Cute! …in a sad kind of way.

So all week I’ve been teaching the English, “what do you want (for Christmas),” and everyone pretty much said they wanted a video game, or Wii.  But one girl said it was a secret.  I only pushed a little before letting her keep her secret.  But today day we were cleaning together and she wanted to tell me.  She explained that it was clear like plastic.  But it wasn’t glass, OR plastic.  it wasn’t glasses, or binoculars, or a telescope.  Then she said it was from Harry Potter!

OH NO!!!!  Boy, is she going do be sad when Santa doesn’t delever a magic invisibility cloak!!  I told her the elves only make toys, and I’m not sure they can stitch that for her, but something tells me her parents don’t know and this is some sort of Santa test… sad… but SO cute!!!  The other girl I clean with is super smart and was helping translate, but when she heard that what the girl wanted she gave me a hopeless look before walking away from the situation.  Hahaha.  I guess 4th grade is when they find out the truth about Santa in Japan.

An invisibility cloak!!!  Hahahaha.  Best futile Christmas request ever!!

What a Weekend!!

This weekend was one of the best I’ve had in Japan!  What a total surprise.  I am still trying to take it all in.  My simple plan was to bike to a festival in a city in the mountains called Chichibu.  I had heard that it is a famous winter festival, but no one told me what I was in for.  Maybe not expecting anything made it that much better.

Mountains between Gyoda and Chichibu

 I got up at 5 on Saturday and gave my bike a quick tune up before heading out.  I had planned on going on Thanksgiving, but it was a rainy day so I cancelled.  I’m glad I did, because the very next day I was told that this big festival was happening the following weekend.  So I already had my route sorted, and armed with a bag of extra winter clothes and a Xerox of the map, I headed out into the cold morning air.  I could see my breath, and frost covered all the car windows.  I had biked through snowy mountains the weekend before, but I was colder today for some reason.


Fellow cyclists were the only traffic on the twisting mountain road


After one hour of riding, the mountains started abruptly.  Most peoples’ reactions to the thought of me biking over this mountain range made me think it would be a horrible experience.  But the road was perfect.  If anyone has seen Tokyo Drift (T.F.A.T.F. 3) this looked just like that, and had the same view of Tokyo.  It was breathtaking, but in a good way.  This road was REALLY popular with bicyclists and motorcyclists, but seemingly unknown to drivers, so I and a few others had it all to ourselves.  I reached the top much faster than expected and discovered a great hot soba shop in the woods at the mountain pass.  The other cyclists and the woman owner were very talkative and the soba was the best I’ve ever had!!


The cute little soba cabin at the mountain pass


The ride down and into town was a beautiful 10 km mountain road with views and brand new pavement.  All-round, a perfect ride.

I had messaged some people who said they were going too, but they cancelled.  The crowds were thin, and I was able to get right in and see the floats up close.  They are 2 or 3 story houses on wheels, and are covered in gold, and lanterns, and beautiful tapestry faux-walls.  The wheels are enormous wooden wheels on wooden axels that shriek like banshees when they move.  The locomotion is all human power.  Long, fat ropes are pulled by dozens of men, women, and children.  The objective isn’t to get anywhere in particular, so they often move a few feet, and stop for a cigarette break or to attend to the drunks falling off the float.  It’s pretty entertaining.  As far as I could tell the pullers were all smokers, and the drunks got to ride up high on the float where they could fall off - no, not a logical festival, but funny as hell!


Enthusiastic drunk chanting, and nearly falling off the float


After checking out a bunch of floats, and how they manage tight corners, and passing each other on the narrow streets, I picked up a bottle of automatic hot sake.  This is a cool invention.  It’s a can with a button on the bottom.  You press the button, the can automatically heats up, and you have hot sake in about 2 minutes!  Progress in Japan!  I was walking around and saw a bunch of gaijin.  Now, at this point, many white people have started to look the same to me.  They’re all big, and have light hair, and western clothes, and usually hang out with each other.  So when I thought I recognized one of them, I sort of doubted myself.  He was either no one I knew, or it was possible I had met him at the wine festival a couple weekends previous.  But as soon as I asked if I knew him, I realized I had met him a few times at parties, and that we had even been in email correspondence recently.  So he, Will, introduced me to the other English teachers he had come with, and I decided to tag along to see what they knew about the events.  I had a couple interesting conversations, and I think I drank a bottle of wine somewhere, but since I had definitely already drank sake, and a Negro Modelo, it was probably no surprise that I lost them in the crowd after the sun went down.  I had to call a friend to find out Will’s phone number, but no sooner had I found them, did I lose them again.


One of the important riders of the floats


I had found them, but when I started talking to this guy, Matt, I realized he wasn’t actually in their group and they had walked off again.  Matt humbly mentioned he went to “H” when we were talking about Boston.  I’ve never heard of a Harvard man speaking so subtly about his roots before, and Matt seemed to be of the same mindset as me.  No plan - no worries - say yes to everything and see where it takes you.  So this seemed like a good guy to check out the festival with for a while.  He was with 3 other friends from work.  Gaurav was Indian, and everyone knows I get along well with Indians.  And there was a Japanese couple, and everyone knows I get along very well with cute Japanese girls… even when their boyfriends are present.

Frankly, there was some time there that I can’t remember very well, but there was a liquor store scene, and somehow we ended up with a fun Japanese family, a Caribbean guy (Varun), and champagne, watching fireworks from a parking lot.  The kids were really shy, but Matt got them out of their shell, and was playing tag or something while I talked to the mother about English teaching (she is an English teacher in Chiba), and Varun about remembering important events.


After the fireworks: Dad, kids, mom, grandma, gandpa, me, Matt, cute girl, Gaurav


 Will’s friend lived in the city, and the last train had already left, so we thought we’d try to ride it out, but if it seemed appropriate, we’d ask to crash at her place with a bunch of English teachers.  Varun and the Japanese couple had already caught the last train, so Matt, Gaurav, and 2 other friends, Christian, and Mark, joined up with Will’s group for a local bar.  The bar, 301, was kind of one of these cheap attempts to make a tiny club that gets away with charging Tokyo prices.  (you know the kind - lots of plywood walls painted black and a few kind of cool couches; this place included a random leopard statue and an electronic dartboard…)  I prefer a Japanese style place, but at least the DJ didn’t’ train wreck every song.  It was a decent night out, and it may have been the first time I actually danced to Billy Jean in a club (as opposed to in my bedroom when I was 7).


Club 301's leopard


Matt had gone in search of an elusive “festival after party” which we were convinced existed somewhere.  Gaurav was getting his Hindi groove on with a pretty cool Indian friend of Will’s, and the music was taking a turn for the worse.  I went to see if I could find something outside, and quickly found the group of stumbling gaijin walking down the middle of the street.  We agreed that if there wasn’t a “festival after party” that we weren’t going back to 301, so we had to make our own party.  Somehow we walked into the first izakaya (Japanese bar) that had room for all of us, and bargained them into a nomihodai for 1000 yen!!  I’ve never heard of that before!!!  Insisting on a nomihodai, and actually GETTING it?!?!?!  So we had 2 or 3 hours to drink all we wanted for about $10 each! (nomihodai means “all you can drink”)  They brought bottles and ice to our table and it just turned into a self-serve thing.  Ridiculous!

After a long time there we all got up to leave.  Some British girl had somehow found herself in this situation with only 1000 yen in her pocket, and had no plans of drinking, but everyone else was shit-faced out of their minds.  Mark had passed out in the entrance, and things began happening faster than I could comprehend.  All of a sudden the police were being called, and Gaurav was telling us to get the fuck out of there.  I could only guess that there was some strange rule in Chichibu about gaijin getting arrested if they pass out.  I thought that was fucked, but at the time I didn’t even know this guy was named Mark, or who knew him.  I walked out quickly, and the sound of sirens could be heard coming.  I passed the British girl and she seemed like she wanted to go back to find out what the problem was.  In my opinion, that’s the right thing to do, but Gaurav seemed pretty smart, and spoke enough Japanese that when he said to get the fuck out, I trusted that there just wasn’t anything good about hanging around to “solve the problem”.  Sometimes gaijin problems can not be solved in Japan, and just walking away is the thing to do (besides, it’s the cultural norm – that’s what the Japanese do when there’s a problem).

Well I was walking up a side street alone and saw some girls from a distance.  I assumed it was someone from our group, but it was the bartenders.  They explained to me that this was all about 1 person not paying for their nomihodai.  Shit!  That’s SUCH an easy fix.  What was all this running for?  I was in the middle of paying them, but the owner came and said it had already been paid for, and they apologized a lot (though why should they - we were a bunch of gaijin walking out on a bill).  The sirens were still coming and I didn’t want to be involved.  Talk about a buzz killer.

Well, truthfully we were all more than buzzed, so after meeting up again, Matt, Gaurav, and I decided not to take up the offer to stay at the English teacher’s house, and to just ride it out until the first trains.  We went back to the shrine and as my situation deteriorated I climbed onto the Kabuki stage, pissed, danced around, and promptly lost my phone.  The sign of a good night out always includes pissing somewhere you shouldn’t, and losing your phone - hopefully at the same time.


The kabuki theatre earlier in the night


Luckily I found my phone later, but the same can’t be said for Gaurav, who lost his phone earlier that night, and thus, by deduction, must of had a fantastic night out!  Meanwhile, Mark had been dragged to the train station where he was sleeping on the sidewalk.  It was about 5 degrees, so that wasn’t the safest thing, so Christian kept him company, and eventually dragged him out of the wind to a space between the vending machines.  Ghetto.

We made our way back, and realized the train leaves from a station 2 stops away.  We got Mark to his feet, and had a hilarious time walking him to the right station.  This guy was such a wreck, he could barely walk, and the noises coming out of his mouth were less coherent than a 1 year old.  I think he was Norwegian, but that might have just been somebody’s joke about the language he seemed to be speaking.  The dude was F.U.B.A.R.!

They all took the train back to Tokyo, but I stayed.  The next thing I remember was being in the shrine and looking for a place to sleep.



I dreamed of little men pulling my bike up the hills of Nagano...


I was numb with cold, and waking up on a park bench (I think).  The sun was up, and people were setting up for the big day all around me.  I had fallen asleep on something cold, but I never took notice of what it actually was – a rock?  I did notice I had stayed in the shrine.  Turns out that first day was just the tiny, warm up for the real thing.  But I realized I really had to get warm.  I was desperate, and stumbled to the only 7-Eleven I saw in town.  You see, here in Japan they have heated toilet seats.  They do a lot more than that, but that’s all that mattered, and it was the only place I could think of were I could get warm (buildings aren’t heated in Japan).  So I went to the 7-Eleven and bought the cheapest hot drink they had.  I drank it in front of them, and went straight to the bathroom.  That began my strange “only-in-Japan” process of getting warm and placating my hangover.  I would go to the toilet, and count down from 100.  If no one knocked, I would stay until they did.  Then I’d go buy another drink, so I never felt bad about abusing their lax bathroom usage rules.  Unfortunately I also spent all my money on the drinks, and only had 200 yen left to get home.  Impossible.  So I bought the cheapest ticket to go only one stop and got on the train.

I’ve never taken this train before, and I had to transfer.  Somehow I got off the train, fell asleep on a bench, and woke up to a crowded platform.  No one was sharing my whole bench, and I suspect I was snoring or something.  Kids were staring at me and parents were pretending to ignore me.  I got on a train that looked like it was going in the same direction, but it was full.  I sat on the floor.  I fell asleep.  I woke up back in the mountains.  Shit!  I had taken the train all the way back to Chichibu!  I have no idea how long it had been, but it’s a 2-hour ride each way, and it looked like about noon!  This was like one of those nightmares where you never get anywhere no matter how hard you try, or how fast you run!  I got on an empty train and luckily it was going all the way to my town.  I missed my stop, but woke up in time to get off the last stop before the next city.  I gave the ticket man some collateral for the fare I couldn’t pay for, and walked home to get more money.

It was a beautiful day, but I finally made it home and collapsed in my bed.

Notice anything odd about that story?

How about the beginning and the end?

Yep… my bike.  Hahaha!  Shit, so I had to wake up and drive back to Chichibu to get my bike.  But boy am I glad I did.  I woke up just as the sun was setting.  I felt like shit, and probably had no business driving - for fear of just falling asleep or something.  My body was telling me to stay in bed, but I HAD to get my bike.  Long story short, I’m pretty sure the police would have cut the lock, and confiscated the bike if I left it one more night where it was.


Some of the many delicious and funny foods of the festival
Clockwise: Typical food stall, chocolate-and-sprinkle-covered
bananas with cookie on top, grilled salt fish, that great soba
with fresh-picked mushrooms and green beans, colorful candied
fruit on a stick in ice, tiny Hello Kitty waffles with red bean inside,
candied cherries on ice, fish-shaped waffles with red bean inside.


The drive up was beautiful, and I took the same route as I had biked.  It took an hour and a half to drive, and only three hours to bike.  Not bad considering the mountains.  Usually in Japan, I can bike a little faster than I can drive because of the slow speed limits, and all the stoplights I don’t stop for on my bike, but as soon as you add mountains, I’m dead.  So this was pretty good time for the bike ride.

On Sunday one of the English teachers form my city was pulling a float, and another guy was planning on checking it out as well.  As soon as I approached the city I could see how much bigger a festival it was on the second day.  There were cars parked on the side of every side street, and ally.  There wasn’t any place within a mile that hadn’t already been used for parking or food stalls.  Fireworks were already going non-stop.  The mass of people got thicker and thicker as I approached the center of town and an area of about 30 blocks by 20 blocks had been roped off from cars completely.  The sea of bodies inside the roped area was amazing.  I’m not good with numbers, but if someone said there were 2 million people on these streets I wouldn’t doubt them for a second.  Police were here in numbers I’ve never seen before in Japan.  One street corner alone could have had 50 police acting as human fences.  The wait to cross a street could be 1 hour as the police controlled the crowds with megaphones!!!


One of the older gents who are in charge of the floats


I found my bike and, knowing it hadn’t yet been cut, I walked around.  I found a side street that connected me to the main street, but I spent the following 2 hours moving only 3 blocks down the main street.  As each float rounded the corner onto the already overflowing main street, swarms of police would close down the street and prevent any movement at all.  It was like riding the Tokyo JR trains at rush hour.  Armpits and elbows in your face; but this time there was the added fun of hot grills in food stalls threatening to burn you if you lean the wrong way.  It was awesome!

As the wide floats squeezed down the narrow streets their sheer tonnage cracked the pavement and threw off pancakes or road top.  They didn’t care if the people on the sidelines were getting trampled and pushed onto grills.  A child fell, and got stepped on.  The father retaliated and there was a scene, but the steady floats didn’t stop for it, and they all got squeezed together again as the screaming wooden wheels passed by.  Totally amazing.  Like nothing I’ve ever seen.  It all seemed like a slow-motion emergency.  Screams, and danger, and pain, and yet we could all see it a mile away, and still we stayed.  Float after float.  It was totally worth it!

To me there was something authentic, and old about this second day.  The first day had a few food stalls, and the floats, and the parades, but the streets were pretty empty, and there was no chaos.  This second day, the streets were mad.  The air was biting, and there seemed to be very few lights on most streets.  The brightest things that could be seen were the lanterns carried by the pullers, and the lanterns on the floats themselves.  And even they weren’t bright.  The side streets looked like Chinese street markets.  Narrow streets lines with odd food.  Steam made the people disappear, and added that mysterious atmosphere you see in film noir.  The people were all bundled up for the winters night, and children played in the street and even worked the food stalls at this late hour.  The side streets themselves are made of slabs of stone, and with some exceptions, the homes and shops on either side were old 2-story structures you could imagine geishas beckoning from the balconies of.


The side streets filled with food stalls


The icing on the cake were the fireworks.  It wasn’t 24 hours before that I had been disagreeing with Varun that I would remember that moment forever because the fireworks were so moving.  I have seen fireworks up the wazoo, and I doubt any will impress me like they did in my childhood, or be so jaw-dropping as the Edinburgh international firework competition.  But I have to say these fireworks are a damned good backdrop.  From the moment I arrived they had been running an ongoing show.  It was a 4-hour fireworks show!!  And while not being anything new in and of themselves, they were the most extravagant backdrop to an already great festival I’ve ever seen!  So as I was walking through this maze of crowded back streets and food stalls I could hear the soundtrack to this 4-hour extravaganza and every few houses I could get a glimpse of vibrant blues, purples, and magnesium whites.  People gathered in open areas to watch without distraction.  There must have been something for everyone at this festival!

The local people were all good natured and plenty seemed to be from far enough away from Tokyo that seeing gaijin was still an odd sight.  This phenomenon happens all over Asia, and it comes with both the good and the bad.  But in Japan, as long as you don’t experience it everyday, it’s totally charming.  Strangers giggling that we can use chopsticks too, or if we say one or two words they say “Oh!!  He speaks Japanese!! Amazing!”  It’s really cute.  The kids were all shy, but wanted their picture taken, and the young people were downright insistent on it.  I felt like a tourist in Japan again, and it was great!

Eventually I had to pull myself away for the drive home, and short nights sleep before work the next day.  I packed my bike into my car, and made it up over the mountains and back to the urban sprawl of greater Tokyo.  The city lights I saw from the mountaintop were sparkling, but all I could see was a dead sea of industrialization and mindless city dwellers.  I missed Chichibu already.