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Bonus: Advertising in Japan (As Seen Through Gaijin Eyes)

18 Jul

I’ve been amassing a sizeable collection of pictures from this trip, and a good chunk of those are pictures of advertisements, posters, and signs – because we have lots of those things back home, but nowhere near as many as the Japanese, and none of them even half as batshit crazy as these ones. It seemed a waste not to share them with you, and even if they don’t provide any special insight into Japan’s marketing, economy, pop culture, or psyche, my hope is you’ll find them as funny as I did. Enjoy!

IMG_1326One of the first things I clapped eyes on upon my arrival in Nagoya. You may be having a hard time processing that statue, but I want you to keep my then-status in mind. I was fresh off the shinkansen from Tokyo after my overseas flight and I didn’t even know my own name anymore. I was uncertain about most (if not all) of what I was seeing; this statue seemed a perfectly natural phenomenon to me.

IMG_1384Pachinko parlour splash banner. There’s apparently a story being told in there…about the sea. And it’s a super one.

IMG_1376Yeah, I bet it is.

IMG_1740Ad in the Tokyo subway. So this guy, who plainly works at a butchery, is worried about his grandmother, who is fixing roof tiles while being aggravated by a rude ghost? But then he’s got…an air conditioner? And that seems to have lifted the weight off his mind. Of course his grandma’s gone, but the ghost seems happy. So I guess it’s all right. Wait is that her ghost??

…Creepy.

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This food will apparently turn you from a plump, rosy-cheeked, infant sumo wrestler into a FURIOUS WEEPING GLADIATOR ELVIS. I mean how can you turn down an offer of “traditionnal japanise food” like that?!

IMG_1661There’s nothing particularly funny about this ad, I just want you to notice that’s Jackie Chan on the right there.

I’m not sure if I’m the racist, or if the Japanese are. Probably both.

IMG_1583The fun doesn’t stop at ads, oh ho, no! The world of Japanese literature is a veritable cornucopia of nonsensical hilarity! This is a posebook. Just in case you need help with your posing. See this is what’s amazing about being on the other side of the world: the priorities are just…just so delightfully different sometimes.

IMG_1747Trust me, Jews are delicious. I knew that even before I came here.

IMG_2049Bring your family to the Nagoya Science Centre and EXPERIENCE TRUE TERROR AS THEY ARE DEVOURED BY THE MONSTERS OF THE DEEP BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES.

IMG_1840The picture’s a little blurry, so you probably can’t tell, but those are actual cow-women: horrible mutant hybrids engineered in secret by the Japanese government. And BOY do they tear up the stage on Wednesdays.

IMG_1400Internet ad for “Good Game Empire”. That’s… that’s real subtle, there, guys. Bravo.

IMG_2051I don’t even know what this is an ad for, but Ken Watanabe’s squinty stare is beginning to make me think I want it.

IMG_2213This guy is either driving an imaginary car, or pouring an imaginary beaker of chemical fluid. Either way, he’s clearly insane.

IMG_1738Well, the ads are certainly worth the price of admission.

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Kyoto: Lost in an Ancient World

18 Jul

In order to fully take advantage of my Japan Rail Pass – my 14-day bullet train ticket to pretty much anywhere – I had to hit at least one more big city before I left. Kyoto seemed as good a choice as any to me, and Kurisu-chan made a point of insisting that it was unmissable. As usual, he was right.

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Our noble steeds, rented for the day. We sure as sushi put them through their paces.

Kyoto is one of the oldest cities in Asia, and the former capital of Japan under imperial rule. Like the rest of the country, it’s an intoxicating fusion of old and new, with ancient temples snuggled up to bustling shopping districts. We focused on the older half, and devised a clockwise route across the city that would take us and our rented bikes to the most beautiful things I was to see during my time here. I’d already visited Nagoya Castle and gotten a taste of what “old Japan” had to offer, but nothing I’d seen was anything like the temples, shrines, and streets of Kyoto. For example:

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This is Hongwanji Temple, the birthplace of Jodu Shinshu (translated as “The True Essence of Pure Land Buddhist Teaching”). There are regular religious services held here, but we found it during a quiet period, and we were nearly the only ones inside the massive compound. Shoes must be removed at the steps of the temple, so we padded around in our socks, mindful of the stillness and quiet, careful to keep our voices low. It struck me that we were whispering even when nobody was nearby praying – a testament to the palpable divinity of the temple, and a sign of things to come.

The very popular Nijo Castle (or Nijo-jo) was next, and was by far one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. And when I say cool, I mean it was brutally, savagely hot both outside and in. But man was it fascinating.

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There were signs everywhere prohibiting the taking of photographs inside the castle but I’M A REBEL YO. Plus it’s just so they can charge you for official photos later. Jerks.

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The elaborate paintings adorning the walls and sliding paper doors have been preserved since their creation in the Edo period, and were almost all done by members of the Kano school of art, most of whom were members of the actual Kano family.

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Creepy wax figures depict a historical meeting between the shogun and visiting feudal lords. Note their uncomfortable crouching pose – now imagine remaining stock-still in that position, without movement or complaint, until your shogun was ready to grace you with his presence. Shoguns don’t exactly rush from place to place, you know? He may have stopped to eat, or paint, or…ahem…make use of one of his concubines. You’re still crouched there like a jackass for four hours. Respect. They got it.

Nijo-jo was completed at the turn of the 17th century, or Edo period – 1603, to be exact – and was the residence of the first Tokugawa shogun (or lord of feudal lords, reporting only to the Emperor himself). The preservation of his palace is immaculate, and it’s full of the kind of rich historical detail that makes me all weak at the knee. For example: the floors of the castle are called “nightingale floors”, so named for the chirping and squeaking they make when you walk over them. They’re deliberately designed this way as a sort of security system, preventing anyone from approaching the Shogun or his family without being heard first. I MEAN HOW COOL IS THAT? Of course, part of the reason ninjas were kind of badass (and shoguns still managed to get themselves assassinated) is that they found ways around that sort of thing; namely, clambering silently along the walls, columns, and ceilings. God Japan is awesome.

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Luckily, what this picture doesn’t convey is the frankly vulgar amount of sweat pouring off my skin. I was parting the crowd like Moses at the beach.

More awesomeness awaited us at Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, which rests at the foot of a mountain. Getting to the actual mountain was a Herculean challenge, considering it was all uphill and were were being assaulted by fifty thousand degree heat. Look I know I’m complaining a lot about the heat, but until y’all been to Asia in July you don’t even know. You don’t even know. And I run hot at the best of times. But it was worth it.

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For you aurophiles out there, yes: that’s real gold. The whole thing.

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Despite the massive crowd of tourists to push through, Kinkaku-ji was a truly serene experience. The feeling of reverence I experienced at Hongwanji returned in full force; I was reaching out and touching every tree and rock and bamboo sprout I could, hoping that by physically touching the place I could be more closely connected to its elusive magic. There really was a spirituality here, a potent marriage of nature and human history. It sounds cliché, but the idea of a place being “holy” didn’t really carry any meaning for me until I walked the forest paths of Kinkaku-ji.

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I lit some incense at a shrine to celebrate my newfound spirituality, and promptly coughed my ass off in the choking cloud that ensued. Thanks, universe.

Of course, this is where the “lost” part of the title comes in. Our next stop was what Chris called a “chopstick museum” in the famous shopping district of Gion, on the other side of the city. It’s a huge district but we managed to miss it by making several key mistakes in our route planning, and we ended up biking pretty much all across Kyoto. This was unfortunate in terms of timing – our bikes needed to be returned by 7 pm – but turned out to be one of the most valuable parts of my trip, providing an intimate look at the pulse and rhythm of this amazing city.

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I hadn’t really ridden a bike for years before this day trip, and had never ridden a bike in a sprawling urban area – nevermind one in a foreign country, where street directions are reversed and riding on the sidewalk is commonplace, and absolutely never one so packed with people. I had two choices: become a master cyclist in a matter of minutes, or perish in a horrible accident involving elderly pedestrians and any of a thousand motorized vehicles. Thank Buddha I’m a quick learner.

We were lucky to be visiting on a very special day in Kyoto, the Gion Matsuri (or Gion Festival), which is famous for its massive parade. Three days of celebration and closed-off streets lead up to the climactic parade, and we managed to catch a tiny bit of it:

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Celebrants dressed in robes of obviously deep significance carry a tree adorned with paper which represent…something.

Once we stumbled upon Gion it was a simple matter to find Chris’ chopstick museum, if you don’t count the eight near-death experiences I survived while trying to navigate the milling pedestrian horde on a rickety rental bike in pursuit of a ginger madman.

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More of a store than a museum, really. But LOOKIT ALL DEM CHOPSTICKS!

I had my name inscribed in both English and katakana on an austere, urbane pair of black chopsticks (ten inches, rosewood, dragon heartstring). Then it was time to get our bikes back to the rental place near the shinkansen station – but the clock was ticking, and it was halfway across town.

Never in my life have I gone so fast on a bicycle before. We avoided the main streets, favouring narrow one-way alleyways and passing speed cyclists like they were standing still. At one point a truck was looming up behind us in an impossibly tight alley and I heard Chris yell, “WE’VE GOT TO OUTRUN IT,” so instead of trying to stop and squeeze out of its way as it passed, we stomped on the throttle.

We made it to the rental place with almost exactly one minute to spare. Gion to South Kyoto in thirteen minutes. You can Google Maps it or whatever but trust me – that’s super fast.

Each day I spend in Japan manages to surpass the one preceding it. I don’t know if that’s due to my excellent host or a function of the country’s inherent exponential awesomeness scale, but it really blows my mind that it’s still getting better and better. Which is good, because I leave tomorrow, and it’s always smart to end on a high note.

Things I’ve Learned So Far

  • If I could have lived in the Edo period in Kyoto, I would. Except for the feudal system, meaning I’d probably be some dirt-poor brokeback serf. And the whole honour thing. It’s cool, but, you know. Not really willing to plunge a knife into my own gut because my daughter slept with the wrong dude.
  • I can actually ride a bike pretty capably after an afternoon spent in the most terrifying biking environment possible.
  • Also, protip: if you rent a bicycle in a foreign country, be sure you write down the lock combination. I didn’t actually have any trouble with that, but I’m sure it would have sucked if I did.
  • If you really want to get to know a place, get lost. It sounds like Tourism 101 (and it probably is), but I’m just now learning that you have to be willing to make mistakes and roll with it. It’s cool if you don’t manage to make it to the chopstick museum, because every single thing you see, hear, smell, and feel along the way is the real, actual experience. This country is a cannonade of stimuli fired right at your face and all you have to do to have an incredible time is notice it.
  • Japan’s still really hot, you guys. Still super humid out here. Just checking in.

Tokyo: Bright Lights, Drunk City

14 Jul

Tokyo is an enigmatic beast. Like the dragons of Shinto myth, it is huge, fierce, beautiful, and deadly. And by deadly I don’t mean to say it’s not safe – I mean if you want to die by alcohol poisoning, Tokyo would be pleased to help you with that.

With a population that swells to twenty million during the day, it’s bar none the largest and most densely packed city I’ve ever visited. You could spend a lifetime there and never even scratch the surface. Luckily, Kurisu and I had our friend and gracious host Mike to show us around, and he’s got a special talent for finding the diamonds in the rough. With decades of experience as a gaijin in the big city (and, it must be said, a not-inconsiderable amount of yennage to throw around), Mike was our smiling sherpa up a mountain of cool sights, incredible food, and a level of intoxication that was new even to this seasoned university arts graduate.

IMG_1615Kurisu and I had an afternoon to kill before meeting up with Mike, and we chose to spend it in Akihabara, Tokyo’s world-famous geek Nirvana. Jam-packed to the gills with hobby shops, arcades, hostess parlours, and every other purveyor of niche satisfaction you could imagine, it was a portal into a strange part of the Japanese psyche. I got yelled at more than once for taking pictures, and the reason didn’t take long to sink in: there’s a whole lot being sold in these places that they probably don’t want advertised. There’s a whole lot being sold in general – I have never seen so many tiny plastic things in my life! Squeezing through the aisles of one of these claustrophobic little nerd dens, with thousands of small colourful things so crammed in that they make it difficult to move, reminded me of something like Diagon Alley (where the shelves are so impossibly crowded that they must be held up by magic). And then you remember there are four more shops on top of this one. And eighteen more on this block alone. And then you realize that, once again, there just isn’t anything like this back home.

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I’m not sure I would advise zooming in too closely on any of those shelves.

IMG_1584Chris and I took this attitude to heart, and made it our mission to find a souvenir that was both delightfully nerdy and singularly Japanese. Being the avid gamer I am, I knew almost immediately what I wanted: a Super Famicom (which came to North America as the Super Nintendo, or SNES). It took us most of our evening and several detours – notably to a Japanese Denny’s – but we eventually found a second-hand video game shop, and by God, it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It was meticulously organized, gleamingly clean, lit with soft white halogens, and stacked floor-to-ceiling with gaming treasures. I walked over the threshold and felt like Indiana Jones in the map room. I was Leo on the Titanic’s prow. Seeing those shelves was a wave breaking over the sun shining on my heart. God, it was so awesome it destroyed my ability to use metaphor.

And I didn’t get any pictures.

You can imagine it though, right? I got the Super Famicom and some wicked Japanese games for a bafflingly low price, and walked out sad – not because it wasn’t exactly what I wanted (spoiler: it was), but because they were closing and I couldn’t shuffle around anymore, peering and sniffing and fondling like some frenzied museum patron. Then, it was arcade time.

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Yes, that’s a 180 degree display, surround sound, MECH PILOTING CAPSULE.

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Can something BE more Japanese than a Dance Dance Revolution-style taiko drum game that plays j-pop? THE ANSWER IS NO.

Oh mercy, the arcades. They’re like nightclubs – loud, smoky, and crowded – but instead of charged-up club hoppers, they’re filled with dead-eyed, chain-smoking youths and aging businessmen. They will sit there for hours, pumping coins into the cabinets, perfecting their Street Fighter technique against a never-ending rotation of opponents. Chris and I were defeated horribly at a Gundam game and only afterward realized we had our white boy asses handed to us not by the computer, but the schoolgirl at the end of the row. These people are just as zealous about their leisure time as they are about everything else, and the arcades of Akihabara are a perfect microcosm for that Japanese intensity.

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Our host, Maiku-san.

We finally met up with Mike and travelled to his place in Roppongi for our first night out. Roppongi is a fascinating place with a binary heart. There’s Roppongi Hills, Mike’s own stomping grounds, which he described as “the Japanese Hollywood”, full of steep hilly side streets, neatly packed apartments, stylish shops and cafes, and expensive cars; and then there’s Roppongi proper, which as one of Tokyo’s best-known bar districts is a wretched hive of scum and villainy if I ever saw one. We spent our night at two different places – I think, anyway; I distinctly remember a darts bar, a random encounter with some boisterous Americans, and finding a Rubik’s cube in my pocket – and made it home in time to pass out and recharge for the next’s day’s adventure.

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One of the things I knew I wanted to do even before I got to Japan was to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum. If you’re not familiar with the film company, their incredible work, or their visionary director/creator, Hayao Miyazaki, allow me to summarize with the following comparison: Miyazaki is to Japanese animation as Walt Disney is to Western animation. The scope and influence of these movies is almost unparalleled and the worlds they depict are fantastical, beautiful, and deeply emotional places to visit. So the museum seemed like a no-brainer for my trip.

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You can’t buy tickets at the door; you have to visit a specific combini (called Lawson’s) and purchase them at a machine, then exchange them at the door. Kurisu and I woke up and stumbled our way across town to Shibuya to find a Lawson’s and grab our tickets before heading to the museum in Mitaka. We found the combini we needed, and managed to navigate through the Japanese ticket machine, but we were soon to be met with crushing disappointment. They were sold out.

They were sold out. Sold out of tickets. This is a museum we’re talking about. And they were SOLD OUT FOR A MONTH SOLID. How is that even possible?? This isn’t a limited-time event at a limited-capacity venue, like a theatre performance or something! It’s A MUSEUM! COME ON!

I am continually lucky to have Kurisu as my host and guide, because at this point I probably would have just gone home in a huff and grumpily figured out something else to do. Ever the optimist, he advised that we head down anyway and see if they’d let us buy tickets at the door, and though our efforts were inevitably fruitless – we were spurned at the entrance like filthy vagrants – the journey into Mitaka was well worth it anyway.

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The Ghibli Museum is nestled in the embrace of a wondrous, sprawling park, several kilometres in girth and full of delightful diversions tucked away in the folds of lush greenery and water. Temples, shrines, shops, and open-air restaurants would appear every few hundred metres as you walked the path. The only downside was the heat, which was unlike anything I have ever experienced in its total domination of my body. Holy bejeebus it was hot. But it was also gorgeous.

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Alright, parts of it weren’t that gorgeous.

The evening that followed was easily the wildest night I’ve had in a very long time. After zipping up for an overpriced pilsner to the 24th floor of a fancy hotel (which afforded a great view of the city and the nearby Imperial Palace), we kept it going at a bar, and then a Chinese restaurant, and then Roppongi itself. The place is like a cyberpunk Mos Eisley and we streaked through it from top to bottom, starting at a bar tended by Maiku-san’s friend and ending…well, I know the sun was coming up when we got home. Further details are…fuzzy.

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I remember jumping up and down like a total idiot in some sweltering nightclub with locals pawing at me and screaming like I was some kind of Gaijin Lord of Dance. I’m told the place was called “Jumanji”, and I’m pretty sure there was a full-size Predator statue guarding the door. I’m also told that later, we were accosted by women who tried to literally drag us into their “massage cafe”. I don’t really have any pictures and to be honest I’m kind of glad, not only because taking my phone out of my pocket would have been a surefire way to lose it, but also because I don’t think I want the record of this trip to be like the end credits of The Hangover.

We got home all right, and made our way back to Nagoya the following day. We scraped through without major incident: no lost passports, no broken phones, and not a single yen wasted. It’s really remarkable how something so memorable can come out of something you can’t really remember. Thanks for the “memories”, Tokyo. It was a blast.

Things I’ve Learned So Far

  • Tokyo is chaos and glossy decadence. It’s loud and beautiful and full of people. It’s a staggering metropolis on a scale I’ve never seen, and likely never will again – that is, until I go back. Watch out, other “big cities” of the world – the bar has been set.
  • It’s key to have someone with you who knows their way around; I managed to avoid all the touristy claptrap and skip right to the city’s beating heart. I owe my incredible time in Tokyo entirely to Maiku-san and Kurisu, and without their guidance and expertise I would have been utterly lost in more ways than one. Kanpai, boys.
  • You can eat like a king on the cheap in this country. I have never, ever had food like this before, and I paid half of what I would have back home. We ate Japanese, Chinese, Singaporean, and Western, all of it was transcendentally good, and I stayed well under budget. If you’re ever in Tokyo, get the bakukte soup at Singapore Seafood Republic in Shinagawa. Trust me, dude. Change your life.
  • You don’t know perversion until you’ve visited a sex shop in Akihabara. Nevermind the items on sale – those places are bustling! Packed with people! You imagine a sex shop to be a seedy, shady, downcast place, tucked in the dark corner of some strip mall as if in embarrassment. Not in Japan, baby. Here they’re bright and loud and popular. Not exactly respectable, but there might as well be signs outside reading “WE’RE PERVERTED AND PROUD!” Well damn, it’s not like I can read the signs. Maybe there were?
  • Do yourself a favour: don’t go to Japan in July. Just don’t. Absolutely visit the country, as soon as possible – but come in the spring or fall, for God’s sake. It’s like Satan’s butthole out here.