Saturday, October 14, 2006

JAPAN: An arrival

Welcome back dedicated readers! To those who are visiting for the first time, just Welcome!

Imagine, if you would be so kind gentle reader...Times Square in New York, on a busy day, but at night. Got it? Okay now imagine that you are 8 feet tall in Times Square, there is no honking and people are rigidly obeying Walk/Don't Walk signs...still with me in this crazy/fantasy/voodoo world? Now imagine that when a Walk sign finally does appear, roughly 3,000 people all cross the street at the same time, and even with this surging mass of humanity, not one person bumps into you, calls you a name or tells you to move. Fairy tale? No, it's Tokyo.

In Tokyo, light moves faster than OTHER LIGHT...hard to believe but you'll just have to take my word for it...

As a quick backtrack; I was leaving South-East Asia by way of Thailand. In a bizarre twist of fate, a friend of a friend from back home was staying in the same hotel as my long-time travel companions. A most propitious situation indeed (especially for me) since I'm cheap and didn't want to pay for a hotel room, I forced them to stay up all night with me until my 7AM departure. And Dawn, someday we'll be in the same country for more than 2 which point I SWEAR I will buy you that beer!

Do you have any idea how late it was?! (you will if you're actually reading these posts instead of just looking at the're so lazy!)

Thus did I arrive in that fabled, wondrous land of sushi, Noh theatre and the inimitable, the effervescent, the seriously strange Mr. Rich Shelala. By way of introduction, Rich is one of my closest friends, an inveterate nerd and has been living in Japan for the better part of two years, spending his time teaching obstinate Japanese children the blessings of English (or as I came to see it Eng-grish). Rich's instructions for the airport were nearly as concise and specific as those of Yeah Yeah (my erstwhile India-traveling-companion). "I will meet you at the baggage claim, just after customs. Don't try to go anywhere on your own because you will get hopelessly lost and be put into a Japaneses game show. You will be humiliated."

As such, I picked up my pack (dusty, grimy, covered in a thin film of....I really don't know what. I guess all that time on/under/next to busses in developing countries does not to baggage much good), I glanced around for my guide. He was nowhere to be seen. Having been through the Washington D.C. ninja-training academy, I knew very well that my friend may be hiding behind any number of large pillars, shadowy corners or giant statutes (the Japanese really have stuff set up for ninja-hiding...). Thus made paranoid, I backed up against a wall and kept an eagle eye watch out for anything that smacked of clandestine-ness.

And waited...

And waited....

I finally realized that Mr. Shelala would not be forthcoming, so I headed over to a bank of pay phones to try and call him. After fighting with the phones for a while, I just gave up and collapsed into a chair. It was at that point that I realized that in the past 36 hours I had:

1. Been to the worlds largest rave and not slept
2. Gone Scuba diving twice...and not slept
3. Sat uncomfortably on a plane for 8 hours where I...did not sleep.

Guess how I was feeling?

It was at about that time that I saw, peering through the crowd like some sort of creature that peers a phantom. It was a whisper and a rustle, yet somewhere out there, I knew that it lurked. The wily Raccoon (aka Rich, never quite sure about the nickname). He lurched through the crowd, enormous headphones encompassing strangely shaped ears...and then...WEIRD PICTURE TIME!

Much as with my reunion with a long lost friend in India, our reunion was joyous. Quite UNLIKE that reunion, I did not then immediately plop down into a beach chair, take a swig out of an enormous ice-cold beer and watch the sun set. No...Rich had other plans.

"Okay we're meeting about 10 people for dinner in (Unpronounceable japanese) word but first we're going to get tacos and then we're going to a club."

"Uh...okay, but I'm pretty tired, can we call it an early night?"

Rich had neglected to mention to me a number of things. First, he neglected to mention that he had planned a kind of "Welcome to Japan" celebration which included, among other things, eating four or five times with different groups of people. Next, he had neglected to mention that most of our evening would be passed at a club. The real kicker though, was the following:

Norm: So where can I drop my bags?

Rich: in this train locker!

Norm: (listens for crickets chirping...doesn't hear any, apparently they're a delicacy here) Excuse me? where are we staying tonight?

Rich: Ummm (shuffles feet)...we're not...

Norm: (seeing red...) I...haven't slept in like 3 days, and now we're going to be out all night, after I just got off of a 8 hour plane ride, haven't slept and won't be able to shower?

Rich: Yeah.

And so it went. Our first stop was to get me a new t-shirt, since the one I was wearing was now nearly completely invisible. Apparently if you wear something long enough without washing it, it just sort of fades into the ether. (p.s. if you are over 6 feet tall and have blue eyes, please do the kind people of Tokyo a favor and allow those two physical characteristics to be surprise enough. Don't do as I did, which was to remove my shirt in the middle of a crowded store, rip open the package of shirts I've just bought, and then put it on and walk out like nothing unusual had happened. Apparently in a land where giant roving lizards (godzilla is real...REALLY!) are nothing to get all worked up about, a white guy's hairy chest is a real problem. Who knew?

Freshly clothed, we set out to devour some tacos (yes my culinary adventurousness is to be marveled at), prior to going and having a slightly more traditional Japanese meal.

I have previously described the insanity that is India, specifically Mumbai in an earlier post(hyperlink), so I figured that I had seen everything that the masses of humanity could throw at me.

It turns out that I was wrong.

Arriving at Shibuya train station, I emerged into what can only be described as a fully functioning Times Square/Carnival complete with bright blinking lights, freaks of all nature and description, and a small brass bulldog that everything seemed to rotate around.

There are a LOT of people here...

A large, strangely feathered hat must be tipped to the young women who populate Tokyo. I don't personally know much about fashion, but what I do know is that these girls were either so far on the cutting edge of fashion that they were practically bleeding trendy, or they had been dressed by their kindly, senile, blind neighbor who had just retrieved a box of clothing left over from pre-1700 Japan. There is no inbetween. Bright pastels contrasted with alternating black and white striped shirt sleeves, and that was on their legs. Neon jewelry, spiky/swirly mohawks over high ruffled collar shirts and calf-length boots. You could devote an entire book just to describing one clique of kids.

"We represent...the lollipop guiiiiild"

"Wait...we're wearing the school girl stuff? Oh I thought we were doing all black goth gear...shoot!"

"I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!" (oh man, two Wizard of Oz jokes in one post...I can hear Judy Garland swimming in her booze soaked grave)

I have. No. Idea.

I've already kind of gone into what that square was like above, but it is hard to capture the essence of the moment accurately. Suffice it to say that seeing that many people assiduously avoiding even the THOUGHT of a jaywalk was a weird experience indeed.

Then, it was time for food.

I have now in my travels eaten bugs, larvae, snake, springbok, crocodile, and any other number of unidentifiable munchable, all of which I have attacked with gusto. Still, there is nothing quite like hearing the words "raw" and "horsemeat" used in conjunction to describe something that someone would like you to raise your eyebrow (get your gander up...whatever euphemism you choose to employ).

Now tell me that doesn't look delicious? "Wilburrrr...NOOO!!!"

Basashi, as it turns out, is not only a delicacy, it is absolutely delicious. It is basically extremely thin strips of raw horse, which you use chopsticks to swirl around in a mixture of horseradish, garlic and soy sauce. Even without the accoutrement's, this was a particularly tasty dish (My apologies to Mr. Ed, Seabiscuit and The Black Stallion).

The place that we ate at is known as an Izakaya, and rather than try to give a verbose and over-long explanation, I will let Rich-san sum it up for you. "This is the Japanese equivalent of a bar except that food plays a much larger role and specific foods are featured that either go specifically well with beer or sake." So there you have it. It's exactly as he said, except that instead of barstools, you sit on little mats on the floor, and instead of ordering from a printed menu of words, I ordered from a menu of enormous colorful pictures (thank god for that, or I would have ended up with octopus heads in a garbage bag with a side of Donkey hair or some other such nonsense...crazy Japanese bars)

After dinner, we ended up at a club...after first being rejected from a different club. We intially went to a club called Harlen (yes, a huge Hip-Hop club in the middle of Tokyo with a HILARIOUS website) where the entire group was massively inconvenienced by my attire: specifically, the fact that I was wearing sandals. Anyone who knows me knows that this was not merely a function of my being on the road, I NEVER wear shoes out. However with my ready-made excuse of "more than one pair of shoes means one more thing for a village kid to try and steal/bargain for, which is why I don't have any", the group moved on to "Atom", where we danced, and, as has been, and remained a continuing theme, local people stared at us while we did our groovy thing.

Stumbling out of the club at around dawn, I decided that sleep must be some weird concept that philosophers argued about but didn't really exist. I felt a decided need to eat brains (or maybe I just looked like a zombie).

I looked at Rich. Rich looked at me.

"Well, it's only 3 hours on a train to my house, and then we have to get a ride there..."

"I hate you."

The train that we rode was the much vaunted Shinkansen, which I believe is Japanese for both "make you go broke" and "screw you, American tourist." Ancient texts tell us that it could alternately be translated as "You honor us with your hard earned money, now please enjoy our whisper-quiet manner of conveyance. you're broke." It lived upto its billing as a "bullet-train" though, in that it was shaped like a bullet, and was a train. Good stuff.

This is a picture of myself, Rich and the great and powerful Devon who is now devoting his time to teaching our most frustrating of languages to children in China. He is truly a glutton for delicious punishment (and a hell of a writer as well).

Dear rich: Screw you

Dear Norm: Shut up

Dear Abby: so the other day this crush of mine...

Arriving in Nakano, the town NEAR where Rich lives, I availed myself yet again of the opportunity to horrify some Japanese people. As I had been in the habit of eating whatever, whenever I wanted to (oh sweet sweet pad Thai carts in Bangkok...sigh), finding myself short on cash (Tokyo = Bring someone elses credit card), and near starving, I practically dove through the front door of a donut shop (cleverly titled "Mr. Donut"...aparently the Japanese are also fans of the Simpsons) as soon as we stepped off of the train. I quickly scarfed several donuts, then, noticing that there was a garbage can behind the counter, I quickly leaned over the clerks counter and tossed the garbage into the can. It was at that point that Rich grabbed me by the shoulders and practically hauled me out of the store.

Why you ask?

Because the look on the clerks face was roughly what you would get if you crossed the look of being confronted with an 18 foot venomous snake, and a rampaging elephant with a shark on its back. That is, this poor girl was quite scared. Rich slowly explained outside:

Rich: You are dumb. You are 2 feet taller than everyone here, you haven't shaved in a month, you smell like the underside of a particularly dirty mattress and on top of all of that, people here just don't step around/over/through counters.

What can I say...he was 3 for 3, right on all counts. I gently reminded him that I may not have been quite such a horrifying sight if I had been allowed the opportunity to...oh I don't know...SHOWER or SHAVE or SLEEP at some point in the preceding 3 days. Rich dismissed this notion with a rather limp hand wave and a "Bah" which seemed to settle the issue.

Sufficiently rebuked, we rode to Richs house where I slept on a futon for roughly eleventy-billion hours.

(Disclaimer: due to my near-catatonic state, I did not have the wherewithal to take lots of pictures from this first night. Thus, many of the pictures here were not taken by me. I have taken PAINSTAKING measures however (i.e. sort of glanced at them) to ensure that everything you see represented above were sights that I actually was a witness to. Now quit yer griping).

Next: The cool north of Japan, a new teacher, and NINJAS!