DisneySea, Cats and Maids Cafes and Electric Town

The next day Craig and I ended up going to Tokyo Disneysea, though Beth chose to stay home and rest. Following our trend, Mr Craig and I arrived quite late in the day and didn’t have so many hours to spend queuing for rides. We only went on one – the 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea adventure, which was totally freaking worth the entry price alone. The magic of travelling (seemingly) underwater, to risk the perils of a giant squid in order to see the wonders of a mermaid kingdom, was an enchantment like no other. I really can’t stress enough how easy it was to forget that we weren’t actually on the sea bottom, using our tiny torchlight to explore the dark depth of the ocean. The rest of the park was rich in the same wonderment of atmosphere, and I really was surprised at the extraordinary amalgamation of cultures which separated each fo the zones. Other highlights include a very talented brass marching band, the eruption of Mount Prometheus (with real fire shooting out of the volcano which I could feel the heat of even hundreds of metres away) and a little boy who ran for his life when he thought he’d fired a cannon. (To be fair, the sound effects and the puff of smoke were quite brilliant.)

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20140220_210033The night we got back from Disneysea we (surprisingly) dredged up the health to go to a cat cafe. It was a little different from what I expected, with more focus on the cats and less the cafe. After paying an hourly rate (until they closed at 10pm), we were admitted into a very relaxed, quiet room where a scattering of people sat around dangling toys for the cats, talking over hot drinks from vending machines and using laptops. At the end of the room was a Wii, and there were free iPads which you could use to play interactive games with the cats.  Predictably, most of the cats were not the slightest bit interested in us, though some of them let us stroke them as they were busy otherwise ignoring us and playing with other cats/the regulars. Craig and I soon set upon Bomberman, where I received a sound and thorough thrashing. It was a lovely way to spend a quiet evening in gentle company, but probably too expensive to make a habit of.

The next day Craig and I hit up Akiba, or Akihabara, also known as Electric Town. It’s famous for being the epicentre of nerdiness and Otaku culture in Japan, and one of the first things we did there was hit up a Maid Cafe. Like the cat cafe, we were charged an hourly rate for the pleasure of being waited on by cute girls who called us “Master”. We participated in “Maid Magic”, rituals that lit flameless candles by breathing on them, and hand signs and cute words (like “Nyaa~”, “Oiishi!” (Delicious!), “Moe~” (adorable) and “Kyuu!”) in order to make our food tastier. We were given merchandise (which Craig, clearly a veteran, cautioned me might have an extra charge) and were treated to a dance by the maids on stage. One fellow sticks in my memory for being adorably shy, standing in the smoking corner and yet following along with every single move of the dance. To be honest (and I’ve thought about this for a while now) I found the whole thing kind of uncomfortable because it felt like I was paying them money to be adorable and attractive, and was kind of one step away from hiring an escort. But I’m sure other people enjoy the experience for different reasons, though I don’t think I’ll be going back again soon.

While in Akiba we found our way to a Superpotato, which not only sold retro consoles and games, but had a small retro arcade up the top. I thoroughly enjoyed playing Die Hard and nailing those quicktime events juuuust right, as well as finding the remaining volumes of the Japanese version of Cardcaptor Sakura for Beth. Being the Otaku epicentre of the world, I also hit up the Sega Megastore’s Toy-lets twice more, smashing my previous records with scores of 970 and 930ml’s.

I also saw some sumo on the train, and I idiotically said to them “Sorry to be rude. Photo exists?” and took a photo of them. They were not happy.

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My new best friends <3

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Kung Fu, Capbar and Disneyland Magic

While looking at airbnb, the website where we booked our accommodation (by renting houses and apartments for half the price of hotels), I noticed that the host of our Tokyo apartment practiced wing chun kung fu. He kindly allowed me to join him for a lesson where I got a small taste of wing chun under the guidance of Freddy Wong, who learned from Grandmaster William Cheung, who learned from the legendary Ip Man (teacher of Bruce Lee). The lesson was fantastic, though I was frustrated that much of it went over my head because my basics were so poor. I was nevertheless deeply impressed by Freddy’s form, control of range, speed of response, deflecting and trapping skills and much more. So impressed was I that I sought him out after class and asked for a private lesson the next day, where we drilled basic habits, techniques and stances in an applicable way. The more I trained, the more I came to understand his mastery – how he had adopted wing chun to be perfectly applicable in any situation. I tried throwing him, kicking him, locking his joints and striking him, and he resisted all of them with a smile and a loose, relaxed body with unbreakable structure. Perhaps what impressed me most though was how kind he was, how unpossessive of his knowledge and humble about his skills, and most of all how happy he was as he told me “Life is good.” I wrote down everything I learned from that lesson, but I already know that most of it is forgotten as the feeling leaves my body. I think it might well be worth practicing wing chun, building my basics, and returning to train with him again some day.

One of our more memorable evenings was spent at Capbar, the Capcom-themed bar which served novelty food from Biohazard (Resident Evil), Monster Hunter, Okami, Phoenix Wright and a bunch of Japanese series which I didn’t know the English names of. It was a lot more exciting and high energy than I expected, with the staff really energising the audience and doing impressive impersonations from games (and occasionally letting out a tiny meow from the bar). We didn’t understand a lot of what was happening, but I loved yelling out “Igi ari!” (Objection!) when when they asked us “And what do we say to the sauce?!” The food was Japanese-sized (that is to say, slightly on the small side) but the drinks were fricking amazing. Beth ordered sakura sake, with actual preserved cherry blossoms in the glass, Craig went for a drink that had a mixing ingredient in a syringe, and I ordered a non-alcoholic drink with candy-floss, and a somewhat alcoholic drink of amazingness. The desserts were also exquisite, particularly Craig’s Resident Evil licker-brain with raspberry sauce blood (which our adorable waiter made him stab with a knife).

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Our adventures next saw us in Tokyo Disneyland the so called “Happiest Place on Earth”. And, celebrating it’s 30th anniversary “Happy Year”, I have to say I’m inclined to agree. There is something remarkable, even magical about the atmosphere there, from the way that vendors wave at you with a smile without expecting you to buy anything, to the classic Disney songs that could be heard from a mile off and built in volume  as we approached. The Japanese people get right into the spirit, and pretty much everyone we saw was wearing some kind of Disney-themed headgear (including a group of high school girls who had styled their hair into Mickey Mouse ears). People in costumes (including a rather frightening Cinderalla’s Fairy Godmother, whose masked face was hollow and lifelessly trapped in a creepy grin) appeared at designated times for photos and signings, and I truly delighted in seeing Flynn Ryder smoulder. The Alice in Wonderland cafe was particularly wonderful (forgive me), and in each of the zones within the themepark were utterly distinct in atmosphere. My most delightful moment though was when we caught the Disneyland Parade, a huge stream of floats and costumed dancers waving and performing while the crowd cheered and took photos. Something about all that music (especially that ridiculous song that spelled out M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E) and confetti brought out the little boy in me, and I revelled in seeing such legendary figures as Buzz Lightyear, Princess Jasmine and even the King and Queen themselves, Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

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In terms of attractions, we accidentally stumbled into a Pirates of the Caribbean ride when we were looking for a bar. It was hauntingly breathtaking and my heart pounded in my chest in wonder and excitement. We sailed a long voyage through a town that Barbossa was sacking (as Geoffrey Rush cried out “Bring me the head of Captain Jack Sparrow!”) while animatronic pirates did battle amidst the smoke of gun and cannonfire. Most thrilling of all was passing through the talking visage of Davey Jones – I thought we were going to crash into him! – as he cackled maniacally in Japanese. We rode on a carousel, caught a train through the park (which saw animatronic dinosaurs as we passed through the mountain), stumbled into a Japanese Lilo and Stitch song and animatronic performance and went on the unerringly creepy “It’s a Small World” ride. We also lined up for Space Mountain, a hypnotically trippy, somewhat unsettling (what with all the “Caution: If you do not want to ride, this is an escape tunnel” signs along the queue) blast through the darkness as we careened unpredictably up, down, left and right. It was, and probably always will be, the most ecstatically fantastic roller coaster I have ever been on, and I’m sure as Beth screamed and grabbed my hand that I was grinning the whole way yet too breathless to laugh. Finally, and perhaps best of all, we made our way to Star Tours, the 3D shuttle ride adventure where we were force-gripped by Darth Vader and blasted our way through hyperspace to engage in some sweet, sweet space battles.

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Can you see what that little robot girl from the Small World ride is holding?

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Stay tuned for more adventures from the Land of the Rising Sun…

Adventures in Snowboarding

Despite coming to Japan during winter, Craig and I (and to a lesser extent, Beth) decided not to include much snowboarding or skiing in this trip. We did, however, decide that it was worth going at least for one day to try out. And that day was awesome, though perhaps limited by our poor timing.

Our aim was to arrive at 12pm and purchase the half-day tickets allowing us to ski freely until 5pm. Despite getting up at 8:15, Craig and I didn’t leave the house until about 10:45. To confuffle us further, we could not for the life of us navigate the trains: the line we were supposed to catch according to googlemaps did not exist, and when we inquired about it we were told to go to Platform 20. When we got to Platform 20, we were told to go to Platform 18, which apparently did not exist (like the legendary 9¾). When we finally got the right train, we approached the information desk to ask about how to get to Ishiuchi Maruyama and were told that it was not a good slope for beginners. They instead recommended Gala Yuzawa, and eventually we made our way there.

The guy at the resort was very concerned that we had never surfed or skateboarded let alone snowboarded, and strongly encouraged us to hire some pants and jackets “to protect us”. But we brushed him aside (I paid hundreds of dollars for my snowpants with the express purpose of using them) and bought some simplified tickets for the end of the day. When we approached the desk to hire snowboards and boots (my poor, no-longer-waterproof shoes were somewhat sodden), they too were of the mindset that it was not a good idea for first-timers to pick boards over skis. One fellow in particular essentially laughed in our faces and told us he’d love to go up their with a camera to watch us struggle. (He also called one of his colleagues a “halfguy” – half Japanese, half English. I was repulsed by his rudeness, and juxtapositioned with the politeness of the Japanese around him, I can see why they considered gaijin barbarians.) By the time we got out gear and put it on, struggling a bit with tightening the boots (I had to ask for help) and got up to the mountain, it was 3:30.

Getting on the board was interesting. When both my legs were strapped in, I (obviously) could not move one without the other. Without the ability to walk I found it very hard to get around. I quickly discovered that most people had one foot strapped in and one foot out in order to push, and experimented for a while with walking, sliding and falling in all directions. The snowflakes were massive and hitting us hard in the face, and the snow was powdery and yielding. I seemed to pick up the basics quite readily, changing directions, flipping 180, falling and getting up safely, even shifting my weight as I glided to turn slightly. After a bit of practice, Craig and I made our way to the beginner’s slope.

Despite the advice we’d been given at the resort, I made the mistake of following Wii Fit’s example and standing side-on. I quickly gained too much momentum and had to collapse onto the ground, scooping up an armful of snow to stop myself. The slope was gentle enough that it really took some effort to build up enough momentum to slide continuously, but when I did it was so much fun. Craig improved markedly, having a particularly good run of maybe 20 metres, changing directions and weight to control himself. It was excellent.

Unfortunately by the time we got down it was 4:15 and the skilift to the beginner’s slope had shut down. With a touch of sadness, Craig decided to catch the gondola back down to the main resort. I resolved to snowboard the 2.7km path back to the resort, but it turned out to be closed. Instead, having been robbed of my second slope, I snuck onto the main skilift to try out the longer beginner’s course. I chatted with the Americans whom I shared the lift with, and they (very supportingly) suggested I try the intermediate slope which more-or-less went straight down rather than gently winding around. I reluctantly agreed in the interests of time (I didn’t want to pay the extra half-day fee for returning the gear later than 5:30) so I followed them.

They gave me some great advice by showing me how to zigzag, turn slowly and then come back the other way. I found it daunting to face backwards down the mountain but gave it a try and was able to slowly make my way down. I discovered that keeping the board sideways provided the most friction, but what really mattered was where you put your weight. If your weight was back, you could apply so much resistance (by the angle of the board cutting into the snow) that you could come to a dead stop, even on a steep slope. It was through minor shifts in weight that you could alter the speed of your descent in this manner. Also, which side of the board was angled down would be the direction you would go in, and to avoid tumbling off the mountainside like so much cheese, I quickly learned to zig-zag and stay within the course-parameters. My new American friends were very encouraging and stayed with me, stopping to take photos as I struggled to catch up to them and then watching them zigzag off with sudden, sharp changes in angle. When I could see the gondola and realised the slope was ending, I thought “What the hell, I may only ever do this once”, I turned fully side-on and picked up as much speed as I dared. When I’d calculated enough distance for a safe and gradual descent, I turned the board sideways to slowly begin to brake. The sudden friction caused my board to instantly freeze in place while my torso kept going and I faceplanted pretty hard. I kept rolling and came to a skidding stop, spitting out snow and feeling the wind knocked out of me. Redfaced (literally), I came down the last few metres and waved goodbye to my new friends, then limped off to the gondola.

All in all, I think we spent just the right amount of time there. I was feeling pretty dejected after that final fall, there was snow in my clothes (and it scraped my face and back as I slid through it), my knees ached from the sudden lurches required to change directions and from the awkward falls over one leg. Despite my practice, I did use my arms to brace some of my backwards falls and my wrists ached (looks like more ushiro-ukemi for me). Back at the shinkansen station we had ramen, amazing and warm and vegan, for dinner and I slept on the train home (my knees giving out every couple of minutes as I struggled with exhaustion). All in all, an excellent day. I think that with a few more hours practice I might be able to ski down a beginner slope without falling over, and after a few more days I might survive an intermediate slope without faceplanting. Nevertheless, next time I’m in Japan I might try skiing instead.

-Xin