November 7, 2007

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

(Beware, spoilers may follow.)

Since I came to Japan I have not been reading too many English books. I really enjoy trying to read novels in Japanese, and am currently (slowly) fighting my way through Haruki Murakami's "Kafka by the Sea." I leave English books, which I devour, as fodder for passing time on the airplane. I can't sleep on planes, so the ten to twelve hour flights from Japan to America are exercises in endurance and boredom for me. Reading English books is one good way to pass the time.

Typically I will read from two to three books on one trans-pacific flight. On my last trip out I bought Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell". This was a good book if for no other reason that I was unable to finish it in one flight. It actually lasted four flights (three of them were barely noticeable sub-three hour flights though) before I got through the 1006 page monster.

In my little databases of books read I gave this title a 7.5. It is a little odd because while reading the book, I was really drawn into it. The book has a peculiar language, spelling words in antiquated (or just outright strange for the sake of creating an atmosphere) way, and with Victorian era sensibilities. For the spelling, most noticeable was "show" -> "shew" / "showed" to "shewed" and so on. It is actually very annoying at first, then later on becomes only mildly annoying.

The novel is written in a quite victorian-era style, and reads like a serialized Dickens novel. There is entirely too much description, and too much emphasis on the social habits of upper-class gentlemen. Vast portions of the novel are just boring.

The portions having to do with magic are quite interesting (aside from anything Mr. Norrell has to say, which is intentionally boring) but unlike many books in the fantasy genre does not linger over the magical descriptions and incantations. The magical theory is very well developed, and expounded upon in crazy long footnotes, and there is an extensive history and library of books about magical theory in this world. It is an impressive accomplishment to flesh out the world so thoroughly, and in ways reminds me of the Lord of the Rings.

Near the end the story starts to speed up, and becomes quite engaging, but infuriatingly the ending is sudden and somehow unsatisfying. It feels like there is a deeper story about the meta-story of Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell's actions as part of the Raven King's plans, but that is only hinted at.

Still, overall it was an engrossing read. I only lament that it was so unnecessarily long, and after reading it I am not sure that I am the better for it. Unlike most of the trashy fiction that I read on airplanes that are short sci-fi or fantasy novels, this one was long and required a commitment to get through. I'm a bit conflicted about that.

Has anyone else read this one? Comments?

Overheard at the bar

When she said priori probability, I think she meant a-priori probability ...

Of course, I have to admit that this bar is the one in the hotel where many attendees of the TREC conference are staying, but still, I think it is a very funny bit of overheard conversation. I kind of like the idea of a bar in which conversations about statistics are commonplace. Perhaps that is what every bar in the MIT area is like, but certainly it isn't anything I run into at my favorite bars. I'm lucky to hear English being spoken at the bars that I frequent. :)

October 15, 2007

Catching up on Music

Lately I haven't been listening to very much music.  I've been busy with work, then last week I caught a cold and was sick all week.  I still came into work, but left pretty early and slept a lot.  I'm finally just about over that, but work has gotten busy again as I have to prepare a talk for the TREC conference early next month, and there isn't much time to coordinate with my supervisor about it.  I also sprained my ankle a week ago, and haven't been running since then.  Usually I listen to some music while I run, so I've been missing out on my usual music listening opportunities.

Radiohead

I just bought Radiohead's "In Rainbows", but haven't had a chance to listen to it yet.  (Well, I'm listening to it now.)  I think it is great that they are distributing their music themselves, and love the "pick your price model".  I thought I would pay about $7 or $8, but ended up paying 5 pounds plus their processing fee, and who knows how much that is in American dollars.  Maybe something like $13?  It is a bit more than I wanted to pay, but I completely support their move to a new business model for self-distribution.  I should mention that another favorite band of mine, Bishop Allen, also sells their stuff on their own website for very reasonable amounts. 

Inspired by Radiohead

One group that I've been keeping my eyes on, Hard 'N Phirm, has a new post on their website where they are distributing for free two songs of theirs that are Radiohead inspired: "Fitter, Clappier" (not so great, but worth a listen for the price) and "Rodeohead", which is very nice.  A kind of blues-grass Radiohead montage.  More than that you, you really should check out the video for their song "Pi".  The Youtube clip is below.  I think it is hilarious and a great parody of the 80s style "Electric Company" edumacational TV shows. 



Flight of the Conchords

Not too long after finding that Pi video (forwarded on by someone) I heard about Flight of the Conchords from the Hard N' Phirm guys.  I have their website's RSS feed in my feed reader, and it popped up one day and said I should check out the HBO show "Flight of the Conchords".  So I did, and I thought it was hilarious.  I thought it was great, and that my little sister would love it.  She always seems to hang out with people that are cool, but are somehow cool in spite of themselves, with a bit of a nerdy flavor.  That kind of describes the Flight of the Conchords guys pretty well, I think.  (Contrast this with myself: I am definitely nerdy, but have not even been able to attain the geek-chic style that has somehow popped up.  I just land squarely in the "geek" demographic.)  Since I thought Jana would like this stuff so much, I bought her the DVD for her birthday.  Sadly, her birthday is in October, and the DVD isn't shipped until sometime in November, but as long as she doesn't read this website she'll still be surprised.  Who expects a birthday present a month late?  (Outside of my sisters, mothers, fathers, and friends?)

For your enjoyment, I recommend that you check out the Flight of the Conchords song Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros.  It is very funny.  It is also probably findable on Youtube. 

Say Hi

Another group that I absolutely adore, Say Hi To Your Mom, recently changed their name to the shorter "Say Hi", and put out their newest album, "The Wishes and the Glitch".  The album is supposed to be released on Feb. 5th, but if you are up on the interweb stuff you can order it from their website and get it now.  It is a mere $7 for the digital download, which is I think a bit inaccurately named as the "Immediate Digital Download" because I ordered two hours ago but haven't received any download instructions yet.  I suppose they will show up within a day or so, but that doesn't quite fit my description of "Immediate".  More like, rapid.  According to the FAQ, you should get the link for the download from 12-24 hours after your order, or on Monday if you hit them up over the weekend.  I guess that means that they have a human approving the process somehow, which kind of baffles me since you really can automate the whole process.  It is kind of rapid I guess, but not nearly what I would call "Immediate".

Still, I'm a huge Say Hi fan, I absolutely love their 2004 album "Numbers and Mumbles", and like their other stuff as well.  I'm really excited to listen to the new one - even more than the new Radiohead album.  With Radiohead, I expect a good album.  With Say Hi, I expected something that could be only good, but might possibly be mind-blowing, or at least has a very good chance of being very specific to me and my life.  What I mean is that I can sometimes very strongly identify with Say Hi's music in a way that the more large-issue, big-world, Radiohead stuff doesn't reach me. 

Radiohead will not sing about being a 13-year-old kid hanging out with your friends dreaming of robots and spaceships.  Say Hi very well might.  Or he might have a song about falling in love with a girl, and then falling out of love with that girl, but not wanting to face it, and wanting to talk about spaceships instead of the relationship.  Sometimes I misunderstand and relate so poorly to women that I don't understand why a conversation about spaceship design would be a bad thing when we should be talking about failings in communication about our relationship. 

I really like the range that can come out of Say Hi.  Of course, not everything is gold, but I think having valleys to go along with your peaks makes life more interesting.


September 30, 2007

One week with Papa and Daughter (パパとムスメの七日間)

On Saturday I was working at the computer with the TV on, and came across a re-broadcast of the first two episodes of パパとムスメの七日間, a Japanese weekend drama that was on a while back. I usually don't watch Japanese TV since it consists of essentially talentless タレント芸の人 (celebrities) on quiz shows, or possibly cooking shows, or quite possibly celebrity cooking quiz travel shows. Actually, you can draw any keywords from the set (cooking, celebrity, quiz, game, challenge survival course, travel, food) and come up with a plausible Japanese TV show. I have to admit that I enjoy some of the survival course shows, but generally I don't watch too much Japanese TV.

Every once in a while I'll watch a drama, but because they are always broadcast on some sort of schedule and I don't generally work regular hours I find it really hard to watch something broadcast on a schedule.

This drama, A week with Papa and Daughter, is only seven shows long. It was broadcast on the weekend, and has a kind of short run (usually they are 12 episodes or so I would guess?) That is a short enough run that I can get into it, and since I just "watched" two episodes I headed over to d-addicts.com and downloaded the rest of the series.

I really recommend it for intermediate and advanced level Japanese speakers. It is a funny series, and fairly easy to understand. A very brief description of the series:

A daughter, Koume, and her father (papa) don't get along very well. Returning from Grandma's house one day, they eat a magical peach that switches their bodies around, and hilarity ensues. The father works at a famous beauty supplies company, and is in charge of a new product launch: the perfume Beautiful Dream that they are aiming at high school girls up to office ladies.

The daughter, Koume, is a high school student with a crush on a student on the soccer team. You can imagine how a high school girl trying to be the boss of a project at work could be difficult (and also how a high school student could be useful for directing the product direction.) Of course, her father isn't going to have any easy time with the midterm tests or Koume's high school crush...

I found the entire series over on d-addicts in Japanese, and it looks like they also have English and Chinese subtitles for it.

It's worth checking out!

September 15, 2007

On the outside looking in

A quick post.

Today has been a peaceful Saturday, where I woke up early, did some housework, cleaned up around the place, and caught up on casual website reading. I also enjoyed my traditional hour or two at the local coffee shop reading my Japanese book - I will eventually finish this thing, but it might take me another six months.

I went home and started to read a few academic research papers related to some work stuff.

At about five thirty I decided to head to the local supermarket to buy some orange juice and start some rice for dinner. Once outside my door, I heard some shouting and drums, and realized that I was about to run into another festival of some kind. I vaguely remembered seeing signs advertising for recruits to help carry the portable shrines for a festival coming up in mid September, which is about now.

Walking half a block to the East shopping street, I caught sight of a small portable shrine being carried by some kids down the road, and right at the parking lot on the corner a more unusual scene. (For an American, seeing something more unusual than a portable shrine carried by kids who are chanting and walking in unison looks odd even to me.)

This all happened quite quickly, but here is what I saw:

A well-dressed Japanese man in his mid to late thirties, prostrating himself in the traditional Japanese fashion (土下座.) The open door and vacant driver's seat of a black luxury SUV in the middle of the road seemed oddly out of place; you don't usually see those things with the door open and engine running, vacant. Standing in front of the man was an older, slightly pudgy Japanese man in traditional dress - the kind that you commonly see at festivals worn by the people participating or working there, perhaps a happi (半被), all in black. He was yelling at the other man, and it was scary. He had a rough edge to his voice, reminding me of what the Yakuza in the movies sound like. This was all quite quick, and I didn't know what was going on, but I heard things like "What were you thinking" and "why'd ya do that?" -- or things to that general meaning.

Then the older man kicked the kneeling man, in the face. His wooden sandals flew off. I kind of spaced out momentarily, but then noticed that he kicked the guy with his other foot. His other sandal flew off. He went and retrieved them, berated the guy some more, and I froze.

I was thinking "This is not right!" I wanted to go over to see if the man who had been kicked was ok, but suddenly was absolutely convinced that the man in black was Yakuza, and that this was a dangerous situation.

The most dangerous situation that I've been in since I moved to Japan a year and a half ago. It was dangerous in an unusual way; I knew that if I just turned my head slightly, and watched the portable shrine procession go by, nothing would happen to me. In fact, there were many people in the exact same situation that I was in: the traffic conductors for the procession, who were not policemen, but were some sort of official with power over directing traffic, a few people who came to watch the processing, the local shopkeepers. It only made me more worried when I saw that the shopkeepers were looking at the man getting kicked and then intentionally looking away.

The reason this is scary is because the Yakuza are a fact of life in Japan. In general it isn't something that you notice or are supposed to notice, but it is clear that they exist. As an outsider, I have trouble knowing exactly what is going on often, but in this case it was clear that the people around me were afraid of acting against this guy, which scared me even more.

Of course, it could also be that in general Japanese people are not likely to get involved in business that isn't their own, but for that same reason anytime you see someone that is blatantly breaking the social rules in Japan, that guy is probably in a position of power.

(Or alternatively, has little power at all. Another case entirely is a recent fight that I saw on the street. A business-suited man who had clearly been drinking a lot was arguing with another guy that looked pretty much the same as him. He lunged at the guy and started swinging. The friends of the two, also business men who had drank plenty, pulled the two guys apart, did some yelling at each other and themselves, then walked off in separate directions. That is somehow entirely compliant with the Japanese sense of social behavior.)

About by the time I had processed this and consciously decided to not get involved, the Yakuza-like man turned around, and walked away slowly, as if now everything was fine. The character on the back of his jacket was not legible for me, but was not one of the local groups involved in the festival (to the degree that it wasn't repeated on any of the hundred or so jackets that I saw afterwards.) The character itself looked somehow scary to me; I saw (or imagined?) the radical for sword (刀) in there.

People ignored the man who had been kicked, who continued to prostrate himself, while his glasses had flown off somewhere to his right. Luckily I didn't see any blood on the man -- unlike a particularly scary incident I saw once in Roppongi many years ago, where a man's glasses were punched into his eyeball and there was an unsettling amount of blood spurting out. I turned to head towards the main street, following the Yakuza-man, who somehow disappeared quite completely even though I was watching him. Only about one hundred meters ahead of me, turned a corner, and completely disappeared.

Walking up the road the people involved with the procession (the traffic people) were talking about the incident and didn't seem to know much more than I did. Behind us one of the shopkeepers went to talk to the kicked man. We got to the main road, and they alerted the police, who didn't seem too happy to hear about it. I watched some more of the portable shrine procession, and a few minutes later noticed an ambulance headed down towards where I live, and presumably the kicked man.

Afterwards I did my shopping, and walked home. At the corner where things took place -- perhaps two hundred meters from my apartment building -- the kicked man was still there, kneeling now, but not with his head to the ground as before. He was not talking the the policeman, who was questioning him. There was no sign of the ambulance. The people that remained in the area were talking in hushed voices, clearly not interested in getting involved.

While I suppose I could have gone and spoke with either the man or the policeman, as a complete outsider in a situation where the Japanese themselves were also outsiders, I thought it was best to leave this alone. I went home. A few steps later, I passed the same luxury SUV, this time pulled back slightly away from the road.

I have no idea what happened. I have a feeling that it was some kind of near traffic accident, but I really don't know. I honestly do not understand why the man was so passive, or just willing to take the abuse from the Yakuza. I can guess, and I'm sure that it is fairly tightly tied to the Japanese culture, but I don't know if that guy is involved with the nefarious underworld, or just an unlucky regular guy to cross paths with the scary Japanese underbelly. In any case, the Police didn't seem to have much to do with it either from the point of view of prevention, investigation, or follow-up care.

Times like this (this is, of course, the most poignant one that I've had) really make me feel like a complete outsider in this country.

September 4, 2007

I haven't been swimming in ages

So, due to a variety of circumstances I have become a member of the Fitness Club Esforta, near Suidoubashi. Today for the first time, I decided to go down there and take a swim.

I haven't been swimming in ages. I have been running a few times a week, so I like to think that I'm in pretty good shape. Unfortunately, I haven't been losing any weight at all, so I thought I would add swimming to my regime. I've never really been swimming for real exercise though, so I wasn't sure about what to expect. I hoped to be able to swim for about 20 minutes.

The fitness club has lots of things that they loan out to you: new balance sneakers, towels, socks, and even bathing suits. The bathing suits are speedos, and I took the second largest size, but the thing was skin tight. Since I took my glasses off though, I couldn't see anything and it didn't seem too embarrassing. Everyone else was wearing them too. How Japanese. We all match!

So I got into the pool, and swam a lap. My form was atrocious. I didn't know when to breathe. I'm pretty sure that when I breathed in it was the wrong time because I was having a lot of trouble with it. The second lap my arms were heavy. The third lap was really tough, so I tried to swim it on my back, but I couldn't see very well. The fourth lap was a very slow affair, with heavy arms and it was hard to breathe.

That was it. I got out and checked the clock. Only ten minutes had passed. I couldn't believe how heavy my arms were, and I was starting to get a bit light-headed. I changed and took a fifteen minute break before heading back to the station.

By the time I got back to Jiyugaoka, about an hour later, I was fine again. My arms had quit tingling and my head was no longer light.

Next time I'm trying for 11 minutes.

September 2, 2007

(Unexpected) Jiyugaoka Portable Shrine Festival

One of the things that I have really come to look forward to is a weekend routine that I've fallen into over the past few months. I've posted previously about reading Japanese novels, and have continued to try to struggle through another book. The current book, Murakami Haruki's Kafka by the Sea is significantly harder to read.

Anyway, on the weekends I usually go to get lunch at Excelsior, a local coffee shop in Jiyugaoka. I like the café in front of the station, which has a large seating area on the second floor with a wide window that gives a nice view of the plaza. I also look forward to their "Four Cheese and Mushroom" sandwich along with a hot chocolate. I usually spend about an hour reading, maybe an hour and half if I am interested in the story, and then I wander around Jiyugaoka (usually hit the arcade for a game of Street Fighter II) and bike back home.

This particular Sunday, I was a little surprised because there was a nice wooden stage built up in the center of the plaza, which usually happens when a festival is being held. Not too much longer, and a whole bunch of shouting and chanting people round the corner carrying a portable shrine (Mikoshi, 神輿). I've blogged about other festivals with portable shrines before as well, most notably the Asakusa Sanjya Matsuri, but this one was interesting to me because it is a local festival. These portable shrines all came from somewhere nearby, a temple that I can go visit. Nice.

I spent about an hour and a half eating lunch, reading, and watching the festival. It worked out very well because I finished a complete chapter in one sitting. I think it was just a short chapter though. At the pace I'm currently reading at, I should be finished in another six months.

There are lots of things that I like about Japan (and a number of things that I do not!) These random, everyday occurrences brighten up my days.

August 31, 2007

A Visit to the Japanese National Archives

Last week, I took a trip to the National Archives of Japan, arranged by Visiting U.C. Berkely Professor Fred Gey.  I didn't realize this, but the National Archives are a short five minute walk from where I work in Jinbouchou, right next to the Japanese National Museum of Modern Art


The mission statement of the National Archives is to preserve important cultural documents from Japan's history.  The documents in the archive range from the 1600s up until about the end of World War II.  They have some extensive, high resolution scans of maps, pictures, documents, scrolls, and so on available on the web.  I was very surprised that they are using JPEG2000, which I really haven't seen in use anywhere but generally am in favor of.  They have some really great maps of Japan from times ranging back in the 1700s to just after World War II.  I am going to try to find where I live on one of these olds maps one of these days - but I'll have to do that on my windows machine since I don't have JPG2000 support on my Mac. 

There is a really cute flash-based GUI with a man walking over a timeline that lets you click on a year, and then browse through documents from that year.  Unfortunately, I can't get Flash to display Japanese characters to me correctly. 

The National Archive is also somehow related to the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records, which has an interesting online retrospective on the US-Japan War Talks based on documents from the time.  Based on the talk with the engineers there, it sounds like they have helped spread their technical know-how on archive architecture and document search to a few other institutions. 

Anyway, there is a wealth of information there to look through.  I don't see how anyone can get through any reasonable amount of it in a lifetime.  The maps are really great though.

August 26, 2007

The Unexpected Dance of the Dead



On Saturday I went to Roppongi Hills to see the movie "Ratatouie". In Japanese, this movie is called "Remi's delicious restraurant" which I actually think is a much better title. I had no idea what the movie was about when I saw the title "Ratatouie", but have a bit of an idea when I see the thing about Remi having a good restaurant. Anyway, I moved to Japan about a year and a half ago, and in that time this is the third movie that I've seen. Back in New York, I used to see about three movies a month usually. That's a pretty big difference. A lot of it has to do with costs: movies here are about $16 a ticket, which is expensive even when comapred to New York's outrageous $10 ticket. It also just isn't something that people do often here, so back in the US when you are trying to think of something to do, a group movie is a pretty normal option. It just isn't usually an option here.

Anyway, we headed out to Roppongi Hills (there is a nice theater there) to see the movie. It's a Pixar movie, and they've put out some great stuff in the past. In general, I like that they are making CG movies, but I'm even more impressed because they really focus on the story and make movies that are appreciated by both kids and adults alike. So I'll generally try to see a movie just based on the Pixar name. This movie was no exception; I thought it was really good, and quite funny. It kind of creeped me out a bit to think about a rat in the kitchen, but once I got over that, it was an easy movie to enjoy. You should check it out if you have a chance.

What really surprised me though is what came after the movie. Roppongi Hills is a very new, very upscale area. It is kind of like a large Trump tower residence merged with a very upscale shopping mall and wall street business tower all rolled into one. And after we left the theater, down in the public space at the base of the tower, a festival was going on.

This wasn't just any old festival either, it was a Obon Dance, a kind of festival that is similar to the Mexican "Day of the Dead". Of course, like a lot of things in my life in Japan, I don't really know the details about this, and am just judging it based on some information gleaned from a Japanese history class a few years back and whatever other random information I've picked up from numerous dubious sources over the years. I really should do some sort of research on the subject, but I kind of like living my life in Tokyo in a kind of haze of not-quite-understood cultural events and misinterpretations.

In my imagination this festival is about respecting your deceased relatives and showing them they way to a kind of heaven. According to the story that runs in my head, we build a big bonfire and there are specific dances around this bonfire that help the spirits of the dead find us, their remaining relatives on the Earth, and through these dances they find the way to a kind of personal place of rest. That sounds really nice to me. In fact, I was just talking to a good friend about this recently, who told me that "Japan is a good place to mourn."

I think that is an insightful saying. Japan has been around a long time, and they have institutions and customs prepared for many events. When you look at this in a wider way, I am reminded of how at work there is a seeminging infinite variety of paperwork, each needing your personal stamp for processing, to cover any conceivable situation. Japanese people like to have a set formulae, a pattern, for ways to deal with expected or unexpected circumstances, and this extends to ceremonies.

It is timely because about a month ago, for the first time in my life, someone close to me passed away. My grandfather on my father's side passed away. It was very sudden, quite soon after he went to the hospital, and I was thinking about going back to attend the funeral, but there just wasn't time. That doesn't mean that I can't mourn, and I thought that going to an Obon Dance would be a good way to do that.

I'm not really sure how typically the Roppongi Hills Obon Dance was as far as these things go. It would be like trying to evaluate American block parties based on one that you once saw in Beverly Hills: almost certainly not the norm. Still, I really enjoyed it, and while I didn't really see how this connected with the spirits of dead ancestors, it was a fun and interesting festival.

I'm going to try to go to another one in a more normal town next year. The season of Obon has already ended, but I'm glad that I got to see this one, and I think Grandpa is having a great time where-ever he is, telling jokes and funny stories.


August 18, 2007

Fireworks Festivals

On Thursday some friends from work and I went to the Jinguu Fireworks Festival. This is a large fireworks festival that takes place in the middle of Tokyo, near Yoyogi Park and Jinguu Temple. They put up about 10,000 fireworks. The four of us left work and walked over from a nearby train stop, parking ourselves in a big parking lot with a few thousand other people.

Of course, like all festivals in Japan, or in fact, just any old time in Japan, we've got to have beer. There are no problems with public drinking in Japan; vending machines that sell beer are common. I was once surprised when on the subway, at about six o'clock, a salary man returning home from work popped open a beer while on the subway. We also picked up some snacks on the walk to the park at some of the stands set up conveniently to sell this kind of thing.

I enjoy fireworks, but there is definitely a different aesthetic when it comes to Japanese and American fireworks festivals. It isn't exactly true to say that Americans like things big, fast, and furious while the Japanese prefer to take things more slowly, sending up the fireworks one at a time for individual appreciation, but it isn't too far from that either. I also think that Japanese fireworks shows go on for a long time, usually about an hour long. I have a hard time sitting on the ground for that long, but that's just me perhaps.

After the fireworks, we stopped by a Yakitori place and had a great dinner. (None of this is helping me lose weight at all.)


Two days later, on Saturday night I planned to go to the Setagaya Fireworks Festival. To tell the truth, I wasn't looking forward to another fireworks festival, especially because this time I would be going alone. There were two main reasons that prompted me to go: first, I had just purchased a Jinbei, (甚平) a kind of traditional Japanese casual outfit, and I don't think I'll have many chances to wear it. Sure, that's a minor reason, but it is a reason. The major reason is that I live in Setagaya, and pay resident taxes in Setagaya, and they are expensive. Really expensive. So if my county is putting on a show, fireworks or otherwise, I'm totally going to go and see my tax dollars at work. So I went!

This fireworks show is only about seven minutes away from where I live by train, or about a forty minute walk at a slow pace. I take the train up to Futagotamagawa, which I consider a fairly small, uncrowded station. It was jam packed. One of the great things about festivals and fireworks shows is that you see lots of people wearing traditional Yukata and so on. That is always fun.

On the walk down to the river there were lots of little stands set up selling foods and stuff. I picked up some meats on a stick -- Japanese people love all sorts of foods on sticks, I'll write about that sometime -- and bought way too much. This one place was selling pork, chicken, and beef on a stick, with either salt or sauce flavoring. I bought one of each, and in the end only was able to eat three of them. Man, my eyes were too big for my stomach then.

I walked about a third of the way home from the starting point, sat down, and watched the fireworks. I must admit that they did a good job. They had some funny smiley-face fireworks and also a few cute cat ones. The cat ones were pretty hard to make out, but they had a hint of whiskers, and little pink triangle ears, so if the angle was right on the explosion they looked like cats.

After the fireworks ended, I decided to walk the rest of the way home, and got to Baskin Robbins in time for an ice cream - the first in about a month. I've got to be careful, this could become habit-forming.

August 12, 2007

Summer Sonic 2007 Music Festival: Day 2

On the second day I woke up a big later since I didn't have to go through the wrist-band exchange shuffle.  An uneventful trip back to the Chiba area.

"Blue Man Group"

The first "group" I wanted to see was the Blue Man Group.  They were up on the Mountain Stage, the largest of the indoor stages.  Blue Man Group have been around in New York for a long time, and I've always wanted to to see them.  The stage had two large screens to the left or right onto which they projected the action, so you could really get a great view from just about anywhere in there.  The show was surprisingly well suited to this kind of music festival: the drumming and stuff is great, the humor is universal, and they had a bit where they played famous songs (Devo's Whip-it, etc.) with little gags at the end.  They also had a kind of demonstration of useful moves that you can use while watching a show: head shake, hand pump, etc.  I really enjoyed the show, and it really set the mood for the rest of the day.

"Tilly and the Wall"

The first real act of the day was Tilly and the Wall.  I haven't heard any of their stuff, but I've heard lots of good things about them on the podcasts that I listen to - mostly Shifted Sound and NPR's All Songs Considered.  Also a few people over on the Bishop Allen forums like them, so I was interested.  They are also from the surprisingly active Omaha scene, and are connected to Bright Eyes in some way.

The most interesting thing about them is that they do not have a drummer.  They have a dedicated tap-dancer, and each of the ladies (there are three of them) had special little wooden stages set up which were wired for drum-like sounds.  It was really impressive.  They also seemed to be very happy to be in Japan, the lead guitars guy said that it had been a dream of theirs to play Japan, and he really sounded like he meant it.  Anyway, these guys are on my radar now, and if I get a chance I'm going to pick up one of their albums. 

"Hadouken!"

Next up was Hadouken!  They are an interesting-looking group out of England which caught my eye on the schedule because of their name for obvious reasons.  Risa bought their album a while back and really likes them so she rushed way up front.  I hung back a bit, and then as they got going (and were much more heavy / rap / metal than I expected) it started to get pretty wild.  I stuck around for a while, but left early so I could catch another group that I've heard about from NPR that looked very interesting to me.

"The Polyphonic Spree"

The Polyphonic Spree is a large orchestral rock fusion band, with about 20 people on stage, a small chorus, horns, woodwinds and strings, and even a harp.  They have been accused of being too happy, but I don't think that is a problem.  I really liked their song, and seeing them live was pretty amazing.  They were a real high energy act.  They are definitely on my list of albums to get.  Actually, along with Modest Mouse, this was my favorite act of Summer Sonic.  Highly recommended.  I didn't really know much about them going in, but that wasn't a big problem: the orchestral format, with such a wide variety of instruments, was really interesting to listen to and watch. 

Most surprising, one of their final songs was a cover of Nirvana's Lithium.  It was a really good cover, and I really got into it.  Completely unexpected! 

Update: I just bought the Polyphonic Spree's latest album, The Fragile Army, and the Japanese version has three extra bonus tracks (good thing, since albums are so expensive here.  This one was a reasonable 2,200 yen though) one of which was that excellent Lithium cover.  I'm really glad I picked this album up. 

"Bright Eyes / Karaoke Sonic"

Next up was Bright Eyes, with Connor Oberst, one of the guys that really set up the Omaha music scene explosion.  I also do not know Bright Eyes' music well, but have heard a lot of their stuff on the podcasts that I listen to.  I was looking forward to seeing them a lot, but after all the standing around I had already done I was getting pretty tired, so I took a break.  Right next to the Sonic stage, where I've been spending most of my time, was a little break area with some benches and a secondary "Side Stage" area that was doing all sorts of strange things during the festival.  One of them was some sort of group of people that put on stare contents, Staremaster, in fact I think I saw a battle between Tsukika and Araki Tomoe, but I am not positive about that.  I distinctly remember avoiding watching a contest that had Love Sexy Otawaya vs. someone else.

Anyway, I should backtrack a bit to earlier in the morning.  I took a break before Modest Mouse and at the same sidestage they had a Karaoke Sonic setup.  I wandered by the registration desk, and one of the women there asked me if I wanted to sign up since there were still a few spots left.  I was really, really tempted: I enjoy Karaoke, and there are a few Japanese songs that I like to sing.  It would probably go over well.  At the time though, I had two misgivings: first, there were a bunch of bands that I wanted to see, and this would probably take some time.  Second, the only song that came to mind immediately was Dragon Ash's "Grateful Days", which is a great song, but I haven't been going to Karaoke at all lately. I knew that on the final third of the song I would stumble since it is a fairly fast-paced rap and that wouldn't be so cool.  So I declined in the end, but it was a close call. 

Well, later in the afternoon when I went back for a break I sat down and started to watch the Karaoke Sonic thing.  The big surprise came when they introduced the guest panel of judges, and included in the group was Razon Ramon of "Hard Gay" fame!  I know I've touched on it briefly before in this blog, but I don't really get Japanese humor that is on the television.  It just doesn't really seem funny to me.  I think there are cultural differences, and probably I just don't have enough background to understand a lot of the humor, but in general I am not impressed with Japanese comedians.  Hard Gay is another story though: I do think he is funny.  I mean, the main gag, that he is a totally gay guy doing completely inappropriate things in inappropriate situations, is fairly easy to understand.  I actually like that a lot of his schtick is trying to teach kids and do other good acts for people, all while being a complete gay stereotype that I don't really even think exists in Japan.  At least in New York, I know where I can go if I want to bump into leather-clad S&M gay men, but in Japan I think that stuff is confined only to for-pay sex clubs and does not surface in everyday society. 

I also kind of like how the character brings up some discussion of homosexuality in Japan, where it is just usually not spoken about.  I don't think people here are homophobic, they just in general don't think about things that outside the mainstream "group" dynamic.  So it is a bit interesting from an investigation of common social norms sort of theme.

Anyway, I was really, really disappointed now that I had not signed up for Karaoke Sonic.  Even if I botched my song completely - and a few minutes after sitting down I realized I could also sing Sorimachi's "Poison", the theme song to the GTO drama from many years back - I would still get a chance to meet with and talk to Hard Gay.  Also, compared to the morning, this afternoon session was packed: there were maybe a hundred people watching.  That would be kind of fun, to get up in front of all those people and sing.  Even worse, I decided to stick around to listen to the banter and see how well the competitors sang, and I am positive that at worst I would have come in second place.  There were only about six people (some of those were actually two people in pairs, but six competitors) and I would have gone a long way on "white guy singing in Japanese" alone. 

There was one foreigner from New Zealand, but he was pretty strange: he was asian, and kind of bad pronunciation on his song, a My Chemical Romance ballad about parades or something.  It was a pretty bad song to choose because it was slow, very repetitive, and boring: the beat wasn't fast, and it was really sappy.  Those are the worst songs to Karaoke (easy to do though.)  There was a Japanese guy who sang a British song from a group that was playing Summer Sonic, and he was good, but not great.  Two other girls sang a song from the 80s and went over well, and two more women - officially foreign ers from China, but they lived in Japan for quite a while - that went over well also.  The other memorable competitor was the winner, a Japanese woman who sang The Spice Girl's "Wannabe" with extreme vigor and vim.  She won, and I doubt that I would have done better than her, but I could have at least come in second, and I'm sure I would have had an interesting conversation with Hard Gay.  Man, I'm really kicking myself over that. 

Next time there is some sort of public Karaoke Competition I don't care what sort of objections I come up with, I'm going to enter. 

"Cyndi Lauper"

I wasn't sure what I should go see in this slot, but in the end Cyndi Lauper won out for the nostalgia factor.  I can't really say that I was ever a huge fan, but I heard a lot of her stuff on the radio when I was younger, and I wanted to see how she was doing now.  I was really surprised because the place was packed for her show.  I guess there are a lot of Japanese Cyndi Lauper fans out there.  I had never seen her live so I had no idea what to expect, but she was very energetic and chatty.  While living in New York she often went to some sushi bar where the guys there taught her some Japanese, and so she was using all the words that she could remember, just simple things like "genki" and "daijyoubu" and so on.  It was pretty cool though. 

She was running all over the stage, and in between songs would segue off into strange stories that I'm sure nobody really understood.  Even as a native speaker, understanding was an issue because these were really tangential and non-sequitur type things to say.  I guess she is in her 50s now, but she wore a short skirt, and playfully flashed her hot-pink panties at the crowd a few times.  It seems strange to think of someone at her age acting like that, but she was really having a good time, and so was the crowd. 

Her final song was "Girl's Just Want to Have Fun", and she went back behind stage and pulled on about twenty people from other bands and so on to dance with her.  It was really wild, the crowd was really into it and everyone was having a great time.  Her show was, surprisingly to me, a really good one.

"Cornelius Group"

Cornelius Group is another group that I've heard very good things about, but don't know much about myself.  They are a kind of downtempo, relaxed, media band that sets their music to experimental type movies and such when they play.  They had a pretty intricate set-up on stage with a big screen for projected video behind them.  It was very nice, but this kind of music and "experience" is something that I would rather be able to take in while seated, relaxing, and maybe with a drink or two.  The music that they play is something I wouldn't mind having on in the background, but not something to which I would want to devote my full attention.

"Pet Shop Boys"

The final band of the night, and the entire festival, was Pet Shop Boys.  I've always been a fan of the Pet Shop Boys, but not a rabid one.  The first CD that I ever bought was Pet Shop Boys' Actually, and in Japan at that (when my dad brought me here for like a week when I was 14.)  They also had a very intricate stage setup for video projection.  It was just the two Pet Shop Boys themselves, Neil Tennant who provides main vocals, keyboards and very occasionally guitar, and Chris Lowe on keyboards.  They also then had two dancers, all they did was dance, and two more backup singers, who also did a lot of dancing, and a total Diva female singer.  The others were, as you might guess, completely hot men who often went shirtless.  I'm sure the women in the crowd loved it. 


They put on a really good show with very intricate choreographed dance moves, and three costume changes.  Very impressive.  It was apparently the last night of their World Tour, and they really put a lot of energy out there.  They also sang that interesting U2 mashup cover of "Where the Streets Have No Name". 

Final Thoughts

I was surprised that there were so many good covers.  I guess the groups that I picked to see also have some sort of connection to the music that I remember fondly, so it shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but it was really great to hear the Cure's "Just like Heaven", Nirvana's "Lithium", and the U2 mashup cover of "Where the Streets Have no Name". 

After the entire weekend, I was just exhausted.  It was lots of fun, but really tiring.  If there are some bands that I like going next year, I'll try to go again.  It is for sure a good deal for the money compared to most live shows in Japan.  One other thing that I think is important is to start to familiarize yourself with the bands that you plan on seeing a month or two in advance.  I would have had a lot more fun had I been more familiar with some of the bands that I went to see.  Still, a really fun experience. 

Summer Sonic 2007 Tokyo Music Festival: Day 1

(日本語版 )

Summer Sonic is a two-day summer music festival held in Chiba's Makuhari Messe and nearby Marine Stadium.  It is a huge event, with probably around 80 bands playing over two days, and unofficial concerts on the side as well.  This was my first time every going:  I really wanted to go last year since We Are Scientists were playing, but I had a conference to attend and was back in America at the time.  This year, I didn't have as much of a connection to the bands, but there were some great acts, and it is a real value for your money compared to the standard Japanese live show fare, which is about $45 for a ticket to see one band (maybe two if you are lucky.)  The two-day Summer Sonic Pass was about $275, and you can see about sixteen shows if you are tough enough...

I had to wake up at about 7am to get to Makuhari.  It takes about an hour if you hit the right trains, or an hour and a half if you get the local ones, taking Oiimachi line to Oiimachi, transferring to the Rinkai line to Shin-Kiba, then taking Keiyou line to Maihama Makuhari.  At the station there were crazy numbers of people, and they were making announcements about how it is crowded, buy your return ticket in advance, etc.  Exiting the station there were lots of people with hand-made signs asking to buy tickets and so on.  Also, there were lots of older guys (almost positively Yakuza) doing ticket scalping trying to sell tickets.  They were also buying extra tickets.  I have no idea what the markup on this kind of thing is, but those guys were around for the whole festival.  I don't think they could have made that much money because I never saw anyone buy from them, but who knows.

It was a pretty long walk from the station to Makuhari Messe (the convention center), where I exchanged my ticket for a two-day wristband pass.  I wandered around for a bit and then headed over to the Marine Stadium since the bands I wanted to check out in the morning started on that stage.  It was crazy hot, probably about 36 degrees celsius very humid, not a cloud in the sky with a fierce sun beating down.  I had put on lots of sunblock since I'm whiter than a scared ghost, but I was still worried about getting sunburned.  Over at the stadium I walked around for a while, bought a Pokari Sweat and kept wandering around.  Completely by coincidence I ran into Lisa and Kana, who I knew were coming, but didn't expect to easily be able to find in the massive crowds.  We had more than an hour before the first act, so we headed over to the Beach Stage (literally on the beach!) where Lisa said I should be able to get a small towel from the Tower Records stand (to help with protection from the sun!)

"Onsoku Line (Speed of Sound Line)"

While at the beach stage we saw the opening act Onsoku Line, a three man group of rap-style music.  They were pretty good, and certainly were fitting for the beach stage.  It was lots of fun even though I hadn't heard of them before.

We headed over to the Marine Stage and got a spot very close to the stage - maybe like 6 rows of people back.  It was crazy hot.  I had my towel wrapped around my head and under my hat so my neck wouldn't get burned.  Almost everyone else did too.  Did I mention that it was hot?  Before the shows really started to get going, some dude came out to warm us up.  I didn't know who he was, but he was maybe half or something because his English was quite good, although the whole thing was mostly in Japanese.  After he did his thing (MC in charge) Nishioka Sumiko (you can see some of the other characters she has played, as well as a bit as her current SM Mistress character in this youtube video) came out and did a kind of routine.  It was kind of funny, but like most Japanese comedians the comedy comes from just shouting at people something vaguely inappropriate (you guys are all pig bastards!) She has a kind of leather-wearing Mistress like domination schtick.

"The Pipettes"

Next up was The Pipettes, a female singer trio from England.  They had a backing band who wore cute monogrammed sweaters, but the act is just the three women, who are singers.  They are like a blast from the 1950s, wore cute polka-dot outfits, and had completely choreographed dances with intricate hand movements for each of their songs.  The really funny thing is that their song lyrics were mostly completely at odds with their poppy happy sound.  They reminded me of Lily Allen in a way because of that.  I really thought they put on a great live show, although I'm not really interested in buying their album because musically I just wasn't grooving that 50s sound too much.  It isn't bad, it is just at the price of albums out here, I've got a lot of other things to spend my money on before I head after these girls.  I really did enjoy the show though.  Lots of fun.

"OK Go"

Next up was OK Go.  I knew of them because of their Youtube Video for Here it Goes Again, which is really great.  I didn't know much else about these guys, but they put on a good show, had some pretty heavy rock sound, and weren't bad at all.  I like their style.

"The Editors"

I first found out about The Editors when they toured through Japan with We Are Scientists.  I really liked them then, they reminded me a bit of Joy Division.  Actually, when I was chatting with Keith from the Scientists he introduced me to the guitarist and the bassist of the band.  They seemed like nice guys.  This time the guitarist was wearing a kind of Power-Rangers type shirt that really went over well in Japan I think.  The Editors put on a really great show, and the lead singer was crazy nuts with his strange arm movements and stuff.  He was twisting his arms around behind his back, moving around strangely, all that stuff.  It was pretty cool.  They really rocked it hard, and if you don't have their album "The Back Room" I recommend you pick it up.

After the Editors, I was exhausted from hours of standing in the hot sun, so we all headed back to the indoors Makuhari Messe area for a break and lunch.  I really wanted to check out Puffy AmiYumi, but instead I had lunch and took a bit of a break.  If I had really killed myself and ran around like crazy I probably could have seen a few more bands, but that makes things seem more like work.  It was more fun to relax and see the bans that I really wanted to see and not worry too much about scheduling, just try to have a good time.  Lunch also involved waiting in lines and just took too long.  I did have a nice lunch though: Fried Yaizu don, which was a fried maguro fish on rice.  It was really good too.  While the convention center was air conditioned, it was so hot and there were so many people that it wasn't really all that cool.  Still, after about an hour, I had finally cooled down a bit and quite sweating. That wouldn't last for long though, since next up was

"Interpol"

Interpol was playing on the Sonic stage, a medium sized indoor stage.  I've always like Interpol since their first album "Turn on the bright lights" (still their best, IMHO) and since they are also a New York band I have a special place in my heart for them.  Their show was really good.  I was up front so had a really nice view, and they played lots of songs that I knew so it was really great. I really think that Editors and Interpol make a pretty nice pairing.

"Dinosaur Jr."

After Interpol I stayed at the Sonic stage for Dinosaur Jr.  I used to listen to these guys way back in high school, I would remember Eric and I in the car driving back from track practice after school with these guys on the radio.  They broke up a while ago, but recently the band has been re-formed with new members apparently.  I should have known this, since it is their style, but the distortion and feedback was just crazy.  The volume wasn't any louder than any of the other bands, but with all of the feedback the high pitched sounds were just unbearable.  I really needed some earplugs for this one.  I closed my ears and listened to the first two songs - including a surprising cover of the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" - and then went next door to relax and sit down for a while.

"Modest Mouse"

Probably the band that I was most looking forward to was (or second most, hard to tell) was Modest Mouse.  I really love their new album "We were dead before the boat even sank".  I was really amazed that Johnny Marr, the famous guitarist from The Smiths, was playing with them, and right up there on stage in front of me.  I never thought that I would have the chance to see Johnny Marr live, but there you are.  They played a lot of songs that I knew and just put on a great show.  One funny (or sad?) thing that happened is that the lead singer Isaac Brock went down into the crowd once, and when he came back up to the stage someone had taken his hat.  In between every song break he was talking about his hat.  First it was "Hey man, give me back my hat" and then it progressively got more aggressive like "Man, do you know how hard it is to find a hat that you like?" and "You can't just go taking people's hats for nothing!", "This isn't the Isaac gives away his hat 2007 tour!" and "Man, I don't care if you say you can just comp these things, it doesn't matter if it costs $20 or $1, you can't just go taking people's stuff" and finally "Fuck you in the face, motherfucker!".  I'm with him on that sentiment: that's just shitty to take some guy's stuff just because you want it.  It really sucks that fans act like assholes sometimes.  The show itself was really great though.  They put on a hard-rocking show, and sang a lot of good stuff, and oh my god, Johnny Marr!  It was great.  They were my favorite act of the day, and probably of the two day festival.

"Travis"

I finished things out with Travis I don't really know Travis well; I've heard them on the radio and various podcasts that I listen to, but I don't have any of their albums.  They really sounded great with a nice sound and very good harmony.  I am interested in picking up one of their albums, but I don't know where to start really.

After Travis, I headed home on the super crowded trains.  It took about an hour and a half, and of course the train was super packed.  By the time I got to the Rinkai line though I was able to sit down.  There is at least one good thing to be said about taking a super expensive line that normally people don't ride: you can sit down.  I collapsed into bed, hoping to rest up these old feet for another day of the same punishment tomorrow...

August 10, 2007

Something about Heroes annoys me

I have been watching the NBC show Heroes lately. It is a great show. I really love Hiro, he's a great character.

In general, I really like this show. There is one thing that really bothers me on the show. There are a few people in the show that speak Japanese. The main ones so far have been the Japanese characters, who are all great. It was one of the first times that I've heard George Takei speak Japanese, which was great.

The problem is that there are also some Western people that speak Japanese in the show, and their accents are terrible. Absolutely awful. That alone wouldn't be so bad. What is really horrible is that in one scene where there was some extended white-guy Japanese-speaking action, his accent was horrible but his vocabulary was very good. Nobody that has such a good vocabulary and grasp of Japanese could possibly have such a terrible accent. You would have to be able to tell that your own Japanese sounds wrong and horrible.

Anyway, aside from that the show is great. I'm watching Episode 17 now and sad that I'll soon be up to the "season finale". When will more Heroes be aired? I'm looking forward to it. (That and Battlestar Galactica and Dr. Who.)

August 5, 2007

A quick trip to the Setagaya Art Museum

A friend of mine, Mie, who I met at the wonderful Saraba bar in Jiyugaoka, works at the Setagaya Art Museum. The other day she told Lisa that they were having a fun exhibit at the museum. A guy who writes children's books would do a reading, and then there would be a mini-parade complete with musicians walking down to the nearby Okusawa Temple. It sounded like a lot of fun, so Lisa, Kana, and I decided to check it out.

I had never been to the Setagaya Art Museum before, but have been meaning to go since I'm sure that my tax money supports the place. It is located in the middle of Kinuta Park, about twenty minutes worth of train and bus rides from where I live. I could probably get there in about the same time on a bike, if I had a nice comfortable big bike instead of the little small short-trip fold-able bike that I have now. Anyway, we all headed down there.

We probably would have enjoyed the walk through the park more if it wasn't swelteringly hot and humid. August is a pretty tough month in Japan because just walking outside is enough to get you sweating like a demon. The museum is very nice; much larger than I anticipated, yet still small enough to have a local feel to it. When we headed in, we couldn't find any information about the parade thing, which was slated to begin shortly. Actually, we thought about it for a bit, and figured that walking from here back to Okusawa would take like an hour, and in this crippling weather probably wouldn't even be safe for the age group that was targeted. The lack of information about the event only confirmed our fears: we were at the wrong museum.

Going up to the information desk, we asked about it and indeed, we were in the wrong place. Mie told us that the thing was going on at "her museum" but did not make it clear that she meant the (perhaps ten minute walk from my home) Miyamoto Saburo Museum Annex. I've seen this place before: it is like someone's regular house was taken over by a museum. It is also another place that I'm interested in going, but haven't had the time or motivation to visit yet.

Since we came all this way for some culture, we decided to check out the Aoyama Jiro exhibit. Aoyama Jiro (any relation to the Aoyama Iichome subway stop?) was born in 1901 and pioneered collection of Chinese and Korean ceramics. It was interesting for me because my younger sister is a ceramicist herself, and also Jiro designed book covers, which were totally fascinating.

One thing that really threw me off about the book covers is that the characters were written from right-to-left. At first, I thought I just couldn't read Japanese for some reason, then I thought "Oh, these are the masters and they are printed mirror-like for some sort of printing reasons", but then a closer investigation revealed that the characters were not flipped, just written from right-to-left. I was really confused! I never knew that Japanese was written from right-to-left before exposure to the West. Based on the dates of the magazine covers and such, that form of writing was still going on as late at the 1950's, although my friends all tell me that no, that only happened before the 30s or so. I don't know; I checked the dates on the covers, and there were some there from the 60s even. I suspect it is just an art thing though, and that for the most part the country switched over to a left-to-right writing system earlier. Of course, it never shows up in computer text (man that would cause us computational linguists some trouble!) because computer systems originally were all imported from the West, didn't handle Kanji originally, and by then people had probably switched over.

The exhibition was nice, I really enjoyed it. I'm planning to go back to the museum sometime. Also, we poked a lot of fun at Mie for not being more clear next time we ran into her at Saraba!

July 24, 2007

Pizza: A comarison between Italian, New York, and Japanese perspectives

On my recent trip to Italy, New York, and Dallas, I ate some good food. Great seafood in Italy, and excellent steak and BBQ in Dallas. In New York, one of the things that I most wanted to eat was good old-fashioned New York style Pizza by the slice.

I really like Pizza. I wouldn't say that I love it, but I've always enjoyed a good slice. The problem is that here in Japan, Pizza is very different from what you get in New York, which is my favorite. I haven't really had much Chicago style deep-dish pizza, and while what I have had has been good, I still prefer New York style pizza. Greasy, lots of cheese, thin crust compared to Chicago style, but not super thin. Put some pepperoni on it, and you've got yourself a tasty meal.

In Japan though, Pizza had been adapted to the Japanese palette, and also seems to come more from the Italian thin crust style of Pizza. Japanese pizza often has seafood on it, shrimp is very common, as well as seaweed, bonita (a kind of fish flake), and inexplicably corn and mayonnaise are very popular. While I don't think Japanese pizza is bad, it just doesn't resemble American pizza. When you get a type of pizza that has normal ingredients, you still have the problem that the crust is thin, there is very little tomato sauce, the cheese is sparse, and oh, by the way, the pizza is very small (a large will feed two Americans maybe) and that large also just cost you $30. The first picture shows a current Pizza Hut promotion of a "Double Roll" pizza with both sausage and cheese "ears". Notice that on one half of the pizza is hamburger, complete with small cute mini-patties, not crumbled up as you might get in America, and corn. The other half has the Pizza Hut Gourmet side, which doesn't look too bad. If I poked around their site I could probably dig up some crazy seafood combinations (like the fried shrimp and tartar combination or Seafood mix with shrimp, squid, tuna mayo, broccoli and onion, or just about anything else off of the menu.) Anyway, like I said, while the pizza isn't bad, I don't really consider it in the same food category as American Pizza. It is a distinct category of its own.

While in Italy, I was also determined to try some authentic pizza. I had a nice Prosciutto pizza that was very good, but also isn't what I want when I feel like a New York slice. The crust is light and flaky, burnt in places, with cheese, but not a large amount, and not very oily. The Prosciutto was great, but I really wanted a pepperoni. I don't know if they just don't make that kind of pizza there, or if I didn't go to the right places. I only had one Pizza meal though, since I wasn't really there for that long. It seemed about the same as the Italian style brick-over fired pizzas that you can get in New York, or for that matter, here in Tokyo if you look around.

The real deal finally: New York by the slice Pizza. I had two Slices of pizza, one for lunch at Famiglia's near Columbia (famous Pizza since 1987. 1987? Are you serious? That's like only 20 years!) and one slice from Koronet's . Koronet's Pizza is crazy huge: the slices are as big as your forearm. Huge, huge slices. And cheap. About $4 with a drink. It was so very good, but I'm not used to eating that much and felt bloated for the rest of the day. It was worth it though. I've linked to a flikr picture of Koronet's Pizza so you can get an idea of the size. I should have taken a picture of my slice, but I was too excited and by the time I thought of it had already eaten most of the slice.

Good old-fashioned by the slice New York pizza. Oily, drippy, cheesy, thin crust that you can fold - in fact, I think it is required to fold your Koronet's slice in half to eat it. Good stuff. Man, I want some pizza. (Instead I'll have Japanese curry that I made last night: another favorite of mine.)

It's good to be back (home) in Japan

Returning from a two-week long trip to Italy for a conference, and then later New York for my friend Carl's wedding, and then Dallas to visit with family.

Italy was great, and I plan to write a blog entry about that soon if I can find the time. Carl's wedding in New York was great, and while I haven't written a blog entry about that yet, I do have a photoset on Flickr. Then a brief trip to Dallas to visit family. All of the travel was really tiring since I had to fly back to Japan before going to New York due to how the trip was funded, so the complete schedule was Tokyo -> Milan, Milan -> Genova, Genova -> Milan, Milan -> Tokyo, a six hour respite, then Tokyo -> Chicago, Chicago -> New York, New York -> Dallas, Dallas -> Tokyo.

After that long flight from Italy to New York, the eleven hour flight from Dallas to Tokyo seemed easy. Back in Narita airport, I'm always a little nervous when I have to face the immigration officer. Even though I have a valid work visa and re-entry permit, I'm always a bit worried that I will be denied entry, so it is always nice when I am actually let in.

After braving the trains to get back home and climbing up the three flights of stairs I was faced with a waist-high mountain of clothes, old toys, old shoes, and other assorted junk in garbage bags. The neighbors apparently were moving, and since I hadn't been around for a while they felt free to pile stuff up in the hallway. Yet another obstacle to overcome on the way home.

The biggest immediate change I noticed back in Japan is that it is humid here in July. Super humid. It isn't very hot, but it is really, really humid. So I thought I would turn on my air conditioner.

Of course, after a few minutes the air conditioner started to leak water. Lots of it. I spent hours moving things around in my room so that the bed isn't under the AC. In the end, the new arrangement uses space a bit better so I'm pretty happy with things.

The only problem now is when can I do laundry? Since you have to dry everything in the sun -- very few people here own dryers -- that is particularly tough in the rainy season. The rainy season should be ending soon, but after two weeks of nice weather, the typhoon season begins...

July 17, 2007

A Quick Trip to the MoMA

I came to New York for a few days for a friends wedding, and while here I stopped by for a brief visit at the Museum of Modern Art. I really enjoy the MoMA, and have visited there often. For the wedding of my friends Ron and Michelle my sisters and I got them a membership to the MoMA, which they have kept up ever since. I had about two and a half hours in the afternoon, so I stopped by.

The big exhibition that they have currently is 40 Years of Richard Serra Sculpture. I've seen some Serra pieces before, once in the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but wasn't really impressed with this exhibition. I liked his pieces in the sculpture garden, but the rest of the things that were exhibited didn't seem well utilized in the museum space. I think a lot of his stuff does better in a less formal environment, where you have more of an experience that isn't focused on the sculpture itself, but on the harmonization with, and contrast to, the surrounding environment.

I really enjoyed pieces in the Automatic Update exhibition. Particularly, 33 Questions a Second, an interesting piece that randomly generates questions in rapid succession using some natural language processing techniques.

Over in the Architecture and Design Galleries, usually my favorite part of the museum, they had a great exhibition juxtaposing modern and old design. There were some really great examples in there, particularly the iMac / TV combo I highlight to the left. I also have an iPod / Radio combo shot that is cute. There were a lot of interesting functional design examples, and interesting examples of industrial design. That floor is always lots of fun to check out.

In the same area was an interesting look at Helvetica, the first font in the MoMA collection. Coincidentally, my friend Ron told me about an interesting documentary about the typeface that is something I would like to track down and see.

There was another nice exhibition called "What is Painting?" with contemporary art from the MoMA collection. I thought that one was well worth checking out. As always, a short trip over to the MoMA is always worth the effort, even if it has the most amazingly hard and tiring floors of any museum in the city. I swear they've learned the secret of gravity-control plating and artificially increase local gravity there by about 20%. My feet are always sore after even a short trip to that museum.

Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart?

As part of the promotion for the Simpsons Movie, about 12 7-11 stores have been converted into Kwik-E-Marts, the mythical convenience store from the show. Since there is one in New York City, and I happen to be there right now for my friend's wedding, I made a point to go out to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to check out the Kwik-E-Mart.

They have a lot of merchandising going on, and many limited-edition items for sale. The most interesting are the Squishy-labeled Slurpees and the Buzz Cola and crazy pink sprinkle doughnuts. Those doughnuts are huge: a box of six comes in a box that would be a dozen doughnuts anywhere else. I had one and could not believe how huge the things were. The Buzz Cola is a regular type of Cola in the Coca-Cola mode, but I don't know who actually manufactures it. I'm sure they are making a killing though: the place was packed with people taking pictures and buying up the Simpsons-related stuff.

I particularly liked the Jasper poster on the Ice Bag freezer (note the "Jasper Extra" sign), and there are also interesting Giant Pez Dispensers, but I couldn't bring myself to buy one. Not only can I not cart something like that back to Tokyo, where would I put it??

There is also a Kwik-E-Mart in Dallas, TX, so I'll try to get some pictures of that when I head over there tomorrow before getting on the plane back to Tokyo.

Also, please note an appropriate usage of donuts here, unlike what I often see in Japan, where donuts are made out of strange and unusual things. (Well, not that strange, but still, frosting or at least sugar should be required!)

July 16, 2007

Books: Ian M. Banks' Excession

I generally have a few English books on my shelves that I am saving for transcontinental flights to pass the time. On this past trip to Italy, before getting on the plane on an impulse I purchased SAGA Jun'ichi's Confessions of a Yakuza: A Life in Japan's Underworld (translated by John Bester.) It was a fast read, lots of fun, but not heavy reading overall. I don't know much about the Yakuza, so I can't comment on that aspect, but it is an interesting character study. I'm now a bit more interested in that side of Japan, but I don't know that I'll pursue that interest with any intensity.

On the flight from Italy to Japan, and then Japan to New York via Chicago, I started reading Ian M. Banks' Excession, a complex science fiction novel set in his Culture universe. It was a very interesting read, focusing mainly on the response of the large scale artificial intelligence system of the Minds of the Culture ship to an unexpected impossible-seeming phenomena.

I've read a few other Culture novels, Consider Phlebas (good, but not great), The Player of Games (also good), Use of Weapons (this one was very memorable, very good), and now Excession. There are a few more novels in this universe which I'll try to track down; Banks is a very enjoyable author and he really has quite a wide range of plot types.

While in New York I picked up five additional books, so I should have plenty to read on the trip home. Once I get back to Japan though, I had better concentrate on trying to finish Murakami's Kafka by the Sea, which I'm slowly reading in Japanese.

July 15, 2007

Sable-Koo Wedding

On Sunday, July 15th, 2007 my good friend Carl Sable married the beautiful Cha-Eun Koo in New Jersey.

While I was a grad students at Columbia University, one of my first and best friends I made there was Carl Sable. I think the story about how we met is completely indicative of Carl's character. I went to one of the first classes that I had to take entering the Master's program in Computer Science, and I saw a guy wearing a Hoagie Haven T-shirt. Since I grew up in the Princeton area, I knew about Hoagie Haven and knew that I had to talk to this guy.

I went over and sat down next to Carl, and we struck up a conversation since the T-shirt made an easy introductory topic. Prior to coming to class, I had (for some reason) been thinking about palindromes. We started talking about those, and Carl let me know that he's been making palindromes since he was a kid, and had a great one with: "We? I vote cinema! ME! Nice to view!" Of course, it takes some explanation, but is completely understandable. Carl loves movies. In a hypothetical situation where a group of people are talking about what to do, Carl might suggest to go see a movie, which is quickly vetoed by everyone else. After lots of arguing about what to do, someone else suggests a movie and everyone agrees to it. Then Carl is mad, and utters his palindrome.

I was really impressed and even more so when I told Carl that I had been thinking that it must be possible to make some sort of palindrome with "flog" and "golf", but hadn't come up with anything. Carl almost instantly responded with "Re-flog a golfer". Since then, we've been great friends.

So when I heard that Carl was getting married, I made sure that I could make it out there for the wedding. The timing worked well, since it followed a business trip to Italy (which I'll hopefully write something about soon) and I was able to swing by Dallas to see my family for a few days as well.

I am very happy for Carl and Cha-Eun. I'm not positive, but I think that the first time that Carl and Cha-Eun met was when I invited Cha-Eun, a friend of mine through our mutual friend Lena Park, and Carl to a Bishop Allen and We Are Scientists concert at CBGB's. I'm not sure that this is correct though - I could just be misremembering horribly. I'll have to ask Carl about that actually. Anyway, it was a beautiful wedding, with great friends, great food (and too much of it!) and interesting music. One of the (controversial) highlights was when Carl and Cha-Eun walked into the ballroom after the reception. The music was the theme song from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly". Sounds strange, but it totally worked.

The ceremony was non-denominational, outside, and very brief. I was really impressed with how to-the-point the ceremony was. Cha-Eun's grandmother dressed in a Hanbok, the traditional Korean formal dress, while the rest of the party was in western formal clothes. There wasn't a very strong influence of Jewish or Korean customs, but some of each around the edges which was quite nice. I particularly liked how at the reception we sang and danced the traditional Hava Nagila song, and also raised the Bride, Groom, and their parents in chairs. Everyone seemed to enjoy the dancing and food after the wedding.

The one complaint that I would have is that, when I think back to Dave Han's wedding in Korea, one of the points that most stood out was when Dave Han bowed to Jiseon's parents, he got down on the ground and put his head to the floor. A full out kow-tow. When Carl bowed to Cha-Eun's parents, it was only a very small head and upper body bow! (Of course, I'm mostly joking Carl, I love you!)


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