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Getting Lost and Found in Tokyo

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Getting lost in Tokyo.

Getting lost in Tokyo.

“So what are your plans for today?”

I thought the friendly Australian male voice was addressing the person who just left, but when he was met with silence I realized he was speaking to me, and looked over my shoulder as I was putting on my shoes. Hostels are the best place to meet people, especially when you’re travelling solo.

“Me? Nothing yet. You?”

“Nope. Just getting lost.”

“Mind if I join? I’m on the hunt for Godzilla.”

“Cool!”

Over breakfast at a local coffee shop, Tam and I chatted about Japan, our trips, and sweet buns filled with red-bean paste. Since this was the first full day in Tokyo for both of us, we decided to forgo a map for now, but eventually make our way to Akiharaba (also known as “Electronic City”), where he was to meet a friend later in the afternoon. First, we needed money.

Despite what I was told, ATMs in Japan are not created equal. Most don’t like international cards, even ones on the Plus network. Apparently, the best places for international-friendly ATMs are post offices and 711. So we find a post office and my new friend goes nuts. Not postal, just nuts. The ATM before us wasn’t a fancy, touch-screen, AI, paranoia-inducing interactive “experience” that we’re used to in Toronto, New York, and Sydney; no, it’s a big ol’ keyboard kiosk with what looks like a monster CRT screen. I wish one of us had taken a picture (’cause that would have gone down well with the startled clerk looking at us funny).

Cash procured and astonishment abated (though Tam’s still giggling), we wend our way in a direction that looks interesting. Meanwhile we talk. I learn that my fellow traveller works for Google, hence his response to the ATM. Like me, he’s amazed at Japan’s many technological contradictions: Bullet trains that go a million kilometres an hour, but JR trains and subways that are dated. Toilets that automatically warm up, play music, clean and dry your ass (and allow you to control the pressure of the bidet), and flush; but the abundance of squat-style toilets. Then there’s the country’s environmental programs. It has a recycling program in place whereby you separate plastics from “combustibles” from PET bottles and cans. Which is great for the hot bottled coffee that you can get from the same case in which you find cold water and soft drinks. Huh? Tam and I looked at this, um, creative use of energy and couldn’t reconile it. So I got a cold water, he got a hot coffee and we each got a plastic bag. You get plastic bags with everything. Decline a bag, you’re greeted with puzzled look…and a bag.

Have I mentioned bicylces? The Japanese cycle everywhere. On the road, on the sidewalk. Wearing suits, high heels, babies, but no helmets. The bikes look like sturdy things, equipped with internal locks, child carriers, baskets, kick stands, and umbrella brackets. Some have even bells, lights, and mirrors. Sidewalks feature rectangular knobby plastic inserts, but I’ve yet to descern the purpose. The only bike lanes appear at crosswalks…and aren’t used. I used to ride until arthritis kicked in. Tam is an avid cyclist in Australia. We’re both baffled at the cycling chaos. Where’s the logic? Best use the eyes in the back of your head to find it.

Finally we reach the bright lights of Electronic City. Tam must find his friend and I must find Gojira. We promise to check in later.

If you’ve ever watched a Godzilla movie, you’d believe that he’s a giant lizard that is hard to miss. Not so. I walked around and couldn’t see him. I asked locals, and they had no idea. Finally, I gave up. Head low and spirits deflated, I retraced my steps and resolved to simply enjoy Tokyo minus the radioactive icon. Then it happened. I turned a corner in Shinjuku there he was: Gojira in all his fibreglass glory, his head crowning the Hotel Gracery. I giggled like an idiot and took some photos.

Gojira

Gojira

Now what? I noticed another fan snapping some shots with his phone. “Another Godzilla fan!”

“Hey there! Did you see that there’s people up there. I’m gonna try and go up. Wanna join me?”

“Sure!”

And so a strange man and I went to an expensive hotel to get to know to a giant fibreglass lizard. Bow-chika-bow-wow! Okay, not quite. Really, not at all. Just a couple of nerds who were willing to pony up ¥700 for ginger ale to get up close and personal with a 1950s movie icon. Acutally, the restaurant got ¥1200 out of Jacques (from Montreal) for the Godilla cake.

Godzilla Cake...just don't drink the pink liquid!

Godzilla Cake…just don’t drink the pink liquid!

Over a fizzy drink and a lava cake, Jacques told me about how he came to Japan (every detail including youthful conversations with his buddy), made friends (with a woman in a bar whose family he has since met, hmm), and gave me lessons on how speak Japanese with an outrageous Quebecois accent. Who was I to say no? Then we went out to meet Godzilla.

Rawr!

Rawr!

Eek!

Eek!

And so another adventure came to an end. I bid Jacques adieu, and left to meet my pre-arranged food tour of Tokyo After 5.

Despite desperately wanting to prove to a group of strangers that I wash up well, I resigned myself to the fact that Tokyo is not a city you can just dash across, hop in the shower, and meet your date in time. At least not when you’re just learning the subway system. Don’t believe me? This, dear reader, is the Tokyo subway system:

You are here.

You are here.

I’ve learned to schedule time to get lost, even if it means arriving early and sitting on a cement block in a busy retail square listening to a girl shrilly shill lottery tickets through a bull horn.

How do I know this? Silvia, our lovely tour guide told me. I booked this tour thinking it was more of bar crawl, but I learn now that there’s more food than booze. There will be sake, however, and possibly beer and plum wine. Great! Let’s walk.

Silvia, cat-herder extraordinaire!

Silvia, cat-herder extraordinaire!

We are eleven people: five couples and me. There are four Americans, four Australians, and two French, and a lone Canadian. Silvia, a local of Japanese heritage and Brazilian birth, leads us under a bridge and through an alley barely wide enough for two people. This is Yakitori Alley and it is here, she explains, where people hid during air raids during the Second World War. Families set up restaurants that remain to this day, the businesses passing from generation to generation.

Yakitori Alley

Yakashimi Alley

Yakatori is grilled food on a stick, most often chicken and pork, with a few veggies thrown in. Every bit of the animal is impaled: skin, liver, and on so. The first place we visit serves up plates of the stuff. Delicious!

Before

Before

After

After

As you can see, there was sake. I’d tried this spirit once before and was nonplussed, but I was keen to be plussed. However, you can’t just order a glass of the stuff. Drinking is best done with others. I was with others. Did they want sake? Yes, some chorused! Yippee! And so the decision came down: warm or cold.

“Warm!” I whooped.

“I don’t drink warm sake,” said one of the Americans.

“But you’re in Japan. Don’t you want to try something new?” replied one of the Austrialians.

“I don’t drink warm sake or warm beer.”

So we drank cold sake. It was perfectly fine cold sake, but it wasn’t warm. Next time. With more adventuresome Americans. Or Aussies. And for record, I’ve developed a taste for sake.

Next we were off to get sweets, which are ridculously popular in Japan. Many pastries are made with a sweet potato flour and some incorporate matcha, or green tea powder, and have a chewy texture. The filling varies. At the shop we visited in Ginza, were given a choice between red bean and apricot.

Sweets

Sweets

We save the sweets for later to leave room for monja-yaki, which originated in Tsukishima. When Silvia described our group as big, I didn’t believe her; however, given much space is at a premium in Japan, I could see her point. Squeezing a dozen people into a Japanese restaurant is challenging, especially when we have to remove our shoes. Nevertheless, we manage and are seated in booths each with its own flat griddle.

The first course is monjiyaki, a battery stir-fry of sorts with meat, cabbage, and flavouring, best served slightly crispy and burned. I wish I could describe it better than than, to be honest. We all have a go at stirring it with large spatulas, then serve ourselves with tiny ones.

Monjiyaki ingredients for first course.

Monjiyaki ingredients.

Monjiyaki method

Monjiyaki method

The second course is okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake that looks more like a latke than a flapjack. The ingredients include an egg, cabbage, pork, garlic, flavour, and a few other things.

Okonomiyaki ingredients

Okonomiyaki ingredients

You form it into a patty and let cook till golden brown on the bottom. Then carefully turn it over to continue cooking.

Form a disc and let cook...

Form a disc and let cook…

Almost there.

…till golden brown.

When done, dress the okonomiyaki with teriaki sauce then mayonnaise. So good!

All dressed and ready to eat!

All dressed and ready to eat!

During all this cooking and eating, we were drinking. My poison? Plum wine with soda. Mmm, refreshing…so much so I think I may have another… Oh, there’s dessert? Of course! Chokomaki, or chocolate crepes. Yes, the French couple approved, even if the batter was made with sweet potato flour.

Batter

Batter

Chocolate filling.

Chocolate filling.

Fold

Fold

Cut into portions.

Cut into portions.

Despite our protestations, we finished all the food and drink and left a happy group. Here’s proof:

Happy eaters!

Happy eaters!

I floated back to hostel on the subway, confident I knew my way home. In the day, yes, but at night? From an unfamiliar exit? In the rain? And there I stood, minus rain gear, hoping that my head bent over the map would shield it from drops. It didn’t.

“Do you know where you’re going?”

I looked up as the rain suddenly stopped. A friendly young Japanaese woman had shared her umbrella with me.

“Anne Hostel. It should be around the corner, but I’m turned around.”

“Oh, I know it. Let’s go.”

“But it’s out of your way…”

And so she walked me to my door, telling me of her plans to work in British Columbia the next year. I forget her name, but I remember her kindness. What a wonderful way to end a fantastic day.

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Getting Yer Backup

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Kickin' it Old Skool

Kickin’ it Old Skool


Preppers may be on to something.

I don’t mean stockpiling canned beets in case of the zombie apocalypse or making bows and arrows out of your neighbour’s sapling.

No, I mean being prepared, ready for the worst–or at least the very bad. I once worked for a guy who didn’t believe in B plans. Then the company went under and we were all laid off. Me, I usually have B plans, C plans even. What will happen if something goes well, what will happen if it goes okay, what will happen if it all goes to shit? I’m ready. When I was laid off, I had plan and it worked out like clockwork mostly. There were things I missed that I will plan for next time, but largely I was ready.

I was prepared and had my backups.

One editor I knew scoffed at the idea of backups. Nothing was worth keeping, she said. I was shocked. The idea still makes my stomach drop. What if you lose something? What if you need that document, phone number, photo, email? I’m a little old school: paper, scans, CDs. Check, check, check. I’m a fan of clouds for some documents. Multiple clouds. Friggen weather systems full of ’em.

Oh, I hear some of you sneer, “The Internet keeps everything. You can’t escape it. Everything is on the web.” Is it? I edited a friend’s CV and found a dead link for an essay she wanted to include. Not even the Wayback Machine could find it. Don’t believe me? Ask Carter Maness. He’ll tell you. When asked what he’d done lately, he couldn’ t find it and documented his experince for The Awl, “All My Blogs Are Dead.”

That said, we all know what will stay online for all posterity: photos of cats, food, and twenty-somethings being drunk and stupid.

If that doesn’t get yer backup, I don’t know what will.

Get with the Program

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code: 3. b.Telegr. A system of words arbitrarily used for other words or for phrases, to secure brevity and secrecy; c. Computing. Any system of symbols and rules for expressing information or instructions in a form usable by a computer or other machine for processing or transmitting information (OED).

In other words, it ain’t rocket science. If you can punctuate, you can code. It’s true. Certainly some code is more difficult than others, but if you look at very basic things like HTML, it can be learned. Indeed, it should be learned. There’s a movement afoot to have coding taught in schools. One of the (many) things I regret about high school is only learning languages like Spanish and French, not languages like C++ and Fortran. As a result, I feel I’ve contributed to the continuing sexism and occultism of tech.

To be clear, by “occult” I mean, “Not disclosed or divulged, secret; kept secret; communicated only to the initiated” (OED).

One the best things a boss ever made me do was take an introductory UNIX course. While it didn’t change me into a programmer or drive me to switch from Windows to Linux, learning a little UNIX opened my eyes. I understood how to talk to a computer; that my coworkers were merely writing instructions. Yes, some “instructions” were complex algorighhms that I haven’t learned how to do (yet), but still this chink let through a wee ray of light. I’m still chipping away.

By not knowing how our devices work, we yield control. The same is true for everything from cofffee makers to cars, but code is all around us; indeed, it’s in our coffee makers and cars. But so what? Samuel Arbesman, in his Aeon essay, “Get Under the Hood,” explains:

The more we can play with a system, take it apart, tweak it, even make it fail, the more we are comfortable with a technology. We don’t view it as something foreign or strange, as solely the domain of experts, who overcharge us to fix our stuff, under threat of a voided warranty. We see how our machines work, creaky joints and all, and we can take a certain amount of intellectual ownership in them. And more importantly, we can see what sort of role they play in society. Knowing how a car uses gasoline, how the steering mechanism operates, or what the precious metals are in a vehicle, are all windows into various larger issues involving energy, the environment and even commodity pricing.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to get with the program.

Hard Day’s . . . Night

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The Night Sky by  Blake Nancarrow

The Night Sky by Blake Nancarrow

Legend has it that after a particularly long recording session, Ringo Starr left Abbey Road muttering something like “That was a hard day’s…” when he looked up, realized the time and said, “…night.”

True or not, I’m sure you’ve shared that experience: a long work day during which you rarely look up and made worse if you don’t leave the office or have a window. The concept of time that was once gauged by the sun is now dictated by the clock. How many times in the winter have you looked up at 5 p.m. and said, “It looks like nine o’clock at night!” Yes, but who said what nine o’clock looks like?

Indeed the appearance of time, day and night, has changed since the invention (and popularity) of gas then electric light. Compounded with the popularlity of “smart” devices, we are inundated with light to the point that we can’t sleep. And if we can’t sleep then, well, shouldn’t we be productive?

We haven’t always slept through the night. In the distant past, we used to go to bed “early,” dog tired after a labourious day, wake up later in the night or early morning, do stuff in the dark, fall asleep again, and wake up with rooster. Some people still do this, only they write, as Karen Emslie tells us in her Aeon piece, “Broken Sleep.”

Unfortunately this schedule doen’t work for many people. Perhaps we’ve been programmed. Regardless, light affects our melatonin which affects our sleep which affects our mood which determines our mental and physical health. Sure there are pills and exercises and sex and yoga and mantras, but let’s to go to the source: light. Humans cannot cope in a world without darkness, says Rebecca Boyle in her article “The End of Night,” published in Aeon. Not only does it rob us of biological needs but it compels us to produce, to be “on” all the time. We’re surrounded by (very rich) role models, leading us to believe if Highly Successful Person can be highly successful with only four hours’ sleep, then so can I because I’m efficient, not a slacker like other people! For the record, I count myself among the “other people.” You really don’t want to around me when I’ve only had four hours’ sleep. In fact, I think that says something about Highly Successful Person too.

The idea that we must be productive most of the time makes me wonder about the definition of productive. From my North American perspective, it appears to mean making something tangible. Thinking isn’t seen as productive. Oh, you’ll hear lots of discussion about “creatives” and “knowledge workers” “innovating” in “collaborative work environments,” but I think that’s all marketing spin. As I sit alone in my home office by my window looking out onto a tree and a neighbouring building, I wonder what a boss would think, all buttoned up in a dark blue wool suit. He or she would likely scold me for daydreaming then request a status report on something, probably the very thing I was “daydreaming” about.

One thing I do daydream/think about is space. It gives us perspective. Once upon a time I witnessed the northern lights. Recently, my Facebook feed was filled with other people’s photos of the glorious phenomenon. I’d like to see the northern lights again as well as the other celestial shows, but judging from Toronto’s light-polluted night sky, I’ll have to drive pretty far north to do so. Having lived in a city for most of my life, I used to shrug this off. Then I saw the wonderful doc The City Dark and I realized I’m missing something–something important.

It’s a hard day’s night, indeed.

Whatever

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