The next morning after a breakfast of oatmeal and microwaved egg sandwiches, we emptied our rooms of bags and wine-stuffed boxes. Now I mentioned earlier that Dasad had rented a Chrysler Sebring for our travels, a nice unimposing number with four doors, three passengers, and no retractable hood. The little gray wisp of a car had wandered much of the state with us and performed admirably, but loading the car that morning, the lack of space proved quite a hindrance, much like stuffing an elephant into a clown car.
“So . . . um dude,” I asked, after loading our three wine boxes. “Where are we going to throw the bags?”
In addition to Jay’s and my bags, Dasad had brought this immense rolling sea chest, which, apart from containing all his earthly possessions, did not fold or bend very well. In the end we stacked everything in the backseat: suitcases, book bags, food, souvenirs, maps, and somewhere at the bottom of it all, Jay. Leaving the hotel, I imagined our car as those station wagons you see in Walmart parking lots, stuffed to the brim with bags of clothing, Tupperware, trash, blenders, and every known species of plastic dog, bobbing their heads on dashboard mounts.
We visited Kenwood and V. Sattui Wineries to fill in those extra nooks and crannies left in our boxes, and drove back to San Francisco.
Now as mentioned before, the driving force behind this trip lie with the stomach: to eat authentic Japanese cuisine and imbibe mass quantities of authentic Californian wine. So far, so good. Yet apart from the woman in Pismo with the Muppet-mouth, we encountered few instances that truly proved weird or unusual. My soul thrives off that stuff, one of the reasons I suggested the Wizard World convention at the conclusion of our last cross-country trip. Also because I like comics. They make me happy.
As we retraced our steps from last night, I noticed a few of the streets had been closed off, barricaded for the festival.
“Look at the crowds here, dude. It’s just like the con last month.”
“Yeah, but no sweaty basement dwellers. The general public. And if my eyes don’t deceive me, girls!”
“There were girls at the con.”
“The ones here aren’t dressed like Princess Leia.”
“Yeah, okay . . . so it isn’t perfect, but for authentic Japanese ramen, I won’t hold it against them.”
The street between the Kintetsu and Miyako malls, which we visited the previous night, and the NEW PEOPLE J-pop Center had been closed off earlier that morning to accommodate the expected crowds arriving for the center’s grand opening. Long lines streamed out the three-story glass building, housing a menagerie of Japanese pop culture artifacts including manga, anime, art, cinema, and music. An ideal locale to whet my otaku appetite, yet spying that the crowds nearly encompassed the entire block, we opted to return to the malls for lunch and some shopping.
Before finding the entrance, we walked through the street festival, sniffing at various foods and pouring through the works of local manga artists. Dasad found a Bubble Tea stand, attended by kawaii girls in maid attire, who smiled and bowed as we slurped our tapioca. In the town center, J-pop and J-rock bands sang and screamed (respectively), while nearby otaku tried forming mosh pits with proud parents and any curious visitor who happened by. We found the mall’s entrance hidden behind a group of teens in Guy Fawkes masks, offering free hugs in addition to the sensation of being violated by a man in a mask. No extra charge.
Inside we settled for a small ramen café near the hibachi grill from the previous evening. Now for the record, Japanese ramen is good. Very very good. For those of you reading this, nodding your head with a Cup O’Noodles in your hands, I can only say that you know nothing. The broth was delicious, the noodles fresh, the vegetables real. I even splurged for a bowl of curried rice, as an apology to our waitress for trying to fake my way out of a language dispute.
“Ramen, udon, or soba?” our waitress asked. Her accent and my bad hearing contributed to my confusion and ultimately not understanding what was being asked of me.
“Um . . .” I said scanning my menu for clues. “Uh, I think I’ll try . . . white? And an iced tea?”
Her eyes told me that I had guessed incorrectly.
“Uh . . .” I muttered, returning to the menu again. Ummm . . .” The type of rice? Pick two sides? Pork or tofu?
“She’s asking you for the type of noodles, dude,” Dasad clarified helpfully.
“Oh, uh . . . udon, please. Thank you.”
She nodded and left gratefully, delivering the orders behind swinging door to spit in the white guy’s food unseen.
“You know, Murph,” Dasad chastened. “You could have just asked her to repeat it instead of masking your ignorance.”
“I didn’t want to be a burden,” I sighed.
“So instead you made yourself a fool,” he noted.
“Yeah,” I groaned, my head in my hands. “It’s just not in me to ask questions. When in doubt, research. If that fails, fumble about awkwardly until the question is repeated. Thanks for the save, by the way.”
“Happy to oblige,” Dasad laughed. “I just wish I remembered to pull out my camera and videotape the whole thing. That lost-puppy look alone is like gold on Youtube.”
“Thanks,” I said, sighing again.
Despite everything, the food was quite good — with no evidence of our hostess’s displeasure. We left then to sample some of Jay’s crepes and gaze at PVC figures of gun-toting ninjas. Though hoping for some intriguing sculpture or game, I encountered nothing of interest, which disappointed Dasad some, I think, as my temperance afforded him no opportunity for ridicule. Not that he refused to try anyway, drawing my attention to several poorly dressed heroines and loudly asking if I saw their pantsu, their panties.
“Oooo . . . black,” he squealed. “Hey Murph, did you see these? White and blue stripes! Kinky.”
I quickly left before my friend made his way to the adult ‘ero’ section.
In the next store, Jay drew our attention to the Japanese DVD release of the latest Miyazaki film, Ponyo. The film had just been released at theaters with English dub, and I suggested we spend an afternoon at the theater soon. My companions seemed eager to catch a flick; Dasad even suggesting we waste a whole day at the movies.
“A triple feature,” he said. “After all the traveling up and down the coast, we could use a day to sit back and just relax.”
It was close to two o’clock by the time we decided to leave. The crowds continued to pour onto the streets, and even browsing through the claustrophobic aisles of the local supermarket proved slow work, like those squirrel mazes in the Ranger Rick magazines (Help Mr. Nibbles escape with his nuts to the old willow tree). Our time in San Francisco had ended; we hopped into our overloaded Sebring and drove south.
Five or six hours later, just before reaching our hotel, hunger struck our small Chrysler, prompting us to stop at the local In And Out Burger in Burbank. The parking lot was stacked with teenagers and other shady age groups including short old women in Cadillacs and forty-year old accountants on motorcycles and mopeds. Dasad felt certain we were going to die. Or get robbed. Or both and then sold to the local medical school for surgical demonstrations.
“Dude, I don’t think our car is safe here.”
“Don’t worry,” I said calmly. “If anything happens, it’ll probably cascade into murder, not theft.”
“As long as no one takes our car, that’s fine. Remember we still have thirty-six bottles of expensive wine in the trunk.”
Honestly, I had considered opening up a bottle for dinner that night, toasting our successful bounty from the north over burgers and fries, but glancing at the packed crowds inside, I thought better of it. They might have insisted we share!
We ordered our burgers and sat down next to a group of college-age teens, discussing movie trivia, which I suppose is common among Burbank youth. Jay came back with our food, and I dug into what was to be the worst burger I have ever eaten in my life. At least for the three bucks I paid for it. Admittedly, the vegetables were nice and fresh, but the meat, a thin sliver of beef, was non-existent, nearly half the thickness of a slider, nearly melting into the bun. Thankfully I had ordered a milkshake too, and we quickly waddled out to the car left Burbank in our dust – which they probably collected, froze, reheated, slapped together with lettuce and tomato, and sold for three dollars. Mmmmmm . . .
Next: Why aliens and humans will never breed, and Disneyland dreamin’.