Thursday, December 17, 2009
I was fortunate enough to be a guest on Alex's podcast The Dofuss Show again, although due to this being my third straight show he jokingly dubbed it "The DanFuss Show." I liked what we talked about but my voice sounds tired and I made a far too many pauses when I spoke. I don't know if it was the late hour or just nerves. Last time we did this I had just come home after a few drinks, so maybe I should make it a habit of loosening my lips with a spot o' booze in the future.
The show notes are on Alex's site this time, after we worked on them together using Google Wave. Have you heard about this thing? I got a random invite a few weeks back and let the service sit because I didn't know what to do with it. Now that I have friends on there as well as an entire community of Bitmob writers, I'm checking my waves daily to see what's going on.
In this case, Alex wrote the notes before we talked as an outline for our discussion. After we recorded I edited them, adding specific topics we brought up or articles we referenced. then put those into a wave that he and I could view. I added links to each item as needed while he was editing the show. When he was done, he looked at the notes and edited them to better reflect what made the final cut and what didn't. In the end, he was able to copy and paste the material from the wave, links and all, right onto his site. And unlike last time, the wave allowed us to collaborate and get the notes ready to be posted alongside the show. It's pretty cool.
Sure, I haven't seen anything in Google Wave that couldn't be done over e-mail, but the online nature of Wave makes collaborations like this a lot easier. Some of the stuff we're doing for Bitmob would be way too much of a hassle to attempt via e-mail, as dozens of different people are reading and responding in a single conversation would become an illegible mess of quoted text.
If you're on Google Wave, look me up. You can already guess what my username is. If you're wondering what it's like, you can ask me for an invite. Please note that you need a Google account to use Wave, but if you have Gmail that should count.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Oh yeah, check out the lovely birthday present I received from my lovely wife:
Speaking of games and fun, I made another appearance on The Dofuss Show, Alex's homemade gaming podcast. Last time we talked about TGS for a couple hours weeks after the show had ended, but this time we are a bit more topical. Here's an overview of what we discussed:
- My recent article on Wired Game|Life concerning crane games filled with desserts
- My fondness for Kongregate.com
- Alex's experience (and general distaste with) Sony's PlayFace campaign
- He has finished Bayonetta and Uncharted 2 but is still plodding through Wii shovelware like Ultimate Band
- I like Burnout Paradise even though I hate racing games
- My Left 4 Dead 2 thoughts segue into the news concerning its censorship in Australia
- Neither of us wants to play Modern Warfare 2 but we have some words over its infamous "F.A.G.S." viral video
- Remember my Bitmob piece on grinding? Alex disagrees with me
- Speculation about the future of the DSiLL, with anecdote from Gwyn's blog
- Darren's Old Games: Cybernator is better than you
In other news, I am in the process of submitting stories to Wired Game|Life concerning my trip to Games Japan Festa last weekend. I will share any posts once they are approved. In the meantime you might be happy to hear that another one of my English stories was translated into Japanese (check it out). This doesn't mean any extra money for me or anything, but I do get a real kick out of seeing my name (and a photo I took) on Japanese websites. Once WiredVision carries a story, other Japanese sites tend to rehash that story elsewhere, so my name does get around.
I'm really looking forward to this three-day weekend. Mako's parents are going to watch Go for us so we can spend Saturday together as a couple. There's also a gaming party on Monday that sounds like a blast. Alas, I'd trade it all for a trip home for Thanksgiving. Turkey is so hard to find in this country!
*Read that Wikipedia article very carefully by the way...particularly the Pre-Release section! OMG
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Unfortunately, my cold arrived at the same time as Alex's friend Darren arrived from the UK. Alex had talked to me about a variety of activities with his friend/podcast partner so I was really looking forward to the visit even though (or maybe because) I've never actually met or spoken to Darren myself. Since I wasn't feeling so bad yesterday and I really had an errand to run in Osaka anyway, I put on a surgical mask (when in Japan...) and went into the city to meet them.
I won't get into what exactly we did because I know Alex has plans to make audio/video materials out of it for his website, but I will say that at his house there was a kind of rapid-fire session featuring a number of video games, some that I knew but many that I never played before. Alex keeps himself very busy on the gaming front and he had a number of brand new shrink wrapped titles just ready to be played, yet he still bought Halo ODST while we were in Den Den Town. It was only 3000 Yen - a bargain for a new game, especially in Japan - but I am envious of the amount of material he has at his fingertips.
Once thing I will talk about is Burnout Paradise, a game that has kept itself in the mass gaming conversation for nearly two years now. At first I ignored it because, quite frankly, I loathe racing games. It's a genre that I've never accepted at home or in the arcades because the experience never feels right to me. Even when there's a steering wheel to play with (which helps in the "feel" department) there's this gigantic gap between what I do and what the car does on screen. It doesn't help that most racing games are as shallow as possible, consisting of nothing but roaring engines and turns turns turns. Of course, I've never been much of a "car guy" which makes most of what happens in the game completely uninteresting to me.
And yet Burnout Paradise blew me away. Darren did most of the playing but as I sat and watched I found myself actually getting excited. The big difference, as I see it, is Burnout Paradise gives you an entire city to play around in. Yes, there are races you can run, but there are other events for the choosing like "road rage," an impromptu demolition derby that has you crashing into sports cars on the streets rather than inside an arena.
More importantly, the city is just there for you to explore. Most of the time we weren't doing anything but screeching around corners and looking for things to smash into. Crashing in normal racing games is a drag, a failure, something that forces you to go back and redo the whole race from the start. In Burnout Paradise you are constantly wrecking your car in awesome slow-motion and all that happens is you "respawn" with your car somewhat restored to working order.
Alex made the comparison to the Grand Theft Auto series with the caveat that you never leave your car (though you can change vehicles in designated locations). I would posit that, based on the brief experience I've had so far, Burnout Paradise is better than GTA because it strips away the drama and violence while still offering an open world for vehicular mischief. There are no people in this city, only vehicles. It's like living inside a Hot Wheels track only the toy cars move a lot faster and can easily be replaced no matter how many times you crash them into a wall at high speeds.
The best news about Burnout Paradise is that Alex gave me a copy of the game for free. Somehow he ended up with two versions of the game (one on PlayStation, one on Xbox) so he handed me the Xbox one and told me to keep it. The downside is that there's no way for the two of us to play together now but the upside is that I have something new to enjoy that smashes my own assumptions about the genre. Few things are as exciting in life as discovering something that you thought you hated but is actually really cool. I haven't been this surprised by my own tastes since I learned to enjoy green vegetables.
Oh one last thing on the subjects of games and Alex. After I wrote about The Fountainhead last week, I uploaded a slightly different version of the piece to Bitmob, adding a few paragraphs to discuss the connections between the book and BioShock. Today I learned that my work was featured in a Spotlight post alongside an item that Alex had written. Small world!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Sunday, October 18, 2009
First of all, I want to reiterate that it is a big deal whenever I visit Tokyo. It's not that far away and I'm hardly living in the sticks here in suburban Kansai, but each time I go to Tokyo I experience a sudden rush. I'm used to living in cities that I can fully comprehend or at least visualize. The number of neighborhoods in Osaka that I've never seen far exceeds those that I have, but I still have a general sense of where X and Y are and how best to travel between those points. Kobe is tiny, all things considered, and Kyoto is actually a grid which makes navigation pretty simple.
Tokyo defies all my attempts to reign in its magnitude and break it into digestible chunks. Yes, the more time I spend there the more comfortable I am with the terrain and the complex interwoven railway maps, but I never come away from my visit thinking "OK, I understand Tokyo now." If I ever learn to accept that, perhaps I will come to love it as a city, but in the meantime its power overwhelms me in a way that is simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating.
Tuesday (Sept 22nd) was actually a quiet day considering I was traveling and attending that party. Checking in to my hotel, visiting Richard out in Chiba, finding my way to the party and then coming to terms with my anxiety were all manageable events. I made it back to my hotel without incident and went to sleep excited about waking up the next morning.
Wednesday (Sept 23rd) was my first chance to meet Chris Kohler and actually talk about the job he had hired me to do. Yes, we had spoken at the party the night before but it was brief. Wednesday we sat down, had lunch, and discussed a number of things relevant to the job, including the technical ins and outs of the Game|Life website. I learned that when I was done with a story I had to submit it and he would then review it before posting it to the site. I found this news to be very comforting. I had never worked with an editor before but I viewed the idea as a safety net rather than a hindrance. Chris has written entire books and covered video games for years; he should be trusted to know what's a good fit for Game|Life or not.
We ended up going to Manadarake after our discussion which was fun for me. That's one of those sprawling Japanese stores that seem to sell everything and anything that relates to games, anime, manga, old toys, whatever. They used to have two outlets in Osaka but both seem to have closed down. I didn't find anything worth buying but I certainly enjoyed the view and I was glad to know they were still in business.
When Chris returned to his hotel, I went back out to see Richard. I knew I would be too busy to visit him once the show started, so it was important to me that I hang out with him while I could. It was also a rare opportunity for me to play games with somebody. I know the Internet has opened up the world of video games so that people don't need to be in the same room to play together anymore, but having a baby to take care of means my gaming time at home is extremely limited. This trip was as much a business outing as it was a chance to get away from that routine of go to work/care for baby/go to sleep.
Thursday (Sept 24th) was the first day of the show. The doors didn't open until ten but being the eager person that I am, I showed up well before nine to ensure that I didn't take any chances. Also, I had to be with Chris to actually register as a member of the media in order to get inside at all. While I waited for him I saw a number of other journalists show up and register, many of whom I first saw at the party on Tuesday. As I hoped, the awkwardness was gone now. I didn't exactly freely converse with them because they're still people who don't know me, but at least I was no longer paralyzed with admiration.
The good news about visiting the Tokyo Game Show on the business days is the crowds are much smaller. They're not gone, of course, but the difference between 70,000 people and 25,000 people is readily apparent. All of the games I tried to see on that first day were easily accessible with minimal waiting. I also felt like I had more time to play the games than I normally would have. There just seemed to be less external pressure to keep things moving.
Internally, however, I was extremely nervous. After I played a few games I found the press room and sat down to write about them. It took nearly two hours to write that first post because I kept changing my mind on how to approach it. Should I try to detail the differences between the Xbox 360 version and the PlayStation 3 version? Is it worth explaining how the two demos were slightly different? Which screenshot should I choose? What kind of a title would go best with this story? Is this post too long or not long enough? It was mentally exhausting and by the time I was through, I was starving. It was also past two P.M. which meant the day was half over already. This made me more nervous, as I didn't want to waste time buying lunch but I couldn't ignore what my insides were saying.
I managed to squeeze in some kind of sandwich and a couple more games before returning to the press room shortly after three. Again, it took me a long time to get any serious ideas onto the screen, but even after the press room was closed I felt like I had accomplished something. There was a tangible uneasiness as I knew that I had a lot more writing to do before I could truly call it a day, but I knew that I could write anywhere at any time. The games were only available on the show floor, and I had seen five or six of them which was enough.
In checking in with Chris at the end of day one, he told me about a party being held by Microsoft at a nearby hotel. I was happy to discover the event was outdoors and relatively spacious, so I didn't have to wait in lines to get a drink and there was plenty of food. Pretty good food at that, particularly the lasagna which is a dish I hadn't eaten since I came to Japan. I had a few glasses of wine (kept it classy - we were poolside after all) and I was thrilled to see a demo of Left 4 Dead 2. Not only was it fun to get my first hands-on experience with the game, it ended up making a nice story for the site.
Day One Stories (based on when I wrote them, not when they were posted): Bayonetta, Darksiders, PixelJunk Monsters Deluxe, PixelJunk Shooter, and Left 4 Dead 2.
I got off to a late start on Friday (Sept 25) but I did my best to make up for it by taking Richard's advice and pulling out my new netbook whenever possible to write. I wrote while riding the train, I wrote while waiting to enter the show, I even wrote while standing outside Sony's booth waiting for a chance to play Heavy Rain. That last one proved to be a stunningly long wait, considering I went there as soon as the doors opened and there were only five people in front of me. Still, I made the best of the time as I finished up stories from the day before. In the end the wait was worth it, as I felt it was the most exciting thing I saw at the show.
I found myself running low on inspiration, so I started wandering around the "game school" area of the show. These were low-budget, independent projects on display, many of them created by students. I also went looking for a game I had seen on the NHK news the night before. The news coverage of the show was pretty broad and gawking, but you can always count on television reporters to dig up something that looks crazy. They spent a long time looking at Project Natal, something I couldn't see (the demo was invitation only) but there was a game that worked by scanning your brain activity. That one I managed to find directly across from another unusual work, a game made for blind people.
I found writing in the press room came a lot easier on the second day, as I had written so much so quickly I was simply getting used to the idea of pouring my ideas out at a faster pace. Due to the submission process and the fact that Chris was busy doing his own thing during the show, there was an odd disconnect where I really didn't know what he though of my work. He was publishing it to the site, of course, but there wasn't much of an opportunity to actually talk about how things were going. Even when we got together with his photographer Jon Snyder and Christian Nutt for dinner, it was less show talk and more casual discussions of Japan and whatever else was on our minds. I felt good, sure, but I was wondering where I stood as far as quality was concerned.
Everyone else at the dinner table made it a point that they were not going out to do anything on Friday night, a decision I emulated. I spent most of the evening in my hotel room polishing up some stories and talking to Alex on the phone. He arrived earlier that morning to cover the show, but since the two of us were busy working for our respective web overlords we were too busy to actually hang out at all. I never made it bed early but it was definitely an indoor, low-key night.
Day Two Stories: Heavy Rain, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker, Quantum Theory, Blind Braver, Neuroboy, and Puyo Puyo 7.
I knew Saturday (Sept 26) was going to be tough because it was the first day of the show to be open to the public. I knew this was going to mean crowds at every turn, so much so that even walking from one booth to another would be an adventure of the sweatiest kind. Chris suggested I try to visit the Capcom booth and play Okamiden as it was the only game he was unable to play at a private event he was attending. I wish I had thought of that on the press days, because it took a solid hour to get in to the demo area (which was actually kind of lovely with its torii and fake cherry blossoms) and I barely got to play the game. Still, I kept working on previous day's stories while I waited so as not to waste my time.
The crowds did have one interesting benefit in that they drove me to seek out the unusual and less popular exhibits. This led me to play a bunch of smaller games that the masses were simply ignoring. In particular, I found a number of games at the back of the Square Enix booth that were being ignored, perhaps because they were behind the booth where few people walk. There were giant, multi-hour lines for other Square Enix games that stretched back there though, so I found it funny that while they all waited I was standing in front of them playing games and having fun - mostly.
I should point out that after my experience on Thursday I learned the best way to eat at TGS is to simply bring something small and keep it in your bag. I would buy my breakfast and lunch at the convenience store on the way to the show in the morning, eat the former while on the train and the latter whenever I found myself yearning for a bite to eat. It wasn't very glamorous but it was tasty enough and it enabled me to keep busy without wasting time at the food court. My hotel also gave me a free bottle of water every day which I took with me and drank as needed. It added a bit of weight to my bag but it was pretty hot in there on account of the thousands of gawkers slowly milling about.
I managed to play games all morning and early afternoon so that when I sat down just after two PM, I was comfortable just writing the rest of the day without feeling the need to rush back onto the floor. Again, it was getting easier to write the more I did so, so I got a lot done in those remaining hours. I ran into Chris in the press room and he told me there would be karaoke later that night in Shibuya. He also told me that I was doing a great job which was exactly the news I needed to hear. I had been building up my own confidence without any feedback from him simply by assuming that my work was worth publishing, so it must have been satisfactory. Hearing him actually compliment my writing was an even better response than I expected.
Alex swung by the press room to say hi and tell me he was leaving. He had decided to keep his trip really short by only spending one night in town and getting in as much gaming as he could before going home to write. I felt pretty strange about being unable to hang out with him at all but he was under a lot more pressure than I was. I was writing for one site over the course of four days. He was writing for multiple sites (at least three) and he had less time to do it in.
On the way out the door I met up with a guy named Kevin whom I had some contact with via Twitter. He had come down from Saitama to TGS and had organized a small group of other foreigner-in-Japan Twitterers to have breakfast together, but I had arrived too late to participate. Instead, we had a light snack at a nearby cafe and just talked about TGS, Japan in general, etc.
Saturday night was the first chance I really had to just go out and see the city while I waited for the call for karaoke. I went to Shinjuku to see the 8-Bit Cafe, a retro-game-themed bar. The atmosphere was really cool as there were toys along the top of the bar and a glass case full of video game memorabilia. There were also a couple of old consoles hooked up to a TV and a bin full of games to play for free. Much like Thursday night, I ended up playing a game that tied directly into my work at TGS. I found the original Thexder just hours after playing the new sequel Thexder Neo at the Sqaure Enix booth. Too bad both games sucked.
The downsides to the 8-Bit Cafe are two-fold. One is the cost, as there's a cover charge of sorts that is added to your bill and everything on the menu is pretty pricey. I really enjoyed my "Nuts & Milk" cocktail and "cake-cheese" dessert, but they were both 150 or 200 Yen more expensive than they needed to be. The other problem is the five flights of stairs patrons must use, meaning that I could never afford to get drunk there else I stumble and fall to my death on the way out.
I knew Richard had been invited to a party somewhere near Shibuya, so I left the cafe after one drink and made my way over there, although my trip to the cafe meant I arrived well after ten PM so the party was dying down. I had time for another drink and we talked for a while, but once eleven o'clock came everybody started bolting to catch the last train home. I was less worried because I knew I was staying out that night. I was prepared to take a taxi back to my hotel if I needed one. Richard lives way outside the city limits, however, so he couldn't be as cavalier. Sadly, he ended up missing the last train after we separated and his phone ran out of power before we could reunite near Shibuya. I'm told he eventually crashed in a capsule hotel.
I spent an hour or so just wandering around Shibuya, witnessing some amusing and fairly depraved behavior. I stopped in Burger King for a Whopper Jr. (my first in years - there's no BK in Osaka) where I waited in line behind what looked like a hip-hop dance troupe based on their outfits. They were all black and sounded American, though at least one of them demonstrated enough Japanese ability to suggest he was a resident. Watching them debate the menu choices was pretty funny to me. Less funny was the abundance of homeless and/or intoxicated people walking the streets. One girl was so drunk there were two men trying to pick her up off the sidewalk and failing miserably. I hope they knew her.
Chris did call shortly after one AM and I was able to find him thanks to the reference point of Mandarake. He was with a large group of people who seemed reluctant to go out singing, as many of them had flights to catch the next day. Eventually he made some calls and we tracked down a different bunch of people (including Christian) who were willing to karaoke it up. We shopped around a little bit (the first place wanted a crazy amount of money considering what time it was) but settled on a joint located above the Burger King where I had eaten an hour earlier. It was small and very low-rent (all the song books were torn and in very poor condition) but the price was right and we sang and drank for three solid hours until the trains started running again.
Snooping around the web I found some pictures of the event in Christian's Flicker stream. You can see me here, here and here.
I knew Chris wasn't going back to the show for the last day so when we said our goodbyes, that was that. He thanked me for the work I had done and told me not to push myself too hard if I decided to go one more time. I went back to my hotel for an extended nap of sorts but I was determined to get a few more hours in at TGS before leaving later that night.
Day Three Stories: Okamiden, Echoshift, Death by Cube, 0 day Attack on Earth, and Thexder Neo.
Sunday (Sept 27) was both the easiest and the hardest day for me at the show. My confidence in my ability to do my job was at its peak, but my energy levels and my overall enthusiasm for TGS were bottoming out. Operating on less than four hours sleep will do that. I figured the best course of action was to just play whatever I could before retiring to the press room and then leaving, writing on the train ride home as needed. Again, I stuck to covering things that no one else seemed to be playing or talking about online. I had hoped to meet Richard at some point, as he came to the show, but since his phone had no battery power we never got into contact with one another.
Ultimately I got in a few quick things, took an hour or so to write down some impressions, then went back to Tokyo station to have dinner and buy the all-important souvenirs for Mako, her parents (who hosted her and Go while I was away) and some of my co-workers (particularly the ones whose school I skipped in order to make the trip). While riding the Shinkansen to Osaka, I tried to play the Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker demo but it proved to be quite deep and I only completed the tutorial. I spent the rest of the trip writing and trying not to fall asleep.
Day Four Stories (some of these were quite late): Game 3 (working title) by The Behemoth, Tekken 6, and a wacky student game.
Overall, I am very pleased with how the trip turned out. The business of attending and writing about TGS proved to dominate my time in a way I didn't quite expect, so aside from the time I spent with Richard and the late-night antics in Shibuya I was too busy to simply amuse myself as I saw fit. I was unable to visit any of the restaurants or sights I had in mind before the trip. However, the show itself was my favorite one yet because I had four days to fully investigate all corners of the exhibition.
More importantly, I was hired to do a job and I did it well. How well? When the show started I told myself I was just a lucky guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time. By the end I realized that being lucky didn't mean I wasn't also a good writer. In a surprise affirmation of that fact, Chris Kohler recently offered me a chance to continue contributing to Wired Game|Life. I've already submitted two potential items and I've got a few other ideas on deck. Plus, there's another game show next month...in Osaka! I will, of course, link to any future posts on Game|Life but in the meantime a complete listing of all my posts is available right here, a link I will add to the Contact page.
Hey, I'm a writer now. Awesome.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, October 15, 2009
The big news right now is that my dad is here. He came in Tuesday night from Hong Kong, his first ever visit to China. Believe it or not, he didn't eat any Chinese food while he was there, but if you know him there's a reason for that. I have to go to work for the rest of the week but I gave him explicit written instructions on how to ride the trains to my apartment. When I walked in the door yesterday, he was standing there meeting my son and his grandson for the first time. It was a sweet moment.
He's here until Monday so I won't have much time to write. However, I can promise you that I have not forgotten what day it is today (ten years, wow!) and my Tokyo Game Show tale will be ready very, very soon. I also finished reading The Fountainhead and I feel like I need to talk about it.
Oh, but speaking of TGS, here's some more big news: my first podcast! Okay, it's not MY podcast but Alex's own DoFuss Show. We spoke over Skype this weekend about the show for two hours and he edited that together with some interviews he did and a conversation with his usual podcast partner, Darren. Unfortunately, we couldn't work out a time when all three of us could speak, but I think this is was a reasonable compromise. I do hope to talk to them again, possibly later this month when Darren comes to Japan.
You can download the MP3 at Alex's site. I haven't heard it yet but I'm looking forward to weirding myself out by listening to my own voice on my iPod. And yes, all of this is reminding me that I should try making a podcast sometime.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
I got in yesterday afternoon after what felt like the shortest plane trip I've ever taken. I barely had time to eat a sandwich and listen to one podcast before we were making our descent into Haneda. My bags were ludicrously heavy (seriously, what the hell am I carrying?) but I made it from the airport to Akihabara in a flash. My room here at Remm is very compact and stylish. It has only one odd flaw: there are no drawers for me to store my clothes, not even under the bed.
I went out to hang with Richard for a few hours. We had a fabulously decadent curry "dinner" (it was 3:30) at CoCo Ichibanya. Yes, that's chicken AND cheese. They charge you a bit more if you want the curry to be spicy, which I think is a clever way to make it seem more significant. I only ordered a 4 on their 10 point scale, and that was plenty spicy for me.
Richard, by the way, is doing great. Have I mentioned his video channel on YouTube yet? He's been making these funny little clips for a few months now. He told me he was working on two different ones this week so he's keeping himself quite busy. It was good to see him in such high spirits.
After playing some games and watching a bit of TV, I had to leave to get to a party on the other side of Tokyo. Chris Kohler had gotten my name put on the list for an informal gathering of video game professionals. For some reason, in my mind I thought it would be a very small, quiet affair. I have no idea why I thought that would be the case; I suppose when he said there was a list, I assumed it would be a single sheet of paper. There were instead hundreds of people in attendance, so there was a large line at the door and smaller but certainly inconvenient lines at the bar.
Those of you who know me in real life know that I am easily intimidated by parties and that intimidation factor is directly proportional to the number of guests. What you might not understand about this party was that a number of the guests are, in video game circles, rather famous. When you read and follow podcasts concerning video games as much as I do, there are certain names who loom over all the others. Some of them are writers I really admire or extremely knowledgeable about gaming history and trends, so I was essentially star struck as I saw all these familiar faces. Throw in the fact that there was this other guy wearing the exact same shirt as me (one of UNIQLO's game T-Shirts) and I was kind of a nervous wreck.
Chris Kohler is one of those people, but I had good reason to talk to him as he hired me and invited me to the party in the first place. I didn't know how to approach the others who I had no connection to. After a long while of absurd contemplation, I came to realize that I didn't need to be self-conscious about saying hi to someone I looked up to. I wasn't an autograph seeker or a paparazzo, I was just someone eager to pay a compliment. This is not something to sweat about.
Eventually, I did manage to greet and shake the hands of a couple different folks. Our meetings were brief and I had real trouble spitting out actual sentences instead of vague yet glowing remarks. When I did manage to say something (or better yet, ask something) it went a lot better. After all, everyone at the party was involved with games. We all shared a massive common interest in that regard, which is more than I can say for most parties I have attended. It took me a long time to figure that out, but once I did it made for much smoother sailing.
Today is the day I put all that behind me. The stammering and anxiety is out of my system now. The show starts tomorrow so I'll be meeting with Chris again to discuss the ins and outs of the job. That's the whole reason I'm here!
Hey, the sun came out. Awesome.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, June 08, 2009
I spent Friday night with Mako at her parents' house again and while that isn't getting any easier, at least I get to sleep. For reasons I cannot explain I have not been sleeping well in my own bed. It could be a simple matter of not having my wife next to me, or maybe it's just stress, but since Mako went back to her childhood home I have barely managed to sleep more than four or five hours at a time. True, I should be going to bed earlier as it is harder to resist TV and video games when you're alone, but even when I lay down before eleven I'll wake up once or twice during the night.
Mako is really caught between her needs and her wants right now. She tells me about things she wants to do all the time, but with all that weight and a new life form squirming around inside her she simply cannot do much of anything without a long rest before, during, and after. Even going to the movies is out of the question for her, which is a shame because she seems interested in Terminator 4 and it's opening in Japan real soon. I would have thought sitting down would be an easy activity in her condition but it seems that she's worried about having to sit STILL for such a long time. Plus she's been having some issues with her feet that are best dealt with by elevating her lower half. There's certainly no room for that in a movie theater.
I really feel torn about how our lives are being wedged apart right now, even if it's only temporary. I can't just go down there everyday because it's too far. I could spend my weekends there but I fear my sanity would snap. There's so much pressure being a guest in someone's house, especially an overnight guest and especially especially one who has to really concentrate to communicate at all. So I've been spending one night a week there and then leaving, even though I feel lonely when I'm at home all by myself. I feel bad when she's not around but I can't manage to be with her for more than eighteen hours or so because there's nothing for us to do. It's a weird Catch-22 and it's entirely in my own head.
At the very least, I didn't spend Saturday night alone. I went out to Osaka and met Alex and another friend of his, Rachel. We didn't really "go" anywhere or "do" anything as much as we went out on the streets and spent the evening together. We found great amusement in people watching in Dotonbori (this trash collector and this apparent performance artist being two of the highlights) and enjoyed a delicious Western-style pizza at nearby Slices in Amerika-mura. Eventually we wandered into a cheapo karaoke joint that had shoddy drink service and questionable song selection but it more than made for it in price. I spent less than 1000 Yen for two hours which is an incredible bargain, especially for a Saturday night. Combine that with our policy of buying drinks in convenience stores rather than bars and we all managed to have a great night without spending much money at all.
Meanwhile, it's Monday again and I find myself still "single" and no closer to understanding when my life will completely change. Will the baby arrive in time for Father's Day? Will it be born during the week? Will it be born tomorrow? Perhaps that's what's keeping me up at night more than anything else. At least when I sleep next to Mako, I know that IF the baby decides to join us, I'll be right by her side. If the baby comes in the middle of the night and we're apart, well, I don't have a car and there are no trains...
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
I knew Richard was right. It was time to return to the world of survival horror.
You may recall my excitement over Resident Evil 5 late last year when I used the Jedi mind trick to convince a retail clerk to give me a demo version of the game at a time when only new PS3 owners could play it. As much fun as it was to get my hands on something rare (at the time), when I actually sat down and played it I was sorely disappointed. The awkward control scheme, the confusing lack of objectives (fight or flight? stay or go?) and the weakness of the weapons really soured me on the game as a whole. It looked great, yes, but it was neither fun nor scary; it was just annoying. Once the game actually went on sale, I heard many people echo my own complaints, reassuring me that I had made the right call.
However, there were also a substantial number of people who proclaimed that Resident Evil 5 was much better than the demo had led on. While every game, no matter how bad, is bound to have its defenders, I found that my friends were among these voices of support. There developed an odd kind of peer pressure where different friends encouraged me to buy on the game on PS3 or Xbox so I could play with them. Normally I am my own worst enemy when it comes to impulse purchases, but now I was receiving near-demands from others to join the party. Still I held out, partly because I had other games to play but mostly because I felt I had already given the game its fair shake and rejected it.
With this new-found gaming time (because Mako has gone to her parents' house) and another generous loan from Alex (thanks again, sir), I finally played Resident Evil 5 for real on Sunday. Even though Richard had completed the game already, he was happy to play it again with me, both to seek out more hidden objects and for the sheer fun of it. He tried to share some of his upgraded weapons with me but the game, rather smartly, wouldn't allow it. Having a friend with both advanced items and knowledge of the game was advantage enough; anything more than that and our survival horror would become a survival cakewalk.
I don't know whether it was having more context to the bizarre situations or simply a matter of having played the demo a couple of times, but everything about Resident Evil 5 was better than I remembered. Playing alongside Richard and knowing where to go certainly helped cut down on frustration, but more than that, the entire game just seemed more accessible and entertaining than I had previously thought. The controls no longer felt like an obstacle, probably because the demo had already made them familiar to me. Most importantly, the combat was fun rather than being a chore.
The bigger issue here is not how fun Resident Evil 5 turned out to be but how wrong I was to have judged it as I did after playing an arbitrary piece of it as a demo. One could argue that my failed experience with the demo was in fact valuable preparation time for the real thing; that is, had I never played the demo and simply sat down with the game cold, I would have encountered all of the same problems, quirks and irritants as I did before. While that might be true, there's no way to know if I would have reacted to those things in the way that I did. Also, it doesn't hold up when contrasted with my other recent video game demo playthroughs.
I was rather down on the demo of Resistance 2 that I played at Tokyo Game Show but I ended up receiving that game as a gift and playing through the entire story mode. The demo was an accurate taste of the first stage, albeit a rushed one that followed a very long wait in line which presumably put me in a bad mood. I credit my eventual seduction by that game to the excellent online co-op mode which then led me to try the single-player mode once I had no time to play online anymore.
Conversely, I absolutely adored the demo of Mirror's Edge and bought it based solely on that initial positive experience, but the real game turned out to be much more frustrating than I had previously thought. Lowering the difficulty somewhat recaptured the fun I had remembered, but I have yet to fully return to the game and play anything beyond the prologue. Then again, I haven't gotten around to playing BioShock yet either and I can't blame that on anything besides my own state of mind. The demo I played in October was phenomenal and the real game wasn't any different. I just haven't convinced myself to explore that glorious underwater world.
Looking at these conflicting examples, there's no clear connection between a good demo or a bad demo and enjoying or not enjoying the full game. Of course, the entertainment value of a video game (or any media for that matter) is not a simple Boolean matter. I can't draw a line and sort out games which are Fun versus those which are Not Fun. Taste is subjective and constantly in flux. At first I liked PixelJunk Eden, then I grew bored of it, then I suddenly rediscovered it and felt compelled to finish it. There's still time for me to enjoy Mirror's Edge or BioShock just as there's still time for me to reject Resident Evil 5.
I still feel like playing demo versions of video games is the best way to determine whether I should buy the full version or not. No amount of screenshots or gameplay footage can equal the hands-on test that a demo offers. However, it is vital that I keep in mind that a lot can change between the release of a demo and the release of the finished product. More than the graphics or the controls or the difficulty or any other technological tweaks, I can change and that's something nobody can predict - least of all me.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, May 11, 2009
Unfortunately, I'm at work while my close friend The Trout is still in Japan. He timed his vacation to overlap the string of holidays last week which I then extended by taking Thursday and Friday off, but that was the last of my annual leave so I had no choice but to report for work this morning. Thankfully, I went to the tiny mountain school today so it was a very low-impact day of teaching. No shouting, no frantic gestures, just me and a couple of kids in a classroom. Good news for me, because I am experiencing what can only be described as a Golden Week Hangover.
No, I'm not tipsy nor do I have a headache, but I spend the better part of last week (and the last three nights in a row) out with my buddy on the town and I imbibed a fair amount of alcohol, so I haven't gotten a good night's sleep in a while now. Earlier in the week I had nothing but free time but when we started going out every night, I just couldn't cut it. I started going home earlier and earlier each night in an attempt to get some sleep and keep myself for overindulging. But by the end of the week, we reached a balance of quiet time and drinking time which worked out quite well.
Life has a funny way of making things turn out completely different than you expect. I thought this week would be one of constant exploration and introducing my friend to Japan through a mix of sightseeing, a wild variety of cuisine and the occasional all-nighter. What happened was more of a week-long hangout session that just happened to be in Japan. No, we didn't spend all our time in bars or playing video games in my apartment, but we never really went out and saw the country like I thought we would.
This is not to say the vacation was a disappointment; far from it! While I cannot speak for my friend I can say that once we overcame the initial awkwardness where my imagined vacation failed to take shape, we ended up having a terrific time as we always have in the past. While we didn't necessarily see that many new places (we only spent one afternoon in Kyoto and Kobe respectively, and never made it to Nara or Himeji) I was able to show him around and let him explore Osaka in his own way. Likewise, we never managed to eat all of the food I thought we could/should, but I'm happy to say that everything I recommended, cuisine-wise, was warmly received. We even managed to make a few new discoveries along the way, as we sat down in a few restaurants I never tried myself. Alex recommended an all-you-can-eat & drink Brazilian barbecue spot which offered great food as well as a magnificent view of Kobe.
So what did I learn from this experience? I think first and foremost is that I need to remind myself that when I play host to visitors from home, I am not really "on vacation." This is where I live now. The guests must ultimately take the lead on choosing what to see or eat or do while they are here, because this is THEIR TRIP. However, this does not mean that I am a tour guide or a hanger-on. I thought I had to keep pace with the Trout earlier in the week and drink when he drank, eat when he ate, et cetera. My role is more that of a facilitator. I can recommend stuff that I know is cool and I can do my best to keep my guests from getting lost or into trouble, but I don't have to sit next to them and hold their hand 24 hours a day. When I figured that out, that's when the fun really began for me last week. Once that happened, the last three days flew by in an instant for I truly was having fun...incredibly so, if I may be honest about it.
What does this mean for the future? On the immediate horizon, I hope it makes me a better "facilitator" for the guests I am expecting later this month and perhaps later this summer. In the long term, I'd like to think that I was able to show my friend how fun Japan can be and possibly plant a seed that convinces him to come back again for another try.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Wow, I am certainly excited at the prospect of eating all this food!
(Fifteen minutes to go) Hmm, I need a moment to reflect on what I have achieved and what tasks still lay ahead.
(Four minutes to go) WHAT HAVE I DONE?
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Friday, May 01, 2009
seriously, that's it. Later.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Saturday was my day to be alone in Osaka, so I decided to seek out the recently-released King of Fighters XII both out of my own curiosity and for the sake of my soon-to-be arriving friend, The Trout. We both grew up enamored with SNK and their heavy-duty Neo Geo video game system but he was the one who actually owned the damn thing when it was new. I bought mine years later on eBay, long after the console had fallen out of the mainstream and survived on catering to a niche of dedicated enthusiasts with an excess of disposable income. I guess I owe the Post Office a debt of gratitude for funding my Neo Geo fix, because at $90-300 per game it takes a steady paycheck to even consider buying the console in the first place.
KOF XII turned out to be surprisingly tricky to find, but the time it took to track it down was not wasted. I've often mentioned my life-long attachment to video games but there is one aspect to my hobby that I should perhaps make a little clearer. Even though I was an active gamer at home since the early days of Atari, I have always been more fond of arcade games. True, the latter was always more impressive when I was younger due to the differences in available technology (see the infamously dodgy Atari version of Pac-Man as evidence), but even now as an adult, I can spend hours perusing arcades for fun.
While arcades in the United States are virtually dead, they are certainly still alive and reasonably active here in Japan. There are dozens of "game centers" in Osaka and having no way of knowing where I might see KOF (a quick Internet search didn't turn up any assistance), I simply went to Umeda and starting visiting all the ones that I knew existed, finding a few in the process that I never went to before.
Most of what I saw when I wasn't finding what I wanted was familiar stuff, at least to anyone who's been to a Japanese game center before. There were an abundance of non-video games, including UFO catchers, slot machines, and photo booths. Despite the cramped conditions, each game center had several massive interlocked games for horse-racing enthusiasts, card-based strategy gamers, and even mysterious "pods" for those who want to pilot giant robots.
Of course, there were plenty of more traditional games as well, but they tended to be older. Many of the arcade games my friends and I enjoyed in high school are still eating coins in Japan to this day. Hell, games I played as a little boy are still on the floors here. I saw what I assume (no, PRAY) was a father and son playing Bubble Bobble together. Not a revised edition or HD Remix, just plain old Bubble Bobble like I had on my NES twenty years ago. Speaking of Nintendo, yes, you can still play Super Mario Bros. in Japanese arcades. Funny how certain games can launch scores of imitators and innovative sequels but the original game holds a certain cachet that people refuse to abandon.
One of the newer and fairly unusual games I saw was a Castlevania arcade game that plays kind of like a shooting game, except you wave a Wiimote-like controller around to strike the enemies. I had to play it because it was so different and because I am a big fan of the series. I didn't have much fun with it, but I wonder how much of that was my failure to understand the five screens of instructions that preceded the game. I found the idea of a short-range weapon and an on-rails shooter (that is, you cannot control your character's movements, only attacks) to be an uncomfortable mix. Usually a game like this relies on quick reflexes to shoot the monsters as soon as they appear on screen. Instead, this game forces you to wait for them to come closer in order to hit them. You do have long-range weapons, but they are weak and limited in number. Most of the game I held my "wand" at the ready and just waited for the shambling skeletons to shuffle a but closer so I could slash at them. It was tense in that respect but not nearly as entertaining as shooting games like the Rambo game I played last fall (which I also this weekend, but did not play since I was alone).
I did manage to track down King of Fighters XII, but there isn't much news I can report. The game has only been out a couple weeks but, predictably, the regular players have already settled into a comfort zone that makes them basically invincible. While I can barely make sense of the new techniques ("critical counter" means nothing to me and there appear to be SFIV-like focus attacks as well), these guys are all set and look like they've been playing for years. So I had little choice but to just watch them and try to take what I could from their extremely fast-paced play.
The roster is much larger since I played the game at TGS, but these guys have already settled on a few select characters that they like. Add to that the fact that there's really no "new" characters - all of them have appeared in previous games - and I didn't see much that anyone who looks up this stuff online hasn't seen for themselves. The only thing that has changed significantly is the on-screen display, as the game now features a traditional "power" meter along with a mysterious "critical counter" gauge that I did not understand. When it fills up, it immediately starts to tick away, so I suppose it offers players a narrow window of opportunity to do...some kind of counter attack. These guys were using it to launch into long combinations of attacks, but whether that's automatic or just them being awesome, I couldn't say.
Having seen what I wanted to see, I moved on to Shinsaibashi where I met a few friends for an evening of pool with Alex and a pair of ALTs. I am, of course, awful at the game but no one cared. We arrived during happy hour and had an extended session where the four of us played round after round without any competition but ourselves. Eventually we decided to make things "interesting" by having losers buy shots for the winners, but our games were so back-and-forth that we abandoned our wagers and simply all chipped in for a plateful of shots that we did together. Amazingly, the mix of drinks went down rather uneventfully for me and I wasn't even hungover the next morning.
Funny how I spent an entire day playing games in one way or another. I can't deny having more fun when my friends were involved, but in a way both my solitary afternoon and my socially-active evening were both tremendously satisfying. If only I had a way to include more people in the arcade-prowling, it would have been a really special day. Good thing I've got a like-minded partner coming to Japan next Friday!
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, April 13, 2009
I took advantage of the beautiful weather this weekend to fit in a bit more sakura time with a long walk on Saturday to a nearby park. Mako and I are very fortunate that we live less than a mile from a major hanami destination in Osaka. Since she wasn't up to joining me last weekend, I felt pretty strongly about trying to spend some time as a couple in the presence of all this pink and white wonderfulness. Unfortunately, she's still super pregnant and cannot lounge on the ground for a picnic, but we settled for walking through the park and just looking around for about forty minutes.
For lunch, we had very un-Japanese pizza at an Italian-style pizzeria in Ikeda. We hadn't been there as a couple since summer (at least) and I last went there in November with Chad. It's a great little place and I hope someday to break my habit of always ordering the quattro fromage pizza that includes just enough gorgonzola to blow my mind without overpowering the other cheeses. Yet every time I go I see it on the menu and remember how awesome it is, so I fold and settle for an extraordinary pizza experience. I mean, I love variety but how I can refuse culinary greatness that I already know exists?
We hit the video store on the way home and then checked out the brand-new supermarket that opened on Friday in our (figurative) backyard. Our neighborhood is pretty small and relatively quiet despite the proximity of a train line, but we have been seeing a lot of growth in the past year. New houses are springing up all around us, usually three or four in every lot big enough to fit one normal American house. We already had a local supermarket but it's closed every Monday and the prices aren't so hot, so we usually do our shopping at the next-nearest market a mile away. It was convenient for Mako to stop there on her way home from the station, but since she doesn't commute anymore it's become considerably less so.
With a new supermarket and lots of new houses, I can't deny that this neighborhood is looking better and better the longer I live here. I'm still not convinced this is the right spot for me - it's nice to be near a train station but I want to be closer to Osaka - but I wonder if I'll ever become convinced that my placement was perfect. I can get to work in about an hour and the heart of Osaka in only thirty minutes. Supermarkets, restaurants, city hall, a 100 Yen shop and two video stores are within walking distance of our apartment. The only issue left is the apartment will soon become too small as our baby grows up and needs more space to himself, but why do I still feel like something's missing? If we moved into a house a few stops closer to the city, would things really be better than they are here?
After all that walking Mako needed to crash and take a nap, so I took the opportunity to finally sit down and watch Tropic Thunder. The movie was every bit as funny as my friends had told me it was. Indeed, I was laughing out loud before the studio logos even popped up because the movie was preceded by hilarious mock advertisements that both introduced the main players in the film and set the tone of the story. Making fun of Hollywood actors and politics is hardly a challenge but this movie still nails every target it sets its eyes on. The fake trailers for movies that do not exist are simultaneously absurd and completely plausible. I fully expect to see "The Fatties" turn into a real property by 2010.
I was also impressed at how un-controversially the allegedly controversial comedic material was handled. I remember being weirded out when I saw pre-release photos of Robert Downey Jr. in "blackface" and when I heard the film made liberal use of the word "retard." Yet when watching the actual movie and seeing/hearing this stuff in the context of the satirical story, it all made perfect sense. It was also hysterical. Tropic Thunder is one of the few movies I've rented that I immediately wanted to watch again. Sadly, being a new release I only paid for the one night rental, so I had to bring it back on Sunday...which is basically the only thing I did all day.
I did manage to connect, however briefly, with a few friends online this weekend though. The Trout's visit to Japan is less than three weeks away at this point and we had been meaning to have a conversation about potential activities and sights during his stay. However, when we actually got to talking things became preoccupied with the Xbox. As I feared, it was impossible to discuss his visit while navigating a zombie-filled hospital in Left4Dead. On the bright side, I got to play an Xbox game with my friends 7000 miles away. The experience was pretty seamless too; there was a hint of lag between when I pulled the trigger and when zombies fell over dead (um, again), but all this meant was I had to adjust my aim and fire a bit sooner. They seemed to run past my shots but then they would suddenly rupture and collapse. It was like I was killing them en passant.
I also got Mike on the horn via Skype yesterday morning. He is in Kuala Lumpur and doing fine, although he has yet to move into an apartment. It was great to check in with him, even if it was briefly and over a pretty poor connection. I hope we can see each other in real life before the end of the year, in any country.
In the meantime, I'm back at work and I'm now expected to teach again. Of course, they haven't finished created the lessons plans for this semester yet, but that's another story. An old and repetitive story which I am sick of dealing with every semester, but another story all the same. Good night.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Thursday, April 09, 2009
Tuesday night I went out to meet with Alex. He wanted to share some of his (substantial) Xbox collection with me and I graciously accepted his offer. I now have absolutely, positively no reason to buy any Xbox games for months considering the amount of material he has loaned me and the lengths to which these games can last. Fallout 3 alone could easily occupy me for the rest of the year. Of course, we all know I want what I want when I want it, so it's entirely possible I'll end up shopping before I realistically should be. But at least my wallet is safe for the short term.
I wanted to return the favor to Alex by loaning him games, but the fact is I don't have much that he doesn't. He already owns most of my PlayStation games on Xbox and I've shared all of my downloaded PSN games with him. So I lent him Resistance 2 since I recently finished the story mode and grabbed all the trophies I'm probably going to get. If he likes it enough to buy it, I hope we can play the co-op mode together because that was my favorite part of the game anyway. I suppose Alex is thinking the same thing about loaning me notoriously engrossing multiplayer games like Gears of War (both of them) and Left4Dead.
After our game trading and some light drinking was complete (it was a weeknight after all) I said goodbye and then met Greg and Robin for one last time. We had said goodbye on Sunday but when Alex and I agreed to met on Tuesday I contacted them and arranged for one last meal. It was, fittingly enough, sushi. I successfully led them to a nice kaiten restaurant in Namba (one that Scott first took me to) and we had a quick but satisfying dinner. It was actually the first sushi meal I've eaten all year, save for the odd piece or two that turns up in bento boxes at school staff lunches. It was long overdue, I say.
Greg and Robin have since left the country to head back to America, almost as the same time as a good friend of mine left America to head for a new life in Kuala Lumpur. I've extolled Mike's musical talents before but when his longtime girlfriend (at what point does that word become childish?) got a job in the Malaysian capitial, he decided to follow her to Asia and leave New York behind. This is very exciting news for a number of reasons, the least of which being that Kuala Lumpur is a hell of a lot closer to Japan than Brooklyn is. I hope to have more online contact with him as a result and maybe visit him before the year is out. I've never been to the city (save for stopping in their airport en route to Singapore) so the trip will double as an exploration of new things as well as catching up with an old friend. Mike's birthday is also just days away, so I'm going to say Happy Birthday now and wish him the best.
Along with all this human traffic, yesterday was the day for entrance ceremonies for the elementary schools in Hana Town. I attended one last year but I neglected to write about it, so I feel I should explain a bit about what goes on. It's a lighter version of the graduation ceremony I saw in March only it celebrates the arrival of brand-new first graders. It was obviously less emotional because introductions are a lot easier than farewells, but the tone was pretty much the same. Lots of stiff walking, endless empty "congratulations" from an array of guests who barely have any connection to the school (let alone the new students) and a couple of songs from the assembled student body. I felt really bad for the new students who had to sit in their chairs in front of the audience and just wait for over an hour.
While I came to appreciate the formality and somberness of the graduation ceremony because it reminded me that I was losing something important in saying goodbye to my sixth grade students, I found the entrance ceremony completely unrewarding. I can only assume it is designed more with the parents in mind, although I saw considerably fewer family members for this ceremony than the graduation a few weeks earlier. Mind you, these events were at two different schools but I suspect that graduation just means more to everyone and therefore warrants more attention. Only three fathers showed up, so clearly the other dads had better places to be.
As far as I'm concerned, this is simultaneously the best and worst time to be working in Japan. The end of the bitter winters, the start of spring and the beautiful cherry blossoms have made this week a delight. I can't tell you how nice it was to go into the city on Tuesday night without wearing a coat. However, I have had all I can take of the endless ceremonies, introductions and farewells that plague this time of year. I just fail to see the point of all this chatter.
Consider this: before yesterday's entrance ceremony began, the regular students and all of the staff gathered in the gym to commemorate the start of the school year in a separate, slightly-less formal assembly. The principal actually introduced every single school employee to the students. Not just the three new faces, but everyone. The guy who answers the phone in the office, the ladies who make the school lunches, even the "security guard" who dutifully protects the kids by sleeping in his booth all day; all of these people were introduced, one by one. I got my turn after all of the other teaching and administrative staff had been called, but I did rank ahead of the lunch ladies, the old woman who serves tea and the guard. In your face, gramps.
With all that having gone down, guess what happened today? We had two ceremonies to say goodbye to the teachers who left this school to work somewhere else. I've mentioned before that Japanese schools shuffle around the teachers every Spring in a confusing fashion that (in my opinion) destroys any real, cohesive atmosphere of teamwork in these schools. Obviously the Japanese don't feel this way, but I just can't see why these folks were clearly struggling to hold back tears when some of them had only been working here for one or two years. I guess there's no minimum time for creating an emotional attachment to a job or coworkers but one year seems awfully brief to me, especially considering two of the departed are now working at the elementary school that is literally up the street from this one. These kids all own bikes - they can say hi whenever they feel like it.
So yeah, I saw a lot of new faces and bid goodbye to some familiar ones - all while a close friend embarks on a crazy adventure that bring him a little closer to my own ongoing foreign experience. Funny how that transition, which I had no way of seeing or participating in, means a lot more to me than any of the ceremonies I sat through this week.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, April 06, 2009
I'll be straight with you: If you've never met me, you should know that I'm really an indoors kind of guy. I participated in organized sports when I was a kid, but whenever possible I spent most of my free time inside with toys, comic books, and electronic entertainment. Even though I lived in the suburbs and I could have been one of those "explore the woods" or "swim in the river" kids, I was absolutely not interested. I dislike being wet or dirty (or both) and I always have. My father loved to sail and I did not; in fact, I do not even know how to swim. We went camping a few times but I was not a fan. Even now, I routinely turn down my friends who invite me on their annual camping excursions simply because I hate camping. It's strange to me that my love of my friends and the hilarious stories they share of being out there cannot convince me to get past the simple matter of spending a few days and nights outdoors. Maybe this is me being stubborn or maybe this is just me recognizing my limits. I need a bed. I need a toilet. I need four walls and a roof.
Having said all that, I am not a troll who prefers darkness to sunlight. I am a fan of going outside for excursions or special occasions. I am definitely more of a walker than a driver (when realistic) and while I still struggle with certain natural "hazards" like insects, I do appreciate getting out of the apartment when the weather permits. After weeks of bundling up (even indoors - Japan is annoying like that) Sunday was the first chance in a long while to leave my coat on the hangar and spend the day eating and drinking outside with people. Sadly, Mako was not one of those people because she wasn't up for it, but she spent the day with her parents (and their automobile) instead. Don't worry about her, she's fine. Just very, very pregnant.
Yesterday wasn't just the first nice day we've had in months, it was also the first nice day we've had this year with the cherry blossoms in (nearly) full bloom. One of the nicer traditions in Japan is something they call hanami (literally "flower viewing"). Families and friends gather together and have a picnic in parks, on riverbanks, near gardens, basically anywhere where they can enjoy the wonderful yet short-lived pink and white cherry blossoms. Of course, it's not really about the flowers, it's more about the food and the drink and the spending time with people, but the trees offer some really beautiful scenery for all the fun.
Having been here for a couple Springs now, I've enjoyed both the flowers and the food before but that was three years ago. In 2007 I went to Brooklyn with Ben for a glimpse of the flowers but the environment wasn't quite right. Some people were sitting down but mostly people just seemed to be in a rush. It didn't help that the garden felt crowded and cramped. As for last year, it was a very quiet affair where Mako and I just took a walk around our (still somewhat) new surroundings. We snapped a few pictures and stopped for a snack, but there was no picnic, no drinking, and no other relatives or friends involved at all.
I wanted yesterday to be more like the hanami I remember from 2006, so I figured the best strategy was to return to Osaka Castle Park. Greg and Robin were still in town and they agreed to meet me in the city, each of us carrying a bag of store-bought food and drink. Without a tarp to sit on or a particular location scoped out, the three of us just walked into the park and sat down on the side of a bridge. After a short stay, we got up and walked around some more, entering the castle grounds and taking a few pictures before stopping again. We made our way around the entire park this way, walking and taking in the sights (and sounds and smells!) with occasional stops to rest and have more snacks. For me it was a chance to remind myself how much fun Japan can be when enjoyed with friends, since I've been feeling a bit fed up with work lately. For Greg and Robin I think it was more bittersweet because this is their farewell trip. They may very well come back to Japan someday but after several years of enjoying this annual tradition, this was their last ride on the hanami merry-go-round. But that's just a guess - it's not like we were crying and saying goodbye for four hours.
No, hanami is all about fun. The park was crowded, of course, but it never felt suffocating like a busy train station or city street can feel. The mood was so festive that I found myself enjoying the crowds as a sight unto itself. There were certainly lots of people doing amusing things. There were clowns, a woman with a trained monkey, scores of adorable dogs (some with dyed fur!) and lots of music which meant a fair amount of singing and dancing. The most entertaining moment of the day had to be discovering a group of at least fifteen otaku who were putting all their energy into a group performance of...stuff. I didn't know most of the songs they were dancing to, save for an inspired performance of the Haruhi routine that I've seen on the web before but never in person. They were so energetic that they drew a large crowd of spectators which made the whole thing feel more exciting. I bet they weren't even drinking - they probably take their fun too seriously to risk any lapse of concentration!
Our walk led us to exit the park on the opposite side of where we had entered hours earlier. It was still too early to think about dinner, so we started walking south towards Tsuruhashi and Korea Town. I don't know why we picked it, it was just someplace I knew was within walking distance even though I had never actually been there. Along the way we passed through a long and rather depressing shopping arcade that was mostly shuttered. It may be more lively on weekdays but yesterday it felt awful. I remember seeing a 50 Yen video game arcade in there with only one customer. His cigarette smoke seemed to fill the entire room. There was also a storefront with an aquarium with two medium-sized turtles swimming inside. Robin looked heartbroken when I told her it was a restaurant specializing in turtle soup.
Speaking of food, we stumbled across a great find a few blocks north of Tsuruhashi Station called Tsuruhashi Burger. While Korea Town was nowhere in sight, this seatless eatery offered Korean-style burgers from its open grill underneath the Osaka Loop Line tracks. Greg and Robin tried the Bulkogi Burger while I chose the Karubi Burger. All of them included lots of sauce and some kimchi tucked under the meat. It could have been spicier but it was really, really tasty.
At that point, we said our goodbyes. Greg and Robin are going back to America on Wednesday morning and since I'm still expected to show up at work, I don't think we'll have another chance to meet before then. They thanked me for showing them around but I felt like I owed them more thanks for spending some of their last remaining time in Japan with me. Days like yesterday mean a lot to me because they give me an chance to have fun and not have to worry about the language/cultural barriers I keep running into around here. I wish them the best of luck in the States and I hope they find what they're looking for.
As for me, I went home last night and watched Japanese television personalities endure various physical challenges for almost four hours. I can't figure out if that's something to be proud of or not.
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Friday, April 03, 2009
I know that sounds wrong but hear me out. For two weeks I've been reporting to student-less schools and empty staff rooms and facing the same ordeal: none of the teachers are able to understand why I'm even there or willing to think about English classes because they're too busy wondering if they may be changing schools. This leaves me no choice but to spend all my time wondering what the hell I'm doing there myself. This job is always balancing itself between two ludicrous extremes. Sometimes I feel like an irreplaceable superhero who shows these sheltered kids that foreign countries are not weird or scary but simply different in certain ways. Other times I feel like a completely superfluous cog in a machine that resents my very presence. It is during these stretches of no classes that the second attitude rears its ugly head because I am literally wasting my time in an childless school day after day. No one cares to talk to me about anything nor do they even discuss matters that directly pertain to me.
For example, I mentioned last Friday that when I came to work as usual, there was an implausible yet somehow predictable level of confusion from everyone involved. The principal apologized for not telling me that I didn't need to be there and I was encouraged to go home early. Well, today I went back to that same school and...yeah, the exact same thing happened. Even though we went through this routine just one week earlier, the principal still acted as if he had no idea I was going to show up. What's worse is, his reason was that he heard that I would be going to a different school, but no one considered calling me and asking. Certainly when I last saw them, I said "see you next Friday" before I left. I make it a point to do that in the hopes that the staff will get used to my presence and associate me with a certain day of the week. A year and a half into this job, it seems my efforts are not producing very promising results. So as much as I enjoy spending my time writing for my blog or reading about the sleeping habits of babies, I am very eager to finally get back to work so I can be reminded of the good times: the times when there are children and adults who actually care whether I show up for work or not.
If there is a bright spot to this week, it has been the arrival of two friends from Tokyo. I first met them through Richard and we have sung together and explored Yoyogi Park together. Now they've decided to return to States to pursue new things, but before they leave they're visiting the Kansai area. Last night I met them in Namba and we spent the evening together. At first we roamed around Den Den Town for a look at the endless supplies of curiosities for sale there, then we sat down for a delicious array of yakitori. Full of chicken and a modest amount of liquor (for a weekday anyway) we walked over to the bright lights of Dotonbori and then toured the less-than-bright streets of Amerika-mura. While they said they had been to Osaka before, it had been quite some time and they didn't really remember much. I felt glad that I was able to give them a better glimpse of "my town," especially since they had tried to humanize Tokyo for me whenever I visited "their town."
In the meantime, I'm here at work, staring at the clock and waiting for my weekend to start. With the cherry blossoms nearly on full display, my hope is to meet up with my former Tokyo friends again tomorrow for some picnickin' and flower viewin' in Osaka Castle Park. That is, if it doesn't rain all weekend and wash away the pink. Guess there's always karaoke...
つづく...(Click here to read more)
Monday, March 30, 2009
I had a very pleasant weekend and I feel good about nearly everything that happened. If anything, there were times where I could have had less fun and I would have had just as good a time in hindsight. So you could say that my only regrets are enjoying myself too much, as if there is some finite supply of happiness in my life and I squandered it.
Saturday was my day to go out and spend time with friends while Mako relaxed at home. It was also, not coincidentally, the opening day of Watchmen here in Japan. I mentioned just last week my enthusiasm for this film and of Mako's evident indifference to it. Picking up on her coolness and anticipating another drawn out experience where she doesn't just tell me she's uninterested in seeing it in theaters, I made it simple for her. I told her I wanted to see the movie on opening day and asked if she wanted to go. She didn't, and I did.
But not alone! I met up with Alex to eat lunch and then watch the film. Over some spicy Thai-style pizza in Namba, we talked about games, his upcoming podcast, and the new T-shirt line at Uniqlo. He also revealed that he has not yet read the original Watchmen story but is, in fact, in the midst of reading it now. I don't think I've ever seen a movie based on a book I was actively reading at the time, but I suppose it can't be much different than going into the movie blind.
The movie was preceded by two trailers for American films which I am still thinking about two days later. The first was the new Terminator movie which I cannot begin to understand. The original film and its stunning sequel were fantastic and continue to linger in my mind as two of my favorite science-fiction stories. The third, for all its flaws, was an enjoyable romp that ended very well. Considering its very existence nullified the solid ending of T2, T3 spun a remarkably appropriate conclusion for itself that improved my view of the entire film.
While I am a sucker for good time travel stories, the real appeal of the first three Terminator films was rooted in a gritty contemporary setting. All three showed visions of humanity's nightmarish future and the war with the machines, but the story was firmly modern-day and a good deal of the tension revolved around that restriction. The heroes often lament that the technology available to them in the 80s and 90s is insufficient to take down a superior foe. Likewise, the Terminator itself experiences routine setbacks when forced to constrain itself to the society it seeks to destroy. The Terminator films have always been fish out of water stories where the two fish are trying to kill each other.
So what does the T4 trailer offer viewers? Explosions and giant robots with Christian Bale shouting at people. This is (apparently) an entire movie dedicated to those short segments in the earlier films where everyone has laser blasters and is covered in grime. Maybe someone out there saw those scenes and said "Man, when are they gonna tell me the rest of that story?" Whoever that guy might be, he's not me or any of my immediate friends. Hell, most of them thought T3 went off the rails into Silly Town. While I managed to enjoy it, I can't say the new movie appeals to me at all. I may rent it if only to bring some context to the awkward audio clip of Christian Bale chewing out a guy on the set. I just need to know what he was doing at the time.
The second trailer was also full of explosions and giant robots because it was for the new Transformers movie. This falls squarely into the category of "fool me once, shame on you/fool me twice, shame on me." I knew the first film would be awful and despite all my efforts to lower my expectations and open my mind to the possibility of it being dumb fun ("my efforts" largely consisting of drinking heavily before going to the theater that day), it was even worse than I could have imagined. The new film seems to have learned nothing from the first, as everything I saw was nigh-incomprehensible. Even by movie trailer standards the action was splintered and disjointed, which is exactly what ruined the first movie for me. Well, that and draping a dull-as-fuck high school romance over the entire story. But what do I know? The movie was a huge hit and plenty of people I know and respect managed to enjoy it. Go on without me fellas.
After all that noise and dubiousness, the movie I actually paid to see began. Watchmen surprised me right away with two curious choices. The murder of The Comedian became a spirited fight scene and there was actually an opening credits sequence (a rare sight in action movies). The fight scene represents my biggest problem with the adaptation while the credits got me excited to see the rest of the story unfold. Those initial few minutes turned out to be a microcosm of everything I liked and didn't like about the movie.
As the fight scene demonstrated, everyone's a bad-ass in the Watchmen movie. The Comedian is supposed to be a tough guy who's way past his prime, yet he's punching through walls and getting up after having his head smashed into tables. His mystery assailant is likewise incredibly strong and fast and the two of them duel with rapid-fire punches and kicks rather than brawling. Later in the film, all of the heroes demonstrate that they are incredibly gifted martial artists and gymnasts rather than just being motivated to fight crime while wearing costumes. This transformation of the "costumed vigilantes" to legitimate superheroes is Watchmen's greatest translation error. The original story was dedicated to deflating the comic book hero by showing his (and her) flaws. These characters still have their problems but completely devastating regular people isn't one of them.
On the other hand, the opening credits demonstrated a real affection for the original comic by delivering a slick, streamlined history lesson of the major events that precede the "present day," which in Watchmen is 1985. This is what the movie unquestionably gets right; it preserves the overall story of the original and presents it in a modern comic book movie aesthetic. Even if the action seems out of place from a logical perspective, I could not deny that I still got caught up in the excitement. Director Zach Snyder has given us hyper-real action setpieces before, but only in Watchmen is there a story worth telling alongside all the slow-motion combat. And while his bright ideas for "improving" 300 were laughably bad, Watchmen survives the inevitable hurdles of adaptation and actually thrives.
Rather than detail things I noticed about the movie being different than the original, I will simply point you to this article in The A.V. Club that goes through both works in their entirety. It's been a few years since I read the comic and I hadn't recalled exactly who did what to whom. Watching Watchmen has reminded me of why I was excited about the movie at all and I feel compelled to revisit the comic to make my own comparisons now. That may be the best thing anyone can say about an adaptation: it doesn't require you to know the entire backstory and watching the movie should encourage you to read the original afterward.
After the movie Alex and I swung by Uniqlo to check out some of the new video game themed T-shirts they're offering now. All of the shirts are cool but the only one I wanted (among those that are on sale now) is their Resident Evil T-shirt that is nothing but a list of enemy names. Unfortunately, they had no XL-size shirts and only one L-size which Alex claimed. I am torn between going to their website to buy one or just waiting for more shirts to come out so I can buy all of them at once, which will likely lower the per-shirt price. My only worry is that hesitation will result in the shirts disappearing, as Japan has a tendency to offer new and incredibly cool things for a limited time. I'm still waiting for the White Chocolate Maple Kit-Kats I ate in 2005 to make a return to the shelves.
With our (ok, HIS) shopping done, Alex ran off to handle his own affairs while I wondered what to do next. I sat down for some dinner and called Kazu out of the blue. I had debated for a while whether or not it would be "right" to just call him and see what he was doing. I don't know why I treated the whole situation like some kind of first date. Kazu is someone I've known for years; there's no reason to be anxious about calling him on the phone. As it turned out he was shopping in Umeda and he was eager to meet. We had a few drinks at the same bar we hit last week before parting ways around 10.
(This post has turned out longer than I expected but I'm just going to continue rather than cut the story in half)
Spending all day (and night) out on Saturday made me more eager to spend Sunday relaxing at home with Mako. We had lunch at a little place called "Kitchen Pot" that we had been meaning to try for a long time and it turned out to be really good. The portions were large and the prices were more than reasonable. There was a friendly vibe to the place that I dare say had something to do with their choice of oldies music. I got burned out on those tunes due to continuous over-exposure during my time in the post office, but something about hearing Elvis' "Return to Sender" again made me smile.
After our meal and some shopping, we settled in for the last day of the sumo tournament. It didn't end so well as many of the wrestlers I like ended up losing or just finishing with poor records. I was especially down about the final yokozuna match. Even though Hakuho had already secured the championship, I still wanted to see Asashoryu beat him to spoil his unblemished record and save some face. It didn't happen. Drat.
For dinner we tried making nachos again. We are slowly but surely getting the hang of the taste but we need to work on our form. As seen here last week, our nachos take the shape of a burial mound with the chips smothered in a heap of toppings. Last night's version turned out the same way, except we added guacamole and sour cream to the mix. The results were delicious but we still needed to dig our way through to the chips beneath. Mako said she was full halfway through and I pretended to be disappointed in her. Meanwhile, I could barely fit another bite into my mouth but I soldiered on to avoid the nasty leftovers we would end up with. I think "burial mound nachos" is a good name for our dish because if we keep eating like this we'll both be dead in six months.
With both of us beyond satiated we collapsed onto the couch with nothing to do. I received the green light to play video games and decided to finally try the last level of Resistance 2. While playing too much of the enormously entertaining co-op mode got me into trouble in January, I have been quietly making my way through the single player mode over the past few months. I can't say I was into the story or the characters, but I did find the game provided me with enough thrills and big "moments" to keep me coming back for more.
The basic premise (bald space marine fights aliens) is beyond cliche at this point, but Resistance 2 has its share of action setpieces that made the experience worth it. I remember coming out of an underground bunker and seeing San Francisco burn while a massive enemy fleet hung in the sky above. I remember going through abandoned homes and dark warehouses that were full of nasty zombie-like creatures gestating in pods. I remember fighting a skyscraper-sized foe in Chicago who found my rocket launcher more of an annoyance than anything else, but shooting him in the face with it was enough to convince him to throw me through an glass-enclosed catwalk and onto another building five blocks away.
Unfortunately, the ending of the game didn't offer much in the way of memories. In fact, my memory was a hindrance because playing the final level made me think back to earlier stages and older, better games I had once played. Sure, it was really cool to look out the window of that Louisiana estate and see what looked like a fire-breathing dinosaur stalking me. I also got a kick out of fighting my way onto a large steamboat and going cabin to cabin looking for monsters. But the entire finale of storming the mothership with a nuclear bomb in tow felt exactly the same as the mission where I flew an enemy craft into another vessel and set off charges on the bridge. Both had me explore metallic alien corridors and then make a "daring" escape while a clock ticked down in the corner of my screen before flying away with just seconds to spare.
The final showdown with a flying psychic cephalopod was uninteresting at best and lacked all the polish of previous boss fights, even the really hard ones. Fighting a giant alien swarm halfway through the game had been so frustrating I actually got angry, but at least it was something new. The last boss encounter didn't offer a challenge so much as it did closure. You see him escape capture in the first level and then you get to put him down in the last one. Justice/vengeance is served, ho-hum.
The actual ending cinema of the game was abrupt, extremely anti-climactic and could have been handled much better. I thought I had reached the "bad ending" because I played the game too slowly. The main character is trying to finish his mission before the alien virus in his body destroys his humanity, so I thought I missed the deadline. According to the Internet, that's the only ending there is.
Having said all that, I will not dismiss Resistance 2 for its lackluster conclusion. The single player game was more than adequate and the co-op mode was genuinely exciting in ways I would never have expected. Hell, it still is genuinely exciting, I just don't have much time to play online anymore. I feel like taking a break from shooting aliens for a while...right after I finish Half-Life.
To get back to my point (huh? oh, right..."too much fun"), this weekend I ate more food than I needed to, stayed out drinking when I could have gone home, and kept plugging away at a video game to reach the end rather than put down the controller and finish it the next day. I say this not because I think I made the wrong choices, but rather to remind myself of how fortunate I am. There's nothing wrong with a little excess after a long week of not working.
Hey, speaking of work, it's almost time to get going. I wouldn't want to miss that one o'clock bus home.
つづく...(Click here to read more)