Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Four Years In Japan

On this day the 31st of May 2007, I arrived in Tokyo.

I had high hopes for a major seachange in my life, and what better way than get out of your country?

I remember on arrival that it was pouring rain and the humidity was fairly high. Shinjuku was slightly familiar from a few years traveling through Japan before, but there was a nervous excitement of something new.

The apartment was very far away from Tokyo. I had to pay my rent money upfront. With nowhere else to stay I'd stay there for the first six months.

I met my first flatmate. He seemed indifferent to me. He didn't look like someone I'd call "friend". I learned later that he spoke unfavourably about me in his blog. He took a LONG time to remove my name once he found out I knew.

Other teachers that started at the same time as me are long gone from Japan. It doesn't really matter as I never really bonded with them either while they were here.

Have things changed?

Well I put up on that "wonderful" social network of my four year anniversary and the reaction from my "friends" in Japan. What reaction? Wow.

Have I changed?

I thought that I had, but the more I think about it, I don't think a person can really change their fundamental characteristics. I believe I'm still the same person that got off that plane four years ago. Japan puts you in that false sense of confidence because you are the novelty here, and just about anything you do makes you more "interesting", because you are a foreigner. My job gets me to feel confident because well.. that's my job to make conversation, and I get paid for it.

BUT.. put me back home and I think I'd be back where I started. That scares me a lot.

My recent outings at the park with my guitar remind of my favourite memories of relaxing at Roma St Parklands. So peaceful and calming. The true friends I have here have been more than great, but there's something.. missing. It's hard to put into words but this song sums up my feeling. The production and singer hides the message a bit, but it's a great song.

If I left tomorrow I'd feel incredibly disappointed. Yet, I wonder why I'm still here. After the earthquake, my family were urging me home. But I'm not ready.. yet.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Battery Hazard

This is strange.

Did you know that you can't send batteries in the post?

I intended to send the shaver that I bought my father by EMS from Japan to Australia. They ALWAYS ask at the post office if there are any batteries. I feigned ignorance and persuaded them to accept the package. Time was tight and I had to get to work. I didn't want to waste time.

I checked the tracking and my heart stopped when I saw "Return To Sender". I immediately thought I'd wasted all this money on a shaver that was un-sendable, or somehow unscrewing it to remove an non user-serviceable internal battery.

Strangely though, the problem they had was just the cleaning alcohol. I removed it and it was magically back on its way. Originally posted Tuesday the 10th (and resent on the 12th), arrived a whole week later on the 17th!

Now that I'm using my GH1 as my main camera, I decided to send my old Nikon back home. I thought if the shaver got through, I'd try not only the camera, but my iPhone 3G as well.

Again I checked the tracking and BAM! Return to Sender again..

I got the call on Saturday that it was in Shinjuku, so I diverted my drinking plans to make an emergency rendezvous with my package. Of course this time it HAD to be the battery.

Again strangely it was ONLY the iPhone that was red-marked as undeliverable. Looks like with their x-rays they could tell. With a crossing of his hands to say no, the post clerk told me "Smartphone". Once again removing the iPhone, the camera was allowed through. I was relieved that at least the camera could go. May 19th arrived May 25th - Not too bad but it would've got there quicker without this debacle.

I don't get it. Why can you fly on a plane up to your eyeballs with mobile phones, laptops, and bottles of intoxicating, yet flammable alcohol, yet with the post they make you jump through hoops trying to send them?

My guess is a curbing of overseas parallel imports, and international internet auctions. Sure, there was a case of exploding laptop batteries in a Sony laptop years ago that might have prompted this, but what doesn't have a battery these days?

Crazy. Seems like it's not just Japan though. In Australia lithium batteries can only be send by road with Australia Post.

What a headache.

Boomerang Looper

After I watched Heth and Jed in New York, and playing a lot of guitar in Yoyogi Park now that the weather had turned from freezing to heatwave, I've been inspired to push myself a little bit more to get out there.

I've given up on waiting for someone to jam with, instead figuring out a way just to do it all myself. Watching the guys on Staten Island gave me the idea of using a looper to add my own accompaniment on the fly. I thought of pre-recording some tracks onto my iPod, but I like the idea of a one man band doing it "on the spot".

So my search for a looper was on. I watched Heth explaining his setup on Youtube, and noticed he had a Boss RC-20XL loop station on his pedal board.

I looked it up and a LOT of other loopers.

It's advantage is it's battery powered, but I wanted more than a single overdubbed loop. Although, check out KC Tunstall and her E2 Headrush performance here and a Jackson 5 cover here. Great stuff.

The Boss RC-50 looked like just what I was after but it looked pretty big, and required to be plugged into a power supply. The reviews weren't that great, but there is a fantastic demo of it here that almost convinced me to get it.

Another option was to just buy a midi pedal board, and use the great (and free!) Mac program "Sooperlooper". It's quite easy to use and a lot of fun! The only negative here is that I'd be carting along a laptop where I play. Not the most ideal busking situation, but it was one I've been close to going for.

For something different I played around with Everyday Looper on the iPhone. This was a lot of fun too, but using it live with a guitar might be a little tricky trying to keep my hands free to play, rather than touching the screen. Highly recommended though!

Finally I wanted something small, but ticked all the boxes of what I was after. There are many favourable reviews of the Boomerang III phrase sampler.

I watched this video that shows just what this baby is capable of. You can have up to 4 loops with one of them being a master percussive loop that can continue behind all the other loops. That's what I had in mind so this should be perfect! Well, almost perfect. One "problem' is that it can't be powered by batteries.

Mike suggested a Duracell Powerpack but unfortunately here in Japan they can't be found. The closest I'm thinking of is an Eneloop Pedal Juice. Here they call it "Music Booster". It's a 9V Lithium-ion battery pack. According to the manual it says it can run off DC power, but I'm still waiting for Boomerang Music to get back to me about that. It might only give me 2 hours power but the Eneloops are much cheaper here in Japan that I could probably get two.

The Boomerang's made in the US and is probably considered a boutique pedal that it's hard to come by it here, but out of the blue like someone read my mind I saw one in a local music shop for sale and I jumped on it!

I made the trip out to Ikebukuro today to buy it. My first impression is that it looks bigger than it does in photos. For some reason I expected it to be about the same size as my Adrenalinn. In hindsight that would be totally impractical. This size leaves enough space to comfortably hit the footswitches.

They had trouble getting an input level, but it looks like the cord inputs are auto-sensing, so I suggest powering it down and on again, and it worked. It was mostly intuitive, but for all it can do I really needed a bit of owner manual help to know how the buttons functioned.

But you know I'm excited. Finally I might be able to realize those sounds in my head of my songs, and covers, that I don't need anyone else to help me do.

Busking may be my answer after all. Back to the boys for some more inspiration. Check this out too!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Three Year Visa.. Again!

I received my postcard to come back into the Immigration office on Friday the 13th (lucky for some I guess). I was surprised that it only took 11 days to get my notification. I thought that the best time to go would be on my day off.

I planned to go to the park as well later in the day, so I decided to take my acoustic guitar along for the trip. It was a pretty hot day. It probably wasn't such a good idea as I also decided to walk from Shinagawa like I usually do. Even though it isn't the heaviest instrument, it was more of a burden than anything. The chu-his I put in my pocket probably didn't help too much either.

I arrived at 1pm and was fortunate enough that I was at the front of the line at the Permission Counter A. Before waiting in line I made sure to get my revenue stamps from the AMPM convenience store on the ground level - 4,000 yen for the visa extension stamp, and for good luck I got a 6,000 yen multiple entry stamp.

The approval counter is located on the same second floor as where I put in my application, but is on the right hand side. I followed a yellow A line on the floor. Once I handed in my revenue stamps and passport, I waited patiently for my number to be called. I wasn't feeling lucky. My passport expires before a whole three years is up, so I was figuring I'd only get a one year approved.

After about 35 minutes I went to the counter... and I got another 3 years! (I can see my parents reaction now as "LOL Wut?!?")

Whether I stay that long is probably doubtful, but it made me happy that I HAVE this option if I want it. Another teacher got another one year, so I don't know what it was that made them give it to me. The multiple entry visa (which costs more)? or my happy, smiling face?

As if I needed a reason I wanted to drink, so with a little extra spring to my step I made my way to Yoyogi Park to celebrate my "win". The other guys couldn't make it, but I didn't care. I had a little victory and I wasn't going to waste it.

I got there about 230-3. There's always quite a few people around enjoying the park. I sat down under a bit of shade that looked out onto the pond. This reminds me of Roma St Parklands where I did much the same thing.

I waited a short while to take in the tranquility, then broke open my first chu-hi and took out my guitar to play some tunes.

Although no one came directly up to me, quite a few people came fairly close sitting nearby and listening to me play. Two girls even managed to fall asleep on the grass. I guess my playing has that effect on some girls. A Japanese guy said he liked it, and asked to take my photo. I said ok, but I didn't look at the camera while I played. This definitely didn't happen back home.

As it got much cooler and closer to six I made my way to Shibuya to continue drinking with a friend at a bar. I had an "interesting" confrontation with one of those bad gaijins you hear about, but once they were gone, things were back to normal.

Well normal enough for Tokyo.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Echo Park

Of course I didn't need it but G.A.S. is hitting me bad. I haven't bought a guitar for a while, but going into guitar shops is just asking for trouble.

I liked to have a cool delay pedal and the Line6 Echo Park was looking at me being the glass and said, "Buy me". It was only about 6,000 yen, so not such a great loss. I knew I'd be kicking myself if I passed it up. It wasn't brand new but good enough for the price.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

There Were Pandas?

In Japan the fourth of May is Greenery Day.

Apart from being a nice perk of a national holiday, it's also a day of free entry into Ueno Zoo! The last time I came, almost two years ago was also on a free day, but it fell on a Thursday so it wasn't this crowded.

By the time we got there, we found a line that seemed to have no end. It felt like we walked around the whole circumference of the park and gave up near the entry where we found a much shorter line. Apparently that line was to see the pandas. Sure, I'd like to see the pandas, but I'm not waiting all day in a queue to see Pandas for only a few minutes. Even more bizarre were people cueing up to take photos of their kids with panda statues!

The tiger and gorilla enclosures weren't the best suited for crowds of this size, so I joked to myself we would not see any animals at all today. There were bottlenecks in a lot of places, and kids rudely pushing in front of me quite often. Little s**ts.

I brought along my GH1 camera. Since I bought this one with the smaller zoom lens, I threw on my Nikon adapter and connected my 18-200mm. It's been a while since I used it, so my first photos were terrible. The Nikon lens has to be exposed and focused manually. Getting used to it again, my photos were turning out much better.

With this long zoom lens, it was pretty easy to get this close up to a giraffe.

Even better is getting some nice examples of Japanese English like this.

Who needs pandas? The real stars of the show have to be the penguins. I could look at these guys all day.

Even as we left the line for the pandas for as big as ever. I had great timing getting this picture of the "End of Panda line" guard losing his hat. I don't know how that happened!

Since we were in Ueno, I thought it'd be a good idea to check out Yamashiroya. Another teacher told me about it a while ago. Since Kiddyland is a little smaller these days, this looks like the best big toy store of the moment. After getting a bit burnt out wandering the zoo, we didn't stay there very long though.

The Uniqlo store was right next door and they had their T's on a 990 yen sale, so I got these two. Yes, that does say rubber band. I like a shirt with some kana on it too.

As we left Ueno we made our way close to Akihabara. My father wanted a Braun shaver, and I found a limited edition one considerably cheap than in Australia, so I decided to buy it to send it to him. Later I'd find it a bit of a headache, as you'll read in a later post.

We asked Yamashiroya if they could match a deal we saw at Toys R Us in Odaiba for Singamajigs, they said they don't match prices *big thumbs down*, so we decided to make our way back to Odaiba.

We passed through Ginza to get some anpan, then through Shinbashi where I noticed the Nakagin Capsule Tower.

To me this is a good example of a cool haikyo-style building. With the ever present threat of being demolished, I hope they choose to restore it. Tokyo needs more of these amazing structures.

By the time we got to the Rainbow Bridge it was getting late. We made our way across going along the walkway. I could never get sick of doing this. Our sole purpose was to get a pair of singamajigs that were about 3,000 yen for two.

How old am I. Crazy? Was there any doubt? I think they're cool no matter what. And yes that is a bubble blower you see between them. Oh.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Visa Renewal

I have this theory that when you wake up feeling depressed it's because you had a sad dream, or you realize you have to go to Immigration because your visa is almost expired.

My Visa is up for renewal by the end of this month. You can renew it up to two months before, but this year I was putting it off for as long as possible. I REALLY hate going there.

I don't think I explained what you have to do, so here you go -

There is a 200 yen bus that goes from Shinagawa Station to the Immigration Office, but like the other times, I walked there. It was a nice day and it's a pleasant walk.

Once inside there is an AMPM convenience store to get revenue stamps. 4,000 yen for your renewal, 3,000 yen for a single re-entry, and 6,000 yen for a multiple. NB: YOU DON'T NEED TO BUY THESE UNTIL YOU ACTUALLY COME BACK IN ABOUT TWO WEEKS AFTER APPROVAL.

You go up the escalator to the second floor and on the left side you'll see counters and a seating area. You go to Counter (B) to get your documents looked at (about 30 minute wait here), and there you'll be given a paper slip with a ticket number.

What you need is your passport, gaijin card, proof of employment and enrolment in National Health Insurance, and filled in application forms for visa renewal, and it's a good idea to do the form for re-entry to save you having to make an EXTRA unnecessary trip back to this place.

Once I got my number I waited about an hour to hand my forms in. YMMV depending on what time you get there, and how busy it is. Once forms are in, they'll get you to fill in a postcard with your address that will be sent when you come back in approximately two weeks to get those visa extension stamps pasted in your passport. I asked if 5 years was possible. After checking the guy said max was three years. Usually you get a approved a 1 or 3 year extension, but I heard a rumour that five years may be available in the future.

Walking back I could see that we weren't that far away from the Rainbow Bridge, so since it wasn't that late we decided to walk to Odaiba. Getting to the bridge took about 30 minutes. I'm sure people are sick of hearing me rave about going across the bridge on foot, but there are many great photo ops. This is my panorama "miniatures" version of the "island" you can see on the southside footpath looking across into Odaiba.

At the moment they are doing a trial of letting you take a bike along the bridge.

Unfortunately you can't ride it across, as they'll put a bike "skateboard" on your rear wheel. Still it's a great idea. Odaiba would be ideal to ride around.

This is a good place to take a date. We sat in a grassy area near the beach and had some onigiri (riceballs). I brought my 105 yen badminton set for a bit of exercise. They have quite a few mall shops to browse around too.

Being the big kid I am, we went to Toys R Us. We saw some really cute "Singamajig" talking plushies that we regretfully didn't end up buying. Who'd have thought in less than a few days we'd be making our way back here JUST to buy these?