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May 1, 2005

Japan on a Budget

One of the most surprising things about Japan was that, contrary to popular belief, it's not such an expensive country to visit. Overall, it turned out to be very similar to the cost of travelling in Europe, with meals and food being much cheaper. In fact it's quite common to hear Japanese people who have been to Europe complaining about the high costs of travelling in Britain.

One of the biggest costs in Japan is long distance travel, though again, it's not really any more expensive than a lot of European countries and buying a Japan Rail Pass makes it very reasonable if you plan to embark on even a few journeys in the country. Local travel in towns and cities is not particularly expensive and all the transport systems are very fast and efficient, although Tokyo's metro and rail map is terrifyingly complex unless you really know where you're going - even the locals get lost!

Another major cost is accommodation, but even here prices have dropped considerably over the last ten years or so. This, together with the fall in value of the yen means that, once again it isn't really any more expensive than Britain or other major European countries. A bed in a youth hostel or a capsule hotel costs around ¥3000 (€21) a night and a cheap business hotel or guesthouse might be around ¥5500 (€39). Buying or renting property, however, is still very expensive, especially in Tokyo, where simply renting a car parking space outside your house can cost ¥40,000 (€285) a month.

Food in Japan, like elsewhere in Asia, is remarkably cheap. It's easy to find a bowl of noodles for ¥300 (€2), a filling meal for ¥700 (€5), or you can fill yourself up in a cheap sushi bar for around ¥1000-¥1400 (€7-€10). Many restaurants often have lunch specials, and these are the best times to try somewhere more expensive. Another good option for lunch is a bento, or Japanese lunchbox, traditionally consisting of rice, fish, or meat, with one or more cooked or pickled vegetables - they tend to be very tasty and good value, especially if you're heading off on a long shinkansen trip. If you're really trying to eat cheaply there are 24hr convenience stores on almost every corner where you can buy a cup noodle and there's usually a flask of hot water to fill it from on the counter.

Going out drinking in Japan is generally expensive. A pint tends to cost ¥700 (€5) and upwards, but a beer in a supermarket is only about ¥200 (€1.50). One thing to be aware of is that some of the nicer bars will hit you with a ¥500 service charge, even if you've only dropped in for a small beer - this tends to be obvious when the 'free' sushi arrives shortly after you've sat down!

Electronics tend to be cheaper in Japan, partly due to the low 5% sales tax and the fact that a lot of them are manufactured in the country. It's worth knowing the price of whatever you're shopping for back home as sometimes there isn't much difference, but the biggest temptation to buy something is because of the selection of new models that won't turn up in the rest of the world for months - if ever. Often warranties are Japan only. Western goods, and especially designer items tend to be more expensive.

May 2, 2005

Vending Machine Madness

Vending machines are everywhere in Japan, like they're taking over the country, their fluorescent light giving side streets an eerie glow as they sit quietly outside shops throughout the night. With Japan's very low crime and vandalism rates they're unmolested as they dispense everything from burgers to used schoolgirls underwear 24 hours a day.

According to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association there's one machine for every 23 people in the country. People use them as well, often even preferring them to queuing in a shop as, unlike many vending machines in the western world, they simply do work. They accept notes as well as coins, always give change, and the whole time I was in Japan they never once spat out one of my coins or refused to take a banknote. Anyone who's tried repeatedly to feed a dollar bill into an American vending machine only to have it spat back out understands how psychotically maddening that can be.

Every floor of the Tokyo hotel I was staying in had several machines, or jidoohanbaiki, dispensing beer, soft drinks, toothbrushes, and access cards for the pay-tv channels. Apparently, there's even one on the remote summit of Mount Fuji. Many cheap restaurants have vending machines installed. The first time I walked into one of these and sat down the staff said something to me and pointed to the door. It took some time before I realised that they weren't asking me to leave but were pointing to the vending machine at the entrance. There are photographs of all the dishes available and you simply make your choice, put your money into the machine, and it gives you a ticket which you hand to the restaurant staff. Your meal is freshly prepared and none of the staff have to deal with the cash.

Vending machines really began to appear in Japan for the 1964 olympics when large numbers of people needed to be provided with goods in spite of a shortage of staff and space. Since then they've flourished into selling such things as noodles, pornography, vegetables, clothing, books, fresh flowers... the list goes on. Here's a couple of links to a selection of Japanese vending machines...

Vending machines of Japan photos
More wierd vending machines

Japanese Game Shows

nas-1.jpg
Japanese tv has been infamous the world over since news of Endurance first made it to the west, and some of the programs are as crazed and colourful as we're led to believe. Sometimes I just sat, staring at the screen without any clue of what was going on. There's lots of chat shows on psychedelic sets with a host who appears to have drank way too much coffee, but every so often the Japanese networks come up with something truly revolutionary.

Take, for example, a show called Nasubi. In this a contestant was chosen in an audition without being told what it was about, then stripped naked and locked in an apartment alone for over a year without any food, furniture, or entertainment. Whatever he needed he had to win by sending postcards off to magazine competitions. Once he'd won $10,000 in prizes he'd be released. Another show, Namidame, is about crying. In it, ten young women in a house compete over one week to see who can cry the most, collecting their tears in test tubes, and slapping and insulting each other.

Japanarama is a collection of "psycho TV from Japan" available on video, and some of the highlights listed include;

• A game show in which a grandmother has to answer questions about pop culture in order to prevent her grandson from being catapulted into the air by a bungee machine--the man screaming "Grandma, Graaaandmaaaa!" and the old woman bowing in apology just before he is launched hundreds of feet into the air.

• A beachside wrestling match pitting hulking pros against 90-lb. weaklings. Said weaklings are always tossed out of the ring, either onto an electrically charged platform or a giant glue trap.

• Martial Arts movies where the camera looks up the woman's skirt whenever she does a kick.

• A man with a chunk of meat strapped to his forehead sticks his head into a corridor, whereupon a hungry komodo dragon is unleashed toward him.

• For more violent wake-up calls, men with machine guns surround someone in a peaceful slumber and open fire.

• Stripped of his clothes, a man is smothered in butter from head to toe and placed in a cage with a half dozen dogs.

Quirky Japanese TV programmes
Scenes from Japanarama

May 3, 2005

Dahon Helios P8

Dahon Helios P8
Before I went to Tokyo I'd read that cycling was the most popular way of getting around in the city and this I found it hard to believe, given the traffic. Many streets have cyclepaths, however, and those that don't everyone rides on the pavements - even through crowds, avoiding pedestrians with a zen-like talent.

On my last week in Tokyo I began to notice that lots of people were riding folding bikes - a type of bike much liked by people with boats whom I've always ridiculed as I overtook them on my mountain bike; their little legs spinning the undersized wheels like crazy. This time, however, I looked again and noticed that a lot of the bikes had larger bmx sized wheels, proper gearing, and were keeping up with their bigger rivals.

I soon found some bike shops with huge selections of folding bikes. The fact that Tokyo is such a crowded place and most people live in small flats means that they're very popular for buzzing through crowds then folding up and carrying into your room. Soon I was hooked on the idea of getting one and spending my last days in Tokyo cycling around - and it would also be perfect for keeping on the boat. After a couple of days of research I decided to buy a Dahon Helios P8 and headed over to a big bike shop in Shinjuku called Joker.

It was packed to the roof with lovely, expensive bikes and I just stood drooling for a long time after walking in. One of the staff spoke English well, and when I told him I would take the Dahon he replied, "Thank you." I think it was the first time anyone had ever thanked me for asking to buy something and it was far from being one of their expensive bikes, but such is the politeness and respect in Japanese society that it's just normal. He asked me to come back in an hour while he set the bike up.

lf-heliosp8.jpg
When I returned he went over the entire bike with me, took it downstairs in the service elevator, carried it outside, bowed to me, and asked me to be careful. The service alone was worth the price of the bike - which incidentally was two-thirds of the price it would have cost in Britain. I sat on the saddle prepared to cycle off into the Japanese sunset; but the problem was that this was Shinjuku - one of the busiest parts of Tokyo - on a Saturday evening! The streets were so packed with bodies that it was hard to even walk through them - but you can't buy a new bike and wheel it away! I bowed back to the guy from the shop, and as I cycled off, the crowds parted like the Red Sea.

I did 25km that evening and ended up cycling back to my hotel at the other end of Tokyo. The bike turned out to be perfect for crowded streets - the handlebars are shoulder width meaning you can squeeze through anywhere wide enough to walk, and the gearing is flexible enough to let you go very slowly behind people strolling, or accelerate away fast when you get onto open tarmac. In the last days I saw much, much more of Tokyo than I would have walking, and cycling somehow makes you feel more like you belong in a place. I'd highly recommend cycling in Tokyo - either with your own bike or renting one, as it's a great way to get around such a fascinating city.

This bike also introduces a new way of cycling to me as, weighing less than 11kg, it's easy to fold up and carry onto a bus or the metro when you don't want to cycle anymore, and it's much less hassle to take on a plane than a full-size bike. Being able to do some cycle touring in combination with using public transport could prove to be an easy way to travel compared to my last big cycle trip. The tyres are low profile slicks, which are really meant for fast commuting on smooth tarmac so I've let the pressure down a bit to give a slightly softer ride - probably I'll change them over to an all-round touring tyre that'll handle the rough better.


List of Tokyo bike shops
from IAC Tokyo

May 6, 2005

Downloadable Origami

this is paper!
For someone who's all but forgotten how to use a pen I still have a strange fascination with stationery shops. Whilst in Ginza's massive stationery store Ito-Ya finding Carita a hanga woodcarving set I came across some amazing origami kits of lions and birds with life-like curved features.

Luckily I didn't buy any, however, as this evening whilst looking at outboards on Yamaha's website I bizarrely stumbled across downloadable origami. Not only do they have boring lions and 'rare animals of japan' but they also have realistic models of Yamaha motorcycles including an origami garage set complete with grease and a Snap-On tool chest! Just download them, print them out, and start putting them together!

"The challenge level and your satisfaction guaranteed!"

May 8, 2005

QR Codes

qrcode code for this site's url
One of the things I'd never seen before I went to Japan were strange blocks of black and white dots that seemed to be in lots of magazines and adverts there. Eventually, I found out that they were QR codes, or 2-dimensional barcodes.

These can hold up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters compared to the 12 digits that conventional (UPC) barcodes can hold. Many of the camera phones available in Japan are able to read these just by pointing the camera at them, and they then decode the data which often includes website addresses to click through to, or company information to store in the address book. This site will automatically encode any information, such as your contact details, into a QR code that can then be placed onto a business card or website. Up to 30% of the code can be damaged or obscured and it'll still work. It seems like a really good way to store and transfer contact information and they've been used in Japan for years - I'm just surprised that European phones aren't equipped to handle them.

QR codes Wikipedia page
QR code reader for Mac OSX in Japanese
QR code reader in java
UPC barcode reader for Symbian series 60 phones
Barcode designed as pizza graphic

May 11, 2005

Japan Photos

shinkansen
Sometimes there's too much to see on a trip, you take too many photographs, and when you get back and have to go through them all, spending days in front of iPhoto and Photoshop, you regret it and yearn for the days of slide film again. A selection of the photos from the Japan trip, however, are finally up on the site, my eyes feel like they're on fire, it's late, and I really have to go to bed.

Japan photos

May 15, 2005

Gmail Invites

I've got some Gmail invites so if anyone's after an account then add a comment or send me an email and I'll forward you one.

May 17, 2005

Psycho Robotic Cat

psycho robotic cat
Necoro the robotic cat looks like the stuff of nightmares. Something about the fact that they've covered it in fake fur makes it look just a bit too much like it's straight out of a horror film about undead zombie killer cats. Think how an Aibo would look if they gave it hair and lifelike, staring eyes. Whilst seemingly soft and cuddly, one look into those eyes tells you that it's just waiting for the chance to leap up and claw your testicles off at the first opportunity!

Only a truly insane person would buy one of these for their family. Check out the video for the full psycho thriller effect, especially when they get together to hunt in a pack.

May 24, 2005

10,000 Hippies Can't Be Wrong

The guilt is overpowering for my lack of blogging in a week in which someone threw a live hand grenade at Mr Bush, and the most successful film ever hit the cinemas. All I can do is claim to have been busy and stressed, and promise to make up for it.

I left Finland last night just as summer suddenly arrived. After a winter in the shadows, I spent the last weeks trying to adapt to a lack of darkness in Espoo. Attempting to get to bed - and usually failing - in the hours of dusk between midnight and two, before everything is, once more, bathed in sunlight, has proved just as hard as the dark, winter days.

I flew out of Finland with Ryanair for the same price as a flight with a real airline would have cost, simply for the love of arguing with the staff to get my bag onboard without a surcharge, then the pleasure of sitting, unable to sleep, in a solid plastic, non-reclining seat, getting haemorrhoids and being bombarded by non-stop marketing for three hours.

I then had until 04:00 to check in for my Sleazyjet flight to Ibiza, which allowed me several hours to perfect the art of sleeping on a cold, steel table in London's most remote airport before boarding the plane in a zombie-like state and getting pulled out for yet another 'random search' on the way (must get this chip out of my neck somehow).

The flight was full of numpties, whom I'd forgotten were now Britain's single biggest export, and it took intense concentration to ignore their yelling and pie eating enough to manage to pass out. I finally woke just as we flew past the myth enshrouded island of Es Vedra, and came in to land in Ibiza airport. It wasn't until later, however, when the ferry approached Formentera, that the magical power of the island finally possessed me again and the high, once more, kicked in. 10,000 hippies just can't be wrong... Can they?

May 27, 2005

May The Force Be With You

Just before I left Helsinki we went to see Star Wars Episode III. Even though it had been out a couple of days, lots of Star Wars fans were still there - one guy carrying a stormtrooper's helmet. As the film began and the intro scrolled onto screen, someone near the front lit up a lightsaber, which was met with applause.

We liked the film lots, but of course it has a lot to live up to, especially as I've lived through the Star Wars years and remember going to the very first (I mean fourth) film long, long ago in a country far, far away (Dundee Odeon in the 1970's). The special effects are truly lifelike and I left the cinema exhausted from the non-stop action from beginning to end - people had problems getting a chance to eat their popcorn through it. It's also cleverly made to blend in with Episode IV - produced all those years ago - with costumes and sets merging nicely. In fact I was so impressed with the way that the story explained everything that came later (or was it earlier) that from now on I plan to begin reading all books from the middle to the end, then read from the beginning to the middle.

Here's a working robot of the real hero of the series, R2D2, that's been built by a group in Italy.
Not sure if it can project holograms yet though...

May 29, 2005

Meet The Neighbours

Tonight I was invited over to dinner by my neighbours in the boat next door to me, something ordinarily yachtie, but which hasn't happened for a very long time. After all the usual sailing talk finally died down, it turned out that one of them had been a producer for the BBC before he'd retired - they'd once spent 3 years making 13 hours of a documentary on Japan - and the other was a barrister.

One of the guys he'd represented - Mr A, was sitting in his cell eating steak and drinking port when he first met him. He'd painted a portrait of the prison governor's daughter, and since then prison life had been much more bearable. Once, long ago, he'd stolen jewellery from girls at a dance and had been arrested. As he was sent down for the crime the magistrate told him how he'd ruined a very special night for those girls and how they would be upset about it for years to come. Hence, he decided to only steal from very rich people from then on. He would break into a big house and, being an expert in art and antiques, steal an expensive painting and move the other paintings around to cover it up. Only months later would the occupants finally notice that one of their paintings were missing. One day he was arrested for possessing amphetamines - he'd been used to buying them from the chemist years before when they were still legal and didn't think it was against the law, but the police came back to search his house. The house, naturally, turned out to be packed full of antiques. They looked around rooms that were packed like antique stores, then walked over to Mr A's girlfriend who was lying on a chaise-lounge to ask where he was. She said that he'd gone to the bathroom. They knocked on the door, but there was no answer, so they broke it down. Inside was part of a bottle of Creme de Menthe, Mr A's favourite drink, and an open window with the curtains blowing in the wind. Mr A had left the building.

So, the police tailed his girlfriend for a week until finally she led them to Mr A and a car full of freshly stolen silver with half a bottle of Creme de Menthe in it. Mr A, however, never turned up in court on the day of the trial. It was only much later that he was arrested in an amphetamine factory in Essex from where he'd been watching the whole trial's progress.