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8/10/2011 My new apartment

It took a bit longer than I thought it would, but I finally got my new apartment all set up. I was originally planning to take a bit of time yesterday to walk around and photograph my apartment complex and the little town I'm living in but it was raining way too hard for that (I got soaked most of the way through just running between my apartment and the laundry room (all of 60 seconds away) so, after I finished arranging the last of the stuff in my apartment, I went into Gainesville for a bit and checked out the mall and a few other stores (trying to find the best places to shop for various items).
I'll get some pictures of the complex and town when I can (hopefully later this week), but for now here's a few pics of my new apartment. The living room came out pretty well thanks to the cheap couch I found. Kinda wish I'd brought my old IKEA TV stand down here, but this one works well enough. The kitchen isn't bad either (though I'm going to miss the ridiculous amount of counter space I had at my family's condo in Phoenix). You can see the dining room in the back. I decided to save a bit of money and just get a folding table and a couple chairs instead of a full dinette set. It would have only been around $80 more, but I don't know if I'll ever really need a full sized table and a bunch of chairs here anyway. Moving on, there's a laundry room off the kitchen but, unlike in Phoenix, apartments here rarely include a washer and dryer. There's a hookup, in case I want to buy or rent them, but I decided to try using the complex's laundry room instead (the only problem is getting enough quarters) so I'm just using that room for storage right now (empty boxes mainly, so I'll be all set next time I move). There's a den of sorts, which I'm using as a combination office and music room. It's been a while since I practiced piano regularly but I'm hoping to start up again once I get into my routine here. Finally, there's the bedroom. It's a bit sparsely furnished right now since a lot of the things I'd normally put inside are in the den instead. There's also a walk-in closet, which you can't see in the photo, and a fairly nice (though a little strangely designed) bathroom.
All in all, it's a pretty nice apartment in a pretty nice complex. It's more or less equivalent to the apartments I lived in when getting my Bachelor's and Master's degrees and it is, of course, a million times better than either of my Japan apartments. It's a couple of steps below the condo I just moved from though.

And that's about it for now. I'm still hoping to get to the beach at some point this week, but the weather is looking pretty iffy so we'll see what happens.


8/8/2011 Moving in

I made it to Florida and got into my apartment without any serious problems. I've been running around like crazy for the last couple of days shopping and unpacking. Not done yet, but I'm hoping to finish today. That way I can take Tuesday to explore and take some photos (check back later in the week for those), at least assuming that it isn't raining, which has been happening fairly often (though never for very long). Other than that, I'm thinking I'll spend at least one day this week just taking it easy make one a beach day (weather dependent). I'm kinda tempted to go to a water park too, but that would be a pretty long drive and I've already done a ton of driving over the last few days so I might hold off on that for a little while.

Anyway, I'll have photos of my new place and the surrounding area up soon and will probably get some Ink updates going again starting next week. And, that's about it for now so I'll see you later!


8/5/2011 Almost there

There's a new special voter bonus comic featuring forum member Poisonwing14. There's a new ROM too.

Sorry about the guest comic. I thought I'd gotten all of this week's comics done before I left but it seems I didn't quite get today's finished. This should be the only one (I'll try and catch up on PV strips over the weekend). Anyway, if all goes well I should arrive at my new apartment early this afternoon, which should leave me enough time to get the internet hooked up (and get a few other important things done). I'll try and get some photos of my place and the surroundings up next week. For now though, I should get some sleep.

See you Monday (hopefully)!


8/3/2011 I'm off

Well, I'm off to Florida. Pebble Version will hopefully update normally but Friday and Monday's updates are a little iffy depending on my internet situation. I'm planning to get back to regular Ink updates once I'm settled in too, though that could be a week or two.

On a completely different note, I just watched the pilot of ABC's new reality show Take the Money and Run. Basically a couple of people get a briefcase with $100,000 and have an hour to drive around and hide it somewhere. They then get taken in by some police detectives who have 48 hours to try and find the case using the contestants' driving route, cell phone logs, and whatever info they can get through interrogation. It's an interesting idea and, in this episode, the detectives won because one of the guys broke down and told them where it was. I really don't get it. I know these policemen are professionals and trained in interrogation and all that, but there's a strict 48 hour time limit and the police can't physically torture anyone or anything like that. Seems like the best strategy would be to just clam up, stay silent, and tough it out until time runs out. It's only for two days. Would that be so hard? I wouldn't think so, but I've never been in that kind of situation so I can't say for certain.

Well, anyway, I've got a very long drive ahead so I'd better get going. Later!


8/1/2011 Preparing to move...again

How many times have I moved this year? Let's see here... I moved to Japan then back to Colorado then to Arizona... That'll make this the fourth time. Ugh... Well, at least once this move is finished that should be it until at least next summer. Though I'll be going to Florida in the middle of hurricane season. I was already in Japan for one of the biggest earthquakes in recent history and then I was in Phoenix for that massive dust storm (which really wasn't all that dangerous or damaging, especially compared to the Japan quake and tsunami, but this area doesn't really have any more serious natural disasters) so it wouldn't be too surprising if some big hurricane hits while I'm in Florida. Hopefully that won't happen, but the way this year has been going so far...

I finished all the address switching and the like last week. I got around 90% of my packing done yesterday. Today I'm going to do the rest (well, all except a few things which I'll be using up until I leave) and then give this place a good cleaning. Tuesday is for more cleaning (if I don't get it all done today) and loading up my car.

Anyway, back to work for me.


7/29/2011 Just a few more days...

There's a new special bonus comic (featuring forum member Doodleshark) for everyone who votes! There's a new ROM too.

If all goes according to plan, I'll be heading off to Florida on Wednesday. I'm looking at a good three days of driving. Fortunately, I'll have my massive music collection along with a couple of audio books to keep me occupied. Pebble Version will update normally on Monday and Wednesday. Friday is a bit iffy, depending on whether or not I have decent internet access at the hotel I stay at Thursday night. Monday of the following week (August 8th) isn't a sure thing either. I already got an account set up for cable internet at my new apartment but I need to go into the local Cox office to finalize things. They're closed over the weekend, so if I don't arrive early enough that Friday, I may not have internet until the middle of Monday, so the update might be a bit late.

In other news, my hand is healing nicely (I can type just fine now). I'm saving the packing and cleaning for next week (shouldn't take more than a solid day or two of work) so I've been alternating between doing some assorted errands and tasks in preparations for my move (shopping, trip planning, etc) and paying final visits to my favorite shops and restaurants. Well, final for now anyway. I wouldn't mind moving back to Phoenix at some point in the future if I get the chance. Though, if I can pick my location, Tokyo would be pretty tempting as well, at least for another year or two so I could get my Japanese to the level I'd like it to be.

But that's not something to be thinking about right now. See you Monday!


7/27/2011 Trouble typing

I've had a little lump on the back up my hand for something like a year and a half. Not really sure why but, aside from looking a little odd, it was only a minor annoyance. Anyway, I finally got it removed. The whole thing wasn't a big deal but my left hand is wrapped up fairly tightly at the moment which makes it difficulty to type so I'm gonna keep this short. I'll have the bandages off later today (which should give me back full use of my hand) and the stitches out next week right before I move to Florida. I'll write more on Friday when I can type normally.


7/25/2011 Getting ready

And now back to your regularly scheduled gym battle.

I've got a big list of things to do before my move to Florida but most of the real work (packing, cleaning, etc) is going to wait until early next week. For now, I'm focusing more on doing some errands and catching up on various things. Right now, for example, I'm busy getting caught up on Pebble Version strips so that I hopefully won't have to resort to guest comics doing my move. If all goes according to plan, I'll have that done a bit later today, but only if I get right back to work. Look for some more substantial news posts later this week.


7/22/2011 Heading home

There's a new special voters' bonus comic today, featuring forum members Shauni and Metalheadz, so click the Top Web Comics banner or button and take a look.

Well, I'm heading back to Arizona today. It'll be nice to be home...for all of one and a half or two weeks until I move back here to Florida. I'll most likely be staying in Florida for at least nine months but after that, who knows? I may stay in Florida for a while longer or I may be heading back to Colorado, Arizona, Japan, or somewhere else entirely. While there are some advantages to getting to live lots of different places, this will be my fourth move this year alone. I'd kinda like to just settle down in one of my favorite areas for a while and save the new places for vacations.

Anyway, with all the apartment searching done, my dad and I spent Friday checking out the major attractions in Gainesville (the nearest city to where I'll be living). First up, Devil's Millhopper. It's a really large sinkhole, though by now the whole thing is filled with trees, vines, and the like. There's a walkway going all the way to the bottom and it's a nice little jungle-esque hike, though it's only really recognizable as a sink hole because the rest of the area is so flat. In a hillier part of the country, it'd be pretty hard to pick out. Next up, the Museum of Natural History. The museum itself wasn't bad (they had a decent amount of fossils on display and a rather large section devoted to Florida's Indian tribes) but the big draw is the butterfly house, which is far and away the best one I've ever seen. Not only was there a huge variety of butterflies, but they were everywhere, making it really easy to get a good look (and some good photos). And it wasn't just butterflies. They also had the world's largest species of moth. You might not be able to tell just from the photo, but that guy was around 8 inches across. And, according to one of the workers, that's on the small side. We also swung by the botanical gardens, which were fairly nice (though not quite on the same level as the Dallas Arboretum (which I visited last week) or some of the gardens I saw in Japan earlier this year). This is the time of year at the gardens for lily pads, including this giant variety from the Amazon. We walked around Gainesville a little bit too but I'll save pictures of the city itself, my apartment, workplace, and the like for after I move down here.
My dad and I didn't do anything too spectacular yesterday, but we did stop by Amelia Island, which has a really nice beach. I got in the water for a bit (great temperature and decent waves), saw a dolphin (its dorsal fin anyway), and found a sand dollar, so that was fun. I'll definitely do the occasional beach day once I'm settled in down here (though probably at a closer beach).

Regular PV strips will resume on Monday. Have a great weekend!


7/20/2011 Getting things done

We've got another guest comic today. I've got internet for now though I'll be changing hotels again tomorrow so there's a chance I may have to skip Friday's update depending on what the internet access there is like.

I've gotten a lot done over the last couple of days, including finding an apartment and finishing a bunch of paperwork at my future work place. Since that got taken care of quicker than I though, that leaves a couple of days to explore before heading back to Arizona, though not for long. Hard to believe I'll be moving down here in just a few weeks and starting work in a little less than a month. I'm going to miss a lot of things from Arizona. I've still got a couple friends who live in the area, there's lots of shops and restaurants I love, and my place there is awesome and within easy walking distance of tons of stuff. But living here isn't looking too bad. I found a pretty nice apartment complex and there's a pretty good selection of shops and restaurants within a reasonable driving distance (there's a handful of stuff I can walk to as well, though nothing compared to my place in Arizona). I'll talk about the area and my new job and post some pics next month after the move. I've got mixed feelings about the whole thing but having a full time job will be nice and the whole thing could be fun (especially since I've got the beach and Orlando within driving distance, at least on my days off). Besides, my initial contract is for nine months so, just in case things don't work out or I get an amazing job offer from somewhere else, I'm not locked in for too long. Hopefully everything will work out well here but it's nice knowing that, come spring, I'll be able to re-evaluate things.


7/18/2011 Guest Comic

If you haven't seen Friday's special voters' bonus comic yet (featuring Silver), just click the Top Web Comics banner or button and take a look.

Well, the first part of my trip is over. Today I'm off to northern Florida to look for a suitable apartment. Hopefully the new hotel will have internet so I can keep updating as usual, but if I miss Wednesday or Friday's update, that's why. Anyway, you may have noticed that we have a guest comic today. With all this traveling, I haven't had a lot of time to work on PV strips. Will regular strips resume later this week? Possibly. Just depends how busy I end up being in Florida. Fortunately, I've got a couple more good guest comics saved up just in case. We'll get back to the battle with Norman on Monday at the latest.


7/15/2011 Late night

There's a new voters' bonus comic and it marks the start of the yearly special series featuring the winners of the Pebble Version Forum Awards. There's a new ROM too.

That conference my family is attending started last night and it ran kind of late so I don't really have time to write much right now (at least not if I want to get any sleep). The comics will probably update normally on Monday (I should have internet access) so I'll see you then!


7/13/2011 Welcome to Texas

Well, I made it to Texas without any problem. This isn't my first time in Texas, though it's my first time in the Dallas area. My brother and parents are here too (well, actually my brother lives here now since he's going to chiropractic school nearby) and we'll be going to a conference. Though that doesn't start till later this week so I've got a day or two to relax first. I'm staying in a nice hotel here, though internet access is $15 a day.
With all the traveling I've done, I've stayed at a ton of different hotels and I've noticed something. Note that the following applies primarily to hotels in the US. Other countries are a bit different. Anyway, as a general rule the fancier and more expensive the hotel, the fewer TV stations you get and the more you have to pay for internet. Telephone calls cost more as well but seriously, who uses hotel phones now that everyone has cellphones? If you don't believe me, check it out next time you're looking for a hotel. Your fancy expensive places will charge $10 - $20 a day for internet and you'll be lucky if you get more than six or seven TV stations. Meanwhile, cheaper hotels like Super 8 and Holiday Inn will usually give you free internet and 30-50 cable channels. Does this make any logical sense? Not really. I suppose the rationalization is that the people who stay at fancier hotels have money to spare so why add in a few extra charges?

Anyway, internet may be over priced (my monthly broadband bill is lower than what it's going to cost for several days here) but I've got it, so Friday and Monday's PV update should be on schedule (more or less). Wednesday and Friday next week, however, are still up in the air since I'll be at a different hotel then.


7/11/2011 On a trip

If you haven't seen Friday's bonus comic yet, you can always vote and check it out.

Starting tomorrow, I'm going on a trip. First it's off to Texas where I'll be going to a conference with my family. Then, after that, my dad and I are heading to Florida for a few days to scout out the area near where I'll be working and hopefully find a decent place for me to live. I'll be back late next week although after that I'll only have a week and a half or so before I actually move. Sigh... It seems I never get to stay in Phoenix for as long as I'd like to...
Anyway, I'm planning to update Pebble Version normally while I'm gone though, since I can't be sure what kind of internet access I'll have, there's always a chance that some updates may be a little early/late, or (worst case) skipped entirely.

See you Wednesday (I hope).


7/8/2011 Mind reading

There's a new voters' bonus comic up for everyone who votes (use the Top Web comics banner or button) and a new ROM.

Ink: Lord Alzen Lesheer's Moment of Power
Lord Lesheer's moment of power is Window to the Mind. It allows him to look into the minds of others and learn the deepest fears and desires, along with their darkest secrets. He uses the things he learns to manipulate others for his own ends. He has become so skilled in this that others don't even realize they're being manipulated.

Designer's Comments:
I always intended Alzen to be a skilled manipulator. His moment of power, combined with his intelligence, had to be the key to his success. The question was what type of moment of power would best suit him. For a while, I considered giving him a geass like ability so he could directly control others' minds. But, in the end, I decided that was a bit too easy. Anyone can control others with a power like that. But it takes a truly clever person to skillfully manipulate others with only a bit of extra knowledge.
While you might be thinking that his moment of power is similar to Talina's, they actually differ quite a bit. Talina's power gives her a quick overview of those around her (their general power, skills, and personality) but doesn't let her actually read anyone's thoughts or memories. Alzen's, on the other hand, gives him access to the target's mind. With enough time and effort he can delve fairly deeply into their thoughts and memories but a quick scan is enough for him to see the strongest presences in their mind (generally their greatest hopes and fears, most important secrets, and current feelings).
So how does this work in battle? I have some ideas but I'm not going into that right now. Alzen obviously isn't going to join up with Josiah and the others so he's not playable. He might end up being a boss, but when it comes down to it, he really isn't a fighter. He's the kind of guy who would manipulate others to fight for him rather than doing so himself. So he may not ever have a reason to use his powers in battle.


7/6/2011 Planning

After several weeks of delays due to job stuff, I'm finally back to writing Aurora's Nightmare. At least for now. Chances are I'm going to miss another week or two here and there over the next month or two with all the stuff that's going on. On the one hand, I suppose it's good that I have all this job stuff to prepare for. On the other hand, I kinda wish I could have just had the entire summer free to dedicate to Aurora's Nightmare and Car Washer instead...

I've been doing some Ink planning as well. Mainly story details, some of which should be revealed pretty soon. But not tonight. The reason? Well, after finishing all my other tasks for the day I sat down to play a bit of Persona 3 and I just had a really hard time stopping. At first, I was just planning to finish this section of the main dungeon where I left off last time. But, after doing so, I realized that I had several weeks (game time) in which I really didn't need to worry about dungeon crawling and could focus entirely on improving the hero's stats and his relationships with other characters. I got really caught up trying to max out his charm and heavily advance a couple of his relationships. I kept wanting to play just one more day to see if that next bit of training or another date would do it... Gee, if I get this hooked on a RPG with some social elements, I should probably avoid full on dating sims... Not that any of the really good ones get released in English, but that's a different subject entirely.

See you Friday!


7/4/2011 Too many adventures?

Happy Independence Day (or 4th of July, if you prefer)!!! Or, if you're not in the US, happy whatever. I'm looking forward to hanging out with some friends and the watching the fireworks later today.

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of the Pokémon Adventures manga (known as Pokémon Special in Japan). If you're not familiar with Pokémon Adventures, it loosely follows the plot of the games and is, by far, the best take on the Pokémon universe. When it comes down to it, the Pokémon games have never really been known for their stories or characters (other than the pokémon themselves). While there are lots of little tweaks and improvements in every new set of Pokémon games, if you've played one you've kinda played them all, especially when it comes to the story. You're always a young boy or girl who gets a pokédex from the local professor and goes off on a quest to fill it up while fighting eight gym leaders so you can take on the Pokémon League's Elite 4 and champion. Along the way you'll battle against your rival (either a helpful friend or a total jerk) and thwart the plans of an evil team who wants to use pokémon to take over the world somehow. Gamefreak has tried to improve their stories (Pokémon Coliseum and Black/White stick out in that regard) but they still don't have much depth. The anime does a bit better but it's kinda kiddy and rarely gets more intense than Jessie, James, and Meowth coming up with yet another poorly conceived plan to capture Ash's pikachu (and or some other pokémon that happens to be hanging around). Adventures takes things much further. The bad guys are a lot more evil (and competent) and there's more of them (for example, the original Elite 4 and a lot of the gym leaders are actually bad guys), battles are intense, trainers are targeted as often as their pokémon, and pokémon can even be killed in battle. If you're a Pokémon fan, it's an absolute must read and it's worth a try even if you're not.
Anyway, I've talked about Pokémon Adventures before so why bring it up again? I was walking by Barnes and Noble earlier today and realized that I hadn't gotten the latest volume yet so I stopped in to pick it up and discovered that Viz has gone and made things a bit more complicated for Pokémon Adventures fans. See, when Pokémon Adventures was first released in the US, they stopped after volume 7 (the end of the Yellow arc), despite the fact that the series was still going in Japan. A few years later they released two books called The Best of Pokémon Adventures Red and Yellow, which were majorly abbreviated versions of the first two story arcs. They should be avoided, since trying to cram 7 books into two is never a good idea
Finally, a couple of years back, they started re-releasing volumes 1 - 7 and then continued on, with a new volume coming out every couple of months. 13 (the one I was looking for), which just came out last month, is in the middle of the Gold/Silver/Crystal arc. But it seems that Viz didn't want to wait for the series to catch up the newer Pokémon games. And instead of just releasing new volumes really quickly (like they did in the past with Naruto and One Piece), they decided to try something different. New Pokémon Adventures volumes will keep releasing on the same schedule, hopefully not only for the rest of the Gold/Silver/Crystal arc but on through Ruby/Sapphire, FireRed/LeafGreen, and Emerald. In the meantime, however, they've also started releasing the Diamond/Pearl and Platinum arcs under the title Pokémon Adventures Diamond and Pearl and Platinum. They're starting the numbering over from volume 1 (the first volume should actually be Pokémon Adventures 30). Note that this is not to be confused with the completely unrelated manga series Pokémon Diamond and Pearl Adventures, no matter how annoying similiar the titles are.
If that wasn't confusing enough, they decided to start releasing the brand new Black/White arc as well. Just to be annoying, they restarted the numbering again and changed the title to Pokémon Black and White. Not sure why they dropped the Adventures part of the title, especially since, if you read the back of the book, it says that it's part of the Pokémon Adventures series. But wait, there's more! For some unknown reason, they broke the first volume of the Black and White into two half length volumes. On the bright side, they're only $5 each instead of the usual $8, but that's still an extra $2 total and, when it comes down to it, it's easier to have one regular book than two little ones. Not sure if they're going to continue the mini book format with volume 3 or not.
Anyway, I love Pokémon Adventures and it's nice that they're trying to translate it faster but seriously, couldn't they have just released two or three volumes a month until they caught up instead of chopping it up like this? And what's going to happen to the HeartGold/SoulSilver arc (which comes between D/P/P and B/W)? The whole thing is needlessly complicated...


7/1/2011 A villain

There's a new voters' bonus comic up so click the Top Web Comics banner or button and take a look.

This has been a kind of strange week. An odd mix of fun stuff and stressful stuff. I'm really looking forward to the weekend, especially since Monday is Independence Day (or the 4th of July). It's always been one of my favorite holidays and I'm looking forward to having some fun and enjoying the fireworks. For now though, let's see about that Ink update...

Ink Character Profile: Lord Alzen Lesheer
Gender: Male
Height: 6' 3"
Build: Athletic
Age: 36
Hair: Black; short, perfectly combed
Eyes: Green
Right Handed
Weapon: Sword
Clothing: Wears fancy expensive clothes befitting a lord. Always impeccably dressed
Background: Alzen became head of the Lesheer family at the age of 16 after his father and eldest brother died of illness. Under his direction, the Lesheer family's wealth and influence rose rapidly. After years of services to the crown, Alzen became the king's most trusted advisor. It's rumored that he is the one who truly rules the kingdom behind the scenes. He's smart, cunning, and an expert at winning the trust of those around him. He is also one of the kingdom's foremost experts on moments of power, though he keeps the results of his research closely guarded.

Designer's Comments (7/1/2011):
Alzen Lesheer is everything a main villain should be. Powerful, smart, ruthless... He's also a bit on the generic side, at least on the surface. I created him specifically to fill the role the story's main villain needed to play. He needs armies to pursue Jessie and Ralin and that requires money and power. He needs to know a lot about moment of power. And, of course, he needs to be evil and relentless. Most importantly, he needs to play a certain role in Josiah's story. The details of that role, however, are a bit vague.
As I explained in other areas, Josiah has been having a lot of trouble writing this story. He's been struggling with writer's block and many elements of the plot are a bit more generic than he'd like. Alzen is one of them. While he makes a decent villain as is, Josiah always intended for there to be more to him. A shocking backstory, a terrible secret... Something to surprise readers and make him stand out as a truly great villain. The problem is, Josiah never was able to figure out exactly what that crucial element was. When he was pulled into the world of Ink, Alzen Lesheer's character remained annoying incomplete. And, like so many other characters, Josiah's appearance in the world affects his ultimate role and fate in unexpected ways...


6/29/2011 Back in action

I spent Monday afternoon rebuilding my comic buffer so I'm all caught up now! I'm planning an Ink update for Friday. In the meantime, I had a request to talk a bit about what I've been up to lately. First off, I've been spending a decent bit of time doing homework for the two classes I'm auditing (Advanced 3D Modeling and C#). However, I'm thinking that it's about time I take advantage of the fact that I'm auditing them (and therefor not getting a grade) and start slacking off. They're eating up a lot of time that I could be spending on more important things (such preparing for my move and working on Aurora's Nightmare). I was more or less balancing the school work with my other projects before, but now that I have to prepare for my move and new job, I need to free up some time if I want to keep working on Aurora's Nightmare at any sort of decent pace. Besides, I'll be leaving Arizona before the classes are complete and I'll be missing some more in mid July since I'm going to a conference and then paying an early visit to Florida to look for an apartment.

So what's all this moving prep I keep talking about? Well, I don't need to pack yet. And, for that matter, most of my stuff is back in Colorado so it's not going to take me more than a day or so to pack what I have here. But there's other things to do (some shopping, researching the area I'll be moving to, making sure my car is in good condition, etc). Fortunately, I think I'm about done with all of that for now. But I still need to start planning the courses I'm going to be teaching (remember, my new job will be teaching game design at Florida Gateway College). The college sent me some information about the structure of their game program yesterday and I spent a decent part of the afternoon reviewing it and writing up a list of questions and comments. It's just a 24 credit certificate program right now (not a full degree or anything), but since they're only just starting out it's looking like there's quite a lot of planning and prep work that needs to be done. Some of that could wait until the start of the semester but certain things really need to get done ASAP. Besides, I'll have teaching, grading, and the like to worry about once the semester actually starts, so the more course prep I get done now the better. I probably shouldn't talk too much about the program right now, especially since so much of it has yet to be set in stone, but I'll try and give you an overview later on.

And, of course, since I won't be in Arizona for that much longer and will probably be fairly busy once my job starts, I'm trying to get some fun stuff done as well (hanging out with friends, visiting favorite restaurants, etc). Not that I've devoting a ton of time to any of that, but a bit here and there makes for a nice break from work and I don't know when I'll get the chance to come back here. Maybe next summer at the earliest, but it could be a lot longer depending on how various things turn out.

Well, for now, I'm off. See you Friday!


6/27/2011 Staying ahead

Ugh, I barely got today's PV strip done in time. I run through my buffer earlier this month due to that Alabama trip and other job related things and, despite that week of guest comics, I still haven't managed to rebuild it. I was hoping to do so over the weekend but that didn't go so well... Hopefully this week. Or the weekend at the latest, since it's a holiday weekend and all. That reminds me, I should figure out what I want to do for the 4th... I had been toying with the idea of going to Anime Expo but that didn't really work out. Maybe I can get a Munchkin game together. Or, if everyone is busy (quite possible since as I don't have many friends who still live in Phoenix), I can always have a video game or anime marathon and then go watch the fireworks.

Well, anyway, I've got work to do. Look for Ink updates to resume as soon as I get my comic buffer rebuilt. Later!


6/24/2011 Virtual time management

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

I don't have a lot of time to write a news post today but it's actually not because of anything work related this time (I did finish my projects today later than planned due to some computer problems). I started playing Persona 3 FES a few weeks back. It's my first Persona game and I'm really enjoying it. It's part standard Japanese RPG, part monster training game, and part social sim. See, the hero is a high school student and time management becomes a pretty big issue. Should you spend your afternoon hanging out with friends to boost your social links (which is turn lets you create stronger monsters) or performing various tasks to boost your stats and other skills? Then again, if you don't spend enough time exploring Tartarus (the game's main dungeon) and fighting monsters you won't be strong enough to advance the story. And, of course, you really should leave some time for studying...
I'm finding managing my time in game a lot more fun than doing so in real life (probably because in real life I can't set aside time for dungeon exploration and monster fighting). While it hasn't sucked me in as much as some games have (though I'm not all that far in, so it might eventually), it's kind of hard to put down since I keep wanting to do just one more day of game time so I can further my relationship with a certain character or try and boost my character's bravery or academics just a little higher...

But anyway, I've got a bunch of real world tasks I should probably attend to so I'll see you on Monday!


6/22/2011 A new job

As previously mentioned, I've been interviewing for a few different jobs lately. I was kind of hoping to stay in Arizona for a while (I like the area and my family has an awesome condo here) but it looks like I'll be leaving in early August. I haven't signed the papers yet so I suppose it's not 100% locked in, but it's looking like, come fall, I'll be teaching game design at Florida Gateway College. They're just starting a game program so it's not going to be a full bachelor's degree, at least not yet, and I'll be the only game design instructor. I'm planning to stay here in Arizona until early August, though I'm hoping to take a quick trip down there sometime in July to check out the area and find a good place to live.
The job itself is a nine month contract starting in mid August (the start of fall semester) and go until early May (the end of spring semester). After that, it will all depend on how popular the program is, whether or not the college administration likes me, and how much I like the job and the area. Seems like a fairly good length for a trial period and I should still have a decent amount of time to work on my own projects as well.
Speaking of which, Car Washer has a programmer and is back under way. With a little luck, it will could be out in late summer or early fall. Unfortunately, I think I'll going to have to push back the release window for Aurora's Nightmare a bit. I haven't been able to get much work done on it over the last couple of weeks (mostly do to interviews and other job search related stuff) and while I should be able to throw myself back into it in a day or two, various work related things (looking for an apartment, planning my courses, moving, etc) will slow things down a bit and that's before the job itself even starts. I was originally hoping to have AN finished in late August or early September but now I'm thinking that it will probably be sometime in the winter (hopefully before the end of the year). I'll be sure to keep you guys posted.

That's all for now. As always, keep an eye on this space for updates.


6/20/2011 More art

If you haven't seen Friday's bonus comic yet, you can click the Top Web Comics banner or button to check it out.

If all goes according to plan, today is the day that I'll be making a decision regarding my next job. Look for more information later this week. In the meantime, here's a little more concept art from Aurora's Nightmare (drawn by Judy Chiang). Presenting young versions of Ars, Tia, and Aurora.

Unfortunately, that's it for now. Job stuff aside, I've got a lot to get done today (I'm still behind on PV strips and have some work to do on Car Washer as well) so I've got to get back to it.

See you Wednesday!


6/17/2011 Back again

I literally just got back from Alabama. The trip went well but I'll save the details for later (probably sometime next week) once I've figured out which (if any) of the jobs I'm currently looking at to settle on. In the meantime, here's another guest comic. We've also got a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM.



6/15/2011 A quick trip

As I mentioned on Monday, I'm heading off to Alabama today for a job interview. I don't want to go into detail right now but it seems like I have a pretty good shot at both this job and one in Florida and there's a possibility of a job here in Arizona too. It's looking like, one way or another, I'll have everything figured out early next week so I'll explain what all has been going on come Monday or Wednesday once I know which job (if any) I'm going to end up with. I have my preferences, but I'm not going to get into that right now either. Whatever happens, I'm rather looking forward to having the whole thing over and done with. I'll probably be staying in Arizona for a while either way (all three jobs start in the fall) and the contracts are all either for 9 months or a year, with the chance to renew if things are going well, so I'd be able to get a good feel for the job and location without being tied down for too long just in case something doesn't work out (not expecting that to happen, but you never know).

Once everything has been decided, I should have more time as well (at least for the next month or two), which means more Ink updates here and, more importantly, more time for me to spend on Aurora's Nightmare. Between all this job stuff, my parents' visit, and a couple other things, I just haven't had much time to spend on it for the past week and half, which is especially annoying since I was just starting to get into the flow of things.

Anyway, I've got to get some sleep before my flight. Pebble Version should update normally on Friday so long as my return flight isn't delayed so I'll hopefully see you then.


6/13/2011 Another busy week

As I previously mentioned, this week is pretty busy for me. First off, my parents are visiting and on Saturday night we went to see a Weird Al concert in Tucson. The concert was pretty similar to the one I went to last year (if you want to search through the old news, you can find a bunch of pictures and video clips) but still a lot of fun. Then last night there was a going away party for some friends of mine who are moving to Oregon. Today I just have a whole lot to get done, but then Wednesday and most of Thursday I'll be in Alabama for a job interview. With all this coming after last week (which was also pretty busy), I'm afraid that I'll have to resort to guest comics for a few days. But don't worry, I've got a few good ones stashed away...

See you Wednesday!


6/10/2011 Late!

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

Good news is, I'm feeling a lot better than I was a couple days ago. Bad news is that I'm running really late so I don't have time for an Ink update. Sorry, this week has been kinda crazy and, unfortunately, it's looking like next week won't be much better. Things should probably calm down after that though, at least for while.



6/8/2011 So tired...

In retrospect, I probably should have planned not to update today. But I forgot and didn't announce anything about skipping a day so I decided I really should get a comic up. But that's about for today. It's Shavuout (which is why I wasn't going to update) plus I've had a lot of late nights recently (for all sorts of different reasons) and I'm completely exhaused so I'm actually doing something I almost never do and going to bed early. See you Friday!


6/6/2011 Aurora!

Remember to click the Top Web Comics banner or buttton to vote if you want to see Friday's bonus comic!

For a couple of different reasons, I don't really have time to write much of anything right now. So instead, here's some early concept art of Aurora, a character from my upcoming visual novel, Aurora's Nightmare. Like the others, it was drawn by Judy Chiang.



6/3/2011 This and that

There's a new bonus comic for everyone who votes! New ROM too.

What started out as a rather peaceful day ended up turning rather busy so I don't have time to write much of anything. I'll have some more about Aurora's Nightmare (and probably some more Ink) next week though.



6/1/2011 A moment of power

Let's get right to Jackson's moment of power.

Ink - Moments of Power:
MoP: Life Force
Duration: 1 Turns
Recharge: ??
Description: While Life Force is active, Jackson's attack and magic commands are replaced with two new abilities, Healing Force and Death Force. Healing Force targets a single party member. Said party member is revived (if they are unconscious), their HP is fully restored, all negative statuses are removed, and they regenerate 10% of their maximum HP each turn for their next five turns. Jackson cannot use Healing Force on himself. Death Force targets a single enemy. Normal enemies (all enemies that are not bosses or part of certain story battles) are instantly killed. Other enemies take damage equivalent to a critical hit full combo attack that ignores defense.

Designer's Comments (6/1/2011):
Jackson's moment of power allows him to see and manipulate the energy running through a person's body. While working as a doctor, he used it to save people who were beyond help. When on the run, he was forced to use to kill. Finding out about the dark side of his power troubled him greatly and made him reluctant to use it. I actually came up with Life Force before doing much work on Jackson himself and then designed the character around the power.
Life Force is extremely powerful, acting as either the ultimate healing technique or the ultimate offensive strike. Because of this, it has a very short duration and a long recharge. Based on play testing, I might consider raising the duration to 2 Turns instead of 1, but it's important to keep players from abusing it or the game balance will be seriously thrown off.


5/30/2011 Interesting things in Arizona

I have the Travel Channel on as I'm writing this. Apparently Chandler Arizona (a part of greater Phoenix) has an annual ostrich festival that includes ostrich races (with riders, like in the Prince of Persia movie). Wish I'd heard about it sooner. Unfortunately, it's in March so I missed it. But if I'm still here next year I'm totally going. Seems there's also a place with a massive wind tunnel that lets you simulate sky diving indoors. It's a bit expensive but that would be really cool so I'm going to have to look into it...

Anyway, I was out late with some friends plus I'm running a bit behind on PV strips at the moment so I've got to cut things short today. See you Wednesday!


5/27/2011 Back to Ink

There's a new Blooper Reel comic for everyone who votes! New ROM too.

I said I'd start updating Ink again so let's get things going with a new character profile.

Ink Character Profile: Jackson Riggs
Gender: Male
Height: 6'1"
Build: Fit but haggard
Age: 43
Hair: Dirty blond with streaks of gray; medium length, rather untidy
Eyes: Dark Green
Right Handed
Weapon: Knife
Clothing: Peasants clothes, on the nice side but very old and worn. He also wears a ragged cloak.
Background: A doctor who never wanted anything more than to help others. He worked hard and started his own practice in the city where he grew up. One day, his best friend was horribly injured in a fire. Jackson did his best to save him but he knew that there was little he could do. Just as he was about to give into despair, he felt a strange power growing inside him. He used this power to save his friend and many others who seemed to be beyond hope. He never told anyone the reason for his miraculous skills and, for a while, all was well. But then strange people began to visit his clinic and press him for information about his powers. At first, he pretended not to know what they were talking about and sent them away. A week later a group of soldiers broke down his door with orders for his arrest. Scared and confused, Jackson tried to escape. It was then he discovered that his powers could be used not only to heal, but to kill. In a way, that terrified him even more than the soldiers. On the run from the soldiers and scared of his powers, Jackson began his life as a fugitive. After years alone and on the run, he encounters a strange group of travelers...

Designer's Comments (5/27/2011):
Jackson is a character I only recently created. I wanted a character who was older and more experienced than the the other members of the group. I started with that basic goal, came up with a moment of power I liked, and then went from there.
Josiah's original intention was for Jackson to act as something of a mentor to the rest of the group. As with everyone else though, Josiah's presence changes things. He doesn't believe he can learn anything from a character he created yet Jackson does have things to teach him, and things to learn from him as well. Their relationship is a strange one that changes many times throughout the course of the game.

That's all for now. I'll continue next week with Jackson's moment of power.


5/25/2011 Aurora's Nightmare

It's finally time to announce my new project! I'm still working to get Car Washer finished soon but at this point I don't really have much to do for it other than recruiting and managing a new programmer to finish up the code so I've started work on a new game! Even better, this one requires absolutely no programming so there's no danger of it getting repeatedly delayed like Car Washer. My goal is to have it finished by the end of the summer, or possibly sometime in the fall if the work ends up taking me a bit longer than planned. The only thing that could delay it longer than that is if I end up getting a full time job before it's finished. If it does come to that, I'll still be working hard to finish as soon as possible. But enough about that. I'm sure what you really want to know is what the heck this game is...

I'm pleased to announce that I'm making a visual novel! If you don't know what a visual novel is, you can read all about them in the final entry of my second Japan travelogue. Long story short, they're sort of like those old Choose Your Own Adventure books but with stories as long and deep as in regular novels. In addition to the text (note the "novel" part of the name) they're fully illustrated and have music and sound effects as well. I'm planning to make a web site for it in a month or two and I may even release a demo at some point but, in the meantime, here's some early info to get you interested...

If you haven't guessed yet, the title is Aurora's Nightmare. It's a fantasy / suspense story set in Lucerna, a world inhabited by a race of winged humans known as Angellus. For those of you who know a bit about visual novels, the basic structure will be similar to that of Type Moon games such as Fate/Stay Night and Tsukihime. For those of you who have no idea what that means, there's going to be several main story paths, quite a lot of decision points, and a whole bunch of endings (good and bad). Here's a bit of early concept art for two of the main characters (drawn by the talented Judy Chiang) and, finally, here's a sneak peak at the prologue.

So this is how it ends...
Even now, as the world crumbles and dissolves around me, thoughts of you fill my mind.
I loved you ever since we were children... But it was more than that. You were everything to me.
My love, my friend, my light... My very reason for life itself.
As we grew and the years passed, through every up and down, there was never any doubt in my mind that we would be together forever.
Yet, here I am...alone...
There are so many emotions within me. Shock, sadness, anger, loneliness, despair...
But, most of all, I'm numb.
It's all too much. I don't know what I should feel. Without you, I'm not even sure who I am...
I keep wondering if there was something I could have done, a different choice I could have made... I'd give anything to try again, to have a single chance to save you.
Just one miracle... Is that too much to ask?
But they're called miracles because they don't happen. I know that better than anyone else...
There's no future. For you, or me, or anyone in this world.
I'm the only one left, and in a few more moments I too will fade into the darkness...
It makes me wonder...
The years we spent together... Those precious irreplaceable times...
Were you ever really mine? Or was it all nothing but a dream?

That's all for now. Expect more information here and there throughout the summer.


5/23/2011 Out late...

Remember to vote to see Friday's Blooper Reel comic!

So, I believe I promised either an announcement or an Ink update today. And I was totally ready to do either one... But some friends invited me over to join in a tabletop game and I got back rather late so I need to hurry this up so I can get some sleep. Barring other unforseen interruptions, I'll be announcing my new project on Wednesday and resuming Ink updates on Friday. Sorry for the slight delay but this was kinda a last minute thing. It was fun though, even if my character nearly got killed by the first monster. Now that I think about that, the last time I played a tabletop game my character nearly got killed early on too. Hope that doesn't become a habit...

Anyway, big announcement on Wednesday so I'll see you then!


5/20/2011 Almost ready...

There's a new voters' bonus comic! Just click the Top Web Comics banner or button to check it out.

Unfortunately, I don't have an Ink update ready. On the up side, I did manage to look over all the things I've done for Ink so far. I just didn't have the time to write anything new after doing so. So Ink updates really should resume next week (I know I've been saying that for a while but now that I actually finished reading everything I'm pretty much read to go). I'm also almost ready to announce my new project. Got my text all ready and I have the first piece of concept art too. Just waiting until I have another piece of art or two to go with it so hopefully it'll be really soon.

And that's all for now. Look for either an Ink update or my big announcement on Monday!


5/18/2011 Remembering a club

There's a new ROM!

It looks like the anime club at UAT (my old university) is no more. Which is too bad, as long as I'm back in Arizona, I was hoping to start attending again. The club started right after I first began attending UAT and I rarely missed a meeting. When I returned to UAT to get my Master's, the club was still going strong and, once again, I was a regular attendee. It's been less than a year and a half since I last left but in that time it seems that the old members have all graduated or moved away and, strangely there aren't any new members to replace them. I wonder why. It can't be that no new UAT students like anime. Maybe they just think that there's no need for a club since they can always watch stuff on their own. While that's technically true, it's a poor attitude to take. I often end up watching a couple episodes of some show or another nearly every day (often while working on Pebble Version), but anime club was still a highlight of my week. For one thing, it's always great to meet people with similar interests. And we had a lot of fun tossing out theories and comments about whatever we happened to be watching (it got a bit like Mystery Science Theater at times). But the greatest thing about anime club was how much it expanded my anime viewing horizons. Since everyone brought in different anime, we always had a really diverse selection to choose from. Thanks to anime club, I was introduced to a lot of amazing shows that, due to their subject matter, I normally never would have given a chance (such as Yakitate Japan, Kalaido Star, and Beck, just to name a few). Now I'm willing to give just about any anime a shot, regardless of the genre or subject. Because of that, not only do I have a lot more great shows to watch, but my own storytelling skills have grown and expanded as well. If new UAT students can't see the benefits of getting together, meeting new people, and trying out shows that they might not normally watch...well, it's their loss. And to Matt, Mark, Strawberry, Keegan, Dan, and the rest of the old anime club regulars, thanks for everything! My time at UAT wouldn't have been nearly as much fun without you.


5/16/2011 Ugh...

I had a nice relaxing weekend and I hope everyone else did as well. Unfortunately, at the moment I've got a bit of a headache, which really isn't very conductive to writing much of anything. Still planning an Ink post later this week, but right now I'm a bit too out of it. See you Wednesday!


5/13/2011 Still working hard

There's a new bonus comic up for everyone who votes using the Top Web Comics banner or button. With Metal's special mini-series finished, we're back to regular Pebble Version Blooper Reel strips for now.

I've been doing a lot of different stuff this week. For starters, I ran a few more moving related errands and started auditing two classes at UAT (my old university). If you're curious, I'm auditing advanced modeling and beginning C#. I took some modeling classes back when I was getting my BA. They were kind of fun and I wasn't bad at it. But that a whole degree of its own and pro-level 3D modeling programs (even student editions) are ridiculously expensive so I haven't done any modeling for several years. As a result, I'm way out of practice and the major 3D programs have both seen several new versions released. I'm sure I'll get caught up sooner or later but, in the mean time, I'm glad I'm not getting graded. As for C#... I tried to learn programing a long time ago and, while I was learning, I really hated it so I'm not looking forward to this, but being able to do a bit of work in C# could come in pretty handy in the future. I also had a job interview, did some prep work for another interview (which is coming up on Monday), and met up with some of my friends who are still in the area. Then there was the work I did on my own projects. I completed the last bit of sprite work for Car Washer (which should be out pretty soon if I can find a new programmer to finish up the code) and started work on my new project. Speaking of said new project, I'll be officially announcing it soon. I could do it right now...but I'd rather wait a little longer until I have something to show you, instead of just talking about it. I know I said that I'd be restarting Ink soon too, and I still plan to do so. I just haven't found the time to review everything yet, which I really need to do before starting it up again. But now that all that other stuff has been taken care of, I should have more free time starting Monday or Tuesday so I'm hoping to make a new Ink post sometime next week.

See you Monday!


5/11/2011 Shopping

Been a busy week so far. Part of that is because I'm trying to get a lot done, but between a few more things related to my move, preparing for an upcoming job interview, and some miscellaneous stuff, things have been a bit busier than I'd planned. It should all settle down in a few more days (unless some new stuff comes up), but at the moment I'm a little burnt out from running around so much.

I picked up a CD/DVD wallet the other day to hold some discs I'm making. I figured it would take up less space then a whole bunch of plastic cases and be cheaper as well. Figuring that a CD wallet is a CD wallet, I just got the cheapest one of the correct size and shape. It didn't take me long to remember why buying the cheapest whatever often isn't a good idea. The zipper snapped off almost immediately and I had to tear the tops off of half the sleeves so I could actually put discs in them. Normally I tend to pay a bit more for things to be sure I get decent quality, but I guess I'm still in Japan mode where even the items in the 100 Yen stores are high quality. Gotta remember that, here in the US, you tend to get what you pay for...


5/9/2011 Coming soon...

My new project is starting off a bit more quickly than I thought it would. That's a good thing! And it means I'll be able to tell all of your what it is a bit sooner (possibly later this week). The only disadvantage is, because things started a bit sooner than I was expecting, I had to spend a lot of time yesterday working on some stuff for it and didn't really have any time left over to write anything special for this news post. But I'm sure you won't mind a short news post or two when you hear what I've been up too... And, in the meantime, I should be getting into my routine soon and then I'll have plenty of time for these news posts so just be patient for a little longer.



5/6/2011 Back in Arizona...again

The final strip of Metal's mini-series is up! Just click the Top Web Comics banner or button to take a look. There's a new ROM too!

I made in to Arizona without any problems and have been busy getting settled in. At this point I'm pretty much done rearranging things and unpacking, but I still have a couple of shopping trips I need to make before I'm totally done. Hoping to finish up today so I can totally focus on other things next week. I should have a big announcement coming in the next week or two and I'm hoping to start up Ink soon as well, so I'll see you Monday!


5/4/2011 Moving out

As I mentioned on Monday, I'm moving back to Arizona. In fact, I'm heading there today. I've spent enough time there that I'm almost as at home as I am here in Colorado, so it should be a pretty simple move, but I'll likely have a couple of busy days as I drive down there and get settled in. Pebble Version updates won't be affected and next week, once I get into my planned work routine, I may even have time to start doing Ink updates again.

Not sure how long I'll be staying in Arizona. If one of the jobs I'm persuing pans out, it could be for as little as a week or two. If not, I could be there for the entire summer or longer. It all depends on a combination of my job search, the success of Car Washer (which I'm hoping will be finished and up for sale soon) and my new game project (which I'll talk about more in a couple of weeks), and what I end up doing as a backup in case none of the aforementioned things go as well as I hope. I may end up in Arizona for quite a while or I may need to relocate to somewhere else in the US. There's even a few possible outcomes that would lead to me returning to Japan for a couple of years (or more) so we'll just see what happens. Right now though, I have to focus on the move...

See you Friday!


5/2/2011 Commentary's revenge

It's a new month so please use the Top Web Comics banner or button to vote for Pebble Version. You'll be able to see the latest voters' bonus comic while you're at it. As promised, I finished the rest of the current batch of commentary, namely strips 151 - 160.

I still owe you guys a couple chapters of ROM the Novel, but it may be a while since I'm probably going to be moving back to Arizona later this week and, if I don't, it will most likely be because I got a good job offer somewhere else and will have to move there. Fortunately, moving to Arizona is pretty simple. My family has a condo and I know the area really well since I lived nearby when getting both of my degrees. On top of that, since I've been moving so much over the last few years, most of my stuff is already boxed up anyway. So it's really just a matter of packing a few other things, loading up my car, and driving down there. While it would be nice if I got one of the jobs I applied to, I wouldn't mind spending the summer in Arizona. I've got plans for a fun and productive way to spend the time which includes auditing a couple of university classes, looking for a publisher for my novels, finishing Car Washer (though there isn't much for me to do at this point other than find a new programmer to finish things up), and working on an all new project (look for more details later this month).

Whatever happens, this will probably be a rather busy week but Pebble Version updates shouldn't be affected so I'll see you Wednesday!


4/29/2011 More commentary

Part 3 of Metalheadz special bonus comic series is up so click on the Top Web Comics banner or button to take a look. There's a new ROM as well. But wait! That's not all! I've also got the commentary done for strips 146 - 150. I'm planning to get the rest (up through 160) done in time for Monday's update so I'll see you then!


4/27/2011 Commentary time

The first part of that new set of commentary is up. So far I've posted new commentary for strips 141 - 145, and I'm hoping to have the rest (up through 160) done no later than Monday.


4/25/2011 Holiday!

Today is the last day of Passover and normally a day on which I wouldn't update the comic. However, since I forgot about it and didn't announce anything about skipping a day before hand, I figured that I should get everything done early and update anyway. That didn't leave me with much time to write this news post, but I did start on the strip commentary I owe you, which should be going up later this week, so you've got that to look forward to.

See you Wednesday!


4/22/2011 Donations extra content

The next part of the special bonus comic mini-series, featuring forum member Metalheadz, is up so click the Top Web Comics banner or button to take a look!

On the down side, today's news post is going to be rather short. On the bright side, the reason for that is that I finished Part 9 of Josiah's Sprite Comic Guide, so it's not like you have nothing to read. As a note, the guide will conclude with Part 10, which only needs another $10 worth of donations. I do have a new donation bonus planned for when the sprite comic guide is complete...but that'll stay secret for a little while. If you look at the donation bar, you'll see that it passed the $25 mark. That means there'll be commentary on another batch of old strips coming up soon (it should start next week). There will be a new ROM The Novel chapter as well (several of them, actually), but that could take a while.

See you Monday!


4/20/2011 Catching up

It's Passover (a Jewish holiday)! Passover is one of my favorite holidays, and I had a great seder (service) last night. Unfortunately, all the preparation left me a little bit behind on other things, including PV strips. I barely got today's done on time. So, no time to write anything here. I'm hoping to have either an Ink post of that sprite comic guide installment I owe you ready for Friday though, so I'll see you then!


4/18/2011 Fight, fight, fight

If you haven't seen Friday's special bonus comic, all you need to do is click the Top Web Comics banner or button.

Sunday is my bonus day in Dissidia Duo Decim so I spend a lot of time playing yesterday. Maybe a little too much (I totally forgot about some things I'd been going to work on)... What I don't get is why a lot of the reviews I've seen for it lately are rather negative. The camera still gets stuck once in a while in the indoor battlefields, but other than that it improves on the original Dissidia in every way. It even includes an improved version of the original Dissida's story mode in addition to the new ones. If you haven't played the first Dissidia, it's a 3D action / fighting game mash up of Final Fantasy heroes and villians. The action is pretty fast but still has a lot of strategy and RPG elements. Duo Decim is a prequal story with more characters and a greatly improved story mode (though the plot still isn't up to FF standards). It's easier to get EXP and items this time around too.
They made some pretty good choices when adding new characters, filling in most of the standard FF character types that were missing from the first game. Kain (FFIV's dragoon, complete with long spear and jump attack), Vahn (who is a sort of jack of all trades melee fighter), and Laguna (a mid to long range gun user) are cool though not really my style. But I do love Lightning (who has all three of her main paradigms) and Tifa (who can cancel or delay pretty much all her attacks mid combo to throw off the opponent). And, even though she's not the type of character I usually play, I'm having a lot of fun with Yuna as well (she summons monsters to do all her attacking for her).

But anyway, I'll try and get back to work on Ink, or a certain other project idea I'm toying with later this week. Though with passover starting tonight, I'm not entirely sure how much free time I'll have. See you Wednesday!


11/15/2011 New Games

There's a new voter bonus comic (just click the Top Web Comics banner or button to check it out). Today's is the start of a special mini-series featuring forum member Metalheadz, who won second place in this year's King of the Forums Contest. There's a new ROM too.

I've finally started playing both Pokémon Black and Dissidia 012 Duo Decim. Normally I would have started them right after they came out but I had some other things that took precedence after I got back from Japan. So far I haven't had a whole lot of time to devote to either one, but they have some nice improvements over the previous versions. Here my early impressions of Pokémon Black.

The new graphics are cool, though towns still have too few buildings (and some of them still have no doors). The battle animations are a huge improvement as well...though still a bit behind the times compared to most of your other DS RPGs. The soundtrack is good and the music quality is the best yet. Unfortunately, most of the sound effects still sound exactly the same way they did way back in the original Pokémon Red/Blue on the Gameboy. Would it kill Game Freak to record some news ones? As far as the gameplay itself goes... If you're played one main series Pokémon game you've kinda played them all but they do change things up a bit this time. You now have two rivals and seem to fight them both pretty frequently. Actually, the whole game seems to start out faster. You get your starting pokémon almost immediately and are given your pokédex and first set of pokéballs before you even leave town (no need to run an errand first). Though, annoyingly, you still have to play for a little while before getting the running shoes. The new evil team shows up very early in the game as well and they have an interesting PETA like goal. Knowing Game Freak, I'm not expecting the plot to get too deep or serious (that's what I read the Pokémon Adventure manga for), but at least they're trying. I also noticed that TMs now have unlimited uses just like HMs, which is convenient. Finally, it seems like wild pokémon in the starting areas are a lot stronger than in past games. Or maybe I just got a starter will really bad DEF... Anyway, Black's off to a pretty good start and I'm looking forward to playing more and catching up with my friends. Though it's too bad that they dropped some of the special features from HeartGold/SoulSilver, like pokémon walking and the pokéwalker.

Well, that's it for now. I'll talk more about Black after I've gotten a bit further in. Have a good weekend!


4/13/2011 Karate

When I'm in Colorado, it's great to go to karate class. I've been studying seibukan shorin ryu karate for a bit over 14 years at this point. I spent all but the first year at the same dojo, which is where I still attend. Though, of course, my attendance has been spotty over the last few years due to all the time I've spent in Arizona and Japan. Last year was the first time in quite a while that I was able to attend classes for more than a week or two at a time. I took advantage of that extra practice to test for my 3rd degree black belt (a rank that, from what I've heard, only 1% of karate students ever reach). And, even though I was only in Japan for two and a half months this time, it's been great to be attending classes again. I really lucked out with the dojo here. It's the largest seibukan dojo in the country and probably the best as well. It's been around for something like 36 years and our teacher is not only incredibly skills (you should see all the trophies he has), he's also a really great guy. We have a lot of fun classes, but he also takes karate very seriously (much more seriously than the teachers at a lot of the schools I've seen), and I always learn a lot, even when we're just reviewing kata and techniques I've known for years. When it comes to martial arts, nothing is ever perfect, you just keep improving a little bit here and there as you study and practice, and I don't plan to stop any time soon.

I guess that's about it for now. See you Friday!


4/11/2011 What was it?

Remember to click the Top Web Comics banner or button if you want to see Friday's bonus comic

And, um, yeah... I know I had something I was going to write about today but my mind went blank the moment I opened my web editor and I can't for the life of me remember what it was... Man that's annoying. Well, anyway, I'm going to try and get the next part of Josiah's Sprite Comic Guide done later this week and I guess that's about it since I still haven't remembered what I wanted to write about (despite wasting a lot of time trying). Hopefully I'll think of it before Wednesday.


4/8/2011 A matter of time

There's a new voter bonus comic and a new ROM!

You know, I would have though that I'd have more free time here in the US as opposed to Japan, since I'm not working 9 hours days with an hour long commute each way. And I sorta do... Except that at my Japan job I tended to have a good bit of down time each day which I could devote to studying Japanese, writing my travelogue entries, and the like. Here, however, if I'm working on job applications all day I really have no good excuse not to spend pretty much the entire time doing so. Maybe I can take a bit of a break once the applications are done. Or maybe not since I'll hopefully find a job then. And, even if I don't find one right away, I've got plenty of other things to work on... For now, I just need to start sitting down and actually working on PV every night when I'm supposed to so I don't have short news posts and weekend rushes to get caught up on comics.


4/6/2011 My plans

I finally have time to write a bit so I figure it's a good time to talk about what I've been up to lately. Since returning from Japan, I've been staying with my parents in Colorado. A lot of my time has been spent either job hunting or doing work for my dad (I did the web site and a lot of the editing for his upcoming medical book). As far as the job hunt goes, I haven't finished sending out applications yet (been too busy with the stuff for my dad). I do, however, have a few possible leads, though nothing definite yet. Unless I get a job offer that requires an immediate start, my current plan is to hang out here until around the end of the month and then go off to...somewhere. If I have a job lined up, I'll move to where ever it is. If not, I'll be heading back to Arizona. My family has a condo there (which my brother will be moving out of soon now that he's graduated) and I've got friends in the area as well as some potential job leads so it's a good place to hang out while working on stuff.

Other than working, I've been getting in some karate classes and catching up on games and reading. I've got a stack of magazines from when I was in Japan that I'm working my way through, though I've also been reading a lot of manga. The nearby Borders is closing so I picked up a whole bunch of stuff, including the first twenty some volumes of One Piece (which I didn't have since I'd read them before in Shonen Jump), which inspired me to reread the entire series. When it comes to video games, I have several that came out while I was in Japan that I'm focusing on. I finished Ghost Trick (which I could barely put down) and Stacking and am currently pretty far into Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. Pokémon Black and Final Fantasy Dissidia Duo Decim are up next. Both are pretty long so I'm thinking I'll play them at the same time and just switch back and forth from time to time, and I want to squeeze 999 in there somewhere as well. I got Little Big Planet 2, Tactics Ogre, and Radiant Historia as well, but it doesn't look like I'll have time to get to them for a while. Although I tend to do a pretty good job keeping up with my reading material and DVDs, at this point I'd probably need several months of heavy gaming to put a serious dent in my backlog and, unless I win the lottery or something, I can't see that happening any time soon.

But anyway, that's what's going on with me. I'll see you Friday!


4/4/2011 Again?

Sigh... Looks like my little "no time to write a proper news post" streak managed to continue into this week. I'll definitely do my best to break it come Wednesday.


4/1/2011 Three in a row

There's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM! It's a new month, so please use the Top Web Comics button or banner to vote and get PV off to good start.

Unfortunately, it seems that yet again various circumstances have left me with very little time to write much of anything here. That's the third time this week... Looks like I've got a little streak going but I'll do my best to break it soon. Hopefully on Monday. Oh, one more thing. If you look at the donation bar, you'll notice that I owe you another installment of Josiah's Sprite Comic guide. It's on my to-do list and should be finished sometime over the next week or two.


3/30/2011 Random problems

I was having some trouble getting a documented formatted correctly. While usually like MS Word, it can occasionally do some weird random thing and drive me crazy. Fortunately, I did eventually get the document formatted correctly. Unfortunately, doing so took quite a lot of time so I'm running rather late right now and don't really have time to write much of anything for today's news post. So I'll just see you all on Friday.


3/28/2011 What next?

Remeber to vote using the Top Web Comics banner or button and see Friday's bonus comic if you haven't already!

So, my second Japan travelogue is over, though if I manage to make it back to Japan again this year I may re-open it instead of starting a new one. But you may be wondering what I'm going to be talking about in these news posts now. Well, I suppose this would be a good time to get back to Ink. Though I'll need a little time first to review what I already did and kinda get back into the swing of things. So look for it to return in a week or two. In the meantime, I've got some other things I'd like to talk about...but not today since I'm kinda busy at the moment and need to wrap this up.



3/25/2011 A different kind of singer

There's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM! And now for that last Random Japan Comment...

Random Japan Comment: Hatsune Miku
So who is Hatsune Miku (or Miku Hatsune if you want to say her name English style with her first name first)? She's a Japanese J-Pop singer...sort of. She's got an enormous amount of songs out there but a few of the more popular ones are: The World is Mine, Last Night, Good Night, and Levan Polka. Though she covers quite a lot of different styles so if none of those are your thing you may want to pull up a few more of Miku's songs. Chances are you'll find something you'll like. One of my personal favorites is Magnet, which is a duet she does with Megurine Luka, another Volcaloid singer.
But what's so special about Miku? Well, you may have noticed that all the videos I linked only feature computer generated characters. To be specific, they're from the Project Diva games on the PSP and PS3 (which are sadly only available in Japan), a series of music games which feature Miku and some other Volcaloid singers. But anyway, those digital characters are the real Miku and Luka. More or less anyway. Miku, Luka, and all the other Volcaloids are computer programs designed to act as singers (though they are created using voice samples from actual singers). If you have the software and know what you're doing, you can make them sing pretty much any song you want (though they're generally designed with a specific language (usually Japanese or English) and vocal range in mind). Miku isn't the first Vocaloid but she was the first one to be given a clearly defined character which really helped her catch on in Japan. Thanks to her, Vocaloid music has become very popular there. Much of it is created by amateur and indie groups and posted on Nico Nico Douga (a Japanese web site similar to youtube). If a group's songs get popular enough, they may get an actual album deal or have their music included on a Vocaloid compilation CD. And this isn't just a couple of albums either, a lot of music stores in Japan have a fairly sizable Vocaloid section.
I got interested in Miku through Project Diva. I love music games and a friend of mine had recommended it a while back so I picked up a copy soon after arriving in Japan. Not only is it a pretty good game, but I really liked a lot of the songs, which led to me becoming interested in Miku herself and other Vocaloids as well (mainly thanks to Project Diva 2nd, which features several other Vocaloids in addition to Miku). I never did get any Vocaloid software (I thought about it, but it's not exactly cheap and would likely take a while to learn), but I can really see the appeal in having a virtual singer (or even an entire group of singers) you can use any time for anything.
Personally, I'd kind of like to see a Vocaloid anime starring Miku and the others... And it could happen too. Vocaloids, and Miku in particular, are very popular and there's already a lot of merchandise and a manga series (though it's more focused on random gags than plot). The fact that she doesn't really exist didn't even stop Miku from holding from a concert complete with real musicians and a few of her Vocaloid friends. I'd love to go to one sometime. Aside from the fact that I like a lot of the music, how often do you get to see a hologram in concert?
You're probably thinking that something like this could only happen in Japan and you may be right but Miku has quite a lot of fans on her English facebook page and they're working on an English version of Miku herself so you never know...


3/23/2011 Final Random Japan Comments, Part 1

My textbook, Interactive Storytelling for Video Games, is out! Keep in mind, it's a textbook intended for aspiring game writers but if you're interested in story structure or game stories in general you may still find it interesting.

Well, my Japan travelogue is pretty much finished (for now) but there are a couple of Random Japan Comments I had planned that I never got the chance to do so here they are. Or here's one of them anyway. I'm running a little late right now the second will be up on Friday. Both are about a couple of more recent Japan related interests of mine which ended up being the focus on many of my shopping trips.

Random Japan Comment: Visual Novels
Visual novels are a type of video game that's quite popular in Japan. Unfortunately, very few are released outside of the country so the genre is mostly unknown in the rest of the world. Visual novels (also known as sound novels), as the name suggests, are sort of like books that you read on your computer or game console. However, there are some important elements that set them apart from ordinary e-books. First off, visual novels feature background illustrations for the various areas in which the story takes place, which are displayed behind the text. There are also illustrations for the important characters. While the characters usually aren't animated, they have quite a lot of poses so they can react to whatever is happening the story. Many visual novels also have a number of CGs (high quality fully drawn images) which are shown to emphasize certain scenes and an animated movie or two. And, of course, there's the sound. Visual novels have a full set of background music and sound effects to further enhance the experience.
So you've got a book with a a whole lot of illustrations, sound effects, and a full musical score. But that's not all. What's special about visual novels is the stories themselves. They actually have a lot of similarities to the old Choose Your Own Adventure Books. Like CYOA, they're written in first person perspective. Though, unlike CYOA, the hero isn't "you" but a clearly defined character with his/her own name and personality. Like CYOA, most visual novels present you with a number of points throughout the game where you can choose between two or more different options with the story changing based on your decisions. But while CYOA books feature rather short and simplistic stories, the stores in visual novels are as long and complex as those in the best regular novels. Or even longer, since they have multiple branches and endings. My favorite visual novel, Fate/Stay Night has a higher word count than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. And, of course, you won't get the full story without playing through all the different major branches.
In Japan, visual novels are generally created by small teams and often begin as hobby projects (with the creators of more popular titles going on to form official companies). As such, they're mainly released for the PC though more popular ones are often ported to various consoles later on. Many go on to inspire anime and manga as well, some of which you may be familiar with such as Fate/Stay Night, Kanon, and Higurashi. Unfortunately the anime and manga tend to simplify the stories a bit. Luckily, there's some great fan translation patches out there for some popular visual novels (including Fate/Stay Night and Kanon), though you need a copy of the original game in order to use them, which can be hard to come by outside of Japan. There's also a couple of companies (such as MangaGamer) which have started releasing officially translated versions of visual novels though, sadly, many of the best titles are still Japanese only.
So how did I get into visual novels? Well, last time I was in Japan I saw a ton of merchandise for Fate/Stay Night. I didn't know what Fate was at the time, but I liked the character design and it was so popular that I wanted to know a bit more about it so I did some research online. That eventually led me to Fate's excellent English patch so I decided to give it a try. The story completely blew me away so I began looking into more visual novels and by the time I returned to Japan this year, I had a long list of games I wanted to track down copies of.
Unfortunately, a rather large portion of the visual novel market is devoted to "adult" games that are more about sex than plot. Even a lot of the more story focused visual novels include a couple of token sex scenes (though many are later rereleased in all-ages versions as well). Unfortunately, most stores in Japan put all computer games (or at least all visual novels) in the same section, which also tends to be right by the often massive porn section (see my February 13th entry) so finding the story based visual novels I was looking for was a rather strange experience, to say the least. In the end, I did find everything on my list but I have to wonder about people who would buy some of the other things I ran across over the course of my search. A lot of the more "adult" oriented visual novels seemed like fairly sincere love stories (though with some rather graphic sex scenes), but some looked plain disturbing and are nothing I particularly want to talk about, especially on this site.
So anyway, visual novels are great but searching for copies of them in Japan can be a bit disturbing... In closing, here's quick list of my top three visual novels. As a note, while Higurashi has an official English release thanks to the aforementioned MangaGamer, Fate and Kanon require copies of the Japanese installation discs and fan made English patches (which I link to below).

1. Fate/Stay Night: Shirou Emiya is a seemingly ordinary high school student who is secretly practicing magic in hopes of one day becoming a hero who can protect others like his adopted father. When the appearance of a mysterious female warrior draws him into the battle for the legendary Holy Grail, a magical relic said to be able to grant any wish, he rises to the challenge. Not to claim the grail, but to protect the unknowing townspeople from the other far more ruthless competitors.
Fate has many memorable characters and a deep multi-faceted story which delves into a number of thought provoking themes. It's remained on of Japan's top visual novels for the past seven years for a reason and makes for an excellent introduction to the genre.
2. Higurahi When They Cry: Keiichi's family recently moved from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo to the peaceful mountain village of Hinamizawa. He quickly adapts to life there, thanks primarily to his new friends, a lively group of girls who make up the school's unbeatable game club. But when a visiting photographer is murdered, Keiichi begins to discover that Hinamizawa may not be such a peaceful place after all. And there are many who would kill to keep its dark secrets hidden...
Higurashi is unusual for a visual novel in that you can't make any big decisions or change the plot. However, the creepy mystery/suspense story more than makes up for the lack of interactivity and is sure to leave you guessing right up until the epic final chapter.
3. Kanon: Yuichi recently moved in with his aunt and cousin to attend high school in a snowy mountain town. Over the course of the following month, he meets a number of different girls, none of whom are quite what they seem. As he grows closer to them, he begins to discover that there may not be such a thing as a "happily ever after" ending.
Kanon has a lot more romance than Fate or Higurashi but it's hardly the kind you'd typically find in anime or romance novels. While the cast of characters is often quite a lot of fun, the main plot frequently becomes very serious and depressing. But even so, it makes you determined to go on, wishing against all odds for a happy resolution. As to whether or not that wish is granted...you'll just have to play it and find out.


3/21/2011 An early ending

As always, remember that you can use the Top Web Comics button or banner to vote and check out the latest Blooper Reel comic (a new one goes up every Friday).

Thursday (the 17th): An Early Ending
In my previous post, you probably noticed that I was wavering back and forth a lot between whether it was better to stay in Japan or leave early. And you also know that I ended up leaving. While I was always fairly certain that the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plants would be resolved and that, even if something went wrong, Tokyo wouldn't be in any real danger, I couldn't say either of those things for sure and spending so much time following the news (which tended to make things sound a lot worse than they really were, especially in the headline), not to mention the occasional aftershocks from the earthquake, were really leaving me on edge. In the end, I had decided to stay in Japan at least until the end of my teaching contract but when the situation at Fukushima briefly escalated on Wednesday my dad was really freaking out and insisting that I return. In the end I prayed about it and said I'd go sooner if he could move my ticket up. Surprisingly, he actually got me a seat on a flight leaving the next day so that was that...
I'm not particularly happy that I left when I did. It was rushed, I was supposed to teach for several more days yet, and I never got a chance to say a proper goodbye to my students or my friends in Tokyo, which I feel really bad about.
Naturally, I'm disappointed as well. I had originally been planning to stay in Japan another month. Not only did I not get to do the big trip with my parents at the end, I had to skip the rest of my planned day trips and I never got to got to Odaiba, or do karaoke, or visit my favorite stores and restaurants one more time. But I really can't complain much seeing all the destruction the tsunami caused in some of those northeastern coastal villages. The death toll just keeps rising... Remember, if you'd like to donate some money to the relief efforts, you can find a list of trustworthy organizations here.
But I might as well talk about my trip back. Wednesday evening and night was a frantic mix of packing, sending e-mails, and cleaning my apartment. I had been planning for my parents to bring me an extra suitcase but I managed to cram all my stuff into my two suitcases and my backpack plus a medium sized box I had on hand. Lugging everything to the train station Thursday morning wasn't easy and, since I was worried that one particular line might be shut down (turned out it wasn't) I ended up taking a slightly roundabout way to the airport but in the end I made it ok.
My dad had heard on the news that the airport was a madhouse with everything trying to get out of the country but that was a pretty serious exaggeration. It was a bit crowded and there were a handful (but only a handful) of people camped out inside, but it wasn't any worse than what you'd see around holiday times here in the US. Actually, most of the lines were probably a decent bit shorter than what you'd see around holiday time. It didn't take me very long to check in (once United actually opened their counter anyway) and I only had to wait several minutes to get through security (had I known it wouldn't take long, I wouldn't have been in such a hurry to get through). Fortunately, only one of my suitcases was overweight. Unfortunately, while the fee for overweight suitcases used to just be $25 or $50 (that's what I paid last time when I returned from Japan), they've raised it a lot and that single suitcase cost me $200. Unfortunately, there wasn't much I could do except pay.
After I was through security, I walked around a bit, looked in the stores, and get some soba for lunch (my options were limited since the majority of the restaurants in the airport are outside of the terminal). I also figured that I should get something to read since my PSP wouldn't last the whole way back. I ended up getting an English copy of Botchan, which you may remember me mentioning back when I visited Matsuyama (see my March 1st entry). I'm not entirely sure why the people of Matsuyama are so proud of the fact that Botchan is set there as, with the exception of Dogo Onsen Honten, both the city and the people living there are portrayed very negatively. It was a pretty good story though.
My flight itself was packed, though not entirely full (further debunking the headlines claiming that everyone was fleeing Japan). It was surprisingly fast as well, taking only 8 hours to travel to Narita airport to San Francisco. After which it was a bit of waiting and a couple of shorter flights to get back home to Colorado. Fortunately, all my luggage made it without any delays or missing items and that was that. It felt strange to return so rapidly and there wasn't much in the way of reverse culture shock or anything (I was only over there for around two and a half months). I'm just sorry that it had to end this way.
So what next? Well, although I was originally planning on staying in Japan for a while longer, now that I back in the US I might as well start looking for a new job. I'll primarily be focusing on game and writing related jobs in the US but there's a few Japan jobs I'm planning to apply to as well so we'll see what happens... Even if I don't end up working in Japan, I'd like to go back again soon for a vacation since I didn't really get a chance to wrap things up before leaving. My parents want to reschedule their canceled Japan trip once everything there has calmed down so we'll see what happens.

Well, I guess that almost does it for this travelogue... There's a couple Random Japan Comments I had planned that I never got a chance to do though, so look for those Wednesday and possibly Friday as well before I move on to other topics. Plus, I'm going to be continuing my Japan travel and culture blog for a while so be sure to check it out if you want to hear more about Japan.


3/18/2011 I'm back...

There's a new voters' bonus comic up.

Well, I made it safetly back to the US and the situation at Fukushim doesn't seem to have gotten significantly better or worse while I was traveling. I've got a lot to say about my return, the situation in Japan, and the like, and a Random Japan Comment or two that I really wanted to do but never got the chance to. But right now it's late and I'm exhaused so I'll be wrapping up the travelogue on Monday (and possibly Wednesday as well, depending on how much I end up writing).


3/16/2011 Life not quite as usual

I'm putting today and yesterday's travelogue entries out of order, because of content....

Wednesday (the 16th): Current Status
It's hard to believe how much has changed since Friday afternoon... Anyway, I'm still fine and Tokyo seems to be retuning to normal. At the moment all of the problematic nuclear reactors have safely brought under control...except the ones at Fukushima 1. While the headlines still make things sound a lot worse than they are, I can't say that I'm not worried. It seems like every time they just about have things under control there something else goes wrong. The latest problems are with fires near some pools where they store unused fuel rods. They're worried that the water in the pools may start to evaporate. Seems like that would be a fairly easy problem to deal with but apparently that area is currently difficult to access. The first fire also caused a brief (several hour) spike in ambient radiation readings in Tokyo and the surrounding areas. Fortunately, despite the high percentage increase, even in the worst area (which is much closer to the reactors than greater Tokyo), a year of exposure would still leave you within the range of radiation that the average person is exposed to in a year just through normal life. And, within several hours of the spike, levels were back down to near normal. Not that you could tell that by reading the headlines or half the news articles...
Finding out the actual numbers was a relief, since the headlines freaked me out at first. I'm definitely a bit on edge and, at my father's prodding, I packed most of my stuff so I can be ready to head south or to the airport in very little time if necessary. Though I still don't think it'll come to that. The reactors are slowly cooling down and everyone except the big anti-nuclear groups agree that, even in an absolute worst case scenario, which would be nuclear rods melting entirely (which will hopefully be prevented) and then melting their way through their containment chamber (which wouldn't necessarily happen), the steam that would be released would be nothing like Chernobyle's radioactive ash. But, as I said, there is still danger and I am worried. It doesn't help that, as I was writing this, we had enough earthquake (it was only a 4, fortunately, so it didn't even knock anything over) and a rather sudden wind storm has sprung up. Neither is serious, but they certainly contribute to the "everything is falling apartment" mind-set...
My parents' planned trip to Japan (which was already on somewhat shaky ground due to the rolling blackouts and train delays caused by the quake and tsunami) has been called off for now. They might try again later this year in summer or fall when things have calmed down if are was no serious radiation problems.
My own plans have changed as well. Originally, if I didn't have another job lined up, I was going to return to the US in mid April with my parents to continue my job search. Since that's not going to happen, I was thinking of just keeping my current airline ticket, which is for the 30th. However, my parents (especially my dad) are really worried and want me to leave sooner so I changed it to the 25th (the day after I finish work).
As I previously mentioned, I haven't ruled out leaving sooner if the situation escalates, though I have very mixed feelings about doing so (though I only have 5 work days left). My company and apartment place wouldn't be happy, of course, but the main thing is that I don't want to "desert" my students and friends here. Yeah I'm not exactly an indispensable member of the staff of anything but still... I was pretty nervous this morning but, when I was teaching a class and saw how much fun the kids were having and how glad they were that I was here, I calmed down a lot. Then again, unless thing start improving really soon my dad may have a nervous breakdown if I don't leave within the next day or two...
Ugh, seems I'm constantly revising this post as I write it... There's some more worrying news that came through a moment ago. It's not confirmed yet but it's possible that the power company pulled out all its staff, including the emergency crew cooling the reactors. If they really did that... I just don't know anymore.... For a while it really seemed like everything would be fine but now it's looking iffy again...
And another update. Things have calmed down for now and the crew is back on site though the whole situation still isn't looking good. My dad is really insistant that I head back to the US ASAP... My company said they, while they'd like me to stay, given the situation they're ok with me leaving early. In the end, I agreed to do if my dad could get me on an earlier flight and he did so it looks like I'll be leaving for the US tomorrow evening. I'm not at all happy about this. It's a really lousy ending to what has otherwise been a great stay in Japan, but this is hardly an ordinary situation. I have a lot more to say but my emotions are really scrambled right now and I have a lot to do to get ready so I'll wait until I'm back in the US. Hopefully everything will work out and I'll be able to return to Japan (at least for a vacation) in the not too distant future...

Tuesday (the 15th): Graduation
Today was the graduation ceremony for the third year students at my school. This wasn't my first Japanese graduation ceremony (see my March 21st entry) and it was fairly similar to the previous one. Fortunately, despite some issues with the trains (the line I usually take to work wasn't running) I managed to make it to work on time (barely) and was dressed up and ready for the ceremony. Not that I had anything to do except sit there though. The ceremony was rather solemn (no parents cheering when their kids went up on stage to get their diplomas or anything like that). Aside from handing out the diplomas, there were speeches from the principle, various other staff members, and a couple of students. There was also several songs. A couple were done by only certain groups of students but most were done by the whole school. And wow, these kids can sing really well. I'd like to see someone try to get all the students in a US school to sing together like that... Other than the singing, the only other thing that really stuck out was the slow floaty walk the kids escorting the flag did. I'm not quite sure what was up with that...

And that's all for now. I should have internet access again in time for Friday's update but if not, check back later in the day or on Saturday. I'll update as soon as I can.


3/14/2011 Aftermath

Not much to say today outside of my travelogue update so let's get right on to that.

Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (the 12th - 14th): After the Quake
It's been several days since the quake. Trains started running again on Saturday, albeit a bit inconsistently, so I was able to get to services. Sunday I mostly hung out, worked on stuff, and watched the news. Today (which I got off since school was canceled), I did some errands in Tokyo. So how are things here?
Well, as I previously said, Tokyo wasn't hit bad. No major damage or anything. Walking around the city, you can't even tell that there was a quake. That said, things are certainly more subdued than normal. The trains still aren't running quite on schedule and a few lines aren't running at all, there's fewer people about, and a number of stores have been closed (not due to damage, just giving employees a chance to recover mentally from the looks of it).
Some of the northern coastal towns and cities, however, are in really bad shape. The quake itself didn't do all that much damage but the resulting tsunami devastated some areas. If you'd like to donate to help the relief efforts, you can find a list of trustworthy places here.
If you pay attention to the news, you may have also heard about the issues are some of Japan's nuclear power plants. Basically, while they properly shut down in response to the quake, the tsunami knocked out the backup cooling systems for some of them. At this point, the only real problem is with some reactors at the Fukushima plant. Despite the doom and gloom headlines (alarming news sells and the anti-nuclear crowd is really playing this up), things are ok for now. It could be days before they have the reactors entirely cooled down and there were some small hydrogen explosions there (which were expected and didn't damage the reactors) but for now it's looking like things will be ok. Even in a worst case scenario (which is looking less and less likely), it probably won't, affect a large area. But it's certainly keeping everyone on edge.
So yeah, that's how things are. I'm going back to work tomorrow so we'll just see how things go.


3/11/2011 Earthquake!

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Friday (the 11th) Earthquake!
I actually wrote the below RJC earlier and that was going to be it for today since it's been a quiet week...but yeah that changed. If you haven't seen the news, Japan was hit by an 8.9 earthquake, the largest one to hit the country in recorded history.  It also caused massive tsunami in many parts of the country. Fortunately for me, the epicenter of the quake was in Northern Japan. The city of Sendai (which I've visited twice before) was hit pretty hard. The Tokyo area, however, just got shaken up a bit. I was in the teachers' room at work when the quake hit. At first, everyone was just like "Oh, it's an earthquake." Little earthquakes happen enough in Japan that they aren't really a big deal. But this one just kept going and getting stronger... The rest of the teachers ducked under their desks so I did the same. I actually wasn't too worried. It was bad, but I didn't think it was bad enough to bring the building down and I was right. It was certainly the worst earthquake I've experienced by far but the worst it did to the school was knock some things off shelves and chip the concrete in a couple of places. Still, I probably should have been a bit more worried. Maybe I've been on too many thrill rides...
After the quake died down, the students and staff evacuated to the sports field and waited for a while to see what would happen. Most of the kids didn't seem too worried, though there were a few that were crying. After a while, the kids were given permission to go back into the building, get their things, and call their parents. Right about then the biggest of the aftershocks hit (with progressively smaller ones happening throughout the rest of the day), which immediately sent them all scrambling back out. But it wasn't that bad compared to the quake itself so, before long, everyone was heading back in. The kids were sent home early and, though I stayed around for a little while to watch the news and help straighten up, the other teachers kept telling me I could leave so I finally did so.
It was then that I ran into a problem. It seems that the quake knocked out some power lines, causing all the trains in the area to be shut down indefinitely. Kind of a problem since that's how I get to and from work every day. For a while, I joined a bunch of other people and waited around the station in hopes that the trains would start up again but I eventually got bored and decided to walk to the next station to kill time. Unfortunately, trains weren't running there either (I later found out they were shut down all across this part of Japan) so I kept walking. And I wasn't the only one. With the trains down, the roads were gridlocked as far as I could see and the sidewalks were all crowded as well.
After a bit I ran across a kaitenzushi restaurant where you order from touch screens and get your sushi delivered by a little train like the one I went to in Ushiku. While I was still thinking that the trains would be running again soon, I had missed lunch (nothing to do with the quake, it was a scheduling thing) and wasn't sure when I'd get back to my apartment so I stopped in to get some food. After that I walked to the next big station and used the map on my phone to check my progress only to find out that my apartment was a whole lot further away than I'd thought. So I decided to wait for the trains again. So I waited, and waited... And then they decided to shut down the station entirely. That was a clear sign that the trains probably weren't going to be starting again any time soon so I quickly assessed my options. There were buses, but they had massive lines and most only cover small local routes so getting back to my area would be really complicated. Plus, with the way traffic was locked up, I doubted they'd be making much progress anyway. Ditto with taxis (which were all taken anyway). I was kinda tempted to get a hotel room but I figured that it really shouldn't take me that long to walk back so off I went again.
It was the same story all the way. Train stations and bus stops were packed with stranded people, the sidewalks were packed with people who didn't want to sit and wait, and the roads were packed with cars. I didn't see any serious earthquake damage though, which was a good sign, and I eventually made it back to my apartment several hours later (which is why today's update is late). In total I walked around 11.2 miles, carrying my backpack the whole way. I was originally thinking about doing some hiking on Sunday but after this I think I've had enough walking for a week or two.
So long story short, I'm fine (though sore from carrying my backpack for an 11 mile walk) as is everyone I know and there wasn't really any serious damage is this part of Japan. Though I hope that the areas that were hit hard are able to recover quickly.

Random Japan Comment: Japanese Music
Japan has many types of music so I'm not even going to try to give any sort of complete overview right now. But here's brief summaries of Japan's more popular music types.
Classical: Actually, in Japan the term kurashikuru (classical) often refers to the European classical music that we're all familiar with. Japan, however, has a lot of classic music of its own. Traditional Japanese music makes use of traditional instruments including the shamisen (a three stringed guitar like instrument that makes twanging sounds), various types of flutes, and taiko drums (large drums played with thick sticks). Unlike European classical music, which was usually written for a full orchestra, a lot of old Japanese music was written for a single instrument (or possibly several people all playing the same instrument).
Enka: Enka is an older style of Japanese music that's still fairly prominent although it's not nearly as popular as it was forty or fifty years ago. Enka songs can best be described as slow mournful ballads with a very Asian feel to the music.
J-Pop: J-Pop is a sort of catch all term for modern music that isn't rap, heavy rock, or another clearly defined genre. Most J-Pop songs are done by various idol singers (young men and women who have highly successful but usually fairly brief careers) but there are larger more established groups as well. Since J-Pop is a pretty broad term, there's quite a lot of variety to be found in the music both in terms of style and content. Though the cliche J-Pop song is fast, happy, energetic, and sung by a girl (or group of girls) in a high pitched voice. The lyrics are often fairly positive and cheery (though that's certainly not always the case as there's some excellent moody and haunting J-Pop), with common subjects being love, friendship, food, nature, and doing your best. What you don't have a lot of songs about are the two topics that seem to dominate the modern American music scene, sex and violence.
K-Pop: K-Pop is basically the South Korean equivalent of J-Pop. Recently, a number of K-Pop groups have become very popular in Japan. I haven't gotten into K-Pop (not yet anyway), so I really can't say much more about it.
J-<whatever>: Personally, I never could tell exactly where to draw the line between rocky J-Pop and pure J-Rock. But J-Rock is pretty much what it sounds like. It seems to me that you have more male singers in J-Rock than J-Pop, but I could be wrong about that. There's also J-Punk (fairly similar to Western punk music only in Japanese and a bit less dark) and J-Rap (which I usually can't stand, though that's my normal reaction to rap in general so...). Those are the more popular ones but you can pretty much stick a J in front of any major music style and find it here in Japan (with the possible exception of country).
Foreign Music: By foreign I mean non-Japanese, of course. Aside from the aforementioned K-Pop, quite a lot of the major American and European bands are fairly popular here. The Beatles especially are huge but quite a lot of Japanese kids know Taylor Swift and Hanna Montana as well so there's a pretty wide spectrum. Though while just about everyone in Japan is familiar with all the major J-Pop bands, their knowledge of foreign bands tends to be limited to just a few of the most popular ones.
Soundtracks: Believe it or not, soundtracks are actually very popular in Japan. Part of it may have to with many video games and TV shows featuring original theme songs recorded by famous J-Pop groups. But I think the heart of the matter is that the background music in many anime and video games is just really good. When I think about American soundtracks, only a handful really stick out (some Disney musicals, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc). Perhaps this is just my opinion but it seems like in most American soundtracks the music isn't really meant to stick out or stand alone, just to provide a nice background for the visuals. So, when listening to it by itself, it becomes rather uninteresting. A lot of Japanese composers, on the other hand, work to to ensure their music not only fits the scene but can also stand quite well on its own. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that soundtracks, especially for anime and video games, are huge in Japan. And, like the anime and games they're from, the music is extremely diverse.

So that's a quick overview of Japan's major music categories. And my own preferences? Well, here's a breakdown of my music collection (which almost fills my 30GB MP3 player).
Classical (European): 10 discs - 10.5 hours
While I like classical well enough, I didn't actually buy any of these but was given them at various times.)
Comedy: 33 discs - 29.4 hours
This is primarily parody music like Weird Al and Allen Sherman though I have a few straight up comedy CDs as well.
Religious: 40 discs - 29.5 hours
The vast majority of these are parodies and quite a lot were done by a single Jewish band (Shlock Rock) that I kinda grew up listening to.
US Oldies (60's and 70's Rock): 91 discs - 36.4 hours
Actually quite a lot of those discs only contain one or two favorite songs I purchased online (hence the relatively low playing time). Aside from Shlock Rock, I listened to quite a lot of oldies music growing up, primarily due to my dad's influence. And, actually, the majority of my oldies music is from his CD collection. When driving back in the US, the oldies station is still what I listen to 90% of the time. Favorite groups include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, and Simon & Garfunkle.
Modern US Pop & Rock: 41 discs - 5.5 hours
As you can probably tell by the playing time, I only have one or two songs from the vast majority of those discs. Actually, I only have three complete albums. The thing is, while there is some current American music I really really like, it's very rare for me to find an album, or even a group, with more than one or two good songs. Evanescence accounts for two of those three complete albums though the second one was a bit of a disappointment. Of the rest, Coldplay, 3 Doors Down, Kelly Clarkson, and Keane all have several songs I like instead of instead of just one like most of the others.
Movie Soundtracks: 9 discs - 6 hours
Two discs are actually the Final Fantasy Advent Children soundtrack (which could almost go under Anime or Video Games instead), and I've got Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, and one random single. The rest is actually Disney soundtracks that I got in Japan because there were really cheap and have a few songs that I really like.
J-Pop: 35 discs - 19.3 hours
This is a mix of single songs (purchased from the Japanese iTunes store) and full albums that I've picked up in Japan. Note that this is just straight up J-Pop CDs since I give anime and game soundtracks (many of which include a lot of J-Pop) their own categories. Adding them in would up the play time considerably, as you'll soon see. Favorite singers/groups include: Angela (not Angela Aki, though she's good too), See-Saw (and/or their lead singer Chiaki Ishikawa), AKB48 (see my January 26th entry), Gackt, and Miku Hatsune (who I may do a RJC on next week).
Anime Soundtracks: 54 discs - 30.5 hours
There's some single songs in there but most of these are either singles CDs (see my January 29th entry) or full albums that I've gotten in Japan. While I have some complete soundtracks, the majority are vocal collections which mean they just have all the voiced songs from the series without all the plain background music tracks.
Video Game Soundtracks: 258 discs - 257 hours
I've got a couple of single songs but almost all of my collection is made up of complete albums (many containing 2 - 4 discs). As you can probably guess, they're what the majority of my spending money goes towards when I'm in Japan, though I did get some for free with various games. About 99% of them are from games made by Japanese companies both since not many US made games get soundtrack releases and because there aren't very many US games I actually want a soundtrack for. Square Enix (and especially Final Fantasy) dominates my collection though I've got a lot of music from various Konami, Capcom, and and Nintendo games as well (along with a lot miscellaneous other stuff).
I do have a few other random things in my music collection like some little kids songs I used when teaching elementary school English and a fairly lengthy lecture series but the things I listed above are the main categories.
So that's my collection. It's kinda weird to think that I have over 400 hours of audio on my MP3 player... Too much? Maybe. But then again, I've listened to it all (except for a few recent purchases that I haven't gotten to yet) and I've listened to quite a lot of the tracks multiple times. There are a few albums that I've not overly fond of that I either got for free or picked up on an impulse because they were really cheap but overall I really do like most of the music I have. And, as you see, Japanese music clearly dominates. And, well, I guess that's it. I'm not really driving at some big point here, I just felt like talking about music today.


3/9/2011 What's next?

It's been a pretty normal week so far, just going to work and catching up on stuff in my free time. For those of you who read my Japan travel and culture blog, I started updating again on Monday after taking a few days off during last week's trip. Also, my textbook, Interactive Storytelling for Video Games has a release date! It'll be out on March 29th and will be available through all major online book sellers and a some regular book stores as well (mostly ones with large selections of game and/or computer related books I assume).

Wednesday (the 9th): Preparing to Move On
There's only a couple weeks to go for my current teaching position (my last day is the 24th). Time certainly has flown. Narashino #1 Junior High is a nice enough school and I like the kids and the staff members that I regularly interact with, but I won't be staying on. I got good recommendations from both Heart (the company that hired me) and the Narashino Board of Education but said BOE is rather on the cheap side and the contract they offered for the next school year isn't very good (if I was lucky and did little if any touring I'd probably manage to break even). Even my coordinator at Heart recommended that I turn them down (which is unusual since it's his job to make sure the position gets and stays filled). While losing a bit of money was ok my first time in Japan (when I was mainly after the experience) and for the past three months (as a fun and interesting way to pass the time until my book's release), I can't keep doing that indefinitely. Heart offered me a different position near Narita but it's a little further out than I'd like and the salary, while decent, isn't particular great either, so I probably won't accept. While I do enjoy English teaching, I don't particularly want to make a career out of it. At best, it would be a backup choice. If I'm offered a job with a really good salary I'll seriously consider it, since I think a couple more years here would improve my Japanese to the point where I'd be fairly fluent, but otherwise I really want to do game design and/or writing (regardless of where that job my be).
Though, it could be fun to be a travel writer... Would anyone be interested in "An Otaku's Japan Travel Guide"? Or maybe an expanded non-fiction novel version of my travelogues? Just a couple ideas I've been kicking around for potential future projects...
So what's next? Well, I'm currently looking for a new job (both in Japan and the US) though I've been too busy to apply to a large number of US companies yet. My parents are coming to Japan a little before the end of the month and I've moving out of my apartment in early April. We're going to do some touring and then, if I don't have another job in Japan lined up, I'm planning to return to the US in mid April and either start a job (if I find one before I return) or continue my job search (which'll be cheaper and easier to do from there). I'm not going to give up on Japan entirely (though I'm still not sure I'd want to live her permanently) as my visa is good through February next year and I can move back pretty easily if I find a good job, so I'll keep an eye out for new openings and we'll just see what happens...


3/7/2011 Catching Up

New PV strips are back! And, come Wednesday, the smoke will finally clear so you can see what Brendan is talking about. So yeah, I'm back at my apartment and busy catching up on things. Speaking of which, it's time to finish writing about my trip...

Friday (the 4th): Miyajima
Miyajima is one of Japan's "three most scenic spots". While I never got the chance to go before, it's near Hiroshima so I was able to work it into this trip. Anyway, Miyajima is a fairly small island in the Seto Inland Sea. It's mostly covered with heavily forested mountains, except for a single small town on the side facing Honshu. Getting there from Hiroshima requires a half hour train ride followed by ten minutes on a ferry. During the ferry ride, I got my first look at Miyajima's most famous landmarks, the Otorii Gate and Itsukushima Shrine. And yes, they are sitting in the water. But more on that in a minute...
One of the first things I noticed after disembarking is that, like Nara (see my April 11th entry), Miyajima has a lot of tame deer that like to wander around the town. Unlike Nara, however, there were signs around telling your not to feed or touch the deer (seems they wish the deer were a little less tame). Since the deer don't get fed by people as much, they weren't nearly as pushy as the Nara deer, but they would tend to follow anyone with food. They were also a little on the noisy side, for deer anyway, which means they were still pretty quiet. Have you ever heard a deer? They don't bray or moo or anything like that. They make this soft wheezing squeak, kind of like a quiet kitten or a broken squeaky toy.
Anyway, a short walk along the coast gave me a closer look at the Otorii Gate and Itsukushima Shrine. Both are around 1200 years old (though the gate is rebuilt every 150 years or so, probably due to water damage since it's made entirely of wood). In fact, many of Miyajima's various shrines and temples were founded long before people started to live on the island and it wasn't until workers and priests started moving there to tend to them that the town was formed.
I got lucky and arrived at Itsukushima Shrine right when the tide was at its highest, which is really the best time to see it as it almost seems to be floating on the water, as does the Otorii Gate, which you can see clearly from the shrine. Water aside, the shrine is still very picturesque with long walkways, hanging lanterns, a noh stage, and a nice orange and white color scheme. And, of course, it's the perfect spot from which to photograph the Otorii Gate, which is really "the" thing to do on Miyajima.
But while Istukushima Shrine and its famous gate as the most popular things to see on Miyajima, they're hardly the only ones. As I left the shrine, I found myself right by Daiganji Temple (as a quick reminder, shrines are Shinto and temples are Buddhist). They had a rather large and impressive wooden statue of a guy with flames and a sword inside the building, but I wasn't allowed to photograph it. The nearby treasure museum didn't allow photographs either, but they had some really neat old scrolls and other items.
Next, I headed to the nearby folkcraft museum, which is inside the former home of a wealthy merchant family. The museum featured a very diverse collection of old items relating to Miyajima's history and traditional crafts (from water buckets, to combs, to elaborately carved wooden plates and trays). There was also a set of model boats designed to look like the ones used in a big music festival that takes place on Miyajima every summer (and has for hundreds of years). Fortunately, a lot of the signs were in English so I was able to learn about another local summer festival which involves a bunch of young men racing to swim over and grab a ball hanging from the Otorii Gate. Supposedly, the ball grants a year of good luck to whoever manages to get it. There was also an interesting display about a major battle that took place long ago when a general lured the enemy forces to Miyajima and defeated them with far fewer troops in a very clever ambush. Oh, and I can't forget this guy. He's the priest who invented the rice scoop (I suppose Japan always had rice scoops of some kind but this guy created the design that is used all over Asia today (legend has it that a goddess showed him the design in a dream). Because of this, wooden rice scoops are a very popular local souvenir.
Speaking of rice scoops, Senjokaku (a massive unfinished shrine nearby) has a little shrine inside it dedicated solely to them. Though it's more famous for its five story pagoda.
This seemed like a good time to get lunch, so I headed back towards the main part of town. On the way, I noticed that the tide was going out, causing the water level around Itsukushima Shrine and the Otorii Gate to drop considerably. But I only took a quick look before coming across a very nice shopping arcade full of souvenir shops, restaurants, and snack stands. The world's largest rice scoop is there as well, just in case you have a really really really large bowl of rice. I started out looking for a restaurant but ended up running across one good looking snack after another so in the end I decided I didn't really need a full meal after all. When it comes to food, Miyajima has several specialties. There's grilled clams (or maybe oysters, I couldn't tell), long fried strips of various types of seafood and/or vegetables, and (the one that I was most interested in) manju. Manju are little buns or pastries stuffed with something (usually azuki bean paste). You can get them all over Japan but Miyajima's are unique in that they're shaped like maple leaves and they're supposedly the best ones in the country. It seemed like about every third store had manju. The most common flavors were azuki, cream, and chocolate but most stores had some special ones as well. I also saw lemon, green tea, apple, cheese, chestnut, satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato), and even takesumi (well, the takesumi was in the bun, the filling was azuki). At only 80 or 90 Yen a piece, they made for a great snack but there were also gift boxes you could get to give to your family, friends, or co-workers (in Japan, it's polite to return from vacation bearing specialty snacks for all of the aforementioned people). I'm not sure if Miyajima's manju are the best in Japan or not but they were pretty good. Though, if plain manju aren't enough there are a few shops that, for 150 Yen, give you a cup of barley tea and a deep fried manju on stick. And yes, while it's not particularly healthy, they're even better that way. I didn't just eat manju though, there were some really good steamed beef buns and other things too.
By the time I'd left the shopping arcade, I was finishing the last of my manju (while being trailed by a persistent deer) and had seen all the major attractions in the town. But that didn't mean I was finished on Miyajima. While a lot of visitors to the island don't do much other than visiting Itsukushima Shrine and the Otorii Gate and buying some manju, there's quite a lot to see on Miyajima's tallest mountain, Mt. Misen. I was originally planning to hike up but after yesterday's 45 mile bike ride (not to mention all the walking and climbing the days before), I decided to just do it the easy way and take the cable car. I did, however, hike to the cable car station (instead of taking the free bus) and only bought a one way ticket (figuring that I could easily handle a hike down the mountain). Actually, I'm kinda glad I took the cable car. First, I saw this shop on the way there where you can actually buy giant wooden statues of various Japanese mythological figures like you see in some of the shrines and temples. Not that I got one, of course, but it was still cool to see. Plus the views from the cable car were pretty spectacular and from the platform at the end of the ride I was able to get some great views of the Seto Inland Sea (and make good use of my camera's panorama mode).
From there, it was still a one kilometer hike up to the top of the mountain. Towards the end of the trail I reached Mt. Misen's most famous temples, Misen Hondo and Reikado. The interesting thing about Reikado is that it contains the Eternal Fire, which is supposed to have been kept burning continuously since the temple's founding around 1200 years ago. Legend has it that water boiled over the fire can cure various illnesses and couples who stare at each other across the flames are destined to form an eternal bond.
Continuing on, I passed a lot of big rocks (which reminded me a little of Colorado) before finally reaching the summit of Mt. Misen. There I found a viewing platform and a snack stand (with a couple of deer waiting hopefully outside). Since I didn't see any roads, I guess the lady running the place has to hike there from the cable car every day. That'd be some commute... I got some more nice pictures from the viewing platform. And, for the heck of it, I decided to try a 360 degree panorama. I wasn't expecting much but it came out a lot better than I thought it would. Just keep in mind that it's a 360 so it's meant to wrap around.
As I was about to leave, a monk showed up and blew a strange looking horn (to mark the hour, I think). After listening to him, I started walking down the mountain, stopping at a few little shrines along the way. I saw some signs warning about wild monkey but, unfortunately, I didn't actually see any.
By the time I got back down to the town, it was low tide. Itsukushima Shrine is a little less picturesque without all the water underneath it. However, people really seem to like walking out to the Otorii Gate. A lot of them were trying to stick coins in the barnacles on its base. For luck, I guess. There was also a group (locals, I assume) out a bit further gathering shells or shellfish or something like that.
This seemed like a good time to check into my hotel so I retrieved my backup from the coin lockers at the ferry dock and made my way over there. It was a nice hotel, and I ended up with a twin room again, but I have to say that the hotels I walked past on the beach front looked really fancy (and really really expensive). In addition to checking me in, the guy at the desk gave me a map listing which restaurants were open late, which was nice since the majority of stuff on Miyajima seems to shut down at around 5 when most of the tourists start catching the ferries back to Honshu. I headed back out almost immediately to grab some manju (as a gift, not to eat) and get supper (nothing special, just a rice bowl) then hung out in my hotel room for a while sorting through all the pictures I'd taken.
But the day wasn't over quite yet. I'd heard that they light up the Otorii Gate at night so I headed out at around 9:30 (high tide again) to get a look. Itsukushima Shrine was lit up as well, though not nearly as much so it wasn't very easy to get a good photograph. The gate, however, did look really nice in the dark.
And that was it for my big trip. The next morning I took a ferry back to Honshu and then rode a shinkansen to Tokyo. Hard to say which was my favorite day (tough call between Miyajima and my first day in Takamatsu) but the whole trip was great and I'm really glad I went, despite the expense. I loved both Shikoku and Miyajima and hope to go back sometime.

Sunday (the 6th): Hanging Around Tokyo
Did I ever mention that Starbucks here in Japan has seasonal sakura (Japanese cherry blossom) drinks? I tried the frappuccino about a week back out of curiosity. It was pink and tasted a bit like flowers and something else...white chocolate maybe? But anyway, moving on...
Having just gotten back from my trip, I didn't really want to do anything big today, especially since I still had some things to catch up on, but I didn't want to stay in my apartment all day either. In the end, I visited the Oikeibajou flea market (since I haven't been there for a couple months) and swung by Nakano for a bit after that. I enjoyed myself, but there wasn't anything too exciting to talk about. I did take one picture, but only one. This ice cream stand is in the basement of Nakano Broadway. There's actually a place on the third or fourth floor that has more flavors, but this one is notable for the sheer amount of ice cream you get for your money. If you look at the plastic cones you can see that there's several different sizes. At a regular ice cream place, 250 - 300 Yen will buy you the smallest one (or maybe something a little smaller). At this place, you can get the smalls and mediums for 200 - 300 but a mere 390 Yen will get that enormous eight flavor cone on the far right. If you're curious, it contains vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, grape, black sesame, green tea, and azuki (red bean) and is about as much ice cream as you'd get in 6 - 8 normal cones. From what I saw, it actually holds together fairly well (being soft serve, you can press it down a bit better than regular ice cream) and seemed to stay frozen long enough to eat. But that's a huge amount of ice cream for one person to eat in a single sitting so it's probably better to bring someone to split it with...


3/4/2011 Lots of islands

There's a new ROM today! But still no new Pebble Version... Sorry everyone. Yesterday's plans ran a whole lot later than I thought they would (more on that momentarily) and today I was just too busy with other things (like writing this travelogue and getting all the photos ready). But fear not, regular PV updates will return on Monday. That you can be sure of (so long as my computer doesn't explode or anything).

Thursday (the 3rd): A Long Bike Ride
Since I stayed up rather late Wednesday night finishing my travelogue update, I ended up setting out a little later than I originally planned. At the station, I spotted this Anpan Man (a popular little kids anime) train. Basically, stuff like this happens when one company buys out all the ad space on a train and plasters it with stuff for a single show or item. On the train, I ended up sitting with a guy from Switzerland who is semi-retired and likes to backpack around different countries. Seems like I run into a lot more Europeans in Japan than I do Americans. I guess it is a shorter flight for them...
Anyway, I haven't said where I was going. As you should know if you've been reading my travelogue entries this week, I've been spending some time on the island of Shikoku. Well, there's a few different ways to get between Shikoku and Honshu (Japan's main island). One of which is a road that crosses over six smaller islands in the Seto Inland Sea. There's a bus that crosses the entire thing and people can drive it if they have a car, but it's also a popular bike route. Basically you rent a bike at one end and return it at the other (or, if you don't want to go the whole way, at one of the other rental shops along the route). The entire thing is around 70 kilometers (about 43.5 miles). My tour book said it takes around 7 hours and I figured that, like the book's walking times, that estimate was a bit on the high side so I could probably finish in 5 or 6. Didn't quite work out that way but let's start at the beginning.
I began in the town of Imabari, which had the smallest train station I've seen yet. From there it was a twenty minute walk (clearly marked, fortunately) to Sunrise Itoyama, the bike company. I rented a 21 speed bike, picked up a map, and headed off. As a note, I left the rental place at around 10 AM (I'd originally planned to get there closer to 8:30 but, as I mentioned, I really needed some sleep) and had until 6 PM to get the other end of the route before the rental agency there closed for the day (they have longer hours in the summer).
I left Shikoku behind almost immediately and headed across a long bridge with some great views to Oshima Island. Oshima, like all the islands on the route, is fairly small and hilly with lots of trees and a small town. The bike route was pretty obvious for the most part (there's a lot of signs though there were a few confusing spots) and all the islands featured recommended, intermediate, and advanced routes (the intermediate and advanced routes are alternate routes or detours that were either longer or more strenuous than the recommended route). Oshima Island was one of the longer stretches of the trail and it had some ship yards and quarries. I also ran into a set of odd statues, especially considering that they were just sitting out in front of a couple of ordinary looking houses. Eventually I reached the next bridge and was off to Hakatajima Island, which looked a lot like Oshima. But I wasn't there for long before moving on to Omishima Island. At this point, I started to encounter a lot of citrus groves of various sorts. It didn't take me too long to reach the bridge to the next island, but I wasn't ready to leave just yet. I stopped for a quick lunch and then passed the bridge and followed the intermediate trail to Oyamazumi Shrine, which my tour book highly recommended. Only problem was that it added a good 12 kilometers (round trip) to my total and that was around when the last few days of near constant walking and stair climbing stated to catch up with me. While I was ok when going downhill and on flat areas, even fairly mild inclines would leave my legs burning and the fact that I was wearing a very heavy backpack certainly wasn't helping matters.
The shrine itself wasn't all that amazing (though it did have some of Japan's oldest trees). The treasure museum, however, was worth the trip. Especially since it specialized mainly in old weapons and armor. No pictures were allowed though. One of the most unusual pieces I saw was a set of samurai armor made for a woman. Despite all the female warriors you see in anime, as far as I know that was pretty rare in actual Japanese history. I'm not sure who the armor was made for, but they had a statue of her outside.
Returning to the bridge, I crossed over to Ikuchijima Island, which was another of the longer stretches of the trail. Fortunately, it was a very pretty island with easy to follow paths, lots of mikan (a type of Japanese orange or tangerine) groves, and some nice views. It was also mostly flat, which was good since inclines were giving me quite a lot of trouble. Also, this was the first time I'd been on a bike in probably six months or more and it's easy to forget how much those seats can hurt...
With two islands to go, I crossed to Innoshima Island. My tour book had mentioned that the part of the route nearer to Honshu wasn't as nice, and it was right. While all the previous islands had been pretty and featured good bike paths, Innoshima was more industrial and the trail wasn't nearly as good or easy to follow. I was also really starting to worry about the time. That side trip to the shrine had taken awhile and I was having to get off and walk my bike up most hills, which was slowing me down. In my current condition, I didn't think I could make it all the way across by 6. Around 5:30, I reached one of the drop-off points and decided to just call it quits there (a good choice as it started to rain a moment later). In the end, I biked something like 72 kilometers (around 45 miles) and had only around 16 to go until the end. If I hadn't take the detour to the shrine, didn't have the backpack, hadn't pushed my legs so hard during the last few days, or just had another hour, I would have been able to make it to the end no problem but the combination was just too much.
Fortunately, a nice cab driver helped me catch a bus to Honshu. Unfortunately, Onomichi (where the route ends) isn't as close to Hiroshima as I'd been led to believe so I found myself with a nearly 90 minute train ride after an already long bus ride. In the end, I didn't reach my hotel until around 8:30 and I hadn't even eaten yet so there really wasn't time to catch up on things or look around the city. Still, it was a cool day and I'm glad did the bike route, despite the problems I ran into at the end.

Hmm... I was going to talk about what I did today as well (this was, BTW, quite possibly my favorite day on the entire trip) but this update is already really late as is and I'll need to be getting to sleep before too long so I'm afraid that it's going to have to wait until Monday. Don't worry, I should have plenty of time to get stuff done on Sunday and Monday this coming week so look forward to a new PV strip and hearing about the last stop on my trip then.


3/2/2011 More adventures in Shikoku

You know, I really thought I'd have time to get a PV strip or two made but these last couple of days have been busier than I thought. I haven't even been keeping up with my Japan blog or the King of the Forums contest as much as I should. But at least I'm keeping this travelogue up to date. Hopefully new PV strips will resume on Friday...assuming I have time and that my Friday night hotel has internet access...

Oh, one last thing. I made a couple of small additions to Monday's travelogue entry that I forgot to talk about last time. Nothing major but, if you're curious, they're near the end.

Tuesday (the 1st): Matsuyama
I left Takamatsu bright and early and took a shinkansen along the northern coast of Shikoku to Matsuyama, which is pretty much on the other end of the island. The ride was nice. Lots of pine covered hills and tiny towns, along with occasional glimpses of the ocean and some little islands.
Anyway, Matsuyama is the second largest city on Shikoku though, like Takamtasu, it's a bit sleepier than comparable cities on Honshu. While there are a couple of train stations, the main way to get around is by trolly. I stowed my backpack in a locker, got a map, then walked off towards Matsuyama Castle. Set on a forested hill right in the middle of the city and surrounded by a big moat, it's pretty hard to miss. I ended up hiking up the back way since the main path was all the way on the opposite end of the park. While it was raining a bit at first, it fortunately stopped right about when I reached the castle. Though it's not as old as some of the castles I've seen (parts of it burnt down and were rebuilt at various times over the last several hundred years), it's still pretty old and it's a very nice castle. Naturally, I got some good views of Matsuyama from the tower and they had some interesting items on display inside like these old flutes used in Noh plays and this small screen painting. And look at this wood. See how it fits together like a puzzle? In the old days, Japanese carpenters used to connect boards and beams that way so they'd fit together securely without nails (Japan did have a traditional type of nail, but building without them made things simpler). The castle also had a spot where you could try on a suit of samurai armor. It's not the easiest thing to put on (it took a while and I needed to ask a Japanese woman for help with one of the shoulder guards) but it's not very heavy and doesn't restrict movement much. It lacks the near full coverage of traditional European armor, but fighting with a katana was always more about speed and movement than fighting with a broadsword.
On my way out of the castle, I stopped at a souvenir shop on the grounds. It looks like the local specialty product is all kinds of citrus (especially various types of mikan). Certainly a big change from udon.
To save money, I skipped the cable car and walked down the hill. That put me right at the start of the city's big shopping arcade so I strolled through there for a bit looking for a place to eat lunch, before finally settling on a small curry restaurant. Here's an interesting sign I spotted while there. I've talked about pachinko before but did I ever mention that many of the machines are themed around popular TV shows, movies, or the like (anime included)? Well, check out the big new pachinko theme. Yeah, pachinko themes tend to be way behind the times. Maybe because they like to attract an older cliental? This sign, on the other hand, is the name of a drug store.
Anyway, when I was done I retrieved my pack and caught the trolly for Dogo Onsen, the part of the city where my hotel is. As a note, the trolleys make this loud buzzing noise when you get on. The first time I heard it I thought I'd gone in the wrong door or something but no, it's perfectly normal. But, as you may have guessed, Dogo Onsen is a hot springs area. Japan's oldest, in fact. It's also famous as the setting for the novel Botchan (a classic Japanese novel about a young man from Tokyo who moves to the area to work as a teacher). There are many Botchan themed things in the area such as the clock in this photo (BTW: that's a foot onsen next to the clock). Every hour, the clock has a rather impressive display of animatronic characters in scenes from the novel.
The other famous thing here is Dogo Onsen Honten. While the building is "only" around 120 years old, Japanese people have been using the springs for somewhere around 3000 years. Aside from being a favorite location of the hero of the novel, I heard it also served as the inspiration for the bath house in Spirited Away. Due to its fame, the area surrounding it has filled with hotels and a touristy little shopping arcade.
My first stop was my hotel to check in and drop my stuff off but then I went to give the baths a try. Actually, I went twice (I returned a second time after supper to check out the second set of baths) but I'll just talk about the whole place now. Dogo Onsen Honten has several different options (and pretty much no English anywhere). For a few hundred Yen you can get into the normal baths on the first floor (which is what I did first). If you need to rent a towel and soap, that's another 50 Yen or so. These baths seem to mainly be used by the locals. There's two pools, both the same. For the full experience, you should go with the 1200 Yen package. For that price you get to change into a Dogo Onsen yukata (Japanese robe) and use the lounge and bath on the second floor. The second floor baths are similar to the ones on the first floor but a little smaller and a little nicer, plus they include a towel, soap, and shampoo. I actually visited over supper time and had the place to myself for a bit so I snuck a picture. Hard to see with all the steam though... You also get tea and rice crackers while you're lounging, access to a display of onsen related artifacts, and a tour of the Botchan memorial room and Yushinden. If you want to go really fancy, a 1500 Yen actually gets you access to a nicer lounge and a private bath on the third floor, but I didn't do that. Anyway, the Botchan room is a little room up on the third floor dedicated to the man who wrote the novel while Yushiden is a whole wing of the bath house (the green roofed area in that overhead photo from the previous paragraph) exclusively for visiting royalty. It includes a bath, lounge, meeting room, etc. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't get a whole lot of use (just several times since it was built) so it's mostly for visitors to stop in and admire the elaborate decor. Overall, it's worth a visit for the atmosphere and history, though keep it mind that the building is over 100 years old you don't get the fancy baths, multitude of pools, and the like that you'll find at many newer onsens.
After my bath, I walked around a bit trying to find this one shrine that was mentioned in my tour book. In the end, I think I found every shrine and temple in the Dogo Onsen area except that one... I eventually gave up and went back to my hotel to learn more about Noh. See, it's a pretty fancy hotel (though I got a good deal on my room) and they even have a Noh stage. Sometimes professional Noh troops come and perform there. It's the off season now, but they had a little one man demonstration and the guy also gives a tour of the stage and dressing rooms and explains a bit about how Noh works. The Japanese was a bit difficult, but I got to try on a Noh mask and play a Noh drum.
Then it was out to grab a quick supper and try the fancier baths at Dogo Onsen Honten (which I already talked about), and back to the hotel to get some work done on my computer. I also decided that I really should give the hotel's onsen a try so I headed down for a quick soak before bed. Turns out that they've got a very nice set of pools which are open nearly 24 hours a day.

Wednesday (the 2nd): Ozu and Uchiko
Since I finished my list of Matsuyama sights yesterday (other than that one shrine I never found), today I headed off to check out some nearby towns. First stop, Ozu. It's a little town in the hills that doesn't make it into many tour books. The main attraction is Ozu Castle, but it's a bit of a walk from the station. On my way there, I was approached by an older Japanese woman. Turned out she's studying English conversation as a hobby and wanted to practice. Since we were both going the same direction, we chatted for awhile as we went (to be nice, I avoided Japanese and spoke to her in simple English), so that was kind of fun.
The castle itself is a recent reconstruction of the main tower (most of the original castle burned down long ago). What makes it interesting is that instead of just building a modern building that looks like a castle from the outside (which is what most modern reconstructed castles are), they actually rebuilt it using authentic period materials, tools, and building techniques. Aside from a few modern updates (such as electric lights and fire extinquishers), it's pretty much an exact recreation of the original tower, which is pretty cool.
When looking at a map of Ozu, I noticed an area marked as having a lot of old buildings so I decided to check it out next. While the street in question wasn't at all touristy, it did have quite a lot of old houses. And, while I was wondering around there, I stumbled across Ozu's other attraction, a very pretty old house and garden built by a wealthy merchant. It wasn't all that big but the whole place was extremely picturesque.
That about wrapped it up for Ozu so I caught a train for my next destination, the town of Uchiko. It's a pretty little farming town surrounded by hills/mountains. In addition to produce, it's famous for its old buildings. Since it was around lunch time, I put the touring on hold for a bit and headed to the fresh foods market, sorta a permanent farmers' market. This isn't the best time of year for fresh produce (and I wasn't about to lug a bunch of stuff along on the rest of my trip) but the tour book said there was a really nice restaurant there which served food made from local ingredients. It was a little on the expensive side (though not horribly so) but I've been eating pretty cheaply on this trip and the food was great, featuring lots of little salads and vegetable dishes using local produce. I also stopped by a gelato stand nearby and got a mix of sakura, satsumaimo, and barley (which was surprisingly good).
After lunch it was time to start touring. Uchiko has a long street lined with old buildings, some of which are museums and others are stores. Some sort of cherry drink is made there (not bad but rather sour) but there were a lot of other products for sale too. There not nearly as many souvenir shops are many of the similar areas I've visited, but it was a very nice area. As I walked, I stopped in a couple of small gardens and checked out the wax museum. No, not wax figures, just wax. Turns out that Uchiko was once famous for its wax, which was made from the berries from a certain tree. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, Uchiko wax was even in high demand in Europe and North America. The rise of paraffin wax, however, effectively killed the business and from what I heard there's only one person in the town who still makes wax the traditional way.
At the end of the old buildings, I came to Koshoji Temple. It's a large old building and is famous for the number of monks who used to live there. But I was more impressed by the rather new looking Buddha statue they have nearby. I've seen plenty of sitting Buddhas and standing Buddha's but this was the first sleeping one and it's pretty big too.
On the way back to the train station I stopped at two places I had passed earlier on my way to lunch. The first was a neat little museum in an old house that uses animatronic models and little sound bits (all in Japanese) to show what life was like in the area a couple hundred years ago. And the second was an old kabuki and bunraku theater. While it wasn't all that different from the kabuki theater I saw at Kotohira, they had a few items on display like these geta (Japanese wooden sandals) with extremely high platforms and a bunraku doll (note that it's around four feet tall).
Finally I headed back to Matsuyama, got a quick supper at the shopping arcade, and took one last hot springs bath at my hotel. Tomorrow I'm off to yet another location, but in a rather different way...


2/28/2011 Off to Shikoku

Sorry, no new PV strip today despite the slightly late update (it took a long time to get today's photos and travelogue entries ready to go). Last week was really busy so I burned through my comic buffer and I just haven't had time to make any news ones yet. Hopefully I'll find some time to get caught up later in the week. So let's get right to the travelogue. Oh, quick reminder. Since I'll be changing hotels multiple times, I can't guarantee that I'll always have internet access so Wednesday and Friday's updates may be a bit late or even get skipped entirely (though I'll do my best to avoid that).

Saturday (the 26th): The Night Bus
Today started out normally enough but after services, instead of returning to my apartment, it was off to Tokyo station. I hung out with Yunsoo, Unbee, and Hanbee for a bit in the underground mall near the station then, after they left, got some udon and basically just killed time for a while. Speaking of which, see this statue? My dad took my picture next to it on my first night in Japan. Not sure why, since it wasn't my idea. And it wasn't all that great of a picture anyway so it never made it onto PV but yeah. I never did remember where the thing was and tonight I just happened to run into it.
Anyway, eventually it was time to head outside and find my bus. Yep, bus. I had three options for getting to Shikoku. Bus, train, and plane, and the bus was the cheapest by 5000 Yen. It was also the slowest, but it's an overnight bus and arrives around 7:30 in the morning so that doesn't really matter. The bus itself was pretty big, with two stories and nice reclining seats. It was pretty empty at first, but quite a lot of people got on at the next station, almost filling it up.
At around 11:30 PM, we stopped for half an hour at a roadside rest stop. I'd actually heard a bit about Japan's big fancy rest stops so I decided to take a look around. And yeah, it was big and fancy. The whole place was the size of a small mall and had a convenience store (open 24 hours a day like all Japanese convenience stores), large souvenir shop (also open 24 hours a day), and about a dozen restaurants (a couple of which were open 24 hours a day as well). There was a sign saying that there's a good view of Mt. Fuji from the second floor but, of course, it was way too late at night to see anything. After that I tried to get some sleep though I wasn't overly successful (I usually need to be dead tired to sleep in any sort of moving vehicle and even then it's tough). I zoned out for a while but I'm not sure if I ever really managed to fall asleep.

Sunday (the 27th): Takamatsu
My first view of Shikoku was out the bus window early in the morning. There were lots of pine trees and hills. Towns were small with fairly large houses and a lot of gardens and rice patties. Certainly a big change from Tokyo. Things got a bit more urban when we reached the outskirts of Takamatsu, one of the largest cities on Shikoku with around 670,000 people. That said, it feels slower and more rural than cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, and even Kyoto. For example, I got of the bus near the main train station at around 7:30. I was all set to take a train across the city to my first destination (it opens early) only to find that the trains didn't actually start running till around 8:20. Weekend or not, I've never seen that before. Guess Shikoku is less rushed than Honshu (Japan's main island, home of Tokyo, Kyoto, and every place in Japan I've been before). I thought about waiting but according to the map board my destination was only about a mile and a half away (a bit over two kilometers) without any weird twists or turns so I stashed my backpack in a locker (I decided to pack light and put everything in my pack, instead of bringing a suitcase, so it's pretty heavy) and headed off, stopping only to grab some bread along the way. I'm glad I walked. I ended up arriving around the same time I would have had I waited for the train and I got to look around the city a bit on the way. For example, here's Takamatsu's manhole cover design (I think it has something to do with a famous battle that was fought in the area). And here's a whole bunch of school kids hurrying off to some field trip or special event (no other reason they'd all be in uniform on a Sunday).
Eventually I arrived at Ritsurin Koen. It was built in 1625 (though it was expanded and improved frequently over the following 120 years or so) and is one of the most famous gardens in Japan. It's supposed to offer a new view around every bend and lives up to the hype. It's without question one of the two best gardens I've seen in Japan (the other being Korakoen in Okayama (see my April 9th entry)). Naturally, the ume trees were in full bloom. Even got my picture taken with them. But I've seen tons of ume blossoms lately (though not really deep reddish pink ones like these). But what was really cool about this particular ume grove was the little green birds that were flitting about from tree to tree. They almost seemed to be drinking the nectar from the flowers. Apparently they're native to this area and really love ume trees. But they weren't the only birds in the garden. Moving on, Ritsurin Koen is set at the base of Mt. Shuin (more of a pair of hills than a mountain), which makes for a very nice backdrop. It's very large, featuring numerous ponds and islands and many different types of plants and trees (this particular one is supposed to look like a crane standing atop a turtle). There were some old buildings (all originally built for the garden) as well, like this tea house, and lots of different types of bridges. Oh, see this waterfall? It's actually artificial and was created for the lord to sit and watch when he rested in the garden. Thing is, there's no natural water source for it. These days, the water is supplied by pipes but originally servants had to carry buckets of water halfway up the mountain and pour them into the channel. The garden also houses some nice folk art displays (it seems various types of wood and bamboo carving are very big here) and was just an amazing place to walk around and take in the sights (as a note, the garden is huge and this picture shows maybe a quarter of it at best).
I spent somewhere around three hours there before heading off to my next stop in the town of Yashima. A rather famous battle was fought there but I don't have time to go into Japanese history right now. There were, however, a lot of shrines and statues on the nearby hills dedicated to famous figures from said battle. I got a rather nice view from one. But my real destination was Shikoku Mura. It's one of those outdoor parks / museums where they relocate old buildings. This one specialized specifically in old building from Shikoku island and is set on a forested hillside. Soon after entering, I crossed a traditional vine bridge. Since parts of Shikoku are covered in steep gorges, bridges like this used to be quite common, though these days there are hardly any left. This particular one is reinforced with steel wires but originally they were nothing but vines which were replaced every three years. The vines seemed really sturdy, though the wooden planks were spaced unevenly so you really had to watch your feet. The bridge led me to an old kabuki stage, built by farmers to entertain themselves during festivals and holidays. Speaking of holidays, since Hina Matsuri (Girls' Day) is coming up, it was covered with elaborate sets of Hina Matsuri dolls. There were lots of old farm houses from several hundred years back and some things I hadn't seen before like an old sugar mill (part of Shikoku used to be very famous for its sugar, with the other famous crop in the area being olives) and a stone wall for keeping wild boars and deer out of the farmers' fields. See that hole in front of the wall? It was to trap animals who were looking for a way past. That they, they wouldn't get through and the farmers would get some meat too.
In the middle of the park was an art gallery commemorating some famous Japanese artist, though it did have a couple of works by famous Europeans too. The coolest thing about it, however, was this big water feature. Moving on through trees and bamboo, I come across an old lighthouse and some lighthouse keepers' houses. They were the newest things in the park, being only around hundred years old. Back in the older section, here's a vat for steaming tree bark to make traditional Japanese paper and here's an example of old fashioned plumbing. Oh, you know those straw roofs on the farm houses? They have to be replaced every so often in the traditional way. There was also a nice arched bridge and a little water shrine nearby. This building was a government rice storehouse. See, in the old days the peasants in Japan didn't eat a lot of rice. To many (the government included) wealth was measured primarily in rice rather than gold. Taxes were often paid in rice and whatever rice the farmers had left would be sold, leaving them to eat cheaper grains like barley, buckwheat, and millet. Speaking of food, here's a building where soy sauce used to be made and here's an old fisherman's hut.
By the time I'd finished exploring the village, it was way past lunch time and I was starving. Turns out that Takamatsu's specialty is sanuki udon and there was a nice restaurant set in an old building right outside Shikoku Mura. I got bukkake udon which is udon noodles in broth with green onions and ginger (though the exact ingredient vary a bit by restaurant). I have to say, that was probably the best udon I've ever had. The fresh ginger was an especially nice touch.
After that it was back to Takamatsu to retrieve my backpack and check into my hotel. For some reason, it was cheaper for me to get a twin room than a single, so I actually have a bigger room than I'd get in a lot of US hotels, which is certainly strange here in Japan. But I didn't stay at the hotel for long. I had a bit of time left so I figured I might as well see a nearby park that houses the ruins of Takamatsu castle (one of the few Japanese castles built on the seashore. Not much is left other then the moat and some guard towers. There was a garden too, but after Ritsurin Koen it wasn't particularly impressive. Then I walked through a rather large collection of shopping arcades looking for a place to eat supper. As a note, it seems that most stores here close a lot earlier than in the Tokyo area. Walking around, it was clear that sanuki udon is the popular food here. In fact, it was kind of hard to find anything else so I got some more udon for supper, though this one had beef, egg, and some different vegetables in it. So that makes three of my last four meals udon... I like udon, especially here, but hopefully I can find something else tomorrow...

Monday (the 28th): Kotohira
I woke to to find that it was raining fairly hard but I wasn't about to let that ruin my plans for the day (Thursday is really the only day I absolutely need to have good weather) so I got my things and headed to the town of Kotohira, which is at the base of some hills about an hour from Takamatsu. Kotohira is most famous for the Kotohiragu Shrine, which requires following a path containing 785 steps up a mountain. The first part of the path is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants (sanuki udon, mostly). Almost immediately after starting, I headed off to the side to pay a visit to Japan's oldest surviving kabuki theater. Here's the entry area. The raised platform with the cushion is where the ticket seller sat. The very low door just past it is where the common folk would enter (wealthy and important patrons had a full sized door of their own). The stage is still used for shows a few days a year and everything is done by hand. That includes the trap doors, raising platforms, and revolving stage (the mechanisms for which are operated by several strong men who hang out below the stage. One of the workers there gave me a short tour of the place. He didn't speak any English but I was able to follow most of what said and it was a neat building to look around. Once I'd finished there, it was time to get serious about climbing to the shrine which meant lots of stairs, though there were a lot of level bits as well. On the way up, I came across a stable with some sacred horses. And, if real sacred horses aren't enough, there were a couple other shrines with horse statues too. A bit further up was a building where the monks used to meet with important visitors. What makes it special is the elaborately painted sliding doors lining each room. They were very impressive, but no photos were allowed.
Since I hadn't eaten anything all day, I stopped at a cafe shortly after to grab a snack and get out of the rain for a bit. While there, I played around with a little Japanese boy who was there with his family and then it was back to climbing. Here's Asashiha Shrine, which is a little farther up the mountain. Then, after another bunch of stairs, I finally reached the main Kotohiragu Shrine. As a note, Kotohiragu has been a very important shrine for something like 1000 years or more and many people from all over Japan used to make pilgrimages to it (and still do, for that matter). Some who weren't able to travel to the shrine themselves would send dogs with notes tied around their neck telling of their destination. The people who found such dogs were expected to feed them and then send them on their way. Though I have no idea how the dogs knew where to go...
In addition to the main shrine, there was also a shrine next to it which is dedicated to safe ocean travel. It's lined with photos of the various vessels whose captains credit the shrine for their safe voyages. And then there was the view. While the rain wasn't so great for walking, the view of the town shrouded in mist was pretty spectacular.
Then, since I was there (and hadn't climbed enough stairs yet), I continued onwards towards to Okunoyashiro Shrine, which required following a trail with another four hundred and some stairs (for a grand total of 1,368). Along the way, I caught up to an older Japanese woman who was also making the climb. We ended up walking the rest of the way up to the shrine (where I got to watch the clouds roll over the valley below) and back down together, chatting about Japan, the US, my trip, and the like. I got to say, while I still make mistakes (many of which I catch shortly after), I'm getting fairly happy with my conversational Japanese. At least when it comes to your more standard topics (branch off into some subjects and I'll be completely lost).
After we parted near the bottom (which was right about when it stopped raining), I got a late lunch (more sanuki udon, of course) looked around the souvenir shops a bit (and some other things, like Doctor Fish, where you let fish clean your feet) and, since I had some spare time, checked out a sake museum (FYI: I think that bottle is actually pouring real sake). The museum detailed the traditional sake making process. It was pretty interesting, but I'm glad there was an English pamphlet since my vocabulary of Japanese words relating to sake creation isn't all that good). Predictably, I was given some sake to taste at the end (the museum is part of a brewery). Either it was really good sake or the occasional sips I've taken once in a while to be polite have gotten me a little more used to alcohol. I still didn't like it by any means, but I didn't grimace at the taste either. After that it was time to head back to Takamatsu, though I got one last picture from the platform at Kotohira station.
Back in Takamatsu, I spent some time sorting photos and working on today's travelogue entries and went out for supper (soba and yakitori this time, for a welcome change) but that was about it. Tomorrow I'm off to another part of Shikoku so I've got to get ready.


2/25/2011 Busy days

Sorry for the late update. It's been kind of crazy these last couple days (more on that later). But there is a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM! As I mentioned before, I'll be traveling during the coming week. I'll have my computer but updates may be late and some might even be skipped depending on my internet situation.

Thursday (the 24th): Fish and Electronics
Today is the first day of my vacation that the Narashino Board of Education probably gave me so they could count me as a part time employee and therefor pay me less. But hey, a vacation is a vacation. My big trip is next week so I didn't want to do anything too elaborate today and it's been a while since I spent some serious time in Akihabara so...
My first stop was actually Tsukiji, home of Tokyo's famous fish market. I'd been there once before but it was right after arriving in Japan and really early in the morning at that so I wasn't really at my best. While the fish market itself is all well and good, in my opinion, the collection of shopping streets right out of it is much more fun to explore. Naturally, there's a ton of stalls selling seafood and some other types of food as well (ume and the egg omelets used to make tamago sushi seemed pretty popular), along with some stalls selling kitchen utensils and the like. And, of course, the restaurants. Unsurprisingly, they all specialized in seafood. Sushi was quite popular but there were quite a lot of other seafood dishes available as well. I ended up getting some very good sushi for breakfast and then headed into the fish market itself. The thing to keep in mind about the Tsukiji fish market is, although it has become a bit of a tourist attraction, it's primarily a place of business where store and restaurant owners (and the occasional ordinary person) come to find the best and freshest seafood. So it's busy, the floors are wet, and you need to always watch out for workers and vehicles as you wind your way through the narrow aisles. But, if you obey the rules, and don't mind being surrounded by a whole lot of dead (and a few not so dead) sea creatures, it makes for an interesting place to walk through. I spotted a few sea creatures I never knew existed and I looked at a fairly small portion of the market. Outside of the market, I paid a quick visit to the Namiyoke Inari Shrine. It was built when they were first reclaiming the water covered land that became Tsukiji and supposedly helped protect the area from flooding. Now, it's a popular place for sailors and fishermen to pray. They've also got a couple of giant lion heads, which are used in festivals.
Afterwards, I took a wrong turn on my way to the subway station and ended up walking a bit further than I otherwise would have, but I did get a nice view from a bridge I crossed along the way. Once I finally got back on the right track, I went to my friend Yehoshua's restaurant for lunch (which I normally can't do because of work) and then it was off to Akihabara for the rest of the day. All in all, I had a really good shopping trip. It seems like every time I spend a day in Akihabara I come across a really great store or two that I never knew existed. Plus, I found an awesome game and music store which I remembered from my last time in Japan but hadn't been able to find.
Sadly, the day took a much more somber turn when I returned home to learn that my grandfather, whose health had been declining rapidly over the past week, had passed away. It was expected, and he went peacefully, but I'll really miss him...

Friday (the 25th): Nostalgia
I had been thinking about taking half a day or so to visit Koga and Nogi, the towns were I lived and worked (respectively) during my previous stay in Japan. Today had seemed like a good day for it plus, as it turned out, my bank (the one that I had so much trouble signing up for an account at; see my October 3rd entry) misprinted my name on my bankbook which was making it hard for my new company to deposit my salary so I had to go to Nogi anyway to get that fixed. Watching the scenery change from towering office and apartment buildings to smaller apartment buildings, decent sized houses, and some rice and vegetables fields reminded me just how far out of Tokyo I used to be. While I do like the convenience of being in the city (even if it's just on the outskirts), I have to admit that I do like the quiet, lack of crowds, and nature found in the smaller towns and suburbs. Anyway, I missed the bank at first, but I did find the preschools where I used to teach on Wednesdays and the park were I used to eat lunch on those days. Along with the store where I'd buy lunch and the Nogi Board of Education, where I had a weekly special needs class (also on Wednesdays). I eventually did find the bank as well and they quickly fixed my bankbook. And, while I never thought to do it before, I snapped a picture of one of Nogi's fancy manhole covers. Koga has some too, only with a different design.
Since it used to take me about half an hour to bike between my apartment and main school and the preschools, I took the train to Koga instead and walked from there. Koga hasn't changed much either, aside from a few new stores. My old apartment building looks the same as ever from the outside. Gotta say, while the heating in that apartment was horrible, it had a lot more space and a nicer bathroom than the place I have now. Had its own washing machine too. Anyway, the plaza where I used to do all my shopping has undergone a few changes. The drug store and a couple of clothing stores closed, as has, sadly, the sushi restaurant I used to eat at every week. In their place was a Book-Off, massage parlor, and flea market shop (take the stuff from a flea market and put it on tables in a store and that's pretty much what this way). The Book-Off is a nice addition and the flea market shop was interesting but I could go without the massage parlor, especially since it's the one that replaced my sushi restaurant. The 100 Yen store and grocery store were as great as ever though. The grocery store especially is a lot bigger and nicer than the ones near me now (except for that really big one which is a bit too far away for me to shop at).
Next, I made a brief stop at Nogi Shrine, which is where the Nogi Matsuri is held (see my December 3rd entry). Speaking of which, it's too bad I wasn't here at the right time for last year's festival. I'd probably have running into some of my old students and co-workers there...
Finally, I paid a visit to my old workplace, Nogi Elementary. I got there just as recess was starting. While three of the six grades I taught have already graduated and the fourth will be moving on in another month, I spotted a few students who looked familiar (though it was a bit hard to tell at a distance). It seems that dodgeball is still the game of choice at recess and I hung out for a bit and watched before making my way back to the train station. I was rather disappointed that the current ALT wasn't out playing with the kids like I used to. I hope he/she normally goes out with them. While I didn't go into the school or talk to anyone (I don't work there anymore and I don't know what their schedule was like today so I didn't want to intrude), it was interesting being back. While I'm glad I left Japan when I did the first time (a lot of important things happened while I was in the US), and I'm still positive I made the right choice, I really did enjoy my time at Nogi Elementary and there'll probably always be a little part of me that wishes I'd stayed...
Speaking of moving on, before returning to my apartment I made a stop in Shibuya to pay my rent and turn in my move out notice. While I'm not positive I'll be returning the US in April, there's a good chance it'll happen (I'd have to get a game job here or find a really well paying teaching job to get me to stay). And, even if I do stay in Japan, I'll want an apartment much closer to my job.
Finally, I got back and started working on things, such as getting ready for my week long trip (I leave tomorrow night) and finding hotels for when my parents visit in April. And, of course, writing this travelogue, though I was interrupted by an internet outage part way through...


2/23/2011 Working hard

I don't have any comic related news today so let's move right along to my travelogue.

Wednesday (the 23rd): Preparing for Tests
This has been an interesting week at work (or half week, since my unexplained vacation starts tomorrow). Monday I left my school early in order to spend some time at the Narashino International Association. Basically, my job was to hang out for a while and talk with Japanese people who wanted to practice their English. Apparently, all the ALTs in Narashino take turns going there. The Japanese people where mostly older men and women who had either lived abroad in the past or had taken up English as a hobby. There was one guy who had spent fifteen years living abroad in several different countries due to his work and, between work and leisure, had visited 59 different countries. There was no lesson structure or anything so I basically spent a little over an hour chatting with them about whatever they wanted to talk about.
Then, aside from classes, I spent some time yesterday helping prepare the upcoming English tests (proof reading the questions, mainly). These aren't entrance exams, just regular end of the school year tests. Thing is, the school year doesn't end until late march even though the tests start tomorrow. It seems that, in Japan, the students have a few weeks of classes left after their final exams are finished. I'm not really sure what that is, and it seems like a bad idea (if the exams are finished, the students don't really have a good reason to pay attention in class), but that's the way it's done.
Then today I recorded testing tapes with a couple of the English teachers. Basically I sat in a room with the other teacher and a tape recorder and read a bunch of questions, dialogues, and the like. The tapes will be played to the students during the listening portion of their English tests. I hope the kids do well. I think most of them should, though there's a few who seem pretty hopeless when it comes to English.
On a different note, there was something on the lunch menu today called "candied cheese". As far as I could tell, it was just normal bite sized pieces of cheese (colby, maybe) like you can find on any party platter except that these were circular and individually wrapped into little plastic wrappers just like mints. While I love bite sized pieces of cheese, this was a little ridiculous. I mean, I know good cheese is hard to find in Japan but still...

And that's about it. I have a couple of things planned for tomorrow and Friday (nothing too exciting, but I'll talk about them on Friday), and then it's time for my big Shikoku trip. As a note, while I'm bringing my laptop with me and tried to get hotels with internet access, I can't say for sure how often I'll be able to get online next week so there's a chance that some updates may be late or get skipped, though it hopefully won't come to that.


2/21/2011 A relaxing weekend

As usual, you can vote (using the Top Web Comics banner or button) to see Friday's special bonus comic.

Saturday (the 19th): Eating Out
As a quick append to Friday's RJC on dogs and cats, I saw an ad on the subway for an amusement park for dog owners. It's a whole park (with food and rides and everything) for people to take their dogs to. There were lots of photos of happy people riding carnival type rides while holding their dogs. Maybe people here really are a bit too serious about their pets...
Moving on, being Saturday I didn't do anything too exciting during the day. After services though, I went out to eat with some people from my congregation. We got tempura, which I'm usually not all that fond of, but it was actually pretty good. Guess it's all in how it's made. While I mostly talked to them in Japanese (both for practice and since none of them know much English), I spent some time asking Hunbee (Or is it Hanbee? Hanbi? I have no idea how to properly Romanize Korean...) a bunch of random English questions because she has another test coming up. Unfortunately, English isn't really her strongest subject (at least I hope it's not). It's too bad drawing isn't part of the test since since she does some pretty good manga...

Sunday (the 20th): Around Tokyo
I heard that there's a flea market once a month in Akihabara. Because of the location, I naturally figured it'd be geared towards anime and game stuff and it fit pretty well into one of my Tokyo day plans so off I went. The flea market itself is a lot smaller than the one I usually go to at Oikeibajo but there was a lot of anime stuff (larger figurines, mainly). There was some clothing and knickknacks too but surprisingly not much in the way of electronics. It wasn't bad, but unless you're in the market for a lot of large figurines (like the Figma series and the ones you can win in UFO catcher machines), the Oikeibajo flea market is much better.
I was tempted to stay in Akihabara for a while and do some shopping but a lot of stores weren't open yet and I had an itinerary so I headed off to my next destination. Or I tried, anyway. I ended up missing a turn and wondering around for a while before I found it. I did spot a weird little sign or poster or whatever you want to call it though. I eventually decided to use the GPS on my phone and that led me to the right place. Namely, the Koshikawa Botanical Garden. This probably isn't the best time of year to visit, but they did have a nice ume grove so I got pictures of several different types of ume blossoms. There was actually quite a lot of other plants in bloom as well. There was even a single early blooming sakura (Japanese cherry) tree. Oh, and I can't forget these odd yellow flowers, which also grew on a tree of some kind.
On the way to my next stop, I went through a rather strangely decorated subway station. It felt like it had a bit of a space station vibe going. Or something like that, anyway. Fortunately the Kochikawa Korakuen Garden was much easier to find than the botanical gardens. Dating back to the 1600's, it's the oldest surviving garden in Tokyo and there's a pretty nice walking path that winds its way through the whole thing. Of course, there were a lot of flowers, primarily ume. There were even some rice paddies (though it's a little too early in the year to start planting yet), which were put in long ago to teach a princess about the life and work of the country's farmers. These days, they serve the same purpose, albeit for local school kids instead of princesses. I had a nice stroll and I'd say it's the best of the Tokyo gardens that I've visited.
While there, I was getting pretty hungry since getting lost earlier had put me behind schedule, so I got what looked like a roll or bun of some sort at a shop in the garden. The lady repeatedly warned me that it was sweet, which I thought was kind of odd seeing as there lot's of sweet breads in Japan. Turns out, it wasn't bread at all but something like a roll shaped piece of dried honey comb. It's not something I've seen before and, unsurprisingly, it was pretty good but yeah, a bit sweet to just munch on by yourself...
The last stop on my list was Tokyo Dome City, which is basically the area around Tokyo Dome (the baseball stadium where the Tokyo Giants play). I was there once before with my dad (see my August 17th entry) but we didn't really see much other than the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and it's supposed to be a nice area to walk around, with lots of shops and restaurants and stuff. As you can see from that photo, there's some rides as well and a few other attractions including a circus of some sort. Unfortunately, the rides were closed, though I'm not sure if it was due to something about today, the time of year, or the iffy looking weather. Since it was kind of late for lunch, I got some bread (real bread this time) with satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato) and sesame seeds in it, then walked around a bit. There was a Shonen Jump store there like the one in Yokohama but other than that and the restaurants it was mostly clothing, which doesn't interest me all that much. But I didn't go to Tokyo Dome just to look at the stores. Tokyo Dome City is home to LaQua which is one of Tokyo's most well known onsen (hot springs) spas, along with Odaiba's Edo Onsen Montigiri (see my January 20th entry). While I've been to Edo Onsen a couple of times, I've never been to LaQua so I wanted to give it a try. While Edo Onsen is kind of a theme park of sorts with a faux old Tokyo shopping and dining area and the like, LaQua is more of a straight up spa. In addition to the baths there's some special treatments you can pay for along with a gym (though you need a membership to use it) and a little cafe.
But it's the baths that really matter so, moving on...  After stowing your shoes and getting a wristband and towel token, you go and exchange your token which gets you a set of towels and shirt and pants to wear around the locker room, cafe, etc. While Edo Onsen has a few English explanation signs scattered about, LaQua doesn't. Though if you've been to an onsen or bath house before you should know the drill. The only snag I ran into was figuring out my locker, but that didn't take too long. Once you've changed you can always hang out in the locker room and watch TV or head straight to the baths where you naturally strip down and bring in nothing but your small towel. There's soap, shampoo, and conditioner provided in the washing area and after you'll all clean you're ready for the baths. The inside area has a large hot bath and several smaller ones (hot with jet massagers, really hot, cold, and really cold), three saunas (hot with a TV, really hot, and one that they use for some kind of class), and an area where you can pay extra for some sort of massage or something like that.
On a related note, if you read my RJC on bathrooms (see the April 13th entry), you may recall that I mentioned some public men's rooms are rather lacking in privacy and surmised that in Japan it isn't considered a big deal if a woman sees a man naked (the reverse, however, is a completely different story). Apparently I was right about that. See, the massage staff at LaQua (or at least all the ones I saw) are female. And while the men getting massages do wear a pair of trunks, the men's massage area opens right off of the main bath chamber (where all the naked men are walking around between baths) with no door or curtains or anything. Kinda strange... But moving on, there was also a nice outdoor bathing area (complete with rustic rock lined baths and some bamboo) with a hot pool and a really hot pool. And that about covers it. Other than that, your wristband can be used to pay for vending machine drinks and the like and you just pay the grand total when you leave.
If I had to compare LaQua with Edo Onsen... Edo Onsen is more of an experience and has more fancy baths and special treatments you can get. It's also got all the restaurants and some entertainment and stuff. And it's a good bit bigger, can't forget that. To contrast, LaQua is more straight forward and refined, and less crowded. Though it's also much less English friendly. They've got some sort of health club membership, which might be nice if you lived nearby. For someone visiting though, I'd give Edo Onsen the nod since they both cost about the same price and it gives you a lot more to see and do for your money.
Finally, I wrapped up the day with some sushi and a couple hours browsing around in Akihabra before everything closed. And that's it, for now anyway... I'm off work Thursday, Friday, and all of next week so there'll be quite a lot coming up...


2/18/2011 Random stuff

There's a new bonus comic so vote (using the Top Web Comics banner or button) if you want to see it! New ROM too.

On a random note, I've noticed that in the school where I'm working, there are more girls than boys (usually four or five) in all the first year classes and more boys than girls in all the second year classes. The third year classes, however, are pretty evenly distributed. As long as I'm talking about demographics, each student has a partner in class (they have their desks next to each other and work together in pair based activities). They don't choose their partner, they're assigned by the school. Though I'm not really sure if they're assigned randomly or handpicked. And, whenever possible, pairs are always boy/girl. There are only same gender pairs if there aren't enough boys or girls. Finally, if there's an odd number of students, the last one will be added to one of the other pairs to form a group of three.

Random Japan Comment: Dogs & Cats
While I haven't looked up statistics, dogs and cats seem to be the most popular pets in Japan. Though I have seen some stores selling fish, birds, and somewhat more exotic pets like ferrets. Actually, there might be more ornamental koi out there than anything else, but they're mostly in parks and gardens, not private residences, so I don't think they really count as pets.
Anyway, dogs and cats. As I've previously mentioned, Japanese people are obsessed with pretty much anything that's cute. Cats especially fit the bill and I've seen some girls who are absolutely crazy about them (just say the word cat and they'll be looking everywhere for one). There are some stray cats in Japan, but they seem to be much less common than in the US and, since many Japanese people live in small apartments or houses without much of a yard, they tend not to let their cats roam around outside like some people in the US do.
As for dogs, small dogs are certainly more popular than large ones (mainly due to the afore mentioned small apartments and houses) though I've have seen the occasional person walking with a fairly large dog. Japanese breeds such as the shiba inu are the most common but you'll see the occasional American and European breed as well. I'm not sure if it's natural or done by breeders, but all Japanese dog breeds have tails that curl up and around in a loop.
I read a newspaper article once that a lot of unmarried women in Japan (and some married ones as well) like to keep little dogs as a substitute for children. I'm not sure how true that is but a lot of the dog owners I see are women in their 30's. And said dogs are almost always tiny, immaculately groomed, and dressed in ridiculous outfits. For that matter, I think at least half the dogs I've seen while in Japan have been wearing clothes of some kind... I read another article about how a lot of Japanese dogs are spoiled and fed really fancy food all the time, which isn't good for their teeth, so there's been a growing market for dog dentists. Kinda strange, for sure. Though, from what I've heard, the Japanese press often likes to make a mountain out of a mole hill when it comes to new trends and lifestyles so maybe all the dog babying isn't as widespread as I've heard.
As a final note, Japanese sound effects are different than English ones so dogs and cats in comics go wan wan and nyaa instead of woof woof and meow respectively.


2/16/2011 Getting things done

It ended up snowing most of Monday night with the end result being that I had to trudge through a whole lot of slush on my way to work yesterday morning. The sun came out during the afternoon and melted all of it though. I've been working hard these last few days trying to get some things done. Monday afternoon I left work early to go back to the immigration center to get my visa, after which I immediately got a re-entry permit (just in case). Nothing too exciting there, just a lot of waiting in lines mostly. Then I hurried back to my apartment both because of the snow and because I needed to finish my rirekishou (Japanese resumes). It took a while but I managed to do so. Then, I left work early again on Tuesday (though this time the whole school closed early due to a big teachers' meeting so I didn't have to get special permission) and headed to the city office to pick up my gaijin card, get it changed to reflect my new visa, and sign up for Japan's national health insurance (a requirement, and a little tricky since all the forms were in Japanese). So yeah, there was a lot of forms and a lot more waiting in line before I finally finished. At that point, I rushed back to my apartment to pick up my rirekishou, made a mad dash for the post office, and managed to arrive a few minutes before it closed so I could send them out. Which is good because the post office is only open until 5 and only on work days, making it impossible for me to go most of the time. Now that I finally managed to get all of that finished I can relax a bit, though just a bit since I've got a lot of online job applications I need to work on and the King of the Forums contest will be starting on the PV forums next week... But anyway, I'm glad to have the visa and rirekishou stuff done.

I also spent a good part of yesterday and today giving individual tests to my first grade classes. Basically I'd be out in the hall with a bunch of cards with questions on them then the students would come out one at a time, choose three cards, and then I'd ask them the questions. The majority of them did fairly well, and it was fun (though a bit cold since the hallways here are freezing). Luck certainly played a part though, as some of the questions were a lot easier than others.

Random Japan Comment: Personal Pronouns
When it comes to Japanese, you can learn a lot about a person by the way they refer to themselves. In English, if you want to talk about yourself you use the word "I" or "me". In Japanese, however, there's a number of different personal pronouns to choose from and, while they all translate to "I" or "me", all of them say something different about the speaker's personality.
watashi: Watashi is the sort of general all around good personal pronoun. It's plain but it's safe, simple, and polite no matter the situation.
watakushi: This is a very polite personal pronoun so you don't hear a lot of people using it regularly. Instead, it's mainly used when talking to someone of a much higher station than the speaker (since the speaker wants to be as polite to that person as possible). If someone did use it as their main personal pronoun, however, it would indicate that they're extremely polite and humble, or maybe a really big suck-up.
atashi: Atashi is considered the "cute" personal pronoun. As such, it's used primarily by girls and young women. While watashi is also commonly used among girls, many use atashi instead to make themselves sound more cute and girly. Boys and tougher girls, however, never use it.
boku: Just like atashi is the famine personal pronoun, boku is the masculine one. It's a little tough, a little boyish, and not really polite. While it's primarily used by men of all ages, tomboys and girls who want to sound a bit tougher and more assertive then usual will also use boku. Though doing so is considered rather unladylike.
ore: This one is like a super version of boku. It's manly, it's rough, it's tough, and it's even a little rude. While ore is traditionally the "tough guy" personal pronoun, a lot of boys and young men use it these days in an attempt to sound more masculine and grown up. Though a lot of them will switch to a more polite personal pronoun (such as watashi) when talking to a teacher, boss, or other important person. Girls never use ore unless they're really tough (or at least want to sound that way) and don't care at all about proper manners.
Third Person: In Japan, very young children often refer to themselves in the third person (perhaps because they haven't figured out personal pronouns yet). But they're not the only ones who do so. It's become popular for some girls and young women to refer to themselves in third person as well (usually using their first name). It's considered a very cute and somewhat childish thing to do which fits right in with Japan's obsession with cute things of all kinds and their general image of childhood being the "ideal" age (as opposed to the US, which generally thinks of the ideal as as early to mid 20's). There's also a bit of a connotation of the speaker not wanting to grow up, since they haven't moved on to more "mature" forms of speech.
As you can see, the personal pronoun someone chooses can say a lot about them. In anime, I find it rather interesting to note how each character refers to him or herself and how that reflects on their general attitude and personality, as that subtext is completely lost in English.


2/14/2011 Yokohama

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On a random note, they were demoing the Nintendo 3DS at a store I was in the other day. All they had was a very limited function version of Nintendogs and Cats, but it was enough to check out the 3D effects. I have to say that it was impressive. While stuff doesn't really pop out of the screen, it has a very good 3D look to it (much like current 3D movies) and there are no glasses required. You do have to be looking at the screen pretty much straight on though, as the effect falls apart pretty quickly if you tilt the screen or try to look at it from the side. I doubt it's going to change gameplay much, if at all, but it's certainly cool to look at.

Sunday (the 13): Yokohama
I was originally thinking of going to Odaiba with some people from my congregation today but one was sick and another has a big test to study for so that didn't work out. Instead, I took advantage of the good weather and headed to Yokohama. Yokohama is a large port city a little to the South of Tokyo (actually, it could almost be a part of greater Tokyo). I went there several times when I was in Japan before (see my August 30th entry for my first visit there). I had two main stops planned for today, the first being Sankeien Garden. I was there before (see my Feb 10th entry) but it was really nice and I was having serious camera problems back then (it was actually that day I decided I needed a new one). Also, this was a good day to go since they were having their ume blossom festival (which I accidentally stumbled across during my last visit). Ume are Japanese plums and are often pickled and eaten as is or turned into a paste. Either way they're extremely sour and salty. They're also used to make a fairly popular alcohol (umeshu) and a pretty good ice cream. Strangely enough though, I've never seen them raw... Anyway, ume trees bloom pretty early in the year with white or pink flowers. While they're not quite as spectacular as Japan's famous cherry trees (which I'll doubtless be taking lots of pictures of come late March / early April), the ume blossoms are still very pretty. Aside from looking at the flowers, they had a little stage with music and various other performances throughout the day, which made for a nice background while walking around the garden. There was also a bonsai tree exhibit and some guys making mochi (a glutenous, uh, substance made from rice). Basically making mochi involves pounding very wet rice with mallets (with someone folding the mochi between strikes) and then lightly cooking the resulting paste. Mochi is very chewy and doesn't have a really strong taste. It's used in a lot of Japanese sweets and some soups. It's also eaten topped with things like kinako (soy flour) or anko (sweet azuki bean paste). The texture can take a little getting used to but I like mochi as do most of the people I've introduced it to.
Anyway, after pausing to listen to the music and eat some mochi, I started walking around the garden. Sankeien is a pretty nice garden in an of itself, but it also contains a few old buildings that were relocated there from various parts of Japan. Here, for example, is an old farm house. See the tea kettle in the "kitchen"? And here are some fancier houses complete with large tatami rooms and painted doors. There were also some old temples, a pagoda, and a tea stall. The stall was originally used to serve free tea to people visiting the garden. The practice stopped around World War II, but they started it up again in the 80's after they found the old tea kettle, though only during the ume viewing season. I love Japanese barley tea and it's even better when brewed in a big kettle over an open fire.
There's also a bamboo lined path leading to a viewing platform. Since the weather was so good I was even able to see Mt. Fuji, which was cool since the sky is rarely clear enough for that. It's too bad there's all that industrial stuff in the foreground, but I still got some pretty good views.
I spent a pleasant morning wandering around the garden before heading to my next destination. On the way, I ran into a bunch of signs advertising Google Android phones, which are only just now being released in Japan. There's a big ad campaign underway for them right now. It seems that both the Japanese guy from Inception and Darth Vader think they're awesome. Oh, and as long as we're talking about signs, it seems that Yokohama's subway is quite proud of its air conditioning, seeing as there were quite a lot of signs like this. Anyway, I eventually made it to the Yokohama Ramen Museum for a rather late lunch. Actually, although the name says museum, the brochure claims that it's the world's first food amusement park... Anyway, the inside is themed after 1958 Tokyo, complete with narrow alleys, old store fronts, and old movie posters (1958 was the year instant noodles were invented). Yes, Tokyo has changed quite a lot in 50 years. Though I suppose most US cities have as well... But that's besides the point. There isn't a whole lot of museum here other than a display (all in Japanese) tracing the history of ramen in Japan. The main draw is its nine ramen restaurants, each of which is a copy of a famous ramen restaurant from a different part of Japan. Each restaurant features its signature ramen and usually one or two variations along with a small bowl option for people who want to try out as many of the different kinds of ramen as possible. Actually, you even got a prize if you fill out a punch card by eating at every restaurant over the course of a month or two. There are four basic kinds of ramen: pork based, shoyu (soy sauce) based, miso based, and salt based though there's quite a lot of variation in the noodles, spices, and added ingredients. For someone like me, who doesn't eat pork, ramen is rather tricky since the pork based kind is the most common at many restaurants and pork slices are a pretty frequently used topping on ramen of any kind, but I was able to find a restaurant with a really great chicken ramen and the museum certainly gets high marks for atmosphere. It's also very popular around meal times. When I was there, most of the restaurants had waits of 15 - 40 minutes. For true ramen lovers, the gift shop even lets you create your own custom box of instant ramen, complete with your picture on the cover.
I didn't have anything else in particular planned for the rest of the day so I headed to downtown Yokohama. Aside from featuring this old ship and one of the world's largest ferris wheels (in the background), it's home to quite a lot of malls and shopping centers, like the one in Yokohama Landmark Tower (the tallest building in the city). It's a pretty fancy mall but it also has a Pokémon Center (which is much less crowded than the Tokyo one) and, since I was last there, they added a Shonen Jump store (featuring lots of graphic novels and merchandise based on popular Jump manga) and a store with a lot of Ghibli stuff. I also ran across a very oddly named Disney related shop and a big valentine's day event. As a note, Valentine's works differently in Japan. It's a day when women give chocolate to the guy they like and often their male friends and co-workers as well (there are different kinds of chocolate depending on whether they're giving it romantically or as an obligation). While most women buy chocolate, it's supposed to be a lot more romantic if you make it yourself. Guys don't have to give anything on Valentine's. Instead, they give presents next month on White Day. Incidentally, the introduction of Valentine's to Japan and the creation of White Day were the work of Japan's candy makers association.
Landmark Tower has quite a lot of restaurants too but since I'd had a pretty late lunch, I decided to just get dessert. They've got one of Japan's few Cold Stones (the ice cream chain where you get stuff mixed in with your ice cream). And it features some Japanese flavors and mix-ins that you won't find in the US (like green tea and azuki ice creams, matcha powder as a mix-in, etc). After that, I just slowly made my back to Yokohama Station, stopping in the occasional store along the way. I could have stayed a bit longer but I'd done everything I wanted to and it was a fairly long train ride back to my part of Tokyo so that seemed like a good time to wrap things up.


2/11/2011 Holiday!

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Friday (the 11th): Bunraku
The weather hasn't really improved since Wednesday. Actually, it's gotten a lot worse. It's been snowing all day today, though none of it is sticking,, and it's supposed to do the same tomorrow. Sunday is supposed to be nice though, but then there's another lousy day or two after that. Anyway, today is National Foundation Day, a holiday to commemorate the founding of the modern nation of Japan. It's one of those holidays that schools and stuff close for but no one really does anything on. So I had the day off and, fortunately, my plan involved indoor stuff, so the snow wasn't too much of a problem.
Now, Japan has three types of traditional theater, kabuki, noh, and bunraku. While all three are still around, kabuki is the most popular so it has the most shows and is the easiest to see. You may remember that my mom and I saw a kabuki show last time I was in Japan (see my March 26th entry). Anyway, on this trip I wanted to be sure to check out at least one of the other two styles. With a bit of research, I discovered that there's a theater in Tokyo which does a lot of noh and bunraku performances throughout the year. Unfortunately, noh just didn't work with my schedule but I was able to get a ticket for today's bunraku performance. So off I went through the snow to the theater.
By now you're probably wondering what bunraku is. Bunraku is a type of puppet theater that became popular in the Osaka area in the early 1700's. I wasn't allowed to photograph the performance, but here's a picture of the cover of my program, so you can get an idea of what the puppets look like. Now, each of these puppets is around three or four feet tall and requires three puppeteers working in perfect sync. One controls the legs and feet, one the left arm, and one (the head puppeteer) the right arm and head. They're dressed all in black and all but the head puppeteers wear black hoods as well. The idea is for you to ignore the puppeteers (black is the color of invisibility in Japanese theater) and just watch the puppets. As you can hopefully tell from that picture, the puppets are highly detailed. They also have a pretty remarkable range of movement and were able to perform a lot of really complicated moves. Thanks, of course, to the skilled puppeteers who, from what I heard, start training at age fifteen and can spend decades slowly working their way through the ranks before becoming head puppeteers. The show I saw was comprised of three scenes from two different plays. Like kabuki, bunraku performers these days rarely do entire plays, instead focusing on popular scenes from them. I'm not entirely sure what the reason is. Maybe full plays are too long? The stories were both based heavily on Japanese mythology (one involved a man marrying a kitsune (magical fox) and the other was about the legendary mountain hag). However, the puppeteers don't actually speak doing the performance. All the dialogue is supplied by a narrator who chants everything to the tune of a shamisen (a three stringed Japanese instrument). For some scenes, they have multiple narrators and shamisen players but in general it's just one of each. Trying to figure out chanted old fashioned Japanese isn't easy (there was actually a screen which displayed the words for the audience to read). Fortunately, I rented a very nice English audio guide which, while it didn't have a line by line translation, did a good job of explaining what was going on and also filling in some background information on the play and the legends it was based on. The whole thing lasted for around three hours, including a half hour intermission where everyone went and got lunch from the stalls in the theater (I got a Japanese bento (boxed lunch) with pickled vegetables and rice balls). All in all, it was quite an interesting way to spend a few hours.
By the time the play was over I only had a few hours left till sunset (for religious reasons, I don't shop, eat out, or anything like that after sunset on Fridays) and it was snowing even harder so I spent a bit of time walking around Shibuya looking for a big book store I thought was there. I never did find it (might have been confusing Shibuya with Shinjuku) but I did get an overnight bus ticket for my big trip at the end of the month, found a few nice stores, and got a couple of pictures of Shibuya in the snow. I spotted a couple of interesting signs while I was out too. Like this unusually named bar and this new take on an old saying.


2/9/2011 Weather...

Just when there'd been a couple of warm days and I was starting to think that the weather would be getting fairly nice, it pulled a 180. The last couple of days have been cold and cloudy. It rained a little last night and this morning and it's currently fairly windy. It even snowed for a little while earlier today, which is pretty rare around here. I guess spring is still a ways off.

Random Japan Comment: Business Hours
In the US, it's hard to find a store or restaurant that doesn't clearly post its hours on the door. In Japan, that's a bit less common. A lot of places either don't list their hours or don't feature said listing very prominently. So when exactly is stuff open? Naturally it depends on the place in question. Stores tend to open between 9 and 11 (depending on the type of store and which day of the week it is) and close at 8. Except for grocery stores, book stores, and some random other places, which often close at 9 but may stay open as late as 11. Restaurants that serve breakfast (especially those near train stations) tend to open very early (at least on weekdays) but the rest wait till between 11 and 12. While some will also close at 8, a lot stay open until at least 10. And, for a few random notes...
Grocery stores tend to discount a lot of their remaining meat and bento (prepared meals) shortly before closing time so that's a good time to hang around if you want to bargain shop.
Museums are often closed on Mondays, unless the coming Tuesday or Wednesday is a holiday, in which case they'll close then and stay open on Monday.
While many stores and restaurants are open seven days a week, if they're going to close for a day it will most likely be Monday.
Any sort of government office keeps very short hours, closing no later than 5 and remaining closed during weekends.
Post Offices also tend to close early (between 5 and 6), making it nearly impossible for anyone with a regular job to ever visit them during working hours. This is further complicated by the fact that I've yet to see a post office with an automated stamp selling machine.
Except for museums, post offices, and government offices, most things stay open on national holidays. The one major exception being New Years. Nearly everything shuts down on January 1st and many place stay closed for the following several days as well (though some stores open early to get a start on their big "Post New Years" sale.
Convenience stores such as 7/11 and Lawson are open 24 hours a day 365 days a year.
So yeah, it's not too bad. Song long as you don't every need to visit a city office or post office anyway. I wonder if these things are all designed around the idea of a multi-person household...


2/7/2011 Unusual Museums

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Sunday (the 6th): Animation and Old Buildings
I didn't do anything out of the ordinary Saturday other than walk around Ningyochou a bit more and eat (I was right, there's a lot of nice restaurants there) so let's get right to Sunday.
My first stop of the day was a place I've been wanting to visit since my first time in Japan but never got to due the difficulty of getting tickets. I'm talking about the Studio Ghibli Museum. Just in case you don't know, Ghibli is the Japanese animation studio led by industry legend Hayao Miyazaki. It's created many best selling and critically acclaimed movies including Ponyo, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro, to name a few. I'm a big fan and one reason I joined the Disney Movie Club a while back was so I could easily fill out my collection of Ghibli movies (Disney handles their releases in the US).
But anyway, tickets. See, you can't just walk up to the museum and buy a ticket. You need to get them in advance. If you live outside of Japan, they can be gotten through a number of travel agencies. If you're already in Japan, however, you have to get them via the ticket machines found at every Lawson convenience store. The machines are all in Japanese and the process is a little complicated. I even ended up getting stuck for a couple minutes at one point. Anyway, when you buy your tickets you have to choose a specific day and time period when you want to enter the museum (mine was today at 10).
The museum is in Mitaka, a mostly residential area on the West end of greater Tokyo. It looked like a nice place, not that I had a ton of time to look around. The museum itself was an interesting building set in a large park. There was a line to get in, but since everyone already had their tickets and assigned entry times it really didn't take long. Unsurprisingly, pictures weren't allowed in most of the museum, the only real exceptions being outdoor areas like the rooftop garden where everyone (myself included) wanted to get their photo taken with the robot from Castle in the Sky. The inside of the building was pretty cool too though, with lots of different building styles, tiny passages leading here and there, and the like. And everywhere you looked there some some interesting painting, object, or other small detail (like this window stuffed with soot balls). The main attractions on the bottom floor were a room on traditional animation techniques (including things like spinning image wheels and multi-plane layouts) and a theater which shows a special Ghibli short film. They make a new one every year or so and, as far as I know, the museum is the only place you can see them. The current one was a nice little tale about an egg girl and a creature made of bread dough trying to escape from a witch. As you'd expect from Ghibli, the animation was excellent and the whole thing was very well done. The second floor had displays about the making of all their special museum films and a bit about the animation process. There was also a series of rooms made to resemble rooms in Ghibli Studios, the walls of which were plastered with original production sketches, key frames, paintings, reference photos, and other amazing pieces of art. The third floor contained a kids play area (featuring an enormous stuffed version of the cat bus from Totoro) and a couple of stores (one for books and another for everything else). There was also a cafe (I tried kashisu (some kind of current) ice cream, which wasn't bad), some sitting areas, the afore mentioned rooftop guardian, and way too many little things to look at and play with then I can list here. As a fan, it was a fun way to spend a couple of hours and everyone who visits the museum gets a souvenir ticket containing a few frames of film from a Ghibli movie.
After I'd finished their I took the train a couple more stops to Musashi Koganei and headed for my next destination. On the way, I ran into a local matsuri (festival). Seems like there's always at least one or two of these things going on somewhere in Japan, though some are a lot more impressive than others. This festival had something to do with local sake makers and wasn't all that big but there was a bunch of good food available (which you can pretty much always count on at Japanese festivals) so I snacked on random things for lunch before finally making my way to the Edo Tokyo Tatemono Museum.
If you read my previous travelogue, you might remember that my mom and I went to an outdoor museum that featured a number of old buildings which have been relocated so you can look at and walk through them (see my April 4th entry). Well this was the same type of thing (though not nearly as big as the one we went to back then). This particular museum focused specifically on buildings from Tokyo. Quite a lot were from the early to mid 1900's (it's amazing how much Japan has changed just since then) but some were from several hundred years ago. To give you a couple of quick walkthroughs of sorts, here's a mansion which was built by a very powerful family. Although the building itself was built only around 60 years ago, it was done in traditional Japanese style and incorporated some rooms and structures from much older buildings also owned by the family. After the palaces in Kyoto, this was easily the most ornate Japanese home I've ever seen. It was very big and just about every door, screen, and cabinet featured elaborate paintings like the ones in the previous two pictures. It was three stories high and had a large garden as well. As a contrast, here's a farmer's house from a few hundred years ago. Note the solid wood floors in the kitchen / dining area and the cooking pit. There were also a couple of rooms with tatami floors which would be the living room, bedrooms, and guest room as needed (since people usually sat on the floor and futon beds were rolled up and stored whenever they weren't in use, tatami rooms tended to serve multiple purposes. Even today, most Japanese houses (and larger apartments) will include at least one tatami room (often used as a sitting area) and more traditional houses will use tatami in the vast majority of the rooms.
There were some interesting non-building things scattered around as well like early blooming trees, this stone with the three monkeys motif, and a mausoleum built several hundred years ago for the wife of a shogun. And the other end of the park had a lot of old stores and businesses including a bar, soy sauce store, umbrella shop, and stationary store. And, since I know I'm never going to be taking any photos inside of an active bath house, here's the next best thing. This one is rather old but it should at least give you a basic idea of the layout. First off is the entry way, with doors leading into separate areas for men and women (not shown in this photo, a large number of shelves for shoes). Here's one of the changing rooms. Customers leave their clothes and other belongings in a basket while bathing (these days, most bath houses have actual lockers). Finally, here's one of the bathing areas (the other is on the opposite side of a wall on the right). Not the row of faucets (there's actually several stretching back for quite a ways) which are used to fill buckets you pour over yourself during your pre-bath wash (these days, most baths also have shower heads higher up to make things simpler). And, of course the baths themselves. What you can't tell from that picture is that some of them are quite deep (I could stand up in one of them and only my head and shoulders would be above the water). Once again, more modern bath houses are a bit nicer and tend to include things like baths with messaging water jets, an outdoor pool, and a sauna or steam room. Just think, fifty years ago a very large portion of Japan's population regularly went to places like this to bathe and many still do today as well.
Moving on, there was also a little park like area where volunteers helped kids try out some traditional Japanese toys like stilts, spinning wheel things (which are native to several different parts of the world), and string tops (you wrap the string around the top then yank it off really fast to make the top spin).
After finishing at the museum, I still had a few hours before all the stores closed so I spent some time at Nakano Broadway (which was on my way back anyway) and ended up running across a nice little Thai restaurant while I was there. Oh, and here's a couple things to add to the list of unusual vending machine drinks I've tried. First up is Bikkle. It's tan, comes in a glass, and tastes like... Actually it doesn't taste like much of anything I've ever had before and I can't figure out much about what's in it other than calcium and magnesium. It's interesting, but I'm definitely not a fan. I also tried a tea made from some kind of black bean. It actually wasn't too bad, but isn't anything I'm likely to buy again either.


2/4/2011 Staying busy

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Friday (the 4th): Random Stuff
If you were wondering, I did get the visa stuff all taken care of on Wednesday. Since I'd already filled out all the forms, all I actually had to do was hand them to the person behind the counter. Which really begs the question, "why couldn't I just mail them instead?" Anyway, now I have to wait for a postcard from them telling me that my visa application was approved so I can go pick it up (and pay for it). Another thing that really shouldn't require an in-person visit. I suppose that, unlike Heart, Joytalk must do all this for their ALTs since all I had to do back when I worked for them was go to my city office (once with a Joytalk guy and once by myself) to get my gaijin card. But yeah, if all goes well I have one more trip to the immigration office and two to the city office remaining.
Seems I was actually a little sick on Wednesday as well and I ended the day with a big headache in addition to the previously mentioned problems. Fortunately, I improved a whole lot on Thursday and, a lingering cough aside, I'm totally better today (thank you Morinda Supreme). Can't say that for the rest of the school though as several teachers are out sick and half of the rest are wearing masks (as are many of the students). I guess it's flu season here (though the Japanese use the full word, influenza).
Unfortunately the combination of visa stuff and getting sick slowed down my progress on my rirekishou. I've decided to send out six (partly because they take so long to fill out and partly because that's how many suitable photos I have to attach to them) though I'll be applying to a few other Japanese companies that accept online applications as well.
On a completely different topic, they play Top of the World over the PA system at Narashino #1 JHS (junior high school) every morning when the kids are coming in. I've been wondering what the reason is behind that particular song choice. Are they trying to say that attending school here is so great that students should feel like they're on top of the world? Are they trying to say that students should start dating? Am I reading too much into it? Probably. More likely the principle or some other important faculty member just really likes the song.
And on one more totally different topic, did you know that CODs are still pretty common in Japan? Do you even know what a COD is? COD is short for collect on delivery. It means that you pay for something when you receive it instead of when you order it. I got to give it a try the other day. See, there's this one game I've been unable to find anywhere because it's really rare so I finally decided to check some Japanese online stores for it. I ended up finding a copy for a good price but my credit card was repeatedly refused so I decided to give the whole COD thing a try. I was even able to choose a specific time frame when the delivery man would come (something you can do with all mail in Japan that requires the recipient to be present in order to collect it). When he showed up, I paid him in cash and that was that. The credit card would have been a bit easier, but it all worked out ok anyway.

Random Japan Comment: Masks
You'll see a lot of people in Japan wearing face masks over their mouth and nose. But the masks don't mean they're scared of germs or have some horrible illness. Actually, if someone is extremely sick they'll most likely stay at home. For everyone else though, skipping work or school due to things like a common cold or mild case of the flu is heavily frowned upon. So, when Japanese people feel even the tinniest bit sick, they just put on a mask and go about their daily business. The purpose of the masks, if you haven't guessed it yet, is to hopefully prevent the spread of germs to others (Japanese people are nothing if not considerate).
The most common masks are disposable white paper ones (which come in several slightly different shapes) though you'll also see fancier cloth masks (both store bought and handmade) which feature all sorts of different designs. I'm not entirely sure how much the masks help as people have to take them off when eating or drinking and, in many cases, you're most contagious before you start showing signs of sickness, but it's nice not having to worry about people on the train coughing or sneezing on you.


2/2/2011 Yawn...

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Wednesday (the 2nd): A Little Out of It
Ugh... This isn't one my better days. I'm tired (understandable since I've got to wake up at 6 every morning on week days and didn't sleep so well last night), a bit sore (I was running a few minutes Monday and Tuesday so I had to do a mix of jogging and really fast walking to get to the train station on time, and, to top it off, I had four first year classes in a row yesterday so I had to do a lot of very loud talking and I seem to have strained my vocal cords a bit (not good since I have four more classes, though with the more subdued third years, in a row today). Outside of physical stuff, I need to make sure I'm at my apartment tonight between 6 and 9 (totally doable, but I'll need to leave work right at quitting time), and I need to find a time to go to the Tokyo immigration office soon (which is kinda far away and has even more inconvenient operating hours than the city office) to turn in some papers for my work visa (which is going to require missing another several hours of work). So yeah, you'll have to forgive me for not being in a very talkative mood. But here's a short RJC to tide you over.
And hold on... While I may be feeling a bit worn down today, one of the third year Japanese English teachers is actually sick and needed to leave early so most of my classes for the day got canceled. While, to some extent, I'd rather sit around the teachers' room at school for the rest of the day, that makes this the perfect day to go to the immigration office.
On an interesting note, when I end up getting permission to leave early less than a full day or two in advance, it's too late for them to cancel my school lunch so they say I should wait and leave after the lunch period. I don't really have a problem with that, but I'm kinda curious as to the reason. Many classes end up with some left over food (which is usually divided up by hungry students) so I don't think that's the reason. Maybe they want to make sure I'm eating properly (though I'd probably get a better meal if I ate elsewhere since there's usually one or two things in the school lunch that I can't eat). Or maybe they want to make sure that I'm not wasting the 200 or 300 hundred yen I'm paying for the lunch. Or am I? I had to pay a little for lunch at my last school but I'm actually not sure if I need to here or not since no one told me and it would be deducted from my salary (and I don't get my first paycheck for another three weeks). Anyway, now I need to hurry this up for another reason entirely so on with the RJC!

Random Japan Comment: Rirekishou
A rirekishou is a Japanese resume (though they're more likely to recognize the British term C/V than resumé) and, like any professional document in Japan, it's highly standardized and there's lots and lots of rules about exactly how to fill out your rirekishou. Note that I said fill out, not create. Unlike American resumes (which have a few basic templates that can be used or ignored at your preference), there is actually an official rirekishou form which you buy at stationary stores and then fill out. And, while some Japanese companies have kept up with the times and accept job applications via e-mail or web forms, quite a lot of them (even big high tech companies) only accept applications by mail. But that's not such a big deal, right? You just need to blow a a thousand yen or so on stamps and paper then print your rirekishou and send them out, right? If only it were that easy. Like I said, the rirekishou is a special form that you buy so it's not something you put in a printer. You have to fill out the entire thing (between two and four pages, depending on how much supplementary information you need to include) by hand. And, of course, if you want to do things properly, even foreigners should fill out their rirekishou in Japanese. Not sounding so easy anymore, huh? Especially if you want to apply to more than a handful of companies. Fortunately, companies that hire a lot of foreigners (English teaching companies, for example) accept normal English resumes but if you want to apply to something else (like the Japanese video games companies I'm applying to), get ready for a whole lot of writing. Oh, and don't forget that you need to stamp your resume with your hanko (see my October 3rd entry) and stick on a properly sized photo of yourself (available in any photo both for 700 yen pet set of six) in professional clothing, against a plain white background, staring straight at the camera, and not smiling. And, of course, some companies will want you to send in more than just a rirekishou (this extra material, as far as I know, is ok to print instead of hand write), but it's certainly the main part of any application package.


1/31/2011 End of the month

It's the end of January which also means I've been back in Japan about a month now. Doesn't exactly feel that way but I've been running around a lot and work days have a tendency to blur together a bit... So what's coming up In February? Well, I'm going to get serious about job hunting again. While I'm not going to completely rule out more English teaching, I really want a game design or writing job (either in Japan or the US) so, lousy economy or not, I'll give it another try. This week I'm going to work on sending out resumes to Japanese companies (speaking of which, I might write a RJC on Japanese resumes some time) and then, when that's done, I'll focus on US ones. Due to not only the language barrier but the massive amount of time it takes to craft a proper Japanese resume, I'll only be sending out a handful of them (compared to quite a lot for US companies), but we'll see what happens. Hopefully come the end of February or mid-March at latest I'll have a good idea of where I'm going to be and what I'm going to be doing. Worst case, I could always go back to school in the fall and get another degree (probably something in very high demand like network security). Or hey, maybe Car Washer will finally get released and sell well enough that I can kinda do my own thing. Though it seems everything related to it progresses far slower than it should... Anyway, on with the travelogue!

Saturday and Sunday (29th and 30th): Shopping and Hanging Out
I'm afraid I didn't do anything too exciting this weekend (got a lot of plans for next week though). Saturday night after services were over, I headed to Shinjuku to pay my rent for next month. Of course, Shinjuku is nowhere near my apartment, but the rental company's office is there and they only accept payment in person. A bit inconvenient, but since I was there I decided to walk around a bit. Shinjuku is a rather major area of Tokyo and is especially known for its night life so the area around the station is really lit up after dark. There's a whole lot of stores and restaurants there (and a rather oddly named capsule hotel; see my March 8th entry for more on capsule hotels) so I stopped to grab some sushi too. If you go a bit further you'll come across an area with a whole lot of bars, night clubs, and the like. There were also a lot of hostess bars, where you can get really overpriced drinks while chatting with a cute girl (and probably buying her some of those same overpriced drinks). And yes, it's just talking. The appeal is that the girls are cute and friendly and act very interested in whatever the customer is talking about. I think they're mainly popular with older business men. Women aren't left out either, as there are also host clubs where they can get overpriced drinks while chatting with handsome young men. I've heard that there's some other streets in the same general area with clubs and businesses which are considerably more risque (and often considerably less legal) but I really don't know anything about that other than what I've read in some tour books (which understandably don't go into a lot of detail).
Anyway, after I'd finished walking around, I still had a little time before the stores started to close (eight o'clock, with a few exceptions) so I made a brief stop at Nakano Broadway since it was only several minutes away. I only had about forty minutes there, but it was worth it since I found a CD I've been looking everywhere for (the single for the Macross Frontier opening theme Lion, if you're curious). I also managed to get a picture of the entrance of one of the Mandrake stores (a chain of used toy, game, manga, etc stores) when no one was looking (for some reason, they don't like you photographing them). Oh, and I found a pretty strange capsule figurine machine. Would you want a bunch of figurines of this guy? Me neither.
Sunday wasn't overly eventful either. The landlord of my apartment building was having a party and I figured that it wouldn't be a bad idea to go and meet some of the other people. Unfortunately, it was at 2 PM which really cut the day in half, so I ended up spending the morning on my computer chatting with people and booking hotels for the week long trip I'm planning at the end of February - beginning of March. I get a week and a half off of work then because...um... Probably just so the school board can say I'm a part time employee and pay me by the day instead of giving me a full salary. But I've got a really cool trip planned so I don't mind.
At the party I met the landlord's family (briefly, as they were sitting at the opposite end of the table) and some of the other tenants. There were a couple other Americans and five Europeans (three from the UK, two from France), mostly in their early twenties. Three of them had spent a a bit of time in Japan before but the rest were all pretty new. Not quite sure what the French guys were doing (they didn't speak much English) but everyone else was either teaching English or looking for a teaching job. The food (roast beef, salad, rice, etc) was good and I enjoyed talking to everyone. But, even if I do end up getting another job in Japan come April, I doubt I'll stay in that apartment building for very long. It's not a bad place (as far as small Japanese apartments go) but, after a month of hour long commutes, in the future I want to live much closer to my work place. And, were I going to stay in Japan for a while, I'd want a bigger apartment. You know, one with more than one room. Anyway, the party was fun but I didn't leave until around 4:30 so that didn't leave a whole lot of time to do stuff (most attractions tend to close around 5 or 6 and shops at 8) so I hung out in Akihabara for a while looking for (and failing to find) a certain rare game that's been eluding me. I also ate at the excellent food court on the 8th floor of Yodobashi Camera, which I've been wanting to do all month.
So yeah, nothing too exciting but I've got some good stuff planned for both next Sunday and the following Friday (which I have off since it's a national holiday) so I'll make up for it then...

Random Japan Comment: CD Singles
Remember the good old days when music was stored on records and most big songs were released as singles (with the hit song on one side of the record and a less popular song on the other (B) side)? No? Well me neither. I'm nowhere near that old, though I've heard all about it from my dad. Anyway, when cassette tapes and then CDs came along, the idea of releasing songs as singles pretty much died along with records. At least in the US... In Japan, however, a quick look in any music store will reveal a vast selection of singles CDs. A singles CD generally costs between 1,000 and 1,500 yen and contains the title song plus one or two others. They usually also include instrumental versions (as in, just the music without the vocals) of anywhere between one and all of the songs (for karaoke practice, probably). In Japan, most popular music groups primarily release singles and then, every so often, put out a full album (which tend to retail for 2,500 - 3,500 yen) that's mostly made up of the best songs from their more recent singles. Seeing as quite a lot of music albums (in any country) only have a couple of good songs, I think the singles approach makes for a nice alternative to MP3 downloads. And used single CDs tend to sell for really cheap (often 100 - 400 yen each) so they can be a good way to stock up on the best music of your favorite Japanese singer.


1/29/2011 Mid-week outings

There's a new voters' bonus comic up!

Wednesday (the 26th): AKB48
One thing I didn't get a chance to do last time I was in Japan was go to a concert so this time I've been keeping an eye out for something suitable. Unfortunately, my favorite groups aren't touring at the moment but I ended up finding a good one anyway. Although they've been around for a few years, over the last year or two AKB48 has become the hottest pop idol group in Japan. Seems pretty much everyone knows and loves AKB, has AKB merchandise, and knows every single member by name, which is impressive since there's 48 of them. Yes, I said 48. AKB48 is so named because it features 48 girls (with ages ranging from early teens to early twenties), divided into three teams (A, K, and B). To leverage that, most of their albums are released in three different versions (one for each team). So what exactly do 16 girls do on stage all at once? They sing, of course. Quite a lot of the time anywhere from several to all of the girls are singing at once though there's lots of songs that feature some solos or duets (usually with the girls switching off frequently). Their songs also tend to feature some rather elaborate dances. To give you an idea, here's a youtube video of a performance of one of their newest singles. In fact, a lot of their CDs come with a bonus DVD containing the music videos for the songs.
Anyway, AKB took over the top floor of the Akihabara Don Quixote store and usually has at least several concerts there each week. Getting tickets isn't easy though, as you have to sign up on their web site and enter a lottery for your chosen show. If you win the lottery then you can buy a ticket. And, with only around 250 tickets per show (buildings in Akihabara aren't all that big), it takes a good bit of luck to get in. Anyway, I'd been trying for a couple of a weeks and ended up winning a ticket for tonight's show. Fortunately, one of the train stations near my school is on the same line as Akihabara so I was able to leave right after work, grab a train, and make it in time to get my ticket. The ticket cost 2000 Yen (a bit over $20), which wasn't bad. Especially considering that the concert went for around an hour and forty five minutes. And, with such a small theater (the front row of seats was pretty much right up at the stage and the entire place could probably fit in my old apartment in Arizona)), there really wasn't any such thing as a bad seat.
Unfortunately, cameras weren't allowed so if you want to see more you'll just have to take a look at some of the other videos on youtube. I didn't actually see Team A, K, or B, but Team Kenkyuusei (Research Students), who do a lot of the Akihabara concerts. Basically, they're the back-ups who are in line to get promoted into the main teams when a current AKB member retires. But backups or not, they were really good and, like the regular members, they all have a number of very dedicated fans. Despite the cramped confines, the girls had a big enough stage to do their dances (complete with lots of fancy lighting) and they had a costume change for pretty much every song. It started out with all 16 members on stage and they did several songs in a row (stripping down into different outfits as they went). After that there was a pause as as the girls all introduced themselves and said a little bit about something or other (what they liked, interesting things that had happened to them recently, etc). Since, after all, when it comes to Japanese pop idols you're selling the girls as much as you are the music. As they finished, the girls slipped off to change outfits then went into a series of songs featuring several girls each and one solo number. Then there was another talk time (this time they conversed with each other about a given subject) followed by another set of songs with all 16 girls on at the same time. Really wish I could have gotten some videos to show you since the costumes, dances, and music were all excellent. I'll have to get some CDs some time... Anyway, here's a couple youtube video clips from live Team Kenkyuusei shows so you can get some idea of it.

Friday (the 28th): Gaijin Card
As part of the whole visa process (yes, like last time I had to come to Japan and start work before actually getting my working visa), I had to go to my city office today and apply for a gaijin (foreigner) card, which is basically an ID card for foreigners living in Japan. Thing is, just to make life inconvenient, the city office is only open on weekdays during standard business hours, which means it's kinda impossible to go when you've got a day job. So I had to get permission to leave work early, which was easy enough, but I got docked a few hours pay because of it even though I'd already finished all my classes and other teaching related duties for the day (the rest of my work day would have been sitting in the teachers' room working on personal stuff (like this travelogue) on my laptop). But anyway, I found the office easily enough and filled out the form only to find that I needed to go get a couple of photos for them. Unlike the US, you need to bring your own photos, they don't take them for you. Fortunately, Japan has photo booths everywhere. Unfortunately, they aren't free and I didn't have the right change so I had to run out to the nearest convenience store and break one of my 10,000 Yen bills. On the bright side, it's kinda cool (and convenient) being able to pay for a 300 Yen purchase with a 10,000 Yen bill (the clerks don't even give you a nasty look or anything). Anyway, once all the photos and paperwork were done I got a paper I can use in place of the card until it's ready to be picked up (they won't mail it to you) in a couple weeks. I'm hoping I won't have to take more time off to do that, as the office has a limited services counter open Wednesday nights (too limited to do the whole card process but hopefully not so limited that they can't take the completed card out of a drawer and hand it to me).
On my way out, I also happened across the biggest grocery store I've ever seen in Japan (about the same as a medium sized grocery store back home). Too bad it's so far away from my apartment...

Random Japan Comments: Photo Booths
You'll find little photo booths everywhere you go in Japan. Train stations and shopping centers often feature generic ones where you can get a simple sheet of photos in several sizes, perfect for applying for a passport, driver's license or other official card, sticking on a resume (which many companies in Japan only accept when hand written and sent by regular mail) and the like. As a note, the Japanese way to pose for such pictures is in a full suit, against a plain white background, staring straight at the camera without smiling.
Meanwhile, arcades and touristy spots have much fancier photo booths which let you add special effects to your photos, stick them on special backgrounds (one or two of which is probably unique to that particular booth or area) and the like. Often, you'll have a group of friends cramming themselves into the same booth to get their picture taken together. And, since people in Japan are so big on hobbies and collections, you have the people who travel around trying to get photos with all the special backgrounds and the like. Seems a bit extreme to me, but I guess a hobby is a hobby.


1/26/2011 A bit of poetry

There's a new ROM today.

Tuesday (the 25th): A Traditional Game
The first year students' had their afternoon classes today (mine included) canceled for a special activity so I went with them to watch. They ended up in the gym (interesting note, Narashino #1 has more first years than my old school (Nogi Elementary) had students) to play a traditional Japanese game. I can't think of the name at the moment, but it's an old game that is traditionally played around New Year's.  Basically the kids grouped up and laid a whole bunch of cards with Japanese writing on the floor. Each card has the second part of a Japanese poem or saying written on it. Meanwhile, someone up front (a bunch of teachers took turns) would read (or more like chant) one of the poems or lines, starting from the very beginning. The first kid in each group to grab the matching card would get a point but grabbing the wrong one would incur a penalty.
To give a US style example, let's say you had three cards which said the following. 1" "bring May flowers." 2: "is a penny earned." and 3: "P's and Q's". Then the guy up front says "A penny saved-" so you quickly snatch up card 2.
There were somewhere around 90 cards in a deck so between the setup, game, cleanup, and closing ceremony, the whole thing took around two hours. I tried to look for the right cards as I watched the kids playing and I did manage to spot a couple of them but since I don't really know any Japanese poems, I could only find cards after the reader had already gotten to the second verse (the part written on the card), by which time it would almost certainly be gone. Some of the kids were really good though (or maybe just in really bad groups) so the winning score was somewhere in the low 70's). It'd be interesting to try the game out with some of my friends to studied Japanese. If nothing else, it'd be good practice.

Random Japan Comment: 100 Yen Stores
I talked about 100 Yen stores a bit in my old travelogue but I stopped by one the other day and it's just hard to get over how amazing they are. The king of Japanese 100 Yen stores is Daiso (a large chain). And yes, most of the stuff in the store costs only 100 Yen (well, 105 with tax), though you'll find a few items going for several hundred as well (which is still much cheaper than what they'd cost anywhere else). While US dollar stores aren't anything to write home about, the quality and selection at your average Daiso is really impressive. For example, if I end up staying in Japan for a long time I could easily get all the plates, cups, utensils, and kitchen items I'll ever need from Daiso. And I'm not talking about chintzy little plastic things either. This is all professional looking good quality stuff. Sure you may be getting plastic instead of wood or ceramic instead of china, but it looks almost as good and at 100 or 200 yen a piece, you'll save an enormous amount of money. Daiso also carries a lot of other useful household goods (bags, plastic wrap, light bulbs, tools, cushions, towels, etc, etc, etc), all sorts of stationary and school supplies (note books, pens, etc), clothing and assessors, toys, and even food (including a surprisingly decent selection of spices). And I know I'm forgetting a few categories. Furniture and appliances aside, you could probably furnish an empty house or apartment entirely with stuff from a Daiso. They really should expand to the US, they'd put all the current dollar stores out of business in no time.

And that's about it for Monday and Tuesday. I'm actually doing something tonight but, by the time I get back, it'll probably be too late do a write-up so that'll have to wait until next time...


1/24/2011 A nice weekend

I hope everyone had a good weekend. From now on I'll try and double check to make the site updates properly every time so hopefully we won't have any more problems like last week.

Saturday (the 22nd): Services in Tokyo
Following my normal Saturday plans, I had an easy morning then headed into Tokyo for services (well, technically I live in Tokyo but way on the outskirts so it's a little hard to think of it as such). Nothing too amazing about that, but I was finally able to get a nice group picture of everyone (well, almost everyone since one person had to leave early and I was taking the photo). Afterwards, when she heard I was planning to go out to eat by myself, Yunsoo (back right in the photo) invited me to go out with her, her two daughters, and younger sister (the three girls in the back). We ended up at a Seizeriya (a family restaurant chain) and had a nice meal while chatting about a variety of things in Japanese. I had to look up some words here and there on my dictionary, but for the most part I think I did pretty well. Definitely good practice.
Afterwards I spotted an oddly named bakery and made a quick stop in Akihabara to check a couple of stores for this one thing I've been looking for. I didn't find it, but I did run across some girls in ninja outfits doing a little concert outside. They were singing something about soccer, but I wasn't able to figure out the name of the group itself. It goes to show that, like I said before, despite the crowds, weekends are the best time to visit Akihabara.

Random Japan Comment: Manners
Proper manners in Japan are a bit different than they are in the US. For example, it's perfectly ok to sniff if your nose is stuffed up, slurp your soup (which you drink right out of the bowl) and noodles, and put your elbows on the table. Also, you don't see many people opening doors or giving up their seats on trains for women and the elderly (it does happen, but you don't see it as much as you do in the US). Though there are some things (such as not spitting on the street), that are the same in both countries it's important to be considerate of those around you. But if you want to display proper manner in Japan, here's some things to get you started.
1. Always take off your shoes at the proper locations. I've written about this before, but when entering houses, apartments, shrines, some museums and restaurants, and random other buildings there will be a place to take off your shoes (usually a raised area), which you often swap for a pair of slippers of some sort. Note that, before stepping on tatami (woven straw) mats, you're supposed to take the slippers off as well. This is very important.
2. Don't leaves your chopsticks sticking out of a bowl of rice. They do that in funeral services, so it's considered back luck to do it at other times. Lay your chopsticks to the side or on the lip of the bowl instead.
3. Don't use the little hand towel you get at restaurants on anything other than your hands or use it as a napkin, it's only for cleaning your hands before eating.
4. Don't point, ever. If you absolutely have to use your hands to indicate something, do it with more of a wave.
5. Don't blow your nose in public. Even if you have a tissue or handkerchief, this is considered very rude.
6. Don't brag and accept praise only reluctantly (usually after denying it two or three times). In fact, to be fully proper you should tend to play down your accomplishments, company, family, and gift you're giving, etc until forced to reluctantly accept that they're not quite as bad as you're making them out to be. Basically, play down anything that makes you look good and play up things that make the other person look good (so you're praising each other, not yourselves). Note that job interview are an exceptions to this
7. If you know some Japanese, always use polite speech until you know enough to understand when it's ok to use informal speech. Even then, error on the side of caution.
8. If you get invited to someone's house, bring a gift (preferably nicely wrapped). Some type of food or flowers is the most appropriate. If you receive such a gift, don't open it right away unless they ask you to (wait till the other person isn't around).
9. At parties, don't fill your own glass, fill the glasses of those sitting next to you and they'll fill yours in turn.
10. Avoid public displays of affection. Things like hugging and kissing in public are frowned upon.
11. Don't say "no". Not that you can't refuse a request or answer a question in the negative, but Japanese go to great pains to do so without ever actually saying no.
Note that, as a foreigner, you can pretty much ignore 6 and 11 unless you're really trying to sound and act Japanese. If you don't know any Japanese you can safely screw up 7 without offending anyone but, as all the Japanese words and phrases you're likely to find in a travel book and beginning Japanese classes are in polite form, it shouldn't come up. As for the rest of these, you'll usually be forgiven (or at least overlooked) if you make mistakes here and there so long as you're doing so accidentally and not just trying to be rude. The one you most have to watch out for is 1 as wearing shoes where you're not supposed to is a really big deal.

Sunday (the 24th): Harajuku
Yesterday, Yunsoo asked me if I could visit them in the evening and help her daughter Hunbee study English for her upcoming high school entrance exams. So, I looked at the list of potential day trips I made last week and decided to do my "walk around Harajuku and Shinjku" day since I could easily finish it up a little early and take a quick train ride to the appropriate station. I was originally planning to visit Shibuya as well, but never ended up getting there. (I talked a bit about those areas in my entries for August 4th and September 9th.)
Anyway, I started out at Omotesando since it's near all three of those areas and I remembered stumbling across a health food store around there the last time I was in Japan, which had some things you can't find in regular Japanese grocery stores (like good peanut butter). Although I was pretty sure I had the right station, that was about all I remembered so I decided to just go out the closest exit and walk around a bit. As luck would have it, I actually come out right across the street from the store. While it certainly couldn't compete with a good Whole Foods back home, for Japan (where things like organic produce and health food are kinda rare) it was pretty nice. Plus, they imported some things (like that peanut butter) from the US so I stocked up on a few things (keeping in mind that I'd have to carry around whatever I bought for the rest of the day). For those of you with no interest in health food or peanut butter, there's a fancy donut shop in the same area.
When I'd finished looking around the store, I started walking towards Harajuku (Tokyo's teen fashion district). Along the way I spotted a couple of interesting looking buildings and got a photo of Meiji Dori, the area's major road, about half an hour before it got lost under crowds of shoppers. I passed the Oriental Bazaar on my way so I decided to take a quick look inside. It really sticks out due to its Japanese shrine style exterior and it's basically a big souvenir shop. The first floor and basement have a pretty good selection of the type of things you can find in Asakusa and some of Japan's more famous tourist spots without the hassle of actually going to those spots, dealing with the crowds, and searching through tiny stores. Though, in my opinion, that stuff is half the fun. Plus Oriental Bazaar is a bit on the expensive side. The top floor is a bit more interesting though as it's filled with a variety of antiques (neat but very expensive). All I got was some postcards to send to my grandparents before heading to my next destination, the nearby ukiyoe museum.
Ukiyoe is a type of Japanese art created using ink and carved blocks of wood to make an image on paper. When it comes to old Japanese art, I really like the way they do plants, animals, and landscapes. Not quite so fond of the way they depict people, but the detail on some of the clothing is pretty impressive. Anyway, the museum wasn't all that large but they have some really nice stuff on display. Unfortunately, photography wasn't allowed so you'll just have to take my word for it.
Next up, I spent a while walking around Harajuku. Specifically the little streets (Harajuku St., Takeshita St., and Cat St.) where all the crazy clothing stores are. Well, there are also some in the Laforet mall, but they were having some sort of enormous sale so it was jam packed and it seemed just about every store had an employee with a plastic megaphone yelling out the day's bargains so I didn't stay in there for very long. Like pretty much every popular spot in Tokyo, Harajuku is at its best, but also its most crowded, on weekends. These little streets are lined with all sorts of clothing and accessory stores, some of which have pretty strange names (well, that last one is only strange when you think about where else stuff would be made). Some are American or British imports and some are standard designer fair, but a lot of stores sport some very interesting outfits. Of course, most of the people on the street aren't dressed in anything near that elaborate, but Harajuku is the place to go the see and be seen in the latest Japanese fashions so you will see some people decked out in all sorts of interesting clothes. Unfortunately, the large crowds combined with the fact that everyone is moving at a pretty decent speed makes it hard to get good photographs. At that point I was pretty hungry so I stopped in a very crowded food court I passed in the middle of Takeshita St., where I quickly noticed that, even counting the restaurant employees, there were probably at least thirty girls up there for every guy.
When I made it out of the packed shopping streets, I headed to Harajuku Station. The station is just North of the entrance to the park surrounding Meiji Jingu Shrine (which I talked about in the afore mentioned September 9th entry). And, if you want to do some people watching without fighting the crowds, the bridge leading to said park is one of the best places to do so. There's a raised walkway you can use to cross the road right nearby and it's relatively uncrowded and gives you a great view of the bridge below. Aside from serving as the entryway to the park, the bridge is also a popular hang out for some to Tokyo's trendiest(?) teens.
Once I was done taking photos, I made my way north to Shinjuku station (which turned out to be a bit further away than I'd thought).
There are a ton of shops and stuff surrounding the station but I didn't have a whole lot of time to look around because I had to catch a train to get to the part of the city where Yunsoo lives (a quiet residential area). Hunbee met me at the station and showed me the way to their apartment (which is good, since I doubt I would have been able to find it on my own). She had a practice book of old test questions so we spent a while going over that together. Gotta say the English seemed a decent bit more advanced than the stuff they teach at Narashino #1. Which makes me wonder if it's a school thing or if there's a bit of a disconnect between the people that write the test and the ones that design public school English curriculums. Interesting note: while we tend to label the answers to problems on multiple choice tests a, b, c, and d, Japanese use the first four letters of their katakana alphabet (the a, i, u, and e sounds). When we'd finished studying, Yunsoo made odon for dinner (a hot pot dish with vegetables, tofu, fish cakes, and the like inside). Like a proper Japanese or Korean meal (Yunsoo is originally from South Korea), there was a lot of rice and little side dishes as well. Afterwards, I helped Eunbee (Hunbee's older sister) with a introduction letter she was writing in English for an US home stay program she's going to apply to and then we all just sat around and talked for a while, which made for great Japanese practice. Once again, there were lots of time when one of us would pull out an electronic dictionary to look up one word or another but I'm still pretty happy with how I did. Just need to work on my kanji and vocabulary...

Random Japan Comment: Thinking About English
When you've been speaking a language your entire life, a lot of the usage rules come naturally and you don't really think about how or why they're the way they are. For example, chances are you weren't formally taught the specific differences between at, on, and in in relation to dates and times and when to use each one. You probably weren't taught which sports you're playing (i.e. play football) and which you're just -ing (i.e. bowling) either. But, if you're teaching English, you're bound to be asked what the rules are for things like that (by teachers if not students). And there usually is a rule of some kind, whether you know it or not. When this happens to me, I quickly run through some sample sentences in my head and try to figure out what makes each one different, which usually leads me to the rule. For example, with a few exceptions: at (in relation to time) is used for hours and minutes (i.e. at 7:30), on is for days or dates (i.e. on Friday), and in is for long periods of time like months, years, or seasons (i.e. in March).
It's interesting how being in another country actually improve your English skills.


1/21/2011 Oops...

Seems Wednesday's update didn't go up when it was supposed to. People really need to tell me these things sooner as I don't check the main page all that often. Just remember, barring circumstances out of my control, I'll never miss an update without announcing it here and all updates should be posted no later than 10 AM on Mon, Wed, and Fri (and usually much earlier than that). Anyway, I decided to just post on PV strip today instead of two (makes things easier for me since I've been busy). There are two days worth of travelogue entries though. Just scroll down the page if you want to see the ones that were supposed to have gone up on Wednesday.

There's a new voters' bonus comic. Also, remember that, if you can't hear enough about Japan, you can read my new Japan blog. It focuses on travel tips and into on various subjects related to Japan and Japanese culture). There's some overlap with my travelogues, but a lot of stuff is new or expanded.

Wednesday (the 19th): Eating Out
I'll be talking about my classes and stuff in Friday's write up but I did do one thing today besides work. Wednesday has always been my traditional eat out night. Usually I get pizza but when I lived in Japan before I used to go to the kaiten zushi (conveyor belt sushi) place near my apartment. Following tradition, I've designated Wednesday night as the one time I go out to eat during the work week. Since it's right on the way between my apartment and the train station I use to get to work, and the building really sticks out, I decided to try this place. It's a family style Italian restaurant (I'll explain exactly what that means in the following RJC).
Anyway, as expected the menu wasn't exactly authentic Italian or American food. There were a couple of more normal items on the menu but I decided that I might as well try something a bit more unique to Japan so I got a personal pizza. Before you say that a pizza doesn't sound very Japanese, you may want to take a look at the entry about pizza in my previous travelogue (November 30th). So yeah, this was by means an ordinary pizza. It was a curry pizza. Basically pizza crust with a layer of Japanese curry topped with cheese and sprinkled with some chopped tomatoes and oregano. While I'm rather hesitant to call the result a true pizza, as someone who likes Japanese curry I have to say that it tasted pretty good.

Random Japan Comment: Family Restaurants
Family restaurants are places like Denny's (actually, Denny's is a fairly popular family restaurant chain here, as is Gusto). Fairly large, a lot of tables and booths, and a wide selection of food (usually "American" and/or "Italian"). They're designed to appeal to families and large groups (as many restaurants in Japan are really small) and tend to stay open very late (sometimes 24 hours a day). They're fairly inexpensive (around $5-$12 for a meal, depending what you get) and many feature a drink bar which means you can just drink water (which you get yourself from the bar) or you can pay a couple hundred yen and have unlimited access to whatever drinks you want (usually soda, juice, tea, and coffee). As an interesting note, after showing you to your table the waitress usually disappears (menus and silverware are on the table already or brought when you're shown in). There's a button on the table you can use to call her back when you're ready to order. Your receipt generally arrives with your food (so it helps to plan ahead if you're going to want drinks or dessert) and you take it to the counter when you're ready to pay.
You should keep in mind that when I say American and Italian food, I mean Japanese takes on America and Italian food which, while they're often pretty good, tend to be far from authentic. Japanese American food tends to feature a lot of hamburg steaks (a hamburger done up like a steak with some cooked vegetables) and beef with demiglaze sauce while Italian is mainly spaghetti and pizzas, many with really strange collections of toppings. Like I said, some of it can be pretty good, but don't go in expecting to find the same things you'd find on the menu of a real American or Italian restaurant back home (and don't expect your average Japanese person to know the difference).

Friday (the 21st): Teaching the Second and Third Year Students
As I previously mentioned, all my first year classes for the week were on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I had classes with all of the second year classes, a couple of the third year ones, and the special needs class.
The second years' classes are lot more by the book than the first years', though the teacher makes a lots of activities and work sheets that are based on the material in the book, rather then using the book itself a whole lot in class. The second year English teacher is a really nice and enthusiastic guy, has the best English of all the teachers here, and often asks me for advice regarding lesson plans and activities. I think he's the only Japanese person who has ever told me to speak English faster (the opposite is usually the case). I've given an intro at the beginning of each class (with slightly more complex English than the one I used for the first years), complete with a short karate demonstration (which always seems to impress the kids). The class itself involves some word and sentence repetition (I'm usually the one saying the English words and sentences) along with flash cards and a review of the previous lesson's material. The teacher than explains the key grammar point in Japanese, after which there are some activities based on it. Most of these activities boil down to either filling out a work sheet or pairing up and taking turns translating sentences from Japanese to English and vice versa. Lessons themselves aren't as much fun as the ones for the first year students, but there's a lot of English used and I get to help out quite a bit. In general, the students are much more subdued than the first years, though most of the classes have at least a few highly energetic members (mostly boys). Overall though, there's a tendency towards silence and mumbling responses, especially when students are called on individually or in small groups rather than as an entire class.
The third grade classes are highly by the book. Once again, the teacher explains the grammar point entirely in Japanese. Then there's a lot of reading and practice coming directly from the text, followed by a practice activity based on the grammar point. Today, for example, was mostly on self introductions. While they seem nice, the third year English teachers are far more subdued than their counterparts in the lower grades. They also use relatively little English in class outside of the text in the book or on homework sheets. As with the second year students, a lot of the third years are fairly quiet and subdued, though there are still some notable exceptions here and there. I don't have a whole lot to do during third year classes though, with my only tasks being a little bit of pronunciation (not much, as the Japanese English teachers handle most of it) and helping out with some of the activities when asked. Unsurprisingly, I'm not all that fond of doing the third year classes, but I don't have very many of them anyway as most of the kids are really busy with high school entrance exams.
Finally there's the special needs class (called the hatabaki class at this school). I was with one of the third year English teachers for it but I got to take a much more active role. There were only eight kids, all of whom were very friendly and energetic. I started out with lengthy introduction (using very simple English, with the teacher translating into Japanese as we went), after which we reviewed the alphabet, played snakes and ladders (to practice counting in English), and then played a card game to practice hiragana (one of the three written languages used in Japanese), which I also helped with. It was an enjoyable class and a nice change of pace from the others.
Now that most of the kids know who I am, I've also started to hang out in the field outside during "recess" which is just the last 20 minutes or so of lunch break, which is fun. At Nogi Elementary, dodgeball was the game of choice for most of the kids. Here, the boys are mostly divided between a couple of soccer games though there's also a few who play catch (with baseballs and gloves) and a few who like to kick a volleyball around. As for the girls, quite a lot of them stay indoors, but the ones who do go outside tend to form circles and try to keep a volleyball in the air (which they usually aren't very good at.
I'm also eating lunch with the kids more and quite a lot of them have started saying hi to me in the hallways (which for some seems to be endlessly entertaining).
There isn't a whole lot of interesting stuff to photograph but I did take a couple of pictures. This picture shows why you really don't want to be riding trains with the morning rush. Fortunately, that's not my train. And this one is of the teachers' room at my school. Notice the old fashioned heater in the center of the picture (which is right next to my desk, though you can't see it). I never saw a heater that like before but they're used all throughout the school. They're gas heaters (they have hoses which plug into the wall) so they don't use any electricity. The steam from the teapot on top helps keep the heater from drying out the room too much. You could also use the water to make tea, but here they've got electric water heaters for that.
And that's my job at Narashino #1 JHS. I don't like it as much as Nogi Elementary, but it's not bad overall. My only serious complaint is the commute. Between walking and trains, it takes around an hour each way. And, since it involves two walks and two trains, it's not like I can just sit down and play my DS or PSP for an hour (which wouldn't be quite so bad). So yeah, things here are ok. Now I just need to finish the last of my travel planning and switch my focus to job applications so I'll have some place to work (be it Japan or the US) once I'm finished here.


1/19/2011 Working at a jr. high

A combination of work, writing about Japan, and planning trips for my days off has been keeping me pretty busy but all is going well so far. Today and Friday I'll be talking about my job and then Monday... Well, that entirely depends on what I do on Sunday, which is still up in the air, but I'll be going somewhere interesting.

Tuesday (the 18th): Teaching the First Year Students
So this is the week I actually got down to business and started teaching classes. Or assisting in the teaching of classes I suppose. I average around three classes a day spread out between the first, second, and third year jr. high students. I had all my first year classes for the week on Monday and Tuesday. There was originally supposed to be two on Monday and three on Tuesday but a last minute schedule change made it one class on Monday and four on Tuesday, so Tuesday was pretty busy. Second and third year classes are spread across Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday so I'll talk about them next time. For now, I'll be focusing mainly on the first year students (I would stay 7th graders, but in Japan they're called first year students since it's their first year of jr. high school).
Anyway, teaching in a jr. high is definitely a bit different than teaching in an elementary school like I did last time (for details about my experience teaching in an elementary school, see the September entries in my old travelogue). First off, there's no dedicated English classroom, I go to the homeroom of whatever class I'm teaching. There are also far fewer materials to work with than there were at my old school. But that's just this school itself and doesn't have anything to do with elementary vs. jr. high. The biggest difference between elementary and jr. high is my role itself. Technically for both my last job and this one I'm listed as an ALT (assistant language teacher). But in elementary school, where English was optional (though I hear a new law is changing that in the near future), there wasn't any Japanese English teachers. In fact, the only person in the school who could speak English (other than myself) was the school secretary. So, although I was supposedly an assistant, I pretty much ran things when it came to English classes. There was a loose curriculum to follow and I always talked things other with each grade's homeroom teacher before class, but when it came time to start the homeroom teacher would stand back and let me take over, only stepping in to help when necessary (such as explaining the rules of a game in Japanese). I also prepped the materials, set up the classroom, and the like.
In jr. highschool, English is a required course so there are certified Japanese English teachers in charge of things (at this school, one for each grade). There's also a stricter curriculum to follow (based around a set of text books). Because of this, my role is greatly reduced. While the Japanese English teachers could pass pretty much all the work onto me if they wanted to (and I've talked to ALTs who have had that happen), in most situations they take charge of the lesson planning and preparation and the ALT just hangs around to assist when asked. That's pretty much the way things are going here. Of all the Japanese English teachers here, the first year teacher seems to be the most willing to deviate from the textbook (which we barely used in any of my first set of first year classes). He also gave me the most to do, allowing me plenty of time for an introduction and Q&A session, putting me in charge of reading a lot (though not all) of the English vocabulary and sentences, and giving me a big role to play in the lesson's game.
While Nogi Elementary School only had one class for each of the six grades, Narashino #1 Jr. High has around five classes for each of its three grades. So instead of teaching six different lessons once each every week, I'm teaching three or four lessons several times each every week. All the first year classes, for example, are on the same English lesson so I pretty much did the exact same class five times over two days. On the one hand, this means there's a lot less planning and preparation (not that I have to do a whole lot in the first place). On the other, repeating the same lesson over and over can get a bit old.
As an interesting note, each classes has something like three English lessons per week but I'm only with them for one. On the one hand, I feel like I could do a better job and get to know the students better if I was there for every class. On the other hand, I realize that really wouldn't work since that would mean teaching something like 9 classes every day (assuming none of them overlapped). They have a different Japanese English teacher for every year for a reason, after all. Note that, unlike in the US, the teachers don't focus on only teaching a single year. Instead, they follow their classes up through from first year to the second and then to third so that the kids have the same teachers all the way through until highschool (elementary and high school teachers in Japan do the same).
But anyway, my first year lessons were about the progressive (-ing) form of verbs. The classes started out with a bingo game of English words for vocabulary practice. Next I gave a seven minute or so introduction (using a Colorado photo book I got for just such an occasion) followed by several minutes of Q&A. Then the English teacher went over the use of -ing (primarily in Japanese), and then we moved on to a gesture game. After the teacher and I did a demo, the students broke into groups and took turns doing a gesture of some sort while the rest of the group members tried to guess what they were doing by saying "Are you ---ing?" Next, one student from each group had to come up and take a card from the teacher than do a gesture based on that card while the rest of the class guessed. Some of his cards (like "speaking Chinese") were pretty difficult, but in the end someone always managed to figure them out (though hints were needed from time to time. And that was about it. Lessons run for 50 minutes each and there are six periods a day along with a lunch break and cleaning time. That's pretty much how it was at my elementary schools, except that they had a couple of designated recess times while jr. high does not. Students have the last half or so of the lunch hour free after they finish eating but that's about it.
People always tell me that Japanese kids get a lot more shy once you get to jr. high and so far I'd say that they're right, for the most part. The first years are still pretty loud and energetic though the girls seem to be a bit more reserved than in elementary school (the older kids are a different story entirely but that's a subject for another day). Because of that, their lessons are still fairly fun and game like (though they are much more serious than those in elementary school), which I enjoyed. But not being in charge of much during class will take some getting used to since I'm not always sure what I can and can't do or how I should act when I'm just standing around and waiting to be called on. So far, I've only really interacted with the kids in class and in the halls but, now that a lot of them know me from class, I'm going to start I'm going to start going outside with them after lunch and see if I get invited to play ball or something.
Other then teaching (or assisting in) classes, and a little lesson prep, I've been spending most of my time studying Japanese and writing stuff for this travelogue and my new Japan blog. I eat lunch in the school, either in the teachers' room or with the students. Unlike in Nogi Elementary, everyone who eats in the teachers' room does so separately at their own desks rather than all together at a table. Once again, the food is surprisingly good (though I need to be careful to make sure I don't eat something I shouldn't). But, also unlike Nogi, you have to bring your own tableware (chopsticks or whatever), which caught me off guard for the first couple of days so I had to resort to borrowing a little sugar fork (or something like that) from the tea room. I also help out with the daily cleaning time (see my September entries) by supervising the three girls assigned to the computer room.
And that pretty much my first couple of days of classes. I'll talk about my impressions of the second and third year students on Friday.

Random Japan Comment: Japanese Names
Japanese people all has given names (first names) and family names (last names). When introducing themselves, they always say their family (last) name first, followed by their given (first) name. Note that some Japanese people will switch this up when talking to foreigners, as they know we do things differently. On that same note, they generally expect foreigners to say their given name first when introducing themselves.
Most of the time, Japanese people call each other by their family names followed by a suffix of some sort. There's quite a lot of different name suffixes, and I might explain a bunch of them in a future RJC, but for now just know that -san (roughly equivalent to Mr. / Ms.) is sorta the genetic one and is suitable for most situations. So the famous Japanese pop singer Hikaru Utada would introduce herself as Utada Hikaru and most people would call her Utada-san. Note that if it becomes necessary to differentiate between multiple people with the same family name, you can use their full name (adding -san or another name suffix to the end of their given name) such as Utada Hikarui-san.
Even if you know someone rather well, it's very rude to address them by their given name or without an appropriate name suffix unless they first ask you to do so. Some do rather quickly, especially when speaking to foreigners (since, as I said, they know we do things differently) but for most Japanese people, calling someone by their given name, especially without a suffix, is a privilege reserved only for their family (who generally call each other by their given names) and closest friends. They will, however, often call foreigners by their first names (yet again, they know that's how we often do it).
I should also note that there's no such thing as middle names in Japan. Some understand the concept, others don't. Because of this, it's generally easiest to ignore your middle name entirely whenever possible.

See you Wednesday!


1/17/2011 Double the travelogues!

New PV strips are back! I'm all caught up on them now so I don't expect any more interruptions, at least for a while.

In other news, I've started writing a Japan blog of sorts for the local newspaper back where I live in Colorado. The address is http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/west_meets_east and the first post should be up by the time you read this. Since it's for a different audience, I'm not going to be posting write-ups of my daily activities like I do here in my travelogue. Instead, I'll be focusing more on what makes Japan interesting, fun, and different along with advice for people interested in traveling to and/or working Japan (where to stay, what to see, how to get around, etc). I'll be reusing some stuff from both my old Japan travelogue and my current one but there will be original content as well. So, if that interests you, go ahead and check it out.

Also, from now on I'll no longer be posting about my activities every single day. Since I'll be working most days, that'd get pretty repetitious so I'll only be doing full day write-ups for days when I have something to talk about (weekends mostly, along with a bit here and there about my job). So expect somewhat shorter entries and more Random Japan Comments in the future

Saturday (the 15): Swinging by Ginza
Being Saturday, I had a leisurely morning then headed to downtown Tokyo for services. I ended up missing my train and getting there a little late though. Seems that there aren't as many trains from Kameari station on weekends as I thought so I'll have to be more careful next time. Several people were absent though (one for college entrance exams and the other two for some school presentation), so I still didn't get a good group picture.
After services, Hoshino invited me out again. This time we ended up walking around Ginza for a bit. Though it's a popular part of Tokyo, I never really went to Ginza my last time in Japan except when showing people around. Ginza is Tokyo's high-end fashion district. If it's fancy and expensive you'll probably find it in Ginza. Clothes and jewelry are the main draws (and you'll find lots of designer outlets as well as enormous department stores) but there are also high-end book, music, and electronics stores. If you like that kind of stuff, it's a great place to explore but it usually doesn't interest me all that much. Even so, Ginza can be fun to walk around for a little while just to see the stores and all the lights at night time. We did stop in a couple stores but the main reason we went was that Hoshino (who is a huge Beatles fan) wanted to take me to a cafe that John Lennon and Yoko Ono used to frequent. We hung out there for a bit and talked then headed out. We passed an Apple store along the way which had a big Beatles cut-out in the window then got gyudon (beef and rice bowls) before parting ways.

Random Japan Comment: Chain Restaurants
Some of the cheapest meals you can find in Japan are in its various chain restaurants. Some of the more popular types include:
Hamburgers (McDonald's, Moss Burger, Lotteria, etc): If you've had one fast food hamburger you've had them all...unless you're in Japan. Though they can hardly be considered authentic Japanese food, all the major burger chains have menu entries that foreigners will be sure to find unusual like rice and seaweed burgers or katsu burgers.
Curry (Coco Curry, Go Go Curry, etc): The Japanese take on the British take on Indian curry. It's brown, not overly spicy, and served on a big plate with rice, pickled vegetables, and sometime other ingredients (meat, katsu, etc). It's also one of the few foods that you're expected to eat with a spoon.
Rice Bowls (Yoshinoya, etc): Rice bowls such as gyudon consist of rice, meat (usually beef), onion, and optional toppings like egg and green onion. They're good, extremely cheap, and you can usually get them in a set with salad and miso soup for around 100 yen extra.
Misc (Pepper Lunch, KFC, Seizariya, etc): If you don't want one of the above types of food but still want to eat at a chain there's plenty of other options. Just look around and see what you can find.
At any of the listed restaurants you can get a pretty good sized meal in several minutes for the equivalent of $4 - $6 and the food tends to be of much higher quality than what you find in the fast food chain restaurants in the US. Note that in many of these restaurants, instead of paying at the counter you put your money in a vending machine and push a button for what you want. The machine gives you a ticket which you then present to the waiter when you sit down.
You may have noticed that I also left out a pretty major category of cheap Japanese food, noodles (soba, udon, and ramen). While noodle bowls are extremely common in Japan and make great fast and cheap meals, they're primarily the domain of small privately run stands and restaurants instead of chains.

Sunday (the 16th): Browsing in Ueno
I've been running around a lot since arriving in Japan and I got behind on some things as a result (like Pebble Version strips) so I decided to take things easy today and get some work done. But I didn't want to spend the whole day in my apartment so soon after returning to Japan so I spent the morning working then headed out to browse Ameya Yoko-cho, Ueno's collection of busy shopping streets. As with Asakusa (and pretty much every major shopping area in Tokyo), it can get pretty crowded on weekends. While there's a little bit of everything to be found there, it's primarily a mix of clothes (discount and imports mostly), food, and restaurants. Since I've been eating a ton of Japanese food lately, I stopped for lunch at Mantra (a good Indian restaurant) then spent a couple of hours walking around and checking out the shops. It sure would be an interesting place to do your regular grocery shopping, with all the little food stores (most specializing in just one thing like fruit, vegetables, or fish). It's a good place to go for cheap clothes as well, though you'll have to deal with serious crowds at the more popular stores, especially when there's a sale going on. Ameya is also a great place to find pachinko parlors (see my January 5th entry) (though you can find them just about everywhere else in Japan as well), capsule hotels (March 8th), manga cafes (February 22nd), and arcades (with UFO catchers being the main draw). There's also a few love hotels (hotels (often with really fancy rooms, from what I've heard) where couples can spend a few hours together) and some collections of gatchapon machines (gumball type machines that give figurines or other small toys) scattered around but the stores and restaurants are definitely the main draw.
I wasn't quite ready to go back to my apartment after finishing up in Ueno so I headed to Akihabara (one of my favorite ways to kill time in Tokyo) for a little while first. I didn't stay out too late though. Partly because I have work tomorrow and partly because I had more stuff to work on (specifically, planning day trips for my future weekends and holidays).

Random Japan Comment: Things to do with Friends
In the US, if you want to do something with your friends you have plenty of different options but probably the most common activity is visiting each others houses to talk, watch TV, or play games. If you and your friends want to go out, you'll probably go to a mall, movie, restaurant, or maybe a bowling alley. In Japan, however, things are a bit different.
First off, hanging out at another person's house is pretty uncommon. Unless you know someone really well (and sometimes even then), visiting their house tends to be a rather big deal and involves a certain degree of formality. You also need to bring a present of some sort (food mostly likely). So friends in Japan are far more likely than not to go out. When it comes to popular activities, coffee shops, restaurants, and cafes (think drinks and desserts, mostly) are still popular, as is visiting malls (if there's one in the area, as they're far less common in Japan than the US) or shopping streets. Movie theaters are an option, but they're considerably more expensive than in the US. Things like bowling alleys, public swimming pools, and mini-golf are all rather uncommon in Japan, though there's always batting cages and arcades. However, one of the most popular group activities in Japan by far is karaoke, but that deserves a RJC of its own...

That's all for now. Later in the week (after I've taught a few more classes), I'll talk about my job and Japan jr high schools in general.


1/14/2011 I'm late!

Sorry for the extremely late update and the lack of a new PV strip (barring any problems, regular comic updates should resume Monday). See, I got back tonight much later than I planned.  Than my computer had to update stuff and I couldn't work on the site until it finished.  Then, when I was about three quarters of the way through writing my travelogue updates, my normally extremely stable computer suddenly decided to restart without any warning and I lost all my work. So yeah, at this point it's really late and I had to retype everything so I'm sorry if it feels a little rushed. There is a new voters' bonus comic and ROM though.

Thursday (the 13th): Ushiku
As previously mentioned I have today and tomorrow off from work. Today, I decided to get out of Tokyo and visit Ushiku. If you were keeping up with my news posts from before this travelogue started, you may remember that I almost got an English teaching job in Ushiku but the school board was dragging its feet on the final decision (in the end, they decided to go without an ALT for the rest of the school year) so I took the Narashino position instead. But I'd done some research on Ushiku back when I thought I was going to get the job and I decided it'd be worth a visit.
Ushiku is a large rural town. It seems like it's mainly a bedroom community for Tokyo and Chiba but it's far enough out that there's lots of open space and plenty of room so the houses, stores, and apartments aren't all crammed together. Overall, it looked like a nice place (if not all that exciting). My main reason for visiting was the see the world's largest Buddha statue, the Ushiku Daibutsu (aka. Ushiku Arcadia). Since it was nowhere near the train station, I had to take a bus from there. While I was reasonably sure about which bus to take and where to get off (unlike trains and subways, most buses in Japan aren't at all English friendly), I was also banking on the fact that you just can't miss something this big. And, while I couldn't see it from the train station, I was right.
Completed in the mid 1990's, the Ushiku Daibutsu isn't anywhere near as old or famous as the Buddhas in Kamakura and Nara (both of which I visited and talked about in various places in my old travelogue), but it's certainly got them beat when it comes to size. It's actually about 2 1/2 times the size of the Statue of Liberty. Doubling as a Buddhist temple, the park around the daibutsu has your typical temple items including prayer boards (which you can buy, writing your prayer on, and hang up), an incense burner, and a large metal bell (which I was able to ring). There was also a nice little Japanese garden with lots of hungry koi (which I stopped to feed) and at least one crawfish thing.
As I got closer to the daibutsu it became pretty hard to get a good picture because of the size. To get this shot I had to take three separate phots and then combine them. After I had my fill of staring up at the daibutsu I headed inside it. The inside was divided into several floors. Upon entering, I had to stand in a dark room for a few minutes until a light slowly appeared, ushering me and a few Japanese tourists (since it was early on a weekday, the place was pretty empty) into a dreamily lit chamber leading to the elevator. It's supposed to represent the light of enlightenment, or something like that.
Next up was the second floor which had some displays about the making of the daibutsu, a meditation room, and an area for sitting and writing sutras (Buddhist scriptures). It was then up the fifth floor which was the observatory. Unfortunately, it's in the top of the daibutsu's chest, not the head, but it still offered good views of the town and nearby cemetery (seems a lot of people want to be buried near the daibutsu). There were also a few gold Buddha statues and some sign boards describing the Buddha's life and journeys. Once I'd finished looking around I headed down to the fourth floor (a gift shop) then the third, which was filled with around 3,300 golden Buddha statues. Finally, I walked out on the top of the daibutsu's base and took a picture looking pretty much straight up.
On my way out, I chatted for a bit with a nice group of older Japanese people and browsed the souvenir shops (pickled vegetables seem to be a local speciality) before catching the bus back towards Ushiku station. But, since there wasn't a whole lot else to see in Ushiku, and I had time to kill, I got off the bus early and walked through the town for a bit. I found an enormous used game, music, DVD, and other stuff (fishing gear, clothes, etc) store and had fun browsing for a while then stopped for a very late lunch (or early supper) at the most high tech kaiten zushi restaurant I've ever seen. If you're not familiar with the term, kaiten zushi is what you call sushi restaurants where the sushi comes around on a conveyor belt and you grab what you want and pay based on how many plates you ate. Definitely the most fun and affordable way to get sushi. Anyway, this one was different than usual in several ways. First off, instead of being in the middle of things, the sushi chefs were in the back somewhere. While you could still grab things off the regular conveyor belt, each place had a touch screen that could be used to order whatever sushi you wanted which would soon be delivered on a electric train that ran on a track above the regular conveyor belt. Then, instead of making a big stack with your places when you're done with them, you slide them down a chute and the computer automatically keeps track of how many you've eaten. Finally, a button push summons the waitress to bring you the check. Though it was a little strange not to have the chefs around, it was a lot of fun and the sushi was great. To top it off, just about everything was only 105 Yen a plate.
After walking around a bit more I headed back to Kameari (where my apartment is). I swung by the shopping mall and, on a whim, decided to put my Japanese to the test by watching whatever movie happened to be playing at the time. Of course, I could have just watched Japanese TV at my apartment, but there I'd be tempted to work on my computer or something while I watched. But at the theater I had to pay full attention to the movie. If I do that again, I'll pay a bit more attention to which movie I pick though. This time, I just got a ticket for the one with the soonest start time even though I had absolutely no idea what it was. Turns out it was a set of kids movies. The first was an anime about some bears and the second a stop motion based on some European kids' book. On the bright side, I was able to follow the plot of both movies without any problems (though I didn't understand every line of dialogue). On the down side, since the movies seemed to be aimed at 5 year olds, that's probably not saying much...

Friday (the 14th): Hanging Out in Tokyo
Since I never got to go the last time I was in Japan due to how far outside of Tokyo I lived, my dad wanted me to give the Tokyo JCC's Friday night service a try sometime. And, since I didn't have work, this seemed like the best day to do it. Of course, the service wasn't till 6:30 so I had plenty of time to do stuff before hand. I decided to start out with a trip to Asakusa, since walking around with Yeshoshua left me wanting to go back and explore a bit. Fortunately, it's a lot less crowded on weekdays. I ended up kind of snacking here and there throughout the day, starting with that taiyaki place I stopped at before. I tried the satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato) taiyaki this time, which was very good. Over the course of the day I also got ume (Japanese plum) ice cream, a rice cracker, amazaki (a sweet non-alcoholic sake-ish drink), and some sort of cherry thing I'd never seen before. I've already talked a lot about Asakusa in previous entries so I don't want to go into too much detail but it's a fun place to walk around, browse the shops, and look for suvineers (if you don't have time to visit the parts of Japan where the best suvineers are made, Asakusa has decent selection of a most of your popular types of Japanese suvineers. There's a set of very obvious shopping streets leading up to the famous Sensoji Temple and its equally famous gates, but there's a lot of great shops and restaurants a bit off the beaten path as well, so I spent a while just wondering around. I walked through the temple grounds for a bit as well (though I've done it several times before). Here's a few random pictures from the area: The inscence burner (notice how people like to waft the smoke back onto them) and the fountain (where people wash their hands and sometimes drink the water) are both standard fixtures in Buddhist temples. The ceiling paintings are quite nicely done. Though nice to look at, this particular pagooda is a reconstruction, as the original was destroyed in World War II. Asakusa isn't entirely free from strange shops, suvineer boxers anyone? One small street has a lot of life size figures of characters hanging out, climbing walls, and the like. I'm not sure why they're there but if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say they're probably characters from some popular historical drama show on TV which is set in the area.
After I'd finished up in Asakusa I decided to head to my second favorite shopping area in Japan after Akihabara, Nakano. Partly because I still haven't had my fill of anime/manga/game stuff shopping, and partly because it's on the same side of Tokyo as the JCC. Though it can be hard to find if you don't know it's there, the Nakano Broadway mall is the place to go if you want to shop for anime/game figurines. There's also a lot of great used music stores, some nice used game stores, and much more. Really, if you want any sort of collectible thing Nakano Broadway probably has you covered. Aside from the aforementioned items, I saw stores selling old toys (Japanese and American), books, movies, coins, stamps, sports cards, trading cards, watches, models, dolls, and quite a lot more. To get there, you go out the North exit from Nakano station, cross the street, and enter a shopping arcade (covered shopping street). At the end of the arcade is the entrance to Nakano Broadway, a multi-story mall. The basement level is primarily devoted to food and the first floor to clothing (though there's a bit of everything on each floor) with all the floors above focusing mostly on collectables of all kinds (even decorative straps with plastic potato chips on them). Just about everything in the collectable stores is used and quite a lot of space is devoted to glass cases that people rent out and fill with whatever they want to sell. But used stuff in Japan is almost always in excellent condition and much cheaper than new. Even better, with so many used items, your chances of finding rare out of print stuff significantly increases. And, with so many little stores in a relatively small area, it's pretty easy to comparison shop (which is a good idea since prices for some items can vary wildly). As much as I love Akihabara, I tend to find more rare CDs and figurines in Nakano Broadway (and often at better prices).
I had a lot of fun browsing, and managed to score a few good deals, and I didn't even reach the last floor before I had to leave for the JCC. The service there wasn't bad and the people were friendly. I got invited to stay for dinner (the reasons I got back late) and had a nice time overall. Though I don't think I'll go very often due to the distance (it's on the complete opposite end of Tokyo from me so getting there from either my apartment or school would take quite a while).

And that's it for now. I'll see you Monday (hopefully with a new PV strip).


1/12/2011 Time for work

Sorry everyone. I still haven't had time to get any new comics done.  I should have on ready for Friday though. I'm also caught up on everything else so comics will be next.

Tuesday and Wednesday (the 11th and 12th)
As you know, I didn't come to Japan just to go to Akihabara. I've got a job as an English teacher. More specifically an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) at Narashino #1 Jr. High School in Chiba. Since the Japanese school year begins in April, most ALT jobs start then or occasionally in August (as opposed to jobs at private English schools, when can start any time of the year). It's rather unusual to get a job that doesn't start until the last term of the year and it only happens if the previous ALT left for some reason. Leaving in the middle of the school year (before your contract ends) is highly frowned upon and reflects rather poorly on the ALT himself and his home country in general. Of course, sometimes there are unavoidable reasons such as serious health problems or a huge family emergency. That's understandable. However, some ALTs just decide that they don't like Japan and/or the job as much as they thought they would (see Part 1 of my guide to teaching English in Japan for a bit about common misconceptions people tend to have about both the country and ALT work) and don't have the morals or discipline to stick it out for the rest of their contract. And then there's a few who never intended to do the job in the first place and disappear the moment they receive their working visa.
But I'm getting off track. I don't know anything about the ALT I'm replacing, just that they needed someone to take over until the end of the school year so that's what I'm here for. Tuesday was my first day of work. Since it was the first day, the school asked me to come in a little early and I decided to leave fairly early as well, to ensure that I'd still make it on time even if I got lost. In the end, I left my apartment around 6:30 and headed out. I was originally planning to walk from my apartment to Aoto station and take the trains from there but since my backpack was jammed full of stuff (including a lot of things that would get left at the school such as my gym clothes and indoor shoes) I decided to take the bus to the station instead. While Aoto station is about 15 minutes from my apartment at a very fast walk (20 - 25 at a more normal pace), there's a bus stop about a minute and a half away and the bus stops right near the station. Unfortunately the bus is a little on the expensive side and, with the time spent walking to the bus stop from my apartment and then from the other stop to the station, it really only saves 5 - 8 minutes so I probably won't be taking it much unless the weather is bad or I have a lot to carry. In the end, what'll probably become my normal commute is a 15 minute walk (or 8 minute bus ride) to Aoto station followed by 20 minutes on a train, a couple more minutes on another train, and an 8 minute walk to the school itself. Not ideal by any means, but I heard that the average commute for someone working in the Tokyo area is over 90 minutes so I really can't complain.
Anyway, Aoto station is a fairly small and ordinary Japanese train station. Fortunately, I'm going opposite the morning rush hour crowd so there weren't too many people waiting for the train. Because of the way the trains work, it's best if I take a limited express (which goes faster because it only stops at major stations) then get out and backtrack one station on a local train. Anyway, my eventual goal is Yatsu station. Even though the school is closest to Tsudanuma station, getting to Tsudanuma station from where I am is considerably more complicated due to the way the routes are set up. Yatsu station is rather tiny. They've got this neat little stage out front (probably left over from New Years) but other than that it's a rather quiet residential area. The school itself is much larger and older than the elementary school where I worked before. It was the first jr. high School in this area (hence the unoriginal name of Narashino #1) and at one point had something like 1600 students. But, now that there's lots of other jr. high schools around and Japan's birthrate has taken a serious dive, it's down to something like 400 students with around 5 classes per grade (there's three grades, BTW, 7th - 9th). Like my previous school (and most schools in Japan for that matter) there's a shoe locker at the entrance where everyone switches between their regular shoes and their indoor shoes (shoes that you only wear inside). The one I just showed you is for the students. Staff and visitors have their own much smaller shoe locker area at the main entry. The building is five floors. When not in class, teachers and staff are stationed in the teachers' room on the first floor where they have their desks and can be easily found by anyone who needs them. The main classrooms are on floors 2 - 4 (oddly, the first year students are on the 4th floor and the third years are on the 2nd). And, unlike schools in the US where students move from room to room depending on their next class, with the exception of classes that need special equipment (computer class, science lab, etc), each class pretty much stays in their own room and the teachers for each subject come to them.
Since it was my first day, I wore a full suit, though come Wednesday I lost the coat and tie and threw on a gym jacket to match what most of the other teachers were wearing. In the end, I didn't teach any classes Tuesday or Wednesday though I observed one or two for each grade and helped out a bit with one of them. My regular teaching schedule starts next week when I'll be averaging around three classes a day. In the meantime, I took the opportunity to go over the English textbooks they're using (which actually aren't much more advanced than the stuff I was teaching at Nogi Elementary School), helped out with the daily cleaning (since there's no English room, I've been assigned to oversee the kids cleaning the computer room), did a little bit of lesson planning (though it looks like there won't be too much need for that since everyone more or less follows the textbook), and took the opportunity to review some of my Japanese grammar. I also took a walk through the school to make sure I know where everything is. Here's a view from one of the higher floors. As you can see, the whole area around the school is being cleared for some sort of construction. No idea what they're going to build, but I'd guess houses and/or apartments.
Compared to Nogi Elementary (which only had around 120 students), there's a lot more staff here (each class has its own homeroom teacher, for example). I've talked a bit with three of the four Japanese English teachers (since we're going to be working together) and the social studies teacher (since he's really friendly) but that's about it. I've also chatted a little with the students in the classes I've observed and the girls assigned to clean the computer room. Though at this point interacting with the students mostly consists of them asking me whatever questions they can figure out how to say in English (I'm really not supposed to use much Japanese around them to encourage them to speak English). I've heard a lot about how shy most Japanese kids become when they get older but most of the kids here seem almost as boisterous as my elementary students. And, like the elementary students, some really get a kick out of saying hello and having me say it back to them. I never quite understood that (I don't find it amazing when Japanese people say konnichiwa to me), but if they enjoy it then that's all that matters. As the trainer at Heart said, "Because you're the foreigner you're automatically the most interesting person there." And he's got a point. Even in downtown Tokyo, it's pretty easy to go an entire day without seeing any non-Japanese people as long as you stay away from the big tourist spots. And even then the number of foreigners will be dwarfed by the number of Japanese.
Now about the classes themselves. At Nogi Elementary, I was the only person on staff who spoke any English other than the secretary (who was probably one of the best Japanese English speakers I've ever met) so I pretty much ran the show with the Japanese teachers backing me up and explaining things to the kids in Japanese when necessary. In Jr. High, however, English is a required part of the curriculum so the school has four Japanese English teachers. They're the ones in charge of the lessons (using the textbooks) and I just follow along and help them in various ways. Depending on the teacher that could range from saying the occasional word in English to taking over the majority of the class (at this point, it's too easy to say where most of my classes here will fall on that range). There aren't nearly so many songs and games as in my Elementary school classes, but the teachers do seem to try to keep their classes fairly enjoyable.
The problem with these types of English classes, however, is that they teach to the tests (there's an English component of both high school and college entry exams) and the Japanese English teachers usually aren't particular fluent themselves. This results in a country of people that, despite having six years or more of English in school, can rarely make any sort of conversation. But that's aside from the point. Of the English teachers here, the one for second grade seems to have the best English of the bunch. The third and first grade teachers can carry on a conversation with me (albeit a bit slowly), but have pretty heave accents and I get the feeling that I could completely lose them if I spoke with my full vocabulary at a regular speed. But they're all nice people and I can't fault them too much since I know that their English teachers were probably the same or worse.
And that's about it for work. I'm sure I'll have more to talk about next week once I actually start doing some classes and spending more time with the students. This week, however, I have the next two days off. I'm not entirely sure why, but it could have something to do with the fact that the second year students are off on a field trip (skiing near Mt. Fuji, I believe) and the third years are too busy studying for high school entrance exams to have many English classes. That only leaves the first years and most of their English classes are scheduled early in the week so there probably wouldn't be much of anything for me to do if I was here. I'll talk more about work next week but for now it's time for a bit more touring...

Random Japan Comment: Exam Hell
Right now it's the middle of Japan's "exam hell" period when third year jr. high students are studying desperately to pass their high school entrance exams and third year high school students are doing the same for college entrance exams. The actual tests take place around now too (give or take a month or so). Unlike in the US, high school is optional, not mandatory, so there's no guarantee that students can get in. In addition to the national tests, a lot of the better high schools have additional tests of their own. Much like with colleges, students shop around for a highschool that has a good reputation in whatever it is they want to study and work hard to get admitted. If you watch a lot of anime, you may have noticed that a lot of high school students seem to live on their own. The reason is that, if they don't live near a high school they like, it's not uncommon for students to leave home to attend a better one. In Japan, going to the right high school increases your chances of going to a good college which in turn significantly increases your changes of getting a good job. Competition is fierce and the exams are brutally difficult. So much so that serious students often attend a cram school in the evenings to help prepare, followed by more studying and homework late into the night. If you're ever in Japan in the winter and see a bunch of half asleep teenagers, they're probably in the midst of exam hell. College exams are much the same, only worse. However, unlike with high school, if you fail your college exams it's perfectly acceptable to spend a year or two as a "ronin" and keep trying. Though the tests are only held once a year so you have to wait quite a while before trying again. On the bright side, once you get into a Japanese college you're pretty much guaranteed to graduate no matter how little work you do so it's a good time to take things easy before starting a career (which will probably involve rather long working hours of its own).


1/10/2011 No comic, but lots of travelogue entries

Sorry to say, but I don't have a new comic ready. As feared, I ran through my buffer and just haven't had a lot of time to work on new ones yet. I'll try and have one ready for Wednesday, no promises though. I'm pretty sure I'll be back on track by Friday though.

Saturday (the 8th): Old Friends
Depending on how long you've been reading my news posts, you may or may not know that I go to services on Saturdays. So I didn't do any touring or anything today. I had a rather leisurely morning then headed into Tokyo for services. Most of the people I knew from before are still there so it was nice to catch up a bit. I managed ok in Japanese though there are times when I can't think of a word or grammatical structure I know I learned before, which is annoying. I'll definitely be reviewing my textbooks this coming week. I also kept switching back and forth between polite and casual speech, which was pretty annoying (for me anyway). Casual is probably the way to go when talking to friends, but polite is what I need to use with pretty much everyone else so it's kinda a force of habit. Well, guess that's just something else to work on... I meant to get a group picture with everyone but ended up spacing it out so that'll have to wait till next week.
After services, Hoshinosan (one of the congregation's members) invited me to supper at a restaurant in Ningyoucho. I'd never really been to that part of Tokyo before but I think I'll go back and take a closer look around in the near future. There were a lot of good looking restaurants... We ended up at a great kaiten zushi place and then walked around Akihabara a little bit. While Hoshinosan insisted that I could stop and look in whatever stores I wanted, if I get started on a serious Akihabara run (especially for the first time in over two and a half years) it's going to take hours so I'm going to wait until I can devote a large portion of the day to it (probably tomorrow or Monday). Interesting note: Yodobashi Camera (the enormous electronics department store in Akihabara) has a large display of massage chairs which customers are welcome to test out for 15 minutes at a time. Kinda nice if you want to stop and relax for a bit.

Random Japan Comment: SUICA Cards
Since I'm spending so much time in and around the greater Tokyo area I got a SUICA card. Basically it's a card with a RFID chip (or something like that) that you can use to pay for train rides. It works all around the Tokyo and Chiba area of Japan and is interchangeable with PASMO (the Tokyo Metro's subway card) and several different train cards that are used in other parts of Japan. There's machines in most train stations which you can use to put money on your card (put in the card, push a couple buttons, and put in some bills). Then, instead of buying train tickets, you just place your card (or your whole wallet) on the pad on the ticket gate when you go through and when you leave. It automatically deducts the correct fare and you're good to go. Not only do you not have to spend time buying tickets (unless you need to get a reserved seat or something), but you also don't have to worry about figuring out the proper fare for your trip. A SUICA card probably isn't worth it if you're just making long trips (you'll burn through your credit way too quickly) and, if you're just coming to Japan to tour for a little while, it's probably better to just get a Japan Rail Pass (which gives you unlimited rides on JR trains; though it's only for trains, not subways, so a SUICA card could still be handy). But if you're going to be making a whole lot of little trips in and around Tokyo it's pretty handy. As an added bonus, quite a lot of vending machines and stores in train stations let you pay with your SUICA card instead of cash. There's machines selling SUICA cards in a lot of Tokyo area train stations but foreigners can take advantage of a special deal at Narita airport and get a SUICA with 1500 yen credit plus a ticket from the airport to downtown Tokyo (one way or round trip) for a discounted price.

Sunday (the 9th): Sky Tree?
I'd originally planned to spend most of the day in Akihabara but my friend Yehoshua Jo (leader of the congregation I attend when in Japan) invited me to do some stuff with him in the afternoon so I put Akihabara on hold until tomorrow so I can really do it justice. I didn't change my entire plan for the day though. Since I didn't have to meet Yehoshua till the afternoon, I headed to Oikeibajou, a fairly uninteresting section of Tokyo that's mainly apartments and a big horse racing track. However, most Sunday mornings they have a huge flea market in the track's parking lot. I visited it a few times when I was in Japan before (and you can read about it at various places throughout my travelog) and they pretty much have everything. It's random, of course, but that's part of the fun. There's lots of clothes, some electronics, toys, antiques, and odds and ends of all types. You're pretty much guaranteed to find something you like and nearly all of it is really cheap. I spent a grand total of 800 Yen (around $8) and ended up with three CDs (one of which costs 3000 Yen new), a DS game, and a several Mario figurines. There's lots of other flea markets around Tokyo, but they tend to be smaller, more specialized, and more expensive.
Anyway, getting to Oikeibajou requires riding the Tokyo monorail (which is mostly used for getting to Haneda Airport) which doesn't go many places so I needed to stop at Hamamatsucho station to change back to the regular trains. But I took a detour since Hamamatsucho is also home to one of Tokyo's Pokémon Centers. There's a handful of them across Japan and they're pretty much your one stop shop for anything Pokémon be it games, DVDs, toys, stuff animals, etc. You can even buy figurines of pretty much every Pokémon there is if you're so inclined (and want to spend a rather ridiculous amount of money). Pokémon Centers also have lots of rare Pokémon give aways (though you need Japanese copies of the games to take advantage of them) and are a very popular place to just hang out and play Pokémon (there were at least 50 people just sitting around outside the Center with their DSs when I stopped by. Helpful tip though, if you take your personal space very seriously avoid the Pokémon Center on weekends. Or maybe just avoid it entirely. Even on slow days it tends to be pretty crowded.
Right next to the Pokémon Center is Kyu Shiba Rikyu garden. I always meant to go there last time (since I passed it whenever I went to the flea market or Pokémon Center) but never got around to it. But I had a little time to kill today so I headed in. It's one of many nice Japanese gardens scattered about Tokyo and while it's not one of the biggest or fanciest ones I've visited, it was a relaxing change of pace after squeezing my way through the crowded Pokémon Center. Like pretty much all Japanese gardens, it had its share of birds and koi. It also offers a nice view of Tokyo Tower in the distance. One neat thing about Japanese gardens is that, while some times of year are certainly better, no matter when you go there's always something in bloom.
After a pleasant stroll through the garden it was off to Asakusa to meet with Yehoshua. I talked about Asakusa a lot in my previous travelog as well. It contains one of Tokyo's most famous shrines and numerous shopping streets. It's a lot of fun to walk around and also a great place to buy all your typical Japanese souvenirs. I only had about half an hour before I was supposed to meet Yehoshua so I just took a quick walk down a couple of the streets to find food. I'll probably be heading back to explore at a more leisurely pace in the near future so I'll go more in detail then. Anyway, while heading to the meeting point I stopped to get a chestnut taiyaki (really good) and some gelato. But this was no ordinary gelato. Ice cream in Japan can get pretty interesting (see my October 19th entry) and the gelato wasn't any different. Since it was fairly cheap and I hadn't eaten much I got a cup with three different flavors. There were a lot of interesting ones but I settled on satsumaimo (Japanese yam; very good), houjicha (roasted Japanese green tea; much different than regular green tea ice cream), and amezaki (a non-alcoholic sweet saki type drink; pretty good but probably not for everyone).
Yehoshua and I walked around and chatted for a few hours. We spent most of the time looking looking for good spots from which to photograph the Tokyo Sky Tree (it's the tall spire on the left). Set to be completed in 2012, it'll be replacing Tokyo Tower (in function, if not necessarily in spirit) as a major broadcast tower. While you probably know that I like to take photos, Yehoshua is pretty serious about it. He brought three different cameras and probably took a couple dozen shots of the Sky Tree with each one. That was a bit much for me, but it was nice to hang out and talk. And we did find a spot where you could see the Sky Tree reflecting off a nearby building, which was cool. We were far from the only people in the area though, apparently photographing the Sky Tree is a fairly popular pastime for anyone with a camera.
We eventually met up with Yehoshua's wife, got some soba (Japanese barley noodles) and headed off to the place Yehoshua had invited me out to visit in the first place, an onsen (Japanese hot springs). Unlike a lot of Japan's mountain towns, Tokyo isn't known for onsen but there are a couple. This one was down an alley is Asakusa and was pretty similar to the bath house I went to last week in Ueno, just with actual hot springs water instead of plain old hot water. It's nowhere near as big or fancy as the onsen theme park I've been to before in Odaiba (another part of Tokyo; see my January 20th entry), but it is a whole lot cheaper. While the park in Odaiba is a lot more fun, the Asakusa onsen was still nice and relaxing. Afterwards we got some drinks in a cafe and chatted for a bit before splitting up and heading home. While I could have done with a bit less time spent photographing the Sky Tree, it was an enjoyable day and I'm looking forward to getting back to Asakusa when I have more time. Next up though is Akihabara...

Monday (the 11th): Akihabara
It's not really a stretch to say that I've been waiting to visit Akihabara again for around two and half years. If you're into games, anime, manga, or electronics (or, like me, all of the above), it's the place to shop. But I'm getting just a little ahead of myself. Today is a holiday here in Japan (see my December 5th entry). Specifically, it's Coming of Age Day when everyone who has recently or is about to turn 20 dresses up, goes to listen to a speech given by some government official, and then usually goes out and parties. Because of this, I saw a number of girls walking around in kimono (not the best picture, but it would have been rude to obviously photograph them without asking).
Moving on, Akihabara is a very colorful area with lots of bright signs, enthusiastic hawkers, giant screens and billboards featuring popular anime and game characters, and girls in maid costumes (or other elaborate outfits) handing out flyers for cafes. If you really want to see Akihabara in all its glory you have to go on the weekends, but its a lot less crowded if you go on a weekday (even a holiday like today). And less crowded is certainly a good thing as the aisles in many of the shops are barely wide enough for one person, let alone several. Unfortunately, most of the stores really don't want you taking pictures inside so I don't have many photos (Super Potato, where the previous photo was taken, is a rare exception, so I also snapped a photo of the classic game arcade they have). Akihabara is an interesting mix of fairly big department stores (spread over multiple floors and occasionally buildings) and tiny little stores specializing in one thing or another that can only comfortably hold a handful of people at a time. Whether you're looking for electronics and computer equipment, software, video games, trading cards, anime, manga, music, or anime/manga/game merchandise there's plenty of stores to choose from. Since most are so small and specialized, you really have to walk around and explore to find the best deals on things but that's part of the fun. You never know when you'll run across a rare CD or figurine or whatever in some little store you've never seen before.
Although this whole Japan trip was rather last minute, I did manage to save up some spending money for this occasion. While I do like to wander around and see what catches my eye, having been away from Japan for so long I had a bit of a "shopping list" of things I wasn't able to get while back in the US including CDs (game and anime soundtracks, mostly), games, and figurines. And I spent quite a while browsing all of the above. But my relatively new found love of visual novel games led to me focusing rather heavily on tracking down several specific titles (all ones that have English fan translation patches, as I don't know nearly enough kanji to play them in Japanese). I actually did really good in that regard and found all the the ones on my list except one (which means it's either rare or spells its name differently than I thought) for really good prices. Since I tended to steer clear of the PC game sections of stores my last time in Japan I never realized just how many doujin (fan made) games there are. Problem is, quite a lot of them are highly adult in nature so I was basically stuck searching through the adult sections of a bunch of stores to find the games I wanted. Oddly enough, aside from PC games of all types, the adult sections also tended to contain several types of music (which isn't adult in nature), giving people uninterested in adult stuff another reason to visit the section. Seems most Japanese (guys and girls alike) really aren't bothered by it.
Anyway, a blow by blow description of my shopping trip would probably leave everyone either bored to tears to insanely jealous so I'll just move on. Suffice it to say that I got quite a lot of the things I wanted, noted some other things to look for once I have some more spending money, and had an enjoyable day. I got a quick lunch at Pepper Lunch, a Japanese restaurant chain where meat, veggies, and rice are served on a hot plate and you stir them around while they cook, and accepted an invitation to Yehoshua's restaurant for supper (he and his family run a Korean restaurant). Seems this was a pretty good night to visit. His restaurant is in the middle of a business district so it's pretty dead on days like today when a lot of companies are closed. While the menu is pretty diverse (at least I think it is, I know very few Korean words so I don't know what 90% of the stuff on the menu is), the specialty is meat and veggies which you cook on a little grill built into your table. He recently switched to beef from Japan's Yamagata Prefecture (not quite as famous as Kobe beef but still very well known in Japan) and I have to say that it was pretty amazing. I tend to feel a little guilty when I eat at his restaurant though because he never lets me pay for anything. It's ok once in a while but I tried not to eat there too often when I lived in Japan before so I wouldn't end up taking advantage of him. I'll probably do the same this time, despite how great the food is. And that was about it for today. I have to get up pretty early for work tomorrow so for now I'll just leave you with a Random Japan Comment.

Random Japan Comment: Tips for Shopping in Akihabara
1. The major stores like Yodobashi Camera and Gamers have excellent selections of new merchandise and are good places to see what's new and what the average price of stuff is, but you can usually find better prices elsewhere if you've got time to spare.
2. Quite a lot of shops specialize in used stuff. Unlike in the US, most used merchandise in Japan is in mint or near mint condition and considerably cheaper than buying new. Used is also the way to go when looking for old and/or rare items.
3. Many stores are spread out over several floors of the same building. Even if you're not leaving the store itself, make sure you pay for your items before changing floors.
4. With so many little stores spread all over the place, it's rather difficult to do any serious comparison shopping. Instead, try a get a feel for the average price of what you want then just grab it once you see a price that you're happy with.
5. Most sets of figurines come in random boxes and you won't know which one you got till you open it. While that can be fun, there's a lot of stores that specialize in selling used / open figurines. Note that in any given set some figurines are going to be fairly cheap and others really expensive so whether or not it pays to just buy the ones you want or get some boxes and hope you get lucky varies by situation.
6. If offered a point card at a store, go ahead and take it, some of them give pretty impressive discounts.
7. Look everywhere. There's a lot of great little stores hidden away up long flights of stairs or down small alleyways. Exploring is really half the fun.
8. As a rule remember that Japanese DVDs (both videos and games) won't work in US DVD players and drives (they're region locked). Ditto with most most video games (the Gameboy models, regular DS (not DSi), PSP, and PS3 being the notable exceptions). CDs (both music and software) are fine though, as are most Blu-ray discs.


1/5/2011 Getting settled

It's been a busy couple of days. I moved into my new apartment, explored the area, did a lot of shopping, and (thankfully) got my suitcase back. But on with the travelogue.

Tuesday (the 4th): Moving In
A friend of mine asked to to add some maps to show were I am when writing these so here's Japan with a marker on the Tokyo area, here's greater Tokyo with a mark on Ueno (where my hotel was), and this last one shows Ueno, Shinjuku (where I went to get my apartment keys), Kameari, and Aoto (the two train stations near my apartment). Note: all these are from Google Maps.
While I had a little trouble sleeping here and there jetlag wasn't much of an issue but, with only two days to get settled in before my job training, there was a lot to be done. First off, a trip to Shinjuku to get the keys to my new apartment. Shinjuku, BTW, is a kinda fun place to walk around, especially since they've got cool buildings like this. Since I was lugging a big suitcase around though, I didn't take any time to sightsee, or even find breakfast. The check-in process went smoothly though and then it was off to my new apartment, which was easier said than done. My building is on the outskirts of greater Tokyo right between Kameari and Aoto stations. But the map I'd gotten was from Kameari so... Thing is, rapid trains don't stop there and that seemed to be all there were. Plus there was this weird transfer I had to make... Basically, if I don't find a much easier way to travel between Kameari and central Tokyo I might have to use Aoto as my main station. Anyway, the map was a little hard to follow but with the help of the much more detailed maps I had saved on my phone, I managed to find my way to my apartment. Much like before it's pretty small, at least by US standards (see the entries for August 20th and September 29th for more about my old apartment and the town it was in). It has one main room which serves as the living room, dining room, and bedroom. There's also a shower, bathroom, and a tiny kitchen that doubles as the entry way. Compared to my last apartment it's a little smaller (no loft, no deck, no bathtub, no sink in the bathroom) but better furnished (note the desk, chairs, and almost decent sized fridge/freezer; there were a few plates and utensils too) and the heating seems to work much better, though it's still got nothing on even a half decent central heating system (see my February 1st entry for more on Japanese aircons).
I only stopped in the apartment long enough to look around and make a couple of phone calls (one about my missing suitcase) before heading out again. I'd passed a grocery store on my way here, so that was my first destination. The store isn't as big or nice as the one near my old apartment, but it's still pretty good and I was able find nearly everything I needed for pretty good prices. Since my kitchen is limited to a single stove burner and tiny toaster oven, I focused on things that could either be eaten as is (fruits, veggies, etc), boiled (noodles, rice, eggs), or stir fried (meat and most of the things I just listed). Since I had no food, and a fridge that could actually hold more than two days worth, I decided to stock up. Unfortunately, even for a five minute walk, carrying four overstuffed bags of groceries is a huge pain in the neck. I gotta remember that I don't have a bike this time...
Anyway, after unloading the groceries (to offset the bigger fridge, it seems there's no real pantry in this apartment) and eating a quick lunch (yakitori and a couple other random things purchased at the store) I headed out again, this time to start exploring the area. While I am technically in Tokyo, it's the outskirts so this is still mostly a bedroom community for people who commute downtown for work. So there's lots of apartment buildings and small houses. However, there's also some shopping streets near the station and I found a used game store (that also, for some reason, sells baby clothes), a Book-Off (used books, movies, and music), and a Tsutaya (new books, movies, music, and games) along with a variety of clothing stores, restaurants, and the like. I'm even near an herb shop just in case I feel a desire to buy a bunch unidentified herbs.
I found even more stuff closer to the station including a couple of much bigger grocery stores, lots of pachinko parlors (see my January 5th entry), and couple arcades (complete with DDR, a zillion UFO catches, virtual horse racing, and a Gundam battle game with life sized cockpits (among other things)). While wandering around I tried out a drink called Red Ginger (which tasted pretty much just like ginger ale, despite the color) and saw an even stranger drink which I didn't try. Then there's the statue of Kankichi Ryotsu, star of one of the most popular manga and anime series that you've never heard of, Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Koen-mae Hashutsujo (or just Kochikame for short). While it's never made it the US, the manga about the misadventures of some policemen working near Kameari station has been running weekly since 1976 (that's over 170 graphic novels worth) and spawned a nearly 400 episode anime, two movies, some live action stuff, and the usual bevy of merchandise. Since it's based around Kameari station, it's kinda a big deal here. Kankichi's face is plastered all over the place as you near the station, there's statues of the main characters scattered about the area, and there's even a themed arcade nearby. Guess that, despite the weird train schedule, the station really isn't as small as I thought.
While walking around the area north of the station I also spotted the not quite grammatically correct Nail Cute and a Moss Burger (a Japanese burger chain with some rather strange menu items). Passing up the Moss Burger, I stopped for a quick meal at a different (and non burger related) fast food chain place and got a beef and rice bowl, salad, bowl of miso soup, and a cup of barley tea for about $5 (and people say eating in Japan is expensive). As I started heading back towards my apartment I decided to take a different route and stumbled across a shrine with this interesting statue (looks kinda like a Lapras, doesn't it?) and, to my surprise, a large western style shopping mall complete with a movie theater. As a note, malls like this are more the exception than the rule in Japan, with crowded shopping streets being far more common. I spent a while browsing in the mall. It had a Tower Records (a music store chain) and quite a lot of other stuff like Books Kiddy Land (which was a bookstore but wasn't really focused on kids books), the pinkest store I've ever seen, and a department store with a large display of Girls' Day dolls (see my December 5th entry for more about Girls Day and other Japanese holidays). Oh, and if you thought that the clothing store Magazines had a serious name - content disconnect, just wait till you see this clothing store, whose name fails in so many ways. While there, I also decided that the best way to learn the 1800 or so Kanji I don't know might be to do it the Japanese way so I picked up a couple of elementary school level Kanji workbooks. We'll see how that works out...

Wednesday (the 5th): More Exploring
Compared to yesterday, today was rather uneventful. My suitcase was supposed to be delivered so I decided to hang out for a bit and wait for it. While waiting, I planned out the best route to the place where my job training is tomorrow and started planning out some of my upcoming day trips (I forgot how long it can take to research and plan out a good trip). My suitcase showed up a little after 10 (which was good since I had no idea what time of day it was going to show up). It was great to finally have all my bathroom stuff and cords, though I could have sworn I'd packed a PS3 controller in there. Either I'm mistaken or it got stolen somewhere between Colorado ad Tokyo...
Anyway, once I'd finished unpacking I headed out to explore the area some more. This time, I headed south towards Aoto station. It was mostly more apartments and houses along the way though I did run into a fairly major road at one point. There was also a large river (which seemed like a good place to fish, there was even an oddly named fishing store nearby) and some parks. Nothing out of the ordinary about these next couple of photos but I figured that some of you might like to see a Japanese gas station (note the pumps hanging from the ceiling and the employees who fill your take and wipe your windows) and a bike shop (people bike a lot in Japan). Oh, and a KFC (it and McDonalds are the biggest American fast food chains here by far), note the statue of Colonel Sanders (which all the Japanese KFCs have). I also ran into a Don Quixote store (think a very random discount department store). Still, there wasn't much in the way of shops or restaurants until I got near Aoto station itself. The station is much smaller than Kameari and has a smaller shopping area to match, but I did find a good ramen restaurant for lunch and a 100 yen store. I mentioned 100 yen stores occasionally in my original travelogue but they're basically just like dollar stores except a million times more awesome. As in, they've got a wide variety of stuff and it's all good quality. A good 100 yen store here in Japan can basically be your one stop shop for kitchen stuff (well, utensils, plates, cups and the like anyway), bathroom stuff (towels, toothbrushes, etc), general house stuff (cushions, baskets, light bulbs, garbage bags, etc, etc, etc) as well as some clothing and other items. I'd been keeping an eye out for one yesterday but the ones near Kameari station had been closed (probably still taking their New Years holiday) so I took the opportunity to grab the rest of the stuff on my shopping list (some utensils and assorted other apartment stuff). I got a few things that I probably could have lived without for a few months but hey, at 100 yen a piece there wasn't any good reason not to get them.
In the weird drink department, check out this one I found in a nearby vending machine. It's pancake flavored. Seriously. I tried it (couldn't really pass up something that odd) and it actually did taste kinda like pancakes with syrup. Not bad, but a bit too sweet for me.
After I'd finished wandering around, I headed back to my apartment, and dropped everything off. I was originally thinking of heading out again and exploring a little more around Kameari station but I got caught up trying to plan the best route from my apartment to the school where I'll be teaching and that took a while (while I got the closest apartment I could find, there isn't a direct route between the train stations here and the closest one to the school). By the time I was done, it was getting dark and I didn't really want to do a lot more walking so I just took a quick trip out to get a PS3 controller then settled down to make supper and get some work done.
Oh, here's one more picture I thought you might find interesting, an ad for a company that does prefab houses in the area. Gives you an idea of what the floor plans are like in a lot of those houses.

That's it for now. Tomorrow is training, which probably isn't going to be all exciting but you'll hear all about it on Friday.


1/3/2011 The great Japan travelogue version 2.0

As you may have guessed, I made it to Japan ok and the internet in my hotel works. Hopefully I'll be moving into my apartment tomorrow so let's just hope the internet works fine there as well. As a note, while I'm in Japan Pebble Version will still update every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (as long as I have internet access) but updates will usually take place a few hours later than they do when I'm in the US (so early morning of the update day rather than late the night before). Usually a bit earlier than this one though, I hope. But that's enough hoping. On with the travelogue!

Sunday and Monday (January 2 - 3) Off to Japan...Again
As a note, to avoid having to retype a lot of information, I'll be referring back to parts of my original Japan travelogue from time to time.
This was kinda one of those good luck / bad luck days... Anyway, I had to leave pretty early in the morning to get to the airport. My first flight was at 6:20 and I needed to be at the airport an hour before and all that. At least the flight was supposed to leave at 6:20. However, they announced an 18 minute delay which quickly stretched into a 40 minute delay. Suddenly the fact that I only had an hour to switch planes in Denver was looking like a serious problem. As soon as I got off the plane I made a mad dash to the gate, hoping for the best (well, it was part mad dash part fast walk since running while wearing a full winter coat and heavy backup is pretty tiring). Miraculously, I made it just before they closed the doors of the plane (though I worried about whether or not my luggage had also been so fortunate). Fortunately, my flight from Denver to San Francisco left and arrived on schedule. Unfortunately, despite it being a large plane, there was some horrible turbulence during the first part of the flight (I came extremely close to throwing up). With that flight over I had a long walk across the San Francisco airport to my final flight. Fortunately there was no need to run again. And then finally, finally, I was off for Japan.
The flight itself wasn't bad. I actually ended up next to one of the only empty seats on the plane, which was kinda nice. I played Lunar Silver Star Harmony on my PSP until the battery died then spend the rest of the time reading through a large portion of my new Japan tour book and marking off places I may want to visit on my days off.
While I spent the week and a half from the time I got this new Japan job till the time I left going back and forth between excitement and nervousness (why did I decide to do this again?), during the plane rides and the rest of the day I was totally calm and collected. But I suppose that's the way I usually am. I worry about things a lot more before hand than I do once they're actually underway.
But back to the trip. Overall it wasn't a bad flight and the food was surprisingly decent (which was good since that late first flight caused me to miss breakfast). We even got into Narita (Japan's main international airport) a full 40 minutes ahead of schedule (which, due to the time difference was the middle of the afternoon on Monday). I got through immigration pretty quickly and was feeling good...right up until I got to the baggage claim. The weird thing is, my luggage actually did make it to San Francisco on time but for some reason they only loaded one of my two suitcases onto the plane to Japan. And, since there's only one flight from SF to Narita every day by the time the suitcases gets to Japan and they deliver it to me it'll probably be at least Wednesday. On the bright side, the suitcase I have has all my casual clothes and electronics. On the down side, the suitcase I don't have has all my dress clothes, bathroom stuff (toothbrush, shampoo, etc) and a few other things that I really need as soon as possible. So yeah, that certainly could have gone better.
When I finally got out of the baggage claim with my single suitcase my next stop was to get the Japanese sim card for my phone. Picking up the sim card and putting it in my phone was pretty easy. However, it didn't work at first and it took five or ten minutes of playing around in the settings before I found that option that forced it to use the Japanese cell network (something they neglected to mention in the manual). That was kind of annoying but it's working now so no big deal.
On the way out of the airport I also saw that the JR (Japan Railways) had a special deal going on where you got a ticket from Narita to Tokyo plus a SUICA card for a special discount. I'd been planning to get a SUICA card anyway (I'll explain what they are in a Random Japan comment later this week) so that worked out pretty well.
I was originally planning to take some photos of the countryside during the train ride but it was already getting dark and the windows had a lot of glare from the lights inside the train so I didn't really get to take any until I arrived in Ueno. I passed through Ueno station a lot my last time in Japan and it really made me stop and say "hey, I'm in Japan". I mean where else can you see a woman in a kimono, a girl in full gothic lolita apparel, and a couple of traditionally dressed monks all in the span of five minutes (aside from a cosplay convention anyway)?
The Google map to my hotel worked perfectly and soon I was checked in and extremely glad to be rid of my suitcase and backpack. I thought I'd be pretty tired by then since I didn't sleep at all on the planes (I can't really sleep on them, unless I'm dead tired) but I was feeling surprisingly good. In fact, I didn't really start to get tired until I hit the 24 hour-ish mark. Anyway, my hotel room is quite possibly the smallest one yet and has a bathroom barely bigger than the one on the airplane but it's cheap and this is Tokyo.
Almost immediately after checking in I headed back out to find something to eat. While walking around I had plenty more "this is Japan" moments. Where else can you find random shrines, vending machines with drinks like Body Shot Black and Dodekamin Hunter Blend, walk confidently through dark alleys in the middle of a big city, and stumble across porn where you'd least expect it (see the entry in my original travelogue for the 13th of February). Japan is definitely a unique place. Anyway, I spent some time strolling around Ameya Yoko-cho, Ueno's collection of shopping streets (see the August 16th entry). I stopped in the first kaiten zushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant I saw but other than that I just browsed a bit, talked myself out of buying some awesome stuff I know I can find cheaper in Akihabara, and took some pictures. First off, there's this life sized sheep statue. Never could figure out if it was supposed to be art or an ad for a cake shop... And hey, if you're ever in Ueno you could always try Aquabubble Dining, shop for clothes at a store called Magazines, or get a Beard Papa's cream puff (while Japanese cream puffs are pretty good, I have no idea what's up with that name). And, while this picture doesn't feature any weird English names, I know that Silver is going to love it...
Anyway, I got back from Ameya ready to write this update and then get some sleep but I happened to spot an ad in the hotel for a nearby public bath house. Since I'm currently without my soap, shampoo, and the like, I figured what they heck, that'd be a very Japanese way to get cleaned up, and headed out again. For those unfamiliar with Japanese bath houses they're basically just like onsens (Japanese hot springs) complete with big pools, pre-bath washing, and full nudity (see the August 27th entry of my original travelogue for more on onsens and Japanese bathing in general) except that instead of hot springs water they've got regular hot water. While public bath houses are becoming a lot less common in Japan now that modern apartments are getting fancier and fancier bathrooms, this one was pretty busy (despite, or possible because, it being 9 PM on a holiday). While I've been to a few onsens I've never been to a plain bath house before. This one was pretty nice. It had two indoor pools (one ridiculously hot, the other with these cool water jet seats), an outdoor pool, and even a sauna. It only cost 500 yen (a little over $5 at the current exchange rate) for access to the pools (the sauna was a couple hundred yen extra), a set of towels, and soap and shampoo, and just sitting the hot water is a great way to relax. Naturally though, I didn't take any photos and couldn't post them here even if I did.
Anyway, feeling a whole lot cleaner, I returned to my hotel once again to write this update and finally get some sleep. So, while I certainly could have gone without the turbulence and delayed luggage, it wasn't a bad trip overall and the evening made for a nice reintroduction to Japan.

And that's all for today. If everything goes well, the next update will be posted early Wednesday morning from my new apartment.


12/31/2010 Heading out

There's a special voters' bonus comic up featuring the winners of The Week of Randomness event on the forums.

The last day of the year, huh? Tomorrow's my birthday and then it's off to Japan the day after. Still kinda hard to believe... Anyway, Monday's update may be a bit early, a bit late, or get skipped entirely depending on whether or not my flights stay on schedule, whether or not the internet at my hotel works, and how tired I am. I'll do my best to update, but I can't guarantee anything. Wednesday's update isn't a sure thing either. I should be in my apartment by then which should have internet ready and waiting but, of course, I can't be sure till I'm there. Hopefully I won't miss any updates but, worse comes to worse, I'll find some way to update come Friday.

Friday (December 31st): Getting Ready
Even with all the most important stuff finished there was still a lot I needed to do to get ready for Japan. To keep things simple I started by making a list of the things I needed to pack and get done.
Preparations included things like changing my voice mail message, printing copies of various important papers (my apartment confirmation, for example), buying some stuff to bring to Japan, and switching around the contents of my wallet (taking out most of my US member cards and putting in the Japanese ones I still have). I also had a few less important tasks such as finishing some books and games I was in the middle of but didn't really want to take to Japan.
As for packing, the fact that I've already been there before and only have a three month contract made things a lot easier than last time. I naturally need nice clothes (button down shirts, slacks, ties, and a belt) for work, casual clothes (for all other times), regular and indoor shoes, and gym clothes (for recess and other more active work activities). But since there's no guarantee I'll be staying in Japan after April, I only have to pack for winter and early spring which really cuts down on the amount of clothing I need. I also limited myself to one laptop (last time, I brought my old one as a backup) and one non-portable game system (my PS3). There's a lot of other things I'm leaving behind as well. If I ended up staying in Japan for a year or two, I'll probably have my family bring or send them to me but I shouldn't have any problem living without them for several months.
I did, however, make sure to get a nice picture book of Colorado (everyone loved looking at the one I brought last time) and several months worth of shampoo and the like (as I won't be able to find the brands I use in Japan). I thought about bringing a lot of Yen (since Japan is so cash based), but I didn't really have a good opportunity to get any so I'll just find an international ATM when I get there. I'll probably get a better exchange rate anyway. The only other important thing I had to remember when packing was that I'm limited to two suitcases and my backpack. Actually, going strictly by airline rules I might be able to bring a small carry-on suitcase too but it's hard enough to drag two suitcases around, no way am I bringing three. And besides, like I said, I'm bringing a lot less than I did before so I really don't need another suitcase. I've even got room to bring a bunch of stuff (probably CDs and figurines) back from Japan.

But anyway, that's it for the "prologue". Look for the real start of the my new Japan travelogue next time! Happy New Year everyone!!!


12/29/2010 My Japan job

The last page of the ROM holiday special is up! Now for a bit more of my pre-Japan travelogue.

Wednesday (December 29th): My New Job
Hard to believe I'll be in Japan in less than a week... Anyway, today I'll be talking a little about the job itself and where I'll be living. Then on Friday I'll go into what I've been doing to get ready for the trip.
So, in my last entry I stopped right after I got the job in Narashino. Narashino is a medium sized city on the western edge of Chiba, right on the border with greater Tokyo. Actually, judging from the maps I've seen it might as well be a part of greater Tokyo. I'll be teaching at a Jr. high school there. Which Jr. Highschool, I'm not exactly sure. I asked, but for some reason Heart (the company that hired me) doesn't want to tell me until I meet them for my training sesson. I'm not really sure why they feel the need to hide it (kinda weird if you ask me), but they did tell me the nearest train station and Google Maps shows two Jr. high schools right near that station so it's probably one of the two.
Unlike the Ushiku position it's not quite a full time job. Much like my last teaching job in Japan I'll be working from around 8 - 5 (with an hour lunch break that's technicacally not a break since I'm required to eat the school lunch at the school with the students and/or teachers) but I'll have more days off than I would with a full time position and I'm getting paid a daily rate, not a monthly rate. When all is said and done, I'll end up making the equivalent of 2 1/5 months salary (compared to what I would have earned at the Ushiku position) or 2 2/3 months at my old teaching job in Nogi. On the down side that means that, after expenses, I won't have enough money left to make up for what I spent on my plane ticket. On the plus side, I'll have enough to pay my expenses and then some and I'll have more free time to explore Tokyo and go off touring (and work on Car Washer and my job search). So, while I'll be losing a bit of money overall (unless I decide to stay on after my contract ends), this trip can kinda be thought of as a really cheap 3-4 month vacation.
But anyway, once I knew where I'd be working I also had to find a place to live. Normally when you're hired to teach in Japan your company finds housing for you. And Heart was willing to do so. Problem is, the housing arrangement they have in the area is a guest house which means that I'd have to share a kitchen and bathroom. I didn't really want that, and I'd already done some research into housing in Tokyo, so I decided to find an apartment of my own. Fortunately, Heart was fine with that (some companies force you to live in their arranged housing). If you read my previous Travelogue you may remember that I wrote a bit about renting apartments there (see the February 22nd entry). Long story short, renting a new apartment in Japan can be a very expensive process as the move-in fees (the vast majority of which you don't get back) can easily come to the equivalent around 3 - 6 months rent. Because of this, if you want to rent an apartment in Japan you usually need a lot of cash on hand and want to be absolutely sure that you're going to stay there for long enough to make all those fees worth it. So yeah, not so great for someone like me who may only be there for a few months. Fortunately, there are a handful of apartment companies (the majority of which are primarily based around Tokyo) that specialize in renting out apartments without the move-in fees. Rent is usually a little higher than it would otherwise be, but that's way better than all those fees. I spent some time looking around online and ended up getting an apartment through Sakura House that fit all my criteria. Namely it was within my budget, furnished (I wouldn't want to buy a lot of furniture and appliances unless I was certain I was going to be there for a while), has internet access, and is within a reasonable commute (both in terms of time and trainfare) from where I'll be working. I'll be sure to get some pictures once I've moved in.
The other thing I needed was a phone. While I could probably get by for a few months in Japan without a cellphone (it's much cheaper to call home with Skype), my company wants me to have one so they can reach me if they need to. Signing up for a Japanese cellphone plan naturally isn't the greatest idea when I may not be staying for more than a few months. Last time I rented a phone while I was there. It was on a pay as you go plan and relatively cheap (so long as I didn't make a lot of calls). This time I decided to do the same. I even found a cheaper place than before. Making calls and texts is still pretty expensive (and I definately won't be using data) but receiving calls and texts is free and hey, no rental fee. However, since my family had some cellphone upgrades coming up and my dad had been thinking about getting a global phone anyway (so his business contacts can always reach him when he travels), after a bit of research he and I took advantage of a buy one get one free phone deal and got Droid 2 Globals. I was able to unlock mine so I can use it with a rented Japanese sim card (which I'll be getting from that place I just linked to). The whole process was a bit more complicated than just renting a phone but it'll be nice to keep my own phone and I was able to download some Japanese maps, train schedules, and other useful stuff, which should come in handy.
Finally, with the essentials (the apartment, phone, and plane ticket) taken care of, it was time to focus on the rest of the prep work...

But that's a story for another day. Friday to be exact. See you then!


12/27/2010 Getting ready for Japan

Friday's bonus comic if up if you haven't seen it yet. There's a new ROM too.

As I said in my update to the previous news post, I'm sorry for the problems the site had last week. Everything should be working fine now. And, while I don't leave for Japan until Sunday, I decided to get an early start on my travelogue. Today I'll be talking a bit about how I got the job and later this week I'll talk a bit about the job itself and what I've been doing to prepare for the trip. There's a chance that Monday and/or Wednesday's updates next week will be skipped depending on a combination of how jetlagged I am, how busy I am, and whether or not the internet in my hotel and then apartment works as advertised, but hopefully I'll be able to just hit the ground running (though the site will likely update several hours later than usual during my entire stay in Japan). However, I might be too busy next week to make new PV strips so if anyone wants to send in some guest comics it'd be appreciated.

Anyway, on with the travelogue. As a note, while the most recent few entries will always be displayed here on the main page, all entries (old and new) can be found on the travelogue's main page.

Monday (December 27th): Getting the Job
For those of you who don't know, this is actually going to be my second time living and working in Japan. The first time I was there for around eight months and I taught English at an elementary school and a couple of preschools in Nogi, a little town about an hour north of Tokyo. If you want to see my posts and photos from then, check out my original Japan Travelogue. I enjoyed my time there a lot but, in the end, I was ready to return to the US. And, while I'm glad I left Japan when I did, I've been wanting to return for quite a while. I was originally thinking of just taking a vacation there for several weeks. However, due to the economy crashing right before I got my Master's degree, finding the kind of job I want hasn't been easy. Though I did get a deal to write a textbook on game storytelling and am finishing up an indie game of my own, I wasn't having much luck finding a full time game design and/or writing job so I began to think about teaching in Japan again. While I don't really want to make a career out of English teaching, I did enjoy it the first time and most of my favorite game companies are based in Japan so improving my Japanese a bit more could come in handy.
There's a lot of useful web sites to check out when you're looking to teach English in Japan. I already had a collection of them from my first time in Japan and I ended up finding several more this time as well. You can find a partial list in Part 3 of my So You Want to Teach English in Japan... guide and sooner or later I'll be updating it with a bunch of new links. But that's not all. Since I had some time to kill after finishing the writing on my textbook, and to improve my chances of getting a teaching job, I spent a few weeks getting my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification as well (I'll be adding more info about the certification course to the aforementioned guide as well). After that it was just a matter of checking the new job postings once or twice a week and applying to the ones I was interested in. I had some interviews here and there over e-mail and/or Skype but for a while something always wasn't right. Either they really wanted someone who was already in Japan, or I'd have to work on Saturdays, or I didn't make the final cut, or something. However, I eventually received a provisional contract with Heart English School.
Much like Joytalk (who I worked for last time), Heart is a company that primarily hires people to work in various public schools. The preliminary contract basically meant that they liked me and wanted to hire me if/when a suitable opening came up. However, the Japanese school year begins in April so most public school teaching jobs begin either then or in August. While Heart was pretty sure they'd have a lot of openings come April, they said there might be an opening or two in January if some other teachers had to leave early.
At first it was looking like I was going to be offered a position at a Junior high school in Ushiku, a town around an hour north east of Tokyo which has a Buddha statue taller than The Statue of Liberty (which I'll likely be visiting at some point in the near future). They knew the teacher was going to be leaving in December so they needed someone to fill in until the end of the school year in late March. The cool thing about the position was that, unlike most Japan teaching jobs, which require a year long commitment, the initial contract would only go through March, at which point I'd be free to renew for a full year (if they liked me) or move on to other things. However, the Ushiku school board was dragging their feet and thinking about just waiting until April to get a new English teacher.
Come the first part of December, a job I'd been pursuing in Arizona fell through and the Ushiku school board still hadn't made up their mind. While Heart was perfectly willing to give me the job, they couldn't be sure whether or not the job would exist come January. Naturally, I wouldn't really want to travel half way around the world only to find out that I didn't have a job. So Heart mentioned a couple other openings they had coming up and said that, if I wanted, I could either reserve one as a backup if Ushiku didn't come through or just forget about Ushiku and take one of them. One position was on Sado Island, a relatively small island off the west coast of Japan. Interestingly enough, one of my friends from college Japanese classes is actually working there as an English teacher. While being in the same area as him would have been cool, I didn't really want to spend most of my time in Japan stuck on Sado (getting off the island requires a lengthy fairy ride and even then you're nowhere near any major cities) so I passed on that one. The other position, however, was in Narashino, a town in Chiba which is just outside of the greater Tokyo area. It had some pros and cons compared to the Ushiku position but, since I really wanted to know where I was going to end up before arriving in Japan, I decided to forgo Ushiku entirely just take the Narashino job. Unfortunately, because of how long Heart and I were waiting to hear from Ushiku, by the time I was confirmed for the Narashino job I was left with less than two weeks to prepare...

And that's it for today. I'll take more about the position itself on Wednesday.


12/22/2010 Japan again?

UPDATE: Sorry about all the problems the site was having over the last couple of days. A lot of people, myself included, were frequently getting connection errors when trying to access the site. After a lot of back and forth with my host we never could figure out exactly what was causing the problem so we decided to move everything to a new server. Unfortunately there were some problems with the transition which is why things were so screwy the last couple of days. But it's all fixed now. I just hope the original problem is fixed too... Anyway, since a lot of people never got a chance to see this (Wednesday's) comic, I'm going to leave it up until for now. The new voters' bonus comic is up and updates for both PV and ROM will resume on Monday.

Well, I'm back in CO but not for long. I just got the news tonight. It seems that, if nothing major happens in the next week or so, I'll be headed back to Japan to teach English right after New Years. I'll go into detail about the job in a future news post (between getting back from AZ and this news I just don't have a lot of time at the moment) but in a nutshell it's at a junior high school close to Tokyo and I'd be there until the end of the school year (late March). There's a good chance that I could stay on (either there or at another school) after my initial contract ends but my current plan is to finish the contract, take two or three weeks to do some touring with my family, then return to the US in mid-to late April. If I'm lucky, I'll have a game related job lined up by then (I'll be doing a lot of applications and stuff while in Japan). If not, I'll probably return to Phoenix take a few classes while continuing my job search.

So basically I'm treating this as a long working vacation. I've been wanting to go back to Japan for ages and it should be an enjoyable way to spend a few months while waiting for my textbook to be released and for Car Washer to get finished. It's too bad that I'll miss GDC, but I guess you can't have everything. So yeah, look for more details soon.

Pebble Version updates should pretty much continue normally while in Japan (though updates times may change slightly). My Japan Travelogue will also be making a return complete with day by day write-ups, photos, and Random Japan Comments, just like before. For all you Ink fans out there, don't worry, I'll do Ink updates on days when I don't have any Japan stuff to talk about (don't know how often that'll be though). There's a good chance that one or two updates may be missed when I first travel to Japan and during my first week or two there I may be too busy to make a lot of new strips (though I will update the travelogue regardless) so if any of you want to send in a guest comic or two that'd be great.

So yeah. Kinda excited and nervous right now. I'll let you know more details soon (probably Friday or Monday).



12/20/2010 Limited time...

There's a new ROM today. And, as always, you can vote to see Friday's bonus comic.

I got a bit of a late start on today's update. There was another twist in that possible Japan job. It's got some pros and some cons but the cons and significant enough to give me second thoughts about the whole thing, especially considering that I'd need to be in Japan about two weeks from now, which doesn't leave a whole lot of time to prepare (or find a decent price on plane tickets). It might be better to just move back to Phoenix for now and see what happens with my book and Car Washer. I could go to GDC that way too but still try for a Japan position in April if nothing else comes through... But then again, this is still a good chance to spend some time in Japan and pick up a working visa without a long term commitment... Either way, I expect that I'll have all the details and make my final decision sometime this week (any later and there really wouldn't be enough time to prepare for a move to Japan).

I'm starting to seriously dislike job searching... But anyway, this time in Phoenix has been fun. I've got to hang out with my friends and family a lot and stop at a lot of my favorite stores and restaurants. I've gotten some work done and had a lot of time to relax too (which I needed). It would certainly be fun to end up back here for a while. And I could always plan a vacation to Japan later in the year... Well we'll see (soon, I hope). I should be back in Colorado tomorrow, at least for a little while. PV updates should continue as usual, for the moment anyway (there'll probably be some interruptions if I end up going to Japan).



12/17/2010 Movie night

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

Ink updates will be returning some time next week. Can't do one today because I went to the midnight release of Tron. The IMax 3D midnight release of Tron. Well, actually I'm about to leave (my friends want to make sure we get good seats) but I'm not going to be uploading this site update until I get back. I'm just writing it early since I probably won't be getting back till around 2:30 or 3 in the morning and I doubt I'll really want to stay up much longer to get the update ready. This way, once I get back I just need to hit a button and I'm done (this site is too old to have an auto update script).

Anyway, have a good weekend!


12/15/2010 1100 and 156!

So, 1100 comics (not counting Blooper Reel and bonus strips)... I would totally say something deep and meaningful about this milestone except that I was out late bowling with my brother and his friends, who were celebrating the end of finals. 156 was my score, BTW. Quite possibly my best one ever (might of had one higher a long time ago, but I can't remember). I got five strikes that game, three of which were in a row. I also completely missed several easy spares but hey, it was still a pretty awesome game. But anyway, there's a new ROM up and that's about it so I'll see you Friday!


12/13/2010 Big changes coming...

For me, not for the site. It's starting to look pretty likely that I'll get an official offer for a job in Japan really soon (possibly tonight). This particular job has some interesting pros and cons. Mainly, the initial contract would only be from January until the end of the current school year (late March). They didn't say, but I assume I'd be replacing a teacher who had to leave early for some reason.
On the one hand, it's a big move for a three month job and, as much as I love Japan, I'd still prefer a game design job. And I'd be missing the Game Developers Conference. On the other hand, at only three months I could treat it like a long working vacation. I'm not interviewing for anything else at the moment and April isn't all that far off so I could keep applying for game jobs (both in Japan and the US) in the meantime. During that time my book and hopefully Car Washer will be released, which should really improve my resume. And all the while I 'd making a bit of money (probably just enough to cover expenses, the plane tickets, my weekend excursions, and all the CDs and figurines I'd buy in Akihabara), doing some intensive Japanese study, and having fun touring, shopping, and the like.
Then, come the end of the contract, I'd have a few options. I could come back to the US to work or return to school or whatever. I could quite likely renew the teaching contract and stay in Japan. Or if I couldn't or didn't want to for some reason I could pick up another job in Japan. I'd be there with a valid working visa which would make it easy to shop around for a different teaching position. Or, if I'm really lucky, I might even be able to get a game job.
Like I said, nothing is official yet but it seems pretty likely that I'll get the offer. I was a little unsure about committing myself to a whole year in Japan away from the game industry but this way I'd kinda get the best of both worlds. I'd have a few months in Japan, with the option to stay longer, and it shouldn't really harm my chances with any jobs back here in the US. So yeah, I'm starting to change from nervous to excited. And if I don't get the offer...well this trip got me rather psyched about moving back to Phoenix so that'd be cool too.

I'll keep you all updated whatever happens and hey, if I do end up back to Japan, I can restart the travelogue. So yeah, we'll see what happens.


12/10/2010 Family stuff

There's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM. And look, we're almost to the 1100th strip! What will happen then? Well, you're just going to have to wait and find out.

Anyway, I've spent most of the last few days doing stuff with my grandma and great aunt, who are also here for my brother's graduation, and running The Week of Randomness event on the forums. Kinda fun, but nothing too exciting. Hopefully I'll be able to make that announcement I mentioned a little while back soon (I'm just waiting for the official announcement so I can post a link). Other than that, I'm still waiting to hear back from my possible job opportunities which will be determining if I end up moving back to Phoenix or Japan next month (or somewhere else, though those two seem the most likely) and finishing up the third Professor Layton game. It is nice to be on a vacation of sorts, though seeing as I don't have a definite job yet and have a lttle bit left to do on this one project of mine, I feel a little guilty that I'm not getting a whole lot of work done. But that'll probably change soon enough so I should probably enjoy the break while I can.

Have a good weekend, everyone!


12/8/2010 Commentary!

You know, I complete forgot to mention it on Monday but there's a new ROM.

Ink's Spell List - Designer's Comments:
The spell list is fairly large, though I can easily think of a lot more spells I could add. More spells is good for variety and strategy but each spell takes time to program and animate so it's important not to go too overboard. It's quite possible that the final number could change a bit during the production and testing phases for a variety of reasons. For instance, while it was simple to create three non-generic spells for everyone number of elements, mixing things up may make the distribution a little more interesting.
You probably noticed that each spell has a power level listed. While I haven't gotten around to working out all the statistical formulas for the battle system yet, I wanted to have a simple indication of the strength of each spell for easy reference until I get the official numbers done. Note that the levels don't max at 6, there will be some dual spells that are stronger.
At the moment, most of the spells are straight damage or straight healing. There's only a couple that have special effects. The reason? Well, Josiah is in charge of buffing the party with his writing so there's no need for buff spells. I am considering giving a lot of the spells negative status effects instead of or in addition to their damage. Thing is, I haven't created a negative status list yet and I didn't want to just make them up on the fly. Actually, I haven't decided yet if I want Ink to have a whole lot of negative status effects or not. And, if I do, I might put Josiah in charge of some of them. Once the negative statuses are finalized, I'll be revisiting the spell list and making changes as necessary. If I were actually making the full game right now, it would have probably been better to finalize the status effects first so I could try and get the spells done in a single pass but, since I'm just doing this for fun right now, I'm free to do things in whatever order I want, even if it's not always the most practical one.
Finally, you may have noticed that, at the moment, all the spells only hit a single target. Are they going to stay that way? Probably not. They're all that way at the moment because I haven't decided if I want to make each spells single or multi-target only or if I want to allow all spells to be spread across multiple targets when desired (at reduced damage). Anyway, I'll deal with all that later on when I revise the spell list. While not quite final, this list will provide a good base while I work on some other things.


12/6/2010 Long drive ahead

Well, I'm off to Arizona for my brother's graduation. It's a long drive so I gotta get up early. Of course, I'll be doing the whole drive again in a couple of weeks once my vacation is over and then it's quite possible that I'll be doing it again a week or two after that depending on which job I do (or don't) get... Not sure how much of a vacation this trip is going to be since I've got a few things I need to work on (which I can do from anywhere so long as I have my laptop), but I should have some time to relax and play the new Professor Layton so that'll be nice.

I'll have the Ink spell commentary done later this week so see you Wednesday!


12/3/2010 And eight...

There's a new Pebble Version Blooper Reel comic for everyone who votes. All you need to do is click the Top Web Comics banner or button and confirm you vote to see it. As a note, I'm heading off to Arizona next week for my brother's graduation. Current plan has me down there for a couple of weeks. Then back here for two or three weeks and then... Well, after that it all depends on job stuff. I might be going to Japan, or back to Arizona (either on a short or long term basis), or maybe somewhere else. Personally, I hate leaving a big decision like that till the last minute, but there really isn't anything I can do about that this time, just have to wait and see what does (or doesn't) come through. Anyway, it's time for the last batch of Ink spells...

8 Element Offensive Spells

Meteor Rain
Element: Earth and Fire
Power Rank: 5.5
Element Combo: Earth, Earth, Fire, Earth, Fire, Fire, Wind, Wind, Fire
Effect: Deals earth and fire damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A series of flaming meteorites rain down on the target.

Element: Wind and Water
Power Rank: 5.5
Element Combo: Water, Wind, Wind, Earth, Water, Fire, Water, Wind
Effect: Deals water and wind damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A whirling vortex of ice and water engulfs the target.

Electric Heaven
Element: Electricity
Power Rank: 6
Element Combo: Wind, Water, Water, Wind, Fire, Wind, Fire, Earth
Effect: Deals electric damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is caught up in a massive electrical storm.

And that's the main spell list...sorta. There's some changes and revisions I might make later on (which will be discussed in next week's designer's comments for this section) and there's still the multi-character spells and all the techs. Not to mention any enemy specific spells... But those are all topics for other times. I'll see you Monday.


12/1/2010 December already?

December, huh? Can't believe the year is almost over. Hard to believe I'll be moving soon too. Probably because I still don't know where. I've got that possible Japan job so I could be going there but there's also a decent chance I'll be moving back to Phoenix for a while. Then there's always the odd chance I'll get a good job offer somewhere else in the near future...

While it's not exactly job related (kinda though), I did get some really good news today. But I'll be saving that for a little later once the official announcement has been made so I can post a link to it and everything. For now, just know that it relates to a project of mine that I mentioned awhile back...


11/29/2010 S E V E N

Get it? I spelled seven. Yeah, I already said I was running out of good spell related titles for these news posts... Oh well, the spell list is nearly done.

7 Element Offensive Spells

Toxic Smoke
Element: Wind
Power Rank: 4.5
Element Combo: Wind, Wind, Earth, Water, Fire, Fire, Wind
Effect: Deals wind damage to one enemy and reduces the target's attack accuracy by 30% for three turns.
Visuals: The target is surrounded by a thick poisonous fog.

Ice Blades
Element: Water
Power Rank: 4.5
Element Combo: Earth, Water, Water, Wind, Water, Wind, Wind
Effect: Deals water damage to one enemy.
Visuals: Blades of ice are created and hurled towards the target.

Element: Electricity
Power Rank: 5
Element Combo: Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, Water, Fire, Wind
Effect: Deals electric damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The caster shoots a stream of lightning from his hands into the enemy.


11/26/2010 Spell time

Happy early morning shopping day :-P Anyway, there's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM. You know, I probably should have tried to arrange the speech bubbles in today's comic a little differently so there's a better view of the stars, since Brendan and May are talking about them and all...

6 Element Offensive Spells

Elemental Cage
Element: Earth
Power Rank: None
Element Combo: Water, Earth, Earth, Fire, Wind, Fire
Effect: The target is trapped in a cage. While trapped, any offensive actions made by or at the target hit the cage instead of their intended target. When the cage takes enough damage it is destroyed (see enemy list for cage's stats). Some enemies are immune to this attack.
Visuals: A cage of earth and flame forms around the target.

Flame Vortex
Element: Fire
Power Rank: 4
Element Combo: Earth, Fire, Wind, Fire, Fire, Wind
Effect: Deals fire damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is caught up in a tornado of flame.

Element: Electricity
Power Rank: 4.5
Element Combo: Wind, Fire, Fire, Water, Wind, Water
Effect: Deals electric damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The caster hurls a ball of lightning at the target, which explodes on contact.

And that'll do it for today. Only two more sets of spell to go! I'll see you on Monday!


11/24/2010 Time differences

It seems that I'm not the only person having connection problems in relation to the site. All I can say is that I'm working on it. If the site has been going down for you a lot lately, it would help me out if you'd e-mail me with the name of your ISP.

Unfortunately, there won't be an Ink update tonight. I was planning on doing one but I had a phone interview that didn't finish until rather late (it was with a place in Japan, so there was a big time difference). It's looking like there's a decent chance that I'll get an offer for a teaching job in Japan next year (in January or April). I'm kinda excited (I like Japan) but at the same time I'm kinda hoping a game design job will come through first since that is my intended career and all...

Anyway, happy Thanksgiving to all my US readers. I'll see you Friday (hopefully with an Ink update).


11/22/2010 Some late Halloween fun

I'm taking a quick break from Ink updates today. The reason? There's a couple of them. A combination of watching a movie with friends and playing Costume Quest, a really fun little Halloween themed RPG available for download on the PS3 and 360. Basically, it was already a little late by the time I got back from the movie and then I got caught up playing through the last part of Costume Quest. And now it's late and I really should get some sleep. So look for the next set of spells on Wednesday.

In other news, I've been having some connection problems with PV lately. It seems that the site works fine for most people but a few, myself included, are getting plagued by random connection errors. I spent a while talking to my web host about it but, long story short, they're blaming it on my ISP so, if it doesn't stop, I'll have to try and talk to them next. Anyway, if I'm rather slow in replying to e-mails and forum posts, or if some PV updates end up being a bit late, that's why. And, if that wasn't enough, when investigating this I discovered that someone managed to get into my host's server some dump some spam programs into my directory. Fortunately, they don't seem to have ever been active and I got rid of them all so that should be the end of that. Ugh, hopefully I'll be able to get everything resolved soon.


11/19/2010 Spelling Bee

Yeah... I'm obviously running out of spell related phrases and puns to use as titles for these news posts. Anyway, there's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM!

5 Element Offensive Spells

Stone Spears
Element: Earth
Power Rank: 3.5
Element Combo: Earth, Fire, Earth, Wind, Wind
Effect: Deals earth damage to one enemy.
Visuals: Creates a number of stone spears which fly at the target.

South Wind
Element: Wind
Power Rank: 3.5
Element Combo:Wind, Fire, Earth Wind, Wind
Effect: Deals wind damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is buffeted by a burning wind.

Hail Storm
Element: Water
Power Rank: 4
Element Combo: Earth, Water, Water, Wind, Water
Effect: Deals water damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target caught in a barrage of hail.

Have a great weekend!


11/17/2010 Still more spells

I don't really have too much to say at the moment. Just finishing up the companion web site for my book and doing some more job search related stuff. I've got a couple of possible jobs floating around still nothing definite though.

Anyway, back to Ink. As a note, I did a little editing on the spell list and decided to divide up the non generic offensive spells by the number of elements they use, rather than their rank.

4 Element Offensive Spells

Fire Bomb
Element: Fire
Power Rank: 3
Element Combo: Fire, Fire, Earth, Earth
Effect: Deals fire damage to one enemy.
Visuals: Fire is sealed inside a ball of rock and hurled at the enemy. It explodes on contact.

North Wind
Element: Wind
Power Rank: 3
Element Combo:Wind, Water, Wind, Water
Effect: Deals wind damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is buffeted by a freezing wind.

Thunder Bolt
Element: Electricity
Power Rank: 3.5
Element Combo: Wind, Water, Fire, Earth
Effect: Deals electric damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is struck by a bolt of lightning


11/15/2010 Holding out for a holiday

A holiday would be nice but yeah, no time now. I'm just about done with the companion web site for my book (another day or two) and then I've got a day or two of work I need to do for my dad. I was originally thinking I could take things a bit easier after that (at least for a little while), but now I've got a reason to hurry up and get that huge batch of job applications I'm planning done ASAP and that can take quite a while so I'm gonna have to keep working hard, at least until I get those done.

In other news, 24 is still rather addicting. If only because pretty much every episode ends with a cliff hanger. Only two seasons left to go though, and one isn't out on DVD yet so I'm nearly done. Of course, I've gotten to the point where I'm usually working on my laptop at the same time I'm watching 24 with my family. On the one hand, multi-tasking certainly helps me get work done. On the other hand, it's annoying that I can never seem to watch anything these days without working at the same time (unless I'm actually in a movie theater).

Anyway, speaking of work, I've got to get back to it. Later!


11/12/2010 A spell of spells

There's a new voters' bonus comic. And now it's time for that batch of generic spells I forgot to post earlier.

Generic Non-Elemental Spells

Sparkle Ray
Element: Non-Elemental
Power Rank: 1
Element Combo: any one or two elements that don't create another spell
Effect: Deals non-elemental damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target it hit by sparkling white ray.

Blasting Force
Element: Non-Elemental
Power Rank: 2
Element Combo: any three or four elements that don't create another spell
Effect: Deals non-elemental damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is hit by a sudden burst of energy.

Split Ray
Element: Non-Elemental
Power Rank: 3
Element Combo: any five or six elements that don't create another spell
Effect: Deals non-elemental damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The user fires a ray of magic which splits into numerous smaller rays, all of which converge on the target.

Mystic Circle
Element: Non-Elemental
Power Rank: 4
Element Combo: any seven elements that don't create another spell
Effect: Deals non-elemental damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A magical circle surrounds the target and is engulfed in a large energy beam.

Mana Implosion
Element: Non-Elemental
Power Rank: 5
Element Combo: any eight elements that don't create another spell
Effect: Deals non-elemental damage to one enemy.
Visuals: An enormous emoung of magical energy forms around the target, condenses into a single point, and then explodes.

And there we go. Look for more spells next week!


11/10/2010 Knives!

Sorry but I'm afraid that final batch of generic spells for Ink is going to have to wait until Friday. I had this special job for my dad that I took most of the last couple of days to finish. I probably still would have had time to finish those spells except that the Knives DLC for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (which I've been waiting for for ages) came out last night and I got kinda side-tracked. Sorry about that. I kinda figured that I could get through the game a lot faster than I actually did. If you've got a PS3 or 360 don't have Scott Pilgrim yet, I highly recommend it. Even if you haven't read the books or watched the movie (you should do both, BTW), it's an excellent classic style side-scrolling brawler. It's lots of fun on your own and a million times more fun if you've got some friends to play with.

Anyway, now that I've got that job (and my Knives play-through) out of the way I'll be sure to finish those spells in time for Friday's update. See you then!


11/8/2010 Have a spell

I'm pleased to announce that the writing and editing for my textbook is done. I'm not totally finished working on it yet (got a form or two left to fill out and I need to finish the stuff for the companion web site) but it's nice to be done with the book itself. Got a couple other projects to work on right now and then it's time to do some serious job searching (unless one of those things I mentioned in my last news post comes through).

And hey, look, a donation! If you've been wanting some bonus content, it won't take much to push the guage to the next level. Take a look at the donation info below this news post if you're curious about donating and what kinda cool bonus stuff it leads to.

But anyway, let's get back to those spells.

Ink's Offensive Spells Rank 1

Element: Earth
Power Rank: 1.5
Element Combo: Earth, Water, Water
Effect: Deals a small amount of damage and slows the target down slightly.
Visuals: The ground beneath the target becomes muddy, causing the target's feet to sink in.

Burning Mist
Element: Water
Power Rank: 2.5
Element Combo: Water, Fire, Wind
Effect: Deals water damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A pool of water at the target's feet evaporates, surrounding the target with scalding steam.

Element: Electricity
Power Rank: 2.5
Element Combo: Wind, Water, Fire
Effect: Deals electric damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target it hit by a small jolt of electricity.

You know what? I just realized that I forget one catagory of generic spells earlier. Instead of doing the next rank of regular offensive spells I'll get that lest set of generics done for Wednesday and then we'll continue with these spells after that. Later!


11/5/2010 Say what?

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

Yesterday was surprisingly busy and I'm a bit burned out at the moment. A bit too much to trust myself to make some good Ink spells. However, I do have one Ink related announcement. I've been giving it some thought and decided to have the party's health be restored automatically after battle. From a gameplay perspective, it allows the player to focus more on battle strategy than inventory management during dungeons. From a story perspective, seeing as the characters have a whole collection of healing spells that aren't limited by MP, it would be odd if they didn't heal themselves between battles. I'll get to more spells next week.

Right now, I'm just hoping for a relaxing weekend. I've got a couple things I'm working on right now (companion materials for my book and a job for my dad) that I'm hoping to finish up sometime next week. After that, I plan to divide up my time between sending out a big batch of job applications and trying to find a publisher for my novels. Not too exciting, but a lot less stressful than some of the things I've been working on lately. At least that's the current plan. All of the sudden I seem to have a few job opportunities floating about. It's too early to tell if anything is going to come of any of them, but it is odd that they always seem to come several at a time. And that always causes me to worry about which one I should choose if I get multiple offers or what would happen if I accepted one job only to get an offer for a better one shortly after. Not that I've had either problem so far, but I can't help thinking about it. Anyway, if I do get a job offer that changes things considerably and it means things might not be calming down anytime soon after all...but like I said before it's too early to tell. So I really should just stop worrying on focus on getting my current projects finished. Easier said than done, of course, but that's life.

Have a good weekend!


11/3/2010 Time for some spells

Now that I'm caught up, it's time to get back to Ink's spell list.

Ink's Spell List: Healing Spells

Healing Breeze
Element: Wind
Power Rank: 1
Element Combo: Water, Wind, Wind
Effect: Heals one ally.
Visuals: A gentle green breeze blows around the target.

Healing Winds
Element: Wind
Power Rank: 2
Element Combo: Wind, Water, Wind, Water, Wind
Effect: Heals all allies.
Visuals: A gentle green breeze blows around all allies.

Purifying Fire
Element: Fire
Power Rank: 3
Element Combo: Fire, Fire, Wind, Wind, Water, Wind
Effect: Heals one ally.
Visuals: Soft orange flames flare around the target.

Purifying Flames
Element: Fire
Power Rank: 4
Element Combo: Fire, Wind, Fire, Wind, Water, Wind, Fire
Effect: Heals all allies.
Visuals: Soft orange flames flare around all allies

Elemental Energy
Element: None
Power Rank: 5
Element Combo: Water, Water, Wind, Wind, Fire, Fire, Wind, Wind
Effect: Heals one ally.
Visuals: A gentle tornado of fire and water surrounds the target.

That's it for now. Remember, I'm saving the designer's comments for the spell list until the entire list is completed (probably another couple of updates). See you Friday!


11/1/2010 Finally

It's a new month so please use the Top Web Comics banner or button to vote for Pebble Version! You'll help support the site and get to see Friday's bonus comic.

I'm afraid it's another short news post today. But, on the bright side, cutting today's news post short gave me the time I needed to finally finish rebuilding my comic buffer. So, as of now, I'm finally caught up on pretty much everything. Expect Ink updates to resume on Wednesday.

While I have been pretty busy, I did take a little time here and there to start playing Kirby's Epic Yarn and I gotta say that it's pretty amazing. The yarn and cloth graphical style is nothing short of charming and they make really good use of it. Plus there's a fantastic soundtrack backing it up. Epic Yarn is easy, even for a Kirby game, but the levels are so cleverly designed and fun to play that it doesn't matter and with all the items to collect and challenges to complete there's plenty to do. I'm having lots of fun and it's a great change of pace after the crazy optional boss battles in Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep.

See you Wednesday with more of that Ink spell list.


10/29/2010 Caught up? Not really...

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

On the bright side, I've been doing everything I need to get done this week. On the down side, I haven't had any extra time to try and rebuild my buffer for Pebble Version so I'm still in a bit of a rush. Hopefully over the weekend...


10/26/2010 Heart! Or not...

If you get the reference in this news post title, good for you.

You know, I probably should have done a different joke for today's comic and saved this one for a bonus comic but I just couldn't resist. If you don't get it, then you really need to watch more Looney Tunes. For the record, loudred can't talk. It can just repeat sounds its heard before like a parrot (only in stereo).

Anyway, it looks like instead of waiting a couple of weeks for the editor to finish going over my book and then going into a final rush to get all the changes implemented before my deadline, I'll be doing the individual chapters as they get done. On the bright side, I prefer it that way since I won't need to worry about trying to get everything done at the last minute. On the down side, it doesn't really help my schedule this week. So the rest of Ink's spell list will have to wait a little bit while I try and get caught up on stuff (like Pebble Version strips).

I'll see you Friday. With any luck, things will have calmed down a bit by then.


10/25/2010 I need a vacation

If you haven't seen Friday's special bonus comic yet you just need to use the TWC banner or button to vote.

I really don't think I'll be getting a vacation any time soon (until I find a full-time job I reallly need to keep looking and get other projects done and once I do find a full-time job I'll be working so...) but it sure would be nice. The work on my textbook is done, for now anyway (in a couple weeks I need to go over the editor's comments any make any needed changes (hopefully nothing major) and after that I need to start working on the book's companion web site and power point shows), and I finished my TEFL test (might be another week or two before I get the results though. So now I'm planning to get a bunch of job applications sent out and give anoher shot at finding a publisher for my novels. I was thinking that this week and maybe next week (before I have to start working on the book edits) might be a bit more relaxed and maybe they will be. This weekend, however, was pretty stressful due to last minute book stuff, some work for my parents, and a few other things. Unfortunately, I keep getting further and further behind on PV strips as well and only finished today's a couple of hours ago. I'll try my best not to miss any updates but these two on two battle strips take a lot of time to make and my schedule is kind of up in the air so I really can't make any promises right now.

Well, I should get going. I'll see you Wednesday (hopefully with a new PV strip).


10/22/2010 Water!

There's a new voters' bonus comic. This week's is a special one featuring Saber Knight and Bioniclemandi121, the winners of this year's RP Week event on the Pebble Version Forums. As always, just click the Top Web Comics banner or button to see it. There's a new ROM too.

Ink's Spell List - Part 5

Generic Water Spells

Acid Rain
Element: Water
Power Rank: 1
Element Combo: one water; two water plus any one other element
Effect: Deals water damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target it hit by a small rain storm.

Water Gun
Element: Water
Power Rank: 2
Element Combo: three or four water; three or four water with no more than one other element
Effect: Deals water damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is shot by a blast of water.

Element: Water
Power Rank: 3
Element Combo: five or six water; six water plus any one other element
Effect: Deals water damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is drenched in a waterfall like deluge.

Element: Water
Power Rank: 4
Element Combo: seven water; seven water plus any one other element
Effect: Deals water damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is caught up in a large waterspout.

Flash Flood
Element: Water
Power Rank: 5
Element Combo: eight water
Effect: Deals water damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target struck by a sudden flood.


10/20/2010 Wind!

Nothing too exciting going on at the moment. I marathoned my way through Enslaved Sunday and Monday. I rarely have time to play games for for than a couple hours at a time, so it was a nice break. And Enslaved is really good. Kinda a mix of Ico and The Prince of Persia (the PS3 / 360 one), both of which I really liked. I may give it a full review later on. For now though, back to Ink.

Ink's Spell List - Part 4

Generic Wind Spells

Sudden Gust
Element: Wind
Power Rank: 1
Element Combo: one wind; two wind plus any one other element
Effect: Deals Wind damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A sudden blast of wind strikes the target.

Dust Devil
Element: Wind
Power Rank: 2
Element Combo: three or four wind; three or four wind with no more than one other element
Effect: Deals wind damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is knocked down by a small dust devil.

Wind Bullets
Element: Wind
Power Rank: 3
Element Combo: five or six wind; wind or six fire plus any one other element
Effect: Deals wind damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is caught in a barrage of wind bullets.

Element: Wind
Power Rank: 4
Element Combo: seven wind; seven wind plus any one other element
Effect: Deals wind damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A powerful blast of wind knocks the target high into the air than drops him to the ground.

Hurricane Force
Element: Wind
Power Rank: 5
Element Combo: eight wind
Effect: Deals wind damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is caught up in a small hurricane.


10/18/20010 Fire!

For some reason Friday's update didn't go up when it was supposed to. In the end, I got it up on Sunday morning so if you missed it you can scroll down to see the news post and click Previous Comic above to see the PV strip. There was a new voter bonus comic and a new ROM as well.

Ink's Spell List - Part 3

Generic Fire Spells

Flame Wisps
Element: Fire
Power Rank: 1
Element Combo: one fire; two fire plus any one other element
Effect: Deals fire damage to one enemy.
Visuals: Small wisps of fire flit around the targer..

Element: Fire
Power Rank: 2
Element Combo: three or four fire; three or four fire with no more than one other element
Effect: Deals fire damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The caster summons a fireball and hurls it at the target.

Flare Up
Element: Fire
Power Rank: 3
Element Combo: five or six fire; five or six fire plus any one other element
Effect: Deals fire damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target suddenly bursts into flame.

Flame Piller
Element: Fire
Power Rank: 4
Element Combo: seven fire; seven fire plus any one other element
Effect: Deals fire damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A piller of fire errupts beneath the target.

Wrath of the Sun
Element: Fire
Power Rank: 5
Element Combo: eight fire
Effect: Deals fire damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A miniature sun springs into existance around the target then collapses into an explosion of flame.


10/15/2010 The waiting is always the worst

This update was supposed to go up Friday but, apparently, it didn't and I have no idea why. Sorry for the delay.

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

With my textbook just about done (just waiting on permission for the last few screenshots at this point, with only a week till the final due date) I'm starting to focus a bit more on job hunting. I haven't totally thrown myself into it yet (I've got a few days of work left to get my TEFL certification), I've been following up on some prospects from GDC Austin and a couple other things. A few of those seem like they might be rather promising though it's really too early to tell. I always get nervous when it seems like I have a decent shot at a job. Thing is, if I actually get one of the jobs and start on it, I'm sure I'll be fine. It's the thinking about it that's the problem. It's the same way about scary rides. When you're waiting in line and thinking about how crazy it looks and what could go wrong, it's easy to freak yourself out but, once you actually get on and get moving, it only takes a few seconds for the fear to disappear and then everything is good.
On that note, I was pretty freaked out when I was getting ready to move to Arizona for college the first time and I was really worried that first day in Japan. But in both cases once I actually got there and started getting settled I adjusted really quickly and things were good. But that doesn't keep me from worry about jobs. Every time an employer shows even the slightest bit of interest I always start worrying about what the job will be like, what living in that town or city would be like, whether or not I really want that job, etc, etc, etc... Naturally, it's worse when I've got a few potential jobs going at the same time it's worse, even though these are all in the very early stages and probably won't amount to anything.

Anyway, I'm still a little behind on PV strips thanks to GDC Austin so I'm going to call it quits for now. There'll be more Ink on Monday so I'll see you then!


10/13/2010 Earth!

Time to get to work on this Ink spells.

Ink's Spell List - Part 2

Generic Earth Spells

Pebble Rain
Element: Earth
Power Rank: 1
Element Combo: one earth; two earth plus any one other element
Effect: Deals earth damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is pelted by a large number of pebbles.

Rock Surprise
Element: Earth
Power Rank: 2
Element Combo: three or fourth earth; three or four earth with no more than one other element
Effect: Deals earth damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A medium size rock springs up from behind the target and hits him in the back.

Rock and Roll
Element: Earth
Power Rank: 3
Element Combo: five or six earth; five or six earth plus any one other element
Effect: Deals earth damage to one enemy.
Visuals: The target is struck by a series of rolling boulders.

Impaling Spire
Element: Earth
Power Rank: 4
Element Combo: seven earth; seven earth plus any one other element
Effect: Deals earth damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A sharp spire erupts from the ground beneath the target.

Rock and a Hard Place
Element: Earth
Power Rank: 5
Element Combo: eight earth
Effect: Deals earth damage to one enemy.
Visuals: A group of sharp spires erupt from the ground beneath the target as boulders rain down from above.

You might notice that these spells are missing a couple of things like damage ratings, character quotes, and the like. There's a reason for that which will be covered in the designer's comments, so don't think I'm forgetting about them. I'm explain it all eventually...


10/11/2010 Burnout

Ugh... I'm feeling a bit burned out today. GDC Austin was fairly fun, but kept me very busy and that was right after my big third degree black belt test in karate. Then I spent a good portion of yesterday working hard to get a Car Washer demo ready for a contest it's in. Then there's my book. I have to turn in the final files no later than Friday. While I finished all of my writing weeks ago, my co-author (or contributer perhaps, since I wrote something like 85% - 90% of the book) only sent me the last of his additions last night so I've got to review them and add them into the main book. And then I'm still waiting on permission to use screenshots from a few more companies (they've said they'll get back to me this week, but we'll see) and I might need to make some last minute changes because of it. In between all that I've also got o follow up on some contacts and job oppertunities from GDC and I really should get a bunch of work done on that TEFL course I'm working on as well... I've been busier. But having so many big things fall right around the same time has worn me out a bit. I'd love to take a week (or a month, for that matter) to just relax and play video games. But that probably won't be happening anytime soon... When I was in college and I had a break I really could just sit back and relax (provided I didn't have any homework), but now it seems like I never run out of things to do.

Anyway, Ink... Time to get started on that spell list. As previously mentioned, this is going to be a long list so it'll be broken up over multiple news posts and I'll save my comments for the end.

Ink's Spell List - Part 1
Note: The four base elements are Earth, Fire, Wind, and Water. An individual character's magic bar can range in size from three to eight units, though the player can cast a spell at any time so long as he has selected at least one element in the bar. Entering the correct combination of elements will cause the character to cast the related spell. If any non-spell combination is entered, a generic spell will be preformed. There are five types of generic spells (Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, and Non-Elemental). Details on which generic spell is used when can be found in the individual list entries. Spells that require more than eight units to cast can be found in the dual attacks list.
Note: While techs and dual attacks are character specific, the spell list is the same for every character.

I'm afraid that's all for now. I'll start actually listing the spells next time.


10/8/2010 Heading back

There's a new bonus comic up for everyone who votes. And that's about it. I'm heading back to Colorado today. GDC Austing went well. The sessions were good, I met some people, and talked to some recruiters. No guarentee if anything will come of my job search here, but we'll see what happens.

Anyway, Ink will return on Monday (barring something big coming up) so I'll see you then.


10/6/2010 Keeping busy at GDC

As you can no doubt tell from the title and the fact that there is an update today, I'm at GDC and have internet access. However, my first day at the convention was a pretty long one and I've got lots more to do starting tomorrow morning so I need to get some sleep while I can. Later!


10/4/2010 Off to Austin

Don't forget to vote to see Friday's bonus comic.

I'm heading off to Texas today for GDC Austin. It's a smaller more narrowly focused version of the California Game Developers Conference (which is in the spring). I'll be there until Friday afternoon. My hotel is supposed to have internet access so PV updates shouldn't be affected. I might not have time to get back to Ink until next week though. Right now, I have to get some sleep before my flight so, if nothing goes wrong, I'll see you all on Wednesday.


10/1/2010 Getting there...

There's a new Blooper Reel comic for everyone who votes and a new ROM!

In other news, I've been too busy this week to catch up on PV strips. Actually, I barely got today's strip done in time. I'll try and catch up over the weekend, they I've got a trip coming up on Monday so we'll see what happens. Pebble Version updates shouldn't be affected, but it may be a bit longer before I have time for more Ink updates.

Have a good weekend!


9/29/2010 Still catching up

I'm pretty much done setting stuff up on my new computer! Unfortunately, there's been a lot of other stuff going on so I'm still not caught up on PV strips The fact that I'm still having cable problems isn't helping (it's also the reason for the late update). So, once again, I need to cut things short. Hopefully come Friday (or Monday at the latest) I'll be all caught up and can return to Ink. Hopefully...


9/27/2010 Computer work

If you haven't seen Friday's bonus comic yet, all you have to do is click the TWC banner or button and confirm your vote.

Looks like the next Ink update is going to have to wait a little longer. I got a new laptop over the weekend (while my old one still works fine, it's four years old and getting kinda slow with some programs) and spent Saturday night and pretty much all day Sunday transfering and installing stuff. I'm not quite done yet either. Getting there, but my cable kept dieing yesterday and my Adobe suite (which is what I use to work on Pebble Version) was a huge pain in the neck to install (it's installation program doesn't quite understand 64-bit processors). Fortunately I did find a work around eventually and now it runs fine. But as a result I'm running a bit late and don't have all my PV strips done for this week so I've got to play catch-up for a bit.



9/24/2010 Blame Captain Hook

There's a new voters' bonus comic and a new ROM! I'm keeping today's news post short because I got stuck on a boss battle in Birth by Sleep (check the title of this news post if want to know which one) and I "had to" keep trying until I finally beat it before getting around to updating the site. Besides, I wanted a quick break before starting on Ink's spell list. So have a good weekend and I'll see you Monday!


9/22/2010 And the commentary

And it's finally time for the designer's comments for Josiah's battle phrase list.

Inks Techs and Spells: Josiah's Writing Abilities Part 4

Designer's Comments
The majority of Josiah's battle phrases fall into fairly standard categories, boosting party members' attack, defense, magic power, and the like. While there's nothing too exciting there, they fulfill my goal of making his phrases useful but not overpowered. The misc phrases don't fit into any of the other categories but are still fairly standard and useful abilities. The drop rate boost is particularly useful when players need money or are trying to get a specific item to drop. As usual, Ink costs will be added in a bit later when I work out all the stats and formula.
Now for the other possible phrases section... These are types of phrases that I haven't decided if I want to add to the final list of not. I made some brief notes in the descriptions about why I'm still thinking about them but, to be more specific. Speed boost phrases would allow characters to act more frequently, though they might unbalance the battle flow a bit and I'm not sure if players would use them a lot or not (I suppose that's something which could be checked during testing). I always planned on Josiah having some healing phrases, since he is a support character and all and it would certainly be useful. But how useful they'd be would depending heavily on what healing items he has access to, their power, their cost, and the ink cost of the abilities. So healing phrases are currently a maybe until I get the item list finished. The instant death phrase is another one I thought of early on, and I like the idea of having it as it really shows just how much control Josiah has over the world. The problem is finding an appropriate ink cost. It would need to be both expensive enough that players couldn't abuse it, yet affordable enough that it's still worth using once in a while. The next thing on the list is multi-target phrases. As you may have noticed, most of the phrases currently on the list only target a single party member at a time. I could add versions of a lot of them which affect the entire party, but they seem like they could easily become a bit over powered that way (though that could probably be offset by the right ink cost) so I haven't decided yet. And finally, enemy weakening phrases. As you may have noticed, most of the current phrases power up party members in some way. I have ideas for several additional sets of phrases which act more or less as opposites to the current phrases and target enemies instead of allies. There's really nothing wrong with adding some, but I'm not sure how necessary they'd be. For example, weakening the enemy's attack would have more or less the same effect as increasing the party's defense so is there really a reason to have phrases for both? Not to mention that each additional phrase would take extra time and effort (and, by extension, money) to add to the game, so it's important not to waste resources on unnecessary stuff. I'll be keeping all of these optional phrases in mind as I work on the rest of the design and will eventually decide whether or not to include them.


9/20/2010 Revenge of the phrases

I haven't really said much about myself lately, have I? Well, I've been busy but there hasn't been anything overly exciting going on. I've gotten most of the work done on my textbook... We're currently right in the middle of a big block of Jewish holidays.... The job market still sucks... Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep is awesome... And that's about it, really. I've got some other stuff to work on now that I don't have to do so much for the text book, and I'm going to GDC Austin in early October (job hunting mostly, though the conference itself should be fun). But anyway, time to get back to Ink.

Inks Techs and Spells: Josiah's Writing Abilities Part 4

Misc Phrases

Moment of Power Recharge
Effect: The target's moment of power is instantly recharged.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: <Character name> could feel the power building up inside him/her. There was nothing in the world that could compare with that feeling. The feeling of knowing that power was ready and waiting only a thought away.

Increased Drop Rate
Effect: At the end of the current battle, enemies drop 20% more money (if they already drop money), have a 50% higher chance of dropping items, and a 25% higher chance of dropping rare items.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: A strange feeling settled over the group. They couldn't quite say why but they had a feeling that, at least for the moment, luck might actually be on their side

Other Possible Phrases

Note: These are possible additional phrases which may or may not be used in the game.

Speed Boosts
A set of phrases which allow the target to act more often in battle. (Would they be useful enough? Over powered?)

Healing Phrases
A set of phrases that restore characters' HP. (How would they compare to the healing items Josiah can use? Is there a need for both?)

Instant Death
Instantly kill one or more enemies in random battles. (Over powered? Would need an ink cost high enough to prevent over use but low enough that it's still worth it at times.)

Multi-Target Phrases
Versions of other phrases that can target multiple party members at once. (Over powered? Necessary?)

Enemy Weakening Phrases
A set of phrases that weaken or disable enemies. (Necessary? Useful? How many phrases would be needed?)

And that should do it! At least for now. Look for my comments on Josiah's phrase list on Wednesday.


10/17/2010 The phrases continue

There's a new voter bonus comic and a new ROM! And now, still more phrases.

Inks Techs and Spells: Josiah's Writing Abilities Part 3

Accuracy Boost Phrases

Perfect Accuracy (Partial)
Effect: The next time the target attacks, approximately 50% of his strikes can't be blocked or dodged (barring extraordinary circumstances).
Ink Cost:
Phrase: <Character name> steadied himself/herself and struck.

Perfect Accuracy (Full)
Effect: The next time the target attacks, none of his strikes can be blocked or dodged (barring extraordinary circumstances).
Ink Cost:
Phrase: <Character name> focused and attacked, carefully guiding every strike with perfect precision.

Magic Boost Phrases

Magic Power +25%
Effect: The next time the target uses a magic spell, it's power will be increased by 25%.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: A small jolt of energy sparked between <character name's> fingers, adding its power to his/her spell.

Magic Power +50%
Effect: The next time the target uses a magic spell, it's power will be increased by 50%.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: Magical energy surged through <character name's> body, lending him/her its power.

Magic Power x 2
Effect: The next time the target uses a magic spell, it's power will be doubled.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: <Character name> felt his/her mind open as the magic flared around him/her. With newfound clarity, he/she took control of the energy guided it, weaving the threads into a powerful spell.

Have a good weekend everyone! I'll see you Monday with the last set of phrases.


9/15/2010 More phrases

Continuing with Josiah's in-battle writing list...

Inks Techs and Spells: Josiah's Writing Abilities Part 2

Defense Boost Phrases

-25% Damage
Effect: The next time the target is attacked, damage is reduced by 25%.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: <Character name> braced himself/herself, preparing for the coming strike.

-50% Damage
Effect: The next time the target is attacked, damage is reduced by 50%.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: <Character name> dropped into a defensive stance and stood ready, waiting for the attack he/she knew would come.

Partial Evasion
Effect: The next time the target is attacked, he/she will dodge approximately 50% of the hits.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: <Character name> danced aside, nimbly avoiding the enemy's strikes.

Total Evasion
Effect: The next time the target is attacked, he/she will dodge all of the hits.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: <Character name> cleared his/her mind, bringing every ounce of his/her speed and concentration to bear to avoid the coming attack.

That's all for now. More phrases coming on Friday.


9/13/2010 Time to write

Hope you're ready for some more Ink updates. For now, I'll be working on the tech and spell lists. First up, Josiah's in-battle writing abilities. Note that most of the spell and tech lists are going to be kind of long so I'll be spreading them out over multiple news posts and waiting until the very end to post the designer's comments.

Inks Techs and Spells: Josiah's Writing Abilities Part 1

Attack Boost Phrases

+25% Damage
Effect: +25% damage to target's next attack.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: <Character name> charged forward, bringing up his/her blade/rod/etc in a powerful strike.

+50% Damage
Effect: +50% damage to target's next attack.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: Fighting with reckless abandon, <character name> landed a desperate blow on the enemy.

Double Damage
Effect: Double damage to target's next attack.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: Steeling himself/herself, his/her focus on nothing but the enemy, <character name> struck, putting all of his/her power into a single attack.

Critical Hit
Effect: Target's next attack will be a critical hit.
Ink Cost:
Phrase: <Character name's> sword/spear/etc struck, effortlessly cutting through the enemy's defenses in a fearsome display of power.

That should be good for now. Look for the next set of phrases on Wednesday!


9/10/2010 Here we go again

There's a new bonus comic ready and waiting and all you have to do to see it is click the TWC banner or button and vote for Pebble Version (takes all of 10 seconds).

I've been thinking a lot about what to work on next in Ink. Naturally there's a lot more important characters to introduce and story to write, a couple odds and ends that I skipped over in some of the sections (like the "level up" menu), and all the statistics and formulas. There's also mock-up images, spell lists, and a few other things. It took me quite a while to decide I finally figured it out. Starting on Monday, I'm going to be spending some time working on the list of techs, spells, Josiah's in battle writing abilities, and the like. And sometime in the near future, I may take a brief break from Ink's design doc itself to talk a bit about the production cycle Ink would go through if I actually had a whole team working on it.

Have a great weekend!


9/8/2010 Trying to catch up

I made it back to Colorado ok. The last part of my trip went well. I went to Hershey Park on Monday with an aunt, cousin (technically the relation is a bit more complicated but that's close enough), and a couple of my cousin's friends. It was a lot of fun (went on a bunch of roller coasters mostly) and I even won two giant stuffed monkeys in ring toss (got really lucky).

To be honest, I probably could have gotten a PV strip ready for today, but putting up this last Saber and Brendan up will give me a chance to start rebuilding my comic buffer. I'll see you Friday (with a new PV strip).


9/6/2010 Saber returns

Remember to vote if you want to see Friday's PV Blooper Reel comic (just click the TWC banner or button on this page)!

As you've no doubt noticed, we have a guest comic today. It is, in fact, the continuation of forum member Saber Knight's Saber and Brendan series. So why the guest comic? Well, even though I've got great internet acess here in Pennsilvania, I've been really busy doing stuff with relatives and trying to keep up (more or less) with the work on my textbook. As a result, I really haven't had much time to work on PV strips and never got today's done. I'm cutting this news post short to give me some time to work on the next batch of comics. Hopefully I'll have one ready for Wednesday (I'll be getting back home Tuesday night), though I have one more Saber and Brendan comic in reserve just in case. Either way, there'll definately be a new PV strip and an Ink update come Friday.


9/3/2010 Lost in corn

There's a new PV blooper reel comic ready and waiting for everyone who votes (just click the TWX banner or button and follow the instructions)! New ROM too.

Well I made it to PA, having a good internet connection, and things are going well. I'm spending a lot of time with my grandparents, but I'm also trying to get a bit of work done and have some fun too. Yesterday morning I went to The Amazing Maize Maze at Cherry Crest Farm. It's a giant corn maze that has a new theme and design each year. Right by the Strasburg railroad too, so you can get a nice look at the train going past (provided you're in a position to see over the corn). This is their 15th year running the maze and I've done it something like twelve times. Lots of fun. I got pretty lucky this time and accidently found the exit about 17 minutes after I started. But finding the exit is the easy part. If you really want to master the maze you need to find all the hidden map pieces and crossword puzzle solutions hidden throughout it and then get to the exit. I did pretty good this year and completed it all in an hour and twenty minutes, just a few minutes more than my fastest time on one of the previous mazes. Average is about two hours for me, though one or two of the past mazes took a full two and a half. Anyway, the maze was a lot of fun but I've got lots to do today as well so I need to get some sleep..

I'll see you Monday. Ink updates will resume sometime next week, so keep an eye out for that as well.


9/1/2010 And I'm off

No Ink update today for two reasons. First, I'm deciding what to work on next now that nearly all the menu related stuff is done. Second, I've got to get up really early for my flight to PA so I want to get to sleep soon. I'll probably have internet access while I'm there, but I can't be certain. Depending on how things end up, Friday and Monday's updates may be a bit early or late. There's a slight chance one or both of them will have to be skipped, but I'll do my best to avoid it. So I'll hopefully see you Friday.


8/30/2010 All the options...

I hoping to finish up the first draft of my book today! There's still more work left to do after that (some revisions, some Power Points, a web site, etc), but this should complete the vast majority of it. Anyway, time for one last menu for Ink (well, actually there's two left but I think I'll save the second one for later).

Ink's Options Menu:
<Insert option menu mock-up image here.>

The following options will be available in the menu.

Music Volume: Adjust the volume of the music.
Sound FX and Voice Volume: Adjust the volume of the sounds and voices.
Subtitles: Turn subtitles on or off for spoken dialogue.
Language: Chance the language of the voice overs and/or text.
Controls: Change the button configuration.

Designer's Comments:
Can't really have a game these days without an options menu. Nothing too special here. The exact options selection may change slightly as the development progresses and it's decided that a particular option is or isn't needed. As a note on the language option, that's an iffy one. Personally I think that if multiple language versions of a game are completed in time, it's nice to include them all on one disc (never know when someone will want to play the game in a different language). But it's not that simple. Translating a game can take a lot of time, especially if you also need to re-record all the voice acting, so there's no guarantee that the other language versions would be done in time for the initial release. Then there's the whole disc space issue. While text (even a lot of it) usually doesn't take a huge amount of space, voice overs do. While the PS3 uses blu-ray discs which could easily hold multiple language tracks for most games (though for some even a single dual layer blu-ray wouldn't be enough). the 360 and Wii use DVDs which have far less storage space to spare. So, while having a multiple language option would be nice, it's not always very practical.


8/27/2010 I'm back

This week's voter bonus comic is up, and marks a return to regular Blooper Reel strips.

I'm back from a brief trip to Steamboat springs with my parents. Though I'm only around until Wednesday when I'm off to PA to visit my grandparents for a week. I'll try to keep updating while I'm gone, though it'll depend a bit on what my internet access is like. Either way, I'll make sure to get another Ink update or two up before I go. Right now though, I need some sleep. Got a lot of work that needs to be done over the next few days. Most of it involves my book. I'm very nearly done with the first draft. After that there's just a bit of editing and a couple other minor issues to do (creating a companion web site and Power Points mostly) so I'm looking forward to finishing that up. I've been doing a lot of Car Washer work lately and well, so hopefully it won't be too long before its finished either.

Anyway, I'll see you Monday!


8/25/2010 It's a log!

Without further ado, it's back to Ink!

Inks's Menus: Talina's Log
<Insert log interface mock-up image here.>

All enemy information scanned through Talina's All Seeing Eye moment of power can be viewed here. Enemies that have been encountered by the player but not scanned will have abbreviated entries. The log will also include Talina's notes on various important locations and characters. As information will be written in Talina's own voice.

Designer's Comments
It's always nice to have a place where the player can review previously scanned enemy information. And since Talina's job was to record all of her observations for her master, it makes perfect sense to store all the information in her log (and fits with the game's writing theme). It also fits her character (and serves a useful game function) to record information on important people and locations in the log. Basically, her log can be thought of as the database that a lot of newer RPGs have. But, since Ink is all about the writer, all the information in the log will look and sound like it was written by Talina, giving it a more personal touch.


8/23/2010 Caught up, mostly

Well, the DVDs are done and I'm mostly caught up on other things (which I only got behind on due to the DVDs in the first place). Though I still need to get a lot of writing done this week if I want to get the first draft of my textbook done before the end of the month. Actually, the end of August is the 50% marker according to my contract, but I'm trying to finish up early so I can focus on other things like my job search, Car Washer, and a few other projects. But, now that I'm caught up on PV stuff, Ink updates will resume on Wednesday. See you then!


8/20/2010 Finally done?

There's a new voter bonus comic! It's the last of the special Forum Awards series and features NintendoGamer and PoisonWing14, winners of the Best New Member award. There's a new ROM as well.

Hate to do this when I was just starting to get back into regular Ink updates but I'm gonna have to cut this news post short too. Those DVDs I mentioned Wednesday? Well, what was supposed to be a one day project has stretched into three. See, aside from the fact that rendering and encoding video takes a long time (especially when you don't have the latest and greatest computer), it turned out that there were some weird sound glitches in the original video that I had to correct (which required more rendering and encoding). Plus, while I normally love Adobe software, Premiere Elements decided to make things more interesting by crashing frequently. Fortunately, I saved often enough that I never really lost any work. Unfortunately, after a crash it could take 5 - 10 minutes to reload the program and all my video files, plus it developed a tendency to crash about 90% of the way through a lengthy rendering process... Anyway, not a lot of fun and it tied up my computer for a considerable portion of the past three days. I think I'm just about done now though (hopefully...).

Enjoy the weekend!


8/18/2010 Very time consuming

No time for an Ink post, or much of anything else today. I was making some DVDs for my dad and all the rendering, editing, and encoding tied up my computer for nearly the entire day.

See you Friday!


8/16/2010 A novel idea

I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World yesterday. I like the graphic novels, but I wasn't expecting much from the movie both because it's a movie based on a book I like (they tend to have a lousy track record) and since it's a story that doesn't seem all that well suited for live action. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. I could complain about some of the actors (Scott just doesn't look right (but was otherwise pretty good), Ramona is a bit too deadpan, Envy's hair is the wrong color) though they were pretty good overall (Kim especially was spot on). I could also complain about some of the changes they made to the story (the whole subplot with Todd cheating on Envy was dropped, Gideon was more of a smarmy asshole than an evil mastermind, NegaScott's appearance was totally pointless, etc). But, overall, it was well done and I enjoyed it. Now back to Ink...

Ink: Josiah's Novel
<Insert novel interface mock-up image here.>

Josiah's novel contains a complete readable version of Josiah's unfinished novel (written in standard novel form). It should be updated periodically throughout the game to cover new story developments and/or changes. At the start of the game, the novel will cover story material that the player hasn't reached yet in game. Once the player catches up to that point, the story will update as it happens. The novel will include a bookmark and chapter skip feature.

Designer's Comments:
Since Ink is all about an unfinished novel, it makes sense for players to actually be able to read the novel instead of having the usual plot summary option in the menu. When the game starts, it will contain everything Josiah has written so far, which will amount to the first several chapters of the novel. However, due to Josiah's presence and the unknown force rewriting his story, much of that changes as the story go on. While the early novel will provide some hints about what comes next and how Josiah originally intended the story to go, the later novel serves as a plot summary and reference. It should also make for a good read on its own. Actually, if Ink were to have a special edition release, or something like that, the complete printed novel would make a good bonus item...


8/13/2010 Ink returns

There's a new voter bonus comic, this one featuring Bioniclemanda121. New ROM too. And, as promised, Ink is back! Unfortunately, I don't have time to do a very long update today, so it's back to the menus for now. Though those'll be finished soon enough and then...

Ink's Party Formation Menu:
<Insert party formation mock-up image here.>

The party formation menu displays images of all available party members. Their order can be rearranged to change the members and battle formation of the active party.

Designer's Comments:
Yet another rather simple menu. Any RPG which has more party members than slots in the active party needs a way for the player to switch his party around. Of course, sometimes certain characters won't be available for story reasons and Josiah (barring certain rare parts of the story) is always part of the main party. But other than that there's nothing too special here.

Have a good weekend!


8/11/2010 Seven years...

Today marks Pebble Versions seventh anniversary! That's quite a long time, especially in the world of web comics, where the majority only make it a year or two at most. Occasional problems aside, it's been a pretty good ride so far. Sure I kinda wish the story was a bit further along, but it's getting there. Definitely moving faster than some sprite comics. While PV has been fun to make, the best part about it has certainly been all the great people I've met because of it, especially the guys on the forums. You guys are the ones who make this all worthwhile (especially since I really don't make any money off of it :-P ) It's always good to hear from fans, whether you've been around from the beginning or only found PV recently. I hope you've enjoyed things so far and I hope you enjoy the rest of the comic as well (however long it takes to finish). As always, feel free to drop me a line with any comments or suggestions you may have. I read all my e-mail (except the spam) and reply to most of it.

So thanks again for seven great years and here's to an equally good year eight! I'll see you Friday with the return of Ink.


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.