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(If you'd like to read about my time in Japan, check out my Japan Travelogue for all the write ups, comments, and photos in a much easier to navigate format.)

8/8/2008 General lack of creativity

There's a new special bonus comic, this one featuring Doodleshark, another winner of the 2008 PV Forum Awards. There's a new ROM too.

So... Not feeling too creative at the moment. Just one of those days I guess... It's been an ok week and I got a decent amount of stuff done. Didn't get everything I would have liked done but close enough I guess. Especially with all the surprise last minute stuff like the bees...

Let's see, something to say... Might have mentioned it before but it's looking pretty certain that I'll be headed back to UAT come September to work on my Master's. It'll probably take four semesters (going year around, I'll finish end of 2009). Of course, I'll still keep an eye on the job postings while I'm there so there's the chance I'll find a job and drop out before finishing, you never know. Pebble Version shouldn't be affected.

Remember, Monday is Pebble Version's 5th anniversary. Been an interesting year (and an interesting five years for that matter). But I'll talk about it on Monday. See you then!


8/6/2008 A day to remember...or not

This update comes to you slightly late for a few reasons. Tuesday was a busy day, a very busy day. First off, aside from my usual morning stuff, I had a bunch of phone calls to make and some online stuff that had to be done, along with a quick visit to my grandparents to make sure they got on the bus for some outing. After that, I only had time to grab a quick lunch before heading to my piano lesson, followed by a bunch of errands and another visit to my grandparents. When I finally got back home I was planning to get some computer work done, eat, and run off to karate but I got a call from one of the bee keepers I had contacted so I ended up skipping class to wait around for her to come and take a look. Unfortunately, she decided that she wouldn't be able to get the bees out of their new home with the gear she had so she called a friend with a bee vacuum to come over. Even with the bee vacuum the guy had a hard time getting them all and I had to give him a hand at times. In the end, we did get all the bees although I got stung twice (once cause a bee decided it wanted to crawl under my watch, got stuck and panicked, and the other time cause a bee decided to land on my head, got stuck in my hair, and panicked; stupid bees...). Missed the last episode of I Survived a Japanese Game Show cause of them too (should be able to watch it online sometime today though).
Anyway, by the time all that was taken care of it was after 9 PM and I usually start work on PV around 10. I was kinda burned out after running around all day (the bee stings didn't help either) so I decided to play a little Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix+ until 10. So I loaded it up and started fighting the Lingering Spirit (a really hard optional boss)... And kept fighting...and fighting... Turns out he was even nastier than I expected and I really hate quitting a game when I'm stuck on a boss so I kept trying and trying until I finally took him down... And by then it was way past 10. So that's about it.

I actually did get a picture of the bees but, because of all the afore mentioned stuff, I haven't transferred it to my computer yet so it'll have to wait till Friday. See you then!


8/4/2008 Something always happens...

If you haven't seen terra5's bonus comic yet, all you need to do is vote.

So, my week alone is starting out as quiet and peaceful as I though. First there's the giant list my mom gave me of things she wants me to do with my grandparents. Some I was expecting. Others, not so much. I mean, take my grandfather for a haircut? He's almost bald, why does he need a haircut?
Anyway, my mom's huge list, or the other last second errands she dropped on me, weren't complete unexpected. What was unexpected was that a swarm of bees suddenly decided to take up residence right outside the garage. I got back from one of my mom's errands and there they were. Pretty odd. First off, cause you really don't see a lot of honey bees around here, mostly just yellow jackets. Secondly, because there's got to be hundreds of bees there and, while I might have missed them when I first left the house on said errand, I'm pretty much certain that they weren't there yesterday. So why the heck did a big group of bees just suddenly decide to up and move there? And, the biggest question, what am I going to do about them? Unlike wasps and yellow jackets (which are just plain mean), honey bees usually won't bother you unless you bother them and they make honey, so that's a plus. So I don't really want to kill them. But I don't really want a large bee hive right outside the house either. So I've got to try and track down a bee keeper or something who can move them somewhere else. Unless my parents want to take up bee keeping, which I doubt.
It seems that just about any time I think I'm can just sit back, relax, and do nothing for a few days something comes up. I mean, it's kinda to be expected, right? But bees? I totally didn't see that coming.

Well, see you Wednesday. Maybe I'll post a picture of the bees or something...


8/1/2008 Big month

There's a new special bonus comic featuring another winner of the Pebble Version Forums Awards. This week it's terra5, winner of the Best Gamer award. There's a new ROM too.

So, it's August. This will probably be my last month in Colorado for a while. Come the start of September, if I haven't found a good job by then, I'll be heading back to Arizona to start work on a Master's Degree. Already got most of the paperwork taken care of. But I've got plenty of things to keep me busy in the meantime. Starting Sunday I'm gonna have the house to myself for a bit. Which, admitedly probably isn't going to be too big of a deal (although I suppose I could have a couple uninterrupted video game marathons). But I'll need to take care of my grandparents during that time so that'll keep me at least kinda busy. And, aside from whatever video game marathons I work in, I'll keep working on scanning my family's old photo albums. There's also a couple of places I want to visit and I plan to start writing a new novel soon (my ninth). Now if I just had a publisher... Anyway, then there's PV's annivarsay coming up in a week and a half and I think my brother is coming to visit at some point as well...

Well, should be a fairly enjoyable month...except for the whole packing and moving thing come the end of Aug / start of Sept. I'll talk more on Monday. Later!


7/30/2008 Must plays

There's less than two weeks to go till Pebble Version's 5th anniversary. Sure has been an interesting year, but I'll talk about that when the time comes.

Since I can't think of anything else to talk about at the moment, I figured I'd start a list of must play games for various systems. Today it's the original Nintendo Entertainment System (aka NES). Keep in mind that even if you don't have an NES lying around, you'll be able to find these games on other systems as downloadable games or part of classic game collections. I'll put more details on where to find said games as I talk about them. Also, keep in mind that this list only contains games I've played and is based on my preferences. While nearly everyone would agree with me on some of these games, there's bound to be some differences of opinion. One final note, to keep one series from taking over the list, I'll be limiting each series to only one entry per list. But you can assume that if one game is the series is a must play, the others are pretty good as well.

5 Must Play Games: Nintendo Entertainment System

1. Super Mario Brothers
Although is isn't the first Mario game (he appeared in Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Mario Brothers before SMB), it's the game that launched gaming's most famous series, created the modern platforming genre, and (along with the NES) completely revived the dying American game market. Even today, SMB is considered one of the greatest platformers ever created. There's 8 worlds with four excellently designed levels each, a ton of hidden secrets, really catchy music, and perfect controls. If you in any way consider yourself a gamer, you really have to play SMB.
The Rest of the Series: The NES also features SMB 2 and SMB 3. 3 is also a must play (many fans even consider it the best in the series). The US SMB 2, while fun, wasn't originally designed as a Mario game and features very different game play than the others.
How to Get: If you don't want to track down an NES cart, you can find a remake of SMB in the Super Mario All-stars collection on the Super Nintendo, another remake on the Gameboy Color (named Super Mario Brothers Deluxe), the original version on the Gameboy Advance (part of the Nintendo Classics line), and the original version for download on the Wii Virtual Console.

2. The Legend of Zelda
The first game in another of Nintendo's landmark series. Zelda games are all about exploring large worlds and clever puzzle filled dungeons. If you've only played the more recent Zelda games, you'll be surprised how familiar the first Zelda feels. However, it's also the second hardest Zelda game by quite a lot. Finding your way to some areas could very well require bombing, pushing against, and burning just about every wall, bush, and rock in the game. Hard-core, but a classic all the same.
The Rest of the Series: The NES also has Zelda 2: Link's Adventures but it's a love it or hate it game. Unlike every other game in the series, most of Zelda 2 plays like side scrolling platformer of sorts. It's strange and also extremely difficult (I consider it one of the hardest, possibly the hardest, game I've ever played).
How to Get: Aside from the NES cart, the first Zelda can also be found on a somewhat rare Gamecube bonus disc (which also includes several other Zelda games), on the Gameboy Advance (part of the Nintendo Classics line), and for download on the Wii Virtual Console.

3. Mega Man 3
Sadly, with all the spin off series these days (Mega Man X, Legends, Battle Network, Starforce, ZX, etc), a lot of gamers don't even remember the original Mega Man series (hopefully the upcoming, and very long overdue, Mega Man 9 will remedy that). Long story short, Mega Man is a blue robot created by the good Dr. Light. He goes around fighting the creations of Dr. Wily, a mad scientist trying to take over the world with an army of robots. One of Mega Man's most famous skills is his ability to gain the weapons of the main enemy bosses once he's defeated them. Mega Man 2 and 3 are considering by many to be the best in the series, 3 being my favorite of the two (though barely). They feature great level design, fun weapons, and excellent run and gun / platformer game play.
The Rest of the Series: There are six Mega Man games on the NES. While 2 and 3 are considered the best, they're all pretty good and I'm particularly fond of 6.
How to Get: Aside from the original cartridge, you can get Mega Man 3 as part of the Mega Man Anniversary Collection for the for the Playstation 2, Gamecube, and Xbox. Said collection includes Mega Man 1-8 and both Mega Man arcade games and is highly recommended.

4. Kirby's Adventure
Kirby is the star of another of Nintendo's big series, though a lesser known one, which started on the original Gameboy. The cute pink puffball Kirby can fly, suck up enemies, spit them out, or eat them to gain their special powers. While Kirby games tend to be on the easy side, they're a lot of fun to play and often feature tons of hidden secrets. Adventure has lots of levels, tons of different powers for Kirby to copy, and a bunch of nifty mini games as well.
The Rest of the Series: Adventure is the only Kirby game on the NES, if you want more you'll need to move on to another system.
How to Get: The Kirby series isn't big on ports but you can get Adventure on the Wii's Virtual Console. Alternatively, you could pick up Kirby's Nightmare in Dreamland on the Gameboy Advance, which is a full remake of Adventure.

5. Star Tropics
Star Tropics is a Nintendo series that hardly anyone has heard about. There were only two games, both were on the NES, and both were released only in the US. ST tells the story of Mike, a kid with a yo-yo who has to stop the plans of the evil alien Zoda. It features a rather amusing story (particularly the way they blah, blah, blah though dialogue). ST actually plays a lot like Zelda (although a lot easier) with puzzle filled dungeons, an overworld, and the like. While many people may consider it an odd choice for a top 5 list, I think it's worth checking out and I'd love to see Nintendo revive the series someday.
The Rest of the Series: There's only one other ST game (Star Tropics 2: Zoda's Revenge). It's also on the NES and every bit as good as the first one.
How to Get: The only place to get Star Tropics (aside from the NES cart) is on the Wii's Virtual Console.

And that's it for now. I'll do more systems here and there when I don't have anything else to talk about.


7/28/2008 Fun stuff on TV

If you haven't seen Friday's special bonus comic (featuring Shauni and Opal/Celebifly) yet all you need to do is vote.

The amount of time I generally spend watching TV has varied considerably over the years. Since I got into anime DVDs and fansubs, I started watching a whole lot less regular TV programming than I used to. But there's always been a show or two that I followed through all that (like Alias) and now I even have a couple more than usual (The Simpsons, Heroes, Lost, and Monk). Plus there's a handful of others that, while I don't go out of my way to see every episode, I'll turn on if I want some background. But that isn't the type of thing I'm going to talk about today. Instead, I'm going to mention some of the more unusual stuff I've started watching.
First up, Myth Busters. I've actually been watching it on and off for the past couple of years and it's always interesting. It's on the Discovery Channel and, if you're not familiar with it, here's a quick rundown. Each episode the Myth Busters team (a collection of special effects and general tech and engineering experts) take several common myths/legends/beliefs/etc such as that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, or shooting a gas tank will cause it to explode, and test them out. They'll shoot gas tanks, talk to plants to try and make them grow better, and all sorts of different (and often crazy and dangerous) things. You'd be shocked how many of the things you take as common knowledge have no basis in reality (and how many you discount without a second thought actually work). It's fun, interesting, and educational.
My family has also been watching the Travel Channel a lot lately. While it has a lot of interesting shows (if you're at all interested in travel and seeing different places), the current favorite here is Bizarre Foods. In it the host travels to some exotic (or sometimes not so exotic) local and tries the food. More specifically, he goes out of his way to track down and try out the strangest and most unique local cuisines around. Some of the stuff he tries looks great...others are absolutely disgusting. To be honest, I'd love to have a job like that (aside from the complications my dietary restrictions would cause). Lots of fun to watch if you like traveling and/or foreign food.
Recently, I've also been watching I Survived a Japanese Game Show. It's a reality show on...ABC? CBS? One of the big networks. Basically, some people signed up for a reality show without knowing what they were getting into. They were promptly taken to Tokyo where they compete in Majide, a Japanese game show. There's too teams, the winning team gets rewards (fun sight seeing trips) while the losing team gets punishments (tough and/or unpleasant jobs) and has to send a couple people into an elimination game. While it's not the greatest reality show out there (my personal favorite is The Amazing Race), I like it for the Japan stuff (fun to see places I've been and things I recognize). And yes, I can tell you from experience that Japanese game shows really are that weird.

Well, that's enough for now. See you Wednesday!


7/25/2008 It's all Greek to me

There's a new bonus comic. It's part three of the series featuring the winners of this year's forum awards and it features the winners (there was a tie) of the Nicest Poster Award, Shauni and Celebifly (aka Opal). There's a new ROM too.

Now that I'm done with job applications I also sent in an application for the master's program at my old college (in case I can't find a good job by fall) and started work on a few other things here and there. This coming week I think I'm going to get back to work on a project I started a long time ago, scanning my family's old photo albums. Not to mention that I'll have more free time to try and catch up on all the video games and DVDs I seem to have stockpiled (me + spare cash + huge sales = more cool stuff than I have time for).

You might remember that the congregation I attend had a Japanese themed meal a couple weeks back. Well, there's another meal tonight and it's Greek themed. I've never cooked Greek before but I've been to some Greek restaurants and I found some good recipes. Should be fun.

Look for more interesting news posts next week when I start to really take advantage of my newfound free time.


7/23/2008 Usability, or lack there of

Well, I finally finished that Neverwinter Nights mod. If anyone wants to give it a try, you can download it here. Keep in mind though, it was created specifically as an interactive writing demo so there's no fighting, puzzles, or anything like that, just a lot of branching conversations. Not the type of thing I usually do (usually don't do stuff quite that serious either) but I think it turned out well. And with that done, I've got a lot more free time on my hands. Not to mention that it'll be nice to not have to stare at my computer all day. Still have some computer stuff I want to work on, but nothing big or important enough that I'm going to have to spend days glued to the screen for.

So, I just spent the past hour and a half digging through search results in a big web site's database. Nothing wrong with that...except that I could have done the whole thing is 10 minutes if the search program had allowed me to search by more than the most basic criteria. Allowing the search program to search by all the available criteria would probably take less than 20 minutes to code and would save lots of people a whole lot of time. And apparently the people who run the site never thought of it. Seems like quite a lot of people, web designers, game designers, software engineers, and plenty others never think of basic usability tweaks that would make their products a whole lot more pleasant to use. I could go through a whole list of things that need work in various sites and programs but I spent so long sorting through those search results that I don't have time. Still, a lot of the stuff is so basic that I can't imagine I'm the only one who noticed. Seems like stuff nearly everyone would think of after a little bit of normal use. I'd assume that they didn't have the time to fix them...except that most of the stuff is simple enough that I can't imagine any of it taking more than an hour to implement. Annoying...

And that's all the time I have for complaining about time wasting interfaces that don't leave me with enough time to complain about them more. See you Friday!


7/21/2008 Late, late, late

If you haven't seen Luquos's bonus comic yet, all you need to do is vote.

Sunday was a long day and I was running late pretty much the entire time. As a result, I don't really have much time to write anything here. Haven't done much anyway, aside from more work on my NWN mod (nearly done). I did get sniped repeatedly on ebay too. I've been trying to get a copy of Rhapsody for the original Playstation for the past week or so and I'm always getting sniped at the very last second. I really wish they'd ban automated bidding programs. Sure I could use one too, but it kinda goes against the whole auction spirit. Ebay is great and all, but it was more fun and personal back in the early days when I fist started using it.

See you Wednesday. If all goes well, I should be done with all my "sit in front of the computer all day" projects by then.


7/18/2008 More meh

There's a new voters' bonus comic up. It's part two of the special series introducing the winners of this year's Pebble Version Forum Awards. This week's bonus comic features Luquos, winner of the Best New Member award. There's no new ROM today because Shauni is out of town.

So, it's Friday and I'm still spending most of my time working on that NWN mod. I've made a lot of progress though. Assuming I don't run into any serious glitches, I'll hopefully have it done on Sunday (though, considering past experience with the NWN editor, that's a pretty big assumption). Maybe I'll stick a copy online when it's done. Sure wish I could post a copy of The Frequent World Savers Club (a NWN mod some friends and I did in college) but the editor randomly broke three perfectly fine scripts (two of which are extremely important) so you can't really play through it correctly.
Anyway, the mod I'm making now is called The Measure of a Man, and since I'm making it to rather specific specifications so I can use it as part of a job application, there's not a whole lot of game play to it. It more of a demonstration of my interactive writing skills. There's no fighting, traps, or puzzles, just a series of interactive conversations. I think the end result could turn out rather interesting though, at least if you can manage to go for 10-20 minutes without killing monsters. Really looking forward to getting it done though. I've got other things I want to do and video games I'd like to start catching up on (just start though, it'd probably take me at least a couple months of solid gaming to work though my backlog at this point).

Enjoy you weekend everyone!


7/16/2008 Meh

Totally couldn't resist this one...

So...I really don't have much to say at the moment. Probably because I haven't done much of anything this week except sit in front of my computer and work on stuff (and watch DVDs while sitting in front of my computer and working on stuff). I've made a lot of progress though. Now if I can just finish that Neverwinter Nights mod... That's probably what I'll be spending most of today working on so we'll see how far I get.

What else have I been up to? Finished my second playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 4 (now I'm gonna finally get around to finishing Sly 3 and Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix+) and I did a perfect game too (no kills, no alerts, no healing items, no special items, no continues). I did swing by Borders today since I had a coupon, and discovered that they're having a buy 4 get 1 free sale on manga. Unfortunately, they also seem to have a knack for being sold out of whatever volume I'm up to in almost any given series. Hey, speaking of manga... Not sure if I ever mentioned this before but, if you're curious about what anime and manga I like, you can check out my profile on My Anime List. It's a pretty nifty site. I've got at least a mostly complete list of all the stuff I've read and watched, complete with ratings. And hey, if you've got an account there too, feel free to send me a friend request, I don't know too many people on the site yet.

Really don't have anything more to say so I'll see you Friday.


7/14/2008 Time Warp

If you missed the announcement Friday, there's a special bonus comic featuring Saber Knight, winner of the Best Role Player award in the yearly Forum Awards on the Pebble Version Forums. You can see it by clicking on the Top Web Comics banner or button and then confirming your vote.

Also on the topic of the forums... If you're a member, you probably know about this already but my host suffered a weird sever glitch that caused the forums (as well as parts of other peoples' sites) to reset to how they were about three and a half months ago. And, of course, the forums were the one thing that I didn't have local backups for (but I'll be backing them up from now on). Normally it probably wouldn't have been a problem since my host has an automated daily backup system. But, as it turned out, said system wasn't working and hadn't been for some time. Naturally, that's the type of thing that would have been fixed pretty quickly except that the system appeared to be working perfectly and it wasn't until they went to use the supposed backups it had been making that they noticed the problem. So the forums lost an entire three and a half months worth of posts, new user accounts, etc. Not fun at all.
On the up side, I came up with a system (the Pebble Version Time Warp Project) to coordinate our efforts to return things to their original state, more or less. So far it's going really well and I'd like to thank everyone who has been helping out.

I spent most of my Saturday night getting the Time Warp Project started so, consequently, I'm a little behind on PV strips. Combine all that with a bunch of work I need to do for my dad (which I'm hoping to finish sometime today or tomorrow) and that Neverwinter Nights mod I'm working on for my last job application (which is taking a lot longer than I thought it would) and this week won't be nearly as relaxing as I'd hoped (next week maybe?). Oh well, like I said, I should have the stuff done for my dad in a day or so and, with that out of the way, I can hopefully got the mod and most of the forums stuff finished up by the end of the week.

In the meantime, I should get back to work. Later guys!


7/11/2008 Hard at work

There's a new voters' bonus comic up and it marks the start of the yearly mini-series introducing the winners of the latest Pebble Version Forum Awards contest, which takes place during the last half of June and the very beginning of July on the PV forums (duh). This week's comic features Saber Knight, winner of the Best Role Player award. There's a new ROM as well.

I'll be glad when this week is over. Cooking so much is kinda fun but also pretty time consuming. Then there's all the random other stuff I've needed to do and that last job application... Speaking of said last job application, it's coming along nicely, though a bit more slowly than I was hoping. In a nutshell, it involves creating a Neverwinter Nights module that fits a certain set of requirements. I knew it would take awhile, which is one reason I put it off so long. The other is that, to be frank, I'm not a big fan of the NWN editor. Had some bad experiences with it in college (which you can probably read a bit about if you dig into the Old News from two or three years back). Fortunately, this mod doesn't require any fancy scripting so the editor probably won't start randomly breaking things for no reason (probably).

Well, I should go. Stayed up late making azuki paste (Japanese red bean paste) for tonight. Have a great weekend!


7/9/2008 Finally

My mom is getting back from her trip today. While it'll be nice to see her again, I'm used to not seeing her for a while between college and Japan and all. What'll really be nice about her being back is that I won't be the running doing all the errands, housework, and stuff with my grandparents. Which will in turn mean more free time, which I can use to work on that cooking for Friday and hopefully finish my last job application (the one I put off till last cause it's the most labor intensive of the bunch by far). Hopefully I can get it done this week and then take things easy next week. Though I'll probably throw myself into another project sooner or later. Got a few things I'd like to work on once the last of the job stuff is taken care of.

And that's all for now. Still got lots to do at the moment.


7/7/2008 Cooking is so fun

Remember to vote (click the TWC banner or button) if you want to see Friday's bonus comic.

In case you didn't know, since watching Yakitate Japan (an awesome anime that, unfortunately, hasn't been released in the US yet, though the manga has) I started to get into cooking. Been a few years since then and I've tried cooking lots of different things when I've had the time. This week, I'll be cooking a whole lot of Japanese stuff. It should be fun, and interesting since it's mostly stuff I've never made before. I'm going to be making kitsune soba (soba noodles in broth with fried tofu skin), pickled daikon (Japanese radish), and some type of sweet (haven't decided which yet) with azuki bean paste (which I'll also be making myself). The main event is Friday night (my congregation is having a Japanese dinner) but I'll have to start a couple things a on Wednesday (the azuki beans and daikon will need to soak for a while) and I'm going to be making a small batch of kitsune soba today as a test run.

It's gonna be a busy week, but I think I'll enjoy it, for the most part anyway. See you Wednesday!


7/4/2008 I still hate DHL

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!!! Well, if you live in the US anyway. If you don't...well, have a good day anyway. And, as always, there's a new voters' bonus comic up and, since it's a new month, this is a good time to vote and get PV off to a strong start.

I love the fourth of July. Unfortunately, most of my friends are out of town right now so I probably won't be doing much of anything aside from going to see the fireworks. I love firework. Want to know something I don't love though? DHL.
For those of you who don't know what DHL is, it's a shipping company like UPS and FedEx. I think I've ranted a bit about DHL in the past but, just as a quick refresher, I've only ever had four items shipped to me through DHL and I had serious problems with two of them. First one, the package didn't come on the day it was supposed to so I looked up the tracking number online. According to DHL, they'd delivered the package to my door that day. Thing is, I was home all day and no one knocked or rang my doorbell. Not only that, but there was no package sitting outside my door either. Naturally I called up DHL's support number and told them what happened. Now you'd assume that they'd try and help me figure out what happened to my package right? Well, that would make sense...but they didn't. Instead they said they wouldn't do a thing about it and I should call up Dell (the company I'd ordered the item in the package from). Fortunately Dell was great and shipped me a new one right away. Good thing they did too, since I would have been screwed if they hadn't.
Second time I had problems with DHL I was once again waiting for a package from Dell (apparently Dell ships all small items though DHL, a big mistake in my opinion). I was pretty eager for it to arrive so I kept tracking it online. According to the tracker, it had been delivered to my apartment managers, who signed for it (packages were often given to them instead of delivered directly to the apartments), so I walked over to pick it up...only to find that they didn't have my package. According to the apartment manager, they'd often sign for packages in bulk (as in, if the carrier has packages for multiple people, they'll just take one signature for the whole bunch) and it wasn't unheard of for DHL to leave a package or two that they were supposed deliver on the truck by mistake. So I called DHL, told them about the missing package, and let them know what the apartment manager had said. And DHL said that, since it was signed for, that meant it had been delivered (apparently the fact that I'd never gotten the package didn't matter) so they wouldn't do a thing to help. Fortunately, my package did get dropped off with the apartment managers the following day though.
Needless to say, those two experiences didn't leave me with a very good opinion of DHL (especially considering that I had problems with two out of four packages, not good odds). And that brings us to today, when I had two more bad experiences with DHL, in one day. Fortunately, neither of the two packages were mine (one was for my dad and the other for my brother).
First up, the package for my dad. We found it outside the door this evening. So what's wrong with that you might ask? Well, how about the fact that it had a gigantic sticker on it that said "signature required"? Nice to know that they take those things seriously <_< Well, guess we should just be glad that it was actually delivered.
Shortly after, we got a call from my brother's apartment complex (he's going to college in AZ but he's on a trip right now). Seems DHL had tried to deliver a package to him but, for some reason or another, didn't have his apartment number (not sure if that was a screw up on their part or the part of Dell, who my brother had ordered said package from). So anyway, DHL knew the building but not the apartment number. But, instead of dropping the package off with the apartment managers, or even asking them which apartment my brother lived in, they just left a note with instructions to call them, give them a code number (written on the note), and tell them the apartment number. So my dad called them up and gave them the code...only to find out that it was an invalid code. Now you'd think that it'd still be pretty easy to look up the package so he could give them the apartment number, right? Well, it probably would be, but DHL wouldn't do it... Hopefully they'll try again and leave the correct code, or at least I hope that the package will still be around for my brother to track down when he gets back from his trip.

Long story short, DHL sucks, a lot. I highly recommend avoiding them whenever possible.


7/2/2008 Election annoyances

And with this, the third gym battle is finally over! It definitely didn't turn out as intense as the second one did but this one is probably funnier. And the next gym battle? Well, you'll see when we get there. Though, while I hope there isn't as large of a gap between the third and fourth gym battles and there was between the second and third, don't hold you breath.

So, incase you're one of the few people who doesn't know, it's approaching election time in the US. Well, actually the elections aren't for several more months but that hasn't stopped the news, media, and just about everyone else from talking about them all freaking year. If that sentence didn't clue you in, let me spell it out for you. I hate election coverage. Not that I've got anything against elections themselves, I think it's very important to vote (if you're old enough anyway) to try influence the future of the country. And I understand that a certain amount of ads and media coverage is necessary to help candidates get their message out to the voters.
That said, the majority of election coverage sucks, a lot. There are several reasons for this, so let's get started. First off, no one, not even the supposedly neutral press, actually provides truly neutral coverage of an election, especially the major ones. They'll always push one candidate over another. Sometimes they're very open about this, which is fine. Others, they do it sneakily (slipping in snide remarks here and there or just devoting much more space to one guy than another) while still claiming to be impartial. Now I know how hard it can be to be impartial about some matters but seriously, if you're going to actively favor one person over another in your coverage you should at least have the decency to admit it.
Next up, exaggeration, something I actually touched on in a past Blooper Reel Comic. This is a common tactic that mainly takes the form of a "doomsday scenario" that will supposedly come to pass if you elect whoever it is that the writer doesn't like. Seriously though, even if the guy really is pretty bad, it's practically impossible for things to end up as badly as people claim they will, especially since the government here has so many checks and balances that no one person could screw things up too badly.
Then there's the celebrities that go on a media blitz to support their chosen candidate. Now they've got as much right to support who they like as the next guy. Thing is, they tend to act like, because they're famous, everyone should listen to and agree with them. But, while someone like a news corespondent or political analyst might be able to make a case for their opinion carrying more weight than the average person, I really can't see how being a famous actor or singer makes someone any more knowledgable about politics than anyone else. Most "stars" really need to get over themselves.
Fourth on my list of complaints, negative campaigning. I did a Blooper Reel Comic on that on too. Too many candidates today spend more time talking about why you shouldn't elect their opponent than why you should be electing them. That really gets on my nerves, to the point where I'll even avoid voting for people who run that kind of campaign. I mean seriously, if some guy builds his entire campaign around how bad his opponent is, that just tells me that he doesn't think he can win on his own skills and qualifications. Not good at all. Not to mention that the list of "deep dark secrets" candidates bring up about each other often ends up getting completely ridiculous. Seriously, does anyone care that one candidate got a speeding ticket 20 years ago? Give it a rest.
Finally, and worst of all, is the belief that your candidate is so obviously superior that no intelligent person could disagree. This ***** me off to no end. I see it among members of both of the US's major political parties (though, to be honest, it seems to be much more prevalent among Democrats). Basically, people become so convinced that their way is the best that they start to think that anyone who doesn't agree with their viewpoint (typically anyone who likes the opposing political party) is a retarded, uneducated, moron. To be blunt, it's the people who believe this that are the morons. While there are some facts anyone and everyone really should agree one (such as that the Earth is round, water is wet, and the sky is usually blue), choice of political parties or candidates is an opinion. Is one group better than the other? Probably. Thing is, while you can do your research and make an educated guess about which one that is, it's nothing more than a guess. Only time can tell what really was the better choice. No matter how sure you are, we can't know for certain. And, like with any unknown, there will be many intelligent people who research the matter and come to different conclusions. Automatically labeling everyone who disagrees with you as an idiot just makes you sound stupid. It's even more ridiculous when you consider the fact that many of the people who do this claim to be huge proponents of tolerance. Apparently they're only tolerant of people who think the exact same way they do...

I haven't even been back in the US for three months I'm already fed up with election coverage. And there's still several months left go... At this point I'm pretty certain who I'm going to vote for in the presidential election. Actually I think both candidates have problems (some small, some not so small) but one certainly strikes me as much better than the other (or perhaps I should say that one strikes me as much worse than the other). But I'm not going to say who, at least not right now. You really should do the research and decide on your own. But don't fall for the common traps and vote for someone just because they've got a better ad campaign, are or aren't of a particular race or gender, or belong to a particular political party. I couldn't care less about any of that. What really matters is the candidate's belief's and policies and how they match up to your own (but be sure to actually check the details for yourself, you never can trust all the stuff you hear in the media). If you think that they're honest and sincere and that their policies will lead the country in the right direction than go ahead and vote for them. In the end, nothing else should matter.


6/30/2008 Just one of those days

Don't forget about Friday's voters' bonus comic if you haven't checked it out yet.

In other news, it's been several days since the last Bresnan tech came to try and fix the internet connection here. And I think that by now I can safely say that it's actually fixed this time. And, um, I really don't have anything to say right now.

See you Wednesday!


6/27/2008 Here's to Metal Gear

There's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM. Also, if you're a fan of Disney, Pixar, and/or Ghibli movies, take a look at the previous news post if you haven't already.

I finished Metal Gear Solid 4. The end was... Well, I can't say much about it without spoilers but it was incredible. It starts out really good and then, just when you think it's about over, you find out it's only about halfway through and get hit with a series of major last minute plot twists. In the end, every question is answered, all the loose ends are tied up, and the story of Solid Snake reaches a truly epic conclusion. I even cried during the ending. And I'm not the kind of person that cries easily. Lots of stories (books, games, anime, etc) have gotten to me emotionally over the years but I'm just not the crying type of guy. I'll feel sad, depressed, and all that but I'm pretty good at holding my emotions inside. I think the last thing that hit me hard enough to make me cry was Harry Potter book 6. So yeah, the ending of MGS4 is pretty emotional, especially if you've been following the story throughout all the games. Really looking forward to my second play through. And now, for a full review.

Throughout the years, Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear series has always been one to push the boundaries of technology. It's also known for its deep twisting plot, excellent stealth game play, memorable characters, and some of the most creative boss fights ever made. With a legacy like that, Metal Gear Solid 4 had quite a lot to live up. Especially since it was promised to complete the story of Solid Snake and deal with all the unanswered questions and loose ends from the previous games, a task many thought impossible. But once again Kojima has created a masterpiece that not only meets but surpasses expectations.
Years have passed since the end of Metal Gear Solid 2. War has become a series of proxy battles fought by military corporations. Emotions are suppressed by nanomachines and battle has become commonplace. In this war economy Solid Snake returns to battle once more. Although his body is failing, turning him into an old man far before his time, there is one last thing he feels he must do...stop the evil plans of his "brother" Liquid Ocelot. During his journey, Snake will encounter friends and enemies, both old and new.
Unlike his previous missions, Snake will often find himself caught in the crossfire between rebel soldiers and Liquid's PMCs. While sneaking through is still possible. He can also choose to actively side with the militia, which opens up a very different set of challenges and rewards. Snake also has far more tools at his disposal than ever before. MGS4 features far more weapons than any of the previous games and many are now customizable, with attachable parts and multiple ammo types. There's really something for everyone Add in some very unique new items and you've got Snake's most impressive arsenal yet.
The control scheme and camera system have been revamped and, while they may throw off series vets at first, they're a huge improvement over the past games and, combined with Snake's new tricks, make for a highly refined game play experience. And, like past Metal Gear games, there's a ton of hidden items and special unlockables that can only be obtained by playing through the main story multiple times. If all that isn't enough, MGS4 also includes the new (and completely revamped) Metal Gear Solid Online so you can show your friends who the true master of stealth really is.
Featuring what are quite possibly the best graphics in any game ever, a moving soundtrack, deep enjoyable game play, and an absolutely brilliant conclusion to the Metal Gear saga, Metal Gear Solid 4 is a true masterpiece and easily the best game on the PS3. While the deep plot may lose newcomers to the series, MGS4 is everything that fans could have hoped for and more. A fitting end to one of the greatest game series of all time, I can't recommend it enough.


6/25/2008 Like Disney, Pixar, or Ghibli movies?

Wednesday already? This week sure is going fast. Keeping busy is part of that. My mom is on vacation right now so I'm spending more time with my grandparents while she's gone. Also trying to get my last couple of job applications done (these being the ones I put off till last cause they have very complicated application processes). And then there's Metal Gear Solid 4. I've got to say, Act 4 is one of the most epic things ever. Totally amazing! Just one more act to go... And then, well I'll probably play through the whole thing again a second time. It's not that long a game, it's awesome, and I can get the stuff I missed the first time around. After that I really should finish up Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix+ and Sly 3. Not to mention all the DS and PSP stuff I'm trying to work through as well. Got Final Fantasy Tactics A2 today. It'll probably be ages before I have time to play it, but I have it. Anyway, moving on...

I recently joined the Disney Movie Club. Not usually one for that type of thing but you get four DVDs of your choice for $2 each when you sign up plus you can get a fifth for $15 and a sixth for $10. And, considering that includes classic Disney animated movies, Disney's live action stuff (like Pirates of the Caribbean), Pixar movies, and all of Studio Ghibli's awesome anime movies (which are distributed by Disney in the US) that was a bit too good of a deal for me to pass up. Especially considering that all I had to do to get said sign up deal was agree to buy 5 movies at regular price (average of $20 each) over two years (actually four, since that $15 movie counted as one of them). And hey, I'd probably buy at least that many Disney/Pixar/Ghibli movies over the next couple years regardless.
So why am I bringing this up? Well, as a club member, I get a free DVD of my choice for every person who I refer to the club. So I figured I might as well see if anyone is interested. So, if you like Disney, Pixar, and/or Ghibli and want in on that awesome sign up deal for the club (four DVDs for $2 and the option to get a fifth for $15 and a sixth for $10) e-mail me with your name and e-mail address and I'll send you an invite. Of course, you could sign up for the club on your own, but it wouldn't take much longer to go through me and it'll help me out too. Maybe I'll even make you all some bonus Pebble Version stuff if I get a few people signing up for the club.

See you Friday!


6/23/2008 Database & Deoxys

I'm getting really fed up with the internet here. It's been frequently dieing for over a month and a half (though thankfully it could usually be restored by resetting the modem) but then it was completely out for a good 7 hours Saturday and another couple today. Really annoying when I have stuff I want to get done online. So far Bresnan has sent four different tech guys out here to try and fix the problem. And, aside from a slight decrease in the amount of times it goes down, they haven't been very successful. And if that isn't bad enough, each guy that's came has had absolutely no clue what the guys before him did (for a communication company, they seem to be seriously lacking in the whole communication thing). There's one more guy coming today but if the problem still persists I think my parents are gonna switch providers. In the meantime though, if it takes me longer than usual to reply to e-mails or post stuff on the forums, that's why.

I went to Gamestop yesterday and got my free Deoxys. Actually, I already had four (legit ones too) but I figured another wouldn't hurt and it's only like seven minutes from my house to Gamestop so... If you didn't make it this past weekend, they'll be giving them away this coming weekend (Friday - Sunday) too. All you need is a DS and a copy of Pokémon Diamond/Pearl (you need to have played far enough to get the pokédex) and you can download Deoxys via mystery gift. It's a pretty nice Deoxys too. Normal form (though you can switch forms any time in D/P by taking your Deoxys to the meteorites in that one town whose name I can't think of at the moment), level 50, with a very nice move set. It even comes in a special ball. My only complaint is that it's holding a NeverMeltIce. Now there's nothing wrong with getting a free NMI but first off, it's not a rare item in any way and is easy enough to get in game. Plus, NMI is a hold item that boosts the power of ice type attacks, and Deoxys doesn't know any ice type attacks so it's a pretty weird item for it to be holding. But anyway, unimpressive hold item aside, it's a pretty nice Deoxys so I recommend getting one of your own this weekend if you haven't already.

The other thing I got yesterday was also free. It's the Metal Gear Database which you can download from the PS3 store. If you're a Metal Gear fan with a PS3 you really should download it. Like I said, it's free, and it provides a very comprehensive encyclopedia of all the characters, places, events, etc in the main Metal Gear series (though it doesn't cover parallel universe games like Ac!d). It's a great refresher if you haven't played the games in a while or just have a few questions about the plot that you'd like cleared up. On the other hand, if you missed a game in the series the database is a great way to get up to speed (although playing said game would be even better). And, as a nice bonus for people who haven't finished Metal Gear Solid 4 yet (like me, unfortunately), all info that would spoil the plot of MGS4 starts out locked up so you won't accidently run into anything you don't want to know. In one last nice touch, the database even tracks what you have and haven't read.

That's all for now. See you Wednesday! If the internet is working...


7/20/2008 Total blank

There's a new bonus comic on Top Web Comics for you to see after you vote. New ROM too.

Well, this is normally the part where I'd say something or comment on something or...something. If that last sentence didn't clue you in, I've got a really bad case of writers' block tonight. Although I have to wonder if it really counters as writers' block just cause I can't think of anything to write for a news post. Seems kinda minor compared to a lot of the things I write... But anyway, minor or not, I've got it so that's pretty much all I have to say write now. I'll make sure plan some interesting things to write about next week.


6/18/2008 Off hiking

I'm off on a short hiking trip with my dad until sometime Thursday. If I didn't mention it before, my parents got a time share type thing in a ski town (skiing in the winter anyway, hiking in the summer, and hot springs year around).

And, well, that's about all I have to say. Not really in the mood to write a big post right now. See you Friday!


6/15/2008 !

Always always, Friday's special Blooper Reel bonus comic is just a couple clicks away (click the Top Web Comics banner or button then answer the question to confirm your vote).

I've gotten a lot further in Metal Gear Solid 4 since Friday, nowhere near the end yet through. At least, I don't think so. Like I said, I'm trying to avoid as many spoilers as I can so I'm not entirely sure how much is left in the game. But I did just get through a series of cutscenes in the middle of Chapter 3 (MGS4 is divided up into chapters) that had more plot twists and shocking revelations than the season final of Lost. Said cutscenes tied up many of the loose threads from previous games in a brilliant, albeit shocking, way and brought up some very interesting new points as well. Then there's this awesome action sequence after said cutscenes... I ended up playing about an hour and a half longer than I'd planned and I'm still reeling. MGS4 just keeps getting better and better. If you've got a PS3 it is the game to have.
I will admit though, that people who haven't played the previous Metal Gear games will get a bit lost at times. There's some flashbacks and recap to bring people up to speed, but not nearly enough for a newbie to the Metal Gear series. I'd recommend playing Metal Gear Solid (for the Playstation), MGS2, and MGS3 (both for the PS2). Sure they'll a little old but they're some of the best games out there so taking time to play through them before MGS4 is anything but a chore. To celebrate MGS4, Konami actually released a cheap MGS collection for the PS2 that includes MGS, MGS2, and MGS3. It's pretty easy to track down but if you don't mind putting a bit more effort into it you can get a bit more bang for your buck by picking up the individual games at a used game store or on ebay. MGS is the same either way but if you're doing your own shopping you can get MGS2 Substance (which includes a whole lot of bonus content like VR missions, a movie viewer, and the like) and MGS3 Subsistence (a must have, includes a new and improved camera scheme, lots of new items, a ton of bonus movies, missions, etc, and high quality ports of the original Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2). Actually, the MGS collection does include half of MGS3 Subsistence (the new camera and items) but doesn't include the second disc, which has most of the optional stuff, including the ports of MG and MG2.
So yeah, I'd say to ditch the collection and track down MGS, MGS2 Substance, and MGS3 Subsistence instead. Totally worth it. Though the collection itself is still pretty awesome (seeing as it includes three of the best games ever). Though if you want the complete Metal Gear experience you should also play Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 (which you get for free with MGS3 Subsistence). They're the first two games in the series. MG was released in the US but in an edited form and the true MG2 never made it here (the MG2 that was released here was a completely different, and not very good, game). Good games, but they're not a must for story purposes since playing MGS and MGS2 will give you a pretty good picture of what took place. There's also MGS Portable Ops for the PSP, which fills in the a gap between MGS3 and the first MG (Note that I'm talking about Portable Ops, not Portable Ops +, which doesn't have a story mode).
So, to recap, the full series is (in the order the events of the games take place): Metal Gear Solid 3 (Subsistence being the best version), Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops (not +), Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2 (both MG and MG2 are included with Subsistence), Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid 2 (Substance being the best version), and finally Metal Gear Solid 4. Amazing series and very highly recommended. I'm really sad to see the story ending, although I'm also dying to see how it all turns out.

If you're a real Metal Gear fan and still want more after playing all the main games though, you're in luck. While the stuff I listed above comprises the main Metal Gear cannon, there's a few other spin off games that, while they don't fit into the main story (they're what if or parallel universe type stuff) are mostly worth playing.
First is Metal Gear 2: Snake's Revenge. It's also the only one I probably wouldn't recommend. It was released back on the NES, wasn't designed by series creator Hideo Kojima, and is widely considering to be not all that good.
Next up you've got Metal Gear Solid Ghost Babel on the Gameboy Color. It plays a lot like Metal Gear 2 and does a pretty good job of smashing the gameplay onto the GBC. Storywise, it's a parallel universe plot that acts as a direct sequel to the original Metal Gear.
You've also got Metal Gear Ac!d and MGS Ac!d 2 on the PSP. Both of which take MGS gameplay and turn it into a surprisingly good trading card game. The plots of the Ac!d games don't really fit with much of the main series, or even each other for that matter (Ac!d left a lot open at the end of the story but Ac!d 2 annoyingly dropped it and started a new plot entirely).
And, if you want to be a real completionist, there's the US version of Metal Gear (not as good as the original Japanese version included with Subsistence though, it doesn't even have Metal Gear in it) and the Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel (an interactive comic book rendition of the first MGS for the PSP).

Wow, wasn't planning on writing anywhere near that much. Just shows how much I like Metal Gear I guess. That's it for now. See you Wednesday!


6/13/2008 I've got MGS4!

There's a new bonus comic so please vote. New ROM too.

First, a pokémon announcement. Gamestop is going to be giving away Deoxys the 21 - 22 and 28 - 29 of this month so bring your DS and a copy of D/P on one of those days if you want one.

I picked up my preordered copy of Metal Gear Solid 4 Limited Edition yesterday and spent a large part of the day playing. I'll save a full review for when I complete the game but suffice to say that it's awesome. The controls and gameplay have been tweaked and streamlined to near perfection. Lots of new features have been added (including weapon customizing and a new camo system) along with tons of new weapons. And, while it still feels like Metal Gear, a lot has changed in the years since Metal Gear Solid 2 (MGS3 was a prequel so 4 is the direct sequel to MGS2). Snake is no longer sneaking into a heavily guarded fortress like before. Instead he'll be traversing battlefields, either siding with the local militia to fight his way through or sneaking through in the chaos. It makes for a much different dynamic than before and a different strategy as well, since it can be a lot harder to hide out in more open environments. As great as the gameplay is, it has to share the limelight with the amazing graphics, top notch music, and, of course, the deep twisting plot which promises to tie up all the loose ends and complete the story of Solid Snake. Can't wait to play more and find out what happens...
The Limited Edition is a Gamestop exclusive and, though it's an extra $20 or so, I'd say it's worth it (might be pretty hard to find if you didn't preorder though). It comes with an art book, a fancy case, and two bonus discs.  The first is an extra blue ray disc which contains developer interviews, behind the scenes stuff, and the like. The second is a 17 track soundtrack CD. I kinda doubt that it's a complete soundtrack (considering that the MGS2 and MGS3 soundtracks both took up two CDs) but 17 tracks is pretty good, especially considering that the full soundtrack probably won't be released outside of Japan. You also get a coupon for $5 off the Limited Edition strategy guide, which seems pretty nice (although I haven't really looked at it much since I don't want any spoilers during my first play through).

And that's all for now. Have a good weekend!


6/11/2008 See you on the ranch

Once again, sorry about the missed update on Monday but, with all the holiday stuff, I didn't really have time to update. Had a good Shavuot though. The annual congregation softball game and BBQ is always fun.

Although it's unrelated to everything else in this post, I just want to say that I plan to spend most of Thursday playing Metal Gear Solid 4. I can't wait!!!

First up, there's a new ROM and some new fanart by Chimchar 5202.

Pokémon Ranch was released on Wii Ware on Monday. Part Pokémon storage utility, part fun little game. Basically, you can transfer pokémon from Diamond/Pearl to the ranch where they hang out, run around, and play with your Miis. As you bring over more pokémon the ranch will get upgraded so it can hold more pokémon (up to 1000) and Miis. You'll also get toys, some extra features, and the option to trade for pokémon with special movesets and rare hold items. Even better, you can get a special phione and mew once you've deposited enough pokémon. While Ranch doesn't make for as good of a storage system as Pokémon Box did on the Gamecube (it doesn't have the organizational and transfer features for that), it's passable and you can get some good pokémon by playing. All that aside, it's also kinda fun to play around with your pokémon and Miis on the Ranch and snap pictures (which can be exported to an SD card as jpg files) when they do something interesting.
All in all, it's worth the purchase for serious pokémon players. Casual players should consider it as well if they really want a mew, or would like a cute screen saver / sorta game to mess around with. But if none of those things interest you, or you don't have D/P, don't waste your Wii points.


6/6/2008 Death Note

There's a new voters' bonus comic so go ahead and vote if you want to see it. Also, there might not be an update on Monday. Not sure yet but it's a holiday for me (Shavuot) and there's a lot of stuff going on so I'm not sure if I'll be able to get the update up. If not, PV will return on Wednesday.

So, like I mentioned in my last post, I recently got around to reading Death Note. I first heard of it when Shonen Jump did a preview of it a little while before the English version of the manga was released. My initial thoughts were something along the lines of, "interesting concept but the main character is too powerful and I can't see it going much of anywhere". So with that, I basically ignored the series. But, as it got popular I kept hearing more and more about it. Then a friend of mine (the leader of the anime club at my college) and I were talking about it. He told me a bit more about the plot and suggested I read the entire first graphic novel before forming an opinion. So I decided I'd give it shot when I had the time (and money). As is, I didn't get around to it until shortly after returning from Japan. By then it seemed like just about all my friends except me had either read the manga or watched the anime and I was tired of getting left out of the loop. So I got the first graphic novel and Matt was right. It was interesting enough to make me get the second book and before long I was completely hooked and had read through the entire series (all 12 books plus the bonus 13th).
For those of you who aren't familiar with Death Note, I suppose it's about time for a quick plot summary (NOTE: this might sound like a spoiler, but it's not really, all this stuff happens in the first part of the first book). It starts when a bored Shinigami (Shinigami are Japanese death gods) drops a special notebook called a Death Note on Earth. The Death Note is picked up by Light, a genius high school student who also finds himself rather bored with everyday life. Light soon discovers the Death Note's power. It can be used to kill anyone, no matter who or where they are, provided you know the person's name and face. Deciding he must have gained this power for a reason, Light decides to use the Death Note's power to create a utopia by killing off all criminals and evil doers. Before long governments begin to take notice of all the mysterious deaths and, despite the fact that the murdered people are criminals, they feel that they can't just sit by as the death toll rises so they hire L, a mysterious figure said to be the world's greatest detective, to investigate.
Naturally, this can raise some very interesting moral and ethical questions and really make you think at times. But that's just the setup. Both Light and L are amazing strategists and soon the two are locked in an amazing battle of wits full of plans, counter plans, and some of the cleverest tricks and schemes you could ever imagine. Moral issues aside, Death Note is a brilliant psychological thriller with a unique setup and very interesting characters (Light and L may be the primary players, but they're hardly the only important characters). It's like nothing else I've ever read and (once the battle between Light and L intensifies) extremely hard to put down. If you don't mind something a bit darker than typical shonen manga series, I highly recommend giving Death Note a try.


6/4/2008 What I've been doing

Well, I promised a return to more interesting news posts today (although I suppose that depends on your definition of interesting). So, I figured the best way to start would be to catch you up on what I've been doing since I got back to CO (aside from all the Pebble Version stuff).

For starters, now that I'm done teaching English I need a new job. As a lot of you probably know, I studied game design in college and that's what I'd really like to do for a living (that and novel writing, but becoming a professional author takes some serious luck, money, or connections). So I've been sending out a whole lot of job applications (recently started on follow up letters). It's been going ok and there's a few places that really liked my portfolio. Unfortunately, said places don't actually have any openings for a writer / designer right now. So that doesn't do a whole lot of good unless a position opens up. I plan to keep looking for a job for a while but if I can't find anything good by fall I'll head back to school for a Master's.
Job hunting aside, I've been doing lots of errands and the like for my parents and helping keep my grandparents busy (they moved down here (at least for a while) a few weeks back). And, though all that has kept me pretty busy, I still have some free time. I started going to karate classes again as soon as I came back from Japan (sure beats practicing alone) and I recently began practicing piano and Japanese on a daily basis like I used to.
While working on PV I've been steadily watching my way through the stack of anime DVDs I ordered from a online sale while I was in Japan, like the new Slayers boxsets. Been working through a pretty large stack of books and manga as well. I finally read Death Note (which I'll probably be talking about in detail in a future post), reread all of Naruto (got a great deal on the Shadow Box collection), and some 10-20 other odd graphic novels. Then there was also a few magazines and some fantasy novels (which I'm working on now). I haven't been neglecting video games either (though I haven't had a ton of time for them). Smash Brothers Brawl is quite awesome (as expected) and I've mostly finished unlocking things (just need some more trophies and stickers). Finished up Castlevania Dracula X Chronicles too. Right now I'm spending most of my game time on Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops since I really want to have it done before Metal Gear Solid 4 comes out next week. Speaking of MGS 4, I've been waiting for it for ages. Heck, it's one of the main reasons I bought a PS3. Really looking forward to it.

Guess that about sums it up. Probably not the most interesting subject for a news post but now that that's out of the way I can jump into some reviews and other more interesting stuff later.


6/2/2008 Back to three a week

It's a new month so be sure to vote for Pebble Version on Top Web Comics (just use the TWC banner or button). Also, PV is reverting to the normal Monday, Wednesday, Friday update schedule. I'm gonna use the extra time to rebuild my comic buffer and work on those new sprite sheets (they're taking a bit longer than I thought). Plus, once I've got my buffer back to normal I won't be so rushed to get new strips done which means I'll have time to actually write something interesting in these news posts for a change (look for that starting Wednesday or Friday). In the meantime, I added a new site to the Link Exchange.

See you Wednesday!


5/30/2008 End of the month

There's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM. Technically, the month is quite finished yet, but it will be pretty soon. And, since there haven't been any donations recently, Pebble Version will be reverting to the usual three updates a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). You know, while I certainly appreciate the donations when I get them, it'll be nice not having to make so many strips for a change. Should give me time to finish those new Mystery Dungeon sprite sheets and finally rebuild my buffer. Not to mention write something more interesting in these news posts for a change.

See you Monday!


5/28/2008 On vacation

UPDATE: Tthere will be no comic on Thursday. With all the bonus stuff and the new sprite sheets I still haven't had time to rebuild my buffer, which basically means I'm making new strips pretty much right before they go online, so if something happens and I don't have time to get the strip done I've got nothing. And, even though I have internet here on this mini-vacation, I was out most of the day and then when I got back my dad was using my computer for a while and then there was a couple of things more important than PV that I needed to get done... Sorry about that. I'll make sure I've got a comic ready for Friday.

As I said in my last news post, I'm on vacation for the next couple of days. While I was in Japan, my parents got a time share or something like that in a ski town in the mountains. Well, my brother wanted to spend a little time up there before he heads back to college in AZ (he's taking a class over the summer) so here I am (along with him and my parents). Looks like it's still a bit too snowy and muddy to do much hiking so I'm not entirely sure what we'll be doing up here. Relaxing I hope, and maybe visit some hot springs. Plus I've got a book, my PSP, and all that kind of stuff so it should be nice.

On a more practical note, the internet seems to be working fine here so updates should go smoothly.

See you Friday!


5/26/2008 Done stalling

Don't forget about Friday's voters' bonus comic.

As you can see, I'm done stalling, it's back to the gym battle, complete with Mystery Dungeon sprites. Certainly gives the pokémon a bit of a different look doesn't it? Just wait till they actually get moving. All those additional sprites per pokémon will really come in handy... Nowhere near done with my new sprite sheets though. Speaking of which, the ROM The Novel chapter is on hold until said sprite sheets are done. Sorry about that but the sheets take priority since I need them for PV srips.
You may notice that something else is different about this gym battle. Namely, I don't have the minidex at the top of the panels. Well, I suppose there's still a chance I'll add it in once the fighting really gets started but right now I'm thinking that we'll see how this battle goes without it. I like the minidex since it gives you a good idea of each pokémon's condition and provides a little extra info too. But, and this is a big but, it takes a long time to make. Believe it or not, making the minidex and changing it in every panel to reflect the HP totals and the like it a pretty time consuming process. And that's adding to the fact that gym battle strips already take a really long time to make since I've typically got three people and four pokémon going at once, complete with dialogue, special effects, and pokémon speak. So yeah, I like the minidex but it's probably on its way out.

Finally, it looks like I'm gonna be going out of town for a few days this week. Still not entirely sure of the details so I'll fill you in on that later. I shouldn't miss any updates but Wed - Fri's updates might be a little early or late.



5/23/2008 Announcement time

There's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM.

So, in case today's strip didn't clue you in, Pebble Version is officially switching to Pokémon Mystery Dungeon sprites for all pokémon. So what's the big deal? Well, the mystery dungeon sprites look a bit different and are more detailed so that's nice. What's really great about them though is the number of poses. See, the Ruby/Sapphire pokémon sprites I've been using only have two poses each (everything else has been done by editing them). Mystery dungeon sprites, on the other hand, often have 30+ poses per pokémon. Which means that the pokémon will look a lot better when they're doing stuff since I've have a much larger selection of sprites to choose from. Would have made the switch ages ago, but I needed sprites for every pokémon, didn't have time to rip them all myself, and couldn't find all of them online.
Big thanks to Shroomish357 for finding sheets with the pokémon I was missing and for all the people who ripped the sprites in the first place. I still don't have full sheets for every pokémon (not even close on some of them) but I finally have enough poses for each of the first 386 pokémon to make the switch.
By now you might be wondering why I've been stalling for the last few days instead of just switching over right away. Thing is, even though I finally have sprite sheets for all the pokémon, said sheets would be a pain to use for PV as is. First off I have to convert them to Photoshop format (quick and easy), remove the background without damaging the sprites (slightly time consuming), do some minor editing to remove unneeded shadows and fix occasional errors from the original rips (fairly time consuming), and rearrange the sprites on the sheet so I can easily find and select whatever sprite I need (fairly time consuming, some people arrange their sprites sheets very poorly). As you can see, all that takes time, especially when you're dealing with so many sprites (386+ pokémon times between 4 and 40 sprites each). I've been working on it for the last few days and I'm nowhere near done yet. But now I've got the weekend so, even if I'm not totally finished by Monday, I should be far enough along that regular PV strips can resume.

See you then!


5/21/2008 It's coming...

If you didn't see the updated version of Monday's news post, I apologize of the lack of a comic on Tuesday. Long story short, I'm currently working on a fairly major Pebble Version project and everything will work out much better if I get it done before the current gym battle really gets going. Don't worry, there won't be any more missed updates...but instead of continuing the gym battle, I'll be running some filler comics for a couple of days until things are ready to go. Was hoping to have it done for today but it's just taking way too long for that. Don't worry, we'll get back to the regular strips soon and, once you find out what I'm working on, I'm sure you'll agree that it was worth the wait. I could tell you what it is right now...but I won't. I'd rather keep it as a surprise.


5/19/2008 Only one more to go

UPDATE: There will not be a new comic on Tuesday. I'm working on a very big PV project and it'll go a lot better if I get it done before the current gym battle progresses any further. Sorry about that, but trust me, it'll be worth it. There will be a strip on Wednesday but depending on how quickly things go it might be a bonus strip instead of a regular PV strip. And hey, you did get four strips yesterday with those three Marley comics and all...

Another piece of bonus content is finished! But this one isn't a donation incentive. It's a series of three comics made for forum Marley (aka Blastotoise) for winning second place in the King of the Forum Awards a while back. Like I said, it's three comics (starting with this one) and they can be found along with the Blooper Reel Strips. All that's left now is the ROM The Novel chapter. Hoping to have that done later this week (not 100% sure if that'll happen though).


5/16/2008 So close...

There's a new bonus comic for everyone who votes for PV on Top Web Comics. New ROM too. And that's it for now, the next piece of bonus content should be ready for Monday. See you then!


5/14/2008 Still working on things

Josiah's Sprite Comic Guide Part 7: Creating Simple Special Effects is done! And if you missed Monday's news post you really should check it out since I completed a pretty major item of bonus content then. All that's left now is the ROM The Novel chapter and a short series of bonus comics I owe a forum member from the King of the Forums Contest. Looking forward to getting all that done so I can finally get my buffer rebuilt and then maybe work on something else for a change.


5/12/2008 My Japan travelogue, now in easily readable form

The mystery bonus donation gift is done! So, since my Japan travelogue has been such a bit hit I decided to reformat it so it'd be easier for people to read. After all, digging through the old news page and then having to ready up the page was a pain. So now my travelogue has been broken up into smaller chunks and changed to a much easier to read format. I also stripped out all the non Japan stuff (things about PV updates, donations, etc) so you can read through it without all the distractions. I added a link to the nav bar on the left of this page. You can access all the parts of the travelogue on the Extras page or you can just skip to the first part. The next piece of bonus content should be ready Wednesday. Almost caught up now...


5/9/2008 Not quite

There's a new bonus comic so click the Top Web Comics button or banner and answer the question that pops up to confirm your vote and see the comic. Old Blooper Reel bonus comics can be found in the Archives. Also, remember that PV is updating five days a week this month (new strips every Mon, Tue, Wed, Thur, and Fri), so if you've been following the usual three day a week schedule you should use the previous comic link and check out the ones you missed.

I'm nearly done with the next piece of bonus content. Unfortunately, "nearly done" isn't the same as "done" so you'll have to wait until Monday. On a sorta related note, sorry that my last few news posts have been so bland but between making all the extra strips and working on the bonus content, I just don't have much time to spend on the news posts right now. I'm sure that'll change sooner or later. Might not be till the end of the month though.

Anyway, enjoy your weekend!


5/7/2008 Not the greatest day

There's a new ROM.

I was planning to have some more bonus stuff done today but things didn't work out so well. Heck, I barely got today's strip done in time. See, I came down with food poisoning Monday and was too out of it to do much except lie on the couch for most of the day. Definately wasn't in any shape to make any new PV stuff. I managed to upload Tesday's strip and that was about it. And, since I just haven't had the time to rebuild my buffer yet (too busy with the bonus content), I had to make today's strip at the last minute so there was really no time for new bonus content. I'll try for Friday...but the next few days are looking to be kinda crazy so I won't promise anything.


5/5/2008 Sprite Comic Guide Part 6

First off, remember that Friday's bonus comic is up and all you have to do to see it is vote. Second, for the entire month of May Pebble Version will be updating five days a week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) so check back every weekday for new strips. News posts, however, will stick to the Mon, Wed, Fri schedule.

Still working on that bonus content. I seriously doubt I'll get everything done this week but definitely before the end of the month. Anyway, today we have Josiah's Sprite Comic Guide Part 6: Building Effective Speech Bubbles. Enjoy!


5/02/2008 Commentary

The new bonus comic is up so please vote and get PV off to a good start this month. Also, the commentary for strips 101-120 is done and there's a new That Soap Opera strip (that I should have posted a couple weeks ago).


4/30/2008 Get ready for bonus stuff

I'll probably be keeping my news posts fairly short until I get all the bonus content done. For starters, the new Zelda page is up. Well, sorta new anyway. I actually made it quite a long time ago so some of the graphics could stand some improvement (it was done in Paint). Next time the donation gauge gets high enough though I'll have to actually go and make a new one in Photoshop so it'll be all fancy and everything...
But anyway, the new commentary should be finished a bit later this week with the ROM The Novel chapter and mystery surprise hopefully coming next week. I'll work the next parts of Josiah's Sprite Comic Guide in there somewhere as well. You should also know that Pebble Version will be updating 5 days a week (Monday - Friday) for the entire month of May. That's right, there's gonna be five new strips every week! News posts, however, will stay on the Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule unless I've got something really important to say.

And that it's for now. Tune in tomorrow for the first of the extra PV updates!


4/28/2008 Japan Wrap Up

I'm still toying with the idea of writing up a little one or two page tourist guide to Japan, and I might once I've gotten caught up on all that Pebble Version bonus content I owe you guys. But, until I get around to that, today will be the official end to my Japan coverage. Talk about a massive project. Eight months, a whole lot of write ups on places I went, things I saw, and Japan in general, plus nearly 600 photos (and that's just the ones that made it on the web site, I've got about four times that sitting on my hard drive). I hope you've enjoyed reading about my travels and experiences and that you've learned a bit about Japan. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end so let's get on with it.

Random Japan Comment: Things I Noticed Most After Returning Home
People kept telling me that I'd have this big reverse cultural shock of sorts upon returning to the US. I kinda doubted it since, regardless of my time in Japan, I've lived in the US most of my life and know what to expect here. And I was right, there wasn't anything really shocking. But here's a few things that particularly stuck out to me upon returning to the US.
Not to sound rude, but there's a lot of people in the US who are at least a little overweight. You also have a decent amount of muscular guys (not super muscular per say, but at least a little bulked up). In Japan, nearly everyone has a rather skinny to average build. Of course there's also the fact that practically everyone in Japan is Japanese (or at least Asian) while the US features a much more diverse mix of races, but I was always expecting that so it was no real surprise.
Another one of the things I noticed very soon after returning to the US was that, now that I was back in an English speaking country, I could actually understand everything that was being said around me. However, that was quickly followed by another realization... In most cases I'd rather not know what people are saying.
I've also noticed that I developed a habit of doing a slight bow (Japanese style) when thanking someone, be it a store clerk or a person giving me a compliment. Very useful while in Japan, slightly out of place here. I'll have to work on that.

Japan Wrap Up
So, how do I feel now that my big Japan adventure is finished? I'm glad I did it. Sure it was strange and a bit scarey at first but I learned a lot, got a see and do a ton of stuff, and learned much more about Japan and the Japanese people and culture than I would have on a simple vacation.
Overall, I like Japan. I like it a lot. There's several aspects about the country and culture that I like a whole lot better than the US (the cleanliness, politeness, pride in their country, etc). And I know I'm never going to find such great sushi places around here, or anything that can compare to Akihabara. On the other hand though, there's some things about the Japanese country and culture I really dislike (the overwork ethic, always going with the group, tiny poorly heated apartments, etc) and some stuff I love that you just can't get in Japan (like a good pizza).
There were some rough spots during my stay but I enjoyed it a lot and I'd recommend a year long ALT job to anyone with a serious interesting in Japan (at least assuming they made it through the first part of my So You Want to Teach English in Japan... guide without having second thoughts). And, while I'm not sure if I'd ever really want to live and work in Japan on a long term basis, I'm looking forward to going back when I get the chance.


4/25/2008 Part 4

There's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM. In addition So You Want to Teach English in Japan... Part 4 is finished. It's the final part of the guide and deals with things to do once you're in Japan.

Have a good weekend!


4/23/2008 Bed time

As promised, Part 3 of So You Want to Teach English in Japan... is done. This one deals with the process of finding a job. That's all for now.


4/21/2008 Last of the Random Japan Comments

Passover started Saturday night. It's one of my favorite holidays and so far it's been a lot of fun. Got to catch up with friends and do some hiking. But, I've still got a long ways to go before I'm caught up on PV stuff so let's get right down to business. Namely, it's time for the final two Random Japan Comments.

Random Japan Comment: Bathrooms
Ok, this one is a little weird but I suppose it's fairly important if you're going to Japan. But you can probably guess why I put this one off for so long. So yeah, useful things to know about bathrooms in Japan. First off, bathrooms in many homes, hotels, and some stores and restaurants, have sets of "bathroom slippers" at the entrance. In bathrooms like that, you're supposed to take off your normal shoes or slippers, leave them there, and wear the bathroom slippers while you're in the bathroom. Simple enough.
Next up, bathtubs and showers. First off, unlike bathrooms in most countries, in Japan the bathtub and shower are often in one room and the toilet is in another. Sometimes there's a separate area for the sink as well. Also, bathtubs are typically pretty deep and are meant to be used similarly to onsen, which I've already covered. Namely, you wash yourself (water, soap, shampoo) and rinse off completely before entering the bath, which is mainly for soaking. Although, if you've got your own bathroom, I suppose you can do whatever you want. Finally, in some bathrooms the shower isn't in the tub itself, rather the entire room is a shower, with a drain in the floor and everything.
Now for the toilets. There's a few kinds of toilets in Japan. Some are just like US toilets, others are fancier, including things like built in sinks, heated seats, ambient noise, and more. Then there's the traditional Japanese style toilets (my dad took this photo, I never had any desire to photograph a toilet). They're basically flat on the ground and tend to catch visitors to Japan by surprise. And, uh, yeah... They're more common in older places but wherever you go in Japan you'll probably run into some at one point or another. And, as long as I'm talking about it, urinals are the same as in the US.
One last thing I should mention while I'm on the subject is public restrooms. First off, keep an eye out for the occasional (though fairly uncommon) unisex restroom. They've got locks, but not everyone uses them. Aside from the different types of toilets, there's one more thing that's kinda important to keep in mind. Not entirely sure why but in Japan they don't go to the same lengths to ensure privacy in restrooms as they do in the US, especially for men. Some men's restrooms are fairly open, as in people could glance in fairly easily if they wanted to (or by accident for that matter). In addition, in busy places such as train stations they typically don't close the restrooms while they're being cleaned and it's pretty common to have a woman cleaning the men's restroom (however, I don't think there's ever any men cleaning women's restrooms). Seems that woman need their privacy but it's no big deal if a woman sees a man in the restroom...definitely weird. The whole thing can take some getting used to no matter what gender you are.

Random Japan Comment: The Little Things
Sure there's lots of big differences between the US and Japan, but there's lots of small stuff as well. For example, how exit signs in Japan are green and how most hotel rooms require you to put your key in a slot of some sort in order to turn on the lights. There's also stuff like slurping your noodles (instead of eating them quietly) and drinking your soup. And that's just scratching the surface. I could keep going for a while but it's really more fun to discover them yourself.

And that's all for today. See you Wednesday!


4/18/2008 My last days in Japan

There's a new voters' bonus comic. Well, I'm still way behind on PV stuff but I'm planning to remake my buffer and get to work on all those donation bonuses I owe over the coming week. Hopefully I'll be able to finish at least most of them before the end of the month. Should be able to, especially since I'm not going to be heading to the east coast for a couple of weeks like I'd previously planned (long story but said trip has been postponed indefinitely (but most likely a bit later this year)).

I've also got the schedule figured out for the remaining Japan stuff I want to talk about. Today I'll be covering my last couple days in Japan (didn't do a whole lot though), Monday I'll do the last couple of Random Japan Comments I have planned, Wednesday and Friday will have the final two installments of So You Want to Teach English in Japan..., and finally the following Monday I'll do a final wrap up.

Saturday (12th): Return to Tokyo
Well, with only one day left before our flight back to the US, it was time to head back to Tokyo since it's a whole lot closer to the airport than Kyoto. Also, it was the last chance to see all my friends from the congregation I go to in Tokyo. Speaking of which, here's a photo of the whole group. It's kinda hard to get a good shot of that many people around a table but this one turned out pretty well, although you can only see half of Una's face.
So there was the service and then we all hung out and talked for a while. After we finished my mom and I headed to a nearby hotel. After dropping off our stuff I headed out to take one last trip to Akihabara and got some kaiten zushi while I was there.

Sunday (13th): Goodbye Japan
Didn't do much in the morning, other than rearrange the stuff in some of the suitcases and check some stuff on my computer before getting a taxi to Ueno. After that it was a last train ride to the airport. We get there fairly early so there was time to actually look around the place a bit before going through security. There's a decent shopping area filled with souvenir shops and restaurants so we were able to get kaiten zushi one last time before leaving Japan.
The flight was long, really long. But I'm used to air travel (been flying all over the place since I was a kid). It's really not so bad as long as you have something to do. The only really interesting thing about flying from Japan to the US is that, because of the time difference, you actually arrive earlier than you left. Kinda neat.

And that's it for now. Like I said, look for a little more Japan stuff over the next week and a half.


4/16/2008 Catching up

There's a new ROM.

Wow, these last two days have gone by fast. Spent the majority of each catching up with a couple of my friends from college. That was fun. It was great to see them again and there weren't really many people I could have a long conversation with in Japan, especially not around my age (or with similar hobbies). But, as I said, these past couple days have been really busy and I'm heading back to CO today where there's a whole bunch of things I need to do.
Anyway, I barely managed to get a strip done for today and I don't have time for a long news post so I'll have to wait till Friday to start on that remaining Japan stuff.


4/14/2008 Back in the USA

Well, I made if safely back to the US but it's late so I'm gonna keep this short. Remember, I'll still be talking about Japan stuff for the next couple of weeks. Oh yes, before I go, there's a new That Soap Opera strip.

See you Wednesday!


4/11/2008 Time is almost up

There's a new bonus comic so please vote (use the TWC button or banner), PV has been a bit low in the rankings this month and could use a boost. There's a new ROM too. Sorry to say though, I was once again unable to get a regular comic done. This will be the last time though. There will be a normal PV strip on Monday, promise. A note about today's bonus comic...the whole joke is based off of Elite Skill capturing in Guild Wars so if you don't play GW you probably won't get it at all. Sorry about that. I was gonna make another compilation of Keit's stuff but spent too long typing today's massive news post so I decided to use this one instead since there was much less work involved on my part.

Hard to believe that I'll be leaving Japan on Sunday... Yes, that's right, come Monday I'll be back in the US. But don't expect me to stop talking about Japan quite yet. There's a few Random Japan Comments I never got around to doing and two more parts of my guide on teaching English in Japan. Plus, when all is said and done, I want to have a sort of wrap up post with my final thoughts on my whole Japan experience. So, even though I'll be back in the US, you can expect another couple of weeks or so of Japan centric news posts before I start talking about other things.

Wednesday (9th): Okayama & Hemeji
When my mom and I were in Gion the other day we ended up getting tickets for show on Thursday night. To better fit that in the schedule, we decided to swap Wednesday and Thursday around. Though I suppose that really doesn't matter much. The whole point of this is that instead of doing more Kyoto stuff, we took a day trip.
We spent the first part of the day in Okayama, a small city with a couple of nice places to see. But before I talk about those...take a look at this sign. I'm thinking they didn't have enough room to say "Rolled Sandwiches", but some things really don't abbreviate well. One interesting thing about Okayama, they seem to really like the story of Momotaro there (Momotaro is a Japanese fairy tale). There's a lot of related statues around the city, souvenir stuff, signs, etc. Maybe it was supposed to take place in the area.
After the train ride, walking to Okayama Castle was a nice change of pace. Also known as the "crow castle" because of the black storm boards covering much of it, it's a reconstruction of the original castle. The inside has been turned into a museum detailing the history of the castle from its creation through Perry's arrival and beyond. There's even some items said to have been given as gifts by Perry. Fairly interesting stuff. You could also dress up in traditional clothing and get your picture taken for no additional cost so that was cool.
Right across the river from Okayama Castle is Korakoen, said to be one of the three best landscape gardens in Japan. We took a slow stroll though it. It's certainly the biggest garden I've been to so far and had lots of different areas. We were also there at the perfect time to catch the cherry blossoms. Not too surprisingly, it seems to be a pretty popular wedding spot and my mom snuck this picture of a Japanese woman in a traditional bridal outfit.
Once we'd finished seeing the garden we headed back to the train station (though we did stop at a pretty nice kaiten zushi place along the way) and took the shinkansen a little ways back towards Kyoto to the city of Hemeji. There's a few good things to see in and around Hemeji (including the area where they filmed parts of The Last Samurai) but the main attraction is Hemeji Castle. It was never destroyed so that's the original castle. Even better, many of the surrounding buildings are intact as well. We got to walk through a pretty large chunk of the wall and gardens, and peek into places like the storage building, well house, and more. Of course, we also got to walk all through the castle and climb up to the top. There's even a shrine up there. Here's a good view that includes a lot of the castle courtyard and the like.
Thought about trying to see some more of the things in Hemeji but time would have been kinda tight so instead we checked out the shops (lots and lots of shops) before heading back to Kyoto. Oh, speaking of the shops, file this under really poorly named shops. Though it does make sense when you think about it...

Thursday (10th): Finishing Up Kyoto
Actually, "Finishing Up Kyoto" probably isn't the best title considering that we didn't even end up seeing every Kyoto spot on my original travel plan, much less everything there is to see here. But it was my last day touring Kyoto on this trip, so close enough.
Since the weather forecast wasn't looking so good, my Mom and I spent some time the previous evening thinking about what to do if it rained. My original plan involved spending most of the day in an area called Arashiyama but there was a lot of outdoor stuff involved so heavy rain would have been a problem.
Regardless of the weather, I was determined to at least see the first stop on my original plan, Kinkakuji. Known as the gold pavilion, it was originally a rich man's country home before being turned into a temple after his death. Before you ask, that's real gold leaf. It's a very pretty building and it's surrounded by a nice, though not spectacular, garden. And, luckily, it hadn't started to rain yet. Glad I went, the place was really crowded though.
Once we'd finished up there my mom and I headed towards one of Kyoto's downtown areas. The eventual goal being to find a museum my mom wanted to see and then wander around the nearby shopping arcade a bit until it was time for us to head to Gion (more on that later). We couldn't get a direct bus to where we were headed so we got off at the closest stop, planning to walk the rest of the way. That walk carried us right past the Kyoto Imperial Palace, a place which wasn't on my tour list since tickets required some sort of advanced registration. But, in a great stroke of luck, this just happened to be part of a special four day period each year when the palace is open to everyone free of charge.
That was too good an opportunity to pass up so we headed in. While I liked the palace at Nijo Castle a bit better, the Imperial Palace is pretty cool too. We couldn't go in any of the buildings but you could look inside at some points and they had figures set up to give you an idea of what the place might have been like when the Emperor lived there (the Emperor and family have lived in Tokyo ever since it became Japan's new capital in the mid 1800's). Here's a look at the audience chamber through one of the inner gates, here's the Emperor's throne, and here's another scene they had set up. There was also a garden and a lot of those painted gold sliding doors I like (but haven't really been able to photo anywhere else). Sorry about the post and wires in that picture, but it was really the best angle I could get.
It started raining mid way through our exploration of the palace but we both had umbrellas this time so it wasn't a big problem. Continuing on, we managed to find my mom's museum, which was an old sake brewery (sake is traditional Japanese rice wine), and took a tour where we learned all about how sake is made. The tour was all in Japanese but I was able to follow along moderately well some of the time and they had an English pamphlet too. The whole thing was fairly interesting, though I could have done without the sake tasting at the end. Nothing against sake, I just don't like alcohol in general no matter what form it's in (hate the taste and have no real desire to get drunk so I see no point in drinking it).
After that we walked around a large shopping arcade for a bit and then walked to Gion, which has lots of nice old timey buildings if you explore the alleys a bit. As I previously mentioned, we stopped there Tuesday as well, looked around, and ended up getting tickets for a show (which is why we went back there now). A long time ago Gion was the city's main "pleasure" district and was home to many prostitutes and geisha. Now a lot of people think that geisha are prostitutes, but that's not really correct. Some were, but what geisha were and still are really supposed to represent is the ideal traditional Japanese woman. They're highly trained performers, skilled in many traditional Japanese arts (music, dance, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, etc).
Gion still has geisha and, while it's rare for anyone other than wealthy and well connected Japanese people to be able to arrange for a private performance, there are some shows that allow everyone a glimpse of the geishas' skills. And every April there's a special performance for one month only. It's been performed for the past 138 years and is comprised of selected scenes from The Tale of Genji (an ancient Japanese novel). That's what were were there to see. The tickets sell out fast (both the advanced reserved and the same day sale standing room only ones) and we were lucky to get a pair without having to try our luck in line for the same day ones. Unsurprisingly, I couldn't take any pictures or movies during the show. There were geisha playing music and singing while others danced, acting out the scenes. They were very good and had some of the most graceful and fluid movement I've ever seen. Cool to watch, even though I couldn't understand much of the old fashioned Japanese being used in the songs.
After that it was back to the shopping arcade to look around a bit more and grab supper. And I'm really only mentioning this so I can show off another weird sign, this one for a restaurant.

Friday (11th): Nara
Guess this will be my last day of touring for a while. I suppose I could try and tour a bit near where I live in the US but that really wouldn't be the same. Anyway, today went as planned with my Mom and I taking the train to Nara, a small city (or maybe large town) about an hour away from Kyoto.
Most of the big sights in Nara are inside Nara Park, a massive park full of temples, shrines, museums, and lots of tame deer. And when I say tame deer, I mean really tame deer. They're more or less the town's pets and they have free run of the park. They're very used to people so they don't spook easily and most will let you walk right up and pet them (though a few may shy away at first). Nearly every snack stand and souvenir shop in the park sells packs of crackers you can buy to feed the deer. And, while the deer will normally just sit/stand or walk around doing whatever it is deer do, they can get rather aggressive if they see that you've got food. So, if you want to feed the deer, prepare to be swarmed, nudged, and pushed. They may also try and nibble on your clothes or any other loose objects you've got. Actually, I was surprised that I didn't see any trying to steal crackers from the stores, but they seemed content to just hang out in the area and wait for someone to buy the crackers for them. He's a picture of me feeding the deer.
As I said before, there's a lot of stuff in the park but the most popular sight by far is the enormous Todaiji Temple. It's home to the largest Buddha in Japan (yep, even larger than the more famous one in Kamakura) along with a few other gigantic statues. Even though I'm rather tired of seeing Buddha statues in general (seen so many of them), the colossal scale of everything at Todaiji made it pretty cool. We continued on, making large loop through the park, and saw lots of other stuff like a giant bell, a shrine full of lanterns, and some pretty ponds (one of which was full of turtles, which were fun to watch).
After that we walked around Naramachi, a part of town with a bunch of little shops and some old buildings scattered about the back streets and alleys, and ate at really good noodle place in a nearby shopping arcade. Their specialty was something I'd never seen before. Interesting isn't it? It's a pouch made of tofu skin and stuffed with udon noddles.
Since we were making good time, we went back to Nara Park for a bit so I could check out the Nara National Museum. The section filled with Buddha statues left me with a serious feeling of deja vu but the section of 3000 year old bronze pots from China and the special exhibit of old artwork from Europe and Asia that dealt with winged horses and similar creatures (Pegasus, griffons, etc) were interesting.

And that's it. If all goes well I'll be posting Monday on schedule from the US. See you then!


4/9/2008 Still playing catch up

Sorry, really wanted to get a normal comic done for today but I just didn't have the time. A note about today's guest comic. Quite a long time back a reader sent me a whole bunch of these little mini comics for one of my guest comic contests but I lost the file and didn't find it again until recently. Apologies to the creator for taking so long. Anyway, since they're just single panel things, I decided to combine a bunch into one strip and I'll probably do the rest of them like this sooner or later (though hopefully not to replace normal strips). There should be a regular PV strip on Friday (though I'm not 100% sure) and definitely on Monday.

Monday (7th): Kyoto in the Rain
My mom and I started off our second Kyoto day at Daigoji temple. The temple itself wasn't anything all that special but the setting was great. There was a path lined with sakura trees right outside and when ever the wind whipped up, petals would go flying everywhere. It was kinda like a snow storm at times. Very pretty. Daigoji also had a nice little garden and a pagoda which, at over 1000 years old, is said to be the oldest wooden structure in Kyoto. And for Engrish fans, as this sign proves, one letter can make all the difference.
There's a bunch of smaller temples up the mountain behind Daigoji and my mom hadn't had enough of hiking yet so we started up. Soon after, it began to rain. Wasn't bad at first but after a bit it got pretty heavy. Not the best time for a hike to be sure but it wouldn't have been too bad...if my mom had brought her umbrella. I had mine (which I always keep in my backpack) but she'd left hers at the hotel and my umbrella is really only big enough for one person. We traded it back and forth for a bit and tried to share but we both got pretty wet. Despite that, we walked all the way to the top of the mountain (we'd gone so far that we didn't really want to turn around) before heading down.
At this point, we decided that it'd probably be a good idea to go back to the hotel and get the other umbrella. But if we went right away we'd have to do some backtracking to get to our next destination (which would also require buying extra train and subway tickets) and we'd have to go near the hotel later anyway so we decided to wait and headed to Nijo Castle instead. Unfortunately, the castle itself was burned down by a lightning strike a couple hundred years ago but the palace and gardens were still in good shape. The palace and castle were originally built by one of the Shoguns as a snub to the Emperor, who had no real power at the time, so it's pretty impressive. We walked all through the large main palace (there's an inner one too, but it's only open to the public a few times a year). Between the building itself, carvings, and wall paintings, it was pretty cool. Unfortunately, no one is allowed to take pictures inside.
After that it was back to the hotel. My mom had gotten the worst of the rain and didn't really want to go out any more so she decided to stay inside for the rest of the day. But I wasn't going to let the rain stop me so I went out and caught a bus to Sanjusangendo. It's the longest temple in Japan, and it needs to be since it's home to a 1000 life sized statues of Kannon (a Buddhist deity) plus a giant statue of Kannon (very similar to the three giant gold Buddha in that one shrine in Nikko, but I think this one is slightly bigger) and statues of all 28 guardian deities (each with a Japanese and English sign explaining their role and history). The sheer amount of statues made the whole place a tad overwhelming but certainly worth seeing. I'd show you...but once again, no pictures allowed inside.
My last stop for the day was Kiyomizudera, yet another temple. It's the hanging deck that makes this one famous but with two pagodas, several temple buildings, a small garden, and a fairly nice shopping street leading up to it, it's kinda got all the main scenic temple stuff represented pretty well so it's a good place to visit. I also ran into a pair of geisha girls posing for photos while I was there. Not sure if they were real geisha or just girls who like to cosplay (dress up in costume) but it's a nice photo either way (and, considering that Kyoto does have a geisha district, there's a decent chance that they're the real thing).
Supper that night at a Japanese buffet, which was as interesting as it is unusual (the only buffets I've seen in Japan before have been Indian and American).

Tuesday (8th): Kyoto Day 3
Before I get started, here's a pic of Kyoto Station.  Specifically, I'm standing on the station's rooftop garden and looking down into the station. But anyway, after climbing all the way up to the top of the station and taking that photo my mom and I caught a bus to Nanzenji Temple. The temple was ok, though nothing amazing. But that was fine since the main reason we went there was because it's near the start of the Walk of Philosophy. As you can tell from the photo, it's a very pretty path (especially during this time of year) and there were some shops and restaurants scattered along it as well. There's a few shrines and stuff along the walk and we stopped at Eikando Temple, which is famous for its oddly posed Amida statue (there's a whole legend behind that). Statue aside, you can walk through a lot more of the buildings than at most temples (nice ones too, with old fashioned covered wooden walkways connecting them) and get a close up look at some of the really fancy stuff they put in those places, so that was neat.
The Walk of Philosophy eventually led us to our next destination, Ginkakuji. Check out the path to the entrance. Despite being called "the silver pavilion" it's not actually covered with silver, although it was originally supposed to be. The pavilion itself was being repaired while we were there so we couldn't get a very good look at it but that wasn't so bad since the place is still worth seeing for its stone garden (believe it or not but they re rake that every day) and it's excellent regular garden, which uses quite a lot of moss (some of which is very important moss, which I suppose means it's the most useful for gardening). We also tried umi (Japanese plum) tea while we there. Some people seemed to really like it but it was way too sour for me.
My mom was flipping through the tour book over lunch so we changed the schedule a little and skipped the next place I had planned, heading instead to Chionin, a very large shrine which features the largest shrine bell in Japan (they say it takes seventeen people to ring it at New Years). And, though I dislike clandestinely taking pictures of people, this one was a bit too good to pass up.
After that we walked to a part of Kyoto called Gion and looked around there a bit, but we'll be going back there on Thursday so I'll wait and talk about it then.

Darn, I was hoping to get today's write up done as well but I really should get some sleep... Oh well, should be able to get caught up on Friday. See you then!


4/7/2008 Kyoto...finally

There's some new fan art up. Other than that, I'm now in Kyoto and I have a good internet connection so updates shouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get anywhere near caught up on strips. Anyway, it's late and I really need to start on what I've been doing for the last few days. Oh, speaking of which, the next to last link in the section on Friday the 4th was linking to the wrong image. It's fixed now.

Saturday (5th): Hiking in the Kiso Valley
When I was planning this sightseeing trip this was a tricky day to figure out. On the one hand, it would have been nice to go to services in Tokyo like I do every Saturday. But it's a long ride on the shinkansen between Nagoya and Tokyo, not to mention around 10,000 yen one way (since I have a working visa, not a tourist visa, I can't get a JR Rail Pass). So with that out, I decided to look for some nice outdoor nature type thing to fill the day. Fortunately, I found a good one.
The Nakasendo trail is a hiking trail connecting old post towns in the mountains. The entire trail is really long but the most popular segment connects the towns of Magome and Tsumago. Here's a map of the whole thing (though I think the trail might continue off one or both sides of it). I traced the section my mom and I did in red and circled and numbered our three major stopping points along the way, which I'll refer to in more detail later.
Anyway, as I previously said, the most popular part of the trail is between Magome and Tsumago, both old post towns. It's around 8 km between the two though the trail itself isn't all that strenuous. Depending on the shape you're in and how fast or slow you want to go (I'd recommend not rushing, there's some great scenery), I'd say it'd take anywhere from 1 1/2 - 3 1/2 hours to complete (most likely not counting whatever time you spend looking around in the towns themselves).
To start, we took a train to Nakatsugawa then got a bus to Magome (number 1 on the map). The trail starts out winding uphill through Magome, which is a great old town with lots of shops, restaurants, and the like. In Japan, places like that are always fun to walk though. Just about when there trail leaves Magome you can get a good view of the mountains. The scenery on the Nakasendo trail is really diverse. We passed through forests, fields, bamboo groves, and a collection of tiny little towns. There were a couple of waterfalls along the way too. To make things easy for hikers, there's signs at nearly every intersection so it's easy to stay on the trail (there were only a couple of slightly confusing spots) and there's rest rooms spaced along the entire length. Some of those small towns have restaurants and/or vending machines too, really convenient. It took my mom and I around 2 1/2 hours at a moderate pace (including a lunch break) to reach Tsumago (number 2 on the map). Tsumago was another neat old post town and, much like Magome, featured a street lined with old buildings selling local crafts, food, etc.
Now that's where most people stop, take a short bus ride to Nagiso, and get a train to where ever. But, as my mom and I soon discovered, the trail didn't stop there. And, since it skirted Nagiso on the way, and we'd made good time and weren't all that tired, we decided to continue on and walk to the train station, adding another 3.5 km to the 8 we'd already covered. Once again, the scenery was very nice and pretty diverse, though a bit less so as we drew closer to Nagiso (number 3 on the map). Unlike Magome and Tsumago, Nagiso isn't a post town and lacks their looks and atmosphere. But it does have a train station so it marked the end of our journey for the day.
Though, had we wanted to continue, we could have. We'd only covered about half (if that) of what was shown on that map and there were at least two more post towns further on. I had some doubts about this whole day plan at first but I'm glad we did it. The weather was perfect, it was a good trail with lots to see, and the post towns were fun to walk through. All in all it made for a very enjoyable day. If you like hiking or at least really long walks I'd definitely recommend it.
Later that night we also swung by a shopping arcade in Nagoya to try out a vegetarian Chinese restaurant my mom had been wanting to go to. Wasn't bad actually, though I think meat would have made it better.

Sunday (6th): On To Kyoto
I've been wanting to spend some time in Kyoto ever since I came to Japan but it was just too long and expensive of a train ride for a day trip and the timing didn't work out well when my brother was here. Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan before Tokyo and features a enormous amount of shrines, temples, and other old stuff to see. Though a large city, it doesn't have Tokyo's endless tall buildings and has a lot of hills, mountains, and forests scattered throughout, giving it a much different atmosphere.
My mom and I caught an early train and dropped our suitcases off at our hotel then immediately headed out to start touring. I had three stops planned for the day. First up was Tofukuji Shrine, famous for its huge gate and collection of rock gardens (each done in a completely different style). Though I thought the big dragon painted on the ceiling was pretty cool too.
Once we'd finished looking around there, we took the train to the next stop to visit Fushimi Inari Shrine. But we weren't just there to see the shrine, and neither were most of the other visitors, for that matter. The big draw is the 4 km trail that leads up and around the mountain behind the shrine. So what's so special about this trail? First off, see that gate in the last pic? That type of gate is called a torii gate and there's usually one or two on the path to just about every Shinto shrine. And that 4 km trail? It's lined with torii gates. Lots and lots and lots of torii gates. There's thousands of the things in many different sizes and styles. Along the way there's also a whole bunch of small shrines where people can leave little gates they bought and wrote prayers on. There's also a bunch of kitsune statues (fox spirits from Japanese mythology) and rest stops/noodle restaurants. The local specialty is kitsune soba/udon, Japanese noodles with tofu skin. We got some for lunch, it's pretty good.
The final stop of the day was Uji, a town (like Tokyo, Kyoto is divided up into many smaller cities and towns) famous for its green tea. There was a nice shopping street featuring matcha (green tea) everything (sweets of all kinds, ice cream, soba, tea cups, pots, etc, etc, etc, and, of course, the tea itself) which we walked through but our real destination was Byodoin. Aside from having a nice garden with plenty of sakura (cherry) blossoms, it's got the Phoenix Pavilion. Sure it's a neat building and it's filled with old paintings and Buddha statues, but what's really impressive is that it's nearly 1000 years old. Yeah, I'm serious. And it never had to be rebuilt, that's the original structure. I never thought wood could last that long... There was a nice little museum there with artifacts and details about the history of the pavilion too.
Turned out to be a really good day to visit Uji since they happened to be having their local cherry blossom festival, which we stumbled on as we were leaving Byodoin. There was a nice long sakura tree filled area along the river lined with all the usual matsuri (festival) booths (carnival games, food, local crafts, etc). We took a stroll through it, snacking on a whole bunch of different stuff along the way, and checking out all the pottery for sale. Definitely a pleasant surprise addition to the day.

Well, I was going to talk about what I did today but, considering the time, it'll have to get put off till Wednesday.  See you then!


4/4/2008 Surprise Guest Comic

There's a new bonus comic for everyone who votes and a new Orca Mystery Dungeon page over at ROM. Since I'm currently very behind on strips (something I'm hoping to try and remedy a bit over the weekend), I decided to toss up one of the spare guest comics I have today. This one is by Silver and it's a crossover of sorts with That Soap Opera (the PV Forums based soap opera comic he's been doing). I should have a normal comic ready for Monday but there might be another random guest comic or two popping up over the next week and a half or so until I've had time to get caught up on things.

Thursday (3rd): Iseshi
I planned several different day trips to areas near Nagoya. The first was Iseshi. Iseshi is a town that's famous for its two great shrines, Geku and Naiku. Since Geku was right near the train station, we stopped there first. Geku, and several small related shrines, are set in an old forest. The buildings weren't all that fancy but what's really special about Geku and Naiku is that they're torn down and rebuilt in an adjacent spot every twenty years, and have been for hundreds of years (though not without some interruptions). Here's the lot where Geku will be built next time (it's right next to the current location).
From Geku, my mom and I caught a bus to Naiku, which is the better of the two by far. Here's me at the entrance to the grounds. Although Naiku itself is in a forest, the grounds have some nice gardens and the scenery is great. Here's the shrine itself. Kinda far out but you're not allowed to take pictures inside the fenced in area (you can't even get all that close to the main building). And one last picture from the garden, check out the falling cherry petals.
Right outside of the grounds of Naiku is Oharai, a large shopping street area lined with old buildings. It reminded me a lot of the old shopping streets in Kawagoe, but Oharai is a lot bigger. There were lots of souvenir type shops, restaurants, and snack stands. Instead of having a real lunch, my mom and I just grabbed different snacks as we walked. If you're ever there, I highly recommend the chestnut pastry things. It was a very fun area to walk around and the food was great.
After that it was back to the train station to grab a short train to our next stop. Although I spotted an interesting sign along the way. Remind me never to go there for a haircut, I'd much rather stick with humans.
Ten minutes on the train brought us to a small seaside town, home to the famous Meoto Iwa, or Wedded Rocks. I'm not quite sure of the story behind them but it's a Shinto thing of some sort. There's a Shinto shrine there too with a whole lot of frog statues scattered around, but Meoto Iwa is mostly just a really popular photo spot.
There were a few other sights in the area (for example an area famous for pearl diving and an Edo theme park similar to the one I went to near Nikko (Nikko Edo Mura), but we decided to get back to Nagoya so we wouldn't be out really late.

Friday (4th): Inuyama
Nagoya area day trip number 2, Inuyama. Inuyama is a very nice town and has several interesting attractions in and around it. Do to time constraints, my mom and I only saw what seem to be the two most popular, though there was a lot of other stuff listed in the pamphlet I got at the tourist info center, enough that I could easily spend another day or two there if I'm ever in the area again.
Anyway, first stop, Inuyamajo, one of Japan's oldest original castles (as in, never had to be rebuilt). It's over four hundred years old, pretty neat to walk through, and gives some great views from the top.. English speakers can also borrow free headsets (there's a 1000 yen deposit but you get it back when the headset is returned) for an interesting audio tour of the castle and grounds.
After exploring the castle and taking a leisurely walk back to the train station, we caught a bus for our other destination, Meiji Mura. The Meiji period of Japanese history ran from the mid 1800's through the early 1900's, starting shortly after the US forcibly ended Japan's self imposed isolation from the rest of the world. It was marked by rapid technological development and an influx of Western ideas and styles.
Meiji Mura is a huge outdoor museum containing over 60 original Meiji era buildings that were brought there from all over Japan (and a few from overseas as well). The buildings originally served many diverse purposes and cover all sorts of different architectural styles. Each building has a sign explaining its original use and location and you can go inside and walk through nearly all of them. Most of the interiors are filled with either recreations of the original furnishings or museum displays (mostly about things related to the building's original purpose) but some have been transformed into restaurants, shops, and various other attractions (I got to feel my way through a pitch dark maze in one). Some of the buildings really didn't look like places you'd expect to find in Japan. The setting and arrangement of the buildings was very well done. There were five different sections to Meiji Mura and the buildings were all put in fitting spots (some right near other buildings, others off by themselves). Some were a bit plain but many had pretty interesting designs (Note: the building on the right in that pic wasn't designed that way, most of the original structure was destroyed in a earthquake before it was moved to the museum, looks neat as is though), especially this this one (which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). In summary, Meiji Mura is a very interesting place to explore, has a ton of things to see, and is great for photos.
And that was it for the day, aside from the trip back to Nagoya of course.

See you Monday! Well, hopefully... I'll be in a different hotel by then so no telling what internet will be like, but I'll do my best to update.


4/2/2008 Onward to Nagoya

There's a new ROM, plus since the donation gauge hit $100 last month, Shauni's doing something special in addition to all the stuff you'll be getting from me. Sorry the update is a bit later than usual but that's probably going to be the norm until I'm back in the US.

Before I move onto the main stuff, a short story I wrote a few months back got published in a online fantasy magazine. You can read it here. Unfortunately, there's no comment system or anything but you can still give it a read and pass it on if you like it. I don't write many short stories (most of my stuff is novel length at the very least) so you could kinda say this is a special event of sorts. Of course, it'd be even more special if I got paid, but hey, at least it'll give more people a chance to read my writing.

Well, I'm in Nagoya and it looks like internet access won't be a problem while I'm here (so today's update is fine and Friday's should be up as scheduled). Got a surprisingly nice hotel too. But anyway, I've having a pretty hard time pulling myself away from the final case in Apollo Justice Ace Attorney long enough to write this so let's get things moving.

Tuesday (1st): Traveling to Nagoya
Before talking about the trip, here's a last picture from Koga, since the cherry blossoms finally bloomed on the path I usually took to the train station. Anyway, a good chunk of the day was spent on trains, although we did stop in Tokyo for lunch before getting on a shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya. The train passed pretty close to Mt. Fuji (much close than I'd ever been before) so were we able to get some pictures as we went by.
We arrived in Nagoya a bit later than I'd originally planned thanks to that lunch break. It's a pretty big city, a bit like Tokyo in spots. It also has a surprisingly extensive subway system, almost on same level as Tokyo's (the other cities I've been to with subways have very limited routes). By the time we got checked into our hotel there wasn't really time to do much more than walk around the city a bit and look in some shops. On that note, underground malls seem to be pretty popular here.

Wednesday (2nd): Cars and Castles
Our hotel in Nagoya has a pretty good free breakfast plus big rooms and great internet. Really lucked out there. I didn't think it'd be this nice just going off the web site where I made reservations. But anyway, first stop of the day was a ways outside of Nagoya proper. In fact, it was in Toyota City, named after the car company. Toyota's main headquarters is there along with R&D and a lot of factories. In fact, about one out of every ten people living there is a Toyota employee. My mom and I were there for a Toyota related reason as well, namely to take a tour of one of the factories. The whole process was a bit of a pain (you have to sign up a ways in advance by phone then fax a confirmation) and, while they sent me directions to the nearest train station and said the starting point was a fifteen minutes walk from there, they neglected to give directions for that walk and there weren't any signs either. Some other people there had the same problem and after trying (and failing) to find it for ourselves, we were able to get a map from a guy at the train station.
The meeting place for the tours is Toyota Kaikan, a museum/showroom of Toyota stuff. While waiting for the English tour to start, I got to watch them demonstrate a couple of things like a horn playing robot (nifty but not the most useful type of robot you could build) and this concept vehicle. Said vehicle runs really quietly, appears to have great handling, and even transforms into a high speed mode.
We toured one of Toyota's nearby plants where they make about 1700 cars a day (seven different models, for both Japan and abroad, on only two assembly lines). Did you know it takes about 21 hours and 30,000 parts to make a Toyota car? Trivia aside, we got to see the welding and assembly areas of the factory and it made for a pretty interesting tour. The area with all the robotic arms welding the frames together was probably the neatest. Unfortunately, pictures weren't allowed inside the factory so you'll just have to use your imagination.
It was a fairly long tour plus it took a while to get back to Nagoya after that so there was only time for one more stop, Nagoya castle. Unfortunately, most of the original structure was burned down during the bombings in WWII so the current building is a reconstruction set on the original foundation. The inside contains art and exhibits about the history and construction of the original castle along with a observation deck so you can get a nice view of Nagoya. The castle is also surrounded by a nice park with lots of flowers, some street performers, and the like.
After finishing up there my mom and I walked around a bit more than headed back to the hotel.

Gotta busy day tomorrow so I should wrap things up. Later!


3/31/2008 Goodbye to Koga and Nogi

Good news everyone! Thanks to a donation from a very generous fan and the donations from some of the King of the Forums Contest winners, the donation gauge has hit the $100 mark for March! So it looks like everyone is in for a whole lot of bonus stuff. There'll be commentary for the next set of old Pebble Version strips, a new ROM The Novel chapter, new Zelda comic, a special mystery bonus (which will remain a mystery for the moment), and the next two parts of Josiah's Sprite Comic Guide! Plus, you'll be getting five new PV strips a week for an entire month! Now, normally that month would be April. But, seeing as I'm going to be traveling around Japan for the next couple of weeks and my internet access could be a bit spotty (plus I'm just not going to have a lot of time in general), you'll be getting five new PV strips each week in May instead. (If PV gets enough donations in April, there'll be five updates a week in June, etc.)

Saturday (29th): Night Out in Tokyo
Like every Saturday I went to services in Tokyo. Naturally, my mom came along this time as did a Japanese woman who is a friend of a friend back in CO. Anyway, Yukie (that friend of a friend) hung out with us for a while Saturday night after services were over. We went to a karaoke parlor (I did a few Japanese songs again to show off) and then got kaiten zushi, so that was fun. Here's a picture that actually has Yukie in it.

Sunday (30th): Okeibajo, Odaiba, Onsen, and Some Stuff That Doesn't Begin With O
This was the last of our big Tokyo touring days. First off, I took my mom to the weekend flea market at the Okeibajo race track. I've talked all about it before (gee I'm getting tired of saying that) but just to recap, it's a huge flea market held in the parking lot of the Okeibajo horse racing track nearly every weekend. You can find some great deals there on just about anything. I highly recommend it to anyone who is going to be in Tokyo over a weekend.
Next stop Odaiba (which I covered pretty thoroughly in a couple of past posts), but we didn't go alone. Yehoshua, the guy who leads the group I go to in Tokyo every week, likes to show people around Odaiba so we met up with him and his wife. Here's a picture of them and me in front of Odaiba's mini Statue of Liberty. He led the way for a while but, as I was more familiar with some parts of Odaiba than he was, I ended up leading a bit too. So we walked around all the big malls (Decks, Seaside Mall, and Venus Fort) for a while and watched a lady play the accordion.
We eventually ended up at Odaiba's onsen (hot springs) theme park, Edo Onsen Montigiri. One again, details on the park itself can be found in a previous post. It was pretty much the same as the last time I was there (though perhaps a bit more crowded) although, because of the season, they had put up a lot of fake cherry blossoms. The performer they had that evening was really good too. He did a lot of stuff but most of it involved tuba playing (such as playing the tuba while roller skating). Anyway, Edo Onsen Montigiri a pretty neat place and great if you want to get the onsen experience without heading to some mountain resort. Here's a picture from after dinner, here's me in a yukata (does it make me look fat?), and my mom and Yehoshua's wife (whose name I'm not really sure how to spell) in the foot bath.
Overall it was a fun day and my mom really liked Edo Onsen Montigiri.

Monday doesn't really need a write up since we didn't go anywhere. I originally had something planned but since we got back pretty late Sunday night and I still hadn't been told when the guy was coming to pick up my apartment key, we decided to sleep in and spend the day finishing the packing and stuff. Wasn't until about mid morning when I finally got a call about the apartments. Turns out the guy who was supposed to let me know forgot and no one realized it until then. Annoying, but it all worked out in the end. I also got to meet the new ALT who will be replacing me at Nogi Elementary, since he was being moved in right after I moved out. He seems like a nice guy (which is good, I'd feel bad if my departure left my students and coworkers with a lousy ALT) and I was able to pass on the stuff I'm not bringing back to the US (kitchen stuff, bike, heater, etc), which I was afraid I'd have to either throw out or give to Joytalk. My mom and I are spending the night at a hotel in Koga (which has surprisingly large rooms, although you need to buy prepaided time cards to watch TV) and then tomorrow morning it's off to Nagoya, where we'll be staying until Sunday. So I'll have plenty of new stuff to talk about come Wednesday, at least as long there aren't any internet problems.


3/28/2008 The tour continues

There's a new bonus comic for everyone who votes. Unfortunately, Shauni had some computer trouble so the new ROM comic has been delayed until Wednesday. I should probably mention that I'll be leaving my apartment sometime on Monday at which point I'll be spending one night at a nearby hotel then heading to Nagoya to continue touring with my mom. I'll update if I can but, though both the Monday hotel and the Nagoya hotel supposedly have internet access, you never really know until you get there. So, just in case there's no update on Monday and/or Wednesday, you'll know why. Though I'm hoping it won't come to that.

Thursday (27th): Nikko With My Mom
Since I consider Nikko an absolute must see spot for anyone visiting this part of Japan, I took my Mom there. We started out seeing the area with all the famous shrines, which I've already spent plenty of time talking about before (seeing as this is my third trip and all). But, while I don't feel like retyping the whole thing (read my old posts for details), that's no reason not to post a few new pictures. For example, I never did post one that shows just how tall the trees there are. And, even though I've already said how awesome some of the carvings are, I can take much nicer photos of them now that I've got a 10x zoom. So we saw the shrines and then walked around the town for a while, including an area way off to the side that I hadn't been through before.

Friday (28th): Back to Tokyo
This was our second Tokyo day. First stop, Asakusa, home of lots of neat souvenir shops, and a place I've also talked about before (sorry, I'll be visiting new places starting Tuesday so there'll be lots more to talk about after that). We walked around there for a while (here I am beneath one of Asakusa shrine's big paper lanterns) and got lunch then headed to Tokyo Tower. Yet again, if you want full details on the tower you should look at my previous posts. But here's a shot of Zenkoji shrine that I took from the top. See all the cherry blossoms?
Last stop was Akihabara, cause even if you aren't real into electronics, anime, manga, or games (like my mom) it's still kinda neat to walk around for a few minutes. Plus Yodobashi Camera has that awesome food court and all... Tried the shabushabu restaurant there this time (shabushabu, aka hot pot, is where you cook meat and vegetables in a big pot full of hot water or broth at your table). The real interesting thing about this restaurant (at least if you're enough accustomed to Japanese food to think shabushabu is normal enough) is that, first off, how much you paid is determined by your age and gender and then it's all you can shabushabu (meat, veggies, and noddle), rice, and desert for 90 minutes. Go over that time and you get charged extra. For a little more you could get unlimited drinks too. Don't think I've ever seen a timed system like that before.

And that's all for now. Like I said, expect things to kick into high gear Wednesday (assuming I've got internet access) as I start touring lots of new areas. The donation bonuses I owe, the remaining parts of So You Want to Teach English in Japan..., and some other assorted stuff are in the works as well, but may not end up getting finished till I'm back in the US, just cause of limited time. But we'll see.

Enjoy your weekend.


3/26/2008 The tour begins

As previously mentioned, my mom is here now and we'll be doing a lot of touring until I return to the US so updates may be slightly early or late.

Speaking of which, it's a bit late right now so I'll try to keep this quick. Like I already said, Monday was my last day of work. Tuesday I picked up my mom at the airport and that was about it, aside from a short stop in Akihabara before hand to grab one thing and get lunch. The touring started today so I'll move right on to that.

Wednesday (26th): Tokyo With My Mom
Today was the first of a few Tokyo days. We started out in Ueno Park. Since I was there Sunday, most of the cherry blossom trees have gone into full bloom so here's a few pictures. Here's my Mom, here's a nice shot of the trees along the path, and here's me. And, just because they turned out really well, here's a couple of close ups of some other types of flowers in the park. Aside from looking at the flowers, we also walked through the Tokyo National Museum. I already talked all about it in a previous post and, aside from some rotating displays, it was pretty much the same as before. Definitely one of the better museums I've been to here.
After that we walked around Ameya (the short name for the big shopping street area in Ueno) and then Ginza for a while. Once again, I've already said about everything I have to say about them so if you don't remember you can read my old posts.
When my mom had finished browsing the shops in Ginza we made our way to the nearby kabuki theater. Kabuki is one of the ancient Japanese preforming arts. It's plays but, unlike Western theater, which tends to focus on the characters and/or the story, kabuki is mainly about the actors. You don't go for a great plot, you go to see the main actor(s) put on a great performance. As such, it's very different than plays from back home. Movements are flowing, exaggerated, and very dance like, stories are simple, and little effort is made to conceal the methods behind special effects and the like from the audience. Another thing worth mentioning is that all roles (women included) are played by men. Naturally, dress is old traditional Japanese style and there's live music and singing throughout, all with traditional instruments like the shamisan.
The theater in Ginza changes shows every month and has a block of several shows from late morning through mid afternoon and one from late afternoon through late evening. You get buy tickets for an entire block in advance or, if you get there early enough, you can wait in line and get a cheap ticket that'll get you in for a single show (about 25-45 minutes depending on the play, while a block of shows with intermissions and all can span several hours). Keep in mind though, if you get a single show ticket you'll be sitting really far back. The theater itself is pretty nice and has lots of food and souvenir stands you can visit during the intermissions between shows. Even better, for a small fee you can rent a little radio thing that will explain the play in English as you watch. Instead of just giving a straight up translation of what everyone is saying, it will go so far as to explain the setting, meaning of the words, word plays that non-Japanese speakers won't understand, etc. It'll also talk a bit about the history and details of kabuki itself during intermissions. So yeah, I'd definitely recommending renting one if you ever go. Speaking of which, I was surprised to see how much word play was in the shows we saw. While any serious anime fan can tell you how much Japanese people love puns and word games, I didn't realize that type of humor dated so far back.
Unfortunately photos and videos of the plays weren't allowed, but I do have a picture of me standing in front of the theater.

And that's all for now. Gotta get ready to tomorrow.


3/24/2008 Last day...

If you didn't read Friday's post, you probably should scroll down and take a look since it talks about some new stuff I added to the site. Also, if you didn't know already, there was a screw up and Friday's bonus comic didn't end up going up until about half a day after it was supposed to. So if you voted Friday morning and just saw the old bonus comic, that's why.

Well, this is it. Today was my last day of work. Time sure has flown... Tomorrow my mom comes, I leave my apartment at the end of the month, and I leave Japan on April 13. It'll be nice to get back but I'm a little sad to leave too. I've been teaching seven months (and will have been in Japan for around eight by the time I get home). Wouldn't have minded staying for a full year (I replaced an ALT who had to leave unexpectedly after the first term of the school year, so my contract was a bit shorter than the norm) but more than that, I don't know. I do miss game design and plenty of things from home. Plus, if I stayed too much longer I'd really want a better apartment (at very least, improved heating and a full kitchen) and a higher salary (I love my school and the area isn't bad but Nogi pays its ALTs very poorly (as in, lowest ALT salary I've ever heard of)) so that would complicate things a bit. But, to commemorate, here's a new list of what I'll miss most from Japan and what I'm looking forward to getting back to in the US.

Top 5 Things I'll Miss From Japan (in no particular order)
1. Nogi Elementary. The kids especially. While I could take or leave the job (being an ALT isn't bad, but I'm not in love with it), the kids are great and lots of fun to be around. My coworkers have all been awesome as well.
2. My friends in Tokyo. I go in every Saturday for services. It's a great group of people and I'm gonna miss them.
3. The constant Japanese practice. While my Japanese isn't where I'd like it to be yet, I think I've improved quite a lot in only seven months.
4. Akihabara & Nakano Broadway. I never get tired of browsing all the awesome anime, game, figurine, etc, etc, etc shops. There's so much cool stuff and it seems like I'm always stumbling across some great new store or item I never saw before. The US really doesn't have anything that even comes close.
5. The food. Kaiten zushi in particular. Some one really needs to open a chain of them in the US... But yeah, the sushi is awesome, there's some really neat breads, and good Japanese curry isn't all that easy to find back in the US either.

Top 5 Things I'm Looking Forward to Getting Back To (in no particular order)
1. Family, friends, etc. This is a pretty obvious one. Japan is quite a long way from home (and a pretty expensive plane ride too).
2. Having a bigger place to live, car, oven, dryer, etc. My apartment in Japan is tiny and my salary is low so I'm missing lots of useful stuff that I'm used to having around.
3. English. Sure the Japanese practice is great, but there's also something to be said for understanding everything that's said around you, being able to read all the signs, etc.
4. Stores. I really love shopping in Tokyo but books, DVDs, and games are all in Japanese. You can find imports occasionally but usually with a big mark up. Of course, after another year or two here my Japanese would probably improve to the point where that wouldn't be so much of an issue (except for DVDs, since Japanese DVDs are just way too expensive).
5. The food. You can get great Japanese food in Japan, great Indian food, and occasionally great Chinese food but that's about it. Authentic American food and Italian food are extremely rare and other types of food (like Mexican) are nearly nonexistent. It'll be nice to have more of a variety again (not to mention a good pizza).

Anyway, since it's my last day I gave a little speech to the students and staff, gathered up all my stuff, and the like. I also got cards from all the grades that hadn't already given me one and a present from the faculty. It was all really nice and I'm gonna miss everyone here.  Though I'm not at all fond of my apartment, I really only have good memories about Nogi Elementary. Really glad I ended up working at such a great place. And now, I suppose I should mention what I did Sunday.

Sunday (24th): Last Hurrah
I spent the day in Tokyo since this was really my last chance to just hang out there and do what I want (not my last time in Tokyo, but on future visits I'll be showing my mom around). First off, since it was open again, I decided I might as well go see the Museum of Western Art (I was going to go earlier this year but it was closed for maintenance). It's in the middle of Ueno Park so I walked through the park on the way and got my first good look at sakura (Japanese cherry) blossoms. Though the exact season varies a bit by location, weather, and the trees themselves, they usually start to bloom in mid to late March and last until early to mid April. It's still a bit early in the season now so, while there were occasional trees in full bloom (like in that picture above) a lot of them were still mostly buds. There's a whole path lined with sakura trees in Ueno Park. It was very nice as is and I'm sure it's really spectacular when they're all in bloom. Since I'm probably going to end up posting quite a lot of pictures of sakura blossoms before returning to the US, I don't want to put up too many right now. But, here's a nice close up and here's some people out for a day of sakura viewing. It's a common pastime during sakura season which involves staking out a spot (sometimes far in advance) and spending the day sitting there with friends, family, or coworkers, and looking at the sakura blossoms. There's often a lot of drinking involved as well.
The Museum of Western Art was nice. Their main collection wasn't huge but they had things by some pretty famous artists, including a whole lot of casts of Rodin's works. They were also having a special exhibit of all sorts of art depicting the goddess Venus (or Aphrodite if, like me, you prefer the original Greek names to the Roman). There was some pretty neat stuff, including some Greek vases that were over 2000 years old.
After I'd finished looking around the museum, I decided to walk around Ameyayokochou (the big collection of shopping streets in Ueno) since I haven't done that for a while. A while ago I mentioned that I wanted to get a picture of one of those kebab stands with the big pillars of meat, well, here it is. While I was there I also tried sakura flavored ice cream. It had a very mild taste but was pretty good.
I spent the rest of the day in Akihabara. I gave pachinko one last try while I was there (didn't win anything) but I mainly browsed the shops. Although I often run into Akihabara when I'm in Tokyo, I'm usually just there long enough to stop in a favorite store or two. I think this was really only my third big explore and browse day. So, aside from going through all my favorite stores, I ended up coming across lots of really cool ones that I'd never seen before. For example, I found the largest figurine store I've ever seen by far and lots of stores with great selections of game and anime soundtracks (including some pretty rare stuff). I'd always figured Akihabara should have more good soundtrack stores than I knew about... Turns out most of them are in an area that I hadn't really thoroughly explored yet.

And that about does it. Updates from now till I'm back in the US should continue as scheduled (though possibly a bit later or earlier in the day than normal, since my mom and I will be touring pretty much every day). Though, I'm not entirely sure what my internet access is going to be like when I'm in Kyoto and Nagoya in April so that's a little iffy.


3/21/2008 Nifty new stuff and 6th Grader Graduation

There's a new bonus comic (EDIT: oops, bonus comic didn't go up when it was supposed to but it's up now) and a new ROM. Also, I added So You Want to Teach English in Japan... to the Extras page, it's right near the top, below Josiah's Sprite Comic Guide. From now on, I'll just make whole pages for the new entries right away and announce them here (instead of posting the entire thing here as well). Speaking of which, Part 2: Preparing to Go to Japan, is finished so go give it a read if you're interested.

I also added something new to the Extras page. It's That Soap Opera That I Mentioned A While Back in the Revenge of the Son of Saying Hi to Josiah Topic That has an Unnecessarily Long Name and Needs a New One. And if you think that name is long, you should have seen the original name... Anyway, That Soap Opera, is a series of comic strips by Silver, long time member of the PV forums, mod, multiple award winner, etc. See, one day last year a few of the forum members were going on and on about how much drama had been in their lives lately. Marley was complaining about the wi-fi pokémon battle he lost to Gar and Opal was talking about some guy who might or might not have been flirting with her. Taking things to the next logical step, I jokingly suggested that some one should make a soap opera about all the stuff that goes on on the forums. You know, since that the guy who might have been flirting with Opal may have conspired with Gar to fix that wi-fi match so that Marley would lose and go searching for his evil twin's clone, or something like that. Silver took me up on the challenge and started posting comics a little over a month back. Seeing as all the characters and events are based on stuff from the forums, non members might not get a lot of it but everyone on the forums loves it (so the main point of this is to make it easier for us to reread) and the art is pretty amazing considering that he does nearly all of it in MS Paint. There's 10 strips so far and I'll be adding more as Silver posts them on the forums.

Wednesday (21st): 6th Grade Graduation
Like I mentioned before, Wednesday was the graduation ceremony for the 6th grade class at Nogi Elementary. Not really sure why it was on a weekday or why it takes place a couple days before school ends for the rest of the grades. Like quite a lot of things in Japan, it was a bit more formal than what you'd find in the US, especially for elementary school. The entire school staff was there as were all the students, the usual collection of relatives (though not too many fathers, probably cause of work), the entire PTA, the head of the Nogi Board of Education, and higher ups from assorted other schools in the area (many of whom gave little speeches). The kids were really well behaved (which seems pretty typical for Japan) and had obviously been drilled on how to act. Not only did they know where to sit and what route to take from their chairs to the podium and back when getting their diplomas, they all walked, pivoted, turned, etc the same way. The whole thing was more organized and choreographed than my college graduation ceremony... Other than the speeches and diplomas, the 6th graders did a little group speech and a song and the other grades had a group speech as well.
The one thing I found most interesting about the ceremony was how serious and somber everyone was (especially in regards to the parents). Everyone clapped when the 6th graders were entering and when they were leaving but other than that there was no applause and all the people just sat there. No cheering, no waving, no crying, I don't think anyone even smiled. They seemed to loosen up a bit after the ceremony but still... I'd heard that Japanese people tend to suppress outward displays of emotion but I never really noticed it much in public or even in my work place before this.
Here's a picture from during the ceremony and a couple from afterwards. Notice that the kids are all dressed up. I think they're wearing their new junior high uniforms.

Thursday was a holiday, the one for the spring equinox. It's one of those days that a lot of people get off work but hardly anyone really celebrates. I had planned to go into Tokyo but it was raining most of the day so I decided to stay home and get some things done around the apartment (getting ready for my mom's arrival and stuff) and save Tokyo for Sunday.

See you Monday! Oh yeah, I also have to mention that, after years of hoping, they're making a new season of Slayers, my favorite anime. Really looking forward to that. You should too. You should also go buy Funimation new boxsets of the first three seasons of Slayers, awesome stuff.


3/19/2008 *Victory dance*

Woohoo! Despite major slowdowns and interruptions thanks to things like college and coming to Japan, I finally finished writing my eighth novel (well, the first draft anyway, still got a lot of editing to do). It's also the final volume in a trilogy. Sure feels good to have completed an entire series...well sorta. There's actually gonna be two more trilogies but still... Now I just need a publisher. Though that's easier said than done (something I've discussed in length in an essay I put on the Extras page a while back).

Moving onto PV related stuff. If you were wondering what the black suit guys have been doing while Brendan and May were in the casino...er, "Game Corner", now you know. Looks like those two just can't get a break.
The 2008 King of the Forums Contest recently ended on the PV Forums. The timing wasn't quite as good this year (since I had to schedule it around my upcoming trip to Kyoto and Nagoya and subsequent return to the US) and this year's contest wasn't anywhere near as crazy as last year's but it was still fun. Long time member, mod, and winner of tons of other awards, Silver shocked everyone by coming in first (beating out newcomer Marley (aka Blastotoise) by a mere 8 points). Marley took second and Doodleshark came in third (beating out Gardialvior by a similarly small margin). So yeah, just wanted to say congrats to the winners.
Even if you couldn't care less who won the contest, you might find this next part interesting. Two of the winners (Silver and Doodle) decided to donate their prizes to PV, meaning the donation gauge for this month has just hit $30! So look forward to another batch of commentary on old strips and a new ROM chapter next month (possibly more stuff as well if more people donate this month). The long term donation goal was also met which means you'll be getting the next part of Josiah's Sprite Comic Guide in the not too distant future.

As promised, here's pics of my 5th grade class, 1st grade class, and 2nd grade class. If you think that the 1st and 2nd graders look a bit somber compared to the other grades, this wasn't just a casual photo after class, this was a whole little class photo mini event for them and their teachers were really herding them around trying to get them all in just the right spots for the pictures so the kids ended up being rather subdued. Speaking of school, I've only got two days (Friday and Monday, since Thursday is a holiday) and one class (2nd graders on Friday) left. The final classes have been fun, lots of games mainly. I've been giving the kids English Yu-Gi-Oh cards as a little farewell present, which most of them seem to like. Also been giving out my e-mail and snail mail address. It'll be interesting to see who, if anyone, writes. I'm gonna miss the kids.  The 4th graders even gave me a nice group card and the 1st graders all made little cards and origami things for me. Finally, today was the graduation ceremony for the 6th graders (who are moving onto Junior High) so I'll have some pics of that ready for Friday.

And that'll have to do it for now. Got a lot of stuff I need to work on (those donation bonuses included), so I'll see you Friday.


3/17/2008 So you want to teach English in Japan...

The link to the picture of my 5 year old class in my last post was linking to the wrong image but it's fixed now. I also revamped the Links and the Link Exchange pages a little (while adding some new links and removing dead links). One site I added to the Links page is Ultima-Java. UJ has several things on the site but the focus is a serious fantasy comic that's well drawn and off to a pretty good start storywise so you might want to check it out. I added a couple other comics I started reading fairly recently as well and there's still a few more I'll probably add in the future when I have more time.
Note: I only removed comics whose links no longer worked or who no longer linked to PV (for the LE page, since that's kinda the point of a link exchange). If you have a comic that was on the links or link exchange page and was just temporarilly down or got a new address shoot me an e-mail and I'll see about putting it back.

Sunday (17th): Highschool Baseball
One of my coworkers, the one who invited me to her house last year, invited me to come see her son's baseball game (he's left fielder on his highschool team). I didn't have anything big planned so I figured I might as well go. Her son's team played two games that day (against two different teams) and won both...I think. See, there wasn't a working scoreboard at the field and I kinda lost track of the runs. Anyway, highschool baseball is still highschool baseball in Japan, with a couple extra formalities at the beginning and end of the game. The one major difference I noticed was that the Japanese teams love to sacrifice bunt (compared to the highschool baseball I've seen in the US). There was at least one sacrifice bunt (or at least an attempt) in most innings and they'd often do two sacrifice bunts in a row just to get a runner from second to third (and which point someone would usually strike out or hit an easily catchable pop fly before said runner could make it home. I was thinking it might have something to do with the whole Japanese mindset (see my RJC on the Japanese mindset) of teamwork and helping the group (team) instead of yourself. I thought back to an interview I read with the creator of the famous Japanese basketball manga Slam Dunk, and he said that Japanese basketball players tended to pass a lot more than American players instead of trying to go for a big shot since it promoted teamwork and also meant that the individual players didn't have to worry about being held responsible if they screwed up said big shot, since they'd just never take it. He didn't think that was the best way to play the game and I have to agree. But anyway, I'm getting off track.
I'm not a big baseball fan but it wasn't that bad of a way to spend the day and I got to practice my Japanese a bit with some of the parents. I also talked to the coach for a minute. I was introduced to him specifically because he was also the highschool's English teacher...but he spoke to me entirely in Japanese (so I followed suit and used Japanese as well). From what I've heard, most Japanese English teachers can't speak English very well (though many are completely unaware of that fact). Anyway, I also got invited to dinner after the games so I got to try a make your own okonomiyaki restaurant (you got a bowl with the ingredients and the table had a built in grill where you cooked them). There's actually a lot of different types of restaurants in Japan with the whole grill in the table thing. Wish I had a table like that back home...

Instead of doing a RJC today, I'm going to do the first part of a little series I've been planning called "So You Want to Teach English in Japan...". After reading all this stuff I've been posting since coming here I figure some of you are at least curious or even seriously considering giving it a try yourself. So, when I've got the time, I'll be posting some advice, suggestions, helpful links, important info, etc. For now it'll just be part of my normal news posts but once I'm done I'll compile the whole thing into a guide and stick it on the Extras page. Now, onto part 1.

So You Want to Teach English in Japan, Part 1: Things to Know Before You Get Serious
So you want to teach English in Japan? Great! It can be a very interesting, educational, and even fun experience. However, Japan and/or the job itself probably aren't quite the way you imagine they are so here's some facts you should take into consideration when deciding if you really want come to Japan to teach. Keep in mind, I'm not trying to scare you away, discourage you, or paint things in a bad light. I'm just pointing out things I've learned both from my own experiences and from other ALTs, that are often either not thought of, not mentioned, or glossed over in many situations.
1. Most people in Japan (including your coworkers if you get a job) speak little to no English. Some places in Japan have English signs, menus, instructions, etc but many don't. You're not going to finding much English media either (unless it's been redone in Japanese). So, if you have no desire to learn Japanese you're probably better off just going to Japan as a tourist for a couple weeks.
2. Japanese people are usually quite friendly but there is a certain amount of prejudice and misconceptions when it comes to foreigners so be aware that you might encounter some things like that (for example, not being allowed to rent an apartment you want because the landlord doesn't allow non-Japanese or being randomly pulled out of a crowd and asked to show your passport).
3. Many things that are cheap and easy to obtain in the US (some types of food and assorted other items) are very expensive and/or extremely rare in Japan, though the opposite is also true.
4. Japanese traditions and customs are very different than those in places like the US, Europe, and Australia. While Japanese people are usually fairly tolerate of foreigners when they make mistakes (though less so with some things than others), you will be expected to try your best to follow those customs (taking off shoes at the proper place, behaving in the right way, etc). Breaking or disregarding customs that you don't like or expecting people to change for you because you're a foreigner is a very bad idea and could even get you in trouble in some places/situations.
5. Unless you look Asian, you're going to stick out a whole lot. Even if you do look Asian, you'll probably still stick out a bit. Just something you'll have to get used to.
6. Japan is not in the feudal era or Edo period anymore. There's no ninja or samurai running around. Sure there's a bunch of old buildings in some areas but the country as a whole is just as modern as the US. On a similar note, there's no giant monsters, giant robots, cat girls, magical girls, or anything like that running around (unless you're at a cosplay convention). I'd think this would be obvious but you never know with some people. Remember, just cause you saw it in an anime, doesn't mean that's what Japan is really like.
7. Japan is not paradise and does not have a perfect society. Once again, this seems obvious enough but I've seen some US otaku (anime, manga, etc fans) get to the point where they think that anything and everything about Japan is perfect. It's not. Japan and the Japanese society have plenty of problems (many of which I've discussed or at least touched on in various posts I've made). Not that Japanese society is all that bad either, but overall I wouldn't say it's really any better or worse than places like the US, Canada, Austrailia, etc, it's just different.
Being an Assistant Language Teacher:
1. You're not going to get rich working as an ALT. If you're careful with your money, most ALT salaries are easily enough to live on and the higher ones may even allow you to save a little. On the other hand, if you end up with one of the lower salaries you might end up losing a bit of money (at least if you like to tour or shop, you'd probably be fine if you just sit at home most weekends).
2. You'll most likely have little to no say in where in Japan you'll end up. This varies a bit by company, and some will even let you know the location during the interview, but with others you might not find out until you're actually in Japan. So just because you want/request to be in or near Tokyo for example, doesn't mean you will be.
3. You'll likely have little to no say in what age group you'll be teaching. If you're being hired by a private language school you'll probably end up teaching classes of all ages and if you're being hired for public schools you might be in elementary, junior high, or a combination of the two. Since highschools and colleges are private, it's far less likely (though not impossible) to get a job in one.
4. You might not get many holidays, personal days, or sick days (actually, you might not get any sick days). This varies a lot depending on who you're working for but don't expect much. In public schools you'll typically get Japanese holidays and school breaks off (since the school closes down and all) but not always (some companies use days like that for mandatory training seminars and the like). And in some places (especially private language schools), it's quite common to have to work on evenings, weekends, and Japanese holidays (though you still tend to get two days off per week). Don't expect to get non Japanese holidays off at all unless you use a personal day (heck, I had to work on Christmas, which Japanese people celebrate too). Finally, keep in mind that, even if you supposedly get lots of vacation time, personal days, or whatever, your company will likely put lots and lots of restrictions on when you can use them, how many you can use in a row, how many days in advance you have to give notification, etc. Some companies will also do their best to discourage and/or guilt you out of using your vacation time or personal days.
5. Timeliness is very important. You'll be expected to be at work on time or early and will often get in trouble if you're not (unless you've got a really really good reason). Also, don't ever even think about leaving early unless your boss/department head/principle/etc gives you permission. Expect to work 8-9 hour days, quite possibly without any true break time since many companies' idea of a break (even if you're not getting paid for said time) is to socialize with students or prospective students, eat lunch with your class, etc. Many companies (private language schools especially) may also expect you put in a lot of unpaid overtime or even come into work on some of your days off. You can refuse, but know that your coworkers, bosses, etc probably won't be very pleased if you do.
6. You may have to work with and/or for people you dislike. Even if that's the case, you'll be expected to be polite and friendly at all times and never contradict said person. In the social hierarchy in your typical school (public or private) an ALT (especially a new one) ranks very low so you've really just got to smile and go along with everyone else in most situations. If you're lucky, all your coworkers will be great and might not even mind if you correct them a little from time to time so you'll never have a problem with this stuff, but just know that things don't always turn out that way. If you have trouble being pleasant and amiable (or at least faking it when necessary), controlling your temper, or staying quiet when someone says something you dislike or disagree with, ALT work is probably not the best choice for you.
7. You might have to do a whole lot of work or almost no work. For private language schools, this varies by company. For public, it varies by school and even by teacher (since you'll be "assisting" the homeroom teacher or official English teacher in each class). You might or might not have a curriculum or guidelines to follow and you might or might not have preexistent materials to work with. You might have to plan all the lessons out yourself, buy or create all the materials yourself (often at your own expense), and pretty much run every class on your own. On the other extreme, you might just get stuck sitting in a corner, turning a CD on and off at times, and occasionally being asked to pronounce different words. There are people who like both of these environments but you usually won't get to choose. For the record though, private language schools usually have a set curriculum you have to follow but other than that you're running the show. Elementary schools typically involve quite a lot of planning, prep work, and the like, but the teachers often give you a lot of freedom in what you teach and how. Junior high and highschools, on the other hand, have fully certified Japanese English teachers so things are a bit different. Some will be happy to just dump all the work on you and let you run things while others may prefer more of a team effort. But some think that, seeing as they actually studied to be English teachers, they're already experts on the language, even though that's often very far from the case (since they just learned from other Japanese people who learned from other Japanese people, etc). Teachers like that tend to see ALTs as unnecessary and they're the ones who will stick you in the corner to run the CD player while they go on to teach what is quite likely very poor English.
8. Going off point 7, you might be running around constantly doing classes and/or planning lessons or you might end up sitting around most of the day with very little to do (though that's pretty rare in private language schools). If you are stuck with nothing to do, you'll have to find some way to keep busy. Studying Japanese is a good way to pass the time and using schools computers or bringing in a laptop of your own is usually alright as well, at least so long as it looks like you're working (no video games, youtube, or anything like that).
9. One last point. ALT contracts are typically for one year (with the option to renew if the company/school likes you) though you can occasionally find shorter ones. While you usually can break the contract without serious consequences (aside from that facts that you know that you won't be getting any more money and will likely immediately lose your apartment, since housing is usually provided by your company), it's not a good idea so don't even think about being an ALT if you're not sure that you can manage to stick it out for at least a year even if your job ends up being far less than ideal.

And that's all for now. If there's anyone who's still interested, part two will be coming in the not too distant future.


3/14/2008 The quest for a better title

There's a new ROM and a new voters' bonus comic. Speaking of which, did last week's go up correctly? I thought it did at the time but now I'm not quite so sure... Anyway, it's definitely up now. Just in case I haven't mentioned it before, I often have a tough time coming up with titles for stuff, like these posts for example. Heck, it took like forty minutes to come up with a name I liked for the latest chapter in the book I'm writing. But anyway...

Although there's still a little over a week of school left (last day for me and the students is the 24th, last day for the rest of the teachers and staff is the end of the month (they really don't get much of a break)), my final classes with most of the grades are taking place this week. Since it's the final lesson, we mostly just play some games and have fun. It also makes a good photo op so here's the ones I've got so far (photos of the rest of my classes will come next week). First off, Wednesday was my last day of preschool classes so here's: my three year old class, four year old class, and five year old class (posted pics of some of them last week but this time I got a group shot). Also, here's a shot of some of the special needs kids (though they seem pretty normal to me) I also spend some time with on Wednesdays. There's a couple girls too but they're not always there so I wasn't able to get them in the picture. And, even though I posted some pics of them around Christmas, here's my 4th grade class, 6th grade class, and 3rd grade class.
In a more or less unrelated note, some of the 5th graders asked me to help them out in their home ec class yesterday. Not exactly sure why they asked me, but it was kinda fun. We made kinako, a little Japanese sweet (well, it's not all that sweet by itself, but the topping is a little sweet) that's made from soybean flour (I think) and a bit like mochi in taste and consistency.

And that's it for today. Have a good weekend!


3/12/2008 Parties, Tokyo, etc

I think I managed to retrieve all the real e-mails that I nearly lost in that inbox crash I mentioned last post. Unfortunately, my webmail is still a bit screwed up and only one of the clients (which just happens to be the one I like least) seems to be working right at this point. But anyway, expect e-mail replies sometime over the next few days. If you sent a letter and still haven't heard from my by the end of the weekend, your message probably got lost and you should resend.

Since the 6th graders in my school will soon be graduating from elementary and moving on to junior high, there's been a lot of special stuff going on at school. They had lunch with a different grade and various teachers every day last week. The other grades threw a little party for them (each grade had a short performance or activity of some sort). Got to try out the video mode on my new camera then. It takes much nicer videos than my old one but, like my old camera, has no video compression what-so-ever so full quality fills up even my 2gig memory card at a rather ridiculous rate. I mean, 640x480 video really shouldn't need over 100megs per minute. I can always take care of that once the files are transferred to my computer but still...
The 6th graders had a little thank you party for the teachers as well. Keep in mind that kids often have the same homeroom teacher (and in elementary, homeroom teachers teach just about everything themselves) for their entire time at any given school (with the teachers moving up in grades along with their students) so they get to know each other pretty well and, since it's a small school, they get to know most of the other teachers and staff as well. It was a nice little event and as a "special guest" one of the boys dressed up like some singer (a girl singer, complete with frilly shirt and skirt) and did a little performance.

Saturday - Monday (8-10): Tokyo and Disney
Moving on to the weekend... I knew that the Beatles club I've been to a couple times before was having another get together Saturday night and I knew I'd be invited again. It was pretty similar to the previous times though there was some new groups this time around, some of which were really good. But anyway, since I knew I was gonna be in Tokyo kinda late that night and was planning to go back into Tokyo on Sunday, I decided to save myself the train rides and try out a capsule hotel...which leads to the following RJC.

Random Japan Comment: Capsule Hotels
Capsules hotels are a special kind of hotel you can find in big cities in Japan, particularly near major train stations like Ueno. Their primary customers seem to be commuting businessmen who either worked way too late into the night or are too drunk from the after hours socializing (see my RJC on sarariman) to get home. But they can also be useful for anyone who's stuck in the city late at night or who needs a really cheap place to stay (my stay only cost me about $10 more than what I would have had to pay for the two train tickets I would have had to buy to get to my apartment for the night and then back to Tokyo the next day). But, while a cheap hotel in the US usually means plain rooms, uncomfortable beds, and lousy TV stations, capsule hotels are a very different kind of hotel. First off, there's large group bathrooms on each floor for toilets, sinks, etc, and often a Japanese style group bath (which is like a much less ambient onsen with a big hot tub / bathtub type thing instead of a hot spring). Second, you don't actually get a room but a capsule. As you can see in the first pic, there's halls and halls of those things stacked on top of each other. A capsule is basically a small rectangular space about the size of a single person bed. And that's what it is, a bed. There's a screen you can pull over the entrance when you're inside and the inside will have a light and usually an alarm clock and radio. Nicer ones also have a TV (although the TV in mine only had one channel). While the capsules are roomy enough, I definitely wouldn't recommend a capsule hotel to anyone with claustrophobia. They're also moderately comfortable. Not great, but enough that you shouldn't have trouble sleeping. They have pretty thin walls though so you'd better hope no one in a nearby capsule snores or sets their alarm clock to go off super early (the radio and TV, however, have built in headphones).
Since they cater mainly to businessmen who weren't planning to spend the night, capsule hotels tend to have everything you need for an overnight stay (combs, razors, soap, toothbrushes, etc). They also may sell some business shirts and ties and have a large assortment of vending machines. The one I stayed at even had a massage parlor.
Now you're probably wondering where people keep their stuff, since there doesn't seem to be much room in the capsules. Well, when you check in you get a shoe locker for your shoes and a regular locker where you can put your clothes and small bags. It also contains a yukata (Japanese robe) for you to wear in the hotel and some towels for the bath. If you've got something too large to fit in the locker, there'll be a room or some other place to stash it.
So, if you've traveling light and cheap, capsule hotels can make an ok, if weird, place to spend the night in Japan's cities. One last thing to note though, since businessmen are the primary cliental and privacy is rather limited, most capsule hotels are for men only.

So that was my capsule hotel experience. Don't think I'd do it again unless I was saving a lot of time or money, but it wasn't too bad. On Sunday I went to the Okeibajo flea market again and picked up a few more bargain priced items then made what will probably be my final trip to Nakano Broadway, where I spent an enjoyable afternoon browsing the CDs and figurines. I'm really gonna miss the shopping in Tokyo when I leave...
Oh, speaking of Nakano, if you ever want to meet Jesus he apparently owns a trading card and used video game shop there on a little side street in the shopping arcade leading up to Nakano Broadway. Unfortunately, Jesus himself didn't seem to be in that day but it was a nice store. Had a really good selection of Yu-Gi-Oh cards. I suppose he must be a big fan. :-P

Finally, I had taken Monday as another personal day so, despite the iffy weather, I decided to take a second trip to Tokyo Disneyland. It rained most of the morning (but cleared up later) but that didn't deter the crowds. Did slow them down a bit though sp I was able to hit most of the rides I missed last time around without any horribly long wait times and check out some of the shows too (along with the special Cinderella event they were having). I took a surprising amount of pictures considering the fact that I'd already been there, mainly cause I was still playing with my new camera. Got some pretty nice shots too. But, since I already posted a bunch from last time (and I really need to hurry up and finish typing this so I can go get dinner and do some grocery shopping) I'm not gonna post any here. Except for one, just to show my camera's nifty fireworks mode, which worked a whole lot better than I thought it would.


3/11/2008 Sleep...

As you should know by now, unless you're new to Pebble Version, you can see Friday's bonus comic by using the TWC banner or button to vote for PV.

If anyone e-mailed me over the last week or so and hasn't received a reply, sorry about that. I've been a little busy but the main reason is that a spammer spoofed my e-mail domain (something that happens every once in a while), which basically means I got bombarded with thousands (literally) of bounced e-mail messages (either cause said spammer sent to a bunch of addresses that don't exist or spam blockers rejected the messages) which kinda crashed my entire inbox for a little while until I managed to get it running again and delete them all. So anyway, my inbox is still a bit of a mess cause of all the stuff I had to run on it so if you e-mailed me recently you should probably resend cause there's a decent chance your e-mail got lost.

So, Smash Brothers Brawl is out in the US. Now, if I was actually in the US I'd have had it preordered for ages, picked it up ASAP, and then played all day either solo or with some friends (if any of my Smash playing friends were in the area, we're kinda spread out all over the place now). Unfortunately, I'm not in the US, the Japanese version won't play on my US Wii, and, while I could have a copy mailed here, by the time it arrived I wouldn't have any time to play since my Mom and I are going to spend about three weeks touring before I head back to the US. So I'm not gonna get to play Brawl until mid April. Sigh... So anyway, don't expect me to talk about it much anytime soon. But, as long as we're on the subject, I gotta post a quote from Gamespot's review, since the reviewer and I are in perfect agreement on this fact. "If you've ever found yourself arguing with a friend about whether or not Mario could beat Link in a one-on-one match, Brawl is the game that will let you settle the issue once and for all (the answer of course is that Kirby would eat them both)." So yeah, Kirby rules and I look forward to proving that fact to anyone who doesn't believe me just like I did many times in Melee.

I had a mildly interesting weekend and even have some pictures to show...but it's really late (got back late) and I've got work in the morning so it's going to have to wait until Wednesday. See you then!


3/7/2008 Mindsets

There's a new bonus comic (just click the banner or button to vote on Top Web Comics and confirm you vote to see it) and a new ROM.
About today's comic... Last post I mentioned that in Pokémon you can time your button presses to try and stop each reel of the slot machines exactly where you want. When playing you really think that whether or not you get the symbols you want is entirely up to your timing. Actually, it's not. When I was capturing sprites for these strips I was using my emulator's insta pause feature to 'cheat' the game (basically I was freezing the game at certain times to make sure I could press the button and stop the reels exactly where I wanted to get the sprites I wanted). And, while I had no trouble using that method to stop the first two reels exactly where I wanted, I simply could not get the third reel to stop on a 7, actually getting the third reel to stop on the same thing as the first two was tough in general. At first I thought the third reel had different timing, to throw you off a bit, but a bit more experimentation showed that's not the case. While you can still stop the reel in a general area with your button press, it will often stop either earlier or later than it should, just to make sure you don't line up three of a kind very often no matter how good your reflexes are. Just thought that was interesting.

Random Japan Comment: The Group vs. the Individual - Japanese Mindset vs. Western Mindset
I can't comment on Europe, but in the US our mindset tends to focus on the individual. People's primary concern tends to be what's best for them. We'll go out of our way to try and get the best end of a deal, base many of our decisions on what we think is best for us and/or our closest family and friends, and stand up for ourselves if we feel like we've been cheated or wronged. Not that we ignore the needs or feelings of others, many times we go far out of our way to accommodate others, but in the end, it's our own needs, wants, and concerns that tend to take preference, as long as they're not seriously hurting or negatively impacting some one else (for most people anyway, some really couldn't care less).
In Japan, on the other hand, the mindset is all about the group, obligations to the group, and preserving peace and harmony in the group (even if doing so goes against your own best interests, or even the best interests of the group). A Japanese person is a member of many groups. The largest group is the country itself, the group of all Japanese people. Narrowing it down, there's the town where that person lives, coworkers (particularly ones in the same department), friends, and family. Friends, family, and coworkers (and the business/company as a whole) are the most important groups. Japanese people tend to be extremely friendly and polite, especially to socially superior people in their own in groups (higher ranking and more experienced coworkers (experience being determined by amount of time with the company), older family members, etc). Most are also extremely friendly and polite to strangers, both because promoting peace and harmony is an important part of their mindset, and because they don't know how they rank against a stranger socially and don't want to accidently act inappropriately to a a superior or cause problems should they have to deal with that person again at a later time. On the other hand, a small number of Japanese people see interacting with strangers as the one time they can be truly rude without consequence, as they'll likely never encounter the stranger again.
The Japanese mindset also focuses heavily on obligations. Basically at every stage in someone's life (though particularly from the time they finish school and get their first serious job until retirement) they have obligations that everyone is "required" to fulfill to maintain a productive and harmonious society. There's actually a special word for those obligations (though I can't remember it at the moment). A student's obligations include attending school every day, following all school rules, studying hard, following all rules and regulations of whatever club they join, etc. However, students are more easily forgiven when they fail to uphold their obligations as it's considered "youthful indiscretion". A working man (or woman), on the other hand, is "obligated" to put aside their own needs and desires and devote themselves to their business/company even if that leaves very little time for family, friends, hobbies, relaxation, etc (which is why many Japanese people work themselves half to death without complaint, they feel it's their obligation to do so).
Now that the basics are out of the way, I'm going to do some more direct comparisons between the two mindsets.
If a stranger asks someone for directions the majority of people in both the US and Japan would help (though I suspect the percentage of helpful people in Japan would be a decent bit higher). Some Japanese people will even take this a step further and lead you there (even if it's out of their way). But what if the person asked doesn't know where x location is? Naturally some people would try to look it up or ask others but there are times when they simply can't answer. Now, an American person will just come right out and tell you that they don't know (and maybe offer some advice on the general area or where to go to find out more). For the Japanese, that would be equivalent to saying that they can't help you, which would be rude since they're obligated to help when asked (within reason). I've had Japanese people spend five or ten minutes looking around and checking maps trying to figure out how to get to the place I'm looking for and one who wondered around with me for a few minutes until we stumbled across the correct spot. Some, on the other hand, will just take a guess about where it is and end up giving you the wrong directions. One interesting thing to note, since Japanese people are more or less obligated to be helpful when asked, a lot of them won't offer to help unless asked, so they don't get stuck helping every person they see with a problem. If they don't acknowledge someone and that person doesn't obviously acknowledge them, they can ignore each other.
In the US, if someone has a problem with your neighbor, coworker, etc, many people will confront the problem person directly. For example, if my neighbor's dog kept tearing up my yard I'd talk to said neighbor, and if my coworker Bob kept taking pens off my desk I'd go tell him to stop. Admittedly, not everyone favors direct confrontation (depends on both the person doing the confronting and the one being confronted), some would prefer to ignore problems and hope they go away or maybe talk to a superior (boss, apartment manager, etc) who will then confront the person themselves if they deem it necessary. In Japan however, direct confrontation is almost nonexistent. In order to preserve peace and harmony in the group, Japanese people won't go up to the person they have the problem with. Let's use the example of Bob taking my pens again. I wouldn't go to Bob directly, because then Bob would know I was upset with him and he'd be upset with me for getting on him and that would disrupt the group harmony. Instead I'd continue to be nice and friendly to Bob but hint to a different coworker that there was a chance that Bob might be accidently taking my pens. That coworker would tell another coworker who would tell another until it eventually made it to someone higher up, who would likely pass it on to someone even higher up, and so on and so forth until one of those higher ups (whichever one felt it his place to do so) would go to Bob and tell him that there was a chance that someone was slightly worried that he might be accidently taking other people's pens. Yes, it's often is that vague. The goal is that the problem person doesn't know who is upset with him (although if I'm the only one Bob is taking pens from, he'll probably figure it out pretty quickly) and even if there's really much of a problem in the first place. Does this preserve peace and harmony? For Japanese people maybe. All the foreigners I know who have been involved in this process of vague circular talk find it extremely annoying when they have to go through the whole thing to solve a problem and quite insulting when they realize that someone who was being perfectly friendly to them went behind their back to complain about something instead of just telling them. It's not just for more serious problems either. For example, if one of the teachers in my school decided she didn't like the songs I was using in class, instead of telling me she might tell another teacher who would tell the principle who would tell the board of education who would tell the company that hired me who would in turn tell me (not that I've had any trouble with things like that, but that's how the process works).
As you can probably guess from the preceding examples, just cause a Japanese person acts very friendly towards someone on the outside, doesn't necessarily mean they feel that way on the inside. If you don't like a coworker, you don't want them to know it, you just go through the whole process of passing the story around until it comes back to them and they hopefully never know you were the one who complained. Of course, many people in the US will pretend to like someone as well (especially if that person is important and/or could cause serious problems for them if upset (say a teacher or boss)). But a lot of people in the US will also be quite obvious with their dislike for someone, something you don't see much in Japan.
Keeping harmony in the group also means going along with the group's decisions. In the US, if you think that your boss or the group as a whole is making a poor choice, depending on the situation and people involved, you might just come right out and say it's bad or you may simply phrase your opinion as a small concern or alternative measure. In Japan, disagreeing with your boss or the group would disturb the harmony so it's best to just keep silent and pretend to the support the decision, even if it will lead to problems for you and/or the group as a whole. Better to preserve the harmony than try and prevent a mistake (often even a big costly mistake).
Similarly, a Japanese person may be less likely to stick up for themselves if they're cheated or taken advantage of because doing so could cause a lot of trouble and disrupt the harmony. The opposite extreme would be some Americans who will throw a fit over what they perceive as even the slightest infraction (though most of us are somewhere closer to the middle).
Another interesting thing is that, for a Japanese person, it's considered extremely rude to say no to just about anything. Japanese people will often go to a whole lot of trouble to avoid answering any question with a straight up no, or anything like a straight up no for that matter. Of course, some Americans will do that too although usually only in certain situations to either spare someone's feelings ("Sunday? I'd love to go with you but I've got a dentist appointment.") or avoid angering someone important (boss, teacher, etc) ("Of course Mr. Smith, you're not doing anything wrong, that software must be faulty."). Still, there's many times when we just say no. Japanese, on the other hand, have about a million ways to get the meaning of no across even while saying something entirely different (which can be quite confusing if you're not familiar with the nuances). They often won't even say "no" to a simple question such as whether or not their store has an item in stock.
One common way to avoid no is a simple excuse, like my dentist appointment example above. But in Japanese the reason for the excuse is often left unstated. For example, instead of saying I have a dentist appointment Sunday, I'd probably say something that literally translates as, "Excuse me, Sunday is a little...". Notice that you don't even say Sunday is bad, just that it's a little of something (though what that something is, I don't say). Similarly, if I went to a store as asked for udon noodles but they were all out or didn't carry them, the clerk might say something that translates to, "Excuse me it's a little..." Another popular way to say no can be potentially confusing for people with limited Japanese, at least if they haven't learned about it before hand. For example, say I suggested to someone that we go see a movie. Instead of saying no they might say one of a couple different things that translate to stuff like, "Yes, but..." or "That's a good idea, but...". So, though the person is technically saying yes, that hanging "but" means no. Once again, the reason is often left unstated.
Overall, I think both the Japanese and Western mindsets have their pros and cons. The Japanese mindset certain does promote friendly, harmonious, and helpful interaction with other people (even if it's faked at times), but it also creates a rather strict social hierarchy in business and (to some extent) school, needlessly complicates some matters, can lead to the stifling of new or better ideas in the name of going with the group, and makes it easier for people to be taken advantage of by their "superiors". The American mindset lacks many of those problems but has others of its own instead. So, whichever you prefer, just keep in mind that both are far from perfect.


3/5/2008 It's what time now?

And back to Brendan and May. For the unfamiliar, in Pokémon (and many video games for that matter), you stop each reel on the slot machines with individual button presses, so you can try and time it right to get them to line up. "Try" being the key word.

So, though I have absolutely no idea where all the time went, I'm running pretty late today so I'm just gonna end this here. I'll try and get a good post in on Friday to make up for it.


3/3/2008 Islands in the bay

Remember that you can vote to see Friday's bonus comic. Also, if you didn't see Friday's post, I rearranged the Archives and Extras pages a bit (read Friday's post for full details) so keep that in mind and let me know if anything isn't working right. And, now that we're done checking in on the last group of mystery characters, look for Brendan and May to return on Wednesday.

Sunday (2nd): Sendai and Surroundings
Although it's a fairly expensive trip from where I am, I decided to go back to Sendai to see some of the stuff I didn't get to the first time around (back in January with my brother). My original plan had me trying to fit a good day and half or more of stuff in one day. Unsurprisingly, I didn't quite manage to pull that off. Didn't help that I got on the wrong train for a little while at one point (right line, right platform, and right direction, but the line forks about halfway to where I wanted to go and, since I was in a hurry to catch the train, I failed to notice that it was for the wrong fork) and got slightly lost trying to find a couple of places (the Japanese address system + simplified maps (as in, missing a bunch of roads and stuff) + overly vague directions = getting lost). Sometimes I have to wonder if the people who wrote my Fodor's tour book thought people could actually find stuff based on the directions they put in. Admittedly, sometimes they're ok. Others, they border on impossible. For example, I was trying to get between two spots in Sendai. The book said that the place I was going was a 20 minute walk SW from my current location. Well, it took me forty and I never would have found it without my Sendai tourist map (and even that wasn't easy). See, the book doesn't mention anything at all about the myriad of roads, intersections, buildings, etc between the two locations, complete with absolutely no signs or anything else to point you in the right direction. If you just start walking SW for 20 minutes you'll almost certainly end up completely lost. Still, that's better than some of the sights in the book, which give you no directions at all. But anyway, enough ranting, time to talk about the stuff I saw...
There really isn't all that much great stuff to see in Sendai and my brother and I saw a lot of it last time around so my original plan involved two side trips from Sendai and three sights in the city itself. In the end I managed to do one side trip and see two of the three sights. My side trip was to Matsushima, which is about 20-30 minutes from Sendai on the train. Matsushima is famous for its bay, namely the fact that said bay contains tons (over 100 I think) of little oddly shaped pine tree covered islands. It makes for some really nice views from some spots. The islands range from moderately sized (as in, you could fit a very small town on) to extremely tiny (like the one in the middle in this photo). After a bit of a walk from the train station, I started out at Godaido, a small shrine on its own little island right by the shore. Then I walked over a long bridge to Fukurajima Island. It's one of the larger islands and it's a park of sorts. There's a nice walking trail that goes in a big loop around it and offers some good views of the bay from various spots. There's also boat tours and and some nearby mountains (or maybe just really big hills) that are supposed to get you really great views of the bay but I didn't have the time to take a tour or climb a mountain.
There's some other shrines and stuff nearby so after lunch I headed towards the main one, Zuiganji, but took a couple of small detours on the way. Speaking of lunch, the area's specialties are clams (or maybe oysters...some type of shell thing anyway, I don't know the names for all of them in Japanese) and beef tongue. Since I can't eat shellfish, I tried the tongue. Not my favorite part of a cow but it was ok. Anyway, my first stop was all the caves right outside Zuiganji. Originally natural little caves, they were further hollowed out and filled with carvings by the priests and monks over the centuries. I also took a quick look at Entsuin, a small shrine that had a nice little garden and rock garden. Zuiganji itself is more museum than a shrine now. You can walk through the main building and look in the rooms, which are lined with paintings done on gold leafed sliding doors. Really neat stuff, but there was a sign that said no photos inside. Well, I didn't take any photos inside but there were some little windows of sorts and my new camera has a 10x zoom so... Not that I could get very good pictures from outside (the windows were way too narrow). But at least you can get a little peak at one of the doors. Now imagine about eight rooms, between ten and thirty square feet in size, completely lined with those things. Some of the paintings were fairly simple, others were pretty complex. There was also a treasure house nearby that had a bunch of old artifacts from the area.
By the time I got back to Sendai, it was too late to do the second side trip I'd had planned so headed for the first of my Sendai sights, Sendai Rinnoji (there's also a Rinnoji in Nikko and a couple other places too if I remember right). I think the tour book oversold it a bit, but it did have a nice little Japanese garden with a pagoda. I knew I only had time for one more stop after that and, of the two left, one was within walking distance (though a lot harder to walk to than the tour book had led me to believe) and the other was kinda out there and would have required tracking down a taxi (which I wasn't in a good area for) to reach it in a decent amount of time. So I decided to walk to Osaki Hachiman Jinja. They appeared to be doing some new landscaping on the hillside leading up to the shrine. Lots of plants and the typical shrine type statues...except for this one. Definitely not the type of person/being they usually honor at shrines. I'm guessing it was a bit of a joke by the landscaper or whoever owns that part of the hill, unless he's the guy your supposed to pray to when you get attacked by giant monsters (or giant guys in rubber suits anyway)... The shrine itself was fairly neat, mainly cause the entire building had been done in black lacquer, which is something you don't see very often, but there wasn't really anything to do there besides look at the shrine.
And that was it. By the time I'd finished there it was time to head back towards Sendai station, grab some supper, and find a train.

And that's all for now. See you Wednesday.


2/29/2008 Comments about stuff

There's a new bonus comic and a new ROM. You know, I'm beginning to wonder how many more reasons I can think of to keep the lights off in the Black Suit Guys boss's office... Maybe next time I'll finally show you who he is...or maybe not. We'll be switching characters one more time on Monday so look forward to that.
I made a few changes to the Archives and Extras page. First off, I decided that, with 700+ strips, having them all in one jump menu in the archives was a bit much so I broke it into two menus instead. The first is strips 1-500 and the second is 501 and up. I also moved the jump menu for the old Blooper Reel strips from the extras page to the archives. Finally, I rearranged the order of stuff on the extras page a bit. Everything should still work fine but I suppose there's a chance I broke something in the archives with all the jump menu editing I was doing so please let me know if you run into any problems.

Here's a few random pics before I get to today's RJC. First up, here's a couple pictures of me with some of the students from my 5 year old preschool class. There's a lot more kids than that, but the teacher wanted to just have 3 or 4 kids per photo and it'd get kinda repetitious if I posted all of them here. And if you're wondering what's with the poses, it's not a Japanese thing, we're doing positions from the Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes song, which was one of the first things I taught the kids (and still a big favorite). I'll be getting pics of my 4 and 3 year old classes sometime over the next couple of weeks too so keep an eye out for those.
And here's a couple of pictures from the paper airplane contest some of the kids at Nogi Elementary had over recess a couple days ago. The goal was to make your own plane and see whose could fly the furthest. Quite a lot of kids give it a go. The winner? The 6th grade teacher (who threw a plane for fun), that was pretty funny.

Random Japan Comment: Sarariman & Japanese Business Life
A sarariman, or salary man if you want to say it the proper English way (as opposed to the somewhat mangled Japanese way), is what you call your typical businessman in Japan. You know, the kind of guy who wears a business suit, works in a cubicle in some big company every day, and all that. Just your normal white collar worker (or is it white, I never could remember which color was which). A woman can be a sarariman too (although there might be another term) but in Japan men still make up the vast majority of office workers.
When reading, keep in mind that even though I'm focusing on big companies here, quite a lot of what I'm going to say applies to most businesses and jobs in Japan (with the exception of people who are self employed and some part time jobs). Also, quite a lot of it applies to your higher ranking employees (upper management, etc) too. So anyway, why am I writing about ordinary office workers? Well, let's go over what life is like for a typical sarariman. Compare what I say here to businessmen in the US or where ever you live.
Naturally, most companies are centered in large cities like Tokyo. Because of space, housing in big cities in Japan tends to be expensive and cramped so quite a lot of businessmen and their families live in smaller towns nearby and commute to work. Lots of 'bedroom communities' surround many of Japan's large cities (rather boring towns comprised mostly of apartment buildings and houses, since people just go into the city for most stuff). Anyway, your average sarariman commutes to work (mostly using the train/subway/bus systems) each day. Typical commuting time can range anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours (with the average being an hour or more if I remember right). Keep in mind that's each way, every day, often on trains that are so crowded you've barely got room to stand (never ride the trains, subways, or buses in Japan during rush hour if you can avoid it (usually early morning going towards big cities and mid to late evening leaving said cities).
Although it's not as prevalent as it used to be, many people in Japan work at one company for their entire life. Company loyalty is a big part of Japanese culture. Basically, you do your job, agree with whatever the company says, do what they want you to do, and always agree with your peers and superiors, and in return the company gives you a job for as long as you need one. Another important aspect of Japanese culture and business life is group harmony. I'll go more in-depth about that in another RJC but in the company setting it basically translates to 'be respectful of your superiors, obey them without question, get along well with your peers, and don't go against the group (even if you've got a good reason to do so)'. You are, however, permitted to treat your "inferiors" rather rudely, although that's not really encouraged, it's just not usually penalized either.
Being loyal to the company also means working hard for the company. Unfortunately, the Japanese tend to define working hard by the amount of time you physically spend at work, as opposed to how much work you actually get done while you're there. As such, it's not uncommon for a typical Japanese businessman to work 10-14 hour days five or six days a week. Although all that extra time doesn't necessarily mean they get much more work done than they would in an eight hour day; from what I've heard there's often a lot of procrastinating involved so they don't completely work themselves to death. And, while they could request overtime pay for all those hours, most people don't because it wouldn't be looked upon too favorably (you're supposed to be working late because of your loyalty to the company, not cause you want more money). If you work long hours other employees will generally look upon you favorably, not so much if you disappear as soon as the clock hits 5 (the main exception to this is foreigners, they know we do things differently in other countries so many Japanese people are ok with foreigners leaving work at the end of normal business hours).
Just to give an example of this, in a book I got before coming here about adjusting to life in Japan, one of the author's friends decided to try an experiment at his company. One day he went to work, stayed there really late, but did absolutely nothing productive for the entire day. When he left, everyone praised him for working so hard. Another day he went to work, worked really hard, and left right at quitting time. That day everyone criticized him for shirking his duties. See, as I think I've mentioned before, appearances are very important in Japan. If you're at the office all day, it certainly looks like you're working hard. Problem is, appearances are so important that they're sometimes confused with (and actually elevated above) actual performance and results.
So anyway, our average sarariman puts on his suit (speaking of which, most Japanese businessmen seem to wear nearly identical suits), has a moderate to long commute to work, and stays at work really late. So what comes next? The trip home, right? Well, not quite... After a long day at work, it's quite common for company employees to go out to eat, drink, and unwind. And, while it's technically optional, skipping out on the whole socializing time isn't looked at too favorably. On the one hand, it does give the businessmen a chance to unwind and gives a brief freedom from the strict social hierarchy in many Japanese businesses. On the other hand, it's basically adding to an already really long work day.
It's quite common for a sarariman to leave home before his family wakes up, return after they're all asleep, and be too burnt out to do much besides sleep during the weekend. Also, some companies have a tendency to shuffle employees between various branches with no say and little warning on the part of the employees being transferred. In some cases, their family won't even go with them so that their children's education (which is considered extremely extremely important in Japan) isn't interrupted by the move. So yeah, family relations can be rather strained at times.
Of course, not all jobs in Japan are like that, though the penchant for working far longer than necessary seems to be pretty pervasive. For example, I'm at Nogi Elementary for nearly 9 hours a day (I get there slightly after most of the kids arrive and leave a hour or two (depending on the day) after they do) but the homeroom teachers, secretaries, and vice principle, always arrive a lot earlier and stay a lot later than I do.
The interesting thing is, despite how bad many Japanese workers have things, most of them don't actually realize it (well, in some situations anyway, it's becoming fairly accepted that the sarariman life isn't all that great). Even if they do realize it, they don't really try to change (say, leave work earlier even when the company says its ok) because the whole "overwork" ethic and company loyalty is so deeply ingrained that they feel like it's something they have to do. Definitely a lot different than the US. Look for some of these subjects to be touched on a bit more when I do a RJC on the Japanese mindset vs the US mindset.

So yeah, even if say Nintendo or Square Enix offered me a job in Japan I'd be rather hesitant to accept (for more reasons than just moving half way around the world for the foreseeable future)... Anyway, have a good weekend!


2/27/2008 Not quite 3/4 of the way to 1000

And here we have it, strip number 700. Of course, that's just the regular PV strips. If you add in all the Blooper Reel strips and stuff it's something around 900... All that and Brendan and May still haven't reached the third gym (out of eight). Well, at least they're pretty close to it. Looks like they've gotten a bit distracted though. And it looks like we're not the only ones waiting for them to arrive... As previously mentioned, the comic will be switching gears for a few strips on focusing on characters other than Brendan and May. Today is the Black Suit Guys. Friday it's gonna be someone else, but you'll have to wait and see who that someone is. Now, as promised, a late write up about what I did on Monday.

Monday (25th): Odaiba, Take 2
One thing I'd like to say before we get started. This was my first time doing any serious photographing with my new camera. As such, I was playing with the settings a lot and still trying to get the hang of all the new modes, features, etc, so if some of the pictures look a bit off, that's why.
Like I already mentioned, I had some errands to do in Tokyo, one which couldn't be done on weekends, and since I had taken Monday as a personal day (since I have some to spare), it seemed like a good time to get those out of the way and hit some more sites in Tokyo (since it's nearly impossible to run out of things to see in Tokyo). I'm not going to go into detail about my errands (since that'd be boring) but one of them involved getting some kabuki tickets for when my mom comes to visit (kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theater). The theater, where you need to go to get advance tickets, is in Ginza and it really sticks out (I overexposed some parts of that pic a bit but hey, no zebra striping now).
Moving on... Once I'd finished my errands I headed to Odaiba to see some stuff I'd missed last time. Speaking of Odaiba, this shot came out pretty well, especially considering I took it looking through the window of a moving train. But anyway, first off I wanted to spend some time as Muscle Park. I saw it last time I was at Odaiba but didn't have time to do anything besides look back then. Basically, it's a small theme park of sorts inside the Decks Mall. There's something like 20 or 30 different games divided up into categories that are all based around physical or mental fitness, you can even win prizes (though nothing amazing) if you do particularly well. You can buy tickets for individual games or just buy a whole bunch (like enough for half the games or all the games) and get a discount. I got the 'enough tickets for everything' package and gave it a whirl. Oh yeah, useful note. Odaiba (and all attractions there in) are a lot less crowded on weekdays than on weekends. On the downside, because of that some places have less staff working on weekdays, so you might end up waiting around a while anyway.
Quick rundown of the areas... The target games test your aim. There's darts, frisbee, soccer, throwing baseballs, hitting baseballs, and bowling. Each game had around nine separate targets and your goal was to hit as many as possible. I did horrible at soccer (no surprise there since I never really played) and darts (which I used to be ok at but stopped playing since my mom get tired of all the holes my brother and I made in the garage wall when we missed the target). I was ok with the frisbee, great at hitting the baseballs (but not aiming them so they hit the targets), and was able to throw the baseballs all the way from the pitcher's mound to the batter's box (same distance as on a real field) at a decent speed and height (but my aim suffered a bit at that distance). My best target game was bowling, where I did fairly well (though not quite good enough for a prize). Then there's the balance and agility section. It's actually a series of three games where you get an overall score at the end. First off you have to run around and hit a series of buttons several times in a row as fast as you can. That's more my type of thing and I did pretty well. Next up, a voice called out different instructions (right arm, left foot, etc) and you had to hit the corresponding target as fast as you could and try to get as many as possible in one minute. Did really well on that one (fell just shy of getting the max score). There was also the balance game, which involves you standing on a large disc that's balanced on a point (a motorized one, just to make it harder) and trying to keep the disc flat and yourself upright. Didn't do so well on that. My personal balance is great (as in I wouldn't have fallen over) but I had trouble keeping the disc level enough. After that were the mind games, which were comprised of concentration (try to memorize the cards then match the pairs as quickly as you can once they flip), number battle (click on the randomly arranged numbers in order from 1 on up as fast as you can), and body clock (try to estimate 10, 20 and 30 seconds in your head). I did moderately well on concentration and number battle. I think I would have done pretty well on body clock (I did a couple of practice rounds with my watch while waiting in line) but must have missed something in the instructions cause I couldn't tell when the count was supposed to start. There was also section of two person games, a few random games, and, the big attraction, a recreation of part of a Sasuke course (Sasuke is a Japanese obstacle course TV show that's shown on G4 TV in the US under the name Ninja Warrior). I always thought I could do pretty well on the first two rounds of Sasuke (which focus on speed, agility, and balance). Unfortunately, the Muscle Park course was based on stage three, which is mostly arm strength and grip (things I'm fairly average with). I made it past the first part ok (left part of the photo; hanging from a bicycle type thing while working the pedals with your arms), completely failed the second section like I thought I would (right part of the photo; it involved crossing a 20-30 foot gap with nothing but a half inch ledge that you hang from by your fingers), make some progress on the third (far back; hanging from a chin up bar and forcing it up into higher brackets without touching the ground), and made it all the way to the end of the last section (right side of the photo; hanging from a bar and using your momentum to slide it across a gap) but couldn't quite make the jump to the platform. Really not bad for a first try I suppose, especially since my exercise routine tends to focus far more on legs than arms.
Overall it was a fun, though slightly expensive, way to spend a few hours. My pack of tickets also came with a discount coupon for Muscle Park's Monster Burger (of all the photos I took that day, I think this one came out the best, the detail in the 8 megapixel version is amazing). Definitely the tallest hamburger I've ever seen, though I think the total mass is less than say Ruby Tuesday's Colossal Burger. But yeah, way too tall to smash into your mouth. But that's ok since it's actually meant to be taken apart as you eat it since it's more like several stacked sandwiches than one big burger. On top you've got a sweet french toast type layer, next is a chicken burger, then a salad sandwich, then a hamburger, and finally an extra piece of bread on the bottom.
Once I'd finished up at Muscle Park I moved on to Pallet Town, which I didn't get to on my last visit. It's the name for part of Odaiba comprised of Toyota's MegaWeb buildings, the Venus Fort mall, and a couple other things like Odaiba's giant ferris wheel (which I've mentioned before). MegaWeb is broken up into several sections but is mostly a showcase for lots and lots of Toyota cars (this picture shows maybe a quarter of one floor). The main building has all the newest models plus some concept cars, race cars, and a few car related activities (test drives, sorta, reflex tests, and the ultimate Gran Turismo setup (if you don't know, GT is a very realistic racing game series made by Sony)). One of the other MegaWeb buildings, which I came across later in the day, focused on old classic cars (about the photo, I found out I could take some nice low light shots without having to the use the flash on my camera or a super high ISO setting, as long as I didn't mind blurring any moving people who happened to be in the shot).
The Venus Fort Mall is several floors. The lowest level is the most ordinary of the bunch, had an arcade and a weird variety store though, among other things. There were also lots of stores selling dog clothes. Seriously, I spotted four different dog clothing stores scattered around Venus Fort, three of which were on that floor. Oh, and the strollers in that photo, dogs, not babies.
The other floors, however, reminded me of the malls inside those fancy theme hotels in Las Vegas. Yep, just like Vegas... There were a lot of fancy clothing store and plenty of restaurants (many of which were surprisingly reasonably priced) but there was some other stuff too like this LEGO store. This LEGO store was particularly awesome because a lot of the display models (the stuff built by employees and/or fans) had an anime/manga/game spin to them. For example, note Son Goku (the monkey king, not the Dragon Ball version) in the first photo and the silhouette from the Final Fantasy VI Logo in the second. And that was only one side of the display case...
As I was leaving, I was quite surprised to see that the sky had actually cleared up enough that you could see Mt. Fuji. Now keep in mind that though Mt. Fuji is technically visible from Tokyo and the surrounding areas if you're got a good vantage point (even the area where I live, in the right spot), between the clouds and the haze/smog/etc you can hardly ever actually see it from most of those locations (this is only like my 3rd or 4th time). There were some buildings in the way but I still managed to get a few decent photos (thank you 10x zoom) before heading home.

And that's all for now. See you Friday!


2/25/2008 Fashionably late

Can updates be fashionably late? Meh, at least when I update late it's only a few hours, as opposed to a few days like some comics I read...

So, I had this whole trip planned out for Sunday but there was a 90% chance of snow all day at the place I was going to go. Plus, as mentioned in Friday's update, I was behind on a lot of stuff and burnt out and all that. So I decided to put off my plans, stay home on Sunday, and get things done. That worked out pretty well and, while I didn't get caught up on everything I'm working on, I got a lot of it done, which is a relief. Should be able to finish up the rest at a fairly leisurely pace over the course of the week.
Moving on, I had taken this Monday as a paid personal day cause, A: I had three of them left so I figured I might as well use some; and B: I don't have any classes half the time on Mondays anyway. I had some errands to do in Tokyo, one of which couldn't be done on weekends, so this seemed like a good day for that. Plus I combo'd it with some other things I'd been wanting to do in Tokyo.
Though I didn't go to any particularly great photo spots, I ended up taking a ton of pictures anyway so I could give my new camera a good test. Over all, I like it a lot. The only real annoyances are that the flash takes a long time to recharge (fortunately, the camera does very well without the flash most of the time (hardly ever needed to use it, as opposed to my old camera which needed the flash anytime I wasn't in really bright sunlight)), and there's a lot of noise on higher ISO settings (fortunately, the camera has great image stabilization and you can usually get perfectly good shots on pretty low ISO settings, even in dark areas). However, I knew about said problems before I bought the camera (thanks to the research I did) and both are easy enough to deal with if you know about them. Since it was my first day out with the camera, I took lots of pictures in all sorts of different areas and played with the settings a lot. Kinda glad now that I wasn't photographing anything particularly amazing on my first day with the camera since playing with the settings so much, while useful in figuring out how to best configure the camera, screwed up some of my shots. But now I have a much better idea of what settings to use next time (though it'll probably be quite a while before I truly master my new camera, considering that my old one was a straight up point and shoot and this one has a full set of manual controls available if/when I want them). My new camera also focuses a little differently, so that took some getting used to as well.
Anyway, by the time I finished up in Tokyo, got back to my apartment, finished sorting my photos, and finished up some stuff that couldn't really wait till tomorrow, it was pretty late, hence the late update.

Well, I really need to wrap things up and get some sleep (back to work tomorrow) so a full rundown of what I did Sunday, complete with some of those photos I took, will have to wait until Wednesday. So check beck then for all that and strip 700!


2/22/2008 Weird week

Almost to strip 700... Anyway, there's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM.

Random Japan Comment: Manga Cafes (& Renting Apartments)
Manga cafes, also called internet cafes and magazine cafes, can be pretty useful if you're visiting Japan on a budget or just didn't bring a laptop. First off, they often have large signs (quite a lot of which have English words) so keep an eye out for manga, internet, or magazine cafes. They're not super common but they don't seem to be all that hard to find in bigger cities (haven't seen many in smaller places though), especially in big electronics or shopping areas (Akihabara, Ueno, etc).
So what's is a manga cafe anyway? Well, it's essentially an internet cafe but they work a bit differently than the net cafes I've seen in the US and Europe. First off, instead of a large room full of computers, everyone gets a little, and completely private, room with a desk, computer, and chair. Computer menus and stuff are in Japanese but Windows is Windows no matter what language it's in so it doesn't matter much. The computers will generally have broadband and the usual productivity programs (like MS Office) installed along with some popular MMOs (online games) and the like. If you're going to a manga cafe specifically to play an MMO though, keep in mind that by popular MMOs I mean ones that are popular in Japan, so they might not have WoW or whatever one you're looking for. Take a look at at the cafe's signs and see if one says which games they have installed.
Next up comes the manga and magazine part. Sure you're renting a cubicle with a computer, but that doesn't mean you have to use the computer. Most cafes will have an area (typically right near the entrance) with a bunch of shelves of manga graphic novels, magazines, and sometimes even DVDs, that you can take up to your cubicle. Keep in mind though that all that stuff is going to be in Japanese.
So you've got your internet, manga, and magazines, but why the cafe? Well, it's quite possible that, while using all that other stuff, you might get hungry. While some manga cafe's might have real cafes in them, the ones I've seen handle the food issue with vending machines (usually near the entrance with all the manga and stuff). Naturally there's softdrink machines (it's hard to walk more than a block or two in Japan without running into some of those) but there's also vending machines that you can get an actual hot meal out of. Want some fries? How about ramen, spaghetti, or onigiri (rice balls)? You can get them out of a vending machine. Weird but convenient.
So manga cafes are certainly useful if you need to get on the internet or just use a computer for a while. But why are they useful for budget travelers? Well, let's talk about costs and payment. Unsurprisingly, in manga cafes the amount you pay is determined by how long you stay. The smallest unit of time is typically 30 minutes and the price per hour (or half hour) goes down the longer you stay (so while you might pay 500 yen for an hour, two hours may only cost 800 yen, or something like that). When you go in you'll usually give the guy at the counter an estimate of how long you're going to stay and pay the price for that amount of time. You'll get a paper with the number of your cubicle and your starting time. When you're done you take the paper back to the guy. If you went over your time limit, you'll pay the difference then.
The thing is though, manga cafes in Japan are actually really cheap. When I needed to do a little extra research on cameras last Sunday in Akihabara, half an hour cost me only 210 yen (less than $2), heck of a lot less than when I was in Europe a few years back. And, since they're typically open 24 hours a day, if you're on a budget and traveling light, you could save some money by staying overnight in manga cafe instead of a hotel. Sure you won't get a bed, private bathroom, or any of that stuff, but the computer chairs are pretty comfortable and most of the cafes have showers you can use (seriously). Of course the big draw (or more like the only draw) is the price. Judging from the prices I've seen, 12 hours in a manga cafe will usually only cost about half what you'd pay for a night in a capsule hotel (which I plan to try out and talk about sometime in the near future) and a third or less of the price for a cheap regular hotel room.
In fact, they're so cheap that I've even heard stories about people who have lived in manga cafes for a while. Which I can actually believe. For one thing, when you take into account that there's no utility bills to pay, a month in a manga cafe wouldn't cost much more than I pay each month for my apartment (actually less than I've been paying lately thanks to my ridiculous electric bills). Heck, if you can keep all your stuff in a backpack or something and take it to school/work during the day so you only have to pay for nights at the cafe, it'd be a whole lot cheaper.
Plus, renting a new apartment in Japan is a ridiculously expensive experience. I didn't have to deal with it cause the company that hired me has a deal with Leopalace 21 (the apartment chain that myself and many of Joytalk's other ALTs get stuck in). Most companies that hire foreign language teachers have a similar setup, which is good. But for everyone who doesn't have some sort of company housing deal (or the money to buy their own house), renting an apartment isn't easy. Aside from finding an available one (which I've heard can be fairly difficult in many parts of Japan), between the realtor's fee (you'll usually need a realtor cause available apartments are so hard to find, or just cause the realtor has a deal with the landlord), security deposit (which you won't necessarily get back when you leave the apartment), advance rent payment (you usually need to pay the first month or two in advance), and key money (a large, completely nonrefundable, and not exactly legal amount of money that most landlords expect new renters to give them), you could easily end up having to lay out the equivalent of 6-8 months rent right at the start. And, as you could probably tell from the breakdown above, most of that money doesn't go towards rent and you're unlikely to see any of it ever again. So while the monthly rent for an apartment may be reasonable enough, you need a heck of a lot of cash on hand before you can move in. Makes manga cafes sound a lot more attractive doesn't it?
But anyway, even if you're not looking to save money, manga cafes can be a great place to drop in if you need to get on the internet or just get out of all the hustle bustle for a little while.

Well, I know I said I was gonna try for two RJCs today but...not gonna happen, sorry. This week has been kinda crazy (been trying to get a whole lot of different things done and new things came up too). I've been jumping back and forth between a bunch of different projects plus my job and all so I'm a bit burnt out and a bit behind. Really looking forward to the weekend. See you monday!


2/20/2008 White rabbit

In the games there really is a guy who sits around at the end of Cycling Road just to tell you how bad you are. Unfortunately, in the games you can't just ride past him.

Well, the King of the Forums Contest is running on the PV forums and, while things aren't as crazy as last year (yet), it's still a pretty big deal. Combine that with some totally unrelated stuff that has been keeping me busy, and I'm running late and behind on a couple of different things so I'm gonna cut this short. I'll try and make up for it with two RJCs on Friday (assuming nothing comes up).

Later everyone! Oh yeah, bonus points if you can figure out what the title has to do with today's news post.


2/18/2008 Out and about

And this is the other reason you shouldn't have pokémon battles while biking, at least in some areas. Remember that Wednesday next week will be Pebble Version's 700th strip. Per tradition, expect a brief change of scenery as we check in on some of the other characters. As in, not Brendan and May. Who will it be this time? The black suit guys? Their lighting challenged boss? The guys with the code names? Xain and Cali? Someone else entirely? You'll just have to wait and see...

Before I talk about the weekend, here's an update on my camera situation. Though my camera is way out of warranty, I decided to go ahead and e-mail Canon to see if they had any advice. Turns out, one of the parts used in the model camera I have is defective though the problem is fairly uncommon (usually only appearing if the camera is exposed to a very hot and humid environment for a while (like say, Japan in August and September)). Because of that, they're gonna repair it for free, which I certainly wasn't expecting. I'm not entirely sure if fixing that one part will solve all the problems I've been having but it's something and, as long as they've got the camera in their factory, they might just go ahead and repair anything else that's wrong with it. However, no matter how successful the repair is, that still leaves me without a camera for quite a while. I might have been able to wait until getting back to the US to send it in but considering that the last couple of times I've used it (my last Yokohama trip and yesterday) my camera has been making a weird clicking sound and most of the pictures have been really washed out (though fixed with Photoshop before you guys saw them), I figure it's best to send it in before it gets even worse. So anyway, combine the lack of a camera with the fact that I've been wanting a camera with better zoom and lowlight performance, and I decided to go ahead and get a new one anyway and either keep my old one as a spare or sell it once it's fixed. I hit up Akihabara yesterday to look at cameras so, I'll talk about that in its proper place.

Saturday (16th): Karaoke
Not a particularly big event, but Saturday night I went out for karaoke with a couple people from the congregation I go to. It was fun. Got a chance to talk to them a bit more than usual and karaoke in general is fun. I even did a couple of songs in Japanese. Couldn't read all the kanji but I'd listened to them enough that I more or less had the lyrics memorized. If you're curious, the Japanese songs I did were Hikari by Utada Hikaru (which is the Japanese version of the theme song for the first Kingdom Hearts) and Asu he no Brilliant Road by Angela (the opening theme for the anime Stellvia). So we did karaoke for a while and got some dinner and that was it. Not a lot to write about but I enjoyed it.

Sunday (17th): All Around Tokyo
Since I wanted to look at cameras, and haven't browsed around Akihabara for a while anyway, I headed to Tokyo. I also hadn't been to the always awesome o-keiba-jo flea market in quite a while so that went on my list too. I've mentioned it before. It's a enormous flea market (biggest in Tokyo) that's held most weekends in the parking lot of the o-keiba-jo horse racing track. If you're ever in Tokyo on a weekend it's really a most see. There's an enormous variety of stuff for sale (just about everything really) and, since it's a flea market, most of the stuff is really cheap. For example, while I was there I picked up: three music CDs, two Playstation games (old DDR versions, since I can never have too many different songs), a complete set of M.A.R. figurines, and a pack of AAA batteries. Total cost: 1050 yen (about $9 at the current exchange rate). And, being a flea market, the selection changes a bit every time so you never know what you might find. Lots of fun to browse.
Quick note. On the way back from o-keiba-jo, I discovered that the Hammamatsuchou train station (where you have to get on the monorail to go to o-keiba-jo) has a book store with the largest selection of current English books that I've seen in Japan so far. Unfortunately, it was also a bit on the expensive side so I didn't end up getting any.
Moving on... When I took my brother to Tokyo Tower back in December, I noticed that, instead of taking the elevator, you could climb the outdoor staircase all the way up to the main observatory (note, the stairs are closed on certain days and when the weather is really bad). I've been wanting to give that a try and, since I was in the area anyway (from Hammamatsuchou it's about a 10-15 minute walk to Tokyo Tower) I decided to do it. BTW: to take the stairs, after buying a ticket for the viewing area and entering the building, ignore the elevators and use the regular stairs (you might have to switch staircases at one point) to get to the 5th floor where the little kiddy rides are. Look around there and you'll find the stairs leading up to the observatory. The stairs are mostly outside (though completely fenced in so there's so risk of falling off the tower). They're not super steep and, though you're climbing quite a ways up, it's really not too bad of a climb as long as you're in somewhat decent shape. Took me maybe 15 minutes to make it all the way up going at a normal pace, though I stopped a couple times to take some pictures along the way. The view is nice, although you've got an chainlink fence obscuring it (but no windows, so if you aim carefully you can get some nice photos from certain spots), and you get a good look at the construction of the tower. When you make it to the top of the stairs you also get a little card to prove that you climbed the whole thing. And, if climbing up the stairs wasn't enough of a workout for you, there's another staircase you can take all the way down once you're done in the observatory (though you could also take the elevator). I climbed both ways. The stairs are pretty much the same but you get some different views at times. By the time I'd finished climbing up and down the tower I was pretty hungry so I stopped for lunch (there's a lot of restaurants on the second floor of Tokyo Tower) before heading to my final destination.
My main goal in Akihabara was to see what kind of prices I could find on cameras and memory cards (my current camera uses CF cards, while most new models use SD or Memory Sticks), though I ended up browsing a lot of anime and game stores while I was at it. Since I'm going to be sending my current camera in for repairs, I was prepared to buy a new one right then if I could find the one I wanted at a decent price. I'd already done some research on my favorite tech review site and decided on the Panasonic Lumix DMZ-TZ3. My first stop was Yodobashi Camera. Not always the cheapest place, but they've got a great selection and lots of international models (as in, multi-language menus, manuals, and warranties). My plan was to use Yodobashi's price as a base (while figuring in all the points I'd get on my card) and then see if I could find a better deal anywhere else. But things didn't go quite as I planned. While I was looking for the TZ3, I stumbled across the Canon Powershot SX100 IS. It's a pretty new model (new enough that my favorite tech site hadn't reviewed it yet) and, though a bit more expensive than the TZ3, was still within my price range and had some nifty features that the TZ3 didn't. So I marked down the prices for the cameras and memory cards then started walking around Akihabara to see what I could find. Problem was, while the SX100 looked interesting, I'd never buy a camera without doing some research on it first. Unfortunately, it was too late to call the US and ask my family to look it up for me and my rent-a-phone plan doesn't seem to include internet access. For a while I was thinking that I'd have to just content myself with price checking for now, live without a camera for the week (doing some research in the meantime), and then try to run to Akihabara Saturday night and get a camera then so I'd have it in time for my next Sunday trip. But, while browsing, I came across an internet/manga cafe (I'll do a RJP on them soon) and, since it was only 210 yen for half an hour (heck of a lot cheaper than the internet cafes I went to in Europe a few years back), I stopped there, did some research online, and decided to get the SX100 instead of the TZ3.
I looked around different shops for a while but couldn't find anywhere that beat Yodobashi's price for the camera itself (at least not after factoring in my point card). I did, however, find a good memory card for a really great price. Speaking of which, there's a few little shops in Akihabara with pretty incredible prices on various types of memory cards and USB flash drives from lots of different brands. So I got the card there and the camera at Yodobashi. Now I've got some time to read the manual and play with it before my next excursion. Look for some photos with it either later this week or early next week.
One last thing. While I was in Akihabara, I also tried a kabab stand. Well, that's what the sign says but it's not shish-kababs. The stands are actually a bit of a chain around Tokyo and I've been meaning to give it a try some time. Basically what you're getting is a pita stuffed with beef, vegetables, and your choice of sauce. The odd thing is the beef. Basically they've got a large 'pillar' of beef (maybe eight inches wide and about two or three feet high) spinning around on a skewer and they shave chunks off of it when needed. A bit strange to look at but it tasted pretty good. I really should try and get a picture sometime...

Oh, one last comment, though it's totally off topic. As much as I love Adobe software, particularily Photoshop and GoLive, their spell checker is horrible (especially in GoLive). Ok, that's all for now. Later!


2/15/2008 Spammed

There's a new bonus comic for everyone who clicks the TWC button or banner and confirms their vote. New ROM too. About today's comic, although you can't see Rydel's name on the bikes (the sprites don't have anywhere near enough detail for that), there's a guy in the game who points out all the free advertising he's getting out of you. Actually, the guy in the game might even say Rydel more than today's strip does...

No RJC today. I have one planned but I think it's gonna be pretty long. I was going to work on it during my down time at work today but between classes and some other things I'm working on (namely Japanese study and the book I'm currently writing (which I'm trying to finish before I get back to the US)) I didn't get around to it. So I was going to do it now that I'm off work...but I've got 380 some new forum accounts that I need to sort though. No, the forums aren't anywhere near that busy. But it's become perfectly normal for around 150-250 new members to sign up each week, 99% of which are actually spam bots that somehow manage to get through the anti-bot measures on the new member sign up form. Once their accounts are active, such spam bots proceed to make a whole bunch of posts all over the forums advertising and linking to all sorts of junk. Some even try to embed porn pictures and movies into their posts.
I think the whole thing started about a year and a half or so ago. At first it was just one bot every once in a while so the mods and I were able to easily delete the spam posts and ban the account pretty quickly. But, once the number of bot sign ups started rising, it became too much for use to handle (and the numbers have only gone up since then). Since the bots seemed perfectly able to defeat both the 'type the distorted letters you see in this image' test and the 'click the link in the confirmation e-mail to activate your account' precaution, I was forced to set it so all new forum accounts start out inactive and stay that way unless I personally activate them. Not a measure I wanted to take, but apparently the only way to stop the spam.
So I'm stuck manually going through the huge stack of new forum members and looking for any that are legit (usually about 1-2% of total new accounts, if that). And, if I'm busy and can't get to it for a few days, it piles up and I've got a ridiculous number to do at once, like I do now. I've got to say, forum spam is worse than e-mail spam, at least if you're a forum admin. With e-mail spam you can avoid a good chunk of it if you're careful with your address and a decent spam blocker usually kills most of the rest. But I've been unable to find any easy solution to forum spam bots. Anyone who codes those stupid things should be arrested, or at very least have all the computers confiscated and be banned from the internet for life.

But anyway, that's why I don't have time to do a RJC. Gotta sort through forum accounts... Have a good weekend!


2/13/2008 A tricky topic

And this is the reason why having a pokémon battle while bike riding really wouldn't be such a great idea. Well, one of the reasons anyway. There's another one but that'll come up next week...

In other news, it's freezing today (mainly due to the wind), and I'm starving so here's one quick RJC. Fair warning though, while I'm gonna do my best to keep this PG-ish, the subject matter is decidedly less kid friendly than usual.

Random Japan Comment: Adult Material
Don't get the wrong idea, I'm not going to be reviewing dirty magazines or anything. I'll try to keep this as PG as I can and it's a fairly useful thing to know if you're planning to travel in Japan so just stick with me here.
Asia in general has a different view on nudity and sex than the US and in general it's even a bit looser than Europe's attitude in some respects (although not in others). While Japan's morals and standards have changed considerably over the last couple hundred years due to increasing Westernization, they still take a much laxer view of 'adult stuff' than the US.
In the US, adult material is usually something you'd find in tightly shuttered, dingy looking shops, either tucked back away from other buildings or in a lousy part of town. At least that's the feel I get from the ones I've spotted while driving. But the point is, with a few exceptions, it's all kept in its own special stores and it's not something most people particularly want to be seen with.
While I'd say Japanese TV is typically a lot cleaner than European in regards to nudity and sex, adult material in general is more accepted. As in, a lot of people consider it a normal enough thing for people (particularly men) to be interested in those kinds of things so it doesn't have as much of the negative stigma attached to it as it does in the US. Dirty books, magazines, movies, cards, figurines, etc can be found in many ordinary stores that also sell plenty of regular (non adult) products (although there's usually much less questionable stuff in big chain stores). Keep in mind, I'm not talking about the occasional partial nudity found in some PG-13-ish anime/manga, but light porn and worse. Many stores that sell that kind of stuff have a separate section for it, usually a separate floor or an area cut off by pink curtains, complete with a whole bunch of ' no one under 18 allowed' signs. But some don't bother with the signs and an few (mostly smaller places without a whole lot of room) have adult stuff mixed right in with their normal products. There's been a few times I've accidently walked into the adult section of a store due to lack of warning signs so if you're easily offended, or have kids with you, be careful.
This is especially something to keep in mind if you're going in a lot of anime/manga/figurine type stores as some of them, mostly due to space constraints (you'd be surprised how small and cramped some Japanese stores are), just mix adult stuff in with everything else. Usually if you just run across some adult stuff by accident there isn't anything that bad about it (there's typically a limit to what goes on DVD cases, magazine covers, etc) but once in a while you might inadvertently come across something pretty explicit. If you just hit up touristy shops this is something you'll probably never notice, but if you're going to be combing Akihabara for some rare anime item, you have been warned.
One other thing as long as I'm on the subject... Since there's less negative stigma around adult material and the people who buy it (within reason anyway, there's a line between what's considered 'natural interest' and perversion), people browsing the stuff in stores seem pretty casual about it as do the other customers who see them browsing (this applies to both men and women). Also, once in a great while (twice for me so far), you might even spot someone reading a questionable magazine on a train.
So to summarize, adult stuff is more accepted in Japan than the US (and possibly Europe in some, but not all, aspects). While it's easy enough to avoid most of the time, in some shops (particularly of the small anime/manga/game/DVD variety) it can be difficult, if not impossible, to completely avoid items ranging anywhere from mildly suggestive to extremely explicit. So if you've got kids or just don't want to see that kind of stuff, be careful.

Well, that's probably going to lead to a whole lot of awkward e-mails but I thought I should cover it, just because of the major culture clash compared to the US. Later!


2/11/2008 Finishing up in Yokohama

Don't forget Friday's bonus comic. Also, got $10 in donations already this month. Just $15 more and we'll reach the first goal and $22 till the next part of Josiah's Sprite Comic Guide.

If you were reading my last post, I'm definitely gonna be swinging by Akihabara to look at cameras next weekend. Most of my photos from Sunday were so overexposed that I had to run the entire batch through basic level, color, and contrast correction in Photoshop. Fortunately that fixed them up just fine...except for that stupid zebra striping (especially in the sky). Gotta wonder why my camera is degrading through... I mean it worked perfectly till a few months ago and has been slowly getting worse since then. Anyway, on to my weekend report.

Sunday (10th): Final Yokohama Trip
There were a couple more places I wanted to see in Yokohama so I decided to make one last day trip there before I head back to the US in April. Both of my destinations were a decent ways outside of central Yokohama so I had to do a bit more train riding combined with some buses and a bit of walking. Worth it though.
My first stop, Sankeien, a large public garden created in the early 1900's that features a lot of old historic buildings brought there from all over Japan. It's a very scenic place and, luckily, I got there on the first day of the ume (Japanese plum) blossom viewing season (guess I should be glad that the weather was bad last week). Speaking of the ume blossoms, here's a nice close up (luckily, one of my few zebra stripe free shots). And here's a few more pictures of different areas of the garden. There was more to do there than just look at the scenery. For example, here's a very old fashioned tea house that they open every year during the ume season, offering free barley tea to guests. There was also a small museum with art related to the garden and an old village leader's house from around 250 years ago that you could walk through (complete with a bunch of items from the time period). Not sure if this was quite that old, but it's a set of Girls' Day dolls (I mentioned Girls' Day in my big Japanese holiday list). Speaking of Girls' Day dolls, I spotted some for sale in a Toys R Us later that day. It's a good thing all anyone ever really needs is one set, prices ranged from about $500 to over $1000.
Anyway, there was also a few event type things going on that day at Sankeien. There was a small display of bonsai trees, some women doing traditional Japanese dances, and a group of people making mochi for a fund-raiser. Mochi is a very gluttonous (very stretchy, sticky, and chewy) type of Japanese rice 'cake'. As you can see from the photo, the process of making it involves putting the mochi in a big wooden container and pounding it with big wooden mallets. They were giving away mochi for however much people wanted to donate so I got some. As I said, it's a bit of a pain to chew (and very difficult to eat with a single toothpick) but not bad in general and pretty good with anzuki paste.
And, before I move onto my next destination, here's one last nice close up shot of some flowers.
Once I'd finished up in the garden I headed off to Zoorasia, the Yokohama zoo. Now while Sankeien was a little bit out there (took me around half an hour, train, bus, walking) from Yokohama station, Zoorasia was quite a bit more out of the way and required a 20 minute train ride plus another half hour or so on a bus. As far as zoos go, it was a fairly nice one (good layout, fairly nice enclosures for most of the animals, etc) and a lot bigger than I thought it would be. One cool thing about it is that, while they've got all your normal zoo animals, they also have a few pretty rare endangered species that you don't see at many zoos. There were some pretty neat types of monkeys I don't remember ever seeing before and, their mascot of sorts, an Okapi (looks kinda like a cross between a horse and a zebra). Unfortunately, my camera must not have been as fully charged that day as I thought it was (the one thing I never liked about it, even when it worked perfectly, is that it never displays the battery gauge unless it's almost out of power) and by the time I got to the zoo, it was running pretty low on battery power. I only managed to grab a handful of shots before it died and some of them turned out a bit rushed since I was trying to squeeze them in before running completely out of power. But here's a couple of the better ones, namely a clouded leopard and a red panda.
Once I'd finished at the zoo, I headed back to downtown Yokohama to browse a couple stores and get some supper and then it was back to Koga.

And that's it. Had today off too (it's a holiday) but I spent it hanging around my apartment getting some work done and enjoying the Canthan New Years event in Guild Wars. Unfortunately, a mini celestial pig was a bit out of my budget. Sure wish I had kept more of my mini pigs from last year... (Note: if you're not a Guild Wars player, don't even bother trying to understand that.)


2/8/2008 Talking about photos

New voters' bonus comic, new ROM and all that.

Here's a few photos I took during the week.
First off, I think I mentioned this before but drinking is a very important social activity in Japan, especially among coworkers, giving overworked sarariman (salary men, ordinary office workers) an opportunity to unwind and break free of the usually very strict social hierarchy. But anyway, I'm not writing up a whole thing on Japanese business practices today. So, as I was saying, drinking is a popular way for workers and college students to relax and unwind and also plays a roll in parties and all that, a lot like in the US. Like the US, Japan has a minimum drinking age (20). So what do you do if you've got a kid who wants to drink but is too young? Why not let him/her pretend to be an adult with fake beer for kids? There's a couple different brands of the stuff. The name of the one in the photo translates to "Kids' Drink" but I think the other one is actually called "Kids' Beer". Naturally, there's no alcohol in it (has a fizzy fruity taste) but it comes in a brown bottle, foams up a lot like beer, and has a similar color. Nothing like giving the kids an early start on a lifetime habit.
On Thursday, the 4th graders at my school had a special project, growing Japanese mushrooms. Each kid got a log (in most cases said logs were nearly as tall as they were) and, with some help from the people who brought all the equipment, drilled a bunch of holes in them, put little plugs of mushroom spores (and I'd assume some nutrients to keep the mushrooms healthy) in the holes, and hammered them in so they'd stay. From what I could understand of the instructions given, after that all you really have to do it splash water over the log every once in a while and wait for the mushrooms to grow. Although, you'll be doing quite a lot of waiting as the particular type of mushrooms used take two years to fully mature. Here's a log that's been sitting for quite a while. Although I'm not positive, I think the main point might have been that the mushrooms will finish growing right around the time when the current 4th Graders are ready to graduate from Elementary School.

That's it for the photos but, on a somewhat related note (since I'm talking about photos and all), I think I might start looking into new cameras sometime soon. Although I like mine, it's been developing some problems over the last few months, which some of you may have noticed in my photos (although they're a lot more noticeable in the original photos than the scaled down versions I post here). First off, all my photos now have a strip along the top (or the side if I turn the camera) where the colors are a decent amount darker than in the rest of the picture. It covers maybe 5% of the photo and ranges from barely noticeable to moderately noticeable depending on what I'm photographing and the lighting. It's a bit annoying but I could live with it. The second, and, in my opinion, worst problem is that my camera has developed a habit of both blowing out (making too bright) and zebra striping (covering with vertical or horizontal stripes) bright areas and most white objects. While I can improve blown out areas in Photoshop, the zebra striping would be difficult to fully remove and it would be a very time consuming process. It started off barely noticeable but worsened after that and is extremely noticeable in some photos, something I find really annoying. Finally, and most minor, the viewing screen has become pretty unreliable in low light situations, with a whole bunch of static obscuring the image from time to time. Fortunately that's only the screen, it doesn't actually affect the photos, so it's not a really big deal for me. But, combined with the other two problems... I should also point out that all of these problems only started cropping up over the last few months (after I'd already been in Japan for a month or two). I even looked through a bunch of my old photos, just to make sure that this wasn't something I'd always had but never noticed before. Naturally I also triple checked all the camera settings and all that.
While I'm not too thrilled about the thought of paying for a new camera, my current one is about three years old so the newer ones do have a whole lot more megapixels and some nifty features that weren't around back when mine was made. Plus, I've always wanted a camera with a better zoom... So, unless the problems I've bene having with mine suddenly vanish, I'll definitely get a new one eventually. I'm not in a huge hurry but I figure that, as long as I'm in Japan, I could probably find a pretty good deal if I shopped around in Akihabara a bit so I think I'll do some research and take a look next time I'm there (probably in a week or two).

Well, I think that's enough for today. Was going to do a Random Japan Comment too but I think it's gonna end up being a pretty long one so I'm going to save it for sometime next week instead. Have a good weekend!


2/6/2008 Mario in space

Taking a break from Japan stuff today to do a review of Super Mario Galaxy. The usual Japan coverage will return on Friday.

While there's tons of Mario spin off games these days (the sports games, board games, etc), new games in the main series are extremely rare. There was New Super Mario Brothers on the DS but it's Super Mario Galaxy that's the true sequel to the Gamecube's Super Mario Sunshine. But new Mario games have a lot to live up to, is Galaxy a worthy successor?
Graphics: Sure Galaxy looks good but the Wii isn't the most powerful next gen system so don't except the graphics to blow you away. Nothing to complain about though. It looks good and the level designs more than make up for any technical shortcomings.
Sound: Mario sound effects are the good old "gamey" stuff and the usual voice clips are back too (mostly Mario yelling yippee when he jumps). It's the music that really sticks out. Galaxy has an awesome soundtrack featuring plenty of new tunes and a bunch of remixes of old classics as well (particularly ones from Super Mario Brothers 3). Even better, all the music was written for and performed by a full orchestra, making for an excellent listening experience.
Story: Story has never been very important in the main Mario games and that's no different here. In a nutshell, Mario goes off to visit Princess Peach during the Mushroom Kingdom's Star Festival. Unfortunately, things are interrupted by Bowser, who actually manages to steal Peach's entire castle and takes it into space. Naturally Mario goes after them and eventually ends up on the comet observatory, a space station run by a lady named Roselina, who offers to help him save the princess if he helps her retrieve her lost power stars and restore power to the observatory. There's also a bit more plot, in the form of a storybook that gains new chapters as you progress through the game, and tells Roselina's backstory. Don't expect any sort of epic tale, but the story works.
Gameplay: Now this is what Mario games are all about. Galaxy doesn't disappoint, delivering perfect controls and extremely creative levels. Like Mario 64 and Sunshine, you use a hub area (the comet observatory in this case) to travel to a variety of different worlds, each of which is divided into levels which have Mario going after a star. Worlds are larger than those in 64 but smaller than Sunshine's. What really makes Galaxy stick out is that fact that you're in space. Each world is actually a galaxy and most galaxies feature a large number of different planets of all shapes and sizes. Some are really large while others are about the size of a car. Each one features its own gravity and in many worlds Mario will be shooting back and forth between all sorts of planets and even running completely around them. One minute you may be running around a seemingly normal grassy field but the next you'll find yourself upside down running along the bottom of the planet or flying off to some entirely new destination. Many planets are like a mini puzzle, where you need to figure out how to open a path to next one, while others are merely quick stopping points. There's a ton of variety, the craziest gravity ever to appear in a video game, and a whole lot of nifty power up suits that grant Mario some interesting new abilities. And, since the worlds and levels have so much variety, you'll never get tired of any one type of gameplay because there's always something different waiting in the wings. With 120+ stars to find and some cool unlockable stuff that'll likely have you playing through the entire game twice, there's no reason to complain about the length either.
The controls use the Wii and nunchuk. It's a pretty simple setup with minimal, but effective, use of motion sensing. The controls are spot on and, after a little time getting used to the crazy gravity and perspective changes, you'll be running, jumping, and spinning all over the universe with ease.
Overall: A new Mario game is always a big deal, not only because of the wait between them, but because each one has driven the platforming genre to new heights. Galaxy is no exception and all the planet hopping and gravity tricks are sure to be unlike anything you've played before. Add in a stellar soundtrack and a huge amount of replay value and you have yet another Mario game that's destined to become a classic. If you have a Wii, this is one game you don't want to miss.


2/4/2008 Snow

As always, don't forget about Friday's voters' bonus comic. There's a new ROM too.
I never could figure out why you NEED a coin case to get coins in the Game Corner. I mean, I can kinda see the pokéblock case since those could probably spoil or something if you don't store them right, but coins? Would it really be that horrible if you just put them in your pocket? Actually, the need for a coin case wouldn't be so bad if they were easier to get...but more on that next strip.

I ended up staying home this Sunday. That wasn't my original plan but most of what I was going to do involved being outside and the weather forecast was showing a 95% percent chance of sleet. Plus, some stuff came up that I needed to take care of and that required a lot of time spent on the internet, so I figured it'd be best to just stay in my apartment and get things done. Turned out to be a good choice. I got a lot of stuff done and, though I'm not sure about sleet, it did snow pretty hard for most of the day (at least a couple inches worth), something that's pretty rare in this part of Japan. Since I spent the vast majority of the last few winters in Phoenix, where it never snows, it was a kinda nice change of scenery...when I was sitting in my apartment watching it through the window. Unfortunately, when I got ready to head to work this morning, I discovered that yesterday's snow had caused everything to ice over. That's bad enough when you're driving a car but even worse when you're stuck with a bike. Not only was my bike covered with ice, but also the sidewalks (which is where you usually bike in Japan), and some of the roads. I got about ten yards from my apartment building before my bike skidded and fell on what had appeared to be a fairly ice free stretch of road. Luckily, it was a pretty minor accident. The road was deserted and I had enough time to hop off before my bike fell over...but hopping off a moving object onto an icy road usually doesn't work too well and I ended up slipping on the ice and falling down anyway. Fortunately, the bike was fine, my clothes and backpack were fine, and I was ok aside from a sore arm. Had to walk my bike most of the way to work though. Right now I'm just hoping all the ice melts by Wednesday since walking to the Nogi board of education and my preschools would take forever (it's already a 25 minute bike ride).

Random Japan Comment: Region Lock
Actually, this has to do with pretty much the entire world, not just Japan, but I'm been getting some questions about it lately so I figured I might as well do a full write up here. See, when Super Mario Galaxy launched in Japan, and now that Super Smash Brothers Brawl is available (and won't be in the US for another month or so), I've had people asking if I'm going to get a Japanese copy of the games so I could play them early. Considering that neither game requires extensive Japanese skills to play (I'm steadily improving but something with a ton of very important text or dialogue, like a Final Fantasy game, would be more than I can handle right now), I would have considered getting a Japanese copy...except that I wouldn't be able to do anything with it besides stare at the box because of the region lock.
So what is region lock? It's essentially a way to kill, or at least greatly deter, the importing of a variety of multimedia products from one country to another. It affects commercially released DVDs, BlueRay movies, and most video games systems, and prevents you from playing media from one region with a device from another region.
Basically, you first divide the world into regions (North America, Europe, Japan, etc). Then, when a disc is made for x region, some data is placed on the disc that tells the player what region it's from. Similarly, DVD players/drives, game systems, etc have something in the hardware that tells them what region they were designed for. If the disc isn't from the same region as the player, the player will refuse to load the disc. (Interestingly enough though, the way the world is divided up isn't consistent across all media types).
There are some ways around region lock. For example, it's possible to buy special DVD players that will play DVDs from any region. Also, really old game systems are usually also fairly easy to bypass since back then, instead of a real region lock, they just made it so a cartridge from one region wouldn't fit in the slot in another region's system, something that can be easily fixed with special converters or, in some cases, by simply shaving some excess plastic off the casing. Unfortunately, getting past the region locks in a newer game system (from around the original Playstation and on) or a normal DVD player can be rather difficult. Some game systems can be tricked with a swap disc (a special disc from the correct region that loads properly then gets switched with the other disc) but for most of them, and for DVD players, you'd actually need to open up the system and install a mod chip, which requires at least a bit of electrical know how and voids your warranty. Even worse, the newer game systems frequently update their software via the internet (you can disable it, but doing so may leave you unable to play the newest games or access certain features such as online play) and it's not unheard of for these updates to mess up, or in some cases completely break, modded systems. So, in most cases, if you want to safely enjoy movies or games from another region, you have to buy a whole new DVD player, game system, etc from that region.
So what doesn't have region locks? CDs for one, and current HD-DVDs. Also, all of Nintendo's handheld game systems (the Gameboy, GBC, GBA, and DS) and a few random (and mostly unheard of) systems. Then there's some game systems that are inconsistent. For example, the PSP region locks UMD movies but plays games from any region...unless said games are specifically region locked by the game's developer (something that at this point in time is extremely rare). The Xbox and Xbox 360 also leave it up to the developers, so a good chunk of their games are locked but some aren't. The PS3 is the same...but only for PS3 games. DVD movies, BlueRay movies, and PS1 and PS2 games are all locked. So yeah, it's a bit complicated.
By now you're probably wondering what the point of region locks is in the first place. In many cases the language barrier isn't going to make a whole lot of people want to import things to begin with and even so, what's wrong with letting people important movies and games if they want to? Well, there's a couple of reasons. First off, sometimes movies and games are published by different companies in different regions. If you only buy from your region, it ensures that the local distributer gets the money for it instead of the foreign one. Region locks also act as an effective, though questionably legal, way of price fixing. For example, in Australia DVD movies typically cost 2 or 3 times as much as they do in the US. There was originally a half decent reason for the high prices (can't remember what it was though) but when that reason disappeared, the DVD companies figured that, as long as people were paying that much, they might as well keep the prices the same and increase their profits instead of passing the savings on to the consumers. In many cases it would actually be a decent amount cheaper for people in Australia to important DVDs from the US than to buy them there (and since they speak English, there wouldn't be any language issues). So what stopped a huge import market from forming? Region locks. Japan is in a somewhat similar situation. DVDs in Japan are typically very expensive, especially box sets. Even with the language barrier, there are some dual language DVDs they could import from the US (anime for example) for less than a quarter of what they'd pay for the Japanese version. But once again, region locks make the process a whole lot more complicated.
When it comes to video games, especially importing games from Japan to the US and vice versa, the prices are often close enough that importing new games wouldn't offer any significant savings. Also, with a few exceptions, the language barrier would prevent most people from importing games and those that did would probably focus more on the games that never received a commercial release outside for their home region anyway (Japan especially has a huge amount of games that are never released anywhere else), so region lock doesn't seem quite so necessary. Actually, the big thing with region locked game systems right now is to stop people in Europe from importing US games and systems. Video game systems especially tend to be considerably more expensive in Europe than the US (up to double the price in some cases, which is quite a lot when you're dealing with an item that costs several hundred dollars to begin with).
When all is said and done, the legality of region locking in most countries is questionable. In some countries, such as Australia, certain aspects of it have been successfully challenged in court (all new DVD players there are now required to be sold with a chip installed that bypasses the region lock). But, like the not exactly legal DRM (digital rights management) locks put into commercial DVDs and most music purchased online (MP3s, ITunes stuff, etc), it's probably not going to go away any time soon.


2/1/2008 Green isn't always great

The new bonus comic is up and, since it's the start of a new month, Pebble Version could use lots and lots of votes to get a good starting position. And, though there's no new ROM today, there's a news post from Shauni explaining why.

Random Japan Comment: Keeping it Green
No I'm not talking about the color green, I'm talking about the environment. Japan certainly tries to be a very 'green' country, at least in some respects. First off, recycling. Since softdrinks are such a big thing here (as evidenced by all the vending machines) it's pretty easy to find special bins for soda cans and 'pet bottles' (plastic soft drink bottles). In fact, most vending machines, convenience stores, and larger grocery stores have a can/pet bottle bin right nearby. At convenience stores and large grocery stores you may also find bins for things like glass, tin cans, little plastic food trays, milk/juice cartoons, and newspapers, although exactly what's available varies by location. Garbage pickup also incorporates recycling. There's typically a whole garbage schedule that details what kinds of trash (bottles, cans, glass, newspapers, general burnable stuff, etc) you should put out on what days. A lot (but certainly not all) Japanese people take this type of stuff very seriously, going so far as to remove the lids and labels from bottles and cans to make sure that even the tiniest thing goes out with the right batch of garbage.
Japan is also very energy conscious, although that might have something to do with how overpriced electricity is (see previous complaints about my recent electric bills). Lights that automatically turn on and off when people enter or leave a room aren't too uncommon, clothes dryers are very rare (although that's only partly because of electricity, saving space in small apartments/houses is also part of it), as are (from what I can tell) dish washers. Although, considering that it's quite possible now a days to get combo washer/dryers and moderately sized dishwashers that really don't use all the much electricity, the whole practice seems rather dated to me.
In addition, there's a general lack of central heating and air conditioning (which I've mentioned before). Instead, each room will have its own aircon (a combo heater and air conditioner). That way, you can turn off the aircons in any rooms you're not currently using. This ensures that you use as little energy as possible for heating and air conditioning. Unfortunately, it also ensures that when you first enter a room you're quite likely to spend a decent amount of time freezing/burning while the aircon starts up and gets going. Not to mention that some cheap aircons (like the one in my apartment) are just plain bad and don't ever really work well. Also, the one aircon to room setup typically leaves smaller rooms (bathrooms, small kitchens, etc) and hallways without any sort of heating/air conditioning whatsoever. Take my school for example. Sure the classrooms are kept at a decent temperature but if you step out into the hallways or go to the bathroom you're going to get hit with a pretty major change. Actually, from what I've heard, a lot of older schools don't even have aircons in their classrooms, which could make for pretty miserable days during winter and late summer/early fall. My apartment is similiar. Even when the aircon worked (it did a half decent job of keeping things cool in the summer), it only ever hit one room. The bathroom, kitchen, etc, weren't affected in the least. If you haven't guessed, I really dislike the lack of central heating/air conditioning.
One last thing, though I'm not sure if it quite fits into the 'green' category. Aside from bins for soft drink cans and pet bottles, Japan has a general lack of garbage cans. In the US, if you're walking down the street in any shopping or business area there's generally plenty of trash cans around if you need to get rid of something. In Japan, unless you happen to be near a convenience store or big grocery store that has a burnable waste bin outside (and not all of them do), you could be carrying your trash around for quite some time. Although, one important thing to keep in mind is that many little foodstands that sell things with stuff that you'll have to throw away (say the little paper wrapper around an ice cream cone) have a bin right outside where you can put those, provided you hang around there until you're ready to throw whatever it is away. But anyway, there's been plenty of times when I've been stuck carrying a bag, plastic wrapper, or whatever, around all day because I couldn't find anywhere to throw it away. From what I've heard, the reasoning behind the lack of trash cans is that, if there's no trash cans around, there probably won't be any trash either so everything will look all nice and clean. Admittedly, Japan has a lot less litter than pretty much any other country I've visited, but I think that's due more to the Japanese mindset and culture than to the lack of trash cans. From my experience the lack of trash cans encourages litter since people don't want to carry their trash around for who knows how long, something that can be quite noticeable in certain areas in Japan.


1/30/2007 Getting things ready

Well, the month is almost over so last chance to get in votes or donations before February. I've been getting some stuff ready for The King of the Forums Contest on the Pebble Version Forums. It's the biggest of the annual events on the forums, running for an entire month, and will be starting in mid February this year. If you haven't guessed where this is going, since I was working on that, I don't have a lot of time to write some long post here today so I'll see you Friday!


1/28/2007 Museum run

Friday's bonus comic is up and has been since Friday, which is why it's called "Friday's bonus comic", so vote if you want to see it.

Sunday (27th): Ueno Museums
I didn't want to do anything major Sunday plus I only have a handful of big day trip plans left anyway (like, two or three) since, having been here for so long, I've toured this part of Japan fairly extensively. Most of the remaining things on my 'to see' list are just stuff around Tokyo. So anyway, I decided to see some more of the museums in Ueno Park. There's quite a lot of museums in the park and the only one I'd seen so far was the excellent Tokyo National Museum (which I talked about in a previous post) so I went through the list in my tour book and picked out the ones that looked interesting.
I was originally planning to go to three museums but the National Museum of Western Art was closed while they get ready for some big special exhibit so I moved on to my second destination, the National History Museum, which is very easily recognizable by the giant whale in front of the building. If you've ever been to a natural history museum, this is the same type of thing. There were exhibits on things like animals and plants from around Japan, the life of ancient Japanese people (really ancient, like stone age), rocks, fossils, dinosaurs, etc. There was some neat stuff to look at but the museum has almost no English and I didn't want to spend all day trying to translate the signs so look was about all I did.
After walking through the park for a bit (there was a very small festival going on) and grabbing lunch from some stalls near the shrine in the center of the lake, I headed for the Shitamachi Museum. It's a small museum about life in Tokyo during the 1920's-50's. It's a very hands on place and they have sections from several old buildings inside that you can take off your shoes and walk around in. For example, here's a shop from the 20's that sold straps for traditional Japanese sandals and here's a candy shop from that same time period. And here's a house from the 20's and one from the 50's. There wasn't a lot of English (heck in some parts there wasn't all that much Japanese either since you're supposed to be checking all the stuff out for yourself) but the museum has a bunch of volunteer guides, some of which speak English. As soon as I got my ticket I was greeted by a Japanese lady who spoke passable English and gave me a very nice tour of the museum, explaining the history and purpose of a lot of the different things. It was very interesting and after my tour was finished I hung around for a bit longer to take a closer look at some things, snap a few pictures, and try out some traditional Japanese toys.
Since one of the museums I'd planned to see was closed, and I got through the National History Museum fairly quickly (since I wasn't reading any signs), I finished up earlier than I thought I would and had some time to kill so I went to Nakano for a while to browse the figurine, game, and music stores. As I've said before, it's no Akihabara but there's still some great stores there, especially when it comes to old toys and figurines. Besides, since Akihabara is so close to Ueno station I end up going there quite a lot, while Nakano is pretty out of the way so I don't get there much, making it a nice change. So yeah, I had fun, found some rare soundtracks I'd been wanting, and stumbled across a rather awesome clearance sale so it turned out to be a pretty great shopping trip. I'll probably have to go back once or twice more before I head back to the US in April.


1/25/2008 This, that, and some other thing

There's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM. Also, I finished that bonus commentary I mentioned a week or two ago. So the commentary for strips 81-100 has been added to the archives.

Admittedly, all the stuff your character has to lug around in the pokémon games isn't that bad when compared to say, your average epic fantasy RPG, where you've not only got all the healing items, assorted special items, and the like, but also enough weapons and armor to equip a small army. And it all fits in their pockets... Although, if you did have some nice magical bag or something, it would be kinda neat to be able to have all that stuff with you at all times. Talk about being prepared for anything. Anyway, this is the last of the bag strips, at least for awhile. Got some other things that need to be covered before strip 700...

So, just a few updates on what I've been up to before today's RJC. First off, they finally finished construction on the sports field at school so I can go out and play dodgeball and stuff with the kids again during recess. It took something like two months but they transformed a big dirt field into...a big dirt field. I mean, it's nicer dirt now, there's a whole lot less rocks and they put some sort of gravel layer beneath the dirt to keep it even and all, but going just by looks it'd be pretty hard to tell the old field and the new field apart. And here I thought they were gonna put in grass or something fancy...
The school also did a safety drill (or maybe more of a presentation) today that I watched. I originally thought it was gonna be a fire drill of some sort but it turned out to be about what to do if some one comes into the classroom with a knife (since it isn't legal for civilians to own guns in Japan, although criminals can get them on the black market). Seems like a rather odd subject for a drill, especially since the rate of violent crime in Japan is extremely low, but I suppose it's a required safety thing (or maybe just looks good on an events checklist). Anyway, the basic point of the whole thing was, if someone wearing a mask and carrying a knife walks into the classroom, scream and run away. Also, if someone comes into the classroom and they're not wearing a mask or carrying a knife, you don't need to scream and run away. And that was pretty much it, seriously. Since I really doubt that Japanese school kids completely lack any shred of common sense, the whole thing seemed like a waste of time. Kinda amusing to watch though.
Outside of school, my apartment is still freezing and Mario Galaxy is awesome, as is Final Fantasy Tactics for the PSP (a port of the original Playstation FFT with some new features). FFT Advanced was nice and all but nowhere near as good as the original. Actually, as hard as it may be to believe, even though it's been something like nine years since since I first played FFT and I've played a ton of strategy RPGs since then (many of them excellent games), the original Final Fantasy Tactics is still the best strategy RPG I've ever played. The story is great and there's some cool sub quests and all that but no other SRPG has managed to create such perfect battle and character development systems. Which is especially unusual since when a really good game comes out, it's typically not long before most other games in the genre start ripping off its best features. Personally, I'd love it if some games started stealing FFT's stuff, especially the battle system. Having characters take turns individually based on their speed makes for much more interesting battles than having entire teams take their turn at once (which is what just about every other SRPG does). Now if Square-Enix would just make a proper sequel instead of more FFT Advanced games... But enough going off topic.

Random Japan Comment: Cute Stuff
In the US, the general push for mascots, logos, and the like seems to be "cool". You know, something sleek, hip, and stylish that will attract the teens and twenty somethings. In Japan there's still some "cool" stuff but the real key word in Japanese advertising (and just stuff in general) is "cute". Who needs some cool guy advertising their products when they could have a talking cat or a smiling cartoon whatever? And I'm not just talking kids and kids products. For example, DoCoMo, the country's largest cellphone provider, has a family of walking mushrooms that pop up in every single ad, sign, and flyer that they have. You can even buy mushroom plushies (stuffed animals) and cell phone charms at any DoCoMo store (and you'd be surprised how many people have one (or a couple dozen) hanging from their cellphone). At times it seems that just about every major brand and store/restaurant chain has a cute mascot thing of some sort. Most US based companies don't seem to bother with it but then again, some do. For example, Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders (yes, seriously) are a heck of a lot more visible at their Japanese restaurants than their US ones.
It's not just a business thing either, Japanese people in general just like cute stuff. Just about everyone under 30 (and a lot of people over) have at least one cute thing hanging from their cellphones (often times two, three, or even about fifteen). There's also plenty of cute things to be found on clothes, bags, etc. And I'm sure any anime, manga, or video game fan would have no trouble pointing out just how many series have a token cute character (be they human(ish) or some fluffy animal thing). Some especially popular "cute stuff" includes various Pokémon, Slimes from the Dragon Quest/Warrior games, Hello Kitty, and Disney characters (particularly Mickey, Chip & Dale, and Stitch).


1/23/2008 Mario!

There's a new ROM. Actually, the whole 99 thing is how the inventory systems in most games work. It actually makes a decent amount of sense from a programming perspective (although 255 would make ever more sense), just not a real life one.

It snowed this morning and rained all afternoon. I got to bike through it. Yay... On the up side, my copy of Super Mario Galaxy arrived today! Been waiting for that since the first E3 demo back in 2005 so I'm gonna save what I was going to talk about today for Friday. See you later!


1/21/2008 Whirlwind tour of Odaiba

Don't forget that there's a special bonus comic (featuring the winner of the PV Forums Week of Randomness contest) up for everyone who votes (just click the Top Web Comics Bannar or button and follow the instructions to confirm your vote) and this is the last month for the Japanese figurine raffle if you're interested in donating.

Sunday (20th): Odaiba
Odaiba is part of Tokyo set on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. It's a popular area for dates, family outings, etc and features a whole lot of shopping malls, attractions, museums, fancy hotels, and the like. The most obvious landmark being that giant ferris wheel you can see in some of my pictures from Tokyo Tower.
So, after being told repeatedly that I should go, I decided to take a day to explore Odaiba. Despite it being on an island, getting there is pretty easy. There's actually an underground tunnel connecting it to the rest of the city if you've got a car. For everyone else, there's a monorail line you can get on from Shimbashi station.
I had a list of several places there I wanted to check out but, since my main goal was just to explore the general area, I decided to walk around and stop at whatever looked interesting along the way instead of just hopping on and off the monorail at each of my main destinations. First thing I noticed, hardly anything at Odaiba opens before 11 AM, at least on Sundays. Fortunately, there was some places open at 10, one of which was Sega's Joypolis, an arcade complex inside the Decks Mall. Although they say it's an arcade, Joypolis doesn't have a ton of arcade games (although there's some). The main attraction is the large bunch of rides (motion simulaters, haunted house type stuff, a roller coaster, etc) and 'big' games (various Sega arcade games (racing and shooting type stuff) on big screens with the players sitting in fake cars, snow mobiles, etc, that move and shake along with the game). Some things were pretty fun while others were clearly made with little kids in mind. Individual rides and attractions are also a bit on the expensive side considering how long they last (although if you think you're going to be hanging out for a while you can buy an unlimited day pass).
Anyway, by the time I got tired of Joypolis, everything else was open. Since I was already there, I took a walk through the Decks Mall, which is actually two malls with some walkways between them. If you like walking around malls, Odaiba is definately the place for you. Even if the prospect doesn't sound all that thrilling, the malls can be worth a brief look anyway as some of the floors have different themes (often with matching stores, restaurants, and entertainment). For example, this floor was kinda a Japan in the 50's or 60's style and this one was based on Hong Kong. One other interesting feature of the Decks Mall was Muscle Park, an indoor theme park with a bunch of game type attractions designed to test your speed, reflexs, strength, etc. It looked like a lot of fun but I didn't find it till right after lunch and it definately didn't look like something I'd want to try immediately after eating. If I go back to Odaiba sometime though I'm definately going to give some of the games there a whirl.
There's another big mall, the Seaside Mall, (complete with a big movie theater and a Toys R Us) next to the Decks Mall, which I also walked through, and a third (Pallet Town) across a couple of streets near the huge ferris wheel but I decided two malls were enough so I skipped it and kept going. Oh, if you like weird signs, I think this was for a clothing line.
Being an island and all, Odaiba has its own beach. It was a nice place for a stroll but I'm betting it's much more popular during warmer times of year. If you're on the beach in Odaiba, and haven't had a chance to visit New York City yet, you can save yourself the trip and see the Statue of Liberty, although Odaiba's version is only ten or fifteen feet tall, making it a heck of a lot smaller than the real thing.
Once I got past the malls and hotels there wasn't a whole lot to see on the road I was on, aisde from the occasional neat looking building. After a bit of walking I made it to the area where some of the museums were. Only one of the museums really interested me and that was the Museum of Emerging Science and Technology (although there's lots of others in the area including the Fuji TV Museum, Martime Sciences Museum (think ships), Shell Museum (the gasoline company, not real shells), and more). It was a pretty big museum and had some neat exibits about things like space, robotics, and nano machines. It had English translations for most of the stuff, which was nice, although a lot of it got really scientific. It started out interesting but my mind began to bog down a bit after reading too much of it. There's also some more visual and hands on type stuff for the kids (and people who get tired of reading desciption boards after a while).
Having had enough science for one day, and wanting to make it to my last major destination, I left the museum a bit earlier than I could have and headed for Odaiba Edo Onsen Montigiri, a "themepark" based on onsen (Japanese hot spring baths) and the Edo period. Now if you think that sounds like a really weird theme for a themepark, it is. Still fun though. It's a real onsen too (they actually managed to find a spring way underground) so it's a great place to try the whole onsen experience without the time or expense of traveling to one of the usual onsen resort towns. And it's definately an experience, in some ways more so than going to an actual onsen resort.
You start out by getting a shoe locker and ditching your shoes, traditional Japanese style and all that. After that you pay and get your pass, which is a wrist band with a locker key (for your main locker, not your shoe locker) and a barcode. To save you the trouble of carrying a wallet around (and I do think it would have been a bit of a pain to carry mine, you'll see why in a minute), any time you want to buy something while you're inside the park, they just scan your wristband and you pay up when you leave the park. After getting your pass, you've got to get a yukata (traditional Japanese summer time type outfit) to wear while you're inside. Yukata rental is included with admission to the park and guys and girls both have about eight different designs to choose from (mine was a light blue color with a mountain design on it). After that it's off to the changing room where you change into your yukata and dump your clothes and other stuff in a big locker. For people who can't figure out how to put on a yukata, there's a sign with English instructions in the changing room (useful since I probably wouldn't have gotten the belt right on my own). From this point on, it's barefeet and yukatas only.
Emerging from the locker room, I found myself in Edo (old time Tokyo). Well, sorta. It's no Nikko Edo Mura (the Edo era village theme park I went to last year), but the "main street" is still fun to walk around and packed with stores, Japanese style carnival games, and restaurants. There's even some live entertainment from time to time. If you're hungry there's two foodcourts and a ton of restaurants. It's mostly various types of traditional Japanese food (but quite a wide variety of that). Nearly all the restaurants had picture menus but there was almost no English and some of the menus had so much kanji that I could have only figured them out with my electric dictionary in hand, so I went with kake soba (a Japanese noodle dish) for dinner, simple, popular, and and a nice safe standby when I can't figure out what the heck the rest of the things on a menu are. Aside from the food and shopping there's also a traditional ryoukan style rest room (a large tatami room with a lot of low tables people can lounge around when they want to relax). Most of that stuff stays open till around 9 although the main baths are open all night (closed only during mid morning when the entire complex is shut down). I heard they even have a capsule hotel in there somewhere.
Anyway, it's an onsen park after all so what people really come for is the baths. There's a lot to choose from. First off, the foot bath (it was dark outside by the time I went to check out that area). There's a large outdoor area with a sort of onsen river looping around it. Great for walking through or dangling your feet in the water but that's about it Keep in mind that, unless you're really tall, you're gonna have to hold up the sides of your yukata so it doesn't get wet. It's also one of the only baths that isn't seperated by gender.
Moving on, there was a whole lot of special baths (hot sand bath, hot stone slab bath, etc) and oriental massage type stuff available but those cost extra so I saved my money and instead headed to the main baths. There's seperate main bath areas for both men and women, the only exception to the rule being little kids who have to stay with whatever parent brought them. Naturally I was only in the men's bath but I'm going to assume that the two are pretty similiar. The baths start out with yet another locker room where you pick up towels and another locker key (yes, all the different lockers do get kinda redundant). You use this locker to stash your regular locker key, large towel (to dry off with after the bath), and yukata. The only things you bring into the bath itself are your bath locker key and the smaller of the two towels you were given (basically a really large washcloth). Keep in mind that, even though this is a "themepark" it's still a traditional Japanese onsen which means that everyone goes in completely naked. Like I said, it's seperated by genders but if you're extremely shy or have some other problem with being naked or being surrounded by a lot of other naked people, you're going to have to either get over it or take a bath in your apartment/house/hotel room, instead.
Interesting note, people with tatoos aren't allowed inside. It's nothing against tatoos exactly... Thing is, members of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) have a tradition of being heavily tatooed so in Japan tatoos and the Yakuza are linked in many people's minds, making them uncomfortable around people with tatoos (like many people in the US would probably be uncomfortable if a whole bunch of Hell's Angels bikers sat next to them in a restaurant).
Anyway, I already covered onsen etiquette in a previous post so I won't go into it again but it's the same at the park. As always, it's very important to follow (there are some cultural things, such as onsen etiquiette and where you can and can't wear shoes, in which Japanese people have a lot less tolerance for mistakes than others). Fortunately, there's an English signboard somewhere in the locker room with the details if you're new to the whole thing.
The main bath area was pretty big and had something like nine different baths in a very nice setup. Water temperature was usually the main difference (mostly ranging from warm to moderately hot, with one really cold and a couple really hot) although there was also a bath with spa jets, and one with milky white water that I assume was from some sort of mineral mix (there was a sign explaning it but I couldn't translate the part that said what was in the water). Two of the baths were outdoors in a nifty little faux mountain retreat setting (complete with rocks, trees, waterfall, etc). And, if you wanted the heat without the water, there was a big sauna too.
And that's the onsen park. If you like (or just want to try out) the whole onsen thing without having to leave Tokyo I'd said it's definately worth checking out and your admission fee is good until closing time (the following morning since it's open all night) so it's great for anything from a couple of hours to an entire day if you're really enjoying yourself (although if you're staying that long, keep in mind that it wouldn't be healthy to stay in the baths the entire time, so take a break and hang out in the Edo main street from time to time).
I had work the next day so I didn't want to stay too late so after exploring the onsen park, hanging out in the baths for a while, and getting dinner I changed back into my regular clothes, paid my tab, and headed for the nearest monorail station.


1/18/2008 The Japanese school system

There's a new voter's bonus comic on TWC and a new ROM. Speaking of the bonus comic, it's a special one featuring the winner of last month's Week of Randomness contest on the forums.

It's been getting colder around here and so has my apartment. I have to say, for such a tiny place (and with such a high electric bill, presumably from using the heaters so much) I find it very strange and annoying that the temperature of the apartment in general never reaches warm, just slightly less cold. I'm only warm in here when in bed, in the bath/shower (with the hot water running of course), or sitting right next to the heater (and even that usually only manages to warm one side of my body). It's almost like there's a space time anamoly in here that sucks out most of the warm air...

As previously mentioned, I've been sorting Mystery Dungeon sprites and making nice sprite sheets. It's going slowly. Partly because I've got a lot of other things I need to work on and partly cause there's just so many sprites. First off there's 386 pokémon plus some variations (unowns, deoxys forms, etc), although to be fair I don't have sprites for all of them yet. Thing is though, your average pokémon have between 30 and 70 different sprites each! Yep, that's for each of the 386 pokémon. I wonder how many sprite artists they had working on those games... Anyway, I am more or less finished with the first 151 (the original Reb/Blue guys), which is also the group I was able to find the most complete sheets for. Now I don't have full sheets for all of them, but I have enough sprites for all of the first 151 EXCEPT for: Flareon, Omanyte, Omastar, and Mew. So if anyone can find/make sprite sheets for those guys (especially mew) it'd be much appreciated. And hey, if anyone wants to send me sheets for guys I already have that's ok too, might have some of the poses I'm missing. Unfortunately, I think I'm missing a much larger number of pokémon from the 152-251 and 252-386 sets but I haven't finished sorting those yet so I can't say which ones right now.

Random Japan Comment: Public School in Japan
The public school system has many things in common with the US at first glance, but if you look closer there's a whole lot of differences, some minor, some significant. Like in the US, there are elementary (1st - 6th grade), junior high (7th - 9th), and high schools (10th - 12th) and the ages at which students enter are roughly equivalent as well. Interesting note, high school is optional, but only a very very small number of people (several percent of the country's entire student population at most) drop out. I should probably also note that there are lots of private preschools but very few private schools for elementary age kids and up.
The school year begins in April and ends in March (unlike the US which starts in Aug or Sept and goes through sometime in May or Jun). Japanese kids attend school during most of the year. Naturally they get national holidays off but aside from that breaks are very short compared to the US with Japanese students getting only about two weeks for winter vacation, a week or two for spring, and a month for summer. They also tend to spend a much longer portion of their day at school. Even in elementary schools the kids are there before 8 and don't leave until around 4. Junior and senior high students often stay much later for club meetings (meetings, and even joining a club in the first place, are mandatory at many schools). Because of this, many junior and senior high students have to get up extremely early and don't get home until fairly late, at which point they have to do their homework for the following day, leaving them little time for sleep. It's quite common to see students walking around on their way to school in the morning or way home in the evening looking like they're about to fall asleep at any given moment (because of the public transit system and the relative safety of the country, most kids walk, bike, or take the trains/subways to and from school). Many also have to go to club meetings (or, at some schools, even extra classes) during part of the weekend. Skipping school for nearly any reason (sickness included) is majorly discouraged.
All students have a home room teacher who stays with their class for the entire year (or in some cases their entire time at the school). Classes are set as well so the same group of students studies together the entire time which means it's important to try and stay on good terms with everyone in the class since they're together so often). In elementary school the homeroom teachers teach nearly every subject. In junior and senior high there are dedicated teachers for different subjects (who are often home room teachers as well) but the students don't go to them, they go to the individual class rooms (the only exception being classes that need special areas, equipment, and the like (labs, sports, etc)). As such, there isn't much flexibility in the curriculum, you learn what they want you to learn and that's about it.
Since high school is optional (even though pretty much everyone does it anyway), it's considered a privallage, not a right, to attend. Unlike elementary and junior high (where students attend what's usually the closest school to where they live), high schools have extremely rigorous entrance exams. High schools are also ranked based on how many of their students make it into top colleges so competition for the best high schools (even if they're far away) is fierce. To prepare, many junior high students attend private cram schools at night (on top of everything else) to help prepare for the tests. High school students preparing for college face an even larger array of entrance exams which usually means more cram school. Upon failing to make it into the college of their choice, some people will even wait until the following year (getting a dead end type job in the meantime) to retake the exams rather than enter a lower ranking college (on the plus side, college in Japan is typically very easy and undemanding, giving the students time to rest, enjoy club activities, and unwind a bit after years of overwork before starting their career).
The other things worth mentioning are clubs and school uniforms. Clubs are found mostly in junior high and high school (and colleges) but many elementary schools have them too (albiet unmandatory and with fewer meetings). Clubs cover an extremely wide range of subject from sports (technically, a school's baseball/volleyball/whatever team is a club) to music to anime. Students are expected to join one (and only one) club shortly after arriving at the school and to stay in that club until they leave the school. In many schools both joining a club and attending all the meetings and activities (which there are often quite a lot of, especially for the sports clubs) is mandatory. However, it does ensure that students spend lots of time with others who have similiar interests so clubs are often the favorite part of a student's school experience.
Now for school uniforms. If you haven't already figured it out, schools in Japan are a lot more strictly regimented than ones in the US, which fits with the general social rule in Japan of going along with the crowd and not sticking out (which has led to a lot of blatent counter cultures but this isn't the place to discuss that). School uniforms are a part of it and are a hallmark of junior high and high school (most elementary schools and colleges do not have uniforms). Any anime or manga fan can recognize a school uniform at a glance but for everyone else reading this I'll give a description. Keep in mind however, that uniforms vary by schools. And, even though they usually follow more or less the same basic setup, some are quite unique and locals can easily identify which school a student attends just by glimpsing the uniform. The typical uniform for boys is dark slacks (usually black or dark blue) with a white button down shirt, sometimes with a dark tie, and a dark coat (usually with large metal buttons). Girls get a "sailor suit" which is a dark skirt (of varying lengths) and a shirt or blouse that's usually either dark blue, black, or white and has one of those sailor type flare things around the neck, sometimes they wear a tie too. Both girls and guys' uniforms were originally based on US Navy uniforms. Also worth nothing is that the girls' uniforms are widely considered to be very cute and attractive. An idea that's sometimes taken a bit too far... Interestingly enough (considering that uniforms are mandatory there is little tolerance for not wearing or altering them), students have to buy their own uniforms and, from what I've heard, they aren't cheap.

Ok, that's enough for now. Have a great weekend!


1/16/2008 Running late again

If case anyone is wondering, my cold seems to be just about gone, although I don't think today's half hour early morning bike ride to work helped much. But anyway, cause of the cold I've fallen behind on several things this week so I'm gonna keep this short.

First, I'd like to thank the people who have send me Mystery Dungeon sprites so far. I'm currently in the process of taking the ones I've found and ones I've been sent and organizing them into nice formated sprite sheets. Which, aside from beind a neccessity if/when I start using the sprites in the comic, helps me easily tell at a glance which pokémon I still need. I'm post a list when I'm done sorting but for now please keep sending me sprites if you find/rip any.

Before I go, a couple more things about Monday's trip to the sumo tournament that I forgot to put in my last post. First, the sumo museum in the stadium. It was free with admission to the tournament. Pretty small but worth a look if you're already there. There was actually a decent amount of English translations but the grammar was pretty poor and there were some occasional (and really weird) spelling errors. My favorite line was, "His sun had a very heathly and strong childfood."
Also, while watching the matches, I started to wonder if any of the wrestlers ever got seriously hurt falling out of the ring. Some just kinda got pushed out or fall right outside the ring but others would go tumbling off the raised platform itself. Looked like it could be pretty painful if you fell wrong, although I suppose most of them have a lot of padding... For that matter, I also wondered if anyone ever got hurt by a sumo wrestler who was falling out of the ring. There were a few time I saw that they smacked into other wrestlers who were waiting for their matches and one wrestler who fell out completely flattened one of the judges (at least I think that's what the guy was). Everyone seemed to get up pretty quickly from what I saw but it does seem a little dangerous.


1/14/2008 Sumo

Hasn't been the best day for me. Some things went ok, but others... On the plus side, I got Monday off cause of a national holiday (the one for people who turn twenty in the past nine months or next three months) so I decided to hang out and relax Sunday. On the down side, my apartment was freezing all day on Sunday despite having both heaters running (not to mention my December electric bill was even higher (a lot higher) than November's). Plus my internet has been randomly dieing about every other day lately. Needless to say, I really dislike this apartment. I ended up getting a small cold on Sunday too (fortunately it's not too bad, just hope it goes away soon). To top off the bad luck, when I got back from today's excursion (which fortunately went fine), I found that my router had somehow reverted all its settings to the factory defaults, which kinda killed my network and internet until I got everything back to the way it was supposed to be. Ok, on with what I did today.

Monday (14th): Sumo Wrestling
Japan has several sumo tournaments throughout the year in different parts of the country. The January tournament is going on right now in Tokyo. It started yesterday and goes for two weeks. Being one of Japan's two national sports (the other being baseball), I figured I should check it out since I'm here and all. Tickets range from the equivalent of hundreds of dollars (for the seats closest to the ring) to less than $20 (same day tickets at the very top of the stadium, which is what I got). The stadium is easy to get to and a ticket gets you in for the entire day (around 8:40 - 6 or so). If you plan far enough ahead (and have decent Japanese skills), you preorder tickets, which is the best way to go if you want anything aside from the cheapest seats (which actually can't be preordered). Otherwise, the box office sells around 350 cheap tickets every morning starting around 8:20. I got there at 7:20 and there was already a line, although not a very long one. It did get a lot longer over the following hour though so getting there early is a good idea.
Thing is, though lots of people buy tickets early, hardly anyone goes to the early matches. See, the day starts out with about 20 minutes of matches between unranked trainees. Around 9 or so the matches between the lowest ranking wrestlers start and they go on for several hours. It's not until mid afternoon when the mid ranking wrestlers show up that the place starts to fill up (naturally the higest ranking wrestlers towards the end of the day attract biggest following). BTW, this fancy aprons are given to the mid ranking guys and above but they're not worn during the actual matches, just ceremonies. According to the pamphlet I got at the stadium, each one costs at least 2,000,000 yen (a bit under $20,000) to make.
Anyway, sumo itself is a very old sport and still retains much of the ancient training routines and ceremony. Wrestlers live a very strictly regimented life and are easily recognizable no matter where you see them since they always wear traditional clothes and hairstyles. The matches are very ceremonial in nature and start with a guy chanting something followed by the wrestlers following a set procedure of where to stamp, foot stomping, and the like, before the referee actually calls the start of the match.
When the match begins the wrestlers charge at each other. A wrestler loses if any part of his body touches the ground outside the ring or if anything other than the soles of his feet touches the floor inside the ring. There's no best two out of three or anything, it's just one match and that's it so if a wrestler gets a bad start or something they're gonna lose. Fortunately, their overall performance is based on how many matches they win over the course of the entire tournament so a little bad luck isn't neccessarily a disaster. The opening ceremony for each match can easily take a couple of minutes or more (especially with the higher ranked guys) but the matches themselves are often finished in seconds, maybe a minute at most. Here's a movie of a couple of the mid ranking guys fighting. This was one of the more exciting matches I saw (in general the higher ranking the guys the more interesting it was to watch), but quite a lot of battles were over in less than ten seconds when one guy was just pushed out of the ring right from the start.
I also walked around inside the stadium. There's a restaurant, some snack stands, a bunch of souvineer shops, and a sumo museum.
My ticket allowed me to leave and re enter the stadium once so after watching a bunch of low ranked guys I took a break and went to the nearby Tokyo Edo Museum. It chronicles the history of Tokyo (which used to be called Edo) from the Edo period till modern times. It was a very interesting museum and quite a lot of the stuff had English translations. There were lots of models and recreations of stuff, many life sized, and real artifacts as well. For example, here's a recreation of an Edo era bookstore and here's an Edo era peasant's house (only slightly smaller than my apartment). Anyway, it was a really cool museum.
I finished with the museum just in time to get back to the sumo stadium in time for the mid ranking matches (which I already posted some pictures of) and watched those for a little while before heading home. I was kinda tempted to stay another hour or so and see a few of the matches between the highest ranking guys but as I already mentioned I got a little bit of a cold so I decided I should probably get back a bit early.


1/11/2008 State of the comic address (site redesign, Mystery Dungeon sprites, etc)

Ugh... My web editor randomly crashed just as I nearly finished writing this the first time. Cause of that, it's probably going to be a little abbreviated this time around.

Anyway, there's a new bonus comic so please click the TWC button or banner and confirm you vote to see it. There's also a new ROM. If you don't get today's comic, you've probably never played a Pokémon game Things will probably become clearer after the next strip or two but, for a quick explanation, in the games your character somehow stores their bike in their backpack when they're not using and then just pulls it out when needed.

I took my brother to the airport today and we didn't do anything over the past couple days that's really worthy of a write up (took him to Yokohama but didn't really go anywhere I hadn't been before). So today I'm going to take a break from Japan stuff and talk about some things related to the comic instead.

First off, I had a few minutes to kill yesterday so I Googled Pebble Version (something I do from time to time) and came across a couple of very nice new reviews that I hadn't seen before. It always feels good when I find something like that. Glad to know you guys are enjoying the comic. Big thanks to all my fans who have taken the time to write review the comic over the years. To say thanks, I decided to go ahead and do the next set of old strip commentary (no donations neccessory) so look for that in the next week or two.

Now to discuss some PV related issues that I've been thinking about lately (and that fans often ask about).

1. Site Redesign. I made this website a long time ago back when I was still new to web design. As such, while it works ok, it's certainly a bit rough around the edges. I've been thinking and talking about redesigning it for ages and with my current web and graphic design skills I could easily make a much nicer site (although the thought of completely redoing a 1000+ page website isn't very appealing). BUT, I can't make the site I want. See, if I redesign the site I want to go all out with things like php based archives, auto updatings scripts, a script that randomly displays different ad banners on all the pages, a major facelift for the forums, etc.
Problem is, while I've become very good at html based websites and general graphic design, I never learned scripting. So I have no idea how to do all the fancy php and javascript work needed to make stuff like the new archives and banner system. And, while I do know basic CSS, the CSS used for the forums is a bit beyond my current level.
So the site redesign is basically on hold until I either learn how to do that stuff (if I go back to school for a Master's I plan on auditing some of the more advanced web design classes in my spare time) or find someone who can do it for me for a reasonable price (I have some money set aside for it from donations but PV isn't a big money maker so funds are very limited right now).

2. Mystery Dungeon Sprites. A lot of readers have suggested that I start using sprites from the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games for the pokémon in the or the Ruby/Sapphire sprites I use now. Top reasons include the facts that the MD sprites look better and include a whole lot more poses (the R/S ones only have two poses each). Personally, I'd love to switch over to MD sprites...but it's not quite that simple.
See, to do it right I'd need sprites for every pokémon. Complete sheets would be ideal but at very least I'd need several sprites per pokémon. Unfortunately, ripping sprites takes a lot of time and, while I already have a full set of pokémon sprites from R/S (I have been doing this comic for quite a long time after all), with MD I'd have to start from scratch. Which would mean playing through the game while getting every single pokémon and ripping the sprites for them myself. Now if I was making a living off PV then something like that would be totally feasible. But since that's never going to happen I've got things like work and other obligations that come before this comic. Long story short, I just don't have nearly enough time to do that.
Of course, I can still check the internet for sprite sheets that other people have ripped. After some serious searching, I have complete sprite sheets for pokémon #1 - #125 and around 30 or 40 random others plus incomplete sheets of another 20 or so. Someone also sent me a link to a site that has one pose for each pokémon (but like I already said, I really need at least several). Not a bad start, but nowhere near what I'd need to make the switch.
So, if I'm going to do it I need some help. I currently have all the stuff on this site (note, while most of the pokémon listed there have complete sheets, a few don't) and good (though not complete) sheets for: espeon, umbreon, treeko, poochyena, zigzagoon, taillow, and torchic (a better sheet than the one on that page I linked to). If any of you spot some sprite sheets on the net of pokémon that I'm missing or want to rip some sprites youself please send them to me. Sprites can be from any of the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games and should be in png, gif, bmp, or psd files (jpgs don't work well for sprites). I'd prefer sprites without shadows but that's not a must.
While I'd ideally want full sheets for pokémon #1 - #386, that's a pretty tall order and I could get by for now with at least several poses for every pokémon that is catchable in Ruby/Sapphire plus non any R/S pokémon that have appeared in the comic (like mew and mewtwo). Naturally, special priority would be on pokémon in the main characters' parties and their evolved and unevolved forms.
In a nutshell, the switch will happen...IF and when I can find all the sprites I need.

Ok, that's enough for now. There's a couple other things I've been considering but they can wait till another day (especially since I had to retype this whole long thing). Have a good weekend!


1/9/2008 The Japanese Alps

There's a new ROM. If you missed Monday's post, it did go up...on Tuesday. It's great, got lots of info on pachinko and everything. I had it all ready to go on Monday like usual but the internet in my apartment died and didn't starting working again until the next day so I couldn't upload it till Tuesday.
If you're wondering, I'm not really stating any opinion about the strike with this comic, it's just that all this touring with my brother has left me way behind on PV strips and this gives me a relavant and hopefully amusing cop out (plus it only took like 2 minutes to make, which is a big plus tonight since I've got a ton of stuff to do). Anyway, I did promise to talk about my overnight trip to the Japanese Alps so let's get started.

Sunday (6th): Japanese Alps Day 1
I'd always planned to do an overnight trip with my brother though the heavy hotel bookings and massive amount of closed shops and tourist spots around New Years made me change my original plans, but it worked out just fine in the end so I shouldn't complain. Anyway, we headed out fairly early in the morning and got a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano, a city that's more or less the gateway to the Japanese Alps (not sure why Japan couldn't come up with a more original name for the mountain range, I mean we really don't need two sets of Alaps). Nagano and the surrounding area was also the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Nagano itself isn't all that exciting and generally serves as more of a stop over point on the way other places further into the mountains. Nagano's one big attraction is the Zenkoji temple. I wasn't sure if it'd be all that impressive after some of the shrines and temples I'd already seen but I figured that as long as we were in Nagano anyway (had to switch from the Shinkansen to the regular trains) we might as well go see it. The tourist info office wasn't open yet so my brother and I just followed the signs. Unfortunately, we didn't quite follow them far enough. See, we ended up coming across a small temple, figuring that was it, taking a couple pictures, then heading back. Turns out we should have kept walking for another block. Anyway, we did get to see the real temple (which was pretty nice) the following day so I'll get back to it.
After our brief time in Nagano we got on a train to the first of our main destinations, Matsumoto. Either a very large town or a rather small city, Matsumoto is quite a nice place to visit. Even the weather was good (surprising considering that some major Japanese ski resorts aren't all that far away) There's a lot of museums, a shopping street with a frog theme, and plenty of other stuff to see. The big draw (and the main reason I wanted to go there) is Matsumoto castle. It's the oldest surviving castle in Japan that's still in its original form (many of the other remaining castles had to be rebuilt or massively rennovated). As you can probably tell from the pictures, Japanese castles are a lot different than European ones, although there's still a moat and a courtyard. The castle was really cool and there's a great self guided walking tour through the whole thing (complete with English translations of all the important stuff). So we got to see the inside, see some displays, and get some great views from the top. There's also an interesting museum right nearby that has relics and information from the town (and castle's) history.
I'd originally planned to go to another museum after that but Noah wasn't all that excited about it and wanted to go to a different place on my list instead (putting the museum off until the next day). I agreed, forgetting at the time that most museums are closed on Mondays (so I didn't get go), and we headed to the Daio Wasabi Farm. Speaking of wasabi, the area around Matsumoto is rather famous for it. At the farm you can walk around, see the fields, get lots of different foods (all with wasabi), take a 'pickle your own wasabi' workshop, and the like. We got there a little late in the day so we didn't have time to do too much except walk around and check out the stores (wasabi chocolate anyone?) but it was still neat.
Eventually we made it to our hotel, the ryokan (a ryokan is a traditional Japanese style inn) Seifuso. It was chosen for a combination of online bookings (in English) and price. It was nice though I would have prefered a hotel with an onsen (hot springs). But the ones that I had found nearby were too expensive. Here's a picture of our Japanese style room.

Monday (7th): Japanese Alps Day 2
The next morning we headed back to Nagano (since it's kinda the hub for trains in that area) then took a train to Yudanaka. Yudanaka is an onsen town close to some more ski areas. It was a lot colder and snowier there but we weren't there to ski or hang out in an onsen, but to see Yudanaka's most famous attraction, Jigokudani Yaen Koen. It's a park / wildlife preserve and the home of a whole lot of wild Japanese Snow Monkeys. Getting there took a bit of work (we had to take a bus from the station then walk for quite a ways) but it was worth it. There were monkeys all over the place and we weren't stuck on one side of a fence or glass window but right there with them. The monkeys didn't really mind people so taking nice close up shots was no problem and neither was posing with the monkeys. Of course, you weren't supposed to feed them or touch them (probably a good idea even though they look all soft and cuddly). Like I said, there were quite a lot of monkeys around and that included babies. They monkeys even had their own onsen, which a lot of them like to hang out in during the winter.
When we finally finished watching and photographing the monkeys, it was back to Nagano. Before heading back home, Noah wanted to check out a sake brewery he'd heard about. There wasn't all that much to see but they did have a restaurant and a store. While we were there, we also ran into the real Zenkoji temple (and realized that we'd visited the wrong place the previous morning) so we stopped to check it out. The road leading up to it is lined with shops, restaurants, and ryokan and there's big gate part way up. Note the statues on either side. It's kinda hard to tell from the photo but they're really around 20 feet tall. The temple itself wasn't super impressive from the outside but there was a lot of fancy stuff inside (which you naturally couldn't photograph) like hangings, statues, and all sorts of decoration type stuff. If you got an admission ticket (which let you get a closer look at said fancy stuff), you could also go through a pitch dark tunnel under the temple. Aside from the fact that it's kinda fun to find your way through without being able to see, you're also supposed to be feeling around to try to find a special handle that's on one of the walls. Not quite sure what the purpose of it is, but I found it. By then it was getting kind of late so Noah and I got something to eat and headed back to the train station.
And that pretty much wraps up my trip to the Japanese Alps. Definately a lot of fun and I highly recommend Matsumoto castle and the monkey park in Yudanaka.


1/7/2008 Gambling

I know this is a day late and I'm really sorry but the internet at my apartment complex was down so there wasn't anything I could do about it.

My brother and I spent Sunday and Monday exploring some areas in the Japanese Alps. Saw some really cool stuff but at the moment I don't even have time to finish sorting my photos, much less type up a whole big thing about it. Gotta get back to work tomorrow and all that... So that stuff will have to wait for Wednesday. In the meantime, we did do something interesting on Saturday...

Saturday (5th): Trying Pachinko
Pachinko is the Japanese alternative to slot machines (although lots of pachinko parlors have some slot machines too) and it's very popular. For details, see the following Random Japan Comment.
So, I'd been meaning to give pachinko a try one of these days, not cause I particularily like gambling but just to check it out, and Noah did too so Saturday night we stopped by a pachinko parlor in Akihabara. It took us a little while to figure out what to do (so the first 1000 yen disapeared pretty quickly) but with a little help from the person sitting next to us we soon got the hang of it. So we put in another 1000 and Noah got lucky and got a bonus round going. From that point on we swapped back and forth every now and then instead of getting two seperate machines. Noah definately had luck on his side but I didn't do horribly either (although he was the one who activated most of the bonus rounds). While he was taking his turn, I watched some of the other people in the parlor and was able to figure out what to do with our winnings. We quit after a certain amount of time although we had been doing pretty well so we probably could have kept going. After getting our balls counted (see the following RJC) and exchanging the points for prizes, we hung around outside the parlor for a couple minutes then trailed one of the other players to the real exchange station where we traded our prizes for cash and boy were we surprised. Our 2000 yen investment had netted us whopping 26,000! Of course, we probably just got lucky but after a first try like that I'm gonna have it give it another go at some point...

Random Japan Comment: Pachinko
You can think of pachinko kind of like the Japanese alternative to slot machines. It's kinda part slot machine and part pinball.
Pachinko parlors can be found pretty much everywhere in Japan (in Tokyo, there's a particularily large concentration of them in Ueno) and are usually easily recognizable by their big colorful banners, bright lights, defeaningly loud music, etc. They also tend to smell strongly of ciggerette smoke (although some aren't quite so bad in that regard). People under 20 aren't allowed to play pachinko (mostly because many pachinko players tend to smoke and drink, not cause of the gambling part) but from what I've heard that rule isn't very strongly enforced. For the recrod, casino type gambling is illegal in Japan, though pachinko is basically gambling, it loopholes the law. More on that in a minute.
In a nutshell, you pay to get a bunch of little metal balls and then you turn a knob to launch the balls into pachinko machine where (if you've got the knob turned to a decent spot) they'll fall down through a bunch of pins to a hole at the bottom. If you're lucky, some of the balls will fall in the other holes that are spread through the grid of pins. Unfortunately, you don't really have any control over where the balls go behind how far they're initially shot so it's pretty much luck. Getting balls in the special holes typicallys wins you a few more balls. In the old pachinko machines that was pretty much the whole thing. With the newer ones however, getting balls in the right hole will activate a virtual slot machine on a built in monitor. If you get really lucky and match three symbols you'll be treated to a short movie and a bonus round will start. Basically, another hole opens up on the board and for each ball you get in there you win a whole lot more. The bonus round will go on for a while and then it'll switch back to normal mode. There's also different levels of bonuses depending on luck, where the balls go, and how well you're doing in general. The exact details vary a bit by machine (ours had a big red button you had to push at certain times to help you win the virtual slot) and the machines come in a variety of themes but that's pretty much how the game goes. To be blunt it's not really all that fun or exciting, most of the time you're basically just holding a knob steady, but you can get into flow of things and just zone out a bit. If you start to accumulate a lot of balls (as opposed to losing them all) you can dump them into a plastic tray. Fill the tray and an employee will soon notice and swap it for an empty one, while stacking your full trays nearby. When you're done an employee will use a machine to count your balls and give you a paper with your total amount.
Now it's time to take your paper and trade those points for prizes. Typical stuff includes food, drinks, and ciggeretts but some parlors have much fancier things. But, unless you're dying for a bunch of candy bars, just grab something cheap cause you have to get at least one regular prize. After picking your normal prize(s) you'll be given little medal type things in exchange for the rest of your points. I think the looks vary a bit by parlor but they're basically fancy little plastic thingies. Now to loophole that anti-gambling law. If you haven't done it before, wait for someone else with a stack of medals to leave and follow them. Somewhere in the general vacinity (usually tucked off to the side down a small street or alley) you'll find a little booth or window that "just happens" to be buying those medals you won. What a convenient coincidence! Or not. But anyway, give them your medals and they'll give you a bunch of yen in return (different medals are worth different amounts).
Of course, none of that matters if you didn't manage to win anything but it's really all luck so it doesn't hurt to be prepared just in case... From my limited experience, it looks like you tend to either lose fast or get on a roll and win big so you never know.


1/4/2008 More touring with Noah

Sorry the update is a bit late, I don't intend to make a habit of it but things might stay that way for the coming week until my brother leaves. Anyway, there's a new bonus comic and it's a new month so this is a great time to vote for Pebble Version on TWC. New ROM too. Also, I'm giving the Japanese figurine raffle one more go (see the Donation Info section below the donation guage for full details). I've got some new stuff to add to it (some figurines from Zelda Phantom Hourglass and Tales of Symphonia) but it might be a few days before I get around to adding pictures. Anyway, if PV doesn't receive at least $25 in total donations this month (the minimun amount for a raffle drawing to be held), I'm probably just gonna sell my extra figurines to one of the shops in Akihabara so if you want some you'd better hurry up and donate.
Speaking of which, I'm adding a new way to donate, which may be of interest to those who can't or don't want to use Paypal or snail mail donations. I'll now accept Wii Virtual Console games (given via the new Wii Shopping Channel gifts feature). Basically, if you give me a VC game I'll credit you with a PV donation equal to the cost of the game ($1 = 100 Wii points). If you're interested, send me an e-mail telling me how much you want to donate and I'll give you my Wii friend code and the titles of some Virtual Console games I want that cost the amount you want to donate.

Ok, now on with the touring info.

Wednesday (2nd): Disneysea
Once again, a lot of stuff is closed around New Years which limited our possible destinations (no point in going somewhere if everything you want to see is closed). Disney is open 365 days a year and there's no equivalent of Disneysea in the US so I took Noah there. It was a good bit more crowded than last time I went (which was to be expected, given the holiday and all) and my brother has a lot less patience than me when it comes to lines but we still managed to hit most of the rides and attractions. I already gave Disneysea a pretty big write up when I first went there so I'm not going to repeat all that. Suffice to say, it's a great park and I always enjoy myself at Disney parks so we had a good time. Also tried the buffet restaurant they've got near the Tower of Terror, really good. Anyway, here's a few pictures (sorry about the over exposed sky in some of them, my camera settings were a bit off and I didn't really notice until today).

Thursday (3rd): Shopping in Tokyo
I showed Noah more of Tokyo, namely Ueno and Asakusa. Useful tip, avoid Asakusa around New Years, there's so many people there to visit the shrine that even getting to a lot of the best shops is near impossible. Speaking of shops, in America we've got the day after Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas. In Japan, on the other hand, the two or three days following New Years are the big shopping days. There's lots of sales and special deals plus many Japanese stores have a selection of mystery bags for sale. A mystery bag is a bag full of stuff that would cost a whole lot more if you bought it all seperately. But, since it's in a mystery bag, you don't really know what you're going to get until after you buy it. Although, many bags are themed after various things such as a particular brand or product type and clothing mystery bags (the most common from what I saw) have sizes marked on them so you're not completely in the dark about the contents. They can be a bit of a money waster but they're also kinda fun and an incredible bargain if you can find some stuffed with things you want.

Friday (4th): Sendai
Today Noah and I went somewhere I hadn't been before. Sendai is a city a ways to the north of Tokyo, it's the biggest city in that part of Japan with about a million people or so. It's too far for me to do a day trip on the local trains but it's not all that long of a ride on the shinkansen (bullet train), although shinkansen tickets are pretty expensive so that's a whole different problem.
First stop in Sendai was the ruins of Sendai castle, also known as Aobajo. There's a nice tourist bus that loops around a large portion of the city and stops at many of Sendai's main attractions, include Aobajo. Unfortunately, Noah and I didn't take it since my tour book said that a different bus also went to Aobajo and said other bus arrived at the bus stop first so we got on. Turns out the tour book was wrong and that bus left us stranded a decent distance from our destination. We eventually managed to get there (thanks to some helpful people and another bus) but we wasted a decent amount of time in the process.
There really isn't much of anything left of the castle but there's a restored gate house part way up the hill. The former castle site itself is home to a shrine, some restaurants, and a nice (although rather small and kinda expensive) museum with some artifacts from the castle and recreations of what it looked like when it was standing. One interesting thing I saw there was one of the shrine priests apparently blessing cars. Not really sure what was up with that. Anyway, there were also some monuments for Date Masamune, one of Sendai's former lords and the one who had the original castle built. He seems to be quite the local hero. The former castle site also offered a great view of Sendai. See that enormous statue in the distance? Want to know what it is? Well so do I. It wasn't listed in my tour book (would have gone if it was) so I'm gonna have to do some searching on the internet.
From there we walked down the hill and across the river, heading for the next stop on my list. We paused briefly to check out a small shrine on the way but our destination was Zuihoden, which is Date Masamune's masuleum. It's quite a neat building and a couple of Date's successors have similar ones there was well. Unfortunately, the originals were destroyed in the war so the ones there now are very accurate (and very costly) recreations. But there is a little museum that holds relics from the original structures.
After that we made our way back to Sendai station to check out the large shopping arcades nearby. A shopping arcade it like a shopping street (as in it's a street lined with all kinds of stores and restaurants) that has a roof overhead. There was a good variety of stuff and a couple of my favorite stores from Akihabara even had branches there. Certainly not worth traveling to Sendai for, but the arcades make for a nice stroll if you're already there.
We headed home after finishing up in the shopping arcades. I had a couple more items on my 'to see' list but since we'd lost a lot of time in the morning thanks to the bus mix up there just wasn't enough time. Might go back on my own sometime (despite the overpriced shinkansen ticket) and check them out though. Besides, I'd really like to get a closer look at the huge statue.

See you Monday!


1/2/2008 New Years in Japan

Got back pretty late tonight so I'm gonna try and keep this kinda short. I did get my lost pictures recovered so I'll cover Monday and Tuesday for now.

Monday (31st): Kamakura
My plans on where to take my brother were limited by the fact that a heck of a lot of stuff closes on and around New Years. But, since visiting shrines is a New Years tradition in Japan, they're all open. So we headed for Kamakura. I gave it a pretty thurough write up the last time I was there and (as previously mentioned) it's kinda late right now so I'm not going to go into detail about places like the Daibutsu, Hasedera (nothing special about that statue, by the way, it just happens to be at Hasedera), and Tsurugaokahachimangu. We did, however, go to a couple of shrines that I hadn't visited before. Engakuji was a very large shrine complex in a nice setting. Right nearby was Tokeiji, which has an interesting historical background as a place where mistreated women went to get a divorce from their husband back before it became legal for women request a divorce. It wasn't a decision to be taken lightly though, as the women had to live and work at the shrine for three full years before their divorce would be granted. The shrine itself wasn't all that big but it too had a very nice forest setting to it.
We had thought about hanging out in Tokyo till midnight to see the fireworks but, since the last train to Koga was at 11:30, we would have been stuck there all night and hotels on New Years Eve in Japan are typically booked solid way in advance so we didn't.

Tuesday (1st): Nikko
Like Kamakura, Nikko is a popular New Years destination cause of all the shrines, which naturally means that the biggest attractions and a lot of the shops and restaurants stay open, making it a good place to visit on the holiday. I already did a write up about Nikko and its really neat shrines last time I was so I won't repeat it. Being New Years, there was a lot of people there doing New Years type stuff. It was also lightly snowing for most of the day. Not enough to be a problem, just enough to make for a nice affect.
It's traditional to pray at shrines on New Years, there's also New Years wreaths people hang on doors and the like, roundish red dolls you buy and make a wish (you color in one eyeball when you make your wish and the other when it comes true), and wooden arrows (not quite sure what they're for). While visiting a shrine people also write prayers and wishes on little wood plaques which they hang up, and draw a piece of paper containing their luck for the year (not a fortune, just an amount of luck ranging from extremely lucky to extremely unlucky). Some people then tie that luck paper to a tree (sorry for the blurry photo), although I can't remember if you do that to make sure your predicted good luck comes to pass or to negate your predicted bad luck.
There were also a bunch of food stalls set up (a typical holiday thing). There was the usual noodles, sweets, candied fruit, grilled fish, yakiniku and the like (a lot of the same type of stuff that was at the local Matsuri I went to in Nogi). I also got to try some steamed Chinese buns stuffed with anzuki. They were pretty good, too bad you can usually only find them filled with pork. Plus there was ama sake, a traditional New Years drink. It's a very low alcohol and very sweet sake that's severed hot and often has pieces of rice inside. There's so little alcohol that even kids can drink it. I liked it but my brother thought it was a bit too sweet. Anyway, I had fun getting different things from the stalls instead of going to a real restaurant.

Ok, I really should get some sleep. I'll talk about today's activities on Friday, along with whatever else I do in the meantime. See you then!


12/31/2007 Showing Noah around

So, I am updating today after all. Last chance to get in votes and donations for this month. Actually, in Diamond and Pearl, Rydel never says how much the bikes cost, but they cost a million in all the other Pokémon games so I'd assume Rydel charges the same (there's a reason for the price but I'll save that for the commentary). Also, totally unrelated, but my birthday is tomorrow.

My brother and I thought about staying in Tokyo late tonight for a New Year's countdown but since the trains and subways stop running aroung midnight we would have been stuck there until they start running again at around 5:30 AM. He decided he didn't really want to be there all night unless we could get a hotel and in Japan lots of people travel on New Year's eve so the hotels are typically booked solid far in advance. Personally, I could have gone either way so we ended up going back to apartment and watching a movie (which is pretty much what I usually do on New Year's (although typically with a lot more people)).

Anyway, Saturday we just went to services, took a quick look around Akihabara, and got dinner so there's not much to talk about there. Sunday I showed him around some parts of Tokyo and and today we went to Kamakura. I would talk about both of those days but, due to an extremely annoying computer glitch, most of my photos from today got deleted. On the bright side, I should be able to recover them easily enough with an undelete program. On the down side, I can't find an undelete program that will work through my camera so I need to pick up a cheap external memory card reader, but thanks to our touring schedule and the fact that a lot of stuff is closed on and around New Year's in Japan, I might not be able to get one for a few days. Hopefully I'll have it in time for Wednesday, if not probably Friday. So, that aside, here's a little bit about Sunday.

Sunday (30th): Around Tokyo
I showed my brother around some parts of Tokyo. Actually, before talking about Sunday, here's a few photos from Saturday morning when we walked around outside the Imperial Palace. Here's my brother Noah, and here's me. Ok, back to Sunday.
I was hoping to take him to the big flea market I've talked about before but it wasn't being held this week so we started off walking towards Tokyo Tower. Along the way, we ran into Zojoji temple (which is kinda famous for its New Year's countdown). There was also a whole lot of little jinzo statues with pinwheels (never saw that before). Then we went up Tokyo tower and I got to see the view during the daytime.
After that I took him to Harajuku (the teen fashion area) and Ginza (the fancy expensive shopping district). He had fun looking at the clothing stores, I just kinda followed along and listened to stuff on my MP3 player since I never did care too much for fancy clothes (or clothes shopping in general). So, I suppose there really isn't much to talk about there.

And I should probably get some sleep. See you wednesday!


12/28/2007 Heads up

There's a new bonus comic and a new ROM. BTW: There might not be an update on Monday. I'll try but no promises (see below for more details).

Now for some other announcements. My brother got in today and he'll be staying for a couple of weeks we're gonna be doing a lot of touring so expect write ups, photos, and the like. However, updates may be a bit late (like today's since his plane was delayed) but I shouldn't miss any...except for Monday. See, we're probably gonna be out a lot of the night to see the New Year's fireworks and stuff (if you're wondering how that would affect the update, keep in mind that I'm on Japan time, not US time) so I have no idea when we'll get back, how tired I'll be, etc. So there's a chance of an update but right now it's not looking good.
Also, my birthday is on January 1st! I'll be 23.

I suppose that's about it. Just been hanging out, relaxing and getting some stuff done the last couple of days. Among other things I cleaned my apartment, did some web design work, finished Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, and finished watching Lost season 3. Oh, did I mention the staff at my school had an end of year party? Should have mentioned that a few days ago actually. It was a lot the last party we had. Everyone went to a fancy traditional Japanese restaurant (different one from last time but similiar), talked, ate, drank, and played some sort of party game where we broke up into teams and had to guess a song from the first few seconds (acting like an idiot when your team was ready to make a guess was also an important part for some reason). After that some of us went on to the second party at a karaoke parlor, which was fun. Once again, nothing all that different from the last party but I enjoyed it.

Well, I should get going. If I don't get a chance to update on Monday, have a happy new year!


12/26/2007 At the movies

Sorry the update is a little later than usual. Meant to do it earlier but I got caught up working on something and by the time I finished... Well anyway, I said I'd talk about wednesday.

Monday (24th): Trip to the Movies
Didn't want to do anything too fancy so I decided to go watch a movie. Unfortunately, if there's a movie theater in Koga I haven't found it yet so I knew I was gonna have to do some traveling. In the end, I decided to go to Ikspiari, it's a big mall at Tokyo Disney. I did know of some closer theaters but I'd kinda been wanting to look around Ikspiari anyway. Ikspiari itself is nice, but mainly a lot of clothing stores and stuff. Great if you like that kind of thing but I don't really. Oh, and it had Hotdog Fighter. Sounds like a cheesy old arcade game doesn't it ("Hotdog vs. Mustard! Ready...FIGHT!")? Well, I thought it was a funny name for a hotdog stand.
The theater itself (ok, actually the pic is the area right outside the theater) was very nice. Big, nice stadium seats, surround sound, etc. Pretty much just like the nicer theaters back in the US. Not sure if all Japanese movie theaters are like that (first time I've been to a movie) but all the ones I've seen so far have looked pretty big and nice from the outside. About two thirds of the movies playing were American ones, some pretty new (National Treasure 2, I Am Legend, etc) some not so much, at least by US standards (like Meet the Robinsons). The rest were Japanese. One interesting thing is that a lot of English movies are available in both redubbed in Japanese and in English with Japanese subtitles. Kids' movies, however, are a bit harder to find in English since young kids and subtitles naturally don't mix too well.
I decided to watch National Treasure 2 in English. I considered watching something in Japanese but figured I can just turn on the TV at my apartment any time to do that and I'd rather not be stuck in the movie for two hours if I got completely lost. The most interesting thing about buying tickets was that, just like at a sports games, the theater had assigned seats. I got to choose where I wanted to sit and got a ticket with a row and seat number which was pretty close to my chosen spot. On the one hand, it's kinda nice to be guarenteed a seat in a certain spot. On the other hand, I suppose if you end up behind some really tall guy or next to a noisy person you're kinda stuck. I also learned that movies in Japan are expensive. Cost me 1800 yen (around $14) for a ticket. Didn't look like they have matinees although there were slightly cheaper tickets available if you went to a really late show.
Just like in the US, there was a good 20 minutes of ads and movie previews before the actual movie started. Even though the movie was playing in both Japanese and English, quite a lot of people opted for the English version (guess I'm not the only one who dislikes redubbing live action stuff). The only other thing of note came at the end of the movie. Now in the US, the moment the credits start rolling about 80% of the audience makes a run for the exit. Here it was completely the opposite. At least 70% of the people in the theater sat there and watched the credits all the way through before getting up (including me since I was kinda stuck in the middle of a row).

After the movie I did walk around a bit more and then went to Nagano to browse a bit before heading home but that's not really anything worth writing about. See you Friday!


12/24/2007 Merry Christmas

I know I'm kinda repeating a joke here but it fit well and I was behind on strips so... Anyway, I did manage to get caught up on strips, for now at least. But I also got back to my apartment today several hours later than I'd planned so I'm gonna have to keep this short. Remember, Friday's voters' bonus comic is up and there's only a few days left if you want to get in donations this month (just $15 more and we'll reach the first goal!).

So, I went out and did some stuff today (stayed home Sunday cause of rain) but since I got back late I'll save my comments on that for Wednesday. In the meantime, merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it. I don't, but I had to spend the last week teaching my various classes Christmas carols and telling them about what people in the US do on Christmas so that kinda got me in a little bit of a Christmas mood. Actually, I'd be liking Christmas a heck of a lot more if I actually got the day off work. I know it's not a national holiday in Japan but it's still pretty popular. Plus, I got today off because of the Emperor's birthday (which was Sunday) and winter break starts Wednesday, and it's really annoying to have to go in to work for one day IN THE MIDDLE of an otherwise free week.
So anyway, teaching about Christmas... That went pretty well, though the third grade teacher decided to do a question and answer period with the kids asking me questions, which all seemed to revolve around Santa (what ages of kids does he visit, what's he do if you don't have a chimney, etc, etc, etc). That was a little awkward. I mean, I'm surrounded by a bunch of nine year olds who obviously believe in Santa and take him very seriously and I'm trying to make up answers that sound good, will satisfy the kids, and that I can explain in Japanese... And, like I said, I don't even celebrate Christmas (my family used to a long time ago but even then my parents never got into the whole Santa thing so neither did I). Speaking of Santa Claus, no one seemed to know what elves were. Wonder where they say he gets the toys he gives away. Toys R' Us maybe (yes there are some in Japan)? Also, it seems that in Japan people still do the whole cookies and milk for Santa thing only here it's often cookies and milk tea. One other odd thing, some of the third graders asked me a couple questions about "bad Santa" (not the movie). Didn't completely understand them but he seems to be a seperate person than regular Santa (like the grinch perhaps?). Since I didn't totally understand those particular questions, and had never heard of "bad Santa", I just said he doesn't exist. I don't think any kids are gonna be traumatized by finding out that bad Santa isn't going to be paying them a visit. But yeah, that was about it. Oh, and I got to hear the 4th graders sing Jingle Bells in Japanese, that was kinda interesting (as was the fact that they had no idea that it wasn't a Japanese song to begin with).

Anyway, if you celebrate Christmas I hope you have a good one. I'll see you Wednesday!


12/21/2007 Language stuff

There's a new bonus comic and all you need to do to see it is click the Top Web Comic banner or button and confim your vote. There's also a new ROM. Finally, remember that if PV gets another $15 dollars in donations this month we'll reach the first donation goal which means you guys get a bunch of cool bonus content and everyone who donated at least $5 gets a chance to win a cool Japanese figurine. Full details are below the donation guage.

I mentioned that I was going to try and get pics with the rest of my elementary school classes and here they are. I already posted pics of the 1st and 4th graders last time so here's 2nd grade, 3rd grade, 5th grade, and 6th grade. Speaking of pictures, I'll probably be trying for a haircut sometime over the coming week since I'll have a bunch of free days (I got monday off cause of the emperor's birthday, have to work Tuesday, and then winter break starts). Would have done it sooner but, aside from limited time, I'm not particularily anxious to get a haircut from someone who doesn't speak the same language (even though my Japanese is improving). Actually, if I kept it about this length or so I could probably do Squall's hairstyle (from Final Fantasy VIII and Kingdom Hearts), which would be kinda cool. Main problem with that is I'd probably need to gel it and most of that type of stuff gives me a pretty serious headache.

Random Japan Comment: Japanese People and the English Language
I believe I've already mentioned this but despite going through at least several years of English classes in school, your average Japanese adult would be pretty hard pressed carry on even the simplest conversation in English. Although, if pressed, they could probably rattle off a list of nouns and maybe some verbs and adjectives too. And they could probably make it through one of the 'premade conversations' that they get repeatedly drilled on in school like, "Hello, how are you?" "I'm fine thank you, and you?" "I'm fine thank you." Unfortunately, rote repition of phrases is sometimes all that's taught so if you deviate at all from that set conversation they'll often get completely lost cause they learned the phrase, not the actual words that make it up. That said, some can speak a little english if they try and some are quite fluent, just don't count on being able to understand or be understood by most people if you're only speaking English. I should probably point out that most Japanese people (at least from my experience) do understand English numbers although many will try in Japanese first and hope you understand that. But Japanese numbers are pretty simple (at least as long as you're just sticking with straight numbers such as prices and not trying to actually count anything, which can be a nightmare if you want to do it correctly) so if you're going to Japan I'd recommend memorizing the number system along with a few basic phrases. Being able to read hiragana and katakana is a big help as well, although a lot more work.
Anyway, back to English. Despite the general lack of English knowledge, English is quite popular. There are lots of private English schools and it often seems like everyone has a little electronic Japanese-English dictionary (either a stand alone model or a simple one built into their cell phone). Aside from the tourist info type stuff, you'll see lots of English on clothes, products, ads, etc (albiet often with horrible grammar, occasionally questionable spelling, and sometimes words that obviously don't mean what whoever chose them thought they did). A lot of the English on that stuff is just plain bad although some is unintentionally amusing and has been dubbed Engrish back in the US. There are even entire websites devoted to photos of humorous Engrish.
Modern Japanese actually had quite a few English words in it. However, the Japanese language has a lot less sounds than the English language does plus the Japanese have a tendency to abbreviate words they consider too long so just because something has the same word in both Japanese and English that doesn't mean you'll be able to recogize said word when you hear it and vice-versa.
First off, pronounciation. A few basics...
1. Japanese doesn't have a L sound. However, their R is about halfway between an R and an L. Because of this, the letters R and L are often mixed up when Japanese people write in English (hence the term Engrish) which can lead to things like that Worlds Flogs' sign I posted a pic of a while back or how it sounds like many of the kids in my' English classes are saying how much they like 'lice' (when we're talking about rice) or the color yerro (yellow).
2. There's also no x, no v, and no q. The x part usually isn't an issue. V usually ends up sounding like 'bwe' so you'll have words like bwideo and DbweD. Q usually isn't an issue in coversation but in spelling it's sometimes mistakenly used in place of the letter k for some reason. There's no th sound either because of reason that will be explained in a moment, so it's usually replaced with a Z sound.
3. Japanese letters represent syllables, not individual sounds like in English. For example, in English we have the letter A. A has a sound when it's by itself but we can also combine it with any other letter. All the other letters (except Q) can also stand alone or in nearly any combination. Japanese has five vowels: a (ah), i (ee), u (ew), e (eh), o (oh) and they can all stand alone as can the 'nn' sound. However, since the language is written in syllables, none of the other letters can stand alone, they're always with a vowel. For example, there's no B, instead there's ba, bi, bu, be, and bo.
Because of this, most Japanese people have significant trouble saying an English word without adding in some extra vowels since they're just not used to pronouncing consonants on their own. For example, ice cream becomes aisu kurimu, cheese is chiizu, etc. Fortunately, if you keep in mind what Japanese vowels sound like, that that there's gonna be more of them, you can still understand things a lot of the time. Other times, however, you'll have no clue that they're actually saying an English word cause the pronunciation gets so scrambled, like with zatsaru (that's all). Also, if you pronounce the word correctly it's quite possible that Japanese people won't understand because they're used to the incorrect pronunciation. It gets even more complicated if the original word has been abbreviated. For example, you'd probably never guess that a wappro was a word processor or that amerifuuto was American football, although you might be able to tell that a persocon was a personal computer, maybe.
So basically, just keep in mind that though Japan has a lot of English it's usually a bit off (and not always in any way useful). Also, it's much easier for an English speaker to learn correct Japanese pronunciation than for a Japanese speaker to learn correct English pronunciation. The reason being that English already includes nearly all the sounds used in Japanese while Japanese is missing quite a lot of common English sounds.


12/19/2007 Some random photos

I've got a bit of writer's block at the moment and a bunch of things I need to get done so I'm just gonna put up a few photos I've taken over the past week or so and leave it at that for today.

Here's the kids at my school trying out an exercise to music type of thing. Here's me with my 1st Grade class, and here's me with the 4th Graders (as previously mentioned, in Japan it's quite common to do a v sign with your hands in photos). I'm hoping to get photos of the rest of the grades soon.
And, for something completely unrelated, here's a real potion! Well, sorta. In Japan Square-Enix occasionally sells a "Potion" soft drink for a limited time. I think this Final Fantasy VII 10th Anniversary Potion set is the third or fourth version. As far as soft drinks go it was rather so-so, a bit expensive, and I couldn't really tell if it restored my HP or not (although I'm not even sure what my HP is, it might have even been full at the time, so maybe it did work) but it did come with a really cool FFVII figurine (one of eight different ones). While I suppose it wouldn't hurt to carry a few potions around in case I get attacked by monsters or someting like that, I think I'd rather just hit up Akihabara or Nagano and see if I can find a store selling the figurines seperately. (For those of you who have never played a Final Fantasy game (which you really should go and do), a potion is an item that characters in the game can use to restore their HP (health points) when they get hurt.)


12/17/2007 Getting around

Remember that you can always vote (to see the newest bonus comic) and donate (to get cool bonus stuff added to Pebble Version and to be entered in the figurine raffle). If you think about it, the biking you do in the Pokémon games is pretty dangerous stuff. Caves, ruins, deserts, not exactly safe places to ride. Especially when you've got wild pokémon jumping out at you all the time. You might be able to run over an oddish without much trouble but having a wild graveler suddenly appear in front of you wouldn't be very pleasant.

This Sunday I just took a break and hung out at my apartment. It gave me a chance to get some stuff done and relax a bit. Besides, I'll be running all over the place when my brother is here and I've got a few free days before then too, at least a couple of which I'll probably go someplace or other, so I might as well take at least some time to just relax. So, it's time for another Random Japan comment.

Random Japan Comment: Trains
Back in the US, trains are mostly used for hauling stuff cross country these days. While passanger trains still exist, flying and driving are by far the more popular ways to get to where ever you're going. In Japan, on the other hand, public transit such as trains, subways, and busses is the way to go. Subways and most busses however, only cover a fairly small area and while they're very usful for getting around the towns and cities that have them, if you want to go a signifcant distance you're going to need a train. While driving is also an option, cars are expensive to buy and own and, even though a lot of people do have cars, parking is very limited in many areas so taking a train lets you avoid the associated hassle and fees. And naturally, if all you've got is a bike, trains are often the only place to get anywhere more than a few miles or kilometers away.
Japan has an extensive train system which covers most of the country. Unless you're in a town that's very small and/or very hard to reach there's bound to be at least one train station and cities will often have at least several spread out over various sections. There are many different types of trains but they can be grouped into two catagories. Local trains run just about everywhere, go at a modest speed, and are basically what people take the vast majority of the time. A regular local train will stop at every station along its line but some lines also have rapid or express local trains which only stop at the larger or more popular stations (which speeds things up a bit). While local trains are great for traveling to a lot of places, if you're going some place really far away you're going to want a real express train. These include things like limited express trains and Japan's famous shinkansen (bullet trains). They don't stop everywhere, so you'll often have to ride a local train or two as well, but they're a whole lot faster than the local trains. Combine that with the fewer stops, and you can travel a pretty significant distance in a relatively short period of time.
Naturally, you can't travel between any two points on only a single train. Often you'll have to switch trains mid trip, possibly several times. Fortunately, you don't need to buy seperate tickets for every train. Most of Japan's trains are owned by the same company (Japan Rail, or the JR). Because of this, prices are based on the distance between your starting and ending point, not how many trains you need to take to get there. Trains stations typically have a bank of automated ticket machines (all except the oldest ones have a button to switch the interface to English) where you select how expensive a ticket you want and put in your money. Tickets are sold by price, not by location. To find out how expensive a ticket you need to reach your destination you can check the big board that every station has near the ticket machines (unfortunately, only the bigger stations have an English version) or look up the price and route ahead of time on the JR's english website, which has a very useful route finder. One thing to note if you're going to be traveling a lot in Japan, is that the ticket machine won't always let you buy an expensive enough ticket. Why, I don't know, but that's the way it is. To remedy this, stations also have fair changing machines. So, if you get to your destination with the wrong ticket, you can stick the ticket in the machine and put in whatever amount of money it tells you to make up the difference in price. Said machines are also useful if you can't figure out how expensive of a ticket you need, just buy the cheapest one then stick it in the fair changer at your destination and put in the required fee. But keep in mind that, while the machines will let you add extra money to your ticket, they will not return any money if the ticket you bought was too expensive in the first place (which is why I said to get the cheapest one) cause the JR would rather profit from your mistake than return the amount you overpaid.
So anyway, you buy a ticket, stick in in a slot on the gate that leads deeper into the station, and grab your ticket when it comes out the other end. NEVER FORGET YOUR TICKET since you'll need to stick it in a another gate at your destination in order to leave the station (when leaving you don't get the ticket back). It's worth noting that really old stations might have an employee punching people's tickets instead of an automated gate. It's also worth noting that, since the ticket price is based solely on your destination, it doesn't matter what route you take to get there. Heck, you could even ride in the opposite direction for a while then turn around and go back to where you were originally heading without any extra charge. Although you couldn't leave the train stations along the way so I'm not sure why anyone would really want to do that.
So, what are the costs? Depends. If you're just going one or two stops and they're all close together you might get by with less than 200 yen, while traveling cross country could easily cost you 5000 yen or more (100 yen is around 80 cents or so). Then there's extra fees. For example, many trains have Green Cars. They're special cars with two floors and nicer seats, plus you're guarenteed a seat while in a regular car you might be stuck standing. Unsurprisingly, if you want to ride in a Green Car you need to buy an extra Green Car ticket (in addition to your regular ticket), which aren't exactly cheap. Also, if your trip plan involves riding on any limited express trains or shinkansen you'll need to purchase additional tickets for them along with your regular ticket. Shinkansen tickets especially tend to be pretty expensive. So a moderate length shinkansen ride might cost you 4000-5000 yen for your regular ticket plus an additional 3000-4000 for the shinkansen ticket, and that's just for a one way trip. If you're a foreign tourist, you can order special tickets from the JR before your trip that give unlimited use of the trains in a certain part of Japan for a certain period of time but you can't get those if you're living in Japan. To be honest, I think that a lot of the time the trains are probably more expensive than driving (assuming you already have a car and all that), although in many situations they're more convenient (and less so in others).
When riding a train, grab a seat if you can but be prepared to stand, espeically if you're going along with rush hour traffic (mostly the flood of commuters to and from big cities on work days and the flood of shoppers to and from same cities on weekends). I've been on trains that were nearly empty and trains where people were literally jammed in like sardines (which is why you really don't want to travel during rush hour if you can avoid it). It's considered rude to talk on the phone while on a train and there are lots of signs reminding people to put their cellphones on vibrate (or 'manner mode' as its called in Japan). Eating on the train is also considered rude (unless you're on a really long distance one) but people occasionally do it anyway. In addition, most cars have several seats at the end that are set aside for people with injuries, pragnent women, people with babies, etc. However, if there aren't any people like that in the car (which there usually aren't) said seats are up for grabs and, like the rest of the non-reserved seating on a train (reserved seating being Green Cars on locals and reserved cars on shinkansen), it's an every man for himself first come first serve basis. If you can't get a seat, find a place to stand, hold onto a bar or one of the rings hanging from the ceiling so you don't fall over if the train jerks unexpectedly, and try to grab a seat when someone nearby gets off.
Classic train passtimes include sending e-mail on a cellphone, MP3 players, books and magazines, portable video game systems, and sleeping (I often wonder how many people accidently sleep through their stop) so if you're going to be riding the trains a lot get into a habit of bringing something to keep you occupied, especially if you're gonna be riding the same route repeatedly cause the sceanery will get old sooner or later.
Oh, one last thing. While some trains announce upcoming stops in English and Japanese, many don't so pay close attention to announcements (listen for place names), the route map or electric display over many doors, and/or the place name signs outside outside the train at the stations (which always come in both English and Japanese versions) to figure out where you are.


12/14/2007 More about food

As usual, there's a new PV Blooper Reel Comic available for everyone who votes for Pebble Version on Top Web Comics. Also, if PV receives another $15 in donations this month we'll both hit the first donation goal (and get all the bonus content that comes with it) and it will make this a raffle month. See the donation info below the donation guage for more info.

Hard to believe it's already the middle of December. The days have kinda blurred a bit for me since my work days are so similiar and all. Not that that's neccessarily a bad thing but it'll definately be nice to have a vacation. Only one more week, and then one day the following week, to go. My brother will be here during most of my winter break so we're gonna do a lot of touring. I'll be taking him to some of the places I've already been and we'll be going to a few new areas as well. Expect write ups, pictures, and the like. Plus, since there's gonna be two of us, I can actually get some pictures with me in them for a change. Now for some RJCs.

Random Japan Comment: Soft Food
Japanese people seem to dislike food that is really hard/crunchy/chewy/etc. At least that's the feeling I get when looking in grocery stores and restaurants. As previously mentioned, most of the ice cream you get at stands is soft serve (or as they call it, sofutokurimu (soft cream)). To give some more examples, pretzels are nearly non-existant, bread is typically softer and moister than in the US and Europe (heck, half the loaves in my local grocery store are called soft bread), and peanut butter has been replaced with something called peanut soft (which is sweeter than normal peanut butter and has a similiar consistancy to honey). Not to mention cheese. About 80% or more of the cheese in your average grocery store is just different brands of cambert (a very soft cheese) and another 5-10% is soft mozzerella.
I suppose this might be because tradional Japanese food doesn't really have much in the way hard/crunchy/etc food. Or spicey for that matter (unless you count wasabi). Speaking of which, you don't see a ton of hot spicey foods either (jalapeneo type stuff). Anyway, I just thought that was kind of strange.

Random Japan Comment: Bread
Being a big fan of Yakitate Japan! (an awesome anime/manga about making bread, I know it sounds lame but give it a try and you'll probably like it) I really had to do one of these on bread at some point. And yes, bread in Japan is different enough from the US and Europe to be worth discussing. At least I think so. Bread in Japan is called pan (based on a Spanish word, I believe) and the name of a given kind of bread is usually the type followed by pan (ie. Francepan). Also, while reading, keep in mind that Japanese bread is usually a bit lighter, softer, and moister than a comparable bread from the US or Europe (something Yakitate Japan! fans should have learned from the Monaco Cup arc).
Before Japan started becoming more Westernized over the last 100 years or so, bread was practically non-existant, at least as far as I know. Rice was far more common than any of your typical bread grains and was (and still is) the primary food in Japan (it's quite common for people to eat rice as part of every meal). Wheat, on the other hand, was used to make noodles (the main wheat based noodles being ramen and udon). Now bread is quite common in Japan although, like many foreign things, it's gotten kind of Japanized.
So, first off, where can you get bread? Grocery stores will usually have a bread section (albiet a pretty small one compared to what you'd see in the US). Said section will usually have a handful of types (white and maybe whole wheat and/or rye) of dinner bread and usually only several brands at most. Dinner bread is basically a plain ordinary loaf of bread (sandwhich bread really), although it's typically more square or rectangular in shape than what you'd see in other countries. While you can buy whole loaves of it in bakeries, in gorcery stores it typically comes presliced in bags containing 3-6 slices instead of a full loaf. Not sure why they don't sell whole loaves but it's consistant with Japanese groceries in general, which tend to come in smaller amounts than they do in the US (smaller bags of potato chips, small ice cream containers only, 10 eggs in a pack instead of 12, etc). Those grocery store sections will also contain a modest selection of bun type breads that are sold individually instead of in packs (but I'll talk about those in a minute). You can also get more or less the same bun type breads (but often not dinner bread or loaves of any kind) at convenience stores.
Your bigger Japanese grocery stores will often include a dedicated bakery and there are plenty of independant bakeries as well. Unlike the US and Europe, where bakeries will often have lots of different types of loaves for sale (French Bread, German Bread, Rye Bread, White Bread, Wheat Bread, Raisen Bread, etc, etc, etc), many of the Japanese bakeries I've been in only have your typical French Bread and one or two types of dinner bread. Most of your average Japanese bakery will be devoted to a collection of pastries and bun and roll type breads, many of which are unique to Japan, which are meant to serve as snacks or additions to certain types of meals. The actual selection will often vary considerably by bakery (even ones in grocery stores of the same chain) and be somewhat seasonal as well, with many bakeries having fairly unique breads or unique variations on popular bread types.
Chances are foreigners will recognize croissants, butter rolls, and handful of others but many breads will be unfamiliar (unless you've watched Yakitate Japan!). Some common Japanese bun/roll type breads include:
Melonpan: Named for the shape and crosshatch design carved into the top, it usually doesn't have any any melon in it. Melon bread is a bun of bread dough surrounded by a coating of cookie dough and then cooked. It's typically at least kind of sweet and comes in a huge amount of variations which may include things like nuts, maple syrup, chocolate, or even actual melon.
Anpan: Anpan is usually recognizable by the little black seeds (can't remember what kind they are) sprinkled on the top. It's stuffed with anzuki (sweet red bean) paste and mildy sweet.
Creampan: A bun stuffed with sweet cream. Usually not as sweet as you'd think it would be.
Cheesepan: A bun stuffed with some kind of cheeze. Not sweet at all.
Curreypan: Surprise, surprise, it's stuffed with currey. The bread itself is usually coated with panko (a type of very flaky Japanese bread crumb) and fried. There are many variations depending on what kind of currey is used.
Like I already mentioned, the selection varies considerably by bakery so you can expect to find lots of variations on the breads I just listed plus plenty of different breads as well. Some of the most interesting ones I've come across include rice bread (really good), sweet potato bread, melon bread stuffed with melon paste, and ocha (Japanese green tea) bread.
All in all, Japanese bread is pretty unique and it can be fun to try lots of different kinds. Just be warned that, if you can't read at least some Japanese, there's so many strange and different breads that you never know what you might end up with.


12/12/2007 Ugh...

Sigh... If you noticed that today's update is a few hours late, sorry about that. I was working on some stuff and totally spaced it. If you didn't notice then go ahead and forget what I just said.

So, since I'm updating a bit late, I don't have a lot of time to talk about stuff. I will say that the electric rates here really suck, or are at least kinda fishy. As previously mentioned, the heater/air conditioner that came with my apartment is pretty useless when it comes to keeping the place even remotely warm. But after a couple days of freezeing I got a little space heater which I run in the evenings and at night. It helps a lot, although to be honest the apartment is still freezing late at night (but it's ok as long as I stay in bed and/or near the heater). I've come to realize that this apartment can't retain heat in the least. If I ran a space heater for a few hours in a room in my house back home the place would be burning up. Here the heat is gone almost as soon as it comes. I'm betting that the walls aren't properly insulated since they're so thin. I get the feeling that I could knock a hole in one if I tripped and fell into it hard enough. And that's just the thicker ones....
So anyway, the insulation is horrible as is the built in heater, which is why I had to buy the space heater and keep it running all night (considering how cold it's been getting at night, I could probably go without my fridge if I didn't). Anyway, I was naturally expecting my electric bill to go up a little, I was not expecting it to triple. Now I really can't imagine one little space heater using twice as much electricity as my computers, fridge, TV, game systems, and everything else in my apartment combined. Not to mention that said electric bill is higher than any bill I got for my apartment in AZ (even when my brother and I were sharing an apartment about 8 times bigger than this one with a heck of a lot more appliances and electronics and the air conditioning going full blast to fight off the 120 degree Phoenix summer heat). Now I'm used to cold weather (been living in CO since I was 7) but considering how cold this apartment gets (and how quickly it cools), I can't really turn the heat down much. I'd probably get a pretty nasty cold at the least. Not to mention that it'd be pretty miserable in here.
So anyway, combine the ridiculous electric bill with my low salary (I like my school a lot but the Nogi school district pays it's ALTs significantly less than...well, everywhere else I've ever seen and heard of) and it sucks, a lot. Sigh... Well, I'll get it worked out. I'm hoping I can talk my company into giving me some extra yen to help with the bill (they give a lot of ALTs some money for communiting expenses, which I don't need, so I figure I might be able to get a similiar amount for this if I'm lucky). If not, I've got plenty of money saved up back home but it'd really annoy me if I had to pull extra cash out of that just to pay my electric bills for the next few months.

Well, I should get going. Still behind on PV strips unfortunately. See you friday!


12/10/2007 Keeping it kinda short

Friday's bonus comic is still there if you vote (not like it would go anywhere, at least until this Friday when the next one goes up). Also, check out the donation gauge. It only needs another $15 to reach the first donation goal for this month which would mean more commentary on old strips, a new ROM the Novel chapter, and some stuff from Shauni plus it would make this a raffle month, giving everyone who donated at least $5 a chance to win a cool game/anime figurine straight from Japan. As always, full details on how to donate can be found right below the donation gauge.

I went to Tokyo on Sunday but I didn't really do anything exciting enough to warrant a write up. I checked out Sony's showroom (neat cause you can check out some stuff that isn't on the market yet) and the Square-Enix store (kinda disappointing, you can actually find a lot more SE stuff in Akihabara and the store is a pain to get to in the first place). After that I wondered around a bit in an area I hadn't been to before then hung out in Akihabara for a little while before heading back. So yeah, nothing too exciting. Plus I'm way behind on PV strips and have some other things that really need to be worked on as well so I'm just gonna do a quick Random Japan Comment and call it a day.

Random Japan Comment: Cell Phones
In Japan everyone has a cell phone, and I mean everyone. Although I haven't done any research on it myself, from what I've heard regular phone lines get billed a bit differently here than in the US so they actually end up costing about the same as cell phones. Cell phones are billed a bit differently too. You've still got service plans and all that but in general making calls on your cell phone is a lot more expensive than in the US. However, all incoming calls are free so that kinda balances it out.
Actually talking on the phone seems to be a secondary feature to a lot of people. The real killer cell phone app here is e-mail. You could also call it text messaging but while text messaging back in the US is usually limited to short highly abbreviated messages, in Japan people will actually type out lengthy e-mail messages. If you've ever thought that some people in the US can type fast on their phones, that's nothing compared to a Japanese teenager, especially when you take into account that the Japanese language has over 2000 symbols (when you add together hiragana, katakana, and kanji). Just about anywhere you go you'll see lots of people of all ages with their cell phones out, typing away. It's an especially popular pastime on trains and subways where it's considered bad manners to actually talk on your phone. People will also do it while driving and biking (and you thought talking while driving was bad).
Japanese cell phones also have much better internet access than most US phones and better cameras as well so you'll see quite a lot more people taking snapshots with their phone than you would in the US. In fact, in lots of places you'll see little barcode type things that are meant to be photographed with a cellphone which will then analyze the image and open a related web site.
Unlike in the US, where a lot of people buy phones strictly based on their looks, in Japan it's definitely function over form as the majority of phones (although certainly not all of them) have a similar and rather plain design. However, these phones more than make up for it with what they can do. Aside from the already mentioned improved texting, internet, and cameras (not to mention much better, but still seriously overpriced, ringtone stores), most Japanese phones can run a variety of other programs including all the normal stuff (address books, alarms, calendars, MP3s, etc) plus diaries, Japanese - English dictionaries, and games that are graphically as good as a lot of the stuff you see on the DS and PSP (both 2D and 3D) and sometimes nearly as deep and full featured as well, just to name a few. It follows that in Japan there's a lot more nifty cell phone apps and games available for purchase than in the US, where most of our phones just aren't powerful enough and don't have as solid a network to work with anyway.
However, before you start making plans to import a Japanese phone, you should know that Japan uses a different type of cell phone network than just about everywhere else in the world so your current phone won't work in Japan (no matter if you're from the US, Europe, or even somewhere else in Asia) and Japanese phones won't work outside of Japan. So don't bother bringing your phone with you on vacation and don't try to buy a Japanese phone to use back home either (unless you can track down a compatible dual-band model).


12/7/2007 Festivals and rehearsals

There's a new bonus comic up so please vote. There's also a new ROM and, as always, you can get lots of awesome stuff (bonus content, more PV comics each month, stuff from Shauni, and even Japanese figurines) by donating to PV (full info in the Donation Info section under the donation guage).

As perviously mentioned, I've had a fairly busy and fairly interesting week. There were some smaller things such as finally getting my copy of Confessor (which I mentioned last post) and getting majorly overcharged on my electric bill (which will hopefully be worked out next week) but those aren't what I'm going to talk about. And there's a lot to talk about. So, without further ado...

Monday (3rd): Nogi Matsuri
For those of you who don't know, a matsuri is a festival or holiday. It seems that nearly every city, town, etc in Japan has at least one unique local matsuri of its own. Koga, the town were my apartment is, had one on Saturday night but by the time I got back from Tokyo that day it was too late to bother going over there. Nogi, however, had a matsuri on Monday (which I unfortunately can't remember the name of). Even better, it took place at the shrine right next to the school where I work (which is only a few minutes away from my apartment). Actually, to my knowledge, quite a lot of local matsuri are centered around various shrines and temples.
Anyway, I'd heard about the matsuri from one of the teachers at my school and I certainly wasn't going to pass up seeing a traditional Japanese matsuri (many local matsuri date back hundreds of years and are still observed in much the same way as they were back then), especially since I didn't have anything in particular to do that night and it was right near my apartment and all.
The road leading to the shrine was lined and lit up with paper lanturns which made for a really nice effect (albiet one that was a little hard to photograph well with the camera I've got). Of course, hundreds of years ago said lanturns probably had candels inside instead of being electric but hey, less chance of a fire this way. A little further down the road was lined with lots of little booths. There was some carnival type games and a few places selling random stuff but most were selling food of some sort. Some of the snacks for sale included various types of soba, taiyaki (a fish shaped bread stuff with anzuki paste), different kinds of soup, french fries (ok, those probably weren't around hundreds of years ago either), little candy on a stick things, and squid on a stick (seriously, a whole cooked squid on a stick). Naturally, I passed on the squid on a stick. Even if I could eat it, that's not the type of thing I find very appetizing... As you can see from the pic, quite a lot of people were there, including quite a lot of my students and coworkers so I spent a while saying hi and trying to make some friendly conversation (kinda did that on and off all night as I ran into different people).
Past the booths I came to the first of the matsuri's main events. See all those polls with lanturns on top? Basically people would take polls and use them to whack other peoples' polls. Not entirely sure what the point was (possibly to either destroy the lanturn or put out the light inside) or what it was supposed to represent but it was interesting to watch. That area was also lined with stalls, but of a different kind. You can't really see it in the picture but each of those little areas was kinda a mini-restaurant where people cooked large pots of soup over an open fire and then sold bowls of that soup (and often beer as well).
Moving on, I finally reached the area right around the shrine. While some people were praying at the shrine, (a process which typically involves tossing some coins into the bin, pulling a rope to ring a bell, and then clapping your hands together and spending a few moments with your hands together and eyes closed praying for wathever it is you want) most were off to the side watching the dancers. It started out with one guy in a fox mask (at least that's what it was when I got there) dancing to the music being played by some other people and a second dancer came out and joined him a bit later. Here's a movie. Aside from dancing they also tossed some stuff (not quite sure what) to the crowd and fished for money (they'd toss out a fishing line and someone in the aduience would attach some yen to the end then enguage in a little tug-of-war match before letting the dancer pull in the line and take the money.
The main event of the festival took place near the end, once the fox dancers had finished. It was also a dance but instead of more guys in masks, this one was preformed by some of my students. To be more specific, there were five girls (four third graders and one fourth grader) dressed as shrine maindens doing the dance. It was all very cute, although I kinda doubt that was the intent. It was a pretty long dance and I'm sure the girls spent a long time practicing to get all the movements right. Here's a movie clip.
That dance marked the end of the matsuri, although many of the booths stayed open for a little while afterwards so I was able to grab some taiyaki on my way out. Overall, it was a fun and interesting experience. Plus I happened to run into an ALT (assitant lanaguage teacher, that's what I am too) from Koga who'd come to check out the matsuri and we ended up talking for a while, which was interesting since I didn't even know if Koga had ALTs (their ALTs are hired by a different company than Nogi's so we don't have any formal interaction).

Wednesday (5th): Preschool Show Rehearsal
Not sure if I mentioned it before but one of my primary goals at the preschool classes I teach on Wednesdays was to teach all the kids an English song they could do for their big presentation. Basically every so often (probably once a year) all 3, 4, and 5 year olds from the preschools I teach at get together and put on a big show for their families. The actual show is next week (I think) but this week was the rehearsal. I helped the kids practice their English song (Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes) on stage then sat back and watched them do all their other stuff. Not really a lot to talk about but I did take a bunch of pictures and movies. On the plus side, being a rehearsal, that meant I didn't have to try and shoot over a bunch of peoples' heads. On the downside, it meant that the kids' teachers were frequently running across the stage to correct and reposition the kids.
So, photo and movie time... Here's some of the three year olds on their way to the hall where the show is gonna be and here's some of them dancing to a Japanese song. Naturally, they needed the most teacher supervision while the four and five year olds often did surprisingly well on their own. Moving on, here's a nice group shot of the three year olds and here's a clip of them singing.
The four year olds came on a next and did a play (all in song) about some animals that got scared by a falling coconut. The five year olds also did a play. It was about mice pretending to be ghosts to scare other animals.
To finish things up, the four year olds came back and did a dance as did the five year olds.

Oh, and since I wrote this whole thing up in answer to a question on the forums anyway (and cause people keep asking me about it), here's a RJC.

Random Japan Comment: Japanese Holidays
First off, the only US holidays that are widely celebrated in Japan are Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine's, although they're observed a bit differently than in the US or Europe (more on that in a minute). Holidays like Thanksgiving and 4th of July naturally aren't celebrated in Japan because they're tied into US history so they don't really take place anywhere else. I'd assume Easter is observed by Japanese Christians but they're a minority so I'd be surprised if most Japanese people even know what Easter is.
New Years is a major holiday but it's observed differently in Japan than in the US and Europe plus New Years is kinda an international thing anyway.
Now, for a quick (well, kinda quick) list of major Japanese holidays (keep in mind that there are numerous small local holidays in various parts of Japan, this is just the main ones). National holidays are ones officially sanctioned by the government (and ones that many buisnesses close on). All holidays on this list, national or not, are still widely observed. Non-national holidays are identified as such. Also note that the dates of some of these holidays were changed fairly recently, mainly to give people more three day weekends.
New Years (late Dec - early Jan): Typically more of a focus on resting and family than partying. Many people dress in traditional clothes and visit shrines to pray and get their luck predicted for the new year. Traditional foods include special kinds of noodles and mochi. Quite a lot of buisnesses shut down for several days (sometimes starting as early as the 29th or 30th and going till anytime between the 2nd and 4th).
Coming of Age Day (2nd Monday of Jan): Celebrates people who recently turned 20. Typically involves lots of partying.
Setsuban (Feb 2): Celebrates the start of spring. Not a national holiday. Popular traditions include throwing and eating soy beans.
National Foundation Day (Feb 11): Celebrates the establishment of the nation.
Valentine's Day (Feb 14): Not a national holiday. In Japan, it's a day when women give chocolate to men they like and to male friends and coworkers. There are actually different names used for the chocolate depending on if it's being given in a friendly or romantic spirit.
Hinamatsuri (Mar 3): Girls' Day. Not a national holiday. Girls display a fancy set of dolls.
White Day (Mar 14): Not a national holiday. It's Valentine's Day all over again except this time it's the guys' turn to buy things for girls. The holiday was actually established by Japan's national association of candy makers. <_<
Verinal Equinox (sometime in Mar): A holiday for the equinox.
Hanamatsuri (Apr 8): The Flower Festival. Not a national holiday. Celebrates Buddha's birthday and flowers.
Golden Week (Apr 29 - May 5): A week long holiday period encompassing Showa Day (Apr 29) (celebrates the birthday of the Showa Emperor), Constitution Memorial Day (May 3) (which is to commemorate the Japanese constitution), Greenery Day (May 4) (to celebrate nature), and Children's Day (aka Boys' Day) (May 5) (which has its own set of dolls different from the Girls' Day ones and is marked by flying koi shaped streamers).
Tanabata (in Jul or Aug, date varies by location): The Star Festival, based on the ancient myth of the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi (the stars Vega and Altair). Not a national holiday. People celebrate by having festivals, fireworks, and tieing cards with their wishes written on them to bamboo.
Marine Day (3rd Monday of Jul): A pretty new holiday. It celebrates the ocean.
Obon (Jul or Aug 13 - 15 depending on location, Aug is more common): Not a national holiday but many buisnesses still close. It's marked by people visiting their ancestrial homes to visit their family's tomb and pray to the spirits of ancestors. Exact celebration details vary by location.
Respect for the Aged Day (3rd Mon of Sept): The name says it all.
Autumnal Equinox (sometime in Sept): A holiday for the other equinox.
Health & Sports Day (2nd Mon of Oct): Once again, the name kinda says it all.
Halloween (Oct 30 or 31, some people get the date mixed up): Not a national holiday. There's no trick or treating or any real celebration (aside from some costume parties) but a lot of people like the candy and decor so lots of stores and restuarants put up decorations and sell Halloween related stuff.
Culture Day (Nov 3): Celebrates the Japanese constitution and the Meiji Emperor's birthday.
Labor Thanksgiving Day (Nov 23): Kinda like US Labor Day but without any real celebrations or parties. No relation to US Thanksgiving Day.
The Emperor's Birthday (Dec 23): The birthday of Emperor Akihito (the current emperor).
Christmas (Dec 24 - 25): Not a national holiday. Santa, presents, carols, and lights are all popular (trees a bit less so cause of limited space both to grow and store them) but the Christian elements are often ignored because of the relatively small amount of Christians in Japan. Actually, Christmas Eve is often considered to be the holiday more so than Christmas Day. It's a popular time spend with your family or girlfriend/boyfriend.

Wow, that all took forever to type... Have a good weekend!


12/5/2007 Today's post is brought to you by Terry Goodkind's Confessor

Would you like it if you turned on the TV and it just happened that you were on it? Well, that'd probably depend what show you were on...

I've actually been having a fairly eventful week (most good, one not so much) and I was planning to do this whole long post about it (complete with pictures) but yesterday I got my copy of Confessor, by Terry Goodkind. It's the last novel in the Sword of Truth series (a long time favorite of mine) that came out a few weeks ago. Turns out Amazon's Japan branch lets you order just about any book you can get from their US branch for about the same price (although it takes a while to arrive), plus they've got an English version of their website. When my friend visited a couple weeks back he helped me get an account setup (I was having trouble getting my address entered correctly (once again, I hate the Japanese address system)) so I ordered a copy. Anyway, so I finally got the book and I spent yesterday night and a lot of today reading. In fact, I only just finished it (would have done so earlier but I couldn't really read during work). Anyway, I spent so much time reading it that now I don't really have time to type up all the stuff I wanted to talk about (at least not if I want to get a decent amount of sleep before I have to go to work in the morning). I promise I'll post it all (pictures and everything) on Friday.


12/3/2007 Nikko Edo Mura

It's a new month so please vote (and see Friday's bonus comic while you're at it). I'm giving the Japanese figurine raffle another go this month as well so all donations not only go towards the usual bevy of bonus stuff both from myself and Shauni but to raffle entries as well (check out the Donation Info, right below the donation gauge, for full details).

Sunday (2nd): Nikko Edo Mura
Nikko Edo Mura (also known as Nikko Edo Village and Edo Wonderland) is a theme park up in the mountains that's based off an Edo period village. Edo is the former name of Tokyo and it's also the name of a period in Japanese history. If I remember right, the Edo era ran from sometime in the 1600's till sometimes in the 1800's. Like the European Renaissance period (for example), it's a time that is often romanticized as a golden age of sorts for the country's people and culture. It's also a popular setting for a variety of Japanese anime, manga, novels, etc. Nikko Edo Mura offers a look back, albeit a rather glamorized one, at that time.
Getting there required a bit of work. Actually, it's not too hard to get there from Tokyo but even though Koga is a bit closer you have to take a less direct route because of the way the trains run. Despite the name, Nikko Edo Mura isn't actually in Nikko (although it's in the general area), it's closer to a place called Kinugawa so I ended up going to Nikko and then taking a couple different trains for there to get to Kinugawa. It wasn't quite the fastest route but it was much less complicated than some of the others (and quicker and cheaper than going all the way to Tokyo and getting a train from there). Anyway, Kinugawa is an onsen town (if you don't remember, an onsen is a hot springs) up in the mountains past Nikko. I didn't really get a chance to look around much but here's something you might find interesting. It's a foot onsen. You'll occasionally find these in onsen towns, they're a little public onsen pool for people to soak their feet in.
Despite it's somewhat remote location, there's actually several attractions in the Kinugawa area. The two biggest ones (as far as I know) are Nikko Edo Mura and Tobu World Square. Tobu World Square, which is advertised rather extensively in Tokyo and the surrounding areas (like where I live) features scale miniature replicas of many of the world's most famous landmarks. I haven't been there myself but I've seen some pictures. Anyway, from Kinugawa you can get a bus that goes to Tobu World Square, Nikko Edo Mura, and a bunch of other places.
As previously mentioned, Nikko Edo Mura is designed like an Edo period village (but with a few things that you'd only have found in larger towns or cities and a few elements of pure fantasy). And, while it's a little far out, the mountains make for a great setting. After getting your ticket and passing through the entrance, you follow a wooded path to the village itself. The buildings house a mix of recreations of common buildings from that time period (like this water mill on the outskirts), shops, restaurants, and attractions. There are signs and plaques (most of which have and English translation) around telling you what things are and a bit about their roll in the time period. Here's a look inside the armor repair shop and this is the main room in a small house, which are on the outskirts of the village, along with several other places like the shrine with this big golden statue. Oh, I should mention that, if you wanted to really get into the Edo mood (and had some extra cash), you could rent costumes and walk around the village dressed as a peasant, lord, samurai, ninja, geisha, etc like these people did.
A little past the outskirts you'll come to the main part of the village but before going in there I headed off to the side. Up on a hill above the village was what appeared to be the local lord's manor or castle (not entirely sure what defines a "castle" in Japan). They were obviously still working on that area (the interiors were all pretty bare and there wasn't any signs or attractions yet) but you could walk around the garden and the buildings.
Once I'd finished looking around, I went back down the hill to check out the local ninja compound. After all, what's an Edo style village without a ninja compound? Ok, so that part's not so historically accurate. While ninja (or shinobi as they were originally known) did exist during the Edo period, real ninja were a lot different than what you see in anime, games, and comics. But since ninjas are so popular they kind of ran with that theme and there were several "ninja" attractions. One of them was a museum that had some info about real ninja, tools and weapons they used, and the like. There was also a ninja trick house (like a carnival trick house but with a ninja theme), ninja haunted temple (not really sure what a haunted house, er, temple has to do with ninja but whatever), ninja maze (an outdoor maze), and ninja house of illusion. The house of illusion was interesting. It's mostly just a building built with a serious slant but that's a whole lot more disorienting than you'd think. After going through the entrance hall my initial thoughts were something like, "Ok, it's a slanted floor, no big deal. It's not any steeper than the hill I walked up a little while ago.", but about twenty seconds in I was feeling really disoriented. See, while your eyes and body are saying that's it's just a simple slanted floor, your brain is telling you that you're in a room on the floor and floors are flat, not slanted. The whole thing makes you feel a bit dizzy and turned around. Kinda neat actually.
My next stop was the ninja stage show (unfortunately, there was no flash photography and it was too dark for me to get any decent pictures of the action without my flash). It was a ninja style stunt show with a bit of comedy and a lot of neat sword fighting and acrobatics. Totally unrealistic but still cool, even though I couldn't understand everything that was being said. There was a different ninja stunt show later in the day at the village bell tower, which was also pretty cool, but despite it being outdoors in the sunlight I still didn't manage to get any good photos.
Anyway, after the shows I tried my hand at some ninja weapons including shuriken (throwing stars and knives), blow guns, pinwheel darts (long thin darts with pinwheels on the end that could be disguised as a woman's hair ornament), and archery (too bad I didn't have anyone to take a picture of me). While a little more expensive than most of the carnival type games in the US (500 yen each), you could win prizes if you did well enough and the operators were a lot more friendly than at similar US attractions (often giving people extra tries and the like). While I wasn't amazing, I did well enough not to embarrass myself. I managed to hit the target twice with my shuriken (one of which stuck) although the rest of my throws went a bit low. I also got two arrows out of five in the archery target and hit the balloon I was aiming for with my blowgun (although it didn't pop). With the pinwheel darts I was surprisingly good at throwing them so they'd stick into the wall and even managed to stick them all in more or less the same area, unfortunately said area was a couple inches to the right of the balloon I was trying to pop.
After finishing with all the ninja stuff, I went to check out the main street of the village where there were lots of shops, restaurants, and small museums about different things including the making of katana (Japanese swords). Speaking of which, the whole katana making process is pretty fascinating if you're ever in the mood to read up on it.
Sword making aside, I looked around for a while, watched the Oiran Dochu parade (an oiran is a high ranking geisha). And I thought girls back home wore shoes with really thick soles... Oh, if you're wondering, geisha were women most easily recognizable by their powdered white skin who were hired to entertain nobles, wealthy merchants, and the like. While they sometimes acted as prostitutes, they were really much more than that. Geisha were highly trained in traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony, dance, music, and the like and were supposed to represent the height of Japanese beauty, refinement, and elegance.
While I was at the village center I also got some yakitori and udon for lunch. Once I had finished looking around there, I headed to the back of the village where they had an Edo style manor house (which served as a museum for various historical events (violent attacks and uprisings mainly)) and a Edo period prison. I learned that prisoners were often transported in one of these things. If you think this room doesn't look so bad for a prison...that's cause it's the guard house. The prison building itself wasn't nearly so nice. They also had some displays on old torture methods used during the time. While they certainly look painful, I gotta say that they didn't seem nearly as brutal as many of the ancient European and Mid-Eastern torture devices I've seen.
Finally, I had time to take in a couple more shows before the park closed (it only stays open till 4 or 5 PM, maybe cause electric street lamps would kinda spoil the whole Edo period look). (BTW: If you ever plan on going yourself, you might be interested to know that, according go the flyer, the performances are changed twice a year.)
First off was Japanese Culture Theater where they were doing a show about the Oiran and an Odaijin (note the honorific use of o that I mentioned in my RJC about tea). As I already mentioned, an Oiran was a high ranking geisha. An Odaijin was a rich merchant, samurai, or the like who would often hire geisha. The way the show worked was that the host would pick one person in the audience to be the Odaijin. Said person had a couple lines but basically just sat up front and played along while the Oiran did her thing (served the Odaijin, did a short Japanese dance, etc). Being the only gaijin (foreigner) in the audience, I kinda stuck out and got "recruited" to play the Odaijin. So I got a few quick instructions, got a little dressed up (a coat and a pretty bad looking wig), and was taken out on stage where I did my best to play along despite only understanding about a quarter of what was being said (fortunately I didn't have to do a lot of talking). Anyway, I think the audience got a few laughs out of that (which might have been one of the reasons I was chosen to begin with) but it was kinda fun. Got try sake too since one part of the show involved the Odaijin getting served sake. Didn't like it much, but then again I don't really like alcohol in general. Naturally, since I was up on stage I couldn't get any pictures but the host took a Polaroid of me with the Oiran and I in turn took a photo of that with my camera (since, as previously mentioned, I don't have a scanner here) so the quality could be a bit better (plus I was trying not to laugh at the time). But yeah, here's a photo of the photo of me as an Odaijin.
The other show I went to was a mizugei performance. Mizugei is traditional Japanese water magic (it involves a woman manipulating hidden water spigots in her fan and other items to make it look like she's magically controlling numerous water fountains, tossing the stream of water from object to object, etc. Cool to watch, even though I knew how it was being done. By the time that show was over the park was about to close so I made my way back to Nikko and got some supper before catching a train back home.

Wow, I really wrote a lot... Hope you liked it cause it took me a long time to type it up, edit the pictures, and the like. See you Wednesday!


11/30/2007 Why I miss pizza

There's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM.

There's actually several different people who could be hanging out in the Pokémon Center where Brendan and May are right now, the Storyteller is just one of them. One of said people is randomly chosen when you start a new game. The only way to get someone else (short of restarting your entire game) is to use the Record Corner to exchange records with someone else, at which point your guy will be swapped with his. In the case of the Storyteller, he carries his stories across games but, if you're the first person to speak to him, he won't know any stories, which is the case in today's comic. So yeah, if you played to this point in Ruby/Sapphire and never saw him, that's why.

Random Japan Comment: Pizza
While certainly not as popular as it is in the US, or Europe for that matter (where I couldn't seem to go five minutes without seeing a pizza place), pizza is still fairly popular in Japan. Actually, when I polled one of my elementary school classes about their favorite food (from a list of 20 or so foods I was teaching them the English words for), pizza tied with rice for the number one spot. A bit surprising, especially considering that Japanese pizza really isn't all that great...
As previously mentioned, when it comes to foreign foods, most Japanese restaurants are anything but authentic. Pizza is no different. Naturally, this varies by restaurant. Toppings are the main issue but I'll get to them in a minute. First off, I should mention that there aren't a whole lot of dedicated pizza restaurants in Japan (at least not that I've seen) but a decent amount of Italian and American style places have it on the menu. A lot of the pizzas I've seen at places like that have a very thin crust (although with a different consistency than a thin crust pizza in the US) and many lack sauce. They're usually moderately priced though, which I can't say some of the dedicated pizza restaurants.
Then there's the toppings. The afore mentioned restaurants have lots of really bizarre types of pizza. Even Pizza Hut (which, for the record, is ridiculously expensive in Japan), falls prey to the crazy Japanese toppings (although it looks like they managed to retain the correct crust and sauce). For the record, I haven't actually gotten a Pizza Hut pizza in Japan yet, partially cause of the price, and partially cause Pizza Hit pizza really isn't all that good (at least in the US). However, I do have a take out menu so I'm gonna list some of the weird pizzas they have.
Out of the 18 pizzas on my menu, around a third could be considered more or less normal (aside from the addition of a lot of black pepper on a couple). Moving on to the rest of the menu, we've got things like the Hamburg Pizza, which might also sound normal until you see that it's covered with a combination of mini hamburger patties, red peppers, corn, and peas. Then there's Tuna Mild, featuring tuna, Mayonnaise, bacon, onion, and corn; the Seafood Mix complete with tuna, Mayonnaise, shrimp, squid, onion, and broccoli; the Super Korean Purukogi with Mayonnaise instead of tomato sauce and a whole bunch of weird toppings that that I can't quite identify; and the Idaho Special with a mix of tomato sauce and Mayo, bacon, parsley, potatoes, corn, and black pepper. And you want to know what the two top pizzas on the menu are (not sure who chose them though)? At number 2 it's...the Mochi & Shrimp Chili Pizza (mochi is a type of glutenous Japanese rice cake). And at number 1...the Mochi, Mentai & Potato Pizza. I'm not entirely sure what mentai is but said pizza also includes lots of other weird things I can identify like Mayo and seaweed.
Well, I didn't list everything on the menu but that should give you a basic idea of what to expect of pizza in Japan. Namely, lots of bizarre toppings, lots of seafood, and lots of Mayo... Definitely not things that belong on a pizza. From what I've heard, there are a handful of real pizza places scattered around Japan but I haven't managed to find any yet.

And that's pizza in Japan. Sometimes ok but definitely not all that great or authentic. When I return to the US in April, I am so going to NYPD my first night back for a real New York style pizza.


11/28/2007 Tea and stuff

There's one last new comic in the ROM spin off Shauni is doing.

Random Japan Comment: Tea
Tea is very popular in Japan and not just as a drink, it's also a very important part of the culture. There are many kinds of tea in Japan. Traditional Japanese tea is known as ocha. Actually, the word for tea is cha, the o is an honorific, you'll see it placed before words to show extra respect. It's often used with titles such as okami (kami is the word for god or diety) and also some important items such as ocha and osake (sake is Japanese rice wine).
Anyway, ocha is traditional Japanese green tea and comes in a lot of different varities. It's usually made with leaves or powder (not bags). Depending on the type and how it's prepared it can be pretty mild or very bitter and the thickness varies as well (although most of the time it's no thicker than your average cup of tea, coffee, or whatever. Other types of tea that are popular in Japan include Japanese barley tea (which I can't remember the name of right now), ice tea, and oolong tea.
Back to the cultural stuff I mentioned earlier. There's the tea ceremony or sado (sa is another word for tea and do is way, so it's literally way of the tea). This is a long and elaborately prepared ceremony where fresh ocha (usually a pretty thick variety) is made and served to guests along with traditional Japanese tea sweets. The tea ceremony has been a part of Japanese culture for a long time and while it's certainly a lot less common than it used to be, there are still schools that teach people how to preform it. Now a days, you can get a little bit of the tea ceremony feel by going to a tea house, which are places designed to give people a peaceful relaxed environment to enjoy a cup of ocha.
Putting the ceremony aside, ocha is a popular morning drink in Japan, although some people prefer coffee these days. It's also often served at meals. Polite hosts will also serve ocha to guests, and I'm not just talking about at homes, ocha is also served at buisness meetings and the like.

Random Japan Comment: Biking
Biking in Japan is a pretty major form of transportation. There's still plenty of cars but in many parts of the country parking is very limited so it's easier just to bike. Not to mention that bikes don't require gas, pricey inspections, and the like. Combine that with Japan's massive public transit system, and you'll find that in many places it really isn't that hard to get by with only a bike, at least most of the time. Actually though, quite a lot of people (at least outside of the big cities like Tokyo) have bikes and a car and decide which to use based on the situation. As such, you'll be seeing quite a lot of bike parking and the like.
Bikers generally don't bike on the street unless they absolutely have to. Most roads don't have bike lanes (although you can usually find at least a little bit of a shoulder that works if neccessary). The prefered place to ride a bike is typically on the sidewalk. As such, walkers and bikers do need to keep an eye out for each other (not to mention the occasional poles and posts that seem to dot most sidewalks). Unfortunately, the Japanese people as a whole can't seem to make up their mind which side of the road (or even which side of the sidewalk) people should be on when going in any given direction, which makes paying attention even more important. Another problem is that some "sidewalks" are so thin that there's litterally not even enough room for two people to walk next to each other, which can be a real problem when you're biking and another biker or walker is coming at you from the opposide direction.
Your average bike only has one gear (in many parts of Japan there's no real need for more), many have lights, and most have a basket or two (for carrying around shopping bags or whatever else you need to transport). A lot of bikes also have a little bell to let people know when you're coming...but people hardly ever use them. Another thing that doens't get used much is helmets. Of all the people in Japan I've seen riding bikes, probably less than 3% of them were wearing helmets. Kinda odd compared to the US where bikers are constantly reminded to wear helmets. Wouldn't be surprised if fashion is at least one reason for the lack of helmets. All the bike helmets I've seen in Japan have been plain boring white bowl shaped things, nothing like the fancy colorful ones back home.

And that's all for today!


11/26/2007 Title Writers' Block

As always, Friday's bonus comic is, well, there so vote if you want to see it (or if you just feel like voting). There's also another new ROM (sorta). You should also remember that if you want to donate this month (and get that whole Japanese Figurine Raffle going (see the Donation Info below the donation guage)) you only have through Friday to do so. All donations after that count towards December.

Although I had no trouble deciding on what I wanted to write in today's news post, I couldn't think up a decent title for it (hence the current title). Similarily, when I'm writing one of my books I often have much more trouble figuring out good character names, chapter titles, etc than planning out the actual story.
Anyway, this weekend was kinda interesting. As previously mentioned Friday was a holiday and I got to meet and hang out with a friend of mine who is also teaching English in Japan (although he's been doing it for years). It was fun and also pretty interesting. See, although we've been talking via e-mail and IM on and off for...*checks old chat log* a little over 8 years (wow, it really has been a long time), this was the first time we've met in person. Not often I get the chance to meet people I've only known online (since we're kinda scattered all over the planet). Although there are some friends of mine that I met in person to start with but mostly got to know online after that (once again since they live pretty far away). Wonder if I'll ever get a chance to meet my friends from the PV forums... Maybe if the comic gets really popular I could hold a convention or something. I mean, Penny Arcade does it, but they probably have a hundred times as many readers as Pebble Version does. So, if you all go out and make a hundred friends and then get each of them to read Pebble Version...

Ok, moving on. I didn't do anything all that interesting on Sunday. Had been planning to but I ended up getting back to my apartment pretty late Saturday night (I'll go into the why in a bit) and I was dead tired, especially since I'd been getting to bed a bit late that entire week for a variety of different reasons. Combine that with the fact that my afore mentioned plans involved catching a really early train, and I decided to just sleep in and hang out around Koga. So I hung out, got some work done, played some games, and biked around a bit (the original plan was to go get groceries but I ended up making some other stops while I was out). Hightlights (such as they were) included visiting a Denny's (my first time going to one in Japan), which was good but had a much more Japanese menu than I was expecting (not sure if I could call it Japanese food or highly Japanified American food, although there were some things that were more or less authentic), and winning another PS2 game from that claw machine at the nearby (well, kinda sorta nearby) game store. If you're curious, it was Tekken Tag. Not really sure what I'm gonna do with it since I'm not a huge fighting game fan (plus that's a pretty old vesion of Tekken anyway) but multi-player is kind of fun (not that I really have anyone here to play non-online games with).

But enough with that, Saturday night was a whole lot more interesting than Sunday. So, as you may already know, every Saturday I go into Tokyo for religious services. This time, the congregation's guitar player invited me to go with him afterwards. He speaks hardly any English but I was able to work out the gist of where we were going (if not all the details). Long story short, he's a member of a group that call themselves The Ameya Beatles Club (Ameya is a shortened way to say Ameya Yokocho, the big market street area in Ueno that I've mentioned before). Basically, it's a bunch of Japanese people who meet (couldn't figure out how often) in a restaurant in Ameya and take turns playing and singing various Beatles songs. You kinda had to see it, or hear it anyay, so I took some videos. There was somewhere around fourteen guys. They all took turns singing and playing and ended up playing in a whole lot of different combinations. So, on with the movies (speaking of which, I decided to try posting my movies as WMVs instead of Flash movies this time around, if you have a preference feel free to let me know). Here's the opening group playing Ticket to Ride, here's the guy who invited me doing Yesterday, and another group of four doing Twist and Shout. All in all, I think this guy was the best. He also did a good Bob Dylan (actually it's a Beatles song but he was purposely doing it with a Dylan voice for some reason). Overall, the songs were kinda hit and miss. None were horrible but some were definately a bit off. Still, it was fun and everyone (both the regulars and the people who just heard the music and came in off the street) really got into it.

And that's all for now. See you Wednesday!


11/23/2007 Fashionably late

There's a brand new bonus comic for everyone who votes for Pebble Version on TWC and a new ROM (of sorts). You may also be interested in knowing that most of Linoone's pokédex entry today is actually straight from the actualy in game pokédex entry...

Sorry about the late update. As I might have mentioned before, today is Labor Thanksgiving day in Japan. No relation to US Thanksgiving day, it's actually more like Labor Day. Anyway, long story short I had the day off and spent most of it with an internet friend of mine who lives in Akita (a city several hours north of where I am). He had to come down to this part of the country for a buisness meeting over the weekend so he came a day early and we hung out, walked around Akihabara, etc. Didn't leave me with a whole lot of time to update the site though so I'm gonna leave it there.

See you monday!


11/21/2007 Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you in the US. Wish I could celebrate it but Thanksgiving doesn't exist in Japan so I've got to work plus turkey and all the other Thanksgiving type foods are pretty hard to find here so I guess I'm just gonna have to skip it this year. Sigh... Anyway, I'm trying to get a whole lot of things done right now so let's do one Random Japan Comment and leave it at that. And, since I just game back from grocery shopping...

Random Japan Comment: Grocery Stores
The first thing you'll notice about grocery stores in Japan is that they're a lot smaller than ones in the US. Now that's to be expected in places like Tokyo where there usually just isn't enough room for a giant store. However, even in places that have plenty of space (like the town where I live) the biggest grocery stores are still only around 1/3 - 1/2 the size of your average Safeway, City Market, Fry's, or any of the other big US grocery store chains. The stores aren't the only thing that's smaller. If you go into any US grocery store I'm sure you're all used to seeing two things by the entrance, those plastic hand baskets you can use to carry around groceries if you don't plan on getting much and the nice big shopping carts. Japan has the plastic baskets (which are pretty much identical) but carts are completely different. A Japanese shopping cart is nothing more than a small metal frame with wheels that you can use to hold one of those plastic baskets (some may also have a lower shelf you can stick a second basket on, kinda a pain to get to though). So, unless you want to try pushing multiple carts around at once, your entire purchase is limited to what you can fit in one (or maybe two) of those plastic baskets. Now I can't imagine that people in Japan eat a whole lot less food than those in the US so you've got to wonder about the reason for the tiny baskets. It could just be because Japanese people like small and compact things, or that no one ever thought of making bigger carts, or it could be that the stores figure that if you can't by a whole lot of food when you visit the store you'll have to come back more often which may make you spend more money there in the long run. And, as long as I'm talking about size, it's worth noting that food often comes in smaller packages than in the US (for example, I already mentioned ice cream sizes in my ice cream RJC).
Naturally, Japanese grocery stores sell mostly Japanese food (big surprise there) although you can find some American and Italian stuff (just don't expect much of a selection) and some Japanese knock offs of said American and Italian stuff (which are typically cheaper but usually doesn't taste the same). They also have a large selection of cheap boxed meals, or bento, which are very popular both with commuters and some school kids. Bento come in all types but a few common kinds include sushi, onigiri (rice balls), noodle dishes, and the like. Many grocery stores also have their own bakery inside. Japanese bakeries are a lot different than US ones but I'll be giving them their own RJC another time so for now suffice it to say that said bakeries include mostly buns, pasteries, and snack type breads (it's important to note that most in store bakeries require you to pay for your bakery items in the bakery instead of with the rest of your groceries). Another thing many grocery stores have is little sweet shops that sell small cakes and the like.
Prices really depend on what you're getting. Some things like sea food are very cheap (at least compared to the US) while others are extremely expensive (fruit is generally the worst offender here). Speaking of produce, make sure you don't get the regular fruit mixed up with the gift fruit. Gift fruit is typically very big, very nice looking, and very very expensive. As the name suggests, you get it to give as a gift, not to eat yourself, and is typically sold in packs of one or two. Might go more into detail about what makes it so special another time.
When you're ready to pay for your groceries you go to the cashier, takes your plastic basket off your cart, and stick it on the counter. The cashier then scans your items (reciting the price of each as he/she does) while putting them in a new plastic basket. Then, while you're getting your money, they'll stick some plastic bags into your new basket (the magic number of bags seems to be two, at least that's the amount of bags I get 95% of the time regardless of how much I buy). If it looks like you're getting something that you might be eating soon (say a bento box or an ice cream cup) they'll stick in chopsticks or a spoon as well. After paying, you take your basket to a nearby bagging table, which is basically a counter or table where you can put your basket while you transfer the contents from it to your bags. Said tables usually have a damp cloth you can use to wet your fingers if you're having trouble getting the bag open and a place to put your basket once it's empty. After that, you're ready to grab your bags and head out (if you had a cart, remember to wheel it back to its place by the entrance).

And that's how you buy groceries in Japan. See you Friday!


11/19/2007 Kawagoe

Don't forget about Friday's bonus comic and don't forget about the donation raffle either. Speaking of which, here's another figurine for it. It's Legato from Trigun. Speaking of Trigun, if you guys really like Trigun figurines, I'm still missing one guy from that set (naturally it's the one I wanted the most to begin with). But, since it's only one guy, I'm practically guarenteed to end up with a bunch of dupes if I try to get him out of random boxes so I'll probably just wait and see if I spot an open one sometime. Although, if this whole raffle thing kicks into gear then I wouldn't mind a few duplicates, and that Trigun figurine set is a pretty cool one (and fairly hard to find since it's been out of print for a while, I just happened to stumble across a store with a whole bunch of boxes left). Remember, for every $5 you donate you get one raffle ticket and for everything $25 in total donations Pebble Version receives in a month there will be one prize drawing. Plus there's all the usual bonus stuff (commentary, extra updates, sprite comic guides, etc) that you get for donating and Shauni even has a donation special going as well (donations to PV count as ROM donations and vice versa) so why not help support the site? If you're interested, take a look at the donation info right below the donation guage.
Speaking of donations, I do seem to be mentioning them a lot lately, don't it? Sorry about that, I know it gets kinda repititious, I'm just trying to make sure everyone knows about the raffle since it's new and all. Now for my usual weekend report.

Sunday (19th): Kawagoe
Since the weather improved a lot over last weekend (although the temperature took a big drop), I headed to Kawagoe. Originally I was going to go there last weekend but ended up staying home because of the rain.
Kawagoe is a large town (or maybe a small city) that about an hour or so out of Tokyo. It was an important place during parts of Japanese history and is called Little Edo due to its similarities to old Tokyo (Tokyo used to be named Edo). Most of the main things to see in Kawagoe are on or around one part of the town, which turned out to be quite a ways from the train station. Fortunately, thanks to a map board outside the station and a handful of signs along the way I didn't have much trouble finding my way. I walked up a nice long shopping street on my way there (the US has malls and plazas, Japan has shopping streets (and malls and plazas too, but shopping streets are far more common)) so I got to browse a bit. There was one bookstore that had probably a thousand plus graphic novels on sale for 105 yen each (as in, less than a dollar). If my Japanese was a bit better (and I didn't have to worry about how the heck I'd get a huge stack of graphic novels back to the US) it would have been hard to resist going on a spending spree. Not that I mind graphic novel prices in the US ($8-$10 for a book seems reasonable enough) but here even the retail price for a manga graphic novel is only about 1/4th of what I pay back home. I can imagine how much money I'd save...or more likely how many more graphic novels I'd buy with that money. Anyway, back to Kawagoe...
My first stop was the Kurazukuri area. Kurazukuri are an old type of storehouse building made primarily out of clay (I think). They used to be really popular a few hundred years ago. Now there's only around 30 or 40 left, most of which have been converted into shops and the like. It's a nice area to walk around and there's also some other things to see like an old bell tower and some museums. One of the old buildings was turned into a museum, or maybe more of a walk in display so you can could go inside and see what they used to look like inside. I also went in the festival museum. Turns out Kawagoe has a pretty big festival every year. Unfortunately, I missed it but the museum gave me a good idea of what it's like. They also had some of the festival floats on display. I know the picture is a bit dark but said floats are both extremely ornate and a good two stories high. Really neat. Unfortunately, I forgot to turn my camera settings back to normal after leaving so the rest of my pics look a bit grainy.
Once I'd finished up in that part of town, I headed to the nearby Kashiya Yokocho, which is a small side street full of candy shops (there was other food too but the candy is what it's known for). Since I hadn't spotted any particularily good places to get lunch nearby, I grabbed a few things and just kinda snacked instead. Didn't actually get any candy though. There was one guy selling cucumbers on a stick so I got one of those, although I had kinda been expecting a pickle, not an ordinary cucumber. I also got a couple things that I can't remember the Japanese names of. One is a fairly popular snack food, a sort of rice cracker covered with soy sauce. You can get bags of them in grocery stores but if you get them off street stands the crackers and dunked in sauce, cooked on a gril for a minute or so, then given to you with a piece of nori (the seaweed used in sushi) to hold it with. The other is a fish shapped pancake like bread that you can get stuffed with different things like cheese, chocolate, anzuki, etc. I also got fu (or hu depending who you ask). Took me forever to figure out what it was. Seemed to half the stores on the street were selling it and lots of people were walking around with it but I'd never heard of fu before plus it was kinda hard to spot the name on the package. Anyway, I finally asked what it was, which was when I found out the name. According to my electric dictionary, fu is a 'breadlike substance made of wheat'. That actually sums it up pretty well. It's kinda a dry bread stuff that's pretty dry and slightly sweet. The fu there was also kinda sorta french bread shaped and most of it was around three feet long. So I've got about two and a half feet it sitting in my kitchen right now.
Moving on, I stopped by the Kawagoe City Museum. Originally I was planning to skip it, but I was making good time and it was right on the way to my next stop so I decided to take a look. Glad I did. Unfortunately, no pictures allowed. Anyway, turns out Kawagoe has a lot of interesting history and a decent amount of the signs had been translated into English. There was also old artifacts, art, etc from various points in Kawagoe's past.
Next was Honmaru Goten, the only surviving building from Kawagoe Castle. So I got to walk around inside and outside there. It's interesting how much different Japanese castle's are from European ones. In Europe you either had stone fortresses or opulent palaces. In Japan, on the other hand, they seem to go more for elegant simplicity. At least that's how the ones I've seen are. Haven't seen any of the really big Japanese castles yet so they could be different.
Finally, I headed to the area around Kitain Temple. Although the original was burned down long ago, it was rebuilt shortly after using some of the buildings from Edo Castle (not sure how they transported them considering that this was hundreds of years ago). So anyway, I got to walk through that and see some things in the surrounding area like a smaller part of the temple, a flower show that was being held outside, a collection of 538 stone statues (all different), and the nearby Toshugu Shrine (kinda like the Toshugu in Nogi but not quite as impressive).
After that, although I slowly made my way back to the station. Could have hung around a bit longer but I'd pretty much seen everything and the sun was going to be setting soon anyway so that's it.


11/16/2007 A change of pace

It's friday and you hopefully all know what that means, since I kinda mention it every single friday and all... So yeah, new bonus comic for everyone who clicks on the TWC (Top Web Comics) banner or button and confirms their vote. There's also a new ROM. Might as well also remind you that there's still half a month left to get in on that Japanese figurine raffle. You get a ticket for every $5 you donate and as long as the guage reachers at least $25 there will be a raffle drwaing with the winner getting the figurine of their choice mailed to them for no additional cost. Plus, there will be additional prize drawings if the guage reaches $50, $75, and $100 (not to mention all the usual donation goodies that I do and some special stuff from Shauni). Full donation info can be found in the donation info section which is right below the donation guage on the main page.

The comic is certainly changing pace a bit now that Brendan and May's battle is over but that's not what the title of today's post is referring to. Since I came here, pretty much every PV news post I've written has been about Japan. Nothing wrong with that, I had a lot to say about Japan and I've got a lot more to say as well. But I felt like doing something different today so instead of more Random Japan Comments I'm going to write a very long overdue game review. For everyone who wants to hear more about Japan, don't worry, that's still what I'm gonna be spending most of my news posts talking about. Like I said, just wanted to do something different today.

The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess was a launch title for the Nintendo Wii and was also released for the Gamecube shortly after. Actually, I think just about everyone with a Wii already owns it but hey, I feel like reviewing it anyway. I should also mention that it is now my favorite Zelda game (having finally beaten out the class Link to the Past).
Graphics: Twilight Princess looks really good from a technical standpoint although, the graphics aren't really next gen since it was originally designed as a Gamecube game. Artistically, the graphics are brilliant. The game returns to the more realistic style of Ocernia of Time (as opposed to Zelda Wind Waker's cartoony look) and features a very detailed and imaginative world featuring a varety of unique areas whether you're in the normal areas or in the beautifully creepy Twilight realms.
Sound: It's classic Zelda all the way here with remixes of familiar tunes and lots of very familiar sound effects as well. It's all great stuff, just don't expect and real changes.
Story: Like all the Zelda games, you control a boy named Link and, like most of the games, he ends up on a quest to save Princess Zelda and the Kingdom of Hyrule. You're playing a new Link this time around (which brings the total number of different Links throughout history to around 6 or so) in a time that looks to be at least a couple hundred years after Ocernia of Time. But, as usual, the game's story stands on its own and knowledge of previous Zelda games is completely unneccesary (though you'll be in for a couple pleasant surprises if you do know all that stuff). Basically, Link is a seemingly ordinary boy in a small village who is tasked with delivering a present to the princess in Hyrule castle. However, those plans are interrupted when his friends are kidnapped and Link soon finds himself in the midst of a struggle to save Hyrule from being covered in Twilight. There's the usual memorable cast of characters, the coolest being Midna, a mischievous imp who teams up with Link shortly into his journey. While it's no epic, Twilight Princess has what is probably the best story of any of the Zelda games and there's even a couple of nifty twists thrown in.
Gameplay: Like every other Zelda game, this is where Twilight Princess shines. Once again, like in all other Zelda games, Link will travel across the kingdom fighting monsters, searching for treasure, helping out the locals, exploring, and the like. Fortunately, he's got his trusty horse to help him cover the massive area Fortunately, horseback combat has been tweaked a lot so using both your bow and sword while riding works great. And, as usual there's tons of pieces of heart and other things scattered about to find, some fairly obvious, some extremely well hidden. Fishing is back as well and, thanks to the Wiimote, better than ever, and there's lots of other mini-games as well. Speaking of the Wiimote, the game controls well with it. Running, jumping, fighting, and the like can all be done with surprising ease and some actions, like fishing, shooting, and the like work far better than they ever did with a normal controller. All in all, playing with the Wiimote is a lot of fun.
When you're done wasting time with all the mini-games, side-quests, and the like it's time to get down to the buisness of saving the kingdom. Unsurprisingly (at least if you've played any other Zeldas), this involves going through a series of maze like dungeons full of evil monsters, tricky puzzles, and really cool treasures. The dungeons are all extremely well desinged, giving you a good challenge both physically (ok, more physical for Link than you but hey, you have to swing the Wiimote around a lot to fight) and mentally (there's some killer puzzles). And, as always, on the way through the dungeon you'll pick up a special item that will grant you new abilities and be vital to solving the puzzles you'll be facing. Plenty of old favorite items are back but not all are how you remember them and there's some interesting new ones as well. Of course, each dungeon ends with a boss who will require some good fighting skills and a bit of quick thinking to defeat. While Twilight Princess is certainly far more difficult than Wind Waker, it's still a bit easier than the older Zeldas, giving a decent though not intense level of challenge and the dungeons themselves are some of the best yet.
Probably the worst kept secret about the game, (well not much of a secret since it's pretty much on the box cover and happens very soon after you start the game) is that Link can turn into a wolf at times. While I won't go into details, suffice it to say that this adds some very intersting mechanics to the game and there will be many times where you'll need to make good use of both regular Link and wolf Link's abilities to procede.
Overall: Twilight Princess doesn't really make any major changes to the very well established Zelda style but with a style that's already all but perfect, it doesn't really need to. If you're a long time fan of the series you'll find more of everything you love and if you're a new player there's never been a better game to show just what makes the Zelda games so amazing. The Wiimote is a great way to play although, whether you get it on the Wii or Gamecube, there can be no doubt that The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess is one of the best games in one of the best series in existence.


11/14/2007 End of the battle

And Brendan wins! Being both a normal type and immune to sound based moves, whismurs are immune to ghost attacks like astonish. They're also immune to the uproar attack, so that really just leaves Brendan and May with Pound. Unfortunately for May, although transformed, mew retains all its normal stats so it's still stronger and faster than a normal whismur, giving Brendan the edge.

I just got a package from back home with some stuff I'd asked my brother to get for me (since I can't buy it over here). I got DBZ Season 3, and Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea for my PSP, all things I've been looking forward to for quite a while. So I'm gonna keep things short and just talk a little bit about what I do on Wednesdays.
Like every Wednesday, today I had a long bike ride to down town Nogi where I went to the Board of Education. Then it was off to my first preschool where I play with a bunch of three year olds for a while then give them a short English lesson. The three year olds are cute and they seem to really like me for some reason. They also love climbing all over me. It's kinda fun for a little while but I don't think I could deal with them all day every day like the teachers do. They're also a bit too young to realize that I can't understand everything they're saying, which can be both amusing and annoying at time. The class itself is really short so I do a couple of songs (ABCs and Head Shoulders Knees and Toes), a quick game, and then something short and easy like directions or some simple body parts.
After that it's off to my second preschool where I teach two classes, one of four year olds and one of five year olds. They all seem to really like me as well, but they're a bit better trained than the younger kids so they don't all jump on me. Classes are a little longer so I can do a bit more. I still do the same two songs (the Board of Education actually asked me to teach them all the same songs), quiz them on the ABCs, and then I do a couple of games. One is my surprisingly popular start and stop game which basically involves the kids moving around when I say start and stopping when I say stop. Last one to stop is out. In case you never noticed, little kids can be fiercely competitive. There's also the newer janken game which is a sort of rock paper scissors tournament (in English of course). After that I'll do some teaching. That varies by week but I'm currently doing things like body parts and colors.
Next is my lunch break so I usually swing by the grocery store and grab a bento lunch (look for a RJC on those sometime) then head to the park to hang out and eat.
After lunch comes the newest addition to my Wednesday schedule which involves going back to the BOE and hanging out with some special needs kids. There's only a few kids and they seem to be either older elementary school or younger junior high school students (not sure which). Not really sure why they're in special needs though, they all seem perfectly normal to me. There's always one or two Japanese teachers hanging out with the kids so I let them choose what we do, which generally involves very little in the way of teaching. Most of the time we just play games and have fun.
Finally there's the weekly meeting with all the ALTs and someone from the BOE. These meetings are typically fairly pointless ("Is everything going ok? It is? That's good. How about you?") but they're usually pretty short as well and if we get done early we can go home early so I can't complain much.

And that's that. I'm gonna go check out my new stuff now. Later!


11/12/2007 Rained out

Brendan and May's battle will be ending on Wednesday and after that? Well, not to spoil anything but there's some pretty cool stuff coming up in the next town... As usual, vote for bonus comics, donate for cool bonus comics and the new PV Raffle (see the donation info), and all that.

So, I had this whole day trip planned out for Sunday but the weather report was showing a 90% chance of rain for pretty much the entire day and since a lot of my trip involved walking around outside, I decided to put it off for a week. Instead, I hung out at my apartment most of the day. It was a nice break and I got a lot of things done that I'd been meaning to do for ages but it doesn't make for a very interesting post here so I guess it's time for a Random Japan Comment.

Random Japan Comment: Earthquakes
Japan is in an area with lots of seismic activity so earthquakes are kinda common. If you're in Japan for a fairly long period of time, there's a decent chance you'll experience an earthqauke (well, I haven't looked up any statistics but that's the way it seems from the time I've spent here). While kinda freaky for those of us from earthquake free parts of the world, they're really not that bad once you get used to them. Of course, a serious earthqauke would be a whole different story but it takes a pretty big one to do any real damage, especially when construction is done with earthquakes in mind (like it is in Japan). So while you might feel the ground shaking (depending on how strong the quake is and where you are at the time), that's about all that happens. I've been through several since coming here and I'm kinda sorta used to them now. As long as a whole bunch of stuff doesn't start falling over, the quake probably isn't anything you need to worry about.


11/9/2007 Rock scissors paper, one two three!

There's a new voters' bonus comic up (just click the TWC button or banner and confirm your vote to see it) and if PV receives only four more $5 donations this will become a raffle month (more details in the donation info section right below the donation guage) so it's a great time to help support Pebble Version. Not only do you get all the usual donation bonus content, you could also win a raffle prize straight from Japan! I should probably also mention that I found, and fixed, some broken links on the extras page so if you were trying to look at something on there and it wasn't working, it should be now.
There's also a new ROM comic and Shauni has a special donation incentive of her own to offer. So now if the donation guage reaches at least $25 you not only get the PV bonus content and the Japanese Figurine Raffle but you get cool stuff from her too!

Random Japan Comment: Janken
Janken is the Japanese name for the Rock Paper Scissors game, which I'm gonna assume you're all familiar with. Although for some strange reason, in Japan it goes rock scissors paper. Anyway, in the US if a couple of people are trying to decide on something they might flip a coin or maybe do 'eeiny meeny miney moe'. In Japan they use janken. School kids use it to decide just about everything (which team goes first, who gets to do something, who wins in a tie, etc, etc, etc) and even adults will resort to it from time to time (often in the type of situations were we'd go for a coin flip). Now in the US I've seen about 20 different ways of doing RPS (the basic rules are always the same but there's lots of different ways to start out). In Japan it looks like there is a set method in what you say and the way you move their hands before throwing out your rock, paper, or scissors (at least, that's what it looks like to me). A little hard to describe in words but basically you show each symbol once, bring your hand back (often shielding it with your free hand) and then throw out whatever you chose. While you're doing this there's a little chant. I'm not sure of the exact words since I've never seen them written down but it sounds something like: "ro sham bo" (while you're doing the rock, scissors, paper) "janken" (when you pull your hand back) "poi" (when you show what you chose). The whole things goes pretty fast and, unlike the US where I've never seen more than two people play RPS at a time, in Japan it's quite commen for several people to play all with once (sometimes it keeps going until one person beats everyone at once and sometimes people drop out as if they failed to beat anyone that round and lost to someone else (like when two people do paper and two rock, rock would drop out since they lost to paper and didn't have any scissors to beat).
Keep in mind that most Japanese people probably wouldn't know what you meant if you said rock paper scissors, to them the game is just janken (they probably don't even know that it didn't come from Japan). However, teaching kids how to play in English (where the chant goes something like "rock scissors paper, one two three, show") seems to be a pretty common English class activity so if you're gonna be working with school kids in Japan, you should probably brush up a bit on your RPS before hand.

Random Japan Comment: Restaurants Redux
I already did a RJC about restaurants but that was a while ago (shortly after I arrived in Japan) so now I've got a lot more to say on the subject.
1. Finding a Restaurant: In most areas, finding a place to eat is quite easy, at least assuming you don't wonder off into the middle of a big residential district or something like that. If you're around shops, buisnesses, or tourist attactions you can bet that there will be restaurants and/or snack stands (more on snack stands another time) nearby, and probably quite a lot of them at that.
2. Japanese Restaurants: The vast majority of restaurants in Japan serve Japanese food of some type (seems obvious enough although, when you think about it, I'm not sure I could say that the vast majority of US restaurants serve American food...). Some Japanese food restuarants have a very diverse selection but many specialize in one type of thing. Common Japanese restaurant types include: ramen (Chinese noodles in a broth with various other things mixed in, there's about a million different types. Ramen restaurants are very common and are usually little more than stands or small restaurants where everyone sits at a bar.), udon and soba (Japanese noodles. Soba is buckwheat noodles sorta like speghetti. Udon are the same shape but they're very thick and made of wheat. Udon are typically in broth with stuff (kinda like ramen). Soba is sometimes like that but often come on a plate and can be dipped in stuff. Like ramen, there's a ton of stands and small restuarants with these.), kaiten zushi (Conveyor belt sushi. Cheap and fun.), yakitori (Pieces of chicken on a skewer. Cheap, fast, and often served in very small cramped restaurants.), currey, cutlets, and omelets (A lot of restaurants that have one of those have all of them which is why I'm listing them together. Japanese currey is brown and much thicker than Thai and most Indian curries (and also not nearly as spicey). It's pretty good, usually has chunks of vegetables and meat mixed in, and is served with rice. Cutlets are fried breaded cutlets of meat (usually chicken or pork) or fish. However, a lot of the time you might as well say they're mystery meat since many restaurant menus and grocery store lables just call them cutlets and don't both to say what type of meat it is (doesn't matter if you can read Japanese or not). At first glance omeletts look incredibly fat but they're actually just laying on top of a large pile of rice. The omeletts themselves tend to be thin, a tad runnier than most places in the US make them, and often have cheese mixed in.), and traditional Japanese food (this varies from restaurant to restaurant but in a normal non fancy place you'll typically get a tray with rice, soup, a small vegatable dish or two, and fish or some other kind of meat or seafood as a main dish). Naturally, fancy restaurants are a lot different but the only one I've been to so far was for the Nogi Elementary School Festival after party (talked about that in depth a few weeks ago) so I'm not all that knowledgable about them.
3. Foreign Restaurants: If you don't want Japanese food you do have other options. Indian restaurants are sorta common (at least in the bigger cities) and usually pretty authentic (because they're usually run by people from India). A few minor changes aside, the Indian restaurants I've been to in Japan have been more or less comparable to the ones I've been to the US (although without quite as many lunch buffets). Korean restaurants also pop up from time to time and are usually run by Koreans and therefore very authentic. Chinese restaurants actually aren't all that common (at least outside of a few areas such as Yokohama's China town) and from what I've heard usually aren't all that great either (unless you're in a place like Yokohama's China town). Italian restaurants are something you'll see a decent amount of although the authenticity is questionable at best. Speghetti dishes and pizza seem to be the staples (not quite sure what happened to lasanga, ravioli, and all the other Italian foods that are so popular back home) but in most restaurants they've been heavily Japanified. It's kinda like a Japanese person who never had real Italian food heard about Italian food somewhere and decided to try and recreate it on his own without bothering to track down any authentic Italian recipies. The speghetti dishes are basically big plates of speghetti with a variety of different toppings (often seafood based), most of which I don't recall ever seeing in US Italian restaurants (or in Italy for that matter). Pizza is...well it probably deserves its own Random Japan Comment. For now let's just say that the pizza at your average Japanese Italian restaurant has a very thin crust, a somewhat different cheese, often lacks sauce, and comes with some of the strangest toppings you can imagine. So yeah, if you've had real pizze, Japanese pizza isn't all that great. Interesting though. American restaurants are probably the most common type of foreign restaurants. The first type is the burger joint. McDonalds is quite popular here and there's some similiar Japanese based chains like Moss Burger and Lotteria. You can get an fairly authentic US fast food style burger at any of them. However, if you look at the menus you'll find a lot of weird burgers too (ranch dressing and cabbage, soy sauce and soft boiled egg, spam, etc). The other major type of American restaurant is the homestyle restaurant (think places like Denny's). Actually Japan has a lot of Denny's, as well as some Japanese based copy cat chains. I think Denny's is fairly authentic (although I haven't been to one yet) but many of the others are sorta Japanified like the Italian restaurants. You'll find steaks, burgers, and all that kind of stuff but there will be a lot of minor (or sometimes major) changes so it's never quite like what you'd get if you ordered that stuff in the US. Fortunately, the changes usually aren't too major or weird. Finally, aside from the widespread McDonald's and Denny's (and Starbucks, but that's not really a restaurant) you can find a lot of other big US chain restaurants in Japan as well (I've seen places like TGI Friday's, Sizzler, and Subway) but they're very rare (often just a handful of places in the entire country) and usually can only be found in big cities. The real advantage of going to any US chain restaurant is that they all seem to have English menus. Other foreign restaurants like Thai and Mexican do exist but they're very rare and I don't know if the few that exist are all that authentic.
4. Going to an Restaurant: Once you've found a restaurant there's a bit more you should know. For example, how are you going to order? Many restaurants have a collection of plastic food (often representing everything on their menu) displayed right outside so you can look at the display and see what they have and decide if you want to eat there or not. Picture menues are also pretty common. English menus are moderately common in some of the big tourist areas but don't expect them. If you can read at least some basic Japanese you might be able to look at a plastic food display or menu and tell the waiter what you want. If you can't read the name (cause you can't read any Japanese or you just can't read the kanji used) you can point to what you want on a picture menu or (if there isn't a picture menu) take the waiter outside the restaurant and point at the plastic food (some plastic food displays also have all the food numbered so you can just say what number you want as most Japanese people can understand English numbers). However, some places don't have plastic food or picture menus so if you end up in those and can't speak or read at least a little Japanese...well there isn't a whole lot you could do except point at something on the menu at random. So try to stick to stick to places that has plastic food and/or a picture menu displayed outside.
5. Paying for Your Meal: There are a few different ways to do this. First there's the pay before you eat restaurants. At these places there will be a menu on the wall or something like right outside or right inside the restaurant. You look at that to decide what you want then you'll tell the person there and pay them. They'll give you a recipt or ticket and then you can take a seat and wait. Some of these type of places actually don't have a live person to take your order. Instead, there's a machine that you put money in and push a button for what you want. The machine gives you a ticket which you then present to the person inside the restaurant. At the pay after you eat type of restaurants, you'll be seated and make your order. Sooner or later you'll be given a receipt (often at the same time your food comes) and then once you're done you take the receipt to the counter and pay (keep in mind that many places only take cash).
6. Prices: Fancy restaurants can naturally be quite expensive but your average Japanese restaurant is usually fairly inexpensive. It's very easy to get a decent meal for under 1000 yen (around $8.50) and if you're not all that hungry, you may even be able to get by on 500 yen at some places. If you want to go a bit nicer (and/or get a bit more food) but still stay out of the fancy restaurants, expect to pay anywhere between 1100 and 2200 yen. Eating out in Japan is really quite affordable.
7. Other Important Things to Know: First off, most restaurants don't give you napkins and the smaller places often don't have restrooms where you can wash your hands. Instead you'll get a moist towellette or whipe of sorts (usually in a little sealed plastic wrapper). Use that to whipe you hands before you eat then fold it (don't crumple it) and set it aside. Do not use it to whipe you face. Second, never leave your chopsticks sticking vertically in a bow
l of rice. That's something that's done at funerals and it's bad manners at a normal meal. Third, if you're eating with other people and getting food out of a shared bowl or try, reverse your chopsticks, using the opposite ends to pick up the food and put it on your plate. Then turn them back to their normal position before picking up the food to eat it.

See you monday!


11/7/2007 Halloween...a week late

Well, Brendan and May's battle is just about finished now. Just mew and whatever May's last pokémon is. If you didn't read Monday's news post you probably should, at least if you want a shot at winning some awesome anime and game figurines straight from Japan (there's also a summary in the Donation Info section). Only $20 more in donations and this month will become a raffle month!

Tuesday (7th): Nogi Elementary Halloween Party
Did I mention that Japanese people like Halloween? Or at least they like the decorations and themed stuff at shops and restaurants that goes up a couple of weeks before. There's no trick or treating although I think there are some costume parties (Japan is the home of cosplay and tons of crazy fashion styles so they do like dressing up). A lot of schools have Halloween parties but they don't seem to be too picky about the dates. I don't think of the schools in Nogi actually had their party on Halloween (heck, one decided to wait and combine it with their christmas party).
Anyway, Veronica-sensei (one of the other Nogi ALTs) came over to help me with my party. We did all six grades pretty much back to back (it was a really busy morning). Cause of time and space constraints, we split each grade into two groups, Veronica and I each took one group for about ten minutes then switched. After that we gave the kids their candy and quickly straightened things up for the next grade. Speaking of candy, the kids got one piece each, which seems pretty miserly compared to back home. But when you consider that the Nogi Board of Education only gave us 1300 yen per school for candy (about $10), the kids were lucky were we able to get enough cheap candy for everyone (I feel sorry for the ALTs at the bigger schools, they probably had to pay for extra candy out of their own pockets).
Veronica ran a sort of Halloween matching game for the kids. I'd tell you how it worked but I really have no clue since she planned that one herself and I was way too busy running my game to take a look (the picture was taken by one of the teachers, who I passed my camera off to for a little while). I was also running around too much to take pictures myself. I did manage to snap one of the 4th graders (the only grade that really got into the costume thing) but once again this was a rush rush type of thing so I snapped it really quick and caught about half of them completely off guard. My game was a modified version of fruits basket. Um, now that I think about it, do they play fruits basket in the US? Basically there's a circle of chairs with one less chair than there are people. Each person has a card (there's usually several different types like apples, oranges, cherries, and grapes). The person in the middle calls out a couple of types of cards and people with those cards have to get up and try to grab a new chair before they're all taken (the person in the middle is trying to do the same). It's a game that gets used in a lot of my lessons although it's not always 'fruit' basket (there's been vegetable basket, school items basket, etc). Anyway, aside from making the game Halloween basket (with black cats, witches, jack-o'-lanterns, and bats) I decided to make things more intersting by randomly removing chairs. If multiple people were left chairless they had to play rock paper scissors with the loser getting knocked out of the game. Last two people won. Simple enough but the kids had a lot of fun with it. Here's a couple of pictures of the game. You can spot me in both of them in my Halloween getup, which I got during my visit to Tokyo Disneyland.

And that's all for now. Some stuff (really boring stuff that there's really no need to talk about) ran very late today so I'm running really late as a result. Later!


11/5/2007 The PV Japanese Figurine Raffle & My trip to Tokyo

There's been a new bonus comic up since Friday and, unlike the previous bonus comic which didn't get updated when it was supposed to, this one is up and working. Now read on for a big Pebble Version related announcement.

See these? Want some of them? If so, read on. If not, you can still read on or you can go ahead and skip down a few paragraphs or so. Anyway, you may have noticed that around a week or so ago I mentioned the possibility of a raffle to go along with the donation incentives. Well, we're going to give it a try for a couple months and see what happens (specifically if it increases donations). Remember, aside from taking a decent amount of my time, PV isn't exactly free for me. I've got to pay for my domain name, hosting, and the like so donations are always greatly appreciated. So, here's how this is going to work. You'll still get the same great bonus content (commentary on old strips, ROM The Novel chapters, extra updates, Zelda comics, Sprite Comic Guides, and mystery surprises) when the donation guage reaches various levels (see the donation info right below the guage for more info on how that works), that's not gonna change but now there's also the raffle.
PV Raffle Details: For every $5 you donate you get one entry in that month's raffle (assuming that the minimum donation amount for that month is reached). If the donation guage for that month reaches at least $25 there will be a raffle (if it doesn't, your donations will still count towards the Sprite Comic Guide, as always). At the end of the month, I'll hold a random drawing and the winner gets a figurine of his/her choice from my current collection of duplicate figurines which will then be mailed to them for free. In addition, for every additional $25 donated that month (making the total $50, $75, etc) I will add an additional prize drawing (2nd prize, 3rd prize, etc). Figurines will be brand new and still sealed in their plastic bags (but taken out of the boxes, both so I could tell what they were and to make shipping easier). The figurines available as prizes will vary depending on what duplicate figurines I have at the time. More will be added to the prize list when I get them. Naturally, if this whole things turns out to be popular I'll probably be encouraged to buy more figurines which would mean more duplicates for prizes (might even take suggestions as to which figurine sets to focus on). If, on the other hand, it doesn't increase donations, I'll probably drop the whole idea after two or three months.
These are the currently available prize figurines and more may be added later in the month if I get some (please note that the photo is of my figurines, the prizes will be identical but still sealed). From left to right we have: Sanji from the One Piece Grand Adventure set, Selphie from the out of print Final Fantasy Trading Arts 2 set, Rikku also from FF Trading Arts 2, Balthier from the new FF Tactics Trading Arts set, Princess Ovelia also from FFT Trading Arts, and in front of her is Vaan and Cloud (who I'm giving away as a set cause they're small) from the new FF Trading Arts Mini set. Actual height ranges from about 2 1/2" to 5". These are very nice high quality figurines straight from Japan and now you have a chance to get some while helping out Pebble Version at the same time AND getting all the usual awesome bonus content For details on the normal donation bonuses and how to donate see the Donation Info right below the donation guage.

And now for the usual bit about what I did on Sunday.

Sunday (4th): Tokyo Shopping Day
Despite the title, I've actually done pretty much all the serious shopping I wanted to do since coming to Japan. However, after reading the list I did a few posts ago about stuff I missed from the US, my uncle and a friend of mine who lives in Northern Japan suggests some places where I could find some of the things on that list. In addition, there were a few places in Tokyo I'd been wanting to stop at in the near future anyway. Unfortunately, it wasn't a great day for photos but I did get a few.
First off, I noticed that the always cool O-keibo-jo Flea Market was being held that day so I figured that, as long as I was in the area, I might as well stop by and take a look. Like the last two times I was there, it was fun and there was a huge variety of stuff for sale (clothes, old toys, antique stuff, tools, electronics, video games, books, music, etc, etc, etc...). I picked up a few old classic Gameboy platform games (Mario Land 2, Kirby's Dreamland, and Kirby's Dreamland 2) for a grand total 300 yen, which was a great deal, especially since those game have hardly any text in them so language isn't an issue (and Nintendo's handheld game systems aren't region locked). I also found some stuff my dad wanted.
Next stop was Shibuya where I went to a Kinokunya bookstore, a chain that both my uncle and friend said carried some English books. They didn't have a ton they did have a lot more than any other regular Japanese bookstore chain I've been in and the prices were actually pretty equivalent to the US prices so I got a few for when I need something to read. While I was there, I discovered that Hachiko (which I talked about on a previous visit to Shibuya) isn't the only statue outside the station, there's also this weird thing. I also should probably tell Silver and Kaida (who are hopefully reading this), that I found One Piece! Oh wait...darn. So close... So instead of a ton of pirate treasure I get a British style cafe. Who would have thought there'd be such a big difference between One and Two?
Next up I headed to an area not too far from Shibuya to check out a grocery store my uncle had mentioned that sold imported food. It didn't have anything I was looking for but while I was walking around the area I stumbled across a health food store where I was able to find decent peanut butter, among other things. I didn't get a lot (both cause of the price and cause there was a limit to how much stuff I wanted to lug around Tokyo) but what I did get should last a while and it'll certainly be nice to have.
Next stop was Jimbocho (FYI: this photo is of a side street, not the main road).  Kinda like Akihabara is the electronics area of Tokyo, Jimbocho is the book area, although the size and scope is really nothing like Akihabara. I went there to look around a little, both cause I like books and cause Jimbocho is a key location in the R.O.D. anime, which I've been watching lately. Anyway, there's a lot of bookstore ranging from tiny places crammed full of books to larger fancier shops. Some stores focused on a particular type of book (I saw one that was all graphic novels) and others were more random. Many seemed to focus on old books, some of which are no doubt pretty rare. Of course, if you can't read Japanese or collect rare books then most of the stores probably won't interest you too much although I did find one store that specialized in English books (mostly of the old and somewhat rare variety but there was some newer stuff too) and since I only went in a few of the stores, I wouldn't be surprised if there's another English bookstore or two somewhere in the area.
Finally, I headed to Akihabra. I didn't do a whole lot of browsing this time. As much as I enjoy it, I didn't want to get home too late and my backpack (stuffed with several books and the stuff I got at the health food store) was putting a serious kink in my back (note to self: if I ever need to buy food in Tokyo again, try and make it the last stop). Anyway, last time I was there I'd seen some posters for the then upcoming Final Fantasy Trading Arts Mini figurine set and wanted to get a few. And, while I was looking for those, I stumbled across the new and extremely cool Final Fantasy Tactics Trading Arts set, which I liked so much that I got the entire set. Too bad there's hardly any decent spots in my apartment to put figurines. I miss my AZ apartment, or even my room at my parents' house (well, before it got filled with boxes when I moved back there from AZ, it's pretty cramped right now, although there I've got the entire rest of the house as well so it's still pretty good).
And, aside from getting dinner at the food court in Yodobashi Camera, that's about it. Not a particularily exciting day but I got a lot done and found some useful places.


11/2/2007 Not my day

Oops... I totally forget to put up the new bonus comic last week, didn't I? Someone really should have told me, I could have fixed it sooner. Anyway, it's up now as is a new ROM. Also, I'd still like some opinions on that donation raffle idea (see monday's post).

Ever have one of those days where, although nothing major happened, enough little things went wrong to make it an overall lousy day? Well, I had one of those days today. And, even though work is over and I'm back in my apartment now, it's not getting all that much better. Therefore, I'm not in the greatest mood and that'll probably be reflected in the rest of this post.

So, I've been in Japan since the middle of August and I've been working as an ALT for a little over two months but there's still one very important question that I've been unable to find the answer to. HOW THE HECK DO SO MANY MOSQUITOS KEEP GETTING INTO MY APARTMENT? I mean seriously, I'm killing between one and three of them a day and I still get bitten just about every night. How do they keep getting in? My door and windows are closed most of the time so that can't be it and, as I already said, there's a really steady supply of the pests. Is there a mosquito spawn point in here or something? (That last sentence was video game humor, if you don't get it sorry but I'm not in the mood to explain.) Anyway, since bug spray would probably do more harm to me than the bites do (I'm rather sensitive to certain chemicals), I can only hope that, since it's been getting colder, they'll all die soon.

And now for another complaint about my apartment. In Japan, lots of buildings don't have central heating and air conditioning. My apartment is one them. Such buildings use small wall mounted hearing and air condition units that naturally only cover about one room each. Mine is mounted near the ceiling of the main room in my apartment (the living/dining/bed room). The problem is, the temperature sensor (the one that tells the thing what the current temperature is in the room so it can adjust itself accordingly) is mounted on the device. Now this wasn't horrible when I was using the air conditioning, although it did make things way colder than you wanted since cold air falls and the temp sensor is above the cold air and therefor it doesn't realize just hold cold things are on ground level where you're standing/sitting. Still, I could work with that by turning the the temperature guage a bit higher than the actual temperature I wanted (and by shutting the thing off if it got too cold). The main problem was that, being a little wall mounted thingy, it really only hits that one room so the kitchen and bathroom were still burning up.
Now however, I'm starting to use the heater and that's a real pain. Once again, it only has an effective range of one room. Or, more accurately, the ceiling of that room. See, hot air rises. So it comes out of the heater, rises a couple inches, hits the temperature sensor, the sensor thinks everything is nice and warm, and the heater shuts off. And, though I'm sure the ceiling is all warm and toasty, the floor area definately is not. Turning up the temperature setting doesn't help much, it just makes the difference between the ceiling and the floor more pronounced (I can seriously stand on my bed, reach my hand up, and feel just how large of a difference in temperature there is). Right now I'm hoping that if I leave it on long enough they'll even out a bit. So far, it doesn't seem to be working...

As long as I'm in the complaining mood, here's one more. When I was ranting about my internet before, I believe I mentioned that the cable connection appears to be shared with the entire apartment building and therefor there's some lag during the evening and night when everyone is at home and online. Allow me to share how bad that lag can get. See, last night I wanted to buy a couple of MP3s so I got online, hit the link for a music store, and waited, and waited... A couple minutes later the main page came up. Wasn't sure how to spell the title of the song I wanted so I searched for the group. A couple minutes later the page loaded where I could confirm which group I wanted. Several minutes after that I finally got a song list. But it was sorted by popularity and the song I wanted wasn't up on top so I had to resort by alphabet. A few minutes later they were resorted and I realized that I would have to go to the next page... Naturally that took another couple minutes. At this point I finally found the song...but there were several versions of it and I wasn't sure which one was the original so I decided to listen to the sample clips. Yeah, that wasn't exactly instantaneous either and that's not even mentioning the time it took to go through the checkout process to buy the song or the download (which lagged out and had to be restarted several times). Fortunately the internet isn't that bad every night but it happens often enough. And that is why you really shouldn't ever have more than a few people on a single shared cable loop.

Ok, that's all for now. I could probably mention a few other things but I'd kinda like to do something besides complain about stuff tonight so I'm off. Have a good weekend!


10/31/2007 No time to talk

Sorry the update is a bit late, and that I don't have time to write much. Spent the bit of free time I had today playing Guild Wars so I could be in the big in game Halloween party. Had to get the special hats and all that since I've got every other special hat they've given out so far. Plus the holiday parties are always fun. I'll write a proper post for Friday.


10/29/2007 Fish watching & possible Pebble Version raffle

Friday's bonus comic is up and all that usual stuff. Wow, hard to believe it's almost November. Time sure flies when you're keeping busy. It's also hard to believe I made so many typos in my last news post. Must have been half asleep or something...

Before I talk about my weekend, I'm kinda curious about something. I'm sure lots of you guys like figurines of Japanese anime, manga, and game characters. You know, the cool Japanese ones that you can only get online and at conventions (or in Japan of course). And as you probably know lots of those figures come in random boxes (as in, you can't tell which figure in the set you're gonna get until after you buy it and open the box). Naturally, that means that you're bound to end up with some duplicates from time to time. So, my question is, would you guys be more likely to donate if I turned the donations into a raffle for my spare figurines? It'd work something like this. If donations for the month reach a set amount (say $25) then that month will be a raffle month. People would get 1 ticket for every $5 they donated that month and at the end of the month I'd do a random drawing and the winner would get a figurine. Figurines would be random (since I never know what I'm gonna get dupes of) although the winner could take their pick from whatever I happen to have on hand on the time (for example I currently have a some extra Final Fantasy and One Piece figurines). If donations for the month got really high, there might even be multiple prize drawings. So, does that sound interesting? Would it make you more likely to donate? If you're interested or have any comments send me an e-mail or, if you're a member of the forums, you can post something there.

Ok, now for my usual weekend report.

Sunday (28th): Yokohama Sea Paradise
I've seen quite a lot of fish since coming to Japan but most of them have been in sushi or some other kind of food so I decided to go look at live fish for a change. Last time I was in Yokohama I heard about a big aquarium there so that's where I headed. Yokohama Sea Paradise is a small island (or maybe it's not really an island, close enough though) on the far end of Yokohama (at least if you're coming from the Tokyo direction. Sea Paradise is home to several attractions including the Aqua Museum aquarium and related attractions, a small amusement park, a shopping area, a hotel, etc.
The weather was surprisingly good, and it was actually clear enough to see Mt. Fuji in the distance (this was the first time I've actually gotten a look at it). Now being from CO I'm used to views of mountains although in CO they usually come in groups so it was kinda different to see one standing there all by itself.
For those of you who keeping wanting me to post more Engrish, this is your lucky day (if you don't know, Engrish is humorous misuse of English by Japanese people). See, there's lots of bad English in Japan (especially when it comes to grammar) but not all bad English is funny (it's often just bad), which is why I'm not posting photos of every mangled sentence I see. Anyway, I've got a few amusing Engrish things for today. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a photo of the first one but on the train ride to Sea Paradise the guy sitting across from me was wearing a shirt that said "What would a rambler do?". So, what would a rambler do? Probably talk on and on and on about pointless stuff, and I kinda doubt that was what the guy wearing the shirt had in mind. Not sure what they got that mixed up with. Maybe it was supposed to be gambler or rebel or something? Or maybe the person who designed the shirt speaks perfect English and just thought it'd be funny to have unknowing people walking around wearing that.
Anyway, since I came to see the fish, my first stop was the Aqua Museum. It's supposed to be one of Japan's largest aquariums. It was a nice aquarium, probably not the best I've been too (I seem to remember the Chicago aquarium being pretty amazing) although it's been so many years since I've been to any aquarium that I'm probably not in a position to make comparisons. But back to the point, it was nice and there was lots of cool stuff to see. Unfortunately, there was no flash photography and since my camera does pretty poorly in low light areas without a flash (unless I can find something to set it on so I can take a long exposure shot without anything shaking the camera), I couldn't get photos of a lot of stuff I would have liked to such as the rock fish, jelly fish, tiny little eels poking out of the ground like plants, and enormous crabs (as in, bigger than a small dog). But I did get some decent pics. Here's some penguins. Oddly, one of the species listed on the sign was called the Jackass Penguin. Kinda curious about where they got that name, I mean do they go around pushing other penguins off ledges or something? Moving on, here's a fish pretending to be coral, some rays, and a sea turtle. I also found some more Engrish when I took a look at some of "The Worlds Flogs" (sorry the pic is so blurry). See, Japanese doesn't have an l sound but their r sound is sorta half way between an r and an l so those two letters can often be used interchangeable when writing romanji (English translit of Japanese), even though technically it should always be r. This leads to Japanese people mix them up fairly often. To be fair, on all the other signs for that exhibit they spelled frogs correctly, although they all had "worlds" instead of the proper "world's".
The aquarium also had a show with trained dolphins, sea lions, and some kind of small white whale. What I thought was really neat was some of the things the trainers themselves did with the animals. For example, riding and surfing on the dolphins and whales. They even had the dolphins jump from underneath the trainers, sending the trainers flying pretty high into the air.
Right outside of the Aqua Museum I ran into more Engrish at The Booze Cafe, not exactly the best name for a little family restaurant. Moving on, nearby was Dolphin Fantasy where you could walk through an underwater tube with dolphins and fish swimming around you. It was pretty small but neat.
On my way to the last stop on my combo ticket, I passed a place selling a ton of different ice cream flavors (over 100, complete with plastic models for all of them). They had tons of fairly normal ones and plenty of weird ones. A few of the stranger ones included pepper, seaweed, and shrimp. They also had wasabi flavor and I gave it a try out of curiosity. Turns out I was right about wasabi, it makes a lousy ice cream flavor but would be great for a practical joke if you can get some unknowing person to take a big bite (tell them it's green tea, melon, pistachio, or some other more normal green colored ice cream).  When you first taste it there's a fraction of a second where you get that whole smooth cold ice cream taste, but that disappears almost immediately and leaves you feeling like you just ate a spoonful of wasabi. And, while the ice cream isn't as potent as a spoonful of regular wasabi, it's still pretty hot. Now I like wasabi but I don't go around eating large spoonfuls of it and I couldn't manage to eat a whole cone of the stuff (maybe if I'd had some sushi to go with it...). So, final verdict on wasabi ice cream: interesting to taste but probably not something you're gonna want again after that taste.
My last big stop at Sea Paradise was Furrea Lagoon (might be spelling that wrong). It's a small outdoor aquarium designed to get you as close to the animals as possible. Some, like these seals, you can only look at but you were allowed to touch and pet many of the animals, provided that they actually came close enough to the edge of their tank for you to reach (so you may be waiting for a while). I got to pet a sealion, dolphin, and a small whale. There was also a fake tide pool where you could wade in and pick up sea cucumbers, starfish, and the like (really popular with the kids) but I didn't want to get my feet wet plus I've already picked up tons of those things on the beach in FL.
At that point I was pretty much done in Sea Paradise. Could have gone on some rides but they were pretty expensive so I left a little earlier than I'd planned and decided to stop in down town Yokohama to get supper. I remembered seeing a Sizzler last time I was there and buffet restaurants are pretty rare in Japan (at least from what I've seen) so I decided to go there. Now, to give you a couple examples of how my eating habits have changed since coming to Japan... Back in the US getting sushi was a big deal. I'd make my own every now and then but when it came to actually going to a restaurant and getting sushi, I'd be lucky if I went once every couple of months. Now though, getting sushi out is no big deal. There's a good kaiten zushi place a few minutes from my apartment so I have sushi fairly often (usually about once a week). Moving on to the next example (and one that has more to do with the Sizzler), when I went to a salad bar back home I'd usually get a bit of salad then go look at the hot stuff they have on the bar and maybe order a hamburger or something. All the entrees were great but salad was no big deal. This time, on the other hand, I was like, "Wow, look at all the salad!" and proceeded to eat a lot more salad than anything else. I think that's actually the first real salad I've had since coming to Japan (I blame the combination of expensive produce, my tiny fridge, and the nearby grocery store's lack of any type of none Japanese salad dressing). Oh yeah, you know how I've mentioned how rare Mexican food is in Japan? Well, as if to prove my point, Sizzler had a big sign at the buffet explaining how to eat corn chips. Then again, they also had a sign about how to eat soup so maybe they just don't think their customers are all that smart...
After that I just walked around in Yokohama for a little while, browsed in a couple stores, then headed home. And that was what I did on Sunday. Coming next Sunday...even more exploring in Tokyo.


10/26/2007 A few lists

There's a new bonus comic and a new ROM, although you probably figured there would be if you've been coming to this site for a while. As far as the comic itself goes, I have to admit that when I first started this battle between Brendan and May I never realized it would take so many strips to do. That said, it's finally getting close to the end and I hope you guys are enjoying it. There's gonna be lots of geat stuff coming up when Brendan and May reach the next town so look forward to that.

Instead of doing more Random Japan Comments today I'm going to list a few different things related to my time so far in Japan.

People I Want to Thank:
This list is for people I'd like to formally thank for helping me out with the whole moving to and living in Japan thing. There's been a whole lot of different people who offered advice and encouragement so this list is just gonna focus on the most important ones.
1. My dad for coming with me to Japan and helping me get settled. It was lots of fun to tour with him and he was a huge help while he was here. Not to mention that it was nice having someone familiar around while I was making such a big transition.
2. My uncle Charles for all the advice and info he gave me. Having lived in Japan for a while himself, he was a big help when I was trying to figure out what I should bring and what I'd need to do when I arrived.
3. Grant at Joytalk (the company that hired me) for answering all the questions I kept asking.
4. My dad's friend Joe (quite possibly not spelled that way but I'm not sure what the proper way to do translit for Korean is) in Tokyo for all the help when my dad and I first arrived and since then as well.
5. The teachers at Nogi Elementary (especially Suzukisensei, who speaks decent English) for being very friendly and helpful.
6. My friends from back home who have been e-mailing, writing, etc, it's great to keep in touch with you guys!

Things I'll Really Miss When I Leave Japan:
Keep in mind that for this and the next list I'm talking stuff in general, I'm not gonna get into friends, family, my karate dojo, and all that kind of stuff, although I certainly could list a bunch of those if I wanted to.
1. Akihabara, I don't know if I could ever get tired of hanging out and shopping there.
2. The constant Japanese practice. Well, I'll kinda miss that since it'll make it harder to retain and improve my language skills but, on the other hand, it'll also be really nice to be back in a place where I can read and understand everything.
3. Teaching the kids. It's been fun so far although I do miss game design so it'll be nice to get back into that (either with a job or going back to school for my Masters).
4. The game and anime stores. There's just so much awesome stuff to buy and most of it (DVDs being the main exception) is pretty rasonably priced.
5. Kaiten zushi restaurants, which someone should seriously start a chain of in the US, they'd totally catch on. The whole conveyer belt thing would be a real novelty in the states and hey, it's good cheap sushi. I suppose I'll miss Japanese restaurants in general but kaiten zushi is my favorite of the Japanese type restaurants that I won't be able to find back home.
6. General touring and exploring, it's a lot of fun although not exactly cheap. Not that I can't tour in the US but in Japan there are a seemingly endless amount of places you can go in a couple hours or less on the trains and/or subways.

Things I Really Miss From the US:
1. English. Ok so I still use English quite a lot every day (teaching English, using the internet, etc) but I certainly miss being able to understand everything that's said and written.
2. Full sized apartments. While my apartment is ok, the lack of things like a full kitchen, chairs, a desk (ok I could buy chairs and a desk but there really isn't anywhere to put them), and just open space in general is a huge change from my house and old apartments.
3. English book, DVD, and game stores, especially books. Although if my Japanese improves enough this will become much less of an issue.
4. Pizza! You can find affordable pizza in Japan (Pizza Hut is extremely overpriced but not all pizza restaurants are) but Japanese pizza can't hold a candle to a good pizza in the US (although I have to say that the toppings in Japan can get pretty creative).
5. American food and restaurants in general. This would be less of an issue if my apartment had things like an oven and room to store some ingredients cause then I could do more cooking. As far as food goes, fruit and many veggetables are really expensive here and some stuff that's common back home (like peanut butter) is a really difficult if not impossible to find. For restaurants, there isn't as wide a variety as in the US (I like the ones that are here but it's nearly all Japanese food, good foreign restaurants range from uncommon to nearly nonexistant depending on what area you're in and what kind of food you're looking for).

And that's all for now. Have a good weekend!


10/24/2007 Another post, another comment

Can't think of much to say at the moment so, without further ado, here's a Random Japan Comment.

Random Japan Comment: Japanese Names
Japanese people have a first name and a last name (family name). There's no middle names. Last names are written first and if you're saying someone's full name you'll say the last name and then the first name (opposite the way most places do it). However, most Japanese know that foreigners typically do it the opposite way so they might switch things around when talking to you, or they might not, which can make it difficult to tell which name is which sometimes.
Unlike in the US, and many parts of the world for that matter, people in Japan mostly call each other by their last names or, if there's a need for further distinction, their full names. This applies when talking to the person directly and when talking about the person. First names are typically only used by family members and close friends and only in casual settings (this rule is not applied quite as strictly in regards to little kids).
But you don't just say the name itself (at least not most of the time). In Japan there are a large variety of suffixes that are attached to the end of names. The most common one is san, which can be thought of as something like Mr. or Ms. If you don't know what suffix to use, use this one (ie. Yamanaka-san). Other common ones include: sama (like san but denotes a much higher level of respect, you might use it with the name of a superior (like your boss), royalty, a diety, etc (ie. kami-sama)), kun (for boys, used by friends and superiors, sometimes used between adult friends as well (ie. Hiro-kun)), chan (for girls, used by friends, superiors, and admirers (ie. Rina-chan)), and sensei (means teacher or instructor, although is occasionally used for people of other professions as well (ie. Suzuki-sensei)).
Using a name without a suffix is rare. Possible situations when this might occur would be close friends in a casual situation or when a superior person (higher up in a company, a teacher, etc) is speaking to people below them and wants to be rude. However, knowing that foreigners do things differently, some Japanese people will allow them to use their names normally in casual situations.

Random Japan Comment: Japanese Parties
Ok, my experience with these is pretty limited since I've only been to one so far but it pretty much matched up with everything I'd read and heard about them so this should be at least mostly correct. Also, keep in mind that I'm talking about somewhat formal parties such as buisness parties. Things like birthday parties and the like are often done differently.
Parties are a very important part of the Japanese buisness culture and are supposed to help employees relax, bond, etc. They can be for holidays, to celebrate events or milestones, or sometimes just for the sake of having a party. Typically parties come in twos. The first party is the more formal of the two and usually takes places at a restaurant, often (but not neccessarily) of the traditional Japanese type. A private room is usually rented for the group. Drinking (mostly sake and/or beer but also tea for people who don't drink) is a big part of Japanese parties and can help break down the many social barriers between different levels of employees (at least for a little while). In case you ever go to one, you should know that whatever you're drinking, never fill your own glass. Instead fill the glasses of the people near you and they'll do the same for you (if you don't want your glass being constantly refilled, or don't want to drink at all, just sip a tiny bit and then let your glass sit, making sure it's fairly full).
After the first party there's the second party. Second parties are marked by a move to a new location. They're less formal so they're likely to move somewhere like a karaoke parlor, bar, etc. They typically involve snacking, more drinking, and whatever sort of activity is available at wherever the party is taking place (like karaoke). Aside from offering a less formal get together, second parties also offer the chance to head home early since it's acceptable to quietly slip away enroute to the second party.


10/22/2007 School Festival

Did you see Friday's new bonus comic yet? If not, you should vote and take a look.

I caught a small cold over the weekend. Fortunately, it was pretty minor (I rarely get really sick) and I'm mostly over it by now. Kinda caught me by surprise though since I don't get sick much. But some of the students at teachers at school had colds and the weather here has been getting a lot cooler. Taking those things into account, I think I was a bit careless. Anyway, cause of that I spent Sunday resting in my apartment. But, what you probably want to hear about is that school festival so let's move onto that. Oh yeah, just a little addition to my previous news post, one of the other teachers mentioned the existence of wasabi flavored ice cream. Now I really can't imagine wasabi making for a very good ice cream flavor (except maybe if you feel like playing a practical joke on someone) but now I'm curious so I'm gonna have to keep an eye out for it.

Saturday (22nd): Nogi Elementary School Festival
While Junior High and up have culture festivals which involve the students making food stands, carnival type games, and the like, elementry school festivals vary considerably by school (at least that's what I've been told). Nogi Elementary's started out with the opening ceremony, which was also pretty much the main event. All the grades did some sort or little show or presentation. 1st and 2nd grades did a couple of songs in English, which I helped with. Would have liked to get a video of it but I didn't have time to explain to the teacher I handed my camera too how the video mode works. 3rd and 4th grades did... Well to be perfectly honest, I'm not really sure what they did. There was some talking and big signs but it was all in Japanese and I couldn't understand enough to figure it out. Finally, 5th and 6th grades played some music, and did a very good job of it. Once the presentations were done, all the students got up and sang a song in Japanese (well, mostly in Japanese, there were a couple of English words in there too) and then broke into groups and played a game which involved several students hiding a small ball behind their backs and passing it back and forth while a couple other students tried to guess who had it. After that the principle gave a little closing speech and that was the end of the first part. At this point quite a lot of the parents headed home although some hung around for part 2.
For the next part, the students broke into groups again and went to different parts of the school where a variety of crafts (mostly traditional Japanese type stuff) were set up. I was stationed in the gym to help with the ones there, although since the students mostly knew what to do, and it took me a while to figure out exactly how each of the crafts was done (I couldn't understand all the instructions so I had to learn by watching), I did a lot more observing than I did actual helping. Anyway, the kids in the gym were making toys out of bamboo. There were pencil holders and a little air/water gun type of thing, those were the easy ones. The more advanced ones were those little propellers on a stick (the kind you spin in your hands and let fly) and a disc in the center of a twisted string that you can keep spinning by pulling in and out on the string at the right time. Kinda hard to describe in words but I've seen both of those things in the US (although not made out of bamboo) and you'd probably recognize them if you saw them. Not really sure how traditional the toys themselves were but they were being made out of bamboo with old fashioned hand tools, no electricity required. I was kind of surprised that they were letting little kids use things like saws and carving knives with very minimal adult supervision. A couple did cut themselves, although not badly, but were quickly patched up by one of the teachers and everything was fine. In the US it seems like something like that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen...
After the crafts it was time for lunch break and, after that, the students and the handful of parents who were still around gathered in the school for a small closing ceremony. When that was finished the rest of the parents went home, although the kids had to hang around for another couple of hours and do some studying to make up for the lost day of classes.
Awhile later, which ended up being pretty close to the time I usually finish up work and go home for the day, the rest of the teachers and I headed off to get ready for the party. From what I gather, they like to have parties after big events like the festival to celebrate said event's success. These also double as welcoming parties for new staff members, which in this case was me (there are some other new members but they were at the Sports Day party and I wasn't), so I had to give a short speech at one point. I'll go more in depth about the structure of Japanese parties some other time (probably in a Random Japan Comment). Right now, I'll just give a quick overview of this one. We all headed to a traditional Japanese restaurant a couple towns away (fortunately I was able to get a ride from one of the other teachers, it wasn't too long of a drive but it was way too far for me to bike in any reasonable amount of time). We had a room rented out and, following the traditional Japanese style, the room had a tatami floor (woven straw mats) with low tables (you sit on cushions on the floor). Periodically a waitress would come in bringing some new dish. There were probably 8-10 different things over all. Food was very traditional and included things like miso soup, sashimi (chunks of raw fish), tempura, and various other dishes, mostly vegatable and seafood based. Fortunately, Suzukisensei (sensei is a suffix that means teacher and is added to the end of a name (more on that in a future Random Japan Comment) was sitting next to me and helped me figure out what everything was, which was very nice since I wouldn't have had a clue about half the things. Although I should probably note that eating was typically a second or third priority after drinking (beer or, for those who didn't want alchohol, tea) and socializing. Here's a group picture I got near the end of the party. That's all the main school staff members (the non main staff would be the cooking staff who do the school lunches and the school consoler who comes in a couple times a month), which means all the teachers, the principle, vice principle, secrateries, school nurse, and a couple of people whose job descriptions I still haven't totally figured out but who are around all day and must be doing something important.
After the party wrapped up, it was time for the second party (in Japan, parties typically come in pairs). For the second party we headed to a nearby karaoke (correct pronunciation is kah-rah-oh-keh, not carry-oki) parlor. Karakoke is very popular in Japan (well, they were the ones who invented it) and karaoke parlors are pretty common. I should probably do a Random Japan Comment on them some time too... Anyway, we rented a room and spent probably an hour and a half or so doing karaoke. You all know what karaoke is, right? It's where you've got a mike and you sing along with the music to a song while the lyrics are displayed on a TV screen. If you've only played karaoke video games then imagine them without the pitch guage and scoring and with no singer in the background, tt's just the music and the lyrics (and some sort of video playing behind the lyrics). There was tons of Japanese music to choose from that spanned pretty much everything (J-pop, anime themes, old Japanese classics, themes for TV dramas, etc, etc, etc) and a surprisingly large selection of English music too (sorta a biggest hits of the 60's - now). Everyone sang at one point or another but some people a lot more than others. Surprisingly, everyone could sing pretty well (or maybe I just don't know enough to tell the difference with Japanese music, but they all sounded pretty good). Not sure if it was because I was the new guy or because I was the only one who could do English songs well but I'm pretty sure I ended up doing the most singing. If you're wondering, no I didn't sing any Japanese songs. I thought about it but my knowledge of Japanes music is limited mostly to video game and anime soundtracks and, although I probably still could have found some stuff I know, I don't have the lyrics memorized, which would have been a problem since the onscreen lyrics display was bound to include plenty of kanji (symbols used in Japanese writing) that I haven't learned how to read yet. After the second party was over we all headed home (fortunately I was able to get another ride).
So, overall it was a very intersting day. I got to talk to some of the teachers I don't usually spend much time with, learned a lot, and had some fun.


10/19/2007 More randomness

There's a new bonus comic and a new ROM. And now for a couple of random Japan comments. Er... Let's make that one comment, I seem to have a bit of a writer's block today.

Random Japan Comment: Ice Cream
Hey, I did say random. Anyway, though not a traditional Japanese desert by any means, ice cream has become quite popular. But, like most things, it's not quite the same as what you'd find in places like the US or Europe.
Ice Cream in Grocery Stores: Since gorcery stores in Japan tend to be a lot smaller than a typical US grocery store they've got less of a selection of most stuff, ice cream included. Haagen Dazs is pretty popular but it's the only US brand of ice cream I've seen in grocery stores and it seems to cost nearly twice as much as it does in the US. The most interesting things about ice cream in grocery stores are the flavors and the size. I'll get to the flavors a bit later, for now sizes. In a US store most ice cream comes in pints with a smaller selection of larger containers and smaller containers. In Japan you're only gonna find a handful of pints and usually only in a couple of flavors (vanilla generally being one of them). Instead, you'll come across a whole lot of little single containers that hold somewhere between 1/4 - 1/3 pints. These come in a lot of different flavors. I've yet to see any ice cream container in Japan larger than a pint so if you can't live without galleon packs of ice cream you probably shouldn't visit Japan (you should also seriously consider changing your diet).
Ice Cream Stands & Parlors: I've seen a lot more ice cream stands and shops in Japan than in the US. Although, that could be because of the places I've visited. Anyway, occasionally you'll see some US chains. For example, there's a Baskin Robins right near my apartment and I know I saw a Cold Stone in one of the places I went sightseeing. Those type of places seem to be pretty similiar to their US versions although with a few flavors you won't see in the States. US chains aside though, you'll see a lot of booths and small cafes that have ice cream. Said ice cream is always soft serve (so eat it quick cause it melts fast), always comes in a small cone, is always the same size, and almost always costs 300 yen (around $2.50 or so). Depending on the place there can be anywhere from 1 (vanilla) to about 15 different flavors with the average being around 4.
Ice Cream Flavors: Vanilla is the big one, just like in the US I suppose. If there's a place selling ice cream in Japan you can be sure that vanilla will be one of the flavors. Various types of chocolate are also popular as are the typical berry flavors (especially strawberry). However, they really aren't the most popular. As I said, vanilla is everywhere but some of the most common after vanilla are matcha, azuki, and melon. Mango is also fairly popular. Sounds normal enough but I don't recall seeing a lot of mango flavored ice cream back home. Anyway, matcha is green tea and you may have seen this occasionally back in the states in an Asian restaurant or oriental restaurant. It's not as sweet as some flavors but it's pretty good. Azuki are a type of sweet red bean that are used in a lot of Japanese sweets, particularily anpan (bread filled with azuki paste) and, some types of rice balls, and various other little bun, ball, and pastry type things. Um... They taste like a sweet bean. They're not bad but certainly not one of my favorite sweeteners (or ice cream flavors). While you can get several types of melon in Japan, if someone just says melon (as opposed to say watermelon) you can be pretty certain that they're talking about musk melon. Musk melon is a type of melon that seems to be impossible to find in the US (couldn't even get it at the giant asian supermarket in Phoenix). The outside is green and has a similiar texture to a cantelope. Tastes like a mix of a honeydew and a cantelope. It's really good fresh but like most fruit in Japan, ridiculously expensive. As much as I like the actual melon, I don't think it makes a particularily awesome ice cream flavor. But that's probably just me, I love fresh melons but I've never really liked melon flavored stuff a whole lot... Anyway, those three (matcha, azuki, and melon) are the most popular after vanilla and even American brands like Haagen Dazs and Baskin Robins have them here. There's also some other weird ones you may run across at the better stocked soft serve ice cream stands. The one that sticks out is black seasame. It's a shiny black (never seen any other ice cream with a similiar color) and has the flavor of salted roasted sesame seeds. Actually, it's not bad. At least if you like stuff like peanut butter ice cream. Now you may be wondering why it's black sesame. Frankly I have no idea. I never saw black sesame seeds before coming to Japan, they're all white back home. For that matter, they've got white poppy seeds over here too. Weird...

And that's all for today. As previously mentioned, there's a school festival tomorrow so I'll try and get some pictures and stuff for Monday. Have a good weekend!


10/17/2007 Disneysea

There's a new ROM and a new site on the Link Exchange. Now, there's a lot to cover so, without further ado, on to what I did over the weekend.

Sunday (14th): Around Tokyo
It was kinda a last minute thing but one of the people at services on Saturday told me about a multicultural festival being held in a part of Tokyo I'd never been to before. In the end, I decided I might as well check it out. It was called Mishop World and hosted by a place called Mishop, which provides support for foreigners living in that area. There were a whole lot of little booths for tons of different countries (although about half of them looked to be run by Japanese people...) and there was a stage for performances (believe it or not, most of the people in this picture are Japanese). Not long after I got there I was pulled into an area for Japanese people who wanted to talk with foreigners (and vice versa I suppose) and spent most of my time at the festival talking to various Japanese people in a mix of Japanese and English. It was good practice.
I left a bit after lunch and decided to track down a store I'd seen in my guide book. It's called the Oriental Bazaar and it's in Harajuku. Nice place if you're looking for Japanese suiveneers in all sorts of price ranges. Anyway, I looked around a bit then, since I was already in Harajuku, decided to walk down some of the teen fashion streets again. They're really crowded on weekends (really really crowded) but if you hang out a little while you'll see goths, lolitas, and people sporting all the other crazy Japanese teen fashion trends, at least if you can spot them through the crowds.
After that, I took a quick trip to Akihabara and explored some stores I hadn't been in yet. And, if Yodobashi Camera wasn't awesome enough already, my visit to the food court on the next to highest floor made it even more so. It's got 24 restuarants (all moderately sized too) covering pretty much every main type of Japanese food and some foreign ones. Great place to eat.
Headed back home after that. I didn't stay too late because I had to prepare for Monday.

Monday (15th): Disneysea
Since the school festival is on Saturday, there was no school on this Monday. Nogi Elementary definately isn't fond of working more than 5 days a week. Which, considering how cheap the Nogi Board of Education is (remind me to mention our Halloween party budget sometime), could very well be because the staff would only get paid for 5 days even if they worked 6 (not sure that's true but it totally wouldn't surprise me).
So I headed out to the other Disney park, Tokyo Disneysea. I'm not sure if Disneysea is a bit less popular than Disneyland or if the doom and gloom weather forcast (which, luckilly, didn't come to pass) scared people away but, while busy, Disneysea wasn't as crowded as Disneyland. There was a ton of people and there were lines but the lines were all totally reasonable. I don't think I ever had to wait more than 45 minutes for anything (usually less) so I actually got to go on everything I wanted to with a bit of time left over to reride a couple of my favorites. BTW: Disneysea is one of the newest (maybe the newest) Disney park and the designers went all out, each of the areas looks fantastic.
Anyway, Disneysea is divided into seven themed "Ports of Call". And, since it's supposed to be like individual ports or islands, there's a large river running through the whole park and you can take boats between the various ports, or you could just walk. The first area when you enter is Mediterranean Harbor. It's themed after a mix of a Mediterranean port city from a couple hundred years back with a bit of Venice thrown in for good measure. There were lots of shops and restaurants and a cool Renissance style fortress you could explore. There was also a fancy resort hotel (yep, a hotel right in the park) and you could even take a gondola ride nearby.
Next up I went to the Mysterious Island. Kinda a small area but probably my favorite since it had two great rides, Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the general look made me feel like I'd walked into a place out of the Myst games, which I always really liked (well, I loved Myst, Riven, and Myst 3; Myst 4 wasn't bad but had some ridiculously frustrating parts, while 5 and Uru I wasn't so fond of).
Following the tunnels from the Mysterious Island, I ended up in Mermaid's Lagoon. This was a mostly indoor area (made up to look like it's under water) based on The Little Mermaid. Most of the stuff there was designed with little kids in mind but there was a neat Little Mermaid show that featured live actors floating around on wires and reencacting a few scenes from the movie.
Next stop was the Arabian Coast, which was based on Aladdin. There were a couple rides (fun but not thrill rides), a 3D show (neat cause it mixed in live actors), and a Indian restaurant, which is where I got lunch.
Moving on, I came to the Lost River Delta, which had a South American jungle theme going. It had a fun but short rollercoaster, a pretty cool Indianna Jones ride, and the only Mexican restaurant I've seen since arriving in Japan. Anyway, I liked all the plants and the fake Aztec and Mayan ruins that were scattered around. While I was there, I also came across a booth selling sea salt ice cream. Being a huge fan of Kingdom Hearts 2 (in which sea salt ice cream was repeatedly mentioned), I was pleasantly surprised to see that it actually exists and had to give it a try. It wasn't bad, kinda like a salty vanilla.
Anyway, before going to the next area I headed back to the Mediterranean Harbor to watch the Mythica show which had lots of fancy boats, dancing Disney characters, and guys zipping around on wave runners. Then it was on to Port Discovery. It's the futuristic theme area and has a big motion simulator ride and some boats and stuff.
The final port is the American Waterfront, which is divided into the colonial section and the old New York City section. There were a lot of stores and restaurants and one of the parks' several live performance stages (I showed up in the middle of a show and hung around to watch) but the big attraction was the new Tower of Terror. Like the one in Disney World's MGM Studios, it's a free falling elevator ride. But, while MGM's had a Twilight Zone theme to it, this one does it completely differently (including a late 19th century explorer and a cursed tiki statue). Personally, I liked the Twilight Zone theme better although I think the tiki is creepier. Not that it really matters, the fall is a lot of fun either way.
And that was the entire park. After getting dinner in the Mediterranean Harbor I still had time to do a couple of rides again and catch the fireworks and BraviSEAmo performance (a cool show with water and fire set to music) before heading home. Oh yeah, since I finally figured out how to take good low light shots with my camera (provided I can find a nice unmoving surface to set it on), here's one of the park at night.
So overall I had a lot of fun (like I always seem to at Disney parks). I think I actually like Disneysea a little better than Tokyo Disneyland, although they're both pretty cool. But my favorite Disney park has still gotta be Epcot back at Disney World.


10/15/2007 Zzzzzz..........

Sorry for the late update but I just got back to my apartment. See, it was a kinda late night to start with and then I took a different route to the train station, which turned out to be a bad idea, and then one of my trains got delayed... So yeah, it's really late at night here right now, I'm tired, and I've got to grab some sleep so I can get to work tomorrow morning. Other than that though, I had a great day. Expect a long post and lots of pictures Wednesday.


10/12/2007 Inaccurate opinions

The new bonus comic is up. Remember, you can look at the old bonus comics on the Extras page. Normally there'd be a new ROM too but Shauni was having some computer problems and couldn't get it done in time so she's going to try for two comics next week to make up for it.

Random Japan Comment: Seasons
Japan has four seasons, winter, spring, summer, and fall (ok, they've got different names in Japanese but it's still the same thing). Now chances are you find that statement totally unremarkable. Nothing special about having 4 seasons, right? Well, the interesting thing is that a lot of Japanese people think that Japan is the only country in the world that has 4 seasons. Seriously. And a lot of those people are rather shocked and/or disapointed to hear that places like the US also have the same 4 seasons.

Random Japan Comment: Japanese Misconceptions About the US
Unlike in many places where blaming all the world's problems on the US is something of a national passtime (*cough Europe*), your average Japanese citizen isn't going to launch into a rant about how all these problems that have nothing to do with the US are really its fault. In general, Japanese people like the US, or at least US stuff. Although most of them really don't know much about the country itself which can lead to come weird misconceptions.
Unfortunately, for your average Japanese person, most of what they know about the US was learned from watching American movies and TV shows that got brought over here. What's so bad about that? Imagine taking someone who knows nothing about the US and sitting him down in front of CSI or some generic sitcom for a few hours. Sure those things might be fun to watch but they don't exactly give an accurage portrayal of normal life in the US.
Here's some common misconceptions. And it's not just Americans either, most of these apply to foreigners in general.
Misconception 1: Foreigners are loud, rude, and not very neat (at least compared to Japanese people). I don't think this one is as common as it used to be (I haven't encountered any obvious signs of it) but from what I've heard a lot of landlords still won't rent apartments to foreigners because of this belief.
Misconception 2: Foreigners are more likely to commit crimes. Considering that some of the US TV shows and movies that make it over here I can see where this comes from. Once again, I haven't encountered any obvious signs of this but it's not unheard of for policemen to randomly stop people who don't look Japanese and ask to see their passport or resident card (happaned to me once so far). And, since nearly everyone who lives in Japan is Japanese (with the only significant minorities being Korean and Chinese), it's pretty easy for them to pick out the foreigners.
Misconception 3: In America everyone walks around carrying a gun. I think this is actually the most common one. Now if you think it's ridiculous that anyone would believe that, think about a lot of the big US action movies and TV shows like 24 (which is pretty popular here, BTW). In stuff like that, just about everyone is carrying a gun or three. It's like how if all you watch is Jackie Chan movies you might think everyone is Asia is a martial arts expect. Plus, from what I heard from one of the teachers at my school, the Japanese press is partially to blame for this as well. A while back a Japanese college student went to the US and accidently trespassed on some guy's property. Unfortunately, said guy was a bit of a nutcase and shot him and the whole thing got blown way out of proportion in the Japan press. In addition, in the US our biggests news stories (and the ones that are most likely to get reported in other countries) as usually the worst since, as is unfortunately the case, bad news sells a whole lot better than good news. In reality, of course, the vast majority of people in the US don't own guns and hardly anyone who does goes walking around with one all the time (barring law enforcement and military).

Random Comment: Weapons in Modern Day Japan
In Japan ordinary citizens aren't allowed to own guns. You can buy some pretty realistic looking airsoft guns but you're not gonna see any stores selling real fire arms. So your average Japanese person isn't going to own a gun. But from what I've heard criminals can still get plenty of guns illegally so it's not like they don't exist outside of the military. Speaking of which, your average policemen around here don't carry guns, at least none of the ones I've seen do. Although since most of the ones I've seen seem to spend most of their time helping people find their way around (all the little police boxes usually have super detailed local maps on hand) they probably don't need them.
I know Japan did have a ban on carrying swords although I'm not sure if its still in effect or exactly what the details are (there's plenty of swords for sale in stores (although most of them are probably not sharp) and there are still some schools of swordfighting scattered throughout. Most likely though you can't just walk around in the middle of town with a katana on your belt.
Knives are easy enough to get. Not sure what the policy is on carrying them around though. I'd assume that it's ok within reason although I don't think Swiss Army Knives, Leathermans, and the like are all that popular here (at least I haven't seen a lot of them for sale).

And that's all for now. I'm planning to visit Disneysea either Sunday or Monday (there's no school on Monday since next Saturday is the school festival at my school) so I'll give a full description of that next week. Later!


10/10/2007 Browsing

If you had trouble with that link I added on monday, it's fixed now.

Not in the mood to type of some big long post right now so I'll just post a little about what I did today and a few comments on what I've been up to lately.

Wednesday (10th): Browsing Lots of Shops
I thought about doing a big trip today but figured that since I had already done one big trip this week I'd wait till the weekend for my next big one. So instead I decided to do an relaxed day trip into Tokyo. I'd been wanting to go back Nakano and spend more time looking at all the cool stores and take another stroll through the shopping arcade in Asakusa so that's what I did. I've already talked about both places so I'll keep things brief.
While it's certainly not Akihabara, Nakano Broadway (a mall right by Nakano Station) is still a place that any anime/manga fans visiting Japan should try to visit, especially if they want to buy figurines. The selection and prices vary considerably since a lot of the shops consist mainly of display cases that people can rent out and fill with stuff that they want to sell. As such, the selection is often totally random and the prices range from rather cheap to ridiculously overpriced. There's lots of anime and manga figurines (including newer ones and rare out of print ones) but that's not all. There's also a few nice music stores, a couple pretty decent game stores, a shop selling anime cells, and a couple stores selling cosplay costumes. Also, if you're into old toys (particularily Japanese ones) or not so old watches there's a lot of them around too. Helpful tip: if something seems expensive you might want to shop around a bit before buying. Things that cost a mint at one store could very well be on clearance at another.
Asakusa has a nice shopping arcade right near the Asakusa Station and next to its big shrine. It's definately the place to go in Tokyo if you want to do some serious souvineer shopping. Some of the stuff there is kinda cheesy but there's some pretty nice things too. Once again, shop around a bit before you buy, there's a decent amount of overlap between some of the stores and prices do vary.

So how have I been? I've been fine. Certainly keeping busy (with 9 hour workdays and then running around touring on most of my off days that's kinda a given). Most of my down time between classes at work is divided between studying Japanese and writing. Speaking of writing, I've been getting back into the swing of things in that regard. Don't have my old speed back yet but I'm nearly done with a new chapter in my current book and it looks like I might (finally) be able to finish said book by the end of the year or so. Other than that I'm doing my usual online stuff, working on this site (of course), and trying to fit in some video games when I can (just finished Ouendan 2 on the DS (portable games are great for long train rides, especially ones you repeat a lot and have already seen the scenery) and am currently working on Sly Cooper 3 and getting my Dervish through Guild Wars Nightfall. And yeah, that's about all there is to say.

Oh, before I go I'd like to apologize to all of my friends that I haven't e-mailed yet since coming to Japan. I've written to some people already (and have nice back and forth conversations going with some of them) and I'll get more letters done soon. It's just that there's usually so much to do after I get home from work that I just don't get around to writing new e-mails. So yeah, if you haven't heard from me yet, you should before too long. Although, if you don't want to wait you can go ahead and e-mail me yourselves. See, replying to my current e-mail always takes priority over writing new ones so if you write me you'll hear from me a lot sooner than if you don't. Don't get me wrong, I like talking to you guys, it's just that writing e-mails that aren't replies is something that kinda gets pushed to the bottom of my to-do list fairly frequently when I have other things to work on. For the people that I'm already e-mailing back and forth with, thanks a lot! It's great to be able to keep up with you even though I'm halfway across the planet.


10/8/2007 Gone Hiking

As always Friday's bonus comic is sitting there waiting for anyone who votes. Also, I added a new site to the Link Exchange.

I got a three day weekend this week thanks to Health and Sports day, another Japanese holiday. Actually though, it's on Wednesday. I guess my school just figured that people would rather have a three day weekend. But, as it turns out, the Board of Education and the preschools I teach at on Wednesday decided to just take Wednesday off so I don't have to work than either. So I'm getting two days off for the price of one. Might as well enjoy them while I can. Doesn't look like I'll be getting many holidays in the coming months (not counting winter break anyway). Monday I just hung out and relaxed. Partly because it was supposed to rain most of the day, partly because a lot of museums and stuff are closed on Mondays, and partly because I was kinda sore from the previous day. Which brings us to Sunday...

Sunday (8th): Lake Chuzenji
On my last trip to the Nikko area I saw all the famous shrines and temples. But I wanted to go back and do some hiking a bit further up in the mountains. So I returned to Nikko and took a bus up the mountain, heading for nearby Lake Chuzenji. Since it was a weekend, there were a decent amount of people there and it quickly became clear that in Japan there's no rule about everyone in busses needing to have a seatbelt (or even a seat for that matter) so I got to stand in the aisle on the ride up. Anyway, instead of riding all the way up I got off at Akechidaira and took the ropeway (the pic is looking down from the top after the ride). The ropeway itself wasn't anything special (short and not a whole lot of a view) but there was a nice view from the top. Anyway, instead of taking the ropeway back down and continuing my bus ride, I decided to hike from the top of the ropeway to Chuzenji. Looks like I was just about the only one (only saw three other people over the course of the 2 hour 40 minute hike). The hike itself was threw forested and very mountinous terrian so I spent quite a lot of time walking up and down steep paths. Wasn't a bad hike. Wasn't amazing either but the plants and terrain were certainly different than the hikes I usually go on back home. Made me wish I'd taken the time to eat a proper breakfast though (I was in a rush that morning to get an early train and then catch the bus in Nikko so I didn't have time to eat much).
The town itself was a small place with a long touristy street full of souvineer shops and restaurants running along the side of the lake. I looked around for a bit then decided to grab lunch. One intersting thing I noticed is that a lot of the souvineer shops doubled as cafes or restaurants. First time I'd seen that... Also of note was the fact that, like in Nikko, there were a lot of shops specializing in hand carved wood and lacquer stuff. Really nice, although very expensive at times. The fish, presumably from the lake, was supposed to be good up there so I got a fairly traditional Japanese lunch set which had rice, trout, some various vegatable dishes, and yuba (a type of tofu skin that Chuzenji is famous for). After lunch I went to see Chuzenji's most famous attraction (aside from the lake itself), Kegon Falls. It's the best waterfall I've seen in a long time and, if I remember right, is around 90 meters tall. You can get a good look at it from the top for free or, for a few hundred yen, you can take an elevator to the bottom and get an even better view from down there.
Moving on, I walked around the town and lake a bit more and eventually came to Futarasan Shrine. The shrine itself wasn't very impressive (at least not after the ones I've seen in Nikko and Kamakura) but it had a treasure museum with some cool stuff like this gigantic sacred sword (just the blade, not counting the tang (the thinner part on the end that fits into the hilt) must have been at least 6 feet long). The shrine also marked the start of the hike up Mt Nantai. Which, since you're hiking pretty much straight up a mountain, is very steep and all up hill. This seemed to be a pretty popular hike and I met a lot of people coming down. The summit turned out to be a decent amount further than I originally thought and since it was starting to get late (and I had a long trip back to Koga) I stopped at what was probably somewhere between a third and half of the way up. Still got a good view.
The bus ride down was pretty slow (combination of traffic and all the switchbacks on the road) and once again the bus was packed. And, like before, you had people in the isles. This time though, they (myself included) didn't have to stand, there were actually littles chairs that folded out of the isle side seats for the people in the isles to sit in. Great for cramming extra people into a bus, not so great if people in the back want to get out since that involves everyone in the isle getting up, folding back their seats, and trying to flatten themselves to one side while the people from the back try to slip past them to the door. Anyway, back in Nikko I got some good yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer) at a small restaurant then headed back home.


10/5/2007 Random Comments

There's a new Blooper Reel comic up and all you need to do to see it is click on one of the TWC (Top Web Comics) buttons and then confirm your vote. There's also a new ROM. Oh yeah, considering that there's currently a decent amount of people I know from back home coming to the site mainly for my travel journal, I feel like I should point out that you really won't get most of today's comic unless you've read some of the older strips. At very least, you should probably look at this one and read the commentary that goes with it.

Random Japan Comment: Time and Dates
In Japan you can tell time using 12 hours along with AM (gozen) and PM (gogo) just like in the US. However, time in Japan is frequently measured using the 24 hour system (1 PM is 13, 2 PM is 14, etc). There's no real consistency here so one shop might have its hours listed in 12 hour format while the one next door will be 24 hour format. They're both pretty common but over all I 'd have to say that the 24 hour format seems to be slightly more popular. Not that this is a big deal, just something to keep in mind if you're ever in Japan.
Although Japan originally had its own calender it switched to the Gregorian calender a long time ago so dates are just the same as they are in most of the world (although the names for months are different than in the US, with the Japanese names translating to 1st Month, 2nd Month, etc). However, Japan has another way of measuring years. They still use the standard system (it's 2007 here just like everywhere else) but they also measure years in relation to the Emperor's reign. It may be 2007 but it's also Heisei 19. Basically, every new Emperor chooses some nice sounding name that he wants to represent his rule (Heisei means peace everywhere) and that name is used for all years starting then until the end of year he dies (which is also year 1 of the new Emperor's reign). So it's currently the 19th year of the Heisei era which is the rule of Emperor Akihito. While normal Gregorian dates are used most of the time, if you plan on doing business in Japan you should probably do a little research online and figure out what your birth year is in the Japanese Emperor system since some official forms (like that bank account form I had to keep filling out) require you to write your birth year that way instead of normally (why, I don't know since it seems like it'd be easier if everything was consistent but that's how its done).

Random Japan Comment: The Emperor:
Japan is the only country in the world that still has an Emperor on a throne. The current Emperor is Akihito although Japanese typically call the Emperor by generic titles that translate to things like 'His Majesty the Emperor' or 'His Current Majesty'. According to the current law, when they die Emperors are succeeded by their oldest son. There were some female Emperors in the past but current laws prohibit a daughter from taking the throne (although there was some debate about that when it was feared that a male heir would not be born). The Imperial Palace is currently located in the center of Tokyo although for most of Japan's history the Emperor resided in Kyoto (which was also the capital of Japan back then).
Throughout history the role and power of the Emperor has varied considerably (ranging from pretty much total control of the government and army to virtually no control at all). Currently the Emperor, much like England's royal family, has little to no real political power and basically serves as a figurehead for the government and the people.


10/3/2007 At the bank

Remember to vote! Also, if you want to find out about all the cool stuff you can get by donating you can do so in the previous news post.

This Wednesday was kinda interesting. For one, I was sent to one of my preschools early to play with the kids. The kids had a sorta game/song/exercise time for a while and then some free time after that, most of which they seemed to spend jumping all over me. I guess it was kind of fun, although I find it rather annoying that, despite how much the various teachers I know say my Japanese has improved, I didn't know half the words being used by a bunch of three year olds.
Later in the day, I went with someone from Joytalk (the company that hired me as an English teacher) to get a bank account set up. Would have been easier if they'd just use my US bank account since it has a a handful of Japanese branches. Heck, I wouldn't mind if they paid me in cash considering that (with how little I'm being paid) I'm probably going to have to spend pretty much my entire salary (if not a little more) each month. Anyone, for some reason Joytalk likes all their employees to have an account with a local bank. And I mean local, not just Japanese. I was talking with one of the other ALTs and she had an account with one of the major Japanese banks but Joytalk still made her open one with a local bank. Anyway, since I finally had my residence card and my hanko (more on that later) it was time to get my bank account. Fortunately, the previously mentioned Joytalk employee was there to handle the Japanese (I may have improved a bit since I got here but opening an account in a small local bank with no English would probably be way beyond me). Weirdly enough, after entering we had go to a machine and take a number even though there was no one else there and the woman behind the counter was just sitting there watching us. Waste of paper really... Anyway, the Joytalk guy did the talking, I showed the lady my residence card and filled out a form. Not too hard, right? Not exactly. See, I wrote my name on the form as Josiah Lebowitz but the residence card has my full name Josiah Trever Lebowitz. Now in the US that's normal since lots of people hardly ever use their middle name. But the woman insisted I redo the entire form and add it. Plus, while I was at it, I needed to change the order I wrote my name in since on the card is said Lebowitz Josiah Trever and she insisted that I had to write my name exactly the same way it was on the card. So I did that and gave the lady the form...and was promptly asked to fill out the exact same form again since they wanted me to write my name in "bigger letters". I thought I had written plenty big already but I went ahead and wrote my name nice and big (keep in mind it wasn't just my name that I had to do, I had to refill the entire form each time). And then I was told to fill out the same form again! See, turns out when they asked for bigger letters they didn't want me to write larger, they wanted me to write all in capitals. But only for my name. They had no problem we me writing my address in lower case English letters. Why? I have no idea. So I filled out the entire form for a fourth time and they finally accepted it. I got the account but it was a real pain. Had it been up to me (instead of Joytalk) I think I would have walked out halfway through and found a bank that was a bit less asinine.

Random Japan Comment: Hanko
Hanko are cylindrical objects a little thicker than a normal pen and about half as long. On one end is a little rubber stamp. If you're Japanese, the stamp will have your last name in kanji. If you're not Japanese it might have your name in katakana (if you've got a really short name) or just your initials in English (like mine does). In Japan hanko are frequently used in place of signitures, even on important documents like bank forms. You just carry around a little ink pad, press the hanko into it, and stamp it onto whatever. Now, in my opinion, this seems like a really stupid way to do things. I mean, think about it this way. A person's signature is very difficult to forge and even really good forgeries can usually be detected by experts. Seems like a fairly secure way of doing things. here, on the other hand, you could walk into any store that sells hanko (even the nearby 100 yen store) and buy ones for all the common Japanese names which would be indentical to the hanko owned by most of the people with those names. Talk about easy to forge...


10/1/2007 Donations, the internet, and camping in the rain

It's a new month so please vote and get Pebble Version off to a strong start on TWC (plus you can check out Friday's bonus comic while you're at it). Of course, if you really want to support PV you could donate. Donations can be sent via Paypal (there's a button on the left and one below this new post with the full donation info) or by mail (if you want to donate by mail e-mail me with the a subject like Pebble Version Donation and I'll give you the mailing address). And donating does more than just help support the site, it also gets you guys stuff. First there's the monthly bonuses. Every month that the guage reaches at least $25 I'll do a new chapter of ROM the Novel and write commentary on the next batch of old PV strips. If the guage hits at least $50 then, the following month, PV will update five days a week (yep, five new comics a week for an entire month. But that's not all, if the guage reaches $75 you'll also get a new full page Zelda comic (you can see the current ones on the Extras page). Finally, if the guage hits $100 there will be a special mystery surprise as well. And, if that wasn't enough, if the guage gets high enough Shauni may do some ROM related bonus content too. Then there's also the total donation bonuses. Every time PV gets $50 in donations (not matter how long it takes) you guys will get the next part of Josiah's Sprite Comic Guide, which, when finished, should contain just about everything you need to know about making a sprite comic. Full donation info can be found below this news post.

Before I talk about my weekend I feel like ranting a little.
So, here in Japan I'm staying in a Leopalace 21 apartment. Leopalace has a lot of apartment buildings scattered around the country. On the plus side, they don't require key money (a usually non refundable (and, from what I've heard, not entirely legal) deposit that you have to give the landlord when renting an apartment in Japan), are foreigner friendly (from what I've heard some apartment buildings don't like renting to non-Japanese), have English support available, offer furnished apartments, and have free internet and basic (and I mean very basic) cable. On the down side, they're a bit expensive, their idea of a furnished apartment is more along the lines of an unfurnished apartment in the US (has a couple of things an unfurnished US apartment wouldn't but is missing stuff that said unfurnished apartment would probably have) (I got: half a stove (two burners, no oven), a microwave, a washing machine, a very small fridge/freezer (about 1/4 - 1/3 normal size), a bed frame, a tiny table, and a TV (around 15") with a rather fuzzy picture.), and the internet has some issues. And that brings me to what I kinda wanted to talk about in the first place, the internet.
It's cable and it's actually a pretty fast connection...sometimes. See, the thing I always hated about cable is that the connection is shared by everyone on cable loop. That's no big deal if you've got one of the only houses on the loop, it's rather annoying when you're one of twenty apartments on the same loop since the potential speed basically gets divided between everyone currently using it. So during the mornng and day when no one (usually including myself) is around the internet is really fast but in the evening and night time when people start getting back to their apartments it slows down quite a lot. So that's annoying but not a huge problem most of the time.
Next is what you can do with your internet. See, with Leopalace's internet you can plug the modem into your TV and browse the web on the TV screen (nice if you don't have a PC but not something you'd ever do if you have one). Now I don't mind that (although I don't use it either since it's way faster and easier to use a computer), but they offer some other features on an internet connected TV as well. Namely, you can pay to watch movies and play some little online games of theirs (online board game type stuff I think). So what's the problem with that? Normally there wouldn't be one. So they have some extras features that I don't care about? That's fine, I just ignore them and go about my usual internet use...or not. See, since they have those games and movies they want you to use them (well duh, I mean that's kinda the point of having them). They really want you to use their online games and movies, so much so that they don't want you getting your online games and movies from anywhere else. In other words, they don't want you playing online games or watching online videos that aren't theirs. It actually even says so in the FAQ (I don't remember the exact wording but boils down to something along the lines of 'since we provide movies, games, and the like we don't support the use of online games, or video, or voice/video chat over our serivce).
Now I'm normally one to play by the rules but in this case I couldn't care less. I'm paying for that internet connection (well, it's free but only when you rent an expensive apartment so I am paying for it in a round about way) and I don't want to use it for anything illegal so if I want to use voice chat, play games, or watch videos online I'm going to do so. Their policy basically amounts to unfair buisness practices and wouldn't be allowed in the US (just imagine if your ISP did something like that).
Unfortunately, it's more than just a policy, they actively try to keep you from doing all that stuff. I don't know their exact set up but they have some sort of firewall or net traffic monitor that basically throttles your connection whenever you try to do something they don't like (ie. torrents download at extremely slow speeds, streaming video needs to buffer every half second unless you wait a really long time (usually much longer than the video clip takes to play) for the whole thing to download, etc). Fortunately, I have all my gear running through a router I brought with me which manages to circumvent some of their protection. Thanks to the router, voice chat works fine (good cause Skype is great for talking to my family back home) as do online games (although that doesn't stop them from lagging a bit at night when the internet slows down). Torrents were a problem for a little while (I typically use them for things like unliscensed anime fansubs and abandonware (I like to keep things as legal as I can), but here in Japan I've been using them to keep up on my favorite US TV shows (waiting for the DVDs sets would take way too long)). Luckily, I found an option in uTorrent that encrypts its data stream, which effectively keeps the ISP from figuring out that your torrenting something, and got my download speeds back to normal levels (as opposed to about 2 kilobytes a second).
My only problem now is streaming video. I don't use it too much but it does get annoying when my friends and family keep sending me links to youtube clips and I either have to ignore them or wait half an hour for the entire thing to buffer just to watch a little 2 minute video. Haven't really figured out any way to get around that.
Anyway, to sum this all up let's just say that Leopalace actively tries to rip off its internet users and block them from using stuff that they should have every right to use in an attempt to make them pay for Leopalace's own services (you might be able to make a case for blocking torrents because of all the illegal ones but there's plenty of legal stuff too and you really can't make a case for blocking things like games and voice chat). That sucks and it would be illegal in the US (maybe in Japan too for all I know). Fortunately, at least most of their blockers can be fooled or circumvented.

Wow, that ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would. Anyway, here's a little about my weekend.

Saturday & Sunday (29th - 30th): Sukkot Camp
Living in Tokyo, there's really no way for the people in my congregation to build a sukkah (a booth of sorts that you're supposed to hang out in during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot) so instead we went camping Saturday night. Yep, camping in Tokyo. We went to what was basically a camping park in the middle of the city. You paid to rent lots where you could pitch tents, camp, and all that (unfortunately, there were no campfires, just portable stoves/grills). There were a lot of other people there so it seems to be a fairly popular weekend activity. Since my parents dislike sleeping outdoors this was my first camping trip in quite a long time. Naturally, it rained. Fortunately, it didn't start raining until after we'd gotten the tents up although once it started it didn't really stop (it was still raining when I got back to my apartment Sunday afternoon and continued to do so for quite a while after that). We had 12 people (myself and two others aren't in the picture) (BTW: a lot Japanese people do a V sign with their fingers whenever they get their picture taken) and ended up with 3 tents and a large canopy type of tent where we ate. Since I wasn't in the US and there wasn't a campfire we weren't roasting hotdogs and apples on a stick (also some people did spear marshmellows on chopsticks and hold them near the portable grill). But, having a restaurant owner as a member of your camping group can make for some pretty good meals. Supper was Korean BBQ (he owns a Korean restaurant) and we grilled up beef, onions, and garlic (I never knew that people grilled and ate whole cloves of garlic) and had rice and kimchi (a type of Korean food) to go with it. Then, in the morning we made giant pots of ramen. We had to break camp in the rain (which was a pain), but overall it was a fairly fun trip despite the bad weather.


9/28/2007 Random comments

There's a new bonus comic for everyone who votes on TWC and a new ROM.

Well, I didn't do anything particularly interesting the last couple of days and I need to get ready for tomorrow's Sukkot camp out so today I'll just do a Random Japan Comment.

Random Japan Comment: Shoes
When entering a house, school, some restaurants, some shrines and temples, and a random assortment of other buildings in Japan you can't wear your shoes. Normally there's either an area right outside the building or a little entry area where you can take off and stow your shoes. These are typically pretty easy to recognize since they're a bit lower than the rest of the building and you need to remove your shoes before stepping up to the higher area (although sometimes it's all flat so you just need to pay attention). Some places have little shoe lockers where you're supposed to put your shoes as opposed to leaving them on the floor. But just cause you take your shoes off doesn't necessarily mean you'll be going around barefoot or in your socks either. On tatami floors (tatami is a floor made up of mats woven out of straw) you can't wear anything other than socks. On other types of floors, little slippers are usually provided for guests to wear. Said slippers vary from place to place but they're usually one size fits all (although sometimes that fit is pretty bad) and can often slip off your foot fairly easily if you're not paying attention. Naturally, if you're going from regular floor to tatami there will be a place to take those slippers off and leave them while you're on the tatami. There are also bathroom slippers. These are a tad less common but with some bathrooms you'll have to leave your slippers either right inside or right outside and wear a special pair of bathroom slippers while you're in the bathroom.
Now that works ok if you're visiting someone's house, eating in a traditional Japanese restaurant, or visiting a shrine but it'd be a pain to wear those slippers all the time at a school or some other place that you spend a lot of time at. There's where indoor shoes come in. There's nothing special about them, they're just a pair of shoes designated for indoor wear. For example, when I go to Nogi Elementary for work I wear my sneakers on the way there. When I get inside I take off the sneakers and put them in my shoe locker where I keep my other pair of shoes which I wear exclusively indoors. If I want to go back outside, I need to swap shoes again. Naturally, shoes that are easy to slip in and out of are a big plus.
I suppose all this shoe swapping business helps keep floors a bit cleaner and I can see the sense it when it comes to tatami (shoes could probably wear it out faster) but when you're just going onto a normal floor it does seem like an unnecessary and mildly annoying extra step.

See you Monday!


9/26/2007 Tokyo Disney

Note to self: Make sure to watch channel 12 on Wednesday nights, there's lots of good anime on. Of course, I can't understand a lot of it yet but hey, it's practice.

So, before I talk about Tuesday, I want to talk about today a little. See, I had to go to the Koga City Office to pick up my alien registration card, which I kinda need to stay here in Japan for longer than 90 days. Now, the office closes not too long after my weekly meeting with the Nogi BOE would have ended so I figured I'd use the three hour break I have between classes and the meeting to bike to the office and get the card (a lot of biking but it'd work). So I biked all the way back, followed a map to the city office, and, after a few communication problems, discovered that the staff members who handled the registration card stuff had moved to a different office. Fortunately, the people there gave me a map and the other building didn't look too far away so I headed out. Problem #1: Turns out the map didn't show all the roads (or even most of them), add that to the lack of street names and finding the correct place to turn became extremely difficult. Problem #2: There was no logic to which roads the map did or didn't show, which made finding said turn even harder. Problem 3: The map was not to scale. Actually, the scale didn't even seem to stay consistent. What looked like a fairly short distance (considering the location of some places I recognized) turned into a really really long bike ride out into the middle of nowhere (and also involved getting lost a lot). Fortunately, I did find it eventually but by the time I got my card it'd already been 3 hours so I had to call and say I'd be really late for the meeting. Fortunately, the BOE was nice and said I could skip it (that was nice, going would have added another 25 minutes to my ride back from the City Office and that's not counting the return trip from the BOE to my apartment), which I was kinda hoping they might since they meetings typically don't cover anything important. So yeah, that was a large portion of my day.

Tuesday (26th): Tokyo Disney
I was kinda tempted to just hang out and relax on Tuesday since I've been running around so much but I'm gonna have some hang out days over the next couple of weeks and since I had the day off because of a school event (Sports Day was Saturday so they gave everyone Tuesday to make up for it), it was still a work day and school day for most people so I figured it would be a good day to hit something big and avoid the crowds.
Tokyo Disney seemed like a good choice. It has two parks, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneysea so I decided to go to Tokyo Disneyland and save Disneysea for next time (probably sometime in October). So, like I said, that plan was to beat the crowds. Didn't exactly work out like I thought it would. It was actually a lot more crowded than when I went to Disney World in FL last winter. I mean, if that was really an off day like I thought it would be I'd hate to see it on a busy day. Cause of the time of year, the park was decked out for Halloween (even though it's not an official holiday in Japan). Anyway, Tokyo Disneyland is a lot like the Magic Kingdom in FL (and probably Disneyland in CA but I haven't been there so I'm not sure). Cinderella's Castle is in the middle and the park is divided into a bunch of different themed areas. The entrance area was the World Bazaar and there was also: Tomorrowland, Toontown, Fantasyland, Critter County, Westernland, and Adventureland. If you weren't reading my news post back in December, or if you just forgot, I went to Disney World in FL for a few days and had a really good time. Kingdom Hearts got me back into Disney in general and the parks are really well done and well staffed. Tokyo Disney is the same way. It's also the most English friendly place I've visited in Japan so far. Some of the ride narration is in Japanese only (although some stuff is English only so that kinda evens things out) but all signs, important announcements, maps, menus, etc are in English and Japanese.
Lines were worse here than in FL (although that may have been a timing thing). Some of the most popular rides ended up with a wait time of nearly 3 hours and the fast pass tickets (tickets that let you come back at a certain time to skip most of the line) were all taken pretty quickly. Because of that, I didn't get to go on all the rides I wanted to but that was ok. I'm sure that I'll go again at least once before I go back to the states (either taking someone (my brother and mom and going to visit me at some point) or just by myself for fun) so I'll just make sure to hit those rides first next time. Anyway, some of the rides and attractions are straight from other Disney Parks so there are classic rides like It's a Small World Afterall, Space Mountain, and the Haunted Mansion. If my memory serves me correctly, I don't think they're carbon copies of the originals but they're similar so they've got the same feel and are just as much fun (and a little different if you've been on the originals a bunch). There were plenty of rides and attractions I didn't see at Disney World too.
Following the Halloween Theme, there was a couple of Halloween parades and events which included Mickey and the gang decked out for the occasion (interestingly enough, about half the time Mickey and the other cast members spoke English and the other half Japanese, it wasn't even consistent between characters (ie. one Mickey spoke English and another Japanese), guess it just depended on the person inside the suit, although all the parade songs were in English). And, while I'm not a huge fan of Halloween the holiday, I have to admit that I do kinda like the pumpkins, ghosts, and cobwebs look. There was also a pretty cool parade of lights after dark.
So, as for me, I went on rides, watched shows, wondered around, waited in a bunch of lines, and had a really good time. Gotta say, Disney's animatronics are getting extremely good, the Jack Sparrow at the end of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride could almost be mistaken for the real thing. I even ate in the Queen of Heart's restaurant. Unfortunately, the Queen's torts weren't on the menu. But maybe that's a good thing since if everyone were eating her torts she'd probably start ordering lots of beheadings... (If you have no idea what I'm talking about you should watch Alice in Wonderland or read the book.)

Well, that's all for now. Sukkot starts tomorrow (heck of a lot of holidays in a small amount of time, I know, but after they're done it's a long way till the next one) so I'll be taking the day off and getting some much needed R&R. Touring is a lot of fun and it can be relaxing at times but between work and touring I've basically been on the move constantly since arriving in Japan so it'll be nice to have a break.


9/24/2007 Four day weekend!

As the title says, I've got a four day weekend (Sat - Tue) and then I'm not working Thu either cause I'm taking off for another Jewish holiday (Sukkot) so I'm really only working two days this week, which is pretty cool. Saturday was Yom Kippur and I don't really have a whole lot to say about that other than that I fasted and went to services, which is the normal thing to do on Yom Kippur. So, here's recaps for Sunday and Monday.

Sunday (23rd): The Tokyo Game Show
If you're a fan of video games you've no doubt heard of the Tokyo Game Show. Like E3 was and sorta still is the big US game show (unfortunately, it's gotten restructed and is, at the moment, not such a big event as it used to be) TGS is the big Japan game show. Since the old E3 is the only thing I have to compare it to, I'll probably be doing that a lot.
Anyway, what really sets TGS apart is that it is open to the general public and a ticket only costs around $10. Unsurprisingly, it gets a ton of attendees (I think the estimate was around 180,000 this year). This year it ran for four days with the first two being for industry and press only (so they could see what they needed to without battling through all those people) and the last two being open to everyone.
Like E3, TGS had a lot of big flashy booths (although often not quite as flashy as the E3 ones) that offered videos and demos of upcoming games. Of course, since this is a Japanese show pretty much all of that stuff was in Japanese so unless you're fairly fluent don't expect to pick up a lot about the games' stories or anything like that. Heck, I couldn't even read most of the little 'these buttons do this' sheets. Size wise, TGS definately isn't as big as the old E3. I mean, there were three big rooms but the main two combined were maybe the size of one E3 room (out of three) and the third was mostly taken up by snack stands and little shop booths (this being a more consumer based convention, some of the game companies and stores have booths to sell various types of memorabilia). A decent amount of companies simply weren't at TGS. Most of the big ones were though (expect Nintendo which seems to skip out fairly often and just have its own show at another time).
Like E3 there were quite a lot of cute girls in game comstumes or cute outfits to help drew people to their company's booth. Unlike E3, it looked like some of the people had come just to photograph said girls. One thing TGS has that E3 doesn't is cosplayers. There were a pretty good amount of them and there was even an area between the man show rooms that was set aside for cosplayers to hang out and get photographed. There were some pretty nice costumes although I have to wonder if most of them came to see the show or just to show off their outfits. Anyway, there were lots of different types of cosplayers but Final Fantasy characters seemed to be the most popular subjects, with the girls from Evangelion a very distant second. And there were some that I really hadn't expected to see at a Japanese convention.
At E3, you were pretty much guarenteed to go home with a huge bag (or three) full of really cool little toys, pens, shirts, and knick-knacks. TGS, not really. You do get a whole lot of booklets advertising the various companies' upcoming games (which you also got at E3) but there wasn't a whole lot more. There were a few neat thingies but getting them usually required playing a game demo (which wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the lines). Speaking of lines, the lines at TGS are much worse than E3. At E3 there were usually only one or two really big lines and playing most games only required a 5-15 minutes wait at most. At TGS, waiting for 40-60 minutes was pretty normal and there were quite a lot of longer lines ranging from 1 1/2 - 4 hours. Naturally, that meant I didn't get to play all that many games and none of the really big ones. I mean, I would have loved to play Metal Gear Solid 4 (which has an awesome new trailer BTW) but since I was only at TGS one day I didn't want to spend most of said day waiting in line to play one game.
As far as games go, the MGS4 trailer was awesome. MG Online doesn't look bad either. DBZ Budokai Tenkaichi 3 is looking really good (especially on the Wii) and has a streamlined control scheme. Final Fantasy Tactics A2 seems rather similiar to the first but but with much stronger ties to FFXII (Seeq are in it, as are many FFXII monsters and even Vahn and Phenelo). FF Crystal Chronicles for the DS is fun and works just fine over wireless. Star Ocean 1 and 2 on the PSP should be fun. FFIV is being redone in 3D for the DS. Square has a couple new RPGs in the works (one a PS3/360 game using the Unreal engine and one a 360 exclusive (drat)). FFXIII and three new Kingdom Hearts games (one prequel on the PSP, one that takes place between 1 & 2 on the DS and focuses on Organization XIII, and one that either takes place then or right after 2 on cell phones) were shown in a closed theater but the tickets were gone before I could get one, which was pretty disapointing. Oh, also Konami was showing off a DS adventure game called Time Hollow where the main character has a pen that can be used to alter time. Kinda hard to explain the gameplay and it didn't help that the demo involved a whole lot of text that I mostly couldn't read. Still, the whole Hollow Pen time portal mechanic was pretty neat and I really liked the trailer movie and theme song so I'm hoping it gets a US release.

Monday (24th): Visiting a Co-Worker
I had been invited to one of the other teacher's house today to meet her son. I assume the purpose was the help him with his English, and I did that a bit, although we mostly talked in Japanese. But anyway, I got to see inside what I assume is a fairly typical Japanese style house (which I'll talk about in a Random Japan Comment sometime) and practice my Japanese a lot both with Yamanaka-sensei and her son (eventually Suzuki-sensei (another coworker) came over as well and was able to translate some stuff that I wasn't able to say in Japanese). We talked about a lot of stuff, played a few card games (turns out Old Maid is quite popular in Japan) and video games, ate dinner (I got to try a Japanese soup with vegetables and rice cakes in it), etc. It was fun and interesting and I got invited back sometime next month.

Now, what am I going to do tomorrow? Well, although staying home and playing some video games (which I haven't gotten to do a lot of lately) is tempting I'm think that it would be a good day to hit some big attraction (since it's not a holiday so the crowds shouldn't be too bad and the weather report is good) but I'll talk more about that next time.



9/21/2007 Comments on Stuff

There's a new bonus comic for everyone who votes and a new ROM. Only other site news is that I got my own Paypal account (was using my dad's before) so I updated the buttons and everything should work fine if anyone actually feels like donating.

So, what happened this week after I stopped doing full day by day coverage? Not much. I worked, taught some classes, helped the other teachers set up stuff (tables, chairs, etc) for the sports festival (too bad I can't be there for it, looks like fun), got some work done, and started playing with the kids during recess (variations of dodgeball and keep away seem pretty popular). Outside of school, I've been keeping busy. I did go to that game store I saw before. It's a ways away (15 minutes or so on my bike) but it's not a bad store and a lot closer than say Akihabara so if I just really want to go to a game store for some reason it's there. My main reason for going was to get a DDR pad (saw them when I went past the store before) since, now that I have a Japanese PS2, I want to play Japanese DDR and the pads proved extremely hard to find in Tokyo. I just got a really cheap one (about $8) but that's fine since there's a good chance I won't be able to take it back to the US anyway. It's ok but refuses to stay in one place (a real pain considering how small my aprtment is) plus I have to try and dance pretty softly since I'm on the second floor but hey, I can play DDR now and the Japanese versions generally have better song selections than the US ones. While I was at the store I also stuck 100 yen into one of those claw machines just for the heck of it and ended up winning a PS2 strategy RPG (much to my surprise) (if you're wondering, it's called Berwick Saga and was never released in the US). Now that'd make for some great Japanese practice but I'll have to improve a whole lot first so I'll start with DDR and Kingdom Hearts and work my way up.
I also wrote a short story. Me writing isn't unusual (heck, I've written 7 1/2 full length novels so far) but me writing a short story is. I hardly ever do and in general I don't even like short stories that much. This one, however, I'm pretty pleased with. If you want to read it, I posted it on the PV Forums.

Random Japan Comment: Claw Machines:
You know what I'm talking about, they're those things you find at grocery stores in the US. You put in some money and get to move a claw around (you usually get either full control of the claw for a very short time or you get to move it once horizontally and once vertically). When you get it more or less where you want it you watch as it drops down and closes and hope that by some twist of physics defying luck it actually manages to hold onto one of those stuffed animals long enough to drop it in the goal so you can claim it. In the US, most people avoid them since losing your money seems pretty much guarenteed. In Japan, they're insanely popular. You'll see them at stores from time to time (although not grocery stores) but the place to really find claw machines is arcades. From what I've seen, an arcade just isn't an arcade if it doesn't have at least half a dozen (or often a whole lot more) claw machines. And it's more than just stuffed animals and little toys here (although there are plenty of those), I've also seen video games, trading cards, DVDs, figurines, jewelry (much nicer than the plastic stuff in the US claw machines), and even food (although if I really wanted a bag of pretzels or potato chips I think I'd rather go to the store than try to win one). Anyway, there's lots of different types of claw machines too. Many are still of the nearly impossible variety that you find in the US but there's others that you actually stand a decent chance at if you're careful and think about what to aim for and some that are just plain weird (like one where you try to guide a plug into a socket).

Well, that all. Can't talk too much right now because tonight and tomorrow are Yom Kippur, a very important religious holiday for me. But, after that, I've got the rest of my four day weekend to look forward too since Monday is a holiday (something to do with the equinox) and my school is closed Tuesday to make up for the sports day tomorrow. So yeah, tomorrow is Yom Kippur. Sunday I'm going to try and get to the Tokyo Game Show (assuming I can figure out how to get there). Wish I could go more than one day but I had to work yesterday and today (plus those two days were industry only and since I'm currently working as an ALT I'm not sure my Game Design degree would be enough) and tomorrow is a Saturday and Yom Kippur to boot so really Sunday is my only shot. Probably won't have time to see anywhere near everything I want to but it's something, and should make up somewhat for the lack of E3 this year (well, ok there was an E3 sorta but it was nothing like past E3s and no one except company employees and the press got to go). Monday I've got plans (more on that in Monday's post). Tuesday I'm really not sure. Wasn't positive that I'd actually have the day off until yesterday. Got a few ideas but haven't decided yet.


9/19/2007 Taking a break

If you've done a lot of pokémon battles with real people chances are you've had something like this happen at least once.

Well, after slightly over a month of writing a daily travelogue it's finally done. Not that I'm out of things to talk about, there's still lots more Japan related stuff I want to go into detail on plus there's some games and stuff I want to review. Not to mention that I'll still be detailing my weekend excursions. But, like I was saying, I've been doing that whole daily recap with photos thing for a month and those posts took a long time to do so today I'm taking a break. Expect some random Japan comments on Friday.


9/17/2007 Three Day Weekend

Remember to vote and see friday's new Blooper Reel comic. Plus there's a new (well, sorta) ROM.

I had a three day weekend thanks to Respect for the Aged Day so this'll be a pretty long post. BTW: as previously mentioned, starting with Wednesday's post I'm gonna stop doing a blow by blow account of every day. I'll still do that for special days like when I go touring on weekends, holidays, etc, or when special stuff happens but not for every regular work day since it'd get kinda repetitive. For the next couple updates I'll probably do a lot of random Japan comments. After that I'll have some stuff to say about next weekend and then we'll see.

Oh yeah, here's a picture I mean to post a little while back. If you're not familiar with Full Metal Alchemist you won't get it. If you are, you'll probably either really like it or think it's kinda creepy.

Day 31 (15th): Yodobashi Gold Card
It started out as a pretty normal Saturday. The only strange thing was that I got a visit from a couple Jehovah's Witnesses in the morning. Guess they really are everywhere. I mean, here I am in Japan where Christianity isn't all that big plus I'm on the edge of a kinda small town in a sorta hard to find apartment building. Anyway, that aside I went to services which where a bit different since they were having a late Rosh Hashanna celebration.
Afterwards, I headed to Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara to get a Japanese PS2. Why get a Japanese PS2? Well my normal PS2 can't play Japanese games. So why do I want to play Japanese games? Well, there's a lot of great games that just don't reach the US like Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix+ (which is probably the main reason I get the Japanese PS2, that and Japanese DDR). So yeah, with a Japanese PS2 I can play them while practicing my Japanese at the same time. Plus if I ever get any Japanese DVDs (unlikely considering the prices) I can use it to watch them.
Anyway, I did some internet research before hand and figured out how my Yodobashi Gold Point card worked so I used my points to help get the PS2. I gotta say, the Gold Point card is awesome. To explain, I'll compare it to my Best Buy card. FYI: Yodobashi Camera is a Japanese electronics store chain. Their prices are usually pretty average. Their selection is great but you could probably find stuff a little bit cheaper if you shopped around. Best Buy is an American Electronics Chain that usually have prices that range from average to fairly cheap.
With a BB Point Card for every dollar you spend you get 1 point. The points get added to your account after around a month. For every 250 points you earn you get a $5 gift certificate. Also worth noting, when you make a purchase using one or more of those gift certificates you get no points (so if I use a $5 certificate towards a $50 purchase there's still $45 of my money that I'm not getting points on). So in a nutshell you get a 2% return on your purchases and it takes about a month before you can use it.
With the Yodobashi Gold Point Card you get points equal to 10% of the amount of yen you spend (or 8% if you pay by credit card) and they get added to your account after one day. You can keep saving points as long as you want or you can use them towards a purchase. When you use them, the amount of yen equal to your point total is deducted from your purchase. Plus you still get points for any real money you spend in the purchase. So you get an 8-10% return and you can use it the next day. Really blows the BB card away.
Even better, when you first sign up for your card you get 20% points on that purchase. And, since I bought that expensive electronic dictionary, I ended up getting about $60 off the cost of my PS2, pretty nice.

Day 32 (16th): The Tokyo National Museum
Day 2 of my three day weekend. I decided to go to Tokyo again, do some shopping, and visit the Tokyo National Museum, which I've been wanting to see.
My first stop was the O-Keibajo Flea Market (the giant flea market I went to with my dad a few weeks ago). Like before, it was huge, had all sorts of stuff, and was pretty interesting to look around. I didn't buy much (couple gifts for relatives mainly) but I did see a lot of cool stuff.
Since it was nearby, I swung by one of the Tokyo Pokémon Center next, just to look around. It was a little bigger than the one in Yokohama and really really crowded. I found the selection of pokémon plushies kinda odd. I mean, some pokémon like pikachu and pachirisu are real cute and make total sense as plushies. Others, however, I'm not so sure. I mean, spiritomb never struck me as the cute and cudly type...
When I finished up there I headed to Ueno Park. After getting briefly sidtracked by the Children's Book Festival (told you there's always a festival of some sort going on somewhere) and watching the giant fountain in the park, I reached the Tokyo National Museum.
If you want to see a good sampling of Japanese art the Tokyo National Museum is a good place to go. While it doesn't have a enormous collection of any particular item (except maybe Buddha statues, saw way too many of those) it has a bit of just about everything so you can look at all kinds of Japanese art in one place. I wasn't allowed to take pictures of most of the coolest stuff but I was able to photo some things. So here's the main building (there are a couple other buildings with exhibits and a couple more that are saved for special exhibitions). So here's a little sceptor like sculpture thing, here's some red laquerware, and here's a katana and wakizashi blade. Next we've got some really cool metal toys (they're articulated and everything), an old shell matching game, and a fancy plate. For all the Phoenix Wright fans out there, here's a real magatama (you could even buy magatama pendants in the gift shop). And here's a scroll painting, a naginata blade, some old armor, and a bow and arrow set. Naturally, there was tons more stuff, it was a pretty big museum and really interesting if you don't mind looking at lots of different types of art for a while. Fortunately, quite a lot of the signs were in English too so I could read about what I was seeing.

Day 33 (17th): Nikko
As previously mentioned, today is Respect for the Aged Day so I had the day off. I've been wanting to go to Nikko since my dad went there. The train ride wasn't as long or expensive as I thought it would be and there was some nice scenery towards the end of it. Anyway, Nikko is a mountain town famous for its fancy shrines and temples. They also do a lot of woodworking and lacqure there too so there's some pretty cool stuff in the shops. Plus there's supposed to be some good hikes a bit further up the mountain (I might go and check those out another time).
My goal for the day was to see all the shrines and temples that my dad had mentioned (you can see some of his pictures in a previous post). The train station was a ways from the stuff I'd actually come to see. There were busses but I decided to walk instead. If I had known it was all up hill, I might have given the bus a little more consideration but I did get a good look at the town and I passed Shinkyo bridge.
The main shrines and temples are all in a large forest area that starts neat the bridge (BTW: the was only the first of many sets of stairs that I got to climb). You can get a handy combo ticket that gets you into all the main temples and shrines in that area (although most of them have some special areas that you have to pay extra to get in) so I got one of those. The first place I came to was Rinnoji Temple. It was a really big temple and you got to go on a walk through the inside where there were various statues and the like. The main draw here was the three giant golden buddah statues. They were really impressive but you couldn't take pictures and I really wanted a picture so I ended up spending 500 yen on a sourvineer booklet with lots of photos of Nikko (including ones of some stuff you couldn't photograph yourself, like those statues), which is no doubt the reason why they don't let you take photos. Anyway, I don't have a scanner down here so here's a photo of the book's photo of the golden Buddah. It's hard to tell from the photo but keep in mind they're all 15-20 feet tall.
Next I came to Toshogu Shrine which featured a ton of incredible wood carvings and is the most ornate shrine I've ever seen by far. This cat carving is a very popular one but the most famous carving by far is this one. Chances are most of you have seen it in one form or another. The tomb of one of Japan's emperors was behind the shine (and up another long flight of stairs). The tomb itself wasn't all that amazing (not much is right after seeing Toshogu Shrine) but, for the anime fans out there, there was a real sacred tree.
On the way to me next stop I passed a large pagooda and stopped in a treasure museum (as usual, no photos alowed). Futarasan Shrine was nice but definately the least impressive of the bunch. They did have some shrine floats and other things on display though, including this enourmous sword (you can't tell from the picture but it's at least six feet long). I'm assuming it was made as a display piece since only a giant would be able to effectively wield that thing.
The last destination on my combo ticket was Rinnoji Taiyuin Temple. While there were some decent carvings and stuff the main thing here was the statues (my dad had already photographed them all so I'm just posting some of his photos) which are pretty neat to look to at and there were a whole bunch of them.
When I'd finished up in the shrine and temple area I tried to find this one place on my map. Turns out the route I choose didn't go there (although it gets close) but along the way I came across a large villa that used to belong to various emperors so I checked that out and eventually ended up at Bakejizo, a long path following a river that was lined with Buddah statues with little caps and bibs. After walking the whole thing I slowly made my way back through Nikko and eventually headed home.
In summary, Nikko is the place to go to see Japanese shrines and temples and has nice scenery too. I'll probably go back there sooner or later to check out some of the things I didn't get to and, naturally, you'll get to read all about it when it happens.


9/14/2007 Exploring Koga

There's a new voters' bonus comic and, since all the Forum Award winners have been introduced, it's back to the regular Blooper Reel strips so go ahead and clikc on the Top Web Comics banner or button to check it out. And, there's a new ROM.

In other news I just realized that I get Monday off work for Respect for the Aged Day. Yay! Hmm... Wonder what I should do... On a completely different topic, I have got to say that I got an S rank on Jumping Jack Flash on Hard Rock mode. Of course, the only people who have any clue what that means are people who have played Elite Beat Agents and I have to admit that, for an S rank, I got a pretty lousy score but still, not only did I beat the hardest song in the game, I got an S rank on it so I'm pretty happy.

Day 29 (13th): Rosh Hashanna
Thursday was Rosh Hashanna. It's a really important Jewish holiday so I took the day off work. Unfortunately, the group I go to couldn't do a special service for it (I think they're gonna do something Saturday instead) and the Jewish community center charged a fortune to their service so instead I stayed in Koga, read a lot, read through a service booklet on my computer, and just kinda had my own little thing. Plus I took a really long bike ride and explored the town a bit so here are some photos.
First off, here's the main room of my apartment. It's basically living room, bed room, and dining room combined. A little tight but it works. Now if only there were more places to put figurines... Here's the view from my little laundry hanging deck. Not much of a view really but I've had worse. Here's my really tiny kitchen. Complete with half a stove, no oven, and a tiny fridge (which you can just see the edge of). Probably wouldn't have minded so much before I started getting into cooking... And here's my apartment building. There's no amenities and I never really see the neighbors (I think I've glimpsed a couple once or twice) but since I'm only gonna be here till April I don't need anything real fancy. Still, definately a big change from US apartments.
Leaving the apartment behind, here's the nearby shopping plaza (or as much as I could fit in one picture) and here's the nearest 7 - 11. Convenience stores in Japan, unlike in the US, usually aren't paired with gas stations. They're pretty popular here and have a better selection of stuff. You can get food, drinks, magazines and even a handful of DVDs and games. Plus, you can go to convenience stores to pay your utility bills. 7 - 11 seems to be the biggest of the chains and even has its own bank. What I like about 7 - 11s is that they have free internation ATMs so if I run low on yen I can easily pull some cash from my US bank account and, once I actually get a Japanese account and a paycheck, I can use it to get money from there too. Anyway, I already mentioned that many restaurants have displays of plastic food outside to show you what they have. Well, here's one of those displays. And here's Koga Station, well one side of it. This actually isn't the side I need to go out of to get to my apartment but I think this side makes for a better photo. And here's a random shot along one of the main roads. After biking all around, I can say that I was right about Koga not having a nice shopping street or anything like that. But I did spot a game store, which is kinda cool. Too bad it's pretty far away from my apartment. I also found a Pizza Hut. Now if I'm in the US Pizza Hut is one of the last places I'd go for pizza. Here's it's probably just about my only choice. At least in Koga, there's probably someplace better in Tokyo but who knows if I could ever find it. Anyway, pizza here is extemely expensive so I'm sure I won't be getting it much. I mean, it's nearly 3000 yen (around $26) for a 12 inch pizza. I mean seriously, and I thought the place I used to go in Phoenix (which charged about $18 for a two topping eighteen inch pizza) was a little expensive...

Day 30 (14th): Normal Day on the Job
Nothing much happened at work. I taught the 5th graders about school subjects and the 3rd graders about directions and helped the other teachers get some stuff ready for the sports day but that was about it. However, since I had already had some photos of Koga, I decided I should take some of the school as well.
Here's some kids going to school (actually this one my dad took a week or two back). Elementray schools don't have uniforms (at least not in Nogi, although all the kids do wear the same gym outfit during P.E.) but at Nogi Elementary they all wear those yellows hats on their way to school and then take them right off when they get there only to put them back on when they leave. Maybe it's so drivers notice them better? Oddly enough, I didn't think to take a picture of the outside of the building. But here's the main hall, the place where the teachers' desks are, a regular class room and the English class room (there's a lot of specialized class rooms including a computer room, science room, home ec room, and what looks like a shop room, along with an indoor basketball court and a fairly large pool). Since it's a new building (there's still doing a little construction on the outside) everything is nice, new, and in good shape. In the off chance that anyone is wondering, those floors aren't real wood. It's a fake stuff that's actually a little on the rubbery side.
Since the weather was a little better today than it has been, they did a lot of sports day practice outside. First off, they actually practiced a game this time which involved the teams rolling a giant ball around their half of the field as quickly as they could. First team to make two complete rounds won. Might be a little hard to tell from the pic but it's the kids in the white hats vs the kids in the red hats. They're actually not all mixed in like it looks. See, the hats are reversible (one side red and the other white) and since it was the beginning of the day some of the kids had their hats on the wrong way. They switched them shortly after I took that picture. After running through the ball game a couple times the did some aerobics and started rehearsing the ceremony again (maybe that's not the best word for it but it's all I can think of at the moment). I did get a video of the kids singing if you want to see (or more like hear since my camera takes lousy videos). You can't hear the kids too well at first but they get louder a little ways in. Oh, and the video is a little big so it might take a couple minutes to load. Good thing I've got bandwidth to burn with this hosting package...

And that's it for now. Have a good weenend!


9/12/2007 To rain or not to rain...

You've probably noticed that the comics have been a little more serious lately. I've explained this before but, in case you're new, sometimes during a big important battle I just need to have some strips focus more on the fighting than on humor. That doesn't mean there won't be jokes in the battle, there will be, just not every single strip.

Oh, if anyone othere there has a Japanese Nintendo Wii, would you be interested in buying or trading for a Japanese Wii Points Card? I ended up getting one bundled with something else I bought a little while back but, since Japanese Wii Points cards don't work with US Wiis (the US Wii Shop Channel refuses to accept point codes from other countries and Nintendo apologetically refused to exchange my card for a US one) it's not doing me any good. So anyway it's a 5000 point card and I'm looking to either trade it for a US point card worth 4000 - 5000 points or sell it for around $40. A swap would be the easiest since we could simply trade point codes via e-mail. Anyway, if you're interested let me know.

Day 27 (11th): 4th Grade Class
I had my first class with the 4th Graders today. The lesson focused on months and dates. If I haven't explained this already, each lesson I teach I'm actually assissting the homeroom teacher of whatever grade I'm teaching (except for preschool on Wednesdays where I'm running the whole show). So, although we're following a curriculum, things can change a little depending on the teacher themselves. The fourth grade teacher took a bit more direct control of things than the fifth grade one so I pretty much just went along with him. Not I had a problem with that. Actually, he might have done that since his English wasn't very good (he spoke less than the fifth grade teacher, who doesn't know all that much herself) so he might have just wanted to make sure he knew what was going on. Anyway, he gave me some extra time to do a longer intro as well (normally there's a very large portion of the first class set aside for the ALT's intro but since I'm replacing a teacher who had to quit after the school year had already started, we're way past that lesson so I just have to squeeze in my intro whenever I can). Didn't get much of a chance to talk to the students themselves since I was teaching the whole time but them seemed nice. Now I just need to meet first, second, and third grades.
Like culture fests, schools also have sports days. Once again, I know they take place at least once a year (possibly two or three times but I'm really not sure). Sports days involve dividing the students into teams (not sure exactly how they're divided, I think some schools go by classes but I think others go with a more random evenly matched division) and then having the teams compete in a variety of sports and games. Sports days typically take place on a Saturday or Sunday. I think they're supposed to promote teamwork, healthy competition, and all that stuff. Mine school's is a week from Saturday. Unfortunately, that's also Yom Kippur so there's no way I can go (unless the sports day is delayed because of bad weather which could certainly happen if the weather doesn't start improving...). Since I can't go, the principle asked if I'd watch the kids practice for sports days (which they do for around 20-30 minutes every morning). Now when I was asked to watch sports day practice I naturally assumed that the kids would be running, practing for various events, etc. Boy was I wrong. Actually, this practice involves running though the ceremony. The kids stand, stand in the proper place, carry a flag around, sing the sports day songs, etc. Guess the sports themselves aren't as important as the kids knowing how to walk up and take a flag. Maybe they should rename it to 'Nicely Performed Ceremony Day Featuring Sports During the Intermission'. Ok, just kidding about that last part. Still, the whole thing is a lot different than what a similiar event would be like in the US.
Speaking of the singing, they've got that pretty well rehearsed too with the two different sports day teams (red and white) each having their own parts in the songs. There's also one kid playing the tune on an electric keyboard and another standing in front waving a conductor's baton around. Now that made me wonder... First off, does said student know how to properly use a baton? Secondly, do the other students know how to follow prompts from a baton? Doesn't seem like something they'd learn in elementary school. Maybe the adults just think it looks more professional if there's someone there waving a baton around...

Day 28 (12th): Rain
Rain sucks. Well ok, sometimes it's not bad and sometimes I even like rainy days. Well, I like rainy days when I can find a comfortable spot on the couch and read or play video games all day. However, I HATE rainy days when I have to bike for 25 minutes in said rain. So anyway, guess what I did this morning! If you guessed that I biked for 25 minutes in pouring rain, you're absolutely right. Fortunately, I had a rain coat. Unfrotunately, it was raining pretty hard and that, combined with the fact that I was biking, ensured that I still got pretty wet. On the up side, the B.O.E was nice enough to give me a towel and a dry shirt when I arrived and drive me to my classes (too little too late but at least they tried). Fortunately, by the time I was done teaching the rain had turned into a very light drizzle and when it was time for me to bike home it had stopped entirely. Also fortunately, my backpack proved my past suspicions by proving to be quite water resistant.
The classes themselves were good. I reviewed the ABC song with the three year olds and Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes with the four and five years olds. Plus I taught the four and five year olds a simple "start" and "stop" game which, once I managed to explain it to the teachers (who were then able to do a much better job explaining it to the students than I was) they kids really enjoyed.
The meeting ended early so when I got home I had some time to go out for sushi and check out the nearby arcade before sunset. I think the sushi place opened for dinner not long before I arrived so there wasn't anything on the conveyor yet so I got to try ordering things directly. Wasn't that hard really, although I was limited to whatever had names that I could both read and identify since not everything on the menu had photos.
Like most of the Japanese arcades I've seen so far, this one had lots of claw machines (Yeah, they're really popular here and you can try for lots more than just stuffed animals. They're still nearly impossible to win though.), a bunch of collectable trading card based video games (as in video games which are played using special cards which can be won by playing said game, not the type of thing that makes it to the US), a selection of normal games, and an area set apart for the more gambling based games like slots and pachinko. Anyway, I've give a more detailed rundown of Japanese arcades another time but suffice it to say that I tried some different stuff out and had a fairly fun time.


9/10/2007 Exploration & Shopping

Friday's special bonus comic is about me so you might want to vote and check it out if you haven't yet.

Day 24 (8th): Culture Fest
For the most part it was a normal Saturday. I went into Tokyo for services and all that. Afterwards, however, the congregation leader offered to take me to the Tokyo University of Art & Design (where one of his daughters attends) since they were having their culture fest. Culture fests are something that all school have in Japan. I think they take place once a year per school (although they might be more frequent, not sure). The actual date varies by school (Nogi Elementary's isn't until somtime next month). If you're an anime and manga fan chances are you'll have seen a culture fest or two one series or another. Basically, culture fests typically take place on a weekend. Students break into groups and create booths (or use classrooms depending on the school) and create things like food stands, little shops, carnival type games, etc and people who live nearby come to go around and have fun. I assume that the money earned goes to the school and not to the students but I'm not positive about that. Since this culture fest was being done by a university, it was fairly large and pretty crowded. There was lots of stands selling different types of food and beer, students selling artwork (it is an art and design school after all) and a stage with live music with included a girl singing J-Pop style songs, some rappers/break dancers (although kinda amusing to watch for a few minutes, I have to say that I think rap typically sounds even worse in Japanese than it does in English), and a DJ doing the whole turn table mixing/spinning thing. They also had some Japanese parade floats on display, which I think were created by the students. It was interesting to look around and I'm definately curious to see what my school's will be like.

Day 25 (9th): Even More Sightseeing in Tokyo
While I'm working in here Japan I plan to spend most of my sundays and holidays doing some touring (since I don't have time on work days). I had been hoping to go to Nikko but there was a pretty high chance of rain so I went to Tokyo instead which, besides having a much lower chance of rain, had plenty of things I could do indoors incase it did rain. My initial plan was to take a quick look at a the statue of Hachiko, check out the sword museum, do a little shopping and then get back to Koga fairly early, making it a fairly short and easy day. However, do to a few different factors, it ended up being a very long day. I had fun though so no big deal.
So, first off I took a train from Koga to the station where the Hachiko statue is (either Shinjuku or Shibuya, I keep getting those two mixed up and don't have a map handy right now). The statue is another thing that some anime/manga fans might have heard of. If you haven't it's the statue of a dog named Hachiko. A while ago (a bit before WWII if I remember right) there was and old man who had a dog named Hachiko. Every day that guy would take the train from the station to work and back and evey evening Hachiko would come to the station and wait for his mater to return. The man eventually died but Hachiko continued to go to the station every evening to wait for the train for the rest of his life. After Hachiko died, some people made a statue to commemorate his loyalty. There really isn't anything amazing about the statue itself but, after having read about it in various anime and manga I wanted to take a look at the real thing.
My next stop was the Japanese Sword Museum which was a little bit to the northwest of Yayogi park. Since the weather wasn't looking too bad, I decided to walk to and through the park to get there. I've heard that there's a party or festival just about every day in Japan if you go to the right place. Well, on my way through the park I stumbled across a Brazil festival. Now I've got no clue why there'd be a Brazil festival in Japan but there way. Maybe's it's a big tourist spot for Japanese people.
After looking around the festival for a little while I continued through the park before stumbling across a huge wooden shrine gate and a lot of tourists (Japanese and otherwise). Since the place seemed to be pretty popular, and since I was already there, I figured I might as well check it out. Turned out it was a large shrine built to honor the Meiji Emperor (a much loved Emperor who laid the foundation for modern Japan back in the 1800s). The shrine itself wasn't all that impressive after going to Kamakura and seeing my dad's photos from Nikko but it was surrounded by a nice forest and some big grassy meadows that seemed to be popular picnic spots. There was also a treasure museum that featured lots of paintings of and items owned by the Meiji Emperor.
The forest and gardens surrounding the shrine were pretty large and I was stopping to look at stuff so it took me a while to get through. Fortunately, I ended up pretty close to the sword museum. Unfortunately, it took me quite a while to actually find the museum itself (gotta hate the Japanese address system). I ended up walking in circles pretty close to the museum but was unable to find the place itself. Fortunately, in the end I asked someone for directions and he showed me the way. The Japanese Sword museum was pretty small but features a nice collection of katana (the primary type of Japanese sword) blades along with some wakizashi (a shorter secondary blade) and tonto (a third blade that's more of a large knife than a sword). The blades were in extremely good condition depsite the fact that most of them were hundreds of years old. I guess they can really last a long time if you take good care of them. There were also some sword fittings (grips, sheaths, etc) and guards (a metal piece placed where the blade meets the grip). After looking over them you can really see that Japanese sword making was/is as much of an art as it is a craft. While I was there I also read a bit about how Japanese swords are made. It's pretty interesting and shows why they're considered some of the best (quite possibly the best) swords. I would have gotten some photos to show you but Japanese museums all seem to have something against taking pictures.
my last stop for the day was Akihabara. Having done a decent amount of research on electric Japanese - English dictionaries I decided to go see what I could find. Since they're all made for Japanese speakers, using many of them can be difficult if you don't know much Japanese and there isn't really any comparable device made for English speakers (heck, you can't even buy the Japanese ones in the US). Fortunately, many of Canon's models have the option to switch all the menus to English. Naturally, that's only the menus and whatever data is in English to begin with (like the English dictionaries) but they've got English > Japanese and Japanese > English dictionaries built in (usually with a lot of other English and Japanese reference books too like a thesaurus and kanji dictionary) so they're pretty useful. The nicer (and more expensive ones) also include the ability to identify kanji that you write with a stylus (which is extremely useful when you run into a kanji you don't know (which for me happens constantly)). Unfortunately, the most powerful of Canon's English models didn't have that feature (which I really wanted) so I got to choose between on that was Engligh - Japanese - Chinese or one that was designed for Japanese school kids. In the end, I got the school one. Both had about the same amount of English stuff and unlike all the Chinese reference material (which I probably wouldn't ever use) the kids one has things like history, practice tests, and the like. Things that could come in handy once my Japanese improves enough to read them. Yodobashi Camera let me sign up for one of their point cards when I bought it so I got a bunch of points. So far that makes one stamp card and two point cards I've gotten so far. Could be pretty useful...at least if I ever manage to figure out what you can do with points/stamps you earn...
After that I wondered around Akihabra for a while. I was looking for some certain things in particular (like a present for one of my cousins). Wasn't exactly sure which store had the exat items I wanted through so I ended up exploring a lot of stores that looked like they might have it (plus some stores that just looked cool). Along the way I got a picture of a Yuna cosplayer, saw lots of cool stuff, found and bought a nifty USB device that lets you back up DS save games to a PC (been wanting one of those for a long time), and eventually found exactly what I was looking for (took a while though). By the time I left Akihabara it was getting pretty late so I headed home.

Day 26 (10th): Back to Work
Just another school day without anything particularily special to write about. My class for the day was canceled because the lower grades don't have English classes every week so I just hung out and had lunch with the 6th graders who were nice but, in general, a bit less talkative than the 5th graders.

Random Japan Comment: Buisness Hours
In the US stores and the like typically open at 9 (or maybe 10) and, depending on what it is and where it is, stay open till anywhere between 5 and 10 (the average generally seems to be 6 or 8). In Japan, however, although much of the population gets moving pretty early (which is why train stations and the stuff around them usually have pretty long buisness hours) the majority of stores and the like don't open until 10 with some waiting until 11. However, they typically stay open a bit later as well (often till sometime btween 8 and 11). Also, Saturday hours are typically the same as regular weekend day hours with Sunday seeming to be the only "official" weekend day.


9/7/2007 Work Week 1...Complete!

As always, there's a new voters' bonus comic up. This one is the last of the bunch featuring this year's Forum Awards winners and it features the winner of the Best Overall Poster Award, me. Yeah I said me. For the past couple of years I declared myself unable to be nominated for any of the Forum Awards but this year I figured 'what the heck' and allowed people to niminate me if they wanted to. Anyway, there's that and there's also a new ROM.

Day 22 (6th): Back at School
The weather was iffy but at least it didn't rain till after I got to Nogi Elementary (getting caught in the rain twice yesterday was enough). Once again, I didn't have a lot to do so I spent most of my time working on various things on my computer and studying Japanese. I also helped once of the other staff members clean some windows.
I ate lunch for the kids for the first time, that was the most interesting and fun part of the day. I was with the 5th grade class. At first it was pretty quiet as we ate. Speaking of which, I can say with certainty that corn was never meant to be eaten with chop sticks, it's just too small and slippery. Eventually, the payoff (eating the corn) just isn't worth the effort (picking each piece up (often one at a time) with your chopsticks. Anyway, after most of the kids had finished eating I got barraged with questions about what I liked to do, what games, anime, etc I liked, what my favorite characters were in certain anime, etc. It was fun and made for good Japanese practice. Although, I kinda have to wonder if, as an English teacher, I should have tried to get them to speak to me in English...

Random Japan Comment: Addresses
As previously mentioned, finding a specific address in Japan can be difficult without detailed directions. Here's how Japanese addresses work. Japan is divided into prefectures (somewhat like a counties in the US) and each prefecture has towns, cities, etc, and sometimes said towns and cities are divided into sections. Anyway, aside from all that stuff the addresses also contain some numbers. See, most roads in Japan don't have names and even with the ones that do, road signs are extremely rare so you can't just say 123 Oak Street or something like that. Instead, cities and towns are broken up into numbered sections (although figuring out where one section starts and another begins (or even what section you're in) seems pretty difficult if not impossible without a very detailed map. So that's the first number. Then those sections are divided into smaller sections (once again, you're probably not gonna be able to tell without the right map). So if you manage to find the place indicated by those two numbers you'll be in the general area of where ever you're going. The last set of numbers is the building's actual address. But if you think the hard part is over you're probably wrong. See, unlike in the US where buildings are numbered sequentially as you move down a road, numbers in Japan are assigned in the order the buildings were constructed. So while building 147 might be right next to you, 148 could be right behind you, a couple of blocks in another direction, or even on the opposite end of the section you're in. And without a super super super detailed maps (most don't show that level of detail) you have no way of telling where the building you want is.
As I also previously mentioned, Japanese people don't seem to understand the system much better than I do (so far Japanese people that have been taking me various places have gotten lost repeatedly (sometimes for very long periods of time) even when they had maps or directions. I have to wonder who could have ever thought that this address system would be a good idea...

Day 23 (7th): My First Class
Today started out with rain, lots of rain. Actually the rain started last night. Lots of rain and lots of wind. It wasn't just any storm either, it was a fairly large typhoon. Really sucks when a typhoon hits and you have laundry hanging out to dry and nowhere in your apartment to put it. I miss having a dryer... Anyway, all the wind and rain were really loud and made it kinda hard to sleep. It was still raining in the morning so I had to bike in the rain. Fortunately, I have a cheap raincoat and I stuck my backpack in a big plastic bag so I managed to arrive relatively dry. Even better, it stopped raining by the afternoon so I didn't have any trouble getting back to my apartment after work. As usual, I spent most of the day studying Japanese and doing stuff on my computer.
The only thing special thing about today was that I finally had my first class at Nogi Elementary. I was teaching 5th graders (who I met yesterday at lunch) so they already knew me. As I probably mentioned before, Nogi uses a fairly straightforward if not all that intense or exhaustive English curriculum for all its schools so I had a nice little lesson plan to follow with the help of the class's home room teacher (who speaks a little English but not much). The lesson topic was months. Started with a quick review of the days of the week then went through some month flash cards, sang some little songs about the days and months, went around and had all the kids say their birthday in English, and then had a couple of games. The first was a card game that played a lot like BS (aka I Don't Think So) but with the 12 months being used in place of regular numbers. After that we did a game where I'd whisper a month to several students who would run and tell the next person in their group who would tell the next person, etc until it got to the last person who would run to the board and grab the card for the correct month, first team to get the right one got a point. All in all it was easy and didn't require much prep time (thanks to the afore mentioned curriculum) and kinda fun. The kids seemed to enjoy it anyway and a lot of them are really friendly so it wasn't bad at all.


9/5/2007 The job continues

If you haven't noticed, PV is currently updating between early and mid morning on Mon, Wed, Fri instead of very late Sun, Tue, and Thur nights like it used to. Because Japan is so far away from the US (heck, it's on the other side of the international date line) I just can't update the site at the exact same time I did in the US. My current choices are either Mon, Wed, and Fri mornings or late afternoon early evening on Sun, Tue, and Thur. If you have a preference feel free to let me know. Otherwise, I'll stick with the current time for a while and see how well it fits into my schedule.

Day 20 (4th): 2nd Day of School
It was a full nine hour day today. Technically, I think I'm only supposed to be working eight hours a day but I'm guess that the Board of Education don't count the lunch break as work (despite the fact that I'm required to stay at the school and eat the school lunch with either the teachers or the students). Speaking of the school lunches, I have to pay for them. Fortunately, they're pretty cheap (only 250 yen per meal) but with five meals week for a month that does add up a bit, especially when you tack on the extra 2000 yen a month fee for assorted other stuff like coffee and tea (which, like the school lunch, I have to pay for whether I eat/drink it or not). I suppose I wouldn't mind the fees too much if my salary was a bit larger, but it's not. I think I'm the lowest paid ALT at Joytalk (the company that hired me), of course it's not exactly their fault becausee the salary was chosen by the Nogi board of education. Still, after paying for rent, utilities, assorted other fees, and food I'm not gonna have much money left over. Especially since I want to do some touring on weekends and holidays. Fortunately, I've got a decent amount of money stashed away in my US bank account so I can draw from that whenever my salary is depleted (which could very well happen every month) and I wasn't expecting to make a lot of money from this job (I came for the experience, not the cash), but I have to admit, it's kinda annoying knowing that most other ALTs get anywhere from around 130% - 200% as much as I do. Which would definately give them enough money to live, tour a bit, and maybe even have some money left over to spend or save. As for me, I'm probably gonna end the trip with less money than I started with. Which, as I said, is acceptable but still annoying. Speaking of which, if anyone feels like donating to PV the next few months would be a great time to do so.
Anyway, I'd already done my little intro speeches and since most of this week's English classes were canceled, I didn't have a whole lot to do. I did spend a little while helping a couple kids clean the English room (as previously mentioned, they have those kids really well trained, seems that if you send a bunch of 1 - 6 graders in the US to clean their school something would go seriously wrong pretty quickly, with or without supervision. I also went through the contents of said room (stuff bought by the school and/or left by the previous ALT) so I'd know what I had to work with (although I don't know if I'll get the chance to use much of it cause of the curriculum I have to follow. Aside from that stuff and lunch with the teachers, I spent the rest of the day studying Japanese and working on several things on my computer. Good thing I rarely have trouble keeping myself occupied.
Since it's his last day here, my dad and I went to the nearby kaiten zushi place for dinner and picked up some stuff at the 100 yen store while we were there (something like a US dollar stuff but with more usefull stuff).

Day 21 (5th): Wednesdays
My dad left this morning and headed back to the US so I'm on my own now. As I mentioned before, Wednesdays are totally different than my other work days each week. First off, I've got a 25 minutes bike ride to the Nogi Board of Education (gotta get there by 8:30). The ride isn't that bad, just hope I don't have to do it in the rain or snow... So anyway, I got there at 8:30 and then do...absolutely nothing actually. See, I'm supposed to teach a few classes nearby but the first one isn't till 10. Supposedly I can use the time before to plan my lessons if I need to... But I need to be there at 8:30 even if I already have my lessons planned (which I always will considering how much free time I've got the rest of my work days). And it's not like I have a desk there or anything (plus I don't really want to carry my computer all the way over there). I can study Japanese. But there's really no reason what so ever for me to be there then (they don't need to talk to me about anything, go over my lesson plans, or anything). Oh well...
Anyway, after sitting around studying Japanese for a while I finally headed out to my first class. It was at a preschool and lasted for a grand total of ten minutes (not that I can do a whole lot with ten minutes once a week) but the kids were cute and it was kinda fun. Basically, they have some sort of recital or performance later in the year so I have to teach them an English song for that and keep them entertained. For now, I'm working on the ABC song and once they start to get that down decently I'll probably do another song or a game or two to fill the time.
Right after that I had to quickly bike to another school. This time I had two lessons that lasted for 15 minutes each. One was four year olds and the other was five year olds. They have a similiar recital thing to prep for so once again I needed to teach them a song. I was told that they liked stuff with lots of movement so I did Head, and Shoulders, Knees, and Toes for both classes. Once again, it was kinda fun and the kids were really excited and energetic. I'll probably be reviewing the songs each week and work in other songs and games eventually.
After that I had around three hours to kill before the meeting at the Board of Education. Fortunately, they didn't require me to sit there the whole time. I could have gone back to Nogi Elementary for lunch but, seeing as it's a 25 minute bike ride each way, it was supposed to rain today (which it did for a while), and I can't even eat half the stuff in the school lunches anyway, I decided to hang out and take a look around Nogi. There wasn't much to see so I ended up in the park playing Elite Beat Agents on my DS. Plus, I kinda got stuck there when it started raining (there were some covered seating areas).
The meeting itself was fairly short and nothing important happened, unless you count me finding out that the Board of Education no longer gives ALTs any money to buy teaching supplies and materials (even when it's something they want you to get), add that to my salary and there's only one conclusion...The Nogi Board of Ed are really cheap (or maybe really poor). Anyway, I got to leave once the meeting was over, despite it being about an hour before my official quitting time so I suppose Wednesdays really aren't that bad despite the long ride and wasted time before classes. I mean, I get a few horus of free time in the middle and I get out early.


9/3/2007 The job begins

If you haven't seen Poikspirits bonus comic yet you really should vote and take a look.

Day 17 (1st): Normal Saturday
The title pretty much says it all. Being a Saturday, my dad and I hung around my apartment for a bit then headed into Tokyo for services. We got there pretty early since my dad is always paranoyed that things will take a whole lot longer than the actually do. Plus there's that whole better early than late thing (which I usually agree with). That evening we swung by Akihabara so I could take a look at some electronic Japanese-English dictionaries and then headed back to Koga. So yeah, nothing special or exciting happened.

Random Japan Comment: Left or Right?
In Japan, cars drive on the left side of the road like in the UK and Austrailia. To go along with that, people tend to walk on the left side of things as well. For example, in America if people are going opposite directions down a sidewalk, we typically each move to the right so there's room for both of us. The same type of things applies to stuff like stairs, escalators, etc. Naturally in Japan people tend to move to the left...well, sometimes. It's true that people often stick to the left side of sidewalks, hallways, etc and many places like subway and train stations have signs clearly telling everyone to stay to their left in high traffic areas. But there's an exception, or rather a whole lot of exceptions. Not everyone goes left. Some random people walking around might go to the right or just stay in the center. Left might be the most common way but there's enough people who don't do it that you really need to pay attention. It doesn't help that some of those aforementioned 'stay to the left' signs are actually 'stay to the right' signs. Not many, but it's enough to throw you off. The only place that seems completely consistant is excalators where everyone will stand on the left side, leaving the right side free for people who are in a hurry and want to walk up the excalator instead of just waiting for it to carry them.

Day 18 (2nd): A Little More in Tokyo
Since my dad is only going to by in Japan until Wednesday, I've been letting him decide what we do. He wanted to do some stuff around Tokyo so we headed there.
First stop was a once a month flea market. But, unlike the last flea market we went to, this one specialized in antiques. Naturally this meant the stuff was typically a bit more expensive and a bit fancier (also a bit older in many cases). There was some interesting stuff, especially if you like old statues, teapots, pictures, etc, etc, etc but since it was just antiques it did get a little boring after a while. Eventually you've just seen enough antiques (and least that's how it is for me, I'm just collectors and the like would disagree).
After that we went to Ueno's Ameya-Yokocho again. Definately more interesting to look around than an antique market. So we looked around and got some lunch then walked around Ueno a bit. I have to say, Ueno seems to be the place to go for pachinko (a type of Japanese gambling that I'll talk about more another time) and slot machines. So if you want to gamble, you won't have to look far to place a place in Ueno. Well, technically you're not "gambling" since gambling is illegal in Japan. In reality, it is gambling with a bit of a workaround/loophole that makes it technically legal. I'll go into more details about that in a later post. We also saw a monk begging while we were there, which was kinda interesting.
Finally, we left Tokyo and went to a city a bit to the north called Saitama. There's a couple of soccor teams that play there and a nice shopping plaza although, since it's that close to Tokyo, there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for me to go there very often, unless I want to watch a soccor game or something, which I might do at some point. Seems that there was some sort of special show or concert going on that day in the soccor stadium so there were a ton of people (mostly girls) going to that. Anyway, the reason we were there was for the John Lennon museum. My dad was a big Beatles fan when he was younger and still likes their music a lot so he wanted to go. I like the music too but I'm nowhere near as big a Beatles fan as he is. Anyway, the museum didn't allow pictures inside but it wasn't bad. It chronicled John's life pretty thuroughly and had lots of memorabilia. Plus all the signs had Japanese and Engligh so we were actually able to read them.
And that was all for Sunday. Wasn't a really full day but we had time to do some shopping and stuff when we got back to Koga.

Day 19 (3rd): The First Day of School
Well, as you probably know I didn't come to Japan for seven months to tour the entire time (although that would be pretty cool). I came here to work as an ALT (assistant language teacher). Basically work in a school and help teach kids English. Today was my first day on the job. So for the next week or two I'll mainly be talking about my job and after that I'll go back to more normal news posts and only do more Japan journal entries if something special happens or to talk about the places I go and things I do on the weekends.
So, day one on the job. I'd already been shown around Nogi Elementary (where I'll be working four out of five days each week) and it's right down the road so I had no trouble getting there and finding my way to my desk. The work day officially starts at 8 and a few minutes after that is a short staff meeting of sorts. With my limited Japanese I couldn't understand most of what was being said but at one point I did get up and introduce myself to the other teachers. I didn't have anything to do after that (from the looks of things, I won't have anything to do for a very large portion of most days) so I studied Japanese for a while. A little while later, since it's the first day of the semester, the principle gave a speech to the students. At one point during said speech, I and some other new staff members went in and introduced ourselves to the students then one of the students read a little greeting message to us and then it was back to my desk (if you're wondering, all the teachers' desks are in one room and that's where they're supposed to work and hang out when they're not teaching).
I didn't have any classes today. In general, I only have one or two classes a day anyway but this week all of them except one (on friday) were canceled (probably cause it's the first week). So yeah, with the exception of wednesday (when I have to go to a completely different place) and friday I'm not actually doing any teaching this week. Or even much work for that matter. Too bad I don't actually get the days off. I suppose it's important that I look like I'm doing something. Oh well, gives me plenty of time to get things done like studying Japanese, planning lessons (which doesn't seem to take much time since I'm supposed to be following a pretty detailed curriculum), writing, wokring on various things on my computer, etc. The only other thing that happened in the morning was cleaning time, where all the kids went around and cleaned the building (surpervised by the teachers). They really have those kids well trained. They swept, dusted, emptied waste backets, picked up trash outside, etc (and these are just elementary school kids). Can't imagine anything like that in the US. I guess it saves money since the school doesn't have to hire janitor... Normally I think I'm supposed to help with that but they hadn't figured out what area I was supposed to supervise yet so they told me to just sit it out.
On most days I think I've supposed to eat lunch with the students of whatever class I taught. But, since I didn't have any classes, I ate with some of the teachers. They seem friendly and a few of them know at least a little English. After lunch I did a few more things on my computer. Then, since it was the first day, they let the kids go home early and I got to leave not too long after (about two hours earlier than my official quitting time).

Random Japan Comment: Water Fountains
In the US, waterfountains are all over the place. You'll find them in parks, around cities, and in many buisnesses and large building. In Japan, there's hardly any. I assume the reason for this is all the vending machines. With so many vending machines around, in most areas you can find something to drink pretty easily despite the lack of water fountains. Of course, that something won't neccessarily be water and it's gonna cost you around a dollar or so (typically 100-130 yen) and if you happen to be in a building or part of town without any vending machines you could be in trouble. Hmm... Maybe whatever company owns all the vending machines lobbies the government to block the construction of water fountains in Japan. Or maybe not, but it wouldn't be all that surprising.


8/31/2007 I'm back!

Well ok, I'm not really any more back than I have been for the last couple of weeks. I mean, I'm still in Japan and all. But Pebble Version is back! The guest comics are finished and new strips are back every monday, wednesday, and friday (give or take half a day or so thanks to me being in a different part of the world and not having a regular schedule down yet). There's a new bonus comic featuring Poikspirit for all you voters to check out and all the guest comics, both the winners and runners up (which you haven't seen yet) are on the Extras Page in the Guest Comic Contest 4 section. There's also a new ROM.

There's only a few days left until my ALT job starts on monday. I'll keep doing a daily Japan journal through next week and possibly the following week as well. After that you'll probably have heard all you could possibly want to know about my job so I'll do some more normal news posts and only post Japan updates when something interesting happens or if I go somewhere cool over the weekend or other stuff like that.

Day 14 (29th): Getting Stuff Done
Another rather unintersting day. A guy from Joytalk came and took me to several places. First was the elementary school where I'll be teaching four days a week. Fortunately it's really close to my apartment. The building seems nice too. Too early to say much about the staff and students yet. Their scheduling is kinda weird though. Looks like I'll be spending the majoriy of my working hours each day sitting around and doing nothing. Which begs the question 'why do I even need to be there for all that time anyway?' I guess if they're paying someone they like it to at least look like said person is working. Not that they're paying me much, I'm pretty sure I'm the lowest paid ALT in my company plus the school board tacks on extra fees every month for school lunches (which I'm required to eat) and coffee and tea (whether I actually drink any or not). Yeah, I'm definately not going to be making any money on this trip. At least not if I want to do any touring on weekends and holidays. Good thing I have some money saved up in case my expenses surpass my salary. Anyway, all that 'doing nothing' time could either be ok or really boring depending on what I'm allowed to do during it. I think I might end up helping other teachers with things from time to time but supposedly the majority of the time is for making lesson plans and the like, which will probably take a grand total of 1 hour a week tops since the school follows a very detailed curriculum and I just have to do what it says. Hopefully I can get some other things done (writting, working on PV strips, etc) during some of that time.
Then if was off to the board of education to meet with them. I have to go there every Wednesday morning for no apparent reason (other than that whole 'look like you're working thing') then eventually go first to a nursery school (where I teach a whole one 10 minute class each week) and then a preschool (where I teach two fifteen minutes classes once a week). Could be kinda fun but the whole goal is just getting the kids to memorize a song for a little presentation they do later in the year so it could get pretty repititious. And that's assuming I can find the places on my own since Japanese addresses are fairly useless and road signs are nearly non-existant. Anyway, after that I'm supposed to either go all the way back to Nogi elementary (despite the fact that I don't teach there on wednesdays) to eat lunch or sit around at the BOE for a couple of hours (I have to pay for the lunch either way but it's a pretty long ways back to the school). Finally there's a weekly meeting with the BOE and other Nogi ALTs (which teach at different schools in the area). I really hope it doesn't rain on wednesdays, considering I've got like an hour of biking to do and all...
After that the Joytalk guy took me to the Koga city office to fill out some forms (well, we got there eventually after spending a long time going around in circles). Then he showed me where the post office was (once again after spending a ton of time driving around aimlessly in an attempt to find it), hopefully I can find it again later. And that was it.

Day 15 (30th): Yokohama
Getting back to touring, my dad and I went to Yokohama, a fairly large city south past Tokyo. It's not as crowded as Tokyo and the buildings aren't as smashed together either. Reminded me a bit more of an American city, as least as far as general layout goes. Anyway, we didn't do anywhere near an exaustive tour of the city since it was drizzling on and off throughout the day and Yokohama doesn't have anywhere near as good a subway system as Tokyo so we had to walk a lot.
We spent most of our time in Yokohama in Japan's largest China Town. There were some neat gates at the main entrances and a really fancy temple inside as well as lots of Chinese trinkets, clothes, food, etc. Nice place to go if you're looking for Chinese stuff or if you like Chinese food (there's a ton of restaurants). We walked around for a while, looked in the shops, and got some lunch before moving on.
Next stop was the Yokohama Landmark Tower. A bit skyscraper with the highest observatory floor in Japan. You can get a really nice view of Yokohama from up there and you get to ride the world's second fastest elevator up and down (and it's really fast, my ears popped like three time on the way up). The bottom few floors of the tower were mostly taken up by a fancy mall. Which, as luck would have it, had a Pokémon Center! So I healed my pokémon then headed for the next gym and... Or not. That'd be pretty cool though. Anyway, the center didn't have any real pokémon but they did have a huge amount of Pokémon related merchandise (games, DVDs, figurines, plushies, etc, etc, etc) so that was pretty cool.
Unfortunately, we didn't stick around Yokohama for very long after that due to the weather. I'll probably go back sooner or later to check out some of the museums so expect more on Yokohama sometime in the future.

Random Japan Comment: Money and Buying Things
Yen is the Japanese currency. Unlike in the US where dollars are divided into cents, there's no higher or lower demonination of currency, there's just yen. Last time I checked 1 yen is worth around .8 US cents, a bit less than a penny. There are 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen coins and it's pretty useful to have a nice little stock of them (except for 1's and 5's which are worth too little to be of much use), especially if you plan to get a lot of train/subway tickets or buy drinks from vending machines. For higher amounts you've got bills for 1000, 5000, and 10000 yen.
Prices are pretty easy (at least when you can find them, on some prodcuts they're pretty hard to spot) since tax is already figured into the price on the label as is the tip at restaurants so there's nothing extra added on, you pay exactly what the price tag says which is almost always in multiples of 10 (hench the mostly useless natures of 1 and 5 yen coins).
Unlike in the US, cash is the prefered method of payment and it's perfectly normal to pull out a bunch of 10000 yen bills to pay for an expensive item. Which kinda confirms that pickpocketing and armed robbery aren't very common in Japan since everyone seems to feel safe carrying so much cash around.
Bigger stores, restaurants, hotels, mostly take credit cards as well and Visa lives up to its billing of working just about anywhere (although oddly enough, there's been a handful of places where my Visa credit card has failed to work when it should; my Visa debit card, however, has worked everywhere I've tried it, including those problem spots). However, there are still plenty of places that don't take credit cards so having a decent amount of cash on you is a must.
Finally, in Japan personal checks are pretty much non-existant. Not that I ever used them much in the US but in Japan they're useless so stick to cash and credit.

Day 16 (31st): Kamakura
The weather in most of Japan wasn't all that great so my dad and I decided to go to Kamakura because, of all our potential destinations, it had the lowest chance of rain. In the end, we got lucky and it didn't rain at all while all the clouds kept things nice and cool. Kamakura is a seaside town a bit past Yokohama. It's a popular tourist destination due to its large numbers of temples and shrines.
There's a shopping street right by the train station with a nice collection of shops and restaurants. Most of the places were closed when we first got there but we got to take a better look around in the afternoon when we came back to find a place for lunch. Good spot for suvineers.
Our first real destination was Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, a very large shrine by a lilly filled pond. We then walked most of the way across town (could have taken a train or bus but we got to see more this way). Kamakura is a nice place. There's tons of trees and other greenery so it's got a country feel and buildings and stuff aren't smashed together like they are in many Japanese towns and cities. All in all, Kamakura had a pretty good feel to it. Really made Koga (the town where I'm living) feel dull and boring, which it is. Maybe there's nothing in Koga because everyone there just goes to Tokyo when they want to do something fun/exciting/interesting.
Anyway, we weren't just randomly wandering around, we were headed for the Diabutsu or Giant Buddah, Japan's second most famous symbol/tourist spot after Mt. Fuji (which I'll get to eventually). The Daibutsu is pretty old (700 or 800 years if I remember right) and lives up to its name, as you can see from the previous picture. For an extra 20 yen (less than 20 cents) you can even go inside it. It's kinda like being inside the Statue of Liberty except that the Daibutsu is a lot smaller and you can't climb up to the top. It's not all that amazing inside but hey, for 20 yen there's no real reason not to go in.
Moving on, we stopped at the nearby Hasedera Temple. It's on a hill and surrounded by gardens and woods. There several small shrines in the temple area (including some inside a man made cave) and you can get a view of the ocean from where the main temple sits (that's where I took the town shot from earlier).
Since we were nearby, we made a quick stop at Yuigahama beach. As far as beaches go it wasn't all that great although there were some pretty big seashells lying around. I heard that there's a much nicer beach a few miles away but we didn't go there since we didn't go to Kamakura to swim or lay on the sand.
And that's about it. I may go back sometime to show other family members when they come to visit or if I just feel like looking at more shrines and temples since the ones there are pretty nice so you may be seeing more about Kamakura in the future.


8/29/2007 Onsen Trip

Sorry eveyone, I really wanted to start doing regular updates again today but I just didn't have enough time to get the new strips done. REGULAR PV COMICS WILL RESUME ON FRIDAY! Period. (Barring some major diaster of course.) So yeah, this is the last of the guest comics (well, the last one that will be on the main page anyway, on friday all the guest comics (including the runners-up) will be added to the Extras page.

Monday's update now has photos and even some videos! Scroll down the page a bit to see.

Day 12 (27th): Bandaiatami
Sunday morning my dad and I headed off to Bandaiatami, a mountain town that's fairly well known for its onsen (hot springs in English). We rode in a shinkansen (bullet train) on the way. They're certainly a lot faster than the local trains but they're more expensive too. I wouldn't say that riding in one is all that incredible but if you have the cash it's nice to save time. Anyway, the town itself wasn't all that impressive. There were a bunch of onsen hotels and not much else. But the scenery was nice and there was a little trail that led along the hill side through a forest full of big old trees.
After a little bit of hiking and walking around town (which was fairly empty since, when you think about it, the hottest time of the year isn't when most people go on a hot springs vacation) we went back to our hotel, Kirakuya Inn, which we chose because it was close to the train station and had a nice English web site. Wasn't super fancy but it wasn't a bad place either. The rooms were decent, the onsen wasn't bad (well, at least I don't think so since this is the first Japanese onsen I've seen in person), and the food was pretty good (breakfast was free and you could pay for lucnh and dinner if you wanted). They had some nice Japanese style rooms too. Although that's not the room we stayed in, not sure if those type of rooms were already booked, more expensive, or if the staff just rigured that, as Americans, we'd rather have an American style room (if I'd known they had Japanese style rooms from the start I would have asked for one). There was a large public onsen (divided into mens and womens' sections) with a hot outdoor pool, a hot indoor pool, a cool indoor pool, and a sauna. There was also a couple of small private onsen that you could reserve for a little while. My dad and I did that first, as a sort of practice run before going to the main onsen. We went in the main one a bit after dinner (which consisted of a variety of traditional Japanese foods). If you've ever been to a hot springs, then you've got the basic idea of an onsen. They're really the same thing, it's just that Japanese onsen have a traditional etiquette and atmosphere to them. It was nice and relaxing, definately different than going to an American hot springs though (see the following Random Japan Commnet) but I pretty much knew what to expect. Finally, here's a picture of me in a yukata (type of traditional Japanese clothing, now a days mostly work when lounging around in hotels, yukata are usually provided by the hotel staff (like bath robes in some US hotels)).

Random Japan Comment: Onsen
There are a lot of rules and customs surrounding the whole onsen experience. The whole point is to immerse youself into the hot water (often with only your head above the water) and relax. But there's things to do before that.
First off, you have to wash yourself before getting in the water. There's stools and shower heads (or little buckets you can fill with water and dump over yourself) that you use to rinse and wash before ever entering the onsen itself. It's important that you wash yourself completely and make sure you wash off all traces of soap and/or shampoo before going into the actual onsen.
Second, you don't bring large bath towls into the onsen area, those stay in the changing room for when you're done bathing. You do get a small towel that you take into the onsen which is used to help you wash/scrub/dry or whatever. Actually, a lot of people seem to put it on their heads while they're in the onsen, which works since you're not supposed to let that towel get into the onsen itself. If it's on your head, it's not in the water so that works out fine.
If you're switching between multiple pools, or just want a break, you can get out and rinse/wash yourself off again before either leaving entirely or getting back in the water. Just remember, make sure to wash off all the soap before getting back in the onsen.
Finally you should know that while you're doing all this washing, rinsing, and soaking you're completely naked. You've got that little towel but since it's all you've got and you can't actually take it into the water, you might as well just use it to wash off and/or stick it on your head like the Japanese people do. There are seperate men and womens' areas so you'll just be with other guys/girls but if you're really shy you might want try and find a place with small private pools that you can rent/reserve.

Day 13 (28th): Class Observation
Didn't really do anything exciting that day. After having breakfast my dad and I left Bandaiatami and took the train to a small town where another ALT worked so I could observe a couple of his classes (two hours of observation was plenty and certainly beat the two full days that I nearly got roped into before). We were going to take a taxi from the station to the school but a really nice Japanese lady approached us at the station (probably to practice her English, which was a lot better than that of most of the Japanese people I've met so far) and, upon finding out why we were there and where we were going, offered to give us a ride.
We sat in on two classes, one 2nd grade and one 4th grade. Although the school seemed to have a much different method of doing things then my school (at least judging from what I've heard about my school) watching the other ALT teach the kids was somewhat interesting and informative.
After that it was back to Koga (a pretty long trip) and that was about it. Today I'm supposed to meet with the Nogi board of education and get a few other things squared away then, come thursday, it's back to touring, at least for a little while.


8/27/2007 The weekend EDIT: Now With Pictures!

Silver and Kaida's special bonus comic is there for everyone who votes! And today's update is very early because I probably won't have access to the internet, or my computer for the next day or two. Regular PV strips will resume either Wednesday or Friday depending on how much time I have (if it's Friday there will be one last guest comic on Wednesday). Anyway, right now it's kinda late at night so I need to hurry. Because of that, I'm going to upload this post without pictures. I have some pictures for it, just don't have time to edit them right now, so sometime over the next few days I'll go back and add in the pictures.

Day 10 (25th): Nakano
Is was a Saturday so my dad and I went into Tokyo for services which took a pretty good chunk of the day.
That evening we decided to swing by Nakano before heading back to Koga. The Nakano part of Tokyo features a shopping arcade (which has several regular arcades in it) not far from the subway station but it's what's at the end of the arcade that's more interesting. Nakano broadway is a four story mall. There's a lot of different things for sale but the main deal here is toys and figurines. There are tons of stores dedicated to vintage toys, various anime/manga figurines, or a mix of the two. As far as the figurines go, you won't find a lot of random boxes (go to Akihabara for that) but you will find lots of opened figurines, complete sets, and the like. So if you don't want to test your luck with random boxes or just need/want a certain figure or two from a given set, this is the place to go look for it. It's also the place to find rare and out of print figurines. Plus there was a game store in the shopping arcade with some pretty good prices. I picked up the Japanese version of Phoenix Wright 3 for the DS which, like 1 and 2 (but not 4) features not only the Japanese game but the complete English US version too! I'll do a review on it eventually. Anyway, Nakano was pretty cool but there were a lot of no picture signs so I don't have any photos right now. I might try and sneak some next time I go though.

Day 11 (26th): More Adventures in Tokyo
My dad and I went to the southern part of Tokyo and rode the city's last monorail to a big horse racing track. But we weren't there for racing. A couple times a month the track hosts Tokyo's largest flea market with over 600 booths selling a huge (and very random) collection of stuff including used clothes, games, electronics, figurines, antiques, and just about everything else you can think of. It's pretty interesting to walk though and you might be able to find some pretty good deals while you're at it. Some of the things I saw were insanely cheap.
As it turns out there was a Pokémon Center (official Nintendo Pokémon store) near the monorail. But there was a huge line to get in (not sure if there was something special going on or if that's normal) so I'm going to go back another time.
After we'd finished up at the flea market, we headed to a different part of Tokyo where the Swallows baseball team plays. They're not as popular as the Tokyo Giants so it's a lot easier to get tickets. We walked around a bit and then my dad found the spot where people wait to get the players' autographs as they come to the stadium. He wanted to hang out there for a while and get some autographs so he did that and I played Phoenix Wright 3.
Eventually we went into the stadium for the game. The stadium itself was a pretty old one so nothing really fancy about it although the selection of food you could buy was certainly different than in the US. The game itself was pretty much the same although the Japanese teams had much more entusiastic fans than I've seen anywhere else. Aside from how seemingly have different songs and chants for every single player when they came up to bat (chants which everyone seemed to know), they also had guys with trumpets playing along and, naturally, a ton of team merchandise. Then there was the umbrella thing. I wasn't sure what it was at first. Turns out it's a taunt. It means something along the lines of 'the other team's pitcher is doing so bad he should get sent to the showers'.

That's all for now. Sorry it's so short but I should have gone to sleep a couple hours ago. I'll add the missing pictures with Wednesday's update at the latest (possibly sooner) ((EDIT: They're up now.)).


8/24/2007 More Job Training

Sorry about the somewhat late update. Read my stuff about Thursday and Friday (the second and third day's in today's travel log, and you'll see why). There's a new bonus comic (this one featuring forums members Silver and Kaida) and a new ROM. Oh, and about today's guest comic, yeah it looks horrible but that's kind of the point and I still found it amusing. At the moment, I'm planning for regular PV strips to resume on Wednesday although, depending on how much time I have, it might have to wait till Friday. Either way, I have enough guest comics to cover until then.

Day 7 (22nd): Orientation Day 2
So, more orientation. Yay... So, I headed back to Ujiie and got there with out anything special happening. Like the day before the other new ALTs and I listened to Grant talk for a bit first. Seems to me like he could have just put most of that stuff in an e-mail and saved us all the time and train fare. Anyway, we also did little practice presentations like we were introducing ourselves to a class. Decent practice but I was fairly well prepared for that already. After lunch I and two other ALTs had to go get a quick exam at a nearby hospital which required for everyone working in public schools (the other ALTs did it the day before). Turns out I'm perfectly healthly, which is what I was expecting.
And that was it. Walked around a little near Koga station when I got back and found another arcade which, though further from my apartment, has DDR. Oh yeah, I also got soaked when it started raining about halfway back to my apartment (Note to self: remember to keep an umbrella handy).
My dad, meanwhile, spent the day exploring Nikko, a mountain town to the north of Koga (where I'm living). Judging from what he said and the pictures he took, there's a lot of pretty fancy shrines there with lots of carvings and statues and some nice scenery too. I'll have to go there sometime (probably on a weekend) and take a look for myself.

Day 8 (23rd): Orientation Day 3
This was the first day of the two day orientation over night thing. Basically, after taking the train back to where I'd had the previous two days of orientation they drove us about 20 or 30 minutes into the country to a kids camp of sorts where we stayed until late afternoon friday. I didn't have internet while I was there (or a computer for that matter) which is why this update is late. So, I was there along with abour 20 or 30 other ALTs (assistant language teachers). Predictably enough, the day's events started with one of the typical ice breaker activities you usually have at big get togethers. We had to all go around, find out everyone's name and a bit about them to fill in a sheet. Turns out quite a lot of them were from Austrailia. Plenty of Americans too, one Canadian, a couple Brits, one from the Philippeans, one from Thailand, and one from Ghana. Not everyone was close to my age either, some people were definately in their 30s or 40s at least.
That afternoon we broke into groups and had to create short lesson plans for a certain age group on a certain subject then take turns presenting them to each other. Some of the plans were fairly entertaining and it wasn't bad practice although, since my school has a pretty detailed curriculum that they stick to I don't think I'll be creating a lot of lesson plans.
After that we tossed some balls around for a while outside (and I learned that Austrailians have their own weird version of football) then had dinner, which involved grilling things on little grills builts into a bunch of tables. After dinner I played ping-pong for a bit with some of the others. Eventually a sort of drinking party started. I stuck around a talked for a little while then ducked out since I don't drink and it gets kinda boring sitting around watching out people drink.
My dad, meanwhile, went to some parts of Tokyo that we hadn't visited yet. He mentioned this one area called Nakano that he said has a ton of figurine stores. I'll be adding that to my 'check it out myself' list. Unfortunately, he didn't take any pictures and, as for me, there wasn't really anything particularily worth taking pictures of.

Day 9 (24th): Orientation Day 4
The last day of orientation. Got up, ate breakfast, got back into our groups, then spent the next couple of hours doing a treasure hunt type of game. You know, the kind where you're given a clue which tells you where to go to find the next clue and you keep going until you reach the end. The only problem was that all the clues were in Japanese... My group didn't have any of the really good Japanese speakers but we actually did pretty good for a while. Thanks to some hard work and a bit of luck we were in second place until near the end when we got stuck on a really tricky clue that screwed up a lot of teams. We figured it out in the end but thanks to that our overall time ended up being fourth best. Whole thing took around 50 minutes. Of course, we were told that Japanese elementary school kids usually solved the course in about half that...
That was about it till lunch after which the president of the company gave a speech and we had a last little teaching activity (making short self intros in Japanese and English) which was really each for me since I'd done much more complicated Japanese intros in college.
Unfortunately, right before I left one of the Joytalk guys threw a wrench into my plans for next week, saying he wanted me to go to a school that's already in session and observe the classes for a couple days. While it could be kinda useful, I think watching one or two classes would be plenty (not one or two days). Plus the school I'll be at has its own curriculum (different from the place where I'd be watching) which is pretty detailed so I don't think I'll have any trouble figuring out what to do. Finally, after some of the other things I've done, I don't think I'll have any trouble with nerves, leading a class, or anything like that. Not to mention that's two whole days of touring with my dad that I'd lose and that this was sprung on me at the last minutes (until today I'd been told that I'd have the entire coming week, except for wednesday, free). Long story short, I did my best to talk my way out of it with the result being that that they couldn't decide if I could skip it or not so I'll have to wait and see. I could probably force it, since it was a last minute thing and not in my contract, but I don't really want to tick off my superiors right from the start.
And that was about it for the day. Well, except for me having to wait in the train station for around half an hour since the orientation ran late and I missed the train I'd take the previous days. Definately looking forward to the weekend.


8/22/2007 Moving in and Job Training

Friday's update will most likely be a little late but not more than half a day or so at most.

Day 5 (20th): Moving Into My Apartment
As most of you probably know, I didn't come to Japan just to see the sights (although part of me wishes I had). I'm here to work for seven months (beginning of September until near the end of March) as an Assistant English Teacher. Although it's a kinda freaky prospect, 7 months (or more like 8 when you count the touring I'm doing before and after) isn't all that long and it'll no doubt majorly improve my knowledge of the language and culture.
Anyway, this was the day I moved into the apartment where I'll be staying for the duration of my teaching job. First off we had to get to the apartment so my dad and I got a taxi to Ueno Station (one of Tokyo major train and subway stations). We kinda got there during the morning rush hour when tons of people pour into Tokyo from the numerous suburbs and smaller town to go to jobs, school, and the like. I'd recommend trying to avoid traveling at this time of day, although while lots of people are coming into Tokyo not many are leaving it so if you're going out it's not a bad time, crowded station aside.
We were on the train for a little over an hour before we arrived in Koga (turns out my apartment is technically in Koga, not Nogi but as the two seem to border each other I suppose it doesn't really matter). Not too long, especially if I bring a book or DS or something when I want to go to Tokyo, although having to pay 1,100+ yen per trip (one way) isn't all that great considering I'll be going to Tokyo at least once (if not twice) a week most weeks for Saturday services if nothing else. It'll definately add up over time *nudges donation bar* Anyway, a bit after arriving we got picked up by a guy from Joytalk (the company that hired me). First stop was the realtor's office to get the apartment key, after that we spent probably 40+ minutes as our guide tried to find the apartment (he even had a map leading to it), which further reinforces my opinion that Japanese addresses and the like are so messed up that even the Japanese can't find their way around.
Eventually he found the apartment building. Which, to my relief ,wasn't one of the gigantic apartment buildings that fill the towns closer to Tokyo (not sure exactly why I didn't want a building with a zillion other apartments, lots of stairs maybe?). It's in a decent looking neighborhood too. Too bad I'm stuck in a small apartment instead of one of those houses. Actually, the apartment size isn't that bad (it looks pretty good now that's everything is unpacked, I'll get a picture sooner or later), but it's certainly can't compete with my old apartment in Phoenix (not to even mention my parents' house). It's also missing a few things that you'd think would be rather obvious, at least in any American apartment. More on that another time. Anyway, the Joytalk guy helped us find out get the hot water and internet working (which I never would have been able to do myself with my current Japanese skills), and my dad and I shopped for futons (a type of bed), a bike, and lots of other neccessary items.
While not an amazing apartment, it's a pretty convenient location. I'm only around half mile from the school I'll be working at. The train station is a bit further but not that bad. And there's a shopping plaza right near by with a big grocery store, 100 yen store, a few other shops (a couple of which may come in handy from time to time), a fairly big arcade (which has some cool games but, unfortuantely, no DDR), and a kaiten zushi restaurant (a sushi restaurant where a chef makes sushi and puts it on a conveyor belt and people grab the stuff they want off the belt. We ate their that night, it's pretty good and sushi is a whole lot cheaper here than in the US. I gotta be careful with my money since I'm not going to be making a lot but I'll probably stop in every now and then.

Random Japan Comment: English
Everyone is Japan takes English for at least several years in school so you'd assume that they'd be able to speak at least a little or even be semi-fluent. Definately not the case. From my experience the average person seems to speak little to no English and often doesn't understand all that much better. Plus when talking to you, they'll usually go off in rapid Japanese, seemingly expecting you to understand it. What's with all those stories I heard about Japanese wanting to practice their English with foreigners? In general it seems more like the opposite to me. Well, I suppose it'll help my Japanese (or just leave me totally lost, that may be more likely, at least at first). My advice? If you're going to visit Japan learn some key words and phrases (asking where things are, where you are, how much something is, please, thank you, excuse me, etc.). Sometimes you can also throw some hand gestures in there to help, depending on what you're trying to say.

Day 6 (21st): Orientation Day 1
Not the most interesting day to write about but here it goes.  This was the first day of orientation/training for my job. I had to take the train for an hour or so to Ujiie. Went through a little bit of country and a whole lot of medium sized towns that, from the train, at least, look a lot like the one I'm in (ok, nothing particularily special though, and mostly a home for people who commute into the big cities for work). Missed one of my trains because, although I was on the right platform, it was a really long platform and the train stopped at the end of it furthest away from me so I didn't notice it. Fortunately, I'd left early so I just got the next train.
There were six other new ALTs are the orientation (3 from the US, 2 from the UK, and 1 from Austrailia). They seem like a nice enough bunch although since we'll all stationed in different parts of the country I kinda doubt I'll see them much, if at all, once the orientation is over. Anyway, we did our little intros and listened to Grant (the guy who originally interviewed me) talked about about himself and Joytalk (the company I'm working for). Grant also ran through a little bit about what we'd be doing at the schools, what resources were available for us on the Joytalk websites, etc. I got off a little easier than most since the school I'm at already has a full English curriculem so it looks like I'll mostly be following that and won't have to make a whole lot of new stuff. On the down side, my salary kind of sucks. I mean, I get enough to live off us and have a little left over (most, if not all, of which will probably pay for the touring I want to do on weekends) but considering that some ALTs (none of the ones in the company I'm with, although most of them get more than me) get paid about twice what I make. Guess my school is kinda cheap. Oh well, it's not like I came here for the money.
Anyway, after that we all ate lunch at a nearby restaurant (it was sorta Japanese style American food). After that Grant talked a little more and then he and I reviewed my contract (which, if you didn't know, runs from September - March after which my current plan is to tour for 2 or 3 weeks then head back to the States, although if I do well I would have an option to stay here if I really want to) and I was done for the day. Hmm... Doesn't really seem like they'll be able to fill three more days with this kind of stuff...
Didn't do a whole lot when I get back, did some work on my computer, downloaded Super Metroid on my Wii, and helped my dad with some stuff.
While I was at orientation my dad explored the town. From the sound of it, there isn't much around here worth seeing or doing but he did take some decent pictures (unlike me since pretty much all I got to see was some fairly drab buildings). First off there's this poster. Who wouldn't want a God-Cleaner? Well, me for starters. I mean, I don't really have any dirty gods lying around :-P Bad jokes aside, here's a picture from a Japanese cemetary. Since ancestor worship is a big part of the traditional Japanese Shinto religion, they tend to build really nice monuments which typically guard the bodies/ashs of many family members. Next up is another vending machine. As I said before, most machines seem to have either soft drinks or cigarettes but I've seen a few others on occasion (beer, coffee, soup, ice cream, and milk). Here's a new one. Now I know rice is practically its own food group in Japan but still isn't this pushing it a little, especially with a grocery store so close by? And finally here's the local shrine (not quite sure if it's in Nogi or Koga since the border is so close).

Random Japan Comment: Lack of Foreigners
If you live in the US, Canada, parts of Europe, etc, you're probably used to seeing a pretty diverse group of races living in the same country (caucasion, blacks, asians, mexicans, etc, etc, etc). The US is especially like this (some parts a bit more than others though) so you usually can't tell just by looking who is a foreigner and who isn't. Tourist perhaps, but foreigner not so much since so many different types of people live in the area (of course, if you heard them speaking another language or something, that would make it a bit more obvious). In Japan however, foreigners or gaijin if you want to use the local word stick out pretty blatently. Most of Japan's population is Japanese and most of the little bit left are Koreans. Put those two together and you'll see that hardly any non-asian people live in Japan. As such, it's pretty easy to spot us and recognize that we're from another country. For us, it can also be odd to only see asian people around. Sure it's not a big tourist season right now but still, onc eyou move away from the big attractions you'll hardly see any non Japanese (and even at the big attractions you'll see mostly Japanese). Nothing wrong with any of that, it just takes some getting used to if you don't do a lot of world traveling.


8/20/2007 Continued Adventures in Japan

If you haven't seen this week's bonus comic (featuring Atma) yet you just need to vote.

I decided to do today's update a bit early (ok, about a day early) just to make sure I'd be able to get it up. I'm moving into my apartment today and I can't be 100% sure that the internet there will work right off the bat. Hopefully it will but if it doesn't wednesday's update might end up delayed or canceled. Anyway, update times will probably flucuate a bit over the next week or two (although shouldn't be more than half a day or so off from the norm) and after that they should settle down to a more usual time which will probably end up being several hours earlier than they used to be. Now, onto more Japan stuff (if you haven't seen the first part of my Japan trip journal, just scroll down the page, it's in the previous news post).

Day 3 (18th): Tokyo Exploration Day 3
This was a shorter day than the last couple and, although I didn't get to see quite as much, it was nice to spend a little less time on my feet.
First off there was another earthquake in the very early morning (which when combined with the one later in the afternoon makes three or four so far). Fortunately they're all really minor ones. Hopefully they'll stay that way, or just stop entirely, that'd be even better.
That morning my dad and I walked to Tsukiji, a part of Tokyo near the bay. First we walked though a market that sold lots of seafood and the like. There was some interesting stuff but that was just a warm up for the Tsukiji Fish Market (unfortunately a lot of the pics from there got kinda blurred) which is where the fishermen sell their stuff to restaurant and shop owners and the occasional pedestrian shopper. There was all kinds of fish, crabs, eels, those things that live in seashells, and more. If it lives in ocean near Japan and its edible then it was probably there. It was kinda gross (I mean you're surrounded by tons of dead sea creatures) but kinda neat too and it was really crowded and busy.
After the fish market we went to a more relaxed location, the nearby Hama Rihyu Garden. It's a large traditional Japanese garden that used to belong to the Shogunate (think ancient royalty). It was much more relaxed, very pretty, and rather peaceful, a nice place to walk or just sit down and relax. There was also a shrine, tea house, and a big field of flowers.
Then it was back to the hotel for a little break (we'd been walking almost constantly for the last couple of days). Saw a pretty strange building on the way but that was about it. Since it was a Saturday we went to services. That friend of my dad's leads a congregation and between servies and talking to people we spent the rest of the afternoon there.
That evening we decided to visit the Ginza area. Like how Akihabara is the place to be for fans of electronics, games, and the like, Ginza is the place to be if you're looking for fancy clothes, jewelry and related items. Nautrally, it's a place for the rich and the people who want to look rich, or are at least really into high fashion. It's big, bright, and busy and has some of the largest department stores I've ever seen (which have some pretty interesting food markets on their lower floors). For me it was certainly worth a look but, since I'm not all that into clothes (especially the expensive stuff) a quick tour of the area was plenty (unlike Akihabra which I'll probably be going back to fairly often).

Random Japan Comment: Prices
Some things here are about the same price as in the US, some are cheaper, and some are more expensive. Food seems to pretty much even out (at least if you don't go to a bunch of fancy expensive restaurants) and hotel rates aren't horrible as long as you don't mind a small room and don't mind not being in one of the best locations (not a big deal with the subway system). Now some things, like clothes for example, I can't really comment on because I never really paid all that much attention to their US prices to begin with. But here's my comments on some of the things I am familiar with.
New video games seem to be priced pretty similiar to the US, although a touch more expensive ($5 or so). Games for older systems, on the other hand, and some games for newer systems are cheaper, sometimes a whole lot cheaper (too bad they're all in Japanese so I can't understand most of them, maybe I'll be good enough by the time I leave...). CDs seem to be about the same price as the US or a bit cheaper, especially the Japanese stuff that never gets released in the US (things you'd find at conventions or anime stores like J-Pop and soundtracks). Figurines are a mixed bag. The small and medium sized ones are a whole lot cheaper than I've ever seen them in anime stores or cons but the large ones are often a bit more expensive (sometimes a lot so).
And DVDs? DVDs are strange... Some are ridiculously cheap (especially old American movies) but the average new movie DVD tends to be about $5-$10 more. But that's not all that bad, it's the box sets you need to watch out for. Now, I used complain about the cost of anime boxsets in the US. I mean, when box sets of US TV shows were only costing $30-$50, it seemed rediculous to charge $100-$200 for an anime box set. Fortunately, things have improved and a lot of anime sets are now getting released in that $30-$50 range, except for a few that still get put out at $100+ (which still bugs me). But, the point of this whole thing is, after seeing the prices of DVD box sets in Japan, I don't think I'll ever complain about the US prices again. Box sets of US TV shows (stuff that costs $30-$50 back home) are going for around $120-$180 here in Japan. And you think that's bad? The anime boxsets I've seen (and these are just for single season/series box sets) are all between about $250 and $500. Yes, I'm serious. What's up with that? I mean, DVDs cost almost nothing to make and there's really no way to justify those kind of prices other than saying something like 'If people will pay that much there's no reason to sell them cheaper.' Guess I won't be buying any anime while I'm here, no matter how good my Japanese gets.
Once nice thing about shopping in Japan, the sales tax is included in the price on the tag/box/whatever so you don't need to worry about it. What you see is exactly what you pay.

Day 4 (19th): Tokyo Exploration Day 4
Once again, my dad packed a whole lot of stuff into one day. We started out going to the large Yasukuni Shrine where they have a flea market of sorts every couples of weeks. The shrine was big and had a really big gate to match. While I'm not into Shintoism in the least, some of the shrines look pretty cool and feature some really amazing woodwork. The flea market wasn't huge but there was a lot of neat old antique stuff that was interesting to look at.
Moving on, we headed way out to a western suburb of Tokyo called Shinokitazawa. The tour book said it was the hippy area, of sorts. I think that definition is a bit debatable. There were some hippie clothing shops but not a ton and there were plenty of other types of stores, include some selling traditional Japanese clothes. There was a pretty nice video game store there too... All in all, it was an ok shopping area and offered a different experience than the crowded streets and towering buildings of downtown Tokyo. Plus we got a photo of some good Engrish (if you don't know, Engrish = very poor and often humerous Japanese misuse of English) on this sign.
After that we got a little lost trying to find one place (even took the policemen with their super detailed maps like around 10 minutes to figure out where it was and that was with the adress, can't believe the tourbook didn't think to list directions...) and ended up taking a quick walk through part of Harajuku, which is the teen fashion district of sorts. There were stores for regular clothes and all the Japan teen fashions (punk, lolita, gothic lolita, etc). As previously mentioned, I'm not really into fashion but the diverse selection of clothes and all the teens walking around dressed up in lots of different ways made it worth a look.
One long subway ride later my dad and I arrived in Asakusa (yet another part of Tokyo). Once there we found a roofed in shopping arcade. While the selection wasn't quite as interesting to look at as in places like Ameya-Yokocho, there were a lot of very affordable clothes and other things and it seems like a pretty good place to get gifts and/or suvineers. While walking through the arcade, we stumbled accross the massive Asakusa Shrine. There must have been some sorta of local festival going on because the shrine was packed with visitors coming to pay, tie papers to strings, burn inscense, and the like. Some of the women were even wearing kimonos. While we were there, we also stopped for lunch at one of the many small Japanese restaurants in the arcade. This was actually the first time I'd gone to a Japanese restaurant since coming here (ate at a Korean place twice and an Indian place once, plus my dad isn't big on eating out a whole lot on trips (unless he's in Phoenix)). After we'd finished exploring the shrine area and arcade, we took a quick look at a section of Asakusa that sells lots of kitchenware and also lots of plastic food (both individual items and readymade plates plus some keychains the like). It's actually something like an art form. More on what that's for in the following Random Japan Comment.
Once we'd finished up in Asakusa my dad decided to head back to the hotel and rest. I was still ok so I decided to head back to Akihabara for a little while. First off I went back in that giant department store I visited my first time in Akihabra and gave it a much more thurough look through. Turns out it was Yadobashi Camera (a pretty famous Japanese electronics location) and man did they have a lot of figurines (and everything else for that matter). They even had rows and rows of the gumball dispenser figurines (random figurine sets you get out of gumball like machines for between 100 and 300 yen each). Once I finished there I went into a couple others stores I'd been wanting to check out and spent a while exploring them. Sunday isn't a bad time to visit Akihabara. It's a bit more crowded than the weekdays but roads are blocked to traffic, which is nice. No matter what day you go, you'll probably see some costumed girls handing out flyers for various nearby shops and cafes. You might also see some people dressed up or cosplaying just for the heck of it. Although some of them probably shouldn't...

Random Japan Comment: Restaurants
Eating out in Tokyo isn't all that hard and, if you go to the right places, can be really cheap (or really expensive if you want it to be). There don't seem to be many big restaurants (at least not that I've seen so far) but there's tons of littles places tucked into small spots along just about every street. Naturally Japanese food dominates but I've also seen Korean, Indian, Thai, Italian, and American. Just don't expect the staff to speak English. If you're in the right part of town you might find a place with and English menu but don't count on it. Fortunately, it's usually not a big deal if you can't read the menu. Right outside most restaurants or in their front windows you'll typically find either a picture menu or collection of plastic food which represents the various dishes served at the restaurant. From what I've heard and my own limited experience what you get seems to match the plastic food pretty closely. The displays might also include pricing and numbers (so you can tell the person inside you want #23 or whatever). Anyway, the displays make for a handy way to check what's being served in each restaurant without actually have to go in and look at a menu plus they made it a lot easier for non Japanese speaking people to order.


8/17/2007 Josiah Arrives in Japan

And, as I hoped, there is an update today! It's the first guest comic. There's also a new bonus comic, this one featuring Atma who won the Best Gamer award on the forums. And a new ROM is up.
There will hopefully be an update monday but since I'm moving into my new apartment on monday I can't be sure. There is supposed to be internet in the apartment but, of course, can't really be sure if it'll work until I get there and try it. So I'll update monday if I can, if not I'll update as soon as my internet is working again. At the moment, updates will continue to be on Mon, Wed, and Fri although actual update times may end up being at least several hours earlier or later than they used to be.
Also, now that I'm in Japan, these news posts will be used for a sort of travel log of my time here (complete with photos). So for the next few weeks I'll probably be talking mostly about Japan. Eventually I'll probably have less to say on the subject and some posts will return to the usual comments on various topics and game reviews but for now, it's all about Japan so let's get started. Since this is the first one and I have several days of stuff to cover this is a really long post. I'll be dividing it into days and at the end of each day there'll be a little about some part of Japanese culture / visiting Japan / or the like.

Day 1 (14th-15th): Traveling and Arrival
I had to get up at around 4 AM to get to the airport. My dad came with me to tour Japan and help me get settled. We flew out of Phoenix (cause it was cheaper), switched planes in San Francisco, then flew straight to Narita airport in Japan. The flight was long but actually a bit shorter than I thought it would be (something like 10 hours). Planes aren't the most comfortable things in the world (unless you want to spend a ton of money to fly first class) but I'm pretty good at keeping myself entertained so I had a book and my GBA, DS, and PSP handy.
After landing in Narita we had to go through customs. There was a really long line but the actual customs part was really quick and a lot less work than I had expected. After that we were met by a guy my dad knows (a friend of a friend that my dad has been exchanging e-mails with). He helped us get on the train to Tokyo. See, even through Narita is the Tokyo airport, it's actually quite aways away from Tokyo proper. Fortunately, there's a train station right in Narita. And, although sitting for another hour or so wasn't exactly what I wanted to do, at least the train had more leg room than the plane and I got to see some of the country side and suburbs along the way.
Eventually we got to Tokyo and took a cab to our hotel. Here's our room. The picture doesn't adequetly display just how small it is. If you take a US hotel room and knock out 1/3 - 1/2 of it, that's about the size of this room. Overall though it really wasn't that bad. The hotel is nice enough and the room works even if it is cramped.
After that my dad's friend took us on a short walk around the nearby area then took us to his restaurant (a Korean place right by out hotel) for dinner. It was different than most of the Korean food I've had before but good. That was about it for the night. After all, we'd been up around 24+ hours straight.

Random Japan Comment: Vending Machines
If you think your home town has a lot of vending machines, you've clearly never been to Japan. In Tokyo you'd have a pretty hard time walking more than a block or two without seeing at least one or two vending machines. Most are pretty standard but there's some fancy ones too (saw one with a TV in it). I've heard that there's vending machines for just about everything but most of the ones I've seen so far are drinks and cigerettes. Speaking of drinks, there's some pretty weird named ones. Notice Pocari Sweat, Calpis (if you don't get what's weird about that say it out lot a couple times), and Energy Squash. Japanese people seem to like English but they often use it pretty poorly.

Day 2 (16th): Tokyo Exploration Day 1
My dad woke me up at 4:30 AM thanks to jet lag. See, if I'm tired I can sleep no matter what time it is, him not so much. And when he can't sleep usually no one else gets to sleep either, at least on trips. On the bright side, that meant I was awake in time to experience my first earthquake. Yes I'm serious. Not exactly something that was very high on my to do list... Fortunately it was really mild (although we could feel the building shake) and it didn't last very long. Didn't even phase me. Hmm... Maybe I've been on too many thrill rides... Anyway, hopefull that won't ever happen again.
Since we were up, we decided to walk around the city a bit. Of course it was way too early for anything to be open (we were going to go to the Tsukiji fish market but it was closed cause of a holiday) but we did see some famous landmarks like Tokyo Station, and the Imperial Palace. Well, the area around it anyway, you can't get very close to the palace itself. Here's a shot of me in front of the moat. The streets were pretty empty but considering how early in the morning it was and that it was also a holiday, it's not too surprising. And, if you're into random images, here's an amusing sign my dad spotted while we were walking.
After a while we headed back to the hotel and ate breakfast before going back out.
Now, getting around Tokyo is really easy...sometimes. At least it's easy if you're going to a general area or a famous landmark. More specific addresses, not so much but I'll talk about that later. Anyway, it didn't take us long to figure out the subway system. Tokyo has great subways. They're fairly easy to navigate and a whole lot cleaner and quieter than the NY ones. Anyway, there's stations all over the place and if you've seen one you've pretty much seen them all. The subways themselves are fairly comfortable although they can be pretty crowded at times (the rings hanging from the ceiling are for standing riders to hold on to). I've heard that it gets insanely packed at certain times of the day (as in so packed you can barely move), fortunately the ones I rode on so far ranged from pretty empty to fairly full. The only annoying parts, at least for me, are that each station has multiple exits so it can be easy to go to a familiar station, leave by the wrong exit, and get totally turned around. Plus, in some stations you have to walk really far to get to the train, especially if you're changing lines. I have a feeling I could walk through most of Tokyo just by going through the subway stations without getting on the trains...
Anyway, my dad and I went to Ueno. One of the major train/subway stations is there. There's also a pretty large park which we walked though. The park had a couple of shrines in it. Actually, there's shrines all over the place if you look. Anyway, here's my dad in front of the red gate path leading to a shrine and here's a really big shrine. Shrines are made of wood and some are really old. The park also had small zoo with had pandas, red pandas, and Japanese monkies, along with all the typical zoo animals. There was a neat old pagooda too. But what my dad really liked was the plants they had by the lake. I think they're Butterbur, isn't that the name of those plants that Korropokkur (a type of Japanese fairy) live under in legends or did I get it mixed up with another plant? Anyway, they're pretty tall and have neat flowers that dry into these things, which you might have seen before.
After the park we walked around in Ameya Yoko-cho, a part of Ueno with streets that are closed to cars so people can walk through a whole bunch of stores. You could find nearly everything there but there was quite a lot of clothes, jewelry, and food in particular. It's pretty big and fun to walk through, a lot more than the US equivalents (at least in my opinion). While I was there I also took a look at my first Japanese game store. It wasn't all that big of a store (just a bookstore that had games on one floor) but it was pretty impressive. Aside from stuff like how many Japanese games never reach the states and the ones that do usually have different covers (plus stuff often gets released in Japan way before anywhere else), the selection was really good and they even had a lot of games for old systems like the NES (Famicom in Japan) and Saturn, what's more they were in their original boxes and in perfect condition, something you just don't see in the US.
By then it was time for lunch and, since my dad's friend had invited us to come back to his restaurant for lunch, we headed there and had lunch with him then he took us to Akihabara. Now a lot of you anime/manga/game fans out there have probably heard of Akihabara. It's Tokyo's electronics district and the place to go for anything anime/manga/game related plus pretty much anything electronic (cameras, computer parts, and about everything else that can be plugged in or uses batteries). In a word, it's awesome and totally overwhelming if you're a fan. It's also very crowded and there's tons of stores since most of the buildings either have stores on every floor or stores that span several floors. Since my dad's friend was there, we didn't get to stay too long but we walked around a little outside and explored what has got to be the world's largest department store. There was a video game section (that you can only see part of in this pic) that, while it didn't have all the old stuff some stores did, had a huge selection of newer games. You never realize just how many games (and game accessories) never get released outside of Japan unless you visit Akihabara. Then there was the section with the figurines... And man did they have a lot of figurines. Even the entire vendor area at a huge convention like Otakcon or Anime West would have a tough time competing with that number of figurines in that store. I'll have to get a picture of that part sometime... I would have bought some but I don't want to buy much until after I move into my apartment. Since I didn't see a whole lot of Akihabra outside of that store until the following day I'll talk more about it in the part for that day.
Finally, my dad and I headed to the part of the city where Tokyo Tower is and walked around a little before heading to the tower itself. Tokyo Tower is based off the Eifel Tower but it's even taller and you get can some great views from the top, especially at night when all the lights are on (for all you anime fans out there, I think the giant ferriswheel in that last picture is the same one they show in one of the Inuyasha ending themes).

Random Japan Comment: August
If you ever want to visit Japan don't do it in August. Sure it's off season so there's not a lot of tourists (at least not in the Tokyo area) but it's hot and really muggy. Sure it's nowhere near as hot as it is in Phoenix so the heat itself doesn't bother me much but heat + very high humidity isn't all that great. I'd rather have it 20 degrees hotter in a dry heat any day. In that line, I should probably try not to get a job in the east coast area when I go back to the US... Anyway, I now know why there's so many vending machines. When it's this muggy you need all those drinks!

Day 3 (17th): Tokyo Exploration Day 2
I actually got to sleep till 6! Ok so that's not so great but it's sure an improvement compared to the last couple of days. This time my dad and I stayed in the hotel until after breakfast. Speaking of the hotel, it's kinda weird to walk into on a hot day. First you enter the nice air conditioned lobby, which feels great. Then you walk through it into the hot unairconditioned elevator which you take to your equally unairconditioned floor. Then you enter your room which finally has air conditioning again. I guess they save money that way, annoying though.
Anyway, after breakfast we went to Yayogi Park. Which is a really big park that's made for walking, biking, jogging, and sitting in. And not a whole lot else since pretty much any type of game you'd normally play in a park (ball games, frisbees, etc) isn't allowed. There's some pretty nice parts of the park, and a couple giant paintings that seem rather out of place, but there's also parts where a lot of homeless people live. On the up side, they seem cleaner and better organized that the homless I've seen in the US. The park was full of cicadas, a type of insect. You could hear them everywhere (kinda like the sounds crickets make). Didn't see any, but you could see their shells here and there on plants and trees (when they get old enough they break out of their shells and emerge with wings).
When we were done in the park we walked through some parts of the Shibuya and Roppongi areas trying to find a sports card store that my dad wanted to go to. It was a pretty nice part of the city and there were some neat buildings scattered around. Japan has some pretty interesting architecture in places. Long story short, we had a lot of trouble finding it (more about the process of finding stuff in the following Random Japan Comment) and, in the end, I think the store we found was a different one but my dad found some cards he wanted anyway so it all worked out.
Next we went to check out the Tokyo Dome area (if you think we're doing a ridiculous amount of stuff in just a couple of days, that's just the way my dad is when he makes the sightseeing plans on trips). The Tokyo Dome is where one of Japan's baseball teams plays but there's also a whole complex there with shops, restaurants, and rides. The main reason my dad wanted to go there was to see the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame since he and my brother are big baseball fans and autograph collectors (which is why we went to a card store earlier) but we also walked around a little and got some lunch then went to Ueno and looked around in some parts of the Ameya Yoko-cho that we hadn't seen the previous day.
Our last stop for the day was back in Akihabara since we didn't get to spend all that much time there the day before. Got a much better look around this time although with so many awesome stores I could probably spend a couple days and a small fortune (or a large fortune, or several large fortunes) wondering around there. As I said before, if you have any interest in anime/manga/video games, or electronics of any kind it's an amazing place to be in. Some stuff is more expensive than it is in the US and some is cheaper with the differences ranging from a little to a whole lot but you just can't beat the selection. Looking for a certain figurine, a really rare video game, hard to find DVD, or just some computer accessories? Trust me, there'll be there somewhere. One place I really liked was a store that specialized in old video games. Although the games were all in Japanese which limits which I could play (both because of languages and system region lockouts) it was still cool seeing so many rare and old games sitting there in perfect condition. Plus they had a whole bunch of video game soundtracks so I got a couple I'd been wanting.
And that was it, spent most of the rest of the day writing this huge post.

Random Japan Comment: Finding Places
Finding your way around Tokyo is really easy as long as you're just looking for general areas and well known land marks. Finding specific addresses or smaller places isn't so easy. For one thing, there aren't many road signs. In the US we've got signs at every corner and intersection no matter the size. In Japan all the intersections have their own names (which are fairly easy to spot) but that doesn't help you a whole lot. Street signs, which aren't up above the traffic lights (that's the intersection name) are pretty uncommon, especially on smaller roads. Although, since none of the Tokyo maps I've gotten in the US (or Japan for that matter) list names for anything other than the biggest roads, more signs might not have helped a whole lot. The next problem involves the way Japanese buildings are numbered (which only matters if you know the exact address of the place you're trying to find). I'm not gonna explane the whole thing now but suffice it to say that it doens't make much sense. Then there's the very handy map boards that dot the city (big signs with a map of the local area). They're great...Except for one thing. See, in the US the top of a map almost always points North. Simple, right? In Japan just about every map seems to point a different direction. I've yet to notice any real consistency. One map may be pointing North but the one a few blocks away North is probably pointing a different way entirely, effectively rotating the entire map. Of course, with some patience and careful examination you can still figure out those maps but it's a pain.
Now, you could always ask a local how to get to wherever it is you're going but, even if you can get past the language barrier, it may not help much. Although the Japanese people I've asked for directions have all been friendly and helpful there's a pretty good chance that they won't know how to get where you're going either. Seriously. Sure they know where the big stuff is but aside from that there's been times when the natives seem to know less about where we are and where to go than I do.

And that's all for now. Hopefully I'll see you monday with somewhat shorter post.


8/13/2007 Now celebrating four years of pokémon fun

Friday's special bonus comic (featuring Opal aka Celebifly) is up and all you need to do to see it is vote. Remember, there will be no update on Wednesday because of my trip to Japan. If all goes well I'll be in my apartment and have a working internet connection in time for friday's update. However, I can't be sure that everything will go that smoothly so it's possible that I won't be able to get online for a while. Anyway, check back on friday and if there's no update try again on monday, I'll be back online and updating as soon as I can.
Speaking of friday's update (or whenever the next update is), it will be one of the winners of the recent guest comic contest. The contest winners will run for a week or two (depending on how long it takes me to get settled) and then regular updates will resume.

Saturday marked the fourth anniversary of Pebble Version. Wasn't able to do an extra update then so I'll talk about it now. You know, when I first started Pebble Version I would have thought that, after four years and over 600 strips, Brendan and May would be a bit further along on their journey. But looking back, I'm pretty happy with how the story has progressed. I've covered nearly everything I wanted to so far (a couple of things got skipped because I forgot about them and some others are getting saved for later in the comic) and introduced (well sorta) a lot of the mystery characters who will be playing a pretty important roll in the story later on when I begin to depart more from the game's storyline. Sure I did some filler strips from time to time and stretched out some bits that I could have done in less strips but I think most of them turned out pretty funny and in a comic like this that's what really matters.
Overall I think they has been a pretty good year for Pebble Version. Everything went pretty smoothly (aside from a handful of glitches when I first moved to the host), PV got a new host and more bandwidth to accomadate all the new readers, the forums picked up a lot of great new members, and the site itself got streamlined a bit (aat least on my end). Not to mention that I figured out some nice graphical tweaks for the comics themselves. And, thanks to a some very generous fans, I think this was the best year for donations as well.
As always, I've got to thank you guys, the fans. Not that Pebble Version isn't fun to make but it's you guys that make it worthwhile. I always love hearing from fans and I'm glad you guys like my little comic. I'd also like to thank all the forum members. Can't believe that, back in the early days of the comic, I didn't even want to have forums. Now I'd say that they're my favorite PV related thing. Making comics is fun and all but meeting and hanging out with people on the forums is really great.
So, once again, thanks to all the Pebble Version fans out there, whether you've been reading for all four years or just started recently, you guys are great. Enjoy year five!


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.