bigpumpkin in tokyo
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Saturday, August 31, 2002
Started the day in a bit of a rush: Jamal (the man I have to thank for being here) 'phoned at 8:30 and told me we needed to meet them in Shimbashi (which is the other side of Tokyo) by 9:15. Jumped in the shower, and after a certain amount of confusion met up with him and another Paul (one of our directors). We then proceeded to Ofuna, where we met up with a Japanese acquaintance of Jamal's (whose name escapes me), and thence to Kamakura.
This delightful town is south of Tokyo, on the coast, and (it says here) was the capital of Japan from 1192 to 1333. It's quite small, but it's packed with shrines and temples (70 or so) and bordered by good walking country. This was where we were headed, passing Jochiji temple and climbing up into the forest, some of which, unexpectedly, turned out to be bamboo. We saw plenty of wildlife, including eagles, large spiders, colourful bugs and enormous butterflies (each wing the size of my hand!). It was a scorching hot day, and climbing was pretty hard going at times, but we eventually arrived at the entrance to Zeniarai-benten. We cooled down for a while inside the temple and washed some coins for luck.
We then walked further up into the hills before descending to the other side of Kamakura, to visit the justifiably famous Daibutsu, an enormous statue of Buddha that was completed in 1252 and remains intact to this day despite the building that once surrounded it having been washed away by a tsunami in 1495. It's cast in bronze and stands over 11 metres tall; you can even go inside!
For lunch, we retreated to the cool interior of a nearby soba restaurant for some noodle soup, then headed for the beach, pausing only for an ice cream (green tea and sweet potato flavour!) on the way. We all had a swim (taking care to avoid the jellyfish): the sea was wonderfully warm and a strong breeze ensured that there were huge breakers washing in constantly. The sun was merciless, however, so we took shelter in a bar on the beach and drank exorbitantly priced beer (Paul and Jamal were insisting on paying for everything) in the shade, while listening to cheesy 70s music.
Our Japanese chum left us at this point to go windsurfing, and we headed back towards Tokyo. Jamal insisted on asking for directions from pretty women as often as possible, and we caught a series of trains to take us to Asukasa, which is north east of Tokyo. We were all pretty sleepy, having spent so much time in the sun, but we managed not to get lost. When we emerged from the subway we found ourselves in the middle of a huge crowd, who were watching a street parade. This turned out to be the annual Akusaka Samba Carnival, which is but on by Brazilian-Japanese returnees and features lots of scantily clad women, bizzare costumes and small children.
After finding a way to cross the path of the parade (which took some time) we headed for the Nakamise-dori a delightful parade of small shops which leads to the spectacular Senso-Ji temple, and its enormous entrance, which is called the Thunder Gate. After some amusement we sought out a local tempura restaurant called Daikokuya, which was recommened in a guide book. I had some amazing veggie dishes, including a grilled aubergine dishe that was out of this world, and the others had one of the restaurants specials which was essentially fish and chips, but with the chips replaced by rice. No really!
We were all feeling pretty shattered, so we headed for train station, pausing only to take the odd picture or two using my camera's rather interesting night-scene mode. On the platform I noticed this charming sign; what a wonderfully weird place this is!

Friday, August 30, 2002
OK, I know I should really go to sleep, but I just have to tell you about the party we went to this evening. Turns it it wasn't just any party: it was the company's annual bash for all of their clients. We left with everyone else just before 4pm and went by train to Ginza, which is a pretty nice part of town. The party was to be held on the roof of the Toshiba building, in what they rather interestingly describe as a beer garden. None of the guests had arrived by the time we got there, and the Aplix staff all busied themselves preparing for the evening's entertainment. We sat and watched, and were given gifts (a rather tacky hand held fan, complete with scent pearls) and offered beer. We felt it would be rude to refuse...
The official start of the party was 6pm, but things didn't really get going until seven. When it got dark, the lights on the surrounding buildings looked wonderful. Throughout the evening we were brought a never-ending stream of food and drink, and were intrroduced to numerous Aplix people, most of whom gave us their name cards (must stop calling them business cards) and all of whom spoke English (some better than others). We were also accosted by two salesmen from other companies, who saw the attention that we were getting and assumed that we were important. We could probably have had some fun with these hapless goons, but we didn't play with them for too long before admitting that we were, in fact, merely humble software engineers and consequently beneath their notice.
We were also encouraged to take part in the evening's entertainment, which consisted of a pop-gun shooting range, wearing Pokemon masks and fishing for filled balloons in a big tub of water, using tiny hooks on pieces of string. It was a giggle, and everyone seemed delighted that we'd deigned to take part. I think most of their other guests were salespeople.
Tomoya, our nominal 'boss' out here made frequent, brief appearances throughout the evening, usually to supply us with food or to introduce a new victim, sorry Aplix employee for us to give lessons in English. The food was plentiful and delicious; I was particularly taken by some grilled pumpkin slices. The Aplix people seemed to take it in turns to prepare and serve the food, and several of them (especially the women) had dressed for the occasion in traditional costume. Later in the evening we had slices of watermelon and cups of flavoured ice. There was also an unlimited supply of quite splendid Asahi beer and alcoholic fruit crush later on.
We spent a great deal of time chatting to Masayuki, one of Aplix's sales guys, who went out of his way to look after us and even escorted us to the station at the end of the evening. He seems to spend his entire life travelling around the world meeting clients, and had an endless supply of anecdotes. He showed us around Ginza on the way to the station, and pointed out the famous (in Japan anyway) Ginza clock which looms over Seiko's world headquarters.
We found our way home without any trouble. I've had two 'phone calls since getting back: the first from some other colleagues who are over here (including one of the directors) to invite us on a trip to the beach tomorrow, and one from my manager to pick my brains a bit.
And now it's one o'clock in the morning again and I'm tired, so I'll bid you all goodnight.

Thursday, August 29, 2002
Must be brief today: it's 22:30 and I'm dead tired. Tried yoghurt and croissants for breakfast today; a cereal bowl full of the former, which I rendered marginally more palatable with the aid of some black cherry jam. Hmmm...
Work, work, work, work, work. We got seriously stuck into the technical stuff today and made a bit of progress. Stayed reasonably late again (7pm) to make up a few hours, because the entire office is shutting down at 4pm tomorrow. They're throwing a party, apparently, and we're invited. Not sure what to expect, but needless to say you'll read about it all here tomorrow.
We had dinner at a Thai restaurant in 'Baba today, perching on a bench around a big counter. My veggie green curry was fantastic; Tez's chicken version was a little hot for his tastes. The staff were all diminutive and female, and they seemed to find us very amusing for some reason. Maybe it was our lamentable grasp of Japanese, or maybe we just look kind of funny. Either way they seemed to get a kick out of us. I had a bottle of Thai beer that really hit the spot; Tokyo seemed a much friendlier place, afterwards and I finally managed to relax a bit.
It was a bit of a shame, then, that I had to come back to the hotel to do some more work. Not content with sending me to the other side of the world, my slave-driving employers have seen fit to continue offering my (somewhat abbreviated) services to my previous clients, and (fool that I am) I agreed to help out where I can. Ho hum: what's a couple more hours, eh?
Thanks for all of your encouraging messages, by the way: I think I've had more personal email in the past week than in the previous six months put together. Hoorah! Keep it up!
More pictures tomorrow, I hope, and a full report on the party. Oyasuminasai!

I meant to go to bed, really I did. Then I picked up my camera and noticed the lights reflected in a glass skyscraper and realised what a clear night it was out there. And then I started playing with some of the features and ended up with this. I also took some video footage, but couldn't get it to play on my PC. Maybe tomorrow. G'night (again).

Wednesday, August 28, 2002
Time is not quite so badly out of joint, but I still feel a bit misplaced. After a hearty breakfast (note to self: oatmeal is very filling, especially when followed by undercooked muffins) we braved the insanity of Ikebukuro station again (a million passengers a day can't be wrong) and remembered to change into our sandals when we arrived at work. Kamito had thoughtfully located a website with some useful tips for veggies in Tokyo, which is pretty cool. He'd even found a suitable restaurant nearby, which he encouraged us to try, but I still hadn't recovered from breakfast, so we had a light lunch and just about avoided falling asleep in the afternoon. Met our project manager, who was not at all what I was expecting: he was quite young, very informal, very good-humoured and seems to like lying on the floor. Odd that.
Quite surprised when we didn't get lost on the way back to the hotel in the evening. Toyed with the idea of seeking out one of the recommended veggie places in Ikebukuro, but despaired of finding it and settled for a Malaysian place that the Rough Guide recommended, largely because it was actually marked on the map.
Finding places in Tokyo without a map is rather a challenge: a typical address will quote the district (e.g. Nishi-Ikebukuro) and a string of digits (e.g. 3-22-6). These numbers refer to the district, the building and the location of the premises within that building. Unfortunately, districts and buildings are not arranged according to any particular pattern, so these numbers are not actually that useful. Take the multiple-floor thing into account, and you can see why most of the locals still struggle to find places.
The restaurant was more than just easy to find, as it turned out. They invited us in when they spotted us hovering nervously by the door, spoke good English and coped remarkably well with my "watashi wa begetarian desu" announcement. The menu was extensive and the food was excellent; we'll certainly be paying the Malay-Chan another visit.
I remembered to take my camera along this time, and we set out to photograph a bizzare local phenomenon. This involved an unintentional tour of the seedier local streets, where we were offered "massaggi" by enterprising young ladies, before we eventually tracked down our quarry: plastic food. On the way back, we took the opportunity to a sample few more of Ikebukuro's bright lights and weird sights, including a gigantic, animatronic dragon.
We then paid a visit to the Metropolitan Art Space, which has a collossal glass canopy that you can see looming in the background of this sculpture on a roundabout. Inside, we were treated to more sculpture, a neon waterfall and a spectacular staircase leading up to the vast concert hall. There was also a peculiar collection of brass cubes suspended from the roof that you can just see in the staircase pic, but they didn't photograph well. Maybe another time. Art: there seems to be a lot of it about, but much of it is in questionable taste. Back at the hotel, we noticed a bizzare mural in the lobby, complete with mosaic-tiled pool. One word springs to mind: why?

Tuesday, August 27, 2002
Well, here I am again, and yes, you're right: that is a scene from Bladerunner that you can see out of the window. But on to business: my first full day in Japan is almost over, and I have much to relate.
It began quite early, before most of you went to bed I suspect. After a dream-infested night and a sleepy conversation with Alice at 7am (that's 11pm GMT, folks) I managed to haul myself out of bed and decide what to wear for my first day at work. Breakfast was pretty surreal: cornflakes with bizarre milk, sweet toast, chilled water. Tez and I decided to catch a train to Takadanobaba (or 'Baba, as it is apparently known locally), where we're working. This seemed straightforward enough on paper (we'd been provided with a detailed map), but in practice it was a bit of a nightmare. The station was huge, and there were numerous lines, run by numerous different operators, each with their own ticket vending machines. The machine we settled on obligingly spoke to us in English, but we had to guess the price of the fare. The signs for the various subway lines were obvious, but the JR (that's Japan Railways) line we thought we wanted proved elusive, and ultimately turned out to be the wrong one anyway. Once we figured everything out though, we were quite pleased with ourselves, and glad we hadn't chickened out and caught a taxi.
By this stage I was sweating profusely. It was like a sauna out there, and wearing a shirt and tie was starting to look like a pretty stupid idea. The trains were wonderfully cool, though, and we found our ultimate destination without any trouble (damn fine map). Two of our hosts, Kamito and Matsumoto, met us in the lobby and kindly pointed out that they don't wear 'neckties'; we swiftly and gratefully removed the offending articles.
The business card ritual was duly performed; I really hadn't believed that they'd hand their cards to me two-handed, and with such reverence, but there it was. Things went swimmingly, and Kamito took us to a Myanmarian (Burmese) restaurant for lunch, and managed to procure vegetarian food for me (no mean feat, it seemed). It was only on our return that we realised our earlier breach of ettiquette: we should have removed our shoes and changed into sandals before entering the office.
Some bright green guest sandals were hastily provided, which were rather small. Later, I noticed a number of larger, pale blue pairs in the toilet, and mentioned them to Tez. Thus another breach of ettiquette was revealed: apparently, we were supposed to change into this special footwear when visiting the facilities. Ooops!
We left quite late (7pm) and dropped into the Irish bar that we'd discovered yesterday for dinner. Just to underline the cosmopolitan experience, I had a pizza. It was fantastic.
Some kind soul had restored my room to an immaculate state while I'd been out. I almost felt guilty setting foot in the room again. They'd even replaced the complementary kimono I wore for five minutes this morning . D'you think they'll iron my shirts if I just leave 'em lying around?

Monday, August 26, 2002
I'm all confused in my mind, people. My watch says it's 21:15, but the clock on my PC and my body both insist that it's 13:15. Someone's telling fibs...
I won't bore you with all the details of my journey. It was... long. Too long. Over 21 hours from door to door. High points included the executive lounge at Manchester Airport (but why do the complementary soft drinks come in small cans, while the complementary beer comes in full-sized portions?), actually getting veggie measls when I ordered them, the in-flight entertainment (A Beautiful Mind and Tetris) and that map that show you where you are and tells you your altitude, speed and what the temperature is outside (-25 C!). Low points were seats that didn't go back quite far enough, not being able to watch Spiderman for some reason and, of course, the three hours that it took us to get from the airport to the hotel.
The hotel is amazing: 815 rooms, 25 floors, 5 restaurants and an outdoor swimming pool on the 4th floor. Stepping into its cool interior was like shrugging off a large, damp, fur coat. A diminutive Japanese lady cheerfully insisted on transporting our massive suitcases to our rooms for us, and only seemed happier when she had to move mine again (twice - don't ask). Everyone bows and bobs and smiles; everything is immaculate. The toilet has more controls than the radio.
What a contrast when you go outside again! Heat and hustle and bustle; strange smells and even stranger sights. Vending machines everywhere. Shops, bars and restaurants piled on top of each other, commonly 3 or 4, but sometimes as many as 6 storeys of them. Dozens of cheap restaurants that insist on displaying plasticised examples of their dishes in their windows. We took the cowardly option and ate in a Chinese restaurant in the hotel, but even that was an unexpectedly alien experience, albeit a very pleasant one. We did pluck up enough couyrage to buy bananas and mineral water from a grocers, but that was more than enough excitement for our first day.
So: here I am, then, staring out of my window at Ikebukuro by night. I have a short new haircut, a fancy new camera and a non-smoking room with free internet access (eventually). I'm in a city of 11 million people, I know about three words of Japanese and I have to get up at midnight to go to work in the morning! Help!

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