Saturday, August 23, 2014

Japan Again: Climbing up the Tourism Social Ladder - From Floors to Futons to Skyscrapers (2014)

Preface: I had originally flirted with the idea of writing this post as a series of haikus/senryuus for each amusing, pleasant, and irksome event that occurred on this trip, thinking that I would save a lot of time (on word count), but it didn't take long for me to remember that composing indirect poetry is much more time consuming than a detailed step-by-step forensic recollection. Laziness saves the day again. Without further ado, please enjoy the following Massive Wall of Text.

I wasn't too keen on this trip, having been to Japan in December last year and again in March this year, but hey, who am I to thwack a gift horse on the snout (please ignore my uncalled for bastardization of the proverb). "Guide" is my profession within the family (examples of titles held by others are Pianist, Artist, etc.). I'm quite glad that I avoided being gifted the title "Lawyer", despite having a Bachelor's in the field (though I don't have any particular bias against the profession, mind you). Funnily enough I have never been called by what I actually do, probably because it's a mouthful to say- Recruiter, Headhunter- or legal dealer in persons, if you so prefer. Enough of that, though. To tie the two items together- though I am as almost always the designated Guide, having been to Japan twice in a short period, I really didn't have much of an idea of where to go or what to do. This wasn't helped much by the majority of the group not being very interested in what people usually go to Japan for- onsen, (traditional and otaku) culture, history, the red light districts... ahem. Moving on:

This trip marked several firsts for us. First of all, this would be our first time flying out of the new KLIA Terminal 2 (and back in)- the place is as bad as everyone has made it out to be. It is unnecessarily large, with vacant corners, ridiculously long passageways, and a serious lack of signage. Case in point- our flight was at 8.00am, so we stayed the night at the neighboring (and equally faulty) Tune Hotel 2. I was feeling rather miserable, showing most of the symptoms of dengue fever (except actually having dengue). I needed a glass of water to down some Panadol, but guess what? There was no electric kettle. I could accept that. I don't have one at home, after all. What was unacceptable was that they didn't even provide glasses. Come on. At the very least, how about plastic cups? Or disposable papers ones with advertising for Airasia plastered on? I headed down to the 24/7 7-Eleven store next to the lobby, only to find that it was closed. Frustrated again, I settled for a trek into the airport itself, where I eventually managed to get a drink. Now hear this. Once you clear the sky-bridge that connects the hotel to the airport, you have to go down one walkalator to what I presume would be the Ground Floor (you'll see a convenience store on the way down). However on the way back to the hotel- here's where it gets confusing. You have to take two walkalators up, and one down, to get back to the sky-bridge. Who's the nincompoop that designed this place? It's as if they bought some extra hardware by accident and decided to install it rather than return it for fear of raising auditors' eyebrows. Once back in the hotel I took my pills, stole the quilt from the double bed which my cousin and uncle occupied, rolled up two towels into a pillow and blacked out.

Another first for us was how I cajoled the group into accepting that we fly budget the whole way- no national carriers this time. I'd actually thought of flying Malaysian Airlines, but faced concerns about what would happen to our flight if MAS were to go bankrupt (the downing of MH17 had yet to take place at this point). After an in-depth analysis of all viable options, I came to the conclusion that time-wise, budget carrier Airasia was the best choice, but only because they had no intention of taking a midnight flight there (which would have us arriving in Japan around 6.30am). As it is we ended up with an 8.00am flight, and arrived at Kansai International sometime after 4.00pm. Luckily for me they loved their seats- I'd chosen to pay a little extra for Airasia's "Hotseat" option, which gave us a little more leg space. Two non-English speaking Malaysian grannies nicked my window seat though- I'd fancied doing some aerial photography, but just wasn't in the mood to squabble. Upon arrival we cleared immigration, took the train out to Osaka, and walked to our hotel (Hotel Naniwa). When we finally stepped out once more, it was already getting dark.

Now because I'm somewhat lazy, and rather disinterested after having too Osaka twice before (often enough for Google to think that I've been driving around there)- here's a lightning paced review of what we did. Kushiyaki before an udon dinner, a walk along Dotonbori, an out of control shopping spree in Don Quijote, 500 yen for 8 takoyaki by the river, a brief stop at a Tsutaya bookstore (to the visible reluctance of the others who are not interested in books at all, much less manga), and a final nightcap at Honolulu Coffee- because there's no such thing as a mamak restaurant in Japan. where you can order a glass of hot black tea for less than a dollar, roll up your sleeves, talk loudly while watching a projected image of a footie match live from halfway across the world.

The next day- a walk through Kuromon market, where the chefs in the group went googly eyed at the sight of fresh produce. We stuck our heads into a quiet ramen restaurant- I asked if they were open yet, and a lady who was having a McD breakfast answered that they were (though I was to find out later on that they weren't open yet). We made our way to Osaka Castle, and paid for entrance up- none of them were interested in the museum, though they might have been had there been Chinese text instead of just Japanese and simple English translations- at the very least, the view from the top was quite nice and worth the climb up- I'd decided to skip the wait for the elevator, which the others regretted instantly. Certain floors had signs saying that AEDs (Automated External Defibrillators) were available- I wondered if anyone had had a heart attack while climbing up in the past. Luckily enough we did not require its assistance, despite the constant panting I heard as I stormed up. Down and back into the heat- on to lunch- okonomiyaki in a classy shopping mall restaurant in downtown Umeda, a walk through Amerika-Mura (American Town). On my very first trip to Osaka a long time ago I thought Ame-mura, as they call it, meant "Rain Town". Silly me. I had asked a store girl if I had got the etymology right- she didn't correct me, but just said that my Japanese was pretty good to have made that connection (albeit a flawed one). Amemura was somewhat quiet and not what I had pictured (a bustling American ghetto populated by GIs and blondes both real and dyed). We walked back to Dotonbori, bickered a bit on what to have for dinner, stumbled into a random izakaya in an underground mall, stuffed up and walked back to our beds.
We checked out the next morning and headed back to KIX for our flight to Sapporo, capital city of Hokkaido. We flew by Peach this time- one of Japan's budget airlines, which only flies out of Osaka and not Tokyo for some reason. We reached Sapporo station after a train ride from the airport- they made a beeline for the nearest loo, and after that, were irresistibly drawn to a bakery like flies to a rotting carcass. I didn't buy any bread, but picked up a cheese tart from a nearby small. We found our hotel- the Hotel Monterey Edelhof- a hotel with surprisingly European decor. I screwed up- thought our rooms were on the 2nd floor, when they were actually on the 21st. The 2nd floor was occupied by some rather empty looking offices and a lonesome security guard who was just as confused as to what we were doing there as we were.

We sortied for lunch- I was hoping to have a taste of Hokkaido's local specialty, "soup curry". I'd brought up the topic in passing, but they weren't hearing anything of curry: "Japanese curry is all sweet", and "we're in Japan, why bother having curry". Well. After taking in the view of the nearby Sapporo TV Tower- I can't help but wonder if all terrestrial TV reception in Sapporo will be knocked out if the tower goes down- and a quick walk through the ridiculously small yet hyped up Odori park, I led the hungry pack down a flight of stairs knowing that we would definitely come across a few restaurants in the underground shopping arcade. After some indecision and pouting we ended up selecting (or rather, I watched them choose) a noodle restaurant. The photos on the outside made it look as if they specialized in some sort of fusion cuisine, but once I had a look at their menu I realized that there wasn't much fusion going on- it was just a spaghetti joint. Ordering was quite a chore as usual- so much so that this time I went so far as to otsukaresama the waitress who took our order (she gave me one in return too). She disappeared after that though. Either her shift just finished or taking our order tired her out. The food arrived after a while- there were a few options- to order ala carte, or to go for the Gentlemen's/Ladies' Sets. I had taken her advice and went for the Ladies' Set- now cue the awkward moment where I couldn't even finish mine, though the others had no such problem with theirs. In retrospect I probably shouldn't have been so surprised- back home I've been slowly reducing my intake at main meals- I'm the one weird guy who asks for a quarter of the usual portion of rice at 'Economy Rice' stalls, after all, shocking all the petite ladies in the queue behind me- and I was in the company of a few heavy-duty eaters as well. Perhaps Japanese ladies in the North have large tanks too? Not a question I'd like to put forth in person.

No time to waste- a quick stroll through town. Sapporo proper really isn't that big. We passed by the infamous Tokeidai (clock tower), which was recently named as one of Sapporo's (or Japan's?) most disappointing tourist sights. I'd thought of taking a look into the museum if it was free, but unfortunately there was an entrance fee of less than 1000 Yen, so we just walked around the building and speculated as to its purpose. A horde of tourists were outside taking photos on a raised dais which may or may not have been used for executions in the past (I jest, nothing as interesting as that ever happened here). We blundered along and ended up at the Hokkaido Gikai (Prefectural Assembly), whose grounds are open to the public and also contain the old Government Office building, which has been turned into a little museum, entry to which is free of charge, and they don't even bother trying to collect for donations (yay). One section of the display is devoted to explaining the ding-dong transfer of the northern islands between Japan and Russia, with a petition book for visitors to sign, demanding that Russia return the islands. Photography of the book itself wasn't permitted, but I sidestepped that (probably) and took a photo of the entire display instead (86,100,601 signs so far). There was a group of people who had somehow made their way to the rooftop and seemed to be having a blast- but I couldn't find a way up. After asking security, it turned out that the top was booked for a private event- pity that.

Back outside, we walked through a row of stalls selling beer- there was a sort of summer beer festival going on, though I guess it was still too early for the drinking to start. We walked around a group shooting a news broadcast with some silly looking mascots (or yurukyara as they're known here)- I couldn't help but wonder if we'd ended up on TV. We stopped for drinks at a convenience store- and noticed that the salary-man who'd shared the same bench as us had left his iPhone behind. If this were Malaysia he would have to bid his phone farewell, chin up and buy a new one- this is Japan though, so I'm pretty sure that he would have gotten it back somehow after I turned it over to the staff in the store. Most un-Malaysian behavior of me, I admit. I actually know people who feel that if you lose your phone you only have yourself to blame, and believe strongly in 'finders, keepers'. It's not a policy I've ever been able to adhere to- that's one point knocked off my unofficial citizenship scorecard, along with other points deducted for detesting durian and hating to sound my car horn even when wronged.

We moved on to our next destination- the ropeway (cable-car) at Mt Moiwa. We took a tram there, and coincidentally noticed a discount voucher for the ropeway itself, thus saving a fair bit of cash. After getting off the tram, we could have waited for a shuttle bus to take us up, but since it didn't look too far according to Google, I decided to walk- much to the displeasure of one of the older ones, especially when we came to a steep slope just before the ropeway station. There was a sign on the way up asking people not to feed wild foxes (!)- on our way back down later that night a wild fox actually walked right past us. I tried to take a photo but the shy little thing scampered off. As for the ropeway- oddly enough there were two separate rides up- the first leading to the midway station, which had a shop for tourists, and a cafe. The top had quite a good view of all of Sapporo, and there was quite a nice wind blowing as well.

I'd originally thought of checking out the Hokkaido Beer Factory and Museum, and have dinner in the Beer Hall (mainly for the local Genghis Khan), but there just wasn't enough time for that. I unanimously decided on heading to Susukino instead- back on the tram. More squabbling once we got there. We finally settled on a ramen restaurant in Susukino's Ramen Yokocho (Ramen Alley)- this is apparently a tourist spot, though I didn't bring up this fact at the time. A few of them went with ramen unique (possibly) to Hokkaido- corn ramen and scallop ramen. I went with a slighly safer looking akarenga (red brick) ramen- whatever that meant. I still think the best ramen I've had so far was on that one wintry night in Kyoto back in December, in a little shop near Pontocho called Nobunaga Ramen. Back outside, it looked as if Susukino was experiencing a sudden boom in the moth population (or death of). Dead moths were scattered across the sidewalks, though some were still flitting about in the air, and some others were affixing themselves to whatever dark object that they could find- such as the black uniforms of some waitresses who were out to seduce attract customers- their desperate cries of 'tasukete' (save me) no doubt confusing any policeman within earshot.

Day 2 in Sapporo. We started out by walking over to Nijo Ichiba, Sapporo's (mainly) seafood market. Some sites call it Sapporo's Tsukiji- which is true, in that it does serve quite a large area, but compared to Tsukiji, Nijo is the size of a pin-prick. It does have a certain small town charm to it (Sapporo is hardly a small town, but let's let that slide) though. We didn't have the time to explore the entire market, but they did have enjoy themselves by poking around the produce on offer, and even picked up a few packs of preserved scallops. One friendly store-lady tried to strike up a conversation, but I was still fatigued- I hadn't had much sleep the previous night. She correctly guessed that we were Malaysians, though I didn't have the energy to follow up with a surprised reaction. With shopping done- it was time for breakfast. If they were hungry before, they were ravenous after looking at all the fresh ingredients on display- we didn't take long to choose a restaurant to attack, a small sushi joint within the market. We ordered two sushi sets and a few other items to share. The sushi set that I had to myself back in March in Tsukiji was much better. That being said, the Tsukiji joint that I graced did not have UVERworld's signature propped up on their wall- perhaps I should have left mine with them. After that last sentence I don't doubt that some clueless readers will now think that I am a minor celebrity- an amusing falsity to perpetuate (go ahead).

The second item on our agenda- off to Otaru, popular for it's Unga (canal), glass shops and seafood. Google Maps says that the journey by train takes one hour, but it didn't feel that long (memory fails me here). Anyhow. Otaru. As soon as we got off the train there were cries for food (to be fair I might be making this up- blame it on paranoia). Otaru looked more cosmopolitan than I'd expected- I was expecting a quaint, perhaps somewhat Bohemian feel- guess I was far off the mark. There were quite a lot of tourists there though, and they didn't look too disappointed. Our first stop, of course, was the first restaurant we came across, for a serving of barbecued shellfish, followed up by sweetcorn and melon. We took our time poking around the shops in the area- many were selling glassware (a regional specialty)- decorative baubles in the shape of little animals, jewelry, wind chimes and the like. I don't think they were interested, though. A few of the other stores we poked in- most of those which interested them were those selling consumable items, predictably.

For lunch I managed to convince them to try out soup curry- but unfortunately the restaurant I was eyeing was closed for the day. Cursing my luck, we ended up in another restaurant- a ridiculously large one in which we were the only guests, located in a converted warehouse along the canal (it was already around 3pm, after all). Their menu showed the very same BBQ seafood that we'd had upon arriving, but one item caught my eye- they served Genghis Khan. We went in- I had no idea how to order and threw caution to the wind, ordering a little of this and a little of that, to go with two sets of Khans. The Khans, when they arrived, were somewhat disappointing- strips of lamb meat to be barbecued on a hot plate over a charcoal fire, with veggies strewn along the sides- that's pretty much it. I'm not really a big fan of 'cook your own meal' restaurants, with the exception of hot pots. The elders weren't too crazy over lamb meat (blood pressure problems and all that), though the kids didn't protest- I was too busy worrying whether everything was being done right and funnily enough didn't get a single slice of meat- no one noticed until I brought it up much later, but I found the whole affair rather amusing, being most interested in who would claim the final piece. After lunch, we came across a small beer hall- selling German beer, for some reason. There was a brief (but free!) tour of their brewery- small in scale but still quite interesting. After that- pizza and spaghetti while we watched a photographer take shots of food- perhaps for a new menu or an article.

One final frenzied rush for souvenirs at the train station after that- I got hold of some Marusei Butter cookies, while they, funnily enough, picked up a cake from LeTAO, a 'sweets shop' (patisserie?) that I'd wanted to check out but couldn't find the time to fit in. I left them unattended for a while, but was quickly summoned back for some translation- the store clerk said they will only sell the cakes if we can consume them within 4 hours of purchase- leave it alone for more than 4 hours and it'll melt like the Wicked Witch of the West. We finished off the cake once we got back to our hotel in Sapporo- it really was quite nice. It was already quite dark, and I just happened to look out the window (I was not in my room, but in one of the others'), and noticed that they had a lovely view of the TV tower, all lighted up and glowing in orange. They hadn't even bothered to look out the window... out for dinner again- after more quarreling over where to eat- at one point I'd stopped to look at the menu for one restaurant, and one balding chap in a suit came out with a big smile and said "oishii desu yo!" (the food's great!). His wife followed up with "chotto anata, Nihonjin ja nai yo". Quite true, though I didn't have the time to respond in turn. I translated for the group and they barged in- but the manager (?) said that they were already closing up. Pity that. I was too busy minding the others and translating for them (repeatedly) that I failed to ask the lady whether they were really closing or whether she was intimidated by having a large group of giant gaijins noisily barge in. Anyhow- we moved on to a more generic izakaya, where my thoughts frequently drifted back to a little store selling chicken katsu curry rice (the sweet type) a short distance away, while taking their orders.

Our last day in Sapporo, with a flight to catch in the evening, bound for Tokyo. I'd thought of some places to go during our stay in the North- Shiretoko National Park- too far, and they wouldn't be interested in a big forest. Furano- 3 hours to get there, and 3 hours to come back. Noboribetsu Onsen- which they have no interest in. In retrospect I should probably not even have asked them where they wanted to go or what they wanted to do or not do- next time I'll just decide by myself and let them know where they are when we get there. The last item on the agenda- Kaitaku no Mura (Historical Village of Hokkaido), some 40 minutes away from the city center by train. Upon arriving at the train station there was a long walk waiting for us- up a slope leading up to a high school, with some high school girls lightening up the scenery on the way, and a long walk without much shade, before we finally got there. Once there there was more complaining, when they found out about the ticket price- what was it, 800 yen for adults- and they took the opportunity to reaffirm their total lack of interest in history. I couldn't be bothered to debate, but luckily one wise voice spoke up (one aunt) saying that since we were already here we might as well go in and look around- all of us, and screw the ticket price. Good counsel. It wasn't too shabby in there- there were many old buildings (reconstructions, or imported, I'm not sure). A few had actual old people occupying them (for work). We spent about 2 hours or so in there, before heading back to Sapporo to collect our bags. Once at the airport we had our first taste of Mos Burger- small but quite well done, and experienced our (well, my) first delayed flight. Thanks for the experience, Jetstar.
Finally- Tokyo. I'd thought of taking the Narita Express (NEX), but our final destination was in Ginza/Shinbashi- so the guy at the counter sold us tickets for the normal train instead, since the NEX train would take us to Tokyo first, while the normal train would take us directly to Shinbashi. It took about 90 minutes to get to Shibashi, perhaps more- reminding me once again just how ridiculously far Narita Airport is from Tokyo (Narita is a different city, by the way).

We made our way to our hotel- the Mitsui Garden Hotel Ginza Premier. I picked this hotel for two reasons- it's a short walk away from the Tsukiji Market, and it's owned by the Mitsui group- one of my clients, so I thought it would be somewhat amusing to stay there. We had booked 4 rooms for 2 nights, at the total bill came up to around 190,000 JPY (about RM 6000). I found it rather funny how they were rather shocked at the sight of how impressive the hotel looked both from inside and outside, especially since I'd already got approval before making the booking. I'm not sure what they were expecting to get for that price... I was surprised by a few other things, though. Since there were seven of us, one of us would have the pleasure of some privacy for once- I didn't ask for it and suggested that the loudest snorer sleep by himself, but my aunt insisted that I take it. Upon entering the room, the first thing I noticed was the bed. Despite it being a single room, I'd been given a room with a queen sized bed (no queen to share it with, though). The other 3 rooms had two single beds. The views were spectacular too- from the lobby, we could see Tokyo Tower in the distance, all lit up in orange. The view from my view was not too shabby either- I think I could probably see all the way to Tsukiji, though I had no way of identifying it (oh wait, there was a postcard in the room identifying the major sights from the room- it's sitting on my desk now though). There are no balconies, but you can stand directly at the edge of the window and look down 20 floors- an impressive sight in itself. I dared one uncle to stand at the edge and look down (he's scared of heights)- he did and jumped right back. Another surprise was how highly ranked the hotel is- I only discovered this once we'd returned to Malaysia, but this hotel is ranked 23rd out of 663 hotels in Tokyo, and 3rd out of 76 in the Chuo area. Based on rankings alone, I'd say that I scored a pretty good hit...

With dinner out of the way (we'd fueled up with some ramen at Shinbashi station), we went for a quick walk around Ginza- taxis dominated the roads, waiting for customers. Not surprising, as they'd need a place to go to once the trains stop running (around midnight?). Today was a Thursday. Curiously enough, it looked like many office workers were still wandering around- hitting pubs, or perhaps even hostess clubs. Some of them were in the company of dolled-up girls (and middle-aged ladies) dressed in bright party dresses. Don't these people go to work the next day? Oh wait, it's already the next day, isn't it? How convenient. The next day was spent covering the Imperial Palace (the parts that we could walk around), before heading to Yasukuni for a poke around (absolutely nothing to poke, of course), followed by Harajuku, for lunch at a 'Chinese' restaurant- which I skipped, stoking up their curiosity. They picked up a few shirts over on Takeshita-doori, while I took the opportunity to chat up a salesgirl by asking for help in selecting a tee for my sister... but didn't buy anything. A short jaunt to Akihabara where I managed to pick up some books, and finally, dinner at a do-it-yourself okonomiyaki joint, where we pretty much screwed up and made a mess of everything. Fast forward back to the hotel in Ginza, where I boiled myself in a rose-tinted bath before attempting a selfie session by the window and on the bed. No worries- even if I should be come an international celebrity someday, they definitely won't be blackmail material. Blackout.

The following morning. A quick look through Tsukiji Market, before heading towards the restaurants- I'd thought of heading to a sushi joint, but almost every restaurant was full. We ended up at a tight litte unagi-don restaurant, which turned out to be pretty good. Some random shopping after that- we picked up some tea, egg rolls, and I got a pair of geta and chopsticks- not for myself, of course- barely any time for myself. Finally done with Tsukiji, we walked back to Ginza. Tired already (partially from the heat), they needed a cafe to rest in- I led them into a department store figuring that there would be a few restaurants there. I was right- there was a cafe on the 4th floor, though I didn't notice the name- Harrods. We had tea there- interesting tea, but somewhat mediocre given the astronomical pricing. They didn't enjoy it much either, and felt somewhat out of place. I didn't mind it too much, but the place did give off an aura of a place haunted by rich wives with too much free time, and occasionally ladies with fruits in their hats. After the somewhat uncomfortable experience, I led the party to the nearby Sony Building- quite surprisingly the first few floors had been turned into a marine exhibition of some sort- the 'Sony Aquarium', they called it. I checked into the place on Foursquare (Swarm, actually), and shortly after some hyperactive PR rep from Sony favorited the twitter post of it. Wonder how much that guy is getting paid, or if they got an intern to do it.

Our last stop- Asakusa, for a look at the old town and Kaminarimon. They went bonkers looking around at the shops- but one ice cream shop had a rather odd rule- no eating on the streets. That felt rather unreasonable- perhaps it was because the shops were on temple grounds, and walking around licking on an ice cream cone is taboo? One final ride to Akiba where I managed to pick up one single book, before heading back to Ginza to pick up our bags- and off to Haneda airport after that. The end- and I doubt there'll be a fourth Japan travelogue for a long time, even if I do go there again for work (somewhat likely) or play (highly unlikely). Sayonara for now, JP!

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