Saturday, November 20, 2010

Alas, Poor Freedom, We Knew Ye But a Little

I've kinda been neglecting to update this, haven't I?

It's been a hectic couple of weeks since coming into Japan, and I have a lot to say - and a few photographs to accompany it, both here on the blog and over on my Flickr - but I don't have the time right now to update things. Just in case I continue to avoid writing anything here, a quick overview of my last few days:

I am now fully, 100% employed: something I have not been for a very long time, and also, something I thought was a given after a) passing the interviews and b) signing the contracts, but was not actually a done-deal till I finished the training course this week. So, talk about a shock to the system. On the other hand, I did well enough on the training that I've got the potential to do some far more lucrative corporate classes on top of the standard stuff, so I'll see how that works out.

I still haven't finished moving into my apartment, as such: Sure, it's furnished, and sure, I went to the Ito Yokado on the weekend I moved in to get some stuff... but between running around collecting documentation and opening bank accounts, signing contracts, and completing training, I haven't had the time or energy to go back and finish the job. That's actually today's mission, heading out to the department store to pick up things like a frying pan, more towels, laundry detergent... the list feels both endless, and random.

I'm getting back to gaming already: so despite not fully furnishing my apartment (my excuse: the only useful store I know is ridiculously far away, and I've not been succesful in finding a more local one yet) I have picked up a Japanese Xbox 360. Actually, my first 360 was Japanese, as I got into it whilst here as a student, so in some ways it's going full circle again. This time, a few things have changed, and not just that it's one of the new slim models. There's a lot more downloadable content these days (I'm not sure there was any apart from maybe a few arcade games when I first got the console), and much of that is region-restricted, which is making it a real pain to both purchase new content, and even use the stuff I already own. I've yet to work out a way around this issue.

Last but not least, back to that job issue again: I start on Monday, at 5:30pm. I'm going to be working evenings, which is what I expected originally, though during training I had the false hope of afternoons dangled in front of me, which is a shame. I'll be teaching three lessons, then taking a break, then teaching three more and finishing just before 11pm, which isn't half bad. Monday to Friday, weekends off, and no need to get to sleep or get up early - pretty much ideal, for me.

And with that, I'm running off to Otsuka Station to head to Akihabara, grab some stuff (I still need all kinds of wiring), and then take the Chuo/Sobu over to Kichijoji and Musashi-Sakai. Even though it's nearly 5pm on a weekend. I love stores in Japan.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Three Stooges, and Other Tales

Since moving into my apartment on Saturday, I’ve been using what one might affectionately term a very slow internet connection. It’s a wireless dongle jacked into a wi-fi router left here by the rental company, because for some reason I couldn’t quite pick up through my realtor’s accent, the cable internet I was expecting to be ready for my arrival – wasn’t. Today, NTT were supposed to come around and fix that problem, so that I would have something like a 100mbps connection. I was looking forward to it, to say the least.

First good sign: I’d been told that I’d get a call two hours before they were due to turn up. I got a call saying they were twenty minutes away, and was I there to let them in? Fortunately, I could say yes. Not long after, the NTT guy knocked on the door, introduced himself, and I backed out of the genkan so he could get inside – the corridor outside my apartment is incredibly weird and cramped, the junction between three metal doors and a stairwell. In he came. And then his buddy. And then his other buddy, filling my tiny studio apartment with NTT repairmen like some kind of clown car skit. Gradually they clustered around the head of my bed, next to which was the offending socket. Again, I’m not entirely sure what the matter was – the only thing I’d picked up before was turner, which I thought might have actually been tuner, perhaps meaning a router or something similar; and that whatever it was, it was missing. Certainly, there was a weird little Ethernet (and phone) socket next to my bed, but they seemed most upset by whatever they found behind it when they unceremoniously ripped it out of the wall.

Before we go any further, let me elaborate upon the three NTT workers who had made their home in my apartment, slotted between my tiny bed and the rickety chest of drawers that makes up most of my storage space. It was difficult to tell who was the eldest – or most senior – of the three, though I believe it was most likely a guy with short hair and a goatee beard not unlike my old kanji teacher, Zenyouji-sensei. That he would go on to utter technical fault haiku only enhanced the connection – let’s call him the Zen Master. Next was a middle-ground sort of fellow with thinning hair and a pleasant expression. For a long time he was the only one of the three who spoke to me, being the person who had knocked on the door, introduce himself, and would later note “難しいですね” about their continuing problems. He was the Happy Man. Finally there was the youngest, noticeably junior to his colleagues in both age and position within the group – he got called –kun, indicating his juniorness, ordered about bluntly, sent to do menial tasks like “hold open the door”, and generally left to tidy up after the other two. Also, he couldn’t stop staring at me, though whether that was because I was a foreigner or because I was sat on the internet complaining about them not having fixed my internet was hard to tell. We’ll call him the Young One.

Most of the time they were here was spent with one of the two senior members of this little trio sitting by the hole next to my bed, attempting to feed a cable into it, whilst his compatriot sat outside the apartment doing something I couldn’t see, but assumed to be waiting for the cable to appear. The Young One just held the door open, or ferried tools back and forth once they figured out his job could be done by a toolbox. Whatever the original problem actually was, I took it to be the absence of a cable, or the correct type of cable, running between the socket in my room and outside. Their efforts to fix this mainly involved trying to ram another, stiff cable down the hole in the wall. For a long time this would only result in the guy making the attempt causing a racket, getting nowhere, and then withdrawing the cable and looking at the end of it, appearing both puzzled and hurt, like a child trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The new problem – if I overheard and interpreted it correctly – seemed to be that they needed to run this cable around or under the wetroom to get it to where it needed to go. I should perhaps explain – a lot of bathrooms in Japan are just enclosed wetrooms, with sort of shower drains in the floor. Typically, one might be expected to shower off outside the bath and get clean, then actually get into the bath itself. I think some apartments lack the bath part and just keep the wetroom, but we’re straying off topic here – I had a wetroom, and it was in the way. You could see the underside of it through the hole they’d made.

I’m not really sure how it took them so long to fail. It seemed pretty cut and dry: either the cable was going to go, or it wasn’t. Possibly they felt compelled to keep trying due to some sense of duty, or fear of having to explain the issue to me given the variable level of comprehension I’d been demonstrating. Eventually, though, they established that this tactic of just trying to force the cable in the hole wasn’t getting them anywhere. I think it was the moment when the Zen Master said something, and the Happy Man shot back “You’re kidding!” The Master went on to explain the issue in what appeared to take the structure of a poem, ending with something like “…but, it’s in the way.” They were quiet for a bit after that, and then rolled out the big guns: someone called in for a fibre optic camera. At least, that was what I was convinced he had asked for, but nothing actually happened for a while, and then I was joyfully proven right when the Young One finally disappeared and reappeared with it.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t help.

At some point, the Zen Master either made or received a call, I can’t remember which, to someone he was clearly beholden to. I think it must either have been the rental agency, or his boss. He seemed to be trying to explain that whatever they needed to do simply couldn’t be done. Part way through this – which is what convinced me it was his superior – he started changing his tune. For much of the day, I’d been Googling various phrases I’d heard, using the three of them as impromptu learning tools. In this telephone conversation, I discovered charenji or ‘challenge’, which in Japanese is apparently a ‘self-challenge’ or ‘difficult task’. I discovered it because he said it several hundred times, as if trying to say “Yes, I’m going challenge myself to attempt this challenge, but I really can’t make any promises about it, because it’s going to be a challenge. I am going to attempt the challenge, but because it’s a challenge, I can’t guarantee success. Of the challenge.


Nevertheless, they got back to work. Eventually, they sealed up the hole, and packed away their tools. The Young One did a lot of scurrying back and forth at this point, and he and that Happy Man repeatedly asked me to hold on just a moment longer whilst something I couldn’t understand was happening. I said fine, and went back to fiddling with the internet. After a bit, and drinking the free coffee I won at the conbini the other day, I stuck my head over the balcony to see if they were waiting in their van or something. I then discovered that Zen Master seemed to have abandoned them on the front steps of the building, and judging by the absence of any cars or utility vehicles, they must have been waiting for his return. When he finally did come back, and they fiddled with the cabling some more, they called it quits. I wasn’t certain what had happened, but I got the strong impression the answer was that I hadn’t received the internet – though I did have an interesting new hole in the wall, capped by a plastic cover of curious origin.

Later, I bumped into one of the realtors. “I heard you haven’t got the internet yet,” he said, and I nodded, only knowing that whatever had happened, it hadn’t been good.

Of Banking and Directions

Before Friday – when I go to the company I’ll be working for – I need to have three things: a certificate of alien registration (check!), a Japanese telephone (check!) and a Japanese bank account (che- oh, wait). Well, it’s entirely possible I still have an account with about two hundred yen sitting in it with SMBC from my student days, which I neglected to close before leaving, but I have no idea how I’d go about investigating that, let alone utilising it now. So, no, I don’t have a Japanese bank account. After the Three Stooges left, I set about trying to get one.

Issue the first: I’d been told to go to Akasaka (a modern financial district full of banks and skyscrapers, dripping with money and the faint sense of corruption, the streets filled with taxis and people driving expensive, imported cars). I blundered in the direction of Asakusa (quasi-ancient temple and red light district – in Japan, that isn’t a non-sequitur – now home to a very famous temple, or shrine, built in the ‘70s but a real tourist trap). What makes this error even more embarrassing is that frequently during this misadventure, I was brandishing a map that, had I been paying attention, would have corrected me sooner. So unfortunately I set off down the Yurakucho line, intending to switch onto the Ginza line later and head up to Asakusa, when really I should have set off down the Futokushin line, and switched to the Chiyoda. Incidentally, I hate the subways in Japan. The overground trains? I love them. The Yamanote and the Chuo are my best friends. The subways always strike me as hot and crowded, and a real nightmare of stairwells and endless underground promenades.

Fortunately, I spotted my error before disappearing too far in the wrong direction. I’d actually been squinting at the metro map in the train I was riding in, trying to figure out where exactly I needed to make the change to a different line, when I finally gave up and took out my Kindle, intending to check the maps on the Lonely Planet Tokyo guide I had on it. Instead, I ended up finding the entry on Asakusa, and reading it made me think “hey, wait a second, this doesn’t sound like the place to go for banking ohhhhhhh.” I ended up getting off the Yurakucho somewhere in Akasaka, since it actually runs through it – but nowhere near the part I needed. Questioning a meandering security guard/cop (they’re everywhere right now, due to increased security of the APEC summit), I got directions for how to get to where I needed to go using the labyrinthine subway platforms – only to be interrupted by a passing old gent, who insisted I could do it overland and showed me the way. He was right, but it was quite a walk, and between the NTT guys, getting half-lost, and having to walk all the way across Akasaka, I arrived too late – which is to say, after 3pm, when all useful banking in Japan apparently ceases.

Nostalgia, Alien Registration, and the Case of the Missing Yoshinoya

When I lived in Japan as a student, it was on the campus of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, which is tucked away quite far from the twenty-three special wards and accessible, mainly, on a little private railway that ran from some place I can't remember, through the area with the university, and into Musashi-Sakai. From Musashi, you could then get on the Chuo line - a pretty major line that ran right into Shinjuku, or through the center of the area encircled by the Yamanote line to Tokyo (the station, not the place) at the other side. Apart from the university, there was very little in Tama, the area around it - a little convenience store which, now that I've had a chance to go to a few others, I've discovered really was quite convenient; an izakaya that Sorrel and I discovered late in our stay but frequented often enough that the waiter seemed to recognise us, and stopped bringing Sorrel the obligatory beer snacks because I was the only one who ordered beer; and the train station - also little - that took us into Musashi.

Compared to Tama, Musashi was amazing. It had a huge department store divided into two buildings, with a supermarket in the bottom of one (which, I guess, we rarely used, lacking the facilities to cook the stuff from it), a KFC, McDonalds, Mos Burger, Yoshinoya, Starbucks, an arcade, a fantastic used game and book store, a much less fantastic new game and DVD store, and of course, access to the rest of Tokyo. I went back there on Sunday because it's still the only 'proper' department store I know - I'm sure there must be others, far, far closer to Ikebukuro where I now live, but I've no idea where. At least, not ones that have cheap household goods. It was good to see the place again, especially because it's so much less crowded and loud than Ikebukuro or the other central areas of Tokyo, and reminded me that, perhaps in the future, I might want to move out there rather than staying in the city centre.

Except for one thing - the Yoshinoya had gone!

I guess I should explain: Yoshinoya is a Japanese fast food chain, that mainly sells gyuudon, which is a bowl of sticky rice with strips of simmered beef and onion sitting on top. It perhaps doesn't sound like the best thing in the world, but it's easily my favourite Japanese fast food - topping out a few of their concoctions at more familiar places, like KFC's 'Japanese-style' chicken katsu burger. When I first lived in Japan, Yoshinoya actually wasn't selling any gyuudon. I think it was due to a beef scare at the time. Instead, they mainly sold pork, or gyuuyakinikudon. The latter is fried beef, and I'm not entirely sure what the difference was - probably the origin of the cattle. The yakinikudon was incredibly tasty, especially because they served it with a spicy option that I still contest was one of the best things I ever ate. Sadly, they no longer serve it; whether it's because they phased gyuudon back in, or it was simply another limited-run thing that seems so popular here, I'm not entirely sure. Still, regular gyuudon is still tasty, and I tend to drop by a Yoshinoya pretty often when I'm in Japan.

So, I was particularly sad to see the one in Musashi had gone. I'd visited it regularly whilst living in Tama. Quite often, due to the way the trains were scheduled, I'd make it back as far as Musashi, only to find that the last train from Musashi to Tama had already departed. Or just as often, I was hungry after a night out, and opted to stick around and grab a Yoshinoya before taking a taxi back home.

Just as gone? The liquor store I used to buy cases of beer from, replaced by a flower shop. There's a ramen joint where Yoshinoya used to be.

It's strange, because I've been going in and out of Japan for nearly five years now, but because of the gaps between my visits it's like seeing the country in stop motion. I visit the same places, and so much remains exactly the same - I think that's why it's odd when something like that does change, when a thing I recognise disappears.

Incidentally, on the morning television show I've got on in the background, there's a 'feature' on the department stores in Ikebukuro, mocking me with their ingredients and homewares.

Yesterday, I set about getting my alien registration card sorted out. In Japan, as a foreigner, you're required to get one, if you're staying for more than a holiday - a kind of alien ID. The process for getting this is both straightforward and ridiculously over-complicated. Essentially, you're required to take your passport and two photographs to the nearest city or ward office, fill in some paperwork about your personal information and address, and then two weeks later you can go back and collect an ID card with all that on it. It can actually be incredibly useful, as I found that several times when signing up for things as a student, I would get my card out to check the Japanese spelling of my address, and some kind-hearted (or impatient) clerk or salesman would quickly borrow it and scribble out the information much faster than I could.

The problems arise when you realise that the vast majority of the information you need to give is probably going to be in Japanese. And the vast majority of the instructions are in Japanese. And everything the clerks in the ward office will say to you will be - yes - in Japanese.

This time, though, it wasn't a lack of understanding that sank me - it was an entirely different screw-up. What happened was that - if I understand the issue correctly - my address was still registered under someone else's name, presumably the previous tenant's. I therefore needed proof I was actually living there. Unfortunately, I hadn't bothered to take in the contract for the apartment, due to a lack of foresight and not being warned they might want that. I was, however, carrying a piece of paper where I'd noted down my realtor's phone number. Oh, they said, that's fine - we can just call him and confirm it. So off I went to sit down and wait again.

While we're on the topic, almost everything like this in Japan seems to be arranged around those ticket machines. You go in, take a ticket, and wait for your number to be called. Whether it's the Japanese embassy in London, sorting out a registration card at a ward office, getting a re-entry permit at... wherever that was, or buying a mobile phone in an otherwise empty store, you get a number and you wait. Typically, you wait in a little 'customer' area separated from the office by counters. A handful of staff will work the counters, interacting with the customers. Behind them, a massive, open-plan sprawl of desks and workers is visible. They don't appear to be doing anything.

Eventually I was summoned back to the counters. Ah, they said, that person says he doesn't know you. To say I was puzzled would be a huge understatement. I had no idea what the problem was. I'd spoken to the guy not two days before. Worrying a bit, I suggested it might be the pronunciation of my name - I'm English, my name is Yugoslavian, they're Japanese and my realtor was Korean. It's an accident waiting to happen. They seemed to agree with this line of thought and disappeared to try again. This time I could see them on the phone - several of them, seeming to take it in turns questioning the person on the other end. Again they came back, and this time informed me that this person definitely didn't know me - and was in fact a Japanese man called (or living in, I got confused) Hachijoji. I said right, then that isn't the right number. I must have made a mistake, and given them the wrong number, or I'd written it down wrong when my realtor gave it to me - something like that. I'd go out and get the contract, or correct contact details, or something and come back. That would be fine, they told me, and off I went.

Tangentially, though, I'd have loved to have heard the conversation that took place with the man with the wrong number - what were they asking him? Why did it take so long? Did he start to get confused, and think maybe he was renting an apartment in Ikebukuro to an Englishman?

I hurried back to my apartment, grabbed the contract, checked it had the contact details for the real estate office, checked them against the details online, and then before I left, checked the phone number I'd written down for my realtor - which was right, so now I don't know whether he gave me the wrong number in the first place, the clerks took it off me incorrectly, or they dialled the wrong number (twice!) when trying to call it. Returning to the ward office, I presented my contract, to yet another different clerk. This guy was interesting. In fact, it was quite an odd experience in general, sitting in the office, watching how different clerks dealt with the foreigners differently. I came to the conclusion that the ones who were better at their jobs were actually less 'polite' - that is, they didn't layer their instructions or requests in the myriad formalities and pleasantries that make up polite Japanese speech. They weren't rude, but they actually got to the point, and people responded to them (presumably) accurately.

This guy did not get to the point. He had a peculier habit of calling out the next ticket number, rather than hitting the button that had an automated voice read it out and mark it on a bank of monitors in the waiting area, but rather than just asking for the person with that ticket, he'd slip into a massive spiel of humble speech. No one would budge. He'd repeat it. Nothing would happen. He'd hit a button, and the computer would ask in much less complex language, and out came the ticket holders. He never learnt.

He also apparently didn't speak any English, which my contract was written in. It was almost funny watching him grasp at straws, noticing the receipt I had for the payment of my rent, which has a little Japanese printed on it. When he realised it wasn't the contract, he was crestfallen. After a little dithering, though, he just accepted the contract and disappeared. The whole experience was quite bizarre - this idea that they needed proof I was giving them the correct information, that I really was living alone, or where I said I was, and so on. Yet this proof could take the form of a foreign-language contract they apparently couldn't read, or a phonecall to a mobile telephone number to a random person I claimed was my realtor. It's as if they were incredibly suspicious of me, as a foreigner, yet also couldn't fathom the idea of being lied to with actual evidence.

Finally, though, I received my certificates of alien registration - the temporary paper documents you can request for use while awaiting the 'real thing' - and then it was off to purchase a mobile telephone. This part of the story was much less interesting, or frustrating, as I just went to the Softbank store on Omotesando, in Harajuku, as I'd read there were English speaking staff there on their website - turns out that was a lie, at least for that afternoon, but the girl working there was terrific, and I got a pre-paid phone that does (more or less) what I want it to do without a great deal of hassle at all. Unlike the phone I had as a student, I can use it in English, which means no more squinting at kanji to try and work out certain features - though it's a little bit of a shame, as I think I can't use it to browse the internet due to only being a pre-pay customer. Oh well. At least I can make calls, send and receive email, and I think watch television, though I've struggled to get that working well yet.

Today, I'm mostly going to be hanging around my apartment, perhaps tidying up a little, waiting for the internet guy to come install my cable so I can finally be rid of this wifi dongle. It's been great getting online, but my word is it slow.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

On Travelling, and Arrivals, or: The First of Many Anecdotes to Come

This morning, at around 8:00am, I arrived in Japan again. I realised, coming out of the aiport, that I've now probably been to Tokyo more times than I've been to London - and certainly spent more time here.

I set off early yesterday, going to Manchester airport where I'd then fly on to Frankfurt. I didn't sleep much, which in hindsight threatened to derail the whole endeavour, but I wasn't quite there yet. After an argument with the girl at check-in over whether I could fly to Japan on a one-way ticket, won with sufficient wafting of my visa (but not before she went over to phone Frankfurt, and essentially pass the burden of getting it wrong over to them), I headed through security, paranoid someone was going to charge my excess baggage or force me to check my enormous laptop bag, and then flopped down in Starbucks with a couple of cans of Double Shot and a ham, cheese and mustard croque monseieur panini.

Looking out of the window of the Manchester Airport Starbucks
I'm going to miss that panini; given my previous experience in Japan, it may be the last really great food I have for a while. Unless Starbucks in Japan also does them. I remember they did do some great stuff in the past...

A short journey to Frankfurt later, and I arrived in Germany. I've never actually been to Germany before, but like Amsterdam/the Netherlands, it's now another place I've only set foot in the airport of.

Riding the bus from the plane to the terminal, I caught my first glimpse of the A380, off in the distance
Incidentally, Frankfurt Airport is baffling. After getting off the bus that took us from the first flight to the terminal, I set off trying to find the gate for my next flight - and immediately got 'lost' in the series of strange, empty, half-constructed hallways connecting the wings in that terminal. I'm not sure if I took a wrong turn and took the long, or at least strange, way round, but eventually I arrived and once more passed through security, just in time to stumble up to the gate and get ready to board the A380. That plane is a beast. I couldn't find anywhere in the boarding area to take a photo that would get the whole thing in shot. Still, it was nice to see it there and ready to go, as I'd been worried - following the whole Qantas incident, and Qantas and Singapore Airlines grounding their A380s - that Lufthansa would suddenly follow suit and I'd be delayed.

From now on, I'm pretty sure this is the only way to travel. Until they bring back supersonic jets, or low-orbit aircraft.

I'd been looking forward - if you hadn't guessed - to flying on the A380 for a while now. Planes, whilst not as cool as trains, are still interesting, and this is the biggest passenger plane in the world (now, if only I could fly in the An-225). Beyond that aspect, though, I was also intrigued by the idea of being on a new plane, not some relic of the 80s or 90s still in service. The A380 didn't disappoint. I suppose, being honest, there was nothing so drastically different about it that it's some revelation - at least, not in economy - but it certainly felt a lot roomier inside than other planes I've travelled to Japan on, the in-seat television was touchscreen and had a great viewing angle (as well as being highly adjustable, for when the guy in front suddenly lurches his chair backwards in the middle of a movie), not to mention interesting features like webcams mounted on the tail, nose and belly of the plane giving you a low-resolution but still cool view outside the aircraft, a USB charging port in the armrest (and an ethernet socket - does the plane have internet access, in economy? I don't know, and sadly lacking a cable, I couldn't pop my laptop in and find out), and a few other neat little gizmos and perks, with my favourite probably being the cupholder you can fold down even when the tray is up. Beyond that, though, it was a pretty standard flight, with pretty standard airline food - maybe it's because I'm always flying on European carriers heading to/from Japan, but I rarely have a clue what it is I'm getting. On this flight, there was some pretty nice beef goulash actually, as well as some pretty bad inarizushi; later, for breakfast, I got what I can only describe as lumps of potato sitting next to spinach, with some weird scrambled egg, and a side of something horrendous and cubed.

Landing at Tokyo, Narita, I had expected some issues getting through immigration - nothing drastic, but given I was coming in on a working holiday visa I expected more questions than I actually got asked. Aside from the guy at the counter going "huh?" when seeing I intended to stay for a year on my landing card, a problem quickly defused by pointing out my visa, it hardly took any longer than when I've come in on tourist visas in the past. Ever since arriving as a student in 2006, I've taken the Narita Express to and from the airport, and this time was no exception - but this time I splurged the extra thousand yen or so to get a Green Car seat, and I think an hour and a half relaxing in a big, reclining leather chair was worth it. I also got the Suica & NEX combination that I'd spotted online - I actually already have a Suica smart card, for paying for travel around Tokyo and for odds and ends from convenience stores and vending machines, but this Suica has a funky design! I thought it'd make a nice souvenir, at least.

As is usual, now, I'd dressed poorly for the trip - it's November, and back in England I was freezing my ass off just sitting in the airport. In Japan, I was alternately getting blasted by warming air conditioners or getting roasted by the sun. Twenty degrees, in November! I was sure the weather had talked about thirteen, or so. I was happy, then, that I'd booked a hotel in Ikebukuro for my first day, as it meant I didn't have to lump my luggage all over the city. I dropped my things off, took a shower, and realised I could see the Tokyo Sky Tree from my hotel room, looming over the skyline more massive than anything I'd ever seen.

The Tokyo Sky Tree, under construction
 Then it was off to Shin-Nakano to collect the keys to my apartment. At first I went into the wrong real estate office, but a helpful fellow directed me around the corner to the actual place, and after a bit of waiting around (I'd arrived early) I paid my first month's rent, picked up the keys, and got a lift to the apartment. It was here that I discovered a) I have no desire to drive in Tokyo, I'd forgotten how mental it was, and how everyone just seems to disregard lights and traffic flows and treats it as every man for himself and b) that my realtor was a bit of a mentalist, launching into the baffling story of how the client he'd been speaking to just before me, whilst I was sat across the room in the office, was his ex-girlfriend from two years ago and that they hadn't seen each other since. As I sat there in the van, jet-lagged and brain-dead, he probed me for relationship advice. I was non-committal, still bemused by his earlier pronunciation of 'supermarket'. Spomaker is now my preferred way of saying it, I think. Later, telling Sorrel about my day, I realised - at the same time he did - that I'd only just arrived, and already the typically-Japanese anecdotes were appearing.

My new place
So, finally, I arrived at my new apartment. Of course I didn't have any of my luggage with me, as it was still at the hotel, and whilst it is furnished, it lacked things like plates, pots, pans, and even a kettle. I stayed for a couple of hours whilst my realtor fiddled with the TV he'd dragged over, trying to get a clean signal (clean for Japan, anyway - I don't understand why every other channel doesn't work, and why some signals look like Channel 5 always used to). Another interesting tidbit: apparently the previous tenant, who had scheduled moving out but then changed her mind, had had to leave because I'd already paid my deposit. In retaliation, it seems she stole all the furniture, thus the 'new' TV. Which is actually very, very old and doesn't even have a remote - not a big deal, I guess, as I did want to get a new, HD one to use the Xbox 360 with. Which I don't have yet, either.

After the realtor left, I continued to wait, as the gas man was coming to hook up my hot water supply - already, this place is better than TUFS, in some ways. Though it also seems a lot draftier, and the furniture is a little, shall we say, rickety. That'd be a polite way of putting it. Once he was gone - twice, after forgetting to get me to sign something the first time - I was on my way too, heading back to the hotel. I loosely considered collecting some of my stuff and moving it over to the apartment already, but instead I fell asleep, shortly after finally figuring out the internet here.

A few hours later, here I am. Tomorrow, I'm checking out of the hotel and moving into the apartment 'for real'. Once I've dropped off my luggage, I'll be traipsing around Tokyo looking for things like kettles, bowls, chopsticks, slippers, towels... everything I'm missing, really. I'm hoping I can find a department store closer than the Ito Yokado in Musashi-Sakai I always used to get everything from, but I can see myself going back there - if nothing else, to see what's changed, what hasn't, and whether the lovely little shop, Book Island, is still there.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Leaving on a Jetplane

After much deliberation, worrying about baggage weight limits, attempts at packing, mucking around with visas and boarding passes and online check-ins and scribbling down address details and phone numbes, I'm just about to go. Not quite ready to go, but going anyway: living and teaching in Tokyo, on the working holiday visa, for about a year. My flight is at 9:10am tomorrow morning and it's now... 00:46am, but with travel to the airport and the horrible check-in times I'm only going to get a couple of hours of sleep. I'm hopeful that inclement weather, attempted terrorism (or cack-handed, retaliatory security measures) and exploding engines won't bog down my journey - my main fear right now is that Lufthansa will ground the A380 I'm meant to be flying out of Frankfurt on. So far so good, and fingers crossed.

When next I post, I'll probably be in Japan, either in the hotel I have booked for the first night, or my apartment if I can actually get the keys for it. I might even have some new photos of my journey out.

Until then, goodbye, England.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Pilot Thoughts: The Walking Dead

Warning - some minor spoilers about the start of The Walking Dead TV series follow!

I was really looking forward to this. It's not exactly that I'm a longstanding fan of the comics - I only started reading them earlier this year - but I do love the source material. I also love (almost) anything with zombies in it. On top of that, it was interesting to see how someone might handle adapting an ongoing comic into a TV series rather than a film - in theory, something that should work much better. I was a little baffled by some of the casting, but I liked the trailer shown a little while ago (I think it was at Comic-Con). Then, the pilot episode went ahead and got some pretty rave reviews... as well as a few writers noting that, having seen more than just the first episode that aired yesterday, the series dips a little after the quality of the first episode.

That's a little worrying, considering I wasn't that impressed by it.

It wasn't bad, exactly, but it just seemed so... something. There's something missing. The zombies, for one thing, aren't quite right. I don't mean in relation to the comic, or to other depictions of zombies, but they just don't quite work in the series itself. There's something off about the makeup, or the way they move, that they just don't come off as scary or even creepy or sometimes, even undead. They're not threatening. I just finished up playing the Undead Nightmare add-on for Red Dead Redemption, which is similarly filled with 'traditional' non-running, rotting zombies. The zombies in that can be scary. They rot, they swarm, they mill around on the horizon, they shamble out of buildings, they get shot and they get back up until they lose their heads. In The Walking Dead, there are too many moments where it's hard to suspend disbelief and see anything but someone walking around with complex prosthetics, or worse, some greyish makeup. It's been a while since I watched it, but I remember the zombies in the original, black and white Night of the Living Dead being more sinister - the effects were far more subtle, back then, without prosthetics for ripped faces and no colour to depict the blood and rot. Just high contrast makeup.

There are only two real moments of tension in the pilot: Rick waking up in the hospital (which was handled very well), and Rick arriving in Atlanta resulting in a zombie-related situation I couldn't figure a way out of (and I quite like his abrupt discovery of the solution). Clearly, though, there are meant to be others - chiefly, a moment where a zombie shambles up to the door Rick is peering through the peephole of, and starts trying to get in. It should be tense, or poignant (under the exact circumstances I don't wish to spoil), but it isn't. It reminds me, again, of a scene from Undead Nightmare, where the graverobber Seth sits with an inexplicably benign zombie, attempting to play cards with the thing. The image of that zombie just standing there, not attacking, obviously dead but still being interacted with - that's dark, and strange, and unsettling. The zombie trying to get back into the house? It just looked like a woman in makeup fiddling with the door handle.

Going back to that hospital scene though - great use of fingers reaching through the gap from the locked cafeteria. Now they were unsettling abhuman. I wonder if it was an effect, what with the way the fingers of one hand seemed to move so disjointedly, or just someone with very flexible digits?

Rounding up a little...

The guy playing main character, Rick, has grown on me. He doesn't quite match the image from the comics (nor should he have to), but he doesn't seem to quite match him in personality yet, either. But he's growing on me. The guy playing Shane is getting on my nerves, like they're going to enormous, unsubtle lengths to set him up as this abrasive mysoginist. No one else has really been in it long enough for me to make any judgements, I guess. Generally speaking, I either like or am fine with the changes they've made to the flow of the early comics, though the 'bicycle zombie' could've been done better I think - it was more powerful in the comic. An alteration to Morgan and Duane's story, if I'm not mistaken drawing from events much further down the line, worked pretty well. The cold opening felt unnecessary. I'd have rather the series started with Rick and Shane in the squad car than waste time on that. I can kind of appreciate the 'we need to hook people with a ZOMBIE!' theory that was presumably behind it, but it stole the impact from when the zombies actually appeared. It's like, yeah, great - nice build up. But you already showed us one walking around twenty minutes ago. And it was a kid. And Rick shot her, all in the first couple of minutes. We're actually going backwards here. Lastly, I liked the 'hey, dumb-ass - yeah, you in the /bleep/' presumably from Glenn, but hated the incongruous musical interlude (it reminded me of something Stargate Universe frequently attempts - playing a piece of music, with lyrics, over a montage of scenes or emotional shots. It doesn't always work in SGU, and it didn't work at all here).

Despite my complaints and reservations, I am interested in seeing where the series goes. I think it could do with being shot differently - some lighting effect or something that imitates a certain kind of film, perhaps. I'm not knowledgeable enough to suggest quite what, and really, I don't anticipate seeing that drastic a change anyway, even though I think the zombies and their effects need obscuring more than they currently are. They just don't stand up to the current lighting. I want to see how they handle this first series though, what the rest of the cast is like and what characters have carried over (and how) from the comics. How far things progress in the first season vs. the rate of progress in the comics. How they handle some interesting early events, though my recollection of them now is dim, and I might be getting the chronology a little mixed up. Sadly, though, it's not a series I'm going to be rushing to catch up on whenever possible. For now, that's a slot pretty much reserved for Sons of Anarchy.