Waste Not, Want Not

It’s hard to imagine us Americans – fat, lazy, energy-hogging, wasteful Americans – responding in the same way as the Japanese have to a significant reduction in their capacity to generate electricity.

And the Japanese are clearly adept at making the obvious and correct decisions as to what they can do without – and what they can’t.

Sakuko Saeki, 75, said she had not only switched off but also unplugged her household appliances. She barely turned on the air-conditioning, instead using a fan in her living room. But there was one appliance she could not give up after all: an automatic toilet, called a washlet, the kind that flushes by itself, raises and lowers the lid on its own, and never ceases to amaze foreigners visiting Japan for the first time.

“I’d turned off my washlet,” Ms. Saeki said, “but I stopped doing that.”

You can take my Washlet when you pry it from my cold dead cheeks!

And what’s with the NYT not even mentioning the primary and most delightful function of the Washlet? It washes your ass (and your hoo-haw, if you’ve got one  of those) with a refreshing and invigorating stream of warm water – and it is the crowning achievement of civilization. Talk about burying the lede…

from NY Times

Helping Japan

NYTimes had an article today about the many foreigners living in Japan who are trying to leave the country – a perfectly understandable response, given the still-unfolding emergency there.

However this was my favorite part of the article:

But not all foreigners were fleeing. One Briton said he was not about to leave.

Michael Tonge, a schoolteacher in Sendai, the closest major city to the quake’s epicenter, said that many of the expatriates in his area were “forming groups using things like Facebook to try to get aid and help to the people who need it.”

“Sendai has been my home for over five years,” Mr. Tonge said, “and the people of this area have taken me in and made me feel very welcome. I can’t leave them now, after this. I think that’s how a lot of the foreigners here feel, too.”

Well done, Mr. Tonge. I salute you.

Closer to home, my friend Steve, who owns Public Barber Salon, is sponsoring a fundraiser for Japan on April 2. Check it out and stop by if you can. Or make a donation here.

Two Dogs Rescued in Japan

I always feel a certain reluctance to share videos like this. I worry it seems as though I’m overlooking or discounting the vast human suffering currently going on in Japan.

But when I examine my own feelings about what’s going on here, I think what evokes the pathos is not simply the “awww” factor of one animal looking out for another. Our relationship with companion animals is simple and uncomplicated – and because of this, it can evoke the best part of our own humanity. I think it can also give us something to aspire to – remaining loyal to others even in the face of great hardship. I’m sure there are countless people in Japan who have done and continue to do exactly that.

From what I’ve read, both dogs were rescued subsequent to this video being taken and are in shelters.

And please donate what you can to Doctors Without Borders. They’re at work in Japan and throughout the world, providing urgently needed care and supplies to victims of natural disasters and wars.

Thinking of Japan

I shouldn’t be watching the news – but not watching seems like I’m sticking my head in the sand. What to do? Of course I’ll donate more money – but it feels so inadequate. I wish there were a solution…

I’m sure most of you have already been able to put a human face on the suffering that the Japanese people are experiencing. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Japan twice – and its people and its culture affected me in a way no other country has. It was, for me, the most amazing of all my travels thus far. I found an absolutely beautiful and fascinating country and a people who were kind and engaging.  Which has made watching this disaster all the more difficult for me…

One day in Osaka, I went to visit the castle, right in the center of the city. As I arrived, there were small groups of elementary school children roaming the park in front, all looking for Westerners with whom they could practice their English. I was lucky enough to be approached (OK, they actually chased me down – it made me feel like I was famous!) The kids were both shy and gregarious – and after quizzing me in English about various facets of Japanese culture, I was presented by each group with a handful of origami cranes and kites they’d made, along with a postcard thanking me for helping them with their studies. Needless to say, they remain my most cherished mementos of my visit.

Please give what you can to JSNC Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund.

Japan Wrap-up

So, if memory serves, my last post found me in Osaka, awaiting Marco’s return from Kyoto. As it turned out, he was too beat to have dinner that evening, so I grabbed a tonkatsu sandwich and a beer, before settling in for the evening. But then I realized it was very early (only 7:30!) and perhaps I ought to go out on my own and try to find that gay bar I went to last year…

So, off I went, with a lengthy set of directions on how to get to where the gay bars are, near Umeda Station. And amazingly enough, I was able to find Frenz, where I’d had a few drinks my one night in Osaka last year. Perhaps even more amazing, Sari-chan, an ex-pat Aussie who owns the place, remembered me immediately, including much of our conversation from last year. I was impressed to say the least. And of course, he was as charming a host as I recall.

I was the only person in the bar. But a few minutes later, a former regular who’d moved to Tokyo showed up. Then a young Aussie on holiday. We were all enjoying chatting together, when who walks in but Stefan, my new French friend I’d met in Tokyo! Anyway, a few more folks showed up and it was a fun though quiet evening. Stefan and I also had a few more drinks around the corner at another bar.

Friday, Marco and I were up and at ’em by 11 and headed to Festivalgate. I’d read about it in the guidebook – it sounded like some sort of crazy giant arcade/amusement park thing. We figured it would be fun just to check out – and I’m sure it would’ve been, had it not gone out of business. The place was boarded up and abandoned – recently, I guess, since all the city maps and subway signs still pointed the way. Oh well – what’re you gonna do?

Then off to the Japanese Ceramics Museum. Took us a bit of time to find it, but it’s right along the river, so we had a lovely, leisurely walk. The museum itself was charming and the collection amazing.

On the way home, we decided to try our luck at a ramen stand. It can be a bit intimidating, since one has to purchase a ticket from a vending machine to get one’s ramen. Happily,this place had a couple of buttons in English (“noodle soup with pork” or “noodle soup with extra pork”) – and wow, was it good. Marco and I were both exhausted – but after standing at the counter, slurping and splattering our noodles, we were completely re-energized.

Ambled about a bit, then got ready for a night on the town. Basically a repeat of my night before – drinks at Frenz and Physique, lots of good conversation with friendly locals and tourists, then home at midnight.

Saturday was my shopping day. Thus far, I’d only purchased track jacket, so I had some catching up to do. Despite getting in early-ish the night before, we were both a bit worn out – travel taking its toll. Marco begged off and I contemplated just chillin’ with BBC World news – but it being my last full day, this seemed like a waste. I forced myself to the subway station and headed to Hep 5, a ten-story mall with a giant ferris wheel on top (I know, right?). And I scored big time – got some hot boots, a cute belt and a great pair of trousers, lined with plaid that shows when the cuffs are rolled.

Quick pit stop for ramen on the way home (now that I knew how to order it) before another night on the town. Saturday is the night in Osaka – the streets were crazy and the bars, which had been so mellow the night before, were packed and hopping. Met more fun boys, danced, drank, then home again…

Oh, I just realized, I neglected to mention that on three of the four prior nights, we’d had a sufficient number of beers to stop into the glamor-shot photo booths. And we were probably ugly Americans, seeing as we were drunk and unable to read any of the instructions in Japanese. We figured out how to take the photos, but then one has to interact with a highly complex set of instructions to get the photos to print. Basically, we’d lean out of the booth, shouting “Sumimasen! Sumimasen!” until an attendant came over and then we’d beg him, “Print-u o kudasai! Print-u o kudasai!” Thankfully this worked… and as friendly and helpful as everybody was, I’m sure they were (correctly) thinking “stupid round-eyed gay devils…”

Sunday packed and ready for the flight home at 6:30PM. Hotel let us check out late for a small fee. I ready to go with an hour-and-a-half to spare, so I made a quick run over to Uniqlo. Good thinking, Eric! Winter jacket, wool blazer, plaid trousers, lots of socks and undies – all for around US$100! Picked up a tonkatsu sandwich for the flight home, then crammed all my new purchases into my suitcase.

Off to the bus station, right next to the hotel, trying to manage two bulging suitcases, an overstuffed backpack and countless shopping bags. Of course, I also had to pick up a couple of boxes of octopus-ball-flavored pretzels at the bus station (you should see the packaging! I’m not made of stone…)

Had some mediocre udon at the airport, then spent an hour buying more tschotskes in the airport mall. Plane was an hour late leaving, but at least it was on a 777 – very comfy in Economy Plus… Though, I swear, not one of the crabby flight attendants cracked even a hint of smile for the entire ten-hour voyage.

Good as it was to be home, I miss Japan terribly – especially after the taxi ride up disgusting 6th St. here in SF. Sigh… Can’t wait to go back to the Land of the Rising Sun. Maybe this time I really will find a Japanese husband…

Hello, gorgeous!

Goddamn! I want to make out with myself, I am so fuckin’ beautiful… And, in case you didn’t notice: three separate outfits means we did this three separate evenings…

Last night in Japan

Our flight home is Sunday at 6PM and I arrive back in SF at 11AM the same day. Weird…

At any rate, I’m not going to waste my last evening in front of the computer. Heading for dinner soon and another night at the gay bars (yes, we finally found them and had big fun, though it’s a bit quieter than Tokyo). But I’d be remiss if I didn’t post at least a few pictures from the past couple of days…

This makes me uncomfortable...
Available in Whity Town!
Shhhh... We've found the fountain of youth

More from Osaka

Ventured forth for dinner last night, in search of a kushiyage place I’d read about. Basically, you cook up whatever you want in a deep fryer built into the table. I assumed we’d just point at pictures on a menu – turned out to be even easier. We were shown to a table, then you help yourself to whatever you want from the cabinets filled with stuff-on-a-stick. There’s also rice, noodles, 8 different kinds of sauce and extra batter and bread crumbs for dipping before frying. Oh, and beer (duh). And ice cream. And marshmallow fondue. And salads. And pickles. And lots and lots of stuff on sticks (did I mention that?).

It was great fun and we stuffed ourselves, as we mused on how the Japanese remain the thinnest first-worlders on earth while apparently eating fried foods with nearly every meal. Must be all the smoking? Anyway, the only downside of dinner? I may have to dispose of the clothes I wore, as they now reek of fry-o-lator…

Thursday I begged off a day trip to Kyoto. It’s lovely there, but my four day stay last year was plenty. So Marco headed off on his own, while I took the subway to the Osaka Aquarium. It was OK as aquariums go, with some pretty amazing specimens including whale sharks and Japanese small-pawed otters.

Of course, the highlight was feeding time for the rays in the huge multi-story central tank. It was cool to watch in and of itself – but things took a dramatic turn for the better when a second scuba-diver feeder appeared in a Santa Claus costume. I repeat – scuba-diver dressed as Santa.

Headed back home via subway and thought I was going to have a problem – I’d spent all my small bills and and only had ¥5000 and ¥ 10000 notes (basically equivalent to US$50s and 100s). Of course, this being Japan, the ticket machine accepts any denomination and dutifully issued my ¥270 ticket and change.

Stopped in briefly to the store near my hotel. It’s kind of like Target, though with a somewhat more eccentric assortment: luggage, lumber, wheelchairs, laundry detergent, bicycles, puppies, light bulbs, kittens, a barn owl, adult diapers and countless unidentifiable items I wanted to purchase based solely on packaging. Oh, and a supermarket downstairs where I picked up tonkatsu sandwich to snack on.

Awaiting Marco’s return from Kyoto before planning tonight’s festivities. Likely another early dinner. We are both generally worn out by 9:00 every evening – haven’t even been to a single gay bar in Osaka. As I said on Facebook, I’ll never meet a Japanese husband at this rate…

Osaka Castle

Been fighting off a chest cold for a couple of days, so wasn’t so sure how I’d feel today. Spoke with Marco in the morning and he’d had a night of insomnia and decided to sleep in for a bit. I was tempted to do the same, but forced myself out into the world and had a delightful day on my own.

Headed to Osaka Castle on the subway, foolishly neglecting to bring my guide book. But between a vague memory of its location and a subway map, I made it there no problem. And I must say, it was lovely. The trees are awash in their fall colors and provided a rather stunning setting for the eight-story castle tower. There were also bunches of chrysanthemums all about, this being chrysanthemum-viewing season and all.

As I neared the tower, I saw a couple of groups of school children running about in their uniforms. One group came rushing over the moment they laid eyes on me, all shouting, “Hello!” while one of them explained that they are sixth-grade students and would like to interview me to practice their English. They asked my name, where I was from and quizzed me on my familiarity with photographs of Japanese celebrities. They wrapped things up with a hand-written thank-you note and some origami they’d made, then had me pose for a photo with them while their teacher snapped away.

This was repeated twice more (though the quizzes were different: one was on animated characters, the other on sports). Anyway, they were charming and brave – I got the impression that most of them would’ve rather been seeing the dentist than taking to some weird gaijin, but they all toughed it out admirably.

The tower itself was rather fascinating. A lovely view from the top and then artifacts from the times of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who united Japan under his single rule. One of my favorites was a large four panel screen that displayed the various banners of the scores of generals who fought under Hideyoshi. With the highly stylized symbolism and simple forms used in each banner, the screen would be right at home hanging on the walls of MoMA. It was really lovely…

Headed out wondering what to eat, as I was starving. Despite the unbelievable number of restaurants lining every street, finding somewhere to eat for a non-Japanese speaker can be challenging. But lo and behold, right outside the castle entrance was a ramen stand. Nothing fancy, I figured it’d be adequate. Wow – it was delicious… And went a long way to curing whatever it is that’s ailing me.

So I headed off, my bushy mustache redolent of ramen – which was actually a a rather pleasant thing… Though I was a bit greasy and concerned I might’ve had noodles still present in my thatch- a quick trip to the john proved otherwise. Though I still haven’t really figured out what the deal is here with not providing napkins. I bought a trinket at the castle which was wrapped, bagged in paper than put into a plastic sack. But restaurants seldom provide napkins – and if they do, they are very much akin to a single-ply square of toilet paper… I keep  forgetting to purchase some hankies to keep on hand for emergencies – something especially likely with my current facial hair configuration.

In fact, speaking of napkins, when I stopped for a green tea soft ice cream after lunch (by the way: soft ice cream and handlebar mustaches are an extremely ill-advised combination, particularly in public), I asked the lady who assisted me for a napkin. She obliged with the usual wisp of paper – but also with a look that seemed to imply I’d asked for a cone filled with dog shit.

Anyway, on to the Osaka History Museum. As with many museums here, one is encouraged to start on the top floor and work one’s way down. So, I rode up to the 10th floor and started poking around. The English signage was rather minimal, but the archeological pieces were fascinating. I rounded the corner and was inside a large darkened room, surrounded by mannequins wearing traditional dress of various courtiers from the time of the Early Naniwa Palace, along with video screens showing a computer-animated reproduction of a ceremony at the palace. I was like, “OK, this is kinda cool” – and then I gasped. The video ended and what I’d thought was a wall was revealed to be a huge series of panoramic windows, their shutters rising magically and flooding the gallery with light. I was now overlooking the exact spot where the Naniwa Palace had stood, which remains not only a huge open space, but the locations of the palace’s support beams are still clearly visible. It was a truly breath-taking exhibit…

Poked about the remaining floors which included many intricate scale models of the palace and other buildings; plus a section on 20th century Osaka that had some great old black-and-white home movies from before WWII. Subway back to the hotel, beers and rice balls in hand. And now for a nap before dinner…

Konnichiwa Osaka!

Spent a quiet last evening in Tokyo – the hard living of going out most every night is taking its toll. But happily was up early-ish and somewhat refreshed on Tuesday morning for the train trip to Osaka. All went smoothly and we arrived uneventfully.

Our hotel in Osaka, the Monterey Gransmere is rather fancy, despite the very reasonable rate. Room a bit smaller than in Tokyo, but nicely appointed. And they have BBC as their one English language channel here – a nice break from CNN in Tokyo.

Had dinner in Dotonburi – octopus balls, followed by noodles with shrimp. And thankfully, the young lady server assisted us in ordering. The process involves using an electronic device to scan the pictures of what you want to eat on the menu, followed by entering your table number. Throughout this, the magic pen speaks to you in Japanese, thanking you for your selection. Sadly, I neglected to record this event – and when I thought to do so, I was afraid I’d wind up ordering 48 more dishes…

Wandered a bit and picked up some egg custard tarts for dessert. I just finished them off as I sit in my hotel room, in pajamas provided by the hotel. Hitting the hay before a day of exploring Osaka tomorrow.

Tokyo Sunday

Sunday was rather low-key. Did a bit of wandering, but home early for a nap. Dinner at a little place near the hotel. Tasty, though I did have an issue with the texture of one variety of sashimi… Then, off to check out the scene at our usual haunts. Bumped into the charmant Ben (he of the tattoos and underpants) at Dragon Men. Also chatted with a pair of Canadian fellows, one of whom highly recommended Jet bar around the corner.

It was a tiny place in the basement of building. Our host (whose name I’ve forgotten) welcomed us with open arms, as did the three other patrons. And then, out came the microphones for karaoke… So much for behaving myself last night. Oh well, I’m on vacation…

Tokyo Day 4 and Beyond

Clearly, the siren call of this city has won out over sitting in front of my laptop banging out posts. Among other things, I visited the Edo Tokyo Museum, which provides an overview of the history of Tokyo; the Imperial Gardens, which are a lovely respite from the teeming masses of Shinjuku; wandered Shibuya, where I did a bit of clothes shopping (starting to get worried about packing everything); and trip down the insane-as-ever Takeshita Dori in Harajuku.

Oh, and yes, I’ve been to a bar or two… Marco and I chatted up a French fellow named Stefan, who we’ve bumped into most every evening and included in our bar crawls through Shinjuku Ni-chome. It’s very odd to be speaking French while I’m in Tokyo… Even odder was the Japanese guy we met who speaks better Spanish than English – so he and Marco were communicating in Spanish.

Of course, the nightly rounds have taken their toll. Both Marco and I were down for the count on separate days, i.e. spending lots of time napping to restore our energy. I’m reminded again that I am, in fact, no spring chicken.

And on that note, now I have to decide if tonight we’ll be spent in or out.

Tokyo Day 3

Arrived at Shinjuku Station before 7 this morning to board the train for the two-hour trip to Nikko. It was a lovely chilly fall day and the foliage was splendid. Not much to add to that – I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

Tokyo Day 2

Got a late start today. Someone who shall remain nameless (though his name rhymes with “Barko”…) was over-served last night and was not feeling too good. Headed to Akihabara to look at electronics – but stumbled across an 8-story shop that sold only Japanese robot toys. Spent a good 90 minutes in there stocking up on crazy shit, much of it priced at a couple of dollars.

Then went to to one of the big electronics stores and looked at amazingly tiny camcorders, futuristic rice cookers, the finest ass-cleaning toilet seats on earth and wigs (yes, wigs).

Got our train tix for Nikko tomorrow – have to be aboard at 730AM, so tonight will be low-key. After a nap, we’re having tempura for dinner tonight – which presumably will not contain 11 herbs and spices…

Kentucky Fried Santa-san!

Tokyo Day 1

After a long but uneventful flight, we arrived at our hotel in Shinjuku on Sunday evening. Up early for our soon-to-be world famous televised tour of the food halls at Isetan. Then a quick trip back to to hotel to floss and have some beers, then headed to Takeshimaya, where I had my first craved-for tuna-mayo onigiri (rice ball). It was delicious. Then spent a couple of hours in Tokyu Hands, trying not to buy everything – and most of what we did buy we’re still not sure what they actually are, other than bizarrely fascinating. Dinner later at Katsukura on the 14th floor of Times Square Building – tonkatsu, which was delicious and shockingly reasonable. Dinner for two was under $50 including sake.

Wandered back home through the teeming streets of Shinjuku, stopping to play the prize claw – where Marco eventually won a cheap doll – and by “cheap,” I mean “cheaply-made.” I think it cost us $25 worth of tries to get the damn thing into the claw.

Then spent 2 hours trying to find the gay bars, with no success. I was completely lost. Went back to the hotel to find a map and Marco was able to trace our path there. This time we found where we were going with ease. Had a few drinks at Dragon Men – quiet on a Monday night, so we didn’t stay out too late. Back to my room for beer and then hit the hay.

WTF, Japan? Seriously, WTF?

So Marco and I showed up at the Tokyo Tourist Bureau for our tour of Shinjuku. And, turns out, we were accompanied by a film crew, shooting a news story about tourism in Japan. In other words, Marco and I spent the morning being filmed and interviewed while we were shown around Shinjuku and the food halls at Isetan. It was crazy – we felt like celebrities. The producer said he’d send me a DVD back home. Needless, to say, I’ll be posting it once I get it.  Here are a few pix, so you know I’m not lying…

This was a bizarre and amazing way to start off our trip. We had to come back to our hotel after our tour/interview, so we could decompress (i.e. drink beer) and quickly update my blog with the news of our glory. Sayonara for now!

Sayonara, bitches!

If all goes according to schedule, I’ll be ensconced in my room at the Shinjuku Prince in 14 hours…  Banzai!

Another reason I can’t wait to go back to Japan

Japanese World Cup fans dressed as… um, I don’t know what the hell they’re dressed as, but it is fan-freaking-tastic! Banzai, you crazy mofos!

Image from Getty via Gawker