Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Great Catch-Up Post of... Oh wait, I went to Akihabara instead!

One of my biggest problems with being in Japan is the poor availability of Western games. It's not that they're impossible to find, but it is at least a problem, and almost always very expensive even when they can be found. Since gaming is my main hobby, and I have, perhaps bizarrely, little to no interest in Japanese games, this results in something of a dilemma. On the one hand, it's hard to keep up with the latest releases, on the other, it's also tough to find working copies of older games I still play for kicks or on co-op.

Akihabara contains one of the few import games shops I'm aware of. I'm sure more knowledgeable people could tell me there are dozens more, and maybe they're cheaper, too, but Game Hollywood has been serving me well so far this year. When I was here the first time, there was a Messe Sanoh nearby too, that also sold imported stuff - sadly, that's gone, leaving Hollywood the only big store. There's a Sofmap that has some US and Asia region games in the used section, but that's about it.

Speaking of the Asia region - it is a godsend. Further complicating my time in Japan is that I'm from the UK, also known as the PAL backwater of the English-speaking gaming world. Traditionally, we get the games later, if at all, and usually get slated in terms of prices and special editions. More recently, things have been much improved, and are about on par with the US (I guess that leaves Australia the poor child of the English party, stuck with expensive games, slow releases, and massive censorship of mature games, assuming they can come out at all). The biggest issue though is that PAL region: PAL tends to be completely incompatible over here. At least US stuff is often either region free or compatible with Japanese NTSC-J consoles. That brings us back around to the Asia region though. I'm not entirely sure what the intended market is for these games. I guess it might be English-speaking Asian territories, but I've always thought of them as some gift to expats. English language games, manuals, and content, usually compatible with not just Japanese consoles but US and even UK hardware too. Perfect! And more often than not, it's a smidge cheaper than buying US.

Still, it's expensive. When purchasing a new game, it's not so bad - it might be a little more than I'd pay back home, but I can suck it up and accept the premium, considering it's been imported or, if I'm online, actually is going to be imported. But for older games or games I have a currently useless PAL copy of, it can be a little hard to swallow. Suddenly, the prices of games on Xbox Live look a lot more inviting: a digital copy of Borderlands is £19.99. That's considerably more than I'd normally be willing to pay for something that isn't physical, especially when I already have a copy back home - but it's considerably less than I'd have to pay in Game Hollywood (a horrific 8000 yen), or even from Play-Asia, especially when factoring in shipping costs.

So, I went to Akihabara and bought a few games. I also noticed that, more and more, the old electronics and games stores seem to be disappearing, and I'm wondering where they've all gone. Did demand dry up? Did they move somewhere else? Or at least for the retro stuff, did they finally start running out of stock? I wondered about this back in 2006 and 7. Dealing with old hardware and games, eventually, there's going to come a time when these things simply aren't available anymore, or certainly not in sufficient numbers to sustain stores devoted solely to them. The problem seems even worse when you consider the amount of stock that must leave Japan in the hands of overseas collectors, thus leaving the internal market here (a market that does remarkably well at keeping second hand games and consoles in like-new condition, I might add). Perhaps we're approaching the end of the age of Famicoms and the like.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Great Catch-Up Post of 2011, Part Two

Or: The First Sunrise of the New Year

Psst... this is going to be very photo heavy, so click on through:

Back in 2006/7 when I was an exchange student living in Tokyo for the first time, I did a couple of odd things at New Year's. In Japan, New Year's is probably the biggest holiday I can think of. Everything shuts down for a few days and it feels like Tokyo empties out as people head to their hometowns between the end of December and the first few days of January. Cash machines only work sporadically, shops and restaurants are closed, and on New Year's Day, everyone left in the city crams into their nearest (or most famous) shrine for the first visit of the New Year. Firsts are very important to the Japanese: the first shrine visit, the first sunrise, the first... well, there are other things. There's a first lecture to the Imperial household, for instance.

There are some other traditions that aren't firsts, too, including one I first (no pun intended here) heard about in Murakami Ryuu's In the Miso Soup. Towards the end, much is made about visiting the river near the famous Tsukiji fish market where you can hear a Buddhist temple ring out 108 bells that... well, I'm not a very good Buddhist. However, a quick jaunt to Wikipedia informs me that in Tibetan Buddhism, there are 108 sins, and the bells represent the 108 earthly temptations one must overcome to reach Nirvana. I seem to recall that in hearing the bells, you're absolved of those temptations, ready to start the year anew. I had a student try to explain it to me recently - a Japanese student - and he didn't do a great job, clearly.

So, back at the very end of 2006, I grabbed a few trains and headed to the Kachidoki Bridge to listen to the bells. They were, as promised, audible from the bridge (the temple itself was nearby, and though I had a closer look, I didn't want to get caught up in a ceremony or service I didn't understand when I had other things to be doing that night). At this point I should note that at the time, I didn't have a working camera other than on my cellphone, though it wouldn't have been much use in capturing the bells anyway.
Kachidoki Bridge, New Year's Eve 2006
After the bells, midnight struck, and I then had plans to meet some friends for the first sunrise of the new year. In Japanese, it's called 初日の出 (hatsuhinode). We'd been invited to head to Odaiba, in the Tokyo Bay area, to see the sun come up over the horizon and the sea. I can't for the life of me remember the name of the skyscraper we ended up at the top of, but it was quite an impressive view, as this grainy shot should barely attest:
The first sunrise of 2007, over Tokyo Bay
Actually, I guess my camera phone was pretty good back then? Anyway, later that day, we headed out yet again for the first shrine visit - oh, wait, I'm getting things confused. Actually we visited a small shrine just after midnight, whilst waiting to get the monorail to Odaiba. It was called Karasumori-jinja, which may or may not mean crow-village-shrine. My offering netted me a pink bauble on a phone charm, which I carried around till it finally broke off several years later. Still, the more official shrine visit - the faux 初詣 (hatsumoude) - was to be at the Meiji Shrine. It was heaving.

Fast forward to 2010/11, and I'm back in Tokyo for the fourth time, and this time I'm working. As it's New Year's, I have several days off, and I'm intending to make the most of it. The result was visiting Mt. Takao, an apparently reasonably famous and fairly sacred, if not all that large, mountain in western Tokyo. I'd been taken there once when I was a student, back in 2006.
L to R: Me, Sorrel, and one of our guides, Chida-san, at Takao in 2006
I got rained on. A lot.

Apparently, about half the population of the Greater Tokyo Area had the same idea as me. At four in the morning, we piled onto a Yamanote train from Ikebukuro to Shinjuku, riding with someone mysteriously carrying a giant urn and a vinyl record, switched to the Keio Line that I'd used nearly four years earlier, and waited for that express train to the foot of Takao. Several hundred Japanese waited with us.

At Takao, we disembarked and basically followed the crowd to the foot of the mountain where, off to the left, we could have taken the chair lift or the furnicular. Idiot that I am, I remembered the mountain being little more than a hill, and the climb to be fairly easy. It isn't. It isn't a climb either, but it's a long way up if the farthest you usually walk is from the desk to the fridge in an 18 square meter studio apartment. Huffing and puffing, I was consistently overtaken by elderly Japanese couples, though I took some solace in the fact that young Japanese men were tackling it with as much consternation as I was. I heard plenty of "Whose stupid idea was this?" and "This is a living hell!" bandied about.

Reaching the top, I feasted on dango and kara-age on a stick, and waited for the sunrise.
The first sunrise, 2011
No sooner had the sun risen than I discovered that, actually, it would have been far more visible about two minutes further up the mountain - and not only that, but there'd be delicious, icy cold sake served in little wooden masu-boxes with rabbits printed on them! It was tempting to visit the shrine atop the mountain, too, but there was a literal queue that barely inched forward into the tengu-populated grounds, so we called it quits, and headed home. Sadly, the queue for the furnicular was just as slow, but at least it was in the right direction.

And that was New Year's Day. Four years in-between, but I made it to another first. I now also have quite the incentive to return again next year. A few days later I was talking to one of my students, and I found out that not only did he grow up near Takao, and get dragged there every year - but that his mother had amassed quite a collection of the Chinese zodiac-printed masu. So far, I only have the Year of the Rabbit.

Next time: Work, and lots of it (but not enough)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Great Catch-Up Post of 2011, Part One

Checking, I discovered my last post was on the 2nd of December, when things were still looking like this:
Illuminations in Kichijoji

Which is to say, sort of wintry and pre-Christmassy. Not that Japan does Christmas very well - there are plenty of illuminations, a few trees, and a lot of baubles, but the the whole thing pretty much fizzles out by the 25th. The only significant impact, as far as I can tell, is that there's a queue out into the street for KFC, which for some reason the Japanese have decided is Christmas food. I've tried to ask a couple of people why this is, and while most have blithely replied 'You mean it isn't Christmas food everywhere else?', I think someone mentioned it comes down to marketing some years back. Still, I'm not sure who first came up with the idea to market Fried Chicken + Christmas.

Fortunately, I'm not a particularly Christmassy person, and I spent the day itself at work, teaching clients (for a whopping enticement of an extra 100 yen per lesson). We're now well into the New Year, and I'm still teaching. Give or take a few days, I think I've just wrapped up my second month with the company.
Looking up towards my office
For the most part, I'm enjoying it. The students or clients are generally pretty good, the pay is good for the hours I put in, and it gives me plenty of flexibility to take holidays or essentially work when I want. It's not a permanent solution, though, for two reasons. First, I'm working at a loss - to break even or start making money here, I'd need to put in more hours, and get more bookings. The way the system works is that you set which hours you're available, and then have to wait for clients to either book you directly or simply declare they want a lesson at that time, and get assigned to it. If the office is busy, like on a weekend - great. I can get full bookings no problem. On weekday nights, it's much more hit and miss, and you don't get paid for unbooked time, even though you end up stuck in the office waiting for students to appear. Thus, committing to more paid hours is also committing to exponentially more UNpaid hours, and the whole thing starts to fall apart as a viable opportunity. Secondly, I'm still only a working holiday visa holder. The upshot of that is that I don't need visa sponsorship, meaning I'm free to work in almost any industry and I don't need to work full time, either. To get a sponsored visa for this job, I'd need to be teaching two or three times as many lessons to count as full time, and that's really not something I'm interested in right now.

But, any thoughts of full-time work in Japan are still months away. Right now, I'm enjoying that aforementioned freedom. Next month, I'm going to Sapporo, in the northern island of Hokkaido, to see the snow festival. I've talked about it with a few of my students and have a) yet to meet someone who has been and b) yet to meet someone who doesn't cower at the thought of the climate.

Next post: Part Two, in which I chronicle New Year's Day.