October 14, 2008

The F1 Grand Prix at the Fuji Motor Speedway

For L.'s birthday a few months ago I got L. and I tickets to the F1 Grand Prix in Japan. I don't know much about F1 Racing, but I know that L. likes cars, and when we randomly stumbled upon some F1 Cart Racers in Italy, she was captivated. Maybe the real thing would be fun too! Also, I like technology and cars, and the F1 has plenty of both.

So, we both made time in our way-too-busy schedules and spent Saturday and Sunday at the speedway (and on public transit: it takes about three and a half hours to reach the Fuji Motor Speedway by rail and bus from where we live.) I should have tried to get a hotel in the area, but I didn't realize it was so far until all the local hotels were booked up. Actually though, the trip out wasn't so bad, because it was a quick trip to Shinjuku, then an hour and a half on the train, and an hour and a half on the bus. There was lots of walking once you got to the Speedway too, but it was pretty nice.

The first day we saw the Porsche qualify round, and the F1 qualifying rounds. It was really interesting. We had seats on the straightaway right near the finish line, and had a great view of the pits. It would have been nice if we were up higher actually because the fence that blocks you from exploding cars was a bit in our way, but I thought the seats were really great. The Porsche round was really interesting: those are just classic cars. The F1 race was amazing. Those cars are just stupid fast, and crazy loud. I tried taking some pictures of the F1 cars, but I never managed to get any sort of reasonable picture.

The next day we left home early (a bit before 6am) and made it in time for the Netz race championship. That is a race that takes a standard economy car and races them. It was pretty cool seeing a normal car that you see on the highway zooming around the track. The Porsche finals were next, and were really cool.

The final F1 race was really interesting. There were a few wrecks and some crazy shenanigans, and afterwards at home I found out that we had a pretty interesting race with all the crashes and close calls with the cars. It was lots of fun to watch. I think I would have had more fun if I knew more about it, but it was still great.

Even better, on the way home we stopped by Jiyugaoka and they were having their annual Jiyu Megami festival. We also found some of our good friends, and spent some time (a bit too much time!!) hanging out with them.

A very fun weekend.

August 10, 2008

Summer Sonic 2008 Tokyo Music Festival: Day 2

L. And I grabbed a quick bite to eat then went our separate ways. I really want to see Vampire Weekend so I went out to Marine stage. Since I'm almost out of money, I tried to use an ATM here but it said: can't complete transaction because it is outside of business hours. Japan: you are completely missing the point of ATMs!! (I've known this for a while now, but this is the first time that the ATM has refused to even give me money. I suspect that is because the machine was from a different bank, when usually I'll use the machines from my bank.)

Before going to see Vampire Weekend I had a bit of time so I went to check Beach Stage. It is a nice stage set up on beach, and since it is cool and overcast today (awesome!) it is a great chance to check it out.

Beach stage is pretty cool and looks like it would be a fun place to hang out. Unfortunately, the bands I want to check out aren't playing there. So I went down to the water and then headed to Marine stage, where I saw the last half of the Wombats show. I do like the Wombats - particularly "Let's dance to Joy Division". I also saw them a few months back at UK Anthems. That show is also coming up again in a few more months and L. is really excited to go again. The Wombats were really chatty and couldn't get over the echoes in the stadium. They kept talking about it.

Next up was Vampire Weekend. They were excellent. They look very young - I knew they were young, but still. Over the past two months I've been listening to a lot of the Vampire Weekend album and the Panic at the Disco album. Their debut is really strong. It really evokes images of college on the East coast - not New York so much as Harvard or Yale, but there is also some New York flavor thrown in there too. I was really looking forward to these guys, so I went up to the front of the stage, about three rows back, and danced like mad along with a few other fans.

The lead singer was really friendly and talkative. He got some good audience participation going on. Their album really does have a lot of strong songs for a concert, more than I expected. I really enjoyed their show and rank it up there with the Death Cab show so far, maybe even a bit higher because the songs are easier to sing along with. The sound was also surprisingly clear, and they really sounded good live. Clear and understandable vocals, sharp guitar, and very clean keyboards. Vampire Weekend has easily had the best use of keyboards so far (but that is something I like about the album too.)

After Vampire Weekend, the choice was between Mutemath and the Polysics, both of which I like. I know Mutemath's music slightly better though so I went to Sonic stage to see them. After my crazy dancing at Vampire Weekend I was tired so I took it easy and sat down for their set. It was a good set, but very loud so I put in my earplugs (they are a loud bass-heavy band by nature though.)

Also, before I got to Sonic Stage, I passes by Karaoke Sonic where someone was singing the Evangelion theme song. That isn't so surprising but the cosplay maid (from the adjoining Sammy Pachinko area) jumping, clapping, and cheering was. I asked her about it and she said that she loves Evangelion. Wow. I really thought that most women in maid cafes did it for the money, but maybe I am wrong and they really do love anime and manga themselves. This calls for further study!

After that was Crystal Castles on the Dance stage, who I know nothing about, but I loved the old Atari trackball Crystal Castle game, L. likes them and they have interesting promo clips, so I will check them out.

Crystal Castles was packed, and typical dance music: heavy bass, repetitive, and I couldn't make out a word the singer said. It was way too crowded for me, so I took off. I ended up at the side stage area where they had someone from the Girlsguard condom company, and a famous guy named Katou. They gave a presentation about STDs and talked a bit about that, which was good to hear.

I might skip "Does it offend you, yeah?" because it is back at the dance stage and I'm pretty tired.

I went to the restroom and faced one of my mortal Japanese enemies: the squat toilet. These things are near impossible for me. I can't even do the normal (for Japanese) squat move, so doing that while trying to use the bathroom is a crazy proposition. I've worked out a technique that is about as effective as the technique I developed for brownies in a toaster oven, although the results are not quite as appetizing.

I stopped by the Karaoke Sonic stage for a while to pass some time. I saw a group of three women, billed together as Kaze to kenkou no kai (The group of wind and health [風と健康の会]) - they did lipsyncing to three or four of Perfume's songs. It looks like one of the members has a blog (Japanese), so you can look there for more information. It was amusing. I took a few pictures with my cellphone. L. took my regular camera because it is smaller than hers (and she probably doesn't care if it got broken or lost) but I secretly believe that she took it to prevent me from taking exactly this kind of picture.

I decided to stick around for some of Karaoke Sonic because there are benches you can sit on, and they have a four guest panel of TV "Talent" - two of the guest's talent is having large busts. The bar for Talent in Japan isn't too high, but then again I don't think it is much higher in the US either. (The two from Cherry Pie, and have a blog (Japanese) if you want more info / a few pictures.)

I went out to get a burger for dinner - a Sasebo burger - it was big and pretty good but would have been much better without the cheese and with lots of ketchup. It looks like they also have a few shops in Japan, and plans to build one in my beloved Jiyugaoka area too! On my way back out I saw that Hard Gay and his sidekick had shown up. Also, apparently that mohawked punk comedian girl (Macchan?) sang the final song since she was hanging around.

After eating I went to Mountain stage and caught Justice. They seem like a real house-style dance band. Not really my cup of tea so I just sat down and waited for DEVO.

Man, if raves are like this they must be incredibly boring. Clearly I'm doing it wrong.

DEVO was great. There was a fun video before they went on, then they took the stage. It is amazing how similar their stuff is to house / dance stuff but there is fun stuff to look at, they play instruments, and they sing.

I had to leave a bit early before the end of the DEVO show so that I could meet up with L. at Marine stage (the stadium) because she snagged a great pair of seats for us to watch Coldplay. I generally like Coldplay, but I've heard a few interviews where the lead singer comes off as totally arrogant. The show was great though: really impressive set, lots of cool stuff going on, great sound, good selection of songs, good interaction with the crowd, lots of fun chatting, exactly the sort of thing that I expect from a stadium show. For the encore, Alicia Keys came out and played on the piano with them. Nice. They also sang a bit of a famous SMAP song, but I don't know SMAP well enough to remember the title - the one about the flower. (That probably doesn't help.)

It was a really great Summer Sonic. I did much better this year in that the next day, my feet weren't killing me. Here's my rundown of the best of the show (all IMHO only!)

  1. Vampire Weekend
  2. Death Cab for Cutie
  3. Coldplay
  4. Los Campesinos
  5. Cajun Dance Party
  6. I really wish I had been able to see Panic at the Disco and the Ting Tings, but you always end up with a few tough choices as Summer Sonic.

    I'm pretty sure we'll be back next year too.

August 9, 2008

Summer Sonic 2008 Tokyo Music Festival: Day 1

I went to Summer Sonic today with L. It was great, but as I wrote last time, extremely tiring. I'm both looking forward to, and dreading, going back tomorrow. For those that are interested, here is a link to the Summer Sonic 2008 timetable. You can play along at home by choosing the bands that you would like to see! Be sure to spend hours standing around on hard concrete so that you also are forced to take a few breaks to rest to ensure your sanity. Please remove any comfortable furniture for sitting, and rest by laying down on concrete, or if you roll a 15 or higher on your D20, sit on a backless bench or stool for a while. Enjoy the home version! (You must supply your own music. Make it very loud. Also, if possible find a few thousand other people nearby, and have them crush up against you. Randomly have them elbow and shove you everyone once in a while, and be sure to get a crowd surfer to kick your head at least once.)

Today I started out in Marine Stadium and saw Los Campesinos!, a group that I had not heard of before, but really enjoyed. They had a little xylophone and violin action. Unfortunately, the sound mix wasn't great so they didn't sound as good as I think a studio album would. I plan to pick up the album and check it out though. They certainly were fun to watch. The lead singer did a lot of hand waving and moving around to illustrate the songs. Once I save up a bit of money, I'll probably head over to Amazon's MP3 store and pick up one or two of their albums (or I'll rifle through L.'s CDs and throw them on my ipod, assuming I can find anything in her massive collection.)

It was almost like a theme that morning of overacting lead singers: the second group I saw was Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong, who I saw a few months back at the UK Anthem show. The lead singer, Joe Lean I suppose, is a real character. I imagine he is what you would get if you crossed Johnny Depp playing as Jack Sparrow with a rock band singer. I think they are an ok band, but are worth seeing just to watch the antics of the lead singer. Without the antics they aren't really as appealing to me.

Both the singers for Los Campesinos and Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong are very melodramatic and have a kind of prima-donna flair to them. I think that to some degree that is necessary to be a lead singer.

After that I took some time to go to the indoor part of the venue, where I saw Band of Horses at Sonic stage. They were good, but the tempo was a bit slow and I don't their stuff at all so I sat down and let the music wash over me.

After Band Of Horses we had a bit of a wait before Cajun Dance Party. I hadn't heard of this band before, but L. has their debut CD and really likes them. I thought they were pretty good, but also suffered the same problem as Los Campersinos: poor sound. I think their studio album should sound pretty good, so I will dig it up and give it a listen.

After Cajun Dance Party was a group called The Kills. Interestingly, they had not started about twenty minutes into their set. Something was up. Eventually the MC came out and said that there was a problem. The lead singer wanted to come out and apologize. She came out, looking quite distraught, and explained that for some reason the memory on their drum machine had been lost. They apparently could not play without their drum machine. I don't know their music, but it did make me think about what would happen if Echo and the Bunnymen lost Echo: they would probably be in trouble too.

So while everyone else left, L. and I pressed forward. We got up to the second row of people - L. is almost always within spitting distance of the stage barrier - and started waiting for Death Cab for Cutie. I really like DCFC, and this was the band I was most excited about. What really sucks is that he was playing opposite Panic at the Disco, who I also really like. Anyway, DCFC was really great. I expected Ben to be more nerdy, but he was really cool. I really liked the bassist too, and Nick (rhythm guitars) spoke a bit of Japanese (but well, more than just memorizing "arigatou" before the show.) At the end of their set I asked one of the roadies for a set list and he wadded it up and threw it at me. It bounced right off my hand to the area between the stage and the barrier, but then one of the security guys tossed it to L., who was really excited. She loves collecting that kind of stuff.

After Death Cab was a band that L. really likes, The Fratellis. I think they are pretty good, but they also rock pretty hard so I knew that standing in the first row was going to be a bit of a problem. It was, in fact, disastrous. I was pushed and prodded and knocked around. A crowd surfer (the first of the day, a surprise because Fuji Rock was almost non-stop crowd surfing) kicked my head, and that really hurt. Otherwise, the concert was good. After the Fratellis L. and split up again.

I went to go see the the Sex Pistols. It really amazes me that the Sex Pistols are back together. Musically I have never really liked their stuff that much, but I have always liked the movement that they represent. The idea that they would get back together and do a big tour for the man seems to be diametrically opposed to their 'screw the man' attitude. I have never seen them before, so I didn't want to miss this opportunity.

Everyone in the band looked OLD, which seemed unusual because everything I know about the sex pistols has them YOUNG. Johnny Rotten was quite the showman. He had a real diatribe against the Iraq war and GW Bush. He also said to someone in the crowd "Isn't that cute? The Westerner in Japan calling for Anarchy. Why don't you go back to where you came from and cause some? That's what we did!" - but it was in a fun way, not a mocking one. In the end as the opener to their encore they did play Anarchy in the UK. They also ended on that Radio On song that I have been hearing all over the place, and that Bishop Allen has been using as their sound test for a while.

Anyway, I really enjoyed seeing the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten was a trip.

My comments on day two should be up in a few days.

August 5, 2008

Moving out / Moving in

Dear blog,

I know I haven't written in a while. I've been busy. I know, it isn't a good excuse. I'm sorry. I won't do it again. (I hope.)

Last week, on Tuesday July 29th, I moved from my beloved apartment in Oyamadai (a single room + living room, dining room, kitchen (1LKD)) to a new place on the Shinagawa Seaside station on the Rinkai line. The new place is great: it is in a newly constructed tower (finished in mid July 2008, so we are among the first residents), we actually own it (yep, we took out a large pair loan, and have joined the home-owning ranks), and it is in a really nice area. There is a huge shopping area right near where we live, so shopping is totally great. We're also up on the 14th floor, and have a great view of the canal and can see the Rainbow Bridge and Odaiba.

I'm sad to move out of my place at Oyamadai though. They have a great Baskin Robbins there, and the area feels like a really small, nice town. The new area is all towers and businesses and doesn't have any personality at all. I'll also miss all my stuff: I moved only a very small percentage of my stuff and paid to have the rest thrown away. Most of it I received from friends when I first got here, so it was all pretty old, aside from the excellent (but huge by Japanese standards) IKEA Fågelbo sofa (which I totally loved and hated to see go - but it was the wrong orientation for the new place, and L. wanted new things) so it wasn't a huge monetary loss, but it pains me to pay to throw that stuff out instead of using it (and saving some money!) at the new place.

On the plus side though, L. got us some really nice new stuff. I particularly am in love with the refrigerator, which is huge, and makes ice, and has like, a million compartments. (Counting them out a actually, it is the two upper doors, ice maker area, storage next to it, ice area, storage next to it, refrigerated compartment, and freezer, so 8 maybe.)

The furniture is also nice.

We still haven't unpacked everything there, (see picture - but it is a bit better than that now) but should finish next week once the large living room cabinetry arrives. I also bought a little computer desk. Once all that gets here, we should be able to put everything away and start making real decisions about where things go. I like going that. I like knowing where things are supposed to be, and then putting them there.

So, I don't have any pictures of the new place (until we clean it up I don't want to take them really) but I will introduce you to what I think is absolutely crazy: the absurd number of control panels and remote controls that we have to run our place. It is out of control.

Remote controls

We have a variety of remote controls in the new place. I'm not counting the standard remote controls (TV, video recorder, the wireless keyboard I use for my desktop that I count as essentially a 104 key remote control, etc.) I'm talking about remote controls that you normally wouldn't see in America. First up: lights. We have two of the picture light remote controls. The light fixtures that we have in the master bedroom, living room, and second room are all circular fluorescent lights that have three settings: brightest, bright, and nightlight. They are all controlled by wall switches, but if you want to change the intensity you need one of the remotes. The living room remote actually controls the living room and the small room lights with the channel setting.

That isn't really very exciting, but the air conditioner remote controls start to get crazy. Each of the three main rooms has its own air conditioner. I don't really understand why the concept of central HVAC isn't more widespread. I suspect that you can get high efficiency if you have one or two large air exchange units for the house, or in a big building like this, industrial size HVAC units. They have to be more efficient than what we end up with: each apartment unit has from 1 to five small AC units that have their own compressors outside. Conceptually, this lack of centralization and complete lack of insulation really bothers me.

Anyway, we have three air conditioners, and their price is reflected in the remote controls. The small room has the smallest remote with the least frills. There's nothing totally crazy on it, but it is a pretty complicated remote control. It doesn't have any anything on the master bedroom remote though. That remote opens up so you get even more buttons. It has a massive display on it. It took me minutes to figure out how to set the time. I haven't really sat down to spend the time to figure out what this thing can do because honestly I'm happy with only the power button and temp up/down buttons. I would use the timer functionality, but I don't really know when I'll be home at any given night so I haven't been playing around with that yet. The funniest button is "people search". The air conditioner has some sensors on it that can detect people (via infrared I assume) and shoot cool air at them. Nice.

Next up is an even bigger remote: the living room remote. It doesn't have as big a display as the master bedroom remote, but it makes up for it with more buttons. Nothing as interesting as a "people search" (although I think it is supposed to have that function on it) but it does have a button for "robot cleaning". The two larger units have robot cleaning parts that clean the filters or something on the unit when you shut it off. I wonder if that will actually do anything.

Control Panels

First up: the water heating system. Most places in Japan have in-line water heaters that heat the water on demand. I kind of like these systems because first, you can't run out of hot water as long as you have gas. Second, they only work when you are using water, and third, they only heat the water to the temperature that you want, so there is the potential to be more efficient than systems that heat water beforehand to a "hot" level and keeps a tank always topped off. The downside is that you need to wait a little bit (maybe ten seconds) for the water to heat up, and you have to manage the complexity of turning the water heater on and off.

The interesting thing is that you have two controls: one in the bath / shower, and one in the kitchen. If you get someone mad at you, they could potentially shut the water heater off while you are in the middle of a shower... (I haven't checked, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a sensor that prevented that.) Also, maybe to address that problem (if it even exists - I don't plan on getting L. mad enough at me to test it out in the near future) there is a button that lets you talk to the other water heater control. There are also buttons to fill up the bathtub remotely from the kitchen (is that really useful? This place is not *that* big!) and some other buttons that I haven't investigated yet.

After that, we have a control panel for the heated floor. The floor in the living room is heated, which might be interesting. In the middle of summer, I'm in no mood to test it out. When the cover is closed there is only one button: on / off. That is nice. When you open it up, well, then it gets confusing. I'll worry about that once it gets cold.

Finally, I'm sure everyone has heard about the crazy toilets in Japan. We have a crazy toilet. It has a remote control stuck to the wall. It has the standard stuff, bidet functions, heated seat cover, but none of the super fancy stuff (automatic lid raiser / closer, music player to drown out embarrassing noises, etc.) It really seems funny that the toilet has an infrared remote control, but there you go. At least it also still works manually.

Overall I'm poking a bit of fun at the over-designed and over-functioned specs of a lot of these systems, but they are useful. I don't think I 'll really need all the options that are provided by the remotes, but I'm the type of guy that is glad to have the advanced functionality and options. I just wish there were better interfaces than lots and lots of buttons.

July 28, 2008

Fuji Rock Festival 2008

A brief post to update you on what I've been doing lately. Things are incredibly busy right now -- I'm moving to my new apartment tomorrow and am currently packing -- so I am a bit overdue for an update.

L. is a big fan of The Cribs, an indie rock trio from England. They played the Fuji Rock Festival this year (on Saturday, two days ago) and even though she didn't really know too much about the other acts, she got two one-day passes for Saturday for us.

I like the Cribs a lot, but I'm nowhere near L.'s level. Still, the Fuji Rock Festival is famous around here, and I've wanted to go ever since I heard about it, so I was happy to go. The plan was to leave early Saturday morning, driving L.'s Mini Cooper out to one of the parking areas, then hop the shuttle bus to the venue.

It was amazing how many people were there. I estimated that there was more than 100,000 people there, and the above Wiki link backs me up on that (at least that many came to one of the festivals.) I can not describe just how many people there were. The main stage, the Green Stage, is at the base of a gentle slope, and the entire face of the place was packed with people. There are a whole bunch of stages, and a nice walk between them. I wish we had more time though because we didn't even get a chance to walk the entire grounds of the festival. It might take about and hour to circle around the entire area I think. There is also a lot of art installations and so on around, and is just generally a really nice area. It would be really cool to just wander around and hang out there for a while.

It was supposed to rain on Saturday, but we got a patch of luck and the weather was beautiful. So beautiful that I had to wrap a towel around my head to ward off sunburn. You could tell the Fuji Rock Festival veterans from the newbies because all the veterans were wearing big old rain boots. I had on a normal pair of shoes (which were completely muddy and dusty on my return.)

We grabbed something to eat, and after that caught a few songs from The Black Market. They were ok, but nothing to write to your blog about.

L. then headed over to the Ganban area for the band signing session with the cribs. She wasn't able to get in the signing line though because they had stopped selling "official items" that qualified you for the signing event. She got a lot of pictures though. After that we decided to wander around and make our way over to the White Stage for the Crib's show.

We passed by the radio broadcast station on the way and by random luck they were going to do an interview with The Zutons, a group that Lisa likes. They are a five member band, with a Sax. We saw their set later, and it was really good, so I'm going to have to check them out.

The white stage is in a kind of rocky field, and not quite so big as the green stage. It still can accommodate a lot of people. L. wanted to be up front so we headed up to the stage about an hour before the start. We were right up against the railing. The show was great, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I wasn't crushed up against the railing, and for about half the show a guy kept hitting my head (accidentally) in his fan-based fervor.

We stuck around for the Zutons, who I really liked, and their crowd was less enthusiastic so I came away with fewer bruises.

We took a bit of a break, and then came back for Gogol Bordello, which is the only other band that I was really interested in seeing. I had heard a NPR show about them once, and they sounded really cool. They were completely crazy and awesome. I didn't understand much of what they were singing, but I was totally into the show.

The final act of the night that we caught was Underworld, which is a raver-type electronic group (guy?) that was ok for what it was. Not really my cup of tea.

The music was great, and now I really want to go back to a Fuji Rock Festival when I don't have so much going on at work and in my life, try to get a place to stay nearby, and really enjoy things.

The other big deal for me was not the festival itself, but getting there. I had to wake up early - 5am - to get to L.'s place, and then we got in her Mini and drove away. I got my license recently, but I have not had a chance to drive since then. Once we got out onto the highway, we switched up and I got in about two hours of highway driving. Things went pretty well, but I have to admit that it was a bit nerve-wracking, especially getting on the highway since the merge lanes here are very short. Also, things are in km/h so I felt like I was speeding all the time.

The way back was a bit more difficult because we got back to the parking lot sometime after midnight. Getting on the highway this time was a bit trickier because it was dark and I was worried about merging onto someone. L. freaked out a bit because I didn't merge in immediately. So now I think I have to get onto highways much quicker. The next three hours were fine because driving on the highway at 3am is pretty easy.

Once we hit Tokyo though, it started to get tougher. The streets of Tokyo are convoluted, narrow, and busy even at 4am. Following the GPS directions is a bit difficult too because the lady in that box keeps talking in meters, which I don't have a great handle on. It started to rain a bit too, and then I started to get nervous about turning the wrong way onto a one-way street. I made one wrong turn, but the GPS box re-routed, and I eventually made it home at about 4am. I didn't once drive on the right side of the road (left only!) and L. only thought she was going to die once, which is at least two or three times fewer than I expected for our first road outing together.

It was pretty surprising to me just how nervous I was about driving: I've been driving for sixteen years in America, and have always enjoyed it. Driving in Japan just freaks me out though. I'm comfortable with highway driving now, but I don't like the onramps and I don't like Tokyo city driving. I think I will eventually get used to it, but I don't know if there are going to be many chances to drive.

So, my quick update summary: Fuji Rock Festival was great, and driving in Tokyo freaks me out, even at 4am.

July 21, 2008

A BBQ down by the Tamagawa River

On Sunday, I went down to the Tamagawa River for a BBQ with my friends Watanabe and Tokuda. I've been to maybe three or four of these: Watanaba lives at Saginuma on the Den-en-toshi line, so Futago Shin-chi is fairly close. It is also very close to where I live, and there is a big space down by the river where people do BBQs.

A BBQ is a little tough for me, because I sunburn very easily. I took precautions and used lot of sunscreen. I survived with only a bit of a red face, which I consider a complete victory.

I always like these BBQs. The food is very different from the stuff that we have back in America. There are usually lots of vegetables (mushrooms, onions, pumpkin, peppers) and fish, both whole (like Shishyamo) and fillets. There is also thinly sliced meats, some sausages, and usually by the end yakisoba. There is always plenty of beer, but I only had one and then because of the crazy heat (like 32 degrees Celsius) I drank lots and lots of tea.

I was there for about four hours, and basically had minor variations on this conversation fifty times:

Person: "My ... name ... is ... X".
Me: "Oh, hi X. I'm Dave. What brings you to this BBQ?"
Person: "Hey, you can talk!"
Me: "..."
Person: "Where did you learn Japanese?"
Then we went one to job stuff, how it is hot, etc., etc. I kid a little, but it is always tough meeting new people because first they are shocked that you can speak Japanese, then they go on for quite a while about how well you speak, when in actuality I've got a long way to go. But I can hold my own in conversations. You don't start noticing my deficiencies until you start getting into complicated stuff, like tax codes and social policy. Those topics don't come up at BBQs in the first hour or so of conversation.

So, onto the more amusing things. The group next to ours had a few guys who kept getting naked and horsing around. First they took some pictures in the flowers nearby, then got dressed again, and a while later got naked for some swimming. They were a mixed group, but none of the girls seemed too bothered or interested. My best guess is that they were playing drinking games and just got carried away.

I was surprised at how many people were going into the river. I should have worn a swimsuit. It was really hot, and I wanted to go and try to cool off a bit. A lot of people weren't prepared for swimming, wearing normal clothes. A lot more people weren't planning on going in, but their friends made plans for them and people got dunked.

Also not too far from our group was a large group of tattooed men. They had tattoos that are typical of Japanese gangsters. They also were getting naked, but this was more of a sempai - kouhai sort of thing. They'd tell one guy to get naked and then go over to the DJ area and dance with some people for a bit, then come back. Just fooling around. They also at one point had a bunch of roman candles and were shooting them off at each other. When some of the shots went stray, and came close to other groups of people, those groups tried pretty hard to just ... pretend that nothing was happening. Crazy.

I know I'm talking a lot of about naked guys, but it really seems like the social sensibility in Japan with regards to nudity is very different from America. If you were at some sort of summer river or beach type thing that was not specifically specified as a nudist area, I do not think people would put up with guys getting naked and running around. I also don't think that you would see as many guys getting naked because in my experience, guys don't often want to get naked around each other in social situations. It just doesn't seem to be as big of a deal around here - see Onsen for another good example.

Anyway, it was really nice getting out in the sun. I feel like I've had a whole month's worth of sunshine in one day. I've lifted the tag of hikkikomori for another month.

July 4, 2008

Japanese Chocolate

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been seeing a lot of Salty Chocolate lately. I picked up the Morinaga Salty Chocolate candy the other day. I opened the box, expecting a standard candy bar, but instead I got about eight individually wrapped really small chocolate wafers. They are pretty good, with a bit of salty flavor that isn't overpowering.

As always, I also picked up a new flavor of KitKat when I came across it this evening. Triple Berry. It is one of the better strange KitKat flavors.

It is great that Japan has so many seasonal changes in their coffee and chocolate and other snacks and drinks. It gives me an excuse to keep buying them.

June 15, 2008

The NHK Man pays a visit

Friday evening I came home from work to a hot apartment: it was raining all day so I had left the windows closed. When I do that my apartment warms up pretty quickly, mostly due to the refrigerator and computer I suppose.

I put some rice on for dinner and opened up the windows but it was still pretty hot. Since I absolutely never have any visitors, I stripped down to my shorts and tried to cool off using the fan.

Sometime around 8pm or so, the doorbell rings. This is very unusual. Nobody ever comes to my place unless I'm expecting a friend or a delivery. Since neither were on the schedule, I assumed it was just some sort of salesperson. I probably should have thrown on a T-shirt and pants, but I figured I could get rid of him fairly quickly, and if he wants to bother me right before dinner he can put up with a shirtless foreigner for the time it takes for me to get rid of him.

When I opened the door, I was surprised that the person there was a NHK representative. I had previously had one visit from the NHK guys. NHK is the Japanese national broadcasting service, like the BBC. They are supported by the government and officially people who have TVs are supposed to pay a licensing fee. I don't have a TV, but I do have a computer monitor that has an internal analog TV tuner, and since I was watching NHK News at the time, I felt like I should pay up. I didn't pay last year when the guy came around, but since then I've been watching a lot of NHK news in the morning and evening (it is good practice) so I really felt like I should pay. So I did. It was about $30 for two months worth of the broadcast fee.

I'm planning to move at the end of next month, so I don't think I'll be paying further licensing fees, but I'm glad I did pay at least once.

Also, some foreigners on the expat blog community have warned of scams where someone pretends to be the NHK guy for collecting licenses so some foreigners are wary of paying. This guy was the real deal though, and I've got some nice official paperwork backing things up.

Still, I wonder what the NHK guy was thinking the whole time, talking to a foreigner in his shorts the whole time. I wonder if I just started some other strange stereotype about Americans for him. :)

June 14, 2008

Saturday morning alarm

I was looking forward to getting a bit of extra sleep on Saturday night, but at about 8:45am this morning, there was a pretty big earthquake north of Tokyo (centered on Iwate, a low level 6 on the Japanese scale) which caused shaking down near Tokyo. It was very minor, not strong enough to move anything off my shelves or bookcases, but enough to convince me to get out of bed.

Everything is fine for me, although it was pretty strong farther up north, so I'm watching TV (NHK, I'll have a post about that shortly) to see if there were any injuries or damage caused near the center of the earthquake.

June 11, 2008

Notes from Marriage Week

As always I am a bit behind posting news to my blog. Sorry about that. If you couldn't tell from my previous entries, I married my girlfriend L. three weeks ago. We didn't have a wedding ceremony, but plan to have one next year in May. My family came to Japan to meet with L.'s family, which was totally great. If you are interested, I've written up the events of the week.    read more (3260 words)

May 25, 2008

One picture - Traditional Japanese Kimono and Hakama

I don't really have much time, because I have to pack still, and then get on a plane to go to Morocco for a conference, but I wanted to make a quick note of things.

Yesterday I married L., and for the past week my family has been in Japan. We went out to an amazing Kaiseki Japanese feast (11 courses!) and for the occasion - the first time that both families met - Alana, Jana, Grandma Bessie, myself, and L. were in traditional Japanese Kimono (or for me, the Hakama.)

The only pictures I have are blurry (dad doesn't know much about cameras!) but here is one with Alana, L., Jana, and I.

May 15, 2008

Licensed to drive: Making Japanese streets more dangerous

About two months ago I started the process to convert my Texas Driver's License into a Japanese Driver's License. I expected it to take a long time, but actually things went more quickly than I expected.

Preparing the documents took a while. You need to have

  • A valid Driver's License from a reputable country
  • A translation of the Driver's License
  • At least for me, I needed a certified copy of my driving record from the Texas DMV because the driver's license does not have a date of issue field on it. I also needed a translation of that.
  • Your passport
I think that is everything. It took me a while to collect everything, and to get the translation of your driver's license you have to trek out to the Japan Automobile Federation, but at least it only takes about half an hour and $20. I was able to get a copy of my driving record over the internet, and then I translated it myself (which seemed to work fine -- suckers!) and headed out to the Samezu Driver's License Testing Center and spent about two or three hours applying for the paperwork to take the road test.

If you are a citizen of France, Australia, Canada, and a few other countries you don't need to take a test. You just show them your license, and they give you a Japanese license. That is pretty nice. In my case I had to take a written test - absolutely ridiculously easy - one of the questions was "Is it ok to drive after drinking alcohol if you only have a little bit?" The other nine questions, of which you have to get seven correct (I think), were similar. There is also an eye and hearing test. The eye test is pretty simple: no alphabet, just a bunch of circles with a hole in the top, bottom, left, or right. It isn't really too hard to pick that out. You have a 25% chance of being correct, which is much easier than say, 1/26 like you would have in an American Driver's Test.

Anyway, if you pass those pretty low requirements, you then get to apply to take the driving test. I had to wait about a week or two I think. Another problem I had was that since my passport is my second passport, the people there said that there wasn't proof that I was in the US when the license was issued. Unless I brought in my old passport, I would have to put a "New Driver" sticker on my car for the first year or two. I eventually was able to get that, so it wasn't a big deal, but I was really surprised. Did they honestly think that even though I have a driving record that says I've had a Texas Driver's License for twelve years, I somehow wasn't in the US for that time and didn't do any driving?

In Japan people drive on the left-hand side of the road. I'm not used to that. The day of the driving test they explain the 1600 meter course to you, and you sit in the back seat as someone else drives the course. Then you move to the front seat. Since they drive on the left-hand side of the road, the car's steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the car. That also means that the turn signal is on the right-hand side of the steering column.

When I took my turn to drive, on the very first turn, I hit the wipers. Ha ha. I did it on the next turn too. And the next. The driving instructor was clearly getting annoyed, making unhappy noises at my clearly foreigner mistakes. It made me nervous.

Even worse, my left eye is weaker than my right eye. It is lazy. I don't use my left eye very well. Since I'm driving on the left-hand side of the street, I have to track the curb with my left eye, and that wasn't working well at all. On a straight road, I bumped into the curb and the instructor exploded: "That's dangerous! Aren't you even looking! What's wrong with you!" He called off the rest of the test and I didn't even get to try the S-turn and 90 degree angle turn "crank" portions of the test.

That really unnerved me because not only did I have to get used to driving on the other side of the road, I really felt like I needed to practice using my left eye for monitoring distance. I'm really bad at judging distance because of my eyes: I don't have good depth perception. This is really tough for me. I was positive that I would window-wiper and curb-bump my way to ten more failures.

So I checked around and the local Tokyu Driving School will let you ride around their practice area in one of their cars for 15 minutes for free. So I went and did that, and then signed up for a 50 minute practice lesson. The practice lesson is 50 minutes in the car for only 4,600 yen. That is a steal: normal driving school in Japan costs around $3000 or so. During the free trial I hit the window wiper a few times, but not as often as before. The practice session was scheduled for a week later, two days before the driving test.

The practice session really helped a lot. I used the same trick that I use in America to judge where I need to be in the road: determine empirically where the lines on the road need to disappear into the hood in order for your car to be centered in the lane. I only used the window wiper once. I never hit the curb, except for once on the S-turn course. Since I ran through the S-turns and crank turns about 10 times each, I think that was pretty good. I was feeling pretty good about the driving test.

Two days later I had the real driving test. Things went beautifully. No trouble.

The problem is that once you pass, you have to wait around for them to issue the license (and also get some papers stamped and wait in some lines, and get a photo taken, etc.) That all takes about five hours. Luckily, that gave me a chance to eat at their fine dining establishment. For the bargain price of 850 yen I had a curry rice and a coke. (This is, by the way, probably 2-3x the price that it should be.) You've got all sorts of choices at the cafeteria: curry rice or ramen. Or curry rice and ramen. There are five kinds of ramen, but still. Thinking about it though, I guess there are probably lots of places in America that serve only pizza or hamburgers (but five different types of pizza.)

I am proud to announce though, completely in opposition to what I would think is common sense, the Japanese government has licensed me to drive on their roads.

I think this is a problem for a few reasons. First, I am seriously not used to driving on the left-hand side of the road. I think it won't take too long for me to get used to it, but I really should have a Beginning Driver mark on my car. Second, this test is really simple. You only make maybe three right-hand turns. You don't have to go on the hill portion of the course, or cross the rail-road tracks. You don't have any crazy multi-lane turning tests. One thing that surprised me is that if you are turning right from a two-lane road onto a two-lane road, you turn into the far lane, not the near lane. That means you have to cross two lanes of traffic instead of just one. That seems strange to me.

Anyway, I'm really surprised at how much I have changed since when I first got my license. At 16 (or was it 17?) I was ready to drive anywhere. I was excited, and wanted to hop into a car and go. Now, after living in New York City for eight years, I am worried about driving in Tokyo. I don't want to drive if I can avoid it. When I do go driving, I'm going to drive slowly, I'm sure. At least until I'm out of this city and into some less congested roads.

That said, I'm kind of looking forward to going for a drive sometime with L. :) I'm not sure how insurance works here though, so I'll have to look into that.

May 11, 2008

Updates around Jiyugaoka

I've been neglecting my blog lately. Work has been busy, I'm getting married, family is coming to visit, etc. etc.. These things happen all the time, and it is no reason to ignore your beloved blog. I spent a bit of time today and fixed two things that had been bugging me: the admin control panel now links to the post for posts with new comments (bBlog isn't under active development anymore, but it is a very clean and easy to understand system. It is lots of fun to play with.) The other thing I fixed is that I moved the avatar images to be flush with the blue comment boundary. I would like to work a bit more on the template so it looks a bit more unified, but I'm not really a graphics guy.

So, over the past two months a few interesting things happened in and around Jiyugaoka. First up, my friend Henry told me that there is a New York Doughnut Plant in Jiyugaoka. I love New York! I love Jiyugaoka! I love Doughnuts! (But not enough to wait in line for Krispy Kreme at the two Krispy Kreme shops I know about.) The New York Doughnut Plant sounds like a great place because they spell Doughnut correctly, and maybe they are good Doughnuts, not like some of the other unlikely food combinations that I've come across before. (Although, on that note I did have a Spicy Wiener Doughnut this morning. It sounds like it wouldn't be very good, but it actually was quite nice. The hot dog was great, and a bit spicy, with the same kind of sweet fried exterior that you would find on the misleading Curry Bread that pretend to be sweet jelly-filled doughnuts, but totally are not.)

Back on topic with the New York Doughnut Plant, I was really excited to check it out but it is closed! They are remodeling and will be until sometime in September! I'll have moved away from my beloved Jiyugaoka by then! Oh noes! No doughnuts for me.

Next up on the docket are the new express trains on the Oimachi line. I often take the Oimachi line from Oyamadai (my beloved small town where I live) to Jiyugaoka (the nearby "big" station) where I can transfer to the more respectable Toyoko line. I take it every day to go to work. The Oimachi line is pretty small, only 10km from end to end. If the weather is nice, I'll just walk. I live very close to the tracks, basically separated only by a narrow road, so I hear the trains go by all the time. One thing that really surprised me is that these new express trains are much less noisy than the local trains. They look pretty cool too.

I'm going to miss the noise of trains going by every ten minutes or so. After about two years, it is strange how comforting the noise has become. I know that if I haven't heard trains go by in a while, I really need to get to bed. And they give you a good incentive to wake up when you really should be awake.

Finally, one shot of the Cherry Blossoms in Jiyugaoka. I made it through the whole cherry blossom season without posting any photos (I do have a bunch that I could upload, but it seems very clichéd.) I kind of like the cherry blossom trees that line the Jiyugaoka shopping street.

May 9, 2008

More earthquakes in Japan

So I'm a bit late on this -- I meant to write something last night, but never got around to it -- but there was a medium-sized earthquake two nights ago (Wednesday night.) Actually, it was early Thursday morning, at about 1:45am. I was in bed, somewhat asleep, when my dreams started to become strange and wave-like. The entire bed was swaying. There have been a few small earthquakes in the two years that I've been in Tokyo, but this was one of the bigger ones. In my strange dream-like logic, I thought "Should I wake up and run outside?" I convinced myself that the rocking, wavelike motion was kind of pleasant, and somehow thought that I was a on a nice boat.

I feel back deep asleep again shortly.

It was apparently a fairly big earthquake - showing up on the the local blogs.

Checking some of the earthquake report sites it looks like it was a 6.8 on the US scale, and a 4 or 5 on the Japanese scale.

Anyway, things were fine in my place. I think a pen rolled off one of my tables, but that was about it. I'm up on the 4th floor of a 4-story concrete "mansion", and that thing really gets swaying!

I'm a little worried now thinking about "the big one". Benkei is convinced that the big one is coming and will hit Tokyo soon. A friend of mine at work said the same thing. I'm not so sure: I don't really know much about how earthquakes work. Since I'm in the process of buying a place here though, I've decided that the big one is not coming, and our new place will be built to withstand it even if it does hit.

Unbridled optimism is a great power if only you can harness it correctly!

April 23, 2008

The Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese and Japanese Blog Data

Today I went to a brief introduction talk about the plans to release a corpus of Japanese blog data for research use. The presentation was at the National Institute of Informatics, with a panel of Professor Toukura and Professor Oyama from NII, MAEKAWA Kikuo from The National Institute for Japanese Language, and a representative from Yahoo! Japan's blog division (I didn't catch his name, sorry.)

There were a lot of people there, about 30 or so all told. The purpose of the presentation was to introduce the plans to make a corpus of Japanese blog data available for research use. The presentation wasn't too detailed about what exactly will be released, but the current plan is to make the data available to researchers in July of 2008. The data consists of post entries from the Yahoo! Blog service where the users have agreed to allow their data to be collected and used in such a manner. The post comments are not included in the data, and the corpus will possibly have things like proper nouns anonymized and other things done to protect the privacy of the people in the data. It is really nice to see people thinking about putting together this kind of data for research use. I haven't found a URL for the project or I would post that - the contact section of the handout says to email Professors Toukura, Professor Oyama, or Mr. Maekawa, but I suspect there will be information on the main NII homepage about the data release when the time comes.

In addition, Mr. MAEKAWA spoke a bit about the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese, which looks very interesting. The project to build the corpus runs from 2006 to 2010, so they are only about two years into the project right now, but it is looking to be something like a Brown corpus for Japanese. It contains three sub-corpora, published material from 2001~2005 (magazines, newspapers, and books) and material from 1986 - 2005 from library sources (books mostly it looks like), and a mixed domain sub-corpus with web data, white papers, text books, records from Diet meetings, best seller novels, and so on.

This post isn't really all that content bearing, but there was only very useful resource that Mr. MAEKAWA mentioned in his talk: the demo of the KOTONOHA Corpus of Modern Japanese Search system (actual entrance is on a button click from the description page.) This is exactly what Alex was asking about in one of his posts: a Japanese KWIC (Key Word In Context) search.

I don't know how long that demo will be available, but it is totally great for language learners or generally people who don't know colloquial usage. I tried poking around at it a bit, putting in a few terms but didn't come up with anything too interesting. I liked めんど as a search term because there were lots of hits, some showing it used more as めんどう and others the shorter めんど, often with a くさい not too far behind...

Anyway, that demo search could be a useful tool for non-native Japanese speakers. I'll add it to my toolkit of places to check when I'm mystified.

Now if only someone would make a Geinojin info site that would tell me *why* that person is famous and should be a guest on some panel, that would be great. (I currently use Wikipedia for that, but I would be happier with something that just says X: comedian, Y: famous lawyer, etc.)

February 17, 2008

Kafka by the Sea Part 1: Japanese Vocabulary in half a modern fiction novel

This is a post that I've been waiting to make for a long time. Every weekend, I spend about one or two hours reading Murakami Haruki's "Kafka by the Sea" (村上春樹「海辺のカフカ」). I have been doing this for the past year, and finally today I finished the first book. Japanese books are often sold in two parts, so now I'll move onto the second and final part of this book. I expect it will still take another year for me to finish, unless I start trying to read it a bit on weekdays as well, but to be honest it is a bit difficult to read because I need to sit down somewhere with enough room to take notes in a notebook, and look words up in a dictionary.

This is the second novel that I've read in Japanese, and much more interesting than the first one, Keritai Senaka, by Risa Wataya, in which nothing much happened. I'm not going to write a review of Kafka by the Sea right now, since I'm only halfway through, but I enjoy it a lot so far. It has elements of fantasy and wonder that I usually really enjoy in Murakami's work. I've started reading a bit faster as time goes on, mostly because the story is getting interesting (and perhaps I'm remembering more words.)

What I would like to write about is the vocabulary with which I had trouble. I sat and wrote the words I didn't know in a little notebook, and then entered them into a simple text file when I finished each reading session. I also added little notes summarizing what when on (I didn't start doing that until later though, so it isn't a complete description of the first book.) These words aren't the only ones that I didn't know, just the ones that I wrote down - there are probably 10 words or so that I just skipped entirely because I was reading on the subway and didn't want to drag out my notebook, or something like that.

There were a total of 877 words that I wrote down in my notebook. Out of a 486 page book, that means there are about two words per page that I don't know on average, but the distribution is really not nearly that even. Of those 877 words, 103 of them showed up more than once. That means that of those 877 words, I couldn't remember about 11 percent of them. One of them in particular is embarrassing: I didn't know the word for "sentence", which makes no sense because I use that word all the time. I attribute it to the word showing up in a context that I am not expecting (literature instead of computer science stuff.)

There were two words that I wrote down four times, nine words that I wrote down three times, 79 words that I wrote down twice, and the rest occurred only once. The good news there is that at least I did seem to learn most words after writing them down twice: very few words occurred three or four times. Also, there are a lot of words here that I really don't need to know. Murakami likes to use strange words, and he will use less-common characters for them also. I don't think I need to know 咀嚼, soshyaku, to bite. Don't normal people just use 噛む, kamu (to bite / chew)?

On the off chance anyone else is interested in reading this novel, I'll put up my vocab list.

January 29, 2008

The Asian Olympic Handball Controversy (and Doctor Who)

For the past few weeks when I check out the news I've been hearing about the Handball Controversy.

First off, I didn't know that handball was an olympic sport. I know there are lots of olympic sports that I don't know much about, but I have never seen anything about handball in the US.

That is one interesting thing about Japanese TV: I see all sorts of topics that just are not on the radar at all for American Media. In general, I think American Media is just awful, reporting on unimportant things and ignoring interesting topics, completely dominated by large corporations and advertising to consumers. I like NPR, and that probably gives you a pretty good idea of what I'm about.

Anyway, I can't say that Japan is all that different, but the NHK news here does touch on a lot more international topics than news in America.

I've seen a few stories on the handball thing, and didn't really pay much attention but it seemed like there was some officiating controversy at the handball playoffs that decide who will go to the Beijing Olympics to represent Asia. I didn't get much more out of it than that - they played some clips, but I don't know the first thing about handball, so I didn't know what was going on.

This morning I saw that Japan and Korea will be re-playing a tournament. Japan and Korea. That sounds like it could be explosive. These countries have a long history of competing, and it can get serious.

Since I didn't know what was going on though, I did a search of the English web. Wow! Based on this afp news story and this story on China Daily it is even crazier than I thought! I basically thought that Japan and Korea had some problem with the officiating (and they do!) between the games they played. It turns out that they are accusing that the Kuwaiti team benefited from a late switch of officials (Germans to Jordinians) and cheated their way into an Olympic berth.

Korea and Japan appealed to the International Handball Federation who ruled that the tournament be re-played. The president of the Asian Handball Federation, Kuwaiti prince Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Sabah (who also serves as the head of the Olympic Council of Asia) does not sanction the replays and has threatened action against any other nations that play in them.

So in the end only Korea and Japan are playing in the IHF re-plays. The women play tonight, and the men play tomorrow.

I just wonder what will happen with the results? I mean, two teams can't make up an entire tournament, can they?

Since I saw that the game is actually going on live, I thought I would take a peek at the seven channels I get on my TV to see if it was on. It wasn't, but completely randomly I came across Doctor Who (dubbed in Japanese!) on NHK! It was great to hear Rose and the Doctor in Japanese. Rose doesn't seem as strong and independent in Japanese, but she's still cool. The doctor doesn't sound as funny and irrelevant either, but I only caught the last 10 minutes of the first part of the two-parter "The Impossible Planet" (Episode 22). The second part airs on Feb 5th at 7pm. I'll have to leave home early to make sure I catch it. :)

And now I'm watching "Sanma Palace", which is a show with a comedian that takes to a bunch of other "talent". I don't get it.

Also, they broke the talent into two teams, the "complete idiots" and the smart team. But when you look at the text they use to title the segment, it is the "not intelli(gent)" (ノットインテリ) against the "intelli(gent)" (インテリ). I think - I'm just guessing, and usually that means I've completely and horribly misunderstood the Japanese. I liked when they introduced the baka team with a segment "this is when you realized that you're stupid".

January 26, 2008

I lost my watermelon

I sometimes have conversations that go like this:
D: It's really cold tonight, so after dinner why don't we take the train home instead of walking?

R: Yeah, it's really cold today. That's a good idea. Oh but wait, hey hey, I lost my watermelon!

D: You lost your watermelon?

R: Yeah, I had it yesterday, then I went to my friend's house, and now I can't find it! It's really inconvenient!

D: It's inconvenient that you lost your watermelon? In the winter?

Of course, things became clear shortly thereafter: she was talking about her JR RFID-style card, the "Suica", which is a homonym for watermelon. I was so confused.

January 3, 2008

Happy Bags

Every new year in Japan, retailers put together bags, call them Lucky Bags, Happy Bags, Grab Bags, what-have-you, but essentially they are a collection of goodies for a good price.  I bought the 2008 Muji Happy Bag, and here are pictures of what was inside.

This idea of "Lucky Bags" (essentially grab bags) is new to me.  I heard about it just the other day, and it was explained to me like this:
Do you know fukubukuro? (福袋 - literally good fortune bag) It is a bag at a store.  It costs maybe 1000 yen, but has 3000 yen of stuff inside!
Now, I'm no business major or economist, but that sounds like a bad deal for the retailer.  Thinking about it though, it is a really interesting idea.  I'm sure that the retailers don't take a loss on these things - the margins are probably very low on them - but the idea is somewhat similar to the Black Friday sales you see the day after Thanksgiving in America.  So the day after Thanksgiving, stores sell stuff at ridiculously outrageous prices, certainly taking a hit on some of the deals as "loss leaders" just trying to get people into the store.  These are probably operating on the same, or at least similar, model.  Get people into the store, and they will pick up some other stuff along with your Happy Bag (I kind of like that as the translation instead of Lucky Bag.) 

The way these bags work is that you generally have a bag for some set price, say 3000 yen, and unknown contents inside.  Generally you can't see into the bag so you don't know what is in there.  It's a gamble.  (Given the Japanese peoples incomprehensible love of Pachinko  it comes to no surprise to me that they like the idea of a random gamble on a bag of unknown stuff.)  This strikes me as an interesting propsition on two grounds: it is good for the merchant because you can use the happy bag as not just a loss leader, a way to draw people into the store, but also as a way to manage inventory: you need to get rid of the 2007 models and make room for the new, trendy 2008 models.  I don't follow Japanese fashion magazines, but this place is dominated by magazines that set trends (see Neojapanisme, clast, or jeansnow.net for more about that) and last year's stuff just won't do.  Since you are selling this bag of stuff, you can throw in things that didn't sell well or that you are overstocked on, drop the price a bit, and people are happy because they are getting a good deal.  That's a win-win situation.  It also has the advantages of a video game system bundling deal: you can put in a few stinkers with the winners and hopefully people will overlook that fact. 

Having the Happy Bags be opaque is very interesting because now the merchant is faced with a problem: dump a lot of crap that isn't worth much into the bag and make some money, or put really good stuff in there, possible take a loss, but possible gain customer loyalty in the process?  It is a tough call.  Personally, I wouldn't want to a get, for example, a Don Quixote happy bag, but I'm pretty sure I would be interested in a Muji or Uniqulo happy bag.  Anyway, I have more confidence that Japanese companies would take the long-term view and generally try to put good stuff in their bags.  I'm not sure that I would trust American companies to do that same thing.  I think the closest thing, the Black Friday sales in America, are similar but have some bad sides to them as well: for example, generally the best deals are limited to a certain number per store, and now have resulted in not-infrequent tramplings and mad rushes at the stores.  I don't think that happens as much in Japan, but then again I didn't line up for any 初売り (first shopping!) trips either. 

Anyway, the short of it is that I went and bought the Muji Happy Bag this year.  It is the first year I had ever heard about them, and I was thinking of stopping by Muji and picking up some socks and a hat.  Thinking about the bag, maybe there would be socks and a hat in there.  Muji seems unusual in that their Happy Bag is see-through.  I like Muji a lot.  I haven't written about it, but I think that the idea of a brand that is personified by the lack of branding, is really interesting.  Japan is more or less brand obsessed, and a brand that is unbranded is still somehow a brand (you can tell by color schemes, design scheme, style, function, and so on.)  Anyway, they expect that they can sell more bags when people know their contents as opposed to not.  I think that is because Muji is an honest and reliable store.  And I like their socks. 

So here is a breakdown of what was in their bag:

  1. A large wool Jacket
  2. Two pair of boxer shorts
  3. One India Linen bag (?)
  4. Three pair of short socks
  5. One pair of long socks
  6. One short scarf

I have to say that the bag was worth it if for the Jacket alone.  It is a really nice large wool Jacket.  Of course, I got the large bag - the bag also comes in small I suppose - so the jacket actually fits pretty well.  I'm really pleased with just the jacket, but wait, there's more!  You also get two pair of boxer shorts (can't go wrong with those), three pairs of short socks (I was hoping for some socks!), one pair of long socks (they look warm), one short scarf, and one Indian Linen bag.  Now, I'm a little confused about the linen bag, since I'm not really sure what it is supposed to be for.  A dirty laundry bag?  Something that stands up is more useful for that task.  A shopping bag?  There are no convenient handles.  Really, I'm kind of at a loss here.  It is totally in line with Muji's style, but just not something that I have a use for.  I am currently using it as a tablecloth on a small table.  It is doing a good job, but I feel like I should put something inside it.  (But what?)

Anyway, I like this idea of Happy Bags.  I have a lot of blogs written by foreigners in Japan, and over on Tokyo Manga Lisa writes about the women's Muji vs. Uniqlo Happy Bags

The Seven Gods of Happiness New Year Temple Tour

The Tokai Seven: like Ocean's Eleven, but much older.  And less criminal.  They are both pretty lucky though.

The Seven Gods of Happiness represent different types of good fortune, and for some reason in Shinagawa there are seven temples, each devoted to one of the Gods.  One of the traditions of the New Year is the 初詣, the first visit to a temple of the new year, and while often this occurs at midnight, it isn't unusual for the first visit to be done anytime in the first few days after the new year.  The most busy time of the year is probably the First, and the most busy temple is probably Meiji Jingu.  I'm not going to brave those crowds, but since I was staying in Shinagawa, Lisa and I decided to make the rounds and visit all seven temples. 

At your first stop, you can buy a poster-board with a spot for each temple.  As you go to each temple, you can collect a stamp for that temple.  Collect all seven!  You can also buy a boat, and buy little figurines that go in the boat at each temple.  The suggested order for visiting the temples is:

  1. Shinagawa (Shinto) Temple, for Daikokuten God of Wealth 品川神社 (大黒天)5 minutes to
  2. Yougan Temple, for Hoteizen God of Good Fortune 養願寺(布袋尊) 1 minute to
  3. Isshin Temple, for Jyuroujin God of Long Life 一心寺(寿老人) 5 minutes to
  4. Ebara Temple, for Ebisu God of Wealth 荏原神社(恵比須) 15 minutes to
  5. Shingawa (Buddhist) Temple, for Bishyamonten Buddhist Guardian God 品川寺(毘沙門天,金生七福神) 20 minutes to
  6. Tenso / Suwa Temple, for Fukurokujyu the God of Happiness, Wealth, and Longevity 天祖・諏訪神社(福禄寿) 25 minutes to
  7. Iwai Temple, for Benzaiten the God of Music, Wealth, Eloquence, and water 磐井神社(弁財天)

I didn't know much about the different Gods when I was visiting the temples, but I did do a little bit of research when I got back home.  A "little bit" means that I looked them up on Wikipedia, and noticed that there was an English page as well as the Japanese page.  So now you know about as much about them as I do.  It took a long time to visit all of the temples.  I don't remember the order that we did it (although possibly you can reconstruct the order from the pictures on Flickr) but it took us two days.  We visited five on the first day, ending with Shinagawa.  Shinagawa temple was probably the largest of the lot, and had police managing the crowds.  We waited for about forty minutes or more to make our offering there.  I also picked up an Omikuji (お神籤), which is a written fortune.  I was lucky and got "The very best of luck" (大吉) so I'm hopeful that this will be a good year.  So far, so good anyway.  After the long wait, and previous hour or so of walking around going to the other four temples, we decided to go back to Lisa's parent's place. 

The next day we went to the last two temples, Iwai Temple and Tenso / Suwa temple.  I've never seen a temple with two names in it like that before, and I wonder what that is all about.  I'm sure I could figure it out if I did some searching on the Japanese web, but I'm not too interested in doing that right now.  The Japanese web makes my head hurt when I stare at it for too long.  Iwait temple houses Benzaiten, which I think is my favorite of the Gods because I've always been a fan of Benten Records, a record label that focuses on female Japanese bands.  In all honesty though, I think you would be best off with Fukurokujyu, since that God seems to be a general jack-of-all-trades Gods.  Also, unless I'm really bad at looking these things up, it looks like there are two Gods of Wealth (Can't have too many of those I guess) and some other overlap also, but nobody ever said that your pantheon had to be orthogonal.  If I was to build my own pantheon though, I would probably try to select both orthogonal and complementary Gods, but that's just me. 

I really enjoyed this trip around to various different temples, and now that I've looked into it, there are lots of these things.  http://park1.wakwak.com/~hisamaro/tokyo2photo.htm lists many different temple tours, and has a convenient list of temples and gods for the Tokai Seven.  So I'm sure there are lots of other temple courses I can try out - but to be honest, it is a lot of trouble, and probably not something I'll repeat. 

Note: while writing my post, I relied on http://www.evam.ne.jp/tokai7/index.html as a general site on the Tokai Seven Gods of Happiness.  But I didn't rely on it too much because it is part of the Japanese web.  

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