A One Time Event

“Let’s try it once, so we can say we’ve done it. And then let’s never do it again.”

“Agreed.”

I’ve been curious, so very, very curious.

HIWF7483

I have a lot of angry feelings about how Japan harvests from the sea – the tuna population is in collapse, changes to yearlong trawling practices are going slowly and against a hungry market that demands cheap fish. Then there is the whaling. Japanese whaling has faced a lot of criticism because Japanese ships sail well into the ocean to harvest whales, and does so by exploiting (a strong word, but an accurate one) loopholes in the global ban on commercial whaling.

It’s a part of Japanese history. It’s also on the menu at the sushi restaurant Liam and I found at Yokohama. I’ve been looking for a replacement conveyor belt sushi restaurant ever since my favorite shut down. We found this friendly, smelly restaurant tucked in behind a pachinko parlor and across the street from a trendy new pizzeria bar. The waiter provided us a flashcard menu with pictures accompanied by Japanese, Korean, and English names.

I have avoided whale since coming to Japan on moral grounds, but I have also been curious about the taste. What could be so alluring about whale that it continues to be hunted for food, despite not accounting for any significant portion of the Japanese diet?

One portion, one piece for each of us.

The meat was a dark – almost purple like the skin of an eggplant, except it was also red. Full of mild, moral trepidation, I ate the whale. I would like to say it tasted horrible, or had a bad mouth feel like a chunk of squid. It did not.

I don’t know if it’s ok to tell you, my reader, what the whale tasted like. I do not want to encourage you to try it and see for yourself. While I did not find the taste repulsive, I didn’t find it delicious enough to condone the practice of getting it.

That is perhaps what you should take away from my experience – whale tastes fine, but it doesn’t taste good enough to warrant killing the whale for it. Don’t go out and see for yourself. Take my word for it.

Advertisements

Fuji-Q Highlands : Investigating Terror

IMG_9677

I had heard of Fuji-Q Highlands in my first visit to Japan. The advertisement did not make me feel confident in the amusement park on the whole – it featured an old animation “loose mouth” character screaming in Japanese to come to Fuji-Q. I passed, and continued to pass until recently, when a group of teachers put together a trip to Fuji-Q to partake of the “scariest” haunted house in all of Japan, if not the world (as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records).

I am not into haunted houses, horror, or being scared. For me, there is no joy in jumping out of my skin, even if I survive the process. If I want to get my adrenaline going, I’ll join in a game of tag or try to teach a lesson without a plan. I was not that keen on going, until Kirsten brought to my attention the presence of “ride” called Ultimate Fortress 2.

An escape-room style fortress building with motion detectors and robots. A 99% failure rate. Tactical style laser-tag like gameplay. Spy craft, sneaking, and sensors? I was in.

We took a bus (far cheaper than the trains – more on that in the logistics below) – just over an hour and a half from Shinjuku station. We left relatively early in the morning, in one of the first sunny days in what felt like weeks. I slept on the way, and awoke to find a stunning view of what was to come:

IMG_9660

Fuji-Q is not just an amusement park – there is a large resort there as well, which is fitting given the view. If you are wanting a weekend away, in the off season the rates did not seem unreasonable. I hadn’t seen Mt. Fuji up close in a long time, and he did not disappoint. Throughout the day he would watch over our antics, screams, and age regression. This started with the Haunted House.

The sheer amount of buildup into getting into the house was unnerving, with signs everywhere promising multiple “escape” points for when the terror got too strong. This buildup was enough to get two of our intrepid party to back out and refuse to enter, despite our gentle “You do you and we respect your decision,  but also come on and be scared with us!”  My nerves were on edge before we even entered the first room and watched the “backstory” of how the hospital we were about to enter into turned into a bone-gnawing, demonically possessed horror house.

I surprised my group by taking point and the flashlight. They knew I did not like horror or terror. My reasoning is that if I have to be concerned about keeping the group together, I won’t focus so much on my own fear. It’s a good distraction for me. So we went through four or five stories of twisted hallways, jump scares, superb foley work and some very well timed effects.

I won’t tell you what we saw. That would ruin the haunted house, and mystery is what makes a haunted house special. Was it the scariest thing I had ever been through? No, but that’s because I was with a group of friends. We kept each other in check, even when we got startled and Shawnali shoved me forward like a she was unleashing a greyhound.

Note: The Haunted House is not included in the day pass ticket. You have to buy a separate ticket, which costs 1000 yen.

Then it was on to Ultimate Fortress 2!

I did not win.

I did not get killed by the robot. I clearly didn’t get the area effect of the laser lights. And I’m not entirely convinced that the second “level” is not intentionally meant to capture everyone. We all had such a good time, and agreed that we could easily repeat the ride, if not for the fact that there were many other rides available.

Fujiyama: The King of Coasters, for example.

IMG_9726

What makes Fujiyama king? It’s the highest roller coaster in the world – the initial fall starts at 79m (237ft). You hit a maximum speed of 130 km/h (about 80mph) and it is a long course. I haven’t been on a real roller coaster in some time, and starting with a coaster that never seems to stop climbing did a number on my system. I’m not quite a brave person – I focused on my hands, and the people in front of me. Occasionally I looked out at Fuji in the distance, eternal and probably laughing at my growing nerves. Once the coaster fell, however, you better believe I had my hands up in the air, and I was joyfully screaming the whole four-minute ride.

IMG_9722

Regaining my voice with some hot lemon tea from a vending machine, we got in line for our second coaster, Takabisha. It looked smaller than Fujiyama (naturally), but it had one thing that I did not like at all – a seeming free fall from a sheer drop. The cars would hang, slightly suspended, over an s-curve before plunging down. In line, I learned that Takabisha is the world’s *steepest* roller coaster, with a drop of 121 degrees (this is also on the website, which I did not read). Note: THEY WILL EMPTY YOUR POCKETS. I had a clipped on ticket – CLIPPED ONTO MY BELT LOOP WITH METAL. They still made me take it off and store it. THESE GUYS DO NOT FOOL AROUND ON THIS!

Once the rides begin, I love them. I hate the build up, the anticipation of climbing. So I was fine with the drop itself, and loved the ride. My anticipation/dread got really bad on the vertical climb up to the drop. I just hated going up on my back, hearing the tick-tick-tick of the chain. It doesn’t help that the drop is in the middle of the ride, rather than at the beginning. Tori, sitting next to me, kept trying to help by gleefully yelling for me to “Look at Fuji! Look at Fuji!” When we got off, I had the literal shakes.

We went on several other rides, but the final ride I’m going to talk about here is Tentekomai, a flying ride. You get into a plane with flexible wings, and as you’re raised to an impressive height and spun around, you flap the wings to make yourself spin. It was fun and terrifying, especially when done correctly. Once you get the g-forces correct, you start spinning without having to do any flapping, and you gain speed. As a short person, I found I did not like spinning as much as I thought, as every time I inverted I left my seat a little and found myself hanging momentarily upside down in the air. Kirsten said she thought she could hear me from the ground.

Did I mention the carousel? They have a nice carousel too – much easier to handle.

IMG_9795

So soothing…

So, day done, we headed back to our bus. All in all, I had an amazing time. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a big amusement park, and going to one with some many “World’s ****est” rides did not disappoint. If you’re looking for a day trip out of Tokyo, might I suggest going to Fuji-Q Highland? I know I’d like to go back – I didn’t get to ride on Eejenaika, the roller coaster with the most number of spins in the world….

Details

Fuji Q’s English Website – use this to get all sorts of useful information, including closed days and ticket discounts.

Cost: Varies. You can pay by ride (roller coasters are 1000 yen a ride, most other rides are 800 yen, and the kiddie rides are around 500 yen), you can buy a three ride ticket, or an all day pass (5100 yen). I did the all day pass, and I made sure to get my money’s worth. I can see why people buy the 3-ride pass. If all you want is to ride the three big coasters, you’re going to be waiting in line for a long time, and you might only get those three rides. If you want to go to Thomas the Tank Engine land and ride the carousel, the per ride option makes more sense.

Also worth noting is that Fuji-Q closes relatively early for a theme park – around 6pm. With wait times of up to two hours, a day can go by quickly.

There are pay lockers available to store your things during the day. I stored my purse and kept my scannable pass and some money in my metro card holder. A lot of the rides have free lockers to store loose change, keys, and anything that might come out of your pockets.

Transportation: In our case, we took the Keio Highway Bus, but there is also the Fuji-Q Highlands bus. The cost, roundtrip, was 3500 yen. There are train options as well. Look for Fuji-Q Highland Station.

Timing: We went on a Friday holiday, and the lines were not awful. They were there, and the line for the popular coasters was well over an hour. I imagine that in the popular seasons or on weekends the lines are crazy, so if you can swing a weekday trip, that will make things much more bearable.

 

IMG_9743

St. Patrick’s Day Samba

In an effort to get out and find low-cost things to do in Tokyo (my job gets a month’s labor from me before I get paid. I know, it’s rough.), I asked one of my coworkers about St. Patrick’s Day. He said there was a parade.

IMG_3076

Now, I lived near Chicago. Chicago dyes the river a bright green shade, and everyone drinks to excess starting at sunup and going until well past sundown. It’s a ridiculous amount of revelry and vomit.

In perusing the advertisement for the parade volunteer requirements, I saw the following in bold print : “No smoking. No drinking. No high heels.” Well, at least two of those make sense to me (smoking and heels). Still, it looked like a small, humorous event. If I am being honest, I had no idea what to expect when considering the relationship between Japan and Ireland, if such a thing existed in any depth.

I invited my friend Sharon with me as an “interpreter,” and we went to Omote-sando on Sunday. The weather was perfect – sunny, not too cold or hot. I told her about Chicago, and at one point I had to admit that while there’s a chance an ancestor of mine came from Ireland, I had no proof and had never claimed Irish ancestry on St. Patrick’s day.

“That’s refreshing!” She said. “Most people try to claim Irish heritage, when it’s some second cousin’s uncle. Sorry, that doesn’t make you Irish.”

“Well, my patron saint is Saint Brigit of Ireland – and I don’t make crosses out of river reeds on her day either,” I added in full disclosure. I know my lineages pretty well, but I really only claim the ones in which I actively participate.

The parade started off with about as much awkward happiness as I expected, with the Irish Ambassador, Miss Ireland, and a tall man dressed as St. Patrick, complete with a fake beard, leading the parade. They were followed by bagpipes (“Scottish.” Was all Sharon said upon seeing them). Then came dancers, fiddlers, pubs advertisements, and giant inflatable Guinness pints. There were also samurai, cheerleaders, samba dancers, and a bunch of traditional Japanese…tap-dancers? I mean, it was the most glorious hodge-podge parade I have ever seen. Everyone was bedecked in green, orange, and white, and they were having a fun time.

And it was a lot longer than expected. There were no floats (the closest thing were the Guinness balloons), but there were a lot of Irish-appreciation groups. There were the Irish Setters club, the Druidic society of Japan (?!), at least three dancing schools, and of course the travel abroad and foreign exchange student programs. The parade went on a large loop between Omote-sando and Harajuku, so that at one point the samba dancers were competing with the bagpipers every time the parade stopped (usually coinciding with the crossing guards allowing pedestrians to pass through).

As the last of the emerald clad parade groups walked past, we decided to go on to Yoyogi park to check out the Irish festival, which had been going on all weekend. Sharon and I are both fans of hard ciders, which are notoriously hard to find in Japan (the closest thing I’ve found are some of the apple beers – not the same thing). We were in luck, and found that Magners (imported from Australia via Ireland we hope) was ready in cold bottles for just over $5.00 a bottle. I justified this by reminding myself that beer costs more for less at a baseball game. Magners is not my preferred cider (Angry Orchard or Woodchuck), but it was just what I wanted on a warming spring day. Too poor to buy souvenirs or actual food, it was a fleeting souvenir.

All in all, I am very happy I went to the parade. It got me thinking a little bit about the debate over cultural appropriation back in America. As Sharon and I watched the “Irish” band warm up – where only the fiddle player looked “Western,” I tried to build a theory. Irish fiddle music exists all over the world, but I have never encountered an Irish person upset at this idea. I theorized to Sharon that perhaps it’s because Ireland is seen as a partially “occupied” nation that it gets such acceptance into other cultures. The Irish are distinct from the English, and the English have an Imperial legacy that the Irish do not, even though technically they are both part of the same “United Kingdom.” Sharon agreed in part, citing that Irish music is distinct from Scottish or English music, and as such might travel better.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say. Judging from the festivities, this was high praise indeed!

 

IMG_3349

Red Rock Canyon: Hiatus, then Hiking

I took an unexpected and rather abrupt hiatus from this blog, as you might have noticed.

Perhaps it was the election. Perhaps it was my sudden bout with sore throats and abdominal pain. Perhaps it was the conclusion of my Japanese contract. Perhaps it was all of this that crippled my desire to write.

If it makes you feel any better, dear reader, I didn’t write anywhere else either. I didn’t work on my book. I wrote no poetry. I kept no dream journal. I barely touched my actual personal journal. By all measurements, my ability to write simply dried up like a desert streambed in summer.

Speaking of…

img_2512

Before my recent re-relocation to Japan (having gone home briefly), I visited one of my favorite places in the United States: Red Rock Canyon just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. I don’t know if Red Rock Canyon is my favorite spot – I love the Sequoias in California, the Hudson River Valley, and the tumult of Chicago – but it certainly ranks. If I had to give it a number one rank, it would be “Favorite place to go in the winter.” The desert in winter is something alien and unexpected. There is snow in the mountains, and in the late winter the melt swells the streams.

I’ve been going to Red Rock Canyon since I was a child. We’d always go in the late summer or mid-spring, coinciding with spring breaks and the end of summer vacations. I remember finding the small spherical stones that had fallen off the sandstone like pimples (I learned later they were vaguely magnetic, attracting particles around them). It’s not a national park, but it is protected under the BLM’s National Conservation Areas, specifically for the tortoises. When I was young, there was nothing leading to the park – a sparse collection of old gas stations and parched houses. Now, Summerlin abuts the park almost to the inch of the protected space.

When I visited in February, it was with the intention of seeing the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was a rainy day in the desert, so there was no sunrise to watch. The sign at the gate warned against climbing on the sandstone (already a slick stone). Though I didn’t get the sunrise, I got a bounty of other sensations. Desert plants must act fast, and the aromas getting out of my car hit me like a wall of spices. Mesquite, yucca, agave sage – these are the plants that opened up to welcome the brief morning rain, and the scent was cleansing.

img_2585

Looking out over the vast living landscape, full of cacti that would dry out in a few months, pools of water that wouldn’t last, I felt free again. There is something so…fragile about the desert. I find it almost unbearable to be in Red Rock in the heat of the summer, when everything is bleached and dry and desperately holding on. But in the winter, the colors deepen and the whole place comes brilliantly alive (the desert is always alive, mind you, but its much more practical about it in the summer).

So I hiked around Calico Hills, the patchwork sandstone mounds near the entrance of the park. I kept a lookout for animals, but saw only hummingbirds and a hawk. I met a nice Naval man on the trails, who proved good company and thankful hiking buddy (I kept my distance from him for awhile at first, uneasy at being alone). From Calico Hills, I went back to my car and started the long scenic drive through the park.

img_2556

Note: Make sure you get gas before you arrive at the Park. There is no access point out of the park once you start the scenic drive – it’s a big loop.

I’ve hiked part of Pine Creek Canyon, about three-quarters of the way through the 13 mile scenic drive, but I’ve yet to hike the whole thing. I get too interested at the beginning, where they did a controlled fire. There are Ponderosa pines there, and I’ve seen the wild burros once as well. It’s a forest that doesn’t belong in the desert, which is why it’s so fascinating. Much like the geological face of the mountains, which feature old rock pushed on top of younger rock (due to the fault lines), it’s sort of out of place. I love it.

Sitting on a rock, I watched the stream/almost river flow across the road, and felt the tuggings of inspirations again. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to feel the desire to write and describe. I had been feeling isolated and numb. Much like the riverbed, I felt the great need to open up again, and let the life in.

img_2462

Addendum: I worry, as I have been worrying for months now, about how Trump’s environmental lethargy is going to hurt places like Red Rock Canyon. I’ve watched Summerlin’s cookie cutter homes encroach more and more on the space, and I’m genuinely worried that in this new administration that does not care about protecting anything except their own wealth, spaces like these will fall victim.

So go buy this shirt from Cotton Bureau, or one similar to it. Maybe some good will come of a “gentle” visual reproach…

Current Events

I won’t write about the election. I know this is the space to do so, but I don’t think my voice is going to tip any scale out there.

There has been too much about it. Too much noise, too many opinions, too much grief, too much glee. And the instant backlash in too many directions – suck it up, love with love, be angry, don’t be angry, keep your head down, fight the power, love thy neighbor. It’s like America is a rubber band that snapped back in on itself after being pulled too tight.

I will say this: my students don’t know what to say, or what to ask. They can’t believe it. One of my older students is afraid. One of my economics students is worried about the TPP. Some laugh, because they believe he is a joke and don’t understand enough about politics to see what he means for my country. They ask me what I think, how I feel, and what it all means.

What would you say?

Here’s what I’ve been saying, “Well, I’m scared. I’m upset. I’m confused. But I have English to teach, and we have work to do.” And I leave it at that. Soapboxing here does nothing. I am honest, because it’s best. I am brief, because I won’t waste words that will go misunderstood. And I focus on my work, because otherwise I’d start ranting and raving, which doesn’t help my EFL students and doesn’t help me.

I feel as though anyone who goes abroad has an obligation to build good relationships and set a good example. Now? Now I’ll have to work harder, because now we have a president who is regarded as a dangerous buffoon by the global community. Now I’ll be pre-judged, and I’ll have to try and explain what is going on back home.

I know people on both sides. I pass judgments of my own, but judgment doesn’t solve problems. Communication is essential. Teaching is essential.

 

So that is what I do. I teach.