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.