Tokyo Saga: Shinjuku Revelations

Continuing our adventures from last time, Beth had started to experience migraine symptoms so she rested at home while Craig and I checked out the infamous Shinjuku.  As an area run largely by the yakuza, I was impressed by the quantity of panchiko parlours and adult stores, particularly in Kabukicho. Craig and I had dared ourselves to check out some dodgy-looking places in the past, but the abundance of them here was both confronting and delightful. I am very supportive of consensual sex in all its forms, and Japan delights me for having such freedom of access and expression to a wide variety of sexual tastes. Don’t get me wrong, certain things are still taboo, and there are undoubtably huge problems with having such a large adult entertainment industry, but as a whole I am deeply heartened by how open people are about loving what they love.

However, as we looked at the front of one establishment, next to a restaurant that apparently got girls to dress up as hot robots, a man approached us and asked what we were looking for/at. We told him nothing and excused ourselves, but he kept pace with us a moment to show us flyers of women. When we continued to walk away, he continued to walk with us, asking “You don’t like Japanese girls?” I was a few seconds away from placing my umbrella on his chest and telling him “Yamero!” (Stop! That’s enough!”) when he desisted, though Craig wasn’t too fussed by it. I think I’m still a little twitchy from my adventures in Egypt.

We eventually made our way to Capbar, the Capcom themed bar that served video-game based novelty food. We didn’t know too much about it other than they served jellified brains and blood-like sauce for dessert, but that was enough for us. I (rather bravely, I thought) attempted to communicate my desire to make a reservation for three people on Tuesday night at 7pm. Through no English whatsoever, I managed to make the reservation in the name of… Kuwai-gon Jin. Yeah, that’s right, you heard me. I figured Xin would be too hard, so I went to the other extreme and giggled madly all the way home and for many days afterwards.

Shinjuku also holds a special memory for me because I dared to practice my first real act of charity here. This is a story I wouldn’t normally share, because I don’t want the attention and approval of others to be a motivating factor when I make a choice to be kind to others. Nevertheless, I want to share this story anyway, because it’s one of my happiest memories here, and in the hopes that maybe it will inspire others and improve the lives of those around them.

On the train ride into the city centre, a free seat became available and, after a moment of seeing if anyone else might need/enjoy it more, I took it. It was only after I sat down that I noticed who I was sitting next to: he was an older man, maybe 45, with a scraggly beard and a faded jacket which he wore with the hood up as he hunched over and apparently slept in his seat. At first I politely ignored him, but I couldn’t help but notice his fingernails – long, curved and yellow, in need of some attention and care. The more I looked at him the more I saw: the holes in his shoes, the worn fabric of his clothes, the smell of being unwashed, the utter exhaustion, even defeat in his posture. My heart was moved as I recognised the humanity in him, as I recognised myself in him (“here but for the Grace of God go I”). I resolved then to be kind to him, and settled on giving him some money before I got off the train. As we approached the station, I touched his hand gently and said “Ojii-san” (which means something like “Uncle”, or is a polite way of saying “Old man”). He didn’t notice at first so I shook him gently until he moved, and then I slipped a 500¥ coin into his hand (about $5) saying “Hai, dozou” (something like “Here, for you”). He seemed startled and thanked me, really thanked me from the bottom of his heart as he bowed to me (to express gratitude, not in a way that implied worship). He slipped the coin into his pocket as we left, and I felt the rush of endorphins at having done a good deed. Then, gently, I reminded myself that my pleasure was not the goal of helping others (though it does not mean I have to feel bad about it either – I can look upon the memory with happiness, so long as I don’t get caught up on it).

After that, things started to change a little for me. For some time now I’ve bought only a few material goods with the belief that “I don’t need more stuff to make my life better“. So many great people throughout history have been non-materialists, who have not owned very much and yet been very happy. And yet this aspiration of mine conflicted with the people I know who have plenty of fine things – clothes, whisky, teapots – and are still genuinely happy and not attached to their belongings (or their ego, for that matter). I realised in a kind of eureka moment that having stuff is not inherently bad. It is attachment, dependence and the potential as a cheap means of distraction that makes “stuff” potentially life-cluttering. As I stood there in the changerooms of Topman, looking at a basketball jersey that I didn’t really like, I suddenly realised that it’s okay for me to look nice, to care about my presentation and to have my own sense of style, not for the benefit of others but for my own expression of self. And so I left the store, because I just wasn’t feelin’ it, and hit up UniQlo instead. 20140216_223412I bought a tartan shirt, a pink polo, a blue jacket, and a navy shirt to go with my sweet maroon room pants. The next day, I dared to buy a yukata (a lightweight cotton kimono-style garment for summerwear), including geta (wooden shoes), just because I could. I felt confirmed in my sense of identity, and in how I wanted to express that identity, and I am utterly grateful for that moment in my life.

I also want to say that for most of my life I’ve also cherished the belief that I don’t need much money to survive (maybe a few dozen dollars a week) and I should give the rest to people who need it more. After my revelation, I now believe that spending money on myself isn’t wasteful, but neither is it a right. It is a privilege I have for being fortunate enough to be wealthy – wealthy enough to be healthy and safe and financially and materially secure. Spending money on myself doesn’t lessen my character, doesn’t make me any less kind (which I still believe is one of the only thing that really matters in life, one of the three treasures of the Tao). So long as I am grateful for what I have and don’t take it for granted, it’s good to have nice clothes (and whisky and teapots).

Well, that’s enough for now. I’ll write again soon. All the best.

-Xin

Tokyo Saga: Shibuya and Ghibli

This entry comes to you from Tokyo. The feeling of the city, the culture, the spirit of it, is very different to Osaka. Firstly as my friend pointed out, people stand left and walk right on the escalators. Secondly, foreigners abound and congregate unsettlingly at popular places like Akiba and Harajuku. I realise I’m a gaijin myself and am therefore contributing to the pollution (part of the traffic jam, as it were), but Westerners can be so rude, so loud and obnoxious and close-minded. Compared to the quiet, dignified, humble, friendly and above all courteous Japanese, it is a stark contrast. I will truly miss being here.

20140213_121749Our apartment in Tokyo is beautiful. It has the sliding doors, tatami floors (with the trimmings that my belt is made from!) and heated kotatsu (table) of my imaginings. I spend my nights sleeping on a futon, or as the case may be, blogging at 5am because (for once) I can’t fall asleep inside of a minute.

After settling in, the first major district we went to was Shibuya (boo-yah!). It’s hard to express just what’s so special about being in the popular shopping areas of Japan – there’s a special combination of people wearing business suits, skyscrapers on all sides, neon lights, giant flatscreens, the artificial birdcalls of the traffic lights, the odd girl in lolita or the beautiful madam dressed in a kimono… It all mixes together to make something beautifully charming, invigoratingly Japanese. That, and just about every store you go into has six floors of merchandise. The Disney-store in particularly was very charming, with walls painted like Wonderland, familiar tunes and a rather impressive Toy Story setup.

In case you don't recognise it, they're watching Toy Story 2.

In case you don’t recognise it, they’re watching Toy Story 2.

It was also really great to see the statue of Hachiko, the akita (dog) who used to walk with his master to the train station every day. When his master died (possibly during the first world war?), Hachiko continued to walk to the station daily and wait for his master’s return, year after year, until he too perished at last. Today the statue serves as a popular place to wait for friends before heading out.

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We went to the Ghibli museum, which was truly a delightful affair. It is more than just giant Totoro statues and short film clips: it is a world of enchantment, the dream of a studio mainly lead by the brilliance of Hayao Miyazaki. It was as if slices of this creative vision had been preserved in the concept art decorating the walls, the hand-painted stills, the technology of light and filmography and the replica of the animation studios where the work is done. The Strawhat Cafe, while a touch on the expensive side, was novel and charming. My favourite part of the museum (by far) was the theatre where we had tickets to see an original Ghibli short-film about sumo mice. Dare I say, that ten minute clip is my favourite Ghibli film yet. Their sumo was absolutely spot on, and it invoked such a strong emotional response that Beth and I started applauding afterwards and got a fair portion of the audience to join us (which I suspect is uncommon in Japan).

This was also the day that it snowed heavily in Japan – the most there’s been in 45 years, I think. I used the enchanting atmosphere to propose ahead of schedule, and then proceeded to throw snowballs at Craig and Bethwyn on the way to the museum. It was magical, truly, as the snow came down like icing sugar, melting instantly when exposed to body-heat but coating everything in a light dusting of powder. I (barely) resisted the urge to make a snow angel (though we noticed several snowmen, including one with gloves. I was especially delighted to use my umbrella, which I relished shaking off with a cheeky flick and a quick yukiburi. The snow came thick and fast all throughout the day and night, and by the next morning everything (even, for once, the ground) was covered in either snow, ice or the sludgy in-between. It was actually quite unstable and dangerous, and workers appeared en-masse to shovel the snow enough to create a path to prevent people slipping and sliding all over the place in their high heels on their way to work.

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That’s it for now but I’ll write again soon. Salaam!

-Xin

My First Experience of Onsen

Following on from my last entry, we got home from Hiroshima quite late, sipping our Pokemon and DragonballZ sodas. (They tasted average, but looked awesome. Ahh the vending machines here, they’re bleeding me dry.) Our apartment is a three minute walk from SpaWorld, a collection of baths from around the world. If you didn’t already know, Japan is big on public bath houses known as onsen, and SpaWorld was a mighty collection of them. There are two sections, the Eastern (Japanese-style) and Western baths, and they alternate between men-only and women-only by the month. Their entry fee was down to 1000¥, and so Beth, Craig and I had previously been keen to try out the bathing-suit swimming pool area. Unfortunately this unisex, clothed area closed at 7pm so we weren’t able to experience it. Nevertheless, after a hard day of walking several dozen kilometers I was keen for a soak in the baths. Neither Beth nor Craig shared my enthusiasm so I went by myself to try the Western-style baths (the flavour of the month for men).

Indulge me for a moment while I describe the process in a little more detail in the hopes that this blog alleviates some of the anticipatory anxiety of others who are wondering what an onsen might involve. In this particular establishment, I bought the ticket from a vending machine and used it to enter the hotel’s reception area where I received a waterproof bracelet with an ID number. This would allow me to get massages, food and drink and pay for them on the way out. I took my shoes off on the carpeted area and stored them in a nearby locker for a refundable 100¥. I went up the lifts to the floor with the Western baths, and entered a half-curtained area that said “Men Only”. There I found a mass of lockers, people walking around in uniform blue shirts and shorts, and a few people who were walking around naked or clutching a small orange towel. I approached a staff member for help, but he only spoke a little English so I just looked around and tried to follow (birthday) suit.

I stripped off and put my gear in a locker for another refundable 100¥, leaving the keys with my wristband. Trying not to be self-conscious, I grabbed one of the modesty towels to wrap around my waist, but skinny as my butt is, it wouldn’t quite get all the way around. Giving up, I just strolled around acting normal, and as far as I can tell I seemed to fit right in. I walked through the changeroom, the bathroom (with shampoos and lotions and hairdryers) and entered the bathhouse proper, getting sprayed on the way (to get clean before the baths).

There were perhaps ten rooms in all, and I was absolutely astonished by the beauty of the first one. It was a Roman Bath set at a scalding 43 degrees Celsius, and it was utterly desolate. I looked around nervously, wondering if I was supposed to get in, when two young men got in and just relaxed there. I left my towel on a rock nearby and climbed in gingerly, trying not to look out of place or letting the burning show on my face. Once I got over the heat, it was utterly peaceful. The two young men got up and left pretty quickly after that, and after spending a little longer there by myself I started to get unnerved. I quickly learned that it seemed to be the custom to only spend a few minutes in each bath before moving onto the next.

I made my way from room to room, passing by the sauna and the cold bath without much hesitation. I sat in the Spanish room with my feet in a Germanian footbath (strangely, it seemed it was perfectly acceptable to order drinks and enjoy them while sitting around naked). The atmosphere was distinctly European, and I found it quite enjoyable. There was a pool six inches deep where you could lie back and watch tropical fish in a tank. There was a room designed like a cave where you could enjoy a warm salt bath – or just sleep on the rocks nude, like the guy who was in there when I entered. My favourite room had a pretty powerful waterfall that threw up an abundance of steam while airjets in the floor shot out streams of bubbles. But in the end, I went back to the Roman bath and thoroughly enjoyed the pleasure of submerging in the scalding water.

In terms of the men there, there were surprisingly more young men (in their 20’s) than older men (40+). There were no foreigners dedicated enough to go at 11pm like me, and people were either there solo, in pairs or as part of a group of students, occasionally exchanging a quiet word or saying nothing at all. Everyone more or less kept to themselves, and it was not at all weird that we were all naked. No one stared, there was no yelling or laughing, and we all just gave each other a respectful buffer of distance and enjoyed the experience of some very fancy baths.

I towelled off, got changed and headed back downstairs before 12am to avoid the late-night fee. To leave, I had to check out by dropping my ID bracelet in an ATM-like device in exchange for a receipt. Scanning this receipt at the turnstile allowed me to exit.

All in all, a great time was had, and I find myself wishing I could go back again. Beth and Craig were somewhat swayed, but did not end up going before we left Osaka. I’m looking forward to my next onsen experience! Until next time.

-Xin

A Pair Engaged

This is a short interruption from the intended JapAdventures saga to mention that I am now officially engaged to Bethwyn. I’d long since dreamed of proposing in Japan, kneeling on the balcony while sipping hot tea, watching the snow fall with blankets around our shoulders, composing haiku that marvelled at the magnificence of the world while elegantly framing deeply symbolic statements in seventeen syllables. As if.

My plan was to wait until we were in Kyoto and visit the love stones at Kiyomizu Dera. Legend has it that those individuals who can find their way from one stone to the other (six metres away) will find true love. I had schemed to get Bethwyn to put on a blindfold and try it, but there were many, many variables with this plan that may not have gone smoothly. Beth might not have been feeling well enough to go to the temple, she might not have dared to be blindfolded in public, and she might not have responded well to being the centre of attention amidst a crowd of strangers. All of these were very possible mood-killers.

Instead, I proposed to her this Valentine’s morning. Craig had left to go people watching/photographing so we had the house to ourselves. It was snowing outside, and we held each other lovingly. I suddenly realised that Bethwyn would probably prefer to not be in public during the proposal, so I rifled through Craig’s bags looking for “that thing he borrowed from me” (which Bethwyn thought was a naughty magazine), got down on one knee, and asked her to marry me. I could have thought of more romantic words to use, but none of them came to me and I didn’t want to risk stumbling over my tongue. She said yes, we kissed, she trembled, we laughed, I made hoto kaeki (hot cakes). All in all, a very good morning.

Alas, the engagement ring I ordered arrived a week too late, so I used the wedding ring instead. They’re made from walnut and oak wood, with a band of lapis lazuli. We’re both wearing them now, but I think I’ll probably take it off when I get back to Australia so that I can have the pleasure of wearing it once we’re married. But for now, it will be my special Japan ring.

Regular edition of “JapAdventures” coming up soon.

Love,

Xin

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Pokemon, Toylets and Hiroshima

20140209_134533Day 4 in Japan found us at the Pokemon Centre in Osaka. It took us a while to figure out that it was actually inside the Osaka train station, and Craig and I were wowed by the thirteen floors of department store that we went through until we reached the centre at the top. There, on a Saturday, it was a children’s wonderland: there were cookies shaped like Pokemon, stationery, plushies, bags, charms, trading cards, arcade-style games and best of all, other children with Pokemon games. In fact, there was such an abundance of 3DS’s that I quickly made it my mission to unlock the achievement for 100 streetpasses in a single day. To that end, Craig and I spent the entire day in Daimura and around the train station, returning to the Pokemon Centre several times to pick up new streetpasses, following kids around until the Little Green Light of Joy started flashing. By the time we left, I counted 72 encounters and I resolved to get the final 28 on the way home. I picked up a few here and there, creeping slowly into the 80’s. When we got on the train I wasn’t picking up anyone new, and in desperation I abandoned Craig and started walking the length of the train, getting off at each station and proceeding up into the next carriage. It is in this fashion that I found myself in the Women Only cart, which I realised with tremendous embarrassment when I noticed the abundance of schoolgirls. Fortunately no one said anything about the creepy guy lurking in the corner, and I quickly made my way back to another carriage. (I later saw a guy sitting in a Women Only cart, so I think it does happen occasionally and isn’t as screamworthy as I feared). By the time we got home I had picked up 98, and in a fervour of desperation we headed back out to Shinsaibashi to find the elusive two.

20140209_214250To my relief, we picked them up quickly and enjoyed a night of walking around in one of the busier shopping districts of Osaka. We had dinner in a vegan restaurant that the owner of Le Coccole recommended to us. And as fate had it, she also came in for dinner there halfway through our meal and said hello! Afterwards we had a distinctly un-vegan cheesecake (which was so soft it was almost wet), enjoying the sights like the Glico running man and the giant crab. We found a store dedicated to K-pop paraphernalia, and discovered the wonders of the toylets in the Sega arcade. Toylets are perhaps the most brilliant luxury invention I’ve ever had the pleasure of using: they’re simply a urinal with a target in them and a video screen above them showing a cute girl doing a news report in the park. The more you pee on the target, the windier it gets, and the girl responds by covering herself and blushing. It was so simple, and so entertaining, that I was tremendously disappointed I couldn’t immediately play it again.

Since then we’ve also taken a day trip to Hiroshima. It was a bitterly cold day when we visited the Peace Memorial Park, learning about the horrors of atomic war. I was moved to tears several times as I read and listened to stories about individual human beings who suffered tremendously due to the reckless abandon of nuclear destruction. Over and over the resounding message was “People are so stupid to cherish something such as the atomic bomb as valuable”. One thing I particularly loved in the museum were some of the cranes that Sachiko had folded herself. We walked the grounds, looking at the A-Dome (the hull of a building that had been cherished before the bomb), the Children’s Memorial, and a Phoenix tree, a symbol of hope that new life could continue to grow after such wanton devastation. The tree in particular resonated with me because after the bomb it was commonly believed that nothing could grow in the soil for 75 years. Yet this tree, a kilometer away from the hypocentre, began sprouting new leaves. It was moved to the peace park, and its seeds are taken to primary schools around the country to continue to spread the message of hope. Afterwards we went for okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-style (made distinct by being pre-cooked and including soba noodles), and it was the best meal I’ve had in Japan to date.20140211_160716 1508058_10152135445258941_1577665604_n DSC_1886

That’s enough blogging for one day, but there are plenty more things to write about. I’ll update again soon. Happy Valentine’s Day all!

Love,

Xin

My First Class in the Way of the Sword

Following on from my last entry, I did indeed go back to the Shudokan dojo at Osaka-jo (castle). My plan was to arrive a little while before a class, introduce myself to the most teachery person I could find and ask if I could do kendo in my karate gi. If they said no, I would ask them if judo would be okay. I imagined I might not understand all of the instructions, but by watching carefully and listening attentively, I was sure I could pick up many pointers and learn many techniques.

Things did not go quite as planned. I did indeed arrive early for the first class of the evening and my heart soared as I removed my shoes and stepped inside. Half the floor was padded and empty (which later filled with judoka), and the other half was wooden with a handful of children practicing sword strikes against tyres and their teacher. I did not want to interrupt, so I waited until another adult in kendo gear appeared and asked (in horrendously simplified, broken Japanese) if it would be okay to do kendo. She took me to a woman whom I shall call Kensai-sensei and explained my wish. Kensai-sensei said it would be fine and told me to go to the reception and sign up for a class (or something to that effect). I stared at her blankly and apologised for my lack of understanding. She asked me many questions, and I answered very little of help until she (without frustration, just fluster) finally said “You don’t speak any Japanese at all?” and more or less gave up in using words to direct me. I wrote my name on a piece of paper and gave the 300¥ and ran around in the back of the dojo to find somewhere to change. As I put my gi on in a disabled toilet, I heard drums beating in the distance and my heart sank – was I missing the start of class?

When I found my way back to the main hall, the students were already running around, beginning the warm-up and Kensai-sensei was nowhere in sight. I approached an older man in armour and tried again to ask “Can I kendo?” He did not understand. I tried to explain my hope, that I had already paid, that someone had told me it was fine, but he just didn’t understand me, nor did I understand him. All I gathered was that he possibly disapproved of my karate gi, and with a heavy heart I realised it might be too late. Just as I was leaving to talk to the office girls in one final attempt at communication, Kensai-sensei caught up with me, grabbed a bokken (and later, a shinai when she found one that was appropriately sized) and invited me to the back of the class.

Through my embarrassment and stress I noticed two things. Firstly, the students seemed to be aged between 6 and 14. Secondly, hardly any of them said anything that the strange guy wearing a blue karate gi and a brown belt had just joined the class. Their politeness and their respect was humbling, though I think some of their parents might have spoken to each other in low voices about what I was doing there. We practiced basic suri ashi stepping exercises and I mimicked the stance I had seen the other students using before class: square shoulders, right foot forwards at all times, left foot raised onto the ball taking small, shuffling steps. All the students gathered in a big circle and the oldest/highest ranked boy began calling out the counts for sword cuts and I worked up quite a sweat moving backwards and forwards in small shuffles. Shinai are certainly very different to bokken- they do indeed bounce, and it is this bounce that you rely on to re-chamber between strikes. They also emphasise stamping the foot at the moment of impact, which was a little unusual for me.

Kensai-sensei called me over to her group of students who weren’t wearing any armour. I was grateful that she was taking me under her wing, and I was surprised at how good the children were. There was one little boy wearing glasses who seemed unfocussed, unenthused and generally not very passionate about being there. A six-year-old girl with a ponytail had reasonable technique and truly impressive spirit, charging quickly and yelling with all the strength of her lungs. I was also honoured to be training with two teenagers who were both very good, a boy who called out techniques and demonstrated with Sensei, and a girl who was not far behind in his skill level. It was she that I was first partnered with for basic shomen uchi drills, and although she seemed uncertain at first, I think she came to trust me not to hit her.

We went through partner drills, cutting high and low as Kensai-sensei donned her armour. We progressed to practicing basic strikes on her, and I started to gain confidence, calling “Yoooo!” before engaging, “Meeeeen!” when striking the head, “Koteeeeee!” when striking the wrist and “Dooooo!” when striking the body. By the end of the class we were doing semi-free form as Sensei exposed her wrist or head or body and we would attack, either getting pushed back for another strike or carrying through and shuffling past her. Her mastery was obvious to me in the way she hardly moved at all, or just enough to let us practice what she wanted us to learn.

In the last few minutes, the class came back together again for a few more drills, Kensai-sensei struck the drum in an amazing rhythm that chilled me to my bones, and then we settled for seated meditation. We bowed to the head teacher, then ran up to our various sensei and bowed again. Kensai-sensei turned and smiled at me, and I prostrated myself with another proclamation of “Arigatou gozaimashita!” I don’t think any words on earth could have conveyed how grateful I was for her allowing me to participate when I was so close to leaving. I also turned to my partner afterwards and told her “Anata wa jozu ni.” I think it means “You are skilled”, but I’m not entirely sure. She looked surprised and smiled, and I hope she understood.

As I was leaving, a large number of young men with weapon bags entered from the change rooms (which had once again eluded me). I wondered if they were about to start an advanced class, or maybe their naginata unscrewed into two pieces, but I didn’t dare push their hospitality by trying to stay. I left through the back door, realising I may have been very bold to enter through the front door on the way in, and made the long walk back to the train station. It was only after I got home that I realised I had misread the timetable and had attended the children’s class instead of the general/beginner’s class. I felt really ashamed about the mistake I had made, but in the end it turned out to be a wonderful experience. Although the miscommunication was very challenging, I learned a lot and had heaps of fun. Nevertheless I hope that my next martial arts class (possibly Wing Chun with our host in Tokyo) goes a little more smoothly! Until next time.

An Out of Body and Into Cake Experience

Hello again from Japan! Day 2 in Nihon found us at Osaka-jo, or Osaka Castle. Perhaps we didn’t get the full experience but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting! Previous visits to castles in England were ruined stone structures of magnificent proportions, but Japanese castles are naturally quite a different architectural kettle of fish. The castle itself appeared to have been turned into a museum which (perhaps a little regrettably) we decided not to go into, and instead enjoyed walking the grounds. The plum blossoms were beautiful and fragrant, though the peach blossom trees which I was so looking forward to were still bare from the cold.

"They are all... perfect."

“They are all… perfect.”

I also happened to notice that they had a Shudokan dojo within the castle grounds. They apparently teach judo, kendo and naginatajutsu for 300¥, so I’m going to brave a judo class on Monday and see if they’ll let me stay for naginatajutsu. I’d love to try kendo but to be honest I’m worried about offending them with my uniform – it’s a canvas blue gi with my brown belt. I rather wish I’d brought my white belt, but Kancho convinced me it would be deceitful and therefore offensive. I’ll report back on how that goes later!

The language barrier is still existent but getting less daunting over time. It was pretty scary walking into a Japanese restaurant where they didn’t speak English and trying to order food. We read bits and pieces on the menu in Hiragana and Katakana and managed to tell the waitress what we wanted. It was a great triumph. Since then we’ve had little conversations like “How do you get to this train station? Oh, it’s over there, turn right, up the stairs at exit three? Okay, thank you very much!” and “How long are we staying in Osaka? Six days. It’s very cold. We’re from Australia where it’s very hot!” and things to that extent (though far more broken). The Japanese people as a whole seem extremely polite and patient with our bumbling gaijin ways.

It also seems that many of them are not afraid to come up to us and start talking to us in broken English.While I was in the bathroom some middle-school students approached Beth and Craig and asked for a photo. It was so flattering that we went out of our way to walk past other high school students in the hopes it would happen again. While eating lunch yesterday, an old man approached our table to talk to Craig. From what we could gather, he really wanted Craig to get some styling wax and curl the edges of his moustache upwards. He was very emphatic about how good this would have been. I took a photo to commemorate the event.

Ojii-san loved Craig's 'stache

Ojii-san loved Craig’s ‘stache

20140207_222153We also experienced our first moderate snow storm! Snow flakes came down in flurries and I couldn’t help running around on the streets with my mouth open, choking on them as they hit the back of my throat. Craig and I headed up to the roof (via the Batloft) and made a snowman, threw snowballs at each other and nearby signposts (and possibly woke up our neighbours with our raucous guffawing – how inconsiderate) and drank beer. I’m not big on drinking, and I definitely don’t have a taste for beer, but Craig drank three in the time it took me to finish one Asahi, which tragically turned out to be 0.00% alcohol.

In terms of food, I’ve been a pretty poor vegan since I got here. As this website suggests, the Japanese add meat to everything, let along animal products. To be perfectly frank, my resilience for trying to engage in conversation to order vegetarian/vegan food has been very low, so I’ve just given in and had chicken and bacon and fish. And my stomach has had the occasional burning stab of pain, but I’ve otherwise enjoyed it thoroughly. However, we do have a list of vegetarian/vegan restaurants that we’ve been intending to investigate. On our second night here we had dinner at Le Coccole, a charming Italian-themed vegan restaurants with the most charming decor I’ve ever seen. Butterflies and trees and little men were painted on the walls with very convincing shadows behind them, and the food was absolutely superb. I would describe their sake as “A kiss from the inside”, and at when I tried their tofu cheesecake I uttered the phrase “I think I’m having an experience”. I hope to have similar healthy, vegan meals to let my body recover a little from the sudden abuse it’s taken.

The back of her singlet says "Delightfully tacky yet unrefined". I'm not joking.

The back of her singlet says “Delightfully tacky yet unrefined”. I’m not joking.

Craig and I also enjoyed a unique dining experience at Hooters. It had a huge number of American tourists and the cigarette smoke was somewhat overwhelming, but we nevertheless stuck it out until a table became available. And as uncomfortably objectifying of women as it had initially seemed to be, our waitress Maco immediately won me over with her cute smile and broken English. She saw us looking at the “Vote for Miss Hooters Osaka so that the winner can fly to America” card and wrote her name on a napkin for us. Unfortunately it turned out you needed to buy beer to place a vote, and we decided not to bother (as cute as she was). When she was about to leave to place our order, I couldn’t stop the following words from tumbling out of my mouth: “Maco-chan, shyashin onegaishimasu!” (Sweet Maco, please do me the favour of a photo!) I am both ashamed and delighted I enjoyed myself so much.

20140208_153714The other big thing we’ve done so far is go to Kaiyukan, the Osaka Aquarium. It was a wonderful collection of some amazing animals in extraordinary displays (the main one of which was several dozen metres tall, spanning numerous floors). I was instantly charmed by the river otters, and then got even more obsessed with the sea otters (just cruisin’ around being otters, smashing things on their bellies and chewing ice). The somewhat playful dolphins, and the attention-loving seals were also a treat. There was even a seal wizard who was fascinating them with his yoyo mastery. I was the only one brave enough to try the touch pool, where I felt the sandpapery skin of the sharks and the slimy, algaeish skin of a stingray. 

 

Although this blog has rambled on quite long enough, I just want to mention two more things: The toilets here are magical. They are not at all a far stretch from The Simpson’s depiction. They have heated seats, water jets and a button that will make flushing noises if you’re feeling embarrassed (I presume). Secondly, this is pretty much The Land of 3DS’. In the three days I’ve been here, I’ve accumulated more soldiers in StreetPass Battle than I have with months of using Play Coins. One dude just gave me 75000 soldiers for offering him kind greetings!! I just can’t get over how happy I am that everywhere I go I meet more people to interact with and get new missions from etc.

All right, that’s enough for now. Ja!

Hello from Japan!

Konnichiwa! Oh God, I’m so stereotypical. Well, hello anyway from Japan!

The flight over was much more arduous than I’m used to. Although (possibly to Beth and Craig’s envy) I slept for most of it, I also regret not being able to stay awake, brimming with energy and joy the whole time as I usually do, playing games and reading and watching fantastic movies. Our flights didn’t even have free movies, alas, but I did get a large amount of rest. And, to my relief, I also managed to make my umbrella through to Malaysia on the plane, and then checked it in as luggage for the flight to Osaka.

Arriving in Osaka was full of excitement and little triumphs. Almost everyone we’ve interacted with here has been so polite and patient and kind, despite the obvious language barrier. Even the lady at customs who searched Craig’s bags for drugs apologised for taking so long to do so! There were vending machines everywhere with amazing drinks. I successfully asked a shop assistant “Simu-cardo way arimasu ka?” and got a response in the negative. It turns out that Sim cards are not common in Japan in order to access internet. What they do instead is carry a small phone-sized device which broadcasts a wireless signal. We found our way to the railway station and (with the help of a man who literally popped out of the wall next to us when we pressed the buzzer for help, and a kind passerby who saw us struggling with our tiny, ill-prepared map) we found our way to the apartment about an hour late. We met our host, the adorable Fumi-chan (who says sake is gooooooood!) and bought some amazing food from Lawsons, the convenience stores here.

I have to admit, after the initial rush of pleasure I felt really beat down, disheartened, scared, alone and helpless. The 20+ hours I’d sunk into Japanese audiobooks, while certainly useful, has not at all prepared me for even the simplest conversations with shopping assistants. The culture shock of being in a country where communication with most people you meet is difficult if not impossible is quite challenging. But after some rest and good food, my spirits picked back up again and I didn’t mind goodnaturedly struggling along as a tourist.

20140206_150806We hit up some retro game stores and found some classic games for Craig’s Sega Saturn. I was amazed at first by how many games involved underwear or even nudity, but after seeing all the adult magazines and suggestive anime-girl posters I’m a little desensitised now. In one such store, there was a cardboard cutout of a skimpily dressed anime girl with a big red button on her. When I pressed it she started moaning in a way that was both hilarious and endearing.

McDonalds here is amazing. Yes, McDonalds. I know, we’re stereotypical tourists, and they didn’t have salads so I caved like a house of cards and had a burger. But holy crap, it was superb. It was the crispiest, most flavoursome burger I have ever had (modest as it was).

After stopping by Mr Donut and Lawsons for dessert and breakfast foods, we returned to the house where I went through all my 3DS StreetPasses. And holy smokes, I got like 20 in a day (18 new puzzle pieces) and 10 Resident Evil missions and 10 Fire Emblem opponents and ohmygodyes. And finally, after a long, long day, I retired in the Batloft where I sleep. It was surprisingly warm. Okay, gotta stop keep everyone waiting. Ja, mata!

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Questionnaire

I’ve always wanted to create my own questionnaire, so here is my first ever original one. As I’ve said previously, I derive some strange pleasure from sharing information about myself and delight in taking this kind of chainmail survey. Don’t feel obliged to pass it on, but totally feel free to if you enjoy it too.

  1. What is your favourite time of day? Sunrise. Although I’m not fond of getting up earlier than I have to, when I do it’s as if I breathe in the very essence of the universe. It is a strange feeling being awake at dawn, as if somehow I contribute to the coming of the day just by bearing witness to it. I’d love to start getting up earlier more often – perhaps I’ll make it a New Year’s Resolution!
  2. Who do you think is one of the great men of this age? Dan Djurdjevic, a gentle man of tremendous skill and knowledge, as well as a passion for teaching the martial arts. As he gets older and experiences greater levels of physical illness, I have nothing but awe and respect for a human being who is exceeding as a man of the Tao.
  3. Who do you think is one of the great women of this age? This one is hard to pick. But I’ll go with my counsellor Naomi, who sews the seeds of kindness and wisdom with every breath she takes. She’s the kind of person that gives me comfort from knowing she’s alive and improving the lives of everyone around her.
  4. What song/s has/have been stuck in your head for days? Ahh, where do I begin. “Jack’s Lament” from The Nightmare Before Christmas, “Still Alive” from Portal, “This Day” from My Little Pony, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan, “When Will My Life Begin” from Tangled, “Gangnam Style” by Psy, “The Confrontation” and “Stars” and “Look Down” from Les Miserables… And that’s not even counting the ones I sing for hours on end like SHINee’s “Everybody”, G-Dragon’s “Who You” and Wang Lee Hom’s “Zodiac”. Clearly Beth’s Asian Pop tastes have rubbed off on me.
  5. If you could recast any film, what film and who would you use? A surprisingly hard question – all the films that spring to mind are ones that I love. Maybe Twilight, with Bella played by someone with more than one expression like… Oh hell, Evanna Lynch? Kinda have a crush on her but I don’t know how good a Bella she’d be.
  6. What sort of person do you want other people to see you as? I really want to be a person who makes others light up with energy and happiness just by being around me, and who inspires others to be kinder by setting a good example. Damnit, now I have the “This Day” aria stuck in my head.
  7. What word or phrase secretly bothers you? Apart from “the S word I don’t like it when people say “That was lucky!” when referring to something that had nothing to do with luck. For example, “It was lucky I studied [such and such a topic] because there was a question about it in the exam!” No it wasn’t, it was sensible to study everything that might pop up in the exam, you peanut.
  8. If you could broadcast a message to every person in the world, what would it be? “You are a beautiful, lovable person, and you deserve to be happy.”
  9. What do you wish you could spend more time doing? Reading Shihan’s blog!
  10. If, like the Dalai Lama, you only had thirteen material possessions, what would they be? I think I may have picked too hard a question. Just off the top of my head I’ll say my phone and charger, a bowl, a spork, underwear, shorts, pants, a shirt, a jacket, shoes, my sleeping bag, my glasses and… oh man, the last one is the hardest because if I choose something now, it excludes everything else in existence. I guess I’ll go with something generic like my multitool. Oh wait, car! I pick car!
  11. What material possessions do you really love but not necessarily need? I’m pretty infatuated with my Casio G-shock watch – it’s back-lit, shock-proof, water-proof, glossy black with a touch of blue and purple and tailors to pretty much every need I could have from a timepiece. I also really enjoy using my unbreakable umbrella, for rain or for smashing melons. And I’m very fond of my hiking boots have carried me across all manner of wonderful places.
  12. What is your superpower? Super Sleep. Every night without fail (unless something is horribly wrong) I fall asleep within a minute, two at the most.
  13. What was the most amazing meal you ever had? I still can’t forget that amazing lunch I ate while I was on a meditation retreat. After hours of sitting quietly and trying not to attach to any thoughts, when it came to putting the food in my mouth the amount of sensation was overwhelming. It was delicious in every imaginable way, and so healthy and nourishing.
  14. Who are the top five people you most want to spend a day with? Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, John Green, Hank Green, and you know, I want to also say Allie Brosh from Hyperbole and a Half. I think we’d be really great friends, if that’s not too creepy to say.

 

EDIT: Hmmm. Whoops. I’ve been secretly adding questions to this questionnaire for like, six months (don’t judge me) but I accidentally clicked publish instead of save. Ah well, 14 is a good number of questions. Go nuts and let me know if you do your own!

General life update

Golly, been a bit taciturn lately haven’t I? I would have thought that, placement having concluded I’d have all the time in the world for computing and blogging. But it seems that when I have free time the last thing I want to do is jump on the computer. I tend to stockpile things to look up on google, watch on youtube, respond to on facebook, read on someone’s blog and process through email. Usually when I sit down, I’ll be working intensively on the computer for hours, trying to get as much of this stuff done as possible, will exhaust myself with only a few things accomplished, and then give up and play video games. And I’m pretty okay with that.

 

Speaking of video games, I’m right into Dragon Age Origins at the moment. In truth, I’m utterly delighted with how much gaming I’m getting done these holidays. I’m a bit annoyed that the games I pick tend to take like, 40-200 hours to pass though. Most recently, Mass Effect 3, Fallout 3, Dragon Age Origins, The Last of Us, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and so forth. I kind of enjoy playing eight hour flings, but in the end it seems I keep coming back to deep stories with moral choices, adventures and unlockables. My character in DAO is a super beefy warrior with sword and shield, a paladin of justice, a paragon of virtue and an all-round tank. I also had the pleasure of trying mage and rogue characters, which surprisingly I enjoyed once I gave them a chance. Totally different mindset, but I’m glad I tried different character types so I better know how to balance and make use of my party. Massive crush on Zevran, by the way. I think it’s the accent.

 

I recently had the very good pleasure of going to the 50th birthday/housewarming party of the head of my martial arts school. His new property is in Mundaring, bordering a national park. The drive in was absolutely magnificent at sunset (though the road is only big enough for one car at a time!) and the grounds are just stunning. He has his own granite quarry with a functional crank-winch (that sounds like a rather obnoxious name for an unpleasant lady) and a small dam with canoe. For the party, his wife had also organised an adult-grade bouncy castle with giant foam mallets for battling, and a live band. As you’ve no doubt guessed, all the martial artists jumped in there and mercilessly attacked each other until we were exhausted. Rob and I also took the canoe across the dam to admire the forrested grounds on the far side, and as we wandered I saw a flash of someone running around the bank. Anticipating that someone was trying to steal the boat while we were distracted, I urged Rob to jump in and push off. Unfortunately I unbalanced us as I climbed in afterwards and we capsized. The water was warm and muddy, and I laughed and laughed and laughed. Beth laughed too, so hard she cried, as she and Rob’s girlfriend watched us from afar. I borrowed some clothes from Kancho and took my phone apart and headed home a little while later. The phone was soaked, and a night in rice didn’t provide the miracle cure others had insisted it would. I later learned that you’re never supposed to turn a water-damaged phone on after it’s been soaked, but nevertheless I got the speaker replaced and the handset dried out for the very modest price of $68.

 

Now onto the important thing: Today, I’m going to Japan! Or, if I can say this correctly, “Kyou wa Nihon ni ikimasu!“. I’m up to Lesson 10 in Pimsleur’s Japanese 2, a highly recommended resource for learning a new language. I’ve done 20+ hours in total and my Japanese is still not good enough to follow along with shows aimed at toddlers, but it’s certainly a start. I’m pretty much all packed, just a few last minute things to sort out like loading ebook reader with Percy Jackson books and so forth. But otherwise, expect to hear from me in the not-too-distant future from Osaka! Well, see you soon my friends!