Monday, 1 December 2008

Ekiben Memories

Here's the second part of my travel diary from Japan, originally written for NEO magazine. (Part one here, the original travelog-comic-strip reproduced here).

06 April: More Fun in Kyoto

We start the day by heading in to Kyoto station to wave our shiny JDR passes at helpful officials and book tickets for the next leg of our journey. And also because frankly, we just love Kyoto station. It is hard to explain in words just how phenomenal a building it is – a huge and complex futuristic structure with a sense of space that is absolutely breathtaking. A massive 12-storey staircase dominates one side of the building, stretching up into the sky for no apparent purpose other than simply to look jaw-droppingly cool. It’s like being inside a space station, and indeed I am almost disappointed not to see Gundams taking off for battle from amidst the Ekiben stands. This disappointment evaporates when we come across a ticket machine that is topped with a life-size model of Astro Boy in flight. The fact they have a branch of ‘Mr. Donut’ only adds to my giddy suffusion of happiness.

From the station we catch a personal-space-compromisingly crowded bus across town to Ginkaku-ji, a famous old temple surrounded by beautiful Zen gardens. We marvel at the exquisitely-raked gravel and implausibly perfect sand sculptures, and at the fact that it manages to retain an atmosphere of tranquillity and contemplation despite the genuinely incredible volume of tourists snaking dutifully around its paths. This is a very popular area, and the fact that it is currently the cherry blossom season does not exactly keep the crowds away. The crush continues as we head off from Ginkaku-ji down the fabled ‘Philosophers Walk’, an old canalside path that meanders through the east of the city past approximately ONE HUNDRED BILLION ridiculously beautiful temples, shrines, gates and houses, all surrounded by candyfloss clouds of cherry blossom. The walk takes its name from 19th century philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who liked to amble up and down it all day while pondering ineffable metaphysical conundrums. These days it seems most visitors are more concerned with eating green tea ice cream and taking thousands of digital photos of cherry blossom than with getting any serious philosophy done. I attempt to rectify matters by explaining to Di the Teleological Argument for the existence of God in both its classical and Cartesian forms. We both rapidly decide that eating green tea ice cream and taking thousands of photos of cherry blossom looks like more fun, so we do that instead.

07 April: Nara

Nara is a smallish town, around half of which is taken up with a massive deer park, filled with hundreds of shrines, temples and, perhaps unsurprisingly, deer. These deer roam freely around, and there are little stalls where visitors are given the opportunity to purchase ‘Deer Food’ – packs of hard and surprisingly appetising-looking biscuits. I decide not to take advantage of this opportunity, as it seems to me that there are quite enough people feeding the deer already, and I would not wish to contribute to the worrying rise of obesity amongst Japan’s deer population. Also, because I am cheap. Apparently the deer sense this and take offence, as one saunters towards me with a menacing glint in his eye and proceeds to take a massive bite out of the corner of my Lonely Planet Japan guidebook. So I guess the biscuits aren’t that filling after all.

After several hours of wandering around and dodging psychotic deer, shrine fatigue starts to set in and we wander back to our Ryokan for a bite of dinner. This turns out to be our first experience of Kaiseki-Ryori, a formal Japanese dinner consisting of about 150 individual courses of wildly diverse colours, textures and styles. Our host delivers these all at once piled high on a large tray, and then backs out of the room with an odd gliding motion. He had delivered the food with an air of hushed respectfulness that was actually bordering on the creepy, so we are not desperately sorry to see him leave, except that in his absence there is no-one to provide any helpful pointers on what on earth all this stuff actually is, or how one is supposed to set about tackling it. It makes an amazing visual spectacle, certainly, but considered as a meal there are rather too many strange-coloured unidentifiable gelatinous blobs and awkward “am I supposed to eat this?” moments for my liking.

After putting in a solid effort we wander out for a stroll in the direction of ‘Comic Buster’, a manga and internet cafĂ© that I’d noted in passing earlier in the day. I’d been meaning to check one of these places out since we arrived in Japan and it in no way disappoints. It’s an amazing little place where one pays a small hourly fee and gets a little private booth in which to surf the internet, watch TV and DVDs, listen to music, and of course read comics to one’s hearts content. The selection of available manga volumes is truly mind-bending, thousands upon thousands of them covering every wall in every direction. Every single volume of every single manga I have ever heard of seems to be present, and that accounts for approximately 0.01% of what is on offer. While getting to grips with these wonders you can help yourself to all the caffeine-loaded beverages you can handle, which is a nice touch for those planning an all-night 10-volume Manga binge. Because of course, ‘Comic Buster’ is open all night. It honestly feels like I’ve died and gone to heaven. The most amazing thing is the atmosphere: clean, friendly, bright and welcoming. Whilst there, all the other customers I see are women. The contrast between all this and the experience of frequenting comics shops back in the UK is so sharp as to prompt violent unbidden sobs. Indeed, I try to imagine a place like ‘Comic Buster’ existing back home and fail – it would turn into a seedy and slightly sticky porn-den within minutes of opening, I fear. Some nations can be trusted with a private booth and an internet connection, and some can’t. A cursory wander around Soho will confirm for the curious into which category the British belong, unfortunately.

Nara continues to exceed all expectations with our next stop: on the way home we accidentally stumble upon ’Bar Hayasuka’, a tiny 2nd-floor backstreet whiskey bar that I fall hopelessly in love with at first sight. The entire venue is slightly smaller than the toilet in most bars, barely having room for the bar itself and a single row of stools propped against it. They sell no beer, no soft drinks, merely the most astonishing array of rare, limited edition and private-reserve-members-club-only Scotch whiskies I have ever seen in my life. The barman sits in front of these like a proud curator, nodding his head softly to the Charlie Parker jazz playing softly on the stereo and reading a well-thumbed copy of ‘Whiskey’ magazine.

You get the feeling that this guy quite likes whiskey.

You also get the feeling that the rest of the population of Nara does not share his passion, as apart from us the bar is completely empty, and something about the atmosphere leads one to suspect that this has probably been the case for several weeks. But what the hell – he seems happy enough and isn’t bothering anybody, so let the chap have his fun, right? After a couple of eye-wateringly wonderful ‘cheeky wee drams’ that he expertly selects for us, we leave this marvellous eccentric to enjoy his wall of whiskey in peace. As we walk home I am filled with happiness simply that there are such diverse and fascinating people in the world. And that they will sell me whiskey.

08 April: Himeji

Himeji, despite boasting a breathtakingly huge and ancient Samurai-Era castle, is actually kind of a dull town. Or perhaps we catch it on a bad day; everything is grey and muggy and smoggy, and after the excitement of psychotic deer, manga cafes and whiskey-afficionado lunatics it all just seems a bit underwhelming. The castle itself though is undeniably spectacular. We pay our entrance fees and wander round it, soaking up the ambience of the hundreds of Samurai movies to have been filmed in these hallowed walls. Climbing a flight of steps in the tower, I manage to completely ignore a ‘mind your head’ sign, and crash my head into an ancient wooden beam with a resounding impact that almost shatters us both. I feel violently sick, both from the pain and from the embarrassment that would no doubt ensue if I accidentally brought one of Japan’s most famous and beloved architectural landmarks crashing down in a shower of rubble.

Of course, people here being as polite as they are, probably no-one would actually mention it, but I’d feel a little awkward about it all nonetheless.

09 April: Himeji – Kumamoto (change at Fukuoka)

Our first mistake of the day occurs when I leave a sketchbook tucked into the back of the seat when we change trains at Fukuoka. A couple of giant robot designs I was really pleased with are lost to posterity, but I dare say civilisation will survive somehow.

Our second mistake of the day occurs when we get off the train at Kami-Kumamoto, which is not our stop, rather than at Kumamoto, which is. We manage to get the next train and arrive at our correct destination around half an hour late to meet our friends Sean and Yuki, who are waiting patiently for us with their son Tomi. Sean and Yuki are extremely kindly putting us up for a few days, and have also most graciously arranged a little shindig to celebrate our arrival. Over several beers and Yuki’s absolutely delicious home-cooked fish things (again, the technical term escapes me) we meet several lovely people including Coco (who helps Sean out with his various comics projects), Herbert (an American expat language teacher who has been pretty much everywhere and knows pretty much everything), and a whole bunch of other very nice people whose names I have shamefully forgotten. Tomi-chan runs around the place like, well, a Japanese 2-year-old hopped up on sugar and with a whole room full of appreciative strangers to show off to.

As the party wraps up and Tomi’s bedtime looms, we menfolk (and Di) head on out to experience the nightlife of Kumamoto. We start out in ‘Jeff’s Bar’, a favourite spot for gaijin expats, and then head on to a traditional Japanese Izakaya (or ‘pub’) where we are introduced to local specialty Shochu – a kind of version of vodka made with sweet potatoes. After that it all gets a little hazy.

... and good god but I felt ill the day after that. I remember wandering around Kumamoto going to various manga shops with Sean, buying bottles of 'Pocari Sweat' and 'Wild Drip' from every other vending machine we passed to try and stave off the pukiness.

That's it! There was going to be a part three, but... um, I never got round to writing it. I guess that's as good an excuse as any to go back. One day I will have to post here the story of my hugely exciting if, as it turned out, entirely unsuccessful meeting with the managing director of Rough Guides where I tried to pitch the idea of them paying me to travel round the world and draw comics about it.

Can't think why they didn't go for it.

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