Thursday, January 03, 2008

Thursday January 3, 2008, 8:53 p.m.

A rare nighttime visit to the I-cafe near my station. And Happy New Year, by the way; it's indeed the first entry for this year. I've just come back from Paddy's hometown of Ushiku City in Ibaraki Prefecture. It's only 90 minutes up there (the same amount time to get to Speedy's school) but it kinda felt like coming back from a long trip...probably because I usually come back at night from the eastern end of the Kanto during a recreational visit only when I return from Canada via Narita Airport.
I left in mid-morning and made a pit stop at the station Fujiya's Bakery to pick up some goodies for Paddy and other old friends of ours, The Photog and his wife, The Cat. As I made my purchases of cookies, I read the sign stating that this branch of Fujiya was gonna close down for good in a couple of weeks....ironic, since it was around this time last year that the entire company had to shut itself down for a few months in penance for mislabeling the "Best By" dates and then coming back on April Fool's Day (itself an ironic day). Now, at least this store will be packing up in mid-January. Et tu, Peko-chan?
Anyways, after a few switches from Tozai to Musashino to Joban Lines, I got to Ushiku a little after noon. Paddy picked me up and drove us to The Photog's mother's home not too far away from the station. The Photog and his family live in the wilds of Nagano Prefecture but came back to the hometown for New Year's. He and The Cat now have two whom I saw as a newborn a couple of years ago when I made a summer visit in 2006. The other one is just a shade over a year old.
We spent an hour there gabbing and noshing on some o-sechi when one more old friend from Paddy's and The Photog's high school days came on by. And then the entire kit and kaboodle made a half-hour trip in the family RVR into Tsukuba City (the site of the 1985 Expo) to have lunch at this popular tonkatsu restaurant called Ton-Q. While we were waiting for our table, the gang met up with yet another old high school with family of his own. It was quite the school reunion. The tonkatsu was quite good there but not that different from my station fare. I kinda felt sorry for The Photog's mother who just ended being our chauffeur because she had decided to stay in the RVR to keep an eye on the littlest member. However, her son reassured us that she didn't mind at all and that she was no fan of oily food.
Afterward, we drove back to The Photog's house. As we were driving by, the mother mentioned that the formerly sleepy bedroom town of Ushiku was starting to be invaded by a lot of condo developments. Tokyo was once again extending its mightly tentacles into the countryside. Even The Photog's current residence of northern Nagano Prefecture...not far from the Japanese Alps...was now considered to be a Tokyo suburb by a lot of folks, thanks to Bullet Train commuter passes.
Whilst The Cat and her kittens decided to stay at home, the guys decided to walk over to the nearest Gust family restaurant for some coffee. It felt a bit strange for the four of us men to order cute desserts and the drink bar option. We spent a good couple of hours there...but I think the other reason that my day trip to Ibaraki felt more like an overseas voyage was that I was experiencing a trip down Memory Lane with these guys. Obviously, I'd never gone to high school with these old lifelong friends but I could listen in on the old conversations of music and manga gone by. Paddy then got into this half-joking proposal of building a cottage in the resort town of Karuizawa...close by to The Photog's home. The guys got into the spirit of things about the idea of hammering 4x4s in the middle of the forest. Some years ago, some of my former NOVA students took the same jovial approach to making a new school....but unlike them, Paddy could actually get it done...possibly.
It was back to the house where we made our goodbyes. On the drive back, I asked Paddy to introduce me to his mother since I had a box of Fujiya cookies for her as well. Also, I wanted to pass on my condolences on the passing of Paddy's father in my mangled formal Japanese. I'd already decided early on that I wouldn't be staying over at his house but still wanted to do my aisatsu. Paddy took me back to the station, having recommended me to visit The Photog and The Cat sometime soon....I think since The Cat may be feeling a bit isolated in the wilds of Nagano with her brood. I said that I would make an attempt sometime in the next couple of months.

And so, the Holidays in Japan are technically over since the New Year's season officially lasts until the 4th. I've been hearing about the U-turn rush from the heartlands back into The Big Sushi. However, a lot of companies have been maganimous enough to grant their employess the Friday off so that the grunts can extend their holidays until Sunday night. As for me, the last few days were spent just cocooning and taping the local variety specials for the parentals.

I did get through all of last year's Kohaku Utagassen (The Red & White Song Festival) on New Year's Eve. Actually, it wasn't all that bad at all...although the top batter in the lineup was an agglomeration of the various girl groups (including Morning Musume) under the huge Hello Project umbrella. It was kinda sad seeing the girls do "Love Machine" for the umpteenth time at the Festival on the 10th anniversary of their founding when their heyday is long behind them. It'll be interesting reading the reviews on the J-Pop forums. Still, there were still some great performances by both pop stars and enka crooners alike. For me, the White male team was heads and shoulders above the Red female team but I thought the standout was singer Ayaka belting out the gospel-influenced "Peace Loving People" and then going into her hit collaboration with male duo Kokuburo, "Long Winding Road". My sentimental favourite, though, was seeing actor/singer Akira Terao sing his sole megahit, "Ruby no yubiwa" some 25 years after his identical rendition in the very first Kohaku I'd seen.
There was really no controversial performance this time around, unlike in the last Festival when anything-goes DJ Ozma had his seemingly nude dancers (they were actually wearing flesh-coloured skinsuits) prance about on the NHK stage. The only thing that got close was perhaps a slightly racy joke that one of the hosts, Osakan comedian Shofukutei Tsurube, pulled off on camera in the men's dressing room. However, the real story that had the gossipers gossiping was whether the other host, SMAP's Nakai-kun, was in a romantic relationship with ero-idol, Kumi Koda.

Basically, it's all been TV-watching. The specials have all had the female tarento decked out in flowery kimono while everyone's been involved in even larger quiz shows or even crazier obstacle courses. Ardent fans of "Takeshi's Castle" would just swoon. I did receive a couple of calls from Mom and even The Wild Thing. The Wild Thing and his missus are still in Hong Kong staking out possible job opportunities. As for the family, well, they were griping about the loss of quality in the Kohaku but the parents have been doing that since Pink Lady and Momoe Yamaguchi were the big stars in the late 70s.

Not sure what this year is gonna be like...but frankly, I'm looking at it as a make-or-break year. I feel that I've been coasting for the past couple of years and I think I need to shake things up a bit. One thing I've been considering is whether to move to a new place but realistically and financially I'm not sure if I can pull it off. However, I've decided to really make a good go with this new year.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Monday December 31, 9:57 a.m.

And thus we reach another end of the year. It's definitely quiet in my neighbourhood. As I was walking towards here about an hour ago, normally where there would be some besuited folks running toward the subway, there was noone...absolutely noone. I was about a hundred metres away from the Tozai Line but as the train was passing by, even with my myopia, I could see sky through the speeding impossibility on a Monday. However, the stores and supermarkets were getting ready for their huge blitz before they close down for 1~2 days. I guess that experiment of staying open for New Year's Day in previous years either didn't get as much business or the unions raised a mighty hue and cry...methinks the latter. And so I now have to strategize about what and how much to buy to tide me over today and the first day of the year. The nearby Daiei will open up on January 2, so I have that to save me.

The past week has been one of just two lessons and a number of meetings with old friends.

I met Paddy and his de facto wife on Boxing Day in Shinjuku. We ended up going to some chicken-based restaurant on the 14th floor of Takashimaya Times Square. They invited me to Paddy's place up in Ibaraki Prefecture on the 3rd. Then, on Thursday, I had that karaoke party with the juku bunch at the Urayasu Shidax. Apparently, The Milds (Mr. Mrs and Jr.) took my half-baked threat of singing in English for the first hour very much to heart...they had come to the box earlier in the week and practiced their tunes for an hour. Mrs Mild really got into it...she sang "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" twice. Jolly couldn't make it out due to work but Seven showed up although she resolutely refused to sing anything. It was the first time in almost half a year since I'd seen her last time. She gave both the boss and myself gifts of jelly much to our surprise....could be an implicit way of saying goodbye and thank you.
The Shidax chain...even in the boonies of Urayasu...continues to live up to its reputation as the deluxe karaoke franchise. Service (by folks in their teens or 20s) was unsurprisingly sullen but the food was pretty darn good.
It would seem though after I come home from a party, there seems to be a crisis playing out on TV. After the swanky party at The Lady's on the 14th, I found out about the Sasebo shooting spree at that sports gym. After the karaoke party, I turn on CNN to find out that Benazir Bhutto gets assassinated.

On Friday, I just had the final lesson of the year via The Ace, who had also come out to the karaoke party. He may be a fine tennis player but let's say as a karaoke singer....he's a fine tennis player. Then, on Saturday, I met up with Tully & The Coffeemaker for a thank-you lunch of sorts again in Takashimaya Times Square...this time at the Taiwan-based Din Dai Fung, the restaurant that specializes in sho ron po (soup dumplings). Yup, the dumplings certainly lived up to their reputation but the side dish that came with it was a bit disappointing.

Yesterday, the main event was meeting up with The Bohemian for dinner at En in Shibuya. I'd been reluctant to meet up with him since he isn't exactly the most ept in social graces. I had been hoping that the fact that he's gainfully employed again may have improved him somewhat. And for the first half hour, there was hope. He was speaking a mile a minute about his accounting job and seemed a bit more with it.
But then, his stupid side returned with a vengeance. I tell ya...I've never met a guy like him who could be so cheerfully and cluelessly sexist, racist and so eager to put both feet in his mouth. What made things even tenser was that we were speaking in English while surrounded by a lot of English-speaking guests (the Japanese had probably already made the exodus to their hometowns). I finally had to tell him to shut the hell up at one point since he was flying way over the line at one point and doing it rather loudly. He looked rather clueless. I also mistakenly told him about the fact that my friend and boss, Speedy, had his own business. The Bohemian was interested in starting something on the side and he kept badgering me about getting in contact with him although I tried to patiently tell him twice that Speedy was already up to his ears with his own concerns. In any case, there is no way that I could recommend The Bohemian to Speedy....or anyone else for that matter. That rather awkward meeting between The Bohemian and MB & The Satyr made that clear almost a year ago.
Finally, after 30 minutes of good conversation and 2.5 hours of endurance and verbal landmine-avoidance, I did what I've only done once (that one time also with The Bohemian at the same place) and what I would never do with a lone friend....I decided to leave him be at the table and told him that I needed to head over to Tower Records. He was initially surprised but the shock was a mild one due to the large amounts of beer tempering his reaction. Not sure when I'll see him again.

As for today, well, not only is it the final rush to get those readymade o-sechi kits or to get the ingredients (for those who still can make good o-sechi) for New Year's cuisine, but Japanese TV is now in full holiday mode with all of their umpteen specials. I've been taping a number of them for the parentals. The Kohaku Utagassen (The Red & White Song Festival) is on deck tonight on NHK as it has been for well over half a century. I won't be taping that since my parents do get NHK International back in T.O. and they end up griping about 90% of the acts anyways. However, there is a 4.5 hour enka show on TV Tokyo that'll be running concurrently. Speaking of music...there was a retrospective on TBS last night about a "Battle of the Bands"-type show known as Ika-ten that had a brief but legendary impact on Japanese society for a couple of years in the late 80s. It was interesting to find out that successful acts such as Tama, The Flying Kids, Blankey Jet City and Jitterin' Jinn were all recipients of fame. Like the popular "American Idol" in the States, there was a panel of expert judges including the Japanese version of Simon Cowell. Watching the flashbacks also re-acquainted me with the quaint fashions and musical tastes at that time....glam rock, early experiments with ska, spiky-haired boys and sauvage-haired girls. Not a rappin hip-hopper in the bunch.

Well, to all a Happy New Year.