Sasuke

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Look, I have the utmost respect for Japanese culture. I know that's usually a prelude to someone saying something horrible. Usually, it's an anesthetic for some hideously offensive comment. "I have the utmost respect for the Muslim religion. But it is the work of the devil and intends only evil." "I have the utmost respect for Bob in accounting. But he is a goat-molesting simpleton who couldn't wash his hair if he were meeting the Queen of England."

But really, I do respect Japan. It's just that I'm on vacation and for all the temples and museums, I have to see some ninjas or this trip really isn't going to be worth it. I paid a lot of money to get here, and while I'm not expecting the final scene from "You Only Live Twice" a little fanservice would be appreciated.

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So yesterday we hit the Sasuke challenge at Muscle Park, a venue created by the same guy who created G4's "Ninja Warrior," which actually is a real show in Japan on TBS. And people know about it - the line was quite long, although I had the good fortune to be in line with a guy from Oregon (he was in WAY better shape than I am).

If you haven't seen it before, then go watch it. You'll understand in about 5 minutes. If you don't have cable (Sonia) then a brief explanation. A series of increasingly difficult physical challenges are set up in a series designed to break the strongest of men. Olympic athletes regularly fail. In fact, normally almost everyone fails. And then they apologize to everyone for their failure. It's so Japanese.

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Anyway, it was awesome. I did horribly, of course. The "dreaded 'salmon ladder'" really is as horribly difficult as it appears. I watched one guy all day tackle it and survive. But no one was able to make it through the course. I chose to retreat to the "workout challenge" which was a set of timed situps, pushups, and pullups. Heck, that's a morning at SeatTeamPT - that I can handle.

But Odaiba, as I had been warned, it otherwise a horrible cesspool of sanitzed consumer hell. I realize Japan is a consumer culture, and that Japanese people love things to be clean, but there is a way in which these things are combined in Odaiba that is disgusting. It is basically just a giant Palisades Mall. We escaped as soon as we could.

This is where I am reminded why I like traveling with A. "Where do you want to go?" "Akihabara." Awesome. Off to the land of electronics and maid cafes. Annie took all the maid cafe pictures (no, we didn't go inside one) so I'll hold off on discussing them until later, except to say that I have completely changed my mind about what they are all about. Maid cafes are for women, not men, and they are about play, not...well, you know.

Akasaka is home to expensive clothing shops, and is just west of Minato-Ku and the center of government for the island nation of Japan. But hidden beyond the Akasaka-Mitsuke subway stop is, well, a ninja restaurant. I made a reservation here not knowing exactly what to expect, even more so because I did not, in fact, make the reservation. One advantage of having a concierge at a hotel is that they can turn your 2nd year Japanese ("I like ninjas. I want to eat with ninjas. Thursday. At night.") into actual Japanese ("Please excuse my interruption. I would humbly like to request that you establish a reservation for two of my honored guests at your establishment. Please excuse me. Is 8 pm not available? Oh, thank you very much. Please excuse me. Then I will tell my guests that the reservation is 8 pm on Thursday. Please excuse me. Thank you very much.)

A expected something on the order of a pirate-themed restaurant in Orlando, and I guess I figured maybe 2 steps above that. What we got was a cross between whatever the best restaurant you've ever been to in your life was, and a cave run by ninjas.

First step was finding the place, which would have been nearly impossible if Japan did not place maps of anywhere you are every 30 feet - wait - 30 meters? (Damn metric system). Second step was introducing ourselves to the woman who was clearly the maitre d' (a podium and a microphone-headset are a dead giveaway - bad disguise). Third step was convincing them that we spoke enough Japanese to get treated like Japanese guests. Since my Japanese is still terrible, I used my tried-and-true trick of making a couple of stupid jokes that only a middle-aged dad would make. No one learns these jokes in their "Lonely Planet" book because they are otherwise useless, and also, not funny.

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I really wish I could have videotaped what happened next, because basically the wall opened up and some ninja girl jumped out, kneeled on the ground in a ninja-crouch and blathered on something about being in training and honored guests and follow her. Oh, and the entire night everyone called A "Hime-sama" (Princess). Lead through elaborate darkened hallways, past a trap door (I'm not kidding) we reached our own private room where we were presented with a menu in Japanese (for me) and a menu in English (for A.)Now, I'm in Japan to speak Japanese and chew bubblegum, and I'm all out of bubblegum. But one look at this menu and I started to cry. This was not Japanese like in some Azumanga Daioh cartoon ("oh, I forgot my homework." "Baka!" "You are mean!"). Each dish had a unique "ninja" name, either playing on words or colorfully describing the dish in some elaborate code. ("Sinister Lobster concealed within Shimmering Tofu of Camembert"). And there were dozens of these dishes.

Look, describing the rest of the night is almost impossible. So I'll give you 3 quick sentences to convey what happened next. Ninja magic show. Food to match the best New York restaurants. Best meal ever.

I love Japan.

Rafter Ninjas

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

If I am getting better at being in Japan, why is it that I keep making the same mistakes? Somehow I again found myself bowing profusely and repeating “moshiwakearimasen” to a subway attendant. Apparently the custom I just invented of getting into the station at Ginza, guiding your wife to Roppongi, and then taking the train back yourself and getting out the same place you got in does not exist in Japan. This action instead demonstrates some nefarious purpose, at least to confuse the machine that reads my Suica prepaid card. And in Japan, you do not confuse the robots.


I know it’s only Tuesday, but I seriously freaking out that we are not going to be able to do everything by Saturday night. The fact that we already have blisters and our bodies are aching from walking is not the issue. Part of it is that we get tired by 10 pm and Japan does not. Tsutaya, the Japanese version of Barnes & Noble, is open until 2 am. No wonder we can’t compete…


I think we have a myth about Japan that Japanese people do not express themselves as openly as Americans do. Except in direct conversation, I have seen quite the opposite. We started yesterday at Akasaka near an ancient temple, where we found a tiny restaurant built in the old style. It was started by a guy who played the Shamisen, which is sort of an ancient guitar. After he brought us the most delicious 12-item bento boxes I have ever been in the presence of, he sat down to play while we ate. Forget the music for a minute – the food was amazing. Sushi, cooked fish, tempura – everything was perfect. I have no idea what the raw things were – one thing was in a hermit-crab shell. Whatever it was, it was delicious. People ask me why I don’t eat sushi, and the truth is, I don’t like it – in America. Somehow it tastes different in Japan. Or maybe I’m just afraid to offend the guy playing the Shamisen. It is entirely possible there are ninjas in the rafters waiting with blow darts if I spit out the wrong thing.


And, by the way, the whole thing cost less than a trip to Saint Maartens on the UVa corner.


When the day starts with something so exquisite, it only makes sense that we went to a club to see a Beatles tribute band. If there is something more fun than watching 4 Japanese men perform “A Day in the Life” like they were on stage at the Albert Hall I haven’t found it yet. But then again, it’s only Tuesday and I have a piece of paper next to me that says “7/29 Mr. [Lastname] [Firstname] Ninja Restaurant Akasaka”

Pantomime Elvis

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

People often ask us why we are going back to Japan after I just went last summer and we both went in November. I think it’s because it’s basically a giant Disneyland and we have yet to go on all the rides. But when you can go to Denny’s and get Korean-stle nan myung, spaghetti, gyoza, and French onion soup all at the same time, the question itself seems rather stupid. The menu provides a wide selection of hamburgers, udon, hotpot and okonomiyaki selections, at reasonable prices. They should make one of these in America…

We fell asleep last night to a show on the History channel about the History of Odysseus. A person who did not, in fact, exist. A history based upon a book that is actually fiction. Did anyone else notice that the History channel has slowly started telling completely fictional stories?

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Of course, I’m in Japan, the land where the real and the pantomime are barely separated. I’m not reporting anything new to everyone who knows Shibuya and Harajuku, but I guess I thought the dancing Elvis impersonators had to be a myth. There is no way that people would dress up in leather pants and dance in the 98 degree heat while wearing 15 lbs of hair product….oh…wait….

They were actually pretty good, and despite their almost certain heat exhaustion danced their hearts out. Truthfully, I preferred the poodle-skirt dancers.

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But that’s pantomime. Real Japan is inside the park, where Yoyogi is this amazing retreat for a land where most people live with 3 other people in an apartment the size of my college dorm room. The sort of place that would go for $300 a month in Charlottesville (or $2k per month in Manhattan). Yoyogi, which is a sprawling open space, is where you can finally go to have some space to do whatever you like, be that learning to walk a tightrope, playing cello backwards, or practicing your comedy routine.

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These are the reasons I love Japan. For A, it’s really the shopping and the food. Of course, in this country, A is a size 2 – which means that there are many people smaller than her. She bought her first pair of Capri pants yesterday, at least the first that didn’t just look, well, like pants. I just get to wander and take in the daily lives of people who don't realize that "Jersey Shore" is a documentary.

Shibuya is amazing in almost every respect, and I could have spent all day walking through its warrens of tiny restaurants and amazing little shops. Not to mention the endless underground food courts in the department stores. But after walking for almost 12 hours in the 95 degree + heat, I started to feel chilly and my fingers felt oddly numb. After about an hour of that I decided it was a sign, so we hobbled back to the hotel and called it a night.

Made it

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

I've finally reached Shinjuku, the first place in Japan I ever wanted to visit 20 years ago when I first caught the bug. The hotel is beautiful, built only 2 years ago and already the winner of "best hotel of the year" in some travel-website competition. The staff is bilingual and advertises themselves as such, making the hotel ideal for Annie, but they could have put us in an engineering access tube for the elevator shaft and I'd love the place because they spoke to me entirely in Japanese. Of course now I have no idea where anything is.

One of the dangers of deciding it’s more fun to use the local language and not simply stay at the Hyatt in Orlando is that when you walk into your hotel room and the lights don’t turn on, you won’t know why.She probably explained it to me, or it was written on the various signs written in Japanese around the hotel. Either way, when we walked it we hit every switch we could find, only, no lights.

Fortunately, I had my flashlight on me. Once again, this is one of those moments when people often yell at me, asking "Are you crazy?? Why do you carry a flashlight/ducttape/a knife" everywhere???" Usually, this question is asked at a moment that tends to answer the question on its own, like Andrew asking while I am fixing his sunroof on the way to Virginia Beach, or, in this case, standing in a dark hotel room on the other side of the planet. In this case, it revealed that you have to stick your room key in this device for the lights and AC to come on. No leaving everything on all day while we wander around town, I guess....

Still, no mastery of Japanese or the plots to the first 3 seasons of MacGuyver has given me the insight to figure out what this is. The room has a kitchen, microwave, hairdryer, iron, TV, computer set-up, etc. etc. And this. What the heck is it? I have turned it over, shaken it, flipped the handles, and it doesn't do anything. It takes batteries, or it plugs into the wall, but it doesn't open. It has handles on the bottom too, and it can stand on its side. And the hotel thought it such an important amenity to include it at no charge. This is the first time I've stayed at a hotel in Japan, and I'm not trying to be ungrateful, but seriously - what the hell is this thing?

I have no illusions, however, about what this is. I'm just not sure I'm into using it.

Well, at least the place has a person I can talk to, unlike my apartment in Fukuoaka, or was built after the invention of electricity, unlike our place in Kyoto. And it comes with his and her kimonos.

Of course, despite the language differences, this place is incredibly user-friendly. We got to the express train to Shinjuku with no trouble at all after landing in Narita. The train announcements were in English, Japanese, Mandarin, and Korean. The signs clearly marked everything and we could have made it with no language at all, since the pictures were completely clear. Much easier, say, then trying to get from Terminal 7 to Terminal 1 at JFK in Brooklyn.

I realize America isn't designed for foreigners, but shouldn't it at least be user friendly for someone who doesn't actually work at the airport? 3 people told us that the way from Terminal 7 to Terminal 1 was the train, but each decided not to share that the tracks were out of service and the train, in fact, wasn't running that day. After waiting for the train that wasn't coming, some TSA guy getting off his shift told us we had to take the train to Howard freakin' Beach, then get back on the airport train and ride back to the airport the other direction. We'd still be at Kennedy now if not for him. Not that it would have been all that bad - Terminal 1, the foreign carrier terminal, has some of the best Korean food we've had on vacation.