Friday, September 28, 2007

9/28/07 Random Stuff

I had an observation that I thought was worth sharing. My understanding is that Ashikaga is larger than Springfield, definitely in population if not in size as well. Springfield seems so much more tame, though, in terms of wildlife. It was rare to see a rancoon or an owl during a night drive in my neighborhood. Here, though, it seems like the creatures are a bit less under control. I`ve probably seen more spiders in two months here than in a year back in Illinois. And they are very large. During a class I was teaching one day I had a dragonfly the size of a small bird fly in and cling to the ceiling. I couldn't help but keep an eye on it... I felt like I should catch it and keep it as a giant pet. I've seen several lizard-looking things crawling around outside as well. The most surprising animal of them all are the bats. When the sun goes down they are maybe as common as birds are during the day. They stay on their side of the sky and don't generally bother me, but still... they're everywhere. It feels like Jurassic Park around here sometimes.

I put a picture of a rice field in the middle of town up sometime last month (here)... my theory is that they are to blame. If you dot a city with water filled rice swamps I imagine it allows more crawlies to survive where they don't belong. Ashikaga is pretty densely developed, but the nearby mountains aren't so useful for building so they often stay wild as well. Anyway, a bit of random rambling, but there you have it.

This is one of our favorite bar/restaurants, called El Mundo (The World). It is, as you can see, Cuban themed, which is interesting. It has a bunch of weird communist stuff on the walls inside as well. As with many movements that make it to Japan, the commie decor is little more than fashion. I doubt they could even tell me what communism is. Its cheap and not as stuffy as many places are around here. Nice place.

This was one of those occasions when I was riding my bike and saw a scene that needed to be captured. I dunno.

Here's another one of the same place. Kinda nice.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

9/25/07 Tokyo Game Show 2007!!!

Contrary to its name, the Tokyo Game Show 2007 was held in Chiba-city, an eastern suburb of Tokyo. I could tell that this was going to be big just by the amount of people in the trains. The trains were moderately full on the way to the Chiba-city station, but once we stepped out it was super crowded. After that, though, no further navigation was necessary. We simply followed the huge procession of people all streaming toward the same place.


There was a considerable line to enter the building, but it was moving mercifully fast. Entry was only around 12 dollars, but we all agreed that we would have paid much more.

This was about as far away from the door I was when I started wetting my pants with excitement.

This was a jazzed up version of any other convention or trade show you've ever seen. Different booths all over the place represented different companies and in some instances individual games. The big ticket games such as Metal Gear Solid 4 had huge setups that resembled those surrounding amusement park rides and they had lines to match. I recall the wait for the Metal Gear booth being over 2 and a half hours. (There was usually a present to be had when you were ready to exit a booth, a little poster or something. I wasn't willing to wait to get one, but the Metal Gear booth was giving away cool little booklets. There's one on Ebay here that was at $40 last time I checked.)

Here's a shot of the line for the Metal Gear compound. The scene was complete fake barbwire atop chain link fence as well as fake soldiers patrolling the perimeter. I wondered to myself if they would think it witty if I snuck up behind them and knocked them out.

There were plenty of models to be seen as well. These two are showing off their PSPs.

Here are a couple more random models selling who knows what.

Capcom something.

Occasionally the girls got an unhealthy amount of attention from the throngs of gamers. On more than one occasion I saw a huge mass of people all bunched in one group. Naturally I pushed my way to the front or stood on my toes to see what was happening, only to find a seemingly unremarkable girl holding a game. Hmm..

I don't think I want to know what they do with the pictures afterwards.

Xbox 360 and PS3 had huge compounds with movie theater size screens playing demos and an army of consoles with attendants running around everywhere. I waited in a couple medium sized lines, and was usually satisfied with my investment of time. (I read that Nintendo is just too fly to show their stuff next to other companies. They have their own shows.)

Here's a shot of the Playstation area. It was pretty cool. This was the first time I have ever touched the dreaded PS3. I washed my hands promptly afterwards.

I think that the Xbox area was one of the best decorated. One thing thats weird about the Japanese market is that they have an aversion to realistic violence against humans. So I think the Microsoft people emphasized other genres a bit more than usual. Halo 3 was present, but strangely only a few consoles featuring it were available.

Someone getting interviewed in front of the Xbox information desk. The large companies' booths were so big that they distributed their own floor plan maps.

Monolithic centerpiece of the Xbox area. The little white signs to either side of the screen advertise show times of the different demo videos. Someone told me not to take pictures and then turned their back... fatal mistake.

There were stages everywhere, with several live action shows available. Sometimes the shows seemed pretty pointless, but a couple of them had interviews with people ugly enough that they must have been developers. I'm sure that if I could have better understood what they were saying that I would have been more interested.

Final Fantasy booth with a sign cheerfully noting the 70 minute wait.

Shot of some smaller booths from above.

Booth for the upcoming Wii title, No More Heros.

A nameless golf game for the Wii.

There were several booths run by the various phone companies, selling games playable on cellphones. Japan's phones are pretty generally way better than ours, so the games are a bit more detailed.

This is a short clip of me playing a new installment of the Katamari series on a cellphone. The whole phone becomes the controller... if you tilt the phone forward, you move forward and so on. Very cool.

The layout of the whole show consisted of two giant buildings, with a little walkway in between. Here, in between the buildings, was one of the highlights of the whole show, the cosplay people. These guys and girls go to extreme lengths to look exactly like a character from a game or show. There were large lines of guys carrying ridiculously large lensed cameras who had the players pose over and over as they would in a game or what have you.

Here's just a couple of the lines. This area was one of the most densely packed of the whole show.

More lines.

This M. Bison from the Street Fighter series was particularly convincing, and scary.

Some Gundam robot people.

Zelda has the expression of a person who has recently come to the realization that he is a grown man dressed as an elf.

This trio is from one of my favorite game series, Kingdom Hearts.

Eventually I had seen everything three times and we all decided it was time to go. I am going to pretend that I will be able to see something cooler than this during my time here, but really, I think we all know that's thoroughly impossible.

Me and a couple of my friends in Ashikaga. Mike from England and Tung from Australia. Good times.

If my excellent coverage of this awesome event has you wanting more, check out the Gamespot or accounts. "Reporters" with their "press badges" and their "cameras" were allowed to go on the private days when you didn't have to punch someone just to turn around, so they had a better chance to see everything. Check it out.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sports, Sports Everywhere

Friday most of the students got to participate in various sports tournaments in place of going to class. All of the different events were held in a various small cluster of places, so I could hang out with the other foreigner teachers while I watched the students compete. My school is the biggest in town, so more often than not it seemed that they were victorious.

The most interesting to me were the sports that I can't frequently see in the US, namely the martial arts. The two that I saw were Judo and Kendo. Judo seems to be about throwing and subduing rather than striking opponents, while Kendo is sort of a samurai-looking form of fencing. I think I might join the judo club at school, just for some added exercise and maybe throwing the occasional student.

I think that Kendo is particularly cool due to the armor and other equipment involved.

The practice of Kendo is fairly noisy, as the participants yell sort of battle cry things when they strike each other, with a lot of stomping as well.

Here is a good view of the front and back of the competitors.

Judo always ends on the ground, with someone getting choked out or otherwise immobilized.

I was just amused at the huge pile of cans next to the trashcan-less vending machines.

All in all, this was a pretty enjoyable day. Next up, I'll talk about the Tokyo Game Show 2007!!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just Another Day

Nothing too exciting as of late. Last Monday was "Respect for the Aged Day", so I was really pumped about old people throughout my three day weekend.

So, I am currently an assistant language teacher at Yamabe Junior High School. Awesome. Yamabe is the biggest school in Ashikaga, and I think it is what you might call an inner city school. Now, a rough school in Japan is nothing in the US, but this place is definitely colorful. So, everyday I ride my bike a good 20 minutes to school. One day out of the good two weeks that I've been teaching, I forgot to lock my bike. Sure enough, some kid was caught riding it around the school property later during the day. No damage was done, but I was amazed at the efficiency of this hoodlum.. either he had been checking my lock everyday or just got extremely lucky.

I found what amounts to the Japanese two dollar bill in change a few days ago. I've been in Japan a total of more than half a year, so I was surprised that I hadn't even heard of this particular denomination. Of course I kept it, but it is worth more like 20 dollars, so we will see how long I will keep it before I break down and spend it on some flavor of rice.



In keeping with my current, yearlong theme "Japan: Everything is Small, Everything is Expensive", I have an example of both for your enjoyment.

This I can safely say is the tiniest enclosed motor vehicle that I have ever beheld. Three wheels, one headlight... a windshield wiper... This thing is golden. Inside it has handle bars like a motorbike. I was very tempted to try to fit myself inside of this thing, but I would probably get arrested.

I desperately want to know what the top speed of this thing is.

I need this.

Ok, now on to expensive. Pictured is the small selection of DVDs available for purchase at the 7-Eleven down the block from my apartment. A mixture of foreign and American movies are offered. According to the little stickers, a copy of Spiderman 3 has been marked down to the price of $31.71, and the Spartan action flick (one of my favorites) 300 has been honorably marked down to $30.35. Granted, the local convenience store isn't going to be the cheapest place in town to buy movies, but these prices are still pretty amazing considering how old these titles are.

Movie companies are even greedier in Japan than they are in the US.. Scary

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Noh Play/Mexican Restaurant: Match from Heaven

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see a Noh performance held at the Banna-ji Temple. Noh is a classic form of Japanese theater that featured two actors, maybe 6 people in a chorus, and 2 musicians. My understanding is that only men are allowed to participate, with female characters represented by intricate masks. I have heard several times that these plays are difficult even for the Japanese to understand, which means I caught about 10 words throughout the whole thing. The play itself is a bit dry, but there is a sort of comedic intermission play to make sure you haven't fallen asleep. Quite entertaining.

These first couple of pictures are just random shots of the temple grounds. Of course everyone was really anal about not taking pictures during the play itself, so I don't have anything to show for my hours of sitting and watching.

This thing is worth mentioning. This is a pretty common feature of any temple of decent size. Theres a little ritual of cleansing that you do here before you do your praying. You are also supposed to put some water in your mouth and then spit it out, thereby cleansing your mouth by washing it in water thats been sitting outside all day. When you are done with the little ladle, you hold it upside down so that the remaining water washes your hand prints away as well. At school I often see people gargling just straight water and then spitting it out... I am tempted to believe that there is a connection between the two practices.

Here is a shot of the mayor bowing before giving a lengthy opening address to the audience.

This is a short clip of a couple of monks chanting prayers before the performance.

After the show, many of us went to eat and drink at a Mexican restaurant. Yes, the food was a bit weird, but the corona still tasted the same. One notable presence was that of a Japanese man dressed as a cowboy. His gun belt contained a bottle of tequila in the holster, and shot glasses instead of bullets. And he wasn't afraid to use it.

This is maybe the greatest invention ever conceived. Instead of just taking a taxi and worrying about your car in the morning, you call these guys. A taxi comes with two drivers inside. One guy gets out and drives your car wherever you want it, while the taxi follows. Once you get to your destination, the driver gets back in the taxi and then departs. Just like magic. Apparently it is the same price as a taxi as well. Im getting all kinds of good business ideas from my travels.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Apartment Tour

I finally got around to making a little video of my apartment. Check it out.

Friday, September 07, 2007

One Week in the Bag

I finished my first week of school without a single injury! Huzzah!

It wasn't a week without happenings though. My first problem was that I couldn't get my bike lock to unlock. I was eventually able to borrow another bike, but it didn't have a light on it. Riding your bike at night without a light is illegal in Japan. Its one of those offenses that no one cares about unless you are a foreigner, in which case you get pulled over and possibly a ticket. It didn't have a nice little basket for me to put groceries and whatnot in either, so it was kind of a pain. One of the teachers that lives near my house volunteered to help me with it, which was really awesome. He just pried the whole lock thing off with a pair of pliers... and now Im free! Happy time.

My next little dilema was furniture. This place is a decent size and lacked furniture except for bedroom stuff. There was not a single chair in the whole apartment. I was in need of at least a kitchen table and maybe a couch to fill out the room with the tv. Luck had it that a previous english teacher had left some furniture at the school. All I had to do was to mention it once, and everyone pitched in to load the stuff into a truck and drive it over to my place... all during time that I was supposed to be working... glorious. So I am now the proud owner of a kitchen table and chairs, and a new wardrobe thing. Now all I need is a couch and I will have the hottest pad this side of Tokyo Disneyland.

One day last week, I was given a good size stack of papers that the students have written in English, and I was told to correct them. Fine, I can do that. Then I took one look at the first one and realized the huge undertaking that it is going to become. Many of them are powerful bad. One of my favorite gems of a sentence is "That it can be it as for the first to be able to do it someday if I do not give up till the last." Its the sort of thing that you have to read a couple of times just to comprehend how awful it is. How do you "correct" this sentence other than just punching its writer in the face with a red pen?

The teacher's desks

There are several children's propaganda posters in the hallways. This is one of my favorites.

My latest complaint/observation about Japan. This particular ATM(!) is open from 8:45am-7:00pm. To add to this insult, I believe that my bank's ATMs are closed on weekends. How can you take such a beautiful idea and then execute it so terribly wrong? The whole point of ATMs is that they aren't supposed to close. They are supposed to be (gasp) CONVENIENT!

Here they don't mind making humans work amazingly long hours, but mindless cash dispensing machines? They have to rest!

I had a fairly eventful weekend as well, I'll write a bit about that shortly.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Children Everywhere!

I finished my third day of school, and I am starting to figure out where everything is and understand how things are going to work.

My first day at Yamabe Junior High School was eventful. I arrived a solid amount of time early just in case I got lost on the way there or some other emergency presented itself. I was told to wear a shirt and tie, and after a half hour of bike riding in the desert heat, I needed a good amount of time to cool down once I arrived. My first little introduction was for the teachers. I did my little script and then I went and sat at my desk. Offices in Japan are a bit different than the US equivalent. A room of 50 teachers is divided into little clusters, based on some sort of hierarchy that involves age and title. All of the desks are in direct contact with each other, and there are no cubicle walls or anything of that sort. Not a lot of privacy, but it makes it easier to chat with coworkers.

Some time later I gave a little speech about myself in front of hoard of Japanese children in the gym. A bit in English, a bit in Japanese. I'm sure that they were all thoroughly bored by the experience. Among some other quite long speeches, everyone sang the school song to piano accompaniment. I assumed that the kids would all be hardcore about school spirit, but most of them didn't even pretend to sing.

A sea of children

The classes themselves have been pretty enjoyable so far. I have been giving quite a few self introductory lessons, which are interesting. With variations, I usually talk a little bit about myself and then quiz the students in some way on what I said to test comprehension. One especially cool teacher had each student read aloud from a book as fast as they can, and timed them with a stop watch to strengthen their reading ability... quite fun.

Every day I have a different group of kids that I am assigned to eat lunch with. I suppose its a nice way to meet everyone, but it seems like it might prevent me from making any genuine friendships. I feel a bit like a politician, just sort of shaking hands and then moving on.

That leads me to another interesting point. The kids eat on their desks in their individual classrooms. School lunches are made in a central location in the city, then trucked out to the individual schools. When lunch time rolls around, the students lug the big containers of food to their respective classrooms. As far as I know there is no janitorial staff. At a certain time everyday, the students all go to a predesignated place and clean it. Some students clean the floors in the teachers room, others clean our coffee mugs in a nearby sink. Some are honored with cleaning the bathrooms. I get to go outside and sweep a set of stairs everyday.

There are all kinds of interesting things going on around here. More later.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

I Guess I Should Probably Start Working Now..

My solid month of paid "learn the town" time has unfortunately come to an end. Tomorrow is when the grind begins. I don't really understand the details (this will become a recurring theme unfortunately), but I am going to give a good size intro speech in Japanese to everyone, then I am going to do an introductory english lesson for each of the classes.

I was assigned a host family to spend a little time with. This family consists of a widow whose children are old enough to all be living in different cities... riveting to say the least. Today I returned from a day trip to her summer home. It was a nice town in the mountains called Kitakaruizawa-about three hours to the north by car. Not really a whole lot to say about the trip.. pretty tame. It was nice to see a new area without dealing with the train system, though.

This is a little shrine that is typical of households. I'm not going to get into all the details, but this is a place to pray to one's deceased relatives. From what I witnessed my host parent made a new cup of tea and lit a stick of incense here everyday. Recently the Japanese celebrated the Bon Festival. At this time everyone returns to their hometown to have family reunions, and apparently the spirits of one's ancestors also attend the festivities.

Anyway, this place was in the mountains and kind of isolated with lots of farming going on everywhere, and as a result there were little fresh produce stands dotting the roads. Several seemingly out of place hotels and upscale shops made it obvious that although this was a smallish town, rich people like to play here.

An outside view of one of the fruit stands

Here is some overpriced fruit at a stand. I hope I am misunderstanding, but it seems that 3 peaches are around 8.50, and 6 peaches are around 25.00. Note the silly little jackets that the peaches wear.

The fancy looking hotel/restaurant that we dined at.

On a completely separate note, the Japanese really need to learn how to make a quality toilet... They all suck for different reasons. The classic Japanese toilet is basically just a hole in the ground covered in porcelain. Most homes will have a normal seeming toilet, but don't be fooled. Yes, many of them have a Startrek amount of buttons on them, but sometimes theres not enough water in the bowl, or it doesn't flush properly. Its probably a conspiracy to keep people from flushing their trash when they miss that special Monday....

Sometimes this passes as a toilet around here..