Monday, July 31, 2006

The Importance of Being Busy

Oh my. The past week has been jam-packed. Here is a brief summary of what went down when and with whom:

Empress MichikoFriday, 21 July: Lyani and I went out to Ginza after I got home from work, ate at Friday's (sometimes I need burgers and fries--it's part of the American DNA, I think), then saw Empress Michiko on our walk back to Ginza Station.

Saturday, 22 July: After Lyani's English lesson in Yokohama (she is teaching English to a Japanese girl), I hopped on the train and met her in Ueno, where we proceeded to visit the Ueno Zoo. Outsanding animals included two very active polar bears, scores of penguins, a sweet Hokkaido brown bear who was chewing quite contentedly on a stick, languidly lounging tigers who still managed to look quite menacing, Japanese monkeys (which I have also met in the wild, regrettably--they are mean little buggers, with the stick throwing and screeching), and a massive, evil-looking alligator that scared the ever-living crap-ola out-a me-a (don't know why I got all Italiano there).

Sunday, 23 July: Lyani and I rode the Keiyo Line train one stop to Kaisai-rinkai-koen. The park is a nice enough place by itself, but we went specifically to visit the exquisite Tokyo Sea Life Park. I just love that site's tagline for the aquarium: "If they look tasty, you've been in Japan too long!". Heh heh, very funny. Except that Lyani actually overheard a 10 year old boy looking at some fish and remarking to his father, "美味しそう!", which my Japanese-reading readers will read as "oishisou!", or "they look tasty!". True, true. I dug the massive tuna, the hammerhead sharks, the many brightly-coloured tropical fish, and the weird things that are found in the deep ocean. Lyani enjoyed the marine animal puppets in the gift shop.

Monday, 24 July: I volunteered myself and Ota to give a presentation at the TLUG technical meeting on Saturday. I started feverishly coding up a Missile Command clone for our presentation.

Tuesday, 25 July: Lyani watched "Mission: Impossible III" with a colleague of hers from the IUC, then I joined them and a couple other IUC grads at Friday's (I know, I know... but it is so delicious!) for food and drinks... can you say "la cerveza mas fina"?

Wednesday, 26 July: I found out that I would be working Sunday night and Monday morning, as we had a scheduled power outage for an electrical circuit test, as required by Japanese law. I was less than thrilled at the short notice, but there was not any shikata, so I resolved to ganbaru.

Thursday, 27 July: Lyani and I, fearing the fierce summer heat of August, bought plane tickets to go to Sapporo for a long week-end. Hurrah!

Friday, 28 July: I came home from work, hacked mightily on the Tokyo Missile Command source, then had supper with Lyani. We watched a few episodes from the first season of "Lost". It is certainly interesting, but in a slightly cheesy, "I wonder what will happen next?!" way. The acting ranges from decent to downright excellent, though, so I guess that is something. We'll keep watching, maybe it gets "awesome" at some point. :)

Saturday, 29 July: I met Ota at 12:00 in Ginza. We walked to the Renoir Cafe, which is right across the street from Wall Street Associates, where TLUG meetings are held (well, actually, this meeting was the last one at Wall Street for a little while, since they are growing so fast they need their conference room for office space). We sat in Renoir for almost two hours, feverishly reviewing the code that we would be presenting. Went to the meeting, which was great: Junichi Uekawa's presentation on running Linux on his MacBook was so cool that it was all I could do to keep from walking down Ginza-dori to the Apple Store right after the meeting to pick up a MacBook; Ota and I did pretty well on our presentation, given the almost criminally negligible amount of preparation we did; I finally met in meatspace two TLUGgers who I have known for a few years online; beer was consumed at the ensuing nomikai (drinking party, but y'all should know that by now); wireless networks were sniffed at the izakaya; and a good time was had by all.

Sunday, 30 July: I went and played football with a few chaps from work, and a bunch of rabid Arsenal fans. Despite not having touched a football in almost a year, I thought I played pretty well. My fitness was horrendous, but I was better on the ball than I used to be. I think that I am more confident and more patient, and I don't rely solely on my pace to make progress towards the goal. I also played much better defence than is typical, and passed with pretty good precision (including one incredibly cheeky back-heel). I didn't get any goals out of four chances, but I felt pretty good about the way I had taken them (one shot drilled at the keeper, one just wide, a high cross that I could not quite put my head to, and a waist-high volley that I couldn't find a striking surface to play). Best of all, I had a really good time, and spoke more Japanese in the two hours we played than in an average day at work.

After football, I went home, had a big bowl of Lyani's kick-ass chili, then went in to work. Mauro and I undertook the Herculean effort of shutting down all computer and electronic equipment in the entire FC (which is, remember, four times the size of the Tokyo Dome) by ourselves. We accomplished our mission by 23:30, and made our respective ways home.

Monday, 31 July: I hauled myself in to work at 04:35 (I had to catch a taxi, because the first train doesn't roll through Maihama until 05:15). I stopped in at the convenience store right by Ichikawa-Shiohama Station, for to buy some breakfast (loosely defined as a donut and a pint of orange juice), and found three policemen in there. Apparently, there had been some sort of robbery. Mauro stopped at the same convenience store just after I did, and found it closed, so I guess the policemen must have taken the store clerk "downtown" to get his statement. Anyway, Sato-san joined us in the morning, so the three of us were able to get everything booted up and running by 08:00, when production started. In other news, I was sore as hell from the previous day's football--apparently if you do not use muscles in a while, they sort of get weak. Huh. Who'd a thunk it?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Damn the Weather

Full speed ahead!

At least, I wish that was my attitude. A more appropriate statement might be, "damn the weather, I'll just stay in bed!" Hurrah.

Witness the desolation that is my extended forecast:

Extended forecast

All residents of the Kantou chihou may hereby blame me for angering the weather gods by brazenly suggesting that the rainy season was over. My bad, y'all.

Hopefully this nasty weather will blow over before the Fuji Rock Festival commences next weekend. Not that I am personally planning to attend, but I would not wish that kind of buzz-harshing on anyone!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Tokyo wa yoru no shichi-ji

"Tokyo wa yoru no shichi-ji (the night is still young)" is the name of a J-pop song from back in the day. The band is called Pizzicato Five; you can groove to the video here, thanks to YouTube.

The reason that I bring this up is that the title means, "In Tokyo, it's 7:00 PM", which, if you ask me, is when Tokyo is at its best on a summer day. It just so happened that last night, I was leaving the dentist's office at about 18:30. Ginza is a pretty cool place to be any time, I guess, but 18:30 last night was almost magical. It was just before dusk, and the oppressive heat of midday had retreated just enough to make being outside comfortable, like a warm blanket draped around your shoulders. The crowds of shoppers that had been swarming all over Ginza since early afternoon were almost gone, and it was still too early for the club-hoppers and other denizens of the night to be out. There wasn't much traffic, either, so Ginza was strangely quiet. Add a sun slowly setting through the omnipresent haze of pollution, and you have a brilliant moment.

Getting off the train at Maihama, I was once again treated to one of Tokyo's elusive glimpses of heart-breaking beauty. Tokyo is a big city, and is afflicted with all the numerous unpleasantries that go with urbanity: unpleasant smells, a constant cacophony of noise as people, cars, and giant television screens compete for your attention, and so on. But every once and awhile, the city gives you a brief reward for putting up with its shit, and just such a reward was long overdue.

As I exited Maihama Station's north exit, the sun was setting off to my left, staining the sky a brilliant pink / orange, while the elevated highway climbed to meet it. Truly a breathtaking view, and I am only sorry that I did not have my camera on me (though I suppose I could have snapped a low-res picture with my keitai that would not have done the scene justice).

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Japanese Dentistry Illustrated

Well, a summer thunderstorm swept in and cut short Lyani's and my photographic excursion. I guess I should not have mentioned in my blog how the rainy season is "over". Nor should Lyani have taken her umbrella out of her purse. Nor should we have had the audacity to want to take some pictures under a blue sky. Consider us punished, Oh Great Weather! Anyway, we got a few pictures, so we should be able to post a pictorial sometime soon--though we might wait until we are able to get a few more pictures. We'll see what the weather has in store tomorrow.

Anyway, the main thrust of this entry is to describe my first encounter with Japanese dentistry. Don't worry, I emerged unscathed. Sometime last week, Lyani and I realised two things: 1) I pay a reasonably large amount every month for health insurance (which includes dental coverage), and 2) I have not been to the dentist since just before we moved to Japan, last September. (Speaking of which, if you find yourself in Columbus, Ohio, I highly recommend Dr. Barbara Hanson; and I hear that Sarah Zarick kid is supposed to be pretty good, too!)

Moving to remedy this situation, Lyani did a little bit of Googling, and came up with an English-speaking dentist in Ginza, one Dr. Hitomi Hayashi. Lyani made me an appointment for 17:00 this evening (Saturday, 15 July, 2006). I left the house at 16:00, walked down to Maihama Station (luckily, the rain had subsided, and even more fortunately, it had taken the edge off the heat--which reached 32° today, and felt like 40° once the humidity was factored in), rode the Keiyo Line to Shin-Kiba, then switched to the Yurakucho Line and got off at Ginza 1-chome (-chome is a standard counter in Japanese for city blocks). The dental clinic was right across the street from a branch of my bank, the ubiquitous Tokyo-Mitsubushi Bank (well, technically, it is now the Mitsubishi Tokyo UFJ Bank, but I am still irritated with the name change following the acquisition of UFJ Bank, so I am sticking to the old name). I crossed the street--which was made easier by the fact that the street had been closed off to traffic, which I am assuming happens every weekend afternoon in the busy shopping district of Ginza--walked into the building, caught the elevator up to the forth floor and walked into the dental clinic, and immediately thought I was in the wrong place. The clinic looked more like a beauty salon than a dentist's office, with young, stylish ladies sitting at a counter in the waiting area, examining literature and touching up their make-up (which is something that Japanese girls will do anywhere, including the train, sitting at a table in a coffee shop, etc.), and a receptionist in a pink uniform behind the counter. Luckily, I noticed right away that the literature the stylish ladies were reading all had to do with the bleaching, straightening, or other manipulation of teeth. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, since Ginza is one of the trendiest neighbourhoods in Tokyo (the other place that leaps to mind when I think of the word "trendy" is Omote-sando); why shouldn't dental clinics located there be très chic?

Effective C++, 3rd EditionI walked up to the counter, introduced myself, and mentioned that I had an appointment for 17:00. Being a first-time patient, I had to fill out a brief questionaire and supply my contact and insurance information. Luckily, they gave me the English-language version of the questionaire--I can muddle through that sort of thing in Japanese, but it takes lots of second-guessing and doubting myself. The questionaire was actually a lot less involved than the new-patient paperwork at US dentists would be. I finished the questionaire, and had to wait for about ten more minutes until they were ready for me, but that was no problem, since I had brought along my well-worn copy of "Effective C++" (wow, thanks to Amazon, I just realised that there is a 3rd edition of this venerable book--I guess it is time to upgrade--good thing there is a TLUG meeting next week-end, where I can auction off my copy of the 2nd edition). The only downside of the wait was that the trendy leather chairs in the waiting room were not very comfortable.

Right, so after ten minutes, a dental tech popped her head into the waiting room and called my name, in surprisingly good English. I was not terribly surprised that she spoke English--after all, I specifically chose this dentist since she advertised that she was English-speaking--but I expected that her assistants would speak so-called "katakana English", which is English, but pronounced according to the rules of the Japanese sound system. I am sure you have all heard katakana English on Saturday Night Live: "you rai-ku mo-ah sushi, Mistah Sumisu?" (say it out loud and you should get the picture).

I went into the examination room, and had a seat in the chair. The chair itself was a bit different from the American ones; American dental chairs tend to be all-in-one affairs, with the sink basin, the examination light, etc. all attached to the chair. In this case, the chair was free-standing, with the sink basin attached to a table on one side, and the light and other stuff on the other side. The dental assistant used a control on the table to the right (where the sink was) to recline the chair so she could have a look at my choppers. The reclining process itself was pretty cool: the chair went up about 30 cm first, then smoothly reclined while a leg support came up from the bottom. Kind of like a Barcalounger on the Starship Enterprise. And while this was going on, the sink swung up from the table and positioned itself conveniently.

After an initial look at all of the surfaces of my various molars, premolars, canines, and incisors (heh heh, thanks, Wikipedia!), I went into another room for the dreaded panoramic x-ray. The x-ray was pretty much just like the ones I remember from American dentists' offices, but instead of the bite wings that they put in your mouth to keep your teeth apart for the x-ray, the tech just stuck a toothpick sideways between my front teeth. Whatever works, I suppose. From there, it was back into the exam room for cleaning, polishing, and flossing.

The cleaning was done completely using an electric tool, in contrast to the manual scrapers that I was used to Stateside. The cleaning tool spewed water to keep the teeth from getting too hot, so the tech had to use the suction hose in tandem. The cleaning tool emitted a high-pitched whine not unlike the cry of the dreaded drill. Luckily for me, I did not have to be introduced to the Japanese version of the drill, as my x-rays came back clean.

The polishing process was the same as the American version, except the dentist did not have the sweet bubble gum flavoured paste that I fondly recall from my childhood. They offered raspberry mint, green mint, and wintergreen, in order of increasing "cool feeling" (direct translation from クール感).

Flossing was a little different. They used a really thick gauge floss, which they worked between the teeth, then pulled out from one end, instead of popping it back up between the teeth (hopefully you can imagine what I mean, as I cannot think of a better way of describing it without resorting to ASCII art).

So, that was my visit to the dentist. The best difference from America of all? With my insurance, the checkup only set me back ¥4000--about $35 US!

Mushi Atsui

The Japanese have a great phrase to describe the weather during their infamous summers: 蒸し暑い (mushi-atsui). The word means something as prosaic as "humid", but it has a really great sound that seems to sum up the violent heat and humidity that comprise a typical Japanese summer day: moo-she au-tsoo-ey. Looking at the two words that make up the phrase, the literal translation would be something like: "steaming hot", which is more like it.

Since I am writing about how to describe a Japanese summer day, you may correctly surmise that the rainy season (梅雨, tsuyu) has passed us by and left us in the wrenching grip of summer. The rainy season is usually three weeks of solid rain, but this year, it was an odd one. It was something like five weeks of drizzle for three days, clear for two days weather, which just made us nervous, since we were expecting the "real" rainy season to start any day. It is certainly true that the fear of something is worse than the thing itself.

Anyway, this morning, I woke up at around 9:00, after a pleasant evening with the Amazon IT crew and our assorted wives and fiancés at El Torito, a decent Mexican restaurant that Lyani and I used to frequent in our Yokohama days. Of course, this particular El Torito was not the one on the 26th floor of the Yokohama Sky Building (alas!); this one was located on the ground floor of an unassuming, five-storey building by the Nishi-Kasai station on the Tozai Metro line. But the tacos were still tasty, the quesadillas quality, the enchiladas enticing, and the spicy sauce spectacular. Oh yeah, and the Corona was on special: la cerveza mas fina indeed! Best line from the evening? One of my colleagues is upbraided by his fiancé: "If your back has hurting, why did you go to the pachinko parlour instead of the chiropractor?" Replied my colleague, "Well, it wasn't hurting then!"

But back to this morning. Lyani decided to make pancakes for breakfast, so while she washed a few dishes, I headed around the corner to the Daily Yamazaki convenience store to pick up some milk and butter (doing my part for breakfast). This was at 9:30 in the morning, remember. So the moment I step out of the shade of our apartment building, the heat slams into me. It was like a physical force, an angry, animal thing that wanted to prevent me from making any progress. I swear the heat was so intense that it was like walking into a stiff wind. Good thing I only had to walk a block and a half, because two blocks in this heat is enough to make the average pedestrian look like he has just been swimming.

I arrived at the Daily Yamazaki with a modicum of sanity still intact. Daily Yamazaki is a chain, which usually means that its stores are staffed with teenagers working part-time, but this Daily, situated as it is in the dodgy end of a suburb, is run by an older couple. It reminds me of the outskirts of Kanazawa, which had a decidely "village" feel. Anyway, I picked up my milk and butter, paid, and the old lady at the counter thanked me for my patronage. I exited the store and turned for home, passing the husband, who was stocking the cigarette vending machine outside the store. He gave me a hearty "thanks" as well. That is one thing I like about living outside of the big city: people are actually friendly. In Japanese cities, sure, people are polite, but they are polite in that distant way that shows that they don't give a damn if you choose to shop in their convenience store or the one next door.

Well, Lyani and I are getting ready to head over to the station / Tokyo Disneyland area for to take some pictures. So, if your luck holds, you might just get a pictorial entry later today or tomorrow, showing you our neighbourhood.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006, Part III

After lots of bitching and moaning about my old commute, I should probably bring you up to speed to the walk in the park that is my new commute.

I stroll out of the house at 07:30, my cup of coffee in my hand and my bag slung over my back, and walk over the bridge, through a pleasant little neighbourhood, and to the station, where I catch a train at 07:45. I sit down, open my book, and read for the eight minutes or so that it takes the train to reach Ichikawa-Shiohama Station. Then, I walk the 200 metres to work.

So my hour and a half door-to-door commute has been shortened to just half an hour. And I really do enjoy having those extra two hours a day--it makes you feel more like a person, instead of a robotic worker who just goes to work in the morning, comes home, eats, and sleeps.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Workin' for the Man Every Night and Day, Part 2

I got my wish: the second half of tonight's Argentina-Germany match heated up, and how!

Argentina wasted no time in going ahead, with Roberto Ayala leaping into high into the air and laying out almost horizontally, a metre and a half off the ground, to hit a screaming header past a defenseless Jens Lehmann. 49th minute, 1-0 Argentina.

After that, Argentina seemed to give up on offence, while the now doubly-motivated Germans kicked their own attack into high gear. I am only surprised that it took them so long to equalise, with the magnificant Miroslav Klose heading it home in the 80th minute. The goal was Klose's fifth of the tournament, putting him two goals clear of Hernan Crespo and (of course) Ronaldo in the running for the Golden Shoe.

And then the unforgivable-yet-typical: a huge error by the referee. 88th minute: Maxi Rodriguez makes a brilliant run, penetrates the area almost to the baseline, and is brought down from behind by a German defender, causing me to leap to my feet screaming "PENALTY!". Alas, it was not to be, as the referee not only pointed the wrong way, but produced a yellow card and wrote Rodriguez's name in his book to boot. Apparently the hapless Rodriguez was thought to have dived, but the replay shows otherwise: the German defender applying a textbook tackle from behind that should have earned him a yellow card and a penalty for the Argentines. I guess I should not have been surprised, as the referee had already handed out three yellow cards, only one of them warranted.

The penalty shootout has just ended, with Germany coming out on top, 4-2. So by that I guess you know that regular time ended in a 1-1 draw, and neither of the two additional 15 minute periods could separate the two sides. You hate to see a match go to penalties, but I have to say that the result was fair here. Germany deserved to win, as they were the only team playing hard for the last 90 minutes of the match (as in, from the 50th minute through to the end of regulation, and then for thirty minutes of extra time). Argentina simply did not look a credible threat after they scored in the 48th minute. Sure, they deserved the penalty, and that probably would have won them the match, but it would have been a fluke, as Germany dominated the second half offensively.

Lehmann was spectacular in the shootout, stopping two penalties to net Germany their well-deserved win. 2002 Golden Ball winner Oliver Kahn was giving him instructions before the shootout, and those instructions must have been great. I just wish that Kahn could help his team out between the sticks instead of just on the sidelines, but I guess some things just are not to be.

But where the hell was Messi? Why did Pekerman (who I will now call "Peckerman" until the end of time) put Cruz in in the 79th minute for Crespo? Cruz, as Mauro's brother pointed out, is like the guy you put in the match if you are leading 3-0 and want to make him feel better about himself. But not when you are tied 1-1 with Germany and you are taking out your only decent forward because he is dog-tired. You go to Messi. Every. Damn. Time! What the hell?!

Workin' for the Man Every Night and Day

00:46 Saturday morning. Most people awake at this hour in the Greater Tokyo area are likely either happily drunk, or relaxing in front of their widescreen LCD TVs with a fine domestic brew, watching Germany play Argentina. I am, alas, at work. Luckily, the nature of the work that requires me to be here from 20:00 Friday night to 08:00 Saturday morning is also of a hurry-up-and-wait nature, which allows me the privilege of stealing more than a few glances at a nearby TV (well, nearby after I moved it there), ice cold o-cha in hand.

The match has been goal-less thus far--as of the half-time break, with the best chance going to Argentina when Hernan Crespo took delivery of a nice long ball deep in the penalty area at around minute 25. He fought for position with the German defender, backing in and getting ready to make some magic, when the referee's whistle stopped play prematurely--Crespo indicated for the foul. From the subsequent replay, I really did not see that Crespo had more of the defender than the defender had of him, and it was a shame that the referee saw it otherwise, because frankly, when Hernan Crespo is one-on-one with a German defender, he is going to make something happen that ends in the announcers screaming "GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!!!!"

I hope there is a bit more offence in the second half. Argentina has had all of the ball (67% possession as of the last stat I saw, ten minutes from half-time), but has only generated one real chance from it. Germany's defence is tight and physical, but methinks the Argentines can break it down with just a little more patience. Oh yeah, and a little more Messi. Why he does not start is beyond me, as he is the finest young player I have seen in this tournament so far, and that includes Christiano Ronaldo's overrated ass.