Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"omoide" 思い出. "Omoi" 思い is a thought, while 出 is to come out, so omoide are "thoughts that come out/back". Memories, in other words.

I wouldn't have made much of my trip if I didn't have hundreds of memories of my two years in Japan. And all of these memories I owe to Richard having created the Shiramizu Karate Internship program as well as Arakawa Sensei's Shiramizu Shuyokai Karate Dojo for agreeing to take the interns in.

As I said in my short speech at the "Farewell to Lawrence, Carl, Amy, David, & Ueno-san and Welcome Erica & Louise" party last Saturday (yeah, we killed 7 birds with 1 stone heh), I originally came thinking that I was to train tons of karate and just become generally good enough to go back and show what I've done.

In actual fact, while karate ability is important, I've realised that karate is not magic and everyone can enjoy and succeed in it so long as they work hard. It is creating the environment within which everyone WANTS to work hard that's the challenge. Fostering a positive and encouraging environment is first and foremost in getting students to come, stay, and work hard, karate or otherwise.

This was something I noticed particularly in my second year as I trained less at Shiramizu and more at a variety of dojos around Tokyo, meeting lots of different sensei. While the first year here was crucial in helping my karate improve (which it still needs LOTS of heh), the second year was equally important in terms of developing my... "theory" I suppose, towards all the things that are needed to support a successful dojo.

Anyway, I had tried to think about how to condense two years of Japan into one gift that Arakawa Sensei and everyone at the dojo could enjoy and I came up with this.

It's made with about 1700 pictures I picked out from my two years here (that took nearly two hours to do) but the mosaic itself was, I'm almost ashamed to admit, incredibly easy to make using AndreaMosaic. Best of all, it's free! =P... But printed in A4 size and put into a frame, it looked great!

Anyway, I've got two weeks left in Japan as of this writing. Onwards and upwards! =)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"shushou" 首相 which means prime minister. I bring this up because...... well...... no reason really.... it really was just some word I learned today.....

In case you don't know, Japan's government is stubbornly old-fashioned on the inside. As an example, many on the inside still harp on family lineage as an indicator for political ability, as if governing was some sort of genetic trait passed down through the generations. And we've all seen from a certain US President from Texas that it's clearly not the case.

The other thing that I should note about Japan's government is that the main ruling party is comprised of smaller parties that can (and do) disagree with other. As such, the bickering often results in prime ministers changing as often as the weather with around 4 or 5 different ones holding office for the two years I was in Japan. The current one, Mr. Taro Aso, seems to be meet with extreme disapproval, at one point last year sinking lowering in rankings than the aforementioned G. W. Bush... that's bad...

But I digress... as the weeks wind down, I'm not really doing much but training (above is all the interns, Arakawa Sensei, and Okano-san having a apres-training dinner) and just hanging out. Last Sunday I was in Odaiba for the Tokyo Special Import-car Show. Held inside a big exhibition hall at the Tokyo Big Sight, it is, as the name implies, a show dedicated to "import cars". It even included a huge section of used imported cars for sale which, in Japan, means loads of German and American cars.

Better than the cars for sale was the actual "car show" part which included loads of uber-expensive cars. More even, I'd wager, than the Tokyo Auto Salon in January. The ultimate in expensive cars was the Ferrari Enzo (above) which is the most recent (2003) hyper car from Ferrari, named after the company's founder. Oddly, I used to think this car was, while interesting, actually not that pretty, since "cool" and "pretty" mean two completely different things in car styling.

But seeing it in person is entirely different, since the car uses its size and shape to justify its styling cues. You actually become rather absorbed seeking out the various details and staring in awe at just how small yet large the whole car seems. The wheels are also much better than the standard ones. Most interesting, however, is seeing it side by side with the 288 GTO just behind it. Old cars seems to look exactly like they do in pictures, so a pretty car is always pretty (and the 288 GTO is indeed very pretty). Modern cars, with their overly stylized creases, look and feel completely different from their photos.

Like this one. It's a Bentley Continental GT with some insane bodykit (This being ASI's 800bhp Bentley Tetsu GTR). And while the picture is clear, it's hard to grasp just how ridiculous some of the things are with no frame of reference. That front grille, for instance, is actually large enough to swallow 3-yr olds whole.... maybe Testu is slang for vacuum in Japanese =P...

Til next week =P...

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"enkinhou" 遠近法 which means perspective (in the spatial sense, not the point of view sense). And two of the places I visited the past few days have been wrecking a bit of havoc on my sense of scale.

The first (and lesser havoc-wrecking) of the two was the Koishikawa Korakuen (小石川後楽園) gardens. Located near Iidabashi Station and Tokyo Dome, it's one of the oldest Japanese-style gardens in Tokyo having been created in 1629. With a strong Chinese influence on the garden's design, it's found nestled amongst the high rises in the Tokyo Dome area.

What's so perspective bending about this place is partly the scale of the city compared to the garden and how, though the garden isn't large, it can feel worlds away from the city next door. In fact, the garden is now smaller than it used to, having had sections amputated for the sake of the ever growing Tokyo. But now that it's designated both as a place of historical significance and a place of scenic beauty (one of only 7 such places in Japan to have acquired both statuses), it's protected from further intrusion. And at 300yen to enter, lots of people pay just to go in and have lunch (McDonald's no less... perhaps that's how they justify the 300yen entry fee??).

The other thing is that when I went (Wednesday afternoon), it was absolutely packed with older (read: retired) people with expensive cameras taking pictures of ducks... Seeing that I was also there snapping away and sensing a bit of irony, I dusted off the old 70-210mm (which I haven't used since I got my new Minolta lens) and shot some... well... flowers mainly, as the ducks weren't that interesting... The lily pond (below) was rather pretty though.

I will say that for all the ribbing Tokyo gets for people working 18hrs a day (and many do), there are also lots of people who don't seem to work at all. This was especially apparent at the Ueno museum where it was jam packed with 20-40 year olds in the middle of day. I mean, I have no job but I didn't expect everyone else to be out of work too.... crazier even was the Museum of Western Art next door, which had a continuous 90min line-up for their display of pieces from the Louvre. This phenomenon was explained to me by a friend over dinner last night; she says, apparently, many Japanese take a day-off (a paid holiday, not a "cough cough I have swine flu" holiday) purely to go see things like museums and art galleries.

Patrick Hughes' Sea City, photo from PatrickHughes.co.uk

Which brings me to my second place of visit, the Bunkamura Art Museum in Shibuya where I duly waited 30min to get in to see their "Visual Deception" exhibit. The exhibit centred around art that is not what it seems, from painstakingly painted Trompe-l'œil ("Trick the eye") works like Pere Borrell del Caso's Escaping Criticism to M.C. Escher's or René Magritte's famous pieces to what you see above, Patrick Hughes' Sea City from his collection of "reverspective" art. It might not look like much from the picture, but the scene is painted on three pyramids that stick out towards you, with the small square of ocean horizon being the top of each pyramid. The tops and bottoms of the buildings lie on the pyramid seams and, as you view it from different angles (side to side and even up and down), the whole sense of perspective shifts with you. You can see it in action below.

Despite the crowds (being that it was Sunday) and photography being prohibited, it was great to go around and see all the art. I was particularly taken by pieces from Naoki Honjo's Small Planet collection in which Honjo uses special lenses to photograph things in such away as to make them look like miniature models. It intrigued so much so that I bought a book of his works. Then, when I got home last night, I did some digging around and found that it's a technique called tilt-shift miniature faking, using tilt-shift lens can actually slide on its mount in order to slightly change the perspective of the image that results on the film. That, coupled with tweaks to colour saturation and contrast, ends up producing an image with the sense of scale and nearly-artificial colour of models.

Of course, while Honjo uses real film cameras and real tilt-shift lenses, computers can do most of the work on any picture these days. So I dug out some old (well, April 2009) photos to try it out on (above). They're probably not as good as those found in Honjo's book (which now seems destined for my coffee table). If I'm truly honest, the book was slightly tainted by my discovery that I could approximate his photos in 30 seconds with a computer and that other people do it as well, but Honjo really does have an eye for what makes a realistic miniature (is that an oxymoron?) as well as some truly inspiring angles. And there are pictures from all over the world, including one I recognize from Hong Kong.

Anyways, it was a good few days out and I leave you with some more samples of my tilt-shifted photos.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Your Japanese word of the week is...

A 360 view of a display in the Bio-Diversity floor of the museum.

"kyoryu" 恐竜 or dinosaur! Yay...... Ever since I heard that the National Museum of Nature and Science (in Ueno Park) had dino skeletons, I've been itching to go. Lucky for me, when I went there was some special exhibit with even more dinosaurs. The actual exhibit is called the "Dinosaurs of Gondwana", Gondwana being the landmasses in the southern hemisphere 200 million years ago as Pangaea (the "singular" continent when all the world's land was joined as one) began breaking up. In the modern day, ex-Gondwana continents include pretty much all the landmass that extends into the southern hemisphere like South America, Africa and Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand, and Antarctica.

Being a science nerd, the Gondwana exhibit was interesting although it is rather short and more than doubles the entry fee to the museum- the regular museum is a bargain at 600yen, rising to not-so-bargainy 1500yen for access to the special exhibit. Either way, the exhibit was a bit of a treat especially since it contained many dinosaurs I've never seen before, such as the Megaraptor namunhuaiquii (L) and both adult and young forms of Mapusaurus roseae (centre and right, respectively). While these, at a quick glance, could be mistaken for other well known, bipedal, large skulled, sharp clawed, carnivorous dinos, there were other varieties of flying and herbivorous species as well.

The best part however (and this might be the future-science-teacher in me speaking) is looking at the mess of bones and thinking "I've seen them somewhere before". It's extremely easy to draw parallels between the structures of the bones in the dinosaurs and those in us or other animals. The thing I like the most (and this is something that particularly interests me) is how their bones have adapted to whatever conditions these dinosaurs experienced. Whether it's the nearly hoof-like front legs of the quadrapedal Maxakalisaurus topai (think 2/3-size Brontosaurus) or the various pelvic girdle sizes to shift the centre of balance on the bipedal species (think T-Rex), nature has a particular way of refining and defining everything for a specific purpose. Then there are, of course, biological elements that don't exist anymore, such as the huge nose hump on the Anhanguera sp. (above). While the lower jaw is reminiscent of a pelican beak, a pelican doesn't have that huge hump nor the pine-needle-like teeth...

The "normal" museum was surprising in its own right. Split among two buildings (one being for "global" science, the other for "Japan" science...) and many many floors (3 basement floors, 3 upper floors), it houses a bit of everything, from various types of kelp found in oceans (above, top), to how proteins are made (above, middle), and a taxonomist's heaven worth of butterflies (above, bottom). Then there are floors for Animals Of The Earth with stuffed animals (taxidermy stuffed, not plush stuffed =P), Progress in Science And Technology (with old machines like computers that take up a whole wall), and The Natural World (with explanations for various phenomenae and even a periodic table with real samples- no Lawrencium though, sadly =P).

The "Japan" building is laid out similarly but includes various samples of animals, plants, precious metals/minerals, human development, and technologies from all across Japan, both geographically and historically. And both buildings are amazingly visual, with lots of displays (above, top) both man-made and natural- I'd be hard pressed to believe that all the animals on display (I mean, 50 species of beetles or nearly-extinct felines??) to be real, but the fakes look real enough and there is a vast collection of everything, even dinosaurs (with kid favourites like the Stegosaurus and, of course, the T-Rex). They even have a replica blue whale outside! (above, bottom)

All is not perfect, however, as the museum is rather foreigner unfriendly. Very little of it includes any English explanation except for the overviews, the audio guides are Japanese-only (I asked), and various touch-screen info panels for the exhibits aren't finished yet (I tried to read about a snow hare only to get a screen that said "Display incomplete"). I could only handle so much reading of furigana (hiragana above the kanji to help people pronounce them) and guessing before I became mentally exhausted...

But it's enough of a visual spectacle that the 600yen entry fee for the regular museum is actually worth it. Even if you just wander around and look at some of the replicas of humongous beetle jaws or spin and push things in their hands-on science lab, it's good for a couple hours.

Oh, and I saw some "Beef Kebab" Pringles on my way home which I just had to try..... there's a very faint beef flavour, but otherwise just comes across as a slightly skewed (no pun intended heh) barbeque flavour.... =P

One last thing...... the weather is warming up in Japan and the bugs are back, which means I'm being eaten alive..... again..... I absolutely despise mosquitoes..... they must be the single most useless creature on the planet >.<......

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"toukei" 統計 or "statistics". Since I've officially finished using my rail pass, I thought I'd let you guys in on just what exactly I did with it.

JR Rail Pass valid dates - May 10, 2009 - May 30, 2009
JR Rail Pass cost - Adult Ordinary, ¥57,700

Number of Shinkansen rides - 21
Most ridden Shinkansen - Hikari 501 for Shin-Osaka, departing at 6:34am from Shinagawa (7 times)

Note: All travel costs, distances, and time calculated from Takadanobaba to destination's main station. It does not include in-Tokyo use of the train pass or any train/bus travel at the destination

Total retail price of rail tickets - ¥287,910
Amount saved (Retail price minus JR Rail Pass) - ¥230,210

Total distance covered - 12,125km
Time spent (includes train changes) - 90hr 55min

Average speed - 133.35km/h

Unpunctual* train departures - 0 (!!!)
Unpunctual* train arrivals - 1 (on my way to Sapporo, late due to high winds)
*Unpunctual denotes a train that does not depart/arrive at EXACTLY the quoted time. In other words, a punctual train departs/arrives neither earlier nor later, even by a minute, than its scheduled time

Some notes/thoughts-

- my entire travel plan can be done at a lower cost than my quoted retail price by not reserving seats on the Shinkansen since the Rail Pass offers seat reservation at no extra cost. Reserved seats can cost an extra ¥1000-2000. However, reserved seats are much better than non-reserved because there are usually fewer people, which makes for a quieter and more pleasant journey.

- my entire travel plan can also be done in less time for retail-paying travellers since Nozomi trains do not cost any more than regular trains. Short trips make little difference (30min difference to Nagoya) but that quickly jumps the further you go (2hr difference to Hiroshima). Of course, doing my journeys in less time is mutually exclusive to doing them at a lower cost because of how the JR Rail Pass works (no Nozomi trains allowed).

- not included in my stats are various journeys on buses (Twin Ring Motegi), ferries (Miyajima), and local trains (eg- Sapporo - Otaru) I took at each destination. The Rail Pass is truly far reaching.

- obviously with many of my journeys being to nearby places (eg- Himeji then Osaka), it makes sense time-wise to have stayed overnight. However, with the Rail Pass, I can sacrifice a bit of time in order to save on hotels/hostels.

- reading train schedules a lot recently, I've noticed that Nozomi services are rather abundant. Assuming the Rail Pass continues to deny its users the joys of Nozomi travel, planning trips on dwindling non-Nozomi trains might prove difficult. However, JR's application of the pass is rather strategic in that anyone serious about travelling (business or otherwise) will travel on a Nozomi while more frequent, short haul trips are cheapest on non-reserve, non-Nozomi trains. This leaves the reserved seats on the non-Nozomi trains stuck in the middle and makes perfect seats for Rail Pass users.

- the Rail Pass requires you to carry your passport with you at all times. Number of times my passport was checked - 0

- the Rail Pass also requires you to be prepared to show it to any train conductor while he/she is checking the passenger's tickets. Number of times my Rail Pass was check on-train - 2

- considering the above odds, you might be tempted to try sneaking into a non-reserved seat on a Nozomi train. I would not recommend it lest your pass be revoked and a fine levied (and I would presume they're slightly more strict about tickets on Nozomi trains), but the possibility is there... I should warn that despite my Rail Pass being checked only twice on-train, my seat ticket was checked everytime.

Is the Rail Pass worth it?
In a word, yes. I paid off my Rail Pass within my first week of use and even those not going to all the places I went to can easily travel enough to pay off the ¥57,700.

However, it must be said that short-/day-trips may not be everyone's ideal way of seeing Japan. I liked it because it meant I never had to carry a heavy bag (or any bag, if it was a day trip) and I got to see lots of things. And lots of different things, as I could jump from cultural heritage sights to modern art museums. After which I could be back home to hang out with friends.

I will concede though that travelling like this leaves little time to really get a good grasp of a city. If you try really hard to can sense how one place might be different from another, but it is by no means a clear picture. It can also be a bit stressful, as a lot of time is spent on or catching trains, the latter being particularly hard when I just got home very late at night the day before.

But in the end, even travelling to only three cities within the three weeks, the Rail Pass would easily pay for itself. My only complaint is that they don't sell it in Japan; any tourist should be allowed to purchase a Rail Pass so long as they can prove they have a tourist visa and keep that status for the duration of the pass.