Maybe Now They'll Stop Adding a "U" to Everything

England kills the apostrophe.

On the streets of Birmingham, the queen's English is now the queens English.

England's second-largest city has decided to drop apostrophes from all its street signs, saying they're confusing and old-fashioned.

But some purists are downright possessive about the punctuation mark.

It seems that Birmingham officials have been taking a hammer to grammar for years, quietly dropping apostrophes from street signs since the 1950s. Through the decades, residents have frequently launched spirited campaigns to restore the missing punctuation to signs denoting such places as "St. Pauls Square" or "Acocks Green."

This week, the council made it official, saying it was banning the punctuation mark from signs in a bid to end the dispute once and for all.


I don't know what is more absurd: the city government actually discussing this in meetings or the idea of people becoming "confused" by the singular-possessive.

I can't wait to go to Birmingham now just to ask the tour guides exactly how many Saint Pauls there were and whether or not they were related. It[']ll be a jolly good time.

Cheerio.

The Rightness of Japan

The Lonely Planet guidebook to Japan has the following to say about Osaka:

"This isn't to say Osaka is an attractive city; almost bombed flat in WWII, it appears an endless expanse of concrete boxes punctuated by pachinko parlours and elevated highways."

And contains a similar description for the temple-rich capital city of Kyoto,

"First impressions can be something of an anticlimax. Stepping out of Kyoto Station for the first time and gazing around at all the neon and concrete that awaits you, you are likely to feel that all you've heard and read about Kyoto is just so much tourist-literature hype."

Few are the travelers who have never been to a land they couldn’t envision moving to at once. Usually, it’s easy; a sun-drenched beach where tall drinks float on the hands of waiters in a never-ending procession straight to your veranda; or perhaps a town of cobble-lined paths snaking their way past the very galleries and cafes the famed artisans of history books once prowled; or maybe a mountain village with but a single dirt road, several papaya plantations, and a nice villa from which to soak in the surrounding rainforest. Who couldn’t get used to that? It’s an idyllic setting… on the surface. Seldom do we get a chance to peel back the glossy layers of our destination and reveal the warts. Rarer still do we see the heart. Life as it really is can be easy to miss for the dreamy traveler.

It is in this regard that makes Japan so different from everywhere that I’ve been. Osaka in January, with its endless sprawl of concrete cubes, pervasive gray skies, and bouquets of cherry blossoms existing only on postcards and signage, is a place that reveals its most vital of organs to the visitor without delay. It’s what I had come to call its “rightness”. And it’s more attractive than any travel brochure photo I’ve ever seen.

As I made my way by train from Kansai airport to my hotel in Osaka’s business-focused Kita district, north of the rivers that bisect it, I felt myself slipping deeper and deeper into a cloak of invisibility. I was primed for this most different of cultures, but at a blue-eyed and shoeless 6-feet in height, I expected to stick out a bit. And I’m sure I did – complete days went by in Osaka without me seeing another westerner -- only the Japanese are too polite to ever let you notice. Eye contact, a friendly konichiwa, a pair of pursed lips ever-so-slightly turned up into a smile: these are the things I sought to capture on the streets of Osaka, and later Kyoto, but they proved as elusive as a geisha in Gion.

The bustling train stations, streets, and maze-like underground shopping malls may be filled with millions of people, but you wouldn’t notice it by the sound. Mihan, a pretty early twenties college student who works part-time at the guesthouse I stayed at while in Kyoto, commented to me one night that the people of Osaka are boisterous and loud compared to those in Tokyo. In this land of ultimate courtesy and politeness, I had to bite down hard to not laugh aloud and risk offending her. The truth was, as I had seen and heard it, was that nearly everyone, regardless their age, sex, or status, walked with a sense of purpose and self-induced isolationism. Earbuds were as ubiquitous as the bottles of Kirin-branded green tea I grew to enjoy. Many were texting. Endlessly texting and when not texting, they were watching television and scanning the web on their high-tech phones. Save for a few instances of what I would suspect was school-age giddiness and travel-induced excitement shared by friends, nobody spoke. That is to say I heard very little voices beyond the constant chorus of arigato go zai mas emanating from every kiosk, shop, noodle stand, and, to be certain, every staffed position in the city. The Japanese are quite indeed very thankful to those they do business with.

The silence was even more pronounced on the network of subways and buses that I eventually came to rely upon heavily for my daily site-seeing activities. Talking on a cell-phone was a much frowned-upon no-no, as was conversation above a whisper of any kind it seemed. The signs that are there to warn against the former behavior seem to only exist for the benefit of the visitor, those of us who are used to our senses being assaulted by others … and returning the favor in kind. It’s not a rule sent down by an oppressive regime, but rather one born from a very deeply-ingrained sense of public courtesy. Not about to speak for tens of millions of people, but my semi-informed opinion is this is a land whose people place far more emphasis on the collective than they do on themselves. They sacrifice or find workarounds for situations in which their personal desires – say, calling a boyfriend while on the subway – might interfere with the contemplation and serenity of others. For as much as I love my high tech toys, I would trade them all in a second if only there was a way to export this silence and courtesy to the west.

The rightness I came to fall in love with goes far beyond the Japanese’ reluctance to gab on a cellphone while out in public. Truth be told, if someone was to explain to me, prior to my visit, all of the behavioral idiosyncrasies that make up this society, I would have surmised that Japan was indeed one very stuck-up place to live. There is little doubt in me that I would have made a remark about there being a huge need to yank a few million sticks out of a few million you-know-whats. But being there, if only for a week, and seeing the people conduct themselves first hand, has given rise in me a deep sense of societal jealousy.

The examples are endless, so I’ll name but a few.

Shoes. Everyone, whether they’ve been overseas or not, knows to take one’s shoes off upon entering a house and, in many cases, a restaurant in Japan. The streets and sidewalks, though they may appear spotless for western standards, still harbor the grit and grime of the outdoors. The Japanese, unlike, say, an American household practicing “Japan-style” living, take it further though and ensure a pair of slippers just inside the entrance to the bathroom. A detail easily overlooked elsewhere. In restaurants, patrons will find an array of slippers near the hall leading to the restrooms that they may choose from. Sadly, I’ve yet to find any within two or three sizes of the elevens I need, but tiny slippers beats the alternative. Inadequate slippers aside, this was but another notch in the belt of the Japanese way of thinking through all the details. Not unlike the rack of umbrella bags many restaurants have ready for guests who stroll in on a rainy night.

Being that the primary purpose of this trip was to meet with a software developer whose games I will be writing the strategy guides for this year, I made sure to school myself on the intricacies of exchanging meshi and following the proper protocol during the meeting regarding sitting, standing, and the hows and whys of addressing people correctly. Although this level of formality is certainly foreign to me, I soon came to see that its roots extend into other forms of communication, and are not merely for business appearances. Take, for example, a group of friends going their separate ways after a night on the town. They bow and thank one another for the good time. The key being to bow. One of the many things I came to learn this week was that bowing doesn’t have the implied sense of servitude that we may see it as. It’s about respect and loyalty, certainly not about obedience. And while I knew that was the case for business meetings and official greetings from one service employee to a customer, I never would have expected to see a group of twenty-something women, buzzed from too much sochu or sake perhaps, bowing their goodbyes at the end of a hot night out in Kasharawa. The younger generation may be rebelling in their dress, but tradition and dedication to their upbringing is alive and strong.

Tim, my editor and travelling companion for much of this trip, brought with him instructions to go to a McDonalds restaurant while we were in Japan. I admit, I balked at the initial suggestion. I visit the golden arches rather infrequently at home in Washington and seldom without an immediate after-taste of self-loathing and a burp of shame. Yet, I obliged, and was most pleasantly surprised. Nevermind the impeccable d├ęcor, soft piano jazz music, and friendly, polite service, but both my Egg McMuffin and Sausage McMuffin w/Egg looked exactly like the photo. This has never happened to me before. Never have I been to any fast-food restaurant in the USA, regardless the chain, where the sandwich wasn’t smooshed into an unrecognizable mess or, at the least, assembled so sloppily that it bore no resemblance to the photo on the menu board. Not the case in Japan. It would seem that, and again I have multiple examples that bear this out, that people simply care a lot more about their jobs there, regardless how menial we might perceive those tasks to be here in western society. There is no other way to put it, than to say my Egg McMuffin was assembled with care.

I thought this Mickey D’s example may have been an isolated incident until we went to Mister Donut (as an aside, let me assure you that these western-style chain restaurants were only visited early in the day or very late at night… we went native for lunch and dinner every day). Here we sat, eating donuts and drinking coffee in a crowded upstairs sitting area, when a boy, no more than 17 years old, came to give us a refill of our coffee. He was polite. Gracious. And, ultimately, thanked us for allowing him to serve us. It was nice, I thought, and something he felt obligated to do for foreigners. But that wasn’t so because moments after refilling our cups, he walked over to a table of young teenage girls who were busy reading their manga, and he treated them with the same courteousness and respect he did us. I can only surmise that he didn’t view us as tourists or foreigners or his elders any more than he viewed them as his countrymen or his juniors. Instead, he viewed us all, no doubt everyone he would pour coffee for, as simply his company’s customers. And serving his employer’s customers was , at that moment, the most important thing in his world. At least on the outside.

This level of service and dedication to one’s employer was on display everywhere we looked. As was an overall sense of courtesy and politeness that, frankly, I came to cherish. For although I considered myself nearly invisible on the street, it never took more than a tap on the shoulder and a polite sumimasen to get all of the assistance I could ask for. Never was I met with a short-tempered frustration about my inability to speak Japanese. Never was I ignored. And never was I made to feel like my request was a burden or that I was putting someone out. Heck, the one time I know I screwed up – I was in Gion on a Friday night and staring at the skirts across the street and walked straight into someone – it was the guy I nearly knocked on the ground who apologized to me.

In hindsight, he might have been staring across the street too… you should have seen those girls.

Probably on the way to their shift at a hostess bar.

Wow.

A digression, although a pleasant one. Shall we continue?

As the days went by and I began to really get the feel for this land of the rising sun, I noticed a change in the way Tim and I spoke about Japan. It was no longer with a mystified admiration, but it was with an affection and, speaking for myself, a sense of sadness that we knew our time in this culture would soon come to an end. Gone would be the soothing beeps and chimes of the train station and garbage trucks, forgotten would be the high-tech public toilets and spotless restrooms, and out of lives forever would be the money trays and the reluctance to hand money directly from one person to another. Gone would be the cute.

For as much as I wanted to get home to Kristin and had to get home for work, I didn’t want to leave. I spent my second to last day in Kyoto on a long walk through the city’s northwestern corner. I took the bus to Kinkakuji Temple, then proceeded to walk several miles along tree-lined streets, past fantastic single-family homes belonging to city’s wealthiest of citizens, and eventually down a busy boulevard back towards town. My walk would take hours and as it grew colder, and I hungrier, I stopped in at a jazz bar. I was the only person in the place and took a seat at the bar and ordered a coffee. The bartender knew no English and I had all but exhausted my knowledge of Japanese in the act of ordering my drink. Nevertheless, I felt at home. I sat and thumbed through my phrasebook in silence and the bartender sat off to the side reading his paper. It was mid-afternoon and I felt a chill coming on.

I coughed twice and sneezed once. Details I normally don’t track, but what happened next forced this recollection.
The phone rang. The bartender talked briefly before hanging up then set to boiling a pot of water. I continued to read my book.

Two minutes pass, the kettle whistles, then he sets an elegant tea cup and saucer down in front of me.

“Hot ginger,” he says, then fakes a sneeze. “You feel better, okay?”



Is someone giving me a cup of free tea because I sneezed a big deal? No, nor am I saying it wouldn’t happen here in the USA or in any other country for that matter. Especially if you’re the only one in the cafe. But when you combine all of these little things, they amount to one very big thing: the rightness.

I love where I live. I love travelling around the United States and seeing the sites and the parks and cities. I’m not quite sure even if I could up and move to anywhere in the world that I would necessarily want to do so. But that all being said, Japan isn’t only making better cars and better televisions and gadgets of various sorts. They’re making a better society. Or, at the very least, one that’s a whole lot more livable.

When it comes to society and the American Dream and, let’s face it, the overall superiority complex many Americans have towards other cultures, I can’t help but think that ignorance may indeed be bliss. We indeed have it pretty good on the surface, but where it really counts, when it comes to unveiling our warts and our heart in comparison... knowledge and experience only bring the sorrow of what might have been. Or what, if our parents are to be believed, used to be.

Sigh.

I began writing this essay on the train to the airport, right after the woman charged with cleaning my train car exited the train with her cart of supplies and bowed to us and thanked us for waiting.

Japan Photos Posted

You can see my photos from Japan right here.

I recommend viewing them as a slideshow with the info box on and the speed set to slow. Enjoy!

I Didn't Know an Octopus had Balls

Dotombori Arcade... many more photos to come next week.

Our feast Monday night kept us out later than our still jet-laggy bodies were ready for but we couldn't have been any happier. Our hosts ordered a most excellent assortment of sashimi, fanciful chicken skewers, a carrot salad made from rather large, sweet carrots from Kyoto, and also a red snapper. When asked if we were interested in trying anything specific, after it was clear we were not done eating, I couldn't resist: I ordered the horse sashimi.

Yes, that is correct: raw horse. The presentation was superb, and the meat very tasty. I began with a piece of very dark red meat, that I was told likely came from the thighs. I followed this with a piece of lighter meat (closer to the body), then finished with what i at first thought was a type of cheese, but it was actually the mane. It wasn't the hair, but rather the fleshy part of the mane along the horse's neck. That one took a little getting used to and offered a more challenging texture to overcome.

For drinks, we began the night on beer then our host ordered three varieties of sake brewed in her hometown area in northern Japan. The sake was poured, overflowing actually, into a large square glass placed inside a circular bamboo cup. In America, we try to avoid cramming square pegs into round holes, but here in Japan I realize that doing so simply means you're about to drink some damn fine sake. The glasses were passed around the table for sharing and tasting -- we're all friends here, right? -- then we each settled on our favorite variety. With a beer and an overflowing glass of sake in me, it was time to move on to the shochu, Japanese whiskey. Shochu is a clear alcohol, fermented from a variety of starches like buckwheat, sweet potato, and more. The sweet potato version is the strongest which makes sense since those little spuds are used to make ethanol. The large spheroid of ice in the glass gave the shochu a nice, chilled temperature but was not needed to douse any "fire-water" affect, as it was very easy to drink. Dangerously so, perhaps.

The excitement of Monday night carried over to Tuesday morning when, after a breakfast of cold bacon, scrambled eggs, and miso soup, Tim and I walked through northern Osaka to the Yodobashi Camera store, an 8 floor feast for your electronical senses. With entire massive floors devoted specifically to cell-phones, cameras, audio/visual equipment, and of course, a floor just for toys and videogames, it was clear we could spend hours there. And so we did.

Did you know that there are over 400 styles of ear bud speakers for your iPod in Japan? Oh yes. Some costing hundreds of dollars for the purest of sounds. Others adorned with Swarovski crystals, and still others made from exotic hardwoods.

The camera floor had what seemed to be the contents of every camera shop in New York City all rolled into one giant store. I was relieved to see my new Canon G10 costing well over $100 more in Japan than the price I paid through B+H Photo. For those who like to torture themselves with camera-envy, the store also had a Canon Mark III on the floor, retailing for the US equivalent of approximately $8000. Lenses sold separately.

The videogame aisle, on the one hand, wasn't quite as extensive as, say, a Best Buy or Toys R Us. At least not in terms of games, but what they lacked in shock-value for games was more than made up for by their assortment of strategy guides. The sheer number of books and the space devoted to them in the store was shocking. An entire wall lined with hundreds of books from all genres, systems, and some even going back several years.

Later that day, after another very successful interview session and demonstration at [XX--censored--XX] Tim and I said farewell to our hosts who would be riding the shinkansen back to Tokyo. I took a quick 90 minute sojourn up to my room to get some work done before we met back up for a night on the town; I wanted to see the neon.

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, our hotel was in the Kita district of Osaka, the business part of town, but tonight we were headed south to Dotombori Street, Osaka's bustling epicenter.

We walked and talked our way several blocks southeast of our hotel to a subway station then took a deep breath and sacked up for the challenge of buying our own subway tickets. Our initial attempts were ones of confusion. We stood slack-jawed and perplexed, staring at the confounded machines trying to make sense of what seemed to be a very straightforward process. We simply had no idea how to go about buying a ticket. I had done the research ahead of time, I knew where we wanted to go and on which train, but the vending machine ticket seller blocked our path. Eureka! We figured it out. Finally.

Two stops later, we emerged from the underground hustle and bustle of the subway station at Shinshaibashi to find a world of high-end department stores sprawled out around. Oh, look, a Louis Vuitton store. There's one for Dior. Oh, a three-story Chanel store.

This next statement can't be overstated: the Japanese are incredibly stylish, fashion-conscience people. And, with respect to the women, they look damn good.

I've never seem something so sexy as a twenty-something Japanese woman in a short plaid skirt, black stockings, and thigh-high boots straddling a relic of a bicycle at an intersection. A poofy winter white coat with fur trim completed the ensemble.

We guys call this material.

Nevertheless, as impressive as the high-end shopping opportunities on display were, Tim and I are of simpler taste and lighter means, so off we went into the nearby arcade. Not a videogame arcade, but rather a narrow primarily pedestrian-only street lined with hundreds of shops, cafes, pachinko parlors, hostess bars, and massage parlors. It was a feast for the senses and a place where even the locals seems ready to stop and take a photo. I took dozens. Some are comical, others showcasing the crowds and signs, others the neon glitz, and others of Tim playing Taiko Drum Master in an arcade.

Being a badge-carrying member of the Eats All Streetfood Association, I did not hesitate to order up a half-dozen tako-yaki at the first vendor I encountered. Tako-yaki is the specialty of the Osaka area and, quite literally, is a fried ball of octopus. It's drizzled in a teriyaki sauce, then drizzled again with a white mystery sauce, then given a heavy showering of grated ginger flakes.

It wasn't that the tako-yaki was bad. And It wasn't that I was afraid my limited shellfish allergy might extend to octopus. No, the problem with the six tako-yaki in my hand was that they were too damn hot. Not spicy hot, mind you. Hot, hot. Hot food is fine. I like hot food. I seek out hot food. This was ridiculous. My first bite instantly blistered the roof of my mouth and I dropped it back into the carton. I was able to, over ten minutes, consume my first tako-yaki and while not necessarily soemthing I will miss back in the States, it wasn't bad. I pierced the other tako-yaki in attempt to cool them off, but despite this effort, my second oco-ball was so excruciatingly hot that I had no choice but to spit the entire thing back into the dish.

At least I wasn't in a society with particularly clean, formal, people all around me.

Oops.

A cauldron of bubbling batter and semi-solid octopus gushed from the tear I had put into the ball before spitting it back into the dish and, I believe it was at this time when Tim's willingness to try it began to evaporate, not unlike the endless supply of steam emanating from the ruptured morsel in my hand. Twenty minutes after buying the tako-yaki, unable to eat more than two of them due to the scorching temperature and unwilling to continue holding the plate of food, I finally dumped it into a garbage can.

I wasn't the least bit surprised to see a near-identical carton of tako-yaki, half-eaten, inside that same bin.

Home and Away: Mountains and Towers

Went down to the convenience store at the base of the hotel this morning for a cup of coffee. No hot coffee, but plenty of refrigerated drinks. I passed on the Starbucks to have this instead. How could something so foreign make me feel so at home all at once?




One of the places I've wanted to check out in Osaka before leaving for Kyoto on Wednesday is the Umeda Sky Tower. It just so happens that my meeting today was in the 9th floor of said building. My contact and translator treated me to a great lunch then found we had nearly an hour to kill before the meeting so we were going to take the elevator to the top of the tower to see the "Floating Garden" on the bridge that connects the two towers. Unfortunately, the upper levels are closed until Wednesday for renovation. I'd say that this is not a problem and that I'll just return on Wednesday before hopping the train to Kyoto, but it's supposed to be cloudy and drizzly all week and today was bright and sunny.

Here's a shot from ground-level of the Umeda Sky Tower. My meeting was in the left-hand tower.



As for today's meetings, they went very well. I got to watch a demo of [XX--censored--XX>] and meet the Producer for one of my all-time favorite games. Then it was off to the conference room for one-on-one interviews with the Producer of my current project, [XX--censored--XX], followed by the Director for that same game. It was a little weird playing journalist since I don't normally concern myself with much of the fan-service questions the journos ask, but it went well and I was able to get some very good info for the strategy guide, including photos.

We were able to arrange for me to return tomorrow afternoon for a group meeting with the division leads on the game with the hopes of having them show me their secret tips and tricks on a build of the game.

Now I just have to hope Tim gets here soon, as we're waiting on him before going to dinner. Hope he's feeling adventurous...

Japan: Bring Your Own Slippers

What a stressful, confusing, and absolutely marvelous day.

It started with a phone call from my editor Tim. He was in Chicago, and just learned that there was a mechanical delay and that he would not be making the connecting flight to Osaka out of San Francisco. On the positive side, this left me with an entire row in economy plus to stretch out and sleep for the 11 hour flight. The downside to this was that I would be flying solo in the meetings on Monday.

I will let you know how that goes later today. Or tomorrow. Or was that yesterday? I don't know anymore. I woke up Saturday morning at 4:30 for a flight and now it's Sunday night.

No, I can't tell you who won the AFC & NFC Championship games... I crossed the date line on a 747, not a DeLorean.

My flight landed at Kansai International Airport outside of Osaka around 4pm local time and after a photo, fingerprints, and bag-search I was officially in. I made my way through the airport to the train station and, surprisingly enough, managed to purchase a ticket, board the right train, and make it 75-minutes through the suburbs to downtown Osaka all on my own. From there it was just a short 5 minute cab ride to the hotel.

In attempt to keep with the local customs, I took my shoes off upon entering my room and, to very little surprise, found the complimentary slippers barely extending past my arch. They're so cute. Good thing I brought my own... ahh, the benefits of doing a little research ahead of time.

The hotel is in the northern business portion of Osaka known as the Kita district. It doesn't have the bustling nightlife of the south side of the river (where I hope to head with Tim on Tuesday) but it does have a very lengthy underground shopping mall that links the many subways, train stations, and hotels together.

I took a business card from the front-desk and a map I couldn't read and headed out in search of dinner. A short walk down a rather welcoming alleyway lead me to the entrance to the underground mall. There was something spectacularly risky about going underground and potentially popping back out somewhere far from my hotel that I found attractive so I went for it.

Much of the shops and restaurants in this glorified mile-long subway terminal were closed. It's a Sunday night, after all. I eventually came to a McDonalds and put my head down and kept walking. I was in search of -- there's one! -- a red lantern, the tell-tale sign of an izakaya.

I knew I wanted to eat at an izakaya and I thought I was prepared to do so, but these places (counter-style pubs) are very much the domain of the locals and, so I've read, will go out of their way to discourage gaijin like me from entering (usually because they know it will be hard to communicate). I ducked under the plastic curtain and took a seat at the counter.

And immediately had a brain fart. I forgot how to even order a beer. I forgot I had a phrase book in my pocket. I spaced out, competely.

Fortunately for me, at the far end of the 6-person counter, sat a stylish young couple who spoke english. Turns out they live in Osaka, but the husband has a friend who, get this, lives in Tacoma, WA. He helped order for me, got me an Asahi Super Dry -- my favorite Japanes beer -- and then I took it from there.

The izakaya consisted of a counter with six stools and behind it was barely enough room for two people to stand. The main food here was fried skewers of everything you could ask for. Just like American bar-food, only smaller portions. My english-speaking friend helped me order up some beef, pork, onion, and asparagus.

I was trying to be agreeable.

A plate of cabbage was put before me, along with my mug of beer, a hot towel, and an empty stoneware cup. The way the place works is that each skewer was, I don't know, maybe 80 or 100 yen, and you dip the skewer into the communal bowls of sauce -- just once I was instructed in case I was going to pull a Castanza -- eat the food, and put the empty stick into the cup. The barmaid then counts the sticks when you're done. I noticed the couple had sticks of several sizes, so I imagine there is more to this, but my two beers and six skewers came out to just 1100 yen, which under normal financial conditions would be $11.

By this point of my stay, I was getting familliar with the phrase book and attempting fractured cave-man speak efforts at conversation with the woman behind the counter. I really had no choice, as she had so little room to move she was forced to stand directly in front of me. I asked for the bill and know enough numbers (although japanese numbers change depending on what it is you're counting... go figure) that I could understand the tally and pay.

And for the second time in the two hours I had been in Japan, my tip (chip-pu) was refused. I know tipping around the world isn't as common as it is in the US, but habits are hard to break. I was able to reason why the cab driver refused my small-change tip, but a bartender handing me back the 200 yen? I rampaged through the phrasebook and found the words for "tip" and "custom" and was able to convey that I offered her the tip out of habit and that I was sorry if I offended her. She laughed and told me it was okay (at least I think she did) and that was that.

I made my way back through the underground mall to the right staircase and, here I am, sitting in some sort of robe that would have fit me a lot better when I was 15, and watching incomprehendable Japanese television.

This is going to be one hell of a week. As long as I can get through these interviews tomorrow.

Man, I wish Tim was here.

Let the Corruption Commence!

The inevitable took place at approximately 7:30pm yesterday evening: We introduced Hyeon Ju to Rock Band 2. And let me just say this Korean fish out of water took to the plastic instruments far better than that same metaphorical fish would take to a bicycle.

She rocked.

She flubbed her way through the first few notes (guitar on Easy) so we turned on No Fail Mode, only to see her never fall below the upper half of the performance meter again. Had I have turned off NFM we certainly would have broken a few high scores on my profile.

She doesn't know any of the songs (although she recognized "Oh, Pretty Woman" from a movie... gee, I wonder which one) but she really enjoyed it. After about 8 songs or so, however, she opted to sit and watch... I had the sense she was studying my technique. 

She doesn't have any videogames at own, nor really ever played them she said, and I didn't get the feeling that she enjoyed it that much. That was until I went to pick her up this afternoon and all the other kids were raving about how lucky she was to have host parents who played Rock Band 2 with her.

A couple of us host families are going to rent out the room in the association offices with the giant projection screen and hook up the Xbox 360 for a Rock Band Party with all of the kids. I don't like to move my equipment around, but since I probably have another $200 worth of downloadable content for it, it makes sense to use mine. 

When I asked her at dinner tonight if she wanted to play, she said she wanted to play tomorrow instead. But later on she came downstairs for water and saw me playing -- blowing off steam -- and right away went for the drums. I was just about to go back to work, but how could I resist her request to learn the drums? Kristin, busy writing a paper for biz school, decided to play too.

This time I totally forgot to turn on NFM and was worried we'd have to restart right away, especially since the drums are a lot harder than the guitar (thanks to the kick-pedal) but hell no, we didn't need to restart. She had never seen this setup before, it was her first song ever on drums (Weezer's "Say it Ain't So"), and when I looked down halfway through the song, she was rocking a 3x multiplier. She even figured out how to trigger Overdrive during her second song without me even breathing a word about it.

My only guess is that her expertise playing the ocarina (no, not ...of Time) carries over to Rock Band 2.

So I'm proud to say that, ladies and gentleman, THE METROGNOMES may have finally found their drummer.

My guess is she'll be playing guitar and drums on Medium mode by the time she heads back to South Korea in February.

The Stranger in our Midst

This is going to probably be a bit harder than we thought.

We picked up Hyeon Ju last night at 5:30 and it was clear within minutes that her command of spoken English is just north of minimal. In theory, Kristin and I were expecting to have a somewhat difficult time conversing with her, but weren't too concerned since we've both spent weeks in other countries where English wasn't common. We knew we'd have to speak slowly and use very basic words, and this definitely seems to help, but simple things such as expressing our wish for her to "make herself feel at home" was challenging. We'll get through it though, I'm sure, as she has a pocket electronic dictionary and I have a Korean phrasebook. I will say that she knows a lot more english than I ever knew of Spanish. Speaking of spanish, I was very proud of myself for not defaulting to, "hola" upon meeting her as I so often do when speaking to someone who I know is not a native English speaker. Yes, I even found myself telling the Hugarian waitresses in Budapest, "gracias" when they brought the food.

I'm an idiot, but I have good intentions.

But back to Hyeun Ju (whose name I will probably misspell a thousand times in this post)

She's reading a bilingual version of a recent Obama biography -- each page is both in Korean and English. That's a good start to getting on my good side.

Last night was a little stressful, no doubt moreso for her than us. Kristin about freaked her out upon our initial meeting when she went to give her a big, American-style, welcome hug. Um, yeah, I forgot to tell her not to do that. The girl was totally confused as to why this total stranger was throwing her arms around her. She braced herself and hugged back, but was definitely a bit weirded out by it.

Hyeon Ju immediately took a liking to our dogs, who followed her around nonstop in return. I think they're going to be excellent ambassadors and help entertain her. I already know Annana in particular is going to miss her when she leaves.



After sitting in a bus for 6 hours, then a plane for 10, I was expecting her to want to get right to bed, and for a while we thought she did. She didn't want dinner and made that clear, but did eventually come downstairs sit and have some water while we ate. She's a very nice young girl and showed us photos of her family on her camera. I offered to print them for her to hang up in her bedroom, but the camera she has doesn't have a memory card. Internal memory, perhaps? I didn't force the issue last night, but I'm hoping she has some sort of USB cord or something -- the plug input on the side of the camera wasn't anything that I've seen before.

After dinner I showed her a map of the world and showed her where we were, where Kristin and I grew up, and she quickly seized on the size of the USA and wondered why we would live so far from family. The idea of flying back and forth once or twice a year is completely, well, foreign, to her.

It turns out her town of Gangjin is located at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Every city is known for something, and hers is pottery. She brought us a fabulous vase that I discovered by chance, thanks to Google Image Search, is from the Goryeo Celadon kiln. The kiln is a major draw for their town and they have a very large version of the exact same vase her parents had given us. The version she brought us -- a very fragile carry-on, no doubt -- is about 16" tall.



In a move that was either totally due to exhaustion or an example of her being wise beyond her years, she went to bed at 9pm and slept until 10:00 this morning and seems just about free of any jet-lag. So far. She was supposed to have gone to school at 8am this morning, but the schools are closed due to the flooding so she got to sleep in. She's out touring with the other students and the South Korean delegation today, then we meet her back at the Salish Lodge tonight for dinner. The mayor of Gangjin has hired a Korean catering company from Seattle to prepare an authentic Korean dinner tonight. I can't wait.

Speaking of food, we're going to take her to Uwajimaya next week to pick up any snacks or specific foods she's used to from home and see if she would be up for cooking dinner for us. I asked her last night what she usually eats for breakfast and she said, "meat wrap".

She had a bowl of Rice Krispies this morning and seemed to enjoy them, but I'm thinking of making her some breakfast burritos next week.

There's not a whole lot to say so far, since she's only been here for 20 hours or so, but she's very interested in everything around her. She seized upon the medal I have from the Leadville 100 that hangs on my lamp in my office and that quickly lead to me showing her photos from the mountain bike trips I've done and her, in exchange, showing me the photos of her bicycle on her camera.

When I was showing her the map of the world I have and pointing to places we've been, I asked her where she wants to travel to. Her answer? Everywhere.

This is going to work out just fine.

Finally, this morning, in perhaps a sign that these next 5 weeks are going to undoubtedly force us to look at our own way of living a little different, she was completely awestruck at the garage door opener. I expected her surprise at us having two cars, but I didn't foresee the wonder on her face when I hit the garage door button.

That was pretty cool.

And pretty eye-opening for me too.

Avalanche and Floods: Rainpocalypse 2009!

From Yahoo:

Warmer temperatures and heavy rains were melting snow dumped on the mountains during a weekend storm, with 10 inches of snow melting in a 12-hour period at Snoqualmie Pass, about 50 miles east of Seattle, Haner said.

In Snoqualmie, a town 25 miles east of Seattle, kayakers paddled in the street as city officials urged residents in the flood plain of the Snoqualmie River to leave before they became trapped.

Volunteers gathered at a city park to stuff sandbags for residents to protect their homes. June Garvin said she lived high on a ridge outside the danger area but wanted to help. "The river came up so fast that for some people, sorry to say, sandbags aren't going to do a darn thing," Garvin said. "The water's going to get in if it wants to."

Chris Caviezel, who has lived at Snoqualmie Pass for about seven years, said conditions were the worst he has seen. "We're getting avalanches and we're being flooded," Caviezel said.

As of early Wednesday evening, Marblemount saw nearly 6 inches of rain and almost 7 inches of rain fell at Snoqualmie Pass in the past 24 hours. The weather service predicted another 4 to 8 inches of rain would fall on the coast and Cascades through Wednesday night and 1 to 3 inches elsewhere in the region.


Judging by photos taken today of Snoqualmie Falls, it seems like an identical reoccurrence of what I saw in 2006 when I took this photo:



I was going to head down the road and take a photo of the falls tomorrow (it's only 2 miles away) but I think I might wait until Friday and take Hyeon Ju who arrives tomorrow afternoon. She, the other students, and the South Korean delegation are supposed to tour the area on Friday, but there's a sizable swath of the downtown area underwater today and school has been cancelled for tomorrow (possibly Friday too, we're told) so she might be stuck hanging out with me on Friday.

Hope she likes to play Rock Band.

Travel Plans: Confirmed!

I'm really glad the Korean girl is showing up on Thursday, else I'd have a hard time containing my excitement about the trip to Japan on the 17th. Turns out my editor and I were able to coordinate flight plans so as to be on the same flight from San Francisco to Japan (I think we're going to have to thumb-wrestle for the window seat), and we'll be staying at this pretty swank-looking place in Osaka for 3 nights. We'll be meeting with the guys behind two of the games I'll be authoring guidebooks for this year. I don't geek out about the people I meet in this industry and am rarely, if ever, star-struck by celebrity but I do look forward to meeting the creative mind behind this masterpiece. I won't ask for any autographs, but I do hope for a photo.

Two full days at their studio in Osaka should be enough time to get some solid developer insight into the book I'm currently working on, and to also get a head-start on their big release coming later this year. Nevertheless, I have some homework to do between now and then to make sure the business portion of the trip is money well spent.

Not about to fly halfway around the world for two days of meetings, I've decided to head to Kyoto for a couple days of site-seeing. Better still, I won't be traveling alone since my editor decided to stick around for the rest of the week as well. So we'll be a couple of fish out of water together, wandering the cold, hopefully not-too-rain-soaked temples and UNESCO sites in Kyoto. We'll be staying at a little Japanese guesthouse for a couple nights then splitting up, as he heads home and I venture to Nara, home to the largest wooden temple in Japan, for one final night before coming home on Saturday. I was hoping to spend an extra couple days in Japan and just hang out and try to catch the local vibe a bit more, but that was back when the trip was originally scheduled for December. I don't want to have to leave Kristin alone with the foreign exchange student for too long since it's going to be a bit hard to juggle with work and school. Not to mention, I'll need to get home and finish work on these books I'm writing.

Now I just need to get that G10.

The Bike: The Year that Was and Wasn't

So much for improving on my totals from 2007. I finally got around to entering the data stored in my Garmin for the final four months of the year and I'm sad to say that I didn't even crack 200,000 feet of ascent for the whole year (198k and change).  Worse still, I rode well over a thousand fewer miles in 2008 than I did in 2007.

But if you were reading my race reports this year, then you already know that.

The year started out great. The ETS (Endurance Training Series) I led was a bigger hit than I anticipated and by the end of April, I was in great shape and so were quite a few of my riding buddies. Granted, I didn't do Coach Troy's 3-hour trainer sessions like I did in 2007, but I was racking up a lot of cold, wet, miles. Right until I came down with pneumonia the week I was going to solo the 24-hour race in Spokane. Trying to race through the sickness did more harm than good and the effects lasted throughout the Test of Metal and forced me to ultimately skip the Cascade Creampuff 100. 

I got the rubber side down sort-of-speak in time to do the GearJammer race up in Squamish, BC and that went really well. But then the workload from hell took over. Considering I had gone many years as a guidebook author without ever really doing any books for serious RPG games, 2008 caught me by surprise in that I ended up authoring or co-authoring no less than four books for RPGs. Writing the book for Tales of Vesperia, an 85-hour epic from Namco-Badai, occupied the majority of my summer and made training for the Leadville 100 quite a challenge. Well, actually it made it near-impossible. I snuck in a few 3-hour rides on the single-speed here and there, but ultimately I rolled up to the starting line woefully unprepared. It's a wonder I only missed the belt-buckle cutoff by three minutes. There probably weren't too many mountain bikers at the race whose obligations to their primary sponsor actually hindered their ability to train for the race, but that was the case for me. That said, I'm sure the folks at BradyGames cared a lot more about my ability to finish books on time than to race a hundred miles through Colorado.

Many of you read my Leadville race report (it was the most-read entry on my blog last year, and I say thank you) and know that I plan to dial it back a bit in 2009. That is true. I've been giving it quite a bit of thought these past two months and although I anxiously await the Test of Metal and GearJammer, those will be the only races I do this year. No 24-hour races, no hundies, and no stage racing. Other than a late-fall ride at Skookum Flats, I didn't hit a single one of my favorite WA rides last year. No Dungeness/Gold Creek; no Palisades, no Esmeralda Basin, and no Angel's Staircase. And I didn't get back to St. Helens either. Just typing that was very depressing.

So, in addition to not seeking sponsorship for 2009, I'm putting the emphasis back on the fun. I might still do the occasional Thrilla in Woodinvilla for the camaraderie and for to help prep for the Test, but my weekends will be in the backcountry, focusing on high-mountain scenery and less on pure mileage.

The other thing I'm looking forward to doing more of this year is riding with the people I used to ride with -- the folks who all of that "training" the past couple years has kept me away from. Campouts, alpine swimming holes, lengthy hike-a-bikes, and brew-pubs. These are the things I want to focus my 2009 on.

Come with me as I seek to put the mountain back in mountain biking.


5 Days till Hyeung Ju

The holidays are over, the Seahawks aren't in the playoffs, and we were running out of time: we simply had to ready the "guestroom" for our female FEZ. I use the snarky quotes because, until today, the room was little more than a storage room. Sure, it had a bed in it, but good luck getting past the luggage, snowboards, sleeping bags, and discarded electronics equipment to reach it.

Psst... if you're in the market for a pair of JBL bookshelf speakers or an Onkyo 6-disc DVD player, drop me a line and I'll hook you up.

So, after spending a couple hours de-decorating the house from Christmas, we planned our assault on the guestroom. We cleaned, we organized, and then we plotted our course for Target to get a cheap dresser. They had exactly what we were looking for, only it was in another store. Unfazed by this sudden extension, we prowled the aisles looking for everything a 14 year-old girl might need.

Having never been a 14 year-old girl, I was essentially useless for this leg of the journey. Nevertheless, we found a mirror, bath mats, a toothbrush holder, a hamper, and, most importantly, her own loofa, shampoo, and shower gel.

Unfortunately, Kristin ventured deeper into the personal products section at Target than I was willing to go. I was off getting an extra box of K-Cups to hold us over until UPS finally gets here, but I ultimately found Kristin in the aisle. You know which one. The one we guys strive to spend a lifetime avoiding. The one with those things in them.

Only Kristin didn't just have a single box of them in her hands. No, she had an armload of them. Every size, style, shape, and absorption you could think of.

"Kristin," I said "we do not need to offer the girl a buffet of feminine product."

She persisted.

"Listen, I know five weeks is technically longer than 28 days and that she will undoubtedly need a box of these at some point, but don't you think presenting her with the Baskin Robbins equivalent in tampons and pads might, you know, be a little weird?"

"I just worry that she'll be shy and it will be awkward if she has to ask."

I nearly laughed, "That's funny because I can't think of anything more awkward than presenting her with the half a dozen boxes in your arms."

I won.

We ultimately did get to the other Target and in yet another attempt to avoid awkwardness, Kristin snuck a way to buy a very -- dare I say -- decorative plunger for the guest bathroom while I was picking up the dresser. I let her have this one.

It wasn't an unproductive trip. I did dash into Barnes & Noble to snag a couple Paul Theroux books with the gift card I received from Lindsay this year (Thanks Lin!) and we did stop for lunch, but I must confess something I said to Kristin.

"We just spent three hours running errands for a kid that ain't even ours -- there's no way we're ever having children, this is hard work!"

Jericho

Kristin and I have a new bane to our existence: Jericho

To put it mildly, we stumbled upon this show on Netflix the other day and now cannot stop watching it. To meet the Internet's quota for mandatory hyperbole I'd say that it's one of the best television series I've ever seen and I cannot stop thinking about it. Yes, I even dream about it now.

Where was I when this show was on CBS two years ago? I have no idea, but I know the agony of waiting 7 days for the next episode would have been excruciating. As it is now, we are in tremendous discomfort as we strain to muster the discipline we must exhibit to not sit and watch all 22 episodes (44 minutes long w/out commercials) of the first season at once. Having them at our proverbial fingertips via the ability to stream them one-after-the-other is as tempting as an apple in Eden.

For those who, like me, never seen nor heard of this show, allow me to explain. The show's title, Jericho, is the name of a tiny town in western Kansas and, well, one day 23 atomic bombs go off in major cities around the United States. It's the ultimate FUBAR situation. The town is cut off from the world, has no idea of what is going on, how long it will last, or who/what/why they were attacked. All they know at first is that there is a mushroom cloud rising in the direction of Denver. Little by little, they manage to gain some information about the extent of the attack, but as the days turn to weeks the town begins to run out of necessities and the small town starts to turn a little less friendly.

What makes this show so compelling is that the writing is actually very, very good. As is the acting. There are probably as many subplots and secret lives on display as there are in Lost (so I'm told, I don't watch it) and other than one or two characters who are supposed to be unlikable, the crew of characters are all people you want to learn more about. I guess the best thing I can say about this series is that it feels like a really good book. You want to just keep flipping pages or, in this case, you want to keep watching, episode after episode.

Update: I just learned that the show was originally terminated after one season, but fan support brought the series back for a second season in 2007. I believe there are 22 episodes in the first season and about 14 or so in the second season. Check out the pilot -- I guarantee it will hook you.

The Test

Sitting by the computer, tapping the F5 key over and over waiting for registration for the 2009 Test of Metal to open and wouldn't you know the batteries on my wireless mouse die.

I quickly ran over to Kristin's desk, pushed her chair (with her in it) out of the way and log on with her computer. 

No can do. SQL error... the site is flooded.

F5

F5

F5

F5

I'm in. Where's the registration form? Where is it? The countdown is at 0:00:00 but there's no link!

The phone rings. It's Bob. He can't find the link either. We hang up.

F5

F5

The phone rings again and, again, it's Bob. He found the link, buried in the "Race Details" section of the TOM's website. We anxiously hang up and get typing. I'm registering for two so I feel a bit of added pressure to get this right, since I'd hate to be the reason my riding-buddy Doug C. couldn't race.

I hit submit and I get a white screen. No confirmation. Nothing. I wait, wait, wait, then hit F5. Nothing.

I hastily go back to the entry page and enter all of our info and my credit card number a second time, knowing I might be getting charged a second $150 for nothing. I don't care. I push on and, again, the white screen.

The phone rings. Bob. He's staring at a white screen too. We  vocally shrug our shoulders in unison and hang up.

I wait, wait, wait, then hit F5. A flash of info appears on the screen -- it's a confirmation page and a chance to hit submit one more time for good measure. 

We're in.

Within minutes the emails are flying around and I know of at least 5 of us who got in, and a sixth who I'm told was registering also. We'll have quite a crew heading up to Squamish next June.

And this time I'm breaking four hours!