Monday, 31 August 2009

Magical Camp 2009!

Magical Camp, a small one night festival on the side of a mountain, was really fun! For one thing it's on the side of a mountain so you get views like this:

On the other hand, it's on the side of a mountain, and the campsite is on a ski slope so almost all of the tents are pitched on a crazy incline. But on the third, mutant, hand it's only for one night and the music is non stop from four different stages - so I reckon most people don't even bother going to sleep. I only used my tent as somewhere to dump stuff although Olivia took a nap in it late on. The whole thing takes place in the Teine Highland ski area, and it just looked spectacular. That's the Ishikari bay and the sea of Japan you can see up there, and at night we got the sparkling lights of North Sapporo and Ishikari to look at.

The organisation was bizarrely slap-dash in some ways. For example the first shuttle bus to the site didn't actually get there until after the first act had started, which is just odd, and there were still people setting up lots of things throughout the site until well into the day. But none of that really mattered because the whole thing had a very laid back atmosphere, and, with no artists that I desperately wanted to see, I could really enjoy the whole thing. Of course, dragging my sorry carcass home after much dancing, drinking and no sleep was no fun, but I'd certainly extracted the appropriate amount of enjoyment from the event before then. Also, last time I went to Teine Highland I broke a rib, so this was way better than that.

That's a guy with a giant brush doing an insanely intense kanji writing performance. It was awesome, and afterwards his kanji banners were hung near the main stage. There was a lot of fun stuff going on that wasn't music, and since there were less famous bands and the site was infinitely smaller than Rising Sun it came across as a lot more interesting for me. There was a precarious looking skate ramp, a kind of giant-bicycle-music-box that was pretty fun, a "Living Library" where they had interesting people giving talks to anyone who wanted to listen. And what's more the festival was centred around the ski-lodge so you could use nice indoor toilets and they could set up rooms like this:

Musically, the artists were less famous and more dance oriented - there were a lot of DJs, and... to be honest the kind of music you might describe as "festival fare". However I still saw a bunch of great stuff and because I wasn't expecting much, it was a nice surprise. Katsuhiko played and was awesome, as were Shonen Knife, and the British group Pest, who I'd never heard of but they're on Ninja Tunes and were really fucking good. It was utterly surreal to see a British band playing at a Japanese festival though. I saw a little bit of a couple of small Japanese bands that I liked too - Aoizera Kyoushitsu and... another one that I'll have to look up... so it was cool to find good new music.

If the fates allow, I certainly check it out next year. It was fun, and fairly relaxing although it did get pretty damn cold because you're near the top of a fucking mountain. Still, I love fucking mountains so I could live with that happily enough.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Japanese Election Special!

So it's goodbye from him:

This remarkably prescient rip of the omnipresent Shepard Fairey Obama poster (and man, did Shepard Fairey become insufferably smug in every interview I saw of him after that took off - great poster though) I snagged from a blog that pessimistically suggested that Japan wouldn't vote for change. Oh ye of little faith.

And hello to him:

I watched the rolling coverage of the Japanese election with Yuki last night, and it was a lot of fun. I mean, it was interesting for her and really fun for me because I'm just a geek for politics like this. I just love watching the seats tot up, and while my Japanese remains very far from understanding a whole election night special, I could easily keep up on the big things. In fact the more I watched the more it reminded me very much of the New Labour landslide in 1997 (man, I can still remember John Snow standing infront of an actual computer-generated landslide, covering John Major - or was that on the Friday Night Armistice?) with many big Jimin-to (the LDP, Aso's beaten party) politicians being defeated by smaller Minshu-to (DPJ, Hatoyama's winning party) politicians, who were then interviewed on TV and couldn't stop beaming. It was fun, and a big enough swing to raise my eyebrows and even to stoke a little hope for change in the fires of the ol' heart.

Even if, as is very possible, very little changes in a switch from a conservative/right wing coalition to a more centre-left government, it's still striking for me that so many Japanese people voted for this change. It's a sign of my expectations that, when I read Aso'
s quote about "the DPJ have no experience, they don't even know how to run the country!" I worried that he might actually sway a lot of voters. Japan (like England, like America) is sick in a number of ways, but it's still a country that can change for the better, and like Obama's election, this is at least the first step towards that. Of course in the UK I've got nothing to look forward to other than apathy and a conservative government being elected by default next year, but I can enjoy the election in Japan at least.

In other news - Junichiro Koizumi's son, Shinjiro? Pretty hot.

No wonder he got elected. And Japan needs to get rid of hereditary policies in politics as soon as possible because that shit is just pathetic.

Oh, and apparently Hatoyama is a freemason? Whatever, fine, let the freemason's run the world if they're going to provide free education. Everyone's always like "Freemasons! Illuminati! Boo! They'll take tax payer's money and use it to clone dinosaurs with Walt Disney's head and then shoot them at the moon!" but frankly, who knows? Maybe they're in charge of a vast world-wide conspiracy of good guys? Ever think of that?

P.S. - I don't really think Hatoyama is a freemason.

Sapporo Food: North Continent

Well, I don't think Hokkaido constitutes a continent per se. But we can let that slide I think - it is pretty big after all.

North Continent is a new (I think) hamburg steak restaurant that Yuki spotted in a Sapporo food magazine. Hamburg steak is, in case you don't know, another one of those Japanese foods that has it's roots in foreign food but has pretty much become entirely Japanized by this point. It's generally a pretty cheap and cheerful meal (very roughly, like a burger without the bun and some side dishes), but North Continent is a kind of gourmet hamburg place, using Hokkaido meat and produce and serving the water in cool little squat glasses:

So stylish. North Continent was expensive for hamburg steak I reckon, but it was the best hamburg steak I've eaten for a long time so it has that going for it. You pick the kind of steak you want, and the sauce you want to accompany it, then they bring you the meal, a bowl of rice and a terrifying puck of superheated metal. The idea is to take a bit of the steak in your chopsticks and sear the edges crispy on the burning metal. I always like diner participation so that was a nice bit of value added.

I've marked it on the MAP, but I have a sinking feeling I got it wrong so I'll double check next time I'm in town. I think it's in the basement of a building where there used to be a used clothing store - but I could be one block too far east... maybe there's another building parallel that looks identical? Ah Sapporo, sometimes your block isn't all that helpful it turns out.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Junk Food Times: Chip! Chop

I tried these on a whim last week:

And they're like goddamn crack. I bought three boxes in a week and I'm already trying to ascertain with convenience store chains carry them so that I can patronize those enlightened few. They're some sort of chocoloate flavoured corn-crisp snack, but with the added punch of a subtle touch of salt. That salt/caramel; chocolate/pretzel; potato chip/chocolate symbiosis is not to everyone's taste - and to those who don't dig it, I would have to say... hurry up and evolve already! In the future, as everyone knows, food with be in pill form with all the flavours mixed in such a way that every meal will leave you incapacitated with pleasure, your eyes rolled back in your head, pawing yourself like a monkey. Better to get on that train now, before you're forced to ride box-cars all the way from here to the future.

Also, when you eat a handful of these and then take a sip of milk it's really fucking delicious.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Moments from Tokyo Gore Police

Tokyo Gore Police is by no means an entry level schlock movie.

Can't see what's going on up there too well eh? Ah, that'll be because there's so much fake blood being pumped out that it's covering the camera lens.

Good times.

I wouldn't recommend Tokyo Gore Police unless you've seen at least a good few hundred gallons of fake blood slopped around on screen before. It's grotesque to an inventive and surprising level, gratuitous to point of lunacy and... well it's just really, really disgusting. Some of the violence was executed in a way that remained entertaining for this genre, but some (probably intentionally) crossed a taste-line that marked stuff I really couldn't enjoy. I'm not really sure in the end whether I thought it was any good or not too. Certainly the plot was better than I was expecting, and it showed a lot of self awareness throughout that came as a surprise, but there was also a bizarre piece of what looked like backhanded racism towards the end. In the end the movie makes a lot more biting comments, and is a lot more critical of Japan itself throughout, but that little bit was so randomly thrown in and seemed so without merit that it left a nasty taste in my mouth. Was there a valid comment in that moment?

Oh but then again if you're a fan of schlock horror this is a movie that starts with a chainsaw-sword-fight and includes a gun that shoots fists, a man with guns for eyes, and a quadruple amputee with swords for limbs.

So if you've got a strong stomach you should probably check it out.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

8 Tracks: Hip-Hop from either side of the Pacific

I made more 8tracks mixes that you can listen to. With your ears! Quit trying that finger-tip, vibrational sensation shit, you're not fooling anyone. You're not Matt Murdock and you're no kind of vigilante.

Here's mostly indie hip-hop from America:

And, if time permits, I'd like to say a few words, you can work out how they relate to things later. So Amanda Blank!? I didn't even know her solo album came out until I saw it in HMV last week, and I'm approaching it with no little trepidation. Everything I've heard from her so far was fierce and dirty hip-hop and she sounds awesome on every track, but the solo album cover looks like a low rent Lady Gaga, or an early Gossip record, or something just tossed off in ten minutes by a designer who thinks he's really captured the Zeitgeist. But that style is so associated in my head now with massively overrated bands (like the Gossip) and hype and nonsense that it turned me off straight away. And the sticker dude on the case says it's not just hip-hop but electro and pop... I'm gonna check that out for sure, but I'm not holding my breath anymore. A few years ago I was really digging the music coming out of Anticon's ant-cave (or wherever it is that they live) and they got into some pathetic little underground spat with El-P and at the time I was digging Anticon more so I was kinda on their side, but since then Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein has stomped into my top ten favourite albums of all time, and now I realise that most things El-P's done have been bostin' so my heart is now open to both camps. And MF Doom, his Viktor Vaughn album is so good you don't even know. And considering the amount of music he put out that year, it's no small thing.

Now let's see what the hip-hoppers from Japan have to say:

I heard so much random stuff about Tha Blue Herb, who come from my town Sapporo, that I'm ashamed I only listened to them properly last week. They're really good arty, downbeat hip-hop though - so downbeat that I'm not surprised a bunch of my friends didn't dig them at Rising Sun last year. Hip-hop without a hook has to survive on the flow and the beats alone, and when it does it's top-grade beef. I wish I'd checked them out then, but I can at least see their DJ and Producer spin this weekend at Magical Camp. Kreva put a couple of... underwhelming singles out recently. He's always been J-pop-hip-hop but man, when he's fired up he's so good. It's a shame he's doing the r&b thing so much. Teriyaki Boyz are, yes, the bape house band, here featuring US all-stars and a super-model, so it ain't all that humble. I like it though. I've only heard a little M-Flo, and again when they're courting the pop market I can't say I'm that interested, but this bastard-awesome production from Towa Tei and sci-fi bender from their second album is incredible.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Sky Report

Last weeks sky (day unspecified): Awesome. Please click to enjoy and embiggen.

They are distant, but I can see mountains from my appartment, and I'm beginning to think that was all I needed.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Hypnotic Bird and The Marvel Bullpen School of Blogging

I don't want to devote much brain power to blogging today so there's this:

ITEM! A strange, hypnotically repetitive pigeon with chilling blood-red eyes that I filmed at Maruyama Zoo.

ITEM! I've been dropping down something of a well of Japanese pop culture. After years spent assuming that Neon Genesis Evangelion was the kind of impenetrable saga that I'd be better off leaving well alone and sticking to my own impenetrable sagas (oh Clone Saga, how I love you) I've finally watched some of it. And I really enjoyed it! In a way. The main character is a scrawny high-school kid, who is comically... nay (unintentionally) hilariously angst-ridden, and who is piloting a giant robot in order to fight off possibly celestial threats that are bent on wiping out humanity in order to win the approval of his unfeeling father. It's fairly ham-fisted, but if you're going to have a giant robot vs. giant monster slug fest, you might as well do a disection of human insecurities while you're at it. Also, while the series seems to have been going forev
er, they've actually just been telling the same story again and again, progressively refining it, changing the plot and improving the animation. I'm glad I can just jump into the new movies and not worry about the original series which was completed, revised, the revisions postponed, remastered, released as one film, then two films, then...

ITEM! Also I've been picking through a bunch more Japanese hip-hop and finding a bunch of good stuff (easily outweighed by the bad stuff admittedly, but still, the good stuff's really good). Kreva has such a great flow when he's on, I wish he would stop making R&B. And man, he's making autotune sound bad. And I'm finally listening up on M-Flo, since I always dig Verbal's verses for the Teriyaki Boys, and I was talking about him being a deranged prince of fashion. However, it turns out... even princes can make mistakes - like on this early best of:

I don't know what happened there, I can only assume he was drawing on his eyebrows and got a little playful. Then someone jolted his arm. Then he ill-advisedly ran with it. Christ.

ITEM! I found a new American rock band I like too - Self. I'm blown away by a few songs on each of their albums, and that's enough to get a thumbs up from me. However I read a bunch of posts about them talking about how they're indie-rock, or pop-rock or electronic-rock (absolutely not). Genre discussions are just a terrible, horrible idea in any situation but seriously, people - this is Power-Pop. And people wonder why Self kinda failed - Power-Pop doesn't sell! The best you can do is Fountains of Wayne, and they're still pretty humble. The fact that Power-Pop is entirely about feel-good spirit lifting joy and yet it still doesn't sell is one of those mysteries of the ancients that I've always wondered about.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Comics Stuff : Gillen & McKelvie's Phonogram

The last issue of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Phonogram (issue 4 of volume 2) was just incredible. I've said it before and I will go so far as to say it again - if you're a fan of pop music you should be chasing after these books with both arms outstretched and your fingers kinda opening and closing, like you're already imagining them in your grabby little palms. That's the exact pose you should be adopting.

If you are British, and have a taste that originates in 90s indie and (dare we say) Britpop, that goes quadruple. It's a special kind of genius.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Joy of Video: The Circular Mosh from Rising Sun

Just tonight I was having a video chat - or "vat" (trust me, it's what all the kids are calling it) - with my father. The other day I was involved in a bewildering 5-way skype chat. And now, here I am posting a video, which I took with my camera, online in my blog.

My point, as always is... no jetpacks? Still? What the hell, Technology? Not even a killer robot dinosaur? Sometimes I wonder where your priorities are.

At Rising Sun I was walking past the Green Oasis stage while the trashy skate-punk band Razor's Edge were playing. Lots of "kids" in attendance, and for a minute I thought there was a frenetic-as-hell moshpit going on in the middle of the crowd. I was kinda right, see if you can see what they're doing here:

They're running very fast in a well defined circle in the middle of the crowd. What the hell? Was this organised by the band or is this standard teen-punk practice in Japan? Either way, I suppose it consitutes a kind of choreography.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Sapporo Food: Treasures UPDATED!

UPDATE! I deleted this from the map a long time ago but I never mentioned it here. Treasures closed ages ago, saying they were going to re-open, but to the best of my knowledge they never did. Shame.

Back to the eateries:

Treasures is a hamburger shop, and since I'm on a mission to try every hamburger shop on that godsend Sapporo Burger Map leaflet it was a no-brainer to drop in here on my way back from the Library. It's small and colourful (of which I approve) and fairly cheap. You're looking at around 550yen for a burger, which probably seems expensive if you only eat McDonalds or Lotteria, but then if you only eat Lotteria or McDonalds you probably don't really like Hamburgers. In fact, you probably don't really like yourself very much.

Yeah, I'm sitting here with my arms crossed right now judging you.

Anyway the burgers aren't all that big, but they're pretty good. Possibly, y'know... too much lettuce:

...but a good unhealthy burger flavour. They have some signs up about beef, which means I guess they don't mix pork and beef here (though I can't be sure, "Teenage" Matt Longarini has a better palette for that stuff, but I'm learning). I got the Teriyaki Egg Burger, and didn't get much teriyaki out of it but did enjoy it plenty. Oh, I liked the bread, that's right. It was soft and almost too thin but better than many burger buns in Japan.

Slap! Bang! It's on the map, and it's in Odori if a little far west so check it out.

Friday, 21 August 2009

J-Pop - Ladies and Gentlemen... Yasutaka Nakata

Yasutaka Tanaka makes wonderful electronic pop music.

I just wanted to say that.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Sapporo Chuo Library: Chuo My Ass!

Libraries are places of power, where the combined weight of knowledge and ideas bends the very fabric of time and creates pockets of genius and serenity unlike any other man-made constructions on earth.

And you can quote me on that.

However I had to cycle a bloody long way to get to this one:

Sapporo Chuo Library (Chuo means central pretty much) is by no means central. It's 22 blocks south of the city centre, and almost as far east as you can go without hitting the mountains. Still, I'm glad I put in the leg-work to cycle the sixty five (count 'em!) blocks to get there because they have a pretty good selection of English language books, including a fair chunk of Japanese books in their English editions, which is something I'd like to sink my teeth into.

Also it's a library, and I love libraries, and this one felt much the same as every other library in the world - i.e. wonderful. Almost every seat was full but I still could've found somewhere to sit down and read had I wanted and maybe one day I'll do just that.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Rising Sun Rock Festival 2009 in EZO

Bang! Take that Ishikari!

For the second year in a row I attended the mighty Rising Sun Rock Festival in EZO (ezo is of course the old name for Hokkaido but you knew that, right?) and for the second year in a row it was awesome. Rising Sun is only Japanese artists, as opposed to the big festivals on the main island which feature really huge international artists that force the Japanese bands to play second fiddle. There are advantages and disadvantages, but since I like a lot of Japanese music, it's great for me.

Last year's festival was fun but trying. We put up with torrential rain followed by scorching heat but it was made worth it by the interstellar line-up (if you like Japanese music that is) and generally great atmosphere. This year the weather was just peachy, not too hot and not too cold for the most part, and although the line-up wasn't all that amazing there was still plenty of awesome acts to slake my musical thirst. In fact, I kind of enjoyed not having someone to see every hour. It meant I could spend time just chilling out and even taking naps instead of running around like a crazy person trying to fit everyone in.

My hypothesis was that last year was the 10th anniversary so they just burnt the trust fund and stacked the bill as much as they could. This year therefore, spending was more frugal with the superstars mostly veterans (and often tucked away from the main stage oddly enough) and probably less choice overall. Certainly the electronic and hip-hop bills were a shade of last year's (if there was any hip-hop at all that is) so I felt sorry for Olivia who ate that up last time.

The atmosphere was great again, and the organisation (getting there and getting in) seemed to be way better. We were better prepared too, and since I booked a camping space right at the start we were pretty centrally located. And again - the toilets. I'll reiterate that when you think about it squat portaloos are a lot better than sitting portaloos, and the toilets at Rising Sun never ran out of paper. Incredible.

Another head scratcher this year was that all the food I had was really good. Y'know, for festival food. I don't know what was up with that, but I'm pretty happy about it. Smokers were well provided for with a glittering smoking oasis and cigarette girls in silver hot pants; the merch line was a trek in itself; people were getting very silly trying to collect all the 1" pin badges; and I didn't try out the karaoke stage, but I saw a couple of awesome performances there. Oh and this year I got a free towel from docomo so that I could wear a towel around my neck like 90% of the people there do: to block the sun, or to mop up sweat, or to fashion a tourniquet for any serious wounds.

I had a good festival, and here's what I saw:

Polysics were just as incredible as I hoped they would be. They weren't in the orange jumpsuits, it was even better than that. They were dressed in airline uniforms as pilots and cabin crew, and they put on a fantastic performance, especially their emotionless keyboard player and the guitarist who must have gone beyond the point of exhaustion he was running around so much.

I saw a little bit of HiGE and felt like I'd been sucked back in time to a Pop Will Eat Itself Concert or something. There was a drum machine, one guy with dreadlocks, one guy shouting through a megaphone and some catchy hard rock guitar. That was just the intro though and after that it settled a little into pretty catchy early nineties rock. I'll have to check them out a bit more, because the only thing I have of theirs is a one track experimental album that hardly sounds representative now.

Guitar Wolf were incredible. I mean, they're Guitar Wolf for crying out loud, I'd heard so much about how good they were live that I kind of expected to be let down a little. But ohhhh no, they were amazing. I think most of my ear damage for the weekend was done here, and there was an awesome extended "Kick Out The Jams" (I think, I couldn't be sure) where Guitar Wolf dragged a guy out of the crowd, onto the stage, gave him his guitar and pick in fake slo-mo and had that guy just pound the shit out of his guitar and go crazy. At the end of the set Guitar Wolf was on the barricades hanging into the crowd and drooling spit and snot all over people. Incredible.

I loved Capsule too. Yasutaka Nakata is kind of a music genius. His electronic music is so damn dense and satisfying and the singer looked so stylish and completely out of place at some dirty rock festival. Her dress was hypnotic too - it was very billowy and flouncy and seemed to move completely independently of her body. However by 1am on Friday night I was sorely flagging and Capsule were relentless - they would not stop their electro-pop onslaught! It was kind of like being force fed ice-cream for just a little too long. Only a little too long mind you.

On Saturday we kicked off with Beat Crusaders who have grown on me more and more since I devoted a couple of posts to them a while back. I like a lot of their songs now so I really enjoyed their set, and I loved the fact that their lead guitarist was dressed exactly like Eddie Van Halen. He introduced himself as Eddie Van Halen to a bemused reaction from the crowd and was immediately taunted by the lead singer.

The singer from Dragon Ash looks so manly, but the two dancers that they had were... somewhat less so. I only watched a couple of songs of theirs and to be honest, that was probably a couple too many.

Mi-Gu probably drew the smallest crowd I saw, but they (she? I'm not sure if it's the name of the band or her stage name) were (was?) awesome. Really fun, interesting electronic / space / indie / something.

I sacficed Sakanaction, who I really like, to see Midori who were just jazz/punk/noise madness. The keyboard player could not sit still, to the extent where sometimes he was just getting up and walking in a circle around his keyboard, and the singer climbed up the metal lighting frame at the side of the stage and jumped backwards into the audience. This is where the rest of my hearing damage came from.

Shibusashirazu Orchestra were my find of the festival. They're apparently a free-jazz group, but it sounded more like rock-opera to me and I was slowly drawn towards the stage as soon as they started warming up. Let's see they had live painting, three separate sets of dancers, three different vocalists and three or four guitarists along with a central orchestra of horns and strings and live painting and weird video art and fire breathing and someone using a circular saw to grind sparks into the air and the coolest goddamn conductor in the world. And it sounded good.

Eastern Youth were one of the first Japanese rock bands I heard, so I thought I should see them even though I'm never sure if I really like them or not. I had a nap that was so deep it would be better described as a one hour coma, and coming out of this stupor exactly when they started I lurched zombie like towards the tent they were playing and was really impressed. They played one of the few songs of theirs that I've listened to over and over again and a bunch of stuff I didn't know but which sounded great. I'm going to listen to more of their stuff now I reckon.

Finally I saw Mass of the Fermenting Dregs, who I looooove play the last slot on the Green Oasis stage. They're a really fantastic rock band who just seem to be enjoying the hell out of every moment and they're awesome and I want them to be really famous. I wish they'd been closing out the festival rather than The Pillows who played the final performance and who suck. Oh boy do they suck. I've always been ambivalent towards the Pillows, but after seeing them play properly now - they really suck.

But the festival didn't suck. It's the best festival I've been to IN THE WORLD (counting Glastonbury, which I attended the year a hundred thousand people jumped the fences, and which I'm sure is much better now, but at that time I described as "the worst place I'd ever been to") and god knows what'll be happening next year but I hope I can go again.


Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Tomamu Apha Resort, Hokkaido

Tomamu is a ski resort basically - a cluster of towers and other hotel-related buildings in the middle of a basin with mountains all around. Driving there was very cool because after a long, long drive from North Furano these babies were pretty easy to spot in the distance.

In the winter it looks amazing, with the huge towers rising from the snow filled valley, and that was how I saw it on No Matter Board (a snowboarding TV show that I found infinitely more entertaining than most snowboarding DVDs in that it's not just people jumping off the top of a mountain, and flipping through an avalanche, or ten awesome boarders spectacularly grinding the same rail. Seriously, I've never known anything like snowboarding DVDs, except possibly Michael Bay's Transformers movies, for reducing the jaw-dropping to the yawn-inducing through brain-stewing repetition). But they can't stay open if they only operate in the winter, so Hokkaido's resort hotels have to try and rope customers in for the summer too. Rusutsu has some huge Pokemon festival and an undewhelming looking amusement park. Tomamu has forest hikes, a balloon ride, rafting, a mountain-top restaurant, a golf course and things like that. We just wanted a cool hotel to stay in near Furano, and maybe to take a balloon ride (something that we ditched in favour of a good nights sleep). The hotel is nice, but kind of generally worn around the edges, which is kind of to be expected since as Matt pointed out, it was built at the end of the 80s and as I hypothesize, it must get hideous wear and tear in the winter when people are constantly tracking snow inside.

Still it was a pretty cool place, partly because of things like this:

And this, a network of raised passages through the forest that we had to navigate to get our breakfast (which was also pretty good):

We couldn't actually go hiking very far into the forest though, since it was closed off as someone spotted a bear there a few days prior. A bear! I want to spot a bear, although as Yuki kept pointing out - it may have been the end of me.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Comics Stuff : Daniel Way and Deadpool... again and again and...

After issue number 12 of Daniel Way's Deadpool I thought they might be shutting it down. After all there's another Deadpool book on the stands now and it seemed an absurd enough way to wrap the series up. But NO! Oh joy unbounded, it continues!

And it's looking less and less like a tongue-in-cheek hero book, and more and more like a flat out comedy book. Man, it makes me remember when Evan Dorkin wrote Agent X... Sigh...

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Hot Love Corporation Limited

If you're gonna name a business:

At least give it an interesting name I guess. Actually I belive they produce novelty and retro items for sale in bargain stores and at family restaurants, that's where I saw their name before. They do not actually manufacture "hot love" per se. More's the pity.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Yubari - It's not dead! Look, it just twitched!

I've mentioned Yubari before, and it's a pretty famous place all over Japan for two main reasons.

One) They grow these incredible sweet melons that are really expensive and highly sought after.

Two) It's dying.

The town is dying that is. Yubari's boom years were rooted in coal mining, and like in the UK, when the mines closed down the down was gutted. The town council borrowed what I imagine to be a ridiculous amount of money to stimulate tourism to the area, hoping to make it a tourist hot-spot to compensate for the loss of their industry. They organised an international film festival (that apparently, Quentin Tarantino attended) and built a robot museum that I watched being demolished on TV last year. Have you ever seen a giant robot being torn down by a JCB? No-one should ever have to watch something like that! It's like watching a unicorn being mauled by a rugby team.

So the town famously went bankrupt, and people have been referring to it as a "dying town" ever since. The film festival still exists I think, possibly every other year and driving through the centre of Yubari city there are lots of classic film posters blown up on the sides of buildings all over town. That part looks pretty cool, but the town just feels so deserted. We were travelling during the Obon vacation and Furano was busy as hell, but Yubari was like the Marie Celeste. After hitting the "Welcome to Yubari" sign we drove for ages, hitting clusters of buildings and wondering... is this the city? Is this the city? And when we finally got there, the buildings were bigger but there were just as few people. I feel so sorry for the town, because the kind of tourism they wanted to bring there just seems to unlikely in that location. Furano is in a broad valley, with fields and flowers and wide open spaces. Yubari is really in the mountains, and not easily accessible from anywhere. They have a big ski resort there, Mount Racey, which I imagine does well for itself in the winter but otherwise...

Wikipedia says they've started demolishing the amusement park, which we almost went to (we had no idea, so that would have been darkly amusing), but we ended up not travelling that far on the road out of town, and instead stopped at the one place in Yubari that was busy: Hanabatake Bokujou.

Hanabatake Bokujou (Flower Garden Farm), I also mentioned before. It's a farm that's owned by an ex TV personality, specializes in fresh, soft caramel and ice-cream and in the words of Mugatu - is so hot right now.

Really, people get silly about visiting Hanabatake Bokujou. There is plenty of other nama karameru (fresh caramel) around and plenty of other ice cream, but this place is flavour of the month so... Well, at least the guy is doing something good with his fortuitous prosperity. In Yubari there's a huge Hanabatake Bokujou, with a cafe, ice-cream hut, shop and a workshop where you can watch the caramel being made.

Then up on the hill above that is the heartbreakingly named "Yubari Hill of Hope" where Hanabatake Bokujou has built another cafe, a hands on caramel workshop and even a cinema. It's all good investment for the area, but our eyebrows were raised in scepticism since a couple of hundred metres away one of Yubari's old tourist destinations was like a ghost town.

That's the entrace to the Yubari Coal Museum complex. Eventually we did find some other people, but it took a while. The souvenier shops and cafes here were locked up, the boating lake was closed, the fossil museum looked like it shut up early... man it was a depressing place, if somewhat cool in an eerie way. The Coal Museum itself was open though, and actually much better than I'd ever imagined a coal museum would be.

There were all the things you'd expect from a coal museum: What is coal? Where does coal come from? The wonder of coal! There were some notable lumps of coal and lots of cutaway models of coal mines, then at the end there was an elevator that - somewhat unbelievably - simulated the terrifying descent into a mine. A coal mine that is, not a caramel mine or a land mine. The mine really was underground though, it was cold and damp - so damp in fact that moisture was trickling down the walls and covering the cheesy mannequins and wearing away at the displays. It looked shabby as hell, but perhaps they were letting it all rot to show people just how hard life was down there. Me, I've read Germinal and I know that coal mining is just no bloody fun at all. We got to wear hard-hats and go even further underground before we finally climbed back into the daylight and gave our hard hats to a man who was probably having a pretty quiet day.

I should mention, check all of this out on my flickr coz there's a lot more photos. You can get more flavour and goodness that way.

So Yubari: come to witness a town fighting for survival and stay to enjoy the ice-cream and possibly a film fesitval next year. And buy some melons while you're about it why don't you?

Friday, 14 August 2009

Furano & Biei

Furano is a really popular place to visit in the summer in Hokkaido. There are lots of beautiful lavender fields to see, there's a lot of fresh farm foods and there are a bunch of famous locations from Japanese TV dramas. That last one was a bit of a surprised to me actually - people had always told me about the lavender and the ice-cream, but Yuki said that so many people go there to see the stone house from Kita No Kuni Kara, an old family drama that ran for around twenty years or so, that she almost slipped it into our itinerary until she got a text from her mum saying it was pretty boring.

To be entirely honest I feel like those reasons for visiting Furano are a bit... threadbare. I mean, really the only reason that anyone should need to visit somewhere like Furano is that, lavender or no lavender, there's a lot of beautiful countryside around there.

That's the Furano "City" (I would in no way describe Furano as a city, more as an A road with some side streets) lavender field. Yes, that's right. We timed our visit to hit Furano right after all the lavender had died. It was hotter than smokin' hell the whole time we were in Furano, but the blue skies and mountains may have been worth it.

Furano also marked the first time I've driven in Japan since I got my Japanese driving licence. It turns out that I am covered by Yuki's insurance and she quickly got annoyed of driving through the mountains so she suggested I have a go to get some practice. I was like, "Uh, actually remember I've never driven automatic before" and she was like "So do it now!" It was, indeed the first time I'd driven automatic, and going from manual that feels like suddenly you're not driving a car, more like a bumper car, or you're in a video game. It is pretty easy, but it's annoying that when you're toiling up hills the gear can shift with the slightest move of your foot. Give me a clutch any day I reckon.

Farm Tomita is one of the most famous places to see lavender, but again, the lavender was a gonner. The other flowers, however, were very much alive.

Look at 'em toiling away there. Do you think they have to wear the colour of whatever flowers they're picking at the time? That would be awesome, if inconvenient. At least they could change out of their sweaty purple shirts when they're done with that strip. Farm Tomita is a great example of the Furano lavender industry. Furano is famous for lavender, but lavender is something that just grows. You've gotta find a way to sell it. Hence - dried lavender (ok, potpourri I can see), lavender ice cream (actually tastes a little like parma violets, not bad), lavender cordial (um) and a variety of other lavender related goods. Lavender is not, I think, something that many people consider a food, and I'm interested in the entrepreneurial zest that drives that citizens of Furano to make it so.

Biei, a little to the North of Furano is less touristy, and not famous for anything other than being pretty.

We didn't do much in Biei, just drove around and looked at some fields and forests, but actually I probably liked it more than Furano. Furano is trying to hard to be this tourist hub, when really it's a cluster of random sites around a main road. Biei is just pretty, and the rolling hills did remind me a little of good ol' blighty.

The only trouble with Biei is that in the village itself, where they have a few shops and restaurants, they also have a bunch of signs proclaiming it one of the prettiest cities in Japan. The signs of course are huge, unsightly metal things that jut about twenty feet into the air. That part, in the words of Warren Zevon, ain't that pretty at all.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Cheeseman Cometh

Ah, the joyful narcisism of posting a picture of yourself two days running! Here I am, striking the pose of a traditional "Cheeseman" of Hokkaido while we were at Furano Cheese Factory during a trip that Yuki and I took to "slightly east of Sapporo".

Again, shut up. That is the pose of a traditional cheeseman, pausing to reflect on the wonder of cheese and with what it is best to eat cheese. Should the cheese be chosen to match the wine, or the wine the cheese? What's with people who don't like cheese and apple together? And cetera, and cetera.

You see, thanks to the magic of the internet although the posts have been ticking along in a way, I've been out of town for a few days soaking up the sun in the (already dead) lavender fields of central Hokkaido. Posts forthcoming on this subject include "Furano and Biei"; "Yubari - Checking for Signs of Life" (sorry Yubari); and possibly something about the resort hotel where we stayed.

But tomorrow I'm off again, and this time I haven't got anything down to keep the blog going! So there'll be radio silence, but when I come back I'll be able to add Rising Sun Rock 2009 in EZO to my blog backlog. See you the other side of the weekend, and while I'm gone be sure to have some sour cheese and sweet apple for me won't you.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Inside Kapibarasan Cafe Sapporo

Sorry Bunny.

Last week we went to the In The Loop Cafe - currently rebranded as Kapibarasan Cafe Sapporo for a whole month. Apparently there's a permanent Kapibarasan Cafe in Tokyo that's so popular that some tourists from Hokkaido couldn't get a seat when they were in town. So the good people at Kapibara HQ decided to sate the appetite of the Kapibarasan fans of the north with what I believe might be termed as a "pop-up store". I've actually wanted to go to In The Loop for quite a while, I think they specialise in hippyish philosophy and making their own bread usually, but in the absence of that was a whole lot of this:

A delicious rice and avocado dish with a cheese croquet decorated to look like Kapibarasan and a lump of mashed spuds made to resemble his lazy chick friend Namekemonokun. Amazingly, it was really good, and the coffee wasn't tossed off either. And it came in a Kapibarasan mug that I could have picked up in the Kapibarasan gift shop that accompanies the restaurant.

Yuki had dessert, where the Kapibarasan involvement was limited to his face on the ice-cream. Are these dishes being prepared by the regular In The Loop staff? And if so, what do they think while they're painstakingly recreating Kapibarasan's face in worcester sauce?

I didn't want to be too gauche, or spoil the surprise for the die hard Kapi-heads out there so I didn't snap much of the interior, but there are many photos of Kapibarasan soft toys, many pictures of the original character, some computers that we really should have tried where you answer a questionnaire and it tells you what character from the Kapibara-verse you are (there are more than you might think, including a purple rockabilly capibara who makes motorcycle noises), and finally many soft Kapibarasan toys that you can hug while you eat:

Um, ah... honestly everyone else was doing it... well all the girls and Yuki wouldn't so I thought that...

Shut up. His fur is very soft.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Park Review! Yurigahara Park

Man, I'm cycling everywhere at the moment. I know it's cheap and healthy and trendy and admirable, but it's kinda tiring too. I don't know. I'm not complaining but I'm a firm believer in strengthening your body with unhealthy things too from time to time. Y'know, mix it up, try to keep the body guessing.

Tara said: let's cycle to Yurigahara Park so away we went. Yurigahara is pretty far North in Sapporo, farther than Asabu, where I used to live but possibly still part of the North - South block system. It's famous for flowers, they seem to have a big botanical house there too and possibly a gardening library? Sadly when we went most of the flowers from this summer had passed on, I guess we're getting to the end of Hokkaido's pathetically brief "in bloom" season now.

The park was still lovely though:

See? Not quite as big as some other parks, but I seem to remember they give away free plants there once a year and like I said - very famous for flowers if you catch it in spring or early summer. They also have a train that runs around the park, and a pay-to-enter Japanese garden which might be quite nice. I didn't take the train, but cycling over the miniature level crossings was quite surreal.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Kame-San in "Turtle Rampage"

I cleaned out the house-guest's "house" today and let him go for a walk around on terra firma for a change. Kame-San: Off The MAP!

First thing he does?

Storm over and knock down my broadband connection. What the hell Kame? Why do you hate the internet?

Man, there is no accounting for some people. I'm gonna let you try and climb that wall two more times coz it's cute and funny, then I'm gonna put you back in the tank y'little punk.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Up The Mountain - Alex vs. Maruyama

As I was about to leave the zoo, Tara's voice rang in my ears: "You should hike up the mountain while you're there, it only takes about thirty minutes..." Although I had already cycled forty minutes in inhospitable heat to get to the zoo, my body temperature was back to around normal and I felt pretty good so I thought - ok then!

Maruyama is not a very big mountain, it does only take a little less than half an hour from bottom to top, but it is nevertheless a mountain, and as such is pretty tall. So even though it's a pretty quick hike, in the sweltering heat it turned out not to be the wisest thing I attempted last week. At times on the path I thought "I'm bloody glad I'm not running into anyone because I'm sweating like a bastard and my heart may try to make a run for it, separate from my body..." When I got to the very top though I met some people and one guy looked a hell of a lot worse than me. The little old ladies all looked fine, but then they were all stacked to the gills with hiking gear.

Despite this I'm glad I made the effort because if I hadn't I would've missed out on stuff like this:

And that is some good stuff. At the top the view was really nice, and it seems a lot less of a touristy viewpoint than Moiwa or Asahiyama which are just a little south.

Oh and here's a picture of some dude that I took because he framed himself so nicely amongst the rocks and branches:

Mountains are awesome, and I want to go up some more, but I need the temperature to drop severely before then.