Tokyo Pt 4: Party Time

PART 4: Party Time

Tokyo Skyline


The ride home from Ghibli was a lonesome one, but not necessarily in a bad way. I had time to reflect on my day and the walk back to the station was quite exciting. The station itself had a series of boutique coffee and fashion stores built right into the concrete foundation of the elevated tracks. I wanted to go inside, but I still didn't have any cash so what good would it have done me? There was a super cozy grocery store which I rummaged through, and a quick jaunt past the station landed me at a 7/11, which are a big deal in Japan., mercifully there was an ATM there that could read my card and I got some cash! Though I have no idea what the international ATM fee was and I have no desire to find out. I also walked past a casino/pachinko house. I saw a number of them on my travels, and they looked just about as depressing as any gambling joint in the states. I hot-footed it back to the station and got on the train. 

My car was empty save the one dude down at the end. So my ride home was even more relaxing then the way there. Being on the train alone, I took the opportunity to snap some pictures of some of my favorite advertisements:

These Asahi beer commercials just made me happy. I'm not sure why. Also, if any of you were wondering about vending machines in Japan this is what they look like:

I like many of you have heard the tallest of tales of buying sex toys (most notably edible panties), weapons and other miscellaneous contraband from vending machines in Japan. But the only ones I ever saw were these. Purveying simple beverages and nothing more. I was slightly disappointed. You will notice a definitive lack of Coca-Cola or other sugary drinks. The Japanese seem to favor green tea, milk tea, and coffee over all things else. Apparently the corn industry hasn't sunk their claws into Japan the way they have here. No high-fructose corn syrup for them!

I made it back to Yoyogi with just enough time to chill at Merrick's before an evening of merriment began. We planned a dinner with Kevin and Trevor, though Trevor didn't end up making it. Not unlike the pancakes I had in Korea, "okonomiyaki" was on the docket for dinner that evening. The Japanese equivalent of "bindaedduk." So off we went into Roppongi for dinner. 

Not stellar photography I know but I thought it was worth sharing these pictures in particular because of the Hello Kitty fence posts and Kevin's sweet boyish face. I'm not sure if Merrick or Kevin frequent this place but it ended up being an interesting culinary endeavor. The restaurant was tiny and had maybe six tables. The seating along the far side of the wall was communal however, so when the place got packed (which it did) people ended up sitting on top of each other. The table itself was a griddle and after we ordered our food, what was delivered wasn't a finished pancake but rather a thick goopy batter with tons of ingredients crammed inside. This was promptly dumped on the griddle and we waited in lip-smacking anticipation for it to cook. A few minutes later we flipped them over, and soon after we began scarfing it all down. There were three different types, all of them were pretty delish. There was also a variety of sauces to dip into and several pints of Sapporo to wash it all down with. 

It should be noted here, though I liked Sapporo in the states, Japanese Sapporo makes American Sapporo taste like piss water. There was a good 2 inches of foam at the top of the pint glass, which gave me a healthy beer mustache as I drank it down, and to my surprise it was smooth, creamy, and simultaneously crisp. It tasted more like a root beer float or something...hints of creamy vanilla in there. So awesome. 

All was going well until a drunken rabble piled into the restaurant, just like in the movies. They were loud, irreverent, disrespectful, and totally wasted. I found this very off putting but the waitress didn't bat an eyelid. Roppongi on a Thursday night...? This was probably nothing to her. Nevertheless I found it cosmically amusing (though I wasn't amused at the time) that the most inebriated idiot of the group sat himself down right next to Merrick at an empty table for four. Later more of his friends came and sat down with him, but at the time it looked like he deliberately sat there just to start some shit. Which he did...or maybe I did. 

The truth is, I have an extremely short fuse for drunken dummies and always have. The look on my face must have been somewhere between disgust and repulsion. And seeing as those are basically the same thing you can imagine I did not look pleased. Our new drunken companion noticed this quite quickly and a tension started to grow between us immediately. Was this the moment that I get into a brawl with a knackered Japanese man? Read on...

So I'm trying my damnedest to  ignore this asshole but he keeps sticking his head into our conversation, and I do mean that literally. Time and time again he put his physical head into Merrick's airspace about 3 or 4 times before he started opening his mouth and letting whatever drivel start pouring out of it. 

He looked at me but was speaking to Merrick, "sdkjfdkjf xkjdndo sdjkngrun KAWAII dfkjnkjd asdfkjndfk" The only word I picked out was KAWAII which means "cute" or "pretty" in Nihongo. This pissed me way the eff off. I pretended not to hear him, but tension was mounting and despite our best efforts to continue our own conversation, this butt hole kept interrupting and saying something about, "djkdnkjaoiwn KAWAII alknfijijeflk." I could tell he didn't actually think I was "cute" but rather trying to be extremely condescending. 

Merrick begins engaging with the man and tries to calm him down saying, "no no no, he's a nice guy...he's a nice guy..."

This confused me and it seemed to confuse the dumb guy too...why would Merrick say that when he was calling me cute? Meanwhile I was reaching a fever pitch and I honestly didn't think I could hold out much longer with this asshole making fun of me to my face. Merrick again consoles the man, "no no no he's nice he's nice." This seems to appease the moron and he tried to give me a high five or some bullshit. From there he seemed to let it all slide and he begins barking inanities into Merrick's face. Soon it was discovered that everyone at the table was 32 years old, a factoid that brought this buffoon great amounts of excitement. His friends finally came in and filled up his table, and it was clear they too, were quite used to his ridiculous behavior. One of his friends condescendingly slapped him in the face when he wouldn't leave us alone. 

Finally by the end of the meal, we were teaching him how to give American style fist bumps and we were all friends. Alls well ended well, or however the saying goes. As soon as we left I began ranting and raving about what an asshole he was and I told my friends I couldn't believe he would keep calling me kawaii like that. Merrick then corrected me and told me he didn't say KA-WA-EE, he said KO-WA-EE  which means something entirely different if not the opposite. Kowai means SCARY. Suddenly I was no longer offended but somewhat pleased...even if he was just trying to pick a fight, he did say I looked scary. 

This wouldn't be the last time I struggled with people using the words kawaii, kowai, and later, kakkoi. As they are all similar in pronunciation, and hard to understand in a flurry of other information. 

We walked onward into the night, straight into the heart of Tokyo's "pleasure district"!

To see it, Roppongi looks just like any other busy Tokyo neighborhood. Lots of folks walking around, bright lights, busy nightlife etcetera etcetera. What separates Roppongi from others is the number of people approaching you, trying to jive you into their various strip clubs, touch bars, burlesque houses, and massage parlors. There were three types of these "hype-men" that I encountered. The Japanese guy trying to pawn his fellow country-women on to creeper foreigners, the miscellaneous south-east Asian woman asking if you would like a "special massage", and most interesting, many many Africans. Kevin tells me back in the 80s or early 90s many Africans were coming over for engineering work, for skilled and educated jobs. But when the market crashed they started opening their own clubs and night spots. Obviously I paraphrase here but a fascinating story nonetheless. Kevin also regaled us with his own story about getting ruffied by two beautiful Nigerian women in one of these clubs, and waking up the next morning (in his own bed) with many many thousands of dollars missing from his bank account. A scam the police were very familiar with. Lesson learned, for myself as well. 

Merrick had it in his head to take us to a "Maid" Cafe. Let me dispel any worry you may have as to the type of joint a "Maid" Cafe genuinely is a cafe. They sell drinks, eats, desserts and the like, the only difference is all the waitresses (no waiters) are dressed in infantalizing maid outfits, and talk in squeaky childlike voices.

For reasons I cannot quite explain I was thoroughly uncomfortable with this idea. Why we couldn't go to a "Cat" Cafe (a cafe filled with cats) or an "Owl" Cafe (a cafe filled with Owls) I don't know. But Merrick was adamant and as we approached the cafe I literally put my foot down and declared to the world, "I AM NOT GOING IN THERE!" What can I say...I get nervous around the ladies. 

Unfortunately for me, my outburst aroused the attention of the hostess, who turned around and saw us through the glass doors. In an enthusiastic explosion of childish whimsy she burst through the entrance out into the cold and corralled us in. There was nothing I could do. I can say no to Merrick but not "Melon" our feisty hostess!

We sat down and I ordered a beer. I knew I would need it to survive the rest of the evening. There were very few people in the cafe, just a smattering of tired, sour faced salarymen. Entertainingly enough, around the table adjacent to our own, were four very elderly, very distinguished looking salarymen, all wearing bunny or cat ear hair bands. I don't know where they got them, but I thought it was amazing. 

So obviously, like everywhere else in Japan, photography wasn't allowed...but I couldn't resist:

First of all, just look at how cute us guys are. Then feast your eyes on this menu! Cute animal parfait!? Maid's hand drawn pancakes!? Souvenir photographs?! GIGANT GIANT ICE CREAM TOWER?! And lastly, Merrick's adorable kitty parfait...awwww...SO KAWAII!!!

Our drinks arrived so I slammed my beer and what do you know...we were having a great time, fueled no doubt by the sheer ridiculousness of this place. And what's this? "You'll really enjoy the maid's mic performance?" Sure enough, our very own maid "Melon" busted out the mic and started dancing all over the place to hardcore J-Power-Pop. The lights went out and the Maid Cafe went from depressed salaryman hang-zone, to full on nightclub rager! Honestly, it was amazing...just the sheer spectacle of the thing. 

Apparently Kevin ordered enough food to not only extend our "dream time" (Maid Cafe vernacular for getting to stay past the allotted 60 minutes one could stay), but it also bought us a souvenir photograph. And here it is, in all its glory:

Our "maid" - Melon. 

Hands down, my favorite moment from our time at the Maid Cafe was our waitress either out of frustration or exhaustion or both, dropped character. Her voice descended about 2 octaves, from a squeaky adorable pubescent cartoon voice, to a sullen and deeply resonant alto, staring at the floor or perhaps through it, remarking in Japanese undoubtedly, that serving these 3 gaijin gringos was the last fucking straw. It cracks me up to think of this blemish on her performance, and it made me respect her in ways I never thought I would or could. Godspeed and good luck to you Melon-san! 

From there we headed back into the Roppongi cold. I don't remember much more from that evening save getting into a long and cheerful (though explicit) conversation with one of the African hype men on the street named TIGER. He continued to make us offers that were so obviously too good to be true it was hilarious. That said, he was extremely cheerful and walked with us for several blocks even after we had declined his proposals. From there it was back to Merrick's, though the details are still a little hazy. It was the last night I was to stay with Merrick, as I was moving into Kevin's for the weekend, and the home stretch of my time in Tokyo.


The next day I awoke leisurely and without much to do aside from pass the time  for the full throttle night of ridiculousness ahead, Merrick and I took a stroll around the neighborhood. We paid his bills at the supermarket down the street, and I grabbed some truly disgusting quickie-mart cakes for a morning snack. I think I had polished them off (all 6 of them) by the time we got back to his apartment. I did have one item on the docket that day, and that was a meeting at a place called JASRAC. I was under the (wrong) impression that JASRAC was the Japanese version of ASCAP here in the states. And in some respects they are. They funnel money owed to music creators from the various sources they earn it from. But as I found out, that's the extent of what they do. No outreach, no fostering of careers, no nothing. My trip there was essentially a complete waste of time save for the cute key chain I received as a concession AND, a pretty decent tsukemen recommendation for lunch. 

I shouldn't say it was a complete waste of time, as the journey there was pleasant enough, with some nice city views. It was also the first day of clear skies in Tokyo and though still chilly, was a gorgeous spring day.  

There are also, some anecdotal tidbits worth mentioning. First of all, I arrived about 25 minutes too early for my meeting so I took a stroll down the block, fantasizing about the food that would surely materialize there (though none did). On my way back up the block though, I noticed a garage. Nothing about this garage was surprising in terms of what was inside, but that was the surprising bit. There was no garage door. So this person's car, and all his tools (of which there was a plethora) and other items strewn about were completely available for the taking. And yet, this person felt comfortable enough to keep many thousands of dollars worth of tools and gear (some of it potentially dangerous) out in the open. Which as I mentioned in my first entry, calls attention to the Japanese way of life. People are inherently and deeply respectful of others and their property it seems. There is no garbage ANYWHERE. There are no garbage cans in which to place it either. Which suggests no one litters. I found all this so amazing, at least from an American point of view. 

I returned to the JASRAC office and was greeted enthusiastically by the receptionists. I didn't have to wait long for my two hosts to appear robotically from the elevator and away we went to a meeting room close by. To reiterate, this meeting was quite pointless as they basically said in no uncertain terms, they absolutely cannot help me in any way shape or form. This is because they must remain "impartial" and not bestow favor to any particular organization over another. They pointed me in the direction of other music agencies and told me they couldn't help me either for the same reason. So it was pretty frustrating. However, my two hosts had a very interesting dynamic. One being the good cop, and the other being super negative about EVERYTHING. So if Guy A said, "it's a nice day isn't it?" - Guy B would say "well it's mostly this nice all the time, so it's not that special."

This was particularly humorous when a woman brought us some "green" tea, and Guy A said, "Japanese green tea is very good," to which Guy B responded, "meh, it just tastes like water." Guy A then inquired if I had ever had "green" tea and what transpired is as follows:

Me: well yes I've had lots and lots of green tea. But my experience with it has been mostly Chinese. So I'm not sure I've had much Japanese green tea. 


Me: Well, actually my friend's Mom who is Chinese always gives me green tea from China, and...

Guy A: (interrupting) THE CHINESE DON'T HAVE GREEN TEA...they have "RED" tea. 

After his adamant response I simply conceded my position and said I must have been mistaken. As it turns out, Guy B was did taste like water. 

So I left though not empty handed. As I mentioned before they did leave me with a consolation prize and the location of a decent Tsukemen place.

The walk to Taishoken was a brisk and brief stroll through the neighborhood, and I got to pass a few boutique shops and a grocery store which clearly only sold fresh produce (the kind of thing you don't see in the states). It felt very much like the Japanese equivalent of a Mom & Pop Americana joint, and nothing had been changed in 30 years. My waiter was a very friendly old man who seemed very excited that I was searching for Tsukemen. And it is here that I must write down some thoughts on my not only favorite Japanese food, but possibly my favorite food period. 

Tsukemen in essence is ramen with the ingredients separated. A "dipping" noodle. My favorite restaurant in the world as I'm sure most of you are aware is called Daikokuya here in LA, and though it pains me to say it, each tsukemen I ate in Japan completely destroyed Daikoku hands down. Yes the ingredients are fundamentally similar, but there is a huge difference in consistency. The noodles are thicker and chewier, and were therefore more satisfying. The broth (and this is the most important difference) was viscous and thick, and would stick to the noodle. So as you slurp, you're also slurping up the broth along with it. The flavor was just more robust across the board, and the pork was damn delicious. This was true at all three restaurants where I ate tsukemen. Returning to Daikoku in LA I cried bitter tears of sadness into my broth. 

After lunch I returned to Merrick's to via the densha and this happened:

We didn't plan it that way...

We didn't plan it that way...

I just found that amusing. 

More hang time with Merrick and then we were off to Robot Restaurant. ROBOT RESTAURANT. 


Robot Restaurant was, without a shadow of doubt, hands down, no question, easily, most definitely, 100% completely the most ridiculous thing I've ever witnessed in my entire life. We arranged to meet Trevor and his coworkers there for the 7pm show I believe, and I simply cannot describe in words what we saw, so I'll let the pictures do the talking:

Just one sample of the floor in the lobby...or the "pre"-lobby I should say

The elevator to the main lobby

The main lobby was like a Persian night club on meth, crack, and speed simultaneously. Yes that is a robot band playing standards. I didn't take a pic of the walls which were made entirely of TV screens displaying some sort of nightmarish dream sequences on repeat. Then we were all shuffled down many flights of stairs to the main room...and this is what happened:

If you're feeling confused I can't possibly blame you. It was a baffling stream of the most ridiculous shit imaginable. Like, you literally couldn't imagine this stuff. Just look at the clowns driving giant women go karts for chrissakes! And just when I thought it couldn't get weirder, they would just keep one-upping themselves. It was unbelievable. I feel the need to describe it more, to make sense of it for you, so that you could better understand the progression and how it all played out...but that would be a fruitless endeavor. Why bother? Just look at this stuff...really look at it. The entire time I was there I kept thinking of Pee Wee's nightmare in "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" - when Satan-Francis is lowering PW's precious bike into a vat of acid. That and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I just...CAN'T!!!!!! 

On the way out I snapped some of the wall decorations in the stairwell:


After Robot Restaurant we were released back out into the Shinjuku nightlife and were all pretty desperate to use the bathroom. Across the alley from the exit was an arcade, like a real one. With video games and stuff. We all went in there and all us boys used the bathroom: that would be myself, Merrick, Trevor, and Bill, Trevor's co-worker (see Part 1). We spent a little time loitering in the arcade afterwards deliberating on what to do next and it was here that I really started raging. 

[rag·ing /ˈrājiNG/ adjective: rocking way the f out with your buddies, usually in a drunken manner.] 

I was already buzzing from several beers whilst in the titular Robot Restaurant, and who could blame me? No doubt I was acting the fool probably being quite loud, and it was around this time that one of those crane catcher games caught my eye, and I knew I had to play. Because there was this one adorable little puppy dog keychain/finger puppet that was calling out my name. I had enough coinage for one play and being unnaturally adept at these sorts of things nabbed him on the first go, and then, right as the claw was about to cross the threshold and release my new little friend, he slipped and fell back down. I probably let loose a painful bellow of disappointment, so passionate that one of Trevor's coworkers gave me enough yen to try for a round two (as I was out of change). I knew in my heart this would be the moment, and sure enough, my expert claw skillz were in full effect yet again. But right as I was about to win the game, my little puppy prize abandoned the claw's cold plastic embrace and returned from whence he came. I must have let out another bellow of heartbreak and this time one of the arcade attendees came over, opened the glass door, and manually put the puppy so dangerously on the precipice, it would be impossible for me not to win. I borrowed a few yen from another one of Trevor's coworkers and SURPRISE! I WON! This made me feel like a million dollars, or more accurately, like the king of the world. Take a look at this cutie:

Not me...I'm not the's the little doggy...

So here we all were, a motley crew of USC alumni, and web designers ready to paint the town red! Check us out!

From left to right: Merrick, Trevor, Bill, Myself, Nobu, Tae, and Izumi

The girl on the bottom right is Izumi and she really became the "maitre d'" of our evening. From then on we all basically followed her instructions and had a ball as a result. She did some "yelping" or the Japanese equivalent of it and we ended up at a nearby sushi joint. For whatever reason we got seated immediately in a super cozy booth and then this happened:

This was a pretty nice joint, but it wasn't "sushi" in the traditional sense. Most of what came to our table was like that bamboo tray with the shrimps. And when the waiter with the platter of dead fish came to our table and Izumi spoke to him, I could only presume that she chose which of those poor previously living sea creatures was going to be in our tum-tums. We drank some more, and ate some more, and it was all on Trevor's company's tab too! Also Kevin showed up in the middle of dinner! So it was just a win-win win-win. That's twice the usual amount of win-win.

After much dilly dallying we once again were at Izumi's disposal, and it was decided that karaoke was the next stop, and there was much rejoicing.  Ironically, only me, Bill, Kevin, and Izumi herself were very comfortable with singing at all, so when we got to our karaoke booth, Nobu went promptly to sleep, and Merrick just sat there, while the rest of us rocked way the fuck out. I hope he was entertained. 

It should be noted that Izumi either through her maitre d' powers or through the joint's own policy got us bottomless beers. Pitcher after pitcher after pitcher came to our table, and it was up to myself, Kevin, and Bill to drink all this swill. It was just the worst lager you could imagine and drank it we did! With gusto, tenacity, and discipline! We must have been at Karaoke for HOURS. We sang and sang deep into the night, with Bill tackling all the Elton John, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen. Myself on the high poppy stuff like Bruno Mars, Queen, and MJ. And Kevin on everything in between. Merrick even dueted with me on our old college jam, "All the Things She Said" by T.AT.U. It was epic.  

Over the years I've had many a splendid night at random unplanned karaoke joints and this came in on top. So much fun. It must have been 1 or 2 in the morning by the time we dragged ourselves out of there and it was time to go our separate ways. We all chipped in for the bill (I'm always astounded at how much karaoke costs) and I said goodbye to my new friends, and away we went. 

Trevor's expression in the second picture, and Kevin's as well was how I was feeling inside. The walk home was a struggle, as I could barely stand from drunken exhaustion. Kevin was very reassuring and he would lift me to my feet every time I sat down in the middle of the sidewalk, blithering nonsense about how I "couldn't go on!" Kevin and I had an especially hard time of it because we had to go to Merrick's first to pick up all my stuff, and then go to Akasaka where Kevin lived. The walk was pretty nice though, and it was so unusual walking so late at night in such a big city, and not feeling even remotely the need to look over my shoulder. In fact there was no one out to look over the shoulder at! I don't know much about crime in Tokyo but the vibe was pretty peaceful. 

Kevin and I grabbed my stuff from Merrick's and hopped in a cab as the train had stopped running a few hours beforehand. The cab ride was hugely entertaining as our cabbie was a very VERY old man, with about as good a grasp on English as I had on Japanese, and yet we found a way to have a pretty in depth discussion on California citrus. We stopped a few blocks from Kevin's place and I was too tired and or too drunk to properly survey my I didn't notice the escalator to his apartment building, nor did I give proper attention to the two huge luxurious automatic sliding doors that looked like something out of a sci-fi Yakuza film. I didn't recognize the concierge service in the lobby, and I definitely failed to see Kevin press the button labeled "21" in the elevator. When we got to his apartment I was given a brief tour, and then crashed down on his floor, closed my eyes, and slept...for maybe 4 hours. Maybe. 


I woke the next morning with a surprising amount of energy. I suppose it's that permanent flow of vacation-adrenaline that keeps one going. The apartment was still very dark as the black out curtains in his living room were very effective. I putted around the apartment briefly, and then decided, since I was awake and all, to open the curtains and let the sun shine in. As I mentioned previously, I was too inebriated to really understand what floor we were on the night before and when I flung the curtains to the side I gasped for air, as the view took my breath away. LITERALLY:

Feast your eyes...

It was then that I realized that Kevin is a baller.

[ball·er /ˈbôlər/ adjective US informal
1.extremely good or impressive; excellent.
"he must have some pretty baller pick-up lines to be reeling in all those ladies"
2. Someone who makes a lot of money.] 

Just take a look at that view...OMG

There wasn't much on the docket for the day other then picking up Kiyoung from the train station, and then heading out to Akihabara (the "weird" neighborhood). There was a huge party being thrown that evening as well, one that Merrick and Kevin both had been talking about all week which I ended up bailing on, as the night before had left me in shambles. But Kevin powered through and didn't get home until 5 or 6am the following morning. He's a real machine. 

So Kevin and I watched a little american television, most notably "The People vs OJ Simpson" which was really good actually. And then we headed out to Nippori station to find Kiyoung! She had decided to come to Tokyo through a series of serendipitous coincidences involving a national holiday, frequent flyer miles, and probably just to see Trevor. That's the only reason I went to Tokyo anyways. (LOLZ) Nippori station is one of the biggest stations in the entire city if not the country. Kiyoung had given us some vague location to meet her, and were it not for Kevin's knowledge of the ins and outs of the subway system I doubt I would've ever found her on my own. After a little wait Kiyoung emerged from the throngs of people and there was much rejoicing. Ironically in all the time she had been in LA she and Kevin had never met. Which is funny because Kevin has met everyone. What can I say, he's a man amongst men. 

All three of us were beyond starving and it was unanimously agreed that curry was on the menu. This was part two of two in my Japanese curry quest. Next time I return I will continue where I left off, as I left Japan very unsatisfied in the curry department. Not that it wasn't very good, simply that I did not have enough! We then shipped out to Akihabara, the land of all things NERD. And I'm going to try to breeze through this quickly, because it was the one and only part of my trip I wasn't thrilled with. 


To begin with, both Merrick AND Trevor not only wanted to go to Akihabara with me specifically, but believed that I would really get a kick out of it! Having visited there, I am offended that my friends would think this of me. Akihabara is the neighborhood in which all the "weird-Japanese-shit" is bought and sold. Manga (comics), toys, games, cosplay (dress up) and most importantly, porn porn porn. Yes, you read that correctly. There were buildings 6 stories tall dedicated to porn and its subsidiaries. But as it was, every minute spent there felt like a minute squandered. That said, there were a few special moments. 

Watching Kiyoung gallop towards Trevor in a long overdue reunion, and seeing the two of them beaming at one another was precious beyond all reason. This is us afterwards:

Some old school reunions happening in this photo.

These little dudes were also a fortunate discovery:

Danboard figures! The original AND the Tower Records edish! So cute!

And lastly some pretty awesome street musicians! These guys were playing some flamenco and it was burnin'!

Face-melting classical flamenco stuff!

After that we cruised around trying to find a place to eat. We sat down at a joint which was the official cafe of "AKB48" - a massive Japanese girl group. Our hostess sat us down quite sullenly and without an iota of enthusiasm. Upon closer inspection of the menu, both Trevor and I noticed  the coffee was 5 bloody dollars. Pretty much everything on the menu was outrageously priced. But I wasn't about to pay 5 goddamn dollars for what was undoubtedly a horrible cup of coffee and neither was anyone else apparently. It was Maid Cafe prices without any maids! So we booked it out of there and headed towards McDonalds! Oh yes...

When in at Mickey Deez. Or in this case, MACK-OO DON-OH-ROO-DOH-SU. When I was in Tenerife, Spain I went to McDizzle and ordered something called the "California" burger. It was awful. And McDonalds in Japan was no exception. The rule of thumb is one must order the weirdest most "foreign" (as compared to the American menu) items at Mickey Ds abroad. No Big Macs! So I ordered the Ebi (shrimp) burger, and Kiyoung got a burger with mashed potatoes on top of the patty. Those were the two weirdest things on the menu and by god they were truly disgusting. I don't remember what Trevor or Kevin ordered but it was more traditional, and probably much better. Looking back on it, I should've tried McDonalds in Seoul too...just for the hell of it. 

It came time for Trevor to ship off to his in-law's place, and Kevin, Kiyoung and I headed back to Akasaka. I never thought I would say something like this but I do genuinely miss the densha. It's an amazingly efficient way to travel, it's quick, keeps you on your toes, and most importantly, you're not driving! Back at Kevin's it was super chill time. The three of us just sat and watched copious amounts of Korean music videos for several hours, effectively until dinner. Which brings me to my second to last dinner in Japan, and arguably the best meal I had, and easily the most bomb tsukemen I've ever eaten. 

Kevin had mentioned a delicious hole in the wall ramen joint right across the street from his house and my interest was peaked. This place had a method of ordering food more similar to an old school vending machine then a traditional restaurant, and it wasn't the first place I'd been to like it. There was a little machine in the corner of the room with pictures and descriptions of everything on offer. All you needed to do was put your money in and press the corresponding button. It was extremely simple and pretty convenient. I think we all ordered pretty much the same thing, tsukemen and beer! And this is what it looked like: god intended...

If you hadn't figured it out by now, I am an absolute tsukemen fanatic, and of all the tsukemen I've ever eaten, this was hands down the greatest. It may be that I've described in detail the inner workings of tsukemen in Japan several times over already. But even so I will reiterate. The thing that makes tsukemen from Japan different then any I've had here in the states is most definitively the broth. The broth in Japan was very thick and viscous, so that it would stick to the noodle when you dipped it in. In this way you're slurping up way more broth on the noodles themselves as opposed to eating the noodles and then drinking the broth with your spoon. This feels much more natural and gives the broth and the noodles a synergy I've never experienced here in Los Angeles. It should be noted that the noodles at this place were obviously hand made and had the perfect chew to swallow ratio. It was brilliant. That said, I could barely finish half of it. I was just too stuffed. And that was the small size portion! 

From here our small crew splintered off into our own separate directions. Kevin to his party, Kiyoung to see an old friend, and I retired back to the apartment to turn in. But we walked around Akasaka for a minute, which is actually a pretty awesome neighborhood. It was very cozy, and peppered with shops of all kinds. Lots of Korean food ironically, a jazz club or two, and several boutiques. There was a courtyard with beautiful strings of lights interlacing between two buildings which had a very nice ambience. Lastly, a very oddly placed and futuristic building made of all mirrored black cubes was some sort of pleasure mall...apparently full of hostess bars and the like. We didn't go in, but it was fascinating to look at: 

This monolith in the middle of an otherwise traditional Tokyo neighborhood. 

Back in Kevin's apartment it was mostly time to shut down for the night, but not before taking another epic photo from Kevin's balcony:



My last full day in Tokyo was very chill compared to most. It was spent milling about Harajuku passing the time waiting for all of my buddies to be available for dinner. I also intended to go back to Meiji shrine that day but didn't have the physical strength for it after all the walking. Kiyoung and I met up at Akasaka station later in the morning for breakfast. She wanted to head to Omote-Sando to check out some shops that were apparently much more expensive in Seoul. Omote-Sando seemed to me to be the Beverly Hills of Tokyo. The walk there was long but provided some unexpected and beautiful sights. Beautifully constructed pedestrian overpasses, an antique bazar, stray kitties, imposing lion statues, plum blossoms, and most unexpected, a vast cemetery that stretched on for as far as the eye could see.

As we arrived in Omote-Sando a deep, bordering on painful hunger set in and I was getting cranky. I could only envision pancakes in my tum tum for some reason, and Kiyoung knew of a Hawaiian joint a few blocks down - but I will bypass this experience as it is so very similar to shopping in the US that it doesn't warrant much by way of description in this case. Kiyoung got herself a fancy sweater and by then I was seething from lack of nutrition.  Still, I couldn't help but stand in awe of the Prada building:

Shame such a gorgeous building is used to sell overpriced sweatshop goods...

So onward we pressed into the heart of Tokyo's uber shopping district. The Hawaiian joint had a line out the door, but we waited all the same knowing a similar fate would befall us elsewhere. It was after all, Sunday and the brunch lines would be in full swing. As everything in Tokyo seemed in general, to be over priced, the pancakes were no exception. That said, they were quite delicious and provided just enough energy to keep eating elsewhere. Kiyoung truthfully had a sort of Tokyo restaurant "bucket list" and we were aiming to grab them all in one afternoon. She had heard rumors of a legendary gyoza shop, AND a lobster roll joint. As it turns out, both restaurants were not only right next to each other on the same block, but just a hop skip and a jump away from our current location! So immediately after leaving the Hawaiian brunch spot, we meandered into Harajuku, and got straight into the queue for GYOZA!

I don't know the name of the gyoza joint, only that it was truly spectacular. It was a tiny greasy hole in the wall, tucked into a back alley (as all great Japanese restaurants are and ought to be). Maybe the joint had room for 25/30 people tops, and if there was a menu, it was so small it was barely necessary. The choices were, gyoza - pan fried or steamed - and beverages. The end. In my experience the smaller the menu the better the food, though there are always exceptions to the rule. Suffice it to say, these little beauties were delicious and possibly the best meal I had in Tokyo. Right up there with the tsukemen from the night before. Gyoza (like tsukemen) is a comfort food. Simple, heartfelt, and apparently, when hand made right in front of you, more delicious then you ever imagined it could be!!!!!

After that there was no need for lobster rolls. 

From there it was off into Harajuku to window shop. As I mentioned before Harajuku is the one neighborhood I deliberately returned to for sightseeing's sake. In the end it's just shops and the like, but it had a really cool vibe, lots of youthful creative energy. Or perhaps that was just my own creative energy mixing up with the environment. In any case, all was well, and my credit card was secure and safely sleeping in my wallet, when out of the blue...not one...but TWO Reebok stores appear before me like a desert oasis. Only this was real. 

[Editor's Note: for those unaware, Brendan is completely obsessed with Reeboks]

I bought a sweet track suit, and some super next level Classic Leather sneakers which look so gorj, I knew they must be mine the moment I laid eyes on them. 

I have yet to wear them outside...I'm saving them for a very special occasion. A "formal" occasion. Though it was my intention to return to Meiji shrine that day, both Kiyoung and I were crazy tired after all the walking, eating and shopping. Dinner was a few hours away and we both thought it best to chill for a spell rather then cruise around aimlessly. I suppose moments like that are wasted as I could've seen more of the city simply by heading off in any direction...literally. But not overdoing it is also important. So it was back to Akasaka for pre dinner chill time. Kevin was at a muay thai fight of all things that day and wouldn't be able to join us until after dinner, but Merrick and Trevor were onboard for good times. So after a brief respite, it was off to Ebisu for Izakaya! 

When it came time to head out, I was wearing my brand new Reebok track suit, looking good, and feeling like a million bucks. It was my last night in Japan - I was spending it with good friends - the evening was primed for epic-ness. Ebisu was exciting because it was outside the usual circumference of neighborhoods I had been to. We met up with Merrick and Trevor in Ebisu station and headed off to get "izakaya". I have done a little bit of research into the proper definition of izakaya and as best as I can figure, its like Japanese style street food...? But it's also a type of restaurant, a gastropub as defined by wikipedia. In any case, the place we went to was more like a food court, though not in the bright, shiny, 90's neon pink way you might be imagining. This place was dingy, greasy, deep fried and over crowded to fire hazard capacity. It had no common area, just small tables in or around various food shacks one after the other, down long treacherous hallways. Complete with incredibly low ceilings. It was great! Each eatery seemed to specialize in its own cuisine, from seafoods, to special cuts of beef prepared in a European style and more.  

While we were wandering about trying in vain to pick a place to eat, I passed by a table of sour-faced 20 somethings who were eyeballing me and chattering amongst themselves. I could only assume they were talking about me and I once again felt a little miffed and insecure about it. Was it my vaguely samurai-ish hair style that attracted so much attention? When we had passed by I told my companions about it and Trevor said that as he passed the table he heard them saying something like, "that guy is kakkoi." Kakkoi meaning cool (amongst other things). This put me at ease, though looking back at it now, Trevor was probably just lying to make me feel better as he is a mischief maker of the highest order. Hopefully it was the former. But I suppose I shouldn't care one way or the other...that's the lesson I'm supposed to learn...yes? I'm KAKKOI no matter what anybody says!

Down at the far end of the hallway it was much less crowded. In fact there was hardly anyone there at all. We nestled in together at a small table and proceeded to order. Better still it was all on Trevor's company's dime. FREE FOOD = GOOD TIMES! And order we did. I don't remember the name of the joint (if I ever knew it to begin with) and it turned out to be a Spanish style tapas place. Our table became a revolving cornucopia of yummy delicatessen. Noodles, various cuts of pork, clams, muscles, oysters, shrimps, greens, and on and on. All of it was quite tasty and fun to eat to boot. Amongst all the luxurious items, buried in the middle of the menu was Japanese style chicken wings. Available in three different flavors: regular, spicy, and VERY SPICY. Merrick reasonably suggested we order 1 wing a piece, as we were getting pretty full by that point, and if we needed more, we only had to ask. Very wise Merrick very wise! Merrick got regular, and the rest of us asked for VERY SPICY! Our waitress (Nami-chan) who had been very sociable and attentive throughout our meal grimaced at the request. She then, in a mixture of Japanese and broken English said, "very spicy, very spicy!" - not being able to find the proper words of warning she concluded -"MOUTH HURT!" 

Now, if I had a dime for every time I had to pressure a waiter into giving me the "level 10" stuff, only to receive something that was as spicy as a wet dish rag, I would be a rich man. A richer man anyways. But this time...this time I was SO wrong.

Merrick's regular flavor wing was a crispy, delicious, golden brown. Ours were the color of sacrificial goat's blood...a deep black with a red sheen and a cheerful sprinkle of sesame seeds. Bravely Trevor, Kiyoung, and myself took our first bites. Like with all morbidly spicy foods, the initial hit was nothing, ignorable, a total disappointment. And then, moments later...the pain. 


Please observe Trevor's reaction. 

It was incendiary. I don't know what else to say. I had to stand up and pace to back and forth, cavorting and spasming. I had no other recourse. At one point the spice got into my nose (presumably from the napkin I was using to wipe my snot faucet) tearing away at my soft spongy mucous membrane interior. And that was just the first bite. Making matters worse, Kiyoung abandoned her wing, putting the responsibility on Trevor and myself to finish the job. And finish we did. Unless I'm delusional, I do believe that we hunkered down and ate those chicken wings until there weren't no meat left on the bones! That's what real tough hombres do.   

After that we traipsed around Ebisu waiting for Kevin to arrive. We got some gourmet ice cream, sang happy birthday to Aya (Trevor's wife), and there was merriment all around. I think by the time all was said and done it was close to 11 or 12 and it was time for farewells. I wouldn't be seeing Trevor in Japan again, but that's fine because I can see him whenever I want (we're practically neighbors). But as I was still going to see everyone else the next day, I kept my impending sadness to myself. A great finale to one of the best experiences of my entire life!


Monday morning came along as any other, only this was going to be a definitively sad day for me. I had so enjoyed my time in Japan and Korea and I genuinely didn't want it to end. Had I something else to do or accomplish over there aside from hang out and eat, more time would have been warranted, and it is my ambition that some day soon my work will take me back (or anywhere for that matter). But as it was, though my time was running out, I did not feel it was running short. In fact, it felt like I had been in Tokyo for much longer then I actually was, so it was perfect timing in all honesty. 

The details of that morning are a bit hazy, but I do remember Kevin in his "salary-man" outfit (for work) and I thought it simultaneously odd and perfectly natural on Kevin. He's such an iconoclast. He had to be off so I thanked him and we said our goodbyes. All I had to do was make sure the door locked behind me on the way out. Not long after that I was due to meet up with Merrick and Kiyoung at Yoyogi station for an early lunch - I'm not sure when my flight left Narita but I want to say it was around 3 in the afternoon? So I hopped in the shower (which was larger then my entire bathroom back home) and packed my things. I noticed Kevin's kitchen was in need of a little sprucing up so I thought I would be a courteous house guest and do his dishes. One of the first things you'll notice about the Japanese home is everything is tiny...well aside from Kevin's shower. But in general, all appliances and various amenities are half the size they would be in America. What I'm trying to say is the dishwasher was very small. I wrapped up the dishes, and with some uncertainty found the dishwasher fluid and started the cycle. From there, I put what remained in my backpack, went to the front hall, put on my shoes and nearly headed out the door when I realized I left some garbage in the living room. This was a very key moment in my morning and proof that I still have a little decent karma left, because when I went back to the kitchen to throw away the trash, THE DISHWASHER HAD COMPLETELY EXPLODED!!!!

Water was oozing out of the bottom and clouds of suds were billowing out the top and sides of the machine. What had I done?! Suddenly it dawned on me that the dishwasher fluid I was so very uncertain of, was not dishwasher fluid at all, but dish soap...or who knows what...and now I was flooding my gracious host's kitchen! Not to mention that I needed to be on a train to a plane in just a few short hours. Here's a glimpse of the damage:

These were taken long after the worst was over. I would empty the dishwasher of as many suds as possible and then run the cycle again, and within a few minutes the suds would come back. When I had used nearly every towel I could find, I realized it was time to let Kevin know what I had done, as I was running out of time. To this day, I do not know how Kevin actually felt about my transgression. He just very politely asked me not to do his dishes next time. Later that night he also informed me a quick google search said white vinegar and a little olive oil help clear out the soap. In any case he was gracious about it. Thank you Kevin! 

I had to abandon the mess I made and leave for Yoyogi if I wanted to stay on schedule. I felt, SO bad. 

For some reason Yoyogi station was a sight for sore eyes. I hadn't been there in a few days and it seemed fitting my journey to Tokyo ended the same way it began. I met up with Kiyoung and there was much rejoicing, though by this time I was suffering from a very palpable sadness and doing my best to disguise it. Merrick arrived and we decided to go to this little hole in the wall called "Popeyes". We had walked by Popeyes a dozen or more times since my arrival, and in the three or more years Merrick has been living in Tokyo he hadn't been there at all. So it was decided Popeyes was the choice destination for lunch. Can you guess what they served? Deep fried tempura is the correct answer! 

Miso soup, rice, curried beef patty, slaw, noodles, and shrimp tempura. Not a bad spread for 700 Yen. I remember the water was insanely delicious as well. I was sitting right in front of a  massive filtration system on the counter, so I could serve myself. As far as hole in the wall eateries go, Tokyo had it down. I don't know why you would ever need to go to a gourmet joint in either Tokyo or Seoul when so many amazing flavors were available down the street and at such fair prices. Places like this are really hard to find in the US. 

After lunch I was determined to get back to Meiji shrine to pick up some souvenirs for my Mom, as well as re-address the serious emotional reaction I had to the place on my first day. The shrine was actually accessible from Yoyogi, so we didn't need to get on the train. It was just a ten minute walk away.  We wandered leisurely to the gate, and this was where Merrick and I parted ways. He needed to get back to work and it was time to say goodbye. I thanked him from the bottom of my heart, as none of this would have been possible without him, and Kiyoung and I went into the shrine, while Merrick headed home. 

Meiji shrine was much easier to process the second time around. It was also much less busy being there on a Monday. We stopped at the fountain and I washed my hands and rinsed my mouth out before going in. The weather was becoming progressively more overcast, which gave the shrine a moodier if not an altogether darker vibe, but cozy too. To be honest I could feel a similar wave of grief begin to percolate within me as I did the first time, but I was braced for it this time, and I let it go on its way peacefully. All in all, I still don't know why it happened, or what I was supposed to learn from such an event, perhaps nothing. But I was glad to have control over it the second time around. I stopped by the gift shop to pick up some charms. Four or five women were sitting behind the counter, dressed in traditional Japanese garb, making these charms by hand, presumably all day. Admittedly, the charms themselves were put together from various pre-made fabrics and beads and what not, but I think it's the thought that counts. They were made in a holy place, by people whose soul purpose (while they are on the job) is making charms. I bought a travel charm for my mother, a charm for healthy children for my niece, and a charm of health for myself. I wish I had more to say about this experience...but sadly it was time to go, and catch my train to Narita airport.  

The walk back to Yoyogi station was pleasant, and a light rain began to fall. Though refreshing, it felt like a warm bed for my impending sadness to cozy up in. Kiyoung traveled with me back to Nippori station to see me off, and when we made it to the "Skyliner Narita Express" we shared a very fond farewell. I hadn't seen Kiyoung in many years, nor had she seen any of our other friends on this trip in as long. I hope she will come back to the states soon to hang with all of us here! With that, I got on the train, sat down in the back - very much alone, and no sooner had the train lurched into motion did I burst into tears. 

The journey to the airport was oddly reflective. From most major cities you would expect to be rushing through traffic and seas of pedestrians and concrete and buildings and lights and sounds. But the way back to Narita was mostly peaceful countryside. Bamboo forests, small suburbs, farm houses, thousands of acres of arable land, verdant hills with sad and solitary trees gnarled with age off in the distance. I couldn't remember the last time I wept openly out of grief for leaving a place or a circumstance. I think the memory most similar would be leaving camp Gallagher my last year as a camper. That too, was only nine days, but the adventures I went on were immortal. Can I say with confidence my journey to Japan was just as life changing? It certainly felt that way. I've been wondering why...why was it such a powerful experience? Conversely, why wasn't my time in Tenerife Spain, or Cost Rica equally as powerful? Not to disparage those experiences at all, they were fantastic! Perhaps the simplest answer is familiarity? Those countries are mostly "westernize." I suppose I'm implying that Japan and Korea are so different from these other countries that I was already by default, more in tune with them. But I don't think that's right. It may in fact be that Japan and Korea were actually MORE familiar then these countries. Time and time again I was reminded of my own hometown of Bellingham Washington and the great Pacific Northwest. So much of the landscape made me feel right at home. Not to mention seeing old friends after years apart. Admittedly, the nostalgia of the whole thing was overwhelming. How can one experience nostalgia in the midst of nearly entirely new situations and circumstances I'm not sure. But I must confess, the whole time I was out there I felt like I was 21 again. I felt like the hero of my own movie. I distinctly remember feeling like that every day of my young life, and at some point it faded away. I think it faded away for a few reasons, not the least of which was the reality of being an artist and musician, and making the transition of merely dreaming of being those things, and actually being those things. But for ten epic days I was just that, and it made me thirsty to have it again. But not thousands of miles away, not on vacation...everyday. 

Life doesn't always work out the way you want it to. Last year I got a disease that left me forever changed, a disease from which I am still recovering and may never recover fully. Almost exactly one year before I was in Japan, I could barely walk, or taste, or see, or touch anything...since then I've been through many many hours of physical therapy and countless doctor visits...I had to relearn the piano and guitar all over again. I've had to rehabilitate my voice which sounded like breaking glass when I got out of the hospital...I've had to live with persistent blurry and double vision, and hands and feet that periodically fade away for no reason whatsoever...

I think what I've learned or have been trying to learn from all of this, is that I just don't give a shit anymore. And not in the callous-give-up sort of way, but in the drop all the bullshit and be grateful way. Grateful that I'm a frickin' rockstar, and grateful that I can still function after what happened to me. Grateful that I've got all this music inside me. And yes its hard, and its beyond frustrating...and I must confess, most of the time I feel I am burning down more often then burning up...but for 10 days in February I was who I was meant to be. Or, reminded of that. 

I imagine all of these thoughts were buzzing through my head on the train ride to the airport. The way back was nothing to write home about.  About 20 hours later I was home at my doorstep. Exhausted, jet lagged, and most likely very cranky. I dropped my travel pack on the floor of the front hall, walked straight into my studio, and picked up my guitar. It was time to get back to work, though it would take me weeks if not months to finally leave Tokyo behind. 

It was a grand adventure. 

















Tokyo Pt 3: Studio Ghibli

PART 3: Studio Ghibli

The gates to the Musee d'art Ghibli

The next morning I once again found myself waking from a deep slumber (though brief) in Merrick's apartment. It was Thursday, February 25th and it was a very important day. It was the day I ventured out on my own to not only the Ghibli Museum, but Studio Ghibli itself.

This was, as is most often the case, easier said then done. Before I left for Tokyo it hadn't occurred to me that the museum would operate any different then the California Science Center, or LACMA, or any museum to speak of. That is to say, you show up, pay the entrance fee, and walk in. This is not so with the Ghibli Museum (hereafter referred to as GM). The GM is effectively an entrance by appointment type of place, and as Merrick informed me before I left, tickets were often sold out at least 3 weeks in advance. To make matters worse, looking up how to buy tickets through the GM's website was (even in English) almost impossible and more complicated then it should have been. All in all this left me extremely disheartened. Going to Ghibli was effectively my number one priority in Japan and more then that, a dream I've had for a very long long time. So, before I left for Korea, on a whim I googled, "Ghibli Museum tickets" and a website called "govoyagin" popped up...and sure enough tickets to the GM were ready and available. How this is possible I could only guess but I found the whole outfit to be extremely shady. The entrance fee to get into the GM was a mere 1000 yen, and GoVoyagin was asking for 6000. 60 bucks basically. The shadiness of the site nor the padded price tag could keep me from trying, and I very quickly and easily purchased a ticket for the Thursday, 1:30pm tour.

The way this worked by my conjecture alone, is someone must purchase the tickets in advance, and then sell them through GoVoyagin at an inflated cost. I didn't care one way or the other, I just wanted my ticket and that was that. I was instructed to come to their office in Shibuya on the 7th floor. Thus began my first and only major solitary outing in Tokyo. 

Being with your best buddies anywhere is very exciting and fills you with a confidence you don't generally have on your own, especially on an adventure. Conversely being alone in a similar situation can have the opposite effect. And though my first steps out the door, through the alley, down the secret staircase, under the bridge, past the super market, and into Yoyogi station were not filled with anxious thoughts, I found myself shrinking in size when I got to Shibuya. The sheer number of people alone was intimidating enough, combined with the monolithic buildings towering overhead, and jumbo screen advertisements blasting full motion videos of Tommy Lee Jones drinking coffee from a can, I just began to doubt myself a little. 

[Yes indeed, Tommy Lee Jones is for some reason or another the mascot for BOSS iced coffee in Nippon!]

My life line was Google maps, without which, I would've never been able to navigate the trains and streets of Tokyo. According to Google, GoVoyagin's office was a mere 4 or 5 blocks away from Shibuya station, but even with the digital satellite perfection of GPS,  it didn't stop me from taking an elevator 7 floors up to a closet sized hallway leading to a solitary door (in the wrong building - but I obviously had no idea quite yet). In a very confused fashion I rang the doorbell not having any idea what to expect. No response. I rang it again and heard some muffled speech accompanied by a shuffling sound coming closer and closer to the door. As the door opens I saw a very elderly woman appear and my confusion gave way to panic. There I was, a bumbling gringo, attempting to ask a woman old enough to be my grandmother where the heck I am, and as she speaks to me very politely (in Japanese) I can see at her feet a great number of slippers on the floor, and behind her a closet, and beyond that, the door to what looked like a kitchen, and I realized I was most definitely not at the place of anyone's business, but rather this little old lady's private home. Suddenly my gaijin-gringo-extraordinaire-status reached code red, and I went flush with such a severe embarrassment, I hurriedly (though as politely as I could) ended the conversation. Bowing and chanting "arigato gozaimasu" I left her there, and felt like a class A dumb-dumb all the way down the elevator. 

Back on the sidewalk I regained my bearings and made my way through a corridor into the back of a building I hoped was the correct one. Along the way I passed a small curry restaurant which looked and smelled maximum OISHII (delicious)...but I pressed onward, determined to find my Ghibli tickets! I discovered an elevator in the back, but it was cordoned off by caution tape and so I quickly ascended the 7 flights of stairs on foot. I was very pleased to see the numbers on the doors were similar to the address they provided me and soon I found myself in front of their door. RELIEF. I rang the bell and a young woman my age answered. She instinctively seemed to know who I was and why I had come, asking only my name. She then procured for me an envelope and from it she withdrew my ticket to the museum. My eyes widened like Charlie's must have, gazing upon the golden ticket to Willy Wonka's factory for the first time. I thanked her, and headed back out into the chilled Tokyo air. 

I took the elevator this time as it wasn't cordoned off on any other floor other then the first, I found myself having a brief discussion in English with a man who had spent some years in San anecdote he seemed very proud of. I bid him farewell as we arrived on the first floor, and passing once again by the curry restaurant proved too difficult a task. I could see through the window a MASSIVE vat of curry being stirred constantly by a mechanical apparatus and I had to have it. I walked in to find a waitress in a huff setting tables and when I asked if they were open or not she coldly responded in a percussive rasp, "we're not open until 11!" Which was an hour away. I considered staying, I certainly had the time, but I wanted to get to Mitaka as soon as I possibly could. So I went onward, putting a curry feather in my cap for later. Lunch was only a few hours away and this is Tokyo, how far could a curry house be?

I walked back to Shibuya station and boarded the train for Mitaka, a good 20 minutes or so away. I was instructed by several veterans of the museum that you needn't change trains at all. Get on in Shibuya, and get off in Mitaka...simple! So I took a load off and relaxed. All I had to do was chill until the last stop. It was quite a beautiful sight (not unlike the voyage to Kamakura) watching the big city fade away into much smaller, much simpler buildings and homes.  The ride was very pleasant as the car was nearly empty the whole way there, I may have even dosed off a little. 

At some point the train stopped at some station or another, and thinking the train went straight on to Mitaka I sat patiently and waited for it to press onward. But it didn't. After a brief spell it occurred to me this was an unusual length of time to wait. Furthermore, the few people who were with me in the car had left the train completely. The last person on the way out told me several times as he was passing by, "last stop, last stop!" But as I've trained myself to ignore strangers in LA it didn't quite sink in for about a minute, when suddenly my feet stood me up and started walking me out of the car without my express permission. No sooner had I left the car, did it lurch into motion and start heading back towards Tokyo. The same guy who told me it was the last stop must have seen the puzzled look on my face and he very courteously and in perfect English began asking me about my journey. I explained why I was there and as it turned out, he was going to Mitaka as well, so he showed me the ropes and we sat next to each other on the next train which arrived across the platform a good 10 minutes later. 

The view from some station or another...

We had a few stops to discuss things and it turns out he was in advertising of some nature. The second former resident of SF I had met that day as well. We discussed Japan, the US, and Miyazaki, and before I knew it we pulled into Mitaka station. I don't remember much about the station, but rather the kindness this man had showed me. Determined to see me to my destination he walked me down to the shuttles to Ghibli museum. They costed a few hundred yen, and since I had no cash I politely said I was planning on walking anyways. I had several hours to kill besides. At that point we introduced ourselves (though I've forgotten his name sadly), I thanked him for his kindness, and we parted ways. 

Away I went with Google maps as my guide through the narrow sleepy streets of Mitaka. The city so reminded me of some small port town in Washington like Anacortes or Orcas Island, despite not being a port town at all. Nevertheless, it had a Pacific Northwest vibe. The walk was just a few miles, and I found it very enjoyable in the chilly but sunny weather. Finally I came to Inokashira park, in which the Ghibli Museum lived. Rounding the corner, the museum came into view, and not quite believing what I was seeing, nor the idea that I was actually there, I walked past it, and decided that before I could truly soak it in, I needed a snack. So I popped into coffee shop across the street and ordered a "sandwhich", a pastry, and a coffee. Something to hold me over until I had gone through the museum. 

Vaguely Miyazaki-esque city banners

Before I get to the museum itself I think it would be best for those of you who don't know, to explain briefly who Miyazaki is and what his work means to me. Hayao Miyazaki is an animator, film maker, and founder of Studio Ghibli. The first film I saw of his was in 1998 or 99, called Princess Mononoke. It came to the little independent theatre in Bellingham and was scheduled to run for one week...I saw it 7 times, in as many days. And my life was never really the same after that. Miyazaki's work captures something so beautiful and essential about life and the world we live in, he is an absolute genius and one of my greatest heroes, right up there with Freddie, Bowie, Jackie and Bjork.

And now the museum:  

You will notice none of the pictures are from inside the building, and like most places in Japan, photography was not allowed. I was so disheartened by this but upon entering the museum it made perfect sense. There is WAY too much to see and absorb. The whole museum feels like a set from Hogwarts or Bag End (Lord of the Rings), so many details, and so much care and craft poured into every one of those details, to photograph it all would've taken hours and hours. That said I did buy the souvenir book, which doesn't capture the magic in the same way, but I will share some pictures from there to give you an idea. The entrance is through a very large door, with stained glass windows featuring a variety of Ghibli characters, and two Totoro cherubs beckoning you inside. The foyer was modest with a welcome desk, and more stained glass windows, which I confess I didn't really pay much attention to. I wanted to get into the museum proper so much I didn't stop to smell the roses there. 

The first thing you receive upon entering is a welcome packet, and a movie ticket. This was without a doubt the most exciting thing about the experience, to witness a new film by Miyazaki.

My movie ticket...I'm not sure what film the frames are from, but they are real!

As much as I don't like to admit it to myself, Miyazaki has retired from feature length films, and the future of Studio Ghibli is uncertain. That said, he is still making short films for the museum. That is to say, they can only be seen at the museum, and no where else in the world. No DVDs or Blu Ray have to be there to experience them. Equally frustrating is only one is playing at any given time! I don't have information on all the films, but one of them is even the sequel to Totoro called Mei and the Kitten Bus. It's the story of Cat Bus' very small kitten storming into Mei's house at night when everyone is asleep and spiriting her away on a grand adventure to where all the Cat Busses live. My heart broke when it wasn't playing, but my movie was still amazing all the same. 

Mei is the littlest sister from the original Totoro...the original Cat Bus was big enough to fit many full sized Totoros!

Mei is the littlest sister from the original Totoro...the original Cat Bus was big enough to fit many full sized Totoros!

The film was called Pan Dane to Tamago Hime - (Pan DA-NAY toe Tamago HE-MAY) aka Mr Dough and Egg Princess. It was a beautiful little story about a witch, whilst making a rather large omelette for herself, cannot crack one of the eggs, so she either wills it to life with magic or the egg was alive to begin with and makes the little Egg Princess her slave. One night as the moon was shining brightly through the window onto a vat of dough, Tamago Hime somehow either grants this vat of dough consciousness through magic of her own or through some other twist of fate, and the two run off together, escaping the witch. Hijinks ensue and they both live happily ever after! It was a beautiful story and a beautiful film. 

Poor little Tamago Hime, eating her dinner all alone. The vat of dough comes to life in this scene and they rescue each other from the awful witch!

Just as beautiful as the film itself was the cinema in which it was shown. It was very small, but had the same grandiose design as any of the finest theaters I've been to in LA. More amazing than that, was the projector itself. The projector was like something out of Cinema Paradiso. It was an all analogue, FILM projector, with reels upon reels spooling film in all sorts of directions. Up, down, sideways, diagonally. It looked like miles and miles of film. I am unaware if this is necessary for this particular projector, or if it was for aesthetics alone, but the projector room was possibly the coolest part of the museum. The technicians inside looked like they were nurses in the quarantine ward, with blue scrubs and gloves. The projector itself looked like it was made out of a series of oddly shaped vintage refrigerators, all stacked on top of one another in a variety of strange ways. The walls were signed by every famous animator on the planet. Nick Park, and the other guys from Aardman animation, and John Lassiter's signatures were amongst the more recognizable ones. A truly magical room.  

It is difficult to see the inner workings of the projector in this picture!

After that it was time to dig into the museum itself, which felt more like an eccentric wizard's castle then a museum. The main permanent exhibit room was full of zoetropes galore, in a variety of styles, and in this room I saw some of the most amazing things I've ever seen. Walking in the first thing you'd see is this:

What you can't see is these birds were all animated and flying upwards whilst circling around this robot (whom you might recognize as the robot from Castle in the Sky). The robot itself was also slowly turning creating an absolutely mesmerizing display. What is also impossible to see is the shades of blue in person were so exotic, I'm not sure I had ever seen blues quite like that. It was so beautiful I must have stared at it for 5 minutes. I wish I could have gotten a video of this. 

The room was filled of examples of primitive styles of animation and cel art in a sort of historical order. Beginning with physical models, light boxes, wood carvings set to motion with mechanical gears, and zoetropes. Walking along the periphery I noticed lots of little things to look at that were so low to the ground, an adult would have to get on their hands and knees to see it. Another reminder for whom the museum is genuinely intended. 

In the middle of the room was something truly awe inspiring:

Upon first inspection you'd see a series of very similar models sitting motionless...but this whole apparatus started spinning at such a speed, all these wonderful little characters just became a blur of color, until a strobe light came on, and in the sudden bursts of light they all came to life. Totoro started bouncing, Mei started jump roping, the little Totoros at the bass began running into the tree, Cat Bus was running through the air! It was a real time display of stop motion animation, and I'm not sure anything exists like it anywhere else in the world. 

Needless to say the rest of the museum was amazing, in particular, half of the second floor was modeled after what I can only imagine as an animator's/artist's workshop, but in order of the phases of animation. The beginning of the exhibit was sketches, raw paper sketches plastered from floor to ceiling. These were Miyazaki originals and if they weren't authentic sketches from the past, they were authentic sketches from the present. There were sketches from every single Ghibli film in this portion of the exhibit but the one that stood out most was the Kiki's delivery service sketches. They caught my eye immediately because unlike the rest of the sketches which were scenes from the films as we know them, these sketches took place AFTER the events of the movie. It was Kiki as a young adult. So elements of the "sequel" to Kiki's delivery service were just hanging on the walls. I kept my eyes peeled for other such clues into the future of other Miyazaki characters but found none. 

The animator's "workshop" - pretty cozy! 

From there it went on to background and landscape paintings, story boarding - which was very interesting because they had whole binders with the complete story boards available for perusal. Then they had a section showing the process of matting and compositing the artwork together (for lack of a better term). Beautiful finished cels were hanging up on the walls, each of them priceless, and like everything in the museum, completely exposed. No security, no glass cases (for the most part) - you could reach out and touch whatever you wanted...and yet, you don't. It was all so...not sacred...familiar. It felt like your own cozy bedroom. 

Other areas of note were the giant cat bus on the top floor...not for adults, but about a dozen children could be seen playing inside, around, and on top of him. Wish I could've gotten a picture of that too. Down the hall from Cat Bus was the "reading room" - which was part mini-gift shop and part library. It was too crowded to do much other then just get buoyed around in the tide but I could clearly see the books were hand picked by Miyazaki as either having inspired him and his films in some way, or just being recommended reading. There was a lot to chew on in this room, and I couldn't even get through the tip of the iceberg. But it was very Miyazaki. 

The reading room. This photo is from 2002ish and by the time I got there there was about a million books in here. Very overwhelming. 

I wish I could show you and tell you more, but to do so would truly be too much. The museum was worth the entire trip, and having been there, I can check it off my bucket list. That said, a new item has appeared on my bucket list, and that is to return again to the Ghibli museum. So it balances it out. 

I didn't want to leave but I had a new mission to attend to...I was going to go to see Studio Ghibli!

But first...LUNCH. I was starving and I could still see and smell the vat of swirling curry from earlier that morning, so I Googled "Mitaka Curry" and went to the highest rated, and closest curry joint on the map. I walked through the park away from the museum and saw many fun things en route to curry. 

A small zoo, the bike sign says SU-PII-DO and then some red Kanji meaning SLOW DOWN no doubt. A memorial for a famous pianist, and a temple in the middle of a stream...though the stream was drained for construction. I deliberately angled the camera to avoid all the construction equipment. Lastly, a very typical Japanese alleyway along with some uber rare graffiti. So sad about the lack of graffiti in Japan but it makes perfect sense. 

Walking through downtown Mitaka was very familiar, it was just a miniaturized version of Shibuya. Lots of shopping. Finally, as my stomach was growling wildly and the pangs of hunger were beginning to cripple me, I found my curry destination. When I got there, I could see through the glass door the joint was empty, and I thought maybe they were closed. I pushed on the door and groaned a heavy groan as it did not open. But Google told me they were open for business! So I re-approached the door and this time slid it to the side, and this time it opened for me. At last I was going to get my curry lunch! I sat down and a woman in a somewhat brusk fashion brought me a menu. Scanning the place I realized it was very funky-dunky (as my mother would say). It was funky-dunky on a Daikokuya in little Tokyo in LA level. Layers of dust caked on a plethora of figurines and book shelves, thing-a-ma-bobs galore and so on. Observing this I realized it could only mean one thing. 


This wouldn't have been a problem if I wasn't completely out of cash. To specify, I never had cash to begin with. Yes that's right, I went to a foreign country with no cash. I assumed (incorrectly) that Japan being a first world nation much like my own, plastic would be the payment method of choice. WRONG. Only big corporate stores accepted cards, and nearly every place I went to opted in favor of cash. The Japanese still use coins as well. They have pennies, nickels, dimes, dollars, and 5 dollar coins. The lowest bill they make is 10 dollars! I started freaking because I was in a foreign country with no money. I ask the woman where the nearest ATM is and she points me in the right direction, and with my stomach eating away at itself I ventured back out into the cold, found the ATM card was unreadable. I went to another card was unreadable. Now I was really screwed. But I knew it was a worthless endeavor to panic so I reached in my pocket and counted my change. I had approximately 14 dollars and assumed (correctly) I could put some yum yum in my tum tum for that amount, and I would solve the rest of the problem on a full stomach. 

I returned to the restaurant, and the woman, still brusk, came to take my order. I asked what the house specialty was and she said it's the veggie curry and so I went with that. This was another example of eating food in Japan and me thinking, "it's alright," then coming home, eating my usual curry and crying into it. You never know what you've got until its gone...or so they say. After I finished I downloaded skype, spent 5 bucks to get some call time and dialed up my bank. My card is fine, its the ATMs that aren't working. So indeed, I was up poo poo creek. Whether or not I had a paddle remained to be seen. 

Nevertheless, I was stalwart on my mission to go to Studio Ghibli. I had very little daylight left and I resolved that I had come so far, there was no turning back. I had plenty on my Suica card anyways, I was in no danger of at least making it back to Merrick's. So I hot-footed it to the densha, and up a few stops, and found myself in the sleepy neighborhood of Koganei. 

And sleepy it was. Google kept me on track, and at a very leisurely pace, I winded my way through little side streets, with middle class homes, the occasional cyclist, baby wouldn't assume (from an Angeleno perspective) that one of the world's most prolific film studios was nestled in here. 

And then...there it was. 

Studio Ghibli

I recognized it immediately having seen the documentary film, "Kingdom of Dreams and Madness" - a rather dramatic title for an otherwise simple story: how Miyazaki gets it done. This is the view from the side street. And here is the front:

You may have noticed the time difference between the two is just before sunset, and the other just after. The reason being, was while I was just standing outside, breathing the same air that MIyazaki does everyday, a woman came out of the studio and noticed me. I was standing across the street about to take this picture, and while she was collecting the mail she sort of connected with me somehow, and I sheepishly ushered her onward. She then connected with me a second time, perhaps she even spoke to me and I still persisted in denying her attention. And at last on the third and final time on her way back to the door, she stopped and looked at me, and I gave up trying to be polite and we walked towards each other. 

She had a very positive air about her, which put me at ease almost immediately and we began discussing my situation, and how I had come to be there. It turned out she worked in human resources. Mercifully she spoke pretty good English and I told her pretty much everything. About seeing Princess Mononoke in theaters seven times, about my pilgrimage to the studio, and my time at the museum. I then asked her about Miyazaki-san's retirement and if it was legit or not. She assured me he still continues to work on the short films for the museum - which doesn't do me much good - and that Studio Ghibli is still going strong. She then told me something which in retrospect I would've much rather not have known at all.

She said, "you know, MIyazaki-san is in the building right now, working on his next movie for the museum..." I was hoping the next thing she was going to say was, would you like to meet him, but instead I got this, "...if you go around the corner there is a log cabin-like building. That's his private office you might be able to see him there."

These words sort of broke me into several large and coarse pieces. To begin with, I never assumed he would be there, I also never had the intention of doing anything aside from standing outside. But this woman had just informed me that my greatest of heroes is somewhere within my own vicinity. It was now physically possible to actually meet the man himself. And that was where she left me. I gratefully bid her farewell and I let her go without asking the fateful question...

"may I meet Miyazaki-san?"

At that point I was so full of tumult and torment, I had no idea what to do. The sun had set, nighttime was settling in, and I just stood there dumbfounded for probably 45 minutes at the least. A. to simply remain there as long as I possibly could, and B. to play out in my imagination how this could all go down, and whether or not I could, should, or would've attempted to meet Hayao Miyazaki. Several people came in and out of the studio and a few of them even greeted me cheerfully on the way out as if they had already known all about the white boy loitering out front. No doubt my friend in HR was telling them everything. 

For those of you wondering if I gathered myself, walked into Studio Ghibli right through the front door, went straight to HR and asked humbly though with force and dignity if I might meet Hayao Miyazaki...I did not. And I did not for several reasons. The first of which was, I thought it would be a somewhat disrespectful thing to do, especially in Japan. I also found myself thinking if I were Miyazaki-san, would I want some strange gringo invading my privacy, and my work day? Furthermore, what would I say? If I didn't break down into a violent fit of tears, what could I possibly tell my hero that he wouldn't know already? How would that change anything at all? I have read all his books, seen all his movies, and without having met the man, I do believe I understand him and his mind. I know for a fact he would wonder why I had watched all his movies so many times instead of going out into nature and enjoying myself there. There is a quote of him saying he doesn't understand why people watch his movies more then once or twice! 

I think with all that swirling around in my head, I resolved not to attempt to meet him. Ultimately it wouldn't change anything, and I would risk inconveniencing one of my greatest heroes, or worse. The point was to come to this place, and stand outside, and feel the goosebumps on my skin, and breath the same air as the people who've created my favorite films. And I did just that. Mission accomplished.  I took one last breath of Studio Ghibli air, bade farewell, and began my journey home to Yoyogi. I know I will come back again someday soon. Perhaps I will meet Miyazaki-san then. 


To be continued in part 4! 








Tokyo Pt 2: Seoul

Part 2: Seoul

Seoul, in with the old, in with the new!

The next day I found myself back at Narita airport at the proverbial "butt-crack" of dawn as they say (or at least my Mom says that). And once again, quite mercifully and without a hitch, I arrived at my gate at one of the discount international terminals. "Eastar Jet" is the name of this "airline" and let me tell you, "east" was the only accurate part of the stars necessary. Eastar makes Allegiant seem like Air Force 1. That may be hyperbole but what I'm trying to say here is Eastar Jet isn't exactly the Cadillac of the skies. 

You may be wondering how does Seoul Korea enter into this picture? There's really two sides to this story. Firstly, I was in Japan, and therefore I was in "Asia," and Korea is very close by...just 2 hours by plane. Ordinarily it would've never occurred to me to go but Merrick had turned me onto a few travel sites like "Kayak", "Vayama", and "SkyPicker". These sites filter out the noise of airfare and find the cheapest flights available. I flew to Japan roundtrip for less then 700 dollars. On Air Canada no less! So it got me thinking, maybe this whole international airfare thing doesn't have to be murder, and so on a lark I thought to myself...well maybe I can do Seoul too. Turns out I could, for 250 bucks round trip from Narita. I'm in Japan, you only live I thought to myself, lets go to Korea!

The second part of the story is many many years ago, a girl named Kiyoung Kwon came to LA and had an internship at an office where my good friend Albert Chiang worked, as well as Merrick's then girlfriend Yulree Chun. Albert introduces Kiyoung to his brother Andrew and Yulree to Merrick and by the universal laws of averages, Kiyoung then meets me via a rather improvised camping trip to point Mugu in Malibu, in which myself, Shweta, Yulree, Merrick, Andrew Chiang, and Mr. Trevor Matsudaira himself all convened. From there we became good friends, but soon after she had to return to Korea and since then we've remained in touch. 

So with these two scenarios intertwining, my being in Japan, Kiyoung being in Seoul, and a general impulse to go BIG while I was out there, away I went!

Back to Eastar Jet. After acquiring my boarding pass with some difficulty (I only had confirmation, no ticket) I get in the back of an enormous millipede of a line with everyone slowly shuffling towards the gate. As I exited I noticed we were not getting onto a plane, but into shuttle busses. About three of them to accommodate all the passengers.  

OOH! But I must interject (myself) here, because I failed to mention that Kiyoung had tasked me with acquiring some Royce chocolates (luxuriously high end Japanese sweets) from, THE DUTY FREE SHOPS! After the circus that I witness in Vancouver BC, I was truly intimidated by the prospect. But, as I was pacing about on the periphery of a random sweet shop, I see rather serendipitously, the Royce chocolate section! Oh happy day...I would simply walk up to the chocolates, pick out what I needed with brevity, and head to the registers. Easy right? I think that fantasy lasted about a few steps before I was pinned on all sides by travelers with voracious appetites for discounted edibles. Oh my god I got pushed, nudged, elbowed, stepped on, was everything I thought it would be and more. By the time I got to the actual chocolates I had to sort of bend my arm and contort my upper body to grab these confections in ways I never thought possible. Attempting to politely dodge and edge my way around other people's limbs and grabby hands...I was shocked at the lack of personal space people gave each other. Suffice it to say, no one gave two fucks (that's French for "cares"). I think I've made my point here...I won't bother with the adventure that was getting to the cash register. More of the same really. A mad house...but NO TAXES!!!! WOOHOO! 

*Back to the busses* Obviously they took us to our little toy plane, but only after a 30 minute delay sitting in a heated bus filled to capacity. From there we drive for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time to the puddle jumper. I had a window seat, which has its perks, but that also means you're really stuck in there with whomever the fates decide to place next to you. In this case, it was a 20-something Korean boy wearing a bright yellow sweater that even Charlie Brown wouldn't be caught dead in...hard to imagine I know. That in and of itself wasn't a huge problem but combined with the fact that he smelled so potently of cigarettes and barbecue sauce, the next 2 hours didn't seem so appealing anymore. 

Fast forward. I'm now in Korea, can't wait to hit the mean streets of Seoul, hustling down to immigration so I can get on with my adventure and OH MY GOD...there's about a million people at customs. Before I could process what was happening I stumbled into the wrong line and waited there for a few minutes before realizing it was only for airport personnel and flight attendants and the like. Looking back on it, some airport employee was trying to tell me so, but was speaking so softly and from such a distance that it didn't connect, and I only realized it a few minutes later. I was embarrassed. Finally I found myself in the correct line and it looked to be miles long. And so it was that my time in Seoul was being slowly eclipsed for the next hour, starting, shuffling, stopping, and more of that on and on. At one point in line, there was a large puddle of what appeared to be vomit. The unpleasantness of this was made tolerable by watching the reactions and expressions of everyone trying to navigate their way around the puddle, and this ranged from sheer terror to severe repulsion, and to my surprise, many people found it absolutely hilarious for reasons I could never hope to understand. 

Alright...lets get the hell out of the airport already. Apologies. 

At long last I make it through immigration and customs, and as I emerge into the lobby, I scan the faces and find Kiyoung, and there is much slow motion rejoicing. I probably made a scene as people were staring, so out of deference I quieted down, and we hightailed it to the car. At journey into Seoul begins. What follows is one of the most activity packed days of my life! 

First was the long but relatively traffic free drive from Incheon international to Kiyoung's apartment. The drive was fascinating in all the ways a ride through a new city ought to be. Everything is simultaneously strange and yet familiar somehow. It felt very akin to Seattle in a variety of ways, although I'm not sure I can describe why necessarily. The cold to begin with, it was never above 35 degrees fahrenheit while I was there. Overcast skies, high winds. It felt very much like my home in the pacific northwest. The Han river appears and reappears frequently on the journey, it is massive in scale, and divides Seoul for miles and miles. Another similarity to Seattle now that I think about it, bodies of whatever interrupting the infrastructure. There were several tunnels through mountainous hills, which was fun for me because I absolutely love tunnels. At one point Kiyoung points out the biggest and most prestigious fish market in all of Korea. She said we could visit there but we never did. Honestly the drive was a blur, and I also did a very bad job photographing Seoul, so your imaginations will have to fill in the blanks I'm leaving. 

Soon we are in the heart of the city and darting in and out of little streets through cozy neighborhoods. I see pedestrian bridges and food shacks galore peppering the sidewalks. Christian churches are a dime a dozen. I guess the missionaries had great success in Korea. Finally after 45 minutes we make a left and head up a very steep 1 lane road (for 2 way traffic) into a community of massive apartment structures. I'm very excited to get out of the car for a spell and get a rest in but find as we are turning into Kiyoung's parking lot, that all the spots are full. She very casually parallels in front of some cars in designated spaces and I ask if there is valet? She says no. I then ask how can these poor people possibly hope to leave their parking spaces with her car and many other's in front of them. She then describes to me a very intricate system of trust between complete strangers and their automobiles:

Should you be the person parking someone else in, at least in this particular community, you are to:

A. Leave your car in neutral
B. Wedge a rock large enough to prevent your car from rolling down the incline. 

Provided these steps are taken, the owner of a vehicle who is parked in, can remove the rock in front of your tires, and gently nudge your vehicle, (which will be politely left in neutral) and slowly move it out of the way. The most remarkable thing about this seemingly risky practice is that it works! I can only imagine the potentially dangerous if not disastrous situations that could arise under these circumstances but Kiyoung was perfectly at home, and so was everyone else apparently. This would NEVER happen in America. Keep your hands off MY STUFF!

We pop into the elevator, go up four floors, pop back out into the freezing cold, and then promptly pop right into Kiyoung's super cozy apartment right around the corner and down the hallway on the left. Her mother is there to greet us both, a delightful and very sunny woman whose command of English was equivalent to my Korean. She embraces me and ushers me inside. Through her gestures and Kiyoung's translation I came to understand that she had relinquished her own bedroom  for my comfort. I tried to refuse but obviously she wouldn't hear of it and Kiyoung tells me that she and her Mom typically sleep in the living room anyways, foregoing both of their beds for the comfort of the living room floor (which was quite cozy). I dropped my things off in the bedroom and then nestled into the kitchen. The apartment was very small and had a warm, welcoming atmosphere. As I was walking on the hardwood floor, I blurted out, "Kiyoung are your floors HEATED?!" And indeed they were. This apparently is the norm in Korea, and like toilets that clean your poo-poo maker for you, is yet another invention that needs to be incorporated into daily American life ASAP. 

I sat down at the table and the first thing I noticed, sandwiched between the kitchen sink and the refrigerator is a very large grey box, intersecting the room at a 90 degree angle. In an apartment in which space is so limited if not precious, my mind begins racing as to what this contraption might be. Is it a dish washer of some sort? Or a compact washer/dryer for your clothes? I don't remember if I asked or if the information was volunteered based off the expression on my face but this massive grey box turns out to be (drum roll please)...a KIMCHI FRIDGE! 

That's right, a kimchi fridge. Full from the bottom to the top with kimchi. Kiyoung tells me that owning one of these bad boys is somewhat of a neighborly competition similar to who might have the biggest SUV in the states. Apparently all the ladies are trying to out-kimchi-fridge one another, and you know what, that's fine by me, because as Kiyoung popped the top, and the many containers full of pickled and spiced cabbage came into view, a blast of vinegary pickled deliciousness hit me in my olfactory zone so hard I nearly passed out from the pleasure of it all.

Kiyoung asks if I like kimchi...the answer was a resounding yes. She then pulls out some fresh homemade kimchi out of the fridge along with pickled spinach, squid, radish, and spicy hot peppers. We had some of the duty-free chocolate too. A feast for the ages and the perfect pick me up for a day of adventuring. I must add here that this is the best kimchi I've ever eaten, and has forever ruined me, as I will not be able to return to eating the same old generic restaurant kimchi around here at home. Forever changed by a fermented scrap of is strange. 

No time for dilly dallying. After a brief spell of watching "Produce 101" - a reality TV show in which 101 girls are all competing for spots in the ultimate girl group:

I'm ashamed the number of times I've watched this video...

...we were out the door, back into the cold, and onto the public bus on a quest for lunch! Before I came to this part of the world I bought (instead of a new jacket) some warm under layers, thinking that between them, my pants, and my flimsy (though fashionable) North Face jacket, I would be able to combat the cold. I was wrong. Perhaps the cold was doable but the windchill on the mean streets of Seoul was so bitter, I could feel my will to live begin to freeze over. Brutal. 

Before we hopped on the bus Kiyoung gave me a debit card, which doubled as a transportation card. Effectively making your own personal debit card a Suica like in Japan. An improvement on the concept if you asked me. We sit in the back and I watch the city roll by. So many types of buildings. Old grungy buildings betwixt modern monolithic structures with curving gravity defying edges and space age Sci-Fi elements…all jumbled up with literally ancient temples and gates to old Seoul (the headline picture is one such gate). Everywhere you looked there were restaurants and shops galore…it was amazing…but not overwhelming. The city was very welcoming and had with it a sense of “fairness” that I've never really felt before. I don't know much about economic inequalities in Korea but the income disparity wasn't as obvious as it is in LA. The same could be said for Tokyo as well. Everything was priced so ultra fairly it was amazing (not like in Tokyo where everything is expensive). Every cab ride was like 10 bucks or less…every meal felt totally fair. But more on this later.

On the bus, Kiyoung is wracking her brain trying to think of where to go and suddenly, I could even see the light bulb go off in her head, it hit her. Budaejjigae!

Budaejjigae literally translates to "Army Stew" and as it turns out, is extremely delicious. Kiyoung advised we get off at some stop or another, and I blindly follow her into a massive intersection. The wait at the crosswalk nearly turned me into a meat-popsicle (I really should've saved that analogy for later though, as closer to sunset the cold was much worse). The restaurant was only a hop, skip and a jump away, and once inside, it wasn't long until this appeared on our table:

Budaejjigae aka "Army Stew"

What you are seeing here, is a large "wok-ish" fry pan with veggies, thin slices of beef, chunks of hot dog ( dog), spices, and what appears to be grocery store style ramen noodles. Perhaps this sounds unappetizing to you, but the sight and smell of this concoction, bubbling away (and on such a cold cold day) made my mouth water in ways Bugs Bunny himself couldn't conjur. 

It is called "Army Stew" because towards the end of the Korean war, food was scarce. And the poor, starving, and undoubtedly freezing Koreans had to make the best of what was around, so they would convert the scraps and handouts from various US army bases in the area into delicious and nutritious stews! Thus the american style hot dogs in there. Delicious would be an unjust adjective to use. This felt just like Mom's cooking, it was glorious. I was so happy by the end of this meal I could hardly contain myself, and the flavors lingered on my taste buds long after we had finished. On our way out, as we were paying for lunch, our waitress, who was probably old enough to be my mother, just started putting her hands all over me, rubbing my back and arms and smiling, and saying a bunch of stuff in Korean, which I obviously didn't understand. But something tells me she liked me. I wanted to come back...but alas, no time this trip. 

Kiyoung had booked us for a tour of Changdeokgung Palace, and we had to be there at a particular time, 1:30ish I believe. So we hopped in a cab and drove off further into the wilds of Seoul! As I mentioned briefly before, the union between old and new seemed very strong and interconnected. Like when the children have grown up and start taking care of their parents, the modern architecture looming over the old, embracing rather then replacing. It was beautiful. Another item of note which excited me in particular was the cars! Cars in Korea are awesome. Japan as well, but Seoul took the cake in vehicular design. Virtually all the cars were KIAs and Hyundais and their various subsidiaries (in Tokyo Toyota had about 4 different brands under its belt, and in Seoul Hyundai had at least 2). But these were not quite the ones I'm used to seeing in the states. These were amazing. Many of them looked like cars from the future. A majority of the cars on the road had excellent futuristic design more similar to prototype vehicles in the US. An incredible lack of Mercedes and BMW was refreshing…although Audi reigned supreme. Seoul was like Back to the Future 2 for cars...awesome. 

Our cabbie dropped us off near Changdeokgung and we walk the rest of the way. By now the sun was high in the sky and was very warming if you happened to be standing in it directly. However, any amount of shade or wind would shatter its fragile warmth like a baseball through the neighbor's'd just want to run away! 

On the way to the palace we spotted this handsome guy:

King Sejong!

King Sejong the Great - to the best of my limited understanding, is one of, if not the greatest Korean king in history. Kiyoung can correct me if I'm wrong. Found on the 10,000 WON bill, this guy ruled from 1418 to 1450 and in that time, fostered the sciences and arts, attempted to economically stabilize the country, and created Korea's alphabet, Hangul! He also (according to wikipedia) subjugated Japanese raiders in the south, a military success that I'm sure is heralded to this day, as relations between Japan and Korea aren't entirely perfect. Maybe more on that later but perhaps I shouldn't get into politics. 

Finally, the gates of Changdeokgung! 

There was a lot to see and do in the palace, and I could really divulge at length, but in the interest of time I'll let the photos do most of the talking. 

For those of you who are wondering, the app we used to take those ridiculously awesome selfies is called Camera360, and allows you to do a bunch of wacky things. Before I continue on, I must describe the highlight of the palace! It was not architectural or floral, but rather bumping into these two strange girls:

2 very strange girls, in traditional Korean clothing called Hanbok.

What made these girls strange was not their clothes or demeanor, but their picture poses! Kiyoung and I were ascending the side steps to the main palace or throne room and I noticed these two girls very sheepishly sending a "please take our photo" energy out into the universe. The girl on the left made eye contact with me and then broke it off quite suddenly, and I couldn't tell what the best course of action was. I decided to help them nevertheless, and they very nervously accepted. When I lined up the shot, they each presented themselves in the most peculiar way, the like I had never seen. One girl pressed her hands together and rested her face upon them as if to go to sleep. She then closed her eyes and turned her face away from the camera. The other gave the peace sign so as to obscure most of her face, and similarly turned away from the camera. It was kind of surreal. Kiyoung urged me to get in there for a picture myself, and I did!

We left the palace and walked down the street just off the major road. No sights to behold here that one couldn't see all around the city. Vertical signs ascending and descending and cascading all down the block, menageries of buildings made from all sorts of materials: brick, wood, glass, steel…Seoul is like an old tree. When you cut it in half you can see the age from the rings in the wood. 

As we walked we came across a rather unsuspecting bakery/cafe and neither the sight nor the smell of this place would've compelled me inside were it not for Kiyoung's own interest in doing so. I believe it was called Anguk. That said, one step over the threshold and you could tell you were somewhere special. The entrance had an old growth wooden architectural vibe, and breads of all shapes and sizes were poking up from every which way, a veritable feast for the eyes - and tummies. Regarding sights and smells, whatever the case was outside, it certainly was not within. We proceeded to the counter up a small flight of stairs and ordered a ginger lemon milk tea (for myself), a grapefruit lemon tea (for Kiyoung) and a slice of cake that looked positively dreamy (to share). When our drinks arrived, I was utterly shocked at how insanely delicious they were.

Yum, yum, aaaaannnnnnd YUM!

My “milk tea” was nothing like the Chinese version I'm so used to having (milk tea with boba is hugely popular in Los Angeles, and it all tastes ubiquitous no matter where you go...though some places make it super delish). It was warm, and thick, and had what I can only describe as a custard like layer on top. The taste was simultaneously sweet, and savory, and nurturing. There were chunks of ginger floating deep within the cup and they were so delicious, I couldn't believe my tastebuds. Kiyoung's tea was on a similar level of deliciousness though for very different reasons. It was amazing. The cake was also wonderful and light and airy and sweet. I'm gushing I know, but super mashita mashita will do that to you. [mashita = delicious]

Hard to believe this day was far from over. 

By now the cold was becoming a serious issue, as we huddled and simultaneously hustled on foot through various neighborhoods. After a brief trek we got off the main street into a wide brick-laid alleyway with hundreds and hundreds of people walking to and fro with shops selling all manner of knick-knacks on both sides. Then down the road a waze, off to the left, was a very large out door shopping mall, with floors diagonally ascending around an open air courtyard, up about 4 or 5 stories. The stores were all small crafts and independently manufactured goods, and reminded me of some of Victoria Vu's pop-up shops and craft fairs here in LA, only these were permanent. I bought a few little things from a guy on the first floor and he said I could pay in either WON, or USD as a convenience to me (or so it would seem). However, when I chose USD (on a lark, because why not) he instantly declares that wouldn't give me the best exchange rate, so I should definitely take the WON. Well then why bother with option Jack?! 

On the top floor was a bridge to an adjacent building covered in what I can only assume are messages of love. It reminded me of the locks on the fence in Paris, just more adorable. 

The Wall of Love!

Lastly, there were cookies for sale in the shape of poo-poo on both the top and bottom floors. As I mentioned before, I did a bad job in Seoul by way of picture taking. I'm very sorry. No poo-poo cookies for you.

After that we careened through Seoul either on foot or via public transpo; the cold at this point was blurring my concept of reality and I just don't remember. Kiyoung wanted to expose me to the glorious flavors of bindaedduk, aka Korean mung bean pancakes. Apparently the best place to get these was at Gwangjang market which was nearby the crafty mall. This place was an absolute assault on the senses. Imagine if the outdoor sets from Blade Runner, had a love child with the cantina on Tattooine from Star Wars, and then that love child had a baby with the food alley from Spirited Away...that is Gwangjang market. The first thing I remember was a shoe store with piles upon piles of hundreds upon hundreds of shoes in no particular order of gender or size. Good luck shopping there! After that I can't remember anything other then food.

This place was for eating.

Most every stand sold or offered the same items. But to use the same word again and again, it was a menagerie. Pig's feet, chicken's feet, live baby octopus, noodles, kimchee, Korean pancakes, meats etc etc all within arms reach. There was nothing preventing anyone from just putting their hands in any of it. We sort of flowed through the market like blood cells through a clotted artery, and upon reaching the other side, promptly turned around and went right back in. Kiyoung wanted me to try the best pancake joint and so we ventured back through the chaos of bodies and smells and sounds. It should be noted that some fucking guy behind me was just touching my butt constantly…not in a harassment sort of way…but in that sort of, "he's Asian and therefore has no territorial understanding of other people's space or comfort" sort of way. To those of you who may be more sensitive to this type of racial profiling, I apologize. I guess it is what it is. Now that I'm thinking about it, the same thing happened in the immigration line as well. GET OUTTA' MY TERRITORIAL BUBBLE BRO!

We get in line and there's about 20 people ahead of us, but through some miracle they were all in parties of 3 or more, and the woman was crying out for a party of 2! THAT'S US! So Kiyoung and I just start walking past all these people feeling like celebrities or something. This is not the last time this happened. In the airport Kiyoung somehow got me past all the lines for check-in! Perhaps she is good luck! Here's some photos from the restaurant:

That bottle I'm holding is rice wine? Very different then sake. At this point things were getting pretty hazy. I was exhausted and freezing, and having too good a time to notice how much alcohol I had consumed. - Note: Kiyoung can hold her liquor...not me - The beauty of this joint was there was no menu! Only bindaedduk. So you just needed to decide on what to drink! So we plowed through a bottle of soju, and finished most of the rice wine, and I'm getting pretty rowdy. I must also point out that I'm not a fan of either of these drinks, as they both tasted like watered down vodka. I'm not sure how that picture of a Korean lady ended up on the bottom of my glass, though I'm certain I put it there at some point. Kiyoung informed me it's very bad luck to have a cracked glass...ohhhhh welllllll. At one point a bunch of young ladies at the table next to us are all trying to get my attention...turns out I dropped not only my gloves on the floor, but my passport too. Super smooth Brendan. I was embarrassed but didn't care. Kiyoung and I stay for quite a while reminiscing and chatting about various things and I realize that Seoul is awesome, I was having a total ball, and what a dummy I've been for not heading east-ways sooner! 

And now it was time for dinner!

We team up with Kiyoung's BF and headed to get some dakgalbi...aka super chicken stir fry. Apparently, according to both Kiyoung and Merrick, this can be quite the delicacy, and the place we went had even been featured on TV! But this place left me wanting.  

Dakgalbi...should've been delicious...but was not. 

About midway through I started feeling a little queasy if not downright rotten and conferring with Kiyoung afterwards, she felt the same way. I wasn't too terribly upset though, as the track record for tastes coming out of Seoul was just WAY to good. It had to get brought down a notch otherwise I don't think I'd ever want to eat anywhere else. Next time I'm in Seoul I would like to try this dish again...

After dinner Kiyoung wanted to take me to a super cool local brewery, tucked magically into some corner of yet another Hollywood movie set back alleyway. This was called Magpie Brewery, and it was delicious. Walking in, the place was the size of someone's kitchen. Not big at all. The menu was simple: Pale Ale, IPA, Porter #1, Porter #2, a Belgian ale, nuts, and grilled cheese sandwiches. I absolutely love places with small menus because its a sure fire sign of quality (for the most part). We were not displeased. Kiyoung ordered the pale ale and I ordered the porter. They were both thoroughbred examples of what these two types of beer ought to be. The porter was crisp and dark and went down super smooth. Everything you'd want and expect. The other beer was arguably more amazing. It was indeed a pale ale, but lacked that watery flavor and had a robustness to it that I've never tasted in the style, with a consistency of flavor that lasted all the way down the gullet…all whilst never betraying it's pale ale roots. Wonderful. Why stop there? Then we got the IPA and the other Porter! It was all freaking delicious!!!

By then it was getting late, nine or ten for sure, but seeing as how I was leaving Seoul the next day,  it was obviously time for KARAOKE! 

Karaoke was epic. We went somewhere close by, and got ourselves 30 minutes. This place was pretty cool and had see through floor panels with desert scenes and succulents underneath. I probably sang the first number, probably very poorly as well; but as usual, my karaoke warm-up jam was Kiss From a Rose by Seal. Kiyoung handled the K-Pop with incredible flare, complete with dance moves and everything. Who knew? I sang and sang and I must confess after a few tunes I was really blowing up the joint - this was in fact a warm up for my most epic karaoke performance ever a few days later in Tokyo. I noticed in the corner of the screen the time limit went from 30, down to 20, then up to 40, then down to 30, then up to 50. In my mind this was obviously because our performances were so awesome the guy at the desk couldn't help but give us bonus time. However when I asked Kiyoung she informed me it was customary. Oh well, bonus time is still awesome. Something amazing happened while I was rocking out in there as well, something that has never happened to me before. In many karaoke bars you can get graded on your performance. How this algorithm works I don't know but I have watched drunken frat boy idiots mumble inanities into the mic and score higher then me. So these things are not very accurate. But I scored 100% TWICE! That's right, karaoke master right here. Not only that, but I also scored 98 and 99% on two other songs. I don't remember which but I remember one was a Sam Smith tune, and the other was Friends Will be Friends by Queen. 

After that it was easily midnight or later and it was time to turn in. We headed back to the apartment, at which point the heated floors were a true godsend...once again, why these aren't common place in America I will never know. It was so nice to lie down after an entire day of walking I must've passed out immediately because the next thing I knew, it was morning and the sounds and smells of breakfast being prepared buoyed me up from the depths and into consciousness.  

This was only a mere fraction of the goodies Kiyoung's Mum had prepared for breakfast. 

I came out of the room and found Kiyoung's mother casting magic spells in the kitchen. Many many dishes had been prepared, and a veritable feast was slowly appearing on the kitchen table. Not the least of which was japchae, a favorite Korean dish of not only myself, but Kiyoung as well. It's essentially glass noodles mixed together with delicious vegetables. This meal was so nurturing and delicious, I will never forget it, nor will I forget Kiyoung's and her mother's hospitality. 

The time had come to prepare for my journey back to Japan. I packed up my ginormous travel pack, shlepped it onto my back, gave some very fond farewells to Kiyoung's Mum, and after this awesome photoshoot:

Kiyoung and I headed out for one last adventure in Seoul. First we walked down the street past the numerous christian churches and cathedrals to the neighborhood quickie mart. I found this place very interesting because it was completely unmarked and tucked inside a sort of miniature strip mall for lack of a better description. There was the quickie mart, then some sort of office (perhaps an accountant), an empty space, and then down the hall, was that a Laundromat(?) and then a small bakery; all separated by flimsy glass walls. Our business at the bakery was to get Merrick some of his favorite Korean cookies (which were very tough but extremely satisfying all the same). I noticed the baker had a cot in the back and thought this must be his house AND place of business. He was extremely jovial despite the early hour (8ish?) and sold us his baked goodies with a contented grace I don't often see. He even gave us two cookies for free! 

After that we cabbed it back to the neighborhood around Changdeokgung Palace. This was because the express train to Incheon airport was located in the area, but Kiyoung had already gotten tickets on her cell, so we were set, and had some time to kill. First we stopped by one of these ancient gates to the palace and, amidst the bazillions of tourists, saw "the changing of the guard" ceremony.

These unhappy fellows have the solemn duty of standing perfectly still for hours on end, in the bitter bitter cold (and the extreme heat in summer I imagine). Very similar to the classic guards in London, just with more festive garb. The changing of the guard involved a small procession of other similarly dressed men, coming to replace the frozen ones, and several drummers, though they didn't play anything very interesting. Then the captain of the guard barks various orders and one by one, inspects each and every one of these unfortunate souls. The fate of a guard who isn't in pristine condition and form remains unknown to me, as everyone seemed to be fit for duty, but I did wonder what would befall one who wasn't up to snuff. It also occurred to me that this ceremony has probably been going on every four or so hours for centuries and centuries. Incredible. 

A cup of coffee later and Kiyoung and I hightailed it down into the subway, classically missing the train by a few seconds. It turns out you can purchase tickets on your phone, but you still need to pick up physical ones at the kiosk before going through. All was not lost, the next one was arriving shortly after that, and it would arrive at Incheon a mere 20 minutes after the last. Kiyoung got new tickets, and away we went. The train ride was pleasant, though pangs of sadness started creeping into my heart and mind from various nooks and crannies. I really enjoyed my roller coaster ride through Seoul, and seeing Kiyoung again after so many years, the food and the culture were delicious, and the whole city was just so cozy and inviting. I will never forget it. In many ways the train ride was a practice run, or to be more narrative, foreshadowing for my final departure from Tokyo a few days later. And that is to say, very sad. 

Forty or so minutes later we arrive at Incheon. Entering the airport from the ground, it isn't obvious that you're actually walking into a massive indoor structure. It felt more like Madison Square Garden or a football stadium then an airport. The lobby was almost labyrinthian with escalators shooting off in every direction. Mercifully Kiyoung knew exactly what to do and we found our way to the automated kiosks without much inconvenience. Having said that, my Eastar Jet confirmation number was not working at all and after several tries, Kiyoung ventured off to find help elsewhere. The attendant at the kiosks, with a mild reproach in her tone told me I had to get in line with everybody else. The line was at least four million people long give or take and I was distraught. Right then however, I heard Kiyoung's voice calling out, and I found her gesturing hurriedly at me to forget the kiosks and follow her. She led me to a group of Eastar Jet employees and with a flurry of Korean language exchange between the 3 of them, I was permitted to bypass the line of four million people altogether, and head straight to the counter! Kiyoung FTW! [for the win]. 

I got checked in and Kiyoung and I exchanged very fond, but melancholy goodbyes. I thought it was remarkable that we stayed such good friends after all this time, and it didn't feel quite right leaving after such a short visit. As it turns out, though we didn't know it then, I would be seeing Kiyoung in Tokyo a few days later. This was due to many auspicious factors, not the least of which was a three day weekend holiday, and a surplus of frequent flyer miles. 

The rest of my time in Seoul was spent in queues and lobbies. I was sad but my adventure was still far from over. The next day in Tokyo I would go to visit the Ghibli museum and the work place of one of my greatest heroes...Hayao Miyazaki. 

To be continued!













Tokyo Pt 1

So this is the beginning... 

...of what may end up being a 3 part blog entry on my trip to Japan and Seoul. In it I hope to make some sense of my experiences as they were almost innumerable and difficult to comprehend at it still feels as though I'm waking from a dream, and can't tell if it was real or not. 


So my trip began as like any other, with a virtually sleepless night. Satish and Abhijeet had come into town the day before, it was my brother's birthday, and the Chiang's had their big record release party, as the old adage goes: when it rains it pours. So after a few very brief hours of sleep Satish was kind enough to take me to the airport, where I boarded my flight to Tokyo on Air Canada without a hitch. We popped up to Vancouver BC where I spent my brief layover navigating the plethora of duty free shops and the menagerie of people inside them. Let me tell you from experience...Asian people take their duty free shopping SERIOUSLY. 

My new Eagle Creek travel pack ready to rock!

My new Eagle Creek travel pack ready to rock!

Continuing on, once again without any bumps in the road I hop on my flight to Tokyo. I even had an emergency row seat which granted me plenty of leg room. Also the entirety of my giant backpack fit in the overhead bin, so I was free and clear to enjoy myself and relax. 

I began watching the second Avengers Movie, which if you haven't seen yet, spare yourself the time and anguish. It was tripe. That said, I peered out the window after and I was very confused to see that we were still above land. I had anticipated we would be in the middle of the ocean after a good 2 hours, but I was left baffled. And yet here we were:

And I realized after watching the land and the endless mountains and river basins fade away, that this was in fact Alaska or even farther north, and I was flying past the edge of the world! I will never forget this sight. Perhaps the pictures don't do the vastness of this spectacle justice. I had never seen a more indomitable and barren landscape in all my life. It reminded me of the incredible sights I saw on the flight to Costa Rica, with lightning cracking down through the sky all around the plane. Spectacular. 

A few movies later, 2 "meals", and the first half of the Bram Stoker's Dracula audio book (all available on the Air Canada entertainment console) I found myself flying into Tokyo. It should be noted I suppose, that midway through the flight I felt a terrible terrible trepidation about my trip that sort of shook me to my core. I really couldn't fathom how or why I was doing this, or for what reason, and it scared me quite a bit. All feelings of confusion and fear vanished however when I first caught site of Japan. 

I was immediately astounded by the beauty of the land beneath me. And was surprised that the incredible futuristic sprawl of Tokyo did not begin with lights and sounds and skyscrapers, but with farms, bamboo forests, and rivers. Amazing.  

The plane touched down at Narita International and I began weaving my way through security and immigration, then onto networks of shuttles and busses arriving finally to the Densha station below Narita. Densha is the Japanese word for "subway". From there I get on a densha called the "Skyliner" to Nippori station I believe, although I could be wrong. It is at Nippori station I wait to be intercepted by Merrick Mosst, the man who gifted me the tickets to come over. While I was waiting I availed myself to some onigiri - essentially little seaweed wrapped rice balls stuffed with a variety of things. These would come very much in handy to a hungry traveler like myself as the trip went on. 

Although I knew to be expecting him, I didn't necessarily know where to look, and as I was sort of advancing around staring at everything in wonderment, Merrick and I literally bumped into each other by accident. I hollered quite loudly drawing stares from busy commuters and we began promptly celebrating through a series of hugs and exclamations, and then voraciously eating the onigiri I had just bought. This was the first of many dreamlike moments in which I simply could not believe what was happening. It was one thing to see Merrick - a relatively commonplace experience - but an entirely different thing to see him in Tokyo! It is still hard to believe it. 

We hopped on the train to his neighborhood of Yoyogi and my adventure began in earnest. Merrick gave me a "suica" card, which is essentially a cash card that can be used for train tickets and frequently food and vending machines in or around stations. This was very useful because you essentially ride the densha all day everyday, and with this little suica card in your wallet you can just tap your wallet against the sensor and away you go. No waiting. We emerge via the west exit of Yoyogi station onto the cold streets of Tokyo. The intersection here is the union of 4 or 5 different roads, around which buildings of various sizes and vintages tower. Pedestrians, cyclists, cars, restaurants, arcades, convenience stores and more all blur together and I can barely wrap my head around it. And this was just Yoyogi...a very quiet and chilled out neighborhood. We continue down the street on the brief walk to Merrick's apartment and the frenetic energy of Yoyogi station fades into the background. The streets are dark and slicked with rain, mothers with sometimes 2 children strapped onto bicycles zip down the sidewalk, a vinyl record store, then several hole in the wall restaurants, a bridge, a grocery store, a secret stone staircase that leads into a quiet series of homes and apartment buildings. Everything in one sense is crammed together, and in another, everything is cozy, and well placed, and just so. I became very accustomed to this walk over the coming days so much so it sort of felt like home.  

Merrick's apartment is just a 5 minute walk from Yoyogi station and though I had no idea what to expect, I was still very relieved when I saw the outside of the building. A very clean structure with modern design...I was immediately comforted I wouldn't be staying in some big city dump the like we've all grown so accustomed to from movies and what not. As a matter of fact...I never saw anything in Tokyo that looked dirty or cheap or poorly maintained. Everything was well kept and taken care of. 

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     The outside of Merrick's apartment building...the "Seven Arches"

The outside of Merrick's apartment building...the "Seven Arches"

I put my things down and we turn and head out into the evening cold for dinner. My first glimpse of Tokyo was of course, a mega mall. 

Takashimaya is many many floors of shops...although we went straight for the top floor to a katsu joint (katsu is effectively the Japanese style of fried food. Though to compare it to American fried chicken would be apples and oranges). I'm not sure what the story is behind the clock tower but I thought it was very beautiful...especially at night. I must confess my first legit meal in Japan was underwhelming. The katsu was not very flavorful, or it was a flavor I found unappealing, and the sides were equally bland. The katsu I'm used to eating in Los Angeles is accompanied by very spicy curry. This was unfortunate because it sort of colored my culinary interpretations of Japan for several days, with me thinking or believing that either Japanese food wasn't as good as everyone says it is, or that LA has pretty decent Japanese food, and the difference just wasn't that different after all. Sadly for me, as I learned as the trip went on, the food in LA holds only the smallest of candles to the average meal I had in Japan. All that said...the katsu still wasn't very good. 

After dinner we walked back to Yoyogi and the Seven Arches and I nestled into Merrick's super cozy apartment. Its a 1 bedroom with a mini kitchen that's part of the living room. The bathroom has a very skinny hallway with a sink and a compact washer, a room for the toilet, and a room for the shower.  Japanese bathrooms are wonderful, and though I've known about them for many years, I've obviously never been in one. So to begin with...the toilet...

I should've taken a picture, although I'm sure Jay can send us all a picture of his ToTo but whatever you think you know about toilets...think again. After a long journey and a katsu dinner I don't think it would be that surprising nor in poor taste to say I needed to use the toilet. And the first thing I notice when I sat down is a very welcoming heat emanating from the seat itself. That's right...heated seat. Amaze. From there it operates very similarly to a regular toilet from anywhere else in the world...that is to say, you do your business and flush. But, for those of you interested in the more wondrous aspects of this machine read on...if you're a bit squeamish, skip to the next paragraph. It took me a few days to work up the courage to explore some of the other functions of the toilet, and Merrick even confessed to me that after 3 years he hadn't even tried them out himself. There's essentially 4 buttons on the side of the potty...a "red" button...a button with a butt icon...a button with a lady icon...and a button with a "wind" icon. It doesn't take a great imagination to figure out what these pictographs indicate. Red stands for STOP. Whatever is happening, pressing the red button ends the function. Pressing the butt icon button sends a spray of water (in customizable degrees of pressure) so expertly aimed at your poo poo maker I almost leapt off the toilet the first time. Once again, this laser beam of H2O will not cease until you press stop. The lady icon as best as I can guess is designed for more feminine needs. I pressed it anyway and it basically serves the same function, but over a wider can guess what I mean. Lastly the wind icon, just sort of shoots air at the area, presumably to dry it off, but I didn't have much success with that part of the process...meaning, as awesome as it may have been, I was left with a very wet behind when all was said and done. I'm glad I did. 

The shower room is really amazing.  Essentially the whole room is the shower. There's a shower head attached to a long hose, a very tiny tub, and a drain in the floor. And that's it. For some reason this bathing experience feels entirely new and refreshing to a regular shower in the states. If I had one of these in my own house I don't think I would leave the room. 

Eventually it was time for sleep. Merrick's couch converted into a bed, and I laid out my new sleeping bag and fell into a deep, deep slumber the like I haven't had in as long as I can remember. It was the last decent night's sleep I had in 10 days. 


The gate to Meiji Shrine

The next morning Merrick and I both awoke quite leisurely and had a nice long conversation over breakfast. That said, he still had to work most days, and he worked from home, so it was time for me to head out into the wide world of Tokyo on my own. And the first stop on the docket was Meiji shrine, a massive and overwhelmingly beautiful monument in the heart of Tokyo, and only 2 stops away! So I put my warm clothes on and headed out, through the alley, down the secret staircase, back under the bridge, past the super market, and into Yoyogi station once again, slapped my suica card down on the sensor, and feeling like a local, headed to my first solo trip on the densha! 

Harajuku was my stop. Harajuku is a massive shopping district. Its basically the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica on steroids. Exiting the train I was immediately buffeted by waves and waves of people. Everyone from salary men (the classic black suit and tie Japanese worker) to fashionistas and beyond. Gaijin (foreigners) galore, strange anime girls dressed up in lolita costumes, goth kids, grunge kids, hip-hop kids, hustlers, moms and dads and children...everyone. One turn to the left would send me careening into the Harajuku shops and madness, and one turn to the right took me to Meiji incredible contrast by any standard. Hard to imagine that behind me was a massive consumer sprawl and in front of me was one of the most serene and peaceful places I've ever been. 

I could very easily spend the next hour or more writing about the Meiji shrine. So with this in mind I will let some pictures do most of the talking. 

As you can see, this place is incredibly gorgeous. The first picture is of the walkway just past the main gate. Even in the heart of winter the colors were vivid green and just beautiful. The peaceful aura of the entire area was you could reach out and touch it. Eventually I came across rows and rows of festive sake barrels lining the path, and just beyond that, a second gate. I don't remember much about the details of these gates, but they are from 1771 I remember that much. Nearly 300 years old. At the end of the path beyond the gate is the entrance to Meiji shrine. Meiji shrine is very culturally significant because it is home to the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, who to the best of my understanding, were the first rulers of Meiji era Japan. That is to say, the beginning of modern Japan as we know it today. Also significant: the Meiji era marked the end of not just feudalism in Japan, but the end of the samurai and ronin way of life. 

Approaching the main shrine I discovered a water fountain (pictured above). You are supposed to rinse your hands with the water first, and then drink from the cups to purify your mouth if not your mind and body. I saw people drink the water, as well as rinse and spit it out. Admittedly I didn't try it that day, but on my return to the Meiji shrine I did, and it was the best tasting water I've ever had. 

Crossing the threshold into the shrine I found myself in a large open courtyard. It was around this time that I started feeling very strange, and a rather unusual feeling took hold of me. I couldn't quite tell what it was and I walked on. I continued to the main shrine (not pictured here as there were signs that said no photography and I wanted to respect that) and found myself at the foot of the structure. In front of me was a large wooden box with slats along the top. Incense was burning nearby tho I could not see from where. I noticed people praying here and it suddenly dawned on me that this was in fact a spiritual and religious place, not just some palace. You were supposed to make a donation to the box, bow your head, clap twice, and say your prayers. I also didn't participate in this ritual as it felt a little superficial, me being a gaijin (foreigner) and all. However, it was around this time that strange feeling from earlier started getting stronger and I noticed it was a very tangible sadness. I stepped off to the side and was reading some information in English and I found the feeling did not stop welling up inside of me and it soon ballooned into grief. A very terrible grief. I know this may sound very strange and I'm a little embarrassed to confess this at all, but it happened and I won't ever forget it. 

I thought if I didn't remove myself from the premises, I may lose it completely. I turned away from the shrine and hurriedly walked out the side gate. By this time my heart was aching and all sorts of memories and images started flashing before my eyes, smells and sounds and feelings from years gone by and I thought I was having some sort of mental episode. I was choking back sobs and tears were openly rolling down my face. My rational mind could only attribute these feelings as a sort of metaphysical reaction to the shrine itself (strange and superstitious as it may be) and sure enough, with each step I took away from the main building, the feeling subsided bit by bit, step by step, and by the time I reached the main gate overlooking Harajuku, the feeling had nearly gone completely. I decided that before I left Japan, I would need to return to Meiji shrine and try to understand what had happened to me there. 

Then, though I felt completely drained, I headed into the wilderness of Harajuku. 

There's not much to say about Harajuku that I haven't mentioned already. Sadly I didn't get many pictures. Writing this travel blog makes me regret not documenting every last detail. But, suffice it to say, it was an eclectic blend of little pop-up shops of small businesses and major retailers. It felt like a giant permanent bazaar. Very festive and cozy and full of energy...though beyond crowded.  I will mention, that Tokyo was rather (disappointingly) graffiti free, and Harajuku was the only place I found any, though it was obviously commissioned. I really liked them though. 

I especially love the "Now is Forever" wall...there is something about that sentiment that rings true. Sort of like Young Beautiful in a Hurry. I made my way back to Yoyogi, and this time stopped at the grocery store and grabbed myself some salmon roe (raw fish eggs, which I tossed onto some rice at Merricks. It looked a little something like this:

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     Salmon roe from the grocery store...not very nummy...but very nourishing to a hungry boy. 

Salmon roe from the grocery store...not very nummy...but very nourishing to a hungry boy. 

After that Merrick and I dilly dallied at home and then headed out to dinner at a spanish restaurant (of all places) where we were to meet up with none other then our good friend Kevin Hensel, who also happens to be living in Japan as well. Dinner was pretty damn good I must confess. A tiny tiny joint reminiscent to Casa Nelson in Spain (a delicious 1 man restaurant). Our waitress Mio-chan was old friends with Merrick from a few years ago and she spent a majority of her night hanging out with us and even got us free drinks. It was a great evening. After that the three of us took to the streets and I got my first glimpse of Shibuya...Shibuya is the equivalent of New York's Times Square. The difference being is that every other intersection in Tokyo looks just like Shibuya in some form or another. The immensity of Tokyo simultaneously never really set in, nor did it seem to be overly daunting. Too much fun to be had I suppose. 

It should be noted here that one of the things that struck me about Japan almost immediately (and this is only the musings of a foreigner, so I could be completely wrong), is music seems to be really important to them still. And though it may be slowly changing, it certainly has not gone down hill as quickly as the rest of the world. First of all, they still have record stores. Like...places that sell CDs. Tower records is alive and well, and in Harajuku I saw an independent record store...and I saw several vinyl record shops throughout the city as well. All this aside, getting off the train in Shinjuku on the way to dinner I saw, in the heart of this immensely busy district, what appeared to be a 5 story building dedicated entirely to the retail of musical instruments. Across the intersection from there, a giant neon guitar! It gave me goosebumps honestly. Merrick told me that businesses like those are struggling to survive but even still...its a testament to how many people are interested in not just listening to it, but playing it. Perhaps its naive, but I loved that so much about Japan.   

KAMAKURA - The City of Shrines

The next day Merrick and I set out for Kamakura. Under the circumstances it was difficult to get too far outside the city; nevertheless one of my goals while in Japan was to get out of town, and Kamakura is the closest place that qualifies, and qualify it did. Kamakura is famous because it probably has more shrines in it per capita then Christian churches in Ferndale and Lynden Washington combined. I suppose the trip on the densha was the greater part of an hour and a half. We left without breakfast and at one of the major stations we popped into a bakery (bakeries are hugely popular over there) and we got what ended up being my favorite food item in Japan, Kare Pan...aka curry bread. This little bundle of flavor is essentially a deep fried donut (more or less) filled to the brim with delicious Japanese curry, and thinking about it now (at 5:32am) makes my stomach growl with longing. Damn it was delicious. We also ordered a hot dog pastry which was also delicious (for some reason Asian hot dogs are amazing, as they were also delicious in Korea - more on that later). 

The train ride to Kamakura alone was worth the cost of the whole trip. It was just gorgeous watching the skyscrapers fade into suburbs and suburbs fade into trees, and trees fade into valleys. We passed through Yokohama, a large port city, home apparently to a street exclusively populated by ramen shops. I didn't get to go. Next time I suppose. Kamakura arrived with a whisper, the whole trip reminded me very much of Chihiro's trip on the train in Spirited Away towards the end of the film. We got off the train, and it was cold, and green, and beautiful. Unlike in the city there's no high-tech gadget to prevent you from leaving without paying, just an open gate and the honor system. As a side note, no one has any fear of theft in Japan, I was shocked and amazed...people for the most part seem to be extremely respectful of the law and of doing unto others as they would unto themselves I suppose. We paid for our train all the same. 

Spitting distance from the train was our first stop, the Engakuji shrine. I'm not sure why Merrick thought to go there as there were so many options but I'm extremely glad we did. Entry was 300 yen (3 bucks essentially) and in we went. Now I know I mentioned that Meiji shrine was one of the most peaceful places I've ever been, but this took the cake. Engakuji was hands down the most beautiful place I've ever seen, as far as man made structures are concerned. Unlike some of the other shrines I've been to since (including Meiji) whose buildings are large and space is vast, Engakuji was small and populated by many many small shrines. Peppering the walkways were early plum blossom blooms, which were just as gorgeous as their more famous counterparts - the sakura (cherry blossom). It became apparent very quickly (though not from outside the shrine) that the deeper in we went, we were actually in the middle of a valley, with steep steep mountainous and densely forested walls ballooning up in a cascade of trees and ending in a huge barrel of overcast sky. I couldn't believe my eyes at how quickly the terrain began surrounding the shrine, and looking up would just take your breath away. The best way to visualize this for yourself would be to watch Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, a film that takes place in forests and landscapes just like this. I'm afraid the Miyazaki references will be numerous in this portion of the blog.

Lastly, it should be noted that at one point, the smell of burning incense filled my nostrils and I was overcome with such an incredible sense of peace. Ordinarily I find incense a bit heavy handed if not overwhelming, but having grown quite acquainted with Satish's incense at the Namjoshi house, it has opened my palate to these types of things. But this smell was quite special, in that, never before in my entire life had a smell, especially a brand new one stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps it was because there was no point of reference, the way a certain smell will take me right back to England or Italy when I was a teeny, or zip you back to your mother's kitchen. This smell was entirely new, and filled me with such an incredible feeling I just had to stop and breathe it in as deeply as possible, for fear I may never smell it again. I spent a few minutes searching the gift shop for the incense but found none. Something tells me it wouldn't smell the same here in Los Angeles.