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    Wednesday, February 28, 2007

    Taxpayer's money spent on stoned panda

    Yesterday, whilst out cycling behind a convoy of dumper-trucks which were equipped with special pro-dust tyres, Jon and I came across a little zoo. It was rather an odd zoo, being as it was situated in the middle of nowhere, I mean, really, nowhere, like a place where no-one would even go even if they were completely in search of nowhere.

    Amongst the inmates, all of whom were somewhat stationary in their approach towards life, was this panda. He was obviously completely stoned, as when I asked him why he was rubbing his tummy and patting his head he said:


    "yeah man, it's unreal, innit. I was like, sitting here, and then the local council came along and gave me this bad of leaves. They said it was like, called bamboo man... yeah, bamboo..., but I know it's marijuana..."

    (at this point Panda started to drift away, so I threw a bucket of water over his head).

    "Ah, thanks man, I was really spacing out there. So, yeah, they gave me these leaves, and I started eating them, and hey, I just feel so mellow. They come every day. They're like, council people. Hats. They wear hats and say hi and give me leaves man..."


    I could see that asking him about his opinion on zoos in general, you know, Conservation or Cruelty etc, wouldn't provide me with any great insights, so I decided to talk to the elephant instead.

    Now with Ellie, I had exactly the opposite problem. It seems that in a bid to make her more animated, the local council had decided to get her addicted to coffee - as can be seen in this photo in which she's sucking the dregs from a can of Cafe au Lait. She was so frisky, possibly in the sexual sense although I didn't hang around long enough to find out whether or not that actually was the case, that it was impossible to have a decent conversation.



    The way she was galloping around the place suggested that she was completely oblivious to the fact that she was secured to the grass by a huge lump of concrete.

    Mind over Matter I thought, what a great lesson for us all there.

    My first book - Not on sale now!

    Here's the first glimpse of Book One in the Tame & Twinkle series - 20 pages of pure unadulterated raw photos of nice things. And mightily happy with it I am.

    Unfortunately it's not available for you to buy just yet. Unless you pay me lots of money. Like, £15. Plus postage.

    And it was all done on a Mac. And on a press somewhere in Holland.




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    The Cherry Forecast

    Yes, this week saw the publication of the official Cherry Forecast, a report that is compiled every year by Japan's top meteorologists in conjunction with a highly trained pack of wild dogs whose noses can sense the oncoming of the annual bloom, up to 2 months in advance.


    The Cherry Forecast has a huge impact upon the Japanese economy, as it tells the breweries (who make up Japan's biggest industry) when they need to airlift extra supplies of alcohol into thousands of public parks all around the country. 80% of the revenue generated by these sales is taken by the government and put into the Bridge Fund, a huge pot of money that is used to construct the many bridges seen all over Japan that neither cross rivers nor have roads joined to them. (Their sole purpose is to provide employment opportunities for local construction companies, and to line the pockets of various politicians through approved methods of bribery.)

    It is estimated that up to 78% of the population take part in 'Ohanami' (cherry blossom viewing parties) ever year, with prime spots in Ueno Park (Tokyo) being reserved by people sitting on blue tarpaulins up to 2 weeks in advance.


    (all facts and figures in this report are courtesy of the TGW fountain of knowledge. The accurateness of which is open to question).

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    My old bedroom makes it into Gran Turismo

    I was in Bic Camera with Tom the other day checking out mics, headphones and, er, Macs, when I saw something on a Windows PC that nearly made me fall over and behave like an armadillo - that's how shocked I was.

    The screen was showing a demo of Gran Turismo, the world's most popular racing game. It wasn't so much the car's performance that I was surprised by - I don't care much for cars - it was more the fact that MY BEDROOM WAS IN THE BACKGROUND!

    I did a double-take, surely, it couldn't be? No, it WAS! The car was on a road right outside my home of 2.5 years - the hotel Bellevue Des-Alpes of Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland!

    You can imagine how surprised I was - I mean, usually these racing games have made-up backgrounds which are loosely based on some race track somewhere, right? But this, this was something else. Examining it closely, I could see it was a perfect 3D reproduction of my old home. I mean, perfect, so detailed. The only difference between it and reality was that you couldn't see my socks hanging out of the window to dry.

    Oh, and the road the car was on - doesn't actually exist! (I had to check the Kleine Scheidegg live webcam to make sure that they hadn't built one whilst I've been away, for the cows to practice skateboarding on).


    A poor-quality photo of the screen of the computer in Bic Camera, showing my ex-home in the background!

    Oh, and a Wikipedia Search reveals this about the 'new mode' in Gran Turismo:

    So far, a new track in the series has been revealed for this mode: The Eiger Nordwand, based at the real-world location of Kleine Scheidegg in the Swiss Alps. GTHD Premium will feature around 30 cars and two tracks that have been built up from scratch which will make use of PS3's next generation gaming capabilities.

    Exciting stuff. I guess I'll just have to buy a Sony Playstation now.

    (Actually, I'm allergic to computer games, being far too weak-willed to stop having played them for 45 days non-stop, without sleep. I discovered that about myself when Sonic the hedgehog came in the 18th century.) (although I did recently try 2nd Life, but found it to be even more full of dysfunctional weirdos than 1st life...)

    Edit



    Spooky! There I was just checking that this entry had uploaded OK, when scrolling down I noticed that the random picture - one of over 6000 in the library, was that of one of the buildings in the picture on the Gran Turismo screen shot!



    It's difficult to make out here, but the building in the random photo is the building that can be seen in the shadow of my head in the computer-screen shot!

    That random photo thing has been known for throwing up such surprises in the past - Must be the pixies!

    Human Rights? About as healthy as Fatty Butter!

    Japanese politicians are not known for choosing their words carefully when speaking in public. Last month we had the "birth-giving machines" scandal involving the Health Minister.

    Speaking about the problem that is Japan's declining birth rate, the minister said "Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head".

    Well, I'm sure that will encourage women to make some more.

    Today's demonstration of how to promote the idea that all Japanese politicians are unaware that human beings actually have value beyond their ability to build televisions, comes from the Education Minister.
    Education minister slammed for comparing human rights to fatty butter:
    "Education minister slammed for comparing human rights to fatty butter

    An advocacy group slammed Japan's education minister on Tuesday for comparing human rights to fatty butter and saying too much would give Japan 'human rights metabolic syndrome.'

    'No matter how nutritious it is, if one ate only butter every single day, one would get metabolic syndrome,' Education Minister Bunmei Ibuki reportedly said at a speech in south Japan on Sunday. 'Human rights are important, but if we respect them too much, Japanese society will end up having human rights metabolic syndrome.'"
    I suppose this shouldn't be all that surprising in a country that not only still has the death penalty, but has actually been making increased use of it since 2000. The number of people killed by the Japanese state in this way reached 100 last week.

    Nobody has the right to take another person's life.

    Still, in a country where human rights are considered as good for the nation's health as fatty butter, it's hardly surprising that Japan remains a fan of this unjust form of 'justice'.

    In other news, the Japanese whaling fleet has called an end to the whaling season and is heading back home. Not that this is any gesture of goodwill on their part - it's the result of an engine fire that crippled their one whale-carcass processing ship, the Nisshin Maru. A ship that, by drifting for several days around the Ross sea posed a considerable threat to the environment: a fuel leak would have spelled disaster for one of the most pristine areas on the planet.
    "New Zealand's Conservation Minister Chris Carter said he had spoken to the Japanese authorities about the need for urgent action, calling the ship "dead in the water".

    He pointed out that the ship is just 60 miles (100 km) from the world's biggest Adelie penguin colony at Cape Adare.

    "It is imperative the Nisshin Maru is towed further away from the pristine Antarctic coast, the neighbouring penguin colony and the perilous ice floes," he told reporters.

    Mr Carter said the most immediate solution was to use the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, a converted Soviet tug, or a US icebreaker.

    Greenpeace urged Japan to accept its offer. "This is not a time to play politics from behind a desk in Tokyo," said Karli Thomas, from on board the Esperanza. [BBC]
    Mind you, having seen how little respect they have for their own environment, it's hardly surprising they couldn't care about some big block of ice down south.

    Sunday, February 25, 2007

    down time

    Ah, it's really hard at times like this. Times when you just feel totally disinterested in doing anything at all. When you just want to sort of mope in front of the TV, watch some film, ignore the pile of stuff you need to do. Ignore all the emails demanding your attention.

    I nearly did just that. It was a cliff-edge type thing, as I stood in front of the washing machine slapping marmalade on a slice of bread...

    Then decided, no, better tackle this head on. Better not ignore this whiff of depression. I'll read my happy book. After I've listened to The Food Program on BBC Radio 4 - a great report about organic food being embraced at Celtic Football Club.

    This is a photo of three chairs that I saw today, stacked together.

    It's called '3 Chairs'.

    Saturday, February 24, 2007

    I want to make films

    The music that accompanies this entry is Moby: 'Signs of Love', from his album '18'. If you have it, please put it on.

    I yearn to make films.

    One of my dreams is to be a film maker. Productions that are arty, informative, challenging, beautiful, moving.

    This feeling has been growing for a long time. Many years. The past 5 months or so though have seen this desire to create a beautiful collage of moving images and sound really take off. Think back to what happened then and you can probably guess what the influence has been.

    I have taken the first steps.

    The first is my Audio-visual podcast, which although not in the least bit professional, is something I am absolutely delighted to be producing. It's fun. I like it.

    I've also had my first photo-book professionally printed: a Valentine's Day present for *Twinkle*. It's only a little paperback, but nonetheless, I love it (and so does she!). I think it's the possibilities that it symbolises more than anything else that I love.

    I will make films. It won't happen for a while yet - I can't afford another (higher-spec) Mac at the moment! - but in the meantime I'll experiment, continue to learn, play around, and soak up the pure magic that so many people around me are conjuring up on the screen, across the airwaves, before my very eyes.

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    Friday, February 23, 2007

    Review: Apple Airport Extreme

    Those who are bored stiffless by computer talk, look away now.

    Those of you who aren't interested in the AirPort but who do own Macs, see the second half of this entry.

    So, yesterday, I finally picked up my Airport Extreme wireless base station, which has just been released.
    As with most Apple products, it's damn sexy (which is why I named it "Aiport Extremely Sexy" when setting it up). A sheek white box, with an apple on. No buttons, no annoying neon lights to keep you awake at night; just the single LED on the front.

    Setting it up for use with my MacBook was so easy even my dad could have done it. The installation software walks you through a few screens which require you to enter a couple of passwords to stop the neighbours from fiddling with its settings, using all your bandwidth or stealing your porn essays on Japanese history, and once that's done, flazang, you're connected.

    After that, it's simply a matter of plugging your USB printer / external hard drives into its rear end.

    Now, I can:
    • Use the internet anywhere in our huge cupboard
    • Listen to my 70GB of music (which for obvious reasons I keep on an external HDD) without having USB cables trailing all over the place. Until now I have been unable to listen to music / radio / podcasts in the Kitchen or the loft - now the sounds just stream magically over the airwaves.
    • Print stuff wirelessly. Once again, no USB cables to plug in. Instead, all the letters on that PDF document go flying through the air in an invisible cloud. Amazing.
    There's no notable loss in speed when it comes to the internet either. I clocked 17mb/s on a download this morning.



    When it came to configuring it for Windows I did run into a bit of trouble, although I think that this was because I first set it up on a Mac. The thing is, when initially setting it up using a Mac, it will default to channel 13, which computers running Windows XP SP2 cannot detect. Thus, the network wasn't showing up at all in Windows' list of wireless possibilities. The problem is easily solved however: open Airport Utility on your Mac, and on the Base Station tab choose "Manual Setup". Under Summary, where it says "Channel: Automatic", simply select another channel. Anything under 10 will do.

    Once the base station has restarted it will appear in Windows' list of available wireless networks.

    Disspointments:
    • You can't sync your iPod via the Airport Extreme. If you plug your iPod into the Airport, it will show up on your desktop as a mass storage device. You can access the stuff on it, but it won't play ball with iTunes (it's not a fault as such - it's not designed to do it). Fingers crossed this issue will be addressed in the future with a software / firmware update.
    • Likewise with my digital camera - Image Capture won't recognise it as a camera when it's connected via the Airport (nor is it supposed to)
    • One final thing to note is that the widely publicised advanced speed capabilities of the Airport Extreme, you know, 2.5 times that of the old 802.11g standard (due to its use of the new 802.11n standard), are only available to you if you have a wireless receiver that it 802.11n enabled. My MacBook, being not-quite the latest model, has just missed out there. Not that I'm fussed, I'm happy with the speed I get.
    Overall though, I like it a lot, and will finally bring our broadband wars to an end. There's been an unexpected bonus too: whereas in the past it has taken a good five minutes for *Twinkle's* XP laptop to connect to the internet via LAN, now it connects via wireless almost instantaneously, and without the need to enter the bloomin username and password that the Windows Media Centre cable box thing demands.

    Hurrah!

    ______________

    Software for Macs

    I remember last year, in the month before I bought my first Mac, worrying about the 'fact' that there wasn't that much software out there for the Windows rival.

    Five months later I feel just the opposite - how could I work on a PC when there just isn't the software available that I use everyday? I now have programs for the Mac that do everything any of my Windows programs could do, only now they often do them better, and of course, in a far sexier manner.

    My recommendations include:
    (and I apologise for the lack of links, but I'm sure you can find them)
    • TextExpander - a great shortcut tool
    • Growl - notification service
    • QuickSilver (what did I ever do without it?)
    • Renamer4Mac - does what it says on the box
    • Popcorn - DVD / iPod / PSP burning software
    • Photobooth (part of MacOSX) - We've had a lot of fun with this...
    • The book function in iPhoto (part of MacOSX)
    • Garageband - Podcasts with chapters and photos etc
    • SuperDuper - Super backup software!
    • Stellar Phoenix - recovery software - that works!
    • JEdict for Mac - A fantastic Japanese - English dictionary
    • iCal (part of OSX) - love the way it syncs with my iPod
    • Mac The Ripper - for backing up your DVDs
    • Cyberduck - FTP tool
    • Comic Life - haven't had time to play with this yet, but it looks great!
    • Automator (Part of OSX) - wow, what a tool!
    • Little Snitch - very handy
    • Dreamweaver, Office, Photoshop, all great on the Mac.
    • Newsfire (RSS Reader)
    Biggest reccomendation though is to subscribe to MacBreak, MacBreak Weekly, and TWiT. That's where all the hottest tips are!

    Joseph

    Wednesday, February 21, 2007

    Just Banana It

    Today's shopping trip saw another shop added to the list of "Places to go to get free food". It was our local butcher. I needed some bacon, but only had 85 yen (about 40p) on me. I was advised that I couldn't make a decent meal with the amount of bacon that that would buy me, and thus was given some extra, for free.

    A couple of minutes later, at our local Tofu shop, I was the happy receipient of two extra pieces of aburage - thin, deep-fried tofu, love the stuff. He always slips them in to the bag without me seeing, the cunning chap.

    When paying for my bananas next door at the greengrocers, I was handed a huge apple , the kind that would sell in the supermarkets for about 300 yen (£1.40). "No-one's buying them today", he said.

    I do enjoy shopping in Japan. Unlike in the UK, the small, family-run businesses have yet to be driven out of town by the huge supermarkets - at least in central Tokyo where many people don't own cars. It may be a different story out of town, where there is both the land available for new supermarkets, and increased car ownership (due to the comparitively low density of railway stations).

    Anyhow, once home, I unpacked my bags, and found this banana on the bottom of the bunch. It's a sign. There must be some business opportunity just waiting for me, something banana shaped, something that will take the world by storm.

    Any ideas what it could be?



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    Tuesday, February 20, 2007

    Underwater ironing in Very Big Shoes

    I do find it really difficult when 'life' gets in the way of 'things I want to do'. Today is a prime example, with a necessary visit to the hospital and lesson planning for my English classes tonight preventing me from doing the things that I really want to do, such as read The Big Issue Japan as a part of my Japanese-reading-improvement campaign.

    At least I'm fortunate in that I have the self discipline to not spend more than a few minutes a day looking at sites like that of the Extreme Ironing Bureau, which whilst amusing, leaves me feeling frustrated at the time I've 'lost' to them.


    My fourth X-ray in the space of 8 days showed positive results though - a mere case of inflammation of the muscle in the knee join, as opposed to some serious injury. Overuse was the cause. I've been told to take it easy for a bit. Something tells me I might not be walking after that 100km hike...

    I've bought a knee-support thing with built-in magnets. I've always been sceptical as to the pain-relieving properties of such devices, but as you know, I'm in the mood for challenging my beliefs. Being one of the best on the market it was pretty damn expensive, but has a full money-back guarantee, so I can't lose out. Will keep you posted.

    Yesterday I was taken to the most fabulous shoe shop in the whole of Japan, specialising in shoes size 30cm and over. They had some 34cm trainers in there - they looked so funny, like, no, it is not possible for anyone to have feet that are that big!

    The big-shoe shop is a a pretty small place, located on the west side of the Yamanote line tracks about 500m south of Okachimachi station. You can't miss it if you just take the south exit and follow the lines towards Akihabara. No longer can I complain about not being able to get shoes to fit me in Japan.

    Anyhows, time for me to skidaddle.

    xxx

    Sunday, February 18, 2007

    It hurt so much I nearly passed out

    It was perhaps the most horrendous physical pain I have ever felt in my life. I wanted to yell and scream and shout F*** F*** F***, collapse and writhe in agony. But I didn't want the person I was with (*Twinkle's father) to know what a state I was in, so I continued to walk, and talk, and smile. The fact was, that being as we were at the top of a mountain there was not all that much that we could have done anyhow, but continue to walk. It was my knee, which I did something to the other day when training in the park. I realised the following day when running to the station that all was not quite right, but hoped it would improve. It was only today, after 2 hours of an uphill hike that I realised that the problem was about to return.

    And once we hit the downhill, return it did. Every step felt like someone driving a huge great nail into my knee with a big hammer. Or perhaps a huge masonry bit attached to an electric hammer-drill. It was quite extraordinary. There were times I thought I was going to pass out.

    A weapon used in the 17th century to intimidate people passing through the Hakone Checkpoint on their way to Edo, modern day Tokyo. Imagine having parachuted from 10,000 feet, and landing on this. THAT's how painful my knee was.

    I realised that by focusing all my attention on my knee, I was only making the problem worse, so I decided to tell myself it was all in the mind. I told myself, "Joseph, it doesn't hurt, it doesn't hurt, all is good".

    This tasteful vessel was adorned with the Union Jack in honour of my visit

    And you know what? It continued to hurt like F*** and I continued to want to saw my leg off at the hip.


    The legendary Mount Fuji, clearly visible behind the Tori of Lake Ashino, Hakone

    I was so grateful when we reached our destination, checkpoint 3 of the 100km Trailwalker hike we're doing in May. Today, the two of us were trial-walking the trail-walk, checking to see if the map that everyone will be given was easy to follow and that the path was clear. In total we covered about 20km, not too far I know, but put a bloody great mountain and a broken knee in your path and believe me, it feels like a thousand miles.

    The HUGE torie (gate thing) of Moto Hakone

    A funny thing happened half-way along the route though. We turned onto a fairly big road, which we were to follow for a kilometre or so. It was your average big road, looked pretty much like any other big road. Couldn't see much around us due to the mist ...but there was something about this road. The way the lines were painted. The way the curbstones were slanting - Something oddly familiar...

    Then it dawned on me - I'd walked this road 4 years 1 month and 5 days beforehand - on the occasion of my 25th birthday. It was a bit odd, suddenly recognising everything around, when I'd previously been feeling like we were lost in the middle of nowhere.

    It also struck me just how accurate my visual memory was - even details like the lights in the roof of the tunnel under the road. So how come it doesn't perform such memories when I look at a kanji I've studied every day for the past god knows how many years?! It's clearly too busy obsessing Buddhas carved into boulders.


    Anyhows, it's Sunday night, time for a DVD and chocolate in bed. mmmmmmmm

    A Year in Japan - Episode 05 out now!

    In Episode 5 of the increasingly popular podcast series A Year in Japan, Joseph takes you on an early morning trip to Tsukiji fish market in Eastern Tokyo. With over 50,000 employees, it's the largest market of its kind in the world - and also one of the most dangerous with hundreds of 'Mighty Cars" buzzing around the place!

    There's also an interview with the Tokyo architect Masaki Endo, winner of numerous high-profile awards for his "Natural Ellipse" creation.

    In the listeners' feedback section we hear from some rather odd people... Are you all like that?!!

    Download Episode 05 now (it's 31 minutes of FISH and stuffed pandas).

    Advanced version (suitable for most computers and iPods etc. Features chapter markers, lots of photos, and hyperlinks)

    Basic MP3 version (suitable for wind-up gramaphones and other devices that refuse to play the advanced version. Audio only).

    More listening options here

    Feedback welcome: joseph[at-mark]ayearinjapan.com (mp3 messages / videos also ok)
    Skype: josephtame

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    Tuesday, February 13, 2007

    Practical joke

    This has to be one of the funniest practical jokes I've ever seen, especially the second half. Only in Japan?

    (I'm just glad they weren't trying it out last week at the ski resort we were staying at!)



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    University Entrance Exams, and the discovery of a paperclip embedded in my spine

    One thing I'd forgotten, when heading to the uni health service this morning, was that it's entrance exam season at Rikkyo University at the moment.

    Entrance exams are serious business in Japan, and are arguably, and somewhat ironically, the most difficult part of one's entire university career. Once you've passed them and been accepted though, it's a doss, as has been proved by the huge number of snoring students that I share my classes with.

    The fact that so much is at stake means that the uni has to go to great lengths to ensure that no cheating occurs. The most noticeable precaution taking is the shutting of every single gate in the 2-metre high fence that encircles the entire campus. Security guards are stationed at regular intervals around the perimeter: the only way in is through one of the approved entrances, where identification papers must be shown.

    Hopeful students queuing to enter the Rikkyo campus

    University entrance exams signal the climax of years of study at school and at after-school schools, and after after-school schools, thus it's only appropriate that the mothers go along with their children to wish them luck. Once their precious little darlings have passed through the gates, all they can do is wait, and pray - and pray they do. I saw several mums kneeling on the pavement by the university's name plate, asking the Gods to whisper the answers to the multiple choice questions in their children's ears.

    All this security meant of course that I was unable to get to the health clinic. Thankfully though, the International Centre, responsible for us foreigners, is just outside the WOOP WOOP security zone as it's technically known, and so I was able to ask for advice on where to go to have my back looked at.

    It turned out that there was a decent clinic just down the road, and after a wait of about an hour I'd had two X-rays taken of the bit of my spine that is giving me such trauma.

    I was astonished when I was shown the results on the doctor's very sexy computer. No wonder I was in such agony - there was a paperclip embedded in my spine! How on earth did it get there?

    Just as I was trying to recall whether I'd had any accidents in stationary cupboards lately, the nurse came along and unstuck the paperclip from the back of my shirt. It had been attached with sellotape by the doctor to mark the point where I'd told him it hurt.

    Zooming in to the relevant point, it was clear that thankfully, my spine was OK. No compressed disks. Everything in the right place. It would seem that the problem is just severe bruising and a moderate amount of swelling, which should ease with time. This is of course very good news, as I was starting to imagine trips back to the UK to get myself fixed up, and then 6 months confined to bed, which would be unbearable unless *Twinkle* chose to spend 6 months in the same bed.

    The national insurance system here works jolly well too. Upon showing my card (which I received having paid the 4,000 yen / £17 annual premium) I was given a 66% discount, and the remainder I can claim back from university with whom I have another insurance policy. I haven't even had to think about using the insurance I bought in the UK, which is a big relief as it's a pile of pants, dirty ones at that. They successfully managed to avoid paying for the camera that I lost on my way over here, the swines.

    Well, I think it's time for a bit of cooking.

    Tarra.

    Monday, February 12, 2007

    Philharmonic Ensemble Orchestra

    Wow! It was a proper orchestra, with, like, three million musicians, and a conductor who was completely mad!

    Our free tickets had us sitting only four rows from the stage in that HUGE hall. Fantastic stuff! Amazing how together they could make such a beautiful noise. Until today I thought that only CDs were capable of such a thing.

    Oh oh oh and the soloist - my God, she was singing just like they do in those operas on TV, like real proper singing. I'd never have believed a little Japanese girl could be so loud unless I'd heard it with my own ears.

    The conductor really was mad. Fascinating to watch, such passion. Lacking in long hair though, shame.

    Met the 7th member of our Trailwalker team tonight, nice chap.

    Back's showing no sign of letting up, might go for an xray in the morning. Hurrah for insurance.

    [Edit] Definitely going to the doc in the morning. I forgot that we have a medical centre on campus, where I have to go anyway.

    Returning to the Metropolis

    I'm not entirely sure what I did do under that tree halfway down the piste, but whatever it was, my back didn't appreciate it all that much. I'm pretty sure that when I did fall over backwards I did fall onto a stone. I remember swearing a bit. Thing is, at the time the rest of my body was hurting so much I didn't really appreciate just how hard the impact had been. However, now that the neck strain has worn off (caused by a couple of falls that saw my head hit the compacted snow with such force that I wondered how people die so quickly when hanged, yet don't tend to die when given such a violent jolt on a piste), my full attention is on the pain in my spine. I think playing aeroplanes with my sister-in-law's son yesterday morning was a bit of a mistake (I was the propulsion you understand); by last night I could barely move. A night spent bolted to the futon seems to have helped though, provided I don't move, my back doesn't hurt. If things carry on like this for a week I'll go see the doc.

    Anyway, lar di dah, it was a great trip. Really enjoyed it. Lovely folks too.

    Meanwhile, back in 'reality', I am pleased to announce that the TGW Web Gallery has gone all interactive, and is now database driven. No more static HTML pages for me, oh no. You can comment on photos, rate them, watch them in a slideshow, and if I were to let you you could even upload your own ...but I don't really want the kind of filth that you have on your hard drive on TGW. You can also choose your own language, and your own theme - if you don't like the blue, why not try "Fruity"?

    Started my part-time job last week. It went well, and was only moderately scary.

    I'm now working on another website, which is a practice for yet another website that we'll be launching later in the year. The only thing is, this means I have to learn PHP coding ...coding scares me. It takes up so much time. Still, I shall attempt to embrace the challenge.

    Trailwalker is coming along. As you can now see from our website the team page is nearly complete; I'm yet to meet the final two members. We're allegedly meeting up tonight but I've been unable to get in touch.

    Off to see the Philharmonic Ensemble Orchestra at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space after lunch, having been given some free tickets. I've always wanted to go to a classical concert - I think this is my first ever (apart from that one last week in which I played the invisible violin). I love classical music.

    Coming back into Tokyo on Friday night was almost a spiritual experience. I love the journey back into the Metropolis at night, especially by bus: this time I was coming in from the North, way up on the top of the three-story motorway, passing by the blacked-out 6th floor windows of neighbouring love hotels. In order to lose myself completely in the surreal landscape that stretched out into the mists beyond I located The Lovers by Amorphous Androgynous on my iPod... and I was off.

    streaming headlights, as seen from the bus

    Being so high up you are not distracted by the complexity of electrical wires which line the streets below. Initially, when passing through the outskirts, you won't see anything above 15 storeys. Just a sea of roofs, street-lights emitting a faint glow through the drizzle. As the bus continues towards the centre, so the average height increases. Red blinking lights appear, seemingly communicating hidden messages to other skyscrapers across the metropolis.
    "How was your day?"
    "Good, good, but my 3rd elevator shaft was shut down by a faulty door for a few hours".
    "Ah, I hate it when that happens. At least you didn't have your air-conditioning turned off. DoCoMO Building tells me that he was wheezing all day after one of the ants accidentally dropped a bottle of talcum powder by one of his extraction fans."
    And then BANG! You're in the middle of it all. You've hit one of the main business sectors. The towers shoot up to 50 floors in height. Packed tightly together, these vast glass structures reflect one another's interior lighting. It's 9pm on a Friday, but looking through the windows from my elevated highway, I can still see the little worker ants manning the photocopiers, shuffling their papers, looking busy until the boss has gone home. Your highway splits, merges, and all of this way above the streets below. A monorail suddenly appears, its three-carriage driverless train winding effortlessly between the towers.

    It doesn't get more futuristic that this - perhaps this is all a dream? Is this bus one of those with plasma screens that have taken the place of windows?

    Perhaps it is.

    It's only when we arrive back at the Subaru building in Shinjuku, and I step off the bus into the rain, that I know that this is reality. I say my goodbyes, and run for the East ticket gates where *Twinkle* is waiting having just finished work. The dream is over, but the memory lingers.


    I can't get those talking skyscrapers out of my head.

    The mist.

    The flashing red lights.

    The sheer vastness of the place I call home.

    Snowboarding

    It was my first winter living above the clouds in Switzerland. I was 19 years old, embracing my new-found freedom, ready to tackle anything.

    When the first snows fell, I visited Tony, the old man who owned the sports shop next to the hotel in which I worked, in order to pick up some gear. “Skis or snowboard?” he asked, to which I replied “Which is easier?” Snowboarding at that time was still relatively new, something that only the teenagers were into. Thus, it was only natural that Tony should recommend skiing. So it was that a few weeks and many stretched muscles later, I could be seem bombing down the slopes at ridiculous speeds, risking everything - I had yet to learn anything but how to go in a straight line, but that didn’t concern me.

    Half way through the season I was persuaded by my snowboarding friends, Alfonso and Paulo, to bolt both of my feet to a single plank of fibreglass.

    The experiment did not last long. I think I gave it about 6 hours, before the pain of falling on my arse, my knees, my head, my elbows, and every other part of my body that it’s possible to fall on, became too much to bear. That was it, I thought, snowboarding is not for me, I just can’t do it. I’ll stick with my skis.

    And so it was that for 10 years, I told people, “No, I can’t snowboard”. I said it so many times that my ‘inability to snowboard’ ceased to have any connection with those 6 hours on the slopes in 1997. It was the accumulative effect of that repeated spoken phrase that gave the truth its seemingly unshakable foundations.

    However, with this being the “decade of dekiru” (I Can), when asked by a friend at uni if I’d like to join a bunch of folks on a snowboarding trip, rather than turn them down, I figured I’d test the strength of these foundations. It took a bit of preparation, firstly in the form of putting in a special request for 30cm snowboarding boots (the hotel, from whom they were rented, initially suggested that given the size of my feet, I could do without skis or snowboard and still make good time down the piste: however, after repeated requests they did find a neglected pair of boots in the basement). The second bit of preparation was mental: repetition of the phrase “I can snowboard, I can snowboard”, and visualisations of a Joseph winging his way down the piste, to the left, to the right, left, right, stunning the onlookers with my the swing of my hips.

    It was Wednesday night, 9pm, when we all met up at Shinjuku South (Twinkle had also come along to wave me off / ensure that all the women were aware that I was not available). From there, we made the trek round to the East, into the long underground passage that feeds the hungry skyscraper district with its lifeblood of office workers. Our destination was the basement of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, a huge underground car park packed with coaches carting hundreds of snowboarders off to various resorts in the north of Japan.

    I didn’t sleep a wink on the night bus. Part of the problem was the excitement induced by the intro to the book I read as we headed out of town. My head started buzzing with ideas; the only thing to do was to scribble down 10 little pages of notes by the light of my iPod. I’ve started carrying a little notebook with me wherever I go, as I find that some of the best ideas come when one’s out and about being inundated with input. Upon review, most of them turn out to be a complete load of rubbish, but amongst the crap is the odd gem.


    We arrived at the hotel (somewhere in Fukushima prefecture) at about 5.30am. Perfect time for an early morning soak in the sento (public bath), then off to the rental department to pick up our sexy trousers, jackets and boots. Knowing that I was going to spend a significant part of the day on my arse, I folded my IKEA bath towel up to create a thick pad, and hung it from the rear of my waist with my belt, before putting my ski pants on. Made me look rather overweight in the bum department, but that was a small price to pay.


    Thankfully, virtually all of us were beginners, so we were able to fall over in a communal type way, celebrating in our shared inability to stay upright on the freshly laundered piste. I blessed my IKEA towel time and time again, as the board had a habit of moving without me telling it to.

    Four hours later, I smiled a big smile: I’d managed to make it all the way from the top to the bottom of the piste without falling over once! But watching the professionals from the comfort of the chairlift, I could see I was doing something wrong. Whereas they were winding their way down by leaning forward and backwards (with the board descending the piste end-on), I was doing so by first bringing my left foot forward, and then my right; my board was side-on.

    It was quite a challenge to overcome this habit I’d developed. I had no confidence in the power of my toes to keep the board stable when descending backwards, so as soon as I felt any resistance from the piste, my resolve crumbled; in a knee-jerk reaction I’d throw my weight back onto my heels, thrusting the edge of the board into the snow and sending me flying backwards to the ground. It was on one such occasion that I sustained the injury that I’m now suffering from – a very bruised back, with an imprint of a large rock in it. Still, I’d promised myself I’d master snowboarding – giving up was not an option, no matter how long it took.


    I distinctly remember the moment it finally clicked; it was that moment when I realised that the only thing that had been stopping me from staying upright was the fear of falling – a self-fulfilling prophecy! To combat the fear, I started talking to myself out loud; whenever I felt that threatening resistance from the piste, I’d say to myself, “Come on Joseph, weight forwards, bring your right foot round, you are in control, you know you can do it, swing that foot to the right!” And you know what – it worked! Wow, what a rush of happiness I felt! I’d achieved my dream, just by believing I could do it, and refusing to give up. I was particularly struck by that graphic demonstration of the power of fear. Not only had it prevented me from attempting to make that turn, but the knee-jerk reaction against it had actually caused me to fall. Yet, when I made the decision to make the turn in spite of the fear, the result was outstanding success.


    By the end of the day I was mightily pleased. The myth that I couldn’t snowboard had been shattered.

    That evening, having soaked our tired muscles in the outdoor bath with the view over the huge lake in the valley below, and having stuffed ourselves with food at the all-you-can-eat restaurant, we all slept very soundly.

    Day two saw us back out on the slopes bright and early, honing our newly acquired skills. It great to watch my friends from the chairlift as they too made great progress down the piste: like me, only 24 hours earlier they’d spent most of their time on their bums.


    It was around lunchtime when I retired. My back, which I’d banged the day before, was becoming increasingly painful, whilst the idea of a long soak in the steaming hot outdoor bath became increasingly attractive, as had the idea of reading my exciting book.


    By 5pm we were back on the bus, leaving the snowy mountains and heading for the basement below the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.


    Monday, February 05, 2007

    The machine is Us/ing Us

    Sunday, February 04, 2007

    A week of firsts

    The first first is that I start work for the first time in a long time, tomorrow. I can't remember if I mentioned this before, but I've got my old teaching job back, the one I had in 2002/2003, and handed over to my friend Tom when I returned to the UK. It's time for Tom to move on, and thus I'll be taking back the reigns. It's kinda perfect actually, as finances are tight, and I've been thinking I should get a job (and of course, legally, I have permission to work for a change). The one thing that was stopping me was, well, most jobs that are flexible in terms of working hours, and don't require long contracts, are pretty poorly paid, and time is something I don't want to dispose of unless it's really worth it. However, with this paying 3000 yen (£12.60) an hour plus transport, it's worth it. An extra £50 a week will go a long way.

    The second first is that I'll be going snowboarding for the first time since I first tried back in 1997 ish. This time I will persevere, and not give up after half an hour.

    The third first is that I have been bought my first pair of thermal leggings, thus officially making me Old. I am delighted by them. I also received some new boxer shorts, which apparently stay dry even when wet. I'm not sure what *Twinkle's* getting at there by buying them for me.


    The BBC's Planet Earth is on NHK (who partly funded the making of it), and I would dearly love to watch it. You know what though, it's just not the same without Sir David Frederick Attenborough OM CH CVO CBE FRS. And I have a tonne of things to do.

    Men in Black is on the other channel. Haven't seen that in years. Nice English film to round off the weekend. If I felt able to make it a priority.

    *Twinkle* seems to be paying rather a lot of attention to the big wedding directory I bought in order to carry out some research for my project. Hmmm.

    Just had a earthquake. 4.5, centre in Kanagawa ken. It's unnerving when concrete makes noises that only trees should make.

    tarra

    Any other hair questions?

    A round of applause for these two chaps - if only we saw more of this at press conferences, especially following court hearings in which people are faced with ridiculous charges.

    Check out the video here.

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    Prostitution and the 9 of Spades

    Yo WIGGY!

    So, it's a Sunday morning here in fair Tokyo Town, and the sun is a shining. I do like Japanese winters, at least those of the Kanto area (the plain on which the capital sits). Unlike back home, there's little in the way of storms or heavy rain. Clear skies are common, but despite this it's not as cold as one might expect. Must be the tarmac, or perhaps all that body heat - 300 people per square metre must have some warming effect.

    Perhaps the reason why we have so many sunny days is because we need to put our futons out to air everyday. I must admit, I used to think the putting the futons out to air thing was something that neurotic housewives did, being obsessed with 'freshness' to the extent that they had to change their socks every hour. I suppose this is partly because I have never found my futons to need airing. They've always seemes to be perfectly ok just being folded up in the morning and shoved in the cupboard.


    Photo interlude: unfortunately we have a Bring Restriction on our local train

    4 months in Viva! Kami Itabashi as our cupboard is comically called, have taught me otherwise. It was early January when I first started to notice the spots on the bottom of the futon. The thing is, in the loft we have no tatami, nor do we have any base to raise the futon off the solid plasticky type floor that also serves as the ceiling of our kitchen. Thus, body heat and moisture had no way to disperse, and thus the futon started to steam.

    I now hang the futon out on our 1st floor (that's 'ground floor' in UK speak) balcony every other day, weather permitting, and hope that no-one steals it.

    Which reminds me of those guys who go around stealing underwear from people's balconies. Every now and then you hear of some police raid on a house where they find thousands of pairs of stolen knickers. The funny thing is, the house in question seems to always belong to the local chief of police.

    This is turn reminds me of a 36-page article I read last night, written by one of my professors, on the 'Kogyaru' ('little girl') scene in Shibuya, central Tokyo. Her study was carried out in the late 1990s, and focused upon the prostitution boom amongst high-school girls. It was only when the age of these girls started to fall to around 13 or 14 that the media decided that the time for turning a blind eye to this industry, which everyone knew about, was over. Back in those days, or slightly beforehand during the peak of the bubble economy, you'd have men going into these clubs where young girls were working on telephone sex lines, pointing out a particularly attractive girl and paying up to $800 (£400) for the knickers she was wearing. Off they'd come, there and then. The used-knickers industry in Japan is no secret, although I was astonished to learn of the amounts of money that were paid. It continus to this day, although is but a shadow of its former self.


    Photo interlude: It's the Japanese I find amusing here. It reads, "let's stop putting stones and things on the railway line". Yes, let's!!

    The scene eventually got pretty out of hand, with rival gangs of young boys springing up, using the girls - it all got pretty violent. The police, at a loss as to what to do to get the situation under control, called upon the services of two powerful yakuza (mafia) families who were migrating from Shinjuku. Shibuya was divided between the two, and they soon set about putting a stop to the violence.

    The story sounds like something out of some sci-fi novel about some high-tech city that sold its soul to prostitution and drugs. But no, it all took place in Shibuya, and to an extent carries on to this day throughout Japan.

    What struck me was how the majority of girls who worked in this industry just did it to raise money to buy their designer bags and makeup. With the collapse of the economy their pocket money would no longer cover the expenses of their former lavish lifestyles - these girls saw themselves as simply using the 'ojisan' (old men, literally 'grandpa') to fund their next oufit.


    The other thing that struck me was how so many of these 'wild cuties' became ordainary housewives, feeling bored and frustrated at home, raising the children as a dutiful housewife should.

    That's something that really does upset me about Japan; the number of people who sacrifice their dreams and aspirations, all in the name of duty, and out of fear of not belonging.

    ________________

    The night before last saw a few of us Sheffieldians gather at Shimo Kitazawa for a jolly nice meal in a basement. (The basement also happened to be a restaurant). Following that we trundled across the road to Motion, a monthly event held at Heaven's Door (bar) in aid of Oxfam Japan. Caw blimey it was great, not only coz there were lots of friendly people there, but also because there was a magician in the house!

    I love magic. It's like, fireworks. Makes me grin and laugh and applaud and sing, and in this case play an invisible violin.

    One of the most impressive tricks involved my classmate and freind Jenny, who was asked to take a card from an invisible pack of cards being 'displayed' before her by another volunteer. It was all a bit silly, I mean, there was nothing there! Still, Jenny played along, 'took' her invisible card, 'looked' at it, and then as instructed by the magician on the stage put it back in the pack 'upside down'.

    The invisible pack of cards was then thrown back to the magician who managed to catch them all (!). He then made them visible again (i.e. had a pack up his sleeve), and started to splay the cards out. It was a normal pack of cards, every card different.

    He then said, "Ok, so as you can see, this is a normal pack of cards ...but look! There's one card here that's upside down, it must be Jenny's card". Ok, so no big deal there. We could all see this one card upside down (and thus couldn't see what it was).

    Then came the magic.

    He asked Jenny, "What was your card Jenny?"

    We all laughed, it was clearly a silly question as there had been no pack of cards. Still, Jenny played along,

    "9 of spades" she said.

    The magician then turned the one upside-down card over so that we could all see it, and blow me down, if it wasn't the 9 of spades!!


    It was absolutely astonishing. Jenny insists that she had no contact with the magician beforehand, and I believe her. Like she said, she's the kind of person who would deliberatly muck it up had he talked to her beforehand!

    He did a couple more tricks which were equally amazing, and then finished off by turning the audience into an orchestra, all with invisible instruments playing Beethoven's 9th Symphony. I played the violin. It wasn't exactly magic but it was rather funny.

    The following act was, erm, orginal.



    All in all a jolly good evening.

    Anyway, it's one of those excercise days today, so I'd best be off.

    tarra

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    Thursday, February 01, 2007

    A Gym Virgin no more

    The other day Tom mentioned that he'd found his local municipal gym. Run by the local authorities, it's a bit run down, but dirt cheap - 100 yen (42p) per session. Thus, a few days ago I popped down to where he lives, and off we set to pump some iron.

    I'd never been to a gym before. Gyms are scary. They're full of fit people. And all those machines to prove what a weakling you are. The instructors are the scariest of all, with their muscles the size of giant marrows. You have to spend so much time concentrating of holding your fat tummy in that you can't concentrate on actually getting fit.

    Thus, it was a pretty big deal for me , although with Tom to hold my hand, I felt OK as we jogged along the river to the sports centre.

    ...which was closed!

    Nevermind. We continued our jog, ending up in the park located right next to the hospital - a safety precaution you understand. Bear in mind that I have basically never done any serious exercise at any point in my entire life. In fact, since 2002 I have actually made a conscious effort to not strain myself, as one day, when jogging around the back-streets of Tokyo, I started to get severe chest pains. This then became a regular occurrence (whenever I jogged), and resulted in my going to the fabulous hospital in Asagaya (I still remember those nurses who took my blood...), and being leant a heart monitor for 24 hours (at a price, that being about 65,000 yen / £300!). However, my heart appeared to be functioning completely normally, thus nothing could be diagnosed, and nothing could be done. I then thought it best to just not do anything that caused me this pain.

    So, until last week, I had the perfect excuse to not exercise - it would give me a heart attack! However, with all the excitement of May's Trailwalker event, I kind of forgot about my history, and just started exercising with Tom. It was only afterwards that I realised that the only muscle that wasn't hurting, was my heart! I was cured! Perhaps it was all just a state of mind.

    A few months ago I commented on seeing these mad grandpa's jogging backwards around the local athletics track. If only I could have seen into the future, I would have seen myself doing exactly the same thing around Tom's local athletics track! It really does work different muscles to forwards-jogging. It's initially quite easy, but after a lap, well, I was shattered!

    Our training sessions in the park end with pull-ups on the kiddies climbing frame. I was only too happy to provide amusement for all the locals walking by, as they observed the spectacle of this foreigner who was so weak that in order to raise himself to the point where his chin was level with the bar, he had to ask his friend to hold his legs and help push him up!

    My fitness instructor has informed me that I need to do a good workout every other day, then after three weeks I can have one day off! What a treat! Today is a rest day, or rather, one of the days when I think, "Crikey, I don't think I can walk." And I'm not surprised, yesterday's workout was pretty intense. Inspired by Tom's discovery of his local subsidised gym, I went in search of mine, and found it in the form of a rather groovy sports centre with a huge domed roof that slides open in the summer. It's over four times the price of Tom's local, yet at 420 yen (£2/US$4) per session is about one hundredth the cost of those rip-off outfits they have in the UK.

    Upon arrival, Tom and I were greeted by a small Japanese girl who appeared to have calf muscle implants. I wouldn't fancy my chances in a kick-boxing match with her. Still, she turned out to be very very friendly, and patiently explained to the virgin Joseph how to use the various machines. The first one was this thing where you lie on your back, place your feet on this vertical platform thing and push. Good for your leggy muscles.

    I was absolutely delighted by how easy I found it, I really did have strong legs! ...until she pointed out that the weight was set to zero!! oh. right. We laughed.

    Cycling machines, jogging machines, things that you pull and push until you collapse on the floor, we did the lot. The jogging machine was a bit unnerving at first, you know, that moving floor whilst surroundings stay the same sensation, and I just couldn't stop thinking of myself flying off the belt backwards when it suddenly accelerated to 30mph.

    We also had a go on those belt-massager things. I always assumed they were some kind of sex-toy. They're pretty incredible though, really shake you to bits. Whilst not sexually arousing they do feel very nice, and I'd quite like to have one at home.

    They also have free classes throughout the day, in things like yoga, bodybuilding, and Hawaiian dance! I wonder if a grass skirt is mandatory for that last one. I'd get to wear my coconuts in public again.

    Hmm, so all in all, it was jolly good fun, and I'm really looking forward to smashing another of those self-generated beliefs, that being that I am not fit, that fitness if something that other people enjoy. Along with the name remembering thing, which is still working.

    Anyway, I have a tonne of stuff to do. Website creation, kanji study, water-consumption (to combat the after effects of yet another drink-as-much-as-you-like deals at a restaurant last night, I'm so glad we don't have them in the UK!).

    WEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee like a firework.

    xxx

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