Japan, Day 5: Kakunodate, the Town of Samurai

Dec 09 2013

Today worried me. (Worry is a theme of this trip.) This was my last day in Tokyo; I had to get up to Kakunodate, about 3 hours north of Tokyo. I knew I had to take a single bullet train from Tokyo Station, but I wanted to get to Kakunodate by lunch, which meant a fairly early start.

To get to Kakunodate by lunch time, I’d have to leave Tokyo around 9:00am. This meant facing the legendary Tokyo rush hour, with “pushers” shoving riders onto packed trains.

I didn’t relish it, but I decided to risk it anyway so I could get there at a reasonable time. I got on the subway, which was almost empty. That’s when I remembered the day. It was Saturday.

Now, most workers in Japan worked six days a week until recently, so this might not have changed things much.

I arrived at Ueno Station to head down to Tokyo, and thanks be to God, the train was…full, but not packed. At least a few inches separated each rider.

At Tokyo Station, I made a tactical error. While I had planned to reserve a seat, when I arrived I saw a sign for the train I wanted (Akita Shinkansen), leaving in 10 minutes, so I just headed up there, flashing my JR Pass as I went. And it was there that I experienced the thoughtful design of the Japanese train system.

Tile floor, Japanese train station

This is where the train doors will arrive

First off: embedded tiles in the floor show you where to stand for the train doors. That’s the precision of the system: the train always stops at exactly the same spot, every time.

Because of this, signs hang above the platform for each car, telling you where to stand if you have a reservation.

Thank goodness all the signs are in English. The sign above the train said, “Reserved Seats Only.” I ran down the platform to the next car. Same sign. Same with the next, and the next.

So. Back donwstairs, flashing my JR Pass again, to find the JR Information Desk. Found, I stood in line for a few minutes–realizing, of course, that the train had just left the station–and asked for the next Akita Shinkansen.

The next one left in 15 minutes. Wow.

Back upstairs, I boarded my first bullet train. On one hand, it’s like any train: nice seats on a vehicle that gets you from point A to point B. It’s the efficiency and cleanliness of the Japanese trains that get to you. It’s the fact that everything is done right.

Let me explain with the bathrooms. There are several toilets in the back of each car, and one shared sink. The sink provides water from a spigot in the center, soap from a spigot on the left, and hot air drying from a fan on the right. All of it touchless, of course, and all of it working flawlessly. So you place your hand in the middle to wet your hands, slide to the left for soap, slide back to the middle to rinse, and slide further to the right to dry your hands. And the door to the sink? Just happens to be on the right side.

Okay, one more example: a fold-down cup holder sits on the back of every seat. And it remains out of the way of the folding tray.

Oh, and of course, a young woman pushes a cart of food and drink down the aisle. Snacks come to you; you don’t have to traipse down to a dining car.

Anyway. This took longer than my original train, about 4 hours. I watched the Japanese countryside slide past me, and that was the fun. I’d spent so much time in Tokyo’s concrete jungle I’d almost forgotten that Japan had a countryside.

It’s everything I’ve seen in anime and read in manga. Tiny villages of a dozen buildings surrounded by rice paddies. Forest-covered hills. Trucks trundling along tiny country lanes.

Kakunodate Station

Kakunodate Station

The train arrived in Kakunodate, and honestly, my heart sank. The station was tiny, with just one attendant and (as far as I could tell) one track. I’d arrived in the back woods of Japan. The country. Arkansas.

Now, I knew that Kakunodate was settled by samurai, and has been kept as a traditional town. I didn’t expect the big city. But when I stepped onto the platform and looked around, I realized that this was kept Japanese. This is where old Japanese folks go to have a traditional Japanese experience. It’s really not meant for foreigners.

But before anything else, I realized I needed to reserve my ticket for the next day. Better to handle that now, than find out tomorrow that a bunch of trains are booked. I walked up to the window, and while the clerk said he only knew a few words of English, between the two of us we managed very well to get my tickets.

I’d printed out a map that showed the way to my hotel: a five-minute walk straight down the main road, then a left at guidepost “C,” and another five minutes to the hotel. One small problem: I knew the name of the hotel in English, not Japanese. All the writing here was in Japanese.

I walked, and I walked, and I had no idea where my hotel was. I couldn’t tell whether most of the buildings were hotels or not; this was a traditional ryokan, after all, in a town of traditional buildings.

I found one place that looked about right, poked my head in, and watched women in yukata busily serving a meal. Nobody paid me any attention. So I left.

I headed back to the station and the taxi stand. I peeked in at the cabs. The cabbies glanced at me, then looked away.

I started to dislike Kakunodate.

A hotel stood next to the train station. I contemplated just walking in and asking for a room, and chalk up the expense of the other hotel to fate. But finally I screwed up my courage and returned to the taxi stand. I leaned in close to the first taxi, arching an eyebrow, trying to take up as much space as possible. The driver rolled down the window and I named the hotel. He nodded and smiled and opened the door, and I had no further problems.

He drove back around the way I came and stopped at a non-descript building that I had walked past twice.

I went inside to find two surprised maids. (Traditional maids, not French ones.) I couldn’t figure out what they meant, then one ran to the back room and returned with a sign saying “RESERVED.” I replied, “Checkin”? Question marks nearly appeared over their heads. Then one grasped what I meant and started opening doors for me. I had entered the restaurant side.

I finally made it to the front desk of my hotel. The lovely clerk bowed and apologized and explained that checkin wasn’t for another hour.

Sigh.

So I had them hold my bag and I went back outside to explore the town. That was easy: several streets perfectly preserve traditional Japanese architecture, including big black beams, gravel courtyards, and overhanging pines and maples.

Kakunodate street

Kakunodate

After overcoming my fear of taking pictures–nobody else did, and these were Japanese people not taking pictures–I entered one residence that others streamed in and out from. Several folks were giving people 5-minute tours of the house, and the man who approached me asked if I understood Japanese. I waved “no,” and he said, “I speak broken English.” It was actually quite good.

Turns out this was one of only six houses in the town that are still owned by the original family, which live in the house (in rooms in the back of the house, of course).

He took me around several of the rooms, showcasing the significance of the direction of the tatami mats, the different uses of each of the 4 entrances to the house, the significance of the designs carved in the panels separating each room, and the uses of each room.

“This room was for important business, usually involving guests,” he said. “So my grandfather would have used this room a lot.”

Yep, my guide was a member of the samurai family who owned the house.

I didn’t hear much more of the tour.

I walked around the rest of the town, peeking in to the other houses. Sure enough, on closer inspection, I saw racks of wooden shoes and fans. Most were converted into shops. Beautiful shops, at least.

I entered one shop that sold all wooden laquered goods. This became the samurai’s specialty: making objects out of the local cherry. A craftsman worked in one corner, and he gave me a short speech (in truly broken English) about this. He even showed me a piece of cherry bark to touch, and invited me to touch the merchandise. “This shop is a hands-on experience,” he explained.

I was so impressed I bought a pair of chopsticks, plus a few gifts.

I then wandered more of the town, and out to the river walk. The trees would undoubtedly be gorgeous in a few weeks when they turned autumn colors, but now they remained all green.

Unfortunately, at this point I needed a bathroom break. I rejoiced at the sight of a “W.C.” sign and entered a small public toilet. Which only had traditional Japanese toilets. Ah well; this was a good time for this experience. Nobody else was around, so I could take all the time I wanted. I dropped trou and squatted.

Nothing happened. My body said, “Nope, this is not the way we do this. I refuse to cooperate.” I squatted there for several minutes, fruitlessly, before standing up and leaving in defeat.

Oddly, I felt better for at least caring for myself. I now felt hunger, which presented another dilemma. I had not paid for dinner at the hotel, meaning I had to find something in the town. But again, this was a Japanese town; nothing in English. Even if I entered a restaurant, I’d have no idea how or what to order.

It was just at that point that I noticed a shop sign that showed a man with a French chef hat. My eybrow arched and I looked further. One English word stood out on the sign: Patisserie.

Hallelujah! I entered. Plastic-wrapped sweets lined the room, while the glass counter held cakes of all description. Sighing in contement, I bought a dinner’s worth of pastries.

I retraced my steps to the hotel, checked in, and the clerk guided me down the hall to the last door, where I entered my room. Of course, they’d already placed my suitcase in my room.

Me in my Ryokan in Kakunodate

Me in my Ryokan in Kakunodate

My room was everything I’d dreamed of. Completely traditional: tatami mats, low table, cushions, low writing desk, etc. With a Western toilet.

I laid out my pastries and snacked, trying to screw up my courage for the big issue of the night: the communal hot bath. This had freaked me out for weeks. I knew it was normal, I knew nothing bad or weird would happen, and I’m pretty comfortable with my body. I feared the rules and expectations. You wash before getting into the tub. You bring soap with you, unless you’re at a certain kind of inn which provides soap. You leave your clothes in a basket (but where do you put the basket?).

These thoughts whirled through my mind as I explored my room a bit more, at which point I made a wondrous discovery. My room included an en-suite bath, laid out in the traditional manner. Private to me.

So I compromised. I had my traditional Japanese hot bath experience, complete with stripping and bathing and soaking with a special towel, but in privacy. I’m not ready yet.

The bath relaxed me to an extent I didn’t expect. I’ve had hot baths as an adult, of course, but this felt different. The heat seeped into my joints. I felt healed.

I watched a bit of TV. Saturday night was filled with game shows, news programs, a lot of singing shows (some similar to America’s Got Talent and others simply featuring middle-aged singers singing), and bizarrely, shows for very young children (including one entirely in English, teaching kids where to find alphabet shapes in photographs).

And then to bed, so I could start fresh the next morning for my train ride to the ancient city of Kyoto.

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Japan, Day 4: Imperial Palace and Akihabara

Dec 02 2013

Today would be my day of culture and errands. I wanted to visit the Imperial Palace, and find a few things I needed: an AC adapter for my laptop (it was just too convenient to check the weather and change reservations from the laptop), and an extra SD card (I’d already burned through most of a 16 GB and all of a 2 GB card). I also needed extra cash; I’m used to operating mostly with cash and had already spent most of my initial $100 on tickets, meals, etc.

So I went downstairs, had my breakfast, and headed into Tokyo to visit the Imperial Palace.

Fortunately, Tokyo Station is right next to the Palace. Before I exited the station, I asked around for an ATM. I found it, but it didn’t accept VISA. Blast. I exited the station, and out of the corner of my eye noticed a currency exchange area. My heart full of hope, I entered, saw an ATM, walked up…and saw the VISA logo! Huzzah! Even better, this one let me withdraw up to $500. I took $300, figuring I’d be back in Tokyo in 4 days anyway and could fill back up if absolutely necessary.

Imperial Palace 1Then it was off to the Imperial Palace. Thanks to the maps posted everywhere in the station, I oriented myself and headed out.

I didn’t realize just how big the Imperial Palace is. I walked and walked and reached just one of the gates. Then I walked and walked to find an open entrance. The ones I could find were closed. Odd.

It took me far longer to figure out than you probably have. I got halfway around the palace before I found a sign informing me that the Imperial Palace was closed Mondays and Fridays. This was a Friday.

Well. By this point, I was close to the various cultural buildings near the palace, so I headed in that direction. Unfortunately, when I arrived I found zero English (other than the names of the buildings). So that was a bust. Fortunately, they’re all situated in a lovely area of cultivated forest full of quiet, well-manicured paths, so I wandered there for a while before heading back to Tokyo Station.

I’d been walking for hours; it was now noon. Tokyo Station is near the financial district, so I figured there had to be some good restaurants nearby. I walked parallel to the station for a while, and found an Italian restaurant. I figured the Japanese passion for noodles would combine well with this cuisine, so I went in, and was seated by a waiter who spoke excellent English. I ordered the special, and was rewarded with pumpkin soup that had a delicate flavor, a slice of bread that was so soft it was practically sponge cake, and spaghetti with broccoli and shrimp.

Only one problem: the shrimp were whole. They still had their tails, bodies, and heads.

So, er, I ate around the shrimp as they stared back at me, paid up, and left.

I decided to head up to Akihabara, buy the SD card and the power adapter, then head further north to Ueno to explore the culture there.

I hopped on the train, disembarked in Akihabara, and headed into the nearest electronics shop. Getting the SD card was easy, and the price was incredible: a 32 GB SD card for $14. The adapter was harder; I had to go to another shop, but found what I was looking for on the rack. I took it to the clerk, who asked if it was okay that it was an “exchange.” I said yes, then paused and replied, “exchange?” He held up a hand, then his hands flew over the keyboard. He turned the monitor towards me to show that he was using the keyboard on the register to type a question to me in English. I love geeks some times. I confirmed that it was what I wanted, and it was mine (again, cheap: $6).

Akihabara 2

Akihabara 2

I then wandered Akihabara. I discovered several legendary stores: Gamers (all 7 floors!) and Mandarake (6 floors). I wound up spending all afternoon poking through various shops and buying a few CDs. We’re talking whole floors devoted just to manga, or to figurines. I even poked my head into an adults-only floor, though it wasn’t exciting: cases of porn magazines, adult video games, and pillows printed with nude anime girls.

As I explored Akihabara and walked past the AKB48 cafe, I noticed a line forming. I stopped, took a few pictures, and waited to see what was going on. Unfortunately, it looked like the sort of thing geeks were standing in line for hours to attend, so after a while I wandered away. Good to know that stuff is true, too.

I also found Tokyo Anime Center. This is a small gallery devoted to showcasing art from various shows, and studios use it to promote upcoming shows. Hanging from the walls was art from Gundam Wing and the upcoming Gundam Gunpla series, plus a few Gundam models. Clips from various shows played on video monitors throughout the place. Nice, but maybe 10 minutes’ worth of material.

Next door was the Tokyo Anime Center shop, and this was actually more fun. It was stuffed with merchandise from all sorts of shows, modern and classic: Nadia, Totoro, Evangelion, Tiger & Bunny, etc.

By dinner time, I looked up at the station platform, and saw the the trains were packed. I started looking for dinner. After rejecting McDonald’s and KFC, I found a department store with lunch counters, where I bought an awesome little box containing half an egg sandwich, half a chicken salad sandwich, and…other things.

I took my meal to a small row of tables in the department store and sat down next to an older Japanese couple. It was here that I had my most uncomfortable experience so far. The woman kept staring at me. When I looked over at her, she’d look away, but as soon as I looked away she’d look back at me, slightly frowning the whole time. Maybe the frown was my imagination, but I felt judged the whole time.

The food tasted great, at least.

I headed back outside and up to the station, where it was now 5:30pm and the trains weren’t packed. Ueno was out of the question; my feet already complained. So I went back to my hotel, plugged in my laptop to charge, put my feet up, and prepared to rest for my next day: leaving Tokyo for northern Japan and the samurai town of Kakunodate.

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Japan, Day 3: The Life-Size Gundam

Nov 25 2013

This was my only sunny day in Tokyo, according to weather reports, so I awoke with a dilemma in my mind. I had originally planned to visit Mount Fuji this day. More internet research revealed that Mount Fuji is 2.5 to 3 hours from my hotel, and is a bit of a tourist trap. You arrive, snap a photo, and get back on the bus. Also, no JR Pass trains go there, so you have to really schedule it (or take a bus tour).

Leiji Matsumoto boat, the HimikoThe Himiko arrived and out we went. It’s a beautiful craft, all curves and metal, with gull-wing doors. The onboard loudspeaker tour was pre-recorded by the characters from Galaxy Express 999, which felt right.

I decided to instead take the Leiji Matsumoto boats to Odaiba. I wandered down to the waterfront, taking photos as I did, to find the ticket office.

Travel trip: if you want to find something in a foreign country where the written language doesn’t use Latin characters, write down the URL of their website. This is inevitably on a poster or other sign on the building you’re trying to find.

I had written down the name of the boat and route I wanted to take, so I just said to the clerk “Odaiba, Himiko” and she procured my ticket. That secured, I waited and read handouts about various Leiji Matsumoto projects.

An hour later, we arrived at Odaiba. Odaiba is almost unthinkably huge. Imagine a 6-story shopping mall, then put 4 of them side by side. And that’s one corner of the island.

I knew roughly where the Gundam statue was supposed to be on the island, but when I actually stepped off the boat onto the shore and walked past the miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty (no joke), I couldn’t be sure where to go. However, I figured if i walked far enough, I’d eventually find the 50-foot giant robot. And after about 15 minutes, I rounded a corner, and there it was.

The life-size Gundam statue

The life-size Gundam statue

The Gundam statue is strange because your brain tells you it shouldn’t exist. I felt huge cognitive dissonance during the whole time I stared at it. A piece of anime extruded into real life. I, of course, took plenty of pictures.

Next door sat a small hobby store selling model kits, posters, and such. Near that was a smaller Gundam Cafe, which sold mugs, glasses, etc. I was amazed to see Gundam Wing-themed OZ glasses.

By then it was lunch time, so I entered a nearby mall. One noodle shop had English on its overhead menu, so I ordered there. I managed it, though I was flummoxed when the cashier asked which size I wanted. I eventually got it, and received excellent noodles with chicken.

Satisfied, I returned my dishes to the noodle shop (you don’t leave your tray out for someone to pick up; that would be uncivilized) and explored a Japanese mall. It wasn’t totally unlike the American experience; it’s just that the bar is higher. Imagine the most elegant shop in an American mall, with the most pleasant service. All the shops are like that.

THe top floor held an arcade, and what a blinking, flashing, beeping experience that was. I saw many claw machines, a few standard video games (mostly shooters), and quite a few mini-pachinko machines. Many of the pachinko machines were anime-themed, each with a small video window playing original animations for Evangelion, Macross (original), Macross Frontier, and the like. There was even a K-ON! rhythm game.

But at the back sat 8 Gundam pods. I had to try them. I got in, but sadly, I couldn’t get it to work. It rejected my coins, and when I bought a card, it rejected that, too. Ah well.

I went back to to explore Odaiba some more, including Sega Joypolis and a miniature Legoland. Unfortunately, both required payment to get in, and looked to be Japanese-only, so I abstained.

I marvelled again at the immensity of Odaiba. One whole building was apparently devoted to a single department store.

Then I returned to the dock, where I took the other Leiji Matsumoto-designed boat, the Hotaluna, back to Asakusa. Sadly, while the Hotaluna sported a top observation deck open to the sky, an employee closed it as we disembarked.

By this point my feet cried out for rest, so I spent the rest of the night watching Japanese television. A few anime episodes came on, and I learned a few interesting things:

The typical shonen titles like Naruto airs at the same time slot as Pokemon, late afternoon and early evening. The ads that air during those shows are aimed at younger boys than I expected: maybe 8 years old at the oldest.

Pokemon is even more huge than I thought. The episode of Pokemon XY ended with two Japanese men coming on to explain the basic concept behind Pokemon XY (that each Pokemon has one variant in X and a different variant in Y).

I soon fell into a blessed sleep.

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Japan, Day 2: Senno-ji Temple and the Gundam Cafe

Nov 18 2013

I awoke today at 4:00am, to my lack of surprise. Even that gave me 8 hours of sleep.

Still, I dozed and watched TV for another 3 hours. I was thrilled to catch an episode of Pythagoras Switch, a Japanese equivalent of Sesame Street that’s far more smart, entertaining, and heart-warming to my taste. I even caught their special dance, an Otosan Switch segment, and one of their wonderful Rube Goldberg segments where a ball rolled down a ramp to hit a cylinder that rolled and hit dominos, etc. It finished by activating an agitator underneath a bowl of popcorn, which caused a submerged foam ball to rise to the top, revealing the show’s name. Brilliant.

Early morning Japanese TV is much like the American version: ads for beauty cream, early morning news shows, etc. Except they also show TED talks. Followed by commentary. I’m not joking.

The news brought an unwelcome surprise. I swear the first words from the weatherperson’s mouth were “Typhoon wa….” Not only that, there were two typhoons. Fortunately, the nearer was paralleling the coast and the other was scheduled to veer off towards the west. Unfortunately, the first dumped rain on Tokyo all day and the second would do the same in a couple of days.

Nothing to be done about it, so I took the elevator downstairs for breakfast. I’d pre-paid for an “American-style” breakfast, which was mostly -style: A sandwich of hard-boiled egg slices and shredded beef, corn and broccoli, three potato wedges, and a bun. But oh, that bun. It was practically cake.

Senno-ji Temple

Senno-ji Temple

Then I headed outside to find a shrine that, according to the laminated card on my desk, was nearby. I sure found it; only a few blocks away I found a huge gate (at least 2 stories tall), which led me down to a massive shrine. This was Senso-ji Temple, one of the more famous ones in Tokyo.

I followed a few side streets in search of good photographs, and generally explored the environment. This was good, as the shrine quickly filled with school kids, despite the downpour. it was fun being an object of attention. More than once a wide-eyed grade schooler passed and a few seconds later I heard a whispered “Amerika-jin!”

The shrine complex seemed to go on forever. Not only did I walk down a massive approach, at least a block long, but gardens and other, smaller shrine buildingss sat nearby. The shrine itself stood at least three stories tall.

Satiated, I bought a melon pan–a type of sweet bread–to tide over my hunger. Then I decided to try a trip to Akihabara, the Electric Town. Fortunately, I passed through Akihabara Station on the way here yesterday, so I just took the same route backwards.

Akihabara is impossible to describe. Imagine a bunch of electronics and anime shops crammed together like commuters on a Tokyo train, and the only place to go is up. The first place I stopped in sold models. Six floors of them. Their selection ranged from the latest characters to kits actually produced in the 1980’s.

And then, of course, there are shops selling anime, manga, light novels, posters, and the rest. Unfortunately, it’s all in Japanese. Sure, I could buy a toy, but I’d have to carry it back the whole way.

My stomach began growling again by this point, so I looked for a thing I’d very much wanted to see: the Gundam Cafe. After realizing it’s not actually in Akihabara Station but beside it, I found it and hovered outside in amazement that such a thing actually exists. Two wet young men came along, similarly marvelled, then laughed and went in. I screwed up my courage and followed.

Akihabara

Akihabara

The Cafe looks like the inside of a ship. In fact, the first thing I heard upon entering was “Welcome to the Archangel!” (one of the carrier ships from a Gundam series). A giant screen plays clips from various Gundam series–which also discreetly advertise items for sale in the adjoining store or upcoming box set releases.

The cafe changes its cuisine occasionally to theme around one Gundam timeline. I happened to be there for the SEED universe; the drinks were named after characters from that timeline (I had the Athrun Zala, a surprisingly sweet cherry drink) and the food looked like the meals served on board the Archangel in the anime. I checked the screenshots, and sure enough, I ordered and ate a meal that Kira ate in the show.

And, of course, you could order Andrew Waldfeld’s special blend of coffee.

Satisfied, I re-entered Akihabara Station and headed back to my hotel, though I stopped at Ueno to explroe one of its endless shopping arcades. These are old streets converted to walking malls, and they seem to go on forever. In this case, it mostly sold produce, fresh meat, and shoes, so it wasn’t really tourist-friendly.

All of this was done in the pouring rain, I should add. So I returned to my hotel in the late afternoon, and put my feet up to dry.

And the sun came out.

I sighed and walked out onto my tiny private deck. Looking out over the glittering water of the river, my gaze fell down to a cruise boat nearing me. My brow furrowed as my eyes took in its strange shape, all sleek curves like a Jules Verne ship.

And then I realized: I was looking at the boats designed by legendary manga artist Leiji Matsumoto. I had hoped to at least see them while in Japan. In fact, they docked right outside my hotel.

I ran back inside, opened my laptop, connected to the hotel internet, and researched those boats. They go from there down to Odaiba, a natural island built as a shopping district that also houses the full-size Gundam statue.

My plans for the next day immediately changed.

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Japan, Day 1: Arrival

Nov 11 2013

This was the beginning of my ten-day trip to Japan. I had planned to travel with a friend who’d been to Japan before, but his availability evaporated about a month ahead of time.

So I went alone. No tour guide, no backup. Just me, my wallet, and a small suitcase of clothes.

I had two flights to Japan: one to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and another to Narita. The flight to LAX was perfectly, blissfully uneventful. I worried about finding my gate at the huge LAX with only an hour between flights. We landed, I disembarked the plane, and stared directly at the gate for the Narita flight. It was directly opposite; literally twenty feet from one waiting area to another.

The gate was filled with non-Japanese Asians. I assume Japan is the cheapest hub between California and, say, Singapore or Seoul.

So I waited for an hour, watching a bleary-eyed man order two cups of coffee, and promptly spill one all over his jeans.

DreamlinerWe then proceeded to board a 787 Dreamliner to Japan. It was a beautiful plane: roomy and comfortable, even in coach. They even gave each passenger a commemorative pack of playing cards.

It’s a 13-hour flight from LAX to Narita. I slept fitfully, despite mild turbulence, and eventually gave up and flipped through the movie options. Thankfully, they had a wide variety of foreign films, all subtitled in English. I ended up watching a legitimately spooky Bollywood horror movie, Ek Thi Daayan, about Indian witches. Had a neat twist ending, too.

One advantage of a $1,500 plane ticket: the flight attendants fed us well, with mediocre but filling meals and snacks.

The plane touched down in Japan. I looked out the window eagerly, and I saw…an airport. Just like any other airport. I slumped back in my seat. I wanted this to be alien. I would have to wait.

I exited and looked around for two important things: an ATM and the Japan Rail desk. I needed the first so I could withdraw some yen for meals and such, and I needed the last for my Japan Rail Pass.

Quick spiel about the JR Pass, for those unfamiliar: Japan’s invested heavily in train infrastructure. The JR Pass gives you 7, 14, or 21 days of access to almost every rail line in Japan, including intra-city lines. However, to buy a JR Pass, you must purchase a voucher before your trip, receive it at home, take it with you to Japan, and trade it in for your actual JR Pass at a Japan Rail desk.

Narita Airport was full of Japanese, and lots of English. Every sign had English equivalents. So I headed through immigration–easy enough, despite the lone person processing non-Japanese visitors–and tried to find an ATM.

Fortunately, once I made it to the main concourse, I saw an ATM sign, and followed it to a couple of ATM machines. And sure enough, each one had an English button. Within a few minutes, I had 20,000 yen (about US$200) in my pocket, and I was looking around for the Japan Rail desk.

That was easy to find, too. I was beginning to feel that Japan was going to be easy. How wrong I was.

Getting the JR Pass was straightforward, though I had to stand in line for about 15 minutes to do so. Even so, as I approached the desk, a young woman in a uniform approached me and asked–in English!–if I was there for a JR Pass. I said, “yes,” and she guided me to the short form I needed to fill out.

At the desk, I got my JR Pass, and the clerk asked, “Where is your hotel?” I explained that I was staying in Tokyo, specifically Asakusa, and she asked me to wait for a moment. She printed out a train ticket for me, then pulled out a map and showed me the best route to Asakusa, which included two train lines and a subway ride. I later learned that this ticket was a special reserved seat on the super-express to Tokyo. She could have just let me take a regular train, which doesn’t require a ticket. How nice of her!

Following the English signs, I made my way to the train station, boarded the train, went to my seat…and it was occupied. I blinked, sat down next to the occupant, and looked at my ticket. I had arrived early, and I was on the previous train! Fortunately, the next stop was the other side of the terminal a few minutes away, so I hopped off and waited for my train.

As I waited, I looked around. About half a dozen people stood on this platform, waiting for the train. They were all Japanese. Zero ethnic diversity.

My train came, I hopped on board, and I settled in for a 1-hour train ride to Tokyo.

Rice paddies in JapanThe train zipped through tunnels for a few minutes, then exited to the outside…and suddenly I was in Japan. Rice paddies, dense forests, and quaint little villages surrounded the train as it hurtled towards the metropolis. I felt alone and a little homesick. I was in an alien world.

The train arrived in Tokyo station, at which point I had to switch to another line. Again, everything was in English, so while I spent half an hour trying to find the right sign and the right line, at least I never got really lost.

I hopped on the Yamanote Line north to Ueno, which was only 4 stops away. The train passed through Akihabara, a fact which I filed away for later. Upon arriving in Ueno, I had to find the subway line to Asakusa. The subways require their own ticket (not covered by the JR Pass), but fortunately, the ticket machines all have English instructions, too.

I finally found myself at Asakusa Station. I wasn’t sure exactly how to get to my hotel from there, so I followed the signs for the Information Desk. Either I followed them incorrectly or they were poorly posted, because I followed them right up a staircase, out an exit, to the streets of Tokyo.

And I was on an alien planet.

It’s hard to describe just how different Japan is. I’ve visited Bermuda, Ireland, England, and South Africa. They’re all different than America. This was wildly different. There was no English anywhere. Even the iconography is different.

I turned 180 degrees and descended back into the station, found a clerk, and asked (in Japanese) where I could find my hotel. He said “Ah,” grabbed a paper map, and showed me, using some basic English.

I took a breath, re-ascended the stairs, and made my way to my hotel. A few blocks away, I found it. My heart swelled, I entered, and I found myself in a familiar environment: front desk, smiling staff, tiny restaurant off to one side; the works. I introduced myself, in English–I had deliberately chosen hotels where the staff could speak English–and soon had my room key. A few minutes later, I stepped into my room.

First hotel roomThis was a Japanese-style double room, which meant that it was barely wider than the double bed. But it was mine for 4 nights. I settled in and collapsed onto the bed.

I was in Japan.

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The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells

Nov 04 2013

Complete Short Stories of H.G. WellsThere’s much to recommend curation.

If you’re not familiar with H.G. Wells, by the way, he wrote The War of the WorldsThe Time Machine, and The Invisible Man, amongst other classic SF novels.

He also wrote dozens of short stories in his life (Wikipedia maintains a list). His last short story was published over 50 years after the first. His skills undoubtedly improved over time, which highlights the central problem of this book: a lot of the stories are dull.

Let me describe two of them to illustrate Wells’s strengths and weaknesses:

In “The New Elixir,” an inventor and his companion test a potion that greatly accelerates their physical and mental processes, allowing them to functionally slow down time relative to their own experiences. They proceed to wander through a motionless park and play with the effects of this. They observe the tip of a cracked whip, and discover they cannot move too quickly or the friction of their clothing will catch fire.

As the elixir wears off, they return to their apartment, and…that’s it. The story ends. It’s a pure exploration story, interesting for the imaginative or curious, but dissatisfying as a narrative.

“The Valley of the Spiders” introduces us to a group of riders in the Old West, who are pursuing…well, something. The story is a tour de force of showing, not telling. There are no “As you know, Bob” passages. Instead, we glean context from passing references within dialogue. We slowly realize that we don’t like these men. Then they encounter a certain danger, and our sympathies shift. We may not like them, but we don’t want them to die like this. The story ends with a bang, on a characteristically ambiguous note. We know what happens, but we’re not exactly sure what it means. It left me breathless, with multiple strong images in my head.

That’s my primary memory of this book: Some forgettable stories, and some that leapt into my soul.

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My Studio Ghibli-inspired RPG

Nov 03 2013

The Whispering Road black-and-white coverFor the past few months, I’ve been working on one of my dream games: a tabletop role-playing game that simulates the otherworldly adventure stories of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I wanted a rule set that emulated the motivations and values of Miyazaki, that rewards co-operation and community. I’ve been playtesting it and tweaking it for months now.

Today, I sent a limited release of the game, The Whispering Road, to my patrons on Patreon.

The Wandering Road is ideal for introducing casual gamers to tabletop games, and also designed to be accessible for kids. There’s no adult language and all games can be completely non-violent. It’s a GM-less story game, which includes rules for creating characters and resolving conflicts. Characters are built from three pieces: an Archetype, a Need, and list of 5 Traits (the rules come with 4 Archetypes and 30 Traits to choose from; players define Needs collaboratively). There’s a 5-act story structure for simulating movie-like stories. This structure can even be abbreviated to 3 acts if you only have a couple of hours to play.

I haven’t released it to the public yet, because this game deserves beautiful art. I’ve contacted a few artists, and once I have some sample art from them, I plan to launch a Kickstarter for the art, and once I have that, I’ll release the game publicly.

If you’d like to try out The Whispering Road, let me know, and I’ll try to set up a time when we can play online. There are so many opportunities for video and audio gaming online (Skype, Google+ Hangouts, etc.).

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Reading News From Nowhere

Oct 07 2013

Claude Lorrain's "Harbour Scene at Sunset"

Claude Lorrain’s “Harbour Scene at Sunset”

Like many great books, William Morris’s News From Nowhere left me with several conflicting feelings.

In a sense, it’s a science fiction novel. The author awakes in a future several hundred years distant from his own time in the 1800’s. He discovers a gentle society of friendly, calm people who go about their daily lives in peace and comfort. Each pursues his or her interests in trade for daily bread.

He discovers that mankind has adopted complete communism, though it hews a bit closer to libertarianism. Everyone produces according to pleasure and takes according to need. Nobody owns anything.

Now, I grew up with plenty of objections to this. But he provides plenty of…if not counter-arguments, then explanations for why this might work.

He points out that few people will hoard items of no value. People want to satisfy their basic needs. So, make that easy. That gives people the mental space to consider higher, better things.

There’s some ugliness here. The author’s stand-in eventually stumbles on an old man who describes the intervening history, and he describes a nightmare of communist cells, revolution and blood in the streets. There are also massive General Strikes involving nearly every working person, lasting for days, while somehow they still find things to eat. Hmmm.

And yet…every time I put down the book, I felt like a better person. I felt like behaving the way those people do: helpful and thoughtful. They are always looking at their neighbors to see if help is needed. They are outwardly focused, motivated by the increase in beauty and health of their communities. Who wants to live surrounded by sick people and ugly buildings? Why not do something about that?

There are a few areas in which Morris can’t quite see beyond his own preconceptions. For example, while he admirable portrays women as just as intelligent and capable of art and conversation as men, every house he visits is tended by women, who do all the cooking and cleaning, because they are born with the disposition to enjoy domestic work.

But that’s quibbling. News From Nowhere arrested my attention and gave me a new perspective. While I still disagree with the need for the broader social conflicts Morris implied, I want to live in that world.

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The Independent Sixth Reader

Sep 30 2013

(Review. Elocution. We suck at this. Perhaps it’s time.)

I discovered this book in a dusty used bookstore off a major highway. The place was crammed with thousands and thousands of used books in every imaginable category, and deep in the back recesses of the store lay the gold mine: a whole case of books each over 100 years old.

I picked out The Independent Sixth Reader, an instructional book published in 1868. It’s the last book in a series of books on diction and public speaking, each one intended for a progressively older student. The first was aimed at young grade school children; this was aimed at adults.

While one might smirk at the author’s insistence on the absolute necessity of following its system exactly, the book does cover a wide variety of elements of speech, and does so in a logical order. The author leads the reader through exercises in reading aloud crisply and understanding how best to approach situations like words that begin and end with similar consonant sounds (such as “she began needling him”).

As I read, I was struck by a realization: we suck at this today. People around me slur their speech and mumble their words. I do, too.

Surely this is at least a little important. Imagine the frustration caused and time wasted by mis-heard speech.

Maybe it’s time we all learned better diction.

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Normal Blogging

Sep 23 2013

A little social media navel-gazing: I’m sick today, and in that frustrating middle on a bunch of projects.  Not that I have the energy to work on them, but at least I can stare, bleary-eyed, at my list of Projects between bathroom runs.

(And I do mean runs.)

I have a 40-page setting guide that I’ll release when my season 3 of the Monsters of the Shattered World podcast gets out of the editing stage, but it looks like that won’t happen before I leave for Japan next week. The guide itself is done except for adding the art and checking the document for layout issues, correct links, and the other half-dozen things that I always think will be quick but end up consuming hours.

I have a handful of tabletop games in various of playtesting or design. None of them are ready for release yet. Two are board games, several are role-playing games, and all of them I know just don’t work cleanly yet.

I’m watching various anime series this season (the silly and poignant WATATOME, the beautiful and unusual The Eccentric Family), none of which have wrapped yet.

And I really don’t want to start anything new. Heck, I’m already starting to feel some background anxiety about my trip to Japan.

I want to be making stuff. Which is silly, because I find it easy to make stuff. But when I look at any of these projects, they look like giant walls to climb. I’m stuck.

So. Time to make some macaroni and cheese and either read a book or make something, anything.

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