Thursday, 2 June 2016

Graduation Celebration in Japan: Days 13 and 14

Day Thirteen

Although this was technically the day that we would be spending travelling back to Tokyo, our flight was booked so late (9pm) that we basically had another full day in Sapporo. Unfortunately, this day wasn't quite as well planned out as the previous one, so we mostly spend it just wandering. Really though, we could tell that we were getting to that part of the trip where we were burning out a bit, so that fit in pretty well with what we wanted to do. We spent a fair amount of time sitting in parks or in buildings, just because we were tired and couldn't think of anything better to do. One early morning highlight though was breakfast: we ate dango that we had picked up from the store the previous night. If you don't know why I'm so excited to eat dango, you've clearly never watched Clannad, but if you've seen it, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Dango are great, by the way. Very tasty.

We wandered over to the Hokkaido University campus after eating, and proceeded to wander through the grounds. They had some nice green spaces all over, as well as an actual model farm, which is pretty cool. And some nice benches too. That took us until lunch, which we had at a little hole-in-the-wall ramen place, where the menu was in Japanese with no pictures, and the owner (and his... daughter? wife? There were only the two of them) spoke no English. I was pretty sure that one of the menu items was labelled as "butter ramen", so I went with that. Thankfully, that's exactly what it was, and it was really good. Man, I'm going to miss having experiences like that. It's pretty satisfying going to the places that tourists don't usually go to; it makes you feel like you're really part of things a lot more.

Considering how pressed for space most of Japan is, Sapporo has a lot more room.
After food, we continued to wander aimlessly. Eventually we noticed that the streets were converging (we were at the intersection North 12 West 1), so decided to head for the center of the roads. When we got there we found... not much. A church, surprisingly, as well as a nice little river and some benches. Benches are nice. After chilling there for a while, we checked our maps and saw that we were near the Former Hokkaido Government Office building, which was rated well by other tourists, so we meandered over there to check it out. On the way, we once again passed the famous Clock Tower, which was just as disappointing as it was the night before, just like everyone always says it is. The Former Hokkaido Government Office Building was much better though. The grounds were nice, with turtles sunning around the pond, and the building itself was reasonably interesting. I hadn't realised that Japan was in a dispute with Russia over some islands north of Hokkaido, but they had a room dedicated to that issue. They also had a room about the Ainu people, the indigenous people of the area, who I had never heard of before. Sadly, several of the rooms were only in Japanese, which was not particularly useful, though I did find out that Hokkaido and Alberta are apparently sister provinces, which is cool. Alberta claims to be part of the reason that curling is as popular as it is in Hokkaido, which I suppose could be true.

This stuff is from 1980, making Alberta the first sister province with Hokkaido.
That was pretty much it for Sapporo. We did dinner at McDonald's (which serves a shrimp burger there), and then headed off to the airport. The train schedule was still a little funky, be we made it fine. The flight was on time, which is really good, because we didn't really leave ourselves any margin for error with our check-in time at the hotel we were staying at. We arrived 10 minutes before check-in ended at midnight, and we each got the run-down on how to sleep in our capsules. Yes, we decided that our last night should be spent in a capsule hotel, since that's so iconically Japanese. The capsule itself was actually quite spacious, if a little short. The problem was the free lockers were too small for our packs, so we had to either shill out for a coin locker, or sleep with our bags in our capsule with us. Guess which one we did? Even with the bag in there, it wasn't too bad, actually. I slept better than the hostel in Kagoshima, at least.

My head is touching the back wall in this shot. Also, that's a tv there.

Day Fourteen

One of our members had an earlier flight than the rest of us, so we were down to three for this last day. We decided to go tour the garden of the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which we had failed to do during our previous stop in Tokyo (since they're closed on Mondays like many attractions, for whatever reason). They were fairly pretty, though most things weren't really in bloom. The iris gardens were the nicest area, and there was a little waterfall and some benches nearby, so we hung out there for a while. Lots of people with expensive looking cameras were taking pictures of the flowers, so it was actually pretty crowded around them. After lunch at a curry shop, we headed off to Ueno station where I split off from the others and headed to the airport. It's nearly $20 cheaper (and nearly twice as slow) to go from Ueno over using the main line, by the way. I may not have budgeted quite enough time to get there, but I still made the gate 15 minutes before boarding began, so no big deal.

We also finally found a shop selling special Kit-Kats. I wish I had room to bring some back...
Thankfully, on this flight the entertainment system wasn't broken, so I got to watch my fill of movies. If you don't care about what I watched, you may want to skip a few paragraphs down. I decided to watch solely movies from the international category, since they have subtitles (which makes it easier to follow on the plane with the noise around) and because I'll probably never have a chance to legally watch them in English again. Plus, I do like J-Dramas. Even though I'd never heard of any of the five I watched, I was only disappointed in one of them, which happened to be the first one: Mozu. It's not that it was a bad movie; I'm sure I would have liked it... if I had seen the tv series it was the sequel to. Yes, it turns out it was the sequel to a 2 season J-drama, so I had no idea what was going on, and didn't care about any of the characters, so I gave up after an hour. It's a action movie, and there's a ex-cop who's totally awesome who has to fight some evil organisation or something. Maybe I'll go back and watch the tv show if it's ever available somewhere.

I mean, it looks intriguing, right?
After dropping that one, I proceeded to watch another Japanese movie: Something Like, Something Like It. After getting back, I found out that it was the sequel to the movie Something Like It from '81, but that wasn't an issue, thankfully. I just chose it from the description, which mentioned it was about a young rakugo performer tasked with finding a former member of his master's troupe. Having just watched the anime Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, I actually know what Rakugo is now, so I was intrigued. It was a good movie, and plenty funny with a quirky sense of humour. It's possible you'd be able to enjoy it even without knowing much about rakugo, but the whole movie is fairly entangled with Japanese culture in general, so people who are only familiar with Western things probably wouldn't enjoy it so much. I liked it though; it's heartfelt and earnest, and there's some real character development in it too.

Most of the older cast appear to be reprising their role from the first movie.
After that light hearted comedy, I decided to switch to the thriller genre with the Korean movie The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo. To be totally honest, I have no idea why that subtitle is there; I don't remember any plot points being about tattoos. But whatever, the movie was good. It's about a reporter who accidentally publishes a bad tip about the serial killer in a recent series of murders, and as he digs himself deeper and deeper into his lie, it starts to look like the facts of the case are changing to fit his story. I think the movie tries to make the point of reality is how we choose to perceive it, but I don't know if it succeeded or not; I just liked the movie. Tense at times, amusing at others (especially with mobs of reporters tripping over themselves), I found it quite entertaining.

You can see from the tagline that they're probably trying to make a point.
So, back to lighter movie, this time the Taiwanese romantic comedy Our Times. It starts off with a woman in her thirties thinking about how much her life sucks, but quickly flashes back to her teen years in high school in the 90s. After an unfortunate incident involving a chain letter she sends on, she gets involved with the school's gang leader to try and break up the popular couple at their school so they can win them over themselves. From there, the story goes pretty much exactly how you'd expect. Not that that's a bad thing. You don't have to be entirely original to be good, and it's not like it's entirely formulaic. The beginning hints that her high school life won't end well, after all. While it may never really surprise you, this is a perfectly fine movie anchored by some solid performances, stellar makeup/costume department, and a few surprisingly well directed action scenes. Also, apparently Taiwanese schools are pretty similar to Japanese ones, because other than the language, I could hardly tell the difference.

Cassette tapes and Game Boys! Doesn't it look so 90s?
To end the flight, I picked a movie that looked interesting and would end at the same time as the flight, the action-comedy Bad Guys Always Die. Not only is it a hybrid of genres, but it's also from a hybrid of places, being a Taiwan / South Korea / Hong Kong co-production. In it, a Chinese teacher in South Korea is visited by some friends from China on vacation, but when they stop to help out a lady in a crashed car, things start to spiral out of control very quickly, with shootings and assassins and millions of dollars on the line. Early on in the film, the friends are split into a few different groups, and the movie starts shifting perspective between them all, including the bad guys', juggling four or five at a time. It plays out as a comedy of errors kind of like Fargo (though not as dark in tone), where the groups will pass right by each other without noticing again and again. I thought they handled that aspect quite well, and found it really funny at times as well. The only "issue" I had with it (such as it is) is how the characters kept switching between Korean and Chinese, but the subtitles didn't do anything to show this change, which is kind of important for showing when characters don't understand each other. I don't know any Korean or Chinese myself, so I can't tell them apart at all by ear either. In the end, it's not that big a deal, but... something to improve on, I suppose.

I think the giant stuffed animal appropriately captures the ridiculousness here.
In any case, the flight landed at LAX on time at 10:40am (aka well before it took off from Tokyo at 5pm), but we couldn't leave the plane until 11am when they opened customs. I have no idea how they could possibly not be open before 11... Were there no other international flights that landed before us? That seems impossible. So, we had to wait extra long before getting into the line at customs. So, at LAX, they have these new machines that are supposed to automatically do your customs for you. The thing is, they suck. They are, in all seriousness, the worst idea that customs or the TSA or whoever have ever had. They're supposed to speed things up, but unless you're travelling on a US passport and have no issues, you have to go see an agent anyways. Even as one of those people, it was probably slower for me to use the machine, since it only takes about 30 seconds for an agent to ok me when there are no issues! Many of the machines were broken too, with one family unable to use any of them. Not that that mattered to the guards, who insisted that you HAVE to use a machine before you can see an agent, even though they weren't working for them. It's the dumbest thing I've ever seen, and I got very angry with them, even though I had no issues myself. Also, this is apparently a replacement for that declaration card they hand out on airplanes before you land, so I wasted my time filling that out too! Ugh, I hate it so much.

Found this right outside the airport. Go hockey!
My layover at LAX was for 7 hours, and I was already outside security after leaving customs, so I decided what the heck, I'll go explore LA a bit. The helpful man at the airport information desk gave me instructions on how to get to the Santa Monica Pier and back, so I went off to explore. This is the part of the trip where I learn that public transit in the US is forever ruined for me, because it absolutely sucks compared to Japan. Still, I managed to make it to the pier and the beach, which I wandered around on a bit and got reacquainted with the fact that in this country I can actually use the cellular services with my phone. The ability to load maps and get directions from anywhere is SO useful. You don't know how much you rely on it until it's gone. At least in Japan one of our members had a data connection (he was using Sprint, who apparently make it really easy), but it was nice to be able to use my phone again. I also got reacquainted with American cuisine at a Stake 'n Shake, and just wandered around Santa Monica a bit before heading back to the airport. I really only had a couple of hours downtown since the buses took so long and I had to be back at the airport well in advance of my flight to deal with the construction delays, but it was still nice to get out. I'd never been to LA before, so I enjoyed seeing what I did, even if it was just a tourist area.

From one side of the Pacific to the other, in -6 hours.
On my flight back to Austin, I ended up watching The Good Dinosaur, Pixar's latest. It wasn't bad; definitely better than Cars 2, which is a pretty one-note film. The movie was pretty derivative the whole way through, but I felt that it got stronger as it went on. It took a while to find it's feet, but eventually it turned into its own movie, and not just a clone of all the other "coming of age on the journey home" stories like it that have come before. Still one of Pixar's weakest though, in much the same ways as Brave. All that's left is Inside Out now. I also tried to nap on the plane, in order to prepare for my drive home, but it didn't work out too well, since the seats were REALLY uncomfortable. There weren't even any real headrests. The plane got in around midnight, and I managed to find my car and get home by 1am, making it a 32 hour day. Step counts got a bit messed up with the time change, but both days were well over 10,000 at least. Probably closer to 30,000 across both.

So, final words. Did I enjoy this trip? Heck yes. Would I do it again? Yes, ever bit of it. Would I like to go back? Absolutely, though next time I'd like to do things a little differently. First and foremost, I'd love to see the country in a different season. Don't get me wrong, late spring was great. I would probably have been disappointed if I hadn't gotten to go to the lilac festival, since flower viewing is such an iconic thing in Japan (usually cherry blossoms, but I thought that the lilacs were an acceptable substitute). What I want to see next is probably Sapporo in the winter. You may be aware that I love snow, and Hokkaido is all about the snow in the winter. They have curling and hockey and figure skating, and all those things I grew up with. I'd also love to stay at a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan). That's probably my biggest regret from this trip: not getting the hot springs inn experience you see in anime, with the baths and the bathrobes and the... ping pong. That's actually a thing, right?

Also, if and when I go back, I will not spend nearly as much time hiking or changing locations. It was nice to get a big overview of pretty much the entire length of the country, but all that moving around really burned us out towards the end, as you can see above. Plus, who needs to hike when you spend so many hours walking everywhere anyways? One thing that did come out of this travelling though was the fact that we went on pretty much every form of transportation known to man: walking, taking a big bus, taking a small car, taking a subway, taking a bullet train, taking a ferry, taking a hydrofoil, and taking an airplane. I think the only thing we missed was taking a bicycle, which we could have rented a few times (and probably should have in Sapporo). I went into this trip liking Japan a lot, and came back absolutely loving it. The people and the culture and the places were all better than I could have hoped for, making this trip a solid win in my books. I don't know where I'll visit next, but if it's even half as good as this trip was, it'll have been a resounding success.

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