Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Flashback: The Germans Visit for Cherry Blossom Season 2016 (Part I)

Back in 2016, a year after we moved to Tokyo, Hannes' parents Anke and Marco, his good friend Nico, and Nico's mother Moni planned a big, two-week trip to Japan during cherry blossom season (along with 99% of all the other tourists who came to Japan that year) to see all of the obligatory sights and to visit us. 
Let's take a little stroll down memory lane, shall we?
(Scroll down past snoozy pics for TL;DR)

It was a weird time. Hannes and I weren't doing so great and were arguing a lot; and of course, this was the only time we've had problems as a couple, so why wouldn't this visit be smack dab in the middle of it?

Moving to Japan had been really nasty and stressful: the totally gross sharehouse we found the night we landed and lived in for about three months and started cleaning for a discount because it was so gross that we had started cleaning it anyway had been really stressful; me spending 100% of my first paycheck on finding our apartment, making the down payments, and moving in had been stressful; Hannes hadn't even started working until just before we moved out of that sharehouse in May 2015 and his job was good and well-paid but, you guessed it, stressful; and I had already quit the mind-numbingly shitty kindergarten job I'd snagged two weeks after we landed and gotten another one, because it made me hate my life. And commuting to seven different cities each week to do the dancing English monkey thing was, yes sir, too stressful.

I loved my new job, but it wasn't full time. Working hard and doing my best, I earned visa sponsorship even though the still-new consulting firm I had joined pretty much never provided it, but even so, they lied to the immigration and tax authorities about me being full-time and making the minimum yearly salary required for that type of visa in order for me to get it, stay employed, and stay in the country. 
That was okay; I never planned on being in Japan long enough to renew it again another year later anyway. But (not only me but maybe a dozen other independent contractors) being led on after a few very lucrative months when I made more than Hannes and then not getting enough hours or making enough money ever again was... well, also stressful!

Have I mentioned that living in Tokyo, in general, is stressful? That's the operative word here, in case I'm not being clear. 

The trains being so packed in the morning and evening that it's super sweaty in all seasons, but especially during the springtime tourist season, and at times physically painful (there are stories of broken ribs floating around); supermarkets being so sparse and poor-quality and vegetarian-unfriendly that I was going to seven different ones, all on foot remember, no car; working with no ventilation, insulation, adequate heating or cooling, and almost always being uncomfortable indoors and out; having to carry sweat towels with you; almost everything almost always being Disneyland-during-the-holidays-grade crowded. 

Tokyo's definitely very interesting and you never run out of things to do, but it's unrelenting, and not burning through money is tough. Seeing the local bands we liked at small venues and basement bars was always $20 - $40. And the minimum currency unit the transit card charging machines take, for example, is the equivalent of $10, which is usually only enough to get to and from wherever you're going, just the one time. Or not. 

Everything contains fish and soy sauce. Trying to avoid gluten while also not eating meat or seafood was virtually impossible, and I was often acid refluxy, stomacheachey, tired, and grouchy, even before my underwear was soaked through with sweat and the absurdly unhealthy salarymen on the sardine-packed train blasted me in the face with their death breath and spent the entire ride loudly snorting back and swallowing their snot instead of using a damn tissue. Hannes was not inflamed and in pain from eating totally normal foods, but all those other things did, of course, wear on him, too.

Just before this family vacation extravaganza - and I mean almost immediately before - Hannes had been in Germany for a week on a business trip. Here's the group selfie to prove it. Mostly he was in Berlin, but he was able to take some time out to see all these nice folks here, in Rostock.

While Hannes was gone I was doing that thing where I would go to a show and drink all night, and then just Febreeze my hair, put on more eyeliner, and do it again. I was working, but barely, and it feels like you have all the time in the world when the significant other you spend all your time with and live with in a very small space is suddenly gone for a bit. You might remember this post about my epic marathon day in Omotesando and Harajuku with Rejon, and then seeing P.L.F. and Self Deconstruction at Earthdom with my new friend Jharrod and some of his friends. That was while Hannes was in Berlin.
My day with Leif was also the very night before his parents and friends arrived, and he complained that I still reeked of cheap gin when they did. Which was admittedly true. 
It's Febreeze, not a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.

Thing is, though, it had taken us exactly this long to even start meeting people in Tokyo! Not only were we just getting used to everything in an atmosphere of constant stress, but we were only just starting to make friends! It had just been us two together this whole time, we still didn't have anybody!
I mean, I had Rejon and NiQui, and Hannes had Akim - three excellent people we were lucky enough to meet through our respective work - but it took nine full months to start meeting people at shows, even though we went to quite a lot of them. 
About six months prior we had gone back to Seoul for a long weekend, and, for example, we made half a dozen new friends at the one show and afterparty we went to in one night. One of them ended up moving to Japan, and we're still friends to this day.

Tokyo is unmanageably large, and at this point, there still wasn't even a Facebook page or anything for shows, for the underground music scene. Japanese venues and businesses are absolute shit at social media, and don't post anything, except for very occasionally on Twitter. Often a venue or art gallery or restaurant or bar will post about an event when it's already happening, or an hour or two before, so that it just feels like a slap in the face. 
Like, great, that helps a lot, by the time I spend an hour and a half getting over there it'll already be over. Brilliant marketing strategy.
But then, that's one of my other major issues with Japan: it's not only digitally inept, but cliquey and elitist, to the point that if you don't already know about something that's going on, a lot of the business doesn't care. They don't even want your money, especially if you're foreign.

Anyway, point is, Hannes was massively stressed about this visit and rightfully so, and I was suddenly excited about meeting new people, having fun, and having a lot of free time while no longer making good money and lowkey trying to block the whole thing out, which didn't really help.

Actual jetlag footage from the day he got back

After our personal issues came to a head in this high-pressure environment and during this ill-timed and very hectic family visit - which I referred to as the National Lampoon's German-Japanese Vacation because of how astonishingly goofy and touristy these otherwise lovely and well-traveled people were - I was forced to confront my lifelong clinical depression, anxiety, and sleeplessness, and Hannes was forced not only to better understand those things but to work on not completely shutting down, being blank, and failing to reciprocate emotionally. 

As you probably know if you're reading this (unless you just came here for Yoyogi Park pictures, in which case you're probably like "What the fuck is up with all this heavy-ass prefacing text tho"), we did work all that stuff out, and are happily married now, but oh boy, that cherry blossom season did nearly kill us. 

The TL;DR is: We were only just getting (as) comfortable (as it was possible for us to be) in Japan and had way too much personal stress stuff and not enough fun stuff going on already. We were not ready to do the tour guide thing for Boomers who had no semblance of an itinerary or any idea at all of what they wanted to do or see in Tokyo and put it all on us, who openly gawked at and took photos of women in kimono, accidentally pushed emergency buttons, and found even falafel and corn dogs exotic (???). 

Now is as good a time as any to post about this, because believe it or not, I've only just gotten the photos from it! I had never seen any of them before, because Hannes' parents are terrible about sending their photos, and Nico - who took most of these - doesn't really use social media. Andrea finally copied them all onto an external for me the last time I was at their house.

I also just posted throwbacks to hanami 2017 and another, more fun visit from the same time, so it seems cohesive to get the entire theme done in one go before I move on to other April posts. My own cell phone pics (because Hannes hadn't gifted me my nice camera yet) are mixed in with the favourites I plucked from Nico's 1500 photos and the various group pics from various cameras and phones.

Ah yes, our old place, on the bottom right there, exactly four inches from the train tracks but brand new and otherwise very very nice for our price range (one of the other places I had been shown for ~$900/mo literally had no walls, fixtures, or anything, was from the 1960's, tiny, gross, almost certainly full of asbestos and bugs, and looked like it was being demolished rather than renovated).

You can actually see this safety corner thingy in the picture above, too, if you look closely lol. 
I want to think they installed it just for him, because come on, no one else around was this tall.

Per usual, Hannes' mother came bearing gifts, and oh boy, were there a lot of them :O
She doesn't mess around.

I didn't care for the skull purse above, but I do still have this little canvas tote.

These black rice noodles especially were amazing.

Vegan and gluten-free chocolate assortment (except for the cookie one on the right there, which she overlooked), because this was when dairy, eggs, and soy were all making me too sick to eat them. Because fuck it, right? Humans don't need food >< So this was very generous and helpful.

Me, clearly stoked about constant random photos at inopportune moments

For their first few days in Tokyo they were staying at a little Airbnb apartment in Ikebukuro, because we lived three stops from there and told them it'd be the most convenient place to meet up. I think it was like a 20-minute walk from the station, though, and not that easy to find.

This conversation ended in tears. It was extremely awkward.

Hannes had Nico over to play some FIFA as Rejon, who I'd asked over, was leaving.

The next morning I had time before work, and guided the hapless Germans through Shinjuku Station and to the Metropolitan Government Building smack in the center of the skyscrapers there, which has a free (and hot and stuffy, quelle surprise) observation deck that affords quite a view on the rare days when you can see through the thick layer of humidity and smog.

You may remember this from just after we had moved to Tokyo one year before!
You may also remember that our visitors had no plan and no concept of what to do in Tokyo and expected Hannes to just be their tour guide even though he was working full-time, so we did what we already knew, and what was obligatory but that we had no interest in doing unless we were showing visitors around.

Anyway, back to 2016.

These skyscrapers quickly become uninteresting when you work down the street from them and see them almost every day, but aside from the famous Cocoon building, this is probably the coolest one, throwing off mad Gotham City vibes. It's called Shinjuku Park Tower.

After this I fucked off to work, and Hannes took the group to the famous grounds of the Imperial Palace, surrounded by something like a moat that can be seen from streets and trains throughout the center of town and certainly at its most notably beautiful while the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

Like many of the other aspects of this trip I'm sharing photos of that aren't mine, I wasn't there for this, so I've just chosen a few of the nicest ones (because holy shit, so many are blurry, crooked, and random x'D).

Lovely and scenic, right? Oh - and then there's Hannes lol

Because everything wasn't stressful enough, we made the godawful decision to go to Asakusa, Tokyo Tower, and Shibuya the following day, which was a Saturday. ..During peak tourist season.

Just.. just remember that Disneyland analogy I always make if you've never been to Tokyo. Imagine that Halloween or Christmas falls on a Saturday and you think that visiting Disneyland that day is a great idea. Imagine trying to buy anything, even a bottle of water, or what the lines for the crappy public bathrooms look like, or trying to comfortably see any of the sights you came to see through a completely solid, singular mass of humanity. That's what it's like going to a tourist trap as visited as the temple in Asakusa at this, the worst possible time. Hannes had been there once with business/political clowns for work; I had never been.

Shortly after this, a toy company up the very street you see below (but no, sadly, not Bandai) became my Friday morning job, so I was in this area a lot, but I never once went back to the shrine again. Even the subway station a mile down the road is crowded with Chinese and Caucasian tourists, even during the off-season. Once I helped a couple of middle-aged Australian women find it because they were so clearly in need of direction that I couldn't make myself ignore it that time, but that's it.

It would've been terribly appropriate for this to have been April Fool's Day, but it was in fact the second. 

I think I probably cringed pretty noticeably when those Australian women told me they were all excited about doing this, because they were like, ooh, is that so super touristy and awful? And I was like, "Oh, what? Nooo, it sounds fun.."

The main entrance to the shrine complex is called Kaminarimon (雷門), simply the "Thunder Gate". Like many things in Japan it was originally built on this site around a thousand years ago, but has been destroyed by fire and war and however many times, so this gate itself has only been there since 1960.

This very famous 4-metre, 1500-pound lantern is also not original of course, 
and this replica dates from only 2003.

-anxiety intensifies-

The narrow way leading up to the shrine - as is the case with pretty much all of the big, famous Japanese shrines - is lined with snack stands and kitschy gift shops filled with junk the likes of which you could have found in the tacky Chinese gift shop in your local mall 15 or 20 years ago.

This is one of those photos that sums up the whole concept of Hannes in Japan pretty nicely..

This is the main attraction (unless you just wanted your obligatory phone pic with the red lantern), Sensō-ji, the oldest, most significant temple in Tokyo, and astonishingly, the most-visited spiritual site in the world.

Like the hand-washing with the old-fashioned ladles that you also see, covering oneself with incense smoke at a sacred site such as this is a purification ritual. Japanese people aren't religious at all, but as a collective group they are superstitious: a lot of people believe that this has healing properties.

Ah, yes, speak of the devil and then use the flash to scare him away

Skytree is also pretty close by. Hannes and I never did go up into the tower itself, 
because it costs $30. Eyeroll emoji.

Most Buddhist shrines in Japan have pagoda; no prizes for guessing that this one isn't the original thousand-year old one, either. The previous iteration was destroyed in a WWII air raid.

I always did like the way the shiny golden details and horn-shaped pieces of temple and palace roofs in Japan peeked or even loomed over the foliage.

I bought three little hand-carved wooden animals from an old man a little ways away from the main shrine area (a whale, a shiba-inu and a mudskipper) and gave the mudskipper to Anke as a peace offering, after having seen her adorable derpy ceramic sculptures of them before.

From Asakusa we took the train over to Zōzō-ji, the Buddhist temple adjacent to Tokyo Tower.

Photobomb worthy of an eyeroll emoji

But it's okay, there's one of just us, too.

Anke has a fast metabolism (which you know if you've met her, she just never stops or slows down) and is all about snacks - here they're stopping for a steamed sweet potato from this truck.

This is one of the handful of pics Nico took that I find genuinely good.

The next day was (-takes a deep breath-) hanami in Yoyogi Park.

After that minor fiasco - which felt pretty major at the time - we all had a hangover day and then everybody was left to their own devices the day after that, and we only met for dinner. We took them to Shamaim, the very good Israeli restaurant in our neighbourhood.

Nico was feeling woozy and jetlagged, and as I mentioned toward the beginning of this post, apparently falafel was a new and exotic thing even though you can find Turkish fast food places on every other corner that sell it in Germany..

All in all it was a nice quiet evening, and we were about to get a break for several days, because the following morning, the group took the shinkansen down to Kansai to see Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe.