A Japanese Wedding

On Saturday I was fortunate to attend a Japanese wedding ceremony for Paul, aka b2, one of my oldest friends from the early game playing era. Harking back over ten years, it is somewhat weird to think that one of the guys that I used to play Doom with until we could barely stand is now happily married. Scary, too.

The wedding was a multi-stage affair, somewhat like a Saturn rocket, although fortunately less explosive. We were picked up by a bus early afternoon which took our merry band to a great little Shinto temple off in a quiet little area of Shirakawa.

Unfortunately the details of what happened next are difficult to relate, as the entire ceremony was in Japanese. I suspect it was a traditional Shinto ceremony; all very nice. Sitting on the floor gets old really quickly though, especially if your aging body isn’t used to it – I think Japanese people must have the ability to do it encoded into their DNA after centuries of waiting for someone to bring over some chairs, or something (seriously, for a country that is so far ahead of the rest of the world in so many areas, they are really lacking in the furniture deparment).

The ceremony wrapped up with everyone drinking sake from little teeny saucers. Again, I useless don’t know the significance of it and have failed to ask (due in no small part to the subsequent reception and partying, details of which I will now relate, as I remember them).

After the wedding we jumped back into the minibus and ended up at a formal building for the reception. We sat around a bit and eventually were ushered into the beautifully presented reception room.

In true Japanese style, our places were prepared with an incredible amount of effort placed on presentation – you’ll need to see the photos to believe it. I did start to get worried at this point, as the first part of the meal was there – and it was mostly seafood. For those that came in late, I’m not a fan of food of the underwater variety.

Without going into too much detail about the food, it was all amazingly prepared before it was delivered to us. I’m happy to try anything – almost – once so I had a crack at just about everything that was put down in front of me, including several firsts for me such as lobster, scollops, tempura, and a bunch of other stuff I was not able to recognise. Suffice to say I survived without too many problems. The fact that every time we put down our beer glasses a helpful waiter rocked up almost instantly to fill it up again. Freely flowing beer helps remove food inhibitions as well.

The food kept on coming steadily for the next couple of hours until I was at serious risk of blow-out. We packed away as much as we could without interrupting our drinking while the wedding festivities went on around us, including the usual speeches and somewhat less usual karaoke (including a stellar performance of a Bryan Adams love song by Tristan, Brad and yours truly.

Tristan performed his best man duties with gusto, not only delivering his speech impeccably but providing the English versions of a couple of Japanese speeches as well.

The reception was great fun, but by this point the party was really only warming up. Afterwards we headed off to a post-reception pub for some more serious drinking and even more food. The beer flew freely at this new place, along with a variety of other options (including the local margaritas), which eventually lead to the traditional Japanese post-drinking pastime of Serious Karaoke.

Powered by huge amounts of food and motivated by equally vast amounts of alcohol a large troop of us headed to the karaoke bar where we proceded to butcher various classics for a couple of hours.

Afterwards we hit the local convenience store where a couple of us – optimistically, as it turned out, for we weren’t going to last much longer – bought Even More Alcohol. I was already getting some sense of what the day after was going to look like so I made do with a 1.5L bottle of water.

We made our way back to Paul’s place where there was some brief talk of continuing the party, but walking even a couple of hundred meters through the freezing cold night weather had taken its toll and we quickly started collapsing.

An awesome day, though it took most of the next day before I had recovered enough to perform simple operations like walking and talking again.

Reflections Upon the Nature of Mistakes

Every now and then, you make a mistake that is so incredibly stupid – so unbelievably dumb – that it makes you stop dead in your tracks and wonder how on earth you managed to survive this long without getting eaten by a predator.

Fortunately for our species, the vast majority of humans can display some adaptability, which has lead to us making this far along our evolutionary tree. Those that don’t learn from their mistakes are usually quickly selected against and end up in the belly of a lion, frozen into a glacier, or embedded face-first into the grille of a Mack truck.

My mistake was thinking that there might be some vague, remote similarity between a Japanese spring and a Brisbane spring. The last time I was in this country, it was 35 degrees celcius and humid – just like home. So I figured, hey – maybe its the same just after winter: nice, dry 20 degree days.

Unfortunately, I forgot a key fact – in winter in Japan, it snows.

Not too far off in the distance from where we are staying in Shirakawa, there are mountains that still have actual snow on the top of then. If it gets to more than 10 degrees during the day, people here start putting on bikinis. Needless to say, as a born and bred Queenslander who tends to wear beanies as soon as the mercury drops below 25 degrees back home, I am suffering.

Hopefully the lesson has been learned – do more research before heading off to parts foreign. I knew it would be cold, but merely throwing in a jumper and a pair of thick socks is not adequate prevention.

However, despite the numbness in my hands as I type this and the constant threat of frostbite each time I step outside, I can’t help but think I’d rather be here than back home perched in front of a computer screen for ten or twelve hours a day.

The wedding is tomorrow. Remarkably the happy couple-to-be are relaxed and appear to be well prepared.

Shirakawa, Japan

I’ll try to avoid talking repeatedly about how cool I find simply everything in Japan. The entire place is just so totally different in every way to Australia that even mundane experiences like driving to the shops are these amazing Burke and Wills-esque adventures.

Last night we headed out for a yakitori dinner – Brad, Tristan, Paul, Yoko and some of Paul’s family and me – and had a great meal. The most noteworth event for me at least was some of the bizarre dishes – things I’d never try back home but I feel compelled to do it when I’m in these crazy FOR’N parts.

Raw horsemeat was the first thing we tried. Squishy. We then moved on to a more normal dish of chicken balls (actually just balls made up of chicken, or so we were told). After that we got some interesting bits – liver, heart, gizzards and something which was described as ‘head’. Deciding that two new food types was a good solid amount for me I stuck with the head and found it to smell like cat, but taste like lamb. Weird.

We hit the batting cages today and have just generally hung out relaxing and recovering from the food and beer of last night. More fun is planned for tonight.

Holidays – Part One

Well, I’m three days into my first real holiday in a long, long time. I’ve got around 2.5 months of near-work free vacationing to look forward to (with the brief exception of a stopover in Los Angeles for E3).

Right now, I’m in Japan – again. After a long, painful flight from Brisbane via Cairns, I arrived in Tokyo to start two weeks here for b2’s wedding.

So far I have learned to more carefully check the weather in target destinations. Waiting until you land to find out that its 9 degrees Celcius outside ain’t a great idea.

I managed to find blahnana without incident thanks to him waiting around Narita airport for hours for me to arrive. We battled our backpacks and – thankfully – got a smoke-free train to Tokyo. The next battle was finding out hotel. Armed with nothing more than a low quality printed map though we managed to find it without any drams.

By the time we’d checked in, dumped our bags and recovered enough to get dinner it was 11pm – and we’d missed most of the food places within walking distance of the hotel. We found a chain-style noodle place and took a gamble on the menu, relying on pointing to order.

I of course had horrors that I had just ordered something with tentacles that was recently farmed out of the ocean. However, to our mutual delight and my relief, we ended up with this awesome barbequed beef-and-rice thing that totally hit the spot.

That drama over, we hit the sack, got up, and got the train up to Shirakawa, all without any problems. We did duck into Tokyo briefly and went near the Imperial Palace, finding a great park which had our first real in-season cherry blossom – which looked fantastic. Photos will be available soon.

Shirakawa is cold and the cherry blossoms are lagging behind slightly, but they should be in full bloom in time for the wedding on Saturday. We had a good day today just driving around and hanging out.

Tonight we seek our fortune in the karaoke bars of Shirakawa. Much fun will be had.

Japan – Day 4

A significant proportion of Day 4 was spent recovering from the drinking and karaoke session of the previous night, so unfortunately there isn’t a lot to report. Needless to say the effects of all that beer and sake were devastating for some. Fortunately, I was relatively unscathed so spent most of the morning catching up on email and generally relaxing while I waited for my less stalwart travelling companions to regain their senses.

Eventually, we were on our way north to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a town about an hours drive away from Paul’s place. Aizu-Wakamatsu features a great castle, famous for an event that occured back in 1868 when a group of young samurai that were fighting against imperial forces mistakenly thought the castle had falled, and committed mass suicide (seppuku, the noble act of disembowlling oneself, an act which even took place in World War 2).

We got their too late to actually go inside the castle (not a huge disappointment as we were saving most of our castle-seeing energy for one of the most famous and biggest castles, Himeji) but had a great walk around the castle grounds – the pictures will show it better than I can describe it, but its safe to say the scale of these things are very impressive. This was the first castle I’d ever been up close to so it was quite a neat experience.

Something that we’re discovering is that many of these ‘old’ Japanese buildings aren’t actually that old. My guide book refers to many temples, shrines and other buildings being rebuilt as purity is an important part of the Shinto religion – one particular building, for example, has been rebuilt every 20 years for centuries.

However, many other buildings have been rebuilt because they burned down – I’m guessing in temperatures not unlike the ones we’re experiencing (35 degrees celcius seems to be the average at the moment). Additionally, sadly, many ancient buildings were destroyed when the US bombed Japanese cities in World War 2. I’m sure a lot of people think Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only cities that suffered bombings in the war, but so many cities were devastated – Tokyo itself was bombed in March of 1945 (only 4 months before the first atomic bomb was dropped), killing around 100,000 people – a figure comparable to that of the toll taken by the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Depressing thoughts aside… later that night we went back to Paul’s place and indulged in yakiniku, which has totally changed my eating plans for the rest of my life. Basically, you have a hot plate in the middle of the table and just keep dumping meat and vegetables on it, cooking it there, and eating straight off the hot plate! Very low maintenance (no plates) and meat straight off the barbeque is the only way to go.

Day 4 was relatively short, but don’t worry – Day 5 is not far behind, covering our visit to Paul’s school, our trip to Mr Donut (a big donut chain over here), and the details of our late-night trip planning session.

Japan – Day 3

Several days after my last email and in that time I’ve basically seen more of Japan than I have proportionatly of Australia. It is becoming increasingly obvious that there is basically no way I’ll be able to describe all the stuff that we’ve seen – even seemingly mundane things like going into stores is an experience all in itself. Basically, everyone is just going to have to come here and investigate for yourselves.

Day Three in Japan was a relatively relaxing one – we didn’t have anything planned for the day, so Paul took us to the local batting centre – a facility with a bunch of automated pitching machines that you stand in front of and they hurl baseballs at you at velocities approaching that of light speed. You simply feed in 100 yen pieces and the balls just keep on comin’.

We each had a couple of rounds with some success with pitches that ranged between 90 and 110 km/h. After we’d figured we’d mastered the intricacies of baseball, we upped the speed to 130km/h. Unfortunately, balls at this speed are harder to hit than you might first think. While we didn’t managed to cop any hits to the head, our egos suffered irrepairable damage as we failed to connect solidly with even a single hit between us.

After this, we’d planned to play some tennis, but this was ruled out as the courts were all full. Instead, we went for a bit more of a drive and checked out a bunch of shops – as noted above, a great experience and something you could easily spend a day doing.

This seems like a good point to bring up the Japanese fascination for manga (comics). My interest in Japanese anime (cartoons) and manga has, to date, been small enough to fit inside a matchbox without taking out the matches first. Now that I’m actually here, seeing it first hand – well, I guess it hasn’t changed much. Not being able to understand any of it is probably somewhat of a limiting factor.

However, both Paul and Aaron have always been interested in both manga and anime, and as a result we’ve spent a lot of time going to various bookshops. In fact, in three days, we visited the same bookshop once a day. Now, to be fair, it was a pretty big bookshop that seemed to have a big range of books (even some English books!), but my eyes now start to glaze over when we enter a bookshop. Its fun to walk around for a while and check out all the various bits and pieces (manga comes in a simply massive range, including some that are quite disturbing), as well as Japanese music CDs (J-Pop) and things like Japanese versions of Western CDs and DVDs (Queen is apparently big over here at the moment and several Queen CDs are prominently displayed in various stores, which is great to see).

Despite my complete inability to understand anything in manga short of coming up with my own stories whilst looking at the pictures, I bought a couple of books – one from a popular anime series and another which looks like some sort of World War 2 history book, which I thought would be interesting to go through to see a Japanese/manga take on World War 2.

After this, we made our way home and went out to an all-you-can-eat-and-all-you-can-drink restaurant, which was great. Some of the food we ate was completely unidentifiable, but fortunately we had some Japanese people with us who were able to label it for us. Here’s a tip for English speakers in Japan – if someone offers you ‘taco’, don’t go thinking you’re about to get a nice Mexican dish – its the Japanese word for ‘octopus’.

We ended up with mostly non-seafood dishes, much to my relief (though I did try a battered prawn-type thing which was great), and overall had yet another excellent meal. Photos are available somewhere (they’ll be in the ‘day 3’ folder when I get around to sorting them out). We also drank heaps of the great Kirin beer, which helped get us ready for another fine Japanese tradition – karaoke.

I’d never done karaoke before, and Paul had told me that it was essentially inescapable, so for a couple of weeks before I left I’d practiced a few songs so I could do them at least somewhat in key. Fortunately, just like in Australia, when it comes to karaoke, actual talent has nothing to do with having a good time. We ended up staying for almost three hours.

Karaoke in Japan is a massively different experience from what I’m used to (namely, going to the RE and watching Will sing). Instead of being in a public area, karaoke places have a number of small rooms which you ‘hire’ for a couple of hours. Each room is private and (thankfully) soundproofed enough so that you can’t hear anyone else in the other rooms wailing away. A big screen TV and a massive sound system provide the phat beats. A phone on the wall allows you to call up reception and they will BRING YOU BEER, arguably one of the greatest systems of all time. A book of songs roughly the size and weight of the Brisbane Yellow Pages lists everything on offer in your karaoke machine, and you select what songs you want punching them in on a remote control.

Basically, there is a whole infrastructure in Japanese society which appears to be completely devoted to providing and supporting karaoke throughout the land. You can’t walk a block in the cities without seeing a karaoke bar somewhere. Its a pretty amazing system which results in a fun time for all, especially after drinking (and whilst consuming) a large number of beers. Will would love it. Photos are available to serve as proof that I actually took part because I’m sure noone will actually believe me.

Overall, another pretty good day of Japanese experience. The next installment should be available shortly (the reason its taken so long for this one is because we’ve been travelling for the last few days, but more about that later!)

Day 4 was mostly a day of recovery so we didn’t do much, but we did go for a great drive north, so stay tuned for details!

Japan – Day 2

Waking up refreshed after a solid eight hours of sleep. As Paul predicted, we were quickly reminded we weren’t in Kansas any more when we walked out onto the balcony into a balmy summer morn, with Shirakawa Castle on a hill about 400m off in the distance over a shallow, quickly flowing creek/river. Everything here is remarkably green, something that I will no doubt comment on frequently and will be obvious from the photos.

In an attempt to try and recover some of the masses of energy burned off in the stress of the previous day, we decided that we’d more or less take it easy and just do a bit of general driving around and going to shops. The first thing we did though was take a drive to Nanki Park, a nice little green swath of greenery, surrounded by more green. It lives next to a big man-made lake – you can hire boats and row around it.

Next to the park is the first shrine, no doubt of many, that we saw. The photos illustrate this better than I could describe it, but suffice to say it was pretty neat. Sadly, my knowledge about Japan’s local religions at the time was currently limited to knowing the names (Buddhism and Shinto) and I probably failed to appreciate it appropriately; something which I recognised and have since done my best to correct (by reading my comprehensive Eyewitness Travel Guide to Japan – dripping with knowledge about local cultures like a beef and gravy roll.

From there, we did some more driving around. One particular thing that kept catching our eye amidst the patches of green (it should be pointed out at this point that Shirakawa is very much a ‘country town’ – nothing like the busy metropolis of other massive cities like Tokyo or Brisbane) were other, lighter patches of green, that looked extremely well-tended. Paul was quick to point out that these were rice paddies, and once we discovered this we began to notice them everywhere, literally stuffed into every nook and cranny – wherever there is somewhere rice is able to grow, it seems they’ve chucked a rice paddy into it. I guess they like rice here, or something.

After this, we ducked into a local department store (a la Coles) to pick up some food. For those that know me even remotely, you’ll know that I don’t eat seafood – the very smell of it cooking at my parents place is usually enough to send me fleeing to the far reaches of the house. So, you were probably wondering, like I was, how I’d go in Japan, a place which has somewhat of an affinity for seafood.

Needless to say, I lasted approximately 12 hours before I ate something with seafood in it. Paul convined me to try a rice ball thing – basically a seafood-wrapped sushi-type thing with tuna in it. This was my first time ever (to my knowledge) that I’d eaten tuna. I didn’t die; nor was it as terrible as I feared, but for those thinking that I might develop into a gourmet whilst over here (hi mum), I fear I shall disappoint. Fortunately for me, Paul isn’t a big seafood person either, and I’ve learned the Japanese word for chicken, so I think I can fake my way through a lot of the rest of the trip.

Paul took us to another shrine, this one in a remarkable forest with some simply massive and amazing trees, some of which I attempted to photo, but the low light conditions failed to capture the magnificence of them (the green-ness should be noted).

Driving further around, we noticed a small observatory with a couple of people loitering around, up a small path on the side of the road. Assuming they were tourists, we made our way up the precarious, unpaved road up to the observatory, with me assuming that we were soon to slip over the edge of the road and fall to our doom. Fortunately, Paul’s car has four wheel drive and it proved as sure-footed as a grizzled mountain goat, and we soon made our way to the top.

As we got out of the car, the people up on the observatory started saying something to us. Aaron grinned charmingly (completely oblivious to whatever message they were trying to impart upon us) and said “what’s up?”, repeating it a few times after they had no idea what he was saying. Eventually they realised we were clueless, idiotic tourists that couldn’t recognise something that wasn’t open to the public and retuned themselves to Radio Gaijin.

Fortunately, one of the girls (there was a group of teenagers and a couple of adults who were laughing at us through most of this exchange) turned out to be an English teacher, so she translated for the group as we communicated. As it turns out, they were helping one of the older guys who had built this little observatory finish it off – painting the inside and that sort of stuff. They were kind enough to invite us in and let us check it out, which was a neato experience – but not before the elderly lady that was there gave us tomatos to eat. I assumed this was some ancient Japanese custom, but according to Paul and a few other Japanese people, it was just as weird as if someone did it to you in Australia.

We hung around for a while chatting (it had started raining) and admiring the workmanship (by far the finest hand-made observatory I’d ever been in), and then eventually made our excuses, said our farewells, and left. So far, Japanese people were taking quite the shining to us – Paul informed us that our status of ‘Australian’ basically made us GODS, so we’re going to see how far we can milk this particular cow before we get refused or thrown in jail or whatever.

That night, Paul and his girlfriend Yoko took us out for dinner at a Japanese restaurant that served something called Okonomiyaki. We were accompanied by one of Paul’s Japanese friends, another English teacher that works at one of the schools Paul is at, a great guy called Yuskay. Google defines Okonomiyaki as a “a mixture between pancake and pizza” – basically, you sit (on the floor) at a small table, embedded in which is a hotplate. You order, and the ingredients are brought to you in a cup. You stir the cup, mixing everything together until you end up with a pancake-esque mix containing a bunch of interesting stuff, chuck it on the hot plate, let it cook, and then eat it. Very awesome. It was so tasty, in fact, that I tried some more seafood – there was a ‘spicy tuna’ one that we had. The level of spice was such that smoke literally came out of my ears, just as you would imagine in a cartoon (or anime, in the lingo of Japan!), and I couldn’t taste it at all so it neither added to, nor subtracted from, my affinity for seafood.

That night we also got to try our first Japanese beer. For some reason they seem to serve it with a lot of head, perhaps keeping with the whole presentation thing (Japanese are big on presentation, something which is evident everywhere you go – amazingly-kept gardens, for example, are present everywhere). We tried a brand of beer called Kirin, which I have to say was faaaaaaaaaaantastic. Very smooth, great taste, combined with 5% alcohol content makes for a pretty darn good beer.

After that, we came back to Paul’s place and I introduced Yuskay to Bundaberg Black; Paul and I also sampled some in moderation as well (ie, there was still some in the bottle the following day). The rest of the night was a nice relaxing drinking session.

Stay tuned for Day 3, featuring Mister Donut, Karaoke, All You Can Eat Dinner and Drinks (definitely not in that order).

Japan – Day 1

Not knowing anything about Japan, I thought it’d be a good place to visit both to get away from the PC for two weeks, to learn some stuff about a new culture, and to visit Paul (b2), who has been living in Shirakawa, Japan for almost exactly one year, teaching Japanese high school students English.

My knowledge of Japanese culture stems almost entirely from what I’ve seen parodied in movies and TV shows. Basically, everything I knew before I came here I picked up from the episode of the Simpsons where they get a cheap flight to Japan for their holiday. Coicidentally, I was in the exact same boat, scamming my flight on frequent flier miles, but ultimately having no real idea of what the heck I was going to do over here.

Due to a fairly busy couple of weeks before the departure, I hadn’t had time to make any plans. As the date of departure crept closer, I became increasingly concerned about the process by which we would get to Paul’s place from Narita Airport. My travelling partner Aaron and Paul had hatched some sort of plan, but after some last-minute consultation with the Japanese girlfriend of someone from IRC, we were told that it would basically be impossible for us to get there – we arrived late in the evening, and by the time we got to Tokyo via train, the shinkansen (bullet train) going north in Paul’s direction would be leaving in six minutes – making this connection was a seemingly impossible feat for two gaijin who spoke about 6 words of Japanese between us, 50% of which included “hello”, “goodbye”, and “thank you”.

So, by the time we had to step on the plane, my concern had ballooned until it was becoming quite the traumatic experience. As I am wont to do with issues of such dramatic proportions, I approached it in my classic manner of pretending it wasn’t a problem, deciding it was a WAL (Worry About Later) problem that could be dealt with in-transit.

The plane trip in itself was very normal, although we got shafted with our aircraft – a pov Boeing 767, missing all the luxury trappings of the recently-revamped Qantas 747s with their in-flight entertainment centres buried in the seat back in front of you. As such our movie options were limited to Starsky and Hutch, and some terrible romantic comedy. A more detailed review of these movies would not be worth the various 1s and 0s that would be used to transmit them from Paul’s laptop to your screen, as they were quite terrible.

However, the plane trip served as a useful platform for Aaron and I to discuss our options for when we arrived. We’d narrowed it down to three options:

1) Get the train to Tokyo and try to catch the bullet train. This was rated with a very low chance of success.

2) Get the train to Tokyo and find a hotel. This sounded ok, assuming we could find a hotel with people that spoke English, and one with vacancies, within walking distance of the train station.

3) Rent a car, and drive ourselves to Shirakawa.

The third option, while almost immediately dismissed, started sounding better and better. Not only would it be an adventure in itself, it would have the added advantage of us not having to activate our two-week Japanese rail passes – our ticket to unlimited free travel on the Japanese Rail system – so we’d be able to use them at the end of our holiday to get back to the airport (actually paying for the train like a normal person is pretty expensive). We’d also save a bunch of money that we would otherwise have to spend on a hotel.

By the time we’d gotten off the plane, we’d pretty much decided that this was the best option. We’d looked at some high-level maps of Japan and there were expressways basically going straight to Shirakawa – how hard could it be, right?

Fortunately, we quickly discovered that it probably wasn’t going to be that easy. Not only was it expensive to rent a car ($200/48 hours), there were tolls (indicated on our map in Engrish as “Tool roads”) along the way ranging in price up to 10,000 yen (approx. $100).

So, we bailed on this plan pretty quickly and decided to go to Tokyo and try to get the Shinkansen, knowing that we’d probably fail and have to get a hotel. Resigned to our fate, we trudged to the train station, with me thinking that we were probably never going to find our way out of the JR train system.

We hit our first roadblock about 12 seconds later, discovering that the JR office from which we would exchange our rail pass vouchers into real train passes was closed (when you buy a Japan Rail Pass a tourist, you do this in Australia and are given a voucher, which you exchange for the real pass at a JR station). This was cause for panic, but fortunately Aaron spied a sign at an open terminal showing where we could do this.

This process kicked off at about 9.35, with our train to Tokyo leaving at 9.45. It dragged on for about 8 minutes, during which time we were informed by the very helpful pseudo-English speaking attendant that there were no non-smoking carriages, and that only standing space was available.

We dashed down to the platform and managed to get on the train, and were plunged immediately into Hell – a smoke filled cabin from which there was no escape for an hour. My sinuses pre-emptively started reacting and I had visions of spending the next 48 hours wracked with asthma woes and a running nose.

Trying to ignore this, we started making plans. Perhaps buoyed by all the noxious gases in the room, I became increasingly confident (or delerious) and told Aaron that I thought we could make our connecting Shinkansen and get to Paul’s place. Aaron, while dubious, said it was worth a shot.

As our hour-long nicotine-fuelled carcinoma-growing session drew to an end, we made our way to the back of the train to effect a hasty escape. We jumped off the train and ran up the closest set of stairs, hoping that we’d see some signs. We made it into the main concourse and pretty much stopped dead.

Tokyo Station is one of the biggest and busiest train stations in the world. We knew this in advance, but it was about 10.35pm by this point, and we figured it would have quietened down a bit. So, we were somewhat surprised to see what amounted to approximately the entire population of Brisbane walking around the train station in front of us. Aaron turned to me and said “uh.. maybe we try not to lose each other”, advice which under the circumstances, was probably good.

We spied a sign that said Shinkansen, and, throwing caution to the wind, dashed towards it. The signs (fortunately in English) directed us exactly where we had to go, up several levels of this massive structure (dodging thousands of Japanese per square meter). Our only concern now was buying a ticket and getting to the platform, so we found a likely booth, again manned by someone who spoke enough English, and found out that we apparently didn’t need to get tickets for the Shinkansen, and could just get on the train.

I didn’t really believe this advice, but wanted to test it, because at the very worst I figured we’d just spend the night in a Tokyo jail for fare dodging. We bolted, again following Shinkansen signs, eventually coming to a platform. The helpful digital signs had the name of a place we didn’t recognise, but there was only one train available, so we jumped on it.

To confirm our destination, I asked about three different people if we were going to the right place. My pronunciation of our destination (Nasu-Shioraba) was horrible, and it took me a few goes before I made sense – and then when a Japanse person said it properly it sounded completely different so I still wasn’t sure. Eventually though, we became confident enough to relax a bit, although I was still worried about the whole ticket thing, so I leaned off the train. A helpful white-glove-clad Japanese train guy saw me and walked over to me, I guess to push me back on the train before I was beheaded by closing doors. Again, he spoke enough English that I was able to confirm that we didn’t need a ticket, so we found a quite corner on the train next to an elderly Japanese guy and stood there – hoping we were on the right train and hoping that no JR officials were going to find us.

After a moment, the Japanese guy that we were next to engaged us in conversation. He spoke some English – better than the JR officials – and we had a great chat to him for the hour long trip north. This guy was an absolute champion – the first Japanese person we met – and told us all about himself, his 17 year old daughter who was coming to Australia in the near future and generally kept us occupied as we tried to communicate. The best thing he did for us though was confirm we were on the right train, told us when we’d need to get off (the station after his), and then he let us use his mobile phone to call Paul, who was by this point wondering where the hell we were. We arranged with Paul to get picked up at our destination, and settled back to enjoy the ride.

While talking to our newfound Japanese friend, Oda, we marvelled at the speed of train – something we didn’t even notice until we looked out the window and saw the landscape whizzing by. Oda proudly told us we were going at about 230km/h. At this point I realised the near-futility of our original plan to drive. Even if we knew where we were going and could read the roadsigns, such a trip would have taken hours and hours.

Eventually, our new friend got off the train and we went and sat down. Shortly afterwards, we reached our station, walked off, and found Paul at his girlfriend Yoko, waiting for us at the exit. Needless to say, a huge surge of relief passed through me at this point – against all the odds and despite all of the worry, we’d actually managed to get from Brisbane, Australia to Wherever the Hell Paul Was, Japan.

As a result, Aaron and I now believe we are invincible to anything else this country can throw at us. If we can beat the odds on the rail system, surely we can do anything!

After we met Paul, we drove to 7-11, picked up a snack, and drove to Shirakawa. There were many things to marvel at along the way, despite it being pitch black and foggy. However, the first chapter of this novella is already long enough and we’ll save it for another email. Suffice to say that we made it to Paul’s place, where I showered and promptly collapsed – we’d started at 6am that morning and it was about 2am by the time I hit the sack, so it had been a long day.

NEXT TIME in the email saga of David and Aaron’s trip to the Land of the Rising Sun…

HEAR the story about how David’s plan to avoid eating seafood lasted less than 12 hours!

SEE the pictures of exciting Japanese things such as vending machines, temples, and castles!

READ more lengthy, spammy emails covering our travels!

Everyone (except me) is nursing hangovers today so I think I’ll have more time to write and upload photos, so stay tuned!

San Francisco Part IV

Spent four hours in the car driving north west to Lake Tahoe, one of the biggest lakes in the US and home to the best skiing in California. Now, four hours in the car isn’t fun in general, but my whole family and I were crammed in there with all our supplies and Christmas presents for the rest of our family (17 Harrisons in total going to Tahoe), so it was, needless to say, quite horrible.

It was neat watching the temperature drop, degree by degree as we went further north and gained more altitude. Snow started appearing, and before I knew it, it was -1 degrees. Somehow, we managed to arrive there at the same time as the rest of the family, even though we left from two different places at two different times. We headed over to the uber haus we had rented (which would hold 12 people) and started unpacking and getting stuff ready for the fun.

After that was all out of the way, we went exploring; the skiers went to buy their passes and rent their gear, and I went to the pub and sucked down a pint of Sierra Nevada, a tasty brew that is popular around there but like most American beer, sadly lacking in comparison.

The next day, we dropped off all the skiers/snowboarders and left them to have their fun, whilst a few of us drove down to Lake Tahoe itself. Its damn big. Aside from that, it was like many other natural bodies of water. The surrounding scenery was pretty impressive though; snow-covered peaks all over the joint.

We also nicked over the border to Nevada for a while. Interestingly, there mustn’t be gambling allowed in California – as soon as you cross the border, there’s casinos everywhere.

Probably one of the best things about Cal though is the fact that they have no smoking inside laws – anywhere. Its awesome; I didn’t SMELL a cigarette until we were in Nevada and we went inside a Casino. What a great idea. Wish Queensland at least was awesome enough to have a law like that to prevent me from having to suck down smoke from other assholes that are too inconsiderate to drag their stinky cancer stick inhaling asses outside. Anyway.

We then went down to Truckee, which is the closest “large” town to where we were staying. I spent a grand total of 10 minutes walking up and down the main drag looking at the shops.

The day after was Christmas; that was pretty fun with 5 small kiddies doing the young-child-at-Christmas thing. We also dug out a cool toboggan thingy behind the house which we all had turns screaming down – good fun. After all the excitement, I lay down, read the Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, then went to bed.

The day after my aunt and I decided to try The Tube – the tube was basically a small ride for people which involved getting in a tube and caning down a hill and going round this one bend thing. I did it a few times, and quickly decided I needed to spice it up a little. You see, there were these phat rubber mats carefully placed before the bend to slow you down. I had isolated these mats as the main reason that you didn’t get a hell of a lot of speed or height on the bend, and resolved to try and find a course down the hill which would involve missing said mats.

Eventually, we came back late at night. There were these two girls working up the top, and I casually asked if I could try taking a running jump. They sort of ummed and aahhed about it, but then one of them gave in, and I did so. I took about a 5 metre running start, and leapt head first onto my tube down the hill.

I bounced off the left side of the track, avoiding the groove that had been carefully eroded into the ice by the bodies and tubes of others long gone. I realised quickly that I was going to miss the mats! I hit the bend at the end, going basically straight to the top – a bit more velocity, and I would have gone straight over. At the peak of the trip, I realised that not being in the groove, whatever would happen next would be unexpected.

So, I started going down the wall – instead of gracefully sliding around the bend to a gentle stop, I went almost straight back down aiming towards the fence. I tried to exert some futile control but ended up falling off the tube, landing on my skull, rolling for about 5 metres and taking out the whole fence on the other side of the thing.

The groundstaff there then proceeded to lay down more rubber mats and post a person actually on the ramp to force them into the standard groove path in the event of any more hotdoggers.

San Francisco Part III

Spent some time in a hotel in the city for a few days with the family, which was pretty interesting. Most of the city of San Francisco is pretty hilly – you’ll have seen a lot of the terrain in car chases in movies like Bullitt (Steve McQueen) and The Rock and stuff, giant hills everywhere.

Standing at the top of some of them is pretty freaky, especially when you’re looking down into the CBD. Its like some bizarre runway at the bottom of a canyon; these big 4 lane streets that scream down with giant 50 story buildings looming over you.

We spent a bit of time doing a favourite tourist pasttime – the cable cars. The cable cars are one of SF’s most well-known attractions, and they’re actually pretty cool. The sure as hell make going up and down those giant streets a lot easier. One thing I noticed on these cars that most of the other tourists on there were American; I guess they get a kick out of it too.