Saturday, September 30, 2006

Hiking in Japan: Takao-san

Don't think that just because I'm several thousand miles away from home in some distant, foreign land, that I'm not going to keep up my weekly hiking tradition. No sir.

Thursday was a production break for everyone, so we all got the entire day off to ourselves. As I'd spent the last week in one of the world's largest and most densely populated urban areas, I needed some recharge time with a green, wooded environment. After deciding that Mount Fuji, while definitely on the list of Things You Must Do During Your Life, was probably more of a pain-in-the-ass than actually enjoyable, we instead opted for Takao-san, a smaller, more forested mountain closer to Tokyo.

Chris and I laced up and stepped out, proceeding to enjoy something I will never, ever get to do in Los Angeles - taking the train to a trailhead.

Literally, we boarded the subway right across the street from our hotel, and got off at the foot of the mountain. How awesome is that?

The subway train became an above-ground line shortly after we boarded, so we got to see the clear and present transition from Big City Tokyo to smaller city suburb to small town, to straight-up agrarian village. We're talking single-family houses with city-block sized patches of farms between them.

When the train finally pulled into the station at the end of the line, it might as well have been taking us to a different country altogether. Gone were the neon, the skyscrapers and the crowds and of Tokyo, replaced by a tiny two-street village, straddling a small river and tucked away into a valley surrounded by densely wooded mountains.

In other words, just what I needed.

I'd read about a popular paved trail up the summit of the mountain, which passed several temples and shrines, but was definitely looking for something a bit more ... rugged for my hiking needs. Luckilly, we managed to find a large and prominent trail map, displayed shortly off the train station. While there was no English at all on the map, I'd read enough topographical charts in my day to figure out what was going on, and which trails looked nicer.

We picked a route that would take us up to the top along a ridge, and back down near a waterfall shrine, and we headed out. Of course, when we got to the trailhead, we saw this:

I don't know what it is, and I don't know what it says. But Chris and I both immediately assumed this sign meant that there were monkeys in this forest, and both immediately resolved to see them before we left.

A short three or four minutes into the trail, and we were completely surrounded by green. The contrast was striking, to say the least.

As we rounded a few bends and climbed some surprisingly steep switchbacks, we reached a long flat section of the trail that was literally right on the ridge of one of the mountain's larger folds. Unlike the ridgeline trail I'd done on Mount San Antonio a few weeks prior, this one was blanketed on both sides by tall, thin conifers, forming a beautiful walkway through the fern-covered ground.

I couldn't tell you what kind of trees they were, but they felt like very young redwoods. Or at least relatives. The bark was very smooth, a bit flaky-looking, and soft to the touch. Chris was so taken with them that he actually hugged on. Let it be known that the actual Treehugger was not the first to actually hug a tree in Japan. Posterity's sake.

But I did take this chance to fool around with my new camera's macro setting.

It was much more humid there than it ever gets in Southern California, so I found myself getting tired a bit easier than I usually do while on the trail. But, after making a few more semi-vertical dashes up the boulder-strewn path, we finally made it to the last stretch before the summit - a straight bamboo staircase that seemed to continue far after we could stop making out its shape.

It is at this point I should mention that the trails in this park, while not crowded, were certainly well traveled. But instead of the twenty-and-thirty somethings I usually see when I'm up in the Angeles National Forest, here the hikers were almost exclusively late-middled aged, with many who looked like they were in their 60s or 70s. And no, this trail was not incredibly difficult, but there were parts that were very steep, and other parts that were very rugged. Certainly nothing I'd ever take my grandparents to and expect them to come out alive.

But there they were. Grandparents. In full-on hiking gear. Hats, sunglasses, CamelBaks, hiking poles, hefty boots, etc. And they were, rockin' the trail like nobody's business. I guess that's what having a healthy diet, staying out of your car, and having a culture that respects the elderly will do for you. I only hope I'm still hiking when I'm that age. If I'm strapped to a bed in a home, for the love of God, please pull the plug and wheel me into the courtyard.

Blog posts are binding legal statements, right?

Anyway ...

After climing the long and neverending staircase, we reached the summit of the mountain. Unlike the Californian peaks I like to visit on the weekends, which are barren and desolate unwalled monasteries, this peak (and, as I've read about Fuji-san) was pretty developed. There were three or four small restaurants, some vending machines, and interpretive museums about the wildlife and temples on the mountain. And the whole thing was paved.

Oddly, I didn't really mind this at all. Clearly, with bamboo staircases, cable cars, and temples, this was never really a wilderness in the same way the semi-impassable San Gabriel Range is. People had been here, living and working, for hundreds of years, if not thousands. I think I was more viewing this hiking experience as an outdoor museum than a full-fledged civilization retreat. And so, seeing a vending machine on the summit wasn't that big of a problem. Also, I was pretty thirsty, and Pocari Sweat hit the sweet spot.

We still hadn't seen any large temples yet, so we wanted to continue on and keep exploring. After a few more momemnts of nature-inspired peacefulness, the air became full of incense, and we could hear an occasional bell ringing. We turned a corner and came upon a small shrine, attended by several elderly women in full kimonos. They were drinking tea, lighting incense, and appeared to be praying to three statues inside the shrine.

We approached to look inside, but were a bit apprehensive about actually entering. As the only Japanese I spoke was "hello," "excuse me," and "thank you," I didn't think I could reasonably ask if it was ok for foreigners to enter, let alone a couple of non-practicing Catholics. So we awkwardly stood outside for a few minutes, until one of the women gestured for us to come inside.

I don't have any pictures of the next few minutes, but what happened was one of - if not the highlight of the entire Tokyo trip. A small group of grandmotherly women, who spoke no English, patiently instructed two Americans, who spoke no Japanese, in a Shinto-Buddhist prayer ritual.

They showed us how to properly light and extinguish incense, where and how to leave the burning incense, how to pray, kneel, ring a gong, and be generally reverant. Also, they gave us cookies.

After letting everything kind of sink in for a minute or two, we continued on the trail, which soon brought us to the top of the mountain's large temple complex.

The quality, craftsmanship, and just general state of all of the wood and stoneworks was incredible. There is such an amazing level of detail and care, especially in the woodwork around the temple exterior ... captured here by my amazing new 7.1x optical zoom lens:

The temple itself appeared to be closed, so we wandered down to a terrace below, where I wanted to more closely examine some of the stone tablets and iron tengu statues. While we were staring at the odd-looking bird-men-warriors of Japanese mythology, a young woman and her mother approached us, apprehensively asking "English?"

Since I was so used to being on the other end of that question, I was a bit confused. Was this person going to ask us for help? Directions? Oh God, please not directions.

After I finally said "yes" (in English), the younger woman told us - in very good English - that the temple that was just locked had opened, and we happened to be hiking there on the one day a month the inner temple is open to the public. Good fortune had smiled upon two befuddled American tourist-hikers that day. The ladies then took us back up to the temple, showed us how to go through the temple, and waited for us to get out.

Inside, the scene was incredibly austere. A silent monk guided us through a carpeted area to the main altar, which was surrounded by candles and incense. He then received us after they were done praying, and presented us with small bowls of sake to drink ... which I guess is the equivalent of drinking wine at a Catholic ceremony. When we got out, the ladies asked us how we liked it, and invited us to keep hiking with them to some place where you could hold up crackers and have crows take them right from your hands.

But Chris and I were still on a mission to see some monkeys, so we thanked them for their tip and said goodbye.

We also stopped to buy a few boxes of the temple's incense. I don't have an incense burner at home -- and I also have several roommates who might not be as down with the whole incense thing as I was -- but already just smelling the box brings me right back to that temple, and that's good enough for now.

We kept walking down stairs, which led to more and more of the temple complex. By now, we'd realized that this temple was a lot bigger than we'd thought it would be. We'd also realized that we were probably not going to see any monkeys anytime soon, so instead took a side trail off of the paved temple path that led to a waterfall.

What we didn't realize was that there would be another small shrine right at the base of the waterfall, and that this would be one of the most peaceful settings in a day full of peaceful settings. We could hear the waterfall from a few hundred feet away. Eventually, we could make out the river below the forest, and finally, we got our first glimpse of the shrine, surrounded by the forest and waterfall's mist.

Honestly, I've seen some pretty incredible cathedrals and churches in my time, but absolutely none of them even come close to matching the beauty and peacefulness of this place.

On the way out, across the river from another tiny shrine tucked into a cave in the side of the canyon, another Shinto cleansing shrine was carved into the stone surrounding a pristine mountain spring. After washing my hands and rinsing out my mouth, I drank a bit of the water,too. I know it's not necessarily the safest thing to go about drinking from mountain springs in foreign countries, but hey - when the hell am I ever going to get to do that again?

Sometimes, I do stuff like that.

Lots more pics are up on Flickr. With the fancy new camera. Forgive me for trying to figure out some of the new crazy-complex settings.


that one guy you know, 6:07 PM | | | | | | | | | | link | 1 comments |

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Trash, Towers, and Temples

For a giant megalopolis, Japan sure is very eco-friendly. There are comprehensive recycling stations everywhere in the city, and most packaging is extremely slimmed down to the bare essentials. There is virtually no litter, and anytime there is some, someone immediately stops to pick it up.

What's even more interesting about this is that there really aren't that many trash cans around the city. So when you've got garbage, you have to hold on to it for a long time before you can get rid of it. Maybe it's a kind of subliminal shaming that happens when you have to keep in contact with your trash for that long. Also, there's still a minor taboo about eating in public, which probably helps keep trash off the streets somewhat.

It’s all very heartening. And it doesn’t look that difficult to accomplish. Although, if my reactions to the food portions was so severe, I don’t know how a recycling and trash reduction program like this would ever work in the States.

And, you know, there's that whole "Completely Different Cultural Mindset" thing going on. Whereas the Japanese have lived on an island with limited livable space and natural resources for thousands of years, we've only had a few hundred on our enormous, bountiful continent. And for every step of the American journey, there's always been a frontier. A mountain range, a river, a high desert, just one more barrier, beyond which lied untold bounty and room. So why bother to conserve here, when there's always more Over There?

Of course, now we're kind of out of Over Theres ... but that's a different blog entry. Or maybe an essay on a grad school application.

I'm just sayin.


After a few of my shoots were all said and done, Luis and I headed out in the drizzle to Tokyo Station, with the intention of seeing the Imperial Palace's East Gardens. Here's Luis, dazzled by Tokyo Station.

It was pretty huge under there. A semi-underground, semi-aboveground, also-a-giant-shopping-mall train station, it's the main hub for Japan's bullet trains, ferry lines, and multiple rail lines. It's like their Grand Central, I guess.

And then, as soon as we got outside, it started raining. Undeterred, we pressed on toward the Garden, stopping to catch a rare glimpse of Engrish poetry on a neighborhood map:

After stopping to check out a series of fountains outside the garden, we continued on to the garden gates - some remnants of the old Feudal Castle, still in great shape and surrounded by a moat. To keep out the invaders, you know.

Unfortunately, that was as close as we got to the gardens that day. Because they closed. At 3PM. On a weekday. Fucking Japan. Why do you make it so hard for tourists to visit your cultural institutions? Some of us are actually trying to learn stuff, you know.


We saw the Tokyo Tower looming off in the distance. And while it looked far, it didn't look too far. So we decided to just start walking and see if we could get to it. Stopping, of course, to get a picture of some signs I found oddly amusing.

After walking for what seemed like a half hour, but what was probably closer to 90 minutes or so, we wound our way through several neighborhoods and parks before making it to the base of the Tokyo Tower. For some reason, it was surrounded by these dog statues:

I'm sure the sign behind them completely explained this, but I couldn't read it. And thus it, like so many other things in Japan, was completely lost on me. I just thought it was cute that there were little birds resting on the dogs.

Fortunately, the views from the tower were not lost on me. They, like most views from high buildings in urban areas, highlighted just how dense and sprawling the city was. The clouds and haze prevented the views from going too far, but the buildings pretty much went on as far as we could see, in every direction.

On our way out, we passed through some temple grounds to get to our train station. One of the temples had these rows and rows of tiny statues, each with its own red knit cap and bib, along with pinwheels, flowers, and incense. I got the feeling they were memorials for deceased children, but I've got nothing to back that up.

Still, when a breeze blew through there, the swirling pinwheels drowned out every other city noise. Oddly peaceful and mournful at the same time.


that one guy you know, 8:37 PM | | | | | | | | | | link | 0 comments |

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

While You Wait ...

... for more Tokyo stories, here are some other things I saw, still using my old camera.

First, what I saw while I was eating most of the time. Miles and miles of sushi.

Second, something we saw randomly outside, and couldn't explain or comprehend.

Last, a sunset. From my hotel window. Aww, how nice.

that one guy you know, 8:46 PM | | | | | | | | | | link | 0 comments |

The Joys of Akihabara

Went to Akihabara Today. I expected to see an Electronic Wonderland, and was not disappointed. I was, however, disappointed to be told that Japanese DS games won’t work in an American DS system. Lame. I was planning on buying Daigasso! Band Brothers, a multiplayer rhythm game where each DS plays a different instrument in a song, and if you’re all playing correctly, you rock out in a collective manner. Alas.

I did get a picture of an old school Nintendo Power Glove, though. If only it were actually as awesome as we all remember thinking it was.

The Yodobashi store towers over the rest of Akihabara, and called us in like a beacon. It's eight full floors of anything you could possibly want that runs on electricity. It’s like Best Buy on steroids, and much, much noisier. Luis and I wandered in to browse, maybe pick up something small. We headed up to a floor stocked full of watches and cameras, looking for a cheap time-keeping device … and we were quickly pulled in by the digital cameras.

I meandered through the Canons. My old Canon Powershot has treated me well over the years, but lens cover lockups and mysterious black spots in the corners have been bothering me pretty badly for a while. And of course, this tiny seed was rapidly blooming into a full grown kudzu vine of consumerism. I was buying a camera today.

I checked out the FujiFilms and passed, remembering the clunkiness and software issues that plagued my parents when they had one. And skipped Sony altogether. No bullshit memory sticks for me.

Then I saw ‘em – The Ricoh Caplio R5 series. You can’t get them in the States, but my friend Sara got one imported a few months ago and loves it. It’s a tiny camera with an amazing optical zoom that’s light, intuitive, and powerful. And here it was, right in front of me. With a reduced price, and duty-free.

So I picked it up. It’s been raining here pretty much nonstop, so I don’t want to start using it until it clears up, but I’m very excited. It’s got more than twice the resolution of my current cam, almost three times as powerful an optical zoom, and is about as third as thick and heavy.

I heart technology.

After the spending orgy (and a little bit of Luis talking me down from the buyers' remorse my Yankee heart gets every time I spend money on something), we continued walking around to look at all the toys. There was a fairly extensive musical instrument section, with lots of amazingly complicated keyboards, some futuristic drum sets, and electrical stringed instruments of all kinds.

I sat down to fool around with the MIDI electronic guitar. Good news is, I was able to accurately and dependably play barre chords on it, which my brittle, weak fingers still can't do 100% of the time on real guitars. But the sound is just ... enh. No twang, no slides, no tones. It could be good to learn chords on, but I wouldn't want to play this thing all the time.

Oh, we also saw a bunch of these plastic musician miniatures, lined up next to each other on a shelf. They were all connected with each other, and when a CD accompanied them, they all moved and played their instruments in time.

It was a little pointless, yes, but that's what makes it great!

That, for the record, is my very first self-made video. It is not anything to write home about, but I'm hopefully going to start doing a few more of these. Now that my amazing camera lets me shoot video in beautiful 30 frames per second! If you've got anything you're itching to see videos of, let me know.

When we got back to the hotel, we met up with Kevin and Chris and went out for dinner at a random basement place in Shinjuku. It was one of the few times I could eat a decent vegetarian meal.

That's seared tofu in an eggplant soup with tuna and yam spring rolls. Mmmm. Oh, and plenty of sake.

Kevin and Luis got a sashimi plate that still had eyes on it. Gross.

Next on the list, the DS Game “Daigasso! Band Brothers” And maybe some more traditional Japanese things, too…

Second round of pics is up on Flickr, with many more to come.


that one guy you know, 2:52 PM | | | | | | | | | | link | 0 comments |

The Thing About Sleeping for 18 Hours One Night ...

... is that you don't sleep at all the next night.

Jet lag sucks.


that one guy you know, 2:42 PM | | | | | | | | | | link | 0 comments |

Monday, September 25, 2006

Breakfast, Anthopology

I finally broke down and bought a McDonald’s breakfast today. 9AM and $4 got me some hotcakes and coffee. It was totally worth it, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I can’t deal with no breakfast. I just can’t.

If it makes you feel any better, I consider buying things from McDonald’s in Japan a Japanese experience. The portions are much smaller than the American ones, they delicately wrapped my coffee cup into its own paper bag, and the clerk actually took pride in doing a good job. All things completely foreign to American McDonald’s.

God bless you, globalization.

Shot Talisker Fernley bit in Harajuku. Chasing Japanese girls around while wearing a Pikachu Mask and tweed jacket was surprisingly fun. While walking through the streets, people acted like I was a legitimate mascot. Parents were pointing me out to their kids, people would yell out “Pika!” when they walked by, and everyone was completely willing to interact with me.

I think in the States, it’d take about 20 seconds before someone yelled out a slur, hopped into my shot and flipped off the camera.

The bit should be on air tomorrow. As for now, the jet lag has supremely caught up with me, so I'm turning in.

I slept about 14 hours last night. Yikes.


that one guy you know, 9:51 PM | | | | | | | | | | link | 1 comments |

ATM Cards and Rhythm Games

Earlier on in the week, I thought I was screwed. When I put my Washington Mutual ATM card into an international ATM here, it was rejected, telling me I had no ‘beneficiary account.’ I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it didn’t sound good. I tried hitting the local Citibank, to no avail. It looked like I was going to be in Japan with $100 in Yen to my name.

And so, the first few days went by, with me spending very little money and being totally freaked out. Skype calls to my bank told me that the only way I could get money out here was by getting cash back from a store that offered that service. But based on my limited shopping experiences here, I didn’t think it’d be easy to find a place that did that. And also, trying to explain the relatively complicated concept of “cash back” to someone using simple English, awful Japanese and hand gestures just didn’t seem like something that would have a high success rate on the old probability scale.

I mean, this is the same country that produces things like these, which are utterly baffling to me:

Fortunately, I did find out that – somehow – my debit card had been cancelled two days ago. According to the bank, this was something that I did. OK. That has me a little worried, but maybe that at least would explain why my card was being rejected everywhere.

Long story short, my ATM card finally got working again. And I immediately started spending money, where before I’d been so stingy. Luis and I ate at an amazing sushi place in Shinjuku (which, admittedly, was not very expensive), and then we promptly dropped about $20 each in a local arcade.

But for this, we should not be looked down upon, for they have some kick ass arcade games here. For example, a four-player updated version of Mario Kart, where not only do you get to sit in a go-kart body and use a steering wheel to drive, but you also get to put a picture of yourself in as the driver, which comes up whenever anyone gets near your kart on the screen.

Not to mention the awesome rhythm games. Taiko Drum Master and its giant drums were a good diversion, but no match to the awesomeness that was DrumMania, which has you sit at a complete virtual drum kit and rock out to nonsensical J-Pop songs. It’s incredible.


that one guy you know, 8:47 PM | | | | | | | | | | link | 0 comments |

Japan Sucks At Breakfast

I can now say, without any fear of making an error of judgment, that Japan sucks at breakfast.

Seriously, Japan, you suck hardcore at breakfast.

I tried to be a good traveler. I tried to do breakfast Japan-style. But not only would you not provide me with any foods that look remotely similar to anything anywhere else in the world would call breakfast, but you refuse to open any restaurants until 11AM. 11AM! That’s well after McDonald’s even stops serving their breakfast! Yes, you may open some buildings up by 10AM, luring me in with promises of crepes and waffles. Then you make me wait an hour.

Man alive, do you suck at breakfast.

For the past two days, you have just squeaked by providing waffles. And this morning’s 11AM hidden pancakes hit the spot, for sure. But enough is enough. I didn’t want to have to do it, but tomorrow, I’m going to McDonald’s for breakfast. I’m not dealing with your bullshit anymore. And I’m not waiting until 11 o’ clock to eat the first meal of the day. No sir. I’m sure you’ll try to throw something weird at me, like crab meat or pork on my hotcakes. Or you won’t even have hotcakes. God help you if you don’t have hotcakes.

Maybe if you didn’t suck so much at breakfast, I wouldn’t have to eat at an American restaurant. You really should get that straightened out.

And while you’re at it, why don’t you let me use my ATM card to take some cash out? And maybe get more places that take credit cards? You are a major industrialized nation, you know.


that one guy you know, 7:26 PM | | | | | | | | | | link | 0 comments |

Sunday, September 24, 2006

First Night, Harajuku and the Meiji-Jingu Shrine

Tonight, the first night in Tokyo. Strangely, although I hadn’t slept at all on the plane, I was not tired, or even groggy. The airport at Narita was very clean, and extremely well organized. Going through customs was a breeze (although, apparently the prop sword I tried to send was confiscated), although not as many people in Japan speak English as they’d like you to believe.

We boarded a bus for the hotel, but unfortunately it was too dark and foggy to really see any of the countryside as we drove into Tokyo. Kevin, Jim, Olivia and I all used the power of our wireless DS’es to pass the time with a few games of Tetris, but otherwise that was it. The bus was silent. No one was talking on their cell phones, very few people were talking to each other. The place was like a mobile library.

When we got to the hotel, I went straight up to my room to drop off my baggage and wash my face. Which is when I noticed, for the first time, that my eyes were almost completely bloodshot red. I guess people were too polite to tell me. And I also guess that my eyes are really, really sensitive to dry air.

The very first thing I did in my hotel room, though, was head straight for the bathroom. I wanted to use a bidet for a sight gag in one of the skits I’m shooting here, and had to make sure the things worked without someone actually sitting down … and that I had the mechanical skills necessary to figure out how the things worked, period.

Ours had a weight sensor on the toilet, so I tried pressing down on the rim with my hands, then hitting the bidet button. A loud mechanical whirr filled the bathroom, and a small q-tip sized object emerged from the bowl. It dripped water, then shot it into the bowl beneath it. I figured that was it. The machine stopped making noises. Then it shot warm water directly in my face. I put my hands up to block it, and the thing kept spraying.

Comedy accomplished.

I’d figured out how to use the bidet when I’m not supposed to, but I’d also soaked my shirt with toilet water. Small price to pay.

I changed my shirt and headed downstairs to meet up with some of the other crew here with AOTS. We had a few drinks at the bar, then a group of us splintered off to wander into Shinjuku for a bite to eat.

We stopped in a hole-in-the-wall Japanese barbeque-type place. No one spoke English, and we only spoke a very tiny amount of Japanese, so ordering was interesting. There was a lot of pointing, nodding, smiling and hand gesturing, and I was struck with how incredibly patient our servers were. Try to imagine a large group of foreigners walking into your favorite restaurant and not being able to speak any English. The American wait-staff aren’t very tolerant in that vision, are they?

There was very little on the menu that was lacto-ovo-pesca-vegetarian friendly, surprisingly. But I did find a small vegetarian selection, and tried out some roasted ginko nuts, which came on a small skewer. Eight small nuts was all the food I got for about $6.50 American, but I wasn’t too hungry anyway, and the sake more than made up for it.

Afterward, a few stayed around Shinjuku to explore, but I was having trouble keeping my eyelids elevated, so I trekked back to the hotel and promptly passed out.

Friday morning, I woke up early and met up with Kevin and Luis do a bit of exploring. This was one of the very few days that everyone on the crew had off, and we wanted to make sure we took advantage of it.

Kevin acted as our guide through the Japan Rail Shinjuku station that’s right next to our hotel, showing us exactly how to read the maps, not get screwed by the automated ticket machines, and how to walk through the gates without getting a door slammed in your crotch. Although everything’s in Japanese, obviously, there are a few English-language prompts that were helpful. And even though the subway map here is unbelievably complicated-looking, it’s pretty intuitive if you’ve ever ridden mass transit before.

The one thing that is unusual, though, is that there are several different companies that operate the railways. A ticket bought for one line won’t necessarily get you to another station if you have to make a transfer. Which is pretty weird. Every other city I’ve been to that has a subway system owns everything. But hey, what are you gonna do?

We rode to Shibuya and walked around the hip, upscale shopping areas before ducking into the maze of unmarked back-alleys that makes up most of the city of Tokyo. Kevin had eaten at a great ramen place the last time he was out here, and wanted to share.

Oddly, walking through this giant shopping district was easy. No one was around. It was a bit after nine, approaching ten ‘o clock. And yet, very few businesses were open at all. And everywhere we looked, no one was serving anything that would remotely resemble breakfast food.

While I’m a big fan of the good ol’ fashioned Western breakfast, while in Japan, I did want to try the local version. Unfortunately, this was extremely difficult. Not only because nothing seemed to be open before 11AM, but also because almost everything had pork or beef in it. Everything. I figured I’d have an easy time finding vegetarian or fish-based food here, but it’s actually a lot more difficult than you’d think. It was definitely more difficult than I thought.

The ramen place we were aiming at didn’t open for another hour, and it looked like there were big ol’ slabs of pig in every bowl. So, still hungry, we got back on the rail and went to Harajuku instead.

Right off the train station, we spotted a waffle house café, serving both coffee AND semi-Western breakfast foods. Fantastic! We went inside, awkwardly pointed to the items we wanted, and ate. I got a green tea waffle with vanilla ice cream, red bean paste, and green tea syrup, along with a cup of black coffee. And it was delicious.

One thing we’ve all noticed here is that, while Japan does have some of the same foods as Americans do, they ALL come in much, much smaller portions. The coffee I got at this café would have barely filled a dainty teacup stateside. And it wasn’t cheap, either. Likewise, the two waffles I ate put together would barely top the size of a single Eggo. At the Starbucks Luis and I stopped in during a moment of weakness, five bucks gets you a Venti coffee that’s about the size of an American medium. Rarely have I felt like such a food-guzzler as I do here.

But anyway, back to Harajuku. Harajuku’s the district that’s where most of the weird Japanese fashion we see comes from. Now, I probably go out to buy new clothes once, maybe twice a year. But walking down the narrow streets, lined with shoe stores and t-shirt boutiques, I actually wanted to spend money on clothes. There’s so much there that’s just so Japanese that you’d never be able to find in the States. And the prices weren’t too bad, either. Except in some of the ritzier boutiques. The Bathing Ape was particularly egregious, charging about $70 for a plain t-shirt, up to over $1000 for a one-off bedazzled shirt that just read “BAPE.” It’s all about presentation, though. As Kevin noted, if you display your product as art, then you can sell it at gallery prices. Even if it’s just a baseball cap.

Not to be labeled as just another clothing district, the neighborhood also has a ton of really interesting and intricate street art. A little somethin' for everybody.

We also stopped off in a 7-story toy store, where EVERYTHING WAS ADORABLE. No other way to describe it.

To counter all this rampant consumerism, we took a walk to the Meiji shrine and park near Harajuku Station. While it directly borders the trendy shopping district, it is a world apart. A dense wooded forest, filled with stone footpaths and bubbling streams that run beneath arched bridges, here the sound of crows, crickets, and other birds completely drowned out the noise of the megalopolis that surrounded us.

We took a very slow walk through some of the giant Dorii gates and into Emperor Meiji’s old garden, which was very tranquil. Even the koi pond, stocked with giant goldfish that bobbed at the surface whenever they sensed a human standing nearby. Further in, we made it to Emperor Meiji’s official shrine, which was incredibly peaceful.

We all performed a cleansing ritual before we entered, using local spring water to wash our hands and mouths. We all bought a prayer sign to hang on one of the trees inside, and walked into the actual shrine itself, where people lined up to pray, stopping to bow twice and clap their hands.

This experience, in particular, highlighted for me just how dualistic the Japanese nation is. We’d just walked from a high-tech, ultra-modern fashion center, where everyone was encouraged to consume and buy everything in sight into a dense, forested center of one of the world’s oldest religions. Old and new co-existing relatively peacefully together. Young and old, both buying the newest cell phones and praying to a deified emperor. That’s really one of the lessons we can learn from Japan – you don’t necessarily need to completely disown the traditions of the past in order to move into the future.

Also, I think our society would benefit from having some Japanese-style vending machines around. You can get ANYTHING from those things!

That night, we went out to a more large scale version of the barbeque-style restaurant we ate at the night before. Except instead of being in a basement, it was on top of a building in the Shibuya district. In a nice touch of aesthetics, the glass elevator we rode to the top started dimming its lights as we rose above the roofline, allowing the illuminated city to appear before us, spreading out in every conceivable direction. And since there’s no grid system in Tokyo, there’s no way to put scale or order on the sprawl. When someone asks how you can possibly feel claustrophobic in an open city, bring ‘em to Tokyo.

The gray concrete and glass exterior of the building stood in stark contrast to the décor inside the restaurant, which was all open ceilings, wood beams, and traditional paper door rooms. Luckily, there were slightly more vegetarian options on this menu … I had an order of lotus stalks, coated in oil, soy sauce, and sugar – not as sweet as they sound, but very good and crunchy, like a tastier celery; seared ahi skewers with tartar sauce; and a bowl of pickled onion rice, which was quite pungent and reminded me a lot of sauerkraut. And, of course, some beer and sake to round everything out.

After stumbling to the Shibuya train station, I got back to the hotel and immediately collapsed in bed.

More pictures on Flickr, and more to come when I get a bit more settled in back in the States.


that one guy you know, 6:58 PM | | | | | | | | | | link | 1 comments |

Monday, September 18, 2006

Flight to Tokyo / Desert Solitaire

Upon boarding my ANA plane – or, as everyone else calls it, “You mean Japan Air? No? Airways,” the monitors began playing some airline courtesy rules. It was, understandably, very Japanese. In the first series, an animated ‘no’ sign danced around icons of people who were breaking the rules. In the second, a hand drawn duo of passengers bothered each other on sheets of wrinkled paper, including doing things like drinking too much alcohol and intentionally reading a newspaper so the person behind couldn’t see the TV.

Japan rules.

Wow, we’re taking off already! Efficient! Also, I am the only person in my row, which is fucking amazing. That’s never happened before! Time to stretch out and start readin’.

3:58PM L.A. time. I think we’ve got about 8 more hours to go on the plane ride, which has been very nice so far. A hearty vegetarian meal – served well before the ‘normals’ – and plenty of green tea and white whine.

Since I thankfully have the entire row to myself, my only company so far has been the vast, unending blue Pacific. The water, occasionally splotched with patches of low (at least from my altitude) clouds.

I’ve also got some quality time to spend with books, which is nice. I just finished Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” a book in the Grand Tradition of American Misanthropes. It follows the author as he works as a Park Ranger for a summer in Arches National Monument.

It’s a fantastic, sprawling mess. Equally literate and vulgar, philosophical and profane, in tones delicate and screeching. He’ll spend an entire chapter lovingly detailing the different kinds of rocks in the park, right before launching into a tirade against the Park Service, tourists, and paved roads. Cranky and wry asides pepper an emerging philosophy of the wilderness-civilization symbiosis, what makes a ‘mountain man’ different from his ocean and desert-loving cousins, and how a man who died alone in the desert could and should be envied.

And it’s all in the context of daily park duties, hiking trips, and rescue attempts. It’s like “Walden,” but way more badass.

Of course, with a voice so willfully iconoclastic, you have to take what he says with several grains of salt. In one passage, for instance, he states one of the most important reasons National Parks should be preserved is so they can be used as bases for guerilla warfare should our government get too tyrannical.

While I’d also like to see cars banned from wilderness areas and replaced with shuttles and bike paths, for example, I don’t know if I could live with denying anyone the chance to see the vastness of the Grand Canyon, or the cascades of Yosemite Falls, or the otherworldly blue of Crater Lake. Are traffic and congestion a problem in those areas? Hell yes. Is there a less extreme way to deal with them? Probably … although I still think anyone who leaves a water bottle or pudding cup on the side of a trail should be shot.

Toward the conclusion of thee book, Abbey eloquently puts into words the allure of the ‘empty’ desert that I caught when I first moved to California, without every really nailing down exactly what it is. While that doesn’t really make sense now that I’m looking at that sentence, somehow it does. Maybe it’s just ‘cause I dig the desert. Whatever.

To me, at least, a lot of the apparent desolation in deserts – or anywhere in nature – is really just an illusion. There is life, or signs of life, everywhere. Urchins hiding in a brackish tidal pool, pinyon and bristlecone pines clinging to weather-beaten peaks, or tiny red ocotillo flowers blooming against an endless beige desert.

They are revealed only by stopping what you’re doing and looking closer. Their magnificence understood only by looking inward.

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that one guy you know, 8:06 AM | | | | | | | | | | link | 2 comments |

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Chantry Flats Waterfalls

Well, I'm leaving for Tokyo in a few hours, but I'm all packed up and ready to go - or at least I think so - so I figured I'd recount my last hiking trip before I boarded a plane for the other side of the world.

Fellow Japan-travelers and now Second-Time-Hikers Kevin and Luis wanted to hit the trails again before we took off, and I wanted to take advantage of the still-warm temperatures to check out some new waterfalls. Will, who, sadly, couldn't make it because of work, recommended Hermit Falls as a possible journey.

In my downtime at work - when I'm not doodling, that is - I'm often thumbing through maps to look for new trails to tackle. So when Will pointed us in the direction of Hermit Falls, I noticed a few other nearby trails for possible loops. And thus, Sunday morning, we headed out to Chantry Flats ... after spending an extra 40 minutes weaving through a triathalon route that nearly surrounded my apartment.

At just after 9AM, the Chantry Flat parking lot was already packed full. There was a small general store (also one of the nation's last - if not only - remaining mule packing stations) on the grounds with its own lot, though. And while I wasn't too keen on paying for parking when I had a National Forest Adventure Pass already, the people running the store were nice ... oh, and Luis coughed up the cash. Thanks, Luis!

We started down the winding asphalt road to the bottom of the canyon, when we spotted a small sign pointing toward Hermit Falls. As I was checking my map to see where this would actually take us, an older man emerged from the brush.

"That road's a bitch," he said. He then informed us the trail we were looking at would get us down just as fast, but it'd get us hiking right away, instead of walking on roads, which is Lame. We took his advice and headed down the trail to the Santa Anita River, under the cover of shade and away from the harshness of blacktop.

Someday, I, too hope to emerge from the forest, swearing about a road to some young hikers.

We got to the river and came upon a containment dam - the first of many. While I'm sure these were pretty damn intrusive on the river when they were first built, now most of them are so covered in moss and trees that you don't even notice they're there. They also help form shallow pools along the river, which are nice to look at while you're hopping across boulders.

The trail was well-graded and not too difficult on the way to Hermit. We were almost always under a thick canopy of green, and river-crossings were always fun. Now that I actually have decent hiking boots, I'm fairly fond of running across a river, tip-toeing on the rocks and logs that litter the streams. I'm rarely even worried about twisting an ankle or falling in. And for me not to be worried says a lot about how much I dig river crossing.

There was one section of the trail that particularly struck me, though - for some reason, a small group of trees had all turned their leaves to bright orange and dropped them on the forest floor. If I didn't know any better, I'd guess I was in New England.

But man, I can't wait to go hiking there for real in October...

Hermit Falls itself was quite the sight, too. The wide river condensed into a small, swift-flowing stream, wedged between a few giant sheets of water-polished rock. The stream cascaded into a small pool before cascading down again into a much larger, much deeper pool, directly under a cliff wall.

Will said he'd jumped off said cliff into the pool below, but damn, I wasn't gonna do it. I didn't even see an easy way up anywhere.

And then, as if on cue, a group of middle school-aged kids dragging a cooler arrived and promptly plunged off the side of the cliff, the splash echoing off the canyon walls until it sounded like a gunshot.

Oh, to be young.

We took the kids' arrival as our cue to move on, and made our way to the Sturtevant Falls Trail. Along the way, we passed several small, green cabins lining the river on either side.

Further upstream, the cabins became somewhat more elaborate. A few had gardens enclosed behind rock walls. Some had decks, stone staircases, patios and picnic areas. They all looked very inviting. Upon further investigation, we found out that people buy these cabins from the Forest Service to live in, maintain, and upkeep. The General Store we passed in the parking lot is pretty much the only connection with the outside world.

Anyone want to go in on one of these with me?

How about a rental?

We kept hiking until we reached the pool at the bottom of Sturtevant Falls. I have seen a few waterfalls in the Angeles National Forest. I've seen bigger. I've seen faster. I've seen wider. But I think this one was, by far, the most tranquil of them. Even with our fellow hikers lining the edges.

I took off my shoes with the intention of sitting on a boulder with my feet in the pool. Then I found myself further in. Then further still. Then, before I knew it, I was underwater. Like the other swimming areas in the Forest, the water was absolutely freezing and totally refreshing. I was the only one swimming that day, but it is highly recommended.

After chatting with some friendly lady-hikers (and waiting for me to partially dry), we scrambled up the side of the falls and followed the river through more rocky cascades, eventually reaching a long section where almost everything was completely covered in ivy. The few patches of sun that did manage to break through the cover bathed everything in a warm green light.

We climbed up the canyon walls and eventually reached our entry trail, stopping occasionally to discourage Kevin from scrambling up random mountainside washes. He asked me to make sure to mention that he registered his displeasure by pouting, but he was hiking ahead of me, so I can't confirm that.

Hey, I'm just glad I haven't scared off those guys from hiking yet.

Of course, pictures up on Flickr, including some nice canyon views.

Because he's good at it, Kevin made himself a video version of the hike. You can swing by his site to check it out, or just click down there on the YouTube Video.

And now, it's off to bed, and Japan in the morning. I will have a laptop for work, so I might even be able to blog once or twice. But believe me, I ain't stayin' in to blog when there's crazy Japanese shit to be seen!

See y'all in a few weeks!


that one guy you know, 10:14 PM | | | | | | | | | | link | 0 comments |