Thursday, June 30, 2005

Sprite-tastic!!!

My old housemate Simon once overheard a conversation between two
teenagers in a video game shop in England. It went something like
this:

Boy#1: "Wow, look at the graphics on this!!!!"

Boy#2: "Wow, sprite-tastic!!!!"

And so Simon realised he had witnessed the apex of nerd-dom - not only
did this chap know what a sprite was*, he was using it as an
adjective. From then on, with scathing sarcasm, Simon would use the
word "sprite-tastic" to describe anything which he felt to have struck
through to the very core of nerdly behaviour.

Hence (true story):

Lewis: "Simon, I found an old Atari ST on top of a bin on my way back
from the pub! Someone had just written "Take Me" on the box! It's got
loads of games and it works and everything! Fancy a go on Strider?"

Simon: "Sprite-tastic Lewis!"

Or:

Lewis: "Andy's coming round later - we're gonna have a bit of a
session on Soul Caliber 2. He's got the PS2 version with Heihachi, and
I've got the GameCube one with Link. Fancy joining in?"

Simon: "Sprite-tastic! I can't wait!"

It didn't even have to be computer games:

Lewis: "Damn, it's five past six, I'm missing the beginning of He-Man
on Toonami, and it's the only one I haven't seen in the new series! Do
you mind turning off the golf so I can watch it?"

Simon: "Sprite-tastic! Sounds like spiffing fun!"

You get the picture. To be fair though, he was right - all of the
above situations were pretty nerdy. Having said that, there's nothing
wrong with acting a bit nerdy now and again. I like to think of nerdy
gaming behaviour as being like kinky sex: it's loads of fun, but you
probably wouldn't want everyone to find out about it, and you should
only ever attempt it with like-minded people.

So here's my confession: last Friday I managed to gather together ten
like-minded people, and indulged in one of my biggest nerd
fantasies.... that's right ladies and gentlemen... EIGHT-PLAYER HALO
2. Oh yes - the dream became reality.

It wasn't without its difficulties - I spent all week emailing people
to try and organise the necessary link cable, two Xboxes, two TVs, two
copies of Halo 2 and eight controllers, and then when everyone arrived
we spent over an hour setting everything up, trying to solve the
problem of linking a Japanese Xbox with an American Xbox, but once we
were going it was utterly nerd-tacular...

"Why am I dead?"

"WOOOOOAAAAAHHHH!!!!!"

"Get him out of the tank! Get him out of the tank! He's gonna win!"

"You snuck up behind me like a dirty shirt-lifter!"

"Damn you "Cheese"!"

"Who's sniping? Please, somebody kill him!"

"DAMN YOU CHEESE!!!!!!"

"Which screen am I on?"

"I'm in the hill! I'm in the hill! Oh, I'm dead."

"DAAAAAMMMMNNNNN YOOOOUUU CHEEEEEEEESE!!!!!!!!!"

Five hours later and we were all shadows of our former selves - hands
shaking, eyes blood-shot and sunken, legs aching with acute cramp,
brains completely fried from non-stop concentration. And it was bloody
brilliant.

I'd even go so far as to say it was "sprite-tastic".

*"The term sprite is used in computer graphics to refer to a two
dimensional image or animation that is integrated into a larger
scene." (Wikipedia)

Truly a wonder to behold - my humble living room plays host to eight-player Halo 2 (sorry for the blurry photos).

Marshall, Chris, Jose and Marty stare in dead-eyed wonder at the flickering carnage unfolding before them.

Don't let the smiles fool you - the combat was vicious. (From left to right: Phoenix, Yuki, Neil and Cam.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Watering Hole

One of my major complaints about Japan is the abundance of concrete.
As well as the thousands of hideous concrete apartment buildings that
plague the cities, there are "ancient" concrete castles, concrete
shrines, concrete schools... well, you get the picture. The concrete
doesn't just stop at the buildings though - it's spilling into the
mountains and rivers too.

I live near Echizen Kaigan, which is a beautiful stretch of coastline
with some amazing rock formations and cliffs. But there's one problem
- almost the entire length of the mountainside is clad in concrete
landslide defences. It looks like some sort of giant concrete
honeycomb has completely smothered the landscape, and it's the same
story anywhere there's a road or house remotely near the side of a
mountain. The rivers fare no better - every inch of riverbank is
enclosed in a concrete straitjacket, making them look more like giant
sewage drains than rivers.

There are various explanations for this plague of concrete. One is
that Japan is very prone to landslides, and as such the mountains need
to be reinforced in order to stop them literally falling down. Japan
regularly suffers earthquakes and typhoons, both of which often cause
landslides. However, the sheer amount of concrete used to remedy this
problem seems to be extreme to say the least. Worse still, often no
effort is made to try and blend the reinforcements into the natural
landscape, for example by covering the concrete with a layer of grass.

As for the rivers, flood prevention is the reason given for the excess
of concrete dykes and levees. It's true that Fukui's almost totally
flat valleys are prone to flooding - the massive floods last July
proved that - but the solution seems extreme. Parts of England are
prone to flooding too, but I've never seen a river in England where
the entire riverbank is composed of grey, ugly concrete.

There's also a more sinister explanation for the spreading concrete -
corruption. Alex Kerr has written a book - "Dogs and Demons" - about
the widespread corruption inherent in the public works system in
Japan, which results in many needless projects and wasting of money.
I've only read extracts from his book, but you can read some of his
opinions on the concrete invasion of Japan
here - or go here to look at the full article. One of the most shocking statistics he gives is that 55% of Japan's coastline is covered in concrete. I can easily believe that...

However, last weekend I had a revelation. Sam organised a trip up to
"The Watering Hole" near Ono, a remote spot tucked away in the
mountains towards Izumi that very few people know about. There are no
signs, and the route there takes you down the smallest roads I've ever
seen through a tiny village surrounded by bamboo thickets and rice
fields. Eventually you reach a wall of forest, and when you emerge
through the trees you're presented with an absolutely stunning river
valley........with no concrete!!!!! Sing Hallelujah!!!!!

It was absolutely amazing - the water was clear and perfect for
swimming, and the views were stunning. Sam put out an email invite to
the local JETs, and in the end about 15 of us turned up for a spot of
camping and barbecuing, and it turned into one of the most relaxing
and fun weekends I've had since I got here. I know last week I said I
was planning to go to the beach every weekend from now on, but I've
decided to expand that to include "non-concreted rivers". Well, if
there's one, there must be more...

The Watering Hole. It's got to be one of the prettiest spots in the whole of Fukui.

Beautiful. And not a concrete riverbank reinforcement in sight.

Caitlin and Sam enjoy a swim.

Brandon (aka The Bran Van Man) pulls up in his stylish yellow plate pick up truck, which he's borrowing until his other car is repaired. To be honest though, I think this car is much cooler - partly because we can all stand up in the back and muck around while he's driving, all the time screaming, "Go Bran Van Man!!! Only you can save us!!!".

The Bran Van 3000 prepares to set sail - Campsite Ho!!!!

In an effort to make the riverside feel more homely, Sam decided to do a spot of decorating.

The barbecue's lit, the bongos are out - and suddenly it's a party. From left to right, just some of the people who turned up for a dip and a bite: Sam Girl, Yoshi, Sam Boy, Wade, Flick, Tanya and Caitlin.

Monday, June 27, 2005

New links

Just a quick note to point out that I've stuck a couple of new links on the side bar. In particular, check out Post Secret if you haven't done so already - people make a postcard with a secret they want to share, and every week a selection of them are posted on the website. Some of them are funny, some of them are pretty disturbing, but they're all fascinating. A little bit voyeuristic maybe, but let's face it: there's nothing more interesting than other people.

Then there's "Kanji of the Day" - I'm hoping this will help me pass level 3 of the Japanese Proficiency Test in December. Although to be honest I'm gonna have to learn a lot more than one kanji a day to pass...

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Cocktails in the Sky Bar...

...Or, "Tokyo - Part 4, "The Final Part, No Really It Is".

One of the perks of being on the JET Programme is that the Japanese
government seems to be more than willing to throw money at us
left,right and centre. Every year, hundreds and hundreds of JETs who
have decided to stay on for another year (like myself) are sent to a
re-contracting conference in the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
That's the FIVE STAR Keio Plaza Hotel. The 47 STOREY FIVE STAR Keio
Plaza Hotel. ALL EXPENSES PAID. Not bad going for a lowly assistant
language teacher...

Anyway, we thought we'd take advantage of our luxury surroundings by
retiring for cocktails at sunset in the plush Sky Bar on the top floor
- let's face it, you can't stay in a five star hotel without having a
cocktail. Unfortunately, the Japanese government draws the line when
it comes to buying us drinks, which is a real shame cos the cocktails
were bloody expensive - my (tiny) "lychee daiquiri" cost an
astonishing 1500 yen (nearly 8 pounds).

However, we had a nice surprise when we received the bill - it turned
out to be happy hour - so all the cocktails were half price -
HURRAH!!!

All the cocktails except my cocktail that is, which was apparently
from the "special menu", and was still 1500 yen - BOOOOOO!!!

Ah well, you can't win em all I guess...

Welcome to the Sky Bar.

Aaaah, I could get used to this...

That building be the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, it be.

Tilly and Laura soak up the sun.

The sun sets behind an eight quid cocktail.

A five star view of Tokyo.

Here's to the high life... Cheers!!! (Photo courtesy of Rob Cro)

Monday, June 20, 2005

Beach Life

The summer has definitely arrived. Yesterday we had a beach party for
Ryan (first year American ALT) near Tsuruga in Southern Fukui (Happy
Birthday Ryan!!). I don't often make the trip down south, but I intend
to do so more often from now - I'm really developing a taste for beach
life. Whereas Northern Fukui is all urban sprawl and rice fields,
Southern Fukui is all beaches and mountains, and the atmosphere down
there is all the more relaxed for it.

The weather was beautiful yesterday - although it was cloudy, the
temperature was still hovering around the 30 degree mark, and the sea
temperature was perfect. In fact, the whole day was perfect - lovely
barbecued food, a big game of beach ultimate frisbee, hitting a
watermelon with a stick (see below), playing Oasis on an acoustic
guitar (sorry Pete, I'll learn some Megadeath for next time),
volleyball by the sea, listening to reggae as the sun went down...

It was so good in fact, that I've decided at least part of every
weekend from now on should be spent at a beach. Anyone fancy joining
me?

The beach barbecue in full swing.

This was a fantastic beach game - it's called "Beat The C**p Out Of A Watermelon With A Big Stick Whilst Blindfolded". Fun for all ages. Also incredibly reckless, since watermelons cost about the same as a small house in Japan.

Eager onlookers enjoy watching the watermelon destruction unfold.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Drama Update

Thankfully, there's nothing much to report on the death threat front
(see "Drama on a Monday", 13/06/05) - there's been no new developments
since Monday, and everything seems to be returning back to normal,
which is a relief. Hopefully that's the end of the matter.

In terms of teaching, it's been a mega-busy week (hence the lack of
posting), but with many ups and downs. One of the downs was realising
that Class 3-3 seems to be entirely devoid of imagination... They were
told to write a short story (one side of B5 paper), that began: "There
was a boy in a small town. His name was....". Apparently in the
previous class they'd been watching "Spider-man", so approximately
half the class's essays were an almost exact copy of the story of the
film (although one enterprising chap changed it around a little: "His
name was Spider-man. He was very strong. A green goburin loomed before
him. And Benom loomed before him. He effort, but he is die. Thank you
Green goburin and Benom."). Another student made an exact copy of the
plot of the NHK volleyball drama (yes, that's right, a volleyball
drama - you've gotta love Japanese TV) "Attack No. 1", but changed the
name of the main character to his own name. Yes, ladies and gentlemen,
TV really IS corrupting the fragile minds of our society's youth.

Thankfully though, a couple of students managed to shine through all
the plagiarising - one girl in particular wrote a really moving love
story about a couple who were due to be married, but before the
wedding could take place the woman was killed in a traffic accident.
It ends like this: "One day, he was sleeping in a room. She came into
his dreams and said, "Please don't grieve anymore." Then he woke up
and his eyes were full of tears."

Nice, eh? It's good to know that at least one young mind has retained
a spark of creativity.

Having said that, I really, REALLY hope that it isn't the plot of
another NHK drama...

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Make Poverty History

My good friend Trev has requested that I bring a very special cause to the attention of all you good readers. You've probably heard of the "Make Poverty History" campaign - the idea is to get all western governments to cancel all monies owed to them by third world countries. A noble cause I'm sure you'll agree.

To coincide with the G8 summit, there's going to be a rally against poverty held in Edinburgh, and I want to urge everyone who can make it to go. You can find out more about it here:

http://www.makepovertyhistory.org/edinburgh/

In Trev's words:

"Order every one you know to get involved. There are free trains so people have no excuse... Tell them

If they need help get them to email me (trevor@imata.co.uk). If i can get there with a wife and baby in tow, i'm sure they can..."

So there you go, support the cause if you can. The cynic in me finds it hard to believe that poverty in Africa will be eliminated by the cancellation of debts - unfortunately there's plenty of officials in corrupt governments who would just as quickly pocket the money rather than give it to their people. In Uganda some opposition politicians believe that up to half of the debt relief money was lost to corruption.

Having said that, cancelling the debt of third world nations would certainly be a start, and I for one find it hard to live with the fact that some of the poorest countries in the world are paying money to some of the richest.

In short, please, please, please go to the rally in Edinburgh if you can and lend your support - I really wish I could be there too.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Drama on a Monday

I've just had the strangest Monday in a very long time.

Things started going slightly amiss when the first lesson ended five minutes early, which took me a little by surprise. It was a little annoying too, since the class was engaged in a highly competitive game of Reverse Jeopardy! for a pack of mini Aeros, and I was just about to whip out the final, killer question - "What is Lewis's shoe size?" (if you're dying to know, it's 27.5 centimetres in Japan sizes).

Anyway, I asked my "team teaching partner" what the reason was for the early finish, and she replied that all the lessons were being shortened today in order to make time for a fire drill after the last lesson. Oh, the things you miss when you can't understand the morning meetings... I asked her what I was supposed to do during the fire drill. She replied:

"Well, everyone's going to go and assemble on the school playing field, but you can stay in the teacher's room if you like."

"What, and burn to death?", I quickly replied, which sent her into fits of giggles.

Having established that my life was expendable in the event of the fire, I returned to the teacher's room to find an ominous post-it note stuck to my desk. It was from one of the English teachers, who was letting me know that this morning all the teachers would be having a medical check up. Yet another thing that I suspect was mentioned in the morning meeting, but fell on gaijin-deaf ears. The note continued to say that I could refuse the check-up if I wanted to, but that all the teachers would be doing it. I read this to mean that it's compulsory.

At the bottom of the note it said that the check-up would take place in the "nursery room", which my Engrish radar quickly translated to mean "nurse's room". Sure enough, upon arrival at the nurse's room I was presented with a paper cup and a command to pee. Unfortunately, I'd recently "been", so I had to make a quick trip to the school vending machine for a few cartons of fruit juice to "get me going". This took a little longer than expected - so long in fact that I was the last one to turn up for the health check, only to find seven (count 'em) impatient nurses waiting just for me. I tried to explain that I'd had trouble going to the loo in Japanese, but I was getting nowhere fast, and my desperate and embarrassed gesticulations in an attempt to demonstrate the trouble I'd been having were becoming obscene, so I gave up and sat down, submitting myself to a painful blood test from a rather amused nurse.

[By the way, I wanted to say "injection" there, but having a blood test isn't really an "in"jection is it? Surely taking blood out would be an "out"jection? But then again, you have to have an injection of a needle to have an outjection... There's got to be a word in the English language to describe it though - if anyone has any thoughts, please let me know. End of digression.]

Now, the day had been chaotic enough already, but things were about to take a turn for the surreal...

I've just realised this post has already become quite long, but it's going to get a whole lot longer, so please bear with me. If you're suffering from eye strain, please take a break and come back later. Remember, when you're using computers, take a 15 minute break every hour to save your eyes.

Back with me? Great! Let's carry on then.

At the end of the fourth period a disturbing message came over the intercom - all teachers were to report to the teacher's room for an emergency meeting. My team teaching partner dashed off, leaving me to helm a finger-biting game of English Bingo, this time for a prize of McVitie's Digestive Biscuits. After five minutes another message blared over the intercom - all classes were to be abandoned, and there would instead be a short homeroom period. "Blimey, it must be serious", I thought. I was also a little annoyed, since it was the second exciting English-related classroom game I'd had to abandon that day.

Back in the teacher's room it turned out to be pretty serious situation indeed - the school had received a death threat. This wasn't entirely unexpected - about two weeks ago someone had called the Fukui Board of Education and threatened to kill a teacher somewhere in Fukui-ken. The teachers had been put on alert, but nothing had happened.

However, this time the anonymous-caller (I'm presuming it's the same one) had specifically mentioned that he wanted to kill someone at Nyu High School. Which is a little, well, unnerving to say the least. Deep in my heart I'm sure that the caller is merely playing a cruel prank, but even so I found myself wondering if maybe my ultra-competitive games of Jeopardy! had provoked the ire of a student who failed to guess my shoe size.

I know it's bad to joke about stuff like that, but what can you do? I'm pretty sure that no-one's going to come after me, but now I'm terrified that one of my fellow teachers is going to be attacked.

My fears aren't exactly unfounded either: recently in Japan there's been a spate of attacks in schools by disgruntled students. Last week, an 18-year old student in Yamaguchi prefecture threw a home-made bomb into a classroom, injuring 58 people (read about it here). Then there was the 12-year-old girl who was fatally stabbed by a classmate last June, and, scariest of all, in February a 17-year-old boy fatally stabbed a teacher at an elementary school in Osaka.

As you can imagine, I'm a bit worried. The kids were all sent home early today because the school was so concerned about their safety, and when the teachers left they were all told to call the school to let them know that they got home safely. Scary stuff.

And to make matters worse, the fire drill was cancelled, so I still don't know what to do if there's a fire, aside from slowly burn to death in the teacher's room.

Tokyo - Part 3, "Temples and All That"

Of course, the trip to Tokyo wasn't all about hanging around with
scary-looking teenagers in maid costumes - we managed to fit in the
time to see some temples too. Now, if you've been in Japan for longer
than about two weeks you've probably developed what's known as
"temple-blindness". It can be defined in two ways:

1) You've seen so many temples since you arrived here that they've all
started to look the same and you can't really appreciate their beauty
any more.

2) Every time you see a temple you want to scream, "If I see another
f***ing temple, I think I'm gonna go blind!!!!"

It's a very similar disease to the European "church-blindness"
syndrome - anyone who's travelled around Italy for more than a few
days will attest to the existence of this sad ailment. Certainly,
after I spent a month backpacking round Europe I could barely tell a
Gothic spire from a Roman fresco anymore. Likewise, in Japan temples
and shrines are absolutely everywhere, and by and large they follow
pretty much exactly the same design. Of course, there are a few
notable exceptions - I know for a fact there's a shrine dedicated to
breasts somewhere in Japan, although I've yet to find it.

Anyway, I'm pleased to say that the two temples I saw in Tokyo were
impressive enough to cut through my temple-blindness and make a real
impression on me. Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa was particularly
impressive, partly from the fact that it was so....well....red.
Anyway, I'll stop talking about them now - have a look at the pictures
and you can see for yourself what I mean.

This is "Kaminarimon" ("Thunder Gate") - the famous entrance to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa. Hence the throngs of people trying to take photos of it.

Hozomon ("the gate for storing treasures"), which is just in front of the main hall of Senso-ji.

The main hall of the temple. The thing with smoke pouring out of it in the centre of the picture is an incense burner. Worshippers waft the smoke from the incense over their heads to purify themselves before entering the temple.

Looking back at the temple gate from the main hall.

A leaping Flick in front of the huge torii marking the entrance to Meiji-jingu in Harajuku. They must have chopped down some big 'ol trees to make that thing....

Sake barrels in the park on the way to the main shrine.

Meiji-jingu - finished in around 1920, this is the shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who is famous for opening up Japan to the west after hundreds of years of self-imposed isolation. Of course, the original was burnt to the ground in World War 2, along with pretty much everything else in Tokyo - this reconstruction dates from 1958.

We were lucky enough to see a wedding in progress at Meiji-jingu, which I'm guessing must have cost a pretty penny. Japanese weddings are expensive enough anyway (the bride can have up to four wedding dresses, which cost more to rent than most wedding dresses cost to buy in England), so God only knows how much a wedding in one of the most important shrines in Japan must have cost...

Friday, June 10, 2005

Tokyo - Part 2, "Those Crazy Kids..."

"I'd rather be in Tokyo,
I'd rather listen to Thin Lizzy, oh,
And watch the Sunday gangs in Harajuku,
There's something wrong with me,
I'm a cuckoo..."

Now, the chances are you've probably never heard that song before, but
I was humming it all last Sunday, much to everyone's annoyance. You
see, the song is "I'm a Cuckoo" by Belle and Sebastian (from the album
"Dear Catastrophe Waitress"), which happens to be one of my favourite
songs by one of my favourite bands, and, you guessed it, last Sunday I
was in Harajuku. Watching the Sunday gangs no less.

Harajuku (or more specifically, Yoyogi Park in Harajuku) is a mecca
for the weird and wonderful. Every sub-culture and sect of Japanese
youth can be seen here every Sunday, from the Jamaica t-shirt wearing
reggae crew to non-stop bohemian drummers to back-flipping teddy boys.
If there's a better place in the world for just chilling out and
people-watching, I'd like to see it.

However, by far the strangest sub-culture are the gangs of teenagers
that hang out by the station entrance doing nothing but stand around
all day, showing off their strange and intricate costumes. Yes, ladies
and gentlemen, welcome to the world of "cosplay", short for "costume
play" (see "Games and Weirdos" in the October 2004 archives for more
on cosplay). The vast majority of the participants were girls, and the
vast majority of those girls were dressed as maids. And I don't mean
they were wearing stained blue overalls and a badge saying "Hi, my
name's MARY. How can I help you today?". I'm not entirely sure why the
"maid" look has become so popular in Japan over the past few years,
but suddenly everyone's after a style called "Gothic Lolita" - sort of
Little Bo Peep meets Ozzy Osbourne.

Anyway, it was great to see so many kids hanging out at the park and
having a good time... It certainly made me miss living in a big city -
it seems the highlight of youth culture in Asahi is hanging out by the
Circle K and reading manga. No doubt all the kids there are dreaming
of the time when they'll have enough money to abandon the rice fields
and pachinko parlours of Fukui and move to the maid-filled wonderland
of Tokyo...

These two had some of my favourite costumes - sort of an "Androgynous Avengers" look.

This lot decided to dress up with hundreds of hair clips and plastic jewellery - ten out of ten for effort. Disappointingly, the three down the front haven't really bothered to dress up at all.

However, most of the costumes seemed to fall into the "maid" category. Here we see what I like to describe as the "Standard Maid" outfit.

These two are classic examples of "Frilly Pink Maid"...

Here we have "Blonde Maid"...

And, of course, there's "Leather Maid". I think her friend has got the "peace" sign the wrong way round...

Even our very own Beata got into the Gothic Lolita act... Here she is posing with yours truly and Mr John Moale.

These guys were mental. Apparently they turn up to the Yoyogi Park every Sunday and spend the whole day drinking and pulling off crazy dance moves to fifties rock and roll music, creating possibly the greatest concentration of teddy boy quiffs and winklepickers in the whole of Japan.

Blue skies and green trees. And dancing teddy boys. And Gothic Lolitas. Yep, Yoyogi Park has got it all.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Tokyo - Part 1

I've just got back from the Tokyo conference, which actually turned
out to be one of the best times I've had in Japan so far. The
conference itself was a lot more interesting than I thought it would
be, but it was the people that made it - I rarely get a chance to see
JETs from other prefectures, so it was great to just chat to people
and find out how life's treating them in their corner of Japan.

However, before the conference started we had a whole weekend to
explore Tokyo - and we damn well made the most of it. The seven hour
overnight bus from Fukui dumped us unceremoniously at Shinjuku station
at the eye-wateringly early time of 5.30am on Saturday morning -
perhaps not the best way to start the weekend, but certainly the
cheapest. (You'll be pleased to hear that the money I saved by taking
the bus instead of the the train was put to good use in Tower Records
later on in the day.) Now, as you can imagine, there's very little to
do at 5.30am, so someone had the bright idea of heading to Tsukiji
fish market in the south of the city, described by the guidebook as "a
photographer's paradise".

Of course, it WOULD be a photographer's paradise if you were the kind
of photographer who likes taking photos of dead things, but, being a
strict vegetarian, it wasn't exactly up my street. In fact, after
about ten minutes of wandering around piles of fish guts and still
wriggling tentacles I was feeling distinctly green around the gills.
The industrial fish saw was the last straw - clutching our mouths,
Flick and I were forced to make a dash to the nearest restaurant for a
much-needed early-morning beer. Inevitably, it turned out to be a
sushi restaurant. [Sigh.]

Things picked up after that though, and we spent most of the day
strolling through Ginza (high-class shopping district) and the
Imperial Gardens, which dominate most of central Tokyo. Unfortunately,
a large part of the gardens is closed to the public, presumably so the
Emperor and Empress won't be short of room if 2,000 of their closest
friends pop by unexpectedly for a game of lawn tennis. Still, the
parts you're allowed in are impressive, and the Tokyo skyline looks
all the more spectacular when it's silhouetted against ornate gardens
and temples.

Shibuya was definitely the highlight for me though - as far as I'm
concerned, Shibuya IS Tokyo. For one thing it's got THAT pedestrian
crossing - you know the one I'm talking about. Plus there are more
bars, clubs and shops than you can shake a rather large, neon-lit
stick at. I highly recommend a visit to Tower Records - the layout is
so clever that I have absolutely no idea why music stores in the UK
don't copy it: the whole ground floor is dedicated to listening posts
for new and recommended music, and each featured album has albums by
similar artists on the same listening post. I could spend hours just
touring round that one floor, listening to any album that peaks my
curiosity. And I did.

After a CD shopping marathon in Tower, we headed to the capsule hotel
we'd booked in Asakusa, which was where we met a travelling Belgian
osteopath called Michel.

As you do.

And that just about wraps up the first day - Part 2 coming soon. And
Michel, wherever you are, godspeed.

This was the image that greeted us when we arrived at Shinjuku bus station at 5.30am - a passed-out businessman under a bridge, still in his suit and tie. If you've ever wondered why capsule hotels were invented, this is the reason.

I still have no idea what this place is - we paid a bleary-eyed visit here at about 8.30am, and for a while I was convinced it was Brighton Pavilion. That's what happens when you spend the night on a bus.

Bottles.

Plastic sweets.

There are Lawson convenience stores absolutely everywhere in Japan, but last weekend was the first time that I've seen a "Natural Lawson". After two years of struggling to find things like brown rice and organic vegetables, Flick nearly flipped out when she saw it...

Flick couldn't quite believe here eyes when she found an organic green salad that wasn't smothered in mayonnaise. What's the betting that it's got bacon in it?

Then suddenly we were in New York.

It was a real treat to go for a wander on the grass in the Imperial Plaza next to Tokyo station. Grass is a difficult thing to come by in Japan, though I'm still not sure exactly why that is - ideas anyone?

A philosophical conundrum I saw posted on a shop window in Tokyo: [Crinkles brow and scratches beard] The vending machine sells the drink, but does not the drink also sell the vending machine? Surely, without the drink the vending machine would be nothing; indeed, it would be entirely redundant in its purpose. Therefore one could propose that the drink, being demanded by many, is in fact the sole factor behind the selling of the vending machine. In other words, "The drink also sells the vending machine". [Leans back in armchair and takes a victorious puff on his pipe, whilst tugging down woollen cardigan in air of triumph]

Sam models the latest sun-protecting head-gear fashion in the Imperial Plaza.

Part of the moat surrounding the Imperial Gardens.

One of the Geisha Girls(TM) poses in the Imperial Gardens. Go to http://mamfainjapan.blogspot.com for more Geisha Girl adventures.

The busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, just outside Shibuya station. Reportedly, around 250,000 people cross the road here every Saturday... If it seems familiar, it's because it's been featured in countless films, including "Lost in Translation".