Tag Archives: hakone

The seat of the soul

The nicest toilets in Japan will clean your ass for you chipperly, blasting water at your choice of areas via a couple of angles selected to most efficiently Neutralize The Threat, and with a level of pressure that you dial in with a little knob. Bad night? Dial an 8! The seats are heated, to encourage your productivity and free spirit. Some of them even play music which I have not yet determined to be one or the other: specifically for masking noises or just used as a reward mechanism. The units are called Washlets, and replace what sits on top of your bowl outright. Many westerners consider them magical, and I find myself in a conundrum: fascinated with the technical workings of the device, curious as to what exactly they are doing under there, under there, while I rest atop it, a time when it is impossible to examine the mechanisms, and to investigate any further during a time I do not care to utilize the functions of the Washlet I feel would be a betrayal of trust.

Sometimes, while I sit, I dream up possible delivery scenarios. Is the mechanism like a fire extinguisher, ready to go at any moment and swiveling into play when necessary? When I switch between angle one and angle two I hear a sort of robotic whirring. Is there a tiny robot arm that swings out prevented only from winning my prize due to the fact it is not a vertically oriented UFO claw and is designed to shoot water instead of capture stuffed toys? What could be in there, and what is it doing? I can’t bring myself to look. It is one of the mysteries I have left, and I clutch to it, perhaps just as to that stuffed toy, ready to drop at any moment.

With these considerations in mind and Jessy, Liz, and Dan in tow, I set out last weekend to Hakone, and most memorably a place that has a real name that is inconsequential, because we named this place Fart Mountain. It is the natural absence of Washlet, touted for this fact: active, sulfuric springs bubble and steam below and on top of and in all nooks of its rocky surface. The sulfurous gas smells, naturally, like sulfurous gas, and the Japanese, in their elegiac euphoria, at some point in the past, decided that they could boil eggs in the sulfury hot springs which pool up on the face of this olfactory hell. As it turns out, the water not only boils a fine egg but also turns the shell a powdery black due to some sort of “sulfite reaction,” which means that eating one egg will extend your life by seven years, or so they say. A pretty good value proposition at five eggs for five bucks, not that I could prove it. It is ingenious really, and we witnessed this process: a zip line holding a metal crate carrying cases of fresh, white eggs is jimmied up the mountain from the shop at the bottom, and then at the top they are unloaded, soaked in the hot springs, and then loaded back into the crate to be sent back down and sold for many times their actual worth. Modern day egg alchemy! If I die in the next six years, three-hundred-and-fifty-eight-days, I’m demanding a refund. Other black things that I ate on or near Fart Mountain, solely touted due to their blackness:

1. Black steamed meat bun stuffed with meat, ginger, and some spicy stuff

Fart Mountain is something like the halfway point of the prescribed trip around Hakone, a sprawling day-long affair involving every form of unorthodox transportation that one could likely utilize for mass transit. The first leg was a seriously long bus ride, made all the more agonizing due to the presence of a couple idiot American children up front, a brother and sister, the sister prodding at the boy’s Tommy Hilfiger duffle, and the boy belting out his best kazoo rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, only he didn’t have a kazoo. To our right, of no fault of his own, a mentally confused child who took every opportunity to vocalize his feelings to everyone in the middle of the bus (he was either pleased or disappointed).

After this came A Big Lake Whose Name I Forget, in which you can see a little red temple gate off in the distance, and which we traversed (after eating a station hot dog with shredded cabbage) by fucking pirate ship, a means of travel which exists there for some reason I yet fail to grasp. To me it seemed like riding in a train covered with plastic to make it resemble a Ferrari, or flying in an airplane decorated like a bird. Only this is Japan, and most specifically Hakone, where there are no pirates, and where pirates mean nothing to anyone outside of isn’t Johnny Depp a pirate. From the middle of this lake we caught our first peeps of Fujisan, the fabled Mount Fuji, enormous mountain, real big rock. Famously elusive, we were happy to see him standing at attention, only partially obscured by a sidelong wisp of cloud.

On the other side of the lake, there was only a building, and in the building you buy dumb souvenirs and board the ropeway gondolas, and jesus christ do I ever hate riding on ropeway gondolas. After the gondolas? Well it’s Fart Mountain. I watched the faces of the bystanders progress from cautious optimism, to mild interest, to fatigue. I imagined sticking my head up an ass and leaving it there.

We took a cable car at one point, and all I wanted to do was get home, and then we took a regular old train which apparently is some kind of special train cause it is old and slow and needs to stop twice to do a switchback and change directions. I stared into the soul of the conductor as I clutched the overhead bar. Inside his pupils I took a nap, and then uttered, in the obsolete language of the Demon King: get me out of here. It was ineffective.

Fifty-seven hours later we returned to our lodging, the Hotel Okada, which was notable for harboring what is literally the saddest, most pathetic “game corner” I have ever personally witnessed in Japan, which has to count for something. Whereas a native English speaker would likely translate the Japanese katakana and actually sensible “game corner” to “arcade,”–had they actually decided to translate it in the first place–the hotel staff instead chose the excitingly colloquial “Amusement Saloon” for their floor map, which made it all the more depressing, my conjured mental images of feisty card games and spittoons and root-toot-tootin’ and yee-haw rootbeer sarsparilla and six-shooters notwithstanding. After we realized there was no amusement to be found in the five shitty redemption games and half-broken racing game, we figured of course that the saloon was also absent. It is no stretch for me to declare that the arcade on the Jumbo Ferry, a boat we took to Takamatsu several months back, was orders of magnitude more entertaining, and it was on a boat.

The Okada is of the traditional ryokan variety, which means that for a time we pranced around in our yukata like good little Japanese boys and girls, and then separated along those lines to go to the onsen on floor eight, where we stripped down and bathed publically, in the total nude, until we became so overwhelmed with the hot water that our arms tingled. As I was getting ready to leave the jacuzzi area near the end of my second and final onsen session of the trip, one man strolled up, took a step in from the side, and, presumably expecting a ledge or something, dropped in completely from the brisk outside air into the boiling magmatic pool. He laughed, obviously embarassed, and all I could muster up in Japanese was “big huh,” a comment I really hope he took as meaning the drop was big, and not anything else that might have been swinging around a foot and a half from my face. I left promptly, feeling myself coming to a rolling boil.

Should I mention the meals, massive and delivered to our room? To outline the entire process of a ryokan meal would be dry. I will say this: on one of each of our plates rested a tiny squid, the size of a Tootsie Roll, and when it was chewed, you could feel its brains explode out of its head like the juice inside a Fruit Gushers fruit snack. Or so I was told. I was content to eat the other morsels, which impressively all consisted of or contained some kind of fish or seafood in some capacity. It was around this time that I was stricken with the overwhelming urge for a large plate of hot spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic toast, a desire for which the only option of satiation was the breakfast buffet, where I ate a pasta and cheese casserole containing clams, and approximately two quarts of fruit cocktail.

As I mentioned briefly last time, Hakone is also the setting for my favorite animated show Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Hakone, sensing otaku greenbacks, has decided to capitalize with a variety of Eva omiyage cookies and cakes that you can bring back for your depressed coworkers. More exciting, however, were the “Hakone Instrumentality Project” maps, which provide reference points to view actual scenes from the show and movies as they appear in reality. To obtain this map Liz had to enter the tourism booth and fill out a special card indicating her profession and length of stay in Japan. When she emerged successful Dan and I descended on the booth like vultures, insistent that no we couldn’t share maps and yes we needed our own. My profession was “Schooler” and my length of stay in Japan was “years.” I got the map and left immediately. The next day, Jessy tried to get her own map and was flatly refused by the panel, who presumably have more pressing uses for the maps than using them to promote tourism.

Excitingly, and beautifully, the special convenience store (in actuality, a Lawson store), all dressed up like Evangelion to be the OFFICIAL TOKYO-3 LAWSON, was bombarded by sweathogs with fanny packs almost immediately after opening, creating lines to enter the convenience store, parking hazards, and–I’m just guessing here–severe employee unrest. And so, the store was stripped of its identifying Eva decor and closed after a mere three days, a fitting end. I never even saw where it might have been. Someone told me “in the mountains somewhere, a rural area,” but for me it might have just as well been in the actual Tokyo-3, committed to celluloid, a figment of imagination, cups of instant udon adorned with Reis and Asukas, and boxes of NERV brand tissues, to wipe your nose just before you are rendered a puddle of pure LCL goo.

After Dan and Liz went back to Canada, and before our Golden Week holiday had ended, we decided we wanted to do something really dumb, so we went to Costco. Let me tell you about Costco in Japan.

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT COSTCO IN JAPAN

Costco in Japan is strikingly similar to Costco in the states, except that it is in Japan, which makes a remarkable difference. I have been there fully three times now, and each time I hope I will come up with a better way to say what I really think about it, but I never do. At this point, the best way I can sum it up is to say that Costco seems to serve as kind of a family amusement park. You bring the little shits and your wife on your holiday in your small boxy car, there is nowhere to park it, you wait in line for an hour to sign up to be let in, and then you pay the 4200 yen “membership price” (admission fee). Finally, after you grab a hulking behemoth of a novelty cart, you can proceed to ingest the stereotypical example of “American culture” in the bizarre shopping environment, which apparently involves trying to move around in the store when everyone has a Monster Cart and doesn’t even know how to walk normally let alone when encumbered with said cart.

For many, the highlight seems to be the restaurant area (much as it is in the relatively similarly-regarded IKEA on Port Island). To enter the restaurant area, which is set off as a “space” with little extending barriers and employees who only direct people-traffic and which serves essentially the same huge food at the same tiny prices, you must push through a sea of humanity, and will absolutely never find a seat. People stand around eating their 300 yen slices of pizza that are as large as Actual Japanese Pizzas with a look of desire in their eyes: am I doing it right? Am… am I in the group? Am I Costcoing?

The hilarious irony of Costco in Japan of course is that in a country where many people rely solely on public transit and have refrigerators the size of shoeboxes they can’t possibly ever have a use for ten cans of refried beans or a 2000 yen slab of pork, let alone some fucking place to put it. Bulk shopping is just a gag, a theory, a suggestion of the weird possibility that your problem would be too much space and not enough stuff to put in it instead of the other way around. The prices are good (decent) but offset in such a way by the membership fee and the absolute hell of the experience that just buying your stuff on a daily basis like everyone else probably makes more financial sense.

The only thing that I can think is that for many people in Japan Costco is not valued as a legitimate financial move in the realm of grocery shopping. Look at it this way: an average Japanese man is smaller than an average American man, he has a smaller fridge, he has a smaller house, he has a smaller car, he eats less, he doesn’t need a gallon of salsa, and all this massive stuff probably looks even bigger and more ridiculous than it does to a well adjusted fellow like myself. Once he opens the three quart bottle of ketchup, where will he put it? He will clear a space in his fridge, and make his children apply ketchup to everything for the next five months in order to use it all up before it expires. He will take home something as a souvenir. “Remember the time we all went to Costco and got that 40-pack of muffins? Those were the days.”

The kids mob the aisles like savage fleas digging for blood, it is their play area, these packages are too big to be called food and are instead obviously entertainment. If you are an idiot you can buy a 24-pack of Coke From The United States, made with good old-fashioned all-natural high fructose corn syrup instead of the superior sugar-based Coke they sell everywhere else in Japan. One family we saw had a huge cart full only of bottled water and potato chips. Surely it has not come to this.

As I stand being mobbed by the overeager women literally diving at a pallet of Ultra Downy fabric softener nearby, I contemplate my options. I am reminded of off-days in Iowa spent leisurely strolling through a deserted Sam’s Club with my stepbrother. Costco in Japan makes as much sense as the US changing all cartons of milk to quarts, eliminating frozen pizza, and refusing to sell packages of cheese containing more than six ounces. And yet the business is so routinely crowded that I can barely move, often times before I even get through the front door.

Costco is Universal Studios, only instead of riding on a rollercoaster, you push a cart and buy three pounds of cheddar cheese and some deck chairs.

Of course, we spent two hundred dollars there on bags of tortilla chips and gummy bears so large we can not ever possibly finish them all, two pounds of grated Parmesan cheese, a case each of vanilla soymilk and Dr. Pepper, and 1,400 Post-it notes.

THAT’S ABOUT IT FOR COSTCO

At school today I decided maybe it was time to see how the robot arm or the firehose or the Roto Rooter or whatever the shit it is that pops out of the Washlet really does its job, so cursorily, after visiting the sink to wash my hands, I popped in to the Washlet-equipped stall, locked the door, and pressed the spray button. As I did so, I suddenly realized that this would likely mean that some sort of nozzle was going to be blasting me in the face with toilet water as I peered over it.

But there was no cause to worry. In addition to being heated, the Washlet seat is also pressure sensitive, and denied my request with a polite beep. All this means is that I am dry, and I am going to have to come up with some other way to steal a look at that mysterious robot business.

Tagged , , , , ,

Focus on this play, this moment!

I am in the front row of a section of seats in Koshien Stadium, it is hotter than it has been in days, and a drunk man of this country has decided he will carry on a conversation with me while baseball occurs out in the field. I, in an effort to represent the entirety of the group I accompany (60+ natives of other countries), abandoned in favor of the pursuit of fried chicken by my Japanese-speaking other half, decide to tackle this issue head on.

“America and Canada and Japan.” My answer to what I believe is a question asking where we, or some amount of us, are from

“I think our power is really big!” My response to some comment issued while he was gesturing at the scoreboard (we are, at the time, losing 8-1)

“Curry rice, delicious, isn’t it?” My question, offered in response to a question that may have nothing to do with the food I was holding

“The, I, this, uhh…” My answers to nearly everything else said, interspersed with smiles, looks of terror, and nodding

Eventually his wife comes along and drags him away as he resists. It is fortunate, because we have arrived at a point where I am sure he is demanding some sort of answer that likely centers on information and examples, and I sense the game is up. My friends, sitting next to me, ask if I could understand what he was saying. I tell them “a little,” which must be about 23% true.

To my horror, he later returns, eager on continuing to tap at the rich vein of cultural exchange we began with earlier. He is immediately interrupted by our team’s first sign of life in this game, a Grand Slam Home Run, the onset of which brings deafening cheers of glory and sends the man and all around him into a frenzy. As though shaking out a dirty rug he grabs me by the hands and yanks me up from my seat, jangling me like a marionette who must dance for quarters. I am far too tall for his efforts at jerking me around, size comparisons considered, and soon he’s just holding me by the wrists, the elbows, begging for mercy, oh please god, oh please, oh. He switches to High Fives, pleading for them, fives for the poor, fives to feed the children, and begins to five everyone in sight.

The stylish young woman with the beer keg mounted on her back taps one for somebody (only 600 yen) as she is left just another Cheerio in the bowl, all knocked around with each other. It is about this time that our pal Dan comes back from his own chicken run, and is promptly devoured by the five-lust of the local drunk, fived to fucking death, meat. I avert my eyes, unable to witness the grave anathemas of this thing they call “baseball.”

In the seventh inning, everyone in the stadium inflates balloons that look like giant tiger-striped phalli, then, courtesy of plastic propulsion inserts, release them skyward with great shouts. Before they can hit the ground like dead rubbery sky jellyfish the cleaning crew is waiting in the outfield to scoop them up.

After three more innings of being goddamned useless, Hard-luck Hanshin loses 8-5. I am relieved, but only because I cannot predict what may have happened to me had we won.

Having guests is much like visiting someone else yourself–the dynamic of your dwelling twists, the played-out, boring schedule changes, the activities are altered through the eyes of a fresh situation. On Friday we eat tomato ramen and gyoza from one of our favorite places in north Sannomiya, then drink alcohol at a bar for foreigners, where some English teacher’s coworker is forced to do the Moonwalk.

On Saturday, with our visiting couple from Canada firmly entrenched, we invite another couple from just across the way in the other building over for some Mario on Wii. It is a wonder that “parties” even existed before this game.

As we carry out our calculated video crimes against humanity to each other (crushed by huge drill, thrown into fireball, forcibly advanced off edge of screen), we do our part to upset the neighbors with the vulgar shouts of Engrish phrases so heinous that even they might recognize them. Front-runner, and so good I can’t believe it actually exists, is printed on Dan’s new shirt: DON’T WANNA DO A SUCK. We begin to refer to Mario merely as “red Toad,” which is so inexplicably funny to me that I start replacing Mario’s name in game titles mentally (Super Red Toad Brothers 3, Super Red Toad World, Red Toad Power Tennis). Jessy, frequently murdered and relegated back to “floating around the level in a bubble” status, begins to chant “BURST ME, BURST ME, BURST ME,” while flailing the remote wildly, and from there it is all over, the rollercoaster clacking its last clack before screaming down the hill. We eat Miracle Fruit Tablets off eBay, which make lemons taste sweet. There is a bag of candy-coated french fries-like potato snacks on the floor, and chocolates, and gummies, and spicy dried squid, which I am instructed to “never open in the house again,” presumably because it smells like spicy dried squid. On the other side of Kobe, the man from the baseball game applies lipstick and smokes a cigarette.

NOTABLE MINOR HAPS SINCE THE PRIOR NOM
– During a self-introduction class for one of my new sections of first years in high school, being asked “do you like boys or girls,” answering “I like everyone, how about you,” and then watching a fifteen-year-old troublemaker turn red
– In the same, bizarre class, being asked by one of the girls “why are your legs so long,” a question I could barely answer
– New “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” promotional Mountain Dew soda, which, while tasting the same as any other Mountain Dew in this country, is adorned with artwork of characters from the namesake video game, lending the soda a clout which represents the presentation of one of the first opportunities I have actually had to buy Mountain Dew in a convenience store here, instead of the one vending machine in Kobe that I know to sell it
– Today’s bento, clocking in at an admiral 906 kcals, which contains a layer of rice and is topped with sweet barbecue beef, a breaded and fried fish fillet with a glob of tartar sauce, one massive chicken nugget, and some shredded lotus root and cabbage (tiny building-block shaped grilled egg sits in a compartment on the side), and which is totally goddamned perfect
– New “Qun” gummies, sweet and chewy, with sour sauce inside, decorated with a picture of a sun making approximately this face, presumably due to the incredible pain the sour has caused him: >_<
– The onset of fiber-optic Internet in our apartment, which, while not ascending to the touted and lofty "HYAKUMEGA" speeds we were drugged with during the sales pitch, certainly hit a download/upload speed of 34Mbit/15Mbit up here on the seventh floor last night, or roughly fast enough to download a 6MB MP3 file in two seconds
THOSE WERE SOME HAPS

We leave this weekend for Hakone during the string of holidays called Golden Week. Hakone is a town most notable for being near Mt. Fuji and providing some supposedly good views of said mountain, and notable to me for being the city where the fictional Evangelion anime series was “set.” This week they even decorated a Lawson convenience store that has a bunch of special Evangelion items in it, and I am afraid I am going to have to track it down and fill my bags with dumb crap I totally don’t need. We are taking the bullet train, which will mean my second chance to ride it, and I am excited. While I am gone, the new Super Street Fighter IV video game will arrive at my apartment. It is a fighting game which features an oil wrestler who grabs enemies and squirts them out of his rippling muscles to inflict damage.

Tagged , , ,