Monday, 9 February 2009

Genghis Kong vs. The Pistes

Well, Ladies and Gentleman, here I am.

Yes: here indeed, and certainly in no other place, am I. Returned from my great adventure up a mountain and safely sequestered back in my little apartment, I am finally getting round to penning another (long overdue) blog update.

The month since my last post has been characterised by brief but frenzied industry, followed by an extended period of inactivity and finally 3 days of sport- and action-filled adventure and excitement. All of this has, of course, been peppered with those little ups and downs, daily victories and hardships, small pleasures and tedious chores that we call (without a hint of irony) life.

When last I wrote, I believe I had just arrived back in Tokyo after Christmas (it seems an awfully long time ago now). Not long after that, I started my final exams, such as they were. I had 5 exams, one in each of the 5 main disciplines of language study: grammar, writing, reading, listening and speaking. It turned out that I was worrying for nothing with regards to these exams. Although most of them were scheduled for an hour and a half, not one of them took me more than 40 minutes. They were, to be honest, almost disappointingly easy and have left me with nothing but contempt for the Japanese education system. Well, perhaps i should wait and see what my results are before I declare the exams a walkover. I'm sure there's still time for me to come up short.

So my last exam was on January 15th, and I have been on Spring Break since then. My Spring Break, in fact, lasts until roughly April making a total of about 10 weeks with literally nothing to do. Woohoo! Am I not just the luckiest/laziest man you know right now?

Well, possibly not quite as lucky as all that. I don't mean to whinge, but having absolutely nothing to do can get rather boring (especially when you live on your own), and doing anything fun in Tokyo has a habit of ending up being incredibly expensive (£40-50 for a night at the pub, £80-150 for a night clubbing, £15 for a bowl of noodles and couple of beers). Two obvious remedies for my predicament of having nothing to do would be to study a lot or to get a job (which would also help with the costliness issue), but so far I've not quite managed either of these. What I have been doing to keep myself busy, which is at least somewhat productive, is going to the gym. Me and my mate Kaleb have been going down the Uni gym roughly every day since term ended. Factoring in Sundays, hangovers and laziness, 'almost every day' still translates to fairly impressive 4-5 times a week. It turns out that working out can be quite fun, especially when the alternative is sitting in your room on your own watching TV or Youtube.

We take it none too seriously though - none of that shouting encouragement at each other in a testosterone-fuelled homoerotic rage:
"Come on, buddy! Push those goddamn weights! Work those legs! You can do it! Gimme 3 more! I wanna see 3 more! Go on dude! We fuckin' OWN this fuckin' gym! Grrrrr! Arrrgh!"
You know the kind of stuff.
No, our motivational gym talk goes more along the lines of
"Ugh. The gym's full of Japanese people. And they're all much stronger than me. This is shit. Why do we even come here? Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Can I go home now? Wait - it's totally happy hour at the pub. Let's go."

So that is pretty much how I have spent my first few weeks of Spring Break: going to the gym, getting some food every now and then, and getting drunk from time to time (trying to cut down on that one though). I went to see Richie Hawtin at Womb with my buddy Scott (from Sheffield) about 2 Saturdays ago. Richie Hawtin was quality, but as is always the case when me and Scott get together the evening as a whole was a fairly disgraceful exhibition in excess and debauchery, ending, as usual, with the two of us on different trains going in opposite directions around noon the next day.

I do have to give Scott some kudos, however, as he had been out at bars in Tokyo the previous night without going home or sleeping at all in between. He and I had made plans (while drunk) to go out that night about a week earlier, and I had mostly forgotten about them. I was reminded of them, however, when I received a text from Scott at 8.30 in the morning saying "It's all gone tits up. I'm in tears. Fancy a pint?"

Unfortunately I was in no fit state (being fairly hungover myself) to respond to or attempt to cope with an uncontrollably drunk and sleep-deprive Scott at that time of the morning, so I returned blearily to sleep. I was awakened again around 11.30 by a phone from Scott who told me he was really drunk and was somewhere in Shibuya, he thinks. Shibuya is roughly where he should have been - it's where he had been out the day before and it's not far from where I live, so it made sense. I told him I'd need a couple of hours to wash, dress and feed myself, and he said he'd call me back later.

I called him around 1 to make sure he was still awake and still planning to go out that night, and he told me he was really drunk and somewhere in Akihabara. Akihabara is about a 40 minute train ride away from Shibuya. I asked him why he had gone to Akihabara and he told me he had walked there. I'm pretty sure it would take any ordinary person about 5 hours to make that walk, so Scott was either mistaken or has acquired some superhuman sprinting powers which can only be activated when he's so drunk he can't see.

He called me again half an hour later to let me know he was really drunk, had no idea where he was, had been walking for ages but couldn't find a train station.

We eventually met up around 3, and went for pizza all-you-can-eat washed down with a jug of beer. It was all downhill from there. We spent the next 9 hours or so staggering around Ikebukuro getting increasingly drunk (mostly at the English pubs), before heading to Shibuya to find the club. Although, of course, before we could try and find the cllub we decided to grab a couple of extra-strong chu-hai (basically 500ml cans of 8% Bacardi Breezer) each and drink them near the station. I persuaded Scott to pose for a photo with the inexplicably famous statue of Hachiko at Shibuya station .

I believe my directions for this pose were "Look awesome. No, more awesome. No, no, more awesome!"

I'm very pleased with how it came out.

So, we wandered around for a while trying to decipher a very unhelpful map with our booze-befuddled brains, until we eventually found some young and trendy looking Japanese who we thought would probably know the whereabouts of a young and trendy nightspot such as Womb. They kindly led us there, and we both realised that had no money, so while they went in we quietly ditched them and went off to find a cash hole (and another Strong Chu-Hai while we were at it).

We eventually made it inside, at which point I realised that I had actually been there before on another hideous drunken adventure. Womb is very like Tokyo: massive, so crowded you can barely move, really fucking expensive and funny-smelling, but unlike the rest of Tokyo the sound system is really good and Richie Hawtin was playing.

I think me and Scott must have lost contact within about 15 minutes of getting inside. It was too massively crowded and we were too drunk and disoriented to ever find anything in there, so we just sort of went off about our respective businesses. My business mostly consisted of buying a can of beer at the bar, squeezing my way very very slowly towards the front, dancing for about 3 minutes when I finally made it somewhere near the front, then realising I had run out of beer and so starting my epic journey back to the bar again. I would imagine that this whole process took me about an hour, and I probably managed to complete it 4 times or so, which would take me up to about 5 am when the club kicked out.

I got home in one go this time, without taking a wrong turn anywhere. I picked up an enormous tray of sushi and another can of beer on my way back to my house (about 7am by this time) and sat about stuffing my face and wondering where Scott had got to. Eventually I gave up and went to bed. When I woke up around 3 and checked my phone I noticed I had a couple of missed calls from him and 2 messages. The first, sent around 6am, said something like "Nah. what the fuck? I think i'm being robbed up." The second, around 11am, said just "lol. i think i'm on a train".

So, by our usual standards, a completely successful night out in Tokyo. Well done me and Scott - we really can be a truly disgraceful pair of human beings when we put our minds to it.

This whole debauched spectacle cost me around £140. Did I mention Tokyo's really expensive and I need a job? I can't wait to get back to England where you can do the same thing for about £50 and still have change for a cab home.

There was also a little farewell party for the people who have been living in my dorm but staying for only 1 semester. Scott (a different one - this one is Hawai'ian and lives in my dorm) cooked loads of food and a bunch of people came round and it was all fun and nice.

Sadly, I didn't really realise quite how immediate of a farewell party it was, so I didn't do any proper saying of goodbyes to anyone, and then they all left. Of all the people in this photo I think only 2 of them are still in my dorm. Most of the others disappeared like thieves in the night without even knocking on my door to say 'so long'. The shits.

Oh well. It's not like I gave a crap about most of them anyway.

So that general pattern of things brings me all the way to Wednesday, which is when I left for my totally awesome and exciting snowboarding trip.

Our bus departed at the miserable hour of 11.30pm from Ikebukuro station and spent about 7 hours chuntering out of Tokyo and then meandering nauseatingly up winding mountain roads to the resort. The resort, bearing the embarrassingly gay name of Cupid's Valley, is located in the mountains in the middle of Japan, Northwest of Tokyo in Niigata Prefecture. The trip started in classic Japanese style with us arriving 2 hours before the ski rental shop opened, giving us plenty of time to sit around doing nothing and getting grumpy. This is a common feature of any event organised with or by Japanese people - I know, they are the most punctual people in the world, but for someone reason they seem to schedule in extra time for standing around waiting for things and then walking incredibly slowly from place to place and taking half an hour to make simple decisions.

Eventually we all managed to find kit which more-or-less fit, work out how to put it all on and then find our way to the mountain to slide.

Here's a view from the bottom of the mountain up the slope. Now, seeing as 4 out of 5 of our little group had never snowboarded before, this little slope looked a little intimidating. It seemed fairly steep, fairly high, and rather full of people going fairly fast. So, seeing as this was our first time, we decided to take the Gondola up to the "Beginner's Course". This turned out to be one of the most misleading names for a ski route I can possibly imagine.

25 minutes later, we reached the top of the Gondola, several miles away from the resort, many hundreds of metres higher up the mountain, with absolutely no idea how to get down again. The course was genuinely several miles long. I will concede that there were several quite flat sections to it, but there were also very steep sections, lots of very narrow and twisty sections, and sheer drops down the mountain on either side of the piste. Progress was slow.

Did I mention that most of us had never snowboarded before?

Well, my snowboarding experience started exactly as I had expected: I sucked. I was utterly, utterly incapable of even standing up from the floor, let alone staying stood up as I careered wildly into snowbanks. Fortunately Kaleb, who is pretty good at snowboarding, was extremely patient with all of us. Gradually everyone else started to get the hang of it, at least a little, but I was still sitting on the floor completely baffled as to how to stand up on the damn thing. It sounds retarded, but I genuinely couldn't stand up. I don't know whether my board was the wrong size, or my knees don't work properly or I'm just too heavy, too weak or too useless, but every time I moved my weight forward over the board the damn thing would just slide away from me and I would fall on my arse again. I fell on my arse a lot.

Eventually I worked out the technique of rolling over onto to my belly like a retarded walrus stuck upside-down on an iceflow (not very easy with a 5' long plank of plastic strapped to your feet) and then getting up onto my knees and hoppin up onto my feet. By this point we had been on the mountain about an hour and a half and I had progessed about 500 yards (some of that on foot, some on my arse, very little on my snowboard).

Armed with my new (if inelegant) technique for standing up, I was able to actually stay on my board just long enough to go a bit fast and then fall over hard. Standing up by rolling over and then geting up on your knees may be easier for ungainly men such as myself, but it has the added complication that you always stand up facing up the hill, sliding backwards, so before you can even go anywhere you have to turn around backwards. This caused me some significant hardships early on, considering I couldn't even go in a straight line facing forward (although actually, going straight is one of the hardest and most terrifying things to do, because going straight you go incredibly fast. If you can go sideways then you go nice and slowly all the way).

However, gradually I began to get the hang of it. First, I worked out turning round and falling over. Then turning round, going down the hill a bit and falling over. Then turning around, going across the hill a bit, turning round again and falling over. Eventually I had my technique pretty well sussed - stand up, turn around, go across the hill, turn around, go back across the hill, turn around and so on and so on until (eventually) you reach the bottom of the hill.

Our first run down the hill took 3 hours. While I will say that "Beginner's Course" is an unforgivable misnomer for that course, I have to admit that had it been a shorter course I probably would have given up after about an hour and gone in to find a bar, but because I had no choice but to continue I was forced to find some way to get on my damn snowboard, stay on my damn snowboard and get the damn snowboard down the damn mountain with me still on it.

After completing this gruelling initiation into snowboarding I had to call it a day. My calves were in excrutiating pain where I had had my boots fastened too tight, my lower back was burning from where i had falling hard in some very packed snow and got a friction burn of some kind, and my thigh muscles were aching from going so slowly down the hill, braking all the way (going fast takes no effort but is terrifying and difficult; going slowly is safe and easy, but incredibly hard work for the legs). It was my boots being too tight on the first day which caused this quite impressive damage to my leg. It's just a collection of funky bruises, to be honest, although it stained my socks red so it must have broken the skin somehow and the shapes of the bruises are quite interesting. It almost looks like a bit of a St. George's Cross or something.

That night I went to the local Onsen - natural hot spring public bath. Usually I find Japanese baths just too damn hot - usually it's a grim room tiled in school-changing-room not-quite-white, so full of steam that you can't breathe, let alone see anything, and within 3 minutes of entering the bath I get dizzy and lightheaded from the heat and have to leave. This one, however, was really really nice because it was an outdoor Bath, and at an outdoor bath in the snow-covered mountains the air is cold and the steam can dissipate, so it's not so unbearable. Also, the snow on the roof was melting and dripping through slats so a very fine rain of ice-cold water was falling on my head as I soaked in the fiendishly hot bath of slightly sulphurous water.

It really was nice, and helped, albeit only slightly, to soothe away the crippling pain in every part of my body.

First thing on Day 2, we made an snowman. Tessa, an Australian friend of mine, insisted on it. She said that the only snowman she had ever made before was about 12" high and I told her that at best that was a snow pixie, maybe a snow imp, but certainly not a real snowman. Understandably as there's not much snow in Australia, she seemed incredulous when I told her that we were going to make a snowman bigger than her. Lacking a carrot, any coal, or any appropriate clothing for the snowman, we made do as best we could with whatever materials we had to hand - specifically snow.

It was an epic success. Not only taller than Tessa, but also fuckin' awesome looking. I rolled the head and then sculpted the face - and I didn't do too badly at either, I hope you'll agree.

Having completed the snowman challenge, we went immediately back up the Gondola to the Beginner's Course again. This time it took us just over an hour. Then we did it again, this time in 55 minutes.

After lunch I discovered that apart from the Beginner's Course, there was also a training slope and a practice slope. I went up and down the practice slope a few times, before being dragged up the damn Gondola again.

By this stage, I was beginning to feel fairly confident with my very limited snowboarding ability. I wasn't falling over very often, and usually when I did fall over it was mostly deliberate (sometimes it's just the easiest way to stop), although I did manage some extremely heavy falls right square on my arse which hurt like hell. Usually when you fall down snowboarding you kind of skid along a bit which takes most of the force out of the fall - you get a cold wet bum and you bump your knees and elbows a bit, but it's not too bad. When you fall down hard on packed snow straight on your coccyx though, that hurts like a motherbitch.

Also, I was still going incredibly slowly down the mountain, so my thighs by now were exploding with pain from braking braking braking all the way down the course. You may well say "well, if it hurt so much why didn't you just go faster?", but it's not as easy as that. Going slowly might hurt my thighs from being tensed all the time, but going fast was likely to hurt my everything by going out of control and slamming into a tree or an infant or just going of the edge of the mountain. Going faster is also a lot more technically difficult. Going slowly like a n00b you go the whole way with your weight behind the board, standing on your heels, just adjusting your weight left to right to control which direction you go, how fast you go and when you turn. You look like a bit of an idiot because it's very stop-go stop-go as you swing slowly from side to side, almost coming to a complete stop each time as you turn around to go back the other way.

Going properly down a hill requires you to alternate between having your weight behind the board, standing on your heels and then having your weight in front of the board, standing on your toes as you "carve" quickly down the hill. This is much more difficult, and leads to much falling over.

So that was my project for the final day - learn how to ride on my toes and "carve", like a real snowboarder. I received the top tip that the place to practice was not, in fact, the Beginner's Course, nor the practice slope, nor the training slope, but in fact the Snow Park. Obviously. What a fool I was to go as a beginner to the beginner's course, or to try and practice on the practice slope. I should have gone straight to the Snow Park - the place with all the jumps and kickers and rails and boxes where adrenaline junkies like to injure themselves - it stands to reason it would be the best place for a beginner.

But it is - as long as you can control the board enough to go around the jumps, the Snow Park is mostly quite shallow gradients with no real difficult bits. So I set off to the Snow Park to try and learn how to carve. I was having some success - I certainly managed to do it, a bit, although I can't really claim that I was in full control of my board the whole time and I did fall over. A lot. Of course, by this stage I was confident enough to go fast enough that when I fell over it really hurt. I was also thoroughly bruised from the previous 2 days snowboarding. Also, when you are trying to learn how to turn on your toes, you fall straight onto you knees a lot, which hurts a hell of a lot more than just falling on your bum.

Sadly though, we only had half a day of snowboarding on Day 3 as our bus left at 2pm. So unfortunately I had to leave Cupid's Valley (snigger) still not quite able to do it properly, which is a little unsatisfying.

So I've decided to go snowboarding again. Sometime. As soon as possible. Apparently a day trip can be done pretty cheaply - travel, rental, skiing and lift pass for about £40 - so I'm gonna try and do that before all the snow melts.

Okay; so you've had a brief summary of what I've been doing, an amusing anecdote of me getting smashed, some interesting tales of adventurous exploits - now on to the bit you've all been waiting for:

The shelf of tat!

There it in all its glory, with a few new items for you. On the far left you will see a can of Final Fantasy Potion. It restores 100hp when you drink it. Just to the right of that is a little gay snowman - this is a souvenir from my snowboarding trip both to commemorate the awesome snowman I made, and because the Onsen I went to was called Yukidaruma Onsen, which means Snowman Springs. The snowman is clutching a special Christmas Baileys swizzle stick, which came free with my Christmas bottle of Baileys (note that there is another one in the Mickey Mouse shot glass). On the far right you will see a box of backwards chocolate. Dars is a popular chocolate brand here, but it is usually printed forward, not in mirror-image. This is a special promotional pack for Valentine's Day. Valentine's Day works differently here, although I'm not entirely sure the details, but I think it's usual for girls to give chocolate to their boyfriends. Backwards chocolate, therefore, is special chocolate that men are allowed to give to women on Valentine's Day. I know - they do it backwards here to begin with, they're crazy.

Finally, front-and-centre, in pride of place is a patch I bought commemorating Pearl Harbor. I shit you not - in Japan you can buy Pearl Harbor patches. In case you were wondering; yes, the USS Arizona BB39 was sunk by Japanese bombers at Pearl Harbor in 1941. What tickled me even more was that on the shelf next to this patch was another one with 'kamikaze' written on it. Hmmm... Ever heard of tact? No. Didn't think so.

So once again, good work Japan! Way to come to terms with you war history! Keep up the good work my bandy-kneed friends.

What else now... Oh yes - a brief note about my ongoing non-romance with Australian girl (Tessa). It remains a non-romance, although it is no longer ongoing. She went back to Australia halfway through the ski trip (no, I didn't scare her off or anything. She was always planning to leave halfway through).

If I ever had a chance I guess I missed it. If I never had a chance anyway then I guess there's nothing to feel bad about. I'm sad to see her leave because not only did I fancy her but she was also a really close friend, but that's just how it goes. Now I just need a new woman to direct myself at. If anyone knows any cool, single English-speaking women living in Tokyo, please send them in my direction. Thanks. I'm afraid I really have no interest in getting with a Jap, to be brutally honest.

So that's news dealt with, I think. Now time for future news.

In 10 days or so my brother Oli is coming to Tokyo to party with me. We're going to look at Tokyo a bit, travel round Japan a bit, and then 2 weeks later my parents are coming too for about 3 weeks. I'm really looking forward to it - it'll be nice to go sightseeing again and break the humdrum tedium of regular life in Tokyo. After the first month or two the novelty really wore off, and I haven't been pursuing any cultural endeavours really since then, so it's going to be fun to put on my tourist hat again (although I think I'm largely going to be wearing my tour guide's hat).

Until then, well, sadly the gym is closed this week, so I guess I'm going to be at home mostly. I'm going out for shabu-shabu and karaoke tomorrow though. (Shabu-shabu, in case you couldn't guess, is the noise a thinly-sliced piece of beef makes when it is moved around in a pot of hot broth. Karaoke, on the other hand, is the noise a well-pickled Me makes when shut in dark room with a microphone and a beer). I've also started studying again recently, which makes me feel a little bit better about the fact that I'm drunk right now, so I guess I've got a little while of staying at home, studying and maybe occassionally going for a run. At least until the gym opens again.

I am extremely tired, and my bum still hurts. My knees have both turned greyish-green, there's a large purple patch on my right buttock, my elbows, forearms and wrists are covered in dark little rings and there are some dark purple stripes down my left hip, so I'm going to bed.

Read into this what you will.

Kong X

No comments: