Have Fun in Your Life

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Thunder Dolphin roller coaster in Tokyo.

27 November 2017

Today I got on the early morning train to Shinjuku in order to make it to the 6:30 Aikido class. Even at 5:37 a.m. it was standing room only on the Odakyu line, and I ended up in front of an old party who was quietly snoring away on the heated seat, his head bowed so that the large yellow letters on his pink baseball cap were clearly visible: HAVE FUN IN YOUR LIFE. It felt like a message from beyond. OK, I thought to myself, I’ll try to have fun in my life.

I had to run to get to class on time, but I had made a date to train with one of the few women at Hombu who is trying to make it as a professional Aikido instructor. Though she is Japanese and has a college degree (two of the three requirements for official teacher trainees at Hombu), and also loves the art and is good at it, she lacks the all-important Y chromosome, and therefore has to teach on her own without official sanction or support from the headquarters. She is lighter than I am, but she can make her body heavy when she wants to, and we managed to rock and roll pretty well for an hour—really solid training. I hate getting up for early-morning practice, but it’s always a good start to the day.

I took my time stretching after class, folded my hakama and hung it upstairs, and wandered out of the dojo around 8 a.m. I am between projects at the moment, so I had literally nothing to do but go to a coffee shop and read until 10 a.m., when the sword shops in Suidobashi would open up. I went to Tully’s, my favorite chain café, and ordered an extra-large Royal Milk Tea and a bacon-and-egg sandwich (it had ketchup on it, which was a little weird, but worked) and spent a leisurely hour and a half surfing on my phone and reading China Miéville’s The City & the City (I actually finished it once already, but it is such a twisty and surprising book that it’s worth a reread). At about a quarter to ten I got on the Oedo line and rode to Iidabashi, wandered around the shops there, and then walked on the sunny side of the street down to Suidobashi. On impulse I turned left and went into the Tokyo Dome complex, since I knew there was a Muji there and I wanted to buy some shirts. There’s an amusement park called LaQua by the Tokyo Dome, which I had never been to but have always wondered about; it has a big Ferris wheel and a bunch of other rides. As I walked down the concourse to the shops, the roller coaster came hurtling along on the track above me, and I had a sudden longing to ride it. The sky was a perfect blue, and the track arched and twisted all around the complex, and the freedom of speeding headlong toward nowhere suddenly felt impossibly alluring. I found the Muji and bought my shirts and was still feeling this impulse, and I almost didn’t do it but then I remembered the old guy’s hat, so I bought a ticket for a thousand yen and stood in line.

Only twenty-four people can ride the roller coaster at a time, and as it happened I was just at the cutoff from the previous go-round. Which meant I was first in line for the next, which meant I would be sitting in the very front car—lucky! Behind me was a father with his young son and daughter, maybe eight and eleven years old. Since I was alone, I could technically ride in the front car by myself, but I asked the kids if one of them wanted to ride in front with me. The boy, whose name was Eiji, was all about it. I played it off, but I was super glad that I wouldn’t have to be by myself.

LaQua is fanatical about safety, because a girl got killed on a different ride here—now closed—a couple years back. The staff made sure our pockets were completely empty; I had to take off my scarf and bracelets; and then they pulled our seatbelts tight and locked us in securely, warning us to keep our backs against the seats and hold tight to the handgrips. Looking at the nearly vertical climb that starts the ride, I thought that this would not be a problem.

The ride takes less than two minutes, but you wouldn’t want it to be longer. It starts with that nearly vertical climb up, pauses for just a second at the top so you can take in Shinjuku and western Tokyo to the left and the older parts of the city stretching out to the bay on the right, and then plunges straight down to the first floor of the shopping complex, hitting a stomach-lurching top speed of 180 kph, after which it takes a series of twisting turns where the cars are pretty much sideways, followed by more ups-and-downs and twists. It goes really fucking fast. I don’t think I made a sound the whole time, but I had a huge grin on my face and I was pretty sure I was going to die. Eiji didn’t make any noise either. We came to a sudden stop at the end and crawled along the track for a few more seconds so everyone could effectively suppress their fright and adjust their hairdos. Eiji and I high-fived, and we pulled into the bay, where the staff released us from our constraints, discreetly checking for puddles of pee or vomit. My hands were shaking as I put my backpack back on. It occurred to me how strange it is that sheer terror can be so exhilarating.

I said goodbye to Eiji and his dad and sister and got on my way to the sword stores. The first one was a bust—I used to be a regular customer there, but they’re less and less friendly every time I go in, and the quality of their cleaning kits has really fallen off—but the second one had what I needed—elaborately embroidered silk sword bags, which I wanted to buy as gifts for two of my students. They cost more than I expected, but it didn’t matter. That errand complete, I jumped on the JR train to Yotsuya, where I had a quiet lunch in a little place I know—a rice ball with baby sardines, a bowl of pork-miso soup, and yuzu-flavored daikon pickles. I got a half-loaf of good bread at the French bakery there, and then on impulse went over to this little taiyaki joint a few blocks west of the station. The place is tucked back on a side street, but it’s been there forever, and is kind of famous—on weekends there are lines around the block. Taiyaki is a Japanese dessert or snack that consists of a kind of pancake batter surrounding a bean-jam filling. It’s grilled in fish-shaped molds. This particular place has a high bean-jam-to-dough ratio, and they cook the batter until it’s a bit crisp (most places use too much batter and don’t cook them quite as long, so they’re soggy). Also if you decide to eat your taiyaki on the spot, there are a few seats in the back and free green tea. I bought one for now and one for later, and sat at a table where an older Japanese fellow was devouring his taiyaki with a kind of ferocious enthusiasm featuring a noteworthy lack of politeness. We struck up a conversation, though, and he ended up writing down for me the names of five different taiyaki venues in Tokyo that he considered on a par with this one. One in particular, called “Naruto taiyaki,” interests me; it’s got some sort of spiral motif going on and is apparently a Kyoto invention. So now I have places to Investigate! I always end up getting in conversations with these kinds of characters—it’s like the weirdo radar is always on. I’m usually glad for it, as it can be highly entertaining and sometimes even enlightening.

Taking my leave, I continued down the street past my old haunts in Yotsuya sanchome (I used to live nearby). I walked another 2 k or so toward Shinjuku to my favorite stationery and art-supply store, Sekaido, where I spent a soothing forty minutes looking at postcards, stickers, letter-writing sets, and pens. Finally it was time to head back to Komae, so I made my way to the south side of Shinjuku station and got on the Odakyu line. I was tired and not in a big hurry, so I got on the local even though it’s nineteen stops, and had a lovely long nap on the way home. Heated train seats are THE BOMB! Halfway between waking and sleep, I realized that the day I had just had is the day I would wish for if I knew I were going to die tomorrow. I mean, there are other things I would want to do, but if this were it, I could die happy. Thank you, old man in the hat! I will continue to do my best to HAVE FUN IN [MY] LIFE!

roobioRoo figures she’ll get there eventually. Visit her at her website, The Wandering Rooster.

24 Responses to “Have Fun in Your Life”

  1. vladazhael says:

    Excellent humaning and excellent writing!

  2. RoseCamelia says:

    A day worth wishing for. And writing about it in a way that's worth reading twice. Thank you for this, you traveling badass!

    • ru_ri says:

      Thank you very much! I feel lucky to have gotten such a day. As for badassery, I can only credit my excellent role models, who include you and others here!

  3. Fancy_Pants says:

    What a delicious slice of life! I love all the small interactions with strangers.

    It's also a reminder that I'm overdue for a day puttering around town, going to the library, walking by the waterfront, eating at my favorite bakery. Those are always the best days.

    • ru_ri says:

      Puttering–I have one friend who calls it "podling" which I think is perfect–is one of my favorite pastimes. Steal a day for yourself!

  4. Kazoogrrl says:

    A friend's mom has been studying akido for a long time here in the US, I'm not sure if you might have heard of her. I met her at my friend's wedding and thought I'd never know that if I hadn't been told first. https://www.janesozeki.com/about/

    I should reread that book, as well as Embassytown. They are both tricky.

    Yuzu flavored daikon, WHAT!?!?! I love yuzu. Also, I'm sure if I went to stationary stores in Japan my head would explode, in a good way.

    These type of days are similar to how I spend my birthday. Thank you for sharing!

    • ru_ri says:

      Hahaha yeah Jane Ozeki is very well known and also amazing. I have met her a couple times through a good friend in NY who is a student of her teacher.

      I am reading Railsea right now and it is really turning my head inside out. This guy is something.

      This time of year is YUZU (and persimmon) EVERYTHING season in Japan, and it's fantastic. The yuzu pickles are a little sweet and a little salty and crunchy, and the yuzu is perfect with them. Recommend!

      • Kazoogrrl says:

        I love finding out unexpected details about friends' parents. It's been a part of growing up/older for me, realizing that they are people with their own interests outside of being "So and so's mom/dad".

        Our local Asian markets are geared more towards Korean items than Japanese, but maybe I should see if there are any seasonal items popping up!

  5. Rillquiet says:

    A follow-up piece on comparative taiyakthyology would be most welcome. Man, that sounds like a good day.

    • Xolandra says:

      ^this please!

      • Rillquiet says:

        There are Korean varietals, too, including the Samanco version filled with red bean paste and ice cream. Not newly fried, but still refreshing after a stint in some jjimjilbang hot rooms.

        • ru_ri says:

          Ahhhh I really really gotta go to Korea someday. Korean food is (even including Japanese) my very mostest favorite kind of food. Did you live there? Where have you been? What do you recommend?

          • Rillquiet says:

            Sadly, no, I haven't been, but the DC area has a large Korean population and lots of related businesses. There's a huge bath house called Spa World out near Dulles that has both a restaurant (which features both traditional Korean options and pelmeni, because the Slavs figured out that jjimjilbang is as close to a banya as the area offers) and a snack bar, which is where I ran into the Samanco version. Bakeries like Shilla offer a baked version, although IMO the dough/filling ratio isn't optimal.

    • Räven says:

      I love them. And the molds they're made in – there's a stand in the Mitsuwa food court that has a whole variety of shapes for the custard variation, and I think only traditional fish for the bean filling.

      • ru_ri says:

        They're putting all kinds of things in taiyaki these days–the supermarket near the station here in Komae has chocolate cream filling, custard filling, matcha cream filling, anko and cheese filling, and maybe something else. I'm a traditionalist, though!

    • ru_ri says:

      I couldn't manage it this time–I have spent the last week buried in work, unfortunately. The downside of being able to work from anywhere is that you can work from anywhere, and work is necessary to buy plane tickets and taiyaki so…I will definitely undertake the Definitive Tokyo Taiyakthyology on my next trip!

  6. Lee Thomson says:

    The fish shaped delicacy! Have you read Ann Leckie's Ancillary trilogy? There is a translator who becomes enamored of fish, and eats, well, everything fish shaped. It is a running gag, in what is otherwise moderately serious, and now any fish shaped thing makes me think of these books.

    On the whole that does sound like a most excellent day – I feel like I should say happy birthday!

    • ru_ri says:

      Cheers! It felt like a birthday! My birthdays are generally Nothing Special, so I shall count this as a proper one.

      I read Ancillary Justice and really enjoyed it, and then got sidetracked before I could get to the rest of the trilogy. It is on my list and I will look out for the fish fanatic.

  7. redheadfae says:

    What a wonderful ride, meaning the entire day!

  8. Heathered says:

    You are a magic human, this is the truth. (Also, a question: at the Buddhist temple where my family used to go once a year for the bon odori they had a similar thing, but not fish-shaped, called imagawayaki. Is it "shape + bean cake thing"? It's always a good day if I learn a new word, or how a word works.)

    • ru_ri says:

      I am super grateful for the magic in my life!

      Taiyaki and Imagawa-yaki are both part of the -yaki dessert subgroup, of which I am a fan. They all involve fried batter surrounding bean jam (called anko) in various configurations. Off the top of my head there are the following delicacies:

      – taiyaki which are fish shaped ("tai" means sea bream, a type of fish that is considered lucky or congratulatory)
      – obon-yaki which are shaped kinda like tuna-fish cans ("obon" are old-fashioned coins, I think?)
      – dora-yaki which have the anko sandwiched between two spongy pancakes ("dora" means gong; the anime character Doraemon is famous for his fondness for these, and that's where his name comes from) (also, in the venerable Internet meme of "here's a rabbit with a pancake on his head" it was actually not a pancake in the original photo but dora-yaki)
      – Imagawa-yaki, which are very much like obon-yaki, but from a place called Imagawabashi. I've had some very nice ones filled with white bean jam, which is a bit unusual. Actually Wikipedia says Imagawa-yaki is the usual name and lists obon-yaki as an alternate name from Kansai, but where I've seen them (in Kanto, ahem) they are usually called obon-yaki.

      • Heathered says:

        Wow, you almost made me want a passport. My second year living back in Sonoma Co., I was close to a Chinese owned supermarket and treated myself to a lot of bean cakes and melon cakes which had some similarities, but the imagawa-yaki (with red bean filling), oh man. Long sigh. The ladies running the stand should have called it Obon-yaki, though–the only reason I remember the name is they made their sign on multiple sheets of paper that would all flap in the wind. It took some running around to take it all in!

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