Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My Dream in the Year of the Tiger

Credit to Yamanowa.
You got me right. Tigers are facing extinction, unless we do something about it. Or perhaps, unless we stop doing certain things... Tiger liver for dinner, anyone? You get the picture. Now don't get me wrong- I like the big orange fuzz-balls as much as the next person on the street, but I'm not joining PETA anytime soon. While we're on the subject, I had better mention that although its namesake isn't doing very well in the survival department, Tiger Beer is still safe in many a beer-guzzler's refrigerator...
Now why did I bother to mention the beer brand? Well, for one thing, they're the co-sponsor for this contest I'm entering. The one and only reason for this post, I might add. It wouldn't do me much good to say that they're extinct now, would it?

I've already tormented you with two contest entries in the form of blog posts (well, it's not like I could help it- that was the requirement). Luckily, this one should be pleasant reading for you, not to mention pleasant writing for me, as I would probably have had its contents hammered out at some point or another. Why, you say? I am to write a post entitled 'My Dream in the Year of the Tiger' (my apologies for the generic title, it really had nothing to do with me), and:  'share what your dream is with everyone. It can be anything, a trip to Tokyo, an LV bag or even a litter of kittens!'

So they said. Well, let's get started then, shall we? Dream. Perhaps I should just refer you to my first dream of the year? Nah, that won't work. In any case, I don't think that's the sort of 'dream' they're referring to. Nor could they possibly get Obama to set up camp in front of my house. What they're really asking is, what do I want for myself for me this year?

"This is where the 'dream' starts. It's gonna be long. Real long. If you like, you can skip all the way to the next line in bold, where the dream ends, to the 'why I deserve to win this segment', but you'd be doing yourself a big disservice."

Blast. An all-expenses paid trip to Tokyo? They've seen right through me. Now I'll really have to spice things up a bit. I can't just say, "I want to go to Tokyo", can I? Oh well. Time for a long story, then. First of all, I stand a chance to win some RM8888. That's more than enough to get me on a plane to Narita airport. From then onwards, it's gonna be one hell of a ride...

I'll have to get myself a working holiday visa. Oh crap. Apparently Malaysians aren't included in this particular program. Maybe I'll just find work on the side? Oh well. Time will tell. Back to the story. Narita Airport. Fastest way to get to the city is by train. I arrive in Tokyo station, a gargantuan building that could hold KL Central ten times over. Maybe more, even.

I plan to stay a few nights in Tokyo. I've booked a bed in a backpacker's lodge. Getting there is a bit troublesome, but since I speak the language fairly well, getting directions is easy. Not to mention fun and refreshing, as I home in on the pretty shop assistants. Whoa. The 24-7 convenience stores here have huge maps under their cashiers. It's a constant routine of enter shop-get lost again-enter shop-get lost again-finally there.

I've found the lodge, and checked in. It's located in Asakusa, a  quiet district far from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. My roomies are two guys from Europe, and an Aussie girl. It gets a little lonely sometimes, traveling alone. It never gets dull, though, since I get to meet all sorts of people. Still, it would have been nice to be able to come here with a friend.

Time for lunch. I stroll around the neighborhood and come across a small coffee shop. The owner is a sprightly old man. The shop specializes in mochi, Japanese rice cakes. There are different flavors, but my grasp of the language isn't firm enough and I can't tell what he's saying when I ask him what ingredients it's made of. Oh well.

It's a Sunday, the perfect day to check out the streets of Harajuku. Everyone is dressed up in their best outfits, from visual-kei wannabes-to goth-lolis, and the occasional dominatrix. A far cry from the suits and ties I passed by moments ago in Roppongi. I lick on my ice-cream and survey the crowd from a distance. Someone taps me on my shoulder.

It's a man in a dark suit. He sticks out like a sore thumb, but his funky hairstyle saves him from being lumped together with the 9 to 5 salary-man crowd. He hands me a business card, and tells me that he's a talent scout. Outwardly, I'm calm and composed, but inside, I'm in tears and screaming 'banzai' at the top of my lungs. 'I couldn't help but notice you', he says. 'There's an indie boutique started by a friend of mine. She wants a foreign, exotic model for her men's line, but all these gaijin, excuse me, they're too big for her clothes. She'll pay well'. Ah, I say, nodding my head wisely. 'There's a slight problem, though. I don't think I'm allowed to work while I'm  here.'

He won't have any of that. 'None of that negativity from you! We'll work something out. Just give me a call and drop by when you're free, alright?' He's right, really. What do I have to lose? I'll go with you now, I tell him. I'm done with sight-seeing for the day. Here's my chance to make my mark on Tokyo, and I'm not losing it for the world.

Her shop is a small boutique in Odaiba. She designs her own clothes, most of them Gothic-lolita fashion. She gives me a look-over and declares that I'm perfect for her purposes. 'Tell you what- if you can't take money,' she says, 'I'll give you all the clothes you model for me. What do you say?' This is better than I expected. I shine a big grin and seal the deal.

My time in Tokyo up, I decide that it's time to leave. I'd decided that I would not take the bus or shinkansen, but hitchhike, something not even remotely possible back home. I find a trucking company and ask them if they have any long-distance haulers heading North, towards Hokkaido.

I'm in luck. There's one hauler heading North, but only towards Sendai, and the driver has agreed to give me a ride. It leaves Tokyo at 3pm. Still some time for me to wander around. I buy some snacks to split with the driver. 3pm. I meet the driver, a short, but broad-shouldered man. He seems a little intimidating at first, but laughs at the smallest joke, and is in fact quite a nice person.

I find out that he  too is fond of traveling, although he has never set foot outside his country. He tells me that he would like to travel around Asia- perhaps by taking a ferry to Vladivostok, and then working his way Southwards to Indonesia, perhaps 'on bicycle like the army did back in WW2', he says, laughing. 'What do you intend to do in Sendai?' he asks, and I tell him that I wanted to go to Hokkaido. 'Hokkaido, eh? It's a beautiful place, a holiday resort for most of us Japanese. Even I haven't been there,' he says wistfully, chewing on a toothpick.

It takes us some four hours to reach Sendai. It's already past 7pm. Finding a place to stay will be a little difficult. He asks me if I have a place to stay the night, or if I wanted to continue on my journey. I tell him that I'd like to go on. He checks with the other drivers. 'You're in luck,' he says. 'There's a convoy of hybrid cars heading towards Aomori. Some sort of environmental campaign. Anyway one of the company is driving alone and would appreciate the company.'

I take him up on his offer and give him my email, telling him to give me a heads-up if he ever drops by my side of the woods. I head over to the convoy, and meet my new traveling companion. He looks a lot like the J-Rock singer Gackt, and I tell him this. 'Yeah, I get that a lot,' he says, laughing. 'It's a four hour journey to Aomori, and we leave in an hour. That means we'll get there sometime past midnight. Come and join us for dinner first.'

I have dinner with him and the rest of the convoy. The fare is simple- typical highway rest-stop food, but warming and tasty- just what I need. I have a bowl of steaming ramen with fresh oysters, one of Sendai's specialties. We didn't talk much on the journey. He played some classical music- Tchaikovsky, I think, and after some small talk I fell asleep, and by the time I woke up, we were already at the outskirts of Aomori city.

'It's rather late,' he says. 'Do you have a place to stay?' I shook my head. All I had thought of was getting here. Finding a roof to cover my head was secondary. 'I guess I could wander around till morning', I said, winking at him. 'After all, I've already slept for a few hours in that comfy car of yours.' He laughed. 'Don't be silly, you'll catch a cold. Imagine the headlines tomorrow: convoy driver leaves hitchhiker out in cold, hitchhiker freezes to death. Not a chance of that. Come and stay at my place.'

Gratefully, I take up his offer. His house is an old pre-war mansion. It's probably some three or four times larger than mine. There's a wooden wall surrounding the perimeter, and a lush garden on the inside. He parks the car and we walk up to the house. There's someone there waiting for him- 'tadaima', he says (I'm home), to which the waiting girl responds, 'okaeri, oniisan' (welcome home, brother).

She doesn't seem surprised to see me. He must have called her while I was asleep. We look at each other. She's a beautiful girl, probably around nineteen, or twenty. She wears her hair long, surprisingly jet black, unlike most other girls who dye their hair. She's wearing what seems to be a yukata... with cargo pants underneath. A strange mix. For her part, she looks me up and down, gives me an appraising look, and says 'welcome to our home- don't be shy, come on in.' I guess I passed the test.

Despite my saying that I wouldn't mind walking around till dawn, I fell asleep as soon as I lay myself down on the futon she rolled out for me. I awoke to the sounds of birds chirping. I lay there thinking how strange it was that just days ago I was living out my daily routine back home, slogging away the hours. And now here I was in faraway Japan, sleeping in a stranger's house... something warm crawled up onto me. Shocked, I drew an inward breath. One eye twitched. I jerked my head up to see a grey cat curled up on my chest. Oh. Cute little fella, I thought. And then it farts onto my  face (yes, cats seem to enjoy this sort of thing).

I shouted (well, screamed in shock, actually) and the flatulent puss jumped away. The sliding shoji door opened. She stood there, giggling. 'Did Iori pass gas on you? He does that to people he likes. I suppose it's his way of marking his possessions.' 'His possessions?' I snorted. 'Where's your bathroom?'

'Breakfast is ready,' she called, as I came out from the bath. It was an old house, and actually had a well attached to it, like my grandmother's house back in Malaysia. There was a shower so I didn't have to use it, but looking down it, I couldn't help but imagine Sadako from 'the Ring' crawling up to drag me down... I shivered.

Breakfast was a scrumptious spread of... pancakes. With maple syrup. I wasn't complaining, but it was so out of character with the entire setting. 'Is your brother still in bed?' I asked, noticing that he wasn't there with us. 'I'm afraid not,' she answered. 'While you were sleeping, he headed off North to Cape Shiriyazaki. Something about going for a dive with some friends.' Huh. 'He's quite the energetic one, isn't he.' 'The same could be said of you,' she retorted. 'Going to all this trouble instead of taking the train. You could have had a more relaxed journey.' 'I'm traveling on a budget- I saved a lot of money by traveling this way. It was interesting, anyway.' She leaned forward, pointed a finger at me. 'Still, you missed out on all the pretty attendants on the train,' she said, giggling. 'But then I wouldn't have met you, would I?' 'Quite the flirt, aren't you?' she said. We looked at each other silently, and broke out into a fit of laughter.

'So, you're headed to Hokkaido, are you?', she asked, once the laughter died down. 'Don't you get lonely traveling by yourself?' 'Sometimes. I've gotten used to it, though.' 'Hokkaido, eh...' she murmured dreamily, stirring her coffee. 'It's been some time since I was last there. What are your plans for once you get there?' 'I don't know yet. I guess I'll figure that out once I set foot on the island.' I chewed on a burnt chunk of pancake.

Suddenly, she stamped her hands on the table. Some of the plates jumped. 'I know! How about I come along as your guide? I'm having my winter break now, and don't have any plans. I could pack up in an instant, leave the cat with the neighbors... we'd have a wonderful time together. What do you say?' I was too stunned to reply. 'I'll take that as a yes, then!' she said, and jumped off to her room, presumably to pack.

'Well, I guess we'll have to find someone who can drive us up to Hokkaido then. Do you know anyone who can?' I asked, as she came back from the neighbor's bereft of one smelly feline. Her eyes positively glimmered. 'I know of a better way. Why take a stuffy underground tunnel there when we can go by sea? My friend's father owns a boat and makes daily trips to Hakodate- he'll be happy to take us there.' Gah. Don't make decisions for other people, I thought.

She was right, though. The skipper was only too happy to have two extra passengers on his boat. The trip was largely uneventful. We passed by the Tsugaru Peninsula on our left, through the Tsugaru Straits, Cape Ohma to our right, past Cape Tachimachi, and at long last, dry land. We had reached Hokkaido after a journey by sea of some four hours. Strange, I thought, how each leg of my journey seemed to take four hours. Oh well.

Our stay in Hokkaido was wonderful. We went to the Shiretoko National Park, where we managed to see a few bears; the Abashiri brewery to try out bilk, a mixture of milk and beer; explored the streets of Sapporo, hunting for good food, drowned ourselves in the hot springs, and even went skiing and snowboarding.

After some ten days in paradise, reality sank in. For one thing, I'd noticed that in the course of composing this, I'd switched between past and present tenses. Secondly, I was running short on cash, and I still had plenty of time left till my flight. I didn't want to call back home and ask for a cash advance. Nope. I told her about my- no, our predicament. We were in it  together, for better or worse. We'd gotten really close, and she'd decided to stay with me for the duration of my stay in Japan. 'You forget that you're not the only one with a wallet,' she said. 'What are you talking about? I couldn't possibly leech off you for the rest of my stay here.' She poked me on my forehead. 'Baka.' (idiot) 'We're in this together, remember?'. 'Indeed we are,' I said, with a wry smile. At least now I wouldn't have to worry about being deported for working illegally.

'There's one place I want to go to,' I told her. 'Nara. I'd like to drop in on my former Japanese teacher.' 'Drop in?' she asked. 'She doesn't know that you're here?' 'Yeah, I haven't told her. Say, how did you know that it was a 'she'?' She laughed, watching the scenery flash past outside the train. 'Simple. You wouldn't go to all this trouble if it was a guy, would you?'

We took our time. We stopped by Tokyo for some shopping- I introduced her to my onetime 'employer' in Odaiba. Took a series of buses down to Mt. Fuji, where we holed up in a ryokan for a few days, hoping to get a clear glimpse of the mountain. Her brother hadn't called in all the time we'd been together. Maybe he just didn't notice, zooming around the country. As for the cat... I guess the neighbor had taken a liking to it and was hoping she never came back to reclaim it.

We reached Nara in the evening. After getting lost a few times, we finally found the house. There weren't any lights on. I knocked on the front door. Nothing. I used her phone to ring up the number she'd given me years ago. I heard the sound of a phone ringing from inside, but no one answered. 'What now?' she asked me, as I sat on the steps in frustration. 'What now? Dinner, I suppose. But we also need to find a place to stay.'

We passed by an old man as we exited the house. I asked them if they knew where the people living there had gone to. 'Ah, that family?' he asked, petting her dog. 'They're on vacation. Hokkaido, and won't be back till January.' My jaw dropped at that. Hokkaido? That's where we were a week ago!

'That's what you get for not calling in advance. What's our plan now?' We were having dinner, a small but reputable yakitori stall in town. 'I don't know yet,' I said, chewing on a skewer of gyutan- ox tongue. 'Perhaps we could stay here till then? When is your flight?' I reclined in my seat. 'The 31st. Another two weeks.' She sniffed her sake. 'Do you have anywhere in mind? We don't have much more time left together. I'd like to... take it slow.' I looked at her. 'Slow, huh...'

And that's how we decided to spend our last two weeks together. Slowly. Without a care in the world. We stayed in an onsen resort on the outskirts of town. A soak in the morning. The day spent exploring the city. Another soak in the night. Until the day of my flight. We took a train out to the Kansai International Airport, which is situated on an artificial island. Not a word was spoken during the entire journey there.

Gate 6. The point of no return. Once I passed the metal detector, it would probably be years before I'd be able to return. Years before I'd be able to see her again. I grasped her hand tightly. 'I hate to leave you behind.' She gripped back. 'You don't have to, you know. You could always stay.' I was stunned. I hadn't considered that. An insane grin spread it's wings across my face. 'Quite true. I could always stay,' I said, standing up. I looked at Gate 6 one last time, and tossed my boarding pass into a garbage bin. We walked hand-in-hand towards the arrivals hall.

And that's the end of the long, long, description of my 'dream' for 2010. Now comes the explanatory 'why I deserve it' segment, if you still have the energy to read it:

Well, that's that! A grand total 0f 3379 words (as of this point). Come to think of it, that should really be the first reason why I deserve to win this. Whoever would go through all the trouble to type out an imaginary holiday measuring some three thousand words long deserves to win something. Heck, it's much longer than most of my assignments.

Oh, I have other reasons too, of course. I've always wanted  to go to Japan. So much so that I actually took up Japanese lessons on my own initiative, which surprised my parents, since I'd never shown much interest in anything. It's like how they say that women have an internal clock telling them that they should get out and procreate before their time runs up. I have an internal compass that won't shut up for each year I spend not in Japan.

Thirdly, it's been rough, the past two years, having to deal with various buffoons, near-catastrophic mishaps, and exams. Not to mention the horrible weather. Some people shop to relieve stress. Some people binge on comfort food like chocolates. Or ice-cream. Unfortunately for me, I need to travel. Only when I'm out of the country, away from anything that might possibly claim to know me and be able to bind me, can I be totally free from all my worries and troubles. So there. Let me win this and you'll save me from going nuts.

The fourth, and final reason, until I can remember the rest, is that I want to visit my Japanese teacher in Nara. She moved back some two years ago, and I'd really like to pay her a surprise visit. No, I didn't make her up- she's a real person, folks.

So why do I want to go to Japan? For the adventure. To heal my battered soul. To experience potentially life-changing situations. To meet new people. Perhaps even fall in love. So what are you waiting for, judges? It's plain as the verdict you can't help but give- I deserve to win this!


  1. @A20-man: Ah, I know the feeling! Maybe not a high priority with a boiling intensity, but I've always felt it would be nice to visit Japan at least once. Until one day, I met a girl born in Japan. With a balanced, sometimes critical view of her not-so-ideal country. Now, looking back, maybe my real quest was to meet the girl instead of the land. Nevertheless, I wish you similar luck in your personal dream! Long-winded it may seem, hehe. ^_^

  2. Ye gods, because I wasn't reading closely, I initially thought that was actually your dream!

    Then I proceeded to get very amazed that you had things like work visas, the concept of time, and even dialogue in your dreams.

    I'd like to go to Japan, but the plane fare is a deterrent. -wry- I'll probably travel around this country first, and move on outwards when I get bored..

    @Jay-san: Awwwwww! :) So sweet!

  3. @Jay: With me, it's like I suddenly notice that I'm sitting on a stove- an on-off sort of intensity that usually manifests itself in times of great boredom or annoyance. Hmm, I think you've mentioned that girl before- one of your co-workers, who's married?

    @Jenn: Haha, if only I actually dreamed it in my sleep. That way, I wouldn't have had to go through the trouble of crafting the dialogue! Heh, I have Google Maps to thank for the time aspect- their map of Japan is fantastic- it even has an option for public transport, which is how I got most of the time.

    Yeah, you're already staying in a pretty big country, haha. Seeing as how there's so much stuff to see there, I wager it'll be some time before you make it to Japan;)

  4. @A20-man: Hey, superb memory! In fact, she introduced me to Autumn-chan. But complicated... Hmm, "great boredom or annoyance"? Haha, uh-oh, suddenly the "Epic Dream" is mecha-transforming into an "Epic Distraction", isn't it?

  5. @Jay: What's complicated? You've lost me there, haha. Oh, shh! Don't let the contest organizers hear that, or they might disqualify my entry by a technicality:P
    Then again, aren't all great dreams great distractions too? :D

  6. @A20-man: Hmm, sounds like the seed of a new quote... "An epic distraction may become an epic dream. But an epic dream tends to become, well, expensive." Dohhh.

  7. @Jay: Haha. Dohh indeed. Think I still prefer the earlier version though- shorter and simpler:)

  8. @A20-man: Earlier version of what? "Loner" quote?

  9. @Jay: Nah, not that one. A little more recent, haha... four comments above, to be precise:
    "aren’t all great dreams great distractions too?" Your 'loner' quote goes waay back, heh. I can't even remember what it was about(o~o);

  10. @A20-man: Ahh, why didn't u say so? So to claim it as a quote, you should write it like a quote:

    Quote: "Aren't all great dreams great distractions too?" ~Aprilius20

    Answer: "Yup, expensive distractions." ~xJAYMANx

  11. @Jay: Interlinked quotes, then? Mmm. It kind feels like something out of a Richard Sheridan comedy. Or Samuel Beckett, haha.