A Tale of Too Many Cities

I’m back in town for two consecutive days for the first time since I finished work on the 18th. I am so sick of travelling that I don’t want to leave town again unless the place is on fire… and I’m meeting Big Sis in Tokyo on Thursday.

Ghibli Museum & Red Dwarf

The insanity started when I went to Shuzenji after work on Thursday, July 18th to stay at Bishop’s place in preparation for our trip to the Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo the next day. The museum was absolutely delightful and clearly designed entirely for children, with omnidirectional stairs, bridges and archways that you often had to duck in order to fit through. My favourite feature was a broad panorama of little Totoro sculptures that rotated under a strobe light—they looked like they were actually alive: scurrying around, skipping rope, or fantastically jumping up and down (and if you don’t know what a Totoro looks like, imagine a gigantic barrel-shaped teddy bear with a big mouth and whiskers). The thing entranced me for about half an hour.


We stayed at The Toronto Girl’s place in the northwest end of Tokyo. The next day we travelled to the opposite end of the city—actually to the same area where I did my training four months ago—to see a “Character Convention,” with all the geekery that that entails.


Fans of Red Dwarf will be happy to note that not only does the show have a following in Japan, but their convention booth sold little nukable space-packs of curry vindaloo. I then ended up crashing at Bishop’s place yet again since we got back too late for me to catch the last bus.


Having last seen my apartment briefly on Thursday, I got back to The Village mid-Sunday and spent much of the afternoon fixing up the poorly-designed curtains I’d bought to match the singles I acquired last month. I was just returning from a thread-buying excursion when Socks called to ask if it was okay if a JET from the Fuji area and her visiting sister could stay at my place, since his apartment was already stuffed to the brim with visiting JETs touring the Izu. The girls were very lucky I’d just gotten air conditioning installed the week before.


The lot of us went out for dinner and drinks and karaoke, but I had to get on a bus with my kids early the next morning to go to their big swimming competition, so I wasn’t able to see the girls off. After four hours in the blazing sun, I spent the rest of Monday feeling like my brain had been carefully simmered to a broil. The girls did leave me a nice note, though.

Shizuoka & Numazu

I had to go to Shizuoka to get a re-entry permit and see if I could renew my visa before my increasingly unlikely departure for Canada on August 8th. The renewal turned out to be impossible to guarantee in my time frame, but I now have 3000 yen more incentive to get airline tickets. I then met Socks and others in Numazu for yet another JET’s going away party, where we learned that the girls had never actually gotten to the next stop on their Izu trip since they spent too much time engaged in a massive water fight at the tobogganing hill in The Village. I had never imagined that my random discovery would bring so much infantile joy to so many.


I crashed at Bishop’s place yet again, and as I was determined to see Star Wars Episode II before I spent another 2000 yen and 100 minutes to get back to The Village, we travelled forty minutes to Numazu in the morning, after which I ventured back home for the second time in three days knowing very well that I would have to leave early the next morning to meet Fozzie for the Fuji Rock Festival.


Socks called that night and asked if I wanted to watch a movie, and I foolishly agreed. I ended up at the Circle K convenience store down the street at 1:00 a.m., photocopying and mailing out my time sheet so I could be sure to get my pay cheque next month.

Fuji Rock

Twenty minutes before the all-too familiar 7:50 bus was scheduled to leave The Village station, I was once again in the Circle K frantically photocopying my Japanese notes so I’d have something to do during the trip. I was photocopying my notes because my theme for the weekend was “disposable”, and I didn’t want to risk losing my originals.


I studied a gorge-raising amount Japanese this weekend; the trip from Mishima to Tokyo alone is two hours by JR. I now know several ways to tell you that my watch is broken.


I travelled in distressingly strong rain all the way out to Echigo-Yuzawa, a station an hour and a half northwest of Tokyo, where the rain seemed to miraculously stop. Against all odds, Fozzie came all the way from Kyoto, and he and I arrived within ten minutes of one another. 


We took a shuttle bus to the festival site, which was located on a ski-and-golf resort in the incredibly gorgeous Japan Alps... and absolutely nowhere near Mt Fuji, which is several hundred kilometres to the south.


Even though we were arriving the day before the event, we had to travel a fair distance to find a free space for the tent. That, of course, was after I discovered that we paid per person and not per tent as we’d understood, and shelled out another 3000 yen for a black wristband. We got the tent up just as it started to drizzle.


I brought along three plastic sitting sheets we never used, three flashlights we barely used, a tarpaulin-cum-ground sheet that turned out to be extraneous, and a hammer for tent pegs that we did actually use. I also brought some big bottles Pocari Sweat sports drinks and an emergency food supply that came to be known as “The Squishy Bread” thanks to its long haul in my backpack.


Pocari Sweat is essentially unflavoured Gatorade, and when I tell Japanese people what its name actually means, they agree that they’d be pretty hesitant to drink it too. My sensei used to give us cans of the stuff after kendo, at which point you’ll drink pretty much anything that isn’t bilious.


There were actually night-before pre-festivities, included some coordinated dancing to a taiko drum and a few surprisingly excellent bands and live DJs under the large, appropriately-coloured roof of the Red Marquee.


I was planning to rely on my vast bottles of Pocari for as long as possible, but they were soon gone, and the weekend essentially became a matter of paying 200 to 300 yen for a bottle of liquid whenever I could get my hands on one. Despite the threat of ill weather that first night, the next two days were punishingly hot and sunny, and I spent much of Saturday with a heat headache. Our tent became a bake-box by about 8:00 every morning, which was a horrific infliction given that I wasn’t sleeping too well on my inflatable pool lounger, and we tended to get in around 4:00 a.m. to begin with. There was virtually no shade since the camping area was on the golf course (not to worry, golfers, the greens were fenced off), and the smart people camped in the one available grove of trees on a concrete path.


Fozzie had an amazing ability to chat with every Japanese girl he encountered. Maybe it was just that he kept meeting girls from Osaka, where people are famously outgoing, but he always seemed to be talking to somebody. Maybe a part of his edge came from the automatic excitement of telling people he lived in Kyoto: everybody loves Kyoto. Nobody’s ever heard of The Village. I can describe it amusingly in English, but I’ve yet to learn how to say “two hours south of absolute bleeding nowhere” in Japanese.


There were three outdoor stages in addition to the Red Marquee, and we spent a lot of time at the main Green Stage. Although I hadn’t heard of most of the bands playing on Friday, we saw quite a few good acts following recommendations from the various first-time friends we made throughout the day. I’d wanted to see Prodigy in the evening, but instead followed Fozzie to see George Clinton, who put on a great show that ran so long we simply got tired and headed back to meet two girls from Osaka Rob had chatted with earlier.


The four of us headed into the Red Marquee for about four hours of the first live trance I’ve heard since probably January, and by the end of the night I was using shots from my thousandth bottle of water to lubricate my contacts. As I stumbled out half-deaf to go to bed at 3:30 a.m., some gaijin came up to me and I was so muddled that I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was asking about.


Guy: “Murblemubblemiglumphmumph?”


I was responding in slow motion. “Uh… Hey, man!”


Guy: “Yknowhuhgehsumessi?”


I blinked. “Uh…What?”


Guy: “Y’know where eyn gessum essasy?”


Blink. Squint. “Oh… uh…”


Guy: “Do you speak English?”


“Oh. Yeah. Yeah. My ears are just shot.”


Guy: “Do you know where I can get some ecstasy?”


“No. Sorry.”



And The Toronto Girl Makes Three

The Toronto Girl was coming in on Saturday morning. She’d planned to arrive at the station at 9:30, and I’d left her messages saying I’d meet her at the bus drop-off. I was just hoping she’d got them. Cell phone reception at the site was sporadic at best, and my reception was worse than most, displaying the words “access restricted” in those rare moments when it had any connection at all.


After an hour standing around baking under the rain jacket I was using to protect my reddening body from the sun, I was just about to give up when she immediately appeared right in front of me.


She actually willingly came to see Billy Bragg with me, and I was relieved that he put on a great show regardless of your grasp of his lyrics. I normally try not to let politics get the better of me, but I was the first to cheer when he sang: “You won’t destroy the Axis of Evil/ By putting smart bombs in the hands of stupid people.” Maybe it was just because I’ve never had a chance to vent to anyone about that incident last month in Afghanistan…


In the evening we wanted to get into the fenced-off area right in front of the main stage to see the Pet Shop Boys, but the necessity of a washroom trip and the concomitant 20-minute round-trip walk meant we weren’t able to get in before the front filled up and security closed it off. Note that while most security staff were tired-looking little Japanese guys, the guys in front of the stages were massive gaijin whom I once saw extract a crowd-surfer with a single hand.


We did get a space right behind the fence, though, and managed to hold onto it for the Chemical Brothers. The show turned out to be nuts, and Fozzie wisely left to find a more open area on the hill so he could dance.


On Friday there had been very few gaijin at the festival, and I’d actually been able to stand my ground when mad rushes of people had surged up behind me. But the flow of buses on Saturday morning dumped off a large number of people much bigger than me, and I was in no position to both hold my own ground and keep track of The Toronto Girl if things got wild. I’d taken heart when I’d looked back to see a group of little Japanese girls directly behind us, but as soon as the Chemical Brothers started their set, the big gaijin behind the little girls all rushed forward and basically ejected everyone else to the side.


The Toronto Girl and I squeezed our way backward to the production tent, where she stood on the front corner of the fence while I stood to the side. Someone clapped me on the shoulder and I looked up to see a Korean photographer I’d met the day before, sitting on top of the fence taking pictures.


The Chemical Brothers put on a great show, and while The Toronto Girl loved it, the fact that I kept having to move to make way for the flow of other ejectees started to grate on me. When one of them decided to stand with the back of her head bobbing in my nose rather than move on for an hour, I’d just about had it. I did, however, glance at the hill behind me to see an impossibly vast ocean of people all moving to the same thooming beat. It was quite impressive.


The Toronto Girl had only a one-day ticket, so she wanted to make the most of it, and headed off to the Red Marquee after the Chemical Brothers finished up. Fozzie and the Osaka girls retired early, and I wanted to do the same, but I knew I had to stick around to satisfy my overriding sense of duty and appease my complicating sense of... um... jealousy.


The Toronto Girl and I have never really figured out if there is or ever was anything between us. I keep coming to the conclusion that it would all just be a terrible mess, so I’ll give up on her entirely and then she’ll drop me a line and we’ll talk and set something up all over again. That’s how I ended up seeing her in Tokyo with Bishop, and again how she ended up at Fuji Rock with me and Fozzie. Maybe she just wants to be friends, but it’s just never been clear, and whenever we’re together I’m placed in the awkward position not knowing what my position is.


So when she ran into another of my first-time friends and got on well with the pair of English guys she’d been hanging out withand started receiving offers to stay in the English guys’ more spacious tentI got a little uptight.


It didn’t help that I was completely disinterested in everything going on in the Red Marquee. The night before the place had been half-empty and I’d had lots of space to dance to my favourite kind of music with a great girl from Osaka. On Saturday night it was so full I could barely bob to stuff that bored me beside a girl I wasn’t sure if I should have been flirting with or not. I was pretty ill-tempered by the time our committee decided to head back at 4:00 a.m. It wasn't that they were bad people; I was just preoccupied with kicking my own ass for forcing myself to do things I didn’t want to do for reasons I wasn’t remotely proud of.


The Toronto Girl was considering catching the first shuttle bus to the station at 5:00 a.m., but ended up falling asleep on one of the pool loungers in our tent while she was trying to check train times with her cell phone. I was happy for that, at least. I probably would have gone nuts pondering the possibilities if she’d gone off with the English guys.


I really need to learn to relax.


When the sun started elevating me to a broil at 8:00, I lurched out of the tent like a floundering, grunting larva and lay down in the shade by another tent until The Toronto Girl woke up and I could retrieve my glasses from under her air mattress. The Toronto Girl and I packed everything up while Fozzie found the longest possible line for a hose to brush his teeth, and we gave up on any possibility of getting a T-shirt. The concessions lines were as long as the port-a-potty queues. I didn’t even have the patience to wait for food.


When I finally changed clothes for the first time since a blessed lukewarm shower on Friday morning, it was in the washroom back at Echigo-Yuzawa station. Fozzie dashed off to catch an express train to Kyoto while The Toronto Girl and I headed back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen. I envied her for being able to get home within an hour of her transfer point.


We’d left as early as we could, and yet by the time I got to The Village it was dark out. Including the forty-minute shuttle ride to the station, I figured I had been travelling for at least seven hours, in which time I’d eaten only two rice balls, a little sponge cake, and a bit of The Toronto Girl’s snow cone. Then Bishop called and asked if I wanted to do something before he goes back to America. I told him to wait a few days.


After spending so much time surrounded by so many people, The Village suddenly felt like a very lonely place. Attendance at the festival was probably at least ten times the population of the entire town, and it wasn’t until I ran into some of my kids in the stores yesterday that I started to feel like something other than a human void again.


It’s been an expensive time. The trip from Tokyo to Fuji Rock alone cost 6000 yen ($75) each way, and every round trip to Mishima is another $60, not to mention the 30,000 yen I dropped for the festival tickets in the first place.


I’ve been giving out 10,000-yen bills like candy. If I get those plane tickets, I really hope they come in on Thursday, because until then I don’t think I’ll be able to pay for them.


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August 2002