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Q: What is Para-Para?

A: It is a style of dancing which is very popular amongst young people in Japan.

YOU NEED TO WATCH THIS VIDEO TO UNDERSTAND!

OR THIS ONE

I went to my first para-para club the other day and it was interesting to see such a cult part of Japanese culture live and kicking. If I compare it to line-dancing, then it I’m sure it would give you completely the wrong idea about what it is – there are no badly dressed, cowboy hat wearing middle-aged folk here, this is where the young and the stylish come to show off their arm-waving skills in strict routines set to euro-beat/trance/techno music.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of geeks here too. Para-para is not something you can just rock up to a club and “do”; you have to study hard and learn the moves. As a result there are a large proportion of “otaku” who study daily (probably) to perfect routines, and once they know them they go to a para-para club to show what they can do. Normally “Gyaru” (the really girly girls with tonnes of makeup, short skirts and perfectly curled hair) and “otaku” (geeks with no dress-sense, bowl haircuts and a curry based diet) never mix together under any circumstances, but this is perhaps the main exception to that rule!

My friend Mina took me. She is actually an instructor back in Texas, and its because of this style of dancing that she came to like Japan in the first place! She knows a good 300 or so routines, no mean feat if you ask me. Although the moves all look kind of similar, and there is a lot of repetition, naturally every song is different.

At the club itself, everyone dances in lines and the most experienced dance on the stage to remind everyone of the moves. Occasionally the DJ pulls out a record from the early 90’s which nobody knows and at that moment, there is usually one geek who will know it, and that is their moment to shine!

After a while the music really got to me though so I don’t think I will be trying to pick it up anytime soon, but then again its always fun to try things out so who knows! Let me know what you think of the two videos!

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Sorry for such a long absence!

The last month and a bit has been very busy with a fantastic 10 day visit from my parents, never ending mountains of work, and a trip up to Niigata for a weekend of snowboarding!

Seeing my parents was a really nice break and we managed to cram a lot of travel into a short period of time, visiting places like Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, as well as Nagoya! Its interesting to see Japan through their eyes since it was their first visit. Some of the things I take for granted here or have become used to are actually really strange when you think about it – like the lack of fresh vegetables in my diet, vending machines which serve anything from a meal to beer to hot drinks in cans and cold tea in bottles, crows which are the size of a semi-detached in Harlow, and how can I forget the crunchy bean bag “rice pillows”!

I think my favourite place we went to was Kobe due to its small size and the friendliness of everybody I spoke to.

Throughout the trip we stayed in a mix of normal western hotels and Japanese style ryokan with tatami mat floors and futon. We visited a whole variety of places from the ancient mossy zen temples of 8th century Japan in Kyoto and Nara to the more modern style of Kobe and a glimpse at sprawling and gittering futuristic-tecnology-centric Tokyo (Shibuya, Akihabara, Ginza etc).

Other stuff:

Snowboarding was absolutely fantastic! I loved every minute of it. I had never done it before, but I guess all that practise at surfing on the tube back home helped because I got pretty good pretty quickly. Rumi taught us the basics and before lunchtime we were hitting up the Intermediate level slopes! Its just as well I’m fearless when it comes to stuff like that because it meant that hurtling down the slopes at what feels like 1000 mph without having fully grasped the concept of braking or mastering basic steering was a lot more fun! The snow was abundant and beautiful, and such good quality. Luckily the 9 hour bus journey was worth it – going an extra couple hours north of the highly popular Nagano resort meant that the slopes were virtually deserted and the snow hadn’t become compacted into ice. I lost my phone the first morning and I thought that it was buh-bye (either destroyed by water damage from melting snow, or buried under fresh snow that fell later that day, or stolen) but this is Japan. I found it the next day – someone had handed it in! What a miracle. All in all it was an amazing weekend. I didn’t break anything, although the proceeding few days had me in a world of pain, the likes of which I haven’t experienced for a very long time!

The workload this term is much more than I anticipated, with business Japanese taking up a lot of my time (learning how to use honorifics in the workplace is essentially learning a whole new set of verbs for all the basic actions and their respective conjugated forms… fun.) On the flip side we went to the Asahi Newspaper office in Nagoya to see “a real Japanese work place in action” and although I only got the bare minimum of what the tour guide was saying it was an interesting experience, plus  we got a bunch of cool freebies.

Taking my first ever foreign policy class this term has also been a challenge – it is absolutely fascinating and the teacher makes it interesting, but its pretty hardcore for a newbie like myself having to start from scratch! The learning curve is steep but I prefer it that way. I’m finding out all sorts of things about Japan and its politics that I should probably have known before; for example, Japan is still technically at war with Russia having never signed the peace treaty at the end of WW2! (Its all to do with the fact that the land border of the northern territories is still disputed.

Ikebana and Sumie (black ink painting) are still my”escape classes” and I love having them as a creative outlet. Last Friday in sumie we were practising all the different types of brush-stokes we have learnt so far and the main task was to create out own new brushstroke. As he was walking around and checking our work he saw the one I had designed and said that he had never seen one like it before – that it was highly original and should be called “Shepheard Stroke”! He then proceeded to show the rest of the class and use it as an example of what you can do with different types of pressure and water/ink balance. So I felt really chuffed about that!

I’m doing English Conversation with a few pupils on the side to earn a little bit of extra money which is working really well for me. The exchange rate is so bad right now that earning yen is far more lucrative than it used to be, and so a fairly standard fee of 3000 yen suddenly has  increased in value from about £15 to a mighty £25! Even though its only occasional, its actually quite fun and once you have the materials its really easy.

A final thought; My theory of Umbrella Karma. Sometimes you lose your umbrella or it gets borrowed/stolen. Other times you may have to “borrow” from other people. Its a never ending cycle trying to stay in balance. There is also a black hole where all the lost umbrellas go – umbrellas left in shops, bars clubs. It is also an indisputable fact that umbrellas are able to grow legs and walk. Possibly towards said black hole.

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For the last month or so, one group of friends  have been telling me of the wonders of a particular restaurant in Nara (not so far from Kyoto). This restaurant was said to have served very authentic and delicious Indian food the like of which I have not seen for over 4 months. Ever since they got back they have been talking about making a return trip, and on a complete whim (and also out of boredom) I decided to go and see what all the fuss was about.

My oh my. I was not disappointed! Proper Indian food, tasty, hot, flavoursome, authentic AND all you can eat (cooked to order) for only 2500yen! We all ate until we could barely move!

Whilst we were in Nara we also got to see the giant Buddha that sits in the middle of the main park in the worlds largest wooden structure. The Buddha is absolutely vast; one really does have to wonder how they made it all those years ago.

We also got to feed the deer which were a little too hungry/friendly for my comfort. They are “technically” wild, and they roam around the markets and parks like cattle in India, although I don’t know if they would be able to survive on their own without all the tourists feeding them deer cakes. Far too much time was spent trying not to get  nibbled or headbutted, or indeed running away like a little girl from these cute critters which are only a bit bigger than dogs! Luckily the males have their antlers removed or else I would probably be in a world of pain right now…

Argh! Deer!

Oh I almost forgot to write how we had a nice little adventure getting home too. We arrived and planned to return via JR local trains which is a pretty cheap route if you have the time and don’t mind a couple of changes. Unfortunately we forgot to check how late the various lines ran and we missed the last connecting train. Luckily we checked before we left because if we had got stuck at Kameyama then that would have meant Actual Death, by which I mean spending the night in the middle of absolutely nowhere, with no hotel or place to stay, no place to eat and no food in temperatures which have recently been barely above zero.

So we took a very long winded route home via Kyoto from where we caught the shinkansen home. Saying it like that makes it sound like a rather casual affair, but in all honesty we caught it by the skin of our teeth! I’ve always admired how punctual Japanese trains are. They are Never, Ever EVER late. Especially not the bullet trains. Their reputation depends on it. However, for some reason (*cough* MIRACLE *cough*) this particular train was 4 minutes and 30 seconds late. Buying the tickets for shinkansen always takes a bit of time so you can imagine what it was like trying to get six tickets in only 5 minutes! If it had not been for those extra 270 seconds… Even one of the guys agreed it was the most compelling evidence for the existence of God that he had ever seen!

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For me, New Years Eve is never really a big deal. There’s usually a house party or something going on somewhere, but I tend to avoid the clubs and bars because of the hiked up prices and unnecessary drunkenness. This year however, seeing that I was in a different country I figured I’d give something new a try, which meant going to the biggest club in Japan – AgeHa, Tokyo.

I took the night bus there which seems like a really really good idea on paper; its about half the price of the bullet trains and sure it takes a while but you can sleep on the way right? Wrong! After leaving Nagoya at 11pm I arrived 6 1/2 hours later in Shinjuku after barely more than an hours sleep! (c.f. the shinkansen takes a mere 1 hour 40 mins. Guess which way I went home!)

After a shower and quick breakfast at my friend Chiyonos house (which could be more appropriately described as a palace) we all headed off to Akihabara. Akihabara, or Akiba as it is know to the locals, is the electronics centre of Japan, the world and possibly the universe. It has everything technology can think up, all the latest video games, cameras, robots, you name it. It is the stereotypical “futuristic japan” that is bursting with flashing lights, sounds, and short acne-ridden unmarried men wearing glasses.

We got kaitenzushi for lunch (that’s conveyor belt sushi for the uninitiated) before shopping and heading off to a maid cafe for an afternoon cup of tea. Even though I had heard a fair bit about Maid Cafes, I was so unprepared for what I saw! The maids welcome you with the most ridiculous language, and call you “My most honoured master/mistress”and serve you almost like they are your slaves! But its all good natured and fun, and the key point is that it is unbelievably CUTE. There should be a word in English to describe this kind of cutesy overload that makes you feel as if you have eaten too much candyfloss. All I can say is, if you get the chance GO, simply because there is nowhere else in the world that you can have an experience like this. I got a Polaroid taken with one of the maids as a souvenir and they drew on it and made it all cute!

萌え萌え!

After that we checked out the fashions down Harajuku way, before going on to Shibuya. Disappointingly I never seem to see many “harajuku girls”, such as those seen in Shoichi Aoki’s street magazine Fruits which has been documenting trends since 1996. But I always keep my eye out for this iconic style of haphazard fashion. I have a special interest in it because it really bucks the trend against social conformity:

Fruits

AgeHa for NYE was amazing. I was expecting it to be good but it totally blew us all away. The music was perfect (Osawa Shinichi/Dexpistols/Emma) , the crowd was fun and up for a good time, there were performances from a crazy MC and Diva (apparently both famous) pole dancers dressed as geisha, rope dancers and I got to fulfil one personal lifetime ambition which was to dance around in gold and silver confetti to electro music. I couldn’t have wanted anything more except perhaps a new pair of feet for the morning after – we danced non-stop from 9.30 till 4.30am!

The next day we paid a visit to the shrine as is customary on New Years Day, but we didn’t bargain for quite how busy the Meiji-jingu shrine was going to get! We had to wait over an hour and a half to get in because of the several thousand other people who went to pay their respects, make a wish and get their fortune told!

All in all it was a jam-packed 48hrs but I have just about caught up on sleep again!

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The last couple of weeks has been a mixed bag of emotions. I’ve had some real highs  – like seeing my Cousin Hazel in Kyoto with Toddles in tow; great fun now he is running around everywhere! And he has grown SO big since I saw him last! – but its brought about a lot of low points too. Saying good bye to a lot of people on my course I’ve made friends with over the last few months was sad enough, but a couple of my really good friends were leaving too which is a bit of a blow. Luckily we are living in the age of Skype! The other thing was that this year was my first ever Christmas away from home and while I was expecting it to be hard, it was even harder than I imagined. I kept myself as busy as possible to keep my mind off the fact that I wasn’t with family, firstly on Christmas eve by going to one of my good Japanese friends’ house.

Since I live in halls, I really appreciate getting this kind of home-stay experience! After paying respects to the family shrine we entered Haruna’s grandparents house – enormous and incredibly Japanese in every single way with tatami flooring, sliding doors, with an outer corridor surrounding the inner rooms. We had a real feast for lunch and although I though I had tried almost everything before they still found things to surprise me! Remarkably, they have a small amount of land and grow all their own rice, vegetables and fruit, as well as making their own plum-wine liqueur, pickles and other things! Naturally it was all delicious – there’s nothing like home cooked food!! I enjoyed talking to them – even if they spoke with a really thick dialect accent that made it hard to understand! Her grandma is an inspiration – at 70 she still does Japanese archery and competes at a national level – I saw the trophies! They were so kind and very generously gave me a whole bag of goodies to take home with me – home grown clementines, pickles, sweet potatoes and dried persimmons.

Afterwards we went on to her family home and I got to meet her mum and dad. We made nabe which is kind of like clear soup with meat and vegetables or whatever you have lying around – for that very reason its becoming a favourite of mine! I got to try out her koto which I suppose is a cross between a guitar and a piano – very strange – and heard all about her dad entering the famously hardcore Iron Man competition for a second time!

We then had drinks at My Bar and after a long long walk from Sakae all the way to Don Quixote in Kanayama/Nagoya Eki decided to crash out at a Manga Cafe till the first train home. Christmas day itself was also very very different to what I’m used to; replace the roast with raw octopus, soy beans and radish salad, the wine with beer, and instead of carols at church think of carols at karaoke and you’ve got a pretty good approximation! I actually had a pretty fun day in the end but I’m really glad its over now so I can enjoy the rest of my holiday.

Here are some pics…

I’m going off to Tokyo for New Years Eve and to see a bit more what I missed last time, like Akihabara, a bit more Harajuku and maybe we will try and catch a glimpse of the first sunrise of the new year from the vantage point of the Roppongi Hills Hotel…

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Its been a little while since I last wrote because of a combination of a terrible cough, a couple of presentations and a trip to Osaka! Anyway, here is a bit of an update.

About a month ago my Japanese friend George and I decided we wanted to go on a trip to Osaka and Kyoto, so 7 of us set off for a weekend away. We took a coach to Kyoto and after lunch headed off to Kiyomizudera which is one of the largest temples in Kyoto. We really wanted to see the autumn colours and as it is quite high up on the side of a mountain it has a beautiful view. It has an amazing structure as well, even more amazing when you take into consideration no nails or metal was used in its construction. I heard this is something to do with Buddhists respect for nature – all the pieces of wood are slotted together and positioned in such a way that makes it incredibly strong without “damaging” the wood.

Kiyomizudera

Kiyomizudera

View over Kyoto

View over Kyoto

A common thing to do at shrines and temples is to buy a fortune paper. There are different levels of luck, and within those levels you have degrees of luckiness and they are supposed to tell your fortune for wealth, luck, work, love etc. If they are bad then you tie them up to break the “bad luck”, and if they are good you take them home. George bought one from a specialist love shrine and he got the top degree of the top level of luck, and he was literally jumping around!

すごくいいラブラブおみくじをGET! うらやましい!

すごくいいラブラブおみくじをGET! うらやましい!

We hung out in Kyoto for quite a while, looking around the hundreds of little stalls selling souvenirs and lucky charms, fans and kimonos, and feeling all cultural before heading on to the party capital of Japan: Osaka. I’d never been to Osaka before and had heard mixed reports about it, so I was pretty interested to see it for myself.

Glico Building at Night

Glico Building at Night

Its an intimidating place, big, brash, and bold. People say what they think and dress as they like. Unlike Tokyo which seemed to be oozing men in suits from every pore, Osaka is very young, very hip and almost a bit too cool for school. The streets are lined with “Hosts” (very good looking 18-25 year old men with whom lonely women pay a lot of money to talk to) and every different kind of urban tribe is represented there: ギャル、ギャル男、ヘンプ、姫ギャル、ホスト、ガングロ、ロン形、姉ギャル。。。全部いっぱい!ほかの形もあったが、何というか分からない.

When we arrived we got off to a bad start with a terrible meal with the worst service ever (it seemed worse because service in Japan is normally so good), but things did get better. After a little wander around we checked into our capsule hotel which was really awesome! I’ve always wanted to stay in one, but it was even better than I was expecting. The Capsules are stacked 2 high down a maze of long corridors. They are a bit bigger than a single bed with enough room to sit up in; I didn’t feel claustrophobic at all. The whole point of them is that they are a place to crash out when you miss the last train home, so while they are not luxurious, they are more than adequate and everything you might need is provided. Pyjamas, toothbrush, makeup remover, shampoo/soap, even washing machines. If you need a shirt, tie and pants for a board meeting the next day, its OK – you can buy them there! I could happily travel around Japan entirely in capsule hotels – who needs a whole room anyway?! At only 2800 yen its a bit like a futuristic hostel. The only slightly strange thing is not having a door – instead there is a blind of very thick material you pull down.

Joy in a capsule (or a capsule full of Joy...)

Joy in a capsule (or a capsule full of Joy...)

I was slightly concerned that after going clubbing we might not be able to find our capsules; it was an absolute maze of a couple of hundred capsules and its not like a hotel where if your key wont work if you  get the wrong door, here you might actually wake someone!

Capsule Hotel!

Capsule Hotel!

I did conceive a game along the lines of Russian roulette involving shutting lots of blinds hiding someone in a random capsule… but at the risk of getting kicked out and having a sleepless night wandering the streets of Osaka we decided not to.

I met up with a friend from SOAS studying in Osaka, and we went to a bar before going on clubbing. It was really good to catch up with him and to talk about things we miss like London and NIGHT BUSES! Later on, we took some Americans under our wings since they knew no Japanese and had the look of rabbits caught in headlights!

There are things I liked about Osaka, and it was fun to visit. It is definitely the party capital of Japan and since that’s what we did it was a really fun time! However, all the people we spoke to were so rude and its the first place I’ve visited in Japan that I wouldn’t want to wander around by myself at night. There’s something a little bit sleazy about Osaka, and then there is the high proportion of tacky tourist attractions and the litter strewn everywhere… Its got a kind of faded glamour about it, and in some strange way it reminded me of a parallel-universe-London which I find worrying – are all my memories of London rose tinted, and am I going to hate it when I go home?

Mmmm FUGU! On a street in Osaka.

Mmmm FUGU! On a street in Osaka.

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This weekend was a blur. A very overwhelming blur! Even though I’d been told countless times that Tokyo is a very hectic place, nothing could have really prepared me for quite how crazy it is! Its like London on acid; so much bigger, buildings which touch the sky as far as the eye can see in every direction; adverts on every spare inch; people everywhere; flashing lights, television, music and sounds surrounding you wherever you walk…  Its multi-sensory overload. I’ve never felt more like a country bumpkin!

I apologise in advance that this is going to be a long entry!

We left straight after classes ended on Wednesday and took a Nozomi shinkansen which arrived a hour and 20 minutes later in Tokyo. It was my first time on a bullet train and I was incredibly impressed. They run every 10 minutes and are so fast – the same trip by coach takes over 6 hours! (They are also very comfortable; it is little wonder that they have such a good reputation.) Ironically, because we took a while to figure out where we were going on the metro, it took us almost the same amount of time from the JR Shin-Yokohama station to get to Joy’s cousins house! Luckily we got there just in time for delicious homemade Japanese curry and rice. As Noriko had had a cold, Joys aunt came over to help. It was really nice to get a glimpse of Japanese family life! Later on Joys long-time friend Chris came over and he took us for a drive around central Tokyo. I will not easily forget my first impressions of Shibuya at night – it was a Wednesday night and the streets were packed! Cruising around in a rather fast car with spoilers and listening to techno was a bit like being in the Fast and the Furious or something! Definitely the best way to see the city.

On Thursday we went shopping in Shibuya with Cynthia’s aunt, and I was really glad to have someone who knew the area show us around as the department stores are like mazes, and there seem to be amazing shops in the oddest corners where you would least expect them to be! We went for a slap up lunch – I had tempura oysters which were delicious! – and hit the shops really hard! Managed to find a really nice super long knitted wool cardigan with a real silver fox fur collar for only £30! I also got some glass gems to pimp my keitai phone, and a few gifts for people. That evening after a feast of temaki sushi we wandered around shibuya, took some purikura (sticker photos) and quite randomly got handed sweets by a salaryman.

We got one of the last trains home – the most crowded train I have ever been on! Between 6pm-12pm all the trains are packed to the brim. The marks on the platform tell you where to line up, but any sense of order ends here; once you are inside it is every man for himself! This is a photo of people being pushed onto the train by one of the white gloved conductors, something unique to Japan.

I can’t really express how squashed we were! We couldn’t move at all, backs twisted like a pretzels and feet trodden on! I don’t know how people can do this everyday. For those who miss the last train the sorry fate is a night spent on the platform, at karaoke, or sleeping in a manga cafe (a kind of Internet cafe) so most people get on these trains at all costs.

Along came Friday and a visit to Harajuku. Disappointingly didn’t see a whole lot of bizarrely clad individuals, but had a nice wander around some of the boutiques and interesting shops. As it was Halloween, the later it got, the more we saw people in costume wandering around. Before we came, about 10 of us had planned to meet up and go to AgeHa – a superclub on the industrial outskirts of Tokyo, but after we got off the bus and saw the queues of about 2000 people we realised that there was no way we were going to get in. A few of our friends had already queued for 2 hours and were still 40 minutes from the entrance! Luckily a friend from SOAS told us about another event we could go to in Shibuya which turned out to be the most amazing party! It was an invitation only club night with performances by a dozen different artists for about 200 people, on the top floor of a 12 storey building, complete with swimming pool outside, so it felt very exclusive. People dressed up in the most amazing Halloween outfits, so although it was quite surreal it was definitely one of the best nights out in Japan so far!

After the party ended at 4.30 am we headed out into Roppongi to another club. Anyone will tell you that Roppongi is Gaijin Central (foreigners = yuk) but at that time in the morning we couldn’t really be picky. We got the first train in the morning there and by the time we arrived it was light outside! Unfortunately the club we went to was of the very worst kind, and it was even worse that I had anticipated, sticky floors, perverts and vomit. So we didn’t stay long, and decided to go for breakfast ramen (noodles) instead. By the time we got home it was 9.30 am! As you might expect we slept till 3pm!

Later that evening Joys cousins family took the three of us to the Tokyo Tower where we got some fantastic views of the city at night. As far as you can see in every direction there are skyscrapers and bright lights. It makes London look like a hamlet!

After that we went to Onsen, which are like hot springs which you bathe in. The particular one they took us to is an Edo Period themed one where you can choose your favourite colour yukata, enjoy some dinner at the food court and play some old fashioned arcade games before going bathing. Its always a little embarrassing bathing with all the other naked with other people but its so relaxing that all of it slips away after the first few minutes. Obviously the main baths are single sex, but after you get out and dry off you can enjoy the outside foot baths with everyone.

So thats the general idea of my weekend! (I had to leave out most of the details otherwise it would have been ridiculously long!) I had such a fun time, and I will definitely be going back at some point because as a city it has so much to offer and I only really scratched the surface. I was really expecting to love Tokyo, as I love living in London and I’m fairly used to city life. But despite having an amazing time, I was so relieved to get back to Nagoya! The air and streets are cleaner here, people walk half a heartbeat slower, they apologise when they bump into you, there’s hardly any foreigners, the trains seem almost empty, and obviously its a lot cheaper. Nagoya is by no means perfect, but as a place to live it is everything I need in a city.

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