The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

True to form, I’m now in Tokyo and have quite a bit to catch up on. However, I just want to take a moment to blog specifically about a certain theme park and had, shall we say, an enchanting time. (This is the first of what I’m sure will be many bad puns.)


For those of you who don’t know, Universal Studios Japan hosts the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a recreation of Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley melded into one glorious wonderland. To be honest, with the haze of stress leading up to the wedding, standing in Diagon Alley in wizard robes was one of the only clear visions I had for what I hoped for on the honeymoon. Guys, let me tell you, it far exceeded my expectations. So wondrous was the experience that Craig and I deigned to repeat it the next day, buying additional full-day passes just to return to those wondrous cobblestone streets.


Having secured our ticket for the timed entry (we arrived at 12pm and the earliest we were allowed into TWWoHP was 5:10pm), we strode through the enchanting forest (with the crashed Ford Anglia and real birds living in real pine trees) and came upon the entrance.




Jubilant, positively elated, I took a photo with the first cast member I met. He spoke with a heavy English accent (which I suspect was affected, but that only served to excite me further) and complimented me on my hat. It was an excellent start to the adventure.


The moment we enterred Gladrags Wizardwear, Craig claimed to be a super keen Hufflepuff despite failing most of my quiz questions (such as “Name any spell. Expellimarmus doesn’t count.”) and bought a full set of Hufflepuff robes with matching scarf. Beth and I decided not to get sets of our own (I thought they weren’t particularly flaterring, and Beth wasn’t sure when she would ever wear them.) Despite not wanting to be seen wearing them in public, Craig professed being a hardcore Hufflepuff, and our second day was largely spent scouting for other Puffs (“Badger badger badger!”) and letting them know they weren’t lonely potatoes in a world of lions and eagles and serpents. (To be fair, the other Puffs were delighted to see Craig as well, and their mutual Huffliness lead to some great conversations.)



Another great highlight of the experience for me was attending Ollivanders wand shop. We were ushered into a tiny room full of dusty boxes where a lady explained in Japanese that we would be witness to a wand choosing ceremony today. She ushered us to go on through, and there was a confused murmuring at exactly where we were supposed to go when we were all packed into a small room. Then she said, “Ah!” with an apologetic bow and opened a secret door behind the store shelves. To my great and lasting delight, Bethwyn was selected by Garrick Ollivander himself for her first choosing. He spoke a delightful mix of English and Japanese, and set up a very special sort of atmosphere in the dim candlelight as he went from box to box and explained the properties of each wand to Beth. He asked Beth to cast a few spells before wondering aloud if a certain wand might suit her best. He very deliberately handed her the wand he thought was curious, and suddenly music swelled, light illuminated her from all around, her hair blew back in the breeze as she beheld the wand that chose her: she purchased it as soon as we left the demonstration room. To my amazement, Craig wasn’t remotely interested in purchasing a wand (despite his robes having a special pocket designed uniquely for such an instrument). I took about half an hour, pouring over the descriptions of each of the woods and handling them. I found with resounding satisfaction that the vine wand suited me best, to my surprise, being perfectly balanced and elegantly pointed. It reminds me very much of a jian, and I expect it only obeys those who wield it with a certain finesse.


My wand, vine, 15 and a half inches.


Dining at the Three Broomsticks was a welcome affair. Although the food was pretty ordinary, and the serving sizes a little on the small side for your standard English pub, the drinks were mindboggling. Sadly, the secret menu item “pumpkin fizz” turned out not to exist in Japan (or, perhaps, I hadn’t tapped my wand on the right brick before enterring) so I settled for a butterbeer instead. That turned out to be the single best hot drink I’ve ever consumed. I tried the cold butterbeer which was delightful but not transcendant, and Bethwyn’s pumpkin juice, which was overly sweet even for my taste. Craig ordered a beer from the Hog’s Head, which tasted like ash to my uncultured tongue.


I also had the pleasure of attending the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride around 8pm when the wait-time was advertised as 50 minutes but actually took around half an hour. It was quite wonderful meandering through the castle, though there was something disappointing about the Japanese dubs for Dumbledore, Harry and Ron (a rare thing for me to say, because I previously believed Japanese dubs improved any experience). I ended up going on the ride with two cute high school girls who screamed the whole way through it. I can’t really describe how awesome it was to see a dragon breath fire, or how shocking it was to be spit on by an acromantula, or how terrifying it was to glide under a swarm of dementors while I whispered “expecto patronum, expecto patronum, expecto patronum!” under my breath. Afterwards, when Harry (that badass who hit a dementor who was reaching for him) saved us, and Dumbledore congratulated us on winning the Quidditch Cup, I felt both very proud and slightly queasy. Thankful for solid ground, I stumbled off the ride and laughed with the two girls about how scary it had been. The staff guided us to what I thought was the exit, but turned out to be the start of the ride again – they were giving us another free round because they were about to close. Back on I went, partially so I could continue my conversation with the two girls, and partially because it was too embarrassing to try and leave. I thoroughly enjoyed it a second time, though afterwards I felt nauseous for hours.



As for loot, I picked up some quills, a Ravenclaw notebook, a Ravenclaw scarf (which Craig refused to wear, despite the freezing weather), exploding bonbons, fizzing whizbees, Honeyduke’s best chocolate, a truly sublime cauldron cake, and a Marauder’s Map mug (with feet that appear when you add hot liquid to it!). I also picked up an incredibly beautiful time turner necklace for Beth, who wasn’t well enough to join us the second day we went, and of course my wand, which I kept within arm’s reach as I slept that night. I also persuaded Craig to purchase a love potion from Zonko’s to give to the first cute Hufflepuff he saw, and my heart swelled with pride as he chatted with a young lady for some ten minutes in broken English while leaving me forgotten on the curb.


All in all, a truly wonderful place. I didn’t realise quite how much I loved Harry Potter, that building block of my childhood, until I started re-reading the books in preparation for this trip and revelled in the fandom once again. Those were precious memories from what is, undoubtedly, the most magical place on earth.


Hiroshima and Miyajima

So once again, it’s back to the land of the rising sun, this time wearing my wedding ring for realsies! Beth and I are honeymooning here, and gratefully, Craig has agreed to third-wheel with us for part of the trip. Our days are both restful and exciting, and (once I got over the stress of flying and the culture shock of not being able to speak most of the language) I’m glad to be back.


The first city we stayed in was Hiroshima, and I’m grateful that we chose to spend a few extra days there this time. I think it was important to have a little more time so that we could unwind, as well as see the sights. I’ve since realised that, while it’s awesome to go to a new country and experience as much of it as possible, some of those experiences are allowed to be the very pleasurable act of sitting down after many hours of walking, seeing and doing. It seems married life has tempered me somewhat!


Hiroshima is beautiful. The roads there are ubanai (mad-cat dangerous), though the city has more open space than somewhere like Tokyo I think. We stayed in some backstreets not too far from the train station, and I really liked the quiet neighbourhood (though I suspect it didn’t like us as much as we laughed and played and dragged our luggage like noisy birds through the street at night).


We found our way to Hiroshima Castle, a beautiful place where we saw our first ever cherry blossoms in the peaceful grounds. We visited the shrine there where I did the closest thing to a proper hand-cleansing ritual (which I’ve learned through studying tea ceremony), though I hadn’t yet hastily googled how to pray properly. (Incidentally, it’s bow twice, clap twice, pray, bow again. It changes depending on the shrine though.)


In the Castle proper they had an exhibit of samurai weapons and armour which I poured over in great detail. Poor Beth and Craig left me quite behind, just like in the ninja village of Iga where I was overtaken by the next tour group. The view from the top of the tower (and through the hatches for rifles to be poked out of!) was quite delightful, and it was a great pleasure to drink hot cocoa up there in that bracing castle air.


We also returned to Nagata-ya for Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, which I have since learned is rude to refer to as “Hiroshima-style” (because it implies that there are other, possibly more correct styles), and is certainly not supposed to be flipped. I managed to finish mine, as well as pieces of Beth’s and Craig’s (not to mention some truly exquisite umeshu and smooth-af sake that made me slightly woozy).


We caught up with our good friend Aury and hit up Miyajima Island, which we didn’t get the chance to do last time. I never really got over how cute the deer were, and I was delighted to see one sniffing a toddler, reaching around him and pulling an open bucket of biscuits out of his backpack and then eating them while his family watched on in terror and delight. However, when a deer tried to eat Craig’s momijimanju (maple-leaf pancake) and head-butted his leg, I was so enraged and offended that I nearly head-butted it back.



I also had one of the best experiences of my life: dressing up in full samurai armour, being handed a sword and then posing for photos with three other guys in armour. After a quick photo shoot, one of them asked if I had maybe 15 minutes to go for a walk to take more photos, and I readily agreed. While the photos were fun, what made the experience so precious to me was strolling through those ancient streets, my armour clattering as I stepped, peering through the slit between my mask and helmet, keeping my sword close to me as we passed through the crowd. As we walked, exclamations of “Samurai ga!” and “Sugoi!” came from all sides, and my companion couldn’t resist posing for more photos as he greeted people continuously with a friendly “Konnichi wa!”


The island itself was truly beautiful. Flooded with tourists as it was, when we left the busy (delicious and attractive) streets and headed toward Mount Misen, it was like passing into another world. Seemingly empty ryokan were scattered by ancient shrines. A teahouse serviced by ladies in kimono, with a sliding door to enter stood nearby a sparkling stream. The design of the garden was so exquisite that, when I descending under the bridge on some artfully placed stones, I crossed the water and came up the bank on the other side without ever really thinking about the path, just looking for convenient places to put my feet. I was only when I reached the other side that I realised that the path had been sculpted very deliberately all along, and that it had been made so perfectly and so subtly that I wasn’t even aware it was there.


Unfortunately, Beth became suddenly and seriously ill as we were climbing the mountain, and we didn’t have the chance to get to the ropeway (which I hoped was a cable car). Perhaps someday we’ll return to Miyajima for a deeper immersion into those quiet woods.


We’re on the way to Kyoto now, which I’m sure will be quite an adventure because our house (for the first time) is nowhere near a train station. Learning to catch buses (hopefully with the aid of googlemaps) will be a new challenge, and one I’m looking forward to.


Also, I can’t wait to get more Japanese arcading going on. Last night I found a game that let me punch a T-rex so hard its face fell off. I can’t wait to get back to a Taito station (or better yet, a Sega arcade with Toylets!) Ahh the pleasures of those smoky dens and all the taiko drumming my blistered hands can withstand. See you soon!

Kyoto Saga

So it’s been an appallingly long time since my last post about Japan. Let me then wrap up my adventures in Kyoto.

The first thing that struck me about Kyoto was that it seemed much older and far more traditional than Osaka and Tokyo. There were trees and streams and old buildings and, most delightfully of all, there were people wearing traditional Japanese clothes (similar but probably distinct from kimono). They strolled around like it was the most ordinary thing in the world. For instance, when we were at McDonalds a guycollected his meal and left, left, clutching his purse in one hand and his paper bag full of tiny burgers in the other. And while it wasn’t that common (maybe one in a hundred people), I immediately donned my yukata and hit the streets to see if I could pull off the same nonchalance. Incidentally, this ratio went up to maybe one in thirty when we were at the temples. And oh, the temples.

One ambitious morning, Craig and I set out on the Philosopher’s Path, starting at the very famous Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavillion). It was relatively quiet (something I’m told is uncommon, and due to the winter weather), and Craig and I took our time soaking it in. One of its most beautiful attributes was the meticulously sculpted representation of Fuji-san. Long did I spend in those quiet gardens, contemplating the nature of life and existence, appreciating the most wondrous and delicate moments of beauty in a world of perfect chaos. The walk back was serene as we trailed through temples and walked the ancient stone pathway.


20140227_133022Of all the temples we visited (sadly, tired as we were I can count them on one hand), my favourite by far was Kiyomizu-dera, the Temple of Pure Water. It was pouring down on the day we visited, and I found it delightfully symbolic as we tossed money into wells, shook our fortunes from a tin and drank from the three streams of the waterfall. It was only after I returned that I discovered that they are meant to improve your longevity, success and love, and that to drink from all three might be considered greedy.

Yet as wonderful as the it was, my favourite memory of Kyoto is immersed in the sprawling streets and market stalls that surrounded the temple. Wandering from stall to stall to buy a belt, or a coin purse, or a shuriken (which customs promptly confiscated), we treated ourselves to chocolate pancakes and ice cream and other disastrously messy sweets. For lunch, we stopped in a beautiful teahouse where we ordered amazing food with matcha and sweets – an experience I treasure deeply.

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Along with my time in the ninja museum, one of my favourite parts of Japan was learning the art of kenbu, or the performance art of katana and fan. I had the best time ever taking a private lesson with the teacher, Houga-san, who taught me how to perform Hachimanko. I picked up the basics very quickly, though there were a few differences between iaido and kenbu, and I requested to incorporate the fan if possible. Eagerly he brought one out for me and showed me how to open it with just the right amount of force –crack! I was surprised at how complex the performance was for such a short piece – less than a minute in length, there was so much to remember. Even the minutest intricacies were considered, such as holding the fan so that the pin did not reflect light into the eyes of the audience, and covering the mouth of the sheath so that rain did not get in. In his masterful performance afterwards, Houga-san demonstrated how the fan could represent anything from the wheel of a carriage to a bow and arrow. I was spellbound by his aptitude. So inspired was I that I went out and bought a mae-sen (performance fan) so that I could continue practicing at home.

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And so ended our time in the Land of the Rising Sun. I miss it so, so much, and talking to friends who have recently been (to enjoy the cherry blossoms that we missed) has made the longing all the greater. I can’t wait to go back again, and inevitably I will as I continue to improve on my Japanese language skills and appreciation of culture.

All the best my friends. Jaa, mata!

Iga, the village of the Ninja

Heyo friends! Sorry for the lateness of this update. I’ve been back in Australia for a few weeks now but I’m still keen to share my adventures through the medium of weblogging. (Did you even remember that that’s what blog is short for? I had forgotten until now, too. God, I’m so cool.)




20140223_163538My favourite part of the trip was undoubtably the Ninja Museum of Iga-ryu (i.e. the school of ninja from Iga). In short, there were many clans and families that were famous for their ninja, none moreso than those from Iga. The town that exists there today is nuts about ninja, and it was clear from the way they painted their trains, to the statues on the sidewalk, to the dozens of stores selling merchandise, to the ninja mannequins perched on the rafters of the train station, that they were very aware of this. It took about two hours from Tokyo to journey there, but in my mind it was totally worth it. It was a surprisingly quiet place for a weekend, and the path to the Museum took us past a castle and beautiful parkland. The moss growing on the ancient stones, the dancing of the shadows and light and the indescribable heaviness in the cool winter air made for a majestic approach. It was such a peaceful place, rich in history with a beautiful shrine (whose red torii gates marked the distinction between the mundane and the spiritual).20140223_161719


20140223_152745The museum itself was the knees of the bee. I made small-talk with out guide, “Swift Kunoichi Kei” (female ninja) who would be taking us through the tour, and she said she’d lived in Australia for a while. We entered the well-used ninja house and were taken through it room by room, its hidden compartments, pathways, hiding places, switches and secrets explained. We were the only gaijin on the (very popular) tour, but the demonstration was clear and easy to follow, with scrolls containing English explanations on the walls. In the first room, she ran at a wall and disappeared through it as it revolved, and then burst out again sealing it behind her. She asked for a volunteer to try it, and I felt Craig’s silent encouragement from behind me as my excitement prickled and I stepped up. I ran at the fake wall and was surprised to see that there was only one foot of empty space before I’d collide with the wooden boards on the other side. As I burst back through, there was a small smattering of applause as our guide explained I was Australian and pondered aloud if I was secretly a ninja. My heart soared. She showed how a ninja could remove the brackets of a wall shelf and turn it into a ladder to gain access to a translucent observation chamber in the roof. With startling fluidity, Kei took a sheaf of paper from inside her jacket and flicked open a latch in the wall, swinging through it to gain access to the garden. I was in amazed at how unassuming she seemed, and yet how smooth and flexible she could be at the drop of a hat. In the next room, she showed us how a surprised ninja might suddenly equip themselves if under attack. With no warning, she stamped on a specific part of a floorboard which flipped open and she grabbed a wakizashi from it, unsheathing it with a smoothness that amazed me. She then reached in again and flung a shuriken which stuck into the wall with a definitive thud as if to say “This could have been your chest”. She revealed a hidden hiding spot underneath the frame of a sliding door, which contained secret letters and so forth. Needless to say I was in raptures.


After the tour was over there was sadly no cheesy ninja fight performance. I learned when we got there that they closed during the colder winter months, but I hope some day to return. We wandered through the museum (or rather, Bethwyn and Craig drifted through while I poured over the exhibits, reading and studying each artifact intensely). The clothes, weapons, lifestyle, training and tactics of the ninja fascinated me. The ridiculous amount of myth and pop-culture that has sprouted up around them simply adds to their mysterious and superhuman allure. In addition to the artifacts, there was also a hilariously bad video of ninja weapons like kusarigama (sickle and chain) being used to defeat a static swordsman and tie him up while he tapped furiously in pain, and some kind of mystic palm reader while a woman demonstrated hand positions for chakra based “jutsu”. I shared the joy of two kids dressed in bright ninja outfits wandering around, and I lingered so long the next tourgroup overtook us.


DSC_2012Finally there was the moment I had been waiting for: the shuriken throwing. I paid some inconsequential amount of money to practice hurling throwing stars at a wooden board as a dude who looked remarkably like Scorpion talked me through it in Japanese. To my amazement, my first throw stuck cleanly in the board, just a little higher than the target. To my further amazement, my next throw stuck as well, almost on the same vertical plain but just a little higher. Three out of five of my stars landed cleanly, and all five of them were in a straight line directly above the bullseye. I dearly wish I had spent another handful of yen to practice getting the correct height. At the end, just like archery and shooting, it’s just a matter of lining up the parts of the body and letting the weapon do what it was meant to do without trying to interfere with it. As the thrower, you are the conduit who helps the star to reach the target it was always meant to strike. The more you interfere, the worse it flies – you must be empty and let it pass through you.


Whoa. That just got real deep.


DSC_2014I tried blowdarts as well, but there were too many variables to keep consistent: the strength and suddenness of the blow, as well as the height of the pipe. With time I’m sure I would have gotten it, but it just wasn’t as cool or practical to develop the skill to push aero-resistant weighted darts through a cylinder. It was still excellent to see Scorpion do it so cleanly.


Stay tuned for the next installment of my adventures: the Kyoto Saga.

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.


My new best friends <3

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).


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.




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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.