Tuesday, December 31, 2013


A nightmarish struggle with Blogger.com's template customization engine has led to the new look CIC now sports. I'm not thrilled with it, so you might still see a few changes around here in the coming days.

With my parents chomping at their respective bits for a chance to hang out with Daughter (the family's nine-month-old celebrity VIP), Wife and I decided to bring her overseas for a ten-day visit to the US. That meant ten days of frantic eating, drinking, shopping, gift giving and jet lag, all made even more frantic with the addition of an infant (not to mention the fact that my American driver's licence had lapsed, meaning we had to depend on family members for transportation at all times; in that respect it was like being 14 again).

I don't mean for this post to become another trite "reverse culture shock" observation (e.g., "OMG you guys, the American medium-size Pepsi is totally a Japanese large"), but on this trip I noticed something I've never noticed before:

Wisconsin needs more walkers.

OK. No. That is not what I mean.

Also not what I mean.

Oh, god. Anything but that idiot.

What I mean is that Americans are violently allergic to walking. I don't think it's our fault, exactly. Residents of the USA live in an environment that fosters an acute dislike -- you might even call it a phobia -- of walking. For example, my mother's apartment is less than a five-minute drive from the shopping mall, but the notion of walking instead of driving is discouraged by a perfect storm of inconveniences. No sidewalks, no crossings, no way to safely traverse the nearby highway exit ramp and about six feet of filthy snow piled up on both sides of the road where the plows have pushed it.

The result is a culture in which people have been conditioned to dread even the shortest pedestrian undertaking. In the parking lot of said shopping mall, my mother drove around and around looking for a spot closer to the doors, the farthest spot being less than a hundred yards away.

You'd think a country so preoccupied with NFL football would find the thrill in covering those hundred yards on foot.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Busy holiday weekend: Sumo

Monday was the Autumnal Equinox, a national holiday in Japan and the third and final day of my busy weekend. Around twenty co-workers and I went to Ryogoku in east Tokyo to watch an afternoon of the clash of the titans that is sumo wrestling.

Although simple in concept (you win by getting the other guy to either step out of the ring, or touch the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet), like so many other things in Japan, sumo's simplicity is negated by aspects which are astonishingly complex. For example, in contrast to the two basic methods of winning I described above, there are technically more than 80 different winning scenarios, called kimarite. And even though a typical bout only lasts a few seconds, it is always preceded by several minutes of ritual leg stomping, salt throwing, hand clapping and mouth rinsing. The ratio of action to waiting approaches that seen in the NFL.

Despite getting cheap tickets and consequently being seated near the back of the balcony, sumo was more easier to enjoy (and to photograph) than I had expected. Using my zoom lens, I was able to capture a good number of decent shots.

Clap your hands ♫
Stamp your feet ♫
Throw the salt ♫
Slap him around ♫
Everybody ring out! ♫

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Busy holiday weekend: Tokyo Game Show

Sunday I attended Tokyo Game Show. My relationship with TGS has been a strained one. Since my first time attending in 2005, the event has seemed to reduce itself in some way or another, ever so slightly with each passing year. This year, I found the whole thing very tiresome.

One reason is that the crowds get bigger every year, but the event itself does not. My hopes were higher this year because the floor plan had been expanded to use Exhibition Hall 9 of Makuhari Messe (to house the cosplay area, some shops and for some reason, a Konami booth very far removed from the rest of the attractions.

But what I had heard was misleading. This year the cosplay area, which used to consist of the nicely shaded gap between two halls, was an even more cramped outdoor area beyond Hall 9, with the dressing area taking up more room than the Xbox booth (no exaggeration). It boggles my mind because, assuming the dressing room was full, there was not room for all the cosplayers. And by putting all the cosplayers outside in the sun, it seems they are just tempting heat stroke (not to mention the frustration caused by half of all photography subjects being back lit by the afternoon sun).

Why am I even complaining about this? I used to make fun of cosplayers. Well, with Tokyo Game Show's ridiculous crowds, meager demo offerings (seriously, most of the games you can "preview" have already been released. What's the point?) and an ever-increasing amount of space being taken up by mobile game developers that don't interest me in the slightest, taking pictures of girls dressed like fictional characters becomes the main draw. Unfortunately, it's also the main draw for a lot of dorks with gigantic cameras who really take their time shooting pictures, so waiting in line to snap the cosplayer you want involves the science of careful subject selection:

Let's say you want to photograph a girl in a very well-executed costume of Xiaoyu from Tekken. You have to line up and wait for half an hour behind the world's slowest photographers. But you don't want to jump on the end of any line that's too long, or guess what happens. Xiaoyu gets heat stroke and has to take a break, which means the line disperses and your waiting has been for nothing. Your only recourse is "stealing" photos from your place in line by shooting a model while she's posing for someone else. It makes you feel dirty.

This whole event makes you feel dirty. Anyway, on with the pictures.

It's not TGS without at least one Tifa.

K (right) was wearing some suspicious flesh-colored support garments beneath his jacket. Either he's a drag king, or he's hiding a very un-KOF-like amount of chest hair.

Sometimes you get lucky. This was a "stolen" photo, but both subjects looked right at me. The girl on the left is the aforementioned Xiaoyu. I remember her from last year.

I'm not gonna lie. I have no idea what character this is.

This guy was a good sport. He gave me the choice of upward, downward or straight ahead for his kamehameha pose.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Busy holiday weekend: Kuroyama

In September Japan has two national holidays falling on consecutive Mondays. For me, the latter of these formed a three-day weekend jam-packed with things to do. This post will be the first in a series of three on the topic of my BUSY HOLIDAY WEEKEND.

I had tentatively planned to do this year's Big Walk on Saturday, but was hesitant to try anything too ambitious. For some reason my work shoes have been causing mysterious discomfort in my left foot. (I mean, I think it's my work shoes that are doing it. My feet don't hurt as much when I wear my sneakers. Funny, though...when I got these work shoes, I remember making comments out loud about how comfortable they were.) So fellow Big Walker Craig and I decided to further postpone the Big Walk and instead take a "leisurely stroll" in Ogose, a town in the hilly interior of Saitama Prefecture, about midway between Kawagoe and Chichibu.

I had visited Ogose once before. It's home to a mountain called Kuroyama, and a collection of waterfalls called Kuroyama Santaki. For residents of Saitama City, it makes for a relatively easy getaway from the suburban sprawl. We decided, rather than use the bus like normal folks, we would walk the 8.5 km from Ogose Station to the entrance to Kuroyama.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Ogose Station on the Tobu Ogose Line
And why not indeed? It was excellent weather and the route was simple, albeit out-of-the-way. The Kuroyama entrance is on the far side of another mountain called Otakatoriyama, which meant (as far as I was aware at the time) that we would have to walk halfway around that mountain to get there. Later I would learn that there are hiking paths over that mountain, but I don't think we'd have had the energy to hike Kuroyama if we had done that.

It was a good couple of hours' walk, but there wasn't a lot to see on the way. Unless you count this Optimus Prime-looking lawn decoration...

...and this giant insect.

Actually, oversized arthropods were a theme on this walk. In addition to the mantid pictured here, we saw more gigantic spiders than I care to count, and a few hornets that I was worried might be this kind of hornet. Luckily we made it all the way to the Kuroyama entrance without being stung, bitten or otherwise preyed upon by bugs.

At the intersection where we leave Route 61 to enter Kuroyama, there is a restaurant/tourist facility called Yozantei. According to this billboard we saw, they specialize in nabe (hot pot) cooking using the meats of all the animals pictured. From left: wild boar, bear, deer, pheasant and duck.

Holy shit, bear meat? I didn't even know that was a thing! I absolutely regret not eating lunch here. Instead we ate at Nekkoshokudo, a zelkova woodwork-themed restaurant where we ate noodles. Little did I know that a big bowl of salty ramen was probably not the best choice to prepare me for the walk ahead.

Here's where our visit to Kuroyama begins to differ wildly from my visit last summer. At a fork in the path, we were faced with three options: an easy walk straight to Otokotaki and Onnataki (the biggest waterfalls in the vicinity), a 1.3-km path to Kasasugi Ridge or a hike of undisclosed length to something called "En no Gyoja Site." We had no idea what En no Gyoja meant, and 1.3 km sounded long, so we opted for En no Gyoja, assuming it would be shorter and easier than Kasasugi Ridge.

What I can tell you is that it was neither short nor easy. It's probably just that I'm out of shape (and that I had a stomach full of rapidly-expanding ramen), but hiking up Kuroyama was the first rigorous exercise I'd gotten in months and I wasn't ready for it. I didn't even get my camera out for most of this part of the trip because I needed both hands to keep my balance. What began as an obvious path quickly dwindled to little more than a the vague sense that "we must be going the right way because we haven't fallen down the mountain."

Ropes and shit? What is this, American Gladiators?
And the worst part of it is, when we finally reached En no Gyoja, which turned out to be a little altar with some stone statues, we couldn't go any further. Our desire to see the top of Kuroyama was foiled by the fact that it was not obviously named; it turns out the peak of Kuroyama is Kasasugi Ridge, which was a shorter distance from the fork in the path than En no Gyoja was.

At least we got to see...whatever this is.
This sign reads, "Do not enter." But the unspoken message is, "Have fun walking back the way you came, sucka."
So, we turned around a walked/slid/stumbled back down Kuroyama feeling like we had just been run over by cars. On the way, we hooked around for a look at Onnataki and Otokotaki (literally, Woman Waterfall and Man Waterfall).

Japanese tourists flock to waterfalls because they are full of mainasu ion! (negative ions) and are supposed to be pawaa supotto! (power spots). I don't know anything about that, but after the ordeal of visiting En no Gyoja, being near a big waterfall did feel nice.

We took the bus back to Ogose Station and returned to civilization by train. After I got home, I was so tired that I slept from 10pm to 9am, which meant I was rested and ready for Day 2 of my busy holiday weekend: Tokyo Game Show. Coming up next.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Grand Theft Auto V impressions

What I like about the game so far:

A lot of things that I've liked about previous entries in the series. The story is engrossing, the writing is top notch and the gameplay is, for the most part, fun and challenging without being frustrating.

The soundtrack. As opposed as I usually am to licensed soundtracks in video games, this franchise nails it every time. When I heard Jane Child on the in-game radio, I involuntarily flashed back to being a sixth grader carrying a Trapper Keeper full of fluorescent-colored folders.

The little things. A pleasantly surprising amount of detail has gone into things that often get glossed over in game development. The spray of dirt behind a car in the desert is a nice touch that immediately comes to mind. And the game is full of working props handled by characters during cutscenes: maps that fold, backpacks that open and close, pants that drop. Many games use slight of hand (read: convenient camera angles) to avoid actually showing a character putting something into a briefcase or the like, but not this game.

The police in this game don't mess around. Anything more than Wanted Level 1 and you need to work considerably harder (and more creatively) than in previous installments to lose the heat. I found out the hard way that if they're angry enough, the police will follow you into your own "safe" house!

Right after I took this, I suddenly gained Wanted Level 2 and got shot for standing on top of a parked police car.
Scenery. This game seems to have dipped a shovel into Jerry Bruckheimer's Bottomless Barrel of CSI Miami sunsets and appropriated a bunch of them for its own purposes. This is probably the first video game I've seen accurately emulate the appearance of moonlit clouds. And, although I'm not sure why it rains so often in a game that supposedly takes place in southern California, they've done a nice job on the lightning effects, too.

Camera phone. With so much to see, it would have been a crime not to bring back the camera phone function. The Social Club component adds further utility (allowing players to access their in-game camera roll, as well as other players'). And who doesn't love taking selfies?

Driving dialog. This probably isn't a feature you'd mention on the back of a video game's box art, but I really like how GTAV treats dialog that happens between characters while driving. Unlike in previous games, now if you experience a collision while talking with an NPC, there is a moment where the character(s) react to the accident -- usually with some colorful combination of expletives -- and then pick the conversation right back up, sometimes in mid-sentence. Somewhere out there is a very competent (and probably under-appreciated) audio designer.

It's huge! All the hype about how big the map is didn't really hit me until I started playing and actually immersed myself in it. But...

What I don't like so far:

It's huge! Grateful as I am to have such a big playground, it's easier than you'd think to find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere -- especially if you're easily distracted. One minute you're trying to lose the police, then the next you're like, "Is that an observatory?" And then, "Hey, look...deer!" And then you hit a rock and wreck your car, realizing only too late that you've been off-roading for ten minutes and cannot call yourself a taxi.

It's clumsy. All three protagonists are great at driving, flying, swimming and shooting. But not running. And certainly not jumping or climbing. I've been grateful for the addition of the climbing mechanic since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas but in this game it doesn't always work the way you expect. Too many times I have pushed the jump button with the intention of climbing over a wall, and instead end up watching my character sprawl on the ground in pain because he jumped into the wall.

Ugly character face models. I guess we were all spoiled by L.A. Noire. Each game since then has been underwhelming in its approach to realism in human characters, particularly in the face. It's not enough to detract from the gameplay, but seeing characters close-up during cut scenes and being startled by how gruesome they look is never fun. (Note: When enjoying a private dance at a strip club, do not look at the dancer's face for this reason.)

Not all the optional activities are fun. I'm not saying that previous GTAs were much better in this regard...but tennis? Come on. Nobody plays tennis.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hanamaki throws a good party

Wife, Daughter and I went up north to Wife's hometown in Iwate Prefecture last weekend to enjoy their summer festival offering: The Hanamaki Matsuri. Although I've visited Hanamaki many times, this was my first time to visit during the festival. In fact, you might say this was my first real Japanese festival experience. And it only took me ten years.

Sure, Wife and I faithfully attended the Daita Hachiman Obon festival every August when we lived in Setagaya. And we made a point this year of checking out the Yanagisaki version of the same, which takes place a short distance from where we live now. But it turns out that these affairs, which basically boil down to a handful of yakisoba stands and a bunch of old ladies doing the traditional Japanese equivalent of line dancing, pale in comparison to real Japanese festivals.

Real Japanese festivals are gnarly!

Hanamaki's festival is essentially three days of sporadic parades happening all over the city at various times, with each day capped off by a big "main parade" that lasts from late afternoon until after dark in the city center. The main parade begins with mikoshi ("portable shrines" that are carried in a surprisingly reckless fashion down the road by crowds of shouting citizens), then moves on to dashi (elaborate floats, pushed manually and flanked by musicians) and finishes off with the distinctly Tohoku tradition of shishiodori (the deer dance; imagine a hundred dudes dressed like nightmarish heavy metal monster deer beating drums and jumping around...or, if you're imaginationally challenged, watch this video of shishiodori dancers at Fujiwara no Sato Heritage Park in Esashi, Iwate).

In contrast with the meager food selection usually offered at local festivals in the Tokyo area, here there is an entire street dedicated to pedestrian cuisine: grilled this, candied that, what-have-you on a stick, yaki whatever. You have to walk up and down both sides of the street and see what's there, otherwise you might eat your fill of something and then find out afterward that there was something better up the road.

It typically pours rain on at least one of the festival's three days. This lends a certain je ne sais quoi to the spectacle and the experience, but makes photography a pain in the neck. Luckily, it only rained on the third day of this year's festival. I took the photos below on days one and two. Click to enlarge, naturally.

They carry mikoshi in a zigzag down the road so that spectators on both sides can see.

Dashi. Many of these are decorated with fairy tale or historical figures.

Yes, the dashi are decorated with real torches. And yes, sometimes the dashi accidentally start on fire.

Shamisen players

Torches are deployed before the shishiodori performance

The mask sits atop the deer dancer's head, making him look taller than he really is.

The girl on the left fans the kids carrying the mikoshi. But nobody fans the girl. Her sacrifice is forgotten.

Taiko drummers

On the way home, we had to wait for a passing shishiodori troupe.