Saturday, April 15, 2006

Sunday April 16, 7:10 a.m.

Continuing on the Seoul trip...

After Myeondong, we took another taxi up to the other main area called Insadong, the more traditional quarter. I guess it would be the equivalent of Asakusa in Tokyo but Insadong is somewhat smaller and cleaner. It was there that I got caught up on my souvenir shopping for all the students. I picked up a lot of these sesame snaps and other confections. Again, it was obvious that the Japanese component of tourism was alive and well since a number of the shop owners were fairly OK in the Japanese language. After my foster sisters scoured the stores, we all took a bit of a breather in a small restaurant where we had some toppokki, a dish which is similar to chow mein except that instead of noodles, the carbs are represented by long cylindrical pieces of rice cake. It was all good.

We took another cab to Namdaemon. The actual Namdaemon is this ornate Korean temple-like structure but for most tourists, Namdaemon is the hurly-burly marketplace that abuts it. There is nothing like it in Tokyo, but the place reminded me of ol' Kensington Market back in the ol' hometown. It is just a labyrinth of small awninged shops hawking everything from nori to clothes to fresh (kinda) fish and chicken. The ladies were almost overwhelmed by the smells but I was very accustomed to the stench after years of walking through Kensington and nearby Chinatown, especially during the summer. The second part of my souvenir shopping occurred here when the three of us entered a nori shop owned by a very friendly, Japanese-speaking owner. We certainly got our money's worth of seaweed. I was now quite overstocked with stuff for the students back home.

After navigating our way back to the main street, we took yet another cab to the huge Lotte Department Store not too far away. After taking a short non-buying tour of the food floor in B1, we made our way all the way to the top of the store where we went to a restaurant which specialized in the dish of bibimbap, the mix of rice, veggies, meat and egg which is mixed in a hot stone bowl. It was a spicy mix which heated me up quite well, and I like to think that my tummy is fairly asbestos-lined. The Matron was creating a good sweat.

That was basically it for the gourmet tour. And what a tour it was. Looking at the photos, I definitely put on a bit of weight. After Lotte, it was back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and then we were off to Gimpo Airport. Our taxi driver for the final leg was the friendliest of all of our drivers in that he was able to speak some Japanese. In fact, his daughter married a Chiba man and now live in my neck of the woods. He certainly charmed the Class Act; as for me, I took a nap for the hour's drive to Gimpo.

We got to the airport with a number of hours left before our flight. I thought it would be one of those long waits but after a short dip into the duty-free shop, The Class Act returned to the waiting lounge to inform that they had found a foot massage salon at the back of the shop and proceeded to make an appointment for all of us. Well, that will take some time. So the three of us got our rubdowns on our swollen tootsies after a long day of hoofing it (albeit with assistance from the Seoul taxi industry). The 30-minute session would have been perfect except for the fact that there was a little problem processing The Matron's credit card; it was the scanner's fault. The Lady, not one for infinite patience, wasn't pleased since the folks taking care of us didn't want to give up on the scanner if at all possible. Instead, we had to go downstairs to another shop to get the card processed. Still, it burned up some more of the time needed to wait for the flight home.

And so after a small wait at the airport lounge downing some unexpectedly tasty kiwi shakes, the three of us said our goodbyes at the gate since all of us would be flying in different seats. When I got back to Haneda at around 10:15 on Friday night, I got a refresher on what life in Tokyo is like before the weekend. I had to contend with the usual stuffed trains on the JR Yamanote and Tozai Lines. At least for the Tozai Line, I was able to get a seat of course at Takadanobaba Station. However, it was a revelation that even at midnight, the train was packed way beyond capacity. Luckily, my two bags provided a good barrier against the throng of standing folks whilst I read my magazine in relatively seated comfort. I don't think even a Seoul resident would have or could have given up his seat for anyone in those conditions.

And so my final thoughts on the whirlwind tour of Seoul? Well, it was certainly worth it for the food. And I am very indebted to my host, The Lady, for all she did for us since my Korean was obviously not up to the challenge. I could easily go back there again on a small tour with a person like The Madame since most likely that would entail a more cultural angle. But I could certainly hope that I can have a Korean friend who lives there to show me around. I guess the next target for me in Asia will be Hong Kong or Shanghai.

Gonna have a lot to talk about tomorrow when I see The Class Act for their regular.
Saturday April 15, 9:40 p.m.

The second day in Seoul started out early. I woke up before 7 and then by 8, I was headed down for breakfast at The Cornerstone restaurant on the 2nd floor of The Park Hyatt. As buffets go, it didn't have that huge quantity of everything but the kitchen sink as its American equivalent have but it was healthy enough. I just had granola cereal, an apple danish and two cups of coffee which was probably just as well after the feast of the night before. As it would turn out, the three of us would have further things to eat anyways.

We checked out early and I was allowed to keep the card key as a souvenir. We did leave our bags at the hotel while we did our culinary sightseeing. It was back onto the subway again...this time to go to Myeongdong, the equivalent of Shibuya. Sure enough, down the main road, we saw a camera crew filming a duo of young folk having a talk on what seemed to be a variety program. Being the equivalent of Japan's teen Mecca, there were plenty of posters of the young and beautiful including the idol of both Japan and Korea, Boa. There was also a McDonalds with its name written up in Hangeul (at the same time, there were also a couple of other American chains that have long deserted the Japanese shores: Dunkin Donuts and Burger King). The area though was rather empty since it was not only in the morning but a weekday morning. The Class Act continued their sock-buying spree from the day before. After that little escort to the backroom warehouse in Itaewon, the ladies had done a major search for brand name socks at a number of the stands along the main strip. Well, the search continued in Myeongdong; we stopped at one stand where the owner was quite enamoured with The Matron. I did manage to get one shot of the masher getting too close with her. There must be something about her and her daughter, The Tulip. The kid herself was mauled by some old guy when the two of them were traveling in Austria a couple of weeks ago.

Well, I would like to continue but it's getting kinda late and I do have the kids tomorrow after a few weeks. We'll be exchanging travel news since they had come back from Italy and the Alps.
Saturday April 15, 6:38 p.m.

I had my first student since my Korea trip. The Carolinan was quite happy to receive the omiyage of Korean nori and little pouch that I got from the kalbi restaurant in Seoul. I also gave her the same deal to be given to her sister.

Anyways, back to the Seoul trip. Once we got out of that backroom fake fashion emporium, The Class Act and I made our way back to the main strip of Itaewon and grabbed a taxi. We took the black one with the golden stripe since apparently those taxis are the most dependable in terms of the driver getting us to a destination without the unintended tour of the entire city. Our cab took us up a steep hill and as we made the final turn, our eyes were walloped by the sight of The Grand Hyatt, our hotel's monolithic sister. This Hyatt looked like a wall. When we got into the lobby, we decided on just having some drinks at the cafe. I tried my pathetic attempts at Korean, forgetting that all staffers working at a Hyatt are probably former beauty pageant contestants and are fully versed in Japanese and English. Again, The Lady saved my bacon and calmly asked for a table for three in English. The cafe had a spectacular panoramic view of the whole city since it was sitting on top of the highest hill. I had a Bailey's Coffee, the Irish cream version of an Irish Coffee. It didn't give me much of a buzz which was good since we did have dinner coming up.

Then it was another taxi ride down the hill and a subway ride across the Han back to the Park Hyatt. We had an hour of downtime so I used it to get into my room and take a well-needed shower. It was one of those glassed-in affairs. I was careful to bring down the shades on the glass wall lest I scare some poor office fellow in the building across the street. I had two choices for a shower. There was the rain shower type with this huge head basically spritzing me; didn't like that one too much since the stream was too diffuse and therefore couldn't really work up a satisfyingly hot temperature so I ended up with the handheld karaoke microphone type. After that shower, I got dressed and just lay out on the modern recliner and ate some of those fresh grapes that came with the room for several minutes before I got the call from The Lady to come on down for the taxi ride to dinner.

The restaurant we got driven to was called Podunam Chip, a place famous for its kalbi and other BBQ fare. The Lady had gone there a few times before and swears by its quality. Yep, she certainly didn't get any disagreeement from The Matron and me. The fare there was probably some of the best food I'd ever eaten in a Korean restaurant. We just devoured a ton of beef wrapped in lettuce and Korean miso and we drank it all down with a combination of soju (Korean vodka) and water. I was surprised with all of the cow we had been eating, barely 30 minutes had elapsed since our arrival. The staff was also well versed in Japanese and English. I would've been forgiven if I'd thought that there was none of that Japanese-Korean historical and diplomatic rancor. If I ever go back to the city again, Podunam Chip is on the priority list.

Another taxi ride later, we were back at the hotel again. It was another hour later and then The Lady called me down to head to down to the main lounge for some jazz. It was on my way down to The Timberhouse that I realized how eerily attentive the staff were. The frankly ridiculous layout of the elevators forced me to get off on the 1st floor to transfer to another lift. As soon as I got out, the bell captain at his post automatically identified by name and showed me how to get to the lounge without me saying so much as a single word. I would swear that another condition for these guys to get hired by the Hyatt along with beauty, efficiency and youth was ESP.

The Class Act had already arrived when I got there in my increasingly rumpled suit (note to self: if at all possible in future trips, go more casual). The Timberhouse was your prototypical jazz lounge: comfy chairs and dim lighting surrounding a stage with a combo of piano, drums and bass. There was a lead singer who was belting out jazz and Latin songs. The Lady had seen her in her first stay at the hotel and was quite impressed with her chops...quite a thing to hear knowing how particular The Lady is. The singer, whose name now escapes me, was indeed very accomplished vocally although there was a bit of that cheesiness in her rapport with the audience....there was that "I'm here til Friday...please drive safely...try the dessert table" vibe with her. Once again, the beautiful staff were there serving us. This was frankly making me wonder if the Hyatt had been inspired by "The Stepford Wives", but I'm just being nasty. While the ladies indulged in some good champagne, I was quite content to have some non-alcoholic strawberry daiquiri. I didn't quite get the cute umbrella but the waitress smilingly placed a cute straw in my drink. I'm sure she and her bar colleagues were probably cracking wise at my expense about how this guy who looks like he imbibes too much booze was actually just downing women stuff.

After the singer's second set, the Class Act called it a night. The ladies went up first since I had to claim my jacket. Again, some of that eerie efficiency came to the fore. As soon as I had taken it off, a waitress quickly scooped it out of my hands and into the checkroom. Anyways, when I claimed it, I ended up sharing a short elevator ride with the singer herself. She was just as engaging in person as she was up on stage (although I didn't mention the cheesy element). I offered my compliments on her performance. She was very diplomatic in her response that the Koreans were still slowly coming to grips with jazz as a musical choice. I kinda felt sorry for her at that point....there was a large group of young folks who had sat right in front of her, most of whom just gabbed away without acknowledging her or the band. It must be just as hard for a singer to be ignored as to be booed at, but then again, it's called paying one's dues. The singer isn't there for a concert....she's there to add musical ambiance to the lounge. However, she did get enough of an applause.

It was pretty late in the night but I decided to try the bath. There was a vial of natural bubble bath so I indulged in a nice little round of bathing while looking at the video screen right in front of the bathtub. Thus, endeth my first night in Seoul.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Saturday April 15, 10:46 a.m.

Well, I'm back from my whirlwind tour of Seoul with The Class Act. For one night and two days, I was led around by my two foster mothers...I should really say foster elder sisters since they're just a little over a decade older than all the shopping districts and culinary wonders of South Korea. I'll try and ensure that the following report will not sound too much like one of those Discovery Channel travelogues.

I got up pretty darn early on Thursday morning and headed out to Haneda Airport in downtown Tokyo. People here have always complained about heading out all the way to Narita Airport in the wilds of Chiba Prefecture. And here I was, living in Chiba itself, grumbling a bit about having to make three transfers to get to this smaller airport out by Tokyo Bay. Haneda used to be the international airport until the mid-70s when the more controversial Narita was built. Now, the international wing has been reduced to this small building servicing China and Korea. Actually, the commute wasn't too bad, timewise. I got there in about 90 minutes, the same amount of time it takes me to get to Narita. In fact, I was lucky to have gotten there when I did. The Lady got there some 15 minutes after my arrival and told me that the check-in lines were starting to lengthen a bit. And then The Matron had to endure some waiting-for-Star-Wars lines by the time she'd gotten to the airport.

Our JAL flight got to Gimpo Airport (another airport that has been whittled down to a fraction of its former significance by a larger facility in Incheon) in about 2 hours. I'd always heard about this place during my viewings of "MASH" but never thought I would actually go through it. Going through Immigration wasn't too painful and Customs was a breeze. The Lady was there waiting for The Matron and myself. It was plain from the outset that she was the boss of our little homemade tour. She'd already made the currency conversions from yen to won and gave us our little packages. None of us won in the currency rates, though.

We tackled the circuitous Seoul subway system whose stations kinda reminded me of those of New York City. They looked a little less bright and had a bit more grime on the walls. However, the dangerous aspect was non-existent. The Lady was quite excited about going through public transit since she rarely did that sort of thing anymore; she has been more of a private transport citizen for many years. We did our fair share of transfers and got a quick education in the Seoul subway culture. For one thing, salesmen rather frequently traveled through the cars to hawk something such as hay fever and pollution masks (I gather that Seoul is quite industrial) and then blind folk often did the same thing with metal cups extended to pick up some alms from the commuters; taped concertina music added to the sad ambiance. The one thing that did strike me though which kinda shamed me and the ladies is that people are a bit more respectful towards our elders when it came to letting go of our seated comfort for the elderly or infirm. Tokyo commuters have become rather cold-hearted of late (I'll have to admit that I'm no better) by pretending to sleep or just plain ignoring the older folks when it comes to giving up their seats. This is by no means an excuse but there's something about having to ride in overcapacity trains that brings out the "me or them" mentality in all of us in The Big Sushi. But obviously it hasn't totally consumed Seoul commuters yet. In fact, one rather large salaryman brusquely ordered The Lady in his native language to let go of her seat for an older man. It was quite a sight to see since The Lady isn't the type to be ordered around easily. But she quickly did.

We finally arrived at Samseong Station in the trendy area of Gungnam south of the Han River about the better part of an hour later. I was happy to know that the Park Hyatt was right there in front of us when we got out. It was the first time in a very long time that I've stayed in a hotel of its calibre. The Lady told me that it was still just barely 6 months old. The staff all spoke nigh-flawless English and that chiseled beauty (men and women) about them (I did kinda wonder if job interviews for positions at the hotel resembled more for those for a beauty pageant). We actually got checked in within The Class Act's room and were given our card keys. The rooms certainly had more of that art gallery sensibility. They were all done up in beige faux-wood and glass. In fact, one wall was all window overlooking the city. One could even conceivably take a bath and shower by that glass wall although Internet reviews by users on a travelsite warned that the curtains should be drawn lest one wanted to give a free show to some horny businessmen in the buildings across from the hotel. Of course, the curtains were also all automated.

After the quick check-in, the three of us decided to head on out to our first place of interest: Itaewon. It was another series of subway transfers leading us up to this neighbourhood which was the foreigner quarter of Seoul. Itaewon reminded me of Koreatown in Toronto. The side-by-side buildings were all old brick low-rise affairs consisting of small restaurants (a lot of US chains have obviously found new homes here) and shops. As soon as we reached street level, I saw a few Americans having a chat on the corner. Itaewon is also the area to find various brand name knockoffs. And not long after walking through the area, The Lady came across this rather shady character sitting in front of a clothing store. All it took was just some eye contact between him and her for the guy to start speaking in halting Japanese. Then we were led on a "merry" walk. We first went through the store and out the back entrance and then down some quiet side streets for about five minutes. While the guy was 10 metres out in front of the ladies, I was 10 m out in back feeling a bit nervous. I kinda wondered if this is how Eli Roth's goreflick, "Hostel" had started. As it turned out, Mr. Softspoken took us to the back of this house with a rather formidable iron gate with lock (keep the fashion police out or keep unsuspecting travelers in...forever? are the fabrics made from human skin?). Once I saw other women inside, though, I let down my guard. I had actually clutched my apartment key just in case I needed it for something other than opening my door although I hardly think anything with a Hello, Kitty keychain could be seriously taken as a weapon of choice.

The back of the house was this very crowded showroom of fake Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Hermes stuff from shoes to bags. The ladies, including my two foster sisters, proceeded to pelt the guy and his fellow storemates with a lot of questions including ones for haggling. I was finally seeing The Lady in her element now. After about 15 minutes, both her and The Matron bought some token stuff and we all made our way back to the main strip of Itaewon. The Lady later stated that the stuff was somewhat inferior to those in other backroom showrooms she'd been to but after being led all the way there, she had felt that she needed to buy something...hmm, I thought, she ain't that tough.

I'll have to continue this travelogue later since I gotta head on out to teach The Carolinan. She'll be my first souvenir recipient of Korean nori.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Wednesday April 12, 9:18 a.m.

It's still wet and cold out there....regular dog's nose weather. Well, I still gotta do the laundry since my machine is starting to fill up. Hanging everything inside though will humidify my home greatly.

Movie Buddy's canned out of the Chocolate Cafe. He and The Sylph have another event to attend at about the same time. Took a look at the promotional video for the place. Well, it's really more cafe than museum but I think the food and drink there should keep The Madame and Skippy quite happy.

I watched "The Enemy Within" from Star Trek Classic this morning for the umpteenth time. It's the one where Kirk gets split into his good and evil sides. Seeing William Shatner giving his usual scenery-chewing all made me wonder how Patrick Stewart would have handled it. I'm sure the late James Doohan would have cheekily said that the evil Kirk was the one that cast and crew usually saw for those 3 years.

The only class I have is with 001 tonight. 006 is off to Guam for a friend's wedding. I'll probably put off any gym work this week since I've gotta keep up with my Korean. However, I'll be dropping by Maruzen on the way to Speedy's to pick up that handbook for the country.
Wednesday April 12, 12:03 a.m.

It was a miserable day. Just relentless rain and rain. I met The Teacher for the first time in a couple of weeks. She's been very busy with her new job as Japanese teacher and her new hobby as Chinese-language student. I kinda wonder if she's gonna end up like The OL. However, we are gonna meet next week but at a new the Becker's hamburger shop in the JR Tsudanuma Station. She figured that it was a time for a change in scenery. Personally, I still like our old cafe and since she gave me a filled point card from there, I'll probably make at least a few more visits.

I had those photos developed from my time at L'Aqua with The Madame on Friday and with Skippy and The Kid in Akihabara on Sunday. The Madame will kill me for one photo of her on the merry-go-round.

It looks like that Chocolate Cafe trip on Sunday is getting legs. Movie Buddy contacted me just now to say that his girl, The Sylph, is interested in going which probably means that her beau will tag along. I took a look at a promotional video on its website. Hmmm...the fare looks nice but there's not much in the way of seating. Just 18 chairs. Could be cramped. Not quite sure what we're gonna be doing afterwards either.

I've been reading stuff that the Idol Queen herself, Seiko Matsuda, has gotten herself married for the 3rd time. Gonna have to check her future ex-husband. And apparently, one of those NHK staffers has been dipping into the till again. And we are paying that bimonthly fee for what reason again...?

The rain is going on into later in the day. Man, this has gotta be the rainiest April on record.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Tuesday April 11, 1:33 a.m.

Not quite ready for bed. And I think I need to talk about what happened with my Monday after gabbing all about the hijinks in Akihabara and Asakusa on Sunday. Well, actually, even before the Monday, I received a call from GC for the first time in perhaps a year. He was testing out his Skype connection just like Old Sam did some months earlier. Our talk was almost as if there hadn't been this long absence in our formerly close relationship. It was one of those 2-hour marathon phone sessions. One reason that he probably hasn't been coming out to Tokyo all that often anymore is that his school has been on the financial skids of late. The kids haven't been signing up for his school. Therefore, the money has been scarce. However, he's hopeful that there will be a security blanket of sorts in terms of private students in his area. He's also told me that our mutual friend, The Angel, has gotten a job working at Studio Ghibli as of May. So now she has to set up shop in the Big Sushi. He said that he would pass on my number to her but I'm not carrying any expectations that she will even be following through on any calls to me.

My day started yesterday with sending a package of his pre-ordered video games to The Anime King. Wouldn't he be interested in how I had spent my day on Sunday? But he's not all that much into his raison d'etre anymore. Now that he's got himself a wife...he's just keeping himself to his games.

My time with The Class Act was spent just making the final talk about our Korea trip. The Lady wasn't too impressed by my adventure at the Maid Cafe, no matter my insistence that it wasn't as sordid as I'd previously thought. I was surprised that she had given The Matron and me a manga depicting her husband's rise through the ranks to become one of the country's biggest (and feared) corporate figures. I'm trying to imagine how a real person can turn into a manga. Of course, the 8-issue compilation depicted the man as this relentless can-do paragon of business virtue, a point that I'm sure a lot of people will take issue with. But there's no doubt that he's made his millions.

Afterwards, I had to race down to Immigration to get my re-entry stamp. Since I was heading to Korea and then back to Canada for Xmas, I had to go for the multiple re-entry which cost me 6,000 yen. Then, it was take a number and wait. There were 154 people ahead of me when I arrived. But much like my time at Shinagawa last time, the folks were processed fairly quickly so after about 80 minutes, I was able to get my permit stamped into my passport in less than 2. Something not right about that.

I had lunch at the Hansens hot dog emporium at the station before I made my way up to Speedy's. The Part-Timer was her usual diligent self and my second student in the English in Cooking program was also very enthused about her second of three lessons. Afterwards, Speedy and I had a talk about trying to increase the student and revenue flow for the school once more. Speedy is now toying with the idea of sending out teachers to more far-flung areas such as my neck of the woods. The particular target here is 002 who has steadfastly refused to return to the fold since the school is just too far away from her. But if I were to go to her area since she and I don't live too far away from each other, perhaps we can start something on that order.

Got home to get a few messages. The OL has kept her end of the bargain as my ex-student by setting up a time and day for her sister to become my newest student, ironically on the first day of Golden Week. The headquarters will be The Tea Room...something that the manager there will be quite happy to hear about since I haven't been too frequent a presence there of late. The Madame has also been sending her share of messages to me about the next two Sundays' activities. So something is definitely coming along on that front.

Well, since the Beehive will be off today (thus explaining my very late writing right here right now), I'll be sleeping a little later and then trying my darndest to cram in some more Korean. However, some TEPCO official will probably be dropping by for a bit of inspection of the electrical system. I'm debating whether to answer the door when he comes. I probably wouldn't understand what he's talking about and besides he'll naturally assume there won't be anyone at home during that time of the day. However, I do have The Teacher for her lesson and I'm sure she'll be wondering about all the fuss at the Maid Cafe. And then I have my usual guys at the juku.
Tuesday April 11, 12:39 a.m.

Ah...where was I? Oh, yes...the search for a Maid Cafe. After leaving all the hilarity of singing and dancing maid fanatics, Skippy, The Kid and I started making our half-hour trek seeking a Maid Cafe that wasn't gonna be too full. We had to do quite a bit of searching even with Skippy's handy map which started frustrating even the infectiously enthusiastic girl. We even had to skirt the outer edges of Akihabara to find one place. There was a lineup for the 2nd-floor Maid Cafe from the ground level so The Kid and I took our places in line while Skippy looked for another more accessible place. A young girl dressed up like Sailor Mars of "Sailor Moon" fame and who looked like a reject from a Morning Musume audition started going down the stairs taking down seating orders. She took ours down but just then Skippy contacted The Kid via his cell and relayed that the other cafe actually had openings. We were told that the place where we were waiting would take about an hour to get us seated. So the decision was quite easy to make.

From Skippy's directions, we made our way down back into the heart of Akihabara once more. We passed by a very large and prettified elementary school which was just kitty-corner away from a porn DVD shop. Just the perfect neighbour to have for an educational institution. I'm sure the tykes would quickly find out the perfect knots for an S&M tie-up or how large dildos can get. In any case, it was another minute before Skippy found us out and led us to Tiara, the Maid Cafe that she had found for us.

We couldn't get into the 2nd floor shop which looked like it was designed by a wedding cake manufacturer but we could get a table on the 3rd floor. There was something rather ad hoc about the deal on 3. It seemed like the owners got tables and chairs from a regular cafe and put them onto a deserted floor; there was a distinctly industrial vibe to the setting. However, we did get the "O-kaerinasai, go-shujin sama" greeting ("Welcome home, my master!") by a tribe of young ladies in maid outfits. We got seated, and then one maid took our order of a mocha cafe for Skippy, a chocolate float for The Kid and just some hot cocoa for me. I was rather struck by the ordinariness of the situation. Aside from the garb and age of the employees, Tiara was really just a regular cafe. The one thing I had been fearing....that the place would be populated by some extreme otaku...never materialized. In fact, I would say that any otaku was strictly in the minority. I only saw a number of heterosexual couples, a bunch of normal-looking guys and even one family. None of the waitresses acted like the typically lethally cute, helium-voiced anime characters. Our waitress had a very normal Shibuya girl voice, in fact. If I had closed my eyes, I would have thought I was in a family restaurant. I wasn't particularly disappointed, though. It was good cocoa. And frankly speaking, I wouldn't mind heading to Tiara, at least. I'm sure even The Madame wouldn't shy away from this place. I guess all that mewing excess is just at the At Home cafe. Still, the ladies sent us home with a "Itterasshai, go-shujin sama!" ("Farewell, my master!").

So that was basically our tour of Akihabara. I have a feeling we have yet to scratch the surface of this world of the otaku. However, as I said before, thanks to "Densha Otoko" and the somewhat controversial Disneyfication of the area, Akiba has now even received official approval by the national government via its "Yokoso Japan" (Welcome to Japan) campaign, complete with its own little pamphlet showing the recommended shops and even a glossary of Akiba-only terms such as "Moe" and "A-Boy". I can just imagine the deep otaku crying in their pink sundaes and fleeing for the refuge of east Ikebukuro.

The three of us took the Ginza Line all the way to the end of the line at Asakusa, my old stomping grounds in the 90s. There, of course, was much more different from the techno geekiness of Akihabara. It was back to some shitamachi traditional stuff in that wizened neighbourhood. We strolled down the shopping streets of Nakamise-dori and bought ourselves a snack in the form of 100-yen age-manju, deep-fried buns filled with sweet bean paste. Quite tasty if high-calorie. We made our way to the brazier at Sensoji Temple and wafted the incense smoke onto out bodies to purify ourselves.

Our next search was for this restaurant that Skippy had found on the Internet which has become famous of late for its okonomiyaki and monjayaki. Once again, it took several minutes of traversing the side streets of Asakusa, but we finally found the main restaurant for these traditional delights. I can't remember the name...I think it was Rokumon...something or other. However, we couldn't get into the main restaurant since it was already rather crowded but the lady there kindly told us of the second shop just around the corner and down a couple of blocks; she even called ahead there to let us know we were coming. The walk only took us a few minutes and we could get a table on some tatami.

Rokumon was getting its 15 minutes of fame, alright. The restaurant put up a billboard in front of the restaurant showing all of the magazines that had featured it. And just above our grill/table there was a handwritten sign pointing out that Masatoshi Hamada of the comedic duo "Downtown" had even brought his gang from one of his own TV shows to try out the fare there. Well, the three of us ordered an okonomiyaki, a monjayaki (the liquidy stuff that I had initially pooh-poohed due to its resemblance to barf only to get to like it in later years) and yakisoba. While The Kid got himself a beer, Skippy and I stayed traditional and ordered two Lamune...a Sprite-like drink which is notable for its bottle. The neck of the bottle has a glass ball in it which automatically stops up the hole once the bottle is inverted so that one doesn't overdrink the soda and get too much gas.

The fare was great eating and my two former students were more than happy to do the cooking chores while I just watched. Although Skippy finally bowed out after the yakisoba, The Kid and I decided to go for one more dish, the one which the Downtown gang had ordered which was okonomiyaki with beef chunks. Ooh, talk about decadent. We were being served by a number of staff, one of whom looked like one of those young boys who would have a future with that male idol troupe, Johnny's Jimusho. As we were leaving, he was getting a bit of the tongue-lashing from his superior for a bit of a slip. There's none of that taking him aside and chewing a guy out privately to save face in these places. You screw up, everybody hears about it. It's probably the way that the greenhorns learn to be be efficient fast.

Over the course of the several hours that I was with The Kid and Skippy, I had noticed a gradual change in Skippy's demeanor. I had always known her to be the ultra-enthused cheerleader amongst the alumni of her year at the ol' school. However, she was showing somewhat of a suffer-no-fools-gladly-Shibuya-gal-ish side by the end. She was getting on The Kid's case for something or other, mockingly or not. Not a side that I particularly liked but who am I to judge character? I can only imagine what fights must be like between her and her boyfriend. Our final stop was a very normal Jonathan's family restaurant near Asakusa Station for dessert and coffee before heading home.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Monday April 10, 7:45 a.m.

It was a day of revelations yesterday. I arrived at JR Akihabara Station where I met Skippy at the gates. She was definitely waiting for this day for a long time. Her hidden otaku came out to the fore, and coupled with her natural effervescence, she was, frankly, on fire. The Kid called her cell to say that he would be 30 minutes late and his friend pulled a dotakyan, so the two of us went ahead. There were already several maids in front of the station handing out flyers for their respective Maid Cafes. And of course, they were getting a lot of photo-snapping admirers. Skippy didn't waste anytime and had me take a shot of her and a couple of the maids with her digital camera.

Her inherent geekiness became further evident to me when she took me to the complex across from the station, Radio Kaikan, and up to the 4th floor where there was a character doll shop (she had a homemade map of all the places that she wanted to visit in Akiba...including the major Maid Cafes). The entire complex held several stores on about 4 or 5 floors which were all cramped if efficiently set up. There were huge lifesize dolls of anime characters from "Evangelion" and "Hokuto no Ken", next to which Skippy was very happy to take some shots. There were also representatives from the various other major anime and robot shows such as "Ultraman", "Masked Rider" and "Gundam". Of course, there were the figures of the saucer-eyed, gravity-challenged blimp-bosomed anime girls in various stages of dress and undress. But it wasn't all Japanese. There was representation from the United States as well. There was a display case of Star Wars characters and ships. And I even saw a couple of boxes of the ISS Enterprise, the mirror universe version of the "good" Enterprise, from "Star Trek: Enterprise". How's that for specific?

We went back down to the bustling pavement and joined the crowds on the main street where all the otakus and maids and regular folk in the long pedestrian paradise plaza were mingling like folks in the Rio Festival. Skippy would later remark that the crowds were even bigger in Akihabara than in glamourous Ginza, which is also closed off to vehicular traffic on Sundays. I wouldn't have disagreed with her. It also brought me to the realization that Akihabara has indeed changed. The whole neighbourhood has become Disneyfied. Having lived next to Tokyo for well over a decade, I knew the area as the semi-exclusive enclave of the slightly villified, often-ridiculed otaku. But now, it's become the place to be for everyone, the trendy place to visit along other trendy neighbourhoods like Harajuku and Omotesando. And otakus, in addition to the Maids, have come back in from the cold. In a way, it's kinda like what happened to Times Square (the real McCoy in Manhattan, not the shopping mall in Shinjuku)...once, it was one of the seedier and more dangerous parts of New York; now it's become this happy-happy area of Disney and Warner Bros. The sleazebuckets must've been crying in their beer.

Our next stop was Asobit, another store on the main strip. We were about to explore some of its heights when The Kid arrived. He looked even thinner than last we met, and he wasn't exactly portly to start with. The three of us then entered Asobit in earnest, up to the higher floors to be exact, and we came across the character goods once more. However, it was on the higher floor that we entered the cosplay zone. Skippy started bouncing around as if it were Xmas. The Kid, being much younger and therefore a little more sensitive about his self-image, was groaning in embarrassment as his sempai from the ol' school was checking out the various Maid dresses. I think I knew right then and there where those Maid Cafes got their supplies. In any case, there were a few frilly-frocked girls doing some window-shopping as well.

Getting back onto the street, crowds were starting to coagulate around certain Maids or other costumed girls. We took peeks at who they were. A couple of them were dressed like sexy future police officers while others had the more traditional Maid garb. It was then that I realized a change in Skippy. She'd always been the happy-go-lucky one but she started taking on a bit of a harder edge as the day wore on. She took a look at a few of the girls getting the attention and remarked openly that she could look a whole lot better than those dogs. I wouldn't doubt it and she did openly state that would be very happy wearing one of those frocks. It was almost as if the girl had secretly taken a swig from a little silver bottle.

The Kid, Skippy and I started searching for a Maid Cafe to invade. We had to somewhat grope (figuratively not physically) our way on the street to look for the most famous At Home cafe. We could finally find it in this huge emporium. There was the downright bizarre sight of a diminuitive Maid dancing to some Eurobeat on a stage in front of the complex. However, the really weird sight greeted us on the floor where the At Home cafe was located. There were a few more Maids singing and dancing in front of a bunch of hopped-up geeks, two of whom were just flailing away as if they were at a mosh pit. However, to add legitimacy to the proceedings, there were several normal-looking women present with their boyfriends although they were looking at the scene with a remarkable sense of bemusement. As it turned out, the At Home cafe was fully booked and would mean that we would have to wait for an hour at least to get in. So we decided to go back down.

When Akihabara was still the geeky enclave, restaurants were pretty hard to find outside of the local McDonalds. Now, with the Disneyfication of the area, they've started to pop out from the woodwork. The three of us got a small lunch in front of that complex housing the At Home cafe at a onigiri stand. For 310 yen, I got a tuna & mayo rice ball with a bottle of green tea. Quite good.

Well, I do have a regular day ahead of me including that stop off at Immigration. I'll have to continue our Maid Odyssey later on.