Thursday, 17 February 2011

Rock, paper, scissors pwnage in Yokohama

I spent three days couchsurfing in Yokohama with Hanna and Atsushi. They proved to be most excellent hosts.

The first night we sat on the floor around a table Japanese style and ate a homecooked meal prepared on a portable stove. But not just any table! Japan seems to be a nation that doesn't understand the term 'central heating' but they compensate for this in several ways. One of the most interesting being a heated table. A small circular table covered by a blanket. Underneath an oasis of warmness! So wrap the blanket around your legs and let the warmth wash over you (Well your legs at least)

The meal was delicious. Sukiyaki - Beef, vegetables and noodles cooked on the stove and then dipped into raw egg. Yum.

DSCF0740

I stayed in Hanna and Atsushi's guest room complete with tatami mat, futon and Japanese style slide doors. The apartment was pretty huge by Japanese standards and I felt very comfortable and at home. They were great hosts! We watched some Japanese TV and I was exposed to enka, a traditional style of Japanese singing. This style seemed to involve two key ingredients - blazers and crying. The songs were so emotional that several of the singers were simply overcome and burst into tears, either whilst chatting with the host before they sang, or preferably during the songs themselves. The singers and audience were largely of the 50+ category, with many of the males clad in Alan Partridge style blazers. Back of the net.

The next day it was off to something I was looking forward to a lot. The Ramen Museum! Inside we were straight into an educational talk from a man in a white scientist coat about the history of ramen and how it was made. He frequently quizzed the audience in the manner of a university lecturer testing slightly disinterested pupils. We got to try several of the ingredients that make up ramen and got to see several quite excellent graphs and visual aids. In fact I'd have to say visual aids seem quite an important part of presentation in Japan. Watching the news the evening before with English translations, we got to see a variety of props to help illustrate the erruption of a volcano earlier that day. Several of them were somewhat amateurish in their appearance, but to me that added to the charm.

Downstairs was a couple of fake streets from 1950s Tokyo, complete with sound effects and people in period dress. It was quite a fun diversion, but there was something I was here for.

Must. Eat. Ramen.

Eight different shops from around Japan were represented and you could even buy a small bowl, giving you the stomach space to sample more than one.

First, on Hanna's suggestion, we tried a Miso Ramen. It was my first miso ramen of the trip and I liked the little added kick to the taste. This one also came with some nice spice and was an enjoyable bowl.

Next was onto a bowl from the town of Kawagoe in Saitama. It was somewhat of a coincidence that this shop was represented as I'd visited their main venue the week before. The shop was called Gangya and was run by Japanese rasta guys. I'd visited the shop with Brian, a man who loves ramen and who's knowledge of the food and Japanese food in general is extensive. I'd become a big fan of Brian's Ramen Adventures blog and had mailed him to ask if I could join him for lunch sometime.

The shop in Kawagoe was interesting. It was tiny, seating only 11 people and servied meals in sittings. 11 people gave their order at the door and were then seated. Whilst they were eating, the next 11 gave their order and all went in together when everyone had finished. The popularity of the shop and its small size meant that we waited perhaps 45 minutes to be seated, but it was worth it. I asked Brian to choose and he selected the tsukemen, a bowl of thick noodles that you dip into the broth yourself. This particular broth was extremely fishy and absolutely delicious.

DSCF0681

I ate as fast as I could, but I was still the last person to finish in our sitting. As Brian describes on his blog, he had to rush to another part of town to give an English lesson so wolfed his bowl down in record time before running to the train station.

Afterwards I had a chance to wander around Kawagoe and check out some of the old buildings. It had a nice old town with some peaceful temples, graveyards and a wooden tower that reminded me of playing the computer game Age of Empires.

DSCF0702

I was delighted to get another chance to try the tsukemen. And whilst not quite as good as I remember the bowl tasting out in Kawagoe, it was still delicious.

Belly full, it was time to think about moving on. In the fake town square, a group of people gathered and standing on the periphery, I was drawn in.

It seems there was some kind of rock, paper scissors championship about to take place. A trophy appeared to be on offer for the winner and I wanted to win it and take it back to Europetown. We were split into three teams. The leader of my team was a homely looking lady in a kind of chef outfit. The two other leaders were a schoolgirl and a scary old clown man. An MC stood on a box directing proceedings and we were away.

DSCF0747

I was expecting this thing to be over in a few minutes but it turned into an endurance fest. We went through several rounds of matches trying to gather as many small flags as we could. Occasionally there were double or even triple flag rounds, but I was getting my arse kicked. Hanna later told me that people play rock, paper scissors in Japan from a very young age, so I was clearly at a disadvantage much as a Japanese person would be if they played me at conkers.

DSCF0748

I did not win the trophy, but at the end of the game (which probably lasted half hour), I felt like I'd had a physical and mental work out!

One of the things I'd wanted to do on this trip was to visit Cosmoworld - A small theme park in the centre of Yokohama that featured in one of my favourite music videos of all time. Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manic Street Preachers.

Sadly, for a reason that I do not know, the park was closed so I didn't get to have the chance to be a geeky fanboy and try to recreate scenes from the video.

DSCF0763

I consoled myself by walking through Chinatown. Yokahama has a pretty large Chinatown and it was cool to take an early evening stroll and enjoy the atmosphere. A TV news crew were filming something there so I snapped a picture.

DSCF0754

Later on that evening, Hanna and Atsushi took me to somewhere that I'd have never found myself. The entrance was non-descript. It looked like a garage. Well it was basically a garage.

Inside was a bar, but a bar with a difference. This particular joint was run by two 80 year old ladies and it was a bar serving only one drink - SAKE! And to add to the lack of choice, only one kind of sake was on offer. This was my kind of place!

The premise was simple, you were allowed up to three glasses maximum - which were poured out of a large teapot by the waiter. As you were drinking, you could enjoy snacks - I don't think you got to choose which ones. After three drinks, that was it, you weren't allowed to drink any more. The place also closed at around 10pm. This was responsible drinking and we sat on the tatami, enjoyed our snacks and sake with the business guys and other regular customers. It was pretty awesome and something I will remember fondly from my trip.

Thanks Hanna and Atsushi!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Sweaty Dutch men in latex

It started normally enough. I met a guy called Ben through Couchsurfing and we got talking about a venue I'd been to called Superdeluxe.

"I'm DJing there in a few weeks. There's some kind of Dutch electronica, it should be interesting..."

The seed was planted and then this morning I remembered it was on. I emailed him and he put me on the door for half price entry. What a nice guy.

I'd been Superdeluxe before, to see a man play a 30 minute improvised organ solo, so I knew this wasn't generally a mainstream venue. Little did I know the delights that were to come though.

Upon arrival it became clear that this was some sort of Dutch cultural showcase, there were people there from the embassy and it appeared that a lot of the acts had been funded in some way by the Dutch government.

First was a rather dry presentation about some kind of interactive 3D virtual art. So far so good and no hint of the oddity that was to follow.

Ben was DJing in between the acts and he was really good, mixing up styles and dropping in samples. I enjoyed his work.

Next was the token Japanese guy for the evening. His act was simple. A backing tape of speed metal, which he shouted and screamed along to for about 25 minutes. It was quite exceptional!

After another DJing slot it was on to the next act. A musical duo with a different. The first guy was on decks and samples, so far so normal. But the second guy had a fluorescent tube light that he had some how rigged up to a set of effects pedals and could produce different sounds by touching different parts of it and touching it to different surfaces. Kind of like an extreme version of a theremin, with added lighting.

It was a pretty cool set and the visuals from the light flicking on and off were also great.

The guy next to me was really into it. A middle aged guy, he looked very Dutch, kind of a Dutch hipster, or a hiijpster if you will. He grooved along to the music, his dancing augmented by excellent choice in knitwear.

Next were a series of very odd videos, but before that a simple summary of Dutch history that is probably not endorsed by the tourist board.

"In the 17th and 18th centuries we were famous for exporting slaves. Now we are famous for drugs"

One video in particular triumphed in the oddness stakes. Several sequences featuring characters from Renaissance artwork hanging out with business guys in suits and skinheads, all drinking and taking lots of drugs. Oh and the soundtrack was a cover version of 'No Limits' by 2Unlimited. As a way of promoting the Netherlands to the population of Tokyo, it was somewhat of an alternative vision.

But the crowning moment of the evening was to come. Somehow I was distracted and didn't see people setting up on stage. Then when Ben the DJ stopped, I saw the middle aged dancing hiijpster guy up there, only now how was wearing what can only be described as a latex jogging suit. The white tennis shoes were a nice touch.

He was joined by another guy in latex and a person of indiscriminate gender in a pink wig, pvc, fishnets and one boot.

DSCF0836

The music was an relentless techno/metal mix and latex jogging guy danced like a maniac. To me he resembled Bez from the Happy Mondays, only how he is now, and on a bad acid trip. Oh and in latex obviously.

His male bandmate handled most of the vocals and the pink wigged androgynoid handled samples. Latex jogging guy concentrated on what he did best, very enthusiastic dancing.

The performance was backed by video screens flashing up various images and selection of words that a 13 year old boy might consider dangerous. SEX, GREED, MONEY, FUCK, MURDER

During the course of the set there was lots of writhing around, screaming and the pink wigged lady spanked latex jogging guy with a plastic AK47 assault rifle. Awesome!

The music, if we can describe it as such, was pretty tuneless and bad. But the visual act was something that cannot be adequately described by this humble writer.

DSCF0842

To all Dutch taxpayers reading this, I'd like to say thank you for funding my excellent evening of entertainment.

And next time you pay your taxes, think about how 0.0001% will be going towards the cleaning costs for a very sweaty latex jogging suit.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Lost in the supermarket, nasal (rites of) passages and the pensioner police

I've been a long term critic of supermarkets in Berlin, so it is time to redress the balance. Supermarkets in Japan are awesome!

Mainly I've shopped in 'combini' stores. These are small corner convenience stores that are open either really late or 24 hours a day. In the UK or the US this would probably mean they were stocked with booze, pringles and cigarettes, but here there is a wide variety of food on offer, some of it even fresh and healthy.

My favourite is Lawson, but there are 4 or 5 different chains literally all over Tokyo. For the traveller it is pretty great.

Tokyo blogger Kevin Cooney gives his opinion on 'combinis' below. TokyoCooney is my favourite source of information about Tokyo. He has made tonnes of videos about all aspects of life in the city. Recommended!



In Yokohama I grabbed lunch from as small supermarket and I was pleased with my haul.

Hot weak lemon drink £1

DSCF0766

Baked sweet potato cooked on hot coals inside the supermarket £1.20

DSCF0767

Tasty sushi with a sachet of soy sauce, pickled cabbage and a dash of wasabi £2.50

DSCF0768

Not bad I'd say, but there is a problem. I've read and been told, that it is actually quite rude to eat in the street in Japan. When you are buying most of your food from supermarkets and don't have anywhere to live then this proves to be a problem. I have generally been trying to find a discreet bench on which to munch my bounties, but benches and places to sit down also seem to be sparse.

On this occasion I was able to find a suitable spot and cracked open the hot weak lemon drink (a habit that is eating into my poker profits as I am drinking one bottle of this per hour when I play).

As I eat I observe another Japanese city phenomenon. The pensioner police! This particular guy is wearing a green armband, a peaked cap and some kind of ID badge. I'm not sure what his official role or title is, but it seems he is there to preserve order in this sleepy Yokohama suburb. In this case, order means that making sure the bikes in the bike rack are exactly symmetrical. I have to say that I thought the standard of the bike parking in this rack was quite high in the first place, but it is not good enough for him, and he adjusts several bikes so they are aligned. People generally don't lock up their bikes in many parts of town (with the pensioner police, your cycle is safe!), so he has a free reign to rearrange the cycles at his will, making the streets of Yokohama a better place. I know he instantly clocked me the moment I sat down, and I'm sure he is watching me like a hawk to make sure I don't leave rubbish.

And that isn't as straightforward as it seems, as there are absolutely no trash bins in Tokyo and nobody seems to know why. Some say it is because of terrorism, others because they want people to take their trash home. Some people just shrug at me when I ask. I've walked around for hours, pockets full of rubbish and nowhere to put it.

I have been suffering from a cold the past few days and again have faced another etiquette situation. It seems it is highly rude to blow your nose in public in Japan. I guess this makes sense but it begs the question, what are you supposed to do if you have a cold? I see a lot of people around with the face masks, especially on the subway train and considered getting one. Sadly people only seem to have them in white and I'd prefer black myself.

Instead what I have been doing is going down dark back alleys to blow my nose. The shame of it!

This time I thought I'd found a good secluded spot. I pulled my tissue out of my pocket, took one last glance around to make sure the coast was clear, before letting rip with my nasal excretions. Unfortunately, just at that moment, an old lady walks straight around the corner into my path. The look on her face was priceless. You've heard the phrase 'she looked daggers at me', well in this case it was samurai swords. Horrified! Her expression was akin to her walking around the corner and seeing me defecating onto a picture of the Japanese Royal Family. She hurries off muttering under her breath.

I have no desire to offend anyone, but what's a guy with a cold meant to do in this town?

Of course it is pretty much impossible for me to avoid standing out here. My friend John said he felt like a monster when he was here. I tend to agree. And of course it is impossible to follow every part of Japanese etiquette, no matter how hard I try, but I am thankful to receive a 'gaijin pass' from time to time.

Certainly there is no way I would ever be able to get away with a crime in Japan:

Police chief: "So, we are looking for a tall white guy with long blonde curly hair"
Officer: "Well there are only two people that fit that description in the whole of Japan"
*Shows him the files*
Police chief: "uh huh"
Officer: "I checked the alibi of Thor the Norwegian blues guitarist. He had a show that night"
Chief: "RIGHT! Case solved! Bring Huxley in. We'll show him the error of his noseblowing ways..."
Officer: "No problem Sir. Right after I've given directions to this queue of tourists. Where's my big, red pointy glow in the dark stick?"