Monday, May 27, 2013

Kamikaze Baseball in Kyoto, Japan

During World War II Kamikaze Piloting was introduced to the Japanese by military planners as the world’s first “extreme sport,” but for unknown reasons, its small group of loyal enthusiasts often met with an early demise, thus when baseball was popularized during US rebuilding efforts, it caught on rather quickly, giving America a huge assist in Japan having the world's longest life expectancy of any country.

While riding my bike around the Imperial Palace of Kyoto, I came across a group of college students taking infield practice at a nearby dusty diamond.
Japanese baseball buddies
Dressed in about the nicest clothes I had taken with me, not having taken a ground ball in years, I naturally volunteered to play. Surprised, one of them tossed the guy in the blue button up shirt a glove, and watched him trot out to the shortstop position.
POV view of taking groundballs in Japan

They speak little English (one of the surprising things about Japan) but when I make a high velocity throw to first they chant in unison, “pitcher, pitcher, pitcher.” I play with them for about a half hour before we break and get together to talk and take pitchers … er, I mean pictures.

Team and I posing for pictures

I find them friendly, and grateful that I took the chance and played with them. They say they are a team, and from practicing with them for the brief amount of time I did, I can definitively tell you not to expect to see them hoisting a tournament trophy over their heads any time. However, I refrain from suggesting they switch over to kamikaze piloting, they are far too nice. 
Thanks guys!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What To Do in Los Angeles for Tourists

Being a Los Angelino now for quite a while, I thought I would eradicate some myths for you tourists out there visiting the city and give you a list of things you might want to see.
First of all, unlike the majority of European cities, there is no “center.” Los Angeles is urban sprawl at its worst, extending nearly 50 miles in any direction. Good luck seeing the city in a few days.

There are definitely areas you do NOT want to tread, nor for most purposes, unless you get lost visiting USC, will you have any reason to step foot into South Central or East Los Angeles ... unless maybe you have a relative in the Crips, Bloods, or MI-6. If so, tell them I say hi.

Also unlike most European cities, the public transport system in LA is poor. In order to see it properly, you really need a car, preferably one with GPS (or use your phone). If you make a wrong turn, especially during rush hour, it can take you twenty minutes to get back to your original location.
Driving in LA is Not fun. You simply want to be OFF the road during rush hour, lest you spend all eternity and then some in your auto. To boot, you need to read and re-read the street parking signs to insure you don’t get a ticket. Parking enforcement in Los Angeles is about as efficient as government can be, and is a primary revenue driver for the city. The tickets ain’t cheap!
Hollywood parking notification. You need a PhD with hours to kill to decipher it.
this is the top part of the same sign, not visible in the above photo

What’s Great About LA
The weather. Best thing about this area of the world, and why so many people choose to live here. I can’t imagine intentionally living in an area that is cold and rainy or gets a lot of snow. When you come to LA, make sure to choose outdoorsy activities.

Where to Visit

Venice Beach -- one of the coolest things in Los Angeles. Go get a T-shirt, some junk food, get some custom made clothing/ shoes with your photos on them at The Ave. on Winward (right by the beach), rent some rollerblades and go up the bike path, get a boogey board and jump in the water, watch some of the free shows put on by performers, tip if you like them, or just people watch. Either way, you’re going to have a fun time.
Venice Beach bikepath

The Getty Museum—If you’re a lover of fine art, you can’t go wrong with the Getty. Best of all its free!

LACMA + The La Brea Tar Pits—Situated side by side to one another, you can get into the La Brea tar pits and see fossils of ancient mammals, and the actually oily pits where the animals encountered their demise by venturing in. 
Also there are several museums with fine art and artifacts of the world (LACMA) for those of you into that sort of thing.

Comedy Shows- I kid you not, the comedy shows in LA are likely the best in the world, and you can often catch celebrity comics like Joe Rogan, Dane Cook, amongst others. You want to go to either the Comedy Store, The Hollywood Improv, or The Laugh Factory. They are all fairly close to one another in West Hollywood (the gay district of LA) and are usually a lot of fun. Please don’t heckle the comics.

Mann’s Chinese Theater + Hollywood Walk of Fame- Here you will see all the stars and handprints of Hollywood, from Lucille Ball to Jim Carrey. Outside Mann’s you’ll see many people dressed up as comic book/ movie characters trying to earn a living. Parking is an arduous task in this area of town, so be prepared to pay. This is a highly touristy thing to do, but if you've never been in town, go ahead. 

3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica- Great upscale place to walk around, and grab some food. The Apple Store is located here.

The Grove- Similar to Promenade, but a little bigger. A big shopping center in the Hollywood area. Very popular and busy. Nice place to walk around.

Skidrow- Want to see where they put all the homeless people, it used to be skid row in downtown LA (right by the Staples Center) … police used to pick up vagrants and just drop off ‘em off in the area. Now that downtown is being developed this is changing, but the soup kitchens and shelters are still there, and you can go volunteer if you want to spend a day this way.

Disneyland + 6 Flags Magic Mountain-  Although Anaheim is technically not part of LA, and at least a good hour away, Disneyland is a must see for those of you travelling here with children. Magic Mountain, in Valencia, is great if you are into roller-coasters. Be prepared for long lines in both parks of course. 

Universal Studios- Definitely, without a doubt, worth experiencing once. It's fun, but quite expensive for one day, so make sure you've saved up.

Self Realization Fellowship/ Lake Shrine- Located in Pacific Palisades and by the ocean, this is a crown jewel of Los Angeles. Hidden, and not as visited as other sites, it's a breath of fresh air and tranquility in an otherwise super busy metropolis. It's free, and the grounds are stunning. Walk around the lake or just sit down, talk, or meditate.

Celebrity Insider Tour-- You see so many of these tours going around LA, this one was voted #1 on trip advisor, and I have seen the host perform around Los Angeles, and he is very funny and witty. The tour doesn't go everyday, but if you're into this sort of thing, I advise you try it out over the others. 

LA Does have nightlife, but everything closes down at 2 AM  with last call @ 1:30 by city ordinance. The “happening clubs” are always changing, but you can definitely see some pretty people in them. LA attracts the best looking people from around the world, generally with severely needy egos, who want to make it in the entertainment industry.

Believe it or not, LA has some excellent hikes. Go up to Malibu (a bit of a drive) and take this trail. You’ll see some gorgeous views of the Pacific.
Or go hiking in the Temescal Canyon area. You aren’t likely to see a lot of wildlife, but maybe the occasional snake, rabbit, or deer might be spotted.

Bottom Line
LA is a huge sprawling metropolis, and it’s not a place to play by ear, with everything close by like Prague might be. You can definitely have fun here, and the weather's great, but avoid rush hour traffic, and bring some sunscreen.
Thoughts, leave me a comment below.

Racism in Kyoto's Red Light District

Having obliterated the rappers of Kyoto in our rap battle, I head out to explore more of the city’s nightlife. I come to what appears to be the red light district. The Japanese are famous for their nose to the grindstone work ethic, countered by a polar swing to hedonistic drunken debauchery, so I thought it would make an excellent investigation for all of you out there in Readerville. (honest Mom!)
Japanese brothel- outside 

Looking up at the photos of scantily clad Asian women laying on their sides, looking lasciviously back at me, I approach the door where a large (by the standards of Japan) man stands in my way. He crosses his wrists over one in an X, his fists pointing at the sky, and speaks to me in Japanese. I pretend not to understand.
“Just want to take a look,” I respond, trying to sneak around him. Again, he X’s me out, his voice more stern.
“You don’t understand, I’m American,” I explain, with the firm belief that such diplomacy and name dropping will gain me immediate entry. A third X in the frame, I have struck out, yet I walk away feeling giddy. “Wow, this is so cool, I just experienced racism!” I remark to myself.
I walk to the next X-rated boutique and receive the same treatment. Suddenly racism isn’t as enjoyable.
I venture to restaurant row, finding an American sipping on on a Sapporo beer, to whom I relate my tale of woe. He explains that foreigners are considered unclean, and should it become known that they are being allowed in, the locals would quickly steer clear of the establishment.
“Yeah, we said the same thing about allowing blacks into Southern diners in the 1950's,” I remark ruefully, “The world still has a long way to go.”
He laughs, “I’m not sure if it’s the same as letting you into their women,” he retorts.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Epic Rap Battle in Kyoto, Japan

I arrive in Kyoto in the late afternoon, check into my accommodations, rent a bicycle, and immediately pedal away, ready explore the city.
Darkness quickly falls as I arrive in the center of town. I see Japanese queuing up at the Golden Arches of the local McDonald’s, I go inside to investigate. Very pricey, but full of different entrees than America, including the Ebi Filet-O (filet of shrimp-O). ... Given that I eat at most one bag of small fries a year, I defer from ordering, deciding to go try some Japanese food.

Upon stepping outside I hear the faint sounds of the Pied Piper- hip-hop is playing nearby, in Japan? I investigate and sure enough, a beat box between them, Japanese Eminems are battling each other. Though I have no idea what they are saying, they're talented, certainly more so than I.
I never imagined this would be the first thing I’d experience in Japan, a rap battle on the streets of Kyoto. 
I sit and watch in admiration. A rapper, who has, as his chosen fashion accessory- a batting helmet, steps off stage. I approach to compliment his abilities.
He doesn’t understand me, instead in broken English challenges me to get out there and sing (rap.) My head swings back at the thought, and I warn him that I am not going to be up to snuff, but he’s not hearing it (nor does he understand) It reminds me of World War II, with America back to do "battle," except this time we're invading the Japanese streets. 
“Yo, give me da mic. Hey Hiroshi, drop me a phat beat. Yeah, that’s right, Rich from America, coming right at ya!”
You can see my highlight in the following video. I actually battled a couple times, and realized brevity in the video will make me look far better.
Some people like my friend Vanessa can rhyme all the time to the point it’s sublime. I haven’t yet mastered this art.
I exit the stage to applause from the Japanese. I have to think this is the first time an American has done battle with them, and I get the feeling they are appreciative of what they might consider brave. I am rarely a shrinking violet though, and see no risk in making a fool of myself because I rarely, if ever, care what anyone thinks of me.
In fact, to the contrary, I believe it’s my duty to go out there and express fully the energy inside me. In doing so, it’s my belief that I unconsciously give others permission to release the energy of joy and love inside of them.

It’s also the reason I was recently complimented, told by someone I am the greatest dancer in history. Don’t believe me? I have proof- Rich declared Greatest dancer ever- here's why visit link.
Thank you Japaaaaannnnnnnnn!!!! I’m outtie.

(For a much longer version of the rapping, including me, you can visit this video. Yes, I am not good, I know.)

Japanese Bullet Trains- The Shinkansen, the only way to travel Japan

Getting to Japan

My passport has run out of pages, and the airline insists the Japanese need enough room to plant their larger than normal entry stamp/ visa on arrival. They’re refusing to let me board my plane!
I’m saved only by the fact that the page with my Chinese Visa, has no stamp on the page itself, allowing me to gently pull off the affixed visa and re-present a passport with a blank spot. The bureaucrats quite nearly extracted a significant pound of flesh from me.
Bullet train pulling into station
The Shinkansen
Upon arriving in Tokyo, my first step is to go to the train station and present my voucher for my pre-paid one week JR (Japan Rail) pass I purchased in America. I had to carry the voucher around with me for months before getting to Japan, lose it and I would be out not only the $300 or so I paid, but additionally having to shell out in excess of $100 per ride in addition. The passes are only available overseas, and proved to be a wonderful and highly unusual moment of pre-planning for a guy who once tried to ride through Laotian quick sand on a bicycle.  
An electronic sign announces the appointed arrival time of the train taking me to Kyoto. The Shinkansen (the name of the Japanese high speed train line) is never tardy. I mean, if that train gets in 2 minutes late, it’s considered a national disgrace; the entire nation literally walks around with their head held low in penance for several days.
The ibside of a bullet train- clean comfy
The Shinkansen is an incredibly efficient form of transportation, immaculately clean, and travelling in stretches at 180 mph, you reach your destination in a hurry. The fact that such high speed rail exists over much of the industrialized world and not in America does not sit well with me. Each and every single ride I took in Japan was quite comfortable and quiet, making the trains I have taken through Eastern Europe and SE Asia a hazy laughable memory.
I'm gently dreaming of this train's distant cousins as we gently decelerate, and pull into Kyoto station.

Train going by Mount Fuji
On the whole, the Shinkansen was the best way I have ever traveled around a country, and if you are going to Japan, and want to see it easily and inexpensively, then truly, you MUST get a JR Rail Pass before heading over. That would be my #1 travel tip for Japan.