Tuesday, June 21, 2011

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blogging...

...because I'm sharing a laptop, now, and never seem to find the time to do a proper update. It's my last two weeks of work, too, even though I'm barely at work for them, and things are getting a bit hectic scheduling international removals, wrapping things up with the company, and er, playing Halo: Reach. It's Bungie Day on the 7th of July, perhaps the last Halo Bungie Day as the series is now the purview of 343 Industries, and I've been getting back into matchmaking in preparation. After slogging through the campaign on Legendary for the 'Monument to All Your Sins' solo achievement I'm thinking of posting some of my thoughts on the series, and especially on Reach, but like everything else it's on the backburner.

In other news, Rammstein are touring again! After such a long break before the 2009-10 tour, I figured it would be a while before I had a chance to see them again, especially as they're currently in North America (I believe for the first time?). Instead, they're touring Europe again later this year, and I've been coordinating an international effort to be in a position to buy tickets to the German dates due to restrictions on where I can use my debit cards from. It's going to be so, so good to be back in the UK where that stuff... well, it'd be nice to say doesn't matter, but let's at least say matters less. At least living in the same country as most of my finances, electronics and subscriptions means much less conflict than when I'm living in Japan. Current plan: Vienna on the the 23rd of November, Berlin on the 25th, with a couple of days around either side to spend time in Austria and Germany, to which I've never been. Aside from the fact that Rammstein are unbeatable live, I'm particularly interested in seeing what photos I can come up with this time - even though on the previous two tours, I always managed to take a camera with a half empty battery that inevitably ran out before the best stuff.
Rammstein, Nottingham, 2005
So, I do hope to blog more - I've a lot to say before I leave Japan, and hopefully, I'll still have things to talk about once I'm back in the UK. For now, though, there'll be a slight delay.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Fire in Ikebukuro, Going Home, and E3 Reactions

Not long ago, I was awoken by sirens, only to stick my head out of the window and discover that a building just across the tracks was on fire and the neighbourhood was full of police cars, ambulances, fire trucks and gawking bystanders. I, of course, just snapped a few photographs and went to work.

The big news, though, is that I'm going to be leaving Japan in just about two months. I've already booked tickets, at extortionate one-way prices, to return to the UK on August 15th. It's not an easy decision, despite Japan's weather doing it's very best to drive me out of the country - it's already unbearably hot and humid, and the rainy season hasn't even kicked in yet, when it gets more humid but a little cooler. Then the rainy season ends, and it gets hot again whilst remaining humid. More than that, though, is work. For the last few months I've split my hours between two offices, one in Ikebukuro and one in Otemachi. Last month, the managers at Ikebukuro decided to take a collective leave of their senses, and started trying to increase the number of teaching staff present on weekends by driving out anyone who wouldn't arbitrarily bend to their whims. As the manager at Otemachi put it, it was somewhat baffling. Now, I'm working full time at Otemachi, but the longer commute - especially in the worsening summer - is starting to make it deeply undesirable. At this point on my working holiday visa, it isn't easy to pick up a worthwhile job that would provide enough money to live out the rest of my stay - there are, of course, part time jobs that might provide potent but irregular boosts of cash, but these can't be relied on, and full time work is almost out of the question if you can't commit to contracts of a certain length. Japan, as I've mentioned before, is suffering a saturation of English teachers. Sadly (for the students, and the state of the industry as a whole), it's also suffering from a saturation of underqualified English teachers who are more or less grandfathered in due to having been here before the competition heated up.

Going Home

That in mind, I have two choices: commit to full-time work on a sponsored visa, or go home. I've weighed it up, and I'm going back to the UK. I'm hoping to find ESOL work there, though the coalition government has kindly cut funding for that - all the while demanding immigrants must learn English, of course. Petrol prices are booming, the job market (even ignoring the collapsing ESOL one) still looks dire, and inexplicably the Tories and the Lib Dems are still in power and doing their level best to ruin the country even more, so I've picked a perfect time to go back. In addition to work, I'm looking at filling in some of my knowledge gaps through the Open University, and perhaps applying for a masters programme in the 2012-13 academic year.

There's plenty I'll miss about living in Japan, and Tokyo in particular - Sapporo aside, my excursions to other cities and locales hasn't enamoured me of the idea of living elsewhere in the country. Unlike my first year here, as an exchange student, I'm not leaving because I've had a terrible time, something I increasingly blame on the terrible handling of that year abroad programme by the University of Leeds, and certain utterly inept bureaucrats and teachers at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Undeniably, though, Japan is an extremely difficult place to live. Everything from perpetual treatment as an outsider, tremendous cultural and lingual gaps (mitigated, only slightly, if you actually speak Japanese because many Japanese people will refuse to even try to comprehend you), alien ideas on the availability of groceries, and impossible-to-adjust-to weather due to the over reliance on air conditioning... it's enough to drive a sane person mad.

I'll miss the food, though - the Nepalese café nearby being something of an anomaly - but once again I'll miss Japanese fast food, places like Yoshinoya and Hanamaru, and also Japanese takes on McDonalds and Burger King which are of a much higher standard than in the UK. I'll miss izakayas, too, with their bizarre menus and all-you-can-drink prices. I won't particularly miss restaurants - they tend towards the over-priced, anyway, and it can be a pain to find things you enjoy eating. I'll miss a reliable public transportation system, even if it is frequently crowded beyond reason. Perhaps most of all, I'll miss the sense of safety - despite the phrase "Japan is not a safty [sic] country" becoming a meme amongst my peergroup, based on the fact that the Japanese don't believe they're especially safe, I can't imagine a place more pleasant to live in terms of crime than Tokyo. One of the largest and most populous cities in the world, and I've never worried about having more than my umbrella stolen from the rack outside the convenience store. I cannot say the same for England, where merely existing seems cause for concern. Ah, chavs, how I do not wait eagerly for your renewed presence.

On the other hand, I'm looking forward to getting back to a country where I can indulge in my hobbies, either at more reasonable prices or just at all. I've railed against region locks before, which is something that severely limits my ability to enjoy everything from movies, to television, to videogames, books and music. Oh, and comics. There are quite a few series I follow - The Walking Dead, Fables, DMZ, and a handful of Marvel titles for starters - that I'm looking forward to catching up with. Unlike games, where it's merely expensive to get a hold of them, or movies, where it's either expensive or illegal, comics are more or less unavailable in Japan (though you will occasionally see graphic novels or trade paperbacks in book stores stocking foreign books, or second hand in places that cater to genre fare, and I did once spot a Japanese edition of Watchmen that I almost bought...). There doesn't seem to be anything like a western comic shop, though, but I have been meaning to check out a place in Shibuya (my loathing for that place aside) that may actually be a comic shop.

I'm also looking forward to more mundane things, like living in a house instead of a one-room apartment, getting my dog back, being able to drive again (I've probably forgotten how), and most importantly, being able to eat. Yes, I enjoy some Japanese fast food, and I've lived off a steady diet of tofu and noodles here, but that's because buying ingredients to actually cook is heinously expensive (and then there's no oven to cook with anyway, and only one electric hob). I can't wait for the availability of real food from actual supermarkets, of buying things in bulk instead of miniaturised, individually-wrapped portions. I can't wait to be able to go out one day a week and be able to pick up the shopping for the rest of the week, instead of having to shop on a more or less daily basis, each day staring in horror at the price of Japanese fruit, vegetables, and meat (the only stuff that's cheap is tofu and noodles. Bread is marketed as some bizarre luxury item...).

I'm not looking forward to English milk, though. I don't know how the Japanese do it, but it never seems to go off.


Halo 4. No, really.
So, this year's E3 has come and gone, and frankly it was a bit of a disappointment in terms of big announcements or surprise showings. Despite that, there were a lot of new trailers, new gameplay reveals, confirmations of things long-rumoured (like the latest entry in the Hitman franchise, Absolution, and Halo 4). There was big news from Nintendo, with the unveiling of it's Wii successor, the bizarrely named Wii U (incidentally, does anyone else think the 'U' in 'Wii U' looks awfully like Ubisoft's Uplay logo?). I honestly wonder if there's some kind of internal competition at Nintendo to outweird themselves, in both naming conventions and design.

Wii U and Controller
The Wii U, of course, seems to capitalise on ideas once brokered by older Nintendo games like Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles and The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords. To whit, those games combined the GameCube with the Gameboy Advance, utilising the handheld for... well, for other things. Sadly I never had a GameCube at the time, and I haven't come around to playing Four Swords yet despite it literally sitting on my shelf right now. A moment's research reminds me that lots of other GameCube titles supported the use of the link cable, too, and I now recall playing Wind Waker and having my good friend Sorrel unhelpfully bomb me instead of my enemies while using the GBA... ah, good times. Sort of. Anyway, the Wii U has the most insane console controller I've ever seen, with a screen embedded in the middle of it (yet somehow it still looks better than Sony's infamous PS3 batarang controllers). I still don't own a Wii, so news of a successor-console doesn't exactly light me on fire. On the other hand, I am looking forward to things like Skyward Sword, so maybe - just maybe - I'll be jumping aboard the Nintendo current-gen bandwagon sooner rather than later.

ME3's Shepard, Kaidan and Liara
Sony also released more details on its next-generation handheld, the awfully-named Playstation Vita, and Microsoft unveiled new features for Kinect in so-called 'core' games like Ghost Recon and Mass Effect 3 (features leaked alongside box art some time ago, unfortunately). Neither the Kinect presentation or a new handheld are particularly exciting. In terms of games, as I said, there were a lot of fresh appearances and some welcome confirmations, but nothing mind-blowing. Halo 4 only got a teaser trailer, and I worry about the direction of the series sans-Bungie. Halo Wars, the only other Halo game not to feature them, didn't excel - though that was mainly because the late Ensemble Studios seemed to spend a great deal of time developing a competent control scheme for a console RTS, then throwing that out of the window with a campaign whose missions revolved around impossible degrees of micro-management. The Anniversary update of the original Halo is a bit more welcome, as it really does have one of the most enjoyable campaigns I've ever played - I've wasted many, many hours on that final Warthog run on co-op. I particularly like that it's going to be just a reskin of the original game, as the Monkey Island updates were, allowing you to switch back to the original graphics at any time.

Probably my favourite trailer from the event came in the form of Ubisoft's latest Assassin's Creed, Revalations. As well as showcasing the fantastic CGI previously deployed in the series' earlier trailers, it features the great song Iron by Woodkid:

Going Forward

Yellow Blaze Tattoo
I've got two months left in Japan, more or less. I'll be finishing work at the end of this month, leaving me some free time to try and cram in things from a sort of 'Japan bucket list'. Some of those things - stuff like climbing Mt. Fuji, visiting various distant locations like Okinawa, Kyushu and Shikoku - are probably going to fall by the wayside due to minor details like financial deprivation, a complete lack of physical fitness, and an intolerance of the Japanese summer. Others, like visiting the amazing artists here are hopefully going to go ahead, and indeed are already booked. I also intend to visit the incorrectly sized Tobu World Square, return to Yamanashi and at least walk around the foot of Mt. Fuji, and perhaps even squeeze in at least one more long distance journey.

Having said that, I highly doubt this will be my last time in Japan. I've already got the urge to come back on a tourist visa and take advantage of the Japan Rail Pass, which you paradoxically can't access as a resident. It makes exploring Japan's more distant locales - especially places like Hokkaido - affordable. In the long run, I may even return to Japan again to work, especially if I can get a job in Sapporo or the rest of Hokkaido, with Interac or something similar. Before anything like that, though, I want to travel more widely - I've already spent almost two years of my adult life out here - and work on my academics, as well as my writing.

There's more to life than slumming it in Tokyo, after all.

Yokohama and the Sprawl

Where to go?
Two weeks ago, I briefly visited Yokohama. I could say several different things at this point – that Yokohama is a historic port city south of Tokyo, that it’s one of the places where Matthew Perry (no, not that one) landed and forced Japan to open to foreign trade, that it’s a fairly respectable destination for Tokyoites who clamour to visit its Chinatown and other tourist attractions – but the thing that springs most to mind right now is a comparison to William Gibson’s Sprawl. The Sprawl, as a quick visit to Wikipedia will tell you, is a fictional extension to the real Northeast Megalopolis, the great stretch of heavily urbanized coastline that reaches from Boston to DC. The interesting part is where it discusses the fiction, noting that “[t]he immensity of the megalopolis, and the idea that it might one day form an actual uninterrupted city, has inspired several authors…”. The point of this tangent is that Yokohama is to Tokyo as Atlanta is to Boston in Gibson’s Sprawl, a city linked not just by threads of transportation, but a seemingly unbroken sprawl. The Kanto plain is covered by it, the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area. With Tokyo at its heart, it spreads north into Saitama, east into Chiba, and southwest into Yokohama and Kanagawa (and west into more Tokyo). It’s always worth remembering that Tokyo is infinitely more than just the already huge cities slotted around the circular Yamanote Line. It’s 35 million people living in twice the population density of Bangladesh. The only larger metropolitan area is New York, which sprawls further but is much less populous.

Chinatown, Yokohama
So – Yokohama. In a strange way, the city reminds me more of an actual city. That is, it feels nothing like Tokyo, despite the above-mentioned physical connections. My course through the city started in Ishikawacho, near Chinatown, and I worked my way towards Tokyo Bay and then the skyscraper-packed CBD before ultimately catching a subway train back to Shibuya in Tokyo. Starting in Ishikawacho, then, I was once again struck by how I rarely seem to ‘get’ what Japanese tourists see as a tourist attraction. A couple of days before heading there, I mentioned I would be visiting Yokohama. One of my students was thrilled. Wow, he explained, then you really have to visit Chinatown and eat at this restaurant – you have to wait for half an hour! It took a moment to realise that the queuing was actually meant to be part of the attraction, part of what sold it as a place to go. Given the ease of reaching Yokohama from central Tokyo – you can get direct trains from Ikebukuro, Shinjuku and Shibuya, amongst others – I’m not even sure why it carries such a strange weight as a place to visit. It takes just as long to visit other parts of central Tokyo. On the other hand, there are some fairly spectacular sights (the disappointment of Chinatown notwithstanding).

Nippon Maru and Landmark Tower
From a small park along the Bay, you can see the Hikawa Maru, an ocean liner now docked as a museum; Landmark Tower, the tallest building in Japan (though shorter than both Tokyo Tower and the still-under-construction Sky Tree); the Yokohama Bay Bridge; and across the Bay itself to Chiba Prefecture. In the shadows of the Landmark Tower, you can find the Nippon Maru, a sailing ship now used apparently used as a training vessel. Alas, Wikipedia has failed me in this situation, but apparently she was built in the 1930s.

The journey back to Tokyo gave me an opportunity to ride in one of the many mysterious through trains that I’ve seen, but never actually been aboard. The JR system is fairly straightforward, but when it comes to private rail companies there are complicated knots of underground and overground lines, with some morphing from one into the other on difficult-to-predict occasions. Apparently, trains on the Minatomirai Line running under Yokohama are one such example: hop on the right train, and you can ride it all the way back to Shibuya.

Then, if you’re any sensible kind of person, you’ll get the hell out of Shibuya as fast as you can.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A Couple of Weeks, and Big Changes

This is just going to be a real quick post because I've been neglecting my blog. I've got quite a backlog of things I want to talk about - photos and thoughts on Yokohama, my reaction to this year's E3, perhaps a comment or two on my love for Terry Pratchett's Discworld (which I've spent the better part of this year re-reading from the beginning). Last weekend I spent three appallingly sweaty days in Kyoto and Nara, and I'm planning on writing up a scathing review of that particular Japanese tourist destination some time soon. At the very least, I feel the need to remind people that outside the (rightfully) world-famous temples and shrines is a truly awful city, a big grey and brown mass of old buildings and ill-thought out public transport. Nara is full of essentially tame deer, though, which partially makes up for it.

The other big news is that I'm leaving Japan sooner than originally expected. My working holiday visa is due to expire in November, and I've spent this year deciding whether to try and seek sufficient employment to qualify for an actual work visa - in the end, the answer has come out as no. It's not an easy decision - as much as the ungodly heat of the Japanese summer seeks to drive me out of the country - but I've been essentially forced out of one office and commuting to the other hardly seems worth the effort. I'm not sure what I'll actually achieve by going back to the UK, however. It seems I'm leaving one politically crippled country to return to one even further down the pipes, but visa-less expats can't be choosers.

So: there will be proper updates. Yokohama and Kyoto/Nara, for the travel-inclined, and some thoughts on gaming and other media when I get chance.