Archive for September, 2007

9/27/07: Code monkey have every reason / get out this place

Word count: 59981 | Since last entry: 277 | Days until retirement: 4

Yesterday was my last 8am meeting, and probably my last time going to the gym near work. Today might have been the last time I’ll have to make my lunch in the morning. Going-away lunch with my department tomorrow. Monday’s my actual last day.

This is a strange transitional time. Almost everything I need to do is done. I still have meetings to attend and some housekeeping chores, but I’m not really responsible for anything any more. I’m not quite done here, and not quite started there.

I have so much on my to-do list for when I’m done here it isn’t funny. Writing, of course, of which I have hardly done any in the last 8 weeks. I don’t entertain any fantasies about eight-hour writing days and octupling my former productivity — I’ve heard enough from other writers who have gone full-time that life expands to fill much of the time that the day job used to, and I don’t even intend to try to write full-time. But I do hope to improve my productivity somewhat, maybe even enough to do some short stories as well as finishing my second novel by early next year. I also have a lot of major non-writing projects in mind, like upgrading our six-year-old computer and twelve-year-old entertainment center. And we’ll be traveling a lot: Ashland, Seattle, and Saratoga (NY) in October alone. And Kate wants to re-do the bathroom.

::rubs hands:: This is going to be fun.

9/18/07: Back on the horse

Word count: 59704 | Since last entry: 110 | Days until retirement: 13

First day back at work. Most of the gang was off at some kind of training class so I spent the day catching up with email. Many people said, as I’d expected, “hey, aren’t you retired?” My boss is still trying to convince me to stay on just a little longer. I remind myself of all the times in my working life I’ve poured my heart into a project only to have it canceled. Shoe’s on the other foot now…

After dinner, I went to the coffee shop for Tuesday night writing group. I spent much of the time there re-reading the synopsis and last chapter in hopes of being able to pick up where I’d left off. I didn’t find the existing material terribly convincing, but I did manage to write a hundred new words (I promised myself at least a hundred new words) before acknowleding I couldn’t keep my eyes open. At this rate I’m highly unlikely to finish a chapter before the next crit group meeting. So it goes.

This is the first fiction writing I’ve done in almost two months. This book may have a visible seam in the middle, like the Washington Monument.

Nine working days to go.

9/16/07: Home again

Ah, home. The blessedly familiar… While we were gone our neighbors began repainting their house. It’s now half yellow, half green with white spots. When I turned on the dining room light, one of the bulbs immediately died and gave out a wisp of gray smoke(!). When I went to replace it, the glass envelope of the bulb came off in my hand, leaving the exposed filament behind. The envelope was filled with smoke, which sloshed gently, like a liquid. Our neighborhood grocery store has been entirely rearranged. We never did find the cereal. Glad we were only gone for three weeks! :-)

9/16/07: At Narita, heading home

The business-class lounge at Narita airport has free wi-fi. Also free booze, beer, and snacks. A girl could get used to this.

It’s been a trip. We came for the strangeness, and got it in spades. I’m tired of strange now, and ready to come home. We have been able to communicate pretty well with people here, between our limited Japanese and their limited English. But it’s terribly frustrating to be unable to read. I’m also looking forward to Portland’s more reasonable humidity.

Last night there was a religious festival in the neighborhood of our hotel. All over the neighborhood, groups of people dressed in identical yukata gathered together to carry their local shrine (a decorated box about 3′ cube) around on their shoulders, bobbing and chanting and stopping at each local business. Trick or treating? Wassailing? Not sure, but there was one guy in each group going into each business they stopped at with a shopping bag and coming out before they left, and that shopping bag was definitely getting fuller. We saw three such groups without hardly trying, and we’re told the big night is tonight. Unfortunately, tonight we will be on our way to Seattle. (Whatever “tonight” means in a day which is, I think, 40 hours long… we leave Tokyo at 5pm and arrive in Seattle at 9:30am the same day.)

In the last three weeks we’ve hardly eaten the same kind of food twice. I think it was two weeks before we repeated anything other than train-station bento, which is consistently a good quick lunch. I didn’t have katsu-don (breaded pork cutlet and egg over rice) until yesterday. Barbecued eel. Tempura. Oyakodomburi. Things on sticks. Sushi-go-round (a tiny cheap place, not the greatest sushi ever but pretty darn good). It’s all been wonderful.

Spent most of yesterday at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which covers the entire history of Tokyo from its establishment as capitol by Tokygawa (before that it was just just a reedy swamp… hmm, just like Washington DC). Very well-done museum, notable for 25′ square miniatures equipped with binoculars so you can see the details. Every turn provided new and fascinating stuff I hadn’t realized I would be interested in, like the history of Tokyo’s coinage (Tokyo was on the gold standard, while Kyoto was on the silver standard, which did interesting things to the economy).

Boarding soon. Back later today…

9/13/07: DisneySea

We’ve been to DisneySea! (And the reason for the rather awkward name is that it’s the opposite of DisneyLAND. Surprised it took us until today to figure that one out.) This deserves a much bigger post than I have energy for at the moment — been up since 6am, just got back a half-hour ago at 10pm, on the move the whole time — but I do want to note a few differences from Disney in California:

1. Everything at Tokyo Disney is in Japanese (except for the signage and some recorded announcements, which are bilingual). This shouldn’t have been a surprise but I kept getting tripped up by it, especially in familiar surroundings such as the “New York” and “Cape Cod” sections of the park. All non-recorded announcements and most non-safety-related announcements, including the soundtracks of all rides, are in Japanese only (though one stage show had hand-held subtitle devices available in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean). Cast members have about as much English as the average Japanese person, which is to say that some have none, many have some, and some have a lot. On the other hand, my little head exploded when the Japanese cast member at the Indiana Jones ride waved us aboard with a cheery “Adios, Amigos!”

2. Themed fire extinguisher cubbies in every ride and area.

3. I was wondering what they would do with Rod Serling at the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Answer: no Rod Serling at all. The DisneySea Tower of Terror has a completely different backstory.

4. They have squashed-penny machines, but no pennies. They use copper blanks the same size as a US penny, right there in the machine. It’s not as much fun to just stick in a 100 yen coin and get the squashed penny out. Squashed pennies should cost 26 cents (or 101 cents, or whatever the price is these days).

5. The 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth rides are unique and very cool. The Aquatopia ride is also unique but just plain strange.

6. The railway between “America” and “Tomorrow” is a tiny little two-car trolley that squeals and rumbles like a full-sized Chicago El. Not quite sure how they managed that.

7. They have a full-sized ocean liner, which contains two very good restaurants and a deck you can promenade on. I wonder how many people they lose every year trying to lean out over the prow (with a real sixty-foot drop to real water and nothing preventing you from doing so) and shout “Top of the world!” in Japanese.

8. Flavored popcorn. We spotted strawberry, cappuccino, chocolate, and black pepper.

9. Daikon and jellyfish salad. We didn’t order that.

10. Potato and burdock danish. We didn’t order that either.

9/11/07: In Tokyo

Took the shinkansen (bullet train – basically a long, very-low-flying airplane with wheels) from Takayama to Tokyo today. Spent much of the trip studying kanji, and determined that shinkansen means “new trunk line,” nothing to do with bullets at all. Didn’t figure out the kanji for “passenger car,” though, which was more important because it would have helped us ask which car of the train we were supposed to be in.

Arrived in the Tokyo neighborhood of Shibuya, found our hotel, checked in, found dinner. Shibuya is exactly the 2019 Los Angeles of Blade Runner, complete with light drizzle. All it needed was umbrellas with neon shafts to complete the picture. Imagine taking about four blocks of downtown Portland, clearing away all the buildings, and dropping them down at random on the surrounding blocks. Pave the area where they used to be, then cover every vertical surface with neon and video screens (each with its own blaring J-Pop soundtrack). Now take the entire population of Portland and dump them all in those same blocks. Have about half of them stand at the edge of the paved area, and every five minutes have them all scramble to a randomly-selected point on the opposite side of it. That’s Shibuya.

(By the way, does anyone know why the Shibuya branch of Mandarake might be closed at 6pm on a Tuesday night?)

Having obtained dinner (tuna sushimi to die for, plus two salt-grilled things-with-eyes in garlic and olive oil, yum) we returned to our hotel to do laundry and plan the next day. Tokyo is overwhelming, but we have made a decision. Because Shibuya is not stimulating enough for jaded travelers like us, tomorrow it’s… Ginza!

9/8/07: In Takayama

If you want to know more about this trip, check out Kate’s blog.

Since last I posted we’ve visited the small castle town of Matsumoto, spent a night at a high-end onsen (hot spring resort), and landed in Takayama.

In Matsumoto we toured the castle, where I asked the English-speaking guide what tatami mats are made of. She looked it up in her handheld electronic dictionary and it said “iguanadon.” In her defense, she was working in the dark without glasses and might have typo’d the Japanese, but then again this is the home of Godzilla. I bought a little cell-phone dangle of Godzilla attacking the castle at the castle gift shop. Also in Matsumoto we ate oden (miscellaneous boiled things) at a tiny bar presided over by two ladies I nicknamed Flo and Dot. The food was nothing special but we had great conversation, despite the formidable language barrier. I am so glad we studied Japanese. The next day we ran into friends Dave Howell and Eric just as we were checking out. They were staying in the same ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) and visited the castle at the same time, but we managed to miss them until the last day.

The onsen was a phenomenal experience, featuring world-class service, relaxing hot baths, and an amazing dinner. Fifteen tiny courses, all different and all delicious. My favorite course was the “mini-steaki’s” of famed Hida beef (they take their cows seriously here); the weirdest one was a beautiful bouquet in which the largest flowers were actually two whole fish, skewered and grilled and intended to be eaten right off the stick. Fish on the cob. Breakfast the next morning was not so overwhelmingly wonderful but was pretty overwhelming in its own way. Probably the strangest breakfast I have ever eaten. The best part was another local specialty, miso paste grilled on a leaf on a tabletop brazier, kind of like hot sesame peanut butter. Trust me, it was delish. But then, I have been eating things with eyes and loving them.

Takayama reminds me of Lincoln City, touristy but not overwhelmingly so. Unlike Lincoln City, people come here for the history — there are picturesque 100- and 200-year old streets all over the place. It’s also a bit like New Orleans in that there’s a huge parade every year and much of the town is focused on it year-round. Like Mardi Gras, it’s nominally a religious event; there are gigantic floats with competing neighborhood krewes; and you can’t get a hotel room during festival week (October, with a smaller one in April) for love nor money. But with all those tourists the restaurant scene here is great. We had Hida beef tonight, cook-it-yourself on a tabletop grill, expensive but worth it.

We’re staying at the Rickshaw Inn, lots of foreigners here but the room is traditional-style and one of the nicest we’ve had (well, not as nice as the onsen but the price is about 1/4 as much). We’re enjoying Takayama enough that we decided to stay here two more nights, skipping our planned stop in Kanazawa, and head straight to Tokyo from here. This change in plans is going to greatly reduce our stress levels. The takkyubin (delivery service) system that whisks your heavy bags from each hotel to the next, which is working great for us so far, takes a day, so it doesn’t work well if you’re only spending two nights in each place; this change helps that too.

We’re having a lot of fun. I’m even getting used to the Shoe Thing.

9/4/07: How to take the train in Tokyo

Suppose you are an American tourist in Tokyo and you want to visit a museum on the other side of town. Here’s how to do it. Keep in mind that at all times there will be Japanese people bustling purposefully in every direction around you.

  1. Find your destination on the large system map posted above the ticket machines. This may be harder than it seems because in some stations all the station names are shown in kanji. In this case you will have to coordinate the wall map with your map in English.
  2. The map tells you what the fare is to get there from here. Buy a ticket for that amount from the ticket machine. Ticket machines come in two flavors: video (usually with an English option) and button-based. The button-type machines will not do anything until you put some money in. As you insert coins (or bills, they take up to a $100) more and more buttons light up. It’s pretty opaque until you’ve seen it in action, but once you understand how it works it’s not bad. Alternatively, just buy the cheapest ticket and then use the “tell me how much more to pay” machine at your destination, but that’s for wimps.
  3. Use the map to determine which line or lines you need to take to get there. Carefully note any transfer points. Note that the ticket you just purchased is not going to tell you anything more than how much you paid and which end to stick into the turnstile. The good news here is that the colors of the various lines are consistent on all the maps and signage. The bad news is that because there are so many lines, from several diferent companies, the colors can be on the obscure side (“Did we want the brick line, or the rust?”).
  4. Pass through the turnstile and proceed to the platform for your line by following signs on the walls and/or electronic reader boards. Note that local and express trains for the same line may be on different platforms.
  5. Determine which track of the two on that platform goes the appropriate direction, by consulting wall signs on the platform or before it (varies by station). In many stations there is a large sign saying “this is station X, the next station in each direction is Y (this way) and Z (that way).” In other stations you have to find a route map posted on a pillar, and coordinate that with the real world.
  6. Determine which train you want on that track. There may be express and local versions and/or different branches of the same train, and even entirely different trains, sharing the same platform; you want one that actually goes to your destination. Use the timetable, route diagram, and/or overhead electronic signs at or before the platform. There’s not a lot of consistency in how this information is presented.
  7. Determine which car you want. Depending on the train, there may be reserved-seat-only cars, plushy “green” cars, and spots on the platform corresponding to no car at all. Sophisticated riders will select a car that winds up near the correct stairway at the destination. Stand in one of the marked lanes for the selected car. The train will stop right there.
  8. Board the train when it arrives, exactly on time. Exiting passengers have priority; passengers waiting to board wait to the side. Don’t dawdle, there’s another train coming in three minutes.
  9. On the train, use in-car electronic signs (often in kanji, kana, and romaji), route diagrams, announcements in Japanese and sometimes English, platform signs at the stations you pass, and/or the map clutched in your sweaty paw to track your progress. Alternatively, work Japanese picture puzzles and leave that part to your paranoid husband — after all, you know exactly what time the train will arrive at its destination.
  10. Leave the train when it arrives at your destination. Again, don’t dawdle.
  11. Repeat steps 4-10 for each transfer.
  12. Find the station exit nearest your destination. Most stations have several exits and they may be blocks apart. Some stations are effectively huge multi-level shopping malls. There may be a map to help you figure out how to get out. Good luck.
  13. Repeat steps 1-12 for your return trip.

Jeez, no wonder we’re exhausted.