Let's take a little stroll down memory lane, and remember what that first year in Japan and that visit were like for us, 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? Such is life.
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 had 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. It's just not a developed-world quality of life, on top of being the biggest urban area on Earth.
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 like 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.
This other post about a completely outrageous show at Studio DOM and my chilly reading breaks at Yasukuni Shrine is about the week before they came, and 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 that 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 get ready and then 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
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, much more fun visit than this one from the same time last year, 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. 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.
Also 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's generally considered 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.
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 suburban American mall 15 or 20 years ago.
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 peek or even loom 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, before going up into the tower itself. Its most notable feature, aside from the views of the tower, its central location, and its lovely trees, is definitely its jizo statues.
Jizo are Buddhist dieties that protect travelers and the weak with a very, very long history; "jizo" is only the Japanese word for them, and in Japan, they have come to represent lost children as well. If a baby or child dies or a woman has a miscarriage or stillbirth, it is hoped that a jizo diety will smuggle the child safely into the afterlife in the big sleeves of his robe, because especially one who was never even born had no time to accumulate good karma on Earth.
Jizo statues are very cute and childlike, at least in Japan, and are often dressed in childrens' clothes and surrounded by their toys and other objects, so that's why I said that they represent the lost children, as opposed to representing dieties that will help them in the afterlife. I think it's become interchangeable, but don't quote me on that.
Kannon, the goddess of mercy, another very commonly seen figure in Japan.
Photobomb worthy of an eyeroll emoji
But it's okay, there's one of just us, too.
Two years later, I've now seen a number of other pics of Anke doing this; it's a thing lol
Here are the famous jizo. I think this photo looks like a composite or like
Hannes is standing in front of a backdrop.
They're dressed warmly when it's cold out in the hopes that they'll do the same for the lost children in the afterlife. Or, maybe, because they represent those children for some people.
See what I mean?
This is iris japonica, a beautiful exotic-looking little blossom you can spot even in the city at this time of year; Mt. Takao in the far western part of Tokyo prefecture is also covered in them.
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 snagging a steamed sweet potato from this truck.
Ah yes, the tower. A replica of the Eiffel Tower but slightly taller.
Insert another eyeroll emoji for lack of originality, Europe-fetishisation and pettiness
Because absolutely everything in Japan has a mascot
that may or may not be a vibrator or butt plug..
Springtime decor on the ceiling inside
And of course, a few of the better photos of the view.
Even though it was overcast and misty, you could easily see Odaiba.
Anke is terrified of heights and insisted that she felt a wiggle of movement, but Marco insisted
Goddamnit, these are cute..
Even being surrounded by mascots and cute crap 24/7 you end up being tempted sometimes
We walked quite a long way through the center of town toward Shibuya.
This is one of the handful of pics Nico took that I find genuinely good.
I hate the Scramble. I hate the Hachiko exit. I never took a picture with the Hachiko statue.
This was actually from when Hannes had taken them before, but we went back again after the tower and temples that night for some cheap drinks.
Unfortunately the night was ruined for me because I had managed to lose a transit card I'd just charged with a lot of money. Hannes chided me for putting so much on it, but I'd never lost one before, and since I'm all over the city for work, the money disappears really fast. A lot of people pre-charge them for the week or whatever. Sigh. Of course that also happened during this visit.
You might remember Coins Bar from one of those earlier posts I linked you to toward the top of the post - we'd gone with Alex and I discovered a cocktail called Asian Way, a variation on the Aviator. Delicious.
The next day was (-takes a deep breath-) hanami in Yoyogi Park.
The time-honoured tradition of flower-viewing (that's what 'hanami' means) in Japan is based in a literary, poetic philosophy called mono no aware, or 'the pathos of things'.
Cherry blossoms are so well-loved and appreciated because they're an excellent metaphor for the brief, fleeting beauty of life. They're falling all around you even as they're at their peak. And sometimes it rains right when they bloom and they're gone in one night; that happened in Korea in 2014.
So basically, life is really freaking short: let's get drunk!
Everyone spreads out bright blue tarps on the grass under the trees anywhere and everywhere, but especially in these big parks in the middle of the city, and picnics and boozes until it gets too dark to do it anymore.
Anke's birthday had been on March 28th, just before they arrived, so we decided that this was a good time for our little gifts for her and the ones my mom had sent.
She's always cold and values coziness above all, so she always loves my mom's gifts.
This pupper here is Kanta: he belongs to a couple of Naomi's friends, and he's actually lowkey dog-famous. He models for advertisements and magazines. He's @kanta_20141112 on Instagram.
It's a potluck-style thing, and with so many people, we ended up with quite a spread!
The Peeps my mom had sent were not popular though lol
Jharrod, his friends, and the members of various local mostly-grindcore bands were having another picnic elsewhere, so I was going back and forth between the two picnics.
As the cold, moist day and the drinking continued, we were having a lot of fun, but inevitably, also some tension. Anke, Marco, and Moni were getting really drunk, too, and I was absent for several chunks of the day at the other picnic.
This guy on the top right and his friend, who I refer to as That One Halle Berry Chick, joined us again a bit later. He's a friend of Naomi's and his female friend was on vacation, just like our visitors.
Naomi (on the right there, between Hannes and her Croatian-Australian boyfriend Pete) called Hannes "Big Red" and took right away to referring to his dad as "Papa", so the visitors started doing the same.
Some days later, in Kyoto, Anke, Marco, Nico, and Moni were walking around Kiyomizu-dera or some other extremely popular tourist spot, and somewhere in the distance, they heard, "PAPA!"
They were like, "... No, it couldn't be.." but it was! It was Halle Berry and some other friends of hers. They actually ran into her in Kyoto the following week x'D
It's nice seeing Moni look genuinely happy. I really like this photo.
At some point she and Anke went to get some hot udon at a food stand, which I'd been totally unaware of.
Things were still good at this point, but as the day faded and the tiredness, crankiness, and drunkenness intensified, Naomi and Pete started their obligatory snapping at each other and arguing, and soon Hannes and I followed suit.
When I came back from the grindcore hanami group for the last time Hannes was pissed, asking about where I'd been and what I'd been doing all that time. I told him Jharrod and his friends had invited us to a show and to hang out, and that I thought we should go because it sounded like a lot of fun, but Hannes totally lost it. The stress just kind of erupted, and he was basically like, I have to be the full-time tour guide and take care of my drunk parents here, do you think I can just fuck off to a concert now? What are you thinking?
So we started arguing in front of everyone, and Pete and Naomi were doing the same. Everything kind of came crashing down and the party was over. I still vividly remember viciously snapping at the guy with the Halle Berry friend to shut up when he tried to be like, heeeeyyy, everybody, come on, let's all try to be cool to each other.. but it was one of those times when the argument was too personal, and it wasn't his place to try to make peace between people he didn't know.
Hannes was so pissed mainly because of how drunk Marco had gotten. He found that his legs were stiff from sitting on them and on the ground all day, and that he couldn't really stand up or walk. Hannes, Nico, and Akim had to basically carry him to a cab. Akim stuck around just long enough to tell the cab driver where to go, and then peaced the fuck out without saying goodbye.
In the meantime, I ended up in a cab home with Anke and Moni. Moni knows no English whatsoever, but Anke had been trying to learn a little bit, and in the cab, she suddenly asked,
"Courtney, do you love my son?"
Moni (because Anke was between us) leaned forward slightly to look at me in anticipation. It was a weirdly lucid moment with real gravity, and I knew that my answer was very important. Tired, her eyes dry from the drinking, Anke was sort of looking down her nose at me, not condescendingly, but with a seriousness that was taking some effort.
"Yes, I do." I replied.
I tried to explain simply, in a nutshell, that we were having some problems and that Tokyo and all of this were just really stressful, but that we really loved each other and we happy together. And I think they both understood. Anke and Moni both seemed satisfied. And actually, I never even told Hannes about this until more than a year later. He had no idea that I or his mom or both of us had had an epiphany or something in the cab that night. Anke was pissed at Marco for getting so drunk, too, but aside from the fact that everyone completely failed to stick the landing and faceplanted at the end of that day, it was a pretty good one, and everything turned out alright after grievances were drunkenly aired out in the open and in public.
Well, I mean, Hannes and I still hadn't worked out what it took us several months to completely work out, and the rest of the visit was still very stressful and annoying, but the arguments and talks at the end of that day represented some kind of progress. In retrospect, it was a good thing.
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.
(Don't worry, it's a lot shorter!)