Tag Archives: kyoto

The art of how to waste space

In the men’s room I am caught between times, the same way one identifies a new wing added to an old building: on this side, Luxurious 1980s Wood Paneling, the prestigiously ornate fixtures and whatsits typical of the times of the economic miracle, gorgeous, decadent. It is Beverly Hills Cop II, cocaine, Pac-Man, Scarface, big digital watches, aviator sunglasses, gold necklaces, Miami Vice, a bottle of single-barrel scotch on the desk. On the other side of the bathroom, splitting it in two, a garish blue dividing wall for the western style toilet. It is cut with swoops, has a big circle bored into it somewhere along the top. It is Zubaz pants, the Olympic Dream Team, an arcade full of Mortal Kombats, Boyz II Men, Planet Hollywood, high-top Reeboks, comic books, Zima. I can almost note the exact line dividing the room, when the years changed mid-design, mid-construction?

This is Rokko Island (unrelated to the animated wallaby or adult film actor). In a way it is the younger, less popular, abandoned amusement park to Port Island, the other large artificial island in Kobe. Whereas Port Island features an airport, huge expanses of housing, a big driving school, an excitingly modern rail service, an IKEA, and some supermarkets (but feels strangely sparse), Rokko feels smaller and more commercial, yet somehow even emptier. It elicits a feeling of cultural fusion/confusion, like a European paradise necessarily still in Japan, just south of the mainland for all the businessmen here with their familes for two years who can’t be troubled to assimilate. There are no less than three stores where one can acquire imported foodstuffs, and walking into one wing of the River Mall is like entering what seems like a half-deserted glory-days JCPenney’s but is still alarmingly in operational status: designed to be the central hub of all human entertainment and serving now as the equivalent of a suburban stripmall. A gust pushes past us through the door and blows a stack of flyers off an information counter manned by nobody. On the top floor resides a tenant the developers obviously had in mind during construction: a massive hundred-yen store with boxes of fresh-off-the-boat plastic brooms lining the walkways.

It is a strange place, the central area of this island, serviced by the dinky four-car Rokko Liner, an automatic rail line that elicits the familiar sensation of being about to be flung around a corner on a wooden roller coaster. All of the areas are in some way interconnected, so that you can essentially wander through the various buildings and covered malls without ever actually stepping foot outside. The courtyard, a confusing concrete-and-wood construct of winding little moats, peculiarly placed walkways, abstract metal statues and currently barren flowerbeds serves as a backdrop to what I understand is one of the only Subway restaurants in Hyogo prefecture. And what a Subway it is, too, still cozily adorned with brand signage of the original Subway’s incarnation: the oval, arrowed logo with heavy block font on a sun-faded yellow awning gave it away as soon as I glanced that direction from the confusing block spiral staircase taking us down.

Entertainingly, the only lunchmeat-based sandwiches that they offer are the Subway Club (ham, turkey, roast beef), and a derivation thereof (just roast beef). The meats themselves are just of the anemic Japanese variety though, with the Club sporting tiny cracker sized bites of beef, a single piece of roast turkey, and two stacked slices of ham. I watched them making it for the kid in front of me and wisely changed my mind from Club to Something Else. The other choices are of varied types: a Korean-style beef and peppers filling, one with oven-roasted chicken, a shrimp and avocado. Everything is just a little off though: they toast your bread before putting anything on it instead of to melt the cheese (which does not come standard and instead costs extra), all the amounts of everything are small (two pickles, two slices of black olive), and no drink refills allowed on your 300 yen large-sized cup (the sign even says, in English: “No Refills! so please fill it up as much as possible!”) We waited for ten minutes to order as the two sandwich artists struggled through their massive backlog of four people, carefully adding one ingredient, then the next. In an exciting reminder of Our Heritage, however, the Subway both distributes and accepts the long-since-eliminated Sub Club reward card. I clutched it tightly to my breast, and caught a whiff of America. The sandwich was all I had hoped it would be, specifically: meat, sauces, and vegetables surrounded by bread.

Almost as though to section off the inhabitable parts of the island from the rest, the rich, developed center is set apart from the rest by thick shrubs and a walking path, cleverly hiding the enormous factories and distribution centers from eyeshot. Behind them is the alarmingly difficult to find Price Club, a smallish store (touted to be “Massive” on the company’s own website) offering foreign import-style shopping for those too cheap to go to Amagasaki and hit the Costco. A few cans of genuine high-fructose corn syrup Cherry Coke and Dr. Pepper, along with some packages of frozen American-style Farmville franks found their way into my basket at prices I refuse to disclose. I laughed uproariously at some of the other exotic goods: 490 yen frozen black bean burrito, 2500 yen exciting American laundry detergent, Mac and Cheese (320 yen, but only 275 if you are a Price Club member). For prices in the 4500-7000 yen range, coupled with a good few days/weeks of advance notice, you could even order a rare bird called a “turkey,” though I’m not sure I’d have any fucking clue what exactly to do with it when it arrived, since ovens here are generally of the toaster variety and smaller than any bird I’ve ever eaten for Thanksgiving.

Everything on Rokko seems to be catered for (or at least navigable by) the English Speaking transplant, with most restaurants offering translated menus, many stores bearing English product descriptions, and everywhere a variety of people who will gladly participate in conversations with you in which you speak your limited Japanese and they speak their limited English like some sort of perverse but intriguing Tower of Babel scenario, both of you speaking something entirely different but still coming away with some sort of meaning. On Rokko Island, somewhat annoyingly, you will even predominantly find shitty western-style capsule machines of the red metal type, bearing instead of awesome Evangelion robots or snap-together half-clothed kinky ninja assassins a variety of cheap stickers, confusing rubber goos, or flimsy plastic rings. In a peculiar twist we also found the only stand-alone gumball machine I have seen in this country, operating solely on 10-yen coins, which virtually no other non-drink vending machine will accept.

By the time we emerged from our day of exploration we were just ready to “get back home,” to the island we could see from this one but would still have to take three more trains to reach. From the comfort of our apartment we celebrated the onset of spring by grilling, which is to say we wrapped chicken and fish with vegetables and olive oil in aluminum foil, then stuck it in our fish tray and lit the burner. For the bargain rate of 78,000 yen we could have purchased a full-sized culture-defying gas grill at Price Club. I figure we could hook the heating unit’s gas line up to it and have steaks in the living room, but for now the fish tray will do all we require.

The weekend being one of those cherished three-dayers, sporter of a national holiday compensatory Monday off, we also took the opportunity to Try Again with Kyoto on a gorgeous sunny day. If our directionless Kyoto trip of two weeks ago was essentially an example of oblivious ignorance, this weekend’s excursion would be more akin to willfully uninformed. This time, iPhone maps in hand, we had a plan, not involving any specific destinations, but based mostly on what we wanted to come home with: some monk’s scribbling in our temple book, a variety of incense, a good meal in the tummy, etcetera. With alarming ease we managed to find the watch shops we were seeking last time, in which I strangely simultaneously expectedly yet ironically decidedly decided that nothing I saw was really that appealing, and purchased nothing.

This task aside, however, we managed to lose ourselves in a most handy way, first selecting the temple on the map closest to us, and then going into it. It happened to be called Chion-in, and has something to do with Buddha. After we went up to the top of it we got some ice cream from a vending machine. As I finished it, a middle-aged woman carried another one up to me while I sat on the bench. “I bought the wrong one,” she told us, “I don’t like this one, you like it? You can eat it?” I took it and we gave it to a kid behind us. I am not sure the parents were thrilled, which I say only in retrospect: the child bounced excitedly away after finishing the ice pop, with parents in hot pursuit and not so much as a “thank you for hyperizing our three-year-old!”

From here we continued our wandering through interconnected areas, so very Rokko-esque, first through a neighboring park where we saw our first cherry blossoms of the year, and then through some of the main shopping streets all set up for the tourists and bearing thousands of varieties of goods, snacks, non-Japanese things, very Japanese things, and other crap. We bought the incense, as planned, and an eight-pack of fresh, hot, tofu donuts, which we had seen last time but asked a bystanderly policeman about this time, just to be sure. In one of the more humorous moments of the weekend, he casually consulted with his partner, and then, smiling, but refusing to crack any jokes or laugh until we were out of range, called in a serious request on his walkie-talkie system. “Uh… excuse me but… Tofu donuts… do you know where they are?” Meanwhile, Jessy and I bore no such reverence for our irreverent request, and laughed openly at the peculiarity of our situation:

Breaker 1-9 Breaker 1-9 I got a gal here says she’s looking for some Tofu Donuts, says they may be hot and delicious over

We found them, with his verbal assistance, as we would have anyway had we just continued on our way. They were hot and delicious! And for the more curious among you, not actualy made out of solid blocks of tofu or anything, but merely incorporating said substance within the batter that composes them. (The finished product is light, airy, and somewhat flavorless if not a little greasy-tasting. I say they would benefit from some powdered sugar, but what wouldn’t, anyway.)

For our evening meal we took it upon ourselves to visit a Thai restaurant we had passed on our first trip to Kyoto (the trip when we were forced to buy gelatinous fish-cubes at a shitty rip-off restaurant). It was the first Pad Thai I had eaten at an actual Thai restaurant since before I actually started cooking it on my own, and I analyzed its taste carefully for future attempts before hogging it own with discouraging abandon. Jessy ordered ice cream for desert, which was naturally purple and tasted like sweet potatoes.

Still on the topic of food, and to resolve some Pregnant Chads leftover from last week’s correspondence, I must mention one of the things that I so anxiously awaited as I composed before my thoughts on the then-upcoming Friday: Steak. Yes, steak, the meat of a cow cooked on a hot grill. As it turns out, we most certainly did eat steak, at a little place called Kochan’s, which was selected for us by the people we attended with, and which was pretty satisfactory. From what I understand it is popular among foreigners in Kobe because there is an English menu, an alarmingly easy gateway to more money that a rather bizarre majority of restaurateurs here choose not to pass through. The hundred grams of choice wagyu was accompanied with some carrots, daikon, some sashimi-style appetizer meats, the traditional miso soup, garlic fried rice, and some other stuff. The steak was pretty tasty! Even now I am preoccupied with thoughts of it like some early 14th century lover who has promised to return to me one day.

The other Friday thing, the Yakuza 3, has annoyingly Not Happened, which is a damned shame since I had that big fat three-day weekend that I could have used part of to totally play the shit out of it. As it turns out, sometimes the import shop that I use to import U.S. games to this country is just all like “whups not gonna get there very fast” and there is nothing I can do about it because they quote something absurd like “please allow up to three weeks for your package to arrive.” So here I am still waiting. In the mean time I have downloaded a tiny little game for my Wii called Cave Story, in which you control a tiny little guy and shoot weapons at tiny little creatures while you go through tiny little caves. It is a port of a game by the same name that was originally released for free for PCs somewhere around four years ago, coded by one mysterious Japanese man who had refused to release a picture of himself but gladly divulged the following information: Is 5’5″, 126 pounds, coded the game for five years all by himself, rides a bicycle to work, has kids, and will not make any more games. The Wii version has upgraded graphics (which look pretty nice), and “upgraded” music (which sucks). Thankfully you can play with the old music or graphics. Anyway, I anticipate this will occupy my gaming time for the next few days until Yakuza arrives, at which point I will unceremoniously jettison all other real-world responsibilities in favor of punching virtual heads in like slightly deflated basketballs.

– Today’s bento, named “Deluxe Middle (some 10-stroke kanji I don’t know) Bento,” containing rice with sesame seeds, half of a potato croquette, a small portion of yakisoba noodles, a weird pickled ginger thing, four large sweet breaded fried chicken nuggets, and three meatballs with ketchup, clocking in at 1,178 calories and 46.2 grams of fat, or 48 calories and .4 grams of fat less than last week’s Wednesday bento, making it basically health food
– The lead news story on NHK last night, which detailed the agonizing near-deaths of a train full of people who were harmlessly stranded for two hours in the train while it sat in the station, the doors powerless and unable to be opened due to some sort of bizarre electrical failure, with live by-the-minute updates on whether or not the people were out of the train
– A gashapon machine I routinely pass on the way to work, which is toilet and poop themed, and from which you can receive such toy prizes as: a shiny gold Japanese toilet, a sparkly western style toilet (versions with and without washlet bidet available) and literal coils of polished human feces, conveniently outfitted with straps so you can proudly carry them around attached to your cell phone
– A pizza delivery order form which arrived in our mailbox, from which you can order a pizza which I believe is called “Challenge Meats” and which contains four separate kinds of meat on the four quarters of the pizza, and which costs for a large size roughly twenty bucks more than any reasonable person would pay for a large pizza
– One TV station’s obsession with American music artist Lady Gaga, who devoted a ten-minute segment to the reactions of newscasters who watched her roll around on the floor in a Wonder Woman outfit, and then use soda cans as hair curlers (the reactions mostly involved the phrase “eeeeehhh?!” uttered with various emphases and for varying durations)
– The rarity and luxury item expense of Hyper-seasonal Decadent Super-amazing Confoundingly Delicious asparagus, which you can now pre-order baskets of via a special form in our grocery store for around twenty-five to thirty dollars

The upcoming weekend promises to be the first of a few consecutive busy ones, they being packed with (sequentially) a farewell party for our school’s principal, a farewell party for a departing long-time resident of the foreigner community, a cherry blossom viewing (saying farewell to winter in favor of spring), a pub quiz night (saying farewell to the opponents who will be reduced to whimpering masses at the hands of my team’s hulkingly comprehensive trivia knowledge), and a farewell party for my continued sobriety. In many ways, a lot of the daily life here tends to revolve around the idea of saying farewell to things, mainly things that you either wanted or at least found pleasing, in favor of things that take their places. Recently the Japanese have been forced to say farewell to the Hawaiian burger at McDonald’s, the icy coldness of winter, the availability of massive nabe sections at the grocery store, and Avatar in 3D.

At all three of my schools I am now no longer the newest employee by virtue of saying farewell to several teachers, who are, in Japan, sort of bizarre trading cards, bartered between schools every few years just because, a fact that makes me a little uncomfortable until I realize I will perhaps be continually regarded as the new guy by the old guard until I myself say farewell. In many ways saying farewell is so common place that it is barely dwelled upon. I prefer this approach, as with so many things: the stresses of outwardly recognizing that something is leaving you are far more troublesome than a shared understanding of this fact: without saying farewell, of course we can meet again, right?

In a variety of ways, this sort of sentiment reminds me a shade of my feelings about Rokko: the acknowledgment of a zeitgeist long since experienced but not entirely forgotten, carved into the images we prefer: the cocaine cowboys, the cool 80s business acumen, Karl Malone, New Kids on the Block. Here is the anachronism, the luxury and the frivolity, fading away without ever needing to say farewell, just that you remember it, and of course we can meet again, right?

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It’s not easy being green

It got downright cold here in Kobe this week following an unusually warm Halloween, almost as if the ghastly presence swooped in, leeched all the heat off everything, and zipped away. In a human sense, this is nearly what happened: we attended a Halloween event at one of the usual “gaijin bars” downtown called the Polo Dog, wherein hundreds of costumed foreigners (and native residents with an interest in foreigners) crammed themselves together in all manner of costumes running the gamut from Snow White to superheroes, proceeded to sweat profusely, barely able to move, then dispersed like the warm weather.

I was a frog, by way of that I wore a Frog Mask, which was acquired at The Daiso (you’re surely getting to know your hundred-yen stores by now), for one hundred yen. I use the term Mask loosely, as it seemed more like a green fabric hood with a couple of little frog eyes on top that did not want to stand straight up and kept falling down, making it look like I was just a green hood for Halloween. My t-shirt was kind of orange, causing one person to ask if I was a carrot. I could be a carrot, I said, and there was no reason why not, if it suited their fancy.

Jessy was some manner of hula girl, an impulse costume spurned by the fortunate sighting of a ¥1750 beginner’s ukulele at our nearest Hard-Off second-hand shop, the same one I got my Supreme Plasma Television at a few months ago. She tied it to some string and wore it around her neck along with an assortment of hundred-yen flower leis. As a member of an ignorant death-pact, wherein I was obligated to wear my frog mask so long as she remained inexorably in costume, riding the Port Liner train from our island to downtown was perhaps one of my most poignantly embarassing moments on record, a literal outsider in a goddamned frog mask failing miserably at Halloween even by Japanese standards and the fucking eyes wouldn’t stand up right.

You see in Japan, though they use Halloween as an excuse to buy cute seasonal candies and festively decorated packages, very few people actually dress themselves in costumes or do any of the things you likely English-speaking readers have come to associate with the holiday. Though my ego had already been crushed by the time we arrived in Sannomiya (the downtown district), Jessy let me take the frog mask off to go into McDonalds and try their new Bacon+BBQ Quarter Pounder (a scrumptious onion-bearing hybrid flavor experience eliciting a thoughtful consideration of the result of the theoretical breeding of a McRib sandwich with a standard Quarter Pounder). The damage had already been done, of course, but the sandwich made it mostly okay.

In an effort to mentally bleach this traumatic experience away completely, we spent yesterday with another couple in Kyoto, the fabled historical hotbed of the Kansai region (and most of Japan). It was the first trip there for Jessy and I, for some reason (Kyoto’s a ¥1000, 50-minute rapid train away), and we had a very cultural time! Fitting, as Tuesday was national Culture Day, an annual holiday celebrating a former emperor during which residents are encouraged to connect with culture! Mainly, as seems to be a trend in the more populated areas of this country, I spent more of Tuesday connecting with thousands of other people who all had the same idea as we did and decided to slam Kyoto in school trip buses, on bicycles, on foot, by car, by van.

But we got to see a pretty large temple holding 1,001 statues of Buddha (the Sanjuusangen-do, and that was awesome (in a historical sense). We also went to another big temple up on the mountain and got our stamp book calligraphied in and stamped by some monk-type dude. On the way back down the mountain to the city proper we stopped along the way for goodies (a famous cream puff, some chocolate crepes, and free looks at a variety of souvenir shops–and I even saw a real-life geisha just walking around).

Famished as we were we ignorantly stumbled into a misleading Japanese restaurant courtesy of some jackass restaurateur who beckoned us in with an English menu then proceeded to serve us the things we ordered only in tiny minuscule portions belying the prices we paid for them, the fellow having never mentioned anything about this bizarre divergence from usual dining establishment convention (highlight: a ¥1180 plate of “grilled duck with Kyoto green onions on a mulberry leaf” which turned out to be three bite-sized slices of duck meat with onions and no mulberry leaf). After our “meal” we got the bonus privilege of paying ¥500 each for a decidedly un-tasty Now and Later-sized cube of fish gelatin that we were served without ordering it shortly after we arrived. “Everyone must get it,” the waiter said upon our objection at the bill. I felt great anger well up inside me and wished for enough language skill to tell the tiny little man that he should be ashamed of himself for his deception, then for the sake of the harmonious Buddha, placed the experience out of my mind with the help of my friends Cheap Convenience Store Alcohol and Steamy Bun.

Today at work I have made the conscious effort to totally drown myself in cheap, filling, unhealthy food as a sort of mental remuneration for my stomach’s lingering disappointment, consuming in the last five hours:
– a shelf-stable packaged udon bowl with sweet kitsune-style fried tofu slice (¥200)
– a package of “Hokkaido Choco Potato” chocolate-covered crispy potato snacks (¥160)
– one pouch (27g) of average Daiso beef jerky (¥100)
– one pack of CRATZ brand pretzel and almond snack mix, bacon pepper flavor (¥100)
– a handful of festive winter chocolate-covered almonds dusted in fresh cocoa powder (full box, ¥180)
– a Yamazaki baking company cheese pizza bun, a hamburger-sized bun stuffed with delicious pizza filling (¥90)
– two 500ml cans of Fanta soda, grape and orange (¥100 each)

Total cost something like ¥1030? Which is way less than my three slices of grilled duck and gelatinous fish cube. Take that, random Kyoto restaurant whose name and location I can no longer remember (I hope you go out of business, and as you move your equipment out, are destroyed by a really pretentious meteor!)!

Outside the wind rages about blustery, tossing the trees and causing the shrine cats to huddle up. They even have a meteorological term for it here (kogarashi). They assign it to these strong crispy winds that gust in from the mountains, I think? and cut through our houses and cause coldness. I think when I woke up this morning around 6:00 AM it happened to be about five degrees outside (Celcius, as we do). In Fahrenheit I think that’s about 44?

Compared to the oppressive heat of Halloween, it’s a frosty revelation: Monday marked our three-month anniversary of arriving in Japan, winter is on its way, and time relentlessly marches on.

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