Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Peace out, Dockett

Once again, I boarded my favorite means of transportation- the ultrahighspeedsuperfast OH DEAR SWEET JIMINY look-at-it-go Shinkansen Bullet Train, which is as close as a human being can get to flying without getting strip-searched by the Transportation Authority, and visited Dockett. Tokyo is fun, and getting there is a tiny adventure in itself. The food (which they serve airline-style, on an efficient plastic cart that bangs your elbows- some things never change) was delicious, if small, and the coffee was hot. The view was, regrettably, pitch dark, as I embarked on this adventure after teaching 100 sixth graders how to say "I'm angry!" (it was emotions day at the elementary school, and they decided that instead of having me teach four classes of the kids, it'd be better to lump them all together and throw them in the gym) and as such I saw no Mt. Fuji. It evades me to this day.

More on that later. So I showed up in the train station, met up with Dockett, and wandered around looking for interesting sights in Shinagawa. It seems that the only interesting sight in Shinagawa is a water reclamation plant. Yech. As expected we had to find somewhere else to have dinner.

After dinner and a short stint at the local yakitori joint, we returned to Dockett's charming one-room closet-sized apartment, and called it a night.

The next morning, shaken awake at 7:30 by the Rising Sun (guess that's where they got the name), we staggered to the McDonalds for a pick-me-up in the form of a Egg McMuffin. These things are the same in every nation, and in every nation they're delicious. Then we went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building, and got to see the whole city from the air. It was, unfortunately, smoggy. So not a whole lot of love there.

In the name of absolute tourism, we decided to wander into the Park Hyatt Hotel. This was the hotel, by the by, in which the movie "Lost in Translation" was set. We saw no Bill Murray, but I assure you that it looks entirely the same as the movie- in fact, should you want to get a good glimpse of the areas we bumbled around, go rent that movie. Warning- it is a bit of an acquired taste.

After our movie-tastic wanderings- which included a park full of homeless people, photo shoots, baseball practice, and Yakuza getting their hair cut (yeah. Really. I wouldn't lie about that)- we headed over to Jimbo-Cho, which is A) Not very Photogenic (sorry) and B) Mecca.

Jimbo-Cho is the bookstore district of Tokyo. It's city block upon city block of really cool small used bookstores that look as if the backstacks of the Library of Congress had been persuaded to yield up their dead in great burgeoning piles. Yellowed stacks teeter from floor to ceiling, and they gleamed with possibility. The only downside to this is that it's a giant district of Japanese used and new bookstores, and as such nigh impenetrable to me. I can read a lot. I can piece my way through everyday interactions. But I cannot, for the life of me, pore through 16th-century tomes of literature in Japanese yet. It actually makes me feel a little sad- there's a vast storehouse of knowledge that I can't really access.

After that slightly sobering and wonderful experience (it was real close to religious, let me assure you) we caught a light lunch and sojourned towards the Imperial Palace. It's closed up, pretty tight, but we got to see a lot of sturdy-looking gates, armed guards, confused tourists and marathon runners (who I honestly wish would have worn some more modest pants- there are things you just can't UNSEE) which on the whole was pretty interesting. The walk, however, was an undertaking not to be entered into on a whim. It was crazy. I'm sure there are subways in this city- I've heard of them- but we scorned the subway in favor of the good, healthy, bracing walk.

Which continued all the way up the hill to the National Diet Building (governmental, not gastronomic), the National Theatre and Library, and a strange, wondrous block of artistic-looking concrete. We had no idea what it was- there were no signs, no guidance- so I stopped some folks on the street, put on my best Japanese, and asked 'em. They told us that this:

Is the Supreme Court Building. It is exactly the kind of building I would expect from a Ministry of Justice. No stodgy, staid Department- oh, no, it's a Ministry, with all the cool architecture and possible Orwellian overtones that suggests.

After basking in the shadow of Justice for awhile, we decided to bop over to Asakusa, which is a few looooooong rows of souvenir stalls buttressed on both ends by giant gates bearing huuuge paper lanterns. Pretty cool. There were also some crazy-costumed folks awaiting the giant fall festival that was due that day, but no matter how long we wandered around we couldn't quite find it. So we decided to bail on that, and descend into Tokyo's seedy underbelly in search of icecream.

Evidently, the Roppongi district has a bad reputation. Evidently, it's a wretched hive of scum and villainy not entered by people of good taste or breeding. It is a fine thing that Dockett and I aren't the type to believe rumors. We wouldn't have found this:

It's a giant shopping mall! In the mall, there was this store- you can see it above- that is, I kid you not, named "White Trash Charms." It sells jewelry, and a hearty dose of culture shock. The mall itself is surrounded by embassies. We found the Chinese embassy, the Spanish embassy, and the American embassy all after we found dinner- but I get ahead of myself. First, we grabbed a bite to eat in a 2F diner- all the cheap eats in Japan are either on the second floor or in the basements of buildings, as groundfloor is too expensive to rent out to mom 'n pop places- and then decided to test our stamina.

In the mall, there is Japan's first Cold Stone Creamery. Those of you who have not yet walked this enlightened path of deliciousness, go now and find one- it's worth whatever means you employ to get there. Our means included a forty-five minute wait in a line that stretched around the block- which, evidently, is a short line for a Saturday night at the most popular fad in town. Like the McMuffin, in every nation it is delicious.

Full of ice cream and a sense of deep spiritual wholeness, we wandered past the American embassy and back to the train, and decided to go find some music. There's a district rather well-known for it's jazz houses and college-band venues, and so we decided to try and find it. We did, but only after enlisting the help of a very friendly and helpful family of young women (hey, do I ask the creepy guy for help? No. I ask the ladies. Will you blame me?) who in fact didn't just TELL us, they LED us all the way there through two train transfers and other assorted mass insanity. Their work was nearly for naught- it's a very cool, quirky, Ann Arbory kind of district, but it also closes pretty early on a Saturday night- not a whole lot was open. We did find some interesting signs, though...

After wandering around a bit, we called it an early night and SLEPT.

The next day, we explored the Imperial Sports Grounds- there was a festival that day, and it was pretty nuts. There was an a capella band singing "Someday my prince will come" in immaculate English- impressed the heck out of me- and enough people to conquer a small nation. Afterwards, we strolled through an upscale shopping sector (not Ginza, some other one), and I got this artistic picture of Dockett looking like he just strolled out of an episode of The Prisoner.

He is not a number. He is a free man!

That silliness exhausted, we wandered by the Secondary Palace, and came across a disturbing phenomenon. Hung parallel to the Japanese National Flag on all the lightposts was this...
Pentagrams. I'm disturbed, and a little afraid, but it turns out there's a good reason. Perhaps someone from that constitutional monarchy was visiting this constitutional monarchy- they've gotta stick together, and all. Kings and kingmakers unite.

After the fun at the palace, we decided to grab some quick curry at a fast-food curry place (they're everywhere- it's like heaven- and they serve quail egg curry...) and then it was time for me to get back on the bullet train and bid Dockett a safe trip home. He's coming back to you, the English speaking-world, next week- so go check his blog and wish him a fond farewell, or welcome, or however the heck your personal prepositional phrase will go. I myself think that this island is just a bit shorter for his leaving- though when he's gone, I get to be the tallest guy here. As I understand it, there's a crown involved, and parades.

Bye, Dockett. We'll miss ya.


Monday, November 21, 2005

Generatin' steam heat

After a short abyss of do-nothing doldrums (in which my all-important tasks of laundry and kerosene purchase were accomplished- definitely nothing to write home about) I'm back in the adventuring business again. Business is good.

Saturday, a few friends and I decided to climb Mount Ibuki. It's the tallest mountain in Shiga prefecture, and it sits right on the Shiga/Gifu border. Google Earth it at 35°10'48.56N, 136°25'00.36E. Historical Note: It was the site of the "Sekigahara War", the pivotal battle between the west and east of Japan way back in the day- the Japanese civil war, as it were. This site's got a lot of details, but the writer's tone puts me to sleep. A shorter, and funnier (yay for bad English!), version is here.

Enough history. Now, the climb to the top of Ibuki takes about seven hours. That's a ridiculous 14-hour round trip- not the kind of climb to be taken lightly. I was all about it. My friends, however, opted for the better part of valor. The road goes a good part up the mountain, and cuts the climb from 7 hours to about two. At the top, it's about ten degrees (celsius) lower than on the ground- which pulled the temperature from a cool and pleasant 12 degrees to 1 degree in the sun, and -1 in the shade. I'll skip the gory details of the climb. This was the path.

At the top, there's a small shanty town of corrugated-aluminum shacks (all closed), a few old wooden buildings,a shrine,

and a weather station, which you can see from pretty far off.

It's also pretty cool up close.

It's pretty cold up there.

Here's a few views from the summit- I apologize to those of you with dialup connections, as all these pictures have to take FOREVER to load.
On the descent, we found an old graveyard- just a couple of graves and a pair of torii (Shinto gates) side-by-side. One of the torii had succumbed to the elements, and the graves weren't looking too well-kept. I made a mental note not to die on a mountainside- nobody ever visits. My friend Ryo translated the inscription on the grave, and they're evidently pretty old.

As in REALLY pretty old- pre-Sekigahara War- and as such not to be screwed with. We paid our respects, took a few pictures, and left.

The descent climb was like the ascent. Now,I didn't manage to get any good pictures of these, but every little while we'd happen across a "don't feed the bears" sign. Yikes. This implies that there are bears to feed- I didn't see any, and I'm glad to let it stay that way. Getting eaten by a bear on a mountainside pretty much guarantees nobody'll visit.

After the mountain, we went and poked around a cave- it was pretty commercialized, safe, small, and uninteresting. More interesting was the WWII ammo dump a few yards away from the cave- we didn't have flashlights, so the abandoned bunker built into the side of the mountain was explored entirely by the light of our cellphones. The soft glow of five cellphone screens makes for one creepy, blue-hued, Blair Witch lantern. The bunker wasn't much- just a big room and two guardposts- but someone had decided to dump an old pachinko machine in the corner. No electricity, so it didn't work- and wouldn't, even if we had power- but it was a cool find.

Saturday evening, Japanese class. I showed up to class in my muddy mountain-clamberin' clothes, looking no doubt like I had just fallen down the mountain rather than hiked up it (just below the frostline, it was pretty muddy), and afterwards went and visited the Foreigner Mecca: Starbucks.

While I was on the mountain, Starbucks went and converted to Christmas decorations. They use the same decoration materials as an American Starbucks, so no doubt everywhere in the world the appearance is the same, but only in Japan is the phrase "Creme Brulee Latte" a linguistic trainwreck. The clerks HATE it. Why, might you ask? Because the word "brulee" commits two unpardonable sins in the scripture of the language. It's got two consonants right next to each other (a no-no) and both an R and L in the same word- they make no distinction between the two sounds, so switching back and forth is nigh-impossible. Every time someone would order it (which sounds like a clumsy bu-ru-re), they'd smile real big, make a try at it, and just pass it back to the espresso machine guy as a "Cream Latte." Open letter to the Starbucks Japan Drink-Naming Comittee: Quit bein' jerks.

The next day, I woke up early to my frosty breath crinkling on my comforter. It's getting COLD here in Japan, and since it's a tropical island they build houses with neither central heating nor any measure of insulation. Driven from the house well before noon in search of somewhere I could just sit and be warm without asphyxiating on the fumes from my kerosene heater, I decided to go to Osaka.

It's Japan's second-largest city. It's the birthplace of takoyaki, a culinary delight consisting of one part octopus and two parts fried batter, and Kansai-ben, the strange and wonderful dialect of Western Japan. If Tokyo is Japan's megatropolis New York, and Kyoto its cultural/historic Washington DC, Osaka is Japan's Chicago. What it lacks in fame and beauty it makes up for in soul. It's about an hour by express train from where I'm at in Ritto, and so at 11:00 in the morning I rolled into Osaka Station, a bogglingly beautiful station (under reconstruction, so I couldn't see any of it) connected to a grand underground shopping complex, all of which smelled slightly of fish.

I left the station and went wandering in a random direction, happy to burn an hour or two of my early time aimlessly blundering around, since I figured that at 11:00 on a Sunday morning no-one would be out and about. I was hopelessly wrong. I struggled against crowds until I broke off the main thoroughfare and onto the sidestreets, and it still wasn't what I'd call deserted by any means. I did, however, manage to find something that surprised me.Gold's? In Japan?!

And then, towering over the buildings around me, I spotted the key to getting my bearings and looking like a dork at the exact same time. You'd think a 23-year-old guy would have second thoughts about climbing onto a ferris wheel and going for a ride.

You'd be dead wrong.

So from the top, you can see everything- and I got to see my next destination. I had heard (from Kansai Time Out!, the local English-speaker's rag for this region) that local college bands played in front of Osaka Castle every weekend. In the distance, I could kinda see the castle- and "kinda see" was plenty of incentive for me to hop on the subway and see if I could bumble my way over there.

On the way down, I passed a Disney store brimming with customers at 11:20 AM Sunday. My shock (as Disney stores in the US are closing at an astounding rate) was checked by the knowledge that I probably shouldn't stare. So what do we do? We take pictures. Note the middle-school aged girl in the Playboy shirt- here, it's a brand, nothing more.

Further down, in the shopping arcade that links into the subway system, there was a department store that had just put up its Christmas display. People were crowded around the windows, watching the displays and taking pictures. I wasn't sure whether I was in Osaka, Japan circa '05 or America in some bygone, romanticised "A Christmas Story" age.

Osaka's subway system is, after you've ridden it a few times, intuitive and well-planned. All the stations are numbered, there are stops every few blocks, and the lines run east-west and north-south, rather than off at odd angles. Still, it being a new city, I think I stared at the map showing destinations and fares frr a good ten minutes, reading through each of the kanji and hoping I had found the right stop. Osaka is suffering from a distinct lack of roman letters.

Luck was with me. I found not only Osaka Castle, but also the NHK Osaka Broadcast Building, which is an architectural marvel.
The path leading to Osaka Castle is absolutely beautiful. The leaves are turning to their fall colors, as mentioned before, and Sunday was a clear, bright, crisp day. It was perfect.

The castle's inner moat was drained long ago, and now is an overgrown, manmade valley. I spotted a chicken pecking around under one of the bridges. A chicken. In the castle. I curse my camera (well, really, my thumb) for toasting my picture of that one.

Inside the inner wall, contrast abounds. Standing in the exact same spot and rotating only ninety degrees, I took the following "east meets west" pictures. The building that looks like it belongs more on the campus of the University of Michigan than in the middle of Japan is the Osaka Cultural Museum. The other building is, obviously, Osaka Castle.

This squat chrome UFO is the Osaka 1970 Time Capsule. I just thought it made for a cool contrast picture. I'm a sucker for these- can ya tell?

The castle itself (as well as the grounds) were destroyed quite a few times. This is all concrete reconstruction. All the same, it looks pretty cool. The castle has been gutted and converted to a history museum, and the top floor is an observation deck. Here's the view- the grating's there because they left the wooden balcony "as is", so that's their method of protecting their customers.
As I came down, I crossed through the park and happened upon a Homeless Palace- they really get creative with blue tarps here, and make houses with better insulation and more square footage than where I'm livin'. It seems a misnomer to call them homeless.
Down a set of steep stairs, I got stopped by a pack of kids asking who I was, where I was from, the usual gamut of personal bodypart questions, and the like. Even in the big city, where I should be invisible, small children still aren't used to big foreigners appearing from nowhere and meeting their "Ha-ro!" with "Konnichiwa." After chatting for a few minutes with them and their parents (gotta be diplomatic, part of the job and all) I rounded the corner to find...

My new heroes. This band, a pair of Japanese girls in full American getup (the blond-dyed hair, the pastel dresses, the creamy flouride-colored instruments) playing punk covers with a weathered, studded-leather drummer, was one of the coolest, most welcoming moments I've had in Japan. Upon seeing me, the drummer pointed at me, raised the rock horns high and kicked the band into a wholly unique rendition of the Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop. Now I have seen everything. Even now, it brings a smile to my face and makes me want to cue the song up on my iPod. After dutifully sticking around through the rest of their set (which seemed a Japanese punk band's tribute to surf rock), I bounced around the corner and into the subway again.

Osaka has two contrasting city centers, named (creatively) "Kita" (north) and "Minami" (south). The castle and all of that is in the North, which is supposedly the upper-crust business district. For the interesting shopping districts, the nightlife, and most importantly the awesome food, one has to go Southside.

A few subway hijinks later, I found myself elbow-deep in a crowd that seemed to have no end (and, indeed, I never really found a way out) and decided that this must be the place. Osaka was, originally, a city crossed by as many rivers as streets. A lot of these rivers were reclaimed as building space, but there are still a TON of rivers and bridges. The streets here are named, unlike the streets of many cities in Japan, and they're all named somethingsomething~bridge. This river runs through one of the big shopping districts.

On this river is, unequivocably, the largest Don K! I've ever seen. It's a pachinko parlor/arcade/discount shopping center/ferris wheel. It's absolutely amazing. Each of those dots around the edge seats four people. My man Dockett (see sidebar) loves the Don K! penguin, so this picture is especially for him.

A little down the way is this weird-looking hotel. I don't think there's anything that can be said that the picture doesn't say.

On the other side of the bridge is Osaka FM, the radio broadcast station. This building screamed "take pictures of me!". Should Godzilla need something to destroy in Osaka, or should the Thunderbirds be shopping for a new secret hideout, I can highly recommend this piece of prime real estate.
Back in the shopping arcade, where nine pieces of takoyaki can be had for 300 yen (a STEAL), I caught another unique sight.

The Japanese don't fly their national flag much, as a matter of principle or habit. It carries some uncomfortable political insinuations, even now, and as such they tend not to display it publically. As such, every time I see it I'm a little surprised. To see it flown in a crowded shotengai in which every store sold nothing but lacquerware was a touch unexpected.

This is a restaurant. It is also a boat.

I am wordless.

This is a spaceship. It is also a McDonalds.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

To finish the weekend off, I caught some awesome Indian food near "AmericaTown". Incidentally, everything in Osaka is organized by "towns". "AmericaTown" sells only American items. "DenDenTown" sells only electronics. You can guess what "EuropeTown" sells. Anyways, in this Indian restaurant, there is a Japanese woman who speaks perfect English (how do I keep finding these people?) with a strong Indian accent. Turns out she married an Indian guy, they speak English at home, she speaks a little Hindi, he a little Japanese. It is truly a world culture. Osaka people are, by and large, friendly enough to strike up a conversation with a foreigner with little to no prompting. It's crazy. I was stopped three times that day by different groups of people (two groups of kids, one in the restaurant) and the rest of the time I felt comfortably invisible. It was cool.

Next week: I'm returning to Tokyo. Gotta remember to pack the camera charger this time.


Hey. Ho. Let's go.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I live. I promise.

This weekend was interesting, but not so much in a way that compelled me to take pictures. I took one, and it about sums up the entire deal in one shot.

On Sunday (after a Saturday full of Japanese lessons- not too fun to write about, but wholly productive), I went to check out the Ritsumeikan University Festival. This time of year is, evidently, Festival Time. So along with the eight million merchants hawking various ethnic dishes (in which I got to gaze upon the wonder of Hot Dog On a Stick presented as ethnic right next to a Bangladeshi curry stall and a Vietnamese Pho booth), they had two things of real note- one of which I got a semi-decent picture of. This crowd- this throng milling about- centered on a wrestling ring, in which skinny Japanese collegiates dressed alternately in Luchadore (Mexican wrestler) masks and, as we see by the poor soul on the right, next to nothing at all. It takes a real man to duke it out in big fake theatrical style in ten-degree celsius weather wearing nothing but a pair of pink spandex briefs.

The other item of note, in the "not so weird but just as cool" category, was a ten-foot tall parade float bearing two four-foot taiko drums played by girls whose manic, gleeful smiles bordered on the psychotic. Add to this mental picture the fact that the float wasn't propelled by any mere car- oh no- it was dragged around the campus all day by a team of twenty or so strongmen in traditional Japanese garb. Any one of these guys could have beaten up five of Mr. Pink Spandex Briefs up there. The entire assembly was preceded by a team of another twenty or so dancers, male and female, dressed as horse-and-rider teams. As this behemoth was hauled around, it would make periodic stops in order to show off the dancing talents of the folks up front and give the big guys a break- this colossus was HEAVY.

All right, so I lied. There's one other item worth mentioning at the festival before I leave it behind- there are evidently two Guns and Roses cover bands at this university, and a full swing band. All three were awesome- one of the GnR acts had a female lead singer that sounds pretty much just like Axl Rose. The swing band managed to get the entire crowd gyrating like madmen. Never say you've seen everything until you see a crowd of otherwise reserved Japanese professor-types jump, jive, and wail.

Today, at school, I got the chance to look over some student papers. They're both horrifying and awesome. The subject (as the teachers love to do this) was for the students to write my introduction for me, using information from a series of question-and-answer sessions in class. My favorite introduction, out of the whole set? "Andrew-sensei GREAT!!! because he tall. tallest in my class. We find him easy. He doesn't have girlfriend. Maybe..."

And that's all he wrote.

Unexpected kindness from students- I mentioned (in the many informal questionnaires that happen throughout my day, ranging from the size of my feet to whether or not I really can eat raw fish) that one of my favorite sports was ice hockey. Today, a student approached me bearing this month's issue of Hockeytown Insider- a Detroit adbook/magazine that does it's best to shill the downtown area. This month's- November's. I was amazed. Evidently, his dad had just gone to Detroit, and brought back some hockey stuff (as it's "exotic" here- see "hot dog on a stick", above), and so this guy approaches my desk, shoves the magazine at me, conferences with his friends for a moment, and says "You borrow. Not get homesick. Give back in a few days." He smiles really big, and reverts to Japanese when I thank him. He tells me about his dad's trip, about how he plays on a local ice hockey team, and then absorbs back into his group of friends with a "See you!"

I'm honestly impressed that he came up with the word "borrow." I haven't taught him that one yet. Every person in Japan knows "How are you? I'm fine thanks and you!" and "See you!" both said all in a string, like you've just switched on a tape recorder, but "borrow" and "homesick" are a bit outside of our standard curriculum.

After work, I decided to take a different route home, and found "Los Angeles". It's a clothing store/carmods body shop, pretty much what you'd get if you mishmashed Pimp My Ride with the "urban style" section of your local K-Mart. Having a poke around inside, they also evidently host an open mic night Saturdays- now, this thing is a bit off the train tracks. I'd have never found it if not for taking a few wrong turns down a few odd alleys. As such, I have to wonder what kind of a crowd you can pull in a garage/clothing store, and for what brand of music. I've yet to experience Japanese hip-hop live- more reports on this interesting find when further developments occur.

With that, it's back to work. I get the feeling that the next few weeks might be mostly classroom stories- I'll have more time to go out and run afoul of the culture when the next round of exams (thursday and friday) finishes.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Everywhere you look...

A trend I've noticed for awhile now is that Japan seems permanently stuck in a through-the-looking-glass twisted version of America, circa 1989. The mullets are proof, the helter-skelter neon/punk/goth/tight jeans/high socks/whatever ya want-style fashion is proof, and the latest and greatest piece of evidence is this:

Right now, as you read this, Full House is being aired on NHK,the government-subsidized national broadcast channel. It's being aired in it's original order, episode by episode, and it's incredibly popular. Today, at school, my students asked me about this "new American show." Want to break some hearts- both student and teacher? Tell them that the little Olsen twins are all grown up. They didn't believe me at first, so I called upon the collective might of you, the Internet Folk, to show them the way.

The truth hurts. I immediately regret my actions, and confess my sins to the Internet public.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

15 degrees celsius- indoors.

This weekend's adventure: The Japanese Bazaar.

My coordinator clued me in that on Saturday, in a town pretty far off the train tracks, there was to be a "bazaar" that I might like to see. She also mentioned the magic words that bring glee to my heart every time I hear them: "I've got a friend with a car who says she'll give us a ride." Cars in this part of the world are an event for me. They mean something special: That I'm about to venture into the countryside, far enough away from a set of train tracks that people of my... um.. ancestral persuasion (i.e. not Japanese) usually don't get to go. As such, every time I hear the words "car" and "ride" something stirs within me that I imagine is similar to the giddy glee felt by Marco Polo when he stepped off the map and into China.

The bazaar did not disappoint. It was in a giant silver dome structure nestled about an hour's car ride off the tracks and into the Japanese countryside. It juts out of the surrounding forests and rice fields like it had just landed there, and was about to disgorge a company of aliens.

Turns out I was the only alien around.

The dome was about the size of a football field, leading me to think that this may be some kind of converted sports arena, but I was sorely mistaken. The interior is one giant, empty, dirt-floored room, that is used exclusively for this trade fair and others of it's ilk. The merchants inside, packed in winding hallways that lead like an old-style labyrinth from the entrance to the food court, sold (in order from the entrance): industrial chains and load lifters, pulleys, robotic doohickeys (yup, no idea, just knew they were robots), electric/kerosene/LP/solar-powered heaters, chainsaws and large-scale gardening equipment, concrete drills, women's clothing, boxed curry, toys, athletic apparel, and objets d'art.

Concrete drills and women's clothing: Two great tastes that go great together.

So the friend, who was our ride and hookup for this little adventure, was the sent emissary from her company to this trade show. The heck if I know what her company actually DOES- or what it might be seeking at the bazaar- as she didn't buy anything and the company itself is a travel agency. Said travel agency was invited as the guest of a larger company, whose name we checked in under, and whose ID badges we were given. We were met at the door by our company "bargainer", an employee of the larger company whose entire job was to haggle prices for us, his guests, and ensure that we never paid full price. It is worth mentioning at this point that we never paid at all. As a thank-you for coming, all three of us were presented with large gift bags- the contents of which my companions never even glanced at, just bowed once (shallowly, indicating that this is pretty standard, no big thanks) and a pile of free food and drink tickets to be redeemed at the piece of cheese to this giant mouse maze- the Food Court.

We introduced ourselves to the bargainer, identifying first the company from which we came and then our individual names (last only), upon which we recieved his business card (with all the attendant bowing and reciept ritual), after which we went through the obligatory Gaijin Gauntlet of "He speaks Japanese? Wow! How tall is he? What, 190 cm-ish? Hey hey! Oh, I can ask him questions? Great! How are you liking Japan?"

Behind the eyes of every salaryman lies a small child who REALLY wants to stare. I don't think I shook hands with nearly as many people in the States as I do here, and definitely not nearly for as long. As soon as one of these guys has a hold of you, he doesn't want to let go. So, walking and shaking hands at the same time, we perused the wares for sale. Beautiful carvings of the Buddha sat next to giant industrial air compressors and piled boxes of dried curry. Usually, in a place like this, you'll get a lot of shouting and "WELCOME! TRY SOME CURRY!" banter. This bazaar was downright subdued. There were a lot of people somberly evaluating the quality of the five-foot ceramic cat statues and testing the load lifters, and every so often someone would tap their "bargainer", who would bow deeply to the shopkeep and ask politely for a discount. The shopkeep would apologize for the low quality of his wares, and offer a lower price. The bargainer looked back at the little group for approval, and when it was given bow ninety degrees to the shopkeeper, who would then produce a box of the product. This process was exactly the same for both the Adidas jackets and the concrete drills.

My little crew moved slowly through the aisles, snagging free samples and playing with the dangerous equipment. Since we weren't really shopping, our bargainer excused himself to tend to another guest, promising us that his cellphone was on him and that the number was on the business card. He apologized for being such a horrible guide, we told him he was wonderful, and he bailed. Such is how business is done in this country.

With that (and him) out of the way, we went to cash in those free food tickets. As we were stuffing our faces with free yakisoba (fried noodles), yakitori (fried chicken), yakimeshi (yep, fried rice) and (get this) french fries, all eaten with chopsticks, I couldn't help but ponder where Japan got it's reputation for healthy food.

Behind us, an auctioneer was going nuts raffling off stuff that my coordinator's friend aptly described (en japonais) as things she "wouldn't accept for free." Every piece of bizarro lawn sculpture ever dreamt of by human mind, and a few that weren't, sat on priceless lacquered cabinets awaiting new owners. Before opening the bidding for each item, the auctioneer bowed deeply to the crowd and presented the object to a few of the waiting masses, who weighed it in their hands and nodded appreciatively.

The shelves were, oddly, not for sale.

After lunch, we all agreed that we had accomplished what we came to accomplish (play with expensive toys, scam a free lunch), so we returned our company ID badges to the front desk and bailed out.

It was still early in the day, so we decided to take advantage of our borrowed mobility and travel a little further from the beaten path, and visit the Miho Museum. My pictures of this beast don't do it justice- it was designed by the same guy who designed the Louvre, who attempted to emulate Shangri-La and was inspired by a Chinese poem about the same. You'll find better description- and much cooler web interface- at their website.

Go on, explore it. I'll be here when you get back.

Done? Cool. Here's my opinion: The thing looks entirely like a James Bond villain's secret lair. It's built into the side of a mountain, and is only reachable by either walking or taking an electric bus up this path...
and then through this tunnel in the side of the mountain....
Upon which you come to a large bridge, leading to a relatively small glass building.

Small from this side. It's actually four stories or so underground, and entirely glass where it meets the outside world. This is the front lobby.

Of course, photography is prohibited inside, so that's the only picture I've got. The centerpiece exhibit inside was a survey of Chinese art and funerary goods ranging back through just about all of the Chinese big-name dynasties- including the two heavy-hitters, the Han and Ming dynasties. Having now seen priceless Ming dynasty sculptures up close, the archaeologist in me can die happy.

As could be expected from an art museum in Japan, the Egyptian and Greek exhibits were tiny and unimpressive while the Chinese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian exhibits were absolutely amazing. What really did it, though, was the fact that the museum itself outshines a good percent of its contents.

Here's a surreptitious view from the back window- the buildings in the background are a Shinto shrine and its carillon tower (a rarity, as far as shrine architecture goes)

So after getting a good dose of culture (and getting the chance to play art expert and explain Greek mythology to a pair of Japanese folks that had never heard the stories, while they hooked me up with some Buddhist history and Shinto lore) we bailed out and got back in the car. Here's the bridge/tunnel from the other side, as you leave the museum.

A quick note on Japanese roads: They're not for the weak. Nor the weak-hearted. Getting UP this mountain was a grueling feat that made the car groan and labor. Getting down was like a video game- all hairpin turns and wicked switchbacks. I had true fear. Add to this the oncoming truck traffic and the cocky drivers behind us that wanted to pass, and there's a pretty good chance that your trip to the art museum could be terminal.

After the museum, I went to Japanese class, and on the way happened across a nighttime concert by my friends from Ryukoku University and Ritsumeikan University. They were singing "traditional" Christmas tunes - in Japanese- as well as punk rock fare, Japanese pop, and a band that did nothing but Red Hot Chili Peppers covers in broken English. These three fine gentlemen are singing the traditional Japanese christmas song "Chicken Rice". I'd post lyrics if I could find 'em, I promise. That'll be my homework for next time.

Sunday was another day of Art- I went to the Shiga Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibition on modern Japanese oil painting. It was great. The museum's in the Seta "Culture Zone", which resembles nothing so much as a college campus without a college. It's just a collection of libraries, museums, coffee shops and multipurpose classrooms. I'm not sure who pays for it.

The leaves here are beginning to turn and fall- here's a path in the Culture Zone that struck me as especially pretty.

The rest of my weekend was consumed by an epic quest to fix a punctured tire. This would have been much easier if I had noticed the bike shop five minutes from my house- instead, I ended up walking eight kilometers to the bike shop I knew about and getting the stupid thing fixed three times- through some criminal case of negligence, they missed the giant sliver of aluminum that was in fact the CAUSE of the problem, and so I made it all of a kilometer out of the shop before puncturing again and walking back. Twice. Third time's the charm, they actually checked the tire for debris.

Next time, I'm walking five minutes, not five miles. Lesson learned.

On the upside, I did get to pass the local KFC- and what to my wondering eyes should appear...

But Colonel Santa! There is a significant chance that he's deep-fried the reindeer, as they were nowhere to be found. Seems that in addition to having lifesize statues of the Colonel here in Japan, they also dress him up to fit the season- so Santa suits in the winter, cotton kimonos in the summer, and various holiday dress for various holidays.

Made the walk worth it, I tell you.

Not sure what the next week holds. It's getting pretty cold here- and what with no insulation or central heating, it's cold indoors and out, so I'm spending as much time as I can in the well-lit, warm public spaces where someone else pays the heating bill.