Sunday, August 26, 2012

Summer Grand Finale

You can't have a Japanese summer without fireworks. And usually, in Tokyo, you cannot have fireworks without crowding, loooong lines in the train stations and standing about waiting.

However, the all-knowing Wave-chan recommended a fireworks festival near her home, on the Seaside line.

Showing up a mere hour before the start of the show, we were stunned to be able to saunter down the beach and get some space right by the water. I went to get takoyaki (managing not to drop them on my yukata) and only had to wait in line for a few minutes. Mind boggling.
It is great to spend an hour with your eyes to the heavens, watching burst after burst of flame and colour. Although the heat of summer will not relinquish its grasp on the city for another month or so, the end of summer is nigh. As soon as September rolls around work will pick up, along with musical performances, the number of queries I receive on a daily basis, and other responsabilities.

But for now we can sit in the cool sea breeze at night, running in the surf and laughing at ghost stories.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Summer Vacation: Izu, Karuizawa and Nasu

You can tell if you had a good vacation when it feels like you have been away longer than you actually have. No computers, smartphone use restricted to GPS services and one e-mail check a day, and lots of clean, cool air and communing with nature. Four refreshing days in some of the most lovely parts of Eastern Japan.

With my trusty JR Kanto Pass in hand, the first part of the journey was to the onsen and beaches of the Izu Peninsula. There is something wonderous about getting on a train and watch as the landscape slowly transitions from skyscrapers, to factories, increasingly smaller towns and eventually beautiful long stretches of seascape. A million miles away from the hot, unmoving air of Tokyo, as each time the doors open it lets in fresh, clean-scented sea air.

After dropping off my bag at the stunning K's House in Ito (seriously, gorgeous hostel with a tanuki-graced onsen), I started my descent towards Shimoda with a stop at the DHC Akazawa Onsen in Ito-Kougen. The rotenburo is cantilevered, overlooking the sea, cliffs and bright blue sky. With a cool breeze and friendly patrons, it was totally glorious.

A long train ride later, I was in Shimoda. After quickly checking out Perry Street (Shimoda is where the Black Ships landed), it was beach time! Unfortunately Shirahama was more crowded and a bit dirtier than I thought, although the furthest end was quite nice, with a torii gate and gorgeous views of the sunset. For future reference I think the Kisami area might be worth checking out.

The next morning I was up early, as the only way to get to Karuizawa on this particular pass was to go all the way back to Tokyo station, then take a shinkansen. Unusually, I fell asleep around Atami, in the cool, empty train. I woke up around Yokohama to find the car jam-packed, which was a bit of a shock.

Karuizawa is lovely and breezy. After taking in a bit of the Ginza, we escaped towards the forest, where the churches and summer homes of the wealthy are shaded by huge trees. Karuizawa is entirely green and shade, cool enough to even have cheese fondue for lunch at a little Italian restaurant called Adagio . The salad was plentiful and fresh, and the sheer quantity of cheese would easily constitute a portion for three people back in Tokyo... joy!

A bit of wandering and steep bus ride later, we were on the top of the mountain, at the border between Nagano and Gunma prefecture... apparently this is a 'power spot' (what does that mean, anyway?!). The mountains, as if dipped in ink, stretch out forever in a stunning ombre effect. The cool wind and scent of trees were almost intoxicating.

When the rain started we rushed to Guesthouse Rin, which is run by a very informative and accomodating couple. When the shower abated, we were off for some of Nagano's famous soba at Kagimotoya. Being a bit of a Kansai girl at heart, I usually prefer udon, but their soba is something else, chewy and earthy in the right proportion. In the morning, before heading off to catch the shinkansen, we spent an hour luxuriating at Harunire Terrace's Maruyama Coffee, listening to the stream flow by. They are dead serious about their coffee, and the cappuccino was a cup of heaven. It may well be better than coffee I had in Italy. I simply cannot wait to go back to Karuizawa, and may well sign up for a road race there as an excuse to go back in the fall.

The last two days of my trip were spent in Nasu, crashing at my friend Hippy-chan's place along with Nuts-chan . I simply adore the whole area... which is probably greatly due to the fact that she has a car, and knows all the best hidden spots. Everytime I leave Nasu I feel refreshed and at peace with the universe.

Starting off with locally grown veggies at Voi Etta, the following two days were filled with playing in completely irresistible rivers and waterfalls, barbeques, fireworks and eating enough cream (in various incarnations) to sink a small ship. We tried a couple different onsen, including the biggest ashiyu in Japan (or at least Tochigi) and were generally silly. The perfect way to end an (all too brief) summer vacation.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hidden Tokyo: Sing It Out

The subcultures, musical minorities and oddities in any society cannot survive in the major congestion zones. The niche-ness of their audience cannot generate enough income to rent land in Shibuya, Shinjuku or Marunouchi.So they move to the sidelines of the city. Like Iriya.

Most specifically, the minyo osakaba (folk song bars) of Iriya. Off towards the post-Ueno end of the Hibiya line, it was not a place I ever expected to get out of the station. However, when you get an invitation to go hang out with one of the great ethnomusicologists specialized in Japan, you do not say no.

So out of the station I skipped, just to be confronted with the soaring bulk that is the Skytree, which shines and looms over the area like a futuristic redwood, half-hidden by the clouds. The first stop on this adventure was Asakusa Oiwake, perhaps one of the most famous and accessible minyo bars. After beating a drum to announce your presence, you crawl up a flight of stairs into a tatami room with a tiny stage area, surrounded by shamisen, drums and plaques with the names and allegiances of the various musicians (who also double as waiters).

I got to hang out with several of my graduate school professors, along with a random bunch of other people. The show itself was great, a mix of folk songs from Tohoku, along with a couple dances (naturally performed by the youngest, cutest lad in the troupe) and some serious tsugaru shamisen showing-off. But the really neat part is that patrons can then come up to sing their favorite minyo live, accompanied by the musicians. As there are several thousand different songs, with various regional variations (and no scores) it is a pretty impressive feat.

After a couple hours and rounds of sake, it was time to move on to Midori... which even D-Sensei said was more of a 'cultural experience'... intriguing! Down a block and several slalom-ing side streets, only distinguished by a small board, Midori is owned by one of the best minyo musicians and singers in Japan, and named after his wife, who is also an astounding singer.

I am pretty much incapable of singing minyo (with the exception of Okinawa's Asadoya Yunta), as the amount of vocal fold destruction necessary makes my operatically-trained soul shiver, but I must admit it is a fascinating bit of culture, all the better as it comes served with tasty side dishes (spicy eggplant) and endless rounds of beer and sake.

Unsteady on our feet, and seeking a taxi to Uguisudani, we came across the oddly named place above (which roughly translates to: Under?stand). After much deliberation, we came to the consensus that it is either a question store, or a place people go to listen to incredibly convoluted diatribes about nuclear physics... or the cleaning habits of muskrats... or zoroastrianism. Mysterious Iriya.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Grump, grump, grump

'Japan is not reproducing' is all one ever hears. 'There is a dearth of children' they say.
This may well be the case, although Japan (as many small island nations) has a history of maintaining low population due to lack of livable area surface. However, I fear that this might be one of the reasons the 'children uber alles' attitude, currently extremely prevalent in most of the US and Europe, has made it here as well... darn it.

When I was first here, 5 years ago (dear lord, time flies) and then again in Kobe, it seemed to me that most parents in Japan do a pretty decent job of controlling and disciplining their children. Sure, sometimes kids will be kids, which is totally normal. However, recently the level of permissiveness seems to have gone through the roof.

Recently, while at the drugstore, a young kid was rushing around like mad, vaguely watched by his father. The child proceeds to careen around a corner and run over my toes. My bare, sandal clad toes. Which of course leads to me hopping up and down, squealing 'itai!'.

What does the guardian of the kid do?


No 'stop that right now'. No 'come back here and apologize'. In fact, no apology whatsoever (shocking for Japan!). Just shout at the kid, and not stop him at all. All I know is that if I had ever done that in front of my parents, I would have been told to apologize immediately and be given a severe talking-to about respecting others.

Next day, on the train, two kids are in the seats, squirming, shouting and generally being obstreperous. So be it. Eventually they quiet down, and prepare to leave the train.

I am answering an e-mail on my phone when suddenly I feel a pull on my bag. And there the boy was. Tugging hard on the lock. Of my beautiful. delicate. Furla. purse.

'What are you doing?'

The kid's mouth falls open, and he retreats to his little friend. A 30-something onlooker gives me a dirty look (a la 'but hes only a chiiiild'). The older lady in front of me gives me a 'well done' nod. (A HA! Generational divide!)

I truly hope this is only summer vacation hijinks... but others have confirmed this phenomenon as well.

And this is not a good week to annoy me. My training results have plateaued (so I am hungry 24/7, but have limited choices of food I can eat due to braces), have had to miss several Hashes due to work, and have to jump through visa-renewal hoops.

I do my best to remain pleasant. But. don't. touch. the bag.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Sunday in Summer: Asagaya

August is Obon, fireworks and barbecues by stream and sea. It is also ghosts, sudden cooling downpours reminiscent of a negligent plant owner suddenly remembering to water his plants, and men in yukata... especially men in yukata.
And here I am, with my usual sense of timing, searching for places, plans and discounted tickets that would allow me to see everyone, have a bit of solo travel time, and not cost an arm and a leg... during one of the busiest travel times of the year.

Currently I am trying to figure out how to use the 3 day JR Kanto pass (which can be purchased by anyone with a non-Japanese passport, even if you have a visa!) to the best advantage, to hit up Karuizawa, perhaps Nagano, perhaps Shimoda, and then get myself to Nasu for a couple days of glorious Tochigi-ness... aah, the joy of norihoudai train tickets!

But enough of that, and onwards with yukata and festivals, specifically the Asagaya Tanabata Festival, with its crazy papier-mache constructions and flying takoyaki (ok, so the flying takoyaki were my own fault... that will teach me to ever wear white anywhere... and thank goodness I took pictures earlier!)
The giant alpaca and collection of crazy kitties were my favorite. Like all Tokyo festivals it was pretty crowded, but the bright colours and tasty treats made up for it (and I  learned a valuable lesson about how to get takoyaki sauce out of a white yukata). The shoutengai where the festival was held is very long, and full of interesting little stores, including a shamisen shop and a Baskin Robbins (or '31', as it is known here). I have not had BR since the age of 9, and decided it was time for a rapprochement (the Love Potion 31 flavour is amazing!).

Once the crowding got to be too much, we escaped for a couple glasses of sangria at a strange little place called Don Tsucchi, which may well be one of the narrowest 'watalian' (Wa plus Italian) joints I have ever been in. And it turned out to be the perfect place to watch my favorite part of August stroll by (aka the afore-mentioned yukata-clad gentlemen), to the amusement of the one sitting next to me.

Because, seriously, I have yet to see a guy who doesn't suddenly get a coolness upgrade by slipping on a yukata. That is the glorious thing about national costumes, they are meant to fit and flatter the basic body type of that country. The wide sleeves broaden shoulders, obi nip in waists and hug the fabric in all the right places. Geta (for those who know how to walk in them) give a bit of a swagger. And good lord does Matcha-kun look good in wafuku... now I just have to convince him to try a hakama...