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
I bought a Japanese Jinbei
Foodstands on the way
Crowds by the river
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 2On 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,
Tennant who provides main
and very occasionally
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
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 ThoughtsI 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
Welcome to Summer Sonic!
Walking to Summer Sonic
Marine Stage Crowd
"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 meI 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 MuseumSaraba 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 perspectivesfried 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 JapanReturning 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 MoMAI 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. 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?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' ExcessionI 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 WeddingColumbia 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!)
July 5, 2007
Unlikely food combinations: What are you thinking, Japan!?This is a post that started from a Mixi post I made about unusual donuts (in Japanese) and then purely by coincidence the next day I stumbled upon some other unusual foodstuffs. First, on with the donuts.
Don't make donuts out of thatBoulangerie Asanoya, a bakery in the newish Trainchi Shopping Center in Jiyugaoka. It is a nice bakery - there are actually a bunch of nice bakeries in the Jiyugaoka area, but this one is on the way home. I was really hankering for a nice doughnut, but I instead came across some unusual doughnuts. This isn't uncommon in Japan, but for whatever reason (mostly the Ham and Cheese) I decided to take a picture of it this time. In this case they are calling one of their creations a ham and cheese doughut. While that sounds like a perfectly reasonable food, take some ham and cheese, stuff it in dough, and fry the whole thing, I just don't think it should be called a doughnut. I like my doughnuts to be sweet. I don't know if these had sugar on them or not, since I didn't want to try it particularly, but I don't think they should be called doughnuts. Next to those were the green tea and Azuki (red bean paste sweetened with sugar) doughnuts. The Azuki doughnuts are very common. I'm sure everyone who visits and gets a doughnut expecting a nice creme-filled center is surprised with the slightly thick, somewhat unusual taste of the Azuki bean paste. They are very common. They are pretty good too. This is the first time that I've seen Maccha doughnuts though. Maccha is a green tea flavor, and I suspect the taste would be bitter, but again, I didn't venture a taste myself. I went with the quite delicious, and exactly what I wanted, jelly-filled berliner.
Give me a break!KitKat bars seem to be pretty popular here in Japan, and there is even a strange breaktown.com web site with KitKat themed games and stuff. They normally have regular KitKat bars, a Maccha green tea variety, and Strawberry KitKat bars (which are quite good.) The other day I stumbled upon three more mutant flavors: Orange, Kiwifruit, and Pineapple. Orange isn't too bad. It is very similar in flavor to the regular chocolate KitKat bar, but has a really overwhelming Orange scent. I think they just added orange perfume to a regular KitKat and called it a day. Kiwifruit is pretty bad though. It has a really strange aftertaste. Pineapple is somewhere in between. If I get around to it, I'll try to track down the other unusual (to me) KitKat bar flavors. According to the website, I should at least be able to find Exotic Tokyo II White Chocolate flavor (white chocolate and gooseberries with mixed American cherries), Exotic Tokyo Chocolate flavor (with mixed fruit!), Exotic Hokkaidou 2 (with Red Wine and Strawberries), Exotic Hokkaidou (white chocolate with creme cheese and matched sour berries to express Hokkaidou's oneness with nature), Exotic Kansai (with lemons and ginger), and Exotic Kyuushyuu (with Mango and Orange Caramel and black pepper). On second thought, perhaps I'll pass on trying to track those down (although, the lazy can order them from the web via the links.) I also vaguely recall seeing other strange flavors like Sakura (cherry/blossom) at some point. I'll keep my eyes open at the local convenience stores. Crazy country.
July 1, 2007
Catching up on moviesOver the past week or so, I've watched a few movies. I thought I would comment on them here, since that is what I said I would do when I started the "Movies" section. First up is Children of Men. I didn't know anything about this movie other than that it is in the Science Fiction genre, and it is supposed to be good. I was really impressed. I didn't realize until I checked afterwards that it was directed by Alfonso Cuarón. It reminded me in a lot of ways of 28 days later, and I really liked how they commented on modern (American) society by drawing out some parallels. I also didn't notice any special effects, but when reading about it later learned that they had some sophisticated CG in there. Overall I was really impressed. I highly recommend this movie. Next up is Reno 911!: Miami. I don't have much to say about it other than if you like they show, you should like the movie. It was amusing to have on in the background while working on other stuff. This is not a movie that you want to devote two hours of your attention to, unlike Children of Men, which I did watch with my full attention. Man of the Year. A reasonable movie, but I didn't think it was funny. Almost all of the jokes that Robin Williams told were old, tired, and waiting to be put out of their misery. I did like the critique of modern politics, but I'm glad that I was working on the laptop while the movie was running.
June 25, 2007
Installing the Perl Technorati API implementation WebService::Technorati on OSX via CPANThis will be yet another entertaining dive into installing software on OSX. For today's task, I want to install the Perl WebService::Technorati API interface to the Technorati blog search / aggregation site. Usually, I do something like
$ perl -MCPAN -e shellto get a CPAN shell, and then
install WebService::Technoratiand hit "yes" when asked about following references. This time, things failed because one of the requirements, XML::Parser, needs to have the XML parser Expat installed. I do have Expat installed - twice even, once from the Apple X11 extra install stuff, and once via the OSX packaging project fink - but CPAN couldn't pick either of those up since they aren't in the most obvious of places. So it looks like I'll need to install XML::Parser myself. Since CPAN went to all the trouble to download the files that I need to do the install, I cd into the proper directory (have to spawn a root shell first since I'm installing in the system directories)
cd ~/.cpan/build/XML-Parser-2.34-uwBcpV, then create a Makefile that actually points to the correct install:
perl Makefile.PL EXPATLIBPATH=/sw/lib EXPATINCPATH=/sw/include, and then the magic incantation:
make; make install. Since all that looked like it went well, I'll drop back into user mode,
sudo perl -MCPAN -e shelland re-try
install WebService::Technorati. That installed some XPATH tools, and then failed spectacularly with a missing LWP/UserAgent.pm, which is something I should probably have installed anyway. Installing LWP::UserAgent failed with a missing HTML::Tagset, which installed easily (isn't CPAN supposed to chase down these dependencies for me? Usually it does, but today CPAN is really having trouble. It must be because of the rain.) The subsequent install of LWP::UserAgent went well. A final
install WebService::Technoraticompleted fine as well. So, a quick post on what I had to do to get that installed. Mainly, I needed to manually run the XML::Parser install process myself so I could create a Makefile that pointed to the existing install that I had put in via fink. Then I had to chase down some other CPAN modules that were necessary. Not to bad all told. Just to be cautious, I tried a few things to test the install. Things were working just great. Of course, after about an hour of hacking away at some code, it looks like there are some problems with the WebService::Technorati Perl API: the SearchApiQuery does a cosmos query instead of a blog search query, but since I've got the .pm files, we can fix that easily enough...
June 23, 2007
Chungking ExpressChungking Express. I don't really have anything insightful to say other than Chungking Express is a great movie. I was happy that the local Tsutaya had the movie in stock. They don't seem to have my number two and three movies though (Terry Gilliam's Brazil and the Coen brother's Hudsucker Proxy.) This is a film that I've seen many times, which I was thankful for because it is a Chinese language film with subtitles in Japanese. Surprisingly, between my knowledge of the plot I was able to keep up with the subtitles without much trouble. I was really surprised, since it has been a few years since I've seen the film, that I was still really impressed by the film. I really think it gets across the quality of humanity, and feeling. The movie comes highly recommended.
June 18, 2007
Added SPF support to fugutabetai.com mailserverUsing the Postfix and SPF howto over on howtoforge.com I added SPF support to the Fugutabetai.com mail servers. It looks like that is working well, so after a few weeks go by, I'll try to remember to look at the logs and see if SPF has been useful at all at rejecting spam from known unauthorized users. Since SPF (Sender Policy Framework) won't work without domains deciding to actually fail to accept mail from machines that are not authorized to send that mail, I've switched the Fugutabetai.com DNS SPF records to hard fail on mail that doesn't originate from the proper places.
June 12, 2007
A trip to faraway Yokohama for GyozaSanyou, which is always busy, but did have great Gyoza. One of the reviews for that place said they didn't like the place because they want you to order quickly, and he didn't know what to get. They gave him a beer and told him to get out. This time instead we went to Ban-Li another ramen-gyouza shop nearby. We ordered some gyouza, both fried and steamed, and they were great. A while back I went to Namco Namjya Town's Gyoza Battle Stadium, where there were lots of different types of Gyoza to try out. That was fun too, but I was glad that this place was a normal restaurant with just your normal choices. One of the annoying things about the Chinatown in Yokohama is that it has been created and marketed as a kind of "China Land" within Japan, and is almost more theme park than neighborhood. Everything there is really expensive, and more for show than anything else. Ban-Li is not for show: it's the kind of hole-in-the-wall Chinese place that you would find at New York's Chinatown. Along with the gyoza, we got beer and mabu-tofu, which was also great. On the way out we went and checked on Sanyou, and it was packed. Lots of people waiting outside to get in. It is a place that I would like to try again sometime. After dinner, we headed over to Landmark Tower, which has the tallest observation deck in Japan. They are very proud of their elevator, which is the fastest in Japan. It was very fast. I think it reached speeds of 470 km/h, but it was impressively smooth. I generally don't like elevators and easily get motion sick on them, but this elevator was ok. (I really think they should replace the elevator in Disney's the Tower of Terror with the one in Landmark Tower - I got totally sick on that one, but this one was fine.) On the way we also checked out the Yokohama Ferris Wheel, which puts on a really nice show when it isn't doing its impersonation of a giant clock.
June 11, 2007
Emulating Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord on the GP2XNot too long ago, I wrote about my old-school CRPG party-based gaming obsession. Randomly coming across a version of Wizardry I-III for cell phones in Japan rekindled my interest, but sadly my cell phone "terminal" （端末） is not compatible so I can't play it. It was very aggravating, because I know that there is a chance to play Wizardry while I'm in the subway - which is usually about two hours a day.
Instead, I decided to look around, and found another great old game, Dragon Wars, playing that at home on a laptop is a bit too difficult to do frequently. When I get home I am tired, and usually just plop down for dinner and some tv before going to bed. Something that is portable would be very nice...
Since I started thinking about playing older CRPGs, I thought that the most likely approach would be to get a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS and look at the state of emulation on those consoles. I'm not really a Sony fan, since they have had problems in the past with excessive Digital Restrictions Management / Digitally Restricted Media / DRM in the past, and I know that they discourage people running homebrew software on the PSP by releasing firmware that makes it difficult to run unsigned code. Things seemed a bit better on the Nintendo DS, but still requires some hardware solutions for using SD cards, and certain versions won't boot run homebrew software.
Then I found the GP2X, an amazing little portable linux device that runs off of a regular SD card, has a very nice 320x240 screen, and two ARM processors at 200 MHz that can be clocked faster and slower. The system is open, supports homebrew out of the box, uses open source software as a base, and has a plethora of emulators available for it.
Read on for more information about my (successful!) quest to get Wizardry emulated on the GP2X.
read more (1098 words)
June 2, 2007
Bitten by the CRPG Bug, memories of hex-editing savegamesA long time ago, back in the days when the big fight was whether an Apple //e or a Commodore 64 was a better machine (the answer is Apple //e, but I might accept Atari ST as well) I used to play a lot of Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs.)
Click the link to read more about computer RPGs and stuff. There is some actual useful information for people who want to cheat at the old game "Dragon Wars": I include hex offsets and directions for how to give your players some extra experience points for leveling them up. A lot.
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