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8/9/2013 EverQuest Next

This week's voter bonus comic features long time forum member Shauni! In other news, while I'll try to have an update on Monday, I'll be getting back to Florida rather late on Sunday night and have an early meeting I need to attend the next morning. So, if my internet didn't get switched on properly or something like that, there's a chance I'll have to skip the update (worst case, everything should be fixed in time for Wednesday's update).

In other news, have you heard about EverQuest Next? It's a new MMORPG Sony is working on and it's full of interesting features that have the potential to really revolutionize the MMO genre. But, you know what's even cooler? Remember how I mentioned being hired to write some tie-in novellas for an upcoming game? Well, it's not a secret any longer! I'm one of several authors who was hired to expand on EQN's world and lore. My stories should be showing up on the EQN site's ebook section in the coming weeks. So keep an eye out for them and maybe sign up for the EQN beta while you're there, I'm certainly looking forward to trying it out.

In other news, I'll be spending the weekend at Otakon. This is my second visit to Otakon but the first time was many years ago and the other anime conventions I've been to in the interim have been considerably smaller. But, even more exciting, is the fact that I'll get to hang out with forum members Silver, Stevenson, and Colly (aka. Suzu). I've known them for years online (especially Silver, who joined shortly after the "new" forums opened in 2004), but this will be the first time we've meet in person. Expect a write-up about the convention sometime next week.

Anyway, I got to go, so I'll hopefully see you Monday.


8/5/2013 Nearing the end...

Of summer vacation, not Pebble Version. Just one last week before it's back to work. Sigh... I do have Otakon to look forward to this weekend though.

I mentioned last time that updates this week would be a bit iffy. Well, I was able to update today but, since I have an overnight flight tomorrow right after a 9 hour drive (really not looking forward to that), a Wednesday update isn't looking likely. Friday's update should be fine, assuming I have decent internet access. While next Monday's update will depend on whether the internet at my apartment in Florida is switched back on when it's supposed to be. After that though, everything should be good.

See you later this week (hopefully)!


8/1/2013 A busy week

The weekly bonus comic is up (just vote using the TWC button on the left to see it)! It's the third in the annual Forum Award series and features long time member (and frequent winner) Silver.

I'm going to be doing a lot of traveling over the coming week. Today, it's off to New Mexico for a friend's wedding. I get back to Arizona Tuesday...only to leave later that night for Pennsylvania for a quick visit with some relatives before Otakon (if you're going to be there, feel free to come up and say hi if you spot me). And then it's immediately back to Florida for work. I really don't know what my internet access is going to be like, so there's a chance an update or two might get skipped, though it hopefully won't come to that. Anyway, we'll see what happens.



7/31/2013 Commentary!

Well, I'm not quite ready to resume Mon - Fri updates yet (expect them to start up again by mid-August though). But, in the meantime, I did finish the commentary for strips 221 - 240!

See you Friday!


7/29/2013 Donation rewards update

So, with the month nearing its end and another full donation gauge, it's time for an update on what bonus content you can expect and when.

Commentary: Thanks to the gauge being filled this month, I need to write commentary on the next set of old strips. No promises, but I'm hoping to have it done later this week.

Mon - Fri PV Updates: I still owe three weeks from before, and now another month on top of that. I'm thinking of either starting Mon - Fri updates again at the beginning of August (as in, later this week) or in a couple of weeks, once summer vacation ends. Which I do will depend primarily on how successful I am at rebuilding a comic buffer in the near future.

Timmy Tonka Mini Series: I now owe the first ten strips of this new (and completely "original") mini-series. When it starts is highly dependent on my schedule and how much free time I have. At best, it could start in mid August. But mid to late September is probably more likely at this point. At least, if I end up running it as a completely separate comic. On the other hand, if I run it in place of some regular PV or bonus comic updates, it could start sooner. I haven't made a decision on that yet.

Mystery Bonus: As I mentioned when I first announced this, it's probably going to be the last thing that gets done. Maybe September or October, maybe not until later, as it'll be the most complex and time consuming of the bunch. As to what it is...it'll be staying a mystery for a bit longer.

So yeah, that's the way things stand at present. I'll be sure to keep you updated as I get things done.


7/26/2013 Wrapping up

The next bonus comic in the Forum Awards series is up. This one features forum member Stevenson. Now, let's finish up that travelogue...

Saturday (20th): Friends and Fireworks
As usual, Saturday meant going to synagogue. Just about everyone was there and it was great to see them all one last time before returning to the US. They mentioned a big fireworks festival in Arakawa was taking place later that night, so I had my evening plans. Unfortunately, only four of us (myself included) ended up going. Some people had work and others were just too tired (despite it being a 7:30 show on a Saturday night). And of the four of us, Eunbee had plans to meet people and Yehoshua had to go get his cameras, so it ended up just being Hoshino and I for most of the outing.
We got there about an hour early, navigated the busy streets and occasional festival booths, and eventually came to a river bank. As sunset neared, it started to get really crowded. And then the show started. Like the show I saw the previous day in Chichibu, they had a lot of special fireworks (smiley faces, multi color, animal shaped, etc.). It was also a lot more intense than the Chichibu show, making it one of the better ones I've seen.
After the show was over, we met up with Yehoshua at a restaurant and hung out and talked for a while. Well, we did eventually... Thanks to the crowds, getting from the riverbank back to the station took a rather ridiculous amount of time. But it was a fun night regardless.

Sunday (21st): Last Day
I avoided committing to anything for this day too far ahead of time, since I was hoping to hang out with some friends. Unfortunately, that didn't end up working out. I thought about going to an amusement park that's been sitting on my to-do list, but I would have had to leave pretty early which, combined with how late I'd gotten back the previous night, would have left me with only several hours to sleep (after several late nights already). Plus, since it was a weekend, the bus tickets were sold out and the train was pretty expensive. In the end, I decided to keep it fairly low key and just do a few fun things in Tokyo. I started out with one more visit to the big flea market. After that, I was originally planning to do some stuff at Odaiba but Ida (a friend who hadn't been able to make it to services the previous day) e-mailed and asked if I wanted to meet up for a bit so I went to Shinjuku instead (again with Shinjuku). We got to talking and ended up just chatting and strolling around Shinjuku for the rest of the day. Not really a big exciting ending to my trip, but a pleasant way to spend the day none-the-less.
Finally, it was back to the apartment to pack and otherwise start getting ready for my departure the next day.

Random Japan Comment: Smoking
While a lot of Japanese people do smoke, and there are still a decent number of cigarette vending machines around, the situation for non-smokers has improved a lot since I first went to Japan. For one thing, quite a lot of restaurants are either entirely non-smoking or at least have non-smoking sections. Non-smoking hotel rooms are pretty easy to find as well. But the main improvement is that smoking is now banned on many (possible all) public streets except in designated smoking areas. Of course, they're some people who don't listen but, for the most part, smokers obey the rules and help keep the air clean for everyone else, which is greatly appreciated.

Monday (22nd): Leaving Again
My flight was at four, which left me with time to clean the apartment prior to the move out inspection and get some gyuudon before heading to the airport, where I was able to stop at a last kaitenzushi restaurant as well. I have to say, Narita is one of the nicer airports I've been do. The selection of shops and restaurants is nice (especially before you go through security) and the lines have always been minimal. They're not quite as picky at the security station either (I was able to keep on my shoes and leave non-metal items in my pockets). Other than that, my flights back went well, despite an overly long layover (made even longer by a flight delay) in the San Francisco airport (which isn't nearly as nice). Oh, and here's one last picture. It's not my plane, but I'm kinda curious about where it was going...
This trip to Japan was certainly a bit different than my previous ones. It was a lot shorter for one but, since I wasn't working, I was able to do a rather ridiculous amount of stuff. I was also far more centrally located than ever before, which was really convenient and allowed me to walk to a lot of different parts of Tokyo and get a better feel for the city as a whole. While a few things didn't work out as well as they could have, overall it was an awesome trip and I'm glad I went.
Once again, I'm going to miss it. I really do love Tokyo and Japan as a whole. I'm still not entirely sure I'd want to live there long term but, if I found the right job and a decent apartment (one with multiple rooms and maybe an oven) I'd be willing to give it a try. I've still got lots to see and do in Japan. Though, on my next vacation there, I'll probably spend less time in Tokyo in favor of some far off areas I've yet to see. But whether it's just another vacation or something work related, I'm looking forward to returning.


7/24/2013 Nearing the end

Well, I'm back in the US. I'm currently in Arizona for a little while, then going to a friend's wedding, and finally I'll be attending Otakon before returning to work. But I'll talk about that more later. For now, there's still a bit of my Japan travelogue left to go.

Friday (19th): Chichibu
Chichibu is a mountainous area an 80 minute train ride from Tokyo. It's popular for a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking and rafting. For devote Buddhists, there's also thirty some temples you can visit on a pilgrimage route (much easier to do than the 88 temple pilgrimage on Shikoku). I was planning to go the last time I was in Japan, but it was another trip that was canceled due to the earthquake. Chichibu also has two famous festivals. The biggest one is in early December, but they also have the summer time Kawase Matsuri this weekend, making it the prefect time to go.
The easiest way to get to Chichibu from Tokyo is via a limited express train from Ikebukuro. Normally limited express trains get pretty expensive, but this one is surprisingly affordable and took me right to the main part of Chichibu. It's a small city, but a rather nice one thanks to the focus on tourism. I started out by walking to Chichibu Shrine. Later in the day, it would become the center of the matsuri but, at the moment, it was pretty quiet. I'm glad I went when I did, I wouldn't have been able to get a good look around once the matsuri started and it's a really nice shrine with a number of impressive carvings.
After that, I hopped on a local train for my next destination. My eventual goal was Hashidate Temple but, due to a wrong turn and some interesting looking spots on my tourist map, I took a few detours along the way. I first passed this little mountainside shrine (it wasn't marked on the map, but it's still kinda cool). Chosenin Temple was next. It's a nice enough temple, but there's nothing all that special about it. I did spot a nice water lily though.
The Urayama Dam was visible for much of the walk to the temple, so I decided to stop there as well. There was a path to the base of the dam, but I could see it pretty well from where I was and the map said there were good views of the town and Chichibu Sakura Lake from the top, so I followed the road up the hill instead. As it turns out, you can actually walk all the way across the dam and, as promised, the views are quite nice. Of course, after I got up there, I found out that they have an elevator which goes back and forth between the top of the dam and the base, which would have saved me quite a lot of walking. Or, if you really want some good exercise, there's also a staircase.
Moving on, I finally made it to Hashidate Temple. After grabbing a quick lunch in a nice soba shop nearby, I started to look around. The temple itself isn't all that amazing but what makes Hashidate special is the cave next to it. For a couple hundred yen, you can take a hard hat and make your way through. And you need the hard hat (I was being really careful and still banged my head twice. You also need to do a lot of crouching. The passages through the cave are low, narrow, and require a lot of climbing. Personally, I thought that made it rather fun, but if you're especially tall or a bit chubby, you may want to pass.
After exploring the cave, I returned to the nearest train station. Unfortunately, it was quite a while until the next train, so I decided to start walking instead. That particular part of the town isn't anything special, but I got a nice view of the nearby mountains. I made it to the next station in time to catch a train back to Chichibu station. There were a lot of other things including shrines, temples, and waterfalls in the outskirts, but I wanted to make sure I got back in time for the festival.
Now one thing the matsuri I've been to in the past have been missing is giant floats. Fortunately, they're the main feature of Kawase Matsuri. By the time I returned to downtown Chichibu, the street was lined with booths and teams of people were getting the floats ready to go. I spent the next couple of hours walking around the festival and watching the floats start their routes through the city. They all took different routes and left at different times, and all were accompanied by the sound of taiko drums (the drums and drummers are actually hidden in the lower part of the float) and a traditional Japanese flute (played by a guy walking behind said float). Oh, did I mention that these floats don't have engines? Instead, they're pulled down the streets by people with very long ropes.
Eventually, after having my fill of festival food, I decided to follow one of the floats and see where it was going. It was a long winding route, but my float eventually ended up at Chichibu Shrine, where a few others had already gathered. Eventually, all eight of them arrived and lit their lanterns (with real flames no less, no electricity). Once they were all there, there was a ceremony which involved raising a large pole with a little mini-shrine on it and, after that, the floats started getting ready to leave (with just as much fanfare as when they arrived).
I watched the first couple leave, then decided it was time to move on to see the fireworks show. I wasn't entirely sure of the location but, fortunately, fireworks are pretty hard to miss. While I think it would have been nice if the show was a little faster paced, it did have some rather neat fireworks.
On a side note, the Kawase Matsuri is actually two days. On the second day, there's a different parade where a small portable shrine is carried to, and then washed in, the river.
I left a little before the end of the fireworks show to ensure I didn't miss the last express train back to Tokyo (I'd have risked getting stranded halfway back when the trains stop for the night if I did).
Overall, Chichibu is a nice area, it was a fun matsuri, and I enjoyed watching the floats. I'd be up for going back sometime to see more of the sights and do some serious hiking.

Well, I wanted to finish the travelogue today, but it's getting late and there's a bit more to go...so the last part will come on Friday.



7/19/2013 Better late than never

As I thought, this update is pretty late, but at least it's here. A couple of announcements before moving on to the travelogue. First, the weekly bonus comic is up for everyone who votes (use the TWC button to the left). It's the start of the yearly Forum Award series, which will be running for the next few weeks. Second, due to the timing of my return flight to the US, there likely won't be an update on Monday. Not 100% sure on that yet, but the chances of me being able to both get every ready and upload it at a reasonable time are pretty low. Naturally, if I do skip the update, the comic will resume (and the travelogue will conclude) on Wednesday.

Thursday (18th): Cars, Legos, and Monsters
Once again, the weather forecast wasn't all that good in the places I was thinking of going, making me a bit hesitant to commit to a big day trip. Plus, while I finished the first draft of my story, it still needed a couple rounds of proof reading. So, I decided to spend the morning working on that and grading material for the online classes I'm teaching. Not very exciting, but I did make really good progress.
Around lunch time, I was getting pretty hungry and decided I'd go eat at Tsukiji, since I hadn't been there yet on this trip (other than walking by it a while back). So I got the some sushi and walked around a bit. Aside from fish, it's a good place for kitchen items and the thick egg omelets they use for tamago (egg) sushi. Actually, one store was selling a large piece of omelette on a skewer kind of like a popsicle. I got one, which was topped with a mix of soy sauce and grated daikon. Kind of a strange snack, but good.
Once I was finished there, I wasn't quite sure how I wanted to spend the rest of my day so I decided to go to Odaiba, since there's a lot of options there. I didn't get to the Venus Fort mall on my last couple of visits, so that's where I started. It seems Toyota still has their giant car showcase. While I don't think I'll be needing a new car anytime soon, if I ever do need to spy on or kidnap someone, I found the perfect vehicle for it. To be honest, cars aren't really my thing, but they still have some neat stuff in the showcase. For example, I got to test drive a prototype personal transportation device. It's fun to drive (and could be a precursor of the chairs everyone uses in WALL-E) but, due to the size, I can't really see it replacing bikes or anything like that. The classic car museum is still around as well. Once again, cars don't especially interest me but I'm pretty sure anyone who likes classic cars will love the place.
After checking out the cars I strolled though the mall itself a bit. I've talked about Venus Fort before, so I'm not going to describe it again. Gotta say though, the Lego store there is always worth a visit. Even if you're not shopping, the fan-made models they have on display tend to be pretty impressive. Makes me wish I had all my Legos at my Florida apartment so I could build some cool stuff...
Since Diver City was right nearby, that where I went next. The Jump Store there currently has a display to celebrate Shonen Jump's 45th anniversary. Aside from this Goku statue, they have original congratulatory drawings by the creators of as least most of Jump's current series on display. Unfortunately, you can't photograph them. Other than checking out the Jump store, I also happened to spot a clothing store with a shirt I'd seen in Harajuku the other day. I'd kinda wanted to get it then, but the store didn't have my size. Well, this store did, plus it was on sale for the half the price, so that was a pleasant surprise.
Finally, I saw that the nearby movie theater was playing Monsters U in English, so I ended up grabbing a quick meal and watching the movie. Not the most "Japanese" thing I could have done, but it was fun and it's one less movie I'll need to see once I'm back in the US (rather unusually, there's a quite number of movies out right now that I want to see).
So, all in all, a fairly low key day, but Odaiba is always fun (and has great views) and I've got bigger plans for Friday and Sunday, which are my last two days to tour before returning to the US.

Random Japan Comment: Matsuri Food
The food stalls at matsuri are a lot of fun. What you'll find varies a bit based on location, time of year, and the like, but here's a summary of the more common matsuri foods.
Yakisoba: Stir-fried noodles (different than normal soba noodles), cabbage, pickled ginger, sauce, and occasionally other vegetables and/or some kind of meat. Always a good, and filling, choice. While you'll find yakisoba at lots of Japanese restaurants in the US, in Japan it seems to be reserved mostly for matsuri and restaurants with in-table grills.
Takoyaki: Balls of batter, veggies, and octopus. Since I don't eat octopus, I can't really comment on the taste, but they are popular.
Okonomiyaki: Occasionally called Japanese pizza (though the ingredients have nothing in common), okonomiyaki is a round and flat (though often rather thick) item made with flour, cabbage, ginger, yam and a whole lot of other stuff (exact ingredients vary considerably) then topped with various sauces and bonito flakes. It's not one of my favorite Japanese foods, but there's so much variety that you can probably find a kind you like.
Grilled Meat Skewers: Aside from a whole lot of variations of yakitori (made with all different parts of the chicken), many booths also offer skewered pieces of steak or pork. They're hot, delicious, and a personal favorite. As a note, when ordering you'll often be asked if you want you meat cooked with shio (salt, often seasoned) or a teriyaki type sauce. Both are good, so it really comes down to personal preference. There's also squid on a stick...but I can't comment on that one.
Karaage: Japanese fried chicken (boneless white meat, usually). While I think the batter is a bit different than the stuff you usually get in the US, fried chicken is still fried chicken. Good, but not all that unique.
Potatoes: There are a few variations here including baked potatoes with butter, french fries, and thinly sliced fried potato on a skewer.
Kyuuri: Japanese cucumbers on a stick. They tend to be iced and salted. I like to eat them straight, but many booths have spreads you can put on them if you prefer.
Taiyaki: My favorite fish shaped pancake stuffed with red bean paste (or occasional other fillings). Alternately, instead of taiyaki you may find dorayaki (more or less the same thing, but with the stuffing folded in a round pancake), or other variations with similar ingredients but different shapes and sizes.
Candied Fruit: It's fruit in a fresh candy coating, how much more can you say? Strawberries seem to be the most popular choice, but the exact fruit selection can vary a lot.
Chocolate Covered Bananas: The name says it all.
While the items listed above are what I'd call the most common matsuri foods, they're really only the beginning. Corn on the cob, ice cream, crepes, bubble teas, oden (at least in the winter), doner kabobs, and many more items show up quite a lot as well, not to mention the various local specialties that can appear.
One thing to note. Larger matsuri can easily have several booths selling the same type of food. However, they tend to all charge the same price for pretty much the same amount (Japanese aren't all that fond of cut-throat competition), so if you do end up comparing multiple booths, focus on how good the food looks and what flavors/ingredients/etc. are available at each one, rather than price.

Seeing as this update is already really late, it looks like the entry for today will have to wait. See you next week!


7/17/2013 Matsuri

As a heads up, I've got a fairly big day trip planned for Friday. The reason I'm mentioning this now is that I'll likely be getting back a decent bit later than usual, which means that Friday's update will probably be rather late as well.

Tuesday (16th): Mitama Matsuri
Today had one of the best weather forecasts for the entire week, so I was originally thinking of going to a theme park or something similar. However, a couple things changed my mind. First off, I was very nearly done with the first draft of my story and, after not really having a chance to work on it yesterday, really wanted to finish. Second, I happened to hear last night that this was the last day of Mitama Matsuri, a big festival held every year at Yasukuni Shrine. Actually, this particular matsuri is four days long, and I kinda wish I'd heard about it earlier in the week... But anyway, I wanted to go, and that would give me plenty of time work too. So, after doing a bit of shopping (needed to get something for a friend), I spent a few hours writing before heading out to the matsuri.
Before getting started here, I should probably mention that Yasukuni Shrine is dedicated to honoring those who died serving the emperor from the Meiji Restoration up through World War II (mostly soldiers, though factory workers, aid workers, and other related people are also included). There's actually a bit of controversy surrounding it, as some of the people whose names are listed there are considered to be war criminals. That aside, it's also a large and fairly popular shrine and features a number of festivals throughout the year. Mitama Matsuri is one of the largest and is a festival to honor the spirits of friends and family who have died (whether they're among those commemorated at the shrine or not). Despite that, it's quite festive and not at all somber.
Anyway, I arrived around 4:30. The long path leading up the shrine was lined with lanterns (once again, the text on them is advertisements) and all sorts of food and game booths. Despite it not being a weekend or holiday, there were a lot of people around, including quite a lot of students right out of school and girls in kimono (along with a smaller number of guys in traditional dress). In addition to the food and standard festival games, there were a couple of haunted houses as well. As far as I can tell, the main purpose they serve is to freak out your girlfriend and put her in a clingy mood, though there were some families and groups of girls who went in as well. The places looked pretty hookey, but it was kinda amusing standing outside and watching people freak out as they entered and exited.
Naturally, I did a lot of snacking as I made my way around (highlights for me included various types of meat on skewers and yakisoba). Eventually I made my way towards the end of the path and Yasukuni Shrine itself. The shrine area was actually the least crowded part of the festival but, aside from the shrine itself, they had various performers on stage (mostly targeting an older audience), a whole lot more lanterns (these with people's names on them), and a display of various artwork and poetry.
I decided to hang out at least until after all the lanterns were lit, and I was still hungry, so I headed back to the main path and watched a bit of the dancing which had started up. Or tried to, anyway. The later it got, the more people showed up, until it seemed like we were trying to set a record for the number of people crammed into a space of a given size. At this point, navigating the festival became less about wandering around, and more about hoping the part of the crowd you were in was going in the direction you wanted. Fortunately, the crowds were still thinner back at the shrine and, as the sky got darker, the lanterns started to light up the night, making for some really pretty scenes.
All in all, it was a really good matsuri with a lot of stuff to see (and eat!). The crowds got a bit ridiculous later on, but it was a still a lot of fun.

Random Japan Comment: Matsuri
A matsuri is a festival or celebration. Some are directly tied to major holidays (such as Tanabata or Obon), but the majority are unique to their particular town or city and celebrate various local traditions, times of year, events, or the like. Many date back hundreds of years, though there are plenty of newer ones as well. They generally take place at and around a shrine or temple, but may be centered around shopping streets, parks, or other areas as well. They take place all throughout the year, though the majority seem to fall in July and August (often related to the Tanabata and Obon holidays).
Every matsuri has its own traditions but they generally feature carnival like booths offering food and/or games (which I'll talk about more in a future RJC), traditional Japanese dances (often accompanied by taiko drums), other performances (both traditional and modern) such as singing, dancing, plays, and parades. Fireworks (large and/or handheld) are also fairly common.
So who goes to matsuri? Just about everyone, really. Though they're especially popular with couples on dates, school kids, and families. Many are only attended by locals, but some of the more famous matsuri attract tourists from all over the country. The size varies significantly. A matsuri may be just a handful of booths and a few hundred local attendees, or it may cover several major streets and have tens of thousands of visitors. Either way, traditional Japanese matsuri can be a lot of fun and I highly recommend visiting some if you ever have the chance.

Wednesday (17th): Wandering Around
Due to a pretty iffy weather forecast, my options for today were a bit limited. I started out by walking to a movie theater and watching the new Pokémon movie (the one featuring Genesect and Mewtwo's new "awakened" form). I'd say it was fairly average, as far as Pokémon movies go. Moderately entertaining, but a bit lacking in common sense, proper pokémon attacks and power levels, and the like. As far as my language skills went... I'd say I probably understood around 70% of the dialogue (at least as long as Meowth wasn't talking, his accent makes things really difficult) and had no problem following the plot. I had forgotten how expensive movie tickets are over here though. Japanese theaters don't have matinee pricing, and a regular ticket was around $18 (with 3D movies having a surcharge, just like in the US).
After the movie, I was originally planning to go to a museum but the weather was ok (for the moment) and I was in a walking mood so I took the subway to Aoyama and walked from there to Harajuku and then further up to Shinjuku. It was a pleasant way to spend a few hours, but didn't leave me with too much to talk about. I did pass the Akasaka Palace though, which I hadn't seen before. It's a former imperial residence which has since been used to house visiting dignitaries. On a completely different note, after taking a wrong turn in Harajuku later on, I stumbled across an entire store dedicated to Evangelion, the ground-breaking classic anime (later expanded into games, manga, and a recent movie reboot). It's actually not of my favorite series (I think the ending in particular is a mess), but it was very influential and is still quite popular.
And that about does it for today. I was going to do a RJC on matsuri booths, but it's late so that will have to wait for later.


7/15/2013 Slow weekend

Well, it's the start of my last week here in Japan. As a note, there may not be an update next Monday, since I'll be flying back to the US. After that, there isn't all that much time left in summer vacation either... Sigh... At least I do have a couple more fun things planned after Japan...but more on that another time.

Saturday - Sunday (13th - 14th): A Slow Weekend
I actually don't have too much to say about either day this weekend. Saturday night I did walk around Odaiba a bit with some people I know, but we just chatted and ate, nothing that needs a long write-up. But hey, there was a Monster Hunter event going on. I don't play Monster Hunter, but the giant dragon was cool. The night time view was also quite nice.
And Sunday? I actually ended up spending much of the day working on stuff. I was originally going to meet up with a friend, but she wasn't feeling well so it all fell through at the last minute. By that point it was a bit late to do anything big, so I just walked around a bit, played some music games in an arcade, came back, and worked on that story for a while. Rather disappointing, but that's just the way things go sometimes and at least I got a decent bit of work done.

Random Japan Comment: Towels
I already mentioned how some women carry a parasol during the summer to stay out of the sun (for comfort and/or fashion). Well, that doesn't help if you're a guy (I've yet to see a man with a parasol) and plenty of women don't want to carry parasols around either. So what's another option? Well, a lot of people carry around a small towel or wash cloth. They mainly use it to wipe the sweat off their face, arms, and the like, though I've seem some people douse it in water in a sink or one of the rare water fountains and then wring it out over their face as well. While I think the parasols are going a little too far, the towels don't seem like such a bad idea, especially in such a damp climate. Alternately, I've also seen people use a packet of wet wipes for the same purpose. If you're going to be in Japan during the summer, it might be worth considering doing one of the two. Or, if you want to take a wait and see approach, you can always pick up a simple towel in any 100 Yen store once you're here.

Monday (15th): Art and History
My sschedule for this week has been a bit up in the air from the start, seeing as I was originally going to be returning to the US today (now I'm leaving next Monday instead), and then there was yesterday's last minute change of plans. Plus, I'm rather determined to put the finishing touches on that story ASAP. Anyway, my plans for today were fairly non-existant. At first, I was thinking it would be a mostly work focused day. Except that's what yesterday ended up being. Also, today was one of those holidays that no one celebrates but a lot of schools and companies shut down for (which I completely forgot about until yesterday), so I thought maybe I could do something with friends, but that didn't work out. In the end, I decided to go to a museum for a change of pace. Normally, most museums, gardens, and other attractions are closed on Mondays...except when said Monday is a holiday, in which case they close on Tuesday instead.
Anyway... I ended up walking to Ueno, passing through Ueno Park on the way. The lotus plants in the pond have grown a lot since I was last there and some of them have started to flower.
After stopping for a bit to enjoy the scenery, it was on to the museum. There are several good ones to choose from (all of which I've talked about in the past), but I decided on the Tokyo National Museum.
I've talked about the Tokyo National Museum before and it's probably the best place to go if you want a very broad sampling of Japanese art (with some bonus history lessons thrown in). There are statues, metalwork, laquerware, pottery, textiles, various types of paintings, and more. There's even armor and weapons. (Speaking of weapons, the sword in that photo was forged by Masamune, a legendary Japanese swordsmith from the late 13th - early 14th centuries whose name should be familiar to many fans of Japanese games and anime.) And all that is just in the main gallery. There are also gallerias featuring relics from ancient Japan (as in, before the Japanese culture was really developed), assorted art from other Asian countries, and more. While there are museums with larger collections of any single type of item, the Tokyo National Museum's overall size and variety really can't be beat. Plus, quite a lot of the signs have English translations and, unlike most museums, you're allowed to photograph most of the items on display. They also change the displays every so often, so there actually wasn't much I remembered from my previous visits.
After finishing in the museum, I got a late lunch then decided to go visit a botanical garden that had been sitting on my list for quite some time. Unfortunately, either the tour book I got the information from gave really poor directions or I missed copying down the last couple of steps so I never did get there. I did stumble upon a nice park though (right near the Ghibli museum, actually), so I walked around there for a bit instead.
Finally, I decided to pay one last visit to Nakano, since I had to switch trains there anyway, then headed back. Here's one more picture, it's of a bridge I often cross on the way back to my temporary apartment. Aside from being lit up in a pretty blue color at night, it also gives pretty good views of the Skytree to the north and the river to the south.


7/12/2013 More hiking

This week's voter bonus comic is up, so just click the TWC button and confirm your vote to see it.

Thursday (11th): Getting Things Done
From a travelogue prospective, there really isn't much to say about today. I spent the morning getting assorted things done. After that, I went out to try and find a particular place...and completely failed at that so I ended up doing some shopping and getting more work done instead, making for a moderately productive but in no way exciting day. So here's a RJC instead of a travelogue.

Random Japan Comment: When to Visit
Now that I've been here for a decent part of the summer, I have a good feel for all the seasons here in Japan. Well, in the Tokyo and central Japan area anyway. So here are some quick thoughts on them in relation to good times to visit. Once again, keep mind mind that the extreme north or south of the country (and higher elevation areas) will be different.
Spring (March - May): In many ways, this is probably the best time to visit Japan. The temperatures tend to be quite pleasant (though having a light jacket would be a good idea) and it doesn't rain too much. Even better, you might be able to hit cherry blossom season, which is as beautiful as it is fleeting. On the down side, it's a really popular time for both foreign and Japanese tourists, especially during the Golden Week holidays. As a result, attractions and trains will often be crowded and hotels can book up far in advance.
Summer (June - Aug): Early to mid June through mid to late July are the rainy season so expect a lot of cloudy and/or rainy days. On the plus side, this often keeps the temperature fairly decent and, since it's not a very popular time to travel, the crowds shouldn't be too bad. Be sure to carry an umbrella though (actually, you should probably do that all year). After the rainy season ends, you can expect a lot more sun...along with extremely hot and muggy weather. That can reduce crowds a bit, but it can also be rather miserable if you're not used to it. Though you can escape the heat by going up high enough in the mountains, so that's always an option. Keep in mind that summer break typically runs from mid to late July through August, so transportation and attractions tend to get a lot more crowded during that time, though there are also lots of events and festivals during that time as well. One last thing of note is that July - August is the only time of year you can climb Mt. Fuji, so if you're determined to give it a try, your time frame is rather limited.
Fall (Sept - Nov): The temperatures start to drop to more reasonable levels in mid to late September and it usually doesn't rain too much. You don't have the spring cherry blossoms, but overall this is a pretty good time to visit Japan.
Winter (Dec - Feb): While Tokyo itself rarely gets any snow, some of the surrounding areas do, especially if you start going up in elevation. If you bring a good coat and don't mind the cold, this actually isn't too bad of a time to travel, at least so long as you don't plan to do any hiking in the moutains (though skiing becomes an option). The snow can make for some beautiful scenery as well. It's worth noting that just about everything in Japan shuts down for anywhere from one to four days for new years, though watching people make their first shrine visit of the year can be fun if you're willing to brave the crowds, as can the post new year's sales. Also, if you can't make it for the cherry blossoms, the ume (Japanese plum) blossoms (which generally start blooming in February) are quite beautiful as well.

Friday (12th): Hiking Mt. Ono
Today, I decided to give that hiking book another try and hike around Lake Tanazawa and up Mt. Ono. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those days where nothing seemed to go right. Things started out ok, with me getting on the train and heading out to Matsuda, where I was supposed to take a bus to the start of the trail...and that was when everything began to fall apart. Apparently, the book neglected to mention how infrequently the necessary bus runs (or maybe it's just outdated). There were two really early busses that I missed and I would have had to wait around three hours for the next one. So I decided to take the a different bus (which was was only a forty five minute wait) as far as I could and see if the busses were more frequent there. They weren't, so I ended up walking to the next train station. From there, I noticed that I could catch a train to the end point of the hike fairly easily so I decided to do that and go backwards. Problem was, it was a weird type of train I've never been on before where you can only enter and exit from certain doors. I didn't realize that at first, and missed my station as a result. And, since I was way out in the country, the trains didn't run all that often so I had to wait 40 minutes for the next one.
In the end, I did finally make it to the tiny town of Yaga, which was supposed to be the end point of the hike. Half the town is rice paddies, which I did find rather scenic. I considered doing the entire hike backwards. Problem is, due to the highly infrequent bus schedule that started all my problems, I figured that would most likely end with me stuck by the side of the road for a couple hours waiting for a bus. So instead, I decided to hike to the top of Mt. Ono (about the halfway point of the original hike) and then backtrack to Yaga and catch a train. So I started walking up the mountain, past some small tea plantations, and up, up, up though forests, gardens, and tall grass... That said, it wasn't anywhere near as steep at Mt. Fuji or Mt. Mitake. Unfortunately, it was a whole lot hotter. Despite this being a mountain hike, the elevation wasn't all that much higher than Tokyo, so the temperature was similar, and rather miserable.
There weren't any other people hiking (considering how hot and muggy it was, I can't blame them), but I did see a frog, some lizards, and cows. Personally, I think having a small pen for cows way on top of a mountain is kinda strange, but there they were. The views from the top of the mountain were nice...except that it was extremely hazy today, which put a serious damper on visibility.
Going down the mountain was, unsurprisingly, a whole lot quicker and easier than going up. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite quick enough and I missed the return train by about five minutes, leaving me sitting at the station for another forty. So yeah, not one of my better days. The hike, or at least the half I did, was pretty but really not good for such a hot day (not to mention the haze) and the bus schedule in the area makes doing the entire thing rather complicated.


7/10/2013 An amazing hike

More donations? Looks like that's the case. So what does that mean for the bonus content? I'll post an updated summary about that around the end of the month. For now, I'm just focusing on the travelogue until I return to the US.

Tuesday (9th): Hiking to Lake Yunoko
Remember when I met up with my friend Aika in Nikko? Well, she said I really should go see Yudaki Falls. Or is it Yutaki Falls? I haven't seen it written in hiragana and from the kanji it could be either one. Plus, the maps and signs can't seem to agree on one spelling... Maybe I should just say Yu Falls. I mean, taki/daki means waterfall, so saying Yudaki Falls is kind of redundant... Well, anyway, the Nikko Tourist Association's web site says Yudaki, so let's go with that for now.
Getting back on subject, Aika recommend I go see this particular waterfall, which is a bit past Nikko. She also mentioned that, though she hadn't done it, there was a hiking trail nearby as well. So, before leaving Nikko that day, I stopped by the tourist office and picked up a hiking map and bus schedule, which I used to plan out a day trip. Today was finally the day I put it into action and wow, what a hike it was.
It started with a train ride to Nikko. Well, to be more accurate it started with a mad dash to the train station to catch said train. I made the mistake of checking my e-mail that morning before leaving and there were a couple I needed to reply too... Long story short, I left the apartment later than I'd planned, gambled on a run to a different subway station, and managed to make the train to Nikko with less than a minute to spare (I suppose I could have waited for a later train, but I didn't want to start the hike too late). After arriving in Nikko, I got on a bus heading further into the mountains. Shortly after passing Lake Chuzenji (which I visited during my first stay in Japan, see the entry for the 8th), I got off at Ryuzu no Taki.
Turns out, Yudaki was only one of several waterfalls on my planned hike. I started at the bottom of the beautiful Ryuzu Falls. That's actually one waterfall, not two, it just splits near the bottom. Since I hadn't really had a chance to eat (thanks to the aforementioned mad dash for the train), I decided to get a snack and couldn't resist trying out the yuba (tofu skin) flavored ice cream. It wasn't bad, though not a favorite either. It wasn't very sweet and actually tasted a lot like some soy ice creams I've had.
Anyway, it turned out the part of the Ryuzu Falls in that photo is only the very bottom. My hike started with a staircase following the falls up quite a ways (that photo is also only a small part as well). From there, the trail entered a peaceful forest, where it stayed for quite some time. The river was never far away, really enhancing the scenery and featuring a number of tiny waterfalls. And, if you can't tell from the photos, the water was incredibly clear. Really, I can't understate just how pretty the hike was, and this isn't even wildflower season. I wasn't alone on the trail, though most of the other hikers seemed to have started at the other end. Being a weekday, there were a number of older people, but actually the vast majority were school kids. I must have passed a couple dozen groups of elementary and junior high kids over the course of the hike.
Random side note: Maybe a third of the kids greeted me with "hi" instead of the Japanese "konnichiwa" (amusingly, a couple of kids actually seemed rather shocked when they said konnichiwa and I replied with the same). The teachers, however, all said konnichiwa. So much for encouraging their students to practice their English...
After a while in the forest, the trail entered Nakazuka, a sort of marshy area. Fortunately, there were wooden walkways throughout the entire section. Despite the change of scenery, I was still following the river upstream. There were actually a couple types of wild flowers in bloom in this area, along with the occasional group of butterflies. And there weren't nearly as many trees, which allowed for some great views of the nearby mountains. Eventually though, the path headed back into the forest, which is where I stopped for lunch (along with a few other hikers and a lot of school kids).
After a bit more hiking, I arrived at Yudaki Falls, which was as impressive as Aika said it would be. While there was a bus stop there, I wasn't done hiking yet. After watching the falls for a bit, and getting a snack at the souvenir shop, I continued on the trail, which involved climbing a steep flight of stairs up to the top of the falls. What greeted me there was a view of the breathtaking Lake Yunoko. I'm not entirely happy with the way my camera handles panoramas (my only real complaint with it), but this one turned out fairly well and you just have to see the entire thing. The water was crystal clear, with perflect reflections. You really can't ask for a more scenic lake. The trail splits there, letting you walk around either side of the lake. I took the eastern route, eventually arriving in the little town of Yumoto Onsen.
It's a resort town, though a small and quiet one. There are onsen (of course), and I passed an area with steaming sulphur water when checking out the local shrine and temple (though they have a lot of history, neither is overly impressive to look at). But the town is also known for fishing, bird watching, and, in the winter, skiing. There were more butterflies too.
It was around mid-afternoon at that point. If I wasn't looking at a long trip back to Tokyo (1 hour on the bus followed by 2 hours on the train, not counting waiting times), or didn't care how late I returned, I actually could have kept going. There's a fairly lengthy trail leaving Yumoto Onsen which goes north past a smaller lake and eventually loops back to Kotaku Pasture (the return bus passed it, they have cows, which you don't see nearly as often in Japan as you do in many parts of the US). But I didn't want to get back too late since I had work to do on that story I'm writing.
But anyway, I highly recommend the hike. Overall, it's one of the most scenic ones I've been on in a long time and there's a good bit of variety. Plus, while it's a decent length, the only particularly strenuous parts are when you're climbing up the stairs to the top of the Ryuzu Falls and Yudaki Falls (and you could avoid that by starting from Yumoto Onsen), so it's appropriate for just about all ages and fitness levels. I'm really glad I went, and I'm sure you'll be as well.

Wednesday (10th): Some More Exploring in Tokyo
I'll say up-front that today wasn't one of my better touring plans, so this will be kind of short. One of my tour books talked about how interesting the shopping areas around Ogikubo and Nishi-Ogikubo stations were. And, since they weren't too far from a couple other places I wanted to see, I planned out a sort of walking loop through the whole area.
Gonna have to say though, the book was rather off in this case. While both stations have some decent shopping streets nearby, there really wasn't anything special about them. If you want nice shopping streets in Tokyo, areas like Ueno, Asakusa, Nakano, and Yunaka are far better choices. Though Ogikubo station does have an onsen right nearby. It's called Nagami no Yu and features a few kind of interesting baths (one uses carbonated water, one or two recreate the water from famous hot springs in other parts of Japan, and one is filled with little stones) and a number of saunas (though some of them cost extra). Anyway, it's nice enough but I like Odaiba's Edo Onsen a whole lot better and it's about the same price.
After leaving the stations, my walk took me through some quiet residential areas, a rather nice park, and eventually to Kami-Igusa Station, which is notable for having a Gundam statue outside of the south exit. The reason? It seems Sunrise Studios (the animation studio behind the Gundam franchise) is based in the area. It's a neat statue, though now it really can't compete with that life size Gundam I saw at Diver City.
Heading south from there, I ended up at the Suginami Animation Museum, which was the best stop of the bunch. Its main area features a timeline of notable anime and a number of exhibits on how anime is made, from planning, to drawing, to sound, and even the 3D modeling used in some newer shows. Even better, there are good English translations for most of the material. There's also a special exhibit area which changes periodically and lacks English. Right now, it's mostly about the original Astro Boy (called Tetsuwan Atom in Japan) show from the early 60's and has some some original artwork and storyboards. They have manga library and a screening room (which was showing old Astro Boy episodes) as well. Plus, the entire place is free.
So, all in all it wasn't one of my better touring days, but the museum was cool and there wasn't anything about the day I particularly disliked either. Plus, I was able to stop in Nakano for a bit on the way back (since I had to switch trains there anyway), so that was fun.

Random Japan Comment: Avoiding the Sun
In Japan, you'll likely see the occasional women walking with an umbrella (technically a parasol, I suppose) on a sunny day. For a few, it's a fashion statement, some might do it just to try and keep cool (summers in many parts of Japan are extremely hut and muggy), but for most it's to avoid the sun. See, by traditional Japanese standards, it's pale, not tanned, skin that's considered the most beautiful, so some women go to great lengths to avoid getting any sort of sun on their skin. For a more extreme example, it's not too uncommon to see a Japanese woman sitting on the beach in Honolulu wearing long pants, a long sleeve shirt, gloves, and a sun hat. In my opinion, dressing like that that entirely defeats the point of going to the beach in the first place, but to each his own I guess.


7/8/2013 Around Tokyo

I don't really have anything non-travelogue related to say, so let's move on to that.

Saturday (6th): Quick Tokyo Tour
After I got out of services today, Hoshino (you may or may not remember him from my previous Japan travelogues) invited me out. He tends to like taking me to different areas around Tokyo and playing tour guide, and today was no different. First, a matsuri in Iriya. Oddly enough, it wasn't a tanabata celebration but rather a matsuri celebrating when a certain flower starts to bloom (did you see all the potted plans for sale in that photo?). I hadn't heard the name before but I think it's a type of morning glory. Here's a picture of Hoshino at the same matsuri. We didn't stay there too long though before continuing on to Uguisudani. It was a nice area to stroll in, and seemed to have a lot of good restaurants. I may have to go back there and take a more leisurely look around in the future if I have time. After looking around a bit, we stopped at a really good curry place for supper. Then it was off to Shinjuku where he showed me a couple of stores specializing in rare CDs (of US and European groups mostly) before we called it a night. Nothing too exciting, but it was nice hanging out with him for a bit.
Oh, is it just me or is this magazine I spotted on the way back kinda strange?

Random Japan Comment: Taking out the Trash
Did I ever talk about this before? Anyway, at all my US apartments, taking out the trash is a simple matter of tossing a bag in the nearest dumpster whenever I need to. At my parents' house, we've got a spot outside with a few cans and when a bag is full it goes out and into the can. At both places there are also recycling bins (usually paper and assorted glass/plastic/metal), which I can put stuff in when necessary. Of course, there's usually only one pick-up day a week, but that doesn't really affect when I can put the trash out and overall it's really not a big deal, even if I make a mistake.
In Japan, however, putting out the trash properly is one of the most important things when living in an apartment building or neighborhood. First off, there are several different categories of trash: burnable (paper, food, cloth, etc.), non-burnable (non-recyclable stuff that doesn't fit the other category), recyclable plastic (all kinds, though you're expected to prepare it by washing and drying it, taking off any labels, lids, and the like, and crushing it), other recyclable stuff (at very least, it generally needs to be bagged separately and prepared similarly to the plastic). Generally, trash from each of these categories goes out on a different day. Some might be picked up multiple times a week, others just once a month. You're supposed to use official garbage bags and put your garbage out the morning of the pickup, not the evening before, earlier in the week, or the like. All the specifics can vary considerably by neighborhood.
If you think that sounds needless complicated, it totally is. And it can be a real pain if you find yourself stuck with a bunch of one type of garbage that you can't dispose of for a while. But it really is a big deal here and I've heard stories of people in various neighborhoods going so far as to track down and confront people who put out their garbage incorrectly. I've also heard of some places where no one seems to care, especially when it comes to proper days. But anyway, if you're ever going to live in Japan, just keep in mind that this is something you need to pay some serious attention to.

Sunday (7th): Flea Markets
Did you know that in Japanese flea markets are called free markets? Since the two words are pronounced almost the same in Japanese, I think they just got mixed up ages ago and now no one knows that they have the wrong word. Anyway, today I finally got to go to the big almost weekly flea market at the Oikeibajo racetrack. It's pretty much as I remember it, a huge mix of just about everything. Being a flea market, you never really know what you'll find. I didn't buy much, but I did have fun browsing. Oh, I should probably mention that I walked most of the way there. Other than that my route skirted the Tsukiji fish market (I should go to that area for sushi some time), there wasn't anything too amazing on the walk but it was good exercise. Though, had I known how hot and muggy the day was going to get, I probably would have taken the subway.
After that, I had to swing by Shinjuku (as I said before, I just can't seem to stay out of Shinjuku on this trip). Since I recently extended my trip, I figured I'd have to spend the last week in a hotel but, as it turns out, I was able to keep the apartment for another week so I had to go in to the office and pay for the additional time. I stayed in Shinjuku long enough to grab lunch and say hi to a friend who works in a coffee shop there (just hi though, it's an extremely busy shop).
Since it was still fairly early in the afternoon, and it was on my way, I figured I might as well swing by Akihabara and check out the flea market going on there as well. It only happens once a month or so, and isn't all that big, but it's not a bad place to look for certain types of figurines. I got a great deal on a couple Persona 4 ones I've been wanting.

Random Japan Comment: Coffee Shops
While you can always buy coffee or tea from a vending machine, Japan has its fair share of coffee shops as well. Starbucks is fairly popular here and not much different than it is in the US, though the pastry and special drink selection vary slightly and cups seem to be a bit smaller. But there are several Japanese coffee shop chains as well. All of them have your basic hot and cold coffee and tea drinks, though the menus vary a bit beyond that. I'm not going to give a complete rundown of all of them and, seeing as I only drink the teas (no special reason, I just don't really like coffee), I probably couldn't do a very good job of it anyway. But I will note that Veloce is the cheapest, with their drinks often costing 200 - 300 yen less than everywhere else. As a trade-off though, I don't think their drinks are as good as the ones at most of the other places. Most of them come unsweetened though (you get a packet of some type of sweetener, depending on the drink, to mix in), which could be a plus if you're on a diet. Dotour, on the other hand, makes the best green tea latte I've ever had. While I can't be sure if they have sort of special ingredient that contributes to flavor, it does taste like they use a higher grade matcha powder than the other shops. But hey, don't take my word for it. Try them all out and see for yourself, it's more fun that way.

Monday (8th): A Pair of Gardens
If you haven't noticed, I've been trying to do some shorter touring days lately. The reason? Well, I have a story I was hired to write that needs to be finished in the not too distant future. I was originally thinking that, if I didn't have much time to work on it here, I could still get it done after returning to the US but now that I extended my trip, that would be cutting things way too close to the deadline, so I'm trying to end some of my touring days by mid-afternoon so I can get some serious work done afterwords. So far, that's been working out fairly well.
Anyway, I originally wanted to go for a hike today but the weather report was predicting thunderstorms in that area so I postponed it until later in the week. Instead, I decided to go see a garden here in Tokyo. Rikugien Garden is a nice traditional Japanese garden, designed to recreate scenes from various famous poems back in 1702. Not knowing much about classic Japanese poetry, I really can't comment on that aspect but it is a pretty garden with quite a lot of bridges and an oddly shaped rock in its pond, supposed to resemble a sleeping dragon (I can kinda see that).
Since it was nearby, and they were selling a combo ticket (though it only saves you 50 yen), I decided to go to Kyu Furukawa Garden as well. It's a newer garden (from the late 1800's) and is most notable for the big Western style house it surrounds. There's a Western style rose garden right by the house, but this is really the wrong season for that. That small Japanese garden was nice though.
After that, I just did some quick shopping then came back my apartment to get some more work done.


7/5/2013 A different holiday

As usual, the new voter bonus comic is up for everyone who votes.

Well, there's no 4th of July celebrations here in Japan, but I still got to enjoy a holiday. Read on for the details.

Thursday (4th): Getting Things Done
I really didn't do anything too exciting today. For one thing, I was still pretty sore from hiking Mt. Fuji. For another, it was supposed to rain a lot (though it really didn't). So instead I did some shopping and get some work done. Other than remembering how awesome Pepper Lunch (a Japanese restaurant chain) is, I just didn't do anything worth writing about. But here's a little RJC so this day's post isn't entirely empty.

Random Japan Comment: Chess Pieces
One of the things I tend to spend a lot of money on in Japan is figurines of characters from my favorite games and anime. Want to know what's popular in figurines right now? Chess pieces. As in, sets of figurines that double as chess pieces (they each come with a base with the symbol for their piece marked on it). And it's not just one series or anything either. One Piece has three series of chess pieces, Persona 4 has one, Hunter x Hunter has one, and there are plenty of others too. What I find most interesting about this new trend is that, to my knowledge, chess isn't all that popular in Japan. That said, they're cool figurines regardless and, if you get enough of them, you could put together a pretty awesome chess set.

Friday (5th): Tanabata in Hiratsuka
Tanabata is a Japanese holiday celebrating the meeting of the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi (the stars Vega and Altair) who, according to the myth, are only allowed to meet once a year so they don't get too distracted from their work. The date actually varies depending on where you are, but a lot of the country celebrates it on and around July 7th. People celebrate by holding festivals and tieing papers with wishes onto bamboo.
This is the first time I've been in Japan over Tanabata, so I wanted to go to a festival if I could. Fortunately, one of Japan's largest Tanabata festivals is held only about an hour away from Tokyo, in the city of Hiratsuka. Their celebration lasts for three days (today through Sunday) and, this being the opening day, was the day when they held the parade. I arrived a bit early, while some things were still being setup, but even so the decorations were hard to miss. After a bit of wondering around, I found my way to the stage where the opening ceremony was about to start. It was mostly made up of various city officials talking about the festival, but they also had a singer and introduced three girls who had been chosen to represent Orihime. They were the ones who led the parade shortly after. There were a lot of groups in the parade, all dancing to that song. Some people were from various clubs, others businesses (I wonder if employee participation was mandatory), and then there were the really cute preschool kids.
After the parade, I set off to explore and get some food. A lot of streets were blocked to cars for the festival. Near where the parade started, there was a long stretch of road lined with what I've come to recognize typical Japanese festival booths. They include snacks like yakisoba, various things on a stick (meat, cucumbers, squid, etc.), assorted sweets, and the like. There are also games like gold fish scooping and cork gun shooting. I hadn't eaten much yet that day, so I started snacking my way around. First off, I found a type of taiyaki I'd never seen before, which has an open mouth design so they can stuff different things in it when you order. I also picked up one of the aforementioned cucumbers on a stick and some really awesome yakitori.
But the festival booths were just the start. After that, I headed to the highly decorated shopping streets. The festivities spread over multiple streets and, aside from the elaborate decorations (featuring both traditional and modern elements), the stores all got into it as well. Most of them had booths on the sidewalk selling all sorts of food and drink as well (I got a steamed bun and a rather interesting mix of frozen strawberries and some diary product (I couldn't figure it out for sure, but it tasted like goat's milk), among other things). Quite a lot of the stores were having sales as well.
While I was exploring, I spotted a shrine and decided to duck away from the festival for a few minutes to take a look. Hiratsuka Hachimangu Shrine was worth the visit. While not as elaborate as some, it's a very nice shrine and the grounds had a little island garden shrine which (though you can't really tell from this photo) seemed to be a favorite hang out for the local turtle population.
I returned to Tokyo around mid-afternoon. I could have stayed longer, but I need to get some work done and I'd finished walking through all the main festival areas. I'd highly recommend Hiratsuka's Tanabata festival if you're ever in the area at the time right. I've been to various other Japanese festivals before but none were anywhere near this big. If you're looking for food, shopping, or just a fun festival atmosphere, they've got it all.


7/3/2013 Once in a lifetime...

To the travelogue!

Tuesday - Wednesday (2nd - 3rd): Climbing Mt. Fuji
Before I get started with the main topic, I should mention that my stay in Japan has been extended, though just a little. See, my parents got a surprise offer on their house in Colorado not too long ago and it looks like it's going to go through (though it's not 100% for a few more days). While they'll likely be getting another place in Colorado, they decided to put most of the stuff in storage and spend the next few months first in Arizona and then Hawaii before starting a house hunt. As a result, I needed to change my plane tickets since, unless the deal falls through at the last minute, they'll be in Arizona when I return to the US. Anyway, while I like Phoenix, the reason I was going to return when I originally planned was that there was a lot I wanted to do in Colorado. Phoenix, not so much (especially since we'll only have one car there, which I probably won't be able to use very often). And, since the fee for changing a plane ticket is the same no matter how much you change it (assuming the cost of the flights is comparable), I decided to add one more week to my stay in Japan. So, now I'm here until the 22nd. As for what I'll be doing during that time, I'm still figuring that out (though I have some ideas).
But now let's get back to the Mt. Fuji. Climbing it is something I've wanted to do for a long time, but I never got the chance on my previous stays in Japan. The reason? The official climbing season is only two months long (July - August). Climbing outside of that period isn't recommended due to weather and such (thought from what I've heard it's generally ok through mid-September or so). Plus, the transportation to the trail heads doesn't run much (if at all) outside of climbing season, so it can also be pretty hard to get there. So, as soon as I knew that I would be coming to Japan this summer, I knew I had to climb Mt. Fuji.
I mentioned in yesterday's entry that I went to Shinjuku to get a bus ticket. Now, there are five different trails you can use to climb Mt. Fuji. The most popular is the Yoshida Trail, which starts at Kawaguchiko 5th Station and climbs the northern face of the mountain. And the quickest and easiest way to get there from Tokyo is a direct bus from Shinjuku station, which runs several times a day during climbing season. On a side note, if you ever want to do the same, the bus station you want is outside of the station's west exit and shares a building with Yodobashi Camera (though Yodobashi has around three buildings there). Without that bit of knowledge, it can be a real pain to find. Also, while you can get a same day ticket in the main office, if you want to make sure you get the day and time you want, you'll need to purchase one in advance, which requires going to their second floor office, which is kind of easy to miss (look for signs).
Anyway, the most popular time to be at the top of Mt. Fuji is early morning, both for the sunrise and to avoid the clouds that often cover the summit later in the day. To pull that off, you can hike up part way during the previous afternoon, spend the night in one of the huts partway up (which typically requires advance reservations) and then finish the climb early in the morning. Or, you can just start late and do the entire hike overnight. My tour book recommended the later, saying the huts are overpriced, crowded, and not very comfortable (which my later observation of them supports), so that's what I decided to do. The reason I chose yesterday night was both to avoid the crowds (by all accounts, the trails can get extremely crowded on weekends and every day once school gets out for the summer (Japan has a later and shorter summer break than the US), so weekdays in the first half of July are supposed to be least crowded. The weather report for yesterday and today was good, so I decided to go for it.
Now that all the explanation is out of the way, let's talk about the climb itself... I took the 5:50 bus from Shinjuku (the second to last one of the day). It arrived a little after 8, leaving me with plenty of time to reach the summit before the 4:30 AM sunrise. Before hand, I made sure to prepare. If you're going to hike Mt. Fuji, you're going to want to bring food, water (and/or other drinks), a rain poncho (or the equivalent), and (if you're going overnight) a decent flashlight. In my case, I got everything except the food at the 100 Yen store. Keep in mind that once you start up the mountain there's nowhere to dispose of trash, so you have to carry it down with you. The other thing you want to do is dress warmly. That was a bit of a problem for me since I didn't really pack any warm clothes for my summer travels. So I basically wore my regular jeans and buttoned up that new jean jacket I got the other day over my t-shirt. Compared to all the people with winter coats, I was a bit underdressed. That said, it actually worked fairly well, though I do have a higher cold tolerance than a lot of people I know. Oh, a stock of 100 Yen coins is also recommended since all the restrooms on the way up charge 200 Yen to use (as far as I know, Mt. Fuji is the only place in Japan that charges for restroom use).
It was dark by the time the bus reached Kawaguchiko 5th Station (the sun sets around 7 right now). My bus wasn't full, by the way, and most of the other people onboard were foreigners as well (makes sense, since most Japanese people would have work or school). There's a big souvenir store at the station, where you can also buy necessary clothing and supplies if you don't have your own, though the prices are a bit high. I took a look around then started up around 8:30. I started at the same time as a tourist couple, and we ended up staying together and chatting most of the of the way to the top. It slowed me down a bit, but having people to talk to was nice and there wouldn't have been much point in reaching the summit any earlier than I did.
While the stars were out, it was still really dark (not that you can really tell from the photo, since my camera has a good flash). The Yoshida Trail starts out easily enough, with a fairly gentle ascent on a wide dirt road. There's a few trees and bushes in parts, but it's mostly just rocks and dirt. Not that you can see all that much in the dark. After a little while, you hit the safety guidance center where there was a guy handing out maps and making sure everyone had a flashlight. From then on, the trail started switchingbacking almost straight up the mountain and gets a lot steeper. It also got a lot more difficult, with many areas where you're climbing up and over uneven rocks (a lot like some of the hiking I've done in Colorado, actually). Of course, this considerably slowed everyone's pace.
Along the way, you'll come across a number of huts. As previously mentioned, you can spend the night at one of them if you made prior reservations. They also have restrooms you can use (for 200 Yen) and many sell drinks, snacks, and climbing supplies (though the prices keep going up the higher you get). A couple even have full on restaurants. Keep in mind that while you're welcome to hang out on the benches outside the huts, you're not allowed to go inside unless you're staying the night there. Even for the restaurants, while you can go inside, you can only hang out if you order something and even then not for very long. The other thing you can do at the huts is get your walking stick stamped. You can buy the wooden walking sticks at the 5th Station and most of the huts have a unique stamp (more like a brand, since it's burned on) that they'll put on it for 200 Yen. It's a rather neat souvenir, but I wasn't sure how I'd get a big thing like that home and I never hike with a stick, so I passed.
For most of the hike, I didn't have a problem with the temperature. It did start to get kind of cold if I just sat around for a while, but while moving I stayed pretty warm (though it did get notably cooler towards the end). While I've been out of Colorado long enough to lose my high altitude acclimation, I'm used to it enough that I didn't get altitude sickness either. And that is a risk when climbing Mt. Fuji. The 5th station is at around 2,300 meters (7,500 ft) above sea level (already a huge change from Tokyo which is right about at sea level) and the summit is 3,776 meters (over 12,000 ft), so it's a huge change.
While I had originally planned to save the food I brought for breakfast, I found myself snacking along the way to keep up my energy (I can normally stay up late without getting hungry, but I'm typically not climbing a mountain when I do so). Climbing at night is a rather interesting experience. Having people you can talk to certainly helps, since you can't see the scenery other than some distant hazy views (while the photo gives things an orange tint, it was pretty much all black and gray in person). The flashlight was a must, especially with all the uneven footing and loose rocks.
Anyway, shortly after the 8th Station the trailed changed back to switchingbacking dirt roads, which was a nice change from all the climbing. As early morning neared, more and more people began emerging from the various huts, significantly increasing the number of hikers on the trail. I reached the final rest stop around 2:30 in the morning and stopped there for a while along with the couple I was hanging out with. The main reason being that, getting to the summit too early just meant sitting around in the cold wind waiting for sunrise. I set out again around 3 AM. At this point, the last part of the trail was fairly crowded. It also started getting steep and rocky again. That said, it was usually still wide enough for me to slip past the slower climbers. I reached the top at about 3:30 AM, making my total hiking time somewhere around 7 hours. That said, the couple I was with were a bit slower than I was to begin with and the woman started having issues with altitude sickness later on, leading to some long breaks. If I had gone top speed, I probably would have made it in 5 - 5:30 hours.
Once at the top, I found a spot to sit (those go fast, by the way, especially the ones with the best views) and wait. While the official sunrise time was 4:30, it started getting light a good bit earlier than that. Just sitting there at the top was pretty cold, but I came to watch the sunrise, so there was no way I was going to miss it. Unfortunately, while the sky had been clear for most of the night, clouds came in around 1 AM, so it wasn't the perfect golden Mt. Fuji sunrise that you hear about. That said, it was still very nice. And, once the sun was up, the views were really spectacular. Once the sunrise ended, people starting packing up and getting ready to head back down, though I made sure to get a picture of myself before moving on. As a note, most of the trails are actually two trails, one for ascent, one for descent.
I was originally planning to take the trail around the edge of the summit and go down on the south side of the mountain, but it turned out they hadn't opened that trail up yet (the signs said it would be another day or two). However, that didn't stop people from slipping past the rope to see the crater in the center of the summit and find some better vantage points. Here's a photo of the sunrise viewing area from overhead. Notice how all the buildings are covered with rocks so they don't stick out too much.
Despite the change in plans, there was one other trail I could get to, the Subashiri Trail. It has a shorter descent than the Yoshida trail, so I decided to give it a go. Now that I could actually see, I can say that, while Mt. Fuji is really striking from a distance, it's not much to look at up close. A whole lot of volcanic rocks and dirt mostly. Naturally, going downhill was a whole lost faster than going up, though I still stopped from time to time to snap more photos of the view. Ever seen those traditional Japanese paintings where the mountains are represented as nothing but silhouettes in the clouds? While this is the type of view that inspires them.
A large part of the Subashiri's descending trail is a fairly straight path of soft dirt and sand. My tour book made it sound like you could sit and slide your way down. I think there were too many rocks for that, but it did make for a pretty quick descent. Here's a look back up the mountain as I was nearing the bottom. The sand path was followed by a relatively short path through the woods (easily the prettiest part of the hike itself, not counting the views from higher up).
Unfortunately, not too long after I started down, my knees began to get really sore from all the climbing, forcing me to slow down and rest more often than I would have liked. That said, despite taking my time, I still made it to the bottom in less than three hours. The only problem was that I reached Subashiri 5th station more than an hour before the first bus. Fortunately there were a couple souvenir stores / restaurants that were open so I was able to get breakfast in the meantime.
The bus took me to Gotemba station, from where I could catch a train back to Tokyo (well, a series of two trains). Though the bus's arrival time at the station synced up horribly with the train's departure times, so I ended up having to wait another 45 minutes. In the end though, I made it back to Tokyo (albeit a bit later than I'd hoped) and took a long nap (something I almost never do) before sitting down to get some work done.
In conclusion, there's a saying in Japan that everyone should climb Mt. Fuji once, but only a fool would do it twice. I can certainly see where that's coming from, especially in regards to going up overnight for the sunrise. Climbing Mt. Fuji was an amazing experience and I'm glad I did it...but I'm in no hurry to do it again.


7/1/2013 Downtime

As you may have noticed, the site was down for the past two or three days (which is why this update is so late). Seems my host got hit with a series of blackouts and, after the power was fixed, getting everything running again wasn't quite as simple as just turning it all back on. Because, if you've never noticed, computers really don't like it when they get shut off unexpectedly. Best case, you get a message warning you not to do it again, and that's that. Worst case, it can seriously damage important files and make a mess of the whole system. My server was the latter...

Anyway, since a lot of people probably missed Friday's comic as a result, I decided to leave it up. If you did manage to see it before the outage, the next new comic will be on Wednesday. Speaking of which, if you missed Friday's travelogue entry (which covered Thursday and the start of my Hakone trip), just scroll down the page to see it.  For now, here's the new one.

Friday (28th): Hakone Day 2
Before leaving Gora to continue exploring Hakone, I stopped by the nearby Hakone Museum of Art. The galleries were decent (consisting mostly of old Japanese pottery), but the real reason to go is the beautiful moss garden that the galleries are set in. As a note, there's one part of the garden that's only open on weekends and holidays. Of course, I wasn't there on either, so I can't really say anything about it.
Now, I mentioned that the Hakone Tozen train line ends in Gora, but there's a good bit of the Hakone loop left from there. So what to do? Well, you could take a bus (you can actually take busses just about everywhere in Hakone), but that's no fun. The "proper" continuation is to get on the cablecar. It's really not all that different from a train, except that it's towed directly up and down the mountain by a thick cable. The cablecar route really isn't all that long, just stopping at different parts of Gora, but the Hakone Free Pass covers it, and walking would be nothing but a steep climb. Then, from the top of the cablecar, you switch to the ropeway (a gondola) which takes you up over the mountain and onward to Owakudani. You need to switch ropeways there, but I stopped to look around first.
Owakudani is an area famous for its thermal activity. I think a lot of the water for the nearby onsen is piped from there, and there are numerous places where steam and hot water rise up from the ground. There are a couple of full on hikes up there, which looked nice but I had a lot I wanted to see so I had to pass. I did, however, look around the souvenir shops and take the short (and very popular) nature trail up to this hut. See, that hut is where they make Owakudani's speciality, black eggs. Basically, it's a normal egg hard boiled in the water from the hot springs. Supposedly, they're really good for you and eating one will add seven years to your life. On a side note, if you don't want to fight the crowds, you can get the same eggs for the same price at the souvenir shops near the ropeway station, they're just a little fresher at the hut. Anyway, despite the black shell, the eggs taste pretty ordinary. Also, for some reason, they're only sold in packs of five (along with a packet of salt), which made me wish I had some friends along to split them with. Oh well, I got all 35 years of extra life for myself, so that's a plus (no, I didn't eat them all at once, hard boiled eggs keep fairly well).
After that, it was time to take the ropeway down to the shore of Lake Ashi, where I switched to yet another mode of transportation, a boat (and a rather fancy looking one at that). I arrived at a perfect time and was able to go straight to the boat (also covered by my free pass) and set off across the lake towards Hakone Machi. It was a pleasant ride with some very nice views. On a side note, the Hakone Prince Hotel building looks amazing, though it's probably really expensive to stay there.
The boat took me all the way to Hakone Machi on the opposite end of the lake. It's got a nice little street lined with old style shops, which leads to the Hakone Checkpoint (aka. Hakone Sekisho).
Time for a little history lesson. Back in the early 1600's, the Shogunate created a series of checkpoints on the major roads all throughout Japan. The one in Hakone was the biggest and most important. Any travelers passing through had to stop and undergo inspection at the checkpoint. There were a number of reasons for this but the two most important were to regulate the passage of weapons into Edo (what Tokyo was called back then) and to regulate the passage of women out of Edo. Before you ask, no it wasn't that women weren't allowed to travel. See, to help keep the daimyo (lords) that ruled the different parts of Japan in-line, the Shogun required them to keep two residences. One in their home province, and the other in Edo. For one, maintaining two lavish dwellings and frequently traveling between them cost a lot of money, which made it difficult for any of the daimyo to bankroll a large enough army to try and overthrow the Shogun. Also, while the daimyo traveled back and forth between Edo and their home provinces, their wives were required to live in Edo full time (essentially making them hostages). The checkpoint's job was to make sure none of them managed to sneak out.
So, back to the present, the checkpoint was restored in 1999 and turned into a museum. You can look inside the buildings and learn about how it used to operate. It was quite interesting. The admission ticket also gets you into a nearby museum, which has more information on the checkpoint and various old items that were used there. Oh, as you may have noticed, the weather was really starting to get nice when I reached the checkpoint. On a good day, you have some great views of Mt. Fuji from this entire area. Unfortunately, that was the one part of the sky that never really cleared up.
From the checkpoint, I stopped at a snack stand for some dango (mochi on a stick, basically) then walked to the nearby Detached Palace Garden (so named because it surrounded a former Imperial retreat). As far as gardens go, it wasn't all that impressive, but there's some nice views.
From there, I walked down a scenic cedar lined road (part of the original highway to the checkpoint, which was lined with trees by the Shogunate to help block the summer sun and winter snow) to the town of Motohakone. It has yet another art museum, which also offers a room where you can sit and admire the view. Of all the art museums I stopped at in Hakone, I liked the art here the best, though I think they periodically change the exhibits. The other main attraction is Hakone Shrine. You can follow the road, but there's also a nice path along the side of the lake that will take you there and you can stop and see this tori gate on the way. The shrine itself is pretty nice as well and has a long history, dating back to 754 (though the current building is from 1667).
After that, it was time to finish up the loop and head back to Tokyo. You can actually follow the old road quite a ways towards Hakone-Yumoto, but I didn't want to get back too late so I took a bus instead, going all the way to Odawara. Odawara, by the way, is the place you reach shortly before Hakone-Yumoto when you're coming from Tokyo. That said, unless you need to change trains, there's not much reason to stop there. It's the biggest town/city in Hakone by far, but not all that scenic compared to the others. I did stop to walk around for a little bit though. There are some museums there, as well as a reconstruction of the donjon (tower) of Odawara Castle. It's worth a look if you're there but I'd say that when you're visiting Hakone it's really not a big deal if you pass through Odawara without stopping.
So, overall I really enjoyed my Hakone trip. It's a very pretty area and there's a lot to see and do (I could have easily added some hiking and museums and filled up a third day), I can see why it's such a popular weekend getaway for people in Tokyo.

Random Japan Comment: Rankings
Japanese people have a bit of an obsession with ranking things. Want to know what the three best views in Japan are? The three best gardens? (On a side note, I've been to two of both.) Onsen? Maybe the best curry restaurants? The nicest train stations? There are official rankings for all of those things and many many more. On the one hand, it can be rather useful when planning trips, looking for a place to eat, and the like. Sometimes though, it can get a bit ridiculous. During my time in Hakone, for example, I walked across a bridge with a sign declaring it to be one of the hundred best bridges in the region. Did someone really visit every bridge in the area and rank them all? Well, I guess everyone needs a hobby...

Saturday - Sunday (29th - 30th): Visiting Ishinomaki
My friend Yehoshua is friends with a Korean missionary who started a church and tea house in the town of Ishinomaki shortly after the big earthquake and tsunami two years ago. Yehoshua was invited to speak there this Sunday and wanted me and some others to come along. So Saturday night we got in a van and started driving north. The drive there wasn't especially eventful. It took about five hours so we got in fairly late, met our hosts, and went to bed.
The next morning was the church service followed by lunch with some of the members. After that, we ended up doing a bit of touring. First off, the church happens to be about three minutes away from a manga museum, which Yehoshua insisted I go see (I've been kinda typecast). Anyway, the museum was devoted to the works of Shotaro Ishinomori. While he's not especially well known in the US, he holds the world record for most comics published by a single author, with over 128,000 pages spread over a variety of different series, many of which were highly influential. A few of his titles include Cyborg 009, Kikaider (the anime adaptations of both of those ran on Cartoon Network a while back), and Kamen Rider (the live action adaptation of which more or less birthed the transforming hero vs. rubber suit monster genre). The museum had some information about him (all in Japanese), original sketches, and a lot of displays related to his work (for example, a mask from every single Kamen Rider series and statues of all the cyborgs from 009). It's a nice museum and I found it pretty interesting, though if you're not somewhat familiar with Ishinomori's work then you'd probably get bored pretty quickly.
After that, I met back up with everyone and one of the church members showed us around a bit. While the majority of Ishinomaki was far enough inland to avoid serious damage, the areas on the coast were devastated by the tsunami. A lot of it has been cleaned up, but there are still destroyed buildings, wrecked cars, and other trash scattered about. Some things, you might not even notice. For example, what's now an empty field once held over 1,700 houses. We also stopped at the docks, which are used by a lot of fishing boats (look at all the seagulls waiting for scraps). While Ishinomaki wasn't hit as hard as some areas, and a lot of cleanup has been done, there's still much more to do. For example, many people in the area are still forced to live in low end temporary housing, which is rather sad.
After that, we drove back and that was the trip. I do want to talk a bit about driving long distances in Japan, but I'll save that for the following RJC.

Random Japan Comment: Driving Across Japan
While many people who want to travel long distances in Japan take a train, bus, or even plane, driving is always an option. Though not necessarily the most cost effective one. Japan's cross country expressways are all toll roads which charge by distance traveled. Depending on the type of vehicle, average tolls can run somewhere between $0.32 - 1.08 per mile (assuming a rough 100 yen per dollar exchange rate). That can really add up, especially when you consider that gas is a lot more expensive in Japan than the US (at present, it's a bit over $5 per galleon). If you have a lot of people, or need to transport something that would be difficult to carry on a train, it can make sense. But for one or two people traveling normally, it could be cheaper to just stick to public transportation.
One nice thing about Japan's expressways is the frequent rest stops. Unlike the ones in the US, which usually consist of nothing but a restroom and some picnic tables, Japanese rest stops tend to have restaurants, convenience stores, souvenir shops, and (of course) a large collection of vending machines. The restaurants and shops tend to stay open pretty late and some of these stops can get very busy. They may even include other amenities like coin operated showers, which I'm not entirely sold on.

Monday (1st): Shopping in Ueno
I had kinda wanted to do some hiking today but, after a series of late nights, I just didn't want to get up early to catch a train to the country so instead I set out in the late morning and walked to Ueno. While I'd already been through Ueno park back when I visited Yanaka, I've been wanting to walk through Ameya (Ueno's busy shopping streets). I'm used to going there on weekends and was pleased to see that the crowds are considerably smaller on weekdays. Ameya has a lot of restaurants, along with some hotels and pachinko, but its main focuses are on clothing, accessories, and food. I spent a pleasant couple of hours walking around, got lunch at a 126 yen per plate kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant, and found a new jean jacket that's not only a style I like but was affordably priced as well (something I've been looking for for the past few months).
After that, I took the train to Shinjuku (I can't seem to go more than several days without ending up in Shinjuku on this trip). The main reason was to get a bus ticket for tomorrow's excursion (more on that in a future update) though I ended up getting distracted by a couple of Book Offs I stumbled across along the way (there are actually six of them in the area). On a side note, every time I'm in Shinjuku I see this truck driving around. Apparently it's advertising a new restaurant which features a whole lot of giant robots walking around. Kinda odd, but there are much strange theme restaurants in Tokyo. While walking in Ueno, for example, I passed one themed around a horror movie style prison (not exactly the type of setting that makes me hungry).
I guess that's about it for now. Not a particularly exciting day, but I've got something much more interesting planned for Tuesday and Wednesday...


6/29/2013 Hakone

The new voter bonus comic is up! Also, I fixed the error in yesterday's comic. Thanks to Silver for pointing it out.

Sorry for the extreme lateness of today's update though. I really though I'd have plenty of time to get this update ready once I got back to my apartment, but there were a ton of e-mails and other important things I needed to take care of first and, as a result, I'm already running way late. Anyway, time for the travelogue.

Thursday (27th): Hakone Day 1
Hakone is a region in the mountains to the south west of Tokyo, not all that far from Mt. Fuji. It's a really popular vacation spot in Japan, especially for people looking to get out the city for a day or two. I had originally planned a visit to Hakone the last time I was in Japan but then there was the earthquake and, long story short, I had to cancel. So naturally I was determined to make it there this time.
If you want to travel in Hakone, the first thing to do it by a Hakone Free Pass at Shinjuku Station. Why? Well, the regular JR trains don't cover much of the Hakone region. The free pass (which can be purchased in two or three day versions), gives you round-trip train fare from Shinjuku Station, free use of most of the major public transit systems in Hakone, and discounts on tons of attractions, shops, and the like. All for a decent bit less than what the train and other necessary transit tickets would cost you separately.
While it's possible to make a nice day trip out of Hakone, there's easily enough things to fill two or three days, so I got a two day pass and booked a hotel room about a week back. And, since I went on a Thursday - Friday, I was able to avoid the weekend crowds (which I've heard can get really bad). For my trip to Hakone, I opted to spend a little extra and take the special Romance Car train, which is faster and more comfortable than the standard trains (much like a shinkansen). The ride was nice, going through a mix of city, towns, and rice paddies.
I took the Romance Car all the way to the end of its track in Hakone Yumoto. There are a number of onsens and some museums in the area, but I only stayed long enough to grab a quick breakfast before switching to the Hakone Tozen Railway, which takes riders up through the mountains for the next leg of the journey. This particular train line is known for all the switchbacks (something train tracks don't normally have), and for being lined with hydrangeas this time of year. You don't get much of a view, between the trees and the tunnels, but the forests and hydrangeas make it very pretty ride.
I got off the train at Kowakidani and headed for my first major destination. I could have taken a bus with my free pass, but decided to walk instead since it was only about 1 kilometer away (mostly uphill, of course). Before too long I arrived and Yunessun, an onsen theme park, though very different from Edo Onsen in Odaiba. It's divided into three sections. Yunessun and Yutopia are the more unique sections and make up what's called the "swimsuit zone". As in, genders are mixed and everyone wears bathing suits. Mori no Yu, on the other hand, is a traditional Japanese onsen (amusingly dubbed "naked zone" on the English map). You can get a ticket for either zone or a passport combo ticket for both (which is what I did).
Let's take a look at the different baths... I started off in Yunessun where they have this giant Aegean Sea themed bath/pool. It's warm (nearly all the pools are), shallow, and has plenty of space to play around or sit and relax. There's even a kids' water play tower and some water slides outside. As a side note, the temperature in Hakone was considerably cooler than in Tokyo, so I'm glad the water was warm (hot springs, and all that). Anyway, there were also fake caves with baths inside and some baths that give you views of the mountains. Then you get to the more interesting baths... There's an assortment of smaller baths themed after those in different countries, an aroma therapy room (a not especially hot sauna filled with what smelled like essential oils), and a pool of doctor fish, those little fish I've seen at a couple other places that eat the dead skin off your feet. My dad keeps bugging me to give that a try and, unlike at Edo Onsen, Yunessun lets you do it for a free so I figured I might as well. Basically you just sit down, dangle your feet in the water, and let the fish do their thing for a few minutes. It doesn't hurt at all (though it tickles a little), but I have to admit that it feels kinda creepy... Moving on, there's also the first few of a long series of baths with special ingredients added in. There's a salt bath where you can float like you're in Salt Lake or the Dead Sea. Well, I assume it's salt because it stings a bit and you float really easily, but that one wasn't marked in English and I couldn't read the kanji. There was also the honey and royal jelly bath which, like a number of the special baths, I could see as being potentially good for your health and/or skin. But then there's the pudding bath... Yes, you read that right. Speaking of which, many of the special baths have a sign nearby listing "show times", which are times when the staff comes by and dumps some of the special ingredient into the water (though I'm sure plenty is piped in during the interim as well). For the honey bath, they come along with big buckets of honey and ladies and slowly scoop it into the water. For the pudding bath, they literally dump a really large flan like pudding into it. Speaking of which, any given bath is always most crowded around show time.
Next, I moved to the Yutopia area (passing by a large normal indoor pool which can be used for playing, swimming laps, and the like). It's an outdoor section and is all about those special baths. First, and probably the most popular, the coffee bath. If you like the smell of coffee, this one is for you. Right behind it is the waterfall bath, in case you want to bath while sitting under a waterfall...well, more like a mild water spout. Then there's the wine bath. I have to wonder if they dye the water a bit to get that shade... I mean, the green tea bath certainly looks like it was dyed, though I have some some natural and very green green tea, so maybe not. And here I am in a less colorful tea bath. There's also the sake bath, old fashioned Japanese bath (no special water here), the lucky bath (I couldn't figure out what they put in it, but bathing in it is supposed to give you good luck), a waterfall (not a bath, just a nearby waterfall you can look at), the charcoal bath, and the much less impressive (and completely unheated) water bath, which is just ordinary water. Finally, there's the walking bath. Walking over all the stones is supposed to be good for your feet. Edo Onsen has one of those as well, though theirs can really hurt, while this one wasn't too bad. If you're wondering whether people actually use all these crazy baths, yes they do. Though a lot of them just hop in each bath for a couple minutes, get a picture, and move on. Some baths, however, do cause a lot of people to linger (the coffee bath, for example).
After I'd finished experimenting with the different baths I got some lunch then headed over to Mori no Yu, to wrap up my bathing experience by relaxing in the onsen. It's a nice onsen, by the way. Mostly outdoors, with a number of different pools. Though there isn't any practical difference between most of the pools, outside of cosmetics. Of course, being a regular onsen, I naturally couldn't bring my camera in, so no more pictures.
Once I'd finished bathing, I left Yunessun and walked towards the next station. Along the way, I reached my next stop, the Hakone Open-Air Museum. It's a mostly outdoor museum with a focus on modern sculpture. It's a very pretty setting, though your enjoyment will depend a good bit on how much you like the sculptures (I had mixed opinions). There are some galleries as well, including one devoted entirely to Picasso, and some art that doubles as play areas for the kids. Then there's a neat stained glass tower that doubles as a view point for the best mountain views I'd gotten all day.
A little further down the road from the museum, I reached the next train station and took the Hakone Tozen to its final stop, the town of Gora. I made it with enough time to see Gora Park before everything started shutting down for the evening. It's a nice western style garden and, considering the time of year, there was a big focus on hydrangeas of all different kinds. There was even a snack shop selling hydrangea flavored ice cream (which was quite good). Of course, there were other types of plants and flowers as well and the garden made for a nice little final stop for the day. Plus, my Hakone Free Pass got me in for free, so you can't beat that.
Afterwards, I checked in my hotel (which was right by the park and much fancier than I expected for the price), got some food (which proved a little difficult since most places shut down at 5 or 5:30 once most of the tourists leave), took another bath (for the heck of it, since my hotel had an onsen), and just relaxed for the rest of the day. At that point, I kind of wished I'd brought my laptop so I could get some work done, though the thought of carrying it around all day makes me glad I didn't.

It's really late so we'll have to stop there for now. I'll write about the rest of my Hakone trip next time.


6/26/2013 Hanging around Tokyo

I'm afraid today's travelogue entries won't be all that exciting. Friday's, on the other hand... But we'll just talk about that when we come to it.

Tuesday (25th): Walking Around the Palace
I had plans to meet a friend for lunch, so I hung around my apartment in the morning and got some work done. The weather was a bit iffy after lunch, but I wanted to do something, so I decided to walk all the way around the imperial palace complex, something I never go around to doing in the past.
First off, I had to cut through Tokyo station so here's a shot of its western (and far more photogenic) side. Moving on, the palace and its grounds are surrounded by by a moat. While a lot of the area is completely closed off to the public, there's a path all around the edge of the moat (which is quite popular with joggers) and you can walk through various gardens and parks along the way. Though the main highlights of the circuit are this view and the East Garden, which is open to the public for free on most days. It has a number of different sections including traditional Japanese fruit trees, some botanical garden like areas, and a more traditional style Japanese garden. There are nicer gardens in Tokyo, but not for free, and you can get an up close look at some of the walls and old buildings near the palace, so that's cool.
On my way back, I spent some time walking around in the underground mall beneath Tokyo Station. While it's mostly clothing and restaurants, there were some more interesting things as well like a Jump Store and a Gundam Cafe (while the Gundam Cafe at Diver City has a lot more stuff for sale, you can actually sit and eat in this one). I was sorta looking for a specific shop I remember from my last visit to Japan, but I never did find it. Not sure if it's not there anymore or if I just missed it (Tokyo Station can be a bit of a maze).
And that was about it for the day. Not too exciting, but I can't be doing big things every single day

Wednesday (26th): The Toei Animation Gallery
I had originally hoped to do some hiking today but, with the weather forecasts predicting high chances of heavy rain everywhere, that idea was out. And since I've got something big planned for the next couple of days, I decided to keep my touring plans simple and spend some time getting work done.
My one touring destination for the day was the Toei Animation Gallery. If you watch anime, you're probably familiar with the name. Toei Animation has been around since the 60's and is behind many of the most popular anime of all time including Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, Digimon, and One Piece, just to name a few. Despite that, their building is very unimpressive. But they do have a free animation gallery / museum that you can visit. It's not all that big, but they have an extensive timeline of all their works, some production art, and the like on display, and a few videos showing parts of the animation process and/or various series. That said, it's pretty much all in Japanese (I did ok for the most part, but if you don't know much Japanese, you won't be able to understand much of anything). They've also got a replica of a giant robot from one of their older shows (though it has nothing on Diver City's Gundam). In that picture, you can also see the life size statues of the girls from one of the Pretty Cure series off to the right. If you haven't heard of Pretty Cure...I can't blame you, hardly any has been released outside of Japan, but over here it's a very popular magical girl franchise.
Anyway, I had originally been thinking of making another stop after the gallery but the rain was only getting harder so I decided to just call it a day. Fortunately, the weather is supposed to be much better over the next couple of days.

Well, I have to get up really early in the morning so I'm going to wrap this up here.



6/24/2013 Always more to see

Let's just get right to the travelogue.

Saturday (22nd): Night Out
I don't have too much to say about Saturday, but that night I went out for BBQ with friends. Well, Korean BBQ. Which, other than involving grilled meat, doesn't have all that much in common with typical American BBQ. Personally, I like the Korean style better. The main reason? While I love grilling meat back in the US, I'm not a big fan of BBQ sauce, which is kinda what makes grilling BBQ. Korean BBQ involves grilling thinly sliced pieces of meat on a grill on/in the table and then eating them with a teriyaki style sauce, wasabi, and the like. But anyway, here's a picture of everyone (except me, since I took it). From left to right it's: Yunsoo, Yehoshua, Shin, Une, and Una. Those are Korean names, BTW, not Japanese. After the meal, some of us went out to karaoke, which was fun too.

Random Japan Comment: Ema
Since I talked about omikuji last time, let's cover ema as well. Ema are the wooden prayer boards you'll find at Shinto shrines. Unlike omikuji, which also show up at Buddhist temples from time to time, ema seem to stay firmly on the Shinto side of things. Anyway, an ema is a wooden plaque you buy and then write a wish on. The wish can be anything you might pray for (health, good grades, a girlfriend, etc.). You then hang your ema up at the appropriate place at a shrine for the local god(s) to read and answer them. Picking the proper shrine can be important, since some gods are particularly known for granting certain types of prayers.
The ema you buy at the shrines themselves tend to have some sort of Shinto related image drawn on them though, as you can see from the photo, they can have pretty much anything on them, including anime characters. You won't find those for sale at the shrine, but there are ema stores where you can buy ema painted with all sorts of different designs. If you're artistically inclined, you could also buy a blank one and draw on it yourself.
Of course, you could also just pray normally at the shrine, but leaving your prayer on an ema is supposed to increase the chance of it being answered. I suppose that makes sense. I mean, with all the prayers some of those gods get, it must be hard to keep them all straight. Having a reminder hanging around could be convenient.

Sunday (23rd): Yanaka
Yanaka is a section of Tokyo not too far from Ueno that I somehow missed on my previous trips. Not that I didn't get around to going, but I just didn't know about it. Fortunately, that oversight was corrected. So, what's so special about Yanaka? Read on to find out.
Upon arriving, I left the train station, climbed a hill, and found myself at the picturesque Tennoji Temple, the first of many. After looking around the temple grounds, I set off for a leisurely stroll through the cemetery. Yes, you read that right. Yanaka is home to a massive cemetery. It's over 25 acres of tombstones, old and new, and has a number of roads and paths winding through it. Many important historical figures are buried there, with their tombs marked with information signs in both Japanese and English. Here, for example, is the resting place of Tokugawa Yoshinobu Haka and his family. He was the last shogun to rule over Japan, before relinquishing power back to the emperor. You might think it kind of odd, but walking through the cemetery was both interesting and rather peaceful. There are a number of other nice little temples in and around it as well.
On an interesting note, the cemetery is bordered on several sides by a nice residential area. I wonder if that affects property values here in Japan. Actually, it might be seen as a plus, at least if you have family buried there. Speaking of the residential area, here's something you'll probably never see in the US, a playground in the middle of a cemetery.
There's more to see in Yanaka than just the cemetery. The whole district is riddled with temples (many with their own small cemeterys) (not many shrines, though), little museums, and the like. After leaving the cemetery behind, I had lunch at a very interesting curry restaurant. It was probably the most expensive curry I've ever gotten (Japanese curry is generally a really cheap meal), but it was made with a special mix of herbs and vegetables that's supposed to be very good for your health. Not my favorite curry ever, but certainly unique. Shortly after that I stumbled across a nice and somewhat old fashioned shopping street. Then it was off to visit some more temples and little museums. One temple that especially stuck out is Jyomyoin, which is supposedly home to 84,000 Jizo statues. I think that's an exaggeration, but there were a lot of them. The inside of the temple was quite impressive too.
I finished exploring Yanaka around mid afternoon (though I probably could have visited a dozen more temples if I wanted to). Since the weather was nice and I had plenty of time, I decided to walk at least part way back from there. I passed through Ueno Park on the way, getting some nice views of the lotus plants and paddle boats on the lake. I also stumbled across something at yet another temple. Want to guess who this tombstone is for? Actually, it's more of an it than a who. See, there was a noble two or three hundred years ago who was known for painting insects. Of course, it's generally rather hard to get a good look at an insect while it's alive. So the guy had this tomb commissioned to honor the insects that died for the sake of his art. Make of that what you will...
I plan to actually spend a day or so in Ueno later on, so I didn't stay too long. I walked for a while, did a little shopping, then hopped a train the rest of the way back to my apartment when it started to rain (I'm glad the weather stayed nice for most of the day). Gotta say, I really like Yanaka. The temples aren't as impressive as some, but they're very picturesque and the whole district (cemetery and all) is fun and interesting to walk through. Somewhat reminiscent of old Japan. And if you get tired of that you're right by Ueno with its huge park, museums, and more modern shopping areas.

Monday (24th): Noh
In the past, I've mentioned that there are three kinds of traditional Japanese theater, kabuki, bunraku, and noh. Well, I watched some kabuki during my first stay (see the entry for the 26th) and went to see bunraku last time (see the entry for the 11th), so this time I really wanted to see noh. Fortunately, there's a theater in Tokyo that hosts regular noh productions and it's easy to check the schedule and order a ticket online.
Noh is the oldest of the three theater styles, dating back to the 14th century. Traditionally, noh plays were often performed at Shinto shrines for various festivals, and you'll still find a number of shrines with noh stages. The performers don't wear makeup, either going barefaced or wearing masks representing women (noh is traditionally performed by an all male cast), oni (demons), and the like. Unlike kabuki, which is all about sweeping exaggerated movements (and bunraku, though it's a bit different since it's done with puppets), noh actors tend to move very stiffly and only when necessary. They speak, however, in a very exaggerated way, often more of a chant or song than straight up speech (which sounds interesting but makes the old style Japanese dialogue even harder to understand). Like kabuki and bunraku, noh often features music provided by onstage performers. However, while it's still what most people would call traditional "Asian" music, the noh music I heard today differed from what was used in kabuki and bunraku in that is entirely lacked shamisen, focusing entirely on percussion instruments and a choir of sorts.
Another thing that sets noh apart is that the plays are relatively short. An entire noh play is often 15 minutes to an hour or so, which is only enough for a single scene of your average kabuki or bunraku play. As such, I actually got to see an entire play. Two, in fact. One full on play about a pair of traveling monks who encounter a disguised demon and one shorter humorous "sketch" (known as a kyougen) about a servant who tries to trick his master by pretending to be an oni. I did pretty good following the Japanese in the kyougen, but the main play would have completely lost me. While the kabuki theater and bunraku theater I visited in the past let you rent an English audio guide so you could listen to a translation as the play was going, the noh theater didn't have that. Fortunately, they had a good alternative. Each seat had a screen in the back (like the nicer airplanes), which you could set to display subtitles in Japanese or English.
Surprisingly enough, the theater was packed. Though about half the audience seemed to be high schoolers on a fieldtrip. Speaking of which, before the play started, a guy came on stage to talk about noh for a while and, as part of his explanation, he brought two of the kids on stage to try on some noh masks. The main reason was to show just how small the actor's field of vision is while wearing the mask. They must really have to be careful not to walk too far and fall off the stage...
Anyway, I enjoyed watching the noh plays, though if you want to go to one traditional performance in Japan, I'd probably recommend kabuki or bunraku instead, since they're a lot more dynamic.
After the play, I walked around a bit, ended up passing through Shinjuku (I seem to be ending up there a lot lately), and decided to pay a visit to Nakano since I was in the general area. It hasn't changed too much since my last visit. Nakano Broadway is still an awesome places to shop for figurines and other collectables, and that's all I have to say about that.

That's all for now. See you Wednesday!


6/21/2013 Catch up!

There's a new voter bonus comic so click the TWC button to see it!

I got back from touring a bit early today and have been trying to use the time to catch up on as many different things as I can. While I haven't finished everything on my list, I've made some really serious progress and still have a bit of time left. Next up, the travelogue!

Wednesday (19th): Odaiba - Gundam Style
Did I really just say that? Well, whatever. Due to the sudden end of my last stay in Japan, I didn't get to go to Odaiba so it's been something like four years since my last visit to that part of Tokyo. It's gotten some new attractions since then, and one of them really peeked my interest. Specifically, Gundam Front, a museum of sorts dedicated to the popular giant robot franchise. I've been a fan of Gundam ever since they ran Gundam Wing on Toonami way back when, so I've been wanting to go. The web site recommended buying tickets in advance, which I did (using the ticket machine at a 7-11 a couple days back), though seeing as I went in the morning on a weekday, it really wasn't necessary.
Anyway, Gundam Front is part of Diver City, a new mall that wasn't around last time I was at Odaiba. It's a nice mall, though it lacks the personality of Decks or Venus Fort. The bulk of it is clothing stores and the like, though there's also a very nice food court, Gundam Front, a large arcade, and an even larger entertainment center which includes an arcade, karaoke, bowling alley, and more, all of which you can get unlimited access to for a single fee.
Gundam Front itself isn't all that big. There are full size recreations of a crashed Core Fighter (from the original MS Gundam) and the torso of the Strike Freedom Gundam (from Gundam SeeD), along with a scale diorama of the pivotal A Baoa Qu battle from MS Gundam. There's also a few other things you can play with, like a touch screen system with information on just about every important Gundam series character you can think of and large screens where you can get your picture taken next to your favorite Gundam character or in a mock-cockpit. There's also a movie theater that plays a montage of clips from various Gundam shows on a 360 degree panoramic dome, which is pretty cool. And finally, the more proper museum area features original concept sketches and storyboards, a timeline of the various series, and an area where you can sit and read a collection of Gundam manga (in Japanese, of course).
There's also Shot-G. When I was buying my admission ticket, there was an option to buy a separate ticket for Shot-G. I wasn't sure what that was (for some reason, it got left off the English Gundam Front web site, though it's on the Japanese), but figured it sounded like a simulation ride or something, so I decided to get a ticket for that too. Turns out, it's actually a photo shoot. Basically, you get to pose in the cockpit of the Strike Freedom and you get a regular and a 3D photo. A bit expensive for a couple of photos, but it makes a cool souvenir.
Naturally, there's also a store featuring a wide variety of Gundam models (which you can also preview in a nearby gallery) and merchandise, along with some cool (and very expensive) Gundam inspired clothing.
Once I'd finished up in Gundam Front, it was about time for lunch. Fortunately, the afore mentioned food court has a pretty nice (and very affordable) kaitenzushi restaurant. They even have an English option for their digital menu. As to what "lost beef" is, I think they started out with "roast beef", got r and l mixed up (a common mistake, since Japanese uses a single sound for both letters), and then forgot that there's supposed to be an a in there.
After lunch, I took the time to walk through the rest of Diver City and play a few music games in the arcade. But I wasn't quite done with Gundam yet... See, right outside the first floor of Diver City is the Gundam Cafe, which has Gundam inspired drinks and an entirely different set of merchandise for sale. But, the really cool thing is this. Yes, that's a full-scale recreation of Amuro's RX Gundam from the original series and it is amazing. Now, if they just make one that can actually walk around...
Once I'd finished ogling the Gundam, I headed over to some of the other malls. Though I couldn't pass up this view of both Tokyo Tower and the Statue of Liberty (mini-recreation) on the way. Anyway, the Aqua City Mall seems to have a lot more stuff in it than it used to, including a nice food court and a Capcom store (I didn't know those existed, maybe this is the only one). Nearby, Decks still has its awesome old Tokyo themed area and has added a takoyaki (octopus ball) museum, some sort of mini Legoland, a wax museum, and a museum of trick art (I didn't go in all of them though, just the old Tokyo area).
Once I'd finished browsing the shops, I couldn't resist a visit to Edo Onsen Monogatari, Odaiba's awesome onsen theme park with an old Tokyo style flair. You can read the detailed write-up from my first visit (the October 20th entry) if you want to know more about it. It hasn't really changed since then, but that's fine with me. It was a really relaxing way to finish the day and helped a little with the soreness in my legs from all that hiking yesterday.
On a side note, I took a wrong turn at the train station on my way back and came across this rather awesome clock designed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Friday (21st): Washinomiya
You may be wondering what happened to Thursday. Well, it was one of those days where nothing really goes right. Electronics, touring, directions, everything was giving me problems. I did go out for a bit but didn't really see or do anything worth writing about. On the bright side, I made reservations for what should be a really cool overnight trip late next week and found some cool stuff at a Book-Off. But that's about it.
Moving on... Today I decided to do visit Washinomiya Shrine. It's one of the oldest shrines in the area and has some popular festivals at different points during the year, but it's most popular these days for being the place where the Hiiragi twins from the Lucky Star anime and manga work as shrine maidens. Here's a shot of the path leading to the shrine from the anime...and here's a picture I took of the same area. I didn't have a reference image with me, so my photo doesn't match up exactly, bit you can clearly tell it's the same place. The nearby train station also has a Lucky Star mikoshi (portable shrine) and quite a lot of the prayer boards at the shrine were adorned with Lucky Star characters. That said though, unless you really want to try and recreate scenes from the anime, there really isn't much to do in Washinomiya. It's just not a particularly exciting or scenic town. The shrine is nice, but not especially fancy. Though they do keep a live peacock for some reason... Anyway, unless you're a huge Lucky Star fan, I wouldn't really recommend visiting unless it's for a festival.
On the way back, I stopped in Shinjuku to pay a visit to ARTNIA, Square-Enix's new shop / cafe, which is right in front of their main building. They have a nice selection of merchandise from their various games (though you can find the non-exclusive items for cheaper in Akihabara or Nakano) and a cafe with various Final Fantasy inspired desserts and drinks. I got a High Potion (one of the non-alcoholic options), which was primarily made of ginger ale, lime, and mint. Way better than those potion soda they occasional release... And that was my day, at least the parts worth writing about.

Random Japan Comment: Omikuji
Omikuji are fortunes you can draw and shrines and temples in Japan. You start by making a small offering (a 5 Yen coin is considered lucky). After that you usually shake a container and draw a lot, which tells you which drawer to draw your fortune from. A typical omikuji contains a general fortune (ranging from great blessing to great curse) and one or more fortunes about specific aspects of your life (health, romance, career, etc.).
Where ever you can get omikuji, you'll see a nearby tree or wire rack with a bunch of folded ones tied to it. The tradition is that, if your fortune is bad, you can avoid it by tying it up like that (the reason behind this is a pun that won't make sense unless you know some Japanese). Though, oddly, if you get a get a good fortune you can also tie it up to increase its effectiveness. Or you can hang onto it as a charm, either way.
On a side note, it's possible that omikuji served as a partial inspiration for fortune cookies, which aren't actually Chinese.


6/19/2013 Towers and mountains

It's a new PV strip! And it reminded me just how much more work these big battle strips are...and the fighting hasn't really even begun yet... But anyway, travelogue!

Monday (June 17th): Asakusa and the Skytree
As I mentioned before, it's currently the rainy season here in Japan. And, while I'm not one to let rain slow me down when traveling (see some of the entries from my previous Japan travelogues), it does make certain activities rather difficult. But, the forecast predicted no chance of rain today or tomorrow, so I decided to jump on that and do a couple of things that really wouldn't be as good in the rain. First, I wanted to actually go up the Skytree. While rain wouldn't really prevent me from doing that, it would likely ruin the view. And, since the Skytree is near Asakusa, I decided to start there and make a day of it.
Since Asakusa is only about three miles from my apartment, I figured it would be nice to walk and see some more parts of the city. Gotta say though, the walk from my apartment to Asakusa isn't nearly as interesting as the walk to Akihabara or Tokyo Station. There was a museum, though not one I had any interest in visiting, and a random block or so of figurine shops, which slowed me down for a little while, but really the walk didn't get all that exciting until near the end when I just happened to pass a group of buildings belonging to Namco Bandai (their main offices, I think). It's not like I could do much there (they don't give tours or anything), but as a fan of many of their games, anime, and toys, that was still kind of cool.
Asakusa itself is pretty much unchanged from my previous visits, though I think it's a place that's worth coming to every time I'm in Tokyo. The shopping arcade and streets are just fun to walk around, and there are lots of interesting souvenir shops and restaurants. I decided to basically snack my way through a sort of late brunch (I kept expecting to pass a decent breakfast place on the walk, and never did). Fortunately, my favorite taiyaki place is still there and I also picked up some momonji, rice crackers, and soba ice cream (out of curiosity; it's not bad but not especially great either). That gelato place from my last visit was still there as well, though the flavors have changed a bit. I decided to try red bean (very good), satsumaimo (Japanese yam) (excellent), and umeshu (Japanese plum liquor) (mild but nice). Gotta say, it's also probably one of the cheaper gelato places I've ever been to anywhere.
Since I was there, I figured I might as well stop by Kaminari gate and Sensoji Temple. While it's not one of the older temples (sorta, it's been around for quite a while but kept burning down in the past), it's still quite impressive to see and the crowds can make for some enjoyable people watching. I saw lots of regular Japanese visitors, including some women in kimono, various foreign tourists, and a large group of junior high schoolers (in uniform), who were probably there on a field trip.
Leaving the temple, I walked down a few nearby streets. When you get out of the tourist areas, you run into some more practical shops and a number of arcades. I stopped in one to play a few rounds of various music games and look at the crane games (anyone want to win some plastic food?), then headed off for the Skytree.
So, I didn't talk about it in Saturday's write-up so let's have a quick overview. The Tokyo Skytree is a broadcast tower, built to take over Tokyo Tower's former role. The reason? While Tokyo Tower is very picturesque, it's also nowhere near the tallest thing in the Tokyo skyline anymore, reducing its broadcasting effectiveness. The Skytree, on the other hand, is not only the tallest structure in Japan, at 643 meters (around 2,100 feet) it's the world's tallest tower and the world's second tallest man-made structure (the tallest, BTW, is a skyscraper in Dubai, though I haven't been able to figure out why that isn't technically a "tower" as well). You can't go all the way to the top though, the main viewing deck is at 350 meters and the upper deck (which costs extra) is at 450. But either one will put you way above anything else in the city.
Now, back to my visit... The Skytree is, naturally, a pretty popular attraction. Unless you got your tickets ahead of time, you need to start by getting a number ticket, which lists the time and gate where you can go to buy your actual ticket. Despite it being early afternoon on a normal weekday, I still had to wait over two hours after getting my number ticket. Had I known that, I may have gone to the Skytree first, to beat the rush. Fortunately though, there's plenty to do. The Skytree is set again a large multi-story mall which features, among other things, an impressive food court, a Shonen Jump store, and a Ghibli store. Between walking around and getting an early supper of really good sukiyaki (I tried the slightly expensive but really excellent Japanese black wagyu beef), I didn't have much trouble killing time.
Finally it was time to go in...and wait in line to buy my actual admission ticket. Then I finally got to go up. Random trivia bit, the Skytree features Japan's fastest 40 person elevator (Is there a faster one with a different capacity? I don't know, but it specifies 40 person in the pamphlet.), which reaches a top speed of 600 meters per minute. The main viewing deck is quite nice, consisting of three floors along with a cafe, restaurant, gift shop, and some assorted exhibits. First, here's an old folding screen painting showing a similar view of Tokyo from the Edo period. Now, here are some modern views. Unfortunately, despite the relatively good weather, it was still a bit hazy, so Mt. Fuji wasn't visible (it can be seen from Tokyo on a really clear day though, I've done so in the past). I still got pretty impressive views, though my camera had some issues with the fog/haze (requiring me to run these pictures through Photoshop to reduce it). Here's a close up of Sensoji Temple back in Asakusa. And here's my apartment! Well, almost. The building is hidden behind some taller ones, but it's right near the left side of the middle of those three bridges.
Since I didn't get up the Skytree until around six, I figured I might as well hang out for a bit and get some shots of the night view as well (the sun is currently setting around seven). At one point, I decided to check out the cafe. Those dessert vinegar drinks made me really curious, so I decided to overlook my extreme dislike of vinegar and give the blueberry milk one a try. My first thought after taking a sip was something like "holy crap, that's real vinegar". The blueberry and milk helped a bit, but wow, there was a really strong vinegar taste. I managed to finish the whole thing, but I really wish I'd gotten something else instead...
Eventually, the sun went down and the lights around the city started coming on. I even got a shot of Tokyo Tower all lit up. Once I'd finished taking photographs (way too many of them), I took the elevator back to the ground, took a last look at the Skytree, then headed back for the night.

Random Japan Comment: Political Advertising
I don't know about those of you in other countries, but in the US election season means a slew of TV and radio ads, usually consisting mostly of warnings about how horrible the other candidate is. In Japan, however, politicians actually aren't allowed to advertise on mass media. Yes, you heard that right. So how do they get their name out to voters? Believe it or not, they drive around in vans equipped with loudspeakers, telling everyone to vote for them. It's not just in the cities either, they even do it out in really rural areas.
I'm honestly not sure which method is more annoying. I mean, I really hate a lot of the political ads back home, but being woken up by a loud voice shouting for you to vote for so and so isn't all that great either.
On a side note, I assumed that, given Japanese culture, elections here would be a bit "politer" than the ones we often have in the US, without all the namecalling, mudslinging, and the like. However, a half Japanese half American friend of mine assures me that Japanese elections are actually worse in that regard. Weird...

Tuesday (June 18th): Hiking Mt. Mitake
For my second good weather day, I decided to get out of the city and take a hike. I have several hikes planned, and this one involved hiking up and around Mt. Mitake. I started off taking the train a couple hours outside of Tokyo to the tiny town of Kori at the base of the mountains. After walking through the town (which featured a few old buildings), I reached the trail head and started up. And up... It was very steep in places and, despite the cloud and tree cover, it was really hot and muggy for a while (though things eventually got better once I was higher up in the mountains). There were some nice flowers though, and the occasional wild raspberry. Judging by some of the pamphlets and souvenirs I saw later, some type of flying squirrel is supposed to live in the area as well, though I didn't see anyway.
Unfortunately, while it didn't rain, it was a bit cloudy and foggy, which hampered the views. Eventually though, I reached the town of Mitake. As a side note, the route I took is apparently an extra long (and much less traveled) back way. Seems a lot of people take the train to Mitake Station and either climb or ride a cable car from there. I stopped in Mitake for lunch and had a nice bowl of sansai soba (soba with mountain vegetables) then proceeded to climb a whole lot of steps to Mitake Shrine. The shrine was decent, and had a number of nice smaller buildings behind it, but there are certainly nicer ones that are easier to reach from Tokyo.
I had made pretty good time, so I decided to continue on to the top of Mt. Hinode, which is supposed to have really good views. Though, once again, the fog reduced the visibility a lot. After that, it was time for a very steep hike down to the bus stop. On a side note, there are supposed to be a few small caves in the area that you can visit, though the only one I saw was closed at the time.
Being way out in the country, the busses don't run all that frequently. Unfortunately, my timing was horrible. I missed a bus by 20 minutes, leaving me with around an hour and a half until the next one. So I thought I might as well start walking to the train station in the meantime. Maybe I could beat the bus. Well, I didn't quite pull that off, but I made it pretty far before finally taking the bus the rest of the way. As I walked, I passed through a number of tiny towns, a lot of fishing parks (you pay and get a certain area of the river assigned to you), and even ran into a couple of those annoying political vans. The scenery was actually quite nice but, by that point, I was pretty worn out, sore, and more than a bit annoyed about how long I had to wait for the bus.
All in all, I'm not really sure how far I walked (the hiking maps just listed estimated walking times rather than distance), but it was a pretty serious distance, and much of it uphill. The hike as a whole was pretty (though it would have been better on a clear day), though not of the best I've taken in Japan. Still, I enjoyed myself overall, despite the mishap with the bus.

Random Japan Comment: License Plates
This is especially random, but Japanese license plates are boring. They're a solid color, with a few words and a number. No design, no nothing. In a country where people go crazy for cute things and can't pass up all sorts of crazy special and limited edition items, this seems like a wasted opportunity. They really should institute a system of designer plates, like the various US states have. The plates would look nice, the government would get some extra money, and people would have one more thing to collect. Everyone wins.

It's late so my write-up for today will have to be on Friday. See you then!


6/17/2013 Fun with friends

Regular PV strips will resume on Wednesday. In the meantime, back to the travelogue.

Saturday (June 15th): Catching Up
The rain cleared up today, making for the nicest weather since I got here...but, being a Saturday, I had services to go to so I didn't really get to take advantage of it. However, I did get a chance to catch up with all my friends at the congregation, which was really nice. That night, a bunch of us went out for a bit. We started in Asakusa, but didn't stay long. Instead, we walked to the Skytree and looked through some of the shops around the base. I'll actually be going up the Skytree in the future, so I won't go into detail about the tower itself right now, but there's a lot of stuff around it including shops, an aquarium, planetarium, and even a blood donation room. That last one is a bit odd, isn't it? Anyway, we stayed long enough to watch the Skytree light up for the night then headed off to a restaurant. Nothing too exciting, but it was great spending time with everyone.
On a side note, I spotted some odd English when we were out. Like this menu board. I suppose the wording is technically correct but really, who uses tubular? There was also the Non Step bus. Personally, I'd be more curious to see what the step bus is like...

Monday (June 16th): Harajuku with Friends
Yesterday, Une, Una, and Hanbee (three of my friends my the congregation) invited me to hang out with them in Harajuku and Shibuya this afternoon. I had planned to use the morning to visit that big flea market I've been to before but it was canceled due to rain (yesterday's nice weather didn't last). But, since I was already in the area, I figured I might as well stop by the Pokémon Center. There was a huge line outside for some kind of special event but, as a result, the Pokémon Center itself was surprisingly uncrowded, which was a nice surprise.
To kill time till the scheduled meet up, I decided to walk around Ikebukuro (another part of Tokyo). I was kind of curious since I've never been there before and some anime I've watched take place in that area. Ikebukuro reminds me a bit of Shinjuku, though on a somewhat smaller scale. There are a lot of restaurants, bars, and clubs near the station, making for what's probably a popular nightlife area. Though there's also a large university nearby, so a few streets over you get that atmosphere as well. Other then a few odd signs, I didn't see anything too impressive...until I stumbled across a cosplay event. I was running out of time at that point, so I couldn't stay long, but it was fun to watch all the different cosplayers, even if only for a few minutes.
After that, I met my friends near Harajuku Station and we ate, talked, braved Harajuku's crowded Sunday streets, and shopped. Well, more like they shopped and I tagged along, but I was ok with that. Hanging out with them was fun (and good Japanese practice) and, while fashion isn't really my thing, I like Harajuku for the people watching. You really see a lot of interesting styles there. Besides, following girls around on a shopping trip is bound to be good dating practice :-P

Random Japan Comment: Umbrellas
If there's even a chance of rain, you can bet that just about everyone in Japan will be carrying an umbrella. A lot of people in the US don't seem to bother, since it's often a simple matter of dashing from you car into your house, school, workplace, or wherever. But in Japan, where most people rely on public transit and shopping streets greatly outnumber indoor malls, a lot more walking outdoors is necessary. When it's raining, sidewalks tend to become forests of umbrellas. This happens even if the rain is so light that it doesn't really matter. Being able to navigate a crowded space while carrying an open umbrella is an important skill to develop if you're going to live in Japan. Being able to bike while holding an open umbrella in one hand can be quite useful as well.
As for the umbrellas themselves, traditional Japanese umbrellas have wooden slats and paper canopies, and you may have seen them in some old paintings or historical fiction anime. You can still buy those in some places, but they're used more as souvenirs than anything else. Most people use perfectly normal modern umbrellas. There are a variety of different styles, but the most common (probably because it's cheap) is a generic long handled umbrella with a hooked end and a transparent canopy (if you watch anime, you've probably seen lots of characters carrying them). They're hardly the only kind around though. Personally, I keep a collapsible umbrella in my backup whenever I'm out and about in Japan. It's more portable than the big ones, and it rains often enough here (even outside of the rainy season), that it's nice to have one handy.

Unfortunately, I'm going to have to stop for now. I really wanted to cover today as well, but I took way too many pictures and got back later than I planned so I haven't had time to finish sorting through them yet, much less get some of them web-ready.



6/14/2013 The new travelogue

Please don't e-mail me and say the menu on the left side of the page looks weird. I know it does, it just wasn't designed to work with comics this tall. It'll fix itself once regular PV strips resume. And, as a reminder, while I'm in Japan, the site will be updating in early to mid morning, rather than late at night.

I didn't have time on Wednesday, but now I've given my latest Japan Travelogue its own page. Now, let's get back to it.

Wednesday (June 12th): Nikko with a Friend
A lot of people I know are in Japan right now. Some live here, others are here to teach English like I did, some are in study abroad programs, and some are just traveling. But anyway, I'm trying to meet up with some of them while I'm here. Though my chances of seeing all of them are pretty slim since they're spread out all across the country.
Anyway, my friend Aika is touring Nikko at the moment, so we made plans to meet today and see the shrines and temples.
I've already covered Nikko and its amazing collection of shrines and temples multiple times in the past (see Sept 17 and Jan 1, among others), so I'm not going to retread it. But this was Aika's first time, so I got to play tour guide a bit. The only thing we did that I hadn't before was follow a small path around the back of the area with the shrines. It was nice, but nothing amazing. After seeing the shrines we walked around the town, ate, looked at souvenirs, and the like. It was lightly raining all day, but we had a good time regardless. Not too much to talk about really, without overlapping my old coverage, but here's a few photos to make this entry worthwhile. The breathtaking Toshogu Shrine and one of its walls of carvings; the nearby pagoda; and the iconic Shinkyo Bridge. You know, in retrospect, I probably should have gotten Aika in some of my pictures...

Random Japan Comment: Feels like home?
I was talking to my dad on the phone and he asked if coming back to Japan felt like returning home. That got me thinking, where does feel like home for me these days? Grand Junction, Colorado certainly does. I lived there a long time, my parents are still there, and I really feel at home when I return. Phoenix, Arizona feels like home as well, though a bit less than it used to now that I'm not a student and a lot of the people I used to hang out with aren't there anymore. Pennsylvania, up where my grandparents lived, really used to feel like home but, over the last few years, there's been a combination of moves, deaths, and family problems and, the last couple times I went, it just wasn't the same. Florida...really doesn't. Never mind that I've lived there for two years now. I mean, my apartment feels homey, I guess, but not the area as a whole. The reason? Probably because I'm just not all that attached to it. The little town I live in is nice enough, I have some friends down around (though not all that close to me), and going to all the theme parks has been fun but, when it comes down to it, if it wasn't for my job it's just not a place I'd want to live. Ideally, I'd be out of Florida entirely but, even I was going to stay in the state, I'd rather be in Orlando or on one of the southern beaches. Other than that, I think Honolulu could potentially feel like home if I spend enough time there. Tokyo? Well, I've certainly felt very comfortable since returning, but I wouldn't say it feels like home either. Maybe it's because I've lived in a different area each time I've come to Japan. Maybe it's the drastic cultural differences. Maybe because all my apartments have been roughly the size of the nicer walk-in closets I've had back in the US... That said, given the right circumstances, I might be able to feel at home here. Maybe...

Thursday (June 13th): Exploring Koto-ku
The part of Tokyo I'm staying in this time around is a section of Koto-ku. I'd originally wanted to walk around and explore a bit on Tuesday, but didn't get a chance to finish due to that emergency Akihabara trip, so I decided to do that today. When I was out shopping before, I saw a map of the area and spotted a park and garden that looked worth checking out. So I stopped by Doutor (a Starbucks style chain) for a green tea latte (they have the best ones of anywhere I've tried) then headed to Kiba Park. It turned out to be really large and part regular park (with playground equipment and the like) and part botanical garden. It was raining a bit, but I was still able to take a nice stroll through the park and get some pictures of various flowers. The park ends at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, but it's closed for a few days for exhibit changing or some such, and I generally prefer older art anyway.
Next, I walked to Kiyosumi Garden. It's a Japanese garden that belonged to a government official a long time ago but is now public property. Like the park, it was mostly empty (likely due to the rain), but I was still able to get some nice pictures of the garden, the flowers, and various birds. Kiyosumi isn't an especially large garden (I'd call it medium size), and there are nicer ones in Tokyo, but it's still a very pretty and relaxing place and the entry fee is a minimal 150 Yen, so it's worth a stop if you're nearby.
After that, I got some lunch (Indian, for a change, since there's a place right near my apartment) then headed back to my apartment for a bit to get out of the rain, sort through my photos, and get some work done on trip planning for future days (I have the basic ideas marked down, but need to work out train schedules and the like for many of them).
That evening, I headed out again, this time going towards the center of Tokyo, near the Imperial Palace. My destination was Hie Shrine, site of Sanno Matsuri, one of Tokyo's most important local shrine festivals, which is going on this week. Unfortunately, the festival is only at its best on even numbered years (it alternates with Kanda Matsuri in May, with each one only having a small festival in their off years). Despite that, it was still fun to visit. There was a beautiful lantern lit path of tori gates (which reminded me of Fushigi Inari Shrine in Kyoto), dancing, and a few booths with food (I got a whole grilled fish on a stick). So I ate, watched the dancing for a while, and had a nice time. On a kind of amusing side note, you won't notice this if you don't read Japanese, but the writing on those lanterns isn't anything festive or religious, it's all ads for various businesses.
On my way back to the subway station, I got sidetracked by an interesting looking street and ended up walking around the Akasaka area for a while. I've never been there before, but apparently it's a popular nightlife area, with lots of restaurants, clubs, and bars. There are some foreign embassies nearby too, like the Embassy of Canadian...something or other. I'm guessing it's not Canadian Grammar Teachers.

Random Japan Comment: The Rainy Season
This time of year in Japan (mid June through mid July, give or take) is known as the rainy season, which means lots of cloudy days and rain. It's generally acknowledged to not be one of the better times to visit. But, on the bright side, a lot of the rain is little more than a gentle mist, and can be quite scenic. Plus, is reduces crowds and helps keep the temperatures down, so there are some good points.

Friday (June 14th): Back to Akihabara
I didn't really get to finish my rounds of Akihabara on Tuesday, and I was still in a shopping mood so I headed back there today. The route between my apartment and Akihabara crosses over one of Tokyo's many rivers, and this particular one is often used by ferry boats going between Asakusa and Odaiba. Some boats are pretty typical ferries, some are made to look more like old Japanese crafts, and then there's this one. I seem to recall hearing that its design is based on a ship from some anime, but I don't remember the details.
As always, I had a lot of fun shopping in Akihabara. Running around to a zillion little stores in search of rare items and good prices can be tiring, but it can also be fun (at least if you find all the stuff in said stores interesting), and there's that moment of triumph when you track down something in particular or get a good price (like when I found the rare Infinity Plus collection for 1,600 Yen less than average). Since I had a lot more time, I was able to get through most of Akihabara and hit most of my favorite stores. And, while I still have a bit of spending money left, I think I'm about shopped out for the next couple of weeks. I'll probably go back to Akihabara at least once more one this trip though, and I've got to visit Nakano Broadway at some point as well.
Oh, as I mentioned a couple days ago, I can now confirm that Maid Cafes seem to have had a big growth in popularity since the last time I was in Japan. I mean, there were a number of them then, but there seems to be even more now and they're being advertised pretty aggressively. Before, I'd see a handful of costumed girls handing out flyers on weekends. Today, I couldn't walk a block without seeing at least a couple of girls in maid uniforms, cosplay, school uniforms, shrine maiden outfits, or some such, and this is on a weekday. Maybe I should try one sometime so I can do a write-up...


6/12/2013 Hi from Japan

As you can tell by the title, I made it to Japan ok. Though, while I'm here, the site will likely update around this time of day, rather than near midnight. Sorry about the lack of a Monday update, but we'll get to the reason for that later. As you can see, we've got a guest comic today by Saber Knight. I'll be running guest comics on Friday and Monday as well, to give me a chance to hopefully build a new buffer (my old one was eaten by a combination of traveling and Mon-Fri updates). But now, travelogues. We'll start by finishing up LA and then move on to Japan...

Friday and Saturday (June 7th and 8th): Hollywood and Hiking
Since I hit most of the major downtown areas of LA yesterday, I decided to take the metro over to Hollywood and walk around there. The metro, by the way, is a subway and a pretty decent one at that. Anyway, I got off near the intersection of Hollywood Ave and Vine and stated off, following the Walk of Fame. You've probably heard about it, all the stars in the sidewalk and everything. Thing is, unless you're a really serious movie/TV/music buff, you'll get bored with that pretty quickly. I mean, after you've seen a few stars you've pretty much seen them all. But I continued down the road, snapping the occasional photo when I found a star belonging to one of my favorite celebrities.
Something I should mention about Hollywood Ave and the Walk of Fame is that the area you're walking through varies a good bit. The western end near the Chinese Theater is really fancy (if a bit touristy) and crowded with shops, theaters, guys hawking various tours, and other guys in costumes wanting a bunch of money for a picture with them. It's kinda fun to walk through. As you go further east though, you start getting out of the glitz and glamour and, while it never becomes a slum, it's really not worth walking too far that way unless you're determined to see the entire Walk of Fame.
The aforementioned Chinese Theater is probably the coolest attraction in the area, since it's where they have all the handprints of various stars. The theater was undergoing some renovations when I was there (probably due to that attack in Iron Man 3 :-P ), but they were still letting people into the courtyard. Other than that, you have some actual theaters, a couple wax museums, and those tours of the stars' homes and such. But unless you're really interested in that stuff, a trip to Hollywood probably won't last more than a couple hours.
So that was Friday (or part of it). Then on Saturday afternoon my mom and I went to Griffith Park, a large wooded mountain park right in the city, and hiked up one of the mountains. It was really more of a walk than a hike, but we got some really good views of both the city and the park itself from the top. Also got to see the Hollywood Sign, which I really didn't get a good look at while actually in Hollywood. Griffith Observatory is near there too. While it seems to be most popular for its planetarium shows, there's a few free museum exhibits inside as well.
And that's my time in LA. I'm still not very fond of the city, but it does have it's nice areas. If nothing else, I'd go back for a few days to hit all the nearby theme parks.

Sunday and Monday (Jun 9th and 10th): Off to Tokyo!
Ever since my last stay in Japan got cut short by the big earthquake and ensuing nuclear worries, I've been wanting to return for a while. It didn't work out last summer, but I was determined to try again this year. In the end, I was able to work out a five week trip for a reasonable price and there's no telling how long I'll have the time, freedom, and money to do these kind of things, so I decided to go for it. Incidentally, while this will be the shortest of my Japan trips so far, it's also the only one on which I don't have to work most of the week (I'm here on vacation, mostly, though keeping up with some online classes I'm teaching and my own projects as well), so I'll likely be doing quite a lot.
So, Sunday morning it was off to the LA airport. The whole trip went really smoothly. For some reason, it was cheaper to fly to Seattle then go to Tokyo from there, rather than taking one of the many direct flights from LA itself (airline ticket prices rarely seem to make sense). That added a couple hours to the trip, but we flew over Crater Lake on the way, which was pretty cool. The plane from Seattle to Tokyo was a nice one, with pretty impressive in-seat entertainment centers and quite a lot of food. It even had in-seat plug sockets, so I was able to play Virtue's Last Reward on my Vita pretty much the entire time.
Once the plane landed Monday afternoon (due to the massive time difference), I was able to get my suitcase and get through costumes without issue. My cellphone worked as well, which was good. Instead of renting a phone or SIM card like in the past, I decided to just try Verizon's global roaming this time around, since the pricing isn't that much different and I could potentially be getting some calls I don't want to miss. To make things even more convenient, I decided to spring for the international data plan, incase I needed to look up maps or other info while out and about. Also, to keep in touch via e-mail (which is free, data costs aside, unlike calls and texts). That worked really well...right up until I left the airport. While Verizon's data access map for Japan shows most of the country, I haven't been able to get a data connection anywhere outside of Narita Airport. I'm going to have to contact them and see what's up with that...
Anyway, I put some money on my SUICA card then hopped on a train to Shinjuku to get my apartment keys. Yes, I decided to rent an apartment again (from Sakura House, the same company I used last time). The main reason being that it's quite a lot cheaper than five weeks in a decent hotel. Plus I get a kitchen (well, as much of one as you get in these tiny Japanese apartments) and all that. And, without a daily commute to worry about, I was free to choose my location and ended up right in downtown Tokyo, only about a mile from Tokyo station. It's really convenient.
By the time I made it to my apartment, it was starting to get late in the evening, but I did have time to walk over to my friend Yehoshua's restaurant and catch up with him. Got a decent view of the Sky Tree tower on my way back too. Speaking of which, expect an entry on that Sky Tree itself sometime over the course of this trip.
I had originally been planning to update Pebble Version but then I ran into the only real snag of the entire trip. I forgot to bring a 3 - 2 prong plug converter for my laptop. That meant I was running off limited battery power and it was too late to go out shopping for one. Other than that though, the trip over went about as smoothly as can be.

Tuesday (June 11th): All Around Tokyo
What did I do on Tuesday? More like what didn't I do? My original plan was to settle in, shop for essentials, and explore the area around my apartment building. And that's what I started out doing, anyway. While the apartment is furnished, it was missing a few basics and, of course, I needed food too. Fortunately, there was one of those always awesome 100 Yen stores nearby and there's also a grocery store by the nearest subway station. Plus, I stopped by a gyudon (beef bowl) restaurant on the way, got some gyudon, a Japanese salad, and miso soup for breakfast for only 500 yen (~$5). Then it was back to shopping. I didn't have any trouble finding the things I needed (and some things I didn't). I also stumbled across a local shrine (which looks to have a big festival every year) and a really fancy (if rather modern) Buddhist temple as well.
There were some more things in the area I wanted to check out after that, but I really needed to do something about my computer. While I'm sure there are a number of places in Tokyo that sell the kind of adapter I needed, I didn't want to run all over looking, so I decided that, due to its sheer size and selection, Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara would be my best bet. I was going to just run over there and come back to resume my local explorations, but a light rain had started up so I decided that, since I'd be going over there anyway, I might as well just hang out in Akihabara and do some shopping afterwards, since that would keep me mostly indoors. Except that I then decided that, since Akihabara is only a couple miles from my apartment, I should just walk there... Well, so much for the whole staying out of the rain part. Fortunately, it was rarely more than a light mist.
The walk was pretty nice actually, and ran right through Ningyocho, which has a lot of good restaurants and stuff around. I stumbled across a taiyaki place I remembered from last time, so that made for a nice quick lunch as I walked. Now if I can just find that 100 yen per plate kaitenzushi restaurant I remember being in the area...
Despite a few detours along the way, I eventually reached Yodobashi Camera. As I hoped, they had the adapter I needed. With that taken care of, I decided to check out headphones as well, since I've been having trouble finding the kind I want back in the US. That was a good call too. In addition to having a huge selection, Yodobashi has it set up so you can plug many of the different models into your MP3 player, phone, etc. and try them out to check the sound and feel. In the end, I found a set I really like to replace the crappy cheap ones I've been using since my last good pair died. Since I was already in the store, I couldn't resist browsing the games, music, and figurines as well, though I didn't end up buying any. While I love Yodobashi for its selection and point card, I can get better deals on those type of things elsewhere.
Leaving Yodobashi, I moved into Akihabara proper and began some serious shopping. Some things have changed since my last visit. For example, a building I really liked has been demolished to make way for a new one (fortunately, I found that most of the stores had just moved to a nicer building a couple blocks away). Also, maid cafes seem more popular than ever. Despite it being a weekday afternoon, there were at least half a dozen girls out there advertising one cafe or another.
I actually didn't buy nearly as much as I could have. For one thing, since I didn't get there till mid afternoon, I didn't have time to check out all my favorite stores. Also, I wanted to regain a bit of my sense of what various items are worth, since the prices for used items (especially figurines) can sometimes vary wildly by store. I did make some progress on my shopping list though, and had a lot of fun browsing.
Then, as it was getting dark, I figured I might as well wrap up the day with kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi), which is just as awesome (and affordable) as ever.
So, in one day I saw shrines and temples, ate gyudon, taiyaki, and sushi, and did some shopping in Akihabara. Kind of a nice refresher course in a lot of the things I like about Japan.
Oh, before I forget, here's a couple pictures of my apartment. It's a lot like the last one. Certainly can't compare to any of my apartments in the US, but for five weeks, it'll work (I've done much longer in the past) and the price and location are good.

There's some more to talk about but I'm getting tired so we'll get to that later. See you Friday!


6/7/2013 Quick travelogue

And with this, we'll be ending the Mon - Fri update schedule for a while. I still owe you guys around three more weeks of extra updates, but I wasn't able to get any sort of buffer built up so, with the trip to Japan and all, there just isn't going to be time. Once I'm back from Japan and my schedule is stable (probably mid July or so), the Mon - Fri schedule will resume until I'm caught up.

Speaking of Japan, I'll be flying out on Sunday! As a result, PV might or might not update on Monday. If my flights go smoothly, I don't have any trouble getting my room, the internet works, and I'm still awake and alert at that point, I'll update. If not, expect an update on Wednesday. Either way, while I'm in Japan PV will likely update several hours later than it usually does due to time zone differences.

Now with that out of the way, let's quickly cover my trip so far...

Tuesday (June 4th): A Stop Over in Las Vegas
My dad had a conference in Los Angeles to attend and my mom was going along to help (he's giving presentations and has a booth and stuff). Since I was visiting them in Colorado at the time, it made sense for me to go along, especially since LA is a good place to get flights to other areas...but more on that another time.
Since they had a lot of stuff to bring, they decided to drive, stopping in Las Vegas to spend the night on the way. We actually went to Vegas a lot when I was a kid, since my dad used to teach seminars there. But now it's probably been eleven years or more since the last time I went. First off, I have to say that the drive between Grand Junction and Vegas is really nice. At least if you like cool rock formations like the San Rafael Swell, a wall of slanted rock that stretches on for miles. I think it'd be fun to hike around there sometime.
Anyway, as soon as I knew we'd be in Vegas, I set about convincing my parents to see a Cirque du Soleil show. As a result, by the time we arrived, we didn't have all that much time to do stuff before the show, which was too bad. If you've never been to Vegas, aside from gambling and other less PG pastimes, it's known for its super fancy theme hotels. We stayed in New York New York, and there are many more like the Bellagio, with its elaborately synchronized fountain and music shows and pretty indoor garden, The Venetian with its indoor canal, and Paris, complete with mini Eifel Tower, just to name a few. We walked around for a little while, but before long it was time to get ready for the show.
There are quite a lot of permanent Cirque shows in Vegas, so picking one was pretty hard. We had eventually settled on Ka, which is at the MGM Grand. It's one of the more unique Cirque shows for a couple of reasons. First, it has the most coherent story of any of them. It follows the adventures of a pair of twins (a prince and princess) who are separated after the death of their parents. As such, it's not quite as abstract as other Cirque shows and a bit more serious (no clowns, though there were some humorous scenes). For plot reasons, there are also a number of battles, though many of them are hardly typical. Of course, there's plenty of amazing acrobatics as well. The other thing that sets Ka apart is the stage. Instead of a regular stage, it uses two moving panels suspended above a pit. The main panel is quite large (they must have at least 15 people on it at times) and can spin 360 degrees around and rotate at least 90 degrees up, creating a sheer wall. There's also a lot of platforms and walkways hanging from the ceiling as well. Like the other Cirque shows I've seen, the costumes and music were excellent and the acrobatics were utterly amazing. The ways they used the stage were especially creative. One scene involves a battles between numerous characters while the stage is at a 70 degree angle or so and spinning.
Like every Cirque show I've attended, Ka left me really glad I went and dying to see more. Maybe I can get in a slightly longer Vegas trip in the future...
That was pretty much it for the night, though I couldn't resist trying this Plants vs. Zombies themed slot machine. Unfortunately, my usual run of luck when it comes to games of chance was in full swing. PvZ the computer game cost me $10 and I spent over 100 hours playing it. PvZ the slot machine ate $15 in under ten minutes.

Thursday (June 6th): Walking Around Los Angeles
I have a lot of time to myself while my parents and brother are at the conference so I figured I should explore LA a bit. Part of me wanted to go to a theme park (Disney, Universal, and Knott's Berry Farm are all in the area), but another part figured that I'm going to be doing a lot of cool stuff in Japan so I may as well save my money and use the time to get some work done. As a compromise, I decided to spend part of the day walking around the city and the rest working in the hotel room.
I've been to San Francisco a few times before but the first was when I was really young, so I don't remember much. And the others I was here for E3 and didn't really get away from the area near the convention center. Speaking of E3, it's next week. Had I known earlier in the year that I was going to be in LA at this time, I may have gotten a ticket and spent a few more days here. Oh well, it would have been pretty expensive...
Anyway, the hotel we're at is in downtown LA and I decided to limit myself to places I could easily walk. China Town seemed like a decent choice, so I headed off in that direction. On a general note, I'm not especially fond of LA. It's extremely smoggy and generally lacks the charm that permeates many parts of downtown San Francisco. The restaurant selection doesn't seem quite as good either. Though it also lacks San Francisco's hills, which makes walking around a lot easier, and I haven't run into as many crazy people or druggies.
China Town, though, was pretty nice. In fact, it's the cleanest and fanciest China Town I've seen anywhere in the US (and I've been to most of the major ones). The China Town in Yokohama still has it beat though. Anyway, it's mostly comprised of restaurants and souvenir type stores (you're not going to find the amount of produce you would in Honolulu's, for example), though there are some other things to see, like this fancy Buddhist temple.
After walking around China Town, decided to hit a couple other areas as I made my way back to the hotel. While I wasn't aiming for it, I ended up passing through the section with the city hall and other civil buildings. Which, other than the nice architecture, was only notable since I stumbled across a nice little farmers' market.
I eventually ended up in Little Tokyo. It's one of the only two Japan Towns in the US, the other being San Francisco's. (Honolulu certain has enough stores and restaurants for a Japan Town, but they're spread out rather than in one area). Normally, this is the type of place I'd go first but, seeing as I'll be in real Tokyo in just a few more days, it wasn't a big priority. Anyway, Little Tokyo has some rather dull regular streets, a nice outdoor pedestrian mall (where I took that photo), and another not quite as picturesque shopping center that sort of make up the area. Overall, I'd say it's a bit bigger than SF's Japan Town, though not as condensed. Naturally, there's lots of restaurants, clothing, souvenir, and grocery stores, and the like. It also has the most impressive anime/manga/merchandise store I've seen in the US and a Kinokunya book store (a good bit smaller than SF's, but with a better selection of a couple of items). The only thing that stopped me from doing some serious shopping is the knowledge that I'll have an even better selection with lower prices in Akihabara and Nakano Broadway. It's hard to say which I like better between LA's Little Tokyo and San Francisco's Japan Town. Both have their pluses and are worth visiting if you're in the area.
After that, I walked through the Toy District, which was mostly a big slum and not worth writing about, and cut through the Jewelry Distract (very nice if you like shopping for jewelry, but not all that interesting if you don't). I will say that downtown San Francisco seems to have a better restaurant selection, but I found a Peruvian place near the hotel which proved to be pretty interesting, if not exactly a favorite.
If I do anything else interesting in LA before leaving for Japan, I'll be sure to write about it.


6/5/2013 Vegas!

Well, I did get a new strip up yesterday and there should be one tomorrow too, keeping up the Mon - Fri schedule. Will it continue through next week? Probably not, but we'll see what happens.

As previously mentioned, I'm traveling with my parents to LA and then I'll be heading off to Tokyo on Sunday. Right now, I'm in Las Vegas. I've actually been to Vegas several times in the past because my dad used to teach seminars here. But it's probably been at least ten years since my last visit. Unfortunately, this is just a stop over on the way to LA so we didn't have time to do much yesterday and we're leaving this morning, but there was time to walk around a little, lose $15 to a slot machine (I tend to have horrible luck with any sort of games of chance), and see Ka. I may end up writing a full travelogue entry for it later on Friday if I have time, but for now I'll just say that Ka was spectacular. It has a far more coherent plot than any of the other Cirque du Soleil shows I've seen and, as a result, it starts out a little slow but wow... Aside from the stunning acrobatics, beautiful music, and fantastical costumes I've come to expect from Cirque, Ka makes use of a remarkable pair of rotating platforms over a pit in place of a stage. And they don't just spin around horizontally, one particularly awesome scene features a battle on a near vertical stage as it tilts and rotates. I've said it before, but I'll say it again. If you ever have the chance to see a Cirque show, DO IT. The tickets can get a bit pricey (though you can usually find good discounts if you join their free online fan site), but it's worth it. There's really nothing else like Cirque.


6/3/2013 Travel time

It's already June, huh? Speaking of which, if you didn't read the last news, donation rewards are changing starting this month. Details are in Friday's news post, along with details about the rest of the donation bonuses I owe you (speaking of which, the commentary is done and starts on strip #181). As for the update schedule... I'm going to try to keep the Mon - Fri schedule going for this week at least, than doing the remaining weeks I owe you guys after I get back from Japan. But we'll see. I might be able to keep that update schedule going while in Japan. Or I might not be able to keep it up this week... Either way, you'll get another month's worth of Mon - Fri updates, even if they have to be spread across a couple of months.

Speaking of Japan, I'll be there in just one week! In the meantime though, my family and I are going to Los Angeles by way of Los Vegas. I'm not sure if I'm going to do anything interesting in LA or not (if I do, I'll be sure to write a travelogue), but I will be going to see Cirque Du Soleil's Ka in Vegas, which should be pretty cool.

So, I was going to talk about some more things today but I'm running kind of late. The reason? A computer virus managed to get past all my defences (the first one in years), and getting rid of it took a large chunk of my afternoon and evening. I'm actually running one last scan right now to make sure I've removed every last bit of it. I guess stuff like that is bound to happen every once in a while, but the timing certainly could have been better (course have been worse too, I suppose).

That's all for now. If all goes well, updates should continue uninterrupted during both this trip and my time in Japan. Though, once again, I don't know if I'll be able to keep up this update schedule or if I'll have to drop back to Mon, Wed, Fri.



5/31/2013 Donation craziness

As usual, there's a new voter bonus comic so just click the TWC button and confirm your vote to see it.

Not sure what's up with all the donations lately but, suddenly, the gauge is at $100! That means you guys are going to be getting even more bonuses on top of what I already owe you. On that note though, I'm also going to be changing the donation rewards around a bit starting next month, something I really should have done sooner. It won't affect the current donations though. Anyway, to start here's a summary of what I owe you guys in terms of bonus content and the progress I've made on it.

Commentary: I owed one batch of commentary for April's donations and now another batch for this month's. Well, I decided to at least try and get that out of the way. I had to take a break from my other work, and spend the better part of a day on it, but all 40 strips worth of commentary are done! Specifically, it covers strips #181 - 220.
Mon - Fri Update Schedule for May: I missed two days (one due to travel, one due to a holiday), but with today's update this one is done!
Mon - Friday Update Schedule for June: And now with the new donations, I need to do another month of fives updates a week. Unfortunately, we've got a problem here. Doing five updates a week is fairly time consuming in most cases. Now, we're just about to the start of a big battle with Brendan, May, Xain, and Cali and two on two battle strips tend to take considerably longer to make than just about any others. Plus, I'm going to Japan on the 9th and if I'm going to do travelogue entries, those are pretty time consuming as well. I seriously doubt I'll have the time for both, at least if I actually want to do anything when I'm in Japan. At this point I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do. If I can manage to get a good buffer made before I leave, I might be able to pull it off. But I've had lot of trouble trying to keep any sort of buffer for this month and I have a lot of other things I need to work on as well (like that story for SOE). I may start out doing Mon - Fri updates (at very least, I can probably manage this coming week), see how long I can go, and then, if I don't have the time to keep it up, do two or three more weeks of Mon - Fri updates after I get back from Japan so that the end result is you guys getting a month's worth of extra updates, even if they're spread out over a couple of months.
A New Zelda Page: This is the $75 award. I haven't done one of those in years, and I kinda doubt anyone really cares about it anymore. So, instead, I'm going to put more work into the $100 mystery reward instead (more on that in a moment). That said, if those of you who donated this month really want a new Zelda page instead, let me know. It's your money after all.
$100 Mystery Bonus: The $100 mystery bonus is going to be the start of a new mini-series I've had planned for quite a while. It's called Timmy Tonka and the Pebble Version Factory and will take you, the readers, on a backstage tour of how Pebble Version is made...or not. If the title didn't clue you in, it's going to be a parody of sorts and not a very realistic look at how I work. I'm not sure exactly how many strips it will end up being but it's going to be moderately long. Too long to do as a single donation bonus. I was going to start it off with three strips but, since I'm not going to do a Zelda page (unless donators really want one), I'll do the first six strips instead. That said, this probably isn't going to get done until after I've finished that second month's worth of Mon - Fri updates.
Long Term Mystery Bonus: Originally I was doing one of these for every $50, regardless of how long it took. But since the recent flood of donations has boosted the amount pretty high, instead of starting another project I can break into little $50 segments, I've decided to focus on one really big thing I've been wanting to do. I'm going to keep it as a surprise for now, but I think you'll like it. It's going to take a lot of time and effort though, and probably won't be done until sometime after I've finished all the other bonus content. Late July is the absolute earliest, but sometime in August or September is more likely. Until it's done, there won't be any other long term bonuses (everything will just go towards this one).

So, that's what's happening with the bonus content. Now, a quick summary of what the new donation tiers are going to be starting in June.

$25: This still gets you guys commentary on the next batch of twenty PV strips.
$50 & $75: At both the $50 and $75 tiers you'll get the next two Timmy Tonka strips.
The month long Mon - Fri update schedule has been moved up to this tier. The reason being that it takes a lot of time, which is something I have less of these days then I did when I started the comic. Even this is pretty low, considering how many extra hours I have to put in to maintain a Mon - Fri schedule for a month.

So, that's the new donation tiers. I may end up having to make more adjustments in the future depending on the amount of donations received, my schedule, and how long Timmy Tonka ends up running. But we'll give this a try for now and see how it goes. If you have any comments about it, would rather see two tiers of commentary and one of Timmy Tonka, or something like that, feel free to send me an e-mail.

Oh, if you're wondering what happened to ROM The Novel, I just found that writing one chapter every once in a while when enough donations came in made it really difficult for me to get into the story. I'd like to get back to it eventually, but for now it's on hold until I have the time and motivation to get the whole thing finished in a relatively short time.


5/29/2013 The homestretch

Just a couple more days before PV reverts to its normal update schedule. On that note though, I still have to finish the comics for those days, so I'm off for now. Expect some of that commentary and maybe some more interesting news posts next week.


5/27/2013 One more week...

It's the final week of Mon - Fri updates. But that does mean that I'll soon have time to start working on that other bonus content I owe you guys... Not today though. I still have to finish up this week's strips. But, since I mentioned it last week, here's a piece of Aurora's Nightmare art. It's the cat! Yes, it's a cat. No, it's not an ordinary cat. And no, I'm not going to say anything more about it just yet, other than that it's an important character.



5/24/2013 Working hard

This week's voter bonus comic is up, so click the TWC button and confirm your vote to see it.

That aside, I don't have much to say. I haven't gotten a chance to rebuild my PV strip buffer yet, though I'll hopefully be able to make a bit of progress over the weekend. For those of you wondering about the commentary and mystery bonus I owe you guys, don't worry, they're coming. But I may not have much time to work on them until the comic returns to its normal update schedule at the start of June. PV aside, I'm throwing myself into that new story and work is progressing on Aurora's Nightmare as well (if I remember, I'll post a new piece of art or two next week).

Well, I really should get going. We've got one more week of Mon - Fri updates coming up so I'll see you then!


5/22/2013 Busy, busy

I've been getting a lot done this week. Unfortunately, that doesn't really include Pebble Version strips. I only just got this one finished in time for today's updated. So I don't really have time to write much of anything right now.



5/20/2013 Summer plans

Well, my summer plans are finally coming together. There's still a couple things that could potentially derail them but that's really always the case. I mean, you never know where there could be a big natural disaster or something. I've just couple a couple of less exciting possibilities as well.
That aside, here's what I'll be doing if all goes according to plan. First, I'll be here in Colorado for two more weeks. Then I'm going with my family to Los Angeles. Not entirely sure what, if anything, I'm going to do in LA itself (my dad and brother are going for a conference), but we're stopping at Vegas on the way, so I'm taking advance of that to go to a Cirque du Soleil show.
Anyway, that trip is about a week and then I'm flying out of LA to...Tokyo! Yep, I'm going back to Japan, though this time it's mostly for a vacation, rather than a full on job. I'm making it a working vacation though, like my trip to Hawaii last summer. In other words, I'll be dividing up my time between working on my various projects (that story for SOE, Aurora's Nightmare, the summer classes I'm teaching, etc.) and having fun in Japan. So I won't be out touring all the time, but hey, it worked well in Hawaii and I got to do a ton of stuff on my previous Japan trips when I was only free on weekends and holidays, so there should be plenty of time for fun. I'm going to be based in Tokyo, but there's a lot of places I can get from there in a day. Plus, I've also got at least a couple of overnight trips planned and I'm thinking I'll get in one longer excursion (probably a week or so) to areas I haven't been. Hopefully I can hang out with some friends as well. Naturally, I'll do a travelogue so you guys will be able to read all about it.
I'll be in Japan just about five weeks, and then it's back Colorado for another three weeks, followed by a brief trip to New Mexico for a friend's wedding. Summer break will be almost over at that point, so it'll be time to head back to Florida. Though, if I can find decent flights, I may be stopping in Baltimore for a few days on the way to attend Otakon.
I had originally considered working Hawaii in as well, but I wanted to spend a bit more time in Colorado and I've been to Hawaii a lot lately so I opted to just go to Japan instead. Besides, it's cheaper only doing one destination (though, if money was my only concern, Hawaii would have been a much cheaper trip than Tokyo). My dad was thinking of going to Japan with me this summer as well, which would have been fun. Unfortunately, he's staying behind due to some health issues (he should be fine, but doesn't want to go on such a long trip until he's sure completely recovered). But I've had plenty of fun on my own in Japan before and I can do it again. I've also got a number of friends over there who I can hopefully meet up with. All in all, it's looking like a pretty awesome summer.


5/17/2013 Enjoying Colorado

As usual, there's a new voter bonus comic. Between the holiday and getting some stuff done for my parents, it's been a busy week, but things should calm down now, at least for the rest of the month. After that... Well, we can talk about that next week. For now, here's a write-up and some photos of some of the places I've been since the start of vacation.

March 5 - 15: Enjoying Colorado
While my recent travels here in Colorado don't really need full day by day write-ups, I figured an overview and some photos would be nice. As I mentioned before, my brother wanted to do a bit of touring in the Eastern part of the state (looking for potential places to start a practice when he graduates from chiropractic school). So instead of flying home to Grand Junction, I met them in Colorado Springs. I haven't been there in years, but we used to go a lot when I was a kid. I really don't remember the city much, but it's got some pretty awesome attractions like Garden of the Gods (a park with giant rock formations), Cave of the Winds, some neat museums, and one of my favorite zoos. Unfortunately, we didn't go to any of them this time around, since we were mostly looking around different neighborhoods my brother wanted to see. We did tour the Olympic training center though, which was interesting. Colorado Springs is pretty nice, it's actually one of the larger cities in the state, but you have the mountains right there as well. We stopped to do a quick hike, which was nice, but reminded me that going from around five feet above sea level to five or six thousand requires some adjustment time.
While in the area, we also stopped by Old Colorado, a nice old fashioned touristy street, and Manitou Springs. Manitou is another place I have really fond memories of. First off, it's a very pretty little town with lots of shops and restaurants. There's also a collection of natural springs you can drink from. But the parts I really loved as a kid were the giant playground and the old arcade. The arcade is even more awesome now that I know my video game history. Want to play an original Asteroids machine? Space Invaders? Donkey Kong? Pac-Man? Q*bert? Frogger? They have a very impressive collection of classic arcade games plus a lot of older coin-op machines including pinball, gun games, and even older stuff. There aren't many arcades like this around (the only other one I've seen is in San Francisco), and it's worth a visit for anyone with an interest in video games.
The next day we went to Fort Collins. It's a college town with great views and very nice and surprisingly large downtown area, which was fun to walk around. It's hard to say whether I liked Fort Collins or Boulder better. Boulder has a reputation as being a bit of a hippy town, but it's up in the mountains, has an awesome shopping street, and some really cool stores. Celestial Seasonings (the tea company) is there too and they have a nice tour (complete with a room full of mint) and free tea tasting.
The rest of the trip was spent in Denver itself. It's not one of my favorite cities, but it's got some nice areas. We went to a Rockies game one night and my mom and I went to the Museum of Nature and Science (another place I remember from childhood) another day. It's a huge museum and the animal, dinosaur, and rock exhibits are especially impressive.
After a week in Eastern Colorado, my parents and I (my brother had to return to school), drove across the state to our home in Grand Junction. It's a very scenic drive, passing over the mountains and through towns like Glenwood Springs (which I wrote about last year).
While it's not strictly related, a few days later my mom, a friend, and I hiked up Mt. Garfield. Mt. Garfield is something of a landmark in Grand Junction, but it's also one of the more difficult hikes around. For some reason or other, I never actually did it, but I've been wanting to. While it's only two miles each way, you ascend 2000 feet, so it's a really steep hike. Plus, to make things more interesting, a lot of it involve loose dirt and/or rock and very narrow trails with sheer drops. You get to walk along a ridge too. That said, assuming you're careful and in fairly good shape it's safe enough, and the views are spectacular, especially when you get to the top. It's not all straight up though, there are some flat areas before you reach the top and a surprisingly amount of plant life and even some animals. Lizards are the most common, though my mom and Vita said they got a glimpse of a coyote (I missed it, unfortunately). From a challenge perspective, going down is probably the hardest part (though certainly not as strenuous).
Gotta say that all of this has really reminded me of how much I love Colorado and this part of the country in general. Florida has its good points but, in my opinion, it really can't compare. It's also given me some ideas for when I'm able to have more say in where I live. Colorado in general has long been one of my top four places (along with Honolulu, Phoenix, and Tokyo), but now I think I could narrow that down to a few specific parts of the state.


5/13/2013 Back home

After a week of traveling around Eastern Colorado, I'm back home. That is to say, at my parents' house. It's one of two or three places that really feel like home to me, even if I'm not actually living here anymore. Anyway, now that I'm here things will be calming down...at least for the rest of the month. Haven't quite figured out what's happening after that yet, though I hope to have that all worked out by the end of the week. I'm also almost caught up on comics.

As a note, there will be no PV update this Wednesday since it's the holiday of Shavuot. It will, however, update Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. I'll try to have a few pictures and maybe a basic write-up or something of my trip ready for Friday as well.

See you then!


5/10/2013 Buffering

There's a new Blooper Reel comic for everyone who votes (use the TWC button on the left). Once again, remember that PV is updating five days a week this month so, if you feel like you're missing something, use the previous comic link to go back and see Thursday's strip. I'll have some more to say (and possibly some assorted photos from Colorado) sometime next week. Right now, I need to get back to work on my comic buffer.



5/8/2013 Five days a week!

Remember that PV is updating five days a week this month, so if you missed Tuesday's strip just click the previous comic link and take a look.

I'm going to keep things short today since I still have one more comic to finish up for this week and then I really want to start getting my comic buffer rebuilt. I hate working without one, and it's especially problematic when I'm doing extra updates like this. That aside, the trip is going well so far. While it's not worth a complete travelogue, I may end up posting a few photos sometime over the next week. For now though, I'm going to get back to work on those strips.


5/6/2013 Extra updates coming!

Well, I'm officially on vacation and I made it to Colorado without any problems. Remember that, starting today and going through the end of the month, Pebble Version will be updating five days a week (Monday - Friday). Just the comics though, news posts will still update on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. That said, this week my family and I are doing a bit of traveling in and the Denver area, which means hotels and uncertain internet access, so I can't guarantee I'll be able to update every day, though I'll certainly try. Worst comes to worst, I miss a day or two and extend the extra update period into the start of June. Either way, I'll be at my parents' house next week and, barring anything unexpected, shouldn't have any problems updating Mon - Fri for the rest of the month. As for the rest of the bonus content, expect it to start showing up sometime between the middle and end of the month. Or maybe in June if I get really busy.



5/3/2013 Last day...

There's a new bonus comic for everyone who votes!

Well, today is my last day of work before summer vacation. Not that I won't be working over the summer. First off, I plan to spend quite a lot of time on Aurora's Nightmare. I'd really like to get a demo out in late summer or mid fall. Though whether or not I can pull that off will depend on a couple things I don't have full control over. Either way though, I should be able to make quite a lot of progress on it.
I'm also going to be teaching a few online classes over the summer. Nothing I haven't done before and, unlike last year, I may actually make some decent money from it this time (enough to pay for my summer travels, anyway).
Finally, I believe I mentioned a certain story I was hired to write earlier this year, though I don't think I gave any details. Well, I still can't say too much about it, but it was a novella (longer than a short story, shorter than a full novel) tie-in for an big upcoming game being developed by SOE (Sony's online game branch). Well, the story hasn't been released to the public yet (which is why I can't say anything more about it right now), but it looks like I may be writing another one soon. Admittedly, that will slow my work on Aurora's Nightmare a bit, but I really enjoyed doing the first story and it's great for my resume. Plus, since I'll be on vacation, I'll have a lot more free time, which means I could get another story finished pretty quickly.

With all that said though, I do plan to relax and have some fun this summer. I'll be heading out on Sunday and plan to spend the rest of the month back in Colorado with my family. After that...it's a bit up in the air. A stay in Hawaii and/or Japan is very possible, but I've been waiting to make any definite decisions until I see how a couple of things play out. Hopefully, that'll all be taken care of in a week or two. If not, I'll probably just have to go ahead and make my plans and hope something doesn't come up that forces me to cancel.

Anyway, remember that PV will be updating five days a week (Monday - Friday) starting on Monday and continuing through the end of May. Though I should note that, while I'll be going back to Colorado on Sunday, my family and I are actually going to be doing a bit of traveling for the first few days, so I can't be 100% sure about my internet access. Hopefully I won't miss any updates, but if I do I'll keep the five day schedule going through early June to make up for it.

Have a good weekend!


5/1/2013 Overload

Ugh... It's the last week of the semester at the college where I work, which means a combination of grading final projects, prepping stuff for next semester (I'm teaching a few online classes over the summer), and assorted other paperwork and things that always crop up at the worst times. Not to mention I need to get ready for my upcoming trip. While it'll likely be another week or two before most of my summer plans are finalized, I am going back to Colorado next week to spend some time with my family. Despite all that, I've been doing a pretty good job of staying on top of things. All in all, it's been a fairly low stress finals period...right up until last night. And fairly late last night at that. I was just about to wrap up my work and get a little game time in before updating this site and heading to bed when I got several rather important e-mails that I had to deal with back to back. Aside from eating up any time I might have had to play games, it really upped my stress levels (due to the contents of the e-mails, not the lack of game time) and kept me from finishing a couple of things that I really wanted to get done. Could be a lot worse though and, assuming nothing unexpected happens, I should be back on track by the end of the day.

But anyway, I've got a couple other things to talk about today so let's get to them. First up, donation bonuses! Thanks to a couple of last minute donations, the gauge actually hit $55 before the end of April. So, that means that you guys will be getting several things. First up, commentary on the next set of old PV strips. Next, five new PV strips a week for a month! Finally, there's the mystery bonus for reaching the long term goal. What is it? Well, I'll be keeping that a secret for a bit longer... So, when is all this stuff going up? Normally, I'd start the five updates per week schedule immediately, seeing as it's the start of the month and all, but I don't have a buffer built up at the moment and, with everything going on, I rather doubt I'll have a strip ready for tomorrow. So, assuming nothing unplanned happens to throw off my schedule, PV will switch to daily Mon - Fri updates starting next week. Note that news posts will retain the Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule, only the comic will update five days a week. Maybe I'll keep it up into the beginning of June to make up for not having a strip tomorrow. We'll see how busy I am (as I said, my full summer plans haven't been finalized quite yet). The commentary will go up as I have time. My goal is to have it done before the end of the month, though, once again, it could be delayed depending on how those summer plans work out. Once the commentary is finished, I'll start on the mystery bonus, hopefully finishing it sometime between late May and early June.

Now, let's see about that travelogue entry...

Sunday (April 28th): The Blue Man Group
Since I moving to Florida, it's been my goal to visit all of Orlando's major attractions. I've previously visited all four Disney parks, both Universal parks, Seaworld, Legoland, and Busch Gardens (though the last two aren't actually in Orlando), all four major Orlando water parks, and a bunch of assorted other attractions both in Orlando and other pars of Florida. Orlando also has quite a lot of shows outside of the theme parks, the two biggest of which are Cirque Du Soleil's La Nouba at Downtown Disney and Blue Man Group at Universal City Walk. I saw La Nouba last year (see the April 17th entry) and was really impressed. I never did make it to Blue Man Group though...until this past Sunday. And, as the last major Orlando attraction, it'll make a good way to wrap up my year two Florida travelogue.
Like La Nouba, tickets to Blue Man Group aren't especially cheap. However, you can usually get a good discount on La Nouba tickets if you join Cirque du Soleil's free online fan site. I couldn't find anything similar for Blue Man. Plus, parking at Downtown Disney is free while parking at Universal City Walk is another $14. I was originally thinking I'd spend most of the day at Universal Islands of Adventure, which I'd like to go back to. But, to save a bit of money, I decided to go someplace I could get in for free. I still have a bunch of admissions to non-theme park attractions left on my Disney pass, and the weather was good, so I decided to go back to the Typhoon Lagoon water park (see the September 2nd entry if you want to read about it). It hasn't changed since I was last there but, as I said, the weather was good and the lines were pretty short so I had a nice relaxing time there.
I left a little before the water park closed and drove over to Universal City Walk. While I've been there a couple times in the past, I was always just walking through on my way to or from the Universal theme parks, so I never had a chance really look around. Much like Downtown Disney, it's a collection of shops and restaurants, along with a movie theater and a couple other minor attractions. The focus is very much on night life and, as such, it wasn't all that crowded when I arrived but was fairly busy after the show. Overall, I'd say Downtown Disney is a bit larger and has a bit more variety, and the free parking is a plus. But if you like fancy clothing stores or late night dance clubs, you could have a lot of fun at City Walk. None of the restaurants particularly stuck out to me at first glance but I eventually ended up at a place called Latin Quarter, as it sounded like the most exotic of the bunch. It turned out to be a very good choice. I got coconut breaded tilapia on rice with a mango sauce and a pudding covered with caramelized bananas. Both were excellent.
After my meal, I headed over to the Blue Man Group's theater to pick up my ticket (I ordered it online, but they don't let you just print tickets). Side note, I got one of the cheaper tickets and that's what I recommend. Like at La Nouba, the theater is small enough that there really aren't any bad seats so, unless you really want to be up close and centered, you might as well save a bit of money.
As for the show itself, cameras weren't allowed, though here's a teaser video on Youtube. Honestly, even now that I've had a couple days to think, I'm not really sure how to describe the show, other than give a complete blow by blow write-up, which I don't want to do. I guess you could call it performance art, though it's also part concert (featuring very unusual instruments) and part comedy show, with some oddly education bits mixed in. Add in lots of bright lights, paint, and sheer craziness. While La Nouba was strange in a dreamlike way, Blue Man Group is more acid trip strange. Although the stuff they do isn't as impressive as the acrobats in La Nouba, the show is really entertaining and funny. If you're in Orlando and only have time to go to one show, La Nouba wins hands down. But, if you've got the time (and money) for a second show, Blue Man Group is definitely worth seeing. As a warning though, they're pretty big on audience participation (clapping, hand waving, showing up on camera, etc.). The best seats actually include raincoats (in case you get splashed with paint), and a couple of random audience members even got dragged up on stage for various skits. So if you've got serious social anxiety issues or some such you might want to go elsewhere (or get a seat way in a back corner or something).
To wrap up both this entry and the travelogue as a whole, here's one last picture, Universal City Walk at night. Will there be another Florida travelogue starting up in the fall? We'll see. In the meantime though, I'll likely be doing a travelogue for at least some of my summer travels...


4/29/2013 Later in the week...

Well, it's the last week before my summer vacation. But I do have one final entry for the Florida Year 2 travelogue...just not today. I'm running a bit behind at the moment and have a lot that needs to be done, so the travelogue will have to wait until Wednesday. Speaking of Wednesday, it'll be the start of May. And, if you look at the donation bar, you'll see that you guys have some bonus content coming up...but more on that Wednesday.



4/26/2013 Travelogues!

This week's voter bonus comic is up! Just click the TWC button and confirm your vote to see it.

Over the years, my travelogues (especially the ones from my times in Japan), have become a pretty major part of this site. So, I decided it's time to finally move them off the Extras page and give them their own page. So, whether you're looking for my big Japan, Florida, or Hawaii travelogues, or any of the other smaller ones I've done over the years, you can find them all on the new Travelogues page. Note that the web addresses for the individual travelogues haven't changed, so any direct links you may have will still work, I just moved the big list of travelogues to its own page and re-organized it into a better format.

Speaking of travelogues, there will be one last entry in my Florida Year 2 travelogue before I head off on summer vacation...but that's something for next week...


4/24/2013 Hetalia

Have I ever mentioned the anime Hetalia? Well, the full name is Hetalia Axis Powers (for the first two seasons anyway, it becomes Hetalia World Series after that and Hetalia Beautiful World in season 5). But anyway, I've been rewatching the first two seasons this week. It really is an interesting and hilarious series. The basic premise is a retelling of world history, except that each country is represented by a single character. While lots of different countries show up from time to time, the main focus is on the major players from World War II (the US, Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Italy, and Japan). Not to say that the entire series is about WWII. Hetalia's episodes are only five minutes each (with an entire season being about as long as a movie) and are broken up into several short skits, and it's quite common for each skit to be from a completely different time period. It can occasionally get a little confusing jumping back and forth between the world wars, the present day, and even the days of the Roman empire, but you get used to it soon enough. Now, you might think a show about world history would be rather serious. However, Hetalia is a comedy and a really funny one at that. A lot of the humor comes from the fact that each character is very much an over the top stereotype. America is blond, wears a fighter jacket, and is loud, overly enthusiastic, and determined to always be the hero. France is an extremely narcissistic pretty boy who thinks he's better than everyone else. Italy is a wimp and completely obsessed with pasta. It's not politically correct in the least and there are a few lines that left me thinking "I can't believe they actually said that". Fortunately, it doesn't play favorites. Even Japan (Hetalia's country of origin, it being an anime and all) is given the super stereotype treatment. This clip (from a meeting of the allies during WWII) should give you some idea of the style. But, if a bunch of good natured jokes at your own (and every other) country's expense doesn't bother you, Hetalia is a lot of fun. You can even learn a lot of actual history by watching. Despite the joking, it tends to be very historically accurate and even brings up some pretty obscure events and countries (Sealand, anyone?). Though the constant time jumps can make the history hard to follow at times and, since the series keeps a light hearted tone, the darker aspects of many events tend to be ignored or glossed over. For example, while there are a lot of skits set during WWII, things like the Holocaust and the use of atom bombs on Japan completely lack the importance they'd have in any serious treatment of the period, only being hinted at in a few throwaway lines. Despite that, I highly recommend the show. Even if you're not into anime, if you have any interest in history (or just like culture stereotypes) you'll probably find something to enjoy.


4/22/2013 Quiet weekend

I don't have much to talk about right now. It's been a pretty quiet weekend and I divided most of my time between getting some work done and playing Ni no Kuni (which I want to ensure I finish before summer vacation). I think I had some topic I planned to write about at, but I honestly can't remember what is was so I'm just going to head off for now.



4/19/2013 Flowers, Gardens, and Paul Revere

There's a new blooper reel comic for everyone who votes!

Well, it's a bit late, but it's finally time for the travelogue entry for the Epcot trip I took a week ago.

Friday (April 12th): Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival
The Flower and Garden Festival is an annual event at Epcot and I went last year as well. Aside from the flowers and gardens, it's also known for its concert series, with each weekend featuring a different oldies music band. While I love Epcot in general, and all the flowers and fancy topiary are nice additions, the concerts are the big draw for me, since I'm a fan of 60's and 70's rock music. There are a few different bands this year I wouldn't mind seeing, but I finally settled on this weekend's group, Paul Revere and the Raiders.
This year, there were some new additions to the festival. First up, there were some larger themed gardens scattered around the park. Some were based on various movies (like Cars and Oz), while others had a more natural theme, like the butterfly garden. Even better, they took some inspiration from the awesome Food and Wine Festival and placed a number of food stands around the park, all of which serve a selection of special food and drinks. With prices from $2 - 5, and appropriately sized portions, they encourage you to snack your way around. While there were only ten booths (as opposed to the 30 or so at the Food and Wine Festival), they were just as good and made for an excellent addition. I tried some great dishes like baked goat brie with kumquat chutney, Moroccan pancakes with argan oil, and frushi (sliced fruit and coconut rice wrapped in rice paper). I did end up getting a full meal as well, at a restaurant in France. While I've had assorted French food before, I think this was my first time eating at a French restaurant. It was a nice place, and they even had a waiter wheeling Remmie around. The food was good, especially the French onion soup (an old favorite of mine that I really should eat more). Unfortunately, that was when I figured out that the reason I was feeling kind of lousy the previous day was due to some sort of stomach bug. Fortunately, it wasn't much of an issue so long as I didn't eat too much at any one time. Unfortunately, it took eating a big meal (and feeling pretty lousy as a result) to figure that out. But it didn't take me too long to recover and I was careful to avoid any further problems after that.
While waiting for the concert, I decided to focus on some things I hadn't done before. For example, I took a tour of the tea garden in Britain, which was pretty interesting. I already knew a bit about how tea is made, but our guide was nice and I picked up a bit of new information. Plus, free tea samples. We also happened to spot some baby rabbits hanging out in the garden. I also watched the music and belly dancing show in Morocco and went on the newly redesigned Test Track ride. It's a fun ride, by the way. It's a bit less realistic than the old version (which I went on years ago), but sports a rather interesting Tron-esque design and gets up to 65 mph at one point.
I ended up watching two of the three Paul Revere and the Raiders concerts. Interesting trivia bit, they've played at Epcot every year since 1971. Oddly enough, despite being the front man, Paul isn't the lead singer. The original lead singer isn't with the band anymore, but their current one is really good. (More trivia, he was the original lead guitarist for the Backstreet Boys.) They played all their biggest hits and Paul turned out to be a real joker (it was practically half concert half comedy show). Anyway, I really enjoyed the concerts though they asked the audience not to take any videos, which I why I only have photos this time.
The rest of my day at Epcot was spent revisiting stuff I've already written about so I'll end this with a photo of the fireworks taken by the tori gate in Japan.


4/17/2013 Weird Al

Weird Al was playing in Jacksonville yesterday, so I headed over there after work. It was fun. I've seen him a few times before, but he always puts on a great concert. Anyway, I got back a bit late so that travelogue entry will have to wait until Friday.

See you then!


4/15/2013 Good and bad

There was a problem with Friday's update not uploading when I thought it did so, if you missed if, you can click the back button to reach the comic and scroll down on this page for the news post.

On the bright side, I wasn't coming down with a cold or the flu. On the down side, I did get food poisoning or some kind of stomach bug, which I'm still getting over. Despite that, I did manage to have a pretty good weekend overall and there will be a travelogue update...but not today since it's late and I need to get some sleep before work. I'll shoot for Wednesday, though Tuesday could be another late night so we'll have to see. Anyway, I'll get it up sometime this week.


4/12/2013 A fun weekend?

Ugh...  Looks like Friday's update didn't get uploaded properly and I'm only finding out now. Sigh... Anyway, it's fixed now.  The comic is up and my original news post is as follows.

As always, there's a new PV Blooper Reel comic for everyone who clicks the TWC button and votes.

Well, I finished most of the post GDC stuff I was working on Wednesday night. Even better, I've got some great plans for the weekend. Unfortunately, yesterday didn't go so well. It's was a really busy and kind of stressful day at work plus I was feeling pretty off all day day. Still am, actually. I'm not entirely sure if I'm coming down with a cold (which would really screw up my weekend plans), ate something weird (though I'm not sure what that would have been), or if it's just a combination of all the stress and late nights I've had over the past week. At this point, I think I'm just going to have to get some sleep, see how I feel in the morning, and go from there. Depending on how that turns out, there may (or may not) be a travelogue entry next week.

See you Monday.


4/10/2013 Distracted

I've been pretty busy since getting back from GDC and it looks like it's going to take at least another day or two before I'm finally done with all the stuff I've been working on. Of course, after that's finished I have to get back to work on Aurora's Nightmare and with final exams and summer vacation coming up soon, I have to prepare for them as well...
That said, I'm trying to get a bit of game time in as well. There's a good chance I won't have my non-portable consoles for much of the summer (traveling and all) and I at very least want to finish Ni no Kuni and Bioshock Infinite before then. I started Ni no Kuni back before GDC but, after getting back, decided to take a break from it to play through Bioshock. Got to say, it's got me rather hooked at the moment. While I was fairly involved from the start, it really gets intense once you reach a certain point in the story and just hasn't let up since. I've had a tough time pulling myself away from it the last couple of days (which is why I don't start playing until after I've already gotten a lot of work done). Which resulted in me not having much time to write today's news post.

Anyway, I'll see you Friday. Hopefully by then things will have calmed down at least a little.


4/7/2013 It's all relative

When I was doing my grocery shopping the other day I spotted a rather interesting looking drink at the store. I thought about getting it but didn't because I thought $6 seemed a bit expensive for a four pack. Though, as I was leaving the store, I realized it's odd that I think that's expensive but don't mind paying $5 for a smoothie or frappuccino. And, even when you consider the size difference, the four pack is a much better deal. There are also lots of times that I don't buy a particular fruit or vegetable because I think the price is a bit high. But, when I compare them to that $5 a drink cost, in many cases they don't seem that bad after all. Will that realization change my buying habits? Eh, probably not. But it's interesting to think about. Maybe I'll get a few less frappucinos in the future. I mean, I only drink one or two a week, and that's a whole lot cheaper than cocktails, for example, but it still adds up.


4/5/2013 Biking San Francisco

There's a new voter bonus comic! That aside, I've got a pretty busy weekend ahead of me, but let's go ahead and get the rest of that San Francisco Travelogue done...

Sunday (the 31st): Biking San Francisco
While I was somewhat limited in what I could do on Saturday, I had all day Sunday to do whatever I want. I did look into Alcatraz about a week before but I discovered that the tickets tend to sell out a few weeks in advance (next time, perhaps). However, when I was walking around Pier 39 last year, I saw a sign for self guided bike tours that take you past a number of the city's most notable sights. That sounded so fun, so I headed out to rent a bike. There's actually a lot of bike rental places in San Francisco. After a bit of research online, I settled on Bay City Bike. They have a shop a short distance from Pier 39 so, after waking up and making a quick e-mail check, I headed off. As a side note, I happened to pass another really cool church on the way.
Getting my bike was easy. They had two different models but, with only a few dollars difference, I got the nicer model, a good quality 24-speed. It cost $10 an hour or $40 for the entire day and, when I offered to just pay for a full day up front, the guy gave me $5 off. The bike also included a clear pouch with a map hooked to the handle bars and a lock, which came in handy when I wanted to get off and walk around.
Following the map, I went about four blocks on the regular roads before reaching a bike trail along the coast. The weather couldn't have been better...for the first hour and a half or so at least. After that it could have been much better. But anyway, I passed some more piers and parks, making my way steadily towards the Golden Gate Bridge. But before reaching the bridge, I came across the very impressive Palace of Fine Arts. Set in a park, it was built for an exposition nearly 100 years ago. If you couldn't tell from the first photo, it's a massive structure set in a scenic park in one of the city's nicer areas. There was even a pair of nesting swans there. Being a big fan of old buildings, I really enjoyed walking through the palace.
Continuing on from there, I drew closer to the bridge. See the building beneath it in that photo? It's Fort Point, a Civil War fort created to protect the city's trade routes. It's since been turned into a free museum. There aren't a whole lot of displays, but it's fun to walk through. You can also get some really nice views from the roof. Unfortunately, while I was in the fort, the weather took a turn for the worse and it started raining. Of course, after several days of good weather, it had to rain on the one day when I really didn't want it to. As a side note, Weather.com (which I'm coming to trust less and less) stated there was no chance of rain for at least a few more hours.
But, seeing as my only other option was biking back to the shop, giving up when I'd barely started, and spending the rest of the day in my hotel room, I decided to press on and hope conditions improved. So I backtracked slightly and biked up to the base of the bridge. There are walking and biking paths on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge, though each side is only open at certain times of the day. Both were open when I arrived up, but the path I was on led me to the far side. I couldn't get a good view of the city from that side, but the views of the coast were pretty nice. You can't really see it in that photo, but there's a light house on that finger way on the end. There's actually an optional part of the bike trail that goes over to it but, with the rain getting harder and harder, I didn't want to add several miles to my route. So I crossed under the bridge the continued east along the coast, finally getting a good view of San Francisco. Got some more good views of the bridge as well. And here's Angel Island. You can actually take a ferry there and bike around it as well.
Despite the rain, the bike route was nice. Aside from the views, there were lots of trees and flowers along the way. Though it eventually changed from a full on bike path to a bike lane on the side of the road (the rest of the route alternated between the two). Fortunately, the rain stopped as I neared Sausalito, the half way point on my planned route. It's a scenic town with nice houses and a main street lined with restaurants, fancy clothing stores, and art galleries. It was time for lunch, so I locked my bike to one of the many nearby bike racks and walked around for a bit. I ended up at a Mexican place and got a rather interesting mix of eggs, corn chips, and different types of salsa. But what was really interesting was dessert. I had parked my bike near an ice cream parlor and they had some very unique flavors. I ended up with guava cheesecake and a mix of date and caramel, both of which were really good.
Now, Sausalito has a ferry station and I could have gone back to Pier 39 from there. And, while I'd initially planned to go farther, with the threat of more rain, I was seriously considering calling it a day. However, I checked the ferry schedule and saw that I'd need to wait over ninety minutes for the next ferry (they only run every couple of hours). I figured that, in that time, I could be most of the way to Tiburon (my planned stopping point), where I'd have a much shorter wait. And, since it wasn't raining at the moment, I figured I might as well continue on. Naturally, it started raining again a few minutes after I left, though it fortunately didn't last too long.
The bike path continued to follow the coast, passing through a marsh, past a bunch of house boats, and near a number of expensive houses on tree covered hills. There were also forests, nice old buildings, and parks. After a couple hours of solid biking, I reached Tiburon. Like Sausalito, it's a small but classy town, with a number of shops and restaurants. Though it had a more old fashioned feel to it than Sausalito did.
From there, I hopped on the ferry for a ride back to Pier 39 (the ferry allows bikes onboard). I was able to get some nice views of Tiburon and the other areas I biked through on the way. The ferry passed pretty close to Alcatraz as well, before reaching the pier and downtown San Francisco. After that, it was a short walk back to the bike shop. All in all, I biked around 17 miles with the entire trip (stops and ferry ride included) taking about 7 hours. It wasn't anywhere near as long as the bike ride I took off the coast of Shikoku in Japan, but it was a lot of fun. The route was scenic and fairly flat, with plenty of interesting places to stop along the way. The flat part was especially nice since this was the first long bike ride (actually, probably the first bike ride of any kind), I've taken since last summer. Between the biking and the walking, I was pretty sore for the next couple of days. It didn't help that I decided to walk to Japan town after the bike ride to get dinner (which required a long walk up a steep hill). Sore legs aside though, it was a great day and gave me a more favorable impression of San Francisco overall, making it a great way to end my trip.

Random San Francisco Comment: A Very "Liberal" City
San Francisco is probably the most liberal city I've ever been to, which can lead to some weird (and sometimes awkward) situations. Last year, for example, I came across a group of naked middle aged men on bikes (ugh...). This time, I couldn't seem to go more than a couple blocks in many parts of the city without seeing (or more like smelling) someone smoking weed. One kinda shady looking guy even offered to sell me some. Though, as far as I know, non-medical marijuana use is still illegal in California. And that's not even mentioning all the crazy homeless people wondering around... Some parts of the city are a whole lot better than others, but if you're going to be in downtown San Francisco, it's essentially guaranteed that you'll run into some pretty weird people.


4/3/2013 San Francisco Part 1

I've been pretty busy since getting back from my trip and haven't even finished sorting all my photos yet so there just wasn't any way to write about my entire San Francisco trip today. So, I'll be splitting it into two parts. We'll cover the first part now and, assuming I'm able to catch up on everything over the next day or two, finish up on Friday.

Saturday (the 30th): Walking Around San Francisco
As I did last year, and several other times in the past, I took a trip to San Francisco for the annual Game Developers' Conference. It was a little later than usual this year, and ended up lining up nicely with my spring break. I suppose that's a good thing, since I already had the time off. However, l probably could have gotten time off anyway, since the conference is work related. So basically I missed the chance at extra time off.
Anyway, I got into San Francisco Tuesday night. I spent all day Monday and Wednesday at GDC. I wrote a bit about GDC in last year's travelogue but I'm not going to do so this year. The reason? There's just not a lot to talk about. I checked out a lot of game development related hardware and software on the expo floor, talked with a bunch of people, and watched the IGF and GDCA award shows. It was interesting for me, but most of you would probably find a write-up rather dull since GDC is the business game conference, not one of the fun ones.
I spent Friday at the conference as well, though it ended a bit early, giving me a few hours to hang out in Japan Town. I've written about Japan Town in the past as well, and it hasn't really changed much since last time so I won't repeat myself. It's a fun place to visit, especially if you like Japanese shops and/or restaurants. Though, thanks to my visits to Honolulu over the past year, I wasn't quite as starved for Japanese culture as I was last time.
Anyway, that all brings me to Saturday, the first of my two free days in the city. I spent the morning attending synagogue but I had a lot of time to kill in the afternoon so I decided to take a long walk. I did the same last year (see that previous link) and ended up visiting some famous locations including Lombard Street and Pier 39. This time, I decided go through a different area. There was some overlap though. First off, I ran across plenty of the city's famous Painted Lady style houses. I also stumbled across Trinity Church, one of a number of neat old church buildings in the city. But for my main route, I went East through Union Square Park (where they happened to be having an art show) the continued on all the way to Pier 1 on the coast. While Pier 39 is the famous one, it's hardly the only pier worth visiting. Pier 1 has a large open area across from it with lots of shops, restaurants, and a rather interesting fountain / water play area. They apparently also have a big farmer's market there on Saturdays (I arrived as they were starting to take everything down). The pier also offered a very nice view of San Francisco's other big bridge (the one no one ever talks about because it isn't painted orange).
From there, I headed north along the coast, eventually reaching Pier 39. Since I was there, I stopped to take a couple photos of Alcatraz and watch the sea lions. I got some pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge as well, but I took some much betters ones on Sunday, so you can see them in that section...
Going south from the pier, I passed through Little Italy. While it's not as obviously different as Japan Town or China Town, it had a lot of really awesome looking cafes and restaurants. Unfortunately, since it also happened to be Passover, I wasn't able to actually eat at any of them on this trip. Hopefully next time...
I also walked through China Town. I had passed by it on my last visit and wasn't impressed, but this time I must have been on a different street or something. It was still kind of dirty and chaotic (like most China Towns), but there were a lot of interesting shops and restaurants and the main road is fairly nice overall.
After that, I went back to my hotel to rest up a bit (see the Random San Francisco comment below). But I did go out to eat after sunset. And, while there are a lot of things I don't like about San Francisco, it's selection of restaurants is pretty awesome. Thai and Japanese places are especially common, but there are many others kinds as well. This time, I decided to try a Indonesian restaurant I'd heard about online called Borobudur Restaurant. It turned out to be a pretty popular place, and totally worth the visit. I don't recall ever having Indonesian food before. Fortunately, they had a special menu item that basically gives you small portions of a lot of their most popular dishes. The spring rolls, chicken skewers with a nutty sauce, and the chicken marinated in a spicy coconut sauce reminded me a little bit of Thai food (though the flavors were noticeably different). There were also some very interesting veggie and tofu dishes and an excellent beef stew of sorts. For dessert, a mix of black rice and coconut milk, but it was unlike any coconut rice I've had before. Creamy with a hint of a chocolate like flavor, and really really good. It was an excellent meal and makes me wish Indonesian restaurants were more common.

Random San Francisco Comment: Hills
This trip confirmed my beliefs that, if you're going to live in San Francisco itself (as opposed to the suburbs), you've got to really love walking up and down hills. Yes, love. Liking it just isn't enough. The main part of the city is built on a collection of hills and moving through the city requires lots and lots of up and downs, many of which are both long and steep. It's great exercise but will really do a number on your legs, even if you're used to lots of walking. Tourists beware. I suppose you could drive everywhere but in such a crowded city, parking is limited so you won't be able to avoid climbing some hills every now and then.


4/1/2013 Heading back

Thinking about it, I wish I'd done something special for April Fools (is isn't often PV actually updates on that day) but coming on the tail end of both Passover and my GDC trip, I just didn't have the time. Hmm... 2015 maybe?

In other news, I'm heading back to Florida today, but I did get a lot of touring in on my last couple of days in San Francisco. Unfortunately, I haven't even finished sorting the photos yet, much less making the write-ups, and I need to get some sleep before my flight, so the travelogue will have to wait until Wednesday. It'll be a good one though.


3/29/2013 More GDC

There's a new voter bonus comic for everyone who votes with the TWC button!

Despite the title of today's post, I actually don't have much to say about GDC. I've seen some interesting things at the expo (some of which could potentially benefit Aurora's Nightmare and other projects of mine), but unless you're involved in game development, you're unlikely to find them very interesting (lots of software, hardware, outsourcing groups, and the like). Though one Japanese middleware company has an arcade machine of Gunslinger Stratos, a rather awesome arcade third person light gun deathmatch shooter by, oddly enough, Square Enix. Sadly, with the decline of arcades here, it seems unlikely to ever get an actual US release.

What else? Journey more or less swept the Game Developers' Choice Awards, which was unsurprising, but it was still a fun show. Other than that though, the big stuff like the Metal Gear Solid 5 reveal have come in various sessions and talks, which I don't have access to because they require a much better pass than I have. I'd love to get a conference or all access pass someday, but the prices are ridiculous.

Anyway, I may not have too much to say about GDC itself, but I'm going to do some touring over the weekend so that'll likely give me something to write about.

See you Monday!


3/27/2013 GDC

Well, I made it San Francisco, my hotel is decent (though the room size is pretty similar to that in Japan), and the internet is working (at least for now, it was giving me some trouble earlier). And that's pretty much all I have to say. It's late and I need to get some sleep then get ready for the conference. As I mentioned before, there may be a travelogue entry or two coming out of this trip. Though I can't say if I'll have time to write those while I'm here or if they'll have to wait until I get home.


3/25/2013 Ready to go

Well, I'm leaving for GDC tomorrow. I plan to keep updating PV while I'm gone, but I've never stayed at this hotel before (my normal hotel raised their prices quite a bit) so I won't know what the internet is like until I get there. So, if I miss one or more of the coming updates, that's why. Even if everything works perfectly, due to the change in time zones, updates will be a few hours later than usual.

And...well, I can't think of anything more to talk about at the moment. Between errands and cleaning I kinda burned myself. See you Wednesday (internet access permitting).


3/22/2013 A busy break

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The annual King of the Forums contest is nearing its end on the Pebble Version Forums. KotF started out rather slowly this year but recently a lot of great old members have returned and things have gotten really lively. It's awesome to have them back, but counting all the posts has been eating up quite a bit of my time this past week, so I'll be rather glad when the contest is over (though I really hope everyone sticks around after that).

In other news, my spring break starts today, though it's not going to be an especially relaxing one. I'll be spending the next few days getting some work done and preparing for Passover, which starts Monday night. Then, Tuesday evening I'm off to San Francisco for the Game Developers' Conference. That runs Wednesday - Friday, after which I'll have a couple days to explore San Francisco a bit before returning to Florida on Monday. Though admittedly, the main reason I'm staying is that flying on the weekend would be a lot more expensive. Then it's back to work on Tuesday. It may be a bit hectic, but I usually enjoy myself at GDC and learn some interesting things. Plus, I do want to see some more sights in San Francisco. Maybe I can finally make it to Alcatraz and/or the Golden Gate Bridge this time. Expect a travelogue post or two if I do anything interesting.

I don't plan to miss any PV updates while traveling, but I'm staying a different hotel than usual so I can't be 100% sure what my internet access is going to be like until I get there. Hopefully though, there won't be any problems.

Either way, Monday's update won't be affected so I'll see you then!


3/20/2013 Fan art!

There's some new fan art (the first in quite a while) from forums members Silver and Bioniclemandi121!

I went back to Disney's Animal Kingdom over the weekend with one of my Japanese friends. There's no real reason to do another write-up though, since I covered it pretty thoroughly last time. That said, the safari ride has been changed a bit since last time I was there. Specifically, they got rid of the part at the end where you're looking for a lost elephant and replaced it with more real animals (an improvement, in my opinion). I also saw the Finding Nemo show (which I missed before). It's a well done musical adaptation of the movie, complete with some pretty nice puppet work. We had fun and it was a great day to go. The weather was perfect (warm and sunny, but not hot) and the lines were surprisingly short (20 minutes at most, often less), especially for a weekend.

My friend and I talked about various things throughout the day. At once point, the subject of government issues came up and I thought of a rather interesting way to describe the fundamental difference in attitude between the US and Japanese governments.
I assume at least most of you are familiar with the saying "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Well, the Japanese government's version would be "If it's broke, ignore it and hope things work out on their own." Since Japanese culture is all about keeping the peace and not upsetting the status quo, the government has a tendency to be very indecisive, refusing to make tough decisions (such as an official stance on nuclear power after the Fukushima incident) or enforce a number of laws, even when they're blatantly flaunted. It does keep things peaceful, but means a lot of issues that really need to be dealt with just languish.
On the other hand, the US government's version of the saying is "If it ain't broke, fix it anyway and try to make it even better." In other words, they have a tendency of being a bit too pro-active and moving to regulate and change things that are working decently in hopes of improving them. Problem is, they tend to end up making those things worse. In addition, they often overlook issues that actually do need fixing while focusing on ones that don't.
In the end, both systems have their issues and it's hard to say which approach is better. If either, seeing as they're both pretty flawed.


3/18/2013 Third time?

I really hope some of you get the reference in today's comic.

As much as I really hate doing three short news posts in a row (especially when I have stuff I want to talk about), yesterday was a long (though good) day, I didn't get a ton of sleep the night before, and I have work this morning, so I really need to get some rest before that. Hopefully I'll break this streak of short posts on Wednesday.


3/15/2013 Long day

This week's voter bonus comic is up, just click the TWC button!

I was going to write about something today but it's really late right now so I don't have the time. I had a very busy day at work followed by a party with my friends from the UF Japanese Club for some students visiting from Japan. It was fun but I got back home late and I've got a lot of I want to get done today so I really need to get some sleep first.

Have a good weekend!


3/13/2013 Time flies

The last couple of days have been a bit of a blur. I've been pretty busy but, at the same time, I don't feel like I've actually accomplished much. It's rather annoying... Ah well, it's only two days. Hopefully the rest of the week will go better in that regard.


3/11/2013 Random stuff

I saw Oz over the weekend. Despite the mixed reviews, I really liked it. That said, quite a lot of the reviews were complaining about how it just didn't live up to the original Wizard of Oz (never mind that this is a prequel, not a remake). Personally, I didn't grow up with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I did see it once, but I was in my mid teens at that point so I don't hold it in the nostalgic awe that a lot of people do. So, while I could pick up references, I didn't have issues with the fact that Oz focuses primarily on different characters and isn't a musical. I liked the hero well enough too. He doesn't start out as the greatest guy, but he grows and gets better over time, so that's all good. Overall, it's an entertaining movie, a good origin story for both the wizard and the witches, and features some really neat environments and the best use of 3D I've seen in quite a while (see it that way if you can).

On a totally different (and fairly pointless) note, I've been wondering why the Japanese occasionally name game/anime/manga characters Dingo. I mean really, are there any actual people anywhere with Dingo as a name?

On one more topic, I just started playing Ni no Kuni. I can already see why people said the battle rate is a bit high, but other than that I'm loving it so far.

Well, that's all for now. Later!


3/8/2013 Scheduling

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Well, it's Friday and I still can't think of much to talk about. This week has pretty much just been work (both teaching and my own projects), with a bit of Metal Gear Rising Revengeance mixed in here and there. I don't think I'm going to do anything too fancy this weekend either. Maybe a movie or something, but probably nothing big, I've got stuff to do. Trying to divide my time up between several different projects always bothers me a bit. On the one hand, I feel like I could make much faster progress if I just focused on one thing at a time. On the other hand, some of those things could take quite a while to finish (even if I put all my spare time into them) and I don't want the others stalled for too long. And, of course, in the end I suppose each project will take more or less the same number of hours regardless of how I schedule it. Speaking of scheduling, these days deciding how to spend my time always brings to mind the Persona series, where carefully dividing your time up between school, personal development, work, social life, and exploring dungeons (to save the world, rescue people, or the like, depending on which game it is) is a very important part of the gameplay. Well, I suppose I should be glad that I don't have quite so many things to balance as the heroes of the Persona games do. Then again, if I got the chance to fight monsters and explore dungeons, I'd definitely make time for it one way or another.

Anyway, I'll see you Monday!


3/6/2013 Ordinary week

My dad is doing a lot better. Other than that though, I don't have much to talk about. It's spring break for UF (though not for me, mine isn't until the end of the month) so my friends are out of town and I don't have anything in particular planned for the coming weekend, so I'm just splitting my time between work, games, and several projects of my own (Aurora's Nightmare being one of them). I'll think of something interesting to write about for Friday. For now though, I'm off.


3/4/2013 Back to Busch Gardens

My dad had to go to the hospital over the weekend, which is worrying, though it's looking like he'll recover without too much trouble. So that's a relief. Before that all happened though, I had some fun on Friday, so let's do the travelogue entry.

Friday (Mar 1st): Herman's Hermits at Busch Gardens
There are a lot of theme parks doing concert series this time of year. Busch Gardens and Seaworld have a couple of things going on, Universal Studios is in the middle of their Mardi Gras celebration (which I went to last year), and Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival will be starting soon. I've been keeping an eye on all of them and trying to decide which I should go to. One group I rather wanted to see was Herman's Hermits (if you didn't already know, I like 60's music). Even so, my going was a last minute decision since I had a bunch of work to get done. But I finished it on Thursday so I figured what the heck?
It's been a while since I've been to a theme park on a day that's not a holiday or weekend. While I don't think Busch Gardens is ever as busy as Disney or Universal, the lines were especially nonexistent. Well, except for getting into the park (their ticket machines were running slow). But the rides had almost no lines, letting me enjoy the roller coasters without having to wait.
The way concerts work at Busch Gardens, they hand out free tickets near the park entrance and the theater. They open the theater around half an hour before showtime for people with tickets (there's no assigned seats though) then, a few minutes before showtime, they'll open it up for anyone if there's still room. Thanks to that line at the park entrance, I wasn't quick enough to get a ticket for the first concert (they did three throughout the day) so I grabbed one for the second and went on a couple rides. But I was passing the theater shortly before the first concert started and saw them open it to everyone, so I got to see it anyway (and then go back for the second one). The concerts were a lot of fun. While Peter Noone (the lead singer) is the only remaining member of the original Herman's Hermits, he's the most important one and the other band members did a good job. Peter still sounds great and seemed like a really nice guy, joking with the audience and even giving free CDs to some of the kids. The song lists varied a bit by concert, but they played a lot of their biggest hits in both. And, with such a small theater, there really weren't any bad seats.
Other than the concerts, I decided to check out some of the things in the park I hadn't seen last time, rather than just riding roller coasters for the rest of the day. Something I didn't realize last time is that there are a couple of free rides that take you through the savannah area. One is a train that just goes around the park, the other is the Rhino Rally, which is an off-road type jeep ride. Neither is on the same level as the safari ride in Disney's Animal Kingdom, but I still got some nice views of the animals. While they're not in the savannah, I also stopped to see the cheetahs and the tigers. Did I mention last time that there's a little windowed cylinder you can get in to get an up close look at the tiger? It's cool, but not all that useful if the tiger decides to sleep on top of it. And, of course, I had to go and pet the kangaroos and wallabies again. I kinda want one for a pet...
One other thing worth mentioning is the Iceploration show. I heard that it won an award for best theme park show, so I figured I should check it out. As the name implies, there's ice involved. Ice skating actually, combined with trapeze and trampoline acts, nice music, and fancy costumes. It's really well done. I don't know if I'd call it the best theme park show, but I'd put it in the top three with Festival of the Lion King (Animal Kingdom) and Fantasmic (Disney Hollywood Studios). Though, if you get a bit outside of the parks themselves, Cirque du Soleil at Downtown Disney easily beats them all.
It was a fun day and, while Busch Gardens isn't my favorite theme park, it does have a lot going for it and the fun card (a whole year of admission for the price of one day at most other parks) is a really great deal.


3/1/2013 Weekend!

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I don't have much to say at the moment, other than I'm glad it's the weekend. I'd write more, but I had a late night on Wednesday thanks to some friends and a really large jigsaw puzzle (yes, my friends really know how to party). Then yesterday I was trying to get a bunch of assorted stuff done. I did finish it all, but I'm running a bit late as a result and I'd like to get to sleep.



2/27/2013 Weather

There was a pretty major storm yesterday. It didn't hit the town where I live too badly, but I ended up in the thick of it while driving to work. Not only was the rain near blinding, but I had to turn around twice because roads were blocked by fallen trees. And even the road I ended up taking was blocked on one side. Fortunately, things cleared up entirely by the time I headed back to my place. Such is north Florida weather. Ridiculously inconsistent, even in the same day.

In other news, now that I'm working on the art for Aurora's Nightmare again, I'm watching a lot more TV. At my dad's recommendation, I gave Elementary another try (I originally dropped it after two or three episodes). The main reason I didn't stick with it to begin with was that, while the mysteries were clever, I didn't really care about the characters. Well, the characters did improve a lot later on, to the point where the show is pretty good. That said though, I wish they didn't try to pass it off as Sherlock Holmes. I'm a big fan of the original Holmes stories, and the Holmes and Watson in Elementary are just too far removed from the actual Holmes and Watson. And, for something completely different, since I really liked Disney's Muppet Movie a year or so back, I just started watching the original Muppet Show. Gotta say, it's pretty funny, even if the guest stars are a bit dated by now.

Well, that's about it. Between stuff at work and some rather serious and lengthy discussions I've been involved in (nothing that directly affects me, just serious topics), I'm a little worn out. Later!


2/25/2013 Nothing much

Like the title implies, I can't think of much of anything to talk about right now. Other than making some hamantaschen (a cookie you eat on the holiday of Purim) I had a pretty normal weekend. And...yeah. I'm drawing a blank. See you Wednesday!


2/22/2013 Dance Dance

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I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned it in these news posts, but I'm a long time fan of the Dance Dance Revolution games. I started playing years and years ago and found it to be a really fun way to get a good workout. It's been a regular part of my exercise routine ever since. My dedication to and skill with the games has varied. At my peak, I could take on the hardest songs the series has to offer and clear them (though not always with a particularly great rank). But I'm not always able to stay in practice. There have been times when I couldn't play for extended periods of time (like when I worked in Japan) and times when work and other projects have taken up so much of my time that my exercise routine starts becoming rather sporadic. Sometimes I have an easier time getting back into the game than others. I've been in a bit of a slump in regards to DDR for quite a while but recently started getting back into it and trying to build my skill level back up (I'm not back at my peak yet, but I'm doing better than I have for quite some time).
Anyway, getting back into DDR has gotten me thinking about the series in general. It really hit its peak popularity (here in the US, at least) back during the PS2 era and has been in decline ever since, to the point where it's only had a single game released on the PS3 (though it has fared a bit better on the 360 and Wii). I'm sure DDR could regain a good bit of its popularity, but Konami has been floundering a bit in regards to the series, like they have with all their music games here in the US.
I've been thinking about what DDR needs for a successful current gen entry. Here's what I've got...
1. A large and diverse song collection on disc. Especially on the PS3, Blu-rays can hold a lot more data than DVDs, so why not be generous and go for 70 - 100 songs? As for the diversity, DDR has always made use of a lot of music styles, combining dance, trance, techno, J-Pop, and a bit of American pop-rock. The one PS3 release was a bit unbalanced, probably in an attempt to better appeal to US players. It didn't end up working that way...
2. A good DLC plan (this is the big one). DDR on the PS3 and 360 had DLC, but each game only got several pieces of DLC total and they were all multi-song packs. DDR should take a page from Rock Band and Guitar Hero's books, releasing several songs a week for $1 - $2 each. Furthermore, they should make sure each week's releases cover a range of genres. Ideally, there should probably be a J-Pop song (they're the favorites of quite a lot of DDR players), an American song, and a straight up dance track. The DDR series has such a large back catalogue, they could probably fill a year or more of weekly DLC releases just with the best of their old songs.
3. The scoring and ranking system needs and overhaul. Or perhaps a rollback. They seem to completely change it around every game or two. They really need to pick one system and stick with to make things consistent. Personally, I'd go with the one from DDR Extreme. It seemed to be the most well balanced of the bunch.
4. Online scoreboards and two player vs. would help bring that arcade feel home.
5. A lot of the DDR games let you create your own custom step lists for songs. Let's combine that with the hard drives found in current gen systems and allow people to import their own MP3 files and create step lists for them. Even better, let them make their step lists sharable online (just the step lists, not the actual MP3s, of course).
6. The interface should stick with the standard style used in most of the DDR games (Extreme, SuperNova, etc.) and not one of the odder versions like in DDR Extreme.
7. Unlocking songs and modes can be a bit of a chore in many of the DDR games. Either you have to play x number of songs (sometimes a very high number), or clear a wide variety of challenge stages. Nothing wrong with that, but the first method can be extremely time consuming and even very skilled players tend to run into problems with the second as many of the challenges require the use of a weird modifications (like super fast arrows, invisible arrows, and the like). DDR X was nice enough to have easy and hard version of each challenge, but the difference between the two was pretty massive plus they each unlocked separate things. Experienced players shouldn't be forced to play through a bunch of really easy songs and beginners shouldn't have to hit a wall with the harder challenges. The challenge mode should have three difficulty levels (changeable at any time), with each of them unlocking the same stuff (trophies/achievements, of course, could be limited to harder difficulties). For experienced players who don't want to deal with all that and just want to enjoy the different songs, I'd throw in a full unlock code too (ideally in-game, but even a check DLC version would work).
8. Speaking of the challenge mode, DDRX tried to give it story. To be honest, I liked the idea but the execution was a bit of a mess. If you're going to do something like that, hire a good writer and have them come up with some sort of crazy comedy plot. That'd be the best approach by far for a dancing game. Please don't try to do anything serious, cool, or edgy, it'll just end up being stupid.
9. The announcer... Personally, I'd be happy if they dropped him entirely but to be fair, just keep the classic announcer and make him easy to turn off. No matter what, don't do anything like the announcer in DDRX, who tried to sound edgy and just ended up being really annoying, constantly spouting not so hip lines and the occasional poorly pronounced attempts at Japanese.
10. HD TVs tend to introduce a minor delay in the time it takes for an image to appear on the screen. It's mostly unnoticeable, but in a game where success is decided by fractions of a second, it can be devastating. DDR has long had options to tweak the display timing to compensate, but they should have a easy to use calibration mode that runs the first time the game is started to both tell players the option exists and helps them set it up right. Even better, include a list of presets for popular TV models.
11. Include support for Move, Kinect, and the like, but make sure it's all optional.
I could keep going for a bit longer, but I think that's enough for now. If Konami did these things, and managed some decent marketing I think they could really make DDR popular here again. Maybe I'll clean this list up a bit and e-mail it to them... Or hey, they could just hire me to design the next US DDR. That'd work too...


2/20/2013 New Fantasyland

As I'm sure everyone has experienced, some days go well and some don't. For example, even though I didn't do anything particularly special, last Friday was a really great day. Everything went well and I was feeling excellent. Saturday and Sunday were good too, if not quite on the same level. Monday, on the other hand, was rather so-so and yesterday was going pretty poorly...but then I picked up my copy of Metal Gear Rising. Actually, it wasn't even the game that turned the day around (though what I've played so far has been pretty cool) but the awesome plasma lamp (note, I didn't take the video) that came with the collector's edition. Of all the assorted knickknacks I've gotten from game special editions, pre-orders, and the like, it's easily one of my favorites. Just playing around with it was enough to significantly improve my mood. I'm not sure if it's good or bad that I can be cheered up so easily... On a related note, I need to find a more prominent place in my apartment to place said lamp...

Anyway though, I've got a travelogue entry to get to...

Sunday (February 17th): New Fantasyland at The Magic Kingdom
It's been quite a while since I was last at Disney (back in October, I believe) and I've been wanting to revisit some of the parks there. President's Day weekend seemed like a good time to get started on that so I headed down on Sunday. In retrospect, holiday weekends aren't necessarily the best time to visit Disney parks due to the increase in crowds. That said, it still worked for me since the magic Kingdom stayed open till midnight and I didn't have to worry about going in to work the next day so sleeping in was fine.
Aside from just having fun, there was one other reason I chose Magic Kingdom. As I mentioned in my visit last year (see my January 15th entry), they're making some major expansions to Fantasyland. While they're not completely done yet (and won't be until next year), a lot of the new attractions are open so I naturally wanted to take a look.
New Fantasyland is actually divided up into several different areas. First, there's the original Fantasyland, which is mostly the same as always. Then there's the Storybook Circus area, based off of Dumbo. It's appropriately the new home of the Dumbo ride and also features a little water play area and the Barnstormer (a kiddy coaster and all that's left of Toon Town, which used to occupy the space). Next is the Little Mermaid area. It's got a place to meet Ariel and a nice but very mild ride which takes you through dioramas of various scenes from the movie. Note that the Little Mermaid ride is extremely popular right now. Wait times were pretty much consistently 90+ minutes throughout the day. Naturally, I used a fast pass. Then there's the Beauty and the Beast area. No rides there, but there's some kind of attraction which involves Belle reading stories (it had very long lines and no fast passes, so I didn't do it myself). There's also a shop and two restaurants. One is set in Beast's castle and has a somewhat French menu. It looked pretty good but had ridiculously long lines for lunch and dinner was entirely booked via reservations very early in the day, so I wasn't able to go (next time, for sure). While I've had a decent bit of luck with walk-ins at nicer Disney restaurants in the past, I'd say it's always better to get a reservation as early as possible, especially for dinner and especially on weekends and holidays. I did, however, go to Gaston's Tavern. The decor was pretty awesome and Gaston has one of my favorite Disney villain songs (which they were playing inside), so that was fun. It's a quick service restaurant, so the menu is pretty limited but they have some really big cinnamon rolls and an interesting drink that looks like beer but is actually frozen apple juice with a bit of marshmallow flavoring covered with mango passion fruit foam. The rest of New Fantasyland is still under construction. There's what looks to be a pretty awesome roller coaster set in the dwarves' mine from Snow White and something based on Tangled (Rapunzel).
Other than checking out New Fantasyland, I just went around to different parts of the park and had fun. I got to ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which was closed last time, and is pretty good despite not being especially intense for a roller coaster. Not much else to say other than that I still love Space Mountain and the Monsters' Inc. comedy show is really funny, and changes a bit every time you see it. And, unlike last time, my camera batteries lasted the whole day so I got some nice pictures of the electric parade and the fireworks show.
So, it was a fun day and New Fantasyland is shaping up to be a nice addition to the park, even though it'll be a while yet before the last couple parts are finished.


2/18/2013 Sleep

No time to talk now. I went to Disney yesterday, got back pretty late, and need some sleep. Expect a travelogue entry later in the week.


2/15/2013 The little things

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I mentioned last time that I was trying to decide what game to play next. Well, I decided to save Ni no Kuni until after Metal Gear Rising and use the time until Rising's release to get through a few of the short games on my list. Yesterday was Papo & Yo. It certainly fit the bill as far as length went, seeing as I finished it in a single sitting (and not an especially long one either). It's an indie title that got a decent bit of attention leading up to its launch because the entire thing is set up as a metaphor for a child dealing with a father with substance abuse problems. With a theme like that, it's supposed to be a very emotional experience.
Now, I'm a game designer and writer. Storytelling especially is my expertise (see my book on the subject). With my skills and knowledge base, I can't help by analyze the games I play, considering which elements were especially successful, which could have been done better, and the like. When it comes to Papo & Yo, I appreciate the subject matter they're tackling and the South American setting, both of which are pretty rare in video games. The gameplay has some clever elements as well, though it stays fairly simple throughout and doesn't fully takes advantage of them. Unfortunately, the story didn't quite click for me. On the one hand, I've never had to deal with an abusive parent like the hero. That said, I've never fought dragons, worked as a spy, or done a thousand other things and that's never stopped me from becoming emotionally invested in a good story. As I watched the credits roll at the end of the game, I kept thinking how, with just a little bit more effort, they could have significantly increased the game's emotional depth. What was sad was that the changes I'd make are all small improvements. A few additional character animations, a bit more emotion shown on the hero's face, and different timing and camera angles in some of the cut scenes. Even for the small indie team who made the game, these are things that probably could have been done with another week of work at most, but they would have added so much to the experience. The lesson here is, no matter what you're working on, don't forget the little things. Sometimes, they can make all the difference.


2/13/2013 Editing

I finished the story. Now just two or three rounds of editing and I can get back to Aurora's Nightmare (probably early next week). Not too much else going on at the moment. I'm going to have Monday off for Presidents' Day, so I'm planning an Orlando trip that weekend. There may or may not be a travelogue entry, depending on what I do. I'm also trying to decide what game to start on next. I was going to go with Ni no Kuni, but with Metal Gear Rising coming out next week I'm tempted to hold off on starting any long games until after that. Well, I've got enough great titles in my collection that I suppose I can't go wrong no matter what I choose.

I can't think of anything else to say at the moment so I'm off for now. See you Friday!


2/11/2013 Finishing stuff

I finished the final book in The Wheel of Time series a few days back. It was rather bitter sweet. I've been reading The Wheel of Time for somewhere around fourteen years and it's always remained one of my favorites. While I've been waiting a long time to find out how it would like, like with Harry Potter, it's rather sad to know that there won't be any more books. And then there was the ending itself. It was big, epic, conclusive, pretty much everything I wanted but there were some characters, who I really liked and have followed for years and years, who didn't survive. It may sound a little corny, but the mark of good fiction is creating characters that are both believable and make the reader/watcher/etc. care about them. The Wheel of Time did that and will likely be known as one of the greatest epic fantasies. I'm really going to miss it. At least I can always go back and reread it. Though I just did reread the entire series in preparation for the final book so it'll probably be a while before I return to it again. But I know that, sooner or later, I will.

I also just finished Persona 4 Golden, which I can safely say is one of my favorite RPGs ever. Well, maybe finished isn't the right word. I beat it with the true ending, but I'm planning to do a replay and get the remaining trophies. Though I'll have to divide my game time between that and Ni no Kuni, which I want to start.

Plus, I'm almost done with that story I'm writing. Just a few more pages to go and then some editing.

Anyway, I'm running late so I really should get going. Later!


2/8/2013 Sorta lucky

There's a new Blooper Reel comic so vote using the TWC button if you want to see it.

My usual routine on Thursdays involve going to the Japanese club's language tables at UF for a while after work, to hang out with friends and practice my Japanese. It ran a little late yesterday so I was hungry and didn't really want to take the time to both drive home and cook something. For some reason or other, I really wanted to go to Five Guys. Which is a little odd since I don't go there much (they're not bad, but there are other burger places I like better). So I got my burger, started driving back to my place...and got rear ended while stopped at a traffic light. What is it with people hitting my car? My old car got rear ended twice in parking lots (once when I wasn't even in it) and had a window shattered when someone accidentally hit it with a piece of lumber. And now my new car gets rear ended... Fortunately, while those previous incidents all required repair work, this time I got lucky. As far as I can tell, my car didn't really take any damage. If anything there might be a few small scrapes (I'll have to wait until morning to take a closer look), but there's no serious damage, dents, or anything. I'm really glad about that since, while the other guy's insurance would probably have covered the damage, I would have had to get a rental or something since I can't get anywhere around here (work included) without a car. All in all, it was an interesting mix of bad and good luck. And hopefully something that won't be happening again.

Have a good weekend!


2/6/2013 No comment

I really don't have much of anything to talk about at the moment. I'm working hard both at work and on that story I was hired for, using my free time to try and finish Persona 4 Golden and the last Wheel of Time book, and making progress on a few other assorted projects and goals of mine. On the one hand, it's been a fairly good week so far. On the other hand, I'm still feeling a little worn out (probably a carry over from last week). It doesn't help that the local ant population decided to make another assault on my dishwasher. Seriously, how many of them to I have to drown and/or smash before they give up? On a side note, are their any ant traps that actually work? They seem to completely ignore all the ones I buy...

See you Friday!


2/4/2013 Medieval Faire

As always, if you haven't seen Friday's bonus comic yet (or just want to help support Pebble Version a little), you can click the TWC button on the right to vote for Pebble Version on Top Web Comics.

I went to the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire yesterday with a Japanese friend of mine. It didn't change much compared to my visit last year (see the February 5th entry), so I'm not going to do another write-up. We ended up staying for most of the day and watching the vast majority of the different shows. The living chess match was just as awesome as last year and a lot of the other shows were fairly impressive and/or entertaining as well. Overall, it was a lot of fun. Plus, due to The Hobbit, my re-read of the entire Wheel of Time series (in preparation for the last book, which I'm now in the middle of), and some other assorted things, I've been in a rather medieval mood lately. Too bad I can't go to the big Renaissance Festival in Phoenix too... Actually, what'd be really fun is being an actor in the living chess game, or something similar. Choreographing and practicing the fights would be awesome...
Got to say though, I kinda wish most of my Japanese friends here in Florida weren't quite so keen on improving their English. I mean, it's a good idea and my teaching experience makes me a pretty good language companion for that. But it doesn't give me as much of an opportunity to practice my Japanese.

Anyway, things are calming down a bit this week in terms of my workload, but I can't relax too much just yet. Got a story to finish writing and plenty of work left on Aurora's Nightmare after that, so I should go.



2/1/2013 Weekend!

I said on Monday that this was going to be a pretty busy week. It has been, and will continue to be so through today, though things should calm down tomorrow. Fortunately, I got just about everything on my list done. On the down side, some of those things took longer than I expected and some other stuff came up (like taxes...yay...) so I didn't get as much writing done as I wanted. I'm hoping to remedy that somewhat today, though I still have a couple other things to take care of... But, before all that, I need some sleep.

Have a good weekend!


1/30/2013 Photos on canvas

If you've read any of my travelogues, you know that photography is a hobby of mine. I went to a couple of art festivals last year and the thing that most stuck out to me were the photos on canvas. If you're not familiar with them, basically you take a photograph, print it on a canvas, and stretch it across a frame much like you would with a real painting. With a good photo, the results can be really striking. Since then, I've been kinda wanting some of my own. I have a pretty nice collection of photos, some of which I think are as good as what I saw for sale at the shows. But I wasn't sure how to go about getting photos on canvas (doing it myself would require special and expensive equipment) and never really pursued it. Then Google Offers came along... If you're not familiar with Google Offers, it's a lot like Groupon. Basically, you can buy gift cards or major discounts on different things. I signed up last year because it's free and they were selling $20 Starbucks gift cards for $10. Well, late last year they started sending me a bunch of offers for web sites that let you create your own pictures on canvas. So, I decided to give it a try. I ended up purchasing three different offers, each from a different site. Then I picked out three of my favorite photos, uploaded them, and made some orders. Now that I've gotten all three of my canvases, I thought I'd give a little review, in case anyone else is interested.
Before I talk about the canvases themselves, I should make a note that, the larger the canvas, the more likely your photo will end up looking blurry or distorted. The higher quality the original photo (in terms of size and dpi), the larger a canvas you can make without having to worry. The pictures I used were taken with my old camera, which is 10 megapixels and takes pictures at 180 dpi. While the photos on canvas sites give you rough quality estimates when you upload your photos, I went into this process rather unsure of how much I could enlarge mine. The largest canvas I bought is 24" x 18" inches, and it looks great. But, while I haven't seen it, I made my parents a 40" x 30" for the condo in Honolulu, which they say looks very good as well. Now I want one that big... But anyway, here's the run down of the sites I used.

Creation Process:
Fabness has a flashy looking site and a fancy system for uploading your photos and positioning them on canvas. Unfortunately, it can be a little glitchy (I had to restart my browser once to get it working right). There are a decent amount of options for canvas sizes, but you're limited to their pre-set choice. You can also spread a single photo across multiple canvases or make a college of several photos on a single canvas. Overall, the systems is easy enough to use (assuming it's working properly), but your options are limited to their fairly large selection of presets.
You can find a price list on their web site, but I'll note that Fabness is that most expensive of the three sites I tried. That said, if you sign up for their e-mail alerts, they seem to send out quite a lot of really good coupons. It's been less than a month since I signed up and I've already gotten one for 69% percent of a 40" x 30" canvas and one for 55% off anything. With deals like that, it's a real bargain.
Fabness is fast. Really fast. My canvas shipped two days after I made the order and arrived only several days after that.
Final Product:
Here's the canvas I got from Fabness. I choose an edge or gallery wrap, which means that the photo wraps around the sides of the frame (as a note, if you're planning to do that, realize that the outer border of your image (about 1 1/2") is going to be wrapped. If anything important is right by the edge of the image, that could be a problem). But anyway, the image is clear and sharp, the colors are accurate, and the whole thing looks amazing. The canvas is much like what a canvas sign would be printed on. It's thick, smooth, shiny, and wrapped around a plain but solid wooden frame. It comes with a little metal hanger you hammer into the frame. Pretty basic, but it works. The one issue with the canvas is, if anything, it can be a little too shiny. It reflects light so well that I had a really difficult time trying to get a good photo of it. And even the one I eventually settled on isn't that great (those shiny areas and specks on the picture are light reflected from my camera flash, not flaws in the canvas). That said, it's never really affected my normal viewing of the canvas, just my attempts at photography.

Creation Process:
AllPosters has a very no frills system for uploading photos and creating your canvas. It's easy to use, but it also has the fewest options of all three sites.
AllPosters is a good bit cheaper than Fabness (at least their non-sale prices). It's prices are similar to those at MyPix2Canvas, depending on which options you choose. You can see their full price list on their site.
AllPosters wasn't quite as fast as Fabness, but they came close. I had my canvas a little more than a week after placing the order.
Final Product:
For this canvas, the top and bottom of the flower are too close to the edges to allow for a good wrap, so I had the sides done in a solid color (black) instead. AllPosters uses a type of canvas that's a lot different then the other two I got. It's a bit rougher and has a slightly more fabricy feel to it. The photo still looks great (sharp and clear, good colors), but the canvas gives it a somewhat different texture (a bit more like a real painter's canvas, I think), which I'm not quite as fond of. But that's personal preference, it wouldn't surprise me if some people like it better. They also mounted a wire hanger into the frame, which is a nice extra touch.

Creation Process:
Out of all three sites, I liked the creation process as MyPix2Canvas the best. It's easy to use and, while it's not as flashy as Fabness's, it has a lot of options and is the only site that gives you the option to set the exact dimension of your canvas, instead of just choosing from a list.
They're a lot cheaper than Fabness's regular prices. Whether MyPix2Canvas or AllPosters is cheaper really comes down to which options you choose.
This one was slow. It took them about three weeks to ship my canvas after I placed the order. Admittedly, I might have found that reasonable if Fabness and AllPosters hadn't been so fast.
Final Product:
I didn't really want to lose the edges of this photo, but I didn't want a solid color either, so I chose to mirror the area around around the edges and wrap that. While I can imagine how that would look really strange with some photos, it works nicely for this one. The final product here is actually nearly identical to the canvas I got from Fabness. The canvas has a slightly different texture but it's something you have to look close to notice. The frame and hanger style are the same as well. The main different is that is doesn't reflect the light as much (hence the better photo). And, of course, the picture looks great.

So, overall? While I'm happy with all three of my canvases, I'm going to give the edge to Fabness. While MyPix2Canvas has the better creation process and base pricing, Fabness is much faster and has lots of great promotions (if you're on their e-mail list), which more than make up for the price difference. But really, if you have a good photo sitting on your computer, you can't go wrong with a canvas from any of the above sites.


1/28/2013 Manatees

While there isn't really anything special going on for the rest of this week, I may still be kind of busy. There are several things on my to-do list I've been putting off until I have some extra time. Problem is, that time just hasn't materialized. So, I'm giving up video games for the week, or as many days as its takes to get that stuff taken care of. So it should be a productive, if rather dull, week. But that all starts today. Sunday was another matter entirely...

Sunday (January 27th): Swimming with Manatees
A Japanese friend of mine is going to be returning home in a few days. Well, he messaged me and a few other friends several days back and said that he'd really like to swim with manatees on Sunday and wanted to know if anyone else was interested. That peaked my curiosity, so I did some research and was able to make a late reservation with River Ventures, a very highly related manatee tour company in Crystal River (a small town on the west coast of Florida, which is only a little over an hour from me).
Originally there was going to be five of us but one person got sick at the last minute (get well soon, Marisa), so it dropped to four. Here's a photo of our tour group in our wet suits right before heading out on the boat. I'm the third person from the right. Continuing left is Rosey, Yano, and Akira. Oh, on a side note, the photos are a mix of mine and ones taken by the captain of our boat, who had an underwater camera (the four of us split the cost of a photo CD).
But anyway, after the drive to Crystal River we watched a safety video, put on wet suits, and took a quick ride over to the pier. Then it was onto the boat and off down the river. As a side note, you'd think that this might not be the best time of year to go swimming, especially in the morning (northern Florida doesn't stay warm all winter like the south does). But the water in Crystal River is supposed to stay in the low seventies year round and, luckily, that happened to be the air temperature as well, so it wasn't bad. Plus, the manatees are more likely to hang around the area during this time of year.
Crystal River itself is a pretty place, lined with expensive houses. It wasn't long before we spotted some manatees, if at a distance. See the "rocks" back and to the right? They're actually the backs of manatees floating at the top of the water. Unfortunately, we couldn't get close to that particular bunch. There are a number of areas (marked by buoys), that people aren't allowed to enter, to give the manatees places to rest when they don't want to deal with a bunch of curious humans. So, after a quick look, we continued down the river. We passed some more manatees along the way, including a mother and child (a calf?). Before long, we came to a popular manatee watching area outside the entrance to the Three Sisters Springs. There's another one of those blocked off manatee sections there, but they often hang out in the surrounding area as well so we headed into the water.
The water was surprisingly clear. Shallow enough to stand too, but we were told to float rather than walk to avoid kicking up a lot of sand, which reduces visibility and can scare off the manatees. The manatees weren't coming out of their area (though we could see them in there) so we swam back into the Three Sisters Springs themselves. It was a pretty area, with clear water and some fish (nowhere near as impressive as in Hawaii, of course, but pretty good for a river), but unfortunately there weren't any manatees there either (there are no guarantees when it comes to wild animals).
However, once we left the springs and returned to the river, we found that a couple of manatees were out and about. Despite their size, and the fact that they have no natural predators, manatees are pretty shy so the trick is to float quietly and let them come to you. At which point you can pet them if they're close enough (though there are some rules about that, since they're endangered). There were some photos at River Ventures of people getting nuzzled by manatees (they apparently rely heavily on their sense of touch). That didn't happen with us, but they did swim around and beneath us and we got to pet them a bit. If you're wondering, their skin is kind of rough (not at all like a dolphin or seal) and often covered with algae (which helps protect them from sunburns).
Eventually the manatees headed off so our captain decided to go back to that area where we'd see a lot way back at the start of the tour. Most of them were still in their protected area, but one was not only out but in a pretty playful mood. It seemed to like hanging out with us and getting its stomach rubbed. After a while he/she (kind of hard to tell) got distracted by another another manatee and swam away, and we'd used up our time, so we boarded the boat and returned to the shore.
All in all, the tour went for around three hours (three and a half, if you count the time spent getting wet suits and the like), which is pretty good for $45 a person. While it took a little while for the manatees to come out and play, it was a lot of fun and the people at River Ventures really know what they're doing. If you're looking for something to do in Florida that's more outdoorsy than a theme park, you may want to look into swimming with the manatees.


1/26/2013 Busy weekend

There's a new voter bonus comic, click the TWC button to see it.

Thursday night I went to a going away party for a couple of people I know who are returning to Japan soon. It was fun, I got some good Japanese practice, and I was able to catch up with some friends. I also got back kind of late, so I don't have time to write much of anything. I have a rather interesting post planned for sometime next week though and, if things go according to plan, I may have a new travelogue entry coming up as well... But right now, I need to get going. On top of the late night, I need to go in to work today (I normally have Fridays off) to help with an event they're doing, so I'll see you later.


1/23/2013 Kennedy Space Center

Travelogue time.

Sunday (January 20th): The Kennedy Space Center
I've been keeping busy since the end of winter break but, with a four day weekend, I decided to take a day off. Originally, I tried to organize a trip to Disney with some of my friends but a lot of them had stuff come up at the last minute. In the end, it was just going to be me and one other guy. He thought we may want to hold off on the Disney trip until more people could go, but mentioned that he wanted to visit the Kennedy Space Center. Since that also happened to be one of the two remaining places on my list of attractions to visit (not counting returning to some previously visited places), I said sure. A friend of his wanted to go as well, so I had my group trip, if not exactly as planned.
The first thing I should mention is that the Kennedy Space Center isn't in Orlando, it's 30 - 40 minutes east, on an island off the coast. You also have to go through quite a lot of toll booths, some of which are ridiculously close together. But anyway... When looking for a good site to launch rockets, NASA settled on Merritt Island for several reasons and bought up all, or at least most, of it. Quite a lot of the land was turned into a wildlife refuge (keep an eye out and you can see lots of birds, alligators, and more), but there are numerous NASA facilities scattered around. The main one, at least as far as tourists are concerned, is the Visitor Complex, which is a theme park of sorts (albeit a very educationally focused one) all about space exploration.
Chances are, the first thing you'll notice once you enter is the rocket garden, a collection of old rockets from various periods of space exploration. There are free tours of the garden several times throughout the day, though each rocket also has some signs you can read on your own.
Jon, Hadyan, and I decided that we may as well start with the park's most popular attraction, the bus tour and Apollo Center (as a tip, try and sit on the right side of the bus on the way there and the left on the way back to get the best views). While on the bus, you get a look at the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (where they put together the rockets and shuttles), which is one of the largest buildings in the world by volume and also has the world's largest doors. You can also see some pads where they store the completed rockets, the tracks for the machine they use to transport them to the launch pad, and more. Sometimes they stop at the launch pads themselves, though only when they're not doing any work in the area. Unfortunately, this wasn't one of those days. Our guide was interesting, if a little difficult to understand, and spent a while talking about NASA's upcoming plans now that the space shuttle has been retired. They're currently working on a new space ship, which is the beginning of a planned manned mission to mars. All that is way in the future though. The new ship is targeted for completion around 2020 and the mars mission somewhere in the 2030 - 2050 range.
The main stop on the bus tour is the Apollo Center, it's a museum type building all about the Apollo missions (which included the moon landings). There's a few shows inside and a lot of interesting items including the original mission control center, an actual Apollo rocket (which is about the length of a football field), various space suits (including some odd looking prototypes), and more. While I wouldn't necessarily call it fun, it was very interesting.
Once we'd finished exploring the Apollo Center, we took a bus back to the Visitor Complex. The bus dropped us off right by the Shuttle Launch Experience, so we decided to go there next. It's the Space Center's only ride and is supposed to be a very realistic recreation of a shuttle launch. It's essentially a motion simulator and, while it does seem pretty realistic (not that I've ever been on an actual space shuttle), I'd say that Mission Space at Epcot does a much better job of simulating the go-force and, as a result, is a bit more intense.
Lunch came next though, unless you're interested in freeze dried ice cream, the Space Center doesn't have anything particular special in the food department (it's pretty standard burgers, pizza, fries, etc.). If you want to pay extra and make reservations in advance, you can eat with an astronaut though. Then it was straight to the IMAX theater. They have two 3D IMAX movies playing right now. We opted for Hubble 3D, which was a history of the Hubble Space Telescope, complete with lots of lots of photos it has taken over the years. There were some amazing images and the 3D actually worked really well with them.
After the movie, we checked out the two remaining museum type buildings. Exploration Space talks about the challenges and tech involved in future space exploration plans. They're also got a presentation about those things by a real astronaut. Speaking of astronauts, they's an auditorium where they often give speeches as well.
Finally, Early Space Exploration is about the Mercury and Gemini programs which led up to the previously mentioned Apollo missions. There was more old equipment including the Mercury control room and a Gemini Capsule (yes, the astronauts used to have to ride in that). There was also a display of space related media, toys, and the like from back in the time those programs were running. The coolest thing was this rather famous robot...
All in all, it took us from around 9:30 to 3:30 to see just about everything going at a fairly leisurely pace (taking time to read most of the signs and all that). We could have gone to the Astronaut Encounter or watched the second IMAX movie, but those were pretty much the only things we skipped. However, it's worth noting that they're currently working on a new museum building dedicated to the space shuttle Atlantis which is set to open this summer. Sometimes, there are also special tours available for an added fee which will let you see things like the inside of the Vehicle Assembly Building.
Tickets to the Space Center also get you into the nearby Astronaut Hall of Fame and, since we had time, we decided to stop there as well. Despite the name, the real focus is a very nice timeline of space travel (complete with photos, old equipment, and the like), which winds through the entire building.
And that was the day. Or most of it anyway. Since we were passing through Orlando on the way back, and Yano wanted to see a bit of the city, we drove down International Drive and stopped for dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant (I like introducing people to Ethiopian food) and then it was time to drive back home.
So, final thoughts on the Kennedy Space Center? Of all the major attractions in the Orlando area, it's certainly the most educational. The museums are well done and it's really interesting to learn about all the different space programs and see the actual suits, rockets, and the like. That said, unless you're a big space and/or rocket buff, you're bound to have more fun at one of the theme parks, and they also have a whole lot more to do. If you're just visiting the Orlando area for a few days and are looking to make the most of your time, I probably wouldn't recommend a trip to the Space Center unless you're really interested in space exploration or determined to get an extremely educational day in (though you could combine fun and education at Epcot or Animal Kingdom instead). However, if you're going to be in the area for a while, it's definitely worth a visit so long as you don't mind a day without big rides and fancy shows. While a trip to the Kennedy Space Center might not be one of the most fun things to do in the area, it's certainly one of the most interesting.


1/21/2013 Space

I went to the Kennedy Space Center (one of the last couple of Orlando attractions on my list) yesterday. Check back on Wednesday for the complete travelogue entry. For now though, I need some sleep.


1/18/2013 Sukiyaki

There's a new voter bonus comic up! Also, the site is, as far as I can tell, totally fixed.

I get back rather late last night (well, technically this morning). The reason? Well, a couple of my Japanese friends invited the regulars from the UF language tables (myself included), over for a sukiyaki party. As an aside, I have to say that the host lives in the creepiest apartment building I've ever seen. I mean, if I ever want to film a horror movie around here, I know where to go. That aside, the party was a whole lot of fun. We did run into a few snags, like no one actually knowing how to make sukiyaki (everyone thought someone else did). Ironically, I've been meaning to try making sukiyaki myself but never got around to to it... Anyway, everything worked out in the end. The sukiyaki turned out really well and we spent a long and enjoyable night eating, talking, and playing games. It was a lot of fun, but I got back pretty late so I need to head off and get some sleep. While this is the start of a nice four day weekend, I have a lot of things I want to get done so I can't slack off too much.

See you Monday!


1/16/2013 Status report

It seems my hosting company finally figured out what's wrong with my account and how to fix it. I'm usually not one to complain, and I've mostly been happy with them, but it shouldn't have taken this long. Especially since this was the first time they even admitted the problem existed (it just kinda got ignored in all my other communication with them while they fixed some less important things). Hopefully now that it's been figured out, those last few issues will be totally fixed in another day or so. As a note, it's possible that, as part of the fix, the site will roll back to how it was last Wednesday (before the problems began). However, if that happens, I can literally have it up to date again in a matter of minutes once I notice.

I wanted to write some more for this update, but the last couple of days have been rather busy due to a combination of the web site problems, some meetings at work, and other assorted things and, as a result, I'm running a bit behind so I'm going to have to cut this short. I'm hoping to be totally back on track by Friday. Failing at that though, I've got the holiday weekend coming up, and I should have plenty of time to catch up on things then.



1/14/2013 Fixed...More or less...

Sorry about the lack of an update on Friday (there is a new voter bonus comic though). My host was doing an upgrade and there were some rather serious issues... It's still not entirely fixed, but I fortunately had up to date backups of just about everything and, at this point, most of the remaining problems are back-end things that shouldn't affect the normal performance of the site. Note "shouldn't". I also can't be sure that something won't get broken again while my host tries to fix things. E-mail me if you encounter any issues and I'll look into them...assuming my e-mail doesn't go down. Well, let's hope it all goes smoothly.

In other news, you may have noticed the new ad banner. It's for Stand Up Gaming, a rather new sprite comic which switches back and forth between several stories (all Nintendo based), each with different characters and styles. Its creator was nice enough to buy some ad space (which helps pay PV's hosting and domain fees), so why don't you click the banner, read a few strips, and see what you think?

I think I'll leave it there for today. All the time spent getting not only PV but all the other web sites I run fixed has left me a bit burnt out on site updating. Assuming nothing else goes wrong, I'll write up something more interesting for Wednesday.


1/9/2013 Getting excited...

Yesterday, I finished the outline for the story I was hired to write and today I'm going to start on the writing itself. I'm getting rather excited about it. For one thing, since I've been working on the art for Aurora's Nightmare since summer, it's been a while since I've gotten to just sit down and do a bunch of story writing. Plus, I'm really liking the story and it should be a lot of fun to write. Wish I could tell you guys a bit about it...but there's a NDA and everything so it'll have to remain secret for a while. I'll be sure to let you know once it's officially released.


1/7/2013 Back to work

It's the 1400th strip and you know what that means, a short break from Brendan and May to check in on some other characters.

Today also makes the start of spring semester for me. Well, I actually had to go back to work on Wednesday but classes start today. I'm also starting on a story I was hired to write, but I can't go into details on that right now... I took advantage of the weekend before things start to get busy to see both The Hobbit and Les Misérables. I know The Hobbit has been getting mixed reviews but, while I could nitpick a bit and I still think that even with some additional content, making an entire trilogy out of it is still a bit much, I enjoyed it quite a lot. The really have the look and feel of Middle Earth down perfectly. Not that I was expecting any less after Lord of the Rings. Les Mis was good as well and stayed true to the musical while adding all the epic sets and effects that just aren't possible on stage. Having such a large portion of the dialogue in a movie sung felt a bit odd (not sure why, since I've seen plenty of musicals before), but after a little while I forgot all about that and just enjoyed it.

Anyway, I should probably be going. Between the start of classes, work on that story, and some other things, I've got a busy few weeks ahead of me...


1/4/2012 Updating...

There's a new bonus comic for everyone who votes (click the TWC button on the left). This one is the proper comic for Week of Randomness 2012.

Instead of writing a news post for today, I spent some time updating the Links and Link Exchange pages, something I try and do every once in a while. Most notably, the link exchange has a new entry, which could be of special interest for anyone who knows Spanish.

That's all for now so I'll see you Monday!


1/2/2013 Happy New Year!

Well, it's 2013. Let's see if I can manage to go without accidentally writing/typing 2012 for the next month or two...

Anyway, I'm back in Florida now. Spent New Year's eve and the larger part of my birthday traveling. Not much of a holiday/birthday (at least I got to play lots of Persona 4 Golden on the planes), but work starts back up tomorrow so I couldn't stay in Hawaii any longer. Plus there was the fun early birthday dinner on Sunday, so it's not like I didn't do anything. All that aside, I didn't get any sleep on the plane and I need to get some rest before work, so I can't write much now.

See you Friday!


12/31/2012 The rest of the vacation...

I'll be heading back to Florida tonight. A bit sooner than I'd like, but work starts again on Wednesday so I don't really have a choice. Well, I don't have anything particularly special planned for today so let's get that travelogue finished...

Tuesday (the 25th): Hiking in the Rain
The initial plan for Christmas Day was hiking. Come morning, the weather wasn't looking so great but my brother was pretty insistent so we headed for the Kuliouou Ridge. The hike started out well enough but before long it started to rain. I thought we should just call it a loss but I was over ruled and we kept going. And the rain got worse, and worse... Soon we were completely soaked. We kept going, rain, mud, and all, and got nearly to the end of the hike but, thanks to all the clouds, the view of pretty nonexistent so we decided to skip the final climb and head back down. Though we did get a little bit of a view once we got below the clouds. Weather aside, it was a pretty nice hike, and I'd totally be up for trying it again on a better day, but it's really not good on a rainy day.
On a side note, we later tried out a new Korean restaurant called Red House. It had a sort of modern artsy feel to the design, which was odd for a Korean restaurant, but the food was good and the K-Pop music videos they projected on the wall certainly kept the Korean vibe going.

Wednesday - Sunday (the 26th - 30th): Enjoying the Rest of the Trip
I didn't do anything for the rest of the trip that warranted its own travelogue entry, but here's the highlights.
I woke up Friday to see an extremely rare sight, a sky completely devoid of clouds. Later that morning, we decided to hike Diamond Head since my brother and his girlfriend hadn't done it yet. It was a great day for views and we got a nice group shot too. That evening, I headed down to Waikiki Beach to watch the sunset. I even picked up a lei while I was there (a school group was doing a fund raiser). So I sat, watched the crabs on the rocks, and enjoyed a beautiful sunset, followed by the Hilton's regular Friday night fireworks show.
Saturday, my family walked around the Hilton a bit to show Hannah the flowers, birds, and other animals there and finished up a bit further down the beach with another sunset. There was a nice full moon too.
Sunday was my brother and Hannah's last day here. We thought about renting a surf board for a bit but neither the waves or weather was that good. We eventually ended up visiting Sandy Beach off on the eastern part of the island. It had a lot of waves, but we didn't surf. The current is really strong and the waves crash right up on the shore, so it's a bad match. There were a lot of boogie boarders, but they didn't seem to be riding the waves so much as wiping out repeatedly. But just standing a little ways in and letting the waves crash around us was fun, though since the waves hit so close to the shore we really got sand blasted... Finally, since I won't be here on New Years, we went out for an early birthday dinner. We tried a Japanese place I've walked past a number of times but never gone in, called Izakaya Tairyo. It was a lot of fun, and I may give a proper review sometime in the future. Both the food and decor were great and they have some nice discounts too.
I'll be leaving tomorrow evening, so that about wraps it up for this trip. As with my previous visits, it was a great trip and I still really like Honolulu. Not sure when I'll be back but, thanks to the condo, it probably won't be too far off...


12/28/2012 The north!

There's a new voter bonus comic up, and it's a special one about The Week of Randomness event on the PV Forums. As usual, you can click the Top Web Comics button on the left to check it out.

Sunday (December 23rd): The North Shore
Sunday morning began with a surfing lesson. After the lesson I took back in the summer, I wasn't so sure I needed another one. I'm no expert by any means, but I have the basics down fairly well. Providing I stick with relatively mild waves, the only real challenge in going by myself would be timing it right so I catch them. However, my brother and his girlfriend wanted a lesson so I ended up joining in. They thought the place I went with last time (Hans Hedermann Surf School) was a bit expensive and, after some searching, found a deal for lesson with Willis Bros. Surfing.
The lesson took place on a beach on the north shore of the island. That made be a bit wary, since that's where the really big waves are this time of year, waves that you need a ton of experience to surf. However, we ended up on a nice little beach with reasonably sized waves. But the really cool part is that sea turtles like to hang out there sometimes. In fact, there was one floating around the shoreline when we arrived. After quickly going over how to paddle the board, catch a wave, and stand, we headed out into the water. On the one hand, I was right, I didn't really need another beginner lesson (I didn't have much trouble riding the waves and even managed to lay back down on my board post-wave without falling most of the time). On the other hand, the instructors were friendly and gave me a couple of good tips and it's nice to have someone helping you catch the waves.
As a surfing location, it was a good beach. It wasn't too crowded (though the instructors said that it's usually busier), the waves were nice, and there was a convenient wave free channel of sorts in the middle which made it much easier to paddle back out after riding a wave in (so my arms and shoulders didn't end up nearly as sore as last time). Here's a pic of my brother and I surfing (I'm the one in the center with the black shirt and swimsuit, he's on the right in the white and gray). And, since my mom was around to act as camera woman, here's a few video clips of me surfing. Overall, it was a lot of fun. I'd definitely take up surfing (casually, anyway), if I lived in a good area.
As for Willis Bros., the instructors were great and we got a fairly long lesson for a really good price. All in all, it was just as good as Hans Hedermann Surf School, for a much lower price (though the location could be a problem if you don't have a car). The one area that didn't quite stack up was the photos they took. One of the instructors offered us a discount and we got their photos of all three of us for $20 (I think the normal price is $20 - $30 per person). However, the photos I got from Hans Hedermann in the summer were around the same price (can't remember if it was $20 or $30) and they gave me all the photos from the entire session, regardless of who was in them, so I got a whole lot more (both of myself and the group in general). Plus, while the photos from the Willis Bros. had decent composition (though there was a noticable lack of zoomed in shots), they were seriously compressed so the image quality wasn't all that great. Unless they improve a lot, I'd highly recommend bringing a friend or family member to take pictures for you.
The surfing lesson was fairly early in the morning and, since we'd already driven up north, we decided to make a day of it. Our next stop was the town of Haleiwa. It's a nice little town with a much more old fashioned vibe than places like Honolulu, Ko' Olina, or Kailua. It's also the home of Matsumoto Shaved Ice, the most popular shaved ice place on the island. They have a ton of flavors and a wall of photos featuring all their celebrity visitors, including some of the cast of Lost and members of Japanese pop group AKB48, to name a few.
After walking around Haleiwa for a while and getting some lunch, we began to drive east along the coast. On a whim, we decided to stop at Waimea Valley, a botanical garden of sorts. You have to pay to get it, but it's worth it. The valley is absolutely beautiful and features a wide variety of different plants and scenery. And, of course, lots and lots of neat flowers. The ginger garden was a personal favorite. It wasn't all plants either. The valley is home to a lot of birds (some of which are pretty rare) and I even spotted a few wild pigs (which unfortunately ran off before I could get a picture). While there were a number of side trails, the main path eventually ended at the Waimea Falls. Jumping off the rocks isn't allowed, but you're free to swim up to and under the falls.
After that very pleasant interlude, we continued our drive, with one last stop at that stone arch my parents showed me last winter. As a side note, the coast there is also a very nice place to watch the waves crash against the rocks.
Overall, it a was a great day and I'd be up for both returning to that beach and the Waimea Valley in the future.

Well, I've got one more travelogue entry to write before I'm caught up to the present (like I said before, I'm not doing daily entries for this trip), but it's getting late so I'm going to stop here. Hopefully I'll be able to wrap up this travelogue on Monday, before I return to Florida.


12/26/2012 The great outdoors

I know how Brendan feels in today's strip. Especially after yesterday...but that's a story for another time. I've got more catching up to do first.

Friday (December 21st): Foster Botanical Gardens
My dad and I stopped by the Foster Botanical Gardens this morning. While it's far from the only botanical garden in the area, it's a bit unique in the fact that it's right in the middle of Honolulu (on the edge of China Town, actually). While it's not especially large, it's really pretty. It's also got some rather unusual plants, like this giant tree from Central America. Though it's got nothing on the cannon ball tree. It's so named because of its fruit(?), which is roughly the size and shape of a cannon ball and pretty hard and heavy as well. There were signs all around warning visitors to watch for falling cannon balls. Though, as you may have noticed from the picture, the tree can get very thorny as well, so you really don't want to get too close to begin with. It has cool flowers though. Naturally, there were lots of other flowers as well. Especially different types of orchids. Overall, I'd say it's worth a visit.
On the way back, we passed by the large set of Christmas displays the city does at this time of year. As a note, what's shown in the photo is only one of many displays arrayed along the road and in one of the nearby buildings. We also passed some signs for various food trucks, including a rather interesting one... So, if you want to visit a maid cafe but can't make it to Japan, you know where to go. Not sure how well that would work as a food truck though. I mean, maid cafes are much more about getting served by cute girls than the food itself.
And to wrap the day up, here's a couple rainbow pictures from the deck of the condo.

Saturday (December 22nd): Waimano Falls
As a note, I think this hike (and possibly the falls themselves) have a couple of different names. Anyway, my family (plus my brother's girlfriend and another friend) went on a hike in the mountains. While the weather had been pretty good lately, the trail was a little muddy in spots, but overall it wasn't too bad. The hike itself was pretty cool. Early on, we walked passed a number of wild guava trees with little ripe guavas we could pick and eat. And after that, the trail started getting a bit more challenging... That photo doesn't entirely do it a justice, but basically it turned into a rather steep climb down the mountain side. I like that kind of thing, so it was a lot of fun. Though going back up on the return trip was a bit less so. The falls themselves are set in a ravine of sorts at the bottom. There are a couple of pools there as well. The water was a pretty deep and there were a bunch of people jumping in from the nearby rocks. Here's a photo of myself, Noah (my brother), and Hannah (his girlfriend) getting ready to jump from the lower spot. The water was a bit cold, but it was nice and refreshing after the long hike. Wish I'd brought an actual swimsuit though...

Well, I gotta run. More coming on Friday.


12/25/2012 Return of the Hawaii Travelogue

Merry Christmas to those of your who celebrate it! I don't but, unlike some people, I see no reason to make a big deal about it. I live in a country where most people celebrate Christmas and I'm perfectly fine with all the Christmas music, displays, etc., etc., etc. It's not hurting me and if I really wanted to get away from it, there are countries out there where it's not celebrated. But I'm getting off topic. Politically correct "holiday spirit" always gets on my nerves. Anyway...

December: Back in Hawaii
If you've been reading my news posts lately, you should know that I'm once again in Honolulu, Hawaii. This time, I'm visiting my parents, who are taking advantage of their new condo to avoid most of the winter back home in Colorado. Considering that I've already done two travelogues on the area when I came here last winter and over the summer, I wasn't planning and doing one this trip. However, I've done a few things worthy of travelogue entries so, while I'm not going to be giving a day by day account, I figured I'll go ahead and keep a brief travelogue of the highlights.
Before getting to the first main entry, here's a couple photos from a hiking trail at Round Top that I went on with my dad and brother, and a nice view of Honolulu we got on the road up there.

Thursday (December 20th): Ko' Olina
While the plan is to keep this trip fairly laid back, my family did plan a couple of larger outings. Today, my mom, brother, his girlfriend, and I headed over to Ko' Olina, on the west side of the island. I'd never been to that area before, but I'd heard that it's the dry and deserty part of Oahu. And it is...though you'd never know it from Ko' Olina, which has been turned into a resort area lined with several high end hotels and a set of idyllic little beach inlets. We were there for a snorkeling tour but we arrived a bit early so we stopped in the Marriot to see their impressive collection of tropical fish and other sea life. We also took a stroll though Disney's new resort, which looks really nice. I'm not sure what the rooms are like, but the outer area is amazing, with beautiful landscaping, a fish filled artificial coral reef, the nicest pool chairs I've ever seen, and enough pools and other water attractions to fill a small water park.
After that, it was time to head for the marina. My mom had booked us on a snorkeling tour with Ko' Olina Ocean Adventures, mainly because she got a discount on Groupon. Fortunately, it turned out to be far more than a just a good deal. This wasn't my first time snorkeling, or even my first snorkeling boat trip, but it was the best by far. We headed out on the boat and were greeted with beautiful blue ocean and nice views of the coastline. As a note, the boat captain and other crew members were great. They knew what they were doing and were both helpful and entertaining.
Out first stop was a coral reef not that far away from the island. Unfortunately, I don't have an underwater case for my camera (maybe next time), so I don't have any pictures but there were lots and lots of colorful fish around and water was as clear as I've ever seen, giving excellent visibility underwater. Even better, the reef doubles as a hang out for sea turtles who want to get their shells cleaned off by the local cleaner fish. No sooner did I look underwater than I saw a pair of them hanging out on the ocean floor. A bit later on, one of them came up and floated around just beneath the surface for a while, sticking its head out of the water from time to time to get a breath. Really cool.
On the way to our next stop, we spotted some whales in the distance. The captain decided to spend some time chasing after them and we got some great views. They even breached (jumped out of the water) a couple times. Unfortunately, predicting where they would surface was really difficult and, as a result, I wasn't able to get a lot of pictures. This is really the best one I have. It's a nice enough tail shot, but I wish I could have gotten a photo of a breach...
After a bit of unplanned whale watching, we arrived at our second destination, a spinner dolphin hangout. There were somewhere around 15 or so of them and they seemed to like swimming by the boat. We were also able to hop in the water with them. And while we didn't exactly swim with the dolphins (no grabbing onto them or anything like that), we got to watch them swim around underwater. Oh, in case you're curious, spinner dolphins are a bit smaller than the more common bottlenose variety and they get their name from the way they jump.
Finally, it was off to one more reef for a bit more snorkeling. While this one didn't have the turtles, it had an even larger variety of fish and coral. Once again, I wish I had some pictures to show you but you'll just have to take my work for it, the snorkeling was fantastic. Between that, the turtles, whales, and dolphins, if you want to do some snorkeling while on Oahu, I really can't recommend Ko' Olina Ocean Adventures enough.

That's all for now. More coming on Wednesday...


12/21/2012 Free bonus!

There's a new blooper reel comic for everyone who votes with the TWC button on the left!

Now that the holidays have come, and the world hasn't ended, do you find yourself in need of some reading material? Well, you're in luck! In case you missed it the first time, Guardian of the Stone (the first volume in my Verities Silex fantasy trilogy) is available for free through Sunday on Amazon! You can read it on any Mac or PC (with the free Kindle software), with the Kindle app on any smart phone, or on an actual Kindle.

I had a pretty awesome day yesterday, and one that's worthy of a travelogue entry. However, between sorting and editing the photos and working on the write-up, I wasn't able to get everything done in time for today's news post. But it'll be up Monday so be sure to check back then.


12/19/2012 Say what?

I wanted to talk about something or other today but, at the moment, my thoughts are jumping back and forth between a dozen topics and I'm afraid if I write too much it's going to end up a random mess. So, here's a few quick random comments (in no real order).

Oahu has a lot of great hikes but, with all the rain, you really have to watch out for mud. Forgetting any concerns about getting dirty, it can make the trails a bit slick.
Persona 4 Golden on the Vita is awesome. The characters are fun and interesting, the overall mystery has potential, and I'm finding the time management aspect (balancing time between personal development, building relationships with others, and exploring dungeons) just as addicting as I did in Persona 3. I really should try and find the time to play through the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei series. Though, considering how long most of the games are, that's one goal I probably won't be completing any time soon.
I'm already thinking my vacation is going to be too short. Why did I have to stay at work for so many days after finals completed and why do I have to be back so many days before classes start? Though, considering that amount of vacation most jobs give, I really can't complain...
That said, having to fly back the night of the 31st sucks. I won't be able to go to any of the New Years celebrations going on here and my birthday (January 1) will mostly spent in a combination of flying and driving.
At times, I have a tendency to fixate on something or other and worry about it quite a lot, which can be pretty stressful. Not that doing so is always bad (some issues really need the attention), but it mostly tends to happen with events and issues that really aren't all that big of a deal. While I've gotten pretty good at taking things as they come and sort of going with the flow over the last few years, I suppose I need to work on it a bit more.

And... I think I'll end it there. I'll try to put together a better news post (maybe with some pictures) for Friday.


12/17/2012 Back in Hawaii

My flights to Hawaii went smoothly and now I've got a couple of weeks to relax in Honolulu with my family. Well, it won't be all relaxing, I want to keep working on Aurora's Nightmare while I'm here too. I haven't done all that much since arriving. My brother's girlfriend is coming to join us a little later on, so we're saving most of the activities and stuff until then. However, my parents did surprise my brother and I with tickets to see Journey Saturday night, so that was fun (no pictures, sorry).

Anyway, I need to get caught up on PV strips (feel a little behind last week) so I'll write more later in the week.


12/14/2012 Vacation time!

There's a new voter bonus comic up so click the TWC button to read it!

I'll be spending most of the day flying to Hawaii for my vacation. As I mentioned before, PV updates should continue normally while I'm there (though new comics will go up a few hours earlier). There may be some travelogue updates as well, depending on what I do. I can't write much now though, since I've got a really early flight and need some sleep.

Enjoy the weekend!


12/12/2012 Party time

I had some friends over for a Chanukah party last night. We ate, talked, and played some games. One of the highlights was playing Apples to Apples with a couple of guys from Japan. They got some good English vocabulary practice, and the rest of use got some laughs from the occasional horribly misunderstood word. Anyway, the party went rather late and I've got to get some sleep before work so I'll see you Friday.


12/10/2012 Busy week

I went from a busy weekend into a busy week, but come Friday I'll be off to Honolulu for vacation! PV updates shouldn't be affected (aside from a slight time change in when updates are uploaded). I haven't decided yet if I'm going to do any travelogue entries while I'm there. It'll probably come down to whether or not I go to many interesting places I didn't over the summer.

But anyway, like I said, there's a lot to do so I really should get going.


12/7/2012 Grades, grades, and more grades

There's a new voter bonus comic up for everyone who clicks the TWC button on the left.

Well, final projects are in and I've got lots and lots of grading to do. Doesn't help that Chanukah is starting Saturday night and several things have come up that I really need to take care of over the next few days. Overall, it's gonna be a busy weekend. But, on the bright side, in one week I'll be off to Hawaii. And hey, even if it's a bit extra work, Chanukah means awesome fried food like latkes. Speaking of which, I need to do some grocery shopping...



12/5/2012 Things to do

I'm currently in a small window between the end of the classes and the due date for finals when I don't have a whole lot that needs to be done at work. In theory that should mean I have a bit more time to relax or the like. In reality though, I'm very good at finding all sorts of things I need to do. Errands, cooking, e-mails, tons of random tasks... And, of course, Aurora's Nightmare. Oh well, at least I'm being productive (and catching up on my DVDs and Netflix queue while working on all that Aurora's Nightmare art). Speaking of which, I started on a new character, got rather wrapped up in it, and, as a result, am running a bit late right now so I'm gonna have to cut this short.

See you Friday!


12/3/2012 Two more weeks...

Only two weeks left until winter break. I'm really looking forward to the vacation. Hanging out with my family in Honolulu will be fun, and I could use a break. Anyway... While I'm not really lacking things to talk about, I had a rather busy weekend (Sunday especially) and I'm kinda burnt out right now.



11/30/2012 Aurora's Nightmare Status Report

There's a new voter bonus comic up, so click the TWC button to see it!

I've had a lot of people asking me how Aurora's Nightmare is coming along. Well, I posted a status report on the PV forums a couple days back and figured I should put it up here as well, so everyone can see it (with a few extra details that weren't in the forum version).

Planning and Design: 100% - All the initial planning has been done. That includes creating story outlines, character profiles, lists of necessary assets and files, and the like.
Writing: ~15% - I've got 87 pages written, encompassing the prologue, shared opening, and the first few days of the first main story path. There's a lot left to do, but writing is my specialty and once I get into it I can go really fast. At present though, the writing is on hold while I focus on the character art.
Character Art:
--Design and Concepts: 100% - Hanbee finished the last of the character drawings during the summer, so I've got high quality scans of all the poses for each character.
--Cleanup and Coloring: 33% - While Hanbee does awesome drawings, digital art isn't really her thing. So it's my job to take her hand drawn art, clean it up (make the lines smooth, fill in the occasional missing details, and the like) and color it in. That's progressing steadily (I'm working on it almost every day), but it's taking longer than I originally thought it would. Two characters are completely done (Aurora and Young Aurora) and I should have the third (Tia) finished over the weekend. There are 11 characters total, but the three I've done account for 11 out of 34 pages of drawings.)
--Shading: 15% - After I finish coloring in the character art, it goes to Silver for shading. At this point, a bit over a third of the colored character art has been completely shaded, with many of the others in varying states of progress. That said, the way the character art is set up, we're able to reuse some of the shading across multiple poses for each character. When you take that into account, it's probably more like 20% done.
Background Art: 20% - Ideally, I'd like to hire someone to do nice hand drawn background art. At the moment though, I don't have the budget for it. That may change later on, but the current plan is to create the backgrounds myself by way of some serious photo editing. I made a list of all the background images needed for the game, and I've got all the photos, but have yet to start actually creating the backgrounds.
CG Art: 1% - For those of you unfamiliar with visual novels, CGs are special full screen pieces of artwork showcasing particularly important moments in the story, making for a much more dynamic scene than is possible with the normal character and background art. I'd love to have some CGs in the game, and I have a rough list of what I want, but it's another of those things I don't have the budget for at present.
Music and Sound: 10% - Ideally, I'd like to hire a composer and create an original soundtrack just for the game. But, once again, budget issues are a problem there. The backup plan is to assemble a soundtrack out of various free and cheaply licensable tracks. At present, I've got a list of the music I need (in regards to the various scenes in the game) and a collection of resources where I can find it, but I haven't started actually picking out tracks yet. On a side note, there's a song by Evanescence that would be absolutely perfect for the main theme. I actually looked into licensing it but getting a license for the original recording would cost me around $6,000. That probably isn't a bad price for licensing a popular song, but even if I had that much money to spend on Aurora's Nightmare, (I don't) it'd be hard to justify sinking all of into one song license, no matter how great of a song it is. I could get a cheaper price if I forgot about the original recording and just got permission to record a cover. But that'd be a lot of work (I'd need to find and hire a suitable band and singer and rent a recording studio) and still cost way more than I can afford to spend on a single song at this point. That's money that could be better spent on backgrounds, CGs, and/or an original soundtrack. On one more side note, I've toyed with the idea of adding voice acting, but that'd also be expensive (at least if I hired professionals), and is pretty much the last thing on my list of features to add if I come into some extra money. Though I do know a guy who used to be an actor and has some friends in that field, so it's possible I might be able to work something out with him once the script is further along...
Compilation: 1% - What I mean by compilation is taking all of the above elements and using them to create the actual game. I've narrowed down my options to two different game engines but it'll be a while before everything else has progressed to the point where I'll be ready to start using them since this is really the last step in the process.

So that's the overall status. At the moment, I'm spending all my time on character art, but once all the poses necessary for the first part of the game are fully colored and shaded, I'm planning to switch gears for a little while and put some more time into the writing, backgrounds, and music. Not only will that give Silver a chance to catch up with the shading, it'll let me finish everything I need to put together a demo. If the demo attracts enough attention, I may be able to get some extra money (via a Kickstarter, pre-order campaign, or some such) to pay for things like hand drawn backgrounds and an original soundtrack. I'd also be willing to put more of my own savings into the game if I could be fairly certain it'd sell enough copies to make up for it, since that's really not guaranteed. Car Washer, for example, is still mostly unknown. As a result, sales haven't been very high (people aren't going to buy something if they don't know it exists) and it has a ways to go before it breaks even, much less becomes profitable.

Well, that's all for now. I'll try and post a status report like this every now and then. Or maybe I'll make a little progress graphic or something... Anyway, have a good weekend!


11/28/2012 Seaworld

Let's go straight to the travelogue.

Sunday (November 25th): Seaworld
Before I really get started I should mention that if the pictures look a little different than usual, there's a reason for that. This trip was also a test run of sorts for my new camera. Unlike the last time I upgraded my camera, there's nothing wrong with the old one, my Canon Powershot sx100 is working fine. However, I've had it for nearly five years at this point (got it in Japan in early 2008) and cameras have advanced a lot since then. A month or so back, I was walking past the camera display in a store and noticed the latest model in the series, the sx260. What really caught my eye was that it had twice the zoom (20x) in a considerably thinner body. I looked at some reviews later on and discovered that it had quite a lot of nice features I've been wanting. All together, they made a fairly compelling case for an upgrade. Still, since my current camera was fine, I didn't feel the need to rush out and get it. But I kept an eye on the prices and then Best Buy had a great deal as one of their Black Friday door busters... I'm still learning my way around some of the different settings and options, and I need an extra battery (sadly, it can't use AA's like the sx100), but I'm happy with it so far. Anyway, you can see the results for yourself.
If you've been following my travelogue entries, you probably know that I've visited all the major Florida theme parks except one. And, since that fun card I got at Busch Gardens a couple weeks back is good for Seaworld as well, Thanksgiving weekend seemed like a good time to finally head over there. Like Animal Kingdom and Busch Gardens are part theme park, part zoo, Seaworld is part theme park, part aquarium.
While most of Seaworld does have a loose Mediterranean loose, it's not really divided into themed areas like the other parks. I decided to start off by heading to the right. Seems that was the less popular choice and I didn't encounter any crowds for quite a while. In fact, despite it being a weekend, the lines were never all that long and, while the shows were pretty crowded, I never had any trouble finding a seat either.
After passing a couple of stores, I came across a large lake. Since Christmas is coming up, a lot of Christmas trees were scattered across its surface. Also going with the Christmas theme, they had a motion simulator ride based on The Polar Express. I never saw that movie, and it was a fairly mild ride, but they had some arctic animals (including a polar bear and walrus) in there as well. Speaking of which, they're actually building an entire arctic area that's supposed to open in the spring.
Moving on, I passed by one of several theaters (Seaworld has a lot of shows) and through a kids play area. Looks like a lot of fun for the younger crowd. Then there was were some gardens. Yep, even though they're not exactly in line with the theme, Seaworld actually has a few small but nice botanical garden type areas. A bit further in, I reached Shark Encounter, the first of the park's aquariums. There were a couple of underwater tunnels where you could see sharks and other sea life swimming by, and a number of more ordinary tanks as well. Nothing I haven't seen before (I've been to some pretty nice aquariums) but it was all well done.
I hadn't really had breakfast so I decided to get a brunch of sorts (beef brisket) and then it was about time to go see the first of a number of shows. And what better one to start with than the big Shamu killer whale show? It was pretty cool, with six killer whales doing all sorts of jumps, flips, and the like. As a note, despite numerous warnings that I was sitting in the splash zone and would get soaked, I stayed completely dry. I'd say that, unless you're in the first two or three rows, you're not going to get anywhere close to soaked and beyond five or six rows you're unlikely to even get splashed.
I had a bit of time until the next show, so I took a ride up that big tower I saw earlier to get the lay of the land. I also paid a visit to Pacific Point Preserve, the seal and sea lion habitat. While watching them is free, for $5 you can buy some fish to toss to them. As a note, all those birds aren't actually part of the exhibit, they're wild. They just hang out there to try and steal the fish. Sticking with the sea lion theme, my next stop was the Clyde and Seamore show, a comedy featuring a couple of trained sea lions, along with occasional appearances by an otter and a walrus. While not as impressive as the Shamu show, the animals were well trained and the whole thing was kinda amusing.
Continuing on, I finally reached one of the park's three big rides, the Manta. It's a pretty cool roller coaster. After getting strapped in, the seats tilt forward so you're facing the ground. It's a little uncomfortable, but makes you feel like you're flying, and I've never seen another coaster like it. As an added bonus, you can check out some real rays (among other sea creatures) while you're waiting in line. If you don't want to ride the coaster, or just want a closer look at the various displays, you can go right into the aquarium itself. In addition to the rays and fish, there was an octopus and a bunch of different types of sea horses, including some with very impressive camouflage. On a related note, if Manta and its aquarium aren't enough rays for you, there's another area a little ways away where you can touch and feed the rays.
And then it was time for the dolphin show. It wasn't all dolphins though. Birds, trapeze artists, and high divers all played a major role. But there were plenty more dolphins at the nearby dolphin cove. And, once more, you could feed them for an extra fee. Right after seeing the dolphins, I visited the nearby sea turtles. They have their own building that's divided into three sections. First there's the manatee aquarium, then the sea turtle aquarium, and then you watch a movie about the life of a sea turtle. But this is no ordinary movie. You're standing inside a dome and they project it all around on the walls and ceiling for the whole 360 degree experience. But that's not all. It's also in 3D. I've seen plenty of other 360 degree movies (though they just used the walls, not the ceiling) and tons of other 3D movies, but this is the first time I've ever seen the two combined. It actually worked really well, making for the most immersive (and disorienting) movie I've ever seen.
By that point, I'd explored most of the park, with only two more attractions. First up, Journey to Atlantis. You hop in a raft, take a ride through the famous sunken city, and then take a big drop, sending water flying everywhere just like in the picture. I've been on a lot of rides like that. Some will leave you completely and utterly soaked through, others barely splash you. Journey to Atlantis is one of the latter. You'll get splashed a bit but you probably won't get especially wet. It's got a little aquarium as well. and right nearby is Seaworld's other roller coaster, Kraken. It's a standing coaster (even though you're strapped in, it's attached on the bottom rather than the top). It's fun, but Manta is the better of the two.
It was starting to get dark, and I was starting to get hungry, so I walked around a little more (and took a quick look at the little Christmas village that opened up around sunset) then chose a restaurant. Speaking of which, all the restaurants at Seaworld are fairly typical American food. There are a couple of fancier (and more expensive) ones and a couple all you can eat buffets, but even then you're not going to find anything unusual. It's all burgers, sandwiches, steaks, pasta, seafood, etc. Not especially exciting, but I was able to get the turkey and stuffing I didn't have on Thanksgiving, and it was pretty good too, so I can't complain.
After the meal, it was time to check out the Christmas lights and go to a few more shows. There were special Christmas versions of both the Shamu and Clyde and Seamore shows, along with a few other things I didn't get to see. And it all wrapped up with some fancy ice skating followed by fireworks.
So, overall opinion of Seaworld? It's a fun park, especially if you like sea creatures. But, while the rides it has are good, there aren't many of them so expect to spend most of your time watching shows and looking at animals. The atmosphere and dining options also aren't on the same level as what you can find at the Disney parks or Islands of Adventure. Still, the shows are great and you can get up close and personal with lots of interesting creatures so it's definitely worth a visit, especially if you prefer shows to rides.


11/26/2012 Coming up next...

I visited Seaworld yesterday but it's late and Thanksgiving vacation is over so the write-up will have to wait until Wednesday.

See you then!


11/23/2012 Taking it easy

There's a new bonus comic up, as usual, so click the TWC button the left to see it.

Well, Thanksgiving is over and it's now Black Friday, which isn't really a holiday (though retail stores might say otherwise). I didn't end up doing too much on Thanksgiving itself. I relaxed, got a bit of work done, and played some video. I did have some Thanksgiving foods, though I was missing a few others. Turkey being one of them, unfortunately. I was kind of tempted to get one and cook it up, but it seemed like a lot of work with no one else coming over. Plus, my freezer isn't that big and is already pretty full so storing all the left overs could have been a problem. Still, I could do a lot of cool stuff with a turkey... Maybe after winter break...

As for Black Friday shopping, I had been thinking of going to Best Buy for a couple things, but was able to get them online thanks to some sort of early access event I stumbled across. I actually do need to get some groceries, but the store I like is in the middle of a major shopping area and I'm not sure if I want to brave the traffic and crowds just to get a few things I can survive without.

Well, I don't have much to talk about today, so I'll keep this short. I may be heading down to Orlando later this weekend for one last theme park trip before winter break. And, if that happens, you can expect a travelogue entry Monday or Wednesday. But we'll see what happens.

Enjoy the weekend!


11/21/2012 Wii U

Happy day before Thanksgiving to all my US readers. It's looking like I'll be on my own this year, but I had fun on Sunday. Haven't decided yet if I want to spend Thanksgiving Day going to a theme park or just hang out, work on Aurora's Nightmare, and do a video game marathon. Actually, even if I don't go to Orlando on Thanksgiving itself, there's a decent chance I will at some point over the weekend. Might as well get one last trip in before winter break and all.

But you probably want to hear about the Wii U. Being a game designer and a big fan of a lot of Nintendo series, it was natural that I'd get one eventually but, to be honest, I wasn't planning to do so until sometime next year. I didn't rush to pre-order one the moment the release date was announced and they sold out pretty quickly. I was talking to a guy I know at Gamestop a little while after the pre-orders sold out about how the system was off to a pretty good start despite the rather mediocre press it has been getting. He offered to put me on a wait list and let me know me once they had an available system. And that was it. I briefly considered camping out Saturday night to get one on launch day but didn't really feel like it and I've got plenty of games to play right now anyway, so I wasn't in a hurry. I figured I'd pick one up in January or February once the rush had died down. But, just as I was finishing up work yesterday, I got a call from Gamestop saying they had a Wii U in if I wanted one. As it happens, I was planning to go to Gamestop anyway to pick up Persona 4 Golden, which I'd pre-ordered a while back, so I figured what the heck. To be honest, I thought about selling it on ebay for a profit, but there were already over 3,000 of them listed, so I'm pretty sure the price would have tanked way before mine sold.

Early press for the Wii U since its big E3 debut hasn't been especially great. And I wasn't all that enthusiastic about it myself, other than knowing that it'd eventually get new entries in my favorite Nintendo series. So, what do I think now that I've played around with it? Well, let's start from the beginning. I noticed a few things in particular when unboxing my system. First, that the gamepad has its own power cord, complete with a small power brick. Personally, I kind of with it could charge off the Wii U instead, but at least it is rechargeable instead of using regular batteries. Also, the power brick for the main system is pretty large. On a more positive note, the system actually came with a HDMI cable, unlike all my other game systems, DVR, and the blu-ray players I've set up for my family. That aside, one I got it hooked up and started going through the setup, the gamepad really impressed me. Despite its size, it's surprisingly comfortable to hold and pretty light as well. While it can't quite match a good normal controller in those regards, I didn't have any complaints using it. The screen is big, looks great, and has extremely responsive touch control. It's even got pretty decent speakers and a camera built in.
System setup was simple (and I got to create my own ID instead of a friend code), but I had to download an update. Either it was really large, or the Wii U's download/network speed is kind of slow (I'm leaning towards the latter). It took around an hour to download and install the update and it had to install additional updates the first time I opened the Netflix app and both Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros., each of which took another 5 - 10 minutes. Not that the PS3 and Xbox 360 don't so the same thing...but they generally seem a bit faster. As a note, while the Wii U lets you transfer all your games, saves, and Miis over from a regular Wii, it's an all or nothing deal and removes all the data from the Wii. I didn't want to do that for a few reasons (like the Wii U's lack of support for Gamecube controllers), so I didn't try out that process.
Anyway, after basic setup stuff, updates, and creating a Mii, it was time to actually try out the games. I got the Wii U Deluxe set, which comes packed with Nintendo Land, and naturally I couldn't get a Wii U without picking up New Super Mario Bros. Wii U. I decided to start with Nintendo Land since, much like Wii Sports, it's designed to show what the system and its special controller are capable of. Most of what I'd heard about Nintendo Land coming out of E3 was pretty negative. However, I had read a very positive review earlier in the day written by a reviewer who tends to hate everything, so I was hopefully optimistic. And I'm pleased to say that Nintendo Land is both a great showpiece for the Wii U, and a whole lot of fun. There are twelve "attractions" (games) based on various Nintendo properties from the huge hits (Mario, Zelda, etc.) to more obscure titles (Octopus, Ninja Castle, etc.). Six are single player only, three are multiplayer only, and three can go either many. And many of the games have multiple modes depending on whether a gamepad or Wiimotes are being used. While some are better than others, they're all moderately deep, have a nice vaguely LittleBigPlanet style aesthetic, feature excellent music, and, most importantly, are a whole lot of fun to play. Many of them also make clever use of the gamepad's various features (screen, touch screen, tilt sensor, and camera). And outside out of the games there's a bunch of nostalgic unlockables which can be gotten from a pachinko style mini game. The game as a whole is easily as deep, if not more so, than Wii Sports Resort. And, cause I can't say it too much, it just plain fun to play. I actually had a tough time pulling myself away to try out Mario and I'm looking forward to getting back to it (hopefully with some friends).
As for New Super Mario Bros. Wii U, it's a 2D Mario game. Nothing ground breaking, but all around awesome with great gameplay and level design, colorful graphics, and catchy music. If you like Mario (and really, how can you not?) you're going to love it. But aside from the ability for an additional player to help out via the gamepad, or for a single player to play the game entirely on the pad without the need for a TV, there aren't any major changes or additions to the formula.
So, all in all, now that I've been able to play with it, I'm a whole lot most positive about the Wii U than I was before and I can't wait to spend more time with both Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. If you're not sold on the oversized gamepad yet, try Nintendo Land, you'll be pleasantly surprised. It may not be as big of a change as the Wii's motion controls, but the Wii U gamepad still opens up a lot of cool new gameplay possibilities.


11/19/2012 Holiday week

When it comes to Pebble Version strips, I actually don't plan out most of them too far in advance. I have the overall storyline planned, just not all the specifics. There are some, however, that I come up with months or even years in advance and have to wait for a suitable time to use. Most of these flying practice strips fall into that category. Nice to finally get them done.

For everyone in the US, Thanksgiving Day is coming up in just a few days. While my plans for the holiday are currently up in the air, I did have a celebration of sorts yesterday. The local Japan association and the UF Japanese club had a sort of early Thanksgiving potluck. Most of the food wasn't really traditional Thanksgiving stuff (there were quite a lot of Japanese dishes), but there's nothing wrong with that. Everyone just milled around, ate, and talked. I hung out with various people I know from the club, met a few new ones, and had a good time. Whether or not I manage to have an actual Thanksgiving celebration this year, it made for a decent substitute.

Other than that, I'm working today and tomorrow, but I have the rest of the week off so I'll probably end up doing something interesting... But more on that once I actually figure it out.

See you Wednesday!


11/16/2012 Upgrade

There's a new bonus comic, so vote using the TWC button on the left to see it.

I ended up getting a phone upgrade shortly after writing that post about data plans last week. Surprisingly, despite what every single Verizon employee told me, and despite my Dad's experience when he upgraded his phone recently, when the guy actually switched everything over, I was allowed to keep my old data plan. That was nice. Gotta say though, upgrading from one Android phone to another isn't nearly as smooth as it should be. The actual switch went just fine, but all that was transferred over were my contacts and basic account info. No settings carried over, no saved text messages or e-mails, no apps (though I didn't have to re-purchase them or anything), and none of the saved data for any apps. Considering that cell phones are something people routinely replace every two or three years, the lack of a proper data transfer feature in Android doesn't make much sense. The Android OS is extremely backwards compatible and phone hardware doesn't vary nearly as much as computer hardware does. It really shouldn't be hard to set up something so you can run a USB cable between phones and just transfer everything over. At very least, you should be able to use a SD card for that. In preparation for the upgrade, I actually transferred a lot of my apps from my phone's memory to my SD card, which then went in the new phone. The result? The new phone did find the music, ringtones, and photos I had on the card, but it ignored the apps entirely, marking off a large section of the SD as full, but not letting me access it. I eventually stuck the card back into the old phone (which I'm thinking of using to replace my aging MP3 player), and was able transfer those apps back into its memory, but apparently there's no way to directly transfer them to another phone, even if it's on the same account, without hacking the system. Re-downloading the apps wasn't horrible, since I could pull up a list of past downloads in the store, but the lack of a download all button was annoying, as I had to manually go to each app's store page and choose to download it. What really bugged me though is the lack of a way to transfer data and settings. For instance, I have an app that lets me better organize my all my other apps and re-doing all the settings for it was rather time consuming. I also lost the save data for all my games. There are ways around some of that. A couple of apps had a built in tool that let me upload my data online and then retrieve it on the new phone, and there's a few apps you can download which transfer data for some especially popular titles (mostly the different versions of Angry Birds). But I find the fact that Android lacks an automatic transfer method, or even a way to simply transfer your saved data via a SD card, a extremely large oversight on Google's part. And it's not the only one. It took them several versions before they even added folders to Android, and they still don't have a built in feature to play an alert sound if you missed a call, something that even the most basic cell phones have had for years and years (though there are a number of apps available for that). Those, and a few other things, seem like very simple things that should be near the top of any features list for a smart phone OS. How they continue to overlook them baffles me. Though Google's hardly the only tech company that completely overlooks obvious features. For instance, when sorting downloaded games on a PS3, there's STILL no option to do so alphabetically. And don't even get me started on Nintendo...

But anyway, I did get the phone upgrade, I somehow kept my data plan, and, aside from the saves for some games I'm pretty much done with anyway, it's all set up and working fine. Even if the whole process could have been much quicker and smoother...

Have a good weekend!


11/14/2012 Busch Gardens

Time to continue the travelogue...

Sunday (November 10th): Busch Gardens
When planning my overnight trip, I considered a few different things to do on Sunday. The St. Petersburg area has a lot of museums and shopping streets that could be fun to visit but, since I've got the whole theme park thing going on, I decided I should go to Busch Gardens this trip. I went there last year with some friends for their Halloween event, but I only got a quick look around the park before it got dark and that night was more about zombies and haunted houses than the park's regular attractions.
Before I start talking about the park itself, I should mention admission costs. While a single day admission costs about the same as at any of the other major theme parks, for the same price as a one day ticket, I was able to get a fun card, which gives me unlimited visits all the way through 2013. Which begs the question of why they still offer the single day ticket... But anyway, they're also affiliated with Sea World (which is still on my to-do list) and I was able to add on unlimited visits there for less than the price of of a single day ticket there. So, if you plan on repeat visits, it's a pretty impressive bargain.
Busch Gardens has a lot of similarities to Disney's Animal Kingdom, in that they're both half theme park, half zoo, with a rather strong Africa vibe, so some comparisons will be unavoidable. Like all the other parks in the area, Busch Gardens is broken into a number of different zones. They're mostly themed after different parts of Africa (Mongolia, Egypt, etc.). Though, for the most part, it's a fairly loose theme so don't expect anything like Disney's attention to detail. But there are plenty of African animals scattered throughout the park. They've got nice habitats and you can get excellent views of most of them. They've also got a large savanna type area with a bunch of giraffes, zebras, and the like wondering around. You can get a few views from the side, and there's a train around the park that passes through it, but there's no equivalent of Animal Kingdom's awesome safari ride. They do have special guided tours of the savanna area, which includes giraffe feeding, but they cost a good bit extra. Other than the animals, the big draw at Busch Gardens is definitely the roller coasters. They've got five big ones and several smaller "kiddy coasters". I love roller coasters and all the ones at Busch Gardens are pretty awesome. Good variety too. There's the fast and lengthy Cheetah Run, the fairly standard Scorpion, Montu (a long hanging coaster), the really twisty Kumba, Gwazi (the bumpiest wooden coaster I've ever been on), and Sheikra. Sheikra is the most unique of the bunch, as it has everyone sitting on a bunch of raised platforms (kind of like the seats in a movie theater) so you don't feel closed in and you get a great view no matter where you sit. It's really the best of the Florida theme parks for roller coasters, hands down.
But I wasn't there only for the coasters. I made my way around the park, checking out everything I came across on the way. The Egypt area had a rather neat recreation of part of King Tut's tomb and I encountered a few carnival style rides and games scattered throughout. There's also three water rides (a log flume, river rapids, and one of those where you go down a slope and cause a giant splash), though unless you're really lucky/unlucky, you're unlikely to get more than a good splashing. Getting soaked threw would likely require multiple rides. There are also two large and elaborate kids' play areas, which I would have absolutely loved when I was younger. And, of course, more animals! I managed to arrive at just the right time to watch the elephant trainers, which was fun. I even saw one elephant shoot water out of its trunk, just like they do in cartoons. And there's a nice bird feeding area. The nectar to feed them is kind of expensive, but you can walk in and look at the birds whether or not you bought anyway.
There were also some shows, though nothing especially thematic. The only one I saw involved a mix of popular dance songs from the 60's and 70's. It was entertaining, and had a lot of songs I like, but yeah, not at all Africa related. Sadly, the food followed the same trend and was all pretty typical American fair (burgers, sandwiches, BBQ, fried chicken, etc.). None of the restaurants were very expensive, but I wish they'd gotten a bit more creative.
As it turned out, one of my favorite parts of the park broke with the African theme entirely in favor of another part of the world, Australia. The area was mostly devoted to kangaroos and wallabies. You can feed them (if you want to pay $5 for a cup of grass), and pet any that wonder close enough to the fence. Yes, that's right, I got to pet a kangaroo! The kangaroos were actually really soft, though you can feel that they're all hard muscle beneath the fur. The wallabies were a bit rougher to the touch, but one of them was extremely friendly and liked to lick your arm as you petted it. There were some joeys (baby kangaroos) too. One was too young to leave its mother's pouch (no, its head wasn't sticking out), but a couple others were out and about, only sticking their heads back in from time to time to nurse. Here's one mother kangaroo with her joey. Isn't that cute?
Oh, as a side note, since the animals are such an important part of the whole park experience, Busch Gardens loses a lot when it gets dark (unless there's a special event like Howl-O-Scream going on), so it tends to close earlier than most of the other theme parks.
I had a fun day, but how does Busch Gardens compare to Animal Kingdom? Well, they've both got lots of great animals, I think I have to give Animal Kingdom the advantage there, mainly because of the safari ride, though petting kangaroos is a pretty awesome too. For rides, Busch Garden wins over all the other parks if you really love roller coasters, but other than that it's doesn't have anything special. And Animal Kingdom wins hands down when it comes to shows, restaurants, and atmosphere. So, while Busch Gardens is a lot of fun, if you only have time to visit one zoo park, I have to recommend Animal Kingdom to anyone who's not a complete roller coaster fanatic.


11/12/1012 Enjoying the weekend

To all my US readers, happy Veterans' Day. Be sure to spend at least a couple of minutes thinking about the cost of freedom and all our vets have done for this country. I have the day off, but I think I'll be spending most of it working on my own stuff. But that's ok, since I had lots of fun over the last couple of days. So, let's get to the travelogue.

But, before that, look what I found! I got it at a rather fancy grocery store and it's the first time I've ever seen one. It's called Buddha's Palm, and it's a citrus. There's no juice or "flesh" inside, just some of that usual citrus white stuff, but said white stuff isn't bitter, which makes it fairly useful in salads, baking, etc. But, according to Wikipedia, this oddly shaped fruit is mostly used for its zest (peel) and as an an air freshener. And I can see why, it's got a very strong and very pleasant scent (a mix of orange and lemon) and, while it was a real pain to peel all those little fingers, I got enough zest to fill an entire spice jar. I wasn't sure what to do with the thing at first, but eventually decided to make marmalade. I ran into a problem there when I realized there wasn't any juice or flesh inside, so I added some high pulp orange juice. Some honey, ginger, and a bit of cooking later, I have a pretty awesome marmalade and a lot of zest and minced white stuff left over for other things. Anyway though, the travelogue...

Saturday (November 9th): Gardens and KOOZA
If you've been keeping up with my travelogue updates, you may remember that I saw Cirque du Soliel's La Nouba (their permanent show at Downtown Disney) back in April, and I really loved it. So much so that, when I heard that KOOZA (one of Cirque's traveling shows) was going to be in St. Petersburg (about two hours away), I had to get a ticket. Since my ticket was for a Saturday night show, I decided that it would make the most sense if I spent the night and did something else the following day. I've had this trip planned for a couple of months now and was really looking forward to.
I left early Saturday so I could go to services in Tampa, but I had time to kill after that. I'd read that the Florida Botanical Gardens is good (and free), and it was on my way. So I drove over and spent a couple of hours walking the various trails. I've been to a lot of botanical and ornamental gardens in the past and I've got to say that this one wouldn't make the top ten. That said, there were lots of pretty flowers and a nifty tropical fruit garden, among other thing, so I did enjoy my visit. Of course, this is Florida and there's nothing like alligator warnings to add a hint of danger to an otherwise pleasant stroll. For the record, I didn't see any gators, just some squirrels, birds, and what I think were a couple of snapping turtles. They also had a nature trail though the kind of natural brush land that would normally cover that part of Florida. Finally, there was the heritage village, a collection of old buildings, similar to others I've visited. It's still a work in progress, and it closes earlier than the rest of the gardens, so I only got a really quick look. It seemed nice, but not quite on the level of similar type places I've visited in Colorado and Japan, not to mention the relatively nearby St. Augustine. So, all in all, the garden is nice enough, though I wouldn't call it a must see by any means.
Moving on, after checking into my hotel, hanging out for a bit, and getting supper, it was off to the show. If I'd realized how much parking cost before I got stuck in the queue, I would have tried to find another place, but anyway... KOOZA is the second Cirque du Soliel show I've seen. After La Nouba, my expectations were rather high and I wasn't disappointed. Cameras weren't allowed, but here's a link to the official trailer. But that really doesn't do it justice. Like La Nouba, KOOZA had a loose story line tying everything together but the whole experience was very dream like, jumping from one surreal act to the next. The costumes, lighting, and soundtrack (which was performed live, by the way) were all fantastic. The clowns were hilarious. But, of course, the real stars of the show were the acrobats. A few highlights? The trio of contortionists were an early stand out. It wasn't only what they could do, but how fluidly they moved. They made it look easy. I have to wonder how much work it takes to get that flexible. And the wheel of death... It's unfortunately really hard to describe without a visual aid, but the stunts the guys on it pulled were breathtaking. There was also a tightrope act which included a sword fight (bringing to mind a favorite scene from Kaleido Star), and so much more. As corny as it sounds, I spent quite a lot of the show watching in wide-eyed wonder. The things the performers did were utterly amazing and, combined with all the other elements of the show, the overall effect is nothing short of spectacular. You feel like you're in the midst of the most incredible dream imaginable and you really don't want to wake up. If all of Cirque du Soliel's shows are on this level (and I have no reason to believe they're not), I really can't recommend them enough. They're more than worth the price of admission. If you ever get the chance to attend, just do it. I'm certainly going to be keeping an eye on their schedule in the future.

Well, that's all I have time for now. We'll get to what I did on Sunday next time...


11/9/2012 Data plans

There's a new bonus comic, just click the TWC button the left to see it.

I've been thinking of upgrading my cell phone lately. I'm perfectly happy with my current phone, but I've had an upgrade available for a while and I could get a newer version with 4G (I've currently got a 3G phone) and some nice additional features. And just recently my phone case (which I really liked) broke beyond repair and, since it's an old model phone, I don't think I can find a replacement. The only problem is that, if I upgrade, I'll have to change my data plan. Now I like a lot of things about Verizon. Their network is great and they have an excellent selection of phones. Their prices, on the other hand, could be a bit better, especially when it comes to data. Over the last couple of years, they phased out most of their data plans. If you were on an old plan at the time, you get to stay on it...until you upgrade your phone. My current plan is $15 a month for 150MB of data. To be perfectly honest, that's a ridiculously small amount of data for the price. But, it's enough for e-mail, web browsing, and the occasional Google Maps check. If I upgrade, I get forced onto their main plan, which is 2GB for $30 a month. Now 2GB is a big jump from 150MB, but I don't need that much for what I use my phone for. I suppose I could start streaming video and/or music on the go...but if I do that those 2GB will be gone in no time. And really, that's still a ridiculously small amount of data for the money. It's not like I can't afford the extra $15 a month (though that's $180 a year I could spend on other things), but the fact that Verizon doesn't have any other options really bugs me. Not to mention that's it a rip-off. The cable internet service I've got in my apartment is only around $40 a month and that's not only unlimited data on as many devices as I can hook up to it (Verizon charges extra if you want to use your phone as an external modem), it's a whole lot faster than any cell network. My brother is in a similar situation as upgrade would cause him to lose Verizon's old unlimited data plan (which they also phased out) and be downgraded to the 2GB plan for the exact same price.
The only way to get a new phone without losing my data plan is a pay retail price for the phone, rather than the special upgrade price. And that's a difference of around $500. Speaking of which, the retail prices for new phones are ridiculous. I know computer hardware and phone prices are way too high considering what's inside them. Just compare them to any other consumer electronic devices (game consuls, computers, tablets, e-readers, etc.) and you'll see what I mean. The reason they're so expensive? To make people to upgrade their phones through Verizon, Sprint, etc., which locks them into lengthy contracts, forces them to accept whatever data plan their carrier wants them to, and the like.
Needless to say, I'm a bit disgusted by how much of a racket the whole thing is. But, despite that, I'll probably bite the bullet and upgrade. I'm going to have to do it eventually (my current phone is fine now, but it won't last forever), I don't want to pay retail price for a new phone, and I've gotten too used to having a smart phone to downgrade. Plus, as dumb a reason as it is, I really miss that case and I can get one just like it that fits the new phone...

Well, I'm off. I've got some fun stuff planned over the weekend so expect a couple of travelogue entries next week.


11/7/2012 Elections...

Yesterday was election day here in the US. Chances are, by the time you read this, they'll have announced who won the presidential race. But, as I'm writing, it's still very much in the air. Gotta say, I'm not entirely sold on the whole electoral college system we have here. Why not decide things via popular vote? As is, some states, like California seem disproportionately represented. It's quite possible to win the popular vote but lose the election due to the way the electoral votes are spread out.

Another thing I don't really get is the media's practice of declaring who won most of the states long before the votes have been counted. I know there's things like polls, voting history, and the like that you can use to predict how a state will go but declaring a winner for any state when only a small fraction of the votes have been counted just seems ridiculous, especially in a really close election. Just now, for example, one media outlet called a victor for Ohio, despite the fact that their proclaimed winner is leading the state by less than one percentage point and there's still about 25% of votes that need to be counted. Where's the logic there? On some level, I'd really love to see a state that's a given (California, for example), end up going against everyone's predictions, just to teach people a lesson about counting their eggs before they're hatched.

Anyway, regardless of what happens I'm kinda expecting recounts. It's a very close election (especially in some states) and there are some people with very strong opinions who really don't want to see their party lose. And there are already been reports of people not receiving their ballots or being blocked from voting (whether by accident or design, who knows), voter fraud, and more. Not to mention the damage caused by Sandy, which made a mess of some distracts...

But enough of that. I did vote, and I really hope my candidate wins. But, whatever happens, at least I won't have to put up with any more political ads or phone calls anytime soon, which will be a welcome change.


11/5/2012 Wreck-It Ralph

Disney's new movie, Wreck-It Ralph, came out on Friday. I went to see it yesterday and it deserves a bit of a shout out / review. Anyway, it first caught my attention a few months back when I saw a trailer and I've been looking forward to it ever since. In case you missed all the trailers and commercials, Ralph is the bad guy in a fictional (but totally believable) 80's arcade game who, after 30 years, has gotten tired of being treated poorly by the rest of the game's characters. So he decides to win their affection by traveling to another game and becoming a hero there, ending up in both a sci-fi FPS and a overly cute kart racer. Naturally, not everything goes as planned, there's a couple of serious threats that have to be dealt with, and everyone learns some valuable lessons. It's a Disney movie, and a pretty good one in its own right. The characters are fun and have a decent bit of depth to them, the environments are creative, and the plot is solid with a couple of big twists thrown in.
But it's not just a good Disney movie, it's an awesome movie for gamers. Wreck-It Ralph is absolutely full of classic game references and cameos. And you can tell that the movie's creators really know and love video games, they're not just tossing in random references to current chart toppers. There's a few that everyone should recognize (Sonic and Bowser, for example) but a lot are likely to be missed by younger viewers and even people my age without a knowledge of video game history. How many kids are going to recognize Dig-Dug or Asteroids? Q*bert? The Konami code? Hopefully it'll spark some interest. There were lots of times I really wished I could pause the movie for a few minutes to pick out out the different game characters and arcade machines scattered around (I know I'll be doing that when the DVD comes out). The attention to detail is impressive as well. From the excellent pixel art look of the older games (at least when viewed from the player's perspective) to the way many of the characters move in jerky frame by frame animations, just like classic sprites, everything is just how it should be. And, even though not much time is spent in the real world, it does a great job of capturing that arcade vibe as well. Maybe it'll even give arcades a much needed popularity boost here in the US...though that might be a little too much to hope for.
There really aren't a lot of good video game based movies out there, and even fewer that appeal to people who haven't played the original game before. And on top of that, most of them succeed by never calling attention to the fact that they're based on a game. Wreck-It Ralph does the complete opposite and is the rare movie that can appeal to gamers of all ages and even people with no gaming experience what-so-ever. If you have any love of video games (and, if you read Pebble Version, you probably do), you really have to go see it. And if you have any family or friends who like Disney movies, bring them along, whether they're gamers or not. Ralph really does have something for just about everyone. And when you do go, make sure you stay through the credits. Aside from cramming in a few more classic game references, they also contain the full version of many of the movie's songs (which you only get to hear little clips of during the film itself). I was equally shocked and impressed upon realizing that the theme song for Sugar Racers (the candy themed kart racer where Ralph spends a large portion of the movie) is not in only in Japanese, but sung by J-Pop super stars AKB48. A really awesome nod to the Japanese origins of many games, and something I never would have expected in an American movie. It made for an excellent finale to one of the most enjoyable films I've seen all year.


11/2/2012 A crash?

There's a new bonus comic! And, since it's the start of a new month, this is a great time to vote for Pebble Version and check it out. Just click the TWC button on the left and confirm your vote.

My normally extremely stable laptop decided to lock up shortly before I started on this update and, as a result, I lost about an hour of progress on the piece of Aurora's Nightmare art I was working on. So, I'm going to save my planned news post for another day and start redoing that.

Have a good weekend and best wishes to everyone recovering from Sandy.


10/31/2012 Good luck!

I don't have much to say today and I'm working on somethings so I'm going to cut this news post short. But I want to wish good luck to all my readers who were or are going to be hit by Sandy. I hope your homes avoid any serious damage and that you don't lose power for long, if at all.

Gotta say though, this is a bit of a nice change from last year when I seemed to be in the middle of every big natural diaster. This year, however, I missed the big tropical storm in Florida because I was on vacation in Colorado and then missed the big fires in Colorado (though they didn't end up threatening my home town) because I went to Hawaii. And now Sandy ended up missing Florida... Kind of a complete reversal of fortune for me.

Anyway, good luck with the storm (if you're in its path) and have a fun Halloween (if you celebrate it). Neither one of those really applies to me though... Anyway, I have things to do so I'll see you Friday.


10/29/2012 The last water park

Travelogue time.

Sunday (October 28): Wet 'n Wild
As I've mentioned before, there are four major water parks in Orlando. Wet 'n Wild is the only one I didn't make it to last fall. I did go there once with my mom and brother but that was a really long time ago and the park has changed quite a lot from what I remember. I've been trying to set up a group trip with some friends but it kept falling apart (people had unexpected work come up, got sick, etc.) so I finally decided to just go by myself before it gets too cold. Thankfully, that big tropical storm missed Florida entirely and the weather forecast for today was pretty good. While I've gotten used to warmer temperatures, 80 and sunny isn't bad for swimming. That said, it's not great either, especially when it doesn't stay sunny and there's a nice cool breeze... But that did keep the crowds down. I never had to wait more than a few minutes for any slide, despite it being a weekend.
Anyway, about the park itself. Wet 'n Wild seems to be a similar size to the other parks (a little smaller, but more densely packed), though its landscaping isn't anywhere near as nice. More cement and a lot less plant life and sand. The wave pool is also rather on the small side compared to the ones at the other parks. However, while I'd have to pull up some maps and count to be certain, I'm pretty sure it has the most slide out of all of them. There's the usual kids play area, along with speed slides, some funnel type things, and a large variety of tube slides (dark ones, fast ones, ones that exist entirely to drench you with water falls and water cannons) and more. They've even got a nice little faux beach on a lake. During the summer, you can pay extra to wake board there. Well, sorta. They have a cable system to tow you around instead of a boat.
One thing I should note is that quite a lot of the slides require a minimum of two people. Wet 'n Wild advertises having more group slides than any of the other parks and they're right. If you're in a group and like to ride with your friends, that's pretty awesome. If you're by yourself, not so much. At the other parks, nearly every slide can be ridden single and, for those that can't, they'll stick single riders in with the next small group that comes along. Wet 'n Wild doesn't, so you either need to bring some friends, try and find some people at the park you can hook up with, or pass on several of the most interesting slides. As for the slides themselves, the Black Hole and Disco are pretty cool looking inside (though otherwise fairly typical). The Blast is short but gets you absolutely soaked (those water canons pack a punch). The speed slides are normal speed slides, though one drops you out of a capsule. Not that it makes much of a difference over sliding normally, but it's a nice touch. And there's the Brain Wash (the side ways funnel next to the speed slides), and a few fairly ordinary tube slides. And the Storm, that dual funnel thing I posted a picture of. I've been on one of those before at Water World in Denver. You go down a tube, zoom around the sides of the funnel a few times, then fall down into a deep pool below. It's fun, and not a type of slide you see very often, though it can hurt a bit if you fall out at the wrong angle. Oh, can't forget the token lazy river. It's not especially long (not that that matters so much when it's an endless loop) but the water is pleasantly warm and there's a little lagoon in the middle where you can sit under some waterfalls.
So, overall? All four parks have some neat slides that the others don't, but Wet 'n Wild has the largest variety...at least if you've got a friend with you. If not, you're probably better off at one of the other parks. The others also have far better landscaping and general atmosphere, wave pools, and lazy rivers. Taking everything into account, I'd put Disney's Blizzard Bay and Typhoon Lagoon at the top of the list, Aquatica a fairly close third, and Wet 'n Wild at fourth. That said, if you're in a group of people and just want to go on a lot of different types of slides together, Wet 'n Wild is a rather attractive option. They also have a lot of specials on ticket pricing (I got mine for half price by showing my work ID).
On a side note, while Wet 'n Wild does have a paid parking area, it's right off of International Drive so you could probably park in one of the nearby shopping plazas and just walk a couple of blocks to save money.
After I finished at the park, I swung by a large Asian grocery store I'd heard about (finally managed to find some dashi base) then ate at a nice Ethiopian restaurant on International Drive. Gotta say, Ethiopian restaurants just aren't as common as they should be... While it's too bad my friends couldn't make it, I still had an enjoyable day.


10/26/2012 Here she is...

As always, there's a new Pebble Version Blooper Reel comic for everyone who uses the TWC button on the left to vote for Pebble Version. It's quick, easy, and you get to see a special bonus comic.

Well, I said that I should have a fully shaded image of Tia ready soon...and here it is! As with the last few images I showed you, the original artwork was done by Hanbee Lee, the cleanup and coloring were my job, and Silver did the shading. For a quick reminder, Tia is one of the heroines in my upcoming visual novel, Aurora's Nightmare. She's a smart and fashionable young woman who works at a prestigious research institute. She's also Ars' (the main character) fiance and has been close friends with him and Aurora (the other heroine) since childhood. Fortunately, she's also the only major character in the game who wears jewelry, which is a good thing because all the little links in that belt and necklace are a huge pain to to work with when it comes to both cleanup and shading. Unfortunately, I'm not done with all her poses yet so I'm going to have to deal with that for a while longer.

It's been a pretty quiet if slightly busy week here. Though last night I went to an Asian food event at University of Florida for a while. My attendance was a bit of a last minute decision since I only found out about it a couple days ago. It wasn't anything spectacular but a lot of the different Asian culture clubs had nice short performances (songs, dancing, etc.). Actually, that's how I learned about the event in the first place, from some people I know in Japan Club who a dance routine. There was also free food (from several different Asian countries), and you really can't go wrong with that. Plus, I got to catch up with a friend I hadn't seen in a while, so it was a nice break from the routine.

Speaking of a break from routine, I'm hoping to do something fun on the weekend so, if all goes according to plan, expect a new travelogue entry next week... For now though, I've got things to do so I'll see you later!


10/24/2012 Busy working...

I'm going to keep things short today because I'm in the middle of something. It's nothing to do with my teaching job, but Aurora's Nightmare. I'm working on the art for Tia (one of the main characters) and am in the middle of one of her poses right now so I'd like to get back to it. Gotta say, I'll be glad when Tia is finished. Thanks to her hair and jewelry, the cleanup on her artwork is taking far longer than Aurora's did. Hopefully I'll have a fully shaded version of one of her poses to show you soon. In the meantime though, I'd better get back to work.


10/22/2012 Yotsuba&!

I was at Barnes & Noble yesterday and picked up the latest volume of the Yotsuba&! manga. While its creator is better known for the hilarious Azumanga Daioh, his current series really shouldn't be overlooked. Yotsuba is a five year old girl living a happy ordinary life in modern day Japan...and that's it. Yes, that's it. She's not an alien, magical girl, super detective, or even a member of some kind of school club. There's no fantasy or sci-fi elements and no bad guys. Yotsuba has no grand goals or dreams to fulfill and no major challenges or obstacles to overcome. She's just a very energetic and curious girl who goes around doing different every day things with her father and neighbors. It's not even a comedy, per say. There's funny moments, sure, but that's not the main focus. So what the heck is it about? Simply put, it's all about the wonder and excitement that can be found in even the most mundane things. To Yotsuba, everything is new, different, and wonderful. Going to the park, taking photos, learning to ride a bike, cooking pancakes... She makes everything special and exciting for herself and all those around her. Her understanding of things is rather skewed at times, like only a kid's can be, but that just adds to the charm (and makes for a number of amusing moments). While Yotsuba&! is perfectly appropriate for young kids (it's the equivalent of a G rating), it's really written for people who have already left that stage of life behind, to remind us of that sense of wonder we used to have and how much fun can be found in daily life if we look for it. Even though Yotsuba&! lacks the elaborate plot, epic battles, and crazy humor that fill most of the manga I read, I still find myself getting every new volume and enjoying them immensely. Sometimes, it's good to be reminded of life's simple pleasures.


10/19/2012 More TV

There's a new voter bonus comic for everyone who clicks the TWC button and votes for Pebble Version!

Since I talked about the current TV shows I'm watching last week, I figured I'd do a post about some of the things I've watched on DVD and Netflix lately. As previously mentioned, I like having something on when I'm working on the art for Aurora's Nightmare, so I've been watching a lot more TV lately than I usually do (and, considering the amount of artwork I need to clean up and color, will probably continue to do so for some time). To keep this list manageable, I'll limit it to things I've watched over the past month or two.

Random Shows on Netflix
Glee: I'm actually not all that fond of the show, but the music tends to be pretty good and it's not something I have to pay much attention to. What are my problems with the show? Well, the cast looks like they were created from a political correctness checklist (white, African American, Asian, Latino, Christian (though the Christian characters tend to be jerks), Jewish, gay, lesbian, single parent home, non-traditional family, etc., etc., etc.), the plot borders on soap opera, and there's too many characters who are plain unlikable (one is enough, especially considering their main "villain").
McGyver: I used to watch reruns of this all the time as a kid (my dad started me on it), so I've been re-watching a bit here and there on Netflix. The quality of the plot varies by episode, but all his gadgets and quick thinking is still entertaining.
Firefly: Sci-fi fans (some of my friends included) tend to go on and on about how great this show was and how stupid Fox was to cancel it so quickly. After watching it, they're right. It might be a touch overrated, but it's a good show and it's a shame it got such a short shift from the network. It also reminds me quite a bit of classic wild west / sci-fi anime like Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star.
Total Drama: A cartoon parody of Survivor and other reality shows? I saw part of the series on Cartoon Network a couple years back and, when the first two seasons popped up on Netflix, decided to see if it was as amusing as I remembered. I wasn't disappointed. It's funny in its own right and does the "reality show" better than a lot of actual reality shows.

Dragon Ball Z: Over the top? A bit. Drawn out fighting? Sometimes. Still, it's a classic and, drawn out or not, the fights are fun and where else will you find guys who can easily destroy a planet duking it out? I've been re-watching it on and off for a while now and finally get around to finishing.
Saiyuki: Loosely based on the Chinese myth of the same name, it features an unorthodox Buddhist monk, monkey king, and a couple of reformed demons on a journey to India to save the world from a demon threat. The plot is decent but not all that special, and the animators were either really lazy or on a very small budget, but all the verbal sparring between the main characters keeps it entertaining.
Spice and Wolf: I was introduced to this unique series back at the UAT anime club and finally got my own copy of the season two DVD set so I rewatched it. Though technically a fantasy set in a world very much like medieval Europe, it's completely unlike any other fantasy novel or anime I've never seen. It follows the adventures of Lawrence, a traveling merchant, and Horo, a wolf god of sorts, who hitches a ride on his wagon. But where other series would have epic battles, Spice and Wolf's most intense moments come from risky trades and business dealings and the slowly developing friendship / romance between the pair is interesting to watch and extremely believable. There's really nothing else like it and it's excellent. The original novels which the anime is based on are being slowly released in the US and they're also great, but the anime's beautiful music and animation really add a lot to it.
Bleach: I've been reading the manga ever since it started releasing in the US and watching the anime since its Cartoon Network debut years ago. The manga has always been a very solid, though not brilliant, Shonen battle series and the anime is the same...at least when it's not in one of the rather ho-hum filler arcs.
Casshern Sins: I probably never would have watched this if it wasn't part of Cartoon Network's relaunched Toonami block, but I'm glad it was. This story of a seemingly immortal robot's journey through a dieing world is pretty depressing and, with only several episodes remaining, I'm still not entirely sure where it's going, but it's very cinematic and occasionally thought provoking.
Samurai 7: Although it's been around for a while, I never actually watched this loose adaptation of the classic movie until it showed up on Toonami. While it's not historically accurate in the least (I'm pretty sure the original movie didn't involve giant robots and other sci-fi and fantasy elements), between the setting, characters, and battles, I'm really enjoying it.
One Piece: The One Piece manga is the most popular currently running series in Japan by a very large margin, and it's easy to see why. I started reading back when it was first released in the US as part of the American Shonen Jump magazine and never stopped. I even have the entire collection of graphic novels to date. I haven't followed the anime nearly as closely, but I watched a bit here and there (at least after Funimation took over and threw away the horrible 4Kids dub) and finally started getting the DVD sets. It's a great adaptation and keeps everything I love about the series. Great characters, unique and interesting locations, epic battles, and the occasional highly emotional scene. Once Piece starts out good and steadily gets better and better until it becomes something really special. I'd rank it far above both Bleach and Naruto (the other two of the "big three" current shonen series). While it didn't have as strong a start as Naruto, it's done a much better job of keeping things fun, fresh, and engaging over the years. Not to mention that, unlike Naruto and Bleach these days, there's far more to it than fighting (though the fights are great too).

Well, that's all for now. I've got several other anime series to watch once I run out of One Piece DVDs (there was big sale), so I may revisit the topic in a month or two. Have a good weekend!


10/17/2012 Art

Figured I might as well do a quick write-up for that art festival so here we go...

Sunday (October 14): The Gainesville Downtown Art Festival
I'd been seeing signs and banners around Gainesville for an art festival this weekend and, not having anything else planned, I figured I might as well swing by and take a look. Unlike the art festival I went to back in the spring, this one was in the middle of downtown Gainesville, so things were more spread out. While it wasn't the largest art festival I've seen (not that I've gone to very many), it was pretty big. If you've been to one art festival, you pretty much know what to expect. There's a whole lot of booths filled with all sorts of art. In this case, paintings and photos dominated, but there was everything from modern art, carvings, and pottery, to fancy painted egg shells as well. There was a fairly decent selection of food too, though nothing all that amazing so I ended up getting lunch at a pretty awesome gelato and sandwich shop some people from Japan Club introduced me too a while back. I really should go there more... Anyway, there was also some entertainment, though not much that interested me. There were a few costumed guys walking around on stilts, a couple of small bands, and, oddly enough, a really good belly dancer.
I didn't buy anything, (other than lunch), but I walked around for a while and looked at the art. There were some decent paintings, but the photos interested me the most. And once again got me thinking about how much it would cost to make some really large high quality prints of some of my better photos. While I'm not a huge fan of art festivals, I think they can be interesting to walk through, at least for a little while, and the size and variety made this one a decent diversion for an hour or two.


10/15/2012 Running around town

Despite not doing a bit day trip or anything, I actually had a pretty busy weekend between a whole lot of errands and various other tasks. I did spend a little while at a big art festival in Gainesville yesterday, though. I may do a travelogue entry about it, but I haven't decided yet and I don't have time right now so it'd have to wait for Wednesday anyway. See you then!


10/12/2012 Now on TV

There's a new Blooper Reel comic up for everyone who votes. Just click the TWC button on the left to see it!

It's that time of year again when all the new TV shows and new seasons of returning shows start up again. Actually, most of them have already been going for a few weeks. So what am I watching now? Quite a bit, actually. I like to have something on in the background while I work on the Aurora's Nightmare art, so that means I've been watching a lot more TV shows than I usually do. Here's a quick summary. As a note, this list is strictly new US TV shows. Between Netflix and DVDs I'm watching a lot of other stuff too (anime, mostly), and three of the shows on Cartoon Network's revived Toonami block (Bleach, Cashern Sins, and Samurai 7). Maybe I'll talk about some of those in the future. But for now, American TV...

Returning Shows:
The Simpsons: It's been running for ages but I still find it funnier and much more clever than other "adult" cartoons.
Fringe: It's gotten pretty weird, but it is a J.J. Abrams show and it's on the last season so I can't quit now.
Castle: As a writer, I can really appreciate a mystery series that has an author as the main character. Plus it's a solid show all around and Nathan Fillion is one of the few actors I actually care about.
Person of Interest: It wasn't bad last season as a mostly episodic action show and now that it's got a larger plot going on, it's steadily improving.
The Big Bang Theory: I know a lot of smart people and tech geeks, none of which are anywhere near as socially awkward as Big Bang's cast, but the show is still hilarious with lots of great "geek" jokes and references.
The Amazing Race: If I could be on any reality show, this would be it. World travel, diverse challenges, what's not to like? Well, some of the teams I suppose, but it is a reality show and all...
Adventure Time: It's a weird Cartoon Network show, but far more entertaining and far less ridiculous than most. It helps that it's about a kid going on all sorts of crazy fantasy adventures, since that type of thing is right up my ally.
Saturday Night Live: To be honest, I think SNL has been going steadily down hill for years. However, it still manages just enough good jokes (mostly in Weekend Update) to keep my watching.

Returning Shows Still on Break:
Psych: USA has weird season times, but I'm looking forward to more of the solid mysteries and crazy cast of characters.
Futurama: Actually, they run their seasons over the summer, so it'll probably be a while until the next one. But really, I can never get enough of Futurama.
Leverage: A moderately entertaining show about a bunch of thieves who use their skills to take down corrupt businessmen and the like. Annoyingly, TNT's season schedule is even stranger than USA's.
Game of Thrones: Another summer show, so no new season for a while. But anyway, I'm a big fan of the Song of Ice and Fire novels, and Game of Thrones has been a shockingly good adaptation so far.
My Little Pony: A bunch of friends bugged me to give this a try and, seeing that it was on Netflix, I eventually did. I'm not a crazy super fan or anything and, to be honest, I find the whole show a bit overrated. That said, if you can get past the title and the cutesy theme song, it's got some good writing and is surprisingly enjoyable so I'll go ahead and watch the next season when it starts.

New Shows:
Revolution: It's an interesting look at what the world would be like if we suddenly lost all our electricity. I've got a few minor complaints here and there, but the characters, setting, and pacing have been good so far and, as a J.J. Abrams show, the plot is guaranteed to evolve into something complex and crazy.
Elementary: As a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes novels, the modern day Holmes in Elementary bugs me quite a bit (his personality isn't right, Watson is a women, etc, etc, etc.) and I'm really not sure if I'm going to keep watching. That said, the mystery in the last episode was pretty clever, so I'll watch another episode or two before making a final decision.

Shows I'd Like to Be Watching but Aren't:
How I Met Your Mother: After a recommendation from my brother, I started watching this on Netflix and it turned out it to be one of the rare sitcoms that I actually find funny. I would be watching the current season, except that it's season eight and Netflix only had up through six so I'm currently a season behind.
Doctor Who: After numerous recommendations, I finally watched the new version of this British sci-fi classic (ok, I've got one non-American show on the list) over the spring and summer, thanks once again to Netflix. And I'm hooked. I'd love to watch the new season, but I don't get BBC and don't really want to pay to add it to my cable plan for just one show. At the moment, I'm thinking I'll just wait for it to hit Netflix.


10/10/2012 Back to Epcot

Well, Monday was the last of the holidays so I don't plan to skip any more PV updates any time soon.

Before I get to today's travelogue entry, you remember Friday's entry where I talked about lizards? You know how I said that they didn't get into my apartment? Well, guess what I found in my apartment Friday afternoon... Yeah, irony was kinda in full force there. Anyway...

Sunday (October 7th): Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival
Even though I've been back in Florida since the middle of August, I hadn't done anything except for that one water park trip over Labor Day weekend and was really overdue for something fun. I was talking with some friends about a group water park trip, but stuff came up and it didn't work out. We're hoping to reschedule before the weather cools too much, but in the meantime I still wanted to go somewhere so I decided to do the other activity I had planned for this month, a return visit to Epcot.
While I love Epcot, I had a special reason for wanting to go this month. Starting at the very end of September and running through early November is their annual International Food and Wine Festival. And as you probably know if you've been reading my travelogues for very long, I love trying lots of different foods. I found out about the festival too late last year, but didn't want to miss it this time around. As a note, since I wrote all about my last visit to Epcot (see the last entry on the page), I'm not going to write about everything all over again. Instead, I'll focus on the festival and some things I didn't get a chance to see on my last visit.
So anyway, I got up early Sunday morning and headed off to Epcot. The World Showcase part of the park (where most of the festival takes place) opens a bit later than the rest so I had some time to kill after arriving. I liked the ride through The Land's green house last time, so I decided to sign up for the special behind the scenes tour and learn a bit more about it. The tour, as a note, takes about an hour and costs a bit extra. I was able to get on the first tour of the day, but it wasn't starting for a while yet so I checked out a couple of other things while waiting. I started out taking a quick walk through the Innovations buildings, which I didn't get around to last time. They were mostly devoted to some interactive exhibits designed to teach kids about some fairly serious topics such as saving money and home safety, though there was also a motion simulator ride and a place to sign up for Segway tours, along with a couple other things.
Moving on, I headed to the festival's main building. It used to have a bunch of attractions themed around the human body but that was back when I was a kid, now it's apparently a multipurpose building used for festivals and the like. There were some stores inside selling festival merchandise, fancy kitchen utensils, and the like, areas for book signings (by cook book authors, of course), demonstrations by professional chefs, and some training seminars. A lot of the demos and seminars cost extra, but I could see them being pretty interesting if I lived nearby and had a Disney season pass or something. There was also a chocolate exhibit, which featured some really impressive Disney themed chocolate art made by chefs at the various Disney resort hotels. I looked around a bit, grabbed a festival passport (more about that later), then headed back to The Land for the tour.
I gotta say that they research some pretty interesting things in The Land's green houses, especially when it comes to growing food using a minimal amount of space. If you want to learn about new and different gardening techniques (many of which you can do yourself with a bit of setup), it's definitely worth it. You'll get to learn about some interesting plants as well, though that's more of a secondary focus. I enjoyed the tour, but I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. I'd suggest taking the green house ride in The Land first, and seeing if you want more after that.
By the time the tour was over, the World Showcase had opened up and I was more than ready to get something to eat. On the way, I noticed another little festival attraction, a cranberry bog. Ever seen those juice commercials where the farmers are standing knee deep in floating cranberries? Turns out, that's actually how cranberries are harvested. The trees are grown in bogs, the berries fall into the water, and the farmers trap them all in one area and scoop them out. I never knew that before...
So, the festival. While there is all that stuff I mentioned earlier, the main attraction is the numerous stands spread throughout the World Showcase. There was 29 of them, each with a different theme (mostly countries, though there were a few odd ones such as "Cheese"). Each place has two or three thematically appropriate foods and a few speciality alcoholic beverages (although it's the "Food and Wine" festival, there was also quite a lot of beer, rum, etc.) and the goal is to snack and/or drink your way around the world. That's what the passport I mentioned is for, by the way, you can get it stamped at each booth as you go and mark which foods and drinks you've tried. As a note, I'm not a huge fan of alcohol of any kind (I just don't like the taste), so I paid far more attention to the food, but there seemed to be quite a large selection of drinks and each stand had a board with information about the history and taste of its wines/beers/etc., so aficionados would certainly love it. But back to the food. Since the goal is to try as many different things as possible, portions are rather small, but so are the prices, which most dishes falling somewhere in the $2 - 4 range (with $6 at the high end). And this is all high quality stuff.
So what did I eat? It's more like what didn't I eat. As I mentioned last time, Epcot is the place I'll really splurge on food and between the variety and low prices, I didn't bother with actual meals and just snacked all day as I made my way around the park. I didn't go to all 29 stands (small portions or not, I can't eat that much), but I hit a good number of them. I'm not going to give you a full list but a few highlights include tuna poke from Hawaii, griddled Greek cheese with pistachios and honey, Argentinian beef skewers with chimichurri sauce, lamb meatballs from New Zealand, filet mignon with wild mushrooms and truffle butter from Canada, and Mongolian beef and veggies wrapped in a steamed bun. Everything was excellent and there were some pretty interesting dishes available. I wasn't planning on getting any alcohol (China and Japan have some awesome tea stands (not as part of the festival, they're always there), which are much more my style), but I ended up getting one drink at the Caribbean stand since just about everyone in line was talking about how it was so great that they were back for seconds (or thirds). The drink in question? The Bacardi Frozen Dragon Berry Colada. It's a slushy of sorts made with rum(?) flavored with strawberry and dragon fruit. It was actually really good (you could barely taste the alcohol, which is always a plus for me), though I think I'd have preferred a virgin version if they had one.
So I worked my way around the world, snacking, re-doing some favorite rides and attractions from before, and trying to check out the things I'd missed. For example, I was able to get a better look at Canada (it was getting dark when I made it there last time) and the nice garden they have there. I also watched the 360 degree movie about Canada. Not quite as cool as the China one, but still good. Got a better look at England's tea garden as well, and watched the very nicely down American history show.
Last time I talked about how some of the different countries have little museums. While I found a couple I'd missed before. One was in Morocco and featured traditional Moroccan clothing and accessories, and the other was in Norway and was all about the Vikings. The Mexican museum had changed since my last visit as well, switching focus to the Mayans.
Another cool thing in different countries is the shows. Each country has one or two that take place several times throughout the day (and most of them have several variations on top of that). I haven't seen anywhere near all of them, but I came across taiko drummers in Japan, an interesting balancing act in France, a humorous Romeo and Juliet retelling in England, and a great acrobatic show in China. As a note, the Chinese acrobats seem to be the most popular show in the park and they draw a large crowd very quickly so if you want a decent vantage point be sure to check the times and show up 5 or 10 minutes early.
At one point, I also took a break to visit The Universe of Energy, another attraction I wasn't able to to get to on my last visit. It's part ride, part video, starring Ellen Degeneres and Bill Nye The Science Guy and it's all about energy. What are different sources of energy? Where do they come from? What are their pros and cons? It's not bad, but a bit on the long side (45 minutes, not counting any time spent in line). Personally, unless you're a huge fan of one or both of the stars, I'd say it should be a pretty low priority stop.
All that, and my day wasn't quite over yet. Like the Flower and Garden Festival, the Food and Wine Festival has its own concert series. The bands for this one are a bit more modern than the ones at the Flower and Garden Festival, and I don't really care about them much. But going this particular weekend meant I could see the one band I had any degree of interest in, Starship (a spin-off of Jefferson Starship which is in turn a spin-off of Jefferson Airplane), featuring Mickey Thomas. Not one of my favorite bands, but they do have some good songs. And, of course, what's a visit to Disney without a flashy final event?
All in all, I had an awesome day and, if you can, I highly recommend visiting Epcot during the International Food and Wine Festival.


10/5/2012 So many lizards...

There's a new voter bonus comic, just click the TWC button on the left to see it! And, as a reminder, there won't be an update this Monday (it's another Jewish holiday), but that's the last update I should have to miss for the foreseeable future.

While I don't have any new Florida locations to write about, I think it's time for a little travelogue entry...

Random Florida Comment: Lizards Everywhere
I'm from Western Colorado and I went to university in Arizona, so I've spent lots of time in the desert. And, in the desert, I'm used to seeing the occasional lizard hanging around. But that's nothing compared to the amount of lizards here in Northern Florida. Or are they geckos? For that matter, what exactly is the difference between a lizard and a gecko? Anyway, to say that there are a lot of them around here is an understatement. I see at least a dozen on the sixty second walk from my apartment to the mailbox.
They're mostly brown, though I've seen the rare green one. Not sure if those are a different type or if they can just change colors (if they can, they don't do it much). They also have this colorful fin beneath their chins that they extend when they're trying to get attention. The smallest lizards could easily stand on a nickle while the largest I've seen is could be close to a foot in length (that's including the tail, which accounts for at least half of that). I don't really mind having them around. They're harmless and kinda fun to watch. Plus none of them have made it inside my apartment (though a couple of really small toads somehow managed it). That said, seeing so many of them every time I go outside is a little strange.

See you Wednesday!


10/3/2012 ...

I know I had some things I've been wanting to write about here but I've got a serious case of writers' block at the moment and I can't think of any of them. Hopefully I'll be over it come Friday.


9/28/2012 Another holiday?

There's a new Blooper Reel comic so click the TWC button on the left to check it out!

In other news, PV won't update this Monday, or the following Monday, as those as the first and last days of Sukkot (another holiday). After that though, there shouldn't be any more interruptions for the foreseeable future.

That aside, I don't really have much to talk about at the moment. Most of my time lately has been split between work, the holidays, and Aurora's Nightmare (working on a particularily complicated piece of character art that is taking far longer than normal). And, between all that and the fact that PV is in the middle of a gym battle, I'm still barely staying ahead on new strips. I'm looking forward to getting out and doing something fun...though that probably won't be happening until next weekend. On the plus side, Sukkot is a much more laid back and fun holiday than the last couple, so that'll be nice, even though I can't actually build a sukkah (an outdoor booth that you're supposed to spend a lot of time in during the holiday) here at my apartment complex.

Anyway, have a great weekend and I'll see you Wednesday!


9/24/2012 The holidays continue

There will be no update on Wednesday due to Yom Kippur. That's pretty much the only special thing going on this week, but I've get some plans for October, at least one or two of which should make for good travelogue entries...

Here's a quick Aurora's Nightmare update while I'm thinking about it. It's Aurora, though she's around 15 years younger than in the other poses I've posted. I still need to add her wings to this one, but it's otherwise done. In case you're wondering, I only post the occasional pose on here, not all the ones Silver and I have been working on. There's plenty more that you haven't seen.

Well, it's getting late so I should wrap this up for now. See you Friday!


9/21/2012 I, I, I...

As always, if you click the TWC on the left and vote for Pebble Version on Top Web Comics you can see the new weekly Blooper Reel comic. It's quick, easy, and a nice way to help support PV.

You know, I'm kind of regretting my choice of personality quirk for Winona. Trying to write decent dialogue for her when every sentence begins with I is tough. In case you're wondering, she does start most (though not all) of the sentences in her in-game intro speech with I, so this isn't something I just pulled out of thing air.

Anyway, see you Monday!


9/19/2012 More thoughts on Greenlight

Sorry for the missed update on Monday but I decided that updating really early just didn't make sense. I've never done that before and when I'm doing gym battle strips (which tend to be pretty time consuming to make), it's hard enough to get them done in time without shortening my deadlines. On that note, there will be no comic on Wednesday of next week, and possibly a couple of Mondays in early October (due to holidays, as mentioned in my last news post).

As you may (or may note) know, Car Washer: Summer of the Ninja, the indie action/casual game I released early this year on Windows and Xbox Live Indie Games, is up for voting on Steam's new Greenlight service. When Greenlight launched the entire service was a real mess. For one thing, there was a massive amount of trolling including people posting fake game listings and, worse, tons of people down voting everything for little or no reason and leaving nasty message board comments. Sorting through the large amount of games up for consideration was also difficult. The way it was then, I was pretty sure that, without changes, nothing would ever get approved. Well, Valve has been steadily making changes to the service and it's improved a bit, though more work is still needed. They started out by making the vote buttons bigger (ok, that wasn't a big help). More recently, they've added some options to customize your game queue by genre, which is a big improvement, though it's still far from ideal. On the approval side, I think they changed the number of votes required and might (or might not, it's hard to tell) have changed the effect down votes have on a game's overall score. Any such changes would be good since all the trolling left many games with a massive number of down votes to overcome before they could make any progress. One of the most recent things I've noticed is that you can no longer see how close (or, in most cases, extremely distant) a game is to approval. On the plus side, I suppose that helps eliminate peer pressure from voting. On the down side, it's a little disappointing to not be able to see how well my favorite games are doing (then again, the way things were, that tended to be more depressing than not). The biggest improvement though? Most of the trolls down voting everything seem to have gotten bored and left (or maybe they just ran out of games). There's still people who don't seem to understand how Greenlight is supposed to work and others that have an extreme hatred of certain game genres and/or graphical styles (anything 2D, for example). And I've even seen some people who seem to think anything that's not just like Braid or Limbo isn't a proper indie game ("indie" is not a genre, people) but it's gotten a whole lot better than it was. One of the more annoying problems at the moment (at least in my opinion), is that Greenlight is a bit of a pain to get to now that there's no longer a banner for it on Steam's home page.
Anyway, I'm glad to see that Valve is sticking to their word and improving the service. That said, I'm still not entirely sold on the whole Greenlight concept. I don't have time to go into all the details right now but deciding things by popular opinion can be problematic in a number of ways, especially when most of the people are basing their decision off of nothing more than a few screenshots and a bit of text (which most probably don't read).
Anyway, while we're talking about Greenlight, I can still see Car Washer's voting stats (well, the bit of them that Valve lets game creators see) and, while it's still got a long way to go, its ranking has improved considerably over what it was not long ago (either due to an influx of votes or Valve fixing up the ranking system a bit). So, if you've got a Steam account and haven't already, please remember to vote for it . If you want some other good games to check out on Greenlight, I recommend Mutant Mudds, DLC Quest, and Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, all great games (I already own them on other systems, so I can say this with confidence). I only just found out that Super Amazing Wagon Adventure was on there but I've been following DLC Quest and Mutant Mudds from early on and they both fell victim to a lot of trolling for really stupid things like the fact that they use sprite graphics and were previously released on consoles (Steam apparently has a lot of PC elitists). Alpha Kimori is looking pretty good as well, though I haven't played the demo yet so I can't give a definitive opinion.

Well, that's all for now. See you Friday!


9/14/2012 Holy days

There's a new voter bonus comic so click the TWC button on the left to check it out!

It's the time of year when several major Jewish holidays come up in rather quick succession. Depending on which days of the week they're on, they can be rather problematic when it comes to things like school or work (or, in my case, working at a school). And this is one of those years. I've got the first two holidays (one of which is this Monday) taken care, but still need to get time off for the remaining ones. Holiday scheduling issues aside though, I've pretty much got a decent routine going at this point and, if there are no unexpected events, am able to spend a decent ammount of time each week on all the things I want to.

Speaking of the holy days though, I may have to miss some PV updates because of them. Or maybe just update a bit early (like, the afternoon before they're supposed to be up). Haven't decided yet. So if there's no new comic on Monday, that'll be why.

Have a good weekend!


9/12/2012 Metagame

Did I ever mention Metagame? It's the card game I played while at the Game Developers' Conference back in the spring. There are game cards and question cards and each player has to pick one of their game cards and make a brief argument for why their game "Is the most artistic" or "Is the most tragic" or whatever was on the question card, with a third party judging. It's part game knowledge and a whole lot of creative ad-libbing (especially if you're stuck with cards for games you know nothing about). I had a lot of fun with it at GDC and, now that it's got an official retail release and everything, I'm thinking of using it in some of my classes (especially History of Video Games) and trying to set up some big games around the campus to attract more interest in the game design program. Anyway, if you and your friends like video games, I recommend ordering a copy, you'll have fun with it. If you and/or your friends aren't all that into games they have a pop culture edition as well, though ordering it is a little more complicated.



9/10/2012 Art, art, and more art

Running a bit late right now. I spent most of Sunday working on more character art for Aurora's Nightmare. Thing is, I got kinda wrapped up in it and it took a lot longer than I thought it would and, as a result, didn't have much time left to write today's news post. So I gotta run. See you Wednesday!


9/7/2012 Travelogue time

There's a new Blooper Reel comic! Just click the TWC button on the left and confirm your vote to check it out. There's a new one every Friday and you can view old ones on the Archives page. On another note, Car Washer: Summer of the Ninja is still up on Steam Greenlight, so give it a vote if you've got a Steam account.

I started a new page for future Florida travelogue entries (figured I might as well divide it up by school years). I haven't done anything especially new and exciting since returning, but I figure an introductory entry is in order.

Friday (September 7th): Back in Florida
Well, I've been back in Florida for several weeks now following my summer vacation in Colorado and Hawaii. One of the first things I noticed upon returning is that I still really hate the combination of high heat and high humidity. Things should cool down in another month or so but until then it's going to be kinda miserable outside... At least when it's not raining. While the weather has been fairly good this week, for my first two weeks back it rained every day.
Anyway, annoying weather aside, things have been going ok. Work kept me extremely busy at first, especially since I had to take over some classes at the last minute for a professor who suddenly quit due to health reasons. Fortunately, things have started to calm down and I'm getting into a comfortable routine.
Other than hang out with people at University of Florida's Japanese language tables, I haven't done too much yet aside from a trip to Disney's Blizzard Beach during Labor Day weekend. That was fun, but nothing has changed there since my previous visit so I saw no real need to give it a new write up. On that note, there are still some attractions I haven't visited yet on my list (such as Sea World, Wet 'n Wild, and the Kennedy Space Center) so you can expect write-ups for them eventually. I'll probably also be revisiting some the theme parks and festivals I previously wrote about over the course of the school year, but I'm not planning to give them new write-ups unless they've got something I didn't cover before. For example, Epcot's got a food and wine festival going on next month, and I didn't make it on all the rides there on my last visit either, so you can expect a bit about that, and Magic Kingdom has its new and expanded Fantasy Land opening sometime soon. So new travelogue entries will still be coming, though perhaps a bit less frequently than before.
Anyway, we'll see what happens. I'm sure I'll find plenty of interesting things to do and places to go this year as well.


9/5/2012 Prep work

Yesterday was one of those days where lots of little things went wrong and/or took a lot more time than they should have. Everything more or less worked out in the end, but it was pretty frustrating and there were a couple of things I'd planned to do that I wasn't able to get to as a result. Today's news post was one of them so it'll unfortunately have to be pushed back until Friday. On the bright side, my daily schedule is slowly falling into the pattern I want it to and I'm starting to find time for what I normally like to have as daily activities like exercise, Japanese practice, and video games in addition to my job and development work. And once all that is worked out (over the next few days) I'll have more time for other things as well, like these news posts, which I know have been pretty bare bones lately. Hopefully by Friday everything will be good and I can start writing about more interesting things than my schedule.


9/3/2012 Getting things done

For those of you with Steam accounts, please vote for Car Washer: Summer of the Ninja on Greenlight (see Friday's post for more details).

I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday weekend. I'm spending a bit of time relaxing and the rest working on Aurora's Nightmare and some various other things I've been meaning to do for the last few weeks but just didn't have the time for, like giving my apartment a good cleaning and rebuilding my buffer of PV strips (not quite done with that, but I'm getting there). I've got a travelogue entry of sorts planned, but I'm think going to save it for Wednesday and get back to work for now.



8/31/2012 Greenlight

There's a new voter bonus comic for everyone who clicks the TWC button on the left.

For everyone with a Steam account, Steam just debuted its new Greenlight service, with the goal of improving the process of getting indie games onto Steam by allowing its members to vote on which ones they'd like to see added to the catalogue. Well my little indie game, Car Washer: Summer of the Ninja, is one of many great indie games up for voting. Seeing as Greenlight just launched, there's bound to be some issues with the process and Valve will be doubtless be modifying things for quite some time in order to streamline the system, deal with trolling (which, sadly, seems to be pretty prevalent already), and the like. That said, there's some really cool looking games up for consideration. I'd certainly appreciate any thumbs up ratings, favorites, and positive comments you'd like to throw towards Car Washer, and I know other indie developers would appreciate the same for their games. So, if you can, take some time to look through some of the first batch of titles on Greenlight and help them make it onto Steam.

Despite getting to the point where I don't need to devote my "free" time on class prep, between my work on Aurora's Nightmare and various other things, I still stayed very busy this week. To the point where I still haven't rebuilt my comic buffer (barely got this one done in time), much less gotten back to playing Kingdom Hearts 3D. Hopefully, the long weekend will help with that. Guess we'll find out soon enough...

See you Monday!


8/29/2012 Random stuff

I've sure been talking about a lot of different things over the last few days. Even if you don't count the lectures I give in class (which cover game design, writing, and history, MS Office, spreadsheets, and computer programming), I've talked about how much technology has changed over the last decade or so (and how much it will change in the future), various differences between Japan and the US, visual novels, and what game/reality show I'd like to be on (The Amazing Race, if you're curious), among other things. Then there was tropical storm Isaac, which seems to have missed me entirely (my luck with natural disasters has really improved compared to last year).

Got some things I'd like to talk about here on Pebble Version too...but I suppose I should wait until I get my comic buffer rebuilt. Fortunately, with a holiday weekend coming up, I think I can get that finished up soon. Weather permitting, I'll probably be heading down to Orlando for a day as well. Right now I'm thinking it would be a good time to revisit one of the Disney water parks since I've still got a bunch of admissions to them on my pass and it's going to be really hot and humid there this time of year, but we'll see.

Anyway, I should get back to work. Later!


8/27/2012 What I'm working on

Unfortunately, I didn't quite finish rebuilding my buffer of PV strips, but I'm in much better shape than I was last week. And I'm hard at work on Aurora's Nightmare again. On that note, here's another piece of character art from the game (one of the many I've been working on). As with the last one (Aurora's normal pose) this new one was drawn by Hanbee Lee, cleaned up and colored by me, and shaded by Silver. It's Aurora again...but she's not doing so well this time. As the title (Aurora's Nightmare) should imply, things don't exactly go well for the main characters... As a note, if you're wondering where her wings are, no they weren't ripped off or anything like that. I just haven't added them to the image yet. Other than that though, it's game ready. Though I should probably also mention that she'll have several different levels of injury, this is only one of them.

Anyway, that's all for now. See you Wednesday!


8/24/2012 Catching up

There's a new voter bonus comic up for every who clicks the TWC button on the left. This year's special forum awards series is over so it's back to Pebble Version Blooper Reel strips for a while.

Well, I've finally gotten enough of my course material done that I no longer have to spend all my free time working. Or at least not working on that. I still have to take care of some errands and assorted other tasks. Not to mention getting ahead on PV strips, as this was another one I had to make at the last minute. Hopefully, I'll have all that taken care of in the next few days and then things will really calm down.

See you on Monday!


8/22/2012 Getting there

Well, I'm nearly to the point where I can relax a bit. And get back to work on my own projects, of course. I should probably get caught up on Pebble Version as well, I barely got today's strip done in time... Well, anyway, I'm getting there.

See you Friday!


8/20/2012 One step forward and two steps back

I got a lot of work done on my courses over the weekend! However, another professor quit rather suddenly due to illness and, as a result, I ended up getting assigned two more courses (bringing my total up to eight). At the same time, the college where I'm working had some rather serious technology related problems. Everything seems to be fixed now but it delayed my progress on several important things. Current status? I have five courses that are totally done (three I taught before, one based on my textbook, and one relying rather heavily on material provided by the textbook's publisher). I've got one that, thanks to more publisher provided material, is pretty far along (another day or so of heavy work should finish it up). For the remaining two, one still needs its assignments created and both need their lectures planned out. I'm thinking I'll have to forgo PowerPoints for them and just put together some lectures notes and write stuff on the white board. I'm not entirely happy about that but just making lecture note, activity plans, and the like for those classes is going to take a long time. Add PowerPoints to the mix and, well, like I said last week, I'd kinda like to confine my work to actual working hours sometime in the near future so as to have time for my own projects and leisure stuff.

Anyway, classes start today (though they won't really kick into gear until the middle of the week) and I've still got a lot to do so I'll see you later.


8/17/2012 Making progress

This week's voter bonus comic in the final entry in this year's forum awards series. It features Blivsey, winner of the best new member award. Click the TWC button the left to check it out.

I'm still dividing pretty much all my time between meetings and class prep. On the bright side, I got access to some instructor resources for one of the books I'm using, which include test questions, activities, and PowerPoint presentations. Taking some of that stuff and repurposing it for my class saved me a whole lot of time though I'm not done with that class yet. Even with so much material, deciding what to use and converting it into a form that works with the course software I have to use. With a bit of luck I might be able to finish it up later today, though considering how many meetings I have, I might not be able to until sometime on Sunday. After that? I still have two other classes. I got some basic stuff for them done (rough schedules and the like) though I still need to make an entire set of assignments and PowerPoint presentations for them from scratch. Not really sure how that'll take. During the last couple of semesters I was making PowerPoints on and off for pretty much the entire time. Considering that I need a PowerPoint for nearly every time the class meets, and each one can take up to several hours to create (depending on length and complexity) that could very well happen again. Though I'm planning to keep up my "work myself to death" pace throughout the coming week in an attempt to get as much done as possible. I've got a very full teaching schedule and, from the sound of things, I'm going to have a lot of other work related things I'll need to do this semester as well, not to mention grading. So the more I can get done know, the more managable things will be over the rest of the semester. Not to mention that I that, if I want to make some serious progress on Aurora's Nightmare, play some of the video games I've been looking forward to, and visit some more theme parks and stuff, I need to get my total ammount of job related work down to something that I can handle within normal working hours. By this time next week, I should have a much better idea of how busy the rest of the semester will or won't be, depending on my progress on those classes and what other duties I get assigned. So, nothing to do except try my hardest and see what happens.

Anyway, I hope some of you have a relaxing weekend.


8/15/2012 Swamped

As predicted, between meetings, class prep, and trying to fit in some shopping and other errands, this week is pretty crazy. On the bright side, I managed to get the majority of items on my shopping list and have three of my six classes totally prepped and ready to go. On the down side, those were the easy ones (two I taught before plus one based on the textbook I wrote), the remaining three have to be done almost completely from scratch. And, since all my classes this semester are on campus (I always had one or two online ones before) I'm going to be spending more time lecturing and, as a result, will have less time to work on things like actually creating those lectures and the PowerPoint presentations to go with them. My plan is to work myself extremely hard and try to get as much as possible done this week and next week, before my teaching schedule gets too intense. Not fun, but if I make enough progress the rest of the semester shouldn't be that much busier than my previous ones (hopefully). But the meetings I need to attend are eating up a decent bit of my time as well and, between them and the class prep, I don't know when I'm going to have time to finish my errands, or even play the last bit of Final Fantasy XIII-2 DLC I missed while on vacation...

Anyway, things are going to be really busy here, at least for the next week or two, possibly longer, so I need to get going.



8/13/2012 Back to work

I made it back to Florida yesterday evening and I'm already hating the humidity. Especially after spending time in Colorado and Arizona where it's nice and dry. Honolulu wasn't that bad either, actually, It was humid, though not nearly as much as here, and the temperature was lower and the constant breeze kept it from being much of a problem.

Anyway, I can't talk now. Between flying back, unpacking, etc, it's been pretty busy and I've got work today (meetings and stuff, classes don't start till next week). See you Wednesday!


Pokemon and all related images and trademarks are copyrighted by Nintendo, one of my favorite games companies who would certainly never waste their time by trying to sue me. Especially since I'm protected under the Fair Use Rule of the United States Copyright Act of 1976. Aside from that the actual site content is copyrighted by me, Josiah Lebowitz 2003.