In three days, I spent more time in a bath that I have for the two decades preceding them…

Water forms a major part of Japanese culture – it’s a medium which can connect you with other worlds. Westerners saw Ringu and thought “Yeek! Scary lady comes forth from water which we did not expect!”, but for the Japanese, it’s an intrinsic part of their folklore that goes without saying. Yudanaka is a town famous for its onsens (bath houses), and… Have you seen Spirited Away? That’s about the closest cultural touchstone I can think of to describe the town. It usually doesn’t get a lot of discussion as it doesn’t look like either Blade Runner or The Seven Samurai, but it’s probably one of the most quintessentially Japanese places you can visit, as this is where the Japanese come to relax.

Or at least the Japanese that can afford to visit come to relax, possibly. Japan is a pretty expensive place to be, so gauging who does what when and where can be tricky (and I tend to be about as sensitive as a brick to the face, so let’s move on…) Read the rest of this entry »

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While en route to Yudanaka, a wonderful thing happened.

A while before we flew out, the sage Chris Butcher posted about a delicacy he found in the vending machines of Japan. A thing of wonder and loveliness. A prize in canned form. He made me aware of the Morinaga Pancake Milkshake. A hot drink which also bore the flavours of butter and maple syrup. And lo, an obsession was born. Read the rest of this entry »

Man, I can’t believe it’s been a year since I was in Japan.

Man, I can’t believe how long I’ve left it since I last blogged about anything, never mind my travel ramblings.

Still, it’s kind of nice to have the two sync up like this. I had been distracted by the hard decision of looking at either New Year celebrations or cakes (for down suh paths goes my rationalising mind), but time and opportunity make silly buggers of us all. That and I have held A Terrible New Years Secret for which I still feel mildly, irrationally guilty about. Read the rest of this entry »

I go years without one, then three funerals hit in the last month. I was beginning to wonder if, following the second one in as many weeks, a third would follow immediately after. As it turned out, I was lulled into a false sense of security by a quiet week. I’m in the lucky position to be mildly and inadvertently flippant as I didn’t lose anyone myself, but was instead supporting to varying degrees those who did. As per the course of these things, I did start to think about how I was going to cope when the inevitable came along for the people closest to me (likely not very well), but also how when the time came for me, what would need doing.

I really don’t want a funeral.

Or, now that I’ve made the standard and pointless ‘shock & awe’ statement that I’m going to completely undo, I don’t want a normal funeral. Putting aside my ongoing and overstated issues with religion, a lot of it is due to my being really uncomfortable with how death and its ceremonies are often approached. I don’t want people being solemn and depressed and trying to reach for platitudes to wallpaper over my glaring personality flaws. If people are to come together following (or maybe just for) my death, I want them to have a good time.

Dudes, I want a party.

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10 or so minutes into the film…

Olivia: Is that lens flare or an alien?
Brian: It’s a J.J. Abrams film.
Olivia: So there will be nothing aside from lens flare until the last ten minutes?

Anecdotally*, there’s been a lot of grousing, kvetching and general complaining from men who have been to see and have subsequently been disgusted by Bridesmaids. Without getting into an epic rant about gender politics, I do have to wonder: have the guys who disliked Bridesmaids ever had an emotionally intimate relationship with a woman? Because there is a very sharp divide on that basis between the men I know who liked** and disliked it***.

* Or, if a single source would suffice, the Mark Kermode Film Review.

** For the record, I thought it was witty, sweet, painful and so much better than its competition by actually being about something, someone, and having the confidence to take a break from the yucks and giggles from time to time to have quiet moments of frustration and frazzlement.

*** Those who disliked it and enjoyed The Hangover and or obnoxious stoner brah! movies will be going to a special sort of hell if I ever get any cosmic say in matters final. I may have to console myself with the knowledge that they will never have sex.

Captain America: The First Avenger is Titanic for boys. Think about it: a period piece book-ended by modern-day segments in which a young man is desperate to cross the Atlantic and make something of himself. On the way, he meets someone who appreciates his inherent abilities and charms, only to lose him in a bittersweet moment of self-sacrifice. The only confounding variables are that Steve Rogers is genuinely likeable and there is a lot more KickSplodeAction. But they both have ice, so it all works out

Sincerity is a lost gem of storytelling: Captain America is oozing with it and is so much more charming for it. It’s especially important given how easily the film could slip into jingoism, preaching or obnoxiousness. I loved that Captain America is the virgin superhero. Guys need heroes like that, because meaningless sex is too much set out as the be all and end all for them. School is depressing enough as it is without the belief that everyone but you is getting some and you don’t know how to dance.

Nekobukuro is the place Olivia visited most frequently in Tokyo. It is, in all honesty, an oasis of cutesiness and cuddlenitude for cat-lovers who either miss their mogs or have not the room for them. It’s a blooming cat zoo.

While I am a hateful, spite–ridden old man who holds no life precious save his own, I can admit to seeing the appeal of Nekobukuro. Most people in Tokyo are apartment-bound and simply don’t have the room or the lease or the ability in general to house a pet of any sort. Given that children who grow up with animals tend to be more sane and well-adjusted than those who go without (Rohan, 2007; Rohan, 2008; Rohan, 2010; Rohan, 2011), having a sanctuary where you can bring the sprogs for a few hours and minimal cost to spend time with an array of critters is a pretty good thing.

The cats mild irritation at children unintentionally smacking the animals aside, it’s in truth a pretty relaxing place to go to, filled with nooks and crannies with and through which the animals can dash, flee and generally aim in the direction of for freedom, space, quiet or the opportunity to lick themselves. Isn’t that what we all want?

Nekobukuro is to be found in Tokyo Hands, the place to go if you need to buy anything that is not food related. Honest to Science Fact: Tokyo Hands ranks highly in my Top 10 Things I Miss About Japan list. I’m pretty sure the majority of gifts and souvenirs we brought back for people were from there, and better yet, they are rife throughout the city. On the first morning of the New Year’s sale, the queue outside the Shinjuku branch snaked out, about and around for a ridiculous distance. We walked on to Kinokuniya, but the temptation to join the queue was… immense.

Ikebukuro was our effective headquarters for the trip – even though we left the confines of Tokyo for the best part of two weeks, it bookended our stay there. We had previously made our temporary home in Shinjuku. We didn’t realise it at the time, but this was one of the most sensible decisions a first-timer who wasn’t fluent in the native tongue could make as, being the business district, the English language was unusually prominent, even by Japan’s standards. As we had gone then as now during the build-up to New Year, it was much quieter than normal, allowing us to acclimatise quickly to our surroundings.

Ikebukuro is very much the opposite of Shinjuku, being one of the de facto R&R Happy Super Fun Time Zones of Tokyo. This district is where the locals come to have fun.

Flying first class had meant that jet lag didn’t take nearly so much of a toll on me as I had expected – on the first trip, I did not sleep at all and as a result got sicker from 11+ hours in an air-recycled cabin and 24+ hours without sleep than I had in many years previous (Fun Fact: Planes seem to be the only place I cannot sleep!) As a result of being mercilessly pampered for the flight , I was bouncing and ready to go nuts. Unfortunately, Olivia as still recovering from the ill health she suffered in London and had a slight relapse en route. Nothing so horrible as to not recover, but it slowed down her ability to get over the lag.

This is the main reason why we don’t actually have many photos of Tokyo this time around. That, and a mild case of been-there-done-that. We were too busy taking in new environs to pause for pictures, particularly since our  time in Tokyo had been so heavily reduced. As a compromise, I’ve scoured the internet for images from te anime Durarara!!, which goes to painful detail to recreate Ikebukuro as is for the series. You could probably watch Durarara!! and figure out how to get around Ikebukuro, truth be told.

But I disgress!

Read the rest of this entry »

If you ever get the chance, fly first class. You think you know it’s amazing, but you don’t know. You are only thinking it, after all.

None of this sitting with the chattel and hoi polloi! Nay, you get to further chill out in comfortable surroundings, offered food on platters, the opportunity to avail of massages (Olivia did), a shave and a haircut (I did not), ye olde arcade games (yes I did very much) and as many sweets as you can smuggle out in your multiplicity of pockets… In preparation for a 12 hour flight to Japan, this is not simply a good thing but outright bliss.

And then you get on your flight, which will be more comfortable than any other flight you will ever take. The space of three people is yours! A bed is made for you! Attractive stewards and stewardesses, clearly kept up front for the Better People! It’s the free whiskey what does for it in the end, though. Olivia claims silver spoon service, but when a flight crew apologises that they don’t have the swill you normally drink and in apology and embarrassment offer you as much of their otherwise expensive 30+ year old single malt as a body can hold down in its place, you know you’ve made it.

Okay, so making it would be a bit strong: in order to fly first class we had to get stranded at the beginning of our trip in London for 8 or 9 days, toiling through ill health and an uncertain situation of shelter amid seeming endless phonecalls to right what wrongs fate dealt, thus missing out on a significant portion of our time in Tokyo, but at least we went in style.

But who cares about this? Me? With that much whiskey, coffee and gid? Ample. Reward.
Man, I should have gotten that haircut – I had the beginnings of a Final Fantasy character with that unbrushed mop. Wait, I was going to Japan – intentional? I don’t know any more! The important thing is that we got to Japan and it was the beginning of The Awesome.
Next up: Ikebukuro.
Bonus!
Photo by Olivia, obviously not in Japan.