Sunday, May 30, 2010

And I enjoy my gaijin bubble, thank you very much.

Good morning

When we went to Utsunomiya the other day (monkey waiter town), Arianna told me a story she heard about an intrepid gaijin intern at NTT from a while back. Apparently he was all about traveling around Japan, but didn't want to pay the fortune associated with a ride on the shinkansen bullet train. So in true smasher fashion, every single time he would go to the ticket gates, explain in rapid-fire English that he had left luggage on the other side, then get lost in the crowd and head to the train he wanted. On shinkansen there are unreserved seats for those who buy tickets last minute and don't reserve a seat, and apparently these are checked by ticket-checkers en route much much less often. Combine that with the gaijin repulsion and you've got an surefire way of getting across the country with zero cost. On his way out of his destination station he'd just plow through the ticket gates and walk nonchalantly away as only a gaijin can.

So sometime later that day, after returning the rental car and paying Yoichi for his services, I said goodbye and headed to my station. I then found myself in front of the ticket gates with 30 yen on my Suica card (the trains ride I needed was 150 yen), no cash in my wallet (a serious mistake in Japan) at midnight (ATMs and ticket desks are closed at this time).

For a second I thought "Shit guys, I'm going to have to walk home. And I have no idea how far it is on foot or where to go."

Then I just walked through the gate, got on my train, got off my train, walked out of one gate and then into another, got on another train, then finally plowed through the Aobadai gate, my home station. When you walk through a gate these paddles come up to block you and it beeps loudly. Its easy to push through them, they are hardly rigid, but the thing beeps for 5 seconds or so and doesn't let people through in this time. While I was gaijin smashing my way home, the gates were always packed with people going through at a frantic pace, and they were understandably confused when a loudly beeping gate blocked their passage. Everyone obviously realized what I did but no one rose to the occasion to inform me of my transgression. Thanks Japanese people for minding your own business and not saying a word.

In some cities (Venice and their vaporetto water buses and Milan's extensive streetcar system), its common for people not to buy tickets and just jump on the public transit. This is most definitely not the case in Tokyo, as there really isn't an excuse to not have a Suica card and the transport is pretty cheap. Saving a bit of money by doing this all the time is tempting, but not worth it I think. Maybe for shinking, but definitely not intra-Tokyo transit.


English graffiti in Japan. I hardly ever see Japanese graffiti. But there is no way that gaijins are doing this stuff. Weird.

Short rant on the so-called "Gaijin bubble" if you don't mind. Some foreigners here (nipponophiles all) are of the opinion that unless you're sleeping on tatami, eating nothing but Japanese food, reading Japanese manga and newspapers, trying to speak only Japanese, associating only with Japanese people, watching only Japanese TV and fucking DREAMING only in Japanese, you're not getting the full experience and Japan is being 'wasted' on you. They say that going out with English speakers, keeping some western food on hand, preserving some of your cultures features like pillows and Nutella, reading western news and books and generally keeping in touch with home is forming a "gaijin bubble" around yourself, separating yourself from Japanese people and culture, and effectively ruining your stay.

To these people, I say: 먹어 딕. I enjoy my gaijin bubble.

Some May updates.

Well after that somewhat subtly somber note, lets move on, shall we?

Yesterday myself, a few gaijin NTT folk (there are newbie Canadians there now, and one old-timer stubbornly remaining) and one nihonjin NTT guy (Yoichi) rented a car and headed up to Utsunomiya, a smallish town about 2.5 hours north of Tokyo. This area is known for some of the best gyoza (dumplings) in Japan, some awesome caves that doubled as super secret and shielded aircraft factories during WWII and also is home to the monkey waiter restaurant that I blogged about ages ago.

My new Canadian friend Shaun brought a fancy camera and filmed about 20 minutes of monkey waiters while were were at かやぶき (kayabuki). So when I get these videos in my hands, they will most definitely get a post of their own. But for now lets just say that the mommy monkey really had it out for me. I had an extremely disturbing experience of an angry hissing monkey alternating staring and baring its teeth at me, skillfully trying (and succeeding) to untie the leash that kept her from attacking me, and running around a corner to check whether his owner was coming back to retie it. Savage intelligence, guys. Savage. The owner tied a 6x coral knot to restrain the monkey, and it got down to the last one (giving me killer and troublingly human glances all the while) before we managed to get the owner's attention and get him to take it away for a breather.

The gyoza were fantastic (as fantastic as dumplings can be, anyway), and probably worth the hour wait outside the tiny little place we went to. The caves were really impressive and sprawling, obviously reminiscent of the dwarven mines of Moria (from Lord of the Rings).

On the work front, my original contract with my collaborators has long since dissolved through inaction on their part, up for possible renewal in the month of July. After a very long waiting period, my boss has just told me to do what I want, and I've decided to depart from the project I've beek working on, having deemed it irredeemably flawed from the premise. Click dendrimers have a fundamental patterning conflict due mostly to steric hinderance with the large organic Cu(I) radical stabilizing group and the inherently cramped quarters of growing dendrimers convergently.

So I've switched to the tried and true PAMAM (polyamidoamine) dendrimer superstructure for my stuff, preliminarily this doesnt seem to be behaving the same way, but I think its a different problem than before. I'm probably too used to the easy stoichiometric nature of a "click" reaction and having to rely on this lame and low yield Michael addition/methanol condensation is a drag. Agents exist to push these reactions to the right, but I'm no organic chemist, and my boss is no help at all. Tam taught me that divergent synthesis isn't the way to go, perhaps I should have listened to him. But I think my system is such that I can make it work. Being able to manipulate your product easily and separate them magnetically has its advantages. Column chromatography for separation of incompletely reacted species sucks, ladies and gentlemen.

As I said, I've been working on this stuff without any help or direction from my supervisor. He has a new project now, but its a lame catalyst modelling thing that hes all depressed about. And he doesn't get any data until October, so hes pretty much just twiddling his thumbs. Seriously, this guy actually told me that he was feeling really depressed lately, and apologized to me. He also leaves before 6pm every day, which is ridiculous for a Japanaman. I'm really kinda worried about him doing the seppuku. Seriously folks.

Today I went to KFC and gorged, as I do every once in a while. Whenever I order an 8 piece bucket "kochira de onegaishimasu" (for here), they always question me whether I actually want it for here, and whether I'm eating it alone. At this point I switch to rapidfire english and say "isn't this the country with the world record for hot dog eating? yes I want it for here goddamnit".

On my way home picked up some chocolate and a drink at a konbini.

Pepsi BAOBAB. A new and exciting drink from Pepsi. Japan only, o'course.

See here for a culinary review of this stuff. Its brand new (released May 25th), I bought it because I hadn't seen it before at my konbini. Its really refreshing and tastes pretty citrusy. I really don't much like Coke and Pepsi, but this stuff reminds me much more of Jones soda.

Apparently this Baobab fruit puts the nutritional value of pomegranate and cranberry and acai to shame. Jones should totally market a Baobab flavoured soda. You heard it here first, folks.

A note on my hiatus.

Hello everyone-

After receiving an appreciated and unexpected amount of inquiries into my physical, emotional and spiritual (?) condition and my reasons for not updating this blog, I've decided to return. I know its been three hard weeks without me, but you'll recover.

My time in Japan certainly hasn't been a cake walk, and as I may have said before, not everything is sugar and spice and everything nice. It must be stated that the purpose of this blog is not so much to enlighten you, my readers, to the ups and downs of this time and let you live vicariously through me while I experience the adventure that is Nippon. Rather it is to serve as a reminder to me, a record of my stay that I can look back on in the more "normal" and domestic times to come after my return. I am of the opinion that if at all possible, this record should not be truly representative of my stay here, but instead heavily skewed towards the good things that happen, the things I'd like to remember. The more trying experiences will no doubt endure in their own way regardless, as changes in my personality, priorities and worldview. However in my experience after returning from a trip like this, all memories tend to fade and gain a not-quite-real and dream-like quality fairly quickly. The memories preserved in this blog will shape my thoughts and memories of this experience, so why not censor what I can?

So to summarize, in writing this blog I find myself in a position to artificially shape my future opinion by writing the history of this trip, and I fully intend to make it look good. Those readers in the know are probably fully aware that lying to oneself is much easier than one would expect. So I will rely on the enormous human ability to double-think to prevent my conscious knowledge of this plan to affect its positive outcome.

That is why I haven't posted in three weeks.

An unrelated lolcat.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A visit to a fashionable district of Tokyo

No, I'm not talking about Harajuku or Ginza (two major touristy and high end shopping districts in Tokyo). Today I went to some area I've never been to (a stop down from Omotesando, near Aoyama, if you must know) and just walked around.

I call it a fashionable district because I found an awesome T-shirt store there. They had all kinds of t-shirts of wildly varying subject matter. The sections in this store included, but were not limited to:

-Mickey Mouse
-Minnie Mouse (Yes, each got their own section)
-All Other Disney Characters
-Dragon Ball Z
-Dragon Ball AF (What is this? Super saijin 5 chichi-bulma-goku's ghost triple fusion dance?)
-Peanuts (Charlie Brown)
-Many many Animes that I don't recognize. Most of the store was this, actually
-"Eigo no T-shatsu" or "English T-shirts" Insurance companies, beachfront property managers, nonsensical Philosophical epigrams, etc.
-Brand names (Coca Cola, Pepsi, Kelloggs, Sanyo, etc.)
-Hello Kitty (of course)
-Star Wars (nothing very original here, too bad. Thinkgeek is better.)

Notable exceptions include:

-Pandapple
-Star Trek (see below)

Anyway today two sections were on sale really cheap, namely Mickey Mouse and Peanuts.

So I bought some. My plunder:

I laughed hard when I read this one. Obviously no one will appreciate it here, but I forsee it being a bit hit when I go back home. Partially because of the back side:

I considered getting this shirt for Mickey, but decided none would fit him. (They only had up to large. I bought the large.)

Woodstock is yellow, isn't he? I got this shirt because its simple and I don't understand it, which makes it funny.

I always liked Felix. Relax and Enjoy!

Yah, high fives all around. Spence - if you want DBZ merch, lemme know. Dan - if you want something terribly Japanese/Anime/Manga related on a T-shirt, lemme know. Mickey - if you want me to strong arm these guys into making a 4XL of the Mickey shirt, lemme know.

Oh in a somewhat related note. While Nipponese-watching at a local Starbucks establishment, I saw a guy wearing this shirt:

I'm pretty sure he was an employee at the flower shop next door. I only got this image by Googling "I am a motherfucker"+shirt. Is it possible he didn't know what it meant? Dunno. Awesome anyway. He was wearing super, super tight lime great plaid pants btw.

Also while Nipponese-watching I saw some girl with a (rather tight and slightly too small for her) T-shirt that just said "A Rack" on her uh.. rack. Keep it classy, Japan. I quickly tried to Google this shirt, but couldn't find it readily. You'll have to imagine.

Who else wants this on a T-shirt? Or maybe a poster for the QNC cleanroom lab or something.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod

Today I went into a (fairly) western bar and upon looking at their drinks menu, ordered a Duncan MacLeod. I was drawn to this drink partially, but not entirely because it was the only one not written in kana on the menu. The barkeep of the place was Japanese, as were most of the cliental, so I was pretty surprised to see a reference to the popular 90s TV show "Highlander" in such an establishment.

I watched Highlander quite a bit when I was younger, its a pretty great show, with the main character being a 400 year old Scottish clansman named Duncan MacLeod who is a member of a subrace of immortals, roaming around, cutting off other immortal's heads (outside of holy ground only) in order to absorb their "life force" in a "quickening".

Duncan MacLeod looking pretty badass with his katana.

So onto the drink. I asked the barkeep, and I'm pretty sure its equal parts Coca Cola, Scotch Whiskey and Shochu (a Japanese distilled beverage, not to be confused with the Korean homophone, soju) served on the rocks with some sugar to sweeten it up. It wasn't really any good, in fact I don't know if I would order it again (well, other than for the pure awesomeness factor), but I looked it up when I got back home and of course its got a story behind it.

Duncan MacLeod wondered around renaissance Europe mostly as a soldier for hire for a while after his first death in 1622, but in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo he found an immortal Roman general named Darius who had vowed to never fight again, bla bla. Anyway, Mac decided to chill for a while and went to the East to figure himself out. He studied martial arts in China and Japan (remind anyone of another immortal I know of? one with some claws, maybe?), which is where he met some samurai named Hideo, where he got an awesome katana and a Japanese sword-fighting style.

Wow, tangential and fictional. Anyway, in the series, Duncan MacLeod is a Scottish clansman, being played by a British actor (Adrian Paul) who fights with a Japanese sword. So as a drink the Duncan MacLeod is equal parts Scotch (Scottish, duh), Coca Cola (British... maybe? Seems more American, but whatever), and Shochu (Japanese).

The sugar is probably added just to make the drink barely palatable.

P.S. During my research, I found a drink with an unpalatability matched only with its offensiveness to Japanese sensibilities: The Nog-a-sake (equal parts Sake and Egg nog, of course). I think you can figure out the pun yourself.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Birthday Festivities in T-dot

Very tired at the moment, so only the highlights right now, cats and kittens. The destination was Tokyo (more specifically Shibuya ward) for my birthday festivities. We went to Kujira-ya (awesome whale meat restaurant) for the main course, and then back to the Lock Up izakaya (see my previous post with Nikki's Lock Up experience) for drinks and apres diner goodness.

I forgot my camera, unfortunately. I really seem to do this a lot, so I didn't get many good pictures, having only my cell phone camera at the time. I got zero pictures from the whale restaurant, which was lame. They had a great, short and to the point sign right at their entrance boldly proclaiming "WHALE MEAT ONLY". You know you're at the right place when you see this.

We had lean whale sashimi (as opposed to blubber sashimi. ick), whale blubber bacon, tempura whale, fried whale, and whale steaks. Along with rice for everyone. We all agreed the teriyaki whale steak was by far the best (followed by the fried whale, which looks like its encased in salt), and if we ever go again, we will just buy a bunch of whale steaks. mmmmmmmmm. I also want to taste the caudal fin special. No word on what kind of whales these were, but they tasted intelligent.

There was quite a wait at the izakaya, so we grabbed some pre-game Starbucks at the busiest Starbucks in the world (but not nearly as busy as the SLC Tim Hortons) and headed back. Unfortunately in the interim we lost a bunch of people to late night cross-Japan trips and picnicking plans. But we were ready to sojourn on.

I told them it was my birthday, so I got the VIP treatment with visits from monsters and murderers and everything. Plus some free cake with a sparker, yay!

One of my drinks. It came with a pipette and everything! No dry ice in this one though. :(

Lars injecting his alcohol right into his veins. Hardcore.

Arianna got a litre of beer in a massive graduated cylinder.

We picked this plate to munch on just by looking at the pictures. Turns out it was fried chicken joints. Ugh.

These capsules were so tempting we had to order them. I tried asking the waiter what they were, but all he said was "Spirit Capsules". Skkketttcchh.

We opened one beforehand to figure out whats in them. Tasted like very very potent food-coloured Whiskey or something. It had an alcohol rating of three skulls on the menu, but theres no way it could be that strong, even that amount of pure ethanol isn't much.

This one was wayyy stronger. Just called "Blue Spirit" on the menu, we cooled it and then did shots out of the test tubes. Arianna complained that test tubes were less than ideal vessels for shooting out of.

At one point the lights went off (and black lights went on), followed by an invasion by monsters and murderers and stuff into our cell. Awesomely, this ended by playing the "Ghostbusters" theme song repeatedly and having a bunch of scantily clad "police-ladies" running around with cap guns shooting all the monsters.

My birthday cake with my slave name on it (Bureiku).

On the way back to Shibuya station. These "Who is my boss?" docomo ads are all over the place suddenly. They feature Darth Vader speaking Japanese in the commercials, and its fantastic. There are three or four massive (10+ storey) TVs surrounding this intersection, and docomo has their Vader ad on all of them at once.

While waiting for my train, found more of these. BTW, they point towards this website (docomo-1-1.jp). Here you can put your name in katakana (no English accepted, sorry. ブレイクファロー is mine), then take a picture of yourself with your webcam (click the webcam button), then keep clicking the orange "Next"/"I accept" button until you get to a video. Then enjoy.

Ad on the train back home. Its business time.

After the last train into my home station for the night, these two guys were practicing their break dancing infront of the mirrored windows of one of the stores. Well, the one on the left was breakdancing (fairly well), but the guy in yellow was just watching himself shake his hips. While passers-by watched in awe and disgust.

Thanks Arianna, I shall treasure this symbol of all that I hate in Japan.

Thanks Lars for liberating the 1-litre graduated cylinder/pitcher from the izakaya. You so sneaky.