and we were thinking about heading to the onsen [hot springs]. So maybe we’ll meet you halfway, or something.” My phone was complaining so I had to hang up, but the directions I’d been given weren’t all that encouraging. Walk along the lake — in which direction? Would the signs for Mameson restaurant be in a language I could read? In Japan, getting lost is generally no problem as long as you know where the nearest train station is. A train station is civilization and, during the day at least, a sure-fire way of getting back home, no matter where you are. For the first time in a long time, I had absolutely no idea where the nearest train station was. Busses were booked solid, so they were no help. It was a long walk back to the city, so I really needed to track down my friend.

With trepidation, I decided to walk along the lake back in the direction the bus had come from. It drizzling and there was hardly anyone around. From my backpack, my melon was emitting a faint, sickly-sweet odour, reminding me of the passing of time and my own mortality.

On the shore of the lake, families with campervans were having barbeques in spite of the rain, girls in bikinis were giggling, and absolutely no one was hiring the 100 or so swan-shaped paddle boats parked by the jetty. There was a wall of cloud behind the lake where Fuji was supposed to be.

After half an hour of trudging I finally spotted Mameson restaurant, which had a sign in English characters! After that, it wasn’t too hard to track down the orange house (which was more of an apricot colour in my opinion) and meet my friend and his kids. We had a lovely day at yamanakako visiting the hot springs and buying gormet sausages and real bacon (which is hard to get in Japan), before catching the train home in the evening. All in all, a great day.

P.S: On the way to Yamanakako, I passed the Fuji Q amusement park, and now it is my mission to go there. There are 4 giant roller coasters, plus an Evangelion attraction, plus what is apparently one of the biggest haunted houses in the world! The picture below was taken from the train station our way home. I’ll be back, Fuji Q…

Koenji Street Festival

Hello everyone! So August has been RIDICULOUSLY hot and humid here in Tokyo. I’d like to give big props to mates of mine who came to visit early this month and managed to survive. However, I have to say that despite the heat, August is a fabulous month to be in Japan becuase of the Matsuri.

Festivals, or Matsuri, as they’re called in Japan, are just everywhere this month. Every tiny little temple seems to have an event. It’s the month of Obon, a Buddhist holiday in which it is said that dead ancestors come to visit their living relatives for a couple of days. Nice of them isn’t it? A slightly spooky holiday you might think, but the Japanese celebrate with big fireworks and dance festivals all over the country.

Last Saturday night Tamago and I went to the Koenji Awa Odori Dance festival. Koenji is only a few stops away from us on the Chuo local line. We really had no excuse not to go!

We got there about 7pm and it was super duper humid and really really crowded as expected. This is one of the three big summer festivals in Japan. The first thing we saw from the train platform was this:

People were dancing down the street to the sound of massive taiko drums as well as flutes and a kind of traditional string instrument (if anyone knows what that is feel free to tell me). [pretty sure it was a shamisen — Tamago]

We grabbed a couple of beers and fought our way through the crowds to wedge our towering gaijin selves in a prime viewing position.

The parade was organised into groups of performers from different parts of Tokyo. The dancers in the group go first. There are two different types of dance: a dance for men and a dance for women. It seemed that usually, the women who are dancing the womens’ Awa go first, followed by men and women dancing the mens’ Awa. There are also a lot of kids mixed in which is really cute! The dancers are followed by a walking band that plays their music, although to be honest most of the music is really similar.

The music itself has a foot-stomping rhythm that starts out slow and then gradually builds to a massively energetic crescendo where the dancers twirl their fans and lanterns ferociously in increasingly complicated steps and formations. I’m informed by reliable sources (*cough* Wikipedia *cough*) that the daytime performances are more sedate, but the nightime ones are more wild and are called Zomeki.

Above you can see a woman dressed in the traditional women’s Awa Odori costume. Beautiful right? The women dance in a very elegant manner, holding their arms above their heads the whole time. They also dance wearing the traditional Japanese shoes (geta) but on tip toes!

The men and women dancing the mens’ Awa dance wear short yukata (cotton robes) and dance crouched down with their knees sort of akimbo. They movement is much more free and the dancing is a bit more creative with different props and formations used.

It was so much fun to be a part of this atmosphere. Everyone was smiling and laughing and having a great time. Alcohol is freely available in Japan from every convenience store so people were drinking, but in true Japanese fashion only enough to be jolly.

The most delightful part of the night for Tamago and I were the expressions on the faces of the dancers. We spend a lot of time in our respective jobs hanging out with grumpy businessmen, and sometimes it can be hard to imagine my students or Tamago’s business colleagues having a genuine giggle at anything. Traditionally, Japanese culture doesn’t encourage the wearing of one’s heart on one’s sleeve. The performers in this festival were dripping with sweat, had been dancing with their arms over their heads for far too long and were wearing what I’m sure were not entirely comfortable costumes. But their faces were completely lit up. Pure joy was radiating from everyone and it was so much fun to see.

August Matsuris in Japan: highly recommended. However, I would recommend that you take a fan and a bottle of water. Also getting there early is a good idea. 7pm was getting pretty late to get a good viewing spot. Finally, the closest train station can get crowded so if it’s possible and you have comfy walking shoes it’s best to just grab a drink and hoof it to the next station on the line – much less stressful!

— Moon Tan

[For some reason, Moon Tan deleted the other photos from this post. I’m going to repost them because I went to all the trouble of photoshopping them. So there! –Tamago]