Archive for August, 2013

Two things you need:

The JR Pass, which gives you unlimited rides on any Japan Rail line, including the shinkansen (bullet trains). You can get one that lasts up to 3 weeks. You should order this well before your vacation, so you have it in hand; you can activate it upon arrival or whever you choose. JTB travel bureau can assist you with ordering one if you don’t feel like doing it yourself.

The b-mobile Visitor SIM card, which can give you slow-speed unlimited data transfer for your cellular device for 2 weeks (IMHO the best option) or 1-gig of fast transfer which expires once the data is used. Best to order this a week or so ahead of your arrival for pickup at the airport, or you can order it to be delivered in a few days locally at whatever address/hotel you are staying at in Japan. Shipping is trackable and it comes with easy English instructions. A couple of days before it expires, you will get an email about it, and a link to renew online for another 2 weeks. Pretty convenient!

No, I am not getting a kickback from this; these are services that I am using and greatly enjoying.

I noticed a unique smell on the train a couple of times. It was kind of like ass, but not quite… it was older, aged ass perhaps. Not unlike the smell when you run over an old wet doggie landmine, one that has been rained on and has been fermenting in the sun, with the lawnmower. Or an old diaper. It has lost the tang of fresh pile but it is not yet unscented. It was not a constant smell but rather came and went. Perhaps someone was farting? Maybe they should see the doctor.

I thought someone had done a number in their pants but it turned out I was wrong. Yesterday on the train to Fuji, it was my Pavlovian brain that put the pieces together. The man sitting next to me was a sleeping sarariman. After a while in that environment of variable smell, my body began to instantly cut off my breathing when he would open his mouth and snore. It turned out that the stench was his breath!

Once I had figured this out, I began piecing it together, and now I am recognizing the smell all around me: Sarariman breath. It’s like they never brush their teeth or something, or the diet they eat, or the stress they endure, or all of the above combined, cause it. This is interesting because it’s a complaint I have heard before; not about myself, but from Japanese women complaining about Japanese men and making note that any man they date must have fresh breath.

And now I can blend in with the other dudes if I want:

Garlic Meat Beast!

Garlic Meat Beast!

It took me 3.5 hours each way by train to reach Fuji-Q Highlands theme park, which sits at the base of Mt. Fuji. I set out early and got back late. Despite all the time I spent in line, only had the time to ride each coaster once, but it was worth it. The Japanese are different about their roller coasters than the Americans are. At Fuji-Q you have to pay per ride unless you buy the expensive $50 day pass. And they take a lot of time getting in and out because they make you take off all your jewelry, even watches, empty pockets into lockers, and, in the case of Eejanaika, make you take off your shoes as well. So the lines are long, and they don’t send out as many coasters. BUT… the coasters are amazing.

And it’s fun to flirt with the girls in line. I was the only foreigner there that day, and everyone wanted to take photos with me and wanted me to wave back to them as I got into the coaster, and give them the thumbs-up or a salute. And the cute girls, my god… long legs, short skirts…

The first coaster I rode was the best. Eejanaika holds the world record for most inversions. It starts you backwards and then flips you around forwards. It accomplishes this because not only is it a coaster that can function right-side-up or up-side-down, but the seats also rotate along a horizontal axis. So you are sometimes at the back of the car, and sometimes at the front. They use this to such an advantage and at such surprising moments that I needed a cigarette after this ride. The only thing that has ever rocked my world so much was a vagina.

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Next came Fujiyama, which is older and held the world record for the largest drop (230 feet). I don’t know what was better– the drop or the view before the drop. You go up a seemingly endless track, higher than any other structures in the area, with an amazing view of Mt. Fuji before you, before being plunged into a truly insane drop and other greatness to follow.

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Then was Takabisha. With a drop angle of 121 degrees, it remains the steepest roller coaster in the world. This one was my second-favorite of the park’s offerings.

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Then it was on to Dodonpa, which briefly held the title of fastest and fastest accelerating roller coaster in the world. I have no photo of its certificate but I can say, the launch at the beginning was one of the better adrenaline experiences I have had.

View from Fujiyama queue, Dodonpa and Takabisha in foreground, Mt. Fuji in background.

View from Fujiyama queue, Dodonpa and Takabisha in foreground, Mt. Fuji in background.

I would have gone to the top of Mt. Fuji but I am ill-prepared, having only tropical warm-weather gear. I would have frozen to death on the trek, and they are closing Station 5 down tomorrow for the season. You win this time Fuji, but you remain on my bucket list!

 

Today I hit the Studio Ghibli museum after getting thoroughly lost on the subway. Fortunately I used sign language and really bad Japanese directions and figured it out. Once you are in the not-quite-dense-metro area of Tokyo, the Engrish is gone and all you have is Kanji. Then, using these machines, you are sort of at a loss exactly where you are going, and the maps? Ha! Yeah you remember vaguely where you are supposed to go but you are the one who has to calculate your fare and print your ticket. The machine cares not for names of stations, only fare amounts to print out.

Wacky ticket machine make gaijin crazy!

Wacky ticket machine make gaijin crazy!

I did make it to Mitaka station, another nice clean place where city efficiency blends into metro-suburban residential zoning. It’s more open and much greener here. Studio Ghibli’s museum is about a 15 minute walk from the station along an easy route on the canal.

Studio Ghibli museum

Studio Ghibli museum

The museum is a pilgrimage stop for any Otaku, and despite my age I and the presence of miriad screeching children running around, I found it to be a wonderful place. I wasn’t the only gaijin there; dozens of other from all countries showed up.

Studio Ghibli is the creation of Hiyao Miyazaki, an extremely creative animator/director whose movies have inspired many from kids to ancients. He is considered one of the best, if not the best. Having been a traditional hand-drawn animator for much of my early career, I have much respect for him and his material from both a fan-based and a professional point of view.

The museum has many neat examples of early animation all the way to modern, claymation, and more, and a whole room of various zoetropes to demonstrate it. It’s fascinating and beautiful. And then there’s the best point of pilgrimage of all, the robot guardian statue from Laputa: Castle in the Sky (my favorite movie of Miyazaki’s, and still holding the spot of #1 movie I have ever or will ever see).

The robot guardian

The robot guardian

After checking out every exhibit in the museum with wonderment, I stocked up on plenty of nerdy art souvenirs at the gift shop, sat in for a showing of one of their animated shorts that you cannot see screened anywhere else, and then headed “home” to beat rush hour subway-cramming.

In other cool news, I did make it to the restaurant where the Kill Bill fight scene was filmed, but my photo turned out crap because it’s really dark in there. The food was good, though. Anyways, here are some crappy shots:

No pool of severed limbs or guys in masks breaking through paper screens :(

No pool of severed limbs or guys in masks breaking through paper screens 😦

That's because all the screens are gone. Perhaps because they smashed them all...

That’s because all the screens are gone. Perhaps because they smashed them all…

 

Very nice sashimi plate

Very nice sashimi plate

 

Shibuya

Shibuya

I headed out into the wilds of Tokyo with shaky feet today. It has been a long time since I felt anxiety about going outside, like I was timidly emerging from my snail shell, and Japan has been doing it to me. One look at the automatic subway fare machines is enough to send you reeling back into your shell. The feeling of conquering that and diving into the culture shock, however, is like a drug, and once I was started, I was shoving it into my veins and couldn’t get enough.

Shibuya by day is an interesting place. It’s home to one of the most foot-worn intersections in Tokyo, otherwise known as the Shibuya Scramble. I saw quite a few signs posted for “Open 24 hours” and judging by the garish lighting and J-pop music blasting from every pore of every building, this has got to be a sensation at night. I shall return after dark…

It’s also home to a restaurant that serves nothing but whale. VikingBob told me about this place, and I had to try it. It has been a source of quite a few jokes between us.

You see, PETA has been waging this Orwellian campaign to whitewash marine wildlife with a new name: Sea Kittens. Why? Because fish are slimy and sharks can eat you. But nobody would hurt something called a Sea Kitten. Yes, it is absurd. No, it is not a joke, see for yourself.

Well, as you shall see, I find the flavor of Sea Kitten to be quite tasty. Like a t-shirt I saw once:

If God didn’t mean for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?

The front desk has a sign in multiple languages with “Whale,” and the front desk attendant makes sure that each visitor coming in knows what he is getting into. “Hai. Yes, I came here for whale.”

“OK,” lots of nods and bows, and ushering me to my table saying things that I am not fluent in but recognize from waiters and hosts in Japanese movies and cartoons. Hmmm, yes! Supplication! Underlings! Power!

Le Menu

Le Menu

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Stake of wood set through heart, garlic kill stop vampire may be evidence of delicious! Let’s happy!

VikingBob did not like his whale back when he was here, but I sure liked mine. I opted for the whale steak lunch, which cost about $16 with a Coke added on. To be honest, if it had been put in front of me without explanation of what it was, I would have figured it for plain old beef steak, and while I tasted my first bite I was thinking, “Ahhhh, you jokers, you are selling me beef and calling it whale.” However the texture was different, especially the rare part in the middle which was like that of tuna sashimi but very dense and heavy. It tasted like a steak but it wasn’t steak.

It reminded me of when MomBob first fed us venison, by way of spaghetti sauce, and she wouldn’t tell us what it was, only that it was something different. Only after we had eaten it did she reveal that we were eating Bambi, thinking that we would otherwise have refused. “Not so!” said we; there was more angst from the deliberate obfuscation than from the fact that Bambi was in our spaghetti. “Bambi was delicious,” we told her, and went in for seconds.

Bambi and the Sea Kittens sounds like something a J-pop band would name themselves.

Whale steak lunch

My whale steak lunch

The accompanying salad, seaweed, pickles, and miso soup were also quite delicious. It’s something I would go and get again, and the price was very reasonable.

I wandered through Shibuya looking for a comic book store that was not there. Or maybe it was. I keep thinking in two dimensions, and the Japanese are so accustomed to being stacked like cordwood, they think in three. It’s not uncommon to find bars, stores, clubs, etc. all stacked on top of one another in a small tower, and tiny signs advertising them way up high where you aren’t looking, and find difficulty reading them. Especially in Kanji. And in standard Japan style, everything inanimate has been decorated with cartoon eyes, or cartoon dogs, and whatever Engrish name or picture is there may or may not actually have anything to do with what the business offers. For example, a place called Boulangerie, that looks from the outside like a standard French Boulangerie, that sells clothing inside.

I got a tip from FilipinaBob that I should go to Gonpachi sushi restaurant, where the big fight scene was filmed in Kill Bill part 1. Maybe I’ll check it out for dinner. I didn’t know the place really existed. Should be cool!

Tokyo, Japan

Posted: August 27, 2013 in Travel
Tags: , , , ,

Tokyo is clean! It is efficient! Everything works, and is cared for with superior attention to detail. It doesn’t stink of shit, and there is not a scrap of garbage on the ground. At least none that I saw on my journey across town in the bus this afternoon, nor on my trek around the neighborhood I am staying in, Ebisu, right near the Yebisu Beer Museum.

Such a stark difference from Indonesia.

Another thing of note, the post-security part of the international terminal in Jakarta airport is worlds ahead of the domestic terminal. As in, one is totally third-world filthy, and the other is passable if not approaching first-world.

It didn’t prevent the nickel-and-dime factor, though.

Today was a sort of half-assed day since I got so few hours of sleep in the past 48. I arrived before checkin time for the tiny shoebox apartment I am renting, so I whiled away the hours drinking assorted different beers in the Yebisu museum (which didn’t help the sleepiness factor), went adventure-shopping for a can of shaving cream, sat in the Yebisu Gardens mall and people-watched, and then fell asleep reading in the lobby of the Westin hotel. Snoring gaijin are a common sight in hotel lobbies here.

It’s really weird suddenly finding yourself illiterate. Yeah I know a few words of Japanese, enough to get around, find directions, count, etc. but reading it? HA!

Tonight I was beat so I opted for the easy and painless (perhaps) option of Burger King because I can point to the pictures in the menu, grunt, and get what I want without too much trouble. By the way, it was the most perfectly-assembled and photo-accurate Whopper I have ever seen. The bun was fluffy and hemispherical, the lettuce photogenic, the onions hang out the side just like the juicy flame-broiled temptation in the menu! Perhaps it will also rot my gut 35% more efficiently than an American version.

The street I am staying on has no fewer than a dozen vending machines of all sorts of things, mostly cigarettes and drinks. There are vending machines on every block. The level of consumerism on blatant display in Japan puts the USA to shame. It’s fantastic!

Everything in the supermarket is hard to figure out, because every square inch of the packages are festooned with Kanji, and there must be a law in Japan that says that all fruit, vegetables, and whatnot on the cover must have eyes or be mascot-ized in some way. It is just not enough to show a ripe juicy tomato; it must be cute and suicidally begging you to devour it.

If there are no cute eyes drawn in where they do not belong, there is some happy-looking cartoon dog. Why, I have no idea. It’s Japan!

Tomorrow, I brave the subway system to go to Shinjuku on a hunt for a restaurant that VikingBob tells me has whale on the menu.

 

My final thoughts on Indonesia, as I wait to board my plane to Japan:

Indonesians are warm and welcoming people. They are not xenophobic, and take delight in the new. They love to laugh and sing and joke. 3 large group religions that traditionally hate each other compete here for souls, and they all seem to get along quite well.

Yet, I cannot shake the sentiment that (and we’ve heard the same for just about any country including America) that Indonesia would be a great place, if not for the damned Indonesians. Hear me out before you oil your torches and sharpen your pitchforks…

Just like in any government, they vote in the most sleazy corrupt pieces of turd to official post and then wonder why their legal system is a mess, businesses are gutted by regulation and corrupt demands, currency is debased, and life is made tougher. However in Indonesia it’s even more corrupt due to tight clannish nepotism, and it’s so ingrained it cannot and will not be driven out.

Due to this, and due to the general culture of the people, the Indonesians are now terrible stewards of their environment. Absolutely terrible. The US gets a bad rap from environazis for this and that, but I dare any environazi to go to Indonesia, stay there a year in the charming third world Papuan villages, and see what the “sustainable tribal people” are doing to their reef and rainforest, then come back to the US where trash is managed, sanitation conducted, and conservation carried out in a clean and organized fashion, and let us hear what they have to say, if they still have anything to say!

The park fees to dive in Raja Ampat and Cendrawasih are very high, more than the average Indonesian can afford. More than the average diver wants to pay– Several hundred dollars just to enter the parks. Per person. Then there is the hiring, keeping, and feeding of the “warden.” Then the graft to the local village chiefs for “permission” to dive on their reefs. That money is all supposedly used to conserve the marine reserves. However, judging by the “wardens” we encountered, and the heavy audible fishbombing (and its visible results) going on in both locations, there is absolutely zero enforcement, zero education, and zero give-a-shit. That money goes to buy the ministers shiny new cars and shiny new mistresses, and not a dime reaches where it was originally intended. Loads of money is spent, tourists and tour operators are fleeced and inconvenienced, and the environment perishes under the watch of the scumbags whose jobs are to protect it.

Indonesians think nothing of bombing a reef with dynamite or cyanide to get a boatload of fish, a good week’s haul in a single day but that reef is now gone for 100 years and 10,000 times more fish lay dead at the bottom, rotting. They think nothing of dumping trash and chemicals into the sea. It simply doesn’t occur to them the long-term results of these actions. They don’t even seem to see the trash blowing up in the street, literally in drifts. And where there was once an actual clean space, as soon as a piece of trash blows there, then it is soon joined by new freshly-discarded neighbors. Oh, they can see the trash plenty good when they are looking for a place to throw it.

When the bottom rungs of your social ladder have been kicked out by government meddling, you have more important things to think about, like “will I have rice on my plate tomorrow?” and so to hell with the environment that sustains you. The government claims to be all mega-green and super totally keen into making sure their parks are well-kept for the future enjoyment of Indonesia and foreign visitors, but it’s 100% BS.

I’m going to go out on a very inflammatory and politically incorrect limb and say that the Allies should have let Japan keep the parts of Indonesia that they took during WWII. The Japanese sure were cruel bastards but they took good care of their stuff. And they would have taken good care of Indonesia. Much better care than the locals are giving it today, for damned sure. 100 years before that, one group of islanders running through another island to take it over, even waging genocide in the process, wouldn’t have generated any wow-factor whatsoever. But for some reason it was considered inconceivable during the 40s, and still is today? I believe that the US simply used the Indonesians as disposable generators of unrest and enlisted support in order to upset the Japanese occupation. They certainly didn’t leave their capital in Indonesian hands– there are dump sites where you can dive on boats, trucks, millions of rounds of ammunition that were all scuttled in the sea on departure because they would have cost too much to transport back home or on to the next battleground.

Sure, the Indonesians were given their independence but what are they doing with it? Destroying their lands is what. For short-term petty reasons.

Not all of Indonesia is shit-hole. Some parts are beautiful. The beautiful places are all you see when you go searching for information. But the intelligentsia only goes to these beautiful tourist places, and no longer wants to rough it to see the real side of things. You won’t see tattoo-faced people who just came out of the jungle and are gobsmacked at the sight of a white man. National Geographic is too busy these days with Top Hooker and other reality trash to waste any time showing you the true naked islanders of Pogo Pogo. And so you will never see the “real side” of Indonesia unless you go and do it like I did. Not that I can recommend it as wholly enjoyable outside of the scuba experiences.

The end result? Give Indonesia a pass until it gets its act together. Tell anyone who is remotely interested about the wholesale environmental destruction there.