Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Disappointment in Japan

Being let down in Japan is still pretty awesome. I’m sure my good Japan karma is going to run out soon, but I’m going to enjoy the heck out of it while it’s here. My big disappointment last week (3/15/08 - yes, I'm almost a week behind) was the canceled helicopter on my big heli-boarding debut :(

Apparently the avalanche danger was too great to go whisking skiers to mountaintops. I seriously thought about just bagging the trip because the ski report was not very good. However, I had already wasted my Friday night sleeping and getting up at 1AM to catch the bus so I figured I better just follow through with it. I’d already paid my $45 for the bus, plus there was mention of some rope-tow at the top of the mountain. So I grumpily boarded the bus and immediately went back to sleep.

The bus ride took about 5 hours, so we arrived about 7 or 7:30 before the lifts opened or anyone else was even there. Luckily the MWR (Navy recreation organization) guides spoke English really well and they were able to mostly guide us through the steps, not unlike those in the U.S. The big difference was the lift ticket. Not a ticket at all really, but an RFID tag that you put in your pocket and wave in front of the gate before you get on the lift. Pretty nifty!

I was still pretty grumpy about there being no helicopter and it was cold, damp and foggy outside. However, the weather forecast was for a great day, so I made up my mind to make the best of things. While waiting in line for the ticket counter to open I heard some of the Navy guys talking about backcountry and how upset they were that there was no helicopter trip so I butted in that I was indeed upset as well! After trying to make small talk for a while I straight out asked if I could tag along with them, maybe try to find some backcountry stuff to play around in.

Once that was out of the way and I had some skiing buddies it was off to the lifts! The first step was a gondola up the mountain. The ride was quiet and the trails were perfectly groomed so I was starting to get excited to try out my humongous 171cm rental board for some serious carving! At the top it was nearly impossible to see due to the fog, but we went for it anyway.

After a few runs we all declared the snow to be “the worst I’ve ever seen.” I can’t even describe the conditions, but apparently it had warmed, frozen, rained, melted, and frozen again overnight. I think they call it “variable spring conditions,” but I can think of a few other words that might describe it better. The snow was bad, the runs were boring and short, and there was no helicopter ☹ Luckily the sun was starting to come out!

Finally, we found the “top” of the mountain and took the 30 second run down to the next lift which was…. A CABLE CAR. Whee! Where does this go??? To the backcountry sir!
And to the backcountry we went.
The rest of the afternoon was spent with our jackets off huffing and puffing up the REAL mountain. The sun was shining, I was getting a workout, and the view was spectacular.

Of course it’s always better when you have to work for it, but just check out these pictures. After stopping a few times and having plenty of people pass us wearing snowshoes and carrying survival packs we reached the intermediate peak. Here I am with Rob and Kyle at the top.
Had we started earlier we could have perhaps actually summitted the mountain, but we were on a strict time schedule to meet the bus back to Yokosuka.
Instead, we relaxed a bit, caught some rays, and built a snowman.

The snow on top was perfect for snowballs and snowmen. If only we’d brought a lunch like the ladies in the background (who were extremely excited by our snowman - they took video of the entire process).

OK, enough down time, let’s do this thing! Here, if you look carefully, you can see the peak on the left and also my track through the trees. There will be more pictures, and even video later on. Kyle apparently got a good one of me jumping a ravine! I want to go into detail on the ride down because it was so much fun, but I’ll just say that the snow and terrain were fantastic. Between the view at the top and the ride down, I couldn’t have asked for more. Except maybe a helicopter… But whatever.

We made it down to the lodge with just enough time to change clothes, grab some food and make it to the bus. What an awesome day!

One more thing I have to say about the trip is to comment on Japanese rest areas. I wish we had anything even close to this in the U.S. Every rest area we went to (3 of them) had a full restaurant, quality convenience store, and really good fast food. The one we stopped at for dinner had a machine that would dispense a ticket that would eventually lead to someone behind a counter giving you the food you’d ordered. There was also authentic Indian food! The naan was great! Not a French fry or burger in sight. We made it back to Yokosuka around 10:30, at which time I fell into a deep sleep, not to awaken for 11 hours.

Sunday I felt awesome. I’d just climbed a Japanese mountain and now I had another beautiful day ahead of me. My coworker Bethany had invited me to a meetup in Tokyo so I decided to take her up on it. This would be my first experience with the train and seeing life outside Yokosuka.

The train was confusing to say the least. Now that I’ve done it a bunch more this past weekend, it’s not so bad. However, the first trip can be pretty daunting. Make sure you’re not on a schedule to get anywhere and you can probably figure it out. Luckily Bethany was pretty much dragging me through the process so I didn’t have to think at all. It just occurred to me that I don’t have any pictures relating to the train… I’m going to have to remedy that for a future post.

The meetup was interesting. There were lots of western folks, mostly from the U.S. but also from various other parts of the world. I met a great guy from Germany (Markus, who I hung out with in Tokyo last weekend) and two Americans, Greg and his friend Jeanna. The meetup was over around 6PM so we left to meet a friend of Bethany’s at an Irish pub in Shibuya.

Before that though we decided to grab some food. Greg has been in Japan for something like 9 years, so we considered him an expert. His level of Japanese really motivated me to learn more. I hate not being able to talk to people.
The night before St. Paddy’s day was fun, but unremarkable. There was an “Irish” band and the place was packed. It was kind of interesting being at an Irish Pub run by Japanese people, but anyway, Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

For the real St. Paddy’s day I didn’t have much in the way of plans. I ate some good sushi at a place that has already become a favorite and I headed out to one of the 2 Irish pubs in “The Honch." Almost immediately I made friends with a couple, whom I hung out with for a long while. They’ve been in Japan a few years and definitely seem to have good ideas for stuff to do. Here’s a picture of the 3 of us, Jason, Lora, and me. The photographer said something really funny, but I don’t remember now what it was ☺ We exchanged info and I hope to hang out with them again. I should probably send them an email this week. Someone remind me!

Man these posts are so long! I’m not done with the week yet though!

Wednesday night I headed out to a cafĂ© not far from my hotel that was advertising jazz. It was a piano trio with guitar and bass. They were all stellar musicians and I really enjoyed their song selections, though I don’t know any of them. I had just barely ordered some food when another gaijin walked in. He sat down at the musician’s table and just started throwing all kinds of Japanese around. We also talked for a bit. It turns out that he came to Japan to study the language and culture after being an eastern philosophy major in college. He’s been here ever since, working as a musician, actor, model (hehe) and general crazy man. He was very nice, and as you can see from the picture below, he gets a lot of modeling gigs as santa claus :)

He had been invited that night to play a few songs with the band and so was going to bust out his flute. Songs he played included “Girl from Yokosuka” sung to the tune of Girl from Ipanema and “Route Rokujuroku,” or Route 66.

Toward the end of the set, the piano player started playing the licks to “Tequila,” the song made famous to me by the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. The Japanese guy in the front row immediately shot out of his chair and went to his bag in the corner where he proceeded to pull out a bandana, roll it up, put it on, and dance like a crazy man! I actually got video of this, which I will post later. Here’s a snapshot of him gettin’ down.

Other adventures last week included the largest kaitenzushi (or sushi-go-round, as my coworkers call it) I’ve ever seen. Basically it’s an enormous conveyor belt that goes around the restaurant carrying all kinds of crazy raw fish. A bunch of people from work took a trip there last Thursday in the pouring rain. This place has amazing sushi (which I’ll talk more about next week) and a fun atmosphere. You can’t see it in this picture, but we must have had 50 plates! When you’re finished you stick your plates in a slot at the end of the table and for every 10 plates you put in you get to play a game! We actually won twice!

Alright, I want to say thank you to everyone that has written comments. They seriously keep me going, just knowing that people are actually reading this. Feel free to make suggestions… Am I rambling? More pictures of something? And yes, there are vending machines EVERYWHERE. So far they only sell drinks though…

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for:

Friday, March 14, 2008

Back to Elementary School

So I just finished my first week of work in Yokosuka. It's still feeling great to be here, but I've already seen some things that are going to get old. First I'll write about the rest of my weekend.
Saturday night Paul and I ventured back out to see our friends. When we got there, no one we knew was there except the proprietors. No problem. We ordered a bunch of otsumami (small food plates) and a couple Chuhi (choo-high, a drink made with shochu and fruit juice) and settled in. There was another group there, apparently celebrating a birthday.
Then, one by one, our friends started to arrive and the fun ramped up. After a week here, I've realized that knowing at least a little bit of Japanese really helps to get things going. I hope I learn enough before I leave.
The food we ordered was fantastic. Apparently it is not traditional Japanese food, but more of a fusion of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Thai. The chef uses his own recipes, so this is literally the only place in the world to get it. Now that it's been almost a week I can't remember everything we had, but each dish contained a meat (except the tofu kimchee!) in a sauce with some type of vegetable, which we ate with rice. I guess next time I'm going to have to take pictures so I can share some with you.

We were just about to ask where the fish was, when out came a fried whole fish! True to his word, our friend (I'll call him "Toshi." I'm terrible with remembering names and the Japanese names are even worse) brought fish for everyone to eat. Not just our group, but all three groups got one!

That's Toshi in the back making a fish face. His fishing buddy Hiro is doing the Japanese classic "peace" sign.

Here's the proud fisherman kissing his catch. He then proceeded to literally bite the head off. TOSHI, you crazy kid!

Next, all kinds of people started appearing out of nowhere behind us. After a while we started asking what was going on and it turns out the entire 2nd floor is tatami mats and tables for group parties. After everyone left we went up (took our shoes off) and checked it out. They have this neat setup for serving food where the hostess uses a step built into the wall and appears in a little doorway near the floor:
Anyway, I think it's safe to say that I'll be back to this place. Amazing food and super friendly people. I want to catch up with my Japanese a bit though. The lady behind the counter speaks some English as does the girl behind my head in the photo. She's visited Seattle and actually works on base at the Starbucks and at the hospital.
Before we left I was encouraged to try to say "happy birthday" (tanjobi omedeto) to the woman in the other party. After which she said "you study hard." Hmmm.... remarking or requesting? At any rate, when we left the entire place turned to say goodbye.

Sunday I got up early (for a weekend anyway) and went for a bike ride with two co-workers, Patrick and Dwayne. It was a gorgeous day and they took me down south on the peninsula and then in toward the mainland along the coast. The headwind was a little ridiculous and I haven't ridden a bike for distance since highschool! It all came back to me though ;)
We were running late to meet Dwayne's wife at soccer practice so we took what I later found out to be a famous "Dwayne shortcut." We went through a completely residential area with narrow streets and a very steep hill. At first I was thinking "this better be a good shortcut," but when we reached the top I was excited to see that the entire hilltop was covered with farmland and we could see Mt. Fuji in the distance. I wish I had pictures to show you, but I had left my camera at home, not wanting to lose it or have it weigh me down. I won't make that mistake again! Patrick had his camera, but I haven't gotten the pics from him yet. I'll edit this post when I do.
Bottom line: it was an amazing experience to ride through the fields on these narrow little roads, inspecting each of the crops. I will say that I have never seen a garden (much less a crop) this meticulously groomed. I couldn't spot a single weed, just dirt and whatever vegetable was being grown. Simply awe inspiring.
After we breezed down the hill, on the way to pick up Dwayne's wife, we stopped for water and a snack at a seaside store (like a 7-11). While taking our break we looked up and saw another hilltop with a giant Buddha statue and pagoda on the top. Little did I know that we would be climbing yet another, steeper hill to check this out.
After picking up Dwayne's wife we trucked all the way back to get on top of this even steeper hill. It was so steep we all had to walk our bikes up.
Again, the pictures will have to wait, but the view from up there was amazing. This was some sort of cemetary, complete with crematorium. Here's a picture from a different temple hilltop that is similar to what we saw.
I'm surprised at how well I did on this relatively long bike ride. The last hill home was pretty killer, but I wasn't even all that sore the next day. I think there will be more rides in the future.

So I mentioned earlier that there will be things that get old. One of these being "mystery dinner." It's sort of impossible to avoid. At some point you will walk into a place where there is absolutely no english to be found. There are a couple scenarios here and I'll tell you about my two experiences this past week.
Wednesday night I went out looking for a bowl of noodles in broth. I didn't care what else was in it, I just wanted something hot. So I walked into this random place and immediately realized it was going to be interesting. No English except my own. I knew that "soba" meant a type of noodle, so when looking at the menu with the waiter who was trying very hard to be helpful, I said "soba." He started saying all kinds of things to me in a questioning manner and all I could do was shrug. At some point I just said "hai!" Then, I used my phrasebook to say "omakase shimas" which means basically "please decide for me." He said one word I could understand, which was "fish" so I said "hai!" Oh well, at least the beer was cold, eh?
In a few minutes he brings out the first of my food, some excellent maguro, or tuna sashimi (raw fish). Not bad! Certainly no noodles in broth, but it was excellent like all the sashimi and sushi I've had so far. Then the next items come out. A bowl of steamed mussels and a plate of cold soba noodles with some fishy smelling broth to dip them in. eh, ma ma. or, it's ok, but not for me. My total came to $46...
The second experience that will inevitably happen to the English speaker in Japan is the 2-dinner affair. In other words, you have to watch out how many times you say "hai!" because every time you say yes, they will order what was just said. In my case, I got some excellent sashimi maguro (of course) and beautifully prepared salmon, grilled bone-in. Or whatever you call it.

I was out with a shipyard contractor I met at the hotel (which they call the "frat house Yokosuka") that night and on the way home we stopped at a little cafe that was advertising "japanese folk music." The first two bands we saw were playing covers of American music. One guy did Eric Clapton, the other some CCR and miscellaneous classic rock. Not quite the folk music I expected. however, eventually the "main act" came on and we heard some music that was finally sung in Japanese. I don't know what folk music means really, but I imagined it to be something other than guitar, piano, and a cuban box drum (cajon). It was fun to listen to and again, the people were very nice. I was encouraged to come back again when one of the audience members would be playing. He does bob dylan and the beatles. I also got an invite to check out the eric clapton guy's own club a little ways out of town. I'm not sure when I'll make it there, but it would be fun to go. They at least spoke enough English to converse.
At the end of the show the place turned into a free-for-all jam session. Dean (my contractor friend) wanted to play the cajon. Here are some pics of him gettin' down in Yo-town. I forget what song they were singing, but I think it was probably Dylan.

So the title of this post is "Back to Elementary School." I'm getting tired and have to get up at midnight to catch a bus to go heli-boarding, but I had intended to write about my experience beginning to learn the Japanese language. My book says there are over 4,500 Kanji characters that are considered essential for everyday use! I have no idea how anyone can master that, but I'm starting with the more phonetic systems of Hiragana and Katakana. I go to class twice a week and the sensei is the nicest lady I've ever met. Right along with the owner of my favorite restaurant :) The class is called Kumon. Many thanks to Ruben and Patrick for getting me into it my first week.
Kumon is a style of learning and many things are taught at Kumon, math and language being the primary subjects. It is basically learning through repetition. Here's a shot of my workbook.
If you thought my English handwriting was bad, you should check out my Hiragana skills. Yikes. Suffice it to say, Sensei compliments my pronunciation, not my handwriting.
The class is really great though, and I'm already recognizing characters when I'm out and about and beginning to sound out words.

I had two other learning experiences this week that perhaps I will write about later. They both happened Thursday, which is also Kumon class, and by the end of the day I was exhausted. Each experience could be a blog post in itself, but you're probably tired of reading this anyway. If you even made it this far.
First was my "negotiating" with the Project Engineer and another Engineer from the Japanese construction firm that built the building I'm managing. Imagine a negotiation where the other party can have a "closed-door" meeting right in front of you.

Second was a "Go" class I attended. Go is an ancient game that is also considered one of the world's most fascinating games. It's apparently huge in Japan. I will be attending again in two weeks and perhaps write more about it then.

To answer a question from last time:
There is plenty of pizza on the base (most of it not so good), but there is also an amazingly good NY style pizza place across the street from my hotel. The pizza is $5 a slice, or $46 for a pie. All the ingredients have to be imported! It's pretty darn good though.

Thanks for all the comments. I like to see that people are paying attention ;) How about some healthy discussion!?!

Random picture time!!!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

First week

Man it's hard to eat rice with chopsticks!
I have no idea where to start writing about what an amazing experience I'm having right now. I know a lot of people are curious about some specific details so I'll just kind of list them out right now.
-I'm in Yokosuka, Japan. It's a (surprise!) navy town about 65km south of Tokyo. The population is somewhere around 400,000 people, which is living in the sticks as far as the Japanese are concerned. The train takes about an hour to Tokyo or 30mins to Yokohama. I was disappointed to find out that the trains don't run very late, so if I'm going to spend any time in either of those places it's going to be during the day on the weekends or I'll have to get a hotel.
-The plane ride wasn't bad at all. I watched in-flight movies the whole time. I only spent maybe an hour at the most listening to my ipod or reading. Which is kind of too bad because I spent a lot time putting good stuff on my ipod and had intended on reading enough to be an expert on Japan before I got there. C'est la vie.
-Customs sucked. I didn't get the paperwork on the plane (was I sleeping??) and so every step of the way was a bit stressful. In retrospect it was totally fine though.
-Since the DoD hooked up a daily bus service, getting to the base was a piece of cake. But man was I tired when I got here. At that point I had been traveling for 13 hours. Ruben (the guy I took over for) was awesome and picked me up from the bus stop, showed me to my hotel, and took me out to dinner.
-Everyone here is great. The people I work with, other people on the base, the Japanese people are amazingly friendly and helpful. Being here is just such a great feeling.
-The hotel room is not as small as people made them out to be. Perhaps there are other ones and I'm just lucky, but it's totally fine. With the hotel room I get internet, laundry service, pay-per-view, breakfast, and 3 drink tickets every day for the bar downstairs. Probably the best part of the hotel room is the bidet. I never used one before, but after hearing people talk about how much they like it I went ahead and gave it a shot. Literally. There is a knob you can use to adjust the "intensity" to get just the result you're looking for. And the water is warm!

So I've been going out to eat every night as my hotel room only has a fridge and a microwave. Not too bad though because you can get really light food here. Lots of fish, rice, noodles, etc.

Of course I've already had pizza twice now in an effort to make friends with other people on the base. It's cool and so is everyone here.

You can find me in this picture by looking for the hair.

I really enjoy the restaurant experience here. Excellent personalized service, great food, and if you're lucky there will be a group of Japanese people singing karaoke! Man they love it. I didnt realize how much, but you can find karaoke at any time of the day or night. One night we got persuaded to join in with a group.

We didn't commingle too much, but it would be very easy to just jump in and make some friends. Do you think this guy really went to "MICHGAN COLLEGE"?

Last night I went out with a co-worker and buddy from Seattle, Paul. I got sick of "The Honch" or Navy Row real quick, so we ventured out deeper into the city. We ended up in a totally random residential neighborhood and after a couple tries found a restaurant where some kids were hanging out. The place is run by a husband/wife team and they are the nicest people ever. We hung out there for a good couple hours and got invited back for dinner tonight. If I understood correctly, one of the guys was going fishing today and will bring back some fish that the owners will cook for everyone. Zoinks Scoob!

On the way home Paul and I stopped at a Ramen stand for a midnight snack. The proprietor was funny and the Noodles were good, but a little pricey.

Apparently we also met the town drunk.

Today i spent the day wandering around the city. I've traveled quite a bit and one of my favorite things to do in a new place is spend a day walking around it. I'm amazed at how many little restaurants there are here! I stopped at a gourmet coffee shop and I'm absolutely no connoiseur, but it was fantastic coffee. I made the extra special effort of busting out my phrasebook to tell the owner how much I liked it.

Here's your random image for the day: