Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Wanna Feel Like A Rockstar??

Come to Japan.

Having made that statement, I must add a few addendums on to it.

1. You must be white, preferably American.

2. You must be male. Females get special treatment too but from my observations, you get less of the rockstar treatment and more of the "haha, a white woman" treatment. The men will look at you like a piece of meat and the women will look at you with contempt because their men are looking at you and not them. Multiply this by two if you are a blonde woman. Multiply by ten if you are a natural redhead.

Now that that is out of the way, I will elaborate. First off, I am not Brad Pitt. I am your typical white guy. No butt, a tad of a gut, 5'10", and brown hair. In the States, I was pretty well liked and had no problems finding people to talk to in social situations and whatnot. I am pretty extroverted and like to talk. I am also kind of a clown. When I arrived in Japan almost six months ago, I was somewhat prepared for the difference in cultures and I figured I wouldn't have too hard of a time making friends. What I didn't expect was how many friends I would make here.

While in training for my job, I was befriended by a handful of people and I considered that good enough. What I was not prepared for was how friendly Japanese people are. In Japan, you have basically to views of foreigners, Americans especially. You either have the people that would prefer not to be around you, for me, this has been old men. Or you have the people that want nothing more than to talk to you. In the bigger cities, where people are more akin to seeing the occassional goofy looking gaijin meandering through the tight streets, the gawking is not as common. When you go out into the countryside, you become a god.

A few weeks ago, I was on a train and was sitting across from some high school girls, sailor uniforms and all. The girl directly across from me was studying English and I was trying to look at her book to see how it was set up. Her friend noticed this and whispered in the girl's ear and both of them started cracking up. Most people in Japan, have no problem talking about you even if you are right in front of them. What they do not expect is for the white guy they are talking about to start talking to them in Japanese. This is quite fun to do for two reasons: 1) They are automatically embarrassed because they assume if you can speak some Japanese you just understood what they were saying about you. 2) They get very excited because a white guy is making the effort to learn Japanese. The Japanese love it when people make the effort to speak to them in their language. If you come to Japan and need help, try asking for it in Japanese, even if you know you are butchering it. The person you are talking to will be much more willing to help you.

Either way, these girls are now all excited that there is a white guy chilling across from them and on top of that, he is talking to them. When I told them that I was just interested in her English book because I am an English teacher they started trying to say all sorts of stuff to me in English just to get a response out of me in English to see if it was the one they were taught. It was kind of fun.

The trains are the places that I usually get into the most random interactions with people. I have had high school guys sing to me because I was drinking a popular soft drink and they thought I should know the theme song to it. I have had guys oogling my tattoos after I went to itch my arm and they caught a glimpse of Evil Homer dancing on my bicep. I have had girls getting ready to board one train car until they saw me and then they come and sit down next to me. And also, I did meet my "auntie" Mariko on a train. High school girls are usually the most common of my fellow travellers to talk to me. All I have to do is say hello to them in English and I am automatically popular.

Once, I was sitting in a train station and these two high school girls were sitting across from me, talking about me, and when I talked to them, they started feeding me candy. They would give me a cookie, I would eat it, and they would give me another. I was like a chubby white squirrel they had to constantly feed. I am not complaining because it was from this encounter that I found one of my favorite snacks here but, it was just kind of funny.

Aside from train stations, walking in public can also cause a disturbance. Once, I was trodding along and this guy starts honking and waving at me, holding up traffic. I said hello to him and this apparently pleased him and he drove away. There was a day in which I went to the arcade and had a couple of girls say hello to me. No big deal, I said hello back, they giggled, I then proceeded to play an hour's worth of Tekken 5. It was when I came out of the building that I noticed they were waiting there for me. Odd. I passed them, they said hello to me yet again, I replied once more, they giggled, and I walked on.

From the sidewalk, I will now move into the bars. Japanese people, like everyone else, can pick out an American, Australian, English, and Canadian accent. Now, maybe it is just my magnetic personality and boy-ish charm, but I swear, once they here my accent and realize I am American, they all start talking to me. Then they call me a cowboy because I have a slight drawl. The thing I love about accents is that I can't tell I have one. Now that I have been around people with various Anglo accents, I am starting to be able to hear the difference, its weird. Either way, the people around here like to listen to me talk. I can't blame them, I like to listen to me talk as well. Being American has scored me free booze, discounted booze, free kareoke, free food, rides to places, you name it. It very odd because the feeling I get from the other crackers that I interact with is that the States are basically the laughing stock of the Western world. Some of their reasoning I agree with, some I don't but either way, at least the majority of the Japanese dig me.

Lastly, why Japanese teenagers really like me. Simply put, I like video games and have the money to possess a PSP, DS, and GP2X. If you want to bond with Japanese teenagers, show them your English video games. Right now, Animal Crossing DS is huge here, as is all things Mario. If you want to make a friend, let them play your copy of Super Mario Advance 3, thanks again Tony. When the kids find out that I know all about the XBox, PS2, and the upcoming, Nintendo Wii, they really start talking. In one of my classes, we spent almost the entire period discussing the pros and cons of the PS3 and the Wii. Since it was done mostly in English, I considered it justified. Speaking of the Wii, when it comes out here in October, I will let you know all about it, I am preordering one. :)

Anywho, when I do eventually return to the States, that will be one thing I think I will miss about this place. Back home, I was just another guy. Here, I am something a tad more. There are times when it annoys me and I feel more like a freakshow than a person, but usually it is pretty amusing. And sometimes, I am kind of a freakshow.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Rice Watching Pt.1

Last week, I thought of kind of an educational activity for all of you in the States and this is the first post in a series that I will update every two weeks for the rest of the rice growing season. I am going to try to let everyone see a rice paddy grow from pretty much the beginning of the season until the end. I am not sure how this will turn out but it may be kind of a cool way to help explain rice and its importance in Japan.

I am kind of fascinated by the whole procedure of rice growing. It may be a goofy thing to say, but I have seen a lot of fields and farms in my day. I have seen corn grow, apples, peaches, wheat, alfalfa, mint, potatoes, whatever. But until I came here, I had never seen rice grow. I have seen the pictures of all of the beautifully teraformed paddies in Vietnam and China and I have seen Japanese historical prints of rice growing, but I have never seen it in real life, until now.

Living where I do, I see a lot of rice paddies. They are pretty much everywhere around Fukuchiyama. On train rides, I glide past hundreds of paddocks, and on a calm day, all of them look like giant mirrors, reflecting the hills and trains as they pass above them. For weeks before the rice itself is even planted, the fields are flooded in order to prepare them. Rice requires a ton of moisture and has no problem growing below three or four inches of water so, these huge tracts of land are totally submerged from the end of April throughtout May.

When it comes to time to plant the rice, in the old days, men and women would take of their shoes, strap a bag full of rice sprouts on, and wade into the shallow waters of the paddy to plop the sprouts into the soil. The rice would be hand planted in a straight line and each sprout would be about seven or eight inches apart. On big farms, the planting process could take weeks and families would usually band together to help each other plant their rice. Today, many farmers have a cool little machine that looks like a riding lawnmower but instead of cutting grass, the machine loads up trays of rice sprouts and as you drive it in a straight line, plunges the rice into the ground for you. It is very quick, precise, and saves your back. They are kind of fun to watch, basically there is a roller underneath the vehicle and attached to this roller are hollow tubes. As the vehicle moves, the roller turns and these tubes plunge the rice into the earth. As the empty tubes roll back toward the top of the vehicle, they are reloaded with sprouts and this is repaeated over and over again. Its like a rice sprout machine gun on wheels.

Anywho, here are the first pictures of the paddy that I will monitor throughout the year. I plan on taking the pictures every two weeks and posting them so we can all track its progress. I am not sure how well this will work or how dramatic of changes we will see, but it will be educational. I have never seen this stuff grow either, so we will all learn together. This paddy is maybe 200 yards/meters from my apartment. There is nothing special about it, I just figured it would be a convenient paddy to monitor because of its location.

This is a ground level shot of the sprouts:

Here is what the whole field looks like:

As I said, I am not sure how much to expect with this, but if anything it will be educational. I just find it interesting that rice was used as Japan's main form of currency for almost 300 years and the peasants that grew rice in paddies like the ones above, were never allowed to keep any of the rice they grew. Another fun fact, rice is the only grain that Japan is self-sufficient in supplying.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Green Island

Dustin made a comment on the Akihabara post about how much energy Japan must waste running some of their gigantic signs during the day and I figured now is as good a time as any to talk about how the Japanese deal with the environment and their resources. I am not going to go into a ton of detail but this should give you a pretty good picture of how that stuff works around here.

Since the beginning of time, the Japanese have kind of gotten the shaft when it comes to the abundance of natural resources on and around Japan. Basically, there aren't any. Japan has trees, but not many that could produce good building material but aside from that, not much else by way of resources are to be found on the islands that make Japan. For this reason, Japan has had to learn how to make as much as they can with the little they get. Pretty much all resources that Japan uses come from other countries. Oil from the Middle East(though there may be some new progress in this area I will talk about later), wood from China (I will talk about this too), most of its produce and livestock for food come from Europe or the United States, etc. The ironic part about all of this is that people think Japan and they think cars, robots, computers, and the like. In order for Japan to produce all of that stuff, almost all of the ore and minerals have to come from other countries. Without trade from other countries, the Japan we know today would simply cease to exist.

Oil is something that is on all of our minds lately, Japan is no exception. Right now, Japan and China are bickering about some newly discovered oil fields and who has the right to drill them. China is a huge country and needs cheap and abundant oil to keep growing; Japan, isn't growing almost at all and just wants a good supply of oil it can call its own. It seems to be a footnote in WWII history, but when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it did so in an effort to secure abundant oil fields in the South Pacific and the country was bombing areas in that region simutaneously. Japan also was bitter about an oil embargo the United States was enforcing upon it and a nasty battleship weight restriction the US and Britain tried to hold the country to. Either way, we aren't talking WWII today, we are talking the environment.

I was reading yesterday that China is not placing a chopstick tax on all of the wooden eating utensils it exports to Japan. This is worrying some businesses because most restaurants give free chopsticks to all guests. The price on chopsticks is going from less than one yen a pair to almost 1.7yen. This sounds trivial, but when you consider that Japan goes through billions of chopsticks a year, it adds up. Now the counrty is considering going to places like Vietnam and Russia to secure their eating utensils.

The above statements will probably not make huge waves in the United States but here, they are big deals. When you consider that Japan is one of the world's top three economic superpowers and it relies on the rest of the world in order to keep it that way, its kind of creepy. The United States has a little bit more wiggle room in this area.

Ok, how Japan utilizes the materials it has and gets from other countries.

First, electrical power. If I were to go on my roof right now, I could probably see at least a handful or so solar collectors on the roofs of the houses around me. It is much more common to see a building with solar collectors on it here than in the United States. In one town I pass on the train, almost every building has a solar panel perched atop it.

Japan also utilizes several forms of hydro-power. You will not see many rivers running through this country that do not have man's handprint guiding them. The Japanese utilize their rivers and canals much more than we do. To a lesser extent, there is also a great deal of geothermal activity below Japan and they utilize that as well. Japan also is pioneering in the area of plasma power. In fact, Slashdot had an article on the JT-60 Tokamac, which produced the longest sustained plasma beam a few days ago. They hope ot have a plasma fusion reactor online by 2016 and this would greatly expand the electrical output of the country.

As you travel throughout the country, you will also see many other power saving features built into everyday things. Escalators at the train stations are motion sensing and only turn on when there are people needing to ride them. Fluorecent lighting is also utilized much more here than in the United States. If you were to go to an office building or store, you would see fluorecent bulbs but here, even the houses use them as their primary source of light. My apartment only has one conventional bulb in it. While some of the buildings may have illustrious lighting displays, most do not. Most streets do not have a great deal of lighting on them either. The main reason for lighting a street is as a crime deterrent. If your country doesn't have a lot of crime no need to light the streets. People riding bikes have pedal powered lamps so they have no need for the lights either. Porch lights are not as common here and if a house has one, it is motion sensing.

To conserve water, Japan employs a handful of techniques unique to the country. I have already touched on the rivers and how construction crews are continuously redirecting them or upgrading them. This is something that happens a lot in my area. Japan has a serious lack of natural fresh water and therefore, it must use desalinization plants that have become more common in California over the past few decades. The fresh water it makes is not wasted either. Families do not drain bathwater after one person bathes. Instead, bathwater will be used by several members of the family before it is changed. Baths are almost strictly used for relaxation purposes and when it comes to cleaning, people take quick showers before they slide into the tub for a soak. The Japanese primarily, shower and bathe at nighttime as well. The act of cleaning and bathing is considered very purifying here and is firmly associated with relaxation, something the Japanese believe happens at the end of the day when you unwind. Japan is famous for its thermal baths called "onsen". Since Japan sits on a fault line, geothermal activity is common and extremely easy to utilize for the purpose of onsen building. The government sells licenses for the drilling of onsen and they are very expensive. But if you want to put your town on the map, you drill an onsen or two. I myself cannot visit as many onsen as I like due to my tattoos. All of the onsen in my area, have strict anti-tattoo rules that I have yet to test. These rules are in place to keep out yakuza. Anywho, if you don't go to onsen, you need to make your own hot water and instead of having huge hot water heaters in everyhouse, the Japanese have a way of heating water that saves energy and space. If I were to take off some of the wall panels in my apartment and expose the water pipe to my kitchen or bathroom sink, I would see a coil of water wrapped around the pipe. When you want hot water, instead of tapping a water heater, these coils heat up that specific pipe and as the water passes through the pipe, it gets hot, really hot. The water that comes out of my kitchen's tap is boiling. When I want a Cup O Noodles, I simply put the cup under the faucet and use hot water from the tap. When I moved in, I was warned about the water temperature and to be careful not to touch the water tap after using hot water. The filament gets the pipe so hot, the taps are extremely hot to the touch after producing hot water. I am not talking the normal hot that you would expect, I am talking second degree burn hot.

One fun story about hot water I have is, one day I was using the shower. My shower's water comes from the bathroom sink. I have to flip a little switch on the faucet and that kicks the water over to the shower instead of the sink. So I am showing and cleaning and singing Frank Sinatra tunes and all is well. Then, as I was finishing up "Luck Be A Lady" and getting ready to get out, I reach out of the shower to turn the water off. Now, keep in mind I was relatively new to the apartment at the time and was still getting used to how fast the water temperature can change but when I went to turn off the water I goofed. Instead of turning the hot off first, I turned the cold off and a split second later, I had not a single hair left on the back of my legs. Sitting was also a chore for a while. It took the better part of two weeks for the hair to grow back and it took a few days before my legs stopped being red. What did we learn? Always, make damned sure you are turning the hot off before the cold or just be smart and turn the switch for the water to go back to the sink before turning it off, which is what I do now.

Anywho, to get back to the point, the Japanese are very environmentally conscious. Most buildings have water recylers on the back of them and garbage recyling is pretty much the norm here. My apartment has garbage days for plastics, burnables, glass, and paper. Its a pain in the butt to keep track of and all of the garbage has to go into different colored bags.

That should give you a good idea of how green Japan is. While in spots it may not seem as such, Japan is a friend of the environment. I travel past rice paddies and small farms and gardens everyday, these people repsect their land and use it to its fullest. Soon I will try to make my first of a few posts about farming and rice farming in particular. Until then, its sleepy time.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Shopping With My Aunties

When I said Mariko could be my proxy grandmother, I was wrong for two reasons. First, Mariko is not as old as I thought. I think she may be a tad older than my parents but not much. Second, Mariko and her friend, Motoko prefer to be called my "aunties". Not kidding, they actually told me I could call them that. The funny part came when I called them both grandmothers because the Japanese word for aunt is very very similar. They were not happy but forgave me after a stern lecture that they were not old enough and then a thorough lesson in the pronunciation of aunt to make sure I never called them grandmothers again. :)

Our day of shopping in Amagasaki, a suburb of Osaka began around 11:30am and lasted until 4:30pm. It was quite fun, we went to Costco, ate lunch, and went to another place as well. It was a good time and they both got a kick out of hanging out with me and I with them. Along with my entertaining shopping companions, I picked up a fifth of Jager which pleased me to no end to find. The Japanese are not that into black licorice flavored anything and I have had a hard time acquiring one of my more cherished liquors. Now we are united and nothing can stop least until the bottle is gone.

Japanese Costcos are also quite amusing. There is almost no difference between the American Costcos and the Japanese counterparts. They are laid out the exact same way and have a lot of the same products. Japanese Costcos have an expansive sushi selection however. They also sell some things that definitely wouldn't fly in the United States, such as pickled jellyfish.

All in all, it was a fun day. After we went our seperate ways, I went into Osaka proper and hung out in Den Den Town for a bit. I love Osaka, but after Akihabara, Den Den Town is kind of pitiful. While in Osaka, I also stopped at the one bookstore that has a decent English selection and picked up a book to help me construct Japanese sentences the correct way with correct grammar and a fiction book called, Maximum Ride that I had heard about and thought it interesting.

Oh, before I forget, I had my first language exchange with Mari on Thursday and it went very very well. I like talking to Japanese people because they teach me phrases and words that I don't normally see in books. Mari finally explained to me what "giri giri" meant, as I have been searching and unable to find a suitable answer. I think the loose translation is something like "just enough". So if someone offers you a refill and your glass is already full, you say "giri giri ippai". I have also heard women say it to each other during games, right before it was someone's turn. I do not hear men say it often but I am happy to know what it means now. Native Japanese speakers can be useful for these kind of questions. But, Mari and I had a good time and it turns out we both like some of the same television shows and movies so that gives us something to talk about.

Anywho, I am going to go now and chill for a bit before I go to bed. This week I am in my Toyooka classroom and while that isn't a bad thing, the 1.5 hour trip each way gets to me sometimes.

Before I go, I will leave you with a picture of my Aunties and of Costco.

My "aunties" Motoko and Mariko:


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Mogwai Moments

Screw Kodak moments, these are Mogwai Moments!

Last post, I said I had a surprise for everyone that I was working on. Truth be told, I am still working on it but I figured I would let you all see it now because I am not sure when it will be done to my specs.

If you look on the right side of the page, you will see a new section call, Mogwai Moments. Click the link under the title and you will be transported to the new sister site of this blog. It is hosted by a company called Multiply and since I have been fiddling with the site, I have had a good experience with the setup. You are going to see a couple of ads in the sidebars but that is what keeps it free for me. Other than that, no pop-ups or unders and nothing overly annoying. The nice part is that you do not have to sign up with them to see the pics.

Watermelongirl, turned me on to the site when she invited me to check out her page. Watermelongirl is also a teacher here in Japan, though she lives in Nagoya. If she says its ok, I will put a link to her page from here as well but I haven't talked to her about that yet so, no link.

As for Mogwai Moments, my aim for the page is to have it be an illustrated, multi-media footnote for the readers of this page. I will post more pics on there than I do here and in the future you may see some little movies I have shot on there as well as music, if I find a tune that particulary strikes me. When I started building the site, I originally intended to dump all of my pics on there and just have them so you can see them. Over time, I realized that you can do so much more with the page and that is what caused the delay.

As I have been putting pics on there, I have also been retitling them and adding brief explanations to go with each shot. It takes a ton of time to do this for each picture and considering that I have well over 400 pics that I intend to go on there, its going to take me a while to get everything how I want it. If you go there right now, you will see one of my pics from Tokyo, 14 shots from the Golden Temple, and a ton of pics from my adventure to Area 51. The Tokyo and the Golden Temple pictures have all been renamed and captioned, while I have yet to do that with the Area 51 pics. You will be able to get an idea of the amount of work I could put into the site if I wanted to. Once I get caught up, with each trip I take I will do all of this on the fly and it will be a faster process for me but for now, it is a lot of work.

Along with adding that link, I also updated my other blogs I link to as well. You will find that I got rid of my friend Travis's blog simply because it hasn't been updated in months and when I checked it just now, it says it has been deleted. I also got rid of the Big White Guy in Hong Kong link. I still like his blog but it has gotten very big and has developed into more of a business for him than a journal. While I still read it, I am trying to keep the other blogs limited ot people I know. There are two exceptions to that but I really like those two blogs and so they stay there. Quyen's blog is also gone due to lack of updates, which is too bad because I liked her site as well. But, I have added new blogs in their places. You will now see Karie and Reid's blog, they are my friends that live in Takaoka in Toyama prefecture. I have finally put Phyrry's site on there; I have been meaning to do that for a while but haven't til now. Sorry for the delay on that one. I have also put Heather's blog on there. Some of you guys may not know who she is, but she is Jake's girlfriend and her writings are very thoughtful and I enjoy her musings.

Anywho, those are the updates and I think there will be a few more in the next little while as well. This site will be two years old in a few weeks and I am trying to spruce it up a tad. Much of the code for this page has gone untouched in that amount of time and I intend to change that. I have said this before, but I mean it now when I say, this blog will probably get a facelift soon. I am just not the greatest coder in the world so this has been a learn-as-you-go process for me and I haven't had time until now to really devote myself to the restructuring of the site.

Now, I must get some rest. I got an email from my proxy-grandmother, Mariko and we are definitely going to Osaka tomorrow and early at that. When you retire, I would think one would want to sleep in and do things at their own pace. These ladys' pace seems to be that of the wake up early variety. Anywho, I am going to try to take pictures tomorrow and intend on staying in Osaka for most of the day, even after I part with Mariko and her friend. What does that mean? Three words: Den Den Town.

Enjoys the additions to the page and I will talk to you all later!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Surprise is Coming

If you are wondering why in the world I haven't posted in a bit its because I have been busy working on something else that will kind of be a fun footnote to this site. There are only two people who read this that know what I am doing but I assure the rest of you, when I finish it, you will like it. And if you don't like it, tough. :)

But since I am posting, a will give you a brief update of what been going down in Fukuchiyama town. First, I start my language exchange with Mari tomorrow. Mari is a really cool Japanese teacher that works with me at one of my classes. Anywho, she wants to hone her English and I want to work on my Japanese. Its a win-win situation.

Secondly, in theory, I will be going to Osaka on Monday. Normally, this is not too big of a deal but this trip is kind of special. The last time I ventured into my favorite city, I was boarding a train and a little voice comes out of the crowd and says "You aren't from around here." Without looking to see where the voice came from I replied, "What gave you that idea?" When I turned around I was confronted by a 4'10" Japanese lady named, Mariko. Over the course of the next hour I talked with Mariko and learned how she once lived in California and came back to Japan a year ago to take care of her ailing mother. She happened to be returning from visiting a friend that was married to an American guy until he died and she returned to Japan. Her friend is terrified that if she doesn't speak English on a regular basis, she will forget it, so she and Mariko get together and speak only English once in a while. Toward the end of the trip, Mariko asked me if I had ever been to a Costco before. I told her that I had worked in one for about 7.5 years and she became ecstatic. Costco is her all time favorite store. So on Monday, I am going with Mariko and her friend to a Costco that is somewhere in Osaka. It should be a fun trip, I think Mariko has a crush on me too so that makes it even funnier. She told me on the train that if she was 30 years younger, she would go out with me because she thought I was handsome. Oh, thats right, I forgot to mention that Mariko is probably pushing 65. :)

She is a very funny lady who speaks very good English, having lived in Cali for 30 years and her kids still live there. For being older, Mari is very spry and active. She goes to the gym a couple of times a week and swims regularly. She also takes computer classes to keep her mind active because she is afraid if she does not use her brain, it will go soft on her due to her age. This is a common thought amongst Japanese people. So after planning for a few weeks, Mariko, her friend, and I are making our way to one of the handful of Costcos in Japan. I am intrigued to see a Japanese Costco but at the same time, loathe the idea of setting foot in one again. Old habit I guess. Either way, it should be a funny experience and an opportunity to get doated upon by two ladies that could be my grandmothers. Since my grandma and great grandma are some 6000 miles away, I am hereby declaring that Mariko is my proxy grandmother...she just doesn't know it...and she has a thing for me.

So anyway, I am going to go burn my clothes now with that final thought but know that something new is going to be added to this site within the next few days. Until then, take care and enjoy the increasingly pleasant weather.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A Little Shakey

About ten minutes ago, a very small earthquake made its way through my apartment. At first I thought it was a train and then I realized that it was too late for the trains. The shaking lasted only one or two seconds but it was most definitely a little earthquake. All of the flooring creaked along with the cabinets and fixtures. My chair started shaking too, like I had just dropped a couple of quarters in or something.

As soon as it finished and I realized what that it was indeed an earthquake, I went to the Japanese Meteorological Agency website and checked for seismic activity and found that I wasn't going crazy and that there was a small earthquake a couple of prefectures away from me. This was the pic that was first on the site:

It looked like it was a 4.5 magnitude quake in one of the prefectures to the South of me. What I had felt was a weaker version of that, probably a 1 magnitude judging by the monitoring stations closest to me.

After I checked it out, I figured this was newsworthy enough to call Karie and Reid and wake them up (sorry guys) and see if they felt anything. They hadn't, but judging by Reid's groggy voice, he was sleeping pretty hard. Sorry you two, but I had to tell somebody. :)

After hanging up with Reid, I checked the website again and found this:

The seismic monitoring stations throughout the area had reported in and the website was updating with information in real time. I originally checked the site maybe thirty seconds after the tremors and it had already updated. Within four minutes, all of the monitoring stations had reported in and the website made the appropriate corrections. That is cool, these guys are on the ball.

Anywho, that was the excitement of my night. If you want to check out the website I went to to get the info and screen captures, it is the Japanese Meteorological Agency at the following URL:

This is also the site I go to for weather information as well. I am not sure how long they keep this info on the site but just go to the "Earthquake Information" section and it should be there. You will be able to see the prefectures it was felt in and all of the counties and monitoring stations affected and the magnitude quake felt at each station.

To people that have been through quakes before, I know this was nothing but I still got an adrenaline rush from it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Tokyo Experience: Day Three Part 2 and Beyond

This is going to hopefully be my last post on Tokyo just because I don't like the idea of spending a week talking about the previous week. There is other stuff I could be posting but the Tokyo trip takes priority so to speak. Anywho, we last left off with our trip to Akihabara. That was fun.

After Akihabara, we all gleefully went back to our hotel and played with our toys for a bit before decided to go to a karaoke place. Fortunately for us, there was one less than a block away. When we got to Big Echo, it is a nationwide karaoke franchise, we were pleased to find that it was only $10.00 for a room per hour. The guy behind the counter reassured us this was indeed the price and so we proceeded to belt out songs for the next four hours, aided by quite a few beers and cocktails. Karaoke in Japan is a blast because instead of doing it in a crowded bar with a bunch of people gawking, you and your friends get a private, soundproof room in which to suck in. There were actually a few songs in which we did not suck. It turns out Ben is quite the rapper when you get a couple of beers in him and he was easily the best out of our group. After finishing our four hour marathon, we went to the counter to pay and got a surprise. We figured with the amount of alchohol we had, plus the room fee, our bill would be around $150.00. Our bill was actually a few bucks shy of $300.00. It turns out that the room was indeed $10.00 an hour but the guy forgot to mention it was $10.00 per person per hour. Jerk. Though, it was partially our fault too for not being able to read the kanji for "per person", either way, we got the shaft, though it was fun until the bill came.

The following morning, we decided that our last full day in Tokyo would be spent in basically two places, the Imperial Palace and the shopping district of Harajuku Street. The Imperial Palace was somewhat lackluster because you really don't get to see much. The Imperial family of Japan lives in near total seclusion and the palace is almost completely hidden from view. There is one garden that is open to the public but even that is open only two times a year, once at New Years and one other time I can't remember. Either way, here are some of the pics from that trip.

This is the Hello Kitty tour bus we saw:

Here is a shot I like of an old guy doing watercolor paintings:

These are about the only parts of the Imperial Palace that you can see:

This is the bridge and gate that cross the inner moat and here is one of the Imperial Guards:

Here is a cool bridge leading to the palace after you cross the above bridge. Basically, what I am trying to show is that the Imperial family is a pain to get to:

This was the park/garden area that surrounds the inner moat:

There you have it, thats the Imperial Palace of Japan. The last pic I showed you of the garden area is pretty much what the entire garden area you can walk by looks like. There is a sense of power in the minimalistic surroundings and greenery. It could also be said that the Imperial family likes Charly Brown trees. :)

After seeing what we could of the palace it was time to go shopping...again. This time we went to Harajuku. You know that seen in the first Harry Potter movie where Harry walks down Diagon Alley for the first time? Harajuku is kind of like that. Imagine about 10,000 people, mostly women, all crammed into very narrow streets shopping for whatever clothing or accessories their hearts desire. Thats Harajuku Street. If you ever go here, be warned, this area is pretty much for women or those wishing they were women. Ben, Reid, and I were pretty much bored in this area. Quite simply, there is almost nothing for guys in this shopping district. Having said that, women watching in Harajuku is the major guy activity here. Anywho, on to the pics!

This is Takeshita street, the main street out of Harajuku station, this is a pretty good example of how the entire area is:

Here is a shot of another street in the area, notice the Ferrari (lots of money here), the golf school on the third floor of the building across the street, and the people:

After Harajuku, we went back to our hotel, ate Wendys(again) and pretty much called it a day.

The following day, we said goodbye to Ben and Monique, went back to Akihabara so Reid could buy a laptop, and started our drive to Reid and Karie's house in Takaoka. It was sad to see Ben and Monique go but I was glad that I got to see them again. We all had a good time. The last surprise of the Tokyo trip was our parking fee for the three days we had been at the hotel. The parking should have cost us $90.00 for those three days but it instead ran us $260.00. Turns out that the lady at the front desk of the hotel gave the wrong parking lot to stay in. What have we learned from this? Don't take a car into Tokyo.

The drive to Takaoka was funny because Reid doesn't like two things, heights, and driving through mountains at night on very narrow roads. The combination of the two plus Karie and I making jokes about falling off the edge of the road and monkeys carrying away our burning corpses and eating the remains probably didn't help either. Anywho, we got back to Takaoka alive.

During my brief visit of their town, Karie and Reid took me to a really big Buddha statue. Its is one of the biggest bronze Buddhas in the world. They also took me to a Buddhist monastery that still has monks and whatnot. We also went to a very yummy buffett at their mall. It was a good time and here are a couple of pics.

This poor guy has the task of pulling weeds, garbage, and non-white rocks from the rock garden:

Here is a shot of the temple:

Here are a couple of the big Buddha:

Well, that was pretty much the Tokyo Experience from start to finish. Its good to be home now and I am looking forward to going back to Tokyo with my family in a couple of months. It will be funny to see how they like it. For those of you that complain that I do not put enough pictures on here, you should be satisfied for a little while. I think these last to posts have more pics in them than I have ever had in a post before. I hope everyone enjoyed the tale of my friends and I's journey, more posts about other stuff to come soon.

The Tokyo Experience: Day 3 Part 1

Have you ever gone into a store and said to yourself, "I want everything in here"? On the third day of my Tokyo adventure, this is what I said to myself, only I was not talking about a single store, rather an entire neighborhood. Akihabara is like Mecca for computer nerds and geeks worldwide. It is one of those places that you read about on the internet and everyonce in a while catch a glimpse of on a website. If there is ANYTHING that runs on batteries or plugs into an electrical socket, Akihabara is where you will find it. The gadget burrough of Tokyo is sometimes also rightly named, Electric Town. I was in heaven.

When you get out of the train station in Akihabara you immediately realize this is not your normal Japanese neighborhood. Its noisy, there are people wandering around in cosplay outfits(people dress up like their favorite anime characters), every sign you see has to do with the buying or selling of electronics, and everyone is carrying a shopping bag of loot garnered from one of the hundreds of vendors. Some vendors don't even have shops, they pull up to the curb of a side street and spread out their wares on the sidewalk. I saw one guy doing just that, he had an assortment of power supplies, computer cases, fans, and other doodads spread all over a sidewalk. As I said, if you like electronics this place is a dream.

Come to think of it, if you like porn, this place will suit you too. The Japanese for one reason or another automatically associate anyone who likes computers with porn. In fact, Akihabara has the biggest adult store I have ever seen, it was five storeys or bondage, panties, videos, and anything else you could associate with the act of love making or screwing (there is a difference). You may be asking yourself, "Hmm, why was Tyson in an extremely large porno store?" I have a good reason, one of the others in my group had gone astray and I innocently went in to retrieve him. I gave up this mission once I hit the second floor and realized how huge the place was. Anywho, back to the electronics stuff. :)

Akihabara is about ten square blocks of nothing but gadgets....and porn....and anime/manga. Basically, if you are a nerd in any form, this place will suit your needs. My friends and I spent the entire day here and all of us came away with loot. I picked up a ceramic white PSP and a few games, Karie got a new camera, Ben picked up a PSP game, and Monique grabbed an iPod Nano. All in all, it was a damned good day.

Several funny things about Akihabara:

First, it gets so busy during the afternoon that they actually close down the streets to car traffic for several hours every day. Second, when Ben and I were wandering around we saw a huge group of people gathered in the middle of the street taking pictures with their cell phones and cameras. We thought that maybe there was a fight underway and went to investigate. What we found was a pair of scantily clad bunnies, two sexy police officers, two French maids, and one random girl in latex posing for the cameras. Needless to say, I did the right and mature thing and started snapping pictures as well.

Here are some of the pics from the day's Akihabara adventure, sorry they are all jumbled up, Blogger has weird CSS templates for these that don't work well with a lot of pics being displayed at once:

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Tokyo Experience: Day 2

This post could have also been titled "The day that began horribly and stayed that way until the last eight hours or so."

When we last left our trio of Westerners on the streets of Tokyo, they were debating where to go next and had decided on seeing Tsukiji fish market.

Tsukiji fish market is one of the world's busiest and most famous fish markets. The times to visit it are from 5am to 8am and since we had been up all night anyways, we decided that Tuesday was the day to see Tsukiji. The first leg of the journey had us boarding a train from Shibuya and going to Tokyo Station. Tokyo proper is very small in comparison to the greater Tokyo area. There isn't a great deal to see in the actual ward of Tokyo other than the Imperial Palace, some business highrises, and the historical Tokyo Station. In order to get to Tsukiji, we had to walk away from the station, through two other wards, one of them being Ginza, and finally to Tsukiji. We decided to take one more train that would get us a tad closer before walking and this is where the trouble began. Upon hitting that station, the walking tunnel that went in the direction we needed to go was closed. We ended up going streetside and asking for directions from a man we passed. The guy seemed to know what he was talking about and pointed us in a direction and from there, we walked....and walked....and walked. Once we realized that the guy either didn't know where he was pointing, intentionally mislead us, or we didn't understand his directions, it was already a little past 7am. On the walk back, I managed to see a park that sits next to Tsukiji but with very little time left to walk there and the three of us going on no sleep, we decided to cancel the trip. We took a bus back to the train station and then took the train back to Shibuya to get the car out of the parking garage.

Upon hitting the parking garage, we ended up paying $60.00 for our parking spot and not knowing what else to do, we drove out of Tokyo to a rest area and slept for a couple of hours. Our general plan was to meet up with our Australian friends, Ben and Monique and then go to the apartment we had booked for three nights. What ended up happening was totally different. The guy that was in charge of meeting us at and providing us directions to our apartment was incommunicado and had been for several days. I had tried emailing him, calling him, and to no avail. We were supposed to meet him in a matter of hours and we still didn't know exactly where the apartment was at. Ben and Monique called us around 11:30am and upon getting their call we began going back into Tokyo. It was pouring rain and extremely overcast. By 12:30, we had decided that we should start looking for another place to stay since the jerk-off in charge of our previous accomodations had disappeared from the face of the Earth. We called Ben and Monique who were in Shinjuku and had them start looking for a place to stay as well. We didn't care where we stayed as long as it could hold all five of us, had free parking, and wasn't horribly expensive.

We parked the car in Meguro and split up, I took one direction and Karie and Reid took the other. I walked for the better part of three miles, finding one hotel that was not able to help us out. Fortunately, Karie and Reid had found one that fit our needs nicely and we booked our room. The catch was that although the hotel itself had no parking, it was working with a lot that would only charge us $30.00 a day to park there. This was a lot cheaper than over $100.00 a day to park so we settled on the Hotel Watson.

We then went to meet up with Ben and Monique and took them back to the hotel so we could all unpack and unwind for a bit. The room was very nice for a double room and there were other things near the hotel that were handy as well. One of those things was Wendys. Since leaving the States, I had not eaten at Wendys and I was sick and tired of McDonalds. Ben and Monique had never eaten at Wendys so we decided it was time to introduce them. Unlike McDonalds, Wendys' Japanese menu does not vary much from its American counterpart. Excellent. Having not had Wendys in almost six months, it was good to taste it again. Ben and Monique also be came instantly addicted.

Overall, the day ended well. The funny part was that around 2:30pm the guy that was supposed to meet us at our apartment messaged me and said he hoped he had reached me in time and gave me a lame excuse about his girlfried getting in a wreck three days prior and still being shaken up by it. I replied that I found it hard to understand why he could not have left her side for thirty seconds to call or message me. Since I had been trying to contact him for almost a week. I didn't hear back.

Anywho, day two was a strain on the nerves but we were all happy to be together again and eat at Wendys. Day three promised to be better and we all slept well that night, especially Reid, Karie, and myself seeing we had not slept in almost two days. Since the room we got was a double and I was the only one there without a significant other, I slept in between the two beds. It made for a bizarre, but fun sleepover/slumber party atmosphere that we all enjoyed.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Tokyo Experience: Day 1

My friends from Canada, Karie and Reid reached my house last Sunday and we all had a good evening in Fukuchiyama with me acting as a tour guide. They had rented a Nissan March and driven it from Takaoka in Toyama prefecture to Fukuchiyama, about a five hour ride. Needless to say, they were a tad tired and we all wanted to get an early start the following day so we went to bed rather early.

Several hours later, Monday morning arrived and we loaded up the car and headed for the city. The first minor emergency of the trip occurred five minutes from my apartment when the remote control for the car's navigational system glided across the dashboard and out my open window when Reid made a turn. Fortunately, the remote was fine. Our route took us through Kyoto, Nagoya, along the Eastern coast of Japan, and up into Tokyo. Now, I would like to take some time out to explain the Japanese view on roadtrips and distances.

Japan is not a huge country, with all of its islands combined, it is a tad bigger than California. As I said, not a big place. I have driven from Boise to San Jose in just about seven hours before. I have driven from Boise to Vancouver, B.C. in a total of ten driving hours. To me, roadtrips are fun and I have no problem driving for six and seven hour spans of time. To the average Japanese person, a six hour drive is a monster trip. The Japanese that I have talked to, for the most part, do not like driving for that long. A long trip to a Japanese person is about two hours. Beyond that, you are embarking on a serious outing that requires planning and frequent stops along the way. At least this is how the people that I have talked to seem to be.

The trip across Japan was a scenic one, this time of year everything is green. The expressways that criss-cross the country are very well kept and are generously dotted with rest areas. The Japanese version of a rest area makes North American rest areas look trashy. Japanese rest areas come in two varieties. First is the sparsely adorned, "Nap Area". Not kidding, the signs for these areas was a guy sleeping. The second variety is what we in the United States would deem more of a truckstop. These places are nice! There is tons of parking, huge and clean bathrooms, one or two restaurants, a gas station, and a shopping area. Some of them also have small parks or nature paths. As I said, these rest areas rock. Something like this in the United States would be exceptional but in Japan, you will find one of these every 50 or 60 kilometers, sometimes less.

Anywho back to our trip, we were on the road by about 10:30am and we reached the outskirts of Tokyo by a little before 9pm. This is a lot of driving you say, we stopped a lot and pretty much took our sweet time getting there. If one were determined, they could go from Fukuchiyama to Tokyo in just around 6 hours. The roadtrip was fantastic, the only drawback being that Mt. Fuji or "Fuji-san" as the Japanese call him, was hidden in clouds. Once in Tokyo, we headed for one of the more popular inner wards called Shibuya. The greater Tokyo area comprises of 23 wards. Shibuya is one of the more popular ones because of its nightlife and crazy shopping. You can't really tell where one section of the city begins and another ends, once you hit the outskirts of the city, you are pretty much going to be driving through about 30 or so kilometers of buildings, buildings, and yes, more buildings.

Once we hit Shibuya, it was a little after 10pm. Having a navigational system in your car is awesome and very helpful....when it speaks to you in a language you understand. Shibuya was a shock. Once we hit that part of town, I kind of flipped out. Think 15 year old schoolgirl seeing the Beatles walk through her mall in 1961 flip out, that was me. It was here that it really hit me that I was in a place that I had dreamed of travelling to almost my entire life. Everything that you see in magazines and movies that is Tokyo, is really Shibuya or a couple of other places. The center of Shibuya is essentially the place where you can take a picture, show it to someone who has never been there and they will probably guess that its Tokyo. It was amazing. Here are some pics, keep in mind that these were taken right around 11pm.

After the initial "this is badass" impression, some of the realities of vacationing in Tokyo hit. I am going to tell everyone reading this now, if you go to Tokyo, DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT TAKE A CAR! Tokyo has extremely limited parking and when you find a spot, its going to cost you at least the equivalent of $6.00 an hour. When you are staying in a place that doesn't provide free parking or you are planning on keeping the car in that spot for an extended period of time, be ready to blow a lot of money. During the day in some lots, its about $3.00 for 10 or 12 minutes. Yeah, more on that later.

Anywho, after finding a garage to park in, it was party time. Reid, Karie, and I had no hotel booked for Monday night because we planned on spending the night in a club and then retrieving the car the following morning. We wandered throughout Shibuya, stopping occasionally to look in a shop or watch people. We wandered by Shibuya's Love Hotel Hill and we ended up finding a club called, The Ruby Room. The Ruby Room is listed in Lonely Planet's Guide to Tokyo and the author spoke quite highly of the club, I am not sure why. When I hear the word club, followed by the letters D and J, I think two or three storey party with a DJ on each floor and three of four bars. The Ruby Room thought differently; it was essentially one room, one bar, and one DJ. The size of this one room is about the size of two of my apartment without the walls, not apartment building, apartment. It would be a really cool club to go to, sit on the sofas, and just chill but its not a dance club. Dance clubs usually have more women too, this club had an abundance of sausage if you get my drift. We each had a Jager and Redbull and each drink, while big, was $9.00. After that round of drinks, we left the Ruby Room in search of bigger, women filled clubs.

What we ended up finding was a place called Maruhachi. This was not a dance club at all but looked fun so we went in. Maruhachi is what Chili's would be like if it were run by booze guzzling, Jamaican wannabe, Japanese guys that collect a lot of weird toys. As I said, it looked fun. :) Once seated, we each ordered a couple of drinks and some appetizers. I ordered kaeru age, "kaeru" is Japanese for frog. It was fried frog to be exact and it was tasty. I had never eaten these little amphibians and figured that night was as good a time as any. That and I wanted to trick Reid into eating one by telling him they were chicken bits. He didn't bite, pardon the pun. Like everyone says, frog tastes pretty much just like chicken. It looks like chicken, smells like chicken, and tastes like chicken. It was very good, the only thing I have to say other than that, is that the poor frogs that sacrificed their green hides just for me, were freaking huge. I was eating chunks of meat that were seriously chicken leg sized.

By the time we left Maruhachi it was about 3am and I think the three of us were all thinking the same thing, why didn't we get a hotel? We wandered around Shibuya until about 5am when we headed back to the car to plan our next leg of the trip. This leg was when stuff really went downhill, the Tsukiji Fish Market trip.

At this point I am going to end this post. The Tsukiji trip took place around 6:30am on the second day of the trip, therefore, it will be in the Day 2 post. Anywho, Shibuya rocked, fried frogs rocked, little clubs did not, and we never did find a good dance club. Enjoy the pics, more to come soon.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Tokyo Experience: A Preface

In the next few posts, I will talk about my trip to Tokyo over the past few days and relate my experiences and impressions of it. Those posts will probably happen sometime tomorrow afternoon once I have collected my thoughts a tad. I soaked up a lot of stuff over the past few days and am still kind of trying to figure out the best way to present all of the information to you. I will probably break up the posts by making each post on a different day in Tokyo. That would be easy on me and it will also make it to where the pics that I show with each post don't bump into each other like they have on previous pic heavy posts.

Having said that, if I were going to sum up my vacation in a handful of sentences I would say this. First, Tokyo is not where you want to go if you are looking for a relaxing vacation. The Tokyo experience is a relentless assault upon the senses. There is amazing modern architecture sitting right next to stoic buildings from days gone by. There is super high tech stuff that intermingles with centuries old traditions. Lastly, there are so many shops, smells(good and bad), styles, and sounds going on all around you that at times, seeing Tokyo can be a downright tiring experience. I have been to a lot of big cities throughout my travels both in Japan and the United States, but Tokyo by far and away takes the cake when it comes to size and population. I am not sure if I would call Tokyo a beautiful city, but it is easily the most diverse and interesting city I have ever seen.

Now that I have piqued your curiosity, I will let you let you suffer a bit. I will most definitely be making some huge posts tomorrow.

Oh, one more thing, while I have come to the conclusion that the movie, "Lost in Translation" is a tad off the mark when it comes to Japanese people and Japan as a whole, its visual representation of Tokyo is dead on.