Assistant Abroad: Christmas in Japan!

Hell's Santas

It’s been far too long since I’ve written a proper post here- my excuses include Japanese video games, myriad trips to Kyoto, the dreaded exams and the odd karaoke night. Having just experienced  Christmas in Japan, I knew at once that everything I have seen and experienced in the last two days needs to be documented while it’s still fresh in my mind! I’m sitting here typing this in a hostel in Tokyo, Santa hat on my head that I’ve worn for so long that it probably needs to be surgically removed by now… It may be technically Boxing Day as it’s 1am, but there’s an urgent need to write a bumper post about my crazy Christmas in Japan before I forget even a single detail!

The story begins on late December 23rd, waiting in Sannomiya, a train stop or two away from Kobe, for the night bus, a typical method of transportation to Tokyo from faraway places such as Osaka and Kobe. I had hauled my luggage across prefectures (an impossibly heavy suitcase, a monstrously weighty hand luggage and…a bag containing a Japanese PS2 bought for 500 yen at a Kyoto flea market and shoes) and almost died trying to get off a small bus in the quiet town of Akashi to meet my fellow friends from England studying in Kobe. From there they hauled my stuff to Sannomiya and then to Tokyo, for which I am truly grateful! We got on the night bus at about 10pm after a dinner of kings- McDonald’s followed by Baskin Robbins’ ice cream.

The night bus was quite something. We hopped on cheerfully, sitting in the back. Five seats for five people meant that the back row turned into gaijin back row! The 8 hour journey had just begun. However, after stopping off at Osaka Sky Building for a little break and for the bus to be cleaned and prepared, we were back on again. First, an aside about Sky Building. It’s ridiculously tall, and the chief function of it is to ascend it, become paralysed with terror at the sheer height of it and stare resentfully at couples up in the observatory. The lift that goes up to the main part is fun- it’s made of glass and after the first few metres, you shoot into open air at uncomfortable speed, the only thing between you and falling the glass sides and the chute. After cowering in terror and trying to stand as far from the sides of the lift as possible and instinctively wanting to lay down on the floor, close to ground as you’re going to get, you reach the main part. From there, the only thing between you and death is a single escalator, again enclosed in glass to remind you of the futility of life and how you will fall down if you don’t succumb to terror first.

Anyway, back to the night bussing. We met a friend and fellow Kansai area student there, who had paid an extra 1000 yen (just under 10 pounds) for a toilet so was on another bus. We said a quick hello before getting back on our bus, where seats were then assigned. We were split up across the bus though I was lucky to be next to one of the Foreign Five. The bus was plunged into darkness and everyone else on the bus immediately fell into a deep slumber triggered by this. The heating was turned up to 11 as we began the arduous journey. I struggle to sleep on transport sometimes, so it was interesting… I was on the aisle seat after foolishly declining a window seat (“Hannah, you’re actually technically assigned to the window seat, want to swap?” “Nah, nah, it’s quite alright, you go sit there” – pride comes before a fall!). With window seats I can lean against the window. When it comes to sleeping otherwise, my neck aches terribly and the seat is not comfortable. The heat also made life very uncomfortable.

With maybe an hour or two of sleep and many toilet stops, we rolled into Shibuya, Tokyo at 6am in the morning on Christmas Eve. Dark and cold, it wasn’t really too encouraging, and hauling my ridiculous luggage, we struggled around the area. We found nothing of use in the station, whose trains had not started yet, no coin lockers in which to put the monster suitcase. We camped outside Starbucks in the mad desire for warmth, seats and caffeine for a while until it opened. With prior threats of breaking in by using my large suitcase like a curling stone and threats of physical violence to bowl people out of the way, we wasted no time in getting seats, drinks and food.

Eventually moving on, we took a magical train ride across Tokyo somehow to get to Asakusa, an area with a shrine and other landmarks, where our hostel was! It was surprising we survived the journey- the lines we travelled on made an extremely poor show of accessibility, not having many lifts for my suitcase. After hauling it almost everywhere (thanks to the lovely  train station worker and random passerby who helped us down and up some stairs), we rolled into Asakusa and checked into the hostel. The reception was a few minutes’ walk from the place itself- a lovely homely building. The living room is in Japanese style, with tatami mats and sliding doors. The first floor is a mixed 8-bed dorm, currently dominated by 7 females (the Kansai crew- us five, another fellow Leeds student who studied with me at Kansai Gaidai and her friends) and one poor Brazilian young man, who was innocently travelling around the world when the stampede of noisy ladies invaded the dorm! The kitchen is lovely, facilities pleasant and beds comfy and all in all, it’s a pleasant and reasonably cheap place for Tokyo. It’s a few minutes from Asakusa Station and there is a 24 hour convenience stoor just around the corner. This serves as our base for Tokyo adventures.

"The golden poo" in Asakusa, an artistic statue that is meant to be a flame but sadly resembles something more unfortunate atop a toilet due to the positioning of the buildings and its shape...

Having checked in, we dispersed. Some of us went to Harajuku to shop, some of us went somewhere else, and I just passed out on my bed in my Pikachu kigurumi after pretending to unpack, exhausted from many late nights and the night bus. After a long nap, I struggled out of bed- the grand Leeds reunion was to take place in Shibuya that evening. We set out and the Christmas adventure began.

Setting out, we travelled far and wide to reach our friends. We walked around, passed Tokyo Tower (best spot for lovey-dovey couples on Christmas, Japan’s most romantic holiday) and ate crepes while pointedly ignoring couples and then met Tokyo’s best feature tonight- Hell’s Santas. We lost count of the Santas on motorcycles we saw. We even accosted Santa and his reindeer in a garage for photos. The poor forecourt staff were roped into photo-taking and then we set off. One of us had very cleverly brought her battery-powered Christmas lights with her and we festively trekked around, singing along to Christmas songs and generally performing an action known as “gaijin smash”- to behave like a total foreigner, with disregard or ignorance of any rules or customs in a situation in Japan!

Tokyo Tower all lit up (with a heart too!) as couples visit on a romantic holiday for Japanese people!

Hell's Santas

After a cheeky food stop, we arrived late in Shibuya, looking for the exit we required. After emerging into the typical metropolis full of tall buildings and bright screens advertising various things, we found our meeting marker- a disappointingly small statue of Hachiko the dog. Then we saw people we hadn’t seen since June! We set out for nomihoudai, or all you can drink- you pay a fixed price and drink as much alcohol as you can pour down your throat in a set time limit. Of course, as foreigners and students, we were almost abusing the system there- sorry, I mean we were definitely abusing the system. After passing midnight there, whereupon many loud declarations of “MERRY CHRISTMAS’ ensued.

It took some wrangling to get all of us (Tokyoites of Leeds, their friends, and us Kansai lot) out of the place and to the club, but we got there in the end- it was the size of a large room in the house. The music was generic dancing music, and suddenly a man with a pyramid on his head appeared at the DJ decks. Then a man and woman appeared in matching fairy lights and began to sing. We had stumbled upon a concert by an…interesting pair. With very strong declarations that some of us were just too sober to understand, we watched the entire thing. With it ending in a large balloon being thrown around the room (think those music festivals where an oversized beach ball gets punted around like a volleyball by the crowd), the balloon being burst to the clash of cymbals wielded by pyramid-head man and then posing, we stood there, not knowing what had just happened. It turned out that the group were called Egypt, which at least explains pyramid-head man and the knuckleduster on the other man’s hand that said, well, “Egypt”. At least, the few of us that weren’t rather merry had no idea what had happened. Therein ensued more generic dance music.

The group we watched in the club- "Egypt"

However, the DJ made his first mistake when they put on a very very familiar song. The bells and chords started and all of us went wild.

Band Aid! Singing along with 110% passion, “Feed the woooorld! LET THEM KNOW IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME”, we began to feel at home. Some familiar songs ensued, with Blur, MGMT and Amy Winehouse entertaining us. The foreigners basically owned the dancefloor while the Japanese people stared at us. Some recently successful and up and coming English indie bands had a song or two played and standing in a club on the other side of the world in Tokyo, I was hearing a song or two that I wouldn’t even get to hear in England! So, after the early hours of Christmas Day were spent in an eccentric nightclub and checking that everyone would get home safely, we headed to the hostel.

Don’t ever take a Japanese taxi if you can help it- it’s ridiculously expensive. It only starts at 1000 yen (10 pounds) and an approx 30 minute journey was about 50 pounds. I cannot fathom this, nor comprehend why taxis are so expensive, but it’s just a fact of Japanese life and you just have to roll with it, so to speak. But after missing the last train by quite a bit, we were not willing to stay out til first train (5am) when we had to get up in the morning so out of desperation, a taxi it was.

After a good sleep, everyone was up and about. Christmas Day proper was about to become busy! While some of us were going to meet up and have a lunch and general Christmas socialising session, some of us hardcore Leeds lot had elected to go to Disneyland. In August of this year, some people with extremely powerful foresight suggested offhand, “Instead of sitting alone crying during the Christmas holidays and possibly eating ice cream, why not all go to Tokyo and to Disneyland for Christmas Day?” Of course, this plan eventually came to fruition in one of the greatest, strangest days of my life.

It began at around 1.30pm just outside Maihama station, aka gateway to Disneyland. We met up, enquired as to the state of each other’s constitution (those who were merry in the club were surprisingly robust considering) and scouted out the site. Our tickets were excitingly-named “Starlight Passports”, not valid for entry to the park until 3pm.

So, after a nose around the beautiful Disney Monorail station and the hotel, where we bought some sandwiches from the convenience store inside, we ate “Christmas Lunch” at a picnic table. For me, it was apple juice, a potato salad sandwich and the odd chicken and vegetable wrap.

We entered the park at 3pm and the day began for real. Our first decision was to go round the park in a circuit, and our first ride was Pirates of the Caribbean. The queue was somewhat long, but we were in high spirits as we looked around the themed mansion leading up to the ride and discussed Keira Knightley’s acting skills. Getting in a boat, we were treated to various piratical scenes. At one point, we rode under a seemingly endless open night sky while fireflies flew around. With some surprisingly realistic and fluid animatronic pirate robots (in particular the seagull and crab scared me- welcome to Uncanny Valley!), it was an experience! I was most amazed when Johnny Depp- sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow appeared, peering out from around a corner as pirates were getting a bit shirty with each other for some reason.

"Fun loving pirates" - not so sure about the wording of this...

Then we ambled on over to Splash Mountain after Thunder Mountain was closed temporarily for some reason and Space Mountain was outvoted in favour of Buzz Lightyear shooting laser guns ride (funnily enough not its official name). This was the beginning of a harrowing experience. Upon being told that the wait was 2 and a half hours, we nodded. “Yeah, alright, 2 and a half hours, let’s go.” We were the kind of group who listens, doesn’t really comprehend the true reality behind the words and then regrets it later. So, we began the queue with the setting sun.

Early on in the queue, when it was still light...

Two and a half hours later, we were stuck just before the second “standby entrance”, beginning to feel the onset of queue madness, shivering in the cold and dark while our friends cheekily went on a “toilet trip” from our advanced place in the queue to grab some hot food.

Still queuing...and the sun sets on us

Three hours later, we were stuck under the actual mountain, definitely suffering queue madness.

Queue madness setting in...

It did make for some great conversations! The ride itself was average, perhaps dulled by queue madness. The mountain was full of drops and Brer Rabbit scenes, which grew demonic by the final drop. We attempted to pose for the camera, though it backfired amusingly. The poor Japanese child stuck next to me somehow endured riding the boat with us- whether her parents believed she actually wanted to ride or whether they wanted to get rid of her, I don’t know.

After this, we ran away from Splash Mountain as fast as we could, only to run into the Disney Parade! Large floats in the shape of Disney characters rolled past us, lit with dazzling and colourful lights. We saw Nemo, Toy Story characters, Mike, Sulley and Boo from Monsters Inc. and a few other characters- real actors played fairies, Cinderella, Prince Charming and (as Englishmen we all got very excited) Mary Poppins and Bert, Donald and Daisy Duck and Pinocchio and Gepetto.

 

After this, we ran for the teacups to try and get more rides in- with the long queue times we needed to get in the most important ride! The teacups, as predicted by everyone, had a mere 5 minute wait. Despite the merciless mocking my teacup-fixated friend endured from the rest of the group, we went for a quick teacup ride and got off, stomachs lurching. Then we power-walked to Buzz Lightyear space shooting ride. We passed by the Disney Castle and that was when things got interesting.

We got lost.

Having made a spur of the moment international call to family in the queue to Splash Mountain, I had a good natter until my phone battery ran out. So, the teacup-lover and I went through the castle while everyone else went around. We had hung back to get photos and then lost sight of everyone. After heading to Buzz Lightyear’s queue and back to the massive Christmas tree near the entrance to the park, I decided enough was enough. We could wait 2 hours for everyone to amble back to the tree or just get hold of them. Without my phone, we had no way to get hold of them, and I decided that as “lost children”  had lost in the title, we went to that office. I didn’t have an English map and my poor friend did inform me that he would wait outside as I embarrassed myself there, then suggested that we say that we had actually lost a child (sensible behaviour considering I was probably acting off my rocker). After a little interruption due to the firework display (we ran back out of the office to watch), we explained our dilemma to the man. After asking how old our friends were then telling us that anyone 13 and over had to go to another place, we went there. It was Lost and Found. Again, my poor friend pointed out sensibly that it was lost and found ITEMS. Nevertheless, I went ahead and explained. After a bit of discussion, they told us that they had a phone charger. Leading us to a very plush room in the back of the large office, we used a phone charger to get in contact with our friends and found out that they were in the Buzz Lightyear queue! We went back to them, green tea ice cream in hand that we purchased on the way, and slightly shadily jumped into line with them just in time to get on the ride.

A giant realistic animatronic Buzz told us in Japanese how to play this game and we got into a cart. Taking up our laser guns, we shot targets with the letter Z on including Emperor Zurg a few times. After the shooting ride full of aliens, bright lights and blasting noises, where we all scored Level 3 (Planet Pilot) except teacup friend, who being a master at video games, attained the next level, we left. With about 45 minutes left until the park closed, we wondered what to do. Opposite our position was a confusing poster of Michael Jackson in the 1980s before most of his surgery in a futuristic white suit seemingly shooting lightning from his hands. Me being me, I said, “Guys, why don’t we go watch this thing for a laugh.’ We thought it was the documentary recently released about him.

It wasn’t.

What occurred was a life-changing experience. We watched a 3D film where the environment reacted to the film- spaceships crashing made the room shake, when an alien sneezed we all got sprayed with moisture, the room lit up as lasers were fired from ships. We emerged having laughed a lot at it, but most importantly, having experienced something so amazing that the following poor summary will not be able to convey even a portion of its brilliance. With George Lucas as a director, the following is therefore placed in the context of Star Wars.

Michael Jackson is the captain of a ship of ragtag alien misfits. It’s C3PO and quirky aliens instead of Jedi comrades. They get shouted at by the commander as they get attacked. The Death Star attack sequence follows as they fly through trenches of some surface and crash. They get up and are told to find some Supreme Leader of the planet to give her a gift. They go and she is a robotic cyborg-like spider lady. She tells them them to get lost then tries to set her soldiers on them. Michael Jackson space captain says he has a gift to realise her true beauty. They set up a space-band as C3PO robot turns into drums and guitar and keyboard. Elephant alien breaks the keyboard before he can do more than dance maybe 3 moves. She immediately takes offence and sets the robot army of hers back on him. The music gets fixed and he uses the power of dance to knock them back. Then he uses the power of dance to make his hands spark and shoots lightning at them. They turn into 80s dancers. They all dance and he dances some. Then the alien spider robot lady gets angry and sends two big robot executioners with whip and shield at him. The dancers run away and he shoots lightning using the power of dance. It bounces off their shields and he is caught by their whips. Then the cat butterfly alien ties their whips together and while they get tangled, he uses the power of dance and the light up streak on his t-shirt to shoot more lightning at them and they turn into storm-trooper looking people who start dancing with him. He dances some more and then uses the power of song, dance and his t-shirt to fly up and shoot lightning at the spider robot lady. She turns into a human who looks like an older Princess Leia and they all do a dance finale.

We left the park on a real high after this. We all agreed unanimously that while we’d gone in to laugh and mock, even the innermost parts of our psyche had been positively influenced by this short film forever. No, we did not like it ironically- we had seen the greatest vision of our lives.  Then we said our goodbyes and headed back. Splitting off into Tokyoites and hostel guests, we met a friendly American doing an internship in Japan on our final leg of the journey and had a nice chat. Wishing him a Merry Christmas, we got off the train and then returned home triumphantly.

This has been my weirdest, most amazing, most surreal and memorable Christmas. We all agreed that this was something we would never forget, and it’s been extremely enjoyable. As my time in Japan draws to an end after running wild in Tokyo and having adventures with my friends from home, I’m writing this and reflecting on an eventful and ultimately life-changing 4 months. Merry Christmas to everyone!

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