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Thursday, August 6, 2015

(A Remarkable Lack of) Fear & Loathing in Japan, Part 3

 
A Whopper of an Error

Given how well the previous day's excursion into the more touristy sections of Tokyo had gone, it seemed like a good idea to continue along that path on Wednesday. As such, Sheila and I planned to go visit the Imperial Palace in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo. I mean, how often do you get to see something like that? We don't even have an emperor in America, at least according to Wikipedia.
Before we set out to Chiyoda, though, we needed to fuel up for the day ahead. We decided to have a nutritious breakfast at Burger King; after all, as the old adage goes, you are what you eat, and what better to be than a king? And if there is one single word to describe how I felt ordering some breakfast hot dogs, it would be "regal." Or at least briefly regal, until I realized that the cashier gave us change for a 1,000 yen bill when I had in fact handed her 10,000. At that point, you could say I was fairly nonplussed. Even when both parties are fluent in English, resolving a cashier error scenario is like pulling teeth. Add in a language barrier and it becomes like not only pulling teeth but being tasked with turning those teeth into gold nuggets using sheer force of will. It's tough, is what I'm saying.
After an awkward game of charades with the cashier and eventually the manager, I was handed what I hoped was the correct change. And also the breakfast hot dogs and an avocado burger.



Much to my dismay, when I sat down and leafed through the bills I had been handed, I was still 1,000 yen short. Given the morning's ordeal and the continued lack of breakfast in my mouth, I was just about willing to let it go and give up on ever receiving proper change. However, as fate would have it, our lamentations of missing money were overheard by a very nice woman who happened to be studying English at the table next to us and relished the opportunity to practice communicating with native English speakers. With her aid, the mistake was soon rectified, and I could relax a bit and munch on a hot dog with a pocket full of yen. Fortunately, this incident was as stressful as the day would get.

Everything Happens for a Reason. Well, Almost Everything


Sheila and I were in a great mood because of the kind stranger's assistance and because you can't help but smile after eating Burger King breakfast. Our mood was further engreatened when we arrived in Chiyoda, as we were amped to see some new sights. Unfortunately, my body was in open revolt due to my bold decision to walk for moderate distances several days in a row, so I had a full Verbal Kint limp going on. Nonetheless, I bravely soldiered on, confident that despite my failing body my steel trap of a mind had the subway route game on lock. And, well, I was almost correct.


We got off one stop from where we probably should have. In my defense, parsing exact geography from a map in a complimentary pamphlet can be difficult. Regardless, we had a little bit of a walk between our exit from public transit and the imperial headquarters, but my idiocy was well-rewarded by what we encountered at the park across the street from the subway stop. Specifically, we saw a bevy of booths and a sign announcing in no uncertain terms the Oktoberfest celebration that would be taking place in that very place in but a few hours. Needless to say, Sheila and I were quite enthused at our opportunity to attend a second beer festival in Japan, especially since we only stumbled onto it due to my haphazard travel planning. As my parents used to say, just because something is a mistake doesn't mean you can't love it. Still, we had a mission ahead of us, and several hours to kill regardless, so we put a pin in the whole Oktoberfest situation and headed to the palace.



My Sore Hip Was Nothing Compared to What Happened to Ii Naosuke

The funny thing about using the "walk it off" method to relieve pain caused by walking in the first place is that it doesn't really work. Still I soldiered bravely on in the name of all sedentary American slobs. After a jaunt through the park, during which time we viewed some lovely sculptures and horticulture, the imperial palace began to come into view. The lichen-coated moat outside the palace enhanced the feeling of glimpsing into a bygone era.



We entered the palace grounds through the impressive Sakuradamon gate, site of a political assassination led by a group of masterless samurai according to the sign nearby. Now, I don't want to make light of what was quite a horrific event, but at the same time, there's no denying that's a pretty badass way to go out. So we got some photos there, because that's what you do to memorialize a horrific massacre.

 
The rest of the palace was quite nice as well. As I hobbled around, I took in some more awesome sights, including sweet bridges, walls, towers, and security guards viciously blowing whistles to keep tourists off the grass.


All in all, great stuff. Alas, we could not enter the palace itself, so all of our views were from the outside, but we did see a number of important-looking black sedans rolling around, so that definitely counts for something.


The Hub

After checking out the palace, we decided to go check out Tokyo Station, having no idea whatsoever what it would be like. On the way there, we passed by a couple of massive buildings which apparently housed an unreal number of shops and restaurants. Given my physical condition at that point, however, one spoke to me in particular:


We reached Tokyo Station soon thereafter. From the outside, it looked like an impressively massive building reflecting a distinctly European style.


Once we got inside, however, it was more impressive than we could have imagined. Upon entry, we found ourselves in a crazy central hub full of electronic displays of dates and times and routes and a hurried throng of travelers, all beneath a ceiling reminiscent of a cathedral; it was as though we were in some sort of shrine dedicated to the Saint of Public Transportation.


And lo, the Saint is good, for we found many an intriguing sight in Tokyo Station. The sheer scope of the place cannot be overstated, as it housed an incredible number of stores, services and eateries, many of which served beer. You can imagine where we headed, since we needed to practice for the evening's beer festival. So Sheila and I posted up at a little pub that provided us with beer and free wi-fi, which we used to blow the minds of Californians with texts informing them that we were living several hours in the future.


After this, the mid-afternoon hunger began to fester in our bellies, and we proceeded to hem and haw about our various meal options, including the totally legit-sounding McDaniel Hamburgers:


Finally, we happened upon a little tempura joint. Having not had Real Japanese Tempura yet, the decision was made to cross that off our metaphorical bingo cards and go for it. And boy, was it a treat! The delicate tempura batter was fried to perfection on items ranging from scallops to shrimp the size of a baby's arm. It so severely outclassed any tempura I had previous consumed that I resolved to order tempura immediately upon my return to America solely for the purpose of spitting it on the floor in a dramatic fashion. That's what sophisticated people do, right?



MayOktoberfest

The mid-afternoon was upon us, and that meant just one thing: it was time to get our Oktoberfest on. Upon entry, we purchased a commemorative book. which despite being entirely in Japanese got us prepared for the night ahead through the magic of photo montages. Also, we discovered that in Japan they apparently have Oktoberfests for six straight months, starting in April and finally culminating in October proper. And here I thought we were doing it real big in Campbell by dedicating one weekend to the festival every fall.


We started off our Germanic journey by buying a couple gigantic mugs of beer and searching for a shady spot, of which there were shockingly few despite the festival having just started. Eventually, we found a sliver of shadow to park under and enjoy our sweaty steins. The beer, predictably, was refreshing, and calmed our nerves a bit as we grappled with the next looming dilemma: how the whole Oktoberfest mug redemption program worked. See, each individual brewery had its own distinctive glassware, and we weren't quite sure if we had to return them to the stand from whence they came, or if there was some sort of coordinated behind the scenes mug-running operation going on. Fortunately, a gregarious gentleman working at one of the stands explained the system to us, and then offered us free samples of beer. I am planning on some day nominating him for canonization.


After buying a beer from the helpful fellow's stand, we took a seat by the fountain in the center of the plaza and savored our suds while doing some people-watching. An immediate standout was a well-dressed businessman wearing a goofy paper stovepipe hat with the beer festival's logo on it. He just walked in circles around the fountain, doing a complete pass one way, then turning around for another 360-degree trip. That's certainly one way to burn off all those beer calories, though considering the number of different beer glasses we saw him holding, hydration (of a sort) seemed to be his main concern. As for the aforementioned goofy stovepipe hat, Sheila sent me on a quest to find them, and once I obtained them, we kept them on for at least a couple hours.


As the shadows began to lengthen and the first lights began to flicker on, a live band came out to perform and affirm the international appeal of such hard rock classics as "Smoke on the Water" and "The Chicken Dance." The crows got pretty hyped, and I'd be lying if I said that at some point I didn't jump around a bit and accidentally spill beer on my girlfriend in the process. You can take the American out of America...



Speaking of spillage, when the time came to, ahem, relieve ourselves (which happens quite a bit when you're being served beers in mugs the size of Peter Dinklage's torso), all we had to do was take a short jaunt down a dirt path through a wooded area, cheerily illuminated by a smattering of lanterns. It was the most romantic walk to a park toilet I can recall. But really, the romance was everywhere. Lovely illuminated signs abounded, and the park was jam-packed with cheery and impressively responsible drunks. "Kanpai!" I yelled with my mug in the air to a group of guys who looked about twenty years younger than me. "Kanpai!" they responded in cheers, and so we drank.


As the lateness of the hour and the rigors of our day began to wear upon us, Sheila and I hit up one last brewery for the night's final pint. Deciding to branch out and try something new, I ordered a peach weizen from the young lady manning the cash register.
"Peach weizen?" she asked me, her eyebrows elevated in the "I've obviously just misunderstood you" position that I had seen so many times in the previous few days.
"Yes, please," I said. It may have been in English or Japanese, who knows at that point.
"For...you?" she asked slowly, pointing at me.
"Yes. Me," I said.
She giggled, then paused for a moment, then giggled again. "OK, peach weizen. For you," she said, barely able to look at me. She turned to get the beer, laughing all the while, even as she handed it to me. Sheila thought it was hilarious. I thought the peach weizen was really tasty.


Women laughing at me was sort of a running theme of the night, anyway. On the train ride back, I marveled that a group of young schoolgirls would be out without adult supervision so late, and on a weeknight. Little did I realize that, when I was soon thereafter seized by a vicious, unstoppable hiccuping attack, the same group of schoolgirls would find my plight hilarious. Every time my desperate efforts to stop myself failed, and another frog-like hiccup would force it's way up my throat, they would giggle in unison. When the hiccups finally stopped, they applauded.

The Wars, Within and Without

The next morning, the vacation lifestyle finally caught up with me. After a feeble effort to rise in the morning and scarf down a Curry Cup-O'-Noodles like a sickly swine, I waved the figurative white flag and went back to bed. When I finally arose in the afternoon, weak and weary, I wondered how on Earth I would be able to make it through the day. Even a can of Morning Shot, the coffee beverage that had cleared many a haze of drowsiness thus far on the trip, couldn't quite help me get it together. I was living that Humpty Dumpty life. But despite all that, I refused to let my condition interfere with the order of the day: our reservations at Robot Restaurant.

I can't quite describe how it happened, but as we neared the mysterious Restaurant of Robotics, I began to feel better. Perhaps the music and neon lights of Shinjuku were healing my soul, or perhaps the Morning Shot was finally kicking in. Either way, we made it to our destination without incident and, after presenting the host with the tickets we had ordered online, we were led down a tiny trippy glowy psychedelic staircase into a very warm, large subterranean room. On each side of the room were rows of seats for the audience of which we were to be a part, and to my delight, each seat came with two drink holders. As such, I went and ordered two chu-hi each for Sheila and myself, and my recovery from the morning's misery was complete. We hunkered down and prepared ourselves for...something. Whatever strange robot-related event that was about to happen.


And then the show started. I'm not quite sure what to say about Robot Restaurant except that it is honestly probably the most purely entertaining experience I've ever had. It's as though someone reached directly into my brain and pulled out everything that could conceivably amuse me, and then had those things fight each other. I mean, you had a bunch of cute girls riding giant robotic animals going to war with other cute girls riding extraterrestrial engines of mass destruction. You had a kabuki rock band and giant dancing robots. You were given glowsticks to wave around, and experienced a palpable sense of danger when it became clear that their giant unwieldy contraptions could easily split your skull open if you didn't kinda duck in your seat. All while drinking chu-hi! To say it was incredible is like saying that Ronda Rousey is a pretty good fighter. We were seated next to a really awesome young man named Desmond, who missed the very beginning of the show but really enjoyed everything he saw. He almost got whacked on the head by a humongous snake while he was taking a photo.


These were actual things standing a couple feet in front of us.


After the Robot Restaurant show ended, our minds were blown and our stomachs were growling, but we had a little time to kill before dinner. I picked us up a couple of commemorative t-shirts before we left the ol' RR (Sheila insisted on the one that most prominently display a cartoon girl's cleavage, which was of course the right choice), and took a photo of a photo of Johnny Knoxville that had on their wall that sadly did not turn out that great.


We wandered around with our new friend Desmond for a while, who was much better at figuring out what buildings contained than we were. After entering a pachinko parlor that was only slightly less bright and noisy than a million exploding suns, Sheila and I tried our hand at a couple games, pulling levers and turning knobs and generally not knowing what the hell we were doing.


Desmond then offered to accompany us to experience two things that sounded incredibly appealing: a ramen dinner (which we had not yet eaten in Japan) and professional wrestling (which, as evidenced by my closet, is something I enjoy). Alas, it was not to be, for we had plans that night, so we reluctantly declined. I have no doubt it would be been amazing, if not somewhat less so than Robot Restaurant. But that's an impossibly high bar to clear anyway.


Oh, and also, Desmond designed his own ramen cup:





Seriously, you're not going to find this sort of content anywhere else, folks.



Fun with Friends and Stranger Danger

Unless you have severe short-term memory problems, you may recall that I mentioned having plans that evening. Just to fill you in, said plans were to rendezvous with some members of the wedding party for some food and libations. And that's exactly what we did. We met the bride and groom to be, as well as some other friends, at a charming bottle shop where we enjoyed a few tasty brews that are tough to come by in the US. Then it was off to dinner, where we sampled a wide variety of tasty Japanese dishes and drank yet more beer. I promise I'm not always as much of a sot as this vacation might have you believe.



Afterwards, we ended up walking back to our hotel through one of the sketchier sections of Shinjuku. Sketchy as in, we were seeing signs like this, which is simultaneously completely non-explicit and the raunchiest thing ever:


As we walked the streets, Sheila and I experienced the one and only situation of our entire trip wherein we felt somewhat unsafe. A gentleman approached us speaking perfect, non-accented English, which was in and of itself incredibly jarring. He greeted us as his friends, and wanted to us come have a drink with him. Despite that fact that most everyone in Japan had been quite friendly to us dumb Westerners since our arrival, something about the degree of his enthusiasm was off-putting. It seemed less the bold gregariousness of a cheerful drunk and more a tactic to get us to lower our guard. When I politely declined his request, he grew more and more insistent, ensuring us that he knew a great spot that we could go where we would have a wonderful time. Finally, after an endless back-and-forth that made me wonder if I was going to have to punch him in the face, we finally got away from the pest. Best case scenario, he was a plastered stranger trying to get us to indulge in a nightcap no one particularly wanted, and at worst, he was some sort of human trafficker or organ thief. Either way, I was glad to be rid of him. Besides, I needed my organs. I had a wedding to attend.



Stay tuned for the grand finale to my trip to Japan! And in the meantime, buy my book Henry Garrison, yadda yadda, you know the drill by now.

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