Happy new year, 2021

Happy new year, dear reader!

Counting down to the new year

My friends, my girlfriend and I did a virtual countdown event over Skype/Line where we were separated physically in different time zones (Japan, Taiwan, and Malaysia) during the new year’s eve.

We ended up celebrating the new year twice due to the one hour difference between time zones. In between were the usual chit chats with occasional thoughts of travelling again internationally once the COVID-19 pandemic gradually subsides.

Waking up, later than usual

I woke up to a nice treat from my neighbor, a zoni, which is Japanese soup with mochi rice cakes. She reminded me to empty my stomach for breakfast as zoni that she prepared can be quite heavy. It was.

The zoni (right) prepared by my kind neighbor, along with some side dishes (left). Quite heavy for a breakfast!

This year’s new year is significantly different than last year’s – no large scale countdown events were held in central Tokyo. I visited Shinjuku this afternoon, and I saw fewer people in the streets. For a new year’s day, I must say it was quite bizarre to see Tokyo with this few people.

COVID-19 still casted a long shadow across the country. Tokyo today reported over 780 cases, which marked a bitter beginning of the year. It reported over 1300 cases during new year’s eve. The television shows contents were largely new year oriented, unsurprisingly.

Tokyo in the New Year

Avoiding the crowd, I wandered into parts of Tokyo, one was nearby the Diet building, the other one was the Raiden Inari Shrine and Tokyo Metropolitan Shinjuku High School, closely related to Ryuichi Sakamoto (who I personally call Professor, after the affectionate Japanese title fans gave him, which is 教授=kyoju) and his former band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO).

I read somewhere that the shrine’s name is not related to one of the hit tracks in the album Solid State Survivor, Rydeen (notice a somewhat similar name?). I was inspired to visit these sites after a member of the Facebook group dedicated to Sakamoto (a fans group) visited these places earlier.

“Rydeen” from the album “Solid State Survivor” by Yellow Magic Orchestra, 1979.

I made a detour on my way to Shinjuku while taking the subway to visit the Japanese National Diet building, a place that I had planned to visit quite some time ago. “So this was the place where all the politicians gathered.”, I thought.

The National Diet building from the middle of the street. This area is closely guarded and often patrolled by police.

Upon arriving Shinjuku, I went to visit the sites closely related to Sakamoto, particular his alma mater, Tokyo Metropolitan Shinjuku High School, and the shrine next to the school.

Tokyo Metropolitan Shinjuku High School building. Sakamoto’s alma mater. Closed due to New Year.
Raiden Inari Shrine located next to the school. Entrance is free.

Closing

Although it was just a simple visit, I felt recharged after a pray in the shrine. Time to begin wrapping up for the upcoming working days…

I hope this year will be a better year for you, dear reader!

Looking back, 2020

This year was a hectic year for everyone. The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged almost the entire Earth surface, and caused major inconveniences to wide majority of the human population.

Prologue to a long fight and journey

It all began with a hint of unease when I read about the news of airport and relevant authorities tightening rules of entering Taiwan, especially for those who came from Wuhan, China in the early week of January this year due to the-then unknown pneumonia cases breaking out there while I was in Taipei. I also took note of the proximity between China, Taiwan, and Japan, and had wondered if this could escalate out of hand.

It did. As of this writing, all international travel plans were effectively cancelled, and I had all my flight tickets successfully refunded. The same goes to the various accommodations I booked ahead of time. My friends and families suffered the same fate. With regulations requiring one to be tested COVID-19 negative AND undergoing weeks of quarantine, the thought of casual travel became a thing of the past.

State of emergency and the imposed limitations

When I headed for a haircut in the first half of this year, I had a casual chat with a female barber assigned to me regarding the pandemic. This was when Japan was still under the state of emergency declared by the-then Prime Minister Abe. “So, has the corona (short for “novel coronavirus COVID-19″) impacted (you) in any way?”, the barber asked. After a while of hesitation, I answered, “not really.”.

She retorted, “Are you sure (you are) not impacted? It’s quite a big deal for everyone, though.” She was right. People lose jobs, lost source(s) of income, and had to deal with various degrees of inconvenience. I was lucky enough to still be able to work from home. I could not imagine what she had gone through at that moment.

“Whenever I turned on the television, if it is not about news about the number of new daily confirmed cases of COVID-19, it’s about the other news that were indirectly related to the current situation, it’s kinda depressing.” I said to the barber, continuing our conversation.

During our weekly family WhatsApp call, we often exchanged thoughts of meeting each other again. The hope of another reunion this year quickly diminished as time passed on, along with stricter regulations and requirements implemented by Japan, Malaysia, as well as other governing authorities. I looked at flight tickets for 2021, yet remained undecided despite the availability of empty seats and the ability to reschedule dates free of charge.

All things domestic

Ever since international travels became severely limited (practically banned), I turned my focus on domestic travels. I had the chances to travel to parts of the northern and southern regions of Japan using various transportation modes. I immediately was blown away with the beauty and awesomeness of various areas that I visited. This reminded me the reason why I came to Japan in the first place.

Awesome places do not only confine in Tokyo.

With friends, we managed to climb to the top of certain mountains within the Kanto region. After Mt. Fuji in 2018, this year I began with Mt. Tanzawa. After such a long climb, the muscle pain in the following day was weirdly satisfying. The iconic mountain in Tokyo, Mt. Takao, had also been conquered in a rainy weekend day. My friend (and her friends) are definite experts in this field.

Memories replay

Old memories kept on replaying, as if they were on loop. With each iteration, I took a look on each replay, tried to dug the details and fragments, and attempted to piece each of them together. The attempts were met with little success, but they did not failed to make me smile.

Those are still good memories.

Wishing for a better year

With the COVID-19 pandemic being the main topic this year, and the situation getting worsened day by day, I still remained optimistic that the condition will become better in 2021. But, I still don’t know, under present circumstances, how Tokyo will hold its delayed Olympic 2020 in July next year.

Nevertheless, I wish you have a good year of 2021 ahead, dear reader!

Merry Christmas

I glanced through my phone’s calendar app, and realized that I had a flight planned tonight. Unfortunately, it had to be cancelled. Plans were disrupted, right from the beginning.

Today was my last day of work at the office. Some time before going back home, we cleaned our offices and our respective seats by fully using disposable wet tissues instead of cleaning cloths used in the previous years due to the risk of spreading of COVID-19. I sighed as I saw the used tissues continued piling up at my desk, waiting to be disposed to the rubbish bin.

At the place where I stayed, the supermarket was still in the full Christmas mood – people lined up at the counters selling Christmas cake, albeit the smaller ones since the larger sizes were likely sold out or were reserved for people who had made reservations beforehand. In the supermarket, sizeable crowds were busy buying dinners – mostly roasted chicken/turkey, along with drinks and snacks, which filled their trolley.

Following the crowd, I grabbed a snack plate after a disappointing KFC meal during Christmas Eve (Japan maintained a tradition of eating cakes and fried chicken during Christmas.), and headed to the counter. There were huge platter of fried foods, but the portions were too large to be consumed in one night.

On my way back, I passed by a gym where their members were still practising boxing. A man was energetically stood at the entrance, facing the members and the instructors, and loudly said, “Merry Christmas!”. Upon hearing that, I cheerfully headed back home with the snack plate on hand.

The television was showing the weather forecast for the next few days, up until year end and the new year. “Please be aware of the heavy snowfall in the northern region, and plan ahead to avoid another scenario like the strand in the Shinetsu area due to heavy snowfall.”, the weather person said as she pointed the areas of high risk located in the northern region of Japan.

Unfazed by the reminder patiently explained by the weather person, I sat down and began feasting on the snack plate. The lid had a “30% discount” sticker, which was a sign that the snack plate was prepared earlier in time. After a bite of the food, it was unsurprising.

The streets fulled with illumination in Tokyo.

Earlier this week, I watched Wonder Woman 1984 with a friend in Tokyo, where the cinema is located at a busy place surrounded with nice restaurants and a great atmosphere to be in. Perhaps it was a Sunday evening — only less than half of the big hall was filled with people, and a few of them actually wore the Wonder Woman’s costume! Huge salute for them to be able to withstand the chilly weather in Tokyo (it was below 10 C).

This year’s Christmas was noticeably different than previous years due to complications of COVID-19 and the somewhat ineffective advices given by the relevant authorities. One of my friend had undergone PCR test recently due to someone being tested positive in the friend’s workplace. I sincerely hope that things will turn out okay.

The energetic “Merry Christmas!” that I heard at the gym entrance earlier today really lighten me up. It was like an authentic ray of light being projected outwards, and it stood out even brighter than the artificial LED lights shone brightly nearby. Perhaps, this is the festive atmosphere that I had looked forward to, other than the delicious Christmas cakes.

How about you, dear reader? How was your Christmas day like? Spending effort well on a favorite project? Spent time with a loved one or with families and friends? I wish you a happy, merry Christmas, where ever you are!

Silent October

A coffee shop within the residence area in the evening.
A coffee shop within the residence area in the evening. Did you spot anything off?

Silent, spooky October had ended not long ago, and it had left a hint of sweet aftertaste. After all, compared to last year, there was no typhoon that had seriously impacted the Greater Tokyo region, although it had rained for quite some time.

October also marked the 6th official month of the working from home routine. The company where I worked at had extended the working from home until early next year, which is a welcoming one, considering that the war of combating COVID-19 will be a long one. However, overseas travel for tourism purposes is still not possible, which is a bummer.

2020, a supposed landmark year, is silently wrapping up. While I was watching the television, the MCs hosting a show had gasped that it was almost the end of the year. Afterwards, they continued on introducing the seasonal activities, including places to visit and gourmets to taste.

I have been busy working on projects recently. With most of the time at home, I had been juggling between company work and projects, with the distinctions getting blurred as time went on. Heck, I only swapped laptops (between personal and work laptops), and continue smashing the keyboard away using the same development software.

A while ago, I hiked a mountain neighboring Tokyo and Kanagawa prefecture. It was definitely an awarding experience, having able to hike in a chilly weather, compared to that during the summer, under the warm sun. I definitely look forward to another hike. A friend of mine, who lived in Tokyo, often go hiking in the weekends, which I particularly admired as she can often view a city, the iconic mountains, forests of different colors in various parts of the country.

Happy birthday to my wonderful girl! I promised to fly to Taipei this month, but due to the pandemic and the inability to enter Taiwan’s borders as a tourist, I had to call off this year’s plan, which sucked. However, this might change how we fly again in the future, forever. Gone are the days where we can check in and fly internationally in a short period of time.

A follow up: picking a world to live in

After completing reading parts of a work, I finally understand the “alternate world” the protagonist wandered into.

It is a never ending world, essentially a loop, one can say. The artifacts — remains of the past stayed there. Conversations between the protagonist and the related characters took place in the alternate world, which were centered on things that one couldn’t let go easily. Things that were precious to the protagonist, as if they were a source of reliance when the protagonist escapes to the alternate world.

At a latter part of the said work, the protagonist was presented an ultimatum — either to abandon the alternate world and move forward, or to remain in the alternate world and circle endlessly. He chose to move forward, and as a result, dependencies between the alternate world and the reality began to collapse. Whether the event occurred is a good thing, it was up to the reader, I assumed.

Essentially, it boiled down to this.

Rather than clinging to the past, accepting it and moving forward is the way going forward if one wishes to progress. However, easier is said than done. I caught myself into this dilemma which lasted for a long period of time. Crawling out of it isn’t easy, admittedly, but it did provided me a fresh, new perspective of a certain matter.

Wandering into the alternate

Heavily filtered image of a bridge near Keisei-Narita station.
A heavily filtered image of a bridge near Keisei-Narita station.

An eye shut is what it all takes to wander into the alternate world. No matter the boundaries and conditions one face, when you wake up, you will be brought back to the reality (the real world). And I’m not mentioning about life and death situations.

I read recently of a work depicting a scene about the protagonist wandering into the alternate world. A world where he doesn’t seem able to reach, no matter how far he walks to the horizon, as if it is never ending. A familiar voice, coming out from nowhere, reminded this protagonist that he would not be able to reach this world for some reason. What were the reason(s) behind this, I still don’t know yet.

However, this depiction reminded me multiple occasions of dreams where I wandered into the realms of alternate world, only be rudely pulled back into the reality the next day. On my way to work, I noted of the brief memories in the alternate world into my note taking app. It showed a pattern, as if I’m discovering puzzle pieces. Piecing them together might show up something, I don’t know. I haven’t yet see the dreams these days.

Observation: Traveling outside metropolitan areas

The past few days were consecutive holidays in Japan due to the scheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics (which were ultimately postponed to 2021). As a getaway from the pandemic heavily hampered Greater Tokyo area, I travelled to parts of the Tohoku region of Miyagi, Yamagata, and Fukushima prefectures with main focus on Miyagi prefecture’s Sendai city.

I made some observation notes as a traveler who hailed from the metropolitan area (and maybe will be helpful for you who intend to travel in areas that are less populated), shown below.

  1. The number of trains available per hour greatly varies depending on location and its status (whether it is a tourist hotspot, etc.). Planning ahead is greatly recommended especially if one doesn’t want to waste time and/or at a tight schedule. The usual frequencies range from one per hour to one every 2-3 hours. It is always a good idea to factor in the departing hours if you are in a tight schedule like I was.
  2. Not all JR stations accept the use of IC cards (e.g. Suica). It is always a good idea to check the noticeboard / plaque cards, etc. placed at the departing station for the IC cards usable/covered area. If the destination station is not covered within the IC cards usable area, purchase a paper ticket (Hence, it is not the case where IC cards should always be charged beforehand in terms of using the trains!). Having living in Greater Tokyo area for the past few years, I have been completely got used to using Suica in daily transport until I find it indispensable.
  3. Certain train lines in cities do not accept the major IC cards (e.g. Suica, Pasmo) but only the local IC cards, e.g. Fukushima’s NORUCA. In this case, falling back to paper ticket is one’s safest bet without purchasing the local IC card (except if you are a frequent user).
  4. Travelling via Shinkansen bullet train still allows the use of IC cards to exit a station where Shinkansen bullet train is served, but not local trains (depending on region/area). I observed this at JR Yonezawa station where shinkansen travelers can exit the station by “tapping” to exit. Local trains, however, still rely on paper tickets for manual inspection by the train station staff.
  5. Cash, cash, cash. Cashless transactions may had become mainstream in urban areas, but in rural areas, such as town and small cities, cash is king. Get stuffed with a reasonable amount of cash whenever possible beforehand.
  6. Unplanned stops result in unexpected discoveries. Cliché, but true. I finally visited the area where NHK’s Asadora “Yell” is based at, which is at Fukushima.

I might write an elaborated post for some of the points shown in the future. Travel is always fun, but not in the case of a global pandemic ongoing.

Tokyo by train

Life Where I’m From has a video of which he shot an entire day about travelling in trains in Tokyo (albeit, at times, he wandered to neighboring Kanagawa prefecture). I first watched this years before settling down in Greater Tokyo, but I can’t help but felt amazed about the convenience of the public transport in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

“Tokyo by Train” by Life Where I’m From. Turn on CC for English subtitles.

The train (and subway) networks are powered by JR East and other private railway companies (Toei, Keikyu, Tokyo Monorail, Keisei, etc.), making not only travelling around places in Tokyo and the neighboring prefectures easy, but also making travelling ahead of time almost unnecessary due to the frequency of trains per hour, where you can plan and travel in minutes interval. Try that with KTM Berhad‘s commuter (spoiler: almost impossible).

When I first settled down in a city located half an hour away from Shinjuku, I planned to jump on each station on every train line in Tokyo every weekend. The starting point of the train station hopping plan was Seibu Shinjuku‘s Hana-Koganei station. Although that plan didn’t get realized while I was living in Tokyo (of which I moved out to Chiba prefecture a few months later), it gradually happened in the summer of 2018. Tokyo metropolitan alone has a lot of train lines and train stations, and it’s impossible to visit every station without spending a lot of time (and money)!

Nevertheless, it is a lot of fun when one travels in Tokyo, especially when you live in Tokyo or are a tourist who likes to roam around. Hop on a random train line. Stop at a random train station. “Tap” out and explore the area, get lost. Fill up your stomach with a bowl of ramen or tonkatsu.

Just recently, I explored the Tokyo Sakura Tram (known also as Toden Arakawa Line) with a one-day pass, and spent half a day exploring the smaller areas in parts of Tokyo (the parts you don’t usually see if one travels by the normal trains). I might write about it someday.

Hello, happy birthday.

How are you?

With times like these, where ever you are, I hope you are fine and well. Surrounded by supportive friends, families, and an important partner by your side, I believe you are doing spectacularly well in your studies.

Ever since it happened, I never stopped pointing at myself for the reality and as the role of the root cause. Times passed, yet the scar remained there, with blood sometimes seeping out from it, hinting by the fact that time passed do not heal itself; but rather acts as a stopping gap in order to prevent the blood from gushing out from the scar.

What caused the blood to resurface again from the scar? Was it due to a reminder? An unfulfilled dream? A bad aftertaste? An unconvincing reassurance? A painful reflection? I am not sure.

In a random day when I woke up, I dreamt of an unfulfilled dream set in an isolated world with a one-way exit, with no entrance in sight. It felt so vivid, even looking back at it again today.

Rewind to February 2019 to the day when I was heading back to my home in Japan. Queueing while boarding the plane, I have spotted you amongst the crowds, despite not establishing a direct eye contact. It felt like the times before, when it was simpler. Yet, the border was still there, in plain sight.

You had changed, in a good way.

With times like these, from afar, I wish you all the best.

Happy birthday.

Birthday in 2020

Hectic, sick year

This year is a hectic year for everyone. Not only one has to balance between staying safe and continuing their studies/work, one also needs to put extra effort into ensuring things ongoing remain smooth and sound.

Due to COVID-19, I was unable to travel overseas, however, I could travel domestically, albeit with self restraint being practiced. There is a love-hate affair between people who move across prefectures and those who lived in the target prefectures.

“What is your plan?”

“How do you plan to celebrate / are you celebrating your birthday?”, I was asked. Year after year, despite the cliche, I hold only multitudes of gratitude in my heart towards almost everyone I know, for they directly or indirectly shaped me today.

I read a story many years ago about a child threw a tantrum because his parents did not hold a proper birthday party for him. As I read the story, I remembered that I once hold a grudge too for not having a birthday party (my friends had those parties, and even invited people over! Theirs were a grand one — PlayStation party, eat-all-you-can buffet, playing badminton at a friend’s house’s wide backyard, etc.), yet I quickly dismissed the persistence to hold one after that.

I might not have a grand party, but I do understand the meaning behind this day. Not all days have to be grand.

Reflecting last decade

Last year, I looked back how I was shaped today. Being a character who liked to look back in the past to understand how the current events unfolded, I never failed to be amazed the number of new facts emerged as I continuously looked back. However, with some history remain sealed, I could only speculate.

Although continuous reflection is important, spending too much time in it makes it tiring as a lot of efforts have to be spent on it, especially digging, connecting, and joining the puzzle of facts together through time. I might have spent too much time in it looking back the sealed histories.

Closing

For all the wishes in Facebook, instant messaging apps, and other platforms, I sincerely thank you. I hope all of you, especially you, dear reader, can get through this pandemic period safely and smoothly.