Cherry Blossoms and Reflections

I have been in Japan for over half a year now, completely shattering my previous record of two months. I started this blog so that I could have something to look back on, a diary of sorts. The problem is, this hasn’t really been a diary at all. Funnily enough, I feel much more comfortable writing instruction manuals/guides rather than writing about myself, even privately! To look back 10 years from now to an explanation of Osaka’s Sun Tower by my 25-year-old self won’t feel particularly self-reflective or nostalgic. So buckle down, tab out, and unsubscribe, here comes an incredibly long, personal post.

Life in Hollywood: A Retrospective

IMG-4382
The cherry blossoms in Osaka Castle Park.

The same as my degree, the only tangible benefit about having worked in Hollywood is just being able to tell people I did. In reality, for the former, my grades were mediocre, and for the latter, I was pretty much the bottom of the totem pole. I have been interested in filmmaking ever since my family got an audio-less digital camera when I was in the 7th grade. To date, one of my first, and admittedly best, attempts at it was this short lightsaber duel I made in high school.

wow.PNG

Before that, though, I had been obsessed with a show called Get Smart, a sitcom that ran from 1965 to 1970. It was a parody of James Bond and the spy genre in general, created by none other than Mel Brooks himself. It was hugely influential, to watch a show that, despite being nearly half a century old, could still surprise me and make me actually laugh. It taught me that high quality doesn’t age.

キャプチャ

A second big influence was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, in which a poor village hires seven samurai to fend off an upcoming bandit attack. It taught me that you don’t need to have an Inception-esque complicated plot in order to make a good story. I set about on a project that consumed nearly two years of my life– creating my own action-comedy spy series, called Special Agent Jones. I wrote several scripts, created an intro sequence with music, had rehearsals, auditions, even fight choreography.

Long story short, despite my ambitions, we produced the first part of the first episode and, being a typical high school production, it fell far, far short of my expectations. We didn’t have a boom microphone, we used a handheld camcorder, and though spies and their enemies are supposed to wear suits, the majority of the “cast” didn’t own any, so they looked even more like high-schoolers. It was pretty discouraging, and of course there wasn’t anyone to blame but myself– I could’ve tried harder, at the very least, like making my own equipment and basically applying just a little bit more ingenuity.

IMG-4372
Not even my apartment block is safe from the sakura aesthetic.

Fast forwarding through the pity party, throughout college, though I also had opportunities to make more short films, I preferred to stay in the background in minor roles as I was afraid to truly step up to do anything creative. I occasionally still tried to write, but by this point I didn’t really have any good ideas anymore. I never finished a single script, and any plot outlines I had always ended in some twist. Although this can be used to great effect, a twist ending does NOT excuse the rest of the story from having to be written well, or meaningful. Also being at UCLA, home to one of the best film schools in the nation, I was even more intimidated seeing how talented some people were. What it boiled down to, was that growing up I was a big fish in a small pond. Now, at UCLA, I was a fish in an ocean. I couldn’t bear to find out that I wasn’t actually a big fish after all, that everyone who told me I was so promising growing up, was mistaken. Diagnose-happy people may call it Impostor Syndrome, but I never was worried about being exposed as a fraud, or something. I simply didn’t think I was talented.

I applied the same mentality to my career track, where I thought the business side of the entertainment industry would suit me better. Creativity may not be my strong suit, I thought, but I still want to be involved in making movies in some capacity. I worked as an assistant at a talent agency, and then at a film production company. I learned a lot about how things run, but I also learned that maybe this life wasn’t really for me. Long hours, low pay, and bad people abound. Assistants would swap stories on how their bosses look down on them in secret Facebook groups, and then at the very same time make threads like “intern fuck-up stories” where they would laugh at how stupid and incompetent interns are. Everyone sticks together as equals, but once they advance, they immediately turn around to look down on anyone below them. It definitely left a sour taste in my mouth, and it made me want out. That ennui is what eventually led me to the JET Program.

The thrilling conclusion shall follow in part 2!

 

Staying in a Capsule Hotel

Nightlife in Japan is ruled by an incredibly powerful force, one that many seldom dare reckon with– the last train. If you miss your last train home, usually around midnight, the choices are slim: you can either take a taxi at exorbitant prices, or stay out, hopefully intoxicated, till the first train about 5 hours later. You could also get a hotel, but that’s a little too expensive for most people. $100 just for a bed to sleep in for 8 hours? No way!

Or, you could stay in a capsule hotel for about 1/3 of the price.

IMG-3812

Instead of rooms, capsule hotels are made up of individual Space-age-looking pods, essentially human-sized drawers containing nothing but a bed, and perhaps a small TV on the roof your capsule. A typical one measures maybe 6.5 feet (2m) long by 3 feet (1m) tall. There’s just barely enough room to sit up properly. Thanks to this, the use of space is incredibly efficient– what you see above is enough accommodation for 12 people!

There are communal bathrooms, as well as showers. Some extra-fancy capsule hotels will even have their own onsen (public baths). It’s really the perfect solution for a cheap and quick overnight stay– the one we were at, the Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi located in Amerikamura, Osaka, was only 3000 yen ($30) a night. The Asahi Plaza, by the way, was one of such hotels with an onsen. Nice!

IMG-3824

Common in Japan but uncommon in hotel lobbies, we had to take our shoes off at the front. In such situations, lockers are provided so the front doesn’t get so cluttered, and I suppose so people won’t steal your shoes. However, we had to surrender said locker keys to the front desk, and we’d have to ask for it back any time we needed our shoes. The only key we were given at check-in was for a locker to store our stuff in. These lockers were in a room separate from the capsules, on the first floor. Up to the second floor we went to find our capsules. Exciting!

IMG-3811.JPG

The second floor was essentially a series of hallways shooting off into capsule rooms. Each room contained about 16-20 capsules. Efficient!

IMG-3830
Interior view facing in, back of TV on the top left.

Lo and behold, my “room” for the night– surrounded by plastic, on top of a rather thin mattress pad. A small nozzle in the back blows heated air, which you can manually point or close but otherwise not control the temperature. Other amenities included a TV, control panel, shelf, some cubbies, a power outlet (had for an extra 400 yen/$4), and a mirror. I crawled inside, and was happy to find that there was enough room to turn around, albeit kind of scrunched on all fours. Spacious!

IMG-3828
Interior view facing out.

Rather than any type of door, you get a thin pull-down blind, kind of like a straw mat. That is all you get for security/privacy/noise-cancellation– there are no locks anywhere on or in the capsule. In fact, according to their website, “hotel industry law” dictates that locks are straight-up not allowed in capsules. I suppose that might put claustrophobics a little more at ease. Sensible!

IMG-3827.JPG

The control panel is of the same sort you might find at any hotel, but I included a picture for posterity’s sake. Functions include alarm clock set, TV on/off, radio on/off, lights, and, unlike most hotels, an “emergency button” on the bottom left, protected by a swing-out plastic cover to prevent accidental pressings. Sorry to say, I have no idea what it does. I imagine it either summons an employee to your capsule or launches it towards Rigel 7. Handy!

In conclusion, for its combination of novelty, price, and convenience, I’d absolutely do it again. And, before I forget to mention, it was about as comfortable as it looks– you’re not sleeping on a cloud, but it is perfectly adequate and I slept like the dead anyways. One might even say… like a body in a morgue :^)

 

Hiraoka Matsuri: A Japanese Festival

The beating of drums can be heard from miles away. Dozens of men chant and carry around a taikodai, a mobile drum platform as heavy as a car. It’s to celebrate the local god’s birthday, and it’s quite a spectacle to behold.

This festival was in Hiraoka, my girlfriend’s hometown. Each taikodai represents a different section of her hometown, so they are all uniquely decorated, and carried only by residents of that part. Taikodai roughly translates to “drum platform,” conveyed on large logs and housing, of course, a big drum in the center, where several men also sit and beat on it. They parade up and down the pathways of Hiraoka Shrine, to the adulation of many townsmen and women alike, who’ve been attending this festival since they were children.

IMG-1471.JPG

It was Packed with a capital P– shoulder-to-shoulder wherever you went. There were at least a dozen taikotai, and as each one went down the street, the other residents would follow. There were designated leaders on both sides, and when they blew their whistles the men would turn the entire thing around. Wow, was it impressive! You can tell just how heavy these are, from how much you can see the carriers struggling. It’s so miserable that it’s tradition to get drunk, because how else can you carry a freaking car on your shoulder? On top of that, the shrine grounds were built into a hill, so you get to see them do a half-drunken, completely human-powered, about-face turn on a 30-degree incline! More than once, some men would lose their footing and they would sway side to side, pushing the crowd into each other and almost knocking over food stalls. It was awesome.

Speaking of food stalls, if you will allow the comparison, a lot of the festival reminded me of LA County Fair, or American county fairs in general. There were whole grilled squids, takoyaki (fried balls of batter with octopus, topped with Kewpie mayonnaise and a teriyaki-like sauce), okonomoyaki (savory cabbage pancakes, usually with pork, squid, and a fried egg), yakisoba (stir fried noodles in soy sauce), karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken), freshly-baked rice crackers, castella (Japanese sponge cake), taiyaki (fish-shaped pastries often stuffed with sweet beans or custard) and hell, even corn dogs and French fries. Point is, there was a heck of a lot of traditional Japanese comfort and junk food, and there were even booths to catch goldfish and various games like shooting galleries.

IMG-1430

Of course, it is all to honor the local god to whom Hiraoka Shrine is home. A dazzling spectacle, steeped in hundreds of years of tradition.

image_6483441
A closeup of Rika’s hometown taikodai.

Travels Thus Far: Osaka

In case you didn’t know this, I am scum. I haven’t traveled half, or even one quarter, as much as I should have. That’s not to say I’ve gone nowhere at all– here are some highlights from my stay in Japan thus far. I’ll dedicate this post to Osaka, the city that started it all.

Osaka Expo Commemoration Park

There’s no way to say it fast– Bampaku Kinnen-koen, or Osaka Expo 70 Commemoration Park, is home to the Tower of the Sun, in my opinion of the most iconic images of Japan. This weird… thing was designed for the World’s Fair when it was held in Osaka in 1970. It now watches over the park like an angel (of the Neon Genesis Evangelion variety). You can’t go inside it and it doesn’t *do* anything other than light up.

img_1304
REAL TOWER HOURS

However, if Japan ever does get attacked by giant monsters, the Tower of the Sun will come to life to defend its home.

As for weapons, in addition to its laser-shooting eyes, the Tower can also make a sort of spinning death-disk out of Expo Park’s Ferris wheel, which is the tallest in Japan. This was also the one that got spun by the sheer power of Typhoon 21’s winds alone.

ezgif.com-crop

It also also has Suita City Stadium, which is where Osaka’s soccer team Gamba plays. I’ve watched two of their games now, where this seemingly scrappy second-to-last place team managed to beat both the top team in their league (Sanfrecce Hiroshima) and the #2 team (Kawasaki Frontale)!

Osaka Castle

No longer does entry to Osaka-jo require the killing of several rival clan members. At some point in its nearly 450-year history, it was opened to the public. You are now free to walk the grounds, and it is, also in my opinion, one of the most beautiful sights in the Osaka area, if not Japan. Surrounded by moats, stone barriers, and gardens, it’s surreal to be walking in a place where, centuries ago, people did fight and die just to get to where you are standing now.

Itami Airport

Itami is Osaka’s domestic airport, and there is a cool lookout spot where you can get very up close and personal with arriving planes.

That’s all for now, but stay tuned!