December 7, 2008

Mini Manga Reviews 2: Crossfire and Yotsuba volume 2

Continuing in my series of mini-manga reviews, we have Miyuki Miyabe's "Crossfire" and the second volume of "Yotsuba to".

Crossfire is a pretty nice and easy read. There were two words that I learned, basically accelerant (促進) and pyrogenesis (I think that is the English for it - someone that can cause fires with their mind.) The author, Miyuki Miyabe is known for murder mystery and suspense novels. This one has a bit of a supernatural tint to it, since the main character has the ability to start fires. (Hence the title.) I think that makes things a bit interesting, since I like to read about things that are bit divorced from the normal reality that we live in. If I wanted to read about arsonists, I could find that in the newspaper just by looking hard enough. The manga was a pretty quick read, and has furigana for most of the complicated words, but is probably more of an intermediate than beginner level. I thought it might be self-contained, but it ended on a clear cliffhanger, so it looks like I'll have to keep my eyes open for volume 2. This manga was just released back in September so it is fairly new. There is also a DVD movie version of what looks to be the same thing, but I'm not enthralled enough to want to search that out. I might rent it if I come across it in Tsutaya though.

Next up is the second volume in the Yotsuba to series. I really like this series: it is funny, each chapter is short and self-contained (makes for good reading when you only have five or ten minutes here or there, which is generally the situation I am in) and the Japanese itself is pretty basic. It has full readings given for the kanji, so it is very accessible to beginners. I also think this series is great for foreigners because of the whole "unusual aspects of Japan" that is explored from the point of view of a naïve (or possibly very stupid, putting her on a level I can relate to :) ) young girl. Highly recommended.

As always, you can click on the links to the left to hit the Amazon.co.jp pages for the books, but they have my referrer ID in them so I clearly am trying to make money off of you. :)

November 24, 2008

Fall leaves in Koishikawa Park

Yesterday, R. and I went to Koishikawa Park (小石川後楽園) in the middle of Tokyo, near Tokyo Dome, for an afternoon picnic. It was a holiday weekend, so the place was packed. Actually, I'm not sure that it wouldn't be packed on any normal weekend either, but since it is also the time of the year when the fall leaves turn colors there were lots of people there. We bought boxed lunches at a nearby convenience store, and some beer, and headed out to the park. It is a really beautiful place, just amazing that a park like that can be hidden away amid the skyscrapers and bustle of Tokyo. There are lots of parks like this really. They are medium sized, but seem much larger than they are due to creative landscaping.

Check out the Flickr Set for all the photos but generally I think that things looked really nice. The leaves are turning some nice colors, and I really like the mix of traditional park with modern backdrops: Tokyo Dome and tall buildings in particular are interesting to me.

While we were eating on one of the benches there was a Bunraku (Japanese traditional puppetry) show on a small stage erected for the event. I would have liked to watch it, but the place was packed and I couldn't see a thing. I did get a decent picture though.

After lunch while we were walking around I saw a woman in a Kimono, and asked if I could take her picture. She was pretty surprised, but called her friend over (who I hadn't seen) so I ended up with a nice shot of two women in Kimono. Nice! Also, it is amazing how many people were taking pictures with camera phones. There were people with crazy big lenses on DSL cameras, but more people with crazy small cameras taking pictures also. My new phone also has a high resolution camera (5MP, more than my point and shoot 4MP camera camera, but the pictures on the phone are really bad at anything more than 2MP.) My new phone actually has two cameras on it, which I find really funny. My camera doesn't have two phones on it.

Anyway, I don't have much more to write about the picnic: it was a nice break in the middle of the city. There are lots of little parks like this - I've been to Shinjuku Gyoen before, Hamarikyuu park, and the central park equivilent as well. I enjoy finding new places liket his though. I'm going to have to spend more time walking around my new apartment and find out what we have in this area.

The leaves are really starting to take on nice colors, and pretty soon it will be winter. I'm not looking forward to the cold winters, but they beat the nasty summers.

Fukuya open house and Fukutoushin subway line pictures

Last weekend (I can't believe a week has already passed and I didn't have time to write up something quick about this!) I went to an open house that my friend Tomoki Fukuya did the interior design for. I was interested because I haven't seen the Fukuyas in a long time, and the house itself sounded very interesting. The house is 3.1 meters wide by 15.4 meters long: basically, a long, thin house. One of the challenges Tomoki faced was making a small space feel open - probably something that happens a lot in Japan. The top two floors are residential (rental) space, the first floor is an office space, and the bottom floor is a retail space. I didn't really take many pictures - I should have, but I always feel strange pulling out the camera and snapping pictures - and now I wish I had.

I really liked how there was lots of storage space all over the place, it seemed really big and the lack of walls really made the place seem large. The bathroom was cool too: all glass (but there were blinds if you wanted them) that let in the light from the full window. Also also really liked the staircase and the bookshevles there. The concept was that kids would sit on the stairs and read, so the stairs are dual-purpose: you climb them, and sit on them. I was surprised that the place was a rental property instead of one up for sale. It seems like the place was going for a very reasoanble rate: about $1000 a month and it wasn't too far from the train station. About a 5 minute walk, and it is about 20 minutes from Ikebukuro on the Tobu Toujou line.

The house itself kind of reminded me of the Austrian Cultural Institute in New York, a really cool narrow building.

On the way home, I took the Fukutoushin line back to Shibuya. That was the first time I had taken that line - it just opened up in June, and generally I don't go very far off of my commuter pass, so that was kind of interesting. There is also a new station entrance in Shibuya station that I thought was kind of neat. There are other renovations going on in Shibuya but I just never go through that part of the station so I hadn't seen this area yet. The colorful signs are really great.

It was also interesting to see people sitting around all over the place with little clicking counters they were using to count how many people were using the the different exits and corridors in the station. They really do a lot of profiling in this city to manage the congestion. So far though, from what I can gather, the Fukutoushin line hasn't been too successful: it generally connects places that other lines also go to, so not many people have been using it. It was pretty empty when I took it too, so I wonder what is going to happen there. I'm glad that the line that I normally ride is pretty empty because it means I can sit on ride in. That is a lot better than my old commute, where I almost always had to stand, and it was usually crazy crowded.

November 16, 2008

A new, advanced phone (nice) with an awful intercface (boo): DoCoMo P906i Review

After two and a half years in Japan I am retiring my "sweets" AU phone and switching to a new P906i phone on the DoCoMo network. I am switching networks because my wife has been on DoCoMo for years and wanted me to switch so we could be on family plan where calls are free between family members. That is great for us, but also means I can talk to my wife's immediate family for free, which means I have no good excuse not to talk to them - and talking to them in Japanese is a bit stressful.

Anyway, a week ago I decided to take the plunge and switch from AU to NTT. It took most of my Saturday afternoon last week, where I went to the AU shop, told them I want to move to NTT then picked up the number portability forms and went to the NTT shop. Canceling service was easy, they didn't try any of the retention tactics that you get back in America. So that was nice.

When I first got my phone three years ago I just got the cheapest phone they had - a one yen deal with the basics (GPS was the most advanced feature it had.) For my new phone I wanted more features. The main thing I wanted was a GSM capable phone with the capability to work in America, Bluetooth, and the Electronic Wallet feature so I can put my commuter pass on the phone. That really limited selection down but there were one or two handsets that fit that criteria. I sprung for the 906i, a kind of bulky flip-open model with a beautiful screen and all those features. Actually I kind of want an iPhone but the software for those is still pretty bad (Japanese email is still really bad) and it doesn't support the Electronic Wallet feature either (or 1-seg digital TV but I don't really care about that.) Also, while Risa wants an iPhone, she isn't willing to leave NTT for one.

The new phone has great hardware but the interface is atrocious. It is awful. I thought my AU phone was bad, but this one is worse. In my old phone to see my own profile I just pressed up. That was really convenient because I put my home phone number there, which I don't have memorized. To see my profile on my new phone I need to press the menu button, then press 0, but that isn't shown as an option. I actually had to read the manual to figure that out. Worse, my profile does not show my home phone number. I have to hit the "edit" command, and then my "extra" information pops up.

This phone has three types of email. Normal email, R messages and F messages. I do know the difference between these (I think F are Free messages from NTT) or even care really. Why the added complexity?

After almost every command, the phone requires acknowledgment. If you take a picture it throws up a box "I took a picture" and you have to press Ok. After sending an email "I sent an email". I know! That is what I asked you to do! Don't force me to click stuff unless there is a problem!

One of the main features I was interested in is bluetooth. It looks like the phone can only use BT for headphones though. I wanted to send files with BT, particularly pictures. I can use it to set up internet access though, which sounds useful.

The phone has at least three ways to wirelessly transfer data, none of which work for getting data into my Mac. It has a standard IR Port, the aforementioned Bluetooth, and also some mechanism used for RFID data transfer that can be used with some phones to transfer pictures or address book information. So far they are all useless to me.

The preference settings for the phone are insane. There are about 20 menus for main settings, each with 10 more settings, many of which have another menu of 10 or so. They provide a search function to find the setting you want. I have only scratched the surface there.

P906i tech specs:
  • Main display: 480x854
  • Front-panel 1-bit display: 128x36
  • Camera max resolution: 2592x1944 (looks like crap though!)
  • Video max resolution: 640x480
  • Has a MicroSD card, up to 8GB MicroSDHC (I've got 4GB)
  • Bluetooth, but can only use it for headphones / headset, can't transfer files with it. (To my knowledge.)
Typing in English is not possible. Well it is but there is no completion mechanism for English. My AU phone at least you provide you completions for the words you used before, but not this phone. There might be a setting for that, but it is just easier to write in Japanese.

You can set the phone to use English menus, but I don't recommend it. The menus are more confusing in English than Japanese, and worse it defaults to the useless English input method in that mode, so I went back to Japanese pretty quickly.

The phone isn't all bad though - it has a beautiful screen and the GPS navigation, a different program than my previous phone, is really nice. I think the Electronic Wallet will be really nice once I set it up, but I wasn't able to transfer over my commuter pass on initial setup so I will have to see the JR People about that.

The camera is stupid crazy. It is 5MP which is just insane because the sensor is way too small for that. My old Cannon at 4MP takes much nicer pictures. I have reduced the size so maybe it will take nice 2MP pictures. A few of the pictures on my Flickr stream are from this phone now, and they seem pretty good.

I tried the 1-seg digital tuner and it works. That is probably the last time I will use that.

It is supposed to have nice games and stuff available for purchase, but I don't think I will even bother. The web browser is also supposed to be nice so I think I will try to set up Mixi on it, but I do not anticipate using the web browser a lot: I just am not often in situations where I need to access the web and I don't have a computer nearby.

Overall I like the phone a lot, but think the software and UI are just awful. It will work fine for what I need but falls very short of my expectations from looking at the specs. I could have gotten away with a $50 instead of this $400 monster, but at least the cost is broken out over the 2-year contract without any interest.

November 15, 2008

Quick Manga Reviews

One of the interesting things about working at Amazon Japan on the 14th floor is the shelf of free books you can peruse. There are lots of manga, so I started randomly grabbing volumes here and there. Here are some random reviews (click the links on the left to go to the product pages on the Japanese website - fair warning, if you buy something I will get like, 2 or 3 yen or something.)

So I thought I would write some very quick, very basic reviews. The first manga I read was けんぷファー (Kenu fau? Supposed to be some sort of German word) volume 1. It is completely awful, and totally cliché. The story starts with our hero, whose name escapes me, wakes up and is a girl. A high school girl (well, he was a high school boy so that makes some sense.) He has a stuffed animal that talks to him (some sort of tiger) and tells him that he was chosen to be a Kenpu fau who fights other Kenpu fau, who are all apparently high school kids. The reason they fight was never explained, but clearly that is supposed to be the interesting mystery to the story that draws people in. It just annoyed me because the fictional world makes no sense. Also, there are many gratuitous panty shots and the like. Why does the guy get a high school girl's uniform when he transforms for no reason? Yet in the middle of the story, he says he has to go shopping for clothes because he doesn't have any women's clothes (except for the magic schoolgirl outfit?)

It rates half a star. Out of however many stars you want (at least 5 though probably.)

Next up is よつばと! (Yotsubato) which is apparently written by a well-known author, Kiyohiko Azuma who also wrote another well-known series Azumanga Daioh. The reason I ordered this manga is because in one of the chapters, the main character Yotsuba creates a robot out of a cardboard box. The author designed a toy for Amazon that uses Amazon boxes, which I wanted, and then when I tried to order it Amazon recommended the first volume of the manga. So I bought it.

What is the story? It is a cute look at Yotsuba, a young (naive or stupid?) girl who has everyday adventures. It is very easy to read, with full furigana, and simple enough that anyone can understand it. I think it is very accessible to foreigners because the humor is based on this young girl not knowing about her surroundings - a somewhat familiar situation for a foreigner in Japan. I read the first volume fairly quickly, and ordered the second volume. I haven't started in on it yet, but plan to read it on the subway.

My wife told me that I shouldn't read it on the subway though because people would think I am a nerd. Since I am a nerd, I didn't take her advice, and plan to read it on the subway.

November 4, 2008

Simplifying the menu

At work this afternoon a friend brought in a bag labeled simply "Quarter Pounder". Our office is out in Shibuya, and randomly what used to be McDonald's turned into some random post-modern simplified version of McDonald's called simple "Quarter Pounder". I guess they are promoting the Quarter Pounder coming to Japan (wasn't it always here?) by changing two shops, one in Omote-sando and one in Shibuya, into Quarter-Pounder only joints. I stopped by for dinner more out of curiosity than anything else. I actually really like the idea as a short-term thing: it addresses the concerns brought up by The Paradox of Choice.

The interior is all black, with nice modern (well, modern from the point of view of the 80s) furniture, and everyone has black uniforms. It reminds me of some sort of Clockwork Orange view of restaurants of the future. The menu is great: Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or Double Quarter Pounder with cheese. You get a medium fry, and a choice of Coke, Coke Zero, or a hot coffee. All for the low price of 500 or 600 yen. You also can get them without cheese, which is awesome.

While I like the idea of simplification, I don't know realistically how long that place will have customers with such a sparse menu. I did notice more people than usual getting take-out from there today, but I think, like me, they were drawn in by the novelty factor.

Also, I can't believe how many people they had out there holding signs and proclaiming the arrival of "the number one most popular burger in America now available in Japan!" I'm sure this will be all over the ex-pat Japan blogosphere (Marxy at least already posted about it in the Meta-no-tame blog.)

October 26, 2008

A quick update, and get more convenient, Japan!

Ever since I changed jobs, I've been pushing pretty hard to keep up with all my commitments. I'm organizing a track for the NTCIR 7 workshop so after work at my new job, I head home and spend anywhere from two to six hours on NTCIR-related stuff. The big push has been for this week, when I have to get the evaluation results back to the participants. I've just about finished the coding I need to do that, and then I have to spend a few hours working on some human-in-the-loop semantic matching.

So that has been keeping me very busy. I hope things will get a bit better after this week, but I am pretty sure that I'll be busy until after the workshop in December.

But there are a few things that are worth noting. First, I don't know how I had missed the show The Middleman, but it is a funny show. I heard about it on tor.com from someone there. It is a sci-fi take on Superheros and Supervillians, and is a perfect live-action match for The Venture Brothers.

Otherwise, I haven't been watching much tv, but R. has been putting the Fox Channel on TV when she's home. I really like listening to Dr. House in dubbed Japanese.

So there are two other notable events. Really, I've been working 12+ hours a day, so very little has been going on. These little stories are all I have.

The other day I decided that I would cook some curry. I went out shopping and saw that there is now "low fat" curry. There were 50% off and 30% curries. I was pretty sure that 50% would be pretty bad, so I gave the 30% a try. Back home while preparing the meat, I saw that R. has some meat scissors, which I just love. They are so convenient. So, I cut up the meat, set the curry going, and then tried to wash the scissors. Huh. Funny. The blades don't come apart for easy washing.

Later on, I asked R. about that. "Why don't the meat scissors in Japan come apart for easy cleaning?" "What are meat scissors? We don't own any such thing!"

Oops.

And just yesterday, as R. and I were going out of the house to get lunch on a nice Saturday, we stopped down by the mail room in the apartment building because I wanted to mail something out. I was about to drop it in the outgoing mail slot and R. stopped me. "What are you trying to do?" "I'm trying to mail this." "By putting it in the junk mail garbage slot?"

Oooh. That explains why a bunch of the forms I mailed out over the past three months never seemed to actually arrive. Come on Japan! Outgoing mail in the building is really convenient! So are meat scissors! Let's get moving here!

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.


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