Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Fuji eruption could force 567,000 people to evacuate | The Japan Times

Fuji eruption could force 567,000 people to evacuate | The Japan Times

I've never climbed Mt. Fuji.  It's just never interested me.  What I have longed to do, however, is take a beautiful photo of a snow-peaked Fuji.  I've snapped the mountain a few times as I rushed past it on the shinkansen to and from Tokyo, through the less-than-pretty Fuji city, but I've never explored the scenic places around the great symbol's other faces.  For a while I lived in an apartment in downtown Hamamatsu with a view of a thumb-sized Fuji on clear winter days.

A view outside on the elevator landing, that is.

The strangest feeling was just after some winter climbers died there.  It seemed odd to look off in the distance and see a place where people breathed their last.  It gave the mountain a different complexion to me.  Something not just beautiful and picture-postcardesque, but slightly sad or even a little sinister.  Images of Fuji are so ubiquitous we almost take it for granted, although travelers can't help but lean into the windows on the train for a lingering look even if the view's marred by smokestacks.  Who ever thought Fuji was capable of killing?

Well, it is a volcano, after all.  Volcanoes fascinate me.  Pompeii, Krakatoa.  A story I read in Reader's Digest of a volcanologist's brush with death when he and his party were caught in an eruption.  Hot rocks smashed and burned him painfully.  Mount St. Helens captured my imagination when it exploded in 1980.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Changing your visa status/asking for an extension in Japan isn't all that painful

It is, however, a little painful in that it's an annoying bureaucratic process.  First, you need to fill out the proper forms (you can find them online, print them out at home and do it there to save yourself some time and hassle at the immigration office, plus you may need to get your employer/sponsor to sign them and fill out a few lines, too) then go to your regional immigration office.  The first time I did this I had to go to Chiba and it was an all-day process.  This time all I had to do was go to downtown Hamamatsu and walk a few minutes.

The Hamamatsu immigration office is small and there's not a lot of seating.  As a result, it's almost always crowded.  Because it's winter and I'm extremely cautious about catching colds or the flu, I kept my gloves on the entire time.  There are always coughing, sneezing people there and almost everyone wears that stunned mackerel face people get when they're under the weather or dealing with government hassles.

The staff are efficient and helpful if not overly friendly.  They remind me of people back home at the driver's license office.  I had to wonder how they handle any freak-outs when they have to give someone the bad news his or her visa hasn't been extended.  Dealing with reams of paperwork and confused people, few of whom speak Japanese, probably doesn't engender feelings of geniality towards your fellow humans, but they manage to get by.  Well, I wasn't there looking to make friends, just to get in and get out with a bare minimum of frustration and the staff certainly did their part to speed things along.

I turned in my application, appropriate-sized photographs, some photocopies of my working documents (such as my letter of commission from my school, the signatory page from my contract and the certificate that shows how much I'm being paid per month) and received a postcard to fill out with my address and a stamp in my passport telling any interested party I've applied for a work visa extension (technically it was that and a status change).  They told me to come back when I received the postcard in the mail, in approximately two weeks.

It took about ten days.  Sunday we found the postcard-- my fiancee got a little worried when she translated one line as meaning I had to bring a "travel ticket" with me, as if the Ministry of Justice had finally decided to boot me from Japan and wanted me out the same day-- and Monday I took a couple of hours to ride the bus back downtown and walk to the office again.  I was in for a little surprise this time.

This time I gave them my passport, a 4,000-yen revenue stamp (if you forget to bring this, have no fear-- in Hamamatsu, there's a small post office just across the walkway from the immigration office and you can get there, buy the stamp and return in less than 5 minutes on a good day), the postcard and my alien registration card.  Instead of the familiar work visa stamp and endorsement, I received my alien registration card with a hold punched in it and the brand new residence card with my updated status and one-year work extension printed right on the front.

Along with one of those stupid looking photo in which I wear the mackerel face.  I'm no longer a "Specialist in Humanities and Foreign Services."  Now I'm an "Instructor."  And from what I understand, I no longer have to get a re-entry permit if I leave Japan for less than a year while my card is still valid.  We're planning a summer trip of two weeks, which will fall safely within those generous parameters.

It was a pretty positive experience overall, and I'm glad it's over for a while.  Next time I suppose I'll be applying either for the spouse visa or a 5-year extension.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On being grounded

Grounding wires.  I'm no electrician but I have used electricity.  Around the apartment, I've been a frequent user of all kinds of electrical appliances such as sofas, coffee tables, refrigerators, computers, washing machines and elephants.  In Japan, the larger of these usually come with an extra green wire that helpful people in the past have plugged into a special wall socket.  It looks like a phone jack, but it's a grounding wire jack.

In the US, we use the three-pronged plug for a lot of these major electric appliances.  I'd always thought the third prong was for general sexiness, but apparently it's to ground the device so you don't electrocute yourself while using it.  Why you'd want to avoid electrocuting yourself I've never known, but some people don't like electrocution so there you have it.  Sometimes you get a two-pronged socket and a three-pronged plug.  I have seen some elephant adapters, but I wouldn't recommend using them and some can actually void your warranty.  In extreme cases they can cause dizziness, diarrhea, speaking in tongues and infanticide.  Whatever your purpose, you should ground your major appliances to keep them humble and prevent their egos from getting out of control and giving birth to wild flights of fancy and self-destructive behavior.

My fiancee and I have moved into a new apartment and but we still have to bring our washing machine from the old place.  The washing machine has a green grounding wire.  The new place lacks a socket for it.  At least it seems to.  I really need to check the wall socket again.  Maybe it's disguised.

I've always thought these extra wires looked strange, like something the Monroe brothers might have stuck Mr. Douglas with over near Hooterville.  You can probably find a million blog entries by young English teachers encountering these mundane sort of things and using them to contrast the futuristic aspects of Japan with some of the old fashioned.  This isn't one of those.  What I'm wondering, and my fiancee as well, is whether or not it's worth it moving the washing machine or if we should just go buy a new one and ask that it have a three-pronged plug.  This is where being fabulously wealthy comes in handy.  I was going to use my riches to start my own nation as soon as I located a suitable tropical isle, but now I'm just going to spend it on helpful household items.  I'm in the market for a good second hand elephant.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The flu season is hitting Hamamatsu

Okay, I really don't know how bad it is.  Consider this anecdotal.  Our school has 12 kids out of 224 out right now, with three of them confirmed influenza cases.  We keep track of them on a large marker board.  Regular illnesses/personal issue absences in black, flu absences in blue.  I expect the blue numbers to climb, and if they reach a certain level we may get a few days off.

Kids have been warned not to come to school if they're sick, but you know how it is.  You feel a little in the dumps but aren't sure it's influenza until more symptoms hit.  By that time you've gone about your daily business and acted as a vector all over the place.

In preparation for flu season, I had a vaccination back in December.  From the news stories I've read coming out of the US, this gives me about a 65% immunity factor.  That is, if the vaccine I took is roughly the same formula as this year's batch in the States.  I understand that one is an extremely good match for the flu strains going around this year.  Let's hope that holds true for all of us teachers here in Japan who went and got ourselves stuck.

Hey, let me take a moment to tell you this.  If you ever have to have blood drawn or a vaccination here in Japan, don't sweat it.  I've done both and both were surprisingly painless.  Just a pinch.  I'm used to getting stabbed half to death.  I'll never forget having blood taken when I had my tonsils out years ago.  I felt as if I'd spent the evening in Whitechapel with Saucy Jack.  Probably only lost slightly more blood than he would have taken, Boss.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Digital comics lifeline in Japan!

Yep.  It was bound to happen once I located my credit card.  Making trips to Tokyo to visit Blister is fun but way too expensive.  What's a comic book junkie to do to get his or her fix here in Japan, if said comic book fan loves not only manga but things like Walking Dead, Nexus, Batgirl and Love and Rockets?  That's where  digital comics come in handy.  Very handy.

One of the fun aspects of going digital with Comixology (and possibly Dark Horse as well, although I have yet to experiment) is having the ability to download your comics to your iPhone and read them through Comixology's app.  Yes, this traditionalist finds reading comics on an iPhone fun.  I downloaded all my Cass Cain Batgirl issues to my phone (plus my Nexus, New Mutants and old school Valiant titles) over the weekend and they really came in handy yesterday as I ran errands and spent a lot of down time just waiting for others to handle their end of my very important business.

My initial objection to doing this involved not being able to scan the entire page.

I believe page layout to be a dying art in this age of "widescreen" storytelling, where artists generally just stack a lot of horizontal panels on top of each other, then break it up with a vertical close-up inset shot of someone screaming.  There aren't that many Will Eisners or Bernie Krigsteins or even Jim Sterankos walking around anymore.  It's gotten to where I prefer someone just doing the ancient "three tier" format because you don't have to figure out panel order and sometimes the panels come closer to that pleasant "golden ratio" centuries of Western art has taught us to recognize and love.  For example, Jamie Hernandez with his beautiful drawings and simple, clean, fun page layouts.

Page layout is just as important as the panel-to-panel stuff in leading your eyes around and through the action.  A good storyteller remembers all that plane of action stuff and where the characters are relative to each other within each panel, but also helps the reader understand what's happening by doing the visual equivalent of expert tour guiding.  Plus all those tricks Will Eisner talks about in his books, varying panel sizes and shapes to create the illusion of time passing at various speeds.  It all goes back to layout.  As a reader, you approach the page as a whole, then delve into the little squares and rectangles within which your favorite characters strut their stuff.  I didn't want to lose that.

Anyway, to my surprise, I discovered Damion Scott's Batgirl actually reads better on the iPhone, which takes you through with the rest of the page cropped out, than it does when you have the actual comic in front of you.  While he's an excellent action-based storyteller in panel-to-panel terms, sometimes his pages are a bit busy.  On the iPhone, some of Scott's panel-to-panel transitions almost animate themselves as you click through.  It's a neat effect.

Some of the other books I looked at didn't fare as well.  Panels had to be awkwardly snipped to fit on the screen and then "slide" so you could get the entire scene.  Sometimes it would give a nice cinematic pan instead, which was often a revelation.  Usually, though, this would have a "pan-and-scan" effect like watching a movie cropped to fit one of those TVs like the ones I grew up with, the heavy, wood-framed beauties that were as much furniture as they were entertainment centers.  It creates reading pauses that run counter to the artists' intentions.

The small size of the iPhone reduces the figures, which simplifies them slightly so you're losing a bit of the rendering the artists worked so hard on.  That's a bit of a disappointment.  Again, it serves Scott well because he specializes in broad acting, big, bold expressions and stylized faces that show up quite clearly on the iPhone screen.  Some of the artists who use a lot of subtle, fine-lined work tend to soften.  I wouldn't suggest any artist change his or her drawing style to fit this medium, but I think artists with simpler looks with fewer lines and lots of black spotting like Mike Mignola and Bruce Timm won't lose a whole lot on iPhone.

On the other hand, the text remains surprisingly clear and readable.  So there are trade-offs to the convenience of being able to carry with you at all times as many comics as your iPhone's storage capacity allows.  I see it this device more as an adjunct to your reading experience than a replacement for larger formats. It's a matter of convenience reading.

Now my main qualm about Comixology and Dark Horse digital comics is you're paying the same amount as you would for the print issue, but you don't actually own the comic itself, just a license to read it on your computer or phone.  At home, I can't download the comics I've paid for and read them offline.  I have to visit the websites.  I can understand this from a standpoint of preventing piracy, but to be frank, that Black Pearl has already sailed.  For now, this kind of like buying comics but keeping them at your friend's house and reading them through a window while she holds them up and turns the pages when you ask.

Even so, here in Japan where American funny books are difficult to come by, digital comics are your best bet for immediate gratification.  Walking Dead has been making me kind of sick lately, but at the same time, I can't look away. When #107 comes out, I'm going to be there on the first day rather than having to wait for a collected edition or make a trip to Tokyo in hopes it hasn't sold out at Blister.  And it's nice to know I have access to every issue of the Cass Cain Batgirl no matter where I am or what time it is.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Flights scrubbed, trains halted as snow blankets east | The Japan Times Online

Flights scrubbed, trains halted as snow blankets east | The Japan Times Online

Snow fell on Tokyo-- I saw lots of lovely photos on the Sakura Hotel Facebook feed-- but here in Hamamatsu we only had rain.  Cold rain.  Temperatures fell below freezing overnight, but by then the precipitation had moved off and we woke to a sunny, dry, windy winter day.  Typical of Hamamatsu.

I've never been on a snowbound train.  The thought reminds me of Nana volume 1 when the two Nanas meet on just such a train as they try to travel to Tokyo.  A fateful meeting indeed.  It also brings to mind the climactic sequence of the 2004 comedy Swing Girls, when the all-girl (and one boy) high school swing band attempt to make it to a competition, only to have their train strand them out in the middle of nowhere, a snowy wonderland but far from the warm concert hall.  If you haven't read Nana or seen Swing Girls, you should do both immediately.

They'll keep you warm all winter long.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: world queen of candy-flavored weird twee nonsense!

This requires no commentary, just complete admiration for its genius. But you might want to brush your teeth after watching each of these.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

I forgot to tell you we saw Melt-Banana for Christmas

Yeah, Christmas Day night saw my fiancee and me at Club Asia in Shibuya, just off of Love Hotel Hill (no, we did not go there and check in, you pervs) for Guitar Wolf's 25th anniversary show, with Melt-Banana as one of the opening acts.

How many times had I already seen Melt-Banana?  There were those six that I knew about for sure, close enough for the amps to blow their last breath in my face.  This time they performed as a duo, just Yasuko and Agata, no Rika.  Their website seems to suggest they've always been a duo, with Rika as more or less a helper, but I remember when she seemed an integral part of the unit.  I remember when they had a regular drummer, too, but Rika, as bassist, was right up front, stage right (the left side of the stage for us audience stooges).

With Yako's powerful, white-hooded charisma holding down the center and Agata whirling around in all his masked glory on the right, we relied on Rika to anchor things.  Smallish woman with the huge bass sound, her hair falling in front of her face like Sadako from Ringu at times (at least that's the comparison my students invariably made whenever I showed them photos), sometimes bouncing in place.  With drums and bass synthesized for my seventh time worshiping at the MxBx altar or noise, Yasuko and Agata seemed at times in danger of flying away.

It was one of their most powerful performances.  The last few times I saw them, they were solid but playing short sets in tiny venues seemed to limit their energy.  This show was more reminiscent of the first couple of times I saw them, when I came away dazed and kind of giddy, knowing I'd found my Thing.  But I did miss Rika.  I'm not inside enough to know what she's up to now, why she split.  I wonder if Melt-Banana Lite, the bass-less version of the band, came about because Rika began scaling back on her participation for her own purposes.  These, however, remain a mystery.

Last year was Melt-Banana's 20th as a band, by the way.

Unfortunately, we didn't stay for Guitar Wolf!  While I'm used to dark, smoky venues and edgy crowds, my fiancee wasn't too keen on the scene.  Even wearing an Agata-style mask didn't help protect her against cigarette smoke, which she really doesn't care for at all.  She liked Speeder-X, the first act, and they were a lot of fun.  Just a bass and drums, completely tearing things up sonically.  But by the time Melt-Banana came on, she'd had it with the smoke and was too uncomfortable to enjoy their performance.

I tried to wait around so I could buy some Melt-Banana t-shirts, but they weren't going to sell any until after the headliners and we just couldn't stay any longer.  So no shirts as souvenirs.  I have to give my fiancee lots of credit for sticking it out for as long as she did.  I'm very proud of her.  Choking on smoke is no way to celebrate Christmas.

And trust me, I will happily do anything she wants even if it's not something I'm usually into.  Fair is fair!

Anyway, if you're interested in the two-person Melt-Banana experience, here's a link to a fine photo essay of another recent Rika-less show in which the photographer/essayist comes to grips with noise and Melt-Banana.  I didn't take any photos because Club Asia doesn't permit photography (a few people violated the rules anyway, but I just wanted to be a participant in the moment rather than take a step back and become an observer/recorder).

As for me, I'm already anticipating MxBx show number eight.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Here comes Fred | The Japan Times Online

Here comes Fred | The Japan Times Online

Will Fred Segal be the next big import here in Japan?  I was there in Harajuku when Forever 21 landed.  Well, not at the moment.  But the same week.  Talk about lines and excitement.  Things had not even died down at the still brand new Harajuku H&M store, where you had to wait fifteen to thirty minutes to be let in with some other shoppers as a group as soon as the cashiers could clear enough sales to avoid violating Tokyo city fire safety ordinances.  And here was this more youthful and girly name brand hitting a nation where youthful, girly and name brand are practically synonyms.  My students in Hamamatsu were champing at the bit to hit those jam-packed clothing aisles.  I took photos of the throngs but didn't even try to go inside.

I'm far from an expert but I do follow the Japanese fashion trends as an interested amateur so I'll be checking in on this development.

Also worth checking out in that story are the "chocolate and strawberry" maid cafe uniforms designed by Keita Muruyama for @Home Cafe.  While I'm not a maid cafe fan-- I've been to exactly one and have no interest in visiting another-- even I have to admit I find these uniforms... well... delicious.

Sub chases, films giant squid going to Pacific abyss | The Japan Times Online

Sub chases, films giant squid going to Pacific abyss | The Japan Times Online

Giant squids give me chills.  I grew up reading illustrated stories of sea monsters like the kraken (usually depicted as a tentacled behemoth grappling with a sailing ship and threatening to sink it with its unearthly bulk), and watching adventure flicks like Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with its memorable giant squid attack on Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus.  Occasionally as part of my amateur studies in cryptozoology I'd read a news story about a weird carcass washed ashore and its pondering the possibility of squids exceeding the size we'd find comfortable dining as calamari.

Although they might find us comfortable dining in turn.  Just like in the supposedly true story of a torpedoed British ship and its survivors' reports of great tentacles groping over the gunwales of their lifeboats and plucking screaming sailors to their watery doom.  The great staring eyes beneath the waves, the sharp beak waiting to kill and devour.  An elderly man lifting his pants cuff and lowering his sock to show a documentary film crew his calf bearing round scars, lividly pink even after 50 or 60 years...

Did I dream that?  Are we all dreaming in the dark depths where creatures unguessed swim and live and die savagely?