Archive for July, 2008|Monthly archive page

Sayonara, Osaka University

Thank you...

Thank you...

Random Observation/Comment #44: I will miss you all.  Please come to New York and drink like fish.

Now that I read my title again, it sounds like a corny “hasta la vista, baby” type of overdone Clint Eastwood cliche.  I did not intend for this, but I find it funny and a little disappointing that Hollywood has, once again, ruined something cultural.  I really meant it as just a sad goodbye… don’t cry.

I am a week behind on my crazy adventures with Chris, but I have not yet had time because of the packing, farewell parties, and club hopping adventures.  I’ve absolutely loved my time here so far and I’d want nothing more than to come back.  Actually, I’ll be back in the lab August 21st, but this will only be a short tease for my almost indefinite farewell at the end of August.

Now that Phase 1 is complete with the research work, I will move on to Phase 2: tourism!

I joined the Lost Japan tour and I hope to meet a lot of new and interesting people.  Internet will probably be from wifi connections at hotels, but I will try my best to continue posting.

~See Lemons Start Phase II

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Kobe Holiday Stroll – the ropeway ride of 100 pictures

beautiful dam, damn beautiful

beautiful dam, damn beautiful

Random Observation/Comment #43: Strange customs are being developed every day. I have urges to start odd routines, like fold my receipts into origami butterflies, or eat every kind of onigiri flavor available at the Family Mart for breakfast.

I woke fully prepared to face a Monday morning of posting entries, checking email, fooling around with facebook, watching Colbert report, and avoiding my work. This was the natural routine of the Monday (and every other weekday) morning. I found it a little weird when the bus stop was completely empty at 8:40AM because the line is usually queued for half the block – it still amazes me how the rush hour traffic fits into that small bus. I assumed it was a holiday, but I needed to make sure. Torn between many different threads of thought, I walked towards the monorail with the intention of going to the lab anyway. With every step, the variable weights changed in my mind and I kept wondering if I should turn back and start the day as if it were a weekend. I finally reached the station with my messenger bag and spoke to the station attendant to see if it were really a holiday for everyone. Indeed, the calendar date was red – wtf is sea-day? Apparently sea day is a fairly new holiday synchronized with some of the last days of elementary schools to motivate more of a traveling long weekend instead of a one day escapade. I’m glad he gave me a visual cue because that was the only thing I understood from that conversation.

I turned around from the monorail and headed home to pack my backpack for a day walking around wherever my whim led me. It was already 10AM, so I hurried to the station with my 2L water and chips. I was in such a hurry that it took me a 20-minute to realize I had left my camera back at the apartment. If it were any other article I would have said something like “screw it, we’ve gone too far,” but this camera was as much a part of me as my arms and legs. The strap around my wrist and grip along the button fits on like a glove and taking these pictures have become as natural as blinking.

The stores were all closed and the train was filled with little kids ready for a bug catching adventure. I saw a few hikers following my day plan to Kobe. I didn’t exactly know where to go, but I heard that there is a hike up the path to the ropeway from Shinkobe station. From Osaka, I took the Hankyu line to Sannomiya and then transferred to the Sanyo Railway for a one-stop 200 yen rip-off to Shinkobe. I wish it were walk-able, but I think they do most of the pricing by distance. I visited the information center of this station to get the maps and suggested path. Somewhere on the Internet someone wrote that it’s a nice 40 minute walk up to the ropeway top, but this person was lying or somehow flew up there. The walk I took was uphill and very tiring on a hot and sunny day (I’m not going to lie, it sucked balls and I was drenched after the first waterfall). I suggest taking the ropeway up to the top and doing a hike downward. You’ll pass through all of the waterfalls on the way down and have an easier hike.

The path I took was horrendous, but I suggest doing what I did backwards. Just because I like writing, I’ll describe my experience of the day in reverse, starting from the most beautiful ropeway ride I have ever seen…

The curved window gave an odd camera glare to my pictures of the view across the entire side of the city built on the mountain. Riding upwards, the small window is on the left, which gives you the view of the naturally kept shape silhouette of the trees. I stuck my camera out the window to take pictures of the city side on the way down. This was probably the only advantage for walking uphill for 5 hours. The houses looked small and the pure enormity of the detail in the image was difficult to scan in one pass. There was no single point of focus, but a blur of reality before me.

The top of the mountain reminded me of a small old-style villa from the first scene of Beauty and the Beast. There was even a cart with some flower pots and concession stands for local goods. This copy was purely external because the hidden automatic doors and ice cream stands didn’t preserve the ambiance. It also didn’t help that the villa only consisted of the two buildings in front and the small view behind.

Walking up the herb garden was not simple, and I don’t think the walk down is too much fun on the knees either. Most of the flowers are not terra-formed like the rice patties on the mountainside. Instead, the hardworking agricultural engineers planted everything along the hillside. Small plateaus were used for the potted plants, but much of the beauty came from this small field of slightly tilted bulbs. The entrance fee is 200 yen and it is basically required if you want to hike back down. On a slow day, there is no guard at the bottom of the mountain, so you could just sneak in. It’s a terrible uphill walk, so even if you did get away with it once, you won’t really want to do the walk again.

The glass polygon garden is a must-see on the way down because there is a great view in the back area. You will also see this beautiful statue of a mother meeting foreheads with a child in a loving protective pose (this was my absolute favorite). The café there had a great air conditioning system, but the food looked expensive and classy – too classy for a sweaty traveler.

The walk along the garden will be a lot more beautiful when all the flowers bloom. It was a little dead except for a few of the pretty ones. I was already so tired from the earlier walk that the only Holy Grail in the distance was the end of the cable car poles. However, no matter how many gardens and poles I passed, there seemed to be another bend and twist of the pebble path to make my knees weaker.

I thought I had seen the heavenly gates before my eyes because of my shortness of breath and sweat soaked shirt. The ropeway ending point seemed like the first layer of heaven. I looked further down the path into the herb garden to see what tempted me to be an even more beautiful view. I had already walked so far from the waterfalls that I convinced myself that it would be worth it to walk up to the top. It seemed as if I had conjured this strength from deep within my bodily limits and believed that the next few steps would be worth all of my efforts. I had, at least, learned this much from religious influence.

There were two choices before me and I looked to see which direction more people came from to decide my path. What do all those characters mean? Later I learned that one said “climb me if you’re crazy” and the other said “walk this way if you’re strolling” (well not literally, of course). I had, at first, chosen the easier long path, but I kept second guessing that this would lead to a bus stop where people had just gotten off and are now walking down the mountain. After about 1 km of walking, I backtracked and climbed up the mountain on the second path. These steps were huge and thin – If the steps were any thinner, I would have been using my arms for support. When I reached the top, I immediately said, “You gotta be shittin’ me!?!” In front of me was a road for cars with no one in sight. What the crap is going on here? I continued to walk uphill with my confidence shattered and my shirt slightly more ruined.

The dam’s drinking water looked serene. A cool breeze made the reflection of the trees in the water a blur between dark and light green. Some random old man started speaking out loud about 5 feet to my right. It took me a few minutes to realize that he wasn’t just senile and talking to himself. I looked over and paid attention enough to hear his sentence end in “ne,” which gives an indication that I should agree with his random comment. For all I know he could have been reciting an epic poem or telling me about a death of a family member. I felt like a puppy communicating with a little boy. My head tilted slightly and I tried to move my ears and look like the most lost person in the world. “Shironai.” I later learned that old people speak really slurred Japanese, and they don’t care to slow down and pronounce their syllables. I think I would be just as confused if I had studied Japanese for a few more years, and then bumped into the same guy.

The steps didn’t look like they ended anytime soon. I had lost track of the ropeway, which was right above me at one point. Looking back at where I walked, the route tied around the other mountains to reach the top. The curvy zig zag path felt so inefficient. It had been 10 minutes since I last passed that interesting rope vine bridge to nowhere, and I was not too happy about the lack of shade ahead. My only motivation was thinking about the number of pictures I would take on the way down from the ropeway.

The view halfway up (or halfway down if you’re following the post this way) the mountain was special, but I had just finished the last of my 2L bottle of water so the sight looked a little grimmer as I thought about the rest of the walk up the mountain. I wish I could have refilled my water from the gorgeous waterfall earlier. Well, at least I bought an ice cream at that little store after the second waterfall to add some morsel of confidence. It (the ice cream, not the confidence) didn’t taste too good, but it quenched my thirst and left my mouth salivating for more (I guess it could apply to the confidence). Be sure to just stop and eat it because there’s no place to throw out the trash until you reach the half mountain point.

All I wanted to do was take off my clothes and jump into the water at the base of the waterfall. The walk had already been so horrendous. The full body pictures in front of this landmark actually looked like I put on my shirt without drying my body from a dip in the pool. It was already the second waterfall so I thought the walk shouldn’t be that much farther. I think this waterfall looks a little bit better than Minoh’s, but I might have been delusional from dehydration (for Minoh’s walk and this one).

It felt so good to see a waterfall in front of me for the first time in the day. I took a creepster picture of a girl holding an umbrella on the bridge overlooking the waterfall. Unfortunately, the trees were not changing color and the lighting kept the waterfall in the distance blurry. Her boyfriend didn’t look too happy after I took the picture. I was getting a little tired. It didn’t help that I had wandered off somewhere for 1.5 hours and lost the main trail up the mountain.

“Oh look, a side trail. Let’s go and see what’s over there. Maybe there’s a magical pony that will show me his world.” It was only 2 km roundtrip, so I manned up and started my first trail in Shinkobe. The steps were made of stone and everything looked like clay. They kept teasing me with these signs that told me how far I had walked every 5 minutes. At first, I thought, “wow, that was a quick 100m – this should be cake.” Then after 7km of walking around, I find myself shuffling my feet and gasping for air. It occurred to me that I should walk back, but when there’s 3km left, you just want to go the rest of it. The path split – one up the mountain and one along the side. With hopes to find a shortcut that would go back to the main path, (what a freakin’ stupid idea) I started climbing up. There was nothing but these old roots that acted as steps, but then a pair of hikers passed me and made me think there was actually something up there. As I walked for 30 minutes without seeing the end, I decided to give up. No more motivation to climb those nonstop flights of stairs. I must have vertically scaled at least 15 stories before turning back. At the end of the normal path, there was just a view of the city just skimming all the tops of the buildings. It was pretty pretty, but not worth going off course.

The information center lady was so nice. “Are you going to walk it? Oh, that should be nice,” she said with such a happy voice. “Have fun,” she added with a smile. Little did I know that this smile was a smirk and her comment was sarcastic. Learn to tell jokes, Japan. That’s just mean.

~See Lemons on Holiday-Vacation

shinkobe ropeway

shinkobe ropeway

Kobe: Rokko Mountain; the Family and Dating Scene

My favorite view

My favorite view

Random Observation/Comment #42: Ordering from a machine with pictures and automatically calculated change gives another dimension to fast food service. It’s impersonal but efficient – sounds like Japan to me.

The sound of dying cicadas drew me from that fantasy land. I thought it quite the odd moan from the group of bare women. I did that move we all do when we wake from a good dream – we try to keep our eyes unfocused and everything still a blur with hopes that we could drift back into her powerful legs against my back thighs. Sigh. I couldn’t trick myself with that intolerable wailing sound. I honestly don’t even know how one cicada sounds because they always harmonize into this continuous blotch of noise. If there could be a blotch of noise, it would be this screech… Of pain? Of ecstasy? Of persuasion? Is there just one I can shake out of a tree? Or are there hundreds playing their parts in the orchestra? Damn it – just Shut Up!

I looked out my 4th story window and didn’t see a cloud in the sky. I tried to shift around my balcony to see if there were some hiding behind a building, but it was simply a beautiful day. Thoroughly satisfied with my previous day’s adventures of tall buildings looking out into the distance, I figured I’d try tall mountains with the view from a different perspective. Kobe Rokko Mountain had been placed on a pedestal by friends and websites for its gorgeous view and relaxing onsens. Sure, why not? I headed towards Kobe with 2L of water and hiking shoes to show some dedication to my day’s plans.

The commute was not fun. It took about 1 ½ hours to get to Rokko station from Ishibashi station on the Hankyu line. From there, you walk down the escalator on the right side and wait with the other people for the number 16 bus. The line was so long that I needed to wait for 3 buses to pass before I could get a seat. The buses come every 10 minutes, but the heat and boredom was unbearable. Taking the bus to its last stop, you pay another 200 yen fee and reach the Rokko Cable Car. I would suggest paying for the 1300 ticket for a roundtrip cable car and unlimited bus ticket – it’s definitely worth it unless you’re hiking the whole thing, in which case, ‘Gambate.’ If you want to go to Arima Onsen, pay for the one-way 1700 ticket and then just leave from the station over there.

I remember taking the cable car in Hong Kong and having a beautiful view of the city on both sides as we scaled up the mountain, but this was not the same. It might be a different sight in autumn, but today it just looked like a normal train ride going uphill through a few tunnels with masses of boring green left and right (Yes, I’ve been slightly spoiled). The front was crowded because everyone hoped the sight would be better there, but I thought about it and sat in the back of the train, looking out the back window. Why should I compete with the little kids if the pictures look the same anyway? Besides, I could always take the back of the train going down and see the whole thing in reverse. I’ll just play it back in rewind in my mind, and it’ll be indistinguishable.

The first sight outside from the cable car station is absolutely breath-taking. You don’t get the same 360 view as the Floating Garden Observatory, but your pictures include the side of the mountain and a much more beautiful waterfront. Walk to the roof of the station to take some beautiful pictures and then continue walking through the car park area to get one of the left-side. I found a great spot a little bit further down the road away from the bus terminal. It had a nicely placed rock where you can just stand and have the perfect view (this is right before the guard rail starts).

I took the bus from the station to the last stop of Rokko Garden Terrace. There are botanical gardens and museums along the way, but Rokko Garden Terrace has, in my opinion, the best view. Walking through the villa-type area, you’ll find a lot of overpriced cafes and merchandise. The main viewing spot is up on that half-broken tower. Soak it in. My favorite picture here was the vertical shot with the villa below and a green hill with some busy city in the background. It takes some time to wait for the right moment when the tourists don’t clutter the scene, but if you have patience, it’ll be worth it.

Don’t forget to put aside your camera for a few minutes during your frenzy of snapshots. Nothing captures the memory like your own eyes looking into the distance. I’ve found that when I take pictures of this type of scenery, I’m always remembering the action of taking the pictures by looking through the little LCD screen on my camera. I don’t always remember the actual view through my own eyes. It takes a little bit more time to go through all of these locations, but I rather have a story to accompany the pictures than a lifeless image. What do I have to say about this experience up there on the top of that tower looking outward into the blurred distinction between city and blue sky? Mmm … I feel like I’ve come to a point where I can treasure it without words.

After the view from the terrace, I took a little ski lift thing down to the Rokko Country club. This place had everything for kids and young parents. There was fishing, miniature golf, rose gardens, bumper cars, ball play-pin, trampolines, artificial snow, boat rides on the lake, large open fields, and (my favorite) a hillside with a great view of all of the attractions. The shots were perfect for a photographer, but the photographer should not be a random stranger – it should be taken by a loving parent. I tried not to be too much of a creepster by taking pictures of children.

The view was spectacular, but I will probably not return for the night scene. I think there are better ways to spend the time and money. Arima Onsen is definitely on my to-do list, but I hear you can get a full day onsen and travel pass from any major station. You better bet I’ll go and find out (because I would and you would make money off of this silly bet) =).

~See Lemons Love the View

View from the hill to the country club

View from the hill to the country club

Have you ever slept in an Internet Cafe?

Ever since Chris joined on my random escapades throughout Japan, the days have been absolutely ridiculous.  From hitchhiking in Minoh to train hopping in Kobe and now sleeping in an Internet Cafe at 3:35AM, we’ve been having the best of time.  I’ve been drinking a little bit, so I should probably get some rest, but these events will be fleshed out when I have the time to reflect.  The lack of free time may be good for me :).

PS – I think this is the shortest entry I have ever written.

See Lemons Consider it Slammed

My new favorite way of spending 1000 yen

Shabu Shabu greatness

Shabu Shabu greatness

Random Observation/Comment #41: You’re driving on the wrong side of the road! What a bunch of amateurs. Please don’t run me over.

After meeting the Alabamanese, I walked around Tenjinbashi 6-chome, saw Billiken in his tower, and then went to the zoo. A quick word on the Tengkei tower – it sucks; don’t go and waste your time and money. There were two floors of a great view and a small wooden statue with the feet rubbed so much it eroded into a smooth carve, but there are far better ways to spend that money. For example, the zoo was also 500 yen and lasted a good 2 hours, compared to the 30 minutes of waiting and 15 minutes of picture taking at the tower. And the even better deal was the 1000 yen after that in – that’s right – Spa World =D.

It’s not an addiction. I went inside to see if they changed the price, but someone must have informed them that I was coming back to check because it was still 1000 yen for 3 hours. How did they know? I mean, if they open the door with a rolling red carpet, there’s no way I could refuse. I walked around the floor like a regular. I greeted the receptionist, waved at the little Japanese girls handing out advertisements, and winked at the old ladies giving backrubs for the hell of it. Unfortunately it was still Asia Spa so I couldn’t go to my waterfall spot, but the little spout was still as relaxing as ever. I sat in the saunas and went through the routine. My original opinions about the place stuck from the previous entry, and this time I wasn’t even looking around at the different spas anymore. I went to the ones that I enjoyed and then fell asleep on that couch while watching a Nadal vs. Federer tennis match on TV. I think I’ve only watched about 3 hours of TV in the past 2 months. Too bad my internet usage is still through the roof.

After the routine, I weighed myself and almost had my jaw dislocated from the dropping action. I started this trip weighing about 80kg (176 lbs). The first time at Spa World I weighed 78kg. When I went last week, I weighed 76.7kg. And, today I weighed 75.3kg (165 lbs). I don’t like this trend. Am I shrinking? My body seems to be in good condition, but it must be the burned calories from all those the weekend hikes. I felt that it was the lack of meat I’ve been eating – apparently the steak from Friday didn’t do anything. I weighed in right after a sauna and bath, so maybe I lost a lot of water weight? The explanations cycled through my mind as I stood there naked and in awe doing the conversion from kg to lbs. It was right there and then that decided to eat shabu-shabu for dinner – Give me that protein! In fact, I’ve had shabu-shabu 3 nights in a row since then, so I should maybe stop to save my cholesterol level (I tend to take these things overboard sometimes).

I ate like a king that night – a king that cooks his own food. I called the JETs after waiting patiently all day. Apparently they had followed the JETs schedule and woke up at 2PM to start a day in Nara. It had been a long day and I’d spent most of my money on entrance fees and food. Although I had enough money to party, my camera’s battery had taken a toll from the spectacular views. I knew I would be missing a great night, but my heavy eyelids got the best of me. I got home by 00:30 and collapsed to slumber and dream of another world. New York – that’s definitely another world…

~See Lemons Lose It

Oh the Zoo! I feel like I’m six years-old

Chillax

Chillax

Random Observation/Comment #40: I refuse to wash my hands from the so called “clean water” spouting from the top of the toilet. I don’t trust that shyt (no pun intended).

This visit to the zoo would mark a momentous occasion of being the first time: a) going with a camera and b) having the knowledge of all the existing animals. It must have been at least 12 years ago since I’ve gone to see some caged animals pose for its eager fan club. I have vivid memories of seeing all of these animals in some place or time, but it was probably just my imagination running away with itself during the series “Planet Earth.” Actually, I see no other explanation, because all of these memories are accompanied by a deep-voiced British narrator (not Aliens’ girl, BBC version is so much better).

The Tennoji zoo didn’t particularly start me with high expectations due to the faded signs and cheap 500 yen entrance fee. Fortunately, my low expectations left me pleasantly surprised of the zoo’s diversity and very cute animals. It’s no comparison to the Bronx zoo, but it looks like they tried pretty hard to put together a nice 2 hour walk. Tennoji Park (adjacent to Tennoji zoo) was 700 yen, so I chose the koalas over the flowers.

I didn’t miss the smell of the zoo – that stale water and feces smelled so bad it stung my eyes. The animals’ loud calls for help have all been misunderstood. Imagine what they would be saying if you could only understand their language. I wonder if each group/herd/pack has their own separate dialect or other form of communication used only between family members and close friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if lions released from these zoos are harassed for their Zoo accents and different cultures. Those animals completely secluded from the real world would be analogous to a person living in a bubble, only taught by the knowledge of the people they lived with. Even with curiosity and a creative imagination, there is no substitute for immersing yourself in an environment.

The more I think about their position in their societies, the more I see that these animals are spoiled by the daily meals and easily accessible mates. What survival skills do they have if we basically hand them fillet? Almost all of the animals came in packs, or at least, pairs. Your best friends are with you 8 hours a day posing for pictures until you go home to your cage (with no TV or internet to pass the time). You can never understand a word your boss says to you, but he has this horrifying power of withholding the rewards you think you deserve. And worst of all, any complaints are received in deaf ears – or even worse, seen as a sign of aggression. What choice do you have?

It sounds similar to a pampered slave where their only purpose in life is their existence and a continual conformist attitude (cough, movie stars, cough). Would you take the blue pill like this lion or the red pill and open your eyes to cold-blooded murder? The more I see of the real world, a part of me wants to retreat back to my caged life with prepared meals and predetermined schedules. Oh, how I missed that life where responsibility is replaced by dependency – If only I realized this potential for mischievous actions.

I was this caged animal set free to a larger cage in this larger zoo where you need to fend for yourself and look for your own mate. What did my smaller cage experience contribute to make this adjustment smoother? Not surprisingly, it wasn’t from those teachers with whips who tried to poison my brain with stupid tricks. No – it was the common sense and initiative to learn new skills. An indescribable instinct formed to evaluate choices and weigh decisions. The concept of responsibility and consequence slowly crept into each fold of the brain and built a foundation. Why is everything a cage?

Err, I think I’ve overanalyzed the zoo enough today.

~See Lemons Take Pictures of Aminals

Hey, Clemens – I mean, New York!

Awesomeness.  They were good sports about it.

Awesomeness. They were good sports about it.

Random Observation/Comment #39: You’re not a bad influence if the person you’re influencing is the one who gave you the idea, right? Having this power of persuasion over a different generation makes me feel old… older (let’s keep me in denial).

We first spoke in a crowded elevator. Our gazes met and my voice was clearly received. The dozens of eyes and ears (probably the same number of each) commented on my good English. I guess I do look like a Japanese tourist with shorts, a Jansport backpack (old school), Diesel shoes, and an Armani shirt – I’ll take it as a compliment. “Sumimasen, America-jin desu.” “::smile:: so desu ka? It’s okay, I speak English.” “Wow, your English is really good!” “I’m from New York.” “Who’s from New York?” “Are you an actor?” “That pudding has nipples!” What? Stop adding conversations that didn’t happen to the elevator ride.

When she asked me if I was an actor, I paused to search through the levels in my knowledge tree to make sense of this hypothesis, and in turn appropriately respond to fit the situation. Did she see right through me to this darker side of wearing masks and playing roles? Did I look like a heartbreaker who would ride out of this town as quickly as I rode in, and when I left I’d take her heart with me? No, it was probably not that deep rooted. Appearances make the first impression, so she probably just put New York and Armani together as an actor – not to mention my dashing good looks (cough, I just threw in my mouth too – haha inserted humor into my own stream of consciousness blog). I contemplated answering with “Aren’t we all actors and actresses?” but I was afraid my response would have been received with confusion. A lesson I learned throughout college – the third sentence out of my mouth should not begin with psychological mumbo-jumbo. People can be scared and run away when they slowly get to know me – not within the first minute. My response was a simple smile and head shake. Better for a person to think I’m stupid than creepy, right? The really smart people are smart enough not to even act smart – ingenious plan.

I boldly asked to follow their group with the hopes of finding a new underground sight-seeing area, or just a simple cure to my sickness known as loneliness (awh). Alabamians (Alabamites? Alabamanese?) are very friendly and they let me wander within their group (of course, the teachers needed to cross-check my references, pry into my deepest secrets, and strip search me for weapons, but it was much expected). My presence drifted through the crowds of high school students submerged into a new culture (literally, I think they were drowning of the culture shock).

Well, actually, I think their slow assimilation caused more harassment of the locals than the other way around. I would have probably been slapped if I randomly walked up to a group of girls and put my arms around them for a picture, but contrary to popular belief (actually just my own belief), my failure does not mean that it cannot be accomplished. First of all, it doesn’t hurt if you look foreign and speak very broken Japanese with an English accent (my natural Japanese look would just make them think I’m retarded). And secondly, you need a fairly large group to pull this off (which is kind of difficult when it’s just me). Once you have this winning combination, just walk up to pretty girls and have a field day with pictures.

I wound up answering a lot of the same questions about who I was and what I did as I hovered through different groups. In fact, I was talking so much that my questions never filtered into the conversation. What I really wanted to do was give these young minds the advice that I wish I would have gotten before their 10-day excursion. The high school trip I took part in 5 years ago seemed similar in description – separate high schools brought together from a selection process; independent home stay and international high school experiences for 5 days; 3 days of sight-seeing and learning different international problems or new research technologies; some type of report or presentation as a follow-up.

I personally loved my experience, but there were a few things that I wish someone would have informed me before the trip.

1) Freeeeeddooommm! – Your parents, teachers, and counselors probably told you not to let this go to your head because you have to be a respectable ambassador to the school and whatever, but honestly, go and have fun. Never stop asking questions and keep your eyes open for any opportunities to meet new people and try new things. Keep the mysterious American quirks while being mindful and respectful – all will be forgiven as long as you don’t burn down any buildings or accidently cause student fatalities.

2) You may think Japanese customs are weird, but they think American customs are weirder:

a. Don’t jay-walk – even though the police officers can’t really do anything to you, it’s probably good to just wait the extra few seconds – you’re not in a rush.

b. Don’t try on shirts before you buy them – this is just a silly rule, and you’ll probably be forgiven the first few times you do it because you look foreign. Plead ignorance.

c. Refrain from sleeping naked – the story wasn’t pretty, although quite funny and extremely embarrassing. Just trust me on this one.

d. Don’t hit on the girl you’re home staying with – I think Japanese girls have a problem with showing emotions. They just tend to fluster and turn red instead of facing these sorts of conflicts. Now that I look back, maybe it would be better if you stay as unattainable, foreign eye candy. It’s a little difficult with the language barrier anyway. Hitting on other girls from different high schools is definitely okay.

e. Stay awake in class – so you’re in a state of perpetual jet lag and the teacher is speaking in his foreign tongue. Your eyelids get heavy and your head begins to doze off like it normally does in Government class. Don’t fall asleep in front of a Japanese teacher because she will throw chalk at you (this probably happens back at home too).

f. Try not to sing that song stuck in your head out loud unless you want some odd looks – There’s a time and place for that: Karaoke! I think this mainly applied to me. Now that I think about it, I get weird looks in the States too.

3) Nato? Get that shyt away from me. Being open to trying new types of food is a wonderful thing (keep in mind of dietary restrictions). I ate everything they gave me and enjoyed every grain of rice and piece of noodle. I thought I’d be surrounded by sushi and sashimi, or even eel, but the Americanized version of Japanese culture opened me to only the higher end of Japanese cuisine. Most of the time, you’ll be eating udon, soba, or ramen with small portions of meat or tofu. As I speak, my diet of meat is on orange alert, and my fruit intake is on red alert. Damn, I just want a slice of pizza or a chipotle burrito.

4) Pictionary Mastah. Always have that notebook to draw on for Pictionary or hope you’re really good at acting out everything if your Japanese is poor. You won’t have to act like a chicken, squawking and flapping your wings (unless you really want to), only because chicken is the same in Japanese, but most of the other things will need a translator or some telepathic superpowers. Even though these conversations may be hard work, they are well worth the experience of overcoming a language barrier.

After sharing email addresses and facebook information, we all sadly parted ways. Before they left, we took pictures, exchanged information, shook hands, hugged, flashed gang signs, and I signed autographs on unspeakable body parts (that last part didn’t happen). The only piece of the puzzle missing, to make me feel more like someone chased by the paparazzi, was my aviator sunglasses. I think I’d make a good movie star. Well I guess I’m used to it, since I’m an actor. Aren’t we all?

I wish y’all (:D) the best of luck and the most amazing time in Japan. Enjoy =).

~See Lemons Meet New Friends

An Itinerary in Osaka for clear skies

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Perfectly placed balloon 🙂

Random Observation/Comment #38: Your brain only visually focuses on a section not much larger than your two thumbs at arms distance – everything else is just jumbled together in peripherals. Scenery like the ones from the top of mountains and towers blow my mind. These eyes pay so much attention to detail that I can barely notice the pixels =P.

The weekend was supposed to be a JETs filled crazy time, but one major detail slipped my mind between the essence of JETs and tourists. JETs (think of them as Japanese English Teachers even though it’s really called the Japan Exchange & Teaching Program) are vampires and tourists are zombies. JETs party all night and morning, waking at the crack of noon for some breakfast and a solution to their hangover (which probably leads to an earlier drinking schedule – it’s a vicious cycle). The weekends are free time to drink with friends and coworkers, and celebrate the blessing of a few days with a little less responsibility.

Tourists also haven’t got a worry in their world, but tend to stay awake when the rest of the world is awake for the best lighting effects and regional attractions. They feel an obligation to put their most effort into having a relaxing vacation (I didn’t know relaxing required this much effort). I actually think the super hi-tech, expensive cameras have latched onto their minds and pulled them to capture their next scenery shot and perspective. Who’s controlling whom? You must feed the camera or it will eat you. It whispers to me in the middle of the night during the weekdays (because the bulk of my photography work occurs on Saturdays and Sundays). I was wondering why the battery needed a recharge when I didn’t even touch the camera until a week ago. And yet, it stays powered for a full day of picture-taking – as it continuously feasts on the shades of life around me. I am, in all the descriptions possible, a tourist.

I stayed within the main Umeda area, knowing that I would eventually meet up with the JETs whenever they woke up. It was already my 4th weekend in Umeda, so I had already visited Yodobashi Umeda, HEP5, the whole Namba area, Osakajo Koen, Osaka Castle, DEN DEN Town, and Ebisucho. However, today was special. The clear skies and cool breeze was an indication to climb upwards. All of my past experiences with Umeda hinted rain, so I had put off visiting the Floating Garden Observatory (even when it taunted me with every Hankyu train ride). I’m glad I patiently waited for a clear day, and I suggest those with the clear skies opportunity to definitely head upwards for a birds-eye view.

The Floating Garden Observatory is an instant favorite from the very first sight of the beautiful reflective windows and large halo that connects the two adjacent buildings. The cross-beams and bridges (which are actually escalators between floors) add this exquisite flair. I was initially reluctant to face my terrible fear of heights, but my camera must have taken control of my body. I wasn’t exactly dragged kicking and screaming because my knees were mush and my legs were too weak to put up a fight. For some reason, I thought there was going to be glass floors like that tower in Seattle. Good thing there wasn’t because I would have shat a brick.

For those who can’t even climb a stool without getting scared of heights, I would not suggest going up here – actually I suggest you take care of that fear with some tough love. Any fear of heights less than that should be fine since everything looked like a very detailed painting to me. The windows don’t even angle outwards at the top so you could look directly down (my heart is beating faster just thinking about lying on one of these, 40-stories up). The top floor, right before the roof, is tiled white with cute little clear seats on every side of the circle (not the outside though). There are elevated chairs and strategically placed cafes around this floor. I’ve personally found this floor is better than the roof for photography purposes.

The very top has these ugly gray spikes all along the perimeter to prevent crazy tourists from jumping the fence or something. These annoyances force me to zoom-in, or at the very least aim for 65:35 sky:building ratio (which just isn’t my style). You’re actually not even close to the edge of anything (probably to prevent people from throwing stuff off the roof) so the fear of heights should be replaced by the awe of the 360 view. I spent most of my time trying to find some type of detail to focus my gaze. I always feel better to see moving cars in the distance when I’m in these picture perfect situations. It’s like the little pinch or nudge that makes sure I’m not dreaming (or looking at a large postcard poster wrapped around the building).

If you want to get in the scenery and not show up as a silhouette, your camera must be set with a flash (preferably SL to light up the background as well). The overcast doesn’t help, but since you can angle yourself towards the sun, I’m sure you’ll find a manageable angle and blend of squinty faces and shadows. Hmm, I bet this would look absolutely breath-taking at sunset, but I’ll have to adjust my schedule so I’m not exhausted by 5PM.

Anyway, the pictures in the air conditioned top floor were perfect as long as you chose a window that was not dirty (most were very clean) and there wasn’t a light source behind you to cause any glare. You’ll probably get great pictures of 3 out of the 4 winds. Out of the 60 or some odd pictures I took, I really love the view that follows the train tracks across the river and into the distant city – you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there.

To highlight my day, I met a large group of high school Alabamians who were all sight-seeing and following a 10-day exchange program, similar to the one I attended 5 years ago (damn – I’m old). I spent about an hour following their friendly tour guide and spoke with the students and teachers. They picked my brain while we walked around and had lunch together. I’ll dedicate a completely separate entry to them because I don’t want to stray from my topic of “places to go in Umeda if the sky is clear.” I’ll leave the reflections of my past and suggestions for the future separate.

This entry is getting dreadfully long, so I’ll outline what I did this weekend and write in more detail throughout the week:

Saturday:

10AM – Flower Garden Observatory – this entry

12 PM – Lunch with Exchange Program Alabama Students – next entry

1PM – Tenjinbashi 6-chome – 3rd entry

1:30PM – Tsutenkaku Tower with Billiken

2:30PM – Tennoji Zoo

5:30PM – Spa World – 4th entry

8:30PM – Shabu shabu dinner

10:00PM – Namba and Dotonbori wandering

11:00PM – Met up with JETs for a quick talk and introduction

11:45PM – Head home because I was exhausted and didn’t want to spend what I approximated to be $15 Karaoke, $35 Pure, and $25 Capsule hotel

Sunday: – Kobe entry, maybe separate entry for shabu shabu reflections

10:00AM – Head towards Kobe – Rokko Mountain

12:00PM – Cable car & bus rides

12:45PM – Rokko Garden Terrace

2:30PM – Mt. Rokko Country Club

4:00PM – Cable car & bus ride – commute was terrible

5:30PM – Shopping for groceries to make my own Shabu Shabu dinner =)

7:30PM – Flight of the Conchords!

9:00PM – Ping pong!

Monday: Holiday stroll entry

9:00AM – No bus…

9:30AM – No train… Oh, a holiday!

10:00AM – Decide on Kobe

10:30AM – Forgot Camera, head back home

11:00AM – Back to the Hankyu Railway

11:30AM – Sannomiya

12:00PM – Shinkobe

1:00PM – Got lost on a trail

1:30PM – backtracked to find some waterfalls

2:00PM – Hike up the mountain

3:30PM – Walk through the garden

4:30PM – Cable car ride of 100 pictures

5:00PM – Back home

6:30PM – Shabu shabu again!

~See Lemons Love These Blue Skies

Spa World again: Another month, another spa

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the girl of the okonomiyaki and takoyaki 🙂

Random Observation/Comment #37: Even the white guy speaks better Japanese than me. Excuse me while I hide my head in shame.

After the gruesome experience of walking the bicycle home for two hours, I felt it impossible to do my original goal of bike riding from Ishibashi Station to Umeda Station. The bike ride to school would be a cake walk (never really understood this phrase, but whatever) compared to the distance from my dorm to the river. I hear there are large hills and a lack of bicycle friendly main roads heading towards the city. Not to mention the fact that I had a flat tire (and a warrant for my arrest, which should be cleared shortly). I considered Nara, Kyoto, Kobe, and Nagoya for possible choices of travel for this Sunday, but it was just one of those days where all I wanted to do was nothing.

Of course, I couldn’t just do nothing – I had to do something. The challenge would be doing something that required little attention, and yielded the most replenishment, while also being productive and utilizing the pure foreign experience (and curing cancer). This is when I remembered that Spa World changes floors for men and women on alternating months. I had a completely new Spa World to experience, so I obviously couldn’t pass up the opportunity. With the intention of spending at least 2500 yen for the day, I was pleasantly surprised when three hours cost only 1000 yen. Maybe it was a special day, or they knew that I was coming so they dropped the price for me (and everyone else). I’m going to choose the latter to make me feel more important. This month was the Asia theme.

Although Asia sounded like the more attractive choice in the beginning, my experience there left me slightly disappointed. I think I was spoiled by the large number of choices and waterfalls from the European spa. There were much less baths and this lack of a waterfall really bothered me. My original complaint about the European baths was that there were too many selections that repeated in every themed area, but I’d like to flip this con into a pro. People don’t stick around one area too long anyway, so if you find a place you like, it is more likely that other people will walk to different baths. Those who are going for their first time (like me) always feel this obligation to go through all of the rooms and say they’ve tried everything Spa World had to offer. In today’s case, I was left sitting there with a more frequent cycle of newcomers, making noise and attacking my personal space. It’s not homophobia, but when my leg is almost touching another naked man’s leg, I get a little claustrophobic.

Here is a rundown of what to expect of the Asia Spa:

When you walk in, there is a grand bath with perfect temperature water, similar to that of the Europe Area. There are three little streams of water pouring from a clay statue on the left, which vaguely resembles a waterfall – this was actually where I spent most of my time. I feel like I’ve grown accustomed to normal bathing, and I want to be surprised with something unique like a different colored water or a huge fountain with bubbles. Whatever the surprise, I tend to choose getting a massage by water than just soaking in other people’s dirtiness.

Walking out of this main room, there is “Dr. Spa” on the left. In this area, there is a salt sauna, a cloudy watered bath, a warm bath, and 3 single lawn chairs immersed in a warm bath. I guess they added this portion because they needed another section to fill in the baths that aren’t traditionally Asian.

Continuing left, there is the outside Japanese traditional onsen with more natural scenery. The sides of the pools were filled with rocks that really hurt my back leaning against them, but I’ve always liked the extra sun. They even have the large wooden tubs that look like they can be used for brewing sake. I wound up sitting in one of these and playing with the smaller wooden ladles like a rubber ducky. I found it fascinating because it still stays afloat even when it’s completely filled with water – probably because it’s completely made of wood. I’ve concluded that the outdoor places are the best as long as it’s warm and not raining. The natural humidity acts as a combined sauna and water bath.

The next area (which I think was also Japanese) had two large baths, two hot coal saunas, and a sleeping area. The sleeping area consisted of a line of foam mats with wooden, cylindrically-shaped pillows. Let me tell you, if you like comfortable, this isn’t the place for you, because it’s the opposite of comfortable. It’s the pure essence of sleeping on the floor. There was a nice breeze from the air conditioning conveniently placed above, and if you close your eyes you might be able to imagine the warm breeze blowing against your naked body on a nice beach. Of course, when you open them, you’ll find that you’re naked lying next to middle-aged/old naked men. This sounds like a version of the “forbidden hello.”

The last area was actually mostly for the body scrubbing room, but it did have a bubbly Jacuzzi with a great view of a gold fountain. This Jacuzzi made me feel like I was a king with my own private place to bathe, surrounded by my international treasures acquired from my conquests of neighboring countries. (It’s probably just me and my crazy imagination.)

There were a few other rooms, but they were all for taking showers before leaving the place. In no way were you cheated out of any particular type of sauna/cold bath/hot bath, but the reduced number of selections did make me feel this way. Clemens, the typical American, looking at quantity instead of quality. Or Clemens, the typical American, always moving to the next experience instead of treasuring the current one. Or Clemens, the typical American, over-scheduling his life even when he’s on vacation. Mmm – there’s much to learn from other cultures.

Before leaving Spa World, there is a checkout machine that you pay for the expenses of the wristband. In return, you get a ticket that makes the turnstiles work for the exit. I think there’s a huge flaw in this system, but they probably took it into account. What stops a person from paying for the 3 hours and then getting the ticket to leave later? You could basically sleep there in those lounge chairs and not have to pay for those overnight fees, right? I don’t think it’s worth the extra $3 or $5 that you’d be saving, but I’d be curious to see if they thought about the scenario.

~See Lemons Thoroughly Replenished

The Flat Tire concluded

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More inverted pictures! This one is hilarious 🙂

Random Observation/Comment #36: Do I look like someone that can help you? I don’t even know what question you’re asking, let alone answer the question. I need much more help than you do, lady.

Who am I kidding? How do you get a town car in Japan, anyway? It doesn’t matter what I thought at the time because my impulsive thinking had brought me into an empty parking lot and where I faced my predators – all 3 of them. Their weapons were drawn, and I had nothing except this loaned bike from Osaka University. I remember the first (and last) thing I said to them “Where did you get that town car?”

I looked for the leader of this gang, so I could possibly reason with them. The person I wanted to find was someone short, less bulky, and well-dressed, protected at the center of the crowd. Unfortunately, they were all dressed in the same black suit, and they all wore sunglasses (even though it was already dark outside). No further words were exchanged.

My hands instinctively tried to touch the ceiling when they reached for their inner pocket. Before I could blink again, it was already over. I was on one knee, trying not to looking at the damage. As thoughts raced through my mind, the one that stuck was, “Why?”

The hissing sound of the deflating tire made me wrench in pain. It foreshadowed the sound of my deflating lungs gasping for a few more breaths of air. “Not like this,” I thought to myself. In all those action movies, the protagonist never gives up because there would always be a happy ending. I live to tell the story, so this wasn’t the conclusion. It’s actually more like the peak of the conflict.

Their laughs tormented me as I slowly rose to my feet. No more quick escape. Great plan, Clemens – “Let’s stop in a parking lot and face them because there’s a chance they could be friendly.” I cursed at my own stupidity, but decided to continue with the most illogical actions.

It might have been the adrenaline or maybe it was the anger, but I lifted that bike above my head and wielded it like a broad sword. A dark aura surrounded me, and their gasps gave me the impression that I was looking pretty damn badass.

I charged towards them blindly, swinging the bicycle like I would a younger cousin attempting to perform an outrageous wrestling move. They were so stunned at my boldness that they forgot to shoot me. Instead, they waited there like neatly arranged bowling pins lined up for my Strike.

After spinning twice, the bicycle wheel met the face of one of my oppressors. He flew into the air and knocked into his comrade (as planned, of course). Because of the impact, I was also recovering from the attack, but in less than a second, I was ready to face the remaining guy. I guess his eyes were wide open for a Japanese guy, and his jaw dropped a little more than usual. As he stood there in amazement, I jumped off of his car and kick him in the chest. I couldn’t help but scream “waaaaaaa!!!!” like Bruce Lee.

I grabbed the guy from his collar and asked the typical question – “Who do you work for? Who sent you?!?!” Before he could answer, he stopped breathing and died in my arms. I looked at the other two – lifeless, limp, and mangled by the bicycle.

My job had been complete (dun dun dun! Oh, you didn’t see that plot twist coming at all, especially from a blog!). From day 1, they hired me, not to program some robot, but to protect them from those who were after the secret. I failed to find the source of this attack, but now I know more of what to expect in this line of work.

I drenched the car and the bodies in gasoline, and walked away without looking back. I lit a cigarette and threw the match across my shoulder. The trail of gasoline caught fire and traced its way back to the car. In a burst of flames and a glorious special effects explosion, my victory was complete.

I had to walk that damn bike home with a flat tire. It took me 2 hours, and another nice shirt was stained (with the blood and sweat of my enemies)…

Well, at least this was the story I told my dorm so I didn’t have to pay for the damages. What really happened wasn’t as exciting, so let’s just stick with the first version =).

~See Lemons Love Writing