For those that are interested, my itinerary is here.
I’m back, and now it’s Friday. I haven’t been writing much, party because I’ve been so busy, partly because the Internet here is quite expensive, and any time I’ve spent in Internet cafes has been taken up by personal e-mails and playing with the almighty Zaurus.
The Zaurus rocks, but I won’t bore you with that information here. I’ve got far less nerdy information to bore you with.
On Saturday, I arrived at Tokyo’s Narita airport at around 7:30am. There is a bizarre bus/train that runs between the terminal we docked at and the main terminal. It only travels about a hundred meters; it seems like an awful lot of effort to go to to save people one minute of walking. I guess they’re showing off.
The theme of Japan does seem to be “your’re never more than ten meters from a train station”. Tokyo has the most intense rail service in the world, but I’ll get to that later.
The train ride into Tokyo’s Ueno station is about an hour long and the countryside is beautiful. The golf courses are so densely packed that there’s a decent chance you could miss-hit and have your ball land on another golf course entirely.
Disembarking at Ueno station is my first foray into the mind-warping universe of Tokyo’s public transport system. You must allow yourself to be consumed by it, or it will tear you to shreds. Not literally, but almost. There are dozens of lines, all criss-crossing each other, many owned by different companies. Some go to the same places, along the same path, but one is built above the other (the Shinkansen high-speed train is an example of this). There is very little English in the stations – most signs are marked up by a combination of Kanji (traditional chinese characters used with Japanese words – there are tens of thousands of these) and Hirigana (the japanese-language phonetic alphabet), a combination called Furigana. For some English words, they use Katekana, which is unreadable to me too. Occasionally, you come across a map with some English-alphabet names on it, usually greeted with a deep sigh of relief.
Thankfully, the Japanese are very helpful, although surprisingly the level of English here is lower than in Vietnam, despite the high comparative wealth of Japan. Perhaps the Vietnamese have a greater economic imperative to learn English.
So, I met Matt at Ueno station (the second one – there are two, with the same name, about a hundred meters apart. This confusion caused a 15 minute delay in finding him). We travelled to his house on the Takasaki line (stop that sniggering up the back!) to his local station of Kumagaya.
Entering Matt’s apartment I feel like I’m visiting Hobbiton. The doorways are so low, it’s beyond crouching – I almost have to waddle through. His whole apartment is the size of my lounge room (maybe smaller), and apparently it’s spacious for Japan. I’ve already knocked myself almost into unconsciousness several times.
He sleeps on a futon on the floor of his loungeroom (mercifully air-conditioned), and his couch is sort of like a bent mattress. As with everywhere else in Japan, shoes are removed at the door. The Japanese are experts at elegant, minimalist interiors. Matt is an expert in clutter (no offense matt! I’m the same). You should see his desk at work. You don’t need to be told which one it is – look for the giant pile of empty water bottles and dog-eared books 😉
It is absolutely awesome to see Matt again. It feels like we’ve rarely stopped laughing since I arrived.
After dumping my stuff, we went to get some Indian food from the Tandoori kitchen near Matt’s apartment. When we returned (skipping several hours here where we watched DVDs and played Playstation games involving office-block-sized robots), we met up with his
cell mate neighbour Micki (a girl, an elementary school teacher), and grabbed some sushi from a conveyor belt restaurant. You take whatever plates you like from the conveyor, and each plate is colour-coded according to how much it costs (usually 100 to 200 Yen). My first taste of raw fish, I believe, and not too bad at all. I polished off about eight plates before Matt and Micki bundled me into an hessian sack and dragged me from the restaurant.
Next we went to a bar (you have to be careful not to call them pubs here – a pub is a strip joint), and after a Long Island Ice Tea I felt ready for some Karaoke (well, more than Karaoke, but it would have to do). Here, Karaoke is usually performed in booths with only your friends watching, which to my mind takes some of the thrill out of it. Nevertheless with Matt and Micki it was an absolute riot. A selection of songs that Matt and/or I performed (Micki’s were mostly Japanese pop hits):
- More Human Than Human – White Zombie
- Video Killed the Radio Star – The Buggles
- Giant Robo – Theme song for a cartoon called Giant Robo
- Astro Boy theme song (in both English and Japanese)
- Mister Jones – Counting Crows
- Don’t wanna miss a thing – Aerosmith (Micki’s idea 😉
You get the idea.
Alcoholic drinks were free during the time we were there, so I got mildly sozzled, and we lurched home some time after 2am. I had had 2 hours sleep since 10am the day before, so I was fairly tired.
Sunday the 7th
I wrote the previous post on Sunday the 7th, so you get an idea of how I was feeling. Matt and I went to a Bunkosai, an annual festival held by schools. Each school has theirs at a time of their choosing, rather than all together, but they generally occur during the summer sometime. This one was not at Matt’s school, but another a short train ride away. Let me just say, this school by itself summoned more enthusiasm in this one day than every child in Australia combined, over a year. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating, it’s been a while since I’ve been to a high school, but it certainly felt energetic.
Each classroom had been transformed into an activity of some type, such as a house of horrors or cabaret show. The first room we entered was a carnival game of some kind, where we collected coloured cards by throwing velcro balls at a spinning velcro wheel. The wheel was inexplicably decorated with a swastika and the names of Heinrich Himmler and that Goebels guy. I didn’t want to ask. Once we had a handful of cards, we would go to an activity identified by the colour of each card. One involved smacking the bottom box from a pile of boxes out of the way with a makeshift baseball bat, and hoping that the pile didn’t fall over. The more you could knock out without the tower of boxes falling, the more “money” (bottle caps embedded in a cardboard square) you won.
Another game was assembling a face from its parts (eyes, nose, mouth etc) with a blindfold on.
The first game that I played was an elastic band shooting gallery.
At the end, we redeemed our Bunkosai cash for a plastic fan and a lolly.
Another classroom hosted a transvestite ballet and cheerleading show, in which a group of boys danced effeminately to music that was way too quiet (you could make out the uncomfortable coughing). I have some footage of this – it’s genuinely weird, but fun. Matt and I stared wistfully out the window at the considerably less weird performance in the courtyard below.
In another room, we ate brick-shaped icy poles with edges so sharp you could shave with them (leaving you with a smooth and lemony face). Tasty though!
I conversed with a few students… well, not so much conversed but was gawked at for my height and general non-japanese-ness (here I am a Geijin, a foreigner). Some of them were very cute about it, in a distinctly Japanese way. We met a girl who Matt had judged in an English speaking competition. She was so cute I wanted to burst. Eyes like dinner plates, a voice like minnie mouse, and about four and a half feet tall.
That night, we watched more DVDs. Laziness!