January 3, 2013

NRT to LAX: Final Thoughts

Greetings from Kraftland,

I said my farewells to Japan "yesterday" (what day is it?) after spending a fantastic final day with my dad, Aziz and Grace and the Disney parks. Much in the same way that soldiers and astronauts must be debriefed and reintroduced to their normal lives after a long journey, so too did I have to ease the transition from Japan to America, and the best way to do that was obviously at Disneyland.

Before saying sayonara, I woke early and travelled into Shibuya to see Kaorina. It was the first time I had been in the area so early in the morning, and because it was right after New Years, the place was empty; if the streets weren't so impeccably clean, I believe some tumbleweed may have blown past. It was eerie, the mixture of emptiness and the realization that it may be years until I travel back to Tokyo, but it was a new year and time for a new chapter.

It was never explicitly stated but should now be quite obvious: what was initially supposed to be a one-year trip complete with a job, apartment, and something that resembled language study has instead become a three-month adventure that served a very different purpose. I made this decision just over a month into my travels and while it was hard not to have feelings of failure, what I ultimate concluded was that the "why" that drove me to Japan was different than the "why" that materialized once I was there. I had wanted to give myself something to do for a year since my post-graduation aspirations were not defined and I thought that one year abroad sounded like a good way to structure my time. What I discovered though is that I really just needed some time for self-reflection and to reset my compass.

When the reflection was done and the compass reset (by furiously making a figure 8 motion) I realized that while I loved Japan and was making great friends and learning new things, it was not the place I wanted to be and teaching English or any other job that a non-Japanese speaker could hold was not how I wanted to spend a year of my life. Again, hard not to feel like I had failed as my initial goals were not met, but the things I learned on this trip were so important that I now have very few, if any, feelings of defeat.

January 2, 2013

89 in 89: Recap

So, how'd I do?

Let's first discuss those uncompleted goals

4.            Be able to recognize 50 Kanji characters
  By my count I learned 30, so not quite, but still 30 more than when I arrived!
5.            Be able to sing the Japanese National Anthem
  I know the lyrics, does that count?
6.            Be able to understand afull-length Japanese film
  I saw dubbed Frankenweenie w/o subtitles, but I was still pretty lost
7.            Be approached for a photo withover a dozen Japanese school girls
  How did this not happen every day? On all previous trips to Japan this has happened. I'm
  telling myself that I've just assimilated into the culture to the point where they don't
  recognize me as an outsider
8.            Be asked for and able to give direction
   This happened often but was never interesting to write about, so completed! 
11.         Be on Japanese TV
   I can't find the footage of me at the Frankenweenie fashion show, so until then...
17.         Drive a moped
   I once drove one around the Fred Meyers parking lot in Canby, does that count?
18.         Earn a Japanese nickname
   Catherine calls me "Hiding Yawn Face" since I'm constantly trying to stifle my boredom
   with what she says... I suppose that's less Japanese and more Native American though
24.         Find a job & a one-year visa
   I attempted this goal at Gaba but am ultimately happy to say I failed
29.         Get a custom-made suit
   I ended up finding a place online that is in LA, so while it's not completed yet, the
   initial emailing and scheduling started in Japan. I'm cheating and calling it a success
30.         Get paid in yen to do something

December 31, 2012

New Years Eve

As lovely as the concierge was at the Grand Hyatt, all she was able to deliver to us was bad news: first that the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku was closed and then that pretty much all of Tokyo is dead during the week surrounding New Years Eve. I had scheduled my trip to be in Japan for the new year, assuming it would be a wild and crazy event to remember, but I was beginning to feel like it would just be a late night of cards.

But in true Richard fashion, some skimming through pamphlets in the hotel lobby lead him to the most obvious and best choice for our New Years celebration: Let's go to Disneyland!
New Years Eve at the Happiest Place in Japan
To ring in the new year, both Disneyland and Disneysea stayed open until 7am on January 1st, allowing guests lucky enough to hold special tickets to start their 2013 in the Magic Kingdom. But because these tickets had been sold out for weeks, it was looking like our only option was to cancel  our last two nights in Tokyo and move ourselves to Disneyland. So I said a farewell to the city as we took a cab from Roppongi to Disneyland and vowed to return to finish off my list of goals.
Richard in Wonderland
A post-dinner pastry party

The parks closed for two hours to allow normal guests to vacate before letting in those privileged few with the New Years tickets. During that time Richard and I wandered around the Downtown Disney-esque shopping plaza here at the park while swarms of shoppers took advantage of the Time Sales, which are held spontaneously by different stores for only short amounts of time and are usually announced by cute young girls yelling and holding signs. We found a delicious Korean Barbecue restaurant and fueled up for what was sure to be a long night.

December 29, 2012

Rabbits & Beatles & Parrots

Less than a week left in Japan and I've got goals to accomplish!

But before I recap a full day of adventures and goal accomplishment, a word to the wise: If you're looking for a jam-packed New Years, do not come to Japan. As it turns out, the city is dead surrounding the new year celebration as everyone is home celebrating with family. Shops close, restaurants shut down, and any "celebration" type events are really only held within families. This means that a few of my goals which I thought were going to get accomplished in this last stretch of time will not. The robot restaurant in Shinjuku, for example, is closed for the next week. If you clicked the link you'll understand the pain this news brought to my heart. I guess it's always good to leave a reason to come back...

We spent the morning (well when you've got two Krafts trying to do anything, 'morning' means afternoon) walking and talking and slowly making our way towards Harajuku. When we arrived, I retraced the footsteps I had taken with Lizzy and Catherine to arrive back at Ra. A. G. F. (Rabbits And Grow Fat) which is the rabbit cafĂ© (48).  The room was no bigger than a living room with one wall comprised entirely of rabbit cages.

Guest Blogger: Monkey Madness by Richard Kraft

 Somewhere during hurried TSA screening at LAX on my way to Tokyo last week I lost my belt leaving me to arrive in Japan with extremely saggy pants.

An enthusiastic Nicky met me after customs, but all I could obsess on was keeping my jeans from dropping in front of hordes of innocent Asians.  Even though I had not seen my son for almost three months, I found it virtually impossible to focus on his words.  I sensed I was about to flash an entire nation.

Nicky joined me as we scoured the shops of the Narita Airport in search of a replacement belt.  Nicky is like a bloodhound when it comes to this sort of assignment.  Within seconds he scanned past endless racks of charmingly gift-wrapped pastries and squid-flavored snacks to zero in on a shelf full of belts… all perfectly sized for the average Japanese and not for an American roughly the dimensions of Godzilla.

I bought a belt anyway thinking I could suck in my gut enough to make it to our hotel.  After hours of train travel we finally arrived at our accommodations at Mt. Fuji, where I unharnessed the strap unleashing my massively aching girth.

For our travels the next day I used a scissor to drill a hole further down the length of the belt.  It was a makeshift relief that allowed Nicky and I to safely revisit an amazing theme park, Fuji-Q Highland, without fear of mooning the other guests or of me passing out from too much girdling. 

10 years ago a twelve year-old Nicky and I had explored the roller coasters of Fuji-Q Highland nestled against the backdrop of beautiful Mt. Fuji.  Here I was with a dashing, confident 22 year-old man that vaguely resembled that orange-dyed, spiked-haired, young kid from a decade ago. 

There was something truly magical in knowing that he had blossomed into such a fine young gentleman.  And something even more enchanting was to be as connected to him as we had been in our younger incarnations.  We were still cracking the same jokes, making the same insider observations.  Nothing a drop or specific of our love and bond had diminished.  

In some ways things had improved.  Each of our roller coasters seemed more exhilarating than they did 10 years ago.  I think back then we were on such a quest to cram in as many coasters as we could each summer that I sometimes forgot to actually enjoy them.

Also, back then Nicky was basically my hostage.  12 year olds don’t make plans, book hotels, set itineraries.  He was my tagalong.  This time he was fully there by choice.  Though he was more distracted this go-around (sending emails, texting, checking Facebook), it somehow meant more to me that the moments we did spend focused, one-on-one were by his election.  Nicky really did want to hang out with his old man with the hand-punched belt.

When we returned from the theme park Nicky discovered belts my size in the hotel gift shop.  As I discarded the hole-drilled version, I came to appreciate how much a properly fitting strap of leather can really make a difference in one’s life.

December 28, 2012

The Arctic Monkeys

Two days ago, as we were leaving Fuji-Q Highland, we discovered that the tallest coaster at the park (and one time tallest coaster in the world) had unexpectedly re-opened as the winds had calmed down. We checked the time and decided we could fit it in before leaving the park, but this left us with a mad-dash for a taxi as we were catching a train from Fujisan to Hakuba that evening. But I write you now from a very snowy and beautiful chateau in the Nagano prefecture, so spoiler alert: we made it.

There were three things I wanted to accomplish while in Nagano: snowboard (64), hike the Japanese Alps (39), and chill with the famous onsen snow monkeys (88). I knew Richard was not a fan of cold weather and the snow, but the promise of meeting the stars of Baraka was enough to get him to go along with the plan. I also figured that during the time I'd be snowboarding, he'd be asleep, so he wouldn't be missing much.

And I was right! I set my alarm for 6:45am, which gave me enough time to gather my things, go down to the lobby where there was a shop, rent a board, boots, bindings, a beanie, goggles, and snow pants (I was a little unprepared...) and then make my way to the mountain. Unfortunately I was up and out an hour before the shop opened, so I instead decided to head to a Burton rental shop 20 minutes away by taxi. When I arrived, however, the place was empty. After some poking around, an Australian bro wandered down from the apartment above the shop and informed me that they had moved locations last winter and that I was a 60 minute walk away. For a moment I thought I had just stranded myself in the middle of nowhere as the cab had already driven away, but pointed me up the hill where there were a number of rental shops surrounding the Hakuba 47 ski resort.

The Japanese Alps
I figured it was only one day of riding so I didn't need to be too picky about my gear; the point of the goal was to say I've ridden in Japan rather than have some epic shred session. I wanted to have a new experience riding in a drastically different environment, so I probably would have settled for just about anything I could strap my feet to. I found a shop and rented a Burton Cruzer with one of the narrowest stances I've ever seen on a board as well as brand new, never been worn Burton boots that very well may have been as stiff as ski-boots. They also happened to be a size too big, but again, I was not planning on gnar shredding and was just looking to hit the slopes for a few hours.

December 26, 2012

Fuji-Q Highland: 10 Years Later

A lot can be said about the beauty of Fujisan. In fact, a lot has been said about Japan's tallest and most picturesque mountain so let's just skip it all and move onto the real beauty of this area: Fuji-Q Highland Theme Park.

Richard and I first visited Japan 10 years ago on our quest to ride every roller coaster in the world. Originally we had set out to review only the coasters in America, but at the time the tallest coaster in the world was in Japan. Every few weeks I'd remind him of this fact and joke that the book we were writing should be called The Richard and Nicky Tour: A Father-Son Guide to America's Greatest Roller Coasters. And the One in Japan. Well in true Kraft fashion, what started as a joke turned into a reality as we spent 3 weeks taking planes, trains, and buses all around Honshu island in order to ride every coaster in Japan. One of the stops on that tour was Fuji-Q Highland:
Pretty incredible location
Goal 72: Summit Mt. Fuji. Completed.
When I flew out to Japan 3 months ago, I decided I really wanted to return to one of the theme parks we had first visited and re-ride the roller coasters (51). So when Richard booked his tickets to come visit, I scheduled a trip to Fujisan so we could retrace our footsteps a decade later and see what we remembered. It's amazing how quickly things come flooding back to memory once you have one or two hooks by which you can pull out those long lost memories. In the case of spacial awareness and reconstruction, all it takes is a single site of a food stand or the peak of a lift-hill to open the flood gates. I have always had this image of a food-stand sign with a cartoon octopus holding an octopus kebab, located across from the entrance to a roller coaster, and as soon as the peaks of that coaster cast shadows over us, the image came rushing back to my memory and seconds later, there was that octopus. All the thoughts I had as a twelve year old came back with the site and were pretty much the exact thoughts I have today, "who the fuck would want to eat octopus on a stick and why is that octopus offering us bits of himself?!"