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]

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?

 

 

Carded!

I just went to the supermarket, tried to buy some beer, and got carded for the first time since I arrived in Japan!

When buying booze at combinis (convenience stores) they never ask to see ID; instead, they ask you to press a button on a touch screen which says something to the effect of “I declare that I am over 20 years of age.” Only in Japan would an honor system be an effective means of preventing teenagers from buying alcohol.

Anyway, at my local supermarket, it seems that they don’t yet have touch screen technology, so the very nice elderly lady who was serving me asked to see my gaijin card. When she’d checked it out, she gave me a full-on apology for having asked in the first place: something along the lines of “there is no excuse for my behaviour and I am ashamed”. This isn’t quite as melodramatic as it sounds — it’s just an example of the uber-polite language retail workers have to use when speaking to customers in Japan. I can’t imagine getting that response at a Dan Murphy’s!

An evening in Odaiba

Yesterday was ‘Marine Day’ in Tokyo. Neither Tamago nor I know what this is about but it means that Tamago had a long weekend and I didn’t have to work Monday morning – yay! To celebrate, Tamago and I decided to go to Odaiba on Sunday night.

We took the Yamanote line out to Shimbashi and then changed to the Yurikamome which is something between a monorail and a train. The Yurkiamome ride gave us spectacular views of Odaiba and some impressive Tokyo skyrise.

When we got to Odaiba we headed for what passes as a ‘beach’ in Tokyo. Happily we stumbled across the annual Festival of Seaside Lights which happens every Marine Day long weekend! This year’s theme was in support of Tokyo’s bid to host the Olympics in 2020. I wish we could say that careful planning went into this but it was just beautiful serendipity at work.

Enjoy:

From the beach. That's the Rainbow Bridge.

 

Feeling jolly after a few drinks on the water's edge.

Yes. There is a replica of the Statue of Liberty at Odaiba. No. We don't know why.

They gave people lighters and everyone helped to light the candles. Even kids!

Magic

Odaiba Festival of Seaside Lights: highly recommended

Suitsu

I need a new suit, becuase one of my old ones is falling apart. I’ve been putting it off, but Moon Tan encouraged me to bite the bullet, so we went suit shopping in Shinjuku. I was a bit worried about langauge difficulties (and a lot worried that I would be suckered into buying something way over my budget), but we found a nice little place about 10 minutes’ walk from Shinjuku Station, and they sorted me out. I think.

Given that the suit will be tailor made, it was a very speedy process. Pick a fabric, choose the cut, the lining and the buttons, get measured up, and bob’s your uncle. They guy that served us didn’t really speak any English, but my pidgin Japanese turned out to be sufficient. The price was pretty reasonable — much cheaper that an equivalent quality off-the-rack suit would cost in Australia, and I’m guessing WAY cheaper than a custom-tailored suit would cost back in Oz.

Time will tell whether the thing will actually look any good once it’s finished. I should have it in about 3 weeks. If you’re lucky I’ll post photos on the blog and you can all critique my fashion sense…

Showdown: Galbo Cube Vs. Galbo Ball

In the world of Japanese confectionery, two titans loom over the landscape, battling for the hearts and minds of dessert lovers. They are Galbo Cube and Galbo Ball.

(Crunky, in case you are wondering, belongs to a parallel universe all of its own, and cannot be directly compared with other chocolate based snacks.)

In trying to explain the differences between GC and GB, one naturally thinks of the Beatles. Galbo Cube is like John Lennon: brilliant, multi-layered and a little bit edgy. Galbo Ball is more like Paul: well-rounded, popular with old people, and possessing a gooey chocolate centre. Okay, I’m not so sure about that last comparison, but you get the point.

As you would expect, opinions vary as to which is the superior snack. In Japan this is no laughing matter. Arguments are heated, and several duels have been fought — resulting in serious injury and in one case even death — between zealots on both sides.*

Moon Tan and I sat down one Sunday night to see if we could get to the bottom of this ancient feud. We fired up a movie and ripped the top off a packet full of each contender.

It was extremely difficult to pick winners. Moon Tan was drawn to the enhanced sweetness of the Galbo Balls like a moth to a flame. I think the extra sweetness shows that the Balls are trying too hard — if they were truly confident in their own abilities, they wouldn’t have to be so quick to assault the palette with a cheap sugar hit. Personally, I was dazzled by the texture of the Cubes, which is both crunchy and layered. The Cubes are deep, metaphorically and spacially, whereas the Balls seem as though they’re circles trying to pass off as spheres. Once the crunchy outer layer has been pierced, one finds oneself in a wasteland of semi-fluid chocolate-flavoured sludge.

Having said all of that, it really was a close call. Summary: Moon Tan likes Balls, I’m fond of Cubes. Why not recreate this taste test yourself, and let us know what you think? It’ll only cost you JPY200 (although you will have to be in Japan to play…)

– Tamago

 

* This is not in the least bit true.

I’m alive

Sorry to keep you in suspense so long, gentle readers. Yes, I did survive my perilous bike adventure last weekend. I have emerged older, wiser and much, much sorer than I was before I left.

Riding up that first mountain (the first of three we scaled on the Saturday) was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and certainly the most strenuous physical activity I’ve ever attempted. And that includes my short-lived stint in Little Athletics that one summer when I was nine and rather portly.

Childhood issues notwithstanding, recently I’d come to fancy that I was in reasonably good shape, or at least not positively unfit. I was disabused of that notion fairly quickly. Part of the problem was that my riding companions were extremely impressive physical specimens, each of whom made Tony Abbott look like a couch potato. Their idea of a fun weekend includes 160km runs through the Sahara Desert, and Iron Man events. Traditionally, my idea of a fun weekend might include a LAN party and eating some chips. So there was a slight mismatch in attitide and ability.

To his credit, my mate who’d half-tricked me into signing up was very patient and stayed with me as I crawled up the mountain, watching the rest of our party sprint off into the distance. He murmured words of encouragement each time I stopped to throw up (which happened 3 times on that first “hill”), and politely suggested that I didn’t look upwards towards the summit, lest I realise just how much further we had to go.

By the time I got halfway up, my legs were shaking, my vision was greying out, and I had several periods where I kind of lost some time, “waking up” to realize I was still climbing this blasted mountain without being able to remember what had happened during the last few minutes. It was agony, and the worst part was that all I could hear in my head was Shannon Noll singing: “I know you’re hurting / Seems like you’re learning / ’bout life the hard way / And it ain’t working…

Once we finally reached the top of the first mountain, things got better. Don’t get me wrong, the second and third mountains also presented some challenges. But by then I’d learned to handle the bike a bit better, and my companions were travelling at a more sedate pace. When we stopped for lunch I was able to eat some rice and I managed to keep it down during the next hill climb. Good times.

I started to notice the amazing scenery we were passing through. We were in Nagano prefecture, away from the coast and any big cities, and the mountain ranges seem to run forever. I can’t wait to get back up here for some skiing in winter.

This was taken in between my second and third spew, which explains the slightly disoriented look...

The downhill sections were also a lot of fun. There were few cars and the roads were well maintained for the most part, so we could really get up some speed on the way down.

Overall, we rode more than 100kms on the Saturday, including more than 2,000m of vertical ascent. By the time we’d reached our ryokan (Japanese-style inn), we were ready for an onsen, some beer and some excellent food, all of which were provided by our gracious hosts (who happened to be my mate’s parents-in-law).

This week, I’ve been slowly recovering from my ordeal. I can now walk up a flight of stairs again without my legs turning to jelly, and I can sit down without wincing. I guess I feel a sense of achievement at having survived, but really it’s more like relief. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know if I’m keen to repeat the experience in a hurry. This weekend I’m looking forward to a sleep in, some computer games and some quality time with Moon Tan.

Hardcore cycling in Japan: two and a half stars.

On communal nude bathing

For those of you who are waiting for Tamago’s life and death update I can put you out of your misery. He did in fact survive and came back in one piece. As to the details of the trip, I feel that it would be wrong of me to describe it second hand. You’ll have to wait til he gets around to his own blog post.

I, however, am here on an entirely different mission. To share with you all the communal nude bathing experience.

Tamago and I recently took a lovely trip up to Kusatsu Onsen which is about a four hour bus trip away from Tokyo (see here for travel guide). It’s a village in the mountains that we had heard from various sources, mainly students, is a nice place to go if you want to experience onsen (hot springs).

Once we arrived in Kusatsu and located our ryokan – Tamago and I set out to get naked with some Japanese people in extremely hot water. But first we had to check this out:Also known as Yubatake, it’s a hot water field where water from the hot springs bubbles up and is diverted down these wooden channels in order to cool it. Then it’s distributed to the numerous public baths and onsens in Kusatsu. It’s smack dab in the middle of town, only a five minute walk from the bus station. There’s a free foot bath nearby which is a plus. Oh and it REAKS of sulphur but you get used to the smell quickly!

Not to be distracted, Tamago and I continued on to the Sainokawara National Park where the most famous outdoor onsen in Kusatsu is located. For obvious reasons we couldn’t take photos in the actual onsen (if you want to see what it looks like click here) but this is what the walk looked like:

Most onsen have seperate bathing for men and women so when we got to the bath, Tamago and I nervously said goodbye and went into our separate change rooms.

In retrospect, you really only need to bring a towel with you. Or you could buy one at the onsen. Many Japanese people make do with a very small towel which they fold and put on their heads while they bathe.

Of course, it being Japan, there is etiquette that goes with onsen bathing. If you’re really interested this is a very cute guide. The overall rule is: never do anything that might remotely get the water dirty. This means that you can’t wear bathers in the bath, if you have long hair you should tie it up, and you should always always wash before you get in. Usually there is a shower or in the case of Sainokawara there is a basin with bowls for you to splash yourself. Basically just copy what everyone else does! If you do it wrong, the Japanese will very gently help guide you back to the correct way of doing things.

The bath itself was large and the water is about thigh height on a tall gaijin. You have to get in VERY slowly as the water is VERY hot. Once you’re in you can walk to a submerged bench and ease in up to bellybutton height. When you’re feeling ok with that, you can sit on the bottom of the bath up to your neck!

Needless to say, it is super hot and you can’t help but feel a bit like you’re a frog being slowly cooked. I had to dip in and out a couple of times becuase it’s soo hot. It did feel great though. The water is silky smooth and there’s probably nothing more peaceful than a hot bath amongst the trees. Surprisingly it’s very social and there were several groups of young women chatting and laughing but also plenty of others just sitting back and enjoying the serenity.

I know what you’re all thinking. Seriously? You bathed nude with a whole bunch of strangers? Yes. And yes it was confronting for my upper middle class Aussie/British upbringing. I’m really not comfortable with public nudity but the cliche is true. It’s very liberating and if everyone else is doing it, it’s not so weird. Once you’ve undressed there’s no turning back! And the plus side is that even in Japan, land of the size 6 woman, there is always someone who has more wobbly bits than you, and who cares less about them than you do. Excellent.

One of the best experiences I’ve had so far in Japan. Hands down.

Onsen: highly recommended

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.

Nerd Attack!!

One of my favourite places in Japan is the Evangelion shop in Harajuku. I mean, it’s a store that sells Evangelion stuff. What more needs to be said? I picked up this sweet shirt and Eva-themed headphones the other day. Sadly, despite my generous and selfless offer to purchase it for her, Moon Tan was not interested in the Asuka Langley Soryu schoolgirl outfit.

In other nerd-related news (I have been saving it up), I purchased a Playstation Vita the other day. The only game I have for it, called Gravity Daze, is in French*, with Japanese subtitles, so I am justifying this purchase by pretending that I will improve my Japanese (or possibly my French?) by playing it on the way to and from work.

It’s actually a bit of a hazard on the morning commute because the game requires you to tilt the screen this way and that in order to fly through the air. As a consequence, my big gaijin elbows are constantly hitting my travelling companions in the head. Still, hours of entertainment, and I’ve only missed my stop twice.

* I thought that, being a European tongue, I would pretty much understand French by default. Turns out it’s, like, a whole other language or some crap. Mon Dieu!