news and views from michael rollins in tokyo

Category: Life in Japan (page 3 of 8)

Fukuoka and… Forty?

Funny how age can creep up on you. There I was, minding my own business as a thirtysomething, when suddenly the 16th rolled around and forty-fied me. WTF? Had I been paying more attention I might have ducked or something, but along with the typical surprise and alarm, advancing age also brings with it an unfortunate dulling of the reflexes. Now look at me. Makes me think of that great “Glass” piece by Eric Bogosian where he says:

And suddenly one day you realize your hair is starting to fall out, and that your stomach isn’t as flat as it used to be, and that your dick’s not as hard as it used to be, and from that day forward that’s ALL you can think about. All you can think about is how your hair is falling, your stomach’s drooping, your dick is limping, and basically it just gets worse and worse and worse until you’re incontinent, mindless and drooling, stuck in some fire-trap senior citizen’s home on the edge of an interstate highway where your big thrill of the day is when they’re serving strained peaches.

You get the idea. Funny, eh? Ha! Anyway, now I can’t keep saying “I’m not an oyaji!” and mean it. I’ve become one. Blech.

So what better to do than visit Fukuoka and catch some sumo? Exactly! And that’s what we did. I had made plans the previous month to join Seattle friends Mike and Larry (now living in Kumamoto) for a day-long foray into northern Kyushu, and was much looking forward to it when the day arrived. Larry pulled a ドタキャン (sudden cancellation) that morning, looking fit but citing a sniffle, so it ended up being just Mike and I. We somehow managed to have a good time without him… (Bad Larry! Bad!)

Fukuoka is a GREAT city, all spic-and-span and sporting wide streets the likes of which you just don’t find in Tokyo, and with friendly locals and a great nightlife to boot. We had a good time exploring the downtown area and enjoying lunch before the Main Event of the day. Beaujolais NouveauThe 16th was also the day the “ban was lifted” (解禁) on this year’s selection of grossly over-hyped Beaujolais Nouveau, so we succumbed to the intense media pressure we had been enduring the previous week and sampled a couple of glasses of the variety the Spanish restaurant we enjoyed lunch at was promoting this year. Surprisingly, it was quite good! Must be something to that whole “gotta get to it fast” thing.

We got to the sumo event space, a massive sports arena-type affair located downtown near the waterfront, paid for the cheapest tickets we could buy (30 bucks) and sat in seats much closer to the dohyo at the center of the arena (priced at 400 bucks). The area was sparsely populated at that point, but after about 10 minutes the “owners” of said seats showed up and we had to beat a hasty retreat. One row back. I tell you, we gaijin really have no shame…

Sumo wrestlers waiting for a cabOutside we had seen a few of the athletes (called 力士, or rikishi) heading back to the stable (they really say that) and I was surprised at how absolutely massive they are. They’re all around six feet tall or better, and horizontally huge as well. The three shown here actually warped space-time, just standing there waiting for a taxi. Crazy.

Anyway, inside it was what you might expect. An afternoon of these giants hurling themselves at each other, massive bodies crashing together and fighting to toss the other to the ground or out of the ring altogether. Mike is a big sumo fan, and had started off by choosing his picks to win for each match and then followed up with running commentary on many of the competitors. It was almost like watching it on TV, except for the hawkers selling overpriced chestnuts and the 800 foot ceiling.



After the sumo fun we went and enjoyed dinner downtown, somehow ending up at one of the two (count ‘em!) Global Dining restaurants in the city. Go figure. However, the food and wine at the QUALITA location were first-rate, and we totally lost track of time as the evening wore on.

The river at night

As we meandered back to the train station I got to get a taste of the city at night, and was very impressed with both the beauty of it and the wonderful “island of yatai” (open-air street food stalls) that occupies a large swath of downtown, wedged between two forks of the river that runs through the middle of the city. To have only had more time to explore! I can’t wait to go back for another taste.



Finally, beyond the yatay we ventured back through the hot tourist spot known as Canal City, a kind a urban playgound-meets-mall located in Hakata Ward. Passing through earlier in the day we had seen a wonderful fountain performance with a few dozen high-pressure water nozzles shooting spray into the air in a deliciously choreographed production. At night, however, the place had become even more glorious, with spectacular “illumination” to rival the best of what Tokyo has to offer.



It was a great finish to a great day in a new city. Till next time, Fukuoka!



I don’t remember what eight unbroken hours of sleep feels like.


One thing I’ve never gotten used to living here is the way people disregard their surroundings altogether when moving about on foot. Put a Japanese person in a car and he’s a veritable Mars Rover of sensory awareness, but as soon as those heels hit the pavement out come the cell phones, game boys and manga.

At least once a day I’ll be strolling down the sidewalk, minding my own business, only to have some JC student skip out of a doorway with nary a look left or right, lighting a cigarette or flipping open his keitai as he lands immediately in front of me.

Or in a crowded station, where people often conclude their conversations with the wicket guy or a friend, then whip around suddenly and make to speed off, instead crashing directly into yours truly. When I first got here I spent a lot of time dodging, ducking and weaving to avoid these people, always amazed that they never took even a second to survey the landscape before bounding ahead.

These days I just keep walking. At first that resulted in lots of crashing into other people and countless interrupted games of Tetris, but before long people seemed to sense my presence differently, and would kind of flow around me like any other obstacle hovering on the periphery. Now all I have to watch out for is the 歩きタバコ guys who puff away on crowded streets and are sometimes given to wild, ciggie-accentuated gestures that invariably target the small space between my nose and forehead. 歩きタバコって、格好悪いぞ。

Anyway, the reason behind much of this behavior had been a mystery to me, but thanks to this piece from the Tokyo Damage Report I think I understand why…


The beginning of the year here is also marked by visits to local (or distant) shrines to pray for a prosperous and healthy new year. Also, because Rie is back in Kumamoto so infrequently we also paid a visit to a simple shrine that holds the ashes of some of her relatives.

Although I had expected something more akin to a stone alter like you might find in a Japanese graveyard, the site we visited was instead and smallish room filled with maybe a hundred or so lockers and dominated by a single, simple shrine near the back of the room.

We opened their locker to find a small butsudan, a Buddhist alter before which you pray for your ancestors. After praying at the main alter we approached the smaller one in turn. First we took a stick of incense and lit, then stood it up in a bowl of ashes near the front of the alter. Next to that is a small, ornate brass bowl which you strike lightly with a short piece of rounded, lacquered wood. Then you pray briefly, bow, and step back.

Over as quickly as it had begun, we were out the door and on our way to the next place. This time we drove for two hours (further) into the country to visit a shrine called 蛇石神社 and devoted to the spirit of a mythical white snake. Praying at this shrine is supposed to bring prosperity in business, and is visited each year by the Ogatas.


I picked up an お守り (protective charm) and a お札 for a prosperous year for the company, then we all made the rounds, praying at each of the shrines at the temple and also peeking in on the two albino snakes that lay curled in a glass cage installed on a small rise behind the shrine.

Another shrine

Afterwards we drove back to the city and visited another Shinto shrine, praying at the many alters in the same pre-defined fashion: two bows, shake the hanging rope to rattle a simple round bell affixed to the top, clap twice, pray, bow again. We also bought お御籤 (o-mikuji), little slips of paper that tell your prospects and fortune for the coming year. Mine, sadly, was only so-so, so I decided not to give it too much stock.


Throughout the day we all took turns holding Mia and worrying all the while that it was too cold for her to be outside like this and hurrying to get back to the warmth of the car. O-basan (Grandma) was no different, of course, except that when her came turn to hold Mia she was in no rush to go anywhere…

Grandma Ogata


In Japan, the 1st of January is a quiet time to rise early and be with the family. Like Christmas morning in the US, but without all of the gift-giving and other fanfare, it’s the one time of year when all of the kids are back home, perhaps with kids of their own in tow, and everyone spends the day lolling around in the warmest room of the house, sipping can beer and eating o-sechi ryori.

Things around the Ogata household we’re no different today. We awoke late after the previous evenings debauchery, amazingly not hungover, and joined the folks downstairs, slipping under the warmth of the kotatsu and settling in for the traditional feast.


Rie’s mother had spent many hours preparing the various dishes laid out before us on the low table, and we would enjoy them over the next 2-3 days. Everything was delicious except for the crab, which was… not delicious. It was also nice to bite into a chilled, dark beer first thing in the morning, which is one of those things I can only bring myself to do on days like today, unless “today” is actually yesterday and you’re still out somewhere and… well, never mind.

Anyway, we spent the whole day laying around, watching 笑い番組 on television and generally being lazy. In the Ogata home the TV is kept on and at high volume throughout the day, leaving me with two options: stay in the only warm room in the house and watch TV, and escape to a cold room and read a book. The frigid weather played a heavy role in my decision-making, and let’s just say I’m now fully up-to-date on current events in the 芸能界 and Japanese advertising industry.

Whaddya gonna do. I guess the only I can say is: Welcome to the Year of the Rooster!

16 Hours, 1266 kilometers

We got up at 4:30, got ready and were out the door an hour later. Rie and I each had one small bag for the weeklong trip, while Mia somehow required three. In her case it’s not the size of the clothes, but the many, many layers.

Kazu (the father-in-law) was parked downstairs, and his Harrier sat gleaming and steaming in the crisp light of this cold Wednesday morning. He was grappling with the new child seat when we arrived, fumbling with the various straps and levers in a clearly trial-and-error fashion and mumbling under his breath about this or that thing being strange. Somewhere a four-page manual lay folded and taped inside a clear plastic pouch, I was sure, never to see the light of day.

We loaded the car, climbed in, and sped off before screeching to a halt and heading back for Mia. She lay in the middle of the living room floor, absently sucking her pinky and waiting for the next bit of fun.

We bundled her into the car and strapped her into the child seat. She didn’t warm to the concept of complete immobilization right away or, for that matter, ever. But at least she didn’t start crying about it until much later in the day. We pointed the Harrier in the direction of Kumamoto and sped off into the morning.

The Fambly

The distance between Tokya and Kumamoto is over 1200 kilometers, or about 800 miles. We made the trip in only 16 hours, which is pretty good when you consider that most of the “highways” between here and there have only four lanes (total) and are typically congested. We stopped often but briefly at the regular and identical rest areas that line the highway here. Rie had to nurse every two hours or so, while the rest of us made due with the low-grade rest stop fare and assorted snacks we brought along for the ride.

Kazu and I took turns driving and sleeping thoughout the day. We sped through Shizuoka and Nagoya, Osaka and Okayama, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi before finally getting down into Kyushu. By evening the drive was beginning to wear us all down, and Mia finally decided she had had enough and launched into a screaming fit that wouldn’t subside. I tried all of the tried-and-true means of placating her–the orange rattle, the foot massage, the (Day-O) Banana Boat Song singing, the Big Smile, everything–but to no avail. She wanted out of that seat and nothing else was going to please her.

Unfortunately there were no rest areas for another 30 km, so we raced along at 130 kph with Mia’s wailing rattling the windows, trying to get there as soon as possible. By the time we did arrive Mia was completely red and tears streamed down both sides of her face. It broke my heart to see her like that, and we took a longer-than-usual break while I walked her around and chanted non-sensical things about it going to be alright.

We finally arrived at the homestead at around nine-thirty in the evening. We were all wreaked, and お母さん had prepared dinner for us so we relaxed and drank beers and talked about what a tough trip it had been. I had only had three hours of sleep the previous evening and brief bits here and there throughout the day, so when it came time to retire shortly thereafter I crashed hard and stayed that way. Until Mia woke up at dawn the next morning.

How nice it is to finally be on vacation…

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