This year, it was decided that our decennial International Family Gathering would take place in Japan: a beautiful small country located at near-equal distance from most family members.

It also has some delightful onsen ryokan, out in the mountains1, where you can spend your time dipping in hot water under the falling snow, warm yourself to the traditional Japanese-style fireplace in your room and eat yourself to death twice a day on an endless stream of local delicacies.

  1. not too far from our last incursion in Shinshu province []

In about ten years, Halloween in Japan has gone from a small foreigner-oriented Roppongi event, to a massive country-wide phenomenon. As far as Western holidays go, there are worse ones to import: any chance to dress up in silly outfits and go party it up with friendly strangers is good to take (the whole kids&candy part hasn’t really made it with the rest).

This year’s 31st being a Friday, helped reach unseen level of costumed street craziness in Tokyo.

Taking the title over skeevy Roppongi, Shibuya has now become a much bigger epicentre for Halloween revelry: I had never seen that many people in the streets there. Not during the World Cup, not during New Year’s Eve1, not ever.

Crowd was mainly Japanese, costumes were the usual declinations of sex, blood and cute cartoon characters. Usually all at the same time: from zombie sexy snow-white, to blood-drenched sexy teddy-bear. If originality was not always at its peak, the amount of effort (/money) put into it was undeniable. The bar-counter sociologists would have also noted a huge preponderance of group costumes.

Clockwork Orange in TokyoFor once, yours truly did put some efforts into that costume thing. The end result surpassed our expectations, mainly thanks to the magic of Internet shopping and Japan’s mind-blowingly fast delivery services.

We were expecting little recognition from the average Japanese Halloween partier (hell, even from the average mid-twenties Westerner), but figured the outfits would look weird enough as a group to make for a good costume anyway…

In fact, not only does Clockwork Orange has its fans amongst young hip Tokyoites, but the ones that are into it are really into it. Which lead to an uninterrupted stream of young Japanese devotchkas in various goth-y outfits stopping us, proffering their love for 時計じかけのオレンジ with much shrieking and asking for group pictures. You know you’ve been in Japan too long when you don’t bat a (long) eyelash at repeated mentions that Alex is sooo kawaii. Because nothing says cute, like cod-piece-wearing sociopathic rapist-murderers.

I expect there are now hundreds of pictures floating out there, featuring smily blood-drenched Japanese girls surrounded by creepily-dressed foreigners in vaguely threatening (and increasingly lewd as the night went on) poses. Which I realise sounds like the exact description of a Roppongi club on a Saturday night, but was actually a lot more wholesome (and fun) than that.

After spending most of the evening in the streets (and street-side cafés) of Shibuya, the late-night clubbing at Trump Room nearly felt dull by comparison: dark confined spaces probably aren’t the best place for watching cool costumes. But what wouldn’t a true droog do to dance on some Ludvig van, or whatever closest musical approximation they can find.

A jolly night all around and an unmitigated success. Except for the abuse of Milk Plus that lead to a rather tough morning the next day.

  1. To be fair, only very clueless foreigners still regularly show up there, clinging to the hope that there will be a countdown party. []

  • Delicious BBQ places everywhere, most of them with outdoor sitting (living in Tokyo really makes you miss outdoors eating). The moment you sit at a table, they’ll bring a dozen dishes of miscellaneous sauces, appetisers and kimchi before you even get around to order.
  • Hongdae (Seoul’s hip student-oriented neighbourhood) is really awesome to walk around, day or night. Cozy coffeeshops everywhere, open way into the night.
  • Gangnam and its more upscale locales is also an interesting neighbourhood to get a feel of what young startup-oriented Koreans are up to.
  • Hangul is so nice and easy to learn (compared to the common sense blackhole that is kana/kanji) that I found myself able to decipher restaurant menus by the end of the weekend. And yes: Korea has its equivalent to Katakana English, and it is occasionally just as hard to guess. Still is nice to be nearly-literate without spending years sweating over kanji lists.
  • In contrast to Japanese women, Korean female fashion is refreshingly more adult: lot less reliance on girly pink frills and other accessories intent on making one look like a prepubescent doll.
  • On the other hand, Korean male twenty-somethings seem a lot more into the asexual boyish boys-band look than their Japanese counterparts. At least for those that eschew the cookie-cutter preppy hipster look (guys: there’s more to life than round glasses, bowl cuts and capri pants).
  • I loved trying to figure the original hanja beneath random hangul words and often realising how close they were to the equivalent Japanese word. Once you realise that  (‘university’) is spelt , just like in Japanese, the name “Hongdae” makes a lot more sense (as do a lot of other words with ‘dae’ in them).
  • Even though very little planning went into the dates for this trip, it turns out that late-September Autumn was the absolute perfect time, weather-wise, to enjoy Seoul and its plentiful outdoor drinking&eating (never spent any serious time there in the Winter, but I am told, and can easily believe, that it is no fun at all).
  • Definitely going back! (but not in Winter)

Between all the travelling abroad and domestic business trips, these past two years have been rather poor on domestic tourism. Something I set to correct last month, with an extended three-day trip to one of the many regions of Japan I had never set foot in.

Kiso Valley

After much poring over guidebooks, online forums and ryokan reservation websites, Kiso valley seemed to emerge as a good candidate for a region that was at once 1. reachable from Tokyo in a few hours, 2. offering preserved nature, picturesque views and some nice hiking trails and 3. not completely encased in concrete (cf. 99% of all popular onsen resorts in Japan) or overrun with tourists (ibidem).

According to the English Internet1, Kiso valley is either a wonderfully preserved piece of Japanese countryside with some delightful traditional villages, or an overrated tourist trap. As it turns out, both opinions were right, just not talking about the same part of the valley:

  1. In matters of nature-oriented tourism, I have learnt not to rely on the opinions of the average Japanese tourist. Even clueless Western tourists can at least tell the difference between a charmingly traditional town and an ugly 80s concrete monstrosity… []