Saturday, October 27, 2007

Dress For Success!

I had to have that shirt, it called to me. The shopkeeper was also a mega-fox, but...
Oh, and don't you like my little hattie?

Dad always told me that putting your best foot forward started with how you clothed yourself. That's why the first clothes I bought in Japan were parody jogging sweaters I found at Don Quixote (the greatest store in Japan, possibly the world). This weekend I also found a store called "Kilostore" that sells secondhand clothing by the gram and picked up a nifty hat for just over 500 J-bucks--a stupendous value.

OK, these are going to take some 'splaining...

The front words are parodies of school club logos, the left one saying "Yakinikubu" and the right "Kotowazabu", meaning "Grilled Meat Club" and "Proverb Club", respectively.

On the back we have a cow diagram showing the choicest cuts of tasty meat on the left and two proverbs on the right: "Buta ni shinju" and "Neko ni koban", both which mean essentially the same thing (the former literally meaning), "Pearls before swine".

The two jogging sweaters have paid off tremendously with the kids at all the schools, mostly because the gags are so very Japanese and I am decidedly not.

Because no fashion round-up is complete w/o my best Andy Capp pose.


Too Far, Too Fast...Too Tired: Second Post

I've been getting requests to talk about the sumo thing I've been doing lately, so before I continue my screed about last weekend's Xtreme Drifter Experience let's learn about that.

If there's one English word the Japanese understand perfectly well it's 'yes'. The counterpart to 'yes' is commonly referred to as 'no' in western societies, but in Japan 'no' really means 'yes', albeit with a few caveats. Luckily I've found that 'yes' is generally the best answer to give to extract maximum enjoyment and breadth of experience out of my minimum time here, so when Goto-san at the Town Hall asked me to join the annual sumo tournament I reflexively said...

As much as we Americans chuckle about the the continental land masses who clash mightily against each other's mountains and valleys of flab to push their opponent out of the ring--not to mention the diaper-looking waist/crotch protectors actually called mawashi--sumo is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. It combines the best weight manipulation tactics of judo and greco-roman wrestling, along with vicious palm slapping/pushing and even neck grabs, ending up as a tricky, physically draining contact sport. That's all done, of course, with no head protection, no footwear and a gritty dirt ring (painfully frigid earth underfoot both practice nights as well), so you'll understand why I finished the first night with an open knee gash, aching blue bruises on both shoulders, a square-shaped bloody scrape on my back about 3"x3" and a bloody chin. And I wasn't the only one, trust me: one guy almost got knocked out cold after his opponent fell on him causing his head to meet compacted dirt. Oh, and the condition your feet are in after a's a good thing we purify the ring with salt before each match, you know, so the next guy with open wounds on his soles can walk on it.

The key is really to manipulate your opponent's center of gravity and push them out of the ring or cause them to fall. So much as a toe out of the ring or a knee down and you're done, so you have to be acutely aware of your position and stance at all times on top of thinking about the best way to get that sucka off balance. And weight's not everything, though it's a major factor if the difference is great enough, say 50lbs. or more. One of the two matches I lost Thursday, the second practice, was versus a man at least 40lbs. lighter who got waaaaay under my center of gravity by grabbing and lifting my ankle, forcing me to hop around on one leg trying to twist him out.

Which brings me to the results: yeah, I only lost two matches at practice out of more than ten, so I'm pretty good at this thing. I even beat our semi-pro coach, if I may brag a bit, and they put me on the first string "A-team" for Tuesday's tourny, no joke. My strategy is pretty simple, but totally psychomologically advanced, man: everyone wants to beat the American for whatever deep-rooted cultural reasons, so when the match starts and we lock up I grab their mawashi, a nice tool to exert leverage, and give them what they want by way of letting them take me to the edge quickly. They think they got me right up until I twist them from their belt and toss them out or to the ground. Nice and clean.

I'll let you know how far I get on Tuesday, though I have no clue how the other teams in town are or who's even on them.


Lisa channels the hat's power to belt out Tsukumi's city anthem, "The One That Got Away".

Getting back to the rambler's diary, after my brisk rub-a-dub in the park it was time to head to the harbor for the music festival. The festival was a display of Tsukumi's genuinely eclectic musical "scene" and included everything from traditional Japanese fare to hard rock, acoustic folk duos and wedding singers. In that way you might liken it to taking a different drug every thirty minutes: lighting a doobie for the folk singers; downing a few fingers of Jack for the wedding singers; a line of coke for the flutists; some speed for the metal band. It was all very good though and I wish desperately more people showed than the max of fifty or so, but what can you do in a city where most workers are manning either a fishing boat or concrete mill. After the relevant sets were over I accompanied Lisa, my friend Doron, his band mates and a few other local ALTs to have the tastiest seafood lunch I've had in Japan so far.

"Line N' Nose" rocks Tsukumi. I can't tell if Doron's singing in that first shot or inciting the proletariats against the decadent bourgeoisie. In the second pic you can clearly see Slash has taken control of the band, relegating Doron to guitarist.

But wait! If you thought Tsukumi was the end of the line on this insane road trip you are sadly mistaken. I promised Mayumi I'd head across to Mie-machi for my second taste of her neighborhood's Okagura festival so I pointed in that direction after saying my goodbyes in Tsukumi and pulled up to her house an hour later. I should have just walked to the damn shrine instead of showing up on my bike--her neighbors know me from past festivals and all that, but they haven't seen me in three years and rolling up on them I think nearly caused some heart attacks. Anyways, I hunkered down with some food and a cup of shochu for the last hour of dancing and landed myself in some ridiculous hot water. Japan's drink driving laws are unflinchingly strict in that they allow for absolutely no alcohol in the blood, so don't complain the next time you lament the 0.07 BAC law of California. When Mayumi saw me drinking the one cup--a teacup, mind you--of shochu she flipped. We had a discussion about livers, the alcohol content of shochu (around 40-50 proof) and apocryphal folk remedies for hangovers. The situation was made worse when her mother found out. I insisted that after hanging out at Joyfull (sic) for a few hours would detoxify my blood entirely based on the fact that the liver cleans the blood of alcohol at a rate of, at worst, 1/3 fl oz./hour, but she wasn't having any of it.

Mayumi busts a move, while some demon guy flips out at the Mie-machi Okagura.

I was angry. Seething angry, in fact. I realized then that I've never been angry at Mayumi before. Ever. That thought combined with gradual, natural resignation to the fact that I wasn't going anywhere lest I completely alienate my best Japanese friend, and the genuinely amusing joke-strewn conversation we had over dinner at Mie's hippest eatery caused my vitriol to evaporate like drops of water in a sizzling pan. I just can't stay mad at that woman. Unfortunately that meant that she hatched a truly daft plan with her mother to drive me all the way back to Kusu from Mie, which is an hour and a half each way using the toll highway even. Mayumi wouldn't let me pay her gas costs, but I did pay both cars' expressway fares and profusely apologized and thanked Mrs. Usuzuki. The upshot of this is that Mayumi and I talked the entire way and I could feel, literally feel, my Japanese improving. It's like I just leveled up or something. If this were WoW I'd be bathed by a flash of light and one more talent point (which I'd use to get 3/5 in Improved Street Hustle), in FFVII that annoying little trumpet song would play.

Tsukumi from the hillside of Otomo Park. I'm in my underwear behind that camera--an admission that I hope will keep you in nightmares for a week, mwahahaha! Next, a kabosu railway and cars ready to collect the citrus bounty. The kabosu are actually individually wrapped on the tree in those little white bags you see.

It was only 10PM when I got home, but I immediately collapsed into bed exhausted. When I woke at 7AM it wasn't nearly enough to rest these weary bones after that, the most exhausting weekend so far in Japan. So this weekend I'm dedicating to the virtues of taking it easy--I drove to Oita City to meet with friends and have some drinks last night and I'll go on a bike ride tomorrow to Mt. Hane, but that's all simple, relaxing stuff.

Viva la sitting on the duff!


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Too Far, Too Fast...Too Tired: The Real Post

One of the Oita JETs emailed me over a month ago with an invitation to one of the most special izakaya (kind of Japanese restaurant/bar hybrid) that I have ever had the pleasure to experience, the illustrious, mind-bending Hit Parade Club in lovely Beppu. Three years ago, my last night in Japan was spent here hammering back beers and Suntory single malt while enjoying the show. Most izakaya don't have "shows" and only a handful are themed, so HPC's very, very special--not only is it decked out in a 50s theme, there's also a live band playing relevant music to compliment said decor. Naturally they're all Japanese, pretty good with their pronunciation of tricky English lyrics and look fantastic--in every serious and mocking sense your mind can think up--in their zoot suit and poodle skirts. HPC will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, I believe, but I've heard an unsubstantiated rumor that it's not long for this mortal coil, so to speak. Frankly, I don't see how that could be as Saturday night was standing room only, as was the Friday night I went last time.

The Beppu seaside hotel cluster as seen from Kitahama. Beppu is probably the prefecture's single strangest place, acre for acre, reeking fairly of the absurd and improbable.

Before HPC though I'd taken my bike in for some service and spent the rest of the day mulling around Beppu. I am now the proud owner of a new rear sprocket group and a new wheel to accommodate it since my last one was a little, uh, behind the times. Like, fifteen years behind. I've also established a relationship with the small Cycle Shop Daito in Nagahama-cho, Oita City, about a block away from where I used to live. Why am I driving so far to have my bike serviced you ask? The owner of the local bike shop in Kusu, nice as he may be, plainly admitted to me he didn't know a thing about road bikes, mainly working on and selling the ubiquitous mamacharis bikes that, if stacked on top of each other, would certainly reach to the asteroid belt. For that matter, in all my travels of this fine prefecture I have yet to find a serious cycle shop like Daito's--cycling is a niche sport/recreation here in Japan since the humble bicycle is mainly just a cheap means to the end of urban human transport. Anyways, no more mis-shifts and a shiny, spiffy rim to boot.

Hit Parade Club is one place that makes you glad Japan has a strict lockdown on things like, oh, hash or LSD--you just don't need anything other than your own brain and maybe some alcohol to feel the surreal in here.

I put the bike to work in Beppu, a city built on a really long slope reaching from the sea at Kitahama Beach up a couple hundred meters and inland and a few kilometers to the base of Mt. Tsurumi. I put myself to work as well since Beppu is only flat at the shore and when one is riding perpendicular to the slope. First order of business on this inaugural trip to Beppu was to try to get in touch with my old friend Yoko who lives down the road from the main station here. I had spend a good twenty minutes writing out a note in Japanese to her expecting her to be at work and me having to hand it to her mother, but when I got to her house and rung the bell, there she appeared at the door. We stared for a few seconds, neither really believing what we were seeing until finally I let out a weak croak of "Yoko?" For my part, I actually didn't entirely recognize here because when I'd known her three years back her hair was dyed bright orange and frizzed out into some kind of lion's mane. Now it was its natural black, straight and a bit shorter. She invited me in, we hugged, talked, drank tea and discussed hot springs. Some things never change. Sadly, Yoko will be moving all the way to Yokohama in six months and I'll lose yet another friend in Oita to the Tokyo-Yokohama-Chiba metropolis. Then again, this isn't three years ago--we're older, graduated, moving on with our lives and I should feel lucky to have even seen a handful of my old friends instead of melancholy.

Leaving Yoko's I pointed the bike west, uphill, towards the Kannawa neighborhood and the Jigoku Meguri--Beppu's famed "Hell Baths". My favorite bath in the city is located at the top of the slope, Oniishi Onsen, or "Demon Rock Spa", and it was looking like I would need it since this climb never seemed to end and I was dripping--DRIPPING--with sweat despite the rapidly declining autumn temperatures. What really makes Oniishi a special place to get nude at is its outdoor bath, a rooftop wooden tub that looks out majestically on the entire city. The trick is to be there for what photographer's call "The Golden Hour", just before sunset. Saturday evening was relatively packed, but nobody bothered me after I broke out the book and read in front of the backdrop of Beppu from above.


After Oniishi and HPC I wandered Beppu on my bike in a state of mild inebriation, finding as many vibrant side streets packed with revelers as sad, dark alleys devoid of life in this entertainment mecca on the decline. Or maybe it's leveling out, I don't know. Anyways, I had a couple hard boiled eggs at an oden stand manned by an old woman and watched some baseball, then found a yakitori shop and had a beer and some skewers. Yeah, HPC is known for the show, not the food. I found my way back to my car after an hour of that, right where I left it in a residential neighborhood's idle dirt lot. Every 'hood round here has one, who knows why.

If you're thinking I drove while drunk, you're wrong, but if you think I had anywhere else to stay tonight, well...I slept in my car. Just like Matt Farley, motivational speaker (except he had a van). I brought blankets anticipating none of the Beppu-ites would remember or even care that I didn't live in the city, but it was still piercingly cold in the dead of night. I managed to uncomfortably sleep until 5:30AM when I was awoken by noises outside near my car. Through steamed windows I saw a flickering light and movement. When I wiped the condensation aside I discovered that a man had started a bonfire in the middle of the nearest intersection. Riiiiiiiiiiiight. As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, the decision to flee came suddenly.

The real story behind this photo is that I'm looking at a shiney 500 yen coin on the grass and have to hold myself back not to snatch it up greedily. And the hat...ummm...

I had to get to Tsukumi by 10AM anyways for the start of the music festival there, so why not with three hours of fitful sleep, fumes in the gas tank and chased away by a possible arsonist? I hit the road, hopping on the desolate expressway in Oita and punching it to the extent my 660cc engine kei-car can punch anything. I arrived in Tsukumi around 7AM and immediately noticed a change since my last trip in the summer--the air was much clearer when moisture didn't trap the concrete factories' fumes. After parking my car at Lisa's apartment I broke out the bike and started my excursion around the city, genuinely stopping earlybirds in their tracks when they saw this foreigner on a hot shit set of wheels flying by at thirty KPH. One thing that had perplexed me when I last came to the city were the plethora of rails that started on the sides of roads and snaked up into the mountains, some having little monorail cars, they resembled a scaled down mine car only way too lightweight. I finally found out they are used to ferry down kabosu limes from mountainside plantations, which I just think is so cute.

Riding around Tsukumi the main thing I was looking for was a bath, actually. I asked what locals I could find in the morning and they all said there were none in the entire city. That seemed near scandalous to me, but two hours of riding produced no results. I felt filthy and knew Lisa was either still asleep or out at taiko practice for the festival, so no go on that front. I finally ended up at Otomo Park, the final resting place of Oita's last great feudal leader--at that time the region was called "Bungo"--that overlooked the city. Since nobody was around and there was a cold water faucet I decided to at least shave, brush my teeth, wash my face and change my clothes. The park had a pretty nice view though, and halfway through changing I became mesmerized by it, staring for a little bit while standing in my undies. Hey, it's a really nice view!

I'll finish up the rest of this post tomorrow, after sumo practice. There I go again, mentioning sumo practice and not elaborating. Ha! Eat it! To all my lady fans out there though, know that I've actually lost five kilos since coming to Japan. Confirmed on the scales last Wednesday at Ryumon no Taki Onsen in beautiful Kokonoe-machi. Feel the burn!


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Too Far, Too Fast...Too Tired

Teasers of what's to come...
Tantalized yet?

Last weekend was epic in terms of the sheer physical exertion and miles traveled. I am still recovering from it and am going to bed now, at 10PM Tokyo time, unable to give a full report. I suppose Sumo practice also contributed to that though. Again, report in full incoming.
So sorry, but Matt needs his beauty rest again!


Monday, October 15, 2007

At the Intersection of Stupidity and Brilliance: Nagasaki, Part 3

With the Japanese proclivity towards single-pane windows and double-ply press board walls it's a wonder anyone gets any sleep in the bustling modern cityscape of East Asia. I sure as hell can't, and though my alarm was set for 9AM I ended up waking an hour earlier grumpily, but happy to have rested my bones at all after yesterday's epic trek. Little did I know, however, that today, Sunday, would come close to rivaling it, if not in altitude climbed then in kilometers walked.

I didn't exactly know where the Kunchi Festival was being held at though I'd seen the coverage on TV before I checked out of the hotel. The woman at the front desk said I should head to "Suwa Jinja", but I neglected to ask her precisely where that was. My map would have been a great help except that its Japanese was unflinchingly strict, offering up no furigana for the difficult kanji of temple and shrine names--the translation to that being that there were no training wheels if you weren't able to read the Chinese characters in the first place. Leaving the hotel though I discovered that was all moot because small groups of friends and families were prowling the streets and alleys of Nagasaki all heading in one general direction. Shrugging with a "eh, what the hell" sentiment I filtered into their midst and went with the flow, ending up at Suwa Jinja fifteen minutes later.

This photo doesn't do justice to the utter mass of humanity at Suwa Jinja (way in the background, up the hill). This shrine being carried down stairs must have weighed as much as a compact car.

If Suwa Jinja is impressive enough to warrant a good couple hours to take a peek around, then the area around it is rich enough to fill a day with activities. There are several other smaller shrines and temples, one of which (and whose name I unfortunately can't recall or seem to find on the net) is a Chinese-style Buddhist temple in a sad state of disrepair, but still recognizable under the moss-covered, cracked roof tiles and fading paint as breathtaking. What was even more splendid about this temple was that it lay at the foot of the largest hillside graveyard I found in all the city and those are always a blast to weave through. Heck, who doesn't want to shake out a day's worth of morbid fascination and get some good cardio in? Anyways, also in the are is a WWII era bomb shelter for the mayor and other high-ranking officials, the Nagasaki Prefectural History and Culture Museum, the prefectural library and the Nagasaki City Park. Like I said, a whole day's activity for the sane and patient, neither of which I claim to be...on this day at least.

I'm kicking myself for not getting the name of this Chinese-style Buddhist temple, because it's frankly amazing even in its state of disrepair. The view's not shabby either.

Suwa Jinja was packed to the rafters with people for the festival's opening ceremonies that had actually started a couple hours earlier at 7AM, so I followed one of the many outgoing portable shrines that would be plying the respective neighborhoods of their manufacture and resolved to come back later when things weren't bloody bedlam. I followed the shrine for a block before seeing some shiny bauble and heading off to the northeast, towards Nagasaki University, but again got sidetracked by a sign pointing towards the grave of some Chinese trader. The grave was disappointing, but the path up the hillside graveyard wasn't, taking me through alleys too narrow for cars and up more stairway-laced neighborhoods like the day before, but this morning things seemed more lively. Maybe it was just the neighborhood or the festival atmosphere that made sound and smell explode from each passing house: a piano here, the smell of miso-something-or-other from there, someone practicing trumpet from the third floor above me, TV news blaring from someone's basement. Such life here!

You see this pretty often even in big cities: food or crafts on sale in front of someone's house with nobody but the honor system to ensure people don't just run off with the stuff. In this case we have eggs.

By 11AM I was getting hungry and fiending for some java so I set out to find my favorite van cafe in Shianbashi. Only problem with that was how the twisting stairway climb and graveyard crawl had distorted my sense of direction somewhat. I realize now, in retrospect, that the direction I was traveling in was tens of degrees off as the crow flies from where I wanted to go, but I eventually found my way to a tributary of the Nagasaki River and the charming stone bridges of the equally charming Yahata-machi neighborhood (officially where I would live if I ever end up in Nagasaki), which is the next 'hood over from Shianbashi. Then, guided by the coffee radar in my head and just where I left it last night, there was my sweet little baby blue cafe on wheels, today with more patronage. The more I think about it the more his business plan makes sense: if ever the "hip" area of town moves from Shianbashi he can just pull the chocks out and move with it. Hell, maybe he is what makes the neighborhood cool and the businesses have to pay him not to roll down the road. What a pimp!

The Bridges of Yahata-machi! This area of town has tens of stone bridges over the river, the most famous being the one of the left known as the Megane-bashi, or "Eyeglasses Bridge".

The next five hours are...*sigh*...I don't even want to talk about it, but in the interest of honest disclosure I'll spend one paragraph on it and that's all.

After a flurry of emails describing in greater and greater detail our respective locations as I moved closer, Laura and I finally found each other amongst the crowds and carnival atmosphere of Dejima Harbor. The thing is, she had brought her boyfriend along too. She hadn't told me about that. Now, you're probably jumping to conclusions about where this is going and what I was thinking, but I want to say with the utmost of honesty that I didn't travel this far to meet her here because I expected something to happen, you know? But I was/am put off by this, and I think understandably, because who the hell wants to sit on a bus three hours to be in Nagasaki as someone's third-wheel? I wanted to excuse myself, I should have excused myself, but by the time it dawned on me, I had stupidly put my bag in their locker at the bus station to relieve the burden of lugging it around. Then, what I had seen in forty-five minutes in the morning, I ended up retracing with them for three hours. OK, 'nuff said, moving on...

Other than my five minute streetcar foray to Nagasaki Medical University I hadn't touched the ever present vintage trains that criss cross the city, much to my chagrin. So I hatched a simple plan: ride every line end to end and see what you find at each final destination. From Ishibashi to Hotarujaya, Nishiura to Shokakujishita, I rode all four lines in about one hour, surprisingly. In some places the streetcars move much slower than auto traffic, in others quicker, but everywhere we went I was happy to have already walked there (except for Nishiura in the far north) and gotten to know the neighborhood more intimately--the glass may be a centimeter thin, but the gap of knowledge is infinite.

One of the food stalls in front of Chinatown, on the river. The "Boss" had left by this point and the guy on the left isn't blowing his nose, he's intentionally covering his face. C'mon! Ham it up!

Now it was getting on evening and earlier, at Dejima Harbor, I happened to run into a handful of other JETs from Oita and they kindly invited me along to their big night out. Serena, Candice, Shawn, Shane, Kate and...someone else whose name escapes me, unfortunately...met me at the Shianbashi Starbucks where we departed for dinner in an overpriced, gaudy Chinatown restaurant. However, unlike ANY Chinatown-like neighborhood in America the ones in Japan apparently close down at 8:30PM for some reason and our plans were dashed. The group was getting restless and though I would have loved to suggest one of the scummy yakitori shops or yatai stands from yesterday this was not an assembly that would universally accept such things, fun as they are. It's fine though, we found decent, cheap eats, a pool n' darts bar and got down to some serious drinking and some seriously bad games of billiards. I had to leave by eleven though because of the hotel I was staying at tonight after losing my spot at the previous night's establishment. The place I found for Sunday night was called--seriously--The Nagasaki Guest Houth (sic) and they had a strict doors-closed policy at midnight. So if you have a room and you're out until one, tough luck.

I gave myself an hour to get back though the hotel was only a fifteen minute walk from Shianbashi, just in case of...who knows. Glad I did though because I had two interesting experiences on the way. First was in the enigmatic neighborhood Sakura-machi where high rise offices and condos rise in a ring around several square blocks of what can only be described as dilapidated commercial/residential tenements. At 11:15PM the area was utterly deserted except for me and several feral cats, which is why when a gale wind materialized out of nowhere in this obvious wind bowl and surrounded by rusting sheet metal buildings, spider web-obscured sodium lamps and flying styrofoam bits I freaked the fuck out. This was pure horror movie set up for the scene when the guy wearing a patchwork mask made from the skin of his victims jumps out and shivs me with a sharpened bone knife. Very weird. I cheesed it immediately and found a bar-ish place with no seats that had a special deal of snack and beer combo for only $5.00 J-bucks. A better deal I had not seen in all of Nagasaki, but what really sealed the deal is the owner was showing the Imola MotoGP race live on his walll-mounted plasma screen and Noriyuki Haga, Aprilia's old WSB racer, was in third place! That guy has really moved up in the world and I'm feeling like a pretentious indie band groupie who says things like "well I liked him way back when...", which in this case would end in "...when he sucked and cost his sponsors millions in crashes and lost races." All of which is true, I guess. Anyways, keep moving ahead, Nitro Nori.

I slept like shit at the Guest Houth and I don't think I'll be going back there ever again. My bus left at the unreasonably early hour of 7AM, but I still had enough time to raid Trandor for cheese toast and Family Mart for canned coffee and "vitamin drinks". I slept most of the rainy ride home much better than I slept earlier that morning and nearly missed my stop in Kusu.

Reflecting on the trip now and when I stepped off the bus, though I jumped in with no preparation and paid for it in anxiety, and though the meeting with my friend didn't pan out well, Nagasaki broke through it all with its wonder, heritage and personality to be the best weekend I've yet spent this time in Japan. I haven't mentioned, you know, The Bomb in any of these posts and I don't intend to now as it would take much too long, except to say that as an American the feeling of what happened is ceaseless in the subconscious and one looks around measuring every neighborhood by which structures survived, which had to be rebuilt and which are entirely new.

And now a word of warning, folks: if I had it all to do over again, considering the ground I covered in two days, I would have done anything, ANYTHING, for a bicycle. Even if I had to steal it. Tallying up both days' walking, subtracting the hour on the streetcar, the three hours I spent in restaurants/food stalls/van cafes and the hour I spent napping on Mt. Inasa. I was on my feet and moving for a cumulative total of twenty-plus hours Saturday and Sunday. Ouch. Trust me. Ouch.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hot, Testosterone-Fueled Car On Car Action!

Japan's love of motorized transportation is legendary, but the people of Oita Prefecture were starting to make me wonder if Speed Racer and Initial D were lying to me through their poorly animated teeth. Practical family MPVs, wagons and kei cars are legion while the mainstays of Japan's 90s muscle car boom rust on cinder blocks underneath dust covers. Adding to the confusion is the fact that denizens of Oita Prefecture don't seem to know there's a world-class race circuit, Autopolis, located within its bounds, albeit at the periphery.

But I do, and today, after three years of waiting for the stars to align I finally went and witnessed the Kyushu stage of Japan's Super GT series! Sure, a bike race would have been more up my alley, but beggars can't be choosers this late in the season, plus seeing anything that reminds me of how I'm not riding my Mille--my darling, my lover, the only one who understands me--is just pure torture.

I woke up at 8AM, downed my last bottle of "Real Gold" vitamin drink, ate the piece of Trandor cheese toast I'd been saving from the previous day's trip to Oita City and shot out of town heading south on highway 387. This is the same highway I took to Hosenji Onsen on my first Bad Idea Bike Ride, but Autopolis is much further down the road and a whole bunch of twists and turns away. If I weren't screwing around exploring the town of Oguni (utterly charming), stopping to ponder the soft serve ice cream shop down a one-lane road in the middle of nowhere (where business was inexplicably brisk at 9AM), or just plain taking the wrong road I would have made the trip in an hour, but I arrived around 10:30. Having the space in the car, and not wanting to slowly hoof it around the track like always, I brought my bike along. To say I was a head turner is an understatement--I mean, how many Americans on road bikes with red tires and red messenger bags do you see at Japanese circuits do you think there are?

A few of the Vitz Cup cars and one of the GT500 Autobacs NSXs moving considerably slower than track speed.

I arrived too late to see the Vitz Cup race (damnit!), but in plenty of time to see the warm-up and final race of some V6 cart series. I don't really know, it was the most boring race I've seen since I watched two cockroaches scurry across my floor and bet myself on who would make it to the fridge first--in the end they both got smooshed by my righteous heel. Waiting for the Super GT race I tooled around on the bike admiring the track, the track babes and watching some Chinese acrobats who were doing...what a Japanese race track? Well, the dude could sure stack chairs, balance on top and pour tea real good like. But about the track, Autopolis is a much more serious circuit than I'd thought it before. It blends hairpins and sweepers really well near the middle section forcing drivers to show off their shifting and braking skills more than anything else, but the elevation changes also mean your machine better be up to snuff powerwise lest you get passed on the uphills.

Autopolis' front straight and pits. They really want to host an F1 race here. Then, one of the track's mid-section technical bits. This is where the drivers hit the gas and I go deaf.

The field for Super GT was broken up into two classes that would be running at the same time, GT300 and GT500--an idea that I absolutely love as it adds spice to have moving "obstacles" on the track--and was comprised of an incredibly diverse set of machines. There were several Fairlady Zs (known in The States as 350Z, or course), Honda NSXs, Lexus SC430s, but there was also a Celica, an MR2 Ford GT, Ferrari F430, two Lamborghini Murcielagos, two RX-7s, an Impreza Sti and a few other cars I couldn't figure out but resembled McLaren F1s. I've never actually seen one in real life though, so...

For you, Pat

What a race, what a race. Probably the most fun I've ever seen. My first observation is the Lexus SC430s are fucking fast in this GT tune! They dominated the top spots consistently throughout the 60 lap race and it was in fact an SC430 that won the race. My next observation is that the Japanese run a b-r-u-t-a-l race. Brutal! When the GT300 Celica got rear ended by two GT500 cars on a left hand sweeper and the three went spinning off the track jettisoning debris across the track did the pace car come out to allow crews time to clean the mess up? No. Did anyone ever clean it up? Nope. Did they even yellow flag the corner? Hell no! There were two accidents I saw after that that did necessitate a rescue car, but they kept the race running while the rescue car was on the track! And I mean on the track, as in, the rescue car was running with the field to get to the incident sites. Just another moving obstacle to avoid. I would be terrified had I been in that rescue wagon. God, what a cool race.

No flag for you!

Heading home I thought it would be the ideal cap to the ideal day if I were to stop off at my favoritest favorite onsen of all time, Kurokawa Onsen, which is on the way home from Autopolis (sort of). It was a good idea that I did, not only to avoid the race traffic heading home on much too narrow roads for the volume, but also to see that my favorite onsen has only gotten better in the past three years. Kurokawa is the closest to a real-life Japanese fairytale that any place in this country can be, achieving this feat by just staying quaint and offering a fine product with no frills. I'm not yet a good enough writer to articulate how the town makes me feel, you'll just have to experience it for yourself to understand.

Much to my delight, and adding another feather in the town's cap, Kurokawa has now started microbrewing its own beer...and it's good too! Dry like Asahi, but with a flavor not unlike Anchor Steam it was worth the $5.87 J-bucks I paid for it.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

At the Intersection of Stupidity and Brilliance: Nagasaki, Part 2

After seeing where I left off with the last post I realized it only covered about five hours of activity, from 11AM-4PM. I'm going to pick up the pace here a bit.

Coming down off Mt. Inasa it was an hour past the universal Japanese check-in time and my chances at landing a room were diminishing by the minute. Of more immediate importance was that I felt disgusting after the hike and probably looked it too--the shirt was drying off slowly, but those ubiquitous salty sweat streaks were appearing in spots. I crossed the river again and intersected Nagasaki's main waterfront thoroughfare, Urakami Street, a.k.a. Route 206, and started walking north, towards Nagasaki Medical University, the Peace Park and the general "outskirts". But damn did my legs burn and thighs chafe. Without getting too intimate, I wasn't wearing my walking undies today and was starting to pay for it. Anyways, Nagasaki's expansive streetcar system that SF's F-Line totally ripped off runs Urakami north to south so I hopped on and rode for all of five all-too-short minutes before relieving the frightened passengers of my presence at the University station. For the record, Nagasaki has the best public transit of any Japanese non-megalopolis that I've seen so far. The streetcars are so numerous and frequent one has to wonder if Nagasaki has agents around the world snapping up vintage cars. And the bus system, oh man--on any street that's not an outright alley you'll have a bus sneaking up on you from behind or charging from ahead. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!

Streetcar mania! F-Line MUNI eat your heart out...this is how it's done!

There are five hotels in the neighborhood adjacent to the university and two of them are priced way over my means. After asking around the remaining three I had bupkis. All full for the festival. Mind you, this isn't downtown and there are no medical conferences on the Kunchi weekend according to the bulletin board in front of the campus. Gradually, sitting on some steps with an ice cream and onigiri, I was resigning myself to another Osaka '04 experience where I ran out of cash and had to sleep on the Dotombori-bashi. I'm still getting drinks off that story though, so maybe this happenstance would be equally as drama-charged. Hell, I'd already found the perfect place to sleep--the Lion's Club cemetery across the river--all I needed was a tarp and sleeping bag.

Nagasaki Station in the twilight. Ain't it purdy?

Before giving up I headed towards Nagasaki Station again, remembering a bank of hotels in that area that looked expensive, but you never know. The Washington and Dai-Ichi were priced right but booked, naturally, being directly in front of the station. I plied the back alleys and found one place that looked great yet...intimidating. I don't know what this hotel's gimmick was--it was small enough to be a bargain basement "business hotel", but looked really, really nice and had a lot of scary types hanging around it. I wrote it off walking by the first time, got half a block and wondered why I didn't even try, headed back for another pass and just froze. It's like I'm in seventh grade again and can't ask Adrianne What's-her-face to the dance. This happened, seriously, five times. The smokers out front must have thought me mad. The upside to this farce was that I did have the courage to walk into the excellent mom-n'-pop bakery across the street and pick up Nagasaki Castella cake for my friends as presents when I got back home.

Then, two blocks away from Le Hotel Terror, I found it: the narrowest hotel ever, and my salvation. I should have taken a picture out front it was so comical. The place couldn't have been wider than twenty feet and was five stories tall, and perhaps it was by this ultra-slim profile that ordinary people missed it because there were vacant rooms. Score! Actually, double score, I got a kitschy little Western-tatami hybrid room. Spreading out the tatami the width of the room and laying down my head and feet were almost in contact with the walls. I took a shower and rested my muscles while watching the drama-filled Gamba Osaka football game until the 6 PM siren roused me and I headed out for a kick ass night on the town.

My Western-tatami room at Hotel Knife Edge. By the way, the patrons here were equally as scary as Le Hotel Terror, with one confirmed Yakuza spotted in the lobby when I was checking out.

Nagasaki's main nighlife spots are focused around the Shianbashi and Nishihama neighborhoods, located inland a bit over a kilometer away from the station. It's definitely an exciting, fun place to walk around, but it lacks the charged, circus-like atmosphere of Oita's Miyako-machi, which was disappointing. Still, the magnet in my brain that uncannily steers me towards the bizarre and interesting didn't fail me and my first stop was, oddly enough, a cup of coffee at the single most awesome cafe I have ever seen: a Regan-era kei-type delivery van parked in a back alley, in front of a hair salon. I ordered a $3 cup of coffee equivalent in size to a "tall" and took a seat and read a bit from the book I'd just picked up at a bookstore, Tokyo Underworld. Five minutes passed and I was wondering why pouring a cup of coffee was taking so damn long until I realized he was making it with a coffee siphon. The coffee was the single most perfect cup I've ever had--I don't know what his secret was, but I told him so and that I'd be back every time I come to Nagasaki, so don't move the van.

Who'd have thunkit...the best cup of coffee I've ever had came out of a 50 hp blue van in a Nagasaki alley.

Next stop, something to properly fill my stomach and a beer, because I've earned it today. In fact, I've earned a bunch of beers today. I was really looking forward to Nagasaki's famous Chanpon, a Chinese-inspired noodle soup served with seafood, meat and veggies, but it had to be the "real deal" and I just didn't think anyplace looked authentic enough, whatever that means. So I gave up that dream for the night and ducked into a super-duper-seedy yakitori joint. There were no windows, no menus and no stopping the cooks of disparate ages in the kitchen behind the bar where I was sitting. I alternated between eating, drinking, reading and watching them for the better part of an hour and not once did I see one of them slow down or wander off. I was having a good time until a drunken patron started gibbering to me. I couldn't understand his slurred Japanese except when he started talking about how I should lay a Nagasaki chick so I payed the bill and ducked into some kind of subterranean passageway where a guy was selling pork buns. Very surreal.

Aimlessly wandering Shianbashi I found a well lit narrow bar with white plaster walls covered by autographs and messages, self-serve bar snacks and a lot of bottles of really premium shōchū that I'd never seen before--none of that Nashika crap here. My mind was boggled, so I got another beer and chatted with the bartender a little then took off. There was another American guy in the bar who was giving me strange, uncomfortable looks too. There's a weird vibe with some Westerners in Japan that gravitates between camaraderie and revulsion for reasons too complicated to explain here, and sometimes it's tough to figure out where on the spectrum a given person might occupy. Ask me about it in person sometime, it's better explained face-to-face.

The Shōchū Bar in Shianbashi: a good place to cop a cheap feel on someone who won't suspect it's anything other then a byproduct of the place just being so damn cramped. Oh, it's got good drinks and customer service too.

Moving on I stumbled on Nagasaki's Chinatown, a gaudy, LED strewn handful of blocks with nothing but pricey Hong Kong-style restaurants and herb shops. In fact, there's no action to be had inside Nagasaki Chinatown at all, it's all happening at its riverside periphery where the yatai (portable food stands) set up shop. I hunkered down at one and proceeded to, at first, terrify the operators and their clients. But when I bought a big bottle of beer, started pouring for everyone
and demonstrated my mastery of basic, elementary school-level Japanese they fell like dominoes. The conversation turned weird when they asked me what I do and I returned the question, with the man in the suit next to me saying he worked as a shipbuilder for Mitsubishi on the south side of town. The guy next to him though, attired in a blue jumpsuit said he worked in construction and soon after got up and went to another stall. "He's not in construction," said the stall owner's wife, "he's a 'boss' in Nagasaki." He was a gang boss, she meant. I may have been pouring beers to a Yakuza boss.

I went somewhere after the stall, maybe to get more to eat since the yatai had disappointed me by being out of butabara skewers and the earlier yakitori shop didn't fill me up. I'm a little fuzzy though since about half of the things I've put in my stomach in the entire day had been beer. Oh, that's right, I didn't get anything to eat, I chased cats around the police station. Thankfully it was late or I might have found myself the object of questioning. Stumbling back to my hovel of a hotel (did I mention it was only $40 despite being in the heart of Nagasaki?) I watched some summer action blockbuster from my youth dubbed in Japanese and fell asleep.

Next I'll tell you about the actual festival I came for in the first place.


Monday, October 8, 2007

Goddamn Cagers...

After finishing my last post I flipped over the the Japanese news to find out that motorcycle racer Norifumi Abe was killed last night by a truck driver stupid enough to make an illegal u-turn in front of him in Kawasaki City. For a guy who's been MotoGP world champion a few times that's a downright shitty way to die and I'm quite pissed at it, though I never saw him race live. However, when I was first getting into biking in my late teens, Abe was everywhere in the news as the little wild card racer who shot out of the Japanese racing scene to the world stage like a bat out of hell.

People of the world, please stop killing us motorcyclists!


Sunday, October 7, 2007

At the Intersection of Stupidity and Brilliance: Nagasaki, Part 1

One of the JETs I had met in SF pre-departure, Laura from Morgan Hill, had extended an invitation a couple weeks ago to come enjoy Nagasaki's famous Kunchi Festival this weekend, but with all the travel expenses I'll rack up next month (Shanghai with the city hall folks, then Kyoto/Nara/Osaka with Kusu JHS students) I was caught between being sour to the idea and embracing it. I've been browsing a bunch of health reports recently about the risks of this or that and thoughts of my own mortality have been swimming around my noggin where they never were before, resulting in unnatural amounts of jogging, biking and club sports around my schools. It's also got me scrambling to make travel plans--or at least self-promises--to visit all number of reasonable destinations in Japan and around Asia should I be killed by wild boar, bird flu or slippage on wet stairs before my proper time. By Friday lunchtime I still hadn't decided to stay or go, but the Kunchi Festival sounded like a hot ticket, thunder storms were on the menu for Kusu bringing up the possibility of death by lightning strike and Laura is pleasing enough on the eyes that I decided to make the leap, picking up a pair of bus tickets from the local agent fifteen minutes before they closed for the night.

The bus left the Kusu Interchange twenty minutes late, at 8:30 AM, and barreled down the road way over the speed limit, scrubbing about twenty five minutes off the estimated three hour ride. I bought some supplies for the road the night before knowing that I wouldn't get up early enough to make breakfast and one of these items was a vitamin drink called "Capsella". It has a vile-yet-mysteriously-irresistible flavor that I'm hoping follows the old adage that the worse something tastes the better it must be for you. The name of the stuff must be derived from countless little jelly spheres perfectly suspended in the viscous goo that passes as a beverage. Anyways, I arrived in front of Nagasaki Station around 11 AM, secured a map, secured a slice of Trandor cheese toast (note: I judge a Japanese city's worth and greatness by whether or not their station has a Trandor bakery. Nagasaki's automatically up to "enlightened" status) and then...hit a wall.

The fashionable new Nagasaki Station. See the Trandor tucked in back there?
And good god...what the hell happened to this bike?

I was counting on the station info desk to have all the tools I needed to find a rental bike and secure a hotel room for the night. From the most insignificant village rail stops to the mightiest Japanese metropolis, the info desk hook-up has always worked in the past. Here's where the "Stupidity" in the post's title comes into play and this time it went something like this:

Matt: "Hello, I'm looking for the phattest thing on two-wheels you got to rent out. Cards in the spokes, shiny bar-end streamers and a bell that'll wake the dead. Hook me up sharpish, snap snap."
Bionic Infowoman: "We're out of rental bikes because of the festival, spaz."
Matt: "Sucks to be me, but them's how the bones roll. How about the 411 on hotels?"
Bionic Infowoman: "You don't have a hotel yet for the festival? Good luck, sucka. Care to tell me about any more wilsons you're gonna pull today, sir?"

And that was that. No bike and no hotel prospects in sight. The places around the station were booked solid, so my only chance were the seedy little hovels down alleys in further into the city's interior and on the outskirts. Whatever, I didn't have to worry about that until 3 PM, which seems to be the universal check-in time around Japan. I started walking to fill the time.

I suppose the normal thing would have been to make a bee line for downtown and explore around there first, but I went in the opposite direction, across the bay towards Mt. Inasa and up into the hills to breach the labyrinthine stairway neighborhoods that cling to their sides. The urban planning in the Otori, Otani and any of the other neighborhoods west of the bay is nothing short of madness if it indeed exists at all. Most blocks have a main car park at the lowest point and residents must leave their vehicles there and climb countless stairways in various states of repair to reach their houses that may lie as much as fifty meters up the slope. I witnessed several women in their seventies or eighties carrying groceries up hills and stairs that would wind even the hardiest resident of Diamond Heights and the Upper Castro. Is this Nagasaki or Rio de Janeiro? I got lost a few times, unable to find the next flight of stairs up. Once I followed one of the previously mentioned grandmothers to a stairway tunnel that bored into the hillside underneath a preschool. Who the hell designed this stuff!?!

The Lion's Club international cemetery and its Japanese counterpart. In Nagasaki just about everything is built on to the steep hills.

I really didn't know why I was even climbing. It was hot Saturday, my clothes were soaked through with sweat, I was out of Fanta grape already and my Trandor cheese toast supply was perilously low. I came across a Lion's Club international cemetery and stopped in the shade to rest, finish off the cheese toast and look at the spectacular view. Just above the cemetery I happened to stumble on Mt. Inasa Road that leads up to the summit and its observation tower that looks like a fashionable fish tank perched on a cliff. What the hell, it's only two kilometers more up this road to the top. At 333 meters Mt. Inasa has about sixty meters on Twin Peaks and is way, way more steep--I was a wreck when I reached the top and promptly made for the bank of vending machines next to the ropeway station, purchasing a bottle of "Energy Squash" that proudly proclaims in Japanese "now with caffiene!" About that ropeway though, yeah, I could have taken a cable car up the mountain instead of playing Tenzing Norgay, but what's the challenge in that? It's also $12 j-bucks and I'm cheap.

The view from the top: Nagasaki Harbor, Dejima and downtown. The city actually extends way to the left and right outside this photo

I took a power nap on a secluded bench, checked out the view and, with Energy Squash firmly in hand, went to see the monkeys. Why they put a monkey enclosure on the top of a mountain I will never understand, but there they are. After a good fifteen minutes I had to tell myself there was a city out there waiting for me as I could hardly stop watching their antics--I may not believe in perpetual motion machines, but I sure as hell believe in perpetual entertainment machines, and it is the monkey. I took a longer route down then I did coming up and found a posh neighborhood on Mt. Inasa, where everyone lives in their Japanese version of a SoMa loft and drives Benzes, Beamers and Audis. Actually, there were a few times I felt like I was in the Outer Richmond on Balboa. An eerie feeling indeed.

Well, it's about time I go do something productive, so I'll leave the rest of Nagasaki for later on. Expect three parts to this trip as a lot of the absurd as well as the profound came my way this weekend and I want to share it all.


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Good News Bike Ride: Amagase

It's about damn time I had one of these! Although sometimes I can't tell the difference between a good and bad idea bike ride--after all, a trying situation can be looked on as positive or even pleasant in hindsight--this one just felt entirely right what with the noticeable lack of, oh, rain, snow, landslides, chemical spills or any of those kinds of things that turn well-intentioned rides into pilgrimages of pain.

The target of Saturday's ride was the hot springs town of Amagase, located west of Kusu, down, down, down the hill just over ten kilometers towards Hita City. The highway leading there, national 210, flows at the law-breaking pace of 70 KPH (posted limit is 50 KPH) in most places and has an on-and-off shoulder to veer into, so it's a bit hairy for cyclists. Between here and there though there's little choice in the matter unless I want to take a crippling detour literally up and over a mountain, Kagami-yama, that rises 675 meters in about a half mile, if even that. Uh oh, mixing metric and standard there...just ask the ESA and NASA how that works out.

Highway 210 looking west. These kinds of half-tunnels are common on mountain roads in Japan and are a hoot to drive through in bright sun at speed.

I'm not sure when Amagase's heyday as an onsen resort was, or if it even had one, but it shows all the normal signs of decline these kinds of kitschy resorts seem to fall into in rural Japan. Perhaps "decline" is the wrong wordage here, and in fact I witnessed a sort of theme as to which hotels are shut down and which are still open and apparently thronging with tour buses full of visitors. The trend seems to be heavily in favor of hotels, inns and restaurants that at least appear to be traditionally Japanese on the exterior even if the inner goo is all shag carpeting, box spring mattresses and blow driers. The places that looked like they were trying to be Monte Carlo with a marble bathhouse are largely gone. OK, there's still a German-themed hotel there that doesn't look to be doing too badly, but it's the last vestige of any wacky facade that I saw.

Russian Roulette Bridge and a very sexy bicycle. Going my way, baby?

The entire town straddles a part of the Kusu River downstream where a ton more water has been added to the flow along the way, no doubt from the still-saturated mountainsides, resulting in some decent rapids. There are at least ten fly fisherman wading through the shallows at all times hoping to catch...who knows what. Never saw a single fish in their buckets when I was riding or walking around. To cross the river you have three choices for cars and one for pedestrians, but I would definitely recommend parking and walking the pedestrian bridge over the others since it's a simple wood plank suspension setup that sways and creaks underfoot ten meters above the rapids. The suspension cable housings at one end are rusted halfway through, adding to the unshakable Russian Roulette feeling one has while crossing. But hey, what good is life if you don't spin the chamber every now and then, eh?

Amagase looking east from the largest and newest bridge in town. Note that this is only HALF the town

After mulling around for an hour I heard the siren call of nudity and obscenely hot bath water. Onsen time! But which to choose? I mean, every damn building in this place is tapped into the thermal springs underground and has a bath, so it's a matter of what I can see from my bath. One has an outdoor rock pool in a pristine, isolated bamboo garden. Meh, too claustrophobic. Another hangs out three stories above the river. No, I'd spend too much time worrying if the building was structurally sound and whether or not I'd be the 90 kilos too much that finally snapped the whole thing off, crashing to the rocks below. I finally chose an inn jammed right up against the valley's rock wall that was nearly vertical in construction, the bath being on the sixth floor roof. Ah, serendipity strikes again--as the sole bather this hour I am the ruler of a cedar wood tub overlooking the entire town. Rock on.

The view from my rub-a-dub-tub! Hights: no problem.

After washing up, soaking, applying a sugar mask, soaking, trimming my toenails and finally soaking again I got dressed and saddled up for home. As it turns out, I missed quite a bit of scenery as I whizzed down 210 before, so the upside of the uphill was being able to bask in the beauty of the gorgeous river valley between Kusu and Amagase.

I think next summer I'll return to Amagase not for its onsen, but to try a bit of tubing on the river rapids. Maybe I can even try tubing from Kusu to Hita City and meet up with friends...? The mind reels with possibilities.