The bloggings of an Upstate NY-born Tokyoite. Now with 20% more verbosity!

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thinning out

Much like my unfortunate hairline (rimshot) you can see a the blog updates here becoming more and more sporadic with time. I think this is natural with any project: it starts off with a bang and slowly loses steam. The real challenge however is to keep it going, and that's what really matters. So some months there may be only 1 post, sometimes 10, but more important than anything else is that I won't just leave it one day and never return, which is a fate left to many blogs and strikes me as a bit of a slap in the face to those who may have enjoyed reading it.

Moving is the word of the month. Everything I do seems to revolve around it. Overtime is arguably the second word of the month. Excluding the week of public holidays when my Mom was in town, I've had something like 6 actual days off in a 2 month period. That's not so much fun. Also working a lot of long days, like a 10am kindergarten gig over an hour away, and a following shift an hour in the opposite direction that goes until almost 10pm. The work itself is fine, it's the hours that can get to me a little. I try to make the best of my hours on the trains by reading or studying or vegging on the Simpsons season 5 which I just put on my iPod. Guaranteed good times.

Last night, while wrapping dishes in bubblewrap and filling boxes and other unfun activities, I lightened my mood by cooking some beef and chicken wings which I threw over bread in an open-face hot-sandwich style and downed with a bottled Heinekin I bought from Donki (a walmart-like store in Japan with a cute penguin for it's mascot). This may seem rather mundane, but it is a vast change from a) drinking Japanese beer (which is fine but entirely different) and b) my healthy diet I was adhering to for the last few months. In fact, my plan to eat lots of vegetables and less fried food, which was going very well for since January or so, has went to the dogs recently. Not 100%, because I still eat what fruits I can but I can't do any real cooking for a week or two. This is a nuisance but I'll just have to live like one of these usual Tokyo-slobs and eat convenience-store food and general shit for a while. Isn't the worst thing in the world.

What will I miss about my current neighborhood? Certainly not the crappy apartment itself, or it's *shudder* shared bathroom facilities. How about....

-my friend and neighbor Nicholas, the punk-rock English teacher
-the gorgeous walking path that helps me forget I'm in the middle of an urban wasteland
-the 100 yen store, grocery and department stores all very conveniently located next to the station
-the crazy lady who talks to her dog while he squats in a special baby-carriage-looking-thing she pushes him around town in.

That's about it.

My new place is/has:

-a spacious 3 room apartment with kitchen, shower etc....
-a balcony
-a view of the park I can walk to in 2 minutes
-located 4 minutes from my station, which will also give me access to 4 train lines and not just 1.

There's a look at it. Now back to the endless piles of paperwork and things I'm preparing. I'll have the world know that I set up my internet installation on the phone in Japanese without making a putz of myself either. Ha HA world, ha HA.

"It's one fast move or I'm gone" - Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar

P.S. I do make liberal use of my P.S.'s here, don't I. Recording studio in 3 days. No nervousness here. I only have 2 riffs to play and a minute to record, but it'll cost over $100 easily and take 5 hours! WOOHOO!!!!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The relentlessness which may be felt

The restlessness which may be felt when one hasn't written in over a month is not to be underestimated. It's as if I were scrawling out my thoughts on papyrus and tossing them into a river to dissolve, whilst a few special pieces catch rocks and somehow escape a fate of dissipating in an ever-changing body of water. What few scraps of papyrus I have retained I will share with you here. All I can say is it feels good to be blogging again, equitable to greeting an old friend or busting out the guitar after a week's hiatus.

This morning I escorted my mother to the Ikebukuro Metropolitan hotel, where she took the "Airport Limousine," an express bus that runs to Japan's main international hub: Narita airport. It wasn't a teary-eyed good-bye, but one that felt just right. Me and my Mother got to spend plenty of quality time together and she had the invaluable opportunity of experience a culture more foreign than anything she had ever known before in her lifetime. She was however missing her daughters and her cats and her normal Albany New York lifestyle as any sane person (a.k.a. anyone who is not me) would, and was ready to make the trek back home. I as well was ready to taste the sweet lightness and freedom I have become so addicted to, the stuff that living single in a big city is made of. And coming home to my apartment tonight to greet no one for the first time in over 2 weeks was a welcome change of pace! (love ya Mom)

Our vacation, which I will briefly describe in typical Ben Belcher pell-mell fashion, took place over Golden Week, which is for the uninformed a week of consecutive holidays in Japan where more people travel than any other time of year save New Years or O-bon (the August Summer holidays). Although in reality my mother had a few buffer days where I was working and I set her up with some tours, or some very VERY kind former students or co-workers of mine who saw to taking care of her. One such lady who goes by the name of Junko (once referred to in this blog in fact as my "Japanese Mom") took extra special care of my Mother when I was off doing my new kindergarten teaching gigs in the mornings - which just had to fall at such inopportune a time as when my Mom was in town - mashed together with my regular afternoon/evening job. Junko in fact took my Mother to a Spa, the movies and several restaurants in the few visits they had together, and treated her to the point that my Mother was genuinely a bit freaked out, not being used to such elegant treatment. However Junko's nonchalant response of "it's my pleasure" or "be my guest" may be a rather insightful peak into understanding Japanese culture for all you armchair travelers out there. This much-cherished Japanese custom of "gift-giving" - in the sense of treating one's guest to a "service" of some kind, (which sounds like a bit of broken English or a naughty innuendo) is a good way to wrap our Western minds around such practices. To Junko the privilege of showing around and entertaining "my Mother the American tourist" was just that, and a fun opportunity for her to use her English skills and make a new friend.

Was I talking about the vacation? Side-track, side-track. So that was a prime example of how some of my friends helped me in taking care of my Mom when I had work. There were a few others, most notably my wonderful Japanese teachers Nagasawa- and Yazawa-sensei (the latter of the town I incidentally just got hooked in Ben Folds...) Outside of that, here's a list that runs down how we slammed a full-on cross-country extravaganza into a period of 7 days:

- Thursday: woke up at 4:30am, took bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, roughly 5-6 hours of train travel. Checked in, saw peace museum and beautiful zen gardens. Got "accosted" (or at least preached at) by two Jehova's Witnesses posing as little old ladies. Ate okonomiyaki. Took the wrong tram cars as a result of lack of rest on my part. Enjoyed a good nights sleep (my first in a few days after far too much work)

-Friday: woke up at 7 or so. Set out for Miyajima, a beautiful island off the coast near Hiroshima. Lost money in a UFO catcher (claw machine), but I almost had that damned giant Chopper doll!!! Got stuck taking the ferry with over 200 Junior High snots on a field trip. Saw lots of deer on the island. Saw the famous floating Torii gates. Saw the world's biggest spatula. Ate fried oysters. Went up a cable car to the top of Mt. Misen. Enjoyed it all.

Saturday: woke up early again. Went to Kobe, maybe a 1 1/2 hour trip if I recall correctly. We were rather tired but managed to drop off our bags at the hotel and make it (after some argument with a grumpy taxi driver) to the Sky Buffet, a nice restaurant on the 24th floor of a downtown building. The view of the surrounding Kobe area was quite stunning, and the food was decent too. There we met Akira, a former friend of mine from University at Albany NY who is attending grad school in Osaka. We discussed the blessings and curses of living abroad and having a broader perspective of the world; the downside being you don't really fit in in your home country or the new one. If truer words were ever spoken. Kobe tour was our next stop, it was a dinky thing with annoying elevators but worth the trip. Also went to the maritime museum, which I think the Mom had more interest in than me. Still a fun jaunt.

Sunday: in need of taking it easy for a bit, we left our hotel and shot out to Nagoya where my good friend Hiro (bassist of Condemned and Disconformity, both righteous death metal bands) picked us up from the station and drove us out to his family's home in the countryside. Hiro is a Buddhist monk, practicing under his father at a temple connected to their house. Needless to say the house was beautiful, as was the whole area which was as far off the beaten path as we managed to get all vacation (although where I come from, "the countryside" does not include urban areas a mere 10 minute drive away). The whole family - Hiro's grandmother, father, mother and himself - all treated us with the utmost courtesy and respect. Me and my mother both got the break in action we needed, she read quite a bit and I hung out with Hiro. We had a jam session and he showed me how he could play the entire Final Fantasy theme on his bass (among other things of course). Later we ate his grandmother's homemade miso soup, the best I've ever had, and deliciously fresh takenoko (bamboo shoots) plucked from the garden by Hiro's father. It was of course a fun chance for me to speak exercise my Japanese as well, since everyone in Tokyo seems to want to speak English. On top of everything we received copious presents including a yukata (summer robe) for my mother! As she said: "I felt like we were being treated like royalty." Such is the way of Japanese hospitality, and the especially sweet family that I will most definitely visit again should I find myself in the Nagoya area.

Monday: Visited the Nagoya World Expo Fairgrounds, a place beautifully laid out in the style of an amusement park with no rides (although one could see a Ferris wheel in the distance). There were however indoor ice-skating rinks and a water-park. Countless families went picnicking out in the open fields or just strolled around the area in the way we did, soaking in the beauty. Frankly, I would never want to be there during the actual World Expo for the same reason I ain't going to Shanghai this year: I'm not so fond of crowds. I ate ice cream and drank a beer at 11am. If it isn't obvious already these two days were the break in a flurry of vacation activities, and probably the most relaxing portions. We eventually left, stopped at a kaitenzushi (rotating sushi)
restaurant for lunch, where we tried such Japanese delights as seafood and mayo sushi, hamburger sushi and fresh octopus (among many other items more tasteful to my palate). Downtown Nagoya felt like Tokyo with 8-lane traffic, it seems I really underestimated the mass of this city! Although I've heard that, unlike Tokyo, the nightlife dies around midnight every night there.

Off to Nara! This involved a transfer at the ever-busy Kyoto station, and by the time we got to the hotel we were exhausted. It was however a first-class hotel, and I can't remember the last time I was even in one of those things. Mints on the bed, classy overpriced restaurants, that kind of place. We decided in light of our tiredness to do the only right thing two Americans in a hotel room can do: order pizza! (My mother had been wanting to try the seafood pizza as well) This proved to be a bit of an ordeal, and after about 5 or 6 tries, including one to pizza hut where I promptly hung up when they answered (since I wanted pizza and not microwaved fast food), and also restaurants that looked great but didn't deliver, we found one that worked. It seems that pizza delivery to hotels is relatively uncommon in this country, or the phone-guy was a total n00b. At any rate I managed to convince him to deliver our pies to the untrodden, mysterious ground of... the giant hotel next to the train station. And when it came it was delicious. Incidentally, I watched the movie "Fear of a Black Hat" for the first time. I love cheesy spoofs like that.

Tuesday: Spent the day in Nara. I'll leave this one to your imaginations, but to summarize the place is beautiful and an absolute must-visit (over Kyoto in my humble opinion) if you ever come to the country. The layout, the parks, the famous giant Buddha, the temperamental deer, it just creates an atmosphere. I imagine Nara would be a fantastic place to grow up or live. I felt a kind of liberation being there, despite the crowds (including a 45-minute queue for a special exhibit we happily skipped)

Wednesday: I realized the night before that since Wednesday night we would be returning to Tokyo, a good shot at Kyoto as I had originally planned was infeasible. In lieu of that however I decided we do the next best thing: go to Fushimi Inari Taisha (Great Shrine) on the Southern outskirts of Tokyo. Avoid the crowds and the urban madness of the final day of Goldenweek and get to see on of Kyoto's best and most overlooked sites? Win-win in my book. My mother dubbed the place "the land of a thousand gates," and with good reason: orange to red and every imaginable tint in between-colored gates exist in what must be the 10s of thousands in that place. It's another see to believe kind of Japan-spot, and google the name for some interesting pictures. It does get a bit redundant with all the fox-statues and the gates after a while, but the stone-steps and the great view make it a fun climb (Well, not as fun in the climbing department for my Mom, but she pulled it off!!) Afterward we had some cold soba to stave our hunger on a hot summer-like day, and happened to stumble upon a matsuri (festival) by sheer chance. (The crowds and the horse's butt we saw sort of gave it away) The name escapes me, but we got to see a dozen or so Japanese men drunk and in full matsuri-garb hoist the giant arc-like object on two long wooden poles up in the air. Although by this point I've seen a handful of festivals so they've lost a smidge of the novelty, it was of course the first time for my Mom.

Mom: "What are they saying?"
Me: "Umm, well, the literal equivalent of: 'Good! Go! Go! Go! Push! Good! UGH!'"

A few hours and a crowded bullet-train later (I barely managed to get my butt in one of the non-reserved seats! The dozens left standing in the aisles for two hours back to Tokyo weren't so lucky) we were back "home." Home being my little walk-in closet.

And that's how I spent my Golden Week vacation. So here's to you Mom, as you are in a plane most likely somewhere above Alaska or the Canadian tundratic™ (I made this word up) wastelands whilst I write this. It was a fun time, and I have this strange feeling you'll be back one of these days, assuming I'm still here.

That felt long! I'm putting off shoving my over-sized book collection into boxes for the move. Got to get back to it. I also have a fun-tastic 13 consecutive days of work to look forward too! Although F.I.D. will have a sweet recording session in the middle of all that. Life is still pretty good, but busy. Next month will cool down a bit, I hope.

"There's not much to knowing cuz things change too quickly these days" - Small Brown Bike


P.S. I had this floating for a week waiting for a proofread. I just proofread half of it and said screw it. No one's paying me anyways!! =)