Jan 132007

My original plan for the New Year holiday was to try a long-anticipated bike ride from Kyoto to Tokyo, but several factors caused me to abandon that plan in favor of the lazier and more traditional train approach. The first being the fact that I hadn’t been training at all, and while I did manage the 220 km ride to Tokushima in similar physical condition, I nearly destroyed my knee in the process. If I wanted to make the 700km trek to Tokyo I knew that I’d need more preparation.

Besides, a bit of last-minute research revealed that the Kyoto-Tokyo route is actually quite popular among outdoors enthusiasts, for which a number of special lodges, maps, and trails have been set up. I think that some careful planning could really make the ride a lot more rewarding of an experience. So for now I’ll be patient.

The second (and true) reason I decided to train to Tokyo is because I was invited to appear on the New Year Special of a popular late-night TV show, 朝まで生テレビ. At first they wanted me to take part in a political debate – I would be “the American” defending President Bush’s actions in Iraq against an onslaught of anti-Bush locals. The pay would be $1000 for 5 hours. But even if my Japanese were good enough to have a political debate on live TV, which it isn’t, I knew that I’d never be able to defend the Bush administration with a straight face. So they offered me an audience seat instead. It pays $100. Not quite the same level of glory, but a very interesting experience nevertheless.

So I woke up on December 29th, tossed my huge travel backpack over my shoulders, drew opened my shades, and for the first time in 12 months gazed over a snow-covered Japan. Good thing I nixed that bikeride idea, ‘eh?

The trip started out like any other – with my usual “try to ride the express trains with a local ticket” scam. If you pretend to be asleep when the conductor comes by, about 60% of the time he’s too polite to wake you, 29% of the time he wakes you and just allows you to transfer to a local train at the next station, and 1% of the time he asks you to pay the difference. I haven’t had to pay yet. 🙂

But I did have to transfer, making the 2.5 hour Kyoto-Tokyo bullet train ride into a nearly 9 hour local-train ride. And awarding me the privilege of transferring in a city I’d never been to before: Shiojiri. Whose name literally translates to “Salt-Butt.” And I thought the folks over in Crested Butte, Colorado had it bad!

The further the trains took me from Kyoto, the more surprised I became at how quickly the country had completely blanketed itself in snow. The Japanese countryside in the winter is an indescribably beautiful sight, and the passing scenery made the mind-numbing ride almost pleasant. Especially during those brief moments when I managed to catch a glimpse of a snow-covered castle or Buddhist temple off in the distance.

Then, just moments before approaching the base of Mt. Fuji, Japan offered me a pleasant surprise. The snow and fog disappeared almost instantly, treating me to my first view of the mountain from anywhere other than its summit. The sight was so incredible that I just had to get off and shoot some photographs – so I traveled the short distance from Fujikawa Station to Fuji Station on foot, documenting all I could until my camera batteries gave up on me.

By the time I finally reached Tokyo it was already well after dark. I worked my way through the mesh of tunnels and passages that make up Tokyo Metro, emerged a block away from the increasingly familiar “Guess T House” in Azabu Juban, and popped my head into the lounge to checkin. It felt like I had just wandered into a US frat house.

Due to its proximity to some of the best clubs in all of Asia (10-15 min on foot), Guess T House is busy pretty much every night of the week. So it’s no surprise that New Year’s weekend would bring nothing less than pure insanity.

Within about 5 minutes of my arrival I had joined a group of like-minded partygoers, the core of which consisted of two guys from San Diego, two young British blokes, and an Australian. We headed immediately to my Roppongi club of choice, Vanilla.

I’m pretty sure I had fun. But not positive. Typically when I ask the bartender to make my drinks “as strong as possible,” he hands me something between an orange juice and a glass of Tang. But this guy made pure rocket fuel. Good man, good man.

The next day I slept, met up briefly with the most neurotic and irritating Japanese girl you could imagine, slept some more, showered, got dressed, slept, watched Sleeper Cell, and headed out on foot for Roppongi night number two. This time, I decided to try a club I’d never been to: Muse. But because of its distance from the main Roppongi intersection, my group decided to hang back in the “busier” area. I headed out all by my lonesome.

That’s OK. I wasn’t alone for long. After one or two particularly uninteresting encounters, I popped into the club bathroom for a short break from the cigarette smoke and music. Upon doing so, I caught a glimpse of another foreigner at the urinal. I was pretty drunk, but my intuition told me there was something familiar about this guy. Then it hits me. Jeff Laitila!!

Jeff Laitila is the author of one of my favorite Japan blogs, Sushicam.com . He’s an “amateur” photographer (although personally I’d consider him pretty much a professional) who’s lived near Tokyo for over 7 years. Truly one of the original bloggers out there, probably the original photo blogger. Last year when my website’s hitcount rocketed up to 20,000 a month I thought I was doing pretty good, but this guy gets upwards of four million. It felt like I’d just run into some sort of celebrity. A celebrity who knew who I was when I said “I’m Metal450, I comment on your blog all the time!”

Talk about a small world.

We hung out and chatted for a good couple of hours before exchanging contact information and going our separate ways. It may sound absolutely amazing that we would happen to run into each other like that, a blogger and his reader in the same bathroom of the same club of the most densely populated city in the world at the same moment. But the longer I live in Japan, the more such shocking experiences I seem to have. Maybe it’s because the foreigner community in Japan is still relatively small, despite the overall enormous population.

I actually had a similarly freaky run-in just a couple of weeks earlier in Kyoto – I was standing at the main downtown intersection (Shijo-Kawaramachi) waiting for the signal to change when Eric Singer, a guy who I met in my first Japanese class at UCSD walks by right in front of me. He doesn’t live in Japan. He was just on vacation in Kyoto for two days. I mean, come on – running into a college classmate on the other side of the world?? What are the odds!

Anyways, back to Club Muse. I separated from Jeff, shortly after meeting my second buddy for the evening. The next thing I knew I was in a car on the way to a yakiniku restaurant for lunch the next day. By the time I finally got back back to my bed in Azabu Juuban it was almost 4pm, and I hadn’t slept since the previous morning. I was delirious from exhaustion. But at the same time high on memories of the crazy two nights I’d just had…and the knowledge that in a few hours I’d be heading out for my live Japanese television debut.

But for now…time to CRASH.

  10 Responses to “New Year 2007: The Fun Begins”

  1. Apparently the odds of meeting collegemates on the other side of the world are quite high, as I also ran into someone from Rutgers over the recent break.

    Japan is a place of magical meetings. And demon foxes. Mostly demon foxes.

  2. Wow…..I can read Japenese trafic signs (even if 交通安全 isn’t too complex 🙂 )

    Cool pictures….keep at it

  3. What a great post… but I have to ask, just how much does the ticket cost between kyoto and tokyo that makes it worth risking the chance of turning a 2.5 hour train ride into a 9 hour one?

  4. WAY too much, Noz. WAAAAAYYYY too much. JR, if you’re listening, you go to Hell, you greedy bastards!

  5. Stuart: Or better yet a place of magical meetings….WITH demon foxes??

    Andy: That’s awesome. How’s the kanji study coming anyways? If you had to guess how many you know by now? Probably more than me already…since I haven’t studied at all since moving back here 😛
    Unless you call partying with friends who don’t speak English “studying,” of course 😉

    Noz: 9 hour ticket: $20. 2.5 hour ticket: $120+ (depending on the type of bullet train). SCREW YOU JR!

    Gameday: I repeat. “SCREW YOU JR!” 😉

  6. I’d pay 120,000 dollars to ride shinkasen if they made me.

  7. shinkansen.

    Neat pictures, too.

  8. I have no way of knowing how many I know, but I would guess it is in the 900-1600 range. Last night I went through a set of 500 flash cards the son of a friend had made. Of the 500, I knew at least 85% and that only included the words that he had written on the cards (a small portion of all the words I know)

  9. Justin,

    Sorry you’re having such a hard time over there. No fun. Next time you get a shot on TV just take the $1000 and assume the Jon Stuart/Steven Colbert oblique position on Bush policy…or feign that you don’t understand. With your ill gotten gains you could’ve afforded taking that damn bullet train. But then again, look at what you would have missed (Mt. Fuji). Ahhh, thus is life. One door closes, another opens, and then some celebrity is at the urinal next to you. Say, I’m a potato too!

  10. By the way, your pictures are way awesome too!

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