Monday, July 28, 2008

A golden sunset...

Even though the summer is now officially here clouds still show up from time to time. In fact, it was raining pretty heavily for about an hour yesterday. This picture is taken while waiting for the bus. As the sun was setting it seemed like it saved itself from the clouds and it shone ever so brightly before dissappearing. The 5 minutes before the sun set, this is how the sky looked - completely golden. Unfortunately I only had my small camera with me so it does not look quite as sharp but I think it still gives a good idea.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

We lost Randy Pausch...

I know this blog is supposed to be about travel and experiences (and in fact today I was going to post about the festivals that seem to be happening around this time in Japan) but last night I got an email with terrible news about Prof. Pausch. It looks like after about a year of fighting pancreatic cancer, he finally lost the fight...
For those who don't know, Prof. Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, heading the Entertainment Technology Center. I was lucky enough to watch him give a talk there in May though I only watched his famous, and deeply inspiring, "Last Lecture" online. This lecture, which he gave after being diagnosed with cancer and in which he gave tips about enjoying life to a fully packed auditorium at Carnegie Mellon rose him to a national celebrity status in the US.
He leaves behind his wife and three young children. I wish them the best and hope they can overcome something so painful.
I am enclosing the talk he gave in May below as well as his famous "Last Lecture". The first is short around 6 minutes and the full "Last Lecture" is 75 minutes long but well worth it if you have not yet watched it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

I watched the new Miyazaki movie! (ポーニョ)

This week marked the end of the rainy season and today was the day that Japanese people traditionally have eel (unagi/うなぎ). The company cafeteria acted accordingly and offered eel over a (albeit soggy) bed of rice. The highlight though came at night - I got to watch an early screening of the new Miyazaki movie - 崖の上のポーニョ or literally "Ponyo on a Cliff" at Roppongi Hills. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Miyazaki's earlier work like Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle. It is hard to say where this would rank compared to the other two I mentioned but it definitely had the distinctive "Miyazaki feel" to it and offered an enjoyable two hours. The story is creative as ever and while my Japanese is far from perfect I was able to keep up with the story without subtitles which goes to show you how adept Miyazaki is at keeping the visual flow very detailed and smooth. I will definitely consider buying the DVD when it comes out.

On an unrelated note - Roppongi is indeed very different late at night. It was almost 50% Japanese, 50% Foreigners tonight...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Okutama National Park (奥多摩)

Yesterday was a national holiday in Japan (海の日) and I made good use of it - I went to Okutama National Park which is about two hours drive from the center of Tokyo (though it is still considered to be a part of Tokyo Prefecture - it is the westernmost part of Tokyo). The actual distance is about 40-50 kilometers but almost half of the way, well the second half, is extremely narrow mountain roads (I was lucky enough to go by car - thanks to 公太 and 百恵) and they barely fit one car though at times two cars meet and there begins an interesting process to decide who will back up.

The first stop was a medium sized hike made harder by the narrow path and killer humidity. The sign at the bottom of the hill claimed it was 15 minutes from the bottom to the point where the biggest tree in Tokyo (the reason why we climbed) was but it proved to be closer to 20-25 mins for us. The tree was indeed impressively big but by the time we made it there we all looked like we took a shower with our clothes on. We continued on past the tree to get to a ghost village abandoned a while back but lack of a map and the fact that we reached a fork with no signs (and of course the weather) forced us to turn back.

We then went to a very famous cavern in the area - about 15 minutes by car from the start of the hike for the tree. Flanked by a little river the area is absolutely beautiful but in terms of weather conditions we hit the other extreme here - the cave is at a cool 10 degrees Celcius with freezing cold water dripping from the ceiling. There was a hydrometer in the cave which showed a 95% humidity... The cave has a few interesting spots - one of them, which is where I took this picture, has a shrine and used to be a training spot for Buddhist priests. When things are quiet one can hear instruments playing inside the rocks (which is actually dripping water but it really does sound like musical instruments). The cave has religious significance with one part being called the "River between Heaven and Hell", another one "Hell Village" and statues of Buddha abound. There is money left by people all around statues and even though it is all coins (notes would get wet anyway) there are plenty of 100 yen coins.

We topped off the day by a visit to a nice local restaurant. The food was very nice, reasonably priced, and I am told had local delicacies in it. I chose an eel based dish (うなぎ) and was so dehydrated that had water, tea, and coke with it. I was sure that I would be sick the next day thanks to the two extremes in temperature so close together but so far I am doing OK. Let's hope I can survive till the weekend :P

Sunday, July 20, 2008

To zoom or not to zoom...

One of the reasons why I changed my camera a little while back was to finally get something that could give me more than the 3x zoom which seems to be more or less the standard in the point-and-shoot digital cameras. I did not want to deal with the complexities of an SLR (or a dSLR for that matter) so I ended up buying something that is placed somewhere in the middle between SLRs and the simple point-and-shoots which would give me not only more control but a 20x zoom - the Olympus 570-UZ (which oddly enough stands for... Ultra-Zoom).

I will try to post about my different experiences with the camera tagged with photography so it should be easy to keep track of them. In this post though, I want to focus on the zooming aspect. When one says 20x-zoom it sounds like a pretty abstract concept (rightly so since at least for me visualizing 20x vs 10x is pretty difficult without seeing pictures.) So the two pictures here show the same scene - window cleaners working on a building by Kichijouji Station (吉祥寺駅) one with no zoom and one at 20x. I think the difference speaks for itself ;)

From Non-zoomed image to 20x zoom !

So far I am very happy with the zooming even though I read online that some people had difficulty adjusting to its mechanics - instead of using buttons to set the desired zoom the camera you are expected to turn the barrel a-la-manual focusing in an SLR. The mechanism is not directly mechanical though which means when you turn, the camera detects the turn and adjusts the zoom level which makes for delays. The process takes a little bit of playing with in order to get comfortable but after the first 15 minutes I was good to go.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mama-bicycles everywhere

It seems like in Tokyo there are quite a few stay-at-home mothers who have at least one little kid to take care of. In fact, even though the trend has recently been changing, the traditional Japanese woman is usually expected to leave work once married/has children and this increases the number of stay-at-home mothers as well. In a city where driving let alone parking a car can be a huge hassle and most people use public transportation and/or a bike getting from point A to point B can be extremely difficult for a mother with two little kids. Enter the "mama-bikes"...

A mama-bike is very similar to your traditional (i.e. non-sports, mountain, etc..) bike except with two main changes. There is a seat for a kid in the back with optionally another seat in the front and the bike is more stable than average making tipping over harder. These bikes are literally everwhere during the day as the fathers are at work and the mothers are going out for shopping, et al. This one was in front of the park by my apartment.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ever bought a "mystery package" ?

So this seems to be a popular trend in Japan in quite a few different types of stores including clothing, accessories and others. These stores offer "mystery bags" - each one costing one half or one third (at least that is what they claim) of the actual cost of items in them. Of course the catch is you don't know what you are getting but I guess there are enough people that try it out. It is an interesting business idea when one thinks about it - the consumer (presumably) saves money and you get to get rid of slow moving items while making small (presumably) profits. This particular example is from LonLon around Kichijouji Station (吉祥寺駅). The package also comes complete with a.. hmm... strange? poem in English:

Everytime I pass by, I stop by.

Everytime I look here, I find it.

Everyday I'm happy.

Inside are little pieces of happiness.

Even when I'm returning,

I'm smiling.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Arcades in Japan (part 1)

Japan is home to many cool pieces of technology and arcades are no exception. Now one thing I need to make sure I mention - by arcades I don't mean your typical "move the stick and press the button" type of machines. There is so much more from IC-card based football/soccer simulations to touchscreen offerings letting you pinpoint where to make your next "strike". I will try to write about different arcade machines I see (though keep in mind most of -extra cool- ones have a "No Photos" sign on them...).

Game: Half Life 2
Type: First Person Shooter
Location: Taito Building, Arcades Floor, Akihabara
Today I saw a few cool arcade machines in Akihabara which of course is the capital of this sort of thing and one of them was extremely... interesting. Half Life 1 was one of my favorite games on the PC when it came out a while back. I played Half Life 2 on PC and the consoles but never saw an arcade machine of the game before. Come to think of it I don't think I have ever seen a first person shooter as an arcade machine but here they were in Akiba, four of them linked together for deathmatches. There are basically two controllers and two pedals - left controller allows for moving in a given direction and turning while the right controller, which is a joystick allows changing weapons, aiming, and shooting with both primary and secondary modes. Pressing the left pedal lets the player crouch while pressing the right is for jumping. I know it sounds complicated but after the first few minutes it does not feel as awkward or difficult as it might initially seem. There is the option of using an arcade card (like I mentioned before) in this game which lets users record their stats and any special weapons they may have gained. The game allows choosing a player class (soldier, ranger, scout, sniper, etc...) and gender for your character. The class determines your attributes such as the types of weapons you start out with and your speed.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ever wanted to save your progress on an arcade?

I know that one thing that I don't like about arcades is the fact that the experience is usually "stateless" - that is, every time you go to play an arcade game you always start from the same point no matter how much time and effort (and needless to say money) you spent on the game. There are some arcade machines that you can put passwords in and they remember your progress but that just makes it either harder for you by having you remember long passwords or easier for someoneelse who may go around try random passwords to use other people's accounts. Well, it looks like in Japan they found a good solution - enter Game Cards. Some of the arcade machines spit these guys out (for an extra 200 yen) and you can use them every time you come to play. The machine prints your info on the card and stores it in the magnetic strip... Ah, bliss...

Monday, July 7, 2008

Ikebukuro (池袋)

Ikebukuro is one of these places in Tokyo that are full with people pretty much all the time. I only had a chance to go there once (even though it is very close to Shinjuku - just one stop by a number of lines including the Saikyo Line which is what I used) so I wanted to go there again to spend more time there and I had my chance last Sunday.

Ikebukuro is home to Toyota's Showroom showcasing the latest models, hybrid technology (a-la-Prius) and other Toyota research including safe driving simulators which are a lot of fun to try out. There are lots of shops along the Sunshine Street (サンシャイン通り) which leads all the way from the train station (池袋駅) to a set of interconnected high-rise buildings dubbed the Sunshine City (サンシャインシティ). These buildings contain an aquarium, a planetarium and the Sunshine 60 building has an observatory on its 60th floor (as well as a restaurant on the 58th).

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Humidity galore in Tokyo

Ok I understand it's supposed to be the Summer season now that the rainy season is over but come on - there is a limit to how much humidity the human body can possibly endure. Before going to the US and experiencing the humidity in Pittsburgh in the Summer I used to think Kyrenia was humid. And now this - Tokyo definitely tops Pittsburgh in terms of humidity. It's hard to explain how ridiculously humid it gets in words but just a few words of advice - if you ever come to Tokyo to stay in the Summer make sure you have access to an A/C where you are going to sleep. Without one, sleeping is almost impossible unless you are one of the rare people who can fall asleep in a sauna comfortably.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Sun is out finally

Yesterday was officially the first day of the "sea season" and even though it was kinda cloudy today we got a nice serving of the sun. When I was walking to work around 9 in the morning it was already around 25 degrees Celcius with a ridiculous amount of humidity. Of course this is nothing compared to the temprature back home - a cool 42 degrees celcius: Sun block anyone?

I think this weekend I will start preparing for the big climb to Mount Fuji (富士山) which I will be doing in two weeks. I hear the climb is tough (> 5 hours) and one needs to start climbing at night in order to catch the sunrise (so no sleep) but at the same time the view from the top is supposed to be very pretty and come on - how cool is it to be able to say "I climbed Mt. Fuji" ;)