Sunday, March 25, 2007

Camel-san Diaries 3: Sakura, Old Friends and Sayonara

Sakura in bloom, Zojoji Temple (artistic shot courtesy of D)

Ten years on my friend
We are the same but older
Sakura in bloom

- Camel-san, 2007

This trip has been made very special as D and I spend a whole day with M (and his wife) after not seeing each other for ten years.

Ten years ago, I turned 21 in Dunedin, New Zealand, and flatted with M in the wonderful Toroa International House at the University of Otago (where D was a sub-warden and a mere 19 years old at the time and M and I were exchange students from our respective universities).

We did so much together during those six-months, grocery shopped, cooked (M makes a mean katsu-don), partied hard (where crazy Japanese drinking games M taught me will remain forever etched in memory, like it or not), played chess at cafes, exchanged languages, cultures and had very enlightening late night conversations about what each other was taught in high school about world war two.

Ten years may seem like a long time, but in reality the last decade has whizzed by for me. Sporadic email exchanges when we were both living in different countries (M worked in Taiwan for 4 years while I worked in New Zealand for 5), photos of our respective weddings, honeymoons, random party shots exchanged. Infrequent but intense bursts of communication.

So how do you capture what’s happened the last ten years of your life when you only have 12 hours to hang out together? Well, you don’t really. You go out, see some sights, experience amazing food, and in between all that, you exchange little nuggets of existence that somehow make up a rather complete picture of your life.

So this account is a tribute to my favourite city in the world and to friendships that weather time, change and geography. Kan pai, yam seng et vive les amis!

Like the perfect opening credits to a movie, D and I wake up early on Saturday to the full pastel glory of early cherry blossoms at neighbouring Zojoji temple. We are not the only ones, with many people getting their cameras out and clicking away excitedly. At nearby Shiba Park, a takopachi and beer booth has been set up to cater to the increasing number of groups of revelers who will come to numerous parks around the city to appreciate the coming of spring. D encapsulates what I feel when he exclaims, “How not to fall in love with a country that celebrates Spring this way?”

It’s true, Sakura fever has hit Tokyo, at Shibuya station, a TV screen shows live footage of the first sakura in bloom around the city, with location information. Locals brave the 7 degree night air to have nocturnal picnics to view the first blossoms.

National Park, Atsugi

M and wife come by to pick us up at the hotel all the way from where they live in Kanagawa Prefecture. M introduces us to his funky one-week old red Alfa Romeo, replete with up-to-the minute GPS tracking device with 3D map reading system and cute Japanese girl’s voice telling you how to get to your destination. D and I have a good laugh at the irony considering M is a respectable salary-man for one of the top Japanese car companies.

We brave the bumper to bumper traffic, with the original intention of heading to popular day-trip destination Hakone, where views of Mt Fuji can be glimpsed on a clear day. However, considering that the day is neither fine nor the traffic situation optimistic, we change our plans and head for nearer by Atsugi and its surrounding national park.

We seem to drive from highway to highway, then through many nameless suburbs, then smaller towns, and finally we hit the country side. No apartments in sight, just small houses with some farmland, forests, winding roads, and in the middle of it all, Zund Bar.

Zund Bar, in the middle of the foothills of Atsugi

From the outside, Zund Bar looks like a house – but the 30 or so people waiting in line to get into this ramen noodle house give us a clue as to its popularity and renown. The fact that there is an unobtrusive wicker basket with many fleece blankets tells me we’re in for a long wait. Indeed, we look at the self-penned reservations list outside the bar and we’re number 12 on the list.

We go for a short drive to kill time, then wait a bit more, visiting the adjacent traditional Japanese gift shop (man I dig those kimono toed socks)!

When our number is finally called, we enter the sliding doors, and what greets me is rather surreal. Here, in the middle of the rural foothills, is a bar that wouldn’t be out of place in central Tokyo. All stainless steel and chrome, minimalist crockery, designer light fixtures and the most excellent acid Jazz playing in the background, and you have Zund Bar. There are only 4 types of ramen you can order, with a smattering of side dishes and one dessert. But the food is so good, they don’t need an extensive menu.

The staff also look like they’ve stepped right out of Harajuku - blonde-streaked pigtails, glitter eye make-up, kawaii in every sense. In the loo, I see a recruitment ad for bar staff : 950 yen per hour. Not bad at all…

Late lunch over, we decide that traffic is just too bad to attempt driving back to the city, so we park at M and A’s apartment and walk to the station. M’s apartment is cosy and makes me think of getting rid of clutter in our own place. Suddenly, the idea of sleeping on tatami mats seems very appealing.

We catch the train from Kanagawa to Akihabara, where M shows us the way confidently to the top floor of an 8-storey store dedicated to anime and manga. I’m on a mission to find some souvenirs for friends at work – but the selection is overwhelming, and when I show the staff there my list of anime picks, they shake their head and show me to a rather miserable collection of Naruto t-shirts and one plastic head band (for a whopping 4000 yen). I decide against buying the head band but take a picture so my friends will know I tried.

It’s a Saturday night and it’s really interesting the different species of male that inhabit these stores. I feel like I’m in National Geographic video and at a watering hole at dusk. M totally goes with the vibe and asks all of us, “So, do you want to go to a Maid Café?”

Basement walkway to the Studio Cafe Strawberry, Akihabara

Ok. Before that moment, I had never heard of a Maid Café. I must admit it, at that moment, all sorts of thoughts were racing through my mind. Almost involuntarily, I go, “sure why not?” D is a lot more enthusiastic (men!).

So we head to Studio Cafe Strawberry. It’s located in the basement of a small building off a side street in Akihabara. A gorgeous young girl opens the door dressed in (no prizes here), a maid’s outfit. She points us to the spare tables in the café. M heads for a picnic table and bench set-up. The menu offers drinks, food and an interesting item for 300 yen called “Experience”. M asks the cute maid waitress what we get if we order “Experience” and she replies in Japanese, “Magic trick!” For 500 yen, customers (ladies only) can try on the numerous maid outfits and have a go in the café (!!). M and D ask me one too many times if I’m keen.

Two young men order an "experience" from the maid, in the form of magic tricks.

We decide to go for just drinks at the moment.

It’s only after we order our tea that the surroundings begin to register. The rest order cold Cokes and Ginger Ales, which come in stainless steel tumblers. My green tea comes in a plastic cup with rubber coaster. We’re all a bit perplexed. Then like a moment straight out of the Da Vinci Code, D hits the jackpot.

D: “It’s themed!”
All: “Eh?”
D: “Look, in the corner, those guys are sitting at a school table next to blackboard. Then there’s a doctor’s corner with eye chart.”

We look more closely at our table and realise there’s a simulated “gas lantern” and all our cups and crockery are of the outdoor picnic variety. Then we see that the wall next to our table is painted with blue sky and green fields. Ahhh… so. Man, I love Tokyo.

By the way, as the cafe charged an extra 500 yen for photos, the photos taken here are taken by M James Bond style.

A suit who walks in sits at what can only be described as a “lady’s parlour” theme and is served his tea in Royal Doulton. Then as if on cue, the two young guys in the corner order an “Experience” – one of the maids goes over, and chats with them cheerily while doing a series of magic tricks. The middle-aged loner with the comb-over in the table next to them, carries on, absorbed in his Gameboy.

Suit at the 'lady's parlour' interacting with maid

Good clean fun? I ask M. “Looks like,” is his reply.

We finish up our drinks, and as we walk back up the stairway to the real world, we see a large flat screen showing the public what is going on in the café in real-time. A plasma glimpse behind the looking glass if you will. Intrigued, we stare as middle-aged loner guy seizes on the opportunity to start up a conversation with one of the maids, his gameboy abandoned. I wonder if he’ll pay the 300 yen for the “Experience” or move to the doctor’s rooms.

All this role play makes for tough work, so we head back to Asakusa (which D still hasn’t seen) for a walk and dinner. Tempura is the order of the day, and I’m really relieved after my experiences with pig parts and fish mince.

We end of the night in Ginza at Cafe de Miyuki Kan, the glitziest French café for tea and cake. D and I look funereally at each other – could such a café exist in Singapore? If only… but it does make us want to book our next flight out here again.

Tea and cakes at Cafe de Miyuki Kan, Ginza

It’s 11:30pm and we rush to catch the late trains back to the hotel in time for our 7am shuttle the next morning. M and A see us through two changes of subway lines and we finally end up at the platform for the Oedo line back to our hotel. Trains come every six minutes in Tokyo and before I know it, Tokyo efficiency wins the day and our train’s arrival is signaled.

Hurried hugs, and promises that the next meeting will be sooner than the ten years just passed. More hugs, waves, air kisses and our train speeds us away, M and A very quickly disappearing from view. Sayonara in Sakura season. A farewell in a time of rebirth.

I’m wistful but not sad. I’m certain the next time we meet, we’ll be able to resume the easy banter and conversation that has always existed between us. Who knows? There just might be more gray hairs and a few screaming children in tow.

ps: Back in Singapore now. I wrote most of this on the plane which accounts for the rather epic length. Thank you readers, for making it thus far. I'm watching on telly now about the earthquake that struck Central Japan. So sad.


Anonymous said...

hey poo... it's been so fun reading your tokyo adventures, i feel like i'm living life vicariously through you. aargh i miss tokyo!!!!!
tell D i love that cherry blossom shot. very arty. i think Z would be proud of his photo-taking talents.
catch up soon at your place.
the other big headed poo

sabre hound said...

ah hallo! welcome back to sunny beautiful island of exotic and uniquely singapore! while you were away, i took the liberty of using your absence as an excuse not to do saturday morning botanic gardens walk.

it is absolutely wonderful to trail the prints of your camel hooves on sakura land. ogenki-des! hait!