Friday, May 09, 2008

Long time, no write

I have been totally unfaithful to this blog. What's it been? Like a year? I have had so many adventures and amazing experiences in Japan that I should have shared. I have some reasonable excuses, the main one being the unreliability of my the computers that I had. I went through 4 computers, the last one borrowed, and even it required being leaned against something to prop up the screen and was missing a number of keys, making it difficult to type at the best of times. Busy-ness, laziness and better things to do also can be including in my list. However, I'm in Thailand now, and have been for a month. I don't think there is much use trying to catch up now, there is too much to cover. So I think I am going to declare this blog deceased. I will have to make it up to those who actually read this thing by telling enrapturing tales of Asia. For example and red truck just drove by pumping dance music and in the back was a cage of dead-sexy Thai girls shaking their thangs - like a dozen. Unfortunately I was too slow to hitch a ride, but I think it was an advertisement for some reality TV show... might be worth scanning the local channels tonight.... Anyhow, things like that! Every day. You never know what you might see or experience. I look forward to regailing you with my adventures, if you have the patience to listen. (Seriously, its going to take a long time.)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Tokyo Drift

The third installment of the Ziemianski-Sullivan Overseas Extravaganza was yet another bout of ridiculousness. This time, we were joined by Benji's long lonst Austrian brother, Hannes. I say that because the resemblance is remarkable for those of you who know Mr. Bumji Mucas. Arriving a day earlier than planned, they wandered around a couple of Tokyo's many hubs (Chiyoda-ku and Shibuya) while I finished up at work and rode the rails to meet them. After the standard greetings were made, we wandered around the neon ant-colony that is Shibuya until we found "A Peaceful Oasis in the Heart of Shibuya." This is both the title of the restaurant and an accurate description of its atmosphere. There we snacked on uber-expensive cheese (as is most cheese in Japan,) and took turns pouring 3/4 foam beers for each other. Anyhow, since I had to work the next day, we caught a late train home. Although it wasn't the last train, the boy's first experience of rush-hour train rides in Tokyo was enough to turn them both off attempting it ever again. Only Hannes, who followed my advice to a "T", grabbed himself a seat. Dan and I were left to wallow in the sea of humanity, which ebbs and flows with every sway of the train. So we grabbed a few beers from the "conbini" (convenience store) and chilled in my apartment. The next day I headed off to work after setting them upon a station-by-station tour of Tokyo. Had they gone in, I'm sure they would have been impressed with the Tokyo-Edo Museum, but instead they decided it looked nothing like the picture in Hannes' book and more like a "dead transformer." So they went to the Sumo Museum next door instead. After that, in true Dan/Hannes/Meaf style, they decided to walk instead of take the train. Included in their 15km or so hike was Asakusa and Sensoji temple, Akihabara and Ochanomizu. I cannot recount their adventures in detail, since I wasn't present, but I recommend looking at their pictoral account of the walk, they're friggin' hilarious. That night we met up in Shinjuku for beers, naturally, but none of us had the energy for spending the entire night out, which is the consequence of missing the last train home. So we basically repeated the previous night's activity of chillin' and having drinks, which is great considering how in Burlington thats pretty much what we do everyweekend, if not before the bars, then the whole night. In retrospect, it turned out to be the wisest choice, given how Sunday, Sunday night and Monday morning were smudged together by round after round of drinks.
Sunday started late, but after a meal of pancakes with superior Quebecois, amber maple syrup (which I don't just share with anybody,) we headed to my school's hanami party at Kinshi Park. It was a beautiful day for a picnic under the cherry blossoms and I was pleased with the turn-out. All-in-all, I think the numbers approached 30. The booze flowed aplenty and it didn't take long for frisbee and badminton to break out. Tomoko, my girl of choice, brought a couple friends and, as she promised the first night we met, a "birthday ball." I forget the Japanese name and maybe it doesn't sound very exciting, but I'd been waiting in anticipation of this for more than 2 months. Its simply a golden ball with a sting that when tugged, opens the ball and releases streamers and a small banner saying "happy birthday" in Japanese. Its hilarious. Its hard to explain why without describing my first encounter with it. Anyhow, a great time was had by all, drinking, eating and playing as the blossoms fell from the trees like fragrant snowflakes. Following hanami, half the gaijin (foreigner) gang went to a concert in Odaiba and the other decided to do karaoke for a few hours. Dan, Hannes and I decided that karaoke wasn't exactly at the top of our list of things to do at 7pm, so we took some stuff back to my school in Kameido (one stop over) then decided to do what we do best and play drinking games for 3 hours. Now imagine this... you and your friends find yourself in a room with beer and sake in-hand and a plethora of props and toys for children's games... giant dice, self-propelled toy cars, a ticking bomb and among other things, the versatile white board and sticky-ball. Needless to say, hilarity ensued. So much so, we had to make a booze-run part-way through. Following that, we went to meet up with some friends in Shibuya, the part of Tokyo you picture in your imagination and where things consistently get messy. That night continued the trend. We met in a place called "The Elephant Lounge" which was a classy joint with wicked decor. After the meet and greet, we made our way to an indy Japanese hip-hop night at "the Eggman." It was hilarious and surprisingly good. The Japanese language is made for rap. With only 5 vowel sounds, pretty much everything rhymes. But it wasn't for everybody, so we moved on to the next place which was "Gaspanic," a kind of trashy bar frequented by foreigners. But on a Sunday night, the place was pretty much ours. Several drinks later it was time to dance and dance we did. We kicked it with AC/DC, we put our hands in the air with Jurassic 5 and after a night of ridiculous antics, we capped it of by watching my friend Diana have a dance off with a local who was baffled by this white chick shakin' her booty and pretty much rockin' his world. He did however compose himself and strike back with some killer moves. A perfect ending to the night, but the party wasn't over. It was 5am and Hannes was dead-set on checking out Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest of its kind in the world and the supplier of a large portion of Japan's fishing industry. Considering no one eats as much fish as the Japanese you can imagine the magnitude of this place. Tsukiji market was a surprise nonetheless. All sorts of ocean-delights were for sale, some recognizable, some almost incomprehensible they were so strange. Some were alive, some half-dead, some being filletted, others already frozen. For the tourist there were infinite photo opportunities if you could manage to dodge the bustling vendors and buyers who drove nascar-style with shark-sized tuna or mackeral or whatever in tow. It was a sight to be seen and the raw salmon I bought for sashimi/sushi were like little red slices of seafood heaven.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


Hanami, or ohanami literally means `flower watching.` It is a traditional Japanese custom/pastime done throughout the year, but now generally refers specifically to the venerated cherry blossom (sakura.) Neither the pictures I had seen nor the blooming of ume (plum) flowers did little to prepare me for extrodinary sight of Tokyo`s sudden eruption into various shades of pink and white. Bare-branched trees, which one would pass by without a second thought, transformed overnight into the locus of Japanese culture. To illustrate how important these tiny blossoms are, it is not uncommon to see elderly men and women with their cameras taking close up pictures of the sakura despite having probably having 100 such photos already. Lovers stroll under the tree-lined walkways, children laugh, play and have their pictures taken. And perhaps the best part of the whole deal is the modern manifestation of hanami. While once it was the contemplative tradition of observing and appreciating the beauty and essence of the sakura (which I think is totally cool and something that sets Japanese culture apart from ours,) it is now largely a picnic/party. There is a saying that goes something like `it is better to have a full stomach than to watch flowers.` So these days parks and groves fill with partygoers. Gathered in little clusters on tarps with friends, family or colleagues, people enjoy camaraderie, food and the beverage of choice, which is no longer sake, but beer.
I had the fortune of attending two such gatherings last Sunday. One in the massive Showa Memorial Park (formerly an American Military Base) and the other in Kichijoji. Both were stunningly beautiful places and equally crowded. The cherry groves were old and large enough to form a canopy of sakura overhead which creates a sort of mystical, fantasy world as petals slowly fall like tiny dancers. Combined with the fact that and I was among friends including the girl I`m sweet on, Tomoko, at the second party, it turned out to be the most amazing experience. Naturally, since I was so absorbed in going to the Shinto fertility rite and two hanami parties, I largely forgot to eat. So the end to the day was me pretty trashed. What a fine conclusion to a day which was most certainly a highlight of my time here in Japan.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Kanamura Festival

It could be argued that the following account and the accompanying pictures should come with an explicit content warning. However, the Kanamura festival is an ancient Shinto fertility rite, not b-rate porn. I should also clarify *no homo!* because the following will no doubt come across as homosexual no matter what I write. I heard of the festival a few days before I went. And really, if you heard there was a penis-fest happening in your area, wouldn`t you go too? How could I miss such an event? So after getting a late start (I was supposed to meet up with some other foreigners) and some aimless wandering around the wrong train station taking photos of the sakura (cherry blossoms,) I made it to Kawasakidaisho where the festival takes place annually. I followed the crowd to a magnificient temple complex which was strangely devoid of phalli. I say strangely because I was expecting to see them everywhere. I did notice a few women enjoying 6-inch candy delights in the shape of the male anatomy, but that was about it. Where were all the dicks? Somewhat disappointed by the lack of carnivalesque revelry I had anticipated, I snapped a bunch of photos and bought myself some candy-cocks and vaginas to give as gifts to my friends with a sense of humour. However, as I made my way back to the station I could hear some chanting. So I followed the sound to crowd-filled street. There were people dressed in Edo-period costumes (pre-industrial Japan) and costumed figures everywhere. And lo and behold! A giant penis being paraded down the street on the backs of maybe 20 sweaty men and women, who not only marched, but danced their way down the avenue. The shrine looked very heavy given that they constantly needed steering by men not bearing the load and how often the convey changed its members. All the way they chanted, what I believe means `penis, penis, penis` and the crowd was encouraging them inbetween snapping photographes and gulping down lager. Trailing behind the penis, was the little penis. Little penis you say? That was their representation of the vagina/clitoris. A small penis placed in front of what appeared to be a tree trunk. Do your own research. It too was carried by a mixed-gendered troop but due to its smaller size and seemingly relatively light-weight, the bearers stopped several times to perform a crazy teeter-totter trick where the shrine was balanced on shoulders of the centre-men and the people in the outer positions took turns leaping into the air, rocking the shrine with tremendous ferocity. What purpose this served other than to entertain, I do not know. The last shrine, if it can be called that, was carried by the transgender/transvestite group. It took the form of a massive pink schlong, without the encasement that the previous two shrines had. It was certainly a crowd-pleaser, both for its shock-value (both the shrine and the transgenders who carried it) and as a great photographic opportunity.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

My Japanese Date

Well folks, it's finally happened. Yours truly had a date. To be truthful it was a pair, the second being the superior and the details of which I will write below. The first, which was obviously good enough to get me a second, served the purpose of breaking the ice. It was my creation, a classic dinner and movie teenage date. But since her English is rather poor, it was good because we didn't need to talk too much. Although over dinner we chatted pretty much continually for more than 2 hours.
Oh, I suppose I should say how I met her and who she is and such. Her name is Kaoru and she works for Sumitomo Corporation, which is a huge company in Japan, although I haven't the faintest what they do. Knowing Japan, the answer to that question is: everything. She's a secretary to some of the head honchos I believe, although I haven't delved too much into it. She works near the penthouse of her skyscraper, so I'm assuming. She's also a student at my school, but not mine. She is taught by a Japanese English teacher.
For our second outting (planned by her) we went to Odaiba, an island in Tokyo Bay which is pretty much a seaside playground. The beaches are pretty crap, but there are tons of ultra modern buildings and entertainment. There is, like everywhere in Tokyo, great shopping. But in addition to that, there is several game centres and Oedo spa and a bunch of stuff I don't know about. First, we walked along the shore and checked out the miniture version of the Statue of Liberty. After that we went to a game centre which reminded me of an arcade you might find in Niagara Falls or something, but it was way better. It was like a warehouse of games. It had everything from your classics, to crazy shooter games, taiko drums, dancing games (which some Japanese guys are crazy good at - but are obviously social outcasts and they just bask in the attention their performances draw,) virtual horse betting (the betters sit in leather lazyboys with control panels in the arms to make their selections and I think buy the horses extra food and such,) a game where you bring special collectable cards and use them in military strategy and physically move them around the table while the corresponding troops battle on the screen, batting cages, basketball, ping-pong, tennis and other such sporting games, and the apparently super-popular digital editing photo booth. Needless to say we had a blast. We learned we both suck at golf. We giggled like school girls editting our photos and I tested her air hockey skills.
Following that we went to Oedo Onsen. The place totally blew me away. When I said I had been to an onsen, I had been to tiny little pools in Shizuoka with Dan which were simply a hotspring fed tub. This however, was a spa. First you chose a robe and changed into it. I went commando for about an hour before I realized that people had gitch on. Anyhow, leaving the changeroom is like stepping on the streets of feudal tokyo. Well not really, but it was like a mock-town inside. There were souvenier shops and restaurants and games and such and everyone walks around in their yakata (japanese robes). Its a really cool atmosphere.
First we went to the foot onsen. It was basically a path of hotwater snaking its way through a garden outside. You just through on a jacket and bathe your feet. The bottom of the "river" is covered in varying stones, some large and smooth, others small and smooth, others quite sharp and painful. The idea is to walk around and be massaged, but some are really jagged and everyone just chuckles as people cry out in pain, then jump out just as they did.
After eating some soba noodles and tempura (delicious!) we went into the baths. They are of course seperated by gender. Each side had about 8-9 bathes, with varying temperatures and solutions (salt, something red, sulphur etc.) I enjoyed the ones outside best because they reminded my of my friend Mike's backyard and the salt pool and the cold pool. The Japanese men stared at me in disbelief as I lounged in the icy water for maybe 10 minutes.
Although we didn't do it, there was also a relaxation room where you can nap in a lazyboy or watch TV on your personal screen attached to your chair. I'm told you can stay there all night, and in retrospect I would have liked to. Maybe I can convince her to go back. Shouldn't be that hard, she loves spas as much as every other Japanese person does.
Anyhow, it was super-duper and I'm pretty sure it tops the list of dates and I hope I'll be writing about another date soon.


A had the opportunity last Monday to witness the clash of titans that is Japan`s national sport. One of my students, an atypical Japanese lady with very conservative dress and long purple and pink hair, took myself and Andrew my fellow English teacher to Ryogoku last Monday where the current Sumo tournament is being held. I`ve found that going with Japanese people to these things is generally a superior experience since they can explain what`s going on and we had killer seats as well, front row of the balcony.
Sumo cannot really be compared to any other sport. The skills involved are not unlike those hulking men who battle on the line in American and Canadian football. The object is to get the opponent out of the ring or have them touch the ground with anything other than their feet. Tactics include locking arms and man-handling the other out, rapid consecutive pushing/slapping in the chest/face, twisting the body of your opponent so they lose balance and fall over or amazingly, deftly dodging a tackle allowing the opponent`s monstrous momentum to carry him to the ground or out. Some matches lasted upwards of 2 minutes, but it wasn`t uncommon for the match to end within a few seconds. Because of this, my friend Andrew happened to comment "It'd be great if they had a screen with instant replay." So our host Kayoko pulled out her cellphone, flipped the screen around backwards and turned on the Sumo coverage as if it was nothing. So we had our instant replays.
What sets it apart from other sports is the ceremony involved. The wrestlers enter the ring and perform a small dance, the referee is in elaborate costume and yells a lot during the match, each wrestler is announced by a singer who chants their name in a style similar to an Imam calling muslims to prayer in the middle east. Before the pair fight, they face each other and the audience and do the stomping/stretching that Sumo is known for. Those who are high-ranking wrestlers do more ritual than the younger ones. In the top flight, the wrestlers will face each other 5 times and then return to their corner, tossing salt into the ring upon their return for purification purposes, before they engage each other. It kind of reminded me of a pitcher in baseball throwing the ball to first to keep the runner on base, then signaling to the catcher, then the batter takes a step back to stretch and knock the sand from his shoes... etc.
It was a really fun day and it was obviously something I had to do while I was here. I was amazed at the athleticism of these men despite their massive size and apparently soft bodies (to cushion their fall on the concrete ring which is covered in a thin layer of sand) but also the elaborate ritual. A few last comments. Before the end matches, sponsors sent young boys to carry advertisement banners for one lap around the ring. Each is worth 60000 yen or $600. The winner of the match that follows wins the cash. So for 3 banners, the winner gets $1800. Because we were mid-tournament there weren`t as many (8-9 at most) but on the final day in the Yokozuna fight (a match against the permanent champion done last) in excess of $100,000 is put on the line. For a match than can be won in an instant, its a lot of frickin` pressure. A second interesting note is that back in the day, if the head referee in the ring made a wrong decision without consulting the secondary judges who surround the ring and his decision was overruled by said judges, he was obligated to ritually disembowel himself, an old samurai practice called seppeku. Sheesh, and we think refs have a hard time in say soccer or hockey... That wasn`t hooking! Puck to the face!
Anyhow, I digress. In sum, it was wicked cool.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Symbolic Reflection

This is a picture I took which I felt was both aesthetically pleasing as well as thought-provoking. I'll give you a second to pause and examine the picture for any noticable oddities..... As I was walking by this pool which is near the source of a small pond, something caught my eye in my periphery. Turning back to see what it was, I noticed it was the reflection between the statues. The twisted iron cross of the Nazis had leapt out at me in a sort of subconcious horror. I have, like most, been taught that the swastika is a symbol of evil. However in my later years I came to realize it was a perversion of a Hindu/Buddhist/Jainist symbol which is for good luck or blessings and it is still weird to see them displayed all over holy sites and maps which indicate where temples are. Anyhow, I thought it was interesting...


As I often do when I'm bored, I get on the train and go somewhere. A coworker mentioned a temple and park in Narita (where the big international airport is) so I decided to go. Turns out its a huge temple complex, with buildings ranging from ancient to under construction. There I saw some really important guy, (bishop?? lama??) and his entourage walk across the square to the chimes of a bell. Very cool experience. Also in the extensive park there were numerous Buddhist gravestones, an old teahouse, a calligraphy museum and lots of other surprises. It was a stunning place and I took about a million pictures. The park was of course totally landscaped so it was actually more akin to a massive garden. I even saw a man on a cherry-picker trimming an evergreen tree with a pair of hand-shears.... damn. There was a little girl having her picture taken by her parents wearing a pink kimono, it was adorable but I felt awkward taking a picture, so I quickly snapped one secretly. Towering over the ponds and gardens was an enormous pagoda, larger than any I have seen and brightly painted red and gold. Wicked place to take a date for a stroll... but, first things first...

The Wee Little Buddha of Kamakura

Kamakura is about 1 hour on the train from Tokyo station, just south of Yokohama. For being so close to the two largest cities in Japan, it has a quaint, tourist/surf town feeling to it. It was formerly a capital back-in-the-day, (during the aptly named Kamakura period) and the town features about 60 temples and 20 shrines. The day I went was a national holiday and so unfortunately there were throngs of people navigating the streets forcing us onto the road frequently. However, the crowds couldn't obstruct the massive Daibutsu, or Buddha. He was formally chilling in a large and likely very impressive temple but a few hundred years ago a tsunami flattened the wooden structure and it was never rebuilt. So now the big guy its an outdoorsman and is just as or more impressive. Reeshma and I paid the extra few cents to go inside, just because we could. It was surprisingly roomy although the Japanese were packed in there like sardines like elevators and trains generally are. Anyhow, we also saw the largest wooden Buddha statue which gave me an eerie, tingly feeling. Then we chilled by the beach and had some drinks at a particularly cool California Bar overlooking the bay.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Mount Takao

After the Halloween party, most people were too tired to do the usual karaoke until 5am thing, so we went our seperate ways. I, for one thing, felt like drinking... so I did. The next morning I had quite a headache from the cheap convieniance store wine but was determined to keep the good times rollin'. So I decided to hike up Mount Takao which is the closest escape from the concrete playground that is Tokyo. I left in the afternoon, so by the time I got there, most people were on their way down. The scenery was phenomenal. As soon as I stepped off the train it was like being in a whole other world. There were trees everywhere! And Hills so steep they were only a few degrees shy of being cliffs. Armed with a chocolate bar and a bottle of Gatorade I began the steep ascent. It took me nearly 2 hours (mostly because I stopped to explore sidetrails and take a zillion pictures.) The path was clear, in fact paved, and the route was littered with statues and shrines. Near the very top was the main temple and shrine (Buddhism and Shintoism coexist) where there were great statues of the Wind and Thunder Gods as well as monks doing their evening meditations. When I had almost reached the top, I passed a young man who seemed to be in a rush. I nodded and walked past him, but he suddenly turned and came back. He told me that he would go with me to the top. Grateful for company, we marched off together. While we walked we talked as best we could. After reaching the top, it was quite clear that it was getting dark and we were the only ones left that high up the mountain. I was unconcerned about this, but Akki appeared to be afraid of the dark. Later on, near the bottom, he explained that there were scary stories regarding the spirits of this mountain and thats what he was afraid of. But as long as there were two of us, he was okay. We got along incredibly well and when we got to the bottom, we met up with his friends who had just started dating that day on the mountain. They thought it absolutely hilarious that Akki went up alone and came down with a foreigner. They invited me for dinner and I was happy to join them. We went to a Korean Barbeque (you order raw meat and cook in the middle of your table) where all three of them work. So it was a very friendly atmosphere and the two guys were hilarious. Talk ranged from Canada to porno to the ability of Yoshi's girlfriend to break a man's heart with a simple little sex-y (pronounced sex-why) gesture. It was pretty amazing how we managed to spend 4-5 hours together having a great time even though noone could speak the other's language with any fluency. What a great frickin' weekend.