Japan current location9:25AM Sakura Ryokan. I’m two days behind now, and man that’s not good!

My eyes cracked open about 8:30 on the morning of October 1st, but since I really didn’t have a huge procedure laid out for the day, I wasn’t all that worried about it. I did realize I needed to find out if I could stay again, however, so I put on my room’s yukata and walked into the entryway. The okaasan was sitting behind the desk.

“My plans have changed somewhat,” I told her, “so is it possible for me to stay another day?” She looked through the book and scanned across the available rooms.

“Is that room okay?” she asked me, as all the others were full. It was perfect, since it would be the first time since I’d arrived in Kyoto that I’d be able to stay in the same room two nights in a row. The only down side of course being that there isn’t a private bathroom, but that’s not too bad. I told her it was fine, said I’d pay a little later, then shuffled back into my room where I got in the shower and dressed. I took a little time to work on the logs from last night, check email, and whatnot as this room was right by the leech network and was perfect for doing that. However, the “get your ass in gear” bug bit me pretty hard soon after and I took my backpack, guide book (since I’d never been to Nara) and MP3 player while latching the tripod to the side of the bag. I stepped out into the street. I made a brief call to Alex and told him I was staying another day, and we decided around 10:30 PM, when he got back to Kyoto, we’d meet for dinner.

Breakfast was a priority, although it was nearly eleven-thirty by this point. I stopped into the panya at the base of the station and bought a cheese bread and katsu sandwich. Upstairs I went to figure out which train I needed to get on and stopped in front of the railway guide, which always looks like a big mass of multi-color spaghetti with gibberish written all around. Some of that gibberish I can read though, and I started looking for Nara. A few of the stops were sub-written in English; Kyoto, Osaka… I realized I hadn’t the slightest clue what Nara’s kanji looked like, and I just didn’t see it on the map. I found the Nara Line train, which quite obviously should have eventually hit Nara, but I still could not find it. I decided I wasn’t in a hurry anyway, so I’d take a little break, eat my breakfast, and check the guide book again for more information.

The next stop was Starbucks, where I deftly ordered a latte then took a seat and chowed the bread items. Across from me were two foreign guys who had been having trouble ordering and the server had called over the English speaking employee to help. They were dressed in suits and carried briefcases, and it was quite obvious their mission in Kyoto was very different than mine. I scanned through the guide book and found the kanji for Nara. Okay, I thought, staring at the ceiling and memorizing the pictographs, I can remember these. The latter looked somewhat like “shoku” which is to eat, or a meal. That was easy enough. I figured out I really only wanted to go see the daibutsu, the giant Buddha, and maybe see some sights around it. I was feeling rather alone again, but this was a new place I was making plans to see, so I guess it was obvious why. I put the guide book away and walked to the train map again, coffee in hand.

At the map, I traced the Nara line again, looking for the kanji I’d just memorized, but again, didn’t see it off hand. I realized the kanji underneath “Nara Line” in English said just that in kanji, and smacked myself for not realizing that earlier. I traced it three times before I realized the big red-outlined stop about three fourths of the way along the line said “Nara” in Japanese and English. Man, I am just not paying attention, obviously.

I found the train to Nara, which was leaving in about 10 minutes, and as luck would have it, was an express train. The track was right next to the Shinkansen gates, and I took about three double takes when I got on the train to make sure I didn’t need a reserved seat ticket. A foreign couple was next to me, which is always a good sign that you’re headed in the right direction. The train departed, and I estimated it would take about 45 minutes to an hour to get there, so I took out my MP3 player and drank my coffee while I listened.

The countryside wasn’t much to see; most of the train to Nara runs through buildings, so it’s hard to see anything else. When they called out the stop for Nara, which was the final one, my stopwatch said 40 minutes. Not too shabby. I put my player away and stepped off the train.

“Marc!” a voice called as I approached the stairway. What the hell? I turned around, and standing in front of me was Alan, the Australian guy I’d met just briefly in the station yesterday! I was really happy to see him, since he seemed like a cool guy, and on top of that, was obviously going to Nara as well. This meant I had someone to sightsee with, which we both agreed was a great idea. I asked him how his night had gone, and he said he had a great time. He regaled me with stories of his visit to The Hub, Ing, and all the women he watched get picked up. He’s apparently much better than me at meeting random people he’s never talked to before, and drank well into the night with these new friends, returning to his ryokan late in the morning by taxi. I was glad my directions had helped.

We both had rail passes which we flashed at the exit gate, then walked to the tourist information booth. Alan’s Japanese, is currently very, very limited, and I got to witness firsthand what it was like to travel in Japan without speaking the language. The woman spoke okay English at the counter though, and she directed us on a map as to how we could walk or take a bus. Alan, hung over from the debauchery from the night previous needed some water, so we stopped into Lawson’s to the right of the station.

“This is just water, right?” he asked me as he picked up something that was milky colored.
“That’s a sports drink,” I told him. He said he never was sure what he was going to get when he bought things, and I pointed him at a bottle of Volvic, which most certainly was just water. After he bought it, I asked the woman clerk what the best way to get to the daibutsu was, as I wasn’t sure where on the map Lawson’s was. She looked at our map, indicated where it was, and noted how far it was to walk. I’m starting to gather that Japanese “far walking distance” is not what I think of as far; the woman at the info booth said it was like 15 minutes on foot. She pointed at a red sign we could turn right at, which was a slightly faster route. We gave her our thanks and walked in that direction.

Alan was impressed and asked where I’d learned Japanese, to which I answered with my normal story about school, anime, and the like. We walked a while down the street away from the station talking about all sorts of things Japanese, and suddenly realized we’d missed the turn. “How the heck did we do that?” I wondered out loud. It wasn’t really a problem, though, as the map the tourist booth woman had drawn out took the next turn anyway. We followed the highway-type street for about fifteen minutes, and Alan kept asking if the particular spot we were at was where we should cross. I’d pull out the map, verify our location, then confirm that it wasn’t. A ways down, we crossed the street anyway, since we’d gotten a green light at that point. I explained katakana to him, and how useful it was if he was going to be living here for a while. He apparently trains medical personnel on the use of a type of Toshiba X-ray machine, and other duties related to that, and was going to be in Tokyo for three months. Afterwards, he’d go back to Australia for a month, and then if he wanted to, have the Japan stay extended for up to a year. I told him I was really envious. He travels a lot though, which he told me later really makes it difficult to have any consistency in your life.

We walked past the Nara Prefecture Cultural Center, and realized we were still a little further on the map than we’d originally thought. It wasn’t really a problem though, across the street was a big park, and Alan really wanted to go see it. The park was filled to the brim with the extremely famous Nara deer, and this was one of the things he’s put in his itinerary. We crossed the street, and I realized I’d forgotten about the deer. Like in Miyajima, these deer are completely used to people and just walk wild through the area. They typically munch on the grass, but people constantly feed them senbei – rice crackers – that little shops sell right near the park. We took a seat at a bench in the park, and were immediately accosted by a bunch of deer as the sound of Alan’s plastic bag made them think we had crackers. They quickly determined we were not, in fact, a source of food and dispersed back to the grass clipping.

“This is what a vacation is all about,” mused Alan. “I could just take a nap right here.” The weather was beautiful, the temperature in the shade was very pleasant, and the sound of the deer biting on the grass was actually rather soothing. The only thing either one of us really wanted to do in Nara was go see the daibutsu, which is the biggest Buddha in the world, if I remember right, and is also housed in the largest wood structure in the world. After a long break watching little kids chase deer, and a woman with a big bag of the senbei tossing them randomly about, we decided to walk in that direction.

Along the sidewalk, we were unable to cross the street due to a long fence, and we traced the leftmost edge of the park looking for a crosswalk. Alan suggested we just hop the fence, but not only was that extraordinarily dangerous along this street (nowhere to run at that point) but was probably illegal. A little bit down, we crossed at a crosswalk and walked in front of the Nara Museum. He mentioned to me how he’d been blissfully happy with his new sneakers, which he said were the first expensive paid of shoes he’d ever bought. Expensive shoes are best, I said, as I’d realized that same thing a while ago. There aren’t that many things out there that really make a difference when you go up in price, but we both agreed that shoes were one of them.

A little ways down the road, I heard a familiar snorting noise. A man was sitting on a planter around a tree, and, attached to a leash, was a pug! I of course raced over and asked if I could pet his pug. In the U.S., all pug owners have a connection – we all know they’re the best dogs ever (I know, everyone’s baised toward their dog), and we all are immediate friends. I told him I had two at home, and this is apparently true internationally as well. His pug’s name is Hana, and she’s got really interesting coloring. She was lying down on the sidewalk, but got up to say hit when I bent down to pet her. I told Alan how much I missed my dogs as we continued on.

We passed another museum on the right, and knew instantly when we arrived at the road leading up to the daibutsu. It was completely loaded up with souvenir shops, but none of them sold anything worth buying. All the items they were peddling were those chintzy stereotypical things that generically scream Japan in form and quite often have the name emblazoned upon them. Shiny gold plastic daibutsu and torii, plastic, inflatable samurai swords, and t-shirts with random kanji on them with “Japan” written underneath were being offered by the bucketful, and it was almost annoying, really. I told Alan this was basically the same garbage they sold at the tax free shops in Tokyo, and wasn’t really very Japanese, any more than say a big gold plastic Statue of Liberty was really American. There were deer that had set up camp right in the middle of the road, and little kids were fascinated by this.

Tourists wandered aimlessly by the truckload, and we had to maneuver quite a bit to walk past this area, what with small children and deer acting as difficult to see obstacles. A beautiful waterfall was up on the right, and a male deer was taking a little bath in the mud. We both took several pictures, and I explained to Alan how I was really trying to get some nice photos while I was here, which is why I carried a tripod. I explained a few photographic tips to him, and he realized why many of his dark photos didn’t come out, or were fuzzy. I showed him my camera, and he returned the favor. His camera was a higher megapixel than mine, but was several years old, so he’d paid a bundle for it back then. It was probably starting to malfunction, he guessed, as it was missing a bunch of screws too!

We approached the main gate into the daibutsu area, which is massive, and contains two gigantic wood statues on each end. They’re really impressive, and the photos I took just don’t do them justice. An old, hunched-over woman was trying to get over the hump in the floor, and Alan went to help her. Even though she made it before he was able to assist, she thanked him, and hobbled her way off. More souvenir shops and senbei stands lined the road up to the daibutsu, but were strangely absent as we got right up on the entrance. Beyond the entrance was a beautiful park, which I now realize I meant to visit, but did not. We both paid the 500 yen entry fee to the building, and Alan pointed at a sign.

“No tripods,” he read out loud. I guess, due to the volume of people, they didn’t allow anyone to take up the space. It wasn’t that bad right now, but I’m sure at peak season, this place is crazy-insane. The building housing the daibutsu stood before us, and it’s definitely awe-inspiring. You don’t get a good judge of the size until you look at the ants near the base and suddenly realize they’re people. We walked toward the entrance together, and the closer to the doorway we got, the larger still the building became, and the sheer awesomeness of the volume of this place was readily apparent.

“What’s scary is that this is the *second* building that’s stood here, and this one is only like 75% of the original size,” I told Alan. The ticket said 66%, but the guide book disagreed with that figure. We walked out of the light into the doorway, and were surrounded by dozens of school kids, all racing around and doing things like banging on gongs. An older gentleman led one group, and was explaining the history in Japanese to them. The Buddha, as you would expect, is also gargantuan, and again, the pictures don’t really do it justice. Its head is a slightly different color than the rest of it, as it was lost twice to earthquakes and fires. Huge flower petals sit at its base, of which some reproductions are on display to see the detail. Alan relayed to me a story of a man he met, whom he believed to be truly in contact with the energy of the universe, and completely enlightened, which fit with Buddhist ideals. Another giant wood statue, similar to the ones in the gate outside, stands to the left of the daibutsu, and nearby are small models of the structure surrounding us along side a reproduction of the original, which is indeed much larger. It’s not taller, just wider.

We walked around the back of the statue, where more artifacts were standing. To the right of this, a small crowd had gathered. It didn’t take long for me to put a section of the guidebook with this area in my head. This was a pillar that has a hole through it. Supposedly, this hole is the same size as one of the great Buddha’s nostrils, and if you manage to wriggle through it, you have the ability to be truly enlightened. We approached and watched as several kids practically dove through the hole without effort. A man on the opposite side would take their picture, and the next one would go through. A group of Chinese tourists was next, and several thin women also passed the opening with little effort. However, a heavier woman tried to get through, and nearly got stuck.

“In the guide book, they wonder how many times the fire department has to come out here and get people free,” I told Alan. After the woman was yanked through, Alan decided he was going to give it a go. He handed me all his things, waited his turn, and put his arms over his head (as the guidebook suggests) before stuffing himself into the hole.

The hole, by the way, is pretty freakin’ small. It’s probably not much wider than a foot, which makes it like a foot and a half diagonal. Alan wriggled and pushed the best he could, but eventually pulled himself free. “There’s just no way, mate. I might have been able to get in, but I was afraid I’d have gotten stuck.” I decided, what the hell, it’s my turn. I’d seen that he could get his hands to an area that had a bit that could be used as a grabbing point, and if I could get to that, maybe I could pull my way through. Still, the thought of getting stuck in there was rather embarrassing, and I didn’t want to do it. My things went into a pile on the floor, and Alan had my camera at the ready.

I also put my arms up and got down on the ground in front of what was looking less and less like a hole, and more and more like a pipe where Baby Jessica might hang out. I tossed myself wholeheartedly into the gap, and began to push myself in. Almost instantly, the tightness of the thing was apparent; every part of my body was immediately pressed against wood. This was not good. I began to use my legs to shove my way further in, and found the pressure on my sides to increase. I thought for a moment I should back out, but NEVER! Never give up, never surrender! I managed to grasp the far end with my hands and pulled. I soon realized, the biggest problem wasn’t getting a grasp, the biggest problem was getting leverage. My arms were completely extended, so the only force I could apply was with my fingers, which I didn’t think would be enough to unwedge myself from the crevice. I knew that if I stopped moving, I certainly would have started to swell and would never be able to break free. I began to make a wriggling motion, like a caterpillar, and noticed that this was in fact starting to move me in the right direction. I was able to wriggle myself forward enough to be able to bend my arms, although I felt me pants slowly sliding off as well. I had a brief, but horrible picture of my stepping free and girls shrieking at my manhood dangling for everyone’s delight in the slight breeze that ran through the area. As it was, I was able to get my chest through on the diagonal, and once that was out, the rest was just a matter of pulling. “It’s not unlike being born,” I thought, recalling a line from Ladyhawke, wherein Matthew Broderick’s character finds himself in a similar position. “God, what a memory.”

I pushed and shoved briefly, was able to extract myself from the nearly embarrassing situation, and was very pleased to know that I was in the good position of one day being truly enlightened. I will say also – it’s a darn good thing I’m thirty pounds lighter than the last time I was here! Alan decided, what the hell, if he can do it so can I, so he bugged a long line of middle school kids to jump in front of the line to try again. He pushed and shoved, and I pulled a little from the other side, but his shoulders were just too big. He simply didn’t want to get stuck, so he gave up. Ah, so he’s not guaranteed enlightenment. He’ll just have to work on it. I also pointed out that apparently the simple way to guarantee that state of being is to be really skinny. That helps.

We left the daibutsu building and walked out of the grounds. Alan and I were both pretty much done in Nara; we’d both seen what we wanted to see. He needed to change money, however, and I suggested we try at the post office back in Kyoto. Alternately, an international ATM would do. We started back toward JR Nara Station, and I showed him how cool a GPS could be with regards to directions and returning to somewhere you’d already been. The map said it was about a mile and a half, and would take us about half an hour to walk back. We soon realized why we couldn’t cross the street earlier, as there was an underpass we hadn’t seen. Duh. Along the way, Alan said he was getting rather hungry, and I realized I was as well. It was well past lunch, and although both of us had eaten late that morning, the effect of that food had worn off. We strode down the way we came and noticed a little shopping arcade to the left. This seemed easy enough to find food in, so we walked down it. I was really in the mood for curry, and before Alan had mentioned wanting to eat as well, my plan was to get back to Tokyo and eat at the CC Curry House which is across from Ryokan Seiki. He seemed a little too hungry for that, so I didn’t think it was an option.

I suddenly got a text message from Yuriko asking where I was at the moment, and I wrote her back and told her while Alan stopped into the 100 Yen Store for some batteries. More Australians were everywhere, and several passed me while I waited. Afterwards, we continued down this road, which the GPS and my sense of direction said the station was at the end of. Alan noticed an ATM nearby, and I told him more than likely it wasn’t international. The bank next door was already closed, which I said usually happens early. It was also a Saturday, and they may not have been open anyway. “They close early here?” he asked, and I told him they did, as did ATMs, which really took him by surprise. He was really low on cash, so we decided the best option was to get a snack, go back to Kyoto, change money hopefully at the post office, then go to the curry house, which he thought sounded good too. We stopped into McDonalds, and he got a super cheap fish sandwich, while I got a cheeseburger and L size coke. This we ate along the way, and he said it was the best fish sandwich he’d had in a while. The cheeseburger wasn’t all that filling, but it was plenty to tide me over until Kyoto.

At the station, he went back to the tourist information booth to see if there was a money exchange nearby. They told him at the hotels, and at a place we’d apparently passed. We thanked them, but Alan just preferred to go back to Kyoto at this point. We deliberately missed the local train that was leaving immediately in favor of the express train, which was leaving about 13 minutes later and would probably pass up the local anyway. The train arrived, we got seats, and Alan took a good nap while we rode back. I took a short nap, but eventually pulled out my headphones and listened to them for the rest of the 40 minute train to Kyoto station.

As we arrived at Kyoto, I tapped Alan on the kneecap (which was the closest point to me) to let him know we were here; just yelling at him didn’t do it. He awoke with a start, jaw open and eyes wide in fear. I cracked up, and he said, “How often is it that you get tapped on the knee, really!?” We rode the escalator back into the station and back down to the post office, which was still open, thankfully, at 4:30. He pulled out $100US in travelers checks and a big wad of Australian money, which I asked to take a look at. It’s very colorful, with different colors denoting the value of the bills alongside the numbers. “I can’t stand American cash,” he told me, “you could hold a whole wad of cash in your hand and not know how much you’ve got.” I agreed, as the colors really made it easy to see what you had without looking too hard. It still looked like Monopoly money, though. The exchange rate for Australian dollars really stinks at about 75 yen per dollar. The wad of Australian cash was about $250, and the returned amount of money seemed remarkably slim by comparison.

We headed back across the station, stopping briefly at the City Information counter to get him a Miaka Net account, which he was going to come back to use. He also needed to check email and thought it was really cool that he could use it for free in the station. I led him through the department store close to Seiki, and then to the curry house nearby. I ordered a beef cutlet curry, and he got a special curry that had seafood and vegetables. He wolfed this down much faster than I did, and then we paid at the front counter. I invited him to Arabian Rock with Alex, assuming I could find Alan again as he didn’t have a cell phone. He insisted to me he’d be at The Hub, so I said I’d look for him there before we went. We shook hands, said we’d see each other later, and he walked off in the opposite direction. I bought some laundry detergent in the Family Mart across from Seiki, then actually used the crosswalk since traffic was heavier that at night.

Inside, I ran a load of laundry (the otoosan pointed out soap they’d already had available, doh!) and worked on the log from the night before, which somehow at the time seemed like an insurmountable task! I planned to head over to JJ’s and get a little time in before meeting Alex at 11:15, as we’d set up over our text messages. I estimated I could leave around 7:30 or so, take the subway, and stay at JJ’s until almost 10:45. Then I’d run to The Hub, find Alan, and bring him to meet Alex by the bank. If Arabian Rock was half as good as The Lockup, he wouldn’t want to miss it!

Outside my room, the Australian teenagers were chatting it up by the internet station. Apparently they all use MSN Messenger for IM, and each one was vying for time on the computer to do so. I opened the door to go retrieve my laundry, which I’d put in the dryer for 30 minutes. As I carried the load back to my room, I said to the students, “The dryer works – my clothes aren’t wet anymore. Now they’re warm and wet,” to which they laughed. I hung up the clothes all over my room with hangers, and then told them about JJ’s and gave them directions. They thought it sounded neat. I ducked back into my room, took a shower, then got dressed for a night out. As I was leaving, I gave the kids a brochure to The Lockup, showed them a picture of me with Hot Jail Warden Girl, and said they needed to go. I also gave them my email address if they wanted a pen pal in the U.S., which who knows, they might have. They thanked me, and I took off for the subway with just my camera.

I rode the subway to the same exit as usual, Shijo, took the stairs to the surface, and the walked towards Shijo Kawaramachi. It’s a good six blocks down I think, so it takes a while. I crossed Kawaramachi, then turned north to find JJ’s, which it occurred to me I’d not found on my own before. I did manage to find it, but decided it was best to find The Hub as well, since I didn’t know how far it was from JJ’s. I looked up and down each alley, and as it turns out, it’s two streets north of JJ’s, so I found it pretty quickly. I dropped inside on the off chance Alan was already there. It was just starting to pick up; several Japanese and a foreigner or two were already present, but generally it was easy to see that Alan wasn’t there. I didn’t expect him to be. I returned to JJ’s, explained to the girl that I didn’t live in Japan so that she’d give me a temp pass, and then went upstairs to play for a while. I kept an eye on my stopwatch, and got in a good hour and fifteen minutes before I really decided I needed to go search for Alan. I also managed to fill out the top scores on Samba with my name some more, heh-heh. Along the way, I saw several girls walking in animal suits... one was a cat, one was a tiger, and another (and it took me a moment) was a hamster! I think they were leaving work and had been giving out tissues on street corners.

At 10:45 I stopped into The Hub, and now it was really cooking. Every table downstairs was taken up, and I scanned the area for Alan. I didn’t see him downstairs, and even after trying upstairs, he just wasn’t there. Hrm. I stopped at the bar, got a lychee grapefruit, and found a chair upstairs to wait. I decided to hang out until 11pm for him, and in the meantime I sipped on my drink. I was thirsty from Samba though, and I probably sipped it a little too fast. My 650 yen drink disappeared in the blink of an eye, and before I could even suck on the ice, a girl came by and took my glass away. Eleven came up quickly while I was reading Alex’s book on Kansai dialect, and I made one last pass through the bar to see if Alan had showed up. As far as I could see, he didn’t. Since I still had a little time, and it was on the way, I thought I’d check in Ing to see if he went there. He’d mentioned he had spent a lot of time there the night before, so I thought he might be inside. I walked down Kiyamachi, trying to remember exactly which building it was in.

Tonight was a little different, as it was a Friday night, and the nightlife was very much alive. The hostesses were down in the street, as Alex had predicted, trying to get guys to come upstairs to talk. Hostess bars seemed pretty silly really, as they’re not really places to meet women, much less pay for sex. The primary function is just to talk to a pretty girl and get her to pour your drinks, and typically this can run 4000-8000 yen, depending on the location. We saw some signs that were upwards of 10000 yen in Gion, but here they seemed a little cheaper. Two girls stood outside the building I thought Ing was in, and after passing and returning to it, I located Ing on the directory, which contained about 35 to 40 different bars. I walked to the second floor and into Ing.

The waiter asked if I was alone, and I said I was just looking for a friend. I scanned the tiny place, which didn’t take but a moment, and determined he wasn’t there. “He’s not here,” I told the waiter.
“Well, it’s still early, so maybe you can come by later and see if he shows up,” he told me. I thanked him and walked out.
“Sorry, Alan, I tried,” I said to no one in particular, then walked out the door and down Kiyamachi towards Shijo. I did some good people watching along the way, and finally arrived at Shijo Kawaramachi, where I found Alex sitting on a railing. I handed him his book, and he said he had hoped I’d have brought my backpack so he wouldn’t have to carry it all night. “Sorry, dude,” I told him. “I’ve been carrying that thing around for three hours!” He said there were some BMX guys who were sliding their bikes along rails which he’d been watching for a while, and so we watched them try for just a moment. They did, and so we turned the corner to the left of the bank to head down to Arabian Rock. Alex rubbed the lamp, and the door opened….

After The Lockup, we both had this idea that it was going to be this really cool place; girls would be dressed like belly dancers, men would have turbans and act like genies, and some evil guy would try to ruin everyone’s dinner. Instead, we were greeted by random middle aged Japanese man, who pointed quickly at Alex’s feet; he hadn’t realized you were supposed to take off your shoes. He quickly jumped back into the genkan (entrance) and we both took off our shoes and put them in a locker. He asked if it was just the two of us, then told us that the last order was at midnight, so we knew we needed to hurry. He led us into the main seating area, which looked for the most part like a Moroccan bazaar, but had treasure and things under glass windows in the floor. “That’s pretty neat,” Alex said as we were led into our private room. It was lined with pillows and looked relatively authentic. Our excitement was mounting. Where was the cool stuff?

Our waiter brought us menus and small plates of baba ganoush and what appeared to be Tostitos. We both ordered draft beers, as that was much simpler than trying to deduce what was on the menu. We perused the menu and were presented with quite a challenge; last night we had pictures, so the names were really secondary. This time they weren’t so it was all in katakana, hiragana, and kanji, the former two I can read, but I didn’t know the kanji for a lot of them. Alex is getting good at katakana as well, so we both were sitting there sounding out what was on the menu. Unfortunately, many of the dishes were just random, theme-based names, and weren’t at all descriptive of what they really were. Since I couldn’t read many of the characters, we ended up ordered just what we could read and what sounded interesting. Our waiter was in fact in a turban, but he was just random Japanese waiter. We ordered some spicy food, and told him to make it very spicy. Next, we ordered the “cheese bucket”. We also asked him to suggest something meat-related, since we were tired of translation, and he mentioned tandoori chicken.

“TANDOORI CHICKEN!” Alex and I practically yelled, looking at one other when we did. “Yes please, we’d like one of those.” The waiter ran off to fetch our meals. We kept hoping, but the realization soon set in that nothing cool was going to happen here. The music was generally middle eastern, the place was decorated nicely, but unlike the lockup, we didn’t get whisked away by some devastatingly attractive Japanese woman in a skimpy outfit or anything like that. This place was a bust. I was actually glad for Alan that he wasn’t where he said he’d be!

The food arrived bit by bit, which was some sort of croquette with spicy sauce (which the menu said was HOT! HOT! HOT!, and Alex and I referred to it as such), the cheese bucket with toast, a beefy curry and small piece of naan bread, and one lone chicken thigh with sauce over it that was called, but was in fact not, tandoori chicken. We ate this small amount of food, and generally, it was not bad. Nothing terribly special, but not bad. The waiter came by a short while later and said it was last call, and neither of us had any urge to get anything else. Alex suggested we go to Gion and check out the nightlife; perhaps we’d see a geisha. We walked out of the room and paid; Alex put his shoes on above the genkan before realizing what he was doing. It was close to 5000 yen for the both of us, and basically, that’s a rip off. I made the suggestion that perhaps something more happens here, but since it was so late, we might have already missed it. Alex agreed with that possibility.

We walked down Shijo towards the bridge which would lead us to Gion, which is a totally different place at night. As we passed Kiyamachi, we were witness to a scuffle between a girl and her boyfriend; he tried to grab her throat and she nailed him on the head with her fist. He then grabbed her by the arm and dragged her down the street. “Wow,” said Alex, “you don’t see that very often.” I had briefly considered stepping in – I won’t allow anyone to hurt a woman, even one I don’t know – but it was over so fast, and I really didn’t know whether he had friends, yadda yadda. We continued over the bridge and turned left down a street in Gion. A funny statue sat near an okonomiyaki place, which Alex said he’d also taken a picture of. Further along, we reached the same location he’d pointed out to me before and we began a slow walk through the neighborhood. Hostesses were everywhere, and men in business suits were often being dropped into cabs by them. As one cab passed, I realized, suddenly what I had just seen.

“Dude! There was a geisha in there!” Alex whipped around and looked in the back of the cab. Sure enough, the wig was easily visible from where we were standing. He suggested we go run over and snatch a picture, but I said it was probably pretty rude to take a picture of a couple in a cab, even if it was a geisha.

“Yeah, you’re right, the flash would probably reflect off the glass anyway. Well, you’ve now seen your first geisha, anyway!” He was right, and it was kind of cool. We started to meander through the streets, checking out the various bars, noises, sights and sounds. There were literally hundreds, if not thousands of bars packed into this area, with each building housing as many as fifty different places. At one point, as we walked along, a girl asked us, “Hey brother, how about a ‘taji’?” We shook our heads, and then continued on. Most of the people here didn’t talk to us, but in this case, there was no question. Neither one of us had any idea what a ‘taji’ was. Was it some sort of slang for sex? They were just random women standing on a random corner, not really dressed for the upscale glamour of the area. They weren’t unattractive either. We both speculated on what it could mean, and even mused at the possibility of going back to ask, but decided just to continue on.

The entire place was just buzzing with activity. Down one alleyway, where Alex had once seen a geisha, we saw some guys throwing one of their coworkers in the air! I missed a picture, and then missed another when they chased down a different coworker and put him through the same experience. “We’re going to throw you up one meter!” I heard one of them yell. I’m not sure they made it, but they ended up dropping him on the ground, and the girls who were with them giggled. Around another bend, a man approached us and pulled a card out of his front pocket.

“Lassian gaaruzu….” he said to us, waving the card at us, which showed a fee of 4000-8000 yen. I’d imagine it was true prostitution in this case and not a hostess bar, as he was pretty secretive about the photo of Russian girls he’d had tucked away in his shirt. We shrugged him off. Around another corner, we were offered a ‘massaji’ for 3000 yen, and we immediately realized what the other girl had said. It wasn’t ‘taji’ it was ‘massaji’ – massage. “kimochi ii da yooo…” the woman said to me, and lightly scraped her nails on my left arm a few times as we passed. [‘It feels good…’ she had told me.] We stood on a corner of Gion for a moment, and realized we’d basically seen everything there was to see. Alex suggested we return to JJ’s and go play some more, so we walked back down the same road we’d taken and been offered the first massage. The girls were different now, and none of them spoke to us this time. I decided foreigners were only offered such services about 50% of the time, and I told Alex, jokingly, that I was offended. As we passed another girl who was obviously offering the same thing to passers-by, that percentage decreased and I jovially pointed it out to Alex.

The city was now dying down, as it was already past 1am, and the last trains had already departed. I was well aware that I wanted to take a taxi; there was no way I was going to walk home now! I’d done it, and it definitely wasn’t worth the effort. We arrived at JJ’s, got our time passes and immediately went up to the second floor. Alex and I both got on Samba, and I put it on Hard, since he said it didn’t matter what he really played as he’d not done it but once before. We played three songs, and I got perfect on two. “See,” I said, “I told you, I’m a Samba Bad Ass.” I played Samba more while Alex went off to play other things, and managed to eliminate anyone else from the top 5 high scores save for one AAA in fifth place on SuperHard. My arms were about to fall off though, and I was basically done at that point. We played a few games of Tokyo Wars on the third level together, and he beat me each and every time.

“If I win the lottery, one of these is going in my house,” he said. We decided to go to the batting cages upstairs, and on the 9th floor, we checked out equipment. The batting cage is tiny, and has a little pitching machine in the corner. You pour in some soft rubber balls, and it appeared to hurl them at you. No batting helmets though. This disturbed us. We weren’t sure where you were supposed to stand, so I suggested he let it throw a few times to see where it was coming across.

“You don’t want to be in the path of one of those things,” I said, recalling my first practice at pitching machine in third grade wherein I was nailed right in the face on my very first at bat and very first pitch. The sign on the mesh door said, “as it is dangerous, please only one person in the cage at a time.” Alex pressed start on the machine, then stepped back, expecting a mightly whiff of a ball flying past him. The machine made some clunking noises and then POP it said, doing a practice launch before getting a ball loaded. Alex jumped a little when it did, since he didn’t realize it wasn’t yet loaded either. This time we saw a ball get loaded, and quickly awaited the speed ball.

Twang.

The ball was lobbed in such great force that a four year old could have caught it with ease. It hopped up in a small arc, so low it was going to be difficult to hit. “You’ve gotta be kidding,” I thought. Alex immediately lost all fear and stepped in the batting line. He swung a number of times, but was a little too far back, and the balls were certainly so close to the ground he was unable to make good contact. At least he was hitting them. He stood a little closer, and now he was able to send them flying straight up or somewhat back towards the scoring chart in the back of the room. He ran out of balls, which kept getting stuck in the machine, and it was my turn. I also had difficulty with the height of the launch, and Alex suggested I move further forward. This seemed to work, and I was able to smack the balls towards the rear of the room. During this time, a foreigner and a Japanese guy sat down in the chairs watching and making comments. When I was finished, we gathered up the balls and Alex had another go. The machine jammed again, and he wasn’t able to finish his set.

“Can we try?” asked the Japanese guy, and even though we’d checked out the stuff, we said sure. He stepped into the room; he’d obviously done this before and was much, much better than we were. At one point he even bunted, and that took all of us by surprise. As he stepped out and handed the bat to his friend, he said “I’ll never be Ichiro.” His friend Andy walked in and did about as well as we did, although he seemed to have a little better form than either of the two of us. As he stepped out he asked where we were from, and we both said Texas.

“Oh, I’m from New York.” An American!

“Wow, you’re the first American I’ve met in Japan since I’ve been here,” I told him. He was doing a homestay in Kyoto for a year (lucky bastard) and his Japanese was not bad, although he had a strong American accent. He seemed to know grammar and vocabulary pretty well though. I had one more attempt to swing at the pitching machines weak efforts at playing in the Major Leagues, and then we took the bat and balls back to the desk, and told them if they wanted to check them out, the could. We were going to throw some balls in the pitching booth, but it was taken, so we walked around the corner to the left.

This was the so called Kid’s Area and had different games entirely. On the way, we passed a man playing, and I swear I am not making this up, an ice shaving game, wherein you turn the only control, a crank, at high velocities to fill up as many dessert treats as possible. A game to the left of this was a roach smacking game, and you hit a touch screen with a soft, air-filled mallet to kill the pesky pests. A guy was playing this and smacking the screen like crazy. Further down was a gigantic plastic ball room, and Alex looked around some for a sign saying he couldn’t go in. He quickly untied his shoes, and I was unable to find any reason why he would be unable to do so. There was a sign suggesting removal of cell phones and the like, so I’d imagine it was safe for adults. How often does that happen? Alex dove in face first and realized by the door it was a little shallow. He got some running room and then slid his way into the piles of balls. It was extremely funny.

Fine, I thought. I too removed my shoes and ransacked my way into the thousands of little plastic globes swishing and diving left and right. “I haven’t been in a ball room since I was like eight,” I told Alex, and buried myself in them. I pretended I was a mole for a little while and shuffled underneath the pile (yes there were this many balls in there), then had a ball pelting contest with Alex. We noticed a video camera next to the TV that wasn’t plugged in and wondered if that was to make sure there were no accidents. We playfully threw a few balls at it. After using up the available fun in the room, we exited and I tried out the roach game, but was unable to kill the boss roach, which required upwards of 100 hits in about 25 seconds. Alex counted down while I tried, the little insect diving about the screen. The cartoon roaches all laughed at me when I failed.

We realized the pitching room was open, so we checked out a glove and balls, which the glove was unusable by Alex – it was right handed. He asked if there was a left handed one, but realized he didn’t really need it anyway. In the room, there’s a big tic-tac-toe looking thing that has the numbers 1-9 on each square. You throw the ball at it, and try to knock over number 5, which is the center, and a strike. A button on the wall resets the targets, but you still have to run and get the balls. Alex went first, and the poor guy just isn’t a pitcher. (sorry, Alex!) His pitches went wild, although he did manage to knock over a target or two, including number eight, which probably would have fallen with a good puff of breath for a birthday candle. He said I’d probably be able to throw faster, since I looked a little stronger, and he was right. My aim was a little better, and I was getting about ten KmH faster on the radar, which was still less than half of what a real pitcher would do. We both took one more turn, and we got tired out really fast. My aim decreased, and neither one of us managed to get a strike. “Well, we’ll both never be pitchers,” we said.

He suggested we get a drink on the top floor, which has a small bar! We went upstairs, and he tried to order something, but the woman pointed to a sign saying they didn’t sell alcohol from midnight to 5am. At 6, we said, we could get another drink. Oh goodie. We both just went to the vending machines, and I decided I wanted to get some curry-man from the hot vending machine next to it, as I’d never tried that! I put in my money, and the device began preparing my curry-man, saying it would be about two minutes. I got a mango soda, and Alex suggested we play darts. These were next to the karaoke rooms, and we were treated to a wonderful late-night caterwauling from a drunk guy with very inaccurate pitch. I rubbed my ears.

The man was ready a moment later and I ate them while we played cricket. They weren’t bad at all. My aim was pretty good, even with the crappy darts, but once again Alex as having trouble. “I guess I’m just not good at throwing things,” he noted, and realized he did better hurling the darts at high velocity rather than meticulously aiming. I took forever to get the bulls, though, which is pretty normal. Even Alex’s wild-as-all-get-out aiming system managed to close out most of everything, including bulls, before I could finally end the game. At this point we both decided we were done, and rode the elevator to the first floor. This great fun cost us just barely 500 yen! I love that place.

I walked with Alex back to Shijo Kawaramachi, where he found his bike next to several piles of vomit in the alleyway, fun, and showed my his little umbrella holder he’s so proud of. I again thanked him for everything, and we shook hands. Hopefully he’ll get to come back to the States to visit soon! I took a cab across the street home, which ended up costing my just over 1000 yen for the five minute ride. Sucked, but was worth it. No way was I writing log files at three am, so I just went straight to bed.

-- Hik