Archive for March, 2009

A picture

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

Having a great time, glad I’m here.

Darren with cute girls in Tokyo

Darren with cute girls in Tokyo

On watches and agony

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Last year, I bought myself a really nice watch; it had the two features I consider essential: a countdown timer to tell me when the laundry is done, and charging by sunlight so I never have to replace the battery.

However, it’s a resonably expensive watch, which I didn’t feel went with my style of budget travel (ignore the $8000 of camera gear I’m carrying, of course)

Long story short, I bought a cheap $20 watch for the trip.
When I arrived in japan I spun the hands foreward 14 hours to make up the difference from crossing the international date line.

And tonight, when I arrived at the hostel, they told me I had already checked out. “ummm, I’m leaving on the 25th for Nikko.”

“it is the 25th.”

Turns out spinning the hands doesn’t change the date – you have to pull the stem out to a different position to change the date.

Fortunately, they still had a bed available for me. I emailed the hostel in Nikko and told them to charge me for tonight (aka for my stupidity) and asked if I could still show up tomorrow.

Japan: first impressions

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

It’s raining here in Tokyo today, so I figured this would be a good day to find an Internet cafe, download my photos, and just rest a bit.

Getting around
The Tokyo subway system is incredibly good, once you figure out how it works. There’s enough signage in English that you can at least figure out which side of the tracks to board on, but that’s about it.

Once you get off the subway, it’s a whole different story. Apparently, in a city of 12 million people, they never found it useful to give names to their streets. The only streets which have names are main roads, and that’s because the Americans during their post-war occupation basically said “unconditional surrender means do whatever we tell you to. Now name some of your streets so we’re not always getting lost!”

To wit: The first time I tried to go to Akihabara, I ended up walking the opposite direction from the metro station. Given my “keep going, you must almost be there” mentality, which once had me drive half way through Vermont while looking for a park in New Hampshire, I just kept going and going, until eventually I gave up, found a subway station, went back to my starting point, and had to walk the other way.

Things which are cool

Japanese cell phones. Holy crap. So cool! Unfortunately, because Japan uses bizarre variations of wireless standards (they’re like the Microsoft of RF standards, apparently none of them will work in North America. Dang, I’d be willing to give up my iPhone for one of these cool phones.

Things which are hot

Besides Japanese women?

I’d heard about the Japanese vending machines, which are on every street corner and provide drinks, occasionally food, beer, cigarettes, and apparently, in the right part of town, bras and panties. But nothing had prepared me for the first time I put in my 120 yen, pressed the button for a can of coffee, and near burnt my hand on the can.

Hot coffee. In a can.

I’m on a quest now, to find which brand I like the best.

Things which are not fast enough

The Internet link back to North America. I brought a portable hard drive with me to download my photos from my digital camera, and I figured I’d also upload copies to my web server so that I would have two copies for safety. This didn’t quite work out, since one photo took over 7 minutes to upload. Granted, my camera is 22 megapixel, but still…

Things that hurt

My feet. Before I left, I had minor surgery to remove some ingrown toenails, thinking it would be better to deal with a few days of strange walking before than having my nails poking into my feet for a month. And it was the right decision – I haven’t had any problems with my toenails. Now, blisters, that’s another story. It has become quite obvious that sitting at a desk for 10-14 hours per day is not appropriate preperation for walking around for 12 hours a day.

Silver linings

Because my feet hurt and my legs were sore last night, I really just wanted to soak in a bath for a while. Unfortuately, the hostel only has showers. The silver lining is that it made me go out to a sentou, which is a public bath house. Now, in North America, “bath house” generally means “gay pickup joint,” which it fortunately does not here; here it’s more like a spa or a hot tub.

According to one of the guidebooks, until the mid-late 20th century, Japanese houses didn’t have baths, so every few blocks would be a sentou, where the locals would go to bathe. Nowadays, there are far less sentou around, but there’s still more than a thousand here in Tokyo.

The guidebook said that if it was your first time at a sento, you should watch the locals and do what they do. Of course, as an uptight North American, watching a bunch of naked men is not the easiest thing in the world to do. Yes, not “clothing optional” – since when does anyone wear clothes to the bath? That is, other than frugal travelers like myself, who will occasionally shower in their clothes, because it saves time over washing clothes and body seperately.

Anyways, you sit on a stool, clean yourself up completely, then go into the bath. And “hot tub” is quite an appropriate term – the thermometer read 43 degrees celcius, which is 109 degrees in fahrenheit. Hot hot hot. I only lasted a few minutes. But damn, did I feel good afterwards.

So where am I?

Right now, I’m in a Manga Cafe, which is a place where you pay an hourly fee to sit around, read manga (Japanese comics), use the Internet, or sleep. As I look around, I see four people sleeping. But, at 400 yen (about $4) an hour, it’s a pretty cheap place to spend the night if you have to.

Sakura update

Oh yeah, the whole point of this trip: photographing cherry trees in bloom. I’ve seen a few early bloomers, but the blossoms are basically in the very early stages of blooming now, which is perfect – I timed it right, more or less.


No raw converter. No photoshop. Ergo, no photos ready to post yet.

Where next?

Tomorrow I leave for a few days in Nikko, about two hours north of Tokyo. Apparently a combination of national park, dozens of shrines, and rich tourists. I will not be one of the latter.

Off to Japan!

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

In six hours, I will be on a plane, on my way to my month-long vacation in Japan!

Here’s what I’m taking – One carry-on bag.

Everything I'm taking on my trip to Japan

Everything I'm taking on my trip to Japan

Left to right: Two T-shirts, one collared shirt, a pair of pants, Gore-Tex rain pants, Gore-Tex jacket, 2 pairs socks, 2 pairs underwear, sweater, hat, tripod, chargers, water bottle, 70-200/2.8L lens, notes on photo locations, 16-35/2.8L lens, more chargers, pen, toiletries, medicines & first aid kit, 400Gb Hard Drive, iPhone, Carabiners, deoderant, sunglasses, copy of passport, pak-safe, USB drive with linux, 10 meters rope, backpack.

Plus, of course, the camera and 50/1.8 lens I took this photo with.

Not shown: 22 Gb of compact flash cards for the camera. Small containers of shampoo, conditioner, soap, and woolite. Microfiber towel. Gore-tex socks. Writing paper. Light canvas bag for stashing everything in the room so I can take just the cameras and backpack out. Tightly folded (4″ x 3″ x 0.5″) 15 liter duffel-bag for bringing back souvenirs.

Final load: 10.6 kg, or 23 lbs. It’s a, um, very tight fit.

The bag, all packed up.

The bag, all packed up.

I know the iPhone won’t work as a phone in Japan; I’m taking it for its (1) iPod functionality and (2) the most excellent Japanese/English dictionary program I’ve ever found, Kotoba.

Updates on here when I have a chance…

Updated 2009 Sakura Forecast

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

By a wonderful stroke of luck, the blooming days seem to coincide with the days I chose for my vacation several months ago. Now the only problem is how close Tokyo and Kyoto’s dates are!

From Japan Guide, 桜花2009年!!

City First Bloom Best Viewing Starts Best Viewing Ends
Tokyo 東京 Mar 24 Mar 29 Apr 8
Kyoto 京都 Mar 26 Mar 31 Apr 10
Kanazawa 金沢 Apr 1 Apr 6 Apr 14
Niigata 新潟 Apr 6 Apr 11 Apr 19

And here’s that all nice and pretty in a Calendar I made (and no, you can’t have the PDF, because I can’t afford the bandwidth ;) ) Click for a larger version.

Darren's Sakura viewing calendar for Japan, 2009

Darren's Sakura viewing calendar for Japan, 2009