What Wouldn’t I put in My Mouth

Osaka was home to the best food I delighted myself with on my adventure. I took an evening trip to the city during my stay at Kyoto. Being a bit of a spontaneous expedition, I stuck closely to the guide book—b-lining for Dotonbori—the city’s acclaimed playground.

Dotonbori

The best way I can describe it, is like finding an inner-city boardwalk lit up like the main block of Vegas. There were times I couldn’t tell if I were inside or out—walking under the giant busts of sea-critters that hung from flashy restaurants and under blinding webs of strung lights strung across the from building to building. And what better to add to this sensory overload than the savory smells of fried seafood in the air.

It was easy to find a tako-yaki fryer. They were small shops, where you step-up to a counter much like at a fried Oreo stand at the shore.

A girl behind the counter asked me how many I would like. I opted for three, figuring I would give the regional delight a fair chance of impressing me. She served them in a thin rice wafer wrapped in foil, like a crude Japanese version of Falafel.

I retreated to a nearby bench in the center of the walk, so as not to offend their little fry shake in the unlikely event that regurgitation measures needed to be taken. Despite the main ingredient being octopus, I was anticipating taking to the taste.

Takoyaki

Tako-yaki even looked like a fried Oreo, rolled in batter and cooked to a deep golden brown.  I decide the first bite should be taken al naturale picking up a fried octopus ball between my two fingers. I cocked my head back, opened the hatch and dropped ‘er in.

Now, I wish I could describe how sensational and delicious that first bite was, but the truth is, I couldn’t draw an opinion if I wanted to. The fried ball burst into an explosion of molten batter, searing every known and newly discovered surface of my mouth.

I spit the tako-yaki back into its little green wafer taco, getting a chance to at least see what was inside. It was mostly battery magma with green slivers of scallions. At the fireballs core however, was a solid chunk of Octopus tentacle (little suction cups and all).

After giving my mouth time to stop pulsating, I gave it another shot. At this point, it was lukewarm, but my mouth only registered the substance as brimstone. Still, I got a semblance of flavor. The more I forced my way through the pain, the more I enjoyed its savory taste.

After, I decided to go to an okonomiyaki shop for dinner –following the book to the most highly recommended location. It was a cool spot, right along one of the canals that cut through Dotonbori. A few times during dinner a fleet of rowboats would pass by the windows to the beat of the coxswain’s drum.

I sat down at the bar of the restaurant. There were small tables for more of a dining atmosphere, but okonomiyaki was prepared hibachi style—all the ingredients grilled right in front of me on a hot slab that spanned nearly the length of the restaurant.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a hearty pancake or in my case, fritter, having ordered the one with the most seafood. They made the pancake gigantic and drizzled a weave of tangy and sweet sauces over it before shoveling the meal onto a plate and placing it in front of me.

I cut it up to cool the center. As I suspected—crispy on the outside; molten in the middle. I took my first bite. It was sweet and savory, tasting unlike any seafood dish I had ever tried. To be honest, it was the best meal of my whole Japan experience—making the side-trip to Osaka worth it in its own right.

I couldn’t finish the plate, the circumference of the pancake being equivalent to a Frisbee. I burped and made my best attempt at saying, “what a feast,” in Japanese. My glorified pancake flipper smiled brightly, bowed and said, “Ohhh, Tank-you.”

I left Osaka with a full stomach, burnt tongue, and not clue of where my transfer stop was.

Other Delicacies:

Wagashi

Wagashi

Wagashi is a Japanese “treat.” They are sold in the closest thing that Japan has to a candy shop. And although Wagashi comes in many varieties, the list of ingredients is quite short. Allan and I, quickly developed a joke while sampling the bunch I picked up from Kyoto.

“How would you like your red bean paste?”

You could get your red bean paste in a rice-pastry puff, in gelatinous cubes, in doughy balls, on a stick, and the list goes on. They were good though—semi-sweet and heavy—one or two would suffice the most ravenous sweet tooth.

Udon

I actually frequented an Udon shop in Kyoto called Yamamoto Menzou for cheap, delicious dinners. Convenience was far from my top reasons to eat at this local dive. Part of the trick is making the Udon noodle right.

Unlike microwavable soups you can buy at Trader Joes, these shops boiled their noodles, then pan fried them in one of their sauces. It made the Udon the perfect consistency, unlike the boogery noodles I get back home. It was the perfect food—generous helpings—and fun to slurp with the locals.

Shabu-Shabu

This traditional Japanese meal is meant to be a social affair. Luckily, I had made some friends who invited me out to partake in such a feast during my last stay in Tokyo.

Shabu-Shabu was a meal I had to cook in a large kettle of boiling broth that sat in the middle of the table. Being served a platter of raw beef, fish, and veggie, everyone took turns placing a few food items in. After I fished out the cooked pieces, I had an assortment of dipping sauces in front of me to choose from.

We also ordered chicken, which was unlike anything I suspected. They came out with a split bamboo shoot packed with, like, a chicken puree. Dropping grape-sized clumps in the broth, turned up delicious chicken balls bobbing at the surface.

Natto

Natto

Not all things in Japan were great. In fact, my experience with this Japanese “delicacy” was so bad, I feel compelled to write about it to encourage future travelers to veer far from it.

Natto, or fermented soy beans were nasty. They had a stingy sourness that reminded me of mothballs and a texture that could have only been gooberfied in the 9th circle of hell.

The beans were held together by some white stringy paste, that’s elasticity seemed supernatural. One bite and I had spider-silk-like strings floating from my mouth or stretching back to the bowl. I could feel the sticky bites roll and stick along the walls of my throat. Nothing about eating this food was fun.

The only way I could conceive making this dish remotely enjoyable would be to mix in a fatal dose of Cyanide to kill myself for fast acting relief of the bile I would have just placed in my mouth.

From The Battz Travelz: http://bbattz.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/what-wouldnt-i-put-in-my-mouth/

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Dodging Disillusionment

In regards to Fallout 3: There is just so much to do and to go to, a feeling of mystique around every building and area. I loved it. Then the ugly feeling started creeping over me that I had when playing Morrowind and Oblivion. Disillusionment…Dolgion Chuluunbaatar

Willing suspension of disbelief is a formula that most writers understand and adhere to when crafting their characters and worlds. In a way, it is a story’s integrity and one of its most grounding characteristics. The idea is that when developing a fictional world, it is important to balance the surreal with enough detail and universal truth to keep the participants (in this case, the gamer) grounded in the experience—whatever that may be.

I wish to highlight some important literary elements in games that help developers achieve this. Keep in mind, this is a topic regarding games that utilize narrative agents and have at least the slightest hint of story implementation.

Understanding what keeps players grounded in a game is simple. Players need something to attach to. This can come in many ways; three I would like to focus on is character, place, and conflict.

Character

Character is, by far, one the most important elements of grounding. The player and player character need to have a relationship; the player needs to see a human being behind those pixels in order to relate and attach to him. Even if your character isn’t technically human,(IE. Playing as a Ninja Turtle) there needs to be strong sense of humanity within him or her. The character needs to express emotion, experience pain and pleasure, and also be the center of the conflict.

This kind of character is relatable to and acts as the sociological bridge into the world—potentially even the sensual bridge, depending on what perspective the game is played in. The new Metroid series, for example, explores the world through a helmet interface that reflects Samus’ pretty eyes. This technique casually reminds the player that there is a person behind the mask, humanizing the unstoppable weapon.

Even if the player character of the game is meant to be mute like Legend of Zelda’s Link or the dude from GTA 3, you can still humanize them with enough detail. Some simple tricks are as followed:

Flawed Characters

Make them flawed. No human being is perfect. Make the characters have unlikeable traits within their personality, appearance, mannerisms, etc… Exploit these flaws to add dramatic elements to the game.

Give them a viola.

This is a saying I learned in school. It means give them something unique. Some habit, some mannerism, some hobby that adds to their character and makes them unique from any other no matter how closely they adopt character archetypes. Two-Face’s scarred coin is the best example I could come up with.

Background

Background is overlooked in many games, but a history is very, very important. It gives the character relativity and helps show that they too are subjects of time. I think James (dad) of Fallout 3 has a very substantial history that enriches his character and a player’s endearment or understanding of him.

Make them expressive

A mute character that is super tolerant of pain and unable to have relationships makes a very dull character. For entertainment sake and to give the player something to attach to, a character needs to be loud. They should contort and respond to pain to the point where the player hurts. They should express emotions especially the darker ones of loss, pain, guilt, depression.

These techniques can also be used to embellish the NPC’s of the world. Although they may not be the center point of conflict or just a bystander in a game, it is equally important to populate a world with people that the player can relate to. NPCs that respond to the player and their environment are more convincing than walking dialogue boxes.

Place

The second literary element is place. I won’t pretend to be an expert on level design and environments.  I simply want to touch upon what tactics can be used to create a world that avoids disillusionment no matter how surreal or fantastical it is.

The main objective is to give a player a sense of place. He needs to be oriented and begin to understand his world quickly—to the point where, how it will respond to him becomes predictable. Think of New York City. Would you ever step in front of a taxi? Hell, nah! This isn’t from some experience of being struck by a cab, but simply through an understanding of the city’s very fast pace and every-man-for-him-self mentality.

Detail, detail, and more detail

Nothing makes a place more believable than nitty-gritty detail and I’ve never found a case of too much—maybe in novels—but never in games. I’d like to use StarCraft 2 for this one. Between each mission, the player is allowed to explore the virtual briefing environments. Raynor’s bar is packed with details to explore. I’ll never forget on the bulletin board between lvl 2 and 3 there is a letter of gratitude written by one of the Mar Sara colonists accompanied by a child’s stick figure drawing off to the side and out of focus. It alludes to a much larger world beyond the scope that the player’s been provided with.

Rules

And I don’t mean well working physics engines and un-bugged mechanics. I mean maintaining a universal continuity and established order. This may seem counterintuitive in fantasy worlds, but actually this is when these rules are most important to maintain the suspension of disbelief.

Acknowledge that things are irregular in your world and don’t be afraid of delving into pseudoscience for explanations; it helps make the circumstances more believable like the mass effect in Mass Effect enabling faster than light travel and psionics. It tells the player there is a method to the madness they are experiencing, and the world becomes more predictable as they start to accept the science that governs it.

Dynamic Worlds

A world becomes alive through dynamic and responsive environments. The environments need to be ever changing to set the scene: weather patterns, cultural responses, physical destruction and growth. The world should respond to stimulus whether plot driven or caused by ludic actions. That’s why shooters with destructible environments get such high acclaim.

Setting the Mood

“It was a dark and stormy night” cliché but to the point. The setting needs to be defined within the player’s first impressions of the world. That’s why dark environments are used in horror survival games and why the new setting for Bioshock Infinite is raising much concern with their big bright open spaces in the skies of Columbia.

A strong sense of place orients a player. If it isn’t stable enough, people will suffer disillusionment. You can’t let the dreamer know that he’s dreaming. You start to shake things up too much and you may break the dream.

Conflict

The third and final literary element I wish to highlight is conflict. In videogames especially, it is a challenge to see beyond the potential of physical conflict. Man vs Man and Man vs World. After all, most videogames are packed with high intensity action. Sadly though, that takes attention away from a very important form of conflict. Man vs Self.

When dealing with conflict and a character, nothing humanizes him more than to see the impact the drama is having on him personally. Ask yourself, “How does the character contribute to the conflict himself?” I touched briefly upon this under character, but here is a more in-depth look at how to fully draw a player into the conflict of a game.

Innate Conflict

The conflict needs to be innate. The main character’s flaws and attributes need to be what develops conflict. Progression through conflict should be character driven, not plot driven. A personal quest pulls the players into the character’s world more and helps them sympathize with their virtual avatar. The closer the character, the closer the player is to the conflict and the more enjoyable and emotionally evoking the experience will be.

Never a dull moment

Conflict acts as the glue of the world and the people within it—it’s what keeps people engaged with what’s going on. In a story, everything has conflict even character interactions. A conversation about the weather is boring and superficial; a disagreement about how the player handled or plans to handle something in the game is much more interesting and brings out the reality and consequence of the player’s ludic actions.

Conflict will define what the player’s role in the game will be and validates a player’s participation, grounding him ever deeper into the world.

Conclusion

Developing a story with rich character, place, and conflict will provide a player with an ensnaring gaming experience that he can’t help but get caught up in. It works nicely when considered early on in production and carried out through the whole development process. Getting a player attached to his character pulls him into the world and validates the role he has to play within the conflict (the story) of the game.  Together, these three elements create an engaging experience that will generate a response in the enchanted participant. I encourage people to share more examples of when these techniques were used in game development and worked for them.

This article was originally a featured post on Gamasutra.

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Does Your Game Have Story Cake or Story Frosting?

The implementation of story has taken on two distinctly different roles in videogames: the first is to supplement game play like frosting on a cake, and the second is to act as the mechanic of game play itself like an ingredient that helps make the cake what it is. Too often, story is an afterthought in game development and treated as frosting, but story can be a very beneficial pillar in any game if executed as a mechanic of the game play.

As games became more complex, developers utilized story to embellish the game mechanics, to give the players motivation and clear direction. Granted, the cooler the storyline, the more enjoyable the experience of playing the game will be, but the story isn’t a necessary proponent when frosting. A player can beat the whole game without experiencing the story, provided he understands the conditions of winning—which in most games is simply kill the bad guys.

Secondly, two players can play the game differently and still reach the same conclusion. Take Red Dead Redemption, you could be the baddest hombre in New Austin, without any moral implication on the plot of the game—the saint and sinner share the same story.

Problems: There is no innate value in this type of story implementation. In a way it’s like a porno. The story (as poor as it is) is simply funneling the characters into the inevitable position of having raw sex. Similarly, videogame story is constrained because it must inevitable funnel the characters into sequences of extreme action and/or puzzle solving.

When combat is your only condition for beating a game, it leads to underappreciated story content. Players become disinvested in reaching the end of the game, hence the other main components of FPS’s like Halo and action games like Ninja Gaiden are the extra game-modes: multiplayer, game-play difficulties, survival mode, leader boards, etc. Replay value is dependent on these modes.

Now if every developer considered story as a mechanic of the game in its own right, a lot of interesting things will happen. By a story mechanic, I mean a story that the players can interact with or influence, instead of just observe.

Pros: Player’s creativity and attention to detail can actually award them as the story progresses or add a new pillar of challenges by having right and wrong choice conditions. This can be as simple as Resident Evil’s interactive cut scenes with timed button mashing, to dialogue choices that could result in changing the direction of the plot or getting your character shot dead for having a bad attitude.

Secondly, a player invested in the direction of the story will have what-if-syndrome. This encourages him to replay the game for the necessity of seeing his story change. Knights of the Old Republic has this effect. I remember asking myself after my first run-through, “Could I have redeemed Bastila? How would the game have ended had I chosen the dark path?”

Adding story as a playing mechanic doesn’t take anything away. It may mean adding a few cut scenes, new challenge mechanics, and designing a few new levels near the end, but ultimately you get a richer experience, more replay value, and acclaim.

This article was originally a featured post on Gamasutra.

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Holy Kyoto

There are two very influential religions in the Japanese culture—Shinto andBuddhism. I learned in an anthropology course that these two religions are actually polar opposites. Like Yin and Yang, Shinto and Buddhism serve as a balance of one’s spirituality. One, concerned particularly with one’s secular obligations within their lifetime; while the other, concerned about the soul and how your behaviors may affect your afterlife. Being in Kyoto, I would inevitably be taking a crash course in both.

I was staying in Northern Higashiyama, an older part of the city that retained much of its traditional aesthetic quality:  houses of post and beam timber, roofs adorned with interlacing clay tiles, and every street a home for half-a-dozen Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples.

On my bus ride in, I was blindsided by how seriously some of Kyoto’s citizen took their faith. An older woman stepped on the bus and sat next to me. She pointed between my feet at my pack. “Where are you from?” she said with her best English. Her name was Naomi.

We started conversing; I explained where I was from and what I was doing in Japan, she told me that she had sons in America and that I needed to see all of the shrines and temples. This seemed innocent enough, considering it was one of the main draws of Kyoto.

However, soon it became apparent that she was advocating her faith and not general tourism. She began gifting me little trinkets: magic Buddhist symbols, lucky charms, Shinto stickers, and a pocket sized Buddhist bible. I tried keeping up with her in the Japanese art of re-gifting. I offered her some of the postcards I’d brought from the states, and a mini teacup. She smiled and accepted them half-heartedly—more concerned about her Japanese spirituality sales-pitch.

“You must learn to read Japanese.” She spread the scroll-like bible in front of my face, “You must practice Buddhism to better your soul.”

I winced at the taunting words, “Stupid Gaijin!” I blinked a few times until the words turned back into illegible Japanese characters. I held it out in front of me and began folding its accordion like verses.

“Take this and go pray at all the temples… Pray for peace and happiness.” She smiled.

I nodded and gave a toothless-grin—wondering how I had been so lucky as to find the equivalent of a Buddhist Jehovah’s Witness within my first hour of being in Kyoto. I of course found out much later that her conviction was very irregular among the Japanese who practice their faith—both religions being rather passive in nature. Still, something about the encounter shook me up. I was an average American, struggling to find a faith that aligns with the needle of a little compass I call life. Something honestly appealed to me about a cooperative religion. Shinto and Buddhism. Both balancing the physical and ethereal soul; both regarding your worldly and spiritual affairs.

The next four days I was in Kyoto, I explored many of the shrines and temples. I even walked a trail called the Pilgrim’s Path that hit multiple must-sees along the eastern skirts of the city. And it was indeed a pilgrimage; the heat and humidity being so unforgiving that I would sweat through my clothes in two hours and suffer a miserable migraine from dehydration no matter how much water I drank.

Heian-jinju Torri

I saw many Shinto shrines—my favorite being less than a mile from where I was staying—Heinan-jingu. It’s easy to distinguish a shrine from a temple. First, the suffix –jinju almost always follows the name of a shrine. I’m taking an educated guess here, but perhaps, “jinju” translates to “shrine.” The second clue, a large shrine gate at the entrance called a torii. These are usually composed of two standing pillars, joined at the top by two horizontal crossbeams, the upper of which is usually curved toward the sky. I could see the orange torii of Heinan-jinju from my Hotel bedroom window, standing probably 80-100 feet high.

I liked walking through the open stone gardens of Heinan-jinju. I watched many people pray at the haiden, pulling thick ropes to sound a thundering gong. They bowed in a funny pattern of two quick head dips and hand claps.

Still it was nice to observe their practices. One day, I sat through a whole Buddhist morning ritual at Chion-in temple. It was a giant complex that housed a large population of monks. Their wooden temple dwarfed the crowds beneath it.

Chion-in Temple

I took my shoes off before ascending the stairs to the temple. I noticed that shoes always came off before stepping on any wooden structure of shrines or temples. The inside of Chion-in was incredible. There were ornate statues, wooden pillars laced in elegant filigree, and in the center, a great golden Buddha.

The monks’ hymns and rhythmic drumming was intoxicating. Their focus and unison was haunting and is still vivid in my mind to this day. The patterns were hard to grasp but distinct, each verse seeming to build off of the previous like a spiritual game of memory. It was times like these that I wished I fully grasped this foreign language. To have understood what they were chanting, or to have been able to read what was posted around all the temples and shrines would have been an invaluable addition to my experience in Kyoto.

The Old City

One of the half-day hikes took me to many of the most impressive shrines and temples in Kyoto. The path brought me through the tight cobble-stone streets of Southern Higashiyama. Kiyomizu-dera temple was my favorite. Its towering pagoda stretched skyward from the top of Chawan-zaka (teapot lane). After passing countless souvenir shops and wagashi stands, I was standing at the base of the wooden spire, admiring the cities chestnut-colored rooftops from my privileged hillside position.

Here is where I had my most spiritual experience of the whole trip, on par with my sweat lodge experience at the Navajo reservation earlier this year. To the left of the main temple, there is an abyssal cavern known as Tainai-meguri. Much like the physical arrangement of a sweat, I was symbolically descending into a womb, this one being of a female bodhisattva.

After removing my shoes, I walked down a set of wooden stairs into the void. It was cold at the bottom, and the walls and floor turned to uneven stone. My eyes were open, but I was surely blind; only my leading hand and courage guided me. The path curved and turned many times, disorienting me—one time so sharply I thought I had found my way into a box.

I had never been claustrophobic in my life, but being stripped of most of my senses and not knowing what direction would lead me through this blackened maze started to suffocate my calm. I pushed forward. The walls were funneling me toward a chokepoint. My reaching hand found the coarse twine of the guiding-rope, my other, carefully assessing how close the other wall was getting to me. I had to turn sideways to fit through.

Just when confusion was about to get a firm grip on me, I saw it—a beam of light in a breezy chamber. It bounced off the surface of a perfectly polished stone, at the top of which had a Buddhist symbol carved into it. Everything else around me was non-existence, not able to see much more than an inch from the surface of the smooth stone. I placed my hand under the light just to assure myself that I was still of this earth. Touching the large stone, I noticed it could spin. I started turning the large rock. A perfect sphere—the symbol for universality and the encompassment of all things, or a unity.

Half-way across the world and I had again found myself in a womb just as unperceptive and dauntingly confused as an unborn child, drawn to life by a single ray of light that seemed so foreign to me and everything I knew down here. This was birth. This was life—a confusing universe governed by unperceivable and unpredictable laws, explored with a curious mind and unyielding faith in a light or enlightenment that was somewhere out there or within us.

My hand slid from the cool surface of the stone. I continued through the maze and stepped back into the bright humid day. I could perceive much more, but became uncomfortably aware of how much in the dark I still really was in regards to the mysteries of our universe and immortally of our souls.

Oh Look a Geisha!

originally posted in The Battz Travelz

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Riding that Train

I had spent two nights with my fellow compatriots and was now set on heading to Kyoto. After a night of boozing and two days of resting and recovering from a hangover, I was no longer jetlagged and fit for adventure. I gathered my things, strapped on my pack, and headed out for Tokyo Station.

I spent 10 minutes in the subway, staring blankly at the ticket machine. The digital panel was a charade of Japanese words and numbers. Without Ryan, it quickly became clear as to just how useless I was in Japan. I looked up and down the row of monitors and found one that prompted me with two boxes—one boldly spelling “ENGLISH.” I was saved.

It was very weird to experience this kind of incompetence at that age of 22. I was thrown back into the infantile age of frustrating illiteracy, and no matter how much I wanted to believe that there was some code or mathematical equation for deciphering their written language, I knew I was just haplessly wishing.

I remember one time, while eating at an izakaya (pub-eatery) in Tokyo, I tried to figure out which bathroom to go into. I analyzed the hiragana letters on the door, scratching my head, convinced that the symbol for “men’s room” would have some phallic theme to it. I stared so hard and long at the damn doors I should have suffered an aneurysm. Not to push my luck, I picked the door to my left. But as soon as my hand was on the handle, a woman came out. I turned sharply on my heels and went for the other door, not looking up to reveal my blushing face. It was the last time I attempted deduction in Japan.

Written Japanese, to me, was a series of interchangeable alien depictions that hopped around, laughing and pointing at me offensively. I swear one time I caught them rearranging themselves on a road sign to spell the words “stupid gaijin.” I eventually learned to just not acknowledge that they were there and they soon quit bothering me.

Admittedly, I eventually figured out how to live comfortably around hiragana. For example, I learned the rail-pass machine so well that I could actually navigate the interface in Japanese only because I committed the patterns of button mashing to memory. I even could recognize the symbol for yen. It was the one that ends after a trailing series of zeros and, if you stare at it long enough, looks like a depiction of your wallet catching on fucking fire.

Well, somehow I purchased a ticket for the right train and got a rail-pass for my first Shinkansen or bullet train. From the platform, the aerodynamic head of the train looked like the cockpit of space shuttle. If I knew nothing else about the train, I could have guessed that it was going to be one of the fastest trains I had ever been on. But my actual experience was a bit wanting.

Honestly, a bullet train is only as impressive as it sounds. You go like 250 miles an hour and don’t feel a damn thing. Now take about 100-200 US dollars and shred them. Boom! You just experienced a bullet train both conceptually and financially…

To be fair I did experience one really fascinating event on my trip to Aomori prefecture. We were zipping out and under tunnels cutting through bamboo coated mountain ranges when we hit a vast clearing that was being hammered by a violent thunderstorm. The rain, passing the window at a million miles an hour, looked like a viscous gel, and the few lightning strikes I saw were so sharp and clear I wanted to believe that the train was moving fast enough to catch them—but we all know that the speed of light is relative…sigh.

But the icing on the cake was when we physically cut through that storm, end to end, in about 120 seconds. I swear at 00.00 there were blues skies and by second 117.43 we had powered through a black thunderstorm and reached even bluer skies.

Still the shinkansen got me from Tokyo to Kyoto in four hours—equivalent to the distance between Boston and Baltimore.

Battz Rating (Shinkansen)

1              *             *             *             5

Speed                   5                              Competitive with plane travel

Efficiency             5                              Less energy, lots of trains

Commodities     3                              Nice seats and bathrooms, expensive food

Cost                       2                              Really expensive

Fun                        2                              Conceptually cooler than the experience

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The Art of Making Friends

Having Ryan around was something I wouldn’t be able to appreciate for a couple of days. He had been in Japan for quite some time now, learning the language and becoming familiar with the transportation system. He was an excellent navigator to say the least. In five minutes, after purchasing my first beverage from one of Japan’s millions of vending machines, we had purchased rail tickets from undecipherable machines and were waiting for a train to take us to Tokyo Station.

Ryan was in the JET program, teaching school children how to speak English properly. “The job is cake,” he said, “I literally sit in a classroom a few times a day, helping the teacher pronounce more difficult words.”

He did less than a TA and got set up with a cheap apartment, a free rental car, and made around 3,000 US dollars a month, which after spending two nights with him, I was fairly confident was spent on boozing and picking up Japanese chicks.

I looked into JET related programs later. They really are awesome programs. If you were to get involved in one, your primary responsibility would be to speak English to the students so that they can acquire an ear for spoken English.

Most Japanese go through English lessons during school. However, without context for how it sounds without a Japanese accent, their little mastery of the English language usually leaves them frustrated when trying to converse with native English speakers.

In fact, I found that many Japanese can read and comprehend English quite well—a useful tactic when trying to get information from them. That’s why the JET program makes sense and is actually showing results. And contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to speak a lick of Japanese to get the job.

Eric and Ryan talked about going out during most of the ride. Eric couldn’t wait to meet Japanese girls, practically humping the seat in front of him at the thought of getting one back to his room that night. Ryan kept him very optimistic with stories of his endeavors.

“Gaijin,” he explained, “don’t need to work very hard to score pussy in this country. Girls literally approach white guys in bars and practically come out and say they’ll fuck you—if they are interested of course.”

Eric was drooling.

“You don’t even need to buy them drinks.”

I’ll admit, even I was curious as to how well his claims would hold water.

“Really?” Eric asked, puppy-eyed.

“Why do you think I booked us a hotel walking distance from Roppongi—the Gaijin friendly capital of Japan?” Ryan slapped Eric on the back. In my head, Eric was crying as if God had spoken promises of his salvation. That night we would find out for ourselves.

The hotel was nice. We were on the ground level, and the closest room to a fire exit which we used for our nightly escapes. I was more concerned about the bathroom of course. I closed my eyes and opened the door. My eyelids lifted… A NORMAL WESTERN TOILET!!!

We had a wraparound deck, of sorts, that overlooked our narrow street in Akasaka. Eric made use of it most when he smoked. He could have smoked in the room, contrary to smoking laws in America, but he chose not to to be fair to the non-smokers. They each had a double bed and I slept on a row of furniture: one mini love seat and the two room chairs. We napped before heading out into the city’s night.

It was much cooler in the evening. That afternoon, when we first stepped out into the Tokyo streets, it was like walking into a brick wall. It was so humid and the air so heavy that it felt difficult to breathe. I never quite got used to it, and it was but a small sample of the weather that I would be experiencing the majority of my trip.

I sweat so much some days I soaked through my clothes in hours, needing to wash them every few days because there was no ignoring the smell I emitted. I would even sweat waiting for buses under their stops’ shaded canopies.

But at night, conditions were much more bearable. The heat dropped significantly, and the humidity didn’t act so tough without it—ppssssh punk-bitch.

Where we would be walking aimlessly around that night.

It was easy to tell when we had reached Roppongi. The streets were lit up like Times Square and the neighborhood resembled Broadway, except that all the theaters were replaced with strip clubs and hostess bars. The only thing missing was the rumored slew of people.

The only signs of life were tourist vultures that preyed on obvious foreigners, hoping to lead them by the wrists into super expensive clubs, hostess and titty bars.

“Titties and beer, man. Titties and beer. Let me ask you something. Where are you heading tonight, man? I know a great place.”

They were Nigerians—bottom feeding illegal immigrants of the Yakuza food chain (or so I was told). These persistent bastards would literally walk with their arms around our shoulders, jabbering something about getting free peaks or a free drink until they reached the end of their turf where someone else was already waiting for his turn to pitch his bigger titties and cheaper beer.

The best ways we learned to deal with them were to pretend to have a destination and know exactly where we are going or by messing with them. The first method is easy; just point at a bar in sight and say were going to Wall Streets. The second method is much more fun.

We developed a game after much frustration that involved having some way to misdirect the Nigerians, or scare them off. Ryan tried speaking Spanish, but they were efficient and could collectively speak any language at each street corner. So we had to be clever.

My personal best was turning to one who was pitching free titties and asking in a gay lisp if he knew anyplace with free cock and balls. When I got his full attention, I lightly tickled the arm he was dragging me by with my forefinger. I never saw one of those Nigerians turn so white.

After about a half hour of scouring Roppongi for a decent dive, we settled on an Irish themed pub. I didn’t mind too much, considering they were offering European beers that I had not seen since my studies in England, actually had some people in it, and offered free internet.

This is also where we met our—easily mistakable for dykes—NAVY friends, Lindsay and Caroline.

Eric and Ryan immediately gravitated toward them, indulging in conversation about being from the south, music, and sports. I was still checking emails and facebook, while perusing the list of imported beers. I settled on a Kronenbourg, a tasty French beer (I know, I didn’t think the French had beer either).

Once I got my pint, I tried to immerse myself in conversation so as not to become that third—sorry—fifth wheel. The girls grabbed my attention when they said they were pilots that flew NAVY planes, intercepting messages from North Korea.

Being pilots meant they were also officers and at least 3 years in, having also received their wings. These chicks were older than any of us. We didn’t have much to relate to. Conversation got light and Eric invited them to join us on our quest to find more exciting bars.

The guys, Lindsay (left) and Caroline (right)

We dodged the Nigerians and made our way to Wall Streets. It was pricey but there were a lot more people here. Ryan and Lindsay hit it off pretty well. We all had bought each other drinks and tried to keep conversation loose and friendly, but Ryan was pretty set on Lindsay—it probably had been a while since he flirted with a white girl. I was especially sure of it when, after I had danced with her for a bit, Ryan casually made his way over to me and slipped in a comment about “being into her.”

This was a passive-aggressive way of marking his territory. I mean, it would have only been more obvious to me, if he had whipped out his penis and peed on her. But guy code still existed among American “bros” even in foreign lands. I reassured him that I wasn’t interested, by saying, “You should go for it man. I’m sure you could use a break from Japanese girls.”

This created an interesting dichotomy in the group—Ryan/Lindsay and Eric/Caroline/me. I didn’t feel sexually threatened, honestly I could give two shits about these girls because I had someone back home, but the problem was if Eric started pursuing Caroline, well, I’d be pretty bored for the rest of the night. Luckily, Caroline was a greedy little attention whore.

The rest of our time at Wall Streets, she kept things casual between the both of us. She told me about her efforts as a children’s author when I mentioned my desire to be a professional writer. We talked a lot after making that connection.

Eric began to think he was losing ground. He even at one point pulled me to the side and asked me if I wanted her, potentially sealing the last nail in his coffin.

According to guy code—“Thou shall not interfere in thy bro’s chance of getting laid” (commandment 3 or whatever)—I could have called dibs right then and  there to seal deal. His question was kind of his way to assess his chances now that he figured he was in an uphill battle for dominance.

I said, “No.” The playing field leveled itself out.

We ventured out again and settled on the First Bar—not the bar we went to first—this bar was named the First Bar, which I know is confusing as hell, especially when it is that last bar we visited that evening. It was next to the first bar, not itself, but the Irish pub we had visited first. Even more confusing, I know. I’ll stop now.

The First Bar was actually a really fun time. At last, we had found some Japanese socialites and a cool ambiance. There were people dancing, playing darts, and drinking shots all around. We joined the party soon enough.

Caroline started “Icing” us. Icing is the art of forcing a man to chug girly drinks to retain something of his masculinity. It’s usually done between two bros, but I guess a girl could do it to a guy.

Us being "Iced" oh and some Japanese dude who has no idea what we're doing.

By simply presenting a guy with a “girly” drink, such as a Smirnoff Ice (or some other drink that’s equally stereotyped), he would have to get down on one knee and chug the whole bottle with a hand on his hip. For some reason, this was the only way to drink such an alcoholic beverage so as not to sprout a vagina—or so superstition leads us to believe…

Anyway, it was clear Caroline was trying to loosen both of us up. She definitely got more flirty at this point, enough that Ryan made the effort to point out how much “This bitch is juggling the both of us (you) around.” I nodded and Eric agreed. He even said something along the lines of, “Screw this chick, let’s hang out with some of these Japanese girls.” I had no reason to object.

Eric and I wandered over to a group of Japanese playing darts. The girls of the group pulled us in and asked us to make throws. At this point, I was finding the double helix of a dart board hard to focus on. I held my breath. “Hey! It landed on the board.”

They laughed, covering their mouths. I noticed that most Japanese girls cover their mouths when they laugh. I’m not quite sure why that is.

After two more miserable attempts, Eric took the lead in pulling one of the girls onto the dance floor. I took a girl in a zebra-printed dress—honestly the only detail I can recall about her. Couldn’t tell you how well or poorly I danced either… the Icings.

After a single dance, we rejoined our friends to see that the harmony of the group had taken a turn for the worse. Ryan and Lindsay were making out. Good. But Caroline, well, she wasn’t too happy  being deprived of the attention that she desperately craved or was probably used to, being a female officer in the NAVY and all. She literally tore Lindsay’s face off Ryan’s and demanded that they leave because, she argued, “it was time to go.” Selfish bitch.

Our fun ended shortly after. We finished off our drinks and hit the streets again. At this point, I was so hammered that the lights of Roppongi were accelerated blurs as we worked our way back to the hotel.

I managed myself well all night, but I drew the short straw when Eric and I had to decide who would drink Caroline’s Long Island Iced Tea that we had just bought her before she decided to leave. I remember the sun coming up by the time we reached our hotel. I wrapped myself in a Kimono and didn’t wake up until that evening.

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Take 2

Sitting in an airplane seat for 12 hours, at high altitudes, always seems to slam on the breaks of my metabolism. I found myself really needing to use the bathroom after walking the bit we did to get through customs.

Ryan took Eric to the money exchange in the airport and I tracked down a restroom so I could pass three helpings of airline food. I found one, clearly labeled with a blue man-shaped icon. I went down the seamless wall of stall doors. I couldn’t tell if anyone was inside of them because the cracks between the door hinges and wall panels were so small and built it such a way that I couldn’t slide a playing card through them.

I can't make this shit up... get it?

To my luck the last stall was open. To my horror, there was only a hole in the floor with a depiction of how to and not to hover over this crapshoot. I couldn’t fathom how to make a number two possible and greatly doubted my flexibility after sitting for 12 straight hours—hell I can’t even sit cross-legged or touch my toes on most days. I thought I could hear it growling at me, or it was the horrid sounds of it digesting human waste for its demonic nourishment.

“No way,” I thought, “I am going to dodge this experience at any cost.”

Watch your friggin step.

I stood in front of the western stalls and waited…and waited… and waited. Now, I’m not sure, but perhaps something about the Japanese anatomy makes it difficult for the Japanese to a take a poop, because I was standing in front of those stalls for 15 minutes, without hearing a sound from any one of the phantom shitters.

Around minute 16 I heard signs of life—a toilet paper pull. As soon as they stepped out, I scurried in. I closed the door and immediately noted a lack of stall literature. Come to think of it, it was the cleanest public rest room I had ever seen. I smiled and turned around. Then I unsmiled. The toilet was imported from the future and in Japanese.

If you saw what I saw, you too, would have apprehension about sitting on a seat that had what looked like an altimeter, turbines, and a suspicious tube aimed upward to where my asshole would be.

Stand Back!

I used some anthropological skills and began deciphering the runes and ancient pictographs. “Alright, it’s either a built in bidet, or self-enema station,” I thought, “If I just avoid these switches and buttons I should be able to do my business unscathed.” But who was I kidding? The only thing I could actually interpret was that it was a product of some Nazi company called Toto.

After cargo drop, I stood up and got ready to leave. I waited for the toilet to flush, but nothing happened. This thing was Startrek worthy; I just assumed it had an automatic flusher. But not having one, threw me into a panic. “How do I flush this bastard?”

I started skimming over the alien symbols again. I noticed a new picture. It looked like a ‘T’ with two downward swirls on both sides of the vertical line. “Why the fuck not?” I pressed the button, jumped out of the stall and braced myself behind the slamming door, so as to protect myself from a possible bidet blast, atomic explosion, nuclear launch, black hole, etc…

I immediately relaxed when I heard the sound of a flush from behind the door, and the Japanese men washing their hands stopped staring at me. Mission accomplished.

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