Chicago – So we’ve completed three-quarters of our 40-hour journey home, which began Friday night at Ngura Rai airport in Denpasar at about 8pm. (We arrived very early for our 11:55pm flight because our checkout time was at 5pm.) We made it to Tokyo, losing an hour, at around 8am, where we hung out until 3:40pm, catching our 11 hour flight to Chicago, which got in four hours before we departed, at around 11:45am Saturday. Confused? We board our two-hour flight home (which will cause us to lose another hour) at 6, and should clear customs just as the Habs, naturally, put the finishing touches on the Thrashers.

Anyhow. Bali was amazing – everybody says it’s paradise and they’re all right. Our resort, on the quiet Jimbaran beach, was stunning – so much that we couldn’t really believe it when we checked in. We must have been in the wrong place. After a day of hanging out by the pool and in the ocean with G&M, we spent our second full Bali day touring parts of the island. We had lunch by a giant rice patty, saw a Hindu and Buddhist temple and shopped the markets at Ubud.

We passed the remainder of our time in super relaxation mode, spending some quality time at a local spa and generally finding excuses to take a dip in the pool. Barbeque dinner on the beach was the most valuable meal I’ve ever eaten: lobster, prawns, squid, grouper, snapper, two large beers and four sodas for $37.50. Total. For four of us. Insane.

No photos today – though we’ll get some to you folks sooner or later, once we make it home, unpack and sift through the thousands we’ve taken (and once G sends us his thousands too).

Off to get some deep dish pizza…

It’s been a few packed days, touring ceaselessly (well, not really ceaselessly – we developed a nice pace during our second week in Japan) through Tokyo’s many neighbourhoods and briefly in Kyoto.

Our second day in Tokyo took us to the Tokyo National Museum, where we saw some traditional Japanese prints and ceramics, and then to the Museum of Western Art, for an exhibit of paintings from the Royal Museum in Belgium (including Lisa’s favourite Magritte). We visited a shrine (can’t remember which one now, but it’ll come to me sooner or later), and walked down a crazy alleyway filled with tiny bars in the Shinjuku ward, before heading into Kabuki-Cho, which is Tokyo’s red-light district. As it was afternoon, we didn’t really see much (other than the theatre where the Queen musical, We Will Rock You, is on, proving that tastelessness knows no bounds).

After a quick nap, we ventured back to Roppongi, the trendy neighbourhood near our hotel, for some Robata Yaki, a dining experience often seen in movies depicting Japanese life. You enter, the waiters scream at you. You sit around the counter, the waiters scream at you. You order some chicken sticks, the waiters scream at you. The waiters then scream at the other waiters. Then the chefs – cooking while kneeling in front of you, scream at the waiters. Eventually, the food arrives, delivered on a board by the chef, who screams at you (the waiters then do a call-response). The process is a joy, and costs a fortune – at least when you do it in Roppongi, we gathered. At one point during the evening, everyone participated in the shift change ceremony, captured below.

The next day, we hopped on the Nozomi bullet train for Kyoto. The train runs at about 300 km/h, and is incredibly smooth (and quiet. And spacious). Compared to the snail’s-pace-always-delayed-in-Alexandria Via behemoth that runs to Ottawa, this was living it up big time. We arrived early for check in at our ryokan, so we visited the nearby temple (Hagashi? Honanji? something like that), which includes a building billed as the world’s largest wooden structure. I think it’s burned down a few times.

That night we headed downtown for some conveyor belt sushi, which is pretty much as it sounds – you sit at a counter and plates of sushi rotate along a conveyor belt in front of you. I think it’s the ideal way to eat sushi – incredibly efficient. When you’re done, you pay according to the size of the stack of plates in front of you. We then did a lot of window shopping along the streets of Kyoto’s covered shopping arcade – think St. Hubert street’s northern end.

The next morning, our only full day in Kyoto, we visited the complex of temples known as Nanzen-Ji and the Kyoto Museum of Modern Art, which was only showing some of its permanent collection (for free!). After a long-lost quest for mythical gyoza (mythical only because we arrived at 2 to a restaurant that opens at 6), we did some strolling throughout the downtown periphery and visited the Yakasaka (I think) temple area, where we saw some “Geisha.” Apparently, the only authentic Geisha left are, shall we say, getting on in age. These two appeared to have paid to dress up and wander around like Geisha, which would explain why they kept taking photos of each other. Nevertheless.

For dinner we had some great sticks of all kinds (asparagus + bacon = yummy) at a tiny joint called Ichiban, which sat about six. Excellent experience. We did some impulse shopping and headed home to pack for Tokyo.

We left Kyoto the next morning, arriving in Tokyo for our first torrential downpour. We decided to spend a couple of hours indoors at our ryokan while the rain let up. Thankfully, Japanese Saturday afternoon TV includes both Buddhist opera and Karate tournaments. Phew! After some rest, we called up David, who has been living in Japan for a few years and offered to show us around (when David quit his job to move to Asia, I was fortunate enough to fill the post, so thanks again D!). We had a yummy meal and then hit Tower Records to shop for some English books (I had finished Richard Russo’s touching novel, The Risk Pool, on the train). We had an 11pm curfew and a thirty-minute subway ride, so when we hit the station at 10:25, we knew it would be tight. Fortunately, a friendly couple sitting next to us agreed to call the ryokan to get the passkey for those arriving a little late. Thanks again, guys – we made it to the hotel by 11:02, but it was locked up. Five digits into the machine and we were in – disaster averted :-)

The next morning, Sunday, we (and everyone else in Tokyo it seems) visited the shrine in our neighbourhood – Asakusa. We then met David for more conveyor belt sushi lunch, and walked around the Meiji shrine in Harajuku, where teenage goth girls go to vamp around on Sunday afternoons. Very odd. Very, very odd. Apparently, the secret – thanks to Gwen Stefani – is out. As the sun began to set we rode up to the 45th floor of one of the towers that make up Tokyo City Hall just in time to see the giant fireball dip directly below Mt. Fuji. Amazing.

David’s wife Maki joined us for dinner, which was lovely despite the horsemeat sashimi I ate (mmmm… iron) and then headed back to the ryokan with plenty of time to make curfew… So, we’re about to board our flight to Bali, where we’ll meet up with G and M for some fun on the beach before returning to (shudder) cold, rainy Montreal November… Sayonara!

(New photos are all at flickr.)

Well, Kyoto was a blas, though we didn’t really have much in the way of Internet access. Our last couple of days in Tokyo have been great, thanks in large part to our gracious tour guide, David, who saw to it that we saw the right sites at the right times – and ate the right meals. Tomorrow we’re off to Bali for four sunny days. An early check-out time plus a late flight should make for some blogging time at Narita airport, providing the wifi works and we find the energy after schlepping our even fuller luggage. We’ve got lots to say about bullet trains, conveyor belt sushi, excitable Japanese waiters, a bag made out of a truck, geishas that aren’t really geishas, gothy showoffs, nearly breaking curfew and horsemeat sashimi.

In the meantime the sun setting directly behind Mt. Fuji, as seen from the top of Tokyo City Hall:

Mt. Fuji sunset

After a long day of travel (by the time we schlepped our suitcases out of the Aoyame-Itchôme subway station around 10:30 p.m., we were ready to sleep in the street), we finally made it to Tokyo. Our day began with a traditional Japanese meal at the Inn at Lake Towada consisting of an egg and some bacon fried at each place setting, some soup, optional beer (we passed), various pickled things, and a piece of warm salmon. Cereal it was not, but still, we enjoyed.

Afterwards, we went for a quick walk around the lake and up a path leading to a Shinto shrine.

Lake Towada Swans Towada Shrine
We met up with our group, a collection of conference attendees, and boarded a Konan bus for a quick ride into the woods, where we partook in a forty-minute soundwalk, featuring a low river, many streams and brooks, and a hanndful of waterfalls, all contrasted with the occasional tour bus rolling by along the parallel road and the sounds of nature (and footsteps). At lunch we enjoyed more meat grilled at the table, this time slices of yummy beef. Mmmmm.

beef before

beef after

We returned to Hirosaki (where I picked up a jacket I had left behind; you can lose anything in Japan and get it back. Last week I left my Lonely Planet on a bus – how cliché – only to pick it up the next day at the terminal), said some goodbyes, and hopped on yet another bus, bound for Aomori airport. We finally made it Tokyo pretty exhausted but excited to be in the heart of a megalopolis, as my old SimCity game would have called it.

This morning, for the first time since we arrived in Japan, we slept in, not leaving the hotel until after noon. We decided to take a brainless day, heading to the Ginza district to check out the expensive shops, and the Sony store. As some of you already know, Lisa recently found out she was selected as the recipient of a Sony fellowship, so we made a sort of pilgrimage to Sony HQ, where photographs of any kind were strictly prohibited – sadly. We captured this stealth image outside:

Sony HQ (shhhh)

Inside – ah, inside! – was a gas. First we sampled the upcoming PlayStation 3 (Dave, had you been with us, you’d still be there). Then we watched “Full HD” TVs for a while, finally prying ourselves away into the noise-cancelling headphone section. We spent a good chunk of time playing with digital cameras, slowly realizing that our own Sony cam was woefully obsolete. More on that later. Finally, we headed across the street to a Ginza mall, opting to eschew Japanese fare for a meal. Instead, we enjoyed some First Kitchen burgers, which are supposed to be North American “regular” burgers. Only they come with, you know, a fried egg. Like me, you may have images of the Simpsons “Good Morning Burger” drifting in your mind – all that was missing was the stick of “rich creamery butter.” Lisa points out that the sandwich was as if a Quarter Pounder with Cheese mated with an Egg McMuffin. The burger was fantastic. And the fries, served with ketchup, mayo (two kinds), BBQ sauce and nacho cheese sauce, were divine. So good.

traditional Japanese cuisine

Afterwards, we stopped in at the Leica building to check out the small gallery of photographs exhibited there and headed to the Akihabara district, Tokyo’s electronics trading ground. At first we thought we were completely misled by our trusted (and constantly monitored) Lonely Planet. But, in an instant, we turned into an alleyway and realized we were on the edge of a high-tech flea market. We had identified two Sony cameras earlier that were worthy of some bargain-hunting, and thanks to the regulations concerning taxes and duty, we were not let down. After visiting a few shops, we decided on a camera and then ducked into an Apple store to price-check online. Firmly convinced that a great deal had presented itself, we bought a 10.1 megapixel (!) Sony DSC-N2 camera. Sayonara, poorly-lit, blurry photos!

Camera in hand, we hopped on the subway and headed for Roppongi.

where's the train?

Ah.

Roppongi seems to be a gathering point for Tokyo’s wealthy twentysomethings. It’s full of international and Japanese restaurants, as well as plenty of bars and shops (not to mention touristy joints). We settled on a “Cuban” restaurant that seemed only to have Mexican and American dishes, but was still tasty. Afterwards, we checked out the Roppongi Hills complex, sort of a Westmount Square on Barry Bonds’s best steroids. It features several towers, a giant shopping plaza, a cinema, a museum and much more. We had some dessert and headed back for the hotel. Tomorrow we check out some museums and get back onto our all-Miso-soup-all-the-time Japanese diet. Meanwhile, some more photos…

the Sony Fellow in front of HQ

Kimono on the rails

two Bobs
the Paul Simon collection

dessert

Some Shamisen music, from Anzu Live House in Hirosaki.

More from Tokyo soon…

Today we left Hirosaki for Lake Towada, a tourist resort about an hour away, stopping in the small town of Kosaka for a tour of the mining museum and an afternoon of Kabuki theatre. We’re here until Monday afternoon, capping off the WFAE conference before heading back to Hirosaki to connect to Aomori, where we’ll fly to Tokyo in the evening. Our short stay here will include a sixty-minute soundwalk in the morning and a musical workshop that we may or may not sit in on. In the meantime, some catching up on what we’ve been up to:

  • On Thursday evening, after a soundwalk from Hirosaki University to the city centre, we enjoyed a yummy dinner (including three kinds of sake – this is an important point; the sake available in Montreal – Hakutsuru, I think – stinks compared to the variety of flavours we’ve sampled so far) at Anzu, a Live House featuring local folk music performances and yarn spun by a Japanese storyteller. The musicians each played a shamisen, a three-stringed instrument played with a giant pick in a harsh, staccato manner.ShamisenThe music, as you can tell from a video I’ll post as soon as we get somewhere with decent bandwidth, is not the easiest to get into, but is catchier than you would expect. We sat with colleagues on soft mats and ate around rectangular tables, enjoying some sashimi and a whole cooked fish (don’t ask me to specify…), as you can see.

    Anzu live house

    Anzu musicians

    Anzu food

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  • On Friday morning we visited a Shinto shrine known for its impressive five-story pagoda and giant bell, which we had the pleasure of ringing more than once. The thing is so powerful that you can feel the air around it vibrate even when its sound has been reduced to a low, quiet hum. We then visited Hirosaki Park, which was more populated than Thursday, owing to it being Culture Day in Hirosaki, whatever that is. There were musical performances in the botanical garden and around the castle, but we decided to take a pretty quick walk around and then have some lunch. We returned to the hotel in time for Lisa to catch the afternoon sessions and me to stretch out for a bit, before enjoying what I’m pretty sure was some grilled tongue.
  • Lisa presented – wonderfully – yesterday; the enthusiasm of her international colleagues was palpable. Her project seems to be able to transcend language, distance and culture. In fact, earlier in the morning a student from Kyoto presented his own proposal, to create a “sound-seeing” audio guide of his own city. As someone who’s been around academics (but isn’t one himself), I was impressed by the passion of the WFAE attendees; the conference was both accessible to a real layperson and stimulating for those who’ve spent a lifetime working in sound. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed hearing about the projects, and touched by the sense of community that developed so quickly among the participants (who number about 65).

    Lisa presents

    Saturday was also a student festival day at Hirosaki University. Like all student events, it featured cheap food, booths set up on campus, kids in funny outfits and rock music. Throw in some Middle Eastern shouting and you’ve got Concordia’s Hall Building mezzanine.

  • After the WFAE closing reception (only about a third of the conferencegoers are at the retreat in Lake Towada), we headed out for some drinks at the Yamauta Live House, where we chatted with some Japanese colleagues. The local folks were a blessing during the past few days, helping us find the right room, order the right food and sample the right beverages. Their hospitality, even as conference guests – many in a city far from their homes, has gone a long way.
  • Today’s excursion to Kosaka was a blast. We went to the drag-show-by-any-other-name that is Kabuki theatre, which featured a tale of brotherly deception (or something – who the hell knows what was going on?) followed by some short comedy numbers, some garden-variety drag queen dance numbers and a Samurai demonstration featuring a member of our group from France.
  • Don’t get me wrong, we have had nothing but great meals since we arrived (even the cheapo lost-in-translation-what-am-I-eating? meals have been dynamite), but today’s supper was a stretch. It was a multi-course meal served all at once – two kinds of soup, two items cooking at each place while we ate, sashimi, tempura and more. But, aside from the shrimp and the sushi (and I guess the soup), the only thing I could identify was the tiny tempura fish (a small fish dipped in batter, fried and served on a little plate) – and I have no idea what kind of fish it was. Generally speaking, the food was great, though a couple of dishes tasted quite different than they looked (or smelled, for that matter). Before we ate everyone was advised to state their allergies, the assumption, I guess, that somebody was bound to react to something. Fortunately, it all (more or less) went down smoothly. After dinner we checked out the hot spring infused Japanese bath, and are enjoying a quiet evening in the country. Tomorrow promises to be a long day, with many three bus rides, one flight, a monorail trip and a short hop on the Tokyo subway. Sayonara!

Earlier today, L asked me what I thought the Quebec equivalent of Hirosaki would be. I was stumped – I figured it was closest to a town in the Okanagan, since its major industries are farming (specifically apples) and tourism, almost exclusively drawing visitors from within Japan. We finally agreed that Hirosaki is to Aomori (the Japanese prefecture in which it resides) as St. Jerome, perhaps, is to Quebec. But that’s a pretty lousy comparison, hardly worthy of the College Board. Hirosaki’s draws appear to be its abundant cherry blossoms, which bring in tourists in the springtime; the Neputa Matsuri festival in August, featuring long, somewhat rowdy parades in which locals create immense fan-shaped floats and line the streets with Japanese lanterns; and the gorgeous fall foliage that would fit in perfectly in the Laurentians.

I visited the city’s main draw, Hirosaki Koen (park) alone yesterday and again today with L, who ditched the first half of her conference day. The park is quite large, taking at least two hours to fully explore, and houses a botanical gardens, which I skipped, and the remains of a castle tower (Hirosaki-Jo) completed in 1611. The castle was burned down after it was struck by lightning (!) and this particular tower was rebuilt in 1810, nearly two hundred years later.

Hirosaki Castle

Inside the castle is a museum, though the lack of English-speaking guides or brochures (a common themse several hundred km north of Tokyo) made it virtually impossible to figure out what was for what and from when. Suffice it to say that Hirosaki-Jo is more appealing from the outside.

After meandering through the park, beginning opposite Hirosaki City Hall, I emerged at the north end and checked out the the Tsugaruhan Neputa-Mura, where the festival items are displayed year-round. As has happened almost all the time since we arrived, the language barrier proved to be both an immense divide and a negligible feature of our trip. The guide ushered me into a large, dark room in which the giant fan-floats were displayed and, knowing full well that I spoke no Japanese, enthusiastically lept into his Neputa shpiel, inviting a colleague to bang on the giant ceremonial drums while he provided melodic accompaniment on the flute. When they finished, I applauded, and accepted their invitation to join them on one of the drums (an invitation proffered in English, I might add). I then explored the exhibit solo, captivated by the intense colours and dramatic expressions of the Neputa cartoon beings: the heroic kagami-e on one side and the melancholy miokuri-e on the other.

Neputa Heroic

Neputa Melancholy

After that came the really fun part, as the museum also includes a visit to a top-maker (you know tops, goyish dreidels). He showed off his top-making and -playing skills, and then let me get in on the action. Finally, a Jewish education pays off. Here’s some Japanese dreidel-spinning action:

(These kinds of tops turn upside-down while spinning. Hours and hours and hours of fun, I swear it. Of course I didn’t buy any…)

Afterwards, I had a terrific lunch of something called Duck Hamburg Steak, which tasted like duck but looked like your classic deli burger sans-bun, covered in a tasty apple sauce, served with Miso soup, rice and some pickled veggies that I left aside. Combined with a wonderful apple ice cream, the food was delicious enough to warrant a return visit, this time with L, today.

After a short visit to a Japanese garden, built by a Mr. Fujita, later awarded to the city following foreclosure (how’s that for a story to put on a plaque?), I hopped on the greatest thing going in Northern Japan, the Happy Hundred Yen Bus and returned to our hotel in time to dump some pictures and meet L at the university for an evening soundwalk and dinner at a live music house. More on that later.

Happy Hundred Yen Bus Sign
But if you’ve read this far, you deserve to learn about the absolute coolest thing about Japan: the awesome vending machines, which serve fantastic hot coffee – many brands and varieties – all day long. Soooo good. I’m partial to the Georgia Cafe au Lait, but am seriously thinking about switching to the Tommy Lee Jones-endorsed Boss brand (Suntory, not Hugo) tomorrow. Then again, Georgia seems to make a beverage for melancholy folks, so they get props in my book for niche marketing. (And where else can you get Kirin in a kan out of a kan? And what’s with the UN-friendly cigarette brands?)

Deepresso… for the deepressed

Georgia Cafe au Lait

UN Cigarettes

Tommy Lee Jones Seal of Approval

Kirin Machine

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