火曜日, 8月 31, 2010

Another Exercise in Amazing

As promised, the continuation of my previous blog. That means this will appear on the top, but chronologically it's later.

Friday, August 27th
I worked the late shift at the International Center, 1-9 and the first awesome event of the day was when i wandered over to convenience store to buy something for dinner. I didn't know what to get until I saw this:
That's right. BECK Tonkotsu Ramen! You KNOW I had to get it!
Alright, so it isn't really "Beck" name brand, it was just a promotion for movie coming out this month in Japan called BECK, based on a great manga about some Japanese kids who want to form a rock band.
If you don't understand why the Tonkotsu Ramen part is significant, maybe scroll down and read my last entry?
It was good, and it smelled great, but ultimately, instant ramen is instant ramen and that means it met the threshold of it's design. Still I might try it another time.
Anyway, after dinner and finishing closing up the International center, I rode my bike home, got changed, and went out to Itto-Nyushin, a monthly event at a two-story club in Hiroshima City called Mugen (means: infinity). Perhaps this is a sign of how spoiled Hiroshima has made me, but when my friends who didn't go asked me how the event was I answered honestly "It was okay". Looking back, it was much more than ok. Not only was the club two stories, with DJs spinning on the first floor, live music and performances on the second floor, and people around the edges of the room getting tattooed; I didn't have to pay the 1000 yen (about $12) entry fee because my friend, and 2UP bar owner, Taka gave me a free invite ticket! He asked me to come early, and for the first half hour I was regretting that, because he was pretty much the only person I knew there and was constantly leaving to help out the workers, but then Andre came out and started fire twirling!
That and a drink got me feeling good and just then some Japanese friends showed up and great Japanese metal band took the stage and started rocking!

That plus a healthy mosh pit got the second floor heated up in a now-I'm-sweaty, literal way, so we checked out the first floor and the DJs were spinning some cool techno that changed later on in the evening to remixed reggae and later on, house. If you don't know what I mean, just think "techno" and that will suffice for imagination's sake. =P

Back upstairs the singing and dancing continued, more of my friends showed up, some really bad "artists" took the stage and we retreated back to the first floor. They ate curry, which for some reason was for sale in the lounge area of the club, and we kept on for another couple hours going back and forth between floors. At the end of the evening (or at least before I got too tired to stay out any more) I started chatting with one of the tattoo artists who turned out to be fluent in English from spending something like 8 of his 20 year career in NYC! He and his girl friend were really nice and after chatting over drinks for an hour or so we traded contact info, and vowed to meet again. So I made a cool new friend and, feeling satisfied, walked home. The friends who ate curry tried to get me to eat more ramen on the way home, but I managed to avoid eating straight before bed. They swear by how good the place they went was, but it wasn't tonkotsu. If it was... i probably couldn't have resisted.

Okay, so Saturday, August 28th:
I woke up late in the day and had a slow morning. Did some laundry, washed some dishes, went to the chiropractor, and dressed like a pirate. Yes, a pirate. Why? Because then I got on a train to Onomichi, and took the bus with about 10 other friends to the island of Innoshima for the Suigun Festival! This is usually translated by locals as the "Pirate Festival" but in reality there's nothing piratey about it, except boats, and old-old-fashioned rifles. The term suigun (pronounced sue-y-goon) refers to the pre-naval samurai in the area who rode boats, not horses. and protected the area. Not knowing this, some years before I ever went, some of the ALTs started a tradition of going dressed like a pirate, and I was happy to oblige.
We met up with another 15 or so JETs and watched the samurai fire their rifles at the ocean and lots of dance and traditional taiko groups came out to show off and entertain too. After eating some amazing steak from a food stall, and having an old guy thrust a mini-beer (half-sized can) in my hand, a Japanese friend of someone in our group came over and asked if 5 of us would like to volunteer to help carry torches on the boat to which I said "uhhh, HELL YEAH!" We sat on the boats with our kerosene soaked towels wrapped around long thick wooden rods, and when it was finally time, we rowed out into the ocean and lit them, circled around a few times, pulled up on the beach in the middle of the performance area, stormed the beach and then waited patiently while an old guy explained everyone should shout "Ay Ay OH!" I shouted "Arrrrr".
We ran back onto the boats, swam in a few more circles and returned to our starting point and extinguished our torches, and I for one felt pretty bad-ass.

The night continued on with a fireworks show, I brought my uke and played some tunes, and challenged and lost to Tom and Bob at our second annual shove match on the beach (it's a real game that is much less brutal than it sounds), and then it was time to get on the free shuttle buses back to the shore. Our groups split off into smaller splinter cells of people who live far away, or were tired, but I stayed with some of the Saijo group and we drank a round at a semi-American style bar and restaurant after giving up on finding somewhere to drink in Sajo's sleepy, subdued red-light district. I crashed with a few friends at my buddy T-bone's (okay, his name is Dave) and after drinking some white wine and drawing pictures of bugs (more fun than you might think), we fell asleep, air-con: on.

Sunday, August 29th:
We woke up late and walked through town back to the train station. After saying my goodbyes, I took the train to Karuga Beach where Simon and other friends were BBQing and swimming.
I know at this point you must be thinking, "Is Greg alright? やり過ぎじゃないか。” And sometimes I ask myself the same thing, but the reality is, I had a great time. I wasn't pushing myself, I didn't drink that much Friday night or Sunday, and I brought my sunscreen to the beach, got in a good workout swimming and splashing around, and spent the entire day Monday relaxing and doing chores at home. Taka, the same guy who got me in to the event Friday night, showed up as we were winding down and hung out for a bit, and I took this picture with him appreciating the view:
(Taka's the one dressed like an L.A. gangsta) =P
So, food, fun, fireworks, friends, and fucking beautiful views. Japan definitely rocks, and I'm extremely lucky to have some of these experiences, and even more glad that after 4 years living here, they haven't lost their ability to amaze and impress me.

When Japan is good, it's REEEEEALLY good!

It's easy for me to get bogged down in news reports of political corruption and failed economic policies. As much as most people see me as a fun-loving, goofy, gregarious (not in a good way), fool, the reality is I have an extremely serious side that spends at least an hour or two everyday reading about global affairs and my opinion of the current situation is bleak; Quite bleak indeed.

That said, this month I wound down the arrival of Hiroshima's newest batch of about 45 new ALTs by getting wound up with them, and my "days off" were equally exhausting - the kind of exhausting where your head hits the pillow and you fall asleep mid-thought. Luckily for me, each night that thought was the same: "what an awesome weeken....ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ"!

Friday, August 13th:
I took the day off work, but woke up at 6am to pile in a van with Kazu, Mika, and Bacon (his real last name for those confused). We then drove non-stop to Fukuoka for another legendary RAMEN TOUR. Ramen in Japan in completely unrecognizable to the instant ramen college students live off. Without overstating things, it is one of the best, most indulgent, unique to each shop that sells it, dishes in existence.
Ramen is sold all over Japan at varying prices and qualities,
but there are more restaurants devoted to just ramen, than there are Starbucks in any given American city. Two prefectures, Fukuoka and Hokkaido, are reknown for having the best. Hokkaido is famous because they use their other famed products, butter (any dairy product from Hokkaido is considered superior though, really) and crab. Fukuoka, on the other hand, is famous for their Tonkotsu (lit. Pork Bone) broth that is fatty, bold, and delicious.

There are hundreds of Tonkotsu Ramen shops throughout Fukuoka Prefecture, so Kazu reads restaurant reviews, travel magazines, and online "rate this ramen" style reader based review sites and puts together his own personal tour. He also keeps a secret blog online where he gives his review in Japanese, but says it is top secret. I suspect he does this anonymously and wonder if he is something of an internet legend, but he is far too humble to admit it.

So we arrived just as the first few shops were opening for the day (It's not what you'd call a breakfast food) and not having had anything to eat, devoured our first bowl, said "thanks" and proceeded to the next shop. On the way there we decided that we would only eat half a bowl at each following restaurant in order to double the number of places we could try! By the end of the night we had been to 10 restaurants. That's 5 and a half bowls total for the day, but the next morning, we woke up and went to four more restaurants. The night before our friend Tamami came out to join us for round two.
Saturday, August 14th:
At the last of day 2's four restaurants, we all ordered a full bowl, and shared some gyoza too. We were full, but no one was tired of eating tonkotsu. That's how good it is. The five of climbed back in the van, and headed back to Hiroshima, but not home. We had a big night ahead. On the ride back, we watched Avatar on the DVD Navigation while nodding in and out of food comas. Once back in Hiroshima, we went straight to the port and grabbed a ferry to Miyajima for the annual fireworks competition. Like ramen, fireworks shows here are often a different animal entirely from what we know in the states. I wrote "competition" because several different firework companies actually bring their special fireworks and each take turns, so the result is several rounds of fireworks and finales that lasts around an hour! Having the luxury of being held on the Seto Inland Sea, this show included plenty of fireworks that are detonated at eye level, just above the surface of the ocean!
This year Kazu treated to something especially amazing when he invited us aboard his company's boat. The giant crane boat had at least a hundred people on board and there was free drinks and BBQ along with the show! This is the kind of thing I would imagine big Hollywood actors get to do, but never a regular Greg such as myself, yet there I was, and it was incredible.

Afterward, I said goodbye to my friends and hopped on a different boat going back to Miyajima where I walked to Tsutsumi-ga-Ura Beach to meet up with another group of friends camping there, but most everyone was tired and went to sleep not long after I arrived.  I did still take a dip in the ocean, which had those luminescent plankton that sparkle when you splash around. Cool.

Sunday, August 15th:
The sun woke everyone up quite early, myself especially, and I took walk around and snapped some photos. It was weird to shoot in the early morning light, since I am usually asleep or half asleep on the way to work, but the deer were out grazing on a sports pitch, and turtle scuttled into the lake and everything was quite peaceful.

After everyone else had woken up and packed up their tents we went back to the beach and had a great morning swim. I played with Morgan's dog, who loved to play tag in the water, and took photos with everyone else.
After showering off went with some of the first years back to the mainland, showed them my favorite soft-serve place, and we took the street car back into town. Everyone was bushed, and after saying my goodbyes, I entered my apartment, pulled out my futon and slept for about 6 hours. Woke up, made dinner, and went back to sleep.

Believe it or not, that was only one of three amazing weekends this month, but I have blogged enough for one day. I will return with more soon...

火曜日, 8月 24, 2010

Greg the Scrivner

Here are most, not all, but most, of the essays I have written while in Japan so far. I have ideas for many more, but in the meantime this will have to hold you over till I get out some fresh word document paper :P
CLICK HERE for good (I HOPE) reads

土曜日, 8月 07, 2010

Shrine in the Mind

Last week I went into an isolation tank for an hour. This week, I went again.
What is an isolation tank?
Isolation tanks were invested by John Lilly, an American scientist who experimented heavily in the 1960's with altered states of mind. What he came up with, in his quest to isolate the mind from the body, is a light-proof, sound-proof, tank with about 8 inches of water made super-buoyant by magnesium salt. Both the water and the air are kept at around 93 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of your skin, and you float in this empty, weightless, silent darkness, alone with only your mind and the thought, "How long is an hour, really?"

I first heard about isolation tanks from stand-up comedian and UFC commentator Joe Rogan on his blog over a year ago. Apparently he is such a fan of them that not only did he get one for his home, when he moved, he got a newer, updated version and gave his old one away in a contest so that others could enjoy it. Since that time, I have continued to read his blogs and watch his pod casts and every time the subject came up I got more and more interested. He described it as being similar to doing hallucinogens, but without any drugs, side-effects, or hang-overs - a silent time for self-reflection insight. Recently he mentioned being able to search online for places all over the world where you could pay to use an isolation tank, and as soon as I heard that I hit up Google and sure enough, found one in Tokyo.

This was only four days before I was going to go to Tokyo to meet the new ALTs coming for Group A's Tokyo Orientation, and after dreaming of trying it out, price was no object. I just hoped I could get an appointment. Kazuo, the owner, got back to me immediately and said my first choice for my appointment time was fine. Awesome.

So three days later I was walking through Shirokane-Takanawa, near Meguro in Tokyo, looking for the tiny back street to his first floor apartment that he has converted into his, for lack of a better word, office. From the outside, it looked like your average, aging Japanese apartment, but inside, through the kitchen and into the waiting room, you soon start to notice this is no one's living space.

Kazuo is a very relaxed guy who gives off the vibe of a spiritual guru. He spoke to me in Japanese the entire time, but mentioned that in his nine years of doing this he has also had many foreigners visit, and has no problem communicating in English. As it was my first time, he gave me a verbal tutorial about what to expect, possible anxiety I might experience, and how to get over it and get back in the tank. The most interesting part of his talk was how some people's bodies will try to play tricks on them. The feeling of letting go you get from the tank, while ultimately relaxing and amazing, can be unnerving to some, he said, and their mind tries to blame it on the tank, convince them it is broken, and that they should get out. The reason for this, apparently, comes from being trained from when we are small, that everything in life is external - from our problems to our means of finding happiness, and that when we are put in an environment that isolates us from the external, our mind feels exposed and unable to project its problems elsewhere.

This all sounded very serious and heavy, and even someone like me, who thrives on new experiences and taking myself out of my comfort zone, started to wonder if I would experience any of these problems. I did not. In fact, walking back to the Metro line from his place, I wondered if I hadn't wasted my first hour being caught up in the novelty of such a uniquely new state of being. I will get back to what happened chronologically in a moment, but I want to say first that I had so much fun my first time, from the moment I stepped in, to showering off afterward, that the level of elation was euphoric. I felt so free and uninhibited. Looking at my picture of the tank, I'm sure some of you would think of claustrophobia, but it is exactly the opposite. Once you close the door to the tank, you instantly lose any and all perception of direction and boundaries.

So tutorial over, he took me into the room with the isolation tank for the first time. He had many Shinto bells and paraphernalia towels laid out ready on the tank, a toilet and shower. He showed me how the air and water temperature were monitored and maintained, and explained that speakers inside the tank would play music when my hour was up. He showed me the inside of the tank, how to open and close it, and then, most surprisingly, he started to discuss Shinto. Paraphrasing (and translating) he said 'I want you to think of the inside of this tank like a shrine. Shinto shrines are a place to reflect on yourself and are purified with what? Salt and water. This is no different. It is a place for meditation and to remove yourself from ego." He asked that before I got in the tank I used the toilet and showered off any sweat, smells, gel, anything that might distract me from the experience. He also asked that I draw an "X" across the four corners of the entrance into the tank to "seal" it. Finally, before any of that, he asked me to face a corner where I would listen to him use Shinto and Buddhist bells in order to align my brainwaves with a more meditative level. The whole thing felt like a religious ceremony, but it was brief and pleasant.

After that, he left the room and I did the other things I was instructed to before sliding into the tank and floating toward infinity. Inside the tank, I tried many different poses, trying to figure out which was the most comfortable. Ultimately, lying back with my fingers laced behind my head was the easiest to sustain for long periods, but most anyway I tried to stretch out, I was happy to find I had plenty of room to. Every so often my elbow, tow or head would bump up against the wall and with the most delicate of nudges, I would float away. Indeed, the first sensation I had was floating down a calm river. Despite hardly moving at all. Even my second time in the tank, when I was much more calm and relaxed, I could not help but marvel at the fact that after closing my eyes, then opening them, it still looked like my eyes were closed. And those patterns of faint light you sometimes see when you press your hands over your eyes, continue with them wide open.

Since both experiences I have talked to many people about how wonderful it was, and I wrote this because most people seemed genuinely interested in it. Most people want to know how it feels, but that is of course the hardest thing to put into words. I have described it as having just your mind, floating in a starless space, but that is not accurate, because your body is still there, under your control, and actually, one of the most interesting parts of the experience is hearing your breath and heartbeat from inside your own body. Most recently, I told a friend, it is like instantly falling asleep, but staying lucid the whole time. When the hour is up, as promised, some gentle bells thumped out a melody which got progressively louder to wake you in case you are asleep.

But best of all, I never felt bored or tired at any point, either time. I get bored easily too. I fall asleep on massage chairs, buses, trains, cars, boats, whatever, but this situation is so unique, and liberating, I think you would have to be immensely exhausted either physically or mentally in order to fall asleep and if that was the case, then sleep is what you need, but both my first and second hour went by smoothly and felt like some of the wisest investments I had ever made with my time.

After showering the salty water off and helping myself to his awesome citrus body wash and herbal shampoo and conditioner, I got dressed and joined him back in the waiting room for some cold mugi-cha and to discuss the experience and talk about life in general as well. He also took me to the second floor to try his Merkaba. Briefly, the Merkaba was a water bed and strobe light, combined with relaxing sounds and some scented oils or something, but basically, I fell asleep soon after lying down and woke up just before the half hour ended and the music (actually, sounds from the Amazon rain forest) stopped. I went back downstairs and Kazuo was talking with two other customers. One got in the tank and the other stayed to chat. He told me he had been coming for awhile and that day was about his 100th time in the tank. The older gentleman who had already gone to shower, they said, was a regular and came in almost every day!

With the tank all the way up in Tokyo, I won't have many chances to get there, but Kazuo also mentioned helping a psychiatric clinic a short walk from Okayama Station, in Okayama City, set up a newer, similar, but slightly different tank, and that it is available to the public on Saturdays. The name of the place is Hikari Clinic, and because he helped set up the tank, you can receive a member's discount there as well. This is great news, because membership is 10,000 yen. That may sound pricey, but after becoming a member, an hour in the isolation tank is only 4,200 yen. And both, I firmly believe, are wise investments.

Just as important as my experience in the isolation tank, was how I felt when I got out. I felt lighter, happier, and generally more carefree. I didn't feel like I learned any one profound thing about life either time, that I could share with you, because for me personally, I focused more on letting go and taking whatever came to me with open arms. Afterward, I felt more positive, and in fact, I still do. I can't wait for another hour in the tank, and I doubt three times will be "enough" either.