Monday, May 19, 2008

Worldout Meets Trackheads

Over the weekend Chris and I went to an "event" called Worldout Meets Trackheads. (The word is ebento, エベント, in Japanese as well. Somehow, they didn't have a sufficiently vague and meaningless word to use for a bunch of people getting together to do random things, so they borrowed ours.) I didn't really know what it was going to be because my friend in his email just said it would be an "event" and there would be a lot of people there. We met at Namba Hatch to join the group ride, which gave us a discount on entry to the venue.

From Namba, we rode about 20 minutes down by the port, south of Taisho-ku (大正区). It was a huge warehouse with multiple floors and it turned out there were about three main spaces, with totally different scenes in each one.

The bike scene was on the top floor and it was basically the national street track completion with goal sprints and trick comps. There were people in from all over the country but a huge contingent from the capital. This meant the Tokyo vs. Osaka rivalry was in full swing and the two main crews even stacked their bikes up in different parts of the room.

The goal sprints were done virtually, in true Japanese fashion. Three bikes were set up on rollers with speedometers on their rear wheels synced to a bank of computers. The computers then projected three different views of a virtual Keirin-jo (競輪場), one screen for each rider. It was basically, a video game of a track race where the way you play is to actually pedal a track bike with real ground friction as fast as you possibly can.

So they had a full street-track tournament in the third floor of a warehouse near Osaka's port. Above you can see one of the bikes set up in its station. Below, you see the guys at the bank of computers that control the game.

Here's one of the races in progress. At the beginning of the race, there are crew members crouched down behind the bikes, holding the wheels so you can't jump the gun. Just like a real Keirin race.

After the goal sprints came the trick competition, proceeded briefly and chaotically by one or two games of foot down.

These were the best guys in the country, so the tricks were pretty outrageous. It was hard to get much on my camera, but this guy has his front wheel stopped with his foot on the tire and now he's kicking the back around. After he flips it around 360º, he's gonna drop back down onto the seat.

There were competitions for both BMX and track bikes, but actually the guy who came in first on BMX also came in second on track.

This is him, below. There was a major rivalry between the Osaka guys and the Tokyo guys and the main guy from Tokyo was being a bit of a wanker. At one point he got so mad about screwing up a trick that he jumped on his rear wheel and trashed it. So, I guess the BMX champ, decided to finish him. It was an elimination tournament, so he borrowed a friends track bike and just owned the place. Here he his going backwards by kneeling on the bars and propelling the bike by kicking the front wheel. He treated the track bike like a BMX and he did thing on it that I didn't think were possible.

Actually, all in all the Osaka crew owned everything and one of the guys from the Tuesday night ride came in first.

But this guy, below, was my favorite. He came out into the arena with that huge black bag on his back, a pair of thick chains around his neck, and a can of beer in one hand. Each rider had one minute to do as many tricks as possible and as the announcer was doing the count down, this dude was egging on the crowd, telling the Tokyo guys that now they were gonna see how things were done in Osaka.

First, he spent about 10 seconds just setting down his beer and grabbing his crotch to adjust those massive shorts he was wearing. Then, he turned the bars of his bike all the way to one side and lifted it up in one hand. Then he balanced it like that in one hand for the full minute, occasionally shouting out to the crowd. As the announce r began the countdown for his time he started bellowing like a caged animal and on one he just threw the bike into the air, knocking out one of the lights.

The main competition ended around 3:30 am and we wandered down into one of the other areas to get some food. It was basically like a normal club down there, with no trace of the track madness. Beside Chris and myself, I only saw two other foreigners there the whole night.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tripping around

Chris was visiting Japan for the last couple of weeks so we had a few days to ride around together and check out Osaka. This was the first time I've had a chance to show anyone around the Osaka I know, and by seeing the city through her eyes, I got to trip out again on a lot of things that I've somehow gotten used to.

We rode all around the one day. Down in Shinsekai (新世界) we saw this game called The Marine Catcher. All over Osaka there are these game shops that are full of all manner of games - video games, gambling games, and tons of these so-called catcher games. This, however, is the weirdest one I've seen yet. You use two buttons to position the catcher device for a single grab at the live shrimp in the basin. The prize you get for winning the game is the live shrimp that you caught. I guess you could take it to a nearby shop and ask the chef to make it into sushi. The sign with the sexy girl says ebi, which as anyone who's ever eaten sushi knows, means shrimp.

Later that day we went up to Nipponbashi (日本橋), which is were the otaku hang out in Osaka. It was a Sunday, so it was pretty crowded. Chris was looking for an anime figurine for a friend of hers, but I convinced her to come with me into a manga shop that only carries manga for girls. I forget the name of the shop but the subtitle was in English and read, "For the Ladies."

I had heard about a new trend in girl's manga featuring boy-on-boy love, but this in no way prepared me for what we saw in the store. Although there was other stuff, the place was basically packed with gay loves stories. In a strange twist on the gay love story scene, I was the only guy in the crowded shop and from the looks I was getting from the customers, I clearly did not belong. Below, you see some of the staff picks.

Eventually, we found a figurine shop for anime fans, but since the prices started at around 5,000, Chris decided not to get one for her friend after all.

That evening, I took this shot of my bike on one of the bike bridges in the northing part of the city.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Learning Japanese

In the month of April, I noticed the biggest change in learning Japanese in the whole time I've been at it. In February and March I spent a lot time just memorizing vocabulary and reading grammars and in April it all started to sink in and for the first time I could really have simple conversations in Japanese. In April, I met and made friends who speak no English. Everyday, I read and write email in Japanese.

I guess the strangest thing is the way the grammar starts to slowly make sense through repeated exposure. Japanese grammar divides the conceptual space differently than any other grammar I've ever studied. Not only is the range of meanings of individual words different and often unexpected, but fundamental concepts are different. For example, the distinction between object and subject is sometimes different, the line between transitive and intransitive actions is in a different place and the structural relationship between individual objects and their context has a different composition. There's not really a whole lot you can do to try to sort all this out other than to just get used to it.

Like in any language, some of the rules are simply rules - they don't make any necessary sense - most, however, make good sense, it just takes a long time for someone who doesn't think in those rules to see the sense that they make.

The result of all this is that my life in Japan is starting to open up a fair bit. I don't feel as much apprehension just doing simple things as I used to, because I know I can talk to who ever I run into. I still cant' read Japanese prose, but I can at least get the gist of the signs and I can read basic conversational email.