Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Land of the true broadband - 100 Mbps

Yup, it is true. I am finally the proud owner of a fiber connection running at 100 Mbps. Gone are the "buffering" messages in videos and less than 100 Kbps download speeds for torrents. This is truly net bliss. Thinking this is some special speed, super expensive package? It is but the standard speed offered by NTT and the price is around 60 bucks a month.

If you want to get a connection yourself, you can start by visiting the English support pages of NTT at The tricky thing is each connection consists of two parts. NTT, which is basically the national phone company (though no longer a monopoly), needs to take care of the infrastructure and get you a port on the wall (or a wireless connection) and an ISP which you will use to connect to the web over the infrastructure. The total amount you pay is then the sum of what you pay for NTT and your ISP. NTT has some package deals though I opted for GOL which is an ISP that has English support. It is a tad more expensive than most of the others but being able to explain any problem you might have easily is worth the difference.

Given that back home in Cyprus my connection was 512 KBit and in the US it was 3 MBit, this is definitely a huge step up. I remember reading on Slashdot that in the US Comcast started testing a 60 MBit connection in one city with limited availability and for much more than what I am paying here. Well, may be one day they will catch up ;)

How is it for you? How much do you pay for what speed? Please leave a comment if you can with the speed, location, and amount of money you are paying. I think it would be an interesting comparison for all of us.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Golden Week is almost upon us...

There are flowers everywhere, the sun started to shine more often than before and the temperatures are lingering between 15 and 20 degrees Celcius. Yup, it's official - Spring is well on its way.

Golden Week, which takes place in the first week of May, is a series of consecutive one day long public holidays in Japan. For "lucky" years the first day of the 4 day long series occurs on a Monday making for a 9 day holiday (with pretty much everyone taking the Friday off either as a paid or unpaid day off). Unfortunately this year the first day falls on the worst possible day - a Saturday, cutting the holiday to only two days (Monday and Tuesday).

For me May is going to be a balancing act - a mixture of holidays and deadlines. I guess I will take it one step at a time... First target - Hakone (箱根)for the Golden Week (next weekend).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Credit card, bank transfer..., convenience store??

I think one of my earliest posts from Japan was about how one of the coolest things they have here is being able to pay for your utilities bills at convenience stores like 7-Eleven. Well, as it turns out the utilities bills are not the only thing one can pay for. Pretty much anything that you can order online, you can opt to pay at a convenience store. You get emailed a barcode just like this one I got for the A/C I am getting installed at my apartment and then just go to the nearest convenience store to pay. In some cases, if what you are ordering is small enough, 7-Eleven can receive the shipment for you and give it to you once you pay. In this particular case though, as an A/C tends to be rather.. ahem... big, there is nothing to pick up (hence the crosssed out box). Also, they can sometimes limit how you can pay the cashier (i.e. cash only) but it is still pretty convenient if you don't have a bank account in Japan or a Japanese credit card.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Chanel Building in Ginza (銀座)

Ginza is the center of luxurious shopping in Tokyo. Cartier, Tiffany's, Rolex, and Chanel are just a few of the stores on the main shopping street. Within the different displays and lights today I realized that the Chanel Building has a huge (i.e. covering all of the front of the multistorey building) screen. Having passed there more than a few times in the past it is quite a huge thing to miss but they managed to blend it so well with the background that it is very easy to miss if one does not look up. This time I made a small video of it - just 30 seconds long. The whole animation lasts much longer than that but you get the idea... It is one of the most harmonious uses of a screen on a building. The fact that it is in black and white makes it all the easier to blend in with the building.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Rain, rain, rain

The last two days have been crazy considering it is almost summer. The temperature has been decent (15-20 degrees celcius) but there was a lot of rain and wind. Yesterday especially was just constant rain and I am not talking about gentle rain; I am talking about crazy winds and big, big raindrops. The picture is from yesterday. Today so far has been better. It was sunny for a bit tho windy as ever. I decided to stay in and rest. I heard this is almost like a preview of the "rainy season" - a period lasting about a month from mid-June to mid-July. I am not really looking forward to that especially given that it will not only be raining but also will be extremely humid apparently.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Japan and Smoking - Controlling smoking on the streets

Before I came to Japan, I must admit that I was expecting smoking to be more of a problem for me. Don't get me wrong - I don't smoke; by being a problem for me, I just mean having to walk through clouds of smoke just like what happens sometimes when entering or leaving buildings in the US. I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised. Not only is it easy to find non-smoking sections in restaurants, laws actually prevent smoking on the streets save for special areas. This does not mean that the Japanese people do not smoke. In fact, I have seen quite a few smokers of all ages but thankfully they have not affected me as much as their counterparts in the US.

I took this picture of two "anti-smoking policemen" at Shinjuku/新宿 close to the train station. They actually give people tickets for smoking on the spot though I have seen may be one or two people in the 5+ months I have been here. The picture above is the sign on the ground explaining in multiple languages that it is illegal to smoke in the street. You cannot imagine how big a relief this was for me since over the years I have become extremely sensitive to breathing in the fumes. Nowadays even a little amount is enough to get me coughing... Of course I am also glad that smokers still can smoke if they want to - just at places away from people who do not want to breathe in the fumes.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lost in translation... Funny instances of "English" around Japan. (pt. 1)

As I spend time in Tokyo, both on the weekends when I get to spend the whole day travelling and also in the day-to-day life with work et al., I see lots of interesting English words, phrases, and sometimes whole paragraphs in a lot of different places. It looks like adding some English to pretty much anything adds a "coolness" factor of sorts. While this is something I appreciate (as it provides me with another chunk of information I should be able to process) sometimes the words are just garbled, random, or downright funny without intending to be. I will try to post some of what I personally see (and take a picture of) here over time. This is, in a way, the first episode...

I took this picture while wondering around in Shibuya which, if I haven't already said it and you don't already know, is home to the world's most crowded intersection. Everytime the traffic light for pedestrians turns green literally a sea of people move from one side to the other in the main intersection. This sign was in front of a wine bar right by, I believe the western exit, of the train station (渋谷駅). The unfortunate part of this bar is its name as you have probably seen (since it is written with huge letters) - Pee. Now, one might be tempted to say "May be this is from another language and it is pronounced differently" well, no. If you look at the Katakana which shows the reading it clearly says - "pi-i". There is even a little bottle with the word "Pee" on it in the sign...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Riding buses is about to get easier...

... at least in the case of Odakyu (小田急) buses. For me on of the greatest things in Japan is the ease of use of Suica (as I have said over and over again :P). Being able to pay for trains and busses using my cellphone is just so easy and effortless. In the case of Odakyu however, I had to scramble for 210 yen change. Given that most of the busses are Odakyu between my apartment and the train stations, this was a big big inconvenience for me.

Well, time to rejoice. It looks like starting in May, Odakyu is replacing the relatively old "charge stations" on their busses. See, all busses have these "charge stations" where one pays for the trip using paper money, change, pre-paid bus ticket or in the case of Keio (京王) Suica. The driver tries to help in guiding the passenger if he or she cannot figure out which port to use to pay. The new "charge stations" are as complicated as ever as you can see from the poster I saw announcing the change but that's part of the reason why I liked Suica to begin with and the new station has a Suica port ;)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pangea Day

It looks like there is a big organization being put together for May 10th on a global scale. Appropriately named "Pangea Day" will be held concurrently in different spots around the world. The aim seems to be simple:

Leading film-makers are seeking to change the way we think about other countries. This is one of a powerful series of films to be shown on Pangea Day, May 10, "the day the world comes together through film".

The "this" above refers to a film production from Japan where, using traditional Japanese instruments, Japanese artists perform the Turkish national anthem. You can see it below:

The relationship between Japan and Turkey predates what most people might guess:
The director chose the Turkish anthem because of the historical friendship between the two countries. In 1864, the frigate Ertuğrul was constructed in İstanbul. The government sent the Ertugrul with Commander Pasha and his crew to Japan. The voyage turned out to be fatal; except for 69 survivors, the Pacific Ocean claimed the lives of Pasha and his men. Deeply saddened by the tragic event, the Japanese Government helped the few survivors return to Istanbul, bringing with them the condolences of the Japanese Government. The historic event of the Ertugrul tragedy was memorialized in Oshima as a mark of friendship of the Japanese people for Turkey.

I am always excited to see any sort of big scale organization seeking to further understanding between different peoples. Unfortunately most of the time the people who most need to embrace these messages, i.e. people in positions of power, ignore these organizations but I still think they are a valid cause. Please check out the organization website - and see the other interesting movies on there too as well as reading the idea in a much clearer way than I tried to describe.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Raindrops in Tokyo are falling on my head (and everywhere else...)

First of all - my apologies... I should have written this update yesterday but a case of Monday blues coupled with gray skies are to blame; not my laziness I swear ;)

Where was I? Ah yes... The trip to Inokashira Park on Saturday. I left off the best part as I said last time so here goes... After walking around the park with 桜井さん and his family, we paid a visit to 石垣さん who happens to live very close to the park in a house he himself designed. The house itself was apparently featured in a TV program for its design. From outside it looks like a typical Japanese house but inside the layout is extremely efficient, maximizing the space, the airflow (extremely open plan) and somehow managing to balance new (quite a few different pieces of hi-tech products installed inconspicuously all around) with the old (tatami/畳 floors for example).

The high-point of the day was the interestingly named "Miracle Fruit" that we had after the dinner (which I must add was exquisite. I also learnt a new word - apparently Suzuki is not just a car company, it also means "seabass".) Miracle Fruit is this small red, bean like thing that actually tastes pretty God awful. So why eat it you say? Well, it has this extremely weird "talent" - it actually makes one incapable of tasting the sourness of anything one eats for at least half an hour (typically an hour). The end result? We ate whole lemons which actually tasted pretty sweet :P Apparently it is completely safe (a cursory search on the web is enough to verify ;)) and believe me, a very interesting experience.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A first and last at Inokashira Park (井の頭公園)

This proved to be a very tiring weekend but I have to at least blog about my visit to Inokashira today. I promise more will come in the next few days...

This was my first visit to Inokashira Park during the day and it was extremely crowded. I think people were out taking advantage of the sun and nicer temperatures than what we recently had. Cherry blossoms are almost all gone but there is still some clinging on to the trees which means the trees still look very pretty and the falling sakura make for a very nice view, almost like snow. I doubt the there will be anything left by Wednesday.

The highlight of the day, no matter how pretty the park was, was actually where we went to afterwards with 桜井さん and his family but that will come tomorrow ;)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Cold days...

These last few days have been cold and rainy, almost like the spring doesn't want to come. This is of course in a stark contrast with the cherry blossoms out there. I have been waking up early to go to work around 9:15 and that hasn't helped with the cold either. At least it looks like the weather is slowly returning to normal. When it is cold and rainy I really don't feel like doing anything. That has always been the case I guess and a big problem when I was in Pittsburgh. I need the blue sky...