Sixteen Blue (+ 5)

30 01 2009

I turned 21 today. To be honest, my birthday isn’t all that important to me, so I celebrated by doing something I planned to do anyway, going out with some friends from the KCJS program. We went out for conveyor belt sushi, a fast, efficient, and relatively cheap way to eat enough raw fish to feel like you’re going to explode.

The conveyor belt brings all sorts of different items, from unagi (eel) sushi, to chicken nuggets, to "cheesecake", or rather sponge cake (which leads me to believe that Japanese people may not know what cheesecake is).

The conveyor belt brings all sorts of different items, from unagi (eel) sushi, to chicken nuggets, to "cheesecake", or rather sponge cake (which leads me to believe that Japanese people may not know what cheesecake is).

Each plate costs 105 yen, so you can get a decent amount of food for a relatively small amount, and the atmosphere of the restaurant lends itself to casual gatherings. None of it was exactly high-grade, but the eel was pretty satisfying. And did I mention it was cheap?

If you have any special requests, you enter them on a picture touch screen above your table and then a miniature Shinkansen above the conveyor belt brings the order straight to the table.

If you have any special requests, you enter them on a picture touch screen above your table and then a miniature Shinkansen above the conveyor belt brings the order straight to the table.

The tallying system works similar to dim sum where the waitress counts all of your plates when you’re done to get your final charge. Perhaps encouraged by my private milestone, I polished off ten plates by myself, though two of my friends made it through fifteen.

Typical table layout at the restaurant.

Typical table layout at the restaurant.

Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday wishes, and I hope everyone’s doing well. I’m having a great time in Kyoto, and can’t think of a better place to celebrate my 21st, even if I learned tonight that convenience store employees here apparently don’t check ids, or at least foreigner’s ids. Everybody’s cool here, unlike America.

Music I’m Listening to Now: The Replacements, “Black Diamond”

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Blue Cash

29 01 2009

Shrine Gate, Kyoto, 1/17/2009

Been a while since the last post, so I thought I’d post some stop-gap pictures while I continue to work on the convenience store post. I’m trying to make it exhaustive, so it’s taking a bit, and today I accidentally ate one of my planned examples, so I’m behind schedule. I’ve also gotten a job working at KCJS and will be taking some cooking classes in addition to the quickly increasing homework load I have, all of which are starting to eat away at my free time. As I’ve said before though, I’ll do my best to keep posting.

I realized today that I never posted any pictures of Kyoto University’s campus. I don’t have a whole lot, but some of it’s pretty nice.

Kyoto University's clocktower.

Kyoto University's clock tower.

I really like this tree- it's located in front of the clocktower near the Yoshida Shrine.

I really like this tree- it's located in front of the clock tower near the Yoshida Shrine.

A view of Kyoto University's awesomely cheap cafeteria and surprisingly ghetto gym.

A view of Kyoto University's awesomely cheap cafeteria and surprisingly ghetto gym.

A typical Kyoto University campus view. Also note how clean the cars are; every car in Japan looks like that.

A typical Kyoto University campus view. Also note how clean the cars are; every car in Japan looks like that.

The immaculate cars in the picture above remind me of something I’ve wanted to talk about. Imagine the best driver you know in America. The absolute best one, who knows all the shortcuts, can perfectly parallel park, and go in reverse with their eyes closed. This person is as good as the worst Japanese driver. People here are all insanely good at driving, especially getting into tight parking spaces and navigating narrow alleys. In addition to the cramped nature of most Japanese metropolitan areas necessitating the development of this level of skill, most Japanese seeking to obtain a driver’s license must go to a driver’s school for around a month, and usually pay a fee around 300,000 yen. With current exchange rates, this is roughly thirty million dollars. So, Japanese who want to drive aren’t screwing around, for the most part. I personally hate cars, so whatever draconian measures that can possibly be instituted in the U.S. have my support.

(Totally random note: I really like the new M.Ward song “Jailbird”. But I liked it even more the first time he wrote it and called it “Outta My Head”.)

Music I’m Listening to Now: Animal Collective, “My Girls”





Microcastle

25 01 2009

Nijo Castle garden, Kyoto, 1/22/2004

On Thursday I walked from my apartment to Nijo Castle. It was a little rainy, but I think I got some halfway decent pictures. Above is one of the gardens strewn across the Nijo grounds. The castle’s design is based on gardens and small houses surrounding the more important middle sections, where the Imperial Cabinet once ruled from. Constructed by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the castle features a number of clever methods of controlling people on its grounds, from the concentric design mentioned before that separates the exterior and interior handily to devices such as the Nightingale Floors, which were specially designed to squeak when stepped on to warn castle dwellers when someone was approaching.

One of the gates seperate the outer Nijo areas from the castle's innards.

One of the gates separating the outer Nijo areas from the castle's innards.

Unfortunately, pictures weren’t allowed inside the castle for fear of damaging the paintings inside. There were several stunning, centuries-old paintings inside created by the finest painters of the time. There were also several exhibits showing what a typical meeting with the Shogun of the period would look like. Especially interesting were the large, red tasseled doors, which supposedly marked where bodyguards lied in wait. The Shogunate, through use of population control strategies such as the gates and the marked bodyguard location employed blunt intimidation in lieu of the subtlety that was more prevalent in the period.

Grounds view of Nijo 1, Kyoto, 1/22/2009

A couple of view of the exterior grounds of Nijo Castle.

A couple of views of the exterior grounds of Nijo Castle.

Nijo’s accoutrements were not solely of a military bent, however. Several large gardens dot the grounds, including what must be a fabulous field of cherry trees when it is not the middle of Winter and they’re all dead.

I probably should have waited until Spring.

I probably should have waited until Spring.

But despite the low chlorophyll levels there were several impressive sites, including the interior waterfall and pond area with the unusual tree seen at the start of my post.

Nijo interior garden, Kyoto, 1/22/2009

Definitely one of the weirder trees I've seen in Japan- it doesn't really seem to fit in with its surroundings. Anybody have any idea what it is?

Definitely one of the weirder trees I've seen in Japan- it doesn't really seem to fit in with its surroundings. Anybody have any idea what it is?

There were also several impressively festooned gates.

Nijo gate 1, Kyoto, 1/22/2009Nijo gate 2, Kyoto, 1/22/2009Nijo gate 3, Kyoto, 1/22/2009

That's enough gates for one day.

That's enough gates for one day.

I have to admit that the actual buildings inside the compound were not particularly impressive from the outside.

I suppose your impressions may vary.

I suppose your impressions may vary.

So that’s Nijo. It was a little rainy, and I almost died going down the high-ass steps from some of the tower areas (for being historically known as small people, the Japanese sure had some ridiculously tall steps in their stairs), but I suppose it was worth my 600 yen, which with the conversion rate now is something like five thousand dollars. Next time, hopefully: a record of the many convenience stores littering the streets of Kyoto.

A preview of what's to come. Get pumped.

A preview of what's to come. Get pumped.

Music I’m Listening to Now: “I Need A Life”, remix by Four Tet.





Penny Arcade

24 01 2009

Occasionally I post about something other than the Animal Collective. I’ve had another busy week in Kyoto as my classes get into full swing and I spend more time with the people I’ve met here. Luckily I still have tons of time compared to the constant class/homework schedule that characterized my last semester at Penn, so I’m still having a lot of fun. This week I had Indian food for about the third time in my life (and quite a bit of it- the nan was the size of my torso), went to Nijo Castle (pictures in my next post), received a lesson in the culinary arts, and visited a Japanese arcade for the first time.

This display may remind you of the Power Rangers. Known in Japan as "sentai", the motif of the group of masked and uniformed heroes has been around for decades now.

This display may remind you of the Power Rangers. Known in Japan as "sentai", the motif of the group of masked and uniformed heroes has been around for decades now.

The cooking lesson I and about thirty other KCJS students and their families (mostly their host mothers) received was impressive in a informational and asthetic way. While it was entirely in Japanese, with the help of another KCJS student and his host mother I succeeded in aiding the creation of takikomi gohan (a rice dish with chicken and vegetables), shrimp and vegetable kakiage (similar to tempura, but  with shrimp and several vegetables fried into a cake-like shape), dashimaki tamago (a sort of sweetened omelet), and konsai miso soup. I regret not taking pictures of the group kitchen area- it was exactly the sort of immaculate, visually dazzling installation you see on cooking shows but never really believe exist in the real world. The entire cooking staff was extremely friendly and helpful, something I greatly appreciated when I was trying and failing to fold the egg into roll form in its pan. Though somehow it came out looking perfect- my dumb luck kicked in.

After the class, I went with several other KCJS’ers to an arcade. Unlike America, where the arcade has essentially gone extinct, and even solo game machines are increasingly hard to find, the videogame arcade is a thriving institution in Japan, with an impressive number lining the streets of Kyoto alone. They’re visited by people of all shapes and sizes, from the Japanese schoolgirl to the well-dressed business man. The Japanese arcade, however, surpasses American ones in not only quantity and clientele, but scale- the one we visited was at least five stories, with traditional videogame cabinets sharing space with pinball machines, crane games (with a huge variety of prizes, from trinkets to massive stuffed animals), betting machines, model horse racing devices (complete with racing horse figurines), and many others.

The floor of the Round One arcade.

The floor of the Round One arcade.

I honestly don’t have as much of an interest in games as I used to, but I played a few light gun games for nostalgia’s sake, including one that foregoed the usual pistol for a full-scale replica of a shotgun, including a used pump to reload it. The entire place is similarly over-the-top and overwhelming, a furor of flashing lights and constant noise. It was all a little strange, but the oddest thing I saw was this:

The glowing pods of the Round One arcade.

The glowing pods of the Round One Arcade.

I have no idea what these pods are. My only evidence to their true, perhaps sinister purpose was witnessing several Japanese enter them and then emerge younger and healthier looking, and one the opposite sex as when he entered. I’m instinctively frightened of glowing pods whose meaning I can not fathom, so I stayed far away.

While I don’t think I’d ever go by myself, the arcade was a fun experience, even if they wouldn’t let me take the plastic shotgun with me.

The Rambo arcade game. Behind the glare is Richard Crenna telling you, I assume, that "It's over Johnny! It's over!" To get the high score, you have to shout at the screen "Nothing is over!" and then broke down sobbing.

The Rambo arcade game. Behind the glare is Richard Crenna telling you, I assume, "It's over Johnny! It's over!" To get the high score, you have to then shout at the screen "Nothing is over!" and then break down sobbing.

The variety of games offered was staggering. If you want to something, but not enough to actually do it in real life, I recommend a Japanese arcade.

The variety of games offered was staggering. If you want to do something, but not enough to actually do it in real life, I recommend a Japanese arcade.

Music I’m Listening to Now: The Handsome Furs, “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues”





Anonanimal

23 01 2009

Three Animal Collective posts in a row can’t be bad, right? Now that I’ve given the Merriweather Post Pavillion a few run-throughs, I feel confident in saying it’s a fantastic cd that anyone who appreciate gorgeous, experimental music should purchase. Previously, when I’ve heard similar ravings for Animal Collective’s previous works, I felt a vague sense of annoyance due to my inability to enjoy them. I purchased Sung Tongs, a few albums back for the Collective, from an Albuquerque record store, and along with Frog Eyes’ The Golden River, the two became the first music purchases I regretted. With the exception of the gorgeous “Winter’s Love”, Sung Tongs loose structure and critical lack of melody (to me, at least) succeeded in driving a wedge between me and the band that has lasted through all of their subsequent releases until now. Listening to Animal Collective had the unintended side effect of allowing me to experience what people who dislike experimental bands such as Radiohead and Wilco feel when they listen to works by the bands and the widespread praise they receive: confusion and eventually umbrage towards the music and the perceived misperceptions of the critical and popular apparatuses. Failing to enjoy music by artists such as these eventually comes to feel like a crime, rather than a simple divergence of taste, and in the worst case resentment builds into a virulent hatred for both the creators and the supposedly delusional fans, another victim of an emperor they’ve failed to realize has been naked all along.

Everybody still here after that?

Everybody still here after all that?

Despite my best efforts, my attitude towards Animal Collective was slowly coming to resemble this prefixed negative outlook. However, I believe one of my few good qualities is never to permanently write anything off, though my optimism and goodwill may dim substantially. It was with nearly a sense of duty, then, that I listened to the newest Animal Collective cd, which had been receiving rave reviews in online publications such as Pitchfork and blogs across the internets. My introduction to the cd was one of its finest tracks, and the album’s eventual single, “My Girls”, a hypnotically beautiful ode to blissful domesticity. The song, while at the same time being one of the best among a uniformly stellar tracklist, also provides an excellent preview of what’s to come. Close to six minutes, “My Girls” lacks a traditional chorus or even much of a sense of movement, relying instead on a looping melody and eventually a mantra-like vocal. This degree of repetition would mercilessly expose the flaws in weaker songwriting, but it is here where the Collective accomplishes their greatest success. Merriweather‘s melodies are astonishingly beautiful, at once complex and immediately apparent. The repetition prevalent throughout the disc never dulls their impact, and despite most of the most looping-based tracks running past five minutes, they never tired. Merriweather‘s songs succeed at obtaining the true qualities of the mantras their design mimics: a simple pattern, at once elemental and enormously powerful.

This is why I love the internet.

This is why I love the internet.

That’s not to say, however, that Merriweather is totally devoid of traditional song structure. “Summertime Clothes”, another highlight in an album full of musical apexes, features an astonishingly catchy chorus, a tidal wave of pulsing sound fueling a lyric expresing the simle desire to “Walk around with you”. “Bluish”‘s verse stretches, but its chorus is immediately striking, simultaneously more muted and more pounding than the portions before it. Merriweather has been described as the Collective’s “pop” cd, and while its hard to imagine any song from it ever making it onto a major radio station, the strength and beauty of its melodies are undeniable. The album ends with “Brother Sport”, a gorgeous, bouyantly hopeful song that embraces the repetition and trance aspects of the album fully to produce a gorgeous climax of joyously shouting voice and and an unstoppable melody. In the end, the Animal Collective has produced a cd undeniable to even former cynics such as myself, a joyous celebration of simple pleasures and musical beauty. The band are currently embarking on a world tour that will take them, among other places, to Albuquerque, New Mexico and Boulder, Colorado, both in June. I haven’t seen them live, but I’ve been impressed with the videos I’ve seen and the reviews I’ve read, so I’d highly recommend it. (Cancel that- seems like they’ve sold out in at least Albuquerque, and tickets are going for over $250.) (Cancel that again- apparently there are still tickets, and there only eighteen dollars a pop in Albuquerque. See them if you can!) If you like music, and don’t mind something a little different, pick up Merriweather Post Pavillion.

Brother Sport

p.s. The title of this post is a song name from Andrew Bird’s new album Noble Beast, which is also pretty great, if a bit of a slow burner. It’s streaming over on his Myspace page. If you haven’t heard his music before, I’d recommend “Fitz and the Dizzyspells”; a lot of his music can be a little idiosyncratic, so the song is a nice introduction to some of his dynamics.





Wrong Time Capsule

21 01 2009

I lied. This is the catchiest song from Merriweather Post Pavillion.





Electioneering

20 01 2009

While all of you are likely watching the inauguration, I’ll be asleep. Hopefully it’s not too historic. Video above is a song from the new Animal Collective cd. Animal Collective have been hit and miss (and far more misses than hits) for me in the past, but I’m liking their new cd Merriweather Post Pavillion, quite a bit so far. Video is the catchiest cut on the record, “My Girls”.

Addendum: I can’t believe this slipped my mind, but I experienced my first earthquake last week. I woke up to some light rumbling that ceased after a few seconds, which made me believe it was just construction at first. Kyoto, as I understand it, is relatively safe; its more places like Tokyo that are worried about the next big one.

(Original video has been pulled, so here’s a substitute. Don’t be afraid of the interpretive dance descriptor- it’s really more of a light show. Though it probably would have been hilarious if someone had just taped themselves dancing to the song.)