My Trip to Japan, Tsukiji Fish Market

The Japanese have borrowed many concepts of rail management from North America. For instance, you will generally see words like “rapid” or “limited express” when you see train listings. And you’ll see them written in English as well as in Japanese.

But Japanese trains are far more efficient and run on very tight schedules. Unlike North America, you can time your watch to the trains here. If you think you might be a minute late for your train, you’re going to miss it. That’s how we missed the express train this morning — we resigned ourselves to having missed it. Probably for the best, too — it looked full.

Arriving in Tokyo, we headed from the JR train to the Maranouchi subway line. A couple of stops, and we changed to the Hibiya line. This would take us to within a short walking distance of the Tsukiji Fish Market.

What the heck were we doing at a fish market? This ain’t just any ordinary market…

Imagine a place where every single aquatic foodstuff for an entire country is bought and sold in mass quantities on a near-daily basis. Something so massively huge that it sucks up several city blocks. This is the Tsukiji Fish Market.

I’m not sure whether or not every single fish consumed in Japan comes through here, but it sure as heck looks that way. The traffic going through the complex is mind-boggling. Although the market’s day begins somewhere around 02:00 in the morning and finishes by 14:00 in the afternoon, the traffic at 10:30 is still a blur. The last of the larger trucks arrive to pick up thousands upon thousands of Styrofoam packing crates with fish — alive and frozen (or =-otherwise chilled) — and whisk them off to parts unknown. Hundreds of small gasoline powered carts whiz around seemingly without care for pedestrians. And there is always the constant drone of motor scooters and delivery bikes.

The market itself is open to the public — anyone can go walking inside, and you can buy direct from the wholesalers. Just be forewarned that you should go in with a pair of rubber boots. The floors are all wet, and the vendors don’t think twice about emptying the water from containers right onto the floor — and they don’t look before they tip.

Now you’d think that the smell in this place would be overpowering — there’s nothing quite like the stench of rotting fish. There is no smell at Tsukiji — that’s how fresh the fish is. Nothing ever gets the chance to go bad.

By the time Chris and I arrived, there was not as much fish as there had likely been earlier in the day. The tuna auction, usually held at 05:00, was long over and most of the large trucks had carted the fish away. We found only two hamachi (yellow-tail) tuna remaining.

Think of any fish. Actually, pretty much anything that lives in the water and would be consumed in reasonably large quantities. Chances are, it’s in there somewhere. Squid, cuttlefish, red snapper, orange roughie, conch, abalone, scallops — they’re all part of the seafood currency the market deals with every day. It’s one of the reasons why seafood in Japan is so good.

To find out how good, Chris and I decided to partake of one of the nearby sushi bars to find out what uber-fresh sushi was like. We didn’t walk into the first place we saw, though — we ended up flipping a coin to choose.

The place was small, having barely 15 seats. At peak, the restaurant is probably packed with patrons from the fish wholesale industry. By the time we got there, it was nigh-empty — only one person. Chris and I took our seats, and began to figure out what we were going to eat.

Chris engaged in a conversation with the chefs, who suggested a set. Deciding it sounded like a good idea, we sat down to watch our meal being prepared. It was served in a wet banana leaf, with a heaping of pickled ginger, a large cup of fresh green tea, and a bowl of miso soup with fish.

The experience was amazing. Chris carried on a competent conversation with the staff, telling them about some of our experiences (including our somewhat-failed attempt to see Mount Fuji yesterday). We were rewarded (I think) with hand-rolls for our troubles.

We were not full, but satiated when it was time for us to leave. It was raining, so a quick departure wasn’t possible. A quick stop to one of the stalls in the area provided two umbrellas. (A note to anyone who gets caught in the rain at Tsukiji — don’t buy an umbrella there. Sprint a block away to the Outer Market and buy one there at half-price.)

We headed down the road Outer Market and perused the stalls. (Apparently, there’s a great 24 hour sushi restaurant in there somewhere.) Then it was towards the subway station we’d arrived at. But not before one little distraction…

Right next to the subway station is a Buddhist temple — the Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple. This particular temple was built in 1931, after the previous one was destroyed in an earthquake in 1923. (The first temple was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1657.)

Returning to the station, we boarded the Yamanote line again, this time for the Hamamatsucho station. This is where you’ll find Tokyo’s main bus terminal, which is where we would take our bus tour of Tokyo.

Being a little early, Chris and I did a little exploring. We found our way to the Observatory atop Tokyo’s World Trade Center (not to be confused with the late WTC in New York). From here, we were provided excellent views of the greater downtown Tokyo area. Or rather, we would have been, had the weather been a bit better. But we did pretty well, all things considered.

After circling the Observatory, we returned to the bus terminal to await the start of our tour. The first part of the tour wasn’t actually on a bus. Our guide, Yoshi, took us on the first part of the trip … to the Observatory in the World Trade Center.

Chris and I just laughed at the coincidence. The staff in the Observatory smiled when they saw us again.

The trip back up wasn’t a total washout — Yoshi did tell us more information about Tokyo than we knew when we were last up there.

One interesting fact that kept coming up was how much Tokyo had once been controlled by Shogun. In the days before Imperial control of all of Japan, large portions of the country — especially the eastern portion — was ruled by shogun, not the emperor. Back then, Edo (now Tokyo) was ruled by powerful shogun.

When Matthew Perry arrived in Japan and arranged to allow American ships to dock in Tokyo harbour in the 1860’s, the shogun had no choice but to accept the “offer” of the more powerful American naval vessels. Soon, the Europeans were doing the same thing, and the shogun appeared almost powerless. The samurai voted to overthrow the shogun, and install the Emperor in his place. To facilitate the change, the Emperor moved from Kyoto in 1867 to Edo, and renamed it “Eastern Capital”, or Tokyo.

Many of the original buildings from the shogun era still exist, including a shrine at the foot of Tokyo Tower, the Zojoji Temple, the Hama-rikyu Garden (a former hunting ground for the shogun) and the Imperial Palace complex (appropriated by the Emperor in 1867).

The bus tour began once we got back downstairs. Our first stop was at the main gate of the Imperial Palace.

The Imperial Palace grounds are immense, but not as large as they used to be. Today, the outer moat is gone, though one still exists on the outside of the main wall. The main wall has been divided to allow traffic through the palace grounds, though one road is blocked for use only by the Emperor.

The Palace is closed to the public except for two days a year — 2 January and 23 December. Otherwise, you can only see the Palace from the outside. But even those glimpses are of a world far older than anything North America has to offer, and of a culture in ways alien to my own,

After snapping a large number of pictures, we headed off to our second stop at Asakusa Kannon Temple. The route from the Imperial Palace to the temple would also take us through the Ginza district and also the Akeharbara district.

According to legend, the temple dates back to the (western) year 628, when two fishermen found a statue of Kannon in the river. (Kannon is an image of Buddha.) The statue became the central point for the monastery, which was built around the original shrine over the next 1,000 years. Today, the statue is said to still exist, though it is well-hidden. Not even the monks see the statue. A previous emperor is said to have sent four people to prove that the statue still exists (the Emperor himself did not come).

As our guide then tells the story, the four people then died. (Of course, she didn’t say when…)

The Asakusa Kannon Temple is a little strange. It’s still active, but has been blended with a strange commercialism. Leading up to the temple from the road is the Nakamise Shopping Street. It exists with the boundaries of the temple grounds, and basically forms an alleyway leading up to the temple. I don’t know if there’s any direct connection with the temple itself, but I suspect there’s some sort of mutual benefit.

The temple it quite an interesting place. Although protected for tourists (or for pigeons, I’m not sure which), it still retains its mystical qualities. If you’ve been to a Buddhist temple before, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, you should visit one.

We couldn’t stay long, as we had to rush to get on our boat for the cruise down the Sumida River.

The cruise isn’t particularly riveting, but it does offer an interesting point of view. We cruised along for about 45 minutes, passing buildings and under bridges, before entering the edges of Tokyo Bay and ending at the cruise ship dock. It was back on the bus, back to the station, and then back on the trains to Chiba.

After running an errand, we ate at Skylark, possibly the most western-like restaurant I’ve eaten at since arriving in Japan. But even at a western-like restaurant, you can find purely Japanese food. Even mushrooms I actually like.

It’s been a long day. Tomorrow we’re playing it light — just a visit to the Natural History Museum.

Which probably means a much shorter entry…

My Trip to Japan, Shinkansen to Mount Fuji

We woke up relatively early this morning. For anyone on vacation, that’s before noon. For us, it was around 09:00. The goal today was Mount Fuji, about an hour south of Tokyo.

An hour by bullet, that is.

Following the usual rise-and-go routine of the morning (shower, shave, etc.), we made a run to the 7-11 before heading to the train. I know it sounds really strange to say we’re going to a 7-11, even when I’m in very urban (almost rural) Japan. One thing you’ll find there is there are a lot of American chain stores and restaurants: Starbucks, AM PM, Lawson’s (which I hadn’t heard of before coming here), Subway, the ubiquitous McDonald’s, 7-11, Red Lobster, and even Denny’s.

In most cases, though, the store/restaurant is very different than in North America. For example, you won’t find pretty much any North American food in a 7-11 — it’s all Japanese food, although along similar lines that you’d find in a North American 7-11. (And beer. You don’t get that in Canada.) One of the neat things are these little triangular rice cakes wrapped in nori (seaweed), usually with some sort of extra flavouring, like salmon, pork, and so forth. They’re amazing for breakfast.

The really cool thing about these triangles is in how they’re packaged. The seaweed needs to be kept dry, while the rice needs to stay moist. This is done by using the most elaborately-arranged plastic wrapping that I’ve ever seen. Once you see how it works, it’s truly elegant, though it is a little confusing at first.

Upon arriving in Tokyo, we made our way to the Shinkansen area. The Shinkansen are the legendary Japanese “bullet” trains. They run at extremely high speeds (about 250 km/h), and are extremely convenient when getting between cities that are close enough not to fly, but far enough that driving is just inconvenient. (Of course, if you don’t have a car, then the train is all the better.) They’re not the fastest trains in the world (that record is held by France’s TGV), but they’re no slouches, either.

The Kodomo Superexpress runs from Tokyo terminal to Shi-Osaka, making about 10 stops along the way. The distance is quite far — probably about 400 kilometres or more. (That’s a guess, as I have no maps or figures.) It’ll do the trip in about two hours, including the station stops.

The Shinkansen lines are separate from the other rail lines used for regular commuter trains. The slower-speed trains use jointed rail (lengths of rail linked together with plates). This is fine for slow-speed travel, but not for high-speed passenger travel. The gaps between the rail lengths would cause shuddering in the train as it slammed across them. The rails would deform and the wheels of the train would be damaged. So much more expensive (and labour-intensive) continuous welded rail must be used instead.

The Shinkansen itself is like an airplane. The seats are built roughly the same way, but are a little lower (assumedly for the smaller stature of the average Japanese person) and have no seat belts. The train runs so smoothly that you have no need for one.

The train pulled out of the station at about 12:15. It accelerated to about 100 km/h within a very short distance of the station, but didn’t go much faster until we were outside Tokyo city limits. This wasn’t because of safety — this was because the tracks had to follow a very curvy path before being allowed to run straight. Shinkansen, like any high-speed train, prefers straightaways over curves.

You can’t really feel the acceleration of the train, like you would an airplane taking off, but you do notice the change in speed. I’ve heard from several people who have ridden the TGV that the movement is noticeable, but only if you’re paying attention. Otherwise, the motion is almost magical.

Soon, the countryside was whipping by at speeds that would make my eyes hurt if I tried to follow something that was fairly close to the train. The city quickly gave way to smaller towns and villages. Farms, old houses, small factories, rivers … the rural life passed us by faster than the time most rural folk give thought to the trappings of city life.

The plains of the coast gave way to mountains, and the train started darting in and out of mountains. I think there are more tunnels on the Kodomo line than there are in the entire Canadian Pacific Railway system. High speed trains don’t go over or around mountains — they go through them. And sometimes so fast and frequently, you can actually start to feel your ears pop from the constant pressure change.

Just outside of Mishumi, we caught our first glance of our quarry — Mount Fuji, off the in the distance. It wasn’t quite what I expected. The “traditional” crown of white snow was little more than stripes, assumedly from the spring melts. I can only assume the white cap is only in winter. I snapped pictures from the train as we passed through.

We had been told by many people that the place to see the mountain was in Shizuoka. We stayed on the train until we got to the stop. According to maps and photos, we could go a short distance and obtain some very nice photos. However, there was a minor problem … we couldn’t see the mountain.

Chris enquired, and we were told that we were better off going back one stop on the local Tokaido line to obtain a better picture. Hopping on the local train, we found the situation not any better. Apparently, we had run into Fuji’s most famous problem. According to Chris’ friend Shinichiro, Mount Fuji is very shy. We had just found out how shy it was.

We returned to Shizuoka, and took the next Shinkansen to Shin-Fuji, which apparently was the best place to see the mountain when the weather wasn’t cooperating. By the time we arrived in Shin-Fuji, clouds had almost entirely obscured the mountain. Living near mountains myself, I know how volatile the weather can be. Figuring it wasn’t quite worth leaving just yet, Chris and I decided to grab a bite to eat and hope the weather clears.

Not wanting to stay at the station, we went in search of a restaurant. An initial look around the station wasn’t terribly promising. So Chris enquired about the location of downtown Shin-Fuji from some bus drivers. They laughed incredulously.

“Downtown?” they cried, “There’s no downtown here!”

“What do you do for fun?” Chris asked.

“Go to Tokyo.”

Not wanting to take that for a literal answer, we decided to find out what Shin-Fuji was all about. Heading south of the station, we found our way to the corner of the major street near the station and what appeared to be a local highway. We followed it for a couple of kilometres before deciding to turn north and wander through a neighbourhood to see what we could find.

Not much.

It seems that the bus drivers hadn’t been kidding — there isn’t a heck of a lot of anything in Shin-Fuji. All we found were varying states of nothing. All we got were stunned looks from some of the locals. I mean, what were a pair of gaijin (one a tattooed black man) doing wandering through a neighbourhood like theirs? Had they become lost from the train?

We ended up back at the station, completely empty-handed, and hungry. North of the station wasn’t any better, although we didn’t walk even remotely as far before giving up. Instead, we caught the next eastbound Shinkansen to Tokyo. The trains’ gently motion soon put me to sleep.

We got off in Chiba, rather than continue all the way to Yotsukaido. Chris wanted to pick up a gift for Kaz, and we would get something to eat before heading home for the night. After our stop at Yodobashi Camera, we hit a restaurant that features izakawa-style food, which is basically the Japanese version of pub food (though much better prepared and probably a lot better for you, too).

So far, I’ve had several varieties of Japanese food, and I like them all. Even the dreaded natto. The best part is that almost all of it is very good for you, too. Japanese cuisine, even the stuff that’s considered “fast”, is so much healthier than North American food. I can only guess how much weight I could lose here from eating better. I only wish such foods were readily available in Canada.

It’s an odd thing, really. The Japanese have some of the best diets in the world, but simultaneously are some of the heaviest smokers I’ve seen in years. The dichotomy of healthy/unhealthy habits is quite astonishing.

We were back in Yotsukaido before 22:00 — Chris has some design work to do, and having an early evening for a change sounded good.

Besides, it gave me a good excuse to hit the 7-11 for dessert. A couple snacks, a bottle of Fanta Fruit Punch, and we were back to rest and relax for an evening. Tomorrow, the tour of Tokyo!

Oh, and Haagen-Dasz makes a killer green tea ice cream.

My Trip to Japan, Akehabara and Shibuya

Today was a bit of a late start for us. Not for any particular reason, we just slept in a little bit.

Today was Tokyo day. Sure, we’d been to Tokyo before for clubbing (see [[My Trip to Japan, Tokyo and Shibuya|yesterday]]), but I didn’t really see much of Tokyo. It’s hard to get a good idea of a place when you don’t actually see it.

We boarded the train just after noon and headed into Chiba, where we switched from the local to the train to Tokyo. The ride in was much more interesting than the last one — I could actually see where we were going. It was more interesting than on the highway, since the highway is mostly blocked off with sound barriers.

Arriving at Tokyo station, we wound our way up to the Yamanote line, which runs in a circle around the city. This would take us to our first location of the day — Akehabara. If you’ve never heard of the place, you might have heard of a place in Tokyo where you can find almost anything electronic. This is that place.

The moment we exited the station, we were confronted with a huge wall of bright signs, neon lights, and blasting sounds of electronics for sale. It was time to see what really interesting things I could find.

We went into the first store along our path. Six stories of geek heaven. Digital cameras, video cameras, computers, televisions, stereo systems, Minidiscs — you name it. It was all there. All for the taking, if the price is right…

Which of course begs the question — is the price worth it? Well, that all depends on what you’re looking for. If you want something unique, hard-to-find, or so cutting edge it’s not available in North America, then you’re in luck. Otherwise, there’s not really a lot of benefit — you’re probably better off getting it where you are.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular — a new digital camera might be nice, as would a Minidisc player, but the only thing I really had an interest in was a mini stereo system for my kitchen. I’ve been searching high and low for one that meets my rather meagre needs: multiple discs and detachable speakers that aren’t hard-wired. Over a year of searching in Canada had resulted in nothing. But here in Tokyo, I figured I had a chance.

The first mini system I saw had exactly what I wanted. For about $500. Interesting thing, though: it was only one of two such systems I saw al day. Through a dozen different stores, I only saw one other system that fit the bill. Eight thousand kilometres, and only two systems.

The biggest irony? Not much different than I could have got at home.

That didn’t stop us from hitting store after store, seeing what we could find. Lots of neat stuff, but none of it that we really needed. (Note that I’m not saying “wanted” — you can always want something.)

After about two hours, we gave up on Akehabara, and wandered out into the city to see what else was around. We passed by the transportation museum, and decided it was time to find out what was down the next alley.

Tokyo is littered with small roads (that would be classified as alleyways in most North American cities), each one different from the next, barely unidentifiable, and almost always unmarked (or so it seems). But they are always fascinating.

We stopped for an early dinner, some time around 17:30. We popped into a ramen shop for some noodles. The shop worked a little differently than others I’ve seen. Here, you put coins in a machine, which dispensed a ticket. You turned the ticket over to the cooks, who then made your order. My order, purely by my own lack of knowledge of ramen intricacies, was actually cold. Although not exactly what I was looking for, it was still very good.

We kept walking after our meal, turning at random streets and seeing where they went. Without really knowing where we were, we soon appeared in front of the Tokyo train station — more or less where we wanted to be anyway.

The Tokyo train station is old — built with western stylings, I can only guess it was build in the 1920s. It certainly predates World War II. From the outside, it doesn’t really look that big. But it goes a long way underground, and covers a lot of area above ground. The first time I arrived at the station, I had no idea where I was going. Now, I might be able to figure out where I’m going. Maybe.

Back to the Yamanote line, we headed in the opposite direction, this time heading to Shibuya. I wanted to see one of the most famous districts in Tokyo.

Shibuya is one of about three fashion districts in Tokyo. Like every other district in Tokyo, Shibuya has its distinctive denizens and a unique style from other areas. It’s a little grittier than other parts of Tokyo (at least the ones I’ve seen so far), but it’s still nice compared to similar areas of virtually every North American city.

We started at the intersection at the Shibuya station — one of the most famous in the world. It’s the one that always seems to be shown when the subject involves Tokyo nightlife. The number of people at this intersection alone is incredible. It makes New York City look deserted.

And so we wandered. I know I’ve used that word a lot, but it’s the most appropriate considering how we explored the neighbourhood. Up one road, hit a fork, go down another road. Most of the time, this would lead us into another interesting place we hadn’t seen.

But it also sometimes led us into shadier areas. One road in particular was littered with strip clubs and love hotels. A “love hotel” is pretty much what you’re currently thinking it is — a place where a couple can go to be with each other in private. Most people in this country stay at home until their mid-to-late 20s.

After a while, we ended up in front of the HMV. While a store I can find in Canada, I wanted to see if I could find some of the albums I was asked to hunt down while here. Besides, listening to music is still a favoured past-time.

We found one of the albums, Chris piping in that he had copies of some of the albums my friend is looking for. I’ll have to check in with my friend to see if that’s what he’s looking for. I’m in town for a while yet to come, so I’ll have time to figure this all out.

Coming out of HMV, we went in search of something else to do. It ended up being a near-half hour search for something to eat, mostly so my poor feet could get a bit of a break. All that standing and walking around had reduced my feet to some serious pain.

We ended up at a yakatori restaurant, which is basically grilled foods on a stick. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but believe me — it was really tasty. And not being very large, it was just was I needed before we headed off on our next adventure.

Which ended up being getting our butts back to the train as fast as possible so we could get home. We got all the way to Chiba before the trains went out of service. We ended up having to take a taxi to Yotsukaido.

But no worries. Tomorrow is another day, and another adventure in Japan!

My Trip to Japan, Tokyo and Shibuya

I’ve gone clubbing in Tokyo, and lived to tell about it.

It’s an odd statement, I know, but allow me to explain.

Chris and I didn’t have any real set plans. In fact, I didn’t really know what we were going to do until about 22:30, or so, when Chris came back and woke me up (stupid jet lag).

The plan was to go into Tokyo to Shinjuku station, where we would head over to a club for a VJ party. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded interesting. Of course, there is always a catch — and you might have already guessed what it is.

Yep, the trains. Because the ones to the outlying areas stop at midnight, if you go into Tokyo to go to a club or see a late concert, you’re there for the rest of the night. Tokyo clubs have adapted to this, though, and are open until very late … or very early, depending on your point of view.

Scott called us around 22:00 with most of the details we needed. However, we also needed to be on the train … pretty much right when Scott called us.

With a bit of haste, we grabbed the 23:35 train from Yotsukaido to Chiba. There, we transferred to the 23:50 train to Tokyo — probably the last one of the night. Most people got out of the train by the time we arrived in Tokyo station, but there were still a few left. Once there, Chris navigated the rats nest of directional arrows and track numbers to find the Mitaka Line (I think that’s what it was called), which would take us to the opposite side of the city. This was where we found find Chris’ friends.

Well, almost. We arrived at the station where we would transfer to a fourth train, taking us right to where we needed to be. Problem: the trains had stopped for the night by the time we arrived. Many people who had missed the trains themselves were now camped out on the station floor, awaiting first service in the morning. For us, it was taxi time.

Taxis in Tokyo are a little strange. You generally don’t open the door — the driver does remotely. I’m not entire sure why that is, but it’s probably something to do with being sanitary.

Chris was on his cell phone. Not talking, but receiving messages from Scott on directions and names. This was how Chris directed the taxi driver to our location.

The cell phone, particularly with younger people, is the single most important form of communication in Japan. Everyone has one, and you see them everywhere — especially on the trains. At least half the young people, especially those riding alone, will be engrossed with something on their phone, usually for the entire trip of wherever they’re going.

(Scott had an interesting point of view: the phones have their pros and cons, but the cons are mostly superficial. Most likely, it’s that they’re status symbols and have to be updated frequently.)

The taxi dropped us off at the station we would have gone to, were the trains running. We would be met by Chris’ friends, who would walk us to the club.

We didn’t have to wait long, them appearing on the staircase from an overpass moments after we returned from a quick run to a convenience store.

It was Scott and Masame (a woman). Scott is another English teacher who lives in Narita city. He’s been here four years, and shows no signs of ever moving back to Ottawa. He seems to be having far too good a time to consider going anywhere.

We went up the stairs and down a road that for a moment made me think we were in Scarborough. Of course, the traffic on the left side of the road, signs I could barely read, and the constant blur of Japanese cars reminded me constantly that we were in other country.

It reminded me of something Keith Black had said our the group of us who went to the Soviet Union in 1989 (see [[Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Introduction|Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union]]) — “Smile, you’re in another country!”

At the time, none of us understood or really appreciated what he was trying to say. Fourteen years later, I find myself repeating that to myself constantly. Not because I need to smile, but because I understand.

The first club was the smallest club I’ve ever seen, not even three times the size of my (rather small) living room. Along the wall across from the door was the bar, the wall next to the door featured the VJs. Next to the VJs were some small couches, and the opposite wall was the receiving end of their projector.

The projector was what made them VJs. They’re not VJs in the sense of MuchMusic or MTV VJs — here, it’s video in the sense of how DJs spin music. Instead of music, they mix images and short snippets of video. The resulting output doesn’t really make sense, but is meant to compliment the music. It’s something that I can see hitting North America soon.

I met Chris’ friends, most of whom were very nice. Masame spoke the most English, the rest very little. Miyuki (Scott’s girlfriend) speaks none at all.

Smile, you’re in another country!

We stayed at the club until around 02:00, when we departed for another club. Tokyo is littered with small clubs — all you have to do is turn down a small alley and you’ll find one. They’re in small store fronts, basements, pretty much anywhere you can pack in at least 20 people.

The next one, Mix, was in Aoyama, very close to Shibuya. It took us a moment to get the right place (Miyuki ran up and down the sidewalk a few times talking on her cell phone before we finally found it), but went in. The sign on the door read: “Open 22:00 to Close”.

It was small, about 2-3 times the size of the last club, but it was quite packed with people. The cover to get in was about 2,500 yen (about CDN$31), but that also included two drinks (which is all I had while there). Covers to clubs are very expensive here in Tokyo, but if you go to the right place, the price is reasonable. The club featured the DJ from Tokyo Number One Soul Set, which probably added a bit to the price.

It’s amazing how fast time can fly at a club like this. The music was amazing. I know a lot of people who’d be very jealous if they knew what I’d experienced. There’s nothing like being in a small space with two professional DJs, a literal wall of speakers (including the most powerful bass I’ve felt in years), and (pardon the term) the most phat tunes I’ve heard spun live yet.

Being one of perhaps four non-Japanese in the place, and probably the only one who didn’t speak Japanese, you’d probably think I’d have a hard time fitting in. But meeting people here is even easier than in Canada.

One person I met goes under the name Ricky. He’s been training for eight years to be a champion boxer — though to look at him, you’d never know. Ricky’s English wasn’t that strong, but we still managed to have a conversation about each other, including ages (he’s 28), occupations (though I needed Chris to translate as I couldn’t think of a way to say simply what I do), and talked about Tokyo and what I should see and do.

Language is something that I’ve become acutely aware of. And I’m not referring to the native language — I’m referring to my own. Most of the Japanese I’ve met here do not understand the intricacies of English, so explaining things the way I normally do doesn’t work. I need to chose my words very carefully so that I’m not introducing words that they would definitely not know. It’s not like speaking to a child who doesn’t have a grasp of language, it’s thinking like someone who’s learning another language and has at least a basic understanding of a language, and building off the vocabulary they already have.

Our group gathered together about 05:15 and headed out into the early Tokyo morning. The sun had already started its rise. It was very peculiar to walk from a dark room into the light. Usually, it’s the other way around (like going to see a movie in the early evening and walk out into darkness).

We wandered down the street in search of something to eat. Miyuki didn’t wander so much as she veered around, the others trying to keep her from steering herself out onto the road. Scott ended up piggy-backing her for a while.

Somewhere inside Shibuya (the neighbouring district), the group split in two. Half went for noodles, the other half to First Kitchen for … something that sort of resembled the first meal of the day. Somehow, a bad hot dog and deep-fried battered red bean paste molded in the shape of a fish doesn’t really strike me as all that nutritious.

There had been a great temptation for us to stay in Tokyo and tour around. But Chris was fast falling asleep, and I was beginning to be not too far behind him. And so we began our trip home.

Scott and Miyuki took the train back to Narita. Masame and one of the other women drove home, while Nobu drove Chris, another woman whose name I can’t remember, and myself back to Yotsukaido (they all lived in the area).

The drive back was interesting, to say the least. Tokyo is a labyrinth of streets and highways. The highways are all raised, and snake around the skyscrapers in tight paths, like a ribbon strung around trees in a forest. One minute we were far away from Tokyo Tower, the next right next to it, and I couldn’t figure out how that had happened.

I was enthralled with the passing city. It’s one thing to take the train (which we did in the dark, so I didn’t see anything, anyway), but entirely another to see it by car — especially from a raised highway.

Slowly, the massive skyscrapers gave way to low-rises. It became possible to see just how far the city goes. It looks like southern Ontario — stretching out forever. You cross massive rivers and can see small, traditional houses, even the odd shanty.

Chris slept the whole way. I just had to place faith in our driver, because I had no idea where we were. In fact, when we finally arrived in Yotsukaido, we came in from a direction that I didn’t think was possible to come in from.

Chris and I returned home for some sleep, crawling into be around 08:00. We would continue our day a little later…

—-

We woke around 13:30, when the phone rang. It was a friend (though I don’t know who). We rose and began our second part of the day. First order of the day, a quick run to the bank for Chris to get some money, and then off to Chiba.

Transactions here are all in cash — aside from credit cards, most things are cash. It’s not uncommon for someone to have 50,000 yen or more (roughly $625) in their wallets at any time. The Interac system we’ve come to depend on so highly in Canada does not exist in the most efficient and technological country in the world.

I’ve done the drip into Chiba so many times now that I don’t look out the window anymore. I actually feel like I’m beginning to fit in here. The language doesn’t bother me anymore, the fact that I’m a gaijin doesn’t concern me. I can see why Chris has had so little trouble being himself.

Chiba station was busy, but it only took us a few minutes to find our way out. We were heading for Parco, one of the major shopping centres in Chiba. But first, we were going to hit Yodabashi Camera. But not for my sake…

May 5th is Chris’ first anniversary of engagement to Kazume. He wants to give her a gift. Originally, he was thinking a bracelet, but he knows that Kaz would like a camera so she can take pictures. This is probably one of the best camera shops outside Akehabara in Tokyo.

You name it, they got it. Cameras I’ve never seen or even heard of. My personal favourite was a tiny little thing — a 2.0 megapixel Sony you could fit in your pocket along with a large wallet. It was perfect for Kaz. Heck, I’m thinking of one for myself!

After the camera shop, we wandered into an arcade — more advanced than the one I’d been into the first day I was here (see [[My Trip to Japan, Calgary to Yotsukaido|my first day in Japan]]). Time Crisis III, Dance Dance Revolution Extreme, and a game where you have to be a DJ and play with both hands on a split screen at amazing speeds. Things we haven’t seen in Canada yet.

We went to Parco next. Chris quickly decided that the camera was best — the jewelry wasn’t really cutting it for him. That said, we hit the mall, going to the hobby shop first to look at (what else?) Japanese toys. Surprisingly enough, there are a large number of ones from North America, too.

A floor down, we met one of Chris’ friends. In Calgary, Chris had the ability to meet people anywhere, including stores. Chris knew almost the entire staff of the A&B Sound downtown. He’s not quite like that here, but this particular girl he knew only from this store. She spoke very little English, but Chris was more than able to carry out the conversation in Japanese.

Both quite hungry from lack of food, we felt it was time for lunch. Next to Parco is a little restaurant called Freshness Burger (yes, you can giggle at the odd use of English syntax). It’s fast food, but like all Japanese fast food, only made when you order it. I had a very tasty nemimiso burger (essentially a miso patty with lots of shredded raw onion).

While we ate, Chris received a message about a party that night at the home of Seiko, Chris’ head manager. (We’d known about it from before, but we needed to RSVP.) We were to get a ride with Naome, another one of Chris’ managers.

First, we needed to hit a bakery. Chris wanted to bring something with us — never show up empty-handed. This meant a trip to Mitsukoshi, one of the other malls in town. Mitsukoshi is much higher-end than Parco. Parco would be like Sears or the Bay — Mitsukoshi is that fancy boutique mall where all the stores are like Louis Vitton, Tiffany of New York, and where the “food court garden” has the legendary $50 melons.

(For the record, you can get melons in regular stores that don’t cost that much.)

Returning to Parco (where we were to meet Naome), we got drinks at the Starbucks and waited. We didn’t wait long — Naome showed up not much later. From there, we went to the Tower Records in the mall.

One thing about Parco that will throw off North Americans is how the mall is laid out. It is a mall, though it looks like a standard department store. The mall is divided into areas, most without defined walls. It allows easier passage, but can cause confusion because you’re not used to it.

Chris and I listened to music while Naome tried to find the album she was looking for. Apparently, all she new was that the band had three members. She didn’t know a song or album name. Pick a country, and there’s always someone like this…

Finding Naome’s car became a treasure hunt. She couldn’t remember exactly where she’d parked. It took a few minutes, but we eventually found her car a couple of blocks away. Then came the fun part as she tried to negotiate her way to Seiko’s. Even with a navigation system, Naome got turned around more than once.

Before we could leave the downtown area, Chris’ phone rang. It was Charlie, another one of the teachers. He and his girlfriend were at the station, and were coming to Seiko’s. Naome turned the car around and we went to pick them up.

Naome’s little car was barely big enough to fit the five of us. Putting two large North American men (Charlie and I) does pose a few size problems. Mind you, I don’t think I can fit five people in the Mini, so I’m hardly one to complain.

Don’t ask me how we got to Seiko’s house. I haven’t a clue. There seems to be no such thing as a straight road in Japan — they all weave in and out all over the place. Eventually, we arrived at a quiet little complex.

Seiko is 50 years old — though she looks barely 35. (Miyuki, Scott’s girlfriend, is 32, though looks 16.) Sometimes I wish I were born Japanese — it’s the ultimate anti-aging device.

Seiko’s house was small — not much bigger than my own (though I didn’t see the upstairs). She had prepared a Japanese buffet for us. I found out the reason was because this was in celebration of Naome’s 31st birthday, coming up this Thursday.

The meal consisted of picked root salad, sliced ham (or pork, I’m not sure which), octopus salad (very tasty), bread, a sushi roll, and rice cakes. The diversity was quite interesting.

I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity to attend the party, because it gave me a clear picture of what a typically Japanese meal is like. Simple, but with a number of items that we simply don’t see in North America. Luckily, I’m not the picky eater I used to be — I ate everything that was made available.

That includes something called natto. Seiko and Naome found out I’d never had natto before, and wanted to see what I thought of it. Natto is a fermented bean that is usually mixed with other foodstuffs (though there are people who probably eat it on its own). It’s usually quite sticky, fairly bitter, and the texture is generally not what most westerners would enjoy.

That’s not to say I didn’t eat it. Luckily, Seiko and Naome were very generous in preparing it, making it far more palatable to my more delicate tastes. I wouldn’t necessarily eat an entire bowl of natto, but I wouldn’t be adverse to it.

Cake and Earl Grey tea marked the end of our evening. By that point, I was quite tired, the remnants of the night before having caught up to me … and probably with the last of my jet lag.

Naome drove us back to our respective places in Yotsukaido (we had expected just to be taken to the train). We were dropped off at the 7-11, barely a two-minute walk from Chris’ apartment. I was asleep within minutes of hitting the tatami mat.

My Trip to Japan, Touring Chiba

By comparison with yesterday’s activities, it would appear that I slept the entire day away.

For starters, I awoke after 10:00, the long day previous having sapped pretty much all my energy. Kaz was still here, but preparing to leave for Toyohashi. I needed a shower, and badly,

This was my first Japanese shower. Western showers are tall things, often allowing you to stand vertically while cleaning. In Japan, the shower is a small, open tub in a well-tiled room that has a shower head mounted to the wall.

Japanese flats, or at least Chris’, has no running hot water (there is cold water). All hot water comes from a small water heater that sits right next to the tub. It feeds hot water as needed.

It was then that I realized the things I had forgotten for this trip. Phone numbers aside, I had also managed to forget shampoo and conditioner. I don’t think my scalp will have too much trouble with this humid climate, so hopefully, I’ll be alright.

Kaz left around 11:30, leaving Chris and I to kill a little time until 13:30, when it was time for Chris to go to work. Today, he taught a class in Narita. (Chris teaches in several places, including here in Yotsukaido — this just happens to be roughly in the middle of his various teaching gigs.)

I would go the opposite direction, to Chiba City. Yes, I was there last night, but I wanted to see the city in the daytime. So Chris entered one platform, and I went to another. Chris looked perfect at ease waiting for his train. I felt a little … odd.

I’m finally understanding what it feels like to be the only person of a particular race in an area. Since arriving, Jan is the only other Caucasian I’ve actually met. Today, I didn’t see a single other non-Japanese (not counting Chris).

It’s actually neat in a way — it’s a slight special feeling, but at the same time, no-one really seems to care. It’s kind of like: “oh, look, a strange gaijin…” and I’m forgotten within a few steps.

In fact, the only longer glances I got were from the school girls. And no, this is not a fantasy come true.

I do need to make a note of this, though. Japanese school girls pretty much meet the stereotype we’ve seen in the west: the uniforms, the giggling, and the really creepy sexuality that either their completely innocent of, or completely aware of (and you have no idea which it is). Suffice to say, I saw one girl eating an ice cream cone and … well, it’s something I’ve not yet forgotten.

Chiba doesn’t look much different in daylight than it did at night. The biggest difference were the throngs of people — far more than last night. Of course, it was also a weekend (it’s Saturday), so it might have also been weekend trips to the semi-big city.

I wandered around a little, trying to follow the route we’d taken last night, only in reverse. I missed a turn, though, and ended up with a longer walk. Not that I minded.

I snapped pictures as I wandered around: the monorail and its tracks, the canal it runs overtop of (and the fish that swim in it), city streets, cars, and people — specifically, a guy dressed in a frog suit trying to entice people to enter a pachinko parlour.

Along the way, I decided to visit Parco, a local department store In many ways, Parco reminds me of The Bay or of Eaton’s. Lots of small boutique-like areas with each floor dedicated to a specific need. The prices were about right in line with what you’d expect in Canada.

I refrained from buying anything. This is for two reasons: One, I need to look around a little more, first. Second, I have very little money. This is due to lack of foresight on my part. I have no traveller’s cheques. I had assumed, rather foolishly I might add, that I could use my bank card here to obtain Yen directly. So far, I have yet to find an ATM that can access the North American networks. And I haven’t set up my credit cards to allow funds withdrawals.

To anyone coming to Japan for a visit, remember to bring either traveller’s cheques or a healthy amount of yen. Getting access to the funds you need from your back without a lot of trouble is, well, a lot of trouble. In fact, after two days, I get the distinct feeling I’ll need to go into Tokyo to finally get out some cash.

I found my way back to Yotsukaido without too much difficulty. After taking a couple pictures of the train station, I headed back to Chris’ flat to rest a little while before going out to take more pictures. I decided to watch one of Chris’ movies (Blade II) and take a little nap. Chris woke me a bare half-hour ago (it’s now 20:45), having fallen asleep on this futon.

The loose plan now is to go to something called a “VJ party” in Shibuya, one of the districts of Tokyo. The catch? If we go, we’re there until 05:00 at the earliest — the trains don’t run after midnight.

I want to go … I just hope my body is ready for this.

My Trip to Japan, Calgary to Yotsukaido

It hasn’t been that long since my last outing, but it’s time again for my next great adventure. This time, I’m leaving the continent for the first time in almost 14 years — I’m going to Japan.

Chris is staying there another year, and I’m going to take advantage of that by going out and visiting him. It’s been far too long since the last time I saw my best friend, and I shudder to thing that it’ll be at least another year before I’d see him again.

This won’t be a cheap trip, that’s for sure. This will probably put me so far into debt that I’ll be lucky to leave Calgary, let alone travel anywhere. But hey, if you only live once, then you’d best darn-well live it!

I’m currently sitting in Seat 47A of my Boeing 747-400, awaiting the departure of our plane from San Francisco Airport. I sit here with a mix of excitement and fear. Excitement for doing something new and unusual, but fear of the unknown. I don’t know what I will see, or how everything will unfold.

I don’t know why I sense fear at these sorts of things — I love a challenge and I love adventure. I suppose it’s an autonomic response — my subconscious telling me something, I suppose. But I’m not going to let it stop me — not when there’s something new to explore!

—-

We’re still about six hours from landing. I haven’t been on a flight this long since I visited the Soviet Union in 1989. This flight is considerably longer for me — and a little more daunting. The Pacific Ocean is a lot larger than the Atlantic.

All the blinds in the plane are closed, and most of the lights turned off. Most of the people are sleeping, even though it’s late afternoon. (I’d be getting off work in about 10 minutes were I still in Calgary.) If I do open the blinds, all I can see is ocean and cloud. No ships, no land.

Travelling like this is a little odd. For all I know, I could be in a virtual simulator of a plane. When I enter I’m in San Francisco, and when I exit I’m miraculously transported to Tokyo. Mind you, I’ve always found air travel like this.

The flight is mostly empty. I have an entire row to myself, as does the man in the row ahead of me. There is no-one for two rows behind me. I don’t know if this is normal for these flights, but considering United Airlines 837 runs New York – San Francisco – Narita – Seoul, I’d think there’d be a few more people here. Maybe it’s fears of SARS or of flying during the waning days of the Iraq war. I don’t know, but having this much space to myself is almost as much a luxury as first class.

It’s a long way to Japan yet, and I’ve still got a lot of daytime ahead of me.

—-

I faded in and out of sleep over the course of the flight, trying desperately to adjust myself to arriving in mid-afternoon Tokyo. Even the idea of drinking as much as possible in hopes the alcohol would put me out didn’t help. (For the record, I didn’t ever get drink, but I did have two beers in succession.)

I woke from my third rather fitful nap about two hours out of Narita. All I could see was ocean, cloud, sky, and a really big freakin’ wing. The third movie of the flight, “Two Weeks’ Notice” was just finishing. (We’d already seen “Clockstoppers” and “Star Trek: Nemesis”.) The second meal service was about to begin — I’d had teriyaki chicken the first time, so I went with the non-chicken option: a very tasty three-cheese pasta.

Half an hour before landing, all we could see was cloud. The plane soon descended into the thick white cover, and everything vanished from view — I couldn’t even see the wing.

For about 20 minutes, we bobbed through the clouds. Outside, the clouds went from absolute pure white to a medium gray. I looked down out the window, hoping that I’d see something through the haze.

Slowly, shapes peeked through. Then the clouds peeled back like a movie dissolve to reveal the Japanese countryside. Rice fields, highways, country paths, small farms, collectives — it was exactly as I’d imagined.

The flight arrived about 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Pulling into the terminal, we deplaned and found our way to immigration. Narita is a big airport — it’s a long way away from the gate I came in at.

The Japanese immigration process, according to the video we saw on the plane, works like this: You enter through a series of health inspection booths, then through immigration. After that, you find your bags, and then go through customs. It looked pretty straight-forward, though I had two reservations. First, I’m Canadian, and these SARS fears could detain me. Second, I didn’t have Chris’ address in Yotsukaido, which meant I might have trouble going through immigration.

The health inspection booths were closed, so we went right through. As I passed, I saw a sign asking residents of certain cities worldwide to go to the Health Inspection Office before going through immigration. Toronto was on the list.

Immigration was only half-open, but the line was quite short. In about 10 minutes, we went through the line and it was my turn to convince the officer it was safe to let me into the country.

“What address are you staying at in Yotsukaido?”

I did my best to look completely sheepish and explained that I’d completely forgotten to bring the address, and the phone number (which was asked for immediately after). She looked at me, at the passport, at the embarkation form, and them back at me. Stone-faced. I wasn’t nervous … yet. But then she stamped the passport, the form, and welcomed me in.

My bag was already waiting, so all I had to do was grab it, take off the plastic bag, and huck over to the customs line. It went something like this:

“Are these all your bags?”
“Yes.”
“Do you have anything to declare.”
“No, I do not.”
“Thank you, welcome to Japan.”

Kaz was supposed to be waiting for me, but wasn’t there yet. Luckily, the arrival area is quite small, so there was little chance of me missing her. Instead, I just leaned up against a wall and waited.

After about 30 minutes, I started getting worried. Was Kaz here and missed me? (I was afraid I wasn’t going to remember what she looked like.) I thought about calling her or Chris. Problem: no phone numbers. I didn’t have either Chris’ house number or his cell number. I didn’t have Kaz’s number. I didn’t have Chris’ address. Basically, if Kaz didn’t show up, I was going to have some trouble.

That’s not to say I was entirely screwed. Worst-case scenario, I’d call Tamara back in Calgary, and have her pull Chris’ number from my cell phone, and check my email to see if Chris had sent any cell numbers.

“Geoff!”

Kaz appeared from out of nowhere, and suddenly, I felt a lot better. We grabbed the bags and started working on getting to Yotsukaido. Right after a quick bathroom break. While Kaz made use of the facilities, I grabbed a quick drink of water from the fountain. I had a Homer Simpson moment:

“Mmmm… foreign water…”

The train to Yotsukaido left at 16:00, about an hour from when Kaz found me. Having time to kill, we went to have a coffee … at Starbucks. (I swear, you can’t get away from the place!) Although I have to say, I didn’t really mind — I wanted to see how different it is. The interior is a spitting image, save for the Japanese on the menu. The sizes are smaller than North America (a good thing) and the hot chocolate tastes a little different. But nothing too drastic.

We boarded the train around 16:50. This particular train was a local — although it does go all the way to Tokyo, it stops at most stops on the way. Yotsukaido is considered a local stop. It looks little more than a large subway train … just with more advertisements covering virtually every surface, and hanging from the roof.

And we think we have it bad in North America!

The train zipped through the countryside, heading towards the urban jungle that surrounds Tokyo. Slowly, the rice fields gave way to parking lots and shopping malls. At the Narita city stop, we joined another train before continuing our trip towards Tokyo.

We finally arrived in Yotsukaido around 17:40, and disembarked from the train. Kaz immediately called Chris from her cell. We could already see him rounding the corner — the familiar orangy leather jacket bursting out from the surrounding cacophony of dark suits and dresses.

I haven’t seen Chris since I took him to the airport nearly a year ago (see [[Chris Goes to Japan … the Second Time]]). It didn’t take long for me to feel like I’d only seen him last week.

Chris took us to his school — barely a minute walk from the train station. It was a lot smaller than I’d imagined. Three stories, but barely had a footprint of 10 metres by 10 metres.

In Japan, everything is vertical.

Chris introduced us to his (somewhat eccentric) coworkers, including his managers and another teacher named Jan, pronounced “Yan”. (Jan is also Chris’ next door neighbour.) He called my name as he walked down the stairs, and for a moment I thought he knew me from somewhere else. But it turns out he was just being a smarty-pants, hearing my name from higher up the stairs.

Kaz, Jan, and I left Chris to his own devices and headed over to Chris’ flat so I could drop off my (rather heavy) bag and explore a bit.

The first exploration was just going to Chris’ flat. Narrow streets, small houses with elaborate courtyards, cars that I’ve never seen before, and more vending machines than in all of Calgary. From there, the three of us headed to Mos Burger for something to eat.

Mos Burger is the rough equivalent to a Japanese Harvey’s. They have hamburgers of many kinds (according to Jan, they’re more like meatloaf burgers). I had a rice burger (rice patties instead of bread buns) filled with seafood and vegetables. Extremely tasty.

Jan had to return to work, so Kaz and I had to kill some time before Chris was available again. Kaz decided to show me around downtown Yotsukaido.

It doesn’t take long. It’s not very big.

One thing of note was the toy store. It’s not like any toy store I’ve been to — lots of kitchy little things, mostly Japanese (for obvious reasons), but with a fair few North American things thrown in for flavour.

Downstairs was a video arcade. It was a peculiar mix of new games we haven’t seen in North America yet, and games we haven’t seen for a decade. The arcades are smoky places, which is not particularly great, so chances are I won’t be spending too much time in them.

One game of note was a Kodo drumming game, similar to Samba Di Amigo or Dance Dance Revolutions. Kaz challenged me to a game, which I did reluctantly. Although much more fair than North America (it cost a little more than a dollar, but we got three plays out of it), Kaz whipped my keister.

When Chris got off work, we decided we’d go for sushi … in Chiba City. Yotsukaido is a suburb of Chiba, which is a suburb of Tokyo. Chiba City is a couple of stops down from Yotsukaido.

Chiba City looks more like the stereotypically Japanese city — lots of lights, overhead monorail, the dark roads with lots of cars.

We went into a sushi bar that used a long conveyor belt to move items around. We didn’t really use it, though, favouring instead to order directly. Well, Kaz and Chris ordered — I just ate.

I have to say that, so far, sushi isn’t much different than in Canada. It’s very tasty, and there are certainly things we don’t have, but the biggest differences are in size (portions are a lot larger), the wasabi is very fresh, and the rice is warm. This is because the fish doesn’t have to be frozen first.

Eating our fill (which wasn’t too much) we proceeded to wander about Chiba a little. We ended up (on our way back to the station) at a place called Erotikave, a bar where the featured item is a bottle of Beefeater Gin with a rubber dildo affixed to the top. Rather odd…

There we met one of Chris’ friends, Shinichiro. He’s a freelance photographer, and a very funny guy. That’s when I realized just how good Chris’ Japanese has become — he understands most things told to him, and can hold himself very well in a conversation. He’s not too bad in translating, either.

Suddenly, it was a quarter to midnight. We had to bolt out to catch the last train to Yotsukaido. It was supposed to depart at 00:01, but was there until about 00:20. It was packed. I almost expected to see the guys with the white gloves.

Yotsukaido was quiet when we arrived. The flood of returning passengers disappeared quickly, and we walked in quiet back towards Chris’ flat. At least until we heard a very loud voice down one of the alleys.

It was Jan. He had been thinking about coming out with us, but had instead been caught in a meeting. Afterwards, he’d gone home to get drunk and watch “Last of the Mohicans”. We caught him on a run to the local 7-11 to get some orange juice for the impending hangover.

Returning to the flat, we prepared for bed. Kaz is off back to Toyohashi tomorrow, and Chris has to work at 13:30. I just want to get some sleep.

I’ve had a very busy day.

Moving Nana from Prince Albert to Calgary

Well, it’s Easter time again, and that means a lot of family events out here in the great Canadian plains. The major difference this year is what sort of family events we do. In previous years, it’s been a massive dinner (or series of dinners). This year, we did something a little different.

We moved Nana from Prince Albert to Calgary.

This was a move in the works for a long time. Nana has been unhappy staying in PA. It’s a long way from most of her family, and her circle of friends gets smaller with each passing year. While she’s not showing any signs of slowing down, even at the age of 90, there is always a need to change gears every now and then.

So on Friday morning, I ventured out to my aunt and uncle’s house where I met up with my Uncle Mike (Aunt Brenda and my cousin Jen had gone out on the Sunday to help Nana finish packing). Mike, Maggie (their pet dalmatian), and I were following out with a moving truck. I was in for a long weekend…

I’ve done the trip east in Alberta as far as Hanna (about two or so hours from Calgary). In fact, this is where I ended up chasing a train last year back to Drumheller. This time, however, I would continue east into Saskatchewan, through Kindersley, turning at Saskatoon, and then north to PA.

It’s about an eight-hour drive. The last time I’d done an eight-hour drive anywhere was on my last road trip with Gerry (see 26 August 1997). I hadn’t driven for any major length of time through the prairies in a long while, and I was about to get a major refresher course.

Out to Hanna, you spend a fair bit of time in the Badlands — not the deep Badlands, but the erosion does bring out the shapes and colours quite readily. After Hanna, it’s all prairie. Not as dead-flat as southern Saskatchewan or Alberta (or Kansas, for that matter), but it doesn’t take long to get lulled into a sense of … well, you fall asleep.

I had a good excuse, though — I’d been out with friends seeing “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, at a midnight showing. The movie was great, but I didn’t get to bed until almost 02:00 in the morning. A half-hour nap in the truck, though, and I was able to continue the trip.

Our first major stop was at Kindersley, which also marked our halfway point. Lunch, water and a walk for Maggie, and we were on our way again.

I kept myself occupied (when we weren’t babbling about whatever came to mind) by watching for trains. The highway we were on roughly paralleled one of CN’s lines — the one between Saskatoon and Calgary, to be specific. Even with the long drive, I didn’t see a single train. I didn’t happen to notice a couple of abandoned railbeds, though.

We popped in at the southeastern corner of Saskatoon, very close to the Saskatoon train station that the CBC 50th Anniversary train had stopped (see [[CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, Saskatoon]]). We didn’t pass by the station, and came in at 22nd Street and Circle Drive. Ironically enough, I had seen the new interchange before my uncle (we’d almost become lost driving back and forth from the train), and managed to direct him through it.

I’ve driven from the Saskatoon Airport to PA many times. But I didn’t recognize any of the sights. None of the towns, none of the locations — nada. The unfamiliarity was actually a great distraction, mostly because Maggie recognized it, and new she’d be getting out of the truck soon.

We arrived at Nana’s apartment around 16:00, which is pretty good time, I gather. Piling out of the truck, we went in and prepared to start packing. It was all done. The only outstanding parts were to disassemble the bed, load the truck, and leave. That wouldn’t been until the following morning. Instead, we rested from our long trip.

That night, we enjoyed the last meal Nana would cook in her kitchen. Turkey, a personal favourite. We celebrated Maggie’s 10th birthday (complete with ice cream cake), and entertained a small army of visitors who came by to see the family.

The next morning began early. Following a short breakfast from McDonald’s, I disassembled the bed and we moved it into the van. Nana had sold it to a friend, but it had to go into storage until they could pick it up. Storage in PA means the basement of a legal firm.

When we returned, we immediately proceeded with the remainder of the packing. First item up: all the big stuff, starting with the china cabinet.

This is how I got the second injury of the day (Mike got the first one when a nail in the wall opened a rather nasty gash on his hand). We were loading the cabinet into the truck (on its side — the cabinet wouldn’t fit in vertically), Mike on the high end any myself on the low end. Only Mike had his end a little too high, and it hit the top of the van. The cabinet stopped, but I kept going…

WHAM!

My face collided with the bottom of the cabinet. Luckily, my nose cushioned the impact. But not before creating a rather nice semi-circular cut on my nose. It took a while for it to stop bleeding, and the end result is, well, let’s just say that when people ask what happened, I tell them I got into a bar fight in PA.

It sounds better than getting whacked in the schnozz with a china cabinet.

In under two hours, we packed up everything Nana was taking into the van. A quick vacuum, and we were ready to leave. I expected a slow departure. This had been Nana’s home for 27 years. But there was no hesitation for her — it was time to move on with living. It was time to move to Calgary.

Our three-car caravan hit the road at about 11:00 — Aunt Brenda in lead with the minivan, myself following in Nana’s car, and Mike bringing up the rear in the moving van. (The order would change not too far out of Kindersley — Mike wanted to get back a little more quickly than we were moving.)

The trip back was fuelled by a steady supply of Coke. There was no way I was going to cross the prairies solo without being fully awake. I’ve nearly fallen asleep at the wheel enough to know that if you have to, you drink caffeine constantly.

Aside from stopping in Saskatoon (for a quick bathroom break), our only other stops were in Kindersley for lunch, and somewhere around Alsask so we could refill our drink supply.

We arrived in Calgary around 20:00. My back was killing me. Nana’s car had been comfortable for about four hours, but the seats were never designed for long trips. I needed to get out and walk a bit. We had the opportunity, since we also had to empty the car and part of the van.

Bidding farewell for the evening, I walked back to the C-Train station, went home, and about near passed out from exhaustion.

We emptied both vans the following day, with assistance from Pam and Sean. Our larger Easter dinner also featured the newly-returned Darren from Thailand. But the pain of the previous days’ work was hard to overcome. Suffice to say, it’s a trip we won’t have to make again any time soon.

Which is good, ‘cuz I still have a buzz from all the Coke.

Promotion to Manager … uh oh!

It seems that good things do happen to those who wait. Surprisingly enough, that also applies to me.

You may recall some weeks ago, [[The Hell of my job|I lamented Critical Mass’ ability to see the need to promote from within]]. It wasn’t so much about me as it was about using the resources we had, and not stalling forever on putting people into open positions.

I kept raising the red flag. I was, well, a kind of whistle-blower, but only in reminding management that we were rapidly heading for a serious problem if we didn’t fill the position that I knew needed to be filled. I bugged Allard, and I bugged Cory. I wanted to make sure that we would have some sort of movement on the issue.

Continue reading “Promotion to Manager … uh oh!”

Toshiba e330 PDA

I have officially become mobile. Today, I picked up the keyboard for my PDA, and am able to create my log entries wherever I am on the planet.

And have an electrical socket to recharge the batteries. (Minor detail.)

Wait a second … you probably have no idea that I have a PDA. Actually, I’ve had a PDA since 1996 — an Apple Newton. It was given to me by my boss when I worked at Arkipelago in Toronto. When I left, my boss told me to keep the Newton.

I used it for a couple of more years, but it slowly fell out of favour with me, mostly because it wasn’t as convenient as I would have liked. The major issue was size — the Newton is a size of a thinnish brick. Weighs about as much, too.

I did without a PDA for years. For the last three, most of my notes were written just like everyone else’s — on notepaper. The more notes I wrote, though, the more likely I was to forget things. Finally, upon taking over the Web Development team on Mercedes-Benz, things finally got too much.

I take a lot of notes, and can sometimes get lost in details — no different than anyone else. I can’t allow myself to forget too much, though, lest it impede my job. I finally decided a PDA which could sync itself with my daily schedule was what I really needed.

Research. Anything that’s gonna cost me more than $100 requires research. I had a set of requirements that I needed to fulfill. One was the need for handwriting recognition. I didn’t want to learn a new alphabet — like the Palm systems force you to do. I also wanted something that would synchronize with my calendar. That brought me to looking mostly at Pocket PCs.

These things run on Microsoft software. That I’m not particularly thrilled about, but I have to accept the fact that to get what I need, I sometimes have to make sacrifices.

After about three months of research (periodic, not continuous), I came to rest on two models: the Dell Axim X5, and the Toshiba e330. The Dell was the superior model for functionality and expandability, but was quite a bit larger. The Toshiba was smaller, but more limited. About equal price.

It finally came down basically to a coin toss. The coin was tossed the night I replaced my watch battery — the store (Battery Plus) had a Toshiba. I nearly closed the store from all the humming and hawing. It came down to a demonstration period.

According to the clerk, I had two weeks in which to decide if the PDA was what I needed. During that time, I could do whatever I wanted. So long as I didn’t damage the unit, I could bring it back for a full refund if I felt it wasn’t for me. It hasn’t been two weeks yet, and I’m sold.

As the saying goes: so far, so good. Well, almost. When I first picked up the keyboard today, I couldn’t get it to work properly. Naturally, my first impression was that it was defective. Not wanting to retain a defective piece of equipment, I decided to pay Staples a visit (that’s where I bought it).

I didn’t immediately ask to return it. My first initial thought was to check and see if, just perhaps, I wasn’t using it correctly. (Hey, it’s possible.) I got the feeling the clerk had been through this before, and promptly asked if I’d installed the software.

I wasn’t even aware the keyboard had additional software. It stood to reason, though, that if the appropriate driver wasn’t installed, some of the more advanced functions of a keyboard might not work.

Frankly, I don’t consider the enter key to be an advanced function, but I had to give it a shot.

Whipping off to the office, I pulled in the PDA and inserted the CD into my desktop computer. A moment later, the software was installed. A test of the keyboard revealed that nothing had changed. A little puzzled, I hunted for some setting that might shed a little light on the problem.

It turns out you have to enable the keyboard before you can use it. Doesn’t really make sense to me, but hey — if it works, then great!

So I now have an almost completely portable website content-creation machine. Now if I can just figure out how to hook my camera into this thing…