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?!"

December 25, 2012

Kentucky Fried Christmas (Now with more monkeys!)

Today I picked my dad up from Narita airport. He's coming to visit for the last 10 days of my trip and we're starting off our adventure in Fujisan, followed by Nagano and then Tokyo. It was a strange experience heading back to Narita, and because he took the same flight I did, I returned to the same exact terminal and exit where I had begun my journey. I revisited the currency exchange where I had traded my USD for Yen and passed the Post Office in the airport where the SIM card and mobile WiFi I had ordered were waiting. Hard to believe that less than 3 months ago I had walked through the same doors of customs not knowing how exactly I was going to do anything while in Japan. 

We had a series of trains from Narita to our hotel in Fuji which gave us a nice chance to catch-up. The only time I had been to Mt. Fuji previous to this trip was on my first visit to Japan, which we realized was 10 years ago, during our quest for roller coasters. One of the stops on this trip was Fuji-Q Highland in order to re-ride the coasters we had ridden a decade earlier (51), as well as the new ones that have opened (we're slowly closing in on 500 coasters). At some point on the train we realized it was Christmas Eve and sort of nodded in acknowledgement. There's a major lack of Jesus here in Japan (and also in our lives) so Christmas Eve here is not terribly exciting.

Our Christmas destination
Christmas joy
Catching up over a glass of green and orange
Oh, this was gonna be good
I think they overestimated attendance
Yugi and George

December 23, 2012

Spot of Tea and Spotted Panties

I have been busy these last two days making sure to complete as many goals as I can before Richard arrives. The final checklist had me running all around Tokyo in search of fake food, used panties, and specific views from Lost In Translation with just enough time to stop for a tea break, which happened to also be a goal! Somewhere along the journey I stopped to admire the diversity of these goals that I've set and the opportunities they've afforded me. Where else can you spend your day hunting down used women's underwear while also trying to find a place to get an artisan bowl of green tea?

Saturday began with a trip towards Tokyo Station to a store nearby that sells goods from Kyoto, and for a small price, customers can experience a tradition Japanese tea ceremony (2). I do not believe a tradition ceremony is held in the middle of a store with customers brushing their behinds against your tea cup and the sounds of tills in the distance chiming away, but the part of the process where you have to wait 20 minutes as someone painstakingly makes a single cup of green tea remained the same. Also the part where it's disrespectful to talk or take photos carried over from the traditional ceremonies so I wasn't able to ask much about what they were doing, nor was I able to snap any photos of the process. Essentially an older woman in a kimono boiled hot water and then added it to a cup of matcha powder which had been carefully measured out. She then used a bamboo whisk to mix the powder and the water, rotating the cup with every few stirs. I was supposed to gather how important it is to put care into in life, including the little things like making tea, but what it really made me realize is how important it is not to waste time doing something like making tea. I had panties and fake food to find was eager to get a move on!
2 Birds with 1 Stone: If I had managed to buy her panties
Traditional tea serving area/place for customers to congregate as they wait to purchase their items
The all important bamboo whisk 
From there it was a short ride to Kappabashi-Dori, which is a street in Asakusa that sells everything one would require if they were to start a restaurant, with the exception of food. I was on a mission to find the fake food that most restaurants in Japan display as I've wondered if these restaurants buy the display food and then tells the chefs to create dishes that resemble those, or if they send photos of their dishes to the companies which make the displays in order to have custom ones created. These are the questions that have plagued my days the past few weeks and I knew there was only one way to answer them:

December 21, 2012

A Farewell to Home

Today I had to say my goodbyes to Kelly & Yurika, who were my two unbelievably generous and kind hosts these last 3 months. Kelly is off to spend the holidays in India, Yurika is returning home to Okinawa, and I'm meeting up with my dad in 3 days to get some Kentucky Fried Chicken. I am sure we will all have three completely different yet equally as wonderful holidays, but only I will experience His 11 herbs and spices.
Kelly & Yurika
The day began with a brilliant and all around adorable Christmas performance at the school where Kelly teaches. For the last few weeks she's been teaching her kids songs and dances in preparation for the Christmas show and it was something I just couldn't miss. Yurika and I made our way to the school and found a spot front and center so as to be sure not to miss a single thing.
A bit too big for the chair
A festive stage
GQ: Toddler
4 seconds in and I was already on board
The tiniest one in the red dress: killing it.
Not since Julie Taymor's Lion King have costumes been so inspired
The axe men coming to chop down the tree. It was a terrifying moment.
Some sort of animal seance 
A Madagascar 3 themed finale, of course
Yurika and I after one of if not the best Christmas shows I have ever attended in Japan

I shot some video that I will cut together as the cuteness was just too much for still photography. I truly wish I could begin each day with a song and dance performed by toddlers in silly costumes. You haven't truly heard "Feliz Navidad" until you've heard it mumbled by a group of tots, and if you think you've heard "I Like to Move it Move it" by Reel 2 Reel, you've got another thing coming...

After the show the three of us returned to the apartment where we proceeded to pack, clean, and be merry. It was the first time since departing for Japan that I have packed up all my stuff and not surprisingly I seemed to have acquired new things in these last months. 'Twas quite odd packing as it hit me how soon I would be returning home. It's hard to determine if this has been a long journey or if it's gone by in a flash. On one hand it's the longest I've ever been away from America and the first time I've really travelled alone. Multiple that by a factor of I didn't know anyone when I arrived and barely spoke the language and you've got what feels like a lifetime spent in Japan. But I realize that three months is a very short amount of time and can already feel myself losing some of the feelings of discovery that I've felt since arriving. I look forward to getting home and having this blog to help remind me of the thoughts and feelings that came with my short time here as there is much I would like to apply to my life once I return.

Never fun to say goodbye, but Kelly will be returning to Los Angeles in the Spring and hopefully Yurika will be able to find work to also move out to the States. I can't fathom how much different and more difficult this journey would have been without their insanely generous offer to host me for as long as I needed and I hope to pay forward that kindness and generosity to others in the future. But before I do that, I'll be taking advantage of one other person's generosity since I am homeless until Monday night, when Richard arrives. That kind someone is Aziz who is letting me crash at his place this weekend. I'm headed there now and look forward to some time with him since we haven't had much time to hang since Okinawa. So I write one last time from Tsunashima, which was my semi-permanent home here in Japan. I ran the banks of the river that cuts through the town, explored the hills and parks to get better views of the valleys, pumped yen into the Tekken game at the Sega arcade as well as the claw machine at the station convenience store. It is here that I found Taylor when he came to visit as well as where we said goodbye. I used my first laundromat here and in the process befriended a 91 year old woman. If this is the first and only time I spend an extended amount of time in Japan than Tsunashima will forever be my Japanese home. I didn't even know the place existed 3 months ago, funny how much can change in such a short amount of time.

December 20, 2012

Super Deluxe

When I arrived in Japan I researched the best music venues in Tokyo and kept coming across a place in Roppongi called Super Deluxe. I checked out their schedule and found a really impressive line-up of relatively unknown artists ranging from experimental hip-hop to garage rock.  I say relatively unknown because I had to consult the internet for most of the acts and was surprised to find a number of artists I really liked. I decided to make it a goal to attend a show there before I left (21).

There were some acts I wanted to see in October, but I couldn't rally anyone else to pay $50 to see an unfamiliar act. When I returned from my month in Kyushu, I checked the schedule again and noticed an announcement that "Morgan's Organ will play their 100th and last show in March 2013". Upon further research, I found that on the third Thursday of every month, for the last 96 months, Morgan Fisher has performed his experimental and improvisational solo pieces on a variety of his vintage keyboards at Super-Deluxe. He was the Jon Brion of Super-Deluxe and I wanted to be a part of one of his final performances. Plus it was free!

The Last Three Days

Have you ever noticed that whenever you sit down to write a blog, you end up just watching Seinfeld until you fall asleep? I mean, what's the deal with that?!

Let's do some catch-up:

A few days ago I said I was amazed that I hadn't gotten sick since arriving in Japan. I was extra careful to knock on wood, but apparently that's not a thing in Japan, so when I woke up Monday, I was a bit under the weather. 'Twas a day of reading and staying bundled up until I met up with Kelly and Yurika to see The Hobbit.


That was Monday! It was good to have a restful day though as Tuesday I was planning on waking up early to head to Nikko with Lizzy (86).

Another World Heritage Site
It was a 2 hour train ride directly North of Tokyo and when we arrived, the air was cool and the mountains in the distance were covered in snow. Really a beautiful sight, but my camera battery was dead so all I could manage were some iPhone shots:

Big fan of this demonic elephant
Child proofing the temple
We caught a little snow
It appears this creature is scratching his butt up against the wall.

Hear no evil, Speak no evil, See no evil

Apparently there's a pagoda in this building. I appreciate their attempt to disguise the surrounding structure.
Nikko is a fantastic day trip from Tokyo as it's two hours away, a welcomed departure from the busy city, and seems to have just enough Temples and shops to keep a person busy for a few hours. We dined on some fantastic Indian food, poked our head in a few temples and shrines, sampled some sweets and tea, and then went back to Tokyo. It was my first time seeing snow in Japan as well, and while it was sparse, I got visions of the red shrines poking through blankets of white; must be gorgeous.

Yesterday was another goal annihilating day as I went to Tsukiji Fish Market (38), walked the Rainbow Bridge (77), and attempted cartography (82).

The highlight of Tsukiji is the tuna auction that happens every morning at 5:30am. I've been told by many that while the hour is brutal, it is justified by how fun it is to see the hundred of Japanese chefs survey the daily catches and place their bids. Unfortunately the holiday season is so busy that they close the auction to tourists from December 1st-mid January. Unfortunate for some, but it gave me a great excuse to not wake up at 4:30am! Also, what does a few tons of tuna smell like? I had no interest in finding out.

I arrived about 90 minutes before closing but found that most of the shops had already shut down. There was not much hustle or bustle, but it was none the less interesting to wander the aisles. I couldn't help but think of Comic-con exhibit hall. Sadly, the Tsukiji Fish Market smells better than Comic-con...

I didn't see the 5:30am auction nor did I eat any fish; it was exactly what you'd expect from me going to a fish market! I would be interested to go back when there is more excitement, but maybe I'll save that for a day when I actually like fish.

From the market it was a short train ride to the entrance to the Rainbow Bridge which connects Tokyo to Odaiba. I was going to walk it a few nights ago but was informed it closes at 6pm in the winters due to winds and the cold temperatures. Daytime it was!

The entrance
I had imagined something more romantic
What views! I think...
Tokyo Tower in the distance
Feeling the winds!
I love getting blown
I made it!
Crossing under the bridge to the South side
Spotted my cartography goal!

A few weeks ago I was with Aziz and his friends and we were discussing how crazy maps are; especially those created before satellites, planes, and other technology that would allow a person to get any idea of what a landscape looks like. How did they make maps in ye olden day? Well I realized that I had nothing but time on my hands while here and so I would attempt to map out an unknown park. While walking on the bridge I spotted the park above and thought it would make a good first try as it wasn't terribly large and I was able to get a basic idea of the layout from the bridge. My game plan was to measure the perimeter in strides and then make an "X", also measuring in strides. From that grid, I figured I could place all the benches, monuments, and other defining features.

My scratch pad
Luckily the area was more or less square (when things are man-made, they tend to have straight lines) so it was easy to create the basic outline. I have yet to measure how long my stride is, but I would I assume I was taking 2 foot steps which would mean this area was a little larger than 81,000 square feet, or just shy of 2 acres. Once the perimeter was measure, I did the same for the inner square, which was a lower area accessible by a few staircases. How they made topographical maps back in ye olden days is WAY beyond my comprehension. I walked around the park, counting my steps and taking notes, and then retired to a bench to draw this more accurate map:

Yeah, I made a key
When I left, I consulted the map which I had been careful to avoid at the entrance and was pleased to find that I did a pretty damn good job! My last step will be to transfer this to graph paper and actually draw it to scale and place the benches and monuments in the correct location. I'm sure you'll all want to be updated on the progress of that map as you may be planning a trip to Odaiba soon.

This photo doesn't fit in anywhere else, but I snapped it on Odaiba. Weirdest. Zoo. Ever.

I grabbed a bite on the island before making my way back. I checked my watch and realized I could still get on the bridge before closing. As I passed the entrance gate, I was whistled down. Literally, the guard had a whistle and blew it and then proceeded to tell me something in Japanese. I kept telling him I didn't understand, so he pointed to a sign that says "gate closes at 5:30". It was 5:15, so he let me pass, but I wasn't sure if he was telling me that if I didn't make it to the other side by 5:30 that I'd be locked on the bridge... And if I was... oh well! What a great story!

Making the journey back over the bridge
Night wind
While the walk over in the afternoon was fun, the night journey was so much more enjoyable. The views were absolutely amazing as all of Tokyo was illuminated and reflecting in the water. The wind was violent and seemed to threaten me with each step, and of course there was the fear that I may be locked on the bridge all night! As I strolled careless, Tom Petty's Something In The Air came on and it was just perfect. The nice thing about walking on a windy bridge at night with hundreds of loud cars zipping by is that you can sing at the top of your lungs without anyone hearing. And that's exactly what I did.

I probably looked insane: hair blowing in the wind, singing at the top of my lungs to no apparent music, and walking a bridge alone at night. But it all felt great! Am really glad I got to complete this goal before I left Tokyo; was a nice way to see the city.
And no, I did not get locked on the bridge