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!

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 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…

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…

What I’m playing

(Note: the following post is really only of interest to massive nerds. You know who you are. For the rest of you, click here to be redirected to this video of a baby elephant. So cute!!)

Moon Tan is away on English camp. (She is teaching, not learning, in case you were wondering. Although sometimes her apostrophe usage leaves a little bit to be desired, Japan does not round up people what make the occasional grammar mistake and send them to “re-education” camps. That sort of thing only happens in Bodgeria).

At any rate, I have been left to my own devices for a couple of days. My first act of business was to download Wayne’s World 1 and 2. Schawwing! But, of course, there has also been time for some gaming.

Having finished Fallout 3: New Vegas about a month ago, I was left with nothing on my gaming agenda.

What to do? Luckily, an awesome Humble Bundle was available, with enough gaming goodies to ruin my Japanese studies for months to come. And a steal at… whatever price you want to pay for it.

Pick of the Humble litter was Super Meat Boy. Insanely difficult 2D platformers seem to be making a comeback (I’m thinking of the recent Donkey Kong and New Super Mario), but this is something else entirely. You have infinite lives, and the levels will usually only take 10-15 seconds to complete… if you can survive that long. Poor old Super Meat Boy lives in an incredibly dangerous universe. That 10-15 second level might take hundreds of attempts, and in excess of an hour, to complete. When you do, you get an incredibly satisfying replay mode where “ghosts” from every single attempt run accross the screen simultaneously until they perish, in an orgy of carnage. All in all, I haven’t had so much fun with an indie platformer since Elastomania.

When frustration with Meat Boy gets too much, I’m working my way through Deus Ex Human Revolution, which is (or was) ridiculously cheap on Steam. It’s almost as good as the original, and let’s not forget that the original was PC Power Play’s Best Game of All Time.* Highly recommended, if you can get it to run (I had to mess around with video card drivers).

I’m also still working my way through Gravity Daze/Rush on the PSP Vita, in Japanese. It’s a good diversion for the train, but I wouldn’t rush out to buy a Vita just to play it. I’m much more excited about the prospect of replaying Final Fantasy Tactics on the Vita. That game, while awesome, is heavily text based, so might be a stretch for my Japanese.

Oh, and in between other games, I also find the time to be the undisputed Peggle master of the universe. Someone’s got to do it.

I do miss Moon Tan, though. She gets back tomorrow, and it’ll be nice to have another human around the place.

* It’s not really the best game of all time, of course. It might make the top 5, but Final Fantasy 6 and 7, Civ II… am I missing anything else?

 

 

Certain Death

That’s what I’m facing on the weekend. One of my colleagues invited me for a “social” bike ride, and stupidly, I agreed. It was only later that I found out that this would be a torturous, 2 day, 200km ordeal with numerous “exhilarating” mountain climbs.

To alleviate his sins, this alleged “mate” from work has, actually very kindly, kitted me out with a very expensive racing bike (which I’m terrified of destroying) and all the necessary gear. And yes, unfortunately for me and the rest of the world, that includes lycra. The pedals of the bike are the kind that your shoes clip into, for the sole apparent purpose of ensuring that if you overbalance, you can’t put one foot out to steady yourself — instead you simply topple over whichever cliff you happen to be riding along the edge of as you enjoy the “exhilaration” of riding a bike up an enourmous mountain.

This may be my last transmission. If I don’t make it back, I leave my PS Vita to my mate Jono, who I am sure will make good use of it.

The many faces of Tokyo public transport: a people spotter’s guide

1. The Go Go Grandma

These savage senior citizens will stop at nothing to get a seat on the train. They are not above pushing you onto the tracks if you look like you’re eyeballing one. Their preferred weapon of choice is a gigantic shopping bag filled with what I can only assume are the skulls of gaijin who have wronged them in the past. They will hip and shoulder you like a Port Adelaide full back and the worst part is that their hip and shoulder is in line with the average foreigner’s stomach and knees. Very painful. Plus you never see them coming. However, once they’re on the train and merrily ensconsed in a corner seat (prime position) they are relatively harmless and are content to mutter and shoot dirty looks at everyone. In the interest of fairness I should say that the Go Go Grandpa does exist, but he is rarer. Also he doesn’t seem to glare at the schoolgirls so much…

2. Snoozy, Sleepy, Slobbery

A lot of people who work in Tokyo don’t necessarily live in Tokyo so they have a long commute. Plus the Japanese are famous for working ridiculously long hours. Naturally, people sleep on the train. There are three subspecies of this category: Snoozy, Sleepy and Slobbery. The most harmless is Snoozy. They doze with their eyes closed, partially conscious and perfectly respectable. Not worth taking a funny photo of. No dramas here. Sleepy is the next evolution. This breed often falls asleep mid text or even standing up holding onto the handholds on the train and sways back and forth like they’re on a boat. They nod forward deeply or loll backwards hugely. May be snoring quietly. Will still somehow wake up and get off at the right stop. Lastly there’s Slobbery. This person often also fits into the Drunky McDrunk category but sometimes they’re just very tired. This subspecies breaks all the rules of sleep etiquette on the train. They lean on random people and maybe even dribble on you a little bit. They miss their train stops and wake suddenly wide eyed and panicky (this is fantastically fun to watch). They often craft a small pillow and blanket out of their bag and scarf. Kind of cute but you don’t want to be caught sitting next to one unless you like a damp shoulder.

3. Drunky McDrunk

Ah Drunky McDrunk – a staple character on public transport systems the world over. However the Japanese version is a little different to your garden variety Australian or American yobbo. The Japanese Drunky McDrunk often looks totally normal. Usually they are well dressed in business attire and they are all very well behaved and very jolly. The biggest giveaway is the thick fog of whiskey breath, that being the drink of choice for most Japanese hitting the bottle hard. The DMcDs often travel in packs because Japanese businessmen and women tend to go out drinking with their bosses and cowokers a lot – so when one of the group gets off the train there’s frenzied bowing, waving and giggling. Once they’re on the train, there’s only so much mischief Drunky McDrunk can get into. They are actually more of a risk on the platform. Combine drunken weaving and simultaneously attempting to text in Tokyo peak hour and you’ve got the equivalent of a dizzy three year old with a bouncy ball playing real life Frogger – in the busiest transportation system in the world. Also, as I mentioned, they tend to merge into an SSS. It’s not totally bizarre to see a full grown man in an expensive business suit curled up across several seats on the late night or early morning weekend trains. I can’t say I blame them; in the cold Tokyo winter, the heated seats are practically narcotic.

4. Baggage Barbie

Baggage Barbie is most commonly female (sorry for the stereotype folks but if you’ve made it this far through the post you’ve probably given up hope for a glimmer of PCness). Their main characteristic is the huge amount of stuff they are lugging. Shopping bags, suitcases, enormous handbags, small animals and sometimes skis. This is due to several factors: Tokyoites rarely use cars, they love to shop and there is a social convention of bringing back enormous amounts of souvenirs from every trip (omiyage). The BB takes up way more than her fair share of space on the crowded trains and escalators and incurs the wrath of those who are just trying to get to and from work. Partly because they get in the way, and partly because the BB has just come back from or is going on holiday and the rest of us plebs aren’t. The BBs tend to wander aimlessly in large groups with their baggage through the station – mouths agape, looking for the right train. They are also frequently ridiculously dressed up which slows them down. I’ve seen some hauling huge handbags, a wheely suitcase and shopping bags full of souvenirs. All in filmy stockings, a tiny skirt and Lady Gaga heels and sunglasses. It’s really too impressive to be annoying sometimes.

5. Schoolgirls

Tamago assures me this category deserves it’s own number. All I can say is that no matter how cold it is, skirts are still alarmingly high. And even if you don’t swing that way, it’s very difficult not to stare. Truly, Japanese women were blessed with thighs that Westerners can only dream of. Despite a considerable amount of “innocent” leering on Tamago’s part, bag placement and skillful knee position have ensured that neither Tamago nor I have seen anything above the tiny hemlines. Amazing.

6. Gaijin!

Foreigners, to me, seem to fall into two main categories: they’re either doing their best deer in the headlights look or they have lived in Tokyo for a sufficient amount of time to look composed and smug on public transport. The Deer Gaijin often look totally lost and frequently flock to the enormous subway maps to fruitlessly study the candy-striped hell that is the Tokyo Metro. If the Nonchalant Gaijin is feeling charitable they might mosey on over in their Tokyo power suit and stop to lend a hand. However a part of them kind of enjoys watching the Deer struggle and secretly hopes they might give up and go home, because the more Nonchalant Gaijin there are in Japan, the less special they feel.

7. Maybe She’s Born With It: The Maybelline Girl

This species is a close relative of the women who put their lipstick on sitting in their car at traffic lights. The Tokyo Metro Maybelline Girl is able to stand in peak hour Tokyo traffic in precarious high heels, hold a hand mirror in one hand and apply flawless liquid eyeliner with the other. All without stabbing herself in the eye or falling over. For those of you who haven’t attempted it, applying liquid eyeliner with two feet on solid ground is no mean feat on it’s own! The natural enemy of the Go Go Grandma, the Maybelline Girl’s main strength is her ability to ignore everyone else on the train staring or, in the case of the GGG, glaring at her. She is usually stunning and exquisitely dressed. Tragically, in my opinion, the whole effect is ruined a little because the MG doesn’t usually need makeup, plus it shatters the illusion of effortless beauty to see the behind the scenes primping taking place on the crowded 9am Yamanote line. Also, I live in constant fear of being a witness to a tragic eye stabbing accident.

8. Siberian Cranes

The Siberian Crane is one of the rarest birds in Japan. It’s critically threatened according to my speedy and super reliable Google research. Siberian Crane individuals are the rare characters that are only occasionally spotted in the wilds of the Tokyo public transport system. Siberian Crane species one: Harajuku Girls. The ones that made Lolita a fashion style all on it’s own (see here for examples). It’s not especially strange to see one, particularly around Harajuku on a weekend, but they are rare enough to warrant a double take. Triple points for seeing a pair of Lolitas, one Gothic and one Sweet. Another Siberian Crane is the Woman in a Full Kimono. Again, they are a little more common on the weekend, but to foreigners in particular, it’s super exciting to see one! Often you can hear them coming in the train station before you see them as their shoes and famous two pronged socks require them to shuffle a little. Lastly, the Hardcore Punk Crane. Apparently in Japan, punk is not entirely dead. You can see sickly-looking skinny men dressed in head to toe black leather, with pink hair, chains and enormous combat boots strutting their stuff through Shinjuku Station from time to time. Yes there are punks back home but I have never seen a comparable level of commitment anywhere else.

If you’ve made it this far through the post I’m incredibly impressed. Please feel free to suggest any weird and wonderful types I’ve missed!

Parallel Universe

On Sunday night we went to a “Hub” pub — one of a chain of British-themed bars that are all the rage here in Tokyo.

Entering a Hub is like stepping into a parallel universe — one in which the Japanese have recently invaded Victorian-era England. The furniture and decor is a fairly faithful reproduction of a Victorian pub but, well, everybody is Japanese, and the menus are in Japanese. I kept expecting someone to burst through the door and shout (in perfect Japanese) “The Stephensons’ horseless carriage has made the journey to Liverpool in under three hours! Truly the power of steam shall change the face of England!!

Of course, in this parallel universe there are plenty of long island iced teas. For about $5 you can get one of these bad boys which, in the Japanese interpretation, are essentially tall glasses full of straight spirits and a little bit of lemonade. Great value, surprisingly great taste, but a terrible idea if you have Japanese class early the following day (as Moon Tan and I did).

To combat the inevitable hangover, I drank some “Ukon no Chikara” before I hit the Hub.

Ukon is like the Berocca of Japan, and is apparently made from tumeric extract. The theory is that it stimulates the liver, so that it can process alcohol more quickly. About 50% of the Japanese people I speak to think that it’s indispensible. The other 50% think that it’s a placebo. Naturally I was intrigued!

I can tell you that — like Berocca — Ukon doesn’t win any points for deliciousness. It’s similar to a 50:50 combination of tasty cough medicine and earwax (or so I imagine).

Several long island iced teas and a lousy night’s sleep later, I wasn’t feeling fantastic as we headed of to Japanese class. I can tell you that Ukon is no magic bullet. I felt sleepy and a little bit nauseous. On the other hand, I had no trace of a headache, so maybe the Ukon took the edge of what would otherwise have been a horrendous morning after?

In summary, the test was inconclusive, and will no doubt require repetition in the weeks and months to come.