Striving for Balance

I’ve been falling steadily behind the calendar, this week, as the days pass faster than I’m blogging them.  Some of that has been because I’ve been doing things, out and about, and some has been that when I’m not, I want to retreat to comfortable things that I’m also interested in.  I’ve had at least 2 days where I didn’t really end up going out except to eat food; but rather than blogging, I was playing ESO, reading Twitter, meditating and trying to resolve (modest) back problems, watching Youtube, and other vegging sorts of things.  It’s probably a necessary counterbalance: do stuff, relax, do stuff, relax.  But I really do need to try to keep up.

On the plus side, next week I move out a ways to the town of Otaru, on the coast, for the succeeding month, and I’ll feel a bit easier about not trying to get out and see things.  It’s a little fishing town, with (I hear) a nice aquarium and some other sights, but it’s not the big city.  However, it’s only about a 20 minute rail ride from Sapporo, so I’ll come in to see things every few days and that will be sufficient.  My schedule should all even out then.

Talking with other travelers — fellow Airbnb people — a lot of us seem to have that problem. Some folks are digital nomads, holding down IT jobs remotely, some are writers, some are tourists, but a common theme is balancing getting out and seeing things with other desires/obligations.  You feel like, “Wow, I’m in this new, different place, I should try to see everything!”  But you have other things you also need to be doing.  One of the other transients at Kenta’s Airbnb place, a developer named Viet Nguyen from Portland, Oregon, was complaining that he was having trouble with this, staying 2 or 3 days in each place.  I suggested that he wasn’t a tourist, he was a temporary resident, and the sense of urgency that a tourist has — “I have a 3 week vacation and I have to make every day count!” — didn’t really apply.  He might want to pick a place, stay for a month, and then go out every few days to see things, in a more conventional work schedule, instead of feeling pressured to see everything while he was there.  He agreed that that might work better, but who knows whether he’ll end up doing it or not.  Shortly thereafter, he was off to camp at a local volcano, and sometime later was going back to Portland to take a break from traveling.  But we added each other as Line contacts, so I think that means we’re blood brothers or something.  I’ll ping him in a while, see how he’s doing.

All right, as long as I’m here, I should get with the program.  When last we left me, I’d spent the Thursday, June 11th, wandering downtown Sapporo, where the Yosakoi Soran festival was warming up.  It was rather a lot of walking.  So, on Friday, instead of heading out anywhere complex, I took it a bit easier.  In truth, I rather needed to; I’d gone to bed near 10:00, and awakened near 4:00, and was feeling kind of crappy.  I played ESO in the morning with one of my ESO guilds — I should, perhaps mention that I’ve joined a group called the Old Timer’s Guild, a bunch of folks that have been online gaming for years.  Membership is restricted to age 25 and older, and it weeds out a lot of the nonsense that the younger crowd brings to the table.  It’s just laid back, supportive folks who enjoy gaming together.  They have groups for a ton of different games, from World of Warcraft to Dragon Age to Elder Scrolls Online, and many more.  My cousin-in-law (and family guild member) Shawn  had mentioned them, and so I looked them up a few weeks ago and have been playing with them since.  In fact, since I headed to Japan, the only playing I make time for is with them, 3 days a week, and my family 2 other days.

Anyway, I played with them in the morning, and by about 10am headed out to Nakajima Park, across the river and south a bit.  BTW, while I’m thinking about it (i.e., it was the next photo imported from my iPhone), I should point out these:

A colorful way to patch crack from earthquakes? Good guess, but no.

A colorful way to patch crack from earthquakes? Good guess, but no.

I saw these when I got off the subway going to Kenta’s place, the day of my arrival.  They’re on every sidewalk, and sometimes even inside buildings.  My first thought was that the line separated the pedestrian flow of traffic, so I tried to stay to the left (they drive on the left in Japan, just like Thailand; thanks for that, Britain). But I quickly saw that nobody was following that.  Then I thought that maybe bicycles were on one side, pedestrians on the other; again, quickly disproven.  On Friday, I took a few moments and looked it up on Google, quickly finding this explanation. The tl;dnr version (though I am ill qualified to provide such a thing): they help the blind navigate.  And apparently it’s all over Japan, not just Sapporo.  Truthfully, it says a lot about a society that they take this into account everywhere.

Anyway, I headed off to the park.  This involved walking a few blocks west to the river, following the sidewalk along the river for maybe 20 minutes, then cutting west a couple of blocks, so an easy walk.  You could see some small groups practicing for the festival in the riverside park:

Practicing for the festival, or for maritime signalling. One or the other.

Practicing for the festival, or for maritime signalling. One or the other.

In truth, you could hold 1,000 festival practice sessions in this river park.  On a different day, I walked south for an hour and still hadn’t reached the end.  It’s frickin’ huge.

A river runs through it, but the river may be incidental.

A river runs through it, but the river may well be incidental.

As you can see, it’s a bright, sunny, clear day, really beautiful.  The overcast and chill of the previous 2 days pretty much gave out at this point, and has made few appearances since.  I have mixed feelings about this.  I mean, it’s been between 70° and 75° ever since, and I’m really not complaining about that.  It is objectively beautiful weather.  You’re comfortable in the shade, maybe a touch chilled in the shade if the wind kicks up, and maybe you’re a bit sweaty walking in the sun, but that’s how the world should be.  That’s Life’s sweet spot.  I do love overcast and chilly, but this is a serious contender for second place, and even the Who’s down in Whoville cannot dampen my spirits here.

I got to Nakajima Park, about 20 blocks south of yesterday’s Odori Park, with little difficulty.  They had a map of the park at the entrance, but Japan is a magical place and sometimes the underlying reality peeks through the surface of things, which the map was kind enough to warn me about.

Compasses don't even work reliably here.  When I looked at this map, North was on the right hand side.  Who knows what the map showed to the next person?

Compasses don’t even work reliably here. When I looked at this map, North was on the right hand side. Who knows what the map showed to the next person?

Nakajima Park is trees, and more trees, and ponds, and a shrine, and a children’s center, and a literary museum, and so much more.  (Well, a little more.)

The entrance area just inside the park.

The entrance area just inside the park.

Hokaido snowy weather, making a late appearance. Or, you know, tree blossoms. Whichever.

Hokaido snowy weather, making a late appearance. Or, you know, tree blossoms. Whichever.

The trees were shedding while I was there, and it looked like a gentle snowfall.  I tried to take pictures, but it’s like trying to film Singing In The Rain.  The floating, white, fluffy bits are indistinguishable from the light and shadow of the background.  I’d have had better luck filming milk.

The hand-made tiles along what I'm guessing is the Children's Activity Center.  Very cute.

The hand-made and signed tiles along what I’m guessing is the Children’s Activity Center. Very cute.

It's not easy being green? This park disagrees.

It’s not easy being green? This park disagrees.

One of the many, many crows in Sapporo. These guys are everywhere, and they're crazy huge, like small terriers.  Really, the hierarchy goes albatrosses, eagles, hawks, Sapporo crows. It's awesome, and you should wear safety goggles just in case.

One of the many, many crows in Sapporo. These guys are everywhere, and they’re crazy huge, like small terriers. Really, the hierarchy goes albatrosses, eagles, hawks, Sapporo crows. It’s awesome, and you should wear safety goggles just in case.

Like a lot of parks, this place had signs identifying the plant species. On this small tree, I loved how the sign was attached; as the tree grows, the wire doesn't cut into it, instead it expands with it.  So smart.

Like a lot of parks, this place had signs identifying the plant species. On this small tree, I loved how the sign was attached; as the tree grows, the wire doesn’t cut into it, instead it expands with it. So smart.

No man is an island, but this bit of park is.  Lucky bastard.

No man is an island, but this bit of park is. Lucky bastard.

Are you big in Japan? This fish is. (There was another one swimming here too, but it's playing koi.)

Are you big in Japan? This fish is. (There was another one swimming here too, but it’s playing koi.)

Look, it's beautiful, and tranquil, and what else do I need to do to convince you!  Fuck!

Look, it’s beautiful, and tranquil, and what else do I need to do to convince you! Fuck!

Maybe this will do.  This is my takeaway from Nakajima Park:

I apologize for the unsteadiness of my hand; next time, I’ll brace this on my knee or something.  If you’re prone to seasickness… well, again, sorry.  ¯\ _(ツ)_/¯

I hung out here for a while, gradually feeling better after my short night and painful morning, and then drifted around the park a bit more, visiting a small Shinto shrine building:

Nakajima Shrine; I'd have gotten a closer picture, but there was a young lady praying there and I didn't want to interrupt her.  I bowed at the entrance, and walked near, but then retreated without disturbing her.

Nakajima Shrine; I’d have gotten a closer picture, but there was a young lady praying there and I didn’t want to interrupt her. I bowed at the entrance, and walked near, but then retreated without disturbing her.

Every shrine has a small side building with a wash basin, for ritually washing your hands before you approach.

Every Shinto shrine has a small side building with a wash basin, for ritually washing your hands before you approach.

I also picked up a small can of cold coffee.  I’ve tried Japanese cold canned coffee before, and the black coffee tasted terrible.  Though, in fairness, no worse than it would in real life.  Even in its homeland, the coffee was no different.  The dispensing machine was interesting, though.

I had a cream & sugar canned coffee a couple of days later: much better. Still looking for vending machine hot canned coffee, which also exists.

I had a cream & sugar canned coffee a couple of days later: much better. Still looking for vending machine hot canned coffee, which also exists.

I left here around 1 pm, and headed north towards the Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, where Kenta had pointed out a place that he thought sold nihonshu (sake).  He said it was called Don Quijote, which made it super easy to remember and I found it fairly easily.  It turned out to be a 2-3 level department store, its narrow aisles packed almost claustrophobically with floor to ceiling shelves crammed with goods.  Everything from electronics to house slippers to cosmetics to every packaged food you can imagine, and a pretty decent alcohol selection.  I picked up two bottles of nihonshu (the Japanese word for what we call sake), which were daiginjos (higher quality, made with rice that has been more ground down towards the pure carbohydrate core), and a couple of Guinness Extra Stouts, and some Instant Beer Noodles!

There was no way that I couldn't buy the Beer Noodles; fortunately, they were really quite good.

There was no way that I couldn’t buy the Beer Noodles; fortunately, they were really quite good.

The Guinness was Y278 a bottle, so about $2.27, a bit high if it were in the US but not bad.  The high quality nihonshu?  Y934 and Y949, which is $7.61 and $7.73!!!!!!  O.M.F.G.  This stuff would go for $35-$50 in the US!  Easily!  Unbefrickinlievable!  I may just move here permanently — I could totally afford it based on the savings in sake alone!

And this stuff was good, too.  The one on the left, the Takumi, was entirely worthy: a bit harsher than I typically go for, but easily a B- to a B in my ratings.  The Kimoto, on the right, was a solid A, light, smooth, a bit fruity, and really quite excellent.  That’s the one I shared with the French people, and with Kenta later, and Kenta was a big fan.

I’ve since found other sake, and the prices are similar.  It can hardly come as a surprise that Japan would be heaven for a sake buff, but I was really expecting to have to make my way through a bunch of lower quality sakes, that I know are here in abundance, to find the good stuff.  Turns out, the criteria that I learned from reading Japanese experts works just as well in Japan as it does in the US.  Again, not really surprising, but great to confirm in reality.  And the price.  Wow.  I knew that it would be much cheaper here, but I had no idea that shipping + import tariffs + US premium markups would take such a toll.  It’s really 4x-5x cheaper here, and I’m just flat out amazed.

So, I walked home from here, picked up dinner from 7-11, shared sake with French kendo students, and went to bed not long after.

Speaking of 7-11:

Age deodorant!!! They have a spray to get rid of old person smell!  That's awesome!

Age deodorant!!! They have a spray to get rid of old person smell! That’s incredible! Remind me to come back for this in, say, 20 years.

I think I might have gotten 7 hours Saturday night, and felt a bit more solid the next morning.  The French people left around 5am, and Kenta showed up to meet them and see them off (quite the sacrifice, though maybe he wanted to be sure they left the keys).  Most of my day was spent writing the first post-arrival blog entry, because we were going to a baseball game that evening and so I didn’t feel like I was letting the side down by not doing stuff.

The game started at 3:00, with some pre-game stuff starting earlier, so Kenta and I left a around 1:45, walked to the subway, and took our local Toho line all the way south to its end near the baseball stadium, the Sapporo Dome.  Surprisingly, we were not the only people to go this route, and the subway cars were jammed. I’ve seen worse in New York rush hour, because we managed to fit into the first train that arrived instead of having to skip one or two, but this was my first time standing packed into a crowded Japanese subway.  Contrary to legend, no one tried to feel me up, so I guess that’s not the problem in Japan that people say it is.  Urban legends, right?

The walk from the subway stop to the stadium ran for about 8 blocks, and you really couldn't get lost.

The walk from the subway stop to the stadium ran for about 8 blocks, and you really couldn’t get lost thanks to the steady flood of people going the same way, from subway and bus stops.

The weather had predicted an 80% chance of rain that day, and while we didn’t actually see any more than a few tiny droplets on our way home after the game, I was glad to see that the stadium was enclosed.

It's shinier on sunny days.  I don't know what that tube in the side is.  Maybe that's how they keep the dome inflated.

It’s shinier on sunny days. I don’t know what that tube in the side is. Maybe that’s how they keep the dome inflated.

Kenta routed us through an impressive (and long) maze of walkways and corridors to get us to our part of the arena; he’d gotten us great seats, row 6 a bit behind first base.  I still needed the Jumbotron to see players faces, but faces aren’t why you go to ballgames.

This shot, taken just after we arrived, shows empty seats.  They didn't last long, and the place was packed floor to ceiling soon thereafter.

This shot, taken just after we arrived, shows empty seats. They didn’t last long, and the place was packed floor to ceiling soon thereafter.

The pregame shows ran for about 20-25 minutes, and had some kind of odd stuff.  Like…

I *think* these were fans being wished happy birthdays by... um... I think those are a kind of long-necked cat, rather than phalluses in sundresses.  Of course, it's Japan, so who knows? It could be both.

I *think* these were fans being wished happy birthdays by… um… I think those are a kind of long-necked cat, rather than phalluses in sundresses. Of course, it’s Japan, so who knows? It could be both.

At some point, the field activity stopped being preshow and became the first inning.  I missed this transition somehow, because I was looking at my phone and the tone of the stadium never audibly changed.  I have to say, the start of this game had me worried: the fans were very well behaved — too well behaved.  They sat calmly, spoke normally, did mass cheers only when the loudspeakers rallied them to, and it just wasn’t very high energy.  Thankfully, that mood changed, and by the 4th inning they were more active, with more cheering, more physical movement, more waving of banners, and so forth.  They never got to American standards of frenzy (not even West Coast frenzy, much less east coast rampant hostility), but they definitely got into it.

Watching Japanese baseball is a continual reminder that you’re not from around here.  First off, to the best of my observations, I was one of only two white guys in that stadium, and one of them was on our team.

Brandon Laird.  I had high hopes for Mr Laird, despite the fact that he obviously couldn't cut it in the American leagues.  But he did *not* represent, this game.

Brandon Laird. I had high hopes for Mr Laird, despite the fact that he obviously couldn’t cut it in the American leagues. But he did *not* represent, this game, and I must say that I felt pretty self-conscious about it. Like everyone around me was thinking, “Wow, your guy’s not very good, is he?”

He did get 1 hit, in 3 at-bats, so seppuku was not required.  I looked up Mr Laird, later, and it’s a sad story of doing well at first, getting into the minors, a very brief stint in the majors, injuries, back to the minors, injuries, and off to Japan.  Which is where baseball statistics go to die, because nobody seems to track stats if the game isn’t in America.  I saw him in another game later, on television, and he did no better (though, in fairness the whole team was losing that one, 9-1 in the 7th).  I felt for the poor guy.

BTW, our team was the Nippon-Ham Fighters, and on our way in I was handed my first ever baseball jersey, which was exactly what I needed to be just 1 degree too warm in that stadium.

Oh, good, something else to carry that I won't actually use.  I might frame this in 10 years, but until then, I need to think of weeding some stuff out of my pack and sending it home for storage.

Oh, good, something else to carry that I won’t actually use. I might have this framed in 10 years, but until then, I need to think of weeding some stuff out of my pack and sending it home for storage.

Still, I guess this means Nippon-Ham is my team now.  It’s just as well, I was never comfortable rooting for the L.A. Dodgers.  Never forgave them for leaving Brooklyn in 1958.  Yeah, yeah, it was before I was born, and I never lived in Brooklyn anyway, but it started the whole “Move the franchise to make the owners more money, and never mind the relationship between the team and the fans” thing, that continues to this day.  Brooklyn has a bit of a mythic position in America’s psyche, and I feel betrayed, across space and time, on their behalf.  So, I’m glad to have a new team that I can root for with a clear conscience.

Anyway, the Nippon-Ham Fighters were playing the Yokohama Baystars.  “Huh,” I thought, that’s odd.  So, after some thought, I turned to Kenta and said, “Why are the team names in English?”  It took a couple of tries to get the question across, but then he look surprised and said, basically, “I have no idea, I never thought about it.”  I speculated that it was because Japan had absorbed the sport from America and just copied the team name pattern as part of that process, which sounded reasonable to him (by which I could tell he really had no clue).  So, you get the Japanese city name but an English team name paired with it.  Still, it’s a little odd.  It really ought to be the Nippon-Ham Inu (dogs), or the Yokohama Tamagomushi Pan (a kind of yummy egg bun).

But I digress (which phrase was a perfectly valid candidate for the title of my travel blog).  I was saying that I felt very aware of being in an alien culture.  To attend a baseball game in America is to participate in a series of well known rituals: the 7th-inning stretch, singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”, the announcers playing the Charge! organ music and the fans yelling “Charge!” at the end (repeated 4 times, in ascending key), hot dog vendors, cracker jacks, etc.  Here, there were rituals, but none of the ones that I knew.  They had chants, but in Japanese (not unreasonably), and I couldn’t join in and had to simply sit and smile amiably.  Some of the chants involved hitting toy plastic bats (with the team logo) together to drum out the beat, and most people (Kenta included) had them.  Then there was the Release of the Plastic Phalluses:

I soon discovered these to be balloons, released to jet into the air and fall to the ground at a coordinated time, in a monumental waste of plastic.  I assume they're recycled, because the Japanese are good at that, but, still.

I soon discovered these to be balloons, released to jet into the air and fall to the ground at a coordinated time, in a monumental waste of plastic. I assume they’re recycled, because the Japanese are good at that, but, still.

They had baseball cheerleaders:

In truth, though they looked like cheerleaders, they were more like inter-inning entertainment.  Which is good, because, unlike Football, Baseball doesn't *need* cheerleaders.  The crowd gets its cheer naturally, from beer and from swearing at the refs.

In truth, though they looked like cheerleaders, they were more like inter-inning entertainment. Which is good, because, unlike Football, Baseball doesn’t *need* cheerleaders. The crowd gets its cheer naturally, from beer and from swearing at the refs.

They had roving vendors, who sold beer and packaged snacks, but no hot dogs and no cracker jacks.  And they played a trumpet-version of the 6 note Charge! sequence, but only the 6 notes, once, and the crowd never responded with “Charge!”, so I have no idea what the point was.  Maybe it was just a vague sense that this was what baseball games should sound like? Whatever the reason, my absolute uniqueness in that crowd plus my complete lack of participation in rituals made me more keenly aware of being a foreigner than I’ve been at any other time in my travels.  Of course, I’m only 5 months in; plenty of time to feel still more alien, later.

Well, regardless, I did really enjoy the game.  I managed to live tweet most of it, which was amusing (to me at least), and we won 3-2 in the 9th inning.  And I was able to tell Kenta what the American words for plays were, like “double-play”, “sacrifice bunt”, “rusty trombone”, etc.  It felt weird that I knew them, but it’s not like I’ve never watched the game, or many-ish games, and if you’re at all connected to American culture you pick up much of this simply by osmosis.

At the end, they put up a podium and put the pitcher and another player up there and said nice things about them (I assume) and gave them short interviews (must be the worst part of the game for those players, but maybe I’m projecting), and then they lit some brief indoor fireworks (nothing major), and then Kenta motioned that we should make for the exit so we did.  Along with a good 1/3 of the stadium.  It was a long, slow process to get out of there, and a long, slow process to get to the subway, and then a 3-train wait to pack in.

Usually, I break out the "Moo, mooooo" noises at this point, but I wasn't sure how that would play.  Plus, what if I was saying, "Fuck, fuuuuuck", or something equivalently bad, in Japanese. Not worth the risk.

Usually, I break out the “Moo, mooooo” noises at this point, but I wasn’t sure how that would play. Plus, what if I was saying, “Fuck, fuuuuuck”, or something equivalently bad, in Japanese. Not worth the risk.

We made it home by, I want to say, 7-ish.  (The 4 French people had been replaced by two Chinese or Chinese-American women, though I never exchanged more than two words with them the two nights they were here.  At least Kenta got his bedroom back!) I picked up some 7-11 food, we shared a bit of sake,  I watched a bit of Youtube, and then off to bed.  An excellent experience all around.

Here endeth the 4th day.

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2 Responses to Striving for Balance

  1. Holly says:

    1. Those blind strips worried me when I was on my bike. I always managed to find a way to go slow enough over them/hit them at precisely the weird enough angle to throw me off balance. Sometimes they start coming up from the street too (earthquakes or general wear and tear) and they can also be a small road obstacle for biking! I’m also in general bad at being on a bike. I once rode on flat tires for six months thinking I was just super shitty at pedaling.

    2. Yeah Japanese crows! They’re big and loud and will DESTROY your trash. That’s why you see netting or covered trash spots. They’ll tear open a bag and throw it all over the street.

    3. Nippon ham fighters has a great name. I always liked them because they had the most ridiculous name and also Yu Darvish at the time (he’s pitching in the states now).

    4. TAMAGOMUSHI PAN YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES <3<3<3

    5. Don Quiote is like their version of Target I always felt. Cool stuff to buy, eat, enjoy. You always leave with more than you planned.

    • Charles says:

      Oooooh, that’s what that netting is for! I’d seen it near garbage/recycling receptacles, and thought it was to keep the wind from blowing it away. Crows make so much more sense.

      I like them, but I am constantly aware of the ability of one surprise attack (however unlikely) to blind me, and I’m wary of getting on their bad side in a way that I’m not around any other bird. Or most animals of any sort, really. There’s a reason why their collective noun is “a murder”.

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