In Which Tajima Rocks My Socks, or, In Which I Finally Break Chronological Order

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 10.00 am JST

sotd: Move, Wanna Fly To Be Wild
cotd: RR5 Honda Elysion Prestige SZ

Despite having the best cellular phone handsets and some of the best cars in the world (two things which have undoubtedly consumed a lot of my attention in the last few years), sometimes I still wonder why I packed up and left the comforts and perfect tropical climate of home to settle my ass in Japan, what with its four seasons, ignorant people, and highly discriminatory social infrastructure.

Well, let me just put it out there that days like yesterday go great lengths to reaffirm my conviction that coming here is “worth it.”

After Sunday’s 2-hour-long graduation ceremony in the freezing school gymnasium which was basically just like a normal school assembly in format and rather like a funeral in appearance (really, we could try to pick a theme other than Men In Black), Monday brought 代休 (daikyu, the beloved “substitution holiday”) and the day that Taniguchi sensei and I would Go To Izushi.

At roughly 9:30, Taniguchi sensei picked me up in front of school (me having gone outside at 9:20 to get a drink from the vending machine), where we were immediately off to the Co-op confectionary to get some pastries for the Ido residence (and the inhabitants therein). At about 10:20, after some heavy fiddling with the Peugeot’s navigation system, we were off . . . to the north. The furthest north in Hyogo I’d been heretofore was Aogaki, and even then, it’s still part of Tamba. You can imagine how much I feared for my body warmth. Nevertheless, we made our way to Izushi Town in Toyooka City (兵庫県豊岡市出石町), where we finally arrived at the Ido residence (construction completed, August 2006) sometime before 12. After having coffee inside and me no longer wanting to go back to my crappy apartment, Ido sensei took the two of us to partake of Izushi’s most recognized export, 出石そば (Izushi soba), which is eaten in servings on small dishes and dipped into a sauce of egg, green onions, yamaimo (mountain potato), and shoyu, instead of the usual sauce, which is just shoyu. After this, we walked around the main part of town, which is a traditional 下町 (shitamachi, or town below the castle), and includes two famous highlights, the 辰鼓櫓 (Shinkorou, a famous Meiji-period clock tower, and either the first or second oldest of such clock towers in Japan), and 出石城 (Izushi Castle, the only authorized castle in the Tajima area after the one castle per area directive of 1615). After a short stopover at the Ido house, we were then off in the direction of Kinosaki Onsen (兵庫県豊岡市城崎町). Along the way, we tried to get into the Hyogo Prefectural Homeland for the Oriental White Stork (兵庫県立コウノトリの郷公園), but alas it was closed due to scares of bird flu. What storks have to do with chickens I know not, but oh well. Next time. Side note: the Oriental White Stork (コウノトリ) is also the official bird of Hyogo Prefecture. After this, we passed by and stopped at 玄武洞 (Genbudo, a natural cave formation along the side of the Maruyama River) and then finally headed for the hot springs.

Famous as it is, there is no one bath house called “Kinosaki Onsen.” Rather, it is simply the name of the area, with tons of individual bath houses scattered throughout the town. Kinosaki is simply the name of the town (formerly self-governing, it is now under administrative jurisdiction of Toyooka City, as a result of complicated mergers and dissolutions of districts, towns, and villages, a giant geographic and political reorganization process started a few years ago by Mr. Koizumi), and the bath houses are part of it. Anyway, I digress. We stepped into (though not back-to-back, for fear that we all might melt) 柳湯 and 一の湯, two of the more famous ones. (Though who really knows, they’re all famous, of course.) Emerging into the twilight of northern Hyogo sometime after 6, we left the car park, which at an astounding 200 yen for a major national tourist area almost gave me cause to faint, and were back to the 井戸家.

Once there, we were treated to a home-coooked (home-prepared, I guess) sukiyaki dinner, complete with Tajima’s other famous food, 但馬牛 (Tajima beef, which (trivia alert!) is actually the true name and origin of so-called Kobe beef). After stuffing ourselves full of prime meat and fresh vegetables and then cramming in the pastries I had bought in the morning, Taniguchi sensei and I were back off to Tamba, trying once again to navigate the reverse trip, only without light. We still managed to get back in about an hour.

And that concluded the best day in Japan in my recent memory. Next time, back to old news.

In Which Jamie Visits

Friday, 23 February 2007

Friday, 23 February 2007, 03.00 pm JST

sotd: エイジアエンジニア, 一人のメリークリスマス
cotd: L235S Daihatsu Esse Custom

So after that lovely highway night bus ride through which we were mostly sleeping, we arrived at Hankyu Umeda Station at 8 in the morning, with a couple hours to wait with all our stuff. Why Umeda and not back to Sannomiya again, you ask? Well, mostly because fresh off our trip to Tokyo we were scheduled to meet with Jamie who would be staying at Kristine’s place for a few days while we showed her around Kansai a bit. Now, what might that involve?

-Lots of catching up and discussion of work/students, etc.; comparisons and contrasts between Hyogo and Fukuoka.

-Taking Jamie to Himeji to see, of course, Himeji Castle.

-Taking Jamie to Akashi to see around the station and eat at Bombay.

-Taking Jamie to Nara to see Nara Park, Todaiji, and of course, deer.

-Taking Jamie to Osaka to see Namba/Shinsaibashi and experience Cafe Muji. (That last one was actually a first for us too.)

-Taking Jamie to Kobe to see our nearest major city. (Well, actually, Kristine mostly took Jamie around Kobe while I waited around at home for Tokyo Banana.)

-Seeing Jamie off at Umeda Station since she could take a bus from there to go to Itami Airport. 😦

Pictures are here, here, and here.


Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Tuesday, 20 February 2007, 11.40 am JST

sotd: BoA, Winter Love
cotd: GWS191 Lexus GS450h Version L

And then the second semester of school finished. Which meant we were free to go somewhere . . . as long as we took vacation days to do it. Since leaving Japan was already out of the question, mostly due to cost constraints, we went to the only other natural place to go: Tokyo, to see the big city and reunite with as many friends as possible. We gave ourselves five days to be there by leaving on an overnight bus from Kobe on Friday, December 22 and arriving in Tokyo on the morning of Saturday, December 23, staying and cramming in as much as we could do until Wednesday, December 27 when we would take an overnight bus back to Osaka where we would meet Jamie on the morning of Thursday, December 28 and be with her until Sunday, December 31. (But that’s for an altogether separate post.)

As they say, rest is for the weak.

Friday, December 22 / Saturday, December 23

After work on Friday, which involved no classes as it was the last day of school and therefore reserved strictly for the 終業式 (end-class-ceremony), I quickly gathered up and packed the rest of the things I needed and then hit the road for Miki. Once there, I helped Kristine get the rest of her things together, stepping out briefly to run and grab us a light dinner from McDonald’s, and helping ourselves to part of the christmas cake I got via my school’s food processing section. It’s the way to go, folks. Don’t be fooled by those nonsense pamphlets at Lawson. After a 50-minute ride into Kobe which seems to be getting shorter the longer we live here (or it could just be me WANTING it to be shorter), we waddled over to the Sannomiya Bus Terminal and . . . waited. At 10:30 we were off, in a JR bus which was sadly much more cramped than the Keihan buses I’ve taken before.

At roughly 7:15 am, we arrived at JR Shinjuku Station, ready for our first vacation in Japan. After a stop at Starbucks, we got on the Yamanote Line from Shinjuku to Ikebukuro, then transferring to the Tokyo Metro Yurakucho Line to head to Edogawabashi Station, where we emerged from Exit 3 and crossed the street, passed Hanamizubashi (華水橋!) and arrived at the Endo residence. Trust me, it’s a lot simpler than it sounds. After breakfast and freshening up time, we left and got back on the subway, heading for Chiyoda-ku (千代田区), the physical and political center of Tokyo City, home to the Imperial Palace and many of the national government facilities. Today, we would be going into the palace to experience 天皇誕生日. Normally, the interior grounds of the palace are closed to the public (read: commoners) except for two days: January 1 and December 23, the latter being Emperor Akihito’s birthday. Lucky for us that we could catch an overnight bus to Tokyo on December 22. I dare say, the timing couldn’t have worked out better. Before going into the palace grounds, we met up with one Christopher Killmer, back in Tokyo at his family’s house for winter break.

It was quite the event, with as much shouts of “Banzai!” and waving of paper Japanese flags as one can imagine. The Emperor’s speech was short and simple, thanking everyone for coming and wishing them health and good fortune in the upcoming year. On a side note, he speaks slower than any Japanese person I’ve ever met. I’m wondering if it’s his special speech voice, or his, you know, normal voice. After the event was over, Kristine and I and Killmer walked through the grounds of the palace and came out on the east side, perfectly placed to wander over to a rather more controversial location: Yasukuni Shrine.

After wandering around the Yasukuni grounds and having seen more than a sufficient number of scary black communist vans and similarly scary middle-aged suit-wearing Japanese men, we were off, heading back around the palace and finding ourselves at the beginning of Aoyama-dori, which cuts straight through one of the poshest areas in Tokyo. We three stopped at McDonald’s for a much-needed lunch and then split up, as Killmer needed to head home. We were headed in the direction of Shibuya.

Once at Shibuya, we took in the wonder that is the front side of JR Shibuya Station, took some pictures with Hachiko, and met Mari! After some walking around the Shibuya area, we stopped for food and conversation at a cafe that turned out to have some pretty awful service (for Japan standards). After parting back at Shibuya Station, Kristine and I headed back towards Ikebukuro where we waited for the Endos to return from a house party. Once that happened, we reconvened back at the 遠藤家 and took a taxi over to La Qua, a shopping/dining/entertainment complex across the street from the Tokyo Dome. We were in fact here to celebrate the opening of a new Hub, as the Endo children are acquaintances of the chain’s owner, which is a good or bad thing depending how you look at it. Considering the first drink on the menu is always absinthe, I’m leaning towards the bad side. Killmer also made it out and joined us for the time being. Pictures are on Fotki if you haven’t seen them already. After the festivities, half the group (which we were part of) took a taxi back, while Taka, Killmer, and Kaz walked back to the house. I’ll leave out Kaz’s head-butting incident for the sake of brevity. If you want to know, you can ask him yourself. Everybody crashed soon after and even Killmer stayed the night.

Sunday, December 24

The next day we got a not-too-early start and headed out towards Harajuku to see a couple attractions. They turned out to be half-success-half-failures. The first was to find the Nodame Cafe, a time-limited themed restaurant based on the popular Fall 2006 Fuji TV drama Nodame Cantabile. We ended up finding the exact place, but learned that December 24 and December 25 (also the airing date of the final episode) were completely booked up and that we couldn’t get in. Bummer. So we commiserated over an Italian lunch down the street. Afterwards, we headed to the new Audi Forum Tokyo showroom in an attempt to see the hottest car of 2008, the new Audi R8 sportscar. I had already read that coinciding with the opening of the Audi Forum was the first showing of the R8 in Japan, but when we got there, no R8 was to be found. In the spot where it used to sit was a much lowlier but still lovely TT. Oh well. Not to be deterred, we roamed through Harajuku’s famous Takeshita-dori and upon emerging from the backside, experienced the KDDI Designing Studio. Never mind that we are NTT DoCoMo customers. After playing with all the free toys in the KDDI building, we headed back through Takeshita, stopping for crepes and kind of unexpectedly meeting Killmer there, we headed back for the Christmas Eve Wine Tasting Party at the 遠藤家. See pictures.

Monday, December 25 [クリスマス]

After waking up pretty late, we waited with Taka for Aki to arrive, and then went to lunch at a nearby udon shop. Not having any very specific plans, we went with Aki out to Asakusa to see the famous Sensoji, and walk through Nakamise-dori and some of the other shopping streets. At the Asakusa station of the still-brand-new Tsukuba Express, we parted, with Aki heading for Ibaraki and us heading one station in to the terminus at Akihabara Station. From there, we saw didn’t see much of the typical Akihabara fare, as it was a regular working day at approximately twilight hours. (Twilight and Akihabara in the same reference! Points if you can figure out what in the world I’m referring to.) After a couple laps of walking up and down Chuo-dori, we stopped in for a Christmas Pepper Lunch and then got on the subway to Ginza, home to the most expensive real estate in Japan. By this time, it was already dark, and we mostly enjoyed the lights and traffic of downtown Tokyo as we headed towards Marunouchi and the Tokyo Station area. Despite getting lost not a few times, we eventually made our way back to Yurakucho and got on the subway back for Edogawabashi.

Tuesday, December 26

After another mid-morning start, we ventured out into the worst rain of the year (seriously, I swear it was approaching typhoon status) to head to Odaiba, everyone’s favorite artificial island. After getting on the New Transit Yurikamome at Shimbashi (which is heavily featured in the first five minutes of Supli, btw), we crossed over the Rainbow Bridge and got off directly in front of the Fuji Television Headquarters Building. Once inside, we enjoyed to our hearts’ content the sights and sounds of some of Fuji’s most famous shows, including Kristine’s favorite Chibi Maruko-chan, and our encounter with the Fuji mascot dressed up as a samurai to promote a period drama. After we were Fuji-ed out, we got back on the Yurikamome and got off directly in front of the Toyota Mega Web. Highlights included the Lexus corner and the recently debuted Toyota Blade. I already know I’m going to need to go back sometime, as I didn’t have enough time to see the historic car showcase, as well as experience the Ride One attraction (though that was also on account of my not having my international driver’s license at the time). By about 5:30 we hightailed it off the island to head back to Edogawabashi to meet the Endos for a pretty authentic Chinese dinner.

Wednesday, December 27

On our last day in Tokyo, Kristine and I and Taka headed out towards Ochanomizu Station to meet Killmer and the one and only Takako Kamata! Having last seen her in December 2004 when I stayed at her family’s house during my first trip to Tokyo, it was a reunion waiting to happen. We immediately headed for lunch at the place previously decided by Taka(ko), the Mu’u Mu’u Diner. Loco mocos in Japan…wow. Afterwards we stopped at the always quirky Village Vanguard and saw the Confucian Yushima Seido, walked over to Kanda Myojin, and then headed back to Shinjuku. Emerging at Takashimaya Times Square, we walked over and across the tracks to discover Japan’s first Krispy Kreme Donuts…12 days old and with a 2-hour plus wait. Great. In the meantime, we had to say goodbye to Takako but a little while later met with Aki again and Yuki at the station. In our search to find food, we ended up at one of Shinjuku’s many 居酒屋 (izakaya)…you know the ones with the guys who stand on street corners with their headsets, advertising to groups to come to their particular store. After this and a couple pictures later, we headed back to Ikebukuro, where Kristine and I were in a literal scramble to find Tokyo Banana before (a) we had to get on the bus and (b) before all the department stores closed for the night. Luckily we did, and had it shipped ahead of us back to Hyogo. Then it was back to Taka’s house to pack up everything and say our goodbyes, and then we were on the Tokyo Metro for one last time to head to Shinjuku and wait for our JR Highway Bus back to Kansai. After lots of waiting and a few delays, we were on the bus–in the extra comfortable seats, no less–and back to whence we came.