Monday, February 27, 2006

February 10th 2006 - Franz Ferdinand live at the Tokyo Budokan.

Eleanor Put Your Boots On (We're Going To Tokyo)

The day had finally come. I'd spent all morning impatiently twiddling my thumbs, waiting for school to end, but now I was on the train, and it was finally coming true. After months of waiting, the dream was about to be realised: I was going to see Franz Ferdinand live at the Tokyo Budokan.
Get in.
Back in November Flick and I celebrated our one year anniversary, and to mark the occasion my lovely, wonderful girlfriend presented me with a ticket to see the one and only Franz Ferdinand - causing no end of elation on my part. They were standing tickets too - we were going to be right at the front! As if things couldn't get any better, it turned out they were being supported by no less than The Magic Numbers: two of the hottest British acts around, together, on one night in Tokyo! Unbelievable! And at the Budokan too - bloody hell, The Beatles played there man, The Beatles!!! That magic date in February couldn't come quick enough as far as I was concerned.
But now it was finally happening, and everything was going surprisingly smoothly: I'd managed to catch the shinkansen with Flick without any trouble at all, and we'd found the hotel we were staying at remarkably easily. As a bonus, it turned out to be closer to the Budokan than we realised, and after a ten minute walk we'd already found ourselves standing outside those famous doors. Surely it couldn't be this easy? Normally when me and Flick go anywhere together our well-laid plans rapidly descend into chaos, and 9 times out of 10 we find ourselves waiting for non-existent buses, or making desperate sprints for the last train, not to mention the infamous Okinawa "alarm clock-mishap". Yet here we were with an hour to spare before the ludicrously early starting time of 6.45pm (for some reason all gigs in Japan start incredibly early, and I have no idea why).
Since we were so early, Flick suggested getting a beer before we went in. I warily agreed, quickly running through all the possible scenarios that would lead to us not seeing Franz Ferdinand in my head.
  1. We get hideously pissed and end up missing the gig. This seemed unlikely - I mean, how much alcohol can you drink in an hour? Don't answer that.
  2. We come out of the pub and realise we're hideously lost, then end up missing the gig. This too seemed unlikely, since the Budokan is pretty hard to miss, being a massive building stood alone in the middle of a park and all.
  3. It turns out to be an alcohol-free gig, and policeman breathalyse us on the way in. They discover that we're over the limit and send us home. We miss the gig. No, that's just silly. Or is it? Or IS it? OR IS IT??? Yes, it is, I'm making it up.
Anyway, back to the plot. We decided to grab a beer from a convenience store and drink it outside the venue, thus quashing all possibility of missing the gig, and therefore putting my jittery imagination to rest. There was some guy selling cans from a cart by the tube station, but he was asking 500 yen a pop for a tiny 330ml can, so we thought we'd nip across the road to buy cheap beer from Family Mart instead. There was one problem: it didn't sell alcohol. Whoever heard of a convenience store that doesn't sell alcohol?
Well, no problem, "We'll just go to the next one down the street", we thought. I mean, if there's one thing Japan isn't short of, it's convenience stores. We tried the nearby SunKus. Was there any beer? Was there bollocks. That's two convenience stores in a row without alcohol. Something weird's going on here...
We tried the Lawsons down the street.
You guessed it, no alcohol.
In total we went to five convenience stores, and not one of them sold a drop of alcohol; beer, spirits or otherwise. And why? I'll tell you why: there's a little known law in Japan that says a convenience store cannot sell alcohol if there's already another alcohol vendor (not including bars) within a 100 metre radius of that store. Which means that if there are a lot of convenience stores together in the same place only one will be able to sell beer - you just have to find it. The simple exercise of buying beer from a shop had suddenly turned into the Quest for the One True Conbini: after all, we knew that somewhere in that warren of backstreets there was at least one shop that sold alcohol, we just couldn't find the buggering thing.
As time drew on the Quest had to be abandoned - suddenly we realised the gig was starting in 15 minutes, and we were now officially In A Rush (I knew being early for once was too good to be true). As we hurried back to the Budokan we saw that most people had already gone inside, but there was still one more obstacle we had to overcome before we could pass through the doors: negotiating the cloakroom.
The sign for the cloakroom was pointing into the car park, where a woman was stood behind a desk. "Great, she must be selling tickets for the cloakroom", we thought, and proceeded to hand her our money. But, bizarrely, instead of having our coats placed on a hangar we were given a see-through bin bag and instructed to go around the corner. "That's a bit strange..." we thought.
Then there it was. The "Bin Bag Cloakroom". A sea of transparent plastic bags containing coats, scarves and bags, staffed by a team of young ladies and only partially covered by a tent. It suddenly dawned on us that we were being asked to leave our valuables in a see-through plastic bag in a car park. Can you imagine doing that in London? The whole lot would be gone in about ten minutes. Instead of presenting your cloakroom stub after the gig you'd have to go down to a pub in Hackney and buy back your coat from a guy sporting facial knife scars.
Anyway, we had no time to think about the safety of our things - time was a-ticking. We stuffed our things into the bag and dashed for the standing ticket entrance. Five minutes till The Magic Numbers came on. We were going to make it.
We headed towards the stairs going down to the main arena. Flick was ahead of me and I watched as she showed her ticket to the security guard and move down the stairs. I followed, but as I showed my ticket to the guard an arm was thrust out in front of me.
"No. Not here," he said, "Minami. South."
The Budokan is a big circle which is divided into North, South, East and West sections, and apparently our tickets were for the South entrance. I called Flick back and we both headed for the door the security guard had indicated to us. As we walked through we realised that something was wrong - this was the first floor balcony, not the standing area. We walked over to another security guard and showed him our tickets, pointing out that they clearly said "Sutando" ("Stand" written in Japanese).
He shook his head and said "No, not here".
Well we'd worked that out for ourselves.
"Ni-kai", he said, pointing upwards.
Second floor? What was he on about? "No, no... standing", I said, "Standing, look, 'Sutando'."
I showed him my ticket again, and pointed to "Sutando", but he shook his head and pointed to something written in tiny letters at the bottom. It quite clearly said second floor in Japanese. Something was wrong here...
I tried again. "Sutando", I said, pointing to where everyone was standing down by the stage.
"No, Ariina desu," he replied. Suddenly it clicked. The ticket meant "stand" as in a "stand" at a football ground. The standing area was called the Arena. Our tickets were for the top floor, right at the back. How could this have happened?
"I don't understand!" said Flick, "I told the guy in Lawsons that I wanted standing tickets! These tickets were the most expensive ones!"
Something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. The words, "lost in translation" spring immediately to mind. Then, as if to add insult to injury, just as we dejectedly shuffled out the door to find the stairs to the second floor, The Magic Numbers started playing. We were missing the gig.
On the plus side, when we eventually found our seats they were right in the centre, so were were facing the stage head on. Unfortunately though, we were about a kilometre away. I could barely see the figures on the stage. Flick was nearly in tears. The dream was fading.
It seems that in Japan the standing tickets right next to the stage are actually the cheapest. Taking a look over the edge of the balcony I could sort of see why - the floor was divided into six metal-fenced "cattle pens" which people had been herded into. As the gig started, the crowd surged forward, and those at the front of the pens were crushed into the corners - it was a bit like having six mosh pits, but with no escape. It didn't look particularly pleasant, but I still wished I could be down there with them...
On the plus side though, we snuck down to the front of the balcony and stood on the landing, which meant we had plenty of room to do some serious dancing/flailing, much to the amusement of the politely applauding Japanese people next to us. And what a gig. Despite being tiny, The Magic Numbers managed to somehow recreate those perfect album harmonies right there on stage, and I fell in love with them all over again. They were good, but then Franz Ferdinand came on, the whole place erupted like Vesuvius, and lo, they were awesome - and that's a word I use very sparingly indeed. In fact, they were so awesome that when the gig finished (at the absurdly early time of 10.15pm) the first thing we did was race straight for the nearest karaoke parlour in order to belt out "Matinee" at ear-splitting volume. And it sounded awful, but it didn't matter - we'd just seen the gig of the year.
(From a very long way away.)

And this is the view of the stage from our top price seats. Here you can see The Magic Numbers - you may have to squint a little, since I believe they're standing in a different postcode from where our seats were.

The bizarre "bin bag cloakroom" that greeted our arrival.

It's not very clear from this photograph, but you can just about make out the six "cattle pens" that everyone in the standing area was put into. When the band started everyone surged towards the corner of their pen nearest the stage.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mount Fuji - snapped from the shinkansen on the way to Tokyo.

Busy, busy, busy

Sorry for the lack of posts recently - I was away for a conference in Yokohama for most of last week, and since then I've been working hard on the next issue of JETfuel. Everything will be back to normal next week, but in the meantime I thought I'd post a few pictures of what I've been up to recently.
The first few pictures are from the weekend I spent with Flick in Tokyo, which, when I think about it, could very well be the last chance I get to go to Tokyo before I leave Japan. Wow, that's a scary thought: makes the end seem that much nearer. Anyway, we made the most of it, starting with a trip to the Budokan to see Franz Ferdinand supported by the Magic Numbers (more on that in a later post, but let's just say it was fantastisch), then on Saturday we took to the slowest train in the world to Nikko, a little village housing an impressive collection of temples some two hours north of the metropolis. Finally, after some serious shopping in Shibuya on Sunday, we headed to everyone's favourite Tokyo haunt - Harajuku - and proceeded to get hideously pissed on expensive wine.
I wasn't particularly looking forward to going to Yokohama after that, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised. The image I had of the city in my mind was of an overgrown fishing port masquerading as a glorified suburb of Tokyo, but in fact it was a thoroughly pleasant, ultra-modern city in its own right. I'd even go so far as to say the general quality of the buildings surpasses that of Tokyo, and the laid back, open streets give the place a much more relaxed pace than its bigger cousin.
The highlight was probably a trip on the utterly ginormous ferris wheel that dominates the waterfront - the wind really started picking up just after we got on, resulting in 15 minutes of howling, pant-wetting fear as we made the slow circle back to terra firma. Never again.

This is the most famous shrine at Nikko, which is a group of temples and shrines about 2 hours north of Tokyo. The sheer amount of gold and decoration on it is stunning... I must say though, I think I prefer the look of the more refined temples in Kyoto.

The Three Wise Monkeys at Nikko. If you've ever wondered where the original "see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil" image came from, then this is it. Or so I've been told by one of the other teachers, I'm not sure if it's actually true or not. Can anyone back me up on this?

Now that's what I call perspective. Oh yeah baby, you just can't beat a good bit of perspective.

After being starved of good modern architecture for nearly two years it was a revelation to see the International Forum building next to Tokyo station. We headed over there for a flea market of all things, but I forgot all about the market when I saw this.

Here's a shot of the inside. The zig-zag walkways looked like something from a science-fiction movie.

Another shot of the forum. I loved the outlines the winter trees made against the glass.

Reflections in Shibuya, Tokyo.

The skyline in Yokohama was stunning. I couldn't believe how warm it was too - back in Fukui it was still snowing, but in Yokohama I actually went out without a coat. Believe it.

The Pacifico Yokohama building where the conference was held.

The guys deciding where to go for dinner in Chinatown. Or rather just going in the first place that looked cheap and busy.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Welcome to the Valentine's Day "Combinience Store"!

Happy Rampant Commercialism Day!

Well, as I'm sure you know, Valentine's Day is nearly upon us, and I'm happy to say Japan celebrates this most commercial of days as rampantly as back home. If not more so.

Of course, this being Japan things are done a little differently, the biggest difference being that only women are expected to give gifts on the day itself. But wait! Before you shout me down with cries of "Sexism!", the lads don't get off that easily: a special day is set aside a month later on March 14th where guys return the favour and give presents to the laydeeees. Known as "White Day", this entirely made up men-only gift-giving day was created when the national association of confectioners got together and came up with a way to sell more chocolate. Romantic, eh? According to whom you believe, it either gets its name from the colour of sugar, or because it was originally introduced by a marshmallow manufacturing company.

Just like England, consumers are given little chance to forget exactly what holiday is coming up - as you can see from the picture above my local shopping centre has opened a special Valentine's Day "Combinience Store", filled with all sorts of bizarre treats which I've documented below. Of course, seeing as Valentine's Day is a women-only gift-giving day here I was getting some strange looks as I wandered round the chocolates and baking products - it felt a bit like I'd wandered into a girl's changing room with all the looks I was getting. Still, it was a small sacrifice to make in the name of the blog - you know I'd do anything for you guys.

Women usually give chocolate as a present on Valentine's Day, but baking a cake is also very popular. Hence the aisle full of bakery products.

Instead of baking cakes the lady may prefer this saucy alternative: "Onna no Kuchizuke" ("Lady's kiss"). This is actually a pun on "Ochazuke", which is what's in the packet (sort of a mix of green tea, rice and seaweed). Down the side it says "Nori ga ii!", which means "Seaweed is good!", but can also mean (roughly translated) "The atmosphere is good!". The Japanese just love their puns don't they?

Here's an even saucier one, translated (roughly) as "Lady rice". "Onago" (another word for woman) is a pun on "Anago" (eel, which is actually what's in the rice). The puns just keep-a-coming.

This one's a bit less subtle: it's a pun on "Bon Kare" ("Kare" meaning curry). It actually says "Boin Kare" - in other words, "Big Boob Curry" ("Boin" as in boing boing...).

No, I know this taste! Don't tell me, don't tell me, it's on the tip of my tongue... I swear I know it.... Hah! Got it! It's the taste of TRADITION! Aaaaaah, it warms the cockles of me heart just thinking about it.

It's official: there is no end to the Hello Kitty merchandise marathon.

Yet another Kit Kat variation, just in time for Valentine's Day. Who on earth keeps coming up with these? Hmmm, you know I've just realised that the past three posts I've made have all had a chocolate theme - there'll be something different next week I promise!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Dangerous Chocolate

I had some rather dangerous chocolate at the weekend.
As you may or may not know, I'm rather partial to rum and raisin flavoured chocolate, "Old Jamaica" by Cadbury being one of my favourite indulgences. So when I was out snowboarding on Sunday I absolutely leapt at the chance to try "Rummy", a rum and raisin flavoured chocolate being sold in the shop at Izumi ski resort.
First impressions were favourable - lots of whole raisins and reasonable quality chocolate, though obviously paling in comparison with Cadbury's market-leading behemoth. But boy was it strong - I've never had chocolate that made my breath smell like a wino before.
I had another look at the packet - apparently it contains a whopping 3.7% alcohol, which somewhat explained my pirate breath. But wait, what's that written on the front there in Japanese?
"Contains alcohol, so please refrain from driving."
Now that's what I call chocolate.
It did put the fear up me a bit though. Japan's drink driving laws are notoriously strict (with the legal limit for alcohol being zero), so it would be just my luck to be deported for drink driving after eating a chocolate bar.
When I think about it, "drink driving after eating chocolate" could be in the running for "lamest crime it's possible to commit in Japan", maybe just after "accidentally burning down your own house" (which comes under the law against "negligence with fire").
Do we have any more candidates for the list?

Rummy by Lotte: Do Not Eat Before Operating Heavy Machinery. On the left you can see a white box with a warning against driving written in Japanese.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

More Randomness From Japan

I see crazy random things in Japan practically every day, so I reckon it's about time for another little celebration of them. From Kit Kats to Engrish, here's a quick round up of the crazy things I've seen over the past couple of months.
Special mention has to go to the water bottles (photo below). I've spotted them lined up outside some Japanese houses a few times before, but I've only just got round to taking a picture of them. According to the Seldomly Asked Questions (SAQ) section of Quirky Japan, residents place them outside their houses in order to scare away cats and other animals. Some accounts say that the animals will be scared of their reflection if they look into the bottles, and others say that the sunlight refracting through the bottles scares them away. There's some anecdotal evidence to support the theory here, but it sounds a bit mad to me (you can hear what the Englishman in Osaka has to say on the subject  here).
Only in Japan, eh?

We've had passion fruit flavoured Kit Kats, apple flavoured Kit Kats, green tea flavoured Kit Kats and even cheesecake flavoured Kit Kats. Now, finally, inevitably, we have "cherry blossom-style taste" Kit Kats. Mmmm... cherry blossom. Delicious.

I took this shot in Kyoto, but I've seen the same thing in Kanazawa too.


In Britain MI5 has famously been known to recruit its spies through the public school network, handpicking candidates from the best schools and universities in the country. Conversely, Japan prefers to rely on fashion magazines to recruit its spy network, resulting in an army of high-heeled, Gucci-attired young women which is the envy of secret service organisations the world over.

"Why Lady Borden, this ice cream is simply exquisite!!!" "Please Major, call me Catherine. And do try the fondant fancies, they're quite delightful."

Ah yes, a yakisoba restaurant called Mr. Young Men. Finally we know what happened to Mr. Children when he grew up and left the music business (sorry, you have to be living in Japan to get that one).

Brussels sprouts! It turns out you actually can buy them in Japan if you look hard enough, although locally they're known as "me kyabetsu" ("me cabbage" - "me" pronounced as "may", and meaning "sprout"). Of course, they're a tad expenive - 8 sprouts for the princely sum of 198 yen (about a quid). Ouch.

Here's a poster from a community notice board in Kyoto, warning local grandmothers against buying dodgy smoke alarms from men with grinning demons growing out of their backs.

Lastly, here's one of the most interesting vending machines I've seen in a long time - this one dispenses vacuum cleaner bags, amongst other things. Because you never know when you're going to need a vacuum cleaner bag in a hurry.

Just rubbish, frankly.